~ 1924 ~
Bucky was seven years old when his first sister was born. Rebecca Grace Barnes was a loud little thing, always squalling and fussing in their parents’ arms while they continued to dote on her. Bucky, used to being the only child, was jealous of all the attention she received. At least, at first. After all, he couldn’t help but think, what was so special about a baby? It wasn’t even like she could do anything. All she ever did was cry.
His mother, bless her, tried her best to be patient with him, but there was only so much of his whining she can could stand until she snapped.
“That’s enough out of you, James Buchannan Barnes,” she said crossly one day, holding his sister as she attempted to calm her down, the baby’s ever-loud crying beginning to grate on everyone’s nerves. Still, his mother insisted, “Rebecca is here to stay and you had best accept it.”
Winifred was about to say more when a knock on the front door startled them. Frazzled and overwhelmed, she foisted Rebecca hurriedly into Bucky’s arms, telling him in no uncertain times that he’d better hold her carefully or else. As soon as she was sure he was supporting her neck properly, she was gone, greeting whoever had decided to visit.
Bucky, meanwhile, wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself or the baby in his arms. He watched warily as she kicked against him, her entire body vibrating with the force of her cries, little face all scrunched up. Desperate to stop the grating noise, he tried to remember how his ma usually soothed her. He started by rocking her awkwardly in his lap, making uncertain shushing noises. When that didn’t work, he freed one of his hands and rubbed her shaking belly as softly as he could.
Finally, finally she began to calm, her cries slowly decreasing in volume. At one point, he stopped rocking her and the wail she let out in response was almost enough to break his ears, so he immediately started up again. Her face lost its angry redness after that, brow relaxing as she looked up at him with increasingly droopy eyes.
He was suddenly afraid of breaking her. She was just so small, much smaller than him and Bucky wasn’t even done growing yet. Ma would say she’s still a fragile thing. As if sensing his train of thought, the baby let out an abrupt little gurgle, her tiny hand coming to rest atop Bucky’s, fingers curling around his thumb.
In that moment, he realized with startling clarity that she’d be helpless without him or his parents to take care of her. He felt the shame flood him then, now knowing that he’d been wrong to be so dismissive before. He had been nothing less than the bullies that sometimes tried to pick on him or his best pal Steve. The thought of it made him sick. If Stevie ever found out how he’d been acting, he’d be so disappointed. Bucky couldn’t think of anything worse. He barely remembered a time before Steve... he wouldn’t know what to do without him. Wouldn’t know where to start.
Swallowing harshly against the onslaught of emotion, he curled further around his baby sister.
“Don’t worry, Becca,” he whispered softly, christening her with a new nickname, “I’ve got you now.”
Despite not understanding, Becca gurgled happily right back at him.
When Winifred returned a few moments later, she found her son giggling down at her daughter and she couldn’t help her smile. It was a start, at least.
~ 1928 ~
Steve Rogers was ten years old the very first time a girl (that wasn’t his mother) told him she loved him. He’d been homebound for nearly a week by then, the tickle in his chest having become so much worse. Luckily, it seemed to be fading and Ma decided Bucky could finally come visit him.
(Ma didn’t know about three nights ago, of course, when Buck had somehow managed to sneak up their old fire escape and poke Steve awake from his fevered sleep. Steve only remembered it vaguely, but he did know that his best friend had spent the night reading the Wonderful Wizard of Oz to him, curled beside him, big and warm. He’d fallen asleep because of that warmth and the next morning his ma was surprised to find he had enough strength to sit up and eat his soup all by himself.)
Steve spent the morning practically buzzing with excitement; he would’ve been bouncing off the walls if he could, but his legs were still as weak as a newborn deer’s. So Ma handed him his sketchpad and the pencil he’d worn down to a nub, letting him work off some of his energy by doodling. She was watching him with a small smile as she cleaned their tiny two-room apartment, singing old Irish jigs under her breath. (It was Steve’s favorite kind of morning, with only the sound of his mother’s sweet voice and his pencil gliding across paper keeping them company.)
Of course, the peace that had settled over their home was soon disrupted when not one, but two Barnes kids came running through their front door. No doubt Winnie Barnes had trusted Bucky to look after his little sister while she went off to clean the fancy houses uptown, looking to earn some extra money.
(‘Sides the disruption was more than welcome – at least to Steve, who’d been cooped up without his friend for far too long.)
Bucky called out a quick greeting to Mrs. Rogers before urging Becca forward to Steve’s bedside, the siblings wearing matching grins.
“Steve!” Little Becca said happily, though it came out more like ‘Stebe’ (the four-year-old still got her consonants mixed up). She made grabby hands at him, wanting to sit up on the bed like he was.
Steve was about to tug her up (or try to), when Bucky swooped in with all his healthy glory, dumping his sister next to his friend. Steve glared at him and opened his mouth–
“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky interrupted with an eye roll, “you don’t need help, ain't nothin' I haven’t head before. But, pal, you can’t even stand yet!”
“Yes, I can,” Steve argued, incensed. Just ‘cause he was smaller than Bucky, didn’t mean he was weak. I can definitely stand, he thought, somewhat petulantly.
Bucky gave him a look. “No, you can’t.”
“Yes, I can.”
“No, ya really can’t.”
“I’ll show you,” Steve muttered, trying to surge up to his feet only to topple into Bucky. Becca clapped in delight, giggling like it was the funniest thing she ever saw. It made his cheeks burn with shame.
“Why d’you gotta be so stubborn, huh Stevie? I’m just bein’ a pal,” Bucky told him, frowning as he got Steve settled back in his sickbed, Becca still giggling next to them.
“I ain’t weak,” Steve insisted, trying hard not let the tears that suddenly swamped his eyes run down his face. He wasn’t little anymore; he shouldn’t be crying. But he was so, so tired, all the time. His stupid body never worked right, he was always letting everyone down, getting sick. Especially his ma and Bucky. And he couldn’t play or help or do anything like the rest of the children his age. Sometimes he just wanted to scream, he was so angry, but he didn’t want Ma or Buck or even little Becca to think he was ungrateful. He knew how much they all did to keep him here.
It just… It wasn’t fair.
“Aw Stevie, I know you ain’t weak,” Bucky said, wedging himself on Steve’s other side. He nudged him carefully. “You’re the strongest fella I know, I swear.”
“Don’t be making up lies, Buck,” Steve replied, lip trembling a little. Becca was oblivious by his side, playing with the edges of the blanket his ma had knitted for him a few years ago.
“M’not! No one else I know woulda scared the Carlson boys off’a Eli Abrams like you did.”
Steve frowned, “You did the scarin’, Buck.” It was true; the Carlson boys had laughed when Steve’d intervened on their picking on poor Eli. And then the infamous Bucky Barnes has stepped in and they’d run after a one punch, tails between their legs.
Still, Bucky shook his head, arguing against the obvious. “But you started it. And you woulda finished it too, pr’bably messed up that beak of yours even more.”
Steve swatted Bucky away when he reached out to thumb at the obvious bump in Steve’s nose. Bucky grinned, deciding instead to place his arm around Steve’s skinny shoulders, keeping it firm even when the smaller boy struggled for a minute against it. Bucky knew that Steve would give into the embrace – he always did.
“Look, sometimes you just need a friend, alright?” Bucky told him, almost gently and with far more wisdom than an eleven-year-old should have. “Don’t mean you’re not strong all by yourself.”
“I guess,” Steve grumbled, though the tone was softened by the fact that he burrowed in a little closer, letting his head rest on Bucky’s shoulder. Steve truly dreaded the day Bucky would realize he could do so much better than scrawny, always-sick Steve Rogers. After all, Bucky was his only friend in the world and probably would be the only one ever, but everyone was Bucky’s friend. One day he was sure to pick someone better than Steve to spend all his time with. Steve just knew it. Until then, he would savor the company; for however much longer he had it.
They sat there for a long moment, before a very excitable four-year-old started tugging incessantly on their arms.
“Steve, Bucky, play now,” Becca demanded.
Bucky laughed. “Sure, Becs. But how’s about we draw, huh? Let Stevie show us how it’s done.”
And keep him resting in bed, Steve was sure he didn't add, but for once it he didn’t let it bother him. Instead, he felt warm in the knowledge his friend cared enough to worry about him.
Becca seemed to consider for a moment before nodding her consent. Drawing it would be, then.
They were at it for a while, first all drawing on their own before Steve created funny little cartoon characters that Bucky gave voice too, crafting a wacky story to make Becca laugh.
“James,” his ma called after a while, “do you mind helping me with supper? All this chopping would get done faster with two pairs of hands.”
“‘Course not, Mrs. Rogers,” Bucky replied, immediately scampering to her side.
“Thank you, darling.”
Bucky went a little red-faced at the endearment but puffed up proudly, causing Steve no end of amusement. But Sarah Rogers’ praise did that to the best of them. His ma left him with instructions to keep an eye on Becca, who was still bouncing with energy. Steve invented a game involving paper planes to try and tucker her out, letting her run her energy off a bit.
Eventually, she managed to help pull herself back up on the bed (though by stepping on the stack of books Steve kept by the side table, which had made him wince). She pushed herself into his lap, dislodging the open sketchbook he’d been working in, clearly unhappy he wasn’t paying attention to her. She huffed as her dark brown hair went into her eyes again, loose now thanks to all the running about earlier. Becca tried to get it out of her eyes but it just kept falling back into place, unruly.
“Steve, help,” Becca said, bottom lip jutted out pathetically. “Please.”
Steve grinned at her. She sure had a lot of the Barnes charm in her and she already knew it. He envied it a little, that charm that both her and Bucky shone with. But, for the most part, he was simply happy to be in its presence.
