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What I Used To Be

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Bucky did everything he could to make this ten by ten basement hellhole into something like a home for his pups. A single, dim lightbulb swung from the ceiling and illuminated the pathetic amount of belongings that Bucky had accrued in the God-knows-how-long he’d been down here. Long enough, at least, to push out three kids by himself, but he suspected it was much longer than that.

He knotted together old t-shirts and towels to make blankets, made ragdolls so the pups had something to play with, and piled it all in the corner opposite the hard mattress on the floor. Maybe his pups should have slept on a real bed, but Bucky didn’t have the strength to let them rest their heads in the same place that Pierce fucked and knotted him.

Bucky told them to close their eyes when Pierce came down, but he doubted the pups always listened. And they couldn't listen to Bucky if Pierce used his Voice, which he did.

Several sets of heavy footsteps made the ceiling tremble. The lightbulb flickered, and dust and dirt shook down onto the four of them.

Something wasn’t right.

“Guys,” Bucky said, herding with his hands, “Stand behind me.”

If Pierce brought friends again –

Pierce wouldn’t fuck his own pups, would he? They were young, younger than Bucky was when Pierce snatched him off of the street and locked him in a freezing underground room. The oldest – George, Bucky thought of him as, but Pierce didn’t let them have names – took each of his sisters’ hands and tugged them behind Bucky’s rail-thin body.

Bucky wasn’t much in the way of protection, but he was better than nothing.

Indistinct shouts carried into the room, and the footsteps loomed closer. Then, the square door in the ceiling rattled as something fell against it. Somebody cursed, somebody whose voice was Not Pierce at all. Bucky spread his arms out further, shielding the kids.

More shouting. The door rattled again.

Then the thing fucking splintered. Bucky held his hand over his eyes and squinted against the light that poured into their dark room. The hazy silhouette of a man both taller and slimmer than Pierce greeted him, and the scent of concerned alpha floated down and wrapped around the room like a well-loved quilt.

“What the fuck,” the silhouette said, “What in the actual hell?”

“Who the hell are you?” Bucky demanded.

The silhouette jumped down. A dark-skinned man in Kevlar and cop gear said, “I’m Officer Rhodes. You – you’re safe now.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. Thick, sticky relief pounded into him. His head swam, vision doubled, and he managed, “Good. Finally,” before black spots clouded Bucky’s eyes and he toppled backward into the dark.

**

Rhythmic beeping pierced the fog of Bucky’s mind. He was floating somewhere far away – beep – a place beyond the hellhole in the ground where he lived with his pups – beep – pups that he forced in his belly, but he loved them anyway – beep –

Shit, his pups.

Bucky’s eyes flew open. Dizzily, he drank in his surroundings. Taupe-colored walls. Heart monitor. IV in the crook of his arm. He was lying on a hospital bed that was the most comfortable thing he’d felt in ages, but his pups weren’t in sight; he was alone in the room and that was bad, bad, bad. Bucky forced his legs over the edge of the bed and stumbled forward toward the door, dragging his IV pole with him –

Only to be intercepted by a curly-haired man in a white coat.

“Whoa, whoa,” the doctor said, “You’ll rip out your IV. You can’t overexert yourself, sir. Please sit back on the bed.”

“The fuck I will,” Bucky spat, “Where are my pups?”

“The pups are safe,” the doctor said.

Bucky scowled and said, “I’ll believe that when I see it. Where are my pups?” He didn’t mean to shout, or to shove the doctor away so hard, but Bucky didn’t give a shit about niceties when his goddamn babies were missing. Using the wall to prop himself against, he hobbled out of the room and into the hall, but his great escape lasted all of ten seconds before a couple of nurses in scrubs pulled him back. Bucky fought against them and yelled more about bringing him his pups, kicking and flailing, but nobody listened.

The doctor injected something into Bucky’s IV, and like magic everything was dreamy and nice, not so scary anymore. They drugged him. They fucking drugged him. What the hell was going on?

“My pups,” Bucky slurred, even as the nurses herded him back into bed.

“The children are in the room beside yours,” the doctor said, “and you’ll see them soon. I need you to answer some questions for me, though. Do you know your name?”

“My name is Bucky.”

He hadn’t said his name in a long time. Pierce called him James, because James was the name on his plastic high school ID card.

The doctor paused.

“My name is Dr. Banner,” he answered, “Bucky – is that short for something?”

“Bu…Buchanan.”

Dr. Banner went about three shades paler. He swallowed and said, “Your full name wouldn’t happen to be James Buchanan Barnes, would it?”

“That’s me,” Bucky said, offering Dr. Banner a placid, dumbass smile. Something itched in the back of Bucky's mind. He was supposed to be worried about something, but at the moment all he could think about was floating like an errant cloud over his hospital bed.

“Do you know how long you were being held in that room?” asked Dr. Banner.

Bucky shook his head. He mumbled, “Last time I was outside it was 2005. Pushed out a few babies down there so I know it sure as hell ain’t 2005 no more.”

Dr. Banner cleared his throat and said, “It’s 2016.”

“No shit,” Bucky said, “Then eleven years, I guess. Huh. I’m twenty five.”

Bucky thought that maybe there should have been more questions, but Dr. Banner excused himself after that. No more than a few minutes later, he returned with a well-dressed beta lady with strawberry blonde hair, and –

“My pups,” Bucky breathed, “They’re okay.”

“Daddy!” exclaimed the youngest. She was the only one to shout, but all of them ran to him, wearing hospital gowns too big for their tiny bodies. A pang of guilt axed Bucky through the middle seeing how thin they all were. He tried. He tried to give them everything he could. He understood what his ma meant when she said she would do anything for her pups, after George came.

The pups leaned over his bed to hug him. Bucky hugged back best he was able, but he was hooked up to a bunch of shit and was weak as a kitten besides. Their dark hair was clean and brushed, and they smelled like soap over their usual Bucky’s-pup-scent. Somebody had cut their hair. In the light of day how similar they looked to Bucky struck him. He’d never seen the pups in daylight before. Maybe the drugs made him sentimental, but seeing them here in actual, natural light warmed him up from way down deep inside.

“Mr. Barnes,” greeted the beta, “I’m Pepper Potts. I represent the Stark Omega Clinic. We were hoping you could tell us the names of your children. They don’t seem to know.”

Bucky smeared a hand over his face and hoarsely answered, “Yeah. Alpha didn’t want them to have names, wouldn’t let me call them their names. But they have them. I named them,” he pointed to the oldest, “George,” and the middle, “Rebecca,” and the youngest, with her eyes that were too big for her tiny face, “Winifred.”

“Do you know how old they are?” Pepper asked.

“Uh,” Bucky said. His brain moved like molasses, thoughts coming too slow and slippery to grasp onto. He said, “George is…like nine months after September 2005. So I guess he’s ten? Probably? It’s hazy. I stopped counting days. I’m not real sure about the girls.”

Pepper and Dr. Banner exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Thank you, Mr. Barnes,” Pepper said, “You’ll be seeing a lot of me in the next few days here. C’mon, guys. Let’s get you back to your room.”

“No,” George said, “I’m staying with Daddy.”

“I don’t wanna go,” said Becky.

Win just clutched at the fabric of Bucky’s hospital gown like he might float away if she let go.

In the end, they moved the kids into the same room as Bucky. They told him that the pups weren’t as dehydrated and malnourished as he was, and Bucky replied that that was probably because he made sure that they ate and drank before he did, unless he thought he might die. He was no use to his pups dead.

Lots of people came and went from the room, monitoring Bucky, monitoring the pups, bringing bland foods that they could keep down without it coming right back up again, putting more shit in Bucky’s IV – Bucky had no fucking idea what was going on. He didn’t know where he was other than that it was obviously a hospital, and he didn’t know what the fuck he was supposed to be doing.

But he did know one thing, and that was that his pups were safe. For the first time in ten years, Bucky’s pups were safe.

That was what mattered.

**

Steve wiped the sweat from his head with a kitchen towel and reached for the juice in his fridge when his phone vibrated against his granite countertop. He didn’t recognize the number, but plucked it up anyway and held it against his ear with a, “Hello?” as he took a glass down from the cupboards and filled it with OJ.

“Am I speaking to Steve Rogers?” a deep voice rumbled on the other end.

“Yes, sir,” Steve answered. He nursed the orange juice, chest still heaving from the exertion of his morning run.

“My name is Nick Fury. We met once – at a Stark fundraiser event.”

A vague memory of an imposing guy decked out in black surfaced, and Steve replied, “Yeah, I remember. How can I help you?”

“As you know, you registered several years ago as a potential support alpha for outpatient needs at the Stark Omega Clinic. I’m calling today because a recent case chose your scent sample as compatible, and if you’re open to it, we’d like to arrange a meeting at the clinic as soon as possible,” Nick said.

Steve wet his lips, at a loss.

“Rogers?” Nick said, when Steve’s silence extended too long.

“I’m here,” Steve said, “Just surprised. What do I need to know?”

“I can only give you the basics for now,” said Nick, “and if you and the omega decide to move forward and take you on as his support, then I can give you his file.”

“Then give me the basics,” Steve said.

“Male omega, twenty five. Has three pups, all of which are a result of rape,” Nick said, “So you would be supporting not only an omega, but his family, as well.”

“Jesus,” Steve murmured, “When do you need me at the clinic?”

“As soon as you can make it,” Nick said, a degree of relief in his voice – did he think that Steve would shoot down this case? Nick added, “We need to move this process along as quickly as humanly possible.”

Steve considered his schedule and answered, “Is today okay? I need a shower and some coffee, but I can be down in a couple of hours.”

“Perfect. I’ll let the clinic know to expect you,” Nick said, “and Rogers…thank you.”

“Of course,” Steve said, but Fury had already hung up.

In a daze, Steve finished his juice and peeled off his exercise clothes. He climbed into his shower. As the water beat down on his back and he soaped himself up, he wondered what kind of omega had found him scent compatible.

Traumatized omegas filtered through Stark Omega Clinic for healthcare, the most severe cases of which often required a support alpha to help reintegrate the omega into the world in a safe space. When Steve’s patented animation technique took off and his bank account filled, he registered as a support alpha candidate, provided a scent sample, and took the required courses. He had the means to help somebody if they needed.

And help he would, provided that the omega and his pups wanted to move forward after they met Steve. He didn’t intend to go back on his word.

Too hopped up on anticipation, Steve forewent coffee and climbed straight into his old VW Beetle to head to the clinic. He dressed to impress in neat slacks and a plaid button-down, throwing on his leather jacket over it to stave off the bite in the spring air. Forty-five minutes later, Steve pulled into the parking lot of the Stark Omega Clinic. He pried his hands off of the steering wheel and wiped his sweating palms on his slacks.

The building that housed the clinic was older, a relic out of Colorado’s gold mining days. Worn brick and a sloped roof faced the incongruently modern parking lot. The building began as a hospital, changed hands and became several iterations of a bed and breakfast, and eventually landed in the lap of the late Maria Stark, who decided to wield her family’s wealth for the greater good and refurbish the place for omegas in need.

Tony took care of the clinic now. He lent it personality.

Apprehension swallowed Steve as he crossed the parking lot and headed toward the front doors.

What if the omega didn’t like him?

What if the pups didn’t like him?

He must have smelled like the mess that he felt like, because Natasha – the self-defense instructor and Steve’s friend since they kept meeting at Tony’s parties – intercepted him in the lobby of the clinic and said, “You need to pull it together, Steve. This is the hardest case I’ve seen in my life and if you smell anxious you’re gonna be useless.”

Steve ran his fingers back through his hair and exhaled. He said, “You’re right. Sorry. I just – this is unexpected?” Out of hundreds of scent samples, this omega chose him. The likelihood that Steve would ever take on the role of support had been low and grew ever-lower as more and more alphas registered as candidates for the cause.

“I know,” Natasha said, resting a hand on Steve’s arm, “but you can do this. There’s Pepper – she’ll take you out back. They’re in the courtyard.”

“Good morning,” Pepper greeted. Briskly, she went on to say, “Just so you know, if the pups don’t like you, then this won’t be happening, so make sure that you treat them with respect as well as Mr. Barnes.”

“Of course,” Steve replied, “Wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.”

That teased a fond half-smile out of Pepper. She paused at the tinted glass doors that opened to the inner grounds of the clinic and stopped Steve with a hand to his chest. She said, “Obviously I can’t give you the details yet, but this is hands down the most serious case that we have ever had come through the clinic. You are going to be taking on something huge, so if you can’t do that, I need you to turn back now.”

Steve lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. He said, “Ma’am – Pepper. I’m willing to do whatever I can to help.”

Pepper nodded. She said, “I knew you would say that. Here we go. Look alive.” She pushed open the doors.

The sun filtered down through the trees, dappling newly-planted flowerbeds that ringed around a mostly-green lawn. Several omegas sat outside in white clinic garb, two playing a game of checkers, one reading at a bench in the corner of the courtyard, another curled up in the grass. The pups were what captured Steve’s attention – three of them in clinic white, chasing each other in the grass. Behind them, a long-haired omega looked on with a tender expression on his face.

He looked like he’d been through hell. He was so skinny that Steve’s stomach hurt to look at him, and his cheekbones jutted out against the pale skin of his face. He held his body as though waiting for a blow, even here at the clinic, a safe haven.

Every head turned when Steve trod into the courtyard – not many alphas were allowed in this sanctuary beyond the alphas on staff, and there was no mistaking Steve for anything but.

Pepper’s heels clicked against the stone path that ran through the courtyard as she guided Steve to the romping pups and the gaunt man Steve assumed was their omega father, and the omega that chose his scent sample. As soon as they approached, Pepper extended her arm out at Steve and said, “Everyone, this is Steve Rogers. He’s the alpha you picked out of the scent book.”

Steve stooped down and fell to his knees in the grass so he’d be closer to the pups’ level. He offered a smile and said, “Hi, guys. I’m Steve. What are your names?”

“I’m Win-i-fred,” said the littlest, stumbling over her own name.

“Pleased to meet you,” Steve said. He stuck out his hand to shake, but Winifred eyed it like it might sting her if she touched, and so Steve backed off, letting his hand fall to his side. He blinked back at the other two pups and said, “And what about you guys?”

Neither spoke, so the omega intervened. He placed a protective palm on each of the children and said, “This is George, and this is Becky. We’re not so good at our names yet,” he sighed, “I’m Bucky.”

“Good to meet you,” Steve said.

And it was – God, it was. He knew that if his scent was compatible to an omega that the omega’s scent would intoxicate him right back, but he wasn’t prepared for the perfect smell that surrounded Bucky. Even beneath the musty aroma of sickness and fear, Bucky smelled like salvation. He smelled like soil on a rainy day, like a cup of coffee in the cold. Steve almost bit through his lip in an effort not to scent the air.

“You can ask Steve any questions that you’d like,” Pepper piped up from behind Steve.

Steve made himself as nonthreatening as possible, tilting his neck back to bare it and dropping his shoulders to make himself smaller. Bucky raised his eyebrows, but the pups didn’t react one way or another.

“Do you got a job?” Becky finally said.

“I do have a job,” Steve said, “but it’s a job I do from my house. I’m an artist.”

“Do you have a garden?” asked Winifred. She dared to step closer to Steve than the rest of her family.

“I do have a garden,” Steve answered, “and you can plant anything you want in it.”

“Flowers?” Winifred asked.

“Yup. Any flowers you can think of,” Steve told her.

“Yellow flowers?” she went on.

Steve smiled, “Definitely. I love yellow flowers.”

“Are you gonna hurt my dad?”

Everyone’s attention whipped to George, who wore a thunderous, protective expression on his face. Steve hadn’t even noticed that George placed his small, underfed body between Steve and Bucky until now, like he intended to use himself as a shield if Steve tried anything funny. He was a tiny warrior without armor, facing down an enemy far more powerful than he. Steve shook his head and said, “I would never, ever hurt your dad.”

“If you hurt my dad, I’ll hurt you,” George said.

Bucky reached out, looking panicked, and pulled his son back. He said, “Okay, that’s enough. We decided we liked Steve, remember? Remember, you said that you liked his scent?”

“It’s okay,” Steve said, “George, I don’t ever want to hurt anybody on purpose. But if I did hurt somebody by accident, we would make sure that you all got someplace safe.”

Bucky let out a breath that he’d been holding. He addressed Pepper and said, “Can you guys give us a second? I wanna talk with my pups.”

“Of course,” Pepper said, “Steve?”

Pepper led him across the courtyard a safe distance away, where Steve watched Bucky settle in the grass and speak to his children. He should have been unnerved by the blatant judgment of his character, but Steve found in the face of knowing how much this family had suffered, his own discomfort felt trivial at best. Several long minutes later, Bucky waved them back over.

“We decided that we want you to be our support,” Bucky said to Steve. He didn’t quite meet Steve’s eye and instead looked just to the left of it. Steve furrowed his brow and wondered if this was something that he was going to have to work on with Bucky.

“Great,” Pepper said, clapping her hands together, “I’ll start getting the paperwork together. Steve will have forty eight hours to make sure that his home is up to support alpha standards, and as soon as it’s ready, we will escort you to his house and ensure that you and the children are settled comfortably.”

Bucky nodded, a faraway look in his eye, and murmured, “Okay.”

Pepper poked Steve in the side and called, “Steve?”

“Yeah, sounds great,” Steve said. Great. Like Steve was planning a barbecue instead of the lives of four scared human beings.

This was happening.

Steve was about to be the lifeline of an omega trying to fit back into a world that treated him, for lack of a better word, like shit. Not just that omega – but his pups, too. The responsibility bore down on him like sandbags stacked on his shoulders, but Steve found as he blinked at Bucky and his pups that he had never been more determined to do right by somebody in his entire life.

Chapter Text

Okay, so Steve went overboard.

“You can’t overwhelm them with this much crap,” Sam said, eyeballing the mountain of toys that Steve purchased where he’d stockpiled them in the middle of his living room, “Start them off with a few things, and if you want to add more later, then you can. These are pups that have played with nothing but rags their entire lives. This much shit is just gonna overstimulate them, man.”

So Steve moved most of the toys into boxes in his basement, and left the pups’ room with a handful of stuffed animals, some coloring books and thick crayons (“Their fine motor skills aren’t all that great,” Sam told him, “and they’re gonna have to work with Thor a couple times a week to get where other pups their age are.”), and a shelf of children’s books. The pups couldn’t read, but Steve would be collaborating with Bucky and the clinic to teach them and catch them up to other pups their ages. Win would be simplest, but George, at nearly ten, had a huge disadvantage.  

When Steve read Bucky’s file, he wanted to throw up.

He’d thought something sounded familiar about the name Bucky.

 When Steve read James Buchanan Barnes on the file folder that Pepper gave to him, he remembered the disappearance from years and years ago, when Steve was still a college kid muddling toward his art degree. James Barnes went missing after walking home from a friend’s house. He was fourteen, clean-cut, and an omega. The media went wild.

But they lost interest after a few weeks. Months passed, then years, and everybody assumed that the kid ended up dead somewhere.

Steve couldn’t decide if what actually happened was worse or not.

Alexander Pierce got taken in on tax evasion charges, and it was only by a stroke of luck that Officer Rhodes tripped over the carpet in the basement and found a door in the floor that led to a sub-basement and contained an omega and his three children. If Rhodes hadn’t chanced upon the door – Steve’s stomach roiled at the thought.

Bucky had been so damn young when he birthed his first pup, and Steve knew Pierce sure as shit hadn't provided anything close to medical care. Fucking scumbag.  

Locked away for eleven years, brutally raped and tortured, Bucky somehow made it out alive.

The statements from Bucky and the pups forced bile up Steve’s throat. Little Win, who could be no more than three years old, said Daddy tells us not to look when Alpha comes. What happens when Alpha comes, Sam had asked. Daddy gets hurt.

Multiple breaks and injuries sustained during Bucky’s captivity hadn’t healed correctly. His left arm would never be as mobile as his right.

The pups had only ever come to associate alphas with Alexander Pierce, with their omega dad being hurt, with pain and suffering. Steve was supposed to turn that around – which was a huge undertaking, but he’d be damned if he didn’t at least give it his all.

“They’re gonna rely on you for scent-comfort and touch-comfort,” Sam said, snapping Steve out of his thoughts.

“I know that,” Steve replied, “I took the classes.”

“Just making sure you know what you’re doing,” Sam said.

“I know all I can know,” Steve murmured, “I have a feeling I’m going to have to improvise along the way.”

“That’s for damn sure. Well, you have my number, and you know that you can call me any hour of the day. I’m gonna mark your house as support-safe. They’ll be here tomorrow.”

Steve asked, “What about Bucky’s family? Not his pups. I mean, from before. The file says they’re still alive.”

“Pepper gave Barnes two options once he was lucid,” Sam said, “He could go home to his family, or he could go home with a support alpha and determine himself when he wants to contact his folks, if at all. He chose you. From talking to him, I suspect he feels ashamed of what happened to him. He thinks it’s his fault.”

“Did he say that?” Steve asked.

“Not in so many words,” Sam answered, “but it’s my job to know what people mean even if they don’t say it word for word. Bucky didn’t get to finish high school. Hell, he barely even went. And he had his first pup at fifteen fucking years old. Take away the circumstances, and he thinks it sounds like he’s just made questionable life decisions.”

“Jesus,” Steve said.

“Yup,” agreed Sam, “When they get here tomorrow, make sure you get the nutrition information from Bruce. Happy’ll have it. Bucky and the pups can’t stomach a lot of foods yet.” I know, Steve wanted to say, that was in the file too. Pierce fed them garbage, table scraps, whatever was left over, whether it had gone bad or not.

Sam left then, and Steve made himself sit down in his living room. He stared blankly at the TV, despite it being turned off. He ended up falling asleep there on the couch, tossing and turning as the nightmarish images from Bucky’s file haunted his sleep.

Steve knew from the support alpha classes some of what to expect: silence and fear. Bucky chose Steve, but that didn’t mean that he trusted him. No matter what happened, Steve figured this was about to be the hardest mountain that he’d ever had to climb.

**

The alpha’s house was fucking huge.

Bucky forgot his relief at their arrival (the pups wouldn’t stop playing with the damn window controls in the car, but he didn’t have the heart to stop them from exploring the world they’d been shut out of) in the shadow of one of the largest houses he’d ever seen. The neighborhood was out of the way of the city (Denver, he learned. He was still close to home) on a couple acres of land, but not far enough that the roads weren’t paved and they didn’t still have neighbors.

Although the couple of weeks at the clinic were fraught with tests and checkups and weird hospital food, Bucky couldn't help but wonder if they were better off there than here, in a house with an alpha. When Dr. Banner caught them up on all the required vaccines, none of the pups as much as flinched when the needles jabbed the meat of their arms, over and over, rinse and repeat, until an 'X' marked the box beside every vaccine they needed and band-aids from a cartoon Bucky didn't recognize covered the puncture wounds. Dr. Banner remarked that he never had a pup sit so still for him, let alone three of them. Bucky replied that he told his pups to sit still no matter what, and they knew that they had to listen to him or else, because in the sub-basement disobeying their father meant somebody would get hurt. 

The pups were scared to disobey him, no matter where they were. Maybe Bucky could change that here, with Steve, with a scent that appealed to all four of them. 

As their driver parked the car, the eggshell blue front door of the house opened, and Steve appeared. His broad shoulders took up most of the doorway, and the gentle smile on his face made Bucky’s heart stutter. Steve was handsome, and he smelled good. He noticed both of those when they met at the clinic. The scent sample Bucky picked out with the pups was nothing in comparison to the real thing – Steve was like his sample scent on blast, wonderful and homey and very much alpha.

Bucky didn’t know what to do with that. He was so fucking scared that this was all an elaborate dream and that he passed out in the room where Pierce held him, like he’d blacked out and woken so many times before. He knew from the mountain of paperwork he had to sign that Steve wasn't in danger of going into a rut; the clinic started him on a low-dose suppressant that didn't affect his scent but did prevent his rut cycle, thereby protecting Bucky from hormone-induced sexual advances, at least until Bucky's body healed enough for a heat to hit him.

Bucky did not want to go into heat. Fear scraped over the back of his neck like fingernails on a gnarled hand, but he forced it down. Couldn't let the pups smell that. Couldn't let them know that he was as afraid as they were.

Happy, their driver, swung out of the car with a file folder and passed it along to Steve before the pups were even out of the backseat.

Bucky could smell his pups’ nerves sharpening. He was right there with them, but he made himself be calm for their sake.

“It’s okay,” Bucky told them, “We’re gonna be fine. I promise.”

He didn’t actually know that for sure, but even if Steve turned out to be an asshole, Bucky doubted he could ever be as much of an asshole as Pierce. So, Bucky wasn’t technically lying to his kids. Gritting his teeth, Bucky gathered them close and walked them to the doorstep.

Steve offered another smile. The pups pressed closer to Bucky.

“Hey guys,” Steve said, voice soft, “You ready to see your new house?” and then, “Thanks, Happy. I’ll take it from here.”

Bucky spared one last glance at the car.

This was it, he supposed.

With an inhale to steel himself, Bucky stepped into the house after Steve, and motioned for his pups to follow.

Steve closed the door behind them, and then smiled again, more brightly. He said, “Well, here’s your new house. This side is family room, and then that side’s the kitchen. I have lots of movies you can watch and, um, if you’re hungry, there’s plenty in the fridge and the pantry. But I guess I’d better check Dr. Banner’s nutrition list so we don’t make you guys sick, huh?”

As Steve babbled, Bucky drank in vaulted ceilings, an open floor plan, and classy furniture. A handmade knitted blanket lay draped over one arm of the couch. The art on the walls looked real. That figured, though, didn’t it? Steve said he was an artist.

“Let me show you your rooms,” Steve finally said, and guided them down a hallway. He opened a door on the left side, and Bucky’s heart about leapt out of his chest.

Butter-yellow paint covered the walls of the nursery. Three little beds piled with blankets and pillows lined up against the wall. A drawing table graced one corner of the room with little plastic chairs and art supplies. A different stuffed animal sat at the head of each bed. The room was everything Bucky ever dreamed up for his pups while they sat in that dark room. He imagined all the toys he would buy them. He imagined the sunshine that would come in from the window. He imagined how soft their beds would be.

This was all of that, and somehow even better than everything that Bucky could have dreamt up.

“This is your room,” Steve said, stooping down again to speak to the pups.

“Ours?” Becky echoed, eyeing Steve with suspicion.

“Yours,” Steve confirmed.

Win proved to be the bravest. She toddled into the room and climbed up onto the bed nearest to the door. She reached up and plucked the stuffed bear off of the pillows and brought it back over to Bucky. She asked, “Mine?”

“Yeah, baby, that’s yours,” Bucky answered, hating the way that his voice broke.

“What is it?” asked George.

“A toy bear,” Bucky told him.

“What’s a bear?” asked Becky.

“Uh, an animal,” Bucky said, “They live in the woods. I think.”

“Here, I can get a picture,” said Steve.

Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out a rectangular thing. The screen brought up a number pad, and Steve punched in a code.

“What is that?” sputtered Bucky.

“Uh,” Steve managed, “A phone?”

“That’s a phone?” Bucky said, incredulous, “Where are the buttons?” Christ. He’d missed way more than he thought.

Steve looked sheepish, which was ridiculous. Steve wasn’t the one that locked Bucky in a basement for eleven years and stole what remained of his childhood. When Steve tore his gaze away, he pulled up something else on the screen of the fancy phone and his fingers flew over another set of keys. When he turned the screen back around, he’d brought up a search of bear pictures.

“That’s a bear,” Steve said, holding the screen out for the pups.

With the pups’ curiosity satisfied, Steve tucked his phone back in his pocket and moved to guide them back to the hall. He said, “You have a couple options for your bedroom, Buck. I have one that’s just yours, and then…” He pushed open the door to a lived-in master bedroom. Art covered the walls. It smelled very much like Steve. There were two beds: a smaller, queen-sized number, and a giant king. The queen smelled like fresh wood. Brand spankin’ new.

“This is my room,” Steve explained, “If you guys ever need to sleep in here, you’ve got a couple options. The queen’s if you just need my scent. But if you need to share my bed with me, that’s fine too. I’ve got plenty of room.”

Steve went on to show them the rest of the house, guiding them through bathrooms and extra bedrooms, through his office at the end of the hall that overlooked a generous backyard, up the stairs to even more extra rooms (“The pups can have their own rooms whenever they’re ready,” Steve said to Bucky, “but I thought they might want to be together for now.” Steve thought right.), and a paint-splattered studio where canvases decked the walls and weird tchotchkes lent the space an aura of eccentricity.

“Is there anywhere me and the pups can’t go?” asked Bucky.

Steve shook his head and said, “Everything is yours. And if you need anything at all, I’ll get it for you.”

“One of them fancy phones,” joked Bucky.

But Steve took him seriously. He said, “Done and done,” and Bucky felt like an asshole. He didn’t want to overdo this shit, didn’t want to demand too much of Steve. What if Steve decided Bucky and the pups were more effort than they were worth? Then Bucky would have to crawl back to his folks, and he didn’t want to do that.

Guilt churned in his belly when he thought of what his mom said the night Pierce grabbed him off the street. She told him not to walk the shortcut, because there weren’t any streetlights. She told him to take the long way home. Bucky didn’t listen, and look where that got him. Pierce used alpha strength and his Voice to yank Bucky into his car, and the next time Bucky opened his eyes, he was in that hellhole of a room.

The first time that Pierce fucked him, Bucky cried. He’d kissed a couple of people before then, fumbling teenage embraces, but having sex hadn’t even entered into his radar beyond jacking it to whatever porn he could covertly pull up onto his computer screen. Pierce was big and mean and when he shoved inside Bucky it hurt so bad he thought his body was being torn in half.

Bucky cried the next couple of times, too.

But after a while, he learned not to cry. He learned to go limp and let his brain float away to a better place, to Thanksgiving with his family, to vacations, even to sitting in class with his friends. Anywhere but the place that he was.

He had barely a month of health class under his belt, but Bucky knew what it meant when he started throwing up. The terror that overtook him then was like nothing Bucky had ever felt before, and ever felt since. Knowing at fourteen that he was going to get big and have a baby, that he might die in the process, that the pup would be at the mercy of the alpha that kidnapped him – nothing could compare to that all-consuming, marrow-deep fear.

Bucky cried for the first time in months when George came, because it hurt, hurt worse than anything, even worse than being held down and fucked and knotted. But he survived, by some goddamn miracle. Holding his pup in his arms after Bucky wiped him clean with a t-shirt, he resolved to not give up. Bucky would hold out as long as he could – not for his sake, but for the pup’s sake. What happened wasn’t George’s fault. He deserved love the same as any pup deserved love.

And so Bucky loved his pups and refused to die.

Bucky hated that Pierce still fucked him when the pups could see and hear. He hated that they’d remember that shit. He hated that they watched their dad float far away into his brain and hated that he didn’t come back until long after Pierce slipped out of Bucky’s body and climbed back out of the hole where they lived.

Pierce’s scent was the worst. The smell was something rotten, something that made Bucky choke and his blood curdle.

Bucky, Bucky, hey

are you with me

spicy and homey and woodsmoke and alpha, good alpha, the kind of alpha that meant safe, safe, safe

Bucky blinked. His nose was tucked into Steve’s neck, with Steve’s hands braced against his lower back. He tugged himself out of the loose embrace and stumbled backward into George, who grabbed at Bucky’s hand.

“Daddy?” George whispered.

“Hey, baby,” Bucky rasped, “Sorry I went away.” He always said that after he came-to in the basement, too. Sorry I went away.

Steve wrung his hands. His brows drew together as he surveyed Bucky and he asked, “Is there anything you need?”

“Rest,” Bucky managed to squeeze out, “Need to – sleep. Close my eyes.”

“Okay,” Steve said, “Where do you want to be?”

“Your room,” Bucky said.

Steve steered Bucky back down the stairs and Bucky went brainlessly. He let Steve guide him into the queen bed that smelled fresh and brand new in the room that smelled broken-in, let Steve pull the covers over him. The pups climbed up onto the bed with Bucky and he thought about how much he loved them, or maybe he said it out loud, because Becky stroked his hair (clean now, combed, much longer than it was before) and said, “I love you too, Daddy,” while Win wriggled up under his good arm.

**

Bucky had been out for five hours so far.

The pups were dead quiet.

Steve knew they probably would be. The file – the pups had to be quiet when “Alpha” came. The silence nonetheless unnerved him, and at last when he couldn’t take another second of their noiseless play, Steve knocked on the frame of the open nursery door and asked, “Do you guys want to watch a movie?”

“What’s a movie?” Win asked.

“Uh, a story that you can watch on the TV,” Steve answered, “That’s the big black thing in the living room.”

“A story?” Win repeated, “Like Cinderella?”

“Yeah, like Cinderella,” Steve said, relief filling him, “We can definitely watch Cinderella.”

Win was the only pup that followed him back out to the living room. She clutched her bear to her chest and hovered as though waiting for instruction, so Steve patted the couch and said, “You can sit up here if you want.”

Win climbed up onto the cushions and waited, silent again, while Steve flicked on the television and brought up his Amazon account. He’d thought ahead as far as movies, had bought just about every Disney movie that he could think of. With the remote he pulled up Cinderella, and set it to play. Win hadn’t moved from her place on the couch, and she flinched when Steve turned, like he might find something amiss in her behavior.

Steve stayed a safe distance back and pointed to the blanket at the end of the couch. He said, “If you’re cold, you can use that blanket. I’m gonna fix you guys something to eat, okay?”

Rice would be easy on their stomachs, so Steve measured out enough for all three pups and Bucky (just in case), and set it to cook on the stove. Perhaps his banging around in the kitchen or the sound of the movie starting lured the other two pups out of the nursery – when Steve ducked back around the kitchen island to check on Win, all three of Bucky’s pups were piled together in one corner of the couch.

They were so enraptured with the goings-on on the television that no one even glanced up to look at Steve. And why would they? They’d never seen a television before, not even at the clinic. “Everything,” Sam had told Steve, “will be like magic to them. Their scope of the world is so limited that just about every goddamn thing on the planet is new. Your job is to make it less scary.”

Steve opened the folder that Happy left with him while the rice cooked. Bruce’s nutrition regimen was tucked into the front, followed by sheets of pertinent information, like the pups’ (and Bucky’s) progress thus far in physical therapy and the schedule for future appointments, eye and ear exams (the clinic would be keeping watch on the pups’ vision), and techniques to engage both Bucky and the pups in healing activity, in addition to classes offered at the clinic designed to aid in trauma recovery.

The contact information for Bucky’s parents and sisters also sat tucked in the folder, jumping out at Steve.

Steve dished the rice into three plastic bowls and stuck plastic spoons on top. The fare was boring, but the pups wouldn’t be able to handle much more for a while without getting sick.

Steve brought the bowls over and said, “Here, guys,” and passed each pup a bowl. George grasped his spoon in a fist and stuffed a bite into his mouth like he might not eat tomorrow. The rice spilled all over his lap and the couch, but when Steve asked, “Does anybody need help?” George scowled and snapped, “No!”

Steve didn’t know what to expect. Every aspect of their behavior came to him as new information. The pups clung to their empty bowls until he took them and put them in the kitchen sink, and when Cinderella finished, they didn’t say a word – Steve found them staring at the Amazon screen like it would change by itself.

With no advice from the peanut gallery, Steve set Amazon to play The Incredibles and went back to work doing the dishes in the kitchen.

When the pups fell asleep several movies later, Steve carried them one by one to their beds and tucked them in.

Steve peeled back the covers on his own bed a couple hours later. In the new queen, Bucky was still out like a light. He’d been out cold all day. But he was breathing, so Steve decided to let him sleep until morning. He’d call Bruce or Sam if Bucky stayed asleep much longer than that.

The smell of omega wafted out in tendrils as Steve closed his eyes, wrapped him up like ribbons and tied into a bow. Steve had slept with omegas before. Hell, he’d helped omegas through heats before. The smell of an omega was like a magic spell.

But none of them had ever been as powerful as this.

Chapter Text

Bucky rolled onto his side. His head pounded, thumped in dull thuds like his skull was stuffed with cotton. He unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth and forced himself to sit up. Several seconds passed before he came to his surroundings, a bedroom lit by sunlight and decked in art from floor to ceiling. The aroma of alpha and clean sheets enveloped him like a blanket and eased the headache just a little.

Steve.

Bucky was at Steve’s house.

He wracked his brain for what happened before he got in this bed.

Bucky went out of his brain. Then he needed to rest.

But now what? How long had he been asleep? Bucky may have lived in a hole in the ground for eleven years, but he still knew the tilt of the sun meant it was morning-time. Early morning.

Bucky stood on shaky feet, using the headboard to leverage his body. With one foot in front of the other, he made his way out of the master bedroom and into the hall. The sound of a television floated from beyond the mouth of the hallway, and the bitter aroma of coffee brewing enveloped him. Shit – coffee. Bucky wondered if coffee was on the up and up with Dr. Banner. Probably not, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. He’d fucking missed coffee.

When Bucky surfaced in the living room, Becky plowed into him at full force. She threw her arms around his legs and yelled, “Daddy’s awake!”

“Hey, sweetheart,” he mumbled, scrubbing a hand over his face. He chanced a look over at the kitchen, where Steve stood with a mug in one hand. Bucky raised his voice just a little to ask, “How long was I out?”

“Twenty two hours,” Steve answered.

“Shit.”

“Yeah. The pups were worried about you.”

Becky seized the mention as an opportunity and said, “Alpha let us see Cinderella.”

Bucky blinked. A beat passed before he realized that by Alpha Becky meant Steve. His gut sank knowing that they knew no better than to treat Steve as an all-powerful authority.

“Steve showed you Cinderella, huh? How’d you like it?” asked Bucky.

“I like her pink dress better than her blue dress,” Becky said, “but her mean sisters ruined the pink one, so she had to wear the blue one. You didn’t tell us that when you told the story.”

“Sure I did,” Bucky said, “I just forgot the colors. I need you to let me go, baby. I need something to eat.”

Becky released Bucky, but followed him into the kitchen. Bucky kept a safe few feet away from Steve to venture, “Breakfast?”

“I’ve got some rice cereal cooking,” answered Steve.

Steve had a handsome face. A real honest-looking face. When the clinic director, that Pepper lady, guided Steve over to them in the courtyard at the clinic, Bucky liked him on instinct. But he’d been burned by listening to instinct before, and he didn’t want to delve too deep into this situation without a way to bail himself out. Steve was good – for now – but Bucky didn’t think it was wise to let Steve get too close.

Pepper told Bucky that seventy six percent of omegas paired with support alphas ended up mated to those support alphas. Bucky ran the risk of finding his mate through the program, she’d said. Bucky was determined to be a part of the twenty four percent that got the help they needed and then went on their merry way. He didn’t need another alpha dictating what he did with his life.  

“Am I allowed to have coffee?” asked Bucky.

“Uh,” Steve said, and reached past Bucky to grab a folder from the kitchen island. He flipped through it and said, “Bruce’s list says ‘not recommended’, but that’s not a hard no, so go for it? I’ll get you a glass of water, too. Bruce has got all these supplements you’re supposed to be taking, and we kinda missed the first day.”

Steve passed Bucky a mug, and by the time that Bucky shuffled to the coffee pot and poured himself a fragrant, steaming cup, Steve already placed a glass of water on the kitchen island beside a handful of pills. Bucky sighed at the sight of them and asked, “Are the pups taking these?”

“They already took theirs,” Steve replied, “They’re in better shape than you are, so there aren’t as many, and they’re all in gummy form.”

“Huh,” Bucky managed. He swept the pills into his palm, knocked them into his mouth, and swallowed. He figured if they were drugs and Steve was full of shit, Steve at least smelled nice and looked nice, so being fucked and knotted by him probably wouldn’t be so bad. But as Bucky sipped his coffee (God, fuck, it was so good), he didn’t get dizzy or fuzzy at all. Maybe the pills really were just vitamins.

Obediently, Bucky ate his rice cereal after Steve removed it from the stove and served it up for him and the pups. He drained his mug in small sips, overwhelmed, almost, by the intensity of the coffee’s flavor.

With his bowl scraped clean, Bucky cleared his throat and asked, “So, um, what are we supposed to be doing?”

“Anything you want,” Steve said.

“Anything I want,” Bucky repeated, voice flat. Steve nodded.

What the fuck did Bucky want? The itemized lists Bucky stored in the back of his mind came to the forefront, things that he wanted to do with his pups if they ever got out, things that he put away in a box in a safe place in his brain, where he could take it out and visit whenever he needed. Those lists could be reality, now. Steve seemed to have the world at his fingertips.

Bucky thought about how he wanted to show his pups bubble baths. Draw with sidewalk chalk. Drink cocoa and watch cartoons. Climb trees. Read picture books. See the ocean.

Every one of those items seemed as far away as the fucking moon while Bucky sat huddled with his pups in that hole in the ground. Now he could pick an activity out of a freaking hat and he kinda thought Steve would find a way to make it happen. Steve struck Bucky as an all or nothing kind of a guy, and this sure as shit seemed like all.

“Can we go outside?” Bucky asked at last.

“Of course,” Steve gently said. Bucky didn’t know how he felt about Steve’s gentle voice, all tentative, like Bucky might break at any given moment. But then, that was true, wasn’t it? Bucky could break at any given moment, and Steve was the guy in charge of Bucky’s crazy train.

The pups plodded along after Steve and Bucky, who took their half-drunk coffees to the generous back porch attached to Steve’s house. The backyard was so pretty it looked fake. Aspen trees shivered in the morning breeze, flowers bobbed, blades of grass trembled. Steve dedicated most of the yard to gardening, though there was ample space to run. Not all of the property was landscaped, though. Beyond the garden plots, a maze of coniferous trees sprung from the ground at all angles.

Beside Bucky, Win tugged at Steve’s sweatpants and asked, “Alpha, can we play chase?”

Steve wet his lips with his tongue and said, “I’m not in charge; your daddy is. You’ll have to ask him.”

Confusion crossed Win’s face. Bucky watched the gears turn in her head, cataloguing that here, in this place, the alpha did not bark orders at them and whip out his Voice to force them to submit. Here, he deferred to Bucky.

Unless Bucky was out of commission, of course.

Win shifted her attention to Bucky and asked, “Daddy, can we play chase?”

“Go ahead, baby,” Bucky said, and patted her back. She wasn’t wearing the clinic white anymore, but a striped cotton dress. None of the pups, he realized, wore the white clothes from the clinic anymore. George wore jeans and a long-sleeved tee that looked suspiciously backwards, and Becky wore a bright red sweater and jeans of her own.

The kids dashed into the grass, which Bucky took as his cue to lower himself onto the porch swing.

Steve asked, “Mind if I sit with you?”

“It’s your house,” Bucky said.

Steve frowned and said, “It’s your house, too. The whole house, not just the basement.”

For a second, horror crossed Steve’s face as he realized what he just said.

Bucky burst into raucous laughter, guffawing right from the belly. Thank Christ Bucky chose an alpha with a sense of humor. He didn’t know what he would have done if he ended up with an alpha with a permanent stick up his ass. Bucky ran both hands back through his hair and said, “Thanks. I needed that. Yeah. Go ahead. Sit.”

To Bucky’s equal parts relief and annoyance, Steve put as much distance between their bodies on the porch swing that he physically could. Steve lifted his coffee to his lips and drank deep, eyes trained on the pups as they ran willy-nilly through the lawn. When Steve turned his head and caught Bucky looking, Bucky averted his eyes back to the inky black surface of his coffee.

“I wanted to ask you about something,” Steve said.

That sounded bad. Did Steve want to know the gritty details of the basement hole? Did he want to know if it was Bucky’s own stupid fault that he got kidnapped in the first place (it was)? Or maybe he already knew. Pepper did say Steve would have a file on them so he’d be better equipped to help.

“Go ahead,” Bucky said, but his voice came out more strained than he wanted it to.

“I have the contact information for your parents in the folder that the clinic gave me,” Steve said, “and I wondered if you wanted me to do anything with that. I could call your parents and let them know that you’re alive, or you could call – we wouldn’t have to set up a meeting or anything, just a phone call. But if you’re not ready, I understand. I just figure they’d probably want to know that you’re, you know, alive.”

An age-old ache resurfaced at Steve’s words. During the early days of Bucky’s captivity, his longed for his mom like he’d never before, wishing that he had her soft omega scent to cushion him, her wisdom to guide him, her arms around him. The last time he saw her, she kissed his cheek and Bucky rolled his eyes and wiped the kiss away. In the beginning, he’d have done anything to take that back.

When Pierce bred Bucky up that first time, Bucky wished he had his mom tell him what to do, to be there when the pup came, to hold her grandpup in her arms. Hell, Bucky had still been a pup himself, a pup that was scared and wanted his ma.

But after a while…he got tired. His idealism burnt out and reality settled in. Bucky came to terms with the fact that his family would be disappointed in what came of him, and things were better without him at home, screwing them up.

“Buck?”

Bucky took another drink of coffee and tried to ignore the fact that the caffeine had hit him like a battering ram. His hands shook.

He supposed his mom would at least like to know that he was alive, even if he was a colossal disappointment of a son that should have fucking listened to her.

“I guess…you can call them,” Bucky said, “Tell them I’m alive. Or I guess – just tell them anything they want to know.” The damage would be done sooner or later, and it would be better to rip off the proverbial band-aid and suffer the blow of his parents’ disgust early on.

“All right,” Steve said, “You want me to tell you what they say?”

Bucky shrugged, “Why not?”

He may as well hear the news from Steve, who’d wrap Bucky’s parents’ rejection in pretty, patterned paper and top it with a bow. Steve would try to make it all okay, and he wouldn’t be able to, but the trying counted for something. Bucky exhaled and watched Becky land face-first in the grass, shaking with laughter. His pups deserved someone to try for them. Bucky didn’t deserve it, but the pups did.

**

Steve waited until the evening, after Bucky discovered the bookcase of picture books in the nursery and settled down in a corner of the room to read them to his pups. Steve lingered long enough to hear Bucky stumble over the first couple of words, but grow stronger as he read along. Then, he peeled away from the doorway and slid into the kitchen to retrieve Bucky’s file.

Steve dialed the phone number for Winifred Barnes – Winifred Barnes Senior, now.

The phone rang twice before a voice answered, “Hello?”

“Hi there,” Steve said, “Am I speaking to Winifred Barnes?”

“You are,” Winifred answered, “May I ask who’s calling?”

“My name is Steve Rogers,” he started, and fumbled for the right way to phrase what came next. He cleared his throat, “I’m calling in regards to your son, Bucky.”

The line went quiet. When Winifred’s voice returned, it was like acid. She said, “I’m tired of being harassed by reporters. Let my little boy rest in peace, will you? I’m hanging up –”

“No! Wait,” Steve said, “I’m not a reporter, ma’am.”

“Then who the hell are you and what do you want?” she demanded.

“I represent the Stark Omega Clinic,” Steve started again, “I’m a support alpha. We help reintegrate traumatized omegas into the world, and –”

“I know what a support alpha is, Mr. Rogers. Please get to the point.”

“I’m the support alpha for your son, for Bucky,” Steve blurted.

“No.”

“Yes, I am. A couple of weeks ago, a police officer stumbled upon a sub-basement room where a man called Alexander Pierce was holding your son and his pups. For his safety the story has been kept out of the media, but I asked his permission to contact you and let you know that he and his pups are alive and in my care,” Steve said.

Winifred went quiet again. Her voice wavered when she dared to speak, asking only, “His pups?”

“Bucky birthed three pups over the course of his captivity. They are approximately ten, six and three years old,” Steve answered. And they were all so brave, Steve didn’t add.

“What are their names?” Her voice snagged, and Winifred began to cry. The gasping breaths on the other line tore Steve up. This mother lost her pup and what he was telling her – well, Steve was barely holding it together as it was. He didn’t understand why Bucky didn’t want to speak to his family. By all accounts, the Barnes were a loving bunch, but things weren’t always as they seemed, so Steve reserved judgment and ultimately left the choice to Bucky.

“George is the oldest,” Steve said, “Rebecca is the middle. Winifred is the youngest.”

Winifred Senior choked on a sob.

“I didn’t mean to distress you, ma’am,” Steve said.

“I’m not – distressed. I’m happy. I’m so happy,” Winifred said, “Or I am distressed, but I’m happy too. He was just a baby, my baby – can I talk to him?”

“Bucky asked me to speak with you first,” Steve said, “He seems reticent to speak to you and your mate himself.”

Winifred cried a little more and sniffled into the receiver. She asked, “Can you at least pass on a message to him?”

“I can try,” Steve said, “I won’t tell him anything that’s detrimental to his recovery.”

“Please just – just tell him that we love him, we love him so much, and I missed him more than anything in the world and if he’d consider speaking to me or to my mate, o-or maybe one of his sisters, it would mean the world to me,” Winifred said.

“I’ll let him know,” Steve replied, and he meant it, “He did give me permission to tell you anything that you wanted to know, so if you have any questions…” He trailed off, unsure of how to finish. Questions about what? About what happened? How the hell did one tell a grieving mother the details of her son’s brutal captivity?

“I-I-I – just one. I have one,” Winifred inhaled sharply and asked, “This Alexander Pierce – will he be punished?”

“Rest assured, ma’am, there is no way in hell that man can wiggle out of what he’s done,” Steve said. He knew that much from Pepper and Tony – Officer Rhodes found enough gruesome evidence in that basement hole to convict Alexander Pierce of a thousand crimes, ten times over.

“Good,” Winifred said.

“If there’s anything else I can answer, you can reach me at this number,” Steve went on.

“Thank you,” Winifred managed, “Thank you, thank you…thank you so much.”

Steve didn’t know how to respond, so he settled for a simple but firm, “You’re welcome.”

When Steve bid Winifred Barnes Sr. goodbye and hung up the phone, he looked up to find Bucky hovering at the edge of the kitchen. After he noticed his pups wearing new clothes that morning, he asked if there were any for him, and dressed in soft sweatpants and a loose t-shirt. The clothes hung heavy on his thin frame, but somehow still lent him a healthier vibe, something less sanitized and more like home.

“How are the pups?” asked Steve.

“Asleep,” Bucky answered, “I used to tell them stories to get them to sleep. You know. When Pierce had us. I thought new stories might keep them up but there’s so much that’s new for them that they’re overexerting themselves, probably. They went right to bed.”

Steve smiled a little and said, “They did run about ten miles in the backyard earlier.”

Bucky hummed agreement, scratched a hand back through his hair, and then stated, “You were on the phone.”

“I was.”

“Was it with my folks?” he asked.

Bucky shrank in on himself after asking the question, hunching his shoulders, making his body smaller. Steve stepped closer to him and said, “I spoke to your mother.”

“Does she hate me?” Bucky asked. His eyes went glassy but he didn’t cry, just took in a shuddering breath and looked at Steve in the way he did without quite meeting Steve’s eyes.

“No, Buck, she doesn’t hate you,” Steve said, “She was so happy to hear you’re alive that she cried. She asked what your pups are named. And she told me that she missed you, she loves you, and that it would mean the world if you would consider speaking to somebody from your family. If you don’t want to, that’s fine. It’s one hundred percent your call.”

“But,” Bucky said, “She’s not disappointed?”

“Disappointed?” Steve echoed.

“In me,” Bucky continued, “I didn’t listen to her, and I got kidnapped, and I never did baseball or went to college like I was supposed to do. I didn’t do anything the way we planned it. The way that she wanted me to.”

“I think she’s just happy that you’re alive,” Steve said, “You’re her pup. Nothing’s ever going to change that. If you were in your mother’s shoes, and this were one of your pups –”

“I’d love them. It doesn’t matter. Nothing would matter,” Bucky said, brows drawing together at the revelation, “I would still love them and I’d want them safe. Fuck. Maybe I should call my ma. Do you think she’d mind if I slept on it?”

