The first time a message appears on his body, Bucky’s in the ass end of Siberia, slowly freezing to death in one of the less popular gulags, wishing he’d told Fury to stuff his secret mission straight back up his ass. He’s only here because he speaks fluent Russian, with enough Moscow in his accent to pass as a native-born son. He’s only here because he owes the fellow SHIELD agent being held prisoner a favor, and he figures exfiltrating her will balance their ledgers.
But he won’t be here, pretending to be a guard, for long, if the others catch him with the goddamn Statue of Liberty, perfectly replicated in miniature on his left wrist in blue ballpoint ink. He’s pretty sure at that point, Natasha will have plenty of company in her cell, because he’ll be chucked in on top of her. He pulls his sleeve down, secures the band of his gloves over it, and does his damnedest to keep his wrist from showing skin. It'll go away eventually. He just has to be careful until then.
Except it doesn't go away. It stays stubbornly in his skin, no matter how hard he tries to scrub it off. Bucky resigns himself to keeping his arm covered. He won't be here forever. He can keep one arm covered.
“You gotta be shitting me,” he mutters, two days later when the first precision lines of an incredibly complex mechanical diagram start appearing across his right forearm. It only takes a few minutes of staring in dawning horror to realize that whoever is drawing across the miles on his skin is drawing some kind of high tech sex toy, in graphic enough detail that he immediately yanks his sleeve down, cheeks red and heated. Like the Statue sketch on his other arm, it doesn't go away either, just stays bright and explicit in scarlet ink on his forearm. Bucky resorts to wrapping the whole arm in an elastic bandage, claiming to have sprained it when Gregor later asks him how he got injured.
He’s supposed to be working his way closer to where they house high priority prisoners, which is increasingly more difficult to do as the writing continues to manifest on his body. If he’s being honest with himself, he likes watching the designs appear, because the people — and he’s sure it’s two, one artist and one architect or computer technician — are immensely talented, and even though he doesn’t really go in for all that soulmate-predestination-fatebound love crap touted by shitty romance novels and terrible romcoms, it’s kind of a privilege to watch it appear.
But it is distracting as fuck. And it’s risking his cover, because the writing isn’t fading away. His body is becoming a map of flirtatious images and technical schematics and bored doodles. It’s all he can do to make sure no one else sees it.
His luck is up when he wakes up one morning with writing crawling up his hairline. Delicate filigree scrolls across the curve of his cheek, tracing his eyebrow and framing his eye with hair-thin flowers. It’s gorgeous, the work, breathtaking in its skill, but his stomach plunges like a stone as he stares at it in the mirror.
Without really being conscious of making the decision to write back, he snatches up a pen from his bedside table, angrily shoves the bandage on his arm up and scrawls in furious, big block letters across the sexbot designed in red:
DO YOU FUCKERS NEVER SHOWER?
WASH THIS SHIT OFF.
YOU’RE BLOWING MY COVER.
Which, of course, is when Gregor walks into the drafty guardhouse, freezing in place at the sight of Bucky's shirtless, graffiti'd body. Bucky vaults over the bed, lunging at Gregor in blind panic, as Gregor turns to shout alarms out the door. Bucky takes him down with his usual brutal efficiency, but not before Gregor manages to rouse what seems like the entire camp staff to swarm Bucky's post.
He fights, of course he does, but there are too many, and he’s quickly overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. As they drag him away to shove him in the deepest, darkest hole the gulag has to soften him up for interrogation, his only thoughts are for his two unknown soulmates, and how very badly he wants to kill them.
It’s a couple of days at least before he sees sunlight again, even though it seems like forever because time loses all meaning when he has no way to track it. All he knows is he sits interminably isolated in the dark, dank cell for an eternity. He can feel new ink appearing on his skin at random intervals, but has no way of seeing what they've drawn. The longer the intervals stretch, the phantom glide of a pen grows increasingly faster and sharper, like his soulmates are getting concerned or anxious. Even if Bucky was inclined to answer back, he lost his only pen in the fracas with Gregor, and has no way of responding. He tries to amuse himself by figuring out what his soulmates are saying, because it feels more like writing than it does sketching or diagramming, but gives up when he realizes that there's no way in hell anyone would write badass dorito good at rescue, unless they were drunk or insane.
He resigns himself to waiting for SHIELD to realize he's missed his scheduled check-in, for them to mount a rescue. Unless they've written him off entirely, in which case, he's pretty sure he's going to be here for a long, long time. Not long after he decides to give up all hope for the billionth time, however, which is right around the time he's thinking about licking the damp wall because he's desperate for water, everything goes to hell overhead.
