Actions

Work Header

Family Placement

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers woke with a grunt, his head banging against the sill of the window he’d been dozing on. The train - the great, shuddering beast of soot and steam which had rattled the teeth in his jaw and the bones in his body across the endless miles of bloodsoaked country - had jolted to a stop. Steve promptly sneezed, his oversized cap falling down across his eyes as the boy sitting next to him glared. Steve glared right back, then turned his attention to the world taking shape outside the window as the dust and grit settled on the platform.

North Star, Kansas. An optimistic name for a town without much to say for itself, considering all he could see beyond the platform was a lonely strip of drab, gray buildings - false fronts built up tall to hide the ramshackle structures behind them. Wasn’t home, even if it was where he intended to stay. It was a place to be; a place where he felt bound and determined to build a better life for himself. He was done relying on other people.

The thing about Steve Rogers was that he could take care of himself. He was getting good at it now that his mother was gone. Sarah Rogers had been dead six months, though he didn’t like to think about it often. Didn’t like to think about how much he missed hearing the cadence of her voice, trailing behind her as she did her work - one hand curled into the material of her skirts when he was small - watching the beads of a rosary pass through her hands.

The doctor said it was yellow fever that took her, but Steve knew better - she’d died of a broken heart. His father was two years gone, killed in the muck and the mire of Spotsylvania. Joseph Rogers had been a decent man, kind to his wife and bemused by his son. Death didn’t care for decency. Didn’t discriminate between the righteous and the rebels. Joseph Rogers had died with a bullet in his skull, leaving a broken family behind him.

Steve didn’t like to think about that, either.

Instead, he thought of his future. At sixteen (almost seventeen), he figured he had one. Even if that future meant leaving Brooklyn behind to come here. The middle of nowhere. On a train filled with rude, squalling children. He was neither a child nor a man grown, and as such, he’d run out of options.

He had spent the six months since his mother’s death living with various parishioners who were coaxed into taking him in by Father Murphy. Everything was impermanent. Unsafe. He’d begun to think of himself more as an obligation than a person. Father Murphy had done what he could - he’d been kind to them after Joseph’s death, and when Sarah was gone, he’d worked hard to find Steve a permanent home.

When he’d brought up the idea of the ‘Family Placement’ program, Steve had been willing to listen.

The program was meant for younger children (“orphans,” Steve’s mind supplied bitterly), sending them west to be adopted by childless families. Those participants who were Steve’s age took a different route - families brought them in, but as farmhands and laborers. Steve had been intrigued, half-swept up in the romance of it - New York meant limited prospects, but a ticket west could mean a future. The chance to stake his own claim in the rising tide of westward expansion and fashion a place for himself in the world.

He had no need for a family, but he could work hard and learn fast. He was sure he’d be a boon to anyone who took him in. Farming seemed simple enough - he’d helped his mother cook, clean, and tend a garden. He wasn’t strapping or strong, but he was willing, and that had to count for something. He planned to work and save his wages carefully, then at twenty-one file for a homestead claim. His own land, his own farm. His own peace of mind.

Because Steve Rogers? He could take care of himself.

The trip itself had been a trial. He’d endured the indignities of being one of the few older boys lumped in with the squalling babies and children. He’d scowled his way through being ignominiously given three sets of clothing from the charity barrel, along with a threadbare wool overcoat, an ill-fitting hat, and a pair of used boots with the soles nearly worn through. The people at the agency had handed him a Bible and given him a pat on the head along with a train ticket that would take him away from the only home he’d ever known. From the bones of his parents and the clinging grime of the city.

He’d not bothered looking back. And now, there he was. New life, new start. North Star. He wouldn’t say he was optimistic, but at least the sun was shining.

A couple who worked with the agency - the Fortunes - had accompanied them on the journey from New York, shepherding them from train to train as they navigated the vast country. The man was a blowhard and the woman a fluttering fusspot. They both fawned over the babies and the toddlers, leaving any children over the age of six or so to fend for themselves. That meant plenty of petty fights, scraped knees, bites and bruises. Steve liked to think he was above it, but he’d scrapped with a boy just two days before, resulting in a cut on his cheek and a bruise on his shoulder. The boy in question had been frightening some of the smaller children, and while Steve didn’t like them, he wasn’t about to see them terrorized.

They were all at the ends of their ropes, here at the end of the journey. They’d stopped three times, in three different cities. Each stop had reduced the size of their cohort as ten or twenty children left the train, going on to be claimed by families, taken to their new lives. Steve was privately wounded at not being in these earlier groups - the healthiest, happiest children were taken first. Here in North Star, they were left with the sickly, the sullen, and the weak. People living so far out couldn’t be picky, and wasn’t it just lousy to know you were among the last to be chosen?

Mrs. Fortune stood at the front of the carriage, calling instructions in her sing-song voice. Steve hated her. He grabbed his valise, filled with everything he owned in the world, and waited his turn to shuffle into the aisle. The older girls had to handle the babies, a fact for which he was privately grateful. He’d had plenty of experience, but he didn’t like to let on. Not when it might earn him more work.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” Mrs. Fortune trilled. “Right this way, dears.”

Steve scowled at her, squinting in the doorway, daylight temporarily blinding him. Goodness, it was hot, the summer sun beating down on him as he shielded his eyes and stepped onto the platform.

There wasn’t much to it - rough clapboard running along the length of the train. A set of steps leading to the street. Not even a proper ticket booth. It wasn’t like New York or Chicago. The town behind it seemed smaller now, stripped of any false hope the wavy glass of the train window might have carried. North Star wasn’t any bigger, brighter, or better than it had initially appeared.

He thought of Brooklyn. Cleared his throat and gripped the handle of his bag tightly, walking in a clump with the others to descend the stairs.

Plenty of people came to gawk at them as they disembarked - an arrival of orphans fresh from the east was apparently a spectacle to be seen. Probably people here didn’t have many other options. The thought wasn’t kind, but he didn’t like that they were staring.

But of course, they were staring. They were there for a reason. He ought to make a good impression if he wanted to be hired, so he stood as tall as he could and puffed out his chest. Tried to look healthy despite the fact that the clothes he wore were too big, and he’d had a persistent cough since they’d stopped in Chicago.

Mrs. Fortune ushered them towards the main street. The only street. Steve hardly had time to take it in (mercantilehotelblacksmithschool) before they were shown into a church, Mr. Fortune standing in the doorway to count them as they entered.

There was a raised dais in the front of the room which they were expected to stand on, crowded together with the older ones in the back, the little ones in the front. Babies held in weary arms. There were people in the pews. Mostly women, some with their men, some not. Ruddy faces and rough clothing, hardly a color to be seen. Some of them looked nice, though nobody was smiling. That might have been due to the church being stiflingly hot. Steve hated being closed in - made his throat tight, and his heart beat fast in his chest.

Once they were all assembled on the dais, Mr. Fortune stepped forward and began what seemed to Steve to be the world’s longest speech. They were the poor, destitute, motherless and fatherless children of New York City. Those pitiable souls who’d come west seeking families with open hearts to take them in. And he was so honored to have them introduce themselves because each child had prepared something unique to say.

This was the part Steve had been dreading. They’d been forced to practice speeches and songs, poems and history recitations. Each time he said his piece he felt a bit more like the organ grinder’s monkey he’d seen once at a street fair in Manhattan. It was humiliating and pointless - as though reciting a poem or giving a heartfelt speech meant anything.

There were seventeen of them, and every single moment was agony. He was hot and irritated. He’d come here to work, not to be paraded on a stage like so much merchandise.

When it was Steve’s turn, he cleared his throat and promptly forgot everything he’d practiced. So he rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged, saying precisely seven words. “M’Steve Rogers. I’m a hard worker.”

Mr. Fortune didn’t look pleased. Steve didn’t care. Being the oldest, he was the last one to speak, and once he was through the prospective families were free to come and talk with them. He watched as the babies were cuddled and the older children were prodded. Questions asked about their intelligence, their looks, their strength.

Nobody was looking to see how strong Steve was. He scowled, crossing his arms over his chest. One of the twelve-year-olds had been picked over him. It wasn’t his fault he was small, and he’d work just as hard as anyone. Heck, he’d work harder.

The crowd began to thin out eventually - babies and toddlers picked first, then the smaller children, then those around ten or so. By the time the church emptied there were four of them left - two sullen looking girls, a younger boy who’d had a cold for a week, and Steve.

Steve, who was growing more anxious by the minute. What happened to the ones who weren’t chosen? It hadn’t occurred to him that he might not be. Perhaps that was naive. Would they send him back to New York? Chicago? Were they obligated to do anything for him at all?

His rising panic was threatening to drown him when the door to the chapel opened, and a man entered, face hidden under a hat, dressed in rough brown trousers and a sweat-stained white shirt. No jacket or tie, unlike most of the other men who’d come looking.

The newcomer stalked forward, giving his name quietly to the woman handling the paperwork. When he approached the dais, Steve realized he was younger than he appeared from a distance. Hardly more than a boy, though he had several day’s growth of beard on his face and long, tangled hair visible under his hat.  He walked with a stiffness, a slight limp in his stride. When he reached the stage, he tipped his hat back, taking in the four who were left, close enough that Steve could see the blue of his eyes.

Handsome - oh, but he was handsome. The thought was in Steve’s head like lightning, though he banished it quickly, pushing it down deep, angry with himself for allowing it in at all. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he tried not to scowl when the man looked him up and down. It was hard not to be embarrassed by that sort of appraisal, yet he found himself wanting to look strong and sturdy. Worthy of being selected.

“You ever work on a farm?” the man asked, his voice rough, as though he didn’t use it often.

Steve stuck his chin out. “No, but I learn quick.”

The man huffed, looking Steve over again, his lip curling up in a way that might have been a smile, though it was hard to tell. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Small for sixteen.”

That was rude. Steve opened up his mouth to tell the man so when he spoke again. “I’m looking to hire a hand. Got a claim a few miles out of town. Ain’t much, but I can pay you.”

Steve’s jaw snapped shut, all thought of reprimand was forgotten as he nodded. “Yessir, I can do that.”

The man snorted, turning and walking back up the aisle without another word. Steve could only assume he was meant to keep up, so he picked up his bag and scurried behind.

“I’m hiring this one,” the man said to the woman with the record book. “You need me to sign something?”

As it turned out, she did, presenting a printed form to Steve’s new employer. He scrawled his signature first, taking up a good portion of the bottom of the page, before filling in the few blank spaces that remained.

“What’s your name?” He looked to Steve for an answer, though Steve was distracted by the words printed on the page. He hadn’t seen the form before - hadn’t realized what it said. Regardless of employment, he would be bound to this stranger for the foreseeable future and had no way of knowing if he was cruel or kind, funny or furious. Did he have a family, friends, a place for Steve to lay his head? The whole endeavor began to feel monumentally stupid, and yet there he was - his future laid out in a few lines of print on a page.

“Steven,” he said, voice hitching. “With a V. Rogers.”

The man filled in the remaining empty space.

 

Children's Shield Society (Family Placement Division)
June 3, 1867

I, the undersigned,    James B. Barnes     hereby agree to provide for    Steven Rogers     now of the age of    sixteen     years, until the said boy shall reach the age of 18 years, according to the following terms and conditions, and with the full understanding that the Society reserves the right to remove the child previous to legal adoption if at any time the circumstances of the home become such as in the judgment of the agent are injurious to the physical, mental or moral well-being of the child.

The terms and conditions for the retention of the boy being as follows:

To care for him in sickness and health, to send him to school during the entire free school year until he reaches the age of 14 years, and thereafter during the winter months at least, until he reaches the age of 16 years; also to have him attend Church and Sunday School when convenient, and to retain him as a member of my family until he reaches the age of 17 years, and thereafter for the final year, until he is 18 years old, to pay the boy monthly wages in addition to his maintenance, the amount thereof to be previously determined after consultation with the Society's local agent and his approval.

In case he proves unsatisfactory, I agree to notify the society and pending his removal, to keep him a reasonable length of time after such notice has been given. I agree, moreover, to use my best endeavor than and at all times, to detain him, should he try to leave me, until the Society can take steps for his removal. I agree to keep him at all times as well supplied with clothing as he was when I received him.

 

Detain. Injurious. Unsatisfactory. Steve swallowed hard, sweat beading on his forehead. He hadn’t realized - thought he could just work and be paid. Nothing more, nothing less. The paper made him out to be this man’s ward, which sat funny in his stomach. This Barnes, whoever he might be, was hardly older than Steve. Five years if he was a day, and possibly less. Steve didn’t like to feel indebted, especially not to someone young enough to have been his friend in another life.

The paper was signed before he had the opportunity to ruminate on it much longer, the woman putting her name as a witness before Barnes jerked his head at Steve. “C’mon, then. Daylight’s burning.”

It was by far the strangest encounter of Steve’s life.

He followed Barnes out to where there was a buckboard wagon waiting, along with two horses hitched to a post. Barnes set about unhitching them, gentling the animals with a few soft noises. These horses were different than the sad, worn-out city horses Steve had spent his whole life observing. One was a pretty chestnut color, seemingly biddable as it nuzzled Barnes’ shoulder. The other was black, save for a blaze of white on its nose. It wasn’t quite so sweet, stamping a foot, blowing out a breath, looking at Steve with, well, he might have said wariness if that didn’t sound stupid - horses weren’t capable of wariness. He didn’t think so, anyway.

“What are your horses called?” he asked. Seemed polite.

Barnes grunted, taking Steve’s valise and pitching it into the back of the wagon. “Black one’s Winter,” he replied, hauling himself up one-handed into the seat. “Chestnut one’s Bright.”

“Oh,” Steve said. It took him three tries to pull himself up into the wagon. Barnes didn’t comment, for which Steve was privately grateful. “And you’re James...Barnes?”

“Suppose I am,” he replied, flicking the reins to get the horses moving. “Most everyone calls me Bucky. You can call me what you like.”

Barnes seemed disinclined to continue the conversation. Steve fell silent, taking in more of the small town as they drove through it. People were milling about, though not as many as there had been when the train arrived. His eyes lingered on a woman with the reddest hair he’d ever seen, brazen as anything without a bonnet on her head, crossing the street into the alley that ran alongside the hotel. Barnes noticed her, too, his gaze lingering long enough that Steve wondered if he ought to say something. The moment passed; Barnes urged the horses to take up a quicker pace, and they soon left the hotel behind.

“Everyone just calls me Steve,” he offered when the silence grew oppressive.

“Alright,” Barnes grunted, the conversation dying on the vine once again.

Sarah and Joseph Rogers had never been quiet. Steve’s life had been filled with noise since the moment he’d come into the world, a tiny, red, squalling thing who’d spent his childhood learning from his loquacious parents. They’d been neither wealthy nor comfortable, but they’d been happy in their one-room lodgings filled with songs and stories - Sarah always singing, her voice never on-pitch and never lovelier; Joseph reading passages from the paper, fascinated by the politics of the day.

He wasn’t sure about this Barnes, this silent figure sitting beside him, staring straight ahead as the wagon rolled out of town and onto the flat prairie. There was a road if one could call it that - a place so many wagons had run through that there were ruts in the dirt and some semblance of differentiation from the grass on either side. Steve hadn’t thought land could go on like that until he’d seen it from the window of the train. It had a certain beauty, the tall grass undulating like waves on the sea, sun glinting off the stalks when the light caught it the right way.

Before, he would have liked to draw it with the paper and pencils his parents scrimped and save to purchase for him, despite the fact that it took food out of their own mouths. With Joseph gone, Sarah had tried to keep him supplied. Then she’d fallen ill, and there wasn’t money for anything anymore. He couldn’t imagine there would be any for him in the future, either. It had been a childish hobby, no more, and he was a grown-up now.

Barnes remained silent the entire drive, eventually directing the wagon off the worn trail and making for a small rise that one might charitably call a hill. Steve couldn’t imagine how he was able to differentiate that particular knoll from any other. From the top, Steve could see a clearing in the distance - two wooden structures in a yard with what looked to be wheat fields stretching behind them. His experience with farms was minimal, but he supposed he knew that much.

As they drew closer, his stomach sank. This was where he was expected to spend the next year of his life? The primary structure could only be described as a house if one had never seen a proper home before. In truth, it was no more than a rough shanty made of cheap boards and tar paper. The second building was sturdier - a stable with a real foundation and a proper log frame. Someone had taken great care in making sure the animals had a comfortable place to bed down for the night. Less so for the humans.

Barnes pulled the wagon up to the stable and hopped down, leaving Steve to fend for himself. He had to stretch as far as he was able into the wagon bed, fingers scrabbling for purchase on the wood before he managed to hook a corner of his bag. It wasn’t very dignified, and he was sure his face was bright red by the time his feet were back on solid ground. He didn’t like to think of how silly he’d looked during his descent - it was a long way down. Barnes was fiddling with the buckles that hitched the horses to the wagon, his left hand stiff, fingers awkwardly gripping the leather while his right hand did the finer work.

“I can help with that…” Steve offered.

“Don’t need your help,” Barnes said, his tone brokering no argument. “Go on in the house. I’ll be along in a minute.”

Considering the man had signed a paper explicitly stating he wanted Steve’s help, that seemed wrongheaded. But Steve didn’t want to argue - part of him worried that Barnes might find some fault with him and send him back. If this gruff stranger was his only chance at succeeding in North Star, he needed to keep his temper in check and do as he was told.

When he pushed open the door, he was greeted with a whiff of stale, hot air and the odor of a man living on his own - the smell of boarding houses and bachelors. Steve knew that smell, following his mother around as she scrubbed floors for an extra dime when times were tough. He’d hated the work, hated seeing her on her knees when he knew how capable she was of doing so much more. Sarah Rogers deserved a place among the saints, what with the miracles he’d seen her perform.

The smell, though - the warmth and masculinity of it all? He’d never minded that.

The walls were lined with newsprint for insulation. Rough pine boards lined the floor, hard-packed dirt visible between the slats, unswept for ages. Everything in the house, in fact, felt vaguely grimy - as though Barnes hadn’t ever bothered cleaning a dish or laundering his clothing. Said clothing was strewn about, though it had mostly accumulated on the bed shoved up against one wall.

The single room was cramped, the bed on one side of the space, a proper stone fireplace on the other. There was a cookstove - a luxury he hadn’t necessarily been expecting - with a rough-hewn table and two equally shoddy-looking chairs set near it. A small storage hutch lined the opposite wall. It might have been pretty once, though the wood needed a polish. Four shelves, odd and uneven, jutted from the wall near the hutch, covered with odds and ends of daily life - dishes, tools, a lantern. There was a window as well, though the shutters were closed over it, leaving the room dark and sullen despite the daylight outside. Finally, there was a quilt hung as a curtain from the ceiling, creating a partition to section off one small part of the room - a corner in the back near the bed.

The squalid neglect was a punch to the stomach when compared with his family’s small, warm place in Brooklyn. They’d had no more than this, but it had always felt like a home. This felt like a hovel.

He wasn’t going to dwell on it. Living in the past wouldn’t change a thing about his future. So he stiffened his resolve before setting his bag down near the table and walking over to unlatch the shutters. The window had no glass, so he could at least air the place out. See things more clearly.

A warm, fragrant breeze infused the room, carrying with it the summer sunshine and the sweet smell of prairie grass. Barnes darkened the doorway a few minutes later, interrupting Steve’s intense scrutiny of the cookstove. Steve jumped at the sound of his voice.

“You keep your things behind the quilt.” Barnes was looking directly at his valise, and Steve flushed, feeling small and stupid, as though he’d somehow made the mess when Barnes was the one living in a sty.

“Oh.” Steve glanced at the hanging partition. He’d assumed that the quilt was there to give Barnes a makeshift bedroom - that Steve would be sleeping in the main room. “I thought that was yours.”

Barnes grunted, hanging his hat on a peg by the door, then sitting down on the bed, which creaked under his weight. (Steve told himself he imagined the cloud of dust that rose from the covers. Surely he had to be imagining that.) Barnes began unlacing his boots, speaking more to the floor than to Steve. “I sleep here. My sister, she slept back there.” He shrugged, awkward, running a hand through his messy hair. “You have your own bed.”

Steve picked up his bag and investigated the space behind the curtain. ‘Bed’ seemed a generous term for the straw mattress laid out on the floor, but it would afford him a modicum of privacy. The mattress was made up with a patchwork quilt in log cabin style, along with a pillow. Two small shelves were notched into the wall above the bed - too high to reach while lying down, but useful all the same. They were bare, except for two issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book lying on their sides.

Steve frowned. Slept, Barnes had said. Sister slept. Past tense.

He put his bag on the bed before stepping back into the main room. “Thank you,” he said, rubbing a hand across the sweat-damp skin at the back of his neck. “Do you...did your sister die?” There were, he realized, more tactful ways to phrase the question, but tact had never come easily.

Barnes laughed, the sound short and sharp, as though something was caught in his throat and fighting to get out. “Nah,” he said, knocking the pile of accumulated clothing off his bed. “Got married last March, living with her husband on a claim a few miles west. That’s why I need the extra hand.” The last bit was said grudgingly, as though he didn’t believe it to be true.

Steve shrugged, forcing himself to remain pleasant. “I can be helpful.”

“Here’s hoping.” Barnes yawned, leaning back onto his mattress and crossing his arms over his chest. “Ain’t teaching you things twice.”

Steve bristled. “That won’t be necessary.”

“We’ll see,” Barnes said, yawning and turning on his side, back to the room. Evidently, he was done with Steve for the time being.

Steve had never known anyone to nap in the middle of the afternoon unless they were very old, very young, or very ill. Barnes was none of those. Didn’t he have a farm to run? The man was stranger and stranger.

With Barnes napping, Steve was left with an abundance of time and nothing to do unless he fancied reading one of the Lady’s Books or the Bible. He wasn’t feeling a great generosity of spirit at that moment, so the latter seemed a poor choice. He’d have to ask God’s forgiveness when he next confessed - he’d likely be feeling less hard done by.

In the end, he retreated behind the curtain and lay on his bed, lonely and troubled, hoping that sleep might take him. It didn’t. He couldn’t settle. It was too quiet - the only sound in the cabin the soft snores emanating from Barnes. The silence was disconcerting to a boy who’d spend his life in noisy, crowded, happy places.

He missed his mother. He ached for her embrace, her bright laugh, her wicked sense of humor. He wondered what she would think of this place. This person. This new life he’d determined to build for himself in her absence.

He wasn’t sure she would like it.

Chapter Text

Steve couldn’t sleep.

The first night in any new place was hard - he knew that from experience. But this place? Nearly impossible. The silence overwhelmed him. At home, there’d always been something - a horse on the street, the wheels of a cart, lovers’ spats, drunken, boorish men on their way home from a night of hard living.

Here there was nothing, save the soft snores emanating from the other side of the curtain and the chirps of the crickets he could hear through the thin walls. There must have been a million of them out there, playing a stridulating symphony with their wings. Welcoming him or torturing him, he wasn’t sure.

The thing of it was, he knew he had to get up early - Barnes had told him as much before retiring to his own bed for the night. Steve marveled at his ability to sleep again, considering the nap he’d taken in the afternoon had lasted for the better part of two hours.

He wondered just how much the man slept. The sloth of it felt sinful, somehow, though Steve couldn’t put his finger on why.

Barnes had woken long enough to feed him, slinging together a supper of bacon and beans alongside a portion of stale, dry cornbread that had the texture of rough sand. Steve had privately suspected it was at least a few days old, but he hadn’t liked to point it out.

The meal had been eaten in silence, any attempts at conversation met with a grunt or a monosyllabic response. Barnes wasn’t unfriendly, precisely, he just hadn’t seemed interested in engaging with Steve. It was a change from his parents’ table or even the tables he’d dined at since his mother’s death. Those families tended to be large, loud and boisterous, which Steve hadn’t cared for, either. Surely, though, there was a middle ground between raucous and reticent?

Steve had offered to wash up after supper and Barnes had acquiesced, showing him how to draw water from the well in the yard. Turning the crank was harder than Steve had anticipated - he couldn’t imagine doing it multiple times a day, yet he knew he’d have to. Pushing that worry down, he’d focused on being useful instead: scrubbing each dish clean, then drying them off before bringing them inside and arranging them on a shelf.

Barnes, meanwhile, had taken down his rifle from its place above the front door, meticulously cleaning it at the small table. Fascinated, Steve had watched on the sly as he put the dishes away. Barnes’ hands, good and bad, had checked and rechecked all the moving parts, his fingers gliding across the metal as though the gun was an extension of himself. When the task was complete, he had replaced the gun on its hooks and turned back to the room. He had seemed surprised to see Steve standing there, as though he’d forgotten he wasn’t alone any longer.

“Ought to go to bed,” Barnes had muttered. “Starting work early tomorrow.”

He hadn’t said anything else before retiring to his bed. Steve had done the same, hiding behind the curtain to strip down to his drawers before crawling underneath the quilt.

Now, hours later, sleep still hadn’t come for him. Turning on his opposite side, he groaned, bringing a hand up to fist in his hair, frustrated and tired. He wanted to sleep - needed to sleep - but the more he wanted it, the more he felt it slipping from his grasp. There was a part of him that blamed Barnes - if he hadn’t said anything about being up early, Steve might have been able to drift off.

He pulled the quilt up higher and shut his eyes. He’d have to try counting sheep.

In the end, Steve was a better shepherd than he’d realized -  or he was exhausted, and sleep eventually won out over anxiousness. It seemed no time had passed at all when he opened his eyes to find Barnes standing over him, fully dressed. “Ought to be up already, Rogers. You’re wasting time.”

Steve scowled. That wasn’t fair. “I’m coming,” he said, sitting up as Barnes let the curtain fall back into place. Steve continued to scowl while he dressed in the same clothes as the day before. They were stiff and grimy, with an odor that would be shameful if he were anywhere else but this house. He would have to ask Barnes about bathing, and which day he used for washing. Surely Barnes bathed? Yes, he was unshaven and unkempt, but he smelled fine. Good. Steve hadn’t noticed.

Barnes was waiting by the front door when he stepped out from behind the curtain. “I’m not getting you up every day.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Steve replied. Glancing towards the cookstove, he wondered if breakfast might be forthcoming. The stove was cold, and when he looked back at Barnes, he was wearing an expression that plainly said he thought Steve was the world’s biggest turnip. No breakfast, then. He did have to relieve himself, though, so he told Barnes as much.

“Hurry up with it. Meet me in the stable.”

Steve went behind the house to water the grass, privately happy he didn’t have to do more than that. He’d experienced the privy the previous evening and - like everything else in Barnes’ home - it left much to be desired. It occurred to Steve that if Barnes hadn’t had his sister around, he might have shit in a hole in the ground and been glad of it.

Business completed, he made his way to the stable. The first hints of the sunrise were peeking over the horizon, lighting his way, though he didn’t stop to admire them for fear of incurring more of his employer’s short temper.

Barnes was waiting with a pitchfork and a shovel, along with a pair of gloves that he presented to Steve unceremoniously. “You know how to muck a stall?”

Steve did not and told Barnes so as he pulled on the gloves. Barnes gave him a withering stare before walking him over to Winter’s stall and showing him how to, well, shovel shit. It wasn’t terribly complicated - Steve watched what Barnes did and mimicked the motions. Once he was satisfied Steve was ready to try, Barnes handed him the tools and stepped back.

“Where are Winter and Bright?” Steve asked, hoping to spark a conversation.

“Tied ‘em up out back,” he replied, before walking further into the stable where he sat down to milk the cow.

Mucking the stalls was harder than Barnes made it look. Lifting the soiled hay into the cart was heavy work that had Steve’s arms trembling within a few minutes. Closing his eyes, he wiped a sweaty hand across his brow, likely leaving a trail of dirt behind.

“Where do I take this?” he called.

“Shit pile,” Barnes replied. “Round the side.”

Steve grimaced, gathering his strength before lifting the cart handles and maneuvering the unwieldy beast through the stable door and towards the mound of would-be fertilizer. The smell of the manure pile made him gag, and he hid his face against his sleeve, breathing through the fabric, glad Barnes couldn’t see him.

Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. He hated this. It was hard and his arms hurt and he was hungry and he wanted to go home. Things were never so bad there that he found himself crying over a pile of manure.

He allowed himself one bitten-back sob, swiping his soiled sleeve across his eyes. He was stronger than his sadness. He had to be. Had to prove to God and Barnes and maybe to himself that he could do this.

Squaring his shoulders, he went back to work.

Putting down the fresh bedding for the horses was easier, though not by much. The sweet hay smelled better, at least, and it made him feel accomplished to give the horses something nice. Steve had always found a certain pleasure in caretaking, even if it was sometimes belied by his temper.

The temper which flared when Barnes looked over his work and proclaimed it inefficient. “You’ll get faster,” he said. “Can’t take this long every time.”

“Sorry,” Steve said, knowing he sounded sullen. Not caring.

Barnes watched him for a moment before jerking his head towards the door. “Come on, you can help me put ‘em out to pasture for the day.”

He led Steve around to the back of the stable, where Winter and Bright were tied. Barnes placed Bright’s lead rope in Steve’s hand, and he was relieved to find she followed him with the lightest of pulls. Winter took more convincing - Barnes gave his flank a light smack to get him moving towards the gate. Their pasture wasn’t large, but it had plenty of fresh grass. Steve supposed, for a horse, it wasn’t a bad way to spend the morning.

Barnes showed him how to take off their halters before releasing them and shutting the gate. Both horses went immediately to stand at the fence, and Barnes smiled. “Creatures of habit,” he explained, reaching into his pocket and pulling out two sugar cubes, handing one to Steve. “Put your hand out flat.”

Steve did, grinning as Bright’s lips swiped across his skin to take the sugar. He couldn’t resist rubbing her nose, the velvet softness of it a comfort. Winter, meanwhile, nipped at Barnes’ fingers and earned himself a sharp rebuke. “Damn devil horse!”

The rebuke might have been more effective if he hadn’t said it so fondly.

Barnes turned on his heel, walking towards the house. Steve tried to match his pace, mostly because Barnes started to speak without prompting. “You’ll need to learn how to manage the cow and the chickens as well. Animals first, every morning. They eat, then we eat.”

As if fated, Steve’s stomach gave an audible growl. He flushed, and Barnes’ lips quirked up. “You hungry?”

“A little.”

Anything else Steve might have said was cut off when he heard a growl. He scarcely had time to register the sound before there was a grey blur bounding out of the tall grass towards them. A wolf, Steve was sure of it, big and shaggy with yellow teeth and yellow eyes. It was, in short, the stuff of nightmares.

“Knock it off, Sarge,” Barnes said, stepping between Steve and the wolf. The creature skidded to a stop, sitting back on its haunches and cocking its head to the side.

A dog. A big, shaggy dog. Wolf. Wolfdog. Brown eyes, not yellow ones. Dopey, doggy grin on its wolfish face.

Barnes crouched down and the dog leaped for him, the two of them wrestling, playful and affectionate. “Out all night, huh? D’ja bring me back something good to eat?” The dog licked his cheek and Barnes barked out a short laugh. It was the first genuine laughter Steve had heard from him. It was nice.

Barnes realized about the same time Steve did that he had let his guard down. His bright smile faded as he got to his feet and pushed a hand through his tangled hair. “This uh, this is Sarge. He won’t hurt you, so long as you give him his space.”

Steve had no intention of giving Sarge anything but space. Ever. Starting their relationship off respectfully seemed important, so he gave him a wide berth and followed Barnes inside the house. Mercifully, Sarge stayed outside. Though, given the state of the interior, Steve couldn’t imagine the dog making it worse.

Eager to show off any skill, Steve lit the fire in the cookstove. Barnes did the cooking, though that was a charitable interpretation. Steve sat at the table and watched, horrified, as Barnes cracked four eggs into a skillet, then dumped in more of the leftover beans on top. The result was an unappealing-looking hash that came closer to soup than anything solid. It tasted worse than it looked, the rubbery texture of the eggs in Steve’s mouth making him wish he hadn’t been so insistent on breakfast.

Barnes was unbothered, shoveling food into his mouth with the grace of an angry bear, sopping up the runny mess with more of the unappealing cornbread.

“Eat,” he grunted when he saw Steve wasn’t.

Steve did as he was told, mainly because he didn’t think he’d be offered anything else. After nearly chipping his tooth on a rock that had been mixed in with the beans, he thought he ought to say something, though he hoped it wouldn’t be taken as an offense.

“I’m not a bad cook,” he said. “I could try making supper later.”

Barnes looked up, sodden cornbread halfway to his mouth.

“I helped my mother,” Steve continued. “Watched her. I picked up a few things. If it would be...useful for you.”

Barnes nearly smiled. “Shit, do what you want. My cooking’s nothing to write home about, and I’ll eat anything.”

Steve very much believed that to be the truth.

Once he’d eaten as much breakfast as he could stomach, he went to draw up another bucket of water from the well to wash the dishes. He groaned at every turn of the crank, arms aching, resting his forehead against the wood of the mechanism when he needed a break.

The water looked so appealing that he couldn’t resist dunking his head, sodden hair plastered to his forehead when he pulled back, the dust and grime from his face creating a film on the surface of the water as it settled.

“There’s a creek near the edge of the property,” Barnes said. Steve jumped; he hadn’t noticed him emerge from the house, but there he was, leaning against the door, picking at his teeth. “If you want to clean up proper.”

Steve did want that - his mother would have fallen over from the state of him - clothes dirty and stiff enough to stand on their own, while his body hadn’t been properly clean since Chicago.

“That’d be nice,” he replied. “Thank you.”

Barnes pushed away from the door and shrugged. “Work to do first.”

Of course, there was more work. Steve washed the breakfast dishes, then followed Barnes out to what he termed the “summer garden.” Considering Steve hadn’t ever heard of a winter garden, he was unsure why the distinction needed to be made.

“Becky took care of this,” Barnes said. “Weeding it every couple days, watering it if we ain’t had rain. And we ain’t had rain this week.”

He was giving Steve a pointed look. Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes. There was something funny about the way Barnes spoke - his accent was educated, yet he peppered his speech with rough words, slang and swears. The language seemed calculated - playacting the part of a pioneer.

“I helped my mother with her garden,” Steve said. “I can manage.”

Barnes nodded and left him to the chore. The garden was thriving, small, green shoots beginning to sprout under the early summer sun. His mother’s garden had been a scant quarter of this size, and she’d shared the plot with a neighbor. Steve understood the importance of having the produce, though, especially when it came to preparing for winter. He’d watched Sarah preserve everything from cucumbers to berries - pickles from the former, jam from the latter - and learned from her. He could do it here, too. If he had to spend a winter in this place, he wasn’t going to spend it eating beans and stale cornbread.

The work of the garden was nearly as backbreaking as the work of the stable, sun beating down relentlessly on his back and shoulders as he knelt in the dirt to weed. It wasn’t long before his neck felt hot and prickly like rough wool dragged across the skin. His knees hurt terribly, and his joints cracked when he finished pulling the last weed and got to his feet. He wanted to lie down and sleep for a week, but he still had to water the damn thing.

Hauling buckets from the well to the garden was difficult, though that was no surprise - everything was proving difficult around here. His skinny arms struggled with the weight, causing him to lose nearly half the bucket every time he crossed the distance between the well and the plot of earth which meant twice as many trips to finish the work.

Then there was Barnes, who had set himself the task of splitting logs. A noble endeavor, Steve knew, if they wanted to keep the cookstove burning, but did they need that many? It was only that Barnes was a distraction - the way the muscles in his arms bulged when he swung the ax, sweat dripping from his brow. The way he unbuttoned his shirt and cast it to the side when the warmth of the midday sun proved too much for him.

Steve snuck a glance as he struggled across the yard with his fifth sloshing bucket. Barnes was tan where Steve was pale, his body a model of efficiency. Steve wondered if he might one day look that way, with enough hard work. If his own arms could ever be so strong - strong enough to carry two buckets at once, split a log with a single swing. Pick up someone single-handed and bring them to bed...her to bed.

Barnes gave a grunt as he swung the ax again. Steve looked away. Went back to his garden and dropped to his knees, mouth moving in silent prayer.

Eventually, the last row had been watered and Steve drank what was left in the bucket, tongue dry and throat parched. He needed to rest a minute.

“Rogers,” Barnes’ sharp bark cut through him. “C’mere.”

Steve wanted to cry, something in his gut twisting at the tone. Had Barnes seen him looking earlier? Did he know the thoughts in Steve’s head? Or was he disappointed in him - would he send him back now, after a day, because Steve wasn’t strong enough for this work? He didn’t like it, but it was what he had, which was a sight more comforting than the unknown.

Willing himself to calm down, he turned to find Barnes regarding him with a mixture of impatience and amusement. Steve got to his feet, returning the bucket to the well before going to Barnes, who put the handle of the ax in his hands and lay down another log.

As it happened, Steve was lousy at chopping wood. Truly, spectacularly lousy. He could barely get the ax above his head and when he brought the tool down, he hardly made a dent. Barnes didn’t look thrilled. Steve wasn’t thrilled, either, though all the anger in the world couldn’t make him strong enough to split the damn things. He was sore and tired and he had at least four blisters forming.

“Jesus, Rogers,” Barnes said, as another of Steve’s swings went wide, a few woodchips flying. “You gotta put some muscle behind it.”

Something snapped inside Steve, brought on by the blisters, the sunburn, the stiffness in his knees and the casual blasphemy. The fact that he was still battling a cough and all he had in his stomach was Barnes’ terrible gruel. The fact that he hated this place and hated himself for ever thinking there might have been something romantic about farming. “Well shit, Barnes, if I had any muscle to put, I’d do it!”

He hadn’t meant to swear - tried not to, in fact. At home, his mother would wash his mouth out with soap for the mildest of cusses. Barnes, however, cracked a grin and cuffed him on the shoulder. “You’ll learn. We got enough for now. You want me to show you the creek?”

Steve nodded, head spinning. Swearing at his employer seemed a surefire way to get himself sent away, yet Barnes seemed downright chipper, whistling for Sarge and setting off for what Steve could see was a small path between the wheat fields.

Barnes was strange.

It took nearly ten minutes to reach the creek. Steve heard it before he saw it, Barnes leading the way up a small hill peppered with a line of scraggly, windblown trees that hugged the water - the only substantial trees Steve had seen, though he’d noticed a lumber yard in town. The creek itself was reasonably wide, and as Sarge charged into the water, Steve could see that it was deep enough to sink down in properly.

Barnes began stripping off the rest of his clothes and Steve came to the startling realization that they would, of course, be swimming in the altogether. Steve didn’t look as Barnes finished undressing and pitched himself into the water after Sarge.

There was nothing for it - he'd have to join them. Swallowing hard, he brought shaking hands up to undo his buttons. The shaking, of course, was from the day’s exertions, not because he was shy. Being shy might raise suspicions. He left his clothes in a neat pile, choosing to walk rather than run into the fresh, clear water. Civilized, unlike some people.

Not that Barnes was paying him any mind - he was too busy playing with the dog.

The creek didn’t have too much of a current, which Steve appreciated - he wasn’t a strong swimmer, despite his father’s repeated attempts to teach him. Mostly, he wanted to be clean, so he ran his hands up and down his arms and torso, the accumulated dirt sloughing off, carried away on the water. After a moment, he ducked under entirely, wetting his hair and relishing the feel of the cold creek on his sunburnt neck.

When he popped to the surface, he found Barnes watching him. Self-conscious, Steve rubbed the back of his neck, wincing when his hand met abused flesh.

“Gonna need a better hat, keep the sun off,” Barnes grunted before turning back to the dog.

They stayed in the water for a while, not speaking or even acknowledging one another much, which seemed polite. Barnes got out first, Sarge following, and Steve ducked down in the water so only his eyes were visible, suppressing a grin as both Barnes and the dog shook themselves in the proper canine fashion, shaggy hair flying. (And if he happened to catch a glimpse of Barnes’ muscled backside in the process, well, that wasn’t his fault.)

Steve expected Barnes to dress, so when he sat down on the ground under the shade of a tree instead, Steve didn’t know what to do. That feeling doubled when Barnes stretched out on his back, naked as a jaybird, seemingly settling in for a nap.

God, he slept too much. He was infuriating.

Steve shivered, lifting a hand out of the water to find his fingertips were puckering up. He needed to get out, and he could only hope Barnes had his eyes closed. Granted, the cold water meant his prick had stayed soft, despite the wanton display Barnes was putting on. Steve hated that his body responded to it, hated that the sight of a man like Barnes could affect him so. There were plenty of pretty women who’d turned his eye, but they were only half the equation, and God knew he wasn’t saying even that much in the confessional.

He made his way out of the creek, snatching up his drawers and pulling them up over damp legs, cringing at the sensation. “M’going back to the house,” he mumbled, in case Barnes was interested.

Barnes cracked one blue eye open, regarding Steve before shrugging and reaching for his hat, which he placed over his face. “Suit yourself,” he said, words muffled behind the thick material.

The hat helped - ensured Steve wouldn’t be caught in sin and indulgence if he looked, though he tried to fight the impulse. The fight was lost when his gaze caught on the rough scars of Barnes’ shoulder and chest. He’d noticed them earlier when they were cutting wood, but he hadn’t let his eyes linger. Now, though, he mapped out the damage - angry weals spreading from Barnes’ shoulder all the way down to his elbow, and two ugly, deep marks on his chest, as though the flesh had been scooped out. Bullets, maybe, while the pink, ridged scars on his arm were unmistakably burns. He had other scars, too - older ones, lighter ones. They didn't tell so much of a story.

Steve’s eyes traveled south, though he knew he shouldn’t. Barnes had hair on his chest - easy enough to follow its path, down his stomach and past his navel. Then further, to where his soft prick lay against his muscled thigh. Steve swallowed, looking away as he buttoned his top button, heart thudding against his ribs. Oh, how he wanted. Wanted to touch. Wanted to see what noises Barnes might make when he did.

Steve wasn’t stupid. He knew how some men were, growing up where he did. Once, on a late-night errand for his mother, he’d seen two men in an alley, though they hadn’t seen him. He’d crouched behind a barrel and watched, horrified and fascinated as one of the men had gotten on his knees for the other, wringing out a series of moans. It had been wrong, what they were doing. He’d been wrong to look.

He’d looked anyway. Same as he was looking at Barnes now.

Bile rose up in his throat and he covered his mouth with one hand, stumbling towards the path that would lead him back to the house, banishing the thoughts as best he could. He didn’t know if there was a priest on this whole godforsaken prairie, so he’d have to burden his soul a while longer.

Sin came to an idle mind, and when he reached the cabin, he forced himself to work, perhaps as absolution. He swept the floors of the shanty, picked up the clothes and organized what he could. After that, he set to work on supper, raiding the bins and boxes that made up the pantry for inspiration. Potatoes, onions, more eggs, bacon. He could make a hash.

Barnes returned when he was nearly finished, the strong smell of the bacon no doubt wafting out the open window and into the yard.

“Smells good,” Barnes said, shutting the door behind him and hanging up his hat.

“It’s just hash.”

Barnes took another step forward and stopped short. “You cleaned up.”

“I did.”

Walking to his bed, Barnes sat and bent to take his boots off. Steve took the lack of response as tacit approval. Dinner proved to be another thing Barnes approved of, proclaiming it “good” after chewing and swallowing his first too-big mouthful of fried potatoes.

Steve knew he ought to be mindful of his pride, but it was hard not to thrill in the compliment, considering it was the only praise he’d gotten all day.

“I’ll bed down the animals,” Barnes said as they rose from the table. “You clean up.”

Steve would have to learn the evening chores eventually, but he couldn’t bring himself to argue for being taught that night - not with his hands red, raw, and blistered. Not when he could feel his pulse beating in time with the throbbing ache of his sunburn.

By the time Barnes returned from the stable, Steve was swaying on his feet, half-asleep where he stood.

“Go to bed,” Barnes said, in a way that sounded like pity.

Steve frowned. He didn’t need anyone’s pity, least of all Bucky Barnes.

Still, the next morning when he was roused at the same cruel hour to perform the grueling routine again, Steve wondered if pity might not be so bad.

Chapter Text

Steve was a terrible farmer. Oh, he could rise early and muck the stalls. He could gather the eggs in the morning, weed the garden in the afternoon. The washing, the cleaning, the cooking, all of it he could manage. But the real work - the hard work? The work he assumed Barnes had hired him for? He wasn’t helping at all, and he was beginning to feel the weight of guilt settle on his shoulders.

On the morning of his fifth day - a Saturday, nearly one whole week of being useless - he was helping Barnes repair a broken fence. The fence was broken because Winter (in a fit of his usual pique) had kicked a rail out. Steve had been tasked with holding the new rail up while Barnes knocked it into place. Nominally simple, but Steve’s hands were small, and his gloves were too big. He lost his grip on the rail and watched, helplessly, as the heavy load landed directly on Barnes’ gloved thumb.

“Goddammit, Rogers,” he shouted, pulling his finger free and shooting to his feet. He yanked the glove off, and Steve could see blood welling up where the nail had been split. “Shit, son of a gun…”

“I’m sorry!” Steve replied. He was sorry, and guilty, and wondered if this was when Barnes would grow fed up and banish him.

“Just leave it,” Barnes said, as though Steve had been attempting to do more harm. He stalked towards the house, submerging his thumb in a pail of the morning’s leftover wash water and sulking about it for a good few minutes. Steve’s cheeks turned about the same color as the bloody water by the time Barnes dumped it out.

Once his thumb was wrapped up, and the bleeding had mostly stopped, Barnes set Steve to work churning butter in the yard, where the house cast a shadow on the ground. Steve supposed he thought it was a punishment, but it wasn’t the first time Steve had churned butter - the work hurt his shoulders and arms, but it was an ache he knew. An ache that brought with it a memory of his mother’s hands, teaching him and guiding him. He didn’t mind the work.

Barnes, meanwhile, had stomped off to the wheat fields, still surly and gruff, without a word of explanation as to what he might be doing. Sarge went with him, loping at his master’s side, and Steve swore the dog was angry with him, too.

Steve tried to forget the embarrassment of the morning as he worked, focusing on the rhythmic movement of the paddle. Caught up in the repetitive motion, he didn’t register the sound of hooves until the horses they belonged to were practically in the yard. Startled, he looked up and found a man and a woman approaching.

“Hello there,” called the woman as they pulled the horses up, coming to a stop in the middle of the yard. It was an awfully familiar greeting, Steve thought.

Politeness bred into him, he got to his feet, wiping his hands on his trousers. “Afternoon,” he replied, nodding his head, hoping to project surety rather than the shyness he felt around strangers.

“You must be the new hand,” she said, swinging herself off the horse with surprising grace, considering the volume of her skirts. The man did the same, and once they were both on level ground, they turned to look at him again. “Oh, but you don’t know who I am. Becky Proctor - Bucky’s sister. This is my husband, Matthew.”

Now that she’d named it, Steve could see the resemblance. Bucky and Becky (and, Lord, who would do that to their children?) both had high cheekbones and clefts in their chins. Becky’s blue eyes were the same stormy color as her brother’s. It wasn’t as though Steve spent a lot of time thinking about Barnes’ eyes; it was only that Becky’s were set off nicely by the royal blue skirt and riding jacket she wore. Her eyes were brighter, too - livelier than his, as though she were thinking of a private joke. She was lovely - taller than Steve and slim, with a mass of glossy, dark hair piled up on her head. Same color as Barnes’ hair.

Matthew was altogether a different breed. He was taller than Becky, but only by an inch, stocky and compact where Barnes was lean and muscled. He had a friendly face, if not a handsome one, with a head of sandy curls revealed when he took off his tan-colored hat. He looked, in short, like the archetypal illustration of a farmer one might find in a book, all white shirt, and suspenders. The image made Steve smile.  

“Pleased ta meetcha,” he said, shaking Becky’s hand since she’d offered it first, then Matthew’s. “I’m Steve. Rogers.”

Meeting new people was awful when you were shy and awkward, but these two didn’t seem so bad. It was nice to be around people who smiled sometimes.

“Good to meet you, Steve,” Matthew drawled, his accent slow and melodic like he’d grown up someplace so hot people couldn’t be bothered to enunciate.

“Where’s my brother?”

A decent question, albeit one Steve didn’t have an answer to. “He’s...with...the wheat?”

Becky blinked, cocking her head to the side before glancing at Matthew and laughing, the sound of it putting Steve at ease.

“I’m...sure he’ll be back soon enough.” Gesturing towards the churn, she smiled at Steve and shrugged. “We didn’t mean to interrupt you - honestly, we’re so happy he’s got some help around here now. The stubborn ass was insisting he could run this whole place by himself, which is...well, it’s unsustainable, is what it is.”

“Uh, yes ma’am,” Steve managed to interject.

“I told you, didn’t I tell you?” she continued, looking at Matthew. “Lots of young men looking for an opportunity on that train.” Steve didn’t like to point out that he was the last choice in a lot of slim pickings. He was also beginning to wonder if all the talking Barnes didn’t do was somehow passed along to his sister because she was still going. “...and I said, well, Bucky, they can’t all be babies, can they? And they weren’t, and now here you are.”

She seemed to be looking for a response, so Steve nodded and repeated himself. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Oh, it’s Becky,” she said, waving her hand as she walked over to open one of the bulging saddlebags. “Are you hungry? We brought enough for four - such a nice day, thought we’d have a picnic out here if you prefer it. And seeing as Bucky only has the two chairs indoors.”

Steve blinked. The topic change had been so abrupt, he was still hung up on the fact that she’d told him to call her Becky.

“I’ll go and fetch a blanket,” she said, handing the contents of the saddlebag to Matthew before walking straight past Steve and into the house as though she lived there. Which, he had to remind himself, she had. For much longer than him, as evidenced by the fact that she emerged a minute later with a worn blanket Steve hadn’t seen before.

Matthew, meanwhile, set the bag of food on the bench near the door before leading the horses to the stable and tying them up. Steve watched with interest as he loosened the strap that went around their stomachs, wondering if it was for comfort, practicality, or both? He wanted to ask the question but didn’t like to bother Matthew.

Besides, Becky was back and giving instructions. “It’s not too windy, but we’ll eat by the windbreak. Come and help me put this down.”

The windbreak was a line of saplings Barnes had explained would eventually grow up into proper trees, protecting the house and the yard from the harsh weather, whether blizzard winds or summer storms. Steve, of course, was in charge of keeping them watered. In their current state, they didn’t provide much shade or comfort, but he wasn’t about to argue with Becky over her choice of location. Instead, he helped her put rocks on the corners of the blanket to pin it down.

Matthew brought the food, handing the sack to Becky with a look on his face that spoke volumes - the same look Steve had seen his father cast at his mother a thousand times. A look that said he couldn’t quite believe he had the good fortune to be married to such a woman in the first place.

Steve ignored the funny feeling in the pit of his stomach and instead focused on how good the food looked. Probably the feeling was just hunger.

“Eat,” Becky laughed when she saw Steve eyeing the food. “No need to stand on ceremony.”

She didn’t need to tell him twice, and for a while they were all quiet, eating the thick slices of chicken with bread and cheese. It wasn’t anything special, but after a week of eating from Barnes’ stores, it was heaven to have something fresh.

“How’s farming treating you?” Matthew asked, just as Steve took his third bite of chicken.

Chewing and swallowing, he wiped his mouth with a napkin before responding. “It’s fine. Good. Mr. Barnes is…”

“Mr. Barnes!” Becky exclaimed, grinning. “Oh, he’ll love that.”

Steve blushed and shrugged, just as the Mr. Barnes in question came around the side of the house, stopping short when he saw the horses. He turned and searched the yard, eyes lighting on the picnic and Steve, specifically. Then he looked at the butter churn with a pointed expression before walking in their direction. It seemed he was still sore from the fence rail. (Sarge, meanwhile, went right to Becky, who pushed him off when he tried to go for the food. He lay down and looked at her with baleful eyes, instead.)

“You finish your chores before you stuff your face, Rogers?”

Steve flushed, guilt running through his veins, though Becky snorted into her hand. “Charming as usual, Bucky. You don’t even say hello?”

“Hello.” He hardly looked at her before his eyes narrowed at Steve again.

“For heaven’s...the butter can wait, Bucky. Sarge, stop it, not for you.”

“The hell it can,” he said. Steve felt sure he was about to be sent back to work, so he crammed another big bite of bread into his mouth in defiance.

“Look at that!” Becky feigned indignance, throwing her hands up. “He’s starving. You can’t expect him to work on an empty stomach, can you? Let the boy eat his food.”

Barnes grunted before making whatever decision he was going to make and sitting down on the edge of the blanket near his sister, reaching out to steal a hunk of cheese from her pile. “You sound like Ma when you fuss,” he said around a mouthful.

She narrowed her eyes, dabbing at the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “You sound like Father when you’re surly.”

There was tension in the air; Steve worried they might fight, and that Barnes would blame him for it. Becky would leave, taking her good nature and her good food along with her.

