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Bucky Barnes is born with a gunmetal grey winged soulmate mask, feathers framing his brown eyes.

He dies with it.

At least, that's what the history books say.

Sam Wilson stares down at the picture in his textbook of a man who died fifty years ago.

He's wearing the same mask as Sam.

Not similar.

The same.

It's not possible.

But Sam knows that mask. How could he not? He stares at in the mirror every morning.

No one knows where the masks come from. They're not even corporeal, so most people handwave it as magic, or fate. Something beyond humanity.

All anyone knows is the person with the matching mask is your soulmate.

And the only one who can ever take it off.

And sure, there are people who reject the masks and all that they stand for. People who say they're just a tool to control people, or keep them complacent.

But Sam's always secretly been a bit of a romantic about the masks. His mom and dad were soulmates, after all.

He figured he'd grow up, join the Airforce, maybe meet his soulmate there. After all, not just anyone has wings on their mask.

He didn't figure he'd find those wings in the World War II section of his history book.

But James Buchanan Barnes is dead. The only Howling Commando to give his life in service to his country.

Sam gives it up as a bad picture and a coincidence. Mostly. But it sits there, in the back of his mind, and he can't quite get it to go away.

He graduates.

He joins the Airforce.

They give him wings — gorgeous gunmetal grey wings that match his mask. Riley, his wingman, laughs and says it was meant to be.

Some days Sam wishes Riley had the same mask. Riley is a disaster human and he's full of shit and most of the time he's a dumbass but Sam could love him, if he let himself. But Riley's mask is red as sin, and not a feather in sight.

But then it doesn't matter, because Riley is falling out of the sky.

And then it's just Sam, and he was thinking about signing up for another tour but without Riley it feels damn near impossible so he lets them send him home.

He picks up the pieces and he moves from Harlem to DC and it's exhausting and every goddamn day feels like it takes more effort than he's got to give but he does it. He keeps on living. Even when it seems impossible.

And then some little shit interrupts his running route with snarky comments.

And when Sam is breathing heavily and Captain-goddamn-America is smirking at him, Sam is looking at his bright blue, unmasked eyes and there's something there.

Something that Sam can't quite pinpoint. It looks like nostalgia and pain and recognition all wrapped up together in a big ball of guilt.

Sam doesn't know what to do with that, so he just tells the man to listen to the Trouble Man soundtrack — because everyone needs to hear the Trouble Man soundtrack.

And then a gorgeous redhead pulls up in a very nice car to pick Steve up, except that she gives Sam a weird look, too. Except hers? Sam doesn't have a damn clue what any of those emotions are.

But then they drive away, and Sam figures that's going to be that.

That is not, in fact, that.

First, Steve actually takes him up on the suggestion to stop by when he's counseling, which, well. Sam's not going to turn him away. The man can't even answer what makes you happy, which is never a good sign. Sam's been there. He can help. Maybe.

Not that he's… been exactly there. Seventy years on ice is a long time. Steve's soulmate lived a life without him.

But Sam knows what it's like to feel that adrift.

And then Steve shows up on his goddamn doorstep, bringing half of Hydra and a whole load of drama.

And then they're on a bridge when some dick decides to take his steering wheel and they're falling and then they're being stalked by a man wearing Sam's mask and walking with murderous intent and Steve and Sam are frozen.

"Bucky?" Steve asks, and his voice is a desperate, painful whisper. Sam is just staring at him, this man who wears his mask but who doesn't seem to notice.

And then the man is raising his gun and the world is falling to pieces and Sam can't stop seeing it.

The mask they both wear is the same gunmetal grey as Sam's wings. It's also the same gunmetal grey as the man's arm.

Then Natasha's being shot and they're being kidnapped and then they're being rescued and Sam is still trying to take a goddamn minute to process all this.

"It was Bucky," Steve says. "I know it was. I'd know him anywhere. The same way I knew the first time I saw you."

"Why didn't you say something?" Sam asks.

"It seemed… impossible. Like it had to be a pipe dream or a misremembering. Because I saw him fall."

"I got a glimpse," Natasha says. "When he shot me." She looks at them both, her eyes more open than they usually ever are. "I'll never forget that mask."

"Do we… look, no offense, but do we even know he's still in there? Steve, he didn't seem to recognize you much at all."

"Why would you and he share masks if he wasn't… he's got to be," Steve says, and Sam thinks of Riley. Thinks of watching Riley fall, never having seen his face underneath.

"The world fucks up, sometimes," Sam says.

"He's still there," Steve says firmly.

