Feels like the world's at stake 'cause
I have been waiting
I have been waiting for you.
Sometimes the soul marks change. Still, it’s not exactly common and it’s definitely worthy of note when it happens to you, because it means that somewhere out there on this great green Earth, quick moments or entire continents away… your soulmate just left you Alone.
The weird thing is that his mark never changed.
Most soulmates are separated at birth by some distance. Many pairs don’t even speak the same language, at first. There’s usually something unexpected between them – it’s part of the wonder of it all, that you don’t know what you want until you meet it. So in the end, when the person contained inside that flesh-and-bone form is the perfect, once-and-for-all-eternity complimentary partner to your own soul, it becomes surprisingly easy to overlook whatever form that soul has taken.
Few soulmates are separated at birth by too much time – many share birthdays. Most share birth months. Almost all share birth years. When the distance becomes greater than one year all bets are off, with five years’ difference being equally as unusual as fifty.
Yet the one rule that has never been broken is that no matter the geographical separation, no matter the language or cultural barriers in place, no matter the form, physique, colour, present or past circumstances, the gap in age, or even whether or not they ever even meet – the soulmates’ lifespans always overlap.
So it came as something of a shock to the young boy in an orphanage in Brooklyn, New York, when his scruff and soul mark started to come in at the age of twelve and the latter told him, as it appeared letter by letter, that his soulmate had been dead for almost sixty years.
His mark came in late along with the rest of his lazy puberty, but by the time Steve Rogers was eighteen years old he had a fully formed name in delicate, square letters spanning the entire length of his spine from his nape to the hollow above his tailbone, so that you had to step back and turn your head to the right to read it properly. James Buchanan Barnes. He was pretty lucky, he knew, because it was a good and specific name. He couldn’t help but pity people like Loretta Cartwright at the corner store, whose forearm from wrist to elbow had picked out in gentle script the words John David Smith, of all things, or even Daniel Burke from the docks where Steve worked in the office, who by early 1939 had a bicep that boldly read Anja Klaudia Müller.
(Still no excuse to be a great big bully, and Steve made sure to tell him so.)
Steve’s Ma was a believer in waiting until you had your own life sorted out before trying to complicate it with a soulmate. Steve thought she was missing the point. It was difficult for him to justify any reason not to look for his soulmate if only so he would no longer be Alone but… he simply didn’t see it as a complication. He wanted his partner. He wanted his James to do life with. He wanted him by his side so terribly that he sometimes ached for it in his bones. But she would not be swayed, and even after Steve could legally go after him on his own he respected his Ma far too much to blatantly disrespect her wishes like that.
But his Ma died when he was nineteen years old, of the pneumonia Steve had always thought would take him first – and then he was truly Alone. It seemed only logical to spend the rest of the afternoon, after her small funeral, uptown at the International Bureau of Marks completing his paperwork. He submitted it with a rush of anxious excitement.
The results came back two weeks later and quashed that excitement somewhat. Steve had been dreaming that his soulmate was already out there waiting for him, that his paperwork was already submitted and ready to be matched with Steve’s. That he would get the magnificent stamp of VM returned to him on his file and a letter about how to go about contacting his James. If not a Verified Match, then almost as good would be the Confirmed Match, telling him that his James was out there somewhere, waiting, but not yet ready to meet him. Steve would wait. He absolutely would.
But instead, his file carried the stamp of two letters across the top that forced Steve onto the kitchen chair when his skinny legs gave up on him.
NR. No records.
Steve stared at the two letters for far too long, until the sun had dipped below the city’s skyline and the streetlamps had flickered to life. He fought back tears of disappointment as best he could, and tried to reassure himself that at least James was not a Terminated Match or a Ghost Match. He didn’t think he would have been able to cope if James were already dead or had filed to legally conceal himself from his soulmate.
He was just… not here yet. Well, Steve would still be waiting for him.
The NR letter was folded up and carefully added to Steve’s chest of precious items, waiting to be shown to James many years from now when he was grown-up, when they loved each other for something more than just the marks on their skin, and when James knew just how much Steve had wanted him from the moment his name began to weave its way down his spine.
Sometimes life was just too much to cope with on your own. Nobody was meant to be Alone – science had pinned down that much about the soul marks, at least. It was your choice whether to pursue your soulmate or not, and your choice as a pair whether you were going to be friends, siblings, partners, lovers; nothing at all or something of your own making. But no matter how bad things could get, you at least always knew that there was someone out there who bore your name indelibly on their body and who loved you loved you loved you.
And then there was Bucky Barnes, whose soulmate was dead somewhere up in the North Atlantic.
Tony Stark was legally an orphan from the age of nineteen, and not as pleased about it as a lot of people seemed to think. His plan had been to create his own company once he was done with his third and – for now – final BS, work that in and around the series of Masters and PhDs he had in mind. But now he was saddled with his goddamn father’s company, and he may have been a disrespectful little shit at the best of times, but even he wasn’t heartless enough to just dissolve his father’s life’s work and be on his merry way.
Let Obie handle it: he had his own plans to work through.
He took another deep draught of whatever painfully overpriced liqueur was in the tumbler at his side, taken from his father’s – his – private collection, then clinked it back down on the table and pulled another sheaf of papers onto his folded legs. Not five minutes later his eyes were crossing at the tables of figures and unspeakably dull legalese, dismally matching the room with its outdated wood panelling and heavy drapery and monstrous wooden furniture. Tony slapped his knees and stood, letting the Stark Industries papers fall haphazardly to the floor at his feet, and stretched out his cramped spine.
Over in the shadows of what used to be his father’s office, there was a large military-style trunk topped with a folded jacket and another, smaller trunk. Personal items-type-thing, Tony figured. It wasn’t a new sight, and it had been many years since his father had satisfied his curiosity about it –Howard Stark had never technically served in a military capacity and so would have had exactly zero need for a trunk like that, nor would he have ever settled for something so basic – by telling him that it had belonged to an old friend. Made sense, since his dad did serve near the army and apparently wasn’t always as much of a dick as he’d been in Tony’s general experience.
It was well past time to go through it. Maybe Howard had been saving it for a dead friend of his, but with both men out of the picture the chests were just taking up space.
Tony finished off what was in his tumbler, grimacing, then headed on over to the two trunks. The smaller one he hefted up and over to the enormous desk that once belonged to Walter Stark, where he would deal with it later. Little thing like that probably contained papers, and he was in no sort of mood to deal with more of that. The jacket got tossed over the back of the desk chair. The larger chest had a lock on it that Tony considered for about twenty seconds before dropping into a crouch and prying the whole thing off the worn wood with a sterling silver letter opener.
1940 – clearly not a good year for military craftsmanship.
Not during a war either, Tony allowed, hefting up the lid of the trunk and bracing his hands on the edges of the box.
At first glance, the contents were boring. Books on war. Books on strategy. Books on… public speaking? Tony lifted that one out and gave it a strange look, before dropping it to the floor by his knee so he could delve deeper into the trunk. There he pulled out what looked like a utility belt, one with the old SSR wing logo sewn onto its larger pouches. He got a kick out of messing with it for a few moments, checking out the antique bullets and badges in the pouches, before succumbing to whimsy and fastening it around his waist with a bit of wiggle room. Next was a well-buffed, medium-sized black box Tony recognized faintly as a case for medals. Maybe there would be a name on one of them, or at least somewhere in the box. He flicked it open gently.
Whoever this soldier friend of his dad’s had been, he was as well decorated as a khaki-clad Christmas tree. He wasn’t sure any human alive would be able to cram that many medals onto his chest, and he made a strict mental note to later look up what they all were. They were all quite dull and clearly in need of some love and elbow grease, and Tony debated for a moment whether he should have them mounted and displayed out of respect for a great soldier and what may have been his father’s only friend, or just donate them to a museum. He would decide later. None of them, however, had names on them, and Tony frowned at them reprovingly.
He glanced over at the jacket, knowing that it at least was likely to have a last name somewhere on it. The box of medals went with him when he sprung to his feet, and joined the smaller chest on the table while Tony skirted it and plucked the jacket off the back of the chair. It looked like a standard duty jacket, which was a little odd because one would figure a dead solider would probably have been wearing his uniform when he was (as his father had suggested) killed in action. Tony swung it up onto himself, and noted immediately that even though the guy had had a similarly trim waist, his shoulders were unfairly wide compared to Tony’s, not to mention the distracting height advantage. He huffed around in dismay for a little while before grabbing the lapel and twisting it to see if the soldier’s name was still on the jacket.
He froze. Rogers.
“No way in hell,” he whispered at it.
His mark was a thing of beauty, if he did say so himself. It had finally come in fully, not deepening any further or become any more defined than it already was. The letters were not cursive like so many others, instead strong, square – but not blocky – with determined strokes tempered by gentle, artistic flicks at the tips of the letters. Some people had marks that looked like tattoos, others like brands, still others as though they had been scribbled on with Sharpie and might be rubbed off at any time.
Bucky’s looked carved. Scar-like letters binding him to this man he’d never meet as they ran the length of his back.
It was so beautiful.
Problem was: he was probably biased, and nobody else had ever seen it.
Problem was: Steve would never see it, and the thought always sent icy tremors down his marked spine.
Bucky sometimes tries to imagine what Steve Rogers must have thought about him.
