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Where You Lead, I Will Follow

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“Coffee.” Steve says, leaning heavily against the counter of Buck’s Diner and making pitiful noises until Bucky finally notices him.

“I don’t think I should encourage this addiction anymore, Rogers.” Bucky says like the truly, deeply evil human being he is.

Coffee.” Steve tries again, eyes wide and desperate as he leans forward like he might just reach across the counter to get it himself. “Coffee, coffee, coffee.”

“C’mon, get the man a coffee.” Carter says from where she’s come to stand next to Steve and he shoots her a grateful, incandescent smile. He made that. Well, technically Peggy had made that, but Steve had contributed 50% of the genetic material and spent the past almost sixteen years raising it into a good, if somewhat nutrient lacking, human being. “He’s not human without at least three cups and he still has to get me to school.”

“Far be it for me to intrude on you getting your education.” Bucky finally, finally relents and pours blessed, blessed coffee into a mug that Steve snatches out of his hands almost immediately.

Bless you.” He says seriously after he’s drained the entire thing in a few long gulps and is holding it out to Bucky,  wordlessly demanding a refill that Bucky gripes about but gives him like the sucker he is.

“Breakfast?” Bucky asks once he’s set the coffee pot down.

“Absolutely.” Steve says as he and Carter snag a table and pull out menus that they’ll look at purely to irritate Bucky because god knows they’ve never actually ordered off the thing. Steve just says what he wants and Bucky makes it for him. It’s a wonderful diner owner/patron relationship.

“We have no food, not even pop tarts.” Carter says sadly, doing her best ‘woe is me, I am but a starving child’ look. She’s really very good at it, even Steve almost believes it.

“You never have food.” Bucky says as he pulls out a pad of paper and a pen he probably won’t need. “You always have pop tarts though.” He adds, looking a little confused by the Rogers duo’s distinct lack of pop tarts.

“We have pop tarts.” Steve insists, holding the menu up like he’s divining some horribly necessary information from it and them ‘hmm’ing like he just can’t decide what he wants.

“They’re the maple kind. They’re not for eating.” Carter insists.

“What’re they for then?” Bucky asks, and when Steve peeks at him above the menu he looks like he already regrets asking.

“They’re for staring at every time you open their cabinet and wondering how on earth you made the mistake of picking up maple pop tarts, Buck, what else?” Steve says like it’s entirely obvious. And now Bucky looks like he regrets asking. Perfect. Mission accomplished.

“I like the maple kind.”

“That’s because you live a sad, sad life Barnes. We should be sad for you. I’m sad for you. Are you sad for Bucky, Carter?”

“Very sad.” Carter responds with her best sad face.

 


 

When Steve was sixteen years old Peggy Carter had placed a tiny, blonde six pound, three ounce bundle into Steve’s arms. She’d kissed the top of Carter’s head, kissed Steve’s cheek and said “I can’t do this.” with such strength and conviction that Steve hadn’t even questioned her.

“I know.” Steve had said, shifting Carter to rest against his chest, a hand on her bottom and the other cupping her tiny, soft head. “But I can.”

“All by yourself?” Peggy asked, and it should have stung, should have sounded sharp, but instead it was just honest- worried.

Because Steve really had been alone. Carter Grace Rogers was conceived the night Steve Rogers had to bury his mother, by a boy who didn’t know how to deal with his grief and a girl who didn’t have the slightest clue how to help.

At sixteen, sex had seemed to be the solution. A magical cure-all that could take Steve’s mind off of it and make Peggy feel like she was helping somehow. Of course, it’d lead to Carter nine months later, but Steve couldn’t find any regret when he looked down at her downy head and held her close.

“Nah, not by myself. I’ll have her.” He said, bouncing tiny, newborn Carter just a little as though to emphasize his point.

Steve.” Peggy had said, at a loss, and then, “I love you.”

“I know.”

“I love her too.”

“I know.”

“It’s just-” She hadn’t been able to finish, but Steve didn’t need her to, he’d heard the ‘ not enough’ without her having to say it.

“I know.” Steve had said, leaning down to kiss Peggy’s cheek, “I didn’t have any big plans, Peg, not like you. I’m okay with my big plan being her.”

 


 

“What’s the plan, Stan?” Carter asks from the doorway into the kitchen, pop tart crumbs going everywhere as she chews. Steve winces a little and wonders if he might have a slightly more mannered child if she’d had some sort of major feminine influence in her life.

Nah, probably not.

“Stan? Have you forgotten my name already, child?” Steve asks, all fake confusion before relenting at Carter’s dead eyed stare. “Movies?”

“In or out?” She asks, looking pointedly down at herself and her three sizes too big t-shirt and flannel pants all topped off with bunny slippers. It’s a very clear ‘your answer better be in, because I’m not getting dressed.’

Steve’s absolutely tempted to say ‘out’ just to see if he’s right that Carter will actually go out to the movies in her pajamas. Instead, he goes with “In. I’m getting old, and I need my beauty rest.”

“Oh cool, so you’ll be asleep til I’m 80 then?”

Steve gasps, presses a hand to his chest and leans back against the couch as though dying, “Insulted! Wounded! By my own daughter! My flesh and blood!”

Cater ignores the theatrics, because she somehow ended up a sensible human being despite Steve’s best efforts.

“What’re we gonna eat?” She asks, already rifling through the stack of take out menus. Sometimes they play roulette with them, sometimes Carter looks at all of them like they contain the plague. Today it’s the latter.

“I’ll call Buck, get him to come over.”

“Oh thank god, I didn’t want chinese again.”

 

Bucky gripes like Steve is asking the world of him when he calls, but he shows up less than an hour later with big bags of take-out and proceeds to make himself comfortable on Steve’s couch.

“What’re we watching tonight?” Bucky asks, opening a take out box while Steve and Carter sit on the floor and spread the others out on the coffee table so that they can have equal access to the glorious bounty before them.

“Top Gun.” Steve says brightly, reaching across the table for a french fry and then drowning it in ketchup.

“Why is it always Top Gun?” Bucky asks with the sigh of the truly suffering.

“Because it’s Tom Cruise at his best, before he went all crazy and jumped on Oprah’s couch.” Carter says before taking an impressive bite out of a hamburger that Steve swears is as big as her head. “Also, because Dad never got over his weird military boner.” She adds with her mouth full.

“He’s lucky he had you instead.” Bucky says, sprawling his legs across the couch so that when Steve leans back the back of his head knocks into Bucky’s knee. “The Army fucking sucked.”

“Language,” Steve says, trying to sound scandalized, “There’s a child present.”

“Who? You?”

“Yes. And I deserve to be protected.” Steve says with a dignified sniff that’s interrupted when Carter throws a french fry and it hits him right between the eyes.

