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“Are you the stripper?” Steve asks tiredly.

 

The pizza delivery guy stands there with his mouth open like Steve just said something outrageous. Maybe he did. Maybe this poor sod really is just the pizza guy, and the stripper Peggy hired despite his protests will show up in an American flag speedo five minutes from now. Steve feels bad for a split second, is about to apologize and pay for the pizza, but then the guy comes back to himself. Blinks slowly. Looks Steve up and down with something like hunger in his eyes.

 

And says, “Only if you’re the pole.”

 

@

 

Bucky’s born with Are you the stripper? on his ass, because of course he is.

 

It gets him a lot of shit from his sisters when he’s younger and a lot of coy looks from nurses when he’s older. Bucky still gets a sharp spike of annoyance whenever he thinks about it, but he figures he’s got it better than the poor schmuck who’s walking around with his reply, which will definitely be something like Fuck you, buddy. It’ll be a funny anecdote at their wedding, at least. 

 

He crosses stripper off his list of potential careers pretty much as soon as he figures out what it means. Not that he’s got anything against exotic dancers. Most of them are perfectly nice girls, it’s just--the idea of his soulmate being one of those schlubby office guys who sneak down to the gentleman’s club over their lunch breaks really puts him off his breakfast. 

 

It disabuses him of all his romantic notions, growing up with that mark. Becca’s got words on her arm in a pretty, looping cursive: God, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Their mom’s got a string of their dad’s cramped upper-case handwriting behind her ear: You’re so beautiful. 

 

Bucky’s not under any delusions that he’s getting a knight in shining armor, not with Are you the stripper?. But maybe he never really wanted a knight in shining armor, anyways.

 

@

 

All his sisters find their soulmates before they graduate high school. All four of them. 

 

Bucky goes through high school and college and a year of grad school before he drops out to deliver pizzas and work his dream job as an underpaid overworked dog walker in his free time. He makes a few friends, has a few flings, tries to ignore the happy smiling faces and clasped hands and the expectant looks from his mother whenever he goes home for family dinner. He’s not sure what she expects him to do--go out looking? That’s not how it works, she knows that’s not how it works.

 

He’s glad to see his sisters happy, so he tries not to be an asshole about it, but it’s hard. Hard to watch them pair off and get married and carry on with his goddamn tramp stamp. 

 

@

 

Natasha and Bucky try to sleep together, once. 

 

She sees his words and bursts out laughing, and Bucky shoves her off him, suddenly sick. Face burning. Natasha whacks him upside the head and tells him to cut it out with the sulking, because his mark’s funny and he can’t pretend it’s not. тупица.

 

He tries to argue, and somehow she ends up teaching him how to do a striptease. It’s maybe the unsexiest thing Bucky’s ever seen, very off-brand for Natasha, but they’re both laughing so hard he doesn’t care. She twists out of her jeans with a clumsy shimmy and he sees her mark, a doctor’s chicken scratch on her calf that he can just barely read, that says: Get the hell away from me.

 

Bucky doesn’t say anything, but when he looks away from the mark, Natasha’s watching his face, like she’s waiting for him to go off on her. He doesn’t, but he does feel dumb about his own mood.

 

They don’t sleep together, but they lay on the bed shoulder-to-shoulder talking about everything and nothing and she’s his best friend for a long time afterwards and that’s better, anyway.

 

@

 

“Holy shit,” Steve says. “It’s you. I’m--hi.”

 

The pizza guy raises one eyebrow. “Nice to meet you, hi.”

 

“No, I’m not--“ Steve rakes a hand through his hair. “I mean, I’m Steve. Steve Rogers.”

 

“Bucky Barnes,” says the pizza guy. 

 

They lapse into silence, just standing on the threshhold of Steve’s apartment, staring at each other over a large two-topping pizza. Steve’s friends--the ones who’ve found their soulmates--never told him about this part. The part where you’re standing looking at the person you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with, turning their name and their face and the tiny movements of their hands over and over in your head and you can’t for the life of you think of a single thing to say, because you want to say everything but you also don’t want to scare them away. 

 

“You look like you’re gonna puke, Stevie,” Bucky says. “You straight or somethin’?”

 

“No,” Steve scrambles to get out. “No, I’m not. Why don’t you--come on, come on in. It’s--there’s a party going on, so it’s sort of crowded, but we can go out on the terrace.”

 

Bucky shuffles inside. “Did you actually order pizza, or...?”

 

“I have no idea,” Steve says apologetically. “There are like two dozen people in here, you can just leave it on the counter or something. Here, I’ll--give it to me, I’ll take it.”

