He knows what soul marks are, and what they mean. He’s seen them on other people – agents, his handlers, his marks. He knows everyone has one. Everyone, that is, except him.
His handler finds him one day, looking at himself in the mirror, studiously examining every inch of his skin. He’s seen marks in all shapes, and sizes and place. His handler stops him immediately and demands a report.
The asset is functioning within normal parameters. There are no injuries, no malfunction. He is in prime condition.
Then what is he doing?
Looking for his soul mark, he informs his handler obediently.
“Stop. You’re an Asset. Assets don’t have soulmarks,” his handler commands him.
Oh. Of course.
He is an Asset, not a person. He serves, he doesn’t feel. Of course he doesn’t have a soul mark.
He doesn’t think about it again, not until he’s sitting in Stark’s workshop in the tower back in New York. It hasn’t been that long since the battle on the helicarriers, since Captain America went down and the Asset pulled his target from the river. Captain America – Steve, he reminds himself – had been looking for him after that. And he had been looking for answers, without much luck.
Who the hell is Bucky? Turns out, he is. Even if he doesn’t remember.
After his escape from his handlers, he dismantled the HYDRA trail coming after him. He scoured every HYDRA server and database he could get his hands on. The information from the SHIELD – HYDRA hybrid that Romanoff released helped. But, in the end, there were still answers he didn’t have and he wasn’t sure where to go anymore. So, he turned himself in to Steve.
Steve knew him. Maybe Steve could help him remember himself.
Stark’s work space is the nicest Bucky has ever been in. It feels open and welcoming in a way the HYDRA labs never had. And it helps that there is nothing here that looks like it was designed to cause him pain, to force him to comply, to forget.
He doesn’t want to forget again.
He hasn’t thought about soulmarks since his handler told him that Assets don’t have them. But he can’t help but notice the intricate mark that covers Stark’s shoulder and trails down under his tank top. It’s hard not to notice the mark, what with Stark bent close to him, working on his arm.
“You did a real number on this, Cap,” Stark tuts as he works at fixing a connection.
“Effective use of non-lethal force,” he says without thinking. On the other side of him, Steve winces.
“No.” Bucky cuts him off. “Don’t be sorry. You should have killed me.”
“I wasn’t going to—“
“I know, Steve.”
Steve. Bucky. He’s still getting used to those names, to the idea that he is Bucky, and the man who was formerly his target is his best friend. It’s hard, but already his head is clearer than it was a few weeks ago.
Not surprising, now that he understands what HYDRA has been doing to him, what drugs they were feeding him to make him complacent and malleable. He is an asset, but he will never again be their Asset.
“Hey, just chill, both of you,” Tony says, sitting back to study the 3D scan he took of Bucky’s arm. “Trust me, I’ll have Buckaroo’s arm back in tip top shape in no time.”
Now that Tony’s attention is firmly on his screen projections, it gives Bucky an even clearer view of the marks on his skin. It’s a series of tiny squares and tightly packed lines, all sharp angles. It’s like a circuit board, fused to his skin. It’s the most beautiful soul mark Bucky has ever seen and he can’t tear his eyes away. At least, not until he notices both Tony and Steve are staring at him.
“Sorry,” Bucky mumbles, and quickly looks away.
“It’s fine,” Tony says nonchalantly. “Never put much stock in soulmarks honestly. And mine was weird.”
“Weird?” Bucky asks, cocking his head. “Weird how? It looks normal to me.”
“You know how soulmarks fill in gradually over time as you grow up? Mine didn’t. It would fill in quick for a short period of time, a few days, or a few weeks. And then nothing. No change. Until the next time it decided to have a growth spurt.”
Bucky considers Tony’s words and frowns, forehead drawing into a crease.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean? You don’t know what?” Tony asks, folding his arms over his chest and looking over at Bucky with a new kind of interest.
“That soul marks gradually fill in over time. I didn’t know that. I don’t have one.”
“What do you mean you don’t have one? Everyone has one.”
Bucky shakes his head. “No. I am an asset. Assets don’t have soul marks.”
Beside him, it sounds like Steve is choking.
“Buck- Bucky that’s not true.”
Bucky shifts in his chair and turns his confusion onto Steve.
