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Six Universes

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1.

Steve's mother dies when he is nine. He goes to the orphanage two weeks later, and Steve and Bucky never meet. Bucky doesn't request the 107th, and he does his tour in the Pacific.

2.

Steve's mother dies when he is nine. He goes to the orphanage two weeks later, and Steve and Bucky never meet. Quirk of fate, the universe has a sense of humor, and Bucky ends up with the 107th. He survives the battle against HYDRA, but Steve doesn't go looking for a man he has never met. Nobody mentions the isolation chambers to him, and he concentrates on leading the prisoners he does find out to safety.

Bucky dies, strapped to a table, under a structural beam that collapses on him.

3.

Steve's mother dies when he is nine. He goes to the orphanage two weeks later, and Steve and Bucky never meet. Quirk of fate, the universe has a sense of humor, and Bucky ends up with the 107th. He survives the battle against HYDRA, but one of the prisoners he frees says that HYDRA had other prisoners in the isolation chambers. Steve goes to look for them, spots Zola, and goes down the long, strangely-lit corridor. He finds a man strapped to a table, reciting his name, rank, and military number. Steve gets him off the table, walks him across the beam, and Bucky runs when Steve tells him to run.

Steve makes it across the fiery floor himself. Steve survives. Bucky survives. Bucky goes back to the States with an honorable discharge.

This is a happy ending, at least until instead of activating a plane with a weapon of mass distruction, HYDRA activates Bucky. He proves to be an early example of the practice that the Red Room adopts in another universe: in the right place, a single well-trained, well-placed agent can be more effective than an army.

The world looks very different in this version of the story. Steve Rogers lives for a long time, but eventually dies in a HYDRA experimentation chamber.

4.

Steve's mother dies when he is nine. He goes to the orphanage two weeks later, and Bucky is already there, because his home living situation has never been stable and he is too much for his mother to handle. On the first day, Bucky wages a small, intense campaign of intimidation, verbal and physical. He picks on Steve, holds him upside down. Takes food off Steve's plate. Goes through Steve's bag in front of him, daring him to do anything about it, and when he doesn't find anything worth taking, he dumps Steve's clothes all over the floor, but doesn't find the family picture that Steve slid into a hole in the lining. Him, his father, his mother, happier times, and that night, Bucky corners him in the bathroom that night, holds him upside down and shakes him. Steve has an asthma attack. Bucky drops him, and the boys gather around, watching Steve lie on his side and struggle for breath. Nobody gets the adults. Nobody helps.

Bucky turns his back to crow aboutthis, and Steve takes the chance to stagger up on his knees and tackle Bucky. Bucky comes down hard on his mouth, knocks out a tooth or two. There is a lot of blood.

They give each other space after that. When they turn eighteen, the orphanage boots them out into the world, and at the front gate, they shake hands and part ways. While sitting in a recruiting station, looking at a newspaper and hoping against hope that this time the guy will let him through to at least medical, Steve reads about Bucky's death without knowing it.

5.

Steve's mother dies when he is eleven. Steve and Bucky know each other, are the closest of friends, in no small part because when things got bad at home, Bucky could run around the corner to Mrs. Rogers. Two weeks after Mrs. Rogers dies, Steve goes to the is orphanage that relatively far away, a forty-five minute subway ride, followed by a fifteen minute walk up a long hill. To his credit, Bucky makes the trip goes to the orphanage for visiting day a couple times over the next few months, and for the first year, he answers some letters that Steve sends him after that. What can you expect from an eleven year old kid?

They don't meet again until they're both twenty.

Steve has been out of the orphanage for two years. Bucky has been on his own for -- a couple years, so to speak, and the economy is terrible, but Steve, in his fashion, manages to get himself a job working at a newspaper during the day, helping the art department and even occasionally filling in for the political cartoonist when the guy has one of his episodes. Two nights a week, he swings by the grocer in his old neighborhood; the father goes to English classes two evenings a week, and he trusts Steve to close up the shop, bag up the money, and put it in the safe.

One time, a little before closing, the bell over the door goes, and Steve looks up from the newspaper.

Bucky walks in, hands in pockets. He is wearing a suit, a hat. Goodlooking guy, sharp-looking clothes. He gets a soda, and he digs around in his pocket. He actually pays, putting a nickle on the counter. The man he is with gives Bucky a look, but Bucky ignores it.

"How're you doing?" Bucky says. Easy. Casual. As if yesterday, they were eleven years old, playing in the street in front of the store.

"Not bad."

Bucky smiles and takes his soda off the counter. "You didn't change, Rogers."

Steve lets that pass, and instead, he looks from Bucky's face to the face of Bucky's friend. Then back to Bucky. "Are you going to introduce me to your friend?"

Bucky smiles. "No need."

After the bell goes again, after they step out, Bucky with his soda, his friend saying something to him in a low voice, Steve lets out his breath. The register is on a counter that has a shelf built into the back of it, and Steve finally takes his hand off the crowbar the store owner keeps there.

You didn't change, Rogers.

Steve thinks, with a little sadness, but not very much: Neither did you, Barnes.

He goes back to reading about the situation in Austria.