 

Bucky hands over the pizza without complaint, and Steve winds around Sam and Wanda to deposit it on the counter. Someone will eat it. Steve will pay for it--whatever. He’s got more important things to think about right now, like the fact that his soulmate--his soulmate--is standing awkwardly with his hands in his pockets on the other side of the kitchen, shuffling his feet and looking out of place. And that won’t do at all, because this is Steve’s home and that’s Steve’s soulmate. He belongs here.

 

“Hey, Buck,” he calls. Bucky’s eyes snap to him. “You want a beer?”

 

@

 

Steve never can figure out what Only if you’re the pole means. 

 

When he’s really little, his mom tries to contort it to make it mean something about polestars, the north pole, magnetic north, all sorts of things. But then he hits fourth grade and the kids on the playground start sexualizing it, make it about dicks and, yes, strippers. They’re not very sophisticated, intellectually, so most of the jokes are dumb, but Steve gets in more than one fight defending the honor of the soulmate he hasn’t even met yet. 

 

He doesn’t know who they are, but he thinks they must be the sort of person who would back him up. Throw themselves into the fray and land a few hits of their own.

 

@

 

At thirty-five, Steve’s still holding out hope.

 

He figures it’s more likely than not at this point that he’s going to have one of those later-in-life, nursing-home romances, only a few sunlit days in the end of his nineties. Maybe his words are about an IV pole. Maybe he’ll say to his shriveled raisin of a soulmate, You think you can make the walk down the hall for bingo? and they’ll say, Only if you’re the pole. 

 

It doesn’t really work, doesn’t really make grammatical sense, but it’s better than some of the guesses his mom came up with when she was alive. 

 

He thinks it would be astronomically unfair, to meet his soulmate like that. He would still love them, of course, he’s always loved them and he always will, but he’d like to have a little time with them before he has to go, if that’s not too much to ask of the universe. He’d like a wedding and a house and a kid and maybe even a dog, he’d like to wake up in the morning and kiss his soulmate’s smile and go to bed at night wrapped in his soulmate’s arms. Please.

 

@

 

“Tell me about yourself,” Steve says, and he looks earnest. Like he really wants to hear.

 

Bucky takes a swig of his beer to stall. He fells so, so out of his depth. His soulmate’s not only the most gorgeous guy Bucky’s ever seen, big and blond and muscular under his plaid button down, but he’s rich--the sort of rich that has a terrace and a fireplace and a kitchen with stainless steel appliances. Bucky’s pretty sure the second he opens his mouth and starts talking, Steve’s going to wise up to the fact that he’s too good for the schmuck the universe saddled him with.

 

But Steve’s watching him expectantly, so he says, “I, um. I’m twenty-three.”

 

“Thirty-five,” Steve offers in return.

 

“Really?” Bucky says, because he can’t help it. “You don’t look a day over ninety.”

 

Steve throws back his head and laughs. Still shocked at what came out of his own smartass mouth, Bucky thinks it must be some sort of miracle, Steve laughing. Bucky’s jokes are, as a rule, completely awful. Most of his friends just tolerate them. No one actually laughs. Maybe...maybe somehow, miraculously, Bucky and this paragon human perfection really are meant to be.

 

“Okay,” Steve says, still coming down off the laugh. “Okay, so you’re twenty-three. What else?”

 

“I deliver pizzas.” Bucky picks at the label on his beer. It’s an IPA, because of course it is. They’re on a terrace, what else would it be? “I walk dogs during the day. I, uh...I live with my friend Natasha. I went to school for Russian Literature. Undergrad, at least. Dropped out of grad school.”

 

“Russian Literature,” Steve repeats, sounding awed. “What made you pick that?”

 

Bucky shrugs. “I dunno. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

 

It’s not entirely true, but Bucky doesn’t really know how to tell Steve that he always empathized with the stark, nihilist perspectives of Russian writers. Steve looks so put together, with his khakis and his big hands and his IPAs and his Manhattan apartment full of successful-looking friends and furniture he definitely didn’t get off the side of the road. Bucky’s mental health doesn’t really seem like a just-met-your-soulmate conversation. He clears his throat. “Anyway. What do you do?”

 

@

 

Bucky’s flings are, invariably, stupid and terrible.

 

He agrees to go out with Brock Rumlow in his freshman year of college because Brock’s hot and he’s a jock and it seems like the relationship will be easy. It’s not. Brock argues with his fists as often as he argues with his words, and that’s a hell of a lot. Bucky’s black and blue and pissed off for the two weeks it takes for him to dump Brock, and then he goes into a slump of epic proportions.