“Ain’t true,” Matthew broke in. “Y’both sound like children.”

The siblings turned to look at him, as though they’d forgotten he existed. Becky started laughing first, and Steve was sure Barnes almost cracked a smile. Matthew was a man of few words, but he had excellent timing.

“You’re not funny,” Becky informed her husband, leaning over and giving him an affectionate kiss on the cheek. Steve ducked his head, looking away. The gesture was so small, so intimate, it felt wrong to intrude. He focused on his food instead.

“So where do you come from, Steve?”

Startled by the question, he jumped, looking up to find three sets of eyes on him.

“The train was from New York, according to the signs they posted,” Becky continued. “So I just assumed.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, wishing the conversation hadn’t turned back in his direction. “From Brooklyn. I am, I mean. The train wasn’t. It was from...it left from New York.”

The train wasn’t from Brooklyn. Honestly, Steve.

Becky didn’t seem to mind, just smiled. “Bucky and I are from New York as well. Further upstate, though. I’ve only been to the city a handful of times.”

Steve hadn’t realized, and he cast a surprised glance at Barnes. That explained the hybrid accent he sported, as well as his mixed slang. “I didn’t realize,” he said. “Thought you’d been here a while.”

“Oh, we have,” she said. “Just about two years now - oh here, dog…” She plucked a piece of chicken up and tossed it into the yard, Sarge running after it. “Anyhow, we came out when the war ended, and Bucky filed the claim. Feels like ages ago now, doesn’t it, Buck?”

Barnes grunted and shrugged, his mouth still full of food. Becky kept going. “The town wasn’t much to write home about then, but it’s grown quite a bit - we’ve got a proper general store and a hotel now. I’m sure you’ll see the next time you’re there.”

“I only saw the inside of the church,” Steve said because he couldn’t think of anything else to keep the conversation going.

“The church!” Becky snapped her fingers. “That’s what I forgot! Matthew and I are going to take you as soon as you’re settled - not tomorrow, but perhaps next Sunday.”

“Take me?”

“To church, of course. We’ve got a wonderful Reverend - Brother Coulson’s the nicest man.”

“Oh.” Steve glanced at Barnes, who had snorted and put his hand up near his face. If Steve didn’t know better, he’d swear Barnes was laughing. “Well. That’s nice of you to offer. But. I’m Catholic. So…”

“How interesting,” Becky said, her eyes going wide as though Steve had just informed her he was from the moon. “We’ve never had a Catholic here before. There aren’t any churches like that, but...perhaps when the town gets larger?”

Steve had known the church in town wasn’t his sort of church from the moment he’d stepped inside - everything was all wrong. The Shield Society people promised to do their best to match Catholic children with Catholic communities, and Protestant children with their respective churches, but when you were the last picked of the last batch, well, concessions had to be made.  

“It’s alright,” he said, picking at a piece of chicken and trying not to worry too terribly much about it. He had his mother’s rosary, and he knew how to pray well enough on his own. It was only that he was concerned about how long it might be before he could next go to confession. His thoughts were neither pure nor chaste when it came to Barnes, and the weight of that sin was settling heavy on his shoulders.

“You’ll need to come along with us anyway,” Becky said. “Bucky doesn’t attend services, but he’s not turning you into a heathen.”

“You enjoy church, Rogers,” Barnes said, one of his slow grins spreading across his face. “I’ll be sleeping on Sunday instead.”

Becky had some opinions on sloth that put Father Murphy to shame, and she fell to teasing her brother good-naturedly. Barnes gave as good as he got, and they picked at each other happily until the food was gone and he offered to take Becky on a walk to show her how well the wheat was progressing.

Steve wasn’t offered the same opportunity - he was sent straight back to the butter churn. Matthew turned down the walk as well, saying he’d overeaten and didn’t fancy overheating in the fields. Instead, he sat down on the bench near the door by Steve, and they watched the siblings and the dog disappear over a small ridge, swallowed up by the grass, all straight backs and dark hair. A matched set.

“Settling in alright?” Matthew asked after a spell.

Steve nodded, working the paddle up and down, the ache in his arms not so bad with the food in his stomach. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Barnes is...he’s teaching me a lot.”

“Matthew, please,” he said, waving Steve’s formality off as easily as Becky had. “Not too hard on you?”

“No.” That much was true. Barnes was crude and ornery, difficult and prone to sour moods, but he wasn’t cruel, and he wasn’t mean. “Sure is quiet, though.”

Matthew laughed at that, crossing one leg over the other and stretching out. “Not one for small talk, that’s true. Becky says he was different, before the war.”

The war - Becky had mentioned it, too, though Steve hadn’t picked it up at the time. Barnes had been a soldier, which made some sense, given his age and disposition. He hadn’t spoken of it, though - no tales of valor or mementos hung on the bare walls of the cabin.

“Something happened,” Matthew continued. “Made him different, when he came home. She doesn’t know - says he won’t talk about it.”

“Oh,” Steve said, before pressing forward with another question. Matthew seemed inclined to talk, and it was simpler than asking Barnes.   “Why’d they come out here?”

“God knows,” Matthew said, looking at Steve with a wry grin. “They came from money back east - Becky’s high society, she keeps saying. Teasing me, I figure. Why they gave that up to settle here, I don’t know, but...I ain’t complaining.”

Steve wasn’t sure about high society, but coming from money would explain a few things. The quilts on their beds were well-made, the fabrics expensive. Horses like Winter and Bright didn’t come cheap, either, though Steve had no idea of their real value. Matthew was right: giving up a comfortable life for a difficult one seemed a strange choice. Although, as his life had always been difficult, he had no basis for comparison.

“Barnes said you two were newlyweds,” Steve said, forced to pick up his end of the conversation.

A sheepish grin spread across Matthew’s face, like a dog wagging its tail outside a butcher shop - half-embarrassed, half-delighted, entirely pleased with itself. “We are,” he said. “Going on four months now. Bucky was...well, Becky thought she’d see him married off before long, too. He was seeing a girl in town for a time, but it ended before they made any promises to one another.”

Steve thought of the redheaded woman he’d seen that first afternoon. The one Barnes had looked at for such a long time. He wondered if she was the girl he might have married, and a hot flare of jealousy shot through him. No, not jealousy - wouldn’t be that. It was, perhaps, a resentment that Barnes had courted anyone. That he'd been wanted. But of course he had - he was young and handsome with a homestead and a wheat crop in the ground. If temperament was any indication, he was difficult but not mean. Steve had seen cruel men; men who beat their wives and their children, men who drank away their pay and left their families with a pittance. Barnes wasn’t that, he was sure.

He tamped down the emotion, changing the subject entirely because he couldn’t think about Barnes or the redhead without setting his nerves on edge. “I...plan on staking my own claim when I turn twenty-one,” he said. “Have a farm of my own.”

“That so?” Matthew said.

“I’ll be twenty-one in four years. Took this job to save for the filing fee.”

“Mmm,” Matthew said. “Hope there’ll be land left for you by then - folks tend to jump when Uncle Sam gives out something for nothing.”

Four years suddenly seemed an eternity to wait for the chance to claim his hundred and sixty acres. The country was vast, but there were plenty of people jumping at the opportunity to own a piece of it. “Oh,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get lucky, there’ll be something left.”

“Sure,” Matthew agreed. “Plenty of land further west and four years is enough time to figure it out. Hell, you might be married yourself by then. Becky’s a help, and she’s good company.”

Newlyweds were funny when they were truly in love. Steve had seen them enough in New York - anxious husbands and young wives, early days and early fears and early fights. They were enamored of one another, every conversation somehow leading back to their spouse. Matthew and Becky were no different.

“I’d like that,” he offered, though he wasn’t sure it was strictly true. He felt worse for lying. Omitting. Whatever it was, it was a sin.

Their conversation continued apace - discussing farming, what Steve could expect during the harvest, how the winter was shaping up to be difficult if the almanac could be believed. Steve liked Matthew - liked his straightforward manner and his sense of humor. He was so wrapped up in the conversation, in fact, he hardly noticed when Barnes, Becky, and Sarge reappeared in the yard.

“What are you two chattering about?” Becky asked, leaving Barnes’ side and moving to touch Matthew’s shoulder.

“Cattle,” Matthew grinned, turning his head to press a kiss to the back of her hand.

Barnes was cheerful as he approached them - relaxed and very nearly happy. “How’s that coming?” he asked Steve, indicating the churn.

“I’m not sure,” Steve admitted. His mother had always handled the final touches at home. “Feels different now than when I started.”

“Let me see,” Becky said, lifting the lid. “That’s good - nearly done. We can finish it off together.”

They did, Steve committing the lesson to memory as he and Becky worked to dry and roll the butter into a log before wrapping it up. Barnes and Matthew, meanwhile, set about fixing the aborted fence rail. Matthew didn’t have any trouble holding it in place.

Becky and Matthew stayed longer than they intended, and the sun was beginning to dip in the sky when Matthew got the horses ready to go.

“You ought to get some siding on the house,” he said as they made ready to mount.

“It’s June,” Barnes replied. “Besides, it’s weathered two winters. Can’t imagine a third’s gonna blow it away.”

“Bucky, you’re a miser,” Becky said, exasperated, as Matthew helped boost her up and into the saddle. She mightn’t have needed the help, save for her skirts and what Steve assumed was her corset. “You nearly froze me to death last year to save money on the lumber. You should do better by Steve.”

Barnes fixed her with an even look. “You survived, didn’t you?”

“Barely!” Becky exclaimed. “Some of the cracks in the walls were so big they were practically another window!”

Matthew mounted his horse, who turned a circle before settling down. “It’s gonna be a bad winter this year, Buck. Spend the money - you’ll be glad you did.”

Barnes grunted a response that wasn’t a response before they said their goodbyes. Steve was sorry to see them go - he’d been glad of the company, considering that talking to Barnes was usually like talking to a wall, only at least with a wall there was sometimes interesting wallpaper.

“Come on, Rogers,” he said, once they couldn’t see Becky and Matthew any longer. “Daylight’s burning, and you’re bedding down the animals tonight. It's time you learned.”

Steve prayed for patience. There was always, it seemed, something new to learn.

Chapter Text

Barnes’ good mood over his sister’s visit lasted through Saturday evening and into Sunday morning - whistling as he did his chores, complimenting Steve’s cooking, and getting his rifle down after breakfast, ostensibly to go hunting for something small and edible.

“Not much game left anymore,” he said, pulling the brim of his hat down as he stood in the doorway. “Too many people. But I’ll see if I can’t get us a rabbit. Something easy.”

Once he was gone, Steve took the opportunity to survey what was left in the pantry, just in case there was a rabbit to stew that evening. He’d never dressed and cooked wild game before, though surely it couldn’t be harder than plucking and roasting a chicken, which he’d done countless times at home.

They were nearly out of coffee, and the cornmeal was low in its barrel. Barnes would have to go for supplies soon, considering they both ate enough to feed an elephant after their long workdays. It was a new experience for Steve, who’d never had so much to eat before, even if he couldn’t prepare the feast as skillfully as his mother had stretched their famine. He’d never slept so well, either, though the dreamless slumber came from sheer exhaustion. Still, the cough he’d arrived with had all but disappeared, and his muscles didn’t ache quite as much on the seventh day as they had on the second, so perhaps hard work was good for something.

Once he’d surveyed their stores, he sat at the table, flicking through an outdated catalog Barnes had been perusing. He fidgeted in his chair, a creeping unease working its way up his spine. There was something awful about being idle on a Sunday, and while Becky and Matthew had promised to take him to church the following week, he supposed there wasn’t anything wrong with taking matters into his own hands.

Leaving the catalog, he went to fetch his mother’s rosary from where he’d hidden it under his pillow. It seemed a shame to pray in the close confines of the cabin, so he went outdoors, past the yard and into the tall, sweet grass that bordered the property. It had grown high enough that he couldn’t see the house anymore, leaving him with a sense of solitude as he knelt and made the sign of the cross. The beads were a comfort, worn smooth over the years by his mother’s nimble fingers. He murmured the words, just as she’d taught him when he was a little boy, sat on her knee and learning what the prayers meant. The lessons had been mostly forgotten, but the memory remained - how she smelled, how she smiled, the softness of her dress and the bright, happy laughter he inspired with some of his questions.

It was peaceful in the sunshine, and by the time he finished the ritual he was drowsy, yawning and stretching his arms above his head. Perhaps Barnes had been on to something with his midday napping; surely God wouldn’t be too angry if he only closed his eyes a moment?

He was fast asleep quickly, lulled by the sweet smell and rhythmic sway of the grass. Dreamed of someplace warm and safe, comforting arms around him, his father’s voice in the distance.

A wet snout in his ear gave him a rude awakening some time later. He yelped, jerking away, still half-dreaming as Sarge sat down on his haunches and gave a whine, then a bark. Steve scooted back, the dog cocking its head to the side just as Barnes appeared over the grass, looking down at Steve and snorting.

“Jesus, Rogers,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don’t have ears?”

Steve blinked, the sleep-fog not entirely gone yet. “I was sleeping…”

“Apparently,” Barnes said. “I was calling you for ten damn minutes. Thought you’d done something stupid. Run off, maybe.”

Yawning, Steve reached up and pushed back the hair that had fallen into his eyes. Where on earth did Barnes think he would go? The farm wasn’t much, but it was three square meals a day and a place to lay his head. “Why would I run off?”

Barnes shrugged, struggling for an answer before offering Steve a hand. It might have seemed like showing off, the way he used his strength to pull Steve right up and off the ground, except it was Barnes, who didn’t appear to care a whit what anyone thought of him.

“Dunno,” he muttered as Steve brushed off his trousers. “Just...thought you might.”

Steve offered a slight smile, the thought that Barnes had worried, even a little, warming him. “Don’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “We can go back if you like.”

Barnes didn’t argue, so Steve walked past him in the direction of the house. He got as far as the yard before Barnes’ voice rang out behind him. “Hey, Rogers!”

When he turned, he found Barnes standing at the edge of the grass, a slight grin on his face as he held a hand out, the rosary dangling from his fingers. “Drop somethin’?”

Steve’s hand instinctively went to his pocket, fingers wriggling down until he discovered a small hole at the bottom. Shoot.

“Thank you,” he said, grateful as he walked back to take the rosary. Without him, he might not have noticed it was missing until he’d gone to bed, at which point it would be impossible to find - too much of the land looked identical. “Hole in my pocket, musta fallen out.”

Barnes frowned, dropping the beads back into Steve’s outstretched hand. “What is it?”

“It’s a rosary,” he replied. It was unsettling, having to explain it. He’d grown up around people just like him - those who believed what he believed, spoke the same language, served the same God. These people - Barnes especially - were different. Strangers. His fingers found their way through the beads, twisting them around and around, letting them anchor him before he continued. “You use it...I use it when I pray. Each bead is a different prayer. Or...some of them are the same. But it...you use it to keep count. And it means different things, and…”

Barnes cut him off. “It’s Catholic, the rose-ree?”

“Yes.” Steve tensed.

“Your folks were both Catholic?”

Steve nodded, though he didn’t see why it mattered. Barnes didn’t ask any more questions, just walked past him and into the house. Curious, Steve followed. Once they were inside, Barnes went to the trunk at the foot of his bed, opening it up and digging for a moment before emerging with a small tin, which he presented to Steve without comment.

Opening the box, Steve found a small sewing kit - needles, thread, pins, a thimble and other assorted necessities.

“For your pocket,” Barnes explained.

Steve resisted the urge to tell Barnes he’d figured that one out on his own. Instead, he murmured a “thank you,” and set to work.

It took him some time to get settled - swapping one pair of trousers for another, then pulling his chair over to the window to get better light for working. Threading the needle the way his mother had shown him, he bent over the clothing, mending the tear with neat, even stitches.

“You’re good at that,” Barnes commented. Steve jumped, looking up. He hadn’t realized he was being watched.

“My ma taught me,” he replied, wary of an insult disguised as a compliment.

“How come?” Barnes asked, apparently more inquisitive on Sundays than any other day of the week. “No sisters?”

“No,” he said, mouth pressed into a thin line as he attempted to work and hold a conversation at the same time. “Only me. And I was...well, I was sick a lot when I was younger. Couldn’t learn my father’s trade.” He saw the question coming before Barnes could ask it. “He was a cooper.”

“Oh,” Barnes said. He fell silent, and Steve went back to his task. He was nearly finished when he was interrupted by another question from his suddenly speculative employer. “Can you sew proper, or just mend things?”

“My ma made our clothes. Taught me how, mostly.”

Barnes grunted, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. Steve had no way of knowing if that was a comment on his manhood or simply his way of ending the conversation. Didn’t matter. He began working on a knot to tie the thread off as Barnes went back to his trunk, rifling through the contents. Just as he’d broken the thread, Barnes unceremoniously dropped a pile of fabric on the table, coughing to get Steve’s attention. Not fabric, as it turned out - clothes and plenty of them. Steve got to his feet, examining the offering: an old wool overcoat - much better than the threadbare one from the charity barrel - a set of flannel long johns, and two rough work shirts.

“These don’t fit me anymore,” Barnes said, hands fisted at his side, as though he was trying generosity on for size. “You want to alter them for yourself, feel free. Probably need ‘em, come winter.”

The gesture was unexpected, and Steve felt strange about accepting. He wasn’t sure he deserved anything new - even if the new was old - much less gifts from the man whose good graces he depended on for a livelihood. “I...thank you,” he managed. “I can mend your clothes. If...any need mending. And I can knit, too.”

It was the least he could do. Be useful, be helpful, be good.

The stiffness with which Barnes had been holding himself softened, though he still didn’t smile. “Well. I ain’t got any wool.”

Steve felt himself beginning to blush and cursed himself for it. The air thrummed, the cabin suddenly too warm, every hair on his neck standing on end. “I…” he began.

“Gotta skin that rabbit,” Barnes interjected, before making his escape.

Steve didn’t see him again until he brought the carcass in to be cooked. The rabbit, at least, was tasty.

 


 

By Tuesday morning, the good mood had dissipated. Barnes had a short temper as they did the chores - barking orders, criticizing and scolding until Steve very nearly shouted right back at him.

They finished their work and ate breakfast in stony silence. Steve went out to wash up, and when he came back into the house, Barnes presented him with a folded piece of paper and a sealed envelope.

“You’re going into town,” he said. That was news to Steve.

“To town?”

“You deaf? Yes, town. We’re out of damn near everything.”

That much was true, though he didn’t have to be quite so rude about it. “...alright.”

“Mail that letter first, then go on into Carter’s, give him the list. He’ll load you up.”

“Carter’s?”

“The general store, Rogers, weren’t you paying attention when we drove through?”

That wasn’t fair. Steve had been brand new the one and only time he’d been to town - confused, scared, and overwhelmed by everything that had been happening to him.

“Guess I remember,” he muttered, even though he didn’t. But like hell was he going to give Barnes another reason to berate him.

Barnes crossed his arms over his chest, narrowing his eyes. Sometimes he reminded Steve of an alleycat he’d grown up with in Brooklyn - biddable one day, liable to scratch your eyes out the next. It was impossible to predict what sort of mood you’d find the creature in.

“Tell Carter to put it on my account - and get a goddamn receipt before you leave with anything.”

Steve hated it when he swore, though he hated even more that he was growing used to the swearing.

“Better get going,” Barnes continued. “It’s a long walk.”

Steve’s heart sank, though he didn’t know what the alternative would be - he’d never driven a wagon in his life, and the thought of riding horseback still made him nervous.

“I’ll...yes,” he said. “I suppose I’ll be back later.”

“That’s the general idea,” Barnes snapped, before practically shoving him out the front door, list in hand.

Steve worked hard not to harbor hate in his heart for anyone, but Barnes was trying his patience. His foul moods had an effect on Steve, who found himself glowering as he stomped towards the trail that led into town. He mostly remembered the way, and he’d rather find himself lost than ask Barnes for directions.

The walk lightened his mood considerably, though, sun shining and breeze blowing. Going to town meant he didn’t have to chop wood, churn butter, or mend fences. A preferable chore - one that put a spring in his step. By the time the gray buildings came into view on the horizon, he was whistling. Goodness, it wasn’t much, not compared to where he’d come from. Finding his way around would be no trouble at all.

He went to the post office first, nodding to the man behind the counter, who took Barnes’ letter. As he handed it over, Steve noted the address - Mrs. George Barnes, some town he’d never heard of, New York. Likely Barnes’ mother, then.

“Anything else?” the man asked, looking as though he’d rather get back to his paper than make small talk.

“Can you point me in the direction of the general store?”

The man shook the paper and waved a lazy hand in the direction of the door. “To your left.”

It wasn’t much in the way of instruction, but at least Steve knew where to turn. The general store made itself apparent quickly - it was one of the few painted buildings, with an ornate sign hanging from the front reading “Carter’s Mercantile.”

There were two young men about his own age coming out the door - one only an inch or so taller than himself, the other taller and broader. Their animated conversation didn’t leave them room to pay him any mind, and though he thought about making their acquaintance, he decided against it. It wasn’t shyness, precisely, it was only that Barnes had given him a chore.

He pulled the screen door open and stepped inside, unable to see anything for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the light. The store itself was relatively large, with a long counter running the length of the room, cabinets and display cases underneath, along with some sealed barrels. Shelves crammed full of any and everything a body might want lined the wall, and as Steve surveyed the goods, he startled upon finding a woman standing on a ladder, reaching for something up high.

From the back, all he could see was that she cut a nice figure, wearing in an expensive-looking day dress of flowered blue poplin with a flounce. As she stretched, her skirt and petticoats rode high on her leg, and Steve caught a glimpse of a white-stockinged ankle. He looked down, clearing his throat, lest she reach any higher. He wasn’t a stranger to the sight, but not in such circumstances.

The woman jumped, though she recovered quickly and kept her balance. Twisting her head around, she quirked a brow. She had a severe look about her, though not an unkind one, and she was pretty - the kind of pretty that twisted him up into knots and sent him stammering. The kind of pretty that couldn’t be bothered to give him the time of day. The kind of pretty that loved men like Barnes and didn’t see men like Steve at all.

“Oh!” Her startled expression broke into a smile as she jumped down from the ladder with no small amount of grace. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I-” Steve cleared his throat, ears already growing hot. “There were two - and they left. So I... here.” Stepping up to the counter, he thrust forward the paper Barnes had given him.

The woman’s smile faded somewhat, though she leaned across the counter to take it, unfolding and reading the contents, lips moving as she did. Eventually, she looked up, studying him with a measure of curiosity.

“You’re Barnes’ new hand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, heart beating a frantic tattoo against his ribcage. Barnes had said Carter was a he. Steve had been prepared for that, not a pretty girl with hair the color of mahogany and a smile that set his knees knocking.

“Oh, no,” she said, that smile turning into a laugh as she set the paper down on the counter. “Not a ma’am - Mr. Carter’s my father. He’s the proprietor.”

Another one with a funny accent, Steve realized, though he couldn't place it. She sounded rich, and for all Steve knew she might be if her father owned a store as fine as this one. Steve had always regarded wealthy people with a particular wariness after watching his mother clean houses and scrub floors for them.

“Oh.” It was hard to be himself - not witty, not urbane, not charming. Unable to carry on even the most straightforward conversation. He suddenly missed Barnes’ taciturnity.

“I’m Peggy,” she said. “Well, Margaret, but everyone calls me Peggy.”

“Oh.”

Peggy put a hand on her hip, prompting him. “And you are?”

“Oh!” It was as though he’d left his brain behind somewhere on the wagon trail. “Steven. Steve. Rogers.”

“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Steve.”

“Uh-huh,” he nodded.

Peggy pursed her lips; it was difficult to tell if she was suppressing a smile or a frown. Glancing at the paper, she tapped a finger against Barnes’ rough scrawl and sighed. “I don’t suppose Bucky sent you with money?”

The informality of her tone - calling him Bucky - implied that she knew him, which was more than a bit confusing. Barnes had indicated he rarely if ever went to town, though Peggy sounded overly familiar. Perhaps she’d known Becky? Of course, if he wanted to ask questions, he’d have to find his voice. Unlikely.

“Uh. No ma’-uh. Peggy. He wanted you to put it on his account.”

An unladylike snort escaped her, which almost made Steve smile, his hands unclenching at his sides by a fraction.

“I see. And does he expect you and I to load it all up for him as well?”

“Well. I haven’t...it’s just me. I haven’t got the wagon.”

Peggy’s gaze was intense, eyes boring into him. “Have you looked at this list?”

“No ma’am.”

“Just Peggy,” she corrected. “It’s...unless you’re secretly a pack mule or planning on making a half-dozen trips, you’re not going to be able to carry all of this by yourself.”

The notion of having to bring back everything he purchased hadn’t crossed Steve’s mind until the moment Peggy brought it up. She wasn’t wrong - he wasn’t able to lift much, and Barnes was either ignorant or cruel for sending him on an errand he couldn’t hope to fulfill. Despite his temper, Steve didn’t think he was cruel, which left ignorant as the only option. It wasn’t much better, but at least it wasn’t deliberately malicious.

When Peggy spoke again, her tone was gentle but not pitying, which Steve appreciated. “I’ll give you what you can carry today. You tell Bucky that if he wants the rest of his order filled, he ought to come to town and pick it up himself.”

Steve’s stomach twisted into knots at the thought of delivering that message. Barnes had been so sour all morning, and Steve hated to disappoint him. “He won’t like that,” he said before he thought better of it. “He’s…”

“He’ll do as I say,” Peggy broke in, cutting off his protests. “Now, wait there and I’ll see what I can do.”

There was no use arguing with her - she didn’t seem the type to back down. It took her some time to pull together a crate full of what supplies she deemed him strong enough to carry. At one point, she ducked under the counter, rummaging for a moment before walking around to his side with something hidden behind her back. Steve took a step away, throat squeezing tight the closer she got.

Peggy frowned, then pulled out what she was holding - a hat, just like Barnes’, in a lighter color but with the same big, wide brim all the way around. “It’s alright,” she said, plunking it down on his head, which he now realized had been her plan from the start. “Just a hat.”

Disbelieving, he reached up to touch the brim. “I-I can’t...afford this.”

She laughed, before gesturing towards the counter. “Bucky wrote it down,” she said. “And I don’t quarrel with lists.”

Steve’s cheeks went hot and he wished he could hide, though at the same time he wanted to laugh out loud. Instead, he nodded as Peggy went back to work. He took the hat off, turning it round in his hands, examining every angle. Surely Barnes must have thought he was doing an acceptable job, to buy him something so fine? Though he didn’t like to feel indebted, and the hat felt like a rich reward for barely a week’s work. Perhaps Barnes would take it out of his wages? He’d have to return it if that was the case - he needed the money more than he needed the sun off his neck.

Putting the hat back on, he wandered over to look at the goods on display in the case. His eyes caught on a plain notebook laid out next to a set of pencils tied with a red ribbon. Thumb and forefinger rubbing together, he stared, itching to hold them, use them, capture the world around him to try and make sense of it all.

“Twenty cents for the set,” Peggy’s voice broke in. Steve’s head snapped up, jarred by her sudden intrusion into his daydream. He didn’t have twenty cents - might not even have a hat. Everything he had ought to go towards his claim and his seed wheat, no matter how much the pencils called to him.

“Oh, ah…” he shook his head. “No, thank you. They’re awful nice, though.”

“They are,” she agreed, before picking up the crate she’d assembled and walking towards him. The receipt, thank God, was tucked on top. “Here, see if you can manage this.”

The weight wasn’t too terrible when she placed it in his arms - he could make it back to the house, surely. And even if it was a bit too much, well, he didn’t want Peggy to think he was weak. Holding back a grunt of effort, he nodded. “This should just about do it.”

Peggy smiled, then turned back to the counter and reached into a glass jar, pulling out two pieces of striped candy.

“Here,” she said, offering one to him and popping the other into her mouth.

“I can’t afford it,” he said again, hating how it had always been his standard refrain.

“Who said you had to pay?” Hands on her hips, feigning shock. Steve couldn’t help laughing as he obediently set the crate down and reached for the candy. “I’m allowed to give as much candy as I like to my friends, and I’ve decided that's what we are.

“We are?”

“If I say so.”

He put the candy in his mouth with a vain hope that the sweetness might untie his tongue and keep him from embarrassing himself any further. “Thank you,” he said, bending to pick up the crate, his back creaking in protest.

“You’re quite welcome,” she replied. “And you tell that Bucky Barnes I’ll have his order waiting whenever he deigns to show himself in town.”

“Uh...I’ll tell him,” Steve said, though he wasn’t planning on using those precise words.

By the time he made it back to the house, the crate felt as though it weighed a thousand pounds and was full of rocks and iron bars. Sweat trickled from his neck, down his spine, and pooled in the small of his back. He couldn’t catch his breath, although his chest didn’t seize the way it might have when he was younger. Peggy Carter had made him proud, and pride came before a fall.

The fall in question almost happened as he came into the yard - he tripped, nearly fell, nearly swore, and nearly threw the damn crate on the ground. Barnes was in the garden when he stumbled in and looked up just in time to see Steve humiliate himself. There went the pride, and he scowled as he set the crate down as gently as he could manage.

Steve wiped his brow and wished for a handkerchief as Barnes ambled over. “I’m back.”

“So I see,” Barnes replied, peering into the box. “You get what I sent you for?”

“Well…” he began.

“Well, what?” It wasn’t a bark or a growl, just a question. Perhaps his mood had improved.

“Peggy said it was too much for me to manage alone,” he said, figuring it was best to just get it out of the way. “Says you’ll have to drive the wagon in and fetch the rest.”

Barnes looked down at Steve, his mouth twisting into an unreadable expression. “That girl thinks she knows everything.”

Steve scuffed his toe in the dirt. “I think she’s nice. And she’s right, anyhow. I couldn’t manage it alone.”

“Never said she wasn’t nice, Rogers,” Barnes scoffed, before crouching on the ground to start picking through what Steve had brought back. “Least the damn flour’s here - and the coffee.”

“How come…?” Steve began, as Barnes continued pawing through the goods.

“What?”

“How come you sent me to get so much when you knew I couldn’t carry it?” He had to know if Barnes had been making fun of him, or he wouldn’t be able to sleep, turning it over and over in his mind.

“Huh,” Barnes pushed his hat back on his head and shrugged. “Guess I’m used to having the wagon.” It was said nonchalantly, as though he hadn’t caused Steve a massive amount of consternation in front of a pretty girl. “I didn’t think it through. Anyhow, you can get the rest when you go to church on Sunday - Matthew’ll help, and it saves me from giving Peggy the satisfaction of being right.”

“I don’t think…”

Barnes turned, tossing a small wrapped bundle at Steve, who had to give up what he was saying to catch it. “Oh!” The sound wasn’t dignified; he wished he hadn’t made it.

“S’for you.”

Unwrapping the paper, Steve was pleased to find two hanks of wool and several sets of knitting needles.

Barnes rubbed the back of his neck and cleared his throat, muttering his reply into the box. “You said you can knit, and my socks are worn through. Yours will be soon enough.”

Knitting wasn’t something men did unless it was necessary - bachelors or those who lived alone. Steve supposed they were the former, and anyhow, he’d always enjoyed it. It passed the time when he was sick, and now he could put that skill to use. He wanted to be helpful - the kind of person Barnes would keep around. “I...thank you.”

“It ain’t a gift, Rogers,” Barnes said, pushing himself to his feet. “It’s work.”

Grinning in spite of the tone, Steve looked up. “I like it anyway. And I like my hat.”

Barnes smiled a genuine smile at that. “Well, you needed somethin’ to keep the sun off,” he said, before reaching out to smack the brim, knocking the hat down low on Steve’s face. “Looks good on you, though.”

The compliment sent a thrill through Steve that no candy from Peggy Carter could touch. He was sure he was blushing straight down to his toes. “Well, thanks,” he mumbled.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Barnes said. “I was only half done with the garden - you go on and finish it up. I’ll take this in the house.”

The work wasn’t so bad, Steve found, with his new hat keeping the sun off his neck and his face. All that, and it looked good on him.

That night, he dreamed of Barnes flicking the brim of his hat and echoing the compliment. Steve chased the praise, found himself reaching for Barnes’ hand. Barnes let him take it. Smiled at him - that secret smile, the one Steve hardly ever saw. Leaned down and kissed him, full on the mouth, the way Steve had dreamed about before, only in those dreams the person kissing him had been a vague, shadowy figure. Barnes was real. Solid and real.

Waking in a cold sweat, Steve sat bolt upright, prick hard under the bedclothes. Had he made a noise? Did Barnes know what he’d been dreaming about? He drew in a shuddery breath and held it, listening. It was only when he picked up the sound of deep, even breathing on the other side of the partition that he allowed himself to sigh. It came out a sob - half-relieved, half-horrified.

He lay back, willing his body to slow, to stop, to calm itself. When his prick refused to comply, he took matters in hand, reaching beneath the bedclothes and wrapping a fist around himself. Life would be simpler without his dreams; his urges. But what was the point of obeying if it was simple? He squeezed his cock until it hurt, turning his head to bury his whimpers in the pillow. It was an old trick - one he knew well - though tears still sprang to his eyes as he softened under the onslaught. Perhaps it wasn’t proper mortification of the flesh, but it hurt like the dickens and served the same purpose.

Afterward, he curled up on his side, wiping his eyes with the quilt and shivering despite the warmth of the summer night. Why had it been Barnes? Why couldn’t he dream of someone like Peggy Carter instead, wake with the memory of her sweet, soft mouth in his mind instead of Barnes’ rough stubble?

Reaching under his pillow, he pulled out the rosary and clutched it to his chest. His mother was in heaven, he was sure of it - a saint like Sarah Rogers wouldn’t languish in Purgatory for long.  It made him sad to think of how she’d feel if she knew he was going straight to Hell.

Chapter Text

Steve’s second week as a fledgling farmer wasn’t half so bad as the first, mainly because he knew what to expect: up before the sun, work until dark. Different work every day, but never any less of it.

Of all the chores he’d attempted, he discovered he liked washing the best, mainly because it gave him the opportunity to escape Barnes’ scrutiny and spend some time on his own by the creek. Barnes was unlikely to pay any mind to how long he took, and Steve took full advantage of the respite. He scrubbed the clothes, then hung them from the lowest branches of the smallest tree before going back into the water for a swim. Afterward, he stretched out on the bank, just like Barnes, and allowed himself a nap while the sun worked its spell. The clothes were still damp to the touch when he woke, but not so damp that he couldn’t gather them up and into the basket, setting off for the house as the sun began to set.

If Barnes had been bothered by his long absence, he didn’t comment. However, as Steve hadn’t been there to fix supper, he was forced to endure Barnes’ cooking. It wasn’t the worst meal he had produced, though the meat had an awful lot of gristle.

“Becky’ll be by for you in the morning,” Barnes said, leaning back in his chair.

Steve froze with his hand halfway to his water, heart turning over in his chest. Perhaps his presence had been missed, and now he was going to be sent away for shirking his duties.

“Why?” he asked, voice pitched too high and too sharp for it to be casual.

Barnes raised an eyebrow. “Church. And Sunday school.” The last part was said with a smile, as though Barnes had a secret he wasn’t letting Steve in on.

“Oh.” He’d very nearly forgotten about church; he hadn’t even known it was Saturday. Luckily, his best shirt and coat were still tucked away in his bag, relics of Brooklyn that he wanted to keep intact, shabby as they were. He was glad he’d taken a dunk that day, as he didn’t think God would appreciate the stink of the week clinging to him during the service. “What’s wrong with that? I like church.”

“Oh, I know.” Barnes grinned, sopping up the last of the gravy on his plate with one of the rolls Steve had managed to make the day before. They were burnt on the bottom and tougher than he liked bread to be, but they were still softer than the cornbread, and tastier, too. Truth be told, he had been proud of them and had fought a smile when Barnes had eaten four the previous evening. “You’re always praying.”

Wary of teasing, Steve frowned. “What’s that mean?”

“Your rose-ree,” Barnes said, speaking around the bread, the bite he’d taken too ambitious by half. He ate like a bear just out of hibernation, food catching in the beard he hadn’t bothered to shave since Steve arrived.

“Oh. Well, I do. Like it.” He wasn’t sure what other defense to offer.

“Doesn’t matter,” Barnes said. “Long as you get up and do your chores before Becky comes.”

“What’ll you be doing?”

“Chores,” he said, scoffing and reaching for his napkin before - small miracle - wiping his mouth. “And going back to bed, I figure.”

“Why don’t you go to church?”

The question seemed impertinent as soon as it left his lips, but Barnes just smiled, his rough face illuminated by the soft glow of the kerosene lamp. “Can’t go to church if you don’t believe in God, Rogers.”

He said it so casually that it took a moment for the weight of the words to register with Steve. As though it were a normal thing, not to believe. As though his soul wasn’t in imminent danger. Steve had never heard anyone be so blasphemous before - even the worst boys he’d known in Brooklyn had gone to Mass with their mothers on Sunday. So he gaped at Barnes, mouth open, unable to formulate a response.

“You’ll catch flies like that,” Barnes said, standing up from the table. “I’ll do the dishes. You clean up in here.”

 


 

Steve slept fitfully, waking up no fewer than three times, head filled with odd fragments of dreams - Barnes in a cassock, crucifix in his hands, standing in the midst of Hell. Steve knew it was Hell, even though it looked like the cellar of the building he’d lived in when he was very small, following his mother down the steps to fetch the things kept there. Barnes grinned at him like he belonged there. Like he wanted Steve to join him in the dark. The dream ended before Barnes could speak, but Steve dreamed it more than once.

When he woke properly, he had a dull headache just above his left eye, a single point of pain pulsing with the weight of his dreams and desires. Ignoring it, he went to help Barnes with the animals before dressing himself in his church clothes. His shirt was too tight, his coat too large, and he fussed with his tie for a dog’s age before wrangling it into submission. He would suffice; he’d have to.

Becky and Matthew arrived in due time, sitting up pressed and proper in their wagon. They looked fussier than when they’d come to visit before, but church generally meant making that much more of an effort.

Barnes, for his part, was standing in the doorway with a grin on his face, holding his coffee. “Got an order in at Carter’s, Beck,” he said, good-natured in a way that indicated trouble. “Rogers'll help you haul it back here.”

Becky fixed Barnes with a hard look, cocking her head to the side. Steve chose to steer clear of the fight, clambering into the back of the wagon instead. “How about you come to town with us and fetch it yourself?”

Sipping his coffee, Barnes smiled. “Naw,” he said, as though she had only been teasing. “I’m busy this morning, but thanks.”

“Busy…” Becky began, just as Matthew cut in.

“We’ll bring it back,” he said. Steve got the sense he was used to playing mediator between the siblings.

“Much obliged,” Barnes replied. Becky muttered something Steve couldn’t quite make out, though it didn’t sound very Christian. Barnes, meanwhile, had turned his attention from his sister to Steve. “You better be careful - don’t say too many Hail Marys. Folks might not like it.”

Barnes was obnoxious. Steve glowered while Becky looked peevish. Matthew flicked the reins and, blessedly, the horses jolted the wagon forward, leaving Barnes and his teasing behind.  

Nobody spoke for some time, Becky’s mouth pressed into a disapproving line.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” she offered eventually.

“You don’t have to apologize for him,” Matthew said, glancing over at her.

“I don’t mind,” Steve said, although that wasn’t strictly true. “He’s only teasing.”

Becky twisted in her seat so she could see him, a half-smile gracing the features that were so like her brother’s. “Don’t let him scare you, is all I mean. His bark is worse than his bite.”

Steve had figured that much out already, but he smiled and nodded all the same.

The town was bustling by the time they arrived, though nothing compared to where he’d come from, streets filled with animals and people, mud and shit mingling in the endless cacophony of the city. The church was the center of the activity, and Matthew pulled the wagon up as close as he could, hopping down to tie the horses to a hitching post near a trough, so they’d be comfortable for the duration.

Steve and Becky walked in the direction of the church, where several young people about his own age were clustered near the steps. Peggy Carter was there in a heather-colored dress, hair pinned up and hidden under a matching bonnet. Steve felt some regret that her hair was hidden away, being as he’d found it quite fetching in the store. He’d wondered how long it was - if it reached all the way down her back. If she would ever let someone undo the braids, comb it and brush it to make it shine prettier than it already did. It hadn’t escaped him that her hair was nearly the same shade as Barnes’ hair, though he didn’t like to think on that too long.

Peggy broke away from the group when she saw them coming, embracing Becky ferociously, then pulling back and looking her up and down. “It’s been a hundred years!”

“It’s been a week!” Becky replied, a grin on her face.

“Feels longer,” Peggy said, the two of them dissolving into laughter - a shared joke Steve couldn’t hope to understand. He took a step back, unsure whether or not they wanted him there. Peggy noticed, of course. “And it’s lovely to see you again, Steve.”

“You’ve met?”

“Steve came to the store this week,” Peggy replied before he could explain. “But I haven’t seen Bucky - did you deliver my message?”

Steve fervently wished he could sink into the dust of the street and be carried away on the breeze. “I. Yes. I did, but…”

“The laziness of my brother,” Becky interjected, snorting in a way that was very reminiscent of her sibling, though Steve wouldn’t like to point it out. “That must be the order he asked us to pick up this morning.”

Peggy rolled her eyes. “He knows damn well we don’t open on Sundays.”

No errant lightning bolt arrived to strike her down for swearing on the Sabbath, which was a relief. Becky grinned, squeezing her friend’s arm. “I’d be just as happy to force him to collect it himself, but...for Steve’s sake, can’t you talk to your father?”

“Oh, for Steve’s sake,” Peggy said before the two of them started laughing again. They were confusing - Steve didn’t see anything funny at all, and his headache was slightly worse for trying to figure out the joke.

Matthew proved to be his savior, touching his shoulder lightly as he joined the trio. “Come on with me,” he said. “Becky’ll be along.”

The church was filling up with people, Steve following Matthew through the doors and then into a pew. He tried not to think about the last time he’d been there, poked and paraded about the place. Instead, he took a seat, willing his head to stop throbbing as he waited for the service to start. It took a few minutes for Peggy and Becky to come inside, joined by the redheaded girl he’d seen his first day in town. Peggy and the redhead took the pew in front of them, while Becky slid in next to Matthew’s side.

The service began soon after the women had gotten settled. The preacher was unassuming and soft-spoken, the plain language strange in Steve’s ears. It was unpredictable, nothing like the comforting and familiar Mass he was used to - every word dictated by tradition, every reverent prayer echoing back through the ages. His fingers clutched the rosary in his mended pocket and he wished for home.

It didn’t help that the small room was stifling, hot and closed-in with the press of bodies and all the cloying smells that came along with them overtaking his senses. By the time the reverend was finished, Steve’s mouth was dry, and his manageable headache had blossomed into something unbearable. He was exhausted, and yet there was Sunday school to be endured.

Steve found the entire Sunday school experience undignified - forced into a room with the rest of the younger people, including Peggy and the redhead. Made to learn and recite Bible verses, which he found stupid and pointless. Why did he need to know any of that when there were priests who were perfectly capable of translating?

After the class ended, he hoped they could load up Barnes’ order and leave, but Becky was quick to join up with her friends, pulling Steve along with her. He recognized two of them as the boys he’d seen leaving the mercantile the day he’d come to town - a loudmouth named Anthony and his quieter friend named Bruce. The redhead was named Natasha, and she was Peggy’s very best friend.

They all seemed fine. Nice, even. Pleasant. But he felt as though he might vomit from the pain in his head and he didn’t want to do that in front of the girls.

Once again, Matthew proved to be his salvation, nudging him from behind. “C’mon, Steve,” he said. “Peggy said her pa’ll open up the store - let’s go get that order, let these folks catch up.” Steve wasn’t sure if Matthew had noticed his distress, or only wanted to escape. Didn’t matter - he was grateful either way.

Matthew untied the horses and drove the short distance to Carter’s - the jostling leaving Steve decidedly green around the gills. He covered his mouth with his hand before hopping down, closing his eyes in an attempt to stop his head spinning.

“Alright?” Matthew asked.

“Head hurts,” he admitted. “It was hot in the church, and...I slept badly. I’m sorry.”

Matthew shook his head, a slight smile on his face as he glanced up at the storefront, where a tall man - Peggy’s father, presumably - was standing in the doorway. “Nothing to apologize for. We’ll get you home, soon as this is loaded up.”

Calling it home seemed a stretch, but at least they would be leaving. Peggy’s father called out a greeting, and the three of them loaded the remainder of Barnes’ order. Steve wasn’t much use, and by the time they finished his head felt like a railroad spike had been driven straight through his skull.

Becky arrived just as Matthew was loading the last box and it was hard to miss the look of concern that passed between the couple. It wasn’t pity, not precisely, but it reminded him of the way his mother and father would look at one another whenever he came home with a split lip or a black eye.

“Steve,” Becky said, tone brokering no argument. “You’re awfully pale.”

“Just a sore head.”

“Mmm. All the same, go on and lie down in the back - Matthew can finish up.”

He wanted to protest; to prove himself capable of finishing the task. But his head wouldn’t allow it, so he crawled into the wagon bed and lay down, thankful for the kindness of these people he hardly knew.

They were nearly out of town when Steve heard the sound of a rider approaching. A man’s voice said, “whoa” and a shadow fell onto him from above. He opened his eyes and found himself looking upside-down at a rider on a white horse, shiny brass star on his chest.

Steve sat up, wiping a line of saliva from his mouth, wishing that hadn’t happened as soon as it had.

“Morning, deputy,” Matthew greeted. Steve squinted at the star. Deputy. Wouldn’t do to be rude, even if keeping his eyes open was like stabbing needles right through them.

“Mr. and Mrs. Proctor.” The man gave a wink, as though the titles were still something new and exciting. Steve supposed they were - probably would be for a while. “Who’s your friend?”

“Steve,” Steve supplied, extending his hand. “Rogers.”

“Steve came in on the train,” Becky explained. “Nearly two weeks ago now. Bucky’s taken him on as a hand. Steve, this is Deputy Wilson.”

“Sam,” said the man, shaking Steve’s outstretched fingers. Wilson was young - not much more than twenty, with kind eyes and a smile that made Steve want to smile back. So he did, in spite of the pain. Sam deserved respect, same as any lawman would, and it wasn’t nothing that he had the position he had, all things considered.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Good to know you, Steve,” Sam said. “You watch out for Bucky - he gives you any trouble, come and tell me.” He winked, and Becky made a disapproving sound.

“Bucky doesn’t make trouble, Sam. You know that.”

“Not lately,” Sam replied. Steve wanted to know what that meant but didn’t like to ask in front of Becky and Matthew. So he stayed quiet as Becky turned in her seat and offered Sam a wry smile.

“He never has,” she said. “Anyhow, I know you only stopped us to see if you might find Natasha in town.”

“Now that’s not fai- “

“All that to say,” Becky continued. “You’d better hurry if you’re hoping to catch her - she and Peggy were making noise about taking the buggy out.”

Sam’s eyes lit up, and he tipped his cap. “You folks have a good afternoon.” He spurred the horse on, turning to call over his shoulder. “Nice to meet you, Steve.”

It had been nice to make Sam’s acquaintance, but Steve was relieved the conversation hadn’t lasted longer. He lay back down, closing his eyes and putting his hat over his face. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but he was able to doze, waking only when the wagon came to a stop outside the house.

He sat up, rubbing his eyes, head swimming and shivers wracking his body. Things hadn’t improved, even with the sleep.

“Steve, go on inside,” Becky said as Matthew helped her down. “Send my good for nothing brother out to help instead.”

“No, I’m alright,” he muttered, legs shaking as he slid down from the wagon. No sooner had his feet hit the ground than a wave of nausea overtook him and he promptly vomited his breakfast into the dirt, the mess barely missing Becky’s full skirts.

“Like heck,” she swore, reaching out a hand to touch his shoulder where he was doubled over, clutching his stomach. It wasn’t much comfort, but it was something. “Go inside right now - I won’t hear another word about it.”

There wasn’t any arguing; not after that display. Chastened, he went in, dreading the prospect of sending Barnes out to help. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find the house empty. Briefly, he considered going back out to tell Becky that Barnes was gone, but the thought of facing the sunlight again was too much. She would figure it out. Kicking off his boots with what fortitude he had left, he fell onto his mattress and closed his eyes, dizzy and miserable.

Becky and Matthew didn’t make much noise as they worked to unload the wagon, though every footfall was agony. He was sure his skull would explode from the pressure when he felt something cool and damp pressed to his forehead. Squinting, he opened his eyes to find Becky leaning over him, towel in hand.

“We’re finished, and we’re going home,” she said, her voice pitched low. It was soothing, almost melodic. “Try and rest, sweetheart.”

The endearment nearly knocked the wind from his lungs, tears springing to his eyes unbidden. His mother had called him that when he was small, through scraped knees and sickness. He could almost hear her voice in Becky’s tone, and he hoped she hadn’t noticed his tears. If she had, she chose to say nothing, pressing a hand to his cheek before getting to her feet.

“Thank you,” he said, voice cracking.

“You’ll be alright,” she replied. “Just need to rest.”

Once she was gone, Steve closed his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to fall into a deep, healing sleep, dreams more fragmented than the night before, though no less strange - cold water and warm hands, the sound of someone singing a familiar song, a bird on a ledge, fingers brushing through long, brown hair.

When he woke, hours later, the house was dark - shutters closed and curtains drawn. His headache had abated, though it wasn’t entirely gone. Still, he could manage, and he got to his feet, crossing to the door and opening it up to find the sun low in the sky.

He smelled smoke, and his heart seized, fear of fire bred into him from a young age - one tipped lantern, an entire neighborhood gone. Here it would be wildfire, he knew. Something that could take the wheat and the house and the whole countryside along with it.

As it turned out, it was nothing more than a camp-fire built in the yard, set very deliberately by Barnes, who was perched next to it on a log he’d evidently dragged from the woodpile. He made quite the picture, a line of fish propped up next to him, knife in hand as he gutted and cleaned them.

Steve stepped close enough to be noticed, and Barnes actually smiled, tipping his hat back on his head. With no better option, Steve stated the obvious.

“You went fishing?”

Barnes flipped the knife in his hand, flinging the insides of the fish onto the ground where - God - the dog was waiting. Steve couldn’t bring himself to look. “Preferable to church. You want to learn how to clean them?”

“I know how to clean fish,” he replied. Friday suppers and the economics of being able to catch one’s own food had taught him well.

“One less thing to learn, then,” Barnes said, handing him a second knife he’d had waiting, evidently in the hope of company.

They worked in comfortable silence, sitting next to each other on the log, scraping the scales and gutting the fish. Steve appreciated that Barnes was neither coddling him nor angry with him - he was simply himself.

“How’d you like church?” he asked after a while.

“It was fine.” Steve ignored Sarge, who was sniffing around his feet, eager to scavenge more scraps. “The service was different.”

“Oh?” Barnes asked, reaching out a hand to take the fish Steve had finished. “How’s that?”

“It was in English,” he said. “And it didn’t have...quite so many rules.”

Barnes made a noise that might have been interest but could just as easily have been dismissal. Getting to his feet, he brushed off the detritus and began setting up a metal spit over the fire. “Go get us some water to clean up while I get these fellas cooking.”

The mere fact that Barnes had offered to clean anything of his own volition made Steve so happy he nearly forgot how much he hated drawing water from the well. Once he’d finished, Barnes had the fish on the spit, and they both cleaned up what they could before Steve went to dump the water out.

“How come you’re cooking out here?” Steve asked when he returned, settling on the ground with his back to the log, shoulder nearly bumping Barnes’ legs.

“Figured I shouldn’t disturb you,” he said. “With you not feeling well and all.”

Steve was glad Barnes couldn’t see his face from that angle - he was sure he’d gone pink. “That...thank you. I didn’t mean to keep you out of your house, though. It wasn’t so bad.”

Barnes nudged Steve’s shoulder with his knee, the movement jostling him and making him smile. “S’your house, too, Rogers. Anyhow, I saw Becky and Matthew just as they were leaving - she said you’d been sick, so I let you be.”

“It was only a headache.”

“All the same.”

Steve chanced another comment - Barnes seemed talkative, which was enough of a rarity that he didn’t want to waste it. “Your sister sure has a lot of friends.”

Barnes snorted, then gave a genuine laugh - the first one Steve had ever gotten out of him. “She does,” he agreed. “Had ‘em over here all the damn time.”

“You didn’t like that?”

“Too loud,” he said, though when he spoke again, it was with affection. “Hadn’t been here two months before they were here every Sunday for picnics.”

“I like picnics,” Steve offered because it seemed like a thing to say.

Barnes grunted, and when Steve glanced up at him, he shrugged, fixing him with a wry grin. “Who doesn’t like picnics, Rogers? Just not every week. Anyhow, it’s easier when things are quiet. Becky has her own house now - she can have them there.”