 

Steve falls asleep halfway through Top Gun, leaned up against Bucky on the couch. When he wakes up he’s still there, his head against Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky’s arm loose around Steve’s waist. Carter’s gone and if Steve listens close he can just make out the sound of her snoring in her bedroom, but the blanket from the back of the couch is tucked around the both of them.

 


 

Despite his assurances to Peg that he wanted Carter, Steve still hadn’t been sure what to do as a sixteen year old saddled with a newborn. He hadn’t exactly had much of a place to live, and his experience with babies measured up to approximately zilch.

Steve had had absolutely no idea what he was doing.

What he did know however, was that he needed a job. Babies were expensive and within a couple months Steve had whittled down every bit of money he’d had saved just trying to take care of Carter.

So he’d done what was needed. He’d found an ad in the paper from the Wilsons in Stars Hollow, who needed help with their yard and around the house after Mr Wilson fell off a roof (there was no explanation as to how Mr. Wilson fell of a roof, just that he had, and Steve hadn’t been about to ask.)

Mrs. Wilson had taken one look at Steve, broad shouldered and tall after puberty hit and he kept growing up and up and then when that stopped, he started growing out. Her warm gaze had fixed on the baby strapped to his back, gurgling away happily and she’d hired him immediately, claiming that living accommodations had always been included in the ad. Clearly Steve had just misread. It was all very understandable, what with the new baby and all. He’d have to help clean out the apartment above the garage because it’d been used as storage for so long, but really, it had been meant for just this use all along. Don’t be silly Steven, it wasn’t charity, it was a work arrangement.

In one fell swoop, Mrs. Wilson had taken the width and breadth of Steve’s immeasurable worries and shrunk them just like that.

It also had the added benefit of being how he met Sam.

 


 

“Who we got today?” Sam asks as he swings up into the cab of the truck.

“The Reynolds. They want a quote on a really ugly fountain installation and a truly astronomical amount of plants that don’t grow in the region but won’t be swayed, so expect angry phone calls in six months when they all die.” Steve says, tossing his tablet to Sam where all the details are pulled up.

“Fuckin rich ass white people.” Sam grumbles, scrolling through and muttering even more as he reads the emails back and forth between Steve and their clients.

“I’m white people.” Steve says, all fake offense that he’s sure Sam can see through a mile away.

“Yeah, but your ass sure as hell isn’t rich, and my mama loves you. I’m not allowed to hate you or else I won’t be allowed at Friday night dinner anymore.”

“Let’s be honest, your mom loves Carter and I’m just the necessary accompaniment to getting her at Marlene Wilson’s dinner table.”

Sam laughs, grinning as he sets Steve’s tablet down, clearly through with looking at wasps making ridiculous demands. “That’s probably true. No way does she love the asshole who was going around raising a kid while I was still getting her disappointed face by staying out after curfew. Nah, no way.”

“Hey, she gushes about you to people now, at least since we started this thing.” Steve says, patting the dash of the truck. Across the side, printed in giant, red, white, and blue letters are the words WILSON AND ROGERS LANDSCAPING. The business is their baby (Steve’s other baby if he counts Carter, and Sam’s only baby) and has been ever since they realized Steve’s ‘odd jobs’ around town could be turned into a real, legitimate business. Sure, most their actual landscaping jobs are for housewives across Connecticut that have the desire to watch Steve and Sam do hard labor, and the rest of their business comes from people in Stars Hollow who need their garden harvested, or their sink fixed, or even for Steve or Sam to bring the truck to the nearest Ikea and help them get their purchases home, but it’s a good job. Steve loves it- loves what he does and that he gets to spend his working hours with his best friend. There’s not a lot more he could ask for.

“It only took three decades.” Sam says with a grin, because he’s absolutely full of shit. Marlene Wilson loves her son. Marlene Wilson loves her children. Period. There’s no one in town, or hell, no one in the entire world, that can doubt that simple fact.

Steve is just lucky enough that he somehow got folded into that somewhere along the line.

“You wanna go pretend to do shit while I take care of the clients?” Steve asks, feeling generous.

Fuck yes, of course I do.” Sam replies, grateful as he cuffs the back of Steve’s head and then sinks into his seat a little more.

Yeah, Steve really does love his job.

 


 

 

Bucky Barnes came back to Stars Hollow when Carter was five.

The gossip mill churned fiercely for the months that he stayed in seclusion, nobody seeing hide nor hair of one of their golden children.

A war hero, Mrs. Livingston had said as she made Steve help her pick out the right cabbage at the grocery store.

An absolute terror growing up, but a good boy, Mr. Matthews had told him while Steve trimmed his roses.

Poor thing lost an arm overseas and no one’s seen hide nor hair of him since he got back, Mrs. Wilson had said at Friday night dinner while Steve attempted to get Carter to eat her mashed potatoes instead of just building a volcano with them and knocking out the side with her fork so that she could make her green beans run in terror.

When Bucky Barnes finally reemerged into Stars Hollow society -to the extent that a town like Stars Hollow had a society- it was with the grand opening of Buck’s Diner.

Steve had avoided the place for the first few months, avoiding the first rush of business that came with a new place opening on Main Street, but then it happened.

His coffee maker broke.

He’d learned within the first year of Carter’s life that if he intended to work and raise a child by himself then he needed his blood to be at least 80% caffeine by volume. It was just a necessity, as important as breathing or seeing Carter’s dimpled smile in the morning. He just couldn’t survive without it.

Which meant that when Mr. Coffee spluttered to a stop at 6:47 am and refused to produce any more of what was a truly vital liquid he’d bundled Carter up and stumbled, half asleep down to Buck’s Diner with an important mission.

He’d set Carter down in a stool at the bar and handed her a menu to keep her busy because the moment she’d figured out how to read was the moment she didn’t stop. Then he slumped against the counter with all the dramatics of the truly dying.

Coffee.” He’d said, ignoring the man behind the counters confused grunt, “Coffee. Need it. Now.”

A hot, steaming, blessed mug had been placed into his hand and Steve had swallowed it down in several large gulps, ignoring the way it burnt off what had to be at least half his tastebuds.

After, once he’d gotten his caffeine fix and was much more sedately drinking his second cup, he’d gotten a good look at the man behind the counter- James Buchanan Barnes, aka Bucky Barnes, aka the ridiculously beautiful reason 21 year old Steve Rogers was suddenly very, very screwed.

 


 

Bucky settles into the seat beside Steve, passing a thermos and a paper bag to him as he does and Steve ducks his head to inhale deeply and whisper, “Thank you sweet baby Jesus.”

“Not quite Jesus pal.” Bucky says with a grin, his eyes on the curtain in the front of the room. “Thank God they haven’t started, I thought I was gonna be late.”

“We’re working on Stars Hollow time here, nothing ever starts on time.” Steve points out, drinking a gulp of coffee straight from the thermos and then shoving a handful of french fries from the bag straight into his mouth.