6.

Steve's mother dies when he is twelve, and when Bucky is thirteen, he is too much for his mother to handle. She gives him up to the orphanage, even though for boys aged eleven and up, the name is it's called the Home. Steve has been there for a year; he knows the ins, the outs, seems happy enough -- one night, though, Steve comes down sick. A relapse of the asthma, and after dinner, Steve ends up going to the nurse. Bucky stays awake, hands tucked behind his head, still wearing his trousers. It's warm May evening. Everybody else stripped down to skivvies or bare skin, but Steve had gone to the infirmary in full pajamas.

One of the teachers who lives on the grounds comes into the dorm room, moving quietly, calmly. Bucky watches him, doesn't say a word until the guy has stopped at the foot of Steve's bed, and best of times, Steve is a small guy. It's easy to miss him under the blankets, and the guy comes up, looks at the empty bed for a second, and Bucky sits up, quietly.

"Hey, mister," Bucky says, softly. "You looking for my friend?"

The man blinks at him. Bucky puts back the sheets. If any of the other boys hears this exchange, they pretend to be asleep, some of them ostentatiously so.

"I'll go with you," he says.

The guy seems happy enough with this, and they slip outside a side door. Bucky feels grass under his feet, smells the night air. The guy is wearing suit-trousers, the vest from his suit. A white starched shirt with two buttons undone, and they get twenty, thirty feet away from the school, into a grouping of trees on the south lawn. Once they're in the shadows, with only the moonlight coming through the trunks and branches, the guy reaches for Bucky.

Bucky pulls a knife that he brought in, smuggled inside his boot. The man draws back, pale.

"Leave my friend alone," Bucky says, making each word clear, slow.

He doesn't put the knife away until they're backy in the building.

Bucky is thirteen. He believes in himself enough to think that's the end of it, but the next afternoon, in their government and ethics class, because this Home is, all things considered a pretty good one, Steve has a mistake in his homework. All of Bucky's smugness evaporates when the teacher calls Steve in front of the class, discusses loudly how Steve ought to be more careful with his work. He doesn't give Steve any with the rod, possibly because he sees the expression on Bucky's face, but he does put Steve on the dunce seat for the rest of the class and tells Steve to stay afterwards, so that they can discuss how Steve can do better. Steve's face is white; Bucky's knuckles are white against the edge of the desk. He wonders if he can get to his boot before the man turns around, but Steve shakes his head, just a half-inch to the left, just a half-inch to the right.

"I'll take care of it," Steve says when he comes back to the dormitory after dinner. His hair is brushed very carefully; his clothes are very carefully in place. Bucky doesn't want to fight with someone who looks that tired, though, and Steve makes him promise. It turns out Steve is as good as his word: three weeks later, Steve goes to the head administrator and says that through the glass window in the door, he saw Mr. Muller in the administrator's office, open the drawer by the right-hand side, take something, and leave with it in his pocket. Steve was out of bed because he was going to the infirmary because his chest felt tight and he couldn't breathe; there is a record of him there. When asked, the teacher who has the room next to Mr. Muller's says that yes, he does remember Mr. Muller saying something about having left something in his office and going back to get it. Steve doesn't have to say a word about --

They bring the man into the administrator's office. He shouts, swears it's a lie. He attempts to accuse Steve of taking the money, but Steve is quiet, pale, and serious. The money is undeniably missing. Only teachers have keys that allow them access to the administrator's office; there had been a minor scandal when the money was discovered to be missing, and the head administrator very much wants to believe that he had not been responsible for losing almost thirty-five dollars in cash.

The man leaves in disgrace, but not before having thirty-five dollars docked from the last pay due to him. Afterwards, Steve and Bucky are sitting together in the dormitory before dinner.

"How'd you know -- "

Steve smiles, a little close-mouthed thing that makes him look much older than thirteen, and they look at each other for a moment.

"You want me to put it back?" Bucky says, finally.

"You shouldn't do it again, and you definitely shouldn't be picking locks like that. What'll you do if they catch you next time?"

"And this time?"

Steve closes his eyes, then opens them again. "I think we've earned it."

When they turn eighteen, they walk out of the orphanage together. Is it surprising that a dozen years later, Steve turns out to be very good at commanding a small, tightly-knit, incredibly effective group of elite guerrilla fighters, each of whom is personally loyal to him? On a mountain's edge in Switzerland, Bucky reminds Steve of the time they had enough money to ride the Cyclone until Steve threw up.

Six hours after the moment on the mountain, Bucky is trapped at the bottom of a ravine under rocks and debris. It's a cycle of pain and healing and waking to darkness and fear and pain and healing and to waking to darkness and fear. When the pain and darkness and fear have done their work for them, the Red Room finds him and reshapes him to its own purposes. A five months after the moment on the side of the mountain, Steve Rogers is trapped in ice, cold and healing enough to wake and realize he is still trapped and cold and healing enough to wake and realize he is still trapped. The cycles are much, much slower because of the extreme cold, and when SHIELD extracts him seventy years later, Steve Rogers remembers every moment he was awake.

This counts as a happy ending, doesn't it?