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Never Too Late for Love

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The armchair doesn't look like much, but it's Steve's favorite place in the house. Once upon a time, the chair was probably green, but it hasn't been green since they got it; the O'Riordans who used to live on the first floor gave it to them as payment for when Steve's da helped them fix the window that the landlord wasn't going to bother with until after Christmas. The chair is a muddy greenish-brown and the upholstery is soft and worn. Even though Steve's tall—at fourteen he's already tall—he's skinny, and so he can still curl up, fit himself against the cushions, shut his eyes, and listen to the wireless.

Steve doesn't just like the serials, with their thrilling adventures—he likes everything. When the news comes on and the reporters start talking about what happened today in faraway places, Steve lingers over each syllable of every exotic name. He imagines jungles. Palm trees. Mist-shrouded castles. Waterfalls. He imagines that his father's not drunk and shouting, that no one's teasing him, that his game leg doesn't hurt, that the high school boys haven't caught him in the alley after school again.

It's like being somewhere else. It's like being anywhere that isn't Brooklyn. It's like being in the future, the bright and perfect future.

He's jolted out of his reverie by a news announcement.

"—and our London bureau now reports," the man on the radio says, in clipped, urgent tones, "that the king is abdicating, in order to marry his soulmate, Mrs. Wallis Simpson."

Steve's eyes snap open. His soulmate?

Soulmates are— soulmates are—

It's a one-in-a-million chance. Maybe one in a billion. You meet someone. You touch them, skin-to-skin—Steve shivers a little at the forbidden thought, touching a girl's bare hands—and your minds are joined together for the rest of your lives. You sense their feelings. You hear their very thoughts. You share their pain, and their joy, and their love. You are never alone. Everything you feel is shared, forever, with someone made for you as you are made for them. That's what they say in church.

Steve's never met anyone who has a soulmate. He can only name maybe a dozen soulbonded people in the entire world. That's how rare it is. He supposes that only special people deserve soulbonds. He supposes the king of England is awfully special.

There's someone else speaking now, a man with a British accent, and Steve guesses that this is the king.

"You must believe me," the king says, "when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."

It seems like it should be a movie. The king of England is giving up his throne to marry his soulmate. It's so romantic, Steve thinks, and he knows he shouldn't think like that, he shouldn't have so many feelings, so many dreams. He shouldn't be like that. That's not how a man acts. But maybe it's okay if it's only in his own head and he doesn't say it out loud.

The king continues, "And I want you to know—"

"Steven!" his ma calls from the kitchen. "Dinner's almost ready! Come help set the table!"

Steve sighs, flails around for his cane—he'd left it leaning against the arm of the chair—and pulls himself upright. He turns off the radio on the way out.

"Would you pass the potatoes?" his mother asks. "I'd like some, and maybe your brother would too."

It's almost a pleasant dinner at first. Da's—well, if not sober, at least not completely plastered yet—and Doug, all of six years old, is at least quiet.

Steve grabs the bowl awkwardly, one-handed, and he nearly spills it. And his brother—his baby brother—has to help him out, and eventually they right it.

Steve can't even feel happy at his victory as he spoons more potatoes onto his plate, because he knows he's weak and uncoordinated, and he hates it. Someday I'm going to be big and strong, and then they'll see, Steve thinks, the half-formed resentful fantasy that always used to comfort him, back when he was a little kid, back when he was lying in the dirt bleeding, and somehow it had still felt like he could be anything when he grew up. It's becoming less of a comfort now; it's painfully clear that he's always going to be weak and frail, always going to have a limp, always going to be skin and bones. He's not just going to wake up one day and be... cured. That doesn't happen.

"Now, Steven," Ma says, smiling, as he passes her the bowl, "what was on the radio just now? A special broadcast? I heard you listening to the news."

He knows before he opens his mouth that talking about it is going to ruin it, a thought he instantly feels stupid for thinking. It's just news. But somehow it's special. And he has to give it up anyway.

"The king of England isn't the king anymore," Steve says. "He's giving it up to marry his soulmate."

His mother smiles, but his father harrumphs disapprovingly.

"Good riddance," he says. "Wasn't much of a king, I hear. And that soulmate of his—divorced once, already married to another man. It's not proper. He shouldn't be marrying her at all."

Steve knows there's no point in arguing, but he sees red; his fists clench around his knife and fork. "But she's his soulmate."

A man's soulmate is the one woman he can always marry, even if she's already married—the church grants annulments for that, of course. Steve isn't sure the Church of England is the same about that kind of thing, but why wouldn't it be? She's the other half of your soul. Not being together would be wrong.