 

When he finally bounces back he finds himself in the clutches of Alexander Pierce, an older guy who spots Bucky while he’s at his part-time job waiting tables at a fancy Italian place. Pierce comes onto him immediately and with a vehemence that should be alarming, but Bucky’s nineteen and he’s an idiot so he goes home with him and lets Pierce fuck him into the mattress, and the kitchen table, and the window. Turns out later that Pierce is a kinky motherfucker, and Bucky hightails it out of there before morning, but the psychological damage has been done.

 

Next is T’Challa, a senior from Bucky’s Post-Colonial African Lit class who’s actually not that bad until he offers to pay to get Bucky’s soulmark laser-removed. They’ve just had sex, they’re lying in bed with their bare legs tangled together, and Bucky feels worse than every time Brock hit him, feels worse than when Pierce brought out the whips. It is, hands down, the worst thing anyone’s ever said to him.

 

Are you the stripper? might not be a glorious and poetic declaration of love, like T’Challa’s Excuse me, I am quite sure I have seen you in my dreams. But it’s his. It’s Bucky’s.

 

@

 

Youth is a frustrating experience, Bucky thinks. 

 

People say college is supposed to be the best years of your life. You’re supposed to have fun, party, meet people you love, people who love you, people who make your life richer. You’re supposed to enjoy the whole thing and move on, look back fondly on it until you die.

 

The thing is, he can’t. He wants to--he so, so wants to, because he’s young and he’s supposed to be having a good time. Life is supposed to be fun, and easy, and not this heavy ever-present weight on his back that makes it feel like he can’t get up in the morning, like he’s never going to amount to anything and so what’s the point? Why is he even doing it, why is he going to class and talking to people and putting on a fake smile for the friendly barista when he’s alone, he’s only ever going to be alone, even Natasha’s going to leave him someday, his sisters are already gone, living their own lives, and he’s just. Here. It’s supposed to be easy. It’s easy for everyone else. 

 

Bucky feels like he’s wasting it--his youth. He’s not living it right. 

 

@

 

Steve’s an artist. He shows Bucky the studio in his apartment, and it’s...

 

“This is...” Bucky struggles to find the words. “I mean, you’re really good, Stevie.”

 

Steve smiles sheepishly and scratches the back of his neck. “I’m alright.”

 

“No, I mean it. These are amazing, Steve. Better than anything I’ve seen in a museum.”

 

Steve blushes bright red, but he looks so damn happy that Bucky can’t find any fault in what he’s said. The paintings really are breathtaking--eight-foot-high canvasses blotted with more colors than Bucky thinks he’s ever seen in real life, faithful but somehow fantastical renderings of people on the street, smiling kids in the park, buildings Bucky recognizes vaguely but couldn’t locate on a map. They’re New York, the heart and soul of the city. Love letters. 

 

But they’re nowhere near as beautiful as Bucky’s soulmate, standing there in the flesh, golden hair lit by the light from the city outside glowing through the big picture windows. “So,” Bucky says, because he wants to hear Steve’s voice some more. “You hired a stripper?”

 

There’s that blush again. Steve rakes a hand through his hair, looking for all the world like a spouse who’s just been caught cheating. “It was my friend Peggy’s idea. She, uh--well, it’s my birthday, and she’s always nagging me about my sex life. Or, well, lack thereof.”

 

Bucky smirks. “You were gonna have sex with the stripper?”

 

“No, no. No. I was just. It was a joke, that’s all. I wouldn’t--I mean, I wouldn’t pay for sex.” Steve makes sudden intense eye-contact. “Consent is very important to me, Buck.”

 

It really shouldn’t be a turn-on. But with Bucky’s sexual history... “Good to hear.”

 

Steve drifts closer through the canvases, until he’s standing with Bucky in the same shadow. The noise of the party seems very far-off, even though it’s only a few feet away in the next room. “Can I--” Steve swallows. “Can I see your mark? If it’s not too soon.”

 

Bucky can’t look away from his eyes. “Not too soon,” he says. “It’s your mark, isn’t it?”

 

Steve makes a soft noise in his throat. Bucky loosens his belt, turns, and pushes his waistband down just far enough to expose Steve’s handwriting near the top of his right ass cheek. It’s not the most dignified position to be standing in, but the second he feels Steve’s fingers on his skin, feather-light, leaving a trail of goosebumps in their wake, he doesn’t give a fuck. Steve’s standing close enough that it’s like they’re hugging. His breath rustles the hair on Bucky’s forehead. 

 

“I feel like I should apologize,” he says, voice a close rumble. “I kinda stuck you with some inconvenient words, there, but fuck, Bucky, that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

Bucky fights down a rising wave of lust. “I showed you mine, Stevie.”