“Is their house like this house?”

“No.” Barnes’ face shuttered a bit, eyes narrowing. “Matthew got here a year before we did - staked his claim, built his cabin. This place was here when I got the land - the stable, too. Guess someone couldn’t hack it and went back east.”

Steve had assumed Barnes and Becky built the cabin together; to find out it had been someone else’s work shed light on why Barnes wasn’t keen to improve it. It was hard to love a thing you hadn’t built yourself. “Oh,” he said. “Three years? Didn’t he fight?”

“No,” Barnes said, his voice hard. “And that means he’s only got two more years before he proves up on his claim, while I’ve got three.”

Matthew’s war record, or lack thereof, was apparently a sore subject, so Steve tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. “I’m going to do the same,” he said. “When I’m twenty-one.” He watched Barnes closely, heart in his throat, worried he might be told it was foolish to try. That he’d never be a farmer.

Instead, Barnes smiled in a way that implied they were conspirators, leaning down and raising an eyebrow. “Thing is - you won’t need to be twenty-one. They don’t look that close.”

The idea of lying had never occurred to Steve, but Barnes was advocating it as though it were the most natural thing in the world. “Wh...how?”

“Easy enough. I enlisted when I was sixteen, but I said I was eighteen. Nobody ever contradicted it, so when I went to stake my claim, I said I was twenty-one, but I wasn’t. Doesn’t matter, so long as I bust my sod and plant my crops. Let them try and take it away from me.”

“So you’re…?” Steve hesitated, doing the calculation in his head.

“Twenty-one last March,” he replied. “And don’t you go spreading that around, either. Far as anyone’s concerned, I’m twenty-three.”

“I won’t,” Steve assured him. Barnes was gruff, but Becky was right - the bark was worse than the bite. “I thought you were older, that’s all. Just seems silly I’m your ward.”

Barnes scoffed, checking on the fish. “You’re not my ward. I hired you - I don’t give a shit what that piece of paper says.” He hesitated, before standing up to pull the spit off the fire. “And hell. I’ve seen worse farmhands. Not many, but a few. Two, maybe.”

Steve snorted - that was the nicest thing Bucky Barnes had ever said to him, and he wasn’t about to argue. It was also the longest conversation they’d ever had, and while he wouldn’t go so far as to call Barnes a friend, he thought perhaps he knew him now, just a little.

They got supper together, Steve going inside for plates and more of the rolls. As they ate Barnes told him a story about Becky, Anthony Stark, and a rogue chicken that sounded half-true at best. Still, Barnes was a decent storyteller, and he had Steve laughing by the end, holding his sides and wiping away tears. It struck him that he hadn’t laughed so hard in ages- since well before his mother died. Barnes was the last person he would have expected to bring it out in him again. It was nice, and while Steve knew Barnes would undoubtedly be back to his ornery self in the morning, he’d take his laughter where he could get it.

Chapter Text

There was a routine to farming. As the days turned into weeks, Steve began to adapt and settle into one he carved out for himself. Every day brought slight variations, but they all started and ended the same way: taking care of the animals. He found he liked milking the cow well enough, even if mucking the stalls would always leave something to be desired. The dog, meanwhile, came and went as he pleased, spending days on his own before returning, dust and mud clinging to his muzzle.

It got easier. He didn’t ache as much - able to pitch more hay when he filled the cart, able to carry bucketfuls of water without spilling a drop, able to haul baskets of laundry to and from the creek with nary a twinge in his back. His cough had all but disappeared, and he slept soundly nearly every night, disturbed only by an occasional troubling dream. Those dreams were most often about Barnes, with whom he’d found a decent rapport. Barnes didn’t talk much, and he’d occasionally settle into a dark mood, disappearing for hours or taking to his bed. Other times, he was pleasant - conversational, even - tolerating Steve and complimenting his work when the thought struck him.

For his part, Steve spent a fair amount of time watching Barnes, eyes drawn to him more often than not, a guilty feeling permanently sitting in the pit of his stomach. Barnes was a lesson in contradictions - he was strong, but his left hand was clumsy, and he couldn’t do fine work with it. That explained why he’d neglected the mending. Steve wondered if the stiffness had to do with the scars on his shoulder, or if it had been that way since childhood. Didn’t seem polite to ask.

Church and Sunday school were part of the routine, both of which he tolerated better now that he knew what to expect, even if the church itself was still too hot. At least he hadn’t had another headache. He liked Becky and Matthew, and he’d struck up quite the friendship with Peggy, who whispered to him during Sunday school and always brought him candy. She set him at ease, and he wasn’t so tongue-tied around her, though he was quiet around her friends - especially that redhead. Still, he liked them all, and he very much wanted them to like him, which was a new experience: he’d never cared much about what anyone thought of him before, save for his parents.

Life was routine and familiar, but none of it was home. He still missed his mother with a bone-deep ache, still cried for her sometimes when he was sure Barnes wouldn’t hear him. But North Star was better than he’d hoped for, and he thought he might be happy there one day.

Thursdays had become days for preparing food, and Steve had planned on doing just that until Barnes spoke up over breakfast, clearing his throat. “If you’re interested,” he said in an approximation of casual conversation. “There’s a celebration in town today.”

Confused, Steve looked up from his eggs. “A celebration?”

“Fourth of July,” Barnes said, sticking the last of his biscuit in his mouth and speaking around it. “They’ll have lemonade.”

Whether that was supposed to convince him, or just Barnes stating a fact, Steve wasn’t sure. What he was sure of was that Barnes had no idea it was Steve’s birthday - heck, Steve hadn’t known himself until ten seconds prior. He wasn’t about to bring it up, but the idea of a day in town without church or chores sounded just fine to him.

“Sure,” he said, smiling. “We ought to go.”

Barnes blinked and swallowed his food. Oh. He’d only been offering to give Steve the day off, not to go into town himself. Of course - Barnes never went into town if he could help it. Steve had gleaned that much from conversations with Becky and Peggy. It was stupid of him to have thought otherwise.

Someone could have knocked Steve over with a feather, then, when Barnes shrugged and pushed a hand through his hair. “S’pose we could.”

Wonders never ceased.

Barnes continued to be full of surprises when, after breakfast, he set up outside the house with a straight razor, trimming his beard until he was very nearly presentable. Combing his hair came next, and he caught the length of it up in a leather tie once it was gleaming. It was longer than was fashionable, but when it was pulled back, Barnes looked...nice. Civilized, even.

The effect was enhanced when Barnes took the time to dress in a proper suit - quite the change from his usual grubby shirt and suspenders. He was about the best looking man Steve had ever seen, and he hated himself for thinking so as he put on his Sunday clothes behind the curtain.

Barnes was struggling to tie his tie by the time Steve was dressed, and it was clear why he never wore one - his damaged hand couldn’t do the delicate work. Frustrated, he swore and smacked his bad hand flat against the wall.

“I can tie it,” Steve blurted, and perhaps he was risking Barnes’ temper, but he was used to that.

Barnes whipped his head around, blue eyes flashing in defiance. Steve took a step back; Barnes could be frightening sometimes, all fierce and feral. Steve was sure he’d either snap at him or storm out of the cabin.

Instead, he relented, nodding and slumping into one of the rough chairs. Steve stepped closer, deftly knotting the tie into a neat bow at the collar. A piece of hair had slipped from Barnes’ queue, and Steve’s thoughts briefly turned to what it would be like to touch it. To run his hands through it and muss it up again - the way Steve was used to it. Shivering at the thought, he stepped back and cleared his throat.

“There,” he said. “That’s nice.”

Barnes grunted, getting to his feet and going to pick up his hat before walking out the door, Steve at his heels.

“Are we taking the wagon?” he asked.

Barnes regarded him for a moment before shrugging. “Too much effort to hitch it up,” he said. “But we can ride if you help me with the tack.”

Steve hesitated, chewing on his bottom lip. The thing of it was, he couldn’t actually ride a horse. Or, rather, he’d ridden once or twice, but growing up as he did meant there wasn’t exactly a lot of opportunity for horsemanship. The horses he’d spent time with had been beasts of burden, pulling carts or wagons, ferrying soldiers or constables, drawing the buggies and carriages of the rich. He’d spent more time around the shit those horses left behind than the animals themselves.

It couldn’t be that difficult, though. Plenty of people did it every day. He would just watch Barnes and do as he did - that would be enough. So he agreed to help and mimicked Barnes’ actions as he worked to saddle Bright.

Barnes looked over Steve’s work and shook his head, correcting him and pointing out where he’d made mistakes, and how those mistakes could hurt Bright. He wasn’t cruel about it, but Steve felt terrible and was glad he’d never attempted to saddle the horse on his own. He wouldn’t have wanted to injure her.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I never had to...saddle my own horse before.” That wasn’t a lie, precisely. He’d never had a horse, ergo he’d never had to saddle one.

Barnes gave him a funny look before indicating the stirrups. “Well, get on up. I’ll set your stirrups.”

Steve nodded as though he knew what that meant, moving to Bright’s left side and lifting his right leg. Barnes snorted. Steve froze.

“The hell are you doing, Rogers? Gonna sit on her backward?”

Damn. His stomach turned over, and his cheeks burned as he stepped back, shrugging and shoving his hands into his pockets. Barnes was teasing, but that didn’t make Steve want to punch him any less.

When Barnes spoke again, though, it was kindly - no malice or jest behind the words. “Haven’t you ever been on a horse before?”

Steve shrugged, shoulders hunched up around his ears as he scuffed the toe of his boot on the ground. “I have,” he said. “Only...not often.”

“Well, shit, Rogers,” Barnes swore, laughing out loud. Steve looked up warily, only to find Barnes shaking his head and moving closer. “Why didn’t you say something?”

A good question, and one Steve wasn’t equipped to answer. Pride? Vanity? One or both, most likely.

Barnes stepped closer still, resting a hand on Bright’s neck and pointing to the saddle. “First lesson. Hold on up there with both hands, put your left foot in the stirrup and throw your right leg over. Easy.”

Easy wasn’t the word Steve would use - more like barking at a knot. After two attempts, he was still on the ground. The stirrup was high, and he wasn’t strong enough to pull his own weight over Bright’s back. After a third botched try, Barnes took pity on him.

“Nevermind doing it yourself,” he said. “Get your foot in the stirrup, and I’ll boost you up.”

Barnes crouched down, and Steve felt sure he would die on the spot as he struggled to get his foot in the stirrup. Suddenly, Barnes was shoving him from below, and he was up and over the horse, landing on her back with a surprised “oh!” Barnes hardly looked winded; he was awfully strong.

“Uh huh,” Barnes said. “You practice that enough, you’ll do it yourself eventually. Hold still, lemme shorten your stirrups.” He worked with each stirrup in turn, bad hand holding the leather strap in place while his opposite hand buckled it in. Steve resolutely ignored how often Barnes’ fingers brushed against the fabric of his trousers.

Once Steve was firmly settled and cinched, Barnes gave him a brief lesson in horsemanship and how he could use the reins to guide Bright around the yard. Steve wasn’t confident, but Bright was biddable enough.

“She’s a good girl,” Barnes said. “Don’t worry too much about leading her - she’ll follow Winter anywhere.”

Steve nodded, fingers gripping the reins tightly enough that his knuckles turned white. Barnes, meanwhile, swung himself up onto Winter with practiced ease, the big horse skittish and taking a few steps forward before Barnes settled him.

Bright followed Winter out of the yard - Barnes hadn’t been lying about that. They set a comfortable pace as they made their way towards town. Faster than Steve walked, though not by much, and he knew that if he weren’t there, Barnes could have made better time. Guiltily, he squeezed Bright’s sides like he’d been shown, urging her to go faster. When she obliged, he hated the feeling immediately, jarred to his bones and worried he might lose control or fall off all at once.

“Whoa,” Barnes called, spurring Winter to catch up. Steve pulled on his reins like he’d been shown, and Bright slowed to a walk. “What’s the hurry?”

“I’m slowing you down.”

“Steve…” Barnes shook his head, pulling his hat down lower. “You’re not slowing me down.”

Barnes had never used his first name before that he could recall. Steve liked it, then wished that he didn’t.

North Star was bustling by the time they arrived - more than on Sundays, and certainly more than an average day. It took them some time to find a space to hitch the horses, and Steve waited while Barnes fussed over them, making sure they’d be comfortable for the duration. There was music coming from somewhere, the tune familiar and slightly off-key. Steve found himself humming along as he watched a few children screaming up and down the street, drunk on excitement. It all reminded him of street fairs and celebrations in Brooklyn, and he found himself homesick once more.

Barnes came up behind him, and Steve turned to find his face fixed in grim determination, shoulders stiff and mouth set in a thin line.

“So,” Steve said, offering a small smile in the hopes of cheering Barnes up. “Where do you think that lemonade is?”

The question caught him off-guard, and he looked down at Steve, confused at first, then understanding. “Oh,” he said. “Had a barrel near the mercantile last year. Come on.”

They headed into the throng of people, and Steve saw some familiar faces, including Bruce Banner and several of the children from the train, out with their new families. A flash of red caught his eye, and Barnes stopped short beside him.

“Aw, damn,” Barnes muttered, lowering his head as though the brim of his hat might hide him from Natasha, who was making her way through the crowd towards them.

“Bucky,” she greeted, full mouth curled up into an impish smile. “Didn’t think I’d see you this year.”

“Steve asked to come.” That was rich, and half a lie, considering Steve hadn’t even known it was the Fourth until that morning.

“Mmm,” Natasha glanced at Steve, then back at Barnes. Steve nearly fell over when he realized Barnes was blushing. Any lingering doubts he had about their former relationship were firmly put to rest. “Nice of you to bring Steve.”

“I’m always nice, Natty,” Barnes said, a hint of a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, despite his red face. They were comfortable with one another - not quite the way Barnes was with his sister, but there was a kindness. A friendship. Something more, perhaps, if one looked carefully.

“Oh, you’re something,” Natasha replied. “Come by the hotel later - your sister’s packing a picnic so we can go for a drive.”

Barnes snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. “Stark gonna be there?”

“He’s bringing a buggy.”

“I’ll keep my distance.”

Natasha rolled her eyes, ignoring Barnes in favor of turning to Steve. “You’ll see he has a little fun, won’t you?”

“I…” Steve had barely opened his mouth to respond when Barnes cut him off.

“You have a good afternoon, Nat,” he said with such finality that Steve started.

Natasha didn’t appear bothered, just gave him another once-over and shook her head. “Don’t you worry about me. Good afternoon to you both.”

She was gone as quick as she’d come, Steve watching as Bucky’s eyes lingered on her retreating form.

“She’s pretty,” Steve said diplomatically, once he was sure she was out of earshot. “You two are friends?”

Barnes turned his attention from Natasha to Steve and uncrossed his arms. “No.” It sounded like a lie. “Let’s go find that lemonade.”

Turned out, the lemonade was easy to find if you followed the crowd. Mr. Carter was providing the refreshment, and Steve exchanged a wave with Peggy, who was standing on the covered walkway outside the mercantile in a striped navy dress with a flag in her hand. She was busy handing out candy to various and sundry children, so he didn’t like to bother her.

Barnes bought them each a dipper full of the lemonade and Steve was happy for the treat, throat parched from the heat of the morning. It was delicious - sour and sweet in equal measure, leaving him wanting more, though Barnes barely gave him time to finish before he turned and walked away.

Keeping his word to Natasha was nearly impossible; Barnes was miserable, and no amount of fun was going to be had. They wandered up and down the street a few times, stopped to watch the band, the three-legged race, the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The man doing the reading had a voice like a bullfrog, and it was hard for Steve to keep a straight face. Barnes didn’t even crack a smile. The crowd was attentive, though, and a man’s voice rang out when the reading was through, singing the anthem which somehow meant more now than it had before. Other people began joining in until nearly everyone on the street was singing. It was nice, Steve decided. Even if Barnes was miserable.

As the last notes of the song faded away, a startlingly loud boom filled the air. Steve covered his ears in fright, looking around just as the sound came again. He’d never heard a cannon, but he had to imagine it was similar. The attention of the crowd turned towards the other side of the street, where the blacksmith’s shop was, and Steve realized what was happening: the blacksmith was putting gunpowder on the anvil and then striking it with his hammer to create the effect of great guns firing.

Some children were crying, while others were cheering for more. Steve turned to Barnes to complain about the noise only to realize his companion had vanished. Frowning, he turned in a circle and caught sight of Barnes’ familiar form disappearing into the alley between the saloon and the hotel. Wanting to leave the noise behind, Steve followed.

He stopped short when he entered the alley and found Barnes leaning against the wall of the hotel, eyes wide and darting around the small space. Another boom shook the air and Barnes gave a whimper, bringing his hands up to cover his ears before sinking to the ground in a crouch, curled in on himself like a wounded animal. It was pitiful - he was pitiful. Steve didn’t know what to do, though he knew he ought to do something.

Stepping closer, he lay a hesitant hand on Barnes’ shoulder. “Barnes?”

Boom! Steve flinched and Barnes exploded, springing from his crouch and knocking Steve to the ground in his panic. He landed hard, his mouth hitting a rock which split his lip wide open. Yelping in pain, he got to his knees and brought a hand to his face. When he pulled it back, he saw there was already blood staining his fingers.

It was fine. He’d had worse.

Barnes’ initial outburst had subsided, and he was back on the ground, arms wrapped around his legs, rocking himself, his face tucked against his knees. Steve could hear him fighting for breath, inhales and exhales coming in fits and starts.

“Bucky,” he said, trying a different tactic, ignoring the blood trickling down his chin. “Bucky, it’s alright. It’s just the blacksmith.”

“He doesn’t know that.”

The voice came from behind Steve and startled him so badly he jumped in place, twisting around to find Deputy Wilson near the entrance of the alley. Sam was eyeing Barnes with trepidation, hand on the gun at his hip. “Ain’t really here,” he continued. “Back in the war, I guess - fighting some battle he can’t win.”

Steve’s knees knocked together as he stood, putting himself between Bucky and Sam. “He’ll be alright,” he said, forcing his voice to stay calm. Even. As though he knew what to do. “Just doesn’t like crowds.”

Sam’s fingers flexed, though he moved them away from the gun before peering at Steve’s split lip. “He hit you?”

“No.” That much was true, at least. “I fell. Hit my mouth.”

Sam looked as though he didn’t believe him. “This isn’t the first time,” he said. “I can fetch his sister.”

“No, thank you,” Steve said, voice only quavering a little. “Please don’t bother her - I can manage him.”

Hesitating, Sam nodded his head and frowned. “Blacksmith’s done now - too many crying babies. I’ll leave you to it, but I won’t be far. If you need the help.”

Steve smiled, though it hurt. “Thank you,” he said and meant it.

“You be careful.”

Sam left him with those words of wisdom, and Steve turned back to the task at hand. Bucky was no better, curled into himself, silent sobs wracking his big frame. Steve’s heart went out to him. He knew what it was to be unable to draw breath; knew the sheer, grasping terror of that most basic functionality deserting a body. As a child, he’d suffered from fits, throat closing up as his terrified mother and father struggled to help him breathe. The fits had lessened in his adolescence, and while he had a persistent wheeze, he hadn’t had a proper attack in years. The memories, though, continued to haunt him.

Feeling the weight of his mother’s hands in his own, he knelt behind Bucky, wrapping his arms about his body, chest pressed against Bucky’s back. There was no fight left in him - he neither flinched nor attempted to throw Steve off.

“Breathe with me,” he said, hands squeezing Bucky’s forearms.

His mother remained with him, a solid presence in his mind as he guided Bucky through a series of deep, even inhales and exhales. Bringing the lost soldier back from his imaginary war. There were tears on Bucky’s cheeks by the time he drew his first solid, steady breath, and he released it with an angry sob, scrubbing his hand across his eyes.

Steve pulled away and got to his feet, giving Bucky what dignity he could. Bucky didn’t move for a long time, still as a statue save for the rise and fall of his shoulders.

“Damn,” he muttered eventually, rubbing his temples with tense fingers. “Damn, damn, god damn.”

Steve stayed silent, even as Bucky turned to look up at him, taking in his dirty coat and split lip. The blood had dripped onto his Sunday clothes, though he wasn’t fretting about that yet.

“Steve,” Bucky said, regret coloring his tone. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

Steve waved a hand, wiping the fresh blood from his chin and rubbing the mess on his trousers. “Not your fault,” he muttered. “Anyhow, I’ve had worse.”

Bucky frowned, voice rubbed raw when he spoke again. “I shoulda known better than to come here. Knew I’d ruin the day.”

“You didn’t ruin the day,” Steve countered, before holding out a hand to help him up. Bucky took it, and once he was on his feet, he did his best to straighten himself out. Steve did the same, though there wasn’t much he could do about the blood.

“If you don’t mind,” Bucky said. “I think I ought to go home. You can stay if you want.”

Steve couldn’t help smiling, because what on earth was he going to do - terrify the children? “Nah,” he said. “I’m done.”

They made a sorry pair, slinking down Main Street to get back to the horses. Steve didn’t see Peggy, which was a relief - she probably would have fussed, although he wouldn’t have blamed her. By the time they reached Winter and Bright, he wanted nothing more than the cabin in all its shabby glory. His mouth hurt, and he was tired of crowds.

The ride back was a silent one, and Steve wished he were the sort of person who knew just what to say to make things better. But he wasn’t, so he kept his mouth shut, and made himself useful by helping Bucky put the horses in the stable instead.

Once Winter and Bright were settled, Bucky gestured to the bench by the door. “Go sit down. I’ll clean you up.”

“I can do it.”

“I did it to you,” Bucky said curtly. “So I figure I can fix it.”

Steve didn’t argue further. The cut had stopped bleeding, though it still hurt to talk. He did as he was told, sitting by the door as Bucky drew up a pail of water from the well before disappearing inside the cabin. He reemerged with a rough cloth and a small jar Steve hadn’t seen before.

Willing himself not to blush, Steve looked anywhere but Bucky’s face as he crouched in front of him, wetting the towel and wiping at the crusted blood. He was proud of himself for only wincing a little when Bucky began cleaning the cut itself.

Once the water in the bucket was bloody, Bucky poured some of the liquid from the jar onto the clean end of the rag. Curiosity piqued, Steve leaned in closer to watch.

“What’s that?”

“Medicine.” Bucky didn’t give him the opportunity for another question, just pressed the cloth to the open wound. It burned like fire, and Steve yelped, jerking away.

“Ow!”

Bucky grinned, chasing after him and doing it again. “Stings like hell, huh?”

Steve scowled, waiting until Bucky finished before speaking. “You shoulda warned me!”

“What’s the fun in that?” Bucky said. Steve didn’t appreciate the teasing, but he liked that Bucky felt cheerful enough to try it. “Besides, if you anticipate it, it’s worse.”

Steve grunted in a rather Bucky-like fashion. His mouth did feel better, though not much.

“There, that’s - ” Bucky began, at the exact same moment Steve chose to speak up.

“It’s my birthday,” he blurted.

Bucky stiffened, and Steve wished he hadn’t said it. Wasn’t even sure why he had, save for the fact that he’d acted like a man in town, and Bucky ought to understand that he was grown now and treat him accordingly.

“Seventeen?” Bucky asked, dropping the cloth in the bucket.

“Yes.”

“That's some cold coffee,” he muttered as he got to his feet, picking up the bucket with the intent of tossing out the dirty water. “A split lip and a lousy party. I’m sorry, Steve. If I’d known…”

“Aw, it wasn’t so bad,” Steve replied. “Learned to ride a horse, got some lemonade. That’s not nothing.”

Bucky offered Steve one of his rare, genuine smiles, shifting the bucket to his bad hand and cuffing him on the shoulder with his good one. “Optimist,” he teased.

Steve ducked his head, getting to his feet and tipping the brim of his hat up so he could meet Bucky’s eyes. “Maybe.”

Chapter Text

“You know how to shoot?”

Steve looked up from his supper, fork caught halfway between the plate and his mouth. “Huh?”

“Shoot,” Bucky repeated, drawing out the word more than was strictly necessary, as though Steve were slow. It was unbecoming, and he scowled. “Do you know how to?”

“Err, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Never really needed to.”

“City boy,” Bucky said, a half-smile crossing his features. Teasing - something that had been happening more and more frequently since the incident on the Fourth. It was as though Bucky saw Steve as a friend, rather than a ward or a hired hand. It was nice, if disconcerting. “You ought to learn.”

“Why?” he said. Guns were a loud, messy business, and though his father had owned several, Steve had never been strong enough to handle one before.

“Might need to defend your property,” Bucky shrugged, reaching for his water glass. “If you get that claim you’re always talkin’ about. And it wouldn’t hurt for you to know how to hunt.”

“You said the game’s dried up around here, with so many people around.” Bucky had complained bitterly the week prior when he’d gone out to check his trap line and found it empty.  

“Shot that rabbit, didn’t I?” Bucky retorted.

“Yes, but - “

“Anyhow, maybe there’ll be game where you end up, Steve. Shit, I don’t know,” Bucky leaned back in his chair, rolling his eyes and crossing his arms over his chest, looking at Steve that way he sometimes did when Steve said something he found particularly amusing. As it turned out, Bucky found Steve amusing a lot, now that they were friends and all. “You’re learning to shoot. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. We’ll go on Saturday.”

Steve frowned, but he didn’t argue.

Bucky was a man of his word, taking down his rifle Saturday morning after chores and laying it on the bed before going to his trunk and opening it up. He pulled out a box of what Steve presumed were bullets, as well as another gun, this one a revolver.

He handed the weapon to Steve, who took it, examining every inch and getting a feel for its weight in his hand. It was heavier than he’d thought it would be.

“First lesson,” Bucky said, picking up the rifle and slinging it over his shoulder. “Don’t point the gun at your face - even if it ain’t loaded.”

Steve lowered the revolver, a hot flush creeping up his neck. He’d only been looking.

They left the house, Steve following Bucky the same way Sarge did - loping along at his heels, eager for attention. Bucky had a flour sack in his hands, and when they got to where they were going, he started pulling out various broken pieces of crockery, setting them upright along the fence that bordered one of the fields - the one Steve had helped repair two weeks prior. He was better at fences than he had been; he could hold up the weight just fine, even if his arms shook after a few minutes. But at least he hadn't dropped anything else on Bucky’s thumb.

“Steve?” Bucky nudged him, reaching out a hand for the revolver.

“Sorry,” he said, handing it over and vowing to pay better attention.

Bucky began by showing him the different parts of the gun, which Steve found interminably dull. There were lots of components, all working together. Bullets went there, the sight was there, trigger there. Steve found himself focusing more on Bucky’s presence than his words - the way he understood the weapon instinctively, taking it apart and putting it back together with practiced ease, as though it was an extension of himself.

Of course, Bucky had been a soldier. Likely this had been the gun he’d had in the war. The gun he’d used to kill other men on the battlefield. Men like Steve’s father, though he knew that wasn’t rational - Joseph Rogers and Bucky had been on the same side. But Bucky had lived, and his father hadn’t and wasn’t that just confoundingly unfair?

Though, with Bucky, how much of it was living? His isolation in his strange little hermitage, the way he cried out during the night sometimes, the way he’d lost control of himself at the sound of the blacksmith’s hammer.

That was a worry - would firing a bullet at the targets on the fence send him into another panic?  

“Steve, are you listening?”

Bucky’s voice cut through his wandering thoughts, and he immediately felt guilty - Bucky was doing him a favor. “Oh, yes. What?”

“Hold it like this.” Bucky demonstrated, bringing both arms up, holding the weapon between his hands. “Don’t put your finger on the trigger unless you’re ready to fire. Line up the shot in the rear sight, take a breath, shoot.”

As soon as the word left his lips, he shot, the noise ringing out across the prairie. The furthest jar on the left shattered and Bucky grinned. Steve shook his head, suppressing a smile - Bucky made it look easy. He also didn’t appear to be in any danger of falling to the ground in another fit of terror. Maybe - reasonably - that sort of thing only happened when he was taken by surprise? Wasn’t much of a shock to shoot your own gun, after all.

Bucky’s grin stayed in place as he held the gun out to Steve, who matched Bucky’s ease with equal parts awkwardness. He raised the gun in a game attempt to mimic Bucky’s movements, steadying himself and taking a breath, then lining up the sight and pulling the trigger.

The kickback was awful, jarring him to his bones. He let out a yelp of surprise as the shot went wide, sailing somewhere over the fence and into the grass. His nerves were shot, hands shaking as he looked at the weapon still clasped between them, scarcely able to believe the power inside.

Bucky didn’t laugh, just shook his head and smiled. “She’s got a hell of a kick. Took me a while to get used to it - and then the rifle’s about ten times worse.:

“Oh,” Steve replied, “I uh.” He licked his lips, forcing a chuckle as he lowered the gun. “Don’t wanna try the rif -”

“Christ, Steve, that’s still loaded, don’t point it at your damned leg!”

Steve jerked his arms back up as though he’d been stung, heart thumping in his chest, a bead of sweat trickling into his eye.

“And get your finger off the trigger…gimme the gun...”

It was hard not to feel ashamed of himself as he handed the gun over to Bucky, who removed the bullets, pocketing them. Steve wasn’t sure whether or not they were done for the day - if he’d failed so spectacularly Bucky wasn’t going to teach him. It was a relief when Bucky handed the empty revolver back to him instead. He didn’t like shooting, but he preferred learning to failing.

“We’ll work on your stance - get you more confident. No sense wasting bullets unless I think you’re gonna hit something.”

Steve swallowed, nodding and attempting a joke. “I was planning on just standing here, but I guess I’m doing that wrong, too?”

Bucky snorted, gesturing with his bad hand and waving it in Steve’s general direction. “Gotta plant yourself,” he said. “Kick your right leg back, ‘bout a foot.” Steve did as he was told. “Better. Now hold the gun out again. And...no. Not like that. You’re too...hold on a minute.”

Bucky moved behind him. Steve’s stomach turned over. There was a roaring in his ears, and his throat felt tight, like someone had a hand on it, squeezing. He tried to swallow and failed, mouth going dry as he licked his lips. Bucky was saying something - he didn’t know what - couldn’t quite hear because Bucky’s hands were on his shoulders, pushing down.

“...relax, huh?” Bucky was laughing. Steve couldn’t move. “Wound up tight as a drum, I swear.”

“Sorry.” His voice came out strangled, arms shaking and palms sweating as he gripped the gun tighter.

“Don’t gotta be sorry. Only...look, it’s easy. Stand up straighter, drop your shoulders. Like this.” There was more nudging and moving him into position, Steve tense and Bucky attempting to settle him. Steve was sure his whole countenance had gone red - could feel the burning in his ears and the way his cheeks were hot. He’d never been so close with another man - hugging Bucky in the alley hadn’t been this. Bucky was bigger than him, pressed against his back and touching him all over, which sent Steve’s thoughts down a path that wasn’t precisely straight and narrow. Visions of what Bucky must look like - what the two of them looked like together - played out in his mind. Then there were Bucky’s arms, the way Steve could feel the corded muscles in them as Bucky clasped his hands over Steve’s on the gun. Oh, it was impossible.

Bucky took his hands away from the gun after a moment, though he didn’t stop touching Steve, which was doing Steve no favors. One hand splayed against his lower back, making him jump, while the other moved to his shoulder again. “...shoulders forward, just like that. Better. And don’t lean back - makes the kick worse. You can bend your knees if it helps.”

“I…” Steve croaked. “Like this?”

“Just about,” Bucky said, stepping back. Steve let out a whoosh of air and willed his body to control itself. Bucky wasn’t touching him anymore, so there was no reason for Steve’s prick to take any further interest in the proceedings. It had perked right up during the lesson, and now he was half-stiff, tenting his trousers and praying Bucky would stay behind him. Didn’t seem right to waste a prayer on such a sinful thing, but he knew he’d die on the spot if Bucky saw.

“Practice aiming,” Bucky said. “Look right down that little notch and get the target in your sight.”

“Uh huh.” Steve couldn’t focus on the target or the sight or any other part of the blasted gun. He could pretend for Bucky’s sake, though, closing one eye and sticking his tongue between his teeth as he aimed in the general vicinity of the fence. “I think I got it,” he muttered when his arms began to burn from holding them up so long. Anything to keep Bucky behind him.

“Yeah?” Bucky’s tone was dubious and set Steve scowling.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s try it, then.”

Bucky took the gun away, loading it once more while Steve rubbed the muscles in his arms, resolutely keeping his lower half pointed away from anywhere Bucky might see. Loading the gun was a process, and while he didn’t know what Bucky was doing, precisely, it couldn’t possibly be efficient during battle. Six shots and you were done. Steve watched Bucky work, imagining how it would feel to kneel in the muck, loading bullets as fast as he could, knowing every wasted second was another opportunity for someone to kill you. Wondered if his father had been shot doing just that.

A shiver went down his spine, and he shook his head, taking the gun from Bucky when it was handed back to him. He raised the weapon, calming his breathing as he lined up another shot.

Steve tried. He honestly did. But he was painfully aware of his body - his awkwardness, his stiffness, the trembling of his arms. He couldn’t do it, and he was ashamed, tears burning in his eyes and anger twisting in his gut when he took aim and fired.

His first shot went nowhere. Second and third were no better. His fourth hit the fencepost nearly two feet to the left of where he’d been aiming. Every single one of them knocked him back and set him shaking with nerves. Steve hated the gun. Hated everything about that feeling.

Bucky was laughing - or, at least, he was trying to stifle his laughter. Steve’s heart thumped, and his blood boiled, caught somewhere between embarrassment and anger. In the smallest of mercies, his prick had calmed down. Humiliation would do that to a fella, he supposed.

Gritting his teeth, he took a deep breath and lined up another shot.

He missed. When he tried again, the trigger clicked. Empty. Bucky was still laughing.

“I’m done,” Steve snapped, dropping the weapon on the ground before turning on his heel and stalking off in the direction of the house. Bucky Barnes could suck an egg.

“Rogers…” Bucky called from behind him. “Aw c’mon!”

Steve picked up the pace, his walk turning into a run. He wanted to run back to Brooklyn. Wanted to cry. Wanted to sock Bucky in the jaw. Wanted to kiss him until he couldn’t laugh anymore.

In the end, his stamina deserted him long before Brooklyn. He was about halfway to the house when he started to wheeze, doubling over and putting his hands on his knees, lungs pulling in what air they could. It wasn’t a proper attack - not like the ones from his childhood - but he’d pushed himself too hard. Let his pride get in the way, and now he was due for a fall.

“Steve…” Bucky called him again.

Ah. There was the fall.

Mustering what dignity he could, Steve stood up, chest heaving as Bucky emerged from the grass, rifle over his shoulder and the empty revolver in his hand. His expression was one of concern mixed with amusement. Steve balled his hands into fists at his sides, willing himself to stand tall and firm. Resolute in his absolute rightness.

“Why’d you run off like that?” Bucky asked.

Steve took a deep breath, drawing enough air into his pitiful lungs for a response. “Didn’t like it.”

Bucky barked out another laugh, and Steve’s heartbeat quickened, fingernails digging into his palms. “Coulda just said so.”

Steve gritted his teeth and willed himself to calm down as he fought out another labored response. “You...were too...busy laughing.”

Bucky looked taken aback, his laughter fading as he considered Steve’s words. “‘Cause you’re a lousy shot. Plenty of people are. Hell, Matthew couldn’t hit water if you dropped him in the ocean.”

Oh. Steve hadn’t considered that Bucky might have meant no harm with his laughter. Hadn’t been laughing to be cruel or mean. Hadn’t been aiming to make him feel inferior and insignificant. That perhaps he’d been laughing because Steve was his friend and it was fine to tease friends. That teasing could be fun, instead of a cruel joke meant to undercut his skills or his worthiness.

“Oh,” he said.

Bucky smiled, shaking his head as he stepped closer and clapped a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “You’re kinda sensitive, huh?”

“No,” Steve frowned, drawing himself up. “It’s only…”

“I don’t mind.” Bucky pulled him close, his arm going about Steve’s shoulders, drawing him into a half-hug that ought to have been awkward, but wasn’t. “You should learn to shoot, still. But I promise not to tease you about it.”

Steve knew he was blushing, so he looked down and gave a short laugh, on account of him still being a mite out of breath. “No,” he countered. “You can tease me. If I’m a lousy shot, I’m a lousy shot, right?”

No doubt Bucky thought he was crazy for running off with his feelings hurt, then changing his tune. But if Bucky wanted to tease him like a friend - the same way he’d tease Matthew or Becky or even Natasha - that made it different. Bucky liked him was all, and that was something.

Steve could get used to it.

“You’ll get better,” Bucky said. “Don’t get your back up about it.”

Steve smiled, shrugging under the weight of Bucky’s heavy arm as Bucky nudged them both in the direction of the house. He let Steve go once they reached the yard, and Steve briefly wished he hadn’t.

Clearing his throat, Steve fingered his suspenders and smiled. “I’ll make us something to eat,” he offered. “I’m good for something, at least.”

He’d meant it to be a joke - to make Bucky laugh, to show he could poke fun at himself. Show that he wasn’t too sensitive. But Bucky didn’t laugh, just gave him a strange look. “You’re good for plenty, Steve. Don’t forget it.”

Bucky’s words remained with him the rest of the day - through supper and chores, through dinner and settling in to work by the fire. He thought about them as he knitted rows onto the sock on his needles, and as he crawled into bed once Bucky extinguished the lamp.

The words sat close to his heart, but other concerns were of the carnal variety. Concerns like how Bucky’s hands had felt on his back, positioning him to shoot the gun. The way he’d stepped in close to show Steve how to stand. How he’d thrown an arm about Steve’s shoulders easily, as though there was no reason for panic. As though it wasn’t sinful to touch. To want. To desire something - someone - so badly that you burned with it.

It happened again - happened often enough - tucked away in his small corner of the cabin. Prick growing hard against his leg, insistent and needy no matter what he did to will it away. No matter how many times he prayed for it not to return.

Good for plenty, Bucky had said, the words echoing in Steve’s mind as he wrapped a hand around himself and turned his face against the pillow.

His intentions were pure. He was going to get rid of it; force his body to cooperate. Perhaps he couldn’t stop the dreams that troubled him on occasion - waking with sticky nightclothes he had to hide - but he could stop this.

Only he didn’t. Rather, he didn’t want to. Began working his fist up and down his shaft instead. His other hand came up to cover his mouth, and he bit back a moan, teeth sinking into the heel of his palm. It had been such an awfully long time since he’d touched himself with kindness, and it felt better than he remembered, though he knew it was wrong. The wrong desires, a sin of the flesh, and perhaps he should have felt guiltier but as he worked himself over he couldn’t find it in himself to care. He wanted Bucky terribly, and that was the simple fact of it.

He stifled a moan and quickening his pace. Imagined Bucky finding him that way. Pulling back the curtain and looking down, where he’d notice the telltale movement under the blanket. In his head, Bucky grinned that grin Steve had once been so frightened of. It didn’t frighten him anymore.

The Bucky of his invention knelt next to Steve on the mattress. Pulled back the blanket to expose him and Steve ought to have been ashamed, but he wasn’t.

“Lemme take care of that,” Bucky said.

Steve could almost feel Bucky’s hand on him then - rough and warm and big. He whimpered against his palm, biting down harder, hips stuttering into his fist as he found his release. Warm, sticky wetness spilling onto his hand and stomach as he fought to catch his breath.

He’d been too loud. Surely Bucky had heard. He froze, screwing his eyes shut in terror and listening.  

Nothing. Bucky was still breathing evenly on the other side of the partition, dreams undisturbed by the sins of the reprobate he’d invited into his home.

Chapter Text

Steve knew the proverb “to make hay while the sun shines” well, but as the summer wound to a close, August pushing into September, he found himself acquainted with a more literal interpretation. However difficult he had found farming before was nothing in comparison to the work of the harvest.

From sunup to sundown, the chores were backbreaking but necessary. Bucky had neither the time nor the money for expensive tools that might make the job easier, which meant everything was done by hand. Steve was better than he had been - downright useful in places, and exceptionally skilled when it came to putting up food for the winter. Sarah Rogers had taught him well, and the root cellar gradually began filling up with the fruits of their labors. Even Bucky was impressed, talking him up to Becky when she and Matthew came to collect him on Sundays.

Church was his one respite from the work of the week, his chance to see Peggy and her friends. The opportunity to sit and think without worrying about what chore was coming next. It was nice, even if Matthew’d had to nudge him a time or two to keep him from falling asleep on the bench. And, well, there was the small matter of his clothing - he’d grown a bit since arriving, and his trousers were an inch too short, while the collars of his shirts were much too tight. He didn’t like to ask Bucky for anything, so he did what he could with the hems, letting down the trousers and deciding he’d simply suffer through the shirts.

Sundays were also when Bucky was most likely to accompany him to the creek. Steve hoped it never got cold, as Bucky often napped on the bank after a swim, and he wasn’t above looking. When the weather turned, they’d have to drag a washtub into the house, and it wouldn’t be so easy to sneak a peek.

He who covers his sins indeed.

The monotony was broken one Tuesday while they were in the fields with the horses, bringing in the crop as fast as they could. It was the hardest work Steve had ever known, and Bucky was near frantic about it. His plan, he’d said, was to plant winter wheat once they were done with the summer’s harvest - with any luck, they’d have a second come May.

Steve thought that sounded very tiring, but he didn’t like to say so.

“Bucky…” he said when he felt sure the sun couldn’t get any hotter. “Can’t we get some water?”

Bucky hadn’t been paying a lick of attention, looking up when Steve spoke, chest heaving as he righted himself. Steve fixed his eyes anywhere but Bucky’s sweaty torso - he never wore a shirt out there. The one time Steve had tried going without, he’d burned so badly his whole upper half had shed its skin like a snake.

“You go on if you want,” Bucky replied.

“Don’t let me stop you being a martyr,” Steve retorted, scurrying towards the house before Bucky could formulate a response.

He pulled up a bucket of water from the well, using the dipper for a few long swallows before dumping the remainder of it over his head, then shaking his hair like Sarge, who’d stayed in the fields.

A second bucket sounded like a grand idea, and he would have done it if he hadn’t heard the sound of hooves in the distance. Turning, he squinted and saw a gleaming black buggy, drawn by two bay horses.

He saw Natasha’s hair first, then Peggy’s familiar form, hand raised in a wave.

Dumping a bucket of water on his head had been a bad idea, in retrospect, and he quickly attempted to comb it into something presentable with his fingers before they made it to the yard.

“Hello!” Peggy called. “Surprise!”

Natasha was driving, and she pulled the horses to a stop just by the stable. Steve recognized them as Mr. Carter’s team, and he assumed the buggy was his as well. Peggy family was well-to-do, and she always had beautiful clothes as well as the look of someone who had never gone hungry. Natasha’s cousin owned the hotel, and she’d come to work there, all on her own, which both impressed and intimidated Steve.

“It is,” he said, making his way over to the buggy and offering Peggy a hand, which he thought was very grown-up of him. She’d put him at ease, and he wasn’t the least bit shy around her any longer, even if Natasha still intimidated him a bit. Had nothing to do with her friendship with Bucky, though. He just knew her less well. “What brings you two out this way?”

“You, of course,” Natasha said, not bothering to wait for assistance as she hopped down and went to tie up the horses, graceful in her movements despite her full skirts.

“Yes, you,” Peggy agreed. “We missed your company.”

“You just saw me on Sunday,” he pointed out. “And I’m not much company.”

Peggy smiled, then reached back into the buggy for a basket. “Trust you to make a liar out of me, Steve. Honestly, we were having a picnic and thought you two lonely bachelors could use a good meal.”

“And Peg wanted to invite you both to a party,” Natasha said, while Peggy shot her a look.

“Yes...that, too,” Peggy agreed. “Betty Ross is having a birthday party - you know her, don’t you, Steve?”

“Mmm,” Steve thought for a moment, recalling hair so dark it was almost black and a soft smile. “I think so.”

“Anyhow, her mother said she could give a party, and you two ought to come. You can’t work all the time.”

Steve cast a glance in the direction of the field where Bucky was most certainly still working - likely wondering when Steve was planning to return. “I’ll have to ask,” he said. “But thank you for the picnic.” The idea of fresh food was extremely appealing - with the work they’d been doing, they tended to be so tired at the end of a day they could barely cobble together scraps for a meal before collapsing into bed.

“You…” Steve began, just as Bucky came clomping out of the tall grass, stopping short at the sight of their visitors. Apparently, he’d decided to come looking for Steve, and now he was standing there, naked from the waist-up, hair in a wild tangle, sweating like a pig. Even from that distance, Steve could see his nostrils flare.

“Hello, Bucky,” Natasha called, as though he were standing there in his Sunday best. “We brought you a picnic.”

“Nobody asked you for a goddamn picnic, Natty,” came the polite response as he stomped into the house and slammed the door.

“Huh,” Steve said as Peggy burst into laughter.

“We’ll wait,” Natasha said.

So, they did.

Fifteen minutes later, Bucky had donned a fresh shirt, combed his hair, and put on some suspenders while Steve brought in the horses from the field. Once Bucky was civilized, the foursome headed for the creek, where they settled in under a tree with the picnic. Peggy was in the midst of telling them a story about the blacksmith and his brother, the latter of whom was infamous in North Star.

“It was firecrackers in the forge,” she said. “Thor taught him a lesson after that - I’m surprised he didn’t ship him back east to their father, doing something so reckless.”

“I thought it was funny,” Natasha shrugged.

“It was funny,” Bucky agreed.

Steve was only half-following the thread of the conversation - more interested in the freshly made fried chicken in the picnic basket, mouth watering at the sight. Peggy was taking her time, setting out the dishes Natasha had smuggled from the hotel, and he didn’t like to complain, but he was starving.

Bucky noticed and nudged him, hand snaking out to grab a drumstick, which he promptly handed to Steve. “Stop staring at it like I don’t feed you.”

“Don’t you?” Natasha said.

“No,” Steve broke in. “I feed him.” He took a bite, and it was possibly the best chicken he’d ever eaten.

“Oh really.” Peggy raised an eyebrow, glancing at Bucky.

“Better cook’n Becky,” Bucky said. “He’s - damn, this is good chicken. Did you make this, Nat?”

“I watched the cook make it.”

“Compliments to the cook. Anyhow, his ma taught him. Isn’t that right, Steve?”

“Uh huh.” He didn’t like to talk with his mouth full, so he let the others fall into the smooth patter of conversation between friends - and they were friends, Bucky as talkative as Steve had ever seen him.

Talkative, and downright bold at times.

“So,” Bucky said, eating the last bite of a biscuit and looking at Natasha. “Seen Deputy Wilson lately?”

Natasha didn’t miss a beat, though Steve was sure he detected a faint redness in her cheeks. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I bet you don’t,” Bucky said, Peggy stifling a laugh behind her hand as he leaned forward, cocking a brow. “Figured out how to polish that gun yet?”

Natasha gave an indignant yelp while Peggy shrieked with laughter. Steve’s mouth fell open in shock, fully expecting Natasha to slap Bucky across the face for his smart mouth.

“As if…” Natasha said, smart as a whip and twice as fast. “As if I didn’t already know.”

Bucky’s grin widened. “Well sure, but does he know you know?”

“Why?” she said, reaching over to grab the brim of Bucky’s hat, yanking it down over his eyes before giving his shoulder a hearty shove. “Jealous?”

“No,” Bucky laughed, flopping back on the grass. Natasha held her composure for a moment before she started laughing as well.

Steve didn’t understand any of these people.

What he did understand, or was beginning to, was the relationship between Bucky and Natasha. They teased like friends - like siblings, even, lewd allusions in mixed company and all - but not like lovers. If there had been any fire kindled between them, it was long since extinguished.

“You two are shocking Steve,” Peggy informed them.

“Aw, Steve’s fine,” Bucky said, looking over with a grin. “Aren’t you?”

“I…”

“Anyhow, what about you, Peggy?”

“What about me?”

“Set your cap on anyone new?”

She smiled, looking down at her lap before casting a brief glance at Steve, then back at Bucky. “No,” she said. “Only Vassar.”

“Who’s Vassar?” Steve didn’t know anyone in town by that name. Priggish, terrible sort of name, in his opinion - not that anyone was asking.

Bucky snorted.

“Vassar’s a college,” Peggy said. “I plan on taking over my father’s business, and I’ll need an education to do it.”

“Peggy’s wanted to go to Vassar as long as I’ve known her,” Natasha said, smiling at her friend. “Even if it means leaving us all behind.”

“Yes, well,” she said. “My father needs the help, and I’ve no desire to be a farmer’s wife.”

Bucky bristled, his good mood souring as he sat up on his elbows. “What’s wrong with that? My sister’s a farmer’s wife.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Peggy waved her hand and reached for another biscuit. “There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s simply not what I want. You take things so personally…”

“Maybe if you didn’t look down your nose…”

“It’s admirable,” Steve blurted in an effort to end the fight before it could begin. “Being...educated. Or being a farmer, also. Or, an educated farmer? Or...his wife. I think. Long as you’re doing it with integrity.”

Nobody said anything for a moment, though Peggy softened first, a smile gracing her features. “Well said. Very diplomatic.”

“Yes,” Bucky agreed, sitting up and cuffing him on the shoulder.

Steve shrugged. He didn’t care so much about diplomacy, it was only that he wanted the last piece of chicken.

Despite the picnic, the work of the day wasn’t done, and once the food was finished, he and Bucky had to get back to it. They walked Peggy and Natasha to the buggy and helped them in. The girls exchanged a glance, and Natasha nudged Peggy once they were seated, tossing her head in Steve’s direction.

“Oh, the party!” Peggy remembered as Natasha hid a smile. “You’ll come, won’t you?”

“What party?” Bucky asked.

“You weren’t here, but Betty Ross…”

“No.”

“Bucky…”

“No.”

Peggy pressed her lips together, huffing out a breath through her nose. “Steve, then. Will you come?”

“I…” he glanced at Bucky, who shrugged. “Yes, if I’m able to get away. When is it?”

“Friday evening at seven - come by the store, we can go together.”

Steve wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, as he’d never escorted a woman anywhere in his life. Was it courting to bring Peggy to a party, or was he simply going with his friend? She hadn’t made her intentions clear, and he wasn’t about to ask any clarifying questions.

They watched until the buggy disappeared over the rise, and when Steve turned to look at his friend, he found Bucky with a frown on his face. “Best get back to work,” he said, walking away without looking at Steve. “Can’t have you dawdling if you’re going to be wasting time at parties.”

That, Steve thought, wasn’t fair.

Bucky was in a sulk for the rest of the week, and Steve couldn’t figure out why - he could have gone to the party, and there was no reason for him to begrudge Steve his fun. Bucky was impossible, so Steve chose to ignore him, pressing on in good spirits and working doubly hard despite a tickle in his throat and a few errant sneezes. On Friday afternoon, he finished his chores early, then took a dip in the creek before going back to the house to dress.

Bucky came in as he was combing his hair, looked him up and down and shook his head. “Can’t go courting in short pants, Steve.”

Steve blushed, stammered, and fumbled the comb. “I’m...it’s not courting.”

Snorting, Bucky went to his trunk. “It’s courting.”

“Peggy’s not…”

“Peggy’s something.” Pulling out a pair of trousers, he tossed them at Steve. “See if those’ll fit.”

Steve did and found the clothing baggy and too long, material dragging the ground when he walked. Yet between potentially splitting the backside of his own too-short trousers and looking like a ragamuffin, he’d take the latter.

Bucky looked him over again and nodded. “Better.”

“Thanks,” Steve muttered.

“Take the lantern,” Bucky said. “You think you can find your way in the dark?”

“I’m not stupid.”

All the same, Bucky followed him out to where the path met the wagon trail, leaving one of the pitchforks planted in the ground to mark the turn so Steve could find his way home once the party was over.

Steve made it to Peggy’s in good time, knocking on the door and waiting, hands behind his back. Her father opened it and ushered him inside. Peggy’s parents were kind enough, but being forced to endure an excruciating twenty minutes making stiff conversation with them in the parlor while Peggy finished getting ready was no-one’s idea of a good time.

The result, however, was worth the wait. Peggy looked like something straight out of Godey’s, in a deep blue dress with white trim, skirts full and hair done up in the intricate braids she often favored.

“You look...really pretty,” Steve offered as they left the store behind them, crossing the street towards the house where Betty Ross lived with her parents.

If Peggy blushed, Steve couldn’t see it. “Thank you,” she replied, slipping her hand through the crook of his elbow as though it belonged there. “And thank you for coming - my parents get fussed about me going out alone.”

“Oh, uh.” He nodded, wishing his palms weren’t so sweaty. “You’re welcome.”

