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.
They decided to go get dinner in Barton-under-Needwood. Or, rather, Bucky decided and Barton went along with it, just shrugging with a tired look that made Bucky hesitate, because it seemed like he was far more excited about this than Barton was, and Bucky wasn’t going to force his presence on anyone.
“Or I could head back to London and you can just contact me when you want to hang out?” he suggested as they headed back to the parking lot.
Barton shook his head. “Nah, you’re right,” he said. “The world’s not ending, no one’s dead or an international fugitive, so we should probably take the chance to get to know each other while we can.”
Bucky was struck by just how unenthusiastic he sounded about the whole thing. He didn’t know what reaction he’d expected from his soulmate, but this tired reluctance wasn’t it. Barton must have known, or at least strongly suspected, who his soulmate was for years, and yet he’d waited this long to say anything, and even now didn’t seem particularly interested in pursuing it. They’d only run into each other by chance, how long exactly had Barton been planning to wait?
Bucky didn’t ask about that though, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear Barton give voice to all the reasons why someone wouldn’t want Bucky as a soulmate. Instead, he said, “You make it sound like that shit’s going to happen again.”
“Of course it is,” said Barton, bleakly. “There’s always another crisis.” He gestured at a car before Bucky could process that. “This is me. You gonna follow?”
“Yeah,” said Bucky, looking away for his own rental. “It’s just up the road, you said?”
“Yep,” said Barton, opening the car door. “We can park at my hotel then walk into the town to find something to eat.”
“Okay,” agreed Bucky, but it took a wrench to walk away from Barton and as far as his car. Now that he knew he was his soulmate, he wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. He wanted to find out everything about him, get to know just why they’d been chosen for each other, or however it worked.
He wanted to prove to Barton that he didn’t need to be disappointed that his soulmate was the Winter Soldier, although he had no real idea how to do that.
He found himself rubbing his hand over his chest as he headed to his car, right over his icons. Fuck, how hadn’t he realised that he’d already met the guy who they were for?
He got in his car and took a deep breath, then started the motor and followed Barton’s car out of the parking lot and onto the main road.
Maybe he should be thinking of his soulmate by his first name rather than retreating to the distance of surnames. Clint, he thought to himself, trying to fit it to the vague idea he’d had in his head of what his soulmate might be like. It didn’t quite fit, but he figured it was only a matter of time.
If Clint let them have that time, and didn’t just head off again without Bucky the next day.
It was only a fifteen minute drive to Clint’s hotel, a square, soulless-looking block of a hotel right next to the freeway.
“Guess I should get a room, if I’m not heading back to London tonight,” said Bucky as they headed inside. Part of him was hoping that Clint would offer to just let Bucky share his, but he wasn't too disappointed, or surprised, when Clint just nodded and directed him towards the reception. They barely knew each other after all, and for all Bucky wanted to curl up with his soulmate in his arms, he wasn't keen on Clint finding out just how many nightmares Bucky had.
Clint followed him up to his room when Bucky went up to dump his stuff. It was on the small side and even blander than Bucky had pictured, but it would do for the night.
"Can I see?" Clint asked, after Bucky had dropped his bag on the bed, checked the sight lines from the window and tucked a couple of weapons around the place. "Your icons? Can I see them?"
There was a note of eagerness in his voice that had been missing so far, but Bucky could understand that. He might not want the Winter Soldier as his soulmate, but everyone wanted to see their icons and how their life had been mapped out in visual form.
“Sure,” he said, because it only seemed fair. He pulled his hoodie off. “They’re on my chest,” he explained, and then pulled his t-shirt off as well.
Holding still while Clint’s eyes darted over his chest was less weirdly awkward than he’d have figured. He found himself tracing over where Clint’s eyes were resting, on the tree, then the compass, down to the target, and finally resting on the katanas.
Clint let out a quiet sigh. “It’s funny, you don’t really figure on how much of your life has been shit until you see it laid out like that.”
Bucky looked down at his chest. “This bit is the five years of the snap,” he said, touching a finger to the katanas. Now he was thinking about it, Sam had said something about Clint going off the rails and taking on some kind of samurai identity.
“Yeah,” said Clint, tiredly. “Then my time at SHIELD, and the Avengers,” he reached out to point out the target and purple chevrons, his finger hovering over Bucky’s skin without touching it, “being in the circus before that,” he said, moving up to the compass, “and then before my parents died, living at the farm.” Bucky guessed a tree made sense if he’d been born on a farm, but he couldn’t help thinking that the threatening shadows around it didn’t really speak of a happy childhood.
“Can’t believe you got a compass for being in a circus,” he said instead, because it seemed safer. “How was I meant to work that one out?”
Clint sighed, and moved back, turning away as he rubbed a hand through the mess of his hair. “It was part of the act. Big compass hanging up, and the audience yelled out where they wanted me to put an arrow.”
There had to be more to it than that, but Bucky knew enough about how personal icons could get not to ask any questions. He’ll tell me one day, he thought, and then wondered if he ever would. It wasn’t as if Clint was jumping for joy and making plans for them to spend their lives together. Bucky wasn’t even sure Clint would want him to hang around past tomorrow.
“Let’s get dinner,” he said, and pulled his shirt back on. If tonight was all the chance he was getting, then he guessed he’d just have to make the most of it.
“Oh, hey! Pizza!” said Clint once they got there, his face lighting up for the first time since they’d run into each other. Bucky was still looking around at the canal boats all moored in lines, so it took him a moment to work out what Clint was referring to.
The pizzeria looked like a complete dive and was definitely the last of the handful of restaurants clustered around the marina that Bucky would have gone to, but the delight in Clint’s eyes made him change his mind. Maybe being his soulmate wouldn’t make him happy, but apparently letting him get bad pizza would.
“No whining if it turns out to be shit,” he said, and headed towards it.
“No such thing as a shit pizza,” said Clint, happily. “Even the bad ones are good.”
“You clearly haven’t eaten Hydra’s idea of pizza,” said Bucky.
The look of pure horror Clint gave him was a work of art. “Aw, evil terrorist pizza, no,” he said in a whine, and Bucky couldn’t keep in a snort.
“It was more the scrimping on the cheese than the terrorism.”
“Oh yeah, cheese levels are important,” agreed Clint.
They got a table for two by the window, right where Bucky could keep looking at the boats. There were a couple coming in to moor for the night, painted in red and blue. He’d never seen much of canal boats before and he found he rather liked the slow, stately way in which they moved.
Clint looked over the menu, then dropped it to the table, looked at Bucky, and sighed. “Not quite like a New York pizza place, am I right?”
Bucky raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re aware I haven’t been in New York since 1943, right? What the hell do I know about the pizza places there?”
Clint made a face. “Yeah, okay, good point,” he said. “Do they have pizza in Wakanda?”
“Not really,” said Bucky, and Clint looked even more disheartened.
The waitress came and took their orders, then there was a pause. Bucky wondered if first dates between soulmates were always this awkward.
Except this wasn’t a date.
“What’s your plan for after this, then?” asked Clint.
Bucky just shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve kinda exhausted the places I remember from around Europe. Maybe head back to New York and see if anything in Brooklyn looks familiar?”
He didn’t really like that idea. Maybe if Steve were around to go with him, to walk him through the old places and help jog his memories, but he’d disappeared back to wherever he’d found to grow old. He’d left Bucky a phone number, but Bucky was still feeling too pissed to contact him just yet.
“How many Bartons have you got to go here?” he asked rather than get into all that.
“A fair few,” said Clint. “Next one is less than an hour away, it’s- Here, let me show you.” He pulled his phone out and pulled a map up on it, setting it between them on the table to show Bucky a route that criss-crossed the country.
