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Multitude of One

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The words came in as Steve dragged himself home from the game, sharp enough to make him gasp and clutch his left wrist. It was one of those sweltering July evenings where the cover of dusk did little to alleviate the humidity and the heat left him groggy and slow, but the unexpected pain cleared the fog from his mind. He dealt with pain often enough that he was almost used to it, but this was different, unfamiliar and needlepoint precise as it lanced straight through him down to his marrow.

Bucky turned, zeroing in on the arm he cradled against his chest. “I knew you hit that ball wrong,” he said. His lips twisted into a displeased pucker. 

“I didn’t. I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” Steve replied. He moved his arm away from himself gingerly, careful not to jar it in any way, before freezing. Black ink peeked out from under his thumb, stark against his fair skin.

His words had come in.

He gripped his wrist tighter, hard enough that the tips of his nails faded into bleached crescents. All he could do was stay rooted to the spot, his jackrabbiting heart forcing his breaths to come in labored and ragged.

You want this. You’ve always wanted this, he thought, but he couldn’t peel his fingers off of his wrist even so.

Only good can come out of it, he reminded himself fiercely, and only then did he swallow his dread and shift his thumb up to the heel of his palm.

His stomach flipped as he took in his soulmate’s untidy scrawl. It was dark and impossible to hide—permanent—and it was more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. All the doubt he had had disappeared in a flash, leaving him defenseless against a wave of awe and joy that pulled him under so quickly, he was drowning before he could think of bracing himself.

“My words,” he managed to choke out. A lump formed in his throat, trapping his words inside him, growing painful the longer he waited for it to disappear. He lowered his arm to explain instead, trying his best not to tremble.

Bucky leaned forward, winter blue eyes wide with wonder. He opened his mouth, shut it, and then opened it again. Steve would have teased him if he hadn’t felt just as stunned.

“What did it feel like?” Bucky finally asked. His eyes were glued to Steve’s wrist as though he couldn’t tear his gaze away.

“Like lightning.”

The pain had been razor-sharp, but bright like electricity coursing through him, changing every atom of his being.

“Sounds painful,” Bucky said, wincing, and Steve wanted to blurt out that no, it hadn’t been when it wasn't true. It had been painful. But he didn’t care that it had been, and he didn’t know how to explain that, his emotions crowding the inside of his ribcage and piling up at the back of his throat, too big to squeeze into words. He settled for just shaking his head.

All that mattered, he wanted to say, was that he had a soulmate. They were out there somewhere waiting for him, words that he would one day say to them tattooed on their skin. That was worth the pain, any pain, ten times over. He had finally gotten his words—and before anyone else did too.

He thought of everyone who had taunted or pitied him, assuming he would die before he got them, and it must have shown on his face, the way he wanted to burst into laughter, punch drunk on love, because Bucky knocked shoulders with him, grinning brightly enough that it almost felt like noon again.

“You always gotta prove everyone wrong, huh?” he asked.

“My goal in life,” Steve said, and Bucky cheerfully quipped back a reply as they made their way home again although Steve didn’t hear him, his mind once more on his words.

So was I, he read under the street lights blinking on in the velvet evening. He ran his thumb reverently over his wrist, thinking about how, out of the hundreds of millions of people in the world, the two of them were somehow chosen to be destined for each other. He felt small and significant at once, set apart from the rest of the world even with rows of cramped apartment buildings sandwiching him on both sides and people milling about on the street. He was separate and singular—alone—but he had never felt less lonely than he did in that moment.

So was I, he read again. He repeated the words over and over in his head like a mantra, engulfed in happiness of an intensity he had never felt before.

So was I, so was I, so was I.

 

By the time war broke out, Steve had stopped thinking about his words as often as he had used to. He had had them for more than a decade now, and the novelty had worn off once he realized he couldn’t spend his entire life constantly jumping whenever someone said his words or wondering if they would whenever he talked to them. His words weren’t that common, but they weren’t unique either, not like Bucky’s were, and he had heard enough variations of the line on his wrist over the years that he had forced himself to ignore it, only thinking about it occasionally.

The last time he had was at the Expo. He had watched Bucky salute him and leave with their dates and thought that that was it, that he was on his own for real now, at least until he managed to make his way into the army. He had rubbed at the band around his wrist then, comforted by its familiar weight and smooth texture. Even without taking it off, he had been able to picture his soulmate’s handwriting in his mind, the words that they would say to him in the future as clear as if they had been photographed.

“So was I,” he had almost been able to hear them whisper and as he had stood there, staying as still as possible, he had almost felt them next to him too, a warm, invisible presence by his side, constant and unwavering like nothing else could ever hope to be.