Someone in the aisle in front of them turns around and hisses ‘No food.’ and Steve blinks innocently, looks at the food in his hands like he’s not sure of how it even got there.

“French fry?” He asks, offering it to the woman who huffs and turns back around to ignore him.

“You’re a menace Rogers.” Bucky says and Steve grins, wide and pleased.

“Who? Little ol me? Never.” He says as he settles into his seat, bumping shoulders as Miss Natasha suddenly appears on stage.

Steve’s been living in Stars Hollow for damn near sixteen years and known the woman almost as long as that and he has absolutely no idea how she does it- just appears like that. It has to be some sort of magic.  

“Welcome to the Stars Hollow Annual Day Of The Arts Recital. We have quite the show planned for you tonight, but before we start I’d like to give the usual reminders that flash photography is strictly prohibited.” Her eyes seem to fall directly on Steve and Bucky,  where Bucky is in the process of setting up a damn tripod for his camera and Steve is pulling up the camera app on his phone.

“It was one time!” Steve gripes, loud enough to be audible in the amphitheater.

“A year. One time, a year.” Bucky says, snagging Steve’s phone out of his hand and tapping the screen until the flash is set to off.

Steve holds it up facing the stage after, as though Nat can see it from the distance. Which, to be honest, Steve’s not entirely sure she can’t.

A few more words are said after that, and then the curtains are raised and a troop of small children in tutus are gathered in the center. None of them can be older than seven and Steve sighs wistfully, leaning against Bucky’s shoulder.

“Carter was that small the first time she was in this.” Steve says as the kids start their routine, sloppy pirouettes and jetes and a lot of what amounts to just straight up running around the stage.

“I remember.” Bucky says, the same wistful tone as Steve’s lining his voice. From the moment Steve had set Carter down in his diner he’d seemed just as enraptured as Steve was. He’d been at every recital, every softball game, every mathlete’s meet (Steve still thanks God that Carter quit mathlete’s after only one season), every debate since then and Steve is endlessly, desperately, grateful.

(Also possibly a little in love. Steve might be a little in love. But ten years spent watching an attractive man dote over Steve’s kid just as much as Steve does is bound to end in some unrequited romantic feelings. He can handle it. He’s an adult.)

There’s far too many performances before Carter’s finally on, taking the stage with four other girls dressed in similar gauzy fabrics and tight buns piled on the tops of their heads. It’s the knick of time, because Steve had been getting restless and his coffee thermos is empty, only a few cold french fries left in the bottom of the bag.

When they start, Steve’s eyes don’t leave the stage, his phone held aloft as he snaps picture after picture of his girl twirling around the stage. Steve has no idea what half the things she’s doing even are, but he knows she moves like she was born to do it and that Natasha says she’s good- really fucking good. He also knows that even if she wasn’t Steve would still be beaming with pride.

“She’s too good for this place.” Bucky says quietly, like he does every year.

“She’s too good for everywhere. She might as well be here for now.” Steve says back, like he does every year.

 

When it’s over, Steve is met with 100 pounds of teenager launching themselves into his chest.

“Did you see?!”

“I saw! You were great!”

“You just say that because you have no idea what I’m doing.” Carter says and Steve hugs her tighter in punishment.

“No. No way. You were great, even I know that. When you did the thing, with the other thing, and all the turns, it was great . Even Natasha would say so.” Because Natasha does know what she’s doing and so Steve will use her to prove a point as much as he needs to, thank you very much.

Carter looks about to argue, because of course she’s about to argue, she’s Steve’s daughter, but then there’s a shriek and another ball of teenage girl launching themselves across space, though this time it’s at Carter.

“Katie-Kat!!!” Carter shrieks, no longer an arguing ballerina and suddenly just a teenage girl with her best friend.

“You comin to dinner with us kiddo?” Steve asks and ignores Bucky’s muttering about how Steve just demolished an entire bag full of french fries.

“Oh, yeah, mom and dad are out of town so I haven’t got anywhere else to be.”

Steve has learned during Kate and Carter’s over a decade of friendship that Kate’s parents are strict yet distant, and she has a lot of rules but they’re rarely there to enforce them. They are, in essence, the very opposite of Steve.

“Good.” Steve says decisively, smiling easily at Kate, “We’re going to Clint’s.”

“Oooh, I think he’s doing Thai this week.”

“Nah it’s Salvadoran.” Bucky says, steering Steve and Carter both from the amphitheater, Kate falling into step with Carter.

“Pupusas!” Carter says gleefully.

“Pupusas!” Kate echos, arms looping together as they take off towards Steve’s jeep, talking fast and loud and in what Steve swears must be another language for how much he can ever understand it.

“You gonna meet us there?” Steve asks, glancing back at Bucky and trying not to focus on his hand, still warm and solid on Steve’s back.

“Of course. What kind of person would I be if I missed out on pupusas?”

 


 

 

The first time Peggy showed up in Stars Hollow Carter was seven years old and Bucky Barnes was already attached. It meant he looked at Peggy like she had somehow gifted the world with something miraculous while also being the worst person in the entire world. Steve wasn’t sure how he managed to look quite so conflicted.

“So that’s…” Bucky had said, wiping down a table and watching with sharp eyes as Carter bodily threw herself at Peggy with a squeal of “MOM!”

“Carter’s mom, yeah.” Steve had responded, watching close as Peggy lifted his daughter and swung her around through the air. Steve had had to work at not to letting his heart relocate to his throat, had to remind himself that Peggy was Carter’s mom and she knew what she was doing. Steve didn’t have to watch like a hawk and worry every time she did anything even close to remotely dangerous, even if he was still getting over all the fear from Carter falling from that tree and breaking her arm a few months back.

“I didn’t think she came to town much.” Bucky said, something about his tone careful. Steve was even more sure he was being actively delicate when he reached over the counter then came back with the coffee pot and topped Steve off. Normally he’d be arguing that Steve drank too much of the stuff and he wasn’t going to be an enabler in Steve’s horrible addiction.

“She doesn’t.” Steve said, taking a long, deeply needed drink of fresh coffee. “Normally when she wants to see Carter we go upstate to her parents. This was… unplanned.” Steve tried not to sound as stressed out about this as he was, because Peggy deserved unlimited access to her own damn child, but Steve had plans and schedules when it came to Carter, and visits with Peggy usually required preparation both for Carter and for Steve’s mental health so that he was prepared for the inevitable bad few days that Carter always had after a visit.

“That’s bullshit.” Bucky had said and Steve had shrugged, not up to arguing with Bucky when he needed to be focused on staying happy that Peggy was there.

 

After Steve took Carter Peggy hadn’t exactly been a ghost. She’d kept in touch with Steve. Sent postcards, mailed Christmas and birthday gifts to both Carter and him, sent in her medical records promptly when Carter’s new pediatrician had asked, called at least once a month to talk to Carter over the phone, and once every six months she had Steve make the trek upstate to her parents so that she could see Carter.