His father snorts. "Just because you have a soulmate, doesn't mean she's a good person," he says. The slurred pronouncement is absolute, like he knows everything about everything, and Steve hates it.

His mother is beginning to sense that this isn't the safe topic she'd hoped for. "Now, Joe, come on—"

"If I had a soulmate," Steve begins.

And his father just starts laughing. "Aww, kid, you think you're gonna have a soulmate," he says, with that mocking smirk. "Grow up! You really think you're that special? You think you're gonna meet some girl and touch her, and, boom, fireworks?" His eyes narrow. "It's that girl from school, isn't it? The redhead?" He laughs, and Steve goes hot.

He's ruining everything, making all of Steve's dreams ugly.

"What would you know?" Steve yells, forgetting he's at the table. Tears swim in his eyes. He knows he's a disappointment to his father. He just wishes his father would stop saying so.

"Steven!" his mother snaps. "Quiet! Don't talk back to your father!"

He hunches over his plate and doesn't look up.

Your soulmate loves you. She has to. She has to. It's better than family. She doesn't leave you. She loves you for what's inside, because she can tell. She can tell everything about you, and she still loves you.

He knows it's a fantasy. He's not stupid. He knows he'll never be that lucky. But that doesn't mean he doesn't dream about it.

He doesn't say anything else for the rest of the meal.

Monday morning is cold, cold even for December, and Steve can feel the chill down to his bones, as the wind whips through his coat like he's not even wearing one. His cane punches through the half-frozen puddles all the way to school. He slides on the black ice, off-balance; he's aching by the time he's halfway there, aching from tensing up while trying not to step wrong.

Bucky's waiting for him at the corner, the way he always does, so they can walk the rest of it together. Bucky comes up next to him, on his bad side, but doesn't offer Steve an arm; he knows Steve won't take it unless he's actually falling.

"Rough weekend, huh?" Bucky says, under his breath; he probably saw Steve at church yesterday, when Steve himself had barely looked anywhere but straight ahead.

"I'm fine," Steve says, and then: "I hate my father."

Bucky's hand comes up to the back of his neck for a split second, bracing him. "Aww, geez." He sighs. "You can't let him get to you." It's almost the same thing he says about the high school boys, except when it's the high school boys he tells Steve not to mouth off.

Like that's gonna stop him from standing up to them.

"I turn eighteen, I'm gonna join the Army," Steve says, even though he knows they'll probably never take him. Even if his leg were fine, they'd still probably never take him. "I'm gonna get away from it all. You just watch me."

Bucky chuckles. "Okay. I'm watchin'."

Steve slips a little on a patch of ice, steadies himself, bites back the nasty word he was about to say, and realizes he'll probably end up mentioning it anyway when he goes to confession. "Or I could join the circus," he says, mournfully. "Me and the dog-faced boy, we'll be buddies."

Bucky splays his hand over his own chest in mock-alarm. "And forget all about me?"

Steve laughs and feels a little better for it.

"That's the way," Bucky says. If it seems odd that he's a year younger and he's always the one holding Steve up, he's never said. "And hey, look, we're almost at school. I'll say hi to your girlfriend for you."

"She's not my girlfriend," Steve snaps, and he goes hot as they round the corner, the school looming ahead of them. Ordinarily he can take the teasing—at least from Bucky—but he's still a little raw about the whole thing. And it seems unfair too; she's in Bucky's class, Bucky's grade. He gets to see her the entire day.

They get inside and get their coats put away. There's a few minutes before the bell, and that's when Steve sees her: Gail Richards.

Maybe it's good that she's not in Steve's classes, because then he'd probably fail out of school.

She's beautiful. She always is. Her long red hair cascades down her back, shining even in the pale winter light. Her cheeks are flushed from the cold, and her green eyes sparkle. She's wearing the same uniform all the other girls are, skirt and sweater and proper white gloves, so she'll never touch anyone, not until she's married. And even then she'll only touch her husband. But she's so pretty, so clever, and when she talks to Steve she's kind. She's always smiling, or laughing.

He's going to marry Gail someday. And he knows it's a dream, a stupid dream, but he imagines: what if they're soulmates? He imagines taking her gloves off, seeing her bare hands, touching her—

Bucky nudges him, and, caught unawares, Steve nearly falls over.

"I'm telling you," Bucky whispers. "You should ask her out. I think she likes you."

Gail's grinning at one of her friends, saying something he can't hear. For an instant her gaze meets his, and she's looking at him and smiling, and then she moves on.

"I— I can't," Steve says, because he knows what she'd say already, and he doesn't want to hear it.

The bell rings.

Bucky shrugs. "I'm just saying," he says. "You never know."