“None of those are more than an hour or two apart,” Bucky said, looking it over. “You could do them all in one or two days, if you pushed it.”
“Yeah, not the point,” said Clint. “Besides, I decided when I set out that it only counted if I’d spent a night in each one.”
“Okay,” said Bucky, trying not to sound as dubious about the rationality of the idea as he felt.
Clint shrugged, taking the phone back and tucking it away. “It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to go.”
Bucky frowned. “What happened with that farm you went back to when you made the deal over the Accords? Where you were on house arrest?”
He could immediately tell it had been a mistake to mention it from the way Clint’s face shut down. “Yeah, that’s my brother’s,” he said. “He was having a third kid and had a long job away from home, so I went to help my sister-in-law out.”
The family he’d mentioned he’d lost in the snap. Bucky just nodded, carefully not asking why Clint wasn’t still there with them.
He didn’t have to. Clint clearly read it off his face, because he let out a long sigh. “It was weird, after they came back.” He amended himself. “I was weird. My nephews and niece, they didn’t get why Uncle Clint had changed so much. I couldn’t stop watching them, waiting for the next thing to hit, I was kinda erratic, a bit jumpy.” He gave a helpless shrug. “I don’t fit in there anymore. So I figured I should just go off and travel around, see if I could shake the last five years off, but that’s not really happening.”
Bucky knew how that felt. “Feels like I’m trying to shake the last seventy years off, and yeah, it’s not all that easy,” he agreed.
Clint nodded gloomily. “There’s no going back,” he said. “Even with time travel.”
Bucky thought about Steve again, and had to stomp down on the surge of anger. “Yeah,” he managed in response.
Their food came, distracting them, and for a few minutes there was silence as they both tucked in. Bucky hadn’t realised how hungry wandering around all those memorials had made him until he’d taken the first bite.
The pizza actually turned out to be pretty good, which just went to show that maybe Bucky shouldn’t judge restaurants on their appearance. Clint hoovered his pizza up in no time at all, and then sat and looked at Bucky with the same look that a dog begging for scraps might have.
Bucky resolutely ate his way through his whole pizza, because only one of them had a supersoldier metabolism and besides, he was feeling kinda petty about Clint having waited so long to let him know about the soulmate thing.
Not to mention that he had no idea if Clint would ever have got around to telling him if they hadn’t wandered into each other. Hell, it was entirely likely they’d never have seen each other again.
Maybe that had been Clint’s plan. He’d worked out his soulmate was a fucked up ex-assassin with only a vague grasp on how the world even worked these days, who had nightmares every night and still jumped at shadows, and decided he’d just stay out of it. After all, if Bucky’s best friend didn’t want to stick around, why should his soulmate?
“What the fuck? I told you, we booked a table!”
Bucky looked over to see a group of young men who looked more than the worse for wear crowding into the entrance, facing down a flustered-looking waiter.
“I’m sorry sir, but we have a strict policy of not serving anyone who appears to be under the influence,” said the waiter.
“Under the what now?” asked one of the men. “We’ve just had a couple, we’re nothing like close to drunk!” He was holding an open beer can in his hand, so Bucky wasn’t sure he believed him.
“I booked a table,” insisted the guy who was looming over the waiter. “That means you shut up and serve us pizza, yeah? So just get on with it.”
Clint let out a quiet sigh and Bucky glanced away from the altercation just in time to see him stand up.
Ah crap, this was like being out with Steve.
The manager had turned up and was also trying to get the men to leave, but it clearly wasn’t going any better for her than it had for the waiter.
“We reserve the right to refuse service to-” she started, but wasn’t allowed to finish.
“I booked a table! You’re fucking up my mate’s stag do!” The guy waved at one of his friends, who was wearing a set of plastic breasts and seemed to be by far the drunkest, sagging against the guy next to him and blinking at the proceedings with a confused expression.
Fuck. Bucky gave up pretending he was going to stay out of it and stood up, following Clint over to the group.
“I think you need to leave now,” Clint said, standing up to his full height and crossing his arms in a way that made his biceps bulge. Bucky was distracted watching them for a moment before tearing his eyes away to see the main guy turning to look at him with a sneer. He was clearly either an idiot or drunker than he seemed, because he didn’t back down in the face of Clint’s muscles.
“Who the fuck are you, and what the fuck do you think you’re doing getting involved?”
“Mike, leave it,” said one of the other guys. “C’mon, let’s just go to mine and order Dominos.”
Mike ignored him. “I’m not fucking leaving here until we’ve had dinner!”
“Yes, you are,” said Clint, and he took a step forward. “You’re ruining everyone’s evening, just go home.”
“Fuck you, fucking arsehole!” swore Mike, and he pulled back his fist, telegraphing the blow so obviously that Bucky was already reacting before he’d swung it, shooting out his left hand and catching Mike’s fist in it.
“Fuck!” said Mike, trying to pull his hand free, but Bucky just tightened his grip, enough to hurt.
“You’re not wanted here,” he said. “Time to go.”
“You heard the man,” added Clint. “Fuck off.”
Mike snarled at them both, but when Bucky dropped his hand he stepped away. “Dominos is better than the shit here anyway,” he said, and the group finally left.
“Thank you so much,” said the manager, turning to Bucky and Clint.
Clint just gave a shrug, as if he felt as awkward about thanks as Bucky did. “No problem,” he said, and turned back to their table.
When Bucky sat back down opposite him, Clint frowned at him.
“I can take a punch, you know,” he said. “I’m not fragile.”
Bucky stared at him for a moment before he could manage to respond. “Okay,” he said slowly. “I figured you could, but that idiot was so obvious, it was easy to stop him and I thought you’d prefer not be hit. Was I wrong?”
Clint gave him a narrow-eyed look, then huffed out a sigh. “No,” he said. “Just, I don’t need protecting.”
Bucky snorted. “I’m not really the guy anyone’s going to go to for protection. I’ve way more experience killing than keeping people alive.”
Clint looked down at the crumbs that were all that remained of his pizza. “Yeah, me too,” he said, with a tiredness Bucky could empathise with.
“Gentlemen!” said the manager, coming over with a beaming smile. “Thank you again, please let me offer you a dessert on the house.”
Bucky just wanted to go back to the hotel and try and work out exactly how he was meant to deal with being soulmates with Clint when every conversation they had seemed stilted and awkward, so he shook his head, but Clint’s eyes had lit up.
“Do you have cheesecake?” he asked.
“Of course,” said the manager. “I’ll get the kitchen to send you one out as soon as possible.” She glanced at Bucky. “Anything for you?”
Bucky sighed to himself, then gave in. “Cheesecake sounds fine,” he said, and she grinned at them both again, then left.
“You know,” said Bucky, after a moment of silence, “Steve used to get into fights a lot.”
“That never really changed,” said Clint with a tired smile, and Bucky nodded in acknowledgement.
“Back then, he was tiny and sick all the time,” he pointed out. “I just got in the habit of blocking any fists aimed at him. Guess the habit never died.”
Clint nodded. “Yeah, okay,” he said, and they left it there.
The dream kept going past his landing, up until he was dragged into a dark hole of a base and put in the chair, electricity running through him, and then the chair tipped back and there was water, cascading down his face and cutting off all hope of air until his lungs burned and he was brought back upright. A man in a black uniform spat at him and shouted something in Arabic, and then he was being forced down again, into the water and he was going to die, he was going to drown here, in this miserable cave with these shitty insurgents and-
He woke up with a gasp, chest heaving to take in air as if he were really drowning.
Shit, where had that come from? He’d never been waterboarded. Plenty of other kinds of torture, but never that. And not by Islamic terrorists either, Hydra had never bothered getting involved in that mess, or at least not by doing more than influencing foreign policies to make things worse.
Why the hell had Bucky dreamed about that?