Sam wants to believe him. Wants to believe that his soulmate isn't a long-gone shell of a man filled up with Hydra-assassin.

But Sam's seen what happens to good men in enemy territory. Sometimes, there isn't much left to save.

Maybe that makes him jaded. But maybe, just maybe, Steve needs somebody there to keep his feet on the ground.

In the end, it doesn't matter, because they have to stop the helicarriers. Steve isn't going to hurt Bucky, or the thing that used to be Bucky. Sam… hasn't quite made up his mind yet. He kind of hopes it doesn't come to that.

But then the Soldier is there and he's landing a grappling hook into Sam's wing and pulling him down. Another jerk tears his wing clean off.

Sam staggers to his feet, trying to balance but he's down a wing and everything is whirling and then there's a boot in his chest and Sam is falling, falling, falling.

He scrambles at his straps, only just manages to free his other wing and pop his parachute — not quite in time, and the landing jars his ankles to shit, but at least he's not an egg shattered on the pavement.

He tells Steve he's grounded and he finds himself hoping that somehow they stop these helicarriers and all of them make it out alive.

Someone hauled Steve out of the river.

Someone hauled Steve out of the river and then disappeared like a ghost, like a fairytale, like a fable of a man with a gunmetal grey mask and aim that never misses.

And Sam knows without a doubt that Steve is going after him, which means Sam is going after him too.

Sam isn't kidding himself. They're not going to find Bucky until Bucky wants to be found. He may not be Hydra anymore — Sam hopes to hell he isn't Hydra anymore — but he's still the goddamned Winter Soldier, the man behind too many myths to count. Sam's just a soldier, and Steve has never made a good spy.

So it's not all that surprising that when Steve disappears to deal with some shit in Sokovia and leaves Sam alone on the trail, that's when he catches up to Bucky.

It's in a run down hotel in Lahore, Pakistan.

Bucky doesn't look surprised to see the door open. He looks up. His brown eyes are steady behind the mask.

"You're the man with the wings," he says to Sam.

Sam nods.

"You're my soulmate," Bucky says, slower this time.

"Seems like," Sam says.

Bucky stares at him. The feathers around his eyes almost make him look owlish, staring at Sam with wide eyes.

It's a far cry from the murder-walk toward them on the bridge. It's makes him look a lot softer.

It kind of make Sam want to wrap him in seven layers of blankets and light a fire, internationally feared assassin of legend or not.

But that probably wouldn't go over well. So he just lets Bucky process, instead.

And eventually, Bucky blinks, and then says, "Can I see your face?"

Which… kind of requires a lot of trust. To let a man still finding himself that near Sam's face.

But Sam looks at him, this man who has centuries in his eyes and yet still looks so young, and Sam… doesn't trust him, exactly.

But maybe Sam believes in him.

And maybe that's enough.

"Sure," Sam says.

Bucky moves forward so slowly it aches.

His hands reach out, as though he's sure that Sam's going to rescind his permission, and Sam's thinking about exactly how many times that must have happened, how many times he must've been given things only for them to vanish before his eyes,

And Sam feels his stomach twist at the thought.

It's all starting to feel very real. Because, yeah, Sam's read the files Natasha brought. He's seen things, laid out in text, and cringed.

But this is different. This is a man standing in front of him, living and breathing the consequences of those files.

And Sam knows the files weren't all of it. There were chunks of time where they have no files at all.

He's not sure he wants to know what fills those gaps.

He's not sure how a man comes back from that. That Bucky is here, trying to fit together pieces of a life long lost, is… something amazing.

That he's still willing to reach out to Sam is something… impossible.

So Sam lets him.

Bucky's hands are impossibly gentle as they take holds of the sides of Sam's mask, suddenly tangible, and lifts.

Sam blinks. The world seems to shift.

It doesn't, really. The masks aren't real. They don't impede vision. But it feels like it does.

"Oh," Bucky says, and the sound is soft, almost fragile. Sam's not sure what that means. He breathes in, and then he adds, "You're beautiful."

It doesn't sound like the kind of thing that's just… a stock compliment. It sounds like something he almost didn't mean to say, but it comes out in a breathless whisper.

Sam feels his face warm.

"Uh. Thanks," he says.

It's not… well. It's not exactly what Sam expected for when his mask came off, but it's not… bad.

"Can I?" he asks, raising one hand but moving no closer, just letting it sit in the gap between them, finishing the question for him.

Bucky steps back.

"I. I'm not sure…"

"No is also an acceptable answer," Sam says gently.

