When Bucky is three years old, he gains an older brother and a younger sister in the space of eight months.
George Martin Barnes Jr, Georgie for specificity's sake, is the product of a disastrous quasi-arranged match between his namesake and a gold digger; a match that burned out when George shipped home from France and found her in bed with someone who made it home a few weeks before he did.
Rebecca Pearl Barnes, alternatively Becca or Becky or Becks, is the product of the arrangement between a man and the prostitute whose company he sought as the divorce proceedings, albeit as quick as such things can be, took their toll on him. She manages to be born on the right side of the blanket by the skin of her teeth; George Barnes becomes a free man, and immediately shackles himself again, when Winifred is only about a month and a half along. Rebecca is born a little small, and is presumed a little early.
Bucky himself comes from his mother's desperation to send money to her sister back in Scotland, the baby of the family wasting away in a sanatorium with their parents dead since '93 and the other two sisters lost to the bloodbath they had tried to nurse soldiers through in Serbia. He doesn't know that, technically, his existence was paid for until he's older, when his step-cousins rub that fact in his face, along with several fistfuls of dirt.
Georgie defends him then, and again and again against his father's family and the social circle they build around themselves. The boy loves his stepmother probably more than his biological mother, and why wouldn't he? Winifred is as kind and affectionate with him as she is with her biological children, and just as in need of the affection he can give her, which lends him a pleasing feeling of usefulness. Winifred had come to America all alone, and she lost the community she had substituted her natal family with when her unwed pregnancy came to light. George is acutely aware that he and the boys and Rebecca, and later Bonnie and Bessie, are the only things keeping her from feeling completely cut adrift in the world, and even before they find, or figure, out the whole story, her sons catch onto it, too.
That George is in a somewhat fragile state himself isn't a difficult thing to figure out, either. The truth of it is blatant whenever a car horn blares and George grips the steering wheel tight enough to turn his hands white, or lightning strikes too close and too loud and his eyes go wide, or when the 6'2 decorated veteran sits on the parlor couch with a never-empty glass of prescription wine and shrinks pitifully further and further into the cushions with every sip.
Georgie and Bucky come to something of an unspoken agreement early on. They'll pool their strengths to keep the family running smoothly, to ease out any unnecessary tensions that might disrupt the delicate peace their parents have finally claimed as their own. Georgie picks their dad, because he's full of energy and knows how to make it infectious; Bucky chooses their mom, because his presence is calm and a tonic for someone whose nerves have been in a perpetual state of frayed since birth. Bucky also takes to minding the girls; he makes sure their chores and schoolwork are done and their bedrooms are kept neat, plays tea party and dolls with them, smiles and laughs when they adorn him with cosmetic jewelry and the odd scraps of old makeup Winifred passes their way. And Georgie, for his part, protects them; he takes up watch along the edges of playgrounds and sidewalks to make sure that their games of jump rope and hopscotch go unharassed. He figures out how to fight effectively pretty early on, and Bucky learns by example for those occasions when his stepbrother isn't around, or when he needs backup.
That's how they acquire Steve. Georgie's eagle eye immediately picks out the fact that the poorly-dressed stranger Doesn't Belong Here; he's not the only one, and there are enough teenagers attempting to mug the boy that Bucky has to get involved, too. Georgie's a good enough fighter that he can grab and hold their attention long enough for Bucky to seize the little blond kid and hustle him off to safety.
It's a serendipitous meeting, despite the black eye Bucky gets before Steve figures out that he's being aided and not assaulted by him. Steve's in the neighborhood looking for work to supplement his mother's income, but the fear of further violence prompts him to go home with the Barnes' children. Georgie and Bucky cringe when Winifred has to call Steve's mother, even though parental involvement was inevitable at this point. When they go with their parents to drop Steve off, however (since their family has a car and Steve's family does not), they get to see their mother smile when she notices the tiny mezuzah in the Rogers' doorframe.
