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binary star

n. A stellar system in which two stars orbit around their center of mass. Half or more of visible stars are part of multiple star systems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

i - pictor: the painter 

“…The modern viewer must remember that prior to the 1960s, soulmark portraits were the ultimate in taboo. But one can see how an artist like Captain Rogers would feel compelled to pick up his sketchbook. While his execution is unassuming, even workmanlike, the obvious care given by the artist shines through…

… Captain Rogers never did a self-portrait; we can only speculate who his soulmate — or soulmates — might have been. We may never know what his soulmark looked like, but we can make a reasonable assumption about its location.

This long term exhibition will be on display until October 19, 2012.”

Franklin, Hannah. “Howling Commandos Leave their Mark in Portrait Series by Captain America.” Newsweek, July 9, 2011.

 

 

 

When it comes out that Captain America is alive, Steve gets a rather frantic letter from the National Portrait Gallery, giving a formal explanation, an apology, and a promise that, if he wants, they will close the exhibit down immediately. But there is a strong, almost desperate, undertone of please don’t ask us to close it down, it’s very popular.

This is how Steve finds out that his private — very private — sketchbooks have been made… extremely public.

He almost wishes that they had found the blue pictures he used to draw when money was really tight, back in Brooklyn. That would have been less embarrassing, somehow. He wants to tell them to take the the sketches down immediately, but he knows that he should at least give them a chance. They offer him a private tour, and he agrees.

 

Two weeks later, he’s standing alone on the floor of the National Portrait Gallery’s most popular exhibit. It’s simple, almost austere: a round room with a series of framed pen-and-ink portraits, each one individually lit; like a tiny stage with only one actor. You can stand in the middle (and Steve does) and turn like the hands on a clock to look at all the portraits. Over the door is the title:

And They Left Their Mark:

Portraits of the Howling Commandos by Steven G Rogers

The worst thing isn't that soulmarks are unbearably personal things. In Steve’s day, his ma had worn gloves all the time because her soulmark was on her hand. The worst thing isn't that they didn’t ask permission — because they did get permission from everyone who was still alive, he can't fault them there.

The worst thing is that it’s not his best work. The linework is alright, but the colors are all over the place, and the backgrounds are only half-rendered and…

They’ve framed them. They’re up behind glass. It boggles his mind. They’re practically doodles. They’re just practice sketches of an interesting subject matter. It had been a crazy idea then, not something he took seriously. Half the time they were behind enemy lines, so they were all rush jobs.  They had to have been torn out of his war sketchbook, which would’ve been stained with mud and blood and worse things.

Hell, that sketch of Dugan had been water stained across the bottom left corner. Somehow they’ve cleaned that out. Now it’s just Dugan with his shirt off, in a goofy strongman pose like he’s back in the circus, looking over his shoulder, eyes just glinting out from under the brim of his bowler. Between his shoulder blades there’s a dark mark in a roughly triangular shape. The strongest shape in nature, Dugan had claimed. That’s why everything goes on tripods.

Steve remembers that they were stalled, deep in Hydra territory when he drew Morita half buried in the front of the jeep. He was doing repairs with his shirt off and glistened with sweat, looking more like a pinup than a mechanic. The damning irregular circle between his shoulder blades was clearly visible. The army almost hadn’t admitted him, even though it wasn't legal to discriminate based on soulmarks. A sign of his true loyalties, they said. But Jim maintained that it was a drop of red, all-American blood, not a bloody sunrise.   More like a target on my back, he’d admitted later.

Falsworth’s wasn’t all that different, actually. Steve had drawn him doing pull-ups from a tree branch, his narrow shoulders flexed on either side of the rough red asterisk over his spine. A Union Jack, Monty had said, but something told Steve it meant more to him than that.

Gabe is there: sat with his trumpet across his lap, his bare back hunched as he cleaned it with more care than he ever gave his guns. The white horseshoe shape, and the lines that filled it… It’s a lyre, Gabe told them. Or a lucky horseshoe, my ma said. Or maybe like… a cup full of water?

And there’s Peggy. God. Peggy. When they’d found out that the Howlies’ marks were all in the same spot — that was unusual, but she said it explained a lot. You all work so well together, I suppose it's to be expected. And then, she’d just whipped her shirt right off and turned to show him hers: a bold black mark that wasn’t quite a starburst but was breathtakingly similar in a way that made his heart stutter. It’s a compass rose. Runs in the family. My brother had the very same mark, you know, although his was over his heart.

And he’d drawn her like that, from memory, the line of her slip framing the mark like a picture, her hair pulled up with one hand, looking back over her shoulder with her red lips slightly parted and a brow quirked and…

But it’s just a sketch. They’re all just sketches.

Steve stands in the middle of the room, puts his fist over his mouth, and goes very still. He always goes still when he’s trying to keep it together. Because these are his friends — these were his friends, but now they’re gone, and this is all he has left.

He can’t even look at the sketch of Bucky. He can’t bear to. He wonders if they realize that one’s in black and white because he did it before the serum. He wishes Bucky had let him do it over, in color this time. He wishes —

“Captain Rogers?”

Steve turns and sees a docent hovering in the doorway. She looks unbearably young to him. They’re probably about the same age, physically. But he feels so old, looking at these yellowing sketches.

“Yes,” he says, forcing himself to do the thing. The pleasantries. “Hi.”

“I’m Verity, I’m one of the guides here. Do you want me to walk you through the exhibit?” she asks, kindly.

He blinks at her. “It’s… I mean, I know who they all are,” he points out.

She goes pink. “Right, of course you do. Sorry. I just meant… do you have any questions?”

Steve looks back at the portraits. Ridiculously, he wants to hide them before she sees something compromising, but hell. She's already seen them. She’s probably studied them. There’s probably a lookbook in the museum shop. He rubs his forehead. He needs to adjust his perspective, here. Times have changed.

“How do people talk about soulmates these days?” Steve asks.

Verity shakes her head. This apparently wasn’t the question she was expecting. “What do you mean?”

Steve cocks his head to one side, then the other, as if giving the sketches a critical look. “I mean… So when my mom was a kid, the big thing was Sister Carrie. It’s all about how a mark can mean anything if you think about it hard enough. But when I was a kid, there was The Sheik. Which I don't think would stand up well to a rereading…” he muses. Steve pulls his eyes away from the compass rose on Peggy's back.

Verity is staring at him with a familiar glazed expression. He’s gotten that look from three separate SHIELD agents when he talked about things that were apparently not things anymore. He’d made a joke once about being a regular Will Rogers — Steve had always felt better after listening to Will Rogers cracking wise on the radio, during the darkest days of the Depression. But it turned out that no one knew about Will Rogers anymore, and it wasn’t as funny when Steve had to explain. On his first (supervised) trip into the wild (to buy coffee) he’d told his babysitter that they should bring back the NRA, but it turned out that the modern NRA did something very different from the National Recovery Administration, which had regulated prices and wages until the Supreme Court declared it illegal.

And then, of course, there was the “boner” debacle, and the “solid dick” nightmare. If they ever found another frozen fella from the 1940s, Steve would write him up a list of Slang That Means Something Else Now.

The point is, he knows the look.

“They were books,” he explains. “The Sheik was a movie too. At the time it was a big deal. It’s all about how soulmarks mean destiny, you can't get away from them, no matter how much you want to.” Verity is still giving him the blank look, now with bonus squint. He clears his throat. “Pop culture. Things change. So how do people talk about soulmarks now?”

The glazed confusion morphs, dragging Steve along on Verity’s face journey of comprehension and terror. She's obviously just realizing that a national icon, who missed out on the last seventy years or so, has asked her to explain how modern people think about the human soul, and possibly she’s wishing she’d taken some philosophy classes, instead of whatever classes one takes to become a guide at the National Portrait Gallery. She looks overwhelmed and underprepared. He wants to tell her that he knows exactly how she feels.

“Well there was… I mean the thing that pops into my head is Love Actually? It’s a Christmas movie, but it’s really about how people who have compatible soulmarks fall in love, or fall out of love, or betray each other, or how people who don’t have compatible soulmarks can still be in love, it’s…”

She trails off, then clears her throat. “You should watch it. But um.” She takes a deep breath. “I don't know how much they've told you, but… In the sixties, there was a lot of stuff about not letting race or class or gender stand between soulmarks, but also how um, soulmarks don’t have to tie you down? And that was all tied into women’s lib and the sexual revolution and… stuff.” She looks even more uncomfortable. He guesses she’s hoping desperately that she won’t have to explain, to Captain Goddamn America, what an orgy is.

“I missed a lot,” Steve says peaceably.

Verity clears her throat and hurries on. “And through the eighties and nineties there was a lot of research done? About how genetics and hormones affect soulmarks. And I guess, the prevailing theory these days is that your soulmark reflects who you are, as a person. And that… finding someone with a soulmark similar to yours… or, with a similar placement…” She shrugs and awkwardly indicates the portraits around them, the very revealing and very obvious fact that all the Howlies had marks in just the same place. “It just means you’re compatible. Genetically. Or biochemically. Or whatever.”

“Huh,” Steve says. “How about that.”

He knows, of course. He rolls his shoulders a bit, resists the urge to reach back and scratch at the spot between his own shoulder blades. The spot where his mark is. Because of course it is.

“It’s like you’re drift compatible!” Verity blurts.

Steve stares at her. Is this what it feels like to have the glazed expression?

“That’s… that’s from a movie too,” Verity says, visibly wilting under his blank stare. “Pacific Rim. It’s… Weird but good.”

“Okay,” Steve says. He should start making a list or something.

It sounds exhausting.

“Anyway!” Verity turns on her heel. She’s blushing down to her neck now. “It’s all… much less taboo now. People talk about these things. I mean. It’s not that prejudice doesn’t exist or anything, but same-sex marriage is legal in a lot of states, and interracial marriage is legal everywhere. A lot of the stigma about soulmarks is… well people are much more relaxed about it now. I think. I mean…” she waves a hand at the walls of the exhibit. “Plenty of people do soulmark portraits now. They use them as profile pictures. There’s whole dating apps that are just… mark-based.”

Steve tries to think what that would be like: posting a picture of his mark on the internet, where anyone could see it. He’d spent so many years hiding it. But now he could just… snap a photo. And put it on… Twitter or whatever. He feels exposed just thinking about it. “Bit different from my day.”

“Uh. Yeah,” the docent agrees. She bites her lip, eyes crinkling, curiosity and shyness warring on her face.

Steve's already bracing himself for the inevitable, invasive question. So… why didn't you include a self portrait, huh? What's your mark?

But she surprises him.

“I have to ask. Given how taboo this kind of stuff was, and what with, you know, the war and all… How did this all get started?” Verity asks. “The portraits, I mean. It’s kind of an odd pastime for someone behind enemy lines.”

Steve doesn’t know how to tell her… It started the way everything else had started. The way everything always started for Steve.

It started with Bucky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ii - aspidiske: little shield

Love - What is Love?
By Robert Louis Stevenson

Love - what is love? A great and aching heart;
Wrung hands; and silence; and a long despair.
Mark - what’s a mark? A burn upon the skin
Left by a soul, but whose? And for what sin?
Life - what is life? Upon a moorland bare
To see love coming and see love depart.

 

 

Steve and Bucky meet in 1930, when they are twelve and thirteen, respectively. It takes them less than a year to discover that they have the same soulmark, in the same spot, and the same color.

It’s not something that people are supposed to talk about; even if a fella had his soulmark splashed across his cheek, you ain’t supposed to say a thing about it. Simply isn’t done. But twelve and thirteen year olds are stupid, and Steve says “I dare you” and Bucky says “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” and that’s that.

It’s the silvery-white outline of a five-pointed star, as though someone carved it between their shoulder blades many years ago, leaving behind a slightly raised and irregular scar. The top of the star points directly to the base of their necks, but isn’t quite visible above a shirt collar. They have to measure it to make sure, taking turns with a battered wooden ruler, but the marks are exactly the same size. It looks brighter and bolder against Bucky’s summer tan, but bigger between Steve’s narrow shoulders, but there’s not a scrap of difference between them.

“It don't mean anything,” Steve says angrily, tugging his shirt back over his head, his hair coming out of the neckhole a mussed blond mess.

“Right,” Bucky agrees, doing up the buttons on his shirt.

It is a blatant lie. But they’re both thinking that maybe they understand why people don’t talk about their soulmarks.

The thing is that the confirmed bachelors upstairs from Steve’s place had matching soulmarks. Or — not matching, but complementary in a way that left little doubt as to what they were to each other. The one guy had a golden-tan sunburst on the skin of his shoulder, and the other had a silvery white crescent moon in exactly the same spot. They’d ended up having to leave the neighborhood — leave the city, because the rumors had gotten so ugly, and the one guy had gotten so badly beaten he nearly died.

“We’re friends is all,” Steve says.

“Yeah. Like David and Jonathan, from the Bible. They had matching soulmarks, and they weren’t…” Bucky trails off. The unspoken word hangs between them. Damning.

