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Mystery of Love

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The world had a very singular definition of soulmates: Two people, entwined by fate, perfectly right for each other, destined to meet and exist as one. The cosmos willed this. God willed it. The universe willed it. Whatever anyone’s religious or personal beliefs may be- there was a reply.

Children were told stories of their parents’ meeting and The Words they said to each other that sealed their future. These prophesized utterances would form onto their skin and scratch itself onto a special place in a script unique to that person’s handwriting. The lore of The Words were in every fairy tale and film. No wonder it had always been your dream to meet yours; it was every young girl's dream.

Your own parents met in Kindergarten, when your mother moved from Jersey to Manhattan because her father had been transferred to a higher position. He was hesitant at first, to leave their small city and large family behind, but changed his mind in early spring. The first day she set foot in her classroom, as she’d tell you over and over again, she was seated next to a chubby, freckled boy who shook her hand. With a firm grip, he yelled “Hello, beautiful!” and before she could respond, she had doubled over to scream.

When the teacher rushed over and your mother finally stopped crying, she’d lifted her paisley cotton shirt to see the askew “hEllo, BEaUtiFul” letters circling her belly button. She pointed a finger to your father, who was blubbering uncontrollably, and yelled, “It’s you! You’re my soulmate!” and then it became his turn to double over.

The teacher called both their mothers and their mothers had taken them out of school for the rest of the day. They spent it in each other’s company, learning each other’s names, playing, eating ice-cream, and then took a nap, pinkies touching. They were inseparable ever since.

At age 4, it was your favorite story, and you wanted to hear it every night before bed. Your parents were the essence of perfection: your mother’s hair was always impeccable, your father’s shirt was always pressed, and they always kissed at the door when he’d leave for work.

At age 6, you began to wonder about your own soulmate. “Does it hurt very bad, mama?” “Why haven’t I met him yet?” “What if he’s mean to me, mama?” “What if he moves away?”

Your mother always assured you that it was meant to be. You were designed to be loved. The universe would never, ever, leave anyone out. Soulmates were destiny, and destiny was final. You were pleased with the answers she provided, and happy to hear them every time she reminded you.

At age 8, you’d forgotten all about soulmates. Boys were meant to be chased away on the playground, wrestled with in the grass, beaten in a game of soccer. Girls were your confidants, your sisters, who’d braid your hair and dance with you through the living room. Soulmates were for adults, and more than that, you were afraid of the pain of someone’s Words carving into your skin. There were rumors of 5th graders who found their soulmate in the fall, but they were big kids and you put off thinking about it for many years and stopped asking questions.

At age 14, it was no longer something you could ignore. Many girls were going through changes, some had looked like they were already finished, while you had barely started. Boys changed too. Everyone began to notice each other. And you began to notice yourself in this extant space. High school was extremely daunting, and on your first day, you promised yourself that you’d find your soulmate in this large campus.

Some juniors who had soulmates were already married with their parents’ eager approval. There was a club dedicated to meeting as many students in the school as possible to find your soulmate. On Thursday mornings they held “speed-meeting” sessions where one side held a notecard that said, “You are mine,” and the other side, “I am yours,” there were many variations that were available such as, “You are the light of my life,” or “I’ll love you forever,”.

You tried many times, afraid that if your soulmate was a senior and they graduated this year, you’d have to wait forever to meet them. After December, it was taking a toll on your heart. All of those sessions of sitting down and staring into the eyes of new started out exciting, but slowly turned banal and drove you into melancholy. Being bound to one person was supposed to be magical, but the recurring meetings felt disingenuous. You didn’t want to meet your soulmate in a sterilized setting, reading a notecard of words that were not from your heart.

Around winter vacation, you were so despondent and anxious that it began to manifest in severe and constant stomach pains. Your parents began to discuss the possibility of counseling. You refused them, afraid that you’d be labelled as a lovelorn freak for the rest of your life. They did relent, and instead gave you a very nice digital camera for Christmas, hoping it could be a hobby to distract you from your worries. Your very first picture was of your parents under the Christmas tree. Your second picture was of their Words, side by side. It took five months for your spasms to ease.

 

In your later teens, you began to branch out in earnest to find that person. You had worked as a hostess during senior year to maximize your chance of meeting someone, and even landed a barista job at one of the busiest cafés in Manhattan your freshman year of college at a small conservative university. You joined a sorority and lost count of all the events you’d attend and all the fraternity boys you’d met during that year. It was too much, in the end, you were focused on your studies and couldn’t stand another year in that tiny white picket-fence house always reeking of hairspray and Victoria Secret body mist.

You continued taking photographs and enrolled in art classes the following year. You had won a small scholarship and the funds went into a new professional camera. Mid-sophomore year, you quit your job at the café and began to take pictures for the University’s paper, penning food and entertainment columns here and there, primarily about your local college town. You submitted in group exhibitions and struggled to balance classes, a job, and your own inquiries of love. Most of your friends had met their soulmates, and when your roommate came home breathless, freshly inked in beautiful cursive script, and screamed, “It’s a girl!!”, you broke down.

You had never thought of the possibility of being with a woman. But what if the universe decided that it was? Could you love a woman, like that? You spent the rest of the weekend curled up in bed, ill with stomachaches, questioning everything you knew about yourself and your capacity to love.

You called home to ask your mother, “What if my soulmate is a woman?” and the audible gasp on the other line confirmed the feeling in your gut. You weren’t done yet. “What if my soulmate is a hundred and ten on his deathbed? What if he’s a murderer? What if… god forbid, a child?” the tears wouldn’t stop. You were hysterical. You no longer searched for “the one”.

 

Junior year, you spent a brief fall session abroad in Italy. It was a small group of 5 with one of your favorite professors and you were free to explore your own body of work in your specialty. This was the perfect opportunity to build your portfolio with historic sites and modern culture. Italy was beautiful, romantic, and being there felt like a dream. One of your cohort members met her soulmate while asking him for permission to sketch his picture. He was a green-eyed man with dark, curly hair swept in a low ponytail. Her Words appeared on his arm, “Excuse me! Do you mind?”

And his Words, “Non parlo inglese.” Meaning, “I do not speak English.”

After their shock subsided, they shared a laugh and you took their picture together, matching tender forearms side-by-side.

As intended, you didn’t find your soulmate in Italy, either. But you did find a spark. The whole soulmate business was breeding so many questions that were turning into criticisms inside you. The picture of your friend in Italy started churning the gears of your body of work. You began to seek out silly or strange First Words to photograph, and at the end of your spring semester, you held a solo exhibition back home. It was a smash and featured in the local paper on page 5. Soon after, it became viral on the internet.

Reviews raved about the humor of your photographs (one set of First Words read, “You think I’m cute, huh,” and “You’re a fucking nightmare-boy”. Another, “Bless you!” and “That wasn’t a sneeze” your personal favorite, "Give me your wallet!" and "Oh hell no!").

People were alarmed at some of the less traditional pairs you found: differing intense religious beliefs (Roman Catholic, and Satanist), age-disparity (15 year gap between them), familial relations (they were first-cousins), those encumbered by illness (one had been in a coma for 5 years), and something that was so rare you’d only read about it happening twice, ever: multiple soulmates.

In that particular case, you had put an advertisement online and received an e-mail that night from someone who wanted to refer you to their uncle and his family. You went the next morning to Prospect Park and met John and his soulmates Francis and Marilynn. You spent three hours with them that day. The photos you took were beyond lovely.

In senior year, you had a portfolio that was known world-wide. You were receiving so many e-mails a day about photo opportunities that your business address bounced back at least twice a week for 24 hours. Most of them were very desperate calls for attention, struggles for their 15 seconds of fame, you rarely had the time (or patience) to give an e-mail a second look. You put that body of work on hold, but still opened an online store to sell prints and gave the occasional phone interview. Between that and the various photography jobs you received elsewhere, you were self-sufficient and hardly struggled. You lived in a one-bedroom apartment and looked forward to travelling in the U.S. after college.

It was winter of senior year when you received a message in your personal e-mail that caught you by surprise. It was from Pepper Potts. The Pepper Potts. You were holed up cozily during a blizzard and almost spilled your tea in your lap. It was an invitation for you to visit Stark Tower headquarters, take a few pictures, and go home. The way she worded it was extremely delicate, making sure to flatter your work but also very strictly state the terms of agreement. She made sure to mention that you would be paid generously, of course.

When the snow melted, you made your journey, camera bag across your chest.

At age 20, you met Iron Man, Tony Stark, self-proclaimed billionaire, philanthropist, playboy, genius. You also met Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow.

Ms. Potts had met you at the door, opening it and extending her hand. She immediately thanked you for coming in the cold and praised your photographs. It surprised you when she admitted that as famous as your Soulmate Series was, she was more intrigued by the tenderness of the candid shots you routinely represented in your work, not your actual choice of subject. She had also done some research and found various college articles where you took pictures of local businesses and restaurants. “The intimacy that you captured of the most mundane of places… they were beautiful. I knew you were the person I wanted.” You laughed about your naiveite in those days, being only a newbie at photography, but Ms. Potts shushed you.

She led you to a conference room and slid a contract in front of you, asking for your patience and understanding at the long document. After the end of nearly an hour and a half of reviewing, questioning, and a sneaky interview process, you were ready to begin. A lanyard was placed in your hand with your picture and a keycode, giving you access to certain floors of the building.

The contract was complicated, but it boiled down to this: You were hired by Stark Industries to photograph their employees (and future employees) as well as any floor you had access to. It was your job to deliver simple and tasteful photos to represent the Stark image. You understood it to mean that your job was to create a cult of personality for Stark Industries somewhere in the realm of capable, trustworthy, and familiar- as if these people could be your close friends. The contract spanned a 30-day period where you were able to enter the tower at your leisure and convenience, wander as you wished, ask any questions you may have, and ultimately submit a binder of no less than 50 pictures with your detailed notes (including personal opinion on each photo).

Ms. Potts strongly suggested that if this assignment went well, she had high hopes for your future at Stark Industries. She kept her promise and continued to reach out to you about assignments.

At 21, almost immediately after your graduation, you met Thor, Hawkeye, and Dr. Banner- you prayed you would never meet his other half. That same year, you also met him.

Captain America. Every child in America knew about Steve Rogers. When news leaked that his body had been found frozen and that he was living in New York, it stunned you. He was a (newly) living (dead?!) legend; the idea of him was too much. When it dawned on you that you would be photographing him, you immediately threw up.

You would never forget that day. Your stomach hurt all night. It hadn’t done that since you were a child.

When you entered Stark Tower- you were too nervous to even notice that it had been transformed to the newly dubbed Avengers Tower. You rode the elevator up to the conference room where you scheduled to meet Ms. Potts, but Mr. Stark was there instead. Next to him, was the unmistakable physique of Captain Rogers. Your stomach twisted itself into a pretzel and you had to suck in a deep breath to continue walking upright.

You were so nervous that when Stark asked you for the umpteenth time to please call him Tony, you nearly twisted your ankle by mis-stepping. Sadly for him, you wouldn’t utter his first name for another few years. Captain Rogers had narrowed his eyes at you and the camera bag hanging limply on your hip. You could not stop trembling under his scrutiny. Mr. Stark offered you a drink to take the edge off.

Finally, Captain Rogers spoke.

“Good morning,” he said quietly, giving you a gentle nod.

You didn’t stop to look as you bolted out of the conference room and down the hall.
As soon as you reached the toilet, you threw up.

The bile and acid that burned a path up your throat lingered all day and flared up constantly in Captain Rogers’ presence. Your chest burned like a blaze. He in turn, gave you inspecting, worried glances and never tried to come any closer than 10 feet. You thanked him silently from across rooms and hallways. Mr. Stark joked that the best candid moments with Captain Rogers were in the showers, but if you kept getting sick like that, you’ll never get a chance. Your stomach did not appreciate the insinuation whatsoever.

Ms. Potts was infinitely more helpful. She sent you down to the infirmary but they could find nothing wrong with you. The nurse helping you, however, did notice that you had suddenly formed a bright pink rash right in the middle of your chest after watching you nervously rub your torso.

You thought nothing more of it, and by the time you got home, it had vanished.

The contract Ms. Potts emailed you that night detailed the next assignment, and upon completion, you would be paid 20 thousand dollars, more than double the amounts you’d previously received. Her postscript thanked you for your hard work with the Avengers, specifically, your patience with Tony and his constant quips, but that she wanted you to take some time to yourself and explore the world. Twenty-one, she said, was a tremendously important year for young women, and that she hoped to see more of your photography that was special to you, rather than necessary to her.

That night, you broke your apartment lease and made plans to travel at the end of the month. For the next 30 days, you took some of the best photos you had ever taken of the Avengers. However, you deeply regretted every photo you took of Captain Rogers. They were never as detailed or intimate as any of the rest. He was always either in a group setting, or far off, jogging, training, perhaps reading a book… across the kitchen, on the other side of a window.

You were afraid of him. Or rather, you were afraid of how your body reacted to him. From time to time, you’d see him look at you apologetically, which made it a million times worse.

After your assignment was finished and the rest of the payment was deposited in your account, you sold your furniture and packed two bags. For the two years, you spent time in Thailand, Russia, Italy, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and even a few icy weeks visiting the Arctic.

Once again, you picked up your Soulmates Series. This time you solely focused on what you lovingly called Peculiar Pairs.

In Thailand, you found a pair of non-gender conforming soulmates who lived in a large community of entirely non gender conforming people. Most of the country itself was extremely accepting and kindhearted, something that pained you to think about in regard to your own home. You learned so much about sexuality and identity in your time with them, and at the end of your trip, you felt entirely changed about your perspective on what it was to be male and female- and whether or not it actually mattered!

In Russia, you met two people who identified as asexual- one being intersex. On the day you met, he identified as male and wore trousers and ordered the strongest coffee you had ever tasted. The next day, you hardly recognized him in a lavender gown, and were surprised and happily obliged when he asked you to use feminine pronouns. Upon your departure, he was back again in trousers and let you use masculine pronouns in your writing. It broke your heart to learn about their struggle in a country that shunned and viewed them with contempt.

Your travels brought you to many identities and many facets of love. There were couples who never engaged in romantic activity, but cherished each other more than you’d ever felt from another soul. There were others still who’s lives were kept secret from their families and their society, at large. There was a household in Italy with a husband and wife, not soulmates, living with another man, whose soulmate had been the husband. They met by chance on the train. The wife was 7 months along, and there was incredible tension under their roof. Most days, they made it fine, some days, she expressed to you, she couldn’t help but fall asleep crying.

Sometimes, you would meet soulmates that made you truly question the work. These pairs haunted you.

In New Zealand, a man was 65 when he met his soulmate; he had waited all his life. She was a young volunteer at the day care center where he worked. He thought she would reject him because of their age difference, but she loved him. They spent one blissful day together. The next day, she was involved in a fatal accident on her way to work. You sat in silence in his living room as he held onto a picture of her and sobbed.

At the end of your travels, departing from Saudi Arabia, your heart was full of grief about soulmates. The last pair you visited was in a dimly lit home, where the husband smoked profusely, and you could not see his wife until the very end. When she came into the light, her eyes were both blackened, and she could not speak due to the stitches in her mouth.

 

Returning to Manhattan, at age 23, you had given up on not only your own soulmate, but all soulmate indoctrination. Your heart was hardened by the knowledge that pre-destiny could usher in such suffering, and that love could be so terrible. You began to resist.

Chapter Text

It took a few months for you to settle in and find a new apartment, but soon enough you were back on a regular schedule. Your work continued to be well-reviewed and circulating, which was a good sign because it meant you could still make a living off it. The merchandise in your store was steadily being bought and it certainly helped that you still had quite a bit of money left over from your last few paychecks. There were invitations in your inbox for exhibitions and requests to purchase original files of your work. For now, you were leaving them unread.

You visited your parents once, to talk to them, but you felt strange in their home. The longer your conversation went on, the more you realized that your parents couldn’t comprehend the importance of your work to you. Nor did they understand why you were no longer enamored with the idea of a soulmate. To them, you were meandering around the world to pursue a hobby, luckily it made you quite a bit of money, but you needed to settle down and find your other half. He was in Manhattan, they believed, so you needed to stay put. When you scoffed and said that it could very well be a “she”, they asked you to leave and think about your actions for a few days.

On a sunny May morning, as you reviewed the hundreds of pictures from your journeys, you received an e-mail from Ms. Potts. She hoped you had a fun trip, and that she’d like for you to come by for another assignment. She promised that there was a surprise for you.

You thought the surprise was that the Avengers Tower was now called Avengers Facility and was outside of town. It wasn’t. The surprise also wasn’t the chauffer who pulled up the next day to drive you there.

You balked at the size of the estate upon seeing it. She met you once again at the door, first to give you a hug and ask about your travels, then as if she’d done something wrong, Ms. Potts bashfully straightened her skirt and led you in. You laughed and returned the hug, thanking her for the bonus; it had gotten you through more than 5 countries in almost two years, after all.

The contract she slid under your nose was entirely review same guidelines as before. There were new specifications, however, four new Avengers: Samuel Thomas “Sam” Wilson, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, Pietro Maximoff, and Wanda Maximoff. You had heard about Sokovia while you were travelling- it happened while you were in Thailand, and Sergeant Barnes’ investigation and trial was on the news during your entire stay in Saudi Arabia. It was very, very recent.

 

“I thought you might like an additional photo to your Peculiar Pairs Series,” Ms. Potts smiled, “Wanda and Pietro are bonded,”

Your eyes must have looked like saucers. You’d never seen it before- soulmate twins! There were old folktales, of course, but you didn’t think it was real. You gasped in disbelief and ransacked your brain for an appropriate response. What kind of words would they have said to each other? Babies don’t have a concept of language? What was it like growing up together- what is their relationship with each other like? What did their family think?

You sputtered.

“I… Only with their permission, of course!”

Pepper laughed, “Yes, of course. Come on, let’s go see everyone.”

It was then that a wave of nausea hit you, thinking suddenly about Captain Rogers and the awful feeling your stomach gets around him. It was such an embarrassing thing to admit and be helpless to control. You often wondered to yourself if you were reacting so extremely because he scared you? No, he didn’t. Did you like him? Well, you didn’t know him. You were attracted to him, yes, but who wasn’t?

Captain Rogers had been in your textbook since you were a little girl. You went to the museum in Brooklyn multiple times and gazed at his uniform and peered at his photographs alongside Sergeant Barnes. He was handsome in such a honest and gentle way, someone once upon a time you might have dreamt of being your soulmate. He had beautiful blue eyes and a boyish grin, even as a man. You always thought even before the serum, you could have liked him. It wasn’t like you were a very tall woman, anyway.

You rubbed your sternum discreetly as you slipped behind Ms. Potts.

“Please call me Pepper,” she said abruptly, as if she were letting out a too-big breath of air, “Please. And Tony would love it if you’d call him y’know, by his first name too.”

You blushed. You’d just never been that way. But you promised her to try.

“I understand we’re all much older, but just get into the habit, yeah? Wanda and Pietro are your age, and wouldn’t it be weird to call them Mr. and Ms. Maximoff?”

You agreed.

 

After a few long hallways, the turn led into a large sitting space illuminated by an entire wall made of windows. A large sectional was placed in the center of the room along with some single sofas and bean bags. There was a bookshelf along one wall and a flat-screen across from the seats. All eyes turned to you when you entered. You recognized them- Tony, Natasha, Steve, Bucky Barnes, the Maximoff Twins, and Sam Wilson. Apprehension flooded your core at the sight of the Captain. Sergeant Barnes, who sat beside him, seemed to be glaring.

“Ah! There’s my favorite little P.R. twerp!” Tony Stark cried as he slid across the rug, arms outstretched, “Missed your photos, kid, I’ve got one of me blown up in the master right now. It’s fantastic.”

“Thanks, Tony,” You replied shyly, feeling a bit silly for taking so long to make the switch. Tony gasped dramatically and pretended to be on the verge of tears, punctuating his display with a loud, “Finally!”

Natasha came to hug you as well, whispering a greeting in your ear and congratulating you on all the good fortune with your travels.