It was good. Peggy not having disappeared. She hadn’t become a ghost, hadn’t abandoned her child completely, which was good. It was. Steve tried to convince himself it was good and that it wouldn’t be better if she’d disappeared. Carter only really knowing her mother as a voice through the phone and a brief, but loving presence twice a year was better than not knowing her at all.

It was just hard to remember that when he had a seven year old who didn’t understand why.

Carter was the smartest kid Steve had met in his life, and he was pretty sure he didn’t even think that just because she was his kid. All the intelligence in the world couldn’t give her the understanding as to why her mom couldn’t be there all the time, even when she insisted she loved her.

“Why doesn’t Mom just live here?” She’d asked, the morning after Peggy left to go back to England, or LA, or maybe it was somewhere like Portugal or the Philippines. Steve could never keep track.

“Because she doesn’t pumpkin.” Steve had responded, trying to keep the answer simple so that she didn’t push too much further.

“But why?” Carter asked and Steve was hit with the same visceral anxiety that the word had given him when Carter was a toddler and had just learned it and therefore used it for everything.

“Because.” Steve had said, nice and simple as he ruffled Carter’s hair. Carter’s look had him continuing however, “She’s got a job, and a life, and that life’s not here with us sweetpea.”

“Doesn’t she love us? When you love something you’re supposed to wanna be close to it.” Which was sound logic in Steve’s opinion, but Steve knew things could never be quite as simple as they were when explained by a seven year old.

“She loves you with her whole heart, just as much as I do.” Steve said and tugged Carter into his lap, squeezing his arms tight around her and pressing his face into blonde curls when she clutched skinny arms around his neck. “It’s just more complicated than that for your mom.”

“Is this one of the things I’ll understand better when I get older?” Carter asked.

“God, I hope so.” Steve had responded, hoping that maybe he’d understand it better when he was older too.

 


 

“Coffee. Buck, c’mon, chop chop, give me the goods, fill’er up.” Steve says, brandishing his mug across the counter.

“How many you had Rogers?”

“None. One. Just the one you gave me so far. None before that. Okay maybe a cup or two at home too, maybe three.” Steve says and then, at Bucky’s dead eyed stare. “Seven.”

“Jesus christ, you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.”

“Nah, they fixed my heart when I was a kid. It’s made of steel now. I’m the tin man.” Steve insists gravely as he raps at his own chest with his knuckles, and then, “Peg’s here.”

In the span of half a second Bucky’s entire face shuts down, all expression gone as he pours Steve another cup of coffee. “Why?”

“Because Carter’s birthday is in a week and Peg wants to be here for her kid’s Sweet Sixteen? Maybe she wants to make sure it’s better than hers was, considering her memories of it might be a little muddied by the fact that I knocked her up not that long after.”

“Her memories should be fine, it’s not like Carter’s effected her life any.” Bucky says, sharper than Steve thinks he meant it.

“That’s hardly fair, Buck.” Steve attempts to force his voice into something even and then takes a huge, burning gulp of his coffee to hide his expression. If Bucky sees any sign that Steve agrees it’ll just make this worse, because it’s not like Steve really does. It’s just- Well, sometimes when he’s exhausted and sitting at the kitchen table at 3 in the morning, trying to balance his budget to afford the sheer amount of money a kid, and especially a kid as gifted as Carter costs, and trying to balance his schedule to get Carter everywhere she needs to be, sometimes then it’s easy to think that Peggy- off in England, or France, or Los Angeles, or New York, or whenever it is she is this month- managed to have a life completely unchanged by Carter.

It’s unfair of him. It’s especially unfair of him because Peggy having a life that isn’t any different than the one she’d have had without having Carter is exactly what Steve had wanted for her. He can’t get mad at her for doing exactly what he’d wanted her to do, what she was supposed to do, just because raising a teenager is hard sometimes.

“I know.” Bucky sighs, slicing a piece of pie and sliding it across the counter to Steve. “It’s just- I’ve seen how this goes. We’ve all seen how this goes Steve. It never turns out any different when she rolls into town.”

And he’s right, he is. Because Steve loves Peggy, he does. He can’t not look at her and see a spectacular human being who’s doing more than anyone ever thought possible, can’t not see the woman who gave him the person he loves most in the world, gave him the gift that is Carter. But at the same time, he can’t help but see the person who comes into town like a whirlwind and then leaves again, leaving his daughter attempting to handle something she shouldn’t have to handle.

Carter’s tough. She always has been. But she’s still just a kid, and even for one as smart as Carter it’s hard to understand why Peggy can’t be here with her. Why she doesn’t seem to want to be.

 


 

“I look at her-” Peggy had said through the phone once, years ago, “I look at her and god, I love her so much Steve, I do. I just- I don’t feel like I need to be here with her all the time. God, the way other mothers talk, it’s like I should want to spend absolutely every moment of my life with her and I just- I know she’s happy and healthy with you and that’s enough for me. Is that horrible, Steve? Does that make me an awful person?” She’d asked, sounding like she fully expected Steve to tell her off about it.

Steve had sighed, had stretched across his bed and listened hard for Carter’s snoring before he’d answered. “No, Peg, no. It doesn’t make you an awful person.” He’d said and listened to Peggy’s soft exhale across the line. “It just makes you a person. Not everybody is meant to be a mom.”

You were meant to be a dad.” Peggy said, soft and a little scratchy and Steve frowned, knowing if he could see her her eyes would be red. She wouldn’t be crying, he was sure of that. Even at sixteen Peggy hadn’t been the sort to cry over just anything, but he could hear the signs that meant she was having to work not to.

“I was. I am .” Steve had said, honest and open as he settled a little deeper into his bed, in his house that he loved, in the town that he loved, in the life that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had Carter.

“Why couldn’t I-” She cut off and Steve could practically feel the frustration through the line.

“I don’t know Pegs.” Steve said, knowing he probably sounded as tired as he felt.

“I wish I’d wanted her. Everything would be so much easier if I had.” She said, honest and painful to hear.

“I can’t-” Steve sighed, rubbing a hand over his hair, “I can’t say I understand it Peg. I can’t. Because I look at my daughter and I see my whole fucking world and it’s been that way since they put her in my arms at the hospital, but I don’t think it makes you some sort of terrible person just because you’re not wired that way.”

“I love her. Steve- Just- Make sure she doesn't ever doubt that too much. She shouldn’t have to doubt that.”

“I will. I’ll make sure.” Steve had promised, knowing it wasn’t the time to tell Peggy she should make sure too.

 


 

“You’re staying through until the party, right?” Steve asks for probably the fifth time while he’s pouring coffee into cups for him and Carter and Peggy’s fixing herself a cup of tea.