He hears a lot of excited shouting and explosions far above him, indecipherable Russian punctuated by high-pitched screams. Rapid-fire from machine guns and defense turrets, accompanied by a strange booming whine. The ground shakes, dust sifting down from the stone roof overhead, as something blows up in what he's pretty sure is a spectacular way. This might be rescue, or this might be an attack by any of the other shitbag organizations out there. Until he knows for sure, Bucky's just going to hunker down on the cot and wait to see if anyone comes for him.
He just hopes they show up before he actually does give into his thirst and starts licking the walls.
It isn't long before his door is wrenched open, wrenched off the wall entirely, and tossed aside. Blue light shines in, a dark massive shadow behind it that moves with an underscore of soft, mechanical whirring. It's probably very dim light, but his eyes have been in total darkness for ages, and he has to hold up a hand to shield his squinting eyes from the glare. The light slides away, shining into a corner, and past the spots in his eyes, he sees honest-to-god Iron Man standing in the doorway of his cell.
The faceplate snaps up, sliding away to reveal Tony Stark, world’s most eligible billionaire, peering hopefully into the gloom. His face streaked with sweat and blood from a cut over his forehead. “Is there a Barnes, Agent J in here that might need a ride home?”
“About fuckin’ time,” Bucky croaks, thankful he can talk at all because his throat is bone dry. “What, did they have to send an engraved goddamn invitation for you to show up?”
Bucky thinks he sees relief flood through Stark’s eyes, which is a little confusing. Bucky's never met the man. Stark has no reason to be relieved. Before he can question it, the faceplate of the armor snaps down, eye slits flaring to life. "Don't get your underroos in a twist, prissy-ass," Iron Man says, his voice resonant with mechanical buzzing. "Cap, I found him. Trapdoor in the floor, North Sector B-three. He seems to be okay. Mouthy little shit, though."
“Copy, Shellhead,” Bucky hears a faint, tinny voice reply, and if he wasn’t so tired and sore and hungry, he might be just a little impressed that not only is Iron Man here for him, but so apparently is Captain America. “I survived you," Cap continues. "I'll survive him. Romanoff is free and SHIELD is mopping up the rest of the guards. I'm on my way to you.”
"Roger, Rogers." Turning back to Bucky, Iron Man holds out an arm. The gesture is oddly deferential. For some reason, it makes Bucky's skin crawl with the feeling of new ink appearing. "Come on, Agent Barnes. Time to get you out of here."
He hauls himself to his feet, ignoring Iron Man's outstretched gauntlet, and examines his arms. In the blue light cast by the whatever-they-are in the center of the armor's palms, Bucky can see his skin is covered in writing. The Statue of Liberty and the sex-machine are gone, replaced by ever-increasing messages in neat letters and sprawling scrawls, ranging from who the fuck is this? to please answer, we're starting to get worried in a different hand, to hang on, we're coming across the back of his hand. Bucky's eyebrow goes up at the block printing just under that, badass dorito good at rescue. Huh. Guess he has a drunk and/or insane soulmate after all.
"Barnes?" Iron Man says, after a few minutes of Bucky not doing anything but examining the new ink. Bucky jerks his head up, meets the inhuman gaze of the armor. "We need to get moving." A beat, then, "Unless you'd rather stay in the fine accommodations provided to you by Chez Gulag, that is."
That's enough to get his ass moving. Bucky pauses only long enough to grab the thin blanket from the cot and haul it over his shoulders, clutching it just under his chin. Siberia is fucking cold and the blanket isn't adequate protection at all, but it's better than nothing. He moves slowly, letting his eyes adjust to the growing brightness as he makes his way along the hallway, the whir-clank of Iron Man moving behind him.
Bucky looks again at the writing on the back of his left hand: hang on, we're coming. He remembers feeling that writing crawl into his skin not long before the explosions started happening. “Guess I’m attached to someone special,” he says absently, dropping his hand to his side again, “if SHIELD broke out the big guns to haul my ass out.”
Iron Man pauses mid-step, then the whirring and clanking resumes. “Yeah,” he says, and his voice sounds strange. Consternated, maybe a little guilty. “About that…”
“Don’t actually care,” Bucky says tiredly. “I just want out of of this fuckin’ hole. And then I want a cheeseburger. And then I wanna find the two douchebags who nearly got me killed and make a couple of artistic sketches of my own. A giant penis in Sharpie on their foreheads sounds like a good start.”