The party was underway by the time they arrived, a crowd of young people chattering away in the parlor. Betty was holding court, Bruce Banner at her side, while the rest of the guests milled about. There were fancy cakes, and lemonade, and food Steve couldn’t put a name to, though it looked delicious. Nobody was eating it yet, which he didn’t understand.

Peggy made her way over to Betty, which meant Steve did, too.

“Happy birthday,” he mumbled.

“Thank you for coming,” Betty replied politely, though Steve was sure she wouldn’t remember his name if he pressed her.

The front door opened and shut, more people spilling into the room, including Natasha, who looked wonderful in a green velvet dress, hair swept up and a peevish look on her face. She made a beeline for Peggy and Steve, yanking the two of them into a corner.

“That woman,” she hissed, narrowing her eyes.

“I know,” Peggy agreed. Steve blinked in confusion.

“Mrs. Ross,” Natasha said when he opened his mouth to ask. “Horrible old ratbag. Her and her husband, both.”

Steve frowned; she’d seemed pleasant enough when she’d greeted them at the door, if a bit dismissive. “What did she do?”

“Won’t let Sam in,” Natasha frowned. “Treats me like I’m nothing because I work in the hotel and...oh, I hate her.”

“We could leave…” Peggy offered.

“No,” Natasha said. “Sam said I ought to stay - he’ll come by for me later. Anyhow, it’s not Betty’s fault her mother’s a bitch.”

Steve was appalled at the language, though not the sentiment - Mrs. Ross deserved whatever scorn she got, with behavior like that.

“We don’t have to stay long,” Peggy said.

Natasha shrugged, holding one finger to her lips before reaching into a cleverly concealed pocket at her waist and producing a flask. “We’ll stay as long as we stay,” she said. “Leastways we can have a little fun while we do.” She unscrewed the lid, taking a quick swallow before offering the flask to Peggy and Steve in turn.

Beyond Communion wine, Steve hadn’t tasted alcohol. His mother never kept it in the house, and while his father had gone out with friends to public houses, he hadn’t been overly fond of the stuff. As the sharp liquid burned its way down Steve’s throat, he could see why. It stung, and he spluttered a cough into his sleeve. Natasha giggled, putting the flask back where it had come from and shaking her head.

“Steve, your face.”

“Just...wasn’t expecting it to…taste quite like that,” he muttered, cheeks pinking up.

“Haven’t you ever had whiskey before?” Peggy asked, squeezing his arm.

He shook his head, and Natasha’s eyes lit up with what looked like possibility.

Truthfully, if it had been only the one sip, it wouldn’t have mattered. But Peggy and Natasha were persistent, sneaking off when they could, pulling out the flask to share. Always offering Steve some. He didn’t like to say no - seemed impolite. And anyhow, the whiskey didn’t burn so much the second time. Hardly tasted it at when swallowing the sixth.

By the time Betty called for games, Steve had decided he liked birthday parties very much. He’d had a few bites of food, two glasses of lemonade - one of which Natasha had topped up with a generous pour of the amber liquid - and four of the tiny cakes.

“We’re playing Ruth and Jacob,” Betty proclaimed, holding a scarf aloft. “Bruce, you go first.”

The game was simple enough - Bruce, as Jacob, stepped into the circle of guests formed around him, blindfold over his eyes. He spun in a circle and pointed his finger at random. The person he pointed at - in this case a boy Steve didn’t know - stepped into the ring.

“Ruth,” Bruce called.

“Jacob,” the boy replied, beginning a game of cat and mouse, blindfolded Bruce attempting to catch ‘Ruth’ and, once he’d done so, guess the identity of the ‘Ruth’ in question.

“Peter,” he said decisively, once he had a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Aww…” Peter (because Bruce had been right) made a face, and the two of them swapped blindfolds, and the game began anew.

Steve ended up in the circle eventually, chased by a girl he didn’t know well - too shy to play for long, letting her capture him quickly. “Is...it’s Steve, isn’t it?” she asked, squeezing his shoulder and making her best guess. He was surprised she’d known; surprised anyone there aside from Peggy and Natasha remembered him at all.

He donned the blindfold and spun around, dizzy at the movement, stomach churning dangerously. Coming to a stop, he pointed, only to be greeted with the sound of giggles and the shuffling of skirts.

“Ruth?”

“Jacob.”

That was Peggy’s voice. He was sure of it. He followed the sound as she made her escape. They called back and forth a few times before his hand brushed the fabric of her sleeve and he grasped it. “Peggy,” he proclaimed, pulling off the blindfold to find her smiling at him, eyes bright.

“Well done,” she said, taking the blindfold and putting it on. He stepped back into the circle, cheeks hot, unable to keep the smile from his face. Picking Peggy hadn’t been the plan, but he wasn’t sorry. He liked Peggy an awful lot, with her pretty smile and shining hair. The way she was kind to him, bringing him into her circle without reservation. Peggy was good, but she wasn’t dull. Wasn’t simpering or silly like some people. He was fond of her.

Fondness wasn’t quite the same as what he felt for Bucky, and that was the thing that vexed him. No, not fondness, though he certainly enjoyed his company. Bucky, he wanted in a dark, sinful way - a way that was lusty above all else. While his thoughts towards Peggy weren’t precisely chaste, they weren’t so depraved, either.

He wanted to pull Bucky down into the muck and the mire. Peggy, he wanted on a pedestal. Well, not a pedestal - she wasn’t untouchable. But Peggy was...and Bucky was. They were different. Steve was different. Hard to think about it too much when his head was buzzing as though a swarm of hornets had taken up residence.

“Steve,” Natasha broke in, tugging on his arm to pull him from the circle. “You look like you’re a million miles away.”

“I’m…” he shook his head. “Anything left in that flask?” No need to think too hard about anything, so long as the whiskey was there.

“I think I can manage.”

The games continued, as did the nips of spirits. ‘Ruth and Jacob’ turned into ‘Hot Cockles’ turned into ‘Yes or No’ turned into ‘Three Questions.’ Steve was having a grand time, learning the games he didn’t know, participating in everything, and feeling very proud of himself for doing so.

Things broke up when the clock struck eleven, and Mr. Ross came downstairs to complain about the noise. Steve found himself standing outside with Peggy and Natasha, not quite able to remember how he got there. Deputy Wilson had been waiting, leaned up against a railing on the other side of the street. He was handsome, too - Steve could see why Natasha liked him.

“Sam,” Natasha smiled, crossing the small distance while he pushed off from the railing and strode to meet them.

“Dep’ty,” Steve greeted, as Peggy dissolved into giggles at his side.

“Indeed,” Sam said. “Good night?”

“Better than it had any right to be,” Natasha replied, slipping her arm through Sam’s and looking up at him.

“I’ll bet.” Sam looked back at her, one eyebrow raised and a smirk on his face. “I better get you home. You two alright to walk?” That was directed at Peggy and Steve, who were doing a decent job of supporting one another.

“S’only across the street,” Peggy said, straightening herself up with as much dignity as she could muster before taking Steve’s arm. “I am...perfectly capable.”

“Perfectly capable,” Steve echoed, yawning.

Natasha glanced up at Sam, nudging him lightly in the side. “Steve shouldn’t try walking back to the claim. He ought to stay with Peggy, don’t you think?”

“One of your better plans, honey,” Sam agreed, and oh, Bucky hadn’t been joking about the two of them. They were properly proper in love, Natasha looking at Sam like he’d hung the moon and the stars in the sky. “You hear that, Rogers? Sleep it off at Carter’s.”

“We have,” Peggy said, growing more imperious by the minute, attempting to prove her sobriety with impeccable decorum. “A sofa in the parlor. Steve, you are very welcome.”

Oh, very welcome. Much better than trying to find his way in the dark. Very generous. “S’very gen’rus,” he informed her.

With the matter of Steve’s sleeping arrangements settled, Sam and Natasha took their leave, disappearing into the darkness in the direction of the hotel. Steve and Peggy, meanwhile, stumbled across the street as best they could.

Mr. and Mrs. Carter - sitting up, to Steve’s surprise - were indulgent of their debauched state, rather than angry. Steve still felt guilty as he watched Mrs. Carter arrange pillows and linens on the sofa while he and Peggy sat in the dining room, slowly sipping the glasses of water her father had fetched for them.

They didn’t stay up much longer, Steve curling on the sofa and pulling the quilt up to his chin. His head felt cavernous and as though it was stuffed with cotton, all at once. It was a strange feeling, but not a bad one.

“Goodnight, Steve,” Peggy said, sounding a hundred miles away, though she was only peeking through the parlor door.  “Thank you. For coming. To th’party.”

“G’night,” Steve said, just as Mrs. Carter pulled Peggy away, gently admonishing her before shutting the door.

“You’re a disgrace, Margaret Elizabeth.”

“Yes,” Peggy agreed. “I am.”

Mrs. Carter began to laugh, and Steve was glad of it. Glad Peggy had nice folks. A nice house. A sofa that wasn’t a straw tick on the floor of a drafty cabin.

He was especially glad about the sofa.

 

Chapter Text

Steve woke with a mouth that felt stuffed full of cotton, tongue dry and head throbbing just behind his right eye. His throat was raw, as though he’d swallowed sandpaper, and when he attempted a breath through his nose he was met with resistance, both nostrils obstructed.

“Guh.” The sound came out a whisper, though he hadn’t meant it to.

It was dark. Heavy curtains pulled across windows and no, that wasn’t right. Only one window in the cabin and…

Oh. Wasn’t in the cabin. This was Peggy’s house. Mrs. Carter’s couch. Because he’d gotten drunk as a loon the previous evening and made a perfect ass of himself, most likely. He couldn’t quite remember.

If this was the result of drinking, he didn’t much care for it.

Jamming his feet into his boots, he forced himself up, wondering if it would be too terribly rude to make his escape before anyone saw him. Surely not? He took a few steps forward on unsteady legs, the world swaying around him.

His plan was thwarted when he pushed open the parlor door to find Mr. Carter sitting in the dining room that lay across the hall, newspaper open on the table in front of him, a cup of coffee in hand.

Steve wondered if he looked as awful as he felt. Probably. Deciding he ought to say something, he opened his mouth only to be brought up short by a sneeze, which caught Mr. Carter’s attention.

“Steven,” he greeted. It was hard to tell if he was angry or not. Probably best to assume he was, considering the circumstances.

“Mr. Carter,” he replied, only it came out Bistuh Cadduh, thanks to his darn nose, which he wiped on his sleeve for lack of a handkerchief.

Mr. Carter’s mouth twitched in an approximation of his daughter’s as he rose and tucked the paper under his arm. Not angry, then. That was something. “Come into the kitchen, I’ll make you some coffee. Nobody else is up yet.”

Steve couldn’t blame them - he’d quite like to be asleep himself, save for the fact that he’d die of mortification if Peggy saw him in such a state. God, in his infinite wisdom, had chosen to wake Steve up before dawn and set him stewing in his misery. No doubt because he deserved it.

The kitchen was in the rear of the house, and Steve sank down into a chair at the small table pushed against one wall, grateful for the relative silence as Mr. Carter prepared a cup of coffee.

“Thank you,” he said. The first sip was heavenly, the steam rising to loosen the gunk in his nose, allowing him to breathe easier, while the warmth soothed his throat.

“My pleasure,” Mr. Carter said. “I was thinking of some toast if you’re hungry. Mrs. Carter’s the cook, but I can manage an egg or two as well.”

All Steve could do was nod, sitting quietly with his coffee as Mr. Carter worked with practiced efficiency, managing both parts of the meal in short order and setting a plate in front of Steve with a flourish.

“Thank you,” he repeated. “I’m sorry…”

“You are not...” Mr. Carter began, cutting him off as he sat down on the other side of the table. “...the first young person to partake in excessive amounts of drink.”

No, Steve supposed he wasn’t, though it didn’t make him less likely to hang his head.

“See that you don’t make a habit of it,” he continued. “I’ll be telling my daughter the same thing.”

Chastened, Steve nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Not having anything else to say, he picked up his toast and took the biggest bite he could stomach. They ate in silence, which Steve suspected had to do with Mr. Carter having an intimate understanding of what it was to live through the morning after a night of drinking. He appreciated the effort. The throbbing in his head wasn’t going away - in fact, it was getting worse, blossoming from a dull ache to a roar by the time he scooped up the last bite of his fried egg. Funny how good an egg could taste - maybe the best egg he’d ever had in his life.

He was in the midst of wondering if Bucky might buy some chicks from Mr. Carter when there came a heavy knock at the door. Mr. Carter raised an eyebrow, murmuring something about it being terribly early for visitors before folding his paper and rising. Steve stayed where he was, listening.

“Barnes,” Mr. Carter greeted, after opening the door.

Oh.

“Morning,” Bucky replied, voice stiff. “Don’t mean to bother you so early, but I’m short a hand - thought you might know where he ended up?”

“Ah, at the moment he’s eating his breakfast in my kitchen.”

“I see.”

“I’ll send him out.”

“Much obliged.”

Steve shoved the remainder of his toast into his mouth - Bucky’s tone didn’t bode well for any additional breakfast.

Poking his head into the kitchen, Mr. Carter gave him a wry smile. “I suppose you heard that?”

“Yessir,” he replied, already on his feet. “Please tell Peggy I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye.”

Mr. Carter laughed, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Son, I’ve no doubt she’s been up for half an hour, waiting for you to leave. Neither of you is fit to be seen.”

Unlikely - Steve couldn’t fathom Peggy looking anything less than perfect. He bid Mr. Carter goodbye before making haste to the front door, walking out into the early morning light and finding Bucky and Winter standing at the bottom of the mercantile steps, a mulish look on Bucky’s face.

“Err, good morning,” Steve said.

Bucky snorted. “The hell you think you’re doing, staying out all night? You got chores.”

Of course it was about chores - trust Bucky to begrudge him one night of fun. Steve scuffed his toe against the top step before making his way down. “I was about to leave,” he shrugged. “Couldn’t make it back last night...”

Bucky’s grip on Winter’s reins tightened, and he narrowed his eyes. “You were drinking.” His voice came out flat. Accusatory.

“Yes, but…”

“You wanna make a goddamn fool of yourself, you can walk,” Bucky said, cutting off Steve’s excuses, swinging himself onto Winter’s back with practiced ease.

Steve scowled because Bucky wasn’t being precisely fair. Surely he wouldn’t have wanted Steve stumbling back to the cabin at all hours? It might have been dangerous. “Peggy was…”

Bucky interrupted again, Steve’s hands curling into fists at his sides. “Left the stalls for you to muck,” he said as he wheeled Winter in the direction of the road. “Find me after - got at least two wagon loads of hay to cut today.”

“Would you listen!”

Bucky wouldn’t. He ignored Steve entirely, urging Winter on, leaving Steve gawking at his retreating back. Steve narrowed his eyes and kicked the hitching post before glancing over his shoulder to make sure nobody saw. It wasn’t the Carters’ fault Bucky was intractable.

Wishing very much he’d thought to bring his hat, Steve squared his shoulders and started for the farm, head swimming and body aching.

He hadn’t made it very far out of town when he heard a rustling in the tall grass, which he chose to ignore, assuming it was a rabbit or some other small creature. Turned out, it was Sarge, nosing his way out of the prairie and right up to Steve’s side. Steve had reached a sort of truce with the dog weeks before - one in which Steve tolerated Sarge’s strange affection, and sometimes Sarge got to lick his face in the mornings.

“Bet you aren’t mad,” he muttered, his hand threading into Sarge’s fur, the big dog serving to keep him steadier than he might have been otherwise as he trudged along the path.

There was a bitter wind blowing from the north, cutting through the thin layers of his jacket and shirt, striking him and reminding him that winter wasn’t so far off. He shivered, pulling his coat tighter and shouldering on.

He made it about a quarter mile before the eggs and toast came back up, vomited neatly onto the side of the road, Sarge looking on with interest.

“Uck,” Steve spat, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Don’t eat that.” Sarge certainly looked tempted, but refrained, padding after Steve as he continued the interminable trek to the claim. By the time he reached the yard his nose was running and his ears hurt as badly as his throat every time he swallowed. The straw tick mattress wasn’t much, but he wished for it desperately as he crossed the yard to the stable.

Bucky hadn’t been lying about the stalls needing mucked. Steve set to the task with a grim sort of determination, arms shaking in a way they hadn’t since his first week on the farm. The smell wasn’t helping anything, his stomach roiling and cramping, fresh waves of nausea overtaking him with every pitchfork full of soiled bedding he tossed into the cart.

His teeth were chattering as he finished, though he was sweating profusely, unable to articulate quite what was wrong other than being in abject misery. And there was still the hay to be cut - Bucky was already angry; there was no sense upsetting him further.

The prairie was vast, and Steve was small, so it fell to Sarge to show him the way.

“Where’s Bucky?” he asked, his voice a croak. The dog took off, trotting west into the tall grass, and Steve followed.

Bucky looked up when Steve appeared, holding a scythe in one hand and wiping his sweaty brow with the other. “Took you long enough,” he snapped, and Steve could have wept.

“S’a long walk,” he muttered, clambering up into the back of the wagon to tamp down the hay, using his weight to pack it as tight as it would go. There was endless prairie grass to cut - it would keep the animals fed all winter long. Steve was well-practiced in the chore and usually found it easy. Fun, on an average day. Nothing was fun today.

“Woulda been shorter if you’d taken it last night.”

That didn’t make any sense. Steve grunted, stomping on the grass as Bucky went back to work, cutting and pitching in forkfuls over the side, caring very little about whether or not he tossed them directly at Steve’s head.

“Would you quit,” Steve snapped eventually, slapping at his hair to knock the grass out of it, the earthy smell making him feel sick all over again.

Bucky didn’t bother responding, just threw another forkful over the side of the wagon. Steve would have liked to vomit on his head, but there wasn’t anything left in him.

Things got worse instead of better as the day wore on, Steve’s fatigue and headache intensifying, throat going from smoldering flame to red-hot fire. The sun had reached the middle of the sky, and Bucky wasn’t showing any signs of stopping. Steve would be dead in the ground before he asked for a reprieve.

That dogged determination gave him another fifteen minutes, perhaps, until there were bright spots in his vision and his legs were hardly able to propel him forward as he climbed on top of another load of grass. Lord, he was hot. And itchy. Had he always been so itchy?

Reaching up, he pulled his collar away from his neck, swallowing hard against his inflamed throat, vision blurring, squinting at Bucky’s back.

Then, there was only black. The next time his eyes opened, he was looking at the sky, and there was a gentle shower of grass raining down on his face.

Odd. Grass didn’t rain. He closed his eyes again.

He was bumping. Jostling. Confused and bothered, so he grunted and kicked his legs only to find himself staring at Bucky’s backside because he was over Bucky’s shoulder, arms hanging limply below him. A sack of potatoes and he couldn’t imagine why.

Easier to drift.

His bed. A cup of water held to his parched lips, and a worried voice.

“Drink it, don’t fight.”

Steve spluttered and coughed, his closed-up throat fighting the intrusion of the water. He was burning up, his whole body lit from within.

“Steve, stop.” Bucky’s voice, he knew now. Bucky forcing the cup to his lips again.

He choked down a mouthful. Fell back on the mattress and drifted into a fitful sleep. Hard to tell what was dreaming, what was real. How much time had passed.

It was dark when he woke, and someone had been calling for their mother. There were tears on his cheeks, and he’d never been so thirsty.

His legs weren’t working. Maybe they’d never worked. He scowled, dragging himself off the mattress with his hands, desperate for water. Perhaps Bucky’d left some in the wash basin? He could drink that, he could…

“Aw, shit,” came from somewhere above him. Hands under his armpits, dragging him back. “Stay there. Every goddamn time…”

Bucky was saying a lot of things. Steve sobbed for water, and then the water was there. Now a cup of broth and it tasted foul, so he spat it out. Bucky swore again, and Steve thought he was apologizing, but he couldn’t be sure. Couldn’t be sure of anything.

The next time he woke, there was daylight filtering into the cabin from the window, and he could smell the sweat and sick on himself.

This wasn’t the booze. This was something else - real, true sickness. The sort that wracked his frame with coughs and left him flushed and fevered. The sort his mother had nursed him through time and time again. Brief bouts of lucidity met with her soft hands and kind words. She’d sing to him sometimes, rock him and tell him he was going to be alright.

Bucky wasn’t as deft a caretaker. When he found Steve awake, he muttered something about eating before forcing more broth on him, along with another cup of water.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, his voice a hoarse croak.

Bucky dunked some stale bread into the soup, then offered it to Steve. “I didn’t...I hadn’t realized you were really sick, s’all. Thought it was just the drinking.”

Steve shrugged and chewed on the bread, managing to get down a few bites before his body rebelled and he had to fight to keep it down.

After that, it was darkness again - sporadic sleeping and fever dreams. Things that were true and things that weren’t - cool dampness on his arms and legs. His father pulling back the curtain, rifle in hand. A breeze wafting across his skin. Bucky sitting him up, an arm around his back. Peggy lying next to him on the mattress, holding his hand.

The fever broke on the fifth day. Steve woke to find himself drenched in sweat, quilts kicked to the bottom of the bed. He lay still, relishing the feeling of being in his right mind, luxuriating in his lucid thoughts until Bucky pulled back the partition and looked down, expression brightening when he saw Steve was awake.

“Morning,” he said. “You got uh...there’s color…” He touched his own cheeks to indicate.

“I feel better,” Steve said slowly.

Bucky considered him for a moment before shaking his head. “Better’s relative. Another day in bed won’t hurt you.”

One day turned into two, with Bucky proclaiming him too sick to cook, clean, or do any other chore Steve thought needed doing. Bucky wasn’t much of a nursemaid - short and awkward with his declarations about Steve’s health - but he was kind. Kept him fed, kept him watered, and never made him feel a bit guilty about the work he was missing.

The third day after the fever broke, Steve woke to the sounds of the house falling down around him and let out a cry, gripping the sides of the mattress as though that might help.

Only, no, the walls weren’t falling in. Someone or something was pounding on them from outside, causing them to shake with every strike. He pressed his right ear to the shuddering wall next to his bed and listened - he could hear Bucky’s voice. Matthew’s, too, which was odd because it wasn’t a Sunday.

Curiosity overwhelmed common sense, and Steve shakily pulled himself to his feet for the first time in over a week. His legs were trembling, knees knocking together as he searched out what clothing he could, having been stripped to his drawers during the ordeal.

(If he thought too long about how that had happened, he was likely to die on the spot.)

Once he was dressed, he made his way outside, walking around the house towards the sound of the banging. What he found was a wagonful of lumber pulled up alongside Bucky and Matthew - the former on a ladder, the latter on the ground - affixing siding to the frame of the shanty.

Bucky noticed him first, a grin spreading across his face. “Steve!”

“Feeling better?” Matthew asked, pulling a nail from between his lips.

“Um,” Steve said. “What are you doing?”

“Siding the house,” Bucky replied, as though it ought to be obvious.

“But Becky said…” Said you were cheap, said you were a miser, said you’d rather see her freeze than spend the money.

“My sister,” Bucky said. “Doesn’t dictate what I do to my own home.”

Matthew covered his mouth with his hand, ostensibly to cough, though Steve didn’t think much of the noise he made.

“It looks good,” Steve offered, stepping back with his arms crossed over his chest. “I could help.”

“Sure,” Matthew said, just as Bucky piped up with a firm, “no.”

Steve looked between them, waiting.

“No,” Bucky reiterated.

Steve scowled. He could help, and he didn’t need to be coddled by anyone. He’d been sick, sure, but he was feeling much better.

“If you hammer your thumb,” Bucky said, considering. “I’m not kissing it better.”

Steve’s heart thumped twice in quick succession as Matthew guffawed. His tongue felt swollen in his mouth at the very idea. He couldn’t think fast enough for a smart retort, so he went to pick up a hammer instead, hoping Bucky took the blush in his cheeks as a sign of his renewed vigor rather than what it truly was.

It took them nearly three days to weatherproof the house, Bucky going over it with eagle-eyed precision to make sure there were no cracks for wind or snow to blow through.

Perhaps it was silly, but as they settled down to dinner together the day the house was finished, Steve swore it was warmer. September was winding its way towards October, and the nights were growing colder, but the cabin felt very nearly snug.

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For the siding.” Bucky had done it for him, even if he hadn’t said it. He had seen Steve at his sickest and decided to shore things up for winter. There was no other explanation, and the gesture was proof at least that Bucky cared a little.

Bucky gave him a funny look, cocking his head to the side. “I’ve been here nearly three years now, Steve. House needed finishing one way or the other.”

Another statement meant to preserve Steve’s dignity. He nodded, getting to his feet and reaching over to clear Bucky’s plate. It took him by surprise when Bucky closed one of his hands over Steve’s wrist, clearing his throat. “You’re welcome,” he said, before releasing his grip and dropping his hand to the table. “We ought to go to bed after you finish the dishes. There’s plenty to catch up on - we’re behind.”

Steve took Bucky’s advice, crawling underneath his fresh sheets less than half an hour later. It was impossible to keep the thoughts at bay, now that he was well again. The way Bucky’s hand felt when it gripped his wrist, what Bucky had done for him. Greedy, wonderful, terrible thoughts. Sighing, he slipped a hand beneath his nightclothes, thinking of Bucky’s smile until he was close, turning his face against the pillow to stifle his moans.

“Bucky,” he whined as he spilled onto his hand, the plea despairing.

On the other side of the partition, Bucky’s breathing was even.

Chapter Text

The work of the harvest continued, months slipping by until the bulk of the job was done. October became November became December and quite all of a sudden Steve had been a farmer for half a year. It seemed no time at all had passed since he’d been standing stiff and unsure on the dais in the church, convinced nobody would ever want him. Now he had, if not a home, a place he felt comfortable. He could saddle a horse, fix a fence, tie a sheaf of wheat, and hitch a wagon. The last one felt especially monumental, considering Bucky hadn’t trusted him with the task for ages, convinced he’d do something wrong and end up trod on by both the horses.

Sundays were always a reprieve, and though the occasional picnics had ended with the chillier weather, Steve looked forward every week to time spent with Peggy, Natasha, and Sam (when he was able to join them). He had not, however, partaken in any additional whiskey, and didn’t think he was like to ever again.

Bucky never joined them, and Steve had given up hinting that perhaps he ought to. Privately, Bucky was amiable, their friendship built on an easy rapport and camaraderie. Publicly, he remained distant, engaging when he had to and pleasant enough when he did, but reluctant on every occasion. He made time for Becky and Matthew - loving the former and getting along well enough with the latter - and Steve knew he liked Peggy and Natasha, but he never sought out company on his own. Never went into town unless the errand was absolutely, painstakingly necessary.

It had been necessary that day, Bucky hitching the wagon after morning chores and driving into town with the last of the wheat, leaving Steve to manage the work of the afternoon.

The day was bitterly cold for so early in December, a sharp wind from the north bringing with it a taste of the winter to come. The cabin was freezing in spite of the siding and the fire in the hearth, so Steve had bundled up in his new coat (rather, Bucky’s old coat, cut down to size). He was determined to get everything they’d preserved over the last few weeks into the root cellar before Bucky returned, though the task was proving harder than he’d anticipated. Without gloves, his fingers nearly froze. With them, he could hardly keep hold of the jars.

Taking stock of the cellar once he was through, he couldn’t help feeling proud. Let winter come - it couldn’t hurt them. They could live on what he’d helped pick and put away for six months or more. His mother couldn’t have done it any better.

As Bucky still hadn’t returned, Steve took the opportunity to work on his Christmas present. He’d been squirreling away the growing scarf underneath his mattress for weeks, and while it wasn’t much to look at, it would be warm. Part of him worried that Bucky might not care about Christmas, being that he was an atheist (and didn’t Steve still hate that fact), but everyone liked presents. Surely Bucky wouldn’t turn it away.

The window was shut tight against the cold, so he worked by the light of the fire and the kerosene lamp. He wasn’t entirely sure how much time had passed when he heard the sound of the wagon returning, but he didn’t think it had been long enough for it to be quite so dark outside.

Those suspicions were borne out when he headed out to help with the horses. The sun was pale behind an angry grey sky, a mass of clouds visible in the distance, the light strange and eerie. The temperature had dropped as well, a harsh wind taking his breath away as he pulled on his gloves.

Bucky was struggling to unload the wagon, which was laden down with supplies, and he looked up when Steve approached.

“Get the horses put in for the night,” he said. “I’ll start bringing everything inside.”

“For the night?” It was early for that - hardly mid-afternoon, despite the darkened sky.

Pointing to the clouds gathering in the distance, Bucky shrugged. “See those?”

Steve wasn’t blind, though he tried not to scowl as he nodded.

“That’s a hell of a storm, and with the temperature dropping, I’d put my money on snow, and plenty of it. So put the horses up. Now.”

There was no arguing with that tone, nor did Steve want to - Bucky wasn’t commanding often, so when he did issue an order, it was usually for a reason. Moving quickly, he unhitched Winter and Bright, settling them in the stable while Bucky unloaded the wagon. Once Steve was done with the animals, he went to assist, and they worked in silence until the many sacks and boxes were inside the cabin.

Bucky wasn’t done yet, Steve looking on as he went to the stable and fetched a rope, running it from the latch on the stable door to the house, then tying it to the heavy bench underneath the window.

“What’s that for?” It looked like a clothesline, but he didn’t imagine they were going to do any wash.

“Guide rope,” Bucky explained. “I’ll need it to find my way back to the stable if the storm’s bad.”

Steve couldn’t fathom a storm so severe Bucky wouldn’t be able to see from the house to the stable. It was hardly any distance at all.

Bucky tugged on the rope and looked back at him. “It’s early in the season for a blizzard, but you never know,” he said. “I’m glad we got the siding on the house.”

“Glad you sold the wheat,” Steve replied. The wagonload of supplies supported his theory.

“Mmm.” Bucky nodded, looking around the yard with his mouth set in a thin line. “Got enough to last us a good, long while. I saw that cloud coming while I was driving back and...I’m glad I beat it.”

Steve had never seen him so nervous; it was disconcerting. Surely they’d be fine, tucked up in the cabin with a roaring fire and heavy quilts on their beds to keep them warm?

“I got everything put up in the cellar,” he said, as Bucky led the way into the house. “Everything except what you just...oh, Sarge, no, you can’t come in.”

“He’s not stayin’ out there,” Bucky replied, holding the door to let the dog inside. Sarge, delighted at being allowed into the cabin, went promptly to Bucky’s bed, jumping up and turning in a circle before - to Steve’s horror - lying down.

“Bucky, he’s disgusting.”

“He’s a dog.”

“He can be both.”

Bucky grinned, but he also didn’t tell Sarge to move, which Steve supposed meant Sarge was the master of the manor now.

Sarge’s obedient servant reached into his pocket and produced a small paper bag, holding it out to Steve, who took it. He found an assortment of candy within - all his favorite colors and kinds.

“Peggy says hello,” Bucky grunted.

“Oh,” Steve said. For a moment he’d thought Bucky had bought him the treats. Silly. “That’s kind of her.”

“I thanked her for you,” Bucky said. “She’s awful sweet on you.”

“She’s…” Steve could feel his ears growing hot. “Would you like one?”

“No.” Bucky waved him off. “Not before supper, anyhow. You mind cooking?”

“That’s fine.”

“Good. I’m gonna haul in enough wood for a few days - I’m sure I’ll be hungry when I’m through.”

Bucky set to work, bringing in what felt like the entire woodpile, the tiny cabin growing painfully cramped between the newly acquired supplies and the stacked logs. Steve could hardly turn around and tried to tamp down on his irritation as he got supper on the table.

The storm hit just as Bucky brought in his final armful of wood. The force of the wind hit the house and made Steve jump, nearly dropping the plate he was holding. With its new siding, the cabin was solid enough, but a shiver still slid down his spine at the howl made by the gale.

Bucky dropped the wood onto the massive pile and went to latch the door before turning to Steve with a grin “What’d I tell you? Hell of a storm.”

Steve nudged Sarge out of the way with his foot as he pulled out his chair and sat down, the dog already desperate for table scraps, which he wouldn’t be getting on Steve’s watch. “Whatever sort of storm it is,” he replied. “Supper’s on the table.”

“Wouldn’t want to keep supper waiting.” Bucky joined him, flopping down in his chair and pushing Sarge’s snout away. “Damn it, dog, get your nose outta there.”

Sarge took the rebuke in stride, obedient to Bucky’s words in a way he wasn’t to Steve’s as he slunk over to the cookstove and curled up. His ears remained perked and his eyes bright, though, so Steve knew he wasn’t really cowed - if they showed him any interest, he’d be right back and begging.

“Couldn’t do this last year,” Bucky said once they’d eaten in silence for a moment.

“Hmm?”

“Eating at the table. It was s’damn cold, Becky and I’d stand as close as we could get to the fire and eat there. The siding makes a difference.”

Steve suddenly felt very sorry for poor Becky. The house wasn’t warm, even with the weatherproofing. Any comfort that came from the fire and the cookstove faded the further one got from them, and without the extra layer of siding, it must have made for several miserable winters. He very much hoped Matthew had made Becky a warmer house than Bucky ever did.

“I’m glad we have it.” It was easier to offer that than berate Bucky, who no doubt had his reasons, even if they made sense only in his head.  

When they were through, Steve stacked the plates, looking at the mess left behind reproachfully. “I don’t suppose I can go and get wash water.”

“Let the dog lick ‘em.”

“No.”

“Well then don’t worry about it tonight,” Bucky snorted. “Snow in a bucket tomorrow’ll melt by the fire, and we’ll use that.”

“Water, water everywhere.”

“And not a drop to drink,” Bucky finished, before laughing. “That’s Coleridge, isn’t it?”

“Don’t know,” Steve replied. “My father used to say it.”

“Hmm.” Bucky yawned, stretching his arms above his head. “Cards?”

It was something they did often enough to pass the time, so Steve nodded. Gambling wasn’t precisely wrong when one didn’t have any money and used dried beans to bet. Anyhow, it wasn’t as though they were being idle - the animals were bedded down, and he’d gotten plenty of knitting done earlier.

Bucky got the pack of cards from his trunk - a well-worn deck, falling apart in places, the paper frayed. Steve moved the plates to the side while Bucky shuffled. “What’s the game?”

“Beggar-my-neighbor,” Bucky said.

“Don’t know that one.”

“I’ll teach you.”

Steve was a quick learner, and the game was mostly luck. It had them both laughing within a few rounds, because it was silly and fast and easy to foul up.

“Where’d you learn this?” Steve asked eventually, as Bucky dealt the cards again.

“Buddy of mine taught me in the war,” he replied evenly. “Big Irish fella named Dugan.”

“I knew Dugans in Brooklyn,” Steve said. “Maybe they’re related.”

“Maybe,” Bucky frowned. “He died.”

Steve sobered while Bucky attempted to remain stoic, emotion betraying him in the twitch of his mouth, the way his fingers tightened on the cards.

“I’m sorry,” Steve offered.

“Lotta people died,” Bucky said. “We playing or what?”

“Yeah,” Steve nodded. “Sure, Bucky.”

The went a couple more rounds, the snowstorm screaming while the fire in the hearth fought valiantly to keep them warm. Eventually, though, Steve’s fingers had gone stiff and red, too cold to keep playing.

“Probably time for bed, anyhow,” Bucky said when Steve attempted to apologize.

“Probably.”

Bucky got to his feet and went to put the cards away before beginning to undress. Steve looked down, busying himself with a very interesting crease in his trousers, though he knew Bucky slept in at least his flannel longjohns.

“I’ve been thinking…” Bucky said, clearing his throat. Steve looked up to find him standing in said longjohns, a pensive sort of look on his face. “You ought to bunk up with me.”

There was no hiding Steve’s reaction, eyes going wide, sure he had misheard. “Excuse me?”

“This is the coldest it’s been,” Bucky said, as though it was a normal request. To share his bed. “Your fingers are already half-frozen. Becky and I shared last year, and it’s-”

“It’s warmer this year,” Steve broke in, a slight hitch in his voice. “So no. Thank you. That’s...no.”

Bucky snorted, giving him a funny look before turning away and pulling back the quilts. “Suit yourself. Turn out the lamp before you go to bed and freeze.”

Steve scowled at the back of Bucky’s head before dimming the lamp and slipping behind the partition that gave him his privacy. And damn Bucky, it was cold. Cold enough to warrant the swearing. His teeth began chattering as he stripped out of his shirt and trousers, pulling on an extra set of flannels before crawling under both of the quilts on his mattress and tugging the covers up to his chin.

It was miserable; the coldest the house had ever been. No warmth from the fire was capable of penetrating the heavy material hung as a partition, while the frigid air rising from the floor went right through the straw of his mattress. Matters weren’t helped by the raw, mournful sound of the wind whipping around the walls.

There was no chance of Steve falling asleep that night, but he would rather lie there and freeze over giving Bucky the satisfaction of being right.

The strength of those convictions lasted perhaps half an hour before he was up, padding across the floor while swaddled in his quilts, shaking like a leaf. He stood, looking down at Bucky and debating how best to wake him, when Bucky rolled onto his back and looked up with an awful grin.

“Can I help you?”

Steve didn’t like Bucky very much at all. “You were right,” he grumbled.

“Music to my ears, pal.” Bucky lifted the quilts and allowed Steve entrance to the narrow bed. Steve clambered in, trying desperately not to touch as he did his best to spread the two quilts he’d brought with him over Bucky’s bedspread. Once he’d finished, he lay flat on his back, arms rigid at his side.

It was warmer. The mattress softer and fluffier and...oh.

“Is this a feather mattress?”

“Yes,” Bucky said. “Why?”

“You made your sister sleep on the floor, and you have a feather mattress?” He was going to punch Bucky square in the jaw.

“Now wait a damn minute…” Bucky said, rolling over again so he could look at Steve, a frown on his face. “When Becky got married, she took her own feather mattress and her own bed along with her. My damn sister sleeping on the ground, you gotta be crazy, Steve, what kind of man do you think I am?”

Steve didn’t want to punch Bucky anymore, but he was annoyed all the same. “How come I only get a straw tick?”

“Because I didn’t know my goddamn farmhand was the Prince of England,” Bucky said. “I’ll see what I can do about shooting some geese for your featherbed next year, your highness.”

Steve was glad Bucky couldn’t see him blushing in the dark. “Oh.”

“Now can I go to sleep, or do you want to yell at me about something else?”

“You can go to sleep.”

Bucky huffed, turning to face the wall once more. Steve did the opposite, rolling towards the room instead. His back was mere inches from Bucky’s, and he could feel the warmth radiating from him. The knowledge of their proximity sent an unwanted jolt of pleasure right through him, which was not allowed to happen. Not there. Not with Bucky so near. Screwing his eyes shut, Steve mouthed ten Hail Marys, willing his body to be kind to him, just this once.

God, in his infinite wisdom, chose that precise moment to have Bucky let out a belch fit to make the saints cry. The noise went a long way in dispelling Steve’s more lascivious thoughts, and he was finally able to sleep.

Perhaps it was a sin to think of that as an answered prayer, but God did work in mysterious ways.

Chapter Text

When Steve woke, the storm was still raging, wind battering the walls, the cabin frigid. It took him a moment to come to his senses - his nose was frozen while the rest of him was warm and cozy, tucked up under the heavy covers. Something shifted next to him, and it all came rushing back: he was in Bucky’s bed. Bucky was the one moving. Deftly sliding away, pushing back the covers just enough that he could escape from the cocoon of quilts.

Steve stayed where he was, eyes open though he remained quiet, painfully aware of the stiffness between his legs. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence for first thing in the morning, but Bucky’s proximity didn’t help.

Bucky shuffled his way down the narrow gap between the bed and the wall, taking pains not to disturb Steve, which was a nice gesture. It was only once he’d fetched his boots from the foot of the bed that he noticed Steve staring.  

“No sense us both getting up,” he said, offering a half a smile in the dim light of the low fire. “Go back to sleep.”

“Where’re you going?” As Steve said it, he realized he knew the answer. The animals needed feeding, regardless of the weather, which meant Bucky would be going out into the miserable storm to do it.

Bucky told him as much as he tugged on some trousers and a shirt over his flannels, then sat on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots.

“I could come with you,” Steve offered, wishing very much he wasn’t able to see his breath in the air when he spoke.

“Nah,” Bucky said, giving his laces one final tug before standing to retrieve his coat, hat, and gloves. “You stay warm.”

He left the cabin, a gale of snow blowing in when he opened the door, Sarge trotting alongside him into the bitter wind.

Steve shivered, pulling the quilts up nearly to his forehead. Bucky’s side of the bed was warmer, so he turned over, wriggling into the depression left in the mattress and sighing. It smelled like Bucky, which was rather a stupid thing to think. Of course it did - Bucky slept there every night. Steve sniffed his pillow anyway, stifling a groan as his prick twitched in renewed interest.

“No,” he muttered, to his body as much as to himself. “Go away.”

It didn’t, and while he was able to doze, he couldn’t get back to sleep, no matter how much he tossed and turned. Certain parts of him were very much awake, and very much wanted to be attended to.

After one final failed attempt at a catnap, Steve figured he’d have to manage things himself. It wasn’t as though Bucky would know if he took care of the problem - he had gotten good at shooting his own gun efficiently, and the chores would take Bucky a while yet. Determined to be quick about it, he popped the buttons on his fly and began his own morning’s work.

Steve had miscalculated - either he’d dozed for longer than he’d realized, or Bucky had skimped on the chores to get back into the relative warmth of the cabin. Whatever the reason, Steve was still hard as a rock and rubbing himself when the door burst open, bringing Bucky and Sarge inside, along with another gust of snow.

“God damn,” Bucky muttered, slamming the door shut behind him and knocking the mess from his boots. Sarge shook himself dry, snow and water going everywhere.

Steve’s stomach turned over, and he didn’t dare move, hoping the darkness would conceal the fact that he was awake at all. His heart was thumping so loudly in his chest, though, it was a wonder Bucky didn’t hear it from the other side of the room.

Bucky didn’t come back to bed. Instead, he went to the woodpile, picking up a couple of logs and going to build the fire back up. The warmth was pleasant, but the resulting glow brightened the room considerably. Darn. Steve wondered if this was what a trapped rabbit felt like - raw and exposed and downright terrified.

Oblivious as ever, Bucky fixed himself some bread and butter, sitting at the table and eating like a ravenous dog. (The actual ravenous dog would likely get what was left over.)

There was nothing for it: Steve had to get rid of the problem if he wanted to get out of bed and face the day. Bucky wasn’t going to leave again, so he was going to have to be stealthy about it. Silently, watching Bucky’s every move, he began to slowly pump his hand. With any luck, Bucky couldn’t see - wouldn’t even know he was up. The weight of the quilts would keep his secret safe long enough for him to finish the job. Tuck himself away. Hide his sins from Bucky even if he couldn’t keep them from God. At least he’d be able to look his friend in the eye afterward.

“You want some?” Bucky broke in. Steve froze, hand stilling. Bucky had been paying more attention than he’d thought.

“N-no, thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” Bucky threw the last bite of bread to Sarge, before standing up and crossing back to the bed, where he kicked off his boots. “Move over, it’s cold.”

No. This wasn’t happening. “You’re...why are you getting back in bed?”

“Warmer in than out,” Bucky replied. “You gonna move, or am I gonna have to move you?”

Steve moved, attempting to cover himself just as Bucky lifted the quilts and betrayed him entirely. There was no missing his hand, or where it was, but Steve hoped for a miracle all the same. That Bucky might not notice the obvious, or that the earth might open up and swallow Steve whole. Either option seemed perfectly fine at the moment.

No such luck.

“Huh.” Bucky was smirking. Steve hated that smirk. “Good morning.”

“Don’t.”

Bucky actually laughed, crawling under the covers as though it were entirely reasonable for Steve to be stiff-pricked and proper, poking out of his flannels. “Don’t what?”

“Nothing,” Steve muttered, shivering as he inched away from Bucky, who had sucked out the warmth from the bed when he got into it. “You’re freezing.”

Bucky laughed again, pulling the quilts up around his neck, acting as though nothing in the world was wrong, when in fact everything was in shambles. “Quit whining,” he replied, knocking his cold toes against Steve’s calf. “Or I’ll send you out for evening chores.”

That was something he very much did not want,.He wasn’t afraid of the weather, precisely, but he didn’t fancy the idea of trudging out into the storm and fighting his way across the yard.

“Sorry,” he muttered, turning onto his back and reaching down to adjust himself. Bucky knew about his problem; no sense hiding it now. He was going to have to live with it.

“Don’t gotta stop on my account.”

Steve was sure he’d misheard. That perhaps he was dreaming. Or he’d died in the night, and this was some hell of his own creation. He closed his eyes, forced himself to take a breath. “Excuse me?”

“Man’s got needs.”

Bucky had a smile in his voice. Steve chanced a look and found Bucky grinning, one eyebrow raised. Like there was a rational explanation for everything.

“I…” Steve’s voice came out strangled, pitched too high and too weak and too everything he was afraid of being seen as.

Bucky’s face softened, and he offered Steve a gentler smile. “Look,” he said. “I was a soldier, you know. We...well. Things happen. You’re not the first fella who needed…” He shrugged, expression even.

He wasn’t wrong, though Steve had prided himself for years on keeping those needs at bay. Then Bucky Barnes upended his world, want and desire forcing him to keep his sins a secret. Now Bucky knew his greatest shame and didn’t seem to care a whit. Encouraged it, in fact, which was the last thing in the world Steve had expected. “What...what did you…?”

Bucky’s lips twitched, and he shrugged, burrowing a little further under the quilts. “Sharing tents or bedrolls - you’d crowd together to keep warm. We didn’t pay attention to what anyone else was doing. Seemed the courteous thing to do.”

Steve couldn’t find the words, breath caught in his throat. He swallowed around the lump that had formed.

“Way I figure it,” Bucky continued. “I could extend you a little courtesy now if you’ll do the same for me.”

It took Steve a moment to realize what Bucky was suggesting, his stomach turning a funny little flip and flutter upon understanding. When he looked up, incredulous, Bucky gave him a smile - one Steve hadn’t seen before, as though there didn’t have to be any secrets between them. Then, to Steve’s shock, Bucky brought his hand to his mouth, spitting into his palm before moving it underneath the covers.

Oh, God. Bucky was touching himself. Right there in the same bed, inches away from where Steve’s hand still lay on his own stiff prick.

If he hadn’t died the night before, he was going to die, right then and there. No need for purgatory, no sir, hell could open up its black gates, and he’d sail right through them, sure as Sunday.

“S’alright, Steve,” Bucky said, a tremor in his voice as he closed his eyes. “Y’do what you need to.”

God would have to strike him down because Bucky Barnes was giving him permission. Steve chanced a tentative stroke, finding that touching himself in proximity to Bucky was twice as good as touching himself alone. He shifted his weight some, turning his cheek against the pillow - Bucky’s pillow - and letting out a sigh.

If he looked at Bucky, he knew, he would unravel entirely. So he closed his eyes, picking up the movements of his hand. Bucky did the same, and the notion of him doing so twisted Steve up somewhere deep inside. Shook him so hard he nearly wept. Couldn’t do that, so he took in a deep breath instead, the sounds of the storm roaring outside masking some but not all of his noises.

Bucky didn’t want him. Didn’t want the same things Steve did. He was only being kind. Doing for Steve what he’d done for himself and other men during the war. Giving him permission to take care of things - to take matters into his own hands, quite literally.

But he was there, and that was something. Close enough to touch. Close enough to kiss. Close enough that Steve could bury his face in Bucky’s hair and breathe him in for hours.

He wouldn’t, but knowing he could sent another rush of pleasure southwards and he groaned, hips jerking against his fist, pressure building low in his gut. His legs shook, and his toes curled, though he tried to stave off the inevitable. Wanted to prolong the moment in case he never had another so astonishing.

Bucky was no quieter than Steve, though the noises he made weren’t so needy and frantic. His strokes were more measured, the slow rhythm a contract to Steve’s speedy work. But from what he could hear, Bucky was enjoying himself just fine - breath coming sharp, the slick sounds of a hand on his prick barely audible over the storm.

When Steve finished, it was with a grunt and a strangled yelp, the warmth of his spunk coating his hand and his drawers in a few quick spurts as he began to soften.

It took him a moment to recover, and when he opened his eyes, he was startled to find Bucky looking directly at him, a faint half-smile on his face.

“Bucky…” he managed.

“Shh.” Bucky silenced him, the movement of his arm quickening. “Not...don’t...just stay there, Steve.”

Taken aback, Steve froze, unsure of what to do while Bucky continued to watch him, eyes taking in every detail of his face. He was just about to ask why when Bucky shut said eyes tight, his whole body shuddering as he jerked forward.

“Oh!” Steve couldn’t help the reaction when he felt an unfamiliar hardness brush against the fabric of his drawers and realized it was likely Bucky’s cock.

Groaning, Bucky’s turned his face against the pillow, body going slack as he caught his breath, apparently finished as well. He kept his face pressed to the fabric for what felt like an age, and when he looked up, he fixed Steve with a sheepish, hangdog sort of expression. It made him look young; Steve could see the boy hidden there, behind the roughness of his exterior. He wanted desperately to kiss him but resisted the urge.

“Better?” Bucky tossed the question out after a moment’s silence, as though they’d merely finished a round of cards.

“Uh huh.” He was, in a manner of speaking. His problem was gone, and for the immediate future, that was an excellent thing. However, the disappearance of that problem brought with it fifty new ones. Concerning ones. Unanswerable ones.

Bucky looked him over, though without the intensity of earlier. His face broke out in a grin, and he lifted his unsullied hand to push through his tangled, windblown hair. “You want to clean up? I can heat up some water.”

“No,” Steve said, though the response was borne of instinct more than anything else. “Too cold. Stay here.”

“Huh.” Bucky’s grin widened, and he shifted his weight, burrowing further under the quilts, which had gotten a bit disheveled thanks to their efforts. “Alright. Just thought...well, hell. You’re the one always fussing about keeping things clean.”

Steve flushed, dropping his gaze. If Bucky knew how often he’d woken sticky and itchy, his spend dried on his stomach, he’d have been ashamed. Cleanliness was relative. “It’s cold,” he repeated. “I don’t mind. Just this once.”

“Sure,” Bucky agreed, yawning wide enough that Steve swore he could see halfway down to his stomach, before fixing him with a stare and a shrug. “Just this once.”

God, there was no end to the ways Bucky could look at him - as though Steve were worthy of being looked at. He couldn’t stand it, so he broke the silence with inanity, being too overwhelmed for substance.

“Did you really do that during the war?”

Bucky gave another shrug, his hand moving under the covers. Doing what, Steve wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t about to investigate. “Something like that,” he said. “Mostly we were trying to keep warm.”

Steve bit his lip, taking a second to wipe his messy hand on his flannels before resting it on his stomach, the touch a comfort. “They didn’t mind?”

Bucky’s face dipped into a frown as he rolled onto his back, eyes fixed on the ceiling. “Some minded, Steve. Some didn’t. I figured you wouldn’t.”

“I didn’t,” he said. Bucky sounded annoyed, which hadn’t been his intention. “It’s...you said it. A man’s got needs.”

Nodding, Bucky yawned once more before closing his eyes. “Sure. Needs. Point of fact, right now, I need a nap.”

It was a terrible way of ending the conversation, but it wasn’t as though Steve had been saying much of worth. Anyhow, he was tired as well, which was funny considering that the entirety of his morning’s exertions had taken place in bed. Terror and confusion would do that to a body, he supposed, as he rolled over and closed his eyes.

With the storm, it was hard to know how much time had passed when he next woke. He was facing the wall, and there was something heavy resting on him - oh, hell - Bucky had moved in his sleep. Had curled up behind Steve, body molded against his with one big hand resting on Steve’s hip. Bucky was warm - he was so warm. Steve could get used to that warmth, and he hated that he had to give it up, but Bucky would surely be angry when he woke to find them that way, sleeping so tangled together.

Slowly, Steve attempted to remove himself from the embrace. Reached down to nudge Bucky’s hand away, doing his level best not to wake him.

“Knockitoff,” came Bucky’s sleep-slurred voice.

Steve stiffened, the warmth of Bucky’s breath ruffling his hair. The hand on his hip tightened. Bucky was dreaming, probably. Imagining Steve as someone else. Natasha, perhaps, or if not Natasha then another girl he’d loved. Surely there had been others.

“M’sorry,” he whispered, though for what he wasn’t sure. For thinking. For wanting. For being who and what he was.

Bucky grunted and pulled Steve closer, muttering something about a “goddamn mule” as he drifted back to sleep.

There was no chance of Steve managing the same feat - not with Bucky so close. Indulging was easier. Imagining that he could feel the line of Bucky’s prick against his backside. Willing into existence something that wasn’t there, or even if it was there, it wasn’t his to want so badly. Bucky was asleep and unaware of what his body was doing. When he woke up properly, he’d pull away. Come to his senses.