He hadn’t thought about his soulmate since then, too busy trying to survive basic to think of anything else. But it was the night before he would receive the serum, and in the peace and quiet of the empty room with everyone still at dinner, he found himself dwelling on his words again. He guessed that it made sense. He wasn’t sure what would happen tomorrow. Wasn’t sure if he would be a different man. Wasn’t sure if he would live to see the end of the day.

Steve wondered if the serum would do anything to his mark.

He took off his band and held his wrist, pressing the words there with his thumb before rubbing them, an old habit that never failed to comfort him. Sometimes he liked to think that his soulmate could feel him when he did that or that maybe they were doing the same thing at that very moment. The mark was an invisible line stretching across an unknown distance, two tin cans attached to a string except that they couldn’t hear each other.

The serum was supposed to change every part of him.

He wondered if his lines would become something different or even disappear entirely before he remembered what Dr. Erskine had said to him half an hour ago.

“The serum amplifies everything inside,” he had explained, “So good becomes great; bad becomes worse.”

And if that were true, if nothing went wrong, then Steve knew without a doubt that his mark would stay unchanged because it was better than good. Of all the parts that made him who he was, his soulmate’s words were the best, the one truly perfect thing.

There was nothing to change or fix.

Constant and unwavering, he thought again, and as he pressed a kiss to the paper-thin skin on the inside of his wrist, wishing that his soulmate could feel that somehow, he hoped that they knew how much he loved them, how he would do anything to keep them safe.

 

In all the chaos that ensued after the Hydra spy had murdered Dr. Erskine and fled with him and Peggy hot on his tail, Steve had forgotten about his band. It laid there on the table, unharmed in all the wreckage and tinier than he remembered it to be. He scooped it up and cradled it in his palm.

It was too small to fit around his wrist anymore.

“I’ll put in an order for a new one,” Peggy said as she stood by his side, the calm eye of the storm of activity around him. “Is there anything you’d prefer?” Her eyes flicked down to his wrist and back up again as though she couldn’t help it, but her face betrayed no emotion.

Steve curled his fingers over the simple, gunmetal gray band and clasped it tightly, remembering the day that his mother had given it to him. She had stopped wearing it long ago, she and his father exchanging their words not long after they had met each other, but she had kept both bands in her jewelry box to give to Steve when the time came.

His wrist had been too small for his father’s until now. He supposed he could tell Peggy that he already had a band he could use and keep his mother’s for his soulmate, but found himself unwilling to part with one of the last keepsakes he had of his mother. She had seen him through all his hardships; she would carry him through the war.

“I don’t need anything special, just this. Could you have them use it?” He unfurled his fingers and gave the band to Peggy. It looked less small in her hand than it did in his, but still looked more suitable for a child than for a woman. He didn’t remember his mother’s wrist being so tiny. “It was my mother’s,” he added.

Peggy’s face softened, inquiry dissolving into an understanding that he suspected had a story behind it.

“Yes. I’ll make sure of it,” she said, and she gently closed her fingers over his band like she meant to protect it.

 

The thing about soulmates was that there wasn’t any guarantee that you would meet them. Steve had known that since he was young, had had it drilled into him by his doctor and all the kids at school and in the neighborhood. He had always known that it was possible that he would die before he met his soulmate. All that had changed from then to now were the circumstances; instead of illness, it was the war that could do him in before he did.

Statistically, it was highly likely that that would happen—but his gut told him otherwise, told him that he would get to meet his soulmate one day, and he had always trusted his instinct.

Besides, he thought, looking at Peggy, sloe-eyed and breathtaking in a scarlet dress, her lips curved into a smile like a promise, maybe he had already found the right partner.

 

Tests with Howard - lab A, 1400. Don’t be late.

He stared at Peggy’s note, trying to analyze the shape of every letter with such close attention that Dum Dum elbowed his side as he walked past the table, a teasing smirk lifting his bushy mustache.

“What’s that you got there, Cap? A love letter from Carter?”

“She just wants me to meet her in an hour.”

Dum Dum whistled and clapped a hand on his shoulder, and Steve couldn’t help but laugh even as Dum Dum waved away all mentions of Howard and lab tests.

Once he had walked away, Steve glanced at the note again even though he knew that there wasn’t any point; the handwriting wasn’t the same. Peggy’s letters were too neat and orderly that one glance would have sufficed in telling him as much, but he couldn’t help but hold out hope that maybe it was still Peggy somehow. That maybe it was Peggy when she was in a hurry or when she was emotional even though he couldn’t see her ever writing like this, all sharp, brisk, and angular.