Iron Man chokes and starts coughing, sounding halfway between horrified and highly amused, a sound made completely bizarre by the mechanized buzz of whatever tech he uses to project his voice beyond the suit. “Yeah,” he wheezes, and Bucky has to wonder if he's coughing or cackling. “Like I said. About that…”
There's a crash at the end of the hallway, and light floods suddenly into the dim tunnel. Bucky yells something vile and physically impossible as the light stabs into his eyes, throws up an arm across his face, and stumbles backwards into Iron Man hard enough to rock the shiny armor on its feet. Iron Man's arm comes up, practically by instinct, and wraps around Bucky's waist. Bucky suddenly finds himself shielded by red and gold, as Iron Man twists away, his free hand palm up and pointed down the hall.
If this were a blockbuster action flick, this is the part where the orchestra would swell with heroic strains, something upbeat and patriotic, as Captain America crashes through the flimsy boards overhead, landing in a crouch with his shield at the ready. He straightens up, and Iron Man drops his arm. "Hi honeybunch," Iron Man says chirpily. "Having fun smiting the bad guys?"
Captain America's uniform is torn in a couple of places, stained with soot and dirt and definitely not the bright stars-and-stripes, but Bucky is still goddamn impressed. He remembers when SHIELD found him in ice and thawed him out, how goddamn excited he'd been. Never thought he'd meet the Star-Spangled Man, though. He's almost mortified he's meeting him like this, and resolves anew to promptly murder his soulmates for putting him in this position.
"It's less fun when they surrender," Captain America replies, swinging his shield around his head and clipping it onto his back. He hauls his cowl back and scrubs his face briskly with both hands. Under the dirt and blood, he looks tired, and he heaves a sigh as he looks back up. "Coulda used a few more faces to hit," he says, then comes down the hall towards them. "This him?"
"No," Iron Man says snarkily, the faceplate sliding back. "This is some other mouthy little shit I pulled out of a Siberian mudhole. I actually left Barnes behind because I like this one better. Really, Steve. Did you miss the whole point of me making you listen to Bill Engvall?"
Bucky's abruptly reminded that this is really happening when Captain America just rolls his eyes, reaches past the armor, and offers his hand to Bucky. "Hi, soldier," he says. "I'm Steve. This is Tony. So very sorry we had to meet under these circumstances."
"Not as sorry as the fuckers who put me here are gonna be," Bucky says with feeling, angry, skin-vandalizing feeling, and shakes Captain America's hand. Belatedly remembers he's technically addressing an officer and adds, "Sir. I'm Barnes. Bucky Barnes."
Captain America looks up at Iron Man, both eyebrows raised. Iron Man grins back at him. "He wants to draw dicks on their faces," he says, smug and pleased. "In permanent marker."
Captain America's eyes close and he sighs very faintly. "I survived you," he mutters. "I can survive him too."
"Who are you trying to convince, babe? Me? Or yourself?"
For a reason unfathomable to him, Bucky does not get bundled onto the SHIELD quinjet with Natasha who, he's pleased to see, is bloody and bruised but looks otherwise okay. Instead, he finds himself on a much smaller, much quieter quinjet, with Iron Man and Captain America, who have both insisted he call them Tony and Steve. Still in the armor, Tony hands him a bottle of water and a protein bar, while Steve — Captain America! — sits beside him and cleans out the myriad scrapes and cuts he accumulated in the cell.
Bucky tears into the simple fare like it's a ten-course meal, and barely has to look up before Tony is holding out more to him. He devours three bars and is on his third bottle of water when the edge of the hunger and thirst dies off, and Steve finishes up with the last few deep scrapes. "Okay," Bucky says, leaning back and feeling pleasantly full for the first time in weeks — even before the cell, food had never been filling in the guard's mess. "Give me the bad news. Which influential pricks am I killing? I mean, they gotta be influential, right, in order to shake Iron Man and Captain America out of ..."
The look on their faces is what tips him off. He falters, and trails off, staring at them as an abyss yawns open in his stomach. Tony grins merrily at him, and there's a hiss of air and the slide of metal on metal as the suit breaks apart to let him out. Under the armor, he's just got a worn Black Sabbath tee and a pair of jeans on, barefoot and exhausted. Both bare forearms are covered with writing. Tony tucks his thumbs into his front pockets, practically preening under Bucky's disbelieving look. DO YOU FUCKERS NEVER SHOWER? is visible, clear as day, in exactly the same place Bucky still has it.
