The city’s in full swing, roaring as loud as ever and glittering right outside his window, but Steve is content to stay in, blinds closed and sketchbook open.
Glowing streets and loud parties aren’t all that enticing to people who live in the bad sides of town, the places covered in the gauzy smoke and fog of industry, inhabited by people who have their lungs clogged with soot and ash; Steve’s more than content to spend the night in and not blow whatever little money he has. Plus, breathing the thick air of his apartment is monumentally better than breathing in the alcohol-tinged breath of pompous old—
“Get up, Steve, we’re hitting the town,” Bucky says, snatching the quilt off Steve’s legs.
“Can’t,” Steve says, scooting further back into the couch cushions, “I’m sick.” He feigns a cough.
Bucky blinks down at him slowly, looking as unimpressed as Steve’s ever seen him. “Oh, c’mon. There’s a big imprinting shindig going on; Martha told me—you remember Martha? She told me about that new club, the one run by Chomsky and them.”
Steve snorts; he has no business in clubs—there hasn’t been a point in his life yet where he’s wanted to be drunk. He doesn’t even like the taste of booze all that much anyway.
“Steve,” Bucky says, stretching the name out plaintively. “You can’t miss an opportunity like this. Half of New York’ll be there. What if your soulmate is already there, dancing with somebody else, huh?”
“My soulmate could be anywhere in the world,” Steve says.
“Anywhere in the world including Chomsky’s,” Bucky says with raised eyebrows and quirked lips and, although Steve won’t say it aloud, he concedes to the point. “Up and at ‘em, buddy, let’s get you into something nice.”
“I don’t own anything nice,” Steve says, annoyed, but he still gets up and still moves towards the wardrobe when Bucky nudges him towards it. “And I don’t even want to imprint on anyone,” he grouses. “Seems like a lot of work.”
“Please,” Bucky says. “I know what you’ve got under your bed. And that thing’s pages are all dog-eared and worn down.”
Steve refuses to show how embarrassed he is that Bucky knows he keeps romance novels under his bed. Especially romance novels dealing with soulbonds. He can’t help that he feels the idea’s nice—for other people, mind, not for himself. If he’d ever imprinted on anyone, that poor, unsuspecting person would be doomed to cough and hack as much as he does; they’d be bedridden for most of their lives just like he is and he’d probably unintentionally drive them to an early grave.
The books are just fantasy. A lot of them are literary classics.
…He doesn’t need to justify himself.
“That’s a nice vest,” Bucky says (although it most definitely is not). He pulls it out of the wardrobe and tosses it onto their shared cot, and then proceeds to grab a shirt and set of slacks and Steve turns to the clothes with a sigh.
It’s like any other party, really, except no one wears gloves and there’s a sort of single-minded, predatory intent in everyone’s eyes, intent that can’t be properly dulled by the copious amounts of alcohol everyone’s consuming. Steve doesn’t care much for the obnoxious laughter or too-loud music but he does like seeing so many bodies moving in synch, likes the sound of tinkling ice cubes in crystal tumblers, the sight of ruddy brown booze spilling over glass and tile and hardwood and cloth.
He wishes he brought his sketchbook.
But he didn’t, so as a consequence, he’s spending his time slumped on a stool at the far end of the bar. So far, no one’s asked to shake his hand and he doesn’t blame them one bit. Wouldn’t it be awful to be saddled with a shrimp like him for what’s left of his life? The only people that ever approach him are older men that Bucky always deems ‘The Wrong Sort of Fellas’ and although Steve sometimes feels lonely and bored enough to actually take them up on their offers, Bucky always swoops in to grunt, “Back off, pal.”
Speaking of Bucky: “Steve! See her, right there, the blonde in the blue dress? She’s the one, I swear. When I touched her shoulder, I broke out in a cold sweat.”
Steve shrugs Bucky’s arm off his shoulder. “You jerk, you say that every time. And you know that’s not what it’s supposed to feel like. You’re supposed to feel it in your bones.”