It wasn’t exactly a useful exercise, but sometimes the mind wanders where it will. Did Steve realize that Bucky was simply unborn? Did he think Bucky was avoiding him? Did he think– did he think Bucky wanted nothing to do with him? He sometimes felt the need to wheel around and grab onto Steve’s shirt and promise him with every ounce of strength he had that he wanted Steve sometimes more than he wanted to even breathe, felt it so strongly that his hands trembled and his heart lost its rhythm – but Steve was not within his reach. Other times the unfairness struck him with such clarity that he knew he could never scream loud enough and instead he cried roughly and uselessly.
Useless. He felt so useless. He let his soulmate die – die – thinking that he was unwanted. The man the whole world adored, but who nobody would ever love like Bucky loved him.
When he was quieter and able to think with something approaching intelligence, he supposed that the procedure that had been done on the soldier must have messed with their bond. His sister Rebecca called the bonds ‘juju’, others called it magic. The scientific community tended to go with it being a sort of energy, not unlike other such unquantifiable human features like goodwill, charisma, or joie de vivre. The souls were part of the Earth’s energy, and they knew where they belonged. They even knew what language the partners spoke, what confining, constricting words would be assigned to them as names and the glyphs needed to mark them down.
But they apparently didn’t know what to do with the level of manipulation done to the genetics of Steven Grant Rogers. Bucky was sixteen years old and even he knew that he should report his mark to somebody, because it might suggest a stronger link than had ever before been proven between the body and the soul – if Erskine’s super-soldier serum had been enough to mess up the juju so badly.
When he was feeling less lucid, Bucky was angry. He was so angry he felt that his very soul was quivering with it. He just wanted what everyone else got. He didn’t want Captain America. He didn’t want the Star-Spangled-Man-With-A-Plan. People would have chewed off their own arms to have been Captain Rogers’s soulmate, but Bucky just wanted Steve.
It was an exercise in self-flagellation to go see films and exhibits about him. They learned about him in school and Bucky felt indescribably unstable on those days. He had to feign sickness on many special Independence Day ceremonies at his school. Sometimes he was able to have a 1944 propaganda photo of the serious-looking captain displayed in a frame on his desk, and sometimes it had to go in the drawer.
If nothing else though, Bucky Barnes had known from the age of twelve that he was going to die Alone.
Steve’s heart thundered with no rhythm as the slow line shuffled forward. He tugged at his oversized singlet and willed his body to calm down even just a little – who knew if the doctor had a way to tell even from here that his heart wasn’t exactly cooperative? Then again, his skin was so pale and fine that even a layman could see his erratic pulse jumping in his throat.
The doctor gave him a crooked eyebrow.
“You must be joking.”
“Knees up, Barnes! If I catch you trailin’ again you’ll be scrubbing toilets ‘til Easter!”
“Good shot, Lieutenant. Clean your damn self up, and go talk to Major Kennedy about some evenings down at the range.”
“Sergeant Barnes? Someone’s on the phone for you.”
“Some guy called Moore. Says he’s from the Marks Bureau.”
He sighed. “I ain’t here, Private.”
He figures it like this: he ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s a damn good shot, great with people, and he fights like a demon. He’s already failed his soulmate by being born damn near a century too late. The best he can hope for now is to show himself that there is a reason he has that name scarred onto his spine. Why sometimes he can feel icy fingers tracing the letters over his vertebrae and pouring into them that strength and that courage that has gone down in history.
He has to prove that he is worthy of being Captain fucking America’s soulmate.
Steven Grant Rogers.
Plain as day.
Some sick joke.
There were two men alive on Earth named Steven Grant Rogers, whose parents must have been spectacularly uninformed, blasé, kind of cruel, or possessing of a very strange sense of humour.
One lived in Yorkshire, England, and was happily married to his soulmate. One had murdered his soulmate in Texas in 1997 and was presumably contemplating this heinous deed from the cell he’d never again see the outside of. That much Bucky could find out on his own.
The Bureau showed him exactly what he didn’t want to see: a pair of photographs.
A scrawny, fragile scrap of a man with more visible bones than Bucky thought could possibly be healthy. Pictured from behind (a view completely unfamiliar to the general or even academic public), his toothpick arms were slack by his sides so as not to disturb the mark running from a few inches below his hairline to the very base of his knobbly spine.
A huge, muscular god of a man with muscles pressing through against his smooth skin even while at rest. Though his corded arms lay passively by his sides, the beautiful muscles of his back still stood out in relief. He was a carving; a pure work of art marred only by the same mark picking its way from the nape of his neck to a hand’s breadth below his ribs, exactly the same size as it had been before.
Bucky had instinctively known who his soulmate was even before he’d ruled out as many other options as possible, but knowing it for yourself and actually seeing your name carved down the spine of a dead man born almost seventy years before you are two infinitely different matters.
Along with the photographs in the Bureau’s file was a yellowed, well-worn piece of paper that he was told had been donated from the possessions of the late Howard Stark, of Stark Industries. Bucky hadn’t technically been allowed to remove the two photos from the Bureau for some kind of complicated national security reason (seeing as the guy had been swimming with the chilly fishes since 1945, Bucky found this to be needlessly paranoid), but he was – unofficially – given photocopies by one of the pitying office workers, and was also – officially – allowed to take the ratty piece of paper in a plastic sleeve.
It was mussed in a way that suggested it had travelled a lot. Bucky imagined Steve carting it around with him from Paris to Prague as he fought Nazis and worse. On the right hand side of it, just below a fold seam that threatened to tear if the person holding the letter so much as twitched with it in their hands, there was a trace of a muddy fingerprint, from a clay-like soil that had survived decades of conditions both damp and dry. Bucky stared at it, torn between needing to preserve it perfectly, and needing to place his own thumb over it and feel that connection.
Dear Mr. Rogers,
(The letter said, after the header and date in 1939, return addresses and so on.)
We are pleased to inform you that your mark is now on file, under the status of
If this is incorrect or you require any more information, please contact your local branch.
You will be contacted by letter if your match changes status.
At the top in a specially designated box was a stamp about one inch by two, with the two letters ‘NR’ at its center. Bucky laughed morosely at the sight of it. The Steve Rogers that all accounts described would probably have been devastated… but still hopeful at the sight of such a thing. Certainly the fact that he carried this useless letter with him through the war and then ensured it was kept safe by one of the richest men on the planet said something very telling about his feelings towards the whole thing.
Bucky lifted the paper from its protective sleeve, delicately placed his thumb over the mark Steve had left sixty-four years ago, and he hurt.
Nobody is obligated to file their mark – as a civilian.
He wasn’t surprised that an interest was taken in him as soon as he was promoted to sergeant, somebody actually read his file, looked at the mandatory photograph of his mark, and put two and two together.
He is surprised they haven’t brought him in and made every humanly attempt to hack the star-spangled soul right out of him.
He thinks he would like them to at least try.
He would give anything for them to succeed.
James Barnes, Sergeant, 32557038…
James Barnes, Sergeant, 32557038…
James Barnes, Sergeant, 32557038…
Steve was more grateful for Peggy’s presence than he could ever say, as they drove along and she gave him what was probably a sort of grimace at his stilted conversation, but which he took as an encouraging smile. She was so beautiful he was somewhat shocked still that he was able to speak with her at all, since he’d really always had trouble around people that lovely. Something about them tugged at his soul – perhaps the artistic part, a pure aesthetic appreciation – while another part of him always ended up looking at them and thinking maybe James has eyes that beautiful…
Does James have hair that rich brown?
I bet James’s smile is even more beautiful than hers.
He smiled to himself a little bit when he saw Peggy’s enigmatic expression out of the corner of his eye, and wondered if James had a grin like hers, or if it had a cheekier edge, like Steve’s. Perhaps he wasn’t a grinner but a beamer – did he have perfectly straight teeth or were they a little crooked? Maybe he had dimples, or maybe his cheeks would pull into laugh lines. Steve wondered if he would laugh with his whole body, or duck his head shyly, blush or run his hand through his hair.
“What is it?” Peggy asked him, his own good mood reflecting back at him in her voice.
“It’s nothin’,” he shrugged, but he did turn to look over at her as the car trundled through the backstreets of the city. “Thinkin’ about good things.”
She had a level stare, yet her eyes were warm and striking. He liked Agent Carter very much. She seemed to return the regard, and he knew that without that name on his spine and hers around her ankle, they may have even, perhaps, one day, had a chance together.
As he settled into the machine at Erskine’s instruction, thoughts that had badgered him over the past weeks of training and preparation came trickling back into his mind deceptively slowly. Soon, he could think of little beyond what the effects of this procedure would be on his soul mark.
Erskine wouldn’t lie to him, and had admitted that they simply had no idea. The only other man to have undertaken the procedure had done so on his own and without anything resembling scientific documentation, so they couldn’t provide him with an answer to the aching questions that still festered. Would the procedure destroy his soul mark? Would it affect the bond? Would it affect James? Would the mark change?
Steve didn’t want it to change. The circumstances were unusual, to be certain, but if he found himself on the other end of this procedure with someone else’s name on his body instead of the one he already loved he would feel as though he had cheated on his James. Just the contemplation of it made him feel ill.
He made them take multiple photographs of his mark. He kept one with his personal possessions, another went into his file, and he’d given one to Peggy for safekeeping, since she seemed, somehow, to understand his fear of his James simply being erased. If he lost the mark, he still wanted to be able to let James know how much he had adored him for almost five years now, plus however long it took him to get out of the war. He knew he would survive it: had forged for himself a surety that only a handful of soldiers could hope to match. He had asked Peggy to check the records for him one last time last night, and with her connections, wiles, and whatever other methods she employed she had received word back from the Bureau poste haste that Steve’s James Buchanan Barnes was still not viable.