Turns out Sarah and Winifred recall each other, having come from the same Lower East Side neighborhood. Sarah had married a convert--or rather, she got a man to convert for her--and moved away with him to Brooklyn before Winifred fell on hard times, though she was kept in the loop by her network of friends and relations. But Sarah's a nurse, and she's attended women in all sorts of unfortunate circumstances, including the births of illegitimate children and the repairing of noses and limbs broken after a john got violent. She's as pleasant to Winifred as she is to anyone else, and Winifred's got a good eye for reading people. It's genuine. Georgie and Bucky are encouraged to see Steve again.
Not that Bucky would need encouragement. He's known there's something...unusual about himself since 1927, when he went into the wrong movie theatre, wound up seeing Wings, and spent days afterwards thinking about the kiss between David and Jack. He'd kept what he'd done and that sense of wonder a secret--it felt as illicit and unconfessable as the scene of Mary changing clothes--but he takes it out of hiding and holds it to his heart when he thinks about Steve.
Truth be told he's known there's something unusual about himself for far longer than that, since George caught him looking at himself in the mirror after being fully adorned and done up by his little sisters, and chuckled about how he was a good sport. Bucky almost explained that no, he was enjoying himself as much as they were; he loves getting made up and looks forward to these games, but the street smarts he must have inherited from Winifred kept him quiet then, too.
People must pick up on something though, because it's hard for him to hang onto friends from year to year, and rather easy for George's nieces and nephews to turn their classmates against him. Steve is the first real loyalty he's felt outside his family, probably because Steve also understands what it means to be a pariah, just without the benefit of adoring siblings.
Becky and Bonnie and Bessie (Georgie sometimes tells people to call him "Barnes" just so he can have matching initials with his siblings) all clamor to make up for that. Steve--underweight, undertall, asthmatic--can't spend very much time running around outside, so he ends up being something of a "good sport" himself, despite his pouting (George and Winifred pay him to "baby-sit" so he doesn't pout visibly very often). He'll drink immaterial tea and play dolls with them--he's spent enough time sick in bed to have developed a robust imagination, and under his guidance their dolls learn to fight Heinies and hunt deer as well as dance at balls and care for babies--though he draws the line at being "dolled up" himself.
Bucky wishes Steve wouldn't. He thinks Steve would look good in the girls' hand-me-down cosmetics. Steve is so...lovely, in every respect; in both ways that Steve appreciates (his open, perpetually bleeding heart; his quick mind; his indomitable courage) and that he doesn't (his delicate fine-boned frame; his daylong eyelashes). He's beautiful in the sunlight streaming through the leaves and windows; he's beautiful in the Shabbos candlelight Winifred takes Bucky and the girls to enjoy at Sarah's apartment on Fridays, while Georgie stays at home and entertains their father. He's especially beautiful when Bucky accidentally walks in on him getting changed--he'd spent the night, and Steve thought him still asleep in the living room--and sees Steve tightening a lacer around his chest and, for a brief glittering moment, "Oh. He knows what I feel."
He doesn't. In fact he's mortified and angry, which is Steve for terrified; the closest Bucky has ever seen him come to crying as he says "I'm not...a girl, I'm not part-girl, I'm not...half a girl, I'm--"
Bucky realizes just in time that Steve thinks the look on Bucky's face is one of disgust, rather than disappointment. He turns it around subtly, immediately, makes himself look curious; nods along as Steve haltingly explains that he'd been born "undercooked" as one doctor had put it; he's been steeling himself for this body for several years and he knows he shouldn't be ashamed but he hates it, he hates it so much. At the end of it he tells Steve that of course he doesn't think that Steve is disgusting or scary now; that they're still best friends and always will be; that Steve doesn't have to talk about it anymore if he doesn't want to, and that Bucky will never, ever tell anyone.
He decides to stop playing dress-up. At first, he thinks it'll be only when Steve is there. Then he considers that he'll have to tell his sisters that Steve doesn't like it, which opens up the possibility that he'll "tell on" Steve at worst, and in any case puts too much onus on Steve to defend himself. So instead he stops completely, and when the girls complain he says that he's twelve now, and he's outgrown these games. He is a boy, after all.
