He was falling.
The dreams always started with Bucky falling, plummeting past rocks and snow while Steve get further and further away, still desperately trying to reach for him.
On the good nights, Bucky woke up before he hit the bottom, sweat standing out on his forehead as he sucked in breaths and clenched his fists so tightly that even the metal one ached.
On the bad nights, Hydra came for him and dragged him through the snow, leaving a bloody trail and his arm behind, then Zola had him on his table and started slicing and dicing until Bucky was screaming so loudly that someone in one of the other hotel rooms banged on the wall until he woke up.
“Fuck,” he muttered to himself, sitting up and scrubbing at his face. The banging stopped after a couple of moments and he glanced out the window to see that the sky was already tinged with the dawn, so it seemed like he’d actually managed most of a night’s sleep. That made a change.
He’d just about reached the point of it being normal for him to sleep through the night without any nightmares when he’d been in Wakanda. Before Thanos had arrived and Bucky had ended up back in a fight. Between that battle, being disintegrated for five years, coming back and immediately being plunged into another battle, and then having Steve leave the way he had, Bucky had lost most of that progress.
T’Challa and Shuri had offered to take him back to his little hut after Tony’s funeral, but it had felt too much like running away and sticking his head in the sand. Sam had wanted him to go to the Avengers base in New York with him and take on yet more fights. He still did, if the occasional text Bucky got from him was anything to go by, but Bucky needed to work out just who he was without Hydra or Steve at his back before he decided what he was going to do next.
Bucky just couldn’t face becoming an Avenger right now. It seemed like he’d spent most of his life just falling into things without ever getting to choose for himself - getting drafted to the Army, getting taken by Hydra, going to Wakanda because there was nowhere else safe. He wanted to wander about a bit and let himself actually think about what he wanted before making a decision.
So he’d started on this trip to anywhere he could half-remember being before Hydra, to try and pin his memories down. It felt like he was looking for something, but he didn’t have any clue what. He was definitely missing something, something that might have served to make everything make sense, but he had a bad feeling he’d left it in 1944.
It sure didn’t seem to be in London. He’d been there a few days now, mostly just wandering about, trying to match up the buildings and streets and stressed-looking commuters with his old memories of black outs and bombed out buildings, of men in uniform everywhere and civilians who’d looked like they’d forgotten how to smile.
He’d been here a few times on leave with the Commandos and Steve, often enough for them to have had a regular dancehall they went to, although when Bucky had headed there he’d found a modern monstrosity of glass and steel instead.
That morning, he found his way to the Thames and walked along for a bit, thinking that at least most of the familiar silhouettes were still in place, even if they all looked cleaner than he remembered. These days, everything looked cleaner.
Around lunchtime, he found himself near enough to the pub where the Commandos tended to congregate on leave to head over there. The name had changed and they’d redone the inside so that the place where their old table had been was now a pool table, but it still had the same cosy, old-fashioned atmosphere. He got a beer, then ordered himself a burger to have with it, and found a booth to sit in.
This was getting him nowhere. Whatever he was looking for, he wasn’t going to find it in old memories and places that had changed to be almost unrecognisable. He couldn’t live in the past.
He ate the burger and drank the beer and tried to come up with a different plan, but just like every other time he’d tried to do that, he couldn’t think of anything else to do. Wandering around his old memories wasn’t getting him anywhere, but at least it wasn’t hurting anyone.
God, he was so done with hurting people.
He headed to the bathroom after he’d eaten, pushing through a door at the back of the pub and stopping dead when he found himself confronted with a photo of the Commandos.
There they all were, seated around their old table and holding up glasses as if making a toast. Dum Dum’s mouth was wide open as if he’d been talking, Dernier and Gabe were laughing at whatever he had been saying and Falsworth was raising an eyebrow as if he were above all those kinds of shenanigans. Bucky’s heart clenched for a moment as he tried to remember the photo being taken, but nothing came to mind.