“You should take as much time as you need,” Steve said.

Bucky nodded mutely. Then he asked, “Can I sleep in your room tonight?”

“Of course,” Steve answered, “You want the queen or you wanna bunk with me?”

“Um…” Bucky hesitated, fidgeting, “I think I want to be with you tonight. Maybe. Your smell makes me less nervous and I – yeah. With you.”

After the nighttime rituals of teeth-brushing and running a comb through his hair, Steve lay in his bed and waited for Bucky to make his move. At first, Bucky sat at the edge of the mattress and played with the drawstrings on his sweatpants. After a handful of minutes, he started to edge closer to Steve, and after a few more, he lay down, too.

Steve drifted after that, but through a muddled half-sleep, he felt Bucky tuck his body up against Steve’s chest, and shifted to drape his arm over Bucky’s side. Bucky mumbled something into Steve’s neck, but he didn’t hear it. He slept on.

Chapter Text

While the pups worked on physical therapy with the big blond alpha named Thor, Bucky got to go to the kind of therapy where you talked. After they finished up, they switched, and Bucky did physical therapy while the pups spoke with Sam. Both of them sucked, but Bucky thought the talking kind of therapy might suck more by a narrow margin. Bucky at least liked Sam Wilson, yet another alpha working at the Stark Omega Clinic.

“How are you settling in?” Sam asked.

Bucky shrugged, “I slept a lot.”

“Yeah, Steve told me.”

“He tattled on me?” Bucky asked.

“Nah, man, he was worried about you,” Sam said, “So he called and asked if he needed to wake you up or get a doctor or drive you to the hospital or some shit. We told him you probably just had to sleep off one hell of a week and reboot. Other than sleeping, how’s it going?”

“Steve let me have coffee and probably shouldn’t have,” Bucky said, “I think I shit out every nutrient in my body.”

Sam lifted a brow. He said, “Sounds like you might want to avoid coffee for a while.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Bucky replied, “Um…” He debated whether or not to tell Sam about Steve’s phone call to Bucky’s mom. He’d probably find out one way or another, so Bucky let out a sigh and fessed up, “I let Steve call my mom. You know, and tell her I’m alive.”

Nothing on Sam’s face betrayed his feelings on the matter. He asked, “How did that go?”

“I-I, um, I thought my mom was gonna hate me,” Bucky sputtered, “because I didn’t listen, and I didn’t do anything right, didn’t do anything the way I was supposed to, but Steve said my mom says she loves me and she still wants to talk to me. Um. D-Do you think I should talk to her?”

“That’s something you have to determine for yourself,” Sam answered.

“You’re no help,” Bucky muttered, sinking lower into the couch.

Sam let the silence percolate for a couple of beats before he shifted the subject and said, “It sounds like you’re adjusting okay. This is a ton of progress in a short amount of time, Barnes. I am damn proud.”

“Really?” Bucky asked, “It doesn’t feel like progress. I sleep too much and I space out and…go someplace else, sometimes.”

“That’s to be expected,” Sam said, “You’ve been through hell, man.”

“Understatement of the year,” Bucky replied, folding his arms over his chest. He wiggled his toes in his tennis shoes. It felt weird to wear shoes after all this time. His shoe size grew leaps in the time that Pierce kept him in that hole. Bucky was taller, too. Being as skeletal as he was, he looked older than twenty five when he dared face himself in the mirror. Shadows hinged under his eyes, eyes that looked far, far away even when he was only looking at himself.

Bucky felt simultaneously far older and far younger than his physical age. Some days he woke up thinking he was still that fourteen year old kid with a toothpaste smile and a future. Other days he woke up with bone-deep knowledge that any day could be his last. Looking after his brain was a balancing act, one that he had yet to get the hang of. He’d let his mind go to the stratosphere a couple more times since moving in with his support alpha, which never failed to scare the shit out of Steve.

Bucky was okay, though. He always came back down to earth with his nose tucked into Steve’s neck.

He and Sam talked about less serious things after that. Bucky told Sam how he wished his stomach weren’t so sensitive, because he missed pizza and coffee and hot sauce-smothered breakfast food. But after the revolt his stomach staged from half a cup of coffee, Bucky didn’t dare stray from Dr. Banner’s nutrition recommendations.

Then Sam foisted a stack of brochures about the clinic’s programs on Bucky and told him that taking some classes might help him cope. Bucky wasn’t as sure that knitting or self-defense would make a difference, but the arts and crafts classes seemed like they would be fun for his pups.

Physical therapy with Thor focused on the mobility of Bucky’s left arm, the one that Pierce broke that never healed right. When it happened, Bucky tried to fashion a sling but he knew shit-all about what to do and had little to work with but dirty clothes and the son that at the time was probably only around seven years old. Bucky wanted to hate Thor but the man oozed geniality and praised every little thing that Bucky managed to get right.

By the time that Steve pulled them back up to their house in his (inexplicably shitty) VW Beetle, Bucky came to a decision. He would call his mom.

“I want you to sit with me,” Bucky said, when they marched into the house, “and I want to put her on speakerphone. I don’t know how to work your phone, though. My last phone was a goddamn RAZR.”

“Daddy, what are you talking about?” Becky asked.

“I’m going to make a phone call to my mom,” Bucky explained, “Remember how I told you that I grew in her tummy, like you grew in my tummy? And how I told you about the soft blankets your grandma makes? She’s your grandma. I’m gonna talk to your grandma.”

“Can I listen?”

“I suppose so,” Bucky said, and slid his gaze over at Steve.

“I’m ready when you are,” Steve said.

“Let’s get this over with,” said Bucky.

All three of the pups, perhaps sensing Bucky’s nervous energy, gathered close to him and Steve as Steve set his phone on the kitchen table and scrolled through a couple of screens lightning-fast. With the touch of a couple images on the screen, the phone started to ring loud and clear, echoing in the silence of the kitchen.

“Hello?”

That was his mom’s voice, breathless, but familiar.

“Hello? Mr. Rogers? Are you there?”

Bucky cleared his throat and murmured, “Hi, Ma.”

Winnie Barnes’ voice cracked on one word: “Bucky?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Bucky forced out.

“My baby,” Winnie said, “Are you okay? Are you eating? How are your pups? We missed you, all of us did. I’m so s-sorry this happened to you.” She stumbled over her words. She was trying not to cry. Bucky was making his mom cry.

“It was my fault, Ma,” Bucky said, leaning his forehead on his right hand, “You told me not to take the shortcut home, but I did, and this is what happened.”

“No, no, no,” Winnie said, “No, baby. None of this is your fault. This is something terrible that happened to you but it’s not your fault; it’s something that was done to you.”

Bucky released a shaky exhale and willed himself not to lose his shit. He must have paused too long, though, because his mom called, “Bucky? Honey? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Bucky said, “There are a few people I want you to meet. Say hi to your grandma, guys.”

George and Becky gave tense, unsure hellos, but Win exclaimed, “Hi! Daddy says you’re my bubbe. He gave me your name even though I didn’t have a name when we were in the dark because Alpha said no names for um, for, uh –”

Disgusting brats.

Worthless bastards.

Little shits.

The names were numerous and Bucky hated that his pups ever had to hear them.

“That’s enough, Win,” Bucky said.

“We have a good alpha now,” Becky jumped to reassure her grandmother, “Alpha Steve gave us blankets and movies and books and food. He lets us have food whenever we’re hungry.”

“That’s wonderful, sweetie,” Bucky’s ma said on a thread of a voice.

“He promised he would never hurt Daddy,” George said, “but if he’s lying I’ll make sure he doesn’t. I’ll protect Daddy.”

Winnie sucked in a breath. She was really crying now, Bucky knew, but she didn’t want to scare off the pups. She responded, “That’s very brave, George.”

“George is big,” Win said, “He’s almost ten whole years old and Alpha Steve says that’s a lot.”

Bucky knew his mom could do the math on that one. He braced himself for the slap in the face, for the disappointment and the shame, but Winnie said, “That is a lot of years. Bucky…you must have been so scared. I’m so sorry. You were so young, you didn’t deserve –”

“I know,” Bucky said, “but I made it. I’m all right.”

“Are you?” Ma asked.

“I’m takin’ it day by day,” Bucky admitted, “Some days are harder than others. Steve helps, though. He’s good at his job.”

“You’re more than a job, Buck,” Steve protested, but Bucky cut him off with a wave of his hand.

“Do you think…do you think we might be able to see you? Not immediately, not if you aren’t ready, but someday?” asked Ma.

Bucky chewed on his lip until he tasted blood. He answered, “Maybe…someday. I’m a mess right now. I look pretty gross. I don’t…I don’t know if I want you to see that.”

“Bucky!” Steve piped up.

Steve,” Bucky mocked back, then clapped a hand over his mouth. He said, “Damn, that slipped out.”

“Maybe, if you don’t want to see us in person, we could video chat? I know how to use it. Your father and I Skype Becca all the time now,” Ma said.

“Becca,” Becky repeated, “That’s like my name.”

“It sure is, baby,” Bucky replied, “I named you after my twin sister.”

“What’s a twin?” asked George.

“It means my sister grew in my mom’s tummy at the same time I did,” Bucky said, and then to his mom: “I’ll think about the video chat, Ma. I, ah. I gotta go. I’m really worn out.”

“Okay, honey,” Ma said, “Whatever you need. You can call us whenever you want. Maybe next time you can call when your father is home, and we can all talk. He misses you so much. I miss you so much. Your sisters miss you so much, too. Becca especially. She’d love to talk to you.”

“I’ll think about it,” Bucky repeated.

“That’s all I ask,” Winnie said, “I love you, Bucky. I love you, pups.”

“I love you too, Ma,” Bucky said.

When Steve ended the call, Bucky put his face in his hands and pressed his fingers against his eyes. The effort went to waste – for the first time since their rescue, Bucky cracked open and cried.

**

Speaking to his mother after all this time didn’t bring the catharsis Bucky hoped that it would. The phone call drained him, but not of the poison of the past eleven years, but of all the energy he’d built to fight against his own mind.

Vaguely, beyond the haze of mental anguish and the furious churn of his gut, Bucky registered his pups climbing all over him, the way they did when he went away in the basement. They tried to bring him back to earth with their touch and their scent. The effort worked, most of the time, before the cops pulled them out of the hole and Bucky woke up in a hospital bed. Now their scents were the only familiar thing in an unfamiliar world, and instead of drawing Bucky out of his mind, the smell of his pups pulled him further in.

Later, disgust swallowed Bucky whole – what kind of father was he, if his own pups tugged him down further into his mind?

He locked himself in the bedroom Steve said was his alone, crawled under a heap of blankets and pillows, and screwed his eyes shut in the hope that sleep would let him escape the hamster wheel of his toxic thoughts.

**

“He’s been in his room for three days, Sam,” Steve said into the phone, keeping his voice hushed even though the volume of the television (Cinderella, again) should have carried over his conversation.

“Is he eating?” asked Sam.

“I’ve been leaving food, and the dishes are sort of picked over,” answered Steve, “He’s not not eating, but I don’t think he’s getting any substantial nutrition either.”

“And the pups? Are they okay?”

“As okay as they can be,” Steve said, “They keep asking about him. I’ve been saying he’s not feeling very well, but George especially is getting edgy. I just – what do I do?”

“Have you tried knocking on the door and talking to him?” Sam asked.

Steve frowned and replied, “Of course I have.”

“Yeah? And what did you say?” Sam pressed.

Steve leaned back against the kitchen island, a vantage point from which he could keep an eye on all three of Bucky’s pups. Win sat on the couch tucked under a blanket that Clint had knitted for Steve a couple Christmases before, enthralled by yet another viewing of Cinderella. Becky took a space on the floor, consumed in her own little world while she played with a couple of smaller stuffed animals, walking them across the carpet.

George sat in the armchair beside the couch as though standing sentry over his sisters, but his eyes were on Steve.

“Uh,” Steve wet his lips with the tip of his tongue, “I told him I left food outside for him. And I said we missed him. He didn’t say anything.”

“That’s not actually talking to him,” Sam said on the end of a sigh, “Emphasize that the pups need him. Tell him that they’re worried about him and ask him if he’ll let his pups come sit with him, or if he’ll let you come sit with him. If that doesn’t work, I’ll drive out and see what I can do. I’d like to avoid breaking into his bedroom – he needs a safe space – but if he’s a danger to himself then we’re gonna have to bring him back to the clinic and keep him under observation, and that won’t be fun for anybody involved.”

“All right,” Steve said, mostly to himself before he repeated, “All right. Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

“If I don’t hear from you, I’m gonna assume things went okay,” Sam told him.

“Got it.”

“And Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“What you’re doing,” Sam said, “This is a good thing. You’re doin’ Bucky and his pups a real solid. There are gonna be stumbling blocks, but I know you, man, and I know you can do this.”

“Thanks, Sam,” Steve said, “for everything.”

“No problem, man. You take it easy.”

Steve slid his phone into the back pocket of his jeans and blew all the air out of his lungs. He drifted so far off into his own head that he didn’t notice George had moved from the armchair until the kid was two feet away from him, wearing a pinched expression that was too old for his young face.

“Are you gonna talk to Daddy?” he asked, strained, as though speaking to Steve physically pained him.

“I’m gonna try my best,” Steve answered, “You wanna come try with me?”

George gave a fierce nod and followed Steve back down the hallway. Steve rapped his knuckles against the door and said, “Hey, Buck? I got George here with me. Your pups are starting to get real worried about you. They need you.”

Silence.

“Daddy, are you okay?” George called, probably louder than necessary. The scent of George’s distress hooked into Steve’s nostrils, acrid and jarring. How the hell did Pierce stand smelling so much fear? Did he get off on it the same way some folks got off on pain? The scent of a child’s fear made Steve dizzy with sickness. Instinct told him to wrap George up in his arms, but George shied from Steve’s touch any time Steve tried to get near.

The aroma of distress must have flipped the switch for Bucky – a thump and a tired curse later, the door creaked open. Bucky swayed on his feet but opened his arms and said, “I’m sorry, sweetheart. C’mere. Sorry I scared you.”

George flew into his father’s arms. Bucky hugged him back. By now, the tizzy of scents and sound garnered the attention of the girls. When they crept closer and spotted Bucky, they both shrieked for their dad and ran to join in the embrace. Bucky and his pups stood huddled together for a long time without speaking.

When Bucky straightened back up and let go, Steve asked, “How are you holdin’ up?”

Bucky’s face twisted into an ugly, unhappy expression. He answered, “I’m angry.”

“Angry?”

“Yeah, Steve, I’m angry. I’m pissed that this happened to me and I’m pissed that this happened to my pups,” Bucky said, “and maybe I’m supposed to say something poetic about how I wouldn’t take back what happened to me because it led to having my pups, but you know what? I can be grateful for my kids and still fucking hate what happened to me. Why me, man? I’m never getting those years back. I shoulda been worrying about homework and winter formal at fifteen, not about whether or not I was gonna die giving goddamn birth in a dirty hole in the ground.”

Steve said, “I think you’re supposed to be angry. I’d be worried if you weren’t.”

Win tugged on Bucky’s sweatpants to interrupt with a soft, “Don’t be mad, Daddy.”

Bucky crumpled. He stooped to scoop Win up into his arms and assured her, “I’m not mad at you, sweetheart.”

“Is Alpha mad?” Win whispered.

“Steve?” Bucky prompted.

Win nodded.

“Maybe you should ask him,” Bucky suggested.

Timidly, Win peered at Steve. She asked, “Are you mad?”

“No, kiddo, I’m not mad,” Steve said, “I just wish I coulda helped you guys sooner.”

Then, to Steve’s and Bucky's equal amazement, Win leaned forward and reached for Steve. Bucky’s brows lifted and he and he asked, “You want Steve to hold you?”

Win nodded a second time.

Bucky passed Win over. She was feather-light in Steve’s arms, a barely-there weight. As soon as she settled in his grip, Win curled into his chest and stuck her nose against Steve’s neck, wrapping thin arms as far around as she could get them. Steve smoothed a palm over her spine. She smelled, to his continued surprise, calm and content.

So Steve won over the littlest of the people in his care. He’d count that as a step in the right direction.

Chapter Text

Weeks passed. Progress happened. Bucky could eat almost anything that he wanted now, and took to fabricating extensive grocery lists for Steve so that he could introduce the pups to everything good that he remembered. The pups, unsurprisingly, were partial to Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, although Steve turned them onto Annie’s, which Bucky had never had before he went into the basement but thought was damn tasty now.

Bucky finally got to read the last Harry Potter, but only after he reread the first six to remind him what the hell was even happening when he left off reading.

(Steve teased Bucky for his actual distress when he shouted, “HEDWIG?” at the top of his lungs and threw the book on the floor in part-denial, part-rage)

A fancy phone came for Bucky in the mail because Steve ordered it. Bucky took to downloading a couple dozen games and playing any given one when he wanted to avoid looking at somebody.

Bucky’s body filled out some. His ribs didn’t press so hard against his skin anymore, and his fuller cheeks restored stolen youth back into his face.

Bucky’s Ma called Steve a lot, but Bucky didn’t talk to her, not after the emotional turmoil in the wake of his last conversation with her. Maybe that made him a jackass, but Bucky’s anxieties didn’t take root in any kind of logic. He worried about his part in his kidnapping. He worried about taking the unlit shortcut back to his house, and worried that he hadn’t fought hard enough. He just let Pierce do what he wanted, just took it and suffered and maybe he shouldn’t have. Maybe he should have tried harder to escape. He worried what Ma thought of all that, and fear resounded through him any time he imagined having to see the look on her face when she found out her son was a coward.

Bucky and the pups went to therapy three times a week, and every time, Sam tried to convince Bucky to enroll in classes that the clinic offered. He didn’t want to, at least not yet.

But despite best efforts, Bucky still sometimes floated away. Sam told him the episodes were called dissociating, and that it happened to cope with trauma, that Bucky started detaching so he didn’t have to exist inside his body when Pierce used it. Bucky liked having a word for the experience. Knowing what was happening made it somehow less terrible.

The guilt of locking his pups out for three days hung over Bucky’s head like a black cloud, even if the incident happened a month and a half before. He hadn’t left their side since – Bucky watched them play in the backyard, cuddled up on the couch and watched movies with them, read picture books and taught letters to them…he put aside his shitty brain for their sake.

At least if Bucky dissociated, the pups had Steve. And above all, the pups had each other.

That thought struck him midday while Bucky stood at the sink, rinsing the grease from his lunch off of his plate before he stuck it in the dishwasher. He must have paused too long, because Steve leaned over him and turned the kitchen faucet off.

“You okay, Buck?” he asked.

“Just thinking,” Bucky said.

Bucky’s pups had each other.

While Bucky was growing up, he had his sisters. He loved all his sisters (Bucky was the oldest, by ten entire minutes), but Becca especially left a mark on him. Twins. Inseparable. They caused trouble together, running wild in the patch of swampy wilderness that ran behind their suburban neighborhood about a half-hour out of Denver. Hell, Becca was the brave one. She climbed the highest trees and crossed over the muddiest streams and Bucky followed her.

The ache of missing his sister hit him harder than it had in years.

She’d be grown up now, too. The image seared into Bucky’s brain of a fourteen year old girl with dark hair that loved jelly bracelets and owned three different pairs of Converse wasn’t the person that Becca was anymore. Becca now was just as far from being that kid as Bucky was from being the kid that pretended he didn’t watch anime and thought neglecting his English homework was edgy.

“Bucky?” Steve said, “Are you with me?”

“Huh? Oh, uh, yeah,” Bucky said, and blurted, before his brain caught up with his mouth, “What if I did that video chat thing with my sister?”

“Which one? Becca?” Steve said, brows drawn tight. He asked, “Are you sure you don’t wanna chat on the phone first?”

“I want to see her face,” Bucky said, “I don’t look as bad as I did before. I think. Right?”

Steve smiled in that stupid earnest way of his and said, “You know I think you’re beautiful.”

“Well that’s a load of horseshit, but I appreciate the sentiment,” Bucky answered. He set his plate down in the sink and turned, leaning back on the counter. He worried his lip between his teeth and said, “I know last time I talked to family it didn’t go so hot, but…Becca – she’s. She’s different.”

“I have her contact information,” Steve said, “I can call her and ask if she wants to set up a time to Skype.”

Bucky wanted to know what Becca looked like now. He wanted to hear her voice. Hell, he wanted her to meet the pups, wanted her to meet Steve, because they were important.

“Yeah. Do that. Please.”

Steve drew Bucky in for a hug. He did that more, and Bucky wished he could pretend that he didn’t love it so damn much, but Steve smelled good. Something about his strong arms wrapped around Bucky’s frame quieted the static roar of Bucky’s mind, pulled him out of the hole in the ground where he sometimes drifted and into the present.

“All right. When do you wanna talk to her?” asked Steve.

“Whenever,” Bucky said, “As soon as she can.”

Steve nodded as he pulled away, and Bucky plucked his plate back up from the sink and filed it into the dishwasher. He wandered down the hall, past the master bedroom, where the low rumble of Steve’s voice confirmed that he already was on the phone, already listening to Bucky, already helping him. He forced himself to walk past and to the back porch.

The sun warmed Bucky’s face and the buzz of insects greeted him when he stepped outside. The girls were playing inside, but George was out here – not doing anything, really, just sitting in the grass and staring at the sky. Bucky crept down the steps and padded barefoot into the lawn, sat down beside his son.

“Whatcha up to?” he asked.

“Looking at the clouds,” George said, “They move. If you keep watching, you’ll see.”

Bucky leaned back and pointed to the biggest mass in the sky. He said, “That one kinda looks like a dragon, like in the movie Steve showed us.”

George squinted and agreed, “I guess it does,” and then, “I like the sky.”

“Wait until you see a rainbow,” Bucky said, “Those are cool. Lightning is cool too.”

“I like the stars,” George told him, “but they only come out at night. Alpha Steve said people make shapes in the stars and they’re called con…conster…”

“Constellations?” suggested Bucky.

“Yeah, that,” George replied, “I wish I could read better so I could read books about stars.”

“You’re gettin’ there,” Bucky said, “It just takes practice. You wanna tell me your letters?”

George eyed Bucky, but obediently recited the alphabet. He absorbed information faster than Bucky thought possible. Already George started reading those simple, tiny books with three word sentences made of few letters. Pride swelled in Bucky’s chest and filled him up like a helium balloon.

“Good job, baby,” Bucky murmured, and stroked his hand through George’s dark hair.

Dad,” George complained, and batted him away. Bucky smiled. If nothing else, some things were as they were supposed to be. He never expected to be so glad that he embarrassed his pup.

A handful of quiet, cloud-watching moments later, the back door slid open and Steve meandered down from the porch to join them. He sat down beside Bucky and said, “Your sister’s at work right now, but she said she’ll Skype us tonight. I made sure I had everything set up on my computer and gave her our contact information.”

“Hear that, kid? Your old dad’s gonna see his sister tonight,” Bucky said.

**

Earlier longing to see Becca gave way to a flood of nerves. Bucky had to take one of the pills that Bruce prescribed for anxiety to bring him down when it came time for the Skype call. All three pups took great interest in this event, especially after Bucky explained that they would see their auntie’s face. The fact that their daddy had a sister fascinated them to no end, so when Steve opened his laptop on the coffee table, Bucky’s babies piled onto the couch with him and crowded in so that they could watch.

His heart pounded up against his ribcage and in his ears.

The woman that appeared on the computer screen stunned Bucky. Traces of the Becca he remembered lingered in her face, in her chin and cheekbones that were the same as his (the pups looked like Bucky too, God, but he’d never noticed until he saw his face in the mirror and saw his children reflected in the Bucky that looked back at him in the glass). But she was older, much older, and Bucky must have looked different to her too, because her expression melted into something loving and wondering and sad all at once.

“Hey, Becca,” Bucky said.

“Hi,” she replied, “God, it’s good to see you.”

“Are you a princess?” Becky asked, “You look like Princess Belle.”

She did. Obviously Becca learned how to do her hair at some point – it fell around her face in careful spirals. Her makeup lacked the raccoon-like quality it had the last time that Bucky laid eyes on her and instead looked like something out of a magazine. And, unlike Bucky, her body was thick enough that she wouldn’t be knocked on her ass by a stiff breeze.

“I wish I were a princess,” Becca said, “but I’m just a doctor.”

“Just a – Becca, that’s amazing,” Bucky said.

“I mean, I’m not technically a doctor all the way yet. I’m doing my residency right now,” Becca said, “but I’ll be Dr. Barnes pretty soon here.”

“You’re a doctor; I’m a wreck – look how far we’ve come,” Bucky joked.

The jest fell flat, and Becca frowned. She asked, “How are you holding up?”

“Christ, I don’t know,” Bucky said, “I can tell you one thing – I know for certain that I could be worse. Um. Anyway. These are my pups. George, my oldest,” Bucky patted George’s head, only to be swatted at again, “Win, my youngest,” she did not mind having her hair stroked, “and Becky, in the middle.”

Becca bit her lip. Knowing their mother, Becca probably knew about Bucky naming one of his pups after her already. Still, coming face to face with it fell in a different category than being told about it. And Becky, bless her, filled the silence between them all with, “Daddy named me after you. He says you’re his twin which means that you grew in grandma’s tummy at the same time he did.”

Becca cracked a smile and said, “That’s right.”

Bucky, meanwhile, had a revelation.

“Oh, Jesus,” Bucky said, and raked both hands back through his hair, “Oh, man. I just realized – I’m a twin. Dad’s a twin. I could have had twins. Holy sh-snap. That would have sucked.”

Becca quirked a brow and said, “Kinda seems like everything sucked anyway.”

The honesty startled a laugh out of Bucky. This – this was why Becca was different. She wouldn’t dance around the catastrophe that was the past eleven years of Bucky’s life, and she wouldn’t romanticize it or tell him he should be grateful for what happened because it brought him to where he was. He grinned and said, “Ain’t that the truth.”

“So, you have a support alpha? How does that work?” asked Becca, “I mean, I know how it works. I work in the field. But how’s it working for you?”

“Good,” Bucky said, “Great. Actually. Steve, c’mere.” Bucky waved Steve over from where the dummy had been hovering in the kitchen while he pretended not to listen in. He stood behind the couch but ducked down so that his face came into the frame and Becca could see him. Bucky stuck his thumb at him and said, “This is Steve.”

Bucky watched his sister’s face turn assessing on the computer screen, and turned back to look at Steve. A dumb smile filled up half of his face and his blond hair fell into his eyes, and the shirt he was wearing was way too tight like all of his other shirts. In short, he looked amazing, especially with Bucky’s half-starved, pale body sitting on the couch below him for comparison.

“We picked him out,” Win said, “He’s nice.”

Steve chuckled. He said, “It’s nice to put a face to the name. Bucky’s told me some great stories.”

“Oh, boy,” Becca said, “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“They’re mostly nice stories,” Steve assured her.

“Anyway,” Bucky said, “To answer your question, Steve’s awesome. Back at the clinic me n’ the pups spent a whole afternoon flipping through scent samples. We all agreed on Steve, so we came here. Um. He helps. My head’s not real right, but Steve’s good at getting me out of it.”

“Sounds like he’s doing what he’s supposed to,” Becca said.

“Yeah. It’s hard. I can’t trust my own mind a lot of the time, but,” Bucky shrugged a shoulder, “I’m not living in a creepy sub-basement, so I’ve got that going for me.”

“God, I missed you,” Becca said, “When Ma called and said you were alive, I thought she’d finally cracked. But you’re here and I just – you’re all grown up.”

“You are too,” Bucky said, “and lookin’ a whole lot better than I do, for that matter. But I’m working on that. I have like a billion vitamins that the doctor has me take and I can finally handle food with actual flavor. Steve brought me a chocolate bar yesterday and I almost cried when I ate it; I swear.”

Bucky asked Becca about her school, then, and after that asked how the rest of his sisters were doing.

“Everyone wants to talk to you,” Becca said, “but that’s probably too much for you right now.”

Bucky frowned and said, “I want to tell you that you’re wrong, but you’re not. I’m a headcase, Becca.”

“I’d be more worried if you came out of there completely level,” replied Becca, “There’s a whole lot of development that this screwed with, I’m sure. I mean…Christ on sale. This blows.”

“You’re telling me,” said Bucky, “but I’m here now. Sometimes it’s – it’s overwhelming, like the whole world was black and white and now it’s technicolor. It’s great, but…” Bucky trailed off, trying to find the right words, “so much happened in the world while I was down there. We got a black president! Twice! So I got all this new information coming at me from all sides and I want to know everything, but I can only process so much at once and then I just – I dunno, overload. And I’m in my twenties with the education of a fourteen year old pup and…”

“Hey, hey,” Becca said, lifting up a hand, “I get it. I mean, obviously I didn’t go through what you did –”

“Thank Christ. That would break my fuckin’ heart, I tell you what,” Bucky said, and then, “Shit. I mean. Shoot. Trying not to swear in front of the pups. It never seemed to matter before.”

Becca laughed. What a sound that was. Warmth filled Bucky from the inside out, and he couldn’t help but grin. He ran his hands back through his hair – too long, but he didn’t want anyone to touch him so he refused to get it cut – and said, “Hey, so, I’m gonna go, but I can give you my phone number? Steve bought me a phone. It’s really fancy. Phones are all scifi now. I can do anything on that thing. And, uh, texting is better than calling for now. Oh – and don’t give my number to mom or anyone else. I’m not ready for that.”

Bucky rattled off his new phone number and watched Becca punch it into her own phone, a cell that looked just as high tech as his or Steve’s. A few moments later, a text came through to Bucky’s phone.

8:34 [Unknown]: Your secret’s safe with me.

8:34 [Unknown]: [several brown emojis]

“What the heck are those?” Bucky asked.

“Poop emojis,” Becca answered from the laptop.

Bucky rolled his eyes to the ceiling and said, “Good to know you’re still an asshole.”

“Asshole,” Win repeated.

“Great,” Bucky said, “Now look what you did.”

Becca laughed again, only to quiet and go serious. She stared at Bucky for a long time and said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

**

After Steve and Bucky read bedtime stories to the pups and lulled them to sleep, Bucky plastered himself to Steve’s front. Maybe that should have been embarrassing, but Steve smelled nice and Bucky’s brain was quickly veering toward overdrive. Steve rested his hands on Bucky’s back, huffed out a chuckle, and said, “You want me to fill the bath for you?”

“Oh, hell yeah,” Bucky said, disengaging from the embrace to follow Steve through the master bedroom and into the master bath.

Even the bathroom suggested the presence of an artist in the house, which perhaps was why Bucky liked it so much. Like everywhere else in the house, real art decked the walls, though in the master bath they weren’t paintings but charcoal sketches of nudes that managed not to seem sexual at all. Warm blue-gray paint colored the walls, and light fixtures equipped with what Steve called “Edison bulbs” cast the whole room in a comfortable yellow glow.

Cool tile pressed against the soles of Bucky’s feet. He plopped down on top of the toilet lid while Steve stooped over the enormous bathtub to futz with the faucet and pull water at the right temperature. Bucky leaned to open the cabinet below the sink and handed Steve his favorite fragrant bubble bath, three quarters gone already.

“Can we buy more of that?” Bucky asked.

“Of course,” Steve said as he dispensed the liquid under the stream filling the tub. He set the bottle aside and tilted his head at the door, “I’m gonna go read in bed for a while, so if you –”

“No,” Bucky said, “Stay.”

Steve stared for a beat.

“Is that weird to ask?” said Bucky, “I just – your smell calms me down, so if you – I don’t know, just sat next to the tub – it is weird to ask, isn’t it? Fuck, I’m sorry.”

Steve shook his head and said, “Not weird. I want you to be comfortable, is all. You want me to turn around while you undress, or…”

“Nah,” Bucky said, “I know you’re not gonna put the moves on me.”

Steve looked like he wanted to say something but decided against it, so Bucky stripped off the soft cotton t-shirt he was wearing and tossed it across the bathroom. It hit the lip of the wicker laundry hamper and fluttered to the floor. “Damn,” Bucky said, and crossed the room to correct the miss. He shoved his jeans and undies down his hips and tucked those away, too.

Steve pointedly did not look at Bucky, and Bucky didn’t blame him. He looked much healthier than he did the first day he came to Steve’s house, but he didn’t look good. The first time Bucky saw his reflection, he wanted to gag. He avoided mirrors after that for the most part. The body he had was sickly, too thin, scarred up and hard to look at. Easier to look at now than in the beginning, but not pleasant. Steve called Bucky beautiful, but he was supposed to say that kind of shit. Steve’s job was to reassure Bucky.

Bucky almost believed him, sometimes.

Steve didn’t look until Bucky slipped into the water and bubbles covered up any private parts.

“I’m glad I got to meet your sister,” Steve said.

Bucky smiled. He said, “I’m glad, too. She doesn’t treat me like I’m made of glass. It’s nice.”

“Do I do that?” asked Steve, “Treat you like glass, I mean.”

Bucky considered. He said, “Sometimes. Not always. I don’t mind too much when it’s you. You didn’t know me before – you know, the whole basement thing happened. I think my ma compares me to the pup she remembers and it breaks her heart to see what I’ve become. I don’t like breaking my ma’s heart, Steve. Not that I think Becca’s happy to see what happened to me – but I think she takes it for what it is.”

“For what it’s worth,” Steve said, “I think you’re damn impressive, Buck. You got put through hell and made it out and you’re still going.”

“I gotta, don’t I? I got pups. Can’t just leave them on their own,” Bucky said.

“Not everybody thinks that way. You’re something else,” Steve told him. He reached for the shampoo tucked into the alcove in the tiled wall around the bath and asked, “May I?”

Bucky hesitated. He thought of Pierce’s hands yanking his head back while he fucked him into the narrow mattress, how sometimes Pierce pulled so hard that he pulled whole chunks of Bucky’s hair out of his scalp. The image of Steve, however, eclipsed the memory of being hurt – Steve guiding Bucky’s nose to his neck with gentle hands, Steve’s arms draped loosely enough around Bucky that he could escape his grip if he wanted, Steve playing with Bucky’s pups with Win perched on top of his broad shoulders, the way Steve always made noise when he entered a room so he never surprised Bucky.

“You can do it if you’re more comfortable –”

“No, go ahead,” Bucky murmured, and dipped his head under the water.

Steve poured shampoo into his palm when Bucky resurfaced, rubbed it between his hands, and let his fingers slide into Bucky’s wet hair. Bucky knew Steve could smell how fucking nervous he was, but was grateful that he didn’t pull away. Instead, Steve went slow, massaging the shampoo into Bucky’s scalp until it soaped up.

Beneath the bubbles, Bucky’s cock started to stiffen between his legs. Hell, he felt slick.

The thought of sex barely crossed Bucky’s mind before this very fucking moment. After eleven years of associating sex with pain, he preferred to direct his focus elsewhere. Sometimes he had nightmares that he was being held down and fucked, and when he looked up, Steve was the one pinning him down. Logically, Bucky knew that Steve would never, ever do that, but his hindbrain didn’t function on logic; it functioned on instinct.

Instinct told him sex was bad.

But now instinct said differently?

Bucky had never been so grateful for the cedar scent of the bubble bath or the pine scent of the shampoo. He didn’t doubt that Steve would be able to sniff out omega arousal if he was looking for it, but Steve wouldn’t do that, and thus Bucky had scents to hide behind.

Steve’s hands left Bucky’s head. “Go ahead and rinse,” he said.

Bucky ducked under the surface again, relieved the bubbles had some staying power and that Steve couldn’t see what nonsense Bucky’s body was doing. Obviously his wires were crossed somewhere. Bucky didn’t want to be hard or slick. He liked Steve, liked him a lot, but he didn’t want – that. Right?

A strong hand wrapped around his bicep and pulled him up.

“You okay?” Steve asked, “You stayed down there for a long time.”

“Sorry,” Bucky said, “Spaced out.”

Steve held up a different bottle and asked, “Conditioner?”

“Yeah, go for it,” Bucky said.

Bucky’s body continued its journey of confused arousal. When Steve drew his hands away for the second time, Bucky didn’t know if he was disappointed or relieved, or trapped someplace in between both. He was definitely relieved when Steve said, “Go ahead and rinse again. I’ll grab you some pajamas while you dry off, okay?”

A towel couldn’t really mask a hard-on with any sort of effectiveness, but it was better than nothing. Since Steve wasn’t on the lookout for Bucky’s awkward, involuntary boners, he didn’t see it when he placed a folded set of pajamas on the granite countertop and excused himself to change in the half-bath in the hall.

A sick feeling churned inside Bucky like a storm. More than once, during his heats, he got hard when Pierce screwed him and never in his life had he felt so helpless and humiliated. Pierce whispered in Bucky’s ear how much he liked being fucked, how hard he was for Pierce, what a good boy he was being. But he couldn’t help it. He didn’t want to be hard for Pierce, just like he didn’t want to be hard now.

Bucky backed against the counter and sank to the floor in his towel, trembling. His lungs weren’t working right. He couldn’t take in enough air and –

Oh God, there were hands on him, hands on him again and he –

“I don’t want it!” Bucky shouted, “I don’t want it, I don’t want it, I don’t want it.”

The hands went away.

“Okay. I won’t touch,” somebody said, and then a moment later, “What the – ow. Fuck! Fuck. Jesus – I – who in the –”

“You said you wouldn’t hurt Daddy, you liar.”

That was George. Oh no no no, if George hurt Pierce, Pierce would kill Bucky’s little boy and George deserved better than never seeing the light of day, never feeling wind or sunshine on his skin or tasting ice cream. Bucky snapped to attention, vision reeling back into him.

Steve.

Steve stood over him, bleeding from his side.

George was holding a bloody steak knife.

“Shit,” Bucky said, “Baby, no, it’s okay. Steve didn’t hurt me.”

“You were yelling,” George said, “He was holding you down.”

“No, no, Steve was trying to help me,” Bucky said. He clutched the cabinet handle and forced himself back onto his feet. He went on, “I got confused. I didn’t know where I was. Steve was trying to bring me back. Give me the knife. Please.”

George glared at Steve, eyes flicking from him to Bucky and back again. He stepped forward and held the knife out at Bucky, who snatched it away before his pup got any more bright ideas. He threw it into the bathroom sink and scooped George into his arms, cradling the back of his head with one hand. He murmured, “Thank you for protecting me, but you don’t need to protect me from Steve, okay? Steve is one of the good guys.”

“Why did you yell?” George asked.

“Because I – I, um. Daddy’s brain doesn’t work so good sometimes,” Bucky struggled to explain, “and sometimes it makes me think I’m still in the basement. Steve didn’t do that, baby. It was Daddy’s brain.”

“Oh,” George said.

Bucky turned his attention to Steve, who’d backed himself as far away from Bucky and George as he could and made himself smaller in a show of contrition. Bright red soaked through Steve’s entire right side, spreading in a macabre fractal over his white t-shirt and gray sweatpants. Bucky said, “Let me see.”

Steve licked his lips and peeled the shirt up. The wound was longer than it was deep. George didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of strength in his body, but he’d done a number on Steve. Bucky sighed and said, “I guess we call Dr. Banner?”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, “That’s – yeah. I’ll do that.”

As soon as Steve swept from the bathroom, Bucky said, “George, you can’t stab people.”

“I thought he was hurting you,” George said miserably.

“If you get worried, you call Sam, remember?” Bucky said, “Remember how Steve showed you how to use the house phone? And there are numbers you press on the paper next to it?”

“Yeah,” George mumbled.

“We’re lucky that Steve is so nice,” Bucky said, “He’s not gonna be mad at you, but I’m kinda mad. We’re gonna have to talk to Sam about this.”

“But,” George said.

“But nothing,” Bucky said back, “Them’s the brakes, kid. You need to get back in bed right now. We’ll figure out what to do about this in the morning. Am I clear?”

“But,” George said again.

“Am. I. Clear?” Bucky repeated.

“Yes,” George said.

Bucky relaxed a fraction. “Good,” he said, “I’m gonna get dressed and check on Steve. Please just…listen to me.”

George made a dramatic show of stomping out of the master bath, but at least he went. Bucky closed his eyes and gripped the lip of the counter for a long minute, collecting himself, before he shed the towel around his waist and pulled on the pajamas that Steve left for him. If nothing else, his hard-on disappeared, and his ass wasn’t slick anymore. Nothing like a flashback and a stabbing to kill the mood.

Bucky had to walk around blood droplets to get out of the bathroom, and followed the trail on the hardwood floor to the kitchen, where Steve slouched back in one of the dining chairs, face taut and pale.

“I’m so fucking sorry,” Bucky said, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve rumbled, “It looks worse than it is. Bruce is on his way to stitch me up.”

“Please don’t make us go,” Bucky found himself saying. Weak. He needed Steve. He didn’t want to leave. But Bucky’s son stabbed Steve with a fucking steak knife and Bucky couldn’t think of any circumstances under which an alpha would be okay with being stabbed by another alpha’s pup.

Steve’s jaw twitched.

“I’m not going to make you go anywhere,” Steve said, “This is your home.”

“My son stabbed you,” Bucky said.

“He thought he was protecting you,” Steve replied.

“Do you have a fucking death wish? My pup stabbed you and you’re – you’re just gonna be cool with it?”

“I’m not cool with it,” Steve said, “but he’s lived most of his life fighting to survive in a hole in the ground. He doesn’t understand the scope of the world the way I do, or you do, for that matter – all of this is brand fucking new. Think about it, Buck. That kid hadn’t met a kind alpha even once until Rhodes bailed you out and took you to the clinic. I expect him to talk with Sam about it, but I’m not going to hold this over you. Jesus. What kind of alpha do you think I am?”

“I –”

But Bucky didn’t have time to answer, because a knock at the front door interrupted him. Steve made to get up, but Bucky waved him back and opened the front door himself. Dr. Banner trudged in with a doctor’s bag, all old-school, but Bucky supposed he had to be if he made house calls for the outpatient omegas under the Stark Clinic’s care.

A short, wiry omega followed Dr. Banner into the house.

“Who the fuck are you?” Bucky asked.

“Tony Stark,” the omega answered.

Bucky stared. Stark – as in Stark Omega Clinic?

Steve groaned from the kitchen, pained. He called, “Tony, why the hell are you here?”

“Because somebody woke up me and my mates,” Tony said back, “and when I heard why, I wanted to see for myself. You kind of have a job to do, Rogers, and you can’t do it if you bleed out on your kitchen floor.”

“Suck a cock,” Steve shot back. Bucky’s brows shot up high on his forehead. He’d never heard Steve speak like that before, ever, to anyone.

“I will,” Tony said, “Thank you. I’ll do it in your honor. Bruce, I’m blowing you in honor of Steve tonight.”

“That’s…nice,” Dr. Banner said. He shook his head and crossed the open floor to Steve, placing his bag on the kitchen table. He studied Steve and said, “Let’s get your shirt off.”

Dr. Banner and Steve made a combined effort to pull Steve’s shirt over his head. Blood smeared over a damn nice torso, and sweat glistened against Steve’s collarbone. Dr. Banner set to work without speaking and cleaned the wound, but Tony took in the damage and said, “Yeesh. A pup did that?”

“He thought I was hurting Bucky,” Steve said, strained.

“Brave kid,” muttered Tony.

Watching Dr. Banner stitch Steve’s wound closed stirred bile up from Bucky’s stomach, but he swallowed it back down and made himself look. Steve didn’t complain, didn’t even make a noise of pain, just sat there and let Dr. Banner stitch and dress the wound.

Once he finished his handiwork, Banner said, “You were right in that it’s not too deep, so it should heal up fine. But you’re gonna have to drop by the clinic tomorrow and talk to Sam. The policy states –”

“Three strikes and you’re out,” Steve said, “I know.”

“This is strike one,” Banner said, and this time, he turned to address Bucky, “If Steve gets injured three times, we have to take you and the pups back to the clinic and get you placed elsewhere.”

“Fuck,” Bucky said.

“Yeah,” Banner agreed, “Be careful with your stitches, Steve. If you tear them I’m going to brain you.”

“Got it,” Steve said, “Lecture later, Bruce. Sleep now.”

“Ooh, he’s reverted to caveman alpha,” Tony said, “Me like omega, me want –”

“I will actually strangle you right here, right now,” Steve said, “I don’t need your bullshit right now.”

Tony’s mouth snapped shut. Then he asked, “You okay?”

Steve looked at Tony through narrowed eyes and then folded his arms over his bare chest. He said, “Yeah. Thanks for checking on me, Tony.”

Tony sniffed, “Oh, please. I just wanted to watch the circus.”

Inexplicably, this made Steve smile. Bucky wasn’t even going to pretend to understand any of what was happening. Dr. Banner and Tony shuffled out of the house after a few more terse instructions for Steve and a warning glance at Bucky.

As soon as they left, guilt crashed full-force into Bucky. He gnawed on his lip until he tasted coppery blood and said, “I guess I’ll, um. I guess I’ll sleep in my room?”

“If you want to,” Steve said.

“I just thought that you probably don’t want me around right now,” said Bucky.

Steve huffed. A fond smile curved his lips and he said, “Don’t be obtuse. I always want you around, pal. This is just a hiccup. I’m with you to the end of the line. Okay?”

Chapter Text

The morning after the stabbing incident, Bucky woke with his nose pressed into Steve’s neck, and Steve’s arms looped around him in a firm hold, but not trapping him. What surprised Bucky was the addition of three other scents – each belonging to his pups. He craned his neck in an attempt to peer over Steve’s massive body, and saw at least one lump sleeping in the king bed that hadn’t been there when he fell asleep last night.

Steve snuffled in protest at Bucky’s squirming and nuzzled into his neck. It was…nice. Not like Pierce, who tried to get a bite to take on Bucky’s neck so many times that he lost count, but bites didn’t take if an omega didn’t want them. At least his body had one defense mechanism that was actually fucking useful.

Bucky settled in and went back to sleep.

He woke again when Steve tried to shift out of the tangle of their limbs. Bucky whined and clamped the grip of his legs down harder on Steve’s waist without thinking about it. Hindbrain, instinct – wanted Steve, wanted comfort, didn’t like every alpha but sure as shit liked this one.

“Buck, I gotta make coffee,” Steve murmured.

“No,” Bucky protested.

“No, I can’t make coffee, or no you’re not letting go of me?” asked Steve.

“There’s a difference?”

Steve decided to illustrate his answer by cupping the underside of Bucky’s thighs and heaving him up. Though he’d put on weight, Bucky wasn’t heavy, especially with alpha strength taken into consideration.

Steve,” Bucky complained, but he hooked his ankles around Steve’s lower back, careful to mind his stitches, and tightened the circle of his arms around Steve’s neck. On the way out of the master bedroom, over Steve’s shoulder, Bucky saw that all three pups did in fact crawl into bed with him and Steve sometime after the stabbing disaster. Even George.

With Bucky’s limbs wrapped around him, Steve measured fresh coffee beans into his grinder and turned it on. The grinder buzzed while Steve filled the coffee pot with water and dumped it into the machine. Every movement was mechanical and practiced, as though Steve didn’t have an adult human hanging onto his front like a koala.

When Becky, the first of the pups to wake, joined them in the kitchen, she asked, “Daddy, what are you doing?” She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes with her fists. Her eyes were light, gray-blue, like Bucky's eyes. All three of the pups had his eyes.

“Steve was comfy, so I didn’t let go of him,” Bucky said.

“Oh,” she said, “Okay.” The way Bucky’s pups accepted circumstances with such ease would never fail to impress him.

He did eventually let go to pour himself a bowl of cereal, though the absence of Steve’s body heat when Bucky slipped away from him filled Bucky with an eerie sort of longing. He didn’t know if there was a name for it – the strange ache he felt when he backed off of his support alpha – but it thrummed just beneath the surface of Bucky’s skin like a living thing.

The pervasive aroma of fresh-brewed coffee clouded the kitchen and called to Bucky, but he didn’t want to tempt fate, so he stuck with his green tea.

The blood drips from Steve’s wound were still on the floor.

Steve, the mind reader, took care of that before Bucky could even finish his Mini Wheats. He scrubbed down the hardwood with a rag under his foot and a mug of coffee in his hand. In what was one of the most graceless displays Bucky had seen an alpha undertake, Steve wobbled and cursed under his breath as he went. Steve tended to be sluggish until he dosed himself with coffee – his giant body needed a lot more caffeine than Bucky’s did to get the right amount of jump.

“I have to do some work today,” Steve said when he returned from the master bedroom, now-pink rag clutched in his hand, “I’ll just be in my studio if you need me.”

“Right on,” Bucky said, and retrieved a glass of water to down his morning supplements.

Routine. He had routine.

Bucky had routine in Pierce’s sub-basement, too, but it was never anything like this. He lazed mornings away watching cartoons and movies with his pups, spent afternoons reading outside on the porch swing while the pups played with whatever new thing that caught their attention, and at night Bucky wiggled up in bed alongside a big, handsome alpha that smelled like every holiday ever in one glorious scent. Panic attacks and dissociation and stabbings aside, he wasn’t doing too bad.

Bucky was fortunate.

Sometime in the afternoon, Steve came down from his studio to brew another pot of coffee and announced, “A couple folks from the clinic are gonna stop by this evening. Sam’s coming so he can talk with George in his safe space, and Clint – I don’t think you’ve met him – is bringing his dog Lucky over. Lucky’s a therapy dog. Sam thinks he might help.”

“All right,” Bucky said, and pretended not to be as excited as he was at the prospect of seeing a dog again. His family had a dog when he got snatched, a big fluffy mutt named Sarge that slobbered all over everything and had a collection of tennis balls that rivaled Bucky’s old Pokémon cards.

In all likelihood, Sarge was long gone by now. Bucky was far sadder about that than he expected to be about something that probably happened years ago.

He might not see Sarge again, but he was seeing a dog, and that was a treat.

And when they arrived, Lucky was everything that he hoped. With a genial wag of his tail, he sniffed at Bucky and let him scratch behind his ears as long as he wanted. The pups were awed, enough so that Sam allowed George several minutes of fawning over the dog before he took him aside to have a conversation in private.

“He really likes you guys,” Clint said. Bucky had never seen him before, but he recognized the scent of the guy from the clinic. He smelled it sometimes around the classrooms when he went wandering while he waited for his kids to get out of therapy. Clint’s scent was mellow, and suppressed. So the guy was either an alpha or an omega, but Bucky couldn’t honestly tell on sight.

At Clint’s side, Lucky was tolerant of the roaming hands of Bucky’s pups as they petted and prodded him.

“I love him,” Win said.

“Me too,” agreed Becky.

“I’m gonna pretend to be a doggy tomorrow,” Win announced.

Bucky smiled and smoothed a hand through Win’s hair. He said, “I think that’s a great idea, sweetheart.”

Steve and Clint veered off into some conversation that Bucky tuned out while he watched his girls play with Lucky. Lucky sniffed at everything in the house and Bucky followed as he nosed around past the kitchen and down the hall. Lucky used his head to push open the door to the nursery before Bucky could stop him.

“Sorry,” Bucky said to Sam and George. Lucky set his head in George’s lap and gazed up at him with one doleful eye.

“We were just finishing up anyway,” Sam said, “What are you thinking, buddy?”

George sniffled and said to his lap, “I’m gonna tell Steve sorry.”

“That’s a nice thing to do, man,” Sam said, “I’m glad.”

When Sam left, George stood up. Lucky licked his face, enough to tease a giggle out of him even through his crappy mood. Not that Bucky blamed him. George got the chip on his shoulder from Bucky – or living in a hellish basement room. One or the other, or maybe both. Probably both.