Which isn't a lie. It's just...only mostly true.
He thinks, also, that it might help. He of course has never let himself be seen outside the house in these get-ups, but maybe people will stop sensing his "off"-ness if he stops doing it altogether, even in private. It's not for him; people can say or do whatever they want about him and he definitely does not care, but if he's out with the girls or Steve he doesn't want them to have to deal with it, or for Georgie to have to keep defending him (or for Steve to try, for that matter).
It doesn't work.
They expect it to be Steve. By all rights it should be Steve, who despite now being fed at two households doesn't yet weigh over sixty pounds, and who can barely mind his own business in public without getting his ass kicked, let alone speak up against something.
But Steve is also the kid who has to disappear for a few days, and sometimes weeks, when he's come down with something, so it's just the Barnes family that's at Coney Island this particular day. Georgie and Bucky have been allowed to wander off together (Bucky being twelve, Georgie's just turned fourteen); the goal is to work up the nerve to get on the Cyclone before the day's end, and to aid the fast they've been maintaining they've been running ahead of their family, reaching every ride and game several minutes ahead of the others Barnes. And they're doing pretty well for themselves, until they start being followed.
They're friends of the cousins; Georgie knows them from the high school. Bucky only vaguely recognizes them, but they sure seem to know who he is, enough to yell out after him until they're absolutely sure that he and Georgie notice them.
"Can we please ignore them," Bucky mutters under his breath, because he really doesn't feel like fighting on a day when they're supposed to be enjoying themselves, and Georgie nods, slinging an arm around Bucky's shoulders protectively, supportively. Ten minutes of having their existence purposely disregarded only seems to embolden them, though, because they start coming closer, talking loudly about how rude it is for people to not acknowledge their names being called, when they only want to have a friendly conversation.
"Friendly conversation" turns out to be a few colorful vulgarities based on Bucky's nickname, stage-whispered at first, and then shouted once Bucky and Georgie move far away enough. Georgie's hand, clenched at his side, relaxes a bit when a nearby barker yells for the strangers to mind where they are; he and Bucky manage to slip away into the crowd, and he hopes that that's the end of it.
Then about fifteen minutes later someone grabs Bucky by the back of his head, shoving him forward into a lamp pole, and announces that he's "found Suckjob Barnes, working the street like his mother" and both of them drop the pacifism immediately.
Bucky's not as skinny and small as Steve but he's still more wiry and shorter than Georgie, who is built along his father's broad lines, so despite throwing and landing the first punch he gets pushed in and out of the fray rather easily. They're in an uncrowded area, and the four-on-one-sometimes-two fight is getting steadily more violent with each passing second, egged on by the startled cries and futile attempts to break up the fight by a few stray passers-by. Bucky's got blood dripping into his eyes from a cut on his forehead by the time someone finally manages to grab him and keep him from jumping right back into the fray, and for years he wonders if that hadn't happened would things have turned out differently, would his brother not have lost the upper hand and his footing, would he have not gotten kicked in the side over and over before Bucky tore free and threw himself on Georgie's attacker.
The fight's finally garnered enough attention for an attempt to break it up to actually work, and the rest of the Barnes family has been drawn over by the spectacle even before they figure out that their two oldest children are part of it. The aggressors take off before enough people congregate to prevent a later escape, and Winifred has to be stopped from chasing after them when she sees what's been done to her sons. The girls are, naturally, upset over the state of their brothers, Georgie's left side is throbbing with pain, and the gash on Bucky's forehead looks like it might need stitches, so the family stonily packs up and heads home.
They'd taken the train, rather than their car, which made the ride back rougher. They don't call Sarah to look at Bucky, since they know she's already put off taking work calls to look after Steve; the nurse that shows up sutures Bucky, and only advises rest and painkillers for Georgie.
Bessie wakes up the next morning coughing and a little dizzy, so when Georgie complains of feeling light-headed they think he's also picked something up from a stranger at the beach or on the train.