The twins regarded you wordlessly, both giving curt nods and gazing at your camera bag. You returned the gesture, placing your hand on the strap to move the bag out of view- you didn’t want to take their picture until they were ready, regardless of what the contract stated. Sam Wilson came to shake your hand and introduce himself. He was very charming, you noted, and definitely knew how to hold a conversation- maybe being the most normal person here.

“I’m such a fan of your work,” he said with a smile, “It’s such a refreshing take on an old, trite thing.” You thanked him in response, grabbing the strap of your camera bag nervously. It was a habit you were trying to let go of, but receiving compliments was still something you handled poorly.

Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes had been standing since you and Pepper entered the room. You noticed that the Captain cut his hair shorter than you’d seen it before. Two years ago, it was longer on top and brushed to the side. He tentatively gave you a small smile and waved, unsure of your reaction.  

When you smiled back, he exhaled loudly, “It’s good to see you,”

“You too, Captain Rogers,”

There was a sudden sensation prickling at your flesh. At first it tickled, like a brush, but then it hit you like a staccato of needles stabbing into the skin of your chest. Your face contorted into an expression of confusion before the pain hit, hands pulling the strap of the camera bag down roughly to investigate the source of your agony. You backed up into a chair. Natasha and Pepper rushed over. The sweltering feeling grew as you struggled to unbutton your shirt, finally giving up and tearing it halfway down the middle.

As the buttons scattered, you watched in horror as black words appeared on your sternum, all capital letters running up your chest in a straight line: it’s good to see you.

Captain Rogers groaned audibly and fell backwards onto the couch as he frantically rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to see your words appear on his left bicep, cursive script running in a circle to disappear and return around. The room was filled with gasps and clattering chairs as the watchers began to realize what was unfolding. Sergeant Barnes leaned down to examine his friend, fearfully looking back and forth between the two of you.

“Jesus Christ!” He cried, as the Captain’s handwriting stopped carving into your skin. Your gasps were beginning to subside when he called out, but when those words left his lips, you began to feel it again, this time overtaking your arm. You couldn’t remain balanced on the chair any longer as you doubled over in pain, sliding onto the floor, just out of reach of Natasha’s steadying hands on you.

Underneath the loose sleeve of your speckled navy and white button up, the Sergeant’s words appeared in thick, heavy strokes of half-cursive, half-print: jesus christ.

The room froze in disbelief. Everyone looked from you to the Captain, to the Sergeant. Even your tears subsided for the time being while your heart hammered in your chest. There was ringing in your ears as you tried to still your panting, your hands trembled as they touched the newly formed Words on your left arm.

Sergeant Barnes slowly rose to his feet, staring at you. The Captain did the same. The three of you knew why this was happening, but not quite what it meant, or what it involved for your futures. Captain Rogers extended his hand first, and you slowly slipped shaky fingers into his large palm. It engulfed your hand in a compassionate but strong grip, and you couldn’t help but admire the way his arm flexed ever so slightly as he pulled you up. The touch had an immediate response. It felt like the first time you stepped on warm sand, or the feeling of an ice pack on your head in the throes of a fever. In Captain Rogers’ eyes, you could see the same emotions overpowering him.

“Say something to him,” he whispered. You gulped, looking at the Sergeant, waiting by his side, lips parted in anticipation. You shook your head wildly, afraid. Your first words to Captain Rogers were so dull already- what could you say to the Sergeant? You were racking your brain for phrases you’d memorized over time when he spoke up.

“Say somethin’, please,” Sergeant Barnes’ icy blue eyes urged you with a frantic plea, “There’s nothin’ that wouldn’t be just exactly how it should.”

Your stomach turned again and you reflexively placed a hand to your torso, suddenly reminded that your shirt was undone, your breasts barely covered by the sides of fabric. Captain Rogers pulled it shut for you, sliding one seam over another, and lightly touched your collarbone before letting his hand fall back to his side. It was a deliberate motion; the desire to pull you up into his arms and hide you away in his room was riotous in his mind, and it was taking all of him to be still.

“I’m not so bad, am I?” the Sergeant took a step forward, expression faltering on the cusp of sorrow. You opened your mouth to speak but couldn’t find what to say. He was a complete stranger- just another legend you grew up with, like the Captain, like soulmates and the idea of love. But he was right now in front of you, he was proof that the legends you’d been disregarding for the past 4 years existed, as much as you wished they didn’t. His hand brushed your cheek, tucking a strand of loose hair behind your ear, and leaving a tingling path in its wake.

“This… can’t be real,” You gasped absentmindedly as his thumb traced a line down your jaw. When your eyes started to fill up again with tears, you didn’t know, but they were cascading down your face as Sergeant Barnes sucked in a sharp breath. His full bottom lip rolled between his teeth as he unbuttoned the loose Henley. Your eyes travelled slowly down each button. At the edge of the slit in his shirt, there they were, the Words… your Words: this can’t be real. They were in the same position as Captain Rogers’ Words on your own chest. Sergeant Barnes exhaled shakily as the letters finished their scorching trail on him. The three of you stared at each other, heaving in unison, panting, steadying the furious butterflies in your stomachs.

Sam Wilson was the first to speak up, shattering the silence with the question everyone else thought, “What just happened?”

It shook you from your daze. Both of Pepper’s hands were clasped over her mouth. Natasha looked astonished, but intrigued. Tony slowly made his way to Pepper and pulled her hands down, gripping it tight in his, his eyes remained transfixed on the three of you on the floor the entire time. The twins sat in silence, fingers intertwined with pleased smiles.   

“This is incredible,” Pepper sighed, “I’ve only heard stories,”

“You... all are soulmates?” Sam asked

You looked back and forth between the two men at your side, unsure of how to answer. You could only think of the time you met John in Prospect Park with Francis and Marilynn. Tony seemed to recall that photo as well and spoke up in clear voice over his shoulder.

“F.R.I.D.A.Y., pull up the Peculiar Pairs photo gallery on the T.V.” The flatscreen hummed to life as Tony scrolled to the last images of the set. There were three elderly people sitting on the bench together, holding each others’ hands. Francis on the left, John in the middle, Marilynn on the right, all smiles. Tony traced the Words on Francis’ wrist and Words on Marilynn’s collarbone. John sat happily between them, two sets of words etched on the same spaces: wrist and collarbone.

Tony pointed to you, “Same thing,” he said with a slight jerk of his neck, “You got Capsicle’s words on your chest, Count Buckula’s words on your arm… and he’s—” a slide to the right of his finger, pointing to Captain Rogers, “—got your words on his arm… and those words are on his chest…” the finger slid to the other side, at the Sergeant.

Both of Tony’s hands came to rest on his hips as he regarded you almost proudly. “I can’t believe it, kid, you got two soulmates.” It seemed like the speech would end there, but Tony’s eye began to twinkle mischievously, and a deviant smirk overtook his previously harmless smile, “Oh my, my, my, my, my, aren’t you three going to be having some adventurous s- Ah!”

Pepper had punched him before he could finish his sentence, and began to twist his ear, dragging him out of the room with a very sympathetic apology. The rest of the Avengers followed suit, loudly clearing their throats, offering you congratulations and smiles as a dark pink blush spread over your cheeks. The Maximoffs were the last to leave. Pietro strode casually to the hallway but lingered in the shadow as Wanda put her hand on your shoulder with a knowing smile. She pulled up the sleeve of her flowing blouse and showed you her brother’s mark--- a long curved line, punctuation with a frenzy of dashes and dots at the end. “Do not worry. It is meant to be how it is meant to be,”

At her brother’s bidding, Wanda slipped away as well, following him down the hall.

 

You were left alone with them. The two men standing in front of you stiff like statues, hands clenched tightly at their sides. You didn’t know what to do with your own body, either, as it hummed and positioned to their frequency. There was a vibration that was unmoving, a tune that was noiseless, a thread hanging onto all three of you, stringing you together. Your legs were beginning to shake.

Sergeant Barnes noticed and led you to the couch as Captain Rogers pushed two loose sofas closer so that they could sit facing you. He was careful to give you as much space as you needed, so long as it didn’t entirely take you away. The very sight of you now, etched with his Words gave him the clarity he’d been searching for nearly his entire life. He didn’t need verbal verification to know that Bucky also felt the same way.  

Your gaze slowly travelled up to the sandy-haired man sitting in front, leaning forward with his elbows resting atop of his knees. You’d known this man for years, but somehow in this moment, he looked so strange and unfamiliar. His brow creased with curiosity. You were sure this wasn’t how he – either of them- must have imagined meeting their soulmate. You were just some kid. Christ, fifteen minutes ago, you were still rejecting the idea of soulmates!

The markings on your body began to feel heavy with each acrimonious thought. Your chest tightened up again, stomach squeezing itself inside of you. Tears started to fall from your eyes as the room caved in. Your heart felt so full, as if it could burst from your chest at any minute if you let it. Your hands moved on their own, grabbing at your chest and arm, scratching wrathfully at the Words’ inscription on your body. You didn’t ask for this. You didn’t want it. You refused it.

In the darkness of the chamber, you heard someone say, “She’s having a panic attack, Buck,”

A warm hand found itself against your back, rubbing large lines up and down your spine leisurely. Another hand was rubbing against the narrow plane in between your breasts, but it was cold and made you shiver. Someone’s hands were tucking your hair behind both ears, sweetly wiping away the tears that ran freely and gathered under your chin. You felt so small against them, leaning sadly into the warmth, shuddering sobs shaking your frame.

“Breathe… breathe, there you go, hon’, you’re doing great,”

The blackness soon began to fade, and you struggled to follow the rhythmic directions being whispered into your ear. New tears were shushed away gently by another voice, like an ocean breeze blowing away sand. Your hands clenched severely to your thighs, but soon were peeled away and held in a grasp that burned like a furnace. When the light returned to your field of vision, you could make out the Captain and Sergeant giving you encouraging smiles.

“I’m.. sorry,” you wheezed hoarsely. You hadn’t experienced one of these since early college.

“Don’t apologize, it’s a lot to take in,” Captain Rogers spoke, squeezing your left hand in his. At the sensation, you looked down to see your small hand, once again, engulfed in his and laughed loudly, surprising them both. They were glad to see you laughing, at least, and only raised their eyebrows to question it. You shook your head, not knowing where to start, pulling your hand away and wrapping both arms around your legs. You didn’t notice Captain Rogers’ expression.

“How does this work, Captain?” You asked, murmuring, in hopes that if they didn’t hear you, maybe you could just avoid talking about it forever. “There’s… two of you… the Sergeant, I.. this… we’ve only just met.” You squeezed your puffy eyes shut, feeling your poor head starting to hurt.

“Please,” he called, “Please…” it was pleading, soft and slow, so, so desperate, “Call me Steve, please.”

You swallowed, trying the sound out over your tongue gently, “Steve,” You chanced a look over to his left, where icy blue eyes wandered over your face.

“You’ve got more options with me, hon’” a smile graced Sergeant Barnes, and you started to notice just how much more handsome he was in person. All those museum photos could never capture the sharpness of his jaw, or the way his stubble worked to frame his face, or the dip in his chin that seemed to make his rather intense features so agreeable. His long hair was much nicer in person than it was on all those breaking news broadcasts. His blue gaze was brighter than you could have ever imagined from those black and white reels. You licked your lips idly, and flushed pink when both men followed the trajectory of your tongue and lingered on your mouth.

“Bucky work for you? If not, you can call me James,”
“That’s his government name,” Steve quipped, getting smirks from both of you.

You tried both, and promised you would try to settle on Bucky. Neither of them felt right anyway, since you’d grown up categorizing any information you knew of him under “Sergeant Barnes”. You relayed the information to them, and added that frankly, it unsettled you to call Steve by his first name too. They, in return, promised to be patient.

“What if… its’ wrong?” Your face contorted, your eyes were flashing from Steve to Bucky, back to Steve, back to Bucky. Your brain was revving up, “I mean, soulmates, you know? What is that? Right?” God, you were rambling, but you couldn’t stop. “Shouldn’t we choose who we love? We’re… god, we were born decades apart. You guys are… superhuman.. and I’m just 23…! Compared to you, you’re legends, you’re Avengers, you save the damn world? Oh my god, I just take pictures of people.”

“I’ve never even kissed a boy.” You said suddenly, squeezing your eyes shut. There were flashbacks to all the times you’d run away from boys, or during the speed-meets when you’d stare longingly into someone’s eyes for the good span of five seconds before having to do it again with someone else thirty more times, or in undergrad, when you tried to go on a date with Nathan Young but when he dropped you off at home and put his hand on your thigh, you bolted.

Bucky and Steve laughed in relief as you slid your head in-between your hands. They shared a knowing look with each other before Bucky slid his hooked finger under your chin and turned you upward to gaze at him.

“Sweetheart, you don’t gotta kiss anyone unless you want to,” he assured, “We just want to be with you,”

They laughed again in unison. Bucky leaned back on the sofa and put both arms behind his neck, letting Steve explain.

“We’re eager, but we understand. I’ve waited for so long. We’ve tried to ignore fate… with dating,” A snort from Bucky confirmed his fact, “It never worked out.” Steve continued, “I feel it, in my gut, this is right. Can’t you? Buck and I, we’ve known each other since we were in diapers; there are no secrets between us.”  

You placed a hand on your stomach, feeling it settle strangely, wondering if the sickness you’d experienced in the past around Steve was a sign you wrongfully chalked up to your anxiety. He seemed to hear your thoughts and nodded, letting you know that the fateful day in the conference room, when he reached his quarters, he had developed an angry red rash across his arm. He was curious, but since you were keen on avoiding him, he let you have your space. Now, as the three of you sat in each other’s company, you couldn’t help but wonder if the universe needed all of you together for the Words to work.

You asked them for their patience. You needed to go home, let the information settle, do some work to calm down, maybe. You could tell that Bucky was hesitant to let you go, but Steve assured him it would be fine. He asked for you to return soon, because as you knew, soulmates who were already bound to each other with Words, suffered each other’s maladies, and he was honest in letting you know that it would hurt him to not be close to you.

 

When you quietly got ready to leave, Bucky broke the silence by asking your name- a fact you’d forgotten to give in the chaos of the Binding. He repeated it, over and over again, tongue touching the top of his mouth in deliberate flicks, as if it was holy. Steve walked you to the car and watched it until you disappeared into the horizon.

Upon returning to the lounge area where Bucky sat, pained expression casting harsh shadows on his face, Steve placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Bucky understood the implication of the hand—a request to keep his promise of patience. He wanted to, for you. He wanted to do anything for you.

“She’s gotta come back, Stevie,” he muttered, hand reaching up into his shirt to trace the words. Steve assured him that she would. “I can’t stand it, Stevie, all those times in the chair, when they were scrambling my brain,” his voice dropped low, “I was thinkin’ about her. I could feel her somewhere, not knowing what she looked like or anything, but just feel her. Can’t stand it that she doesn’t want to be here now.”

Steve didn’t need his friend to finish the sentence to know what he meant.

“Buck, if we push her, we’ll lose her. I want the same thing, but she needs to come to that conclusion on her own.”

 

That night, as you fell into your bed, a message blinked on your phone- an e-mail from Pepper. It was the picture you took of of John, Francis, and Marilynn- from Prospect Park, beaming on that old wooden bench next to the birdbath. A single question was written beneath the photograph.

It worked out for them, didn’t it?

Chapter Text

At 23, you were bound to not one, but two soulmates. Neither of them did you meet under normal circumstances, or led lives that were in any way, shape, or form, congruent to yours. It took you three days before you gathered enough courage to return to the compound, hailing a rather costly Uber ride to the edge of the city and trekking up the vast front yard. You brought your camera and laptop, hoping that the excuse of starting your assignment would seem enough of a justification to be around.

By the time you had reached the door and slapped your lanyard against the laser console, you were drenched with sweat and had to tie your hair up in a loose bun to get the strands off your neck. You’d spent the last three days swimming in difficult questions that you were afraid to ask and afraid to learn the answer to. Your body hurt endlessly, and you were so exhausted from the pain that you could no longer hold out. It was less of your anxiety and more of the separation that hurt, you believed. Since the Binding, your pain initiated and persisted in a very particular way- in your chest, and spreading dully, rather than centralized and urgent like your anxiety.

You were hesitant to admit that your return was also in search of … them. The pain you felt was shared, and it shamed you to know that your choice caused them to feel it, too. You couldn’t change how you felt, your fear, apprehension, turmoil, none of it. But you couldn’t ignore it, either. That morning, you had stared at yourself for a long time in the mirror and looked at the Words crawling on your body, finally deciding that if you could travel the world alone for two years and come back in once piece, you could at least go see Steve and Bucky.

 

Doctor Banner was glad when you came into the lab. Natasha was sitting idly on his table, fiddling with a contraption in her lap as he worked. They smiled when they saw you and nodded down the hall to where you assumed one of your soulmates were. It was still foreign, that word, being applied to someone meant for you. You snapped a quick picture of them together when they weren’t looking and made your way out.

Bucky sat in the dining room, dressed in a black quarter-sleeved shirt and dark jeans, cutting into a peach with a knife. There were heavy blue bags under his eyes, but he looked up upon your arrival, yet made no move to come toward you. You secretly thanked his gesture.

“Hey,” you called, sending a small smile his way.

“Hey,” he replied, matching you. He watched you cross the threshold of the room, and when you were close enough, he reached out to take your bag, setting it down next to his feet. When you muttered a thank you, he offered you a slice. You thanked him yet again and leaned against the table, sliding the piece into your mouth carefully, making sure you were chewing politely. He did the same, before pushing the blade back in and prying another wedge loose. The two of you continued this quietly until the peach had been eaten in its entirety, leaving behind a spiny pit on the table.

You watched your companion as you had eaten each piece, observing the tiredness of his face, the drooping corners of his mouth, even the dullness of his skin… they all seemed to be slowly regaining vibrance the longer you stayed in his presence. You couldn’t help but linger on his mouth as he ate, watching the crease of his two plush lips bend and move with every thoughtful bite. His tongue would dart out from time to time to catch droplets of peach-juice. Scenarios played in your head of those lips pressed against yours in a tender first kiss. Your cheeks burned and you scolded yourself for daydreaming inappropriately.

He didn’t mind that you stared, he was rather delighted that you came as close as you did. Bucky wanted to memorize everything about you. You noticed that your chest was hurting less as well, but your heart was beating very loudly under his intense contemplation. Finally, when it seemed like the pounding was loud enough to where Bucky could hear it, you hurriedly cleared your throat and pushed yourself up straight and excused yourself, pointing to the camera hung around your neck.  

Bucky smiled and as you turned toward the hall, he called out to you, “He’s in the pool”. You were unsure if it was your imagination, but you didn’t turn around when Bucky chuckled at your suddenly tense stride.

Wandering down the hallway and taking a left, you snapped some shots of various things: a potted plant with a single flower blooming in an otherwise empty room, rows of monitors, all black with one lit orange, a room full of Tony’s suits, with a picture of Pepper on a stand. You had to look at the map in your e-mail again, as the compound was so large you were constantly getting lost. The closer you moved towards the pool, the more tense you became. You were imagining Steve, of course, dripping wet. Fuck, your poor heart.

The hallway finally led into the training are of the compound, and you were able to sneak a shot of Wanda calling red sparks to her hand. You finally came upon the wall of glass that separated the lap pool from the hallway, and saw him, in the center lane, streaking through the water effortlessly. You took a shot, admiring the way the muscles in his back rippled under the light of the sunroof, lingering slightly on your cursive Words on his left arm: you too, captain. When he reached one edge, he flipped and began his journey to the other side. You wondered how many hours he could do this for.

“The Captain is tireless,” a voice from behind you answered your thoughts. The thick accent and masculine tone belonged to Pietro, who was exiting the leisure pool, pale skin sprinkled with pink spots from the harsh chlorinated water. Around his waist was a white towel, sitting low on his hips. Pietro smirked at your tinged pink cheeks and extended his forearm, where a scribble of loops and coils stretched from elbow to wrist.

“Wanda,” he shrugged, “It cannot be changed.”

