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Sweet & Simple Things

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”It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder

The door to the basement opened, light blinding the occupants. Bucky didn’t need to see his face to recognize the figure in the doorway, though; it wasn’t mealtime, which meant it could only be Pierce, here to pull one of them away, to contract them out and make good their debts.

When he’d arranged passage from Russia for himself, Becka, and Natasha, he had thought they would be given work in America, to pay off the cost of travel visas and the ocean voyage. It didn’t take long to discover how wrong he’d been, although Bucky supposed work on your back was work, of a sort . . . and if you were lucky, it even came with a ring attached. In the meantime, they huddled like pigs in the basement, and worked on their hands and knees, cleaning house for men and women who had their other needs supplied elsewhere. And every so often, the door opened, and Pierce, who arranged their futures the way he had arranged their trip to America—with strings attached—hauled one of them away.

Becka had gone first, young and pretty even in the wake of their time in Siberia. She’d come back, a month later, beaten half to death and sick with pneumonia.

Natasha had left not long after, with two lawmen down from northern California in pursuit of a criminal she’d help them track down when she was supposed to be polishing bannisters. They gave her the reward money, which she gave to Pierce in exchange for freedom.

Bucky would’ve gone, then, but Becka was ill, and someone had to pay off her doctor bill. Someone had to nurse her, and work double shifts while she recuperated.

Someone had to bury her, when she died.

So Bucky had stayed, and worked, and waited, and if he sometimes wondered whether Natasha would come back for him, it was only a passing fancy. He might’ve been born American, but he’d spent the last twenty years in Russia; he knew better than to dream of miracles.

So when Pierce stood in the doorway and called his name, well, it was only to be expected.

He had red in his ledger, and Pierce aimed to wipe it out.

“You’re going to be sent to Paradise,” Pierce told him, “to be married to a Mr. Rogers. He recently took guardianship of two young boys, and needs someone to keep house and raise them. I expect a glowing report; if he sends you back it’s on your own dime.”

Bucky nodded.

“Go pack; Sitwell has tickets for the 8:00 stage.”

He didn’t have much: a change of work clothes and his Sunday best, which he’d have to turn and repiece in the near future; his mother’s locket, with pictures of her and his dad on one side and Becka on the other; and a daguerreotype of himself, his mom, and Becka, taken not long after they’d been deported from Brooklyn, still dressed in mourning. He also had almost twenty dollars he’d been saving up in secret; if the marriage didn’t go well, if Rogers did half the things Becka’s husband had, he’d run. He’d run before he ever let Pierce get him again, and he’d keep on running until he was dead or in New York. He was an American citizen, even though his mom hadn’t been, so they couldn’t send him away, back to Siberia and the cold. He could go back to Brooklyn, the last place he’d really felt at home, and lose himself in a city so big Pierce would never find him, and neither would Rogers, and maybe, eventually, he’d be safe again.

He tucked the money in his boot, and headed back upstairs to Pierce, and Sitwell, and the 8:00 stage.

The journey was a long one—so long, in fact, that they broke it up into two days, spending the night in a hotel. Bucky winced to think of how much the room was costing his future husband, and what that meant for him. Was his husband rich, or would he take it out of Bucky’s hide, or both? Sitwell had a hearty dinner in the hotel restaurant, but Bucky stuck to the meager provisions Pierce had sent him with. He didn’t want to add to the bill, to start his marriage on the wrong foot. It hardly mattered, anyway. It took everything he had not to lose the small amount of food he managed to swallow, when Sitwell pointed out that this time the next day, he’d be James Buchanan Rogers.

“You should be grateful he wants to marry you,” Sitwell said, and it was true. He should. Plenty of people had left Pierce’s basement without the promise of a ring, and Bucky had seen what it got them. But a ring and a promise to God hadn’t helped Becka any; why should it help him?

“Just think of those kids. You’re shaping their future, their world.”

“That’s Pierce talking,” Bucky said.

Sitwell shrugged. “You don’t get where he is without knowing what you’re talking about. You’re a good kid, Barnes. You’ve done good work, honest work, and now you’re being asked to do it one more time. So finish your sandwich, and get some sleep. You want to look your best tomorrow.”

Bucky couldn’t wait for the minute he didn’t have to take orders from Sitwell anymore. Except, of course, that he’d be trading one master for another. He forced himself to eat some more, then ducked behind the changing screen to don his nightshirt. They were sharing a room, partly to save money and partly because no one trusted Bucky to stay, otherwise. He couldn’t really complain about that, but even behind the safety of the screen he flushed, embarrassed at being naked in the same room as another man. As Sitwell, who wasn’t his husband and didn’t have the right to demand he be naked, screen or no screen.

By the time he came back out, though, Sitwell was already in the bed by the door, back turned to Bucky. He climbed into the other bed and dimmed the oil lamp; despite the lead in his stomach and the knowledge he might never be afforded a screen again, after tomorrow morning, he drifted quickly to sleep.

The next thing he knew, it was daylight, and in a few hours time, he was going to be married.

* * *

When the stage pulled into Paradise, it was one-thirty in the afternoon and Bucky was already exhausted. His stomach was a solid rock of nerves, and he hadn’t managed more than half a sandwich, Sitwell shrugging and taking the rest.

Five people met the stage—four men, one with a sheriff’s badge and one a deputy—and Natasha, sporting a deputy’s star of her own.

Natasha, smiling and looking healthy, looking clean and fed and like Bucky had never seen her. Her hair was pulled back in a plait, a hat keeping the sun off, and she had a pair of six-shooters slung low on her hips. He’d barely descended to the ground when she’d reached out, cupped his face in her hands. “Yasha. James.”

Bucky hugged her, couldn’t stop himself. Whatever came next, whatever Rogers was like, his husband was like, at least he had Tasha back. Had Tasha at his back. If things went sour, if he needed those almost-twenty-bucks, she’d help him slip out of town. He was shaking, a little, but he hadn’t thought he’d ever see her again, promises or no.

“James,” she said again, and turned him towards the other men. “This is your fiancé. This is Steve Rogers.”

An image flashed through Bucky’s mind of a sickly kid a few years older and a few inches shorter than him, stuck playing with Bucky because the big boys wouldn’t touch him. They’d been friends, way back when; Steve taught Bucky how to tie his shoes and Bucky taught Steve snatches of the Russian lullabies his mom used to sing. Steve’s ma used to ruffle his hair and sneak him treats and called her second son. And then he remembered curling up together in his trundle bed, when Steve spent the night, and that stone was right back in the pit of his stomach. There’d be a lot more than freezing cold feet pressed against his shins to worry about tonight. “Steve—”

“Yeah.” The tallest fellow, the one who wasn’t a lawman, stuck his hand out, a hopeful grin on his face. “Been a long time since Brooklyn, huh, Bucky?”

Bucky took his hand. “Twenty years,” he said. Twenty years where Bucky had scraped and worked and kept house for his sick mother, raised his sister and learned whatever was necessary to keep them all alive, and Steve. Sickly little Stevie Rogers, with a widowed ma who worked herself to the bone nursing folks—nursing Steve. Steve had wound up owning land, rich land, cattle land, with two kids and enough money to waste on fetching a spouse all the way from San Francisco. He swallowed. “How’ve you been?”

“Better now. We’ve had a hard few months, the boys and me.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Bucky said. Steve started to respond, but Sitwell intervened, asked if he was ready to go to the church.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Yes, of course.”

Just like that, Bucky got married. Later, it was a big blur in Bucky’s memory. Natasha and Steve’s friend Wilson were witnesses, that much he remembered. But really, if Steve hadn’t handed Sitwell a saddlebag with money in it, he wouldn’t have realized anything had happened. Well, except for the gold band on his left hand. The rest of that day—the rest of that week—the one thing he was conscious of was the weight of that ring on his finger, the way it clacked against plates and glasses and how much it must have cost and what he’d have to do to pay for it.

“We should head back to the ranch,” Steve said, his hand hovering near Bucky’s back without actually touching him. “Get you settled before school’s out and Rhodey comes home.”

“Is Rhodey—”

Steve put Bucky’s bag into the back of his buggy, helped him climb up when Bucky’s hands shook. “Rhodey’s eight. His real name is James, but his parents died a few years back, and when Tony learned to talk he just called him Rhodey all the time. Tony’s three, though to hear him tell it he’s basically four already. I tried telling him there’s a few months between March 17 and May 29, but I don’t think he listened. Tony’s folks, Howard and Maria, they died two and a half months ago, and I took the boys in.”

Steve talked the whole way back to the ranch, The Star And Shield. He told Bucky about fighting in the War, meeting Howard Stark and Terence Rhodes and going in with them on a mine in California, about selling out his share to open the ranch, about hiring men he’d fought with.

“The Colonel, he’s my foreman now. Fell on some hard times, after—I think his brother fought for the South, but he doesn’t talk about it. Well, no one does. He’s a good foreman, keeps the hands in order. There’s a bunkhouse not far from our place, but you don’t have to feed them; Peggy—Mrs. Jones—takes care of that. She’s Gabe’s wife, they’ve got a little house next to where the men bunk, and she cooks and cleans for them. She’s got Tony with her today. Normally I take Rhodey back and forth from school, but she said she’d take Tony into town to fetch him.”

They pulled up at the house—a large log cabin, really. Steve unhitched the buggy but left the horses outside for the moment, so he could give Bucky a tour. Downstairs there was a large living room, with a sofa and arm chairs arranged by the fireplace, and an even larger kitchen, with a big wooden table, a pantry, and a mudroom. Bucky noticed the mudroom didn’t seem to have anything hanging up in it, not even oilskins for rainy weather; more to the point, there were dried boot prints all across the living room floor and leading up the staircase.

There was a spare bedroom downstairs, but Steve explained it was for company only, and filled with dust.

Upstairs, there were three rooms.

“I’ve spent the morning putting Rhodey’s things back in with Tony,” Steve said, showing Bucky a messy room with an unmade bed and tin soldiers on the floor, along with a pile of laundry and clothes in need of darning. “Your room’ll be across the hall.”

“My room?”

Steve opened the door. This room was cleaner, if only because everything had been dragged over to Tony’s. The bed was made, but sloppily, and there were boot prints on the floor here, as well.

“I didn’t think you’d feel comfortable sharing,” Steve said. “Nat—well. I don’t know what the company told you, but. You deserve your own bed, Buck. For as long as you want one.”

Bucky swallowed, unable to look Steve in the eye. Wanted, of course. Deserved, he wasn’t so sure about. But he also wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, not when Steve had the right to put Bucky in his bed and keep him there, had the right to take and take and not give anything back. Whatever Natasha said, whatever she thought, good men didn’t always mean good husbands, and twenty years was a long time for someone to grow up, grow different. Look at Bucky himself, at the kid he’d been back in Brooklyn and the man he’d become, who sewed and cooked and cleaned and starved and kept his head down, because there were worse monsters than the tsar and worse prisons than Siberia. Steve might be the perfect husband right now, right in this moment, but that didn’t mean it would last. “Thanks.”

“Sure, no problem. If you need anything, I’m right down there.” Steve left then, went to take care of the horses, and Bucky unpacked. It didn’t take long, but he figured he might as well get it over with.

After that, he decided to start on cooking. The house was a state, but there’d be two hungry boys home soon, and Steve could hardly expect him to get everything sparkling in one afternoon. Two, maybe. A week was somewhat more reasonable, but Bucky didn’t really know, since Steve hadn’t said. All he knew was that the boys would be home soon enough, and regardless of the state of the house he’d have to put three meals on the table, day in and day out. When he ducked out the back door he found the vegetable garden in desperate need of weeding, but at least he could slaughter an aging chicken and whip up some soda bread. There was no other meat he could find, so chicken would have to do, although—but there were plenty of young chicks, enough that he wouldn’t be destroying the flock, and. Steve had said, on the journey out from town, that Bucky would be in charge of meals. Of the house. That had to include the barn animals, or there’d be no point in running the meals. Anyway, he couldn’t make much of a supper with no meat available, so he’d have to kill the bird and hope for the best. The pantry revealed reasonably fresh strawberries, which combined with the stale bread left under a cloth on the kitchen table could make a crumble for dessert. And there were some old potatoes in the cellar; he could cover a multitude of sins by mashing them with butter. A lot of butter.

Steve came out back while Bucky was still plucking the chicken, carefully dropping the feathers into a bucket to keep for mattress tick. As far as he could tell, the house hadn’t been cleaned yet that spring. Or year. Or ever, really. So the mattresses could probably use new stuffing.

“Need a hand?”

Bucky shrugged. Plucking a chicken was an easy one-man job. Was he supposed to say that, so Steve knew he could handle it—or would that be sass, an excuse to. To. The boy he remembered, the boy he’d played with on cobblestone streets, would’ve just wanted to lend a hand, maybe even felt like Bucky was implying he wasn’t up to the job if he didn’t ask for help, but. Steve wasn’t that boy, anymore, not big and broad and war-proved like he was, and Bucky. Bucky missed that easy camaraderie they’d had, suddenly, fiercely, but he didn’t know this man who was his husband, not really, not yet. “I’m fine,” he said.

Before Steve could respond there was the sound of a buggy pulling up to the house, and then laughter and running feet. “Back here!” Steve called, and two young boys came careening around the side of the house, all set to barrel right into Steve. Then they saw Bucky, and both of them slowed down enough for the woman with them—Mrs. Jones, Steve had called her. Peggy—to catch up.

“Boys,” Steve said, “you remember how I told you when I was your age I lived all the way across the country, back east in a city called Brooklyn? And my best friend from Brooklyn, Bucky, was gonna come and live with us?”

“Yes.” The older boy, Rhodey, marched up to Bucky and held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he said with what Bucky suspected was more manners than truth.

“Likewise. You can call me Bucky, alright?”

Tony just turned around and ran right back to Mrs. Jones. Of course, after she picked him up she walked over to Bucky herself. “I’m Peggy. So nice to finally see you in person.”

“Thanks, ma’am. Peggy. We don’t seem to have tea in the pantry, but I could put some coffee on, or—”

“No, thank you. Tony and I had some tea when he woke up from his nap, didn’t we, Mischief? A nice tea with doughnuts.”

“They brought me one at school,” Rhodey said. He turned around. “Steve, I got all my spelling words right, and I got to clean the erasers!”

Steve rested a hand on Rhodey’s shoulder and smiled at him. “That’s great. Why don’t you go put your books away, and then you boys can play until it’s time for evening chores. Buck, if you make a list of things we need, I’ll pick up supplies tomorrow after I drop Rhodey at school.”

Bucky flushed. He hadn’t meant to show Steve up in front of Mrs.—in front of Peggy, or the boys. Not that the boys seemed to care much, except for how Tony had been glaring at him from the safety of Peggy’s shoulder since the moment she’d picked him up.

Bucky wondered, just for a moment, how long he’d have to win the kid over before Steve sent him packing. But he could feel his money, down in the toe of his boot, and he was a dab hand in the kitchen, the product of twenty years’ keeping Becka alive and fed, and once he got the house all cleaned, maybe it wouldn’t matter as much if one of the boys called him sir and the other wouldn’t talk to him at all.

They didn’t have to love him, or even like him, just as long as they kept him around.

* * *

Later, those first few weeks blended together in Bucky’s memory as one long period of fear and misery. Steve loomed large in the background; Bucky couldn’t figure out if he really just wanted someone to cook, clean, and help raise the boys, or if he was waiting for Bucky to relax before taking everything he’d bought and paid for. He kept peppering conversations with “do you remember,” too. Bucky remember everything—bunking down together when Steve’s ma was working nights, when he was bigger and taller and warmer than the skinny little body that huddled next time; playing in the streets together, or inside when it was cold out; showing Steve how to hold a baby after Becka was born; always having enough to eat and people to take care of him and warm clothes and then, suddenly, his father’s body lying cold and stiff in the front room, and men in suits coming to talk to his mother, and a boat ride across the ocean. Steve had been sick; there hadn’t been any time to say goodbye, just his mother squeezing his mittened hand and telling him he was the man of the house now, and his sister, heavy against his shoulder, sobbing as she reached backwards towards America, receding into the distance. “I’m not that kid anymore,” he told Steve in exasperation. “Not much point in remembering.”

Steve waved a hand over his body. “I’m not that kid either, Buck. Doesn’t mean there aren’t pleasant things in the past to hold onto. Things that—that might make the future better.”

Bucky shrugged. In Russia, he’d learned very quickly that relying on the future was a fool’s game. Certainly he had no plans to rely on his: Bucky could cook and clean alright, but the boys were a different story altogether. Rhodey, when he wasn’t at school, was quiet and standoffish, as nervous around Bucky as Bucky was around Steve, it seemed like. Steve had given him a horse named Winter, both saddle- and buggy-broke, for driving Rhodey to and from town and running errands. What should have been a time of freedom was, instead, tense and rather terrible. The other kids at school, those who didn’t ride in or walk by themselves, always met their parents with a smile, throwing their lunch pails and schoolbooks into a carriage and hopping in themselves eagerly. Rhodey trudged over to Bucky and Tony with his head down, and when he climbed inside he was scrupulously polite, never once leaning out like the other boys to yell goodbyes or promise to see them the next day.

And then there was Tony.

Rhodey distrusted him; that was fine. Bucky could work with that—hell, he distrusted just about everything to do with The Star And Shield. But Tony? Tony hated him. Hated, resented, wanted nothing to do with, and thoroughly believed Bucky was out to ruin his life. Which was bad enough in that Bucky had to spend all day with him, every day, for another three years. But that was assuming Tony’s hatred didn’t get Bucky kicked back to San Francisco long before three months went by.

It started their first full day together, after Steve took Rhodey to school and went to pick up some grain and equipment deliveries in town. Bucky wanted to bake treats (bribes) for the boys desperately, although it wasn’t even close to being Saturday, but the house needed such a thorough cleaning, from top to bottom, that he decided there was no point in putting it off any longer. Only, when he came in from the horse trough with a bucket of water and some rags and soap, and asked if Tony wanted to help (Becka had always loved scrubbing the floor, walls, and windows, because of how it inevitably descended into the two of them flicking water at each other until their mother sent them to sit by the fire and dry off with a cup of hot tea), Tony crossed his arms and scowled. “Rhodey doesn’t have to do work instead of playing.”

“Rhodey’s at school,” Bucky pointed out.

“I know! Having fun and learning everything int’resting and playing with other kids instead of being stuck here!” Tony punctuated his argument by kicking his tin soldiers everywhere.

Bucky took a deep breath. “You don’t have to help me clean,” he said, trying desperately to sound firmer than he felt, “but you may not throw or kick things. If you can’t play nicely you can put your toys away.”

Tony’s scowl increased, and for a moment Bucky thought he might have to really discipline him. Then Tony shouted, “Fine! Don’t want you touching ‘em anyway!” and scrambled to pick them all up and go play in his room, where he was “safe.”

Bucky decided to wait on cleaning the upstairs until Rhodey was home from school and could keep Tony occupied for him.

Before she’d left the day before, Peggy had slipped Bucky a receipt for doughnuts labelled “Tony & Rhodey’s favorites.” Maybe he should have done the baking first after all, dirt be damned. Only, he suddenly had a vivid memory of Sarah Rogers, scrubbing at her coal-dust stained windows while Bucky and Steve held the bucket and soap for her because, “a dirty house is not a home.”

It continued like that with Tony for a few weeks, or an eternity, depending on who was counting. Every time Bucky thought he’d made headway things slipped back again without his really knowing why or what he’d done. Even when he did get the chance to make doughnuts.

Tony wandered by not long after the smell of fried dough filled the kitchen. He sat at the kitchen table with some scraps of paper and the stub of a pencil, drawing and occasionally daring to look up and scowl.

Bucky told himself there was no reason to be scared of a not-quite-four year old, but it wasn’t really working, and his hands shook a bit when he wiped them on his apron.

Rhodey came in a little later. "Do you need any help, sir?"

For what felt like the hundredth time, Bucky told him, "You can call me Bucky. And no, thank you."

Rhodey sat next Tony and opened his book. They read together quietly while Bucky worked, and it almost felt companionable, except for the glares Tony kept sending him and how Rhodey would duck his head whenever Bucky caught his eye. Finally, Bucky turned the doughnuts and took a few of them out of the pot. "Actually, I do have a job, for both of you."

Tony sighed heavily and put his pencil down.

"I could use someone to taste these and make sure they're coming out right." Bucky put two fresh doughnuts on a plate and set it between the boys.

Tony looked at Rhodey, eyes wide, and Rhodey just grinned. "It's Miss Peggy's recipe, and she says that you're experts at how they're supposed to taste."

"Yes Sir," Tony blurted out, then covered his mouth with his hands and whispered, "won't we ruin our appetites?"

"Well, you can't have much appetite for dessert if it's terrible," Bucky said. "Go on, not much point in my cooking the rest of them if these are all wrong."

Rhodey took a bite and made a happy sound. Tony took a bite and nodded, then pulled off half to hand it across the table. "They're good! You should try too!"

"Thank you." Bucky smiled at him, and Tony gave a big grin back, before remembering he didn't like Bucky. He hid his confusion by taking another large bite. By the time he finished his half, he’d apparently decided it was okay to scowl again, although Rhodey helped a little by sharing with Tony.

Just then Steve came in from the stable and broke into a smile to see them all there, together. “This looks cozy.”

"Dinner's almost ready," Bucky said, turning away from Steve's smile to stir the potatoes. It was perfect, that smile, just like Steve had been so far. A man’s smile, with none of the gap-toothed grin-i-ness Bucky remembered, but every bit as much warmth and something else, besides. Some indefinable quality that made Bucky long to trust him, because that smile nearly shouted that everything was safe. He gritted his teeth and took the bread out to cool, banking the coals in the oven.

"I'll go wash up, then. Boys, why don't you set the table and wash your face and hands?"

Tony sighed, then used his finger to pick up all the doughnut crumbs that are left. "You know that there are more of those," Rhodey said.

Tony ignored him. “Doesn’t mean I’ll get to eat ‘em,” he muttered. Once he'd gotten all the crumbs, he put his papers away and helped lay out the forks and knives; Rhodey handled the plates and cups since they were breakable. Tony still had to reach up on his tiptoes a little to get the forks in the right spot; Steve lifted him into his chair before sitting down.

"We haven't washed yet," Rhodey said, ignoring Tony's death glare. Tony frowned hard at Rhodey, but then scrambled down and followed him to the sink.

“What’d you go and say that for?” he whispered.

“One of us’s gotta make a good impression,” Rhodey whispered back.

Bucky, transferring the chicken to a platter, tried not to tense. The boys had just sat down again when he got all the food on the table. There was roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and fresh bread. He'd’ve liked to put vegetables on the table, but they'd have to be bought in town until he could get the vegetable garden up to scratch. At least there was fresh milk for the boys; he could start making more cheese and butter as soon as the house was completely cleaned, and the chickens seemed to be laying well, so there was that.

Steve just beamed up at him. "Jeez, this is impressive, Buck. It smells delicious."

"As long as it tastes that way," Bucky said. Tony giggled despite himself, and Bucky smiled at him.

Tony ducked down a little, hiding his smile behind the edge of the table while Steve carved. To cover what he was sure would otherwise be yet another incredibly awkward silence, Bucky asked Rhodey about school: what he liked best, how the teacher was, all about the other children. Rhodey was happy to talk all about it, and Tony chimed in occasionally about people he knows from Sunday School.

"My daddy was gonna send me to real school," he started for what seemed, even to Bucky, like the umpteenth time, then wilted when Steve gave him a look. "I was gonna be the smartest," he muttered under his breath, picking at the crust of his bread.

"You're still gonna be just as smart," Steve said, soft and gentle. He was always careful with the boys, even when they frustrated him. He was always—so far—careful with Bucky. "And we could send you away to school back east if you want, but it would be awful nice to have you here."

"But why can't I go to this school, with Rhodey?"

"You're too little," Rhodey said, and Tony's whole face screwed up.

Bucky dipped his bread into his gravy. "It'd be an awful shame to miss out on all the things you can't learn in school."

Tony twisted his face around and glared. "Like what?"

"Like how growing works, how to fix things. How to make doughnuts . . ."

"We c'n make doughnuts on the weekend."

"Sure we can. That frees my week days up for things like picking berries and fishing and watching out for beaver dams in case they divert streams away from the cattle. I mean," Bucky added, "I'll probably be busy most days, but if I had a helping hand, the work would get done faster and I could go hunt frogs and practice swimming."

"Frogs!" Tony said, popping up higher. "The creek has tons of frogs!"

"Does it?" Bucky took a bite of mashed potatoes, and sighed, trying not to go too far over the top. "Sure would be nice to have someone who knew all about it around the house. Just in case we need frogs."

Tony dragged his fork across his plate for a bit. "I could help. With frogs and stuff." He got the last bite of chicken. "I'm pretty good at berries too."

"I thought you were going to be in school." Bucky affected an air of supreme unconcern.

"We-e-l-l-l-l . . . I guess I don't have to . . ."

"School will still be there whenever you're done with frogs and berries," Steve said. Bucky tried not to read too much into Steve’s smile when Tony decided to stay home awhile longer. He tried to remember how much it warmed him, later that night when he was lying in bed and heard Steve’s footsteps pause outside his door. It happened every night. Steve would be the last to bed, and he always stopped by Bucky’s room for nearly a minute before moving on. Someday, probably, he wouldn’t wait so long, wouldn’t move to his own room at all. At least, not for a good twenty minutes to half an hour. Not until he’d he might as well have made Bucky share his room after all.