Fuck, he had enough horrors in his past for his brain to generate nightmares every night for the next hundred years, why the hell would it start making shit up?
He ran a hand over his face, sitting up because there was no way in hell he was going back to sleep after that. He flicked on a light and looked at the time, and made a face. He’d had maybe two hours of sleep at most.
He didn’t feel like he was getting any more tonight, but maybe if he had a bath he’d be able to put the dream behind him.
He got up and went to the bathroom, starting to run water into the bathtub that he had a feeling was going to be slightly too small to really provide the luxurious experience he liked his baths to be. He headed for his bag to find the bubble bath.
There was a knock on his door.
Tension snapped through his body. Who the hell would knock at this time?
There was a second, more impatient knock, and Bucky grabbed a gun from his bag instead of the bubble bath, then headed over to the door.
“Who is it?” he called.
“It’s Clint. Open up,” called Clint, and Bucky let out a sigh, then opened the door.
“What the hell, man?" he asked. “I was sleeping.”
“No, you weren’t,” said Clint, and he pushed inside, ignoring the gun Bucky was still holding. He had a phone clutched in his hand and was vibrating with energy. “I know you weren’t, because I wasn’t.”
“What?" asked Bucky, way too tired for this. He shut the door and set his gun down, then went into the bathroom to turn the bath faucet off, because it seemed like he wasn’t getting a bath just yet.
“You just had a nightmare, right?” said Clint, gesturing with the phone in his hand.
Bucky froze for a moment, then left the bathroom to stare at him. “What makes you think that?”
Clint rolled his eyes. “You were-” He started, then took a deep breath, and his voice took a slower, softer tone. “You were falling, and then they had you, in that chair.”
Bucky felt his shoulders tense right up. “What the fuck do you know about it?”
“And then you were being waterboarded,” added Clint, choking a little on the words. “Islamic terrorists: not exactly Hydra’s brand. You wonder where that came from?”
Bucky was just staring now. “How the fuck do you know that?”
Clint shook his head, bouncing a little on his toes. “Eleven or twelve years ago, I got captured on a mission in Afghanistan. They were trying to work out who I was working for, so they…” He made a gesture rather than finish the sentence.
Bucky felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. “That was your dream?”
Clint nodded and held up his phone. “I googled it. One in a thousand soulmate couples share dreams, but they think it’s more, it’s just some couples never notice because it’s just weird dream shit, how do you know it hasn’t come from you? But those nightmares, they’re- they’re both of us. Falling and torture and-” He cut himself off and his face twisted up. “Fuck, this sucks,” he muttered. “Worst fucking soulmates, we’re just feeding off the shitty parts of each other’s memories.”
“No,” said Bucky, “that’s not-” Dread was sinking into his stomach as he thought about all the nightmares he’d had. He was somehow inflicting those on Clint? “That can’t be right.”
Clint just shrugged. He tossed his phone over to Bucky, who caught it automatically. “Look for yourself,” he said, and sat down on the end of the bed.
Bucky scrolled through the site Clint had been looking at, and then back to the web search he’d run, which showed multiple other sites all saying the same thing. “Fuck,” he muttered, and sat down as well. “This fucking sucks.”
Because Clint clearly wasn’t interested in having a soulmate, but now he wasn’t going to be able to escape it. Bucky kept scrolling, running through the websites and taking information in with a sick feeling of horror. He’d known there was a whole host of weird shit that came with being soulmates, and every couple had a slightly different experience, but he hadn’t heard of this one.
shared dreams are reported to be more vivid and memorable than normal dreams
the number of shared dreams are unaffected by the physical distance between a pair of soulmates
dreaming together starts from the first time a pair of soulmates meet
Shared dreams occur when the soulmates are already dreaming something similar
“It says it happens when we’re already dreaming about similar things,” said Bucky.
“Yeah,” said Clint shortly.
Bucky gave him a pointed look, but when nothing else was forthcoming, said, “So, what, just us both dreaming of torture was close enough?”
“No,” said Clint, softly, “No, it isn’t that.” He took a deep breath, staring down at the carpet. “It’s the fall. That’s how Natasha died.”
Bucky hadn’t heard much about how Natasha had died, only that she’d given her life to get back everyone who Thanos had taken.
“You were where Steve usually is,” he remembered. “Watching me fall. I couldn’t reach your hand.”
Clint drew in a very ragged breath. “Yeah,” he said in a low voice.
Bucky looked back at the phone in his hand, scrolling through it a bit slower now. One of the sites was an article about a study they’d done with various soulmate couples. It included a quote from a woman about how nice it was to be with her soulmate even when they were sleeping, and to be able to fly through the clouds with him.
Flying sounded much better than falling, and a world away from shared nightmares of torture.
“There must be some way to stop it,” he said, carrying on looking. “I’ve got so much shit in my head, I don’t want to be forcing it all on you.”
Clint let out a humourless laugh. “Yeah,” he agreed.
Bucky went back to the search page and started looking for ways to stop it, but it didn’t seem like anyone had really thought soulmates would want to stop it. Mostly, it was all just gushing about how great it was to share so much with each other.
Clint had barely wanted to share dinner with Bucky, there was no way he was going to want to share dreams. Or, well, nightmares, because Bucky couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a nice dream.
He pressed his hand to his chest, over his icons. Maybe it would have been better if he’d never had a soulmate in the first place, like he’d thought back before Hydra had taken him, before any of his icons had come through.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, still staring down at Clint’s phone.
Clint shook his head. “Not your fault.”
He sounded miserable, and Bucky couldn’t blame him. He kept looking down at the phone, trying to think of some way to make this better.
Something caught his eye and he paused, then scrolled back up to reread the paragraph. Some guy talking about how blessed he was to be able to share his favourite memories with his wife by dreaming of them together, showing her the woods near where he’d grown up and which had been bulldozed for a development before he met her.
“This guy was able to control it,” he said, then looked up at Clint. “If we can control it, then we can change our dreams so they’re not nightmares any more.”
Clint looked back at him, then half-shook his head. “I’ve never been able to control my dreams,” he said. “They’ve always been shit.”
Bucky glanced down at the article. “The ones we share are different though,” he said. “More vivid and emotional. We must be able to use that, to stop it always ending like it does.”
The look Clint gave him was exhausted, and spoke of the same numb depression that Bucky had felt creeping over him after one too many nights of the same shitty dream. “I can’t stop anything. Couldn’t stop Natasha in real life, sure as hell can’t stop her in my dreams.”
“Maybe I can, then,” said Bucky. He handed the phone back to Clint. “I’m going to figure this out. I’m fucking done dreaming about something that happened seventy years ago.”
And it wasn’t as if he could do anything else for his soulmate. If he could at least start to give him a peaceful night’s sleep, maybe this bond had a purpose after all.
Clint shook his head, standing up. “You’re wasting your time,” he said. “This is just the kind of crap that always happens to me, and there’s never any fixing it. I’m sorry you got caught up in it this time.”
He headed for the door, having apparently decided the conversation was over, so Bucky skipped pointing out that his life also had a pattern of painful crap happening in it, so this was just as likely to be his fault as Clint’s, and went straight for, “I’m going to fix it. I promise, I’ll make it work.”
Clint gave him a tired smile from the doorway that didn’t hide his disbelief, and then he left.
Bucky took a deep breath, and went to get his own phone. He needed to do a lot more research if he was going to work out how to control this.
Either way, Bucky headed down to the lobby as soon as he could justify it, got himself a cup of coffee and a limp pastry from the disappointing selection, and settled in to wait for Clint.
The last thing he wanted was to give Clint a chance to slip away without Bucky. He couldn’t even have said why he thought that was something Clint might do, but he had a strong sense that if Clint could avoid this whole thing, he would.