“Yes, it is. Assets don’t have soulmates. So, they don’t have soul marks.”
“Yours was on your left forearm,” Steve says quietly. “It was just an outline. A square. It never filled in, but you had one.”
Bucky pulls his arm back from Tony and stares at it, at the metal panels fitted together, gleaming.
“You lost your arm,” Steve continues almost desperately, “and your mark, but you had one. You’re not—remember you weren’t always with HYDRA. You’re a person, Buck. You always have been.”
Ah. Yes. That fact hadn’t occurred to him. He wasn’t always an asset, so he would have had a soul mark before. Which means HYDRA – his handler – lied to him? He had—but he could have. Not him. Could he? Not with what he’d done and who he was.
His chest tightens and he can’t breath. Before he realizes what he’s doing, he’s on his feet and fleeing the shop. Air. He needs air.
The voice in the walls guides him through the tower and up to the roof, somewhere safe and empty and clear. It’s colder up here, the wind a lot stronger than down at street level. It gives him something to focus on. Once he comes back to himself, he’s grateful for the voice in the walls for leading him here. The panels on his arm are wide open, wires dangling out, and he would have made quite a sight running through the streets of Manhattan like that. Definitely would have drawn the kind of attention he’s looking to avoid.
He’ll need to thank JARVIS once he goes back inside. Which is definitely not right now. The idea of inside feels incredibly restrictive, and out here the cold, sharp air is grounding him, even as he still struggles to catch his breath. All his focus goes into slowing his heart rate and his breathing, but it feels like he’s fighting a losing battle. What the hell is wrong with him?
He is dimly aware of the sound of someone else coming on to the roof, but he doesn’t register it as a threat, doubtful that anyone who was an enemy would be coming for him from inside the tower. They’d never make it past all of Stark’s redundant security, and then past the team of elite fighters. He only turns a sliver of his attention to the interloper when Stark slides up beside him, just out of arm’s reach, leaning against the low wall that circles the rooftop.
“So, how you feeling?” he asks with deliberate ease.
“Operating at sub-optimal levels,” Bucky responds on reflex.
“Right. Sub-optimal levels,” Tony huffs. “Not quite what I asked, but I’ll take it.”
Yeah, he’ll have to. Feelings are still complicated, especially right now when Bucky’s head feels like it’s full of static. But maybe… he can try.
“I… felt like I couldn’t breath. Chest felt tight.”
“Felt like you had to run and get out? Couldn’t think straight?”
“Sounds a lot like an anxiety attack,” Tony says, carefully staring forward out across the city. “They’re not fun.”
“You’ve felt this?” Bucky asks, alarmed. He feels terrible, like his whole body and mind are shutting down. He feels equally the compulsion to flee and to curl up inside himself. His stomach is twisting itself into knots, he’s exhausted and wrung out. He wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
“Yup,” Tony informs him. “It’s a real bitch, isn’t it?”
Bucky nods and half laughs, half sobs.
“I’m going to touch your arm,” Tony informs him before taking Bucky’s right hand and placing it in the center of his chest. Tony feels warm, and Bucky can feel the steady heartbeat under his fingertips. “Breath in with me,” Tony instructs, and takes a deep breath in.
Bucky feels the way Tony’s chest slowly rises and then falls as he exhales. Bucky’s first breath in stutters, but Tony just keeps up his steady pace of breathing, softly encouraging Bucky to breath in, and out, and in, and out again. Eventually, Bucky feels his own heart rate slow and his own breathing evens out to a more normal pace.
“There you go. Well done,” Tony praises him and lets Bucky’s hand drop.
A small part of him preens at the praise. It’s stupid, he hasn’t done anything except breath, which shouldn’t be something that he takes pride in. But, he feels better, and Tony’s voice is soothing. He believes that he’s done something good, taking control of himself again.
Control of himself is still a very new concept, one he’s not quite comfortable with.
That night, Bucky sleeps restlessly. His head is full of strange dreams that feel like memories trying to push their way to the surface. He tosses and turns, and wakes with a gasp just as the sun is beginning to rise.
The skin above his left hip prickles a little. He looks down, and the sight nearly makes him forget how to breath again. Clear on his skin, just as Steve had described, was an empty square.