Steve would live through this, and he would meet his James, finally able to offer him something more than a scrawny, pugnacious artist scraping by on pennies for newspaper cartoons in Brooklyn.
A lone soldier stood on the doorstep of a deeply weathered old house somewhere in the English countryside. He’d lost track of the towns as the rickety bus had carried him through fields and over little hills, passing sheep and horses and cows and creatures that looked like combinations of the three. The air was damp and the sky grey, but the wisteria curling all over the front of the white-painted house was a surprising purple in colour, fragrant and bubbly, and before long he was shaking himself out of a trance staring at the beautiful flowers. The white of the house’s walls was offset by the dark wooden beams inlaid within them, surrounding the window panels, and making up the porch stoop. The severe blackness of the overhang was mitigated by the soft purple flowers spilling over it and draping themselves down its sides in a friendly display.
He stepped forward and rang the bell – he thought he did, anyway. There was no sound. He waited, awkwardly looking around at the surrounding misty fields and low flint stone walls, before trying it again with a more determined amount of force. Though there was no sound the second time either, a clacking sound erupted almost immediately on the other side of the door, which then opened to reveal a middle-aged, rounded face peeking a little suspiciously at him around the doorframe. “Yes?”
“Hi, I, um –” he stammered, before collecting himself. “Is this the home of Peggy Carter?”
Her eyes narrowed, and she didn’t answer.
“I’ve, uh, been exchanging letters with her for a few months and she asked me to come over the next time I was on leave –”
“Barnes?” she asked, wrinkled face softening.
“Oh – yeah – sorry,”
He was admitted and fussed over for a few minutes until his wet overcoat was taken to places unknown with his gloves and scarf, his dirty boots set in the corner of the hall to dry, and a warm, oversized sweater from the airing cupboard pulled on over the long sleeves of his thin shirt.
“She won’t mind me wearing her husband’s sweater?” he asked the caretaker, Deirdre, cautiously, picking at the deep green knit.
“He’s been gone for many years,” she informed him, escorting him back from the laundry space behind the kitchen to the hallway and the staircase, which turned out to be exactly as creaky as it looked. “Ms. Peggy likes to be sure his things don’t go to waste. Ms. Peggy?”
She knocked on the first door on the right once they had reached the top of the stairs, and the nervousness he had been mostly able to avoid during the long, tedious trip over came burrowing back. He crossed his wrists behind his back and stood uncomfortably straight behind the diminutive caretaker. They were given permission to enter, and Deirdre (to his surprise) merely opened the door and indicated that he go in alone.
“She’s expecting you,” he was informed with a gentle smile. “She may forget you for a moment, but you just need to give her a nudge,”
“I can hear you perfectly well,” a calm voice scolded from within the room.
Deirdre gave him another small smile before closing the door on him and audibly clacking back down the stairs. He turned to take in the room in a quick scan – mid-sized, well-lit with warm incandescent bulbs, a soothing colour scheme – before focusing on the figure in the armchair over in the corner. There was a bay window at her left elbow, which was sending grey daylight in to bathe her small form. She did not look frail, though she was thin. Nor did she seem fragile when she was looking at him with those piercing brown eyes.
“Peggy Carter,” she said after a small pause.
“James Barnes, ma’am,” he returned, finally moving to stand a little closer to her. She may not have been a dainty old maid but he still felt oversized and clumsy in her presence.
“Go get that chair by the desk and bring it over here,” she commanded, and he did so gratefully with the reminder of her military history. He took his seat and they resumed staring at each other. Her mouth twisted into a smile. “It’s good to meet you in person. I know that I already know this, but just to humour me, will you tell me your full name?”
He nodded lightly, “It’s James Buchanan Barnes, ma’am.”
He wasn’t prepared for tears to well up in her eyes almost immediately, and she then laughed at the expression on his face. “Oh, don’t be alarmed, James. I just… the last time I heard someone say that name to me… oh dear.” She paused, smoothing out the quilted blanket over her knees without dropping eye contact with him. “May I call you James? Or do you prefer Jim?”
He inclined his head, but, “I actually go by ‘Bucky’.”
The tears seemed to return en force for a split second before she regained control of herself. “So American,” she teased. “You would have made a right pair.”
Her eyes were vibrant, and a very beautiful colour brown which was highly noticeable against her pale skin and white hair, which itself was pulled back into a respectable but slightly mussed bun at the nape of her neck. Those eyes dipped down to his hand, which was vibrating along with the rest of him.
“Oh dear,” she tutted, holding out one strong, wrinkled hand of her own. He could almost see all the blue veins in her fingers down to her wrist. “Come on, now, it’s not perfect, but it’s manageable. I have a useless soul mark too, you know.” He took her hand gingerly at first, and she pulled it back to lie in between the two of hers on her lap, so that he had to shift his chair much closer to hers. “What would you like to know about him?”
His throat closed. “Anything you can offer, ma’am.”
“Bucky,” she called out gently as he rose from beneath the second blanket they had dug up hours ago, sometime just after her earlier nap. There were two teacups and two mugs on the small round table by her chair, and a plate of crumbs beside them.
She gave him a bit of an eyebrow, but continued, “I have another few photographs of Steve you may have. I’m sure you already have better ones, but –”
“Anything,” he breathed, taking a knee in front of her.
She smiled, “Mmm. Hand me that tin on the windowsill, with the Flower Fairies on it. Gift from my niece,” she continued as he obeyed and handed her the small container. “The photos not fit for my albums go in here; I suggest you avert your young eyes.”
He grinned up at her as she sifted through the contents of the tin with delicate fingers, pulling up and discarding several before finding one she smiled at fondly before handing it unceremoniously over to the man cross-legged on the floor in front of her.
Bucky’s fingers were trembling again as he took the photo. It wasn’t what he was expecting – another in what must have been at least a trio of photographs taken of Steve’s soul mark before the serum had its way. Bucky was now in possession of the originals of two – well, of all three now. Some legal beast named Potts had just a few months ago secured for him the photograph previously withheld by the Bureau, citing only ‘patriotic pride’ at his first completed tour as the reason for their free service. Well, he wasn’t asking questions.
That first photo had been donated to the Bureau by the SSR: a plain shot of Steve from behind, mark clearly visible. The second was given to him about a year ago by the estate of Tony Stark, of all people, who explained in a brief email that it had been in his father’s keeping along with many of Steve’s personal possessions – most of which were now on display in various static and travelling exhibits on Captain America worldwide. That second one was a close-up of the mark without Steve’s head or most of the rest of him included, so that Bucky could very clearly see that his own lettering matched it exactly, probably even down to the exact size of each figure. It was framed as though Steve was nowhere near as important as the mark itself – Bucky always felt the complete opposite when he looked at that one.
This third one from Peggy was similar to the first, but in this one Steve was turned slightly to the right, so that the mark was not captured dead-on. Standing beside him and clearly the subject of his gaze was a straight-backed, uniformed, and commandingly beautiful Peggy Carter, with elegant hair and dark lipstick. She was smiling, and thanks to the turn of his head Bucky could see that Steve was smiling too. The first time he had ever seen his soulmate’s smile. Perhaps the only existing record of it. Perhaps the only instance of it in the world outside of Peggy’s memories. In all the propaganda footage and even the candid films of the Howling Commandos, Steve always looked so serious and authoritative. Bucky’s throat closed yet again and this time tears pricked insistently at his eyes. This was also the only photo he’d even seen that showed Steve’s face clearly along with the mark, as if to prove that it really was Steve Rogers attached to that back, and destroying any lingering doubt in Bucky’s mind.
“Bucky,” Peggy said very softly, and he lifted damp eyes to her wrinkled and kind face. “You recall that I… hinted at Steve’s relationship with me?”
He nodded at her, unperturbed by their past as lovers. He’d known since he was a child and his mark had just started coming in that even if he ever had met Steve Rogers he would have been a platonic soulmate. They weren’t big on homosexual interpretations of same-sex soulmates in the Greatest Generation – he’d already come to terms with that. And it made it easier to know the face, heart, and mind of the woman Steve would probably have chosen as his wife back in the day. Peggy was fantastic, and Bucky could summon no jealousy towards her.
Something of his thought process must have made it onto his face, and whatever Peggy saw she reacted to well. A smile bloomed through her lips and she reached out with the hand that was not now holding another photo to touch his cheek. She traced two fingers over his cheekbone before dropping her palm to cup the side of his face in her soft hand. The look she gave him seemed as though she was debating, wondering whether or not to tell him something… perhaps to admit that she and Steve had indeed been engaged, or promised. After all, Peggy’s soulmate was killed during the war before she ever got to meet him, and Steve already knew his wasn’t the marrying type. But in the end she clearly chose not to say anything, and gave his cheek a gentle tap before withdrawing her right hand and offering him the second photo with her left.
His eyes grew wide, and any confusion he had had regarding their relationship went up in a puff of smoke. “Miss Carter…” he said with exaggerated reproach.
“Oh hush,” she smiled. “I insisted.”
“I’ll bet you did,” he fired back, before realizing what he’d said and to whom and looking up with a startled, “Uh, Agent Carter.”
