Steve’s soulmate's words form a sentence. That, in itself, is a bad sign. Steve’s soulmate's words are ‘watch out, behind you!’, and when the nurses hand Sarah her squealing, bloodied baby and she rubs away the gunk and squints hard at the tiny lettering on his forearm, she wants her eyes to be playing tricks on her.
Sarah Rogers, exhausted and hormonal and grieving a husband dead before he could see his only child born, cries so long and hard the nurses have to take the baby away to be bottle fed.
There’s been an ongoing epidemic, for almost a decade now, of boys born with ordinary sentences marking their skin. Not a month goes by, it seems, without another headline in the papers; ‘Baby Boy Marked "Don’t You Die On Me, Private"’, ‘Manhattan Baby With A Sole Soul Word: "Incoming"’, ‘Army Adopts Mother And Child When Child’s Tattoo Is Believed To Hold Key To Military Victory’.
The instinct of lifelong habit is hard to break, but mortar shells and land mines and bullets will do the trick. And it’s little wonder if the most important non-relative in a young bachelor’s life turns out be the man next to him when he lays dying in a trench.
It’s Sarah and Joseph’s generation all over again. Their promised war hadn’t even ended – hadn’t even started – before their children were sentenced to one of their own.
Sarah Rogers, four months a war widow, feels as though it’s already taken her son too.
"Mrs Rogers, your baby needs to eat and be held," a thin, dark-haired nurse tells her. "He won’t make it without you."
"He’ll be fine," Sarah mutters bitterly, curling away from her so the new swell of tears runs across the bridge of her nose and into her hair. "He’s gonna die a soldier like his f-f-father."
She thinks the nurse leaves her to her wailing and sobbing, alone with the unfairness of fate and a nightmarish future they’ll get whether they have done or will do anything to deserve it or not. But then a baby’s cries overpower the sounds of her own misery, and the nurse squats down in Sarah’s line of sight, little Steve held in her arms.
"This is your son, Mrs Rogers," she says. "He’s very brave, and very kind, and he loves you more than anything else in the world. One day he’ll be big and strong and serve his country. He might die doing so, or he might not. But until that day comes, the fates have decided he’s all yours."
Slowly, Sarah sits up and reaches out.
The nurse – Maude, later one of Sarah’s closest friends – was right. Steve grows into a fearless and fiercely loyal little boy. He can brighten Sarah’s day without a word and babble until the sun rises. He is clever and creative and she just knows he will be the most handsome man in Brooklyn when he grows up.
But Steve is also sickly, and prone to sulking and tantrums that threaten to give Sarah grey hairs, and he has trouble making friends.
They work on his temper as often as she can wrangle, and she takes double shifts at the ward so she can buy him the right kind of medicine. It breaks her heart every day to see him suffer, but when push comes to shove, she’s never too worried. Fate has already told them he will overcome everything these childhood maladies can throw at him, and her unwavering faith never fails to lighten his own spirits and speed up his recovery.
Watch out, behind you!
Until the war breaks out, he will be just fine.
"Mom, mom! Mom, this is Bucky. He said my words, mom! And he’s got my greeting!"
"Oh, wow, darling, that’s..." Sarah collapses in a kitchen chair. "Will you show me?"
"My mom has my key," Bucky says, holding up his left arm. His brace is gleaming blank metal padded with leather and lined with dark blue cotton. It’s visibly more expensive than Steve’s scratched and dented second-hand one. Just a little muddy.
Steve’s hands and knees are bleeding and the other boy is sporting a shiner. Sarah looks at the size of it, despite Bucky’s grin, and thinks that the kid that did that either packed a hell of a wallop or must’ve been significantly bigger than the two of them.
Watch out, behind you!
Sarah feels so, so foolish.
"Let’s go visit her, then. Your parents must want to know the good news too."
She grabs Steve’s birth certificate before they leave. All this time, thinking Steve would be a grown man when he met his soulmate. But without Bucky’s greeting on his skin in return, proof of Steve’s government code might be the only way the other family will believe the boys are telling the truth.
(Sarah’s half hoping they’re lying herself.)
The Barneses’ reservations are obvious, but in the end, George shakes their hands, Winifred hugs them, and they welcome Steve and Sarah into the family and insist on paying to get Steve’s brace engraved as a belated birthday present.
Humiliating as ever, but with a child that catches every bug that comes along, Sarah has learned the hard way not to let her pride override her common sense when it comes to money.
"Why do we still have to cover them up?" Steve asks as they twiddle their thumbs in the shield smith’s waiting room. "I already know who my soulmate is, there’s no bad people gonna come and pretend it’s actually them now."
Sarah rubs her ankle along the widow’s brace she wears around her left calf. "If you don’t want people to know what Bucky means to you you can say so right now and save Mrs Barnes a couple of dollars."
Bucky makes a face like a kicked puppy.
"No, I do, I do," Steve says quickly.
Ten minutes later:
"But if people can tell I already found my soulmate from my brace, why do I still have to say my greeting all the time?"
"‘Because it’s just plain rude not to and I raised you better than that, is why,’" Bucky recites.
"Exactly," Winifred laughs. "Imagine if everybody just said ‘hi’ to each other without any preamble. Everybody would have the same words - ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘How can I help you?’ or ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ – and because they hear them all the time, nobody would ever know when it was their soulmate saying them. That’s why we choose a greeting and the state gives everyone a number nobody else has. To make sure people’s first words are always unique."
Bucky looks from his own brogue bold shield 427293 to Steve’s sentence and bites his lip.
"Accidents happen, sweetie," Sarah says gently. "It can’t be helped, and it’s not your fault."
"But you see why there’s no need to make life more difficult for people like you and Steve," Winifred says.
"I didn’t say we should, Steve did."
Steve looks appropriately chastisized.
Steve is seven years old. That winter, he comes down with scarlet fever complicated by sepsis, with rheumatic fever for dessert. His heart is never quite right again afterwards.
Little white lies are part and parcel of being a parent, but Sarah doesn’t think she manages to hide her sudden, agonizing fear.
Steve’s soulmate isn’t a man he meets on the front lines. Steve’s soulmate isn’t even a girl he would logically grow up to have children with.
Steve’s soulmate is a little boy who is strong and healthy now, but who won’t leave Steve’s sick room unless Sarah or his parents drag him out, and takes to jimmying windows and climbing fire escapes and drain pipes even when they do.
Sarah doesn’t like either of their odds.
The next time Sarah runs into a fortune teller, a stout, square-jawed man who overlooks the brace in her boot saying he's too late trying to use her to leave his mark on the past, taps her shoulder in the middle of the street, and tells her with a leer, "It’s January 13, 1924, and today The Worker changed its name to the Daily Worker.", she sees red and punches two of his teeth out.
She only wishes she had never been given odds at all.