When his mother was dying, on her better days when not everything hurt, Steve would brush her hair. He would help her prop herself up on the pillows and run the boar-bristle paddle through her faded amber locks. She had a mark behind her ear that he liked, a tiny little star with no color in it.
"His name was Thomas," she said, when Steve asked. "I knew him in school. It never had color."
She had a few colored marks, a tiny orange smile on her wrist which she said appeared the day the doctor said she was pregnant, and a larger purple flower on her knee.
"That one is your father."
Steve's father had been dead for years, but the color remained.
By the time war broke out, Steve had five marks. He had one for the father he didn't remember, one for his mother, now dead, one each for Bucky's mom and dad. They all had color, but the one that meant the most was the pale glimmer of a fist that had appeared on his left side shortly after he met Bucky.
The pain in the machine was intense--it wasn't just the serum hot in his veins or the uncontrollable feeling of his body swelling, his muscles bulging and his skin pulled taut. There was a feeling of emptiness, a searing feeling like he was being set on fire, like his skin was sizzling.
And then Erskine was dead and Steve was running, and it didn't even occur to him to look for the fist, for the scant few marks that he knew he'd find on his body.
When it did come to him, later, after he pulled up the thin cotton t-shirt to make sure Bucky was still okay, Steve had to bite down on his scream.
Bucky was gone, the little red fist erased from his side. And so, he found shortly, were his mother and his father and Bucky's parents, and the tiny mark he'd gotten in training camp--be it from Peggy or Erskine or Phillips, he'd never know. He was blank. He was empty.
Either he was a new man, one that no one knew and no one loved, or being that man, being something more than human, had taken the ability to be loved from him. Completely.
There were still no marks by the time he flew into the ice.
Usually celebrities were festooned with marks, were painted with the adoration of their fans, the social proof of a high-status existence. But not Steve.
(Not that he thought of himself as a celebrity, exactly, but he was in movies, and he had saved lives. If someone was going to love him, surely they would have done so by now.)
And it wasn't that no one loved him--all of the Commandos wore a mark for him, and most of them were colored in. So he could love, and be loved in return. He was just never going to know if he loved someone--if he really and truly cared for them--unless they decided to show him.
He spent 70 years in the ice, and while there were people out there who were discovering Captain America every day, while they were fallling for him and appreciating his heroism, his skin remained creamy and clear under the sheen of winter.
The first thing Steve noticed about Tony were his marks. It was attractive, of course, to meet a man who was so decorated with affection that he had no choice but to show it. The second thing he noticed was how few of them had any color--two, Steve thought. That he could see. This was a man who didn't love easily.
Thor was more decorated than Tony, as royalty was wont to be, and he liked to show his off, often dropping his pants in public to show the blood-red drop that was the mark of Sif, or pulling up his shirt to expose the slightly less vivid symbols he carried for Jane, for Darcy, for Steve or Erik. It was telling, Steve told Tony one day after they moved in to the tower, how many of Thor's marks were colored in--Thor had so much love in him. It was the love of a prince for his subjects, a son for his parents, a warrior for his shield-brothers. There was only one mark he wouldn't discuss, that wasn't up for conversation. Steve decided it was the mark of Loki, and Thor shouldn't have to justify his love for his brother, even knowing the things he had done.
Bruce didn't share his marks, and Clint shrugged and said he had ten that he knew of, and he didn't want to talk about it.
Natasha had the faded and chipped memories of kills etched onto her skin. "It was an honor," she said softly, over iced coffee on a slow afternoon in the swamp-humidity of a DC summer. "In the Red Room. If you came home from a job with a mark, if you made someone love you before you made them dead. It was considered the best a girl could do."
Steve had trouble with that, a hard lump forming in his throat. "Did they--did anyone ever try to fake them?"
Natasha took a sip before she nodded. "Yeah, but not as often as you'd think. The punishments, well. They were really good at punishments."
Steve didn't ask any more. He was too afraid of what she might say. Instead he asked about the scar on her shoulder that she liked to pass off as a bullet wound. She shook her head sadly and told him it was a memory of her first love. She'd had to cut them off of her skin, to stop the Red Room from using them against each other.
And in his heart, Steve wished he could lay all his teammates bare, wished he could strip them down and count their freckles and their marks, see their outlines and their colors, and know their stories.
And he wished he could show them how he cared, how he held them each in his heart, and how they'd stand out against his skin, if he weren't quite so broken.
The hardest part of visiting Peggy was the way her marks reacted to her illness. How the colors flicked and faded every time she forgot him, and how they came rushing back, a bright and brilliant blue between the veins of her arm, when she saw him again.
Steve felt the surge of hope that flashed hot across his face when he saw Bucky again. He watched for color, the splash of gold that was Steve's mark on Bucky's neck. And the outline was there. It was there, clear and vivid against the pale skin of the man who never should have been the Winter Soldier.
But it was empty.
And when Rumlow forced him to his knees, the barrel of the gun cold against the back of Steve's head, all he could do was pray it would end. Pray he didn't have to live in a world where Bucky didn't love him back.