“Right,” Steve agrees. “Only… we maybe shouldn’t mention it to anyone.”

“Good plan,” Bucky agrees. “People ain’t gonna understand.”

“People are stupid.” Steve straightens his shirt and tucks it into his trousers.

“Right,” Bucky says, for a third and final time. Like that’s that; everything all sorted now.

But the thing is that exactly matched soulmarks are pretty damn rare. And they generally only mean one thing.

So it’s important that they keep quiet about it.

 

In the summer of 1933, Steve’s ma finds out.

The two families go to Rockaway Beach together, and Bucky — carefree idiot that he is — takes his shirt off without even glancing at Steve to check if maybe that is a terrible and dangerous idea . And then he goes running down to the water with his sisters.

Steve sulks under the umbrella with his mom and doesn’t take his shirt off. That’s not unusual; he’s self-conscious about his thin chest and crooked spine, and he burns easily.

But he can feel his mother watching him watching Bucky go, and he knows she’s seen the outline of that star, starkly white against Bucky’s tanned skin. It’s clearly a soulmark, not an ordinary scar or blemish: the lines are too precise, too nearly-perfect.

Naturally, she knows what her son’s soulmark is; he was born with it, like everyone else. She’d seen him as a baby, seen him as a toddler, seen him last week when he got blood on his shirt and had to sit there, thin and shirtless and cranky, while she tried to scrub it clean in the sink.

She knows. He knows. He knows that she knows. And she must know that he knows that.

He doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say anything. And he doesn’t know what that means.

 

A few weeks later, they go to visit Joseph Rogers’ grave. Sarah fans out a threadbare picnic blanket on the grass, sits down with her son, and pulls off the gloves she habitually wears. She lays her hand on his, her mark now plainly visible along with her scuffed wedding band.

Steve has seen the mark before, of course. It’s a pale heart shape, the pointed end near her knuckles. It’s not raised like his own star, and has exactly the greenish color of an old bruise that’s healed enough to not ache anymore. It always bothered him a little, that their marks are so different. Marks are meant to run in families — Bucky’s dad has a wispy white cloud in roughly the same spot as Bucky’s star, and his sister has a seven-pointed starburst on her knee. You can kind of see the similarity, the same way you can trace Mr. Barnes’s cleft chin through all his children.

But Steve’s mark is nothing like his mom’s. He's always wondered if—

“Your dad’s was just exactly the same as mine,” she tells him.

Steve didn’t know that. She never talks about his father’s mark. Steve looks up at her, eyes wide and terrified. She knows about Bucky’s mark, what if she thinks—

She smiles kindly, like she understands. “Your father wasn’t the only one,” she confides. “When I came here, on the boat, there was a nice Polish girl. Lidia. She had it too. We both wanted to be nurses, and we ended up staying in the same boarding house. Best friends from the moment we saw each other. Both of us wearing gloves for weeks and weeks before we realized.”

Steve feels as though he can’t breathe.

“And when I met your father — his best friend had it too. All four of us, like the musketeers. Put our left hands together and…”

Suddenly Steve can see it in his head. Four greenish heart shapes, their pointed ends put together… “A four leafed clover,” he says.

She nods, beaming at him. “Joe and I had to explain about four leafed clovers being good luck, us being the only properly educated Irish folk in the group.”

Steve’s mind is racing, but all he can think to ask is: “Did it bring you luck?”

“The very best,” his mother says. “Three best friends, one of them the best husband a girl could ask for.”

“But…” His mom has plenty of friends, but none of them have soul marks on their left hands. “What happened?”

Sarah sighs and brushes Steve's hair back from his forehead. “The War happened, love. We all wanted to help. If I hadn't been pregnant with you at the time, I'd have gone too. Lidia went to be a nurse. Your father joined up. And… and so did Steve.”

Steve jerks up straight. He stares at his mom, eyes wide like saucers. She makes a wry little face. “It was your father’s idea to name you after Uncle Steve, not mine.”

“None of them came back?” Steve asks.

The mournful look on Sarah’s face tells him everything he needs to know. “We were young; we thought we were invincible. No one’s invincible.”

Steve looks down. “Not so lucky after all, then?”

“Oh my darling boy. I may have lost my lucky clover, but… ” his mom leans in conspiratorially. “I found my lucky star, didn't I?” She bumps her shoulder against his, and rubs her hand up and down his spine, across the star on his back. It’s soothing and a little intimate, like when she runs her fingers through his hair.

Steve closes his eyes and lets his shoulders slump.

“I think,” she starts to say, barely softening the th-sound, the remains of her accent lingering despite her best efforts. “I think that maybe it runs in our family, you know? When we find our people, we latch on strong. My mother’s mark was a cloud — not uncommon, I know, but it was right there on her cheek, and that’s not exactly normal, is it. And so was my dad’s, and my aunt, and my uncles… It’s just that when we find our people, we know.”

She squeezes the back of his neck gently. “It only means what you decide it means, lad. I know folk don’t talk about it, but it just means you two fit together,” she says, softly. “Nothing scary about that.”

Steve looks away.

He’s pretty sure it means more than just that. But he can’t say that. So he says something else instead. “And if I lose him? Like you lost them?” He looks up.

Her face is sad. “I’m not gonna lie to you, I never have. You could lose him. And if you do, it’ll knock you down.” She squeezes his shoulder. “But you’ll get back up. You always stand up, Steve.”

 

In 1934, they’re sixteen and seventeen, respectively, and Bucky hasn’t quite hit his growth spurt yet. Steve’s scrawny as all hell, and Bucky’s grown out more than he’s grown up.

The two of them get cornered by a gang of boys from school who took exception to Steve calling them out on their disrespectful behavior. They managed to get themselves completely surrounded. Steve is backing towards Bucky, and Bucky is backing towards Steve, both of them with their fists raised.

“This only happens when you’re around, you notice that?” Bucky says, tipping his head slightly to talk over his shoulder to Steve.

“This only happens when I’m right and everyone else is wrong,” Steve says, not taking his eyes off the boy in front of him. The bully is rolling up his sleeves menacingly. He’s got big meat shovel hands. He claps them together, like Steve’s mom does when she’s about to pummel bread dough into submission.

“Just because you’re right,” Bucky says, and his voice is even closer now, right over Steve’s shoulder. “Don’t mean we’re gonna win.”

And then Bucky’s back presses against Steve’s. Through their shirts and threadbare jackets, their soulmarks bump together like two loose wires that suddenly spark and connect.

Something in Steve just comes alive.

Time pauses for breath. Steve’s head goes back, gaze fixing on the brilliant blue sky visible between the roofs of the buildings. His eyes are wide and for a minute all he can hear is his own heart, the blood rushing in his ears, and Bucky, breathing hard.

Oh, he thinks. That’s what it means.

And then time starts up again, but it’s thick as taffy and twice as rich, everything heightened and softened. It’s like no other fight they’ve ever been in before. They don’t move like they did before. Something has clicked, like they’re one mind across two bodies.

Steve turns and finds Bucky already there, catching a punch headed for Steve’s gut. Bucky moves out of the way and Steve is there, ready to throw a fist into the face of his attacker. Steve feels a tingle between his shoulder blades, and turns in time to throw himself on a guy about to smash a brick against Bucky’s skull.

It’s electric; it’s like a dance, but one that Steve actually knows the steps to.

They win.

That alone would be memorable, but once they’re the only ones left  in the alley, the tension only builds.

They stand there, just a coupla idiots gaping at each other. Blood is trickling from the corner of Bucky’s mouth, and from Steve’s nose.  Bucky’s eyes have gone dark, and he’s breathing hard, lips parted. Steve notices the shape of Bucky’s mouth, the way he’s got a slight overbite when his lips part like that, the cleft in his chin, the softness in his face. He can’t stop staring. Bucky’s lips are pink. When did that happen? When did Steve start noticing that? Why can’t he stop?

“S-steve?” Bucky says.

Steve answers by throwing himself across the alley. He grabs Bucky’s face and puts his mouth on Bucky’s mouth. It’s not much of a kiss; there’s no tenderness in it, just his nose bumping into Bucky’s and the taste of Bucky’s blood mixing with his own.

He doesn’t think about it — if he had, he might not have done it at all. If he’d thought about it, he might have expected Bucky to push him back, throw a punch, or make a muffled noise of protest, and look at him with disgust, after. But he didn’t think about it, so he didn’t think it would be like this:

Bucky meets him, hunger for hunger, grabs at his waist hard enough to leave bruises. Bucky leans in and pushes Steve back one step after another until Steve is pinned right up against the wall, pressed between the cool, rough brick and the warm bulk of Bucky.

Steve snakes his skinny arm around and digs his fingers into the space between Bucky’s shoulder blades, clawing at the soulmark hidden there. Bucky breaks the kiss, throws his head back and hisses “Oh hell, Stevie—”

And when Bucky reaches around and paws at Steve’s back too, Steve gets it . It’s nothing like fingers running through his hair. It’s nothing like anything else he’s ever felt. It plugs directly into his spine, makes his heart pound, makes the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck tingle. “Buh— Bucky, Jesus—”

And then, as quick and violent as it started, it ends. Bucky shoves away from the kiss, staggers back a couple steps, and let his hands fall to his sides. There’s red smeared across his chin — Steve’s blood or Bucky’s, there’s no way to tell. “We shouldn’t,” Bucky says.

“I know,” Steve says.

“We can’t.”

“I know.”

Bucky stares at him, all agony and desire. “I wanna,” he confesses.

“Me too,” Steve admits.

There is no question, after that, about what the marks mean. They both know perfectly well.

 

 

 

 

 

iii - asterope: starry-eyed 

“During the Great Depression and New Deal Era (a period when many American men felt emasculated by economic hardship) anxiety about homosexuality reached such a fever pitch that some medical professionals suggested allowing soulmark examinations in trials for sodomy and sexual deviancy. Fortunately for the LGBT community living in secret, this idea never gained any serious traction in the court system.”

Elliot, K. C. Illegal Souls: Soulmarks and the Law. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006.

 

 

 

Bucky is no fool. He knows that there’s no future in it. It’s a doomed thing from the first moment.

Not that Steve cares about that. And Steve not caring... that’s a powerful thing. He stands there with his hands balled into fists too big for his skinny arms, and tips his head back, defiant. Who cares? I don’t. It makes Bucky want to smack Steve upside the head and call him a dope. It makes Bucky want to sigh like a lovestruck dame. It makes him stupid. It makes him scared.

Things he should say pile up behind his teeth: This is a bad idea. We gotta stop. I can’t see you anymore. It’s dangerous.

But this thing they got — it’s like a spark between them. If he breathes on it, even just to say no or say yes, it might go out. Or it might burst into a bonfire. He ain’t sure which would be worse, so he says nothing, and lets it smolder.

It’s just there, between them. It’s a thing they do, sometimes, even when they aren’t supposed to. Sometimes they sneak into Ebbett’s Field without buying tickets. Sometimes they get their hands on drinks they ain’t supposed to have. And sometimes they find a space between spaces — the back of the theater, the filthy alley behind the diner, the fire escape after sunset — and Bucky gets to steal a kiss. Bucky likes kissing, same as he likes bubblegum and lollipops and smokes. Steve likes kissing, but he likes biting more. Sometimes he combines the two and that makes Bucky’s eyes cross a little.

But they don’t go further, and they never talk about it...

But Bucky Barnes is no fool, even if Steve Rogers makes him stupid and scared. This could ruin their lives if it gets out. And Steve’s smart, but he’s not great at keeping his mouth shut. He’s not great at lying, hates doing it, hates even misleading people unless it’s for one of his idiotic plans.

Which means it’s up to Bucky.

For the first time in his life, Bucky finds himself having to lie almost every day. To his mom, to his dad, to his sisters. He’s not going to risk them finding out.

He starts taking girls to the pictures (even though he’d rather go with Steve.) He starts taking them dancing too — he loves music, loves dancing, and a good time is had by all. Sometimes the dates end with a kiss, but mostly he gets a reputation for being a real stand-up guy, the kind of guy who can be trusted to take you out for a good time and leave you alone after.

But he’s gotta play both sides, because the fellas on the baseball team always ask. He can usually get away with saying something like “a gentleman never tells” and then winking raunchily. That seems to work most of the time.

There’s a rush in the deception — it feels like he and Steve are getting away with something, and that’s a thrill in and of itself. And there are definite advantages. He learns to tweak who he is depending on who he’s with, which makes it easy to get along with folks. He’s real good at ingratiating himself to teachers and priests and parents, without seeming like a brown-noser.

Before long, he’s the golden boy of their neighborhood.

But it’s all a carefully constructed lie.

It’s like being on stage, under the lights and the pressure, all day every day. Like he’s trapped out in the open with nowhere to hide and everyone watching. But at the same time, it’s claustrophobic. He starts to feel like that fella from the Poe story. Except instead of some other guy bricking him in, he’s doing it to himself. He’s building walls between himself and everyone.