If Clint walked away from this right now, what else did Bucky have? He’d end up going to the Avengers base and joining up with Sam just so he felt like he had a plan, and he really didn’t want have to fight any more.
Clint turned up about ten minutes before breakfast closed, looking rumpled and exhausted. He got himself coffee without even noticing Bucky’s presence, then stared with wounded eyes at the paltry remains of the breakfast buffet.
“Aw, pastries, no,” Bucky heard him murmur as he stared at the trays containing nothing more than crumbs.
“I saved you a couple,” he called, and Clint turned to stare at him, then focused on the plate Bucky had rescued for him once he’d realised that the amount of breakfast available didn’t match up with the number of guests in the hotel.
“Bucky Barnes, you are a god among men,” said Clint fervently, and he slid into the seat opposite Bucky, pulling the plate towards himself.
Bucky snorted. “Pretty sure you’re the only one who thinks so,” he said, but he couldn’t stop the warm glow shifting into his stomach. Fuck, he hadn’t thought that ‘sleep-deprived mess’ would do it for him, but something about the way Clint’s hair was standing at all angles and his hoodie sleeves were half-rucked up, like he hadn’t had the energy to pull them down properly, was making Bucky want to fold him up in his arms. He could see the edge of his first icon, the Brooklyn street sign, peeking out from below the left sleeve.
So this was what having a soulmate was like, he thought as he watched Clint demolish three cups of coffee and the plate of pastries. This helpless feeling of affection that Clint hadn’t done anything to earn, between keeping their connection a secret and his stand-offish attitude.
Bucky could forgive him all that, though, because he had a feeling he understood. If Clint felt even a fraction as powerless as he did right now, feeling all these emotions well up in him at something as harmless as Clint eating breakfast, then it was easy to imagine it overwhelming him into keeping quiet, especially with everything else that had been going on.
“When did you know for sure?” Bucky asked. “That it was me?”
Clint looked up from his coffee, his eyes brighter now he had a good buffer of caffeine between him and the night. He shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know. I guess I was pretty certain after I read Hydra’s files on you after SHIELD went down, between the street sign and the Hydra icon. It didn’t seem likely there were that many other Brooklyn sergeants who’d been all wrapped up in Hydra’s tentacles, especially not including the red star thing.”
That had been a long time ago. Bucky had been on the run from everyone, still trying to work out who he was. He looked down at his own mug of coffee and just nodded, reminding himself that Clint wouldn’t have had the first clue how to find him back then even if he had tried to.
“There was a lot going on then,” added Clint. “I was- I trusted SHIELD.” He made a face that didn’t hide the brief moment of hurt as he said that. “I was with them for years, figured I was doing good by following their orders, and then that all just shattered. I wasn’t really able to cope with knowing they’d been fucking with my soulmate that badly as well. I told myself it couldn’t possibly be you, could have been any other fucker who was unlucky enough to be caught up in their mess. Or,” he looked up and gave Bucky a quirked half-smile, “I also spent some time trying to tell myself it was unrelated and my soulmate was an octopus scientist or something.”
Bucky gave him an unimpressed look. “An octopus scientist,” he said, flatly.
Clint shrugged. “I guess I was in a lot of denial,” he said. “And then when we finally met, at the airport, we had maybe two minutes before we ended up in a fight, and there was no time to actually talk to you and work it out. And then I was in prison, and you were frozen again, and, I don’t know. It seemed like there was never a time to bring it up.”
“We do seem to have really shitty timing,” agreed Bucky, because he probably wouldn’t have found time to bring up soulmates at the airport either.
Although, if he’d known, he might have waited before letting Shuri freeze him, at least until he could have seen Clint again and talked to him about it.
“Right,” agreed Clint. “And then there was Thanos and…” He trailed off, looking down at his arm. He pushed back his sleeve and ran his hand over the colourful array of icons there. “You were gone. I’d missed my chance.”
When your soulmate died, your icons went grey. Bucky wondered how many other millions of people had felt that happen after Thanos’s snap, and how many of them hadn’t even had a chance to meet their soulmates yet.
“I guess that was when I knew it was you,” said Clint. “Or maybe just when I stopped hiding from it.” He gave a shrug. “I’m not great with this kinda thing. Nat-” He stumbled for a moment, but kept going, “Natasha always said that if repression were an Olympic sport, I’d have all the golds.”
Bucky considered that for a bit, while Clint finished his coffee. “Seems like you’re done repressing now,” he said.
Clint shrugged. “It’s early, and the coffee hasn’t fully kicked in,” he said. “Plus, you know. Now I’ve got the whole nightmare thing to repress as well, there’s only so much I can handle at once.”
Bucky snorted. “Yeah, you’re not repressing that,” he said. “We’re going to fix it. I read a bunch of stuff last night, and I think we can use this to our advantage. Quit dreaming about shitty things and start having control over it.”
“Right,” said Clint sceptically. “Well, good luck with that.”
“Won’t need it,” said Bucky with more confidence than he felt. “Give me a night or two to figure it out, and I’ll prove it to you.” He hesitated, and then added, “Where we headed today? Another Barton?”
He was half-expecting an argument over the ‘we’ part, and had an argument all ready about staying close so he could monitor Clint’s dreams and get this fixed, but Clint just eyed him for a moment then shrugged. “Barton in the Beans,” he said. “No rush though, it’s not even an hour’s drive away.”
“In the Beans,” repeated Bucky slowly.
Clint flashed a grin at him. “Yup. I’ve kinda been looking forward to this one.”
Barton in the Beans was even tinier than the name suggested.
After a quick search online hadn’t yielded a depot near enough for Bucky to return his hire car to, he’d followed Clint’s car over, down country roads where they had to pull over to avoid tractors more than once.
Even with that, and taking what Bucky had a feeling was the scenic route, they still arrived in Barton in the Beans before lunch time. He followed Clint as he slowly drove up what seemed to be the main, and only, street of the place, past a bunch of houses, a couple of farms, and not much else. When it became clear they’d gone through the whole place, Clint turned around and headed back in, and Bucky followed him, pulling over to park behind him at what seemed to be the centre, mostly because it was where the bus stop was.
Clint got out of his car and looked around and Bucky eyed him for a moment, then sighed and got out as well.
“What’s the plan?” he asked.
Clint glanced back at him and grinned, which Bucky felt was an overreaction to the delights of the place. “Isn’t it great?” he asked. “Haven’t seen any beans yet, though.”
“Haven’t seen much of anything,” Bucky pointed out. “You’re sure you don’t want to just tick this one off and head on to the next Barton on the list?”
“Yes,” said Clint, firmly. “One night in all of them, that’s the rule.” His attention got arrested by a man heading towards them with a couple of dogs at his heels. “Oh, so cute,” he said. “Can I pet them?”
“Sure,” said the man, eyeing him slightly warily. He was wearing rubber boots and a flat cap, so Bucky wasn’t sure he was in a position to be judging Clint.
Clint dropped to his knees and started making a fuss of both dogs, telling them what good boys they were, while Bucky did his best to ignore it.
“Hey, I don’t suppose you know anywhere around here where we could stay the night?” he asked the man.
The man considered. “There’s a few places down in Market Bosworth,” he said. “Or you could head up to Ashby. Or over to Leicester, that’s not so far and there’s plenty there.”
“No,” said Clint, looking up but not stopping stroking the dogs. “It needs to be somewhere here. In Barton.”
The man let out a snort. “There’s nowhere here,” he said. “We don’t even have a pub, you have to head over to Carlton for that.”
Clint let out a sigh. “Guess I’m sleeping in the car tonight then.”
“Oh, come on,” said Bucky. “Seriously? We can find the closest place, it’ll be the same-”
Clint glared at him. “Nope,” he said. “You can go find a hotel, this isn’t your...thing. Quest.”