He was sitting next to Falsworth in it, legs spread and looking relaxed in a way Bucky couldn’t ever remember being. He had his glass held up, but his face was turned away, as if he’d got distracted at the last moment. He was looking up at Steve, who was standing next to him with the same awkward pose he always had in photos when he wasn’t wearing the Captain America persona.
Fuck, that asshole. Why the hell had he thought it would be okay to just skip out on Bucky and leave him alone?
Bucky took a deep breath and turned his eyes to the newspaper article that was framed next to the photo.
Commandos Pub Holds Fundraiser For Memorial
It was a few years old, but it looked like the pub had been raising money for a memorial to the Commandos to be built. Bucky wasn’t sure how he felt about that, and when he took a step further down the corridor and found a photo of the memorial itself, he was even less sure.
It was a stone pillar topped with the angel wing symbol that they’d used as a badge. The pillar was carved with their names, original regiments and decorations. Bucky was mildly amused to see that Falsworth’s name was at the top. Most of the times he’d seen their names all listed, in museums, books and the big memorial at Arlington, Bucky’s name came first after Steve’s, either because he’d been the sergeant or because he’d been the first to die, as far as anyone knew.
Bucky figured the Brits just wanted to honour their own and Falsworth had been a good man. He deserved to be top billing in his own country. Maybe there was a memorial in France with Dernier’s name at the top.
He took a deep breath and stepped away from the photo, then headed for the bathroom. Finding yet another memorial with his name on it wasn’t exactly helping him work out how to fit into the modern world.
Falsworth laughed. “Because then you couldn’t come along, moron.”
Bucky glanced back at his own shoulders and saw that his wings were black and shrivelled into gnarled lumps. “Oh,” he said, and then Steve was shouting from up front, signalling the start of the attack, and they were all running, guns cradled in their hands.
Bucky ran down the length of the train, looking for Zola so he could shoot him and end this whole thing, get back home to Brooklyn. A soldier came out of nowhere and blasted a hole in the side of the carriage and Bucky was falling, his useless, dried out wings not able to keep him up.
Steve was there, kneeling at the edge of the carriage and shouting his name, but there was no way Bucky would reach his hand. The scene flickered and for a moment it was another tall blond there instead, shouting another name, and then Bucky woke up with a start, just before he hit the ground.
Fuck, he hadn’t dreamt about the fall this much before. It had mainly been the actual torture, why was his subconscious bringing this shit up now?
He sat up and rested his head in his hands for a moment. Well, he wasn’t getting back to sleep any time soon.
He ran himself a bath, pouring in some of the over-priced bath stuff that created so many bubbles and smelt so damn good that he kept buying it to carry from hotel to hotel, even if it made him wince at the cost every time.
Being in Wakanda, just him, the goats and the horizon, had made him realise that he needed to hoard the peaceful moments (which were pretty much any time the goats were somewhere else, although there had always been a nagging sense of worry when he couldn’t see them.) He’d got in the habit of allowing himself these little indulgences, just to remind himself that he was alive and whole and no one’s puppet assassin. He bought himself the softer hoodies and the fancy shampoo, and he carved out moments like this one, relaxing in a warm bath with the smell of citrus all around him. After all, the world had made it damn clear that no one else was going to coddle him, so he might as well coddle himself.
He lay there for a while, taking slow breaths and occasionally turning on the hot tap to top up. He let the heat of the water soak the tension of the nightmare out of him, listening to the soft, pre-dawn sounds of London as it started to wake up.
He wiped a sponge lazily over his chest, tracing over the dark lines of his soul icons. The tree that must have been his soulmate’s childhood, which Bucky didn’t like so much because there was something creepy about the shadows around it; the stylised compass with the elongated arrow pointed just to the west of true north; and then Bucky’s favourite, the target that looked just like every one he’d ever seen used by any country’s military, superimposed with three purple chevrons that he was pretty sure meant his soulmate had been a sergeant.