Everyone who ain’t Steve. Steve’s the only person he can talk to without constantly listening to what he’s going to say in his head before he lets it out of his mouth.

It’s exhausting, and Steve is the only place he can get some damn rest anymore.

 


 

Steve turns eighteen in 1936. There are fireworks going off somewhere, close enough that they can get a decent view of them from the rooftop. And everyone else from the building is out on the street eating hot dogs, so they’ve got that rooftop all to themselves. Lookit that, Stevie. Private show.

Steve and Bucky are sitting side by side, legs dangling over the edge, watching the sky. Steve doesn’t look at Bucky’s upturned face, but he knows that the dim glow of blue and red and white is softer than any kiss Steve has ever given him.

“It ain’t fair,” Steve whispers.

He could be talking about how he can’t afford to go to art school properly, the way he wants. He could be talking about how his mom is sick again. But they both know what Steve is really talking about.

“I know,” Bucky says.

Bucky started stepping out with Dorothy Hoffman — Dot — after their last trip to Coney Island. She has a peculiar cloudlike mark on her left ankle. A perfectly normal soulmark, in a perfectly normal spot. Nothing like Bucky’s, Steve thinks, vicious in a way that Dot probably doesn’t deserve . He knows that she’s not serious about Bucky, and he’s not serious about her. They just like each other. It isn’t going to go anywhere.

But God, it makes Steve burn to watch Dot stepping out with Buck. Why can't he step out with Buck? It’s carved into their skin, into their souls.  Anyone could see it, if they bothered to look. He and Bucky were made for each other. How dare anyone keep them apart?

“It ain’t right,” Steve says, a little louder.

“I know.” Bucky sounds resigned. “But just because you’re right, don’t mean we’re gonna win.”

“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight,” Steve says.

Bucky heaves a gusty, exasperated sigh. “Steve. People expect me to step out with pretty dames. If I don’t, they’ll ask questions. They’ll ask questions about you. So seeing as you and me live here, in the real world, can we just…”

“Can we just what?” Steve says, prickly as ever.

“Just be here? You and me? Just for now?” Bucky sounds so tired.

Steve gets it. Bucky’s a performer, and he loves it; the show, the whole golden boy routine. He smiles and smiles and smiles and he’s so good at it. He talks and people listen, like he’s the only actor on the stage. He walks around in a constant spotlight. Steve doesn’t know how anyone can ever stand to look away from him.

But.

It takes a toll; it takes a toll on Bucky, and Steve’s the only one Bucky doesn’t have to perform for. He’s the only one who knows Bucky. All his awkward ugly parts and unpolished edges.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Okay.”

Bucky sighs, and Steve snakes his hand up behind Bucky’s back and splays it across his spine, over the mark. It’s a little intimate, and a lot possessive. Bucky’s shoulders relax. His forehead falls against Steve’s shoulder. He squirms his head a little until his face is pressed into the side of Steve’s neck. Fireworks pop overhead, the light hitting long seconds before the sounds reach them.

“But...” Steve bites his lip.

“Mmm?” Bucky sounds a little drowsy, the way he does whenever Steve touches him like that. It makes Bucky lazy and cat-like, where it makes Steve feel like he’s ramping up for something.

It’s never gone further than this between them, not in two goddamn years. Just stolen kisses and this. And God, it would be enough — it would be more than enough, but…

“But what?” Bucky presses, not lifting his face from Steve’s neck.

Steve screws up his courage. “What happens when you meet someone better than Dot?” he asks.

He feels Bucky’s brow scrunching up. “Whaddya mean?”

“I mean. Someday there’ll be a gal who… has a star maybe, or maybe something else, but it’s here…” he rubs his thumb over the spot between Bucky’s shoulders. “Or…” He doesn’t like to think what’ll happen to him if Bucky meets a dame with just the same mark, in just the same spot. “And what happens then?”

Bucky shrugs. “Nothing, probably.”

“Nothing?” Steve doesn’t buy it.

“Look. If she’s close enough to have the same mark as us, then she’ll know better than to try and come between us,” Bucky says. “That’s just common sense. You can’t seriously think I’d pick some dame over you.” He’s got that look, like Steve is being stupider than usual, his face all scrunched up. “Who cares what kinda soulmark she’s got?”

“I care. Everyone cares, Buck.”

“I don’t.”

“Yeah you do, you just don’t know it yet.”

“Don’t tell me what I know and what I don’t.”

“You’d be crazy not to—”

“Jesus, it’s like you’re trying to talk me into leaving you, pal, what the hell?” Bucky stops. “Wait. Are you?” he asks, looking sick all of a sudden, and Steve can’t stand it.

“No!” he hurries to say. “God, no. I’m just…”

“Just what?”

Steve swallows. He swallows again. “Just… If you’re gonna leave me someday, I gotta start getting ready now, you know?” It’s gonna happen eventually, and it’s gonna hurt, and Steve doesn’t know what he’ll do. He doesn’t know what he’ll be if he loses Bucky.

Bucky’s heart breaks all over his face. He cracks open like an egg, all his sympathy and his aching love there for Steve to see. “Pal,” he says, soft as anything. “Don’t matter if she’s got my name written on her in neon lights. She won’t be you,” he says.

Steve’s heart is pounding. That’s not really an explanation, but it feels huge, somehow. “Is that how it is?”

Bucky’s mouth ticks up on one side and his brows lift. “Yeah, pal. That’s how it is.”

The fireworks pop and crackle in the distance. Bucky fits his mouth over Steve's and Steve thinks: I'll kill anyone who tries to take you away from me.

 


 

That September, Steve’s mom dies. Steve doesn’t cry. Here’s the thing Bucky’s starting to realize: he’s not the only performer. Steve wears a brave face every day, and the day they put his mom in the ground is no different. It’s almost scary to watch the way Steve takes his grief and squishes it down inside himself, just folds it up like old clothes and locks it away, and away, and away. Steve doesn’t cry at the service and he doesn’t cry at her graveside and he doesn’t cry when folks tell him how sorry they are. He doesn’t cry outside his apartment and he doesn’t cry when Bucky wheedles him into coming back to the Barnes house. He doesn’t cry where anyone else can see.

But Bucky isn’t anyone else.

They put the couch cushions on the floor by Bucky’s bed in the upstairs bedroom. Bucky gets spare quilts and pillows out of the trunk at the foot of his bed. He turns back around with his arms full of blankets to find that in the five seconds he had his back turned, Steve has snapped. He’s standing there with his face all screwed up, shoulders shaking, eyes red and overflowing. He’s scrubbing fast at his cheeks and not making a single sound.

Bucky stares, frozen, eyes huge and round.

Steve glares and lets out a single hiccupping sob, quickly smothered.

Bucky drops the blankets and pillows with a thump and crosses the room in two steps to put his arms around Steve.

“I’m fine,” Steve says in a voice like broken glass.

Bucky just squeezes harder until Steve drops his head onto Bucky’s shoulder and they both drop down onto the couch cushions.

Bucky holds Steve while he gasps and sobs silently into his shoulder. He shakes hard at first — like there’s an earthquake inside him, barely contained in his skinny frame — and then less and less as the quiet storm passes. The tears run dry and Steve runs out of strength to keep himself upright.

Bucky’s never seen Steve like this. He just goes limp, and trusts Bucky to hold him up. Of course Bucky does. He pulls Steve up into his arms, and takes Steve to the bed. The guy is light as a feather, but there’s gravity to the moment, Bucky thinks. It’s not just the weight of Steve’s grief, it’s the weight of his trust.

Steve would never trust anyone else to see him like this, and Bucky cradles the thought like a tender thing, like a baby bird. He holds Steve with Steve’s knees across his lap, Steve’s arms tucked in against his chest. Bucky’s back is against the headboard, his chin on top of Steve’s head. He doesn’t say anything, just rubs his hand up and down Steve’s spine and waits. He can do this all night, if Steve wants.

When Steve finally stirs, it’s to tip his head up for a salty kiss. One leads to another, and the life comes back into Steve’s bones. He pulls at Bucky’s shoulders, his waist, grabs his damn ears to hold him in place and kiss him with building hunger.

He pulls back and looks at Bucky with a crazed gleam in his blue-green eyes.

Shit.

It’s Steve’s bad idea, because of course it is. Bucky would not have chosen to have Steve this way for the first time on the day of Sarah’s funeral, with the rest of the Barneses sleeping right downstairs. But Steve is nothing if not determined when he wants something. He wants Bucky and he wants Bucky now. And Bucky… Bucky would do anything to bring Steve some measure of peace.

So Steve says “I dare you,” whisper soft in the darkness, and Bucky says “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” and that’s that.

They gotta be so quiet. The floor of Bucky’s bedroom is thin, and the bed squeaks. Bucky decides right away what he’s gonna do here. He gets on his knees, for practicality’s sake. Within minutes, Steve’s shoving his fist into his mouth, pressing his palm flat over the star on Bucky’s back as Bucky’s head bobs and bobs and—

Bucky had made Steve swear to keep quiet, but Bucky makes the more noise, of the two of them. He’s caught off guard by how much he likes it. He can’t contain a soft groan at the taste of Steve on his tongue, and the feel of Steve’s hand against his mark, like Steve’s got his fingers on every one of Bucky’s buttons all at once. It makes him feel crazed, out of control. He can’t help gasping out Steve’s name, just the once. It’s mostly muffled in the skin of Steve’s thigh. Steve doesn’t even get the chance to lay a hand on him — Bucky shudders into his own fist, gasping a little too loud.

But no one overhears them. It’s fine. Steve’s a little disappointed that he doesn’t get the chance to return the favor, but Bucky doesn’t mind. Quite the opposite, obviously.

“You and your oral fixation,” Steve mumbles, watching Bucky running his tongue over his lips. They kiss a little, and Steve makes a face at the taste. Bucky kinda liked it. Dazedly, he thinks he might maybe be a little more queer than he suspected. It scares him a little, but it’s hard to feel really scared with Steve at his side.

Afterwards, Steve sleeps with his head pillowed on Bucky’s chest, reddened lids flickering softly with his dreams, his long lashes still salty.

Bucky watches over him.

 


 

Steve and Bucky move in together, but it takes careful planning and negotiation. They don’t want to be too close to the neighborhood they grew up in — they don’t want to see too many familiar faces, after all. But it’s not like they can move to the Village or anything. That would be a bit of a giveaway. They find a little shoebox apartment on the other side of Brooklyn. Mrs. Barnes complains a little about how far it is, and how they’d better be prepared to come to her, because she’s not schlepping her bad hip all the way across town just to bring them casserole.

They don’t make friends with the neighbors, but nor do they make enemies with the neighbors. Steve ingratiates them both to the gossipy old ladies by being his usual fastidiously righteous and respectful self. Bucky makes sure to go dancing every night, with a different girl, usually.

Steve doesn’t like it, but he gets to take out his frustrations in new and inventive ways when Bucky discovers (and finally confesses) how much he enjoys having Steve behind him, taking him, digging his fingernails into the mark on his back while he goes at it for all he’s worth.

And sometimes, when they’re together, Steve feels like his body is his own, not something for doctors to poke and prod and worry over.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Steve from getting sick.

 


 

By the time they’ve been living together a year, Bucky notices the itchy ache in his bones that comes without warning. It’s hard to pin down; it doesn’t feel quite real. Takes him a while to work out what exactly it means, but by 1938 he’s got it pretty well figured out.

Soul bond. The connection between them is getting stronger, they’re starting to feel it, feel each other’s aches and pains. They say that some people, people with really strong soulbonds, can feel each other’s feelings, nearly read each other’s minds. But that’s probably just an old wives’ tale.

Still. Bucky feels the ache and stops to pick up chicken soup on the way home instead of waiting for Steve to admit to anything. Steve never admits to anything.

Sure enough, Steve is scowling at his latest drawing assignment (he’s doing a political comic for that socialist rag his friend Arnie works for) and there’s a flush high in his cheeks.

“You’re coming down with something,” Bucky tells him, before setting down a bowl of chicken soup at Steve’s elbow.

“Am not?” Steve says, frowning at him.

“Yeah you are,” Bucky tells him, and feels a terrible swell of fondness. Sometimes Steve will get so caught up in his work that he’ll fail to notice things like time passing or meals or the fact that he’s starting to come down with something.

“How would you know,” Steve grumbles.

Bucky just ruffles his hair and goes to make some toast.

 


 

Later, when Steve’s sleeping badly because the fever has set up tent in his joints and is making everything achey, Bucky spoons in behind him and murmurs:

I know because I can feel it, in my bones, like old Mr. Jenkins can feel storms coming. It’s in my bones cuz it’s in your bones, see?

Steve’s never sure if he dreamt that or not.

 


 

It’s the little things that really matter.

When Steve claps Bucky on the back, Bucky feels himself relax a little under the touch, like that simple touch is lifting a weight off his shoulders.