But for the moment, Bucky couldn’t stop Steve’s thoughts. The things he pretended in his mind. The dreams he dreamt that allowed him to imagine a world in which Bucky might want him for his own.

Chapter Text

The storm blew itself out that same day, late in the afternoon once Steve and Bucky had woken, awkwardly, from their nap. The roaring winds dipped, then dulled, then quieted entirely, leaving behind a world that glittered under the light of the moon when they went to tend to the animals that night.

Steve slept in Bucky’s bed again, as the temperature hadn’t risen, though sleeping was all that transpired. His brief respite from morning chores had gone out with the storm, and Bucky roused him at their usual time the next morning so they could begin the work of the day.

According to Bucky, they hadn’t yet put away enough food for winter, and he wanted to spend time preserving the last of the squash from the garden. Being as the root cellar was full to bursting, Steve didn’t quite believe him and said as much.

Bucky fixed him with a hard look, which did nothing to improve Steve’s mood. Things had been off between them since they’d woken the afternoon before - too formal by half, and twice as stiff. “Tell me that again in March when you’re starving,” he said. “Train won’t be coming through, and I don’t fancy getting caught by surprise in a storm while I’m driving to town to fetch you candy from Peggy Carter.”

Steve thought that was awfully mean, glaring at Bucky and folding his arms across his chest. “All I’m saying,” he replied, careful to keep his tone even. “Is that there’s no more room.”

Disinclined to partake in the argument, Bucky marched over to get the cookstove lit, pointedly ignoring Steve as they worked together.

Until, of course, there was the opportunity to correct him - Bucky never missed that sort of chance. “You’re doing that wrong.” Quick as he pleased, he was behind Steve, guiding his hands just as sure as he’d done with the rifle. “If you leave air in the crock, it’ll spoil.”

As if Steve didn’t know. As if he hadn’t done it before. He scowled, squirming away from Bucky’s casual, frustrating touch. “Quit it,” he said. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Suit yourself,” Bucky said, going back to stirring the pot. “If it spoils, you can eat it.”

Bucky was a very terrible person, in Steve’s estimation.

 


 

The weather took a turn late in the week, bringing with it a mild Saturday and a pleasant Sunday. The snow melted away, allowing Steve to sleep comfortably - and discreetly - on his own mattress. It wasn’t so bad, but he did miss the feathers.

On Sunday morning, Matthew and Becky turned up as usual. Steve was glad for the reprieve from Bucky’s queer company, and he nearly tripped over himself in his haste to reach their wagon. Becky smiled at him, though she had a peaky look about her - normally bright eyes dull, her complexion gone nearly white, and a fine sheen of sweat visible on her forehead. It was a marked change, and Steve felt a twinge of sympathy, remembering his illness of several months prior.

“We don’t have to go,” Steve offered as they turned onto the wagon trail. He quite liked the service, now that he was used to it, and he would be sad not to see his friends, but Becky wasn’t herself.

“Nonsense,” she replied. “The day I let a little...well. The day I let this keep me from church is the day I…” She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, the thought lost.

Steve sat just behind Peggy and Natasha during the service, Matthew to his right and Becky on the aisle. Halfway through, just as Brother Coulson began to lead them in another hymn, Steve saw her touch Matthew’s arm before standing. Matthew stood as well, ushering her out of the room. It was quite the scandal, judging from the way people began to whisper.

Unsure of what to do, Steve hesitated until Peggy turned around and fixed him with a look so pointed it might have poked him right in the eye.

“Right,” he muttered, scooting over, standing, and scurrying up the aisle.

He heard it before he saw it, the sounds of someone being sick unmistakable. Turning the corner, he found Becky doubled over, one hand cradling her midsection, her breakfast on the ground and Matthew’s hand on her shoulder.

“You’re alright now, honey,” he said. “Gosh, I wish this nonsense’d quit…”

Steve took a step back. This was private, yet unmistakably something with which he was familiar. He couldn’t be sure, but he had his suspicions.

Matthew must have heard him, looking over sharply, then breathing a sigh of relief when he saw it was only Steve.

“I’m sorry,” Steve began. “I only thought you might want to go, and I didn’t want to make you wait.”

Becky straightened up, wiping her mouth with her back to Steve before turning to face him. Her eyes - so much like Bucky’s that it startled him sometimes - bore into him with a pleading sort of intensity, as though there were a secret shared between them. “I must have eaten something that didn’t agree with me,” she said. “We’ll have to miss the end of the service.”

Steve shrugged. He didn’t really mind, even if it meant missing the chance to talk to Peggy and Natasha afterward. Matthew helped Becky into the wagon while Steve climbed into the back and took up his perch. They made haste, reaching the turnoff to Bucky’s farm in good time. Steve insisted he could walk from there.

“I hope you feel better,” he said, hopping down.

“Thank you,” Becky replied. “I think...it’s only, well. Please don’t worry Bucky.”

Steve stepped closer to the wagon seat, looking up at her and shielding his eyes from the sun. “I won’t.”

“If we don’t come again,” Matthew said, clearing his throat. “It’s out of concern for the weather. Nothing worse than getting caught out when a storm blows up - happened last year to another homesteader and they didn’t find his body until the thaw.”

The briefest flash of what a petrified, frozen corpse might look like jumped into Steve’s mind, and he shuddered. “I understand,” he said. “But if you feel well enough, I know Bucky would like to see you both.”

“I’m well enough,” Becky said.

“It’s a concern for the weather. That’s all,” Matthew repeated.

They were funny, and Steve couldn’t help smiling as he watched them go. If there were no more mild days, he would miss them, but he felt sure they could take care of one another well enough. He’d see them in the spring. Perhaps sooner, suspicions or no.

It didn’t take him long to reach the cabin, and he pushed open the door without thinking much of it, heedless of the fact that he had returned over an hour earlier than he might have otherwise.

Turned out, Bucky did plenty on Sundays when Steve was at church. Steve wasn’t sure what he was doing, only that Bucky’s legs were bare and his hand was somewhere and Lord, Steve couldn’t tell. Didn’t want to know. It all happened fast, Steve yelping and turning his back to the scene.

“Get out,” snarled Bucky. Steve didn’t need to be told twice, high-tailing it towards the stable, ears burning and cheeks flaming hot. Winter and Bright were out to pasture (what was left of it), which gave him ample opportunity to curl up in Bright’s empty stall, playing what had happened over and over again in his mind. He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d witnessed, precisely, only that it had been something Bucky hadn’t wanted him to see.

It took some time for Bucky to seek him out, striding into the barn fully clothed in a shirt with half its buttons undone alongside his plain brown work trousers and boots.

“Steve…” he began, leaning against the front post of Bright’s stall.

“What was that?”

“You were...I thought you were at church.”

That wasn’t much of an excuse. Neither was it an answer, in Steve’s esteemed opinion. “Becky got sick.”

Whatever Bucky might have been about to say was forgotten when he heard that, a frown marring his features. “What’s wrong with her?”

Remembering his promise, Steve shrugged. “Ate something rotten, I guess. Matthew took her home.”

Bucky nodded, though he didn’t look entirely placated. “Well, that’s fine, then. But if you come back early again, you knock.”

Something small and ugly twisted in Steve’s belly - the part of him that could never leave well enough alone. “Why should I? It’s my house, too.”

“Because you work for me,” Bucky snapped, which was the first time he’d ever reminded Steve of his status. Steve found he didn’t care for it. “So if I ask you to knock, you knock.”

Steve frowned and got to his feet, making himself as tall as he was able, which was taller than he’d been upon arriving, but still much shorter than Bucky. “So I gotta beg to come inside just ‘cause you’re the one paying my wages?”

“That’s not…”

“I think that’s lousy.” Angry now, he stalked towards Bucky, pointing a finger. “It’s mean, and it’s not fair, and if you’re gonna do whatever it was you were doing in there, well, that’s a sin, and I hope you know God can see you…”

Bucky caught him by the wrist, Steve’s finger pointing fruitlessly towards the heavens. He looked dangerous in a way Steve hadn’t seen before, and perhaps he ought to have been frightened, but instead he found himself thrilled by the touch. “You wanna watch how you end that sentence,” Bucky cautioned, voice pitched low.

There were any number of callous or cruel things Steve could have said at that moment. Instead, he swung his free arm up without thinking and clocked Bucky right in the head. Or, rather, it was supposed to be his head, but in point of fact he ended up smacking him right on the ear, the punch gone wild and wide.

Bucky cried out and released him before covering his wounded ear with his hand. “God damn it, Steve,” he shouted, and for a moment Steve wondered if Bucky was going to hit him back.

He didn’t, of course. Part of Steve knew he never would. No, Bucky didn’t hit. Just turned and walked out of the stable, shoulders hunched and head bowed.

Steve wouldn’t feel bad about it - Bucky had grabbed him first, even if he had been pointing.

All the same, he took his time, puttering about the stable and the yard for nearly an hour before making his way back to the house.

Bucky didn’t say a word to him the entire afternoon, choosing to sulk and ignore Steve entirely, which Steve thought was very juvenile of him. They ate solitary suppers, each fixing their own plate, and after they’d finished eating Bucky began shuffling and reshuffling his deck of cards until Steve decided he might rip them out of Bucky’s hands and throw them out the window.

He apologized instead. “Sorry I hit you,” he muttered, sitting down at the table across from Bucky.

Bucky didn’t look up. “Good. You ought to be.”

Steve rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. He hadn’t been expecting Bucky to express his own regrets, but some acknowledgment that they’d both been in the wrong might have been nice.

(Then again, if he was expecting an apology in return for his own, he might not actually be sorry.)

Silence descended once more, and when Steve couldn’t stand it any longer, he spoke up. “What were you doing, anyway?”

Bucky stiffened, setting the freshly shuffled cards down on the table. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Looked to me like a man had needs,” Steve said and regretted it immediately.

Bucky’s head dropped to his chest, and he closed his eyes, muttering something under his breath. There was power in the words Steve had spoken, and he had wielded it cruelly. Deliberately. He had used something vulnerable against Bucky, who had only ever been good to him. His mother would have been ashamed.

“Sorry,” he said, though he was growing weary of needing to apologize, and wished that he could be better. “I didn’t mean…”

“You did.” Bucky barked out a rough laugh. “It’s fine, Steve. You know what you saw.”

The thing of it was, though, that no, he didn’t, and it was eating him up inside. He didn’t know what precisely, but he thought he knew something and Bucky was going to kill him with confusion one of these days.

“I…” Frustrated, he pushed back from the table. “I don’t.”

As he stood, Bucky caught his wrist for the second time that day. Looked up at him, hesitant. “Steve,” he began, before shaking his head. “Ah, the hell with it.”

Steve had no time to think before Bucky surged up from the chair, pressing their lips together in a rough, unsure kiss that lasted no time at all before Steve pulled away, eyes wide.

“Shit,” Bucky stammered, as Steve raised a hand to his mouth. For all the times he’d imagined Bucky kissing him, it hadn’t been like that. “Damn, Steve, I’m sorry. I didn’t, ah, you know I don’t…”

“Be quiet, Bucky.” He needed a moment, only a moment. Needed to think. “Why’d you do that?”

Dumbfounded, Bucky shrugged. “Because...because I wanted to?”

Kissing to be cruel, to tease him or hurt him or make him feel lesser, that made sense. For Bucky to kiss him because he wanted to? That notion upended Steve’s world and made him sit down hard on the chair so recently vacated. “You did?”

Bucky smiled a raw, wounded smile that drew Steve in close and made him ache inside. “Of course I did. You gonna punch me in the ear again?”

“No! Why would I do that?”

“Hell, you did it before, and I hadn’t kissed you then.”

“Well…” Steve frowned “I’m not...I’m not gonna punch you for that. It’s only…” Looking down, he studied his hands. “It’s only nobody ever kissed me before.”

Bucky appeared genuinely surprised when Steve glanced at his face. Who, precisely, Bucky thought he would have been kissing was one of life’s great mysteries.

“Never? Not even…?”

“Never.” Steve cut him off.  “So I guess I’m not gonna punch you in the ear for being my first.” He hesitated, then, because there were always choices in life - for good or for ill - and it felt like such a moment was upon him. So, he chose. “But I only, well, it’s only that I didn’t get much chance to see if I liked it.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Oh no?”

Lord, Bucky was a dangerous thing, but it was only kissing. What was the harm? It seemed the reasonable option, so long as he didn’t think about God or his mother or the plain fact that he wanted Bucky more than he had wanted anything before in his life.

Bucky held out his hand like it was an offer. Steve made another choice in reaching out to take it.

They didn’t speak. Bucky pulled Steve up and out of the chair, closing the gap between them as their mouths met once more. Steve wasn’t any better prepared, his mind splintering in a million different directions. Bucky’s lips were chapped, and his beard was rough on Steve’s skin, which was something he hadn’t considered before - the way a beard might feel.

Steve’s hands sat stiffly at his sides, fisting the material of his trousers. Was he supposed to be doing something with them? Seemed to him people kissing were always doing something with their hands.

For that matter, how did one kiss back, precisely?

Bucky tilted his head, and Steve did the same. The instinct that had driven him to do so must have been right, as Bucky’s lips parted slightly, their mouths slotting together in a way that felt nice - warm and comforting and just like how he imagined kissing ought to be.

Still had no idea what to do with his hands, though.

He was working through that conundrum when Bucky’s tongue swiped against his bottom lip, and he jumped back in surprise.

“What was that?”

Bucky began to laugh. Steve went right back to wanting to knock the smirk off his face.

“Kissing.”

“I know it was kissing. What were you doing with your tongue?”

“Still kissing.”

Steve opened his mouth to tell Bucky what he thought of his kissing when Bucky leaned in and shut him up with another. At least, on the occasion of their third kiss, Bucky had the good sense and decency to keep his tongue away from Steve’s lips.

“You talk too much,” Bucky said, once the kiss was broken. “Think too much.”

“I don’t…”

“You’re doing it right now,” Bucky broke in. “Don’t think about it. Come lie down with me, and I’ll show you how to kiss proper. You’ll need it one of these days.”

Steve didn’t understand what that meant and was about to ask when Bucky continued, proving himself a hypocrite for accusing Steve of talking too much.

“It’s gonna be cold tonight, anyhow. Might as well bed down with me, regardless of if we’re kissing.”

“I’m not dressed for bed,” Steve said, rather stupidly.

Bucky’s mouth twitched, and he raised an eyebrow. “I suppose I can manage the dishes if you’d like to perform your nightly ablutions.”

“Aw, shut up, Bucky.”

Steve went anyway. Undressed behind the partition and put on his flannels. Everything felt strange, as though he was living in a dream. Bucky had kissed him, and Steve had let him. Had kissed him back. Had liked it.

Bucky had kissed him first, even though Steve had been rude to him. Hit him. Been sullen and disagreeable all day. Yet Bucky still wanted to kiss him. It really was a dream, though it was hard to say whether it was a good one or a nightmare.

Depended on the ending, he supposed.

He took his time getting dressed, pointedly ignoring the rosary hidden under his pillow, letting his nerves and his worries abate before coming around the other side of the curtain. Bucky was already in bed, flat on his back with his eyes on the partition as though he’d been waiting. Which, Steve supposed he had.

“Thought maybe you froze back there,” Bucky teased.

“No, I...I was only thinking.”

“Told you not to,” Bucky said, holding out a hand.

It was easy, Steve was finding, to say yes to Bucky. To forget immortal concerns and focus solely on his worldly desires.

Taking Bucky’s hand, Steve allowed Bucky to pull him under the quilts, though he shied away when Bucky touched his cheek.

“It’s alright,” Bucky murmured. “I can show you.”

Steve didn’t trust himself to speak, so he nodded. Bucky took advantage of the invitation, brushing his lips against Steve’s lightly at first, then with a bit more insistence.

Lord, but it was different, kissing Bucky in bed. Kissing him in the dark. It sent an odd feeling right to the center of him as he returned the kiss, best he could. This time, when Bucky tentatively pressed his tongue against Steve’s closed mouth, he was better prepared, parting his lips to see what might happen.

Turned out, he liked the result, although he found it strange to have Bucky’s tongue in his mouth, against his teeth, exploring and tasting and what was he supposed to be doing with his own tongue? Was he supposed to push back?

Feeling very brave, he tried it, only to be met with a short moan from Bucky. Steve froze, unsure of whether he’d done something very good or very bad.

Bucky pulled away enough that Steve could see him smiling. Very good, then.

“God, you’re wound tight,” Bucky said, bringing his hand up to stroke Steve’s cheek once more.

“I’m sorry,” he said, for what felt like the hundredth time that day.

“You don’t…” Bucky leaned in close, pressing a kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth. “You ought to know this stuff, and I like teaching you.”

“You like it?” Steve blurted it out, hung up on the phrasing.

Bucky laughed, the sound filling the cabin as he brought his forehead to rest on Steve’s shoulder. “Hell, Steve, you notice me making a habit of doing things I don’t like?”

“You don’t like taking baths, but you do it anyway. Sometimes.”

That brought Bucky up short. “What the Sam Hill you talking about, I don’t like taking baths?”

“You don’t! You complain about it every…”

He was cut off when Bucky’s fingers dug into his sides, vicious and focused on their goal of making Steve squirm. He let out a yelp that was pitched too high to be dignified, attempting to fight off the offending hands.

Bucky stopped tickling him when Steve nearly fell out of the bed. He caught him around the middle and hauled him back into the center of the mattress before looking down with a half-smile on his face. “I like taking baths fine, but I don’t like the cold water. As for teaching you…” he shook his head. “I’m getting something out of it, believe you me. So if you could stop worrying for two damn seconds…”

“I didn’t mean…”

“Shit, Steve.” Bucky shook his head. “Just let me kiss you?”

That was fine. Steve was tired of talking.

Funny thing about learning how to kiss was that it involved a lot of work, even if Bucky was the one expending most of the effort. There were all sorts of places a body could be kissed, Steve discovered. Bucky spent a considerable amount of time on his neck, sucking on Steve’s skin until he practically shot off the bed. Fortunately, Bucky was there to place a firm hand on his stomach and force him back down, pinning him to the mattress whilst he bit down on one particularly troublesome spot. Steve was mewling by the time he was through, prick hard against his flannels.

“Please…” he gasped, when Bucky pulled away with a wonderful, proud grin on his face, hand still resting on Steve’s midsection, only inches away from the head of his cock.

“Please what?” Bucky asked, the picture of innocence.

Steve blinked, sure he’d soon catch on fire with how warm he was. “Feels so nice, Bucky. Please?”

“You keep saying that.” Bucky sounded casual as he liked, though his hand was drifting ever further southwards and Steve couldn’t think about it, wouldn’t think about it, driven by the pure, filthy instinct that had served him well thus far. “Kinda seems like you want something real specific, but if you can’t ask politely…”

“Ungh,” Steve articulated thoughtfully when the side of Bucky’s hand brushed right up against the hard line of his shaft, albeit over his clothing. “Oh, there, please…”

“What’s that?” Bucky lifted his hand and Steve gave a whine so loud Becky and Matthew were likely to hear it all those miles away. “Speak up, Steve.”

“P-please, Bucky,” he stammered, lifting his hips. “Touch me?”

“Such nice manners on you.”

Steve began to think of a smart retort - he’d swear he nearly had one when Bucky’s hand started undoing the buttons of his fly. Slipped into his flannels and wrapped around his prick and oh, it was magnificent. A thousand times better than touching himself could ever hope to be. Bucky’s hand was rough and calloused, big and warm and moving. Yes, oh, moving. Too much, too fast, the sensation of having someone else stroking him - having Bucky stroking him - brought him painfully close to completion far too quickly.

Begging, then, Steve bucked his hips. “Please, faster…”

Bucky obliged, picking up the pace as he lay his head near Steve’s on the pillow, leaning in and pressing such a kind kiss to his cheek that Steve felt he might burst into tears.

“It’s alright,” Bucky coaxed, as if he knew, twisting his wrist in a way that made Steve’s eyes flutter shut, his toes curling into the feather tick. “It’s alright, Steve. Come on.”

Steve came with a shout, the warmth of his spend puddled on his belly. Bucky continued to stroke him until Steve couldn’t stand the touch. He whimpered, pushing Bucky’s hand away before curling on his side, a shiver running down his spine.

“Hey, now,” Bucky said, his voice low as he curled up behind Steve, wrapping one big arm around him and holding him fast. “Don’t go away.”

Steve’s heart, already beating nearly out of his chest, sped up once more. Bucky was being kind - careful and gentle the way one might be with a proper sweetheart. As if he were Bucky’s own. He wanted to be - wished for it and hoped for it, there in the dark, where what had once felt like an insurmountable climb now felt as though he was close to the summit. Damn the consequences.

“M’right here,” he muttered.

Bucky kissed the nape of his neck in another gesture that felt nothing like a lesson. “I know you are.”

Steve felt it, then, when Bucky moved. Shifting his weight and pulling Steve closer. The unmistakable stiffness trapped between them.

It seemed he ought to offer - the polite thing to do, though he had no idea how. “I...Bucky, are you…?”

“Mmm,” Bucky agreed, rolling his hips once so Steve knew and understood.

Steve tensed at the sensation. He knew what happened between some men. There were rumors - boys who did things, saw things, priests with certain proclivities. Steve wasn’t oblivious, nor was he stupid, but he had never been in a position where it might happen to him. He didn’t want it. Or, he didn’t think he wanted it, but perhaps Bucky did, and Bucky had been so sweet to him. Was he supposed to let Bucky have what he wanted?

Screwing his eyes shut, Steve bit his lip hard when Bucky began to rock his hips, rubbing himself against Steve’s clothed backside. It wasn’t so bad - nice, even, having Bucky close. However, after a few minutes of those gentle movements, Bucky wormed a hand between their bodies, beginning to push and prod at the fabric of Steve’s flannels.

Steve squirmed, half-sitting up at an angle where Bucky couldn’t reach him. “No,” he said, his tone pleading.

Bucky, who had been caught in the middle of taking his own drawers down, looked surprised. “No…?”

“I know what you’re doing,” he said, wishing he sounded surer of himself. “But I don’t want that, Bucky. I don’t want it in me, I really don’t.”

Bucky blinked in confusion before beginning to laugh. “Steve,” he managed. “God, I wasn’t going to…” He shook his head, laughter fading and leaving a funny, hangdog sort of expression on his face. “I only wanted to feel your skin on mine. Warm us both up.”

Steve hesitated. “I...how?”

Bucky smiled, tugging him back down and pressing their bodies together again. “Just like this, if you’d stop fussing about it.”

Slicking his palm with spit, Bucky moved his hand beneath the quilts. There was a moment’s pause before Steve felt it - the press of Bucky’s shaft right up against the cleft of his bare backside, moving against him with more intensity than there had been before.

The sensation was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, only wet. Steve was more interested in Bucky’s noises - the way his breath ghosted across Steve’s shoulder, the way his hand felt, heavy against Steve’s stomach, the weight of it keeping him flush against Bucky’s body while Bucky’s hips picked up their momentum.

He liked the way Bucky groaned. The kisses he kept finding places for on the skin of Steve’s neck. The grunts of exertion and pleasure, Bucky panting as he lost his steady rhythm towards the end, jerking against Steve erratically several times until suddenly there was something warm and wet pooling on Steve’s lower back.

Bucky hugged him fiercely, then; Steve hadn’t thought it possible to be held so tightly, but Bucky proved him wrong.

“Steve,” he managed. “Steve…”

Steve didn’t answer. Couldn’t find the words. For his part, Bucky showed no inclination towards letting him go, pulling the quilts up tightly around them both, arm still firmly wrapped about Steve’s waist.

Bucky was asleep within minutes, barely mustering the energy to murmur a goodnight. Perhaps it was better they hadn’t talked about it; Steve wasn’t sure what he would say. He supposed they’d both regret falling asleep that way, considering the mess, but the fog that settled over his brain didn’t much care for worrying about the morning.

He resolutely chose to ignore the voice in his head that said he’d have more than sticky sheets to worry about when he woke. The voice that warned him he’d chosen wrong, given himself too quickly to sin and that there was positively no delivering him from this particular temptation.

In the end, he dropped off not long after Bucky, too exhausted by possibility to keep himself awake.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Steve woke to find Bucky’s hand on his hip, as well as Bucky’s mouth pressed against the back of his neck. It sent a funny shiver down his spine - a cold feeling which settled in the pit of his stomach and made him uneasy.

He coughed. Shifted a bit so Bucky would know he was awake. Bucky grunted and pulled back with a final kiss. Steve wasn’t sure what to think about that, though it did feel nice.

Less nice when Bucky pushed the covers away, exposing them both to the frigid morning air. The fire had died down in the night, and it was cold.

“Bucky!” He grabbed for the quilt, still half-asleep.

“Chores.” Bucky took the opportunity to swat him on the flank before clambering right over him to get out of bed. Rude.

The morning routine didn’t change, no matter how much they’d been kissing the night before. Stalls needed to be mucked, water needed to be drawn, and breakfast needed to be cooked. Snow had fallen overnight, and though it was no more than an inch, it was a marked change from the fair day before.

Bucky whistled to himself as Steve got the horses taken care of. He was uncommonly cheery, and Steve found himself growing more and more contrary the happier Bucky seemed. His thoughts kept drifting back to the night before - what they’d done, what he’d said, what he’d let Bucky do. It was enough to make a body sick, too warm by half, though the wind blew bitterly while they worked.

Once they were back inside, Bucky went to stoke the fire and Steve followed, holding his hands up to the warmth, fingers numb despite the gloves he’d been wearing.

“Why don’t you make yourself useful and cook something?” Bucky said after a minute of silence. “That’ll warm you up.”

“I would,” Steve snapped. “But I’ll need to feel my hands if I’m going to light the cookstove.”

Bucky cocked an eyebrow before reaching over and taking Steve’s hands in his own, rubbing them vigorously with a grin on his face. Steve looked away. Bucky stopped rubbing.

“There,” Bucky said, voice unsure. “That’s...you can make breakfast now.”

The pins and needles pricking his fingers told him Bucky had gotten the job done, though Steve felt sure the fire would have managed to do the same without the help. Frowning, he went to light a spill, bringing it to the stove and using it get things going.

“I’ll...bring in more wood,” Bucky said. Steve didn’t look at him. Didn’t want to see his awkward, hopeful face, or the way he’d rub the back of his neck.

Bucky shut the door behind him, and he was gone for a while. Longer than he needed to be if he was only gathering wood. Steve wasn’t thinking about it, focusing on the breakfast instead. He was nearly finished cooking by the time Bucky returned, bringing the cold air in with him and dumping the logs he was holding onto the woodpile.

Steve shivered. “Shut the door. Food’ll get cold.”

Chancing a glance, he found Bucky smiling. When their eyes met, Bucky gave him a salute. “Yes, sir,” he said, before shutting and latching the door.

Steve bit back a smile as he served up the eggs while Bucky unlaced his boots and knocked them off.

“What took you so long?” Steve asked as they sat.

“Does it matter?”

“Suppose not.”

They began to eat, and Steve could no longer ignore the persistent itch under his skin. Not a real itch - not like a rash - but a sort of buzzing, anxious feeling that wouldn’t go away no matter how much he fought it. Didn’t help that Bucky kept looking at him with the sort of piercing intensity that had Steve twitchy and nervous. Bucky was hard to read on the best of days, but on a day like this, after the night they’d had? It was too much. He wondered if Bucky thought less of him.

He certainly thought less of himself.

Then there was the question of what Bucky wanted and why. Steve was sure he’d been imagining someone else when they were pressed so tight together. Someone small, perhaps, but pretty and graceful. Female, because that was the way of things. Steve was undoubtedly no more than a distraction. A way to pass the time, just as Bucky had said. No more than a body to warm his bed in bachelorhood, the same as he’d had necessary distractions during the war.

Bucky wasn’t like Steve. Bucky was a decent man and Steve...Steve…

“Y’alright?” Bucky broke into his thoughts and Steve jumped. His brain was muddled, and he couldn’t find the words to say what he needed to say. Anyhow, all his half-formed thoughts were lost when Bucky reached across the table to take his hand.

Steve jerked away as though he’d been burned. Bucky’s face fell.

“Sorry,” Steve managed. “Sorry. I’m...I uh. I don’t feel…I’m gonna take a walk.”

Nearly knocking his chair over in his haste, Steve headed straight for the partition, grabbing his boots and - with considerable guilt - his mother’s rosary. The cabin was stifling, suddenly, and he couldn’t stop sweating.

Bucky didn’t say a word as he pulled on his boots. Didn’t try and stop him when he left.

It was colder than it had been when they’d been out earlier, he would swear on it. No matter. He headed in the direction of the creek, ruminating on the thoughts in his head. What was he, precisely? Why? Oh, his father would be so disappointed. His mother would weep, he knew, when she realized he’d gone straight to hell, bypassing purgatory and any chance of redemption because he was damned by his desires.

There were tears on his face by the time he reached the banks of the creek, although he didn’t think he deserved to feel sorry for himself. He was a fool, and a sinner, and he’d never felt smaller.

He sat against the big tree Bucky tended to nap beneath, taking out the rosary and holding it between frozen fingers. Another mistake - he’d forgotten his gloves. Too late to worry about it, though. He couldn’t go back. Not yet.

The words didn’t come when he tried to pray, though he gripped the rosary tight, teeth chattering and nose running, huddled against the wind. He closed his eyes. Pressed the heels of his hands against his sockets, digging in until stars burst in the darkness. He wasn’t going to cry again, no matter how much he wanted to.

So there he sat for ages, shivering and lost in his thoughts, arms wrapped around his legs and face buried against his knees. He was feeling so sorry for himself, in fact, that he didn’t notice his visitor until there came the press of a cold, wet nose to his ear. Steve jumped, lifting his head to find Sarge, standing there with a dumb, doggy grin on his face.

“Oh,” Steve said. Sarge sat down on his haunches and let out a whine. “Where’d you come from?”

The answer ought to have been obvious, though it still came as a surprise to Steve when Bucky appeared over the top of the small rise that led to the creek.

Bucky looked angry. Or, rather, not angry, but worried, though his expression softened when he saw Steve and Sarge sitting together.

He had Steve’s hat and gloves in his hands.

“Next time,” Bucky began once he’d reached them, tossing the clothing down on the ground. “Next time you want to take a walk, you take your goddamn gloves.”

Steve might have said thank you because he was grateful. Instead, he picked up the gloves and stared at the dirt, determined not to meet Bucky’s eyes. “Don’t swear,” he replied.

Bucky snorted. Sarge stretched out on the ground, big head moving back and forth as he watched their conversation. “I’ll swear when it’s warranted,” he said. “And you warrant it all the damn time.”

So much for not looking up. Steve glared, shielding his eyes from the sun. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Means…” Bucky huffed, shrugging and sticking his hands in his pockets. “Means I can’t figure you out. Last night you were sweet as sugar and this morning butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth.”

Steve’s temper flared, and he pushed himself to his feet solely to put them on equal footing. “Because, it’s not...last night…” he shrugged, kicking at the hardpacked dirt. “I’m not your wife.”

Bucky gaped. Steve had rendered him speechless, and it took him a moment to recover, color high on his cheeks and eyes bright. When he spoke again, he was nearly shouting. “What the hell are you talking about, my wife?”

“All the...the hugging and the handholding,” Steve scowled, his voice rising in volume as well. “You were supposed to be teaching me to kiss, not…”

“If you don’t like it,” Bucky snapped. “You should have damn well said something, you goosecap.”

“I did like it!”

“Then what are we yelling about?” Bucky yelled.

“I…” Steve froze. He’d forgotten his point, only that there seemed to be some difference between kissing lessons and handholding, was all. “What we did, it’s...it’s a sin.”

Bucky’s shoulders slumped, and he gave a long-suffering sort of sigh. “Steve,” he began. “You know I don’t believe in that nonsense.”

Steve looked down at his hands, the left still holding the rosary tight. “I do.”

“I know you do.” Bucky took a step forward, though he didn’t touch, which was somehow worse than if he had. “You wanna believe that there’s a God who’d make it feel nice, make you enjoy it, then punish you for that, well, that’s your business. But damn it…”

Bucky swallowed, clearing his throat before continuing. “I’m not forcing you to do anything, Steve. I like showing you things, however you’re gonna end up...whoever you end up...that is to say, I know you’re not…” he made a helpless gesture. “I know this isn’t it for you. But if...for now, if you want. Well. I…” He shook his head. Muttered something indecipherable and turned on his heel, whistling for Sarge.  

Steve knew, suddenly and clearly as he’d ever known anything in his life, that if he let Bucky go now, he’d lose something he might never get back. Hardly thinking, he stepped forward and grabbed his hand, pulling Bucky back around and leaning up to kiss him, awkward and clumsy, noses bumping together and foreheads knocking.

“I don’t know what,” Steve said upon breaking the kiss, feeling as though he might cry all over again. “I don’t. But I can’t stop thinking about what we did. Don’t know that I want to.”

Bucky smiled a shy sort of smile before bringing his gloved hand up to stroke Steve’s cheek. “Don’t, then,” he said. “No use worrying about what may be in the future, so you might as well come home with me now.”

Steve nodded and leaned into the touch. Bucky had a way of making things sound simple.

 


 

They were cautious around one another for the rest of the day. Bucky put some distance between them, insisting he had work to do in one of the far fields. Steve was sure that wasn’t true, considering the season, but he appreciated the lie. It gave him time to think things over without panic. To make peace as best he could with the plain fact that he had kissed Bucky of his own volition, despite his misgivings. That he was choosing the wickeder path once more.

Bucky came back for supper before going out again. That time, though, he was gone less than half an hour, and when he came in, he was dragging the washtub with him.

“What in the world?” Steve asked. Bucky had filled half the tub with snow, which made him being able to drag it inside all the more impressive.

“Takin’ a bath,” Bucky grunted, mouth curling up into a smirk as he got the tub right in front of the fireplace.

“Now?”

“Yes,” he said. “Already fed the animals and bedded ‘em down. Gotta heat the water first.”

Heating the water was easier to say than to do. The process involved filling the kettle with snow, hanging it above the fire, then pouring the boiling water back into the tub. By the time a new kettleful was heated, the water from the previous one had gone lukewarm, as Steve knew from experience. Bucky avoided the chore at all costs, yet at that moment he seemed bound and determined to see it through, fetching the kettle down and beginning to pack it with snow from the tub, picking out twigs as he did so.

“Why, precisely, are you taking a bath?” Steve had to ask, considering.

“Because you complained about it,” Bucky said, as though it were that simple.

Steve didn’t bother to hide his smile as Bucky hung the kettle. Truth be told, he didn’t mind Bucky being rough and unkempt. He’d only insulted him in the interest of being contrary. But, if Bucky wanted to take a bath for his sake? He wasn’t about to complain.

Bucky began whistling, same as he’d had that morning, while the kettle did its work. Steve sat down to watch. Bucky was efficient, if nothing else, working quickly enough that there was a bit of steam rising off the surface by the time he was finished filling the tub.

“Should I uh…” Steve gestured towards the partition when Bucky began unbuttoning his shirt. Usually, when Steve bathed, Bucky would go outside, and vice versa. It hadn’t been a problem, but everything felt different now.

“What?” Bucky teased. “You never saw me in the altogether before?”

“Well, I…” Steve blushed. Bucky winked.

“I don’t mind,” he said, before continuing to undress.

There he was, then, all lean muscle and scar tissue, the burns on his left arm and scars on his chest standing in stark contrast to the rest of him. Steve drank him in, the same way he had that first day by the creek - eyes lingering on his chest, his stomach, the trail of hair that led down to his cock, hanging soft between his legs. Only this time, Bucky knew he was watching.

Steve licked his lips. Bucky laughed, which set Steve’s ears burning.

“Why don’t you get me a washcloth?” Bucky asked, eyes crinkling up at the corners.

Steve did that while Bucky got into the tub. He was nearly too big for it, all folded up, knees poking out from the water. The tub was as basic as it got - nothing like the fancy ones Steve had seen in some of the houses he’d been to when his mother was employed in cleaning them.

“Here,” he said, thrusting the washcloth out.

Bucky took it, smiling and jerking his head towards Steve’s chair at the table. “Sit and talk to me?”

Steve nodded, going to pull the chair as close to the tub as he dared. Once he was settled, he kept his eyes on Bucky’s face, rather than anywhere else, while Bucky began scrubbing himself clean.

“I do like baths, you know,” he said after a minute. “Despite your protestations to the contrary.”

“Coulda fooled me.”

“Be that as it may,” Bucky continued, having the audacity to splash Steve, who squawked in protest. “I didn’t see the point in takin’ them all that often, being here alone. Nobody to impress.” The implication was clear, and Steve squirmed.

“You don’t gotta impress me.”

Bucky studied him, water beading on his skin. “Maybe I don’t have to,” he agreed.

A curl of warmth settled in Steve’s chest. The thought that Bucky wanted to impress him when he’d spent all those months worrying about impressing Bucky? It was enough to set a fella smiling. Give him ideas.

One of those ideas wasn’t half bad, and Steve scooted his chair closer, biting his lip. “Lean up, I’ll wash your back.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow, though he didn’t argue. Just handed the washcloth to Steve and leaned forward. Steve did the same, lifting the cloth to wash Bucky’s broad, muscled shoulders. When he reached his scars, he lingered over the pink, puckered skin. Bucky shivered, closing his eyes and turning his head to rest his cheek on his knees.

“Does it hurt?” Steve asked.

“No.” Bucky sighed, still as a statue. “Not anymore.”

“What happened?” The asking of it felt strange, as though he might learn too much. Something so private Bucky kept it buried impossibly deep.

“War.”

Nothing more was forthcoming, and Steve fell quiet, continuing to minister to Bucky’s needs. The silence hung heavy between them, and after a moment he dropped from the chair to his knees, moving as close as he dared and pressing a kiss to the damp, scarred skin. The gesture made Bucky jump, then laugh, glancing back at him.

“Looked like it needed a kiss,” Steve said, suddenly shy about it.

“You…” Bucky bit his lip, thinking things over before sitting back against the tub. “How is it you’re so shy about kissing, but you know about...whether or not I might, uh, how’d you say it? Put it in you?”

Steve flushed from the top of his head to the tips of his toes and nearly dropped the washcloth. “I. When. I knew. There were boys. And I knew. I saw.”

Bucky caught his meaning. “You saw that?”

“No! Only...only heard about that. The buggery.”

“Huh.” Bucky got quiet again. “You saw something, though?”

Bucky was too smart by half. “Yes.”

“Gonna tell me what?”

Steve squirmed. Sat back on his heels and left the washcloth hanging on the side of the tub. “I saw,” he began. “There was this fella. And everyone...he was small like me, so sometimes I’d get teased. People’d say I was like him…”

“Like him?”

“You know…” Steve waved a hand. “Funny. I wasn’t, but. Well, I don’t know. I never believed it, anyhow. Didn’t hold with...with gossips. But then one night, my ma needed me to go out for her, late. And I was on my way back and passed an alleyway, and I heard…” shrugging, he dug his fingers into the meat of his thighs, feeling as though he was back there, in that alley, in the dark. Watching and ashamed of himself all over again. “I looked. He was...down on his knees, and there was another fella, and he was...he had his mouth on…”

Bucky cut him off. Reached out a wet hand to squeeze his shoulder. “I got the gist, Steve.”

Steve couldn’t meet Bucky’s eyes, afraid of what he might see there. The truth of it happened to be that he was like that man, and he did want to do that. With Bucky, specifically.

“You wanna try that on me,” Bucky said, as though he’d peered right inside Steve’s head. “I wouldn’t mind so much.”

Steve’s breath hitched in his throat as Bucky tightened his grip. “Bucky…”

“After all,” Bucky said, “I got all cleaned up. Seems a shame to waste a learning opportunity.”

“I…” Steve frowned and looked up, finding Bucky’s eyes fixed right on his own.

“Tell you what,” Bucky said, voice pitched low. “You go to bed and pray on it a while. Figure it out by the time I dry off.”

Steve ought to have yelled at him for being sacrilegious. For poking fun. But the dark flicker of want in his gut was stronger than any of that, so he scrambled to his feet and made haste to Bucky’s bed, kneeling there before he thought better of it. Stupid, doing what Bucky said in jest, as though he might actually pray. As though any saint would be listening.

He heard Bucky behind him, water sloshing as he got out of the tub. Steve tried not to think of what he’d look like, wet and naked. It was a terrible thing, how much he wanted Bucky when he knew he oughtn’t. Knew he was betraying every promise he’d ever made to his church and his God and forced himself not to care.

It was easy to break promises when Bucky sat down on the bed, hand reaching out to brush Steve’s hair from his eyes. Steve didn’t look, keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the mattress, though he assumed Bucky hadn’t bothered with clothing.

“Gonna show me what you saw?” Bucky’s tone was coaxing, fingers combing through his hair.

“I…” Steve lifted his head to look at him, sitting there clean and beautiful and ready for Steve to devour, if he wished it to be so. God help him, he did. “Yes.”

“Alright,” Bucky said, as though it was easy. “Gimme a second.”

Steve waited as Bucky pulled one of the quilts around his bare shoulders, shielding him from the cold air of the room. After that, he dropped his pillow onto the floor. “Kneel on that,” he instructed. “Easier that way.”

Steve never thought to ask how Bucky knew that to be so as he knelt on the pillow, settling between Bucky’s thighs and looking up at his face. He couldn’t look down, not yet. Not knowing what was waiting there.

Bucky huffed out a laugh, pulling the quilt tighter around himself. “Well shit, Steve. I’m not sending out an engraved invitation. Figure it out.”

Finally glancing down, Steve bit his lip. “It’s not...doesn’t look real interested in the proceedings.”

“It’s cold in here,” Bucky protested. “Get your mouth on it and I doubt we’ll have a problem.”

The instruction was crude but effective - Steve did like a challenge. He bent his neck, considering how to begin before tentatively mouthing right over the tip of Bucky’s prick. It tasted like...well, like Bucky, mostly, if Bucky had a taste. Soap, too.

For his part, Bucky groaned, and his member gave a definite twitch of interest.

“That,” Bucky managed. “Keep doin’ that.”

Steve supposed he might have surmised that on his own, but he wasn’t about to blame Bucky for trying to teach him. Wasn’t that the point?

Turned out, it didn’t take much of an effort on his part to get Bucky interested. Kissing, licking, whatever he could think of to do until he felt bold enough to slip his whole mouth right over it, being as that was what he’d seen the man in the alley doing.

“Steve, please,” Bucky panted, though Steve wasn’t entirely sure what he was pleading for. Then again, having been in the same position the night before, he understood.

He found he liked making Bucky plead, sliding his mouth down further, the weight of Bucky’s cock heavy on his tongue. Once he was sure he could take no more, he made a game attempt to pretend he knew what he was doing, and began moving his head. Bucky let out a yelp, and Steve jumped back.

“What?!” He asked, looking up. He didn’t like that; didn’t like being forced to remember what he was doing. It was simpler to do it and not think too hard about the ramifications.

“Teeth,” Bucky said, a pained expression on his face. “You’re gonna chew my prick off if you’re not careful.”

Steve hadn’t considered his teeth, and he scowled at the implication. “They’re in my mouth, Bucky. Not sure what you expect me to do about them.”

Bucky snorted and rolled his eyes. “You gotta...here, like this.” He demonstrated, folding his lips back over his teeth, which made him look utterly ridiculous, in Steve’s opinion. He was not, however, interested in biting Bucky or causing him any pain, so he grudgingly did as he was shown before getting back to work.

“Ohh, better,” Bucky said, voice catching as Steve continued to explore his options. It wasn’t unpleasant, though he could see how it might make a body’s jaw sore if the game was prolonged. Still, it was a good bit of fun to figure out the ways he could make Bucky twitch and moan.

He liked those reactions so much, in fact, that it made him bold. Bold enough to bring his right hand between Bucky’s legs, wrapping his thumb and forefinger around the base of Bucky’s shaft, gripping him tightly, just the way Bucky had gripped Steve the night before.

Bucky hissed, muscles of his hips spasming as he leaned back on his elbows, which gave Steve a bit more breathing room, so to speak. It was easy enough to set a rhythm, instincts kicking in and reassuring him that if something felt good for himself, stood to reason it’d feel just fine for Bucky, too.

“Steve, aw shit, Steve,” Bucky groaned after a considerable time spent under Steve’s slow, careful attentions. “You gotta move faster, please…”

The request was clear, and Steve obliged, eager as ever to impress Bucky. He didn’t even mind much when Bucky’s hand came to rest on the back of his head, urging him forward. Wasn’t as big an enthusiast, though, when Bucky began thrusting his hips, meeting Steve’s bobbing head with jerky movements.

“Oh Steve, Steve, honey…” Bucky stuttered, hips pumping and thighs tensing. Then, quite suddenly, there was something salty and bitter on Steve’s tongue, filling his mouth and choking him as he pulled away. Bucky was just about spent by the time he did so, Steve realizing too late precisely what had happened. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, only surprising, and there was more of it than he’d expected.

Steve sat back, swallowing and making a sour face. Bucky, panting and spent, half-shivering in the cold, could hardly find words. “Shit,” he managed. “Damn, shoulda warned you...you can spit it out…”

“Wish you’da told me that ten seconds ago,” Steve replied, which made Bucky laugh. “Wasn’t that bad, though.”

Bucky sat up, and Steve watched, fascinated, by the way his stomach rose and fell. He could, he realized, watch Bucky all day and never grow tired of him.

“No?” Bucky queried.

“Nah.” Steve forced himself to look up and meet his eyes. “Different than me but...not so bad.”

“What a compliment,” Bucky snorted. “Gimme a second to catch my breath, and we’ll have some turnabout.”

It took Steve a moment to register what that meant, and he shook his head, going red. “You don’t...nobody’s expecting...it’s not…”

Bucky regarded him evenly. “How’re you gonna know what you like, if nobody ever shows you?”

“But Bucky…”

“No,” Bucky said. “Get up here and lie back.”

“Bucky you don’t have to.”

Exasperated, Bucky reached down to take him by the hand, pulling him right up and into an unexpected kiss. Shocking, considering where Steve’s mouth had so recently been. “Lord, Steve. It ain’t exactly a hardship.”

Huh. He hadn’t thought about it like that - whether or not Bucky would want to. Instead, he’d assumed Bucky wouldn’t like to do something degrading. Something best saved for alleys and brothels. Only, now that he let himself think about it, Steve didn’t feel especially degraded. Truthfully, he felt a smidgen proud. Proud that he’d been able to bring Bucky off. Make him tremble. Force him to fall apart.

It made Steve feel powerful in a way he’d never felt before. So if Bucky wanted to return that favor in exchange for some power of his own, where was the harm in it?

“Yes, I...alright,” he agreed.

Bucky affixed him with a grin that was nearly feral before pushing him right over and onto his back. “You just lie there,” he instructed, hands falling to the buttons on Steve’s trousers. “Let me show you.”

There was something terribly indulgent about being undressed. Bucky took his time, keeping Steve warm enough with the quilts even as he left him in naught but his shirt and socks. When he was through, he sat back on the bed and looked down at him, which made Steve want to curl up and hide.

“Guess you weren’t so cold as I was,” Bucky teased. All thoughts of hiding were forgotten when he reached out, wrapping his hand around Steve’s nearly-hard prick.

Steve couldn’t think of a response, his hips arching off the bed at the contact. Bucky was looking at him as though he wanted to drink him in. Or eat him up. Both of which seemed thrilling and terrifying all at once.

“God, Steve,” Bucky mumbled before bending in the middle and wasting no time in wrapping his mouth around Steve’s shaft.

And oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The sensation of it was indescribable and Steve was sure there was no better feeling on God’s green earth than the warmth of Bucky’s mouth swallowing him down. The slick heat of it, the press of his tongue against Steve’s skin. The way he looked up at Steve while he did it, eyes dancing in the glow of the fire.

Bucky slid down another inch and Steve whined, hips bucking. Bucky huffed a breath out of his nose, one hand coming to rest on Steve’s stomach, pinning him to the bed. A neat trick - the same one he’d used the previous evening. His other hand, though, was considerably more adventurous. That wonderful, wicked hand crept up the inside of Steve’s thigh, nudging his legs further apart before wrapping around his sack and squeezing. There was no amount of dignity to be found in Steve’s reaction as he cried out and fisted his hands against the quilt, right foot kicking against the mattress.

Bucky chuckled, the vibrations sending pulses of pleasure throughout Steve’s body. He whimpered, sure he couldn’t possibly take more when Bucky began to move his head with practiced ease.

He’s done this before, Steve realized with a start. Bucky knew precisely what he was doing, sliding down Steve’s prick until he had his nose pressed right against the sparse hair at the base. Steve was neither as big nor as thick as Bucky, but he wasn’t nothing, and Bucky was, he was...God, he was too much. Steve wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer, and it seemed they’d barely begun.

“Bucky, please,” he whimpered, inarticulate begging his only stock in trade, unable to say quite what it was he needed.

Bucky met those needs regardless, hands and mouth working in perfect tandem to bring him off quicker than Steve might have liked, though he knew he never would have lasted any longer. He shot off into Bucky’s mouth, surprised and sated, a soft cry leaving his throat as Bucky pulled away.

“You’re damned handsome like that,” Bucky mumbled, pressing kiss after kiss to Steve’s stomach so that he didn’t know what to do with himself. Didn’t know what any of it meant, as Bucky crawled his way back up Steve’s body and covered them both with the quilt. “How’d that prayer work out?”

“Don’t.” Steve didn’t want to talk about his morals, he only wanted more. More touch, more sweetness, more Bucky. So he threw caution and good sense to the wind, cuddling into Bucky’s warmth, letting himself be wrapped up and held as he shivered.

Bucky nudged him eventually, shifting their positions so he could hold Steve right against his chest, safe and secure.

“You understand now?” Bucky murmured while Steve’s shaking subsided, fingers tracing a pattern up and down his knobby spine. “Not my wife, not anybody else. Just you, for as long as you’ll let me.”

Steve nodded, and he did understand that Bucky was undoubtedly interested in more than teaching, even if he didn’t understand why. It was wrong - they were both wrong - and yet the pull of it was impossible to resist. Yes, there was pleasure, but more than that there was comfort and closeness of a sort he’d never known. He couldn’t begin to think it through. Not then, not there in the dark with Bucky’s arms around him. Perhaps he’d worry about the rest of it in the morning.

“Sorry I ran away,” he managed.

“Don’t need to run,” Bucky said, placing a kiss atop his head before yawning such a big yawn that Steve thought his whole head might split in half.

“No, I suppose I don’t,” he agreed, which brought an end to the conversation.

Later, as he lay drifting, half-asleep with Bucky’s warmth behind him, it struck him how very true Bucky’s statement was. He didn’t need to run, because slowly but surely, this funny little cabin a million miles from anywhere was beginning to feel very nearly like a home.

Chapter Text

Steve found it easy to ignore his conscience in the presence of Bucky’s easy affection, one day blending into the next under a barrage of kisses and kind touches. They found ways to pass the time, some of it licentious and some of it simply sweet as they discovered all sorts of small things about one another.

Bucky, Steve found, enjoyed having his hair combed, which seemed a funny thing to enjoy, but it was hard not to notice the way he’d go soft and still anytime Steve ran a hand through his locks. It stood to reason that combing might give him even more pleasure, and it gave Steve a thrill when Bucky allowed it. He couldn’t possibly know how often Steve had thought of doing just that, laying alone in his bed, hand on his prick.

Just meant they were compatible, was all, in this funny, new situation where an average day brought a half-hundred embraces.

Truthfully, it was more than that. Steve liked Bucky - his easy company, his friendship, his humor. Bucky revealed more of himself every day, and outside of his occasional grooming foibles, Steve hadn’t found much not to like.

The rest of the world slipped away in winter, covered in snow, time meaningless. What was the world, really, save for a nuisance?

One bitterly cold morning, Steve was in the stable, finishing up the caretaking of Winter and Bright. Bucky had gone inside, having completed his chores early, now that the cow wasn’t producing much milk. Steve thought perhaps he ought to have helped, but tamped down on his annoyance as he trudged back to the cabin through the half-foot of dirty snow on the ground.

When he opened the door, he found Bucky laying two misshapen packages on Steve’s place at the table.

“Err...Merry Christmas,” Bucky offered, the phrase awkward in his mouth as he rubbed the back of his neck.

Startled, Steve shut the door. “It’s Christmas?”

In his infatuated haze, he’d lost track of the days and the weeks. Matthew and Becky didn’t come on Sundays, and without that marker, he genuinely wasn’t sure what day it was. But Christmas came regardless. The new year, too, he supposed.

“Figured you wouldn’t remember.” Bucky looked pleased with himself, hooking his thumbs into his suspenders, a slight grin on his face.