"In our defense, we didn't know about you," Steve says, shucking his gloves with enough force to turn Bucky's attention to him. His face is bright red, jaw tight, eyebrows furrowed. On the back of his now-bare left hand, Bucky can see hang on, we're coming in smeared blue ink, and it's a punch in the gut to know it's the original writing. "We would never have risked you like that if we'd known."
"Oh," Bucky says weakly, and can't stop staring, eyes flicking between Steve's hands and Tony's. "Shit. What? Fuck, how? I don't..."
"Understand?" Tony says with a grin that can only be described as shit-eating. "Neither do we, honestly. One of life's great mysteries, this soulmate bullshit."
"Tony." It's impressive how unimpressed Steve can sound, how much meaning he can load into two syllables. What's more impressive is that it actually shuts Tony up, which is something Bucky's heard said around the Helicarrier doesn't happen often. Or at all. Christ on a cracker. "You got choices here, soldier," Steve says, turning back to Bucky. "One way or the other, the three of us have a bond. How that happened, why that happened..." He shakes his head. "Not really important right now. What is important is that it exists. It's here. It isn't going anywhere. So what do we do about it?"
"I vote for immediate debauchery," Tony pipes up. "But that's my default answer for everything, so make of that what you will."
"Tony," Steve says again, but much more gently.
This is bizarre enough to shake Bucky out of it, let him get his feet under him again, at least a little. So he had soulmates. Most people did, whether they ever found them or not. He's not special in that regard. But his soulmates are two of the most visible people on the planet, apparently, and that's going to take some time to come to grips with. "Can I have some time to think?"
"Of course," Tony says hurriedly, before Steve can do more than open his mouth. "Take all the time you need. Are we dropping you at the Helicarrier? Or did you need to go somewhere else? Anywhere, really. The world is your oyster."
Bucky tries not to feel hurt at the clear relief in the speed Tony takes in spinning around to the pilot's seat, how eager he seems to get away from Bucky. It doesn't make sense. None of this makes sense, really, but the clear whiplashing between tentative hope and running away is especially confusing. "What's his problem?" he growls, glaring at Tony's back before it disappears into the front.
"Tony doesn't do feelings well," Steve says frankly, scrubbing his hands through his hair and giving Bucky a tight smile. "He's terrified of rejection, so he acts like he doesn't care. He cares a lot more than he likes to admit. Took me forever to figure that out," he mutters, almost as an afterthought.
It's weird, but Bucky kinda gets that. Self-defense is something he understands well, not showing anyone weakness or vulnerability. He nods, and drops his eyes to the empty plastic water bottle in his hands. Across the mound of his off-hand thumb, in what he suspects is Tony's writing, so faint he nearly didn't see it at all, are the words please don't die i can't take it. They're unsteadily written, and lines cut through the letters, as if Tony wrote drunk and edited sober, tried to scratch it out once he'd written it. Bucky swallows hard against the lump suddenly in his throat, and closes his hand around the words.
Maybe he doesn't need that much time to think after all. The words are supposed to be a way for soulmates to get to know each other before they meet, or at least that's what all the philosophers say. Time to grow comfortable with each other before face-to-face conversation. But now, looking at his arms, barely an inch of unmarked skin, completely covered in their concern, their reassurances, their fears, does he really need to take more time to do something so fucking stupid as write hi I'm Bucky and I like long walks on the beach in seventy different ways?
"Got a pen?" he asks suddenly, glancing up at Steve.
Steve's got this soft look in his eyes, and he's obviously been watching Bucky stare at his marks for awhile now. "Yeah," he says, and shifts to pull a fine-tip pen out of a pouch on his belt. "Here."
"Thanks." Bucky pops the cap with his teeth and turns his hand over, running a fingertip over the words there. Right underneath Tony's drunken plea, he writes:
get me a cheeseburger
and a bed that isn't mud
and i won't
He recaps the pen and holds it out to Steve, embarrassed by the naked pride and happiness all but radiating at him out of Steve's face. Tony makes an indecipherable noise from the cockpit, and loudly calls that he'll get Bucky the best cheeseburger in the continental US if that's what he wants.
Steve glances in the direction of the cockpit, smiles with fondness, then turns back to Bucky. "Keep the pen," he says. "It's a Sharpie."