Lucky’s tags jingled as he explored the pups’ room, giving everything a cursory sniff as though ensuring each item was okay to be there. He lingered, though, at the closet door, and scratched at it. Bucky stepped forward to open it.

Only after he pulled the closet open did Becky yell, “Daddy no!”

A rancid smell knocked Bucky backward.

“What the –” he started, but didn’t bother finishing his sentence.

Food.

There was a mountain of food in his pups’ closet, some of it in Tupperware containers, some of it in Ziploc bags, some of it just spilling out on its own. Something in the mess was rotting, and a loaf of bread near the top had grown an actual garden of blue and green mold. A withered apple rolled off of the top of the pile and bounced across the wood floor, landing with a conclusive thunk at Bucky’s socked feet.

Bucky turned around to look at his horrified six year old.

“What’s this?” he asked, trying to sound calmer than he felt.

“I just thought…” Becky clenched her fists at her sides, “If Steve stops giving us food, I don’t want to be hungry! So I saved it.”

Jesus.

Bucky knew it. Becky seemed to adjust so fluidly, transitioning into the outside world as though she’d been there all along. Her only stumbling blocks thus far were catching up to pups her age in reading, writing and math, and working on her fine motor skills with Thor at the clinic. Her well-adjusted attitude felt unreal because it was, and Bucky didn’t notice, because he was a crap father that couldn’t tell when things were wrong with his pups.

Bucky knelt down at his daughter’s level and brushed a lock of dark hair behind her ear. He said, “Baby, a lot of foods go bad after a while and then you can’t eat them anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Because they taste gross and they’ll make you sick,” Bucky said. Like the food Pierce gave us, he didn’t say. But maybe he should say that? He continued to stroke her hair and tried to explain, “When we were in the hole…the food Alpha gave us…that was bad food. Normal food doesn’t taste or look like that. He gave it to us to be mean.”

“Why?” Becky asked.

“Because he was a bad person,” Bucky replied, “but Steve isn’t a bad person. Steve’s a good person. Has he ever done anything bad?”

Becky shook her head.

“So Steve isn’t gonna take our food away,” Bucky told her, “He’ll always have food for us.”

The clearing of a throat alerted Bucky to the fact that he and his daughter garnered an audience. He looked up from Becky’s downtrodden blue eyes to see Steve, Sam, Clint, Lucky, and his other two pups all at the mouth of the nursery. When Bucky’s eyes landed on Steve, his face shifted into the expression of someone with an idea. Steve shouldered past Sam and joined Bucky where he knelt on the floor.

Becky looked and smelled like she thought the world was about to end. She exclaimed, “I’m sorry! Don’t make us go!”

“It’s okay. I’m not going to make you go anywhere,” Steve assured her, “I just had an idea I wanted to share with you. Do you wanna hear it?”

Suspicion darkened Becky’s face, but she nodded.

“How about we clean up the old food in the closet, and then I can give you foods that don’t go bad so quick. You can keep them right here with you.”

“That sounds like a really good idea, Becks,” Bucky said, “What do you think?” God bless Steve. Bucky couldn’t very well wave a magic fucking wand and tell his daughter to get over her trauma in an instant, but she couldn’t stockpile stolen food and let it rot in her bedroom closet. Giving her things that she could keep to bolster her comfort…Bucky had to hand it to Steve: it was genius.  

“Okay,” Becky conceded.

A group endeavor to clean out the closet accomplished the task in no time at all. Steve bagged the rotting food in big, black garbage bags and took them out to the plastic trashcans in the garage. When he returned, he came back with a stubby, dust-covered bookcase that looked like it had seen better days.

Steve tucked the set of shelves into the pups’ closet, wiped it down with a can of Pledge and a kitchen rag, and then moved canned and jarred food from the pantry to fill it up. Steve showed Becky how to pull the tab back to peel the top off of cans, and showed her that the picture on the label was often a picture of what the can had inside it.

Before Steve could stand back up after the demonstration, Becky threw her arms around Steve’s neck and yanked him into a hug. Steve hugged her right back, rubbing over her back in soothing circles.

“Thank you,” Becky said, “You’re the best alpha in the whole world.”

“That’s a very nice thing to say,” Steve whispered. Bucky didn’t miss the dent between Steve’s brow or the gentle, loving way he held Becky, as though she was one of his own and not a stranger’s pup that fell into his lap. His heart clenched at the sight, seized up like a heart attack until he remembered how to breathe.

**

“I’m a bad dad,” Bucky said later that night, long after they'd put the pups to bed.

Steve tore his eyes from his sketchbook, where a half-finished charcoal drawing of Bucky cradling his tea between his palms on the armchair took up most of the page. He asked, “Why do you think that?”

“My oldest pup literally stabbed you,” Bucky reminded him.

“We’ve been over this –”

“Becky stole like half your fucking fridge and let it rot in her closet,” Bucky continued, “So who knows what the little one’s got up her sleeve. It could be anything.”

“You’re not a bad dad,” Steve said, voice firm, “What happened to you and your pups isn’t your fault, but it left a mark on them. They need time and the tools to heal and it’s not gonna happen overnight. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad dad, just like I hope it doesn’t mean I’m a crappy support alpha.”

“Don’t say that,” Bucky said.

Steve leveled A Look at him.

“Okay, fine. I see what you mean. I just – want everything for them,” said Bucky, “and I had nothing for them for so long.”

“If I read your file right, you made do with what you had,” Steve said gently, “You made a nest for them out of almost nothing. You made them blankets and toys. You told them stories and talked to them. They know more than anyone at the clinic expected them to, because you taught it to them. You loved them, and you still love them.”

Bucky’s face burned. He ducked his head so he didn’t have to look at Steve’s calculating gaze and mumbled, “Anyone woulda done that shit, Steve.”

“I don’t know about that,” Steve said, “I think you kept going when you could have given up. I think you’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever known.”

“I, uh,” Bucky started, swallowing the lump in his throat, “I’m not sure that’s true.”

The intensity of Steve’s gaze burned into Bucky like lasers as he said, “I am.”

Chapter Text

Three days passed by without incident after Steve moved the bulk of his nonperishables to the closet in the nursery, and time wore on much as it had before, filled with the pups’ daily curiosity at simple things, Bucky’s simultaneous reticence to trust and readiness to embrace, and Steve’s desire to balance it all as smoothly as he could manage.

The evening before Bucky was due for a checkup with Bruce at the clinic, he excused himself from watching a movie with Steve and the pups to decompress in a bubble bath. He did not invite Steve to join him as he did the night that George swiped Steve with a steak knife. Instead, Steve got put on pup duty.

Without Bucky there as a buffer, the pups preferred when Steve kept his distance. They would never voice as much, but the discomfort wasn’t hard to pick out from their tense body language during the handful of moments that Steve spent alone with them. So after brief bickering between George and Win – Win wanted to watch Cinderella again, while George wanted to see something new – Steve set A Bug’s Life to play on the television and retreated to the kitchen to clean up after their supper.

Steve didn’t have worry about much mess or fuss with the way that Bucky and the pups ate. All four of them cleared their plates at every meal. Steve didn’t like to dwell on why. He knew. He knew that all of them ate like they might not eat tomorrow, in spite of Steve’s best efforts to show them that they were safe with him and never had to worry about where their next meal was coming from.

After Steve closed the dishwasher and it chugged to life.

“I’ll be right back, guys,” he said to the kids, and jogged up to his studio to grab one of his sketchbooks and his favorite set of drawing pencils.

Steve set up shop at the table, cracking open the sketchbook’s thick pages to a fresh sheet of cream-colored paper. As his pencil pulled across the page, the round cheeks and owlish eyes of Win took shape, peering up at Steve in the way she did when she didn’t understand something and wanted somebody to explain it to her.

The task of doing justice to Win’s face engrossed Steve so wholly that he didn’t notice at first that somebody had joined him in the kitchen. He didn’t look up until one of the other chairs at the table scraped across the floorboards. It was George, pulling out the chair furthest from Steve’s.

“Hey, kiddo,” Steve said as George settled in across from him. He sounded tired even to his own ears. In his left side, his stiches throbbed.

“You’re a good draw-er,” George told him.

“Thank you,” Steve replied. He didn’t force continued conversation, but returned to sketching Bucky’s youngest pup and hoped that the tentative thread between him and George would hold long enough for Steve to prove himself worthy of trust to the kid, or if not trust, at least show that George didn’t need to fear Steve.

Steve’s pencil filled out Win’s too-sharp shoulders by the time that George spoke again. His voice was quiet as he said, “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

This time, Steve set his pencil down. He said, “I know. I forgive you. It’s not good to hurt people, but you thought you were protecting your dad. So I get it.”

“I don’t want anybody to hurt Daddy anymore,” George said. He avoided Steve’s eye and stared instead at his plaid pajama bottoms.

“I don’t want anybody to hurt your dad either,” Steve said gently.

“Daddy got hurt lots before we got to come outside,” said George.

“I know,” Steve replied, “You all got hurt, and it wasn’t right.”

George shook his head. He said, “Daddy made sure Alpha never hurt us. He made sure.”

Steve lifted the edge of his t-shirt and exposed the stitches. He said, “Sometimes hurt doesn’t look like this. Sometimes people get hurt in here.” He tapped his pointer finger against his head and explained, “Alexander Pierce…the alpha that hurt your dad…hurt all of you up here. And when people are hurt up here it’s sometimes hard to fix because you can’t see it and stitch it up like a hurt on the outside. Inside hurts can make you scared or angry or sad, and when you feel that way, you might do something you wouldn’t normally do. You were scared for your dad, so you hurt me.”

George frowned as he mulled this over. At last, after a long stretch of nothing, he asked, “Aren’t you angry at me?”

“No,” answered Steve, “I’m angry at the alpha that hurt you and your dad and your sisters, but I’m not angry at you. You said you were sorry and I believe you.”

George didn’t seem to know what to do with that. But just as Steve thought that he’d said or done something wrong, George asked, “Can I have paper to draw on? Please.”

“Of course you can,” Steve said. He flipped a couple pages in the sketchbook and ripped a page out of the spiral to pass to George.

With a terse thanks, George excused himself. Steve thought maybe that George would ensconce himself in the nursery and work on drawing there, but not thirty seconds passed before the pup returned with the blank paper in one hand and a box of Crayola crayons in the other. Instead of taking the seat across from Steve where he sat before, George pulled out a chair one space closer to Steve’s spot and settled in.

That was how Bucky found them when he emerged from the master bath with his damp hair combed out, smelling clean and content and nervous all at once. A flabbergasted smile made Bucky’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he saw Steve and George sitting at the table together, working on their art without speaking. They didn’t need words, though. They did just fine with silence.

**

The stiff fabric of Bucky’s hospital gown itched when it moved across the skin of his thighs. He folded his arms and waited for Dr. Banner with a sense of doom hanging over his head. Logically, Bucky knew that he needed a checkup with a doctor, and logically, he knew that given his circumstances that Dr. Banner would have to examine between his legs, but the idea of being touched there again made him anxious enough that he dosed himself with what was most likely far too much Xanax.

Dr. Banner let the door click closed behind him when he entered the exam room. He offered Bucky a reassuring smile that made his eyes crinkle at the corners, but Bucky didn’t think anything would reassure him right now.

“Hey, Bucky,” Dr. Banner said, “How’ve you been keeping food down? Besides the coffee incident, I mean.”

(Bucky had the honor of overhearing the lecture that Steve got for that one: “What part of ‘not recommended’ was unclear, Steve?” Banner had barked. Steve failed to look cowed under the scrutiny of another alpha. He’d shrugged and replied with the same words he used when he gave Bucky permission to have a mug, “It wasn’t a hard no.”)

“Good,” Bucky said. He fidgeted with the hem of the hospital gown and avoided looking Banner in the eye.

“Can you elaborate?”

“I mean, sometimes I get queasy if I eat too fast or have too much or sometimes dairy hits me weird, but Steve bought those lactose pill things for that, so it’s not really a problem anymore,” answered Bucky, “I haven’t thrown up in a while or anything.”

“That is good,” Banner hummed, and scanned the information on the clipboard that the nurse had taken down when Bucky arrived for his appointment before he went on, “I’m impressed. You’ve put on twenty pounds in the past two months. Considering the nausea and stomach pain, that’s not bad at all. Have you had any heat symptoms?”

Bucky shook his head.

“Your body’s still healing, so I’m not surprised,” said Banner, “It may take another few months before you have another heat, after you’ve gained some more weight and regularity to your routine. You’re still taking your vitamins?”

“Yes, Alpha,” Bucky said, before he thought about it.

Dr. Banner glanced up sharply. In a careful voice, he said, “You never have to call me that. You can call me Bruce, if that helps.”

“Sorry,” Bucky muttered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce said, “A lot of people that filter through the clinic fall back on habits to protect themselves. Do you call Steve ‘Alpha’?”

“Sometimes,” Bucky confessed, “if I forget.” He tried his best to remember, though. If he called Steve ‘Alpha’, then his pups thought that they had to keep calling Steve ‘Alpha’, too.

“It takes time,” Bruce assured him, “You aren’t going to get better overnight. The good news is that you’re looking much better than you did when you were first admitted. I’m gonna have you lay back now so we can take a look downstairs.”

Bucky scooted back. In spite of the Xanax cocktail he drugged himself with, he started to shake, and anxiety spiked inside his ribcage, bearing down on him like a million tiny needles. He didn’t notice that he started hyperventilating until Bruce’s voice said, “Hey, hey. I know this sucks, but we have to do it to make sure you’re healthy. Would it be easier if I brought Steve in here?”

Bucky nodded.

Time passed in that awful, syrup-thick way it did when panic arrested him. Bruce slipped out of the room, and what felt like years crawled by before the warm scent of SteveSteveSteve and safe bloomed in the room. A hand rubbed along Bucky’s left arm, and when he glanced at the culprit, there was Steve, wearing a soothing smile.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi,” Bucky squeezed out, “Sorry.”

“You can hold onto me if it helps,” Steve offered.

Bucky pulled Steve forward with both hands and clutched Steve’s right arm to him to his chest. He knew he’d sunk his nails into Steve’s skin, but he couldn’t make himself stop as Bruce unfolded the stirrups from the exam table and instructed Bucky to rest his feet on them. Only the warmth of Steve’s arm grasped tight in Bucky’s hands and the pacifying blanket of his scent kept Bucky present while Dr. Banner went through the motions, lubing up the weird metal thing he had to put inside Bucky to look at his channel.

“Cold,” Bucky complained, when it breached him.

“Sorry about that,” Bruce said, “How are you doing?”

“Shitty,” Bucky said.

“Just a couple minutes and it’ll be over,” Bruce assured him.

“You know what I was thinking of doing tonight?” Steve asked.

Bucky knew it was a ploy to distract him from what was happening to his ass, but he still shakily asked, “What?”

“Baking my ma’s honey oat bread,” Steve said, “I’ll never get it exactly the way she does, but I think I make some damn good bread, anyway. I thought if you or the pups wanted to help that we could do that. And hey, maybe we could start Avatar: The Last Airbender, like you wanted.”

“Already seen the first season,” Bucky said haltingly, “missed the last ones.”

“Well, me and the pups haven’t seen any of it, so I was thinking we should start at the beginning,” Steve said, “if that’s okay with you.”

“Yeah. I guess…yeah.”

Whatever Dr. Banner had stuck up inside him pulled free, and Bucky let out a breath that he didn’t know he’d been holding. He didn’t release Steve’s arm until Bruce nudged Bucky’s feet off of the stirrups and folded them back into the exam table. A bolt of guilt pierced through Bucky’s gut at the sight of Steve’s arm when he drew it back. Ten bright red, crescent-shaped indents marred his skin. He hadn’t broken skin, but the impressions were dark and deep.

“Sorry,” Bucky gulped, “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Steve said, “You were nervous.”

Dr. Banner scooted his chair back and stood. He said, “Everything looks good. You’re healed up almost completely. I imagine you’ll get a heat in a few months, like I said. I’d offer suppressants, but given the situation I’d like if you experienced at least one natural heat beforehand so we can observe how it affects you.”

“Fine,” Bucky said. It was not fine. Bucky did not want to have any more heats. But he also wanted to leave this suffocating room, so he would pretend to be okay if it expedited the process of the appointment.

“All right, then,” Bruce said, “You’re good to go. You can change back into your clothes and leave the gown on the exam table.”

Terrified that he’d break down if his support alpha left and took his scent with him, Bucky made Steve stay in the room while he stripped the gown and yanked his jeans and t-shirt back on. He plastered himself to Steve’s side on the way out and huddled against him while Steve signed Bucky out at the exit desk. Bucky was pathetic, and he didn’t care, because everything was awful except Steve and his pups.

Bucky had dropped said pups at Barton’s art and crafts class so that he could go to his checkup with Bruce. He and Steve found the pups in a classroom across the clinic happily gluing objects onto construction paper to make some kind of collage. Many pups, not just Bucky’s, populated the plastic tables. There were even a couple of adults.

Win leapt up the moment that she saw Bucky and Steve at the door. She thrust a piece of purple construction paper out at him and said, “Daddy, look! I made us with buttons. See, the big blue button is Alpha Steve and you’re the big red one. I’m the tiny purple one. George is blue too, but he’s dark blue, and Becky’s green. See?”

Sure enough, several multicolored buttons sat on the paper in a mess of not-quite-dry Elmer’s glue. Crayon scribbles made a border around them, which Win explained was the blue sky, even though it didn’t look like the right kind of blue on her purple paper.

“It’s beautiful,” Steve praised her, “We can even put it on the fridge when we get home.”

The smile that broke out across his daughter’s face was enough to make Bucky almost forget the stress of the exam and the looming knowledge that he was going to have to suffer through heats again – and he had no way of knowing when that would be.  

**

The pups loved doing crafts with Clint so much that Bucky ended up signing them up for regular classes. From time to time he joined in, and sometimes Steve came along and completed the circle. Win asked a thousand new questions every day, excited to learn about everything in the wider world. Learning came easier to her than it did to either of her older siblings, but George in particular shied away from asking questions or exploring. He liked to stick to certain places in the house or in the backyard, and tended to watch things unfold instead of participate.

Right now, George sulked at the paper in front of him and Win had volunteered herself to help him with putting the glue on the page. When Bucky was George’s age, he’d helped his younger sisters in the same way George’s younger sister was helping him right now.

Bucky sighed.

Sam wandered into the classroom, then. Bucky’s frustration must have shown on his face, because Sam drifted to him first and asked, “Doing all right, Barnes?”

Bucky made a vague gesture at his pups at the plastic crafting table.

“Mm,” Sam said, in lieu of anything helpful.

“I just – is he ever gonna be able to catch up to other pups his age?” Bucky asked.

Sam and Bucky watched as Win shoved one of the bowls of glitter at George, effectively covering both his project and the front of his t-shirt. Bucky sighed a second time. That shit was gonna end up all over Steve’s house. Bucky would be washing glitter off of his pups for weeks.

Sam said, “Academically, sure. George is a smart pup. He’s catching onto plenty of stuff I expected he’d take much longer to grasp. Emotionally? I don’t think so. Everyone here will do everything in their power to help him overcome what he’s been through, but it’s not easy to put a traumatic first ten years of life behind you. I’m sure he can get close, but it’s gonna take the whole village, you know?”

Yeah, Bucky knew. George’s recovery would require support from Steve, therapy from Sam, physical therapy from Thor, classes with Clint and Christ only knew what else.

“He’ll need a lot of encouragement from you,” Sam added.

That too, Bucky thought.

“Here’s hoping I can pull that off,” Bucky muttered.

Sam chuckled. He folded his arms over his chest and replied, “Hey man, I know you got it in you. But that’s enough therapy talk, huh? You guys doing anything for Steve’s birthday?”

“Steve’s birthday?” Bucky echoed.

One of Sam’s brows lifted and he said, “Oh, that is just like him. He didn’t tell you his birthday’s coming up, did he?”

Bucky shook his head.

“Well, it is. It’s Fourth of July,” Sam said.

“Of course it is,” said Bucky, now keenly aware of the fact that his pups were decorating glue fireworks with glitter and sequins, even though they had no idea what fireworks were and had probably let glue loose all across their papers without particular pictures in mind.

Minus Becky, who’d handed her bottle of glue to Steve and instructed him to help. There was something comical about a giant alpha sitting in one of the tiny plastic chairs around low-to-the-ground crafting tables, his long legs bent in close to his chest. He had to reach over his knees to apply the glue to Becky’s paper. Becky pointed to a bowl of green glitter, which Steve sprinkled over what he’d done, far more sparingly than Win and the red glitter across the table. Becks wrinkled her nose when Steve handed the glue bottle back to her, presumably so she could copy whatever design he’d drawn to the best of her ability.

A tide of warmth crashed into Bucky watching them all together.

“You decide to do anything for his birthday that you need help with, you can give me a call,” Sam told him.

“I might take you up on that,” Bucky said.

After the pups finished their fireworks pictures and they’d dried enough to be taken out of the room, Bucky got assigned to hold all three projects while Steve balanced Win on his shoulders on the walk out of the clinic and to where they’d parked his tiny car in the lot.

Win huffed when Steve lifted her off his shoulders and deposited her in her carseat. Steve said, “Sorry, sweetheart. You can’t ride on my shoulders while I’m driving.”

“What about Daddy’s shoulders?” asked Win.

“Nope,” Bucky said, “That’s not safe either.”

Win pouted.

Only after everyone buckled in and Steve started the car did Bucky say, “So, were you planning on telling me that your birthday’s soon?”

Like a pup with his hand caught in the cookie jar, Steve assumed a guilty expression. He opened his mouth, but Win beat him to the punch and asked, shoulder-ride-pouting forgotten, “What’s a birthday?”

“The day you were born,” Bucky answered, “Remember, before we were staying with Steve I helped you pick out days to be your birthday, since we weren’t sure? And you picked October?” George was the only one among the pups whose birthday Bucky could estimate, but George wanted to pick out his birthday like his sisters got to. So, instead of June, George picked November, because he liked the way that the word sounded. Becky wanted to share her birthday with Bucky, but Bucky told her to choose something else in March.

Bucky missed hitting twenty five by a narrow margin. They’d found them on March sixteenth – not even a week after Bucky’s birthday.

“Steve was born?” Win asked.

“I was born,” Steve answered, “Almost thirty two years ago.”

“How many years ago was I born?” asked Becky.

“Six,” Bucky told her.

“Steve is old,” Becky concluded.

Steve chuckled.

After a stretch of silence, Bucky cast a look at him and said, “You weren’t going to tell me about your birthday, were you?”

“I just – it didn’t seem important?” Steve said.

“You’re an idiot,” Bucky told him.

“Aw, come on. There are bigger things going on. I didn’t want to make anybody feel obligated to do anything,” said Steve, “and besides, we were gonna do Fourth of July stuff anyway.”

“Was the Fourth crap how you wanted to spend your birthday?” Bucky asked pointedly.

Steve made a helpless gesture with a wave of one hand. He said, “Spending the day with you and the pups is the important part to me.”

For a moment, Bucky couldn’t think of what to say. Heat reddened his face and he refocused his gaze on where he held his hands in his lap. He said, only loud enough for Steve to hear and not the row of pups behind them, “Sappy asshole.”

“If that’s the worst you can do, then I must be doing okay,” Steve said. A hint of a smirk teased at the corners of his mouth. Bucky shook his head.

Chapter Text

Steve suspected Bucky had something up his sleeve for his birthday, but he didn’t know for sure until the day arrived. He woke in his bed with Bucky tucked under his chin like he preferred to sleep, and the pups curled up where they found room in the mess of pillows and blankets. Bucky whined when Steve pulled away, but relented when Steve said, “Gotta pee, Buck.”

Steve bumbled out of bed and to the master bath. After relieving himself, he surveyed himself in the mirror while he washed his hands. Riotous bedhead aside, Steve looked better than he had in a long time, almost younger. He thought that the addition of Bucky and the pups to his household would be a stressful endeavor. And it was, sometimes, but the reward outweighed the cost.

Bucky didn’t dissociate nearly as much as he did in the beginning.

George could read simple books now.

Becky no longer struggled to hold drawing utensils correctly.

Win loved to touch and explore everything that she came across.

The progress made was their own, but Steve liked to think that he’d provided an environment that enabled them to get better.

In the mirror, he watched Bucky approach, his hair as haywire as Steve’s and his mouth open in a yawn. He wrapped his arms around Steve’s middle from behind and nuzzled his face between Steve’s shoulder blades. Affection burst beneath Steve’s ribcage. He couldn’t help the stupid smile that spread across his face, big and goofy.

“Good morning,” Steve greeted.

“Bed’s cold without you,” Bucky grumbled back.

Bucky didn’t like to be cold. Steve fortunately ran hot, but in the absence of Steve’s body heat Bucky liked to burrow under an actual pile of blankets regardless of what temperature it was outside.

Steve shifted around to draw Bucky against his chest instead and aimed a kiss at the top of Bucky’s head. He worried for half a heartbeat that he overstepped his bounds, but Bucky didn’t flinch away. He leaned into the touch and hummed. The aroma of contented omega rolled out around them in hypnotic waves. Instinct nagged Steve to scent Bucky and breathe him in deeper, but scenting wasn’t something he could do on an alpha whim, not to a traumatized omega.

“You need a shower,” Bucky complained into Steve’s neck.

Steve laughed. He said, “If you let me go, I can take one.”

“Ngh,” Bucky grunted to that, but let his arms fall back to his sides. He tucked a lock of hair behind his ear and said, “Want me to start coffee for you?”

“You’re a saint,” Steve said.

Bucky snorted and said, “Well that’s a lie. I’ll take that as a yes, you want me to make coffee?”

“Yes, please,” Steve answered.

Steve smiled when he stepped over the lip of the bathtub and switched on the shower. He hadn’t done anything extravagant for his birthday since he turned twenty one (a few short months before Bucky’s abduction, he realized with a pang), and though this morning was no different than any morning had been recently, the morning did feel luxurious in comparison to birthdays past.

Last year, Steve woke alone. He hadn’t thought of it as lonely, but in retrospect being by himself in this massive house was lonely. Though he’d gone to a barbeque at Tony-Bruce-and-Pepper’s house and enjoyed elaborate fireworks that Tony made (“a side project” Tony called them), Steve returned home alone. His friends did their best to make him feel special: Sam brought out an ice cream cake and everyone sang Happy Birthday to him, but the day was more about America’s birthday than Steve’s.

Bucky managed to make Steve feel special on his birthday in two minutes in front of the bathroom mirror with nothing more than a hug and an offer to start the coffee pot.

Towel-clad, Steve crossed the bathroom into his walk-in closet and dressed to relax in soft, well-loved jeans and a t-shirt for the band Howling Commandos, whom he had been friends with back in college.

The pups slept on when Steve exited back out into the master bedroom. Steve crept across the hardwood as quietly as he could and drew the blankets back over each of the pups before he followed the smell of fresh coffee out in the kitchen.

Bucky didn’t hear Steve approach at first and kept measuring out looseleaf tea for his teapot. Steve took the opportunity to admire how far Bucky had come – he’d put on enough weight that while he still looked thinner than he should have been, he looked healthy. Being out in the sun with his pups turned his skin gold. He’d let his hair grow long enough that it almost touched his shoulders because he didn’t want anyone to touch his hair beyond stroking fingers through it. Sometime in between hugging Steve in front of the mirror and coming out to the kitchen, Bucky tied it back into a loose bun.

When Bucky did turn, he startled. He let out a soft, relieved breath at the sight of Steve and said, “You scared me,” and then, “What are you starin’ at, anyway?”

“You,” Steve answered honestly. He reached over Bucky’s head for a mug and set it on the countertop. He left room enough to add milk and stirred with the first spoon he grabbed from the utensil drawer, one of the plastic ones that Steve bought for the pups to use.

“I got something on my face or something?” Bucky asked, rubbing at his stubbled chin.

Steve said, “Nah. I just like looking at you.”

The apples of Bucky’s cheeks went pink. He said, “You fucking nerd.”

“How does that make me a nerd?” Steve asked, “You’re nice to look at. That’s an objective fact.”

“I think you’re full of shit,” Bucky said, “but thanks, I guess.”

Steve felt like a heel for wanting wrap Bucky up in his arms and crush them together, for wanting to stick his nose in Bucky’s neck and get as much of Bucky’s scent as he could all over him. Stupid alpha hindbrain, that’s all the impulses were. Sure, Steve had never actually felt a desire to possess somebody the way he wanted to possess Bucky, but –

No, that wasn’t right. He didn’t want to possess Bucky. Bucky was a person, not a cellphone or cup of coffee or a pet.

Steve did want to protect Bucky, though.

“Is there a reason you’re standing in the middle of the kitchen like a moron?” Bucky asked.

Steve coughed and snapped out of it. He said, “Sorry. Lost my train of thought. Any hints on what stunt you’re pulling today?”

“Nope,” Bucky answered, “Your birthday plans are for me to know and for you to find out. But, speaking of, happy birthday.”

And so the day passed with nothing to indicate that it was anything other than a regular day, minus the pups appearing and Win attempting a climb up Steve’s leg until he picked her up so that she could whisper, “Happy birthday,” in Steve’s ear, and then a more unsure, “Daddy said that’s what you say on somebody’s birthday.”

“Your daddy’s right,” Steve said, “and thank you, sweetheart.”

Steve spent the morning on the couch with Win on his lap. He messed with games on his phone while Win watched Cinderella for the billionth time, content to let her enjoy herself. The smell of happy pups did wonders for tense muscles. Steve dared somebody to find a stronger tranquilizer than that scent, light and fresh. Happy pups didn’t smell as addicting as happy Bucky, though.

Bucky’s birthday plan came to light just after noon, when a knock sounded at the front door. Steve glanced over at Bucky, who sat at the other end of the couch, mid-selfie with Becky. He sure as shit had picked that up quick.

“Are you expecting someone?” Steve asked, and then shifted Win off of his lap. She whined, and he said, “Sorry, kiddo, I gotta answer the door.”

Steve wasn’t sure what he expected, but it wasn’t to open his front door and find every person he knew standing on the doorstep. Natasha lifted a bottle of expensive vodka in greeting and walked in first with a pat to Steve’s bicep. She said, “Happy birthday, big guy. We’re gonna get drunk and set off fireworks.”

“It’s noon,” Steve said dumbly.

Natasha smiled at him, all teeth, and said, “Then we’ll work on the drunk part first.”

Sam walked in next with an ice cream cake that he stowed in the freezer. Before Steve could say hi, Clint stepped over the threshold with Lucky’s leash in hand, and George shouted, “Lucky!” at the top of his lungs. In his excitement, George made to dash at the dog, but his socks slipped on the hardwood floor and he landed in a heap.

Clint sucked in his teeth and said, “Oooh.”

“You okay, little man?” Tony asked as he trekked past Steve with a cardboard box full to the brim of what were without a doubt illegal fireworks.

George clambered back up to his feet and said, “I’m fine!” and jogged the rest of the distance to get to Lucky. He looped his arms around Lucky’s neck, and being a good sport, Lucky licked George’s face to say hello. George tangled his fingers in Lucky’s long fur and held him like he never meant to let go.

Tony stooped to place the box of fireworks on the floor, and Steve intervened with, “Hell no, Tony. Those stay out of the reach of the pups.”

“Oh, come on,” Tony said, “It’s not like they can do anything without fire.”

“Out of reach,” Steve said, and pointed a finger at the top of his stainless steel refrigerator, “I’m not gonna ask again.”

“Christ,” Tony said, sounding put-upon, “You have pups for what – four months? And suddenly you’re the daddest dad I’ve ever met.”

“Play nice, Tony,” Pepper said. Steve did a double take at the sight of her in casual clothing: a pair of jeans, some sneakers, and a sleeveless blouse appropriate for the heat of the day. She leaned forward to kiss Steve on the cheek.

“Not that I’m not happy to have you all here, but I don’t have enough food to feed everyone,” Steve said.

“We took care of that,” Tony said, as he struggled to slide the box of fireworks on top of the fridge. Sam came up behind Tony and helped, using the extra couple of inches of height he had on Tony to push it up.

Tony rolled his eyes and muttered something that sounded like, “Alpha showoff.”

Bruce stepped into the house last, weighed down by several reusable grocery bags. Steve swept to his side to help and arranged the bags on the kitchen island. When he closed the front door, everyone stopped chattering to stare at him.

“What?” Steve said.

Bucky drifted over to join them with Becky on his hip. He grinned and spread his arm out at the array of people. He said, “Happy birthday! Me and the pups invited everyone you talk to.”

“We’re everyone you talk to?” Tony said, “Now I just feel bad for you.”

Tony,” Bruce and Pepper said in sync, and chuckled. How Tony ended up mated to such a practical alpha and beta Steve did not know, but he liked the balance that they struck together. Tony liked to rocket to new heights – fireworks pun not intended – and Pepper and Bruce brought him back down to earth when they needed him level.

Steve cracked a smile and said, “This is awesome, you guys. Thank you. Really.”

A little hand tugged at Steve’s jeans. Steve glanced down to Win, who held her bear under one arm and stretched her other arm up to be held. Steve scooped her off of the floor. She nuzzled into his chest and said, “Daddy says you’re s’posed to throw parties for people with birthdays, so we throwed you a party. The prince’s dad throwed Prince Charming a party in Cinderella, but it wasn’t his birthday. Do I get a party for my birthday?”

“If you want one,” Steve answered. He smoothed back a lock of hair that escaped from the braid Bucky wove her hair into and tucked it behind her ear.

“All right, well, I don’t mean to brag,” Sam said, and clapped his hands, “but I know for a fact that I grill better than all you people, and we got some burgers and brats to start in on. Lead the way, Rogers.”

The entire group migrated to Steve’s backyard, where Sam pulled the tarp off of Steve’s barely-used grill with a shake of his head. Steve hadn’t actually bought the thing himself – his dad had, when he bought the house. According to Joe Rogers, “an alpha’s house isn’t complete without a decent grill.” Steve tended to use it only when his parents came to visit, the last occasion being Christmas and therefore too cold to grill.

“What’s Sam doing?” Win asked.

“He’s gonna make food,” Steve said, “That big shiny thing is a grill. You heat it up and use it to cook stuff.”

“Anyone want something to drink?” Bucky asked the party, “I’m throwing together some lemonade.”

“We brought soda,” Tony added, “And don’t worry, Alpha Dad, it’s like organic weenie soda.”

Steve made a point to ignore Tony and said to Bucky, “You don’t have to get everyone drinks. I can run in and do it.”

Bucky blinked. He said, “I know I don’t have to, but I’m going to. It’s your birthday. Go and enjoy it.”

“But –”

“I will kick your ass into next week if you try to help,” Bucky said.

Tony snorted and said, “He’s got gumption. I like him.”

Bucky leveled an unimpressed look at Tony. He replied, “Really? ‘Cause the jury’s still out on you.”

“Wow,” Tony said, holding a hand to his heart, “Ouch. That is hurtful, Barnes.”

“I’m sure you’ll get over it,” Bucky said. He swung back into the house without another word.

Steve carried Win over to Sam, who was piling charcoal onto the grill. Steve asked, “Are you sure this isn’t gonna be too much for Bucky and the pups?”

Sam shrugged a shoulder. He said, “This was their idea. Bucky said he talked about it with the pups before he brought the idea to us.”

“Alpha Steve is nice,” Win put in, “We wanted to be nice back.” She kicked at Steve, then, and wriggled to be set down. The second her feet hit the ground she was off like a shot into the grass, where Clint had let Lucky off of his leash and was showing George how to play fetch with him.

A surge of affection washed over Steve at the sight, hitting ever-harder when George laughed and shouted, “Ew, the ball’s all wet.”

“Man, you got it bad,” Sam remarked.

Steve frowned over to Sam. In the thirty seconds that Steve’s attention was elsewhere, Sam doused the charcoal in lighter fluid and got fire going. He blew at the flame and fanned it with his hand before he looked back up from the work. The cryptic expression that he cast Steve was not an expression Steve liked. Sam didn’t say a word, so Steve broke the silence between them with, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Tread carefully, Rogers,” Sam told him, “That’s all I’m sayin’. Bucky and his pups have been through hells we can’t even imagine. You remember the stats from your support classes?”

“Which ones?” asked Steve, “The statistics of mating?”

“Yeah, those,” Sam said, “You remember what that is?”

Steve’s throat dried up. He coughed into his hand before he answered, “Um. Seventy – seventy six percent of support alphas end up mated with the omega in their care.”

“I know that sounds like a high number,” Sam said, “but I wanna make sure you’re not using this as a dating service. At the end of the day, if Bucky wants to go, you’re gonna have to let him, no questions asked.”

“I know that,” Steve said. He did know that, but he hadn’t thought too hard on it until just now. The idea that Bucky and his pups would someday leave Steve’s house made him impossibly sad. His brain stretched back to the loneliness of past birthdays, of day to day emptiness Steve hadn’t even realized was there until it was filled.

The Barnes clan brought Steve’s house to life.

“Do you?” Sam asked.

Steve swallowed against the lump forming in his throat. His stupid alpha hindbrain protested the idea of Bucky ever leaving, because instinct had decided that Bucky belonged to him. But Bucky didn’t belong to Steve. Bucky didn’t belong to anybody but himself.

“Steve,” Sam said, “I’m serious. Do you understand that Bucky might choose to go?”

Steve nodded, wordless. When the capacity to speak returned to him, he said, “I know. It’s – um. My alpha brain’s just being an idiot. I can use my higher reasoning, Sam. I promise. I’m not stupid.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Sam said. He grinned and slapped Steve on the shoulder to add, “That’s enough real talk for now, man. It’s your birthday! Let loose. Have some fun.”

“I’ll try,” Steve said, but when he walked away from Sam, a crushing weight bore down on his chest. He collapsed back so hard on his porch swing that the chains creaked under his body. Steve rubbed a hand over his face. Sam was right. He had to get his instinct out of the way and his thoughts in order.

“Hey.”

Steve looked up. Bucky was there, holding out a glass of lemonade.

Steve took it. “Thanks,” he said.

“You okay?” Bucky asked.

“Oh, um, I’m all right,” Steve said, “Just – overwhelmed. This was really nice of you to do, Buck.”

Bucky snagged the seat beside Steve and rested his head on Steve’s shoulder. He said, “Man, you deserve it.”

Steve wasn’t sure that he did.

**

The sun sank beyond the ridges of the pine trees at the outskirts of Steve’s property, and with bellies full of ice cream cake, everyone moved from the kitchen and living room where they’d congregated to eat and returned to the backyard. Steve carried the box of fireworks, but Tony insisted upon lighting them himself.

“I made them,” he said haughtily, “Or, well, most of them. I brought some sparklers for the pups, though.” Tony dug around in the box and thrust a plastic package into Steve’s chest, avoiding looking him in the eye.

Steve eyeballed the package of sparklers and then Tony. He said, “Thanks, Tony. This is actually really thoughtful.”

“Don’t mention it,” Tony said, “I’m serious. Don’t. Do you…uh. Do you think they’ll like them?”

“They get excited about everything,” Steve replied absently, “Not real hard to please. I’m sure they’ll love them.”

Bucky swooped in and intersected Steve before he even made it across the lawn to where the pups were rolling around in the grass. With both of them hovering over the play, the pups stopped and stared.

“Did something happen?” asked George.

“Tony brought a present for you guys,” Steve said.

“But you gotta be extra careful with them, okay?” said Bucky, “They’re hot at the top, so you can’t touch that part, okay?”

Steve called to Sam on the porch and asked him to throw over the lighter. Sam launched the lighter at Steve at top speed, but fortunately Steve’s reflexes were pretty damn good, if he did say so himself. He caught the lighter with his free hand, and passed the package of sparklers to Bucky. Bucky ripped it open and handed one to each pup.

Unimpressed, Becky said, “These are sticks.”

“They’re sparklers,” Bucky said, “Hold them at the bottom, where they’re skinnier. Steve’s gonna light ‘em.”

Since Becky appeared the least enthusiastic, Steve lit hers first. As soon as the sparkler burst to life, she gasped.

Win shouted, “Wow!”

George, on the other hand, remarked, “What the hell?”

“George,” Bucky admonished.

“What? You say it!” George protested.

Bucky folded his arms over his chest and said, “That’s because ‘hell’ is a grownup word, and I am a grownup. You, however, are a pup. You can say ‘hell’ when you’re older.”

“That’s stupid,” George said.

“That’s the rule,” Bucky said, “and you’ll get in trouble if you use that word when you’re not at home, so practice not using it here.”

George rolled his eyes, but as Steve lit his sparkler he lost interest in fighting Bucky on profanity. Bucky only just had time to warn, “Be careful!” before the pups bolted, waving the sparklers in the air, eyes wide with excitement.

Steve slid his attention to Bucky and said, “Fireworks are gonna blow their minds.”

“I’ll say,” Bucky replied.

Natasha broke out the vodka while Tony set up his station for setting off the fireworks. In spite of promising to drink earlier in the day, the consensus seemed to be to wait until after dark to keep inebriated misbehavior to a minimum. Steve topped a plastic cup of soda (the “organic weenie soda”, which turned out to be pretty tasty) off with the vodka and swirled it in a half-assed attempt at stirring.

But when Bucky reached over to add a little to his drink, Bruce said, “Nope. Put that back, Barnes.”

“What? Why?” Bucky said, “I’m twenty five. I can totally drink now.”

“I need you to wait until you’re one hundred percent – or at least eighty five percent – healthy before you start in on alcohol.”

“Bummer,” Bucky sighed, but he slouched back in his lawn chair and left the vodka bottle alone.

The pups barreled toward them with the end stubs of the sparklers, looking put out. Becky said, “We don’t have sparkers anymore.”

“Sparklers,” Bucky corrected, “and there are more, but hang on for a second, okay? You’re gonna wanna watch the fireworks. I promise.”

Becky took this as an invitation to climb onto her father’s lap, to which Bucky said, “Oof. Okay, I guess you can sit on me. Only for a little while, though. All right?”

Not to be outdone, Win hefted herself onto Steve’s lap, a warm, feather-light weight against his thigh. She rested her head on his abdomen, but when he sipped his vodka and soda, she asked, “Can I have a sip?”

“Sorry, sweetheart, this is a grownup drink,” Steve said.

Win didn’t have time to pout, because Tony lit the end of the first firework. It rocketed into the air far, far above Steve’s house and exploded in a shower of red and gold sparks. All three pups made appropriately awed noises, but Steve’s favorite part was the sloe-eyed, blissful expression on Bucky’s face as he stared at the next set of fireworks that Tony launched into the night sky. A genuine smile took up his face, not the kind of smile he smiled when he was placating someone, or pretending that he was okay when he really wasn’t.

George crossed the lawn to investigate how Tony was making the fireworks. And where George was, Becky wasn’t far behind. She wriggled out of Bucky’s lap to follow her older brother. Not wanting to be left out, Win kicked her way out of Steve’s grip and stumbled after the others. Tony’s face lit up and his hands waved in wide, excited gestures as he explained all about fireworks.

Steve was still stuck on staring at Bucky’s smile.

Until, that was, Bucky turned his head and remarked, “You know if you keep staring me, you’ll miss the fireworks.”

Steve felt himself go red in the face.

“You’re blushing,” Bucky said, amused.

“Am not,” Steve said back.

Bucky cuffed Steve on the shoulder and said, “You are totally blushing,” he lifted off of the lawn chair and stretched his arms with a yawn. Then he offered Steve a hand and jerked his head toward to their left, where the backyard melted into the rest of Steve’s untamed property. He said, “C’mere. Walk with me.”

Steve put his hand in Bucky’s, but when he got to his feet, Bucky didn’t let go. He laced their fingers together instead, and tugged Steve across the grass. Bucky walked along the cobblestone path that Steve put in himself last summer in a way that spoke of familiarity. Knowing that Bucky ventured beyond the periphery of the garden on his own sent a rush of pride through Steve.

“Where are we going?” Steve asked. Overhead, three green fireworks popped.

“We’re almost there,” Bucky said, instead of actually answering Steve’s question.

As dry pine needles crunched under the soles of their shoes, the quintessential red, white, and blue fireworks bloomed in the sky, burning bright against the thick, black backdrop. Again affection warmed Steve up like cocoa on a snowy day. He felt compelled to say, “Thanks for all this, Buck. I don’t usually like making a fuss about my birthday, but this was – this was nice. I had a really good day. I was –”

But Steve never finished his thought, because Bucky whirled around to face him, threw his arms around Steve’s neck, and leaned their mouths together. For such quick movement into the embrace, the kiss itself was soft – no tongue, just lips pressing and exploring. Steve forgot to breathe until Bucky drew back a little. Their breath mingled. Crickets cried out all around them. The air smelled like pine sap and smoke.

A massive red firework burst above their heads, lighting both their faces for the blink of an eye before dark covered them again. Steve never installed any lighting this far out on his property, didn’t see a need to. But now, he wished that he had, so he could see the finer details of Bucky’s face instead of the shadowed face that moonlight and distant electricity from the house provided.

Steve licked his lips and opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was, “Um.”

Bucky frowned. He asked, “Was that not okay?”

“No. Wait, yes. No, hang on, I mean, no, it was okay,” Steve babbled, “but I don’t want you to feel…obligated to me, especially if this sort of thing makes you uncomfortable.”

“Kissing isn’t something that bothers me,” Bucky said, “Pierce never kissed me, okay? He just fucked me and tossed me around. I was – was a warm place to stick his knot. And I don’t feel obligated, Steve. I wanted to kiss you because I wanted it. But you’re kind of making me think I shouldn’t have.”

Steve knew what would be wise would be to turn back now, but that wasn’t what he did. Instead, he suggested, “We could try again.”

Bucky’s lips quirked up in a half-smile. He said, “I’d like that. You’re gonna have to forgive my inexperience, though. That was kinda my first kiss since I was fourteen, and I never did get to the tongue part with anyone before the whole basement thing happened,” he huffed out a laugh that didn’t actually sound happy, “Sounds so stupid now, that I was all worried about slipping someone tongue.”

“It doesn’t sound stupid to me,” Steve said.

Their faces were close enough that Bucky’s nose leaned right up against his. Steve dipped forward and rested their foreheads together. He and Bucky stood like that for a long time, just breathing each other’s air and lingering in one another’s space.

When they kissed again, Steve made the leap. He made sure to be gentle, but guided Bucky through it. The kisses were tender, slotting their lips together and pressing, sucking, tasting. Steve’s heart hammered and he dared to lick along Bucky’s lower lip. Bucky made a soft, surprised noise, but his mouth fell open immediately. Steve lapped inside Bucky’s mouth and slid their tongues together. At first, Bucky didn’t seem to know what to do, but he picked up on Steve’s movements and copied those.

A natural, some vague thought in the back of Steve’s head said, Bucky was a natural kisser.

Somehow his hands had found Bucky’s waist while Bucky’s arms wound around Steve’s neck. The kiss deepened, their bodies swayed closer, the scent of Steve’s arousal spiked in the air –

Bucky yanked his head back, panting.

“Sorry,” Steve whispered.

“It’s okay,” Bucky said back, “I’m just – I’m not ready for that. I might never be. I don’t know. I like kissing, though.”

“I like it, too,” said Steve.

Their mouths met again, this time careful and calculated. They broke apart only when they needed to breathe. Bucky laid his head on Steve’s shoulder, his nose close to the crook of Steve’s neck. They’d stood and laid and sat in this exact position many times before, but something about this time felt significant. The earth didn’t move and the stars looked the way that they always did, but this moment with Bucky cradled against him was nonetheless important.

A pink firework exploded in the sky. Becky’s shout of delight echoed from the yard.

“Happy birthday, Steve,” Bucky said.

Chapter Text

Bucky’s body buzzed with energy for days after kissing Steve. Every time that Steve caught his eye and smiled, a thrill bubbled up from Bucky’s belly and into his chest. He could lift up and fly away on that great feeling. Bucky wasn’t sure when the last time he’d been this happy was.

If he’d birthed any of the pups under normal circumstances, maybe he would have said the birth of his children made him happiest, the way most omegas said. The way Bucky’s ma always said about him and his sisters. But their births didn’t make him happy; they scared him. And as soon as George was born, Bucky wasn’t scared for himself, but for the tiny pup in his arms, who hadn’t done anything to anyone, and certainly nothing that warranted being born into a hellhole. With every passing year, with each pup, Bucky’s fear for them increased tenfold.

Bucky tried to escape, once, after George but before the girls. He fashioned a makeshift sling for George from an old bedsheet and secured him on his back. Then he dragged the bed under the door overhead and with all his strength pushed up on the plywood. With bloody fingers Bucky managed to scratch out a hole large enough to wiggle through. He lifted George through it first and prayed that his baby wouldn’t cry and alert Pierce, and then with every ounce of strength Bucky could muster, he pulled himself up and out.

They didn’t even make it out of the basement. Pierce intercepted Bucky on the stairs and shoved him down. Bucky clutched George to his chest and protected him from the fall. Bucky banged his head, passed out, and woke up on the narrow bed in the sub-basement room with a familiar throbbing burn between his legs and George’s frantic crying ringing in his ears. The door above them had been replaced, and chains held the flimsy metal bedframe to the wall.

So, yeah, Bucky was scared for his pups. He wanted the world for them, but with every day that passed under Pierce’s thumb, he feared that they’d never get to have the kindness and joy that they deserved.

But now, his children had what they deserved. Bucky and the pups had a home, and a doting alpha that spoiled them all.

Bucky rocked the porch swing back and forth and watched Steve curse at a wooden playset as he assembled it. The delivery guys asked if Steve wanted them to put it together, but Steve turned his nose up at the fee they charged for the service.

“Is Alpha Steve mad?” Becky asked from beside him, where she’d climbed up with a juicebox and snuggled under Bucky’s arm.

Bucky hummed, “Nah. Well, maybe at the thing he’s making. It’s a time-honored alpha tradition to insist upon assembling things themselves and then get angry when it’s difficult.” Or while stringing up holiday lights, Bucky thought, recalling his father’s insistence that they put up blue lights for Hanukkah because he didn’t want to be outdone by their Christmas-celebrating neighbors.

Becky stared up at him, uncomprehending.

“He’s fine, baby,” Bucky told her.

“What’s he doing?” she asked.

“He’s trying to build something for you guys,” Bucky said, “Why don’t we go inside and let him finish, okay?”

Becky leapt off of the porch swing and followed Bucky back into the house. He dropped by the pups’ room to check on George and found him where Bucky had left him, sitting at the art table and coloring in a dog-themed coloring book with intense focus. Steve taught him about coloring in one direction and the kid was determined to master it, stunted fine motor skills be damned.

The streaks of crayon didn’t exactly remain within the lines, but he was making a marked improvement on drawings past. Bucky remarked, “Good job, baby. It looks awesome,” because even though George decided to color a pug purple and couldn’t keep his work neat, this was still an accomplishment. Bucky would hang that pug on the fridge with pride.

“Pugs aren’t really purple,” George explained, without looking up from his work, “Steve helped me find pictures and they’re not. But I think they should be.”

Bucky grinned. For once, Steve wasn’t Alpha or even Alpha Steve. He was just Steve.

“I wish dogs came in fun colors, too,” Bucky said, “Keep up the good work. I love it.”

In the kitchen, Bucky parked himself at the table in front of the laptop that Steve ordered for him. They set it up yesterday after it arrived in the mail and Bucky poked around on it with the pups, showing them pictures he found on Google or videos on Youtube, the latter of which Bucky barely recalled being a thing before Pierce snatched him but was now massive and integral to “internet culture”, or so Steve said.

Bucky asked about Myspace and wondered if his page was still intact, but Steve laughed and told him that Myspace wasn’t a site that most people used anymore and they’d all moved onto Facebook.

Maybe he should make a Facebook.