Having a soulmate at all was one of the indulgences Bucky was working himself up to believing he deserved, but the idea of his soulmate being another sharp-shooting sergeant fitted. He’d share life experiences with the guy, even if he had been born decades after Bucky and hadn’t been held captive and brainwashed by a neo-Nazi terrorist group. At least, Bucky really hoped he hadn’t been. It was pretty clear from the icons that his life hadn’t been completely peaceful, but Bucky wasn’t sure he knew how to relate to civilians any more so that was probably for the best.
The last of the defined icons that slanted down across Bucky’s chest hadn’t been there before the Snap, and made Bucky think that whatever his soulmate had been up to during it, it hadn’t been a good time for him. Two crossed katana swords were half-hidden by a splatter of red, like spilled blood. That was definitely Bucky’s least favourite icon, even more so than the creepy tree from his soulmate’s early years.
Bucky had no real idea how old his soulmate was, or how long each of his phases had lasted, or even if there had been unsettled periods between them, because he’d been in cryo more than he’d been out of it once the first icon had appeared. Hydra had been wary of using their tool once they’d known there was a missing part of his soul out there, somewhere, who might turn up and fuck with all their careful brainwashing.
Sometimes Bucky tried to figure out what icons would be inscribed on his soulmate’s skin in return, each representing a phase of Bucky’s life, and how many of them there were. There must have been at least two or three already there when his soulmate was born. That must have been weird, knowing your soulmate was enough older than you to have lived through several phases before you were even alive.
Bucky scrubbed the sponge over the vaguely green blur that was at the end of the diagonal line of icons, just under his right nipple. It had been like that for a good few months, ever since Bucky had come back from the Snap. But then, everyone had been fucked up by that time, it was hardly any wonder that it was taking Bucky’s soulmate a while to settle to a new phase.
And at least it meant that the swords and the blood were behind him.
Hell, Bucky was willing to bet that he was showing as unsettled right now as well. He had no idea what he was doing or where he was going, or even what he was hoping to find.
There was definitely something he needed to find, though. Something that he wasn’t going to get from lying in a bath for hours at a time, no matter how nice it was.
He reluctantly lifted himself out of the water, drying himself with the fluffiest towel the hotel had provided, and then wrapping himself up in a bathrobe.
It was still too early to go anywhere, even if he’d known where to go. He’d half been thinking about the Imperial War Museum, to see if there was anything from his past there, but he was getting kinda sick of only finding himself in museums.
He sat on the bed and pulled out his phone, tooling around and looking for a distraction. He ended up searching for the Commandos Memorial from the pub the day before, and found a few more photos of it. It looked like there was a row of trees leading down to the pillar, and a circular wall around the outside.
They’d put a lot of effort in to building it. Bucky flicked through a few more pictures, then looked at where exactly it was. The National Memorial Arboretum, about three hours drive away.
Fuck it, Bucky didn’t have anywhere else to be.
There were a handful of other people wandering around and somewhere off in the distance he could hear a bugler, which probably meant some kind of memorial service. He was going to steer well clear of that.
He kept his hat pulled right down over his face as he walked, figuring that the kind of people who knew enough about military history to be at a place like this might also be able to recognise the guy whose photo was splashed all over the history books, albeit only because he’d spent too much time standing next to Steve when photographers were around.
The Howling Commandos memorial was next to The Parachute Regiment Memorial, which featured an enormous winged horse being ridden by a spear-throwing Greek soldier. Bucky paused to look at it for few minutes, thinking about the way Falsworth could talk at length about Greek myths. His accent would get plummier and plummier as he talked, while they worked their way down a bottle of something until eventually, he’d slump back in his seat and say something like, “Of course, it’s all a load of tosh.”
God, Bucky missed those evenings. Maybe that was what he was missing now, having a gang of guys to get drunk and talk ‘tosh’ with. Maybe he should stop traveling and find a place to settle where he could find that.
He tried to picture the kind of friendship group he’d fit in with, and failed.
He sighed, gave the winged horse one last look, then carried on down the path, past a narrow belt of young trees, and found himself at the Commandos Memorial.