“Sure, Becca.” He helped her turn around so her back was to him, fingers gently undoing what was left of the braid Mrs. Barnes had painstakingly put together that morning. (‘Lord save me from my wild children, Steve,’ she told him nearly every time she saw him. But always with a smile on her face; the very one her wild children inherited.)
Steve was careful as he parted Becca’s hair three ways again, before deftly winding them back together. His finished by tying the ribbon in a neat bow at the end. (His ma had taught him how to do this, said his long, skinny fingers were just perfect for making her hair look beautiful.)
“All done, Miss Becca,” Steve finally said, tickling her sides a little. She giggled in response before fighting him off – only to turn back around to rest against his thin chest, arms wrapping too strong around his neck. Steve smiled at the display of affection anyways, rubbing her back in what he hoped was the same soothing way his ma did to him.
“Love you, Steve,” Becca said in reply, smacking a kiss on his cheek. And then she scampered off, like her statement hadn’t just completely thrown Steve’s world on its axis. He’d known Becca since she was a tiny baby, but she’d never said that to him before, no matter how much he played with her. No, she saved that for Mrs. Barnes and Bucky. Even Mr. Barnes never got an ‘I love you’ from little Becca (though that was probably because he was often loud and mean, especially if he want out for the night).
Huh, Steve found himself thinking dumbly, guess I have more than one friend after all.
The thought made him smile stupidly, even as his head felt foggy with the last vestiges of his sickness. Maybe most boys his age wouldn’t want a friend who was practically a baby, and a girl at that, but Steve never minded stuff like that. ‘Sides he knew that Ma wasn’t going to have any more babies herself; she’d told him so, when he begged for a little sister of his own after Becca was born.
(“Don’t be sad for me, my sweet boy,” Sarah Rogers had said, “if God can only give me one child in this life, I’m glad it was you.”)
So Steve was happy to have little Becca Barnes follow him and Bucky around; even happier to have her want him as a playmate, though he was probably getting too old for that now. (He was ten, practically a grown-up.)
But maybe, just maybe, when Bucky eventually left him behind, Becca would keep being his friend for a while longer.
Steve could live with that.
(Of course, it didn’t happen like that. Bucky did eventually leave him, but it was much later in life than Steve had expected at ten years old. And in a much worse way than simply finding a new friend.)
~ 1930 ~
Becca was five years old (almost six) when her mama was pregnant again. She barely remembered the last time Mama’s belly was big and round, carrying a growing baby, Becca’s new brother or sister. That baby hadn’t ended up coming though. He’d been too small and tired to stay with them, Bucky’d explained. Becca hadn’t really understood it at the time (she had only been four); all she knew was that Mama had been real sad back then, her eyes always wet and puffy.
Mama seemed happy now though, thrilled that there was another one on the way. Her father never said much about it, but he had been smiling more lately as well and he was less likely to drink from that nasty bottle of his.
And Bucky. Bucky was so excited about it, constantly checking on Mama, making sure she was comfortable. He told Becca that is was important that he help where he could so that the baby was born happy and healthy. Bucky even took away Daddy’s bottle, though Daddy hadn’t liked that much. Her brother had ended up with a sore tummy for a while after that and dark blue splotches on his skin, but he hadn’t once complained about it. In fact, he’d looked rather pleased with himself, despite the pain he’d been in.
Becca hoped that all this work meant that this new baby was a good thing. Sister Agnes, the old nun who watched after all the girls in Sunday school, told her that hard work was a virtue, that it brought you closer to God. (Becca didn’t really know much about God, but she found herself thinking that it must be true, considering how hard she saw Bucky and Steve and Mama work. They were the best people she knew, so God must love ‘em like she did. Maybe God would love the new baby too.)
When the baby finally came, it was in the middle of the night. Becca had been sound asleep when her mama’s pleas for help had woken her. Bucky shot awake from the cot he had beside her bed, scrambling out of it with barely a word in her direction.
He was back mere moments later, his eyes aglow with an odd mixture anticipation and worry. “Becca, I’m going to get some help for Ma so I need you to go hold her hand. Can you do that?”
She nodded enthusiastically, happy that he needed her help for once. Usually when she tried to do something for him, he rebuffed her, no matter how many times she insisted that she was going to be a big sister soon, so that meant she was already a big girl. Him asking for help meant that he finally thought so too. Her chest felt suddenly warm and she smiled up at him, scooting off the end of her bed.
“Is Daddy helpin’ too?” Becca asked.
For some reason, the question made Bucky look angry. “No, he isn’t. He’s out. But don’t worry, Ma’s got you and me.”
Like all children her age, Becca’s belief in her older brother was absolute, so she simply nodded in acceptance. Bucky put a hand on her shoulder and lead her quickly to Mama’s room. Winifred Barnes was laid out on her back, pillows plumped up behind her back to support her body. She was only wearing a thin shift; definitely not warm enough for winter, but her hairline was covered in sweat regardless. Her eyes were glassy as she took in her children, holding out a trembling hand for her daughter as soon as Becca entered the room.
The youngest Barnes didn’t hesitate to run across the room and barrel into her mother’s side (though she was extra careful of Mama’s belly; Bucky would be mad otherwise).
“Oh my little darling, you don’t mind keeping your old ma company, do you?” Winifred said, strained.
“Course not,” Becca replied, snuggling against the woman’s arm, holding her larger hand in her two small ones.
“You’re a sweet girl, Rebecca dear,” Mama whispered with a small smile, before she suddenly tensed, a harsh breath escaping through clenched teeth. Her pretty face twisted in pain, making it into an ugly, unrecognizable thing. Becca wasn’t sure what was happening but she tried her best not to get scared. She was a big girl and Mama and Bucky needed her help now. So she did what Mama always did when she was hurting, singing all the songs she could remember, making up words where she forgot the real ones.
She was so focused on her job that she didn’t even notice that Bucky had left, not until he came back with several people in tow. Her brother burst into the room when Becca was in the middle of singing her favorite lullaby, followed closely by Steve’s ma and Steve himself. Apparently the nearest midwife (not that Becca really knew what that was) was nowhere to be found and Steve’s ma was the best Bucky could do, with her being a nurse and all. Mrs. Rogers immediately went to Becca’s mother, hands fluttering over the other woman, only pausing in her examination to crouch in front of the little girl.
“Rebecca, why don't go with your brother and Steve now?” she asked, her pale blue eyes full of the same earnestness that seemed to fill her son to the brim.
Becca, tired by now of all the singing, just nodded again and allowed herself to be led away by the boys. They ensconced themselves in her and Bucky’s bedroom, all three children piling up on Becca’s bed with the proper mattress. She used to share the bed with Bucky but he’d begun insisting on sleeping in the cot over the past year. Becca didn’t mind much, she tended to sprawl out when she slept, but now she took comfort in having both boys nearby. Seeing how Bucky was jittering nervously, she decided to lean into Steve’s side, who immediately put an arm around her, long fingers playing with the end of her braid. Steve was much smaller and skinnier than Bucky, but that just made it easier to put her head against his shoulder.
“How long’s it gonna take?” Becca asked after a while, impatient. She glanced over at Bucky in askance, her brother still trying his best not to fidget.
“Not too much longer, I think.” His statement is punctuated by their mother’s loud scream from the next room.
Becca frowned at that, worried. She felt the telltale stinging of tears coming to her eyes. “Why’s the baby hurting Mama? I thought she wanted to come now.”
Bucky seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for words at that, his brow similarly furrowed with concern. As always when her brother was struggling with something, Steve was quick to step in.
“The baby’s just impatient to come out and meet you and Buck,” he started. “And my ma always says that giving birth hurts, but it's not a bad kind of hurt. It’s the kind of hurt that comes before something good happens. The baby isn’t hurting your mama out of meanness or anything like that, I promise.”
“So… she’s not hurtin’ Mama on purpose?” Becca checked, sniffling.
Steve nodded sagely. Then, as if something just occurred to him, his lips twitched into a wry smile. “She? How d’you know the baby’s a girl?”
“Because the last one was a boy, so that means this one’s a girl… Right, Bucky?”
Bucky’s voice was thick when he replied. “Sure, Becca. It’ll be a girl now.”
Sensing that something was wrong, she opened her mouth to speak when Steve tugged gently at her braid. “How’s about we do some drawing?” he asked, pulling out the sketchbook he always kept on him (it was one Becca had helped Bucky pick out for him).
Soon all three of them were lying on the bellies, with Becca in the middle, doodling on one of the blank pages. Bucky was drawing stick people next to Becca’s artful blobs. Steve outmatched them both with his lifelike teddy bear, holding a card that said ‘Welcome Baby Barnes’.
“That’s real pretty, Stevie,” Becca complimented enthusiastically, running clumsy fingers over the lines of the drawing.
“Thanks,” he mumbled in return, his face all red.
They went on like that for a while (it felt like it was taking hours, Becca kept complaining), trying not to get to worried by the noises coming from the other room. Eventually though, they heard the unmistakable sound of a baby’s cry, followed shortly by Mrs. Rogers coming to get them. They all rushed to Mama’s bedroom, but hesitated in the doorway, eyes wide as they watched Winifred gently rock the wriggling little bundle in her arms. Winnie smiled tiredly at them, but her eyes were shining with happiness.
“Come in and meet your little sister,” she invited. Becca barely even thought about the fact that she was right, immediately going to her Mama, curious to see the baby. Bucky followed, his face melting into a smile as soon as he saw their new sister. Becca didn’t know what was so special about her, she looked just like any other baby… but she was her little sister, so maybe that’s what made her special. Steve hesitated behind them, but Mama’s ‘you too, Steve’ got him moving.