Steve adored that grin. The familiarity of it, how pleased he was to see it every time Bucky felt obliged to express himself. It was a shy, bashful sort of grin, one that belied Bucky’s tough exterior and revealed what vulnerability lay within.

He crossed the small space between them and pressed a kiss to Bucky’s cheek, and while the ease with which he could do that still felt like a novelty, it was becoming more and more familiar with each passing day. “You’re right,” he agreed. “Thank you.”

Bucky caught him around the waist, giving him a proper kiss before releasing his hold. “Don’t thank me yet - ain’t much.”

“I’ll thank you twice,” he replied. “Three times even. And I’ll make you breakfast.”

Never one to turn down a meal, Bucky smiled, and Steve set to work. It was Christmas, so he indulged, making gravy to go with their biscuits. It wasn’t half so good as the gravy his mother used to make, but Bucky was pleased enough with the results, eating his fill and then some before leaning back in his chair and groaning.

“If that wasn’t butter on bacon, Steve - I’ll never need to eat again,” he declared.

“It’s only gravy,” Steve said, getting to his feet. “I’m going to get your present.” Bucky raised a curious eyebrow, and Steve shrugged. “Just because I didn’t remember when Christmas was doesn’t mean I forgot about it entirely.”

“You didn’t need to get me anything.”

“If I shouldn’t have, then neither should you, and we can’t both be wrong.”

“What?” Bucky parsed the sentence and began to laugh. “Nuts for you to say, I guess.”

“Precisely,” he agreed, before walking behind the partition to where he still kept his things. The mattress had gone unused for an awfully long time now, but a man liked to have a bit of privacy on occasion. Bucky’s gift was tucked away in the bag he’d brought with him from Brooklyn, and as he pulled it out, he wished he had paper to wrap it in. A will found a way, however, and he ripped out two pages from the Godey’s still sitting on the shelf, wrapping the gift as neatly as he could manage.

“Here,” he said, thrusting the package at Bucky once he was back at the table, paper already beginning to come away from what was underneath.

Bucky took it, laughing as the gift practically fell right out and into his palm. The scrappy scarf Steve had been knitting from various bits of wool hadn’t turned out half bad. The colors were muted but paired in a way he thought looked nice. Plus, the scarf was long and - he hoped - warm enough for Bucky to wear whenever he went out of doors.

“Hey now, possum,” Bucky said, grinning as he shook out the scarf and held it up. The moniker was one he’d been trying out on occasion. Steve wasn’t sure he liked it. “When the hell d'you make this?”

“When you weren’t looking,” he said, pride flaring in his chest as Bucky wrapped the scarf around his neck twice before knotting it.

Bucky reached up then, pulling Steve right down and onto his lap. That was something else he hadn’t quite gotten used to, though the more often it happened, the less he minded.

“Sneak,” Bucky said, giving Steve a squeeze before kissing the tip of his nose. “Thank you.”

“Welcome,” Steve muttered, ducking his head, which only invited another kiss. It was the damndest thing, kissing Bucky. No matter how often he’d imagined how it would feel, nothing compared to the reality of it. Kissing Bucky was better than any Christmas present, which was stupid and overly sentimental, but it was how he felt all the same.

“Go on, open your presents,” Bucky encouraged.

If Bucky meant for him to stand up, Steve didn’t take the hint, choosing to stay perched right where he was before reaching across the table for the smaller gift, wrapped in brown paper. Bucky had an anticipatory look on his face as Steve ripped off the wrapping, finding a small, burlap sack, inside of which was a not-inconsiderable amount of money.

So, that was confusing.

“Bucky…?”

“Not properly a gift,” Bucky said, one knee bouncing in a way that indicated nerves, jostling Steve where he sat. “It’s your wages - all of ‘em. I couldn’t pay you until I sold the harvest, which...I always knew I owed you the money, but you never asked. So I figured I’d give it to you all at once. And in the spring I can pay you regular.”

Bucky was rambling on, obviously embarrassed, and Steve couldn’t help but smile. He hadn’t thought much about his wages - Bucky was a good man, and undoubtedly an honest one, so he’d taken it on faith that they’d be coming. Perhaps he ought to have been more insistent, but considering everything he made was going towards seeding his farm once he’d staked his claim, it didn’t much matter whether he got the money now or later.

“Hope you’re not sore about my taking so long,” Bucky continued, voice pitched higher than usual as his toes tap-tap-tapped against the ground.

“No,” Steve said, hooking an arm about his neck. “No, I’m only surprised. I figured you’d pay me once we’d finished planting in the spring.”

“Oughta been paying you every month,” he replied. “Just didn’t have the money, and damn if I don’t hate that, but…”

It was plain to see Bucky was ashamed of it - the poverty and scarcity of their life. He knew Bucky had come from wealth, with fine horses and clothes that were threadbare but of a certain quality. He had yet to hear the full story, knowing only that Bucky was the son of a farmer. Even if Steve hadn’t been sure of that fact, he might have guessed it with the way Bucky obsessed over the science of his seeds, nearly every book in his possession being something about agriculture. Bucky, for all his stuff and nonsense, wasn’t stupid. He took his work seriously, and Steve had every faith he’d be a success, even through his difficulties.

“I won’t say another thank you, then,” Steve said as he set the bag on the table. “Because I know it’s not a gift. But it’s appreciated.”

Bucky cleared his throat, turning his face against the join of Steve’s shoulder to his arm and nipping at the fabric of his shirt like some affectionate cur. “Go on, open the other one,” he muttered, voice muffled.

It was no easy feat to stay wrapped around Bucky while also reaching for the present, but Steve managed - figured his arm maybe grew an inch or two in the process. The second package had been wrapped more carefully, tied with twine and all. Curious, he tugged on the bow and unwrapped the gift, revealing the very same paper and pencil set he’d seen in the case at Carter’s, looking every bit as enticing as it had in the shop.

“Peggy said you’d like it,” Bucky blurted. “I didn’t know what - but when I went to town with the wheat, I was in the mercantile and she said...well, she said you were always lookin’ at it.”

There weren’t words to describe the swell of emotion in Steve’s chest - a bubble threatening to burst and overwhelm him, perhaps, as he held the case with shaking hands. It had been such an awfully long time since he’d put to paper what was in his mind’s eye. All those moments of staring out at the prairie, wishing he could capture the swell and sway of the grasses. The house, the stable, the horses in their pasture, Sarge napping in the sun. They’d all spoken to him, and he hadn’t had a place to put them.

Bucky, too. He could have drawn Bucky a thousand different ways. Captured all the small parts of him that made him precisely who Steve needed him to be.

Couldn’t say that, though, so he did the next best thing, tucking the gift against his torso before turning to wrap both arms tightly around Bucky’s neck, pressing their foreheads together.

“Thank you,” he said, breath hitching in his throat.

Bucky’s arms held him close, a smile creeping across his face. “Didn’t know you were an artist,” he said, affection coloring his tone. “Gonna draw me something?”

Pulling back from the embrace, Steve smiled, somewhat sheepish about it. “I’m not much good, but I do like it.”

“Doesn’t matter if you’re good.”

“I suppose,” Steve agreed. “I could...maybe I could draw you. I like drawing people.”

Bucky laughed at that, rolling his eyes. “I’d be flattered if my plug-ugly face wasn’t the only one around for miles…”

“Aw, Buck, that wasn’t what I meant,” he laughed. “You’re not funny.”

“All the same, Mister Audobon, I think I’ll take offense.”

Steve bit back another laugh, cocking his head to the side. “What? I’m not drawing birds…”

“He’s the only artist I could think of.”

“I’m not surprised.” Audobon’s ornithological work seemed about right for a man who could spend hours obsessing over the precise size and shape of a seedling.  Clambering off Bucky’s lap, he stepped back and looked him over. “You sit right there. Lemme think about it.”

Taking his time, he arranged his chair so he had Bucky at the angle he wanted, lit from one side by the glow of the fire, the other cast in darkness. It had been a long time since he’d drawn another person, and most of the time he’d only been drawing his parents, who indulged him when they were able. Bucky - biddable and willing - was a nice change. He found he liked posing and arranging him just the way he wanted before sitting back down with his gift and getting to work.

The work itself was rusty - that was immediately apparent - and he frowned down at the page. Certainly, he’d always had a natural talent, noticed and nurtured by his mother more than anyone else. She’d hoped for a time that he might refine it, get an education, and turn it into something significant. How he was supposed to do that without money, they’d never figured out. Now, more than a year out of practice, he was struggling with the details - the crook of Bucky’s elbow, the slant of his shoulders, the way his hair fell around his face. Nothing was quite right, and Steve quickly grew frustrated.

Bucky was a decent subject in spite of Steve’s failure as an artist. He sat patiently, a bemused expression on his face. In the end, Steve’s annoyance with his mistakes grew to the point that he shook his head, closing the book and scowling.

“That’s all I can do for now,” he declared, feeling very much as though pushing himself further might result in him hating the work.

“Lemme see,” Bucky said immediately.

“No,” Steve replied, just as swiftly.

Bucky frowned, eyes narrowing. “Why not?”

“Because it’s not done yet.”

“I don’t care about done,” he protested. “Lemme see it.”

“No.”

“But…”

“Sometimes,” Steve said primly, placing his pencil case atop the aborted drawing. “Patience is a virtue.”

Bucky snorted, pushing himself to his feet. “I’ll show you patience,” he said before practically charging at Steve, who yawped in protest as he was hefted up and off his seat, then over Bucky’s shoulders.

“Put me down!”

“Alright,” Bucky agreed, having crossed the room. He dropped Steve rather unceremoniously onto his backside, though the bed was there to catch him. Steve scarcely had a moment to recover before Bucky was crawling right over him, a cheerful grin on his face.

“Ain’t one of mine,” Bucky said, leaning down and biting Steve’s neck.

“What?”

“Patience. It ain’t.”

“Oh.”

Steve didn’t have time to think that over, as there was something feral in Bucky - playful as he kissed his way down Steve’s torso, unbuttoning his shirt as he went along, laying him out nicely before sitting back on his heels to observe. “You’re not half so skinny as you were, you know,” he said idly, trailing a finger down Steve’s sternum and across his stomach, making him shiver. “Backside ain’t bad, either.”

“Bucky!”

“What? Can’t a fella admire you coming and going?”

“No, you ca-Bucky!” He didn’t get the chance to finish, Bucky’s arms snaking out once more, gripping him by the hips and hoisting him up, so his rear end lay on Bucky’s lap, legs splayed to either side of his hips.

“Gonna show you something,” Bucky declared, hand falling to the button on Steve’s trousers, which were suddenly feeling very tight.

That sounded not at all suspicious, though Steve didn’t bother to raise a protest while Bucky undressed him, unbuttoning his fly and pulling his trousers down just far enough that his quarter-hard prick was exposed to the cool air of the cabin.

“Lookit that,” Bucky said.

“Like you’ve never seen it before,” Steve said, the bawdy talk coming more naturally every day.

“Huh.” Bucky’s hand moved to stroke him, which certainly might help him get the rest of the way there. “You...wait here a minute. Take your trousers off.”

The cabin wasn’t big - Bucky didn’t have far to go on his journey to stoke the fire. Steve wasted no time in doing as he was told, curious as to precisely what Bucky was up to when he went to the foot of the bed, opening his trunk and rummaging around inside. He emerged with a tin in his hand, one Steve recognized as the container for the Minié oil he used to clean his gun. Expensive stuff, according to Bucky, and to be used sparingly. They used whale oil for near everything else, which was a shame, because the Minié oil smelled just fine, whereas the whale oil smelled like the carcass of a dying fish.

“What’s that for?” he asked as Bucky settled on the bed.

Bucky grunted, positioning Steve just the way he’d been before, bottom half in Bucky’s lap, top half reclined against the pillows. It wasn’t doing a thing for his modesty or his dignity, but they’d moved past both some time ago.

“Gonna show you somethin’,” Bucky said, the reply delayed as he reached for the tin, opening it up and coating a finger.

Steve didn’t know much, but it wasn’t hard to figure out Bucky’s line of thought. He propped himself up on his elbows, glaring. “Bucky, you know I don’t want you stickin’ it in me.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not,” Bucky said, calm as he pleased. “I’m stickin’ something else in you - namely, this finger. Wholly different proposition.”

Steve didn’t agree and told him as much. “How’s that?”

“Lemme prove a goddamn point, Rogers.” That wasn’t exactly reassuring, though Steve knew Bucky wouldn’t do anything to hurt him. Bucky seemed to take a singular pleasure in making him happy, in fact, good intentions borne out as he once more palmed Steve’s hardening cock, working him over and causing him to squirm.

“A-alright,” he agreed, mostly because it felt nice and he didn’t especially want Bucky to stop touching him.

However, when Bucky’s right hand slid between Steve’s bare ass and his own lap, Steve tensed. Then, when the index finger of that hand sought entrance in a rather intimate place, he clenched down instinctively, whining right out loud.

“Oh for heaven’s…” Bucky snorted. “Steve, knock it off. I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise.”

“I don’t see,” Steve snapped, gritting his teeth. “How precisely it’s gonna feel real nice, Buck.”

Bucky turned his head and pressed a kiss to Steve’s bony kneecap. “Indulge me.”

Steve grunted and made a game attempt at relaxing, trying to trust Bucky even as the tip of his finger breached him and, hell, it didn’t quite hurt but it sure felt strange. An unsettling, slick intrusion of something brand new causing a spasm in his belly.

“God,” he managed, half in prayer as he closed his eyes.

“Mmm?” Bucky’s tone held a note of concern, though not a large one.

“S’not...bad,” he conceded after a moment. It wasn’t, either. He’d assumed it would hurt like the dickens, based on the stories he’d heard passed around. Rumors of tears and tarnation, burning like fire and brimstone. This wasn’t anything terrible at all - only new, and a bit odd.

Bucky allowed Steve to settle before he continued the gentle press of his finger, the sensation becoming less novel but no less queer. Then the magic happened, Bucky’s finger curling, something deep within Steve lighting up bright as the sun, a hidden source of pleasure sending a thrill of delight and confusion throughout his body. Said delight ended its run at his prick, which twitched of its own volition, increasingly fond of this new type of exploration.

There was a smile on Bucky’s face that Steve might have called insufferable under any other circumstance. “Toldja,” he crowed.

“What is that?” The initial feeling had faded, but when Bucky moved his finger again, hit that spot, the thrill flooded Steve anew and he sighed contentedly, toes curling against the quilt.

“Dunno,” Bucky admitted. “Feels pretty good though, doesn’t it?”

“Uh huh,” he managed, words coming slow and stupid as he chased that pleasure all over again. “Is...is that why some men, uh…?”

Bucky shrugged. “Probably. I only tried it with a couple people, so I can’t speak for all of some men.”

“Hmm.” Steve sighed. Bucky thought he was so funny, and thinking about anything logically was growing difficult, especially as Bucky kept stroking that same. Damn. Spot. “Is...so you wanna...with me, and oh, Bucky, that’s…”

“Maybe,” Bucky said. “Maybe not. Just wanted to show you how nice it felt, I suppose.”

Steve groaned in frustration as Bucky pulled his finger out. “Don’t stop now!”

That reaction started Bucky laughing, loosing his hold on Steve’s cock and doubling over with his head resting on Steve’s ribcage until he managed to recover. “Wasn’t,” he said, still half in his giggles. “I was only gonna try for two fingers. Easier for me to get right to that spot.”

As far as Steve was concerned, Bucky could stick his rifle up Steve’s backside if it would help, but he wasn’t about to offer. Instead, he canted his hips, frowning at the delay while Bucky coated two fingers.

“And here I thought…” Bucky smirked, pressing both of those fingers right up against him. “Patience was a virtue.”

Steve groaned, eyes closing again. “Shuddup, Bucky,” he managed, losing the last of Bucky’s name in a groan as the gentle pressure of that first finger gave way to a more insistent burn when the second was added. “Ow!”

“You’re tensing up again,” Bucky chided. “Gotta calm down.”

You calm down,” he snapped with a grunt, squeezing his eyes shut tight and willing himself to remain pliant. Just as it seemed he couldn’t manage it, Bucky found where he wanted to be, both fingers up against that sweet place inside of him and oh, that was worth the burn. Worth the burn a hundred times over - a thousand - to feel like that. “There!”

“I know, there,” Bucky said. “I can feel it, can’t I?”

“Can you?”

“Yes,” he said, free hand coming up to circle Steve’s prick, which had flagged a bit during the explorations. “Maybe sometime, you can try it on me.”

The very idea of that set Steve blushing, prickles running through him from tip to tail as he writhed against Bucky’s nimble fingers. “Maybe. Not now.”

“No, not now,” Bucky agreed, shifting his weight and intensifying the speed with which his hand stroked Steve’s prick, matching that rhythm with the movements of the fingers buried inside Steve’s body. “God, honey.”

This was euphoria, Steve decided, when his pleasure crested only a few minutes later, seed spilling white and hot onto Bucky’s hand, coating Steve’s stomach and skin. Sheer bliss, indeed, and he gasped in pleasure, overcome with it all. He reached down, pushing both of Bucky’s hands away and curling into himself.

Bucky gave him a moment, as he usually did, though he never stayed away long. True to his nature, he draped his body atop Steve’s in short order, wrapping him up tight and nuzzling against his shoulder. “What’d I tell you?” he murmured. “I wouldn’t hurt you.”

Steve smiled, pressing a languid, slow kiss on Bucky’s lips as he reached between them, finding Bucky’s own prick laying hard against the line of his trousers. “How ‘bout I don’t...hurt you, now?”

Glancing down, Bucky laughed. “What?”

“Doesn’t matter. You want me to?”

“Don’t gotta.”

“It’s Christmas.”

Bucky considered, then smiled. “You’re right,” he agreed. “It is Christmas, and you never did let me see that goddamn drawing.”

(They didn’t leave bed again until evening chores, though Bucky did get up once for more biscuits.)

Chapter Text

The new year brought with it three blizzards in as many weeks, bitter cold storms sweeping down from the north, trapping them in a world that was nothing but white. Steve began to learn the signs - how the sky would go grey, and the wind would shift, just enough to make a body feel strange. The animals turned peculiar as well, ornery and weird.

He lived for those days. The days when the snow fell hard, and he and Bucky had every reason to stay in bed. To kiss, to touch, to know one another with an intimacy that was at once thrilling and terrifying.

Sometimes, tucked up in bed with Bucky’s arms holding him steadfast, Steve liked to think they were the only two people left on earth. Made for one another, to ride out the storm.

Spring would have its turn, of course. There would be no stopping it, and with the change in the season would come Matthew and Becky, Peggy, Sam, and Natasha. Trips to town and all the complications that came from having to fuss about other folks. Steve didn’t relish the thought, not when it was so easy to be still and safe, here in the place he’d found to eke out some happiness in the world.

“Tell me about your parents,” Bucky murmured one late January morning as he held Steve tight, just beginning to warm up, having been out to tend to the chores.

Steve stiffened at the request, an old wound opening, not quite scarred over. His heart thumped when he thought of them both, but most especially his mother. Cuddling closer, he lay his hands atop Bucky’s and stared out, seeing but not really seeing the glow of the fire.

“My mother’s name was Sarah,” he said. “She was Irish - her whole family came over when she was a kid. Da was American, but only just. His parents immigrated while his ma was expecting…”

“Did you know them?” Bucky asked. “Your grandparents?”

“No.” Steve shook his head, playing with Bucky’s fingers. “Although, that’s not quite true. I remember my granny a bit. My mother’s mother. She died when I was small, but...the rosary I’ve got? That was hers before it was my mother’s, I think.”

“Mmm.” Bucky’s index finger slid just under the hem of Steve’s nightshirt, rubbing a light circle into his skin in a wonderfully familiar way. “Did you like her?”

“Yes.” Steve smiled. “She lived with us, in the end, all of us crowded in together. We didn’t have a pot to piss in but...I didn’t know any better, so I was happy. My folks made the best of it.”

“But it didn’t last.”

“No. It all...went bad when my da went to fight. He died there, in the war. We never got his remains but…”

“Lotta stories like that,” Bucky said, tightening his hold.

“I think,” he said, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly before attempting to continue. “I think losing him was what killed my mother.”

Bucky made a noise low in his throat, not quite dubious, but enough that Steve felt he ought to clarify.

“It’s only, she was like me - sick all the time, and small, too. But she was a fighter.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Hmph,” he said, biting his lip and fighting the smile that threatened to overwhelm him alongside his tears. “It...she beat everything life threw at her, but after…” he swallowed around the lump in his throat. “After da died, she stopped fighting so hard when she got sick.”

A disconsolate murmur from Bucky, then, his lips trailing the curve of Steve’s ear.

“I don’t mean to say she didn’t want to stay with me,” he amended, not wanting Bucky to think badly of his mother. “I only think that there was a part of her which very much wanted to see him again. And so I told her that I’d be alright. That she didn’t have to stay for me, you see?”

Sarah had barely been conscious when he’d said those things to her, slipping in and out of the world as the fever that would ultimately take her life ravaged her body. He still shuddered to think of it, how he’d been with her to the end, holding her hand as she took her last shallow breath before expiring, leaving her only son behind to keep his promises.

The anniversary of her death had come and gone without Steve marking the date. Time didn’t mean much out there, not the same way it did in the city with its constant comings and goings, each day recorded anew. Still, he wished he’d done something. Memorialized her or spoken about her or said a special prayer.

“You are,” Bucky said, shaking him from his thoughts.

“Hmm?”

“Alright. You said you told her you’d be alright, and you are. You got yourself here, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Steve agreed. “My priest helped - told me about the program. I figured…” He hesitated, laughing a bit at the memory. How naive he’d been. “Figured I’d come work for some nice Catholic family that needed the help. Earn some money, file my own claim after a few years. Never accounted for the fact that there wasn’t going to be a nice family to want me, much less a Catholic one.”

Bucky snorted, nipping at the back of Steve’s neck. “I don’t know what I thought I was getting when I brought you on,” he admitted. “Shitty farmhand, sure. Figured that out pretty quick.”

“Hey!”

“I only mean to say,” Bucky teased, “I’m not someone given to sentiment, but...you coulda been a lot of things. Lazy or shiftless or, well, worse. But you’re a good man, Steve. I think your mother would be proud.”

Steve wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting from Bucky, but it hadn’t been that. Blinking to stem the tide, he brought a hand up and rubbed his eyes before finding his voice. “I don’t miss her so much,” he managed. “These days.”

 


 

The first blizzard of February brought with it their first proper fight. It was a wonder it hadn’t happened sooner, in truth. Living in such close quarters with another person for so long without any change of scenery was madness. Sure, Bucky was sweet and funny. He kissed Steve every morning and took him to bed every night.

He was also surly on occasion, belched far too often, and was prone to leaving a mess behind himself, no better than a pig in a sty.

Steve could only tolerate it so long.

On that particular day - the third day of the blizzard, wind eternally howling, snow battering the shanty - Bucky had gone out to do the evening chores. Upon his return, he had been acting a grump, complaining about the frozen water he had to break, and how he was sure his fingers were going to snap clean off. Steve ignored him, as he often did, setting a plate of food in front of him while Bucky continued his litany of injustices - Winter nipped at him, Sarge hated being cooped up in the house, he was sure one of the chickens was sick. Steve couldn’t see the bite mark Bucky claimed Winter had left, he didn’t know anything about chickens, and he thought Sarge seemed fine curled up by the fire each night and eating their scraps each day.

It was like any other evening, and Steve might have ignored Bucky right into bed, save for the moment when he tripped over Bucky’s boots, left carelessly in the middle of the floor.

“You wanna clean up after yourself?” he snapped.

“Oh, excuse me,” Bucky replied. “Didn’t know I was livin’ with Queen Veec-toe-ree-uh.”

“Oh, shut up.” Steve wasn’t in the mood, and Bucky’s approximation of Peggy’s accent was terrible. Picking up the boots, he flung them into the corner by the bed, where they landed with a satisfying thunk that was audible over the noise of the wind outside.

“Hey!” Bucky was up like a shot, and if he thought he could intimidate Steve by being taller, he had another thing coming. “Don’t throw my goddamn boots.”

“Put ‘em away, and I won’t have to.” And wasn’t that something - he was practically chest to chest with Bucky, grown taller than he’d realized. Or, well, nearly. Bucky was still bigger.

Bucky crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “I’m the one goin’ out there in the snow, I’ll put ‘em where I like.”

That wasn’t fair. It was mean, as a matter of fact. Bucky staunchly refused to allow Steve to help with the chores when the blizzards were bad, insisting he could manage the work himself. So to act as though Steve was putting that burden on him was aggravating, and Steve responded in as mature a fashion as Bucky deserved - namely, pushing him before stomping off to clear the table.

Bucky snorted and went to pick up a months-old newspaper, as though he had some pressing business with the words he’d read a hundred times before. Steve cleaned up, slamming cups and plates about, neither of them speaking a word.

The silence lasted until bedtime, with Steve retiring first. He curled up on the warmer side of the bed, back resolutely towards Bucky and the rest of the room. (He had briefly considered sleeping in his own bed, but why should he suffer because Bucky was horrible?) Bucky joined him a few minutes later, and for a moment Steve thought he might try to broker peace. Instead, he put his cold feet right under the covers and pressed the soles against Steve’s calves.

“Don’t!” Steve jerked away, hissing.

“Can’t help it. Someone threw my boots in the corner, so my feet are cold.”

As a provocation, it was piss-poor - Bucky didn’t wear his boots in the house, hence the entire argument.

“Keep your cold feet off my legs, then,” Steve shot back.

“I will.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

“Don’t touch me.”

“Ain’t touching you, you’re probably touching yourself, and you don’t even know...ow! Steve!”

Steve grinned to himself in the dark, pleased that the thrown elbow had landed precisely where he’d meant it to - Bucky’s ribcage. He hadn’t done it hard enough to hurt, just to make a point, which appeared to have worked as Bucky rolled away, yanking the blankets and muttering to himself. Soon enough, he was snoring, and while Steve took longer to drift off, he got there eventually.

When he woke, Bucky was kicking him. Hard. Steve sat straight up, prepared to holler when he realized Bucky wasn’t doing it on purpose. Couldn’t be, considering he was still asleep, moaning and caught in the throes of a nightmare as he twitched, limbs moving of their own accord, face twisted in a rictus of terror.

Back when he’d slept behind the curtain, Steve had heard Bucky have nightmares a time or two, but the visual was horrifying and - knowing Bucky as intimately as he did - frightening to see.

“Bucky,” he said, laying what he hoped was a comforting hand on Bucky’s arm, shaking him. He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to wake him, but it wasn’t as though he could leave him to suffer. “Hey, Buck, come on…”

Bucky’s eyes flew open, but it was a stranger who looked up at Steve. A stranger who twisted out of his grip, tangling himself in the quilts as he scrambled back, back, back and down, onto the floor, where he huddled in on himself the same way he had in town, body wracked with tremors and sobs.

Steve didn’t fancy getting popped in the mouth - that memory was a lingering one - so he stayed on the bed and scooted towards the edge of the mattress instead, pitching his voice low and firm. “Bucky. You’re here, with me. It’s Steve - I’m right here.”

It took some time for the shaking to subside, though after a while Steve thought it safe to touch him. Shivering, he got out of bed and wrapped his arms around Bucky’s body. Eventually, Bucky began to come back to himself, tousled head replete with bloodshot blue eyes emerging from the tangle of bedding, staring at Steve.

Bucky’s eyes. Steve knew him now.

“Steve?” His voice was cracked, all that confusion and disbelief mingling.

“Yeah, Buck,” he said, reaching out to touch his cheek. “Let’s get back in bed.”

“How’d I...why’m I on the floor?” he asked, frowning, continuing to worm his way out of the quilts. “God, you’re shivering…”

“I’m fine,” Steve said, even as Bucky shook out the quilt, wrapping it around them both as they made their way back into bed. “You were having a bad dream. One of those...the ones that make you go somewhere.” He didn’t know how else to describe it.

“Damn.” Bucky frowned, slipping an arm around Steve’s shoulders and pulling him tight against his chest. Steve was grateful for the closeness, even if Bucky was holding him a mite too hard.

“Buck?” he asked, once some time had passed, and Bucky’s breathing had slowed further.

“Mmm?”

“How come...how come that happens to you?”

Bucky didn’t answer at first. Steve supposed he might never, and that was Bucky’s right, no matter how much Steve wanted to know him wholly and honestly. So when Bucky finally opened his mouth, Steve was ready to listen.

“I told you I enlisted young,” he said, the words bitten out.

Steve nodded, shifting his weight and wrapping his arm about Bucky’s torso, wanting to hold him just as fast as he was being held.

“You ought to understand,” Bucky continued. “I love my mother. Miss her something fierce. But...my father. We didn’t get on.”

Steve had surmised as much from the few times he’d heard Becky and Bucky discuss their parents, though he hadn’t liked to pry.

“Where I grew up - his farm? It’s a hell of a place, Steve. He’s the fourth generation to farm the land, and shit, it’s hard work, but it’s about as sure a bet as farming gets.”

“Doesn’t sound so bad,” Steve said, hoping the teasing would be taken as intended.

Bucky laughed, though it was a short one. “My father’s a difficult man. Exacting and...with a temper. Hell of a temper. And I was…” His mouth twisted up into something haunted, and he frowned. “All I ever heard, my whole life, was how I wasn’t half the man he was. How he’d never let me take over the goddamn farm if I didn’t grow up, and…” he closed his eyes. “Damn, Steve, you know I’m not gonna get married. You know I…”

Yes, Steve knew, and he held Bucky closer.

“There was another fella, I went to school with him. And he was...well. First person I ever kissed, sitting up in the hayloft of my father’s barn.”

Steve’s heart seized with that revelation. The thought that there had been another boy - not just some nameless, faceless soldier Bucky had spent time with to keep warm at night - made him jealous and heartsick all at once.

“Did you...love him?” Steve wasn’t even sure that was possible, unnatural as the whole thing was. Though what he felt for Bucky was, well, different than anything he’d felt before. Confusing, the entire damn endeavor.

“Nah,” Bucky said. “But we liked each other well enough. Only, my father caught us once. Up there in the hayloft.”

Oh. “Kissing?”

“Not just,” Bucky said, voice going dark. “God, but he was furious. Chased David out of the barn and tanned my hide - threatened to send me away. Said I’d never see him again. That I was sick. That he’d never leave the farm to someone like me. Said...well, he said a lot of terrible things. I don’t precisely feel like recounting them all.”

“I don’t…”

“I was miserable and angry, and I hated him, but I hated myself more.”

A familiar feeling, albeit a disconcerting one. Bucky always seemed so perfectly himself, and Steve didn’t like to think of him young and unhappy.

“If I’d stayed,” Bucky continued. “I might have been able to make a go of it. Marry someone he wanted me to marry, eke out a life and force myself to be the man he wanted me to be. Chalk my mistakes up to a youthful indiscretion.”

“But you didn’t want that.”

“No.” Bucky paused, fingers trailing a pattern across Steve’s arm, making the hair there stand on end. “I wasn’t going to live my life the way he dictated, and there was a war on. Sure, I believed in the cause and what we were fighting for, but mostly, I joined to spite him, if I'm honest. And God, that was idiotic believe you me. Fighting a war out of spite…” he trailed off, letting out a shuddery sigh.

“It wasn’t so bad at first. Lots of marching. Lots of sitting around and scratching our asses. I’d spent my whole life coddled - I never knew hardship or hunger, but I learned quick, especially once we saw some action.” He paused, the fingers of his left hand spasming against Steve’s arm. “The thing of it is, I’m a good shot, and they figured that out pretty early. Recognized the talent and set me to work.”

Steve frowned. He’d seen Bucky shoot; knew that he understood guns as though they were second nature. An extension of himself. But the thought of Bucky killing didn’t match with the Bucky he knew. The careful, thoughtful man who cared for every creature under his care. A man prone to bouts of melancholy, yes, but one who had a kind heart underneath that rough veneer.

“I lost count,” Bucky said, voice hardly audible. “It was so simple. Easy to do. The sorta thing that makes a man...turns a man hard. I don’t know what would have become of me - who I’d have been - if I hadn’t been wounded.”

“That’s how...your scars?”

“Mmm.” Bucky went tense, staring at a point above Steve’s head. “We were in Virginia when it happened, and it happened fast. I don’t…” he swallowed. “Christ, Steve, I can’t.”

“I can,” he said because he couldn’t change it, but he could take on however much of that burden Bucky wanted him to bear.

Bucky inhaled and held it, closing his eyes before blowing the breath out. “There was a battle - more of a skirmish, really - and I got shot pretty early on. That’s...the one on my chest, by my shoulder?” Steve knew it by heart, that scar. The oversized pockmark of missing flesh, torn on both sides where the bullet went through. “There were so many men falling near me, all around me. Most of them dead, but I wasn’t. I knew them, I’d...been with them for months, and they were gone and I couldn’t...I couldn’t…”

“You couldn’t save them.”

“No,” he said, voice hitching. “I wasn’t brave, Steve. I only wanted to save myself, and so I left them. Started to crawl. But as I’m going, this one fella I didn’t know, he gets shot and he lands right on top of me, pinning me down.”

“Bucky…”

“Wait,” he said sharply. “It was chaos. Couldn’t hear shit over the sound of bullets and the horses screaming and then there wasn’t anything but smoke and ruin because someone set a fire. I don’t know if they were trying to burn the dead or torment the living, but it caught, and it spread and I couldn’t get free. Couldn’t goddamn move with that big bastard on me. God, there were so many of them, and there I was, still alive while they were dead and gone, and the fire…”

His voice had risen in pitch, shivers wracking his frame as Steve struggled to hold him tight, wanting to keep him there instead of letting him slip back to that awful place. “You did live,” he said. “You’re right here with me now, Buck.”

Bucky jerked at the sound of his voice, as though it had come as a surprise. “My whole arm caught and I thought that was it, I was gonna burn right up. I know you believe in hell and all that, but I knew at that moment it couldn’t be real because there was no worse place than that godforsaken pit. And shit, Steve, I was already there. I was already burning.”

Steve blinked, tears in his eyes as he clung to Bucky. “How’d you...how’d you get out?”

Shrugging, Bucky brought one hand up to rub his red-rimmed eyes. “Best I can figure, a body can do funny things when it’s panicked. I hardly remember, but I guess I musta had some fight left in me because I got that man off me. Beat the fire down as best I could. You shoulda…” he shook his head. “The fire took off a lotta skin and my hand ain’t worked right since. I remember lookin’ down and thinking...thinking it looked like overcooked meat. That’s the last thing I recall thinking at all. Musta fainted from the pain after that, and then I guess it started raining, so the fire didn’t have a chance to spread much further, and that just about ended the fighting.

“Later on, when I was sensible, they told me I’d been out there all damn night and right through the next day. They only found me when they came to start shifting the dead, clinging to life like a stubborn goat, though God knows why.” He shivered again, pausing to breathe before continuing. Steve could feel his heart thumping hard against his chest. “It’s all hazy, but I recall waking when they were doing the surgery. Heard the doctor talking while he’s digging around in my shoulder for what fragments were left of the bullet, and I’m half out of my mind with pain, but I hear him say he can save my arm. And the other doctor - the butcher - he says not to waste time. Just cut it off. Like it doesn’t matter. Like this arm ain’t half my goddamn livelihood. Another limb for the pile.”

Instinctively, Steve reached out and curled his fingers around Bucky’s arm, feeling the hard ridges of the scars underneath. “I’m glad the better doctor won out,” he said. The sentiment was insufficient, but it was what he had.

“So’m I,” Bucky muttered. “I was laid up in a field hospital for weeks, barely conscious for most of it. The wound festered, but there was a nurse - real mean cuss of a woman who got me so angry that I felt like living just to spite her.”

Steve would have to say a prayer for that nurse. “Then what did you do?”

“Went home,” he said, bitterness tinging his tone. “My mother fussed over me something awful while I convalesced, but my father wasn’t any kinder. I lasted about six months under his roof before I was well enough to go and strike out on my own. This time, I knew I was going west. I told them I was leaving, and then out of the clear blue sky Becky says she’s coming with me.” His mouth twisted up into a smile. “God, my mother cried, and my father railed at Becky, tried to convince her otherwise - she’s the princess, you see. Golden girl. But she says she doesn’t care; she’s not letting me go off on my own again.”

“Did she know?” Steve asked. “About what happened between you and your father?”

“No. Still doesn’t. And I’m not likely to tell her.”

“What about your mother?”

“I don’t know. But she’s not…” he sighed. “I doubt he told her. Probably thought it would’ve killed her, seeing as how he wasn’t a big believer in the strength of a woman’s constitution.”

Steve thought of Becky then - her solicitude and her smile and her wicked sense of humor. “No wonder Becky wanted to go with you.”

“Sometimes I think she’d’ve been safer staying home,” Bucky admitted. “She would never have forgiven me for leaving her behind, but…”

“She loves Matthew,” Steve pointed out.

Bucky grunted, moving enough that he could run his hand - his bad hand - across Steve’s cheek. “She does. She’s made a decent enough life for herself, I suppose.”

“So’ve you.”

Snorting, Bucky shook his head. “I thought I might become my own man here. But...with the way I am…”

Steve wasn’t sure what he meant, so he made a vague noise of assent in the hopes Bucky might continue.

“Near as soon as we settled in, Becky began making friends,” Bucky said. “She met Natasha and Peggy straightaway, started bringing them around the house. Natasha was...keen on me. It was hard to miss it.” He smiled. “She’s not one for being demure about what she wants.”

“She is not.”

“So part of me thinks...hell, I like this girl - she’s a pistol. I could court her. Love her, maybe. So I tried.” He glanced down and shrugged. “We had fun with all those picnics and buggy rides, but neither of us is saints, and when we tried to. Well. It was only that I wasn’t able to...hold up my end of the bargain.” Another glance down, this one a bit more pointed.

Steve understood, and he tried not to blush out of embarrassment for Bucky’s plight. “Oh.”

“She was as gracious as she could be about it,” he said. “But I guess I panicked. Maybe said too much to make her feel better when I couldn’t uh...meet expectations.”

Steve’s eyes widened. “She knows?” He couldn’t believe it - Natasha knowing about Bucky’s inclinations and still liking him? Still wanting to be his friend? It didn’t make a bit of sense.

“I never quite put it so plainly,” Bucky coughed. “But she’s not a stupid girl.”

“So that’s why…” Steve realized. “I thought for sure you were her beau, but then she started talking about Sam, and…”

“Honestly,” Bucky broke in. “Natasha’s not one that’s meant for a quiet life. If she’d married me, she’d have been forced into one.”

“Nothing wrong with a quiet life.”

“For some people,” Bucky said with a smile. “But if I know her and Sam, they aim to spit in the face of conventionality.”

“All the same,” Steve said. “I don’t mind quiet.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “You get that claim you’re always on about, you’ll have it.”

“Maybe,” Steve agreed, yawning before leaning up and pressing a kiss to the underside of Bucky’s jaw. “M’sorry I was sour at you before.”

That got a chuckle, Bucky flicking Steve’s ear and making him yelp. “That’s alright, pal. I’ll do my best to be better about putting my goddamn boots away.”

Chapter Text

March came and brought with it the first tentative hints of spring, beginning the push and pull that would carry them through to the true start of the season. Winter was loathe to give up her place on the prairie, fighting against any hint of a thaw by sending them two more bitter blizzards in the early part of the month.

Steve might not have minded, save for the fact that Bucky’s unhappiness returned with the storms. Throughout the winter, Bucky had been lighter. Cheerful. Less prone to taking to bed for hours, the way he had when Steve had first arrived.

Perhaps naively, Steve had assumed Bucky’s dark moods would disappear because of what had passed between them. That their friendship and all the complicated feelings everything else brought with it would be enough to provide him solace from his loneliness and his suffering.

When those days came that Bucky roused himself only to care for the animals before returning to bed in a daze, Steve found that all he could do for him was stay close. Hold him and simply be near.

The darkness didn't last forever. Some days - hell, most days - Bucky was fine. He teased, and he jostled. He kissed, and he cuddled. He was perfectly himself until he wasn't.

Steve didn’t know why, but he supposed he could manage all the same. He could live for the good days if he had to.

 


 

The third week of March brought with it a break in the weather and Bucky’s mood. The temperature turned mild, and they were able to exercise the animals properly. All creatures great and small were happy for the chance to be outdoors. To run and play and be kissed right up against the side of the stable.

Well. The latter was for one very particular creature.

“Becky’n Matthew might just come by this Sunday,” Bucky commented later that afternoon as he surveyed what was left of their winter stores, standing next to Steve in the close, dim light of the root cellar. “If the weather holds.”

Pleased at the notion, Steve smiled. It had been months since he’d seen a face that wasn’t Bucky’s face, and as much as he enjoyed his company, he found he was missing his friends. Especially Peggy. He’d be happy enough going to church if it meant a bit more time spent in her company.

“That’d be good,” Steve replied. “I’d like to see them.”

“Mmm,” Bucky said. “We’re low on a few things - if they come, I’ll send you in with an order for Carter.”

Steve laughed and fixed Bucky with a look. "Or you could go into town yourself, lazy. Stop making Matthew and me your pack mules."

“No, thank you.”

“How come you hate going into town so much?”

“Went for your birthday, didn’t I?” Bucky said, dodging the question as he stepped onto the ladder that led out of the cellar.

“That doesn’t...hey, Bucky!” Steve rolled his eyes, scrambling after him.

“What? I answered.” Bucky affixed Steve with his most obnoxious smile. The smile Steve hated and loved in equal measure. One which conveyed that he knew he was being a stubborn ass and didn’t care much what anyone thought about it.

“But why,” he pressed. “You said Natasha doesn’t mind about you, so how come...?”

“Got nothing to do with Natasha,” he snapped, all good humor disappearing from his eyes as he slammed the slatted cellar door down, the noise making Steve jump. “You think I wanna see any of those damn people again?”

“I don’t…” That didn’t make any sense. “What do you mean?”

“I told you,” Bucky replied. “When we first came here, I tried to be...different. But…” he shook his head and laughed, the noise bitter and unhappy. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Bucky…”

“God damn it, Steve, leave it alone.”

“Why should I?” Steve replied, voice rising as he stood his ground, folding his arms across his chest.

Bucky scoffed at him, then, turning on his heel and going to where his hat was hanging by the door. “You don’t know anything at all about me.”

“You’re mean.” It wasn’t kind, he knew, but he had nothing else left to say. Bucky let him in when he wanted to, pushed him away when he didn’t, and he was tired of it. Tired of the moods and the melancholy. “You never tell me why you’re angry, or why you’re sad or...why you won’t get out of the damn bed all day, or...”

“Leave it alone, Steve,” Bucky repeated, cutting him off as he pulled his hat down and reached for his coat.

“Where are you going?”

“Out. Don’t follow me.”

Steve wasn’t about to. Bucky was awful, and he had no desire to be around him and his short temper and his brutishness. Instead, he went to find his rosary, kneeling by the bed and taking comfort in the familiarity of that old routine.

The anger within him ebbed as he murmured the words, and when he came to the end of his prayers, he said one for Bucky. For him to find some semblance of peace. Truthfully, Steve wasn't sure if God could hear him, or if he would even be listening, considering what Steve had been up to since the last time he'd been to confession. But he would pray if the prayers were for Bucky, who needed them more than Steve needed to worry about his guilt.

The sun was nearly set by the time Bucky returned, shoulders slumped and a cold wind blowing in with him when he opened the door. Steve had been busying himself with mending a pair of his trousers; reinforcing a button that had come loose with wear.

He chose not to say anything when Bucky blustered his way in, Sarge at his heels. After all, he wasn’t sure what sort of Bucky he was getting.

Turned out, it was a recalcitrant one. Bucky shut the door and crossed the room to Steve in two long strides, pulling him up out of his chair, even as Steve protested he wasn’t finished. Bucky didn’t care, pressing his mouth to Steve’s in a kiss that brought the cold along with it, sending a shiver running down Steve’s spine as Bucky nearly picked him right up off the ground and into the embrace.

“Bucky, you’re freezing,” he said, pulling back.

“Sorry,” Bucky replied, cheeks gone pink from the cold. He didn’t look a bit sorry, something bright sparking in his eyes.

Steve wasn’t stupid, and his own cheeks went red as he began the work of undressing Bucky - working his heavy coat off his shoulders before undoing the row of buttons on his shirt. As the skin was exposed, he began to press kisses anywhere he could reach, ostensibly warming him up but really to satisfy his own needs, the casual intimacy of it still a marvel.

Because he knew Bucky. He knew how to make him feel good. Knew how to read his wants and his desires.

Goodness, how utterly terrible and astonishing it was to know how to love someone.

Stepping back, Steve looked up at Bucky from under his lashes. Bucky made a low noise, placing a hand on Steve’s shoulder, heavy with meaning.

There was no need to ask. Steve dropped to his knees, lamenting the cold floor as he pressed his cheek to the bulge in Bucky's trousers. Somewhere along the way, it had stopped feeling wrong. How could it be wrong, when it made Bucky so happy?

Long fingers threaded through his hair and Steve looked up, locking eyes with Bucky.

“Go on,” Bucky managed.

Steve didn’t wait for him to finish the sentence, bringing his hands to run across the rough material of Bucky’s trousers, unbuttoning his fly and breathing him in. He smelled like winter. Cold air and endless white. The smell of their solitude. Their bed. Their home.

Bucky whined as Steve opened his mouth and took him in, the weight of his prick heavy on Steve’s tongue. It was familiar to him now - he knew just how to move, knew when Bucky would tug his hair, lightly at first, then with more insistence as things progressed.

The winter had turned him into a proper sinner. Once upon a time, the sight of those two men in the alleyway had been the most wicked, shocking thing he'd ever seen. Now? He'd never felt more comfortable than there on his knees.

Perhaps that ought to have frightened him, how easily he could separate what he felt for Bucky from what he felt for God. It didn’t. Bucky had said it himself - there wasn’t a God who’d make something feel so good, then hate him for it. Maybe that was the God of his church - all those saints and priests and pontiffs - but Steve was beginning to see a distinction.

Bucky’s breathing came in short gasps as he fought not to thrust. Steve rewarded that remarkable show of restraint by taking Bucky in deeper, then bringing a hand between his legs to touch him there. To make him vulnerable - make him Steve’s.

Because Steve did know him. Knew his body. Knew when he was close. Knew when to pull away so that Bucky’s spend landed on his tongue. He knew that taste, too. Swallowed it down and caught Bucky as he sank to his knees before Steve, pulling him close and burying his face against Steve’s shoulder.

“God, Steve,” he managed.

Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s neck, holding him steadfast. “I see you,” he said. “Bucky, I do. I’m here with you.”

Bucky was crying, he realized when the dampness of the tears soaked into his shirt. There wasn't much else to say, so Steve simply held him, feeling very grown-up indeed as they knelt there on the floor. Still as statues, until Steve's knees hurt and his legs trembled. Only then did they move to the bed, where Bucky lay, eyes bloodshot and tired, looking up at Steve.

“Don’t know why I’m like this,” he muttered. “I try, but…”

“I don’t think you’re mean,” Steve said, leaning over and touching his cheek lightly. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I am, though,” Bucky said. “I’m...I don’t go into town because those people remember, Steve. They remember what I did.”

“Please tell me,” he said, keeping his hand right where it was.

Bucky took in a deep breath, closing his eyes and thinking it over. “I...when I came here, it was like I said. I wanted to try to be someone new. To start over. Hell, I used to go to church. Let all those folks come over for Becky’s nonsense picnics. But there was…” He shuddered, opening his eyes. “Something happened.”

Steve stayed quiet, free hand moving out to clasp Bucky’s, their fingers twining together.

"I had one of those...fits, I guess you call ‘em," he continued. "Beck and I were in town, and some of the fellas started up a game of tag. They asked me to join and, hell, I thought it sounded like fun. Might as well." Clearing his throat, he looked away. "One of ‘em grabbed me around the waist, and we fell. He didn't mean to do it but the way we landed, he was pinning me down, and I went...I went right back there."

There was no need to ask where ‘there’ was. Steve tightened his grip on Bucky’s hand instinctively.

"I hurt him. The Stark kid. Nearly broke his arm - busted up his nose pretty bad, I guess. I don't remember, but Becky told me later that it took Matthew and Sam to get me off him."

“Oh, Bucky,” Steve frowned. “You couldn’t…”

“They were scared of me,” Bucky bit out, voice breaking. “I saw it. Every time I go to town, I still see it.”

“What about Natasha, she…”

"We'd broken it off before then, and even if I wasn't...the way I am, she'da been better off without me regardless. When you...when you asked, I thought it'd be alright on your birthday, but you know what happened. They don't want me there. None of ‘em do."

Steve stayed silent as he thought it over. The explanation cleared up a few things - Bucky’s reluctance to be around people, the way he’d reacted to Stark’s name, the things Peggy and Sam had said about him the first time Steve had made their acquaintance.

However, neither Peggy nor Sam had talked about Bucky with fear or revulsion. Peggy, for that matter, had spoken of him fondly, even if it had been with a certain amount of exasperation. And while Steve couldn't be sure, he was reasonably sure Peggy and Natasha hadn't brought them a picnic simply out of some altruistic desire to see Steve and Steve alone.

They liked Bucky in spite of who he was. Perhaps even because of it. But Bucky couldn't see that, so deeply rooted were his anger and his fear and his hatred for himself.

“I’m sorry that happened to you, Bucky. I truly am,” he said. “But you’re wrong. I’ve seen you during those fits, and you’re not yourself. People are capable of understanding something like that. Hell, Peggy and Natasha wouldn’t come here alone if they were so darn scared of you. And I’m not scared of you.”

A tiny smile graced Bucky’s face, and he raised an eyebrow. “Even when I’m mean?”

“Especially when you’re mean.”

“That’s…” he shook his head. “We ought to go bed down the animals. It’s late.”

Typical Bucky. Steve shook his head and leaned down, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “No. You’re not going anywhere. I’ll manage the chores. You rest.”

Bucky put up a few protests before acquiescing to Steve’s insistent offer. After all, Bucky had taken on the bulk of the work during the worst of the storms. The least Steve could do was give him an evening off.

Winter and Bright were in fine form when he reached their stalls, and it didn’t take much work to bed and water them for the night, along with the other animals.

He took his time, wanting to give Bucky the opportunity to gather his composure. Once the chores were through, he went to the woodpile, leaning against the logs as he looked up at the sky. The heavens were clear - a million pinpricks of light shining down from the stars above. Funny, how very many more stars he could see there than he’d ever been able to see in the city.

All those beauties, burning bright. One amongst them for his father. One for his mother, too, letting them watch out for him. Letting them see him there, alone in the dark on that vast, endless prairie.

“Ma,” he said, laughing at the sound of his voice. Hell, if he could pray to Mary and believe she might listen, surely it wasn’t too much a stretch to believe Sarah and Joseph Rogers had their ears turned towards their son sometimes.

“Da,” he continued, face still turned skywards. “I think you ought to know I’m happy here. With him. Bucky. You’d like him.” He hesitated, fingers flexing at his sides as he traced the path of Orion’s belt with his eyes. “I know you might be angry with me, but I hope maybe you can understand that it’s for the best. It’s good that I’m home because he’s home, you see?”

No answer was coming, of course, but he continued his not-quite-benediction all the same. “And I think that if you could meet him, you would understand why...and I think maybe it’s not so bad. Or it’s good. Or it’s not a sin, at least. Not so much as I thought before, anyhow. And I love you. And I miss you both.”

He fell silent and still, the words carried away as he waited. For what, he wasn't sure. An answer, perhaps, or a sign.

What he got instead was a cold gust of wind reminding him that winter wasn't entirely done and that Bucky might worry if he lingered much longer. So he went back inside, finding Bucky half-asleep, worn out and tangled in the quilts. Steve joined him presently, bringing with him the last of the bread and a nearly-finished jar of peach preserves.

“You’ll get the quilt sticky,” Bucky protested as Steve settled in.

He sat up and joined him in the meal anyway.

 


 

Someone was knocking at the door.

“Steven, be a good boy and get that for your ailing mother,” Sarah called out from where she was stirring the pot on the stove.

“Ma, I’m busy,” Steve protested. Couldn’t she see that the was with Bucky? It was impossible for him to answer the door because Bucky was kissing his neck and gripping his waist.

“Don’t argue with your mother, Steve,” Bucky scolded, even as his fingers dug into Steve’s skin and held him fast. “Answer the door.”

Another knock, this one more like pounding as the door shook in its frame.

“The door, my love,” Sarah repeated. “Won’t do to miss the train.”

“Don’t miss the train,” Bucky echoed.

The door shook again, and Steve couldn't move. Bucky's fingers hurt and he squirmed. “Bucky, let go of me.”

“Get the door, Steve.”

“Get the door, Steve.”