The young man traced the stripe with his finger, following its arches lovingly. You watched him, your own hand coming up to touch the Words on your left arm before reaching with your thumb to your chest.

“You are thinking of how you can be with two?” Pietro asked as your expression grew sullen. “Why is it so bad, ah? There are two meant to love you… like my sestra is meant to love me.” You studied his words as he began to walk away and as if his he couldn’t leave you with any less to reflect upon, he quietly added,

“You never have to wonder, it is… wonderful.”

Then, as instantaneous as his arrival, he departed, tearing away in a streak of blue-gray.

You turned the words repeatedly as you absently watched Steve pulled himself up on the edge of the lap pool, back and shoulder muscles contracting to lift his body out.

The Captain was shaking the water out of his hair and grabbing a nearby towel. He was tense, frustrated, and you could tell by the way he scrubbed his head crudely with the cloth before descending it upon his face. God, he was going to rub the skin right off himself. You paced in the hallway, overwrought with feelings, groaning when the tension in your chest rose again. Pietro’s words lingered in your mind: There are two meant to love you. You never have to wonder.

He was right, wasn’t he?

Your heart wouldn’t stop hammering. Tears were threatening to well up again as you thought about the gravity of his statement. The mysteries of the heart were as inexplicable as the depths of space, perhaps, but in this moment, some things need not an explanation. Did Steve and Bucky love you? You were afraid to admit it.  But would they be? No. Not at all.

Did you love them? No. Not… yet. But could you love them? You didn’t know.

It wasn’t as simple as everyone else made it seem, and you knew better than the fairy tales you’d been fed growing up. Sure, the ritual made it easy to fall headfirst into the Binding. The strain of separation was easily remedied by the relief of intimacy, but your heart needed more than a command to be attached. The promise of eternity wasn’t as sweet as it seemed on the surface. It was truly an expectation, a domination of your independence. You couldn’t submit yourself to that so easily.

The glass door had shifted open behind you while you frantically palmed your sternum to calm your heart, unaware of Steve’s approaching form until his cold hand touched your back. He called your name, worriedly.

“You’re here? Oh, please don’t cry,” he insisted, pulling his hand back in case it offended you once he saw your wet eyes. He had changed back into sweatpants and a dark blue shirt, but otherwise he was barefoot and still wet. “I.. Are you staying? Can you stay, baby?” At the sound of the pet name, you couldn’t hold it in anymore. Once again, the tears rolled down your cheeks, but you quickly wiped them away and nodded. Steve dried your face with his large fingers, then putting your hand in his again, as if it was already a habit, he led you down the hallway.

You fumbled with your camera as you walked in step with him, having to let go to put the device back in its bag. You were surprised when you reflexively placed your hand back into his, fingers intertwining effortlessly. The flurry of your heart was heating your entire body. Steve’s hand felt so warm.

“Has Bucky seen you yet?”
“Yes, he’s got my bag.”
“That’s good. He’s been wanting to see you.” You walked in silence for a little while longer, nothing but the sound of his feet and your shoes passed between you. Minutes felt like an eternity as you made your way down the long hall. His thumb would graze up and down your own, and sometimes he would squeeze your hand tighter, as if to remind himself that you were indeed there. There wasn’t much that could stop your breath from quickening every time he glanced back at you.

“Steve?” You inquired.
He hummed in response, slowing his pace.
“Steve… is love…” You tried to find the right words, desperately trying to avoid being a cliché. “When do you know it’s real? How do you know it’s real?”

He stopped in front of a door. It must have been his room at the compound.

“Sweetheart,” he said softly, cupping your cheek. Your face flushed at the contact, but the temperature of his hand subsided the flare. His blue-green eyes searched yours, “Love is a choice that you make. It can be a rush, it can be overpowering, passionate, quick, scary… but when all of that falls away, in the end it’s up to you to commit. The real thing is a commitment.”

You were hushed, comforted by the resolute response. He was placing the power in your court, trusting you with making the choice of loving him. You felt overcome with fondness for the man in front of you. The connections of soulmates were so often posed as these whirlwind feelings, fervent desire and emotions that overrode thought, leaving in their wake the compulsion of being with The One. But Steve wanted to place you in the eye of the storm instead, showing you the serenity love could offer. It was up to you to move with it.

He turned the handle, pushing the door open and walking you into the darkness of his room. It was a large open space with a bed in the center next to his dresser and a computer desk on the far left. On the opposite end was a sofa couch next to a lamp and bookshelf. Bucky was seated there on one side, under the light of the standing lamp with a book. Your backpack was faithfully at his feet. Steve kissed the back of your hand before letting it drop.

“Do you mind keeping Bucky company? I’ll be back. Can the three of us have lunch together?” You replied with a nod, feeling the butterflies in your chest settle with his retreating back. You touched the hand he’d kissed before making your way to Bucky. Steve slipped away into the attached bathroom. The shower turned on as you took a seat on the other end of the couch, giving Bucky some space and putting down your camera bag. He was focused on the novel in his hand, but his eyes weren’t moving at all. Minutes passed.

 

“You let him kiss your hand,”

You froze. It could have been an accusation coming from anyone else, but you were puzzled that Bucky’s tone was more apathetic. Almost cheerful?

“I’m not jealous,” he placed the novel sideways on the bookshelf, not bothering to put it back in its proper place. This statement was slightly more loaded than the previous one.

“Can I kiss you too? Your hand, I mean,”

You thought you were going to faint. It was too much. Other than Nathan Young’s guileful grip on your upper thigh when you were 18, you had never been the object of anyone’s romantic affection. Bucky turned his body to face you, scooting closer and placing the elbow of his metal arm over the back of the sofa and one leg up, bent, knee pointed. You felt bewitched under his gaze as your right hand shakily reached up to him in an offer.

Super Soldiers ran hotter than most, but Bucky was an absolute inferno. He gradually brought it up to his lips while dipping his head. The side of his hair that was unkept by his ear hung like a fringe over his face and his electric gaze remained on you as he pressed your hand to his lips in the same spot Steve previously kissed. Both your eyes slipped shut with thunderous exhales.

He moved to your knuckles, content to leave them there over the first and second joint before marking a damp path across all four. Then he journeyed down, fingers travelling appropriately over each of yours to give his lips more surface. Your ring finger was kissed, then the tip of your pointer, then your thumbprint was against his hot mouth. You gripped his hand in reflex, body shaking with anticipation. He breathed a heavy sigh on your thumb before dashing his tongue across it in a slow and demanding lick.

A whimper escaped you without permission followed by a series of brief pants. You tried to recall your breath but it was no use. Your body quivered for more of his touch. Bucky watched you in anticipation, making no further move unless you allowed it. His pupils were blown wide, mouth open, breathing heavily though his nose. He groaned when you slid your thumb over his bottom lip, turning your hand ever so slightly to catch his clefted chin in your palm.

It was an exercise in control, if nothing else. Bucky wanted to strip you bare and press every inch of his body onto yours. His mouth hungered to taste your neck, shoulders, belly, lips. Christ, anywhere and everywhere if you’d let him. His throat was parched as you explored his mouth with your thumb, pressing the pad onto his eager tongue. He sucked hard on it, biting down gently to show you how much more he was willing to give you.

Your mind was blank. There was nothing else in your world except for Bucky’s mouth clamped around your finger. You hadn’t blinked in minutes. The nervousness you generally felt in your belly was nowhere to be found as you watched him watch you. Something in your brain was trying to coax the rest of your body to foresee the embarrassment this situation could bring- but it wasn’t strong enough.

When the shower stopped, neither of you knew. The door had swung opened and shut itself closed and you didn’t notice either.

“Keeping each other entertained, I see,” Steve was chuckling at the two of you as you stared intently at each other on his couch. Your thumb slipped out of Bucky’s mouth with a quiet pop and fell back into your lap. You bit your bottom lip, finally letting your eyes close in pleasure.

Your heart had grown so uncharacteristically quiet that you wondered if you were even alive anymore. You faintly heard the sound of Steve kneeling in front the couch and allowed his hands to wander in your hair. He was cradling your head like it was a grapefruit, you briefly mused. His thumb drew circles behind your ears as you shifted towards him and leaned into his touch, exposing your neck. One hand tugged the band out of your hair to let it cascade down your back.

“God…” you gasped. You were sure you were melting at this point, body becoming limp, and ready to run through Steve’s hands into a puddle on his couch.

Bucky modified his position on the couch closer to you, hand snaking its way under Steve’s arms to rub gently up and down from your throat to the dip between your collarbones. Your thighs squeezed tightly against each other involuntarily and you hummed at the friction between your legs.

“Does that feel nice, sweetheart?” Steve asked breathlessly, watching your chest rise and fall with each stroke of Bucky’s hand. You muttered something back neither of them could comprehend and they shared a satisfied smile with each other. It was intoxicating, the heavy atmosphere growing in Steve’s room from such simple touches. He knew what was on Bucky’s mind as they watched your lips part and close; he always knew what was on Bucky’s mind.

The soulmate affair could be complex with two. With three, it was like navigating a labyrinth in the dark. Steve watched your eyes slide open, blinking languidly, high on contact. Especially, he thought, when it involved someone completely inexperienced with love.

Even more so, he lamented, with Bucky, whose hand was beginning to act on it own.

Steve let loose of you gently with a sigh, propping you back to lean against the couch. He quickly removed Bucky’s hand, which was starting to route its way down your chest. Bucky scoffed and pulled away impatiently.

It was a moment before you were able to regain your senses, blinking as you took in the sights around you- Bucky to your right, Steve kneeling in front. You didn’t even notice he’d been shirtless the entire time, and the sight of him was making your stomach flip.

“I gotta go,” You sobbed drily, “I’m gonna explode,”

The boys laughed. Steve pulled you to your feet as Bucky followed behind. “Let’s get food,” he smiled once you were balanced. He took a shirt from his dresser and put it on, the fabric stretched taught over his chest. It took a few steps before you remembered how to walk, trying desperately to ignore the pooling heat in your core. There was a shroud lingering now and tension that had built was beginning to bubble beneath it. Strangely enough, you noticed, you were no longer nervous to be in their presence. It had been replaced by a different type of pressure.

The three of you fell into step beside each other once the door closed, with Bucky lingering behind only a little bit. While you weren’t looking, Steve pointedly inspected his friend, frowning at the stiffness rising from the crotch of his jeans. Bucky scowled but shoved his hands in his pockets anyway, adjusting the denim as much as he could. He didn’t care, he wanted you to see.

Steve stifled his exasperation. It seemed like his needs would have to be muted if he were to take on the mantle of controlling Bucky’s desires. As Bucky’s gaze found its way fixedly to your curvy bottom, Steve could feel himself resigning to that very reality.

He slipped his hand back into yours once more. At least he could have that.

Chapter Text

At 23, you were struggling to have a conversation about … it.

It was almost three weeks since your moment on Steve’s couch with him and Bucky. Their touches on your skin haunted you day and night, and it made your work at the compound significantly more difficult than you could have ever imagined. It was hard to find clarity under such zealous and watchful eyes, and the distance you continued to keep them at would eventually be thwarted. You had to ask Pepper for an extension on your assignment mid-May before it got too out of hand. She happily obliged, very understanding of your predicament. The deadline was extended indefinitely, but having no schedule threw you further off course.

In an effort to control at least your personal life, you allowed yourself to spend time with Steve and Bucky in small bursts, intent on not repeating another couch-event. They each had very different approaches of being in your presence, you found out. Steve was happy to accompany you to galleries and the store if he was already in town- which he often was whether it be by coincidence or intention.

You took walks with him through the park, had coffee together, read the paper, and laughed at the comic strips. You’d go to bookstores where he’d browse non-fiction and history while you showed him some of your favorite art books, teaching him about famous artists and their vision. Your conversations were light and full of laughter.

Once, he met you at a local bar and you discovered his passion for sports- one you didn’t share but were happy to appreciate. You didn’t even know the championship game was going on that day and in the middle of it it’d become so rambunctious (someone recognized him!) that the two of you had to run out before it could conclude.

 

Physically, Steve was rather indulgent of your reservations. He’d hold your hand in private and brush his fingers over your knuckles in public. More than the touches, it was his gaze that sent your blood rushing. He perfected that slow lingering sweep with his eyes. There was no fervent message to be analyzed behind those blue-green gazes—only a simple feeling. And that feeling he held for you was incomprehensible. It swept you away.

It wasn’t like you didn’t want to be physical or intimate because you loved the feel of the pads of his fingers and his callused palms. Or that smooth line of his winning smile, tilting upwards on one side. You constantly thought about those rough edges of Steve Rogers on your body.

It was rather that you were so fearful of crushing all the eggshells under your feet labelled “Steve and Bucky’s Tentative and Healing Friendship”.

Oh, you knew about The Winter Soldier and HYDRA. You’d gotten the quick and dirty version from Steve after your initial meeting with Bucky; the wipes, the assassinations, the complete and utter control they had on him for 70 years. The image of him in ice seared itself into your brain, the thought of them putting him up when they were finished using him killed you.

You weren’t just heartbroken, you were livid. You couldn’t help but take it so personally and you couldn’t quite explain why to Steve as you sobbed uncontrollably in the kitchen that morning except rasping breaths of goddamn it, oh god, Bucky. By the time Bucky returned from his run, your eyes were swollen and pink, bottom lip nearly chewed through.

You buried your face in his chest and whispered that you were happy to have him in your life and nothing else. There couldn’t be anything else yet. He was still raw, and you couldn’t tear him open any more.

 

Spending time with Bucky was significantly different, and a much more delicate task than Steve. He was hesitant to go into the city, a choice you understood completely so you never asked. Instead the two of you spent lots of time on separate sides of couches with tea and a book, careful not to sit too close. He’d gladly sit with a movie on while you worked on editing your many files.

After travelling for so long, you wanted to pick up your old hobbies again, so you started to make small meals at the compound. Bucky was hardly a cook by any means, but always seemed to know when you needed an ingredient from the cupboard and before you could fumble to reach for it, he’d have already set it next to your hand.

The conversations were short, and as you expected, he never divulged anything meaningful. After you had the talk with Steve, Bucky often sent you precarious glances, worried you might lash out because of his past. When you carried on as usual, the weight lifted from his shoulders.

Bucky was more physical, to say the least. He tried to respect your boundaries, but it wasn’t unlike him to push them from time to time. Unlike Steve’s tender gazes, Bucky stared intensely and openly. There were many a time when you’d look up from your book to see him on the other side of the sectional, staring straight through the pages and right at your face. His fingers would be tapping on his knee. When you’d finally see it and swallow nervously, he’d smirk and look back to his book.

Or you’d sit on the floor with your laptop open on the coffee table and Bucky would have silently moved from his supposed area on the couch to directly behind you. He’d lean over close, so that his breath would tickle your ear and ask you innocently about the picture you were working on. It never failed to send shivers up your spine and elicit wide, devilish grins from him.

It was his favorite game.
It set you on fire. 

And so it was that you attempted to balance your time with both men, as they navigated their own schedules of work, training, and rehabilitation.

You also tried to retain any semblance of your employment to Stark Industries.

You snapped pictures here and there, trying your best to maintain the illusion of your contract. There were some exceptional ones of the interior but photographing the Avengers themselves was challenging. Especially when it came to Bucky. He could sense any time you were in the room and strictly refused to ignore your presence. There were no candids taken of Bucky Barnes; he simply did not allow it. He never stopped staring at you.

At the end of May, you put the assignment on pause and decided instead to focus on the photos from your travels. Pepper kindly put up a room for you so you didn’t have to make the trip to and from the compound, but you were afraid that being in such close(ish) quarters with Steve and Bucky would lead to complications. She was very understanding at your hesitance and careful not to pry but left the offer open if you had any questions. You contemplated asking her, but in the end decided to save your queries for someone less motherly and more straightforward.

 

When you turned up at Natasha’s room, she hardly seemed surprised. She had two Irish Mules set on coasters on the small coffee table. You took a sip, licking your lips at the lime and ginger beer; she could really make a drink. It would have been bad to get drunk quickly and spill all your secrets, but there was something about her presence that was tossing out all pretense. You supposed the phrase, “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter” was especially applicable with Natasha.

The first query slipped out before you could catch it.

“Does it hurt?”

The right corner of her lips lifted, but her eyebrows raised in sympathy at your innocent question. It was a valid one, of course, and it was right of you to ask it. Natasha assured you that discomfort is normal at first since you’d never experienced it before- but that they both should be treating you respectfully, kindly, and lovingly. She restated that there was nothing wrong with taking it slow, finding your own pace and easing into it, and doing what you feel is comfortable.

When you told her you’d never kissed anyone before and that Bucky sucking on your finger probably didn’t count, she sputtered up a bit of her cocktail mid-drink. She didn’t specify whether it was because you’d never been kissed or if it was the... other thing.

“I don’t even know how it works. There’s two of them.” You’d been stuck on it all month. You’d have to decide in the end, and sure, maybe Bucky wasn’t jealous when Steve kissed your hand or when you’d go out with him but what if they started fighting about who got to do what with you. It wasn’t like they were each others’ soulmates. You complained to Natasha more freely at the end of your mug.

What if they didn’t like how you looked?! What if you were bad in bed? What if they got bored after seeking the physical aspects? What if that was all that became of your relationship?

She had listened to your rambling briefly but became determined to put a stop to the madness and set down her drink.

“You have to stop being so crazy, those two are closer than you or I can imagine. You might need to be convinced about the validity of being Soulmates, but those old boys do not. They have committed.”

There was that word again, you thought.

“And, if you’re so worried about your first kiss...” A single red brow raised itself high up her forehead, “I can show you. No more worrying about who kissed you first.” Natasha set her copper mug down with a definitive clink. It might have been the drink that was making you brave, or the desperation of wanting some relief to your constant distress, because you eagerly said yes. Natasha had brushed back loose strands of your hair with her hand and propped herself up on her knees. She hovered over you, letting her locks fall over your face.

“Is this okay?”

You nodded, captivated. You could feel your eyes fluttering as she lowered her lips to yours in a single tranquil movement. Her warm breath pleasantly caressed your mouth as she kissed you. Natasha’s lips were soft and full, velvety with every parting and descent. One hand came to cup your jaw, pulling you closer and deeper into her motions. You didn’t expect the sound your mouths made against each other- the smacking was half disturbing, half arousing.

She had seemed like a good kisser, but it was almost a clinical experience, whether it was because it was a learning moment from a friend, or if it was because you were so concentrated on memorizing Natasha’s actions, that made it not quite enjoyable as the movies tried to portray. There were no string quartets harmonizing in the background or doves flying, only the lax pulse of your heart in your own ears.

When she finally pulled away, you were expectant for another one; you wanted to learn. She cocked her head at your silence.

“How was it?”
You had thought about it for a second before answering truthfully, “Noisy...”

Natasha howled with laughter. When she gathered herself enough to speak again, her raspy voice was slightly a little more hoarse than usual.

“Kid,” she gasped, “The noises are the best part, trust me.”

The unexpected statement made your abdomen clench. You vaguely wondered what kind of noises Steve and Bucky might make, but hurriedly squashed them. Linger on that one for too long, and you’d burst.

After another half hour of fielding questions, she finally sent you back to your quarters with a flash-drive in hand, disclosing to you that it was her personal collection of “friendly” pornography- which made your entire body flush crimson. It was for you to watch, explore, fantasize about, and maybe get some ideas before the day arrives. Before opening the door, Natasha called your name sternly.

“Remember when I asked you if it was okay before I kissed you?”

You nodded.

“There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, they should be asking you. Porn does not capture all the real-life shit that happens during sex. There is nothing embarrassing about asking questions, voicing your needs and desires, and talking to each other. You’re not going to be awesome at it the first time. But you’ve got the rest of your life to practice.”

You thanked her sincerely. There was nowhere else that you were going to receive this kind of lesson and you really wanted her to know. Natasha shooed you out of her room, pointing to the flash drive gripped tight in your fist.

“Go rub out some good ones for me, okay?”