He supposes that the pain starting to radiate up his shoulder from his side is just residual soreness right up until the point that he collapses.
The splenectomy itself isn't too late, nor are the blood transfusions, and he gets through the hospital stay just fine, coming home in time for a pneumonia outbreak that sends half of Red Hook to their beds or to the hospital. But that shouldn't be too bad, George and Winifred reason. Georgie has always had a strong constitution. He sailed through emergency surgery. He shouldn't have a problem.
They expect it to be Steve.
Bucky is scared shitless that now it will be Steve, and just like with Georgie it'll be his fault.
They haven't seen each other in a month; Steve was too sick to even make it to the funeral, let alone see his friends during the week. Bucky had been looking forward to when Steve was recovered enough for Winifred to resume their Friday nights at the Rogers' apartment, but when that time comes Bucky takes one look at his father and knows that he couldn't possibly go with them; couldn't leave the man who had taken him in, accepted him as his own against all his own self-interests and is now suffering for it, to sit with a phantom child all night.
They do talk on the phone for a little bit on the following Sunday, and when Steve asks why Bucky wasn't there, Bucky feels self-consciously protective on his father's quiet, private behalf and lies that he just lost interest and has other things to do now.
"Oh. Okay," Steve says, disappointment dripping in all three syllables, and Bucky wants to cry and throw up and punch the wall even more than he normally does nowadays. Next Sunday, because his mom and the girls will be home with his dad after he gets back from church, he walks to Steve's place, so he doesn't have to ask for a ride, or for his family to fetch Steve like they normally do.
He keeps this up for months, whether Steve is healthy or ill, even when the weather starts to turn, until his parents finally make him stop before he catches his death and they lose him, too. Privately he thinks maybe that wouldn't be so awful, but he acquiesces and accepts being dropped off because Steve seems to brighten up when he's there and he'll pay the little bits of guilt for that smile until winter melts into spring and he can once again walk himself over.
July of 1931 is a big deal for Steve, and Bucky sits on his...jealousy? regret? unnameable empty feeling so Steve can get untarnished happiness out of his birthday and a few days later his bar mitzvah. It's the first joyous thing to happen to either family in a long time, and Sarah, normally (and justifiably) pretty tight-fisted, is willing to splurge the tiniest bit to celebrate.
It's actually Bucky who suggests going back to Coney. He doesn't know why he does it, and he half-feels regret when everyone gives him a strange look when he says it; the other half he can't really identify beyond a strange sense that he'd made plans with his brother that he really ought to follow up on at some point. The whole stupid point of them being on their own that day had been to work up the nerve to get on that ride, after all.
"'Course it's your birthday, so you get to pick," he tells Steve, and Steve gives him a weird look, and then a softer one, and says that yeah, that's where they're gonna go.
Bucky wants to kiss him, which is nothing new. Steve is his best friend, his almost-everything; of course he would understand.
He should've kept his mouth shut, or at least should have recalled that Steve had been fighting a stomach ulcer all morning yesterday, or at the very least shouldn't have needled Steve to go on the Cyclone with him, so nonchalant and teasing while his own stomach rioted with swallowed tears, because now Steve is puking his guts up in a trash can, and has been for what feels like a really long time.
There's cruel laughter coming from behind them, and a thread of terror shoots up Bucky's spine. He twists, keeping a hand on Steve's shoulder so he can hopefully glare down whoever is mocking them before he has to fight them, because it's just him now; he has no help and no one to help; he's the only one who can keep Steve safe from now on. Thankfully this time there's no attack, just a handful of assholes passing by, and while his free hand stays clenched in a fist, the adrenaline recedes just as quickly as it came on.
Steve is shaking pretty badly by the time he finally finishes throwing up, too badly to notice that Bucky is, too; his watery lips part to say "That was awesome. I am never doing that again" (which is a dirty lie, because he gets back on the ride later that day, but of his own accord this time) and Bucky laughs and calls him a turd and silently decides that, yeah, Steve will never have to do anything for him ever again.