The next time he returns to the lab so that Tony can finish the repairs on his arm, he wears a sleeveless shirt. It hides the soulmark that has started creeping up his stomach. Looking at it makes him feel nauseous, but sometimes he can’t tear his eyes away. It would have been easier, he thinks, if it never came back. If he still believed he didn’t have one.
“Everything alright there Buckaroo?” Tony asks as he slides another plate off. “You’re awfully quiet. I mean, not that that’s saying much. You’re always quiet.”
“Fine,” Bucky says shortly.
Tony shrugs, unfazed by his brusqueness and goes back to work. Guilt settles on Bucky’s chest. Tony was only trying to be kind. Ever since Bucky came to the tower, Tony has been nothing but considerate, treating him like he’s normal, like nothing about Bucky and who he is bothers him. Tony deserves more in return than Bucky snapping.
“I haven’t been sleeping well,” he admits a few minutes later. It’s not an apology, but Tony pauses and looks up at him briefly and, for a moment, it kind of feels like one. “I’m remembering. Dreaming.”
It feels strange to him, but Tony nods like it makes perfect sense.
“Our bodies heal themselves faster while we sleep. And sleep is when our brains reorganise themselves, sort though the subconscious thoughts, help transfer short term memories into long term storage. Makes sense that you’re dreaming about memories. Your brain is trying to sort itself out.”
“It’s disorienting,” Bucky complains. “I remember something. And then I wonder how I could have ever forgotten it. Steve’s face when I made him ride the Cyclone. Playing with my sister.” He blinks, and looks over at Tony. “Did you know I had sisters?”
Tony hesitates, and nods.
“Yeah, the history books talk about your family a little. And Steve told us stories.”
“Remembering them is nicer than remembering the missions, I guess.”
Tony stops, and sets the tools down.
“You remember them?”
“All of them,” Bucky said. “All of my time with HYDRA. It was only everything before that they wanted me to forget.”
Tony mutters under his breath, some very choice words about HYDRA and what he’d like to do with them, but Bucky hears clearly when Tony says that HYDRA is never getting him back again.
Bucky believes him. And he feels… safe.
“It’s only going to be for a few days,” Steve says a few weeks later.
“I’ll be fine Steve, I promise,” Bucky says for what feels like the tenth time. There is a lead that Steve needs to follow. Intel on HYDRA that needs to be collected. Bucky has looked at the mission plan, it’s an easy in-and-out. Wilson, Romanov, and Rhodes are all going with him, it’ll be a cake walk. What is left of HYDRA is weak and scattered. They won’t know what hit them.
There is a part of Bucky that wishes he could go with them, but he knows he’s not ready yet. Sure, he could put on his tac gear and he could fight. He could probably singlehandedly level the base and take out everyone in it. Sure, he could do the mission, but he’s not sure he’s ready. He has a choice and right now he doesn’t want to be ready. He doesn’t want to have to fight yet.
Steve tells him it’s a good choice.
After the first day, Bucky isn’t so sure it’s such a great choice anymore. Contact with the team is sporadic, and Bucky finds that he’s spending most of his hours pacing restlessly around the tower, counting down the minutes until the next check in. Sure, it’s an easy mission, but that doesn’t stop him worrying. He knows all too well how quickly easy missions can go sideways. And that worst case scenario is all he can think about now.
He considers going down to the workshop to bother Tony again. Over the past few weeks, the compulsion to spend time around Tony has grown, right along with the mark on his skin. It’s growing rapidly now, a long line from his hip bone all the way up to the bottom of his ribs. He’s watched the details fill in — it’s beautiful. The concentric squares, the fine lines tracing patterns between the shapes, bending at sharp angles. It reminds him a little of the circuitry inside his arm.
It’s getting harder and harder to keep his eyes off of the mark on Tony’s shoulder, the one that peeks out when he’s wearing sleeveless shirts of his own. It’s there, screaming at him, the truth is right in front of him, but he can’t accept it. Not when he still carries the weight of the Asset and the blood on his hands. If Tony notices him staring, he doesn’t say anything. They haven’t mentioned soulmarks since that first day.
