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Soulmate Equation

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Soulmates exist.

Not every person has one, and those who do are gifted with a black mark on their right wrist.

However, black mark doesn’t necessarily guarantee one is to meet their soulmate. It just means there is a possibility. No one knows the specifics, but it takes a certain event – sometimes it’s something mundane, sometimes dramatic, sometimes even violent – to trigger the mark turning red, thus signifying presence of one’s soulmate.

Thus far, there is no scientific explanation behind the existence of soulmates, and most religions have incorporated it into their teachings.

As for the human race in general? Some think it is romantic. Some think of it as inconvenience. Some see it as a joke, and some even as curbing of their free will.

There is one thing most people agree upon: having a black mark upon your wrist can be a blessing, or a curse.

But there is also this: for some unfortunate souls it can be both.

***

Steve is six when the mark appears on his wrist. It is charcoal black, the shape and size of a button. It doesn’t look like much. It’s important, though. Steve knows this.

His mother covers her mouth when Steve shows her his wrist, tears welling in her eyes.

Steve’s heart lurches in his chest, his eyes widening in fear. He didn’t know it was a bad thing. “I did nothing,” he sputters, reflexively trying to scrub the mark off his skin. “It just happened. I didn’t-”

“Hush, Steve,” she says, gently prying his fingers off his reddening skin. Clasping his face between the palms of her hands, she smiles. “Steve, look… look at me. You did nothing wrong.”

“I didn’t?” Steve asks, the nervous fluttering in his chest calming fractionally.

“No, my boy, you’ve been blessed.”

“Blessed?” Steve repeats. He doesn’t know what that word means, not truly, but he knows it is a good word.

His mother’s laughs; a clear and bright sound. Her eyes are still gleaming with tears, though. Steve doesn’t understand it. “It means there is someone out there who will love you with all their heart one day.”

“Like you love me?”

“Yes and no,” she says, laughs when Steve’s face creases in a deep frown. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“And why will they love me?”

“Because they will be yours.”

“Mine?” Steve repeats. He understands what that word means. It means something precious and rare. Something he needs to care for and protect.

“Yes, my boy, only yours.”

It’s only later that a thought occurs to Steve.

“Ma?”

“Yes, Steve?”

“If they will be mine,” Steve says, points at his marked wrist. “Will I be theirs?”

His mother smiles, glances at her own wrist. Steve blinks, confused, when he sees that the familiar round shape on his mother’s wrist is not black like his own, but red.

“Yes, Steve, you’ll be theirs.”

Steve smiles, brushes his fingers against his mark. He decides he likes the sound of that.

***

“There are hundreds of pretty girls out there, just waiting for us to meet them, and you’d rather stare at that thing? I’ll never understand you, Stevie.”

Steve sighs, reluctantly pulls his shirt over his mark. When he glances at Bucky he sees him leaning against the wooden railing, his hands crossed over his chest.

“I don’t want hundreds of pretty girls,” Steve says, shrugs. His fingers twitch with the need to feel the familiar round shape. “I just want whoever is on the other side of this mark.”

Bucky snorts. “Even if she’s ugly?”

“Buck,” Steve admonishes. “Whoever it is, is my soulmate. My own. Why should I care for how they look?”

“You’re such a sap, Steve,” Bucky sighs, comes to sit next to Steve on the stairs, bumps their shoulders together. “It’s awful.”

Steve smiles innocently a second before he elbows Bucky in the ribs.

“You little punk,” Bucky exclaims but allows Steve to dodge his hand and move out of his reach.

“You never wonder who it is?” Steve asks, glancing at Bucky’s right wrist.

Bucky frowns, looks down at his hand. “No,” he says without missing a beat. “When I’m older, maybe. Not now.”

Steve looks down at his covered wrist, presses his lips tightly together. “I just wish-” Steve breaks off, pushes himself to his feet. “I thought I’ll meet them by now, Buck. What if it never happens? What if-” Steve swallows the rest of that sentence. He doesn’t care whether his soulmate is ugly or pretty. He doesn’t even care whether it is a man or a woman. But he’s not a fool. He sees the way other people look at him; he sees pity, and dismissal. Notices how their gazes never return. What if Steve Rogers; skinny, sickly, with not much to his name but a burning need to matter, is simply not good enough?

“Steve?” Bucky asks, concern evident in his voice.

“What if they don’t like me, Bucky?” The words leave Steve’s mouth in a shaky exhale, leaving the flesh of his throat tender and raw.

Bucky is on his feet and squeezing Steve’s shoulders before Steve has a chance to blink. “Now listen to me, Steve. Whoever your soulmate is, they are going to stand before you and see just what I see.”