Bucky sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. The whole point of him coming with Clint was to be close enough to him when they were sleeping to try and figure out this dream thing, but he really didn’t want to sleep in a car.
“What’s this, then?” asked the man.
“My name’s Barton,” said Clint. “I’m doing a roadtrip of places that share my name.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “Is that so? You been over to Barton-under-Needwood?”
“Yup,” said Clint, grinning at him. “Last night.”
“They had a hotel,” Bucky pointed out, trying not to sound pissy about it and failing.
The man gave him a disapproving look. “Full of riffraff, though.”
“And no beans,” added Clint, finally standing up from the dogs, who continued to stay close to him, rubbing up against his legs. “C’mon, Bucky, I thought you were meant to be a tough guy, I’m sure you can handle sleeping in your car for one night.”
Bucky sighed. “Jesus, Clint.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “We’re gonna need to go buy some blankets or something.”
“Clint Barton?” repeated the man, slowly. “That’s you?”
Clint blinked at him. “Yeah?”
The man looked him over, lingering on his face for a moment. “You’re one of the Avengers.”
Clint winced. “Not really,” he muttered.
The man ignored him. “They said you were one of the ones who stopped Thanos, and got everyone back.”
All Clint’s relaxed pleasure from petting the dogs had vanished. “I guess,” he said, uncomfortably. “There were a bunch of us, I just helped out.”
“My son was gone,” said the man. “And then he was back. You did that.”
“He did, yeah,” said Bucky before Clint could start making excuses.
The man stepped forward and took Clint’s hand, shaking it furiously. “Thank you so much,” he said. “I don’t-” He choked for a moment, then cleared his throat. “I can never repay you.”
Clint looked horrified, which Bucky didn’t understand much. “Wasn’t-” he muttered, pulling his hand free and stepping back, rubbing at the back of his head, then he cut himself off, staring back down at the dogs.
The man glanced at Bucky, then straightened his shoulders. “I’ve got a place you can stay tonight,” he said. “If you’re sure you need to be in the village.”
Clint’s whole posture brightened. “Seriously? That would be great!”
“As long as you don’t mind goats,” added the guy, and it was Bucky’s turn to straighten up with excitement.
“Goats?” he said, entirely failing to keep it casual. “How many goats?”
Damn, he missed his flock back in Wakanda. Half of whom were probably just as he remembered, while the other half were five years older. Or dead.
“Okay, I didn’t peg the Winter Soldier being a goat fanatic,” said Clint, coming to lean next to him.
The goats had all come over to say hello and see if they had anything to eat, so Bucky didn’t bother glancing at him. “I had to do something in Wakanda,” he said. “You spent your house arrest on a farm, didn’t you?”
Clint snorted. “Not one with goats,” he said. “I ain’t that much of a masochist.”
“You were missing out,” said Bucky, crouching down to pet some of the goats through the fence.
With his metal hand, of course. He wasn’t completely stupid.
“Okay, if you’re an animal fan, how about we go to the zoo then?” said Clint.
Bucky tore his attention away from the goats long enough to frown up at him. “What?”
Clint shrugged. “I had a look at stuff to do around here this afternoon, and it’s pretty slim pickings, except for a zoo. I can’t remember the last time I went to a zoo, if you’re up for it.”
He didn’t sound completely certain though, and Bucky looked back at the goats, taking a deep breath. “I get it, you know,” he said, because he’d had time on the drive over here to think about this. He wanted a soulmate, hell, as he got to know Clint he even wanted Clint specifically as a soulmate, but if Clint didn’t feel the same, he wasn’t going to force it. If Clint didn’t want him around, then he’d leave him alone to enjoy his roadtrip as much as he could while figuring out how to control the nightmares.
“Not wanting the Winter Soldier as your soulmate,” said Bucky, standing up because he wasn’t giving the goats his full attention, and that wasn’t fair on them. “I get not wanting this forced on you. You don’t have to hang out with me all day today, you can go do your own thing. I’m just going to stick around until we’ve got this dream thing sorted, then I’ll get out of your hair and leave you to your Barton roadtrip.”
The look Clint gave him was kinda stricken, as if he hadn’t realised just how obvious his feelings were. Bucky looked away, leaning on the fence to look down at the goats, because he didn’t want to see that kind of emotion in his soulmate’s eyes, not when he wasn’t allowed to step in and wrap his arms around him.
God, he hadn’t realised how quickly he’d start feeling things for the guy, things he’d kinda figured weren’t part of who he was any more. Even after less than twenty-four hours, leaving him behind was going to hurt.
Clint let out a very long breath. “I hate talking about feelings,” he said, tiredly. “I shoulda known this soulmate thing would involve way too much of it.”
“You don’t have to-” started Bucky, because the last thing he needed was an explanation of just why Clint wasn’t interested in connecting properly with him.
“I do,” interrupted Clint, and he moved to lean on the fence next to Bucky, close enough that their arms were pressed together. “I’ve clearly been giving you all the wrong messages by not saying anything. See, it’s not that Hydra brainwashed you into their assassin that’s the problem because, seriously, that’s not a reason to reject someone, that’s a reason to make sure they get all the good things to try and make up for it.”
He paused, and when Bucky glanced at him, he was staring down at a goat who was bleating at them, clearly hoping for some food. “Well, or I guess that is it. I don’t know that I count as anything close to being a good thing. Not after the last few years. I’m kinda fucked up, Bucky. You deserve a lot better.”
Bucky couldn’t keep in an incredulous laugh. “I deserve better? Are you kidding me? Plus, look around you, Clint. Everyone’s fucked up by the last few years.”
Clint firmly shook his head. “No one else went off a murderous rampage, no one else did the shit I did.” He took a deep breath. “Doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m beginning to realise just how wrong that was. Keeping away and pretending I had good reasons not to tell you about us was stupid. I was just hiding from myself that this is it. We don’t get a second chance on soulmates, so you’re stuck with me.”
“The whole point of soulmates is that you don’t want a second chance,” Bucky said. “If we didn’t fit together, we wouldn’t have each other’s icons.”
“Yeah,” said Clint, very quietly, but he didn’t sound much like he believed it.
Fuck, how were they meant to be anything to each other when they both thought the other deserved better?
“At any rate,” said Clint, straightening and turning to look at Bucky, “there’s no sense in us not taking every chance to get to know each other. You were right yesterday about spending time together, especially as neither of us has anything else to do right now. So, please. Come to the zoo with me. We can get lunch there, and I can, I don’t know, buy you a toy goat or something as an apology for being a dick.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “I don’t need a toy goat,” he said, “but sure.”
He reached down to give the goats one last petting before they left, because they were cute as hell and totally deserved it.
But then, zoos had a very different vibe to memorials. Bucky found himself relaxing as well, rolling his eyes at Clint’s excitement but barely able to contain his smile at the same time. He let Clint talk him into a photo in front of the wolves’ enclosure that he sent to Shuri without bothering with a caption. She sent back a string of wolf and heart emojis, and then a demand to know who he was with. Bucky shoved his phone back in his pocket without answering and followed Clint over to the llamas.
“Now llamas are a good animal to farm,” said Clint, leaning on the fence and watching the nearest one chew something and give them an unimpressed stare. “Much less hassle than goats.”
“Maybe I like a little hassle,” said Bucky. “I was friends with Steve, wasn’t I?”
Clint snorted a laugh. “That’s an excellent point,” he said. “And good news, because you would not believe how much hassle I am.”
“You ever tried to take three guys on while having an asthma attack?” asked Bucky, because that incident had made such a mark on his memory that even after everything Hydra had done to him, it stood out, crystal-clear.