The grass inside the circular stone wall was neatly mown and the trees on either side of the path to the pillar looked recently pruned. They each had a little plaque with a name of one of the Commandos on it, as well as the type of tree they’d planted. Bucky reached the end to find his and Steve’s opposite each other. They were both tree of heavens, like you found growing all over Brooklyn, which made him want to roll his eyes but mostly made him just miss home. He set his hand on the bark for a moment, then walked forward to the central pillar.
He ran his eyes down the list of names, taking his time to remember each of them before moving on. He still couldn’t quite get his head around the idea that all these guys had lived lives, had families and died, all while he was being tortured, brainwashed and frozen, missing whole years at a time while they gently got older. It seemed more like he’d dropped into another world when he’d fallen from that train, a nightmare world of pain and darkness, and now he was in another again, somewhere better but still not home.
He circled the pillar, and found that there was a verse on the other side.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
He snorted. He couldn’t help it, because that didn’t sum up what the Commandos had actually been like at all. It seemed like some stupidly noble idea of what a war was like from someone who’d never been in one.
Still, he guessed he couldn’t deny that the sentiment was nice and, sure, he’d felt like family with those assholes.
He walked back around to the front of the pillar and traced his hand over the names again, then wondered what the hell he should do next.
For the first time in a long time, it didn’t feel like he needed to be going somewhere. Nothing was pulling him away from this calm, peaceful moment, surrounded by trees and birdsong. He found a patch of grass by the wall and sat down, leaning against it and tipping his head back to look up at the clouds drifting across the blue sky.
Was this it? What he’d been looking for? Finally taking time to put this part of his life to rest?
Except how could he put it to rest when the spectre of Steve and his decision to live out his life back in time still loomed over him? He pushed the thought away, because he’d been having an okay day and wasn’t interested in delving back down that rabbit hole.
He let his eyes drift shut, lulled by the birds and the faint sound of wind amongst the leaves. At some point he needed to decide if he was driving back to London tonight or finding somewhere around here to stay, but he just pushed all that aside for now, and concentrated on the calm around him.
Footsteps crunching past made him open his eyes, and he watched an elderly couple and their dog walk past, giving him a disapproving look but not saying anything. Screw it, he probably did look disrespectful, but his name was on the memorial, surely that gave him the right to just hang out here?
He let his eyes fall shut again, feeling the sun shine down on his face as it came out from behind a cloud. Muscles he hadn’t known could relax were gently easing out of decades-old knots, shedding tension and quieting the nagging feeling that had been following him everywhere. God, this felt so good, he was just going to spend the whole damn afternoon here.
Another set of footsteps crunched along the path but he kept his eyes shut, happy to let whoever it was pass by unseen.
Or at least he was until they turned off the path and into the memorial. He opened his eyes to see a guy in a battered hoodie heading down between the row of trees.
A familiar-looking guy in a battered hoodie.
“Clint Barton,” Bucky said in acknowledgement, and felt his stomach sink. “Please tell me you haven’t tracked me down to try and drag me into some Avengers bullshit.”
Barton raised an eyebrow. “Bucky Barnes,” he returned. “Please tell me you’re not actually haunting your own memorial.”
Bucky just shrugged. “I’m not dead enough for haunting. Not quite yet.”
“Morbid,” said Barton, nodding. “I like it. And no, I’m not here to rope you into anything, mostly because I didn’t even know you were here, but also because I’m trying to avoid that kinda bullshit myself, these days.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow. “I’m meant to believe an ex-SHIELD spy and Avenger just happened to turn up in the same country, in the same random memorial park, at the same time as I came here, which was pretty much on a whim?”
Barton shrugged, looking around at the trees. “I guess so. I mean, from my point of view, Cap’s bestest bud just showed up in the same country, in the same random memorial park, at the same time as I came here pretty much on a whim. How do I know you’re not here to drag me into some Avengers bullshit?”
Bucky wasn’t buying it even though he didn’t know Barton much at all. He’d only met him a couple of times, usually right before or right after a big fight, but he knew he’d been Black Widow’s partner. If Barton was anything like her, then nothing he did ever had less than three ulterior motives.