“Yes, Steve. My flight leaves the Thursday after the party, so I’m afraid you’ll have to suffer my presence even after our daughter’s birthday.” Peggy lets her annoyance shine through and Steve’s an adult, with a job and a mortgage and a teenage daughter, but he can’t help the little flash of pride getting a reaction out of Peggy brings.

“I just- I have to be sure.” Steve says around a sigh, turning serious as he dumps sugar and milk into Carter’s coffee, “She’s so fucking excited for this and she handles the fact that you’re not always around pretty damn well, but she just- she needs you to be here for this. It’s important.”

Peggy’s expression softens, the annoyance draining out of it as she dumps sugar and milk into her tea and Steve makes a face. “I’ll be here Steve, I promise.”

 

The party goes off without a hitch.

Carter is practically glowing in the dress Peggy had taken her into the city to pick out, her lips painted the same red that Peggy wears.

Steve can’t help his double take at that, at his daughter with a full face of makeup on, bouncing around the party as she seems to attempt to talk to every town resident all in one night.

It’s not like it’s the first time Steve’s seen his daughter in makeup.

Hell, Steve’s the reason Carter even has makeup after she turned 13 and he spent two hours staring down the beauty section at Target, armed with a list of recommendations he’d found via google and the careful pestering of every woman he knew. They’d even discussed it after Steve came home with supplies, Steve insisting that he by no means thought Carter needed to wear makeup, and she should never feel like society demanded it of her (even if it tried to, because Steve would take a goddamn battering ram to society for Carter if he had to), but that it was an art form and Steve wanted her to know she could explore it.

She’d ended up exploring it on Steve’s face first thing, and he left that conversation with whorls of color on his cheekbones and bright blue streaked across eyelids, little stars drawn in eyeliner wherever Carter thought they should be.

So Steve’s seen his daughter in makeup, it’s just never been worn like Peggy’s. Peggy wears her makeup like it’s armor, like a weapon, and Carter’s always been the type who treats it less like something to wear and more like something to create with. Steve has pictures on his phone of successful (and disastrous) experiments with liquid latex and tissue paper, of brightly colored cut creases, of his smiling little girl with bright teal mascara because it’d looked interesting so they’d had to buy it, and of black lined eyes and dark purple lips after a trip to Wanda’s.

This is new. This feels like growing up in the very worst way, even as he tries desperately to be happy that Carter got to get ready for her Sweet Sixteen with her own mother.

“Happy birthday.” He says when he can push through the crowd of people and tug his daughter into a hug.

“What do you think?” Carter asks when he finally lets go, giving a twirl and showing off her dress. It’s bright red, with tiny white polka dots, and between the dress, the makeup, and the perfectly curled hair she looks like she belongs in another time. She looks like she’s playing dress up.

Something in Steve unwinds with relief. He shouldn’t have ever worried. Carter’s been raised by Steve who has never been able to be anything but unapologetically who he is, warts and all. She’s been raised by Bucky Barnes, who wears t-shirts and tank tops in the summer, practically daring people to say anything about his prosthetic. By Marlene Wilson who encourages individuality in her children, who embraces her history and raises her children to be proud of exactly who and what they are, who looked at Steve Rogers with a baby on his hip and said ‘you have a place here.’ By Natasha Romanoff who waves around the mystery of her past like it’s a flag, by Clint Barton who runs a restaurant and teaches sign language on the sidewalk out front, by Wanda Maximoff who talks about the earth and its energies and wears so many bracelets she makes noise when she walks, by a whole goddamn town - full of people who are different, who refuse to be anything other but they’re nutty, incredibly weird selves.

There’s no way Carter is ever going to lose the girl she is. She’s not built that way, Steve’s made sure of it just by being exactly where they are.

“I think you look beautiful kiddo.” He says earnestly, tugging at one of her curls and ducking down when she leans up on her toes so that she can kiss his cheek with a happy, “Thank you.”

“Too beautiful, actually.” He adds with a grin and Carter’s already groaning, already expecting whatever monstrosity is about to leave Steve’s mouth, “I think we need to go home so that we can wrap you up in a parka and put you in a funny hat so that no one can see and question who your father is, because I’m pretty sure this ugly mug couldn’t’a made ya.”

“She gets all her good looks from Peg.” Bucky says, appearing out of nowhere and earning a grin from Peggy. It’s baffling. Bucky and Peggy’s entire dynamic is baffling . When Bucky’s not looking at her in disapproval, or the both of them aren’t looking at each other like they’re fighting over their favorite toy (Steve hasn’t figured out if he’s the favorite toy, or if Carter’s the favorite toy, or if they both are.) then they’re getting on like a house on fire.

“That’s horribly and unfortunately false.” Peggy says with a deep sigh, “She looks an awful lot like Steve before puberty hit and made him grow like a weed. He used to be skin and bones. A stiff breeze could blow him over.” She always has to go for the ‘stiff breeze could blow him over’ bit to drive it home. Always.

“Wait-” Bucky starts, looking like he’s just been offered the holy grail or the last piece of pie from Pepper’s bakery, “Steve used to be small.” It should be a question, Steve really feels like it should, but instead Bucky just sounds like he’s making a statement. An absolutely delighted statement.

Steve would flee, but Peggy’s apparently already predicted Steve’s plan and has wrapped an hand around his bicep, nails digging in and holding him firmly in place.

“He was.” Peggy confirms, and then her face transforms into an expression that Steve can only describe as pure evil. “I have pictures if you’d like to see.”

 


 

Natasha had started trying to set Steve up with women nearly the moment they met.

When he’d come out to her two years into their friendship, somehow stuttering and defiant all at the same time she’d merely started attempting to set him up with men as well.

“You’re a babe Rogers, a grade A beefcake, and having a kid doesn’t mean you’re forced to be thrown out of the meat market for the rest of your days.” She’d said once when Steve had turned down another offer for her to set him up with some friend or another that she knew.

“I don't have time.” Steve had said, and at Natasha’s arched eyebrows he’d groaned and flopped forward across her couch and into her lap. “I don’t. And it doesn’t feel worth it to make time- to take time away from something else for something I’m not even all that interested in right now. Despite popular belief, I don’t need to be dating to be happy.”

“Hmm.” Is all Natasha had said.

“Hmmm,” and then, “C’mon Rogers, we’re going on a friend date. You’re taking me to the movies, holding my coat, and buying me popcorn. And a drink.”

And so Natasha hadn’t stopped trying to set him up, but she’d definitely eased up on it and instead Natasha seemed to catch on to the fact that Steve really was happy. Their friend time involved a lot less of Natasha talking up some ballerina she’d danced with a few years back and just how high the girl could raise her leg above her head, and it ended up involving a lot more of what Steve actually liked. Stupid friend dates to the movies, hanging out with Sam at the bar when Mrs. Wilson stole Carter for the night, trips upstate or into the city so that Natasha could drag him around through antique stores or little boutiques or any other places that made Steve feel distinctly uncomfortable.