Someday.

Some night.

But his smile still felt nice, in the daylight. Especially when Tony woke up grumpy and mad, and had gone back to hating everything Bucky suggested, and probably Bucky himself.

It seemed like Rhodey came around first, a combination of Bucky’s unfailing interest in his life and just getting good food and clean living. He even hugged Bucky good night just a couple of weeks after Bucky’d come to the ranch. But with Tony, every step forward seemed like a giant leap back.

“You’re too deep in the middle of it,” Natasha said during one of her early afternoon visits. She would come over once a week or so—sometimes more often, sometimes less—to sip dark, strong tea and talk with Bucky in soft, familiar Russian while Steve was in the fields and Tony napped upstairs. He'd missed her, for all he was glad she got out, got somewhere away from Pierce and husbands and the red ink in their ledger from passage to America. It was nice to sit and talk together like they hadn't since they left Siberia, of safe things like homes and food and when to change the tick in the mattresses, and to remember the things that made them laugh and smile as children. And as if to prove Natasha’s point, that day was the first time that Tony woke up from his nap early and came downstairs, still mostly asleep, just to crawl into Bucky's lap and fall asleep again.

Bucky stroked his back, his heart full. Somewhere in the middle of trying to win over Tony, it seemed Tony'd won him.

Natasha's voice grew softer as she told him about how her own sad attempts at housekeeping, about how Deputy Barton did the washing because she found it frustrating and Sheriff Coulson was a better cook than she'd ever be. For first time that, Bucky seriously entertained the idea that maybe failure didn't always get you sent back.

"Do they sleep with you?"

"Not until I told them I wanted to. And only when I tell them I want to."

Bucky looked away. Steve hadn't touched him yet, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. He also hadn't gotten drunk, or—anyway, just because someone presented as a good man to the outside world, it didn't bear on how he'd be as a husband. There was still those footsteps after dark, and the minute long pause by Bucky’s door. Sometimes he almost wished Steve would open the door and come inside.

Then he’d know.

"I wouldn't have sent for you," Natasha said, touching Bucky's hand, "if I wasn't absolutely certain."

Tony woke up when Bucky shifted. He rubbed at his eyes, noticed Tasha's hand on Bucky's, and gave her a giant glare. Normally Tony thought Natasha was great, but this time he stuck his lip out and wrapped his arms around Bucky. “You got your own husbands,” he said. “Bucky’s Steve’s and Rhodey’s and mine.”

Natasha just laughed and said, "Calm, sweetheart."

Tony buried his face against Bucky's chest. His breathing was heavy and he blinked back tears.

"You're alright," Bucky murmured, daring to drop a kiss on top of Tony's head.

Natasha left with a kiss for each of them and Bucky woke Tony up for real so that they could do the rugs and start dinner. Even in the middle of hating Bucky, Tony had loved whacking the rugs with a stick and creating giant clouds of dust. (Or smaller clouds, once they started getting cleaned on a regular basis.)

Bucky considered that the turning point in their relationship; after that day, while Tony might argue about wanting to play instead of nap or how he should too be allowed to keep frogs in bed with him and Rhodey, he never seemed to hate Bucky anymore. He not only settled down for the sewing lessons Bucky insisted on so that he would know how to mend his own clothes and linens, but actually consented to learn real embroidery. He started demanding Bucky put him to bed, instead of Steve, and most of all, began to freely hand out hugs and kisses. One night, Tony even tugged on Bucky’s hand after his bedtime story and said, “I love you. Promise you’ll remember?”

“I promise,” Bucky said, brushing Tony’s hair off his forehead. “You remember I love you too, tateleh.”

He had no idea why he pulled out the Yiddish phrase; he hadn’t heard it in years, since he and his friend Mosel in Siberia had grown old enough to realize that they shouldn’t be friends. But he had a sudden strong memory of Rachel Gorfunkel, Mosel’s 19-year-old stepmother, standing in the doorway clutching her babushka and pleading, “Tateleh, tateleh, please. You’ll catch your death in this cold, and what will your father say? Come in by the fire and live to play tomorrow.”

Mosel had frowned, but gone when Bucky shoved him. Mothers, even stepmothers, needed listening to. Besides, he’d figured, if it was too cold for big boys like him and Mosel, Becka must’ve been near frozen solid.

Tony had no idea what the word meant, of course, but he smiled up at Bucky in the candlelight. “I promise,” he said, before curling up on his side and drifting off. Bucky blew the candle out, to save on expense, but sat in the dark room a while longer, listening to Tony’s soft snores and battling the urge to remember.

* * *

Spring gave way to summer, and before Bucky knew it Tony’s fourth birthday arrived. It was even on a weekend, so Bucky filled the house with the smell of fresh baked bread before he fetched the boys for breakfast. They came running downstairs in robes and slippers, jostling each other to reach the table first.

“It’s my birthday,” Tony cried, “Steve, Steve! Tell Rhodey it’s my birthday!”

“Boys who can’t come to the table like gentlemen,” Steve said while drying his hands, “eat oatmeal for breakfast instead of eggs.”

The boys immediately slowed down and apologized to each other, as though Bucky had left oats to soak overnight just in case they were needed, and then gone on to cook eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits anyway. He made a face at Tony, who giggled.

Before Bucky came, Rhodey confided to him, weekends were cleaning days, when he was home from school and Steve was free to do the big cleaning jobs. Given the state of the house, Bucky had an idea that the “big” cleaning jobs were mostly a failed attempt to finish all the little jobs, but that was neither here nor there. The main thing was that, after several weeks of concerted effort, he’d made their home shine (except, of course, for the fact that none of the people he lived with seemed to remember to take their boots off at the front door, or use the backdoor and the mudroom like civilized people) and now the boys could laze around in the fresh air all morning while Steve did the books and Bucky baked. In the afternoon, he and Tony and Rhodey made doughnuts and cookies or they’d all go berry-picking or head to the creek to swing and paddle around and look for frogs. Or, as on Tony’s birthday, to settle in the grass by the cool water, backs against a tree, and fish.

“I’m the best at digging worms,” Tony declared after they’d spread the picnic blanket down by the creek. “Right, Steve? Bucky, come look, this one’s huge

“It sure is,” Bucky said. “Better stick it in the can; we could get three hooks’ worth out of that one.”

Tony raced over to the tin can they’d filled about halfway with dirt, dropped his worm in, then raced back over to where Rhodey was picking through clumps of soil with an old spade. Bucky would despair of their hands ever being clean enough to eat were they not camped right by running water.

“I’m the best fisher, too,” Tony announced. It turned out, though, that Tony’s idea of fishing was to giggle while “helping” Steve bait his hook, hand his rod to Bucky or Steve, and then go play until he got a bite, after which he’d run over and land the fish “all by himself.” Bucky couldn’t help but smile at Steve the second time it happened, while Tony jumped up and down and demanded they admire his trout.

After they’d caught a nice haul for that night’s supper, Bucky told the boys to wash their hands before eating. While he was unpacking sandwiches, berries, and cake, Rhodey shouted, “whoops!” and there was a large splash. Bucky looked up just in time to see Rhodey surface from the water, shaking his head and laughing; before either he or Steve could move Tony shouted, “not fair!” and jumped in as well.

“Boys!” Steve hauled them out by dint of hoisting Tony over his shoulder and resting a firm hand on Rhodey’s.

“Did I tell you to swim,” Bucky demanded, his heart still in his throat, “or did I tell you to clean up for lunch?”

“Aw, we’re okay,” Tony said. “I been swimming forever, honest I have, ‘n Rhodey’s been swimming even longer.”

Rhodey elbowed him. “What he means is, we’re sorry if we scared you, and for fooling around when we weren’t supposed to. Isn’t that right, Tony?”

Tony opened his mouth, caught Bucky’s eye, and deflated. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Alright,” Bucky said. “You’re forgiven.”

That’s when Steve dropped a sopping wet four-year-old onto Bucky’s lap.

All in all, it was a pretty nice start to the summer.

* * *

The summer itself passed in a haze of golden days, and if Bucky wasn’t always happy, if sometimes he still ached for Becka, a pain in his heart that never quite disappeared, he was at least content. More amazingly, he was safe. It was hard to believe it, sometimes, but he found himself feeling that way nonetheless.

The week before Bucky arrived at the ranch, Steve and the men had sheared the small herd of sheep the Starks had kept so Maria could make warm clothes for the winter; with the house all in order Bucky was able to card the wool. In the afternoons, while Tony napped or curled up with book and a blanket, only half-awake, Bucky pulled out the large wooden spinning wheel that had once been Mrs. Stark’s and the rhythmic clack-clack-clack and soft whir of the wheel lulled him into a peaceful, simple ease.

Later, Rhodey and Tony spent a happy week helping him dye the long loops of yarn. Tony’s hands were red for well over a week, much to his delight, and he demanded to know when he’d get to help spin and knit things too. “Let’s work on your cross-stitch first,” Bucky said. Tony sighed with his entire body, but dutifully returned to the sampler Bucky’d set him on when he first asked to learn embroidery.

The rest of the summer flew by just as quickly, and, for the most part, peacefully. There were rumors the Hydra gang was back in the area, robbing banks and generally putting the fear of God in people, but that was farther north than they were. Sheriff Coulson quietly met the stage twice a day, confiscating guns from all visitors to town until they left again, and in the meantime life went on; gradually, without Bucky even being aware of when it happened, the ever present knot that stress caused behind his left shoulder blade unraveled. Steve’s birthday, with the town’s July 4th festivities, came and went. The summer thunderstorms avoided causing any fires, or damaging buildings, although they spent more than one afternoon huddled in the cellar, keeping the boys occupied with something other than loud crashes or the bright streak of lightning visible between the cracks of the storm doors. And with school out, Tony had plenty of company, whether from Rhodey himself or through visits to town or to neighbors. He even stopped begging for a dog, too busy running around having fun to bring it up more than once a week or so, as a sort of token protest.

Well, that, or he was getting enough of dogs by hanging around the Cages’ house. Certainly their 18-month-old couldn’t be that fascinating all by herself; she could barely say 30 words, although one of them was puppy.

At the time, it seemed harmless enough to let Tony spend his energy playing with dogs and babies, while Bucky spent an hour or so browsing through Odinson’s General Store, looking for new fabrics and bemoaning the cost of sugar. Then August turned towards September, and Tony woke up one morning complaining of a sore throat, and covered in a red rash.

“Rhodey,” Bucky said, reaching out to brush the back of his hand across Tony’s forehead, “put on your shoes and jacket, please, then go tell Steve to leave the chores for now and fetch Doc Banner.”

“Is Tony—”

Bucky glanced at Rhodey and gave him a smile he didn’t feel. “Run along,” he said, and then, “Tony, tateleh, show me your tongue.”

It turned out he didn’t need Bruce’s confirmation—though he appreciated the advice on treatment, the quarantine signs, and the information that Rhodey was immune after a bout himself, three or four years ago. Tony had strawberry tongue, and Bucky felt his stomach hit the floor.

Scarlet fever.

“Alright.” Bucky kissed Tony’s forehead. “You just stay in bed and sleep, kiddo. I’m going to fetch some things to help bring your fever down and make you feel better.”

Tony just grumbled and rolled over, pulling the blankets up to his chin.

By the time Bucky had pulled some chips from the icebox to start making a cold compress, Rhodey had run back in from the barn. “Steve’s going to town now,” he reported. “He wants to know if I should stay in the bunkhouse, or—”

“I don’t know.” Bucky reached for a bowl. “Depends on what Doc Banner says. Could you please fill this with water from the pump, and then fetch the bottle of rose water from the pantry. I’ll come downstairs when you’re done.”

Tony looked so small, curled up in a bed big enough for at least two boys. He hadn’t actually fallen back asleep, but his eyes were shut and his face screwed up in a grimace. Bucky tucked the compress between his ankles, hoping to draw the fever away from his brain. Tony kicked a foot away. “‘S cold!”

“I know, tateleh. Leave it be, for me. Here, I’ve brought you some ice to suck on, for your throat. I’m going to make something for your head now. Be a good boy, and I’ll be right back.”

“I don’t want you to go.”

“I know you don’t.” Bucky kissed his temple and squeezed his free hand. “I’ll be back so fast you’ll hardly know I’ve gone, you’ll see. I have to make something for your head, some medicine. No, don’t make that face or it might stick like that. You don’t have to swallow this medicine, it’s for outside use only.”

“We’re inside,” Tony objected, not letting go of Bucky’s hand.

“Outside your body.” Bucky squeezed again. “Be a good boy, now, and suck your ice.”

Downstairs, Rhodey was shifting from one foot to the other. He’d brought back a full bowl and hardly spilled anything. Bucky dropped a hand on his shoulder. He doused a clean handkerchief in the rose water, then added some more to the water bowl. “I’m going back up to Tony now. Stay down here, and eat your breakfast before it gets cold. I’ll bring you some clean clothes in a bit.”

Tony shivered a little when Bucky draped the damp handkerchief over his forehead. He was still sucking obediently on his ice chip, and when Bucky checked beneath the sheets he hadn’t moved his feet from the compress. “That’s my good boy.”

Tony managed a smile around the ice.

He was so red, and so warm, and so small in his little nightshirt. He slipped his free hand into Bucky’s; other than refreshing the handkerchief and occasionally running it behind Tony’s neck and over his arms, Bucky didn’t move until Steve arrived with Doc Banner in tow.

Unable to wait patiently outside the door, Bucky took some clothes downstairs to the kitchen. Rhodey had not only finished his breakfast, but cleaned up the dishes and put the oatmeal back on the stove to keep warm for Steve and Bucky. He was sitting at the table with his schoolbooks and slate, chewing on his lower lip; he jumped up as soon as Bucky entered the room. “Is Tony gonna be okay?”

“Doctor Banner’s in with him right now,” Bucky said. “Come get dressed, now.”

Rhodey pulled on his pants and buttoned his shirt, then threw himself at Bucky for a hug. “I don’t like it when people are sick,” he whispered.”

“Yeah.” Bucky ran his fingers through Rhodey’s hair. “I don’t either, pal.”

“None of us do,” Steve said, coming down the stairs. “Doc said it’s definitely scarlet fever. Good news is you had that already, Rhodey, so you can stay here. I’m gonna go tell them men to enforce a quarantine—apparently it’s all over town, but we can keep strangers away, at least. Doc’s administering a treatment right now.”

Rhodey burrowed closer to Bucky. “People. People die from scarlet fever,” he whispered.

Steve knelt down and pulled Rhodey from Bucky’s arms into his own. “Hey,” he said. “Tony’s not your mom and dad. No, look at me. Tony is not your mom and dad. He’s young and healthy, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure he comes through this just fine. You hear me, James Rhodes?”

“Yes sir, I hear you.”

“Good. I need to go talk with Colonel Phillips; you stay here and help Bucky.”

Rhodey gulped, and nodded. He stepped away from Steve, until he was leaning back against Bucky’s legs. Bucky held him close, snaking his arms over Rhodey’s chest and down to hold his hands. Steve smiled at him, a short, brief moment of warmth, and headed back outside.

“As soon as the doc’s done,” Bucky said, “we’re gonna move your clothes over to my room.”

Rhodey twisted around to look at him, face screwed up in a frown. “But I had it already!”

“Tony’s going to need a lot of attention, at all hours of the day and night. You need to get sleep so you can stay strong and healthy and helpful, and you can’t do that sharing a bed in the sickroom. Now come help me make up some rennet whey with this morning’s fresh milk.”

Bucky spent most of that first day—and all night—sitting by Tony’s bedside, running a damp cloth over his limbs and face and coaxing him into sipping the whey or taking his medicine. Steve was a constant presence over his shoulder, helping him to hold Tony up and wash him down, and bringing him a sandwich so he didn’t have to leave the room. He kept Rhodey occupied, too, which Buck felt more than a twinge of guilt over. How had Steve’s ma done it, when it was just her, and Bucky constantly barging over into Steve’s sick bed to try to help? She could always have sent him packing back to his own parents, but she never did, unless it was something so bad he wasn’t allowed over in the first place. She just put an arm around his shoulder and showed him how best to care for Steve with each new illness that cropped up. And she never showed her own exhaustion, not once that he could remember, though she must have been nearly worn out between the nursing and her own worries.

The next afternoon, when Bucky had been awake for almost 36 hours and Steve for probably just as long, Sam Wilson rode out to lend a hand. “You’re no good to Tony if you collapse,” he said, “and it’s not like the saloon’s doing business while every kid in town is sick.”

He said a good deal more than that, too, about how they had to take care of both their boys and Steve was gonna run his whole family half to—run them down, and that he would absolutely come to get them if it looked like anything remotely was going to change with Tony at all. Bucky wanted to protest further, but Rhodey slipped his arms around Bucky’s waist and begged him to take care of himself too, and all he could see was Steve, kneeling down and promising they’d do their best not to let anyone die. “If anything changes,” he told Sam.

“Anything at all.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Okay then.”

Rhodey still had Bucky’s room, and the bed in there wasn’t big enough for both of them, not for an entire night’s rest. But Steve was exhausted, near as exhausted as Bucky, so odds were good he didn’t have the energy to take anything Bucky didn’t want to give. Swallowing, and reminding himself that Tony would need him well rested, he turned the doorknob.

Steve was in bed already. That was the first thing Bucky saw, Steve in his pajamas in that big bed he changed the sheets on once a week, which suddenly didn’t seem nearly as big as he’d remembered. Not nearly big enough for two people to lie in side by side and never touch—and yet huge, at the same time, as though there was no space in the room for anything else.

“There’s a screen,” Steve said.

Bucky startled, knocked from his thoughts. He nodded thanks and ducked behind the privacy screen. The last time he’d used one, he’d still been unmarried.

His nightshirt felt thin in the cool September air, not enough to protect him from either the weather or the man he’d be sleeping beside. But he was too tired to stay upright, and surely Steve would want to douse the oil lamp. And Tony needed him rested.

Steve was on the right side of the bed, nearest the screen. He watched Bucky walk around the end and slide under the covers on the left-hand side. “Good night, Bucky,” he said, before plunging the room into darkness.

“Good night.”

Steve was like a furnace under the covers, so that Bucky almost didn’t notice how cold he was, just wearing worn cotton. He also snored—not loudly, but just enough so that Bucky could relax; before he knew it, dawn was breaking and it was time to start breakfast and check on his boys.

* * *

It was a long week. Tony fought against his medicine, so that Steve had to hold his mouth open for Bucky. He cried through the entire process, struggling in Steve’s arms, and after he curled up under the covers in a ball of misery, repeating over and over that he wanted his parents. His fever continued to rise, too; Doctor Banner would only shake his head after his examinations, and his face grew graver and graver.

Steve was a rock. Every day, it seemed like, he leaned on Steve more and more. Steve kept Rhodey occupied, made him and Bucky eat, and was just a quiet presence in the room, terrified like Bucky but strong, sure, like Bucky could never be. Next to him, Bucky felt small, and scared, and exhausted. Bucky, who couldn’t remember when Tony carved a hole in his chest and climbed inside, was so tired every night when Sam shooed him off to bed the he not only stopped fearing Steve, but couldn’t imagine what he would do without Steve there. If Tony—if the worst should—nothing Steve could ask of him, could take from him, would matter after that. And Bucky stopped believing Steve would take it. Lying side by side, night after night, with a man—a husband—who would mourn Tony’s death as surely as Bucky, who brushed Tony’s hair off his fevered face and rocked Rhodey gently in his arms, cured Bucky of any last, lingering doubts. If only Tony would get better, he thought all four of them might even be a family.

“I love you, tateleh,” he whispered one afternoon, when Tony was turning restlessly and refusing his rice-milk. “Promise you’ll remember?”

Tony looked right through him, though, and only responded, “Mama?”

In the doorway, Rhodey choked back a sob.

“Hey.” Bucky half-turned and held his arms out, folded Rhodey close when Rhodey ran straight to him. “It’s alright. Rhodey, Yasha, look at me. We Jameses, we stick together. We don’t lie to each other, right?”

“He’s so sick,” Rhodey sobbed, clutching at Bucky’s shirt. “He’s dying.”

Bucky closed his eyes. “He’s alive right now. He’s alive. My mother used to tell me, she would say, ‘as long as there is life, there is hope,’ and Tony is still alive.”

Rhodey continued to weep, though; Bucky pulled him onto his lap and rocked him. He could still see his mother as she was before the final illness took her, her knobbly hands gripping his with the last of her strength. “If only your father were alive,” she’d murmured. “We would still be in America then. Where there’s life, there’s hope, yes? Yasha, my Yasha. You watch over your sister for me. Take her somewhere warm, solnyshko. Somewhere safe. In America. As long as there is life, Yasha.”

He whispered it to Rhodey, those same words. As long as there was life in Tony’s body, he had to hope that medicine, and Tony, would prevail.

Tony struggled all afternoon, tossing fitfully back and forth in the grip of feverish hallucinations. They haunted his bedroom, Steve, Bucky, and Rhodey, pressing nourishment on him when he was lucid and whispering unheeded pleas when he ceased knowing them again. Finally, long after dark, Sam bullied them all off to bed. “I swear,” he said, as always, “if anything changes you’ll be there.”

In their bedroom, Bucky reached across the expanse of mattress and clutched Steve’s hand; Steve twined his big, long fingers through Bucky’s and held on tight, even as they both fell into troubled sleep.

Sam woke them in the wee hours, knocking on the door when the very first slivers of sunlight were starting to stream over the horizon. Bucky bolted upright, heart pounding, and reached for his robe; Steve just leapt out of bed and let Sam in.

“Tony’s still sleeping,” Sam said, “but it’s healthy, now; his fever’s finally broke.”

When Bucky was ten, some of the men in their village had let him come along on a hunting trip. One of the hounds, running heedlessly after a fox, stepped on a steel trap that sprang shut around her foreleg. Someone made the same sound as the dog; Bucky didn’t even realize it was him until Steve was next to him on the bed, until Steve’s arms were around him holding him close, and he couldn’t stop crying to save his life.

“It’s alright,” Steve murmured, over and over. “He’s alright; Tony’s alright.”

Bucky just sobbed, and clutched him closer.

* * *

Sometimes Bucky shivered in the night, now that it was cold but not cold enough for woollen long johns. He’d put on weight since coming to the ranch, but even with three good meals a day, even after six months, he was still so thin his mother would’ve clucked her head and pinched his collarbone. He never meant to, exactly, but he was cold and Steve was warm, and sometimes in his sleep he’d roll into Steve’s heat, press his nose to that warm skin and tuck his feet against Steve’s ankles. Steve wrapped an arm around him, always, even when he grumbled about cold toes, and held him close.

In the morning, Bucky woke first, blushed, and tried to wriggle out from under Steve's arm without waking him up, so he could go get breakfast started and check on Tony. Steve always woke a little, squeezed Bucky's arm, and rumbled a "good morning" before falling back to sleep for another ten minutes or so. He never asked for more, not even a kiss, but he always, always squeezed.

Bucky wouldn’t admit yet, even to himself, that he liked it. That he counted on it, even. It was theirs, their little connection. Their little way of knowing that what had started when Tony grew sick was still there—tiny, fragile, but alive, and maybe even growing. Certainly it seemed like it took longer and longer before Bucky ripped himself away from Steve’s slumbering profile to run downstairs to the kitchen.

Tony was doing better, breathing easily and his skin was cool to the touch from the night Sam woke them forward. Doc Banner was supposed to come by later in the morning to let them know if Tony could be allowed out of bed yet; Bucky was torn between worry that Tony would wear himself out and being exhausted finding ways to keep him entertained in bed for hours on end. Rhodey stepped up to help, declaring that it was a big brother's job.

“Yash—what did you call us?”

“Yashas. Yasha means James, in Russian.”

“Yashas have to stick together,” Rhodey said, grinning up at Bucky like he hadn’t been a sobbing mess two weeks ago. But then, so had Bucky.

Tony, of course, just complained that playing in bed wasn’t the same no matter what, tired himself out with his grumbling, and ended up falling asleep at ten in the morning, thumb tucked firmly in his little mouth. It was easy to forget because Tony was so loud and demanding and everywhere, but he was really just a baby still.

Dr. Banner cleared Tony to come downstairs, to much whooping on behalf of the patient, although he stressed that Tony still needed to stay off his feet as much as possible. "You can sit outside," he told Tony, "as long as you are sitting."

Tony pouted at him, which didn't work, but Dr. Banner still gave him a sucker. He seemed to like the change of pace, anyway. Or at least, he liked that he could now bother Bucky even while he was doing laundry.

Tony was a little sad, though, when he didn't get to help whack the rugs to get dust off. Rugs and laundry were on Tuesdays, when Rhodey was off at school, the quarantine lifted once again, and it was Tony's special job to help. It was the one job he’d liked doing even when he didn’t like Bucky. He didn't have the strength to do more than one rug, even when fully healthy, but, he told Bucky mournfully, it was an awful lot of fun hitting them, and it was not fair he was stuck on the stupid porch, wrapped up in a stupid blanket with only some tin soldiers and a stupid book for company, not even a dog or a cat. Instead he set up his tin soldiers to guard his water, and fell asleep on the porch swing.