Bucky is pacing the kitchen, debating whether or not to go down and see Tony, when Tony makes the decision for him, coming into the kitchen with a spring in his step.
“Come on, we’re going out,” he announces, leaving no room for argument.
Buck blinks in confusion.
“You, me, out, coffee,” Tony says as if that should explain everything. When Bucky continues to stare blankly, Tony rolls his eyes and explains. “You’ve been pacing around all day fretting. Enough is enough. We’re going out and we’re going to distract you. Come on.”
He throws an arm around Bucky and pushes him toward the elevator. Bucky doesn’t argue.
The place Tony has in mind is a cafe a few blocks away from the tower, tucked away on a little side street — or what counts as a side street in the heart of midtown. It’s cozy, and comfortable, and smells amazing. Bucky loves it immediately. There is a display case at the counter full of beautiful-looking pastries, and Bucky’s eyes widen at the sight of them all. Tony notices, and grinning broadly, he orders a dozen different things before Bucky can protest.
“How are you going to know what you like if you don’t try them all?” Tony says as he takes the small tray loaded up with sweets and carries it off to their table.
“We could always come back again,” Bucky says without thinking.
Tony stops short, and for a moment Bucky thinks he’s messed up, assuming that Tony would want to go out with him again, but Tony just smiles bright enough Bucky swears it lights up the room.
“Well, we will then. But for now, try these.”
Bucky loses track of time after that. The afternoon passes in a blur of talking to Tony, of Tony animatedly explaining his projects, of Bucky telling him stories of things he is remembering, stories of the trouble he and Steve used to get up to. For a while he forgets everything else. He forgets about being an asset. He forgets about soul marks. He forgets that he isn’t worthy. For a while, his whole world is just him and Tony talking. He feels alive. He feels happy.
If only he could stay feeling that way forever. He wakes in the middle of the night a few days later, sweating, breath caught in his throat and a scream on his lips. He dreams of his missions, the worst of the worst, the ones he felt nothing for before and now wishes he could sear out of his mind. How is it fair that he still struggles to remember the good parts of his life, when he remembers his life as an Asset so clearly?
He retreats outside to the balcony again, where the cold air can ground him and he can feel removed from the city below. He watches the vehicles moving and tries to steady his breath. He can feel the tug in his chest, urging him back inside, to find comfort from his soulmate who is so near Bucky can feel it. There’s no doubt in his mind, there hasn’t been for weeks. Their connection has grown, and there is no mistaking it. He wants nothing more than curl up beside Tony and hide his face in the crook of Tony’s neck. Tony, who always makes him feel like he’s at home, who challenges him, who makes him feel alive, who makes him feel like he can become something more than what HYDRA made him.
Bucky stares at his hands. There’s still so much blood on them. Part of him wants to rip his metal arm right off, as if that could somehow erase everything that HYDRA made him do with it. Except he doesn’t want to do that now. Not since Tony fix it, made it better, made it something more. Like he makes Bucky want to be something more.
Hot tears of frustration are prickling his eyes when Steve steps out onto the balcony.
“Bucky?” he calls softly. Bucky turns to face him, raw and undone. “Oh Bucky, what’s wrong?”
Steve hurries to his side, and Bucky tries to speak, but the words aren’t working for him. Instead, he carefully takes the hem of his shirt and pushes it up, revealing the mark that’s almost completely filled in now.
“Oh Bucky,” Steve gasps softly.
Bucky doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to. Steve steps closer and wraps his arms around Bucky, pulls him in for a tight hug. He goes willingly, grateful to have Steve there for him. Steve has always been there for him. Always will be. Steve doesn’t pull away, just holds him as he quietly grieves. Over what, he’s not quite sure, but he has to admit that it feels nice to get some of the weight off his chest. When at last he does pull back, Steve looks at him seriously.
“You need to tell him, Buck,”
“I can’t,” Bucky says, voice raw.
“I know,” Steve responds gently.
“He deserves to know. He said he didn’t put much stock in soulmates. He’s probably gone his whole life thinking his soulmate doesn’t want him, or has never found him. He doesn’t deserve that.”
“You make him happy,” Steve tells him. Bucky shakes his head in disbelief. “Yes, you do. Trust me. I’ve known him longer than you. I can’t tell you how much happier he is since he met you.”