The arrow appeared on the back of Sam's hand sometime during the fight with Hydra, and Steve didn't notice it until after he woke in the hospital. It was small, shaded with yellow and red.
"On your left," Steve said, when he figured it out, and he kissed Sam, who just laughed and returned the affection in kind.
They spent an hour, later, with Sam stretched on his stomach as Steve described every mark on him, the little ring of purple and the shockingly green sunrise. Sam was beautifully hued, the signs of his love standing out like runes against his dark skin, like Steve could use them to cast a magic spell.
"There's a bird here," Steve said, tracing the lines of Sam's lower back. "Two, actually. A red one and a yellow one, both on a branch. Facing each other."
Sam laughed, his voice like low bells. "Those are new," he said. "Never had a bird before. Maybe it's Maria Hill. She's a--I liked her."
Steve wanted to ask the things he always wanted to ask. Why that shape? What does a bird mean to you? Why gold and red? But he didn't, he stopped himself and instead shook his head. "I wonder what shape you'd be for me," he said, trying not to let the sorrow sink in too obviously.
Sam turned over and caught Steve's hand, pressing his lips to Steve's fingers. "Does it matter?" he asked. "We know how we feel."
Steve shook his head. Because it did matter, it mattered a lot. It mattered to him that he never knew unless someone took the time to show him. It mattered that he never had a shape for his feelings, a proof of devotion.
Steve didn't really expect to hear from Natasha after the cemetery, after they said goodbye to Nick. But his phone rang two days later, and her voice was on the edge of panic.
"I have a new mark," she said, whispered intensity shading her voice.
"Colored?" Steve asked.
"Would I call if it weren't?"
Steve shook his head, and listened to Natasha describe it--a heart with a dagger through it, dripping blood. Complex, she said.
Meaningful, he thought.
"I don't need to be invested in someone new," she said. "I don't need a liability when I'm out of people to hide behind."
"Maybe it's not a liability?" he said, and if he couldn't quite hide the hope in his voice, well, he wasn't sure what else Natasha might expect from him.
"I'm coming back to DC," she said.
She brought Clint, and Steve was glad to see him--if anything could be said for the archer, he knew how to inject levity into a situation. And he knew how to calm Natasha in a way that Steve had never needed to learn, because she'd never shown him her frenzy before.
"It has to be you," she said, jabbing a finger into Steve's chest. "No one else around here to pull me down."
Steve opened his mouth to respond, but before he could do so much as open his mouth, Sam burst through the front door, whistling some pop song from the radio. His arms were laden with bags, and he was too preoccupied with whistling, with how happy he was, to see Natasha and Clint.
But they saw him, and they froze in unison. And the realization bloomed, slow and deliberate over Natasha's face a moment before it hit Clint.
"Holy shit," she breathed. "Sam. I love you."
Sam raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "Took you this long to figure it out?"
They spent time, Natasha and the boys, looking for her other mark, the mark that had to be Steve. They found him between her toes, a small diamond shape so dark in color that it could have been mistaken for a freckle.
"How?" she demanded, rounding on Steve and Sam. "How did you make me--"
She couldn't maintain the fury, though, couldn't keep her rage hot, and instead sank to the couch, her head tilted back to peer at the ceiling.
"She cut me out," Clint said, when no one moved for a long few minutes. "I was on her hip."
Steve raised an eyebrow, the scar springing to the front of his mind. "I thought you got shot?" he said. "Bye-bye bikinis?"
Natasha rolled her eyes. "I needed you to trust me."
"I would have trusted you," he said. "Since the battle of New York. With my life."
"And how would I know that?" she snapped, her voice pained. "When you're so pearly-white that no one can touch you?"
Steve bit back his angry retort, didn't shout at her out of compassion and a little bit of fear. The only thing scarier than an angry Natasha, he knew, was an angry and frightened Natasha, and he had no need to open that door. So instead he swallowed the words and turned his back to her, not saying a word as he left the house.
He'd intended to go for a run, to try and clear his head, but in his frustration and hasted he'd walked out without his shoes. And it wasn't that he couldn't go back, or just run barefoot, but when the realization hit him, it hit him hard. Steve sat, hard, on the front stoop, his head in his hands like a grieving child.
"I used to draw them on," Clint's voice said behind him, and Steve didn't jump. Well, maybe he did. A little.
Clint sat next to him on the stoop and rolled up his pant leg to show a small hexagon. "That's my brother, Barney," he said. "It--that one comes and goes. My mom is behind my ear. But you know what I never had?"
Steve shook his head.
"My dad," Clint said simply. "He never loved me. Not even a little. Never had a mark for my dad."
"That--" Steve smiled sadly. "Shit, man. That's about the most depressing thing I've ever heard. Did you know him?"
"Yeah," Clint nodded, turning his back to Steve and bending forward to show him a scar on the back of his head. "I was his favorite punching bag, so, you know. There's that. He loved to hit me."