“She’s so beautiful,” Bucky whispered in awe, his hand hesitantly patting her little head, the other pulling Becca in close, as if needing the anchor.
“She really is,” Mrs. Rogers said from beside them, “and she’s a healthy little girl to boot.”
Bucky’s smile widened at that. “What’s her name, Ma?”
“Lillian Sarah Barnes,” Winifred told them proudly. Bucky immediately turned to look at Steve’s mother, his smile blinding now.
“Are… are you sure, Winnie?” Mrs. Rogers asked and though her frail body looked like it would keel over in the slightest breeze, something in her face spoke of strong stuff. Her eyes were gleaming, hand clutching Winnie’s.
“Of course, Sarah. I couldn’t have done this without you,” the other woman said, before breaking off into Gaelic too fast and complicated for Becca to understand.
She didn’t care much though, focusing again on her sister. The baby had wispy brown hair on her head and Becca couldn’t help but wonder if it was soft. Bucky leaned down to whisper in her ear.
“It’s ok, Becca. Go on ahead and touch her. You just have to be careful for a while, she’s still really little, but soon she’ll be up and about and you’ll have someone new to play with.”
With Bucky’s encouragement, she reached and ran her fingers over the top of Lilian’s head like she’d seen him do earlier, finding her downy hair to be silky against her skin. That warm feeling from earlier returned to Becca’s chest and she continued to pet her sister’s head as gently as she could. Bucky even lifted her onto the bed to make it easier for her to reach, while Steve kept a steady hand on her back, so she wouldn’t topple back off in excitement. Becca didn’t have any attention for them, however, only focused on Lilian.
No, she decided. Lily. Like the flowers Steve sometimes drew her, the ones he’d seen in a book once. They were pretty, Becca remembered. Special.
But this Lily… this Lily was more special. Becca just knew it.
~ 1937 ~
Lily was seven years old when she found Stevie and Bucky kissing in their kitchen.
Mama and Mrs. Rogers had gone out to the market with Becca and Annie, leaving the boys to look after Lily, who would have joined her sisters if she hadn’t been feverish the last few days. Normally on market day Mama would have left baby Annie with Bucky and Steve to be watched, but with Lily so ill she hadn’t wanted to risk the eleven-month-old’s health.
Lily understood that, or she tried to. Annie Marie Barnes was what everyone referred to as a ‘miracle baby’ (or an ‘accident’, if they were feeling funny). Winifred, getting on in years and already having three children and several miscarriages, hadn’t been keen on trying for another after Lily herself. But then, when she just turned five, Mama said she was having a baby anyways.
Not that Lily had minded that in the least of course. In fact, she’d been more than excited to have a younger sibling. For one, it meant she was no longer the baby of family and for two, it meant that the attention finally shifted away from her, which was of great relief to her. Bucky and Becca didn’t really understand why she felt that way, loving the spotlight as they did.
But Lily wasn’t like her siblings.
Bucky and Becca were loud and talkative and always charming. They were universally adored and Annie showed all the signs of being the same, much to everyone’s pleasure. Lily, on the other hand, was quiet by nature and painfully shy. She didn’t like the attention the other Barnes children seemed to crave. Even at the tender age of six she knew she was cut from a different cloth than them.
No, she was far more like Steve than she was like her siblings. He might have twice the guts she did, but he also understood what it was like to not want to be noticed. Lily never liked it when adults singled her out or tried to get her to engage and make her do something on command. She wasn’t good at performing or talking like the other Barnes children were, always stumbling over her words or hiding behind Mama’s skirt. She preferred the safety of numbers and calculations and was good at it too, already having surpassed Becca in skill level. Mama often said she was ‘gifted’. Bucky called her his ‘smart little lady’. Becca asked for her help when she was struggling. Daddy never said anything about it; he didn’t care.
Lily tried not to think about that though. She knew it wasn’t normal for a girl to like numbers so much. But she didn’t want to stop either. It always felt like everything was too loud around her and numbers were the only things that made sense, they made everything quiet... the way she liked it.
Having Annie here now made it better for her. Daddy had stopped paying attention to Lily altogether, had stopped trying to take her numbers from her. And Annie, though was only a baby, never minded Lily babbling at her about the new equation she’d just figured out. Lily loved Annie for that, just like she loved Bucky and Steve and Becca.
So she actually didn’t mind much, being left behind with the boys when the others were at the market. Being able to avoid the hubbub of the crowd was almost worth the nauseating feeling in her stomach, the deep ache in her chest. Lily suddenly coughed harshly, as if in reminder, sending shocks of pain through her. With a whimper, she burrowed herself deeper into the blankets, wanting to go back to sleep. But no matter what she did the coughs kept coming, making her eyes water. She said her times tables to herself in an attempt to calm down, only to find even that didn’t work.
Not knowing what else to do, Lily pushed herself up on weak legs, wrapped the thickest blanket around her shoulders and went to find her brother. Bucky would know what to do. He was always the best at taking care of everyone, especially when they were sick. He should be, considering how often he had to take care of Steve. Lily really wanted that now, wanted Bucky’s familiar laughter and warm hugs. She wanted Bucky to distract by teaching her more numbers; he was still a lot better at it than she was. Steve told her once that Bucky had been the best in his class and all the teachers loved him even though he was a troublemaker.
Lily pushed herself through the doorway and into the living space, immediately hearing a noise from the kitchenette. She glanced at it and froze.
Bucky had Steve pinned against the counter, his hands almost spanning the smaller man’s waist whilst Steve’s were clutched in his hair, making whimpering noises. For a moment, Lily thought that Bucky was hurting Steve, that Steve was trying to push him off. Her mind immediately protested against that thought. Bucky would never hurt Steve, he wouldn’t hurt anyone. He wasn’t like Daddy.
Then Lily realized they were kissing.
But they’re boys, she found herself thinking.
“Bucky?” she asked after a long moment, confused.
Her voice broke both her brother and Steve out of whatever trance they were in and they immediately ripped themselves from each other. They turned to her, wearing twin expressions of panic, eyes wide. Bucky’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times, his usual confidence far from sight. Then, suddenly, something in his expression shuttered and he forced a smile. He hastily made his way too her, crouching down in front of her to tug the blanket tighter around her.
“Lily, shouldn’t you be in bed? You’ll only get sicker out here,” he started saying, the words coming out unnaturally tight. “Has your chest been hurtin’? Maybe we’ll make you some warm tea, huh? Hey Steve, put the kettle on, will you? Don’t worry, you’ll feel better soon–”
“You were kissing,” Lily interrupted, causing Bucky to pale. “I saw you.”
He rubbed a hand tiredly over his face, regarding her carefully. “Yeah, we were,” he admitted.
“I– I don’t understand.”
“Well,” he paused, glancing up at Steve, who’d come up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder, “kissing is something people do when they love someone.”
“And me and Buck really love each other, Lily,” Steve added.
Lily looked at the two of them, still confused. She already knew they loved each other. She loved them as well. But she thought kissing was for a different kind of love, like the love between husband and wife (at least that’s what Mama always tried to tell her). Unless Bucky and Stevie loved each other like that… she’d never heard of husband and husband before though. She had seen men hanging off each other in seedier parts of the neighborhood a couple of times, but it had always made Mama pull her the other way and got Daddy so angry. He called them fairies (amidst other, worse words) and said they were disgusting, that God would give them what was coming to them.
At the thought of her father, Lily felt terror sink into her bones. If Daddy knew about this, he was going to hurt Bucky worse than usual. And Steve, he’d hurt him too. She was almost more worried about him hurting Steve because he was so little (even Becca was a bit taller than him) and he already got so sick all the time. If Daddy hurt their Steve, Lily was pretty sure he would end up killing him.
“Does this mean you’re fairies?” she asked them both, voice small and scared. She clutched her blanket closer around herself.
“I’m not sure what I am. I like girls, I do. But I’m also in love with this punk here,” Bucky said. “So if that makes me a fairy, so be it.”
Lily shook her head urgently, fingers so tight against the fabric of the blanket her knuckles turned a ghastly white. “No, no.”
“What’s the matter, Lily darlin’?” her brother asked, hands cupping her elbows.
“You can’t be fairies, you can’t,” she exclaimed desperately, her fists coming up to pound at his chest.
Bucky’s face twisted in pain, eyes suspiciously wet, his large hands catching her fists in an attempt to stop her. Still, she fought against him, so much so that Steve had to help keep her still, wrapping skinny arms around her shaking body.
“You can’t!” she shouted. “Daddy’s gonna hurt you and he’s gonna kill Steve! And then you’re gonna be sad and you’re gonna drink like Daddy does when he’s sad and, and, and–” Her words trailed off, voice choked. All the fight suddenly went out of her and she fell forward into Bucky, who didn’t hesitate to wrap his arms tightly around her. She put her face into his neck and allowed herself to be comforted by his hug, just like she’d wanted earlier.
“That’s not going to happen, Lily. I won’t let Dad hurt Steve or any of you girls; I swear it on my own damn grave,” he told her vehemently, his hand rubbing soothing circles into her back.
She shook her head against his neck, arms clutching him tighter.
“Besides,” Steve started from beside them, his hand joining Bucky’s on her back, “your dad’s never going to find out. We’ll be better at keeping our secret. Though we could use your help with keeping it, if you’d be all right with that. ”
Lily peeked up from her brother’s neck, her tears slowly starting to dry. “A secret?”
“Yeah, darlin’, that’s the only way Stevie and me can stay safe,” Bucky told her seriously, smoothing her hair back from her face.
“Even from Becca and Annie?”
“Well, not from Becca; she already knows. So if you want to talk to someone about it when we’re not here, you can talk to her. But Annie’s still a baby, she’s too little to understand.”
