1935 – Age 16
Steve snuck up the stairs once the lights had been put out, careful to jump over the third and seventh steps - they creaked loud enough to wake the dead, let alone the nuns that were asleep nearby. He’d learned that the hard way.
He crept up to the very top of the attic stairs, glancing back into the darkness to make sure no one had followed him and then tapping once on the doorframe, still cautious of making too much noise. The door creaked open, and he stepped inside, letting his friend close the door behind him.
He couldn't see inside the room yet, as even the corridor outside was better lit than this. It would take a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, the only light filtered through the uncovered window and penetrating a thick layer of grime. But gradually he became able to make out the vague shape of Bucky's bed, of the box where he kept his few possessions. He knew the layout inside out anyway, because this was his favourite place in the world. This was Bucky's room, for now.
Tomorrow morning, Bucky would be leaving the orphanage and going to start a new life. As the second oldest boy in the home, it would be Steve's room by tomorrow afternoon.
Steve coughed, covering his mouth with both hands to try and stop the noise escaping. He was always in trouble here, always the one to draw the worst sort of attention. He wasn’t meant to be here now either, but he had to see Bucky, had to say goodbye. Bucky was the only guy who’d been decent to him. Ever since Steve had arrived, he'd been different, and he'd needed punishment for that. At those thoughts, his back began to sting once more, and he swallowed back tears. Even after five years, the pain was still great.
"Chin up..." Bucky had managed to close the door now, and moved the box into its path, stopping anyone else from coming in. Even if the nuns heard them now, they had some privacy. He made his way over to the bed and laid down, holding his arms out to Steve. "It's not that bad."
Steve shrugged, climbing in beside him and closing his eyes. Bucky was right, it wasn’t so bad when Bucky was there. He felt safe in Bucky's arms. Ever since he had arrived here, it had been Bucky that had stood up for him, who cared about him and made sure that he was safe. It was Bucky who had kept him strong, who had stolen food and medicine for him when he needed it, who had taken the blame so many times to spare Steve another beating. It was only Bucky that really cared if he survived or not.
"I don't want you to go..." He whispered between coughs. Ruffling Steve’s hair, Bucky shook his head, his voice fond.
"I don't want to go either Stevie, but I gotta. They can’t keep me here forever. And I got a job, you know that. That little shop just down the road. Maybe I'll even be able to get my hands on some sweets for you huh? That'd be good. You’ll make me spend all my money on you, you little punk."
Steve nodded, squirming his way down the mattress so his head was resting on Bucky's chest. Bucky found the old scars on his shoulders, and ran his fingers over the ridges in a way that helped Steve to relax. Steve closed his eyes as more coughs escaped, muffling them with both hands. He tried to concentrate on how gently Bucky rubbed his back, on the scent of his body and the steady beat of his heart.
"I know Buck... 's just, well..." He flinched a little, thinking of the man his mother had had a relationship when he was young. He’d been a drinker and a violent man, but one that Steve had been fond of. He'd been too young to understand why they kept arguing, and when he'd left, it had just added to the certainty Steve had that he was cursed. Then he'd lost his mother, and now Bucky... "Everyone I care about leaves me."
"I aint gonna leave you Stevie. Someone needs to keep an eye on you; God knows you'd get yourself in trouble if I didn't. 'S just for a few months. Til you finish school and find a job. Then we'll get a room together right? We'll share a room in a boarding house and it'll be alright, cos I'm gonna keep an eye on you."
Steve nodded, and he yawned again. Bucky was his best friend, had been since the day five years ago when he had first arrived, and now he was losing him. It scared him. But the knowledge that Bucky was here for now soothed him, and the arms around him meant that he could relax.
"Just get some sleep Stevie. I'll wake you up before I go, alright? I'm not going to just run out on you."
Steve nodded and closed his eyes.
It wasn't a good night for him. It never was, not when he was worried. It made his breathing worse, and anyway, winter was on its way. That cold was part of the reason he had sought out Bucky's company so often. None of the staff at the orphanage liked him enough to give him an extra blanket, and with the temperature as low as it was tonight, he was going to suffer from it.
But tonight, it wasn't the cold that plagued him, or the latest cough that had burrowed deep into his lungs. Tonight, he was haunted by his memories and the knowledge that soon, Bucky would be gone for good.
Steve had been a happy boy when he was young, despite the fact he often got sick. His mother might not have been rich, but she had always made him feel loved, and he had been brought up to believe that there were other things which mattered more than health and money. His mother had always made sure he had enough to eat, even when she had to go hungry herself, and for as long as he could remember, he had run errands for the neighbours on the days he was healthy enough to walk about, in order to earn a few extra cents. With him doing what he could, and her working long days in the hospital, they could survive. They had no luxuries, but they just about scraped by.