It was good.

When Bucky came back, once he and Steve had moved past the point of Diner Customer and Diner Owner and into firm friends territory he’d been incorporated.

“We used to date.” Natasha had said as she braided Bucky’s hair back away from his face, sounding like she found the whole idea incredibly hilarious. Bucky was on the floor in front of her, Steve had his feet tucked under her thighs, Sam solidly asleep in Steve’s most comfortable chair and Carter on the floor, oblivious to the world with her eyes glued on Beauty and the Beast.

“And then we realized I was very, very gay.” Bucky had said, easy as anything and Steve tried not to choke when Natasha shot him a wink behind Bucky’s head.

 


 

Carter gets a girlfriend.

Steve thinks she’s swell.

Six months later, Carter and her girlfriend break up in a spectacular fashion right in the middle of a town meeting and Carter gets a boyfriend what feels like five minutes later.

Steve doesn’t think he’s swell.

“He wears a leather jacket.” Steve tells Bucky while Carter’s out on a date. His daughter, his flesh and blood, his little girl, on a date. With a boy. Who wears leather.

“I have a leather jacket.” Bucky says, wiping down the table next to Steve’s and then plopping down into the chair across from him, clearly sensing that this wasn’t going to be the kind of conversation he could have from across the diner. “You have a leather jacket. Wearing leather does not a criminal make, Steve.”  

“He looks like the kind of boy who’d get a girl pregnant and whisk her off to New York City with dreams of being a musician and insisting we can make it baby, we can.”

“I mean, he’s my sister’s kid so running off to the city isn’t outside the realm of possibility. But quick question, Steve, did you look like the kind of boy who’d get a girl pregnant.”

Steve glares, because this is no place for logic. This is a place for wallowing. Wallowing and griping, because Steve’s baby girl has done what teenage girls do and found a bad boy.

(He is possibly, probably, maybe just a little bit, very likely not a bad boy, Steve is quite aware. He’s related to Bucky for one thing, and he enjoys art just like Carter, and shook Steve’s hand before he took Carter out, and he carries a messenger bag with just as many books in it as Carter does. They seem to have a rotation going where they read books and then trade them. It’s adorable and also somehow horrifying.)

“That’s a good enough answer. Another quick question, does Carter strike you as the kind of girl to let that happen, knowing what you’ve gone through raising her when you were so damn young, and knowing what she’d give up if she made that sort mistake. Not that Carter’s a mistake, but for her, having a kid would damn well be one.” The last part is a little fierce and Steve can’t help his smile at how much Bucky loves his kid.

“No. No, she doesn’t. She’d never. I can trust her, even if I might not trust him.”

“Atta boy Rogers. I wouldn’t trust my nephew either, kid’s a shithead. Then again, so was I. And you knocked up Carter’s mom at his age, so really, who are we to judge?”

“I claim the Dad Card. It gives me rights here.”

 


 

 

When Carter was still a toddler, just after Peggy had finished high school and before she went off to college, they tried.

They really, really tried.

“We should be a family.” Peggy had said, and Steve had tried not to notice the way the words fell flat when they came from Peggy’s lips.

“I don’t think this is working.” Steve had said later, the invisible countdown to when the school year started ticking away in his head.

“We used to be good at this.” Peggy had said, and Steve had forced a smile and pressed it against a cherry red mouth.

“And now we’re not. Can’t blame us for trying, but we also can’t blame us for realizing when it’s stupid to try anymore.” Steve had said and didn’t feel the stab of pain he’d expected at Peggy’s look of relief.

And that had been the end of that. They’d tried for a couple months and when it didn’t work Peggy had packed up and gone to college like they’d planned and neither of them had looked back. They were both too busy for the what ifs.

 


 

“We broke up.” Carter says after storming through the front door, pacing through the whole house, looking through all the cupboards and then ending up in a ball of teenage emotion and red, wet eyes at the kitchen table.

“He broke up with you?!” Steve asks, a little squeakier than he wants to be in his fury that this seventeen year old idiot had the gall to break up with Steve’s daughter.

Carter gives Steve a withering look and then makes a noise that only means one thing. This is going to be one of those moments where Carter acts like the teenager she is.

‘Histrionics.’ his mom had called them when Steve was 15 and being an asshole. Somehow, Steve doesn’t think the word would go over well with Carter. Especially right now, when a little bit of drama is to be expected. She got her heart broken, of course his little girl is allowed to be a little dramatic.

Steve’s going to kill that kid.

“No. I broke up with with him! Carter says like somehow, some way Steve should have been able to delve into her mind or look back in time and already know this fact.

Steve is stopped short and he blinks, dumbfounded at Carter’s proclamation. “You what?”

I broke up with him. C’mon, Dad, it’s not that hard a concept.” Carter’s already entering into Genuine Rogers Anger Mode, her chin tilting up and her arms crossing tight in front of her chest.

Steve sits down abruptly, “Why?” He asks, and then “Did he do something to you? Do I need to go talk to him? Do I need to get Bucky to kill him for us? I’m pretty sure he knows how.”

“He said ‘I love you!’ and I said ‘that’s cool’!!!” Carter’s voice is doing that thing where it goes about five octaves higher and about ten decibels louder.

Steve is baffled. “And that- that means you had to break up with him? Hon, I’m not saying you’ve gotta love him back, I’m just confused.”

“We’re not exactly good at the whole love thing in this family!” Carter bursts out and her limbs don’t actually flail, but she gives the distinct impression of flailing.

Oh. Oh. This is definitely Steve’s fault.

Steve does his best not to blame himself for each and every one of Carter’s problems, because he’s been told he has a guilt complex and if he feeds it with Carter he’s going to need more therapy than he can afford. Still, this seems like it’s probably Steve’s fault. He’d always figured not dating was better than dating when one had a kid, and he’s never felt like he has the time, but maybe it wasn’t the right decision when now he’s got a kid who just thinks he’s hopeless at love.

“Mom was your one shot, right?” Carter says into the silence that’s descended while Steve’s trying to wrangle his guilt in until it’s less guilt and more ‘huh, that was probably a mistake.’ “And she’s got a girlfriend in fucking Vermont and you’re all alone.”

“Language.” Steve says automatically, and then “I’m not alone, jesus.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, you have me and so you’re never alone and I’m a gift specifically for you crafted by the good Lord himself and all of that. I know, Dad.”

“Okay, yeah, that’s where I was gonna go with that. Your mom wasn’t my one shot though. I loved her, yes, and I still love her in a way, though it’s certainly not in the way I loved her when we were kids.” He watches Carter as he speaks, waiting for disappointment but only getting a nod of understanding and maybe something like hope. Like maybe Carter’s been hoping that Steve’s not pining away after her mother.  