Steve’s eyes widen, his heart clenching painfully. For a moment – terrifying and exhilarating at the same time – Steve wonders how it would feel if his mark turned red now.

“And what is that?” Steve asks, his voice strangled.

Bucky stays silent a moment, his eyes staring intently at Steve. The entire world fades into the background, drowned out by the pounding drum of Steve’s heartbeat. Then, the moment shatters. Bucky smiles; wide and carefree, and ruffles Steve’s hair. Something inside Steve’s chest flickers and fades.

“Trouble,” Bucky says, grinning.

“Jerk,” Steve says and pushes at Bucky’s chest.

Bucky just laughs.

***

Peggy is brave and fierce and clever and kind and beautiful, and Steve falls for her the moment he sees her.

Steve has never thought the sight of an unblemished wrist could feel like having your heart ripped out of your chest.

“Do you ever regret not having a mark?” Steve asks one night.

They are alone in the HQ, sitting next to maps and markers, and Steve is tired and aching all over and Bucky is dead, and nothing will ever be right anymore.

Peggy merely looks at him for one moment, her face unreadable. Steve opens his mouth, ready to apologize, but then her face softens with a wistful smile.

“When I was younger, I drew a black circle on my wrist with charcoal. It ruined my dress. My mother was furious,” she says softly. Steve finds it easy to imagine a little dark-haired girl with smudged cheeks and ruined dress, holding her chin up proudly. “It was rather disheartening to be the only one without a mark when all other girls spoke about meeting their soulmates and having a fairy-tale wedding.”

“And now?”

“I’ve spent too much bloody time having to prove myself over and over again, going against the world that only had one thing to say to me: no,” Peggy says in a gentle but firm voice. “If it has taught me anything it is to believe in myself and my choices. Not… not some mystical force no one understands.”

Steve looks away, his jaw going tight.

“Oh, Steve, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Peggy says, placing a gentle hand on Steve’s elbow.

Steve smiles, shakes his head. “There’s nothing to apologize for. It’s just… I’ve always found it comforting. To know there is someone out there you are meant to be with.” Steve breaks off, shrugs. The smile on his face feels brittle. “I suppose it’s a foolish notion nowadays. With the war on… doesn’t really matter anyway.”

“No,” Peggy says, voice hardly above a whisper. There is sadness in her eyes now. “Not foolish at all.”

Just a few days later, flying a plane to his own death, Steve is for the first time fiercely and unquestionably relieved there was no mark on Peggy’s wrist.

***

The future is filled with bright lights and technical wonders, and Steve hates, hates, hates it.

Everything is too loud, too fast, too foreign.

This is not Steve’s world, his world is gone, along with everything that he knew. Everyone he cared for.

But there is still the mark on Steve’s wrist. Steve looks at it, traces its shape with trembling fingers.

What if.

Those two words are tearing his insides apart and clawing at his sanity.

What if his soulmate is dead? What if they are not?

What are the rules for waking up seventy years in the future? Are there any?

Many fear death, but Steve now knows there are far worse things than death.

Things like feeling like you are drowning every minute of every day. Only without the mercy of sinking into oblivion.

***

His new teammates have marks. Not everyone – Thor doesn’t even qualify – but they do.

And why shouldn’t they? It’s not like the world has stopped turning when Steve went into ice.

But still. There is something almost jarring in the sight of a red mark on Natasha’s wrist. Even more so in the black one on the wrist of one Tony Stark.

Steve cannot say what is it about Tony Stark that rubs him the wrong way. Is it that feeling he gets all the time – seeing something that is both familiar and terribly foreign – or they simply have that effect on each other. Whatever it is, Stark gets under his skin faster than anyone he’s ever met, bypasses all Steve’s control and reason, and goes straight for the core. Unfortunately, only anger resides there these days.

“Oh, come on. This bullshit again? Seriously?”

Steve blinks, frowns at the report he’s been trying to read, finds that he has only a general idea of what he’d read, shuts his eyes. Steve has learned to filter through noises during the war, but in this too, Stark proves himself an exception. Admitting defeat, Steve puts away his data pad – they have finally stopped giving him printed copies – and looks toward the common room.

Stark and Barton are sitting on the couch, watching something on a truly gigantic TV screen. They look like children. Bickering, unruly children.

“What?” Barton says in a deceptively innocent voice. Even though they have not been together for long, Steve’s learned to expect the worst when Barton used that tone of voice when addressing Stark. He half rises from his chair, not interested in watching another rendition of the duo’s particular brand of crazy. “You don’t believe in soulmates, Stark?”

The word ‘soulmate’ stops Steve mid motion, his entire body freezing on the spot.