When it’s too hot to do anything at all, they sit with their shirts off and their backs pressed together, sticky and overheated and just… it sets up a reverberating hum between the two of them. Steve gets twitchy if they sit still too long, but even so, it’s nice.

And to Bucky’s surprise, Steve can dance just fine if Bucky takes the lead. Bucky loves music, he’s always humming some song or other. Steve’s tone-deaf and can’t keep a rhythm to save his life, but he tolerates Bucky’s foot-tapping and jaunty whistling with a kind of bemused fondness. And he seems to actively like letting Bucky pull him off the couch when a particularly beloved song comes on. “Actively like” in this scenario means that he grumbles at first, but he lets Bucky wheedle him into it, and soon he’s smiling, his ears going pink. They turn on the radio and dance all night with Bucky’s thumb just grazing the bottom left corner of Steve’s mark.

Steve puts his head on Bucky’s shoulder and moves where Bucky wants him to go and it’s just perfect. Bucky wonders if you can die from something like this. Let’s build a stairway to the stars, Ray Eberle sings, and Bucky thinks he’s already there. He’s already there.

 


 

And then: the war.

 


 

“Let me draw you,” Steve says, the night before Bucky leaves for England.

Bucky’s uniform is, by that point, sprawled across the apartment, and he is gloriously naked in Steve’s bed, the sheets tangled up around his waist and between his legs. Neither Steve nor Bucky have any intention of sleeping tonight; their last night together before Bucky goes to the front. But just now they’re in a nice lull between bouts, and it’ll be ages before Steve can get it up again anyway. Bucky doesn’t mind. And Steve wants to draw him.

“What, like this?” Bucky says, smirking. He puts his hands behind his head. His hair has come out of the pomade, reverting to a riot of curls.

“No,” Steve says, kicking him with a bare toe. “Put some pants on.”

Bucky sighs dramatic disappointment but does put on pants. He’s reaching for his undershirt when Steve says: “No shirt.”

“Oh yeah?” Bucky says, the smirk returning.

“Don’t get any ideas, Mister,” Steve says primly. “Siddown.”

“Where do you want me?”

“Table’s fine.”

“How long’s this gonna take, huh?” Bucky asks, sitting backwards in his chair, resting his chin on his hands on the top of the ladderback.

Steve rolls his eyes. Bucky is terrible at staying still while Steve draws him. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can read while I sketch, Jitterbug.”

Bucky snatches his latest dimestore pulp off the stack of dimestore pulps and opens it on the table in front of him. Within seconds, he’s immersed.

Steve settles in on the couch and starts getting the rough outline of the scene down: the table, and the chair, and the other chair, with Bucky’s uniform jacket and hat hanging. They’re unmistakable, but barely sketched in. Steve doesn’t have time to waste on tables and clothes. He needs to get the curve of Bucky’s back right, the hunch of his shoulders, the way his hair is mussed at the back… and his mark.

He can tell the instant Bucky realizes what Steve is drawing, because his head comes up, sharply, and he starts to turn.

“Don’t move,” Steve whispers, and Bucky goes still, but doesn’t return to his previous position. Steve swallows, and his throat clicks. His pencil has barely outlined the shape of the star, but it feels almost too raw, too personal. “Please?” he says. “I know it’s a lot, but…”  

But I can’t go with you like this, and I can’t keep you here, and if this thing with Erskine doesn’t work, if I lose you, I want to have this much, at least.

“Just in case?” Steve says, pencil still hovering over the paper.

Bucky puts his chin back where it was, but he stops reading. He practically holds his breath, he goes so still.

Steve draws.

 

 

 

 

 

iv - aldebaran: the follower

“Soulmarks, like birthmarks, can be removed or changed with cosmetic surgery. But unlike ordinary birthmarks, soulmarks can also be affected by certain extreme metabolic changes. People undergoing hormone replacement therapy sometimes report soulmark changes, as do those with certain immunological disorders. Changes in your soulmark do not seem to have a significant effect on the MPR (Mate Pain Response)...”

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Soulmark-Related Changes and Symptoms.” Mayo Clinic. Last modified August 24, 2018. 

 

 

 

Bucky wakes up in a trench in a cold sweat. Something is wrong. Something inside him feels different. He’s shaking real bad, bad as Rebecca did when she fell and broke her leg. But he’s not in pain. Is he? No.

Steve, he thinks, without quite knowing why.

Breathing hard, he pushes his way out of his pack and opens his collar enough to shove his hand down the back of his shirt. The mark is lumpy under his fingers. He traces the thin line of it with his middle finger, right up to the top of the point.

It feels the same. It feels fine, same as ever. But at the same time, he feels...

Better? Warmer maybe. Like his chest’s a little bigger, like he can breathe a little easier. Like he’s more awake. Kind of the way he does when the adrenaline starts to hit and everything gets that little bit clearer.

Bucky’s gran had said that if you ever lost a soulmate, you’d know it. You’d feel it. This is definitely something, but it’s nothing like what he imagined. He rubs at the top of his soulmark and frowns, wondering what it means. Maybe he can ask Steve, somehow. He’d have to phrase it carefully, he doesn’t want the censors finding him out and giving him a blue ticket home.

On the one hand, he thinks grimly, if they discharged him, he’d be able to shake the truth out of Steve and figure out what the hell that was about. But on the other hand, if he got a blue discharge — neither honorable nor dishonorable — everyone would know, and that would be the end of a lot of things.

He tips his helmet back, tips his head back against the walls of the trench and listens to mortars coming down somewhere far away.

He misses Steve so bad he thinks it’s gonna make him sick.

 


 

After the serum, and the shots fired, and Erskine dying, and the chase, and the agent dying too, and the swell of helplessness, of feeling utterly, utterly useless — Steve gets the follow up exam he knew was coming. Everything checks out, until he takes his shirt off and the nurse sucks in a sharp breath.

“What?” Steve asks, head coming up.

The nurse — her name is Betty, he recalls — looks at him. Her eyes are wide, and a little bloodshot, obviously still upset about Dr. Erskine, but this isn’t that. “Um. It’s…” She goes a little pink. “Your mark. Sorry.”

“What?” Steve says, a little sharper than he means. He tries to twist around, to pull his shoulder forward, to see, but—

Eventually, she gets him in front of a mirror, and by twisting his head around, he can see —

The outlined star between his shoulder blades has filled in with a silvery white, and when he twists around and reaches back, he can just feel that the whole thing is raised like an old scar, and weirdly tender. How had he not noticed that when he came out of the Vita-Ray Machine?

“Are you — Do you feel alright?” the nurse asks.

“Is it smaller?” He blurts out. His grip pulling his shoulder around has gone white-knuckled. “It looks smaller—”

“I could be wrong,” the nurse says, tone soothing, “but I think the rest of you has gotten slightly bigger.”

Steve thinks of Bucky. Bucky at the beach, their shared soulmark looking smaller and brighter on his broad, tanned back. Bucky, in a trench somewhere, teeth gritted and thinking of Steve. Bucky, thirteen years old and smiling, having just saved Steve's ass for the first time. Bucky, sitting with his back to Steve and his head tipped back onto Steve’s shoulder and their marks, their perfectly matching marks, pressed together.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” The nurse is looking at him, warily.

“Yeah,” Steve lies. “I guess I'm… I guess I'm really a different person now, huh?”

The nurse looks unnerved, and maybe — yeah, she's definitely a little scared of him.

He's more than a little scared of himself.

 

And when, weeks later, Brandt presents him with the final costume design, Steve feels more humiliated than he could have ever imagined, because that’s it — that’s his soulmark and they’ve splashed it across his chest for every Tom, Dick, and fucking Harry to gawp at. His mark belongs to him, and to Bucky, and to no one else, or — well.

It had. Before.

The only way Steve is able to cope with it all is by telling himself that it isn’t his soulmark. It’s Captain America’s soulmark. His mark is still there, underneath, where only he and Bucky know about it. Hidden from view. Shielded.

 


 

Dugan’s got a soulmate back home in the City, and he talks about her all the time. It’s irritating as fuck.

It takes Bucky ages to work up the courage to ask him. He practices twelve different answers to the inevitable I thought you said you didn’t have a soulmate questions, but...

“Hey Dum Dum,” Bucky says one day while they’re smoking in a quiet moment between bombardments. “Your girl back home. You ever get like… soul bond feelings or whatever, from her?”

Dugan’s big dumb face lights up. “Sure do. She’s a real firecracker, never listens to a damn thing I say, and I remember this one time she cut open her hand in a bar fight—” Dugan’s girl served drinks at a dive in the Bronx somewhere, as he would tell anyone who sat still long enough “—and I knew the instant she had. I was miles away, helping my dad set up the tent, and just dropped the hammer, all—” he mimes gaping at his hand, then grins. “I knew something was wrong, you know?”

“Is it always bad like that?” Bucky asks, thinking of the other night, and the way he still feels… off inside. Strange.

Dugan takes a drag, but he’s still smiling. “Nah. Sometimes I find myself just in a good mood for no fuckin’ reason and later I found out that something real nice happened to her, you know?”

“Yeah but what’s that feel like?”

Dugan makes a face. “S’hard to put into words. You’d know it if you felt it.”

“Right.” Bucky resists the urge to rub at his sternum, that spot inside him where the new feeling of openness sits. “I guess I would.”

“It’ll happen to you someday,” Dugan assures him cheerily. “Stand up guy like you? You’ll find someone.”

“If I ever get outta here,” Bucky says, the misdirection slipping easy from his tongue. It’s habit by now.

Dugan’s face falls a little. “Yeah,” he says. “Sometimes I think about what she’s gonna feel, if something happens to me, you know?”

Bucky swallows. Because yeah, he’s thought about that too.

 


 

In Wichita, Matilda-call-me-Mattie passes out on stage.

She’s just standing in the line as usual while Steve’s doing his bit, getting ready to pull his punch for Joe, the guy who plays Hitler. Then, without warning, she lets out a startled little cry that's more than half gasp. Steve turns in time to see Helen and Mary sagging under her dead weight. Steve and Joe kind of ruin the show by rushing forward together to catch her.

Someone has the good sense to drop the curtain and Steve takes charge without really  thinking about it. He orders Joe to call for an ambulance and steps out front to shout for a doctor in the audience. Mattie’s pulse is racing and her breath is coming way too fast and shallow for Steve’s liking. There’s no doctor in the audience but there is a nurse who pushes her hat into her son’s hands and climbs up on stage to help.

Mattie is still out like a light, the other girls are following Steve’s directions, and Steve is following the nurse’s, because he knows better than to not.

The nurse (Alice, call me Alice) is asking whether anyone remembers Mattie eating earlier, or drinking water, when Mattie sits bolt upright, and clutches at her ribs on the left side, and screams.

Steve can only stare — all of them can only stare as Mattie starts frantically tearing at the side of her costume, and sobbing. “No, no, no, no—”

“Oh god,” says one of the girls. It’s Mattie’s friend Georgia, and she pushes forward. “Oh honey,” she says. “Oh honey I’m so sorry.” She catches Mattie’s hands and pulls them away from her side. “Shhh, no, honey, don’t.”

Alice the nurse pulls back, something on her face going stony.

“What’s—”

One of the other girls grabs Steve’s elbow and pulls him away. They’re all stepping back now, giving Mattie space, letting Georgia comfort her. “I don’t—” Steve says. “What are you—?”

The girl who grabbed Steve’s elbow is called Bernadette, and she shakes her head sharply, her honey-blonde curls bouncing around her shoulders. She drags Steve away a few more steps before saying: “She’s got a soulmark on her left side and a fiancee in North Africa.” Bernadette swallows. “Or she did, I’m guessing,” she adds grimly.

Steve’s stomach turns over. “Oh.”

“Yeah, fucking oh,” Bernadette says, because she was raised in the worst corner of the Bronx and she does not have time to spare for niceties.

“I’ll go tell the ambulance they can go,” Steve says.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” One of the other girls chimes in. “Couldn’t they… do something for her? Doesn’t it hurt? They say it hurts.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Norma. It doesn’t hurt,” Bernadette says, sharp. “Not like that, it doesn’t.” And then she says: “I need a fucking cigarette,” and storms towards the stage door.

“It looked like it hurt,” Norma whispers.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Steve says. “She’s not in any pain that an ambulance can help with.”

Norma looks at him with wide eyes. “Have you...?” she blurts.

Steve shakes his head. “My ma said it doesn’t hurt. She said a thing can’t hurt if it ain’t there anymore.”

But Mattie is still softly keening into Georgia’s shoulder, over on the other side of the stage, and Steve thinks about old Mr. Jenkins, who didn’t have any legs at all, but always said that he could feel his knees aching in the cold weather. And sometimes he would go to scratch his foot, and he’d hit empty air, and feel sick. He wonders if his ma was lying, about how losing a soulmate didn’t hurt  — at least not like that. He gets a chill and has a sudden terror that it’s not his chill, that somewhere out there, Bucky is aching.