After Bucky finished hanging up the laundry to dry, he came to check on Tony and found them like that, Tony snoring gently as the breeze rocked him back and forth, his soldiers in formation on the floor, surround his glass. Bucky really should have gone inside and scrubbed the floors, taken the rugs out for cleaning, but he just sat, for a few minutes, running his fingers through Tony's hair and listening to him breathe. He was so fidgety in his sleep. He reminded Bucky of a dog he knew once, back in Brooklyn. His owner always said that the dog must be chasing rabbits in his dreams. Bucky pressed a kiss to Tony’s forehead, blinked back some unexpected tears. Tony had already lost so much, lost both his parents. He deserved a happy home, a clean, safe, warm home. The kind of home Steve brought Bucky out here to provide, and Bucky couldn’t even hold up his end of the bargain.

When Steve came in from the range that night, Rhodey was in front of his homework with Tony, there was fresh bread, and the curtains had been washed and the floor scrubbed. "Bucky said to tell you that dinner's almost ready, so you should wash up."

Baking was usually a Saturday job, but everything had gotten thrown off with Tony's illness. The house had gotten dingy over the last few of weeks, understandably so, but even Bucky never expected to get so much done in one day. There was stew on the stove, too, the enticing smell of meat and potatoes saturating the house. Steve hustled upstairs to the pitcher and basin in his bedroom. Bucky was up there, putting fresh sheets on all the beds. "You outdid yourself today, Buck. House looks great."

Bucky didn't stiffen when Steve comes up behind him, just ducked his head and smoothed the quilt. "The boys deserve a home."

Steve put his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "They sure do. So do you. Come down and eat with us."

Later, when the boys were in bed, Rhodey still in Bucky’s room for reasons Bucky didn’t want to examine too closely, he told Steve, "you deserve a home too," and leaned in to kiss him.

Steve pushed him away, gently but firmly. "Not like this," he said. "Not—you don't owe me anything."

Bucky bit the inside of his cheek. "I owe you a lot, but that's not . . . I know you wouldn't."

"Tony's alive," Steve said. "He's alive, and he's happy, and he and Rhodey, they laugh now, and whatever you think you owe me you more than pay back, every day."

Bucky nodded, and then retreated a little, to his side of the bed. "I'm glad the boys are happy."

"I'm happy, too." Steve turned on his side, reached out part way. "You make me happy, Buck."

Bucky was hesitant, but he slid his hand under Steve's. "I'm happy here too. Can't remember the last time I was happy."

"I'm glad," Steve said. "Not that you can't—I'm glad you're happy now." His hand was warm on Bucky's, and he squeezed, a soft pressure, like he did every morning. "I'm glad."

Bucky scooted a little closer and Steve made up the gap. "And I don't want you to get cold. Tony's not big enough to take care of you yet," he added.

"You could take care of me."

"Would you let me?" Bucky nodded, just a little, and Steve gave him that brilliant smile. "Then I'd wait on you hand and foot."

This time, when Bucky leaned in Steve didn't stop him, and Bucky kissed him, tentative and sweet, before burying his face in Steve's neck. "I would," Steve said. "I'd take such good care of you, Buck."

Finally, finally, Bucky curled into Steve's body, trembling, still nervous, but wanting to give Steve—everything—and hoping, trying so hard to have faith, that Steve would give everything back. He had no faith in himself, but all the faith in the world in Steve, who never once entered Bucky’s bedroom or touched him first or even shouted or asked for anything from Bucky but a home and a second parent to his sons. Of course Steve would be perfect in this as in all those other things, as well.

Steve rubbed a circle on Bucky's back with his thumb, and it hardly felt like there was a layer of cotton between them, the way the heat shot straight through Bucky. He was like a furnace; Bucky thought about having him to cling to all winter and had to hide a grin. And Steve, Steve would probably just keep lying there like that, patient and gentle, and let Bucky fall asleep and not ask for anything more, but suddenly, that wasn’t enough for Bucky. He couldn’t have said why, or what would be better, just that a lifetime of careful, friendly distance felt lonelier, now, than he had imagined it could be.

It was like that for a while, just curling up together to go to sleep. Sometimes Steve would sling an arm around him on the sofa now. It was terrible and wonderful and something in Bucky ached that he’d never realized could ache like that.

* * *

Every morning, Bucky brought Tony books, and his tin soldiers, and a plate of cookies, once he was allowed solid food again. It didn't help. Tony tried making big eyes, which didn't work, then pouted and even cried a little. The most Bucky could do was sit with him until he fell asleep again. There was so much work to do—Bucky fell incredibly behind in housework while Tony was sick—but he found himself just sitting, with Tony snoozing in his arms, drooling a little on his shoulder. He was so thankful that Tony was okay. He nuzzled the top of Tony's head and kissed his forehead, stayed like that for almost half an hour, until he really did have to move so he could start getting lunch ready.

Tony sighed as Bucky lowered him down on the couch and covered him with the blanket. He went back to the kitchen, and the morning's bread was cool enough to slice. There was cold chicken in the icebox, courtesy of Peggy and Gabe. (Bucky hadn't cooked much more than soup since Tony took ill). He made up some chicken salad and a side of coleslaw and bread with butter.

Steve came in and smiled at Bucky. "How's the little soldier?"

"Better. Still bored." Steve stepped close and held him, a brief, sweet embrace. The affection between them was still so new, so fragile, but this, the giving of comfort, Bucky leaned into gratefully.

Rhodey, who had grown clingy since Tony’s illness, wrapped his arms around Bucky's waist, not wanting to be left out. "I can help, I don't have to go fishing this afternoon, honest."

"Steve's been promising you a fishing trip for three weeks now."

"But the fish will still be there."

Steve ruffled his hair. "I brought a new book from town for Tony, so that should keep him quiet for a little."

Bucky frowned at the novel Steve handed over. “Isn’t that a little advanced?”

Steve grinned at him, that flash of white teeth that lit up the room like the sun did the heavens. “Hence the keeping him quiet.”

"I really don't mind," Rhodey said again, though he was clearly wavering.

"I know you don't," Bucky said, "which is precisely why you're going."

Rhodey frowned a little, and Bucky kissed the top of his head. "Go get washed up, both of you."

There was the little tinkle of a bell, and a plaintive, “Bucky?” which meant Tony was awake again. Bucky went to fetch him, helping him into his robe and slippers and then wrapping him in a blanket and carrying him into the kitchen. He still had to eat off separate food, designed to regenerate his energy, but at least this way he could be part of the conversation. Rhodey told him all about school, to keep him distracted. None of them mentioned the fishing trip, discretion being the better part of valor. Tony managed to eat all of his bread and enough chicken soup to satisfy Steve, although Bucky still missed his usual voracious appetite. After naptime, he decided, he'd try the cookies again, maybe warmed up a little in the oven so the smell permeated throughout the house.

Tony said goodbye to Steve and Rhodey, already distracted by his book. Bucky carried him back to the couch, then started on the dishes, followed by sweeping. The whole house felt dusty. He began in the kitchen, and before he knew it he was on his knees with a brush and pail of soapy water, scrubbing the living room floor. He didn't even realize that Tony was asleep again until he looked up and saw him flopped across his open book, drooling a little on the top of one page. He slipped the book out of Tony's hands, marking his page and leaving it closed but within reach on the coffee table, and kissed Tony's forehead before going back to cleaning. It was amazing how much he could get done when Rhodey and Steve were away and Tony napping.

Tony woke to the smell of cookies in the oven and sprag upright, the fastest he'd moved since he first got sick. "Bucky? Are there cookies??"

Bucky laughed and brought a warm plate into the living room, along with a glass of milk. "There certainly are."

Tony curled up in the corner of the couch, pulling his feet up so Bucky could sit down too. He took a cookie, then pushed the second across.

"Did you have a good nap, tateleh?"

"Uh-huh." Tony nibbled on his cookie. "What's a tateleh anyway?"

"It's Yiddish, which is a language some of the people in Russia—and Brooklyn—speak. It means, oh. How to say it in English? It means little father, literally, but really. Really it means beloved little boy."

"And I'm your tateleh?" Tony asked, bouncing up and grinning. Bucky pulled him in for a hug.

"Always," he said, settling Tony onto his lap. They finished the cookies and Tony drained every last drop of milk, a marked improvement over lunch as far as Bucky was concerned. Bucky asked him to summarize what had happened in the book so far, which spurred Tony to pick up his dime novel again. It was a little more disturbing than Bucky had realized, but Tony was fascinated. At least, he decided, playing detective wouldn't involve frogs turning up when he washed the sheets and pillowcases.

* * *

On Thursday, when Steve had to miss relocating cattle to the southern pasture so he could take Rhodey to school for the fourth day in a row, Bucky being tied to the house while Tony was recovering, Rhodey renewed his plea to go by himself.

“I’ll be careful, honest,” he said, “and you said yourself I’m real good on Happy.”

“Happy’s an old pony,” Steve said. “He’s not a riding horse. And you, young man, are only eight.”

“I’m almost nine.”

“The subject’s closed. Eat your breakfast .”

“You could let me go to school too,” Tony piped up, “and then Bucky could take both us in the buggy with Winter and I wouldn’t be running around, I’d be sitting at a desk all day resting real good, and—”

“The subject,” Steve repeated firmly, “is closed.”

Both boys deflated. Tony dragged his spoon through his oatmeal, disconsolate. “If I eat all my oatmeal,” he said, “every morning, will I grow up as big as Steve?”

“You’ll grow up healthy,” Bucky told him, “which is more important. Although Steve was pretty scrawny when he was your age, so anything’s possible.”

Tony and Rhodey whipped their heads around to look at Steve, who rolled his eyes. “You were two when I was Tony’s age. You don’t remember what I looked like.”

“Well it stands to reason,” Bucky said, an unholy light in his eyes. “You were scrawny when I was six, too. Eight years old, mind you, just like our Rhodey, and there I was at six, a good inch taller at least.”

“When did you get so skinny, then?” Tony demanded. “When did you get smaller ‘n Steve?”

The teasing joy Bucky had felt a moment ago fled as quickly as it had come. He looked at Tony, with his half-full bowl of oatmeal, and couldn’t help thinking of Becka, who’d always been so grateful to have a full breakfast, never knowing Bucky’d skimmed off his own bowl into hers and only pretended he’d started eating without her. Suddenly his stomach felt like lead, and he couldn’t take another bite. “After,” he said quietly, and took his bowl to the kitchen sink to forestall any further questions.

Steve followed him a few minutes later, when he didn’t return to the table. He didn’t disturb Bucky’s quiet, just rested a hand between his shoulder blades, an offering of warmth and comfort. Bucky leaned back, the only acceptance he could give in that moment, before picking up his rag again and scrubbing at the dishes.

Tony was quiet that morning. Bucky had made him a ragdoll, after the fever, since he could keep it in bed with him. They’d had to burn his favorite blanket, the one Maria had wrapped him in when Doc Banner first took him downstairs to meet Howard. Bucky wasn’t—a Stark—and nothing could replace that loss, but, he’d told Tony, the nice thing about loving people was that there was always more love in your heart to give away. Tony clutched the doll to himself and curled up in a blanket by Bucky’s feet while he churned the butter. Part of him wanted to pull Tony up off the floor, but it was sweet, and peaceful, and that was too rare to risk. Instead, he hummed a lullaby his mother used to sing, the same lullaby he’d sung through Tony’s illness to lure him into rest. Tony rocked his rag-baby and sang along.

“What’s a bayushki, Bucky? Is it Yiddish too?”

“No, tateleh. It’s Russian. The song means. It means, ‘sleep, my beautiful baby, bayushki bayu. Quietly the moon is looking into your cradle. I will tell you fairy tales, and sing you little songs, but you must slumber, with your little eyes closed, bayushki bayu.’”

“But what’s the bayushki part, you didn’t say!”

Bucky laughed. “It doesn’t really have a meaning, not in English. There are some things, Tony, that can’t quite mean the right thing in any language but their own.”

Tony put his doll down and craned his neck up at Bucky. “How many languages do you speak?” he asked, half curious and half accusing.

“English, of course, and Russian, and Yiddish. Those you knew, mister nosy. Some Polish, some Ukrainian. Not so well, not so I could read or write in them, but enough to get by. There were many languages in Siberia, so I suppose I picked them up. Lithuanian, Turkish—I wouldn’t say I speak those, so much as I know a few words, here and there.”

“What’s Siberia?”

Bucky thought of cold, ever-present cold, of hunger and fear and soldiers with large guns and Natasha and Becka, their laughter a visible puff of white in the air, wrapped up in old coats with patched elbows and fraying gloves, of Mosel, and what his father used to say, and the memory of America where he’d been safe and fed and fathered, and he told Tony, “Hush now, no more questions. Bayushki bayu.”

Tony scowled and said, “that ain’t the way the song goes!” but he also got distracted singing the “proper” lyrics to his doll.

It was a lazy day, or as lazy as a day could be when Bucky had a four-year-old boy to keep occupied. Steve had taken his lunch with him, hoping to make up for time lost going back and forth to town, so it was only Bucky and Tony. Once that would have filled him with dread, but now he enjoyed Tony’s soft prattling while he churned and molded the butter. Now that the days were cooler, he only churned once a week, but even so found plenty of time to help Tony practice his sewing, and to read with him when his hands grew tired. Even as young as he was, Tony was already an avid reader. The novel Steve had brought him was, in fact, somewhat above his head, but he’d doggedly pushed his way through it with a dictionary and the occasional question to whatever grown-up happened to be nearest at hand. To keep his mind occupied, Bucky started to teach him Russian; Tony, who grinned brilliantly every time Bucky called him tateleh, demanded to learn Yiddish as well.

“Oh, I see. You want to be the best educated fellow to ever start his first year of school,” Bucky joked; Tony just nodded so hard it looked like his head might fall off.

Later, when Steve dropped Rhodey off before heading back out, Bucky was—not surprised, exactly, but—pleased, and a little afraid, to realize he had missed the both of them. After dinner, while he mended the ever-present pile of ripped clothes that accumulated in a house with one rancher and two growing boys, Bucky watched Steve help Rhodey with his math by taking him through the books for The Star And Shield. Tony’s soldiers were engaged in an all out battle in and around Steve’s feet; he obligingly kept his legs still so the terrain wouldn’t change, patient both with Tony’s play and Rhodey’s academic frustrations.

A stab of longing shot through Bucky, startling him into dropping his thread. He wanted that—that family, yes, but also, that quiet, unfailing patience. That arm, curled around his waist; that warm strength, keeping him safe, protected, cherished. He remembered the press of Steve’s hand to his back, that morning, his silent support. That was. That was his, even if he never—but he would. Bucky knew that, now. He felt like a veil had been torn away, a barrier that had separated him from the world, suddenly melted. Across the room, Steve bent his head and kissed Rhodey’s curls; Bucky, in his rocking chair, rethreaded his needle and continued to sew as though his entire world had not changed mere seconds before.

* * *

Tony confided to Bucky that night when he was being tucked into bed, "I'm glad Rhodey has his own room now."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah," Tony said, "I think I was keeping him up sometimes. I fidget a lot." He quieted. "And sometimes I have nightmares."

"About what?"

Tony shrugged. "Getting lost. Mommy and Daddy. And. And you and Steve dying, too."

Bucky scooped him up and hugged him tight. "I have nightmares too," he whispered.

"You do?"

"I do," Buck said, rubbing Tony's back the way Steve rubbed his, lately, when he'd been startled awake. "Mostly, these days, about losing all of you."

Tony stretched up so he could wrap his arms around Bucky, and squeezed as tightly as his little arms could manage. "You can always come wake us up if you need us," Bucky said.

"Mommy and Daddy didn't like that. They said bed means bed until it's time to wake up for the morning."

"Well, maybe they never had nightmares and they didn't know what it was like. I know what it's like. It can be scary."

"'Kay." Tony lay back down, and pulled the covers up to his nose. "Bucky?"

"Yes?"

"You're not gonna go away again, right? Back to the east, or—or away?"

"No," he said, squeezing Tony's hand. "God, no. Wild horses couldn't drag me from you guys."

"Okay," Tony says. "Okay, good."

Bucky leaned down and kissed Tony's forehead, which he had never done before Tony got sick, but found thereafter was a comforting way to check his temperature. He remembered his mom doing that when he was little, and how safe he felt when she smiled at him, after. "Good night, tateleh."

Tony was barely awake enough to murmur good night back. Bucky shut the door gently behind him, and went about getting Rhodey settled, but all the while his mind was whirling. It was true, what he told Tony. Wild horses couldn't drag him away from any of them. Not Tony, not Rhodey. Not Steve. And he knew now, deep in the core of his being, that he didn’t want them to.

He had to tell Rhodey to put his book away and turn the light out, then went into the bedroom that was his now, his and Steve’s. Steve was in bed already with his sketchbook, pencil scratching away in the soft light of the oil lamp.

Bucky's hands shook, just a little, as he took off his clothes and reached for the nightshirt he always hung up behind his privacy screen. It wasn’t cold enough yet to sleep in longjohns, so when he decided not to button the shirt all the way, there was a triangle of golden-brown skin and just a hint of chest hair exposed.

When he made his way over to the bed, Steve smiled at him. The covers were already turned down, and the thing that made Bucky want more was the fact that he didn't have to do any of this. He knew that Steve would sleep in that bed with him for the next decade and never say a word. Steve put the sketchbook aside, reached to turn down the oil lamp, but Bucky stopped him with a hand on his wrist.

"I—leave the light on?" he said, and then he sat down on Steve's side of the bed instead of walking around.

Steve rested his hands on Bucky's hips. "What's up?"

Bucky leaned forward, before he could lose his confidence, and pressed his lips to Steve's. Steve gasped a little, then moaned. Bucky couldn't help his smile at that, nor did he want to. It gave him the courage to push forward. Then Steve tilted his head a little, slid a hand up to cup Bucky's cheek, and he was warm, so warm, and he was so gentle, when he could break Bucky if he wanted, but he never would. He never would, and that was why Bucky tugged at the buttons on Steve's pajamas, slipped a hand onto his chest. Steve pulled back and Bucky just whimpered, "Please."

Steve shushed him. "No, I won't stop. Just, come get into bed with me. Let's do this right."

Bucky closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then walked around the bed and climbed in on his side. He felt exposed, for a moment, even in the soft light of the oil lamp, but Steve just smiled at him. Bucky pulled up the sheet; Steve reached out, and drew him in close. Steve felt so much bigger when they were pressed together like this. Bucky felt small, and safe.

This time Steve kissed him first, and Bucky opened for it easily, drawing Steve into his mouth like water. Steve's hands stroked his face, his side, and it was all Bucky could do to clutch at Steve and keep from drowning. Steve turned them a little, so Bucky was on his back and Steve was up over him. Bucky kissed him for long minutes, wondering if they could just kiss forever. He suddenly couldn't remember if he'd ever kissed anyone before. Then Steve shifted a little, and the long, hard length of his cock brushed against Bucky's. The two layers of fabric between them—Bucky's night shirt and Steve's pajama bottoms—were at the same time not enough, the heat burning straight through him, and way too much. He didn't even realize he'd got a hand on Steve's pants until Steve shushed him again.

His hand stilled, his eyes darting up to Steve's to make sure he didn't cross a line. Steve smiled and touched Bucky's hand. "You sure?"

"Yeah. Yes." Bucky swallowed, his voice hoarse and low. "I'm sure."

Steve slid his own pants off and kicked them away. Bucky held his breath and slipped his hand down, Steve's cock running against his palm. It was warm, like all of Steve, and a little bigger than his own. It was gonna hurt some, probably, the first time—but Steve made no move to spread Bucky's legs, or turn him on his hands and knees, just leaned into Bucky's hand, his breath turning ragged. "Buck," he said, and when Bucky looked up, Steve pressed their mouths together, kissed him deeply, and whimpered. It felt like Steve was begging him and the power made Bucky feel ten feet tall.

He ran his hand up and down Steve’s dick, rubbed the tip with his thumb. He didn't know what he was doing (except what he’d done on himself, sometimes), but Steve just arched into it, so it must’ve be right. Steve shuddered and Bucky wondered if he'd ever done this before. He looked so innocent sometimes, but Bucky couldn't figure out why he was even here, why Steve hadn't been beating off suitors with a stick. He closed his hand a little tighter and Steve jerked up into his grasp.

Steve dropped his head to Bucky's shoulder, sucked a little on his neck in soft, biting kisses. His breathing was loud in Bucky's ear and he almost thought he could come just from watching Steve come. He felt like he could watch Steve do this for days. "Do you want me to do something else?" he asked.

"Can I—" Steve wrinkled his fingers in Bucky's nightshirt, pulled it up a little, and he hadn't even realized he was still wearing it. He lifted his hips up, helped Steve peel it off and this time, when Steve lay back down on top of him, he could feel everything.

Steve rocked them together as he leaned up for a kiss and Bucky gasped into Steve's mouth, fists clenched at his sides. There was too much sensation and he couldn't think. Pleasure pooled in his gut, and Steve was warm and shaking against him and his tongue licked into Bucky's mouth, long slow strokes that dragged a moan from him. His huge hand slid between them, wrapped around both of them, and Bucky made an almost inhuman whimpering noise. Steve just smiled and pressed kisses to his chin.

"I got you," Steve whispered, running his hand back and forth, and it was the words more than anything that pulled Bucky over the edge.

He dug his fingers into Steve's biceps and his toes curled as he arched up from the bed, getting as much sensation as he could. "So fucking gorgeous," Steve murmured, and Bucky shook and shuddered against him as he came.

Steve stroked him through it, stroked both of them, until it started to verge on painful and Bucky pulled back. "Can I?" he asked, but didn't finish the question, just replaced Steve's hand with his own. He wanted to feel this, feel Steve, make him fall apart the way Bucky just had.

He expected Steve to roll over, but Steve just braced himself instead, on all fours over Bucky, and he panted, twitched. There was a drop of sweat sliding down his throat; Bucky arched up to lick it away.

Steve groaned his name, thrust down into Bucky's hand like he couldn't help himself. Bucky latched onto his throat, ran his tongue over Steve's pulse, felt him there and alive and coming apart. And then Steve cried out his name and Bucky pulled back so he could just watch.

Steve shook over him, arms trembling as he came, his blue eyes latched onto Bucky's face.

Bucky wanted everything in that moment. He wanted to watch and to kiss and to touch and to soothe and to make all kinds of promises. Instead, he just kept quiet, stroking until Steve crushed him down for another kiss.

They lay together like that for a few minutes, kissing lazily, before Steve rolled to the side. He only went to the pitcher and basin, to fetch a damp cloth, but Bucky felt cold, without Steve there. After they were clean, buttoned back up, he shamelessly curled back into Steve's warmth.

"I'm so glad you're here," Steve whispered against Bucky's temple. "Life was so much worse without you." Bucky shook his head, but Steve stubbornly insisted, "it wasn't a home till you got here, Buck. Not for the boys, and not for me. Don't think I could have a home without you." He turned out the oil lamp, wrapped an arm around Bucky's waist to keep him close.

Bucky lay awake for a long time, feeling Steve breathe against his back and thinking about what he’d said. He hadn’t had a real home since he was six, but he thought this must be what it felt like.

* * *

In the morning, Bucky made the boys pancakes even though it was a Friday, and when Tony pouted because the last of the cookies went into Rhodey's lunch pail for school, he just laughed and told Tony they'd make doughnuts in the afternoon.

"Fridays aren't for baking," Tony objected, then clapped his hands over his mouth when he realized what he’d said.

"Hmm, you're right. I guess we won't make doughnuts then."

Tony frowned, his eyes so huge and pleading that Bucky started laughing.

"Or," Bucky said, "we can make a Special Friday Exception. What do you think, bud?"

Tony nodded, and smiled so wide that Bucky laughed again. "But first, the mending." Bucky was intent on teaching Tony how to mend his clothes and Tony protested every time.

"Awww, do I gotta?"

"You don't have to," Bucky said, pulling out his sewing basket. "But you know what happens to boys who don't do their chores."

"They don't get treats," Tony mumbled.

Tony fixed a rip in one of Steve's work shirts. It was his first work for Steve and he looked so proud after, showing it off when Steve came back for lunch.

Steve ruffled his hair. "That's great, Tony. Think how much money we can save, not having to buy new shirts all the time now."

Tony blushed and looks down at his sandwich—which meant he missed the kiss Steve put on Bucky's cheek.

Bucky tilted his face up, giving Steve a blinding smile. "Hi," he said.

"Hey. Good morning?"

"Yup. And a nice afternoon planned. Doughnuts should be cool when you get back."

"Doughnuts on a Friday, that's a nice surprise."

"It's a special exception," Tony explained.

"What can I say?" Bucky said with a soft smile. "I'm in a good mood." Steve leaned over and kissed him again, a lingering press of lips.

Tony's eyes widened, and he dropped his sandwich on his plate.

Bucky blushed and Steve just grinned. "Finish your lunch, Tony."

"PLEASE let me tell Rhodey!"

"You heard Steve," Bucky said by way of answering. "Finish your lunch."

When Rhodey came home from school, Tony was sitting by the gate, waiting. "Is something wrong?"

"STEVE KISSED BUCKY!" he shouted.