With a wink and playful slap on your ass, she promptly kicked you out but not before deftly tucking a flask of whiskey under your arm. You shoved the deviant things as deep into the pocket of your jeans as possible and wandered to the guest room Pepper had set up. You often took naps in there, and it would have been a better idea to go home, but you were strangely eager. Bucky and Steve were in the shooting range this evening, so you hoped they’d be fully distracted with loud gunfire and not sniff you out with 100 gigabytes of porn in your pocket.

 

Once safe in the comfort of the room, you tentatively launched a window on your laptop, headphones jacked in, one bud hanging loose. Your door was locked all the way, and you had wiggled the handle thrice just to be safe, satisfied when nothing budged.

 

Natasha’s files were categorized into multiple folders and subfolders. You made a mental note to thank her for such thorough and thoughtful placement of the videos, sorted and titled by extremely efficient keywords. She had a deliberate folder of multiple threesome videos, just for you, and you promptly decide to never bring it up any of it. Reading the titles alone made your legs tingle; your mind couldn’t help but automatically fit Steve or Bucky in the fantasy.

You fired up the first video, reaching over to the small nightstand to inhale two fingers of whiskey for good measure. It burned your insides going down but became a relief when it took your mind off the fire in your cheeks at the performance unfolding on your dim screen. Once again, your brain replaced the two male actors with your respective soulmates, and yourself as the woman sitting in the middle of the bed.

Of course you’d masturbated before, you weren’t a nun, for crying out loud; some bodily tension could only be relieved in a certain way. And it just so happened since the Binding, you were in the habit of doing it much more, anyway. It was difficult to spend all day with Bucky’s burning gaze and Steve’s feather light touches and expect yourself to immediately fall asleep...

Your phone lit up as two large hands caress the actress’ shapely thighs.

Tony’s face blinked on the screen. You ignored it, concentrated on thick fingers peeling the flimsy material of a lacy bralette down. Open-mouthed sloppy kisses begin between the woman and the man on the left as the one on the right cups the breast closest to him in a firm hold. You imagined a ghostly touch on your own chest and shuddered. One hand imitated the actions between the woman’s legs: feather-light touches interspersed with solid grips. The tickle creates chills that crawl all over your skin.

Tony face blinked again on your phone.

You fixed your posture against the headboard of your bed and flexed your legs, straightening them for a more relaxed pose. Your palm traced over the slope of your thighs as they dipped into a valley in the middle, slowly you brought your other hand to your chest, following the line of Steve’s Words. Bucky’s eyes flashed in your mind when one of the men catches the woman’s fingers in his mouth in a hard suck. The woman’s free hand and palms the opposite man’s crotch, rubbing slow circles around the tent in his jeans. He sucks in a low hiss of air and groans lightly, a profane word wiggling its way out of his mouth. In your left ear, it sounded like Steve.

F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s voice filling the room sent you into shock.

“Mr. Stark is requesting your presence in the living quarters.”

In a panic, you slammed your hands down on the keyboard of your laptop multiple times, silently screaming when the headphone jack falls out and there’s moaning repeatedly being paused and played in the darkness of your room.

“How does he--”
“Mr. Stark had me do a sweep of the rooms to find you.”
“F.R.I.D.A.Y.!!”
“Mr. Stark does not know what you are watching.”

You grumbled, accepting the interface’s comment. Sometimes it was hard for you to remember that she wasn’t an actual person since she so often responded in very human ways, including predicting your source of embarrassment. You flopped down on the bed, muffling your face in the soft comfort of your pillow, catching the smell of your whiskey-sour breath.

“Please tell Mr. Stark I’ll be coming,”

“That's an interesting choice of words, ma’am.”

Another scream was muffled in the pillow before you trudged your body out of the guest room.

 

 

As soon as you stepped foot into the gathering space, a tiny firework was popped in your face, colorful confetti flying from it into the air and scattering itself in your hair. You shrieked, naturally. There were some cheers and whooping from those in the room: Steve, Natasha, and Pepper. Your heart was pounding in response.

“Hey kid! Congrats! I got some news for you.” Tony beamed widely, slapping both hands firmly on your shoulders, “What is that, whiskey? Do I smell whiskey? Good shit, too. What is that? You drinkin’ Yamazaki?”

You cleared your throat and pressed your lips together firmly, hoping Tony would get the message, eye catching Natasha’s cat-like grin in the process. He clucked his tongue before pointing to the wall to your left where an e-mail was being projected. You briefly glanced it over as the room watched on, flicking bits of neon plastic from your head.

The e-mail thread was between Tony and Kristopher Byrne, the former director of the Museum of Modern Art, singing your praises. Your eyebrows raised higher and higher the further down the e-mail chain you went, and eventually it felt like they might fly off your face altogether. Byrne was pushing meeting you, possibly having a dinner together, possibly a position of employment with a local university or being a permanent fixture at one of his private galleries.

There was a choking noise you were vaguely aware of coming out of your mouth- and it wasn’t from excitement.

There was a reason you didn’t pursue a higher degree in the Fine Arts. There was a reason you only gave phone interviews, hardly showed your face, never entered your work in museums, and ran all over the world instead. You hated the attention and the culture of rubbing elbows with the upper crust. Yes, having a secure and stable income is nice- but that was already fulfilled by being employed by Stark Industries, and you never really needed more than that.

“I really appreciate it, Tony,” you began gesturing to the screen, hoping to not offend him, “But you don’t have to do this on my behalf.”

Tony put a hand over the ACDC logo and dimly glowing light on his chest, “I love nepotism as much as the next guy, trust me, but I did not schmooze him, he schmoozed me. He schmoozed me a lot, kid, and it was to get to you. He’s been asking about you for years.”

“Can you stop saying schmooze?” Pepper called, raising her hand primly, “You make it sound so gross, Tony.”

“Look, he just wants to have dinner. With you. And some friends.” Tony shrugged, as if the lift of his shoulder could so easily discard the rest of the statement hanging in the air. You knew that Kristopher Byrne did not just want to have dinner.

“What kind of dinner?” Bucky piped from the background. You turned your head to him, lingering in the back; he must have just come in after a shower. His wet hair was tied into a low knot at the nape of his neck, a few strands hanging loosely. You tried to hide a smile at his protective questioning.

“And what kind of friends?” Steve added, arms now crossed as he sat down on the couch.

Natasha gave a knowing look to Pepper as if to communicate that Tony couldn’t hide his agenda with both Bucky and Steve at his heels. Throwing his hands up he rolled his eyes with a histrionic lament, “Wow. You overprotective geriatrics really suck the fun out of my life, you know that? Great. Cover’s blown, F.R.I.D.A.Y.! Give me the real deal.”

The projection against the wall was hastily replaced with a different e-mail chain, one that very specifically requested a formal show of your most recent work post-travels, as well as a special request for never-before-seen Avengers portraits. You released a loud, disappointed groan, taking two big steps to the wall and jabbing your finger at the mass of text.

This is why.” You ran your pointer under the phrase “black tie event and shook your head. “This isn’t my life, Tony. It’s your life.”

“Yeah, I thought you’d say that.” You felt set up. His abruptly somber tone meant that he was about to drop some shit on you that would change your perspective.

“This is my life,” Tony began, pausing for effect before taking two fingers and waving it broadly over the room, making sure to catch Bucky and Steve in his radius. “And it’s their life, too. You think Cap’s not obligated to formal events? He’s a national treasure, kid. And Winter Dead-Eyes over there is America’s new Redemption Sob Story.”

Bucky growled, but was quickly silenced by the outline of Steve’s turning profile.

“You’re Bound to them; you can’t wander the world at your whim anymore. This is a golden opportunity dropping into your lap. One black-tie event with Byrne gets your foot in a lot of doors. He’ll make you a permanent faculty member at Tisch in two years if that’s what you want; you’ve got the clout- whether you like it or not.”

The whiskey was making you a little agitated, and it felt like Tony was cornering you into a pocket you weren’t ready to face. These types of decisions required time and deliberation, and twenty minutes ago, you were barely choosing when you were going to have sex in the next week.  

“And if you’re so adamant against nepotism, how do feel being employed by me?”

“Are you saying you continue to employ me because we’re friends?”

“Aren’t we?”

He really did corner you. If you answered no, it would have been too cruel to everyone. If you answered yes, then you’d be a hypocrite, and there would obviously be no reason for you not to take the offer other than the fact that you didn’t want to. Regardless, Tony had a valid point: you couldn’t keep floating. You needed to settle permanently in New York.

You put your face in both hands, feeling the heat rise from your neck. 

Steve stood up from the couch, “That’s enough.” The edge in his voice meant he was serious. He didn’t like seeing you distressed, but you waved him off, eyes still closed.

“I’ll need… time.” You thought your voice might shake, but it didn’t. Your brain was pumping out information that your mouth was glad to blather about, “I need at least a month. I need to work. I need to set up a studio space, I need equipment, need to find my printing guy… Where are we hanging them?” When your eyes opened, Pepper had her hands clasped together over her chest and Natasha gave you two thumbs up. Steve and Bucky, on the other hand, looked concerned.

Tony was grinning like a child in a candy store.

“Leave all of that to me, kid. Date’s set. Last Saturday in June, we’re doing it. Mazel tov! I love a good black-tie event, especially if I’m throwing it.”

-

You went home that night and slammed yourself into bed, tossing and turning for what seemed like hours. Your stomach was churning wrathfully, already expectant of the party. Everything felt like it was falling apart again. You had just barely come to the physical terms of having soulmates, taking small steps to ensure that you were treating them fairly and meeting their needs, yet it seemed like once again, the reality of being Bound was eclipsing your independence.

Steve’s words echoed in your head. It was a commitment. You needed to stay in New York and commit to him. You needed to commit to Bucky.

You picked up the phone when it vibrated and lit up with Steve’s face. A concerned murmur of your name passed through the receiver.

“Hey,” You replied, face pressed into your pillow.
“You okay? You left in a hurry.” He sounded relieved to hear your voice.
“I’ve got a lot on mind, I think.”

In the background was Bucky’s distinct mumble of “What’s she doin’?”
“Did ya get that?” Steve laughed, “Buck’s on edge.”

You shuffled yourself around the bed and snuggled deeper down, imagining the crinkle on Bucky’s forehead and matching crease of Steve’s eyes as he smiled. You suddenly missed them. There was something about the image of them sitting together purposely, talking to you, concerned about you, that opened the floodgates.

You let go.

Steve listened generously as you expressed your hesitations about presenting your work to Kristopher Byrne or any other elite art critic or connoisseur. The thing you dreaded most about art school was the jargon of “artspeak”, the constant performance of socializing with the right people in the right way to get an opportunity. After your solo exhibit of the Soulmate Series, you were so exhausted and disenchanted by the questions and feeling the need to defend yourself that you refused to enter any more exhibitions. It was why you chose to travel instead of pursuing a Masters or making your mark in New York.

Interviews were strictly phone-only for independent magazines or social media websites and you never showed your face. You didn’t want any attention that was not on your work, which was why you were so glad that Pepper was not only a great resume opportunity, but that she was extremely professional. The photos you took of the Avengers were posted for the public relations needs and you were credited only by name. 

“I just want to be a photographer,” you said, “I want to make images and talk about them in way that is digestible for ordinary people. I think photo is a great medium for that because it is so commonplace. Why is necessary to then jumble it all up with pretentious terminology? I want to take photos that are meaningful but even your grandmother could enjoy.”

Steve laughed.

“Okay, maybe not yours, specifically,” You chucked, “But you know what I mean. Photography is ubiquitous, I just so happen to have had also an education and know the theory and mechanics. And I’m lucky enough to work with you guys. But I’m not them. I don’t want to sell a picture for thirty-thousand dollars and have it put up in some guy’s house and never shown again.”

“Give ‘em hell!” Bucky’s voice rang in the background. You were surprised he was still there, listening. It made you happy that he was.

Steve paused, “I think you can do both.”

You sighed. He didn’t understand.

“No, no, listen to me. You can fight it, but you’ll need to be a part of it. You can’t change anything about the system if you’re running from the system. As much as you hate elitist jargon, you know it, and you can participate in it.”

Your brow furrowed, but Steve went on, “Get the faculty position, exhibit in galleries, gain that platform and then you make changes on that platform. Even if you just teach- imagine having 100 students a year that you can pass this to. What were the students like in your college classes?”

“Uppity.” You admitted. “We took such dumb photos and then would critique them in such meaningless ways. Sometimes a sink is just a sink. Sometimes it’s not, but when it is, it really is."

Steve laughed again; the example was lost on him. “Okay. Now what if your professors felt the same way you did?”

“We’d probably hate each other less and experiment more without second guessing ourselves.”

“Don’t you think you want to do that for other students, sweetheart? Even if it means that you’re in the thick of it yourself?” A smile was slowly forming on your face. It only made sense that Steve Rogers was such a revolutionary. It really was such good advice.

“Buck’s right, sweetheart. Go give ‘em hell.” In the background was a satisfied huff and a “Damn right!” for good measure.

“Anything else on your mind?” Steve quietly asked after a moment had passed between you, as if he’d forgotten his friend in the room, highly alert and intently listening, “Anything ‘bout us?”

You breathed a deep sigh, careful not to blow into the phone as you thought about your next words carefully. The anxieties for the show colluded with your anxieties for your future here. Steve knew that; he was only asking to be polite. “Mmm… It’ll keep me close,” You murmured, “That’s good, right?”

“I can’t decide that for you, sweetheart. That’s up to you.” There was a pause, the sound of something hitting the wall softly like a pillow, some fuzzy scratches telling you the phone was moving around, and Bucky with an irritated reprimand: “Wrong answer, punk!”

You laughed mirthfully, feeling your worries rolling off your body as you listened to Steve and Bucky quarrelling on the other end. It felt so natural that you couldn’t help but think maybe this was another good step in the right direction.

More and more each day you could imagine yourself having morning coffee with Steve, watching a movie with Bucky, cooking together, eating dinner, working side by side at the compound. Maybe you didn’t have to settle for brief fifteen-minute walks in the park, and maybe one day Bucky could talk to you about his demons. The three of you could exist together, as you were intended to.

 

At 23, you made up your mind to stay in New York with your soulmates. At 23, you were committed to Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.

Chapter Text

The following month passed by in a hurry, as your thoughts were dominated by the constant thrall of work. One month was truly not enough to prepare, but you knew the implications of waiting until June passed- those positions in the fall would likely not be available; June was late enough.

Tony eagerly sprang into action and helped you transform your guest room into a photography studio, begrudgingly folding to your “outrageous peasant demands” of simple lighting, and two solid backdrops. When it was fully set up, you held a meeting with the team and prepped them over procedure and your proposal. You spoke plainly.

The show to view your work post-travels was primarily a guise to get a glimpse into their lives more intimately; you were under no illusion that it was anything else but 1) a shrewd plan for elites to rub elbows with other elites and 2) an opportunity for you.

Honesty was the best policy, and you knew they would appreciate it.

“If you consent to have your posed portrait taken by me in a studio setting- something we haven’t done before, thank you. If you don’t, I don’t blame you or hold it against you. It can be unnatural, uncomfortable, and I understand. Be aware- these images will be auctioned off. They will not, however, be duplicated. They are single prints.”

“Please make me rich.” Tony grinned as he spun freely in the swivel chair, “I mean, richer. Please make me richer.” After a round of glares from the team, he fessed, “Oh fine. Yes, you’ll receive a portion of the payment. You greedy little assholes.”

It didn’t take much more convincing for everyone to be on board. You were eager to begin and spent the first few days of June taking note of the kinds of images you wanted from each member. You thought about the representation of duality of Avenger and “being” whether it was human, super soldier, or an enhanced- or in Thor’s case, a god. But in the end, you decided on listening to Bucky’s advice and give ‘em hell. They were going to play by your rules.

 

Halfway through the month, you were so engrossed in the work, you’d barely had time to spend with either Steve or Bucky. They were sweet enough to make sure you had plenty of coffee on your days at the compound and would try to call before bed if you were in the city. Other than the occasional dinners together and their own photo sessions (which you were adamant on keeping strictly professional-save for a very stubborn session with Bucky), you hardly saw them.

Steve was called away on a diplomatic assignment with Natasha in Paris on the 13th. You were happy to hear that he wouldn’t be in any foreseeable danger and a tiny bit glad that he’d be busy doing something other than worried about your sleeping and eating habits. By the 24th, everything was nearly complete, and the only thing left for you to do was buy a dress and set up for the night of. You felt like a pile of wet rags and had even lost a few pounds from the stress and exertion.

 

 

The morning of the 26th, Steve and Natasha landed at the compound, disembarking from the quinjet. You were taking the day off to find a dress in the city; Tony had given you his credit card. It was a tremendous gesture you wanted to refuse until he reminded you that truthfully, you were doing him just as big of a favor as he was doing you. He had even encouraged you to get a custom gown early in the month and even passed the message along to various designers, but you adamantly refused, reiterating once again that it was not about you. Tony would have to face the disappointment of being the only one in a custom-made ensemble.

At 11, while rifling through a rack of silk and lace beauties, you received a call from Bucky.

“Hey, you,” you smiled. He’d been texting you all morning, updating you on Steve’s jet lag.
“Can I come to you for lunch?”
You sucked in a deep breath. “Buck, you sure? I’m in Manhattan.”
“Yeah. Send me your location.”

There was no arguing with him when he made up his mind.

When Bucky arrived on 5th Avenue, he wore a black long-sleeve and jeans with his usual combat boots. You couldn’t help but smile at the classic cap and sunglasses combo as he plodded through the throng of tourists- looking very much like one himself. His hair was tied back to avoid sticking to his neck in the heat. He kissed your shoulder at the entrance of the store and you grazed his stubbled chin with a finger in response.

The walk to your favorite sandwich shop was relatively short, and Bucky let you lead the way, keeping a hand on the small of your back to keep you close. The two of you sat at the bar near the window after your food arrived and you let him know your surprise at his offer to meet you in the city. He shrugged it off as he took the sunglasses off his face.

“When I was on the run, I placed myself in different locations, but it was often smartest to hide in plain sight. Bucharest has a population of over a million people ‘n they’re so busy they don’t pay attention to much else; I don’t go into the city mostly because I don’t like it, hon’.” He took a bite of his sub and you did the same, snorting in delight when a bit of lettuce hung from his chin. Bucky rolled his eyes and sent you a lopsided grin before closing his mouth again over the sub, muttering. “You’re a punk.”

You felt laughter bubbling up in your chest as he swiped off the lettuce and flung it at you.

This was the Bucky you liked the most- playful, mischievous, still sweet in the center. Not to say there were parts of him you disliked, but you were careful with his more jagged pieces. The Bucky who scanned every room he entered, who always strapped at least three knives to his body, who scowled on impulse, who automatically put himself in front of you in response to loud noises needed more tenderness. The Bucky who texted you at three in the morning “just to see if you were awake” needed more tenderness, too.

The first time you woke up to one of those messages, you joked that he reminded you of a college boy making a booty call. Only after seeing him bleary eyed and on-edge did you ponder more deeply about it and ventured to ask if he had trouble sleeping because of nightmares.

He admitted he truly saw little in his dreams, but felt chasms that threatened to swallow him up, and the terror of that blackness kept him awake. You knew what awaited him in that blackness. Since then, you’ve always kept your phone on loud.

 

“Stevie got you a dress from Paris,” Bucky mumbled, wiping the corners of his mouth with a brown napkin, hiding the slightest hint of a smirk. “I don’t think it’s your style, though.”

You raised an eyebrow, sweeping bits of crust into the empty wrapper of your lunch. “Oh yeah? Steve picked it out? What’s it like?”

“It’s red. ‘S real nice, but it’s also red.”

You scrunched up your nose in concern. “Oh… I hope it won’t hurt his feelings if I don’t wear it.”

Bucky went to throw both of your crumpled trash piles away and returned with an understanding smile, “Nah. He’s a big boy. Party’s in two days, though. If you don’t find anything you’re gonna get stuck with it, hon.”