His mother had loved him. Even now, aged sixteen and having lost her five years ago, he didn't doubt that for a moment. She had never treated him like a freak or a burden, even though he knew now that he had been. The nuns had taught him that, but in his innocence he had never known.
That had changed when he had come here. The nuns had taught him that he was unnatural, and immoral, and sinful. That he was hated, and should be hated. That he was cursed. The wings on his back, whose soft white feathers had provided such comfort when his mother had run her fingers through them, were a sign that he should be despised, and he had never known.
He'd been eleven when he'd come to the orphanage, lost and more alone than he had ever been, and it hadn't made sense. He had known back then that very few people had wings of any kind. The few other men he had seen with them had been those begging on the streets, or the youths at the boarding house over the road who would get visitors at all times of the night and drank heavily. But he hadn't known back then that having wings made you bad.
His mother had called him her little angel, her good luck charm. It didn't matter what was happening, how bad things got. He was her little angel and she loved him, and he had thought that was true, that it was actually what he was. That the wings had meant he was special. He had been proud of them. Now, that thought made him feel sick.
Sometimes the other kids had called him names, but he'd ignored them. They hadn't liked him, and he couldn't join in their games due to his poor health. He refused to let them upset him. He wanted to do well.
The man his mother had become involved with had called him names too. Sometimes those names had been accompanied by fists, when the scent of alcohol on the man's breath was particularly strong. After those nights his mother would yell and cradle Steve, and promise he had done nothing wrong. Eventually the man left, taking what little jewellery his mother had with him. But the two of them had carried on.
They had carried on through cold winters and long bouts of sickness, until his mother had been the one to fall ill. Cruelly, whilst Steve had always recovered eventually, his mother's condition had simply worsened. She had cried in front of him for the first time, and held him close, apologising and worrying he’d catch her illness. He'd just kept telling her he loved her.
"Never forget that you deserve to be loved Stevie. You're a good boy, and a good son. Sweet dreams my little angel." She'd whispered that to him one night, when he was beginning to fall asleep, and the next morning he had woken to find her body cold in the bed beside him, her eyes no longer lit by life.
There had been nowhere for him to go but the orphanage. The two uncles he had held no interest in a sickly boy like him, not when they had little money themselves. Not when he had wings. So he had come to Our Lady's Orphanage, small for his age, carrying a handful of letters from his mother, a pencil, and a few sheets of paper he was drawing on. He had no photographs of her, and only a couple of changes of clothes. It was all he owned in the world.
Steve groaned in his sleep, turning over and burrowing into Bucky's side. An arm slung around his back, rubbing a thumb over his shoulder blade and he quieted a little.
The nuns had not been pleased to see him. Naive child that he was, it hadn't even occurred to him to try and hide his wings. He’d been too busy clutching his letters to his chest, worrying about keeping his precious possessions safe. The sister who had greeted him would have been pretty if she smiled, but her eyes were hard and her lips too thin for her rounded face. She looked him up and down, and shook her head, muttering under her breath.
"Those'll have to go." Steve had clutched his pieces of paper closer, frightened they would be taken from him. He hadn’t learned until later that her name was Sister Tabitha, but within a few months the name would be burned into his memory so that he could never forget.
He'd been shown to a small room, with five beds crammed into it. They were so close together you had to crawl across the first ones to get to those further in, and the room was draughty and cold. There were four other boys around his age, who were all already close friends. Steve was up against an outside wall on the far bed and within three days, the poor food and horrible weather had made him sick - a bad chest cold that lead to him coughing all hours of the day and night.
The other boys didn’t like him. They wouldn’t talk to him, busy among themselves and in a pre-existing group. He was on the outside looking at them, with no way in. He sat alone at meals and in class, then returned to a cold bed and coughed his way through the night.
"You wanna swap beds?" Another one of the boys had asked on the fourth day. It was the brunet in the bed next to him, a year older than Steve himself at twelve. Steve hadn't really talked to anyone yet, but he'd watched them – he always watched, and he knew this one. This was the boy that the nuns called James and the other boys called Bucky. A rowdy boy with a bunch of brothers, and a sister lost somewhere in a girls home. He was a joker, always in trouble but never badly enough for anything to stick. Steve was nervous around him, but Bucky either hadn't noticed or didn't care.