Bucky heard him from all the way inside the house, and choked back a laugh. When he and Steve were little kids, back in Brooklyn, and the grown-ups were talking about something they shouldn't hear, someone would always comment, "little pitchers have big ears." He never realized quite how true that was until now, when he had two little pitchers of his own to contend with.

He saw Rhodey's questioning gaze when they came inside. “How was school?" he asked, handing over the doughnut jar. "Did your spelling bee go alright?"

"Carol beat me, but she's really smart." Rhodey took a doughnut and broke it in half. "I messed up on 'congressmen.'"

"That's a tricky one. Two esses. No, Tony, you don't need half your brother's doughnut, you already had two, and cleaned the bowl of extra batter." Bucky didn't even realize he'd called them brothers until both boys stilled.

Rhodey just shrugged and got back to the serious business of eating his doughnut. Bucky didn't say anything; he hoped that the boys already thought of each other like that. Tony, though, Tony looked from Bucky to Rhodey and back, the same expression on his face as when he was working his way through mathematics problems in Rhodey's old first form books.

After his doughnut, Rhodey asked if he could go outside and play, since he’d finished all his chores in the morning; Bucky told him to take Tony along so he could clean the kitchen. As soon as they were out the door, Tony tugged on Rhodey's hand. "Are we?" Bucky heard him ask.

"Live in the same house. Got the same parents. So, yup. Looks like it." Rhodey held Tony's hand and walked him down to the tree where the rope swing was, out of easy hearing range from the kitchen door, though Bucky could still see them through the window when he paused to check on them. They took turns on the rope, and then played what was probably Robin Hood, given Rhodey’s reading preferences, only Tony started arguing, Bucky later learned, about having to be Little John all the time, and Rhodey pointed out there couldn't be two Robin Hoods. They were definitely real brothers by the end, the way they scrapped at each other. Even angry, Rhodey managed not to hurt Tony, but they rolled in the dirt and grass and Rhodey pinned Tony face down until Bucky called them from the kitchen door.

They trooped back inside after that, all covered in dirt. Bucky took one look at the two of them and made them wash up outside before dinner. Tony found a rip in his shirt and scowled. “Gosh darn it, Rhodey, that’s a whole other day's mending I’m gonna have to do!”

“Just you let Steve or Bucky catch you saying darn it, and you’ll have a whole heap more than mending to worry about,” Rhodey said. (Bucky, listening through the open door, couldn’t help grinning at that.)

Tony grumbled even louder, but after dinner he helped Rhodey with his homework and played checkers with Steve, so he was pretty happy by bedtime.

Bucky tucked him in, kissed his forehead, and was just reaching for the lamp when Tony said, "If me 'n' Rhodey are brothers . . ."

"Yes?" Bucky asked, sitting back down.

"Are you 'n' Steve our—" he scrunched his face up, trying to remember the word from after his parents died, "—our guardians? or our dads?"

Bucky's throat closed up for a second. "Well, I think that's up to you. But I know that Steve and I would both be happy to be your dads."

"Daddies die," Tony said, twisting his hands in his blanket. "Sometimes."

"Yeah, sometimes," Bucky said. "But not always. Me and Steve, we're gonna be here for you for as long as we can, no matter what you call us."

"Even when I'm old?"

"Even when you move off and get married and have kids of your own."

"Marriage is gross," Tony said, and snuggled down into his mattress.

"You think that now," Bucky said, pulling the blanket up over his shoulders.

"You thought that too, Daddy! You 'n'—’n’ Papa—you didn't kiss forever."

"That was different." Bucky gave Tony another kiss on the forehead, because his heart was too full not to. "Now no more questions, my tateleh. It's past time you were sleeping. Bayushki bayu."

Tony stuck his tongue out, but he also ducked down and made a little bump under the covers. Bucky shut the door quietly and went to check in on Rhodey, who was already sacked out. He brushed a gentle hand through Rhodey's hair anyway, and gave him a kiss while he could get away with it.

When he entered the big bedroom, Steve was in the bed, clearly just waiting for him. "Ready for bed?"

"Yeah, yeah I am."

Bucky didn't bother with the changing screen this time, although he kept his back to Steve as he stripped out of his day clothes.

He came back to bed and Steve rubbed a hand across his shoulders. "God, you're breathtaking," Steve said.

Bucky laughed. "Have you looked in a mirror lately?"

"Eh," Steve said. "I look like any regular guy."

Bucky lifted an eyebrow. What the hell guys did Steve know? "Regular guys don't make me feel like this." Bucky leaned over, and kissed Steve like he'd wanted to all day—wet, sloppy, a little desperate.

Steve pulled him on top this time and Bucky gasped when he realized that Steve was already naked.

"Awfully—" he had to swallow back a moan, "awfully sure of yourself there."

"Or optimistic?" Steve said. "You know me. I've always been optimistic." He nuzzled under Bucky's jaw. "Thought about you all goddamned day."

"Yeah?" Bucky tilted his head back, so Steve could kiss his neck, under his chin. "What were you thinking of doing?"

Steve ran a finger down Bucky's spine, then cupped his rear. "Thinking of all the parts of you I've been dying to lick."

"Fuck, Steve." Bucky arched back into his hand before he could help himself.

"Been watching you forever," Steve said, his voice low. "Just hoped you'd look at me twice someday."

"No one else I could ever look at," Bucky whispered, the blush on his cheeks visible even in the flickering light of the oil lamp.

Steve pulled him down for another kiss, this one rougher, and Bucky suddenly wished for Steve to let go for real and pin him to something.

He went pliant in Steve's arms, still participating in the kiss, still clearly enjoying it, if his cock pressed hard between their stomachs was any indication, but the rest of him, just loose. Letting Steve take his full weight. Steve didn’t even grunt, just tightened his grip so that Bucky was clutched close, skin to skin and he could probably have wriggled out if he’d wanted to—Steve would have let go, he knew—but there was nowhere else he wanted to be than the circle of Steve’s arms.

And then Steve murmured, “I uh. I got some oil,” and rolled them both right over so he could tug open his bedside table drawer.

“What’s that for?”

“For. For making it feel—you know,” Steve said. “So you feel good.”

When Bucky blinked up at him, Steve swore softly, then dove in and kissed him again. “Up,” he said, and tapped Bucky’s hip. “On your hands and knees, it’s easier.”

Bucky scrambled over. Part of him felt open, exposed, but Steve rested a hand on his back, warm and gentle, and he knew he was safe. Cherished.

The first slick finger startled him into stillness—Steve was so careful, even here, just nudging around the edges, and the oil made him slippery, so he could’a pushed right in. He didn’t, though, taking his time instead, rubbing at Bucky’s hole and pressing on his back and pausing, every so often, to kiss his thigh or hip and murmur endearments.

He’d never felt like this.

He was full and empty, all the same time, needing more, and Steve brushed past something that sent sparks shooting through him, set him moaning and gripping the bedsheets. “There we go,” Steve said, and again and again he painted pleasure throughout Bucky’s body ‘til he thought he’d shake apart just from that, and never anything in him but those long, strong fingers.

But Steve backed away, just when Bucky was teetering on the edge, went back to slow strokes and wheedled a third finger in—when had he moved to two?—and then, at last, pulling them all out and kneeling up behind Bucky.

“You tell me if this hurts.”

“It won’t do anything if you don’t mo—oh!” Bucky couldn’t help groaning when Steve pushed inside him, that thick, big cock filling all the stretched out space Steve had made room for.

Steve must’ve felt it too, because once he was all the way in he paused, pressed a kiss between Bucky’s shoulder blades. “Next time,” he murmured, “if—if you’re—god, Buck—we’ll try face-to-face. I bet you look gorgeous right now. You feel gorgeous.” He pulled back, until Bucky was almost completely empty again, and inched his way forward, slowly firing every nerve in Bucky’s body, one by one.

Steve!” Steve tightened his fingers on Bucky’s hips, a slight flare of pain to ground Bucky. He continued slowly, gently, excruciatingly fucking Bucky. “Please,” Bucky whimpered, “I—please, more, please—”

Finally, finally Steve sped up, every sharp thrust hit that sweet spot that made fireworks explode behind Bucky’s eyelids. He lifted his right hand off Bucky’s hip, slipped it around to grip Bucky’s cock. Every time Steve pushed forward with his own cock, big and full and heavy, he rocked Bucky’s into his fist; every time he pulled back he dragged his hand down as well.

Bucky cried out, trying to keep his voice low but unable to hold back entirely. “Steve!”

“I know,” Steve said. “I know, Buck. I’m here, I got you. Come apart for me, I got you.”

Bucky choked back a sob. It was so good, so somuch, and he’d never—he’d never known—he came, suddenly and overwhelmingly, and it wasn’t until after, when the bright white faded into the soft glow of the oil lamp and he was on his back, Steve washing him gently clean, that he even realized Steve had finished too.

“C’mere,” he said, and Steve did, tossed the flannel aside and crawled up the bed to take Bucky in his arms and keep him there, right where he wanted most to be.

They fell asleep like that; when Bucky woke in the morning he was warm inside and out and he stole an extra five minutes just to lie there, head tucked under Steve’s chin, listening to his heartbeat and gentle rise and fall of his chest. For once Steve didn’t wake when Bucky pulled away, so he pressed his good morning kiss to Steve’s breastbone, right where his head had lain, and went to rekindle the stove for breakfast.

* * *

Rhodey’s ninth birthday fell on a Tuesday, so they celebrated the weekend before. He didn’t want to invite all of the boys from school—”some of them are real big boys,” Rhodey confided—but the Parkers’ nephew, Peter, came, and the male Maximoff twin, and a handful of others. They played several games, and although Tony had to be coaxed to join in when one of the older kids scoffed at such a little fellow being any good at baseball, Rhodey told him he could just go home if that’s how he felt about Rhodey’s brother. After that, Tony went from clinging to Bucky’s leg to following Rhodey everywhere, the same usual little shadow he was when there was no one else around except his fathers.

“That was awful good cake,” he told Bucky when he got hauled off to bed for his afternoon nap. “Why didn’t we have cake like that at my birthday?”

“You didn’t want it,” Bucky said. “Shoes off before you get on top of your quilt, Tony.”

“Oh yeah!” Tony scootched to the end of the bed and applied himself to his laces. “And we couldn’t play baseball,” he said, “at my party. ‘Cause I don’t got anyone to invite. When ‘m I going to school, Daddy, please? It’s awful lonely when Rhodey’s gone and there’s no one to play with.”

Bucky kissed his forehead. “Thank you very much, I’m sure.”

You don’t count,” Tony explained. “You gotta play ‘cause you’re my Daddy. And anyway, you gotta work most all the time even when everything’s all clean already. Even when I’ve finished my chores, you gotta churn and churn the butter, and—” Tony paused to yawn, “—’scuse me, and there’s always washing and ironing and mending and cooking and—”

“It wouldn’t be much of a home otherwise,” Bucky said softly.

Tony peered up at him. “I know, Daddy,” he said. “But a fella gets lonely sometimes, is all.”

It took another ten minutes, and two renditions of Bayushki Bayu, before Tony drifted off to sleep. Part of Bucky wanted to stay there, running his fingers through Tony’s hair and listening to his soft snores, but there was a party outside and he couldn’t abandon Steve to the tender mercies of all those boys.

Still.

“Maybe,” Bucky said later that night, when he’d come downstairs after tucking both boys in for the night and settled back at the mending he could with his eyes half-shut, “we should reconsider getting a dog.”

Steve, who had been hunched over the books for the ranch, stretched his neck from side to side before responding. “How did Tony get you?”

Bucky laughed, then sighed. “You saw all those boys, running around with Rhodey. He had a good birthday, I hope. He said he did.”

“It was a nice party,” Steve agreed.

“For Rhodey. Which,” Bucky said, “is as it should be; it was his day. But Tony—”

“Tony had plenty of fun too.”

Bucky put down the pair of Rhodey’s pants he was letting out. “Sure. Today. When his brother was home and there were playmates and you and I were free to do things other than work. Monday, when you’re off checking the herd, and Rhodey’s in school, and I spend all day washing the clothes and linens?”

Steve rubbed a hand over his jaw. “Maybe,” he allowed, “I could arrange for one when I’m down in ‘Frisco for the cattle drive.”

“Maybe for Christmas? If the timing’s right.” Bucky smiled at Steve, sweet and almost a little shy, still, for all their closeness. “Be a nice present,” he said, and picked up Rhodey’s pants again.

“America’s colt’s near about ready for training,” Steve said. “Maybe it’d . . . even the score a little, if they both got something big.”

“Is Rhodey ready for that? A real horse, a green one?”

“He’s a good, careful rider. I’ll work with both of ‘em and make sure he’s ready, before I let him pass Happy along to Tony. Boy’s gotta get a horse sometime, Buck.”

Bucky nodded. He knew that, he did. Here he was, extending the hem on Rhodey’s pants for the third time since he’d come to the Star And Shield; the boy grew like a weed, really. Only—he worried, was all. Rhodey might not call him dad like Tony did, but a name had no bearing on the love between them. “Once he’s got a horse,” Bucky said, “he’s gonna ask again, about school. About going by himself.”

“Thought of that, too. I figured, the Maximoff twins and that Parker boy, they ride past here every day on the way to school. He wouldn’t be by himself, not really.”

Bucky huffed a laugh. “I see how it is. So how did Rhodey get to you?”

“Oh, well.” Steve grinned, and rubbed the back of his neck. “They’re good points, when he’s not contradicting me over breakfast. Anyway, there’s only one person in this house I want to get to me, and I wish he’d get to me right now.”

“Oh yeah?” Bucky said. He put down his mending for the night.

Steve picked up the oil lamp. “Yeah,” he said, and if his voice was a little husky, Bucky didn’t mention it. He was too busy putting his lips to other uses.

* * *

Later that month, just a few days before Steve and the men were ready to set out on the cattle drive, Natasha rode out to the ranch one afternoon and confirmed the rumors that had begun swirling through the area—the Hydra Gang was back to robbing banks, and the latest news had them not far from Paradise. Tony, who was still grumpy he wasn’t going in the chuck wagon (“Steve promised! Rhodey was gonna stay with the Sheriff in town, and I was gonna go with Miss Peggy in the chuck wagon and be a big help!” “That was before Bucky came,” “Well Daddy c’n come in the chuck wagon too! I don’t mind!”), couldn’t be bothered to care, but Steve was just about ready to put Phillips and Dugan in charge of the drive and stay behind with his shotgun and bullwhip.

“Because your bullwhip’ll keep Hydra from robbing banks when Sheriff Coulson, Deputy Barton and Deputy Romanoff can’t,” Bucky snorted.

Steve had the grace to flush, just a little. Coulson was legendary in the area for once having blinded two rustlers by throwing flour in their faces, at which point he hogtied both of them before they could finish cursing.

To be fair, they’d cursed an awful lot.

Deputy Barton had once been known throughout Iowa as the Hawk-eyed Kid; he could still outdraw just about anyone and his aim with a rifle was legendary.

As for Natasha—Bucky hadn’t exactly started the rumors that she’d been trained by the Populists in the use of guns, knives, and poisons as part of a plot to kill the tsar, which had been leaked before it could come to fruition and sent her off to Siberia, but he also hadn’t pointed out to anyone that Natasha had been seven the first time they met, either.

They were far more likely to keep everyone in Paradise safe than Steve Rogers, ex-army captain with a rifle he hadn’t even used for hunting in at least six months and a pair of six-shooters in desperate need of polish, was Bucky’s point.

“We’re not in Paradise, though,” Steve said. “Not right in the town.”

“And we won’t be next year, either. Or the year after that, or—you gotta go on the cattle drive sometime. You’ve gotta run the ranch. I can’t. I can. I can keep the house clean, and all of us fed, but I don’t know the first thing about—and the Colonel is a good man, Steve, I know that, but he isn’t you. You started the Star And Shield, and I figure now the Starks and Rhodeses are gone, it’s more important to you than anyone, more important to get it right. This is your ranch, yours and Tony’s and Rhodey’s.”

Steve kissed him then, a brief clash of tongues and scrape of stubble. “It’s yours, too, Buck.”

“So go keep it running,” Bucky retorted. “Make sure that roof stays over my head. You stop every time there’s an outlaw around, we’ll lose our shirts in six months flat.”

In the end, Steve conceded that he really was needed on the cattle drive. (Peggy pointing out that Bucky was an adult and that Steve insisting on staying behind indicated a lack of trust might have helped; the look on Tony’s face when Bucky had to tell him, yet again, that he couldn’t have a dog also went a far way, though Steve never admitted to it.) “I’m leaving you the rifle,” was all he said. “You know how to use it?”

Bucky shrugged. “Point and shoot seems to do alright.”

“Buck—”

“I can use a gun, Steve. We’ll be fine.”

Steve and the men set off on a misty Saturday, when the clouds were spitting and the cattle shifted nervously. “Be careful,” he said, leaning down from America’s back to steal one last kiss.

“You be careful,” Bucky retorted, unable to say all the other things he wanted to. “Don’t do anything stupid, you hear?”

“Leaving all the stupid with you,” Steve said, upon which Tony got very indignant; by the time Bucky had convinced him that no one thought he (or Rhodey) was stupid, the men had moved out.

Tony kicked at a rock. “Aw shucks,” he said. “I didn’t even get to see inside the chuck wagon or nothin’.”

Bucky ruffled his hair. “We got our own chuck inside, and there’s so much of it I could sure use some helping hands with all that cookie dough.”

Usually cookies were guaranteed to cheer Tony up, but he just shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed. “Baking on Saturday, like always and always. Why don’t nothing exciting ever happen ‘round here?”

“Last night there were three whole frogs hopping around your room when I put you to bed,” Bucky said, steering him back to the house.

Rhodey, who had perked up considerably at the mention of baked goods and was waiting impatiently by the mud room, nodded so hard Bucky almost worried his head would fall off. “I sure am glad I got my own room.”

“Frogs ain’t exciting,” Tony insisted, “they’re just frogs. I want something new.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for something coconut,” Bucky said.

Tony sighed again, but he also spent a happy twenty minutes shaping macaroons and surreptitiously licking bits of batter off his fingers, so Bucky didn’t worry.

* * *

The boys and Bucky quickly settled into a new routine. Bucky didn’t have time to make breakfast and do all the morning chores in the barn, so after he started the stove going he woke Rhodey and Tony and helped them dress. Rhodey took care of Winter, Happy, and the milk cows, while Tony fed the chickens and collected their eggs.

Other than the fact that Bucky needed woollen underwear to even approximate how warm his bed had been before, the house ran nearly as smoothly as when Steve was there. A couple of times Bucky found himself setting too many places at the table, or making extra sandwiches for lunch in case Steve wanted them for his saddlebags, but he just turned the fourth plate into a centerpiece or overloaded Rhodey’s lunchpail and told him to share with friends. And if he felt more tired by the end of the day, and also more reluctant to climb into that big bed by himself, under covers that needed a warming pan to ward off the chill, well, the boys certainly didn’t complain, and there was no one else to notice.

It was fine.

And then, one bright morning when the air was crisp and so was the bacon, and Bucky was just about to poke his head out the door to chastise his two truants, Rhodey and Tony walked inside with a rifle at their backs, held by a man in black with two bandoliers crossing over his chest.

Tony immediately ran to Bucky and threw his arms around him; Bucky swung Tony up into his arms and gave Rhodey, who hadn’t moved from the doorway, an encouraging smile. “Folks are pretty hospitable around these parts,” he said. “No need for pulling guns out just to get some breakfast.”

The stranger grinned at him; something in that sharp, white smile made his blood run cold. “Now, who said all I wanted was some breakfast?”

“Doesn’t just have to be that. We’ve got bandages, liquor. Whatever—whatever you want. The safe’s empty right now, but I have some egg money left—”

“Let’s just start with breakfast. Pretty little thing like you, I bet you got snapped up real young. They probably trained you up good, so put that boy down and rustle me up some coffee, huh? Some eggs and bacon, too. And then we’ll just see where we are. You—” the stranger shoved Rhodey none too gently in the back with the tip of his rifle. “Go sit where I can see you. No, wait. Go fetch some rope to tie your kid brother up with. And be quick about it, or I’ll just have to shoot him.”

“Go on,” Bucky said. “There’s some in the mud room.” He put Tony in a chair, as far from the stranger as could get away with. “Be good now,” he murmured when Tony clung to his arm.

“That’s right, boy. Be good. I bet your daddy could show you how. I bet he can be real good, can’t you?”

Bucky ignored him, busied himself cracking eggs; the stranger slapped the table so hard the dishes rattled. “You speak when you’re spoken too. Or do I have to show you what happens when folks forget their manners around me?”

“No, sir,” Bucky said.

“‘No, sir’ is goddamn right. You aren’t better ‘n me, just ‘cause you got this big ranch. Young little thing like you—you must’ve been real young to have a boy like your oldest. Must’ve been married twice, to have that one there. Or was it just the second one that took you to the altar? Ring or not, we both know why anyone would marry you, don’t we? I may make a living robbing banks, but at least I don’t make it on my back. So you just keep sir-ing, ‘cause there’s some things even I won’t stoop too, and you’d better not forget it.”

Rhodey came back in then, and the stranger made him tie up Tony, good and tight, then made Bucky tie Rhodey up. After that he seemed to decide—rightly—that Bucky wouldn’t cause much trouble; he just sipped his coffee and waited silently for his food to be done. When Bucky finally brought him a plate, heaped with eggs, bacon, and fresh biscuits, the man pulled him close, into the vee of his legs. His grip was firm across Bucky’s left wrist, a searing heat, and he ran the thumb of his left hand across Bucky’s side, just up under his shirt.

“That sure smells good,” he said. “Knew you’d be trained up proper as soon as I saw you. Sweet thing like you, knowing your place, you could be a real asset to my operation.” The man grinned again, slow and hard. “Maybe I oughtta take you to the next bank with me, huh? With all the other pretty little things locked up just waiting to be plundered.”

“You get your hands off my daddy!” Tony cried out.

The man’s face turned to thunder; he backhanded Bucky across the cheek, so hard he spun round and fell to one knee. “Shut those boys up or I’ll do it for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky said.

“With gags,” the man added, tucking into his breakfast. “Good and tight, or I’ll give ‘em each another hole for you to stuff those handkerchiefs into.”

“Yes, sir.”

Bucky tied Rhodey’s handkerchief over his mouth, and then his own over Tony’s. Tony’s lips trembled the whole time, but Rhodey’s stoic silence was just as terrified. Bucky carefully didn’t rub his cheek, although he was sure he had a mark. Instead, he squeeze his boys’ shoulders, and waited.

“Now,” the man said, when he’d finally scraped up the last bit of eggs, “let’s see about the liquor and bandages.”

Bucky fetched Steve’s best brandy for drinking, and the bottle of rotgut for cleaning wounds. The man had been shot once, on his thigh. The bullet had gone clean through, so there was every chance he’d keep the leg, but he’d tied it off with a neckerchief so dirty Bucky wouldn’t even use it for the rag bag. He boiled some water and cleaned up a needle and thread.

The man took a big pull of brandy, straight from the bottle, then made a face and poured it on his wounds. “Shit!” He fumbled open the cheap stuff and downed most of it in one go. “Go on then. And be quick.”

Bucky made fast work of the sewing—just a few stitches on either side—and tied the leg up in fresh, clean bandages. The man gripped Bucky by the hair, kept him set back on his haunches.

“You look real good down there,” he sneered, then shoved Bucky back so hard he went sprawling across the floor. “Still, I think I’ll get farther with the small one. Be fun, teaching him to mind that mouth of his, too. Go saddle me a fresh horse, and if you ’n’ the boy are real good, I’ll drop him off somewhere with water, just for you.”

The only horse they had left in the barn was Winter, but Bucky saddled Happy up too, in case he could convince the man to let Tony ride solo. He readied them as quickly as he could, and tied them loosely by the water trough. Inside the house, the man had pulled his trousers back on, released Tony from the chair, and re-tied his hands in front of him.

“You’ve been right hospitable,” he said, “but I’ll need that egg money after all.”

There was only about five dollars left from the last time Bucky sold some extra eggs at Odinson’s, but he didn’t even hesitate before fetching his sewing kit. Down beneath the pincushion, spare buttons and string, there was a false bottom he’d made in secret, when he still slept in his own room. Bucky pulled out all the money he’d saved working for Pierce, all the money he’d brought over from Siberia and taken to a bank to exchange. All his almost twenty dollars that he’d never quite been able to spend, despite his surety that he’d never want to leave. There had never seemed like a good way to announce he had it, but maybe those almost twenty dollars would make a difference in how Tony was treated, in whether they all lived or . . . Bucky handed over the money without a second thought.

The stranger sneered at him. “You must sell a lot of eggs. Come on then.” He grabbed Tony by his bound wrists and hauled him towards the door.

Tony burst into tears, and even through the gag Bucky could hear him crying, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Later, Bucky couldn’t recall the exact sequence of steps: when it was, truly, that he saw Steve’s rifle hanging on two hooks over the front door. How it was that he made the decision to pull the rifle down, how he held it behind his back as the man threw Tony sideways over Winter and swung his own legs up. All he could remember was the sure, certain knowledge that he would never see Tony alive.

All he could see was Becka, small and sick and bruised and weeping in his arms until she would never weep again.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder, took careful aim, and, just after the man kicked his heels in to set Winter galloping, pulled the trigger.