 


 

Bucky is about to pull the trigger when the Nazi he’s aiming at vanishes in a crackle of bright blue light. He yanks his eye away from the scope and peers over the lip of his foxhole. “What the—”

Another flash, like a Buck Rogers laser beam, and another Nazi is just ashes and dust. And then a bunch of them, a rapid staccato spray of blue light, an eerie, whining sound and the WHOMP of whatever the fuck blue ray gun they’re using over there.

That’s it, Bucky thinks, I’ve finally fucking snapped. Because there’s no gun on God’s green earth that can do that.

And then the new guy — the radio operator they picked up when Kowalski bit it — says: “What the hell was that?” and there’s dull cheering coming from the ranks all around them. They stand up, looking around, trying to figure out which of their companies is firing the magic blue guns.

But all the other companies are behind them, Bucky knows. They were bringing up the rear. Baker Company had the ridge, they were supposed to cover the retreat of Able company and the others. There were no Allied companies anywhere behind them.

So who—

And then the rumbling starts, so deep in the ground, so deep in Bucky’s chest he’s sure Steve can feel it too, wherever he is. And the tank coming over the hill is the size of a goddamn house.

“That looks… different,” Dugan says.

Bucky didn’t hear about anything like this coming down the pike from Allied Command, and he might be a lowly NCO but something like this? The fucking cooks would know about something like this.

And then the gun swivels towards them and blue light starts glowing deep in the barrel and—

“DOWN!”

 


 

Steve feels a little sick every time he steps out on stage, no matter how often he does it. But he doesn’t get really sick until they’re on a boat, heading for Europe. He’s got an ache in his bones that feels almost like his old fever pains, but it’s so mild he figures it can’t be that important. Must be all the traveling he’s done these last few months. He can’t complain, not when there are men on the line already doing more than he ever could.

He tries not to think about Bucky’s voice in his ear, late at night, saying I feel it, in my bones, like old Mr. Jenkins can feel storms coming. It’s in my bones cuz it’s in your bones, see?

And then they're in Italy performing for troops that don't care about him, and aren't cheered by him, and one night he wakes up with an ache in his bones so fierce it's like being back in the Vita-Ray Machine, it's like getting the serum all over again and he shoves his fist in his mouth and tries not to scream this time.

He gasps through it and tries to curl in on himself, smaller and smaller. He wonders if the serum is wearing off. Maybe it's burning out of him and he'll be left as he used to be: small, and sickly, and useless once more.

But he doesn't get smaller. He just hurts. And the pain passes, eventually.

It runs through him like a wildfire and once it's had its way, he's just as he is now. No change. That same, persistent ache deep in his bones he’s had for a few weeks now, but…

He thinks of Mattie, clawing at her soulmark, tearing at her costume.

Nervously, he reaches between his shoulders and touches his own mark. He didn’t pass out. There’s no pain, no sense of loss or absence. No change at all. So Bucky's fine. He must be.

Everybody knows that when a soulmate of yours dies, you know. It’s one of those not-quite-quantifiable things, but most everyone who’s ever had a soulmate that died can confirm it. Some people claim that they can tell when a soulmate dies, even if they never met them. And some people claim that it’s all a bunch of hooey, because they didn’t feel when their husband or wife died, and don’t you dare try to say that they weren’t soulmates.

Steve believes that you feel it when your soulmate dies. He believes it because his mom always said that she knew. She fainted right in the middle of her shift, the very day that Joseph Rogers died, even though he was thousands of miles away. And she told Steve that she’d felt his Aunt Lidia and Uncle Steven go too, like aftershocks from an earthquake. It doesn’t hurt, it’s just gone, she’d said, when he asked. You’ll know it if you feel it, lad. But god I hope you never do.

 

So, later that day, in a cold tent with the smell of mud in his nose and the sound of rain on the canvas over his head, he hears, as if from a great distance: “I’m sorry,” in Colonel Phillips’s gruff voice.

He’s not dead, Steve thinks. I didn’t feel it, so he’s not dead.

All he has to do is prove it.

 

 

 

 

 

v - kochab: the star

“... So in the comics, it's actually the A. Like on the helmet. (Here’s an interesting thing about symbolism and Judaism and golems, yadda yadda yadda, but that’s not what we’re here for). Clearly Steve Rogers doesn't have an A-shaped soulmark on his forehead, but it might be elsewhere. Plenty of people have speculated that it could be circular, like the shield, or a nice patriotic red/white/blue situation. Cap himself is famously close mouthed about it. If you wanna see him get flustered and BLUSH (so cute omg) check out that TMZ interview where they actually flat out asked him about it. WHATCHA HIDING, CAP? DON'T BE SHY.”

smsmodkiki. "Avengers Series: Captain America." Soul Mark Speculation Blog. Last modified July 4, 2012.

 

 

 

Steve, Bucky thinks, and oh god, please let it stop, and don’t let him feel this, and please let me die.

“Barnes,” he says. “James Buchanan,” he says. “Sergeant,” he says. “Three two five five seven zero three eight,” he says.

 


 

Steve can feel that he is in the right place, like there are a bunch of strings around his ribs, all pulled tight and singing. He follows the feeling down, down into the factory. Deeper. The place reeks of mildew and burning, and the faint copper tang of old blood.

He comes around the corner and sees, up ahead, a small man in a suit and fedora, with a briefcase under one arm and a coat under the other.

Steve doesn’t know what the exact opposite of a soulmate is, but this is what that would feel like, he thinks. It’s like getting dropped in freezing mud. He feels it crawling all over his skin. Instant, instinctive revulsion.

He doesn’t know why, but he wants to chase this man down and end him. He’s halfway to doing that when the strings in his ribcage go taut and start singing. He feels like a radio that just dialed past the right station.

He stops.

He backs up.

And then he hears it.

A soft groan, barely audible.

He follows it, and the groan resolves into words, slurred and drunken sounding. “Sergeant. Three two five five s-seven…” trailing off into nonsense, and then: “Barnes.”

Steve runs.

 


 

That’s it, Bucky thinks. I’ve finally fuckin’ snapped.

Steve’s the size of a house. He’s the size of an entire apartment block. Bucky’s stumbling up the stairs behind him. The heat from the blasts below are hitting them in waves. Steve’s the size of a house, and Bucky knows it’s him, because he can feel it. Feels it stronger than he’s ever felt it before, like someone dialed their bond up to eleven. Everything in him is pointing to Steve, like Bucky’s a compass and Steve’s the north pole.

But Steve’s the size of a house.

Where’s his guy? Where’s Bucky’s little guy?

“Captain America!”

And Steve stops like that’s his damn name. Who the fuck is Captain America?

But they turn to look and that’s him that’s Schmidt, the guy Steve says got the serum too, and next to him, that’s—

Glasses. A hat and coat now, but Bucky can’t stop staring. The glasses, the bow tie. The way his paunchy little face sags around the mouth like it’s hot wax. Bucky’s veins feel full of hot wax. He stares. The light glints off the metal rims, the glass. The glasses.

His hands were clammy when he checked Bucky’s pulse. Noch nicht tot, he’d said.

Bucky hadn’t been so sure. He’s still not sure.

He remembers the needles, the burning not-lights that made him feel like they were roasting him alive.

But there are things he doesn't remember, and that's worse. The black holes where he doesn’t know what they did to him but his head aches, it aches, it aches.

The guy — the glasses guy, he’s watching Bucky with his mouth open, and there’s frank hunger in his eyes.

Bucky’s gonna be sick. He swallows down the burn of bile.

He can’t move. He can’t. He’s stuck, rooted to the spot with blood rushing in his ears and his hands cramped around the railing in front of him. Everything sounds very far away as he and the man with the glasses stare at each other across a lake of fire.

The man with the glasses breaks eye contact first, and time starts up again. For a moment, Bucky is lightheaded.

And then the other guy — the fella in the long black leather coat — is pulling his god damned face off.

Underneath is a red skull. It looks like his face has melted off. It looks like a soulmark, but all over his skin, everywhere, like he’s been turned inside out, so everyone can see what he really is.

That’s it, Bucky thinks. I’ve finally fuckin’ snapped.

“You don’t have one of those, do you?”

 


 

They don’t get a moment alone — really alone — until the night after they free the prisoners.

Steve is just sitting down at a campfire when Bucky grabs the back of Steve’s jacket and physically hauls him to his feet, shoving him towards the treeline.

“You and me gotta have a little chat,” Bucky hisses.

Steve gulps.

Dugan snickers something about Captain America getting told off by his ma. Doesn’t stop Bucky from dragging Steve twenty feet into the woods, where they can get a scrap of privacy.

“Bucky,” Steve starts.

Bucky grabs him by the lapels and pushes him — hard — against a tree. The rough bark scrapes against his soulmark through his jacket. And then Bucky’s hands are all over him. It’s not tender, it’s like how he used to check Steve brusquely over for injuries after a bad fight.

“The fuck did you do to yourself?” Bucky hisses. “Jesus Christ, pal, what the fuck—”

“I couldn’t—”

“I ask one simple fucking thing of you. Stay safe, I say. Don’t do anything stupid, I say. Fuck. Can’t you just—”

“—couldn’t do nothing, not with you out—”

“—listen to me, for once in your fucking — God. A little, he says. Yeah I fucking bet it hurt a little, you dumb—”

“—there in a goddamn trench somewhere. I couldn’t just sit at home waiting—”

“—palooka, you got nothing to prove, I keep telling you and telling you, you got nothing to prove to me—”

“—Bucky,” Steve cuts in sharply. He grabs Bucky’s lapels and hauls him up onto his toes and close enough that their noses are nearly touching. Bucky’s eyes go wide, the blue almost eaten up entirely by pupils. “I wasn’t just gonna go about my daily, waiting to pass out in the fucking grocery store and wake up knowing you were dead.”

Bucky’s bottom lip trembles. His fingers close on Steve’s biceps. He used to be able to get his fingers the whole way around. Not anymore. Not by a long shot.

“You almost died,” Steve whispers. “Fuck. I almost lost you. Bucky, I—”

And then Bucky’s kissing him. “Shh,” he mumbles against Steve’s mouth. He rubs his forehead against Steve’s. “Don’t matter now. I’m here, you’re here, it’s—”

And he loops an arm around Steve’s waist, reels him in until they’re pressed together all along their fronts, and slips the other hand up under Steve’s jacket, presses it flat between his shoulder blades. Steve sucks in air, all the way down to the bottom of his lungs. It’s like coming out of the Vita-Ray Machine all over again. His shoulders drop, as something settles into place inside him.

Bucky is —

Bucky is laughing at him.

“Wha—” Steve feels a little drunk all of a sudden, and can’t quite work out what Bucky’s laughing about.

“They put it on your outfit, pal?” He drags nails over embroidery, and over Steve’s mark, and Steve shivers. He remembers that he’s still wearing the Cap getup under his jacket.

“They… Yeah. Kinda.”

“Kinky,” Bucky says teasingly.

Steve’s changed soulmark aches like a bruise. It feels like a lie between them. Steve can’t stand it, but now — now isn’t the time. He kisses Bucky again. “‘M not sorry I saved your life.”

Bucky scowls.

“But. I am sorry I didn’t talk to you about it. I shoulda told you before you left, but I… Didn’t think it would work. Couldn’t stand getting my own hopes up, you know?”

Bucky sighs. His fingers run feather light over the planes of Steve’s face. His cheekbones, nose, lips, eyebrows — all the things the serum didn’t change. “You’re an idiot,” Bucky whispers. “I forgive you.”

Steve swallows, and hopes Bucky will still forgive him when he finds out about the changed mark on Steve’s back. Steve will just have to explain it, somehow.

 


 

Bucky doesn't get the chance to get his hands on Steve for real until they’re back in London, almost two weeks later. That’s probably for the best, because he spends the first week jumping every time he catches a glimpse of Steve out of the corner of his eye, feeling a strange ache of loss in his chest, because where’s his guy? Where’s his little guy?

And then Steve picks up a damn jeep.

Phillips’s Jeep gets stuck in the mud and Steve just… Just walks up, claps his hands together twice, gets a good grip on the rear bumper and heaves, all those muscles bunching under his uniform shirt and head thrown back a little.

The Jeep comes loose from the mud with a loud splurch and Steve drags it back to dry land, ankle deep in mud and leaving deep squelchy footprints.

Bucky closes his mouth with a snap.

Bucky never thought of himself as the sort of queer who gets dizzy over big fellas with bulging muscles but it’s Steve. It’s Steve, who’s always had a habit of setting himself against the world and all it’s wrongs, ready to fight. Now he looks like he could take on the world and fucking win.

The second week’s a lot harder than the first week, that’s all.

 

At the end of it, back in London, he climbs through the window of Steve’s officer’s digs, just the way he used to climb through the window of Steve’s old bedroom back in Brooklyn. Steve’s at his little desk, and looks up with wide, startled eyes. It’s Steve, it’s his Steve, and Bucky maybe goes a little wild at the thought. He’s grinning. He’s giddy.