She was definitely laughing at him. “Remove your mind from the gutter, Sergeant Barnes.”
Steve was shirtless again in this photo, taken after the serum. The whole image was a bit of a blurred mess considering the state of cameras back in the 1940s, but everything was still pretty well visible. Steve was facing the camera, sitting on a trunk in what was most likely an officer’s quarters in barracks. Knowing his timeline pretty well, Bucky figured this was either in Peggy’s quarters soon after the procedure, or in Steve’s after Azzano and his official military promotion to Captain, therefore during his Howling Commando days. There was a feminine hand with dark – probably red – painted nails on his enormous shoulder, clearly trying to shove it down to get a view of the mark on his back. The first few letters were visible – JA, most of the M and the top corner of the E.
Though the photo was blurred, it was still obvious that Steve was grinning. And he was grinning up at the photographer so that he was almost – almost so nearly so close to – smiling up at Bucky. God, what a beautiful face.
“I apologize for taking liberties,” Peggy interjected once he’d had a few moments to process. “I convinced him that you would appreciate these images no matter the context.”
“You,” he croaked. “Were not wrong.”
She fairly snickered at him, before offering a third photograph. “Well, in that case.”
This one had Steve up against the wall, and Bucky’s heart rate leaped embarrassingly when he saw it. Both of Steve’s huge arms were up on the bland wallpaper, the right one with its forearm braced over his head, and the left touching near his chest, his hand in a fist. The position threw his extremely wide shoulders and narrow waist into sharp contrast, not to mention the exaggerated curve of his ass even in unflattering, high-waisted uniform pants. Since he was still not wearing a shirt, the soul mark took center stage trailing down his back, shifted into a new configuration by the way the deeply defined muscles of Steve’s back were being pulled. His head was turned to the side to look back at the camera – not quite though; at the photographer, Peggy, as though he was just too shy to make eye contact with the camera lens – so that his entire profile was visible. He was holding still for this photo, so it was clear as crystal and he had only the smallest, most secretive of smiles fixed on his face.
“His hair was gold, and very gold at that,” Peggy informed him. “It got much thicker after the serum, so he had to gel it down or it would run rampant. He had little freckles on his nose when he’d been out in the sun, and his nose, by the way, must have been broken at least three times by the time I met him in ’43.”
Bucky laughed wetly. “His eyes were blue?”
“Yes, very blue. Navy in low light, and ocean blue in the sun. He had the longest eyelashes of any man I’ve ever met. All-American square jaw, but then those pink lips and those lovely lashes.”
“God, Peggy,” Bucky choked, unable to look up from the photograph and the colours she was giving him. “You may have picked the wrong career path.”
“Well, I wish I had something better to give you than photos,” she said soberly. “But I suppose they’ll have to do. It’s awful, isn’t it?”
“Sucks,” he managed, before tearing his eyes from the photo to look up at her. “Thank you for giving me what you have; you really can’t imagine what it means to me.”
“No, I couldn’t possibly,” she agreed sedately. “Oh, my dear James. What a hand you two were dealt.”
“Peggy –” he blurted impulsively. “If I – had, if we had kn– do you think that –”
She laid both hands on his shoulders then, up close to his neck in a fond hold, and she leaned forward to look him in the eye. “I know that he loved you already, and he was so eager to meet you. Having met you myself, I can only imagine that his love for you would been something to behold. He would have taken you in any ways you were willing to offer.”
He had to push his luck. “Would he have married you, Peggy?”
“Oh, absolutely. After all, if he didn’t then people would have started asking some very dangerous questions.”
His head dropped slowly into her lap, and she laced her thin fingers through his hair.
The question of why, exactly, certain pairs are bound together by the marks is one that has captured human imagination since the beginning of their existence.
It is still unclear when exactly the marks began to appear on people, whether or not they had always bound Homo sapiens together in some way, whether it affected previous species, how it was done before the written word, and so on. In cultures without a written language, pairs are often still drawn together on some level deeper than words, marks on their skin that indicate to the person being called that the mark is for them. Entire fields of study have been dedicated to researching why soul marks appear most frequently – though not overwhelmingly – in pairs from extremely similar cultural backgrounds. And still, people dedicate their careers to matching people with their mates in societies still rejecting the ‘interference’ of the International Bureau of Marks. Vast legal machines operate to allow matched pairs new or dual citizenship where necessary. In Bern, Switzerland, a department of the UN legislates on behalf of world interests in the marks. The marks have played enormous historical roles in the fights against slavery, racism, and, more recently, implications on sexism. Somewhere around the mid-twentieth century, the Western world began to accept that the marks make no divisions between men and women, and sociologists, politicians and the general public are still struggling to keep up with the implications of such a thing.
It turns out that for all their training and their scientific query and their diplomatic discussion, all it takes is for people to understand that what leads one soul to be perfectly matched to another could be explained as a small thread; a crystal note; a complex wavelength.
A tune which both souls sing.
Alexander Pierce sees this wavelength come to the fore in the Asset every time just before they need to wipe him again.
It is infinitely frustrating, because it seems that the song’s tenacity itself is infinite. They wipe him until he doesn’t remember his name. They wipe him until he is barely capable of speech. They wipe him until he has no concept of time, space, or refusal. They wipe him until by any reasonable means he should no longer be human, should retain no pocket of the man he was before – and yet his soul continues to sing.
His shelf life decreases exponentially, until it’s been years since he was made and despite a starting career that could have him wiped and completing missions for weeks afterwards, he is now wiped and all but useless not three days later. He snaps out of his orders. He freezes. He disobeys. He thinks. And when he thinks, when he is allowed to opine, he never matches Pierce’s frequency.
What has been the dark hand of American power for years is now becoming a liability.
Yes, Alexander Pierce has beaten all the eggheads to the answer to their question: why? It’s painfully simple, in the end. The soul inhabiting the body on the other side of the glass from Pierce, the body being hosed down and prepared for storage, is – or was – bonded to the soul of the man known as Captain America. A man notorious for his morals. Good to the core, rather than bad to the bone, as it were. He had defined ideas about people and rights, strange adherence to outdated morals in an inhuman war, and a rebellious spirit that had him challenging authority until the day he died. And these two men are a matched set.
No matter how hard they try, they absolutely cannot stamp the morality or the rebellion out of the Asset. So they wipe him. And they keep on wiping him and they watch him deteriorate, and they know that soon he will be too stale to function. And then he will be recycled.
Hell, Pierce smirks, he can join his captain in the ice.
Sometimes, knowing that he was going to survive the war was not quite enough to give Steve the strength to continue. Knowing that he would physically survive did not reassure him that what was going to go back in his body was really going to be him.
Since he’d been part of Colonel Phillips’s gutsy and ultimately successful bid to rescue the men captured by Hydra at Azzano, he had managed to shake off the dregs of the ‘showgirl’ persona that Captain America had started out with. The only reason he had not been court-martialed for stowing away on that mission was Agent Carter’s vehement intervention. And, admittedly, the fact that they would likely have never even entered the base without his help.
Timothy Dugan, one of the men he had personally freed and who he now worked alongside, fell somewhere between an advisor and a brother-in-arms for Steve, mostly because he was by far the most experienced career soldier of their ragtag unit, and he seemed to find sympathy for the younger man. His mark, Dugan had confided to Steve after nearly eight months’ working together in the theatres of wartorn Europe, was a source of constant pain. Ellen Maria Martin, the lady named across his shoulders, was a Ghost Match.
Steve felt the pain of that revelation like a physical press on his own heart.
He sat alone in his tent, with French rain making a good attempt to break right through the sloping material over his head, not to mention creating a pounding noise whose racket it was almost – almost – impossible to think over. With parental permission, a person could file with the International Bureau of Marks at any age, often around the age of twelve or the beginning of puberty, when the mark began to develop, or around age sixteen when it tended to have come in fully. Without that consent, you had to be eighteen. By the time you were twenty-one, it was a legal mandate to at least register as a Ghost Match.
As he grew older, and as the fighting continued, Steve’s thoughts began to turn down less sunny routes than they ever had before the war. He had always assumed that his James was simply a lot younger than he was, which was unusual but certainly not unheard of. Recently there had been a documented case of soulmates born fifty-two years apart, one in Greece and one in Dutch Guiana! They were exceptional, to be sure, but not impossible. Steve thought that perhaps James was only a child right now, or at least under the age of eighteen and lacking the support of his parents to go register for his mate. He could even not be born yet: Steve himself was only twenty-six. There was still plenty of time before they even became an exceptional case of temporal displacement.
But as he watched his friends, his countrymen, his allies, even his enemies being killed in increasingly gruesome and soul-scarring ways in the dirt and the rain… Steve started to wonder if his James was out there right now, living his life, dreading the day he turned twenty-one and had to go in and get the Bureau off his back by telling them to mark him down as a Ghost. Worse: what if he had found out about his sideshow of a bondmate and decided then that he didn’t want to be involved with such a burden?
Or was he too mired in this inhuman war? Drafted at eighteen, unregistered, destined to die in a field somewhere in Alsace, or Brussels, or just miles away from Steve in Lyon, never knowing that Steve was waiting for him. That Steve loved him. That he was wanted.
On nights like these, Steve’s oversized hands would tremble like he was back in his icy Brooklyn apartment, clutching the NR letter in his overlarge fingers as gunfire sounded in the distance, and trying not to shake apart.