The man fell forward, and then slid off, onto the ground and didn’t move. Bucky, still gripping the rifle like his life depended on it, pulled Happy loose, leapt on his saddle, and spurred him on like he hadn’t been spurred in at least ten years.

“Winter!” Bucky called. “Winter, whoa!”

Winter, ever obedient, slowed just enough that Bucky could ride up next to him and grab the reins. He then turn both horse and pony back to the house, and brought them up by the front door. Tony, who was clinging to the pommel and sobbing, fell right off Winter and into Bucky’s arms.

“Tateleh. I know, I know, we need scissors, I’ll get it off you soon.” Bucky carried him inside, right into the kitchen where Rhodey was still tied to his chair and Bucky’s sewing basket was cast to the floor. Rhodey made an incomprehensible noise behind his own gag, and when Bucky cupped his cheek it was wet with tears.

“My good Yasha,” he said; Rhodey cried harder.

With the help of his good scissors Bucky was able to cut them from the gags and ropes relatively quickly, though he was somewhat hampered in helping Rhodey by the fact that Tony had twined his arms around Bucky’s neck and wouldn’t move. As soon as Rhodey was free he, too, tumbled into Bucky’s arms; the three of them sat on the floor, together and safe, for what seemed like hours, right up until it dawned on Bucky that the stranger, left lying in the dirt, could still be alive and armed with guns.

Carefully, firmly, Bucky pushed Tony into Rhodey’s lap. “Stay here now,” he said, and, cautious of the windows, crawled to the front door.

The stranger hadn’t moved, but that didn’t mean anything; Bucky had heard tell of men trained to lie calm as death only to lure countless men to their own deaths instead. Still, Bucky had Steve’s rifle. He reloaded, fit the butt to his shoulder, and stalked outside.

The man didn’t stir once. The first thing Bucky did was kick the stranger’s rifle away, and relieve him of his pistols. Only then could he make himself press two fingers against that unshaved jawline; there was nothing beneath his fingers but stubble and skin.

Bucky had killed him.

When he turned back to look at the house, both boys were in the doorway, watching. Tony had his arms around Rhodey’s waist, and Rhodey around Tony’s back, and neither was where Bucky had left them. “I said stay,” Bucky said; even as he said it he knew he couldn’t blame them, not really.

He’d want to know too.

“Winter, come.” Bucky tucked the two pistols into his waistband, picked up the spare rifle, and led Winter back to the barn, where the wagon he and Steve used for transport to town was waiting.

Even bringing the wagon back as close to the stranger as possible, Bucky’s stomach turned when he picked the body up and dropped it in back. He turned away from the boys and swallowed, over and over, until it no longer felt like what he swallowed might come back up.

“Come along then,” he said at last; the boys scrambled out of the door and ran to the wagon as quickly as their legs could take them. Rhodey clambered up on his own, but Tony just clung to Bucky’s legs until Bucky picked him up; as soon as Bucky sat down himself, Tony climbed into his lap and refused to move the entire drive to town.

They reached Doc Banner’s first. “Yasha,” Bucky said, “take your brother in and ask the doctor to look at your wrists and ankles. No, Tony. You go now; I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

Tony started crying again, but Bucky shook his head. “Go on, Tateleh. For me now, go see Doctor Banner.”

Tony let Rhodey help him down from the wagon, but he kept crying until he was out of Bucky’s sight.

Bucky drove on another couple of buildings, then pulled up in front of the sheriff’s. When he walked in, Coulson and Barton were playing chess while Natasha cleaned her revolver. All three looked up, laughing, then froze when Bucky dumped four guns on Sheriff Coulson’s desk.

“Turning over my rifle while within town limits,” he said. “As for the other three—they belong to the body I got in the back of my wagon.”

Natasha cursed, long and low. Coulson, ever practical, stood up. “Let’s go take a look,” he said.

Bucky stayed back while they went. He tried to follow them, but his legs just wouldn’t cooperate. He couldn’t have moved his feet another step, unless maybe he was ordered to. And the thought of seeing the stranger again. . .

He closed his eyes against the sudden onslaught of nausea; behind shut lids he saw that cold, cruel smile, felt that hand like a vice around his wrist, that thumb caressing his side, where Steve’s hand should—

“Rogers,” Barton said, clapping Bucky on the back. “Do you know what you’ve gone and done?”

“Killed a man,” Bucky said.

Barton squeezed his shoulder.

“Not just any man,” Coulson said. “Brock Rumlow, from the Hydra Gang. He was wanted dead or alive.”

“You mean.” Bucky swallowed. “I’m not arrested?” he asked.

“Yasha,” Natasha said, catching Bucky’s eye and holding it, “you get a reward. Two hundred and fifty dollars.”

Bucky blinked, but when he opened his eyes again the darkness didn’t go away. Far off, he could hear Natasha, frantic, “catch him!” and Barton’s hand shifting off his shoulder, and then there was nothing. No prize money for taking a man’s life, no dead men with whiskeyed breath and threat of killing, no children sobbing or the clawing stubborness of a fear he’d thought he’d built a life without.

Just darkness, and a lack of anything else.

* * *

Bucky came around on a couch at Doc Banner’s, to the acrid scent of smelling salts and the cool relief of a compress at his forehead and another on the back of his neck.

“Easy,” Doctor Banner said. “Don’t sit up too fast now, or you’ll just crash again.”

Carefully, slowly, Bucky pulled himself all the way up. The doc pushed something into his hands; with a start, Bucky realized it was a slice of buttered bread. He didn’t think he was hungry until he took a bite and his stomach, which had lain empty all morning, made itself known.

Doctor Banner smiled at him. “Easy,” he said again. “This probably won’t be the last time you’re nauseated; nibble a while and nurse it along like a good scotch and you’ll be a lot happier.”

“What happened?”

“You fainted.” Doctor Banner took his glasses off, rubbed at them with his handkerchief and pinched his nose where they rested before slipping them back on again. “It was bound to happen, really. Between what the boys told me of your morning—they’re fine,” he added when Bucky started to leap up, “and your shock in the jailhouse, not to mention your condition—”

“My what?”

Doctor Banner smiled. “You’re pregnant,” he said. “Been expecting that, given how long ago the wedding was. Congratulations. Some time in June or late May, I figure. Until then, you’ll need to take it a little easier. Rest more, eat slowly, probably throughout the day. And,” he added, “no more gunfights. When that husband of yours gets home you tell him I said it’s his job to be frightened half to death and have to outduel notorious bank robbers; you’re busy creating a new life inside your own body.”

“I.” Bucky swallowed. In his head was Rumlow’s voice, snarled, darkly amused, ”we both know why anyone would marry you, don’t we?” but that was Brock Rumlow, not Steve Rogers. Steve hadn’t ever touched him, not until Bucky touched first.

“Eat your bread.” Doc Banner nodded at Bucky’s hands; when he glanced down he realized he’d started crumbling the food instead of eating it. Flushing, Bucky slowly consumed not one, but two slices under Banner’s watchful eye, before he was finally allowed back out front, where Coulson, Barton, Natasha, Rhodey and Tony were all waiting—the latter two with bandaged wrists and the sticky remains of peppermint smeared around their mouths.

“Daddy!” Tony was the first cry Bucky’s name, but Rhodey, with his longer legs, reached Bucky faster. Both boys hugged him as tightly as they could.

“Are you okay?” Rhodey asked.

“That man was a bank robber!” Tony announced at the same time. “Doctor Banner said he’s okay,” Tony added. His tone implied that Doctor Banner knew everything.

Bucky put a hand on Tony’s head, and another on Rhodey’s shoulder. “I’m just fine,” he said. “Are you ready to head home? It’s past time I got lunch started.”

“About that.” Barton caught Bucky’s eye. “Hydra’s still loose, for the most part. How would you feel if I rode out and slept in your bunkhouse, just until Steve gets home?”

“My daddy shot that bank robber all by himself!” Tony stamped his foot; his left hand clenched Bucky’s pant leg.

His left hand, with the white bandages peeking out from under the cuff of his sleeve.

“Thank you, Deputy,” Bucky said. “I would appreciate the company.”

Tony scowled the entire wagon ride back to the ranch, right up until Barton offered to teach him chess while Bucky got their food ready. By the time he called them in for lunch, Tony had decided Barton could stay, as long as he slept in the bunkhouse and remembered the Bucky had a rifle.

Rhodey stayed silent, but later, when they’d caught up on chores, had supper, and were bedding down for the night, it was Rhodey who asked if he could sleep in Bucky’s room.

“Just. Just for a bit. Please?”

Bucky ended up letting both boys crawl in with him. Tony, curled up against his right side, drifted asleep almost at once. Rhodey, on his left, waited until Tony’s soft snores were low and regular, then whispered, “Bucky? D’you think, tomorrow. Maybe Deputy Barton could check the barn first, before we feed the horses?”

Bucky kissed him; Rhodey was getting old enough to protest unnecessary kisses but he let this one slide, just wriggled a little closer.

“You bet he can,” Bucky said. Then, at last, Rhodey drifted asleep.

Despite all the fussing, by the time Steve and the year-round hands got home the boys had decided the entire incident with Rumlow was an adventure. Rhodey held out longer than Tony, but even he migrated back to his own bed around the day Natasha rode out to give Bucky the reward money. Bucky missed the warmth, though he welcomed the opportunity to feel sick first thing each morning without worrying he was scaring anyone. He also tried to focus on the good things, like all that money he could contribute to running the ranch, and not on the ghost of Rumlow’s fingers curled around his wrist or brushing over his skin.

Steve, when he heard the whole story, was not inclined to dwell on the good things at all. Instead, he dropped to his knees, hugging both boys close to him; he ran his hands where they’d been bound, checking that there were no lasting scars. He kissed them each on the temple, Rhodey then Tony, and rising, pushed them gently aside to fold Bucky up in his arms.

Bucky, who could still feel that hand on his hip, where Steve’s hand should have been.

Bucky, who wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist, fisted the back Steve’s shirt, and tucked his face against Steve’s collarbone, and closed his eyes, and breathed, for what felt like the first time in nearly two weeks.

“I’ll be heading back to town then,” Barton said, somewhere behind Bucky. Steve murmured thanks, shifted just enough to offer his hand. Bucky knew he should pull away, should say his own thanks, but he couldn’t move. His hands wouldn’t unclench, and the very thought of letting go made him shake so hard Steve tightened in his own grip.

“It’s okay now,” he said, soft and low. “I’m here, Buck. Not goin’ anywhere. You’re okay.”

Bucky held on, and held on, as long as he could bear, until he had to pull away and fix supper.

* * *

That first night after Steve came back, Bucky practically pulled Steve on top of him in bed. He loved it when Steve held him still, when he pumped in and out of Bucky and it was almost a little too rough, a little too hard, and everything fell away but the two of them. When he could wake up the next morning and, even though he was empty, still feel the shadow of Steve’s cock, in the way his body twinged when he moved just right, in the way he ached that was almost, almost painful. He wanted it like that, rough and hard and Steve, but Steve wouldn't—wouldn’t anything. Steve held Bucky like he was precious, instead of some—instead of someone people like Rumlow thought they could—and Steve wouldn't stop whispering how happy he was that Bucky was safe, how he was sorry he didn't protect him and kissed him slowly and gently, on the lips, on his chest, and then, down, down on his hips where—and Steve's hands were steady and slow and he kept murmuring sweet, soft things, endearments and little nothings, and when he rocked into Bucky, he was strong and sure and Steve.

Bucky tried to up the pace, to rile Steve; he cursed at him, fingers a little too hard on his back, teeth a little too rough on his neck, but Steve just kept going, calm and gentle and even, until it was overwhelming, until Bucky trembled and pressed his face into Steve's neck and everything overtook him. He wasn’t even aware of Steve coming, of when Steve pulled out, or rolled onto his back with Bucky in his arms; he just knew that he was crying and Steve was holding him close and safe, he was safe, and Steve kept him, and his thumb rubbed gentle circles on Bucky's hip, and he fell asleep like that.

Right before he drifted off, Steve murmured against his temple, “love you, Buck,” and didn't let go, not until it was morning and they had chores to do, and Bucky had mostly forgotten those whispered words he hadn’t been meant to hear in the first place.

It stayed that way for a few weeks, Steve being gentle, careful, like Bucky was something precious and breakable; Bucky bristling and unbroken. Then Steve found out what Bucky did with the reward money for Brock Rumlow’s dead carcass.

At first Bucky had turned the money over to Steve; it was his fault Steve hadn’t been there to protect the boys, after all, and any reward ought to go to the running of the ranch. Bucky had decided already he no longer needed a nest egg of his own, since he couldn’t imagine a scenario, anymore, in which he’d want to flee to Brooklyn and disappear from Steve’s reach. Something in him, then, wanted to make clear he was in this family, for better or worse. But Steve had insisted the money was Bucky’s, earned fair and square and separate from working the ranch. He had even taken Bucky to the bank to open a savings account of his very own, that Steve couldn’t touch without permission.

And then Bucky had withdrawn $35 and bought himself a pair of double-barrel pearl-handled Remington derringers.

It was the first time they fought—really fought, with voices they had to consciously lower so the boys wouldn’t overhear.

“It’s my job to keep you safe,” Steve said.

Bucky rolled his eyes.

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You ever think maybe I like being some place where I can defend myself?”

“You shouldn’t have to,” Steve insisted, and there was no response Bucky could make to that level of stupidity.

Meals were tense for a couple of days. Bucky would’ve enjoyed the excuse for having no appetite, except that he was angry and miserable. And it wasn’t just mealtime, either. They put on a good face in front of the boys—or at least, they tried to—but far from treating Bucky like he was made of glass when they were in bed, Steve stopped touching him entirely. They slept back to back, something they’d never done even when Bucky first moved into Steve’s bed, and barely spoke when they were alone.

When Bucky got word his package was waiting, and rode into town to pick it up, Coulson pulled him aside. “Steve’s been by,” he said. “Seemed pretty upset about the whole thing.”

“The whole thing,” Bucky asked, checking the sightlines on his new revolvers, “or the part where next time I’ll be able to fight back?”

“Oh, I think the whole situation. Funny, how a man might blame himself for his family being put in danger, even when he did nothing to cause the situation.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “We still talking ‘bout Steve?”

“Why? Would someone else fit that description?”

Bucky pointedly buckled his new gun belt around his hips. “Nope,” he said, popping the ‘p’. Tasha would’ve called him on, but Tasha had known him since he was fresh off the train to Siberia, knee-high to a grasshopper and still speaking Russian with an American accent. Coulson just sighed and let it go.

Bucky practiced a lot, while Rhodey was at school and Tony napping (Tony could probably sleep through a tornado; bullets hitting tin cans outside his window didn’t phase him at all, once he was down.) He didn't wear his guns in the house, of course, but he strapped them on whenever he was going off the ranch for any reason, or even if he had to ride out to one of the pastures, out of view of the house.

Steve, who had his own pair of peashooters, remained stonily silent about the whole thing. Consequently, it seemed like an eternity had passed when Fresno Jim rode back from town with word that the Sheriff was gathering a posse; Hydra was holed up in the hills back near the Lang place and if they hurried, they could surround them by nightfall.

Jim and the rest of the hands ran to get their things from bunkhouse and ready the horses. Bucky and Steve both reached for their gunbelts, hanging near the front door out of reach of little hands. Steve got there faster, and shook his head.

“Absolutely not.”

“Excuse me?”

“I forbid it,” Steve said.

After that, the next ten minutes were a blur of shouting; Bucky never could remember every invective he’d hurled at Steve’s head, which later on he was just as glad for. All he knew at the time, however, was that these people and Rumlow were one and the same, that they had soiled the beautiful life he’d built, had laid hands on his children (all two and a bit of them), and that they had reminded him, brutally, that there was no such thing as peace. Steve might not even look at Bucky when the two of them were alone, but by God he was going to hear when Bucky demanded the right to protect himself, his home, his family.

Only Steve was too busy shouting himself to listen. Steve, who insisted he’d be damned if he let Bucky just hurl himself into a deadly situation, and that pissed Bucky the fuck off, that Steve thought it was okay for him to do it instead.

“If anything happens to you—” Steve started.

“If anything happens to you,” Bucky said, “we’ll lose the goddamn ranch. I ain’t letting them take our home—how’m I supposed to, what, to take care of this family and keep it all together, with two small boys and no roof over our heads or—”

“—at least you could make it a home. I never did that, not until you came.”

“You seriously think we could make a home without you, Rogers? Are you really that—that idiotic?”

Rhodey, who’d been tugging on their hands for the past five minutes, finally gave up and screamed, “you’re scaring Tony!”

It was enough to make them both stop; to make them realize Tony was sitting on the stairs, hugging his knees and sobbing as quietly as he could. Rhodey glared at them, hands on his hips. "No one's going anywhere! Sheriff Coulson can take care of it, and we have to protect the ranch!"

Steve dropped to one knee. "You're right, the ranch is important. Our family is important. But sometimes, even Sheriff Coulson needs more help than Deputy Barton and Deputy Romanoff can give him. And it's our duty, as citizens, to help, because if we don't, no one will."

"And when the bad men flee? When they start raiding the ranches on the road? When they come to The Star And Shield?"

"That's not gonna happen," Steve said firmly. "They're holed up, and the posse can surround them. But even if it did, one of us'll be here. You know what a crack shot Bucky is, he did it before. And that was all by himself—the men are here, now. Dugan, Jones, they'll help. Falsworth and Morita are going on the posse, but you won't be alone."

Tony shot to his feet and yelled, "you promised! Daddies die and you promised and I hate you!" He ran to his room and slammed the door; Rhodey ran up after him, also crying.

Bucky sank down into the nearest chair. “Steve.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I’ll just. I’ll tell the men we’re staying back. Dugan and Jones can go in our stead.”

“I just. I just want us all to be—”

“Me too, Buck.” Steve squeezed Bucky’s shoulder, and even ducked in for a quick kiss. “Be right back,” he said.

While Phillips led the men out beyond the Langs’, Bucky and Steve pulled their boys into their arms and apologized for frightening them. After, when tears had been dried and foreheads kissed and both boys had finally drifted to sleep, Steve took Bucky in his arms, and made love to him the way they both liked, with firm deep strokes and a little laughter and a hand on either side of Bucky’s head, so all he could see was the deep blue of Steve’s eyes in the flickering candlelight, and all he could feel was his husband, over and around and inside him, and if things weren’t exactly the same as they had been before the cattle drive, at least he knew they could fight, and come out the other side of it still together.

* * *

As the weather continued to cool, Bucky grew hyperconscious of everyone’s health. Whether it was his own secret knowledge of the life growing inside of him, still so fragile, the fact that his pregnancy kept him constantly on the verge of nausea, or some combination of Rumlow’s attack and Tony’s earlier bout with scarlet fever, he couldn’t say. But any time either Tony or Rhodey began to sneeze or cough in the winter, Bucky bundled them right up in bed under a mound of extra blankets, made them hot tea and chicken soup, and fussed. A lot.

Tony fought against it every time, insistent that he was fine and he wanted to play; Rhodey tried to take it in good grace, but even he struggled with spending all day in bed when the sun was shining and he hardly felt ill.

"It's just sniffles," Doctor Banner pointed out when Bucky made Steve drag him out for the second time in two days. "Keep an eye on it, give him the medicine I gave you, but there's no need to keep him in bed at this point."

Rhodey glared from under the brand new quilt Bucky had just tucked back around him for the fifteenth time. Bucky consented to let him go downstairs, but he had to wear his dressing gown over his pajamas and have both socks and house slippers on; Bucky casually draped a blanket over every available chair or sofa, just in case.

Bucky hovered by the kitchen door, keeping an eye on the soup pot that he’d kept heating on the stove since the cold weather first came in earnest. Steve, bringing Rhodey the first of what would undoubtedly be many cups of tea, sat on the edge of the couch, where Bucky couldn’t see his face, just hear the fondness in his voice. "You know he worries.”

"I don't even have a fever," Rhodey said. "Or a cough or nothin'!"

"It makes him feel better. Remember how you felt when Tony was sick?"

Rhodey frowned and took the cup. Steve squeezed his shoulder, then ducked back into the kitchen check in on Bucky before he took Tony out to feed the animals. The stockpot was bubbling merrily on the back of the stove. Bucky sat at the table, churning the butter and muttering under his breath about doctors who thought they know everything; his head was bent and the chain of the locket with his parents’ and Becka's pictures was just visible, peeking out over the collar of shirt.

Steve bent to press a kiss to the back of his neck. "Rhodey's all tucked in and keeping still. I'm gonna take Tony to the barn to get him out of your hair. Will you be okay?

"I'm fine. Make sure he's got his scarf on, and don't let him take off his hat; the number of times I've founding it lying wet in the snow instead of dry and warm on his head where it belongs . . ."

"I will." Steve nosed against Bucky's cheek until he turned for a kiss.

"Gosh," Tony said, coming in for help doing up his coat, "bein' married for real sure has made you boring."

Steve scoffed at him and crouched down to button up Tony's coat, making sure his scarf was tucked in. Then he plucked Tony's hat out of his pocket and pulled it down so far that Tony couldn't see.

"Papa!"

Steve picked him up and held him under one arm, sideways. Tony squealed and flailed his arms and legs. Bucky couldn't help his smile at that, despite the fear, misery, and nausea that roiled in his gut. Steve tipped his hat, then carried Tony out of the back door and across the yard.

Rhodey wandered in about five minutes later with an afghan around his shoulders and trailing along behind him, carrying his empty tea cup. He sat at Bucky's feet, where he could watch him churn and rest his head on Bucky's leg. They talked softly about school and the book Rhodey borrowed from Mrs. Odinson. It was an adventure story, so Rhodey explained the plot in glorious detail.

Every few minutes Rhodey stopped to sniffle, then ducked his head and remembered to pull out his handkerchief. Bucky let him be for another hour or so before giving in and pressing the back of his hand to Rhodey's forehead, just to check. He was warm, but not dangerously so. Bucky still fretted—as soon as the butter was done, before he’d even pressed it into the little molds, he had Rhodey tucked back up on the sofa with a slice of bread and butter.

After, Bucky did the mending while Rhodey napped, and every so often ran his hand over Rhodey’s ankle, just to remind himself Rhodey was there, solid and real and under his care.

Tony ran in, froze at the look on Bucky's face, turned around and quietly tiptoed back to the door to take his boots and wet outer clothes off. Bucky put the mending aside so Tony could crawl up into his lap and put his cold toes under the edge of Rhodey's blanket. "Did you have fun this morning?"

"Uh-huh. Papa let me help fork the hay! And I fed Happy an apple all by myself. I told him Rhodey'll back just as soon as he can, so he doesn't have to worry, right Daddy?"

"Definitely," Rhodey said, slowly waking up. Tony smiled and poked Rhodey with his toe.

Rhodey shrieked. "Put some socks on! Don't touch me with—Bucky, make him stop!"

Tony laughed even as Bucky pulled him to the other side of his lap. When Tony stretched, Bucky fell to the side, cuddling Tony against his chest. Steve came in to find them like that, all three smiling even as Rhodey complained about icy toes and needing all his body heat. "You said you were too warm," Bucky teased. "Your brother's just helping."

Rhodey growled something indecipherable and ducked his head under the blanket so he was completely covered.

Tony laughed again and reached for Steve. "You're not sick of my mug?" Tony shook his head, so Steve slid onto the end of the couch so that Bucky's head was in his lap.

"Your papa used to have freezing cold toes in the winter too," Bucky murmured. "Always putting 'em on my back in the middle of the night, when he slept over 'cause his ma was working at the hospital."

"That's a lie," Steve said, but his fingers carded through Bucky's hair. "Everything about me is perfect."

"Perfectly freezing," Bucky said.

Tony giggled, and the blanket lump that was Rhodey shifted a little so that, under the blanket, he curled over Bucky's legs. Bucky was happy in a way he never thought he would be after he left the states. If only the baby would let him eat without feeling sick once in awhile, he would be perfectly happy. The kind of happiness his mother used to say was tempting God.

Tony wiggled up and kissed Bucky's cheek, then curled up under his chin, clearly settling in for his nap. Even Steve nodded off after a bit, though not before opening his mouth and then swallowing back his thoughts at least twice that Bucky noticed before drifting off himself.

He brought it up that night, when it was just the two of them, curled up in bed. “Seemed like you had something on your mind, earlier.”

Steve ran his hand down Bucky’s back, settled it at the dip of his spine. “I was watching you, with our boys, and I couldn’t help think about what it would be like to have more of them. To add on extra rooms and—would you want to do that? Have more kids?"

Bucky flushed. Christmas was fast approaching; he'd got a present hidden away where Steve wouldn't find it, under the ever-present pile of mending that seemed to grow alongside his nausea. "I would," he said, fighting to keep from touching his stomach.

Steve kissed the top of Bucky's head. "I want that with you, Buck. Want to fill this house with children to love."

Bucky twisted around and looked up at Steve, trying not to cry. He'd been feeling things more lately—witness his concern for Rhodey's runny nose—and it was probably a losing battle. Doc Banner said it was to be expected, when he warned Bucky about what would happen in the months to come. But Steve didn't know any of it yet, and he didn't want to worry him. “Best get started then,” he said, to cover his tears. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

“I’ll put something where your mouth is,” Steve murmured, before capturing Bucky in a deep, long kiss.

