Steve Roger's mother had a band of text running half-way around her left leg just under her knee. It said, Please, miss, let me help you with that. It was the first thing his father had ever said to her.
Steve's father had My goodness, what a gentleman! circling his left elbow, which were the first words Sarah ever said to him in return. When Joseph Rogers went to fight in World War I, he would always sign his letters with a circle. Sarah told Steve it was Joseph's way of saying he loved her.
By the time Steven was born, the words on Sarah's leg had faded to light grey. She told Steve that she'd checked her leg first thing every morning and last thing every night while Joseph was gone. One day she'd woken up and they were so light she couldn't read them anymore. That was how she knew his father had died.
These were the words Steve was born with, running in a messy, uneven line across his skinny little chest, beneath both his collarbones: You okay, pal? Those jerks didn't hurt ya too bad, did they?
Steve never told anyone, but his biggest fear was that one day he'd wake up and see the words faded to light grey, and he'd know his soulmate had died before he ever got to meet them.
James Buchanan Barnes didn't get his soulmate's words until he was almost a year old. They were I had 'em on the ropes in neat, careful handwriting down his right side. He wondered if it meant his soulmate was a boxer.
Bucky met Steve when he was nine. Steve was eight years old and he definitely wasn't a boxer. He was tiny and scrawny and gasping for breath and getting the snot beat out of him. That was okay, though. He was Bucky's soulmate and Bucky knew he was going to love him anyway.
There was a girl at school—her name was Lucy Reilly—who had the words, I don't believe we've met in spidery cursive on her left forearm. They were so light they were almost impossible to read. She told Steve that they faded just a few months after she was born. She didn't seem too broken up about it.
When Steve asked, Lucy shrugged and just said sure it was sad, but her mommy told her it happened, sometimes. And that she'd probably get another soulmate just as soon as he was born.
A few months later she came to school with How 'bout you watch where you're going? in thick block letters on her upper arm. Lucy was ecstatic.
For a long time after that, Steve would check his words in the mirror every night before he went to bed and the first thing in the morning, just like his mother had. He wasn't sure what would be worse: finding them faded or finding new words to replace them.
Bucky was Steve's soulmate. Steve didn't want anyone else. He would never want anyone else.
When Bucky went to war without him, Steve checked the words every chance he got. It became an obsession. He couldn't pass a mirror, a window, anything reflective at all, without unbuttoning his collar enough to pull it aside to see the color of the first thing Bucky ever said to him. And every time he saw the black, the stab of relief was just as deep and brutal as the time before.
The one thing, the only thing, he was worried about when he found out what Erskine's serum would do was that it might somehow change his soul along with his body. Steve didn't want to be stronger or taller or healthier if it meant he wouldn't be Bucky's soulmate anymore.
Erskine promised him that wouldn't happen. But all the same Bucky's words were the first thing Steve checked for when he came out of the machine. He was still terrified that he'd changed too much and he wouldn't see them. But they were still there.
That moment—not running like a racehorse or leaping over cars or catching a spy single-handed like it was nothing, nothing, nothing—was when Steve really knew he'd made the right decision. Bucky was still his, and now Steve could go overseas and protect him, just like Bucky had done for Steve their whole life.
Bucky was in Italy when he saw the I had 'em on the ropes had faded to light grey.
He was next to a river, putting his shirt back on after washing the worst of the sweat and dirt off for the first time in days. And for one insane moment he assumed the water had washed the words off like ink.
Then he thought that maybe they were just covered up, like the water had stained them somehow. Bucky remembered touching Steve's words, blinking in mild curiosity as he licked his thumb and rubbed at the 'I'. As if that could get rid of the grey and bring back the black. As if that could somehow make it that Steve wasn't actually dead.
He wasn't sure when he went from rubbing at the grey to frantically trying to wash it off to clawing at his own skin with his nails, like he'd find Steve's writing in the right color underneath. But the next thing he was really aware of was kicking and thrashing while Dum Dum and Jim held his arms so they could drag him out of the river. Bucky's pants and boots were soaking, diluted blood running down his side.