Bucky typed “facebook.com” into the task bar and watched the page fill in. Apparently he needed an e-mail or a phone number to sign up. He kinda didn’t want to put his number in there. What was his e-mail? He couldn’t remember, but he hazarded a guess that it was something stupid. Maybe it was time to make a new one of those – but Bucky would bet that people didn’t exactly use the same platforms for e-mailing anymore. Everything else was different, so why wouldn’t that be different, too?

He didn’t want to bother Steve while he was working on assembling the playset for the pups, so he fished his phone out of his jeans and pulled up Becca’s contact.

11:36 Bucky: hey becca where does somebody make a new email address in 2016

The reply was so fast that Bucky didn’t even have time to slip his phone back into his pocket.

11:36 Becca: I use gmail, why?

11:37 Bucky: well steve says myspace isn’t a thing anymore

11:37 Becca: He’s right. It’s not

11:38 Bucky: he says people use facebook

11:38 Bucky: so i was thinking about making a facebook

11:39 Bucky: whatever the hell that is.

Bucky still hadn’t gotten the hang of the touchscreen on his phone yet. Any activity on his phone that required typing took Bucky longer than it should have. Just another tick mark on the list of reasons why Bucky felt out of touch with the world. He was trying to get back in, though, one piece of the puzzle at a time. The pace was agonizing, but anything could set Bucky off and overwhelm him and he didn’t want to push his luck.  

11:39 Becca: You know mom is gonna want to add you as a friend right

11:40 Bucky: mom has a facebook???

11:40 Becca: Everyone has a Facebook. Bubbe has a Facebook

11:41 Bucky: man ok i guess i gotta think about this then

Bucky set his phone down on the kitchen table and blew all the air out of his lungs. Becky took the opportunity to tuck herself under his arm again and asked, “Daddy, what are you doing?”

“I was talking to Auntie Becca,” he answered, “I had questions about the computer and Steve is busy.”

“I wanna talk to Auntie Becca,” Becky said, “I like her.”

Bucky smiled at that. He said, “How about we take a picture and send it to her? I bet she’d love to have a picture of you to look at.”

“Okay,” Becky said.

Bucky grabbed his phone again, this time bringing up the camera. He still couldn’t believe how fantastic phone cameras were now, or believe the fact that every single phone had a camera in the first place. He’d been on the cutting edge with his black RAZR, though in retrospect the photos it took were shit quality. The front-facing camera on modern phones was also an appreciated addition.

When his and Becky’s faces filled the screen, Bucky instructed, “All right, baby, smile big.” Becky did, and Bucky snapped the picture.

“I wanna see,” Becky said.

Bucky pulled up the photo and showed it to her. Not bad at all – both of them looked a little pale and a little skinny, but Becky’s smile was big and proud, and the braids Bucky put her dark hair into this morning still looked nice. Bucky’s collarbones stuck out too prominently from the collar of his red v-neck, but there was nothing he could do about that. The dire need to for both of them to visit the dentist wasn’t so obvious – and Bucky was still putting that off. He’d hated the dentist before. He couldn’t imagine how it would fuck him up now.

“All right, I’m gonna send it to Auntie Becca,” Bucky said. He flicked back to their conversation and jabbed at the screen to send the photo.

11:46 Bucky: becky wanted to send a pic

11:47 Becca: !!! You guys look great!! You look so happy!!

11:48 Bucky: i think i am happy actually

11:48 Bucky: it’s nice

**

The pups went wild when Steve finished the playset.

“That’s for us?” Becky said.

“That’s for you,” Bucky confirmed.

“What do we do with it?” asked George.

Bucky crossed the lawn and sat on one of the swings. He pumped his legs to get it going and called from the air, “You play with it!” He doubted the playset was structured to hold the weight of an adult, but being underweight worked in his favor that way.

As soon as the pups climbed on the swings, explored the wooden clubhouse, and went down the slide, the yard became a cacophony of elated shrieks and contagious laughter. Bucky whooshed down the green plastic slide with Win on his lap while Steve pushed Becky on one of the swings. George insisted that he figure out the swing himself – once he got the hang of it, a tentative smile glanced across his face and Bucky could have cried. George didn’t smile, not for anything, but he was smiling now.

“Daddy, are you okay?” Win asked.

Bucky let out a shaking breath and blinked the water out of his eyes. He said, “I’m okay, sweetheart. I’m just very happy.”

“Me too,” Win said, “Can we slide again?”

Even after Bucky and Steve tired of messing around on the playset, the pups stayed behind. Their happy shouts and pleased little giggles filtered all the way into the kitchen, where Steve started some spaghetti for supper. He glanced at George’s purple pug where Bucky attached it to the fridge with a red ‘G’ magnet.

“He’s getting better at that,” Steve remarked.

“Whatever you taught him really helped,” Bucky replied.

Steve went pink in the face and scratched the back of his neck. He said, “I’m glad,” and then, “the pug reminds me of something I wanted to run by you, though.”

“Yeah?”

“When Clint brought Lucky over on my birthday, it got me thinking,” Steve said, “Lucky makes George so happy, you know? He really seems to thrive with him around, and he’s having me do all these Google searches to look at different kinds of dogs, and he’s taken that dog coloring book for himself…I thought maybe we could see about getting him an psychiatric support dog. A dog could probably help you, too. I know there avenues to get a service dog through the clinic. Clint’s in charge of that, too, not just arts and crafts.”

Bucky’s eyes burned. He dug the heels of his palms into them. When he dared look up again, Steve had moved from the stove to Bucky’s side. He asked, “You okay, Buck?”

“Yeah,” Bucky rasped.

“Did I say something wrong?” asked Steve, “We don’t have to –”

“No,” Bucky interrupted, “No – I’m just. You’re being so good to us.”

“Well, yeah,” Steve said, “I care about you guys. I want them to have everything they need in order to heal. George seems like he needs the extra push.”

Bucky threw his arms around Steve’s neck. Steve caught him and hugged back, nuzzling into the top of Bucky’s head. Bucky drew back to apply a lingering kiss to Steve’s mouth. He could survive off of the smile that earned him, the one that made Steve’s eyes soften and sent happy alpha scent out in thick waves. Bucky kissed him again for good measure and said, “Let’s run the idea by George. See what he thinks.”

“I have a feeling I know what he’s gonna say already,” Steve murmured.

“Yeah, you and me both, pal,” Bucky said, “I don’t wanna spring surprises on the pups, is all.”

That night after dinner was eaten and the dishes were stacked in the dishwasher, all five of them sat on the couch and started up Avatar: The Last Airbender. Bucky loved the show before everything happened. In the ample time he had to himself and his thoughts in the sub-basement, he sometimes wondered what happened on the show after he stopped being able to watch. Those small things tended to make him sadder as time went on down there, little pieces of an old life that Bucky thought he wouldn’t ever have again.

Bucky really wouldn’t have the life he had before, of course. The person that lived that life was a fourteen year old pup whose biggest concerns were whether or not he’d make the baseball team at school and agonizing over the alphas he had crushes on not liking him back. Now he was an adult, a man, with three pups of his own and a laundry list of issues. His happiness now couldn’t erase eleven years of hell on earth.

But for the time being, Bucky lived in this moment. He embraced the insurmountable joy that took hold of him at the sight of his pups drinking hot chocolate for the first time, even though hot chocolate wasn’t seasonably appropriate. Their faces lit up the same way they’d lit up at the sparklers on the Fourth of July, like magic was happening and they were fortunate enough to experience it.

“Daddy, try some!” Win insisted, “It’s yummy!”

Obediently, Bucky sipped off the top of Win’s cocoa cup. He said, “You’re right. It’s very yummy.”

“I’m a lucky girl,” Win told him, and went back to drinking her hot chocolate and watching the show.

They were all lucky, Bucky thought.

**

2012

The floor above creaked and Bucky went stiff as a board. He curled his body around George and Becky in a protective embrace. With the third pup showing now against his belly he wouldn’t be able to shield them as well as he wanted to unless he sacrificed the baby he was growing. He’d just have to do what Pierce wanted.

Reluctantly, Bucky pulled away from the pups and tucked a makeshift blanket around their tiny bodies. George whimpered in his sleep and Bucky longed to hold him and make the nightmares go away, but he couldn’t. The footsteps over them rattled the ceiling and Bucky’s best shot at keeping everyone safe was to do as Pierce asked. So, he stripped off the stained t-shirt his pregnant belly swelled against and tugged away his threadbare boxer shorts.

Bucky climbed onto the rickety bed, clenched his fists in the filthy sheets, and presented.

The door swung open and cool air hit Bucky’s bare ass. A distinct thunk sounded as Pierce jumped down. He stroked his palm over Bucky’s side and said, “You decided to be good for me.”

Bucky didn’t answer. He thought he might throw up if he opened his mouth, so he clenched his teeth, set his forehead against the lumpy mattress, and braced himself for what came next.

Even though Bucky knew what was about to happen, anxiety still clamped around him. He reeked of fear so strongly even he could smell it, and Pierce just chuckled at the smell of terror like it was a joke that only he was in on. He gripped the cheeks of Bucky’s ass and pulled them apart, pressing his thumb against his entrance. A thoughtful noise escaped Pierce and he said, “You’re not wet for me. That’s a shame. You know it hurts you more when you’re not wet.”

The clink of Pierce’s belt unbuckling sent Bucky’s panic spiraling but he forced himself to stay still. If he did what Pierce wanted then the pups could be safe for another day. Maybe if they survived long enough, they’d outlive Pierce and someday get out of there. Maybe.

Those were the thoughts that Bucky clung to when Pierce shoved his cock inside him. No matter how many times it happened, Bucky’s body screamed. This would always hurt. He would never get used to it. He would always fear it. But he had to bite down and soldier through. He had to.

Maybe he deserved this, Bucky thought when Pierce humped into him and pain exploded all over again. He deserved this, but the pups didn’t. They deserved love like all pups deserved love and he would be damned before Pierce took that away from them.

Across the room, George whimpered again, louder this time. Bucky turned his head and saw his son watching, watching what was happening to his dad with horror and resignation etched onto his little face. Bucky let go of the sheet to make a motion at his pup, to get him to stop looking while Pierce railed into him.

But Pierce saw. He shoved his hand into Bucky’s hair and ripped Bucky’s body backward as he fucked him. Bucky couldn’t help the noise of agony that punched out of him. Tongue heavy in his mouth, he forced out, “Look away, baby.” Couldn’t call him George. Couldn’t let Pierce know that the pups had names.

Pierce snapped Bucky’s head back harder and then shoved him down, holding his face into the mattress. He said to George, and God no, oh God no, he used his Voice: “No. You watch, little pup. You better hope that you don’t grow up to become an omega whore. This is what happens to omega whores.”

 

Bucky gasped awake. He kicked out of the weight holding him down and toppled off of a bed. Blindly, he stumbled through the dark, crashing into furniture and corners as he ran, thrust open a door and – he was outside. Free. He tripped over his feet and down a concrete driveway, past flower beds and pine trees to a road. Only when the scent of the tar hit him did Bucky realize that he left his babies behind.

Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.

The wind whipped against his sweat-soaked body and he shivered, freezing up inside and out. His mind whirled. How was he going to get back to his pups without Pierce getting him again? How could he have forgotten them in that godforsaken room? He was the worst, most disgusting, most terrible father –

“Bucky?”

A smell like autumn carried past Bucky on the breeze. Somebody was with him. Maybe they could help?

“I-I,” he stammered, “You have to help – I left my pups – Alpha’s gonna hurt them and I don’t – I don’t know where I am and –”

A hand reached out and rested on Bucky’s shoulder. He jerked his head up to see who was with him and found a broad-shouldered alpha staring down at him with concerned, warm eyes. Steve, his mind whispered.

“Steve,” he repeated out loud.

“That’s right, Buck,” Steve said.

“Steve, Steve, you have to help me,” Bucky begged, “Please. He’s gonna kill my babies and they don’t deserve it. They don’t. It’s not their fault. Please.” Bucky pitched forward, head swimming and stomach sloshing.

“Whoa,” Steve said, and sidestepped just in time for Bucky to vomit onto the ground.

Bucky fell to his knees and heaved again. Steve reached for his hair to pull it back, and Bucky launched himself out of the way. He protested, “No no no no no. Please don’t hurt me. The pups. The pups need me. I’m all they got. Please.”

Steve didn’t try to touch his hair again. Instead he knelt beside Bucky. Steve tilted his head to expose his neck, and said, “Bucky, you’re okay. You’re safe. The pups are safe. They’re inside the house, in bed. It’s 2016. All of you are safe.”

Big, gentle hands clasped Bucky’s arms and drew him forward. Submissively, Bucky went, surprised when one of the hands urged Bucky’s nose into a pale column of throat. He breathed in, met with the scent of clean sweat on skin and soap Steve said was from a farmer’s market and – Steve. Steve.

“Steve?” Bucky whimpered.

“Yeah, it’s me. Are you with me now?”

A headache sparked at the edges of Bucky’s skull as he remembered. He didn’t leave his pups in that hole in the ground. The police found them all and they took them to a hospital. He lived with Steve now, who smelled nice and made beautiful art and wanted to get a dog for George to help him. Wonderful Steve, who Bucky had done nothing to deserve but selfishly wanted to be worth all the effort Steve expended on him.

“Fuck,” Bucky said. His eyes leaked onto Steve’s t-shirt, but didn’t want to cry.

Steve helped him stand, rubbed Bucky’s back and said, “Hey, it’s okay. I’m here. You’re okay.”

“I thought,” Bucky started, talking through the pounding headache that knocked around in his brain, “I thought I was back…there. I thought I left the pups behind. I dreamed about – stuff that happened. I forgot, um. I forgot some of it. He used his Voice on George. H-He made him watch.”

Steve’s hand didn’t pause. He kept kneading Bucky’s back, and Bucky leaned into him, clutching Steve’s shirt in both fists. Steve was an anchor against the whirlwind that swept through Bucky’s mind and body. His legs felt weak and his mouth tasted like bile and he thought he might vomit again if he moved.

“I’m not gonna let anything happen to you guys, Buck,” Steve assured him, “If anyone tries to get to you or the pups then they’re gonna have to go through me.”

Bucky didn’t reply. He clung to Steve, swallowed a gasp, and struggled to get his breathing under control.

“You need me to carry you back inside?” asked Steve.

Bucky started to shake his head and peel away from Steve, but in a single step his legs almost buckled beneath him.

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky said, “Maybe I do.”

“Piggyback?” suggested Steve.

Bucky nodded and climbed onto Steve’s back when he crouched low to the ground. Steve hefted him up with his hands braced under Bucky’s thighs and Bucky wound his arms around Steve’s front. He stuck his nose against the skin on the back of Steve’s neck and inhaled a shaky breath. He probably should have been embarrassed to be a grown man being given a piggyback ride back into his home, but mostly, Bucky was exhausted.

Down to the atoms that made up his body, Bucky was tired. Things were good with Steve, but he still couldn’t find peace. Maybe he wouldn’t ever find peace. He didn’t understand why, of all the people in the universe, this shit happened to him.

Back in the house, Steve set Bucky gently onto the couch before turning back to close the front door again. He flicked on the standing lamp beside the armchair and cast the living room in a dim, yellowish glow.

“Tell me how I can help,” Steve said.

“Got a headache,” Bucky said.

Steve nodded and crossed over to the kitchen. He turned on the lights there, too, but after rummaging in the cupboards and running the tap, the lights flicked back off, leaving nothing but the pale lamplight from before.

“Here,” Steve said. He passed Bucky a glass of cool water and what looked like a couple Advil. Bucky swallowed the pills and then tipped the glass back and chugged the water. It dribbled down his chin and spilled onto his shirt, but he figured he’d forfeited dignity for the night and he may as well embrace that.

A cold, clammy sweat slicked Bucky’s skin. He wasn’t breathing right.

“Do you need some of your anxiety meds?” Steve asked.

Bucky pressed his fists against his eyes and muttered, “Yeah. Please.”

Steve pulled the empty glass from Bucky’s grip and returned with it refilled, another pill nestled in the center of his palm. Bucky swallowed the Xanax and leaned his head against the back of the couch. Steve settled on the couch beside him, but left a careful distance of a foot or so between their bodies. They sat together like that for a long time, not speaking, just breathing in tandem.

At last, Bucky said, “I was doing so good for a while there, too.”

“Hey, sometimes there are gonna be stumbling blocks,” Steve reasoned, “It doesn’t mean that you’re not doing well anymore.”

“No wonder my pups are so fucked up,” Bucky went on, “I can’t believe I forgot that he used his Voice on George. He fucking – he made George watch while he – while he –”

“Raped you,” Steve finished. Bucky hadn’t heard the tone of voice that Steve took on before, something quiet but very, very deadly. Very alpha.

“Yeah. That.”

Silence fell again. A scuff of the floorboards sounded, and a soft, “Daddy?” came from the dark hallway. Win shuffled out in the Cinderella nightgown Steve brought for her one day, her stuffed bear clutched in one tiny fist.

“What’s going on, baby?” Bucky asked.

Win climbed up onto the couch and wiggled her way onto Bucky’s lap. She rested her head against his chest and said, “I woked up and you were gone. How come you smell sad?”

“I had a bad dream,” Bucky said.

“I have bad dreams sometimes,” Win told him. Bucky bit down on his lower lip. The baseball-sized hole in his chest that gaped from the night’s events ripped open to the size of a dinner plate at Win’s words. He knew that she got bad dreams; of course Bucky knew. All of the pups suffered nightmares. That was why, while they began the night tucked into their beds in the nursery, Bucky and Steve woke to all three pups in the king bed, curled in close to the scents of their father and their support alpha. It didn’t happen every night, but it happened most of them.

Win’s face pulled into a concentrated pout. She said, “You know what helps bad dreams?”

“What’s that, sweetheart?” asked Bucky.

Win climbed onto her feet in his lap and pecked a wet kiss to the center of his forehead. She said, “Hugs and kisses do. Steve told me so.”

Bucky slid a look over at Steve, who gave a helpless shrug and explained, “I’m a light sleeper. Sometimes I wake up when the pups climb in bed with us.”

Bucky wrapped his arms around his daughter and planted a kiss of his own on her cheek, which had begun to fill out with a little baby fat. He said, “Steve’s right. He’s pretty smart, huh?”

“Yeah,” Win agreed, and tucked her face into Bucky’s neck to scent him.

“All right,” Bucky sighed, “I think it’s time to go back to bed. I’m gonna sleep in my room, okay, Win? You wanna come with me or you wanna go with Steve?”

“You,” Win mumbled, “How come we’re not going to the big bed?”

“Because Daddy needs some space,” Bucky answered. With the Xanax kicking in, he was doubly ready to curl up in a nice nesting spot and pass out for a year. He hiked Win up on his hip and got to his feet. Steve stood by, ready to catch Bucky if need be, but the dizziness had long gone and Bucky was steady now.

Steve flicked off the standing lamp. In the hallway between their bedrooms, he hovered awkwardly in front of Bucky and Win. When Steve managed to say something, it was only, “If you need anything, you know where to find me.”

Chapter Text

Determined to prove that to himself that he wasn’t too damaged to function like a regular human being, Bucky spent the morning following the nightmare debacle setting up an e-mail address and using it to create a Facebook account. He cursed at his phone while he spent ages figuring out how to e-mail himself pictures that he’d taken with his device, only to discover a few minutes later that he could have downloaded the Facebook app on the damn phone and uploaded them directly.

But whatever, Bucky committed to using the laptop so that was what he did. He chose a picture of himself that he’d taken with Win a couple of days ago while they were outside on the swings for his profile picture, and then a picture with all three of the pups as his bigger “cover” photo, whatever that was.

Bucky got the hang of the website after putting up a few more pictures: Steve coloring with the pups at the kitchen table, the pups on the Fourth with ice cream cake smeared across their delighted faces – they’d never had ice cream before that day, but Bruce gave it the go-ahead, various “selfies” (as Steve called them. Bucky wasn’t sure if everyone called them that or if it was just a Steve thing) with the pups, the pups playing on their new playset.

Looking at all the photos that he’d taken in the past months lightened the heavy weight that crouched on his shoulders since he woke with Win cuddled into his chest, in his bedroom that morning. Maybe they all had nightmares, but Bucky’s pups had never been happier than they were now. Steve had the means to get them whatever they wanted and everything that they deserved, so whether or not Bucky deserved to be here with such a considerate alpha, he knew that the pups did.

Bucky’s pups deserved the world.

Before anyone could request him as a friend, Bucky went ahead and did the work for them. He sent a request to his mom, his dad, his grandmother, and all five of his sisters.

Within instants, Bucky’s new Facebook went wild.

Judy Barnes posted on your wall

Winnie Barnes commented on your photo

George Barnes posted on your wall

Becca Barnes tagged you in a photo

“Jesus,” Bucky said aloud.

“What was that?” Steve asked from across the table, where he’d parked himself with a sketchbook and was drawing alongside Becky.

“I made a Facebook,” Bucky said, “and it took about two seconds flat for every member of my family to go actually fucking insane. Look at this.” Steve scooched out his chair and looped around the table to see Bucky’s laptop screen.

Judy Barnes

July 9 at 10:26am

                BUCKY!!!! OH MY GOD!!!

George Barnes

July 9 at 10:27am

                I am so happy to see your face, James

 On the photo Bucky took of himself with all three of the pups, which Bucky had captioned “Me & the babies”: 

Winnie Barnes They are so beautiful, honey

Like   Reply   July 9 at 10:27am

And Becca, being the shit that she was, “tagged” Bucky in a photo of his acne-ridden self at his freaking bar mitzvah, though his annoyance dulled to a throb of sorrow when he saw that Becca had posted the picture in September of last year, on the day that Bucky disappeared, and that she’d captioned it “To my twin and other half, rest in peace, wherever you are.”

Becca still missed him, even after ten years went by. His chest ached thinking of how much he’d missed her, too, and how maybe Skype wasn’t enough anymore. He wanted to wrap his arms around his twin sister, wanted to breathe in her scent, the clean, fruity smell of a beloved family member. Or would she smell different, now that so many years had passed?

Bucky thought of that this morning, too, when he watched Becky crawl up next to George where he’d elected to watch cartoons from the armchair. She snuggled against her older brother and put her nose to the skin on his neck just below his cropped dark hair, and George wrapped an arm around her.

“You should add me,” Steve advised, effectively stopping Bucky from zoning all the way out.

“You have a Facebook too?” Bucky said.

Steve replied, “Everyone has a Facebook, Buck,” echoing Becca’s earlier words on the matter.

So Steve helped Bucky find his profile and add him as a friend, a request that Steve accepted in seconds from his phone. He showed Bucky how to tag Steve in the pictures that he’d taken, and then asked, “Is it all right if I put up pictures of you and the pups on my Facebook? I didn’t before ‘cause I figured you wanted your privacy.”

“That’s fine,” Bucky said, and then, “Wait, you have pictures of us?”

“Of course I do,” Steve said, “You’re my family. Whether or not you decide to strike out on your own someday, you guys are always gonna be a part of my family.”

“Sap,” Bucky accused.

“Sentimental,” Steve replied.

Another notification popped up on Bucky’s laptop monitor.

Beth Barnes commented on your photo

It was one of the pictures of Steve, smiling up at Bucky while he and Win planted the yellow flowers that he promised they would at the clinic.

Beth Barnes omfg your support alpha is hoooottttt

Like   Reply   July 9 at 10:30am

“For the love of God,” Bucky said, “She was a pup the last time I saw her. And now she thinks you’re hot! She’s gotta be…fifteen. Jesus.” His youngest sister was as old as Bucky was when he birthed George in that shithole sub-basement room. And she went by her middle name, the same way he did. Who could blame her, when their parents saddled her with the name Rhoda Beth Barnes? Tragic.

Bucky Barnes don’t make it weird

Like   Reply   July 9 at 10:31am

Bucky made the executive decision to close his computer after that, though he was certain that his family would keep going whether or not he replied to any of their interactions with him. Ma already started going through and “liking” every photo that Bucky put up, leaving comments on any picture that included one or more of the pups.

In the pocket of Bucky’s sweatpants, his phone chimed with a text message. It could only be from Becca, and sure enough:

10:33 Becca: They are FREAKING out

10:35 Bucky: really i hadnt noticed

10:35 Becca: Ma is actively crying about your pups

10:36 Bucky: christ

Bucky closed the laptop and broke from the family drama to pour himself a fresh mug of tea, which he took out to the back porch. George was swinging from the monkey bars over the swings, but promptly leapt off when he spotted Bucky on the porch. He rushed Bucky from across the yard and threw his arms around Bucky’s middle, pressing his face into the cotton t-shirt that Bucky had stolen from Steve.

“What’s the hug for?” asked Bucky, holding his tea out of the line of fire.

“I wanted to,” George said.

Bucky stroked his fingers through George’s hair, debating if the kid needed a haircut. While he’d been out cold at the hospital, the staff had the pups bathed and their hair cut. George chose a short hairstyle because he saw an omega male doctor with something similar, or so the nurses relayed to Bucky when he asked how his children managed to select gendered haircuts for themselves. Bucky didn’t know if that was the truth, but George didn’t seem to miss the mess of long hair he had in the basement.

The pups – thank God – didn’t have the same hang-ups about having their hair touched that Bucky did.

Wisely, the staff cut Bucky’s hair while he was dead to the world and couldn’t freak out. Absently, Bucky wondered if Steve had any hair-cutting ability. He was the sole person outside of his pups that Bucky trusted to touch his hair, and that was only because Steve had stroked his fingers through Bucky’s hair so gently so many times before.

With a sip from his tea mug, Bucky fell back on the porch swing. He patted the striped canvas cushion beside him and said, “Come sit next to me. I wanna ask you a question.”

George eyed Bucky but scooted up and let his legs dangle off of the edge of the swing. Bucky rocked them back and forth and said, “So, me and Steve noticed that you really like hanging out with Lucky.”

That elicited a grin. George said, “Lucky’s the best.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty cool,” Bucky agreed, “and you know what else is cool? It’s Lucky’s job to help people feel better. There are actually lots of dogs whose job it is to make people feel better, and Steve had an idea about that. He thought you might like to get a dog of your own to make you feel better.”

“My own dog?” George echoed, “Like a dog that lives with us?”

“Exactly like that,” said Bucky, “and you could take your dog with you outside, and to therapy, and wherever else you needed to go. What do you think, baby?”

If Bucky expected enthusiasm out of George, he would be sorely disappointed. Instead, an expression of wariness took up George’s face and lent him a look of having seen far more than was fair for his ten years. Too-old eyes in a too-young face, and it broke Bucky’s fucking heart that this was how his son was destined to be. Was there anything Bucky could have done in that hellhole to make George steadier? To prevent his son’s suspicions of inane things?

No time machine could take Bucky back and show him.

Bucky hadn’t been equipped at fifteen to raise a pup, but he did all he could. At least, he’d been telling himself that. Maybe there was more he could have done, and he was just bad at being a parent.

“What does Steve want?” asked George.

Bucky frowned. He asked, “What do you mean?”

“When Alpha gives you something, he wants something back,” George reasoned.

“Oh, baby,” Bucky said. He pulled George into him, into a hug, and kissed the top of his head. He went on, “Baby, baby. Steve’s not like that. He’s been nice to us, hasn’t he?”

George nodded, all-too-serious. He said, “But he put his mouth on yours.” Well, shit. Bucky didn’t know his son had seen any of that, though Bucky supposed there had been ample opportunity to witness one of the many shy kisses that he and Steve shared together.

Bucky exhaled. He said, “That’s a kiss, sweetheart. Um. Sometimes grownups kiss people that they care about. I care about Steve, and he cares about me. So…uh. We give kisses.”

“You like giving kisses to Steve?” George asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Bucky answered, surprised at how true it was. Few things made him as happy as he felt when he leaned up to kiss Steve and Steve bent down to kiss back. Instinct assured Bucky that he was safe in Steve’s arms and while logically he knew he shouldn’t rely solely on instinct in his decisions on whom to trust, Steve’s kisses made Bucky want to tempt fate. Steve never touched without permission, never tried to escalate a kiss to something sexual – he was every inch a good goddamn alpha.

Bucky set his half-drunk mug of tea aside on the windowsill behind the porch swing and hauled his pup all the way into his lap. He stuck his nose against George’s skin and let the scent of his son swallow him, all pup-soft with the edge that belonged solely to George. He rubbed George’s back and said, “I don’t think Steve is ever gonna make us trade him for things we want.”

“But what if he does?”

“Then we’ll run away,” Bucky said, “We can go right out the front door and we’ll never come back, okay?”

“Okay,” George said, voice muffled by Bucky’s chest, “Then can I really have a doggy?”

“You really can, baby.”

**

The onslaught of Facebook notifications carried over into the next several days. Bucky’s phone kept dinging into his session with Sam at the clinic, enough that Sam finally gave up and asked, “Do you need to answer that, Barnes?”

“It’s just Facebook,” Bucky said.

That garnered a reaction. Sam masked his shock in the next second, but Bucky caught the look of floored surprise before Sam trained his face back into therapist-mode. He asked, “Did you…make that yourself?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “Becca said no one uses Myspace and everybody uses Facebook, so…but you know, I miss having music on my page. Why can’t I put a song on my Facebook like you could do on Myspace? And how come you can’t do fancy code shit and make your page look cool?”

“You do know that if the press finds your Facebook that there’s nothing we can do to protect you, right?” Sam asked.

Bucky opened his mouth to retort, and then snapped it closed. He didn’t think about that. Would the press really give a shit about him? They would, wouldn’t they? Steve said that the news covered Bucky’s disappearance for several months before they got bored, and that on the anniversary of his kidnapping often news channels and websites revisited the case in specials and asked anyone with information to come forward. No one ever did come forward – Pierce lived alone. He brought friends, or maybe business associates, down to Bucky a couple times, but Bucky was under the impression that those guys were almost as scared of Pierce as Bucky and his pups were.

“They’d – care?” Bucky asked anyway.

Sam folded his fingers together and rested his chin on his hands. He answered, “Bucky, your case is exactly the kind of story that the media would be all over sensationalizing. Do you have all your privacy settings on?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “I mean, I think I do. I’m only friends with my family and Steve, anyway.”

“Tread carefully,” Sam said, “That’s all I’m saying. Protect yourself.”

“I will,” Bucky said.

“Steve’ll go to bat for you, too, if it comes to that,” Sam went on, “but hopefully no one’s paying close enough attention to have noticed your sudden reappearance.”

Sam shifted focus after that, but Bucky left his therapy session with the sensation of being watched prickling at the back of his neck, like some guy with a camera might leap out from around the corner and jump him at any moment. He couldn’t tell if the fear was irrational or not after everything that Sam said, but his mind was so occupied that Thor noticed at physical therapy.

“Are you well, James?” Thor asked.

“Uh,” Bucky managed at his physical therapist’s good-natured, curious expression, and then lied, “Yeah, fine. Just didn’t sleep so good.”

Thor accepted that excuse, thankfully. Bucky didn’t know if he could handle an interrogation over his mental well-being, especially knowing that his day was far from over. After the pups left Sam and Thor released Bucky, they had an appointment with Clint regarding the therapy dog for George – for all of them, really, but to benefit George in particular.

And by the time that Bucky’s session with Thor came to a close, he vibrated with nervous energy. Checking his Facebook notifications worked against him, as every member of his family wrote essays and waxed poetic about what beautiful children Bucky had and how much that they had missed him.

The reassurance of his family should have eased Bucky’s conscience, but instead, as so many things about the world did now, their words overwhelmed him. He’d been tagged in several dozen photos now, almost all of them captioned with some variation of resting in peace or how they loved him or how they missed him. He’d cried last night when Beth tagged him in a picture, one of ten-year-old Bucky holding little Beth at the hospital, the day after she’d been born. The caption read, “It’s amazing how much you can miss someone when you barely had the chance to know them.”

Steve mentioned only once that Bucky could delete his Facebook or turn off his notifications. Maybe Bucky shouldn’t have, but he snapped at Steve that he wanted to be able to do normal thing and to let him figure it out by himself. Steve didn’t bring it up again.

When Bucky trudged out of the clinic gym, sore and grumpy, he found Steve waiting outside the doors with Win on his hip and the other two pups flanking him on either side. Becky rushed Bucky as soon as he exited, throwing her arms around him.

“Alpha Steve says we’re gonna get a doggy,” she bubbled, “Is that true?”

“It is true,” Bucky said, “We’re gonna look at some doggies with Clint today. We have to drive to a different place, though, okay?”

In truth the prospect of going outside their usual haunts slapped Bucky with an additional onslaught on anxiety, but getting a therapy dog wasn’t for him. It was for his pup, and Bucky couldn’t deny his pup something because he himself could not get his shit together for a couple hours at a time.

With the kids buckled into the Beetle and Steve’s phone GPS dictating directions at him in that disembodied female voice, they set off toward SHIELD, the shelter and training center for working dogs that the Stark Omega Clinic worked in tandem with. Being that Bucky and the pups’ case was hell on wheels, Clint promised he’d be able to fast-track them to getting a dog as soon as possible, instead of being filed away on a waiting list.

The drive took around an hour and a half, and brought them to what looked to Bucky like the edge of Denver proper. The outline of skyscrapers some miles away met him when he glanced out the window, and his heart seized up. Was the art museum still the same, with the sculptures outside that he used to climb on with Becca when their dad took them as pups for the free Saturday admission? Did the park across the street still have the fountain that posted signs said not to play in, but pups still splashed around in anyway?

Steve turned and a building obscured the skyline from view, shutting down Bucky’s musing over what became of the city he used to know.

The place that Steve pulled into looked far more unassuming than the historical building that housed Stark Omega Clinic, just a squat, grayish concrete structure. Utilitarian. It would be unidentifiable if not for the lettering on the sides and front that read “SHIELD Therapy Animals”. Clint met them just outside the double doors in the front, sans Lucky but with a smile on his face.

“Hey guys,” he greeted, “You ready to meet some dogs?”

“Yeah!” exclaimed Becky.

“Becks, baby,” Bucky said, “Remember that the doggy is mostly to help George, all right? He’s gonna choose the dog that he likes best.”

“I know,” Becky sighed. She rolled her eyes at him. Rolled her eyes! Feeling delight at his daughter’s disdain could not be normal, but Bucky was thrilled that she felt comfortable enough in her position to express thinking her dad was an idiot.

Bucky beamed and said to Steve, “My daughter thinks I’m a moron.”

Steve cocked one brow and said, “And you’re happy about that?”

“Hell yeah I’m happy about it,” Bucky said, “She knows she’s safe enough that she doesn’t have to listen to me one hundred percent of the time. How fucking amazing is that? Freaking, I mean. Freaking amazing.” He spared a glance at the pups, but all three had their focus elsewhere and not on their father’s incurable potty mouth.

As soon as they stepped into the building, a chorus of muffled barks greeted them from someplace beyond the lobby walls. Clint leaned against the front desk, where a doe-eyed brunette sat behind a computer monitor. He said, “Darcy, my favorite lady. How are you this fine afternoon?”

“Well, gee, Clint,” Darcy replied, “I’ve been waiting here just for you, all day.”

Clint snorted. He asked, “Maria ready for us, or does she need a few?”

“Nah, you can go on back,” Darcy answered.

Clint snapped his fingers and shot finger-guns at Darcy before he waved for Steve, Bucky and the pups for follow him through a door to their left. The overpowering aroma of canine permeated the air and the barking grew ever-louder. A professional-looking beta woman with her dark hair pulled back met them and stuck out her hand for Bucky to shake. She said, “Maria Hill. I run operations here at SHIELD.”

“Good to meet you,” Bucky replied. He tried not to sound as high-strung as he currently was.

Maria took them back through another door and to a kennel area, where dogs stood in small, partitioned areas that struck Bucky as looking too much like cells. He swallowed his anxiety and groped blindly for Steve’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Steve gave Bucky a reassuring squeeze.

 As Maria led them through the kennels, she explained, “These are the dogs we have that are fully trained and equipped to become therapy animals. If you find one that suits your needs, we’ll have some paperwork to do, but we can get the dog to you in around twenty four to forty eight hours, as Clint has said he’s willing to bring the dog to you himself.”

Bucky glanced over at Clint at that. Clint shrugged as if to say, hey, anyone would do it, but Bucky knew that wasn’t true and he was experiencing the generosity of yet another person that he’d never be able to repay.

George took his time approaching each dog, walking strategically from kennel to kennel and sticking his fingers out for the dogs to sniff each time. When he found her, the choice was obvious. A sedate German Shepard sniffed at George’s extended hand and lapped at his fingers. George giggled, and the dog sat, beating her tail against the floor in an enthusiastic show of wagging.

“This one’s name is Winter,” Maria said.

George turned. The smile that he aimed at Bucky made Bucky melt all the way to his core. He’d never seen his son look so happy before, so – at peace, almost. George said, “I love her.”

“Then let’s get the ball rolling,” Clint replied.

Steve squeezed Bucky’s hand again and said to George, “She’s all yours, kiddo.”

Chapter Text

Clint brought Winter home to them two days later, complete with paperwork and a little vest that she could wear out and about, so no one questioned a family bringing a dog along to ordinary locations in case of meltdowns, freak-outs, panic attacks, dissociation or whatever other explosive reactions came from mixing Bucky and the pups with the general public.

George spent the better part of an hour showing Winter all the things that they purchased for her, from the massive, cushy dog bed that Steve arranged beside George’s bed in the nursery, to her shiny dog bowl with a ring of paw prints stamped around the outside, to a rope and tire toy that George led her outside with.

From the comfort of the porch swing, Bucky and Steve watched George and the girls play with Winter in the backyard. Bucky was hard pressed not to feel like one half of an elderly couple when they sat like this, Steve’s arm slung over Bucky’s shoulders while they looked over the pups tumbling through the grass with a dog bigger than all of them. Profound joy never failed to take hold in these moments, when Bucky got to watch his babies having fun. He got to hear them laugh and see them smile.

In the sub-basement, Bucky sometimes could tease a laugh or smile from them, but their bliss was nowhere near as free as it was now, running barefoot in the green lawn under the hot summer sun, playing as they’d never been able to play for most of their lives. Becky’s face was stained and sticky from a red popsicle. Sweat gathered at the front of George’s t-shirt. They reminded Bucky of himself during summers long, long ago. Becca and Bucky used to poke holes in the lids of jars and catch grasshoppers in them. Bucky used to chase his sisters while their dad fussed over his tomato plants.

Now his pups could have what Bucky had, all that time ago. For years now, Bucky’s childhood felt like a separate lifetime, a past life, a memory box of rock collections and photos in sepia tones. This – sitting with Steve and looking over his children – this felt real. This wasn’t a flickering memory of happiness, but a tangible experience.

“Thank you,” Bucky found himself saying to Steve, as often he did.

A crooked smile quirked up one half of Steve’s mouth. He said, “Whatever you guys need – you know I’ll get it for you.”

Bucky huffed out a soft laugh and leaned closer into Steve’s body heat. He never expected to feel safe again, never expected that the edge of fear would dull and that Bucky would find a place he felt that he and his pups could be free, but with his side pressed into Steve as the pups and Winter romped around the yard, he thought that this could be it. A sliver of himself said to be rational, to know that this would someday end, but Bucky’s heart was tired. He was tired. He wanted this goodness to last.

Becky tromped up the porch steps and collapsed on the swing on Bucky’s left side. She complained, “It’s hot out here, Daddy.”

“Sure is, sweetheart,” Bucky agreed.

“I think I should have another popsicle,” Becky reasoned.

Bucky laughed. He ruffled her hair and said, “I think you’ve had enough popsicles for one afternoon.”

“But it’s hot!”

“I have an idea,” Steve said, then, “Buck, what do you say we play with the garden hose? Get the pups in their swimsuits?”

A stupid grin filled out Bucky’s face before he could stop it. Playing with the garden hose – now there was a tried-and-true summertime classic. He asked, “Do I got a swimsuit? This sounds like the kind of fun I wanna get in on.”

Inside, Bucky helped his pups change into their swimsuits – explaining along the way that they were outfits that they could get wet in. Win wanted to know why George’s swimsuit lacked a top piece, which Bucky didn’t actually have a great answer for. He told them, “People make swimsuits different for boys and girls based on what they think they need to cover up, but if you don’t wanna wear your top, you don’t gotta, baby. You can run around in the backyard naked for all I care.”

Win appeared to genuinely consider the prospect of outdoor nudity for a few moments before deciding, “No, I like the sparkles,” and submitting to wearing her glittery polka-dotted bathing suit.

Bucky didn’t look all that fantastic in his swim trunks, still being too thin and too pale, but Steve looked like the cover of an indecent magazine in his. Shit, he looked like the Mister March of PlayOmega, all muscles and flushed skin and his dumb, goofy smile that teased Bucky into smiling right back. So sue him: Bucky leaned in and kissed that stupid smile. The scent of happy alpha wound into Bucky’s brain, made his body buzz like he’d had too much caffeine. Scent-drunk, he thought.

“What are we doing?” George asked, his hand buried in Winter’s fur while Steve unwound the green garden hose from the side of the house.

“We’re playing,” Bucky said, “Just wait and see.”

Even though Bucky expected to get wet, he still shrieked when Steve cranked on the water and sprayed Bucky in the chest. All three of the pups laughed, until Steve turned the water on them. Then they scattered, yelling. Steve darted after them. His hose had one of those attachment heads that changed the flow of the water – the best kind to play with, if you asked Bucky. Steve clicked the setting from a shower to a long, far-reaching stream that hit Bucky in the center of his back.

Winter interrupted to jump up and snap at the water flow, a move that sent Bucky’s pups into fits of laughter until Steve shifted the hose to spray them again.

When Steve asked, “You guys want a turn to spray me?” George leapt at the opportunity. He tested every setting on the hose on Steve until Steve was soaking wet from head to toe.

They played for hours. When the pups got bored of spraying each other, Steve shifted the flow of the hose to the slide on the playset to create a makeshift waterslide. Bucky wondered if Slip’n’Slides were still a thing, because he’d loved the hell out of those as pup. Bucky didn’t often feel the urge to exit the circle of usual haunts that he and the pups visited, but wondering at what toys still existed and what new ones had been invented sparked a blossom of desire in the pit of Bucky’s stomach. He wanted to take his pups to a toy store, wanted them to pick something out for themselves.

The sun drifted low in the sky when Steve excused himself to dry off and start dinner. Bucky played with Winter and the pups for a handful of minutes more, before they too got bored and wanted to go back inside.

They weren’t pleased when Bucky shuffled them directly from the backyard into the master bathroom, where the tub was big enough for all three of them to enjoy a bubble bath. Pouting aside, the pups obeyed Bucky’s command to strip off their swimsuits and get in the water. As soon as they saw the bubbles they forgot to be annoyed, anyway.

George scooped up a handful of bubbles, applied them to his chin like facial hair, and said, “Look, I’m Tony!”

The girls giggled.

As Bucky went through the motions of scrubbing each of his pups clean, he observed, “I think you guys might be sunburned.”

Now that he thought about it – his own skin prickled. They’d been out in the sun for hours without sunscreen. Of course they were going to have a burn.

“What’s sunburned?” asked Becky.

“When you’re outside too long, the sun cooks you a little bit,” Bucky said, “There’s stuff you put on to stop it, but we forgot to do that. Is this owie?” He poked at Becky’s reddened shoulder.

“Ow! Daddy!” she protested, and smacked his hand away.

“Yeah, you guys are burned,” said Bucky, “We’re gonna have to ask Steve if he has aloe.”

“Ask Steve what?”

The alpha in question strolled into the bathroom, still sans shirt, but now in a pair of paint-stained lounge pants. His shoulders, like the shoulders of Bucky and his pups, were pink from the sun. Bucky shook his head and said, “Ask if you have aloe. We’re all sunburned. Including you.”

Steve glanced down at himself and said, “How about that,” and then, “Yeah, I’ve got aloe.”

The pups were less than amused when they began to feel the full extent of their sunburns. They scowled their way through dinner, whined their way through having aloe applied to their shoulders and their backs, and pouted their way through the nightly episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, even when Steve and Bucky agreed to allow an extra popsicle each for their pain.

Again, what should have irritated Bucky left him pleased. The pups trusted Steve enough to bitch at him about their burned skin, felt safe enough in the house to complain at the top of their little lungs through bedtime ritual about their pajamas chafing and the blankets making them too hot.

After an entire hour of bedtime stories and Bucky’s questionable lullaby singing ability, the pups drifted off. Bucky and Steve applied after-sun lotion to their own wounds, and Steve slathered it over himself like a well-seasoned veteran of sunburns, all methodical and quick (“I’m used to sunburns,” he’d said, “Irish complexion.”).

When Steve caught Bucky smiling at him, his brows went up and he asked, “What?”

“Nothin’,” Bucky said, “Just a good day, is all.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, “It was.”

**

Bucky should have recognized that the good days weren’t going to last. The pattern of his sordid life suggested that when one thing went right, three more would go wrong. He got too comfortable. He answered comments from his family members on Facebook, went to all his appointments, played with his pups, and at the end of the day, he crawled into Steve’s king bed and snuggled in close to the heat of Steve’s skin.

He thought he was doing better.

So when Steve announced like he always did, “I’m going to the grocery store, if any of you guys wanna come with,” Bucky thought he could manage it.

“Yeah,” he said, looking up from the worksheet of letters that he was practicing with Becky at the kitchen table, “Why don’t we try going today? We can bring Winter.”

Steve didn’t bother to mask his surprise at Bucky’s willingness to venture into public. He cocked his head and said, “Really? You sure you’re ready to try that?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Bucky said, “I’ve been doing good. Right?”

“’Course you have, Buck,” Steve replied, “I just don’t want you to force yourself into things because you think it’s the next step to take.”

Annoyed, Bucky said, “I’m not forcing anything. I want to go. And the pups should have the opportunity to see more of the world. Just because I’m nervous about people – I shouldn’t be stopping them from new experiences, is what I’m saying. That’s all.”

Bucky didn’t like that Steve didn’t believe that he was ready. Frustration stirred in him. Wasn’t Steve supposed to support Bucky’s decisions to move forward, toward getting better?

“All right,” Steve said, “Then we’ll give it a shot.” He didn’t sound happy about it, but now more than ever Bucky wanted to prove that he could leave his safe places and still be okay.

The nearest grocery store lay twenty minutes out from Steve’s house. While Steve by no means lived in the middle of nowhere, the neighbor sat just out of reach of the hustle and bustle of Denver and its suburbs. He lived in that in-between place that was neither rural nor suburbia, but some hybrid of the two.

Accordingly, the grocery store that Steve parked the Beetle in front of was neither large nor small, and only a handful of cars were parked along with them. Nonetheless, more strangers than Bucky had dealt with since waking in the hospital shuffled across the lot, and anxiety jackknifed and lodged in Bucky’s throat before he could help it. Beside him, Becky clutched at his sweating hand, huddling in close to him. George leaned further into Winter, who, sensing the collective air of nervousness, walked steadily and guided them.

Win made grabbing-hands at Steve with the hand that wasn’t clutching her stuffed bear, and Steve hoisted her up against his chest, where she curled into a ball and cuddled against him. Bucky knew the feeling – he wished he could be small enough to curl in a ball against Steve’s chest, too.

The other grocery store patrons gave them a wide berth. Mistreatment of omegas as a whole was common enough that the general population recognized a traumatized omega and support alpha on sight and scent and knew better than to stray into their bubble of space. Bucky remembered seeing an omega with a support alpha at the park, once, when he was little. The omega was a slip of a thing, fidgety and nervous, but her alpha, a tall blond woman, exuded calm and collectedness.

The distance from strangers did little to ease Bucky’s increasing discomfort. His gaze darted from corner to corner of the grocery store, up and down the aisles, and he wondered if anyone recognized him. Did they recognize his underfed face as the grown-up face of missing James Barnes? Did they remember him? Morbidly curious, Bucky had looked up the news videos on Youtube one evening and found entire cold case specials dedicated to him. His face had been on televisions everywhere, and even if it was his fourteen year old face, he wasn’t unrecognizable as his adult self.

“Bucky?” Steve ventured, “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Bucky lied. The kicked-puppy look of concern that Steve threw his way served only to fuel his irritation at his support alpha. Bucky would show him okay, the rat bastard. He held on tight to his daughter’s hand and made himself look ahead while Steve deposited Win in the front of a shopping cart.

“What are these?”

“What’s this?”

“What animal is that?”

“What’s this for?”

“This is weird.”

“Is this food?”

“How do you eat this?”

Bucky heard his pups’ questions, but he didn’t process them. The soft roll of Steve’s voice told him that he was taking care of the onslaught of curiosity. The colorful packaging and smells of processed food and other people filled Bucky’s brain up like a helium balloon. There wasn’t room left for his own thoughts, let alone the answers to the interrogation all three pups were leading.

When Steve’s hand landed on his shoulder, Bucky flinched. Steve withdrew immediately, but ventured, “Buck. Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes, Steve,” Bucky snapped back, “I said I wanted to, so fucking listen to me, will you? Christ. Stop questioning every damn motive of mine. Or are my choices that hard to respect?”

The snipe was a low blow, and Bucky knew it. Steve recoiled as though struck, and put both hands on the handle of the shopping cart to continue pushing it down whatever aisle they were in. He avoided Bucky’s eyes and his shoulders slumped low. Good, Bucky thought viciously, because it served Steve right for undermining Bucky’s decision to go out. Screw Steve and his concern.

As they wove through the store, time slowed. Eyes scraped over Bucky. He felt their gazes burning into him from every direction. Could they tell how young he was? Could they tell how old his pups were? Did they know what kind of person Bucky was? Could they smell the failure on him? Pierce used taunt Bucky when he fucked him. He’d laugh while they were knotted together about how disappointed Bucky’s family would be to see him now, to see what a whore their son had become.

Pushing out pups while you’re just a teenager, Pierce would drawl, do you think the world would want you back now? After they know what a slut you are? The world doesn’t have any use for omega whores like you. I have a use for you. I’m the only one that wants you now.

Pierce was right. Steve was good, too good, and Bucky didn’t deserve his concern. He didn’t deserve to be cared for. He deserved to be back in that dirty hole in the ground, deserved to be locked away where no one could see the disaster that he had allowed himself to become –

All at once, the oppressive air of the store bore down on Bucky, and he couldn’t take it. Moisture broke out on his forehead. The flurry of unfamiliar scents kicked up nausea in his stomach. His throat tightened and the air wouldn’t reach his lungs. He let Becky’s hand slip out of his sweaty palm, turned tail, and bolted for the automatic doors at the front of the store.

When Bucky’s heats hit in the sub-basement, he still got slick. He got slick for Pierce and smelled like arousal even as the smell of fear took the bulk of the space. He got slick and hard and why would he get slick and hard for Pierce if he wasn’t everything that Pierce said? Whose body prepared for their rapist like a lover?

All these strangers – all of them could see it. He was sure. They looked at him and saw the worthlessness. Everybody knew that the wholesome, good little Jewish boy named James Barnes fell and became the worst possible iteration of himself. He wasn’t worth saving, not anymore.

“Bucky?”

“Daddy!”

“You should put me back,” Bucky whispered.

Where was he? He’d been in the basement, but this didn’t look or smell like the basement. He could scent his own fear, but the putrid aromas of unwashed skin and come-soaked sheets were nowhere to be found. Instead, he smelled sunshine on hot tar. Something wet lapped against his face.

Wet. Winter’s tongue. Right. Bucky was sitting between two displays of summer fruit, right outside the grocery store. He went to the grocery store with Steve and the pups.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did he think he was ready for strangers to see him and know how fucked up he’d become?

“Put you back?” repeated Steve, uncomprehending. Of course he didn’t understand. Steve was too good to understand.