Bucky moaned into it. He felt wanton, the things Steve brought out of him, but he couldn’t have stopped himself if he’d tried. Steve’s hands were so hot on his skin, and Steve’s mouth was velvety warm, and when he pulled Steve on top of him he was a comforting weight, holding Bucky down and close and precious.

They had a bottle of oil always close at hand, but it didn’t take much preparation these days—Bucky was always loose for Steve, always ready, and Steve went from two fingers to three with little warning, then wiped his hand on the mattress and pushed inside.

He was thick and heavy and when the head of his cock breached Bucky’s body both of them groaned, then kissed again to muffle the noise.

“You feel so good,” Steve whispered, inching deeper, slower even than their first time, like he needed to draw it out as long as possible and savor every moment of that initial creeping push inside.

“‘D feel better if you’d move,” Bucky muttered. Steve just laughed; Bucky hitched his breath at the ripple, at the echoing ripple across that spot that made him shiver, made him lose himself in bursts of joy and Steve.

Finally, finally, Steve was as deep as he could press; he kissed Bucky again, locked together, then pulled back and thrust forward, rocking them into pleasurepainpleasure, over and over and over. Bucky came first, when Steve wrapped a hand around him and twisted, once, twice, and everything overwhelmed him; when he came back to himself it was just in time to feel a hot pulse and clutch Steve close, running a hand down his shoulders and back until he, too, settled into his skin.

“Maybe next year,” Steve said when he’d wiped them clean and pulled Bucky back to his chest, “there’ll be five of us on that couch.” Bucky pressed a kiss to Steve’s chest, and smiled.

* * *

Bucky started cooking two full weeks before Christmas. The decorations he mostly left to Steve and the boys, who hauled in the largest tree Bucky had ever seen inside a house (not, to be fair, like there was much competition) and a veritable plethora of boughs to weave through stair rails and hang in corners and curl into wreaths, but the food. The food was Bucky’s forte.

He took the ham butt, covered in salt and hanging in the cellar, upstairs to scrub off the few bits of mold that had developed since butchering, then let it soak for a few days in one of his larger pots, covered with a cloth to keep any lingering flies away. When it was ready, he simmered it and glazed it with maple syrup and honey, then baked it almost completely. On Christmas Day itself, he would heat it through one last time, so it was piping hot when served.

After the ham had been set to soak, Bucky brought up bushels of apples. He cubed and cored them, removing worms and brown spots along the way, and set them to cook down until he could blend into applesauce, a process Tony complained took even longer than churning butter.

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “If it’s taking too long,” he said, “you and your brother could speed things up by peeling the potatoes.”

“That’s okay, Daddy,” Tony said hastily, but Steve caught him up by the seat of his pants and plopped him down at the kitchen table.

In addition to the mashed potatoes, Bucky boiled onions, and fried some zucchini and eggplant in oil. He stewed tomatoes, and made a bread stuffing with leftover chicken even though there was no bird to stuff it in, just because Rhodey had wistfully mentioned his mama’s stuffing was his favorite, before she passed. Cranberry sauce he saved for the day of, since it would only take an hour or so.

And then he got down to the baking.

There was an apple pie, of course, with his best lattice crust, and a Christmas pudding, in honor of Steve’s parents, that he’d started in secret all the way back in October and left aging. Technically, he knew, the whole family was supposed to stir it, but he wanted this first one to be a surprise. He even mixed in a silver dollar, fresh from his savings account, to bring health, wealth, and luck to whoever was served it.

And then. He didn’t know why he made it really, except that it wouldn’t quite feel like Christmas without Becka’s favorite, so. Bucky started making khrystiki. Angel wings. As he cut and twisted the small pieces of dough, he found himself humming under his breath. It wasn’t until Steve came in on the harmony for O Holy Night that Bucky realized he’d been singing songs from his childhood—his real childhood, in Brooklyn, the last time he’d had a family that was whole.

Rhodey chimed in on “long lay the world,” and Tony’s high soprano quickly joined, “in sin and error pining.” Steve smiled at Bucky, who got so caught up in the sheer amount of love in Steve’s eyes that he nearly missed Steve’s hand, reaching for the fried cookies drying on the counter.

Bucky smacked him with a wooden spoon and continued turning the dough in the oil, never missing a note. The boys, sitting at the table stringing popcorn and cranberries, laughed so hard Tony fell to the floor.

All in all, Bucky figured his little family would have a veritable feast come Christmas. He himself might never been hungry enough to partake, if the fifth member of their family didn’t let up sometime soon on the nausea, but he was determined to make the holiday as cheerful for his little ones as possible. It was their first Christmas together, this new family he had been gifted, and, God-willing, their last as a family of four. Tony might be too young to remember it later, but Bucky wanted him to retain at least a sense of warmth and joy and all the smells and tastes and little things that made Christmas-time so special. And Rhodey, of course, was more than old enough to retain this holiday, good or bad. Better it be good, be perfect; he’d had enough unhappiness already in his young life.

Then there was a blizzard, just a few days before Christmas, and Bucky found Tony curled up in a corner of his bedroom, crying.

“Tony! It’s alright, tateleh, the snow can’t get in and hurt us; this is a good, sturdy house, I promise.”

“No,” Tony sobbed, holding his arms out and clinging to Bucky. “It’s not that, Daddy, it’s Santa!”

Bucky cuddled him closer, trying not to laugh. “Little one,” he said at last, “don’t you know where Santa Claus lives? The North Pole is covered in snow, always, I promise. Father Christmas can fly through a little blizzard like this with no problem. Why, his reindeer probably think it’s a game, prancing between the snowflakes.”

“One of them is named Prancer,” Tony allowed. He scrubbed at his face a little and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, entirely ignoring the clean handkerchief Bucky had tucked in his pocket that morning. “How does he come, Daddy?”

Bucky carried Tony downstairs, where the combination of a roaring fire and the kerosene lamps held the darkness outside at bay. After Bucky explained the problem—and fetched Tony a mug of hot milk and an apple to munch on, just like Rhodey—Steve took down an old atlas with brittle, illuminated pages that Howard and Maria had brought west with them from New York after the war. They traced the path with their fingers, how Santa could come down through Canada to get to them, and Tony was too caught up in the excitement again to worry about snowstorms, or being as good as it was possible for a little boy to be, when he was stuck inside all day due to uncooperative weather.

To be fair, Tony had spurts of being on his best best best behavior for Santa; they were just usually accompanied by being unable to contain himself and getting into mischief, followed by giant eyes and tears as he insisted he didn't mean to be naughty. It was always on the days when the wind was too strong to let him go outside, as if he couldn't burn enough energy in the house.

The day before Christmas was clear and crisp, with no clouds in sight. Steve took the boys outside for two hours after breakfast, so Bucky could get a break. Steve had been making noises about running them all into town, to Doc Banner, but the weather made it a tricky proposition and there was no way he could leave the boys with Peggy and Gabe this close to Christmas. Bucky counted himself lucky, still stubbornly clinging to his secret, and did his best to act normally when not alone. The last day of the blizzard, though, he threw up for close to an hour, which was impossible to hide. Steve had just gotten the sleigh hitched when the wind kicked up; before it died out again Bucky had already held down some crackers and tea, and insisted he was fine. "I have things to do," he told Steve, mending a tear in Rhodey's stocking, "I don't have time to be sick." He didn’t have a fever, anyway, so by using a combination of turning a deaf ear and pointedly sewing he got Steve to settle for taking the boys outside and wearing them out. They built a snowman, and a fort, and had a snowball fight, and by the time they trooped inside, dripping wet and only just remembering to take off their outside things in the mudroom, Tony was exhausted and Bucky was perked up again.

Tony was fidgety and clingy once he got out of his wet clothes and back into his pajamas, so Bucky let Tony lay on the couch with his head in Bucky's lap, until he nodded off and trapped Bucky against the cushion. "You're gonna have to fix lunch now, God help us all," he told Steve, but Steve was unrepentant. Bucky ended up sitting on the couch for an hour, reading softly to Rhodey while Tony dozed and Steve took his sweet time fixing them sandwiches.

Tony only woke up enough to eat, really. Bucky ended up taking him upstairs to lie down in bed. He must have taken longer to come back down than he realized; as he reached the bottom step he heard Rhodey, almost too soft to catch over the sound of washing dishes, ask Steve, “is Bucky real sick?”

"Nah, I don't think so," Steve said. "No fever, and you know that's the dangerous part. We just gotta keep him comfortable until the weather settles."

Sometimes, Bucky forgot Rhodey was only nine. He was so serious most of the time, so reliable (except when he'd been stuck indoors with Tony for a week straight, and then they usually ended up sent to their rooms with at least a few split knuckles and someone's clothes in need of patching). He sounded little now, though. Bucky pictured him, his thin shoulders hunched, as he carefully dried the wet plates and stacked them on the counter for Steve to put away.

"I'm going to take care of him," Steve said. "I promise. He's special to me."

"Tony and I were talking," Rhodey said, suddenly careful and serious with his words. "And we think you should ask Bucky to marry you.”

Bucky blinked; so, he assumed by the long pause, did Steve. "We are married. We got married in town, the morning Bucky came to live with us."

"No, I mean for real. With a wedding and presents and stuff. That was . . . that wasn't for real."

"It was." Steve stopped washing the dishes. "You're right, we didn't make a big deal of it, but it was before God, in church, and it's real under the law, too. Ironclad, we made sure of it. Now, if you think maybe we should have a party, that's different. But I promise you, it's real. Bucky's my husband, and there's nothing that can change that, not ever."

"We just . . . we want to make sure he knows. That he's part of the family forever. When he first came, Deputy Romanoff told us to give him time, that it took her over a year to feel like she belonged. That's too long."

"That is too long. And it's a shame you and Tony missed the wedding, it being a weekday and all. Maybe we should have a big party, what do you think? On our first anniversary?"

"A year of living here! I think he'd like that."

"And his birthday's in March," Steve said. "Maybe we could do something special just for him. You and Tony and I can talk about what to get him."

"Okay," Rhodey said. "Because we're his family now. And he's staying." He sounded so authoritative that Steve had to turn a laugh into a hasty cough.

Bucky slipped silently back upstairs. If it would make Rhodey feel better, he’d take the opportunity to rest; it wasn’t like the chores wouldn’t be there tomorrow, too. He curled up next to Tony, who promptly rolled over in his sleep and clutched Bucky’s shirt like a talisman against evil. It wasn’t long before his quiet, rhythmic snores sent Bucky to sleep as well.

When he finally made his way downstairs, Steve had pulled out the books for the ranch and started catching up on finances, while Rhodey curled up by the fire with a cup of cider and Ivanhoe, which he'd been diligently working his way through for the last few weeks. Rhodey really loved adventure books, but insisted that books were good enough—if he actually went on an adventure, something bad might happen.

It made Steve's heart hurt, sometimes, he told Bucky once when they were both lying awake in the small hours of the morning. When Rhodey was Tony's age, he’d wanted nothing more than adventure, and then within the span of just a few years he watched both his parents and the Starks die, and that spark in him was all but extinguished. Steve didn't exactly want him to grow up and leave them all to sail the high seas, but sometimes, he confessed, he missed that little boy. He liked having his boys where he could keep an eye on them, even though he knew that someday they'd have to go live their own lives. They'd already been through too much.

Bucky wasn’t certain “too much” was possible; in his experience there was only what you had to endure, good or bad. You endured it, and your life went on, and that was that—or else your life ended, and that was something that other people endured without you. But he certainly agreed that it was their duty, as parents and as guardians and as adults, to ensure that the boys had as few bad things to endure as possible, and as many good things as were reasonably good for them.

Either way, Rhodey was happy with his book and cider, and all the adventure his imagination could conjure.

Steve had just started to push the books aside when Bucky came downstairs and glared, mostly because he still didn’t want them to know he’d overheard their conversation and didn’t know what else to do. "Do you know how behind I am now? The laundry's still hanging outside, for crying out loud!"

"But you feel better, don't you?" Steve said, leaning in for a kiss. Bucky scowled. "I'll help bring in the laundry?"

"You'd better. I have dinner to start cooking, and who knows when I'll find time to iron anything."

"You have to rest when you're sick," Rhodey piped up suddenly. "You have to let Steve take care of you."

Bucky turned to tell Rhodey that he had a lot to do, but Rhodey was using the very serious face that usually meant he was trying to lecture Tony. He was also blinking back tears. "You have to," Rhodey insisted.

"I'm not sick," Bucky said, instead, and put a gentle arm around Rhodey's shoulder, "but how about we let Steve go get the laundry, and while I heat the iron you can help me start dinner and we'll talk about it."

Steve went out into the crisp cold and checked on the horses in the barn before taking down the linens and shirts. When he came back inside, Rhodey was peeling potatoes and he grinned up at Steve. "Bucky said we could do some of his chores tonight."

"Atta boy," Steve said.

Bucky plucked the laundry basket from his hands and points him towards the carrots and onions. "Peel and chop," he said, "and do it on that half of the table, away from the ironing."

By the time Tony came stumbling downstairs with his book to sit in front of the fireplace, the stew was on the stove and the ironing was done.

Bucky pulled out the never-ending pile of mending that accumulated in a house with two young boys and one rancher. Since it was Christmas Eve, he didn't even ask Tony if he wanted to help, and Tony scooched a little closer to the fire and a little farther from Bucky when he saw the sewing basket come out.

"Will you tell us a story," Rhodey asked Steve, then he turned to Bucky. "Last Christmas, Steve told us fairytales."

"What sorts of fairytales?"

"Really good ones!" Tony said, abandoning his book to scramble up on Steve's lap.

"Um, we talked about Snow White and Rose Red last year, didn't we?"

"Yup, and Hansel and Gretel!"

"Alright. How about The Pied Piper of Hamelin?"

"What's that about?" Tony asked.

"Rats," Steve told him, and Tony's eyes filled with delight. "Lots and lots of rats."

Bucky laughed at Tony's glee, but he settled in; he didn't know the story either.

By the time Steve wound the story down, their stew was nice and thick and ready for eating, and the cornbread was out of the oven. Tomorrow, they'd have Christmas Dinner as an afternoon meal, and Bucky and Steve would use the good china, but for that night they sat down to tinware and a hearty meal designed to make the boys tired from food, so they'd fall asleep early with no fuss.

Peggy and Gabe had been keeping Tony’s new puppy, Jarvis, at their house, so Tony didn’t find him too early. Steve smuggled him over in the morning before the boys woke up, in a little basket with a red bow. They had a shiny new saddle and tack for Rhodey, and a note that the rest of his gift was in the barn. (For Jarvis there was also a lead, a dog pillow, and some toys.) In their stockings the boys got a penny each, some Christmas candy, an orange each, and some more tin soldiers, and Bucky had made them each a hat, scarf, and mittens. All in all, he thought, it would be a nice little Christmas for their boys.

While Steve snuck out to get Jarvis, Bucky put his own package for Steve under the tree, and noticed a long thin package with his name on that he hadn't seen before. He was tempted for a moment to shake it, just to see if he could figure out what it was, but he decided to start the coffee and hot cocoa instead. He'd had oats soaking overnight for oatmeal, too, because he could leave that cooking while the boys ripped into everything in the other room.

There was brown sugar and raisins, and the house was warm, and it was so much different than his last Christmas. His last Christmas he was cold and alone, with Natasha gone and Becka—also gone. Freshly gone, a grief he had been consumed by, there in that dark dungeon of a basement in San Francisco, surrounded in his solitude by men and women as scared and alone as he was. Bucky gripped the locket ever-present round his neck, with his parents’ and Becka’s pictures. “I’m happy,” he murmured, staring down at the bubbling pot of oatmeal-to-be and resting his other hand over his stomach. “Where there’s life, eh Ma? Merry Christmas. I hope, I hope where you are you know that it is merry, here, and happy. I promise.”

Steve got back with the dog things just in time, because Bucky heard a thump from upstairs and then feet thundering across the hall to Tony's room, and a moment later two pairs of feet clattering down the stairs. He usually reminded the boys to be careful on the stairs, but before he could say anything, he'd got Tony pressed up against him, hugging him tight. "Merry Christmas, Daddy!"

"Merry Christmas, Tony!" He knelt down to hug Tony, and Rhodey barely kept from bowling into them when he threw his arms around them both.

"Merry Christmas!"

Steve laughed and gets himself into the hug. It was a perfect moment of happiness, as promised.

Then Tony started wriggling. "C'mon, c'mon, Santa came!" He grabbed Bucky's hand and started to tug him towards the living room. "Daddy, Papa, Rhodey, c'mooooooon!"

Tony basically flung himself into the pile of presents and started digging around, and then there was a muffled bark from behind the tree, and he froze. "Is that?"

"Go check the name tag," Steve said.

Jarvis toddled over the other presents, all huge paws and lolling tongue, and Tony's hands were shaking. "Hey, boy," he said. "Hold still a minute."

On the couch, Bucky leaned into Steve and watched. Tony had surprised them all by teaching himself to read when he wasn't allowed to go to school. Now he found the tag on the ribbon around Jarvis' neck, and his eyes got wide and he started crying and pulling Jarvis into his arms. Jarvis barked once and licked at his face.

Rhodey just smiled and reached his hand out. "Can I pet him?"

Tony sniffled and nodded. "Hey, boy. Jarvis. This is my brother Rhodey. Say hi."

Jarvis sniffed Rhodey's hand and wagged his tail. Rhodey pet him on the head, gave his ear a gentle tug. "You gonna take care of my brother, huh?" The puppy barked and licked his hand. Rhodey laughed. "Okay," he said. "Well, welcome to the family."

Tony actually stopped looking at presents for a few minutes, just lost in his dog, but Rhodey sifted through the gifts, separating into piles of what was for whom, and stilled when he found the saddle, with the note, "For Rhodey: the rest of your gift is in the stable. Love, Santa"

He turned and looked up at Steve and Bucky, his eyes wide and a little disbelieving. Steve just nodded at the door. "Put your coat on!" Bucky said.

Rhodey struggled into a coat, and even remembered to switch from slippers to boots, before hurling himself out the door. "Where's he going?" Tony asked, finally looking up from his puppy.

"His present is out in the barn." Tony looked down at Jarvis. He clearly wanted to see, but also didn't want his dog to get cold. Instead, he struggled to his feet with the puppy in his arms and went to press his face against the window.

Steve laughed, and scooped them both up into his arms. Bucky fetched coats and a blanket for the dog, and they all trooped over. Rhodey was just standing in the stall, arms around his horse, whispering quietly to him.

"Rhodey got a horse?" Tony asked, looking up with big wide eyes. "I guess that's almost as good as a puppy."

Bucky dropped a kiss on top of his head. "You're a good brother, kiddo."

"I'm just being honest." He turned his attention back to Jarvis, petting him some more. Then he suddenly twisted and looked at Steve. "Does this mean I get to ride Happy?"

"I suppose it must," Steve said. "We could always put Happy out to pasture if you don't want him, of course." Tony stared at Steve, all indignant and shocked, and then struggled down from Steve’s arms to run across the barn and introduce Jarvis to Happy.

Finally, after another ten minutes or so, Bucky rounded them up to go back to the house before they froze to death, standing around in their nightclothes and robes. Rhodey hugged his horse again, murmured his goodbyes, and made sure his blanket was settled before they went inside.

"What's his name?" Tony asked as he made sure Jarvis was totally dry.

"Patriot," Rhodey said. "I think I'm gonna name him Patriot."

After the boys finished unwrapping everything, and dumped out their stockings, there were two gifts left. “Wait!” Tony said, as Steve reached for one. “You need our presents!” and he ran upstairs, Rhodey and Jarvis hot at his heels.

Rhodey gave Steve a new bridle for America, which Mr. Dugan had helped him stitch up, and Bucky got a picture of Brooklyn that he drew himself from illustrations in a book at school. Bucky didn’t cry when he opened it, but it was a close thing; he did kiss Rhodey on the cheek.

“I don’t know whether to put it in our bedroom, where I can see it every morning, or hang it downstairs where our guests can see as well.”

Rhodey screwed his face up in thought, but decided, “I made it for you, Bucky, not for guests.”

“Okay,” Tony said, tugging at Bucky’s hand, “but open mine first!” He’d made a little wall hanging for Bucky with uneven stitches that said Welcome to Our Home.

Bucky laughed. “Well, that solves that problem; what do you think about putting it in the kitchen, tateleh? The heart of the home.”

Tony hugged him really hard, as hard as his little arms could manage, before thrusting his other gift at Steve. He’d made Steve a neckerchief, for when he was out with the herd and it was dusty. That present Bucky knew about, because he’d helped Tony cut the fabric out of an old shirt that was otherwise headed for the rag bag. It even had Steve's initials stitched on it. Steve reeled Tony in for a hug of his own. "All the fellas're gonna be jealous, just wait and see."

Tony squirmed like he didn't want to be hugged, and then settled in and refused to move away. He still did that, every time. "I love you," Steve said.

Tony tucked his head under Steve's chin. "I love you too, Papa."

Finally, Steve handed Bucky the long, thin box that he’d first noticed what felt like hours ago. Bucky still had no idea what it could be, right up until he opened it to find a Winchester Yellow Boy.

"It's a repeater," Steve said quietly. "So you don't have to reload as often, if you're in a bad situation."

For a moment, Bucky saw the trust implicit in it. A repeater means he could take them all out, kill all three of them without having to reload. Then he saw the love, how much Steve wanted him to be safe, how much Steve trusted him with the boys, and leaned in close.

"Thank you. It's perfect." He kissed Steve, quick and sweet. "Can't wait to take her out and get a feel for how she fires."

"Maybe a little bit later. Now I think it's time for breakfast."

"There's still one gift left to open," Bucky said.

Rhodey handed it to Steve and he shook it a little, grinning. "From you?"

"From me," Bucky said. He put the gun down, turned sideways so he could watch Steve's face. He was oddly nervous about this, even though Steve had to have an inkling, must at least suspect something. Even though—Steve must want kids, he’d said so but—Bucky was just. nervous.

Steve opened the box and there was another hat, but this one so much smaller. "Buck," he said, breathless. Under the hat were two baby booties, and they were all resting on top of a white christening gown. Steve barely even noticed, let the box slide off his lap as he leaned forward, cupped Bucky's face between his hands. "Are you—has Bruce—when—"

"Yes," Bucky said, a hint of laughter creeping into his voice. "Yes, and June, we think."

Steve swallowed. “James Buchanan Rogers, you make me very happy, do you know that?”

"What's going on?" Tony asked, finally distracted from playing tug-of-war with Jarvis.

Rhodey picked up the baby booties, and then looked at Steve and Bucky. "Da—Bucky’s having a baby."

"Really?" Tony said, jumping to his feet. He ran forward to give more hugs, then stopped suddenly, staring at Bucky's stomach.

"Really," Bucky said. "C'mere." He pulled Tony in for a tight hug, and then Rhodey. As soon as Rhodey let go, Steve was there, kissing Bucky like he was the most precious thing in the universe. He kind of thought that maybe Steve thought he really was that special. That made him kiss Steve back, just as gentle.

When he pulled back and started to stand up, only for Rhodey and Steve both to leap to their feet and try to help him, Bucky gritted his teeth to keep from shouting. This was part of why he’d put off saying anything. His pants were barely even tight yet, and everyone told him the second trimester was when he'd feel amazing, but he had visions of the next six months, half an entire year, of Steve hovering on one side and Rhodey on the other, of Tony scared to hug too tight. He liked that Steve thought he was special, loved it, but he could have a baby and still run the house.

Something must have come through in his expression, because they both backed off, at least from helping him stand up or sit down, but Bucky had a sinking suspicion, even as he filled four bowls with oatmeal and poured out coffee and milk, that his was a short-lived reprieve. “Give me patience, Ma,” he murmured; he never knew if she heard him, or if it was coincidence, but when Steve pressed a hand to the small of Bucky’s back, and a kiss to his cheek, a stillness rolled over him, brought with a joy so exquisite it was almost painful.

* * *

In the heart of the winter, they were pretty much snowed in most of the time. T he boys and Steve did chores morning and evening (in a blizzard, Steve followed a laundry line from the house to the barn), and if it was sunny there was an hour or two of playtime in the snow before Bucky called them inside to hold off frostbite, but Rhodey's schooling was done by reading his primers under Bucky's watchful eye, while Tony was theoretically meant to play with Jarvis in another room instead of being a bother. All of which meant, cabin fever often set in, and the boys argued and fought a lot more.

One day, Steve had to take a wagon out with Dugan and Fresno Jim to restock the cabins along their border, leaving Bucky in the house with the boys, when an epic fight broke out about whether someone stole a cookie. Before Bucky could break it up, Jarvis had knocked over the plate in his excitement, breaking it (and getting his paws on three cookies), Tony's shirt was ripped, and Rhodey had a bloody nose from being headbutted. He yelled, maybe for the first time, sending the boys to their rooms, and then came in to bring a compress for Rhodey's nose and to give Tony the sewing kit. He tried to explain that physical altercation was not how you were supposed to treat your brother.

"He's not," Tony said grumpily.

"Now wait a minute, there. One fight doesn't mean—"

"He won't call you Daddy!" Tony's eyes went wide as the words poured out, and then he ducked his head. "He won't call Papa Papa."