"Bucky, Bucky, stop! It won't come off, Bucky! God, I'm so sorry, kid. I'm so sorry," Dum Dum said, gentler and more somber than Bucky had ever heard him.
Bucky yanked his arm out of Jim's grip, twisting to hit Dum Dum, but the other man was larger and stronger and barely flinched when Bucky drove his fist clumsily into his shoulder. Dum Dum just grabbed him in a bear hug.
"It's wrong. It has to be. He's safe. He was safe! How—" Bucky's voice cracked open on a violent sob that felt like it tore his heart in half. Instead of fighting he gripped the back of Dum Dum's wet jacket, holding on for dear life as he pressed his forehead to the scratchy wool and tried to breathe through the grief that was choking him.
"Wait, wait," Jim said, urgent. "Bucky—there's something on your back."
"Words," Gabe cut in immediately. "He means, there are words on your back! You didn't have any before there, right?"
Bucky lifted his head, looking dully at Gabe. "What're you talking about?"
"It says, 'It's me. It's Steve,'" Gabe said. He stared at Bucky. "Steve's your soulmate." He didn't ask because it wasn't a question. Everyone in his squad knew about Steve, just like Bucky knew their soulmates' names. Only Dum Dum hadn't met his yet.
Bucky stared back at him. "What?"
"Yeah, it's right there," Jim said, pointing. Behind him Monty and Dernier nodded. Jim touched a point under Bucky's right shoulder blade. "It starts here and ends here." He pulled his finger down to a little above Bucky's waist. "Next to your spine."
"It really says, 'It's me. It's Steve,'?" Bucky said. He tried to look over his shoulder, but he could barely see the shape of the top letter. But it was there, as black as a fresh tattoo.
"Oui." Dernier nodded. He grinned widely, showing his cigarette-stained teeth. "Your paroles-coeur is maybe not dead."
"He's definitely alive," Gabe said. "That's the same writing."
"Bloody hell. I've never seen anything like this," Monty said. "You don't suppose he truly came back from the dead?"
"I don't know," Bucky said. Dum Dum was still holding onto him, not as restraint or even comfort now, but like he knew that if he let go Bucky's legs probably wouldn't support him. Bucky looked at Gabe. "It's really his name?"
Gabe nodded. "I swear, Bucky. It says, 'It's me. It's Steve.' He's gotta be alive."
"How is that possible?" Bucky pulled away from Dum Dum, wiping his eyes. Dum Dum kept his big hand wrapped around Bucky's arm.
Jim scratched the back of his head. "Something like that happened to my kaachan —my mom, I mean—when my little sister was born. I think, anyway. My sis got stuck and they both almost died. I was in another part of the house with my dad, and I remember he looked at his wrist and all of a sudden he ran out of the room shouting my mom's name. He didn't come back until after my sister was born. And when he did he had different words, and they were on the back of his arm instead of the front. But they were still from my mom."
"So, Steve died and came back?" Bucky said. That was terrifying all on its own. He reached around to his back, as if he could somehow feel the words he couldn't see.
"My mom didn't die. Not even for a minute," Jim said. "I mean, she came close, yeah, 'cause she was so exhausted and in a hell of a lot of pain. But she didn't die."
"Maybe he got really sick, then," Bucky murmured. He thought about Steve back in their crappy closet-sized apartment in Brooklyn, hacking his lungs up with another asthma attack or feverish again with God knew what. And without anyone to take care of him.
He looked at Jim over his shoulder. "They're still there, right?"
"Yeah, pal." Jim nodded seriously. "Don't worry—they're still there."
It would take weeks before Bucky stopped asking, or touching the words every chance he got, no matter how he couldn't feel them.