They bring Arnim Zola back to Colonel Phillips.
They do not bring back Timothy Dugan.
Steve thinks he probably left a chunk of himself in those mountains along with his friend.
When he’s taking the plane into the ice, Steve is considering many things. He is considering fear, certainly. The dance he’ll never be able to claim from Peggy. The end of the war that he will not see. Mrs. Dugan and the three fatherless children Steve won’t get to meet.
Even dying, knowing it doesn’t even matter anymore, Steve cannot believe that James did not want him. Peggy wouldn’t let him believe it before, and he certainly can’t now. The serum – it must have done something to them. He has failed James, and he knows it. He refuses to cry but he’s lost all his remaining engines, all power to the plane, all power to his will, and his very last thoughts are on the man he’s waited for… waiting for him.
Wherever James is, out there, he must now know who Steve is, and why he had to choose this path. He hopes he understands.
Steve hopes he’s proud.
Peggy promises to teach him how to dance, and he tries to muster a smile in his voice for her. “Keep an eye out, will you, Peggy?”
“Of course. Of course,” she soothes, her voice breaking.
“Will you tell him?”
“I’ll tell him. I will, Steve. Ste–”
These are the times that try men's souls.
The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis,
Shrink from the service of his country.
But he that stands by it now
Deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
A country descending into ruin requires someone to take accountability. Someone who could not do the gritty work that needs to be done in the bright light of the summer sun.
Times are darker now. The world is colder. It may have been in need of a summer soldier in 1943, but times have changed.
Pierce oversees the rise of the winter soldier.
“You’ve been asleep, Cap.”
Nobody says anything to him without provocation, as though they’re afraid that they’ll finally hit the trigger that will make Steve lose his cool. He’s not sure what would do it at this point, since he survived the revelation of the World Wide Web, the victory of the war, the unimaginable time jump he’s made into the 21st century, when there were times in his youth he didn’t think he’d make it through the winter.
It takes him a few weeks to select the person he will ask, the person he trusts the most in this bizarre future world. It turns out to be an unassuming, balding man with a timid manner but a spine of steel, who is clearly a fan of the Great Captain America, but manages to treat Steve with respect and camaraderie. It is his encyclopaedic knowledge of Steve’s past that the deciding factor. So Steve invites Agent Coulson to lunch – in the cafeteria at SHIELD HQ, since he still feels uncomfortable venturing outside into a shimmering and glaringly colourful New York City. He wants to offer to pay, but SHIELD is still working on bringing him legally back to life and so he has nothing to his name.
“You will get a generous amount of back pay from the army,” Coulson tells him over his mug of coffee when Steve says something to that effect. “You’ve been put down as MIA all this time.”
Steve frowned. “I don’t want back pay; I just want to be able to legally get a job so I can pay for lunch.”
Coulson smiled wanly. “Not sure that’ll be an option, Cap. Can’t get a job anywhere these days without a degree. Unless you want to work for SHIELD, 'cause I can’t really imagine you making drinks at Starbucks.”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Steve cuts him off gently.
“Okay.” They lapse into silence. “What do you want to ask me?”
Steve offers him a rather grim smile, but collects his utensils on his plate and pushes them all away so he can fold his arms on the tabletop. His jacket protects him from the chill of the metal, as well as the chill of the room. He’s not sure he’s actually felt warm since before they left for that final mission to defeat Schmidt, and certainly not since they told him he’d been frozen without ceremony in Arctic ice long enough that he feels less like a man out of time and more like an alien landed on a strange new planet.
There aren’t many people in the cafeteria, since it’s mid-afternoon and the people here seem to keep pretty reasonable schedules. There is sun coming through the window beside the pair of them, but it’s weak. Coulson’s serious face is also somehow both blank and bland, and Steve treats him with the wariness he warrants. He trusts Coulson the most out of all the agents he’s met – it’s not precisely a compliment.
“I want to know about my soulmate.”
What emotion there was on Coulson’s face shut down. Steve chased it. “I know he might be dead by now, or he must be dead, or he thinks I am… but I need to know if Peggy ever found him. If you won’t let me see her can you at least find that out?”
“Captain Rogers,” Coulson began. “This is a more delicate matter than I think you realize.”
“Delicate,” Steve repeats flatly, leaning back in his chair. “Which means I need to talk to Fury about it.”
Coulson gives him a sideways, apologetic nod.
“Take me to his office. Now.”
Steve was not freaking out. He didn’t feel like he was freaking out.
At least, Coulson had asked him not to freak out and he wasn’t entirely sure what that would entail but he did think he was keeping his cool rather admirably.
After all, Nick Fury was not a man to pull his punches and he’d realized pretty quickly that Steve was not here to be coddled but to get the information he wanted, though he’d had no idea what he was really asking for, obviously, because here he was holding the file of a soldier named James Buchanan Barnes who is currently down as missing in action since he was captured well over two years ago and absolutely no word has been received of or from him since.
There is a photograph at the top of the page. Steve can hardly look at it since his brain seems to have become stuck on the letters ‘MIA’ at the top of the file and he cannot drag his eyes away.
He hears Coulson call his name, and it probably wasn’t the first time, either, but he is in no position to respond. He’s seated at the chairs in Fury’s expansive office at the Triskelion in Washington, D.C., and Fury is at his desk doing an excellent job of pretending that Steve isn’t there, while Coulson is on the sofa diagonally across from Steve’s, elbows on his knees and a concerned expression stuck on his face.
Steve hasn’t moved in at least five minutes. He takes a deep breath.
“He was born in 1987,” Steve finally manages.
Clearly at a loss for anything appropriate to say, Coulson just nods, slowly.
“He went MIA in – 2009. I–” His voice is wavering dangerously. Perhaps this was the ‘freaking out’ that Coulson feared. “What year is it?”
“2011,” Coulson confirmed.
Twice. Twice he had failed his soulmate. James had been waiting here, in New York City, for almost thirty years while Steve was lying on ice. James was taken prisoner by unknown enemies less than twenty months before Steve was discovered by Howard Stark’s son.
“Can I take this?” he croaked, definitely beginning to understand the term freaking out.
“Yes.” Fury barked sedately from his desk.
It carried an undercurrent of ‘and get the hell out of my office’.
In his quarters, larger than every officer’s room he has ever been stationed in put together, Steve splayed every piece of information the file had on his James across the desk, and collapsed into the chair in front of it with his head in his hands.
10 MAR 1987
George M. Barnes (Father, DECEASED 08-15-94)
Winona C. Barnes, (Mother, DECEASED 08-15-94)
Rebecca G. B. Adams [née Barnes , adopted 01-04-95] (Sister)
Four younger sisters, adopted. He never was. Good at school. Great in the army.
And photos. From the front – brown hair, blue eyes, a straight nose and a straight, wide mouth. His jaw was short and square, the hollows of his cheeks pronounced despite his obvious health. There was a deep dimple in his chin, and a noticeable nick on the shell of his left ear. There was a twitch of a smile in the corners of his mouth, despite the I.D.’s intended expressionless visage.
And from the back – his head, shoulders, and lower, no shirt. There was a mark down the center of his back from just below his hairline to just above the small of his back, in neat, delicate square lettering that matched Steve’s exactly. This was the mark that James had borne on his body for over ten years; this is the legacy he was resigned to. He was born to a dead soulmate.
Steven Grant Rogers.
Steve picked up the photo of James’s face that was loose in his file, and held it right to the center of his chest. He pressed it there until his breastbone creaked, as though through the sheer force of his will he could summon James back from wherever he had been taken.
His hands shook like they had months and decades ago in the battle plains of Western Europe. He doesn’t remember ever having cried so hard.
Fury points out that there is nothing Steve can do to get James back that his agents can’t do better. Steve has to force down his own anger that Fury hadn’t immediately sent his best agents to retrieve his soulmate upon the notice of his capture, but manages to understand that SHIELD has bigger fish to fry.
“I’ll put the best agent I can spare on it, Cap,” Fury assuages coarsely. “But I can’t promise anything.”
Steve joins SHIELD as Agent Rogers six months after his defrosting, while people he doesn’t know but who apparently understand the new America and the new world far better than he can start putting together a plan to announce the return of Captain America.
A few weeks after that, of all things to take the decision out of their control, aliens attack the city of New York.
When he returns from his first mission paired with the infamous Agent Romanoff, who proved her worth as a partner a hundred times over during Loki’s attack, and who volunteered to help him with his personal search for reasons he has not been able to extract from anybody concerned, he is greeted in his apartment with a stark reminder of what kind of a man he has chosen to take up residence with, even if it’s only in the same building.
“Welcome back, Cap!” Tony greets from his balcony. His yell would have disturbed half their immediate neighbours from their sleep if he wasn’t currently sixty-odd stories in the air. Tony re-enters the room without prompting from Steve, with a glass of champagne in one hand and the bottle in the other. “No joy, I hear.”
He’s not sure he has the energy for this, but Steve knows the best way to get rid of Tony is sure as hell not to ignore him. And, despite the caustic, abrasive shell, there is more heart in Tony Stark than there ever was in his father. Methods aside, he is in Steve’s apartment when Steve is returning from one of the most demoralizing missions a man has ever taken on.
“Breaking and entering, Tony,” Steve replies, shuffling out of his overcoat and shoes.
Tony approaches through the expansive living space. It seems even bigger than it really is because Steve is tragically behind on amassing personal effects, for reasons he does not care to examine nearly as closely as his SHIELD-assigned psychologist does.