 

“Oh, jeez.” Steve steps back. “Right, sorry.” 

 

Steve rolls up his sleeve so Bucky can see the mark on the thin skin on the underside of his forearm. It’s in his own handwriting--Only if you’re the pole. Bucky feels like all the air punches out of him. That’s his mark. His mark, on Steve’s body. He reaches out, touches it. Murmurs, “Holy shit.”

 

“Yeah, I know the feeling.” Steve’s smiling, bright and too big for his face. He’s a dork, he’s such a dork, and Bucky loves him ardently, even though he’s just met him. He can’t help it.

 

He can’t help it--he pulls Steve down and kisses him. 

 

Steve grabs onto him, hauls him in, kisses back like he’s trying to devour him. His arms go around Bucky’s waist and he holds him tight enough to lift him off his feet, tight enough that Bucky’s sure, for the first time in his life, that this person is never going to let him go. Steve kisses like he already knows Bucky, like he’s known him for years, loved him for years, like the heat between them is still as strong and alive as it was the day they first met. Even though it is the day they first met. 

 

That kiss is, hands down, the greatest moment of Bucky’s life.

 

@

 

Natasha’s used to dealing with Bucky’s manic-depressive episodes. 

 

She’s been doing it since high school--heading off his insecurities at the pass, keeping him from drinking too much, lying in bed stroking his hair while Star Trek plays on his laptop and he cries for hours and hours for no reason at all. She’s steady as a rock, and Bucky doesn’t know what he’d do without her. Curl up in a ball and die of malnutrition, probably.

 

So when he comes home and tells her that--A) he met his soulmate, and B) he thinks his soulmate hates his guts--she doesn’t even bat an eye, just sits him down and gets him to talk through it. 

 

“Okay,” she says, when he’s done. “Here’s what I’m getting, and correct me if I’m wrong. You met your soulmate, you got along with him really well, you kissed him, and when he said he didn’t want to have sex right away, but that he wanted to take you out first, you jumped immediately to the conclusion that he hates you and is--I don’t know, disgusted by your body or something. Is that right?”

 

Bucky nods miserably. Natasha sighs. “Иисус Христос.”

 

@

 

Steve finds himself outside Bucky’s door a half hour early.

 

He wonders, suddenly, insanely, whether he should’ve brought flowers, and whether he has time to run outside and find a florist. Probably not. Probably Bucky doesn’t even want flowers. A neighbor gives him side eye as she passes with her groceries, and he realizes that he must look like a nutjob, standing in front of a door and not knocking for as long as he has been. He raises his hand to remedy the situation, but before he can, the door flies open. 

 

There’s a short, scary-looking redhead on the other side. “You’re Steve?” she asks.

 

He nods, dumbstruck. “You must be--“

 

“Natasha,” she finishes for him. “Come inside.” 

 

She yanks him in by the tie without waiting for him to acquiesce to her demands, closes the door behind him, and ushers him into the living room like he’s a particularly uncooperative goat. “Listen, Steve,” she says. “Bucky has some...difficulties I think you should know about.”

 

Steve frowns in concern. He wants to hear this, really--wants to hear anything she can tell him about his soulmate, who’d left so quickly the night before--but he feels like they’re going around Bucky’s back and that’s no way to start a relationship. “I don’t think you should be the one to tell me.”

 

Natasha gives him a flat look. “Either you hear it from me, or Bucky keeps it bottled up long enough that he ends up back in a mental hospital and you hear it from his doctor.”

 

Steve is silent for a long moment. Then he says, “Okay. But only what I need to know.”

 

He might be deluding himself, but he thinks he sees respect in Natasha’s eyes. She’s gentler, at least, when she explains. “He’s been dealing with depression since high school, but he never got treatment until we were in college. I think he needed...space, maybe, to come to terms with it without feeling like he was letting his family down, but that’s for him to tell you. He’s better, but he has... bad days, still. He gets in his own head. Gets paranoid, anxious. Sometimes he can’t stand to have people touch him, somteimes he turns off his phone for days.” 

 

Steve swallows. His mind is trying to reconcile what Natasha’s describing with the smartass who groped him and called him Stevie last night, and it can’t. But he believes her, he believes what he saw, and he knows they’re all the same person--these two Buckys. They’re his soulmate.

 

“Where is he?” he asks. “I need to...Where is he?”

 

@

 

In the army, Steve knows a lot of guys who die with regrets. 