Sighing, you stood up and brushed off your shirt, “Yeah. I’ll look some more. I put a dress on hold earlier so if I don’t find anything else, I’ll go back to that one. Thanks for having lunch with me, Bucky.” You pulled absentmindedly on his shirt sleeve and tugged the wrinkles out of the elbow. Bucky took the opportunity to bend down and plant a kiss on your jawline, whispering that he missed you into your cheek. 

“I’m not leavin’,” he said, removing the sunglasses that were hanging from the collar of his shirt, “Haven’t seen you in days, doll. I’m not leavin’ yet.”

The definitive statement was punctuated by another one of his keen stares. You swallowed as his clear blue eyes flitted back and forth between your own, finally settling on your mouth as you nervously breathed out a soft “Okay”. Your heart swelled in your chest as he smiled. You couldn’t help but lovingly follow the sly arc of his lips across and up to those joyful creases you so adored running from his eyes. Happy Bucky was your favorite Bucky. You wanted to make him look like this all the time. You felt so terrible that you’d been so busy and avoiding him.

Impulsively, you reached up and kissed him on the lips.

It was quick, and you stood back flat on your feet, hand shooting up to cover your mouth. Fearfully, you took a chance to peek at him. The two of you stood there next to the window staring at each other for a few seconds before Bucky broke out into a wide toothy grin.

You flushed from head to toe. Your first kiss. In a sandwich shop. The banality of it all dawned on you and before you had the chance to say anything, Bucky broke the silence with a hearty laugh. Soon enough, you joined in, burying your face in both your hands. People were starting to glance over to the window and stare, so Bucky grabbed you by the hand and briskly stepped out into the street. He caught your waist to turn you to face him, pressing your back against the brick wall of the shop. The chatter of Manhattan whipped around both of you in the background, full of footsteps and yelling, honking, dogs barking, construction. Bucky Barnes held tight to your sides as if you might get torn into in the sea of people behind him.

Under the shade of his cap’s bill, you could hardly see his eyes, but the light illuminated his mouth, which was pressed into a thin line.

You squinted as sunlight fell over your face, “Buck?”

The intensity of Bucky crashing his lips to yours ripped the breath from your lungs. He stepped forward into your body, pressing his broad chest against you, flesh hand pushing your torso against his. In the middle of the sidewalk, he erased all the noise of Manhattan. You could only hear his breath on your mouth as he parted and returned again and again. Three deep kisses later, he let you go.

You gulped, heart stammering, lost completely in ragged breaths and desperately trying to ignore the eyes of passing strangers who’d witness your moment of public affection. You had seen this coming for a while now, but it was still a shock.

Ever since the day on the couch, you had been trying to avoid physical intimacy, but it had been difficult to experience growing closer with Bucky and simultaneously disregard his longing for your touch. He was always holding back, like a predator in the tall grass.

“I wanna do so much more than that…” He whispered in your ear. His voice was deep, and you could hear his throat clenching as he swallowed. The sound burrowed its way into your brain, sending currents scampering through your body.

Bucky ran his hand along your jaw, one final kiss landing on the shell of your ear as he muttered, “When you’re ready, I will. Come on, you lead the way.”

All you could do was nod in response as he guided you in front of him, one hand resting again on your back as you tried to stay calm in the crowd. In a few mere minutes, the street changed as you turned a corner. Your heart was beginning to slow down again.

“I’m curious, doll,” Bucky called from behind you, running a finger up and down the small of your back, “What color was that dress you put on hold?”

From the way his words sounded, you knew he was smirking. “It was black.” You swerved to the side to avoid a man pushing a stroller and Bucky followed suit. Craning your head back to see his expression, your heart sped up again either by his tightening grip or his subsequent praise:

“Atta girl.”

-

The last Saturday in June was the 28th. Pepper had demanded that you stayed at your apartment until the evening of, setting you up with a full-day spa appointment on Friday. According to her (and your very exhausted body) you needed rest and pampering before the big night. She also insinuated that Tony was being incredibly high-strung with setting up; he wanted it to be a surprise, and if you’d step foot on the campus before he was ready, he might completely “lose it Bridezilla-style”.

You’d been video-chatting Steve at night on the phone before bed since spending the day with Bucky. He was at first disappointed that you decided not to wear the dress he’d gotten you but ultimately understood why: red was a high-profile color. He sheepishly admitted that he was a bit old-fashioned, and was a sucker for women in red. It was cute. You suggested that he ask Natasha instead.

Your heart swelled any time his face came on the screen and you couldn’t help but stupidly grin every night into the phone. He told you about the trip and his desire to one day take you to the city, glossing over the details of the errand itself. You didn’t mind- it wasn’t your job, and you likely wouldn’t have understood its significance. He brought up how he was concerned at first that the distance would cause discomfort- but perhaps it was the consent to distance that changed the rules. You knew where he was going and accepted it, and so neither of you were pained by the separation.

“Maybe on the more peaceful missions, you might like to come with me? It’d be like travelling again, huh?” You agreed, eager to see another endearing smile break across his face. You loved the way Steve closed his eyes as he smiled, long lashes folding to graze against his raised cheeks- it was a habit of his, and it made you curious to wonder what he thought of during those blissful expressions.

After your long spa day you ended your night with another video call, feeling the excitement growing closer and closer, emboldened by Steve’s encouragements. More changes were coming on the horizon and you felt ready to face them. You were glad to have both men by your side.

 

Promptly at 5, Pepper sent a car outside to wait outside your apartment door. The invitation you’d proofread for Tony stated that doors opened at 6:30 with a cocktail hour and viewing period before any announcements were made. You would be giving a talk at 8, unveiling the main auction piece at the end and then there would be a bidding period before the night unwinds with dancing. The event supposedly ended at midnight, but you were sure that was Tony’s way of ushering out the guests. You weren’t going to assume he’d turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of 12.

Blotting on the final layer of your lip stain, you swept over it with a coat of high-shine gloss. Your make up was done simply: filled in, full, arching brows; barely-there contouring to emphasize your bone structure; peach blush; and a single smooth black line over both your eyelids. Your hair was brushed back and tucked behind your ears, flowing over your shoulder in neat waves.

You wanted to be sleek and able to blend in, with just a touch of red-lipped-conspicuous.

 

Stepping into the lobby, you felt as if transported into a different world. Tony had transformed the chamber into a flawless gallery setting with your photographs, framed and displayed along the perimeter of the open-spaced room. He’d put in wall panels here and there along with several benches where viewers could sit, arranging it perfectly to where there was plenty of walking space and room to mingle. Along the right wall was an elegant backlit bar manned by three sharply dressed bartenders with dazzling smiles. Close by was a stage with a band plucking a lazy acoustic tune in their warm-up routine, accompanied by a harpist. Gorgeous floral arrangements stood tall on pedestals, their sweet scent hanging in the air. Servers wandered casually, silver trays in hand topped with hor d'oeuvres and champagne.

The first few guests were arriving, picking up pamphlets from the stand near the door and meandering through the maze of photos. The team was scattered around the room, dressed beautifully, all smiles. Natasha hypnotized in the stunning red gown Steve picked out. It was striking with an elegant sweetheart neckline and brocade skirt. Pepper wore violet tulle. Wanda was smoldering in a lacy brown long-sleeved dress.

The men were simply dashing, in various dark suits offset by their own choices of silk bowties and shirts. Sam’s collar brooches glimmered- two mirroring silver wings clipped neatly to the points of his muted garnet shirt collar.

Halfway to the bar, you came face-to-face with Steve, who wore a fitted deep navy suit and dress shirt, complimented by a silk burgundy tie. His hair- which had grown longer since you’d last seen him in person was swept back and to one side. He was clean shaven for the event. You realized you were staring, but it helped that he was staring right back.

“You look...”

“Oh m...my” You attempted to finish the sentence for him. Steve laughed, shrugging one shoulder, the drink in his hand sloshing around.

“Not quite what I was going to say- but very close.” He paused, looking you up and down before sweeping you up in a one-armed hug and whispering in your ear “I’ve missed you so much. You look incredible.”

Once back on your feet, you smoothed the front of your black dress and shyly smiled in response, feeling your heart flutter. The snug gown was made of a satin blend, moving and shifting ethereally and just barely swept the floor. Two hair-thin spaghetti straps held it in place, crisscrossing over your back. The neckline was a darting V-shape, stopping just half an inch above Steve’s mark.

You’d convinced yourself to be calm and cool, playing the part of a professional artist giving a talk, but it was hard to not be giddy when Steve looked so damn good. His arms were practically bulging out from the sleeves of his jacket. And the lightly spiced cologne he wore was filling your head up with smoke.

“Where’s um, Bucky?” You ventured to ask, steeling your voice.

“Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.”

Bucky rolled the last ‘r’ into your ear as he placed his cool metal hand on your bare shoulder, middle finger drumming against the thin strap. You stirred at the temperature, burning against your back as he moved to your right side, smirking at Steve. They must have planned this, you thought, or perhaps brevity between old friends was enough to place them on the same dangerous wavelength. You felt like a fresh carcass, exposed under sunlight while two ravenous vultures circled overheard.

He was dressed completely in black, save for a blood-red pocket square neatly tucked into the breast of his suit. His hair was left loose, one side tucked behind his ear, and he donned his signature 5 o’clock shadow. He didn’t bother to cover his metal hand tonight, which made him all the more fearsome-looking. Bucky must have made it his mission to personify the word feral.

Half-lidded eyes drank in your figure, appreciatively scanning up and down before catching on your left bicep. “You’ve covered up your arm,” He noticed. “Why?” The was an edge of hurt he tried to hide.

The offending black cuff glimmered in the light. “Same reason why I didn’t wear the red.” You replied. You lifted your chin to regard Bucky and he raised his eyebrows in surprise at your declaration. 

Steve bobbed his head, just enough to share the message that he understood before plucking a champagne flute from a passing server and placing it in your grasp. You sipped and signaled to the entrance of the exhibit with your stiletto-encased foot, where Kristopher Byrne had just entered with a pamphlet and Tony Stark. “I’ve got to go say hi. Thank you for supporting me.”

It was a conclusive statement, and the thanks, although sincere, was a comment of courtesy to lighten the mood. You quickly squeezed both of their arms before stepping away, straightening your back and squaring your shoulders. The show had just begun, and you were expected to be engaged and conversing all night; you couldn’t kick it off with a lovers’ quarrel in the middle of the floor as much as you wanted to resolve the matter. Bucky would have struggled and there were, unfortunately, other pressing concerns.

The band began to belt out a tune, mellow and full of slow, savory notes. The lobby was half-full at this point, and more were waiting by the door. The boys watched you go, exchanging glances. Bucky was scowling.

“Don’t be like that,” Steve warned, “You got to spend all day with her, pal.”

“Don’t wanna talk about it.” He was being petulant, he knew. It was easier to be angry than to admit that his feelings were hurt. “Don’t lecture me, Stevie. Just wanna fuckin’ be with her. I’m tired of all this… shit.”

Steve chuckled into his glass as he took a sip, savoring the taste and looking at his friend through the curved angle of the rim. He’d experienced his fair share of Bucky’s seething tantrums; he knew it’d pass.

“Gotta admit, Buck. I liked seein’ ya miffed. You need a firm hand.”

Bucky scowled deeper at his friend’s cheeky comment as he watched your back make nice with a stranger. The itch inside of him was growing darker with every step you took away. He’d been good, played it safe and slow by your- and Steve’s rules, but every time it felt like you might scratch the surface of his desire, you’d backed off. Seeing his mark covered up on your arm only made it worse.

Sending Steve a pained look, Bucky quietly retreated to the bar.

 

Kristopher Byrne was a tall and lanky man with silver hair, fingers studded with multiple rings and designer glasses sitting low on his nose-bridge. The suit he wore matched Tony in embellishments, and it was obvious by that alone that they got along swimmingly. Immediately after introducing yourself to him, his solemn expression softened into an ecstatic one. He kissed your hand, raving about how he’d been a fan for years but that you’d always eluded his grasp. You immediately thanked him and asked if he was ready for a stroll through the displays.

Byrne was very interested in the photos you’d taken in Russia, pausing to talk about the social unrest there regarding sexuality. He applauded your shots in Thailand, complimenting the rich colors of Chiang Mai and the quiet moments you captured.

You spent the next half hour walking through the photos with Tony and Byrne, chatting here and there with other guests who had questions. The information cards next to each picture was brief and explained a little bit about the image but hearing it from your point of view was much more valuable to them.

Tony set up the exhibit to first show your Peculiar Pairs series from the travels before introducing the Avengers photos. The range of colors started at full spectrum and highly saturated with your travels before slowly changing into the black and white portraits you shot of each member.

Upon entering the space of black-and-white portraits, he was greeted with a three-by-four-foot framed photo of Steve in stark lighting. He stood in front of a black background in a white t-shirt, looking into the distance as a bright halo illuminated him from behind, catching the fine contour of his lashes and the tip of his sharp nose. The features of his face were lit by another light in front. His expression was almost angelic with parted lips and the barest hint of a smile.

Byrne’s eyes widened as he regarded it, eager to uncover more information about the man captured in the image. The info card in the corner simply read Steven Grant Rogers.

You watched on as Byrne rotated himself around the frame, pondering deeply at Steve’s aspects. Tony smirked and made a snarky comment about how he hoped Byrne was this excited about his own picture.

“Captain America,” Byrne finally exhaled, “Looks like … someone you could sit next to on the subway. Wow. Fantastic.”

You thanked him. Perhaps it was your bias speaking, but you casually mentioned that it was one of your personal favorites. Tony stifled a barking cough.

Byrne led the way down the path, soliciting your process with each session. You were tight-lipped but let loose of what was necessary to keep him interested. It didn’t take much; there was nowhere else neither he nor any other guest could find a close-up portrait of Natasha wrapped tight in a bathrobe, hair wrung-dry and damp, chin resting on her fist, making such fierce eye-contact as if challenging the gaze of the person who’d caught her in a private moment.

Or Tony, a face well-known to smirk, sneer, and blow kisses, suddenly severe and deep in thought, tinted glasses hanging from his teeth.

Thor grinned behind a half-empty glass of beer in his portrait. Sam was reading a book. Bruce was cutting up a breakfast of an omelet and potatoes.

Bucky’s photo elicited gasps from Byrne as well as the crowd he’d started to draw around him. The session you had with him was rather difficult, since he challenged you at every turn. So many images from your roll you’d deemed too stern, an aspect that you didn’t want captured of Bucky. The Winter Soldier was grim and ominous. Bucky, your Bucky (as hesitant as that statement was), was not. You refused to let him resign himself to the Soldier’s shadowy persona, especially not after knowing just how bright he could be.

It had taken almost two hours of careful conversation for him to let you turn off the lights and put on music. You chose to play one of your favorites- a collection of Bill Withers’ essential hits, letting the suave compositions fill the room. He was ready to argue when the first few notes came on, but you strictly shook your head and brushed out his hair with your fingers before moving on to massage his tense neck. Jagged edges, you chanted in your head, take care of those jagged edges.

It was an intimate moment from anyone else’s point of view- but you were so occupied with ensuring a good photo, you had willfully ignored all signs of pleasure from your subject. He leaned into your touch the harder you pressed, and when you reached down the round collar of his black shirt to feel the muscles of his back, he had started panting hard and fast.

You asked him to freeze and quickly ran back to snap a few shots. Then, certain you’d gotten what you needed, you ushered Bucky out of the room with a short apology before anything escalated.

The resulting photograph was Bucky’s side-profile leaning back on the palms of his hand on a stool, grey background blurred and out of focus. The collar of his shirt was stretched and warped around his neck under dense wavy hair. His eyes were half open, distracted by something in the distance, lips closed, corners turned down in a wanton pout. The muscles in his arms were thick and contracted as he gripped forcefully on the seat. There was a fuzzy shadow cast over him, just enough to obscure a corner of his shoulder and clenched jaw.

The card read, James Buchanan Barnes.

Kristopher Byrne clapped and ran the back of his hand over his forehead.

“This one… just takes my breath away. This is really Sergeant Barnes? The Winter Soldier? He looks so helpless… So unlike the image I have of him.”

You searched across the expanse of the room to find the sergeant in question. Next to him, Steve firmly patted his shoulder as they watched you stand beneath Bucky’s picture. With a slight swing of your hips, you unflinchingly moved on.

 

 

At 8, the band winded down their percussions and a spotlight found Tony at the center of the lobby, microphone in hand. Guests gathered around as he began to speak. Two workers wheeled out a display that was covered up by a black cloth.

“Everyone, may I please have your attention.” When the crowd settled down enough for his liking, he continued effortlessly. “I’d like to formally welcome you to the exhibition. The photographer of the night is a friend of mine; you might know her as the visionary behind the popular Soulmate Series and the subsequent Peculiar Pairs- wow, what a mouthful, huh?” A round of soft chuckles was raised.

You stood next to Natasha and Pepper, taking a final sip of your third champagne flute before handing it off to a server and thanking him. Your heart was picking up a rhythm in apprehension of your approaching time to speak. Tony was leaps and bounds more charming than you, and you could only hope you wouldn’t trip over your feet on your way up.

“She’s taken the world by storm with her humor, wit, and sensitivity on a subject we’ve all heard before, and continues to shed a novel light on Soulmates. To us here at the Avengers Facility, she’s our lovable Public Relations twerp, near and dear to our hearts.” He paused. You were positive you were tearing up as pinpricks burn your nasal passages.

“Please give a warm round of applause to the one, the only…”

Tony flourished his pointer finger over the crowd before finally settling on you, the spotlight zooming over to shine on the water pooling in your eyes. He finally called out a boisterous thundering of your name as the room erupted in applause.

 

The room blurred as you stepped towards Tony. Mechanical movements and muscle memory guided your actions when he gave you a loving hug and kiss on the cheek. The microphone was suddenly in your hands and you began to speak, praying for whatever god above (or here- Thor, if this might be your territory) to bless you with grace.

“Thank you everyone for coming out tonight. And thank you Tony and Pepper, who’ve made all of this possible for me.”

It felt like there were half a million eyes staring. You only needed to find your footing in four blue ones. Pressing onward, you continued, hoping the quiver of your throat would flatten itself out as you began to chronicle your body of work. It was a speech you’d given before in multiple interviews, you just needed a lead into the meat of the lecture.

 

“The photos you see tonight of the Avengers were taken with a simple message in mind: humanity. So often we regard them as these supernatural saviors- which they can be and frequently are; Thor, for one, is an Asgardian god.” The crowd lightly chuckled, and Thor, in the back, raised a sizable glass of wine in the air.

“I didn’t want to create more cults of personality around them, I wanted you to see the parts of them you could identify with, juxtaposing the abnormal with the normal. Your heroes eat breakfast, read books, take baths... just like you.” There was contemplation gazing back at you in the massive sea of unblinking eyes. Some people chewed on their lips pensively. Others were nodding along in agreeance.

“They hurt, like you.” You looked at Bucky, who met your gaze with a silent apology, “They love, like you.” You looked at Steve, who bit his lips in a smile. “They have soulmates, like you. And with that, we come full circle.”

You turned your body to face the shrouded display and pinch the cloth between two fingers.

“I’d like to start the auction period off with piece de resistance. As with all our photos tonight, when you bid on them, know that if won, they will be singularly yours. Forever. No duplicates will be made; the files have been destroyed.” Tugging on the sheet with a flourish, you swiftly pulled it off the polished stand to reveal a framed photo of the Maximoff twins. The discarded fabric tumbled to the floor with a flutter.

Pietro stood shirtless and defiant in the photo, black jeans hanging from his hips, the barest hint of his boxers peeking out. His body was smooth and hard, naturally flawless thanks to his inhuman healing abilities. Next to him, Wanda faced away from the camera in a black racerback, her head turned to regard her twin. Her hand drew a line across his chest, wrist relaxed on his far shoulder, polished black fingernails lovingly twirled a bleached curl. Their Marks were in full view, and the audience collectively sucked in a sharp breath of surprise.

“Wanda and Pietro Maximoff: Avengers, twins, soulmates.”

The room erupted once more in applause. You handed the microphone back to Tony and disappeared into the crowd.

 

You felt ill.