He couldn’t be sure either way, he told himself, not when he had so little to go on. Just six letters in total—nothing like Bucky’s mark, eight words in two rows across his wrist, a dark band nearly an inch thick.

And Peggy looked at him sometimes when she thought he wasn't looking too, understood him in a way no one, not even Bucky, did, and that had to count for something. Or at least he hoped it did.

 

Before he got his words, he would spend hours looking at his wrist, imagining the letters appearing one by one like his soulmate was writing across his skin, talking to him from far away. He would try to guess what they would say that was so important that they would mark him forever.

It was a one-sided affair, a conversation that wouldn’t happen for years, but it kept him occupied, a little game to pass the time when he was bored, sad, or scared. He kept it going even when he got his mark except now that he had his real words, the ones that belonged to him and nobody else, he could imagine talking with them more vividly.

His soulmate would be his confidant, his home. He would tell them things that he couldn’t tell anyone else, place all his deepest hopes and fears in the safest hands he knew.

“I was waiting for you,” he would say.

Or “I was alone a lot growing up.”

“I was scared I’d die before I got to know you.”

“I was always in love with you. Even before we met.”

And they would reply, “So was I.”

Sometimes, in moments like the one now, when things got too hard and he couldn’t see the future past the next step, it was enough just to repeat his soulmate’s words in his head like a prayer. It helped him march forward even when he saw things he could have never imagined in his worst nightmares, even when he trudged through battlefields bogged down with mud and too many bodies and towns silent and hollow with devastation.

It helped him on the days that he didn’t think that he would live to see the war end.

He knew, logically, that his words could have a different meaning from the one he had ascribed to them and that some people didn’t put as much weight behind them as he did.

“The world’s a vast place, Captain. You’re more likely than not not to find them,” Monty had explained, unruffled by the indignant sounds of disapproval the Commandos had erupted into the minute he admitted his indifference. “And even if you do, they might not be who you wanted them to be,” he had added, too lightly this time to be speaking from anything but experience.

But Steve was convinced that that wouldn’t be him. He loved his soulmate too much. He would be happy with whoever they were and whatever his words meant because having a mark meant that he was loved, that he was enough, and that was all that mattered in the end.

“So was I,” his soulmate would tell him one day, and what it meant was that they were always with him and always would be, permanent like nothing else in his life was.

He had to believe that. It was all that kept him going some days.

It was all that kept him together now that he lost Bucky.

 

The last thought he had in the hazy interim before unconsciousness was that he had gotten it wrong in the end. He never got to meet his soulmate.

But that was all right.

His soulmate wouldn’t have to know what it would be like to lose him.

 

“Was I yours?” he wanted to ask, but he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know. Peggy always had a band on every time he visited, her wrist never bare in all the time he had known her. Steve didn’t know whether that was because she wanted to keep her mark private as some people did even after finding their soulmate or because she wanted to keep it from him.

He guessed it didn’t matter. They both knew she wasn’t his from the beginning even if they hoped or tried to pretend otherwise.

Steve still didn’t know whether he should be glad about that or not.

Peggy’s hand was warm where it was curled around his wrist. She was the only person he had ever allowed to get close to his soulmate’s words like that and the only one who had seen them aside from his mother, Bucky, Dr. Erskine, and Howard, all of whom were long gone.

She was the only person left who understood.

“You still have your band,” she remarked. She rubbed the tiny S.R. she had had decorously engraved on it.

S for Steve, S for Sarah. His mother was still with him, made eternal through the vibranium that had kept his band from rusting during all those years in the ice.

His heart squeezed painfully as he wondered where his father’s was. It probably had been melted down or taken and handed down in another family. Or maybe it was on display in a museum or private collection somewhere like most of his belongings were nowadays. Nothing that used to be his was his to have anymore, it seemed.

He looked down at the band.

In this new world that he woke up to, things had changed. It wasn’t like how it used to be, with people hiding their marks until they found their soulmates. The only people who tended to hide them back then were those who hadn’t found their soulmates yet or those whose words were too private or too risky to reveal. But most people proudly showed their words to the world now, and there were more bare wrists than not these days.

He knew what Peggy was asking. It was the same question Natasha asked under all her suggestions.

“I guess I’m used to it,” he replied, but both of them knew what the other was saying between the lines. A lifetime later in a world much different from the one they had last been in together, they still understood each other so well.

“I don’t want you to be alone,” Peggy said softly, and Steve didn’t know what to say to that.