Stark snorts, disdain plain on his face even from where Steve is standing.

“In that crap? I know you’re an ass, Barton, but come on. What normal person would-” Stark breaks off, follows Barton’s gaze which leads him straight to Steve. “Oh.”

Steve blinks, straightens fully; notices that his hands are clenched into fists, forces them to release. “How can you say that? You have the mark, too.” The words are out of Steve’s mouth before he has a chance to stop himself.

Stark blinks, rises from the couch, his head tilted to the side. There’s a condescending expression on his face that makes Steve’s jaw clench tight. “Because I have a brain?” Stark says, breezily. “Seriously, Cap, I know you’re from the grand ol’ times, but even back then no one could explain the nature of the mark. And these days,” Stark pauses, waves a dismissive hand, “it’s nothing but a marketing ploy. Very good for Valentine’s day cards and an occasional rom-com.”

“Just because the society has warped an idea it doesn’t mean the idea is wrong,” Steve insists hotly, holds Stark’s gaze as if in a dare.

Stark’s eyes narrow minutely. He glances away for a second, a wry smile curving on his lips. “You want to know how many mark triggering events have been classified as violent in nature, Rogers? JARVIS?”

“18%, Sir,” the AI offers promptly. “The most recent case that of-”

“That’s fine, JARVIS, we don’t need gory details,” Stark says, his eyes not moving an inch from Steve’s. There’s a spark there, something hot and relentless, burning just under the surface. Steve cannot even begin to guess what it is. “It’s a sham, Cap. Some big, cosmic joke. It means nothing.”

“And who are the rest of us to argue against the wise Tony Stark?” Steve sneers, his voice all sharp edges and ice. “Because you, clearly, know the best.”

“For fuck’s sake. Fine. It’s destiny, this thing,” Tony spits out, sticks out his right wrist. “I’m going to meet my soulmate and we’ll live happily ever after. But tell me this, Rogers? Who decides who gets the mark? What makes you special enough over Barton here? Does he not having a mark mean he’s destined to an empty life?”

“That’s not what I’m trying to say, Stark.”

“Then what are you saying?”

Steve takes a deep breath, grips at the last threads of his control. “Having a mark means that there is someone out there who fits you perfectly. Someone who is unequivocally yours. You may never get to meet them, but even the very presence of the mark should mean hope and comfort. Not offense,” Steve forces out, his mouth curving distastefully around the last word.

For a second, Stark stands unnaturally still. As if very breath has been stolen from him. Then, after a beat, he blinks, his face drawing into a grimace. “Jesus, it’s like listening to a Harlequin novel. You actually believe that crap?”

Steve takes another deep breath, releases it through his nose. His entire body is drawn tight and quivering with bright-hot anger. He’s not thinking anymore. He cannot think past the fury and hurt inside him. His chest has been one barely healed wound since the moment he woke in the future, and Stark is now merrily clawing it open. “It’s fortunate your mark is still black, Stark. I pity the poor soul who gets to have you as their soulmate.”

Steve doesn’t stop to wait for Stark’s response, nor does he take time to examine the shell-shocked nature of his expression. He merely turns on his heel and strides out of the room.

***

Steve used to fear his appearance and sickly nature would be a burden, a detriment. These days, he can jump out of airplanes without a parachute and run miles without exerting himself.

But there are hollow places inside him now. As if some parts of him haven’t thawed yet.

He is adjusting, slowly, but something inside him fears he will never quite catch up.

He still thinks about his soulmate; not so often, with wariness seeping into his thoughts despite his best efforts.

But he still thinks, still aches. Still wants.

Thinks how it would feel to run his fingers across their skin and whisper ‘mine’. Thinks how warm their breath would be on Steve’s face, how soft their lips.

How right the thought ‘yours’ would echo within Steve’s mind.

***

Bucky is alive.

He is looking at Steve with vacant eyes of a stranger, but it is him.

Steve’s entire world shifts off its axis, changes in such a fundamental way it feels almost like an insult when a single glance at his wrist tells him what he’d already known.

It is not Bucky.

***

Empty space instead of a home.

Was Ultron… was a machine right? Is war… is death all that it is to him? All that he’s good for? All that he wants?

“It’s a bit late, I know, but I was out of line.”

Steve whips his head in the direction of that voice. Tony is sitting on the floor on the other side of the room, moonlight casting a silvery glow across his face. It’s an attractive face, Steve realizes with a sort of detached, almost dream-like certainty.

Steve blinks, pulls his thoughts into safer waters. “You should have told the team what you’re planning to do.”

Tony blinks, his forehead creasing. “You mean Ultron? Well, okay, I fucked that up too… but I meant that,” Tony says, inclining his head toward Steve’s right hand.