“Becca knows?” Lily perked up at the thought. If their sister knew then she could help protect the boys. Becca was better at that kind of thing than she was.
“Yeah, you know how hard it is to keep a secret from Becca,” Bucky said teasingly.
She nodded sagely at that. Oh did she know. The eldest Barnes girl always seemed to find out when one of them was keeping something from her. The last time Lily and Bucky had tried it hadn’t ended well for either of them (they may or may not have broken Ma’s only vase and then tried to blame it on Annie… Becca hadn’t much appreciated them blaming an innocent baby).
“But I can’t tell Mama? Or Mrs. Rogers?” Lily asked, frowning.
“Or anyone else,” Steve said as her brother nodded in agreement. Both of them looked very serious about this, all former playfulness gone.
“I don’t like asking you to do this, but Ma and Dad wouldn’t understand. Not like you and Becca,” Bucky rubbed his face tiredly.
“So… long as I don’t say nothing, Steve and you’ll be safe?”
“Yeah, Lily darlin’, we’ll be here to bother you for a long time.”
Normally, his reassurances would be enough for her, but she had to be sure this time. So she leaned forward and clutched Bucky’s big face in between her small hands, his stubble tickling her fingertips. “Promise?”
Bucky smiled, his eyes shining with something akin to awe. “I promise,” he whispered back. And Lily, for all her faith in numbers and the tangible, believed his promise… found faith in something new. She wasn’t to realize that faith could only do so much until much later.
(Her older sister had always told them that secrets never ended well, that someday, some way, you would have to pay for then. Lily just hadn’t known at the time that her dues came in the form of a broken promise.)
~ 1939 ~
Annie was three years old the first time she was scared of her daddy. Annie loved Daddy, see, and he loved her back. She was his precious little princess; he never got mad at her like he did at everyone else. Even when he stunk after a long night out, he never did anything but give her big hugs and press sloppy, wet kisses to her cheeks. Sometimes he’d lift her up and dance around their little home with her, making her spill into uncontrollable giggles.
She really didn’t understand why her sisters and Bucky were so different around Daddy, why they watched him so warily. He seemed nothing but nice to her.
Annie didn’t think much of it though; her days were too full of playing and laughing. She lived a simple, happy life. Mama was always around to help her and give her the best food she could offer. Becca took really good care of her, keeping her well dressed and clean. Lily was her best friend and the only one who never said no to a game (though she did tend to talk a lot of nonsense during their games, using words Annie couldn’t even think to understand). Bucky didn’t live with them anymore but he still came home a lot to help Mama and throw Annie up into the air like a sack of potatoes (that he caught easily, of course). Some days Stevie came with him and those were her favorite because he always took a minute to draw her something nice or sit with her and play with her hair. He also knew the best way to wrap her knees when she scraped them, his hands much softer than Becca’s or Bucky’s.
Daddy was still her favorite person though, she liked that he thought she was special. In her three-year-old mind, he could do no wrong. She may not see him much (even less than Steve) but he spent most of the time he was home with Annie.
This was one of those rare visits. Daddy had decided to take Annie out, parading her in front of the neighborhood. He even went so far as to buy her a new dress just for the occasion (she never got anything new, just stuff from her sisters). Her daddy was in a happy mood, letting her babble his ear off as he carried her on his hip, which none of the other daddies around did. Sometimes he jostled her a bit to take a long sip from his silver flask, but she hardly cared; she was too busy basking in the full glory of his attention on her.
The afternoon light was soon fading, however, and with it George Barnes’ mood slowly turned sour.
Daddy put Annie down on their walk back home, claiming he was too tired to carry her any longer, instead taking her small hand in his clammy one. At first it wasn’t so bad, but then he started walking too fast for her to keep up, dragging her along deserted back alleys uncomfortably. Annie found herself stumbling over the stones of the darkening streets, falling hard onto the ground, tearing up her knees and ripping her new dress in the process.
There was a moment of stunned silence and then Annie burst into loud sobs, upset at the state of her clothes, her knees stinging something fierce. It seemed like the worst pain she’d ever felt and she was completely inconsolable.
She couldn’t see the anger on her father’s face through her tears, however, so when he crouched down beside her, she thought it was to offer comfort. But Daddy didn’t pick her up and soothe her like Mama did, nor did he try to make her laugh Bucky would. No, Daddy grabbed harshly at her shoulders, squeezing painfully tight, looking down at her with disgusted eyes.
“Damned, fool child, do you have any idea how much this cost, huh? And you had to go and wreck it!” he hissed, picking at the rip in her dress, completely ignoring the blood on her knees. His breath was heavy with the smell of whatever he always kept in his flask, his fingers digging into her skin.
Annie was horribly confused, her eyes still spilling over with tears, breath coming faster in panic. She didn’t understand why Daddy was so mad at her. Was it her fault? Maybe it was. Daddy never got mad at her, so he must be mad for a reason.
She cried harder at the thought, the idea of being a disappointment to the person she loved most settling heavily in her stomach, making it churn. Her tears only seemed to make him even angrier.
“Would you quit making so much noise? Are you tryin’ to embarrass me?” he asked, looming over her. In the back of her mind, she realized for the first time how big Daddy was, how scary he looked in the darkened alleyway. It made her think of the monsters in the books Becca read to her.
Annie tried to stifle her cries, afraid, but it didn’t work. She only got louder in her blinding panic.
“Stop crying. Stop. Crying.”
She didn’t. Her disobedience was met with an unforgiving slap across her face, sending tumbling back to the ground. Her cheek exploded in pain, her world fading in and out hazily for a moment. She barely heard Daddy yelling about something in the background.
“You and your goddamn sisters and that good-for-nothing brother of yours always making my life hell. Don’t even get me started on your fucking whore mother, ungrateful bitch that she is.”
Although Annie didn’t understand everything he was saying, she knew they were ugly words, that you were never supposed to say words like that…
She didn’t like this Daddy. This wasn’t her Daddy. It couldn’t be.
“Get away from her!” someone suddenly shouted. Annie knew that voice; of course she did. She’d heard it all her life. Mere seconds later, Steve Rogers came running into the alleyway, his face red with exertion and his eyes angrier than she’d ever seen them.
He wedged himself between her and Daddy, one hand reaching down towards her, though he kept his eyes firmly on Daddy. Something – some animal instinct – in Annie knew she had to get up and stay close to her savior, but she couldn’t. It hurt. Her cheek burned with pain, the back of her head throbbing from where she’d hit the ground. Her eyes hurt too as tears kept falling and falling and falling.
She tried. She tried so hard to get to her legs, to her feet. But she couldn’t, she couldn’t, she couldn’t.
So Annie curled herself into a tight ball, hiding her head in her arms. She wanted home. She wanted Mommy and Lily and Becca. She wanted Bucky and Stevie.
She wanted her Daddy. Not this mean, terrible man who hurt her.
“This ain’t none of your business, boy! That’s my daughter, my family, so you’ll step away if you know what’s good for you,” she heard the mean man say now, words slurring together.
“I don’t think so,” Steve replied and he didn’t sound scared at all. Annie had always known – distantly – that Stevie wasn’t the biggest man, that everyone around them thought he was weak. But he’d always been brave in Annie’s eyes; like a knight from one of her stories, coming to their house with his face all blue and purple or yellow and green after he’d saved someone. At least that’s what Bucky told her once when she’d asked, though his eyes had gotten all sad whenever he saw Steve’s bruised face.
She was grateful for Stevie’s bravery now though, feeling it even as she lay curled in on herself.
“Get out of my way, you worthless fucking fai–”
“No,” Steve repeated, firm, knightly.
Annie dared to peer through her hands, saw Stevie standing a couple of steps in front of her, fists clenched by his side. But then Daddy’s eyes turned down to her and Annie didn’t like it, she didn’t like it at all because it was still the bad man, not Daddy. So she closed her eyes tight-tight-tight, whimpering when she heard the bad man shout even worse words and there were the harsh sounds of flesh against flesh. She put her hands over her ears, but even then she could hear the shouting.
“Why won’t you just stay down, ya little–”
“Hey!” Came a different shout from the mouth of the alleyway, along with thundering footsteps. “Get off him!”
“Course my son is right behind you, been following you like a dog since the day you arrived,” the bad man hissed in Daddy’s voice, the sound of fist against flesh still ringing in Annie’s ears.
“I said, get off!”
Annie blinked her eyes open long enough to see Bucky tearing towards them, tackling the bad man bodily off where he had was aiming a kick at Steve’s unprotected torso. Bucky crushed Daddy against the nearest brick wall, holding him up by the fabric of his shirt.
Annie cried out; she didn’t want to watch anymore, didn’t want to hear anymore. But then Stevie was climbing to his feet again. He was by her side seconds later, fingers reaching for her shoulder. Annie flinched back, expecting more pain and fear (she heard the crack of Daddy’s hand against her cheek in her head again).
“Sh, Annie,” he whispered, moving so he blocked her view of Bucky and Daddy. “It’s just me. It’s just Steve.”
This time when he reached for her, she didn’t flinch. Steve’s long fingers ran softly through her tangled hair, coaxing her to look up at him. “There you are.”
“Stevie,” she whimpered, lifting her arms up to him desperately. “Hurts.”
He lifted her safely into her arms without hesitation, hand rubbing her back comfortingly. Annie buried her aching face in his neck, still crying but quieting down. There was something soothing about Stevie, always was. (She’d heard Mama say he had a magic touch, especially with Annie.)
“Sh, I’ve got you now. I’ve got you now,” Steve told her, rocking her against him. “We won’t let him hurt you again, I promise.”
Annie believed him, this knight that came straight out of her stories.