Steve hesitated. He wasn’t sure what his mother would have made of the boy, as he was naughty, but maybe she would have wanted him to have friends. He knew she wouldn’t want him to be somewhere that’d make him ill.
"You'll get sick." Steve muttered, knowing that his bed was the worst of the lot. That was why he’d been given it
"You're already gonna keep me awake with your coughing, might as well see if we can swap. Might mean the lot of us get some sleep. I'm Bucky." A grubby hand was thrust out at him, and Steve shook it.
"Good to meet you Steve. Now budge over and get some sleep, we got class in the morning."
Steve had moved along to the next bed. Here, the chill breeze wasn't quite so harsh, and if he cocooned himself in a blanket it didn't hurt to breathe. Bucky patted his shoulder, and Steve had closed his eyes and gone to sleep, smiling a little at the thought of the fact he had a friend.
He had slept peacefully for the first time since he had arrived with Bucky lying next to him. It felt like he was safe. He woke at the sound of the bell to call them to prayer, and filed into line with the other boys, to wash and then go to pray. Bucky reappeared next to him in the line for breakfast. He grinned at him, a cheeky smile which had been new to Steve then, but in time would become as familiar as breathing.
A sudden wave of coughing had overtaken Steve, robbing him of the ability to speak and leaving him nodding helplessly.
Bucky patted him on the back, and paused.
"Come sit with me."
Steve glanced over at the table of Barnes boys - there were four of them, not including Bucky. The youngest of the boys was six, and the oldest was fifteen, which to Steve felt very old indeed. They were all already there, laughing and joking and being loud. Steve nibbled his lip, slightly scared of such a big family. Bucky followed his gaze.
"Oh, we don't gotta sit with them." Bucky promised. "We can sit just us while you eat, and then you can come over to my brothers for lunch, okay?"
Steve nodded, a little overwhelmed by it all. Bucky guided him over to a spare seat, and sat with him. Steve began to eat, hungry, trying to ignore the size of the portion in his bowl.
"Hey, Steve, your portion is a lot smaller than mine." Bucky pointed out, pushing some of the porridge into Steve's bowl with the back of a spoon. "There you go..."
"Thanks." Steve whispered reverentially, picking up some of the weak porridge with a spoon and bringing it to his lips. He was stunned by Bucky's kindness. It was something new to him. No one had been kind since he’d lost his mother.
"'s fine. So..." Bucky looked past Steve's face, to the elegant white wings on his shoulders. "I never met anyone with wings before. Not to talk to."
"I was just..." Steve shrugged, his wings stretching slightly, the feathers rustling as though they had a breeze ruffling through them. He felt proud, and he wanted to show them off. "Born with them."
"They... look wonderful... can you fly?"
"A little..." Steve shook with a sudden burst of coughing. "It hurts though, sometimes. I should be able to. But I get sick."
"You get sick a lot." Bucky answered, looking down at him. Steve shrugged.
"I guess. But I tend to get better again after..."
Bucky nodded, his gaze still fixed on the white feathers which seemed to almost glow in the pale morning light.
"They... they look real nice...Can I touch them?"
"Sure." Steve answered, his wings stretching further. He was just so happy that he might be getting a friend. A friend who liked his wings, who didn't call him bad names. He stretched the feathers out, basking in the praise.
Bucky leaned over, reaching out with one hand to trace his fingers over the feathers, making Steve preen a little and tilt into the contact. It felt so nice to have his feathers touched with tenderness, not hate.
"What do you think you are doing?" Sister Jane snapped at them, making both boys jump. She looked down at them with ill-disguised disgust, her lip curled back a little. "Rogers. I expected better of you than corrupting Barnes."
"I'm already corrupt." Bucky shot back, but she ignored him, grabbing Steve's wrist and pulling him away from Bucky, to the front of the hall. Then she had cleared her throat, drawing the attention of all of the other boys.
"Rogers here might be new, but newness does not excuse the way he has been behaving, the fact he has been corrupting those here. Anyone who tries to harm the other boys is punished, you all know that..." There was a chorus of agreement from the assembled boys, and Steve had tensed, not knowing where this was going but sure that it was going to hurt.
She had pulled a strip of wood from where it hung on the wall, and while the boys watched she had raised it. Steve had heard her saying something about counting to ten. He understood what was going to happen then, and took a deep breath to brace himself for the pain he expected to lance across his shoulders or his bottom. What he hadn't expected was the agony of the strip being brought down upon the top of his left wing, nearly knocking him off his feet.
He had begun to scream, and the blow had been repeated. That time, he had felt the bone give way, heard the crack of it as the room swum from the agony of it all.