 

Jim Morita’s last words, as his blood gurgled out over Steve’s hands, are Tell her I’m sorry. Gabe Jones gets an infection in an army hospital--and three hours before he dies he says to his nurse You got the prettiest green eyes I ever seen, sweetheart, and she says back, Don’t call me sweetheart, sweetheart. They sit with their hands clasped for the rest of Gabe’s life, heads bent close together, and Steve never speaks to either of them again but he saw it in both their eyes. The wish for more time. 

 

He stands in his dress uniform during the CACO visit on the front step of the Morita house while Jim’s soulmate--his wife of twelve years--breaks into pieces in front of him, and he swears to himself that once he finds his soulmate he’s not going to waste a single second. Not a one.

 

@

 

There’s a knock on the bathroom door. Bucky wipes his eyes. “Not now, Tash.”

 

Quiet on the other side of the door, and then Steve’s voice. “It’s, uh. It’s not Natasha.”

 

Bucky yanks open the door before he can think about it. “Steve? What are you...”

 

He remembers with a sudden slap of clarity that Steve’s not supposed to see him like this. Steve’s not supposed to see the bags under his eyes or how ratty his hair gets when he hasn’t been able to find the energy to wash it, he’s not supposed to see Bucky looking like some piece of flotsam the world swallowed and spat out. Because he’ll leave. He won’t want to stay.

 

Only--there’s this fragile, hopeful look on Steve’s face like Bucky’s still the greatest thing he’s ever seen, like he’s actually happy to see him, even if he’s having an emotional breakdown in a bathroom the size of a not-very-large fish tank. “Hey, Buck,” he says. “Can I...Can I hug you, or something?”

 

Bucky feels fresh tears spill out of his eyes, and nods. “Yeah.”

 

Before he knows what’s happening, Steve’s crammed in the tiny bathroom with him, holding Bucky like he thought he’d never get to do it again. Bucky grabs onto him. He feels like a drowning man who’s been tossed a life preserver. Buries his face in Steve’s chest and breathes in the scent of him, somehow already familiar, already enough to soothe the roiling stampede of his nerves. 

 

“Sorry,” he says, face mashed into Steve’s pec. “Helluva first date, huh?”

 

One of Steve’s big, gentle hands cradles the back of his head. “No big deal, Buck,” he says. “We’ll go out when you’re feeling better. We can do a pizza and a movie, if you want, or we can just...hug in your bathroom for a while. I’m fine with anything. But if we’re staying in here, we should sit.”

 

“I could do pizza,” Bucky rasps. “Pizza’s not too hard.”

 

@

 

Bucky spends a weekend in a mental clinic in his sophomore year.

 

He reads a lot of Dostoevsky while he’s in there, which might not be the healthiest thing to do, but he’s got a midterm coming up so he doesn’t have much of a choice. Anyway, he’s so far out of his mind on pills while he reads that it’s a miracle he passes. But he remembers, vividly, with the same medicated clarity that he remembers the fact that there was a water stain the shape of a mushroom on the ceiling in his room and the plastic forks in the commissary were red, one line. 

 

It goes: Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering. 

 

@

 

The quote sticks with him, mostly, because he thinks it’s bullshit.

 

His mind rails against the idea that what he’s going through is a choice. No one would ever choose to feel this way, like he can’t even trust what’s going on inside his own body chemistry. No one would choose to find their soulmate, curl up on the couch with a pepperoni pizza and a B-movie marathon and still feel that little kernel of doubt that makes you turn to them and say, “Sorry.”

 

Steve, mouth full, asks, “What, did you drop pepperoni again?”

 

Bucky shoves him with his foot. “Shuddup. I only dropped one, Steve. One.”

 

Steve laughs. “So what are you sorry about?”

 

Now that Steve’s making him put it into actual words, it feels sort of stupid to say, but Bucky’s already started this, so he has to finish it. “Sorry you waited so long to find me, and I was broken. I understand if you wanna...I dunno, send me back to the soulmate factory, or somethin’.”

 

Steve tosses his half-eaten piece of pizza back into the box and turns fully to face Bucky. The TV, sound on low, flashes white-blue light over Steve’s face in the dark of the apartment, and Bucky suddenly regrets what he said. He doesn’t want to go back to the soulmate factory. He likes the one he’s got, very much. So much. He’s one lucky sunovabitch.

 

Steve takes his hand. “You’re acting like you’ve got the market cornered on broken, Buck. I’ve got news for you. I get nightmares so bad my friend Sam calls them ‘medically unprecedented.’”

 

He’s smiling, a soft, private smile that Bucky thinks might be meant just for him. Another Dostoevsky quote hits him like a meteor crashing to earth: Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most. Maybe his new step is letting himself be happy. Maybe it’s Steve. Steve, who comes so easily when Bucky pulls him in for a kiss, holds his face with such conviction. 