Bucky sat down next to him and Tony leaned close, pressing his face to Bucky's shoulder. "You know that doesn't mean anything. Rhodey . . . has a different background. He was older when he came to us. And he can call us whatever he wants."

"You're our parents," Tony said stubbornly. "If we don't have the same parents, we're not brothers."

"Deputy Barton and Sheriff Coulson are married to each other but not to Deputy Romanoff," Bucky said. "Does that mean they don't love Miss Natasha like me and Steve do?"

"It's different," Tony insisted. "Rhodey said, he said we were brothers ‘cause we have the same parents, but."

Bucky pulled Tony onto his lap. "We're not your parents because of what you call us, Tony. We're your parents because we love you."

Tony cried a little bit, like he did most of the time when someone said they love him. "I think," Bucky said once Tony had calmed down, "that you owe your brother an apology, and not just for hitting his nose."

"He owes me one too," Tony said, glum.

"He does. Why don't you lay down and take a nap, and you guys can talk before dinner?"

"When 'm I too big for naps?"

"When you start school," Bucky said firmly, ignoring Tony's heartfelt sigh. Instead, he helped him lie down and tucked him in, including a kiss on the forehead.

He opened the door as he left to let Jarvis in to keep watch. Then he headed across the hall, to check in on Rhodey. "Looks like we've managed to stop the swelling," he said, taking the cold compress away.

Rhodey noded, but wouldn't look him in the eye.

He gave Rhodey the same little talk, about how Tony was his little brother and looked up to him and he should walk away before things escalated. Rhodey just stared at his bedspread, his shoulders hunching tighter and tighter, especially at the word "brother." It was hard sometimes, because Tony was so little and needy, to remember Rhodey was only nine himself, and that he'd lost both his own parents and the Starks, who took him in.

"It's ok to get mad sometimes. And I know it has to hurt like hell that this is where you ended up. But we're all trying our best for you, even Tony."

"Tony thinks everything's gotta be just like he wants it," Rhodey blurted out.

"Yeah. Tony's kind of a brat. But he's our brat, so we're working on it. And I need you to provide a good example for him, okay?"

“Yeah, okay” Rhodey said. He leaned against Bucky. “Is it. Did you really mean I could call you—”

“—whatever you want.” Bucky kissed the top of Rhodey’s head. “Steve and I love you, you know, no matter what. Whatever you call me, you will still be my son, and I will still love you.”

Rhodey choked back tears. His little arms crept around Bucky’s waist, and he pressed in as close as he could get. “I love you too, Dad.”

Bucky smiled, even though Rhodey couldn’t see it. “I know you do,” he said, and ignored the cold compress leaking water onto the floor in favor of hugging his kid.

* * *

If Bucky had held out any hope that his family would get over treating him like porcelain, and see that he was fine, those hopes were dashed fairly early on into 1871. He never quite liked it, but he came to just about tolerate it for the most part. Tony's hugs were a little more careful and Rhodey watched anxiously when Bucky climbed the stairs. Steve fussed over him in general, which Bucky was less inclined to put up with, but throughout the winter there was not a hell of a lot else for Steve to do. It was hard not to just let Steve take over at least the more physically demanding household chores, although Bucky still supervised with an eagle eye. He also ended up giving in and napping every day, because it made Steve let up a little on all the other work Bucky did.

It helped that, a lot of the time, Tony would tug his hand and ask if Bucky wanted to come nap with him and Jarvis; he had a hard time saying no to Tony just then. Tony alternated between being excited about the new baby and being clingy and resentful that Bucky had less energy in general, and less time to give it to Tony. He spent a lot of time trying to teach Jarvis to sit and beg and play dead. He also spent a lot of time curled up under Bucky's arm with his dog in his lap.

For a puppy, Jarvis was pretty low energy, which was good. He'd play when Tony wanted him too, but was also perfectly content to lie in a warm spot and have his ears scratched while Bucky and Tony read a book together. Tony's reading was getting really good and he knew how to sound out words he didn't know, so Bucky mostly just nodded encouragingly. He figured Tony was probably going to be halfway through the second year primer by the time he started school, but he loved it so much Bucky didn't have the heart to stop him. And he got plenty of playtime, even in the winter, between Jarvis, and Rhodey, and Steve taking the boys outside whenever Bucky needed a break.

Bucky loved that Tony loved to learn. He liked any new things, even if it was just Steve telling him something about sheep or Rhodey showing him a new knot. He;d even sit and watch Bucky cook, asking about recipes and how Bucky knew how much of things to use and why he didn't write down if he'd changed a receipt on the receipt card. Half his questions were things Bucky couldn't answer, like why the onions got see-through and then turned brown and sweet, if you cooked 'em long enough, or why corn would cook one way when you make grilled corn but turn into something completely different when you made popped corn, or what happened inside the churn to make the milk turn into butter, but he was still interested. Tony asked everyone in town, too. When Bucky or Steve didn't know something, they thought of who they could ask, and Tony never forgot a question.

In the spring, after the thaw, the traveling library rolled through town, and Bucky suggested getting a new encyclopedia. He mostly intended to have it for looking up answers, but Tony promptly sat down and started to read through it in order. "It's like school but all the time!" Tony said. Jarvis lolled on his back and Tony absently scratched his tummy while he learned about beetles.

"It's not really like school," Rhodey objected. "In school you have to sit still in a desk and not swing your feet even if they don't reach the floor and you don't get to pick what to read about and—"

"Let him enjoy it," Bucky said. "He'll start school soon enough."

Tony always came to the dinner table with facts about random things. "Did you know that penguins can live in South America too?"

"I didn't," Steve said calmly. "Did you know that little boys who want the energy to practice riding for an hour every day need to eat all their vegetables?"

Tony pouted, huge and exaggerated. Steve ignored him, asking instead how school was.

"It was fine," Rhodey said. "We played baseball again during recess—well, not the girls, except Wanda, and I was pitcher and no one got a hit off me."

"Hey, that's great!" Steve said. He kept an eye on Tony though, to make sure he didn't try to talk Jarvis into eating his carrots.

"And the school part of school?" Bucky asked, cutting his own carrots into tiny, precise pieces. (Everyone said the nausea would go away eventually, but it hadn't, yet. He was coming on the third trimester and still spent a lot of time sipping ginger for tea and nibbling stale bread.)

"Eh, it was fine. We learned about the colonies but Tony and I already read about that."

"See?" Tony grinned. "I'm doing my own school, right here at home."

"Sure, squirt," Rhodey said, making Tony glower.

Tony started to complain more, but Steve pointed out that he only had one more bite of carrots and then he could have some of the pie Dr. Banner had given them. Bucky turned green at the thought of pie. It wasn’t that the pie wouldn’t be delicious, it was just that he could not stomach the idea of rutabaga right then, no matter how much sugar was added. When Steve took the plates away and came back with the pie, Bucky rose abruptly. "I'm going to go finish making the beds.”

"We're just gonna sleep in 'em again in a couple hours," Tony said. "Don't you want dessert first, Daddy?"

"No. I'm all full." He slipped out of the kitchen and up the stairs, turned back the sheets on his and Steve’s bed, and lay down on top. When they traveled from Russia to San Francisco, Becka had suffered terribly from the rocking waves. It had been a difficult voyage for all of them, stuffed down below with stale air and crammed together, as many of them as could be sold hammocks, but Becka in particular had barely been able to eat, or to keep down what Bucky coaxed into her. She had braved the topside as much as was allowed, clinging to the railing and breathing in through her nose, out through her mouth, over and over and over again. Bucky tried that now, face turned towards the open window and the fresh spring air.

It didn’t help.

“You should see the disappointed looks I was giving for pausing to cut the boys pieces of dessert,” Steve said, coming over to lay a damp cloth on Bucky’s forehead. “You’d think I was poisoning them, when I told them to eat their pie.”

He squeezed Bucky’s hand. “I’ve got your leftover tea if—or the pot?”

They’d taken to keeping a chamberpot by the bed, because neither of them wanted Bucky fumbling to get around the privacy screen in the middle of the night. It was currently empty, which Bucky considered a victory. Steve sat on the edge of the bed, lifted Bucky's feet up so he could massage them.

"Christ, I just want this to be over."

"I know," Steve said. "It's awful, but you're doing something so great. You're making our baby."

"You think the kid'd be more grateful, then. I swear to God, Steve, one more person tells me this is the good period, that I should be glowing and full of energy . . ."

Steve just rubbed Bucky’s feet; there wasn’t really anything else he could do to help. Tony and Rhodey came up a little while later and joined them on the bed; Bucky drifted to sleep curled around Tony, with Rhodey tucked in against his back.

* * *

Still, the constant sickness worried at Bucky, for all he wouldn’t let Steve or the boys see his fears; he snuck over to Dr. Banner's office a lot whenever he headed into town for supplies.

Bruce was pretty patient. A lot of first-time pregnancies were terrifying, if the gleeful descriptions provided by every parent in town were anything to go by, and Bucky was having a rough go of it in any event. Bruce listened every time, and even poked around to make sure the baby was okay, before giving some advice and a cup of tea.

Bucky felt like he was drowning in tea, most of it ginger-flavored. It didn't stop the nausea, exactly, but it did mean that most of the time he could eat without throwing everything back up again half an hour later, which was something. The one thing that Bruce harped on him about every visit was that he wasn’t putting enough weight on.

"I can barely keep anything down."

"Or you might just be too scared to try. When's the last time you actually threw up?"

Bucky had to think for a minute. "Last Sunday. Tony's dog brought in a dead frog."

"That's enough to make anyone want to throw up." Bruce fiddled with his glasses, looking for the right words. "I know the boys can be picky eaters—God knows, Steve had a hell of a time getting them fed before you arrived—but you need to cook things you want to eat. Tell them it's doctor's orders."

Bucky sighed. "They're going to fuss."

"So they fuss. Bucky. The baby is gaining weight whether you do or not, which means you're losing weight—and muscles—that you can't afford to."

Bucky tilted his teacup back and forth and Bruce put a hand on his shoulder. "Look, those boys love you more than anything and they want you and the baby to be safe. You know Rhodey came in here after school one day to ask if you should stop carrying the laundry around."

"You'd think no one ever had a baby in the entire state before."

"Which is what I told him. But I'm telling you, now, that you need to eat more, put more weight on, or there'll be a lot more than carrying laundry becoming an issue."

Bucky thanked him and went back to the general store. Jane let him poke around for a while before she asked if there was anything special he was looking for.

"I . . ." he sighed. "I heard last week you were talking about getting some marmalade in?"

"Oh, yes!" She rummaged under the counter for a minute. "I ordered it for Thor's birthday. Used it instead of honey in a cake and it was so delicious."

Bucky bought a couple of jars, and also picked up some candy for the boys as a sort of apology for making them eat marmalade. He didn't even like marmalade, most of the time, but he'd been craving something orange-flavored for days now, and for some reason the idea of clumps of rind wasn’t putting him off the way it usually did.

He told Steve when he got home that Dr. Banner wanted him to try eating more foods he craved, if that was okay with Steve. Steve just held him. "I'll eat whatever you want whenever you want. You don't even have to be pregnant for that."

"That's because you're ridiculous," Bucky said, but he also nestled closer instead of pulling away. Steve just ran a hand up and down his back by way of reply.

Steve talked to the boys that night after Bucky claimed he was turning in early (the lack of food was really playing havoc with his energy) and instead lingered out of sight on the stairs, bizarrely nervous. They immediately got all mad that Bucky was not healthy because he was trying to make them happy.

"How c'n I be happy if Daddy's sick?" Tony demanded, which, Steve agreed, pretty much summed everything up, as far as they were concerned.

In the morning, Steve got up extra early to go out and feed the barn animals before he came back in and made breakfast. When Bucky came down, there were bacon and fried eggs and marmalade spread thick on toast. Of course, the bacon and eggs were slightly overcooked, but the marmalade tasted so good Bucky couldn't even make a joke about it. And the food helped, a lot. He got the baking done, including a marmalade tart for dinner, without wanting to gag once. And after he and Tony woke up from their nap, he had the energy left to take Tony and Jarvis down to the creek to fish; they ended up with a string of trout for dinner. Bucky even let Tony help clean them, though he kept a hand wrapped around Tony's on the knife at all times. When Steve came up from the south pasture, they were building a fire in the clearing behind the house. "Weather's nice," Bucky said. "Figured it might be fun for the boys."

Rhodey dragged big sticks over, while Tony and Jarvis "helped" by finding kindling and brush and generally getting in the way. Steve drew Tony away by asking him about going fishing and Tony boasted about how he caught two fish, but they had to throw one of them back, and then he helped clean them and everything. "And the heart was still beating when we took it out, Papa!"

Bucky, who the boys ordered to sit and rest, just laughed, and put the fish on skewers for grilling. Steve taught Rhodey how to hold them over the fire and how to know when they were done, and Rhodey took it very seriously. When Bucky not only cleaned his plate, but took a second helping, both boys sighed happily.

They sat out for a long time under the stars, Steve telling stories about when he first came out west and Tony dozing against Jarvis' side. When Steve wound down, Rhodey nudged Bucky gently. "When did you first come west, Dad?"

"Actually," Bucky said, "for me it was coming east."

Bucky hadn't ever talked about it, not really, but he tried. He felt like the boys deserve an explanation, and even more than that, that his family—his old family—deserved remembering. He told them about going back to Russia, being sent on to Siberia ("that's where I met Miss Natasha"), and Tony's hand gripped his tightly when he talked about coming back over.

"And then your Pa found me again." He smiled at Steve, eyes clear in the firelight. "I tried telling him I wasn't that smart aleck kid from Brooklyn anymore, but he was always too stubborn to listen to good common sense."

"I wasn't stubborn, I was just right." Steve leaned in for a kiss and the boys pressed close against Bucky's legs.

Tony was real quiet for the rest of the night, as they put out the fire and went inside. "Hey," Bucky says, when Tony insisted on dragging himself up the stairs to bed instead of being carried. "What's going on in the big brain of yours, kiddo?"

Tony stopped when they get to his room. "I'm sorry, Daddy," he said. "I'm . . . a lot of bad stuff happened to you, and I know I should wish it hadn't, but it means that you're here now."

"It does," Bucky said, "which is why I'm glad it happened."

"You are?"

"If I'd had the choice when I was going through it, of course I would've said no. But now, seeing where it got me, being here, with you and Rhodey and Steve? How can I be anything but grateful for this life?"

Tony flung himself at Bucky and hugged him tight. "I don't want anything bad to happen to you ever. But I love you and I'm glad you're here with us."

"I love you too," Bucky said. He picked Tony up, ignoring his squirming protests about the baby, and carried him to the bed.

Tony still burrowed down under the covers and Jarvis jumped up to curl up at the end of the bed. "Will you stay with me?" he asked. "Just for a little bit, until I fall asleep?"

"Always." Bucky lay down next to him, but on top of the covers, and rubbed Tony's back until his eyes drooped shut and his breathing evened out. It was a struggle to get up again after, not because he was exhausted, but because he wanted to stay and watch Tony sleep, the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the way he looked angelic in the moonlight, no hint of mischief on his fact. He petted Jarvis on his way out. He did feel better knowing Tony couldn't just run off without some protection.

When he got to the bedroom, he stopped for a moment to really be thankful, since Steve was naked. "Definitely not that eight-year-old kid from Brooklyn anymore," he commented, eyes trailing down Steve's body.

"You took forever." He reached out and Bucky pulled off his shirt as he gets nearer. "Had to wash up. Couldn't come to bed smelling like smoke."

"Sure," Bucky said, unbuttoning his pants. "Smoke's a lot worse 'n sweat and cattle and horse liniment."

"Shut up," Steve said, grinning. He propped himself on his elbow and just smiled as he watched Bucky strip down. It was hard to believe that just five and half months ago, Bucky wouldn't even sleep in the same room as Steve, and now here he was crawling naked into Steve's bed and Steve's arms.

Steve kissed him for a long while. They usually slept spooned up together, but Steve seemed reluctant to let him roll over tonight. "Hey," Bucky whispered, nibbling on Steve's ear, "wanna practice?"

"Practice what?"

Bucky grinned. "Getting started on the next one."

Steve just growled and rolled Bucky onto his back, settling between his legs for more kissing. Bucky arched up against him and whined in frustration. "Steve, c'mon, a guy could—oh god—die here."

Steve kissed his way down Bucky's neck, scraping teeth over his tendon just to hear Bucky hiss. "Let me take my time with you," he said. "I wanna."

Bucky still balled his hands up into fists when Steve started pressing kisses against the insides of his thighs. And then, Steve reached for the bottle of oil that Bucky'd had to refill an embarrassing number of times the last few months, and pressed a slick finger inside him in one smooth push that makes him gasp. He arched and Steve pressed him back down so he could slide his mouth over Bucky's cock. Bucky squirmed, but Steve didn't ever let up. His mouth was warm and wet and he crooked his finger and Bucky bit the heel of his palm to keep from coming. "Steve, please."

"What if I wanna see you come apart this way? So I can really watch."

Bucky fisted his hand in Steve's hair and pulled until Steve slid up, laughing, to kiss him again. "I wanna come apart with you inside me," Bucky said, voice hoarse. "Please."

"Can't ever say no to you," Steve said, cupping Bucky's cheek before their mouths met again. Bucky almost sobbed in pleasure when the head of Steve's cock rubbed against him. He spread his legs a little more, hitched his hips, and when Steve finally, finally slid in Bucky rocked up to meet him, unable to stop himself from moving.

"You always feel so good," Steve says, dropping his head so his words were muffled by Bucky's shoulder. "Why do you always feel so good?"

"Natural talent," Bucky panted, digging his fingers a little tighter into Steve's back.

"I taught you everything you know," Steve said with a grin.

"You did. But I do it harder."

Steve laughed, and the vibrations make both of them moan. Bucky dug his heel into Steve's back to urge him on. "I'm pregnant, I'm not made of glass."

Steve made the annoyed noise he always made when Bucky wouldn't let them do things for him and he sped up. Bucky arched his back, gasping every time Steve pushed deeper. He loved this, and he refused to be ashamed of it, meeting Steve thrust for thrust. He was, in the beginning. But Steve disabused him of that notion. They were married and they were supposed to find joy in each other.

Steve shifted a little on his arms, trapping Bucky's cock between their stomachs, and the added friction makes him bite back a groan. He was close, so close, trapped between wanting release and wanting the moment to last for hours. He whimpered, and Steve nuzzled his cheek. "I know, hon. I know." He ground in a little harder and Bucky's fingernails dug in deeper.

Steve lifted one hand off the bed, wrapping it around Bucky's cock. It only took a few gentle tugs before Bucky swore, biting Steve's shoulder as he came. Bucky's leg kicked and his hand clenched and Steve pulled back a little to watch. His favorite sight in the world was Bucky coming by lamplight.

Bucky’s eyes widened, right before they slip closed, and he gasped Steve's name like it was the most beautiful thing, like he couldn't help but say it.

Steve came at that, every time. He couldn't help it. He pushed in as far as he could and pressed kisses to Bucky's cheeks, to his nose. He was thick inside Bucky and heavy on top of him and for a moment, Bucky reveled in the feeling, in being safe and still and warm, before Steve remembered the baby and pulled away.

Bucky grumbled and Steve laughed. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come here." He pulled Bucky back into his arms and nuzzled into his hair. It was still cool enough after dark that they'd have to put night clothes on, but for the moment Bucky just leaned into Steve, into his strength and his arms and the heat he radiated like a franklin stove.

"I love you," Steve whispered. "I can't believe I found you again. I'm the luckiest bastard in the world."

Bucky tilted his head up and gave Steve a gentle kiss. "Yeah," he said, "you are."

* * *

Things were better after that, for awhile. Then, somewhere around the halfway mark in his pregnancy, Bucky and Steve had a fight about how much Bucky was doing. Nothing like the blow up fight over Bucky’s six-shooters, but any argument was apt to make him cry, for reasons that were utterly natural and utterly, completely frustrating. At first Bucky reiterated the old arguments, about how there was a ranch to run, and the chores had to get done one way or another, but Steve kept harping, kepy pushing for why Bucky insisted he had to be the one to do them. Finally Bucky said, "it's just going to upset you."

Steve said, "I'm upset already, Buck."

Bucky just deflated. "People die in childbirth, Steve. Every day, people die. And I want to do as much as I can, for you, for the boys, while I can do it, because I might not ever get to do it again."

Steve was silent for a moment, before sitting next to Bucky, gingerly, on the edge of their bed. "I want you to be able to do all those things, Buck. More than anything. That's why we need you to rest now, so later, you'll be stronger, be more likely to." He swallowed. "To make this our home, for a long, long time."

Bucky worried so much about his family, and this was the most dangerous thing they'd ever done. He’d ever done. He didn't want the boys to lose another parent, and he knew Steve was completely incapable of running the house alone. He was visiting with Nat one day when he stopped and said, "If something happens to me, can you find someone else for Steve?"

Nat looked at him for a moment, the same look she used to give him when he suggested something stupid back in Siberia, like her taking his ration of bread, or his coat. "If something happens to you, James Buchanan Rogers, there's no one else Steve will ever marry, and not even a newborn in need of a mother will change that."

"Someone has to take care of him. And the boys."

"We will, we all will. We wouldn't make him go through that alone."

"Swear to me," Bucky said, and he hadn't asked her to swear to anything since the night he made her vow to leave San Francisco without him.

"With all my heart, Yasha."

They were quiet for a few minutes, watching Tony and Jarvis run around in the clearing, when she said, "We'd do it for you too. If anything happened to Steve. You're part of the community now."

"If." Bucky ducked his head, rested a hand on the swelling where his stomach used to be flat. "I know how to survive," he said simply. It wasn’t that losing Steve wouldn't end his world; it was just that his world has ended more times than he could count, and somehow he'd kept on living. "Steve—"

"Is stronger than you give him credit for. You know, I don't know if he would have actually gotten married. We all thought it was best for him, but he insisted he could raise the boys on his own. Then I showed him your picture."

"He loves me," Bucky said quietly. "Just because he lived without me for twenty years before, don't mean he knows how to do it now. It's different, now." The baby kicked him, suddenly. It had been doing that the last week or so, not so Steve or Rhodey or Tony could feel, but a little flutter against Bucky's insides, just enough to know there was a life growing in there. A person. "I'm scared, Nat."

She hugged him, pressing a kiss to his temple. "I know. It's a scary thing. But this is beyond our wildest dreams. We already live in a fantasy world, and the enchanted prince can't die now."

Tony came running up, cheeks flush from the cold, and skidded to a stop right before hitting them, then carefully wrapped his arms around Bucky's neck in a hug. "Love you, Daddy!" He squeezed once and kissed Bucky's cheek, then ran off again, calling, "Jarvis, heel!"

"Enchanted prince, huh?"

"Castle, gorgeous husband, adoring subjects. If the shoe fits . . ." She grinned and he bumped her with his shoulder. "Not to side against you . . ." Natasha said, watching Tony and Jarvis wrestle.

"But?"

"Doing things for you, right now, it makes them feel better, no? Useful? Perhaps that is the best way you can take care of them. Perhaps, if the worst does happen, they will find comfort in knowing they did everything they could to make you comfortable and safe. To show you they love you and cherish you. And perhaps I'm not the one you should be telling you are scared. Not the only one, anyway."

"I still hate it when you're right," he said. But he thought about if Steve were sick, how he would feel if Steve died and he hadn't done all he could.

That night, after dinner, Bucky let Steve and the boys do the dishes while he sat in the rocking chair Steve had made as soon as he knew about the baby. He pulled out his sewing basket, but making baby clothes was hardly taxing. He even went up to bed before Tony, who agreed to let Steve tuck him in with hardly a protest. And when Steve climbed into bed beside him, Bucky curled closer, whispered Steve's name.

"Thank you," Steve whispered back. "For taking care of yourself. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you."

"You'd go on," Bucky said. "You have to—you have to go on. I need to know that."

"I will, but God the days would be black. After this much happiness? I'd go on, for the boys, but I'd wait my whole life to join you."

Bucky surged forward, buried his face in Steve's neck, trembling. "Sorry, sorry. Fuck, I just. I'm scared, Steve, I'm—I'm so scared."

"I'm scared too," Steve whispered, holding him tight. "We gotta lean on each other, okay?" Bucky nodded, but Steve didn't let go.

They fell asleep like that, tangled together, and in the morning Bucky’s left arm was numb from being trapped in an odd position all night long, but it was worth it, to see the soft smile on Steve's face when he woke up and found Bucky tucked as close to Steve as he could get. "Go back to sleep," Steve told him, "I'll get breakfast started."

And Bucky, Bucky just nodded and rolled over, nestling into his pillow. "Don't burn the oatmeal; the boys won't eat it burnt, even with raisins and cinnamon."

"I'm not gonna burn it," Steve said, tucking Bucky back in.

Bucky padded downstairs just as Steve and the boys were scraping up the last bits of their breakfast. He kissed the top of Tony and Rhodey's heads before sitting down and pouring a hefty serving of marmalade over his oatmeal. In a testament to how worried he must've been, Rhodey didn't even make a face at the kiss, even though he'd been insisting lately he was too old for all that stuff.