"Uh. No?" Bucky says, and it's half a question and it sounds like it's the first time in a long time that he's used that word.

But Sam just smiles softly, hoping none of his fury at Hydra comes through, and says, "Okay."

Bucky looks at his feet. Sam watches the bobbing wingtips of his mask and wonders.

"It's not fair," Bucky says into the space between them. And Sam's not sure what he means until he adds, "I saw. Uh, Carter."

Oh.

And Sam thinks about a world that plans for Bucky to spend 70 years on ice but gives Steve a soulmate that he only gets to know for a few months and Bucky's right. It's not fair. It's not fair that Riley fell from the sky still wearing his, that there's someone out there in a mask as red as sin, forever waiting on a man who isn't coming.

It's a stupid, bullshit system and Sam kind of hates it.

But he grew up a romantic, and he can't quite shake that part of him. The part that wants to know why the universe has linked him and Bucky, even through the decades.

It's a stupid, bullshit system, but sometimes it still works.

And maybe there's enough of Sam left that isn't jaded that he wants to see if they can move past the whole steering wheel thing. And the whole destroying his wings and shoving him off of a helicarrier thing.

Or maybe there's just enough of Sam that's still a reckless idiot who throws himself out of planes.

At least he takes a parachute. He's not Steve.

And so Sam says, "You could come with me."

And he watches Bucky recoil, curl into himself.

"I'm not… not who Steve thinks I am. I'm not... Good."

"I'm not sure anyone is as good as Steve Rogers thinks they are," Sam says without thinking.

Bucky's eyes flash - surprised, but maybe pleased, too.

But then he ducks his head and his hair swings through his mask to cover his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm not… I've… I think I need to figure out how to be a person again. First."

His phrasing cuts straight to Sam's heart.

It feels impossible to let him walk away. But it's even more impossible to say no to him.

So Sam lets him go.

He goes home.

He takes a look in the mirror, inspecting his unmasked face for the first time.

It feels like something is missing.

He's supposed to trade the mask for a soulmate. That's how this is supposed to work.

But he hasn't.

Steve comes back after the whole Sokovia thing looking more exhausted than ever. They meet up in a cafe near Sam's house.

It takes Steve almost a full minute to figure out who he is.

When he does, he stops and stares. And then he looks over Sam's shoulder, too much hope in his eyes.

It kills Sam to watch that hope die.

"I'm sorry," he tells Steve. "He said he wasn't ready to come home."

Steve's "How is he?" comes out so small Sam almost doesn't even believe it's him.

Sam's thought a lot about how to answer that question.

"He's… healing," he says slowly. "Honestly? He's doing a lot better than I thought he would be. But he's… Steve, that's a lot of trauma."

"I know," Steve says.

"I know you do." Sam sighs. "But… look. Even Bucky knows you have expectations for… how he's going to be. Even if you don't mean to."

Goddammit, Sam hates Steve's kicked puppy look. It's brutal. But Sam thinks Steve needs to hear it anyway.

….

It takes Bucky almost two years to come in from the cold.

But one day, he just shows up on Sam's doorstep. He's twirling a daffodil in between a metal thumb and forefinger.

He offers it to Sam, brown eyes glittering behind his mask.

"New beginnings," he says. "That's what daffodils are for."

Sam huffs out a laugh. "I guess we could use a few of those."

Bucky smiles, and goddamn. Sam can't even see his whole face and he already knows that smile is gorgeous. "We really could," he agrees. "Can I come in?"

"Of course," Sam agrees.

Bucky moves with grace in every motion. He stalks into Sam's apartment, makes himself at home leaning against the kitchen counter.

"I think it's time for the masks to come off," he says.

Sam raises an eyebrow at him. "I don't know if you've noticed, but mine's been off for two years."

Bucky just grins. "You gonna return that favour?"

Sam moves in, reaches out.

The mask comes off easily, dissipates into the air, and then it's just… Bucky. His long hair is pulled back into a bun, just a few strands loose in front of his face. Without the mask, Sam can see his sharp cheekbones, can see exactly how smug his smile is.

He's beautiful.

"Can I kiss you?" Sam asks, half-breathless with it, but he has to ask, because Bucky has had his ability to consent taken away from him so many times, and Sam will not be one of them. It doesn't matter how unsubtle the signals Bucky may be sending.

Bucky smirks. "I thought you'd never ask," he says, and he leans in at the same time Sam does.

They've still got a lot of their past to deal with. But they've got time.

For now, Sam just wants to savor the feeling of Bucky's lips on his, the knowledge that this is right.