Bucky opens his mouth to protest, but Steve cuts him off. “I know what you’re going to say. I’ve known you a long time, too, and let me remind you Buck, he knows. He’s read the reports. He knows what HYDRA’s done, and what HYDRA made you do. And guess what? He’s still cares about you. Alright?” Steve reaches over and gently rests his hand on Bucky’s stomach over the mark. “They’ve already taken so much from you. Don’t let them have this, too.”
Deciding that he needs to tell Tony doesn’t make doing it any easier. But at this point, waiting is only going to make it worse, and so the following morning, Bucky goes down to the workshop with coffee in hand — a peace offering of sorts. Tony greets him warmly, but something feels a little off.
“Tony. I need to tell you something,” Bucky says finally, straightening up tall like he’s a doomed man.
Tony sighs, and sets down his coffee cup, and turns to Bucky.
“I was wondering when we were going to have this conversation.”
Bucky stares at him. In an instant, he realises that Tony knows what he’s about to say, and all of a sudden, Bucky can’t bring himself to say it. Tony takes pity on him and steps closer, right up into Bucky’s space and puts a hand on his stomach, right over the mark.
“Did you really think I wasn’t going to find out about this?” he asks, almost sounding sad.
Bucky would give up everything he has and everything he is if it means that he never again makes Tony sound that way.
“I don’t know,” Bucky admits. “How long have you known?”
Tony hesitates slightly.
“A while,” he admits after a moment. “Remember how I said that mine kept filling in at a weird rate?” Bucky nods. “As soon as Steve brought you here, it started filling in again. I got suspicious, so I did some checking.” Tony stops and drums his fingers against the work top, shifting on his feet. “I never kept track of the times that it filled in. But. I remember how old I was, or what I was doing at the time. So I cross-referenced what I remembered with some of the HYDRA files. Know what I found?”
Bucky does, but he doesn’t say anything, so Tony continues. “All the points that I remember my mark filling in corresponded to the Winter Soldier’s missions. My mark only filled in when you were awake and stopped again when you were back in cryo. Steve said yours never filled in right? Well I’m pretty sure that’s because I wasn’t born yet.”
Everything that Tony is saying makes sense and, if Bucky had any doubts before about the truth, they’ve all vanished now.
“But, how did you know I got a mark back?” he says, placing his hand over Tony’s which is still against his stomach.
“I felt it, I guess. Intuition maybe.”
That makes sense. Bucky feels connected to Tony too, in a strange way that he can’t explain. It was reasonable to Tony felt something towards him.
“Can I see it?” Tony asks.
Bucky nods and tugs his shirt off, revealing the pattern that has filled in and darkened. Tony gasps softly and, without thinking, he reaches out and traces his fingers along the lines of the mark. Bucky shivers at the touch, but he doesn’t want it to stop. Tony takes his time studying the mark, tracing the different shapes and, when at last he looks up, his eyes are bright and shining a little. He quickly tugs his own shirt over his head and for the first time Bucky can see all of Tony’s mark. It’s beautiful. The same circuit board pattern of squares and lines stretching down from his shoulder, across his chest. Bucky reaches out to touch them the same way Tony had his.
“Why didn’t you say anything when you figured it out?” Bucky asked as his fingers trail up over Tony’s shoulder.
“I didn’t know if that was something you wanted. I mean, you spent so long thinking you didn’t have a soulmate, that alone was a shock to you. And I thought... “ Tony shrugs. “Well, I thought you were already having a hard enough time figuring yourself out. I didn’t exactly want to make it more complicated. And I didn’t want to force you into anything. You’ve had enough of that already.”
Bucky will never not be amazing at how perfect Tony is, and how well Tony understands him.
“I have a soulmate,” Bucky says, still not quite believing it. “I… I really have a soulmate.”
For the first time since he broke free of HYDRA, he actually feels truly human down to his core. Something in him shatters in the best possible way, and he throws himself at Tony, curling around him, and finally being able to give into the compulsion to wrap himself up in his soulmate’s arms.
“Hey, that’s it. I got you Bucky, you’re okay now.”
Bucky believes him.