“I’m too damn tired for this shit, Barton,” he said. “If I were going to get back into it, I’da let Sam drag me.”
Barton rolled his eyes. “Do you know what the next town up the road is called?” he asked.
Bucky blinked in surprise at the tangent. “Uh. No.”
“It’s called Barton-under-Needwood,” said Barton. “I’ve been road-tripping around, visiting all the places called Barton. I ticked all the north American ones off -and let me tell you some of those are tiny as fuck, I had to sleep in my car half the time- and then I came over here, where there’s a whole bunch. After this, there’s a couple in Australia, one in Belize, and then I gotta find some way to get to Venus.”
Bucky stared at him for a very long time while Barton just looked back, hands shoved in his pockets and nothing on his face that made Bucky think he was hiding anything. It was a really handsome face, now that Bucky was studying it in detail, but he really shouldn’t let himself get distracted by that. “Why the fuck are you doing that?”
Barton shrugged. “I needed a plan?” he said, and it sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as Bucky. “Or maybe just a distraction. I don’t know, I figured it was better than just.” He stopped there and pressed his lips together in a firm line, then shrugged again. “You know.”
The thing was, Bucky kinda did know.
“Yeah,” he agreed with a sigh.
“Got to be better than a tour of all the memorials with my name on,” added Barton, and Bucky gave him a half-hearted glare.
“That’s not what I’m doing. I just ran out of shit to look at in London that I actually remembered and that hadn’t been built over.”
Barton gave him another long look during which his face gave nothing away, and Bucky thought about Black Widow again. His memories of training her were blurry and indistinct, but he’d still felt a surge of loss when he’d heard she’d died getting the Snap victims back.
“Okay,” Barton said, eventually. “Come on, then.”
Bucky had been intending to stay right where he was for a good deal longer, but he was on his feet in a moment at the prospect of something more entertaining. “Where are we going?”
Barton shrugged and gestured down the path. “Want to see how depressed we can make ourselves by the futility of war?”
“Sure,” said Bucky, because hadn’t he just been wondering what kind of friends he could possibly make? Seemed like an ex-Avenger, who’d seen enough to appreciate Bucky’s morbid jokes, might just fit the bill.
They wandered down the path, passing memorials for a whole host of different regiments and conflicts. They walked in silence but there was an odd quality to it. Barton kept taking in breaths that seemed like he was about to say something, then letting them out with the words unsaid.
They paused at the Monte Cassino memorial, where Bucky realised he had more memories than he’d realised of the bloody toll of those battles. Barton quietly stood to one side until Bucky was ready to move on.
“Were you here for anything in particular?” asked Bucky once they were back on the path, trying to break the awkward silence.
Barton shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Not so much. Just saw a leaflet about it at a gas station, and figured I might as well stop in.” He blinked, as if realising something, then added in a low voice, mostly to himself, “Guess I was drawn here.”
Bucky didn’t ask any more questions. He’d only seen Barton a couple of times since the snap, but it was pretty clear that those five years had hit him hard, even before Natasha had died. He wondered if Barton had been looking for something to help with her death, but it didn’t seem like his place to ask.
They came to an array of wooden posts in the ground. “What’s this one?” he asked.
The semicircle of wooden posts were arranged around a statue of a man wearing a blindfold with his hands behind his back.
“Shot At Dawn memorial,” Barton read from an information board. “Commemorates soldiers shot for desertion during World War One.”
“Jesus,” said Bucky, and turned away, rubbing his hand over his face. “Yeah, okay, you got me. I’m now really fucking depressed about the futility of war. Did you have any plans to cheer yourself up after all this?”
Barton looked around at the memorial, then sighed. “There’s cake in the café?” he offered.
“I guess that’ll do,” said Bucky. The peace he’d found at the Commandos Memorial didn’t seem to have lasted and now he felt itchy, as if there were something he was meant to do. There was nothing, though. Not one single damn thing for him to do, except just keep on existing and try not to feel like he should have died already, and left nothing but a name on a memorial.