Clutching on the smooth marble countertop, you stared at your reflection in the bathroom mirror. The dim yellow lighting from the shell-shaped wall scone flooded the room and made you look even more jaundiced. You had held it together for a whole three hours but now it was time to dump your entire stomach’s contents into the closest toilet. You barely made it before the champagne and bits of cheese ejected violently from your mouth.

You waited briefly for the nausea to pass and when it didn’t you returned to discharge the rest of your vomit into the bowl. In the stall a few spaces down, someone flushed before cautiously exiting. Three clicks of footsteps closer and there was a very light knock on the door that separated you from them.

Wanda stood over you, eyebrows tightly knitted in concern. She hoisted you up and the toilet flushed automatically upon registering movement. You wobbled to the counter again, opening the various cabinet doors before finding some mouthwash to gargle.

“Can I help you?” She asked, taking a cloth napkin from the wicker basket in the middle and dabbing around your red mouth after you’d spit into the sink. You sighed deeply, holding your hand over your torso. “It’s been a long month… that was actually more cathartic than traumatic.” She nodded in support.

You took the napkin from her and viciously wiped off the lipstick with it, peppermint smell lingering from your mouth. Your eyes began to focus and un-focus competitively and ghostly trails of color floated all around your head. Wanda followed your gaze with her eyes before pressing a warm palm to your temple.

“I can take it away, if you’d like,” she held up a splayed hand, fingers crackling with that ghostly energy of hers. Exhaling, you only nodded as she returned the heel of her palm to your forehead. A rush of tingles traveled up your body and into her hand, and you feel every inch of your skin crawling towards her. You’d forgotten how exhausted you’ve been for the past month as your head throbbed and ached against Wanda’s touch, mumbling what you hoped was a sincere-sounding thanks. 

When she’s finished, Wanda lifts up your head with her finger and smiles. “All better, no?”
When she walks you into the lobby, you feel yourself renewed with each step.

-

Steve thinks he can find you in any universe out there. Any timeline. Any dream. He’s got the shape of your body branded inside his brain. Every eyelash, every fine line, every damn pore.

When you cross the room with Wanda on your arm, smiling, he notices the lipstick has been rubbed off and your mouth is pink and raw. When you catch sight of him watching, Wanda departs gracefully and whispers into your ear a sweet note, wishing you a fruitful night onward. Your mind stills at her words, and your heart picks up a slow, steady beat when your feet end up in front of Steve at the edge of the room.

Steve knows he can.

He bends over to pull a lock of wavy hair into his hand and kiss it. The room is silent, conversations have long muted because of auction taking place. You’re no longer present, long gone from the party and adrift only in the blue-green sea of his gaze.

Steve allows the strands back onto your shoulder and they cascade over your back. He lets the scent of clean shampoo and something that is purely you wash over him. The crisp smell of seafoam and orange peels, summer rain, warm laundry in the sun. There’s a sheen layer of sweat in the dip of your neck that he’d love to get a mouthful of. The flame in his chest triggers.

He’ll have to thank Wanda later. Your posture is the most relaxed he’s seen you all night. The stiff square shoulders and domineering gait was a side of you he hadn’t seen before, a sight he couldn’t help but feel proud of as you commanded the room. However, he loved the natural you in front of him now most.

He doesn’t have to hear your words to know how you feel, but listens anyway.

“Thank you,” You smile, looking only at him, vaguely gesturing to the room full of people. Your voice has dropped low and earnest and you squeeze his hand just a little bit before anyone else sees. “I... I couldn’t have done this without you. I would have never done it.”

He nods and bows his head ever so slightly, peering at you through lashes. “I’m happy to have helped. You know that, sweetheart. I know you’re capable of so many great things… I’m glad you’re feeling better.” He rubs the edge of your mouth with a finger.

“Yeah.. I guess you’re used to seeing me like this, huh?” You giggle, embarrassed and remembering all the times you’ve thrown up because of his presence.

“I think even then, I had a feeling. Just… too afraid to come forward. After I learned how to use a computer…” He’s smiling at the memory, “..I used to spend all night looking at your photos… trying to find a picture of you somewhere.”

The thought of Steve, back then, already captivated by anything to do with you causes your breathing to pick up. You suck in air through your nostrils quickly as if you might be suffocating. A long moment passes as you pinch your bottom lip between your teeth.

“Honey?” He asks with a smile. He knows what’s coming.

You’re spellbound in his gaze, trapped like a moth, wings already soldered off by the flame.
“I’d like to stay the night, I think. With you... and … B-Bucky.”

Steve plucks your hand from your side and kisses each knuckle. “Of course. Tony already said he’ll handle the rest of the show and paperwork. Let me know when you’re ready to go. We’ll take it slow.”

It’s a promise, and he doesn’t have to wait for your next words to know what you want. But he does so anyway. He needs to hear it.

“I’m... ready now.”

When Steve slips his hand over yours and feels the familiar pulse of your thumbprint, he knows. In this universe, this lifetime, or the next, or the next after that, he’d be able to find you. He is yours; you are his. With every step, he lets the fantasies he’s been occupied with disperse, focusing his attention solely on your figure at his side. The hallway muffles the sounds of the party and each step grows louder as you depart hand-in-hand.

 

In the darkness of his room, your Soulmate kneels and unbuckles the strap of your stiletto, letting his fingers graze over your feet. He’s meticulous as he slips them off one at a time before trailing those calloused palms up your calves underneath the dress. The silky cool fabric brushes his knuckles, a stark contrast to the heat of your skin. You’re trembling against his hold as he continues upward, resting them on the back of your thighs, squeezing gently.

“Sweetheart, you’re shaking.” He presses two kisses to the top of each thigh underneath the dress. His hot breath sends tingles slinking upwards into the pit of your core. “We can stop any time. We can stay in bed together and just sleep. I’d love that.”

You shake your head and place your hands over his, pulling them up even higher, over the apex of your bottom, brushing over your underwear, and catching in the tightness of the fabric. The motion is all he needs, and Steve deftly reaches up to untie the knotted bow at the small of your back.

 

The gown falls off your shoulders and pools at your feet.

Chapter Text

Before Bucky even reaches the room, he can smell it in their air. That musky, damp, briny tingle passing through his nose and into his lungs manifests inside as a single spark, igniting the kindling of his nerves. As he steps into Steve’s room and locks the door with a click, the image in the darkness, illuminated by a single moonbeam from the window and a yellow glow from the bathroom light, turns the saliva in his mouth into ash. He tries to swallow the feeling away, but it catches in his throat at the sight.

You are straddling Steve’s thigh, sitting on your knees and moving against his thick limb in slow orbits. Bucky sees your bare back, blooming with spots of pink from exertion, your hair is swept to one side, the roots at the nape of your neck slightly damp with sweat. The cuff on your arm has been long discarded, his scrawling handwriting is peering back at him, and his chest swells with satisfaction. The underwear sitting against your hips is still there but does nothing to keep the slickness between your legs at bay. Steve’s thigh is moist from it, and it catches a shine in the light.

Bucky thinks about how he wouldn’t let a single drop go to waste, half out of his wild mind to lick it off Steve.

He’d watch you go earlier, subtly exiting from the far corner of the room, but he was in the middle of a conversation with Wanda and Pietro, brushing up on his Russian. The Twins noticed too and may have kept him longer on purpose. He was impatient, at first, but decided to wait it out, letting you and Steve get comfortable.

 

He undresses as he crosses to the bed, dropping shoes, jacket, shirt, belt, and pants off haphazardly. Each step feels like quicksand, but Bucky pushes against the heaviness of the room with his entire being. He’s already rock-hard in anticipation.

You turn to face him, features a mask of confused pleasure and elation, still churning as Steve traces your outline with his finger.

“Mmm... Hm. B-bucky.” His name comes out in a tumble from your kiss-bruised lips. There’s a split second when you seem to realize where you’re at and shift cover yourself, but Steve distracts your arm with a flurry of kisses, earning a thrilled giggle in response.

“Glad you’re here, pal.” He mumbles from in-between pecks to your wrist. You lose track of your thoughts in the fervor of his breath.

Bucky matches the two of you in attire; everything is completely shed save for the boxer-briefs already too tight on his groin. He crawls onto the bed, knees dipping with each movement until he’s sitting to your right, hand landing on your waist. He’s in awe as he watches you slow down, distracted with his presence, unsure of who to pay attention to.

“Don’t stop for me, kitten. Let me watch you come.”

His eyes trace over your breasts as they move to your rhythm. A trail of marks have already been placed in the valley between them, over Steve’s Words and under each swell and Bucky licks his lips at the thought of copying the path with his own tongue. He does so, tasting the soft bite of salt from your skin, leaving his own long stripe of saliva in the wake. You purr when Bucky clamps down on a nipple, tongue swirling whirlpool shapes round and round.

Steve grips your waist and moves you from his leg. A whimper escapes before it turns into a gasp as he turns you around to face Bucky, pressing your back to his chest, erection pinned against you.

“You call it, sweetheart.” Comes his husky voice in your ear. You know he means it completely. You are so small between them, but he’s putting all the power in your hands again. If you wanted to stop, they’d oblige, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

So you turn to kiss him for the fiftieth time, probably. Any effort to keep track of your lips colliding have been lost long ago. His nose brushes yours, tongues licking patterns on each other. It’s an unspoken allowance.

Big hands spread open your thighs to Bucky, who hovers in front. You watch him descend, eyes closing as his dark head dips low and he inhales the scent of you in deeply. They move in unison, as if knowing each others’ limbs and desires.

“Taste her, Buck.”

Steve’s command makes your skin prickle with goosebumps and you heave a shudder from your chest. Bucky uses his entire tongue as he runs it up the wet piece of fabric separating your center from him. He rubs his nose against your inner thigh before biting the meat of your leg tenderly. Then he returns to his previous post and continues to lick and suck the taste of you from the fibers of your panties. The noise- you vaguely remember Natasha praising this part- the noise of his mouth is unraveling your mind. Smacking and soft grunts, appreciative, low, stifled in your flesh.

You’re groaning and whining, adding to the cacophony of sound, rolling your core into his mouth, hitting the wall of teeth, desperately needing more of it.

“Isn’t she sweet?”

“Mmm. The sweetest.”

His muffled reply is more than enough to send you careening into the abyss and you yank your underwear to the side in a frenzy. The swollen and slick little nub that’d been rubbing eagerly against Steve’s leg is hot and pink and slips back and forth against Bucky’s tongue one, two, three times before you come over his lips.

Steve fondles your breasts with his left hand, moving back and forth between the two, groping and twisting with sharp pinches. His other hand points south and smears the slippery fluids of your body all over your seam, sending shocks of electricity throughout you every time he catches your clit over a knuckle. Bucky devotes his attention to your knees with more kisses, trailing up and down your calf, hand massaging your foot. In tandem, they use their hands to peel the fabric off and Bucky sends it off over the bed without another sound.

 

Steve isn’t yet ready for you to come down. He’s watched his reflection in the absent gaze of your glassy eyes and knows just how good you feel. When you slipped out of that thin dress, he invoked a higher power to keep himself from jumping you on the spot. That ancient magic of being Bound had already gripped you tight in its fist as soon as you had let it 100 steps ago in the lobby. You’d given yourself over to only the movements of your flesh.

He remembers his first sexual experience as he slides his hand all around, sucking open-mouthed cries from your lips, grinding his body against yours. That dark night in his tent with a young lady named... he couldn’t even remember. A busty blonde girl from one of those USO tours. He’d spent weeks in this new body that was receiving more and more attention every day- way more than he’d ever dreamed of. He’d been raw and live ever since coming out of that capsule and when he reached climax with a hard yank of her hand, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Steve spent the last leg of the tour rutting into every nook and cranny of her body that she’d let him.

 

But this... this was different. This was coded into his DNA. Every hiss of air you exhaled lit him up. This was beyond space and time and reality. Way beyond the simple act of fucking. Steve is at worship, he thinks, and every inch of your body deserved more. His hard length is trapped between his thigh and your back in the velvety fabric of his boxer-briefs. Your hand travels absently to grip him, skimming up and down the ridges of the cloth, desperate to return his courtesy. Your other hand tangles itself in Bucky’s hair, who’s busy licking away the juices from your thighs. The three of you are a mess of sweaty limbs and ragged breaths. Steve smiles into the crook of your neck as excitement beats in his chest; it’s only the start of your night.

Another orgasm rips through you before the haze disperses and the boys allow you to catch your breath. You’re limp and throbbing on Steve’s palm and moan when he brings it to his lips. Bucky watches with a languid smile and continues kissing your hip.

“Doin’ okay, kitten?” the last word is muffled into your belly.

“Uh... I... Mmm...” You’re completely indecipherable, having to press a hand to your temple to regain your words, finally slurring out “I... feel... I feel crazy.” And you do. You feel completely overtaken by some animalistic yearning to touch and be touched. You’d never thought that sexual desire could be so consuming, so all-encompassing. It had never been a priority of yours outside of your own private bodily explorations, but you felt like you’d been swept under a current and were desperately trying to catch gasps of normalcy in your lungs. Maintaining this minimal conversation was certainly a task.

When you and Steve started, you felt on the precipice of uninhabited territory as your hands roamed the plains of his body. His kisses were sweet and soft, but they coursed through your body like they were your own blood. It didn’t take long for you to fall apart in his hands- those calloused edges of Steve Rogers that you’d been awaiting were finally yours to feel.

 

“It’s your first time, baby,” Bucky nips at a breast. “Normal to feel that way.”

“It’s the Binding, honey,” Steve offers as well, licking a bead of sweat from your neck, middle finger rubbing the Words on your chest. “First time, and Bound, no less.”

You shake your head dizzily and Steve rearranges your body so that you’re sandwiched between the two of them, head resting on his arm, your hand splayed over Bucky’s chest. You find enough clarity to gaze at him in the dark, all sinew and bursting muscle, sticky with his and your sweat and … your stomach clenches at the sudden realization. Yours. He is yours. Both of them are yours.

“Mmmm... sweetheart,” Bucky smiles, “If you keep looking at us like that, this little break of ours won’t last long.”

You hide your face in Steve’s chest, embarrassed. “I... ah I don’t know what’s going on with me; I feel so strange.” You admit, wrapping your arms around yourself, perplexed.

Steve rocks you gently and sends Bucky a silent warning with his eyes. The Sergeant complies and places his large hand on your shoulder, leaning his groin away from you. He kisses the nape of your neck and mutters a quiet apology.

“The first time can be intense for anybody,” Steve explains, “But it’s moreso with your Soulmate. It’s just... how it is. It’s biological, magical? Just as inexplicable as the Binding is.”

“Doesn’t help that you’ve got two of us.” Bucky kisses his Words on your arm tenderly, licking his lips when your sweat lingers. Even your fucking sweat tasted good to him. That was the depth of the Binding. His body doesn’t just hum next to yours- it howls.

Bucky can’t quite recall too much of his past time in Brooklyn, but he does remember the vague shapes of various women. From the stories, he was quite a ladykiller, with a new girl every few weeks, and meeting more during his time overseas. Steve said he’d write letters to starry-eyed girls all over Europe. Bucky knows none of them made him feel like this. From beside him, you sigh.

 

“I... I feel nervous. Like I’m being torn apart between the desire to let go... and wanting to stay in control.”

Hands stroke your form, sliding up your smooth side, rubbing a heat into your arms and shoulders, up your spine, down your chest. You let your eyes slip shut when Bucky’s mouth returns to your neck. “Let go, sweetheart,” Bucky croons into your ear.

Steve plants a kiss on the tip of your nose before nudging your legs apart with his knee. “We’re here. We’ve got you.”

 

Your next orgasm approaches quickly when you ride yourself home on Steve’s thigh, finishing the previously interrupted ritual. You’ve eagerly taken his words to heart, not that there was much convincing that was needed anyway.

Bucky’s propped up on his flesh hand, metal one guiding your hips to completion. Steve watches your mouth fall open and your hand grasping at his waistband to pull out his cock. Bucky sheds his article as well, and they both lie down, sandwiching you in the middle to rub themselves against you, leaving trails of precum on the back of your knees. Your senses are going into overdrive with the feel of them thrusting between your legs.

Steve begins grinding his shaft against your folds, pulling away slick and slimy before slipping back between your flesh, fucking your thighs. Bucky is a mere few inches lower, and you reach behind to grab his length in your hand, adding extra friction to his motion.

“Can I.. can I try t-to-" your words strangle in your mouth when Steve guides his head against your entrance, the tip of him pushing ever so slightly inside. You’re so wet that it wouldn’t take much to slip in. But he’s enormous, and you’ve never had anything that large. Your own two fingers combined was barely half his width. Bucky’s not much smaller, because your hand doesn’t fit around him, either. The idea of them- so large and painfully hard for you- makes your cunt squeeze, and your thighs clench in reflex, earning loud hisses from both.

It’s a miracle you’re able to find your willpower, because you honestly wouldn’t mind continuing more of this. They are so warm all around you.

“Can I... Um.” You flush and try again when Bucky encourages you with a grip to your ass, “I want to … see you... taste you. Both of you.”

 

They eagerly sit up against the headboard of the bed. Bucky stretches his neck as he scoots back, Steve grabs hold of himself and tugs slowly, waiting. You move to face them, eyes traveling from one body to the other, taking in their differences and similarities, unable to help as a smile blossoms across your face.

“Like what you see?” Steve Rogers is... (maybe not surprisingly) a tease. You pinch your lips together in playful defiance but nod along. He is milky-skinned, broad, a vast expanse of All-American muscle. He’s flushed yet calm and cool like the surface of a lake, in complete control of not just himself, but all three of you. In his right hand is that long and impressive cock of his, twitching and erect, tipped pink and slippery from rubbing against you.

You love the way it curves up toward him, you love the light blue veins beneath his skin.

Bucky reaches out to tuck a strand of your hair behind your ear and you catch his finger in your mouth with a fast bite, baring your teeth. He growls softly as he puts it back down, happy to receive the response. You lean toward him first, watching his lips part as yours do, dipping low and placing a kiss on his tip. It’s wet and pulsing, and your man smells like warm bread and nutmeg, a forest at twilight, a flickering candle wick extinguishing.

There’s been a lot of firsts for you tonight- the whole gamut of them. It’s almost unreal when you take Bucky into your mouth and feel him shakily smooth your hair. He praises you with whimpers and groans and restrained snaps of his hips. You tongue the ridge of his head, licking and sucking, pressing harder when it hits the back of your throat, moaning when he moans and only letting go when he asks you to stop by touching your jaw.

Your mouth feels raw when you release, thoroughly explored by Bucky’s cock. He is breathing heavily, head splayed back against the headboard, strands of hair matted over his cheeks.

A string of spit hangs from your lower lip, snapping off when you’ve pulled away too far. Steve grunts appreciatively and wipes your chin where saliva has gathered.

“Jesus, look at you....”

You’re not sure who says it and it doesn’t matter. When you lean left and take Steve the same way, he laughs. “Goodness, sweetheart. Aren’t you eager?” There’s an edge to his voice that makes the hairs on your neck stand on end, and one of your hands go between your legs. But Bucky is on the move, pushing it away and replacing it with his own digits, tapping a beat on your clit. Steve feels different in your mouth, now that you have something to compare it to, he’s more stiff and less pliable, longer, just a fraction slimmer than Bucky is. His body jerks more when you suck, flexes harder against your tongue, twitching when you pump what you can’t fit into your mouth.

Steve is the one who’s eager, you think.

Bucky slips a thick finger inside, pausing to gauge your reaction, kissing your waist and back lovingly when you grind into it. “More?” He mumbles and when you groan with your mouth around Steve’s cock, they both reply with strangled gasps. Another digit slips in.

“Honey, you’ll make me...” Steve tugs at your shoulder, but you continue, looking up at him in earnest. “I.. I want to last,” He pleads. You shake your head and pull with a loud pop.

“Steve,” You say, licking your lips, “I want to taste you.” Because you do. You really, really do. The idea of him coming undone and spilling into your mouth buzzes inside of you, and the wildfire in your chest burns away all reservations of being coy. Captain Rogers, the man in command, someone who you’ve never seen give any hints being anything but perfect and calculated… is a complete wreck as he tilts his head back onto the headboard of the bed, eyes slipping close, exhaling a shaky breath.