“Put me back in the basement,” Bucky said, “That’s where I’m supposed to be.”

“Bucky,” Steve said helplessly.

“You’re too good,” Bucky said, “I’m. I’m – not. I’m bad. You don’t understand what I did.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve said, and he sounded so sure.

“You don’t get it,” Bucky insisted, “I’m not worth all this. I still – still got slick for him – even though he hurt me – I didn’t –”

“Bucky, that wasn’t you,” Steve said, “Just because your body did something to ease the way doesn’t mean that you deserved what happened to you. Come on. C’mere. Let’s get up.” Steve pulled Bucky up onto unsteady feet and drew him in.

Selfishly, Bucky hooked his arms around Steve and buried his face in Steve’s neck. Steve smelled like good things, like safety and like home, and maybe Bucky didn’t deserve any of that but he wanted all of it so, so badly. His body ached with how much he wanted to deserve Steve and his pups. But he didn’t. They should make Bucky go back to the cold, to Pierce.

As he gulped in Steve’s scent, Bucky’s breathing slowed. He dizzily took account of where they were – in the middle of a grocery store parking lot, right beside Steve’s shitty Beetle – before he snapped wholly back into himself and swore, “God fucking damn it.”

“Those are naughty words,” Win whispered.

“Shh,” George scolded, “Daddy went away and he’s sad.”

“I can’t believe I can’t handle a trip to the fucking grocery store,” Bucky said, running his hands back through his hair, “I’ve been out of there for months and I can’t be out in public for two seconds put together before I think everybody’s looking at me and they just know.”

“It’s okay,” Steve started, and then corrected, “Actually, no, it’s not. You knew this was a bad idea and you went for it anyway.”

“You think I don’t realize that, Steve? Shit, I know I messed up,” Bucky said, “and the pups got to see it – again – and I’m gonna feel bad about this forever.”

Steve sighed. He said, “This is not the place for this conversation. Let’s just get in the car and we’ll drive back home.”

“But,” Bucky said, “Groceries.”

“I’ll pay to have them delivered,” Steve said.

“But,” Bucky began.

“It’s no trouble,” Steve said, “and we need to get you out of here. We’ll go home and I’ll fix you some tea, okay? Let’s get the pups in the car and worry about the rest when we get back to the house.”

**

In the familiar enclosure of Steve’s tiny car, Bucky calmed from MELTDOWN LEVEL PANIC to his baseline anxiety, which involved gnawing on his fingernails and picking at the skin around his cuticles so he had something to occupy his hands with. The radio played some top 40 hit that Bucky didn’t recognize. He didn’t recognize any of the hits, most of the time.

(Once Steve chuckled and said, “This is an old song,” to a song that Bucky had never heard before. The guilt that crossed Steve’s face when Bucky said as much was like a spear to the gut and neither of them ever mentioned music in the context of age again.)

Steve turned the car onto their street.

Outside Steve’s house, three news vans stood parked along the pavement. Reporters jumped at the Beetle with microphones in hand. Cameras flashed, burning into Bucky’s retinas and God, no, this was his fault too. His nail bed started to bleed in his mouth where he’d been biting. The sting jerked him away from another episode, but Bucky didn’t know how long that would last.

“When I pull into the garage, you guys stay in the house, okay?” Steve ordered. His voice sliced through the air like Bucky had never before heard, a honed edge that belonged to an alpha whose own had been threatened.

Bucky obeyed, because he didn’t know what else he could do. If he went out there, those people would shout at him. They’d want to know about his pups and they’d ask him a thousand questions, and if Bucky was paranoid that people knew his face before, he was going to be doubly paranoid now. The news knew. The world would know. He fucked up, he fucked up, he fucked up.

Without speaking, Bucky hustled the pups inside. They were less interested in listening to Steve than seeing what the commotion was all about, and pressed their faces against the glass of the front window in the living room. Cameras flashed again, and Bucky cringed. He said, “Guys, get away from there. Those are bad people.”

“What are they doing?” asked Becky.

“What is Steve doing?” George asked, and the panic of their safe haven being violated so drowned Bucky that he couldn’t find joy in George dropping ‘Alpha’ from Steve’s name again.

“He’s protecting us,” Bucky said, “Come on. Please. Come back here with me.”

“No, I wanna help Steve,” George insisted.

Bucky lunged for his oldest pup, but George had the front door open and was halfway down the driveway before Bucky could as much as shout a NO. Without a thought Bucky jumped out the door after him and jogged to catch up with his son. With his hands balled into fists at his sides, George shouted at the buzzing clutch of reporters, “Leave my daddy alone!”

“Baby, come on,” Bucky pleaded, “Let’s go inside.”

The reporters swarmed like insects, bombarding them with questions. Bucky could only make out some of them, but the two that struck him the most was: “As we understand from your Facebook, you’ve been free for several months. Do you have a comment on that?” and “An anonymous source at the police department connected your captivity to Alexander Pierce, who is awaiting trial for unrelated charges. Is there any validity to this claim?”

Steve, meanwhile, crossed his arms over his chest and leveled the deadliest glare Bucky had ever seen at the crowd. He said, “I will only ask you once to step off of my property.”

One smug, self-satisfied asshole out of the bunch said, “The street is not your territory.”

“Oh?” Steve said.

That single syllable hushed the bulk of the crowd.

Bucky reached for George’s hand and pulled him along, back up the driveway, so they could be safe inside the house. The cameras kept flashing, clicking over and over, and Sam’s warning that Bucky needed to be careful rang in his ears. Bucky should have recognized the warning for the harbinger that it was and just deleted his damn Facebook, but he’d missed his family, and even if he didn’t respond to every comment and every message, hearing their words comforted him when he began to feel displaced.

George ripped his hand out of Bucky’s and marched back to Steve’s side. He laced his fingers in Steve’s, a move that surprised Steve out of his anger and startled Bucky out of his fear. Steve glanced over his shoulder to exchange a look with Bucky, and the reporters took the opportunity to swarm closer and resume yelling.

“That’s it,” Steve roared. He let go of George and advanced on the crowd, predatory.

“George, please,” Bucky whispered. George did not listen.

Many things happened at once in the next seconds: Bucky’s earlier panic surged back at the sight of photographers snapping pictures of his son, slamming into him with all the force of a plane careening out of the sky; George charged the crowd with every inch of might in his tiny body; Steve’s head swerved from where Bucky had crumpled on the concrete to George and he dove for the pup first –

And as the reporters barked questions, one reached for George. Steve shoved the guy away from Bucky’s pup and bellowed, using his Voice, “You will leave right now, and you will never lay a finger on my omega or my pups again.”

The force of Alpha Voice, though not directed at Bucky, made him quake where he lay on the ground crunched into a fetal position.

“Bucky?” The sound of Steve speaking echoed as though he were shouting at Bucky from the other side of a tunnel. Bucky moaned and lifted his hands to cover his ears.

“Daddy?”

“Bucky? Buck!”

Steve heaved Bucky up into his arms. He knew it was Steve. He could smell Steve. Bucky still pushed against his chest and struggled in his grip and said, “Not the Voice. Not the Voice. Please don’t. Not on me and the pups. Please.”

Steve replied, “I’d never use my Voice on you or the pups, Buck. I used it to get those – those leeches away from us and keep you guys safe.”

The scent of Steve’s house, a scent he’d come to associate with home, engulfed Bucky, but did little to pull him from the maelstrom of his mind. He squirmed and twisted against Steve until Steve let him go, and when Bucky’s feet hit the floor, he stumbled down the hall and to his own bedroom. He could be safe there, away from everything and everyone. The space was his and his alone.

He wouldn’t be able to rest, couldn’t sleep with the panic coursing through his veins, but he could still huddle beneath the blankets and pretend that the world outside his nest didn’t exist. No one could touch him here, in this soft place that Bucky made for himself.

Maybe Bucky should give up.

Maybe the world would be better without Bucky in it.

The pups would have Bucky’s family and they would have Steve, all people better equipped to be parents than Bucky ever was. Bucky was a wreck of a human and a mess of a father and if he couldn’t be good for his pups, then what good was he at all? He was a burden, a convoluted mass of confused thoughts and triggers he didn’t know until he was already out of his mind.

If Bucky went away, wouldn’t it be better for everybody?

Chapter Text

A hollow sensation carried Bucky into the kitchen the morning after the encounter with the press. He went through the motions of morning routine, but didn’t register his surroundings. He was half in his body and half not, caught like a fly in a spider’s web between two places. Steve said words to him, but Bucky didn’t hear them. The pups pulled at Bucky’s clothes and hands to get his attention, but he couldn’t give it.

After Bucky ate – he wasn’t sure what he ate, just that he did it – he crawled back underneath the covers of his bed and hid there. The pups wriggled in with him. Their scents brought him down to earth far enough to pull Win into his arms and bury his nose in her soft brown hair.

He slept.

Bucky didn’t know how long he slept, only that his phone blaring its ringtone jarred him out of it and into the present. The pups were no longer in Bucky’s bed with him, their scents faded from the sheets. He fumbled for his cell without thinking and sleepily mumbled into it, “’Lo?”

“Bucky?”

Becca’s voice.

“Yeah. What’s going on?” Bucky asked.

“You and George and Steve are all over the news,” Becca said, “I wanted to check and see if you’re okay. There’s – there’s footage of you collapsing.”

“Voice,” was Bucky’s hoarse reply, “Steve used his Voice.”

“Yeah, they bleeped it out, but you could tell that’s what was happening,” Becca said, “How are you doing? Ma’s frantic. All of us are getting calls from like, news sites and friends and shit. Did you know Jim Morita knows Steve? I guess they went to college together. Small world, am I right?”

Bucky had been friends with Morita in junior high, and that month of high school he attended before Pierce snatched him. Hell, Morita was the kid that took Bucky to the nurse’s office in the eighth grade when Bucky collapsed on the track in gym class, hit full-force with his first heat.

“Bucky?” Becca said. He’d been quiet too long.

“I feel sick,” he mumbled.

“Are you all right? Should you go find Steve?”

“No,” Bucky said definitively, “Can’t get Steve. Might use his Voice.”

“He uses his Voice on you?” Becca asked, astonished.

“No,” Bucky answered, “but he could. He could do it. Why’d I think alphas were safe. Why’d I come here.”

“Here, um, I’m gonna pass you to Ma,” Becca said.

She was with Ma. Becca was home? Where did Becca even live? Bucky didn’t know. His head whirled in a whooshing loop, like a runaway merry-go-round with no brakes. He groaned into one of his pillows, and that was the noise that prompted a soft, “Bucky, honey? How are you doing?”

“Shitty,” he said, “Miss you, Ma.”

“I miss you too,” Ma said, “We’re all pretty concerned over here, after seeing the news. You wanna tell me what’s going on?”

“Voice,” said Bucky, “Hate when they use the Voice. Alpha did it to me. Did it to the babies. New Alpha could do it if he wanted to. Don’t know what to do.”

“Do you think that Steve would do that?” Ma asked worriedly, “Because you’re always welcome back home. We have room for you and the pups if you need it.”

The offer struck Bucky silent. He shifted in the knotted mess of blankets and pillows collected on his bed and leveraged his body into a sitting position. His head swam for a moment, vision going fuzzy, but both settled into themselves after a few seconds. Bucky swallowed to wet his dry throat and said, “I don’t. I don’t know. I think – I’m losing my mind. Weird things set me off. Couldn’t handle a trip to the grocery store. You think – do you think everyone thinks I’m a whore?”

Ma’s breath caught. She said, “No, sweetie. Nobody thinks that.”

“Are you sure?” Bucky asked, rubbing at his aching head with his free hand, “Pupped at fifteen. Pupped at nineteen. Pupped at twenty two. Let him…let him do that to me.”

“No, no, honey, you didn’t,” Ma insisted, “No one thinks that you did. Everyone’s calling for that awful man’s punishment for what he did. All these people on the internet are putting together things for you and your pups. They’re rallying against Alexander Pierce. There will always be people set on working against you, but you can’t listen to their voices. You have to listen to the voices that matter, to what the ones you love are saying.”

“I love you,” Bucky whispered.

“And I love you, too.”

“I just wanted to talk to my family,” Bucky said, “but I didn’t want to call. So I made that stupid Facebook account and brought those people to the doorstep and screwed it all up.”

“What the press does is not your fault,” Ma said, adamant.

“Just wanted you to see pictures of my babies,” Bucky said miserably, “Just wanted them to have a normal life. They’re never gonna be normal and it’s my fault.”

“You protected them all those years, James Buchanan Barnes,” Ma fiercely told him, “You did everything in your power to keep them safe and loved. You’re a brilliant father, and those pups are lucky to have you there for them. They love you, and they know you’re doing your best.”

“I’m so tired,” Bucky finally said, “So tired, Ma. Just want all this to be over. Just want my pups to be happy. They deserve better than this.”

“Of course you’re tired,” said Ma, “You’ve been through so much. I think you’re entitled to be exhausted by that. We…we haven’t been saying anything to the press, but if it’s all right with you, all of us would like to be able to tell them to go take a hike and leave you alone. Is that okay?”

Bucky let out a weary laugh. He said, “If you can get ‘em to fuck off, I owe you a visit.”

Ma didn’t scold him for swearing the way she would have in that other lifetime of Bucky’s. She simply replied, “Then we’ll get them to fuck off. Screw the bastards.”

**

Steve hadn’t known it was possible to feel so disgusting. His insides felt as though they were caked in sticky, black tar down to the very core of him, and no matter how hard he scrubbed and tore at the mess, it grew worse.

Bucky didn’t hide in his bedroom for days this time, but somehow this new reality was worse. He didn’t speak to Steve but he listened, obeying anything that resembled an order, following even suggestions to the letter. Over the course of the months Bucky and the pups had been staying with Steve, Bucky had learned to meet Steve’s eye, but now – now Bucky looked just to left of Steve’s gaze, like he’d done when they first arrived.

And so the slimiest, grossest sensation struck Steve and followed him like a shadow. He fucked up. He used his Voice without thinking, because he thought if he used his Voice in the name of protection that it wouldn’t affect Bucky and the pups. But he was wrong, so wrong, and this was where it led.

The pups were worried, too. Sparks of Bucky’s personality reappeared when he interacted with his children, more so when Bucky didn’t know that Steve was near or watching. But even then, Bucky’s spine stood ramrod straight and his muscles held tight and tense to his compact frame. This, perhaps, was how Bucky had to live under the thumb of Alexander Pierce. Always on alert, he couldn’t allow substantial rest, because he needed to look out for his pups. He couldn’t allow himself enough sustenance, because that meant taking food away from his children.

Steve lashed out and used his Voice, so now something in Bucky switched over to being on his toes around Steve. Before Bucky would have known that Steve could wield Alpha Voice. Any damn alpha could use their Voice to bend omegas and betas to their will. Only legislature in the last century dealt consequences for using a Voice beyond the bounds of self-defense or the protection of others. But having heard Steve’s Voice, having heard Steve use that level of command, made Bucky hyperaware of the power that Steve could exercise over him and the pups.

Steve didn’t know how to prove that he would never do that.

At the door to the nursery, Steve rapped his knuckles against the frame. Bucky whipped his attention up from a tea party with Becky, but he didn’t say a word.

“Hey,” Steve said, “It’s almost time to head to the clinic for therapy.”

Bucky nodded.

Like a ghost, Bucky floated through the motions of stuffing his feet into shoes and tying them. He gathered the kids without having to make a peep. And of course Bucky had the ability to communicate with the pups in silence. They would have needed their own language to survive when Pierce graced them with his presence.

To break up the uncanny quiet in the car, Steve turned up the radio. He mouthed along to the lyrics of some pop song that had been playing for years and tried to herd his thoughts into boxes that he could stack neatly aside until he knew what to do with the contents. Letting mindless, fun music run through his brain helped a little, but when they pulled into the parking lot of the Stark Omega Clinic, Steve’s guilt coursed through him all over again.

For a brief instant Steve fretted that Bucky would regale Sam with the disaster at the grocery store and then the bigger disaster outside their home, but in the next moment he realized he just hoped Bucky would talk to Sam at all. If there were consequences for what Steve did, then he’d accept them. He made a mistake and had no choice but to face the music.

Hell, Sam probably already knew about what happened. Steve followed the news stories as they poured in, scrolling through them on his phone when he had a moment alone to check. The country was horrified at what happened to Bucky, and many chorused for the immediate punishment of Alexander Pierce. But it was ugly – the internet was nothing if not a shit-slinging contest, and there were people set against Bucky and set against Steve.

Should he really have a support alpha that used his Voice to get rid of the press? One commenter asked.

The question stirred the low, low feeling that Steve sunk to, but at least somebody had answered: Should the press really have violated the privacy of an omega who’s been violated for so long?

Steve sat outside in the courtyard while the pups worked with Thor and Bucky with Sam, slumped over with his elbows propped on his knees on a bench with a metal placard that read In Memory of Maria Stark.

“Jesus, you look like hell.”

Steve shifted and peered from the spaces between his fingers. He smeared a hand over his face and groaned at the sight of his guest. He said, “What do you want, Tony?”

“To know why you’re moping in my courtyard, mostly,” Tony said, “You’re scaring the patients, just FYI. The entire memorial garden reeks like sad alpha.”

“Sorry,” Steve said miserably.

“Don’t apologize; tell me what the hell happened,” Tony said. He snagged a seat beside Steve on the bench.

Steve sighed. He said, “I fucked up.”

“You? I don’t believe it.”

“Fuck off, Tony,” Steve snipped, “I screwed up and now Bucky’s not even talking.”

“Jesus. That’s – he’s a talker, too. He never had any issues with talking,” Tony said, “So what did you do?”

“Surprised you haven’t seen it already. There were reporters outside our house,” Steve said.

“Fantastic. Bet that went well.”

“They were jumping down our throats and I yelled and I-I – I got angry, right? I wanted to protect Bucky and the pups so I shouted and I…ImayhaveusedmyVoice.”

Tony cocked a brow. He said, “You’re gonna have to repeat that last part, big guy.”

Steve cleared his throat. He forced himself to meet Tony’s eye as he said, “I used my Voice. Not on Bucky or any of the pups. On the reporters. But I used it. And I scared him. So now he isn’t talking, and it’s my fault.”

Tony wrinkled his nose and groaned, “Aw, man. Steve. That’s – what the fuck.”

“I know.”

“That was a bad move,” Tony said.

“I know.”

Tony scrubbed a hand over his face and blew all of the air out of his lungs. He opened his mouth and closed it again several times, as though for once in his life he was actually considering what to say before he said it. Tony wet his lips and started, “The thing is – hm,” and paused again before resuming in a different tone, “I feel like I shouldn’t have to tell you that you hold a position of power over a fuckload of people. Not just Bucky and his pups, but like, omegas and betas as a whole. Having a Voice used on you…did anyone ever do that to you, before you presented?”

Steve shook his head.

“All right. Well. Lucky you, then. You remember high school. I did a lot of shit to piss off my dad.”

Steve nodded and said gravely, “The chihuahua incident.”

“Junior year,” agreed Tony, “Hell of a time. Yeah. Anyway. I ticked off my dad a couple times hard enough that he Voiced me. Shit, Steve, that stuff’s – you’re in your head, but your body does what this alpha tells you, or it hurts like hell. You read your Bucky’s file. Pierce played the Voice card all the time. Shoulda called the cops, man.”

“Can’t take it back now,” Steve said, “What do I do?”

“Say you’re sorry, I guess,” Tony said, “I mean, I assume you’re sorry.”

“Of course I’m sorry, jackass.”

Tony held his hands up in defense and said, “All right. All right. No need to get mean. I’m just saying; I’m told apologies work wonders. Haven’t tried it myself, but I hear good things.”

Steve let out a soft laugh. He smiled over at Tony, who’d come so far from the teenage kid that Steve knew where they grew up in Brooklyn, and nudged him with his shoulder. He said, “Thanks, Tony.”

Tony made a face and replied, “Don’t do that. I hate when you do that. The sincerity thing. It’s gross.”

Steve rolled his eyes and got to his feet, but before he could take as much as half a step back toward the doors into the clinic, Tony called, “Steve.”

“What?”

“Play this smart,” Tony said, “You’ve got a lot of feelings that could get hurt. Yours in particular, that is. You already hurt everyone else’s feelings.”

Torn between the frustration of Tony pointing out his misstep and being touched that in his roundabout way Tony seemed to be looking after his feelings, Steve decided on a simple, “I’ll do my best,” before he headed back inside to wait for Bucky and the pups to be done with therapy.

When Bucky finished with Thor and the pups wrapped up their session with Sam, Bucky continued to look worse for the wear. Sam caught Steve’s eye and shot him a we’re gonna talk about this kind of look, which served only to feed the sticky feeling of self-loathing that clogged up Steve’s insides. He waited until the pups were all buckled securely into place in the Beetle and they pulled out onto the road before he dared speak.

“Buck,” he said, “I wanted you to know that I’m real sorry, about using my Voice. I wasn’t thinking. So. Do with that what you will, I guess. I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” was all that Bucky replied, but that was two more words than he’d said to Steve in several days, so Steve would count that among his victories.

**

Reading kept Bucky from falling into the darker parts of his mind. He hadn’t realized how much he liked books until he went without, and once George came, he longed twice as much to have them so he could read to his children the way that Bucky’s ma and dad had read to him when he was little. But Bucky couldn’t read to his children in the sub-basement, so he’d made do with retelling his favorite books and movies until the pups had favorite stories that they asked him to tell again and again.

Stories helped them escape from that awful place, if only for a little while.

Stories helped Bucky escape now.

He’d never been partial to what anyone considered literature, but then, he figured that few fourteen year old pups got excited about classics. Bucky would try them now, but he had a feeling that reading dense, old prose would be harder than ever having not read in eleven entire years. So he stuck with his science fiction, which Steve fortunately seemed partial to as well.

Fitting his mood, thick, gray clouds knit over the sky and swallowed any hint of blue. The peculiar quiet that came before rain enfolded the earth, broken only by the rustle of the breeze lifting the branches of Steve’s aspen trees, and the creak of the porch swing chains as Bucky rocked with his book balanced on his lap and his mug of tea in hand.

The sliding glass door pulled open with a pop and scrape, and George emerged onto the porch. His body had weight to it now. Though George was still on the skinny side for a pup his age, he no longer looked starved, and his grayish eyes didn’t seem too big for his face. His cheeks held roundness the way that Bucky’s had at the same age.

George had obviously dressed himself today – he chose plaid shorts and a striped purple shirt. The kid liked purple. Had Bucky selected the same thing, his ma would have marched him back in the house and scolded him for clashing his top and bottom. Bucky thought that the ensemble looked kinda bad, but his pups had so little choice in their lives that he didn’t dare take away the harmless options.

“Hi, Daddy,” George said. He climbed up on the swing and wiggled under Bucky’s arm. Winter padded out on the porch after him, though she curled up a safe distance from the swing and let her tongue loll out while she kept an eye on George.

“What’s goin’ on?” asked Bucky.

Bucky didn’t expect the look of concern that graced George’s face. As always, the expression was far too serious to be on a ten year old pup, as so many of George’s mannerisms were too old and cautious for his age. He said, “Steve is really sorry about using his Voice.”

Bucky frowned. He asked, “Did Steve tell you to come out here and talk to me?” He wouldn’t have his pups being used as messengers, no matter the subject. If Steve wanted to have a discussion, he could come to Bucky directly. Whether or not Bucky chose to respond was his own business.

“No,” George answered, assuaging Bucky’s fear, “but…Steve is really sad and I don’t like it.”

Bucky’s chest ached at that. He asked, “What makes you say that?”

“He smells sad,” George said, “and he’s being real quiet. And he’s doing this.” George pulled out from under Bucky’s arm to hunch his shoulders forward and stick out his lower lip in an imitation of one of the most pathetic expressions Bucky had ever seen.

“Did he make you feel bad?”

George considered this. He said, “Not on purpose. I just don’t like when he’s sad. You make him happy but you don’t like being with him right now, so he’s sad and that’s making me sad. He pretends he’s not sad but he’s not very good at pretending.”

Christ, that hurt. George didn’t even like Steve in the beginning. Hell, he took a steak knife to Steve’s side without an ounce of hesitation. When Bucky discussed picking Steve for their support alpha after they met him in person, George expressed paranoia that Steve would hurt Bucky like Pierce had hurt Bucky. He only went along with the support alpha plan because he trusted Bucky, not because he trusted Steve.

But now George was upset because Steve was, and not because Steve was directing an undue anger at the pups. The kid was empathizing.

“What do you think we should do?” asked Bucky.

“I wish you would talk to him,” George said, “He smiles real big when you talk to him. He smiles even bigger when you hug him. I tried to hug him and he smiled but he still looked sad anyway.”

The gravity of George hugging Steve to make him feel better was not lost on Bucky. He marked his paperback and closed it. If George could overcome the fucking Voice and put his best foot forward for their support alpha, then Bucky damn well better be able to do that, too. He unfolded his legs and stood.

George scrambled to follow and asked, “Are you gonna talk to him?”

“Yeah, I am,” Bucky said.

“Really?”

“Really,” Bucky replied, “but you and Winter stay down here, okay? This is gonna be a grownup conversation.”

“Whatever,” George muttered, but he didn’t appear to be in a disobeying mood.

Bucky stowed his book and empty mug in his bedroom before he ventured up the stairs and to Steve’s studio. While the large windows normally made the studio overflow with sunlight, the cloudy skies outside cast the room in a dingy, dim glow that did nothing to help the incurable aroma of sadsadsad that soaked through the cracks in the floorboards and permeated the air. Steve sat hunched in front of a canvas in the corner of the room, appearing very much like George’s imitation of him.

A spinning record played while Steve worked. The music sounded old, and predictably, sad. The singer that crackled throughout the studio crooned about being too old to dream.

“Steve?” Bucky tried.

The sound of Bucky’s voice startled Steve to attention.

“Bucky,” he breathed, “What are you doing up here?”

“My son seems to think that I should talk to you,” Bucky replied.

“Oh,” Steve said, “George is a good pup. And you’re a good dad. You don’t have to be up here just because he wants you to be.” Steve drooped in his seat again like a wilting flower, focus turned back to his canvas as though he expected Bucky to turn around and leave.

Instead, Bucky stepped further into the studio and said, “I freaked out about your Voice and I’m sorry.”

“I shouldn’t have used it.”

“Maybe, but, my brain’s broke and the whole thing made me go funny. Honestly, I still feel shitty about this mess, but I think I’d feel less shitty if we were talkin’ again,” Bucky said, “My pup’s no dummy. I shoulda talked to you forever ago but I’m chickenshit and every time I thought about it I wanted to hide in my bed. So.”

“I screwed up so bad,” Steve murmured, “The way you looked at me after I did it – it was like you didn’t even know me.”

“I didn’t,” Bucky admitted, “I went outta my head. Kept floating in and out of myself for days. But I’m all right now, and I kinda miss being around you.”

Steve chewed on his lower lip and asked, “You sure?”

Bucky took a leap of faith and crossed the rest of the distance between them. He wedged himself between Steve’s thighs and wrapped his arms around him, pulling his alpha in close. Instead of pressing his nose to Steve’s throat as instinct urged Bucky to do, he guided Steve with a gentle hand to press his nose into Bucky’s neck. A shudder rolled through Steve’s body, and he breathed in deep. Scented.

Bucky’s body buzzed with energy at the closeness. He wanted to be even closer, so he tipped Steve’s head back up and leaned down to draw him into a kiss. The embrace was brief, only a few seconds of Bucky’s lips on Steve’s, but it quieted the storm that raged in Bucky’s skull.

“I can’t trust my own mind,” Bucky said slowly, “but I’m pretty sure that I can trust you.”

Chapter Text

Steve’s studio reeked less like misery the day after his and Bucky’s tentative mending of their relationship, or whatever they were calling the thing that they were, but Steve still made a point to venture upstairs early in the morning with a cup of coffee strong enough to stand a spoon in and a plug-in pheromone diffuser to stave off the worst of the stink.

A few minutes passed before the diffuser began to work, but a residual melancholic aroma clung to the corners of the room, and Steve didn’t want his safe place sullied by the smell of his own sadness. So, he returned to the kitchen to hunt for cleaning supplies to scrub out what the diffuser couldn’t clear. There, he found Bucky filling the kettle for his morning tea.

Tentatively, Steve ducked forward and brushed a shy kiss to Bucky’s stubble-rough cheek. Bucky hummed in response, but he didn’t look up until the kettle sat on the stove and the burner was lit. He leaned back against the counter, met Steve’s eye (thank God; Steve had never been so happy to have somebody meet his eye), and said, “I need to talk to you about something before the pups get up.”

“Yeah, of course,” Steve said, “You wanna sit down?”

“Nah, here’s fine. It’s quick,” Bucky said.

“All right,” said Steve, “Shoot.”

“I been kinda foggy for the last couple days,” Bucky started, “but I remembered something, about the whole reporter thing.”

Bucky inhaled softly and paused. Steve sipped his coffee and waited for Bucky to continue. When Bucky collected his thoughts, he said, “I don’t want you to call me or the pups yours.”

Steve’s stomach dropped out.

“Okay,” he said, unsure, “I’m sorry. May I – is it all right – why?”

“Alexander Pierce owned me, Steve,” Bucky said.

“He didn’t –”

“He owned me. There’s no getting around what that was,” said Bucky, “and when he owned me, he owned my pups. When I got outta there I swore I was never gonna give somebody that power again. I worried about the whole support alpha thing because it sounded like I was just getting passed off to a new owner, but then Pepper gave us the scent book just in case and…and you smelled so good, so trustworthy…I thought it had to be worth a try, right?”

Steve slipped to Bucky’s other side to pour himself a second mug of coffee. All at once exhaustion loomed over him like an itchy wool blanket on a hot day, and the sensation of it all made Steve want to crawl out of his own skin.

He drank his coffee to give himself something to do. To prevent himself from saying something stupid that he was going to regret later, something that might drive Bucky away or send him back into the fugue that Bucky spent his life suspended at the cusp of.

The kettle whistled. Bucky pulled it from the stove and poured the water over the tea leaves in his teapot. Steam curled up; Steve smelled lavender.

“You’ve been so damn good to us,” Bucky said, “and I know I fuck it up a lot –”

“No, Buck, you don’t –”

“Will you let me fucking finish? Christ.”

“Sorry,” Steve said.

Bucky went on, “Some days being in my head…it’s like being an animal in a cage. I keep trying to claw my way out but I can’t. I’m trapped. But there are some things that I know for damn sure, and one of them is that I don’t belong to anyone but me. I am my own. Okay? I don’t belong to you. I’m not some prize. I’m not –”

“I don’t think you’re a prize!” Steve exclaimed, appalled.

“Is it possible for you to stop interrupting for two goddamn seconds?” Bucky snapped at him.

Guilt gushed over Steve, not quite as sticky and foul as the guilt that entrapped him after the use of his Voice, but it was guilt nonetheless. He took his coffee to the kitchen table and lowered himself onto one of the chairs, sitting to give Bucky the height advantage – a display of trust.

Bucky ran a hand back through his bedhead and said, “Look. I – I didn’t mean to shout, okay? I’m not, like, mad at you. I just want you to know that there’s a line, okay? There’s a line and you crossed it and I’m not cool with it. You said to tell you when I have boundaries and that is one of them. You are not my owner. You are my support. And – and my friend?”

“Of course we’re friends,” Steve said, but the words came out much more quietly than he cared to admit.

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re my friend. And we’re some other stuff, too, I guess, but all that’s kinda unclear,” Bucky said.

“We don’t have to define it,” Steve told him, “if you don’t want to.”

Bucky nodded. When he didn’t speak again, Steve wet his lips and asked, “Um. What do you want us to be?”

“Fuck, I dunno,” Bucky said, and grabbed at the back of his neck. The timer for his tea went off, and he stumbled back to pull the basket out of the teapot and pour himself a cup. When his attention returned to Steve, he said, “Here’s what I do know. I don’t belong to you. But. I like when you kiss me. And I like to kiss you. When we’re all wrapped up together – I like that too. And there’s a good chance that in a couple months I’m gonna go into heat and there’s no one I would trust more to make sure I’m gonna be okay than you. So whatever all that means we are – we’re that.”

“Testing the waters?” suggested Steve.

“Sure. Let’s go with that.”

A strange mix of hope and shame simmered in Steve’s blood. Bucky wasn’t his – a knowledge that gutted his alpha instinct like a fish – but he did like when Steve kissed him, and he liked when Steve held him. So Steve stood, leaving his coffee mug behind on the kitchen table, and crossed the few feet between his body and Bucky’s.

Steve rested a hand on Bucky’s hip, thumb stretching up to stroke the strip of skin where Bucky’s boxer shorts rode down and his t-shirt rode up. A shiver rolled through Bucky’s body, but he didn’t tell Steve to stop, so Steve bent closer and put his lips to Bucky’s. This was not a short kiss or a shy kiss. While nowhere near heated enough to be passionate or soft enough to be chaste, Bucky’s lips pressing and tasting in this moment shifted the world.

The shift wasn’t seismic, only a fraction of an inch, but to Steve, the earth might as well have careened right into a different galaxy.

**

The media did not let go of the story, despite the best efforts of Bucky’s family members to put them off. Ma and Dad went on some news show to tell folks to leave Bucky alone. No one showed up at the house again, though Bucky guessed they did that more out of fear of Steve’s wrath and the power of Alpha Voice than his parents’ genuine plea for Bucky’s privacy.

Bucky and the pups soldiered on.

Out of fear and anxiety, Bucky had been putting off a much-needed dentist excursion for all four of them – he’d hated the dentist as a pup, and he knew his teeth were fucked up from neglect so whatever awaited him now would be an inevitable shitshow. But for his pups’ sake, Bucky relented toward the tail end of July, and with a referral from Bruce in hand, Steve drove Bucky and the pups to their first dentist appointment since their retrieval.

The results were, as predicted, not pretty.

Bucky’s teeth were so shot to hell that he needed more than one pulled and replaced with dental implants, three root canals, multiple cavity fillings, and his wisdom teeth were pushing hard enough against his others that he’d need them removed. He had several more dentist and oral surgeon appointments ahead of him, the very thought of which exhausted him, but there was no avoiding.

Becky and George both required braces, but Becky still had baby teeth and the dentist advised against taking her to the orthodontist until more of her permanent teeth came in. George, on the other hand, got to be herded to several follow-up appointments at different locales, just like Bucky. As with so many of their problems, Win suffered the least of the dental nightmare that was Bucky and his children. At least somebody wiggled out of this hellscape.

Or so Bucky thought, until Sam asked during one session, “Are you planning on enrolling Win in preschool this fall?”

Bucky blinked. He asked, “Is she ready for that?”

“I think so,” Sam said, “She’s smart. They all are, but Win has the least that she needs to catch up on in terms of development. She won’t be far enough behind her peers to make a significant difference, and I think it would be wise to socialize her.”

“What about Becky and George? Should they go to school?” Bucky asked.

“Not this fall, I don’t think,” Sam said, “There’s more that they need to be able to handle before we can put them in that environment. But Win – I think she’s ready to make that leap.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. He slumped back into the couch in Sam’s office, staring anywhere but at Wilson while he mulled it over. The office’s walls were a warm brownish color, and Sam forewent the fluorescent lights overhead, keeping them switched off while he lit the place with more soothing standing lamps. Several photos of birds embellished the walls, pictures Bucky happened to know that Sam took himself on bird-watching weekends in the mountains.

When Bucky found it in him to speak again, he cleared his throat and sat up straighter. He said, “Okay. What do I need to do?”

Sam grinned, “I know you guys did several rounds of shots while you were still inpatient here and in the first couple months after, but there are a few more vaccines that Win’ll need in order to attend preschool. I compiled a list of programs nearest to you guys. There are some great schools around this area that we’ve sent traumatized pups to before. They’ll know what to expect from Win and from you and Steve.”

There was no way in hell that Bucky would bar Win from the opportunity to grow as a normal pup, no matter how much the idea of her being away from him bothered him. She would only be gone a few hours every day, not even as much as a full elementary school day.

“All right,” Bucky sighed, “Let’s do it.”

**

Win’s face flushed cherry red instants before she snapped and started crying in the middle of her new classroom. Bucky felt like a shitheel, but she needed this. He knew she did. As much as he’d love to squirrel his baby away and keep her by his side forever, that wouldn’t be fair to either of them. She deserved to learn, and deserved to meet pups her own age.

Bucky knelt in front of her, clenching his jaw to contain the onslaught of emotion that avalanched at him. He tucked a flyaway hair back into one of her tiny brown pigtails and kissed her forehead. He said, “Baby, I’m not gonna be gone for very long. You’ll get to color and play and learn things. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“Not w-without y-you!” she sobbed.

Bucky heaved a sigh. He said, “Sorry, sweetheart. Me and Steve will be back to pick you up in a few hours, okay? Be good for Daddy. I promise you’ll have lots of fun.”

Win’s new teacher, Jane, took Win’s hand in hers and gently drew her toward a corner full of colorful blocks in a bid to distract her. While Win looked away, Bucky made himself turn around and walk out the classroom door to where Steve was waiting in the hallway with Bucky’s other two pups. Win’s heartbroken sobs followed him, echoing in his ears. Bucky winced.

“How’d it go?” asked Steve.

“She’s the crier,” Bucky said, “but I’m sure this is what she needs.”

“It’ll be good for her,” Steve assured him, rubbing his palm down Bucky’s back. They walked out toward the preschool’s parking lot, each step feeling like slogging through mud as Bucky and Steve walked further away from Bucky’s youngest.

“How come we’re not going to school?” Becky asked, buckling herself into the car.

“Because,” Bucky said, “You’re too old for preschool, but you need to catch up on learning things before you can go to school with the older kids.”

Bucky waited until they arrived back at the house to cave into the crushing weight of parting from his youngest pup. He ducked into the master bedroom, burrowed under the covers on the king bed, and pressed his nose into the sheets to breathe in the tangled scents of his family. He felt the mattress sag beside him, and when he popped his head out from under the covers, Steve sat on the edge of the bed.

Until Steve cupped Bucky’s face and swiped away a tear with his thumb, Bucky hadn’t noticed he’d begun to cry. He ached already for Win to be back home, missed her cheerful voice and even missed watching Cinderella for the umpteenth time because if that was playing on the television then it meant that his pup was happy and safe. His heart was sore from leaving his pup in a strange place. His arm was sore from physical therapy with Thor the evening before. His jaw was sore from all the dental work they’d had to do. He hurt everywhere and he hated it.

“She’s gonna be fine,” Steve said.

“I know,” Bucky answered, taking in a shuddering breath, “It just sucks, Steve. I haven’t spent a day away from her. What if the other pups think she’s weird, or what if she doesn’t understand what they’re trying to teach her, or what if –”

“We don’t know until we let her give it a shot,” Steve said.

“Ugh,” Bucky expressed, “Fuck. This is the worst.”

Steve’s hand drifted from Bucky’s cheek to his hair, where he raked his fingers back, letting the nails scratch against Bucky’s scalp. Bucky hummed and leaned into the touch. His hair was too long, too. It reached his shoulders. He liked it longer, but he didn’t want to look like the swamp thing or some shit.

That thought struck him with an idea. He ventured, “Hey, Steve?”

“What’s up?”

“Do you think you could trim my hair?” he asked, “It’s gettin’ too long and I don’t trust anybody else to touch it.”

“I mean, I can try,” Steve said, “but I can’t promise it’ll look great.”

“I already look like a fuckin’ mess. I’m not picky.”

“You don’t look like a mess,” Steve said. He leaned down and applied a kiss to Bucky’s lips, a tender thing that send Bucky’s heart spiraling out of step. Steve’s kisses were wild – even if they were soft or chaste, Bucky always felt like he was flying down rapids at the touch of his support alpha. The sensation wasn’t comfortable, but somehow, he liked that. He liked feeling like gravity gave up and like he was floating up to the clouds, like he was a runaway balloon that a pup let go and Steve was his only tether to the earth.

When Steve and Bucky split apart, Steve helped Bucky out of his blanket-nest and parked him in the master bath on top of the toilet lid. Steve left him there and returned with a pair of scissors that were not meant for haircutting but would have to do.

“How short do you want it?” Steve asked.

“Here-ish,” Bucky said, tapping his finger at chin-length.

With an intake of breath, Steve said, “I’m really sorry if this turns out bad.”

Bucky shrugged a shoulder, sucked all the air into his lungs, and held statue-still as Steve separated one lock of hair and snipped off the end. Bucky didn’t feel a thing except for Steve’s thick fingers combing through and separating out sections of hair one at a time as the scissors went snip, snip, snip, and locks of brown hair fluttered down to the tiled floor.

Time slid by at an even pace, not at the slow-moving beat when anxiety caught Bucky like an insect trapped in amber. He almost startled when Steve straightened back up and said, “All right, I think I’m done. You wanna take a look?”

Bucky nodded and stood up to check out his reflection. The haircut wasn’t the most even of his life, but he looked much cleaner than he had before, his face more open with several inches of hair now gone. With another dozen or so pounds on his frame and the fresh trim, he looked – almost good. As a pup Bucky had been pretty vain. He spent time and effort on his hair and took pride in his clothing, and while the fashion choices of his junior high career were questionable at best, he’d cared. He’d felt good.

He almost felt good now, looking at his reflection.

“You’re smiling,” Steve observed.

Steve’s reflection was smiling, too.

Bucky shifted around and kissed that smile. He pressed into Steve and nosed at his neck, happier than he could remember being in so, so fucking long. The low hum of stress at parting from Win at the preschool still buzzed through him, a constant undercurrent, but it felt less intense now, more manageable.

And when they all piled in the car to collect Win a few hours later (after sweeping up the mess of hair on the bathroom floor and enjoying the dregs of summer sunshine that stretched into September), she was happy as a clam, playing with some kind of plastic farm toy with a little brown-skinned girl whose hair puffed out in two natural poofs on the sides of her head.

Win’s nose twitched when Bucky entered the classroom.

“Daddy!” Win cried, when she smelled him. She jerked her head up, but instead of running to Bucky as he expected, she waved him over to her. She said, “This is my new friend. She’s named Ntombi. She knows all the names of the animals! This is my daddy. He knows everything. ”

“Not everything, sweetheart,” Bucky said, “but I do know some things. How was your day?” He plucked her off of the ground and hugged her to his chest.

Win snuggled into him and said, “We learned about bugs. I told Miss Jane there are bugs in our backyard that make noise.”

“Crickets?” Bucky said.

“Yeah, that,” Win answered, “Put me down, Daddy. I’m still playing with Ntombi.”

Patiently, Bucky waited while his daughter walked a plastic cow along the floor, giggling with her new friend. When Ntombi’s father stepped into the room, Steve straightened up beside Bucky and remarked, “Oh. That’s our neighbor.”

“No shit?” Bucky said, “There’s been a little girl Win’s age near us this whole time?”

“I guess so,” said Steve, “With the houses so far apart, there’s not as much community between all of us. I only ever see T’Challa in passing. He’s a great guy, though.”

“Steve,” greeted T’Challa, “I didn’t know you had a pup.”

Steve smiled and said, “I’m the support alpha for Bucky and his pups, actually.”

T’Challa’s attention shifted to Bucky at that, and he nodded. He said, “My omega father had a support also. She ended up siring me, later on.”

Bucky half-smiled and said, “I think I’m good with the three I’ve got, so don’t go giving Steve any ideas.”

Though at the implication of Bucky carrying Steve’s pups, the question of whether or not Steve expected Bucky to stick around and birth more pups struck him like a bolt of lightning. He frowned. That question wasn’t one to ask in public, in front of his pups and Win’s teacher and all the parents of all these babies. He’d ask later.

The mating statistic surfaced again in his mind. Seventy six percent of omegas ended up with a mating bite on their necks after entering into an agreement with a support alpha. When Bucky and the pups came to Steve’s house, came to live with a stranger, Bucky felt sure that he would count among the other twenty four percent. But now, now that Steve was no stranger at all – Bucky wasn’t as sure. The tender, patient way Steve handled the pups wriggled its way into his mind. Steve’s willingness to put his own needs for Bucky and the pups never failed to amaze him.

After Win said goodbye to Ntombi and Bucky and Steve wished T’Challa well, Bucky chewed the insides of his cheeks and wondered what the fuck he was going to do. As circumstances stood, he didn’t want to leave. The mere idea of going someplace different, of leaving Steve for a new home, dawned on Bucky with a twist of sickness in his belly. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to stay. The pups had a place here, somewhere they could call home.

But what if Steve wanted him gone?

Bucky would have to return to his family. He didn’t know anything about his family anymore. He knew that he loved them, and that they appeared to love him back despite every awful thing that Bucky had done, but he didn’t know anything else.

Maybe Bucky needed to know his family again. Maybe reconnecting, maybe feeling their arms around him and being surrounded by their scents, would be more significant than phone calls, texts and Facebook interactions. His ma commented on every single photo that he put up. He had an inkling that she’d be over the moon to actually meet her grandpups. The only grandpups she had, thus far.

“Hey, Steve?” Bucky said, once they’d parked the Beetle in the garage and set the pups and Winter loose in the backyard.

“Mm?”

“If I wanted to invite my family over here for Thanksgiving,” he said, swallowing back nerves, “would that be okay?”

**

With the pups tucked safe into their beds, Steve and Bucky climbed into the king. Bucky had The Hunger Games open in his lap, while Steve sketched him reading, shading the halo-glow that the reading lamp cast Bucky in from the bedside table. The sound of Steve’s phone interrupted the scritch-scratch of his pencil scraping across the drawing paper, and he answered it without looking to see who his caller was.

“Hello?”

Finally you answer your phone,” Sarah Rogers’ voice said, “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for days, Steven Grant Rogers! Are you actively ignoring your mother?”

Steve jerked his ear back from the phone at the volume. Beside him, Bucky’s attention strayed from his book and to the phone call, which was without a doubt loud enough for him to hear in spite of speakerphone being off.

“Nice to hear from you too, Ma,” Steve said.

“Don’t you take that tone with me,” said Sarah, “Is there some special reason that you elected not to tell me that you are the support alpha for an omega and three pups?”

Steve smeared a hand over his face. He made a point to ignore the judgmental quirk of one brow on Bucky’s head as he replied, “I’m not allowed to give out that information, Ma. You know that.”

“I didn’t ask for his life story,” she said, “and you know very well that you’re allowed to tell your family that you are in the position of a support alpha. For months, Steven! Radio silence for months. And then I have to hear about what you’ve been doing with your life from Janice O’Neill? You know I never watch the news. It’s sensationalized nonsense. But Janice does, and she said to me, she said, ‘Sarah, why didn’t you tell us that your son was a support alpha?’ And I said, ‘As far as I know, he isn’t.’ And she told me I’d better check the news. So I do, and lo and behold, there is your face on my computer screen, yelling at a bunch of reporters! And in your Voice, Steven Grant, how could you?”

“I was – I was trying to protect them, Ma. Christ,” Steve said, “and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. My focus has been on them, okay?”

“The news says the omega is James Barnes. The pictures sure look like him.”

“You know I’m not allowed to tell you that,” Steve sighed again.

Beside Steve, Bucky marked his book and set it aside with a soft cough. He said, “You can tell your ma what she wants to know. I don’t mind. Can’t believe you didn’t tell your own ma, Steve.”

Steve groaned and complained, “Jesus, I am getting it from all angles tonight,” and then, “Fine. Ma, Bucky says I can tell you whatever you want to know.”

“Bucky? So he is James Barnes?” Sarah asked.

“Yes, but he prefers Bucky,” Steve answered.

“The news sites are saying that scammer guy, Alexander Pierce? The one that took all those people’s money and got snagged on some tax thing? The news sites say he was the one that took him,” said Sarah, “And that Bucky appeared online with three pups that look like him. Other than that, no details. There’s a lot of speculation, but Tony has given the ‘no comment’ routine to everyone, and since you used your Voice they can’t come near your house – what the heck happened?”

Steve slid his attention over to Bucky, covered the receiver on his cell, and asked, “You okay if I give her the basics?”

Bucky waved a hand and said, “She’s gonna find out eventually. Everyone will, I’m sure. May as well hear it from you and not Janice O’Neill.”

Steve made a face and prodded Bucky’s shoulder. He muttered, “You’re such an asshole.”

Bucky responded with a shit-eating grin and, “Right back atcha. I’m gonna – go make a pot of tea. Kinda don’t want to stick around for this part.” Bucky closed the space between them anyway and pressed his lips to Steve’s. The kiss lasted all of two seconds, but as with all of Bucky’s kisses, it made Steve’s insides squirm. With a lazy salute, Bucky pulled himself out from under the covers and padded out of the master bedroom.

Steve watched him go until he saw the flicker of the kitchen light coming on, and then said, “Ma? You still there?”

“Yes. Was that – were you talking to him?” she asked.

Steve said, “Yeah. He said it’s okay to tell you but he didn’t want to be around to hear what I had to say.”

He could tell that his mom sobered at that. Her tone took on an odd quality when she said, “It was that bad, huh?”

“Well, yeah. You don’t just disappear for eleven years and show back up with three pups without a hell of a story,” Steve said, “It’s bad. Real bad. When I got the call…they emphasized that this case is the toughest they’ve seen at the Stark Clinic. The police happened upon a door in the floor of Pierce’s basement. They found a sub-basement room with Bucky and his pups inside it. All three of the pups – Pierce sired them. They’re great pups, but there’s a lot that they’ve never had the chance to learn. The oldest – his name is George – he’s about to be ten come November. He’s taken everything hardest. He’s seen the most. It’s not pretty.”

“Mary mother of God,” murmured Sarah. Steve was sure she’d just crossed herself.

“So that’s it. The cops bailed Buck and his babies outta the room, took him to the clinic, he chose my scent and the clinic contacted me, and here we are,” Steve said.

“And the other two pups? How are they doing?”

“About as well as can be expected,” Steve said, “They all get night terrors. Tend to climb into bed with us most nights.”

“Us? You haven’t mated him, have you?” demanded Sarah.

“Christ’s sake, Ma,” Steve said, “I’d tell you if I did that.”

“Well, how am I supposed to know that? My own son, ignoring my calls,” Sarah lamented.

Steve rolled his eyes heavenward. He said, “Come on. Don’t be like that.”

“Like what? Your mother?” she said, “but enough of that. Are you taking good care of that poor boy and his pups? I assume you’re doing everything in your power to help them.”

“Of course,” Steve said. The words came out more fiercely than he’d intended, especially as he added, “I would do anything to help them.”

“You’re a good boy,” Sarah told him, “and you have a big heart.”

“Ma.”

“It’s true. You’re so giving. You always have been.”

Steve’s face went hot with a blush.

Sarah went on, “Does this mean your father and I won’t be able to join you for the holidays this year?”

“I don’t know,” Steve answered, “I’ll have to ask Bucky about it. He wants to invite his family over for Thanksgiving, and there are a lot of them. Plus he hasn’t seen them since he was fourteen. He’s been afraid to. I don’t want to overwhelm him or the pups.”

“All right,” Sarah said, but she didn’t sound happy about it.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, “but this is important. I’ll – um. I can make sure to call you, when I ask Bucky about it, okay? I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too,” she said, “but don’t think that I’m going to forget about this.”

She hung up before Steve could get a word in edgewise. Steve heaved another sigh, ran both his hands back through his hair, and flopped out of the bed to join Bucky where he’d set up shop in the living room with his teapot on the coffee table in front of him, and a pensive look on his face while he stared out at nothing. He started when Steve fell back on the couch beside him.

“You gonna come back to bed?” Steve asked.

“Nah,” Bucky said, “Don’t think I could fall asleep. You all good with your ma?”