Confused, Steve looks down, sees that he’s been unconsciously rubbing at his mark. He used to do that often; a small gesture of comfort and assurance. Frowning, Steve pulls his hand away, ignores the tug in the pit of his belly.

“What do- that was years ago, Tony,” Steve says, perplexed. “And if I remember correctly, I gave as good as I got.”

Steve expects a joke, a deflection, but Tony merely smiles; a small, wistful smile, his gaze darting towards his own wrist. “Pepper, she… she doesn’t have a mark,” he says, his voice softer than Steve has ever heard from Tony Stark. Sadder too. Steve swallows, his heart giving a small lurch. “I always thought she would be the one.” Tony lets out a low, mirthless laugh, shrugs. His eyes, when they meet Steve’s, are glazed over. “You were right, Cap. I’m too much of a mess for anyone to be shackled to me. Mystical forces or no.”

“No, Tony. No,” Steve exclaims hotly. He shuffles down onto the floor, sits across from Tony, his eyes not for a second leaving Tony’s. “I was the one out of line. You’re… a handful, yes, and you need to learn to trust other people, but you’re a good man, Tony. Despite everything.” Steve breaks off, glances down at his mark, a bitter smile tugging at his lips. “And I’m starting to think you were the one who got all this soulmate business right.”

“Nope, that won’t work,” Tony says. There is something jarring about his voice. It sounds too light, too casual. Steve’s head snaps up, his gaze zeroing in on Tony’s face. There’s smile there, yes, but it goes nowhere near his gaze. “There’s space for only one cynic in this charming room in Casa Barton, and, let’s face it, we both know it’s not you, Rogers.”

Steve smiles, takes the offered bait. “You’re a genius, Stark. Tell me what are the chances my soulmate isn’t already dead?”

“Giving how good you’re at beating the odds, I’d say pretty damn high.”

Steve snorts. “Pretty damn high? That’s what passes for genius these days?”

“Don’t sass me, Rogers, or I might tell the future Capmate how you tend to jump out of airplanes without a parachute.”

“Stark, you think you’re the right person to lecture me about safety protocols?” Steve says, deadpan. “Seriously? You invited a terrorist to your home on National TV.”

Tony merely shrugs. “Not one of my finer moments, I admit.”

Steve cannot help himself, he laughs, incredulous and exasperated and fond. And, for a moment, it’s almost easy for him to pretend they are alone in this room, and not crowded by the ghosts of good intentions gone wrong.

And a secret a dead man revealed.

***

Bucky is back.

This time, it is really him. Twisted and bent into a new shape, but the core of him remains the same.

There is also a red mark on his right wrist.

“I don’t know,” Bucky says, and there is something helpless in the way he shrugs, his mouth twisting into a poor semblance of a smile. “I can’t remember.” Nodding toward Steve’s wrist, he asks, “You?”

“Still black,” Steve says, finds that the truth of it doesn’t sting as it used to. These days, it’s only an echo of what was once a fierce longing. “Guess some things are just not meant to be.”

Bucky looks away, stays silent.

Steve sighs, his mouth drawing into a thin line. Now is not the time, anyway, they still have a ride to Siberia to catch.

***

“Don’t bullshit me, Rogers. Did you know?”

There’s nothing hidden in Tony’s gaze. His rage, his pain, his grief; all of it is there for Steve see, as if his heart had been torn open before Steve’s eyes.

Perhaps it has been.

And as he opens his mouth to utter that one damning word, Steve knows – with a leaden weight of certainty crushing his chest – it is about to get worse.

“Yes.”

The word barely slips past Steve’s lips when it happens. He sees Tony drawing away from him, the shock freezing his features… and then everything slips away.

Steve has read about how it felt to have the mark triggered. Warm, some said. Bright, said the others. Light, offered the rest.

It’s all of it, at once, and so, so much more. It’s like being bathed in sunlight. Like breathing it in.

Something twists and turns deep inside Steve’s very core, fragments of him splintering and coalescing into a new shape, while every cell inside his body strains toward Tony – you, it’s you – ache and longing and hope twining around Steve’s chest and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing.

For a fraction of a moment, there’s an echo of the same light that blazes through Steve in Tony’s eyes.

For a fraction of a moment, Steve thinks finally. Thinks mine. Thinks Tony.

And then the blow comes.

Steve doesn’t dodge it.

***

Steve leaves that bunker in Siberia supporting Bucky’s weight, without his shield but with a hollow space in the middle of his chest.

And a tingling, warm sensation on his right wrist.

He doesn’t need to look at his wrist to know that the mark there is no longer black.