“You don’t date though. You’ve been on like, two dates my entire life Dad. And I’m pretty sure those were both so that Miss Nat didn’t kill you and hide you the body under the floorboards in the ballet studio.” Carter says like she doesn’t quite trust Steve’s answer just yet.

“I’m too big to be hidden under the floorboards, she’d have to drive to the coast and throw me in the ocean.”

Dad.”

“Sweetheart, do you know how much time you take?” Steve asks, teasing gently and earning a slap to his arm. “No, seriously. I take you to school and then I go work all day with Sam, and then I take you wherever you need to go for extracurriculars and then maybe after that we go on an adventure or watch a movie. It’s a busy life kiddo, and it’s not anything I’d trade for the world. It means I’m not about to set aside a bunch of time trying to make someone else fit into it though. If someone’s gonna be in my life, in our life then they’re gonna have to fit without me working at it too hard, y’know?”    

“I guess.”

“You guess. This isn’t supposed to be about me anyways, Miss Let’s Change The Subject. Go talk to your stupid leather wearing boyfriend. Don’t tell him you love him if you don’t, but don’t be scared of it if you do.”

“Okay, okay, just-”

Steve tugs Carter into the tightest hug he can possible give, pulls back enough that he can look at her properly and chucks the bottom of her chin with his knuckles. It’s his chin, smaller and a little more delicate, sure, but still undeniably the same chin.

“Hey, loving people and being loved is scary as hell kid. We don’t run away from the things that scare us though. You’re a Rogers, we don’t run from things.”

“Mom says that running away isn’t always running away, sometimes it’s just a tactical retreat, and I’m a Carter too.”

“Eh, in first name only, it hardly counts.”

“I don’t think Mom would agree.”

“Well, she’s not here right now to yell at me, now is she?” Steve grins at Carter’s eye roll then shoves her up a little bit, ushering her to the door. “Go. Resolve your teenage angst.”

“Sir, yes sir.” Carter says with the dorkiest of salutes as she walks out the door.

 


 

Steve, despite popular belief, had been on more than two dates since Carter was born. Sure, it wasn’t that many more than two, but it was still undeniably more.

They’d just never worked out.

He used Carter as an excuse for it a lot, and it really was part of the reason, but he also couldn’t help but feel like nobody was right. Nobody made him comfortable enough, nobody liked Carter enough, nobody griped at him enough or made coffee strong enough or squeezed his shoulder as they walked by in that exact right way.

They just never measured up.

 


 

 

Steve gets Carter ensconced at their table and steals the coffee pot from behind the counter because Bucky’s in the kitchen paying them a horribly, horribly inadequate amount of attention.

Somehow, despite the lack of attention he’s aware enough to call out “Don’t drink that, you’ll turn into your father.” when Steve fills Carter’s cup with coffee.

“Too late!” Carter calls cheerfully, “I’m already just like him.”

“That’s dangerous kid, too many Steves in the world and it just might explode.” Bucky says, finally approaching their table, a notepad out that Steve is 100% certain he’s never actually used for them. “You gonna keep staring at my menus for twenty minutes and pretending not to know what to order or you actually gonna order now?”

“Cheeseburger. Cheddar. Extra Extra bacon. French fries. Onion rings. Chicken strips. And a waffle.” Carter says with the eyes of someone who will absolutely eat everything she just ordered.

“Jesus christ, how do you not have scurvy? Vegetables?” Bucky asks with the absolutely horrified tone he should be lacking by now.

“Onions are a vegetable. So are potatoes.” Carter insists.

“It’s true. Both grow from the ground.” Steve says with a nod. “They count. And she’ll be eating it all with ketchup, there’s tomatoes right there.”

“How are you two still alive? How?”

“We’re miracles of science.” Carter says seriously.

“Science created me.” Steve says, equally as serious. “And Carter wasn’t actually born, they just cloned her from me.”

“I know better.” Bucky says, long suffering, “I know better than to ask you two things and expect real answers. I must just be a masochist at this point.”

“I shouldn’t hear these things, I’m a child.” Carter says, sniffing in fake indignation.

“You’re growing so fast though.” Steve says, pressing a hand to his heart and then ruffling Carter’s hair.

“Rogers, what’re you ordering?” Bucky asks, wapping Steve across the shoulder with his tiny notebook and apparently done with the Steve And Carter Are Assholes Show. Steve’s got no idea why, it’s a great show.

“Surprise me.”

“No.”

“C’mon, surprise me.”

“No.”

“C’mooooon, you know it’s fun. You know you like it. Go make me something delicious, Buck.”

“Jesus christ. Fine. One Steve Rogers Surprise, comin up.”

“You two are so weird.” Carter says once Bucky’s disappeared back to the kitchen and Steve is building a house of sugar packets just so that he can leave it standing proudly on the table to annoy Bucky when he’s gone.

“Moi? Weird? I think not.” Steve argues, using those tiny coffee creamer cups as reinforcements for his sugar house. “Bucky, however, he’s definitely weird.”

“You two gonna get your shit together and makeout before I’m married with kids?” Carter asks, blunt and easy and Steve blinks.

Blinks again.

He’s definitely looking across the table at his kid with his mouth hanging wide open, the sensation of not having anything to say in response a strange one.

“Did you break your dad?” Bucky asks, appearing behind Steve’s shoulder with glasses of water that he places pointedly in front of both Carter and Steve.

“What is this? It’s so ...clear. So wet. So tasteless. I’ve never seen anything like it before.” Steve says but it comes out weirdly breathless and without a lot of the sarcasm he’d been going for.

Bucky looks at him like Steve is something ridiculously strange that he’s not quite sure what to do with. But he also looks at him like he wants to figure it out, and Steve is struck, like he is every time he notices it, by how much he likes that.

“He’s broken because I asked if you two were going to get together before I’m old and grey.”

And well, at least if Steve’s brain has been shattered apart because of his very own daughter then Bucky’s is too.

“Um. What?” Bucky says.

“You heard me.” Carter says back, because god she’s an asshole like her own dad is and Steve would be so much prouder if his brain wasn’t just now coming back to life.

It’s not like he hasn’t realized that he orbits around Bucky. It’s not like he hasn’t realized that half the people he’s dated haven’t made it past the first date purely because he ends up comparing them to Bucky. It’s not like he hasn’t realized any of this but there’s apparently a difference between realizing it and Carter just blurting it out like it’s no big deal.

Steve shoots his daughter- his flesh and blood, the light of his life, the absolute terror he’s somehow managed to raise- a look and then gets to his feet, grabs Bucky by the arm just above his prosthetic and drags him back behind the counter, through the door and into the stairwell that leads up to his apartment.

“Your daughter thinks we should date.” Bucky says dumbly.