“She’s a little annoyed, but that’s her problem,” Steve shrugged, “Do you want me to leave you alone, or…”

“No. Stay,” Bucky said, “I was thinkin’ we could watch a movie or something. Get my eyes tired, maybe.”

Steve leaned over to apply a kiss to the side of Bucky’s head and said, “Sounds good to me.”

Chapter Text

September bled into October. The foothills where they lived exploded in a multicolored array of golds and reds, and the last of the summer heat began to drain away in chilly autumn rains and brisk winds. That edge of bite clung to the air, the bite that alluded to snowstorms right around the corner.

Bucky and the pups embraced the change in weather with open arms. Steve helped Bucky navigate online shopping to order the pups whatever winter clothing they needed, and he spent hours with his babies tucked up on the couch under his arms, clicking through website after website of winter clothing and picking out all the ones that they wanted to wear.

Though they had yet to venture again into the grocery store, Bucky and the pups braved a trip to a local coffee place in town for hot chocolates and coffees. The quiet, relaxed atmosphere proved to be just the place to experiment with going in public to, and Steve declared Fridays to be Coffee Fridays, in which all five of them and Winter in her service vest would try a new coffee house.

Win thrived at school. Crying and tantrums lasted only the first couple of weeks, after which Win couldn’t wait to go to school and often woke in the small hours of the morning, dressed herself, and poured a bowl of cereal before anyone else in the house as much as stirred. She and Ntombi had regular playdates both down the street at T’Challa’s house, or at their own. Becky and George benefitted from the playdates too – they joined in, to Bucky’s delight, and all played together.

(Sometimes that escalated into a fight, but hell, Bucky figured pups were supposed to get into trouble from time to time.)

The second week of October, after Steve trudged downstairs from an afternoon of work in his studio, Bucky nervously approached with a time-sensitive question. Steve pulled Bucky into a hug and pecked a kiss to the center of his forehead before Bucky could even say anything, and asked, “What’s going on?”

“I, um, wanted to ask you something,” Bucky said, picking at his cuticles. He didn’t look Steve in the eye.

Steve noticed, of course, and tipped Bucky’s chin up with a gentle push of his hand. He said, “Let’s hear it.”

“Win’s birthday is coming up,” Bucky said, “You know. The one she chose.”

“I know,” Steve said, “Was there a question in there, or –”

Bucky shoved at Steve’s shoulder and said, “Oh, shut up. I wanted to know if we could throw her a party? And maybe we could invite her friends from school?”

“I already bought invitations for it,” Steve said, “I asked Win what kind of party she wanted and showed her some options, and she picked out princesses.”

“When was this?” Bucky asked.

“Literally yesterday, Buck,” Steve said, “I was gonna talk details with you later tonight. She wants Clint and Lucky to come to her party in particular, and Natasha and Sam. Then she asked if Tony could come, and then asked if Tony’s mates could come, and really your daughter wants to invite everyone she knows. Fortunately for us, she doesn’t know a whole hell of a lot of people. She wants to invite Ntombi and that Coulson boy, too.”

“Alex?”

“That’s the one.”

“Huh,” Bucky said, “So you just got it all figured out, huh?”

“Not all of it,” Steve grinned, “I thought you might like to pick the shade of blue for the streamers.”

Bucky snorted and shoved at Steve’s chest. He said, “You think you’re funny, but you’re not.”

“You’re right,” agreed Steve, “I’m hilarious.”

Bucky backed Steve up against the wall of the hallway, crowding into his space and boxing him in with his limbs. Bucky hovered in close, like he intended to go in for a kiss, but then said, “People think you’re nice, and honestly, I do not understand how so many folks could have missed that you are actually a little shit.” With that, Bucky leaned in. Steve bent to close the space between them, but Bucky pulled away and licked a long, wet stripe up Steve’s cheek.

Then, he bolted.

“Aw, Buck,” Steve complained.

Bucky cackled and slid away across the hardwood floor. He heard the thump of Steve following after him, but he didn’t expect arms to encircle him from behind. Instinct kicked in before reason did, and Bucky elbowed back as hard as he could, wrenching out of the grip of those arms.

Steve stood behind him, clutching his abdomen.

“Shit,” Bucky said. He rubbed a hand through his hair and said, “Fuck. Damn it. I’m so sorry. You surprised me and I –”

Steve held up a hand and stopped Bucky mid-sentence. He said, “It’s all right. I shoulda known better than to come at you from behind.”

Bucky exhaled. He asked, “You okay?”

“I’m good,” Steve replied, “Now I think we got a birthday party to plan.”

**

Bucky’s first reaction when George crinkled his nose and asked, “What are you doing?” was to take offense, before the logical part of his brain recognized that his son had never before seen Bucky use the kitchen to actually craft food. Steve offered to do this – but Bucky refused. When Jane said most parents brought in some kind of snack for their pup’s birthday, Bucky insisted upon baking cupcakes himself.

The skeptical expression that George regarded him with when Bucky said as much was unappreciated.

“You can cook?” George asked.

“I’m baking,” Bucky said, “That’s different. It’s just science. You mix different things together to make something new and yummy.”

“Can I help?” asked George.

Bucky ruffled George’s unruly head of hair and said, “Sure.”

The process of baking progressed at a slower rate with George “helping”, but Bucky seized any opportunity to teach his pups something new. He showed George the recipe and guided him through reading the measurements and showing him the according utensils in the kitchen drawers. Bucky hadn’t baked in eleven goddamned years, but the motions returned naturally.

With flour and sugar and eggs and butter, and George’s innate curiosity, Bucky fell back into memories of the kitchen in his childhood home. He didn’t know if his family still lived in the same house, but the image of gingham curtains over the window above the sink and the scarred bottom edges of the cabinets where Sarge gnawed at the corners brought a smile to his face. In his other life, the life before the basement, Bucky helped his ma the same way George helped him now, making a mess and asking questions and having fun.

At Bucky’s behest, George placed a cupcake liner in each section of the tray, and Bucky filled the liners with scoops of vanilla cupcake batter.

“What now?” George asked, after Bucky slid the first tray into the oven.

“We fill up the next tray, and then we’re making frosting to put on top when they’re done baking,” Bucky explained, “Frosting makes them even yummier. We’re making it blue because that’s what your sister wants.”

“Do we get to make cupcakes for my birthday?” George asked.

“If you want,” Bucky said, “Most of these are for Win’s school, though, okay? Everybody here at home gets one, and the rest are for her class.”

“Then what do we get?” George wanted to know.

Bucky smiled and said, “I’m gonna make a princess cake for Win’s birthday party. Remember how everyone came over to our house for Steve’s birthday? We’re gonna invite all the people Win wants to come over for her birthday, and we get to sing to her like we sang to Steve, but this time she gets to blow out the candles and open presents.”

“Do I get to do that for my birthday?”

“Of course you do, baby,” Bucky answered.

“Can I make the frosting on my cupcakes purple?” George asked.

“You can make the frosting whatever color you want when it’s your birthday,” Bucky told him.

“What color do you want your frosting?” George asked, “You have a birthday too, right?”

“My birthday is on March tenth,” Bucky replied, “and my favorite color is red. So if we make cupcakes for my birthday, that’s the color frosting that I want.”

George delighted in decorating the cupcakes after they cooled. His work was sloppy but the cupcakes would taste good whether or not they looked pretty, so Bucky let his pup have a blast slathering blue buttercream on top of as many cupcakes as he could get to. They topped the cupcakes with pressed sugar princess crowns as directed by Win, and at the end, Bucky packed the cupcakes into a box to take to the school tomorrow – October twenty first – for Win’s birthday.

When George took the first bite of his cupcake, a noise of satisfaction escaped him. He exclaimed with his mouth open, “These are awesome!”

“Chew and swallow before you speak, kid,” Bucky said.

George frowned but obeyed, and didn’t say another thing until the cupcake was gone. With blue frosting spread across the bottom half of his face and all over his hands, he let out a disappointed sigh and said, “Now I don’t have a cupcake anymore.”

“You’ll live to have another cupcake,” Bucky said, “Trust me.”

Steve roamed into the kitchen while Bucky dragged a chair to the sink to help George wash his hands and scented at the air with a dopey, boyish half-smile on his face. He commented, “Smells real good in here. You already wash out the mixing bowls?”

“Not yet,” said Bucky, “They’re on the counter.”

Steve poked his head over and said, “You didn’t lick the bowl? But George helped! He totally deserves to help lick the bowls.”

“What’s that?” George asked.

Steve produced spoons from the silverware drawer and stuck them in the batter and frosting mixing bowls. He brought them over to the kitchen table and said, “You get to eat the leftover frosting and batter. It’s the best part, if you ask me.” To demonstrate, he stuck his spoon in the batter bowl, scraped the side, and stuck it in his mouth with a satisfied sound of sweet victory.

Bucky protested, “Don’t let him have the batter! He’ll get salmonella,” only to gasp and immediately clap his hand over his mouth. He rubbed at his jaw – he could use a shave, Jesus – and corrected, “Holy shit, I think my ma’s voice just came out of my mouth. Never mind. I take it back. Eat as much cupcake batter as you want.”

Steve offered George a clean spoon, and George didn’t need to be told twice. He climbed up on a kitchen chair and attacked the bowls, slurping at scoops of excess batter and frosting.

Satisfied that George was having fun, Steve came to Bucky’s side and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. He nosed along Bucky’s stubble. From his short breaths Bucky knew Steve was trying not to scent him hard enough to make it uncomfortable. Bucky just shook his head, cupped the back of Steve’s neck, and pulled his nose to the crook of his throat so he could scent Bucky for real.

“Mmph,” Steve expressed, every inch of him smelling like a contented, satisfied alpha. The fact that Bucky could tease that reaction out of Steve with nothing more than his scent amazed him. Pierce liked Bucky’s scent when he was afraid, but he called him disgusting during his heats. He said that Bucky smelled too sweet, like rotting fruit. In the early days, Bucky told Pierce to go fuck himself, and that he smelled far worse than Bucky ever could, covered in the foul stink of an untrustworthy alpha.

Not Steve, though.

Steve smelled like good things. Sometimes he smelled like warm towels right out of the dryer, and other times he smelled like tree sap and petrichor. Right now, he smelled like linseed oil and paint, which made sense given the paint-stained state of his torn-up jeans and holey t-shirt. But no matter which overarching scent of Steve’s met Bucky first, an underlying aroma tangled up with it like tree roots. It was something that Bucky couldn’t quite describe.

All Bucky could think to call the intrinsic smell of Steve was that it was a scent like home.

When Bucky gathered himself enough to let go and Steve straightened up again, Bucky asked, “What have you been up to?”

“Working,” Steve said.

“Where’s Becks?”

“She’s outside with Winter,” Steve answered.

“Still? It’s cold out there,” Bucky said.

“She’s wearing her coat,” Steve said, “and the hat Clint knit her. She’s fine.”

Nonetheless, little time passed before the smell of cupcakes attracted both girls to the kitchen and they joined in on scooping frosting and cupcake batter into their mouths. Becky and Win enjoyed their allotted single cupcake for the night while Steve and Bucky wiped down the kitchen in preparation to make dinner.

Steve’s smile made his eyes crinkle at the corners. Happy pups, happy alpha and happy omega perfumed the room in a great, fragrant cloud. Like family. Together, they smelled like family. Bucky caught Steve’s eye while he wiped down the granite countertop and couldn’t help but offer a smile of his own.

**

The cupcakes were a sweeping hit at Win’s school, reaping compliments across the board from excited, sugar-high pups. Bucky didn’t envy Jane in her responsibility to wrangle them into learning afterward. He kissed Win goodbye for the day once the revelries wrapped up, and he and Steve dropped the two older pups (and Winter, with her leash in George’s hand) at the clinic for private tutoring sessions aimed at boosting them to the same level as their peers.

If nothing else could be said for their luck, Bucky happened to birth smart pups. They absorbed information like sponges, and though Becky and George each struggled with learning new things from time to time, they embraced knowledge with open arms. Frustration happened, but never did George or Becky suggest giving up or quitting. They were resilient, and they were clever, and Bucky couldn’t have been more proud to call them his own.

While the pups tackled schoolwork, Bucky and Steve tackled a shopping trip. Nervousness radiated off of Steve – he didn’t want Bucky to panic and dissociate again, but they needed to shop for Win’s birthday party tomorrow and Bucky was goddamn determined to pick things out for her.

He’d dreamed of putting together birthday parties for his pups, and Coffee Fridays helped get Bucky used enough to other people that he decided he could bear the fear of visiting a new place for the sake of Win’s happiness. And selfishly for the sake of himself, because this was something he’d conjured up in many daydreams in that hole – making a cake, decorating a real home, singing Happy Birthday and watching the delight on his pup’s face while she opened gifts. Bucky thrived off of those fantasies, and he couldn’t fucking wait to fulfill them.

“You know you don’t have to do this,” Steve said, when they parked the car in front of a Party City. Maybe he noticed the sheen of sweat on Bucky’s forehead and upper lip, or more likely, scented out his anxiety.

Bucky threw an indignant look at him and said, “Don’t fucking coddle me, Steve. I’m a big boy, and I wanna do this for my daughter, okay?”

Steve held his hands up, turned the car off, and said, “All right.”

When they crossed the parking lot, Steve coiled an arm around Bucky’s waist and reeled him in to smack a kiss to his cheek. Bucky pushed him back but laughed. The gambit to distract Bucky from his anxiety worked like a charm. Bucky smiled wide when the automatic doors to the store sailed open. A light sensation worked its way from Bucky’s inside out. The only way he could think to describe the pressure against his chest was that it was like he’d stolen goddamn fizzy lifting drinks, and he and Steve were flying high.

A bored employee greeted them but didn’t otherwise react. The tension eased out of Bucky’s shoulders at her lack of interest in them. Though their forays into public remained limited, more than one person snuck photos of them on Coffee Fridays, or sometimes blatantly shoved their camera phones in Bucky’s pups’ faces and risked Steve’s alpha wrath.

Bucky did not feel sorry for the people on the receiving end of Steve’s alpha wrath.

In fact, he gleaned a certain level of satisfaction from watching Steve snap at people and throw their camera phones across cafés. Served them right for treating Bucky and the pups like a circus sideshow. See if Bucky gave a damn.

The fact that Steve made sure never to raise his voice to his Voice while yelling at assholes did not escape Bucky’s notice.

…Bucky did enjoy making stupid faces and flipping the bird at photo-takers, though.

The linoleum floor and bright lighting of the party store, in conjunction with the slew of brightly colored party favors and novelties, brought Bucky back to before, again. Ma organized themed birthday parties for every one of her children. Bucky and Becca tended to have a joint party, but she made it clear to them that it never had to be that way. Fortunately, all sibling rivalry aside, Bucky and Becca loved the hell out of each other and neither felt right having a birthday party without the other.

“You think there’s stuff with just Cinderella on it, or is it all gonna be every Disney Princess?” asked Bucky, scrutinizing a plastic-wrapped package of princess paper plates.

“Yeah, right here,” Steve said, and held up a different set of plates.

“Oh good, they’re blue,” said Bucky, “She’ll appreciate that. Can we do party favor bags? I know there are only two pups coming, but I always loved party favors when I was a pup.”

“Didn’t we all,” Steve dryly said, and then, “Of course we can, Buck. Bet you Clint is gonna want a treat bag for himself anyway.”

To Bucky and Steve’s shared surprise, the process of shopping for Win’s birthday party went without a hitch. They filled their shopping basket with plates and cups and favors, streamers and balloons in different shades of blue, and the pimpled beta cashier scanned their items and chucked them in the reusable bag Steve brought without as much as batting a lash. Though neither of them explicitly said so, they’d built time into the allotted shopping trip hours for Bucky to freak out and lose his shit and probably have a panic attack.

But Bucky did none of those things, and instead picked his pups up from tutoring and preschool with his mind oddly quiet.

Maybe the fact that his little girl would have her birthday party just the way she wanted leveled Bucky off.

That night, Bucky dreamt a nightmare, but it wasn’t one of the worse ones. The dream jerked him awake but he couldn’t remember anything but the terror by the time that he came back to himself in Steve’s arms, with Steve’s fingers brushing over his cheek and back through his hair. Bucky kissed Steve and Steve kissed back, and Bucky’s rapid heartbeat gradually fell back to something steadier.

The morning of Win’s birthday party, Bucky couldn’t have been in a better mood. He woke before Steve and threw on the coffee pot for him while heating water for himself. He hummed under his breath while he danced across the kitchen, unpacking party supplies in preparation to decorate.

That’s how Steve found Bucky: in flannel pajama bottoms and a muscle shirt, sliding across the hardwood while he sang along to some song with a banjo in it that Becky insisted they turn up any time that it came on the radio while they were in the car (“They sing better than Daddy!” she had defended, to which Steve muttered, “Like that’s hard.” Bucky smacked him for the trouble).

Steve slid his arms around Bucky’s waist and pulled him in for a kiss. His lips were soft and warm and a little chapped, but they felt just right against his own. Bucky opened his mouth for Steve, and Steve explored with his tongue in gentle strokes.

Until a protest came. Becky whined, “Ew! What are you doing?”

Bucky and Steve both laughed when they split away from one another.

“We were kissing, sweetheart,” Bucky answered.

“Why?” she asked, screwing up her face.

“Because I like to kiss Steve, that’s why,” Bucky replied.

Thankfully in the next moment Becky became distracted by the spread of party supplies across the kitchen island and asked, “What’s this stuff for?”

“Your sister’s birthday party. It’s today, remember? She turned four yesterday and we sang Happy Birthday and she opened presents? This is her party.”

“She gets two parties?” Becky asked.

“No, baby, yesterday was our family celebration,” Bucky told her, “Today Win’s friends are coming over, and so are lots of people from the clinic. There’s gonna be cake and all kinds of fun stuff.”

“When’s my birthday again?” asked Becky.

“You picked out March second,” Bucky answered her, “So you have about five months to go.”

“And I get presents?”

“You will get presents.”

Becky appeared as though she wanted to ask another series of questions, but opted instead to sit at the kitchen table with a bowl of dinosaur oatmeal and watched Bucky and Steve rip open decorations. Steve stood on one of the kitchen chairs to reach higher places on the wall to drape streamers, and Bucky ended up spotting him because Steve decided it was a grand idea to hold his coffee mug while he did it (Bucky caught the roll of streamers when Steve inevitably dropped it and prevented it from unraveling across the floor).

By the time that Win and George (with Winter tromping out beside him) emerged from their bedroom, the living room and kitchen were an explosion of blue streamers and balloons, the latter of which were taped up with Steve’s streamer bunting but also spread out on the floor. Becky was going apeshit over the floor balloons, scooping them up, kicking them, running through them – and laughing through it all. Her brother and sister were quick to join her, but Winter peeled off to get her breakfast from Steve.

The pups didn’t settle down until the party guests began to arrive, and that set them off all over again. T’Challa and Ntombi were the first through the door, on time to the second, and the girls were off like a shot in instants, running like maniacs through the balloons and down the hallway to the back door, where they burst outside to climb around on the playset even though it was barely over fifty degrees outside.

“So much energy,” T’Challa remarked, folding his arms over his chest.

“I know,” Bucky said, “I don’t know where they keep it all.”

Bucky offered T’Challa a drink and he took a glass of water. One by one, Win’s guests came to the door with gifts tucked under tissue paper in colorful bags, or neatly taped into a festive wrapping paper shell. Steve gave the order to arrange the birthday presents on the coffee table, where the pile grew from one to a mountain in the twenty minutes that it took for every invitee to show up. Clint showed up last and several minutes late, holding Lucky’s leash in one hand and a large folded blanket over the other.

Clint thrust the blanket into Bucky’s arms and said, “Sorry I didn’t wrap it. I meant to, but, uh. I didn’t. Oh, hey Phil.”

Phil Coulson, the single alpha father of one of the little boys that Win played with in class, looked startled to see Clint for an instant before a smile swallowed his surprise and he said, “Clint. It’s good to see you. And Lucky too! How are you doing?”

“Same old, man,” Clint shrugged, “Pups. Art. Dogs.”

“You two know each other?” Bucky asked, eyes darting from one to the other.

A weird half-smile took up half of Clint’s face and he said, “Phil brought me to the clinic, way back when. Brought Natasha too.”

“You guys went through the clinic?” Bucky said.

As though Natasha sensed that she was a part of the conversation, she drifted over with a paper Cinderella cup full of lemonade to their little circle in the living room. Clint lifted his hand in greeting, and she leaned over to kiss his cheek. Clint answered Bucky, “Me and Nat went through at the same time. Neither of us needed a support, but we were inpatient for a while. White clothes and wandering around the courtyard and all.”

“Clint didn’t talk,” Natasha said, “It took a while for them to figure out that it was because he couldn’t hear anybody.”

“But…you can hear me now?” Bucky said, not sure what to do with all this new information. He didn’t know that Clint was an omega, let alone that he had been a patient at the Stark Omega Clinic at some point in its history. A sudden kinship overtook him with that knowledge, a familial they know what it’s like feeling, even if they didn’t have shit so bad that they needed a support alpha to guide them back in the right direction.

Clint turned his head and tapped at his ear where, now that Bucky was looking for it, he could see a small hearing aid nestled inside Clint’s ear.

“Huh,” Bucky said.

“Alpha dad beat the shit out of me,” Clint said, “So. You know. That happened.”

“Well fuck,” Bucky said.

Clint nodded, “That about sums it up. Anyway, you think Win’ll like the blanket? She’s always using blue and purple in her projects so that’s what I knitted.”

Bucky glanced down at the soft blanket in his arms, which was made up of knitted squares of gradient navy and plum-colored yarn. A whole blanket, just for his pup to have for herself. He licked his lips to wet them and said, “She’s gonna love it, man. It’s awesome. It’s…wow. Yeah. This is really cool of you.”

Clint scratched a hand through the hair at the back of his neck and replied, “Thanks, dude. I hope you’re right.”

The birthday party was a resounding success. The pups all stormed back inside as soon as the wind kicked up in the backyard and began to bite through their coats. They ran around the house in what could only be described as a devil-may-care fashion, shouting and thumping around as they laughed and played. Winter and Lucky joined in on the fun, plodding after the herd of pups like two massive, furry guardians.

After cake and ice cream and a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday that included Tony making wild, erratic accompanying dance moves, everyone found a place to sit or stand in the living room. Bucky took a spot right in the center of the couch with Win perched on his lap and said, “Okay, sweetheart. These presents are for you.”

“All of them? For me?” Win said. She twisted around to peer at him, and her expression made it clear that she didn’t quite understand.

“Yeah,” Bucky answered, pulling the nearest present to hold in front of her. He stuck his thumb under the edge of the paper and began to unwrap it to demonstrate, explaining, “See, like the presents Steve got on his birthday. You take off the paper and there’s something fun inside for your birthday, because you turned four.”

From the corner of the living room, Steve filmed Win’s tentative unwrapping of her first birthday gift ever, holding his phone up at eye level with a goofy smile on his face. Bucky looked up and caught his eye, unable to help but smiling back. Win peeled away sparkly silver paper and revealed a floppy stuffed dog.

She let out a soft gasp and said, “A toy doggy! For me? Really?”

“Yes, really,” Bucky said, stroking back her hair.

“Now my bear will have a friend,” Win told them, “Like Ntombi and Alex are my friends.”

“That’s right,” Bucky said, full-on stupid grinning now. He kissed the top of her head and breathed in her awed, happy scent as Natasha passed another package back to them.

At the end of the ordeal, Win came away with a bounty of gifts fit for a princess. Steve (and Bucky, which Steve wrote on the tag, but it was Steve’s money spent) bought her a Cinderella gown, which she insisted upon changing into before opening anything else, and refused to take off even after all of the guests left for the afternoon. Tony, Bruce and Pepper (or, most likely, Tony) gave her the biggest, most elaborate dollhouse that Bucky had ever seen.

With Steve’s house empty and kinda trashed, Bucky instructed Win to take her new toys to her bedroom. He followed her as she did, taking up goodies in her chubby arms and tripping over the hem of her slightly-too-big Cinderella gown into the nursery, where she tenderly arranged each item.

“This is your new friend, Bear,” Bucky heard her tell her beloved teddy bear, “He’s a dog. And this is a blankie Uncle Clint made for us. We’re the luckiest ever.” Lovingly, Win tucked the stuffed dog and Bear underneath the blanket that Clint knitted and turned to collect more of her toy haul.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” she asked, upon seeing Bucky hovering in the doorway.

“Just making sure you didn’t need help,” he answered.

“No, I can do it by myself,” Win said, marching past him. She amended when they reached the toys, “Except for maybe the big house. You can carry that.”

“Can do, sweetheart,” Bucky answered. Stooping to press a quick kiss to her forehead, he picked up the plastic dollhouse and walked it to her room. The strain on his bad arm sucked, but he made it, and sat back on George’s bed to rest for a second.

This was one of the best days of Bucky’s life, he realized, sitting up straighter at the revelation.

Today was everything that he’d ever wanted for his pups, when they were locked in that tiny, dark room, all huddled together for warmth, their only comforts old clothes and towels that Bucky repurposed into blankets and pulled around them all. Long after the pups fell asleep against him, Bucky remained awake and fantasized about this exact thing – birthday parties with cake and ice cream and happy pups and lavish presents.

Sometimes Bucky couldn’t believe this was real. Sometimes he thought he was going to wake up in the sub-basement and find out that everything – the cops, the clinic, Steve – all of it was a dream. He pinched the skin on his arm just in case, but he didn’t wake up elsewhere. He was still sitting on his son’s bed, surrounded by the scents of his happy children and a happy support alpha and the residual aromas of party guests.

Steve appeared in the nursery doorway with toys in his arms and Win on his heels. He smiled at Bucky and arranged the toys in Win’s part of the bedroom according to her instructions.

“Am I done now?” Win asked.

“Are all your presents in here?” asked Bucky.

“Yeah,” she answered.

“Then you’re done,” he told her, and she rocketed out of the door.

Steve crossed the room and sat beside Bucky. They didn’t touch at first, but after a stretch of silence, Bucky leaned his head on Steve’s shoulder.

“Doing all right?” Steve asked.

“Better than all right,” Bucky said, “I’m great. Really. Today was perfect.”

Steve hummed agreement and draped one strong arm across the breadth of Bucky’s shoulders. They sat together like that for many long minutes without speaking, just breathing and enjoying one another’s company until a yelp sounded from outside and Becky’s voice shouted, “Steve, Daddy! George hit me!

“Duty calls,” Bucky said, and they left the nursery behind.

Chapter Text

The only things that Bucky carved out time for that belonged just to him were baths. At one point in his life, he’d been a showers-only kind of guy. In the sub-basement, all he and the pups had to use to bathe was a shitty, salmon-colored sink with a rusted faucet, a relic of a bygone era.

The water that came out of it tasted sharp and metallic, but washing with it wasn’t so bad, though without soap washing up did next to nothing. Nonetheless, Bucky wouldn’t let his pups go without washing, so he made a ritual of wetting threadbare towels and scrubbing the dirt from his babies one by one.

After Bucky cleaned his pups, he would brush out their long hair. A brush was one of the items Bucky traded for. He let Pierce knot his mouth. The taste was foul. He choked on Pierce’s come and forced his breath in and out of his nostrils and still felt he might suffocate, but eventually the bastard’s knot went down, and the next time Pierce graced Bucky and his babies with his presence, he threw a kitchen scrub brush at Bucky’s face. The bristles were dirty and bent out of shape, but after some rinsing it would do what Bucky wanted.

So Bucky washed his babies and brushed out their hair, dressed them in the ragged adult t-shirts he had on hand, and tucked them into their little nest. Bucky regaled them with bedtime stories that he mostly jacked from movies and scifi novels – or Disney, in Cinderella’s case, since he sure as shit wasn’t going to tell the version where eyes got pecked out – and while he did, he washed himself best he could and brushed his own hair and tried.

They never complained then, like they did now when Bucky or Steve interrupted playtime and announced that they had to take a bath. Now had normalcy. Then, Bucky aimed for a sense of normalcy and while he failed spectacularly at least the routine counted for something, right?

Now that they were free, Bucky didn’t have to wash grime off of himself with cold tap water and whatever else was handy.

He also never had to wake up to his son gently wiping down his skin after Pierce used Bucky like a ragdoll and Bucky dissociated and ascended to the fucking stratosphere so he didn’t have to be present for what was happening to his body. More than once Bucky came-to with George running a cloth over his back, cutting through the sweat and mess of bodily fluids. Closer to the time of their rescue, George started telling Bucky stories that Bucky had told the pups, and pulled Bucky along to tuck him into their paltry nest in the corner of the room. If Bucky weren’t so wrung out and exhausted, he would have cried at his son’s thoughtfulness, the compassion George managed to develop in spite of their circumstances.

Instead Bucky whispered thanks, kissed his son’s head and held all three of his babies tight to him.

Now, though…

Bucky could spend as long as he wanted luxuriating in a hot bath. The master bath was swank as hell, with jets and ample space to comfortably fit a grown man.

And, really, Bucky would be an idiot not to take advantage of that. He liked to pour enough bubble bath under the water flow to get the bubbles to froth up to his chin and he liked to soak in that cocktail of bath products until his digits went pruney and he smelled like coconut garbage or magical fruit forest or whatever the hell Steve stocked the bathroom with that week.

That was how Steve found him that night, leaning back with his head against the tile, marinating in something that smelled like baked goods. Steve didn’t let his eyes linger too long, just gave Bucky a salute and reached into the medicine cabinet to grab his special support alpha suppressants and knock them back with a Dixie cup of water.

Bucky closed his eyes after that, but he smelled Steve over the bubble bath and heard him banging around the bathroom while he prepared to go to bed.

“Hey, Buck?” Steve said.

“Yes, Steve?” Bucky mimicked back.

“Do you have any Christmas traditions you want to honor this year?” Steve asked.

Bucky opened one eye and cast Steve a really? face.

Steve frowned at him. He asked, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“My family has literally zero Christmas traditions. I’m gonna let you think about that question for a second,” Bucky told him, “and then think of the old pictures you’ve seen of me on Facebook.”

Steve’s brow knit in concentration. Bucky almost laughed the moment that what Steve said clearly dawned on him, recalling Becca’s awkward shot of Bucky during his bar mitzvah, and more than one photo of Hanukkahs past, lighting the menorah and fighting over gelt with Becca, or opening gifts as they embraced the Americanized version of their holiday.

“Oh my God,” Steve said, “I am so sorry –”

“Steve, chill the fuck out,” Bucky said.

“I feel so stupid –”

“It’s fine.”

“That was so insensitive, to just assume like that –”

“For fuck’s sake, man, it’s fine,” Bucky said, sitting up straighter in the bath, “I was just giving you a hard time.”

“Still,” Steve said, grabbing at the back of his neck. An embarrassed blush crept from Steve’s cheeks all the way down his bare chest and up to the tips of his ears. He went on to ask, “Is it…um.”

“Yes?”

“Is it okay if I still have my tree and stuff?” asked Steve, fidgeting.

“What kind of asshole do you think I am? Of course you can have your damn Christmas tree,” Bucky said.

“What about…”

“What about what, you weirdo?” Bucky said.

“Is it okay if I still give Christmas gifts to the pups?” Steve asked, “Can we…can we do both?”

“Yes, Steve. You can turn your house into a Christmas village for all I fucking care. Do you know why? It’s your house.”

“It’s your house too,” Steve snapped, more fiercely than Bucky expected.

Bucky cleared his throat, pulling his fingers back through his wet hair, and replied, “Well. I mean. Yeah, all right.”

A brief silence fell in which neither of them spoke, but both of them went through the motions. Bucky finally soaped up his hair and rinsed it off, while Steve brushed his teeth and washed his face. Typically they didn’t prepare for bed as early as nine o’clock, but Bucky had a Skype call to deal with. He’d be talking to his parents and, presumably, whatever sisters happened to still be living with said parents. He wanted to invite them to Thanksgiving, but he hadn’t wanted to do it over Facebook or through Becca, so he messaged his mom that they should Skype and gave her his information.

Bucky remained not-quite-comfortable with the idea of his family seeing him in the flesh after all this time, but his appearance made a marked improvement especially in the last couple of months. Actual body fat lent a little more heft to him now, some substance over his ribs and in his arms and legs, and his hair was nowhere near as lank and unkempt as before. With his teeth fixed and some color in his skin he looked – almost normal.

After draining the bath, Bucky combed his hair and pulled on a soft set of pajamas. He climbed into bed with Steve and his laptop. While the computer booted up, Bucky distracted himself by kissing Steve. Steve gave as good as he got and slipped Bucky the tongue from the get-go, which had Bucky chuckling against Steve’s mouth before he went back in to deepen the kiss.

They drew apart only after the laptop came to life and Bucky pulled up Skype, though Steve kept one arm draped over Bucky’s shoulders, and Bucky pressed into Steve’s side, back resting halfway on Steve’s chest (though alas, for the sake of the Skype call, Steve put on a shirt).

Bucky didn’t expect how hard the image of his family filling the screen would hit him. He thought he’d be okay, having seen what they looked like now on Facebook, but pictures didn’t compare to seeing the elated expressions that lit the faces of his parents and two youngest sisters when Bucky and Steve appeared on the screen.

“I’m so happy to see you, honey,” Ma was sure to exclaim first.

Bucky licked his lips and tried to find his voice. Quietly, he said, “It’s good to see you guys too.”

“Hi,” Steve said, and gave a little wave, “I’m Steve.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” his dad said. Dad looked almost identical to the man that Bucky left behind, with broad alpha shoulders and glasses perched on his nose. More gray peppered through his hair and brows than it had in Bucky’s memory, and his face creased in places it hadn’t before when he smiled, but there was no doubt that this was Bucky’s father.

Ma added, “Thank you so much for taking care of my baby.”

“Ma,” Bucky complained. Jesus. Some things never changed.

“When he lets me, anyway,” Steve said.

Bucky sighed.

“You look so grown up,” Judy said. God, she’d only been six years old when Bucky got nabbed. Now she was seventeen, and held herself with an air of confidence that couldn’t quite be captured in photographs posted on Facebook. She was built like Ma, with compact curves and frizzy dark hair.

“So do you,” Bucky replied, “God, you’re what? A senior in high school?”

Judy nodded. She said, “I graduate in May next year.”

“Wow,” Bucky said, “Damn. That’s awesome. I’m proud of you.”

“How are you doing, sweetie?” Ma asked.

Bucky shrugged. He said, “It’s a process. Doin’ okay most of the time, not okay some of the time. I think it’s getting better, though. Maybe a little.”

“You’re definitely getting better,” Steve said.

“You think the sun shines out my ass, so I don’t wanna hear it,” Bucky told him.

Beth snorted out a laugh on the screen and Judy grinned. Ma mostly looked awed, while Dad stared at Bucky like he was a beloved memory come to life. And hell, Bucky supposed that was exactly what he was. His heart filled up like the goddamn bathtub, with warmth and bubbles and good things, and he knew he had to be smiling.

“So you said you had something you wanted to talk about?” Ma prompted.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Bucky replied, “So. Um. You can say no. But I thought…well. I know it’s kinda last minute, being October and all, but I – I thought maybe you guys might wanna come here for Thanksgiving? Celebrate with me and Steve and the pups?”

The naked joy that fell over his ma’s face would be burned in his brain for years to come. She said, “Of course we will! We would love that!”

“Are all of us invited?” asked Beth.

“No, I’m only inviting two of five sisters and you guys gotta mud wrestle for it,” Bucky snarked, “Duh you’re all invited.”

“Should we bring anything?” asked Ma.

Bucky chewed on his lip and cast the laptop a hopeful expression. He said, “Your pumpkin pie?”

“I can bring pumpkin and apple,” Ma said.

“Oh, I love apple,” Steve pitched in.

“Of course you do,” Bucky muttered.

“Where are you?” asked Dad, “If you don’t mind the question. We should probably know how much of a haul this is.”

“We live in the foothills, around forty five minutes from Denver,” Steve answered.

Bucky’s parents exchanged a look and Ma said, “That’s not far at all. We never did move…you know, in case you came back. We wanted to be here.”

“Jeez,” Bucky said. He didn’t know what to do with that information, other than be overwhelmed that his family fucking waited for him even though they didn’t know if he was alive or dead. They assumed he was dead after a while, but they still stayed? Sounded like Ma’s doing.

From the doorway came a soft, sleepy, “Daddy?”

Bucky turned his head. Win stood there, holding Bear to her chest.

“What is it, baby? You’re supposed to be in bed,” Bucky said.

“I heard voices,” Win said, “Who are you talking to?”

Bucky heaved another sigh and said, “C’mere. I’ll show you.”

Win crossed the room and scrambled up to climb on the bed. She crawled across Steve’s lap and settled on both of them. Bucky petted her messy hair and said, “This is your auntie Judy and your auntie Beth, and grandpa and your bubbe,” – he turned his attention back to the laptop monitor, where Ma’s mouth had fallen open – “This is my youngest. Win. Say hi, baby.”

“Hi,” Win greeted, enthusiastic as always, “I’m four years old. Daddy says people don’t usually pick their birthdays but I got to pick mine and I got a birthday party with cake and presents and balloons. I love balloons.”

Ma’s lip wobbled.

“Ma, I swear, don’t start,” Bucky said, “If you start crying, then I’m gonna start crying, and it’s gonna be ugly.”

“I like your bear,” Beth told Win.

Win rewarded her aunt’s compliment with a 1000-watt smile and said, “Bear was here waiting for me when I got here because Steve got him for me. I got lots of toys now, ‘cause I got presents for my birthday. I got to have Cinderella plates.”

Ma covered her mouth with her hand. Her eyes gleamed, and shitshitshit, Bucky’s eyes were burning too. He sniffled a little and swiped at his eyes, unwilling to give into the waterworks with his daughter sitting right on his lap. Steve’s hand stroked up and down Bucky’s arm, soothing.

Before anyone could split the silence, George ducked into the master bedroom, holding Becky’s hand and pulling her along after him. They both looked tired out of their minds, but too curious to remain in bed. Bucky rubbed his temples and said, “Christ. Come on up, guys.”

His other two pups clambered up to join them, Becky poking her head underneath Steve’s other arm, and George climbing over all of them to glue himself to Bucky’s left side.

“Why is Bubbe crying?” asked Win.

“Because,” Bucky said, “She’s happy to see you.” He went through the second round of introductions and managed, by some miracle, not to lose it and cry the way that his ma was crying on the screen right now, but his throat closed up with the effort to hold back and his eyes seared.

George prodded Bucky in the stomach and said, “Daddy, you have more sisters than I do.”

“Yeah, I have lots of sisters,” Bucky said, “and lots of naughty pups out of bed.”

“Win started it,” Becky said.

Bucky didn’t dignify that with a response beyond lifting his brows. Becky scowled.

“I think we gotta go,” Bucky said to his family on the screen, “I gotta put these guys back to bed. But uh…Steve’ll text you the details and stuff. And we’ll see you in a month? I guess?”

Ma took in a shaking breath and said, “We’ll be there.”

**

Bucky geared up for Halloween with all the determination of a battle-hardened soldier returning to the front lines. He explained the holiday to the pups and let them know that they didn’t have to go if they didn’t want to – being that they would speak to strangers and all – but the moment that they knew that free candy was on the line all three of them lost any ounce of hesitation that may have been there before.

Win wanted to wear her Cinderella gown that Steve bought for her birthday, even after Bucky told her that she could pick out a new costume with her siblings. Becky and George, meanwhile, bracketed Bucky on either side while Bucky perused costumes on the internet, sitting on the living room couch. After much debate, Becky decided to be Wednesday Addams (she’d started watching the movies with almost as much frequency as Win did Cinderella) and George selected a classic, lime-green space alien getup.

“You guys have to have outfits too!” insisted Becky, “Or you won’t get candy.”

“Grownups don’t get any candy. We take it from our pups. It’s called the Parent Tax,” he said. Or at least that was what his dad called it when he nicked Butterfinger bars from Bucky’s Halloween candy haul, way back when. A pang of sadness hit when he thought of the first Halloween that he missed by a hair. He’d talked about going trick-or-treating with Jim Morita. They both wanted to be something scary, with lots of fake blood.

“Well I won’t let you have any candy if you don’t dress up,” Becky simpered.

“Oh, you won’t?” Bucky teased, lifting a brow.

“Nope,” she said, and raised her chin with a look of haughtiness that only children could achieve.

Win, now interested in the conversation, piped up from her spot on the carpet with her stuffed dog, “Steve has to be my Prince Charming. I can’t be Cinderella without Prince Charming.”

“Yeah, Steve,” Bucky called over his shoulder, to where Steve stood cooking supper in the kitchen, “You gotta be Prince Charming.”

“Find me a Prince Charming costume and I’ll do it,” Steve shrugged.

“You’re on,” Bucky replied. Steve clearly had not expected him to succeed, but Bucky found a Prince Charming costume sized for adult men on the same website he’d been perusing with the pups already. But before he checked out and got the costumes shipped to them, he asked Becky, “Okay, now Steve has a costume. What should I be?”

“You should be Wednesday’s daddy,” Becky said, confident, “because you’re my daddy and I’m gonna be Wednesday.”

“You want me to be Gomez?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah!” exclaimed Becky.

Bucky could not find a Gomez Addams costume on the particular website he was on, but he found one when he googled for it. He paid for expedited shipping on both orders with Steve’s credit card, and for good measure, threw in an outfit for Winter, too. When they all sat down to dinner, excitement stirred in his gut. His first Halloween with the pups – hopefully it would turn out okay, even with the number of strangers they would face.

Maybe strangers wouldn’t recognize Bucky dressed as Gomez Addams? An omega could only hope.

Bucky grew just enough of a mustache to style into Gomez Addams-type fashion by the time that their costumes arrived courtesy of the FedEx guy and Halloween rolled around. Two nights before the famed Hallow’s Eve, Steve spread old junk mail catalogues and yellowing newspapers over the kitchen table, hefted a couple pumpkins and old mixing bowls on top, and brought the pups to the table to enjoy pumpkin-carving while Bucky brewed up some apple cider on the stove.

Steve asked what kind of faces the pups wanted for each of their pumpkins, and drew them on according to their instructions before he carved open the tops, scooped away the guts into the mixing bowls, and put the lantern into jack-o-lantern. Bucky set George to work separating pumpkin seeds from the guts so that they could salt and bake them in the oven, while Win enjoyed squeezing her little hands in the guts and making faces at the slimy sensation.

Bucky ended up having to break up a pumpkin-gut-flinging fight between his oldest and youngest pups, but overall, when he and Steve carried the finished jack-o-lanterns out to the front porch and lit tea lights inside them, his pups’ reactions were worth all the work. They squawked delighted noises, not unlike their awed gasps and shrieks at sparklers and fireworks on the Fourth of July, at the yellow-orange faces of the pumpkins glowing against the dark of late evening.

When they returned inside, the pumpkin seeds were roasted and warm from the oven. The five of them enjoyed eating the seeds paired with mugs of cider while they watched Halloween movies huddled on the couch beneath Clint’s knitted blankets. Bucky reclined with his back pressed to Steve’s chest. Win took up the space on Bucky’s chest, while Becky and George flanked them on either side. Their five scents tangled in the air with the cinnamon tang of cider and the earthy aroma of the pumpkin seeds.

A family. They smelled like a family.

Bucky tried not to focus too hard on the implications of that. His idea that his and the pups’ stay with Steve being a temporary arrangement eked away little by little with every moment like this he experienced. Every time Steve teased a smile to the faces of Bucky’s pups, Bucky wondered if leaving would be the right choice. Every time Steve pulled Bucky into his arms after Bucky screamed awake from a nightmare, he wondered if he could live without that.

He didn’t know.

He wasn’t sure.

On the television screen, The Nightmare Before Christmas flickered and riveted Win – Bucky wondered if inadvertently he and Steve had given her a new obsession, but hey, he figured she earned the right to love whatever she wanted without boundaries.

His pups had been through so much that Bucky never wanted to tell them they couldn’t love as much as they damn well pleased.

Then, when the night of Halloween came around, jittery anticipation cloaked Bucky’s entire body. Could he handle this? Would he freak out? He popped a Xanax before he stuffed himself in his Gomez Addams suit just in case, smeared eyeliner over his eyes with an unpracticed hand, and went to check on his pups, where they would be changing into their own costumes in the nursery.

Steve offered to braid Becky’s hair for her Wednesday outfit, but the job he did was kinda shitty, and Bucky ended up combing out her dark hair and redoing two neater, more even braids for her.

And then –

“Damn,” Bucky remarked. He whistled as Steve exited the master bedroom and did a turn. Prince Charming never looked so good. Bucky didn’t expect cream to flatter Steve’s complexion or the gold braid and epaulets to show off the broad expanse of his shoulders, but it did and they did.

“You don’t look half-bad yourself,” Steve said, and leaned forward to capture Bucky’s mouth in a gentle but lingering kiss. Becky made a gagging noise beside them.

“You’re so full of crap,” Bucky said, “I just look weird. I don’t have enough mustache.”

“Gomez is supposed to look a little weird,” Steve said, then dropped his voice low to murmur against Bucky’s ear, “and besides, you make it look real good. Real good.”

Bucky shoved at Steve’s arm and said, “Shut up.”

“What? It’s true,” Steve said.

“Whatever you say, you dumb alpha sap,” Bucky replied, “We got trick-or-treating to do. You guys ready?”

“How come we got pillowcases?” George’s muffled voice asked from behind his alien mask.

“So you have something to put all your candy in,” Bucky said, “If we stay out as long as I think we will, then you won’t be able to carry it all in just your hands.”

“Wait, wait,” Steve said, “Let me get my camera. We need a picture of all of us.”

The pups whined but mostly humored their support alpha as he jogged up the stairs to his studio and returned with a fancy-looking camera and a tripod to go with it. Steve set the timer, jumped in front of the camera, and pulled Bucky in with an arm around his shoulders. He instructed, “Okay, now everybody smile.”

After a series of clicks and flashes, Steve whipped around to flick through the snapshots they captured. He made them all go through the circus a couple more times with smiles and then silly faces, which George removed his alien mask to participate in. Steve looped the camera around his neck to take with him, and with a final sweep of costumes, shoes, coats and pillowcases, they trekked outside.

And so the night began. The pup’s reluctance to walk alone to strangers’ doorsteps failed to surprise either Bucky or Steve, though Bucky’s hesitance came as a surprise to himself. He’d trick-or-treated thirteen times before Pierce hauled him off of the street and locked him away in the sub-basement, but the familiarity of the festivity didn’t trump the fear of strangers that ran deep inside him.

So Steve walked them all up the steps of his neighbors’ houses, driving with all of them crammed like sardines into the Beetle to each as the houses were far enough apart to make a walk around the neighborhood more of a hike than a leisurely stroll.

Their costumes were much applauded: Bucky’s Gomez to Becky’s Wednesday, Steve’s Prince Charming to Win’s Cinderella, and Winter’s UFO to George’s space alien. Some families even passed out dog treats to Winter when they gave candy to the kids. The sheer volume of the treats weighing down the pillowcases in the pups’ hands made their blue eyes go wide as saucers, amazed at just how much they could have.

(Though Bucky may have broken the spell by saying: “You can’t eat all of that tonight,” knowing that his babies would have tried)

The aroma of dry leaves underfoot wafted all around, cut through with the warring scents of several different kinds of treats. Though they spent most of their trick-or-treating driving from house to house in Steve’s fancy neighborhood, the bite in the air sucked the wind out of the pups’ sails after around an hour or so of marching up walkways and driving to the next.

Nonetheless, energy crackled and zipped between them all when Steve parked the car outside their house and the pups went running in. Before Bucky could tell them otherwise, the pups upended their pillowcases onto the living room floor and started sifting through their treasures. Even having been out of the basement for months now, there was so much that they hadn’t tried – Bucky watched as George picked up each individual candy package and scrutinized them before lining them up in a neat row on his other side.

Win and Becky, meanwhile, ripped open the first wrappers they could get their hands on and stuffed candy into their mouths.

The proceeding sugar high made bedtime a fucking hassle, and if Bucky palmed a couple more Snickers from his pups’ candy stashes because they decided to be pains in his ass, that was his business.

By the time that Bucky and Steve collapsed together on the king bed, teeth brushed, faces washed, and pajamas on, Bucky knew he could sleep for a year. But it was a good tired, not the kind of tired that Bucky experienced after any given episode, an exhaustion characterized by a lingering sensation of his brains having been sucked out through a curly straw. This tired was comfortable – lazy, affectionate.

Bucky embraced it and rolled over to tuck himself against Steve. He caught Steve’s mouth in a tender, sleepy kiss. A muffled, happy noise leaked out of Steve’s lips before he cupped Bucky’s face in both hands and kissed back. As their limbs tangled and bodies shifted against one another, so did the mood. The kiss escalated from tender to heated and Bucky didn’t know which one of them had started it but he – he actually didn’t mind so much. He liked kissing Steve. Hell, he loved kissing Steve.

Steve’s hands rubbed over Bucky’s back before coming to settle on his waist, and he rolled them both so that Steve lay back to the mattress and Bucky straddled him.

“This okay?” Steve asked.

“So far,” Bucky said, “I just – I don’t like being pinned down, is all.”

“Then we won’t do that,” Steve promised.

Bucky leaned down to kiss Steve again, clutching his hands in his blond hair to reel him in tight. Between Bucky’s legs, he felt Steve start to stiffen in his pajama pants before he smelled the musky scent of Steve’s alpha pheromones rolling out the longer they kissed and moved together.

Bucky’s heart beat faster and head went dizzy and stomach flipped. He could put his hand in Steve’s pajama pants and touch him. Would Steve want that? Bucky didn’t know what Steve wanted. God, fuck, Bucky didn’t even know what he wanted.

The gentle press of a thumb massaging circles into Bucky’s thigh broke him from his thoughts. He blinked down and found Steve frowning up at him.

“You with me?” Steve asked.

Bucky chewed on his lip and said lowly, “Yeah. Um. Maybe we should stop for now.”

“Okay,” Steve agreed, and brought his hands back to Bucky’s waist to pull them back into the position they started in, cuddled up together face to face on their sides. He could still feel the pressure of Steve’s interested cock against his leg, but it didn’t seem so scary now that they weren’t moving.

“Hey, Steve?” Bucky said.

“Mm.”

“Thank you. For tonight. The pups – I’m glad this is the first Halloween they got to have,” Bucky said.

Steve brushed his lips over Bucky’s forehead and answered, “Don’t need to thank me, Buck. It makes me happy to do these things for you, you know?”

Bucky rolled his eyes and said, “God, you’re the worst. How can you stand being so damn sincere all the time?”

Steve cast Bucky a displeased look and said, voice prim, “I dunno. Probably the same way you stand being such a jerk all the time.”

“Shit. Burn,” Bucky said.

Steve laughed. He leaned over Bucky to reach the lamp on the bedside table and switch it off. In the dark, Steve kissed Bucky’s lips one final, sweet time and said, “Go the fuck to sleep.”

Chapter Text

November began on a snowy note; Bucky woke to a thick layer of fine, glittering flakes clinging to the branches of trees and blanketing the roof of the house. He took advantage of the gorgeous scenery and dragged one of the cushy living room armchairs to the front window, where he propped his feet up on the sill and cracked open his latest read.

He had little time to relax, however. Only a couple pages into the book, George and Winter trekked into the room. A look of determination shadowed George’s face, harsh enough that Bucky marked the page that he was on and set the paperback aside. He folded his legs away from the window sill, patted his lap and, as George climbed up to sit on him, asked, “What’s going on?”

Winter sat beside the chair. George stroked her ears before he found it in him to ask, “How come Bubbe smiles at Grandpa when he hurt her?”

Bucky’s mouth turned down. He asked, “What makes you say that?”