“Nah, never had asthma,” said Clint. “Broken arm though, and I took on a whole terrorist cell. And beat them all, don’t listen to Nata-” He abruptly cut himself off and the smile fell off his face. “Fuck,” he muttered, and ducked his head as if to hide his expression, but Bucky had already caught the pain in it.
He leaned into Clint, pressing a shoulder against his and waiting the moment out, because he had no idea what else to do. How did you help someone mourning the most important person in their life?
Clint let out a long breath. “Anyway, llamas. And alpacas, why not?”
“Is that your plan then?” asked Bucky, taking the change of conversation. “Get your own farm?”
Clint shrugged. “Got to get to all the Bartons before I can make any other plans.” He straightened up. “C’mon, let’s go find a gift shop. See if I can find some crap to send my nephews and niece.”
Bucky nodded and followed him, taking one last look at the llamas, who had apparently lost all interest in them. He couldn’t help picturing a farm house surrounded by a few acres, half given over to llamas and alpacas, and half to a flock of goats. For the first time, it felt like he’d found a future he could enjoy.
Which was stupid, because Clint had just been talking, not making actual plans, and even if he had been, there was nothing to say Bucky would be invited.
Clint went through the giftshop like a man on a mission while Bucky hung back by the exit, hands shoved in his pockets as he watched the swarms of children running about, shrieking with excitement and setting every last one of his nerves on fire. How could Clint say goats were a hassle when he’d spent years living with three kids, with all the noise and stress that came with that?
“C’mon,” said Clint, coming over with a bag and a satisfied grin. “Let’s see if we can find a Post Office where I can send this lot off.”
They went back out to the parking lot. They’d left Clint’s car in Barton in the Beans and Bucky had driven them both over. Originally, the plan had been for Clint to drive, but Bucky had taken one look at the trash littering his rental car, and refused to set foot in it. How the hell did a guy made that much mess in only a couple of weeks of road-tripping?
“Hey,” said Clint once they were back in the car, rummaging in his giftshop bag. “I got you something.”
He pulled out a keyring and handed it to Bucky with a grin. A tiny metal goat hung from it.
Bucky stared at it for longer than he probably should have. When was the last time someone had got him a present?
Well, Shuri and T’Challa had given him a new arm, and all the armour and weapons he needed, but that wasn’t the same thing. Clint wasn’t giving it to Bucky because he expected him to join in a war.
“If you don’t want it, I can always send it to my niece,” said Clint, and Bucky tore his eyes off the keyring to look up at his face, at the uncertainty there.
“No,” he said, reaching out and taking it. “It’s great. Really great. Thank you.” He examined it for a moment, turning it over. “I don’t have any keys, though,” he pointed out. “Other than for the rental car, and they already have a keyring.”
Clint shrugged, relaxing back against the car door. “Just keep it until you have some, then.”
Bucky thought fleetingly about that farm again, then pushed it away, shoved the keyring in his pocket, and started the car.
They’d got a corner table so that both their backs were to walls, but it was too small for the sprawl of Clint’s legs. He kept nudging against Bucky’s knee then pulling away, and Bucky didn’t know how to make it clear that he was welcome to rest his leg against Bucky’s. The last time he’d been involved in that kind of casual touching, he’d been seventy years younger and a lot more relaxed about it.
They had a couple of drinks with dinner, and then a couple of drinks after, because they didn’t have anywhere to go except the caravan so they might as well stay where it was warm and cosy. Bucky probably should have stopped after one, given that he was driving, but alcohol had stopped having any impact on him about the time Zola got his hands on him the first time.
Besides, he was enjoying himself. The more he talked to Clint, the more he found he had to say, until most of the evening had passed by without him really noticing.
The more Clint drank, the more relaxed he became, until he’d given up moving his leg away from Bucky’s and had slumped back against the wall behind him, grinning lazily at Bucky as he teased him about- something. Bucky wasn’t too sure any more, too busy memorising the curve of Clint’s mouth and the precise location of his dimples.
Fuck, his soulmate was so hot. How the hell had he lucked out like that?
“Didja see the dart board when we came in?” asked Clint. “Bet I can beat you.”
“No bet,” said Bucky, because he wasn’t an idiot. “I’ve read your file.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Ah, come on. I’ve read your file too, it’s not like you couldn’t keep up. Plus, I’m drunk.”
Bucky snorted. “Now you sound like a hustler.”
Clint sat forward, leaning his elbows on the table, and waggled his eyebrows at Bucky. “C’mon, live a little. What have you got to lose?”
He was sudden very close to Bucky, his eyes close enough for Bucky to see just how blue they were.
“Okay, but I’m not making any bets,” he said, picking up his pint and standing up.
“Course not,” said Clint, far too innocently.
“I feel like the ex-fist of Hydra shouldn’t be that naive,” said Clint, as they headed back out to the car.
Bucky sighed. “I just got distracted,” he muttered, because watching Clint hit bullseyes had been very distracting. “And I figured I could trust you. You were an Avenger.”
Clint snorted. “I was a carnie long before that,” he said, grinning at Bucky for a moment before getting in the car.
Bucky got in the driver’s side. “It doesn’t matter that much,” he said. “Getting to choose dinner for the next week isn’t a huge deal.”
Although it had felt like it when Clint suggested it as a bet, because it meant he intended them to be together for at least the next week, and eating together every evening.
“Yeah, it is. We’re going to have so much pizza,” said Clint, with intense pleasure.
Bucky sighed, and started the car.
The drive back to the caravan was down dark country roads that Bucky needed to concentrate on more than he really wanted to when Clint was slumped in the passenger seat, sprawled out and still teasing Bucky with an edge of glee to his voice. Bucky wanted to just pull over so he could watch Clint, and tease him back, and-
Shit. This soulmate thing really had come on a lot faster than Bucky would have figured.
When they got to Bob’s farm, the goats had all been put in the barn for the night, which was really disappointing. Bucky paused for a moment to look around their empty field, until Clint nudged his shoulder.
“They’ll be back in the morning,” he pointed out.
“I know,” growled Bucky, and headed into the caravan.
It was little more than two beds with a narrow gap between them and a bathroom barely big enough for Bucky to fit in without knocking into the walls. From the thumps and yelps when Clint was in there, his extra height made just enough difference to change that. Or maybe he was just clumsier than Bucky, and a bit drunk on top of it.
Bucky stripped down to a t-shirt and his boxers and got into the bed on the side that looked out onto the empty goat field, so he’d be able to see them first thing when he woke up. He felt weirdly nervous, and it wasn’t until he realised that it was the first time he was going to sleep in the same room as someone else since the ‘40s that he figured out why.
Well, unless you counted being cryogenically frozen, which he did not.
Clint came out rubbing his elbow and scowling, but Bucky wasn’t paying any attention, because he’d taken his shirt off in the bathroom, and was wearing only his underwear.
Holy shit, that was a lot of finely-honed muscle.
“Next Barton we stop at better have bigger bathroom,” muttered Clint, dumping his clothes on his bag, apparently oblivious to the moment Bucky was having.
His abs, Jesus Christ.
Clint turned to look at the narrow single bed, and sighed. “And decent sized beds,” he added, pulling back the covers and climbing in. “You may be a shortass, but some of us need room to stretch out.” He demonstrated by trying to straighten his legs, thumping his feet up against the wall of the caravan.
“I’m a perfectly reasonable height,” said Bucky, pulling himself together once all the bare skin had been covered up by the blanket. “You’re the one with the problem.”
Not entirely true, the bed wasn’t quite long enough for Bucky either, but he’d slept worse places. A lot worse.
Clint let out a long, irritated sigh. “Bullshit,” he muttered, turning over and snuggling into the blanket like he was trying to make himself into a burrito. “Turn the light out.”
Bucky eyed the shape of his back for a moment, then reached up and turned the light out.
