They’re brothers, as far as everyone knows. Bucky won that fight. They’re out on the homestead, and you need your friends and neighbors out there. You can’t survive on your own, and two brothers trying to make a go of it, save up enough to attract wives, well. That’s alright. Two men living like man and wife, that’s a whole other kettle of fish, liable to get you killed one way or the other, so—so Bucky wins that fight.
He doesn’t win the fight about whose name they’re going to use, so he ends up Bucky Rogers, which sounds incredibly stupid, and which Steve says as often as it occurs to him, which is about every five minutes.
For the last two years Bucky has spent every winter waiting for Steve to die. Montana winters are hard, and they last for about eight months, and Steve’s health was bad even to begin with. At least in New York there’d been doctors close by, and heat, if you could buy it. But Steve had said, with his eyes bright and sparkling, “Buck, for five dollars, our own land!” and Bucky had argued that he didn’t know anything about farming, or any of it, and Steve couldn’t have picked up a plough, much less held it steady behind a horse.
But Steve’s made it through the last two winters, and the town doc, Dr. Erskine, he’s been real good about taking things in trade for medicines and visits. Waves them off about fees to come out to the house, makes fun of Steve’s ability to burn everything. Charcoal, he says, it’s very good for the digestive tract. Bucky usually manages not to say anything about how he’s been shitting logs since they came out to this fucking state.
Three years in, though, and Bucky’s got the hang of things. They’ve got two dogs, Topper and Red, a flock of chickens, eight pigs, two horses and a goat sent straight from hell that Steve loves because cussed things love each other on a soul-deep level.
But it’s winter now, the cold seeping in and it’s already taken two kids, and one of Hank Laprade’s sheep, and Steve’s fingers are trembling with it, shoulders squaring like he’s going into some kind of war, and Bucky doesn’t know how many times Steve can fight this fight. Twenty three years of fighting it, and his luck, his devil’s own luck, can’t last forever. They’ve been living on borrowed time as it was.
“I’m going to go get Erskine,” Bucky says after Steve drops himself in a coughing fit, catching his head on the table. Bucky swore and planted him in front of the fire, methodically wrapping Steve up. He layers carefully—blankets and hot bricks that are singing their towels, and the dogs will wrap up around Steve, bracing his back against their one good chair. He can’t lay down, or he’ll choke on the blood coming up from his lungs. Steve’s cheekbone is bruised, and it’s red and purple and spidering out like a flood, consuming the delicate skin that’s stretched too-tight over Steve’s bones. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
“I’ll be right here,” Steve whispers, smothering a cough and smiling. Bucky wants to tell him to stop smiling because he’ll tear like paper, and Steve’s the only thing keeping Bucky whole, but instead leans in and kisses him.
“‘Course you will,” he says, curling his fingers into Steve’s hair, sweat-damp, his skull fever-hot and fragile in ways that Bucky can’t let himself think about. “Love you, Stevie.”
“Yeah, Bucky,” Steve laughs, quiet and gravel and pained. “Love you, too. Now go on.”
Erskine takes one look at Bucky’s face and grabs his bag, his coat, and hat, and runs down the stairs with him.
“How long?” Erskine asks as they mount up.
“Fever started up last Wednesday,” Bucky says. “The cough settled two days ago, this morning his pillow was covered in blood and he can barely keep himself standing.”
Erskine’s kind face is pulled, grim, and he says, “And of course, now we have snow.”
They do have snow. It’s coming in like something out of the bible, huge and horrible and blotting out the sun, white and grey and Bucky remembers thinking that snow used to be kind of pretty, once upon a time, when it didn’t mean dying. Bucky pulls up, grabs a rope out of his saddle bag and ties their saddles together—enough give that the horses can still run, but not enough to lose each other. Getting lost means death, Bucky figured that out the first winter, when he’d gone to the barn to break through the ice so the animals could have water and gotten lost, walked and walked and hadn’t found the house.
Steve had found him, a rope tied around his waist and swore at him all the way back to the house, stripping him and telling the dogs to leave him alone, let him just die since he was too goddamn stupid to live.
Bucky had pressed frozen kisses of apology into Steve’s skin, and Steve had sworn and ridden him, punishing and brutal until Bucky hadn’t been able to do anything but beg.
The blizzard hits, hard and fast, the kind of wind that knocks the breath out of your lungs and doesn’t give it back. Bucky hauls out his compass, clutches it tight, and presses on home.
It takes them two hours. A forty-five minute ride into town takes two, maybe three hours in the goddamn storm, and Bucky thinks about how the bricks are probably barely warm anymore, and how the fire is probably burning down. Tries to decide if Steve would have wriggled free of the blankets to go do something stupid once the storm kicked in.
In the end, he only knows they’re close because Red starts howling (Bucky’s not convinced Red isn’t part-wolf, frankly). There’s the barest light peeking out from behind the shutters, and they have to fight their way from the stable to the house, and even then Bucky has to dig around the door so that when they open it they don’t bring half the snow with them.