“Grandpa and Bubbe made you and my aunties. You said so,” George answered, “Like you and Alpha made me and my sisters.”

Aw, shit.

“Okay, um…” Bucky started, “Give Daddy a second to think here, ‘cause what I’m about to explain is gonna be confusing.”

George nodded to that and burrowed in deeper to Bucky’s side. Bucky reached behind their heads and pulled Steve’s Clint-made blanket down, unfolding it to wrap around their bodies. He chewed his lip, considered, and started, “You know how Alpha gave us bad food, but now we got good food?”

“Yeah,” George said.

“This is kinda like that,” Bucky went on, “The way that Alpha hurt me sometimes makes pups, but the way that you’re supposed to make pups doesn’t hurt. It’s supposed to feel good, and people that love each other like to, um. They like to do that together. Because when you do it right, it makes you happy. But sometimes bad people use it to hurt, like Alpha did. My ma and dad – your bubbe and grandpa – love each other. They met at school and fell in love, and then they got mated. You know what mates are?”

George shook his head.

“All right. Well, do you remember how sometimes Alpha would try and bite me?”

George nodded.

Of course his pup remembered – George helped Bucky clean more than one bleeding bite-mark on the side of his throat, right over the scent glands. Bucky had a balled up old t-shirt stuffed beneath the creaking bed he never slept in that he used to sop up blood from the wounds that Pierce’s teeth left on his body. Every so often he rinsed the blood from the t-shirt, but the stains lingered, rust-brown reminders of every time Pierce tried to own Bucky’s body and soul.

Bucky coughed into his hand and then breathed in deep.

“And remember how the bites always healed up and got better?” – another nod, so Bucky carried on – “When people that are in love bite each other, the mark stays. Here. Lemme…lemme show you.”

Bucky reached over to the window sill where he’d set his phone aside, and pulled up his ma’s profile on the Facebook app. He scrolled through her tagged pictures until he found a good one, a shot of the head and shoulders of his ma, dad, and sister Rachel at her high school graduation. Bucky flicked the screen to zoom into his ma’s neck.

Finger tapping the circular bite at the crook of his ma’s neck, he said, “That’s a mating bite. Grandpa bit Bubbe when they decided to mate, and they love each other and want to be together, so the mark stayed. Being together to make a pup…um. That’s called sex, when both people want to have it. When only one person wants to have it and makes the other person do it, that’s – that’s called rape. They’re two different things, but both of them can make pups. Grandpa never hurt Bubbe, but Alpha did hurt me. Does that make sense?”

George didn’t respond right away. He raked his little fingers through Winter’s fur, still with that too-serious look on his face that made George look a whole lot like Bucky, and a whole lot older than he needed to be.

Then, of all the fucking things to come out of his son’s mouth, the next question was, “Are you gonna have sex with Steve?”

Bucky sputtered. He blinked a couple of times and then said, “Uh…” to stall while he thought of the right answer to that question. He smeared a hand over his face and said, “I don’t know, baby. I’m an omega, which means I can make pups in my tummy. It also means I have heats. You remember those? That’s when I smell icky and get all sweaty and can’t sit still, because my body wants to find an alpha to help make pups. When omegas get sick or don’t have enough to eat, sometimes heats stop for a while and…” Bucky took a breath, “and so I haven’t had a heat for a long time. But when I do have a heat, I might want sex with Steve because it’ll help me feel better.”

He tried to ignore the surge of self-hatred that blew into him at top velocity. Heats in the sub-basement terrified and humiliated him, because Bucky’s body wanted something inside it but Bucky’s brain did not, and when Pierce mounted him and fucked him and slaked the heat, Bucky had never loathed himself more for feeling satisfaction.

Bucky felt something wet against his hand. He opened his eyes – didn’t even realize he’d closed them in the first place – and saw Winter lapping at his fingers. George petted a hand over Bucky’s jaw and asked, “Are you okay, Daddy?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.”

“Can I ask another question?”

“You just did,” Bucky pointed out.

George huffed and rolled his gray-blue eyes. He continued, “What about sex when you don’t have a heat?”

“Well,” Bucky began, “that’s a little more complicated. Sometimes I think that I might want that someday, but I get kinda scared when I think about it.”

“You get scared?” George repeated, cocking his head to the side.

“I do get scared,” Bucky confirmed, “because even though I know that Steve would never hurt me, all the things that Alpha did make my brain confused. Kinda like how your brain can get confused when you think somebody might be hurting me, or how Becky’s brain gets confused and she thinks we won’t be able to eat. Sometimes our bodies remember things for longer than we want them to, and sometimes that makes it hard for us to do things now.”

But the thing was, Bucky couldn’t help but think of Steve in terms of sex and mating. Hindbrain urged him to clamp his thighs around Steve and never let go, to invite Steve’s bite with a tilt of his neck so that they would be forever tied. If Steve mated Bucky, then Bucky and then pups would never have to worry about their living situation ever again.

Then again, that didn’t do Steve enough credit. Bucky cared about Steve. He cared dangerously too much, and the idea of Steve’s mark on his neck appealed to him not only on the level of safety, but stirred someplace way deep down in his gut and made it pinch and strain with longing. He wanted Steve, but Bucky couldn’t say for sure that Steve would want him, would want Bucky beyond what instinct drove him to desire as an alpha.

To be in the position of a support alpha, Steve required an inordinate level of control over his instinct, to rein in his basest nature that told him to fuck, mate, breed. In the twenty-first century, the majority of alphas should have had that control. But Bucky knew – both from what he heard before Pierce and from what he’d read now on the internet (he learned fast that comments sections were a cesspit to avoid at all costs) – many alphas claimed that they couldn’t control themselves. To possess an omega was simply a part of their biology, they said.

Steve never once said such a thing. The night before, Bucky fell asleep swamped with the heady scent of alpha need, with Steve’s erection pressed into his thigh from beneath the layers of their pajamas. That scared Bucky as much as it thrilled him. He made Steve feel that way, but when he asked Steve to stop, he did. Steve had the strength to force Bucky onto his belly and pin him into presenting. Steve could have fucked and knotted Bucky and Bucky wouldn’t have been able to fight it off.

But do so wasn’t in Steve’s nature, no matter what alphas trolling internet message boards defended.

Steve believed in something better than that, in an inherent good in humanity beyond what their biology dictated.

And that was what made Bucky’s heart beat faster when he thought of wrapping his legs around Steve’s waist and letting Steve sink his teeth into his neck.

“Are you gonna fall in love with Steve?” George asked. Bucky snapped his head up so fast that the back of his skull bounced off of the armchair’s headrest.

The innocent question shredded his insides into tiny, gory pieces. He answered, “I don’t know, baby. But – but I probably could.”

**

Before Thanksgiving came George’s chosen birthday, though George made it clear that he didn’t want to be crowded with people or turn the celebration into an ordeal. All he asked was that he could make cupcakes with Bucky and color the frosting purple, so that was exactly what they did, at least until the point when Steve signed for an enormous delivery box and dragged it inside.

Whatever this was, Bucky was not in the know. He couldn’t decide whether to be irritated or endeared.

“What’s that?” George asked.

“It’s your birthday present from me,” Steve replied.

“It’s really big,” George said, uncertainly.

“Well, we’re gonna take it outside,” Steve said, “This kind of present doesn’t live in the house.”

That did not narrow down the possibilities into a realm that Bucky appreciated. He folded his arms over his chest and watched with one brow hitched up as Steve strolled into the kitchen to retrieve a knife to slice open the packing tape.

Bucky tried to maintain his look of skepticism and strove not to perk up too much when Steve’s muscles bulged as he maneuvered his hands into the cardboard box to lift out a second, marginally smaller box. He was not entirely successful.

It was a telescope. The dam of annoyance at Steve broke and gave way to a flood of warm affection, brightly flickering like flames in Bucky’s chest.

“What is it?” asked George.

“It’s a telescope, baby,” Bucky told him, “You use it to look closer at the stars and planets.”

“You can do that?” George said, eyes going wide with something that looked like hope.

“You sure can,” Steve answered, “It’s still pretty cold out so we’re gonna have to bundle up when we bring it outside, okay? There’s not a lot that you can see with it during the daytime, but I thought I’d set it up now. I have a book somewhere on my shelf about constellations… it might be nice to see if we could find a couple of them.”

The pups trailed after Steve as he dragged the box out onto the back porch and cut open the box to extract the parts of the telescope. The snow of the previous week for the most part already melted, leaving behind frozen ice patches only in the shadiest parts of the backyard. Nonetheless, Bucky stuffed his babies into their winter coats and boots before he let them buzz around Steve to watch him assemble the telescope.

Bucky nudged the empty box with his foot and said, “I just want you to know that I’m going to be laughing about the name ‘Celestron AstroMaster’ for the rest of the day.”

Steve grinned at Bucky and said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Once Steve set up the telescope and messed with the controls, George wanted to look through it, in spite of Steve’s warning that there wasn’t much to look at when the sun was up. He seemed to enjoy himself even without looking at anything in particular, at least until Bucky noticed that George had the telescope pointed not at the sky, but out at the rolling plains beyond the confines of Steve’s acreage.

“Daddy, look! There’s deers,” George said.

Bucky ducked to look through the lens of the telescope, and sure enough, a small herd of deer moved between brush and dry-looking trees several miles away from Steve’s house. Bucky rubbed George’s back and said, “Those are deer. Good job, sweetheart.”

The real treat came when night fell and Bucky and Steve bundled the pups back up and brought out several spare blankets for added warmth. While Steve adjusted the telescope, Bucky cooked up a batch of hot cocoa and brought a mug out for everyone. Steve accepted his with a quick kiss to Bucky’s lips, and cold night aside, Bucky’s face flushed hot.

The pups squabbled over who got to look through the telescope first, which Bucky broke up with, “Girls, it’s your brother’s birthday, so he gets to have his turn first. Everyone’s gonna get a chance.”

“But what if the stars go away?” Becky asked.

“They’re not gonna,” Bucky assured her, “They’re billions of years old and they’re here to stay for lots of years after that.”

Billions?” Becky gasped.

“Billions,” Bucky confirmed, voice solemn. He wrapped his fleece blanket tighter around his shoulders and sipped at his rich hot chocolate. As far as November nights went, this one wasn’t as cold as it could be. A gentle, icy breeze kicked up every now and again, but with his body packed into his blue peacoat and draped in a blanket, Bucky staved off the bulk of the icy temperature.

As he watched Steve bend behind George and help point the telescope in the right direction, Bucky heated up on the inside again, those flames of endearment licking up along the underside of his ribcage. When Bucky chose to bring their family unit to a support alpha, he expected a guided, limited life. He expected rules and command. He hadn’t thought to expect this – his pups enjoying a late autumn night to celebrate and look at the stars with the handsomest, most goddamn considerate alpha on the face of the earth. Then, to boot, Steve smelled like everything Bucky hoped for in a mate since he was a pup.

None of this life was constricting. In fact, as Bucky breathed in the crisp scents of old snow and fallen leaves, of the pine trees along the edge of the yard and long-wet soil, as he drank cocoa from a chipped superhero mug and looked on at Steve showing the pups the world they’d missed, this life felt like freedom.

On the weather-beaten wicker chair beside the telescope, Steve laid out his book on constellations and said, “This here says the brightest constellation we can see at this time of year is Andromeda, so let’s look for that,” and as he adjusted the controls, “Andromeda is in a galaxy that’s shaped like ours.”

“What’s a galaxy?” asked Win.

“It’s a whole big group of stars,” George said, “We live in the Milky Way galaxy.”

“How do you know that?” Becky asked.

“Because Steve told me so,” George replied, “And the sun is a star we can see in the daytime and we go in circles around it. Steve said.”

“I think I found it!” Steve exclaimed, “Come see, George.”

Bucky smiled at the sight of George snapping to attention, stepping to where Steve stooped over the telescope. A little intake of breath preceded George’s exclamation of, “Wow! Come look! Come see! Daddy, you have to come see, too.”

Bucky laughed quietly and waited for the girls to take their turns looking into the telescope. Bucky caught a shy smile from Steve out of the corner of his eye before he bent at the waist to look into the sky. Sure enough, bright stars looked back at Bucky, winking against the inky blanket of the night sky. His breath froze in his lungs at the sight, a sight he thought he would never see again when he lay hurting in that windowless basement.

When Bucky straightened back up to his full height, he murmured, “They’re beautiful,” but stared at Steve as he spoke.

A crooked, fond smile pulled up the corners of Steve’s mouth. That smile did something to Bucky’s insides, right down to the marrow of his bones. It softened his heart and made every inch of him feel lightheaded and stupid, but in the most wonderful way. He wanted to laugh, wanted to lean over and kiss the smile on Steve’s handsome face, wanted to cry about his pups seeing the stars in the night sky. He wanted many things and knew how to take none of them, so instead, he gazed at Steve, still clutching the fleece blanket around his shoulders as he offered a shy smile back.

“You’re in the way, Daddy,” complained George, “I wanna look again.”

Bucky ducked his head and tore his gaze from Steve’s, but the sensations stayed behind, plumes of hot smoke billowing up from the flames inside him, squeezing his lungs and his heart. He never fucking wanted that feeling to leave.

Sure enough, the feeling persisted as Bucky lowered himself onto the porch swing on the other side of the back porch and surveyed Steve and the babies laughing and shouting excited, impressed sounds at the things they were looking at. The knitted caps Clint made for them bobbed back and forth on their heads as the pups took turns at the lens, and the feeling carried on. It filled Bucky up and followed him even as the night became cold enough to turn them back inside, and followed him as he and Steve readied the pups for bed and read to them from the picture book collection.

Bucky wished George a happy birthday one final time before he flicked off the light and closed the nursery door.

But the door to the master bedroom had to close before Bucky acted on the feeling Steve inspired all night. Steve shed his winter coat and draped it over the side of the queen bed, which Bucky hadn’t slept on in ages. When Steve turned, he opened his mouth, but Bucky pounced on him before he could get a word out.

Bucky covered Steve’s lips with his own and dove into the embrace with all of his energy. A small, surprised sound escaped Steve’s mouth under the pressure of Bucky’s lips, but in less than a second he fell into Bucky’s arms and pulled him closer, licking along his lips to press his tongue inside Bucky’s mouth.

Steve allowed Bucky to move him like a ragdoll and fell with his back to the mattress onto the king bed when Bucky pushed him toward it. After an instant of dithering, Bucky crawled up over Steve and sat right on his lap, the same way Steve positioned him when they kissed on Halloween night. That felt like the right thing to do, and the rumbling noise of alpha approval from below him affirmed that rightness. Bucky leaned down to kiss Steve again, and Steve kissed right back, giving as good as he got with his fingers buried in Bucky’s hair.

Bucky parted from Steve to catch his breath and nuzzled his nose against Steve’s.

“Not that I’m not enjoying this,” Steve said, scratching his fingernails over the curve of Bucky’s back, “but what are we doing, exactly?”

“Kissing,” Bucky answered, “For now.”

In response, Steve pressed small, fleeting kisses to the edge of Bucky’s jaw until he landed back on Bucky’s mouth. They returned to tasting each other, and it was so damn good that Bucky whimpered. Something about that sound got Steve’s motor running, because his hips bucked up of their own accord, and Bucky felt the hard ridge of Steve’s growing erection rub against him. Alpha arousal ballooned around them, pressing in and thickening the air with pheromones.

“Sorry, sorry,” Steve said, “That was my bad.”

“S’okay,” Bucky said, “Should probably get used to it if you’re gonna help me through my heat, right?”

“Only if that’s the way you want it,” Steve answered, massaging his fingers into Bucky’s scalp.

Bucky hummed happily at the touch. He said, “I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. This is good for now, though. It’s not…I don’t know. The smell makes me nervous, but, um. I’m not as nervous as before? I still don’t want – uh. That. Yet.”

“Don’t force yourself into doing things you think you need to be doing,” Steve said.

Bucky dipped down an inch to a peck a kiss to Steve’s forehead. The shift of his body drew him across Steve’s erection, and this time, his body responded. He knew Steve could smell the slick when his eyebrows shot straight to his hairline.

“I want to try this,” Bucky insisted, “Just kissing, like I said. Lots of kissing. I wanna – get used to your scent. When you’re, y’know. Horny.”

Steve laughed a little at that and said, “All right. Whatever you wanna do, Buck. You’re taking the lead here.”

So Bucky experimented. He and Steve kissed in long, hard kisses and short, wet, passionate ones. Uncertainly, Bucky ground his hips down into Steve’s. A strangled groan rattled out of Steve, a sound that Bucky found he liked a whole hell of a lot. He liked that he could do that, and he liked that he could do what he wanted and didn’t have to be scared. Knowing that he could stop at any moment and that Steve would listen lent Bucky some courage.

Slick seeped through Bucky’s underwear. Only a trickle, but it was enough slick for the heady aroma of omega to overtake some of Steve’s alpha scent. His cock was hard like Steve’s, but he didn’t want to do anything with that. Not yet, not yet, not yet.

“Buck,” Steve eventually said between kisses and undulating against one another, “Buck, if we don’t stop I’m gonna –”

Bucky pulled back and gave Steve a sharp look. He asked, “Really?”

Pink stained the apples of Steve’s cheeks. He sheepishly said, “Sorry. You – um. You smell real nice, is all.”

Bucky smirked before he could help it and said, “Do I?”

“Yeah, you really do,” Steve said.

He sounded so pathetic that Bucky elected to climb off of Steve’s lap with a final kiss to Steve’s lips. He said, “Okay. I think we should stop.”

Steve nodded silently.

“You can take care of that in the shower if you want,” Bucky said, attention shifting to the obvious tent in Steve’s dark jeans.

“Thank God,” Steve said, and rocketed toward the bathroom faster than Bucky had ever seen before.

Chapter Text

The week before Thanksgiving, Bucky and Steve retired the Volkswagen Beetle and traded it in for a shiny, brand new 2016 Honda Odyssey. Bucky never envisioned himself as the owner of a minivan, but he found himself particularly charmed by the heated front seats and the minivan’s capability to play any of the music on his phone or Steve’s, plus whatever Bucky could find on Youtube and music apps.

“I can teach you to drive it,” Steve offered, “We can go to the DMV to take your permit test, get you started so you can get a license.”

Bucky grinned and replied, “Hell yeah. Let’s do it.”

That same week, the five of them plus Winter piled into the new minivan to get all three pups’ hair trimmed before they met their aunts and grandpa and bubbe. Steve spent an exorbitant amount of money on dress clothes for them and for Bucky, after which the combined weight of the number on the cash register and the clusters of other people in the store dragged Bucky down into an episode that lasted all the way until they parked the minivan in the garage.

The day before Thanksgiving, Bucky scrubbed his pups clean, combed out their dark hair, and watched like a hawk while they brushed their teeth. After he wrangled them into bed, he took a bath of his own, a calming bubble bath that he hoped would hold back the prickle of anxiety that had been creeping up Bucky’s spine, pinching and scraping more and more as the days edged closer to Thanksgiving.

He wanted to see his family. He did. Bucky missed his ma and his dad, and he missed every one of his sisters. He knew that Ma reassured him she didn’t think any of what happened with Pierce was his fault, but his brain found it difficult to agree. He fought with himself while he soaked in the tub, and eventually, after shaving the stubble from his jaw and dressing in pajamas, Bucky caved in and popped a couple of Xanax.

Steve kept an eye on him throughout the ordeal and wrapped his arms around Bucky as soon as they climbed into bed, urging Bucky to take in his alpha scent and settle. The effort, in conjunction with the Xanax, lulled Bucky into a fitful sleep that he woke up from not three hours later, teetering on panic in the aftermath of a nightmare.

Steve rubbed Bucky’s back and murmured sleep-addled nonsense words to calm him down. When Bucky went down the second time, he stayed asleep, and when he woke he couldn’t recall if he had dreamed or not.

Bucky brushed the snarls out of his hair and tied it back with an elastic. He asked Steve to re-teach him how to iron, because he didn’t want to ruin his brand new shirt from their disaster shopping trip the week before, and hovered like a shadow while Steve patiently showed Bucky how to work the wrinkles out of the fabric. After, Bucky dressed in his newly crisp black plaid button-down, his nicest jeans, and a pair of loafers so unused that they rubbed up against the sides of his feet.

“Wow,” Steve remarked, when Bucky emerged from the master bedroom, “You look great, Buck.”

“You think so?” he asked, with a nervous tug to the bottom of his shirt, “I just – I just wanna give a good impression. They know I’m crazy but I don’t have to look like I’m off my nut, right?”

“You’re not crazy,” Steve said. He handed Bucky his typical cup of morning tea, which Bucky accepted gratefully.

He still gave Steve a tart, “We’ll agree to disagree, in that case.”

Steve rolled his eyes and leaned in for a gentle kiss that Bucky felt all the way down to his toes. He smiled at Steve before he could help it, but had little time to linger in the moment as the pups began to trudge into the kitchen for breakfast. At noon, Bucky’s family would arrive, and he wanted the pups looking their absolute best. Through a joint effort with Steve, Bucky fed the pups, did the girls’ hair, and arranged them in their dress clothes. Win loved her blue dress with its gold sash and announced that she was a princess just like Cinderella, while Becky sported a less understated bright pink number.

George glared at them all from over his collared shirt. Even if he had picked the clothes out for himself when they purchased them, he didn’t like to be told what to wear on any given day.

After the production of readying the pups and tidying the house, Bucky didn’t notice the passage of time until Steve pressed a glass of water and a Xanax into his palm and said, “They’re gonna be here in around fifteen minutes. Figured you might want this.”

“God, yes,” Bucky answered.

The meds pumped in his veins by the time that the sound of the doorbell blared through the front room. Bucky huddled on the couch and let Steve answer the call. Warm, familiar voices carried into the open room on a gust of cold November air, and Steve’s welcome echoed back.

Bucky didn’t look up from his hands, even as the front door creaked closed and it became obvious that several pairs of eyes bore right into him. Bucky swallowed past the lump in his throat and made himself turn his head toward the front of the room.

There, right in the foyer in their winter finest, stood the other seven members of the Barnes family: Ma, looking plumper and a little more creased but who smelled just as wonderful as Bucky remembered; Dad, whose grayer hair hadn’t changed the smile on his face; Becca, who in person looked even more put-together and beautiful than she did on a computer monitor; Joanna, who at twenty one smelled as neutral as she had as a child – a beta, she was a beta; Rachel and Judy, whose alpha scents dominated the combined aroma of the family; and Beth, who looked as smart as she did silly.

Bucky rose to his feet. He cleared his throat.

“Hi, everyone,” he said. The words emerged in such a quiet rasp that Bucky hardly heard himself, but he knew they got the gist, especially as Ma tore from the family huddle and ran to him.

Bucky dove right into her arms and wrapped his limbs around her body as her grip tightened. The burst of his mother’s familiar scent made him dizzy, reminded him of lazy summer days at the poolside and weeknight math homework and oatmeal cookies. The scent bundled Bucky up like a blanket, swaddled him with warmth and joy. She pressed her face against his neck to scent him and Bucky did the same to her.

When Ma pulled away, the skin on Bucky’s throat was damp, as were Ma’s eyes, but she laughed through the tears. She cupped Bucky’s face in her hands and he let her, even staying still as she said, “You’re so handsome. So grown up. Look at you!”

“Bubbe’s here!”

Win streaked into the room as though rocket-propelled, and tripped over her own feet to get to Winnie. She said, “Hi Bubbe! Daddy and Steve got me a special dress because Daddy says today is a special occasion.”

Bucky rubbed his hand over his jaw and chuckled. He said, “Ma, here’s my youngest. Where are your siblings, sweetheart?”

“Becky went outside to the swings,” Win said.

“In her new dress?” said Bucky, incredulous. He dashed off before he could think the better of it and burst out the back door. Sure enough, Becky was on the swings in her new dress, her feet dangling dangerously close to the muddy patches below the swingset.

“Rebecca Jo Barnes, you get your sorry butt off of that swingset and get inside this instant,” Bucky barked.

“Why?” whined Becky.

“Because you’re going to ruin your nice dress, and because your aunties and your bubbe and grandpa are here,” Bucky said, “Right now. If you make me come down there, you’re not getting hot cocoa for a week –”

“No!” exclaimed Becky. She tumbled off the swing (missing the mud, thank God) and bolted to Bucky.

Bucky heaved her up onto his hip (Damn, she never used to be this heavy, but that was good, she probably weighed what a six year old should, now) and carried her back inside, where George and Winter had found their way to the living room. Both boy and dog sported smug looks as Bucky’s sisters doted on them, petting Winter and praising George. Becky kicked at Bucky’s legs to be let down, and marched over to investigate.

While she made her presence known, Becca broke from the group and pulled Bucky into a firm hug. His eyes closed and he breathed in her perfume, content to stand with his twin sister for several long seconds. They both grinned wetly when they drew away, and Becca said, “Worrying about your pup’s new dress. You sounded just like Ma. It was eerie.”

“That’s the first thing you say to me in person?” Bucky said back, “Shoulda fucking known you’d be just as obnoxious as you always were.”

“Pot, meet kettle,” Becca said.

Bucky cuffed her on the arm.

The day fell into a hectic rhythm after that, as Ma and Dad got set up in the kitchen to help Steve and Bucky with the cooking, and Bucky suffered through hugs upon hugs from every member of his family. Ma came back for more every few minutes, but he couldn’t say he minded her scent washing over him. In the sub-basement, he longed to be hugged by her and to breathe her scent in again, if only once more before he died. Little time passed before Bucky became convinced he would die in that hole.  

Bucky shuddered to think of each time he thought he teetered on the brink of death after his kidnapping. When he first woke up alone and terrified, prone on that narrow mattress with searing pain between his legs and he knew what happened to him, oh god, he knew – the first time Bucky was conscious for his rape and could think of nothing but how much it hurt – when the rush of wet soaked his boxer shorts and pain seized his body and fifteen year old Bucky knew that oh fuck, the pup was on the way

Ma’s hand cupped Bucky’s cheek and the pad of her thumb stroked over the shadow beneath one eye. Bucky tried not to flinch back, but he did close his eyes and furrow his brow.

“Honey?” Ma said.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” she assured him, and wrapped her arms around Bucky once more.

“I missed you,” Bucky said, after Ma loosened her grip on him, “I really missed you. Ma, I wanted you so bad when I was – when I was down there. I thought you wouldn’t want me back.”

“James Buchanan Barnes,” Winnie said fiercely, “I will always want you. You could be a crack-addicted rent boy with no teeth and mush for brains and I would still want you. Do you understand me?”

“Jesus, Ma,” Bucky said, but when Winnie narrowed her eyes further he leapt to add, “Yeah. I understand. I’m so happy to see you.”

When Bucky went in for another hug with his mother, he felt a tug on the leg of his jeans. Win complained, “Daddy, stop hogging Bubbe. I wanna show her my room and all my toys and all my art.”

“Sorry, baby,” Bucky said, “I didn’t mean to hog your grandmother.”

As Bucky watched Win put her little hand in his mother’s and drag her along to the nursery, he felt another smile turn up his lips. The low hum of anxiety thrummed at the back of Bucky’s skull in spite of his Xanax, so he ducked to the master bath to take another pill before he returned to the hubbub of the kitchen.

Loose-limbed and pleasantly airy, Bucky helped chop vegetables and prepare dishes. The chaos still managed to get under his skin and make it crawl with discomfort, so he broke away to sit on the armchair in the living room, dazed, and unsure whether he was stressed or pleased with everything that was going on around him. Time began to pull apart and drip, until the nudge of a damp nose against his palm snapped Bucky back into the present.

George and Winter stood in front of him, and when Bucky met his son’s eyes, the pup climbed up into his lap and nuzzled up against Bucky’s chest. He said, “Don’t go away, Daddy.”

“Sorry,” Bucky murmured, palming George’s back with a gentle hand. He kissed the top of George’s head in the middle of his soft, brown hair and said, “When there are lots of people, I get kinda nervous.”

“Me too,” George admitted.

What a sorry mess Bucky and his oldest pup were, clustered together in their own little knot away from the cacophony of sounds and smells, of pots and pans banging, knives beating against cutting boards, laughter swelling over older versions of familiar voices, all woven together with the primordial scents of Thanksgiving dinner, of fresh-chopped vegetables and the preheating oven.

Bucky pulled George in tight and let his eyes fall closed. The living room fell away and, for a terrifying moment, Bucky careened backward into the sub-basement, into a memory of holding George while his pup was sweating out a fever. Bucky counted the minutes until Pierce came down that day (or night; Bucky could never tell and in that tiny room time warped like plastic left outside beneath a scorching summer sun) but out of anticipation rather than fear, because he needed to trade for medicine for George, and maybe soup.

When sickness hit any of them, Bucky always longed for his ma’s matzo ball soup.

“Buck? You with me?”

Bucky jerked to attention, shaking a started noise out of his son, who was still curled up in Bucky’s lap. Steve crouched beside the armchair, holding Bucky’s hand between both of his. He rubbed circles into Bucky’s palm, the pattern spiraling up and down and back again. Bucky sat up straighter, daring a glance at the kitchen, where several sets of eyes focused on him. Of course they were. The smell of panic curled off of his skin like tiny claws burrowing into and ripping apart the festive air of the afternoon.

“Yeah. I’m here. Sorry,” Bucky apologized, for what felt like the fiftieth time in as many minutes.

“It’s okay. You need to lie down or something?” Steve asked.

Bucky shook his head.

“You sure?”

“I’m sure,” Bucky said. He quelled the desire to snap at Steve, knowing Steve didn’t mean to baby him and wasn’t at all wrong for not taking Bucky at his word.

“Maybe we could turn on a movie?” suggested Steve, “So you can take your mind off of how busy it is in here.”

“Okay. Yeah. That sounds good,” Bucky agreed.

“Ooh! Can we watch Mrs. Doubtfire? Do you have that? We always watch it on Thanksgiving,” Beth enthused from where she’d made camp on the floor with Becky, playing with a couple of baby dolls that appeared in the nursery a few weeks ago without any explanation but a smirk from Steve.

Bucky furrowed his brow and asked, “We do?”

“Duh,” Beth said, “We’ve always watched it, since like – oh. I guess since I was maybe eight or nine.”

Four or five years after Pierce snatched Bucky off of the street, his family started a new Thanksgiving tradition. What other traditions and jokes had he missed out on? Bucky doubted he wanted to know the answer to that question. Knowing all that happened within the family without him would only make him sad, or maybe angry, because Pierce stole a life from Bucky he would never get back. Every time that he remembered his stolen life fury bubbled just under the surface of his skin and he hated Pierce, hated that he would never be normal and that he’d missed so much because of him.

Bucky massaged his temples and said, “Sure. Let’s watch Mrs. Doubtfire,” because he didn’t want to ruin the holiday with the sheer amount of pissed off and sorry for himself he was feeling.

The pups piled onto him as Steve flicked through Amazon to rent the movie, all three attaching to Bucky like barnacles. As Mrs. Doubtfire filled the television screen, Bucky caught both his mother and father staring at him, watching Bucky stroking George’s head and curling a protective arm around Becky. Simultaneously Bucky did and didn’t want to know what thoughts ran through his parents’ heads.

Were they disappointed?

Were they proud?

Were they both of those things at once?

Again, Bucky would bet good money that he didn’t want to know the answer.

The answer came anyway when Bucky excused himself halfway through the movie to use the restroom, and extracted his body from beneath the weight of his pups. When he emerged from the master bath, he about stumbled headlong into his father, who perched on the edge of the queen bed in Bucky and Steve’s bedroom. George Sr. turned his gaze from Steve’s artwork on the wall to Bucky and said, “This is a nice setup you’ve got here.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, unsure of what to do or say. He missed his dad while in the sub-basement, of course he had, but Pierce instilled in Bucky some instinctual fear of alphas, even the good alphas that Bucky had known all his life. His heart beat faster at being alone in the room with his dad, whose alpha aroma glowed around him like an aura.

“I wish that –” his dad cut himself off with a sigh, “Seems like we should have…should’ve done something more, you know?”

Bucky scratched at the back of his neck. He watched the Youtube videos, the old news coverage of his disappearance and the Investigation Discovery specials and conspiracy theories and everything in between. His parents searched tirelessly, set up a reward for information that led to Bucky’s retrieval dead or alive, combed sections of neighborhoods and woods and plains for any sign of him, but dredged up not a single clue to Bucky’s whereabouts.

Bucky vanished on a mild September night. He was last seen walking toward home in a gray hoodie with a star on the left shoulder, a pair of ragged jeans, and converse with bright red laces. His scent vanished on a dark, unlit sidewalk sandwiched between two streets. The police and community search efforts turned up nothing, because Pierce stole Bucky and everything on him, and didn’t leave any evidence to be found.

There was nothing more anyone could have done, as much as Bucky wanted there to be. He’d known then in that room that no one would find him and he knew now why that was. Slowly, he said, “You guys did everything that you could. I watched, um. I watched old videos of the news. You and Ma never gave up, not for a second.”

“An alpha’s supposed to protect his own,” George Sr. hoarsely said, “and I didn’t. I lost my pup and you – you got hurt, and I should have – ”

“Dad,” Bucky said, “I forgive you, okay? It’s okay. I’m alive, see? All in one piece, relatively,” then he tried to joke, “I even came out with a couple new pieces.” The jest fell flat. Bucky’s dad looked as though he might cry.

“You didn’t have anyone to help you down there,” said George Sr., “You were all alone.”

“Yeah,” Bucky nodded, “I was. But I’m not anymore, okay? I’m not alone.”

“This Steve,” his dad went on, “I like him. He’s a good egg, James. I know your mother would probably prefer if you mated a nice Jewish alpha, but I just want you to be happy. If he makes you happy…”

Bucky’s dad didn’t finish the end of his sentence, but the meaning didn’t escape Bucky. He cocked a brow and said, “Are you giving me and Steve your blessing?” If Bucky could rely on one thing to never, ever change, that thing was apparently his parents’ shameless meddling.

“Yes. Not that you need it. I thought you might like to know that you have it nonetheless.”

Bucky glanced away from his father’s intent gaze and replied, “Me and Steve…I don’t know what we are. I don’t know if we’re gonna be mates.”

“You sure act like mates,” George Sr. pointed out.

Bucky shrugged a shoulder. He said, “He smells real nice and he’s sweet to my pups, good to me. But the thing is that I gotta look before I leap. I don’t wanna jump from being trapped by one alpha to being trapped by another. Seems like all I’m doing is changing hands.”

An appalled expression slapped across George Sr.’s face. He said, “You know that’s not true.”

“No, Dad, I don’t know,” Bucky said, and whether his courage came from the huge dose of Xanax wrangling his mind and body or some other power source, he couldn’t say. What he did say was, “I told Steve, and I’m gonna tell you. I was owned for eleven years. There ain’t no other way to say it. I don’t want to hand my leash to another alpha when I’ve barely had freedom for a handful of months. My pups have never known what it’s like to be free. If I always tie myself to an alpha, what kind of example am I setting for them?”

George Sr. tore his eyes from Bucky’s face and smeared a shaking hand over his mouth. Bucky’s dad had always identified as a sensitive alpha, the kind of alpha unafraid to cry at movies or give indiscriminate love. Bucky forgot that, until now, as his dad’s eyes went even wider and wetter than before.

Bucky faltered and then said, “Steve…I care a lot about Steve. I’m pretty sure he cares about me too. He’s done a lot for me and the pups. When I think about it, I know I could stay here forever and be happy, but I gotta consider my babies, and I gotta consider myself. What my instinct and my brain are telling me are two different things. Mating’s an instinct thing. I know you know that. And I’ve seen some bad shit instinct can do.”

His dad studied him for a long moment and inhaled a shaky breath. Bucky crossed over to the bedside table wedged between the queen and king beds and offered his dad a tissue, which he took. When George Sr. spoke again at last, he said, “You’ve grown up.”

Bucky gave his dad a sad smile and said, “I had to.”

Rather than dwell on such a serious note, Bucky and his father rejoined the rest of the family where they were scattered across the open floor, some working in the kitchen, others tucked together on the couches, others still on the floor.

The scene brought to mind old holidays from Bucky’s former lifetime, when his sisters were just tiny pups and he wasn’t much older. He wondered if his parents left his bedroom as it was, but doubted it. Maybe they kept his things, though, someplace in storage – his comics and books and baseball trophies, all treasures he thought he might like to see again, even if they brought with them the clinging shroud of nostalgia, the same way seeing his family grown did.

After Steve expanded the kitchen table with the extra leaf and steaming dishes of food decked the top, Bucky settled into himself, less distant than before. He smiled and laughed with his sisters, told them all about Win’s preschool and how smart George was and how unique Becky proved to be.

Bruce okayed glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner at Bucky’s last checkup, so Bucky poured himself a glass and sipped at the rim of it. He wrinkled his nose and smacked his mouth and tried to decide what he thought of it. Unsure, he tasted it again.

Wine was kind of gross, but Bucky liked the fuzzy feeling that came with it. Maybe Bruce didn’t mean Bucky could have wine with his anxiety medication, but Bucky kept drinking anyway.

“I noticed you two have a shiny new minivan,” Ma said conversationally.

“Steve had a Beetle before,” Bucky said, “Kinda outgrew it once we added the dog.”

Sensing she was the subject of some talk, Winter lifted her head from the special expensive dog food they put in her bowl, a Thanksgiving dinner of her own. She wagged her tail, and George reached back to pat her behind the ears. Red cranberry sauce stained the corners of his mouth, but had yet to drop onto George’s new clothes. They’d see how long that lasted.

Bucky took another sip of wine from his glass and said, “My favorite feature of the van is the ass-warmers.”

Steve rolled his eyes and clarified for the table, “He means the heated seats.”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it? Ass-warmers,” Bucky said.

That teased a laugh out of his family, and Bucky’s earlier anxiety slunk off elsewhere, replaced by old ease he remembered from dinners past. The only hiccup came when, bellies full, Bucky and Steve collected dishes to rinse them in the sink, and Bucky caught Becky stashing a handful of turkey and stuffing into a napkin to hide in her room. He confiscated the napkin and gave her an unopened can of cranberry sauce to hoard instead. 

Bucky gave permission to the pups to change out of their nice clothes after the sun went down, and ducked into the walk-in closet in the master bedroom to slip out of his button-down and into one of Steve’s t-shirts. He left his jeans for the time being, and curled up on the couch against Steve’s chest, cradling a cup of tea between his palms.

While they all waited for dinner to settle in their stomachs, Bucky and his family lounged in the living room and talking about nothing in particular. Bucky caught up with his sisters’ lives, and filled them in on his and the pups’. Steve explained having a good chunk of money coming in from having invented an animation technique apparently used by large studios everywhere, though he took commissions on the side.

When the time came for pie to be served, Ma mixed up fresh whipped cream in Steve’s dark blue Kitchen-Aid mixer, and Steve sliced the pies. George forked a single bite of whipped cream-covered pumpkin pie into his mouth before his face split into the widest grin Bucky had ever witnessed gracing his son’s face and he said, “Pie is amazing. This is even better than cupcakes! I shoulda had pie for my birthday.”

“We can have pie for your birthday next year,” Bucky said.

“I get another birthday?” asked George.

Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “You have a birthday every year, baby.”

“Wow,” George said, “How many birthdays is that?”

“A lot, if you live a long time,” Bucky said.

“Can Bubbe come to my birthday?” Becky asked. The question sounded surprisingly dignified for the amount of whipped cream streaking down Becky’s pink and green nightgown.

“Of course she can,” Bucky answered. His mom beamed at him from across the table.

“How come we didn’t have birthdays in the dark?” Win asked.

The table went quiet. Bucky’s fork scraped against his plate with a squeal and he cleared his throat. He answered, “Because I didn’t know what day it was, sweetheart.”

“Oh,” Win said, scrunching up her face in concentration, “Do you know what day it is now?”

“November twenty fourth,” he answered.

“When’s my birthday?” Win asked.

“October twenty first.”

“I picked it out,” Win announced to the table at large.

So much of the past eleven years of Bucky’s life went unspoken between them, a conspicuous something hanging right above all their heads that none of them wanted to mention. These little details, of Win picking her own birthday or of Bucky being unaware of a movie-watching ritual gone on long enough to be called a tradition, reminded Bucky – and he imagined his family – where he was only months ago. His family skirted the issue, though, and shifted the topic to Judy’s imminent final semester of high school, and what she planned to do upon graduation.

Bucky appreciated the spotlight being shined on somebody else for a while.

When the night wound down, they split the leftovers into Tupperware containers to store in Steve’s fridge and for Bucky’s family to take home with them, all three of Bucky’s pups passed out in the living room. George hung halfway off the arm of the couch with Winter curled up into a bun at his feet, while Win tucked herself into a tiny ball on the armchair, and Becky sacked out on the floor beneath the coffee table with one of Clint’s blankets wrapped around her shoulders.

At the front door, they said their goodbyes. Bucky endured multiple hugs from every one of his sisters and both of his parents. Just as Ma made to step off onto the front porch, Bucky touched the crook of her arm and said, “Ma.”

“Mm?”

“Thank you,” he said, “for today. It was – it was a nice day.”

Ma engulfed Bucky in another hug and kissed his cheek. She said, “I’m so happy. And I’m so proud of you.”

“What for?” Bucky asked, frowning.

Ma smoothed an escaped lock of hair back behind Bucky’s ear and said, “For everything. You survived so much, and you have been so brave. You love your pups, and you’re still standing here in front of me, even after everything. I know it hasn’t all been easy, but you are so strong, and I just…I am proud of the person you grew up to be. My good boy.”

“Ma,” Bucky said. His guts tied into a knot of embarrassment, relief, and wonder. He didn’t know what else to say, so he drew her in for a final, firm hug.

Ma squeezed his arm and said, “Keep in touch, all right? Let us know if you want to do anything special for Hanukkah.”

“I will,” Bucky said, and he watched his family walk down the driveway to their respective cars. He waved, and they waved back before they buckled in, closed the doors, and drove away, down the street and out of sight.

Bucky didn’t close the door until the last taillight blinked from his line of sight. He locked it behind him and rested his back against it, closing his eyes. When he opened them, Steve was in front of him, a few feet between their bodies. Bucky reached out for him, and Steve went, letting himself be drawn into a loose embrace.

“How d’you think that went?” Bucky asked.

“I think you did real well,” Steve said into Bucky’s hair, and applied a kiss to the same place.

“Good,” Bucky said, “I feel like I could sleep for a fucking year, though.”

Steve pulled back enough to kiss Bucky before he said, “Me too. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

If Bucky thought his newfound comfort with Steve’s aroused scent and the sensation of Steve’s hard cock rubbing up between his legs meant that he’d be able to power through a checkup with Bruce problem-free, he was dead wrong. At least this time around, Bucky had the foresight to not only knock back some anxiety meds, but also to keep Steve in the exam room with him from the start.

After Bucky swapped his clothes for an ugly hospital gown and scooted back onto the exam table, Steve ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair. Bucky pushed up into the touch, and in response Steve stroked in a soft rhythm, his nails scratching against Bucky’s scalp. By the time that Bruce knocked and slipped into the room, Bucky was far more relaxed than he expected to be. The door snapped closed, and his shoulders tensed up to his ears.

“So, how’s everything been feeling?” asked Bruce, “Are you keeping down food? Experiencing signs of pre-heat?”

Bucky started to shake his head, only to realize that Bruce asked him more than one question. He bumped Steve’s hand with his head to keep it moving through his hair and said, “Food’s fine. Not much is hurting my stomach anymore. I guess I have to take antacids sometimes, but I haven’t felt anything like a heat coming on. Is that bad?”

“You’re probably fine,” Bruce said, “Don’t forget how much your body has been through, not only when you were being abused, but after you had to adjust to a whole new lifestyle. Nonetheless, I want to go ahead and do an examination of your channel and see if there’s anything I might have missed.”

Bucky whined low in his throat. He didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want anything inside him. Steve’s hand stilled in his hair and Bucky whined again, sinking lower down on the exam table.

“Buck,” Steve said, “We gotta get through this. We don’t wanna get surprised by your heat. That wouldn’t be good for you or the pups.”

“Fuck,” Bucky said, “You’re right.” While Bucky explained the basic mechanics of sex versus what happened in the sub-basement between Bucky and Pierce to his oldest, he didn’t know if George would be able to tell the difference in practice. He intended to have Clint or Natasha watch the pups while he and Steve muddled through his heat, but he couldn’t do that if he didn’t know when the heat would hit.

Steve offered his hand. Bucky took it and laced his fingers through while Bruce unfolded the exam table stirrups. He instructed Bucky to set his feet on them. Bucky obeyed, but tightened his grip on Steve. Logically, he understood the routine and why this had to happen, but every instinct in his body screamed at him to get out of there and run for his life. The scent of fear that filled the room strengthened, enough so that Bruce snorted and coughed into his hand, then excused himself rolled to the other side of the exam room. He returned with a mask affixed over his nose and mouth.

With his free hand, Steve rubbed his fingers through Bucky’s hair again. He said, “Hey, did you wanna do decorations for Hanukkah, too?”

“Um,” Bucky said, trying not to look at where Bruce was lubing up the metal thing mere feet away, “I don’t know. My dad always did blue lights outside because he made holiday lights into some kind of competition the neighbors didn’t know that they entered. Uh. Ah.” The last noise escaped Bucky as the device made its uncomfortable slide inside him.

“Anyway, most of Hanukkah’s about doin’ stuff anyway, all the blessings and games and food, y’know?” Bucky went on, “Not as many decorations as Christmas. We gotta think about what we’re telling the pups, though. I’ve explained some stuff to them. I know I told them the story of Hanukkah while we were, um. While we were down in the basement. I could – could probably remember the blessings. Maybe my folks could stop by one of the nights. Pretty sure I can’t make sufganiyot like my dad can. Guess I should have him teach me, huh?”

Bucky exhaled a shaking breath when Bruce removed the metal contraption from his channel and wheeled away to set it aside. He pulled his mask down to rest on his chin and said, “All right, so you look just about as healthy as an average omega, but just in case, I’m gonna have one of the nurses take some blood and get a urine sample. My guess is that your heat will come sometime after the new year. Early to mid-January, most likely. How are you two planning to handle that?”

Steve glanced down at Bucky at the same time Bucky blinked up to Steve. Realizing both of them were waiting for the other to speak, Steve said, “What do you wanna do, Buck? I’ll do anything you need me to do to make you comfortable.”

Bucky let his legs fall back down and Bruce put the stirrups away, staring at Bucky expectantly from beneath serious brows. Bucky picked at the edge of one cuticle and answered, “I want Steve there. I was thinking I’d have Clint or Natasha babysit the pups, or I guess – I guess if they’re not up for that, then I could call my parents? It’s just that they’re familiar with Clint and Nat and…anyway. The pups shouldn’t be there.”

Steve added, “I figured I’d pick up some toys and stuff if you ended up being uncomfortable with me around.”

“This is gonna be uncomfortable no matter what, Steve,” Bucky sighed, “I’d rather do it with you there than alone. I’m scared outta my fuckin’ mind and you make me feel a little less like the world’s ending, so.”

“All right,” Bruce said, “Sounds like you intend to allow Steve to help you through your heat, provided you’re comfortable with it, and if not, then Steve will have toys you can use to slake the waves. Right?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said.

“You should get all of that coordinated, including where you want the pups to be during the heat, as soon as possible,” said Bruce, “Not because I think it might happen any day, but just in case. It’s better to be prepared, especially knowing how deeply sexual contact affects you, Bucky. And while I can make an educated guess here, I’m not a psychic. Your body’s been through the grinder and because of that we should brace ourselves for anything, okay? I’m gonna prescribe some emergency birth control for Bucky so you two have that in your arsenal.”

“Okay,” Bucky agreed.

“We’ll make sure we have everything in order,” Steve promised at the same time.

“Steve, do you still have refills on your suppressants?” Bruce asked.

Steve nodded, “Yeah, I’m all good.”

“All right, then we’re done here,” Bruce said, “but the instant that Bucky starts feeling pre-heat symptoms, you call me, all right? You call me, and you get the pups out of there. Even if it’s a false alarm, you’ll spare the pups the worry. After you change back into your clothes, take a right out of here and tell Janet I need blood and urine samples from you, then you’re free to go.”

Bucky thanked Bruce and watched him leave before he stripped out of the hospital gown. He eyed Steve while he undressed, but Steve made a point not to look at Bucky while he was naked. Bucky couldn’t figure out whether the avoidance was Steve’s polite nature or the fact that Bucky was scarred up and too skinny, no matter how much weight he’d put on since he and the pups escaped Pierce.

Bucky never liked getting his blood taken, but he forced himself through filling several vials with different-colored tops and was mollified by the fact that the nurse acknowledged his request to have a Looney Tunes band-aid instead of a boring flesh-colored one. He ended the visit by peeing in a plastic cup and setting it on a weird window thing in the bathroom before he could get out of there.

Anxious, Bucky didn’t bother speaking when they collected George and Becky from tutoring on one of the lower levels of the clinic, or when they picked Win up from preschool. He managed a wave for T’Challa and Ntombi but nothing more, which T’Challa thankfully forgave when Steve explained the stress Bucky experienced from having to go to doctor’s appointments.

The moment that they got through the door, Bucky made a beeline for his private bedroom. He liked the nest he made for himself there, liked to curl up under the blankets and pillows whenever the world got to be too much and bore down on him with more weight than Bucky had strength to carry. So he did just that – he crawled under the blankets, wrapped himself up, and threw his brain far away from the threat of his heat.

But the heat loomed nearer and nearer, and God, Bucky was so afraid.

**

The checkup with Bruce seemed that it would be the peak of Bucky’s stress that week, but the true test of his will came when they readied themselves for bed a couple nights later, when Steve said, “I have to go to Los Angeles this coming weekend on business.”

Bucky stopped brushing his teeth and spat into the sink. He said, “What?”

“I’m meeting a couple people that want to commission some work from me,” Steve said, “It means a lot of money, and they’re not willing to fly out to Denver…so I have to go there.”

“What are me and the pups supposed to do? How long are you gonna be gone?” Bucky asked, heart racing in his chest.

Steve rested his hand on the small of Bucky’s back and rubbed in circles. He said, “I’m only gonna be gone for a couple days. I made sure that I’m not gonna be gone on any days that you guys have appointments, but I coordinated with Pepper and Bruce – since they live closest to us – and if you or the pups need anything you can call or text them and they’ll get whatever you need.”

Bucky licked his lips. He didn’t like the idea of being left behind, even if he knew there were people aplenty to keep an eye on him and make sure that nothing went awry. But hell, money didn’t grow on trees. Bucky and his sisters grew up in a middle class family, but having so many pups in one pack meant that from time to time money had to stretch uncomfortably taut between his father’s paychecks. Steve never seemed to want for money, but Steve also dedicated a solid chunk of hours every week to working in his studio.

“I can cancel if you need me to,” Steve said, after Bucky went silent for too long.

“No,” Bucky immediately said, “Don’t do that. Me n’ the pups will be fine. I’ll be able to call you if I need, right?”

“Of course,” Steve said. His face slipped into a relieved smile, which made Bucky wonder how nervous Steve had been to have this conversation.

Bucky stepped forward and tipped his face up to peck a kiss to Steve’s lips. The kiss earned a smile out of Steve, the kind of smile that went all the way up to Steve’s eyes and made them crinkle at the corners. Steve’s smiles were infectious – every time Steve flashed one at Bucky, the urge to smile back bubbled up in the pit of his stomach like fizzy champagne.

Through that, the prospect of Steve’s absence settled like a hot stone in his gut, but Bucky went to bed content, wrapped up in Steve’s arms.