He knew that in all likelihood, his soulmate had passed away years ago and that even if they hadn't, he had left them behind, been absent all the years that they had needed him. He knew that some people moved on after their soulmates died, that some settled for others when they figured that they would most likely never find their soulmates.

But he didn’t think that he could do that. He didn’t want to do that. He only ever wanted one person, and that would never change.

“I’ll be fine,” he settled on saying because it was true even if it was a lie. He was no stranger to loss; he would keep marching on like he always did even as he lost more and more of himself moving forward.

Peggy smiled, sad in a way that he never wanted her to be. She looked at him like that a lot now.

“You always say that, and I can’t help but worry anyway,” she said, and all he could bring himself to do at that was smile back and turn his hand to hold hers.

I’ll be fine, he wanted to say again, but he didn’t think either of them would believe it.

 

Altogether it happened in less than a second, but time seemed to stretch indefinitely even as it sped by too quickly, slipping out of his grasp even as he desperately wanted it back. Between the time that he had tossed Tony’s faceplate to the side and had swung down his shield, Tony’s words from earlier came to mind, an unbidden whisper strong enough to have brought him to his knees had he not been on them already.

So was I, Tony had said before everything erupted into chaos, before all Steve could think of was to stop him, and Steve knew with a terrible conviction, without knowing exactly how, that they were his words, that this time was different from all the other times he had heard them.

By then it was too late, his shield slicing down too fast to stop. It cleaved the arc reactor in half before he could think of what to do, snuffing out the light that had always glowed so bright and steadfast in all their battles. He could feel how deeply it gouged the chest plate and realized, even with several inches of armor separating them, that Tony’s ribs had to be fractured, if not broken.

He knew that until the day he died that he would never forget what it felt like ramming his shield through Tony’s chest. He would always remember the way the arc reactor crunched under his shield, cracking open in a way that it was never meant to, the way he had known that he would have shattered through bone with frightening ease had he gone any further.

It would have been so easy even if he would have never done it—would have never wanted to do it—and Tony had known that. Steve had expected rage when he ripped off Tony’s faceplate, but fear had greeted him instead, Tony’s eyes wild and wide with it as he had brought his hands up to his face to protect himself.

All fight deserted him as he held Tony’s gaze, adrenaline quickly replaced with bone-deep grief and exhaustion. He curled over his shield, over Tony helpless and immobile under him, and shut his eyes tightly, his breaths coming in as rough and uneven as they had when he had gotten his words all those years ago.

Even with his eyes closed, he could still see the fear and betrayal bleeding across Tony’s face like an open wound, and he didn’t have to look at him to know that they were still there as he slid off of him, fatigued and hurt in more ways than one, as he stood up and wrenched his shield out of his chest, as he walked away from him without looking back once.

Tony had thought that he would kill him—and maybe in a way he had.

 

Later, as the Quinjet coasted through the empty sky, high above the desolate landscape of Siberia and farther and farther away from Tony, Steve thought of the slim metal band Tony still had had on when he had told Steve that he and Pepper were no longer together, the one that he had always worn and never once taken off for as long as Steve had known him.

He wondered what the words underneath it were, if they were anything that he had said before, anything he had said in the past few days. He wondered if they were happier than his, his words that he had gotten so horribly wrong, that he couldn't bear to look at anymore. He wondered if and when Tony knew whom his words belonged to. If he even had Steve’s words on his skin.

He didn’t know how he would feel if he didn’t.

Steve kept himself from tearing off his glove, from touching his wrist at all even though he wanted to more than anything, just like he always did when he needed something to hold onto. They weren’t his to have anymore, at least not in that way. He clenched his fists at his sides, staring out the window and trying hard to stay as still as possible even if the tension that had seeped into every inch of his body was so strong that he felt as though he would break into pieces any minute, a boulder shattered by ice.

“That was him, wasn’t it?” Bucky asked, and Steve didn’t have to ask him how he knew. He had been there when his words came in after all, and whatever Bucky said about not being the same person anymore, he knew Steve, would always know him no matter how much things changed.

He looked at Bucky, who held his gaze steadily, cautiously, and remembered the day his words had appeared. He remembered the way he had been so excited to show them to his mother, the way he had asked her what she thought they meant and she had told him, happier than he had ever seen her be, that someone loved him very much.

He looked at Bucky and remembered the conversation they had on the way to the place where he would gain and lose everything at once, the way he had questioned whether he deserved to be saved, calmly and without an ounce of self-pity, like it was only logical that he didn’t.

“It was worth it,” Steve said, and he had to believe that, had to believe enough for the both of them because Bucky deserved to be safe and he had nothing else.

Not anymore.