“Hurts,” she whimpered again, feeling the stinging of her face, her knees.
“I know, Annie-girl,” he coaxed her head up again, putting his forehead to hers with all gentleness. “But we’ll get you fixed up in no time, Annie, I swear. Just gotta get you home,” Steve said, keeping his back turned to the scene behind him. (She would later realize he’d tried to protect her from the violence behind him.)
“Want home,” Annie mumbled, “Please, Stevie, want home.”
“We’ll go soon. It’s almost over.”
Steve ran a careful hand over the back of her head, so she lay her uninjured cheek on his shoulder, peering back to where she’d last seen Bucky and the mean man.
Bucky was still holding the mean man against the wall, the expression on his face like nothing she’d ever seen. It was terrifying, but Annie couldn’t look away, frozen in Steve’s arms. The mean man’s face was swollen now, bleeding.
Bucky pulled Daddy back only to slam him back into the wall with a loud smash. “I want you gone, do you hear me? You’re never going to show your face to any of us again, you’re never going to touch any of us again, you’re not even gonna breathe in our direction… or I swear to all that’s holy, you’re dead. Do you understand?”
Bucky shoved the mean man away from him then, making him stumble into the ground. Her brother made a disgusted sound, his face twisted with it.
Not-Daddy stood back up, still somehow holding that terrible bottle of his. He took another swig. “I don’t think so,” he said, with a cruel laugh.
“Oh, but I do,” Bucky replied darkly. “Now. Do you understand?”
Annie realized then that Bucky was big too; like Daddy. He might be a bit shorter than Daddy, but he was broader, arms thicker from his work at the docks. Daddy seemed to realize it too; something strange crossed his face, something like fear, and he finally stepped away, taking another swig from his bottle.
“You’re going to regret this, boy,” George Barnes said, strain in his voice.
Bucky took a menacing step forward. “The only thing I regret is not doing this sooner.”
The mean man sneered at his son, but scrambled out of the alley without another word.
Finally Annie could move again, and she pressed herself into Steve – safe Stevie – as far as she could, not wanting to meet this version of Bucky. Daddy had become mean and Bucky was mean to him, so would he be mean to her too?
She whimpered into Steve as she heard footsteps come closer. “Whatsa matter, Annie?” Steve whispered, “It’s over now, it’s all alright. We can go home now.”
“Oh Annie, come here,” Bucky said as soon as he got to their sides. She could feel him reaching for like he had thousands of times before.
“No!” Annie shouted, shaking her head, voice pitched high with fear.
“…Annie?” Bucky whispered, hands still hovering over her back.
But Annie dug her face deeper into Steve’s neck, hiding. She didn’t want to see more anger. Not from Daddy. Not from Bucky. His voice had been scary; nothing like the big brother who braided her hair for her or told her silly jokes just to get her to laugh. Not like her big brother who always gave the best cuddles and let her dance on his feet. She didn’t want a mean Bucky.
“Annie, Annie, please,” Bucky said, voice losing all its menace as it began to tremble, became thick like Lily’s did when she was about to cry.
“Bucky can help, Annie,” Steve told her, sounding similarly heartbroken. “He’s real good at making ya feel better. Trust me.”
“Annie, I won’t hurt you, I swear,” Bucky said. “Come here, peanut. Please.”
She dared to look up at him then, finding no more anger or meanness in him. No, it was only Bucky, her Bucky, with big, sad eyes and outstretched arms. He was a little bloody and dirty, but it was definitely him.
Annie practically jumped from Steve to Bucky, almost falling in the process, were it not for her brother’s years of experience and sure grip. He let out a sound of sheer relief, pressing careful kisses to her head.
“‘m sorry, Bucky,” Annie sobbed, entire body shaking with it.
“You have nothing to be sorry about. Nothing,” Bucky insisted, kissing her temple again.
“Want home now. Please, Bucky.” She wanted Mama and Lily and Becca too. And she wanted Bucky to stay with them like he did sometimes, sleeping on the old couch and never minding when Annie jumped on him in the morning.
“Yeah, peanut, we’re going home.”
“Stevie too?” What if the mean man found Stevie?
Steve rubbed her back from where he stood next to them. “Steve too,” he said.
Annie nodded. “Home now.”
Bucky grinned, even through the seriousness of the situation. “Always the little boss.”
They began the slow trek back to the apartment, hobbling along, a mess of injuries. It wasn’t made easy by Annie’s insistence on holding Steve’s hand while Bucky carried her. But she didn’t want to lose either of them and they didn't complain.
Most of what happened when they got home was a blur to her. She was aware of more panic, this time from her mother and sisters. She felt gentle, loving hands bandaging her knees, icing her cheek (Mama), all while two other hands held hers (Lily and Becca). And then Bucky picked her up again, let her cling to him with all the determination of a small child.
In the quiet aftermath of it, Annie sat cradled in Bucky’s lap, her head against his chest so she could hear the stead thump-thump-thump of his heart. His hand ran softly through her hair as he told her the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, her favorite bedtime story. By the time he finished, Annie’s eyes were droopy, her fingers loosening from where they had been clenched in the fabric of his shirt.
Just as sleep was pushing her down, Bucky’s hand stilled in her hair. “I love you so much, Annie,” he whispered. “And I need you to know that I would never, ever hurt you. Never. You and the girls mean so much to me. I’m your brother. You don’t ever have to be scared of me. Not ever.”
Annie, for all her youth, knew this moment was important. There was something in her brother’s voice; a kind of desperation that she rarely heard from adults. So she forced her eyes open and looked up at him, blinking sleepily. His eyes were swimming with emotion that she couldn’t begin to understand. So she just patted his chest with her little hand.
“I know, Bucky,” she mumbled, “you ain’t Daddy.”
Bucky made a noise like a sob before pulling her in even tighter, kissing the top her head. “You’re somethin’ else, Annie, you really are.”
Normally, Annie wouldn’t like being squished like this, but Bucky was holding her carefully, his arms bringing her nothing but comfort as they rocked back and forth ever so slightly. She could feel her eyes start to droop again; the tears long dry on her cheeks. With the steady beating of a strong heart underneath her ear, she finally fell into dreamless sleep.
Bucky stayed home with her and her sisters that night just like she’d hoped. He stayed and he held her while she slept. Annie would remember that for the rest of her life.
It would be one of her earliest memories; and one of the few would have of her brother.
~ 1942 ~
Bucky was twenty-five years old and he was leaving. God, he wished he wasn’t. Wished he could go back and never have opened that goddamned letter; like not having seen it, read it, meant that it had never existed in the first place. The fuckin’ draft.
He was off to Europe tomorrow. The front. The war. And, God forgive him, he was so fuckin’ terrified. He wasn’t like Steve, who dreamt of doing his duty. No, Bucky had always been a coward – only stepping in at the very last second.
But he couldn’t give into the thoughts of pain and death and bullets shot from all sides. No, instead his last weeks stateside had been plagued with thoughts of his family. Who was going to make sure they were taken care of? His baby sisters, his ma.
(And then there was Steve. Stevie. Beautiful, reckless Stevie. Who would be here to keep him warm now?)
God, saying goodbye to the girls was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. He got it out of the way early, told them he was leaving tonight rather than tomorrow morning. Told them they didn’t need to see him off, that he’d rather have their goodbye in the comfort of their childhood home. (Selfishly, he wanted his last night to be just him and Steve. That way Bucky only had to be strong for one person, not four. ‘Sides, the girls wouldn’t enjoy him tonight, when his smile was brittle and fake.)
His ma had watched silently as he and Becca had ribbed each other mercilessly, teasing while swallowing down the lumps in their throats. She’d hugged him of course, but only briefly, trying to keep it together for their little sisters. Bucky was sure she would keep an eye on them for him. But, God almighty, he wished he could help her with it… wished he could stay and watch out for her too. But Becca was eighteen now, insisted she was all grown, that she didn’t need no one fighting her battles for her. That was Steve’s influence right there and Bucky was goddamned glad for it. Becca had the spine to do great things in a world that was largely against her. Bucky was so fuckin’ proud of her and he made sure to tell her that, in that small moment of silence where he held her to him.
Next was Lily, who’d stood in front of him shuffling her feet, quiet as always. Her thick eyeglasses were slipping from her nose, too big for her. Bucky thumbed them up for her; he’d worked extra shifts at the docks for three months to help her get them, to let her finally stop squinting at all her books. Lily didn’t say much to him, just held his hand and let him muss up her hair. Bucky’d made her promise to check Becca’s spelling when they wrote to him, which she solemnly swore to do, all while Becca squawked indignantly in the background. He left her with a quick kiss to her head, before he’d had to bend and catch little Annie, who ran to him without hesitation.
She didn’t even really understand what was going on, of course, just knew that he would be going away for a while. It was enough to make her cling to him a little desperately, arms and legs tight.
God, Annie. Would she even remember him if he came back? She was only five; practically still a baby.
But Bucky did what he had to; he gave her a tight squeeze back before twirling around as fast as he could to make her giggle. She’d told him ‘again’ and he’d obliged her, but just the once. Her laughter would surely have stopped if she’d seen the suspicious wetness in Bucky’s eyes.
He’d left his ma for last. Of course he had. Winifred Barnes had been a pillar of strength in his life since the day he’d been born. He’d planned on trying to get her to smile, like he’d done with the girls, but Winifred was having none of that. Instead she held out her hand to him and told him they were going outside, leaving absolutely no room for argument.
“Just to the end of the block,” she’d insisted.
And Bucky, at twenty-five and in full uniform, could only nod and say ‘yes ma’am’.
“Now, isn’t this better,” Winnie had said when they were outside, her thin arm threaded through his. “Need to give your ma a chance to walk with her son while he’s all handsome in his uniform.”