 

“Who’s at the goddamn door this time of night?”

Steve jolted awake with a start at the sound of Bucky’s angry voice. Someone was at the door, and he was dreaming - no not dreaming. Someone was at the door, Sarge was barking in the yard, and he was in Bucky’s bed.

He scrambled away, still half in the dream. “Don’t answer it,” he pleaded. “We’ll miss the train.”

Bucky affixed him with a look that plainly said he thought Steve had taken leave of his senses. He got up and went to take down his rifle while Steve got out of bed, privately grateful they’d both been wearing most of their clothes upon falling asleep, even if Bucky had had to do up his trousers.

Undoing the latch, Bucky pulled the door open to reveal Matthew on the other side, skinny and pale, boots half-laced and his coat buttoned halfway. There was a harried-looking horse behind him, sides heaving with exertion.

In the time it took Steve to begin to piece things together, Bucky had yanked Matthew inside. “What’s wrong with my sister?” He snarled.

“The baby,” Matthew stammered. “It’s coming, I think.”

“What baby?”

“The...our baby,” Matthew said with a helpless shrug.

Steve had forgotten about his suspicions. Had forgotten the unspoken secret Becky had asked him to keep. Becky was having a baby, and Bucky hadn’t known because nobody had bothered to tell him, least of all Steve.

Which was undoubtedly a problem, but a problem for another day. There were more pressing concerns now. Namely, a young woman in distress and her frantic husband.

“Go get the goddamn doctor!” Bucky snapped, releasing Matthew with a shove.

"He's gone," Matthew said. "I went into town a few days ago, to see, but the trains aren't running yet, and he's been in Lawrence since before the storms started. And I swear, Bucky, something's gone wrong, she can't…" His voice was panicked, and Bucky wasn't helping. "You're the closest to us, and you're her brother, and you…"

Steve found his voice. “I can help.”

Both of them turned to look at him with twin expressions of incredulity.

“My mother helped deliver babies,” he said. Sarah Rogers had learned midwifery from her own mother, and in their poor, insular community of immigrants, she had often been called to assist. Steve - sick and small and hardly noticed - had gone with her. The tiny tenements of his youth meant there hadn’t been any place to put him when she’d brought him along, so he’d borne witness to what happened there in those dark, cramped rooms full of women. “I’d go with her sometimes, so I know some things. If you’d like me to help.”

As he made the offer, it struck him how little he knew. He had seen babies born, and he'd fetched and carried for Sarah, assisting her where he could. As he'd gotten older, she had begun to teach him properly, convinced in her way that he might need the knowledge. That it was a skill possessed by few men, but one that might serve Steve well, even if only with his own wife, should he ever acquire one. Sarah had understood he might never be strong, so she had tried to equip him with something useful. So yes, he knew the business of having babies - he understood when things were going well, and he had seen what happened when things went poorly. But he had never done it alone, and he wasn't sure he remembered enough to succeed.

Bucky broke the silence then, and Steve knew he would have to try regardless.

“I’ll saddle the horses.”

 

Chapter Text

Matthew rode ahead, while Bucky and Steve saddled Winter and Bright as quickly as they could. Bucky was in fine form, swearing at every strap and buckle as his fingers fumbled the simple task.

“God damn it,” he spat.

“I’ll do it,” Steve said, stepping alongside him and reaching for the strap that had been giving him so much trouble.

“You…” Bucky moved behind him, dropping a hand to his shoulder and squeezing. “You can help, can’t you?”

“Yes,” Steve replied, though he didn’t know at all, and couldn’t think about what it would mean if he was wrong. “Check I cinched that tight enough.”

Bucky did, mouth set in a grim line and worry etched deep across his brow. The cinch was sufficient, and soon enough they were riding as fast as they were able, though Steve still couldn’t manage a proper gallop.

As they rode, Steve turned the situation over in his mind, best he could. It was late March, which meant Becky had fallen pregnant the previous summer. It wasn’t surprising - they were newlyweds, after all. The thing was, Steve hadn’t grown suspicious until December, and by then he would have liked to think she might have been showing more. He’d been around pregnant women his entire life, and he knew the signs, yet he hadn’t realized she was so far along.

Or, she wasn’t, and the baby was coming early.

No. Couldn’t think that way. Some women didn’t show much, was all, or they showed late, or they hid it. That was all. There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with Becky that another few hours of suffering wouldn’t fix.

The Proctors' cabin was set atop a small rise. The house was bigger than the shanty Steve and Bucky shared, made of notched logs rather than siding. The yard was more modest, though, and the fences weren't quite so well-made, nor was the stable so sturdy.

Once they’d dismounted, Bucky snapped something about putting the horses up, and that Steve ought to go on inside.

There was no arguing with the expression on Bucky’s face, so Steve did as he was told, knocking and waiting for a pale-faced Matthew to open the door.

He heard Becky before he saw her, a low moan of pain coming from behind the quilts that had been hung to give the illusion of a separate bedroom, much like what Bucky had done with Steve’s space at home.

Hardly sparing Matthew a glance, Steve went towards the sound, pushing past the quilts to find Becky kneeling on the bed, white as a sheet with a fine sheen of sweat beading on her skin.

When she looked up, she didn’t seem at all surprised to see him. Instead, she smiled through gritted teeth. “Matthew says you can help,” she said. “Full of...oof, full of supr-ahh-ahh-ses.”

“I can help,” he assured her, despite his reservations. Despite knowing that for all the women his mother had eased through childbirth, there had been others who were lost. Having babies was a dangerous business, regardless of the who and the what and the wherefore. Steve knew that, and now he was faced with only himself, his hurting friend, and a baby fighting to come into the world whether they were ready for it or not.

“How long?” Steve asked. “That is to say, when did you realize your ah, condition?”

The contraction of pain had passed, and Becky lay a hand on her belly before blowing some hair out of her eyes. “It was September before I figured out what was wrong,” she admitted. “Hardly had a bump before Christmas, then all of a sudden…” She gestured at the swell of her stomach, which was (to Steve’s blessed relief) rounded enough to indicate a full-grown baby, or at least near to full-grown.

“I guess I thought you might be,” Steve admitted, “but I didn’t like to say, and I didn’t tell…”

The front door banged open, and they both jumped.

“...Bucky,” Steve finished, as the man in question appeared around the curtain seconds later, wild-eyed and terrified.

“Becky!”

“I’m alright,” she replied.

The calm response did nothing to assuage Bucky’s temper as he let the quilt fall and stepped closer. “You didn’t say a goddamn word.”

“I didn’t want to worry you, oh…” she yelped, wincing at some new pain. Steve reached for her hand so she could bear down.

“Why the hell wouldn’t you want to wo--”

“Bucky, get out,” Steve snapped. He was not going to let them squabble, no matter how much they enjoyed it. “Go and get me some hot water, and tell Matthew to get washcloths.” He wasn’t sure how much the Proctors had, but surely they had some useful things.

Bucky's mouth closed and he turned on his heel as Steve gave his full attention to Becky, who hadn't been having an actual pain, merely a spasm.

“How long’s this part been going on?” he asked when she released her grip on his hand.

"My back's been sore all day," she said. "But after supper, it got worse. I guess I knew what it was, anyhow. And I thought, well, I'll know what to do. Women have been having babies forever - Mary had hers in a stable, and at least I have a house. But it's...I was hurting so much, and nothing was happening, and I got worried something was wrong, so I sent Matthew for Bucky, in case--"

In case something was wrong, and it was the last time she’d ever see her brother. The words went unspoken, and Steve did his best to be reassuring. “I helped my mother do this half a hundred times,” he said, which wasn’t strictly true, but Becky didn’t need to know that. “Have your waters broken?”

“My what?”

So, no, most likely. “This is ah...well, it’s going to be embarrassing any way we go about it, but can you lie down and let me see?”

Becky grinned, raising an eyebrow as she shifted her weight, Steve helping her down to the mattress. “Never thought we’d become so intimately acquainted,” she said, the breezy tone she adopted doing nothing to mask her discomfort as Steve moved the material of her nightgown out of the way.

He wasn’t a doctor. Hell, he wasn’t even a proper midwife. But he knew enough, and he was able to use what small knowledge he had to look her over, mimicking the things he’d seen his mother do as he checked for what he hoped to God was a correctly positioned baby.

“I don’t believe anything’s wrong,” he said eventually, pulling back and fixing her clothing for modesty’s sake. “First babies take longer sometimes, is all.”

“Oh,” Becky said, her voice small. “How long?”

“There’s no way of knowing.” He was truly sorry for that fact. “But we can try some things to make you comfortable. If…”

Bucky chose that moment to reappear, holding a bucket of water, alongside Matthew who was carrying a stack of towels. They both looked equal parts horrified and uncomfortable, which seemed about right.

“Put those down,” Steve said, indicating the floor by the bed. “We’ll need more hot water, I’m sure. Bucky, you go put some snow on the fire.”

“But…”

“Go.”

Bucky went. Steve turned his attention back to Becky, who only had eyes for Matthew. “Becky, does your back still hurt?”

She nodded, though she didn’t look away from her husband.

“Alright,” Steve said, thinking through what his mother would do. The remedies she would try. “Sit up a little, let Matthew rub your back, just down low.” It was unconventional, he knew, but without anyone else around, Matthew would have to serve as Becky’s support. In the past, Steve had usually been the only male presence in the room or apartment, the grown-up men sent to smoke in stairwells or pubs. He had been overlooked because he was young and small, the only son of the woman they all trusted to bring their babies into the world. Because of that, he had learned, and now he could be there for Becky.

Steve wasn’t sure if God had a sense of humor, but he was sure Sarah was laughing somewhere.

Matthew came to perch on the side of the bed at Steve’s invitation, helping Becky sit up before barely grazing her lower back with the very tips of his fingers, as though afraid he’d damage her.

“You’ll have to try harder than that,” Becky gritted. “Put your back into it, honey.”

Steve hid a smile, figuring that if Matthew had been there for the planting, he ought to turn up for the harvest. He left them to it and went to check on Bucky, who had gone out to fill the kettle with snow they could melt. He found him scooping up handfuls with gloved hands, muttering to himself, simmering anger covering up his obvious fear.

“Buck?”

Bucky sprang to his feet, itching for a fight as he crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at Steve. “Well?”

“Don’t you get mad at me,” he snapped. “I’ll tell you what I told your sister - I don’t think anything’s wrong.”

“But she didn’t tell me,” he bit out, looking for all the world like a feral animal licking its wounds.

“We haven’t seen them in months,” Steve said, and while he couldn’t defend Becky’s reasoning, he was beginning to understand it. She had been pregnant with her first baby, and settling in for a hard, lonely winter with her new husband. That winter would hole them up in a house that was much further from town than Bucky’s homestead, and Steve assumed that Becky had thought spring would come before the baby. She’d likely planned to tell Bucky then - to surprise him with happy news instead of leaving him to fret over it all winter, unable to see her. “I’m sure she didn’t want to worry you.”

Bucky grunted, crossing his arms over his chest. “Did you know?”

“I had my suspicions.”

Another low growl. “Some friend you are.”

“What good would it have done, Bucky?” he asked. “I thought maybe, and then I forgot that I’d thought it at all. All it would have done is burden you.”

Bucky considered that, breath puffing out in clouds as he vented his anger, unsure of quite where to direct the rage. Turned out, Matthew was an easy target. “He did this to her.”

“Yes,” Steve agreed, smiling. “That tends to be the natural order of these things.”

Bucky glared at him, and Steve tried to look solemn. “Don’t joke,” he said. “It’s not...she could die.”

“She could,” Steve agreed because there were no guarantees in life, but in truth, he didn’t think she was going to. She was scared and hurting, but she was also strong and healthy, with a baby turned the right way round and everything progressing as God intended. “But we’re going to do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Bucky’s angry resolve crumbled, shoulders slumping as he looked down at Steve. “She’s my family,” he said quietly. “She’s all I have left.”

Mindful of just what Becky had given up for her brother, and what Bucky might become if he lost his sister, Steve reached out and gripped his arm, squeezing it gently and offering him a smile. “Buck, she’s my family, too.”

 


 

The trouble with birthing babies was that the babies in question tended to have their own schedule. A precise timetable they stuck to resolutely, regardless of how much pain they were causing their mother, or how frantic they might be making their fathers and uncles with the delay.

Night gave way to pale, grey dawn with no change. Becky was still laboring as the hours wound towards noon, clinging to Matthew's arm while he walked her around the cabin on Steve's advice, exhausted and miserable.

Steve wasn’t worried, not yet. Not when the baby seemed fine, and everything that was happening was something he’d seen before. The pains were growing closer together, with Becky bruising the hand of whomever she happened to be with at the time they struck. Nothing was amiss, it was only that the littlest Barnes (or Proctor, really) had decided to make a grand entrance precisely when he or she chose.

That grand entrance began around mid-afternoon when several things happened all at once. First, Becky’s waters broke as she made another circuit of the small cabin, this time holding Bucky’s arm. Bucky was as surprised as any man might have been to discover that those waters were quite literal, and very much on his boots.

“Oh,” he managed, just as the second thing happened, which was a fresh labor pain striking Becky, who looked around, frantic and clammy.

“Bucket,” she managed.

“What?” Bucky said.

Steve stepped closer as the third major event took place - namely, Becky vomiting neatly into the bucket he held beneath her in the nick of time.

“Good,” Steve murmured, bringing his free hand up to rub her back. He couldn’t imagine the misery of it, though he had to think it might feel as though a body wasn’t one’s own, merely a conduit for the arrival of something new. Not at all pleasant, but all the same, it was a relief that the baby had finally decided to announce him or herself as ready to enter the world.

“God, Becks,” Bucky managed, a look of sheer horror on his face as his sister came apart at both ends. Steve turned his head and found Matthew faring no better, an identical expression crossing his features.

“Contrary to what you two might believe,” Steve said. “This isn’t uncommon, and--”

“I want to lie down,” Becky broke in, not caring much for Steve’s lessons on the nuances of childbirth. “And all of you need to stop talking.”

“I wasn’t-- “ Matthew began, before being silenced by a glare from his wife as Steve and Bucky helped her back to bed.

By the time they got her settled, she was shivering, though her skin was flushed and pink. Steve sat next to her as Bucky and Matthew crowded into the small space, taking up room and looming in a way that wasn’t helping.

“Ah,” Steve began. “Might be best if you both--”

“Get out,” Becky yelped, summing it up nicely. “Get out right now and stop standing there.”

Matthew opened his mouth, as though he might protest, but any words were lost when Becky gave a cry of pain and grabbed Steve’s arm with the strength of ten men.

“Best go,” Steve said through gritted teeth.

Bucky and Matthew didn’t need to be told twice, scarpering to the other side of the quilt. Steve, meanwhile, got to work. The last bit - the hardest bit - was also the most unpredictable. It was the time when any number of things could go wrong, and the time when a mother who had seemed perfectly healthy could take an ill turn. Steve had seen it happen, though not often - Sarah had usually sent him out to spare him.

“I’m going to die,” Becky gasped when Steve instructed her to begin pushing. “Oh, I’m dying, I can’t.”

“You’re not dying,” Steve said, though he didn’t feel like much of an authority on the matter. “Bear down now, push through it.”

As Becky labored, Steve muttered a prayer to the Virgin, alongside one to Saint Anne for good measure. His mother, his grandmother, anyone who might see fit to ease a part of Becky’s burden. Some people believed that childbirth was meant to be suffered through. Endured in all its painful, terrible agony as some sort of retribution for what part Eve played in her and Adam’s exile from Eden. Sarah Rogers hadn’t held with that sort of nonsense, and she hadn’t allowed Steve to believe it, either.

Because yes, there was suffering, but there was joy, too. Joy came quickly when the baby's head emerged, Steve checking to make sure the cord wasn't wrapped around its neck. There was joy when Becky gave one last push, and then there was bliss as Steve held a tiny little girl in his arms, red-faced and open-mouthed in a silent scream which soon became a very audible one.

“Oh,” Becky breathed. “Oh, is it…?”

“She’s alright,” Steve laughed, wasting no time in placing Becky’s daughter in her waiting arms. “She’s here.”

There weren’t words for Becky’s expression as she held her baby for the first time - awe and wonderment and a certain sort of peace settling over her. “Hello, you,” she said, tears in her eyes.

It was funny, how nearly every mother said something similar - hello, you're beautiful, nice to meet you - yet each moment felt unique. Steve had missed it, seeing life brought into the world. There was a particular clarity of purpose, and while he knew he shouldn't be proud, he still allowed himself a moment of relief, murmuring a prayer of gratitude as he handed Becky a washcloth for the baby before getting up to fetch Bucky and Matthew.

The two of them were waiting barely three feet beyond the curtain, having heard the baby crying. They looked at Steve with such cautious optimism that he nearly laughed.

“You have a daughter,” he informed Matthew, who fairly ran past him to get to Becky’s side.

Bucky was slower to react, waiting until the quilt fell back into place before reaching for Steve, pulling him against his chest in a suffocating hug. “Christ,” he muttered. Steve tended to agree.

They stood there a moment, Bucky holding Steve tight, both of them wanting something they couldn’t say until another cry from the baby broke them apart.

“Come meet your niece,” Steve teased, giving him a nudge.

Bucky was shy about it, peeking behind the curtain to where Matthew and Becky were doting on the baby, who had begun kicking her little legs and letting the world know how unhappy she was about being in it.

“God,” Bucky muttered, stepping closer when Becky beckoned him forward. “Kind of wrinkled, isn’t she?”

“She’s perfect,” Becky snapped.

“Wrinkled can be perfect!” Bucky protested. (It was good to see Bucky and Becky’s relationship hadn’t suffered any lasting damage.) “Anyway. You. Well. I’m glad to see her. And you.”

Becky regarded him imperiously for a moment before a grin spread across her face. “You might as well come closer.”

Bucky did, and Steve gave them what time he could before stepping in. He and Becky still had work to do, as the thing about babies was that they weren't the only thing that had to be delivered. The rest of it was an unsavory business, and to carry it out, he banished Matthew and Bucky to the other side of the partition once more. The baby stayed wrapped up in a blanket, laying on her chest as Steve guided her through the aftermath.

“They don’t tell you about this when you get married,” she commented, while Steve disposed of what needed disposing of in the empty bucket.

“Nobody’d ever get married if they did,” he said.

“Suppose not,” Becky agreed. “You really learned how to do all that from your mother?”

“Most of it,” he said as he began to clear away the soiled linens. Matthew would have to go after them with a tub of boiling water and some lye soap. “I was sick all the time when I was small, and so she’d take me with her because she didn’t like leaving me on my own. I know it’s not common, for men, but--”

“I imagine,” Becky said, cutting him off before he could go too far down the path of disparaging himself. “There are plenty of women here who’ll be glad to know you and learn from you. A skill’s a skill, regardless of who possesses it.”

Steve smiled, reaching over to touch the baby’s cheek, which was growing less wrinkled by the minute. “I forgot how useful a skill it can be.”

“What was her name?”

Startled, he looked up and met Becky’s eyes. “Who?”

“Your mother,” Becky replied, laughing a little.

“Oh,” he said. “Sarah.”

“Sarah,” she echoed, shifting the baby on her chest and nodding. “Sarah it is, then.”

Of all the surprising things that had happened over the past day, that was the most shocking of all. Steve's eyes went wide, and he stammered, shaking his head. "Oh, Becky, that's not--"

“Sarah,” she said again, with intent. “Sarah Rebecca, I think, because I’m not above a little vanity, and I did do most of the work. But you wouldn’t be here without her, and I don’t know that I’d have managed without you.”

“You would have,” Steve said, ducking his head. “I only--”

“You set me at ease,” she said. “And kept my stupid brother from murdering Matthew.”

“Huh.” Steve grinned. “Bucky’s not so hard to handle.”

“Says you.” Becky sighed, shifting her weight and wincing a little. “Lord, that’s sore.”

Steve nodded in sympathy, holding his hands out for the baby. For Sarah. “You ought to sleep if you want. I’m sure we can manage her for a while.”

Becky handed the baby over, albeit reluctantly, before settling down. Steve got to his feet once she was comfortable, looking down at the baby in his arms. Sarah wasn’t his niece, not really. He wasn’t their family by any measure that counted. Whatever he and Bucky were, it wasn’t something they could share. Yet at that moment, he knew he loved the little girl in his arms as much as he’d ever loved anyone or anything.

The baby was part of Bucky, and Bucky was part of Steve.

It wasn’t what he was supposed to want, but it was love all the same.

 

Chapter Text

Steve and Bucky might have stayed with Becky and Matthew indefinitely, were it not for the pressing concern of the animals waiting back home. Bucky was enamored of his niece in a way Steve had never seen him enamored of anything. Any time he was afforded the opportunity to hold her, something inside of him lit up. The best part of him, Steve figured, as he made faces and coddled her.

Becky’s nap lasted into the early evening, and Steve didn’t envy either parent the schedule they were going to be adopting with a newborn at home. Bucky, Matthew, and Steve had been passing Sarah around the entire time, none of them content to give her up for long, even though she was mostly sleeping as well.

Steve was holding her when Becky finally woke, a sigh of discomfort coming from behind the curtain. “Where’s my baby?” she called.

“We’re coming,” Steve called back, which caused Sarah to give a sharp cry of annoyance at the very indignity of it all. “Hello to you, too. You want to go see your mama?”

Whether or not Sarah had any say in the matter was up for debate, as Steve moved behind the partition and placed her in Becky’s waiting arms.

“Steve and I ought to go,” came Bucky’s voice from behind, and he turned in surprise, not realizing he’d been followed. “There’s things to be done at home, but we’ll come back.”

“I can go, Buck,” Steve said. “You should stay another night.”

“You won’t find your way in the dark,” Bucky replied, in such an overly-familiar fashion that Steve raised an eyebrow, hoping Becky couldn’t see. Bucky scowled and shrugged. “We’re both going, and we’ll come back. Like I said.”

“I know you will,” Becky said. “Thank you for coming, and…” Reaching out, she squeezed Steve’s hand. “Thank you.”

Steve ducked his head and shrugged, because now that the danger was through and the panic had passed, he found himself unaccountably abashed over the compliment. “Anyone would’ve done it.”

“Not everyone could,” Becky smiled. “Wait’ll I tell Peggy and Natasha. Every girl in town’s gonna be setting her sights on you.”

Bucky cleared his throat and straightened his back. “C’mon, Steve. Quit dawdling and go get the horses.”

“I wasn’t ,” he snapped, raising a token protest even as he left Bucky and Becky to say their goodbyes privately.

Matthew helped him saddle the horses, and by the time they were through, Bucky had come out from the house to check their work. Soon enough, they were riding across the still-snowy prairie, going at a good clip, though not the breakneck speed of the night before.

Bucky began to whistle, the song carried away on the wind. Steve spared him a glance and realized once more what it meant to love him. The thought of it was no longer frightening. He and Bucky belonged to one another - fate had set them on paths that inexorably led them together, and now there they were.

“What are you mooning over?” Bucky asked, turning his head and catching Steve staring.

“You.”

Bucky snorted and reached up to pull his hat down lower on his head, then spurred Winter on so Steve had to nudge Bright to keep up. They played chase all the way back home, where the cow and the chickens were thrilled to see them. Or, rather, they were angry at being left alone so long and relieved to see their masters’ return.

Curious, how when a body was tired, things seemed to take that much longer. It felt like an age before they had all the livestock watered and bedded down, Steve’s hands clumsy and slow as he shut the stable door and followed Bucky into the house.

They tumbled into bed, exhausted, and Steve tried to remember the last time he’d been so tired. Riding on the train, perhaps, or that very first night he’d spent on the farm, scared of the silence. How very little he’d known then, though it hadn’t been a year since.

“How come you never told me you could do that?” Bucky asked through a yawn, stretching his arms above his head and pointing his toes towards the foot of the bed.

Steve shrugged, a smile creeping across his face in the dark. “Didn’t think it was relevant, seeing as how you weren’t pregnant.”

“Ha.” Bucky thumped him on the thigh before throwing a heavy arm across his midsection, going quiet for a moment. “You’re good, though,” he said, just as Steve thought he might have fallen asleep. “With the baby, I mean, not just the having of it. You know how to be with babies.”

“I’ve been around them my whole life,” he replied with a yawn. “They don’t need much - food and attention.”

“Mmm.” Bucky shifted his weight and sighed. “You’ll be a good father someday.”

Lord, that was a larger conversation than Steve wanted to have in the middle of the night after such a harrowing day. Pulling the covers up further, he shook his head. “Dunno, Buck. Maybe. I’m tired - can’t we talk about it tomorrow?”

Bucky grunted and pressed a kiss to the back of Steve’s neck. They both fell asleep soon thereafter.

 


 

The next morning found them back in the familiar routines of farming. Spring was on its way, and there was plenty to be done. Planting to prepare for, according to Bucky, and winter wheat to harvest. Truth be told, they couldn’t do much while the ground was still mostly frozen, but Bucky liked making plans, and Steve liked listening to him ramble.

Steve found he was looking forward to the idea of hard work after such an idle winter, which was something he would never have looked forward to in his old life. But this life, with its chores and routines, its ups and downs and ins and outs? There was something to love in that. Someone to love.

They went back to the Proctors on Thursday, Bucky hitching up the wagon so they could bring them what food and supplies they could spare. It would make things easier, they figured - work didn’t stop for a newborn, and having some things on hand that might forestall a trip into town would be a blessing.

Once they arrived, Matthew offered to put the horses up, sending Bucky and Steve into the house, where Becky was sitting in a rocking chair, hale and hearty. Sarah was cradled in her arms, and Steve was relieved to see that they both looked well. Matthew would have come for them if something had gone wrong, he knew, but he’d had some lingering worries all the same. Bringing a new life into the world wasn’t easy, and sometimes the complications and the danger cropped up only after the baby had been born. Becky, however, seemed to have come out the other side of those deep, dark woods intact.

“You’re looking well,” Steve said, though as soon as the words left him, he felt silly about it. He wasn’t her doctor.

"Fit as a fiddle," she said. "Someone's been missing you, though." She held the baby out, and Steve swooped in to take her. The newborn redness and wrinkles had faded to proper peaches and cream, and she looked as healthy as her mother. And gosh, didn't she smell sweet? He'd forgotten how babies smelled - that downy, clean, milky scent that clung to every one. New pennies, the lot of them.

“Good morning,” he greeted, bouncing Sarah in his arms before looking at Becky. “She’s eating?”

"Just like you showed me," Becky said, and goodness if that hadn't been one of the more awkward conversations Steve had ever had. Certainly, it was natural, and God knew he'd seen more of her than that , but she was still Bucky’s sister. “Eats like a horse - probably gets it from her uncle.”

“Liar,” Bucky snorted. “You were the one who ate half of Ma’s pound cake the night the reverend came to dinner.”

“That was you!” Becky yelped, which set Sarah squalling.

Everything dissolved into chaos for a time with Steve soothing the baby, Bucky and Becky bickering, and Matthew coming in to discover he might as well have stayed outside. Instead, he shrugged and began to prepare lunch.

Steve loved it. Every loud, silly minute of it. The familiarity and frustration, the comfort with which they teased, and the ease with which they settled in to break bread together. What had once been an ache for his own family had turned into a sense of belonging with this one. More than that, a sense of belonging to this one, and to Bucky most especially.

They stayed long enough after lunch for Becky and Matthew to nap while they watched Sarah, Steve sitting in the rocking chair and holding her as Bucky watched.

“I think she looks like you, around the mouth,” Steve said. “She’s got that chin of yours.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “More’s the pity for her.”

“Hilarious.” He looked up and smiled, only to be caught off-guard with the way Bucky was staring back at him. At them. “You alright, Buck?”

“Guess I will be,” he replied.

 


 

Sunday came, and Steve decided he ought to go to church, being as the weather had been growing steadily warmer and God was likely growing a mite impatient with his reluctance. Anyhow, Bucky had been in a strange mood since they’d returned from Becky and Matthew’s, full of frustrating silences and sharp words. Steve would be glad to be rid of him for a while, and he wanted to see Peggy.

When he arrived in town, he went straight to Carter’s and knocked on the front door before stepping back to wait. Peggy was the one who answered, and her face lit up when she saw Steve standing there.

“Good morning, stranger!” she exclaimed. “I was beginning to think I’d never see you again!”

Steve had missed her, he realized, his countenance brightened by her words. He’d missed her smile, her sharpness, her wit. The way she always said exactly what she meant to say instead of hiding behind gruffness and obscurities.

Granted, those gruff words and obscurities were what he’d fallen in love with, now that he knew what proper love meant. Peggy was dear to him, but she wasn’t Bucky.

“I survived the winter,” he said, grinning at her, more than a bit proud of himself.

“Survived and thrived, from what I’ve heard,” she teased, stepping out onto the porch.

“What’s that mean?”

“Oh, nothing,” she said. “Only that Nat and I drove out to see the Proctors yesterday and heard quite the story.”

It hadn't occurred to Steve that the town might find out about his derring-do, mainly because he hadn't thought it anything to boast about. He hadn't done it for glory or attention, only to take care of what needed taking care of.

“Oh,” he laughed, rubbing the back of his neck, which was rapidly growing warm. “Wasn’t anything--”

“It was,” she said, shaking her head at his protestations. “Most of the men around here would faint dead away at the thought of changing a baby, much less helping birth one.”

That might be true, and it wasn’t as though arguing with Peggy had ever done anyone any good. “Well,” he said, cheeks going red as he offered her his arm and changed the subject. “I wondered if you might like to sit with me at church.”

Peggy smiled and took his arm, before calling her intentions back to her parents through the screened door. Steve smiled, feeling very nearly confident as they stepped out and onto the street.

It was a pleasant morning, and a pleasure to see friends again - Sam and Natasha, especially.

He was in a jovial mood by the time he returned home, only to find that Bucky’s disposition had further soured. “You see Peggy?” was his only question when Steve came through the door.

“Ah, yes?” Steve replied. “I always see Peggy on Sundays.”

Bucky snorted and went back to cleaning his rifle, before informing Steve he was going out.

That stoic, unpleasant demeanor continued over the next few days, in fact, and Steve tried not to be bothered as Bucky’s former easy kisses and open affection were replaced with taciturn silences and monosyllabic grunts. Bucky was being stupid, Steve decided, though the distance made him anxious, and he clung perhaps too much as a result, following Bucky around the farm like a duckling, asking questions and trying desperately to be pleasant. Eventually, Bucky banished him to the house, muttering something about a man needing some goddamn peace and quiet.

That night, though, Bucky pulled him close and kissed him sweet before bringing him to a shuddering completion and holding him near in the aftermath.

“Bucky,” Steve murmured. “Don’t be sullen anymore, please?”

Bucky didn’t answer, simply held him tighter, there in the dark.

 


 

March turned to April, and Bucky grew worse, only coming back to himself when they went to visit Becky and Matthew. Sarah brought out the best in him, and Steve was beginning to believe he brought out the worst. It was the only explanation for the shift in demeanor.

The quiet was the hardest. He could handle Bucky grumpy or peevish, but silent and sad? He couldn't manage that. Bucky pushed him off whenever he attempted to discuss it, and for a time Steve allowed it to happen. Allowed Bucky his space and his sorrow until he couldn't anymore.

One night, after supper, they settled in by the fire. The days had grown temperate enough that they didn’t need it, but the nights were still frigid, and Steve had become used to sitting by the hearth with his work. He had been knitting a sweater for the baby, though without a pattern it was looking decidedly lumpy. Bucky was doing his own mending for once, sewing a button back onto his shirt. He wasn’t very good at it, but Steve appreciated the effort.

It was homey. Simple. Steve figured now was as good a time as any to bring up what had been troubling him.

“You’ve been quiet,” he said, testing the waters.

“Oh?” Bucky replied, not looking up from his work.

“Yes. These past weeks, you’ve been somewhere else.”

“Been right here,” Bucky said, wincing as he jabbed his thumb with the needle. “Damn it.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Steve said. “You don’t talk to me anymore. You hardly...well. Anyhow. You’ve been quiet, and I don’t know why.”

“Been thinking, I suppose.” Bucky stuck his thumb between his lips and sucked on it, fixing Steve with a funny sort of look.

“I’d love to hear what about.”

Bucky tensed, pulling his thumb from his mouth. “Don’t know that you would.”

Confused, Steve frowned. “I...wouldn’t?”

“Well,” Bucky said, clearing his throat. “I reckon it’s not right I...it’s only that you’ll be eighteen in July.”

As a statement of fact, it was true enough, though Steve didn’t see what his birthday had to do with Bucky’s state of mind. “Yes,” he agreed. “I will.”

“I’ve, well.” Bucky shrugged, looking anywhere but at him. “I wasn’t going to bring this up until closer to it, but now you’ve asked.”

“Bring what up?”

“Only that, once you’re eighteen, I think it’d be best if you struck out on your own. I can manage the farm well enough and...”

Bucky was still talking. Steve had stopped listening, the words sucking the air from his lungs as his chest seized in a way it hadn’t for years. He fumbled his knitting needles and likely dropped a stitch - as if that mattered. “What?” he blurted, cutting Bucky off mid-stream.

“I said, you’ve been a decent hand, but--”

“No, not the farm ,” he snapped. “Bucky what are you talking about, my leaving?”

“You’re only bound to me until you’re eighteen,” Bucky said. “That’s all either of us signed on for.”

Damn it. Why wouldn’t Bucky meet his eyes? “But I don’t--”

"Anyhow," Bucky barreled on. "I'm sure you'll be wanting to get married, soon enough. No need to wait until you can file your claim - might as well get a head start on it, and--"

“Bucky, I don’t want to get married!”

“Sure you do,” Bucky replied. “I’ve seen you with the baby.”

The baby. Seemed a shame to pin something so big on someone so small. “That’s...she’s your niece , of course I’m sweet with her.”

Bucky looked up at him then, the firelight catching the resoluteness in his expression. The sadness in his eyes. “There’s jobs in town,” he continued, as though Steve hadn’t spoken at all. “Better jobs - better paying. You could work for Peggy’s father, and that’d be convenient, considering.”

“Considering what ?” Steve snapped. “I don’t want a job in town. I want to stay here with you.”

“Well, you can’t,” Bucky said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“The hell I can’t.”

“It’s my house.” Bucky shook his head, his expression hardening. “You’ve been a good help to me, Steve. Honestly, you have. But I don’t...there’s no place for you here anymore. You can stay until your birthday, and then you’ll need to go.”

Steve couldn’t breathe, panic seizing in his gut as he dropped from his chair to the floor, leaning across the distance between them and grabbing at Bucky’s legs, as though clinging to him might root them both to the ground. Take back the words.

“Bucky, please don’t do this,” he said, tears in his eyes, leaving him feeling weak and foolish. Contemptible and small in Bucky’s eyes, no doubt. “I love you.”

For all that he had been gruff, Bucky had never been cruel before. Standing up, he extricated himself from Steve’s desperate grip before speaking, his tone dispassionate and removed. “I know you think you do.”

Steve let out a sob, hating what Bucky had reduced him to. Hating Bucky for putting him in that position, and loving him all the same. “Please?” he begged because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t try once more.

“Go to bed, Steve.” Bucky’s voice came out cold and queer. “Your own bed.”

Steve dug the heels of his palms into his eyes until he saw stars, drying his tears and getting to his feet on trembling legs. Mustering his dignity, he willed his voice not to quiver. “God damn you,” he said, before turning and retreating to the bed he hadn’t used in months. The bed he’d never expected to use again.

The front door opened and shut a few minutes later, and only then did Steve let himself weep the bitter, angry tears which overwhelmed him. It ought to have been easy - Steve belonged to Bucky, and Bucky belonged to Steve.

Only Bucky didn’t see it, or didn’t believe it, or didn’t want him either way.

God damn Bucky, indeed.

 

Chapter Text

When morning came, Steve reached out for Bucky. Half-asleep and hopeful, his fingers brushing across the empty space.

It all came flooding back at once - the memory of it, the sorrow - and he sat straight up, a ragged breath tearing from his throat as the weight of what Bucky had taken hit him full-force.

There was movement on the other side of the curtain. Bucky had come back, then. Now there were chores to do. Animals to tend. Soil to till.

Steve couldn’t bear it.

“God,” he mumbled, unsure if he meant it as a prayer or a curse. Unsure if God was even listening to him these days. “God, I can’t.”

He lay back down, silent and still until he heard Bucky leave. Only then did he dress, dawdling and slow as he put off the inevitability of what was to come when he finally made his way out to the stable in the dark.

When he got there, Bucky was sitting at the cow’s side, milk pail beneath her. He looked at Steve and offered a half-smile. “Morning.”

There were a thousand things Steve could have said. Angry things. Mean things. Sorrowful things. Instead, he said nothing, feeling as though his heart might burst if he tried. He picked up the shovel and went to work, pressing his mouth into a tight line while focusing on the task at hand.

He could do this, at least. He could work.

After all, he hadn’t needed Bucky before. He’d been getting along just fine in Brooklyn, and he’d taken care of himself in coming west.

If Bucky wanted a farmhand, he could be that. He could be exactly what he’d been hired to be until July, and then he’d leave.

Steve remained silent, though Bucky tried halfheartedly to make conversation. It was queer, to have such anger roiling in his gut. Like a pot of water on a cookstove, simmering fiercely but not so much that it boiled over. He hated Bucky and loved him all at once, which made being around him nigh on impossible.

After an awkward breakfast, when Steve rose to carry the dishes to the wash bucket, Bucky made another attempt at engaging him.

“So, you gonna ignore me until July?”

Steve’s ears went bright hot as he dropped the dishes into the bucket with a splash and a clatter. “Oh, I expect I’ll talk to you when and if I need to,” he said. “Likewise, you need something from me, you just let me know. Otherwise, we can mind our business well enough.”

“Steve--” Bucky began, as though Steve was the unreasonable one.

“Leave me alone, Bucky.”

So, Bucky did.

 


 

The next few days brought with them an uneasy new routine. Bucky made every effort to be cordial, while Steve treated him as no more than a passing acquaintance, and not even a friendly one.

Privately, Steve was sick with his anger, fingernails digging nearly permanent half-moons into the skin of his palms every time he thought too hard about what had happened.

It wasn't the abruptness or the stupidity of it. That was Bucky all through - prone to moods and whatever strange whim took him. No, it was the meanness. The way he'd shut Steve out without a second thought. Bucky surely had his reasons, ones which he'd made manifest, and Steve felt sure he wouldn't be able to budge that made-up mulish mind.

Nor did he want to, considering. The nastiness of Bucky’s actions rankled, and Steve found he didn’t even like him that much as the week stretched out.

On Sunday, Steve woke early, in a slightly better mood as he knew he’d be getting a reprieve. He helped with the chores before scrubbing and dressing in his church clothes, making ready to take the long walk into town.

"Becky and Matthew won't be coming," Bucky said, somewhat unnecessarily in Steve's opinion.

“Huh,” Steve said, straightening his tie. “Seeing as how I’m my own man and all, I figured I’d walk. Seemed to suffice last week.”

Bucky looked taken aback. “I only thought,” he said. “It’s cold, is all.” He wasn’t wrong - winter was having one last dance before giving way to spring, and the temperature had fallen overnight.

Steve didn’t care. He was going to church. He was going to see his friends and escape that miserable, squalid little cabin full of everything to do with Bucky Barnes.

“I’m perfectly capable of walking in cold weather,” he spat, pulling his hat down low on his forehead. “Anyhow, I’da thought you’d be pleased, seeing as how Peggy will be there.”

Ignoring the wounded expression on Bucky’s face, Steve walked straight past him and out the front door, where he gave Sarge a pat before heading for the road. It was a long walk, yes, but a pleasant enough morning, despite the cold. Anyhow, it wasn’t as though he’d suffer from his own company. He’d grown used to himself of late, given that living with the person who’d broken his heart into a hundred tiny pieces was no easy task. He had only himself to rely on.

As usual, his first stop was at Carter’s, where Peggy answered the door in a dress he hadn’t seen before.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Gosh,” Steve replied, in lieu of a greeting. “You look pretty. That’s new?”

“Mmm,” she smiled. “Trains started running again - I’d gone to the dressmaker in Lawrence before the storms set in, but they hadn’t had the chance to ship it out.”

"Suits you," he smiled, offering his arm. It did - the color was a deep, rich brown, trimmed with blue, that set off her hair nicely. Steve didn't know all the words for the bits and bobs that adorned a fancy dress, but he thought it fit her fine - tight at the waist, with full skirts flaring out from beneath a peplum jacket.

It occurred to him that if he married Peggy, he’d never be able to afford to keep her in clothes like that. Unless, perhaps, he did end up working for her father, as had been Bucky’s suggestion.

Only Steve didn’t want to work in a shop. He wanted his claim and his farm and all the attendant joy and misery that came with it.

Damn Bucky, putting thoughts in his head. He resolved not to think of him any longer, letting Peggy take his arm and forcing a smile onto his face.

“The mail’s come in with the train,” Peggy continued as they strolled towards the church, where a crowd had already begun to gather.

“Oh?” Mail meant very little when nobody was sending you any - Steve knew from experience.

“Yes,” she nodded. “Likely there’ll be a few things for Bucky.”

“Then I suppose Bucky’ll have to come and pick his things up.” Steve tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice but found it impossible to shield himself completely.

If Peggy caught the tone, she didn’t ask about it, only gave him a curious glance before shrugging and patting his forearm. “You’ll have to let him know it’s waiting. Oh, there’s Natasha!”

Sure enough, Natasha (in a dress Steve had seen half a dozen times before) had just emerged from the alleyway that ran alongside the hotel.

“Hello, you two,” she greeted, patting her hair as though she was afraid her pins might not be up to the task of holding it. “Thought I was going to be late.”

“Hmm,” Peggy said, trading a knowing glance with her friend. “Did you have a nice evening?”

“If working’s a nice evening,” Natasha said. “I’m sure I did.”

“All I know is,” Peggy teased. “I saw Sam’s horse at the hitching post.”

Natasha scoffed, though Steve didn’t miss the way her cheeks turned pink. “Anyone can come in for a drink.”

“Mmmhmm.”

Shaking her head, Natasha took Steve’s other arm, and he tried not to puff up like a prize rooster. He might have been utterly broken-hearted, but having two of the prettiest girls in town by his side as they walked into church did wonders for his sour mood.

 


 

That first lonely week turned into a second, then a third, and then Steve began losing track of how long it had been since Bucky had ruined everything. Through it all, Bucky remained unfailingly polite but distant, while Steve remained resolutely committed to speaking to him as little as possible. The weather turned warmer, and they continued the work of the spring - weeding and planting and making ready the farm to once again provide (though Steve was a touch bitter about it, knowing that it wouldn’t be providing for him come winter).

Bucky made regular visits to see Becky, Matthew, and Sarah. Steve felt awkward about going along, so he didn’t, though he found he very much missed them all. To his great surprise, on the last Sunday in April, the Proctors turned up in the yard, Becky with Sarah bundled on her lap, ready to take him to church.

As they rode the distance to town, Becky let Steve hold Sarah, who had grown bigger since he’d last seen her, though she was still wonderfully small - blue eyes blinking at the novelty of this big, bright world.

That day felt like a proper reunion, with everyone gushing over the baby before sitting together for the service. Still, Steve was relieved when Becky said they didn't have time to stay for Sunday school, as she wanted to get Sarah home. The idea of sitting in that tiny little room, reciting scriptures as sweat ran down the back of his neck just didn't appeal.

Becky handed the baby to him as they left the church, and he bounced her in his arms while Matthew spoke briefly to Brother Coulson.

“Did you and Bucky have a falling out?” she asked bluntly as they approached the wagon, the question taking Steve by surprise.

Steve looked up from where he’d been studying the perfection of the downy hair atop Sarah’s head and blinked. “Oh. No. Well, yes.” He cleared his throat. “He’s terminated my employment, or he will do, once my birthday comes around.”

Becky’s eyes flashed dangerously, and she frowned. “What? Why would he do that?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Steve said. It was the truth - he still didn’t fully understand Bucky’s reasoning, save for the fact that he was convinced he knew what sort of life Steve ought to lead, and hadn’t bothered to ask Steve’s opinion on the matter. “But he’s asked me to leave, soon as I turn eighteen.”

Funny, how Bucky and Becky looked most like one another when they were angry. Becky’s mouth set into a thin line, her cleft chin jutting out as she shook her head. “My brother,” she began. “Is an ass. And now he’s got me swearing on Sundays.”

Steve looked back down at the baby, who let out the tiniest of yawns, making him smile. “Suppose he’s got his reasons,” he replied. “And it’s not as though he isn’t within his rights.”

Becky sighed, stepping closer and placing a hand on Steve’s arm. When he looked at her, she had a frown on her face. “Bucky drives people away,” she said. “I love him, but it’s true. It’s what he’s best at. He thinks he’s doing them a favor. When Matthew and I--” she glanced over her shoulder to make sure Matthew couldn’t hear. “When we first started courting, Bucky tried to cut me out. Get rid of me before I could leave him.”

Steve frowned because that didn’t sound like Bucky. For all his faults, he loved his sister fiercely. “But--”

“Oh, I told him right where he could put those notions,” she continued. “Said that he’d have to put up with me regardless of where I lay my head at night. But if he’s...if he’s pushed you out, then I’m sorry.”

It made a certain sort of sense, though Steve hadn’t thought about it that way before. Bucky had begun to build a life in North Star before shutting himself up in that cabin as the result of one bad afternoon, wrestling with the demons that were always threatening to overcome him. What few friendships he had outside of his sister were strained - if they were maintained at all it was due to the efforts of the other parties involved, people like Natasha and Peggy forcing themselves on him, rather than him ever bothering to seek them out.

Steve had assumed he was the exception to Bucky’s nature, which seemed naive and stupid in hindsight.

“It was a business arrangement,” he said, forcing a smile onto his face. “That’s all. He doesn’t need the help anymore.”

"Maybe," Becky said, reaching for the baby as Matthew began to break away from Brother Coulson. "But I don't think so. Bucky's doing what he always does." She hesitated, looking down at Sarah and sighing. "I don't know what he's told you, and I don't know the whole story myself, but our father broke something in him, Steve. I don't think it's betraying a confidence to say so."

“You might be right, Mrs. Proctor,” he said, teasing her a bit as he let Sarah grab at his finger. “Though it’s a bit philosophical for my tastes.”

“Nosce te ipsum,” she replied. The confusion written on Steve’s face made her laugh, and she shook her head. “Know thyself.”

“Oh. That’s smart.”

“I wasn’t always a farmer’s wife, you know. I had a proper education. A fancy one, even.”

“Bucky mentioned something about that,” Steve said.

“It’s only--” she sighed, thinking something over before she spoke again. “You ought to know that just because my brother’s a fool doesn’t make you any less important to me, or to Matthew, or to Sarah. I don’t like not seeing you, and if you choose to stay in North Star, well, you’re always welcome in our house.”

Becky’s words brought about something warm and hopeful in Steve’s chest - the notion that Bucky’s rejection didn’t mean a wholesale casting-out from this town. From Becky and Matthew’s lives. From Sarah. It kindled something bright, a new idea about who he could be and what he could have if he allowed himself to want.

He might not have Bucky any longer, but that didn’t mean he had to lose another home.

 


 

Conversations with Bucky dwindled to nothing as April turned to May. Steve hadn’t forgotten Becky’s words, and he spent more time focusing on his future rather than worrying about what was past.

However, on occasion, something was needed, and Steve was forced to break the uncomfortable silence.

“I’d like Saturday off,” he said on a Thursday, standing awkwardly by the partition, arms folded over his chest. He’d been working up the gumption to make the request for several days - since Sam had asked him - not because he thought it would be denied, but because it meant speaking to Bucky at all.

Bucky looked up from his book and squinted. “What for?”

“Don’t see how it’s your business. I’d like the day.”

Bucky scowled, that old contrariness creeping in as he shook his head. “If you’re not working, it’s my business to know what you--”

“No, it isn’t,” Steve snapped. “And you know full well I’ve never asked for a thing - not one thing - the whole time I’ve worked here. So I’m asking for Saturday, and if you don’t give it to me, I’ll take it regardless.”

Bucky glared at him, both of their bristles poking up against one another as he closed his book. “If you can’t tell me, then you can’t have it.”

Steve resisted the urge to cross the room and slap him. Or kiss him. Or do something to make him be anything other than a sullen, miserable creature that delighted in making others miserable with him. “I’m going out for a drive,” he gritted. “With Peggy.” And Natasha, and Sam, but Bucky didn’t need to know that. Because perhaps he wanted to make Bucky jealous. “After all,” he said. “I better work on securing my future, considering my days here are numbered.”

A hurt look crept into Bucky’s eyes, which Steve thought was rich, considering all of this was Bucky’s fault.

“Do whatever you want,” he muttered, shrugging and getting to his feet. “Take every Saturday. See if I care.”

Bucky went out, then, shutting the door behind him. Steve felt tears prick the corners of his eyes.

Surely, all of it would be easier to bear when he didn’t have to see him every day.

 


 

Saturday dawned lovely and warm, spring settling in nicely as birds chirped and flowers blossomed, new life bursting all over the prairie. It was an excellent day for a drive, and Steve was in good spirits as he walked to town to meet his friends. They were waiting outside Carter’s, and he raised his hand to greet them.

Peggy's father's buggy was a beautiful thing, all lacquered wood and leather. Steve and Peggy sat in the front, with Sam and Natasha behind them. Steve felt badly for Sam, bunched up back there, and he'd offered to switch places, but Sam had demurred.

When Steve glanced over his shoulder and saw the way he and Natasha were holding hands, he decided he wouldn’t have wanted to switch places, either.

Peggy drove them out past the edge of town and into the tall grass, where they went for miles. There was just enough of a breeze to keep things from being too stifling under the buggy top, and they made pleasant conversation while seeking out a place to stop for lunch.

That stopping place turned out to be a clearing full of the sweetest smelling violets Steve had ever seen, picturesque in the way things only ever were in springtime. They set out their blanket, as well as their picnic, and soon enough the four of them were happily reclined on the ground, ready to eat.

“Well,” Natasha said, just as Steve had gotten his hands on his very first piece of fried chicken. “Sam and I have news.”

Peggy raised an eyebrow, while Steve looked back and forth between them.

“We’re getting married,” Sam blurted, a grin on his face. Sam had one of the best smiles Steve had ever seen - genuine and charming. He liked Sam an awful lot, though he didn’t know him so well as the girls. But then, most folks liked Sam, or at least they respected him.

Though, not everyone. People like the Rosses, other families in town. They didn’t like Sam by virtue of his skin color, and though he wasn’t the only black man in North Star, he was the only one with a position of authority. An authority which some people thought he had no business having.

Marrying Natasha? That wouldn’t sit right with those people. It was a profoundly dangerous proposition for them both, as it happened, and Steve’s stomach tightened at the notion of anyone hurting his friends.

"Congratulations!" Peggy exclaimed, right as Steve's brain stopped working, and he blurted out a, "but how?"

If looks could kill, Natasha’s might have strangled him and buried him six-feet-under. Steve blanched, turning red and stammering as he tried to recover. “I only...well, congratulations of course. But isn’t it...it’s not strictly...won’t you be--?”

“We’ve spoken with Brother Coulson,” Natasha said, her initial enthusiasm giving way to chilliness as she reached for Sam’s hand. “You might not realize this, but he was an abolitionist.”

“Oh,” Steve said, feeling very small and doltish.

“Nothing’s going to change without people changing it,” Sam said, and while he didn’t look angry like Natasha, who was all spit and vinegar, he did look resolute. Determined in a way Steve hadn’t seen on him before. “We’re not revolutionaries, but if the law won’t recognize us, we know God will.”

“You won’t be the first,” Peggy said, in what was undoubtedly an attempt to clear the awkwardness from the air. “I was reading about a couple in New Yo--”

"I never thought we were," Sam said. "But there's a part of me that hopes, hell, maybe we're helping start something. Maybe we'll make someone change their mind. Mostly, though, it's just that we're in love. That's all it is." He turned his attention to Natasha, smiling at her in a way that sent butterflies all through Steve. "And I guess I don't care if it's hard, honey, because you make it easy."

Natasha wasn't one to be easily flustered, but in that moment the hard shell she hid behind dropped away, and a blush stained her cheeks. She brought Sam's hand to her lips, kissing his knuckles while holding his gaze, the gesture so intimate that Steve felt he was intruding by merely witnessing it.

“You make it easy,” Natasha echoed, blinking twice and clearing her throat.

Steve chewed on his lip, wiping his palms on his trousers as he tried to find the words. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have...that wasn’t my place.”

Softening, Natasha nodded, and Sam gave him a half-smile. “We know it’s a risk,” Sam said. “But we’re going in with our eyes open, you see?”

Steve nodded, ashamed that he could have thought otherwise. “I hope...well, despite my rudeness, I hope I’m invited to the wedding.”