“She’s a crazy person. I raised her, we can’t expect anything else. Plenty of weird ideas in that head of hers.” Steve says, striving for light and not quite making it when Bucky steps in close, leaving Steve pressed between the wall and the wonder that is Bucky Barnes in a flannel shirt rolled halfway up his arms.

“Yeah? How weird is this one?” His voice is low, eyes dark and a hand planted on the wall just to the left of Steve.

Steve has seen Bucky Barnes flirt with intent a grand total of twice in the entire time he’s known him. Once was to get out of a traffic ticket and the other was when Nat had dragged them all into the city with the insistence that they weren’t old yet and they shouldn’t act like it.

This looks an awful lot like Bucky Barnes flirting with intent.

“Pretty weird. Batty. Crazy. Ridiculous, even.” Steve’s hands have settled on Bucky’s hips and he’s not sure when they got there.

“Oh yeah, it’s a terrible idea.” Bucky says, the words brushing over Steve’s jaw because he’s suddenly very very close.

“Think about what would happen if we broke up? There’d be chaos. The whole town would choose sides. It’d be a spectacle.”

“Guess we’ll have to be in for the long haul then.” Bucky says, and then his mouth is on Steve’s and for once in his life, Steve can’t find it in himself to argue.

 


 

Carter’s 8th grade graduation went like this:

Steve, Bucky, Natasha, Sam, and the rest of the Wilsons converged on an entire row of hard metal folding chairs, close enough to the front that they could see but far enough back that they could gossip without school staff shushing them.

Bucky passed a thermos of coffee and a bag of contraband food to Steve within the first two minutes, and Steve proceeded to share his food with Natasha while Nat bitched that Bucky never brought her anything.

Sam repeatedly shushed the three of them, his eyes suspiciously wet when Carter walked across the stage.

Steve’s eyes were more than suspiciously wet and Bucky passed him a tissue without comment. Passed him another one that Steve wordlessly passed to Natasha.

Steve had looped a hand into Bucky’s, squeezing tight as he tried to deal with the immensity of it, the giant bubble that had caught under his chest and refused to pop as he realized his little girl was growing up.

Bucky had squeezed back, bumped their shoulders together and never mentioned it.

 


 

Carter’s high school graduation goes like this.

An entire row of seats is commandeered once again, and Steve has coffee and food in a paper bag, but he also has Bucky pressed tight to his side, their hands laced together and ankles tucked around each other.

Steve presses his lips against Bucky’s jaw, squeezes his hand tight and enjoys the way Bucky bumps his ankle against Steve’s a little firmer.

Carter gives a speech. She talks about growing up with a single father, about their home in Stars Hollow and the people who made her life what it is. She speaks in the way that she claims Steve does, like it’s some grand speech and every word deserves it’s weight. Finishes with “I don’t know what my future holds. None of us really do. But I know that the life I’ve been given by my Dad, the education I’ve received here, it’s been invaluable in giving me my best shot.”

Steve lets go of Bucky only long enough to clap like a maniac. To hoot and holler and beam at the people behind them and say “That’s my daughter.” like it’s a miracle.

 

“So, you gonna miss me?” Carter asks, leaning against Steve’s jeep and giving Steve a smile that makes him think of her at two years old, at five, and seven, and eleven, and every age in between.

“Do you even have to ask?” Steve curls an arm around Carter’s shoulders, tugs her into his side and squeezes tight.

“You and Bucky gonna move to a farm and adopt ten kids now that I’m not around?”

“Jesus christ, no. I think we’d be hunted down if we tried to leave Stars Hollow for more than a week or two.”

“You could have a farm in Stars Hollow. Or just like, a really big garden and a couple goats. That’s practically the same thing.”

“I think you just want to come home from school to farm animals around.”

“Of course I do. Bucky would like them.” Carter’s teasing, leaning up against the truck with Steve, her shoulder still tucked into his side.

“Bucky would have to come visit them considering he still lives in his own apartment because we have a healthy, normally progressing relationship.” Thank you very much, Sam.

“I’m telling Uncle Sam that you’re still upset about him saying you and Bucky are moving too fast.”

“Good, I hope he feels guilty.”

“He won’t.” Carter says, smiling Steve’s own dorky smile. “Carry me back to my party.”

“You’re too old now, remember? It’s embarrassing. You’re a mature adult.” Steve says, doing his best to imitate the 13 year old Carter who insisted that Steve was no longer allowed to give her piggy backs everywhere because it was childlike.

“I’m a highschool graduate now.” Carter says with a dignified sniff, “And I’m leaving for school in a couple months. I think I am finally mature enough to be immature.”

“Right, right, that’s just logic.” Steve agrees, stooping down so that Carter can clamber onto his back like she’d done as a little girl. It’s easy as anything, because Carter weighs next to nothing. She’s small and thin, with bird bones like Steve had had for the first part of his life, except he thinks Carter might not ever grow out of them like Steve had.

He carts her off, back into the house where their big bustling family is, still enjoying Carter’s graduation party.

In a few days Bucky will drop Steve and Carter off at the airport for their post graduation trip across Europe that they’ve been planning since Carter started high school. They’ll see the sights and Carter will text embarrassing photos of Steve being a tourist to everyone they know. She will text the special ones to Bucky, the ones where Steve’s face is awestruck at the Eiffel Tower, or his hands are reaching out like he desperately wants to touch the paintings at the Louvre.

Two weeks after they get home Steve will load the back of Bucky’s truck up with Carter’s things for school and the three of them will drive her down, whiling the hours away with Steve and Carter playing eye spy while Bucky insists he’s not participating in this madness.

(“I spy with my little eye… Something grumpy.”

“Is it Bucky’s face?”

“Ha! Yes .”

“I spy with my little eye... something… green.”

“Is it Bucky, green with envy over how much fun we’re having?”

Yes.”

“Jesus fucking christ, I hate you both.”)

When they get there, Bucky and Steve will unload Carter’s things while she watches, and Steve will say “Wanna give us a hand here kiddo?” and Carter will say “Nah it looks like you’ve got it handled. Especially Bucky.” and Bucky will cackle at Carter’s stupid joke because he loves Steve’s ridiculous child just as much as Steve does.

Before they leave, Steve will tug Carter in for the biggest, most heartbreaking hug he’s ever given. He’ll ruffle her blonde hair and press the side of his face into the top of his head and whisper “If you don’t like it you can come back home.” and mean it with every atom of his being.

For now though, Steve has Carter laughing on his back and Mrs. Wilson and Bucky are loading his dining room table down with food. Natasha is perched on his countertop, attempting to place bets on Kate and Clint as they throw grapes into each other’s mouths from across the room, a crowd of people in his kitchen and spilling into his living room.

Everything is chaos, and noise, and perfection and Steve and Carter are happy, anchored at the center of it all.