Months later, when he was a prisoner laboring in a Hydra factory, he started asking again. And every time he was told that yes, Steve's words were still there and still the same, Bucky was able to find the strength to go on for another few hours; to stay defiant and hold his head up and try to sabotage whatever he could.
When the guards dragged him off to the room none of the prisoners came back from, Bucky's biggest fear was that no one would be able to tell him if the words were still on his back. And then when he was in so much pain that he bit pieces off his tongue so he wouldn't beg to die, his biggest fear was Steve finding Bucky's words gone, and never even knowing what happened.
Steve didn't get to go overseas. Not at first. His only choices were to be a lab rat or dancing monkey, and at least as a monkey he might eventually get to the front. So he swallowed his protests and his pride and each night he prayed that Bucky would still be alive by the time Steve found him.
When he finally went to Italy, the troops hated him, and when Peggy told him why the first thing Steve did was run to the dressing room and stand in front of one of the mirrors. His chest was heaving like he was having an asthma attack, and his hands shook so badly he ripped his costume when he tried to pull the collar down so he could see his chest.
You okay, pal? Those jerks didn't hurt ya too bad, did they? was so faded that it barely looked like a shadow on his skin.
Peggy found him in his tent with his eyes red and streaming. He was throwing his jacket on over his stupid, ridiculous, useless costume. (Useless like him, and Bucky was dead, and dear God in heaven what was he supposed to do now?) And even though it was obvious he was grieving and out of his mind, she listened when he told her that he couldn't keep being a dancing monkey, not anymore. Not when Bucky was…not when Bucky's words were gone and there were other men of the 107th with no one going to rescue them.
She listened, then she got Howard Stark and he listened too, and then they somehow had an airplane. And then Steve was throwing himself into the air over Austria, with nothing but a parachute and a half-assed plan to honor his soulmate by saving as many of his fellow soldiers as he could.
But when he went to the room where the freed prisoners told him he might find Bucky so he could at least bring him home, Bucky was still alive.
And when Steve reached for his soulmate, he saw Steve?, pure black and in Bucky's handwriting on the back of his left hand.
Steve tore his glove off, still hanging onto the train. He saw Bucky die.
Less than a week later, Steve purposely crashed Schmidt's plane into the ice.
He might've been able to get out, before the plane went down. If he'd tried.
He didn't try.
In 1952, the Winter Soldier came out of the ice and he saw The honor is mine, Comrade, written in elegant, dark grey Cyrillic across his stomach.
He couldn't remember if he'd had words before, at least not ones that weren't too faded to read.
He knew better than to ask, though. Or to even acknowledge that he'd noticed them. Any question that wasn't about his next assignment was always answered with pain.
He'd seen them on other people—single words or long phrases, ranging from the poetic to the stupidly mundane. He supposed they had some significance, but he knew better than to ask and no one ever told him.
They weren't anything he needed to know about; they meant nothing.
In 1954, a beautiful redheaded woman said the words to him when his handlers introduced them. Much later, she would show him the words on her own body: I'm honored to meet the formidable Black Widow. They were dark grey and in his own Cyrillic writing, far sloppier than hers. And in a place too intimate for most people to see.
"We're soulmates," she whispered to him later still, during a few stolen moments in the dark.
"Soulmates," he repeated. The word felt as familiar as blood on his hands, and made him think of…A man?
A man with hair like summer. A man fierce and brave and safe. And then a terrible sense of loss and longing.
But he was the Winter Soldier. He existed and he killed, that was all. That was everything. The Red Room gave him what he needed. The only thing he wanted was the woman in his arms, and he knew that was forbidden.
"Yes, soulmates," Natalia said. He could hear the smile on her lips, then feel it as she kissed him.
It was forbidden, but it didn't feel wrong to kiss her. Just, not right. He loved Natalia. At least, he thought the good feeling he had when he was near her or thinking about her might be love. And when he smiled for her he meant it.
He loved her, but it wasn't right. The letters should be black, he thought. He didn't know why, but he knew they should be black. Just like he knew they should be different.