Steve startled awake, skin pale and clammy, panting for air as he sat up, trying to push the quilt off of him. Bucky sat up beside him, pulling him close once more.
"Are you alright Steve?"
Steve shook his head, and Bucky held him tighter.
"What is it?"
"My... My wings..." Steve gasped, glancing down in shame. It was five years since what had happened happened. There was no way they could still hurt, no source for the pain, but some nights he still felt it badly enough to scream. Bucky was the only one who knew, or who cared.
"Let me see..." Bucky said, something close to tenderness in his voice. When it was just the two of them, Bucky would let some of his exterior toughness slip. It was still there, just not so very obvious, replaced by an inner kindness. Steve moved to sitting up, undoing his blue and white striped shirt with trembling fingers.
"You're shaking." Bucky informed him, batting his fingers away and taking over the job of slipping the buttons through the holes, pushing it down to expose a thin torso with ribs visible, Steve's shoulders sticking out at an awkward angle. "Bad dream?"
"Yeh..." Steve closed his eyes, and didn't specify which memory it was that had caused the nightmare. If Bucky knew, he'd only end up blaming himself. Steve knew it hadn't been Bucky's fault. It would have happened regardless. They'd just been waiting for a reason. Since the nuns had first seen him they had regarded him as trouble, they both knew that. Just because they used Bucky as the reason, it didn't mean it was his fault.
"Lay down." Bucky's voice was confident, and something about it always made Steve feel safe.
He moved to lie on his front, crossing his arms and resting his head on the top part of his arm, twisting a little to look up at Bucky. Bucky straddled him from behind, fingers starting off by exploring his neck and shoulders.
Steve shivered a little, trying not to tense at the knowledge of what came next. The touch itself didn't hurt, it just awoke painful memories. He bit on his own lip to make sure he didn't whimper as Bucky's hands slid lower, onto his shoulder blades, then down the two thick stripes of scar tissue that ran from shoulder to mid back.
Steve shivered a little at that, knowing how it looked. Two thick bands, their meaning unmistakable, and crossed at multiple points by other thinner scars, the residue of particularly violent beatings that he had endured. He'd never forget that day.
1930 - Age 11
He was a sickly child, even more so back then, thin and weak and subdued, but it had still taken four of the nuns to hold him down, to pin his arms and legs and try to stop him fighting. Another, Sister Jane, had been supervising. After all, she had been the one who had caught him and Bucky playing, had seen them lying in the grass together, Bucky's hands running over his wings, checking to see if they were healed. She was responsible for making sure that it was carried out properly.
Steve hadn't known until the moment the agony started, what was going to happen. When Sister Tabitha had stepped into sight holding a large knife, he had not known if she was planning to kill him. But she'd moved behind him, and one of her large hands had grabbed his left wing, pulling it out straight. He had heard Sister Jane begin to speak, heard her saying something about saving him from sin. Then it had started to hurt and he had begun to scream.
He'd thankfully passed out from the pain, and awoken a short while later, his body feeling unbalanced, his back unnaturally light. To start with, he thought that he'd been left alone, but then Sister Mary had approached, to clean his wounds and to stitch them, saving his life by stopping him from bleeding out. He'd made the mistake of looking down, and he had seen his two wings, his pride and joy, lying blood stained on the floor. The room had been spinning and all he had been able to think was that he wasn't his mother's little angel any more.
He'd cried then, as she had stitched and bandaged, his tears broken only by the occasional whimper of pain. When it was over, Sister Mary had ruffled his pink-tinged hair, and handed him an apple, her eyes a little sad. She'd helped him stand, and he had staggered from the room, and into Bucky who had been sitting outside.
Bucky took him back to their dorm, and had sat with him, Steve's head in his lap. Steve had been lying on his front to try and minimise the pain. Bucky's fingers traced through his hair, and he'd whispered to him, telling him stories that were only half-remembered but which soothed.
They'd both missed dinner that night. For the next couple of weeks, Bucky had worked hard, making sure that he did both his and Steve's chores, keeping Steve out of trouble as best as he could. The sisters had still disliked Steve, still criticised him and found every reason they could to hurt him, but it wasn't as bad as before.
It had been hard to walk to start with. Steve's body had felt unbalanced, unnatural. He was used to holding out his wings in order to walk with confidence, to avoid falling, but that option was lost to him now.
"Hey." Bucky climbed up onto the table that Steve was sat at, hands behind him, grinning with something approaching mischief sparkling in his eyes.