Steve’s still in front of the fire, and Bucky exhales a shaky, grateful sigh, pulling off his hat and coat and mittens, letting Erskine go directly for Steve while Bucky grabs wood from the pile, hauling off his boots because there’s nothing Steve hates more than stepping in a puddle of melted snow.
Topper whines at him, and Red is dancing nervously by Steve while Erskine pulls off his own wrappings.
Erskine is murmuring gently, “Steven, Steven” and German that maybe Steve understands, and maybe he doesn’t. He’s been trying to learn it—there are a lot of Germans in their little town, and Steve likes making people feel welcome. They’re living as brothers, but Bucky spends a lot of time exchanging commiserating glances with husbands in town.
Erskine puts his things away, and Bucky walks over, stoking up the fire, because Steve hates being cold.
“Mr. Rogers,” Dr. Erskine says in his soft, kind voice.
“He hates being cold,” Bucky says, and Red whines at him, does that weird half-talking yowl, and Bucky ignores him.
“Bucky,” Erskine says again, reaching out and touching Bucky’s arm. “Bucky, I am so very sorry.”
Bucky’s got to be getting sick, or something. He doesn’t usually catch it, when Steve’s got it, but his throat feels so scratchy, and he’s flushed up, like he’s got a fever, and he turns to Steve, who’s sleeping. He pulls him against him, back to front, hunched over the cool blankets. The dogs whine at him, and outside the wind is screaming, and Bucky just holds on.
“It was peaceful,” Erskine says. “He didn’t feel anything.”
Bucky presses his face down into the blankets and half-laughs, half-sobs. Because of course, of course Steve sent him away. Steve probably closed his eyes as soon as Bucky left, because like some kind of wild animal he wanted to die in private, with that dignity, like he was the only one who mattered, like Bucky wouldn't have liked to say goodbye, to hold him, say a prayer, anything. But no, it’s always been Steve who’s the one with the plan, Bucky just caught up and along for the ride.
Topper curls up beside him, and Red licks at his ear, and Bucky can hear Erskine stoking up the fire back to life.
“You can take the bed,” Bucky says, lifting his face. Erskine’s always known, Bucky thinks. No point hiding it, not now. Steve’s already gone, and if they send Bucky to follow him, well. It’s only as much as Bucky’s ever done anyway.
They’ll have to burn Steve’s body. Ground’s been frozen solid for a month, and it will be for another ten, with Bucky’s luck. That’s fine, though. Steve shouldn’t be in the cold, hard ground, he should—he should be warm.
“I think he should have the bed,” Erskine says. “I am fond of this chair, anyway.”
Steve looks bad. The bruise covers half of his face, and he was already half-skeletal to begin with, and he’s stiff, and Bucky figures he’ll just—get blankets from the general store, or trade with Mrs. Pilmann for some of hers. Steve should have his mother’s blankets.
It’s a bleak night, and Bucky sits on the bed, weighed down by Steve, and the dogs, and the knowledge that he’s alone, for the first time in twenty years, he’s all alone, and he’s going to live that way until he dies. Erskine does manage to sleep in the chair, and in the morning he leaves to go get the reverend, the storm all died away and the sky clear and bright and beautiful. Everything looks like one of the sketches of Steve’s that are pinned up all over their walls, white and black and beautiful.
Bucky goes out and makes up the pyre, trying not to think about how he’s going to have to go cut wood, now, having used so much of their store—although he can keep it colder, since Steve doesn’t need the heat. He could even buy it, since there’s not going to be much to spend money on.
Reverend Millar is old, and hauls Bucky in for a hug before performing the Catholic service, because he’s a good man, for a Methodist. The three of them stand and watch the fire, and after an hour Reverend Millar excuses himself—he’s doing a Christening, and Bucky can’t keep him.
“Will you stay?” Erskine asks. “Or will you go back to New York?”
“Nothing in New York,” Bucky says, because he can’t say that Steve helped build this house, that barn, deliver these animals, tilled this earth. Their blood and sweat for three years has fueled this little farm of theirs, and Bucky can’t walk away from it any more than he can walk away from Steve.
Bucky Rogers lives on a small farm, and he’s got pigs and two horses, a flock of sheep, and a small pack of probably-wolves. He’s alone up there, on that farm, but he’ll ride to your help like no one else, drop everything to help a neighbor. He’s always got a sweet for the kids, and it’s a shame, everyone agrees, that he’s never married.
It’s written all over him, though. The general consensus is that he must have been married, and then came out here with his brother to start all over. His brother died some years back—and well. Poor man’s never been the same, not really. Some things you just don’t come back from.
In 1916, Bucky Rogers dies at the old age of 72, and he’s laid to rest beside his brother.
In 1919, Winifred Barnes gives birth to her firstborn son, James Buchanan Barnes, who she’ll call “Bucky.”
In 1925, Bucky Barnes will watch Steven Grant Rogers try to fight a schoolyard bully and wade into the fight, only to get punched in the face for his trouble, because there’s cussed, and then there’s Steve Rogers.