“Ma,” Bucky groaned, to which she just laughed lightly.
They walked in silence for a little while, until finally Winnie looked up at her son. “I never said thank you, did I?”
Bucky looked back, confused. “For what?”
Winnie pulled them to stop, turning to face him fully. “For everything, James. You’ve done so much for me and for your sisters. I shouldn't have put that all on you.”
Oh. “I was fine, Ma,” Bucky insisted, his uniform suddenly feeling too tight, a thousand memories playing through his head.
Winnie took his hands, cradled them carefully as she stared at him with eyes full of decades-old regret. “You weren’t. You were too young for what you were put through.”
Bucky opened his mouth to disagree (because how could he have done any different, they were his family), but Winnie lifted a hand, stopping him in his tracks.
“No, don’t try to argue with me about this. I know my sins. I know I failed you,” she paused then, staring at their entwined hands. “I gotta ask… I gotta ask if you can find it in your heart to forgive me, for not protecting you like I should have.”
“Ma, there isn’t anything to forgive,” Bucky replied immediately. And there wasn’t, not to him. His mother had always done the best she could for him, putting her heart and body on the line. It wasn’t her fault George couldn’t control his drink or his temper.
Still, she looked sad at his answer, guilt-ridden. Maybe Bucky felt like he didn’t need to forgive anything – because she’d done nothing wrong in his eyes – but maybe… maybe she needed it.
So he squeezed her hands gently, waited for her to meet his eyes. “But, for what it’s worth, you have mine anyways.”
Relief flooded his ma’s face. “Thank you, sweetheart. You don’t know what it means to hear that.”
He squeezed her hands again, smiling down at her. It suddenly occurred to him that he couldn’t remember the last time they’d had a quiet moment like this, just the two of them. Bucky loved his sisters dearly, but being one of four afforded him little time with the matriarch of their family. Her thumbs traced over the backs of his hands soothingly and Bucky let himself lull into the comfort that was Winnie’s presence.
“Oh, my boy,” she said, voice thick and eyes shining, “I’m going to miss you.”
Bucky swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’ll miss you too, Mama.” So much.
Winnie made a concerned sound at the single tear that fell from his eyes, immediately pulling him into her familiar embrace. Bucky felt surrounded by her warmth, her familiar scent – he let himself be consoled by it, let it calm him. I might leave, but Ma will be here.
“Take care of them for me. Please. And don’t let him back in the apartment. Not when I’m gone. Promise me,” he whispered to her, voice breaking with the emotion of it.
Winnie squeezed him a bit tighter. “I promise. I promise. Never again.”
Bucky nodded, eyes burning. His breathing hitched in his chest, panic setting in. Winnie seemed to feel it too, pulling back and cupping his face in her small hands.
“James, look at me,” the sheer command in her voice forced his eyes up to hers, finding his mother giving a look of such determination that it sent chills down his spine.
God help whoever stood in Winnie Barnes’ way.
“You’ve taken such good care of us your entire life,” she continued, stroking her thumbs along his cheekbones. “I’m sorry that I put that on you, baby, I’m so sorry. We’ll be all right. We will. You only think of yourself now, ya hear? I don’t care what it takes, you come home to us. You come home to your family. You survive.”
And, although Bucky damn well knew better, he nodded; an unspoken promise. His ma smiled at him for it, standing on the tips of her toes to press a kiss to his temple.
“Good,” she told him, standing back to adjust his uniform a bit. “Now, I’ve taken up enough of your time and I don’t want you dwelling about tomorrow anymore tonight. So, you go and enjoy your last night, James. Be the young man you are.”
Bucky’s brows raised in surprise. “How did you-?”
“You should know by now that very little gets past me,” she replied, eyes twinkling. Bucky felt the immediate urge to apologize to her, which she promptly shot down. “And don’t even think of saying sorry. You’re your own man, and if you need the night to yourself to get through this, then that’s what you’ll get.”
The surge of unadulterated affection he had for this woman shocked even him. Bucky ducked down to give her another quick hug. “Thank you, Mama. I love you,” he said, voice soft.
It’d been a while since he last told her, so he was unsurprised by the sudden wetness of her eyes. “I love you too, sweetheart. Now go,” she gave him a little push, “and you better be writing us every chance you get.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bucky replied, snapping her a salute.
His ma laughed at that and it was only because she was smiling that he had the strength to turn around and walk away. Despite the fact that she clearly knew he was choosing not to spend his last night with her, his chest felt slightly lighter.
Still, he had one last person to see. And this… this would be the hardest, he knew.
(Loving Steven Grant Rogers would never be easy. Sarah Rogers had known this. And now Bucky knew it too. Intimately.)
When he finally found Steve – in an alleyway, being beat on by some ignorant prick that made Bucky see red – Bucky put on a brave face, tried to make light of his looming deployment. So, instead of saying the thousand things he really wanted to, he told Steve about the dates he’d found them. He’d been trying to distance himself some, see, tried to remind Steve and himself that they couldn’t go on like this. The army wouldn’t allow for it, with it’s strict rules. And besides, he wanted Steve to be happy, living his fullest life – that meant a wife and kids. The whole shebang. It didn’t mean living in sin with Bucky.
He’d felt so guilty about keeping Steve to himself for so long. Steve wasn’t like Bucky after all, he wasn’t wrong. He could love other people; women. But Bucky. Well, Bucky could only ever love Steve.
Even with all this knowledge, Bucky ended up breaking his own rules, taking Stevie to bed like he had so many times before. But this was the last time. It was. It wasn’t safe. It wasn’t fair. He wasn’t going to be holding Steve back when he had a target on his chest… when Steve – who was everything good in this world, down to that pigheaded stubbornness that would kill him some day – clearly deserved better.
So Bucky decided that this was their last time together and he let himself fully have this one last night. Let himself kiss Steve, true and deep. Let himself run his hands across flushed skin, listen to Stevie’s sweet, familiar sounds.
And the next morning, he left. Without a word. Because he knew, he knew, that if he said goodbye to Steve, it would break him. It would all become real. Saying those words… it would be his end. So he’d given his goodbye through loving touches and he’d disappeared.
Cowardly, definitely. But it was also survival.
And wasn’t that what being a soldier was all about really? Not fighting for noble causes, but rather just simple survival, that base animal instinct that allowed men to slaughter each other.
Bucky was going to be a survivor. This… this was just the first step.
(But oh, how he would regret it later, not saying goodbye to Steve, not letting the other man hold him and comfort him and love him. Oh, how he would regret letting Steve go when he saw the connection between him and Peggy Carter. Oh, how he would always regret giving into fear – even years later, when his memories were returned to his broken body and he needed to fight his way back to himself.
But, that wasn’t now. And he wasn’t ready to understand the mistake he’d made. Not yet.
~ 1943 ~
Steve was twenty-five years old and he was almost foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than he was a few months ago. He was twenty-five years old when all three Barnes sisters saw him for the first and only time in his new body.
The USO tour had been dragging on and on, Steve going from state to state every couple days. It had been a dream of Steve’s, to be able to see so much of his country and to be able to do it with clear lungs and a sharp mind. But he hadn’t dreamed it would be like this. That he would be wearing tights on stage and saying rehearsed lines about the glory and fortune of war. He hadn’t expected to be using the title of captain when he hadn’t earned it.
And he hadn’t expected to do this alone. He hadn’t expected to be without Bucky. God, Steve would give anything to have Bucky here with him now, all warmth and fondness and aching desire. But Bucky was off fighting in Europe. Without Steve.
Goddamnit, it wasn’t fair! Why should Bucky be out there risking his life? Why not Steve?
But, no. Steve was here, with his new, strong body, being glorified for nothing more than wearing the stars-and-stripes on stage and saying a few clever lines about the war effort. And he got applauded for it, as if he was some sort of goddamned hero, when the real heroes were probably getting shot at right this second.
Like Bucky. Worry gnawed at Steve’s stomach whenever he thought of him; he hadn’t heard from him in months, longer than they’d ever gone without talking since they were six and seven respectively.
Steve tried to comfort himself with the thought that the letters probably just weren’t reaching him time, what with him moving from city to city so constantly. He’d told Bucky he would be away for a while in his last letter, keeping the reasons for it vague. (Never would have worked if Steve had tried that face-to-face. Steve couldn’t lie to save his life – and definitely not to Bucky.)
So there were probably reasons why he hadn’t gotten anything back recently. Good reasons. Logical, safe ones. And yet it was still hard not to think that the worst was happening across the ocean… that Bucky could be lying dead in a ditch right now, horrible red pouring out.
Thoughts like that had been plaguing Steve since the moment Bucky had left him, without even a parting goodbye. Haunted him.
If Steve closed his eyes now, he could still picture Bucky as he last saw him. Last really saw him, the night before he left. Bucky had been miles of glistening golden skin as he lay naked next to him, still breathing heavily from their activities just moments before. His dark hair had curled into his eyes, which had been filled with satisfaction and the remnants of pure, unadulterated want. Steve remembered longing to draw him, to immortalize the moment, the sheer human beauty of it. But Bucky, always the observant one (especially when it came to Steve), had rolled Steve into him, one hand gently trapping Steve’s thin wrists against his chest, the other coming to frame his face, thumb tracing his bottom lip. Steve remembered melting into that touch, his stomach in a million familiar knots as Bucky’s eyes darkened, became hungry. He’d pressed his face into Steve’s temple, mouthing hotly along the hinge of his jaw.
“Stay, Stevie,” Bucky had whispered into his skin, “A little longer. Please, sweetheart.”
How could Steve say now to that?
The answer was simple: he couldn’t.