“Pah,” Tony snorts. “Champagne?”
“I’m not celebrating,” Steve heads into the kitchen with the hope that Pepper has seen to his fridge being well-stocked after his long absence. To his relief, she has not failed him. He needs to send her a gift, he’s sure, but he has no idea where to even begin.
“What should I get Pepper as a gift?” he poses loudly as he pulls out what he needs for a sandwich or four.
“Pep’s mine,” Tony huffs childishly, sweeping into the room and dropping the glass bottle into the recycling. Steve rolls his eyes. “It depends, Cap. Besides, what I’d get for her is probably not the same as what you would get for her, so you really should be asking a different question. What would you get as a thanks-for-being-awesome present if she was your James?”
Steve’s heart pulls - it always does - but somewhere between the nebulous knowledge that James is closer than ever before (even if still so painfully far away), and Tony and the others’ constant mentions of him, James is not allowed to be a taboo subject with the Avengers or their SHIELD handlers. Though Tony is the only one who consistently refers to him as belonging to Steve, his name falls from the lips of Steve’s acquaintances as often as possible. He thought at first that it would drive him insane, but instead the mass knowledge of his relationship with James makes the man feel more real than he ever had in the past. He’s not just a private thought in Steve’s head. Tony managed to pick up on this first, and he works James into almost all of their conversations.
Many are not strictly family-friendly exchanges. Yet Tony persists long after Steve has given up on rebuking him, which seems to be Stark’s modus operandi in most matters.
“I don’t actually know him, Tony,” Steve reminds him, setting out his slices of bread.
“Fine, but you don’t really know Pep either,” Tony pointed out. “Out of sheer curiosity, what kind of things would you buy for your boyfriend?”
Steve flushed, despite his best attempts to get used to Tony’s blasé attitude towards something that would have gotten them both beaten to death back in Steve’s youth.
Unfortunately, naturally, Tony noticed. “Would James be your boyfriend, Cap? Really? I was just spitballing there but your pink face says otherwise. You know that’s legal now?”
“Yeah, I know,” Steve affirmed, buttering his third slice. Tony seemed to be waiting for something, so he just bit the bullet and added, “I looked it up.”
“So you’re…” Tony made an expansive hand gesture. “Cool with that?”
“Yes, Tony, I’m ‘cool with that’.”
“Huh.” He appeared to have thrown the other man for a loop, which pleased him for all of five seconds before he realised that Tony would now never let this go until his curiosity was satiated. “So you’re gay? Bi? Pan?”
Have mercy. “I don’t know, Tony. My soulmate is a man. That’s all I really need to know, isn’t it?”
“That’s very progressive of you, gramps.”
Steve gave him a side-eye. Something about the way Tony said that… “Tony, are you gay?”
Tony sighed dramatically, dropping his head back to stare at the ceiling for a moment. “And back to that. You can’t let me have something nice, can you, Cap?” Steve gave him a confused eyebrow over his eighth buttered slice of wholemeal, at which Tony rolled his eyes. “I’m not gay. Obviously. If anything, I’m bisexual. Well,” He reached to steal one of Steve’s slices while his back was turned, and immediately received a thwack to the back of his hand. He made a loud noise of protest, but grinned. "I might actually be pan – who knows?”
Steve wasn’t entirely sure Tony was still speaking English, so he just turned his attention to the row of nascent sandwiches.
Of course, Tony didn’t exactly require encouragement to continue talking.
“They think that’s why we have this overpopulation problem in America, you know? Other places, sure, that too, but some of them have their own problems. Your parents’ generation and yours and a load before and after you got the idea in their heads that, you know, if the soulmates are man and woman then it means they should get it on, but if they’re the same sex they should just be pals and get on with their hetero lives elsewhere. It’s a bit of a logical pretzel, if you ask most people nowadays.”
Steve’s hands slowed as he took in Tony’s words, eventually stopping with a piece of ham in his grip hovering just over its destination. Tony continued, but Steve was frozen in a moment when it really, truly hit him that there was nothing strange anymore about wanting to marry his soulmate no matter what gender he was. That he wouldn’t have to pretend to love James just as a friend but go marry some lady who had a female soulmate of her own to keep up appearances.
He would be allowed to love James like he wanted to.
If James wanted to.
As soon as he found him.
His eyes pressed closed for a second.
When he deigns to sit idly and consider such things, Pierce finds a sort of beautiful poetry in the whole affair. He took Barnes from the army because he saw a future for the bondmate of Captain America so much greater than just being another blunt instrument for the US government. What a waste.
And what a beautiful thing he has become in the hands of Hydra.
Now that Steve Rogers is back, with his stubbornness and his wilfulness and his principles, Pierce can see the same spirit that has been haunting his Asset all these years now presenting itself in the Captain as a threat to their national security. Rogers was late to the party, and he noticed the changes Hydra has carefully wrought on the world in his absence as if there were something wrong with them – before long, he might have people agreeing with him. That wouldn’t do at all, not after all this time.
Together at last in the same century, Pierce decided it was time for the wayward soulmates’ fateful meeting.
And he would be the conductor for their final song.
Steve meets this guy, Sam, who lost his soulmate in another war, in another foreign land.
There is a sense of finality and composure about Sam Wilson that Steve envies despite all his best efforts. When he talks about Riley, you can feel their deep connection, and you can almost feel Riley’s presence in his mate’s words. But Sam isn’t a broken man, and he isn’t torn in two. He feels, rather, as though he subsumed Riley into his own soul, and carries him along with him wherever he goes.
“You would know, Steve, I promise.”
Steve gives him a questioning look over the dinner Sam is cooking in his apartment at Stark Tower – Avengers Tower, rather. Stark makes quite the efficient collector of useful people.
“If Barnes died,” Sam clarified, stirring the only vegetables Barton will willingly consume in an enormous silver pot. Steve shifts on the chair he has commandeered to perch on backwards. “You would know.”
“Sometimes I’m terrified that he died while I was in the ice,” Steve says softly, staring over the table at the countertop, at the pile of stalks, seeds, and discards Sam hasn’t chucked yet. “That he was never MIA at all. I dream about it.”
“I dream that Riley died from a gunshot wound,” says Sam pensively, not turning around. “To the head, or to the gut. Or from a malfunction with the wings. Or an IED in the road. The truth isn’t a finite thing where death is concerned. All I know is, he’s dead, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it from happening.”
“James isn’t dead,” Steve ripostes. “I would know.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees, turning to balance his hip on the stove and give Steve a bolstering grin. “You would. Besides, it’d be rude for him to leave you now that you have somehow managed to come back from the dead just to find him. Not many guys can claim their soulmates went to such lengths, seriously.”
Steve couldn’t help quietly laughing, while Sam turned back to the vegetables.
Natasha was breathing heavily, almost erratically, which just about made Steve enter battle mode right then and there. Her face was registering both shock and panic, though she still continued to sweep the rooftops and check to make sure Steve was well huddled in what Barton referred to as the ‘Captain-ball’ under the table. It made a poor replacement for his shield, but this was all in all a bit of a poor excuse for a friendly lunch.
Steve had been shot in his left shoulder, an inch from a kill shot (they assume a shot to the heart would kill him, though at this point he’s developing a healthy scepticism about the limits of his own body), and it is pouring blood despite the pressure of his other hand.
He isn’t feeling so good, but what’s really concerning him is Natasha’s breathing.
“Did you see him?” she demanded in a gravelly monotone as soon as they were left alone in the hospital room, awaiting transfer to the medical wing of Avengers Tower.
“It’s a bit hazy,” he warned. “But he was wearing a mask, had long hair, and he was wearing some sort of armour on his left arm.”
She pursed her lips.
“Do you know him?” he asked, following a hunch.
Her icy gaze latched onto him, always calculating. “He fits a description – I’ve heard rumours.”
“A ghost,” she says seriously, tucked neatly in the chair at his bedside. “Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists; the ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. His allegiance is unknown, but he’s credited with over a dozen assassinations in the past five years. He’s suspected in political upheaval from here to the Ukraine but nothing can be proven.”
He is frowning by now, running through all the information. “How is our ghost described?”
“As you said: wears a mask, has long hair. Tall, strong, fast. Has a metal arm.”
“You seem –”
She gives him a flat look.
“– unnerved. What is it?”
“Besides the fact that he managed to shoot you in the chest right in front of me in broad daylight on a busy D.C. street?” she snarked. When he gave her a flat stare modelled after her own, she sighed faintly and stood up from the chair. She immediately relocated to the edge of his bed, sitting sideways but looking at him dead-on. “Operatives of that calibre don’t miss.”
Steve blinked at her. “He didn’t mean to kill me?”
For a while, she said nothing, turning to look out the window as if checking again for threats. As though she half expected to see the Winter Soldier perched on the opposite rooftop.
“Whatever he wants from you, Steve, it may not be something you’re willing or able to give.”
He chewed on that for a moment, not taking his eyes off her face. Then he nodded firmly, seeing as his ideal partner was already sitting right here.
“Well then. I guess we’ll have to find out what the ghost wants.”
Pierce’s hand connected with the Asset’s face and sent him snapping to the side. After that one allowance for his anger, he wiped his palms on his pant legs, stood, and fixed his tie.
“Wipe him. Send him out immediately to complete his mission.”