Steve scoots back from the desk and gets to his feet. “Bu—”

The word isn’t even fully out of Steve’s mouth before Bucky is kissing him, pushing him back towards the bed. These last couple weeks, there hadn’t been time or privacy for more than stolen kisses and lingering glances. It was like being sixteen again, with no freedom from parents and siblings and teachers and neighbors.

But Steve is a Captain (sort of) and he’s Captain America (most of the time) so his room has a lock and a desk and a real bed.

“Christ, you’re so—” Bucky groans and starts tugging impatiently at Steve’s buttons.

“Wait, Bucky—”

“—fuckin’ huge. This body, Jesus. S’gonna take some getting used to, I tellya, so we better get started, huh?”

“Bucky, stop,” Steve says, sharp and commanding.

Bucky yanks his hands back from the buttons and jumps back from Steve, shocked. He actually looks at Steve’s face properly, and registers that Steve is grimacing.

It's like ice water down his back and he thinks — maybe Steve isn't just bigger. Maybe Steve’s body isn’t the only thing that changed. Maybe Steve doesn’t want—

“S-Steve?” Bucky says, nameless fear crawling up his windpipe.

Steve winces hard, looks sick with regret. “Sorry, I just — I wanted to tell you before you saw.”

That’s the face Stevie makes when he’s fucked something up. Bucky narrows his eyes. “Before I saw what.”

“You’d… better sit down, maybe.”

Bucky sits. Steve sits next to him, with his shoulders hunched in and his hands twisting in his lap.

He explains.

He explains a lot. He explains about the machine, more than he did before. He explains about the needles and the Vita Rays and coming out and not realizing until the nurse saw and then…

“I didn’t know,” Steve says, eyes huge and earnest. “I swear I didn’t know that would happen, Buck. I didn’t know that could happen. I just… I just wanted to get to where you were.”

Bucky is quiet. He’s thinking about needles, and about rays aimed at his chest, his face. He’s thinking about the feeling in his veins, like all his blood was burning. He thinks about the glasses. The bow tie. The clammy hands on him.

The Red Skull.

Steve is staring at him, worried.

“Let me see,” Bucky says.

Steve swallows and grabs the hem of his shirt. He pulls it off over his head and holy shit Steve. But Bucky doesn’t get much time to appreciate all that , because Steve turns away from him, and hunches his shoulders in harder.

The star is still there, but it’s maybe a little bigger, Bucky thinks. It’s all filled in, and bright silvery white, like an old scar. It’s perfect, Bucky thinks. He’s perfect.

Bucky’s hands are on it before he can think anything about it. Steve sucks in a sharp breath. Bucky does too. Fuck. It’s just the same, but more. It didn’t used to be this strong, Bucky’s pretty sure. That feeling like there’s lightning in his fingertips when he’s touching Steve. He’s gone hot under the collar, his heart pounding in his chest. It’s a sense of rightness, like a key in a lock. It’s a feeling of belonging, of safe, home, good.

Steve’s head falls back, lips parting on a soft gasp. He rocks where he sits. “Oh,” he says, soft and low and gravelly.

“Feels the same?” Bucky asks. His own voice probably sounds like he’s been gargling rocks. Can’t be helped.

“Yeah,” Steve breathes.

Bucky pulls on those big broad shoulders, turns him. He swings a leg across Steve’s lap and sits down. Steve stares up at him slack-jawed and eyes glazing over. That’s fine. That’s great. Bucky’s got this. He tugs Steve’s arm, pushes it up under his jacket, over his white undershirt. Fuck, Steve’s hands are warm. Never used to be warm like this. Steve lays his hand over Bucky’s mark, and Bucky bites hard on his bottom lip because oh fuck it’s definitely gotten stronger. What’s that saying about absence and hearts?

Bucky reaches over Steve’s shoulders, sliding over muscle and skin and oh. Steve’s eyes slam shut when Bucky touches his mark and he’s lighting up, they both are. Lighting up under their skin, crackling with overcharge. Plug them in, you could run a damn grid off this feeling. God damn.

“Some things change, yeah, but this?” Bucky says, his voice husky. “It’s just the same.”

“Yeah,” Steve gasps.

Bucky smirks. “Only difference is you ain’t gonna have an asthma attack in the middle.”

“No,” Steve says. His eyes slit open and he grins, bright as the damn sun. “And…”

Bucky cocks his head.

There’s pink in Steve’s cheeks, the tops of his ears, crawling for his neck now. “And, uh, I can go more than once.”

Go more than…? Bucky’s eyebrows go up.

“It’s the serum,” Steve explains.

“God Bless the serum,” Bucky says fervently. “Lord give me strength.”

He slides out of Steve’s lap in a hurry, gets on his knees like he’s praying, but, well.

He doesn’t pray.

 


 

Steve falls heavily asleep after round three, and wakes up with Bucky half sprawled on top of him. Bucky’s still half-dressed, in his undershirt and boxers. Steve reaches out and brushes the spot on Bucky’s back with his knuckles, feather light. The old familiar reverberating hum of pleasure comes back —

And then he jerks violently awake because that’s sunlight coming in the window and —

“Shit!”

Bucky comes awake in an equally panicked state. They overslept. The next five minutes are a hasty, panicked mess of Steve throwing clothes at Bucky, Bucky trying to get dressed and climb out the window all at the same time. Steve makes sure the coast is clear before stealing one last kiss and all but kicking Bucky off the sill.

He has to lie facedown on the mattress for twenty minutes, trying to will his furious blush into submission and berating himself for carelessness.

 

 

 

 

 

vi - pyxis: the compass 

“The Mate Pain Response (MPR) is a well-known phenomenon where one member of a mark-linked couple claims to feel the pain of the other member(s). MPR has been reported in 78% of mark-linked relationships with children, 62% of mark-linked marriages, 46% of mark-linked sexual relationships, and 27% of mark-linked platonic friendships.

However, when the question of stress hormones and trauma is raised (“Has your mark-linked partner/companion/spouse been with you during a highly stressful or traumatic time or event?”) the connection becomes more pronounced. Those who have experienced a traumatic event or time with their partner have an 89% likelihood of experiencing MPR to some degree, regardless of the nature of the relationship.”

Kinsey, A.; Pomeroy, W.; Martin, C.; & Gebhard, P. Sexual Behavior in Soulmark-Linked Couples, Philadelphia: Saunders (1956).

 

 

 

They find out about their soulmarks on their first mission together. They come out of the mission covered — literally covered in filth, except for Bucky, who was covering them from the safety of a pine tree. Bucky wrinkles his nose all the way back to the relative safety of camp.

“Please, please, please go jump in that lake,” Bucky says, once they’re back. “I’ll keep watch, but for the love of all that is holy, you have to. All’a you. You too, Steve.”

Steve immediately starts to tear off his filthy uniform, then stops, a sick swoop of fear in his guts. If they see his mark, they'll know. They must already know about Bucky's mark. Dugan will, at least — they were in the 107th together.

And then he remembers that he doesn't have to worry about that anymore. Because he and Bucky don’t have the same soulmark anymore. It’s similar, sure, but different enough to pass off as brotherly affection, as any other level of soulmark compatibility. He's suddenly sick with regret and relief and it's like emotional whiplash. It's like riding the psychological Cyclone. It's all over in a few seconds, and he gets back to unstrapping himself from his filthy gear. He untangles himself from his uniform and sees Dugan there, shirtless and furry like a ginger gorilla. He’s gaping.

“Holy shit,” Dugan says, pointing at Gabe's bared back, and Morita’s, and Falsworth’s, and Steve’s. “Holy shit! Sarge are you seeing this?!”

Bucky is laughing. It's the first real laugh Steve's heard from him since the night he drew Bucky's soulmark, the night before he shipped out and Steve went to Lehigh.

He’s laughing because they all have different marks, in the same exact spot, and Steve is dumbstruck. For a second, all he can hear is his ma’s gentle Irish lilt, telling him: I think that maybe it runs in our family… It’s just that when we find our people, we know.

“Of fucking course we do,” Bucky is saying. “Jesus Christ. We're all as dumb as each other, ain't we?”

“Good Lord, Barnes,” says Falsworth. “Have you got one too? What is it?”

“It's a fucking star,” Dugan says.

“What,” says Morita, a little nervously. “Like his?” he's pointing at Steve.

Bucky scratches his chin. “Hell no.  Mine’s prettier.”

“Says you,” Steve says, trying to swallow back his worry as he keeps peeling off his filthy clothes. Morita and Gabe are already in the water.

“Says me and Dot Hoffman,” Bucky says smugly. Steve casts him a quick look, reproachful. Bucky just winks back, the bastard.

“Well go on then, we've showed you ours,” Gabe points out.

“That's pretty queer, Jones,” Dugan says. It's big and easy sounding, coming out of his mouth. He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s just teasing.

But Steve feels it like a gut punch. His hackles are instantly up, and he opens his mouth to snap something mean and sharp and then… he remembers that he doesn’t have to be mean and sharp to be heard. Not anymore. He’s a captain. He’s Dugan’s captain. You got nothing to prove.

“Hey,” he says, very mildly. “Jones saved all our asses back there, he can do what he wants with them.”

“Like I’d want your ass, Dum Dum,” Gabe hops in, not even embarrassed.

“Excuse you, my ass is the peak of human perfection,” Dugan shoots back.

“Excuse you,” Falsworth says. “I believe that the Captain there was engineered in a lab to be the peak of human perfection. So. Scientifically speaking…”

Steve goes red.

“Like Steve’s ass can hold a candle to Lili Marlene,” Bucky says. “And, Jones, for your sake and everyone else’s, I figure that at least one of us shouldn’t get caught with their pants down. I’m keeping watch, and I’m keeping my clothes on.”

And that’s it. Nothing more to it. Easy as breathing.

 


 

When they get back to base, Dugan makes some kind of dumb comment, when they’re hiking into the nearest town for a drink. Peggy’s with them. She’s a real classy dame. Bucky doesn’t quite know what to make of her yet, but no one’s ever accused her of being stupid, and Bucky ain’t gonna be the first.

She picks up on whatever dumb thing Dugan said, and she makes a questioning face. That leads to a slightly pink-faced Captain America explaining about their marks.

“They’re not exactly the same,” Steve says. “But they’re in the same spot.”

“Where?” Carter asks, unabashedly curious.

Steve goes more pink. Bucky tries not to think about how far down that blush goes. Steve clears his throat and reaches up and around, tapping between his own shoulder blades. “Right there.”

Bucky has what he suspects is the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Carter looking startled.

“Oh,” she says, a little breathless. And then she laughs. “Oh, of course. That makes perfect sense.”

“Does it?” Bucky pipes up. “I mean. What are the odds, right?”

“Perhaps, but you’ve all been through the fire together,” she says. “And it takes a very particular kind of person to survive a camp like that—” Bucky thinks he does a marvelous job not flinching at that “—with enough gumption to pick up a gun and use it to effect at the end. And look at how well you all work together. It could be a real asset.”

“Could be a real pain in the ass too,” Bucky says. “Soulmates — or whatever us mooks are — feel each other’s pain, right? Not gonna be much of a unit if we all get the screaming meemies when one of us catches a bit of shrapnel or whatever.”

“I guess we’ll all find out, won’t we?”

“All?” Steve says, catching Carter’s odd emphasis.

“Didn’t you guess?”

“No,” Dugan says, with dawning comprehension. “No way!”

Carter stops to give him a withering look, and they all stop with her. She looks around at the dusty road ahead and behind. It’s empty. She undoes the belt on her jacket, pops open the buttons and throws the thing at Steve. Steve fumbles to catch it without dropping it while Carter yanks at her tie in sharp jerks, exactly the way Bucky’s pa used to after a long day.

“Oh holy—” Gabe looks a little like he wants to make a break for it, but then he has to catch Peggy’s tie.

Bucky watches it happening like a trainwreck in slow motion. Carter unbuttons enough blouse to hike it up and slip it off her shoulders, turning away from them so they can see—

Her mark. Because of course. Of course. It takes a very particular kind of person to help an idiot like Steve disobey direct orders and fly into enemy territory. It takes a very particular kind of soul. The mark is framed by the straps of her slip and two old bullet scars. It’s not raised like his or Steve’s, it’s flat like a freckle, but darker, almost black, and probably two or three inches across. Eight points of alternating lengths radiate out from the center of it. Not like Monty’s bold red asterisk — this is more delicate, more precise. Like a star.

“It’s a compass rose,” Peggy tells them. “Runs in the family. My brother had the very same mark, you know, although his was over his heart.” And then she looks over her shoulder and gives them a smug, angry little smirk. It’s not flirtatious, though it maybe should be. Instead it’s a challenge.

Look, she says, without saying a word. I’m one of you. Try to tell me otherwise. I dare you.