God, how Steve ached for Bucky now. He hated that he slept in an empty bed every night; that there wasn’t a warm body curled against his, chest rumbling with soft snores against his back.
Funny that, for all his dreams of exploring the wider world, he now spent most of his time missing the simple comforts of his life back home.
Still, Steve forced himself to continue with the tour; maybe it wasn’t the purpose he was made for, but it was something. It also helped that their last stop before crossing to Europe was going to be in New York. Might be Manhattan, but it would be closer to home than he’d been in months and Steve made sure he had no engagements after the show. No way in hell was he wasting his last night in the US without going back to Brooklyn.
Besides, he had other people here and he owed it to them to at least say goodbye (he knew all too well what the pain of being denied the comfort of a farewell could do). He just hoped the girls would forgive him for not telling them what he’d really been up to these past few months. Well, he hoped Becca would forgive him; Lily and Annie were still too little for grudges.
The anticipation for the evening ahead made him jittery during the show, but also made him smile wider, laugh a bit more genuinely. The showgirls noticed his good mood, thought it was because he had a date. Steve left them to their assumptions (he’d learned long ago that people’s assumptions could help you hide in plain sight).
Besides, Captain America was going to go see a girl. Three, in fact.
(No one needed to know that one of said girls was a six-year-old.)
When the curtain fell and the autograph line dwindled into only a few stragglers, Steve was finally allowed to go. His body buzzed with nerves and excitement as he pulled on his day clothes, comforting in their plainness. God, he hoped the girls would be happy to see him. He’d missed them more than he realized. They wrote constantly, but the letters between them tended to be full of funny stories, light stories; more fantasy than reality. Steve didn’t want to worry them with the real stories, of rifle training, of experimental procedures and the bullies that filled the ranks of their army. He was sure Becca also kept her ma and little sisters from getting too sentimental with their letters for the same kind of reason; protection.
So, while it was nice to have reminders of home, it was no substitute for the real thing.
Steve was still deep in thought when he heard a building commotion outside the door of his changing room, all raised voices and clattering noises.
“Miss, you can’t go in here,” he heard one of the troupe’s security guards – Johnny, a big guy with a bad ticker that left him unfit for military duty – say, panicking.
“Just try and stop me, you big lug–”
Steve’s eyes widened. He knew that voice. And he especially knew that voice when it was raised in righteous irritation. Without a second thought, Steve ripped open his door, almost crashing into one Rebecca Barnes.
“Becca,” he said, grinning.
She blinked up at him, big brown eyes just utterly shocked as she took him in.
All six-foot-two-inches of him.
He nodded, feeling hot under the collar. Light-headed, almost. He waved Johnny off as Becca just continued to stare at him, flustered and gaping. She let him maneuver her into his dressing room without protest, let him stay close by her side, hands hovering , as she slowly came to terms with what was happening.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” she finally let out, after several minutes of tense (and highly awkward) silence. “It really is you. And here I thought Lily was seein’ things.”
“Lily’s here too?” Steve asked, surprised.
She nodded, still looking a little pale but quickly regaining her color. “Annie wanted to come see Captain America. She loves your films,” Becca said, finally looking up to meet his eyes. “I just… I just can’t believe it’s actually you. Lily said it was, when you first got on stage. She was so sure, so I told her I’d check. I just didn’t think she’d be right.”
“It’s me, Becca. I swear on my ma’s grave,” Steve told her.
She examined him for a long moment. “God, it really is, isn’t it? What happened?”
The question knocked Steve even more off-kilter; he realized he didn’t have an explanation to offer her. All the details of Project Rebirth were strictly confidential and it’s not like she would believe him even if he did tell the truth. Something in Steve felt bereft that he would never be able to share this part of himself with anyone else, never be able to talk about those experiences, about Dr. Erskine, who deserved to be more than just a forgotten footnote of history.
But, even with all that, Steve remained tightlipped. “I can’t explain, Becca, I’m sorry I really wish I could, but I… I can’t tell you.” He cracked a forced grin then. “How about we just agree that I finally went through that grow spurt I waited so long for, huh?”
Becca let out a startled laugh, before gesturing him closer, eyes welling slightly. “Just come here already, Steven G,” she commanded.
Steve’s grin turned real, happy, as he pulled her into a hug. It was so odd to be holding her from this angle, to have her press her head into his chest. But the strength of her arms where they surrounded his waist was just the same as it had always been. Becca’s hugs had always been like a vice, even when she’d been little and scrappy.
Steve’s racing heart finally calmed. She was still Becca, still willing to put up with Steve’s annoying habits, no matter what size he happened to be.
“Lord, you’re taller than me now,” she said when she finally pulled back, pouting a little at the loss of her former one-inch advantage. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this.”
Steve ruffled her hair, just like she’d done a thousand times to him over the years. Just because he could now. “Watch yourself, squirt,” he told her, laughing as she squawked, hands quickly flying up to fix her hair.
“Squirt? You’re calling me squirt? Let’s not forget your humble beginnings here, Steve.”
“I wouldn’t,” Steve replied, catching her eye to let her know how serious he was about this. Because of course he wouldn't – he didn’t want to become another one of the bullies, another one of the muscled roughnecks that used to beat him half to death while calling him a nasty slur.
(A good man, Erskine had told him. Steve planned to live up to those words, if nothing else.)
“I know you wouldn’t. Was just teasing,” Becca reached out to squeeze his arm, her reassuring smile disappearing as her eyebrows rose almost comically. She squeezed his bicep again. “This… this might take some time to get used to though, sweet lord.”
Steve chuckled, sagging a little in relief. “You’re telling me.”
“Oh my– the girls! They’re here too!” Becca suddenly exclaimed, clearly just realizing Annie and Lily were still not with them. She pulled away from him completely, marching to the door. “Come on, I left them with Nancy Anderson for a little bit when I came to look for you.”
“Nancy Anderson. Really?” Nancy Anderson was notorious for being one of the most beautiful girls in their neighborhood – and she was, all soft blonde hair and blue eyes. But she could also be incredibly vapid, which Steve knew from experience.
“Ah, come off it, Steve. I know she’s not exactly a philosopher, but she could be worse. ‘Sides she offered her extra tickets to us. Apparently she’s got a big ol’ crush on Captain America.”
“…maybe I should wait here.”
“Aw, Steve! Don’t you want to see her face when she realizes she’s already passed Captain America up?” Becca teased.
Steve winced at the reminder; the day he’d tried to ask pretty Nancy on a date (at Bucky’s insistence) had not been one of his finer ones. He shook his head. “I’d really rather not.”
She rolled her eyes, huffing a little. It was a familiar sight and left a smile on his face, which she evidently saw, if the fond light in her eyes was any indication.
“Fine, have it your way. Wait here,” Becca said, already half out the door.
Steve snapped her a mocking salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
With another eye-roll, she was gone, Steve still chuckling behind her.
The time it took for Becca to come back with Lily and Annie felt like years to Steve but was probably only around ten minutes, awash in sheer anticipation as he was. Of course, the nerves seemed to all but evaporate when an excited six-year-old sprinted through the door.
Steve ducked just in time to catch Annie, swinging her up into his arms immediately. With his new strength, she felt feather-light – but even when he’d been small, he’d carried her gladly, despite the strained trembling of his thin arms.
Annie clutched at his shoulders, little hands winding into the starched collar of his shirt. “It’s Capt’n ‘merica! Hi, Capt’n 'merica!” she exclaimed excitedly, giving him a small wave.
Steve grinned at her exuberance, surprised he wasn’t more upset about her not seeming to realize it was him. But Annie was only little. (And far too cute, his mind whispered.)
“Hi, Annie-girl,” Steve said, gently tapping the end of her nose.
Sudden confusion filled her young face, her nose scrunching as she recognized something was off here. And then it dawned on her. “Stevie?”
“Yes, Annie?” Steve replied, all cheek.
Annie beamed at him, small body practically wriggling with excitement as she threw her arms around his neck. “Stevie!” she exclaimed, hiding her face in his throat.
Steve held her as softly as he could, worried he would hurt her with his serum-enhanced strength. He ran a hand up-and-down her back automatically, using the same soothing strokes that always put her to sleep after a long day, the ones his own ma had used on him when he was her age.
She pulled away after a moment, patting his wide shoulders. “Why’re you so big?” she asked with all the innocent curiosity of a child.
“Well, I grew. Guess your ma was right about eating all those greens,” he replied, leaning in as if imparting a secret.
Her nose wrinkled in disgust. “Ew,” she said, succinctly.
Steve grinned, and then tugged on her arm, holding it out as if inspecting it. “Are you sure you didn’t eat some too? Look how big you got.”
“I’m a big girl now, Stevie. Mama said!”
“Well, if Mama said…”
She giggled, nodding. And then suddenly – just because she felt like it – she smacked a sticky kiss on his cheek, before leaning her head on his shoulder, cuddling into him.
Steve’s heart ached in his chest in the best way. He cupped the back of her head. “I missed you, Annie,” he told her.
“Missed you too, Stevie,” she whispered, before looking up at him, playing with the chain of his dog tags. “Are you really Capt’n ‘merica?
“That I am, Miss Annie.”
Her eyes got wide. “Wow. I knew you was a prince. Not a secret no more!”
Steve blinked. “A prince?”
“Mmhm, you have yellow hair,” Annie said, matter-of-fact.
Becca let out a loud snort from their side, while Steve hid his own laughter by pressing a fond kiss to the side of Annie’s head. He let her down after that, though she kept a hold of his hand, playing with his fingers.
“Now, where’s our resident genius?” Steve asked, eyes immediately finding Lily, who was half-hidden behind her older sister. She wouldn't even look in Steve’s direction, gaze resolutely stuck on her feet.