Steve closed his eyes, tried to imagine the little boy Clint must have been, scared and alone, tossed around by a man who could never mark him in the way that mattered.
"I used to have marks," Steve said. "Mom and Dad. Bucky, his parents. Someone--probably Peggy--for a few weeks. But then there was the serum."
"And now you miss them?" Clint asked, his voice low and kind.
"Yeah, I do. I hate not knowing. Not knowing that anyone cares. I mean, you know. I can see it on Natasha's body, or Sam's, or Peggy's, when she knows who I am? But unless I love someone back, and unless they wanna show me? I never know."
Clint nodded and pulled on the neck of his t-shirt until he revealed a constellation on his shoulder. "Pretty sure this is you," he said, watching Steve take in the rainbow-hued stars. "Seems like it should be."
Steve shook his head and wiped at his eyes furtively. "Thanks," he breathed, but Clint just shrugged. There wasn't much left to say.
Bruce Banner knew more about Steve's condition than anyone else--he'd read the original Stark-Erskine papers, and done his own research for his serum.
"It's not well understood," he said, when Steve asked him why the marks went away. "But Betty did some research into it and there's a gene. A congenital insensitivity to dopamine, I think. Or oxytocin. Something. Stops people from marking. It's like, it's a one-in-a-billion chance."
Steve nodded. "And so there's no cure?"
"None," Bruce shook his head. "But it doesn't mean--"
Steve held up a hand. "Please don't."
Bruce, bless his heart, didn't say anything more.
Sam was a surprise. He was a constant reminder to Steve that there was so much to be done, so far to go, and a constant promise that he didn't have to do it alone.
"Close your eyes," Sam said one night in bed, touching Steve's face.
He did, not questioning why. Sam kissed him gently, once, and told him to turn over and lie on his stomach.
Steve bit back a retort about looking at his ass, still not sure what the game was. But it seemed harmless, so he rolled onto his front and waited while Sam shifted his weight, the too-soft bed giving and moving with him.
"What are you doing?" Steve asked, when Sam stopped moving and straddled his back.
"Showing you," Sam said. "Stay still."
He pressed something cool to Steve's skin, and it took a second for Steve to understand.
"You're drawing," he said, opening his eyes and craning his neck to look back at Sam.
"And you're moving," Sam said, gently shoving his shoulder. "You want scribbles? I can just scribble on you."
Steve laughed and crossed his arms so he could lay his head on them. "Do whatever you like," he said, as Sam set about marking him like he should be marked.
"So," the interviewer leaned in, tilting her head towards Steve. "Cap. Here's what the girls wanna know--"
Steve sighed inwardly. He loved doing interviews, he really did. But any time an interviewer talked about 'the girls', they tended to follow it with questions about his love life. And he just didn't wanna talk about it.
"How come you're not as well marked as Tony Stark?"
Yup. Steve really did not want to have this conversation.
"How do you know I'm not?" he asked, shooting her a sly little wink. "Just cause you can't see something doesn't mean it's not there."
Steve liked kids. He never minded them asking him to pick them up, or if they could hold the shield. He liked how their eyes went wide when they saw him in street clothes, when they figured out who he was under the baseball cap.
The little boy in the park looked up from his coloring to catch Steve's eye for a moment, and his jaw went slack. It was a matter of single moments before he was tugging on his mother's sleeve, and when she glanced at Steve for tacit permission, he nodded yes. Of course.
The boy couldn't be more than 5 or 6, and he brought over his Captain America coloring book, which Steve gladly signed in crayon.
"Mister Captain?" the boy asked, staring at his feet.
"My mom says you--You know I like you. A lot."
Steve's heart broke into little pieces. There is was: the only downside of kids. They always wanted to know if he had a mark for them, if they loved him enough to get to be a part of him.
"I know you do cause you came over," Steve offered, before rolling up his sleeve to show his blank skin. "But the same thing that makes me--big? Makes me Cap? Means I can't have any marks."
The boy looked like he might cry for a second, and Steve swooped in, gathering the kid into his arms.
"It's okay, buddy," he said, patting his back gently. "I know you love me."
The boy still looked uncertain when Steve let him go, but he picked up his coloring book at his mother's urging to "Leave the nice Captain alone now, Kevin," and started to walk away.
Steve's throat felt tight, watching them go.
But he didn't have to watch for long before Kevin dropped his mother's hand and turned, running back to Steve with his coloring book in tow.
"Mister Captain," he said, planting his feet and opening his book.
Kevin very solemnly peeled a sticker out of the book--it was Tony, Steve saw, it was a sticker of Iron Man--and stuck it on Steve's still bare arm.
"I love you," he said.
Steve pulled him into another hug.
Sam took credit for the idea.
Steve told Sam to shut up.
But he still carried a Sharpie in his pocket, just in case. So when the little girl in the bakery or the twins in the museum asked, Steve could tell them that no, sorry, he didn't have any marks.
But then he could hand them the pen and ask them if they'd like to help him fix it.