 

It’s the best moment of Bucky’s life, all over again.

 

@

 

Steve’s never been in love, so it’s kind of alarming how fast he falls for Bucky.

 

And yeah, he’s Steve’s soulmate, but Steve feels sure that he’d have fallen in love with Bucky even if he weren’t his soulmate, so it’s a good thing he is. Saves them from a sticky situation. 

 

Because: 

 

He meets Bucky in a dog park one day and falls in love with the way Bucky can’t help but smile at the golden retrievers he’s walking, even though he still hasn’t quite bounced back from his slump. It fills Steve’s heart to bursting and then breaks it all at once, to see the way Bucky’s so tentative with happiness. It seems like he’s afraid if he grabs onto it, it will squirt out of his grasp, like one of those water snake toys. Steve just holds Bucky’s hand and hopes it helps, somehow.

 

He takes Bucky to the beach on Coney Island to watch the sunrise, and falls in love with the way Bucky sticks his hands in the pouch pocket of Steve’s sweatshirt and presses in close against his body to try and get away from the predawn chill. Bucky dozes off like that, wrapped up in Steve, and when the sun winks over the horizon, pink and washed out by the clouds over the sea, Steve wakes him with a kiss to his sand-dusted forehead. 

 

He cooks Bucky dinner in his apartment, and falls in love with the way his laugh crinkles his eyes at the corners, the way he fits into Steve’s home and Steve’s life like he’s always been there--and maybe he has, in a sense, in the soulmark on Steve’s forearm. When the food’s gone, Bucky pulls Steve down on the couch and settles into his lap, kisses him and kisses him. Pauses to murmur, I’m not gonna get better, Stevie. You’re not gonna cure me, like he’s afraid Steve thinks he can.

 

I don’t need you to get better, Steve says back, close enough to breathe the warm air that comes out of Bucky’s mouth. You don’t have to change, Buck. Just stay with me. 

 

@

 

Natasha meets her soulmate on the subway.

 

He’s a biochemist named Bruce Banner, and when she first sees him he’s having a panic attack, curled up in a corner and snapping at everyone who gets close to him. There are paramedics on the way, but Natasha goes up to him anyway, crouches in front of him, doesn’t even flinch when he hides his face from her and says Get the hell away from me. 

 

She doesn’t touch him, but she holds up a hand to keep the paramedics back and says the only words that could possibly calm him down. Not a chance, big guy.

 

They’re moving in together by the end of the week. Natasha approaches eternity with her soulmate the same way she approaches everything else in life--calmly, practically, and without fanfare. Bruce comes over to help her pack, and Bucky overhears them in the kitchen. Bruce is panicking about things moving too fast, and Natasha shushes him and says, “Do you feel like it’s too fast?”

 

“Well,” Bruce says, deflated. “No, but. I don’t want you to feel like--“

 

“Do I strike you as the sort of person who would move in with someone if I didn’t want to?”

 

No, but--“

 

She cuts him off with a kiss. “You can’t ruin this relationship, Bruce. I won’t let you. So cut it out with the worrying and help me bubble wrap the pots and pans.”

 

@

 

Bucky makes it a week and a half before he calls Steve in the middle of the night.

 

“Sorry to wake you,” he says, thick with tears. “I just--I don’t do so great when I’m alone.”

 

“Never apologize, baby,” Steve says. Bucky can hear the sleep in his voice, but he can also hear Steve getting out of bed, throwing off the sheets, turning on the reading lamp. “I’m coming over, okay? You want me to stay on the line while I’m driving?”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and feels pathetic. “Please. Thanks, Stevie.”

 

Steve talks to him the whole time, tells him about the baseball game he went to the other day, the painting he’s working on, the ongoing soap-opera drama of his friend Sam’s love life. Bucky doesn’t offer much but tearful yeahs in return, can’t muster the energy to laugh at any of Steve’s jokes, but just listening to him, knowing he’s going to be here soon--it helps so much. 

 

He meets Steve at the door and latches onto him as soon as he’s inside. Steve’s still in his pajamas, plaid pants and a t-shirt, but he never once complains about having to drive out to Brooklyn at four in the morning. He carries Bucky back to bed and holds him for the rest of the night, well into the morning, talking and pressing his lips to Bucky’s forehead when he runs out of things to say.

 

Bucky must fall asleep, because when he wakes up it’s noon and Steve’s still here. 

 

“Hey, Buck,” he says softly, when he sees Bucky’s awake. 

 

“Hey,” Bucky rasps. “You didn’t have to stay.”