Years later, he would come out of the ice and the elegant Cyrillic would be gone (not faded, he would understand only decades afterwards, but gone. It was because he didn't remember her; they'd torn her out of his mind like everything else.)
(The first words he'd said to Natalia faded.)
Sometimes he would look at the empty patch above his navel and feel like something was missing, something good. But that was the kind of question that would get him hurt, so he never asked about it. And it was obvious nothing was missing anyway, because he could function. He could carry out his assignments.
That was the only thing that mattered.
Steve woke up from the ice in 2011 with the words, Who the hell is Bucky? circling his heart, in printing so precise it barely looked human.
Steve hated them. He hated them, because that wasn't Bucky's writing and it wasn't Bucky, and whomever was going to say those words wouldn't even know who Bucky was.
Steve dreaded greeting anyone new. He tried to never mention Bucky's nickname, in case he heard "who the hell is Bucky?" and would suddenly have a soulmate he didn't want.
He knew it wasn't fair to them. Cruel, even, because it wasn't their fault. And Steve really didn't want to hurt anyone or break their heart. But he couldn't be with someone else. Just the idea of it made him feel like he was back in the arctic: so cold he couldn't move but still aware he was dying.
The other words he found, though--Uh-huh, on my left. Got it. in a relaxed scrawl on the inside of his left knee--were easier to take. They were dark grey, which meant they were for a platonic relationship and that was just fine. Steve didn't mind the idea of a platonic soulmate. He was looking forward to meeting them, actually. He didn't have many friends outside the Avengers, and he didn't see the Avengers much when the world wasn't about to end.
Platonic soulmates were rare, too. Most people never got a soulmate for a friend, and certainly not decades after they'd ostensibly died. Steve knew how lucky he was.
But with Who the hell is Bucky?…
Cruel though it was, Steve hoped he never met them.
He came out of the ice, and he came out of the ice, and he came out of the ice, and he came out of the ice and it was 2012 and there was one word, in deep black like new ink across his heart.
It meant nothing.
"On your left," Steve said.
"Uh-huh, on my left. Got it," the other jogger said as Steve blasted past him again.
Later, he'd shake hands with a man named Sam Wilson, who had On your left emblazoned like a challenge on his right bicep.
Sam was a veteran and a counselor who worked at the Veterans' Administration. He was calm and intelligent and had a wicked sense of humor, and his immediate, absolute loyalty was breathtaking.
That was the morning of the last good day Steve would have for some time.
"Bucky?" the man on the bridge said, in a voice full of wonder and shock and horror and pain.
The word still meant nothing.
"You know me. Bucky, you've known me your whole life," the man (he was the Asset's mission, nothing else) said.
He said, "Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. I'm not going to fight you. You're my soulmate."
"You're my mission!" the Asset shouted. He didn't have a soulmate. He didn't know what a soulmate was. (A man with hair like summer. A man fierce and brave and safe. Words in deep black like new ink down his side; along his back; over his heart.)
(A terrible sense of loss and longing.)
"Then finish it," the man said. "'Cause you're my soulmate and I'm with you 'til the end of the line."
And then the glass broke (and the wind howled ice around him like death and the metal was freezing but Steve screamed a name like the word over his heart and told him to hang on so he did until the handle broke. And he was still reaching for Steve but it was too late too late too late and) Steve Rogers his soulmate was falling—
And Bucky dove after him.
Steve came to in a hospital bed with Sam on his right and Who the hell is Bucky? faded to a light grey circle around his heart. But this was written over it:
Hi. My name is James Buchanan Barnes and I'm pretty sure you're my soulmate. But who the hell is going to threaten to shoot me in Russian?
A month later, Steve would find, I am your soulmate, Bucky. God, I've missed you, in two neat, stacked lines over Bucky's heart, covering the barely-legible Bucky? that Steve hadn't seen.
Those words never faded.