"So, is the baby kicking yet?" Tony asked. "Enough so’s I can feel?" Bucky shook his head and Tony pouted. "Dr. Banner said that eventually I'll be able to feel it and it's going to be wonderful."

"Give it time, kiddo. I'm growing a whole person in here, you know."

"I know! I read all about it in the encyclopedia. There's drawings of how big the baby is and everything! I showed Rhodey too."

"It was gross," Rhodey said.

Tony looked deeply offended. "It was not!"

"It sure was. If I was supposed to see what it looks like, it wouldn't happen inside a person, where no one can watch!"

Bucky laughed so hard that Steve had to pat his back. "Rhodey, Tony, dishes and then we'll go for a riding lesson."

"Yay!" Tony drained the rest of his milk in one long gulp, then practically ran to the kitchen with his dishes, stopping when Steve clears his throat meaningfully, and then taking the slowest, guiltiest walk possible all the way to the sink.

Bucky frowned a little. He missed riding. "Once the baby's born," Steve murmured into his ear, "we'll go on a nice long ride, just us two."

"There's other things I could ride in the meantime," Bucky said, keeping his face perfectly straight. "But not while the boys are around."

“James Buchanan Rogers!” Bucky just ate his oatmeal, looking for all the world like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. If he had to suffer, he figured, he might as well spread the pain a little.

If the way Steve’s steps hitched as he gathered up his hat and coat were any indication, it certainly worked.

* * *

Through the winter and into the spring, Rhodey worked diligently with Steve every day on training Patriot. Finally, when they were edging towards March, towards Bucky’s birthday and his and Steve’s anniversary, and he’s already had to disappoint the boys by nixing a bit party on the grounds that it was exhausting, Bucky gave in. If Steve was certain enough in Rhodey’s skills and Patriot’s training to say Rhodey could take himself to and from school, Bucky wouldn’t stand in the way.

Steve was convinced.

“He’s not even by himself, not really,” he pointed out. It was true; the Maximoff twins and the Parker’s nephew, Peter, rose past The Star And Shield every morning on their way to school, and had even promised to keep an eye on Rhodey

Bucky was still waiting on the porch from the moment school got out the first day, though. Even though he knew they lived a twenty minute ride away.

Tony was also waiting, but that was because Rhodey getting home was Tony's favorite part of the day, most of the time; Jarvis was waiting too, because where Tony went, Jarvis went.

Of course, Rhodey rode in just fine, waving to Pietro, Wanda and Peter. Tony went running to meet him and so Jarvis went running after, and Bucky went back inside to check on the ginger snaps he was making as a treat. Tony came back in five minutes later, carrying Rhodey's empty lunch pail. "What's wrong, kiddo?" Bucky asked.

"He's talking to Patriot," Tony said. "While he rubs him down 'n' stuff, he's talking to his horse instead of me."

"He'll talk to you when he's done, I'm sure. But Patriot just carried his weight all the way from town. That's hard work." Bucky went down into the cellar and came back with a carrot. "I think Patriot deserves a little treat for bringing Rhodey home. Don't you?"

"I guess." Tony took the carrot and trudged outside. But when he returned, Rhodey was with him, holding his hand and listening attentively to Tony's chattering about his day.

It was still cold out, so the boys and Jarvis immediately flopped down in front of the fire. Bucky brought them a plate of cookies and some milk, and let them catch up before he asked about homework. Rhodey was good about getting it done, but Bucky'd rather he do it by natural light than strain his eyes reading under an oil lamp.

It was easier getting Rhodey to do homework, in some ways, because Tony thought of studying as playtime. There was money left in a trust for Tony, and Steve told him that one of the things the trust could be used for was boarding school, but they both hated that idea. If Tony wanted to go to college some day, out in California or back east, well, he'd be 18 by then. Practically an adult. But until then, he was their responsibility, and Bucky didn't want to just turn him over to other people to raise. He worried that they wouldn't do it right. Tony needed so much attention and love and the thought of him waking up from one of his nightmares in a dormitory and not able to come snuggle in with them was heartbreaking.

Nonetheless, Tony’s love of learning came in mighty handy when he was an unwitting accomplice in reminding his brother to get homework done while there was still plenty of daylight left. Bucky was perfectly willing to take advantage of that; at this point in his pregnancy he figured he could use all the help he could get.

In that regard, Jarvis more than proved his worth as a companion. One benefit that Bucky hadn’t considered when he and Steve agreed on an English Bulldog was the breed’s tenacious grip. They soon discovered, to Tony’s detriment, that Jarvis could hold onto the tail of Tony’s shirt and drag Tony backwards away from—well, pretty much anything. It did have a tendency to rip holes in Tony’s clothing, but Bucky said that was just recompense for not listening or doing what he was supposed to.

“You just sit there in Papa’s chair where I can see you, and while you mend that shirt you think about all the worse things that could happen to little boys who fall in a creek with no grown-ups around, after promising their daddy they’d stay away from it.” “I c’n swim,” Tony started, still half-indignant, but when Bucky raised an eyebrow he subsided, and bent his head back to his sewing. “You don’t gotta be so careful,” he muttered to Jarvis later.

Bucky made sure to give Jarvis a treat whenever he kept Tony safe, though. It was getting to be more than Bucky could handle alone; as the baby grew so did Tony’s desire to wander ever farther away in search of adventure, while his understanding that Bucky couldn’t—or wouldn’t—join in was equally waning.

Finally, when Tony had finished mending his shirt for the third time in one week, he sidled up next to Bucky on the couch, wriggling under Bucky’s arm and resting his head just over the baby. He’d long since stopped finding it exciting every time the baby moved, but he kept his cheek pressed there, face turned away from Bucky, and whispered, “Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“When the baby comes, will I still be your tateleh?”

Bucky put his own sewing down and tilted Tony’s face up, so he could look him in the eye. “Always,” he said. “Tony, I could have a hundred babies and you would still be my tateleh.”

“That’s a lot of babies.”

“It is. But there is only one Tony, myTony, and you will always be my very best Tony and my very first tateleh, and nothing will ever change that.”

Tony sighed happily. “Okay then,” he said. He snuggled in a little closer, and although it put pressure in interesting places, Bucky let him be.

“Is that what’s been worrying at you, mischief?”

“It ain’t mischief, Daddy, not really. I’m learning.”

“You could do some learning from our own home,” Bucky pointed out.

“But Daddy,” Tony said, “I have to learn everything or how can I be a big brother?”

“Rhodey doesn’t know everything. That’s why he goes to school—and yes, you will still have a to wait a few years. But tateleh, you know so much more than babies do; you’ll have so much to show and teach, and you know how to be a big brother because you already have one to watch and learn from yourself. So maybe listen to Jarvis a little more and stay where I know you’re safe?”

“Okay Daddy. But you’ll miss all the frogs, I bet.”

Bucky just laughed and kissed the top of Tony’s head. That was a bet he was willing to take any day of the week.

* * *

There was a rodeo, a celebration of new life, as spring edged towards summer. Bucky honestly had no memory of last year’s fair, whether because he’d been so miserable still that he’d completely forgotten it, or Steve had just never mentioned it, never taken them. It was hard to believe, to remember, but a year ago Tony had still only barely come around to Bucky’s presence, really; they could hardly have presented the picture of a happy family.

Regardless, they actually were a happy family now, and could hardly be mistaken for anything else.

Rhodey begged and pleaded and presented some very good arguments and finally, on the day itself, Steve agreed that he could enter the under 13s race on Patriot. Bucky clutched Steve’s arm so hard he left fingerprint imprints that took fifteen minutes to fade, but in the end Rhodey not only finished safely, he came in second.

“Next year,” he told them, grinning and clutching his bouquet of peonies, “after me ‘n’ Patriot ‘ve practiced a lot more, I’m gonna win the whole thing, right Pa?”

Steve ruffled his hair. “You just keep working hard and doing your best,” he said.

Bucky, who had reluctantly agreed he shouldn’t enter the sharp-shooting competition so close to giving birth, felt entirely in sympathy when Rhodey rolled his eyes. It helped, some, when he handily won the baking competition with the best strawberry pie the judges claimed to have ever tasted.

“He’s taken,” Steve said, wrapping an arm around Bucky’s back and half-glaring, half-laughing at Sam Wilson’s expression.

“I’m just saying,” Sam said around the fork that was still in his mouth, “if you ever want to sell pies to my customers I’ll eat them all first.”

The rest of the day was equally lovely, from the outdoor meal the whole town partook in to the sight of Rhodey, Tony, and Jarvis running around laughing and playing with the other children. “This time next year,” Steve murmured, rubbing his fist into the small of Bucky’s back, “we’ll have three of them chasing after each other.”

Bucky leaned into Steve’s shoulder. As golden as the moment was, the part of him that was still a little boy, watching the Russian coastline grow larger and larger on the horizon, this new, strange, frightening world, wrapped a hand around his locket and held on tight. “God willing,” he agreed.

Steve huffed a laugh, and kissed him on the temple.

* * *

Tony’s birthday arrived, when Bucky was huge, and hot, and his ankles and back hurt constantly and Steve’s kid wouldn’t quit kicking him in the ribs or resting on his bladder. He still baked Tony a cake to envy all other cakes, chocolate with frosting between two layers and egg-white icing all around the top. The men, who all remembered when Tony was born and consequently were wrapped around his little finger, spent all day churning ice cream, and to top off the extra treats they had fresh lemonade.

Natasha, Barton, and Coulson came out from town, along with Sam, and Miss Peggy joined her husband and the other hands with her special doughnuts. “They’re yummy,” Tony whispered to Bucky when Peggy’s back was turned, “but they’re not as yummy as yours, Daddy.”

Bucky was too big for a real hug, but he squeezed Tony’s shoulder. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

Tony looked suspicious. “Are you crying again?”

“Oh, go ride your pony.”

For Tony was finally big enough that Happy was officially “his”, not just in terms of no one else riding him, but his to feed and clean and take care of. Happy was pretty easy, as far as ponies went, and, even better, got along just fine with Jarvis, so Tony never had to choose one of his pets over the other.

Tony asked for a magnifying glass for his birthday and nothing else. It wasn’t the only thing Tony got, of course, even excluding Happy. But he was in a big solving things phase, brought on at least in part by the latest detective story Steve had brought home for him from Odinson’s. Having a magnifying glass was only enhanced by having a dog to go snooping alongside him. The two of them spent three days solving the Mystery of the Missing Scissors. (They were in the barn, where they had no business being; when Bucky asked Tony why, exactly, his good scissors were in the barn, Tony’s eyes got big and said that was a mystery no one could tell Bucky the answer to.)

Once, Tony got incredibly excited when Bucky actually offered to hire Jarvis and him to solve a case (payment to be determined upon solution.) "What is it?" he asked, jumping up and down and making Jarvis bark eagerly.

"Well," Bucky said, fighting back a grin, "some unknown person or people have left muddy boot and paw prints all over my kitchen floor . . ."

Jarvis immediately ducked behind Tony. Tony at least had the grace to duck his head and look a little bit sorry. "What if, instead of finding out who did it, we figured out how to fix it?"

"I think in that case you would deserve payment in the form of fresh hot doughnuts. How's that sound?"

Tony looked down at Jarvis for confirmation, and then nodded. "That would be acceptable!'

Bucky shook his hand, very formally. "We have a deal then, Detective."

Bucky then had a minute to sit and do some mending while listening to Tony splash with the bucket and talk to Jarvis in the kitchen. "It's your job to 'member ‘bout wiping feet," Tony chastised. Jarvis barked once.

"Yeah, I know," Tony said in response. He came out when he was done and sat on the couch with Bucky. "So . . ."

"Ready for your doughnuts?" Bucky put his sewing down and started to stand. He was fairly huge now, having had to take his pants out more times that he liked to admit, and his center of gravity was definitely off; getting out of a seated position could take a minute or two just to make sure he kept his balance.

Tony slid his hand into Bucky's and chattered as they went into the kitchen. He sat at the table and watched Bucky put together doughnuts. "Daddy? Can I help?"

"Of course you can." Bucky helped Tony roll up his sleeves, and got him a giant apron. Then he gave Tony some of the dough, to shape however he wanted. Tony tried to make stars and hearts and Bucky was extra careful when he lowered them into the oil not to destroy their shape.

"Papa said when the baby comes you may be in bed for awhile," Tony said, watching his shapes cook up, "so someone has to know how to make doughnuts. Papa can't even hardly cook beans."

"Thank you," Bucky said. He helped Tony up onto a stool so that he could explain how you know when to turn the doughnuts and when to take them out.

"If you twist them, like this, instead of having them round with a hole, then they turn themselves."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Why don't you ask Miss Jane the next time we go into town?"

"Okay." Tony slipped away and ran for the scraps of paper Steve gave him to write down the questions he wanted to ask people later. When he came back, Bucky was taking the first round of doughnuts out of the oil and letting them drip dry; Tony's shapes had held up well for the most part, although a few of the stars looked more like circles with five bumps. Tony could barely wait until they were cool enough to eat, but then he immediately shoved half of one in his mouth. The rest was for Jarvis.

They filled the doughnut jar, and set aside a heart for when Rhodey got home from school. Then Bucky took his bread dough from where it had been rising, and he and Tony shaped it into loaves. Normally he only did the baking for one week at a time, but he was trying to stock up the ice box for when he couldn't bake anymore. Steve promised that he could at least get the frozen bread into the oven, but Bucky was worried about how much of a burden he and the kids would be on Peggy. Besides which, they were going to be eating a lot more sandwiches while Bucky was laid up; he'd heard all the horror stories of life before his cooking from Rhodey, Tony, the men, Peggy, and even, with a sheepish smile, Steve. Steve liked rubbing Bucky's achy lower back and telling him stories that made him laugh. The food just made Bucky nervous, though. He needed everything to be ready so that the family he already had didn't suffer while he wa stuck in bed. Or if the worst should happen. He needed to know they'd be taken care of, that he'd taken care of them, as much as possible. He wanted this baby, but not at the expense of his boys. He didn't want anything bad to ever happen to his boys, not that hadn’t already. Not that they couldn’t survive.

* * *

Once June came, Steve did his best, generally speaking, to stay nearby. He’d started an addition to the house as soon as the snows ended, but by working diligently and hiring extra hands he’d already finished it, though, and he still had a ranch to run. He couldn’t leave everything to the men, no matter how good a foreman Colonel Phillips was. There came a day when the herd was being located to a greener pasture, farther away, and all hands were needed.

“Go,” Bucky said. “My back’s been aching off and on all night, but what else is new?”

With a kiss, and an admonishment to Tony to be good for his daddy, Steve went.

Predictably, the first pangs of labor hit that afternoon. It wasn’t so bad, in the beginning. Bucky was able to finish making a rather large number of sandwiches for Steve to have while he was laid up, label them all, and store them in the ice box. The boys were going to Peggy and Gabe’s, at least that first week, so Bucky made his way upstairs to pack a small bundle of clothing for them. It was on his way back down that the first truly painful pang arrived; he sat down so abruptly he nearly lost his balance and tumbled all the way to the ground.

Tony found him, still sitting there, nearly ten minutes later. “Daddy? Are you okay?”

“Tateleh,” Bucky said, “I have a very important job for you and Jarvis.”

Tony snapped to attention. “Is it the baby?”

“It’s going to be fine. Listen closely, now. I need you to go wait by the gate for Rhodey to come home from school—yes, you may take a doughnut with you. When your brother comes, tell him not to come up to the house. Tell him I said he should ride out to Papa, and say that it’s time. And Tony, tell him it’s very important I said he ride safely, do you understand?”

“If it’s the baby, I c’n take Happy to—”

“Tony. You promised Papa to be good for me. I need you to be very good, and do just exactly what I said. Do you promise?”

Tony nodded. He repeated the message for Bucky, twice, then went to the kitchen to grab snacks for himself, Jarvis, and Rhodey. Bucky waited until he’d heard the door slam, then carefully, holding the bannister, twisted and turned until he was on his hands and knees and crawled up the stairs, one step at a time. He kept crawling all the way down the hall to his room, to change into his nightshirt and climb into bed.

After that, Bucky drifted for awhile, half-drowsing between the bouts of overwhelming pain. When the door finally opened, it wasn’t Doc Banner at all, but Steve himself, who had no business being in a birthing room. Bucky astonished both of them by promptly bursting into tears and clutching Steve’s hand.

“It’s alright,” Steve murmured. He ran his free hand through Bucky’s hair, stroking gently. “Dugan went for the doc, is all. I didn’t want you to be alone. Buck, it’s. It’s gonna be alright. Sweetheart—”

Bucky pressed his face to their entwined fingers. He didn’t exactly stop crying, but that first, torrential outpouring slowed. When the next labor pain hit, he squeezed Steve’s hand and Steve winced, a little, but didn’t say anything, just kept petting Bucky’s hair until Bucky drifted away again to that half-conscious place where he could almost, almost pretend that nothing was frightening and the pain didn’t matter.

“Hey,” Steve said, when that awful spasm passed, “remember the time when you were five, and your ma was having Becka so you came to stay with us? You were so scared you made yourself sick, and my ma said it was a nice change, having a little boy other than me to care for. Everything turned out right then, remember?”

Bucky nodded. Steve’s rhythmic petting was soothing, gently bringing him down to earth again. “Your mother sat up with me all night,” he said. “We sat in her rocker, and I kept waking up and crying and she rubbed my back and sang to me, and I felt like everything had to be alright, if I could just stay in that moment. If morning never came it couldn’t bring bad news.”

“And then it came,” Steve said, “all golden light spilling over the windowsill, and your pa at the door to bring you home to the baby, and the news your ma was gonna be just fine.”

With his free hand, Bucky rubbed a thumb over his locket. “Steve.”

Steve just kept running his fingers through Bucky’s hair, over and over and over, until another paroxysm hit and right on through it. Bucky remembered something else then, something he didn’t think Steve had ever known. That same night, in the wee hours when Steve had been solidly snoring for a while and Bucky had known, deep down inside, that nothing would ever be the same, that his dad was right and it was too soon and his mama could—could—he’d whispered his darkest secret to Steve’s ma. “If my mama dies,” he’d said, “I won’t ever forgive the baby. I won’t.”

“Oh, darling boy,” Mrs. Rogers had said, “don’t you know that parents love their children more than anything in the world? If it should happen that your mother dies so that her baby can live, that is a sacrifice she would willingly make. Any parent would. That baby no more asked to be created than Steve asked to be sickly. Nor does it have any choice in the matter. And sweetling, I know, I know it’s not the same, but if you miss your mama, don’t you take it out on the baby, you hear? You come here, you come to me, to my arms, and I will always hold you and love you, and you can be just as mad at me as you like for being here, when your mama isn’t. And then you go home, with a clear heart, and you love your brother or sister like the Good Lord intended. Promise me now, James.” She’d laid her tired, worn cheek on top of his head, and held him all through his darkest anger, his deepest fears, and Bucky had promised, even though he hadn’t understood.

He understood now. He didn’t tell Steve that, either.

Bruce arrived eventually, Natasha in tow, and the two of them promptly kicked Steve out. “Yes, yes,” Natasha said, turning Steve around and pushing his big, stupid shoulders out the door, “but you won’t make it better, trust me.” Then she came back and lay down next to Bucky, while Bruce took out his stethoscope and other tools Bucky was decidedly not paying attention to.

“Yasha.”

“No,” Bucky said. “Нет. If it comes down to me or the baby, you save this baby.”

“Yasha, please—”

“Bruce, you promise me. Don’t let her sweet talk you, Doc. Whatever. Whatever you gotta do. And you tell my boys I loved them, and. You understand?”

“I understand,” Bruce said. “Let’s get you up and walking around a bit, while you still can. Sometimes it speeds things along.”

Bruce and Natasha each took one of Bucky’s arms over their shoulders, and the three of them paced up and down, up and down, pausing every fifteen to twenty minutes or so for another labor pain.

“It can’t be meant to hurt this much,” Bucky said, after nearly two hours. “Not. Not this much.”

“Every primagravidum says that,” Bruce replied. “Come lie down and let me take another look.”

Just after Bruce had pulled the sheet back over Bucky, another wave of pain came, this time so bad that Bucky shouted out before he could stop himself. It wasn’t until the pain ebbed away that he realized Peggy had slipped into the room—Peggy, who should be at her own house, with Bucky’s boys, making them dinner and tucking them into bed for the night and soothing their worries, like Steve’s ma had soothed Bucky’s, a lifetime ago.

“I know,” she said, when Bucky blinked at her, “but they simply won’t come. It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, that a man as stubborn as yours would raise two stubborn mules for sons. If my Gabe were that bad I’d have throttled him ages ago. So I thought I’d go where I could be of some use, and sod the rest of them.”

Bucky turned his face to Natasha. “My belt,” he said, voice ragged from the screams he hadn’t realized he should be holding back. “Please, they’ll. They’ll be scared.”

Natasha pursed her lips, but she also fetched a belt for him, folded in half so he could bite it as needed.

“I see we’re all being dramatic,” Peggy murmured. Bucky shrugged; he didn’t have the energy to argue with her. He didn’t have much energy at all.

Time ebbed and flowed in great waves of pain, and Bucky floated with it, taking in little of what happened around him. Sometimes Peggy or Natasha would put a cup to his lips, and there would be water or whiskey. Sometimes Bruce would check his progression, and shake his head. Sometimes the three of them would talk to each other, in the corner, and Bucky should probably understand what they were saying but he couldn’t seem to take it in. All he knew was fear, and pain, and exhaustion. Eventually the belt fell from his mouth, and he didn’t bother to replace it; he couldn’t muster the strength to scream anymore.

It had grown dark, and he drifted, everything hazy around him with the sputtering glow of the kerosene. It had grown light, and Peggy had run downstairs to fetch food for herself, Natasha, and Bruce. It had grown bright enough Natasha drew the curtains, to keep the sun from Bucky’s eyes, but it hardly mattered. None of it mattered. Bucky wondered if this was a pain to endure, or a pain that would be endured by others.

And then Bruce swore, and Bucky surfaced long enough to hear the words, “the baby’s breech.”

Bucky tried to speak, couldn’t, cleared his throat. “Doc.”

“Yasha, Yasha. There is life, yes? Promise me, Yasha, there is life.” Natasha rested her forehead against his, and her face swam into focus. Her bright red hair and her dear, tear-filled eyes. “Yasha.”

He closed his eyes. It was so long ago that Mrs. Rogers rocked him, back and forth, back and forth, through the dark, black night. So long ago, and his mother had lived, then. Then. When his father was alive. A lifetime ago. Many lifetimes. His father’s. His mother’s. Becka—Becka had been his, as much as she was ever theirs. After the deportation, after. In Russia, in Siberia, when his mother had only know how to keep going, not to keep living. Bucky had been mother and father, brother and friend, and Becka, Becka had died. What would happen to Rhodey, to Tony, if Steve didn’t know how to live? If Bucky.

“There’s life,” he told Natasha.

There was.

There were two lives.

He never remembered what Bruce actually did, lost the actual moments to a fever-memory, but he remembered Natasha squeezing his hand, and he remembered someone crying, soft and sharp, and a joy, an exquisite pain, when someone small and scared was placed in his arms and sighed against his chest, a full body shiver, before falling asleep to his heartbeat.

“Congratulations,” Bruce said. He smiled. “You have a daughter.”

* * *

Eventually, after Natasha and Peggy had cleaned the room, remade the bed and helped Bucky into a fresh nightshirt, Steve was allowed in to see them. Bucky, and their daughter, still sleeping wrapped up in his arms, more than a full day after her birthing had begun.

Bucky couldn’t take his eyes off her. “Isn’t she amazing?”

“You’re amazing.” Steve bounded across the room in quick strides, then stopped, hesitated, and sat down slowly on his side of the bed. “I thought.” He swallowed, gently took Bucky and the baby both into his arms. “I thought I lost you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“That’s good. That’s real good, Bucky.” He started shaking.

Bucky nuzzled up under Steve’s chin. “Hey. Steve. I’m okay.”

“I know, I know, I just.” Steve kissed Bucky’s temple, let him go. When he spoke again his voice was low and hoarse and a little scared. “I love you, James Buchanan Rogers.”

“Well, that works out,” Bucky said, a hint of cheekiness shining through his exhaustion, “since I love you too, and all.”

Surprise flashed across Steve’s face, and hopefulness.

“Rogers,” Bucky said, “you punk.”

Steve laughed, and kissed him again.

“Have the boys finally gone with Peggy?”

“No.” Steve rubbed the back of his head. “They wanted to see you first, if you feel—”

“Yes, please.”

Steve cupped the back of the baby’s head and kissed them both, one after the other. “Be right back.”

A few minutes later, the door creaked open again. Tony was in Steve’s arms, rubbing at his eyes and clearly woken too soon from his nap. Although Rhodey, who was holding Steve’s hand, also swiped at his eyes, so maybe it wasn’t sleepiness at all.

“Yasha,” Bucky said, “sweetheart, come here. Come meet your sister.”

Rhodey ran to the edge of the bed, where Bucky slipped an arm around his waist. Steve carried Tony over, and sat him carefully on the bedspread, so both boys could touch Bucky, see he was okay, and see the baby.

“We have a sister,” Rhodey said. “Tony, we have a sister.”

“What’s her name?” Tony asked.

Bucky looked at his sweet, funny, beloved family, and smiled. “Sarah,” he said. “We named her Sarah Rose.”

The End