 

Steve drops a kiss on top of his head. “Don’t be stupid. I’m not going anywhere.” He shifts underneath Bucky. “Except, maybe--to the bathroom. I’ve had to pee for like three hours.”

 

Bucky laughs lightly and lets him up. 

 

Steve makes eggs and bacon and goes with Bucky to pick up the dogs he’s supposed to walk today, a Boston terrier and a little terror of a Chihuahua named Princess. He stays with Bucky while he walks them to the park, stays with him when he goes back to his apartment, stays with him through a whole season of Star Trek and another full night’s sleep. 

 

When Steve’s leaving--after forty-eight hours in his pajamas--he gives Bucky a key.

 

“Whenever you want, Buck,” he says. “Day or night. You don’t ever have to be alone.”

 

@

 

They don’t have sex, even when Bucky sleeps over. 

 

By any measure, they’ve been together long enough--three months. But Steve gets the sense that Bucky stakes his self-worth on sex, at least as far as relationships go, and he’s not eager to play into that pattern. No matter how much he wants to kiss his way down Bucky’s body in the early morning light, no matter how much he wants to press him down in to the mattress and make him his, no matter how much he wants. Because he does want. So bad.

 

@

 

Sleeping’s easier with Steve. 

 

Used to be, whether he was sharing the bed with Natasha or roughing it on the pullout, Bucky would lay awake for hours, sometimes all the way through the night, staring at the ceiling while anxiety and depression and an endless to-do list of things he wished he could do with his life clawed at each other for the last scraps of his conscious mind. It was never peaceful.

 

But now, on the nights he stays over at Steve’s, he can burrow into the warmth of his body and let the steady drum of his heartbeat drown out all the rest. The light of feeling in his chest edges out the dark of the night, and whenever he gets dragged down by his treacherous brain chemistry, Steve seems to know, somehow. Maybe he feels the way Bucky squeezes him tighter, or the wetness of Bucky’s tears on his t-shirt, or maybe it’s just something soulmates can do. 

 

But he wakes up, and he murmurs complete nonsense to Bucky under the sheets like they’re kids telling stories after lights-out at a sleepover, until Bucky’s laughing so hard his sides hurt, until he falls asleep smiling. And Bucky tries to do the same, when Steve’s nightmares rip him awake in the dead of night, but he’s not sure how well he does. Steve always just holds him tight and doesn’t say anything, and Bucky runs his hands over Steve’s broad back and hopes he’s not doing it wrong.

 

It seems like some sort of miracle, some sort of cosmic joke, that the guy who goes with Are you the stripper? can be this. Can be Steve--who Bucky doesn’t deserve, at all.

 

@

 

“’Scuse me,” Bucky says, “I’m gonna go grab a drink.”

 

He slips away from Steve’s side and winds his way across the gallery to the bar. Steve watches him go, and tries not to worry that he’s pushed for too much, too fast. It might have been kind of a lot to spring all of this on him at once--a gallery opening, New York high society, Steve’s friends. 

 

“He okay?” Sam asks. “Seems kinda out of it.”

 

Steve smiles tightly. “I think he just needs some space. I’ll check on him in a minute.”

 

Sam nods knowingly. “If he ever needs someone to talk to...”

 

“Thanks, Sam.” Steve claps him on the shoulder. “You should get back to your date. Sharon Carter is not a woman who likes to be kept waiting.”

 

“You got that right,” Sam agrees, and disappears in search of Peggy’s American cousin. 

 

Steve shakes hands with a few more prospective buyers, makes up a metaphorical meaning to go with a painting of an oak tree, shoots the shit with Tony Stark for a couple minutes, admires the ring on his soulmate Pepper’s finger, then makes his way over to Bucky. Bucky’s still at the bar, and he’s not alone. There’s a man with him, leaning into his space, fingers playing with the hem of Bucky’s sport coat. Every inch of Bucky’s posture screams discomfort, and Steve feels his body go into fight mode.

 

He tamps down on the urge to throw a punch, and puts an arm around Bucky’s shoulders to draw him away from the man. “Hey, babe,” he says. “Who’s this?”

 

The relief in Bucky’s eyes is enough to tell Steve he did the right thing. “Alexander Pierce,” he introduces them. “Mr. Pierce, this is Steve, my--”

 

“Soulmate,” Steve finishes, for him. He shakes Pierce’s hand. “How do you know Bucky?”

 

Pierce smiles. It’s reptilian, predatory, but it’s disguised as one of those fake high-society smiles that Stark is so good at. Gives Steve the heebie jeebies, which get even worse when Pierce says, “We were, ah...How do I put this delicately? Paramours.”