He’s deliberating, biting his lip in frustration. It makes you tighten around Bucky’s fingers. God, he looks so fucking good.

“Steve,” Bucky calls, pumping his fingers, “I’m knuckle deep and she’s clenching at the thought of it. Don’t make her wait.”

You bat your eyelashes, feeling powerful, “Stevie?” You croon, smiling as your right hand yanks him. He’s grunting, cock pulsing even harder in your hand if that was possible, “Stevie? Please let me have it... ?” You lick a route up his shaft. “I know you’ll taste so good.”

It’s a line you’ve lifted from one of Natasha’s videos, but it works. You’re starting to understand what dirty talk does to a person as you continue to bob up and down. Steve heaves a gasp and shudders as he comes, fingers deep in your hair, holding you in place.

Bucky takes full advantage of your pulsing walls, aroused by the taste and smell and look of Steve. He rubs against a tingling spot harder and faster, and you soon fold over onto the bed writhing around his fingers, savoring the taste in your mouth. And lord, it tastes so damn good- like nothing you’ve ever had before or are able to conjure up in your most debauched dreams. It’s still in your throat, smell lingering in your nose and you return to kiss Steve’s groin, smiling, puffing hot breaths on him.

He flushes. “I’ve... I’ve never--- that’s never...” He resigns and looks away, embarrassed to both admit and have experienced it. The young woman from his past never did that.

“How was it?” Bucky asks into the darkness of the room.

You and Steve answer in unison, “Great.” and it turns the peach of the Captain’s blush into fuschia. All three of you laugh and you move to sit down, nuzzling Steve and then Bucky, tracing both of their marks with your fingertips.

They’re so perfect, you think, so, so perfect. Your heart is full of so much love for them, and when tears start to prick at the corners of your eyes you hide behind your hands.

Kisses to your shoulder and ear draw you from your thoughts. They seem to already know that it was a moment of joy and work to bring you back to them. Hands run over your body, wiping away your tears, brushing against your lips, sneaking into your mouth. You could die right now, you think, in this warm embrace of your lovers.

“Doll,” Bucky starts, gazing into your eyes, “I’ll have to be honest with you, it might hurt.” He looks sad, worry marring his gorgeous brow. You kiss the wrinkles away and cling to his chest. Steve drags his hand up and down your spine. “It’s okay,” You say.

Bucky lays you down next to Steve, who’s slid onto his side and begins to kiss a pattern of dashes from your neck to your shoulder, dodging Bucky’s arm in the process. You watch his hair hang over your face and he watches you back, heart hammering, fearful of the inevitable pinch you’ll experience. You look so damn small, but fuck, you are the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. Bucky nearly whimpers- a sound he doesn’t often make, but you are bathed in moonlight and glowing with happiness.

He can hardly believe he’s only known you for only two months because he feels a connection of a lifetime- or in his case, many lifetimes. That blessed Soulmate entanglement brought him to your bright eyes, illuminating smile, your loving heart, happy to have, to love, and to keep him.

This is who he’s been waiting for his whole damn life. Through the street fights, the war, the frozen fall, the reattachment, the undoing. All the fucking assassinations and wipes, memory loss and re-memory. When he picks up the broken pieces of his brain he can hear music that sounds like nothing at all. But he’s always known what it was, even if he didn’t know who.

Bucky’s not sure if he believes in God now, or if he believed in God before, but he believes in this. He thinks if he had to choose, and if the only way he’d be able to have you is through his path with HYDRA, he’d take that path in an instant. Every time.

The teardrop that lands in your mouth breaks your heart. “Fuck,” he’s trembling as he hovers.

“Oh...” You whisper, wiping his cheeks, “Oh Bucky. I love you... I love you, I love you.” You say it like a prayer, clinging to every syllable. “I'm here, Bucky. Let go. I’ve got you.”

His eyes are rimmed with red as he slowly plunges in, covering your mouth with his as you gasp. He’s desperate and needy, body wracked with half-jerking motions. He’s so large inside of you and you feel every squeeze of your heart as it hammers. The stinging of your body stretching to accommodate him is jarring and uncomfortable, but it slowly slips away like a bad dream dying upon awakening.

And you are so, so awake.

Steve murmurs doting, gentle words in your ear. Bucky is so rigid above that you wrap your arms around him to make sure he’s still there. His lips are open, eyes assessing your comfort. When you lift your hips higher to his with a breathy ‘yes’, adjusting the angle of him, he finally lets out a pleased moan and begins to move. Every drag of his length is delicious and terrifying; you know he’s holding back for your sake.

It doesn’t take too many thrusts for you to reach the peak and lose all control of the way your body responds to your lover. Your slick muscle clenches and grips, and his own replies in kind, throbbing and pulsing. He grunts and groans, and the orchestra of your breaths fill the room. The snapping of his hips onto yours, the light thumping of the headboard, squeak of the bed, even Steve’s approving hums create the most incredible piece of music.

You’re barely aware of it as you exhale a joyful sound- cymbals crashing into your ears, all high- pitched ringing and percussive explosions. Your fourth orgasm leaves you sore and a complete mess on the bed, whimpering and gasping underneath Bucky, whose crooked smile press kisses to your collarbones one more time before he grunts and his hips briefly halt. When he picks up again the melody is slow, plucky notes of bliss before they finally end.

Bucky collapses on your right side and lies down, lopsided smile on his face. You kiss the moonlit curve of his lips before lying on your back again. He takes the back of his cool metal hand and the plates shift and whirr as he wipes beads of sweat off. To your right, Steve fumbles in the nightstand drawer before revealing two baby wipes in his hand and begins the task of dabbing at your flooded sex. The chill of it shocks you from your reverie.

“Thank Tony,” Steve laughs, “He prepped the room fully intending for this to happen.”

Before you ask what Steve means, you begin to realize there was… something… different.

“Wait… is the bed bigger?”

Both men chuckle deeply beside you. “Yeah, you’ve been busy but Tony tore down the walls on the other side of the bathroom and moved Bucky next to it. Both new beds. This wing’s practically ours— well, and Sam down the hallway.” Steve explains.

“I’ll give you the whole tour when you’re feelin’ up for it. Maybe we’ll christen Bucky’s room too.”

“Mm, s’only fair. We made a bit of a mess on Stevie’s new bed, didn’t we, doll?”

You pinch your thighs together, feeling the sticky pool underneath your bottom- the reminder of Bucky’s climax. Looking over to Steve, you notice he’s grown erect from watching the love-making and you warm up to his touches on your arm. He shakes his head when you reach for him, choosing to hold your hand instead.

“Later, sweetheart. Your body needs to rest, even if you don’t feel it yet.” He kisses you comfortingly, and you accept his words. “First thing tomorrow, honey. You’re mine.”

The promise makes your spine tingle in anticipation.

 

Forty-five minutes later, the three of you leave the shower grinning from ear-to-ear, scrubbed clean by each other under hot spray, thankful that the bathroom upgrade changed the space to accommodate more bodies. You’re excited to try out the large bathtub on the other side as well, eyeing the jet heads and multiple faucets. It looks more like an outdoor hot tub, to be honest. The boys are tinged pink from the heat. You can’t help but stare as they dry off. Bucky is dripping down his back, Steve is wiping the mirror, leg bent. He turns and wraps you in a towel before picking you up.

“God, I love you.”

The simple admission makes butterflies bloom in your chest.

Bucky watches the reflection with a smirk. He doesn’t need to hear you say it to know you feel the same way. He feels it too. Another round of silly smiles rises from the three of you and you duck your head onto Steve’s chest, kissing the Words. He’s laughing, too, as he squeezes your legs affectionately.

Dropping you back down, they lead you to the walk-in closet that shares all of your clothing. In the corner is a barren section, save for some neatly folded sleeping clothes. You pick out a soft patterned romper and panties and slip them on. Bucky glides a silky robe around your shoulders and ties it for you. They dress in their own choosing of fitted sweatpants and t-shirts.

“Tony wants us to come back out,” Steve announces as he checks his phone.

“Oh my god, I forgot all about that!” You cried, suddenly remembering the show, and the people, and the pictures, oh Christ, you dipped out right as the auction was happening! The time on the clock read 12:30. How did more than three hours pass by so quickly?

Steve shows Bucky the message and he shakes his head. You flush as you read it.

Hey fuckers (literal meaning of the word), come back out here before I blast your new living quarters to hell. I am not a patient man. You can’t keep her to yourselves! BRING MY DAUGHTER BACK.

“His daughter?” You shriek.

“He’s drunk, isn’t he?” Bucky groans.

Very drunk.” Steve confirms.

Wordlessly, the three of you shuffle out the door, trying to stifle the smiles that persistently find their way back onto your faces. Every step you take feels like you’re bouncing along on a cloud and you struggle to shove the feeling down before coming to face the rest of the team. Sam alone would give you the worst ribbing of your life… not to mention Natasha’s highly expressive eyebrows, or Thor’s booming voice, likely going to ask you for a play-by-play, in that completely innocent Thor manner.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Bucky winks as Steve’s hand lands on the handle of the double doors leading to the lobby.

“We got ya.”

 

The team is still dressed in their evening attire when you enter. There are some stragglers from the party scattered about, making conversation and finishing off their drinks. Tony and Pepper paired off and swaying to a love song coming through the speakers. Pepper gives you a smile and mouth that Tony’s asleep on her shoulder, earning a giggle from you.

Everything’s been cleaned up and the lobby looks once again like its usual self, save for some decorations here and there. At least you know everything got sold.

Natasha is sitting on the bar, shoes kicked off long ago, Bruce by her knee, drawing circles on her leg as they share a bottle of wine together. They smile at you when you wave. Sam and Thor are arguing over something in jest, hands clutching glass goblets of wine. The Twins are dancing as well, Wanda sailing over the floor as if floating, and Pietro gazing at her as if she were an angel. You certainly know how he feels.

The three of you, dressed in soft clothes and hair still damp, are stark differences in comparison to everyone else’s’ still glitzy attire. Your face is make-up free and your hair is still mostly wet, droplets rolling off the back of your robe. You’re all barefoot and flushed, and anyone with half a brain can assume what you’ve been up to.

Nobody says anything, thought, as Bucky takes your hand and pulls you into his arms, rocking back and forth in the middle of the room. Steve winks at you before heading over to Sam and Thor.

Wise men say…

Elvis’ deep vibrato begins to warble through the speakers. Bucky links your fingers through his flesh one, vibranium arm coming to rest on the small of your back. He’s surprisingly confident as he leads, and you find yourself easily stepping after him. Of course, he would know how to dance, you remember his reputation as a Brooklyn playboy. The both of you start giggling like fools right there in the middle of the room, elated with joy; the song is so stupidly fitting.

But I can’t help… falling in love with you.

“I really can’t, sweetheart.” Bucky mumbles, squeezing you tighter. He slips his eyes close when you kiss him on the lips, breaking the step briefly to reply.

“Me neither.”

 

“Drink for you?” Sam asks, tilting his wine glass at Steve when he comes to sit down. Steve shakes his head with a smile. “You already drunk on somethin’ else, I’m guessing.”

“Ah. True love! Such a blessing.” Thor puffs out his chest as he takes another swig, “Captain Rogers, may your providential Binding bring you many years of happiness! I do love a good Binding, and I’m sad to have missed your moment.” He pats Steve on the back with enough force to get a light cough from him before turning his head to you and Bucky swaying.

A brief second of silence passes over the table.

“Don’t do it.” Steve immediately instructs.

“I just!” Thor and Sam are both sputtering, “I mean- you know- what’s it, how’s--” Thor is gesturing wildly, poking and pointing, drawing circles and then oblong shapes before wiggling his fingers around.

Sam barks, “Man, aren’t you a god? I know you Asgardians do all sorts of freaky shit.”

“Yes, actually, I’m well-versed in it.” Thor grins dazzlingly, “But that’s different, we’re born wild and it all happens very young and you know, but not like this, I’m not Rogers!” He’s gesturing all over the place again and Steve can only shake his head in amusement, unsure if the last bit was a compliment or an insult.

“Whatever you’re thinking…” Steve mumbles. His companions perk up in interest. Steve begins to chuckle as he snatches Sam’s glass and downs the entire cup. “The answer is yes.”

Thor howls with laughter and slams his fist on the table. Sam only raises an amused eyebrow because he thinks, Rogers can be such an asshole, but even more so, he’s never seen Bucky look so damn happy. As much as they might butt heads or proclaim to hate each other, Sam knows Bucky really needs this.

Two young women come by their table, stepping with slight wobbles. One of them saddles up next to Sam and slurs out a request of a story from the oh-so-famous Falcon, and he lights up like the Fourth of July. Thor leans forward on his fist, ready to pretend to be interested before his moment to kick Sam down a few pegs. His eye-roll to Steve says it all: God. Of. Thunder.

The other sits down between Thor and Steve, blinking a few times at the grey sweatpants and white tee-shirt.

“Where did you go, Captain Rogers?” she twitters, pressing a pointer onto his chest. He smiles politely, unfazed, and shrugs out an excuse. He was tired, the suit was stuffy, he needed a break. She begins to lean in awfully close, almost pitching out of her seat as she begins to tell him about her favorite Captain America PSA from those old late-night commercial reels, hand coming to rest on his knee. Steve gulps visibly, and the young girl takes it as an invitation to continue and her fingers begin their ascent up his thigh.

Thor is having the best night, he thinks, as he watches the interactions unfold around him. Mortals could be so funny.

 

“Uh,” Bucky’s not sure what to say. Behind you is Steve getting aggressively propositioned by one very inebriated guest, and you haven’t noticed it yet. He’s in a bit of a pickle because if he brings it up and you flip out, well that would be awkward for everyone involved. But if he doesn’t bring it up and you flip out anyway, it would still be awkward, but what if he’d get in trouble too. He thinks you’re probably not that kind of person, but the realization that he doesn’t know you like that yet is dawning on him.

Bucky takes a minute to shake his mind free from the panic, but it comes back as you start to turn the two of them. “Sweetheart… let me lead.”

“It’s the 21st century, Buck. I wanna lead.”

Two more steps and he feels you stiffen in his hold. Bucky grips your lower back tighter as he counts the seconds as if he’s failed a bomb diffusion. There’s a couple of sighs that puff against the soft material of his black Henley before you keep swaying to the music.

“That poor girl is blitzed, isn’t she?”

“Does that mean drunk? And you’re not upset?” Bucky asks, and you start to laugh.

“Yeah, Buck. And no, Buck, I’m not. If I got all messed up any time one of you receives attention from women, I’d go insane. Trust me, I absolutely know how handsome you two are. You’re also celebrities… Captain America and the Winter Soldier. It just comes with the territory.”

You catch Steve’s eye as he’s stepping away from the table, hands up defensively towards the woman and then towards you. You nudge with your head for him to come over and he does so, sneaking over with a guilty expression.

 

Steve trades places with his friend, who contentedly slinks away to make conversation with Natasha, actively avoiding Sam and Thor’s table. Steve’s steps are much clumsier but you’ve picked up the pattern and now you lead him across the tile. He gladly follows, nuzzling the top of your head, stopping to look into your eyes.

“You know I wasn’t t—”

“Shh…” You shush, “I know you’re good. My good man.”

He stills with a contented exhale and begins to dance, feeling satisfied and suddenly aroused by the fact that you just called him yours. Sinatra begins from the speakers and both of you snort knowingly at just who picked this playlist. Pepper was really in the mood. Steve’s getting there too.

 

Suddenly the two of you freeze at the sound of a shrill, “Oh my god!” from the bar. It’s not the woman from earlier- it’s her friend, you realize as you stare at her accusatory finger next to Bucky. She’s having that wide-eyed, clicking, lightbulb moment as she pieces the puzzle together. Lounge clothes. Wet hair. Three-hour disappearance. Dancing together.

Before you know it, she’s caught by the waist by Pepper and Tony- who is startlingly not asleep. He looks alarmingly roused and firm, quirking his finger across the room to signal escorts over. Pepper is whispering intently in the woman’s ear, whose expression begins to drop slowly to something that borders understanding. She’s still drunk, you can tell by her saunter as she steps away, but she doesn’t look back at you again.

Her friend follows her, propped up against another bodyguard, and they disappear out the door.

Tony walks over, patting Pepper’s arm and smiles at you. “Can’t end a party without shutting down some drama. Glad we planned for it, kid.”

Steve cocks his head in confusion.

“They were supposed to leave at midnight, but their driver was taking a while to come back and get them. Regardless, I reminded them of the NDA they signed upon arrival.” The thin smile on Pepper’s lips say it all: it’s covered.

You smirk at the memory. Tony and you, sitting in the conference room early this month, double-fisting ice coffees and running on a shared total of seven and a half hours of sleep (him, by choice, you by necessity). You outlined the harshest non-disclosure-agreement you could possibly imagine, all accompanied by his roguish background cackle at your punitive directive.

Because of the intimate nature of the show, no photographs were allowed, no tweets, no duplications of the art seen or purchased, and no discussion of it once the guests leave the compound. They were even checked at the door and scanned by Stark tech before and after. It was your sure-fire method to keep these images and your own life private, just as Byrne requested. You also recall that it ruffled him a bit, but in the end, he relented because his desire to peek behind the curtain was greater than his pride.

It was an agreement you impressed upon all the guests who were eager to come. It weeded out quite a few of them, but those who ventured to the compound tonight were made very aware of the legal power Tony Stark had. Even their deep pockets couldn’t weasel out of it. The NDA was ironclad.

Steve begins to chuckle as he grips your hand tighter in his.

You really did give them hell, didn’t you?

He’s not just proud of you – of all the hard work you’ve done in the last month- he’s in awe of you. This lover of his, not just beautiful and kind, but also headstrong, willful, and whip-smart. It’s enough to bowl him over. Good god, how did he get so lucky? It builds a new fire in his chest.

 

Steve thinks he must have been completely slack-jawed because Tony winks at him and waggles his eyebrows, “You got a good one, Rogers. Don’t muck it up or it’ll be me and Pep coming for your Star-Spangled ass. Better keep Barnes in line, too.”

Pepper tsks and pulls him out of the room. As he’s half a step away and begins to disappear down the hall, Tony calls a final reminder, “Take care o’ my girl!”

 

Steve picks you up on the spot, laughing at your surprised squeal as you wrap your arms around his waist reflexively. The kiss he plants on your mouth takes the air right out of you. It’s passionate, resonant, powerful, as if to say, I will take care of you. With all that I am, I will.

The lobby has cleared out at this point, everyone waving final goodbyes as they fade away back to their respective chambers. F.R.I.D.A.Y. locks the compound up, dimming all lights save for the illuminating path back to the living quarters and the muted spotlight in the middle of the dancefloor. Bucky takes your left hand, Steve holds onto your right.

 

Together the three of you walk down the hallway back to bed, lights clicking off behind each step, smiles blooming once more on your faces.

Chapter Text

A large hand paws lazily at your back as you fix the blouse you’d just slipped on. It had taken you almost an hour to get out of bed and even longer to get ready today, so you’re in a bit of a mood when the same hand starts walking itself up your shirt. You slap it with a sharp thwack and it retreats with a sniveling whine.

There’s a rumbling of laughter that follows as you slip your blazer over your shoulders.

Rolling your eyes, you land them on the bed where your two lovers lie. Steve is nursing his offending hand under his cheek as he peers up with his signature ocean gaze. Bucky is lying on his back, inoffensive limbs tucked neatly behind his head, telling you: look at me, I’m a good boy.

They’re both shirtless, taut chest and abs radiant in the chiaroscuro light your vanity table provides. The striped comforter comes up to reach just beneath their waists and you know for a fact Bucky’s completely nude this morning, but avert your gaze.

“Brat...” You shoot at Steve instead, who pouts even more. In the mirror, you swipe on a quick layer of mascara before slinging your purse over your shoulder.