And then there was nothing but the dark, the faint sound of Clint’s breathing, and the thing they’d spent all evening carefully not talking about.
“If you wake up while I’m having a nightmare, don’t touch me,” said Bucky softly, into the dark.
There was the faint sound of a shifting blanket, then a sigh. “Yeah, okay.”
A couple more minutes passed, during which Bucky made himself shut his eyes, although he had a feeling sleep was going to take a while.
“Are you really sure you can fix them?” asked Clint, and he sounded half-asleep and oddly childlike, as if he were asking if Santa were real.
“If that guy in the article could, I damn well can,” said Bucky, as firmly as he could, and then tried to believe it.
“Steve!” he shouted, but it wasn’t Steve, and it wasn’t his name being called.
“Natasha!” cried Clint, sounding terrified, and Bucky felt a jolt of realisation.
This wasn’t right.
This wasn’t real.
“Clint!” he shouted, and saw Clint blink as if seeing Bucky for the first time, just as the train handle snapped off.
Bucky plummeted away from Clint, hearing his shout fade into the distance.
This is a dream, he realised.
He was meant to be changing it. He screwed his eyes shut and imagined wings, a soft landing, an end to the fall, anything, but the wind kept rushing past his ears.
There had to be a way for him to fight back against this.
He drew together every scrap of willpower he could find, and threw it all into his effort to change things, screaming with frustration.
All that happened was he hit the ground, crashing onto snow and rocks as pain burst through his arm, and then Hydra were there, pulling him away, leaving a trail of blood that followed them into the dark mouth of a cave, and down to where he could hear the splash of water and terrified gasping.
It’s not torture, it’s not the chair, it’s the beach, sand and sun and no pain, he thought desperately, but no matter how much he struggled against the arms holding him, nothing changed.
The chair was set up next to the trough of water Clint’s head was being held under.
“No!” shouted Bucky, trying to pull away, trying to dig his heels in to stop himself from being dragged over to the chair, trying to make anything other than the inevitable happen. “This isn’t real, it’s not real, it’s a dream.”
Clint’s head was pulled out of the water and he choked and spluttered, collapsing to the ground as they dropped him.
“It’s not real!” Bucky insisted, but he was being forced into the chair and the straps were being snapped shut.
Fuck, he was letting Clint down. He’d promised he’d be able to do this, but nothing he did had any impact.
He stared at the defeated, miserable shape of Clint on the floor, pulling in desperate breaths with fear etched on his face. That was his soulmate, and he couldn’t stop this happening to him, even when it was only in their minds.
The figure looming over Clint kicked at his ribs. “Tell us!” he demanded. Clint gathered himself up enough to spit at his feet.
“Again!” commanded the man, and two others grabbed Clint’s arms, pulling him up and preparing to put his head underwater again.
The chair was powering up at the same time, and electricity hit Bucky just as Clint’s head was forced under. He screwed his eyes shut, trying to hold in his scream as pain soared through him, lighting up every nerve ending.
It went on and on, excruciating second after excruciating second, but unlike every time Hydra had done this to him for real, when everything had disappeared from his mind but the pain and the desperate desire to do anything to make it stop, right now all he could think about was Clint.
How long could he hold his breath? How long had it even been? What would happen if Clint drowned in a nightmare?
After an eternity, the chair powered down and the pain retreated, and Bucky opened his eyes, fixing them on Clint.
He had been dropped back down to the floor, choking up water, and Bucky’s heart ached worse than any of the pain the chair had inflicted.
That was his soulmate and he just wanted to take care of him. How had it ended like this, when all he wanted was to wrap him in a blanket and stroke his back until he could breathe again, hold him close and-
The cave flickered, warm light flooding the scene for a moment, and then Bucky was awake.
He sat up with a gasp, blinking hard against the dark of the caravan, and turned to look at Clint. “Clint,” he called, and reached a hand out over the gap between the beds to shake his shoulder. “Clint! Wake up.”
Clint pulled in a broken breath. “I’m awake,” he said. “Aw fuck.”
Bucky left his hand resting on Clint’s shoulder because he couldn’t bring himself to stop touching him just yet, not until he’d erased all the images of watching him gasping for breath on the wet floor of the cave.
He didn’t say anything though, because what could he say? He’d been wrong about being able to change their dreams.
Except right in the last instant before they’d woken up, when the cave had lit up, he could have sworn he’d seen a blanket around Clint.
Clint let out a groan, curling tighter in on himself. “Fuck this,” he muttered, and it sounded like there were tears on the edge of his voice. “Fuck it, just fuck it. I can’t keep doing this, I thought I was over it, I can’t-” His voice cracked, and Bucky couldn’t take it any longer.
“Can I hold you?” he asked, stroking his hand over Clint’s shoulder, and got a dip of Clint’s head, enough of a nod for him to shift across the gap between their beds, lifting Clint’s blanket and curling in close around him. He wrapped his arms around Clint as if he could protect him from all the shit that had already happened to him.
There wasn’t quite enough room in the bed, even when Clint moved right over next to the wall, and Bucky could feel his ass hanging off the edge, but as long as Clint was in his arms, that didn’t matter.
“I’m so sorry,” he said softly against the back of Clint’s neck, holding on as Clint struggled to control his breathing. “It shouldn’t be like that.”
“Guess that’s just what happens when you’re fucked up,” muttered Clint, and then he cracked. “Fuck,” he bit off, and Bucky could hear the tears in his voice. “Oh fuck, Bucky, being soulmates is meant to be a good thing, why the hell is it like this?”
Bucky didn’t have an answer for him. He just hold on as tightly as he could, wishing that the first time he got to feel Clint in his arms was under better circumstances. Having him there, so warm and the perfect size for Bucky to hold, even with his extra inches of height, should have felt like a special kind of miracle, but instead all Bucky could feel was the heartsick ache of knowing that he’d hurt him. That they were hurting each other, every single night.
God, he’d had his first proper conversation with the guy less than two days ago, how the hell did he already mean so much to him?
“Jesus fuck,” gritted out Clint, and Bucky stroked a hand over his chest, rubbing in small circles like he had for Steve a million years ago, when he was tiny and his lungs were stubborn about working.
Clint let out a hitched breath and then slowly, so slowly, relaxed back into Bucky’s arms, until they were nestled together about as close as they could get. Bucky was very aware that Clint was only wearing boxers and all his warm bare skin was right there, under his hands.
“Sorry,” said Clint, once he was breathing calmly and steadily again, putting a hand up to touch where Bucky’s was holding him close. “I didn’t meant to go to pieces like that.”
“It’s okay,” said Bucky. “If you can’t do it with your soulmate, who can you do it with?"
Clint snorted. “Right,” he said, then let out a breath. “You know, this is nothing like I figured it would be. And I don’t mean the nightmares bit, I mean…” He trailed off, and Bucky gave him a gentle squeeze, hoping to coax the words out of him but unwilling to open his mouth in case of saying the wrong thing.
“I’m drifting,” said Clint, frankly. “This Bartons thing, it’s just an excuse. I’ve been feeling lost every since…” he trailed off, but Bucky didn’t need him to fill in the end of that. “I’ve been wandering about, trying to work out what to do next, what to build my life around now that SHIELD’s gone, Nat’s gone, I’m too old and tired to go back to the Avengers and my brother’s not real keen on having me around his family until I pull my head out of my ass. And then you turned up. Or, well, and then I saw a leaflet for a memorial site and felt a weird urge to go, even though I’ve seen more than enough memorials in the last few years, and there you were, waiting for me. Just sitting there in the sun with your eyes shut, looking like some kinda...I don’t know. A model for the power of zen, maybe.”