 

Bucky goes tense under Steve’s arm. “No need to romanticize it, Mr. Pierce,” he says. “You fucked me a few times in your hotel room and then tried to whip me without asking.”

 

Pierce’s fake smile disappears. “You little shit. With that smart mouth, you were asking for it.”

 

Propriety be fucking damned. Steve punches him. 

 

@

 

Once they manage to extricate themselves from the gallery, Steve takes Bucky home.

 

He takes him home, kisses him all the way through the front hall and the living room and into the bedroom, kisses him until the backs of Bucky’s knees hit the bed and he tumbles back onto it. Steve crawls on top of him, braced on his hands and knees, chest heaving like he’s just run a marathon, and stares down into the pale gray-blue eyes of his soulmate, and says, “Please. Can I--“

 

“Yes,” Bucky says. “Yes, God, Steve, I’ve been waiting for ages.”

 

Steve takes his sweet time, peels Bucky out of clothes piece by piece and presses his lips to every new patch of exposed skin. Bucky’s amazingly responsive underneath him, gasps as Steve closes his lips over one of his nipples, moans as Steve runs his nose along his waistband. He turns over when Steve asks him to, so Steve can bite bruises into the skin around his words, the first of a lifetime of marks that will brand Bucky as his. Property of Steve Rogers, stay the fuck away.

 

Later, when they’re locked together as close as two people can be, Bucky fumbles a kiss against Steve’s mouth and says, “Stevie. God, Stevie, I love you. I love you so much.”

 

Steve kisses his tears away and makes love to him slow and steady and unrelenting, like some sort of promise. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. Till the end of the line.

 

In the morning, he finds Bucky on the terrace with a cup of coffee and the morning paper. He’s laughing at something, and at Steve’s questioning look, he slides the paper across the table to him. Steve catches it, and--would you look at that, he’s front page news. Artist Steven G. Rogers Punches Out Billionaire Defense Contractor at Gallery Opening. He skims the article, not really interested. 

 

He slides it back to Bucky when he’s done. “Whoever wrote that forgot to say how much he deserved it. That’s negligent journalism, right there.”

 

Bucky smiles. “I’ve never had someone defend my honor before.”

 

“Well,” Steve says, “I expect you to punch out the next critic who gives me a bad review.”

 

The smile gets wider. “Sounds like a deal, Stevie.”

 

They have their coffees and watch the city wake up out past the rail of the terrace, and Steve doesn’t tell Bucky that he’s been defending his honor since he was in the fourth grade. He didn’t know Bucky back then, didn’t have any idea that his soulmate would be the best person in the whole fucking world, but he knew that schoolyard bullies weren’t allowed to make fun of him, in absentia or otherwise. Not on Steve’s watch. Every punch he’s ever thrown has been for Bucky.

 

And probably--probably, that’s never going to change. 

 

@

 

“Wait,” Steve says, on the doorstep to Bucky’s parents’ house. “Holy shit.”

 

Bucky pauses with his finger over the doorbell and looks back at him. It’s been a day since the gallery opening, a day since they started having sex, and Bucky figures Steve’s just realized he forgot his underwear, or something. It’s not far outside the realm of possibility, considering how infrequently they’ve actually been wearing underwear in the last forty-eight hours. “What?” he asks.

 

Steve looks at him, eyes big and blue and earnest. “I never actually said it, did I?” He seems actually, physically pained. “God, Buck, I’m sorry. I should’ve said it.”

 

Bucky shuffles uncomfortably. “You don’ have to--I mean, I know that you--“

 

“Shuddup,” Steve steps up to him, takes Bucky’s face in his hands and gazes down at him like they’re on the cover of a romance novel, or something. “I love you, Bucky Barnes. So much.”

 

Bucky bites his lip. “Come on, Stevie, cut it out.”

 

“No,” Steve says. “I will not cut it out. I will never cut it out, as long as we live. I love you.” Bucky squirms, but Steve holds onto him, repeats it like a mantra, “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

 

He’s still saying it when Bucky’s mother comes to the door, which might just be the most mortifying thing that’s ever happened to Bucky in his entire life. But he can’t deny that his chest feels full to bursting, that this is, hands down, the happiest he’s ever been. His mom pulls him into a hug and his sisters fawn over Steve like he’s some sort of celebrity and when they joke about Are you the stripper? and Only if you’re the pole, Bucky laughs and actually means it. 

 

Maybe, he thinks, the best moment of his life doesn’t have to be just one moment, there and gone. Maybe it can be every moment he gets to spend with Steve. Every moment from here on out.