“I saw you at Stark’s funeral,” said Barton as they headed back towards the visitor centre. “I was going to talk to you then, but it didn’t seem like a great time.”
“It wasn’t,” agreed Bucky. “Not for anyone.” He made a face. “Not sure what the fuck I was doing there anyway,” he added. “The only time I ever met the guy, he tried to kill me. Steve asked me to go, and then Sam gave me the eyes and said Steve probably needed support, but I don’t know that I’m the guy you go to for emotional support.”
Maybe that was why Steve had fucked off so spectacularly, so he could find a friend he could actually lean on without just cracking open their wounds worse.
Barton was quiet again. “Tony was a good guy,” he said, eventually. “I know you didn’t get to see that, but I don’t think he’da minded you being there. For whatever reason.”
They were taking a more direct route back than their casual wander out, coming right past the massive stone circle of the biggest memorial in the arboretum. Bucky looked at it, at all the names carved into cold stone, and wondered why he’d thought this would be a good idea. He’d been trying to find moments from his life with his trip, but there was nothing here but the implacable silence of death, and the feeble attempts of the living to make sense of it.
“Doesn’t matter now,” he said. “Dead’s dead.”
Barton snorted. “Says the guy who’s actually been dead.”
“And it wouldn’t have mattered a fuck to me who came to my funeral,” said Bucky. “That shit’s all for the living anyway.” He gestured at the rows of memorials. “Just like this is.”
“Yeah,” said Barton, softly. He was staring over at an obelisk that was surrounded by shiny black marble walls, circling around in a spiral. Bucky looked it over for any sign for what it was for, but other than that it must have been something big to justify the size of it, there were no real clues. There was an inscription on it in gold writing, large enough to read from this distance.
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.
He looked back at Barton, who had caught his look. “It’s for those who were lost in the Snap,” he said, in a rough tone. “I had a look at it earlier.”
Bucky looked back at it, at the heavy lines of the stone. He’d seen a couple of articles debating what to do with the many memorials to those who had been lost now that they were back. It seemed like those that had come back wanted them removed, while those that had stayed wanted to keep them, as a reminder of just how terrible those 5 years had been and the time they’d never get back with their loved ones. There was also a vocal contingent who thought they should be converted into memorials for those who died bringing everyone back, for Tony and Natasha and the others who had died in that final battle with Thanos’s forces.
Bucky didn’t really have an opinion on it, mostly because he was still trying to work out how he felt about all the war memorials that listed his year of death as 1945.
Barton’s shoulders had hunched over and his face was creased with tired lines that hadn’t been there when Bucky first met him.
“You lost people,” he realised.
“Everyone lost people,” said Clint. “Kinda the point.” He shrugged and then let out a sigh. “But yeah. I lost friends, and I lost my brother and his family. His kids.” He paused, glancing up at the sky. “And my soulmate,” he added, in a mumble Bucky almost didn’t catch.
“I’m sorry,” said Bucky, not sure what else to say. He tried to think if anyone had ever mentioned Barton’s soulmate, but it had never come up. If Bucky had been asked to guess, he’d have said it was Black Widow, but she hadn’t died when the rest of them had.
Barton looked so defeated, and Bucky really wanted to put his arm around the guy, to pull him in for a hug. What the hell was that about? Bucky hadn’t really been prepared to touch anyone except Steve for seventy years. He guessed Barton looked just that sad and lost.
Barton opened his mouth as if to say something else, then just let out a breath and looked away, his mouth twisting with unhappiness. “Let’s get that cake.”
They were silent as they approached the visitors centre, both lost in their own thoughts, and Bucky thought again that coming here had been a mistake. He was meant to be finding something to live for, not just wallowing in all that had been lost.
They got coffee and cake and found a table right in the corner of the cafe, one where they could both have their backs to a wall, and Bucky was halfway through his carrot cake before Barton spoke again.