Bucky smiles down at him, leaning in. His eyes flick over to the band and then back to Steve. “Well, I feel something in my bones alright. A thrumming.” That smile’s quickly morphing into a smirk and Steve barely has time to say, Bucky, no before Bucky’s trying to lead him onto the dance floor. Steve’s panicking just the slightest bit because he hates when Bucky tries to get him to dance; he’s no good at it and he knows he’ll not only step on Bucky’s toes but also the toes of everyone in a ten feet radius and he really, really doesn’t want to spend the night apologizing for his clumsy footwork. Hell, what he’d really wanted was to spend the night drawing but no—
The pretty blonde in the blue dress distracts Bucky and Steve slips out one of the backdoors.
Steve doesn’t go to any more parties and instead focuses on building his portfolio (when he isn’t busy doing odd jobs to get by, that is). And then the country joins the war and he meets Erskine and Peggy and—well, nothing happens when Peggy touches him (people are so cautious about touching, understandably, so the first time she touches him, it’s impulsive, unthinking, a hand against his pectoral for the briefest of seconds). Nothing happens but it doesn’t mean they couldn’t go dancing and maybe try to be something… more. How many people meet their soulmates, anyway? One in a thousand?
Nothing happened when Howard touched him either. Steve won’t ever admit it, but he has a type. He has a slight preference for men but he likes them a certain way, likes them smart and charming, with dark hair and darker eyes.
So when Howard Stark placed a hand on Steve’s newly muscled abdomen and Steve felt nothing besides the usual tingle of human contact, he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. It’s silly but it is what it is.
And, anyway, Stark’s definitely a ladies’ man, that much is obvious when Steve peeks into his office and accidentally gets an eyeful.
There’s a woman in his lap. “I swear I could chase you to the ends of the earth,” she croons and Howard grins up at her rakishly. “I think I may have gone and imprinted on you,” she adds and Howard tilts his head back and laughs and laughs and laughs and Steve suddenly feels profoundly stupid. Stupid for letting himself be dragged to all those parties, stupid for the novels under his bed, for his naïve romanticism that he tries so hard to keep hidden and locked up deep inside himself.
“Stop lurking in doorways, kid,” Howard says, gesturing him forward and gently easing the woman off him.
Steve straightens. He’s in the middle of a war. He shouldn’t be daydreaming about anything, period.
He could’ve really had something with Peggy, he thinks. He could’ve had a nice life. Marriage—kids, maybe? Kids seem a little unlikely, but maybe.
But right before the plane makes impact, he thinks that dying might not be all that bad. He won’t ever have anything with Peggy, but he’ll finally have some peace and quiet, some rest, some respite from the thoughts about Bucky and the war and—
He wonders at the kind of cruelty the universe must possess for it to force him to get back up and keep going and going even when his legs are tired and brittle and aching—it’s psychosomatic, he knows, but that doesn’t make the pain go away.
Everyone’s gone and he doesn’t even have anything to remember them by, doesn’t have anything on him that he can keep; he has to search the internet for images of his loved ones, print them out and tuck them away in his drawers, between the pages of his silly novels, and in the folds of his jacket.
He feels like an intruder, meddling in a time he doesn’t belong in. He should’ve shriveled up into dust by now, dead along with everyone else, a folded photograph in someone else’s breast pocket if he’s lucky.
And then he meets Howard’s son, who isn’t very much like his father at all.
Same general appearance, same brilliance, same charm, sure, but this Stark isn’t as guarded with his expressions, moves more animatedly, faster, allows himself to be gruff and rough, and his hands and mouth are always, always moving.
Steve dislikes him almost immediately and he’s not quite sure why (he hopes it isn’t because of something as petty as wanting Tony to be more like Howard 2.0).
And then Steve finds himself bending over Stark, trying to check for a pulse but being unable to with the suit in the way—he tries listening for breathing but there’s nothing, just dead, heavy silence. He trails his hand over the burnt out-looking electromagnet in his chest, wishing he would stop having to see teammates die, wishing once again that he was dead like them.
And then Stark opens his eyes, gasps for breath makes a crack about food and—and Steve doesn’t understand why he feels so elated, why everything doesn’t seem as foggy and shitty and dull as it did since he woke up from the ice.
When Steve touches Tony’s bare hand, he thinks he understands. He thinks this is what it feels like to be properly reborn. He feels electric, dizzy, like something bright woke in his mind, pushing all the cobwebs and dust off into the corners. He feels a charge. A—a thrumming in his bones.
Except Tony goes from smiling to frowning dizzyingly fast and in the face of his—soulmate’s?—displeasure, Steve’s own smile doesn’t really stand much of a chance.