He crouched to look the Asset in his dull eyes. “You dare not fail again.”
The Asset blinked.
Steve had a dark shadow.
He knew about it, and obviously Natasha did too. Since she knew, he was fairly certain Clint did as well, and after few days of its presence Steve alerted Tony. Tony in turn alerted JARVIS, who took to spying on Steve obsessively whenever he was within range. (The obvious concern in the A.I.’s manner made Tony jealous enough to bitch about it constantly, though not enough to call him off.)
It made Natasha nervous, in a way that was beginning to terrify both Steve and Clint.
Unlike a true shadow, Steve’s appeared mostly at night, but as time went on he was seen in the daytime too. They strongly suspected who it was, but nobody, not even JARVIS, not even Natasha, could catch a good glimpse of him. To be frank, Steve wasn’t certain which of the two concerned him more, especially since he would swear on his life the shadow had been out on his balcony one night and JARVIS still reported neither technical errors nor sightings.
It was beginning to drive Natasha mad, he could tell. She was camped out in his living room several nights a week, which had been whittled down from every night by the rotating guard Clint blackmailed her into between the two of them and Sam. Steve protested at first, until he realized that the protection ritual was something his friends needed more than he did. Two nights Steve woke up in the middle of the night to find her blinking at him from the chair he threw his shirts onto at the end of the day. She didn’t say a word, and he couldn’t for the life of him think of anything to say in that situation, so he just rolled over and went back to sleep.
Natasha insisted on sparring with Steve every other day – pushing him to his limits but never beyond. That in itself was beginning to bug him, but he understood that she didn’t want to work him until he was incapable of defending himself.
Sam was concerned in his own way, and had taken to pacing through Steve’s apartment as though securing a house back in the desert where he’d fought. He also cooked Steve meals a lot more frequently than he had before, and Steve started to wonder if that had been his coping mechanism after the death of his soulmate. Which made him feel oddly touched, not to mention concerned for Sam’s mental state.
Steve was… a little unnervingly unconcerned for his own safety. If the Winter Soldier was capable of sniping at Steve from fifty stories and almost a block away, with Natasha sitting two feet away from him, then surely there was nothing they could do to stop him from killing Steve if he wanted to. And wasn’t that the point? He didn’t want to kill Steve. Natasha had all but said it outright, and the fact that he had neither returned to finish the job nor to get whatever it was he wanted from Steve was what was driving her to distraction.
(Not literally, of course. The day Natasha was distracted would be the day Steve ate his shield.)
It was a gut feeling, but those had rarely led Steve astray in the past. An instinct was telling him that his life wasn’t in danger from the Winter Soldier.
Which wasn’t, all things considered, that reassuring.
Natasha’s mood soured into unprecedented lows when she caught wind from her web that the Winter Soldier had escaped his handlers and gone rogue.
“Last reports had him on a cargo ship headed for Copenhagen,” she told Steve while doing her damndest to punch him in the throat. “And a commercial plane to Tbilisi.”
“Neither of those seems likely –” Steve replied, slightly out of breath, aiming a kick at the back of her knee. “– since I’m pretty sure he was on the roof opposite my bedroom window last night.”
She didn’t technically hiss, but she gave off the definite impression of an extremely pissed-off serpent nonetheless. The base of her hand connected with his temple, and he hauled off and threw her away from him to get a few seconds to recover.
“You won’t reconsider.”
“No safe house,” Steve affirmed, defending himself from a sudden barrage of punches and kicks coming at him lightning-fast. A serpent indeed. He wasn’t sure whether she was more furious with him, herself, or the Winter Soldier for evading her attempts to bodyguard Steve.
She really was something else. If he wasn’t so deeply fond and trusting of her, despite their differences in methods, he thinks he might have needed to stay the hell away from her.
“I’ll think about it, if you convince Fury to let me visit Peggy Carter.”
Natasha kicked him in the seam of his thigh, followed by an elbow jab to his spine, then an untraceable flip that ended with his throat being trapped between her thighs. He allowed her to hold him without struggle, acknowledging her victory. Clint clapped and gave a quick wolf-whistle from where he was keeping guard somewhere in the ceiling.
“Tomorrow,” she snapped down at him.
That night, Steve awoke when he heard Natasha shift on the chair.
Except this was Sam’s night, and Sam was out in the living room, watching TV quietly on Steve’s red-white-and-blue couch (Tony’s hilarious joke).
Tension marched through Steve’s body like a vast army of ants. He cleared his throat, then sat up in bed very slowly, legs crossed, hands on top of his knees, fully visible over the covers. It wasn’t completely dark in the room, but the fact that his visitor was still clad in his black mission gear from before he dumped whoever was handling him helped him be almost entirely camouflaged. He was not wearing the mask anymore, so that Steve could make out his stubbled face, half-hidden behind shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair. His head was angled just so that his eyes vanished in deep shadow.
They stared at each other. Steve was unable to come up with anything to say, and his visitor seemed simply uninterested in conversation. Oh, Natasha was going to kill him, Steve winced. Both of them, actually, and he wasn’t sure whether he meant that figuratively or literally.
“What do you want?” he finally asked.
The shadows on the Winter Soldier’s face shifted, but he didn’t answer.
“I know you aren’t here to kill me,” Steve continued, cautiously, keeping his voice low so as not to alert Sam. If someone interrupted he might never be able to learn what this ghost wanted from him.
The Soldier shifted very suddenly, so that Steve’s entire body went into red alert. He was half-way through the brain process necessary to launch himself off the bed and under cover by the time he realized that the Soldier had stabbed a short knife into the armrest of the chair. It was sunk in right the way to the hilt. The Soldier’s arm was now visible in the bluish light coming in through the window, and Steve was a little surprised still to see that it did look as though the entire arm was a machine, not just armoured. Tony would cry.
Another knife appeared from somewhere on the Soldier and was sunk equally as deeply into the chair. Two more followed, then a few guns, bombs, and what Steve sincerely hoped was a very sturdy grenade were dropped onto the floor of his bedroom until the Soldier was presumably unarmed. Well, aside from the one very obvious arm. Steve wasn’t willing to believe that the man had no more weapons stashed on him after that reverse Mary Poppins display, but he understood the implication of the ritual.
“Who are you?” the Soldier growled.
That wasn’t a question he got very often. “Captain America.”
Steve considered the response. He was the only Captain America in history, certainly the only one alive, so unless this guy was delusional – possible – it seemed that this was simply not the answer he had been looking for.
“Steve Rogers,” he capitulated after a silent moment.
The Soldier in turn seemed to be considering. His head tilted forward, and he rose quickly to his feet, accompanied by a light whirring sound from the mechanical arm. Steve managed not to jump, though he was seriously wishing he at least had his shield in reach. Maybe he should start sleeping with it by his bed like Clint had been joking about a few weeks back. It sure would be helpful right now.
Cautiously, telegraphing his moves obviously and trying to keep his hands as visible as he could, Steve extracted himself out the side of his bed, and kept facing the Soldier while he slipped his feet onto the floor. He felt the other man’s attention flash between him and the door that he was now closer to than the Soldier was, so he raised his hands slowly and said, “I won’t run if you don’t make any threatening moves.”
The Soldier nodded minutely, but didn’t relax. Steve dropped his hands after a second, crossing his arms both for want of something to do with them, and as a defence against the cold in his room. The Soldier seemed to have come in through the window, but not closed it completely.
“Your name,” the Soldier said quietly.
“Steve Rogers,” he repeated.
Something was definitely happening in the Soldier’s head, though his body wasn’t moving but for slight twitches and gentle sounds from his exposed arm. He didn’t sense an imminent threat, and so Steve settled in to wait and see what the ghost wanted.
“Your full name,” the man finally demanded, his messy hair backlit by the window and his unshaven face in almost complete shadow.
He paused, then said, very deliberately, “Steven Grant Rogers,” hoping it was not a verbal trigger. Just Natasha’s explanation of their concept had given him shivers for weeks – he didn’t need to see one in action while he was in only his boxers and an overlarge Cats t-shirt donated to him by Bruce.
The name did trigger something, but it wasn’t the murderous rage Natasha had described to him. The Soldier seized up, and his flesh arm began to visibly tremble.
“Steve,” he whispered, voice shaking as much as his hand.
His tone was… wrong. It was terrible. Steve’s name on his tongue sounded like something that was causing him pain.
“Do I know you?” Steve asked, almost dreading to hear the answer.
The Soldier shook his head. Something had shifted in his whole demeanour. Steve could not only sense it, but he could see it. As though the trembling from earlier had been shaking off some sort of casing, whatever was now emerging from the Soldier was something vulnerable, and it was terrified of Steve.
“You’re a ghost,” he whispered, strangled.
He took another staggering step back, away from Steve.
“No,” The need to reassure flared up powerfully in him, and he had to fight to keep his voice quiet enough not to alert Sam just a few metres away beyond the door. “I’m not a ghost; I’m real. I am Steve Rogers.”
The Soldier – or whatever had taken his place – shook his head. “You died.”
“It’s complicated,” Steve admitted. “I wasn’t dead. I was… frozen.”
“You were waiting.” The black-clad visitor had backed himself up against the wall and the window, letting the light pass through his hair to outline his face in blue.
Steve swallowed, and whispered. “What was I waiting for?”