It reminds him of Steve, and suddenly Bucky’s guts clench. Because Steve’s star is different now. Steve’s changed, he’s grown — literally. And Bucky hasn’t. If anything, there’s less of him now than there was before. There’s whole swathes of the kid he used to be that are just gone. There are pieces of the guy that Steve fell in love with that are missing, and he doesn’t think they're coming back.

Bucky looks sidelong at Steve and sees him swallow. His eyes are wide and doe-like, fixed on the mark on Carter’s back and—

Bucky’s not at all used to seeing that particular look pointed away from him. He might have expected to feel jealousy, to feel possessive or filled with anger. Steve is his, after all.

But instead he just feels hollow inside.

He remembers feeling twelve feet tall when Steve looked at him like that. He remembers holding Steve close at nights and thinking that no matter what, they’d always have each other. He remembers thinking that he’d find a way to give Steve the world.

And if he’s honest, despite all the dates Bucky set him up on, it never once occurred to him that maybe Steve could do better. Not really.

Bucky walks away before Carter finishes doing up her buttons.

 


 

Steve finally corners Bucky in their little tent, three days later. There’s just been a lot going on: moving and getting orders and moving again. And they have to be careful, quiet. Steve doesn’t think the Howlies would say anything about it, if they knew, but maybe folk didn’t like having it waved in front of them, right? And anyway, Dugan gets chatty and a little stupid when he’s drunk. No one wants to see Captain America blue carded. Best not to risk it.

“What’s going on with you?” Steve whispers, once it’s just the two of them.

“Whaddya mean?” Bucky says, affecting nonchalance. He’s taking off his boots, setting them carefully beside his bedroll, next to his gun. If something happens in the night, he can get the gun in his hands and his feet in the boots in one smooth motion. Steve’s seen him do it.

“I mean ever since we told Carter about the Howlies’ soulmarks, you’ve been… weird.”

Bucky makes a skeptical face. “No I haven’t.” He scoffs.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “You have.”

The already complicated lines of Bucky’s mouth twist further. “I don’t mean to be. I just. Got thinking.”

“Well don’t hurt yourself, pal,” Steve says, to cover the fact that the statement makes his skin crawl with something nameless. Nameless, but bad.

“I’m thinking,” Bucky shoots Steve a glare, “next time we’re in London, you oughta take that Agent Carter dancing, pal.”

Steve drops his handgun and holster, which he’d been just about to set within easy reach.

“Steve,” Bucky says reproachfully. “Christ, you’re gonna blow your nuts off one of these days if you don’t—”

“No,” Steve says. His mind has gone terrifyingly blank.

“No, you’re not gonna blow your nuts off? Well I hope not, pal, but I—”

“No,” Steve says, again, a little too loudly. “Til the end of the line, you said.”

“Shh,” Bucky hisses.

“You said,” Steve hisses back. “It wouldn’t matter if she had your name written on her skin in neon lights. You said.” The panic feels like asthma in his chest all over again. “You didn’t care, you said it didn’t matter, she wouldn’t be me, you said—” You promised, he means, but it occurs to him that they hadn’t. They’d never made any promises. They’d never needed to.

“That was different,” Bucky says.

The words strike like three bullets, center mass. That. Was. Different. He can only stare at Buck. Speechless.

Bucky is looking down at his hands. “We were different.”

That’s even worse. It’s worse because it’s true. Bucky’s different now: grimmer and colder and quieter. He doesn’t smile anymore unless he’s smiling at Steve, and he doesn’t do that very often at all. And Steve’s different, right down to his bones. Right down to his soul.

The spot between his shoulder blades burns.

“It’s the same,” and it’s a broken whisper now. “It’s just the same.”

“It ain’t.” Bucky swallows thickly and looks up. “I mean it, Steve. You got a chance now. You could have anyone you want. I mean. Any one of the Howlies is as compatible as me, right? And Carter… You’d be good for each other. She’d be good for you.”

Steve has never been more hurt. This hurts worse than his ma dying. This hurts worse than getting 4F after 4F. This hurts worse than—

“Shit,” Bucky mutters, reading it off his face. “Shit. Steve, it ain’t that I don’t want you. God, I’ve never wanted anything more. I didn’t mean it like—”

His fingers brush Steve’s arm and Steve flinches back, hard. “How didja mean it, then?”

“I mean it ain’t about me, it’s about you. You’re free now,” Bucky whispers. He’s leaning in, fingers twitching, but holding back from actual touch. “You got a chance to turn it all around. Best I’m ever gonna be able to offer you is a lifetime of nasty rumors, dragging your name through the mud. No family, no real home…”

“You’re my family,” Steve says. “You’re my home.”

Bucky’s chin trembles. “I can’t give you what you deserve. I can never—”

“Fuck what I deserve. I don’t want it. I want you,” Steve says, the whispered words harsh. “Even though you’re a complete asshole, Jesus Mary and Joseph, Bucky if you ever—”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says, at once. “Fuck, I’m so—”

“—Ever say anything like that to me again, ever, I will—” he struggles for something truly awful to do to Bucky. “I don’t know, but it’ll be bad.”

“So fucking sorry, Stevie,” Bucky says.

“You fucking will be,” Steve says. “Hell. Any of the Howlies is as compatible as you? You even think something that fucking stupid and I’ll tell everyone you want to move to Jersey. I’ll tell them you’re a Yankees fan. I’ll—”

“Alright, alright!” Bucky lifts his hands in surrender. “Uncle, alright? I’m calling uncle. You got me.”

“Have I?” Steve challenges, glaring.

Bucky’s hands drop, his face makes a weird, resigned expression. “Yeah, pal. Yeah. You got me. It’s like I said. End of the line, right?”

“Right. Fuck.” Only then does Steve dash away the tears he didn’t realize were streaming down his face. He has no idea when they even started. “You’d better touch me and I mean right fucking now, because if you don’t I’m gonna—”

Bucky is hugging him before he even finishes the sentence, and he clenches his fist in Steve’s shirt, pressing tight against the soulmark — their soulmark, it’s changed but that changes nothing, it’s just the same, it’s just the same.

Steve feels like he can breathe again.

 


 

The war is awful, of course. There are gunshots and explosions and screaming and every loud terrible sound the world can imagine. There are bodies with no souls in them anymore, piled like kindling and left to rot. There is the eerie silent melancholy of ruined towns, and all of them remind him of home, and make him wonder what Brooklyn will look like if the Nazis get their hands on it. There is the feeling of mud under his boots, and the endless irritation of wet socks. There is the reek of cordite, and blood, and his own fucking stink because there’s nowhere to take a fucking bath. There’s the heart-stopping terror of a battle, of knowing that one wrong step could mean his life, could mean their lives, could mean Steve’s life. And when they manage to scramble out of it on top and still alive (still miraculously alive, usually thanks to Steve’s crazy goddamn bullshit) there’s the sick down swoop as adrenaline drains away, the ache of exhaustion that trails in its wake.

But worst of all is the boredom. The god damn waiting. That’s terrible, probably. Because it’s terrible to loathe the absence of war more than the war itself, but no one ever accused Bucky of being a saint.

Bad as Bucky hates the waiting, though, Steve is a thousand times worse. Because, yeah, sure the war is awful, but at least when they’re in the war, they’re doing something, and Steve cannot bear to be not doing something.

They’re waiting for transport. They’re just. Waiting. Dugan and Monty and Morita and Gabe are playing cards. Steve’s got his shield on his lap, and they’re waiting, they’re just waiting, for a fucking truck. They should be halfway to Paris by now, but the truck isn’t here, and the timetable is going to be so fucked if they don’t—

Bucky can actually feel the irritation boiling off Steve like steam. He can feel it in his own chest, too: a tight, angry knot of rage that doesn’t quite belong to him. He’s been getting more and more through the bond, ever since Azzano. Makes sense. Steve says the serum amps up everything inside, and the bond’s inside, ain’t it? Logical.

Bucky tries real hard not to think about why Steve’s serum would be affecting him.

Buck drops his pack next to Steve. Steve looks up, and some of the angry buzz in his head clears. Bucky’s been nosing around the camp for solid intel and he’s finally got it.

“Three more hours, then for sure,” Bucky says. The boys groan loudly from where they’re still playing cards.

Steve makes a sound of endless frustration. Makes him sound like an engine about to take off. Bucky reaches out absently and smacks him upside the head. “You can’t make the roads less muddy, pal.” Bucky pulls out Betsy and the cloth he uses when he’s cleaning her. His soulmate, Dugan had called her, and Buck had dutifully painted the outline of a white star on the stock.

Steve is visibly brainstorming ways that he could do exactly that. What a dope. He’s probably plotting to carry each Jeep and truck by hand, as if that would actually speed things up.

Bucky sits down with Betsy and starts taking her apart, the familiar click-click-click of pieces unlocking and then the almost inaudible squeak-squeak of a rag, the scent of gun oil. He leans back, and Steve leans back. Through the armor and the jacket, their soulmarks line up. It’s easier to do, now. Bucky always used to have to slouch down because of their height difference, while Steve sat up hard, trying to straighten his crooked spine tall enough to tip his head back onto Bucky’s shoulder.

Steve sighs, and Bucky feels Steve’s big shoulders relax.

It didn’t used to be like this either. Used to be, when Bucky pressed up against his soulmark like this, Steve would get all wound up, his skinny little body feeling too much, building and building slowly, ramping up for something, until he had to move. Now it seems the reverse is true, somehow. Bucky touches Steve, and something just — goes out of him.

Now it’s Bucky who can only seem to hold position for a little while before he needs to either kiss Steve or take a walk (depending on who’s watching.) Each touch coils tighter and tighter inside him, urging him to do… something.

He is painfully aware that they’ve changed roles in so many other ways too. Steve gets it in a way he didn’t before. He’d confessed as much after the first month as Captain America. He sees now, how exhausting it had to be for Bucky to be Bucky all the time. James Buchanan Barnes: Brooklyn’s Finest. Now Steve has to be Captain America all the time, and in those moments where he can just be Steve, it’s such a damn weight off his shoulders.

And for Bucky, well. The whole first week after they got him out of the factory, everyone was looking at him sideways, asking you alright, Sarge? and have you been to the medical tent? and you wanna ride in the truck, soldier? Bucky had started to snap and snarl like a wild dog every time someone so much as patted his shoulder in sympathy. Well, everyone but Steve, at any rate.

Steve leans back a little harder, pressing into Bucky, just for a moment, like a click over the line, a beat of Morse. You there?

Bucky leans back just the same, a subtle shift of his weight. I’m here.

 


 

They’re in the Hürtgen Forest — Allied Command is trying to turn around a failing offensive that never should've been attempted in the first place. It's not going to work — none of it. Not the offensive and not the attempt to fix it. Steve could've told them that. He did tell them, in fact. Vociferously. Much good it did them.

So now here they are, Steve and Bucky and the rest of the Commandos, in woodland so dense that all artillery and air support is meaningless. Steve’s been trying to keep track of the enemy’s troop movements in his head, but every damn tree looks exactly like the other. Why couldn’t they be doing this in a city with a grid layout? The Krauts are at 7th and Flatbush! It’d all be so much easier.

He checks his map and compass as best he can in this damn foxhole with a fucking tree root poking him in the ass. They need to be moving east, so they can rendezvous with the rest of the unit and keep the line going forward. Steve’s pretty sure there are some scouts between here and there, but there’s nothing for it. He checks the coordinates one last time, then folds the map away in his belt, along with the compass.

“We moving?” Bucky says. He’s got Betsy cradled in his arms, absently rubbing his thumb over the white star outlined on her stock. It’s been quiet out there for a while, but that’s hardly a guarantee of anything.

“I’ll clear it,” Steve says. “Cover me.”

Bucky makes a tsking sound. “You should let Dugan clear it.”

Dugan kicks him. “Hey fuck you,” he says cheerfully. Gabe snorts a little, from his side of the foxhole, while Morita and Monty continue dutifully getting their packs ready and Dernier does something that probably won’t result in all of them dying in a fiery explosion.

“I’ll clear it,” Steve insists. Steve may be their captain, but Dugan doesn’t have a bulletproof shield.

Bucky shakes his head, but shifts his grip on the rifle, ready to pop up and provide cover fire.

Steve goes cautiously over the top, and when no one immediately starts shooting at him, he moves forward, listening hard. Everything is deadened by pine needles and old wood, but if he can’t hear anything, it’s probably okay. Probably.

Steve is just turning to motion the boys forward when he hears a series of cracks, like branches snapping, but much louder. And then there’s the zing of bullets whipping past, thumping into dirt and deadwood. He's on the ground almost before he hears it. Everyone is shouting, barely audible over the ringing in his ears. Bullets are still hitting the dirt around him. He pulls the shield in close and rolls himself back into the foxhole, landing hard on his back, knocking the wind out of him. Shit, that was close.

And then he looks down at himself.

Oh, he has a moment to think, as he watches red seep into the white and blue. That hit me.

And then, the pain.

Like a gut punch, and he’s just trying to breathe, to keep breathing. It feels like pneumonia coming on fast: lungs filling with fluid.