Bucky snorted. “I was thinking about how I’d never find anywhere to fit in, especially after Steve did what he did.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. That was a dick move,” agreed Clint. “Anyway, doesn’t matter what you were thinking about, because as soon as I saw you, something in me just went ‘oh, there he is’, like I’d been looking for you the whole time. And since then, well. I know I was trying to pretend this wasn’t everything but, Bucky-” he broke off and dragged in a ragged breath. “I’ve never felt anything like this,” he said in a whisper.
Bucky clung on to him tighter, pushing his face into Clint’s neck and breathing in the smell of his skin. “Me neither,” he confessed. “I was looking for something too. I thought it was memories, or somewhere I could fit in, but I reckon it was you.”
It wasn’t just Clint, though. It was this right here, having someone to hold in his arms and take care of, someone who Bucky could keep safe instead of hurt. This was what he’d been missing ever since he’d broken Hydra’s control, and even before then. He’d needed his soulmate, here with him where he could stroke a hand over his skin and press a kiss to his neck and chase away the terrors of the past.
He’d needed Clint.
Clint squeezed at Bucky’s hand, then turned over as carefully as possible, nearly pushing Bucky out of bed in the process.
They were definitely going to a proper hotel in the next place, one with beds big enough for two grown men to cuddle in.
Clint wrapped an arm around Bucky’s waist, pulling him in close and anchoring him in place. Bucky’s t-shirt had ridden up and he could feel the rough brush of Clint’s calluses against his skin.
“Well, we found each other,” said Clint, quietly, and Bucky could see the gleam of his eyes in the darkness as he searched over Bucky’s face. “We got here. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to let some shitty memories ruin it. Fuck these nightmares, it’s not like they’re real.”
“I think I did something,” said Bucky. “I think I was fixing it, just before we woke up. I was trying to fight it, but that wasn’t working, not when I was fighting for myself, I needed to…” He’d needed to take care of Clint, like he’d promised he would.
He didn’t say that though, because he didn’t want to make any false promises to Clint, not after he’d failed so badly last time.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Clint. “Just dreams, right?”
He didn’t sound completely sure, so Bucky pulled him in tighter, holding on to him. “Just dreams,” he agreed, wishing he couldn’t feel the tension lying under Clint’s skin.
Clint sighed, and rested his head against Bucky's. Bucky stroked a hand over his back, trying to concentrate on soothing the tension out rather than the smooth feel of his muscles, because now really wasn't a good time to get turned on.
Holding Clint close, feeling him pressed warm and safe against him, untangled a knot of stress in Bucky's chest that he hadn't known he had. Feeling him slowly drop back to sleep, completely content to be vulnerable while being held by the Winter Soldier, went a long way to eradicate the last of Bucky's fears that Clint didn't want him.
He let his own eyes fall shut, putting aside the fear of another nightmare because he couldn't imagine having one while he had Clint so close and relaxed against him.
Clint was on the cliff above him, leaning down with his hand outstretched, looking distraught as Bucky plummeted further and further away from him.
No, thought Bucky. Not this time.
This time he was going to protect Clint from the pain of remembering Natasha’s death. He was going to take care of him, somewhere warm and safe, and there wasn’t going to be a fall, or torture. He squeezed his eyes shut, and focused on Clint being okay as hard as he could.
He hit the ground, but it only felt like he’d fallen a few inches and he was able to stay on his feet. When he opened his eyes, there was a hot sun overhead, plains instead of mountains, and best of all, Clint was right next to him, where Bucky could reach out and take his hand, linking their fingers together.
“Holy shit,” said Clint, giving him a wide-eyed stare and then looking around. “I don’t- Where are we?”
Bucky pulled his eyes away from Clint’s face to look around. “Wakanda.”
That was his hut, and next to it were his goats. The sun was hot but not scorching, there was a gentle breeze, and Bucky couldn’t see anyone else for miles. No Hydra, no terrorists, no one.
“You did it,” said Clint, unsteadily, and he turned to stare at Bucky with awe.
“Yeah,” said Bucky, and grinned. “I figured it out.” And for once it wasn’t about fighting, not like everything else in his life had been. It was about taking care of someone he loved.
He was more than happy to make the change.
“I can’t believe you did it,” said Clint, and moved in closer to Bucky, wrapping an around his waist. “No more nightmares!”
He sounded giddy with the realisation, and Bucky grinned back, looping his arms around Clint in return. “Here’s hoping.”
Clint leaned down to rest his forehead against Bucky’s. “I know you think I had a problem with having you as a soulmate,” he said in a low voice, “but I didn’t. I don’t. You’re the best thing I could imagine.”
Bucky had no idea what to say to that but luckily he didn’t need to, because Clint leaned in, slowly enough that Bucky could have pulled away if he wanted to, but he had no intention of ever doing so. Not when the alternative was getting to kiss Clint, their lips moving together in a lazy caress while goats bleated nearby and the warm sun of the first place Bucky had felt comfortable in seventy years shone down on them.
Once they were back on the road, Clint driving with a happy half-smile as he rested one hand on the wheel and the other on his thigh, Bucky ignored the landscape in favour of watching Clint. He had no idea how long it was going to take before the novelty of having his soulmate next to him wore off, but he was perfectly happy to revel in the sheer glee of it for as long as he could.
The position of Clint’s arm meant that Bucky could see the line of icons marching across it. His childhood in Brooklyn, the Army, Hydra and his time in Wakanda all neatly laid out next to each other as if Bucky’s life been a natural progression that ended with the final, unsettled icon, rather than a series of fucked up events that no one could have predicted.
After about ten miles, Bucky let himself reach out and take Clint’s hand, folding their fingers together. Clint glanced over at him with a grin, and Bucky couldn’t stop himself from smiling back.
“You know,” said Clint, “there’s a Barnes near London. I looked it up.”
Bucky snorted. “Are you sure you want to just spend the next few months driving around all the shitty nowhere places that share our names?”
“Yup,” said Clint, and squeezed at his hand. “As long as you’re right there with me, what the hell does it matter where we’re going?”
And yeah, that felt right to Bucky in a way that his wanderings before he’d ended up at the memorial arboretum never had.
“Shit,” muttered Clint, flinching away from Bucky and taking his eyes off the road to glance at his arm. Bucky’s chest burnt with the sudden warmth of an icon settling into shape at the same time, and he pressed a hand to it.
“Did you…?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Clint, pulling over the car. The moment they’d stopped moving he held his arm out to Bucky, showing him the new icon.
A place sign reading Barton was surrounded by the silhouette of a car, with a pair of linked hands over the top. Bucky traced a finger over it. That meant that he and Clint were going to stay together, that this weird road trip was going to last long enough, and mean enough to him, to be one of the pivotal phases of his life.
“Guess you’re going to have to get used to the usual state of my cars,” said Clint, grinning.
“No way,” said Bucky, because he was not living surrounded by trash. He sat back so he could pull his t-shirt off, exposing the new icon on his own chest.
It was identical to the one on Clint’s arm. They were going to share this phase of their lives completely. Clint pressed a finger to it and Bucky shivered at the touch.
“If I’d known you were going to be coming along, I’da left the north American Bartons for after Australia,” said Clint.
Bucky shrugged. “There’s gotta be some more Barneses, right?”
A goat and a llama, nestled cosily together under the tree that grew by the front gate of their new farm.
Clint inspected his arm carefully, then looked up with a frown. “Don’t think this means I’m going to learn to love goats.”
Bucky snorted, because Clint hadn’t been kidding anyone with his attempts to hide his excitement when they’d gone to inspect their new flock the other day. “You already do.”
Clint rolled his eyes, then stepped in close to Bucky. “Nah, it’s you I love,” he said, and kissed him.
Bucky wrapped his arms around him, holding him as close as he did every night as they slept together, sharing dreams that were never allowed to turn into nightmares, and kissed him back.