"Hey..." Steve echoed. His own voice sounded hollow even to his own ears. There was an emptiness building inside him which if left unchecked could have consumed him totally. But Bucky wouldn't allow for that.
"You managed to walk around the whole garden earlier, back to normal speed too... I saw."
"Didn't know you were watching."
"Someone's got to keep an eye on you bird brain." Bucky answered. His hands were still held behind him and he had begun to wriggle slightly with excitement.
"What you got there Buck?"
"Go on, show me..." Steve pleaded, and Bucky hesitated only a moment longer before he pulled out from behind him a single pure white feather. He handed it over to Steve.
"Saved it from the trash. Thought you better...thought you better hang onto it."
Steve nodded, and reached for his copy of the bible, slipping it carefully inside the cover, where it remained.
"Hey, Steve, don't you dare fall asleep on me..." Bucky poked his shoulder hard once the massage was over.
"I thought you were meant to be keeping the nightmares away." Steve shot back with a grin.
"Yeh, I am, but still, it's not great for my confidence when you fall asleep on me..." He said with a laugh then drew him close again. This time, Steve started to relax properly. The memories still hurt, but it had been five years now. He'd got used to the fact he couldn't fly, couldn't stretch his wings or feel the feathers being brushed. Most of the time, the memories didn't even bother him. It was just some nights, and then Bucky could chase it away.
Not allowing himself to think about the coming morning, the fact Bucky would be gone, Steve fell asleep.
He woke at the sound of the bell calling them awake, and he got up, shivering a little as he stretched, then made his way back to his dorm so that he could get clothes for the day. He found them, and washed in icy water with the rest of the boys. He heard Bucky deep in conversation with another group of boys, and smiled for him. He was glad. It was fantastic that Bucky had friends, even though at times it made him feel more on the outside than before.
Then he went to pray, his bible with the concealed feather in his hand, before heading to breakfast. He sat next to Bucky and smiled, handing over some of Bucky's favourites. He knew what he liked, and today he felt Bucky deserved a treat.
Steve shrugged and grinned, coughing in response, doubling over and gasping for air. He really hated winter, the way it ate into him and killed his immune system. If it was one of the other boys the nuns would probably have given him a break from chores, but Steve was different. He was often sick, and he had had wings. That meant he was worthless in their eyes. He knew that, and accepted it.
Still, he knew that when he left, no one in the outside world would know that he had had wings. At least there was that. The pain they had put him through for it had hurt but it was worth it. He realised that, even if he didn’t want it to be true. He gazed down at the table, fiddling with his cutlery.
Bucky reached out with one hand, rubbing the small of his back and then turning to his food.
"Come on, eat."
Steve finished his breakfast and then headed to clean the bathroom, scrubbing the floor, wiping away the dirt that had built up from the previous day. As he knelt, he started coughing once more, but he continued with his chores. He wasn't going to stop today. If he could get it done as quickly possible, it would mean more time with Bucky.
He stood up, gasping for air, and looked down at the floor. It gleamed back at him and he nodded in satisfaction, then headed out to the kitchen. Bucky normally raced through his chores and then stole some food for himself, so the kitchen was the best place to look for him.
Bucky was there, perched on a counter and watching one of the younger boys working at polishing the candlesticks, an apple passing from hand to hand.
"Hey..." Steve struggled up onto the worktop beside him. "You done?"
"Done, dusted and out of here." Bucky agreed, watching as the younger boy finished the cleaning.
"Well done Sammie. Here..." He threw over the apple. The boy caught it and walked off, leaving the two of them alone.
"I'm..." Steve started, then fell quiet, not knowing how to say he would miss him.
"Yeh, me too." Bucky reached for him, squeezing his hand for a moment then releasing it. "But you'll see me soon, and when it's all done, well, you'll escape too, okay? Come and see me as soon as you can."
"I will." Steve answered, closing his eyes and resting his head on Bucky's shoulder. He reached into the pocket of his pants, pulling out a crumpled letter he had written a few nights ago in an attempt to tell Bucky how much he cared about him. Bucky took it with a nod, pocketing it in return. Then he heard the footsteps of someone approaching and moved away. He couldn't risk getting caught like that. Even once Bucky was gone, he would still be there, and he could get into trouble. He hated that it mattered, but Bucky had told him to be careful. He got told off enough for just existing.
Bucky nodded in approval, and turned to the nun that had arrived, confirming to Sister Jane that he was packed and ready to go. Then he said the rest of his goodbyes. Steve went to class when he was told, and lost the opportunity to watch Bucky's retreat down the road and out of the orphanage where they had both lived for the last half a decade.