“Actually,” Natasha said, smiling at Sam. “The reason we planned this outing was that, well, we don’t want to waste time. We’re hoping to marry a week from today. Privately. And we were very much hoping you’d be our witnesses.”

Beside him, Peggy lit up, practically throwing herself at Natasha and engulfing her in a hug. “Yes, of course!”

Steve looked at Sam and smiled. “I’m not gonna jump on you, but I’d be honored.”

As far as Steve was concerned, it would be a fine way to spend a Saturday.

  

Chapter Text

Sam and Natasha were married the following Saturday, with Brother Coulson performing the ceremony in his sitting room while Steve and Peggy bore witness. There was no fuss or bother, simply the joining of hands and a professing of love.

The newlyweds were glowing by the time the pronouncement came, hands gripped so fiercely together that Steve wondered if anything might pry them asunder.

Once the ceremony was concluded, Steve and Peggy signed their names to the marriage certificate as Sam and Natasha looked on.

“Congratulations,” Steve said to the both of them as he stepped back from the table.

"Thank you," Sam replied, exchanging another look with Natasha that reminded Steve so much of the way Bucky had once looked at him that he thought he might cry, right then and there. That wouldn't do at all - the day wasn't about him, nor was he like to be able to tell what was making him so upset.

The thing of it was, hating Bucky grew tiresome after a while. Steve had tried being angry, tried being snide and surly, even tried hurting him with pointed barbs. But Bucky was like a kicked dog, liable to take any abuse you heaped on him with nary a growl, too beaten down to care about how much it hurt.

There was no joy in bearing anger towards someone like that, so Steve had resigned himself to living in chilly silence with his former friend, ignoring him as best he was able and feigning politeness when conversation had to be undertaken.

It made the days when he could escape all the more pleasant, even if celebrating the love Sam and Natasha bore one another hurt fiercely in a way he couldn’t share.

The foursome retired to the Carter’s, where Peggy’s parents hosted a small, celebratory dinner. The food was excellent - better than anything he’d seen for some time, considering - and the company was fine. After dinner, they sat in the parlor, a few glasses of drink shared between them, along with some stories.

“I knew I loved her the minute I saw her,” Sam said, holding Natasha’s hand in his lap.

"Liar," Natasha replied. "I called you in to bust up a bar fight, and you said I was trouble."

“Doesn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

“Hmph.” Natasha looked down, pleased. Sam leaned over to kiss her temple in the sort of way that implied they weren’t planning on staying much longer, being as it was a bit of a ride out to Sam’s cabin. Or, well, their cabin now, Steve supposed.

They took their leave at around eight o'clock, leaving Steve to finish his drink in the company of all three Carters. As they talked, Steve couldn't help sneaking glances at Peggy. The way she smiled, the glow of her hair in the lamplight.

She was awfully good. Too good for him, if he was being honest, because she wasn’t the sort of good that he hated. Not the awful, sanctimonious, insufferable good that he’d seen before - people so pious they couldn’t have a bit of fun. Peggy was good deep down in her bones, treating people well not because of some outside morality but because of her own code. Her own honor.

He could love that. He could love her. Loved her already, maybe, in friendship if nothing else. That might be enough if he couldn't have who he truly desired. He could be kind to her, and she to him. They could have a life, and a family, and a home together. Maybe not the home he'd been picturing for himself, but a home all the same. If Bucky wanted to push him towards that sort of life, well, he could do worse than Peggy. Truthfully, he could do no better.

So, he resolved to ask her, though it took him a while to work up the gumption.

His nerve struck on a warm Tuesday afternoon in late May. There was a pleasant, earthy smell underfoot and a breeze on the air that made him feel young and brave, and a bit foolhardy. As though he might as well try, because what was so wrong with giving it his level best?

Bucky watched him go, though he’d long since stopped asking why. Steve thought that best, considering.

By the time he reached North Star, his heart was beating out a tattoo in his throat and his ribcage all at once.

“It’s only Peggy,” he muttered to himself before pushing open the door to the mercantile.

Peggy and Mr. Carter were both in the store, with Peggy behind the counter and Mr. Carter shelving bolts of calico.

“Steve,” Peggy greeted with a smile. “This is a pleasant surprise. You two break something?”

Usually, if Steve was in town during the week, it was because some piece of equipment had malfunctioned and a spare part was needed. It would be a convenient excuse if he wanted to use it - hell, Peggy, I just need an axle, not to marry you.

“No,” he said instead, clearing his throat when the word came out nearly a squeak. “I uh. I only wondered if we might talk privately for a moment?”

Tradition dictated he ought to speak to Mr. Carter first and ask his permission. But knowing Peggy as he did, well, he didn’t think she was the sort to hold much with a tradition like that. For his part, Steve didn’t understand the why of it all - it was her “yes” he was seeking, not her father’s.

Curiosity written across her face, Peggy smiled and reached up to take off the work apron she’d been wearing. “Alright,” she agreed. “We’ll only be a minute, papa.”

“Take your time,” he said, more focused on getting the bolt slotted in than paying any real attention.

Peggy came around from behind the counter before leading the way from the store to the now-familiar parlor - the same room in which Steve had spent the night, all those months before. It was still a marvel, bigger than Bucky’s cabin. Briefly, he wondered what it might be like to live there, and whether he might find out sooner rather than later.

“Is everything alright?” Peggy asked, interrupting his thoughts as she sat down on the same horsehair sofa where Steve had slumbered away that long, drunken night.

“Oh, yes,” he said, sitting down next to her and holding his hat in his hands. “I only, well. I had a question for you.”

She nodded and smiled, folding her hands in her lap.

“I wondered…” Steve began, before that damn frog in his throat crept right back up and he was forced to pause and clear it, sure he’d gone red as an apple. “I was wondering if we ought to get married. If, that is, if you’d want to do that. To marry me.”

Steve didn’t think his heart had ever beat so fast, his body thrumming and a queer roaring in his ears as he squeezed and worried the fabric of his hat between his fingers.

Peggy looked surprised and pleased in equal measure, though she didn’t speak for a moment. That gave Steve time to worry, and he swallowed thickly, unable to stop himself from rambling.

“I know I haven’t much to offer someone like you, but I thought I could work for your father, and I’d work...I’d work very hard, and I’d make something of myself for you--”

“Oh, I know you would,” she said, her hand crossing the gulf between them to rest atop his, giving him a squeeze. “Steve, I know. And I’m flattered. Maybe in another life…but Steve, I can’t marry you.”

“Oh,” he said, a frown creasing his forehead as the rejection hit him like a kick in the stomach. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted her in the way a man ought to want a wife, but it felt lousy all the same. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to Vassar,” she said, hardly able to contain her excitement. “I was waiting to tell you, and I’ve only just received my acceptance. I’ll be attending in the fall.”

Of course, it was Vassar. Steve wasn't stupid - he'd realized her ambitions, to achieve a degree and run her father's business. But that had been an idea. A dream. This was an actuality and the idea of her leaving hurt nearly as much as having his proposal turned down flat.

“That’s soon,” he managed, the familiar ache in his chest worsening as he found himself on the verge of tears. He hated that ache. It was childish, to be so selfish, but he didn’t want her to go; now that he didn’t have Bucky, Peggy was his closest confidante and friend.

“It is,” she said. “I was going to tell you on Sunday, in fact, but--”

“We could wait,” he blurted, interrupting her rather rudely. “Get married after you graduate. That’s not so long.”

Peggy didn’t say anything, though she didn’t take her hand away, either. Steve couldn’t bring himself to look at her.

“Darling,” she began, clearing her throat. Steve looked up to find that her eyes were damp. “Oh, Steve, I would marry you. That is to say, if I were going to marry anyone, it would be you. But I’m not going to get married.”

“Ever?” The finality of it was unsettling in a way he couldn’t put his finger on.

“Ever,” she said firmly. “My only rights to myself and my name come because I’m not married, and I decided some time ago that my value would never be determined by the strength of my husband’s name or character. And then you…” she laughed, moving her free hand to wipe her eyes. “I met you, and you have so much strength in both those things. But I can’t, not even for someone like you. I want to be my own person, and if doing that means being alone, then that’s what I choose.”

"That's...that's a hard choice," he offered, unsure of quite what he meant, but knowing that he wanted her to have all the wondrous things in the world, and that he had found love to be very wondrous indeed, while he'd had it.

Because Steve had known real love. Known some small measure of what it was to be adored, and while he hated the way Bucky had ended things, he wouldn't have traded that sweetness for anything. It was worth every bit of the heartache that came after.

“We’re none of us given to easy answers,” she said. “You know that as well as I do.”

Forcing a smile, he turned his hand up underneath hers, squeezing her fingers. “I do love you,” he said. “Even if it’s only as your friend.”

Peggy smiled, leaning close and kissing his cheek. “Have I ever told you how glad I am that you came in on that train?”

Steve shook his head.

“Well, I am. You made things better here, and not just for me. We were all worried about Bucky, out there on his own, pretending he doesn’t need anybody.”

Steve frowned and looked down at their hands. “He doesn’t.”

“Oh, now,” Peggy laughed. “I know that’s not true. I’ve never met a body that needed other people more than Bucky Barnes.”

“Then maybe someone ought to tell him that,” Steve replied, not half-bitter about it as he scowled.

Peggy made a noise, low in her throat, before smoothing out her skirts. “Did something happen between you two? Becky won’t tell me, but I, well...my mother says I have a gift for knowing when there’s trouble.”

An astute observer, more like, and Steve shrugged, a rueful smile on his face. “He’s asked me to leave, is all, soon as I turn eighteen, which is in July.”

“I see,” Peggy said. “What will you do?”

“I’m not leaving North Star. It’s my home, just as much as his.”

“Never said it wasn’t,” she said, understanding dawning on her features. “You know, Steve, even though we’re not getting married, I’m sure my father would give you a job once your birthday’s passed. He’ll need the help, with me gone.”

A weight Steve hadn’t even realized he was carrying lifted from his shoulders at her words, and he smiled. “That would be...very generous of him. I’d work hard, I swear.”

“Steve, I genuinely don’t think you could do less than your best at anything in this life.”

The compliment was taken in stride, though Steve couldn't help thinking of the way he'd been shirking a few of his responsibilities on the farm so that Bucky had to shoulder the burden of the heavy work. It had been a way of venting his anger and frustration, but it wasn't kind. Sarah Rogers had raised him to be kind, and he was a little ashamed of himself in the face of Peggy's sincerity.

When he looked up, she was watching him, her head tilted to the side. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“It’s a bit personal.”

The clarification took him aback, though he supposed if he liked her well enough to marry her, a personal question wasn’t too much of an imposition. “If you like,” he said.

“It’s only,” she began, curling her index finger around his as she searched for the right words. “Bucky. Well. He and Natasha were...courting, for a time.”

“I know,” Steve said, unsure of where she was going.

“Well, you know Natasha and I are close. And she tells me...an awful lot. Everything, or near about. So...so, well…” her cheeks had gone rather pink. “I know some things. About Bucky.”

Steve's heart, which had resumed its regular rhythms, began picking up speed in his chest, hands stiffening in Peggy's grip. "You--?"

“I only wondered if perhaps. If perhaps the reason you’re…” she hesitated, stammering over the words. “That perhaps the reason you’ve had a falling out is that Bucky developed a certain sort of affection for you which was ah...which went unreturned.”

The terror that had seized him receded somewhat and Steve found he could breathe again. “No,” he said quickly. “No, that’s. Ah. That is to say. I do know about that, but. It’s not.” He blew out a breath, ears burning hot as he chanced a look at her and found her face open and curious.

A trustworthy sort of face. A friendly face. Peggy’s face.

So, he gave her his trust.

“It was returned,” he said, barely above a whisper.

There it was, laid bare for her scrutiny. His most shameful secret - the wants he’d harbored in shame since he’d been old enough to want anything or anyone. She could ruin him. Run from him. Laugh at him. He was hers to break if she so desired.

Instead, she nodded, that faint pink blush still staining her cheeks. “I thought perhaps it might be that,” she admitted. “With the way you two were. But I didn’t like to make assumptions.”

“It wouldn’t have made me any less of a husband,” he said, not wanting her to feel as though she was second-best. “I would have been good to you, honest. It’s just...it’s only Bucky.” The name came out helpless and sad, Steve’s shoulders lifting in a small shrug.

Peggy laughed, bright and boisterous, squeezing his fingers between her own. “Then why on earth are you leaving him?”

“Because he’s got it in his head that I want more than he can give me,” Steve said with a resigned sigh. “A baby, I guess. A wife. Some normalcy.”

“Mmm,” Peggy said, raising an eyebrow. “And do you want that? Not to put too fine a point on it, but you did ask me.”

Steve smiled, ducking his head and worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. “I do want a family,” he said, articulating to himself something he’d never admitted before. “But I don’t believe I need to follow convention to achieve one.”

“And Bucky?”

"Bucky's a fool." Now that he'd said it, he realized just how true it was. A scared fool, prone to doing stupid things in the name of keeping himself from being hurt. Steve's fool, when it came right down to it.

Peggy began to laugh again, nodding her agreement. “Some would argue,” she said after a moment. “That family means different things to different people. I could be your family if you’d like me to be. Becky and Matthew already are. Sam and Natasha, too. Family’s an agreed upon thing, not just blood.”

“I never thought about it that way before,” Steve said. “But you’re right. It’s only that Bucky--”

“If Bucky Barnes is too stupid to realize that you don’t need a wife and children to enjoy your life, then…” she trailed off, eyes lighting up as though she’d remembered something important. “Wait here.”

Releasing his hands, Peggy rose to her feet and crossed to the other side of the sitting room, where a large, ornate bookshelf stood against the wall. It took her a moment to find what she wanted, pulling out a slim volume and paging through it, murmuring to herself until she found the passage she was seeking.

“There,” she said, once she’d returned to the sofa and taken her seat, before passing the book to Steve and tapping the page. “Read that.”

Steve looked down and found a poem, and while he’d never been one for poetry, he began to read.

 

But now take notice, land of the prairies, land of

the south savannas, Ohio's land,

Take notice, you Kanuck woods—and you Lake

Huron—and all that with you roll toward

Niagara—and you Niagara also,

And you, Californian mountains—That you each

and all find somebody else to be your singer of

songs,

For I can be your singer of songs no longer—One

who loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me

from all but love,

With the rest I dispense—I sever from what I

thought would suffice me, for it does not—it is

now empty and tasteless to me,

I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States,

and the example of heroes, no more,

 

Steve looked up upon reaching the end of the page, confused. The poem was beautiful - wild words with meanings he couldn’t possibly hope to parse - yet he didn’t understand why she’d given it to him.

“Keep going,” she urged, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

Steve turned the page and continued to read.

 

I am indifferent to my own songs—I will go with

him I love,

It is to be enough for us that we are together—We

never separate again.

 

He nearly dropped the book, his breath leaving him in a sharp gasp. Immediately, he turned to the front page, wanting to see the author.

“It’s Walt Whitman,” Peggy said gently.

The name was unfamiliar, but the words were plain enough. “Walt…” he began, his voice breaking on the name. “But he’s...is he--?”

“I believe so,” she said. “His work is controversial, but my father thinks it’s masterful, and so do I. It’s lovely.”

“Yes,” he managed, scarcely daring to breathe.

“Oh, Steve,” she said, shrugging. “There’s more than one way to make a life. Marry or don’t marry, what does it matter? You can either struggle through life or accept it, and I don’t know which is the right answer, but I do know that if you let something go without trying - without fighting - then what’s the point of all this? Of love, or family, or life, or any of it?”

“He won’t listen,” Steve said, tears in his eyes as his fingers traced the shape of those magnificent words.

“Change his mind, singer of songs. And if you can’t, then you’ll stay here and live your life just the way you see fit. Because you’re home.”

Steve didn't mean to sob - hardly realized he was crying until Peggy had him in her arms, hugging him tightly.

“Truthfully,” he managed after a time. “This wasn’t how I saw today going.”

“I know,” she said, kissing his forehead and releasing him. “But isn’t it better?”

It really was.

Now, he only had to convince Bucky.

 

Chapter Text

Steve regretted not staying for supper the moment the first raindrop hit his skin.

In his eagerness to get home - to tell Bucky precisely what he thought of his big ideas - he hadn’t heeded Mr. Carter’s warning about the weather, nor had he taken Peggy up on her offer of a decent meal.

“You sure we can’t tempt you?” she’d said, as he’d put on his hat.

“It’s not so far.” Steve had opened the door, ignoring the worried look her father was giving him.

“Looks like we’re in for a storm,” Mr. Carter had said. “It’s no trouble, Steve, we’re happy to have you.”

“I’ll walk fast.”

“If you’re sure.”

Steve was sure. He wanted to go home. See Bucky. Yell at Bucky. Convince him he was a fool and barring that, he planned on putting his foot down and refusing to leave. Anything at all seemed possible as he set out on the road bound for the cabin that was just as much his as it was Bucky’s.

Still, when the slate gray sky darkened further, a faint rumble of thunder in the distance, he somewhat regretted giving up the roast beef and potatoes that had been on offer.

Seemed to him he could just about make it, though, if he hurried.

The first storm he’d ever seen on the prairie had been the previous summer, and he’d stood with Bucky under the shelter of the stable, watching as the water cascaded from the eaves while Sarge whined pitifully under their feet.

“It’s hard to gauge distance out there,” Bucky had said. “To see how close the storm is. When everything’s flat, your eyes play tricks.”

Bucky had been right, as he was about most things (but not all), and the rain caught Steve by surprise when he was about halfway home. He was soaked to the skin within moments, shirt clinging to his body and boots barely keeping the water out. The temperature dropped as the wind swept the storm across the land, the sky above purpling like a bruise.

There was nothing for it but to continue on - home was just as far ahead as the town was behind. His teeth began chattering as he put one foot in front of the other, plodding resolutely onwards.

The wind was relentless, battering the rain against his face and making it nigh on impossible to make any real progress. The journey was an endless trudge, his boots squelching in the mud, sopping wet trousers weighing him down. Grunting, he stopped and reached up to wipe his eyes, squinting into the distance. It was difficult to see more than a few feet ahead, the world hazy and dim behind the curtain of endless water.

“God,” he muttered, pulling his sodden hat lower on his head as he soldiered on, boots beginning to be sucked down into the rutted wagon tracks, which were now no more than wallows. In his frustration, Steve left the trail and walked along the grass instead, keeping an eye on the road as it curved, best he could.

Bucky had better be worth it - had better listen to him, for once, because Steve wasn’t stupid. He knew what he wanted, and he damn well wasn’t taking no for an answer.

That anger and excitement were about all that drove him forward, and when he was sure he saw the turn-off for the farm, he left the trail, only to discover himself on the wrong track once he'd gone far enough along that he couldn't quite find his way back.

Lost, and damn it all. Been there a year and still couldn’t find his way home.

As he stood there, contemplating precisely what he ought to do, a peal of thunder shook the air, so close and loud that he was sure the devil himself had come calling. Lightning arced through the sky less than a second later, splitting the heavens and sending a strange thrum of excitement pulsing through him, as every animal instinct within told him that something was wrong.

Something was wrong with the sky.

The wind was howling, and howling, and his ears were throbbing and God, there was the sound.

The sound of a train, barreling down the tracks, only not like any train he’d ever heard. Like a train bound straight for Hell, come to carry him away for his transgressions.

Steve turned in the direction of the noise and saw, then, that it was no train. It was worse than that. The raw fury and power of the storm had concentrated into one twisting, angry vortex of clouds. As he stared, stupefied, a dark funnel emerged from the center of that mass, snaking its way down towards the deluged prairie below.

It was a cyclone, he knew it at once, though he’d never seen one before. That twisted, horrible beast that people in North Star spoke about in hushed tones - a beast that could blow a farm to pieces faster than a body could blink.

The undulating storm reached the ground, and Steve watched in horror as it held steady for just a moment, as if making up its mind. Because it was alive, and as it began making its way in his direction, his rational mind deserted him, and he knew the end had come.

Knew he was going to die in the path of this thing, and that no amount of praying could convince God otherwise.

Knew he wouldn't see Bucky again. Wouldn’t be able to tell him how much he was loved.

Knew…

Something bit his wrist and Steve yelped, convinced Cerberus had arrived to escort him to the gates of Hell.

When he looked down, he found Sarge instead, the whites of the dog’s eyes showing and his ears tucked back against his head.

Ludicrous. Sarge wouldn’t be out in a storm. Sarge was frightened of storms.

Sarge yanked at Steve’s wrist, pulling him as though it would do any good. As though they could make an escape from the monster devouring everything in its path.

“Steve, get down, goddammit!”

The full force of another body hit Steve from behind, driving him to the grass. Bucky. Bucky was there, his arms around Steve’s torso, rolling them both down an embankment and into a small wallow where Steve found himself nearly drowning in stormwater.

Bucky was covering him up. Pushing him down so his mouth was filling with dirt and mud and Lord he couldn’t breathe, and if it was this or the funnel he wasn't sure which he'd take because he didn't want to die like this, but at least he had Bucky there to hold him if this was the end of everything and, and, and—

His ears felt odd. Pulling his head up from the muck, he gasped in a breath and realized he couldn’t hear the train anymore.

There was a groan above him. Bucky rolled off his back, lying down in the mud as rain pelted his skin.

“God damn,” Bucky panted. “God damn, god damn. It went right over us...shit, Steve, it went right over us. I was sure—”

Bucky began to laugh - a nonsense, hysterical sort of laugh. Steve had never seen him so worked up, save for one of his episodes, and this certainly wasn’t that.

“They do that sometimes,” Bucky continued. “Come down, blow a house apart, but leave the stable standing. God damn. But how’d you...why were you out here? Why the hell didn’t you stay in town?”

Steve blinked at him, struggling to his knees and pushing muddy hair from his eyes. “Why were you out here?”

Bucky shrugged, wiping a hand across his face. The storm continued to abate, bit by bit, though the weather was plenty nasty, still. “Gotta get to low ground,” he muttered, which wasn’t much of an answer. “If you can.”

Steve nodded, before bringing his fist back and punching Bucky square in his good shoulder.

“Ow!” Bucky hollered. “The hell’d you do that for?”

“You stupid ass!” Steve was losing his mind, he figured. It had absolutely gone to pot, and Bucky had driven him to it. “You don’t know what you want, do you? Coming out here to find me - I know that’s what you were doing!”

“I was worried - you were gone a long time!”

“You’re in love with me!” Steve shouted.

“What?” Bucky spluttered.

“You’re in love with me,” Steve repeated. “But you’re too foolish to realize you could just admit it and be happy, you stupid ass.”

As Steve spoke the truth, he began to giggle. A high, reedy sound, borne out of the terror he’d experience, and the sheer exhilaration of being alive.

Bucky, meanwhile, was looking at him as though he’d grown three heads.

“Steve, you’re upset.”

"No," he said, continuing to laugh. "I'm not! And that's the thing of it. I'm scared, and I'm wet, and I'm mad, but I'm not upset. Oh, Bucky. I'm going home. And it is my home. And you ought to know I'm not leaving when I turn eighteen. And also, you're an idiot. A real moron. I love you. I—"

Sarge picked that precise moment to stand up from where he’d been contentedly laying in the mud and shake himself all over Bucky, which just set Steve laughing harder.

“Home,” he repeated. “Come on, Sarge. I’m sorry I ever doubted you. You’re a good dog. Bucky, you—” Shaking his head, he clambered to his feet, ignoring the dumbfounded expression on Bucky’s face. “Sarge, let’s go home.”

Because if Steve didn’t know the way, the dog did. Bucky could sort it out for himself.

 


 

Sarge got them home in short order, his highly attuned nose and internal compass pointing the way. The storm had petered out completely by the time Steve strolled into the yard, covered in mud and whistling to himself. It was a relief to see that the house and stable were both fine - the wind had blown a few things about, but the cyclone’s swath of destruction had turned in another direction.

Bucky hadn’t followed them. That was alright - Bucky had some thinking to do.

Steve sang to himself as he went to haul some water from the well, stripping off his shirt and suspenders before doing his level best to clean himself. It took some time, caked in mud as he was, and he’d gotten down to his longjohns by the time Bucky stalked into the yard, a scowl on his messy face.

“Oh!” Steve sang, pointedly, in Bucky’s direction, changing the lyrics as he went. “Where have you been, Bucky boy, Bucky boy? Where have you been, charming Bucky?”

He was not, in point of fact, a good singer, and he couldn’t help smiling at the way Bucky winced. That was Steve - out-of-tune and hopelessly hopeless.

Bucky fixed him with a hard look. “You’ve taken leave of your senses.”

“Maybe,” Steve agreed with a grin. “But I doubt it. Clean yourself up before you come in the house, or you’re not getting supper.”

He left Bucky gaping at him before walking into the cabin and donning a new shirt, then starting on some biscuits, singing all the while. By the time Bucky came through the door, Steve had moved onto the verse that was about Bucky baking him a cherry pie, which was rather bawdy but wholly appropriate.

Bucky, predictably, slammed the door behind himself and leaned against it, crossing his arms over his bare chest, being as he’d left his dirty shirt in the yard.

“Would you quit being so cheerful?” he snapped.

“No,” Steve said. “But I guess I’m about done singing.”

He hummed instead as he pulled the biscuits from the oven and put them on the table, along with the very last of the preserves.

Bucky regarded him warily as he went to his trunk, taking out a clean shirt and pulling it over his head. He didn’t say a word, though he continued to regard Steve as one might a feral animal.

“Sit down,” Steve said, pointing at the table.

Bucky sat, crossing his arms over his chest again. “Steve,” he said. “You’ve had a shock.”

“Yes,” Steve agreed, forcing himself to tamp down on the laughter that threatened to bubble up again. All sorts of shocks, really. Peggy had been shocking, the storm had been shocking, the cyclone had been very shocking. Those shocks combined made him surefooted and stubborn in a way he’d never realized he could be.

He was going to win Bucky over, even if it cost him his pride. That same pride had kept him from the fight before, but hell, what was pride in the face of death and true love?

Bucky cleared his throat. “You ought to eat your food and—”

“I hope you understand,” Steve broke in. “That I mean what I say. I won’t be leaving, not now, not ever. And I’ll be sleeping in your bed tonight, in case you thought I wouldn’t.”

Frowning, Bucky shook his head. “We shouldn’t talk about this now.”

“Oh, I think we should.” Steve stuffed nearly a whole biscuit into his mouth - gosh, he’d done well, they were perfect. Not bothering to swallow, he spoke around the bread. “It’d be different if I thought you hated me. I’d leave and be glad to be rid of you. But you don’t hate me. You love me, but you’re scared of me. Or scared of being in love with me. And that’s alright, Bucky. I can be brave enough for us both if I have to.”

“I never said I hated you,” Bucky replied, the stiffness settling onto his shoulders standing in stark contrast to Steve’s loose-limbed joy. “I don’t hate you. I only want what’s best for you, and that’s a life I can’t give you.”

Oh, no. Steve was going to giggle again. He fought it, looking at Bucky and twisting his lips together to keep his mouth from turning up. “Welp,” he said. “That plan’s shot to shit, Buck. I already asked Peggy if she’d have me, and she turned me down flat.”

Bucky’s eyes widened with the sudden realization that he wasn’t the smartest fella in the room - far from it - and he blinked a couple of times. “What? But she—”

“Oh, she’d marry me, probably. If she was gonna marry anyone,” he said. “But she isn’t, so you’d better stop putting your ideas of what she and I want on us because you’re flat wrong. And the thing is…” he hesitated, trying to think of just how Peggy and Sam had put it. “There’s more than one way to make a life, Buck.”

Bucky grunted. “What’s that supposed to mean.”

“It means,” Steve said, getting to his feet and taking a step closer. “It means that I don’t want a wife. Or children. Or anything that isn’t you.” Feeling very brave indeed, he forced his way into Bucky’s lap, much to Bucky’s consternation. “I’m staying right here. In our house. And I’m going to help you build this farm. Because I’m a terrible farmhand, you’re right. But I’d be a pretty good partner.”

“Steve—”

“No, you be quiet. You made the decision for both of us last time, and I let you. You owe me a choice.”

Bucky scowled, and Steve took advantage of his position to lean in and kiss that sour mouth. “You look like Winter when he’s being mulish, making that face.”

Doubling down on said face, Bucky narrowed his eyes. “I do not.

“And while we’re on the subject of you being mulish,” Steve continued, as though Bucky hadn’t spoken. “Don’t think I’m not still mad at you. I’m gonna be sore about it for a while. But that’s alright - I’ll let you make it up to me.”

"So I don't get any say?" Bucky asked - that part of him which stayed closed off to keep himself safe fighting hard to stay relevant. That stupid part, made up of self-sacrifice and self-preservation mixing together into a rancid stew that would make anybody sick.

“No.” Steve extricated himself from Bucky’s lap, standing and reaching out a hand. “On your feet.”

“Why?”

“Because I haven’t been to bed with you in ages, and we nearly died today.”

Bucky’s hard mask slipped, and the smallest of smiles made its way onto his face.

“Did you know?” Steve said before Bucky could overthink it. “That Peggy gave me a new name?”

“Oh?” Bucky let Steve pull him to his feet, drawing him towards the bed, which felt a bit like coming home.

“Mmm,” he said, wasting no time in beginning to unbutton Bucky’s shirt. “Singer of songs.”

Bucky laughed at that - a real laugh - one eyebrow creeping up. “That’s odd - you’re not much of a singer.”

Steve wasn’t offended, and he grinned as he pushed Bucky’s shirt from his shoulders. “It’s not about that, really. I’ll tell you later.”

Bucky opened his mouth to say something else, and Steve cut him off with a kiss, needy and insistent as he ran his hands down Bucky’s bare arms, feeling every ridge, burn and scar. Steve didn’t want to talk anymore - he wanted his partner.

They fell to the mattress together, where Steve crawled atop Bucky and planted one knee on either side of his torso before leaning down to lick a stripe up his sternum. As he brought his mouth to Bucky’s in another bruising kiss, a terrible, wonderful thought came to him - the audacity of what he wanted sending a shiver down his spine.

Slowly, he began kissing and biting his way down Bucky’s body, stopping at his waist long enough to undo the buttons and free his prick from its confines. Bucky was mostly hard, though not completely, and Steve looked at him thoughtfully before placing a kiss right to the tip of his prick.

Bucky shuddered, and Steve smiled. “You missed me.”

“God, Steve.”

“Not quite.”

Steve pulled away from their tangle of limbs so that he might strip Bucky bare. The power of it was intoxicating, having him laid out like that - all of him for Steve and Steve alone.

He wanted Bucky, more than he’d wanted anything before in his life, and he was going to have him.

His mouth found Bucky's prick, and he swallowed down its familiar length, waiting until Bucky was pliant and relaxed before making his next move. He snaked his left hand under Bucky's muscled thigh, nudging his legs apart and creeping his fingers up until he could press a finger to Bucky's entrance, pushing in without the aid of the oil.

They’d played that way a few times before - Steve exploring, while Bucky told him what to do. It was different now, the air crackling with the tension of their time apart, and an implicit understanding that Steve was seeking something different.

Bucky groaned when he was breached, hips lifting off the bed as Steve adjusted the angle of his head, so he didn't choke. It was easy enough to keep Bucky happy with his mouth as he worked past what resistance there was to find that sweet spot he knew so well, pleased with himself when Bucky whimpered.

“S-Steve—” he managed.

The familiar taste of Bucky’s seed was light on his tongue - that early, anticipatory taste of the pleasure that would come if Steve continued his ministrations.

He pulled off instead, a smile on his face even as Bucky yelped in protest.

“Turn over,” Steve said, ignoring Bucky’s distress as he pulled his finger free and slapped him on the flank for good measure. “Hands and knees.”

Bucky’s eyes widened, and Steve knew that he knew. They’d talked about the mechanics - how they might do this, and when - but they’d never gotten around to the act, being as winter had come to an end and their affair along with it.

But now? Steve had all the time in the world, yet he didn’t want to waste a minute.

Which meant Bucky needed to move. Steve repeated the order, in a tone he hoped brokered no argument. “Hands and knees, Buck.”

Bucky did what Steve asked, slowly rolling himself over and pushing himself up on all fours.

God, but he was a sin in and of himself, all those hard lines and trembling muscles.

They’d begun keeping the gun oil on the shelf above the bed during the winter, and when Steve reached up, he was pleased to find it was still there. As though Bucky hadn’t been able to bring himself to move it.

As though he had been waiting for Steve to insist on coming home.

Steve slicked up his left hand as quickly as he was able, and though he was flying blind, he did his best to project confidence when he began working his pointer finger back inside Bucky, who took in a sharp, pleased breath at the intrusion.

Laying his right hand on Bucky’s lower back, Steve brought a second finger to bear, as logic dictated that if he was going to get himself in there, he’d need to ease the passage properly. He split his fingers, stretching Bucky as best he was able, and after a time he worked his thumb in alongside the other two.

Bucky let out a strangled, gasping moan, and Steve froze.

“What?” he asked, worried that he’d hurt him.

Bucky looked over his shoulder, eyes glassy as he spread his legs wider, prick hanging heavy and hard between them. “Full,” he managed, his voice barely above a whisper. “Go slower, Steve, huh?”

“Yeah, Buck,” he said, his right hand moving to run up and down Bucky’s thigh, feeling the tension of his muscles and wanting very much to do right by him. For all that Steve was still sore, he was also in love, and Bucky’d had his fair share of hurting - he wasn’t about to add to that.

Bucky hung his head low, letting out a shaky breath as Steve pushed his fingers further in, taking care to be gentle about it before he meticulously began to spread them apart, opening Bucky up.

Bucky dropped to his elbows, back dipping as he pressed himself against Steve’s hand, his voice coming dark and desperate when he spoke. “Please, touch me?” he begged.

“Bucky—” Steve hesitated. “Does it hurt awfully?”

“Not too awfully,” he said. “Don’t stop, Steve, please. Only...touch me?”

His voice cracked on the repeated request, and Steve could do no less. Wanted to do no less, his hand moving between Bucky’s thighs, wrapping around his prick and beginning to stroke him. Bucky shuddered, a gasping little sob escaping as he dropped his forehead to his clasped hands, as if in prayer.

(Which might, in point of fact, have been the most blasphemous thought Steve Rogers had ever had, but at the moment he was too involved to care.)

“I don’t think I can uh...stretch you anymore, Buck,” he admitted after another few minutes of careful preparation, removing his fingers and reaching down to palm his own cock, which was more than ready to begin.

“S’alright,” Bucky managed. “I’m ready. Please, Steve?”

“I’m going to—” he began, using another fistful of the oil to coat himself before pressing the head of his prick against Bucky’s entrance, but not pushing in. Not yet.

Bucky groaned, taking over the job of touching himself as he brought his right hand between his legs. “Please, please?”

Steve nodded and inched forward. When he finally breached Bucky, the sensation was nothing like he’d been expecting. Different in so many ways from the heat of Bucky’s mouth, and a million miles away from the familiar comfort of his hand. Bucky’s body was all-encompassing, tight in a way he hadn’t dreamed it could be, and so warm.

“Oh,” he whimpered, sinking in another inch. Bucky’s back tensed, and the hand holding his prick picked up its rhythm. “Damn, sorry. Sorry, Bucky, I’ll slow—”

“No,” Bucky growled, his voice no more than a rumble in his chest. “Not slow. You take what you want.”

“Buck—”

“God damn, Steve,” he snapped, looking over his shoulder, teeth bared in a grin that was pure Bucky Barnes - half-piss, half-vinegar. “Not slow. Take what you want.”

“I—”

“I knew you wanted this from the first time I heard you callin’ out my name behind that quilt,” Bucky continued. “So move, Steve. I need you to.”

The revelation ought to have shocked him, but it didn’t. Everything made a curious sort of sense as Steve took the gift of Bucky’s permission and pushed forward, gaining ground until he was seated within Bucky’s body, hips flush with his backside, the warmth of it sending a paroxysm of pleasure right through him.

Pure instinct drove him as he pulled his hips back and sank in again, drawing a shudder out of Bucky and a moan from his own mouth. A pleasant fog descended over his good judgment, body ceasing to function in any way that made sense to him - it was as though it just knew what to do, and both hands came to rest on Bucky’s hips, where he dug his fingers in, holding him fast as he began to set a pace.

It was bliss, unlike anything he'd felt before, and he was ignorant of everything except his own pleasure as he rutted against Bucky, seeking that release. That thrill. He didn't last long, of course - how could he, when it was so novel and enjoyable to be enveloped in such heat? When his climax came, he realized it a moment too late, a shout ripped from his lips as he shuddered, filling Bucky up. Maybe it wasn't much, and maybe the next time he'd last longer, but it was what he'd done so he wouldn't be sorry about it.

He felt hazy and happy as his pleasure subsided, draping himself across Bucky’s broad back, only vaguely aware that Bucky hadn’t had his own pleasure yet - fist still pumping away.

“Lemme,” Steve slurred, knocking Bucky’s hand back, wanting to do that small thing for him. He worked his fingers ceaselessly until Bucky came with a gasp, his release staining the quilt. Then, they both collapsed onto the bed, sweaty and exhausted.

It took Steve some time to come back to himself, and when he did, he realized Bucky was crying. Quiet, hiccuping sobs emanating from where he lay pinned beneath Steve’s weight.

“Buck?” he asked, suddenly worried that he’d hurt him. Or worse - that Bucky was going to try and send him away all over again.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said instead. “I’m sorry. Oh, Steve, I can’t—” he let out a hitching little laugh, not unlike the ones Steve had been having earlier.

“What are you sorry for?” Steve asked, working to keep his voice calm as he slipped from Bucky’s body. (And, golly, wasn’t that just the most curious sensation?) Stretching himself out, he turned on his side so he could see Bucky’s face properly.

“For everything,” Bucky said with a rueful shrug, turning over as well, where he studied Steve for a moment before throwing his arms around him and hugging him fiercely, tucking his head against Steve’s chest. “I thought it would be better, I really did. For you, that is. I thought you’d be happier if you could go and forget me.”

“Mmm,” Steve shrugged, hugging him back. “I couldn’t forget you, so that’s a pretty stupid idea, Buck.”

“I’m full of ‘em,” Bucky replied, voice muffled as he hid his face.

Steve laughed, bringing his hand up to run through the tangled mess of hair on Bucky’s head. “You know,” he began. “I lost my home once before, and there wasn’t anything I could do about that. Then I came here, and I found another home. With you.”

Bucky looked at him, pulling back enough that Steve could see the fresh tears on his cheeks.

Clearing his throat, Steve continued. “You tried to take that new home away from me, but—”

“I never meant to,” Bucky blurted, shaking his head. “I didn’t think—”

“We’ve established that you don’t think,” Steve agreed. “But the thing of it is, Buck, you can’t take it away. I got a life here now, same as you. And I figured that out while I’ve been missing you all this time. I got family here, even if you’re not my family. So hell, even if you had kicked me out in July, you’d still have had to deal with my ugly face when you came to town. Because I’m home here, with or without you. Only, I’d prefer with.”

Bucky ruminated on that for a while, a frown on his face. “I guess that’s something,” he muttered. “I spent a long time trying my level best to get away from the only home I’d ever known. So I...I figured you’d see me as a stop along the way to finding your own place. Your own claim.”

“I stopped caring about that claim a long time ago,” Steve replied, feeling very magnanimous as he fought to keep the grin off his face. “But as the Bible says, we must patiently endure idiots. So consider this me enduring you.”

Bucky barked out a laugh, cuffing Steve on the arm as he rolled his eyes. “I’m trying to be sentimental, you wag.”

“Save the sentiment and kiss me.”

“Sure,” Bucky agreed, before doing just that.

They fell to it for a while, trading kisses on top of the covers and then underneath them, their affections growing sluggish as the long day overtook them and sleepiness set in.

“Hey, Steve?” Bucky mumbled against his skin, one arm slung across his waist, lips pressed against the hollow of his neck.

“Uh huh?”

“You know when you said before, how you had an ugly face?”

“Mmm?”

“You’re not ugly, s’all.” Bucky pulled back with a grin. “Got a big nose, though, and I just bet God loves you anyway. I know I do.”

Steve squawked in protest, which set Bucky laughing, rolling onto his back and clutching his sides.

“Aw, shut up, Bucky,” he protested, falling down on top of him and thumping his chest.

Bucky did, and they were both asleep soon thereafter.

When Steve woke early the next morning - the sound of rain on the roof rousing him from his slumber, Bucky’s arms around his waist and a smile on his lips - his mouth moved in a silent, grateful prayer.

He was happy to be home.

 

Chapter Text

Selected letters from the personal correspondence of Miss Margaret Elizabeth Carter


 

 

August 18, 1868

Dear Peggy,

It is strange to think you have only been gone a week as you are already sorely missed! Having been to church without your company, I fell asleep in the pew which was noticed by both Becky and Mrs. Coulson. You can only imagine the carrying on (I am joking of course they are both too polite to say anything, though Becky DID pinch my arm to wake me rather harder than she ought in this man’s humble opinion).

Everyone in town says hello. I saw your father yesterday because someone forgot that we would be needing sugar if we wished to bake a pie with the last of the summer peaches. Well you can believe I rode to town as fast as I was able (which as you know is NOT VERY). That same someone was displeased with my slowness but soothed by the pie so you can rest assured that all is well on the homefront even though you are missed. Your father said he doesn’t know how he will manage without you so I offered that perhaps when the planting was through I could come to town sometimes and work behind the counter. He said yes please! so now I will keep an eye on your folks and report back any interesting news they might not think to tell you so you won’t be behind on things when you come home for Christmas.

Now I must share good news in two parts. The first is that Bucky and myself have become acquainted with four GOATS since we last saw you and I will tell you Peggy that our acquaintance is as much a surprise to me as any man living. But the Rosses (and this is the second piece of good news) have decided to give up on the west and go back to Virginia where I guess distasteful people go since they are the MOST distasteful. Betty will stay with Bruce of course but we will all be glad to see the backsides of her parents and their rudeness.

But on the subject of the goats! Mrs. Ross had four penned up in her kitchen garden which I remember you telling me about because we heard them bleating one morning. I mentioned to Bucky about the Rosses leaving and how I had a fear for what would become of the goats and well you could have struck me down with a feather, Peggy, because the next morning he marches into town and comes back with four goats on a line, making noises as goats do and following him along like DUCKLINGS.

They are settling in fine though Sarge is most confused by his new friends. You have never seen such biddable creatures, which shows that it is not how we are raised that determines our natures because they were raised by Mrs. Ross which would lead one to think they all ought to be OLD BIDDIES.

Well being as they are now our goats we have decided to name them two apiece and give them the chance to start fresh. Bucky called his Samson and Delilah which I think was to rankle me but what do I care? I named mine James and Jemima which DID rankle him so I figure he did have a notion about the naming of the goats.

This letter is becoming overlong as I have written across both sides of the paper but if I am going to tell you the news I suppose I better tell all of it. I have asked Bucky if he has anything to say to you and he says to tell you not to become any more of a knowitall. I figure he thinks he's funny and anyhow you already know more than he ever will. We miss you and are already looking forward fondly to when you come home. Please write soon.

Ever your true friend,
Steve Rogers

 


 

September 20, 1869

Dear Peggy,

There has been much excitement and such an awful lot has happened since you went back to school! I will begin by saying that I hope your terrible situation with the HORRID ACQUAINTANCE has resolved itself without your taking up arms but you are a menace, Carter, so somehow I think perhaps she is in for some trouble. Did you manage to squeeze into the class with the lecturer you'd hoped for? I hope so and I hope that your second year away gives you fewer bumps and bruises than your first or I may have to take a trip and sort them out. Only joking of course.

Anyhow to the awful lot that has happened. Becky has had her baby as we knew she would, only it was TWO babies! Didn't that half-shock me and nearly killed Bucky and Matthew! No wonder indeed with the way she was showing so soon (and forgive me for saying so in a FOUL temper all the while). The babies did come early and while I helped as much as I was able mostly she is very good at the business of having babies without much of my help at all.

The twins are a boy and a girl together, though the girl is nearly half an hour older. She is called Winifred Ann on account of their mother and grandmother while the little boy is Matthew Elijah on account of Matthew’s father. And Peggy you must laugh to think of the steam coming off Bucky’s face because he thought for CERTAIN one of the babies would be named for him this time. He huffed and blew around the house for a while but he has already been pestering me about knitting them blankets for the winter so I do not think he is so much of a bruised apple over the whole affair.

Baby Sarah is horrified by the twins being as she is now a grand dame of one year and six months old. She does not think much of them at all and when we went to visit last Sunday she gave Winifred such a pinch that it made her squall something awful. Of course it earned Miss Sarah a smack on her backside and gosh if I thought we'd never hear the end of THAT carryon. Bucky picked her up by the ankles though and shocked the sobs out of her, taking her outside where he worked some of his magic and when they came back in she seemed to feel less sorry for herself. But that's Sarah and Bucky all through as he dotes on her and fusses on her. (Mind you I NEVER WOULD as I believe children ought to be seen not heard. You'd never catch ME sneaking her sweets or ribbons from the mercantile. Oh no never.)

Everything is very well on the farm in case you were wondering. The goats are thriving though Jemma misses you most especially and wonders if you’ll bring her any more treats when you next come home to visit. We have added four more chickens to the brood and if you can believe it we have acquired a CAT. This was a great surprise to me as I did not believe Sarge would stand for such an affront to Himself but when the blacksmith’s cat had kittens Bucky went and paid thirty cents for one. We have named her Jezebel (Bucky named her I should say) and she is a fierce thing.

I will end my letter here because the weather is fine and Bucky has given me an endless list of THINGS to do. He has no messages for you other than a beastly joke which I am loathe to transcribe lest these letters fall into nefarious or untrustworthy hands. I would not want to besmirch the young man’s EXCELLENT REPUTATION.

Your assurer of all virtue,
Steve Rogers

 


 

May 10, 1870

Dear Miss Carter,

Your father showed me the telegram which says you are not coming home for the summer. I am sure things are very nice in EUROPE but we should like to see you in KANSAS. See if we invite you for a picnic the next time you deign to visit North Star if you EVER DO.

-S.R.

 

Peg,

You ought to ignore Steve. He’s only peeved he’ll have to pick up more work at your father’s shop in your absence. Say hello to the Queen if you see her, and try not to get yourself locked up in the Bastille.

Bucky

 

Miss Carter,

Ignore BUCKY he is a GOAT.

S.R.

 

Peg,

I stole away early to write this bit and will be taking the letter to the post office before the ever charming S.R. can grumble his way into another postscript. My request is simple enough. If you come across any interesting books regarding the subjects of fine art or agriculture on your travels, I’ll gladly reimburse you for either.

Do your best to stay out of trouble.

Bucky

 


 

April 10, 1871

Dear Peggy,

I have such a story to tell you! What has happened is that we have had an ADVENTURE the likes I’ve never seen and though it is not so grand as your European jaunt it is as exciting as a poor farmer is like to see.

Well to begin, when the winter storms were through we went to town and found a letter waiting from Bucky's MOTHER. She had made plans to take rooms in St. Louis for two weeks come March and had sent Bucky and Becky some money because she said she would like to see the babies and also her OWN babies. You can imagine our surprise because the lady had sent the letter before the snow flew but by the time we received it we had barely a week to plan for our trip. At first, Bucky was not wanting to go at all but you know how Becky can be so it was decided.

It is lucky we have such friends here now as folk offered to keep up the farms while we were gone and to tend the creatures. So now you must imagine it, Peggy. Myself and Buck and Matthew and Becky with Sarah and the twins and baby James all piling onto the train in North Star. We traveled east until we felt as though we would fall over from the tiredness of it all. You are an old hand at being on trains I suppose but being as it was only my second time I found that I still did NOT care for it. All that rattling sets a body's bones aching and my head was throbbing by the time we disembarked in St. Louis. Bucky I think was worried for me but I guess I can take care of myself well enough and do not need his coddling.

So we come to the city and Mrs. Barnes has a set of two rooms adjoining in a grand hotel. Well Peggy I will say she is the loveliest lady you have ever known but so SHY and so TIMID as though she would not shoo a mouse from a corner! I do not see much of her in her children save for their looks because she is fair and lovely and so they both are as well.

It was her first time to meet Matthew of course and she likes him I think. But then she asks who I might be and Bucky says well this is Steve, he’s my farmhand and Peggy you ought to have seen the LOOK she fixed on my person. Between you and me I think she is a very smart lady. Even though she is shy and timid she is as nice as can be and she seemed very pleased to meet her grandchildren and to see her own boy and girl again.

Now of course I think you must be wondering why Bucky's father did not come west. He has been taken ill at home, and the reason Mrs. Barnes had come was to ask Bucky and Becky if perhaps they ought to come home now, as Mr. Barnes needs help with the running of the farm else they will lose it.

Well, Bucky said he would not and goodness she cried and cried. He was very firm and said his life is here now and that he would not trade it for the life his father chose for him. So Mrs. Barnes cried some more and I know she was making Bucky feel very bad because he would not talk much during supper. As there were not enough beds for us all he and I slept on the floor that first night and I said to him it was alright if he wanted to go. I said I would go with him because I would be sad to leave North Star but sadder still to lose his friendship. But he turns to me and whispers that he has no life there in New York and that maybe it is harder to live in North Star but it is HIS home and his place.

So we are staying and so is Becky! I feel very sorry for Mrs. Barnes but am made to feel better by the offer Becky made her in saying she could come and stay in North Star sometime. Mrs. Barnes seemed soothed and said she would like to see the prairie as well as our houses and our farms. So perhaps she will and perhaps Bucky's father will get well again or perhaps he won't. All the same, he is not someone I ever care to meet.

Jings I have written you an awful lot about only one story but I thought you would like to know that you might have come back to find me gone, but here I am all the same!

Your faithful and constant companion,
Steve Rogers

 


 

March 28, 1872

Darling Peggy,

Bucky and I were so pleased and honored to receive the ENGRAVED invitation to your commencement exercises and we did appreciate the note within and your thoughtfulness in stating that we did not have to spend all that money to attend and you would not be put out by our absence. While it is true we are not able to manage the journey due to circumstances we are VERY proud of you and have put the invitation on a shelf and are SO looking forward to having you at HOME again to stay.

Now you might wonder what these circumstances which prevent our attendance should be. They are twofold in troubles as the winter wheat has not done as well as we'd hoped and Bucky fears we will lose most of the crop so that has put a damper on our fun I will tell you. The other is more pleasant because Bucky has decided to build another room onto the house and purchased all the lumber to do so on credit. He is convinced it will all come right in the fall when we harvest and that it is about time this place had a proper bedroom. I have never built a bedroom before but I guess Bucky knows what he is doing. Of course only HIS bed will go in there while mine will stay in the main room but he has made rumblings about one day building a room for me. It would be the sort of place where a visitor could stay if they came calling. I figure I might as well bunk up with Bucky if that happened.

Anyhow, we are feeling very expansive and pleased with ourselves but we have had some sad news from New York as well. Bucky's father has not got better and indeed is faring ever more poorly so they have been forced to sell the farm. This means decent money for them to live on but in her letter explaining the circumstances Mrs. Barnes said it was a shame to see so many generations of hard work thrown away by Bucky and Becky's selfishness. Bucky scoffed something fierce and said those were his father's words set down by his mother's pen. He was very indignant indeed and wrote a letter to his mother that said when Mr. Barnes goes (and Bucky says he believes it will be sooner rather than later as no man can live on BILE and REGRET alone) his mother is welcome to come here and live in North Star. Not IN our house goodness no but in town or with Becky and Matthew to help with the children.

Oh and that reminds me that Becky is once again expecting! Number five and she says if it’s a boy they will name him Steven and if it’s a girl she will be Margaret so here’s hoping for a BOY! Only joking of course Peg.

Natasha likely wrote you with her own news but in case you have not heard, she’s taking over a storefront and opening a saloon. I am sure she will find business booming when she gets it running as this town is growing more and more each day. She will not say where she got the money but she is a sly one as you know. A smart one as well with her husband to keep the riff-raff away when she opens her doors. You will scarcely believe the size of North Star when you come home! Two streets now and nearly as crowded as Brooklyn. A body can hardly hear itself think.

One final piece of news is not news yet but is like to be in the future so I’d better tell you now. I have my eye out for the land that adjoins Bucky’s property because I do believe Mr. Hill may up and quit this place as so many have before him. If he does I had better jump on his claim and double the size of our farm, says Bucky. Being as I’m free and twenty-one there’s nothing stopping me.

Well as you can tell we are all getting along just fine here and we are hoping that you get your diploma and don’t trip and fall while you are doing so (Bucky said to write that because he is not very funny). We will see you soon and will have a picnic to celebrate your homecoming.

Your affectionate friend,
Steve Rogers