Becca’s brow furrowed. She nudged Lily towards him. “Go on, Lily. What are you waiting for? It’s just Steve.”
Lily shuffled forward, arms held tight to her chest, curls hiding her face from him. “Hi,” she offered, shy with him like she hadn’t been in years. Steve felt his heart crack.
Although he loved all the girls like they were his own sisters, not just Bucky’s, he’d always had a soft spot in him for Lily. She was a quiet, withdrawn girl but also the smartest person he’d ever known. It pained him that so few people took the time to get to know her, to see that sweet earnestness of hers, the intelligent light behind those eyes.
So Steve powered through, giving her a wide smile.
“Lily darlin’, look at you. You’re practically grown.” The growth spurt she’d gone through in his absence left her all long-limbed and awkward, but Steve had an artist’s eye; he could see the woman she was growing into.
Lily pinked a little, eyes still glued down. “Thank you,” she whispered, voice thin.
Steve frowned, directing his attention back at the youngest Barnes for a brief moment.
“Hey Annie, mind if I go to your sister for a bit?”
She considered. “Only if you promise to play horse later.”
“Promise,” Steve replied, squeezing the hand that was still in his.
Annie nodded. “Guess that’s all right then.”
Becca ushered Annie to the armchair in the corner of the dressing room, quickly distracting her by grabbing some loose paper and one of Steve’s pencils, telling her little sister it would be nice if they drew something together for Steve. Annie practically attacked the task, tongue sticking out in concentration and paying no mind to the other side of the room. Becca gave him a little nod of acknowledgement before turning away as well.
It wasn't the first time that Steve thanked God for Becca Barnes.
Steve looked back at Lily, who seemed to shrink further into herself under his gaze, her long hair hiding her face. He crouched in front of her, making himself seem as small and unthreatening as possible. Slowly, he reached out and touched her elbow.
“Hey, Lily darlin’, mind looking at me? Come on, it’s just your old pal Steve.”
After a long minute, her eyes finally turned up, hesitantly meeting his.
“There you are,” Steve said, giving her elbow a small squeeze of encouragement. “What’s got you so shy now? We’ve been friends for years.”
“But you’re so different now,” she mumbled, picking at the edge of her sweater.
“Outside, maybe. But I swear I’m still that skinny, good-for-nothing punk your brother always complained about. Nothing’s changing that.”
Some of that hidden fire of hers came back into her gaze as she rose to his defense. “You’re not a punk, Steve. You just gotta stop getting into fights.”
(“Bet he could win ‘em now though,” Steve heard Becca mutter under her breath from across the room, thanks to his serum-enhanced senses. He made no comment on it, keeping his focus entirely on Lily.)
“I really should start listening to you about that one of these days, huh?”
Lily nodded, lips ticking up the slightest bit. Steve counted that as a victory.
“How did this happen?” she eventually asked, looking closely at the changes in him.
Again Steve wanted to tell her everything he knew, give her the explanation she deserved. And again he couldn’t. “I wish I could tell you all about it, Lily – maybe you could help me understand what they did. But I really can’t. I’m sorry.”
“But… you’re the same Steve?” she ventured, sharp eyes cataloguing everything. Analytical to the end.
“Right, just a little improved.”
“I don’t know. We liked ya just fine before,” Lily insisted.
Steve smiled, touched. He chucked the bottom of her chin warmly. “I know you did.”
“Are you all healthy now though?”
Steve made a sound of affirmation. “Healthy as a horse.”
“Ain’t that great, Lils?” Becca interjected. “That means we can all stop worrying for Steve so much. He’s gonna be with us a long time now.” She gave Steve a look, telling him he better not disagree.
So he nodded. “That’s right,” he said, though he very deliberately made no promises. There was a war on – a war Steve was very determined to fight, in some way.
“It… it didn’t hurt, did it?” Lily continued, looking scared at the thought, concerned for him.
“No, Lily darlin’, it didn’t,” he lied, best as he could. Steve didn’t have the heart to tell her that the pain had been near unbearable… that he’d been sure he was going to die from it searing through his bones, his muscles, his very being.
Finally, finally, Lily looked reassured, offering him a little smile. “I’m real glad you’re okay, Steve.”
Steve couldn’t help but pull her close then, planting a brief kiss on her forehead as he gave her a tight squeeze. Lily leaned into him with the same trust that had always been there and, Jesus, wasn’t that something? The sheer relief alone could have been enough to topple him permanently. But Steve somehow managed to stay upright.
Even when Lily pulled away from him, she stayed close; a quiet shadow by his side. She stayed there even when they left the venue, in search of something to do, not yet ready to return to the reality of their daily lives. Or in Steve’s case, face Winifred Barnes.
He needed a little recovery time before that happened – Winnie was a veritable force of nature, and had taken over mothering Steve ever since his own ma got sick. Not that she thought she could replace who Sarah Rogers had been to him; no, Winnie had simply taken it upon herself to watch over her dearest friend’s son in the only way she knew how; with excessive fussing and some choice words whenever he came over after yet another brawl. Steve appreciated everything she did for him more than he could possibly say… but he wasn’t ready to see her. Wasn’t ready to be reminded yet again of the mother he’d lost.
So the girls and him ended up going to Coney Island instead - a starring feature in so many of Steve’s happiest memories. Bucky and Steve went a few times every summer, if they could. Although Steve couldn’t ride any of the ‘coasters (not with his constitution and the near-vomiting incident from the last time he tried), there was something magical about this place, even with all the popcorn crushed on the ground and the noise of the people all around them. Maybe it was because most of those memories had Bucky standing close to him for fear of losing each other in the crowd, his arm thrown loose around Steve’s slight shoulders. And if not his arm then it was a warm hand on the back of Steve’s neck, guiding him through the throngs of people. (No one ever saw how Bucky’s thumb stroked up and down Steve’s skin when he did that, how he traced the lines of Steve’s tense muscles, his collarbones. It had never failed to make Steve shiver.)
Coney Island with the girls was a different experience altogether, full of laughter and fierce bickering. They did everything they could, carnival games and rides and even raiding the food stands – all on Steve’s dime of course. He’d never been able to treat them before, had never even taken them to the pictures. So this was the least he could do. (Penance, he’s told Becca when she’d argued against him. A way to pay her back for not telling her what he’d been up to for the past few months, he’d said. Becca had rolled her eyes about it all, but let it go; she knew it would be the last time they saw each other for a long while.)
Lily opened up more and more as the night progressed, reaching out to take his hand every now and then, hanging on as they drifted from stall to stall. Steve was happy she hadn’t grown out of that phase yet – he wasn’t quite ready for her to be grown. The smile on his face only grew when she started stating the exact probabilities of actually winning the carnival games they played. (The attendants always soured at this little girl convincing the people around them not to waste their money, but Steve just grinned, ridiculously proud.)
Annie, in the meantime, had decided that her favorite ride was simply sitting on Steve’s shoulders – the better way to play pony, she’d told him, imperious as ever. Steve carried her easily, even when her fingers started tugging painfully at his hair. He kept one hand on one of her dangling legs – keeping her stable – but was otherwise able to move quite freely. Enough that he pretended to stumble sometimes and almost ‘drop’ Annie, only to swing her back into place at the last moment as she giggled breathlessly. It was a game he’d never played with her before, hadn’t been able to with his health, but he’d always seen Bucky do similar things again and again at the behest of his sisters. He was starting to understand why now.
An employee making idle conversation eventually asked Becca about Steve when he was busy with the other girls; asked about who he was to them, this blonde-haired giant spending his time with three tiny brunettes who looked nothing like him. But Becca had her answer ready. “He’s our brother, of course,” she said, before running up to join them again, giving Steve a cheeky wink.
His favorite part of the night, however, was when Becca dragged them all to a small photography stall near the entrance, intent on getting them all in a photo. The photographer himself had clearly set up to take pictures of just one person at a time, his camera pointed at a single stool stood in front of a painted backdrop, but Becca was nothing if not determined. She told the photographer in no uncertain terms that they would make it work.
Steve, being the tallest (miraculously), planted himself on the stool, gathering little Annie onto his knee, holding her in place with a strong arm around her belly even as she wriggled. Lily was standing awkwardly beside him, so he tucked her under his free arm, their heights matching with him sitting and her standing. She relaxed into him, her grin more genuine as nerves settled. Becca rounded it off by deciding to stand behind them, draping her own arms around Steve’s neck and ducking a bit so their cheeks were almost pressed together.
Maybe they should have posed more formally – like that stern picture of Steve’s grandparents his ma had kept on their mantle – but Steve liked the way their photo turned out. Becca had been caught mid-laugh, eyes crinkled with it. Lily looked soft and sweet, her eyes focused on her siblings. And Annie – teeny, tiny Annie – was playing with Steve’s fingers, her hands so, so small around his. But, most importantly, they were all smiling and anyone could see the happiness was genuine. Hell, Steve looked like a dope with his big, stupid grin.
But it was a gorgeous picture, made perfect by all its imperfections. Steve memorized the details of it with his sharp mind, before he handed the actual photo to Becca. She’d be able to keep it safe for them.
He didn’t miss how Becca cradled it against her chest for a long moment, before tucking it away safely.
One day, copies of the picture would be shown in museums the country over – but always as a side note, a small anecdote that historians deemed unimportant. Only a few people who looked at it, looked at four young, smiling faces, would realize that hey, Captain America was an actual person. Fewer still would realize that Steve Rogers – famously an orphan – had still had family when he’d plunged to his icy death.
And Steve. Well Steve would never realize that Becca kept that picture with her for the rest of her life.
(Until one day, he did. But that wasn’t for years to come.)