“I spent five years thinking I’d give anything to get my family back,” he said in a hushed voice, “swearing to every god I ever heard of, offering any exchange I could think of, and then the universe took Natasha, and I don’t-” He let out a choked noise, head bending over the table to hide his face. “She was my best friend,” he added. “For a long time, she was more than that, she was everything I had. She didn’t - She didn’t have any icons, did you know?”
Bucky nodded, because that had been one of the reasons that the Red Room had chosen her for extra training with the Winter Soldier. No icons meant no connections that they didn’t completely control.
“It didn’t feel like she needed a soulmate, or like I needed to find mine, when we had each other,” added Barton. “And then she fell, for me, for everyone, and I-”
He choked up completely, dropping his head and pressing clenched fists to his forehead. “Fuck,” he muttered.
“Hey,” said Bucky, feeling useless in the face of such grief. He hesitated, then gently set his hand on Barton’s shoulder, giving it a pat as if that would do a damn thing to help. “Hey, it’s okay.”
Except it really fucking wasn’t, none of it was.
“Fuck,” said Barton again, then he dropped his hands and gave Bucky a grim stare. “Look, this is - when I said I lost my soulmate as well, it’s -” He stopped again and made a face. “Look, it’s this.”
He laid his arm out on the table and pushed his left sleeve up, displaying a line of icons advancing up the soft inside of his arm, from wrist to elbow.
It was rude to look at someone else’s icons, but Bucky couldn’t stop his eyes skittering over them, taking in every detail as his breath caught in his throat.
An old street sign reading ‘Lorraine Street’, just like the one on the corner of the street he and Steve had grown up on. Crossed rifles superimposed over khaki green sergeant’s stripes, with the white wing of the Commandos balanced on top like an add-on. Hydra’s octopus emblem curled around a red star, holding it so tightly with its tentacles that it looked like it was smothering it. The outline of a large wolf, curled up as if exhausted and filled with a picture of the Wakandan landscape that Bucky recognised instantly as the view from his hut door.
The last icon was still a blurry smudge, but Bucky was too busy staring at the others to take it in.
“Those are mine,” he said, unable to get his brain to move beyond that.
For all he’d thought about it, he’d never really expected to actually see his icons on his soulmate’s skin, not when the rest of his life had been so disappointing.
He looked up and met Barton’s eyes. “You’re mine,” he added, with shock.
Barton winced and pulled his sleeve down. “Yeah, I thought I probably was. You’ve had a pretty distinctive life.”
Bucky felt like his whole brain had glitched, like he’d been put through the chair but no one had read any words yet. “You’re my soulmate,” he said again, numbly. “You didn’t- You never said.”
Barton snorted. “When? When we first met and were about to get in a fight with Iron Man and his team? When I’d just got out of the Raft and you were about to freeze yourself for god knows how long? When you were in recovery in Wakanda and I was under house arrest half a planet away? When Thanos was coming for us? At Tony’s funeral?” He shook his head. “There just never seemed a good time to bring it up.”
Bucky reached out a hand, unable to stop himself from touching Barton’s hand. “Any time would have been a good time,” he said. “I had no idea. I woulda made time, got to know you.”
Barton shook his head. “Yeah, there’s that as well,” he added. He pulled his hand away from Bucky and gave a helpless shrug. “I’m not really worth getting to know. It kinda feels like this is a mistake, if the universe can make those with soulmates.”
“No way,” said Bucky immediately, without having to stop to think. Maybe he didn’t know Barton so well, but he had his life inscribed on his chest and he couldn’t imagine getting to know him properly and not wanting to spend a lot more time with him. “That’s not how soulmates work, and we’ve got along pretty well so far, haven’t we?”
“You barely know me,” Barton pointed out.
“Then I guess we’d better change that,” said Bucky. Fuck. His actual soulmate was sitting in front of him, drinking coffee and looking rundown and sad. Bucky wanted to wrap him up in his arms and just hold him until he smiled. “Not here, though,” he added, glancing around at the remembrance memorabilia surrounding them.
Barton looked around and snorted. “Yeah, it is kind of a downer,” he agreed.
That seemed like putting it lightly.