Crossing your arms at the foot of the bed, you regard the men lying in it, eagerly awaiting your attention. It’s such a comical sight, you think, as you step from one heeled foot to the other, blazer fixed neatly and buttoned. You, nearly 70 years younger than them, look like some kind of sugar-momma or dominatrix, in complete command of two compliant subordinates.

 

As naughty as they were, keeping you up last night after they returned from a three-day-long mission, you couldn’t help but melt under their coquettish-bitten lips and puppy-dog sulking eyes. You’d been woken up past midnight and weren’t able to sleep until nearly three in the morning, and they both knew you had to be up at six.

It wasn’t entirely their fault, of course, since it only took half a mischievous bite to your neck from Bucky before your clothes were completely shed.

 

“Boys, this is ridiculous.” You want to be stern, but their absolutely endearing expressions melts your mood right off. A tiny quirk of your lips appear and they quickly match your countenance.

“Does that mean you forgive us?”

Your smile says more than enough. Yes, of course. Always.

“Good. I’ll drive.” Steve rises from the bed and Bucky follows. They head into the restroom to brush their teeth before pulling casual clothes on in a rush, eager to spend as much time with you as possible. You’d been taking the car by yourself for the past week, but you do love it when Steve drives. They’re much better company than what your radio can give you.

 

At the car, Bucky pinches your bottom and climbs in before he shuts the door.

“You know,” Steve grumbles, squinting at the rearview mirror image of Bucky nipping at your ear, “I thought you’d sit up here with me.”

“Nah, pal. I’m much better company. ‘Sides, you don’t need any distractions while you’re driving. But me? I’m a free agent back here.” He starts peeling your skirt upward, “How bout you, hon?”

 

You only laugh, catching Steve’s eye before intertwining your fingers in Bucky’s and kissing him, leaning your head against his shoulder. Steve puts on a song and starts singing along.

The drive is a lengthy one, and it gets even more tiresome when you get into the city. Steve is in bumper-to-bumper traffic as you gaze off in contemplation.

The last six months of your life have been the absolute nuttiest, you think, watching the streetlights go past against a gradient of orange, pink, and blue hues. Sunrise has started coming up a little bit later, now that it’s well into fall, and the chilly morning air lets Steve roll the windows down a bit.

He’s taking you to work, and it’s a procedure that you’re still trying to get used to.

You started two months ago at Cooper Union- just a visiting artist position, but still one that you take very, very seriously. Byrne kept good on his promise after the show and had given you a list of opportunities to interview for. It’s all by choice, anyway, since the profit from the show totaled more than enough to set you up comfortably for at least five years. And that’s saying quite a lot considering that you live in Manhattan of all places.

You wanted to start your job with baby steps to avoid overwhelming yourself in an academic setting. Being a visiting artist gave you a lot of freedom and just the right amount of responsibility.

The position entailed no more than three public speaking events, your own studio to develop a show at the end of the semester, and the opportunity to work closely with a mixed group of graduate and undergraduate students as their mentor. You were required to be on-campus at least once a week, but you usually went in twice just to keep your office open.

So far, it had been smooth sailing.

 

You look from Steve up front to Bucky at your shoulder, sighing happily and nuzzling deeper into his chest, flicking his nose with your finger. He growls playfully in response.

This had been smooth sailing too, save for a couple of rainy days and one very turbulent storm. All natural and expected aspects of being in a relationship. The biggest fight you’d had so far was a furious row after a mission where you were so cross afterward that you didn’t speak to either of them for an entire night.

You had sat in on the debriefing out of curiosity and learned that they’d taken an impulsive risk that had put their lives in more danger than the mission anticipated. Even worse, this was a regular occurrence. Tony called them the “Super-Annoying Soldiers”.

That night, you slept in Bucky’s room and ordered them into Steve’s.

The next morning, they both came in, stammering, apologetic, promising that they would never, ever be that careless again. The make-up session lasted four hours and you emerged around noon thoroughly convinced and dog-tired.

 

The three of you learned new things about each other every day.

For example, Bucky religiously ate bad Chinese take-out and Steve danced in the shower. Steve loved it when you pulled his hair and Bucky loved pulling your hair. The three of you spent nights fumbling all over each other when they had time at the compound, and if one of them happened to be away, the other two would Facetime when possible. It wasn’t a necessity, by any means, it was more of consideration; they were also content to let each other be with you privately.

Jealousy never arrived to bother any of you.

In fact, you often let the boys have time to themselves. Especially on your days at work. There had been many evenings when you’d come back to the compound after dinner and they were cuddled up on the couch, enjoying a movie or a nap. It was the sweetest thing. Sam and Clint took many pictures and both turned red after you casually mentioned that they should see pictures of what else the Steve and Bucky get up to when you’re not around.

“Because... they get up to a lot. I’m not always a necessary part of the puzzle, you know.” A single wink was all it took for your friends to high tail it out of the room.

It was a running joke with the team that the three of you had a very adventurous sex life together- as predicted by Tony. Admittedly, yes, it was exciting, but beyond the sex (and there was quite a lot of it- so many positions and scheduled water breaks), you were more than happy to just sit with a cup of tea and a board game, or going for walks, or watching them spar. You had even started to go on short jogs and spent time working out with them as well. It was painful at first (leg day was fine, chest day was the devil’s invention), but the showers together afterward really made up for it.

Every day brought something new to the table.

Last night, after Bucky fell asleep on the edge of the bed a little past three, Steve settled in the middle and you laid your head on his chest, kissing the sweat-slick skin beneath your lips.

“Hey...” You began slowly, pressing your mouth to his neck.

“Mhm... Hey back,” he parroted, slurring through the sleepy fog. “What’s on your mind?”

“Honestly, kind of a lot...?” You felt yourself come down from the high peak of love and marching up a peak of anxiety. You had started to babble about the mechanics of domesticity because the television prompter in your brain began to marquee way too fast. This ritual of sleeping together and waking up together had been blossoming into some future fantasies that you’re not sure how to bring up. You supposed this was as good of a time as any.

Steve was a bit stunned from your sudden outburst, “Hold on honey... Let me wake up for this.”

“Sorry... But Steve,” You rambled onward, “What about being Captain America? And how does that I don’t know- what does that mean when it comes to a family? Marriage? Children?” Your face burned at the thought of a little blue-eyed toddler running around by your feet, perhaps fair-haired, or rowdy and cleft-chinned.

You’d been dreaming about it at night, blanket forts and stuffed animals, a nursery, and a crib, and a mobile full of stars. The rational side of your brain chastised it- you were too young, you wanted to keep exploring the world, getting used to your position, and your relationship. The rational side also continuously brought up the fact that the father of your children would be one of two Super Soldiers- Jesus, maybe both, whose lives were always precariously balancing on … God, you didn’t know what.

 

Underneath you, Steve buzzed awake—as much as he could.

“Well… I’d love that.” He exhaled a deep breath, arm coming up to rub your shoulders. “Always wanted to be a dad, but let’s start with uh, maybe sleep for now. What do you say?”

You mumbled against him, “I didn’t mean to sound like I’m rushing you into those things, by the way. I suppose it was just a natural discussion to bring up.”

“I know, sweetheart,” Steve had rubbed his nose against your ear, breath warm and inviting. You distinctly felt a smile grow on his face. “I also know Bucky would appreciate being in the loop. Let’s save it for the morning.” He placed a hand on Bucky’s bare back, drawing circles along his spine as he groaned in his sleep.

You kissed your man sweetly, and before you knew it, you’d fallen dreamlessly asleep in his arms.

 

 

“Ready, honey?” Bucky squeezes your thigh, snapping you from your daze. He’s a little concerned that you’ve been so quiet for the whole trip, and grumpy that he’d been subject to Steve’s awful bellowing. The car’s parked on the street, about a block away. “You okay?”

“Yes, sorry... just thinking about our conversation last night.”

Bucky’s eyes light up delightedly, “Kitten, I don’t know if dirty talk counts as a conversation... but I’m all ears.”

“Buck, you fell asleep early. We talked about havin’ kids, pal.”

“Mhmmm—what?” After a pause, with you and Steve exchanging concerned looks, Bucky grips your hand so tightly it almost hurts, “Babe, I... I... wh-” The expression on his face changes from shock to concern, then finally, it knocks the air from your lungs when he looks at you.

“I can’t... I can’t.”

You see the storm over the horizon in Bucky’s eyes. His blue fades into grey, and billowing clouds have cast a shadow over the sloping mountain of his nose and the sharp plains of his cheeks. You can only console him with a sad smile and kisses along his jaw. He’s lost, now, in the past of his actions, in the raging tempest of thunderous roars and lightning strikes in his mind. It’s all scorched earth and barren wasteland to him. It’s filling your chest up with embers—not for yourself, but for him, and you are struggling to speak calmly.

“It was just a thought, Buck. For the future. Don’t think about it too much.”

 

You exit the car, kissing both your Soulmates softly. Steve gives you a final lingering look before you disappear down the campus street, starting to fill up with student bodies. Bucky is motionless in the back as Steve shifts gears and takes him back home.

 

They spend the next hour arguing in the bedroom, taking their squabble from the car to the garage, to the common area where Natasha raises an eyebrow too sharply for Steve’s comfort. Bucky’s pulling his hair and stomping, Steve’s sitting with both fists clenched on his knees, head leaned back in frustration. It’s moved beyond just the possibility of children, and deeper into the territory of Bucky’s repentance.

It’s a conversation Steve is sick of having because he doesn’t think Bucky needs to repent for anything. Steve has physically fought for this; he’s bled for this. But every time it seems like he might have pushed his boulder to the peak of the hill, it rolls back down on top of him.

“Buddy, you gotta stop.” Steve admonishes, feeling the aggravation building, deflecting a glare from his friend, “We’re not talking about if you deserve kids, Buck. We’re just … talking about kids. That’s it.”

“Look at me, Stevie, what th’ fuck am I gonna do with a kid?” Bucky sputters and waves his arms around, and then he takes his flesh one and points it to his cybernetic one. “Look at me!” There’s a panic in his eyes- the same one that’s lasted for over an hour with no sign of quelling. “She... sh-she can have your baby. I’m not... I can’t be a part of that.”

As soon as the words leave his mouth, he feels himself clench up with a devastating truth that hurts too much to imagine.

Steve crosses his arms and stands, using his full height to stare down at Bucky. He’s not that much taller, but it’s enough for Steve to say with his body I’m bigger than you and you need to listen to me. Bucky flinches at the hard stare and puts both hands over his face with a groan.

“There is no that without you.” Steve says firmly, arms tucked under each other so tightly his biceps bulge like boulders against his chest. He’s trying not to get angry because he knows it would be like squirting kerosene into a burning building. He needs to smother the fire, not encourage it.

“There is no this without you. We are Bound, all three of us. Buck, this isn’t happening tomorrow, or even next year, or even the year after that. We just talked about the possibility of it in the future.” His voice grows softer the longer he talks, and Bucky’s fear begins to slow to his pace, fizzling out like a candlelight.

“Pal, can you blame her? She’s twenty-three. She’s in love... with you of all people. Gee, Buck. Someone’s in love with you so much they think about havin’ a baby with you... And ya run for the hills.” Bucky mulls it over as Steve approaches, and there’s regret sinking into his stomach as he thinks about your sad eyes in the backseat of the car. He thinks about how you still kissed him before you left.

“Shit. I screwed it up, didn’t I? God. We got the sweetest girl and..” He grimaces, eyes flickering with anxiety.

Steve pats him on both shoulders before pulling him into his arms. Bucky is hard, tense muscle and warm breaths as he leans into Steve and they embrace until he calms down again.

They’ve always been happy to give and receive hugs as friends, often patting each other on the back fondly or comfortingly. It’s been moreso as of late- a result of spending more time together intimately. The hugs are more tender, more loving.

When Steve wakes up in the middle of the night in-between two bodies, he often looks over at Bucky, too, admiring the way he looks when he’s at peace. It’s something Steve’s wanted to see since he found Bucky; it’s something he sees more of every day. He wants to keep it that way.

“Think she’ll forgive me?”

Steve can only laugh as he brushes the hair out of Bucky’s face, rubbing his knuckles over the bristles along his jaw. “Yeah, Buck. Of course.” The sigh against his shoulder once more is a response all on its own.

 

Steve thinks back to the night he woke up and you were sitting on the sofa crying. It was your first time without Bucky since the three of you had started sharing a bed together. It was the first time you hadn’t slept with both in almost a month; it was long enough to pine for and ache about. You were used to being in the middle, he had thought, so maybe piling pillows on the empty side to simulate a presence might help. You stirred anyway.

He quietly sat down next to you, kissing your bare shoulder that peeked out from under the throw blanket. There were tears in your eyes as he cradled you in his arms.

“I miss him too. He’ll be back soon.”

“It’s not that…” You sniffled, “I was just thinking about... something Pietro told me.” You turned to him, crossing your legs and opening up the blanket to invite him in. Steve wrapped the edge as much as he could around his large frame and pulled you into his lap.

“What’s that?”

“Remember that day I came back, and you saw me by the pool?”

He nodded. Of course he remembered. He had spent three days in agony, feverish at night, freezing in the morning, waking up dripping in sweat. His chest hurt every waking moment and only ached even more in Bucky’s presence as if it was the Binding’s reminder to them that there was a missing piece that wouldn’t be forgotten. Seeing you by the pool that day extracted all of Steve’s pain in a single scoop. He had almost slipped running out of the room to catch you.

“Pietro said... There are two meant to love you. You never have to wonder, it is wonderful.”

He didn’t understand why you looked so sad until you glanced over to the bed where the pile of pillows had been kicked off, exposing the vacancy. “Do you think… Bucky knows that? I don’t wonder about the future and think that either of you will leave me, and I don’t think about me leaving either of you.”

You paused to wipe your cheeks, “But does Bucky know? Does he still think that he’s unlovable? He never tells me the truth, but I see it when he’s just looking at me. It hurts, Steve. I’m so worried all the time. I don’t want him to wonder about us.”

 

Steve Rogers kissed you that night with the intensity of a lover leaving for war. He held onto you so tightly you thought you might sink inside of him. He made love to you on that sofa in the darkness and caressed the tears on your cheeks so sweetly you cried. He had seen more and more of your heart every day, and it filled him with so much love it sometimes hurt. You loved them, together, equally, and separately, with their individual flaws and quirks.

And God, Steve thinks, there are a fucking lot of flaws.

 

“Buck,” Steve says, taking his friend’s face in his hands, fingers running through the dark mane. “She loves you. She loves you more than she knows what to do with. You can’t treat yourself like this. It hurts all of us.”

Another silence envelopes them as Steve holds onto him, massaging the back of his head tenderly. They break apart after another long moment before sending each other half-smiles and understanding nods, affirmations exchanged through smiles and blinks. Bucky speaks first.

“I love you too, Steve.”

 

 

The boys arrive around two to pick you up and wave from the car, parked outside of the Art Building. The students surrounding you eventually let you go but stare open-mouthed at the shiny classic Mustang and Bucky’s vibranium-black hand holding your favorite drink. It’s his own personal white flag. The conversation is casual throughout the whole ride as they sit up front and you in the back. You tell them about your day and the work you’ve been up to, mentioning a few favorite teaching moments with students. They listen intently and coil their intended conversation slowly around your own, reading your mood with prudence.

At the compound, it’s turned up many notches when Bucky falls to his knees and lays his head against your tummy.

“I’m s’rry, babe.” He mumbles “S’rry I jumped t’ conclusions and... I’m such an idiot. Please don’t be mad with me, even if I deserve it.” His twang comes back when he’s emotional. The slurring of his ‘r’s and dropping his vowels brings a slight pinch to your chest when you think about all of the things he’s been through and how he could have so easily have just been another soldier returned from war, living out the rest of his days as a Brooklyn boy. But the path he’s been on has led him to this moment, to this darkness inside of him.

You pat his head gingerly, watching the smile grow on Steve’s face as he stands beside you. You know this is his doing, pulling Bucky from his own trap and bringing him back out. You’ve spent enough time with him to know that without help, Bucky will torture himself for days, biting off his own tail in a box of his own design.

“Bucky, the problem isn’t that you jumped to conclusions; the problem is that you think you’re an idiot. And that you think you deserve it.” You’re stern with him but continue to pet his hair.

He nods, over and over frantically, but you’re not sure if he really hears you. He wants this moment to be finished, you think, and so for now you’ll let it be. Sometimes you had to pick the right battles to fight, and for now you were content with this battle ending how it will. You don’t mind repeating it later, you know Bucky needs more assurance than most, and you’re happy to a part of that constant thing for him.

For now, he wants to be touched. It’s how he knows you still love him.

So you do. You kiss him all over. Steve latches on to his wrist and takes him to the bed. You both undress him and then yourselves. Bucky lies on his back, still sorrowful and regretful, but as the two of you hang over him, fingers intertwined, he feels his sadness vanish into the sheets.

Between your soft hands and Steve’s firm grasps, Bucky falls apart completely.

 

When Bucky goes to starts the bath, you spend a few minutes lying in bed with Steve just to caress him. You want to let him know too that he’s just as important, that you care just as deeply and passionately for him.

“You’re amazing.” He says, eyes dancing under your gaze, “He’s just stubborn. Always has been.”

“Mmm,” you smile back, “Reminds me of someone I know.”

“Who’s that?”

You pretend to contemplate it before planting countless kisses on his lips. “Come on, he’ll get fussy if we’re late.”

He gives you a piggy-back ride to the tub.

 

They take turns lathering you up and each other in the water, in-between playful splashing and affectionate touches. The three of you are a sight to behold, all covered up in soap suds with mops of wet hair. Steve dutifully washes the shampoo from Bucky’s locks as you lean your head on his shoulder, patiently waiting your turn. They start getting into a powwow about whose turn it is to do the laundry next and you space out, smiling into the mass of bubbles when you feel Steve’s fingers spitefully leave Bucky’s hair and go to yours. 

You know he’s stubborn. Steve is too. And so are you.

It doesn’t really bother you when Bucky gets into one of his moods, because you know he’ll always come back. It doesn’t bother you either when Steve’s impulsive on missions because he always comes back too. They both know that they must… simply because you’re home expecting them. Unless they’re acting dangerously- which, they’ve promised that they’d stop- you give them all your trust, just like you’ve given them your heart.

 

You have the rest of your life with them to figure the remainder of it out.

It sinks in, like the soap and bubbles, like the perfume of the shower gel and the gentle motions of Steve’s hands on your body. It sinks in that for the rest of your life, you’ll have them, both of them. No matter where your paths take you, you’ll be walking hand-in-hand with two perfect Soulmates by your side.

In the background, Bucky and Steve nag and jab each other with their sarcastic taunts and jibes of past embarrassments. There’s name calling and noogies, pinching, and snapping of teeth against fingers. Bucky blows bubbles in Steve’s face. Steve flicks droplets in Bucky’s eyes.

You lean forward against the edge of the porcelain tub, draping yourself over it and grin at them.

“What’s on your mind, sweetheart?” Steve asks, quieting the chatter and rubs his hand against your spine.

The look you give him melts him on the spot. There’s an unfathomable light in your eyes, swimming in something unspeakably loud but necessarily silent. He wants to pull apart the puzzle of it, finding the pieces that you’re keeping to yourself, but something keeps him immobile. Bucky splashes as he leans forward too, intrigued by the look on your face.

Saying nothing, you turn back around, humming a tune and motioning for Steve to continue. You’ll let them contemplate, you think, because eventually they’ll arrive at the same ending that you have. Bucky might take a while longer than Steve, but that’s okay too.

 

 

It’s kind of funny that you’d gone through so much of your life fearing love to the point of near madness and physical ailment. It’s so strange to think of how in the span of six months, you’ve transformed into a person so far removed from who you were then.

At 23, you had once rejected love.

But also, at 23, you’ve solved the mystery of love. Its disarray of angst and apprehension that’s long gripped your mind has been untangled by your dutiful fingers. It’s Gordian Knot has been completely disassembled, slipping away into the depths along with your fear and anxiety.

You now tread over its strands, blissfully following the trail leading to your lovers’ embrace.