Time flickers, like the movie reel of his life is missing some frames —

 

And then Bucky's face, all twisted in pain — Bucky are you okay? He can’t make the words, he can’t find the air —

 

And then, somewhere above him: “Dugan, get his legs” and “Yeah, I fucking know it hurts, God.”

It does hurt. It hurts.

 

And then: he is so cold, except where there are two hands holding his face. The hands are hot and sticky, and everything smells like blood.

 

And then there are someone’s fingers in his side , pulling his ribs apart, digging into his flesh, his raw nerves, and he screams and Bucky is howling

 

And then it’s quiet.

 

“...pulling us off the line, just like you wanted, Cap. Not that I don’t love seeing you win an argument with the brass, I absolutely do, sir, but not like this, you know? Not like this.”

Someone is talking.

“And hey, next time you wanna take a bullet for us, maybe just take the one?”

Steve tries to open his eyes. The light is very bright and he winces away from it.

“Cap?”

“Unh,” is Steve’s well-considered reply. “Buck?”

“No, sir. It’s Jones.”

Steve squints open one eye. Gabe’s smile is a little wobbly. “Wha’ happened?”

“You got… hit. The bullets nicked some. Stuff.” Gabe waves a hand, vaguely indicating his abdomen. Steve registers that his whole middle seems to be heavily padded with gauze. Gabe swallows thickly, clears his throat. “But they got ‘em out. We’re just on the watch for infection, but they think you’ll be fine.”

Steve tries to open his other eye, and feels queasy. “Where’s Buck?”

“He’s fine, sir,” Gabe says, but his inflection is… off.

“Where’s Bucky?” Steve says, more sharply.

“He’s sleeping, he’s right over there,” Gabe says, jerking his chin towards the opposite side of Steve’s bed.

Steve laboriously turns his head and sees that the cot next to his houses a sprawl of limbs and a riot of messy hair. It’s unmistakably Bucky, even with his face turned away and every muscle gone lax. Steve breathes out. “S’ he okay?”

“Yeah, they…”

Something about Gabe’s voice makes Steve turn his head back.

Gabe gives a thin, toothless smile. “They gave him a sedative.”

“What?”

“He was in a lot of pain, Cap.”

“Why?” Steve can hear, as though from a distance, his own voice. He sounds like he’s about twelve. He sounds like he’s about to cry.

“Because you were in a lot of pain. Jesus, we could all feel it. He just got it worse than the rest of us.”

Soul bond, Steve thinks. “Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t apologize,” Gabe says. “Just, y’know. Don’t get shot again. Please. Uh, sir.”

“‘Kay,” Steve says slowly, feeling like he’s speaking the words through layers and layers of cotton wool.

 


 

It’s less than a week before Steve’s up again, and the brass is getting ready to put him back on the board. Steve’s sitting up, still in his hospital bed, which is shrouded on all sides with curtains. They’ve downgraded his bandages and his wounds have mostly closed up.

“Five fucking days,” Bucky says. He’s at Steve’s side. Hasn’t left Steve’s side since they both woke up. Because Steve still looks like he got run over by a fucking tank so Bucky feels justified in being a little cranky about it.

“I’ll take it easy in the truck,” Steve says. Even his smile looks tired.

“Ain’t nothing about you easy,” Bucky complains. “You ain’t taken a thing easy in your goddamn life.”

“I’ll try. For you.”

Bucky sighs heavily. He glances at his watch, lying out on the table. They’ve got time before anyone will come looking for them. He glances at the white fabric shrouding them on all sides, like when they were kids and made a pillow fort of sheets and blankets. He pauses and tips his head, listening. Someone outside the shelter of their curtains coughs, but it’s mostly snoring out there. They should be fine, as long as they keep quiet.

Steve quirks an eyebrow, like he knows what Bucky’s going to go for here, but surprise, asshole.

Bucky doesn’t move in for a kiss, or swing a leg over his lap, or even push him down onto the bed so he can lie down beside him. Instead, he shifts off his chair, and slips in behind Steve. Steve starts to twist around, but then Bucky presses a quick kiss to the white mark between Steve’s shoulder blades.

It’s soft, and chaste, and close mouthed, but Steve isn’t wearing a shirt, and Bucky feels it like a bolt of lightning, right to the core of him. He knows Steve does too, by the way Steve lets out a soft wheeze and then tips his head back, mouth open wide so his panting isn’t so loud.

Honestly, how could Steve think Bucky would waste this chance? He hasn’t seen Steve shirtless in the new body since that first mission. They haven’t been naked at the same time since they left Brooklyn. The last thing you want in a war zone is to be caught with your pants down, and the scrutiny around Steve makes it hard to get him alone long enough to do more than shove their hands down each other’s pants.

Bucky presses his forehead against the mark, hard, and swears he can feel it tingling in his scalp, down his spine, down to where his mark is, where it burns. He presses a little harder, feels where the smooth, raised mark gives way to the rest of Steve’s skin. He’s warm: all of him warm and breathing and alive. Steve shudders and lets out a shaky breath.

Bucky thinks about telling him.

He chickens out.

He tells him something else instead.

“I felt it,” Bucky says, so quietly that he ain’t sure Steve can hear him.

Steve goes so quiet and still that Bucky knows he heard. He’s not a complete idiot, so he must already know but…

Bucky’s arms snake up under Steve’s. His hands gently hook over Steve’s shoulders, to hold him in place. To keep him here . “The bullets. I felt ‘em. And when the doctors were digging them out. I felt that. Almost passed out from it, Jesus.”

He doesn’t remember a whole lot, but he remembers that. He remembers howling with it. Steve’s pain under his skin, screaming it out the way Steve couldn’t because he was unconscious, because he didn’t have the air to do anything more than keep breathing.

He remembers the people in the medical tent staring at him — their suspicious eyes. The Howlies had been there, and Bucky is still so fucking grateful to them. They came barging in to get up in the doctors’ faces and say things like “hurts us too” and “they grew up together” and “practically brothers” and “of course he fucking feels it.”

He’d been certain, after, that they’d kick him out, that they’d blue-card him for sure this time, and the thought of being separated from Steve still makes his chest clench with panic. The Howlies know — they must know, by now. And if they know, surely Carter knows. Probably Phillips too. Bucky damn near went crazy waiting for the brass to send him off, but no one’s said a fucking thing about it. Someone must be covering for them, because Steve is too important, maybe, or—

Steve’s hands come up to cover Bucky’s, and Bucky realizes that his grip on Steve has gone tight, almost white-knuckled.

He squeezes his eyes shut and focuses on this; the solidity of Steve, the presence, the warmth of him. He’s here. He’s okay. If Bucky doesn’t open his eyes he won’t see the bandages — the tender places where Steve’s body is still knitting itself back together.

“I’m sorry,” Steve breathes.

“Don’t do it again,” Bucky whispers.

 


 

They stay like that until they hear the nurse coming to make her rounds. Normally, Bucky is more careful than this, but it's like he can't help himself, can't stand to let Steve out of touching range. Steve thinks back to when he was on the star spangled circuit, when Bucky was being tortured. Steve had ached too, without knowing why. It would've been so much worse if Bucky had been there in front of him. And he hadn't been at all keen on letting Bucky out of his sight, after. So Steve understands. He gets it.

 

Except he doesn’t really get it, not really. Not until the train.

 

 

 

 

 

vii - alphard: the solitary 

“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you–especially since I know now our marks are such a matched set: it is as if I had a string knotted to the ribs beneath my mark, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated beneath the corresponding mark on your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.”

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1999.

 

 

 

He’s watching Bucky fall, can’t look away from Bucky’s face as it falls away, away, away.

He feels weightless because Bucky feels weightless. He feels numb because Bucky feels numb. Even when he loses sight of Bucky he can still feel Bucky falling and falling and falling—

He feels the impact from the inside out; bones shattering, the shock, and his left arm going so numb with agony that he loses his own grip, his gloved fingers slipping from the bar and someone screaming Cap! but all Steve can think is:

Thank God.

And then he’s falling too. He barely feels the lurch of someone snagging the straps of the shield holster on his back, hauling him back from the brink.

The pain is so intense that he blacks out.

 


 

 


 

But he wakes up, only moments later.

He wakes up on the rattling floor of the train and it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.

Gabe’s face is hanging over him, all concern, but all Steve can hear is the howling wind, all he can feel is the pain — Bucky’s pain. The ache is centered between his shoulder blades, and he bucks up like a landed fish, twisting and clawing at his back because it feels like he’s being stabbed, over and over and over, and—

They told him it didn't hurt; he feels so betrayed, so lied to. This hurts like nothing he's ever experienced.

But then, the feeling starts to fade, and oh god, that's somehow worse. The crushing pressure on him lightens, and lifts away. The howling flickers in and out, interspersed with panting gasps as the pain is replaced with a tingling numbness. It spreads through him like shock, soaking into his bones. He can feel it: feel his life draining away. Bucky’s life draining away.

It doesn’t hurt, it’s just gone, his ma had said. You’ll know it if you feel it, lad. But god I hope you never do.

He pants, and stares in blank, mute horror at the filthy floor of the train, at Gabe’s knees where he’s crouched there next to Steve. Distantly, he can hear Gabe calling to him, can feel Gabe checking him over for injury. But it all might as well be happening to someone else, because Steve is trying to cling to that fading sense of connection. His hands are twisted back behind him, awkwardly pressing at his soulmark, trying to get the feeling back. It just feels chilled and numb.

The pain is gone, but so is the warmth. Steve feels like his lips must be turning blue. He can’t feel his left arm at all.

This is dying, he thinks. This is what death feels like.

And then there’s nothing.

“Oh God,” Steve breathes.

 


 

 


 

Later, in the plane, it’s all such a fucking relief.  Peggy’s trying to talk him into staying, but he can hear that she knows it’s a lost cause. She’s just trying to give him some comfort. He doesn’t need comfort. His eyes are already fixed on the white horizon. He’s already planning, in his head, what he’ll say.

Heya, Buck. Sorry I’m late.

At the last second, he closes his eyes.

 


 

 


 

He opens his eyes and everything is wrong.

It’s not just the sheets and the smells and the sounds and the radio, that all barely registers.

It’s the numb, empty space inside him, where Bucky used to be. It’s not a hole, that’s too simplistic. It’s a hollowing. He feels like a bombed-out building — it used to be warm and full of light, but now it’s just a facade. The furniture, the floors, the roof, even the windows are all gone, burned away. It’s not a house anymore, it’s certainly not a home. And once the fire burns to coals and the coals go cold there isn’t even any warmth. Just four blackened walls with holes for the wind to blow through.

Wherever Steve is, Bucky isn’t.

He blinks at the ceiling and listens to the wrong baseball game and breathes in the wrong-smelling air and feels the wrong-feeling sheets under his hands and wonders if this is hell.

It isn’t.

 

They make him stay in a SHIELD facility and get twice daily medical checkups for a solid week. At the third checkup he notices the doctor frowning at the little machine that reads his temperature, instead of the dozen other readings he also frowns at. Steve doesn't know why he frowns at those readings, but the temperature thing…

Finally Steve thinks to say: “I run hot.”

“We know,” the doctor says. “That’s the thing. You don’t. You’re right at 97.4º, which is on the low end of normal.”

“Oh,” Steve says, without much interest. He supposes that could be a practical explanation for why he feels cold all the time.

Except he knows it’s not a real chill, it’s a psychosomatic one.

The doctor is frowning at him now. Steve can’t remember the guy’s name.

“How about that,” Steve adds, with no inflection at all.

“How do you feel?” the doctor asks.

“Colder,” he says.

 

“How are you feeling?” A different kind of doctor asks.

“You really gonna fucking ask me that?” he marvels.

Coming out of the ice is the exact inverse of coming out of Stark's Vita Ray machine. He looks the same, on the outside, but everything inside is different. Everyone can see that he's just fine, but inside he's fragile, in a way he never used to be.

When he was a kid, it was like Bucky was the only one who could see how strong Steve really was. And now that he's huge, there's no one who can see how fragile he really is.

“How do you feel?” The doctors keep asking. “How are you feeling?” But no one ever seems to hear him — or at least, they don’t hear what he means. He says he’s been better, he says he’s not doing so hot, he says he’s tired. He means he feels like he’s already dead, he wishes they’d left him in the ice, couldn’t they just let him rest?

Eventually, he gives up and goes back to the old standby. It's what they all really want to hear:

“Fine,” he says. “I'm fine.”

 

Eventually, the doctors decide it’s probably okay, and they send him out into the world. Alone.

He can do it, he thinks. He can get by on his own.

 

It’s not until after the Battle of Manhattan that he actually starts to think it might be true. By then he’s got a team, and he’s back in the fight, and he’s got a place in the world. They’re no Howling Commandos, and Stark’s certainly no Bucky, but it’s a foothold. It’s a place to stand.

That’s when he gets the letter from the National Portrait Gallery.