The other man didn’t move for a long moment, allowing Steve time to take another step closer, his hands up soothingly. But the intruder didn’t seem to fear him any longer, and accepted Steve’s venture without so much as a flinch. Then his flesh hand, ungloved, and the only skin visible on him except for the shadowy face, reached from his side up to his neck. Steve was on edge still, but he watched with calm while the man reached inside his high collar, pulling open a seam and inserting his fingers to pull out something hanging around his neck. With that hand beginning to tremble again, he pulled the chain up so that it slipped over his head, and gathered the necklace into his palm so that Steve could see that it was a set of dog tags.
“Where did you get those?” Steve asked, sombrely, knowing that there was no official branch of the US military that employed strategies such as those displayed by the Winter Soldier, not to mention the fact that even Tony hadn’t figured out the technology required to make a bionic arm that sophisticated – and he’d built himself a neurally-controlled exoskeleton.
“They were sent to my friend,” the soldier said quietly. “I took them back.”
The tags were still cradled in the man’s right hand, and Steve slowly held out his own. He was too far away to take them, but the soldier glanced up at him and then quickly tossed the small discs over the gap between them to land in Steve’s outstretched hand. Steve wasn’t sure whether he was dreading seeing what he thought he would, or if his dropped stomach was from excitement. He doesn’t receive an answer even when he turns the tags over in his fingers and reads, voice quaking:
“Barnes, James B.”
He drops the tags on the ground and takes the final three steps to stand right in front of the other man. His hands come up, but he’s unsure if they’re going to touch the man’s face, or grab the front of his uniform, or his shoulders–
“James Buchanan Barnes?” he asks roughly, his hands still dithering in the air between them.
James doesn’t respond, nor does he react when Steve’s hands finally decide to alight on his chest over layers and layers of armour and cloth. They come up to cup the sides of his neck, then his face. He pulls James with him as he turns to the side, so that the scant moonlight coming through the window illuminates his face. He’s older, and he’s rougher. The colour of his eyes is almost impossible to see in the low light, but that face is clearly recognizable as the one from the file Steve has looked at almost every day since he took it from Fury.
“Steve?” James asks, his eyes finally coming to life as he seems to realise he’s not hallucinating. His metal hand comes up to grab Steve’s arm, where Steve is still holding his face like he’ll wake up if he lets go.
“Yeah, I’m here,” Steve says softly, soothingly, leaning forward to rest his forehead against James’s. “I’m here. You’re not Alone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m so late. I’m here.”
James’s knees give out. The pair of them clatter to the floor and Steve turns his head without breaking its contact with James and yells for Sam.
It takes Natasha the longest out of all of them – and that’s including Nick Fury – to accept Bucky as a non-threatening entity, even having seen his soul mark. She fears that the conditioning he suffered will end up overriding him again and making him once more a danger to Steve, at the very least, and to SHIELD itself at worst. Steve thinks that some of her fear of Bucky is her projecting her own fears of herself, and so he allows her to distrust until she is satisfied.
Bucky manages to explain, after the first few weeks of therapy, that seeing Steve broke something in him – something that had been created like a carapace over the parts of him that had existed before the Winter Soldier. That what had been left to die beneath that monster his handlers had created to do their dirty work for them had not rotted completely, but had been revived at the sight of the man he had loved since he was young.
“They couldn’t take you from me,” Bucky said into Steve’s collar one day, after Steve picked him up from his fourth therapy session of the week to escort him back to his quarters at SHIELD HQ. They were paused in the hallway, Steve in jeans and his leather jacket, while Bucky was in grey prisoner’s scrubs. He was a little shaky and off-balance, since SHIELD could not remove the arm woven into his spinal column – at least not until they’d done some intensive study – so opted to keep him slightly drugged at all times and at a disadvantage. His mind was clear, but his body wasn’t quite all there. He’d pretty much collapsed against Steve once they’d gone a little ways down the hall, alarming Steve before he’d realized that Bucky had done it on purpose.
“They pulled everything out of my mind, but they couldn’t pull you out of my soul,” Bucky continued, his lips close to pressing against the skin of Steve’s neck. “You brought me back from wherever they’d stuffed me in my own head. God, Steve.”
Every time Steve hugged Bucky he did it with over a decade’s worth of longing.
It took almost eight months for Bucky to remember Pierce.
Things got very interesting for a while after that.
Bucky lay on his stomach, grey bedcovers bunched up beneath him, unsalvageable. He’d been cleared from 24/7 SHIELD surveillance three months previously, and Avengers Tower house arrest about two months after that.
Steve sat sideways next to him, tracing the scars on his shoulder blade from the blast that had given Hydra all the cover they needed to abduct him. He pressed his fingers into the muscles of Bucky’s back, the muscles that had to work so hard all the time to support the mechanism grafted into him. There was a strange sense of otherness about the arm that was difficult to quantify: Steve seemed to be the only person that felt it, but he did feel, somewhere in his heart, that the arm was not part of his soulmate. He could sense that it was not part of Bucky’s body, which was often rather difficult for him to deal with. They had both adjusted to it, of course, and Tony was threatening to kidnap Bucky to fit him with a new, lighter and sleeker arm if he didn’t turn himself in willingly soon. But for now, it was what it was.
His fingers soon migrated from the punishing massage to gently trace his name, which stretched down Bucky’s spine with just a few interruptions from scars and blemishes. His body had mostly recovered from its trauma, and his mind was nearly there. He would still be in regular therapy for the foreseeable future, but Steve and all SHIELD agents were too, so there was nothing unusual about it as far as they were concerned.
Steve was far more preoccupied with Bucky’s mark than Bucky was with his, which he had huffed over often and obviously enough that Bucky had finally put him in a headlock and explained that he had seen photos of the mark on Steve’s body long before he had met Steve, and had made his peace with it.
“When you’ve been looking at my mark for ten years,” he said, lowering his arm from Steve’s shoulder to cheekily grope his chest. “You’ll calm down about it too.”
He had to grudgingly acquiesce to that, so Bucky let him go and kissed him instead.
“Jerk,” Steve grumbled against his mouth.
“Punk,” Bucky grinned.
Bucky had visited Peggy as soon as he was cleared from house arrest - Tony flew him over in a private plane. It seemed to Steve all a little under the radar, but he understood and didn’t make a racket about it.
After all, he was allowed to accompany Bucky.
Peggy reacted so well to Bucky that it made Steve’s chest ache, and after Bucky had explained Steve’s presence to her so that she wouldn’t go into a panic, Steve got to lay eyes on this woman he loved so much for the first time since he’d been unfrozen. She certainly wept; both men did too, each holding one of her hands.
On New Year’s Eve, Steve and Bucky sat entwined on the roof of Avengers Tower, ignoring the party raging behind them. They were both in tuxes, though Steve’s remained in respectable condition while Bucky’s was inexcusably rumpled. His bowtie had vanished, his collar left unbuttoned, and he had – to Tony’s utter horror – rolled up both jacket and shirtsleeves. He sat between Steve’s knees, with his back pressed against Steve’s chest. The pair was seated on a nest of cushions that was technically there for the whole party, but which they had commandeered silently and with little protest, gaining some measure of privacy behind a row of potted greenery and overlooking the city below them on the other side.
“I always figured something about the serum messed up the bond,” Bucky said calmly, his face being illuminated in bright colours by the fireworks Pepper had had to leap through hundreds of hoops to get permission for. “But I guess it didn’t go wrong after all.”
“No,” Steve agreed in a low rumble. “Maybe I was born too early, and the serum made up the difference.”
“But then how did the juju know you would get put on ice for seventy years?”
Steve snickered, and leaned down to whisper right in Bucky’s ear, “Magic.”
Bucky groaned, and swatted at him. Laughing, Steve first dodged the hand, then grabbed it and made a show out of kissing all five of Bucky’s flesh knuckles. Bucky shivered.
“I thought I’d been born too late. Thought I’d failed you,” he said softly. “Thought that maybe if I’d been born earlier we could’ve met and – maybe I’d’ve been able to save you.”
Steve shook his head, his mouth paused on the side of Bucky’s wrist. “Doesn’t matter how it could’ve gone, Buck. All I know is that I loved you so much. You kept me going through tough years before the war and worse ones during. I dreamed about you. When it got bad… I was terrified that you just didn’t want me–”
“I wanted you,” Bucky interrupted, dragging his hand back over his shoulder with Steve’s attached, and pressing Steve’s palm to his chest. “I wanted to let you know that you weren’t Alone, more than anything. I wish you hadn’t had to die without knowing that.”
“I knew you were there for me, somewhere,” Steve said as Bucky turned his face to the side, so that Steve’s lips moved against his temple. “And I said in 1939 that I would wait for you. I did.”
“Am I worth a seventy-five year wait?” Bucky joked, closing his eyes and pressing his cheek against Steve’s.
Steve didn’t even bother to reply; simply turning Bucky’s body sideways via sheer strength, grabbing the back of his neck, and kissing him. They were still kissing when people began cheering and whooping behind them, fireworks exploding in an elaborate display and terrible singing immediately following.
“Peggy was right,” Bucky murmured with a smile. “Always so dramatic.”
Steve grinned, and tugged Bucky into a hug against his chest, crushing his face into his soulmate’s short hair. “Quiet, jerk.”
Bucky’s reply was muffled in his shirt.
There are three men alive on Earth named Steven Grant Rogers.
One lives in Yorkshire, England, and is happily married to his soulmate. One has reached the end of death row in Texas.
One lives in New York, and his long wait is complete.