Tension, however, plagued the proceeding week, as Bucky prepared to reach his first stint without Steve. The longest Steve ever left Bucky and the pups on their own never lasted more than a few hours, and as the day of Steve’s departure approached, dread suffused Bucky. Nightmares peppered every second Bucky spent with his eyes closed. Food became unappealing, and more often than not, Bucky spent his free time burrowed beneath the blankets and pillows in his bedroom.

The sound of Bucky’s bedroom door swinging open and clicking closed interrupted one such stint in his nest. A beat following, the mattress sagged on one side and Steve’s masculine, warm scent settled over Bucky’s senses. Bucky had wriggled all the way under the covers and piled them on top of him, otherwise Steve probably would have rubbed Bucky’s back or stroked his hair. Instead, Steve’s just said, “Buck? I don’t have to go, if it’s gonna be too hard.”

Bucky scooted up and poked his head out from under the blankets. Voice rough, he said, “No. You should go. It’s – I’m just freaked out, ‘cause we’ve never done something like this before. But it would happen eventually, right? May as well just get this first time out of the way.”

“No,” Steve said, tone firm, “If this affects you that deeply, then I’m staying. You have gotta stop pushing yourself so hard.”

“Fuck that,” Bucky said, and sat up in bed, “You have a job. I shouldn’t stop you from doing it.”

“You and the pups are my priority,” Steve replied, “I’m not hurting for cash, okay? Hell, support alphas have to have the means to care for an omega without working. The fact that I can work at all is a luxury, because you and the pups are stable.”

“Obviously not stable enough,” Bucky muttered.

“Will you give yourself credit?” Steve lamented, “It hasn’t even been nine months since you got outta that – that hole in the ground. You’ve come so far. Sam tells you that all the time! It’s Sam’s job to be honest with you and help you. He wouldn’t bullshit this.”

Bucky huffed, blowing his hair out of his eyes. He said, “Fine. I’m getting better, or whatever. But I want you to go to LA. I want you to be able to do your job.”

Steve exhaled and ran both hands through his hair. He nodded, and then said, “Here’s the deal. If you get through the rest of the week without any episodes, then I’ll go take the job. If you seem too stressed, then I’ll stay behind, and we can try again next time somebody wants to me to fly out to them for a meeting. Okay?”

Bucky could feel himself pouting, but he folded his arms across his chest and conceded, “Fine,” but then asked, “Do nightmares count?”

Steve considered for a moment and answered, “No. We won’t count nightmares. But anything else that might count as an episode is on my radar. The deal starts now.”

With that challenge on Bucky’s head, he crawled out from beneath the covers and padded out of his bedroom after Steve. While Steve paced to the kitchen to answer Becky’s demand for a snack, Bucky retreated to the master bath, where he opened the medicine cabinet and took down the orange canister of Xanax. He knocked a pill into his palm and swallowed it dry.

Bucky glanced up to his reflection in the bathroom mirror. A wild crown of uncombed hair surrounded his head and shadows sat heavy on the undersides of his eyes. No wonder Steve didn’t trust Bucky on his own – he looked like a fucking disaster. Bucky fumbled for his hairbrush and spent the next couple of minutes working the tangles out of his long hair. He swept it back and tied it out of his face, then splashed some cold water into his eyes.

His appearance improved vastly with that, and when Bucky emerged into the common area of the house, a small, approving smile lifted the corners of Steve’s mouth.

Bucky had done well.

Bucky did so well, in fact, that when the time came that Steve had to make a definitive decision about whether or not he would fly to Los Angeles to meet with potential commissioners, he settled on leaving. Anxiety still clamped around Bucky like a trap at the idea, but he took his medication and worked through the fear.

Hell, if Steve decided that he didn’t want Bucky and the pups here anymore, Bucky would have to figure out how to be on his own anyway – or at least how to exist without Steve. He didn’t like the idea of a life without Steve in it, enough that when Bucky kissed Steve goodbye and watched him climb into an Uber in the driveway (leaving the minivan for Bucky and the pups in case of emergency, even if Bucky only had his permit) discomfort prickled all around his skin.

To Bucky’s surprise, all three pups launched themselves at Steve and made him promise to come back. Steve knelt down and hugged them back. He brushed a kiss to each of their foreheads. While Becky and George reluctantly parted from their support alpha, Win held on with her chubby arms around Steve’s neck, crying that she didn’t want him to go.

“Stay safe,” Steve murmured, when Bucky moved to peel his youngest pup off of him.

Bucky kissed Steve a second time and said, “You too.”

“I’ll call you when I land, okay? We can Facetime,” Steve promised.

“Hear that, sweetheart?” Bucky said to Win, who was bawling into his neck, “Steve is gonna call us when he gets to Los Angeles.”

“I don’t want him to g-go-ooo,” Win sobbed, “I love Steve.”

Bucky exchanged a look with Steve, who extended his arms to hold Win again. He petted her back and said, “I love you too, sweet girl. I won’t be gone very long at all. Do you think you can watch your daddy for me while I’m away? You gotta make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.”

Through the tears and snot, Win giggled a little. She stuck her nose against Steve’s neck to scent him and, though her voice wobbled, said, “Okay. I will make sure Daddy is good.”

Steve nosed at her dark hair. The gesture made Bucky’s heart leap all the way to his throat and twinge. The desire to kiss Steve hit Bucky all over again, so he did as Steve transferred Win to Bucky’s arms once more. This time, Bucky kissed harder, slipping Steve as much tongue as he could get away with before Becky and George started to make noises of protest.

“Love you guys,” Steve said.

He climbed into the Uber before Bucky could reply to that.

Steve loved them?

Was that…a family kind of love, or a love-love? The kind of love that mates shared? So befuddled was Bucky by the sentiment that he stood in the driveway well past watching the Uber pull out of the concrete driveway and putter down the street out of sight. George tugged at the edge of Bucky’s Henley and said, “Daddy, can we go inside? It’s cold out here.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, and distracted himself from the onslaught of thoughts on love by asking, “What do you think you guys wanna eat for lunch?”

**

The first night without Steve progressed about as expected: the pups fussed at their less-than-gourmet dinner that Bucky threw together (boxed pasta and jar sauce, but he didn’t want to attempt anything greater and burn Steve’s house down while he was in Los Angeles), and griped more at bedtime because Bucky didn’t do the voices right for the characters in the books that they read. Win burst into tears when she realized Steve wasn’t there to give her or Bear a goodnight kiss, though cuddling and scenting Bucky for several minutes while he attempted to sing lullabies calmed her down to sniffles.

All in all, bedtime took twice as long as it did when Steve was there, and by the time that Bucky brushed his teeth and swapped out his jeans and t-shirt for pajamas, exhaustion wracked his whole body.

The king bed was empty and cold without Steve to use as his human furnace, and Bucky felt bereft without Steve’s homey scent surrounding him on all sides, fresh and warm. He tossed and turned for a half hour before he gave up and guiltily pawed around in the wicker laundry hamper in the master bath to scavenge up one of the t-shirts Steve had worn earlier that week. While the smell wasn’t as powerful as Steve himself would be, burying his nose in the soft cotton lulled Bucky into a fitful half-sleep.

Bucky figured that was as good as it was gonna get.

He woke far too early in the morning, as the sun crested over the horizon and morning light slotted through the gap between the curtains. A weight sat low on Bucky’s gut, and when he craned his neck he could see that all three pups joined him in the king bed sometime during the night. They hadn’t come to cuddle in with Bucky and Steve for a few weeks at least.

“Are you awake, Daddy?” Becky whispered right into his ear when she noticed his open eyes.

“Ngh,” Bucky replied eloquently, “What do you need, sweetheart?”

“I miss Steve,” she said.

“Me too,” Bucky murmured. Without jostling Win where she lay out cold on his chest, Bucky uncurled his arm and hauled Becky up against his side. He pressed his nose to her hair and neck and snuffled a little as he scented.

She giggled and said, “Daddy, that tickles!”

“Mm, sorry,” Bucky said, “What do you think we should do today?”

“Have a tea party,” Becky said.

“All right. We’ll have a tea party,” agreed Bucky.

Bucky’s other two pups only slept a few minutes more before they joined their dad and sister in the land of the awake. All four of them bumbled to the kitchen, rubbing sleep from their eyes as they went. Bucky reached into the cabinet to start coffee out of habit but paused when he realized that Steve wouldn’t be there to enjoy it. But what the hell – Bucky was exhausted, and his stomach was in much better condition than it had been months ago when he tried coffee for the first time since they escaped the sub-basement.

Still, the billowing aroma of freshly-ground coffee beans percolating with a happy rumble poked at Bucky insides, kicking up longing to see Steve again, though he hadn’t even been gone for an entire twenty four hours yet.

“How come you’re drinking coffee?” asked George, “Coffee is for Steve.”

“Because I’m tired, and coffee wakes people up,” answered Bucky.

“Can I have some?” asked George.

Bucky lifted one brow and warned, “You’re not gonna like it.”

“I wanna try anyway.”

Sure enough, when Bucky passed off his mug to George and he sipped tentatively, he wrinkled his nose and shoved the mug back across the kitchen island at Bucky. He said, “That’s gross.”

“I thought you might think that,” Bucky replied.

Bucky and the pups enjoyed a simple breakfast with cereal and oatmeal, and being that this was within the pups’ routine, they were less bothered by breakfast than they were about the previous night’s supper. Nonetheless, none of them were quite comfortable around the house that day, and when Bucky turned on a movie, all three pups piled on top of him. He wrapped them up in the knitted blanket from over the back of the couch, and they huddled all together as though they were one another’s only shelter from a storm.

So when a knock came at the door around noon, Bucky almost fused to the couch cushions and went into full panic right then and there. He swallowed down the crest of emotion in a bid to keep the fear out of his scent and away from his pups’ noses, but from their worried brows he doubted he succeeded.

“Who’s at the door?” whispered Win.

“I don’t know, baby,” Bucky replied, his own voice barely above a rasp.

They all jumped when Bucky’s phone vibrated against the coffee table. Bucky peered down and saw the contact image for Barton: Clint and Lucky at Win’s fourth birthday party, wearing matching Cinderella party hats on their heads and matching grins on their faces. For a beat, Bucky hesitated, then he reached past the pups on his lap and swiped to answer the call.

“Hey, what’s goin’ on?” Bucky asked.

“Are you home?” asked Clint, “The minivan’s here, which leads me to believe you’re home. If you’re home, will you open the door for me and Nat?”

“What?” Bucky said, “Why are you and Nat here?”

“We wanted to hang out. Are you busy or something?” Clint asked.

Bucky shook his head before he remembered that Clint wouldn’t be able to see him over the phone. He cleared his throat and replied, “Or something. Give me a sec. I’ll let you in.” Rearranging the pups, the dog, and the blanket into a suitable position took a couple minutes of effort, but Bucky made it to the door, and sure enough, found both Clint and Natasha on his doorstep, in jeans and winter coats. Nat held a cardboard coffee carried between two leather-gloved hands. Clint held Lucky’s leash in his.

“Hey,” Bucky greeted, waving them in before the early December wind knocked the house down too many degrees, “Steve send you to check on me?”

“Huh?” Clint said.

Natasha quirked a brow at Clint and said, “Steve’s in Los Angeles on business.”

“What? No one told me that,” Clint said.

“I literally told you this morning,” Nat responded.

Clint cast Nat a look of disbelief, but didn’t have time to voice it as Winter bounded over to greet Lucky and the pups realized that they knew the people that had come to the door. Commotion and hugs commenced, complete with Clint unclipping Lucky’s leash to let him roll around on the floor with Winter, and Nat placing the tray of coffee cups on the kitchen island so she could scoop Win up off of the floor and plant a kiss on her chubby cheek.

“Auntie Nat!” Win laughed, but she tightened her grip on Natasha and hugged her back. Bucky opened his mouth to protest and tell Win not to be impolite when she pressed her nose to Natasha’s neck to scent, but Nat waved him off and rubbed her hand over Win’s back.

“Auntie Nat,” Becky said, tugging at the edge of Natasha’s black coat, “Will you come to our tea party? Daddy said we’re gonna have one today.”

“Are we allowed to bring hot cocoa to the party?” asked Natasha, “Because that’s what we brought with us.” She stuck her still-gloved thumb at the coffee carrier.

With another flurry of movement, Bucky passed the paper cups of cocoa to his pups. At the fourth cup, he said, “There’s an extra.”

“It’s for you, idiot,” Natasha said fondly.

“Oh,” Bucky managed, and as he pulled the cup from the carrier to take a sip, he asked, “Seriously, though, did Steve send you over here to babysit me? Because we’re doing fine. We were just watching a movie.”

“No, Steve didn’t send us,” Natasha said.

Bucky lifted his brows. He didn’t know if he really believed that.

“I’m serious,” said Nat, “Everyone knew he was going out of town because he told Sam. I figured you could probably use the company, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen you.” She nudged Bucky with her shoulder, offering a little half-smile.

“Really?” Bucky said.

“We’re friends, aren’t we?” Natasha asked, “Anyway, I hate to keep this so brief, but I believe I was invited to a tea party.”

On cue, all three pups pulled Natasha toward the nursery, exclaiming over her and luring Lucky and Winter to follow after them with a couple of frayed rope toys and a half-full treat ball. Beside Bucky, Clint folded his arms over chest and grinned. He said, “If you could sell your pups’ energy, you would be filthy fuckin’ rich, dude.”

“No frigging kidding,” Bucky agreed. He slid his eyes over and added, “You guys didn’t have to do this, you know.”

“We know,” Clint confirmed, “Seriously, man, you think we need a reason to hang out with you? I made you a hat. We’re practically family now. Actually, that reminds me.” Clint set Lucky’s leash aside on one of the barstools scooched up against the island and patted down the front of his plum-colored coat. He extracted a plastic CD case from the inside breast pocket and passed to Bucky with a, “I made this thing for you, too.”

Bucky took the CD. It was homemade, the cover a picture of a regal-looking bulldog on cheap paper, the ink striped in a way that suggested Clint printed the picture on a printer low on toner. When Bucky opened the plastic cover, a chicken-scratched list of songs sat scrawled on the opposite side of the picture, and in purple sharpie the mix CD read “SONGS THAT HELP.”

“What’s this?” Bucky asked.

Clint gnawed on his lower lip and ran his fingers back through his hair. He shed his coat and draped it over the back of the couch before he answered, “I know you like music and stuff, so.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Sure,” shrugged Clint, “but not everyone dedicates hours to finding new music and putting it on their iPhone.”

“I have to catch up on all the good stuff I missed,” Bucky said, but he knew Clint was right. When Bucky caught a spare moment between wrangling his pups and his support alpha, he either cracked open a good book or set up his laptop and earbuds to sift through the seeming infinity of songs that were made while he rotted away in a basement.

Clint scratched at a band-aid stuck over his forearm and said, “Yeah, yeah. I thought I’d contribute a little something. So, uh. This is the shit I listened to on repeat after I cycled out of the clinic. It’s not really consistent, but hey, neither’s gettin’ over hard shit. I never knew what mood I was gonna be in so I collected all kinds of random music. It helped. So. You know. Passing it along.”

A knot of emotion formed in Bucky’s throat at the gesture. He closed the plastic case to the mix CD and looked up to meet Clint’s eyes with a wobbly smile. He said, “Thanks, man. That’s actually – this is really cool.”

“Figured it couldn’t hurt,” Clint said, voice casual, like he didn’t know how much this meant to Bucky. And maybe Clint didn’t know what this meant – what it meant was that Bucky had friends outside of Steve, outside of his family. Sure, Bucky didn’t have friends that existed outside of the circle of folks within the clinic, but he did have friends that brought his pups hot cocoa and made them all hats and burned mix CDs of songs that helped push them through their own rough patches.

Bucky didn’t have any of the details of the sordid circumstances that landed Clint and Natasha at the Stark Omega Clinic, but he didn’t need the details to know they understood Bucky on a fundamental level that no alpha, no matter how good that alpha was or how much that alpha cared, would ever quite grasp. Sure, alphas got snatched off the street from time to time, but nabbing an alpha was a far riskier venture than using Alpha Voice and dragging a helpless omega by the back of the neck to whatever hell their abusers intended to take them.

No feeling compared to the kinship omegas shared with one another, kinship that came at the cost of objectification and constant danger hanging over their heads. Bucky would bet his left arm that no one ever pinned Steve down and told him what a pretty little bitch he was.

A shiver rattled over Bucky’s spine like a xylophone at the memory, of Pierce’s foul breath hooking in his nostrils and puffing out hot against his neck as pain wracked Bucky’s body. Pretty little bitch. Words, just words, but the words mattered to Bucky enough that he could taste bile at the back of his throat.

“Whoa there,” Clint said, and reached out to steady Bucky with a hand on his shoulder, “You all good?”

“Just – remembering,” Bucky said, too tired and anxious to bother with a lie.

“That sucks,” Clint said.

“Yeah. I was – Pierce called me all kinds of crap. Names and shit, you know?” said Bucky.

“Do I ever,” Clint replied, shaking his head, “When I presented my dad just – God, he was awful. My brother’s a beta so he’d been hoping I’d be an alpha like him and I turned out even more disappointing than Barney. Who, speaking of, don’t get me started on.”

“I won’t,” Bucky said, “Unless you wanna talk about him.”

“Nah. It’s kind of a downer,” said Clint, “Hey, you guys got a Wii, right? You wanna play Mario Kart or something? I need to take the edge off after all that serious shit.”

Bucky laughed, surprised to find his own laughter genuine. He responded, “I know what you mean. And yeah, you’re on. Meet you on Rainbow Road, motherfucker.”

**

That night, Steve Facetimed them around the pups’ bedtime so that he could read them stories with the appropriate voices. The sight of Steve’s face on the iPhone screen made Bucky’s heart beat faster in his chest and a smile grew on his face before he could stop it.

“I miss you, Steve!” Becky told him fiercely, just as Steve finished reading the last book.

(Bucky had to hold the picture books up to the phone’s camera, and while Steve read more slowly than he would have in person, he still read better than Bucky could, at least according to the pups)

“I miss you too, sweetheart,” Steve told her, “Are you guys taking good care of your daddy for me?”

“Uncle Clint and Auntie Natasha came over today,” George reported, “Auntie Nat had a tea party with us and Daddy got mad at the TV.”

“Oh no! What did the TV do?” Steve asked, fake-gasping.

Bucky rolled his eyes and said, “Clint whooped my butt at Mario Kart; that’s what happened.”

After a few more minutes of conversation and kisses goodnight, Bucky flicked off the nursery lights and retreated to the master bedroom with Steve still on his phone screen.

“Is that my shirt?” Steve asked, when Bucky pulled the offending t-shirt into his lap upon climbing in bed.

Bucky blushed. He answered, “Yeah. Couldn’t sleep last night so I grabbed one of the shirts out of the hamper. The scent helps. I really miss you, Steve.”

Steve’s eyes softened. Bucky wished he could reach into the phone screen and kiss the longing right off of Steve’s dumb puppy face, but he couldn’t. Steve said, “I miss you too. I miss all of you guys. But I’ll be home tomorrow.”

“I’m gonna kiss you stupid when you get back,” Bucky promised.

Steve grinned back, “I like the sound of that.”

Chapter Text

Everyone – including Winter – rejoiced at Steve’s return. Bucky tackle-hugged Steve seconds after he walked through the doorway with his rolling suitcase at his side and didn’t let go until Win complained that she wanted a hug from Steve too and would Daddy move already? Bucky looked on while Win about shimmied up Steve’s leg to cajole him into holding her. Becky and George bracketed Steve on both sides as soon as Steve scooped Win up into his grip. Winter’s tail thumped against the floor with unmatched enthusiasm while she waited for Steve to scratch behind her ears.

Win nuzzled her face into the crook of Steve’s neck and held on in a way that suggested that she had no intention of letting go of him any time soon. She said, “No more leaving ever again, okay?”

Steve chuckled and answered, “I can’t make any promises. Sorry, sweet girl. I did bring presents, though.”

“Presents?” echoed Becky.

“Is it somebody’s birthday?” George asked.

“The next birthday isn’t until March,” Bucky interjected, “Sometimes when people go to different places, they like to bring back presents from those places for their families.” He clamped his mouth shut the instant he realized that this implied Steve thought of Bucky and the pups as his family. And he did – Bucky knew that – Steve said as much in those exact words. But Bucky never expressed the same sentiment.

But Steve didn’t correct Bucky. He offered a smile instead, one that went all the way to his blue eyes and made them crinkle at the corners, before he set Win back down so that he could heave his suitcase onto the couch and unzip it. He passed the gifts to the pups: a teddy bear with a surfboard wearing a t-shirt that read Los Angeles across the front for Win, a box of fancy chocolates for Becky, and a small globe covered in constellations for George.

“That looks expensive,” Bucky said at the reveal of the globe, “Where the hell did you get that?”

“Griffith Observatory,” Steve said with a shrug of one shoulder, “It was a little out of the way, but I had time to spare. Besides, if there’s any pup that would be careful with that, it’s him.”

As if to illustrate Steve’s point, George gingerly placed the constellation globe on the coffee table and flung his body into Steve’s arms. With his voice muffled in Steve’s coat, George said, “Thank you, Steve. You’re the best ever.”

That was a far cry from how George treated Steve mere months ago, and hell, Bucky wasn’t going to question it. A smile edged onto Bucky’s face as he watched Steve heft George up into his arms and hug him tight to his chest. Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky just barely caught George pressing his nose against Steve’s throat to scent, huffing in a long breath of alpha scent.

Steve sniffed back, more subtly, just breath tickling the top of George’s head, but scenting one another was an exchange of a parent and a child and oh, that made Bucky ache. He wanted that for his pups. Of course he wanted his pups to have the alpha father that they deserved.

But Bucky didn’t want to leap into a mating without looking…

He didn’t want to give his pups something that might be taken away. Steve was good, good enough that he’d mate Bucky if Bucky asked for it – of that Bucky was certain – but Steve wouldn’t consider what was best for him. He wouldn’t consider himself as a factor.

Bucky blinked back the thoughts and trained his face into a neutral expression as Steve set George down on the ground and turned to look at Bucky, a shy half-smile on his stupid, handsome face.

“I got you something, too,” Steve said, abruptly looking timid. He pulled a thin box from the top of his suitcase, over carefully folded dirty clothes and a plastic shopping bag wrapped around another, smaller box.

Bucky accepted the box, surprised to find it heavier than he expected. He placed it on one of the couch cushions and used the edge of his fingernail to slice through the scotch tape keeping the lid of the box attached to the bottom half. Bucky swung the lid up to a bed of cream-colored tissue paper.

Before Bucky could pull the tissue back, Steve babbled, “So, uh, we don’t have to use it if you don’t like it, but I know you don’t have one of your own and a friend of mine in LA makes these anyway so I thought you might like to have one. But, you know, no pressure.”

Underneath the layers of tissue sat a polished, hardwood menorah.

“Oh, Steve,” breathed Bucky, a fond smile lifting the corners of his mouth.

“Is it okay?” Steve asked.

Bucky reached out and touched the tip of his finger to one of the fine curves of the base of the menorah. He said, “It’s gorgeous. Your friend made this?”

Steve scratched at the back of his neck and said, “Yeah. I went to college with Wanda. She specializes in woodwork. This one’s hand-carved.”

“Holy shit,” was all that Bucky could manage at that.

“She and her twin brother went through an omega clinic too,” Steve said, “A long time ago, when they were just teenagers. It wasn’t one of Maria Stark’s – it was a Red Cross omega clinic in New York – but they had a support alpha for a while.”

“That when you met her?” Bucky asked, “When she had a support alpha?”

Steve shook his head and said, “I met her after. Neither she nor Pietro mated him but they keep in touch. I was the RA on her floor in her freshman year of college.”

“They’re Jewish too?” Bucky prodded.

Steve nodded, “Yeah, they are. I might have…maybe…commissioned this menorah from her personally, though. Maybe a while ago.”

“I love it,” Bucky said, and yanked Steve down by the collar of his shirt for a kiss. Steve threaded his thick fingers back through Bucky’s long hair and kissed back, humming a contented noise before hauling Bucky closer against him.

They didn’t stop until Win complained, “You guys are being icky.”

Bucky couldn’t help but laugh at that, right up against Steve’s mouth. He pecked a final kiss to Steve’s lips before he drew away and asked, “Oh, we are?”

“Yes,” Win told him.

Becky pointed at the menorah where it lay still in its bed of tissue paper and asked, “What’s that supposed to be?”

“It’s a menorah,” Bucky answered, “We put candles in it when Hanukkah comes and light them every night for eight days. This one is very fancy, so we’re gonna be gentle with it, okay?”

“Oh, it’s sturdy,” Steve assured him, “I told her to make sure it wouldn’t break if the pups handled it. Just to be sure.”

“You are somethin’ else,” Bucky said to Steve, “Some days I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you, Rogers.”

“Something fun, I hope,” Steve replied. He offered a cheeky smile.

Bucky smacked his arm and said, “Don’t you start that shit in front of the pups. What’s in the other bag?” He pointed at the plastic bag still nestled among Steve’s pristine (though somewhat fragrant) clothing.

Steve grabbed at the back of his neck again and said, “Oh, I picked those up just in case. They’re blue string lights. You know, if you wanted me to put them up. It’s December already and I haven’t done my Christmas decorations. That’s practically a crime, Buck. I was planning on pulling that all out of the basement today and setting it up. I mean, if that’s still okay with you.”

“Yeah, of course,” Bucky said, “I can…um. I can help, if you want me to.”

Steve’s brows swept down. He said, “You don’t have to.”

Bucky hadn’t been near the basement, Steve meant, and he didn’t need to start. Bucky passed the door to the basement and considered descending the stairs more than once, but never did. It was just a fucking basement. Steve’s workout equipment was down there, and probably all the other miscellaneous crap normal people kept in their basements. Steve wasn’t holding some poor omega hostage in his basement. He had Christmas decorations and a weight lifting set down there.

But then, Pierce had normal things stored in the basement. He kept Bucky and the pups under the basement.

“My basement’s finished, if that helps,” Steve said, fidgeting, “Carpet and drywall and everything.”

“I think I can help, then,” Bucky said, leveling his chin with a note of finality.

Before Steve and Bucky went to retrieve Steve’s Christmas decorations, Steve settled back in, shedding his winter coat and shoes. He tossed the laundry from his suitcase into the hamper in the master bath and changed into a set of clothing more comfortable than the professional-looking black slacks and button-down he arrived home in.

The hinges of the basement door didn’t creak when Steve opened it, but Bucky thought it would have been fitting if they did. The stairs wound down to a dark abyss only the top of which was lit by the natural light spilling in from behind him. But then Steve reached forward and flicked the light switch. The illuminated wall sconces revealed drywall painted in warm, matte gold and stairs covered in plush, oatmeal-colored carpet. More of Steve’s sketches hung on the walls on either side, figure studies and still life and everything in between, no consistent thread between them other than the big S.G. Rogers scrawled in charcoal in the righthand corner of each piece.

Bucky caught Steve’s eye and found concern there.

“I’ll be okay,” Bucky said, and though neither of them knew how true that was, Steve gave Bucky the benefit of the doubt and began his descent down to the basement.

Barefoot and heart jackhammering in his chest, Bucky followed Steve down those stairs.

The carpet squished between Bucky’s toes. Combined with Steve’s scent, it kept him in the present. When Steve turned the lights on at the bottom of the stairs, Bucky’s fear vanished and gave way to a torrent of curiosity. Bucky murmured, “Whoa. Damn,” before he thought about it, and then stuck his thumb out at a mountain of toys arranged against one wall of the room. He asked, “The hell is that?”

Steve’s cheeks colored. Sheepish, he said, “Uh, well, when I knew I was officially your support alpha, I might have, uh. Bought too many toys. Sam told me they’d overstimulate the pups so I moved most of them to the basement. I bring them up and leave them in the nursery a couple at a time.”

So that was why random toys kept popping up like daisies in the pups’ possession. Bucky could have sworn that they didn’t own a rocking horse before, but found George going to town on one a couple weeks before like it had always been there. Bucky had, pun intended, thought he was going off his rocker.

“Jesus,” Bucky said, “You bought all of this for my pups?”

“Uh…yes?” Steve said, like he wasn’t sure how he should answer.

Bucky laughed and shook his head. He said, “God, Steve, you don’t do shit by half-measures, do you?”

“Not really,” Steve said.

Bucky swooped forward to close the space between them and kissed Steve right on the mouth. He said, “I missed you. A lot. I missed you a whole hell of a lot.”

“I missed you too,” Steve admitted, “I don’t sleep so great without you there. Guess I got used to have someone to hold onto. Plus you smell real good.”

“You’re one to talk,” Bucky said.

Steve preened under the attention, exuding waves of happy alpha that made the entire basement smell like sunshine in a way that cut right through the winter cold.

When Steve mentioned he liked to decorate for Christmas, Bucky imagined three or four boxes of décor, tops. What he found instead when Steve led him past the exercise equipment and to a storage room was that Steve had twelve goddamn boxes of Christmas decorations to put up both inside and outside the house. Steve carefully weighed each box before handing off the lighter ones that Bucky would be able to carry without fucking up his bad arm.

The collective effort to transfer the boxes from the basement to the living room took around thirty minutes between Steve vetting the boxes for Bucky and the pups buzzing around them like insects. Insects with about a thousand questions, at that. They wanted to know what the boxes were for, what was in the boxes, why were there so many boxes and on and on and on.

So Bucky and Steve at last sat the pups down on the now boxed-in (“Har-har, Steve, you’re hilarious,” Bucky said.) couch and explained the winter holidays to them.

“We’re Jewish,” Bucky said, “So we usually don’t celebrate Christmas, because that’s a holiday that people with different beliefs than ours celebrate. Steve isn’t Jewish, so he grew up celebrating Christmas. We decided that we would celebrate both of them in our family since we believe different things. We’re gonna help Steve decorate the house for Christmas, and tomorrow we’re gonna help him pick out his Christmas tree. Then, when it’s time for Hanukkah, Steve’s gonna help us make latkes and sing songs and light our menorah.”

“How come we don’t decorate the house for Hanukkah?” asked Becky.

“Well, Steve is gonna decorate the outside with some Hanukkah lights,” Bucky said, “but people don’t decorate as much for Hanukkah like they do for Christmas.”

“Why?” asked Win, “I like decorations.”

“Uh, I guess probably because more people celebrate Christmas,” Bucky said, “but I dunno, sweetheart.”

“Can we make Hanukkah decorations?” asked Becky.

Bucky smiled at that. He’d have to text his ma that particular tidbit. He petted a hand over Becky’s hair and said, “Sure, baby. We can make Hanukkah decorations if you want to.”

Unpacking Steve’s Christmas décor was a production of epic proportions. Bucky could at least set aside the three boxes labeled ‘ornaments’ in Steve’s neat handwriting, but that left nine boxes of other decorations, and Bucky knew that these boxes didn’t contain the light-up reindeer that Steve said he put out on his roof every year. Those remained in the basement while they sorted through the boxes of indoor decorations.

Bucky wound a fake garland around the banister against the stairs that led to the second level of the home, and plugged them in. String lights, he found, fascinated his children almost as much as sparklers and jack-o-lanterns. Win poked at the individual white lights when Bucky said she could touch them if she wanted, and then followed Bucky throughout the house as he placed the various items from the Christmas boxes in appropriate places.

Steve had not one or two but six advent calendars, though he only set out one for each floor of the house – excluding the basement, as Steve only used it to work out. The image that Bucky’s brain conjured of Steve using the exercise equipment kept him pleasantly occupied while he decorated. He pictured the way that Steve muscles bunched and stretched, and wondered if they’d look the same while he was knotted with somebody.

Jesus.

Bucky paused.

Where had that come from?

The thought made Bucky tingle in a way he hadn’t felt since before Pierce snatched him, lighting fire under his skin and making him squirm the way he used to when puberty struck and he started to notice other teenagers, started to wonder what their mouths would taste like on his. None of them would have been as good as Steve’s mouth, Bucky would bet. No one tasted as good as Steve.

A strange chasm lay between Bucky before his kidnapping, a Bucky that worried about getting kissing right and wouldn’t people taste funny?, and Bucky now, an adult. He didn’t feel like an adult, not most days. Most days, he felt like he remained a child, his knowledge of the world embarrassingly limited while other people his age had lived entire lives worth of experience.

Alexander Pierce limited Bucky’s experience to what lay in a hole in a ground, surrounded by ten feet by ten feet of wall space.

“Daddy?”

The worried voice of his youngest pup pulled Bucky to attention. He glanced down. In his hands was a Christmas wreath, sprayed with plastic snow and decorated with bright red, plastic berries. Warm liquid slid down Bucky’s wrist and he looked down to find that in white-knuckling the wreath, a stray wire pressed hard enough into his skin to draw blood.

“Shit,” Bucky muttered, and set the wreath back in the box.

Alerted by the smell of blood – or perhaps distress – Steve poked his head around the corner. With furrowed brows, he asked, “Buck, are you doin’ okay back here?”

“Yeah, sorry,” Bucky said, holding his bleeding hand in front of him, “It looks worse than it is – sorry I bled on your wreath thing –”

Steve held up a hand and said, “Don’t worry about it. C’mon, let’s get you cleaned up in the kitchen.”

Obediently, Bucky followed Steve and plopped down in one of the dining chairs. Steve took down a first aid kit (because naturally, no one was more prepared than this man). With tender attention, he cleared away blood and cleaned the slice in Bucky’s palm.

“What’s going on?” Steve asked, as he smoothed a Star Wars band-aid over the wound, “You seemed okay a second ago. Was it the basement?”

How did Bucky explain that the basement hadn’t done jack shit this time? How did Bucky explain to Steve that he’d done nothing but fall into a trap of his own mind? He blew all the air out of his lungs, ran both hands back through his long hair, and explained, “I just – got lost in my thoughts, I guess.”

“You know what set it off?” asked Steve.

You, Bucky thought, but that wasn’t fair to either of them. He unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth and tried to think of a decent answer. Steve snagged the seat across from him and stroked the back of his hand, slow and gentle. With that, Bucky let out a sigh and said, “I think it’s just – the heat. What if it comes too early? I’m scared, Steve. I…down there…my heats were so bad, and I’m so goddamn scared that it’s gonna be the way that it was down there. Like I’m gonna go out of my mind and even if you’re there I’ll just lose my shit and – I don’t know.”

“No matter what happens, I’ll be there, okay?” Steve said, his voice no louder than a whisper. He pulled Bucky’s hand wholly into his and brought it to his mouth, brushing his lips across Bucky’s knuckles. His eyes shuttered closed for a moment, and then he said, “To the end of the line. That’s what I said, and I meant it. Whatever the end of the line is for you, I’ll be there through it.”

Bucky nodded. Unease still unsettled him, unbalanced his entire body like a missing limb, but having Steve’s support to chew on kept his motor running while they finished decorating the house. Steve played Christmas music on the stereo and sung along to carols at top volume, much to the amusement of the pups, who watched while Steve sung Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree at the same time he hung the holiday lights on the front porch (This resulted in more cursing than caroling, so it figured that Bucky’s pups would sit there giggling at their support alpha and being generally No Help At All).

 That night, Bucky indulged Steve and let him put old Claymation Christmas movies on the television, which they all watched with mugs of cocoa, all five of them snuggled into one pile of human, Bucky with his back to Steve’s chest and the pups settled on top of them. Below them, Winter curled up on the floor. Her paws twitched as she dreamed.

And maybe that was a sign, because after the bedtime rituals of story-reading and lullabies, Bucky dreamed. He dreamed in vivid, ugly color – he dreamed of the sub-basement and the cold stale air that always surrounded him. Though the room was freezing Bucky’s body burned like hot coals, searing with need that made him whimper and cry for an alpha that he didn’t want.

Pierce heard him, or maybe he smelled him – he came and he held Bucky down with an iron grip. He whispered in Bucky’s ear about how much Bucky needed to be knotted, what a little whore he was. His body needed a knot.

“Look how you open up for me,” Pierce rumbled, and Bucky sobbed, because it felt so good to have relief but he didn’t want it from Pierce. He didn’t. No matter what his body wanted, he didn’t want the knot in his ass. He didn’t want the slick that ran down his thighs and he didn’t want the orgasm that Pierce gave him. Pierce crowed about how good he was being, about how much better Bucky must have felt with a knot inside him and it was true, he did feel better. How could Bucky feel so much better with somebody so terrible, how could he do that –

Pierce must have been right –

Bucky was a whore –

He needed a knot –

Bucky!”

He needed somebody to hold him down and put him in his place –

He needed –

But he didn’t want –

And when Bucky dared to peer over his shoulder at the alpha pinning him to that rocky mattress, he saw not Pierce, but Steve, his face split wide open in an evil grin. He screamed but no noise came out, just silence, because Steve’s hand was over his mouth and –

“Buck, please wake up!”

Bucky tore so violently from sleep that he almost careened over the mattress. Steve caught him in time, grip strong on Bucky’s forearm. He ripped out of Steve’s arms and leapt over to the queen bed, shivering. His stomach turned and he thought he might vomit.

“Bucky?”

Across from him, still half-under the covers on the king bed, Steve rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with one hand and pushed himself to sitting. His hair was mussed and he wasn’t wearing a shirt, just a pair of boxer briefs, since he ran so hot.

“Fuck,” Bucky said, and repeated, “Fuck, fuck, fuck. I’m so sorry. Fuck.”

“It’s okay,” Steve tried to reassure him, extending a hand.

Bucky flinched back, and Steve immediately withdrew.

“Sorry,” Bucky said again, “God, shit, I’m so sorry.”

“What can I do to help?” Steve asked.

“I don’t know,” Bucky said, and it was the truth. He hung suspended between panic and reality and his head went dizzy with the effort of not hurtling into panic.

Steve sat up all the way, then, and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He didn’t reach out to touch Bucky again, but instead gently suggested, “How about I make a cup of tea for you, huh?”

“Okay,” Bucky rasped, bobbing his head along, “Okay. Yeah, that sounds good.”

Steve left the bedroom. For a long moment, Bucky stayed behind and sat on the queen bed, hugging his arms around himself. Unlike Steve, he wore full pajamas – the cold got to Bucky, and though he’d missed the sight of winter snow and the taste of cocoa on a freezing night, he’d had cold in the sub-basement, cold so intense that it seeped to the marrow of his bones and made him shake all the way to his soul.

After his breathing evened out, Bucky dared to stand up and follow Steve. His support alpha was trying to put together a cup of tea as quietly as possible so that he didn’t wake the pups.

“Hey,” Steve said, but he didn’t pry further.

Maybe he sensed that Bucky would tell him, because before Bucky could think twice, he opened his mouth and his guts spilled out: “I dreamed about my heat, and I was there in the basement with Pierce, and then I turned around and it was you and I – fuck.”

A gobsmacked expression struck Steve’s face. His brows crunched together low and he remarked, “Jesus.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said.

“What are you sorry for?” Steve asked, “It’s not your fault you’re having nightmares.”

“I just – I don’t want to dream about you like that,” Bucky weakly said, “I know you wouldn’t do that.”

“Nightmares aren’t about what you know,” Steve said, “They’re about what you fear. And I know you’re afraid that your heat’s gonna be real bad, and I can’t promise that it’s not gonna suck. What I can promise is that I’ll be with you every damn step of the way, okay? You want me there, then I’ll be there. You want me gone – say the word, and I’m outta here. This is – shit.”

Steve paused to scrape a hand back through his messy blond hair and turned to snatch the tea kettle off of the stove before it started to whistle. He poured steaming water over a mug and tea ball, and set it down in front of Bucky. The scent of mint and licorice wafted up and warmed him. His muscles relaxed, if only by a fraction, while he smelled the tea and waited for it to steep.

Steve licked his lips and hesitated for a beat before he sat down, carefully giving Bucky a reasonable berth. He said, “Listen. There’s no way for me to understand what you’ve been through. I’ve never suffered that way, and I never will suffer that way, ‘cause I was lucky enough to present as an alpha.”

“Pfft,” Bucky scoffed into his tea.

Steve managed a huff of noiseless laughter and agreed, “Yeah. Maybe I mean I was unfortunate enough to present as an alpha. But I kinda feel like I’m lucky because being an alpha means I get to be here with you.”

“You think you’re lucky because you get to deal with my crap?” Bucky said, unable to keep the incredulous look off of his face, “Now I just feel bad for you.”

Steve rolled his eyes and said, “Knock it off. I’m being serious. What I’m  trying to say is that what happened to you – it’s one of those things that’s so fucking ugly and it just makes me so fucking angry,” – Steve’s fist clenched where it sat on the tabletop – “that I can do basically shit-all to help you. So rest assured, when I say that I’ll do everything I can to help, I mean it, Buck. Whatever you need. Whenever you need it. I will give it to you.”

Bucky removed the tea ball from his mug and set it on the table. He didn’t speak for a long time, because what the hell did a guy even say to something so intense? His heart thumped hard against his chest as he searched for the words, but nothing came to him even as his tea singed his tongue.

Finally, Bucky cleared his throat and lifted his head to study Steve, staring him right in the eye. Concern, compassion, tenderness – they all made up pieces of Steve’s stupid, earnest face. Bucky almost laughed at how contrite Steve looked in the moment, so eager to do what he could to arrange Bucky’s fucked-up mind so it make some semblance of goddamn sense.

Bucky exhaled.

“Right now,” he said, “All’s I need is a hug, I think.”

Steve smiled and said, “I can do that.”

They both stood, and Steve coiled his arms around Bucky, pulling him into a firm, safe embrace. He rubbed his open palm over Bucky’s back, then brought it up to thread his fingers through Bucky’s hair. When Steve brushed his lips across the center of his forehead, Bucky knew he was toast. He was so fucking gone on this alpha it was ridiculous.

And damn it all, Bucky had no idea what he was supposed to do about it.

Chapter Text

The Christmas tree went up near the front window, after much debate over which conifer best suited them. In the end, a squat, sap-scented spruce won the contest, and now stood proudly with the Christmas tree skirt flared around it and colored lights and tinsel twinkling throughout the branches. Under Bucky and Steve’s supervision, the pups helped hang the ornaments. Win had broken three so far and was heartbroken – face tearstained, she sat on the couch and pouted while her siblings kept stretching on their tiptoes for the tallest branches they could reach to hang their ornaments.

Bucky let her be. She needed to get the tantrum out of her system. Meanwhile, he helped Steve with the most treasured of his ornaments, which thankfully he stored in a separate box than the remainder of them so that they didn’t have to sort which ornaments the pups could and could not touch.

Later, at the kitchen table, Bucky sat beside Becky and braided her hair while she scribbled out Hanukkah decorations to put up alongside the Christmas décor. Bucky drew her a Star of David and explained it was a symbol most known to represent their people. He retold a much-abridged version of WWII and the Holocaust, a story that basically went, “A really bad guy named Hitler locked up and hurt lots of us,” to which Becky went serious-faced and replied, “Like Alpha did to us.”

Bucky swallowed the lump in his throat and managed, “Sort of. Yeah. Like that.”

After that he tried to keep the talk light and guided her hand to draw a menorah. Bucky told his pups the story of Hanukkah before, but he told it again then. Becky was content to listen while she colored, and when she finished her decorations, Steve and Bucky taped them up in the places she instructed, next to a snowman snowglobe, or right on top of a fake pine garland.

The end result left the house looking lived-in and loved – nothing like the picture of a home-decorating magazine, but exactly the place that Bucky wanted to be. Every inch of the room from the warm-toned paint to Steve’s art and Christmas decorations, to his daughter’s additions – all of it belonged to a place that felt more like home than Bucky remembered feeling since childhood.

Steve caught Bucky staring at him with what surely was a doofy look on his face and asked, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Because Bucky was toasted and his dumbass heart belonged to Steve. He didn’t say that, though. He said, “Just admiring your face.”

Steve grinned and replied, “It is a pretty good face.”

In agreement, Bucky leaned over to apply a lingering kiss to Steve’s mouth. He couldn’t help the level of heat he slipped into it, heat that Steve could feel even if their kiss didn’t include tongue – they were in front of the pups, after all. The apples of Steve’s cheeks went pink when Bucky pulled away. He looked endearingly young as the blush extended down past the collar of his t-shirt and up to the tops of his ears.

Later, between meals while the pups played, Bucky visited Steve in his studio. He found Steve sketching out the basics of something onto a canvas while upbeat music blared from the record player and he bobbed his massive alpha body along to the beat. His face lit up when Bucky rapped his knuckles against the doorframe.

“Heya stranger,” Steve said, “You come here often?”

“Yeah, I’m here to see the artist,” Bucky answered, “I heard he’s a real pain in the ass.”

Steve rolled his eyes and said, “Ha-ha, very funny. What’s up?”

“I was thinkin’ –”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Steve said.

“Oh, fuck you,” Bucky affectionately said, “I was thinkin’ about the holidays and stuff, about your ma and everything. I thought maybe you might like to see them? Me and the pups have been doing pretty good so I just thought – I thought it would probably be okay if we met new people, and I bet your folks wanna see you.”

Steve’s lips parted. He cleared his throat before he said, “Really?”

“Yeah, really, that’s why I said it, stupid,” said Bucky.

Steve let out an aborted laugh. He said, “And you’re sure?”

“Been thinkin’ on it for a while,” Bucky confirmed with a nod and a lift of his chin.

Steve dropped the pencil in his hand and let it fall against the lip of his easel. He crossed the studio, bare feet over paint-stained hardwood, and scooped Bucky into a tight hug, burying his nose in Bucky’s neck without an ounce of hesitation. Bucky whimpered, but the noise wasn’t one of distress; it was the sound of want. And when Steve cupped Bucky’s jaw in his hand and urged him into a heavy kiss, Bucky pushed into the touch.

Alpha arousal leaked from Steve’s pores and cut through the scent of oil paints and old wood. Bucky’s body reacted in instants: slick wet the back of his cotton boxer briefs and stuck to the insides of his thighs. A wounded sound tore from Steve’s throat at the smell. No longer did Bucky’s slick smell like sickness and fear, but like healthy, aroused omega, as it should smell.

Too many emotions whirled on a loop in Bucky’s brain. Nervousness made his blood sing, but instinct dictated that he get as close as humanly possible to Steve. He pushed Steve back against the wall and, experimentally, Bucky rolled his body against his alpha’s. He pressed his hips to Steve’s to the rhythm of the song draining from the record player. This song’s beat was slower than the previous one. Sensual.

When Bucky’s half-hard cock rubbed up against his alpha’s, Steve made that wounded noise again, kept his big hands on Bucky’s face, and kept kissing him. Bucky drew back and asked, “Hey, you all good?”

Steve snorted and said, “I am better than good; trust me.”

“This is okay?” Bucky confirmed. Sure, he was enjoying his newfound and tentative curiosity surrounding sex, but he didn’t want to push Steve into something he didn’t want any more than he didn’t want Steve to push him.

A slow smile spread over Steve’s face. He ran his thumb over Bucky’s cheekbone and said, “Yeah. I like it a lot. If you couldn’t already tell.” He made a vague gesture at the poorly concealed tent in his jeans.

Bucky’s lips twisted and he said, “No offense, but that don’t mean shit to me. I got plenty of those when I didn’t want nothin’, so I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. You know you can back out any time you’re not cool with stuff too, right?”

“This isn’t about me,” Steve said, “It’s about you.”

Bucky blinked and his stomach about dropped to his knees. Did Steve mean – he didn’t mean that Bucky was doing to him what Pierce had done to Bucky? Right? He couldn’t mean that. Bucky felt a frown weigh down the corners of his mouth first, then a red-hot zap of anger second. The anger won out.

Bucky backed away from Steve. He hung back several feet and demanded, “What kinda martyr bullshit is that? I don’t want you to mess around with me for my sake. Holy shit, Steve, is that what you’ve been doing this whole time? Just going along with sex stuff ‘cause it seems like what I want to do? Look, my scope is pretty limited and even I know that’s fucked up. I spend day after goddamned day talking to Sam about this crap at the clinic, and he’d be the first to tell you that sex is about what everybody participating wants. Everyone. Not just me.”

Bucky paced and fidgeted with a lock of hair coming loose from the ponytail at the back of his head.

“I…” Steve started, though he seemed to be at a loss for words.

When Steve didn’t come up with a damn thing to say for himself, Bucky spoke, “Christ. I think I’m actually mad at you. I’m gonna…I’m gonna go dick around on the computer or something. I need to process whatever the hell this,” – he waved his hand between both their bodies – “was.”

With that, Bucky swung on his heel and made his escape from Steve’s studio.

**

Steve didn’t follow Bucky. He stayed behind in his studio instead, confused and frustrated with himself. In his jeans, Steve’s erection persisted, egged on by the residual smell of Bucky’s slick lingering in the studio. He willed himself not to breathe in and failed spectacularly in the next second, inhaling a lungful of Bucky’s scent.

Bucky smelled so goddamn good the aroma drove Steve out of his mind with need. He’d never liked alphas that claimed that their instinct overpowered them, that they couldn’t help but take an omega as their own, and this now was as close as Steve ever came to falling back on his hindbrain to steer the car. All at once the sanctuary of Steve’s art studio felt stifling, and he turned to one of the massive windows behind him.

When Steve opened the window, an unrepentant blast of ice-cold December air hit him. The frigid wind settled him, at least enough to string a coherent thought together.

That coherent thought was fuck.

“Fuck,” Steve said aloud.

He wanted Bucky. Of-fucking-course he wanted Bucky. Why hadn’t he just said that? Instead he’d word-vomited like an idiot and said the exact wrong thing to say to somebody whose opinion on sex hadn’t mattered for eleven years of his life. Since he was a pup.

“Fuck,” Steve said again, and dragged a hand over his mouth. From the corner of the room, the record spun cheerfully, letting out another happy song that better suited his mood of several minutes ago and now taunted Steve. He jerked it out of place and back into its sleeve, shoving it into his shelf of vinyl at random before staring at the empty player, numb.

After another long minute, he collapsed in front of his easel and stared at the wall.

The thing was –

Thing was that he really would do anything for Bucky. To hell with what he wanted for himself – Steve would never, ever experience pain on the level that Bucky had, and if he had to make sacrifices to atone for Bucky’s suffering, then sacrifices he would make. He was prepared to spend Christmas without his parents until Bucky came up to the studio no more than fifteen minutes before and told him that he and the pups would be okay with them in the house.

But having sex with Bucky wouldn’t be one of those sacrifices. It wasn’t even close to being a sacrifice. Hell, Steve had had more wet dreams in the past month than he might have had throughout the entire duration of puberty, and that was one hell of an accomplishment. He dreamed of Bucky on top of him, dreamed of Bucky below him, dreamed of nothing but his own arm strength holding Bucky up as he pounded into his body and claimed him and –

God damn it.

Steve moved back to the open window in an effort to calm himself down.

As the days went by, thinking of Bucky as his omega took more and more effort to put off. He wasn’t supposed to do that, even if every atom in his body wanted every atom in Bucky’s to belong to him. He wanted to give himself back. He wanted to belong to Bucky in return, to be Bucky’s alpha, but Bucky made his position on that pretty clear and Steve wasn’t going to violate the trust Bucky had in him.

Never in his life had Steve had to rein his instinct in so much, not even for Peggy – and things with Peggy had been pretty intense.

So Steve did what any logical alpha would do: he pulled his cellphone out of the pocket of his jeans called the alpha that sired him.

“Steven!” his dad greeted from the other end, “How’s it going being a support alpha? Important job, son, a real important job.”

“Uh,” Steve said, “I actually called for advice.”

“I had a feeling,” Joe Rogers mused, “Well, shoot, kiddo.”

Steve rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. He was a grown-ass man in his thirties, but to his father, Steve would forever be kiddo. He let out a long exhale and said, “I just – when you met Ma, did you have to like, cool it with the alpha stuff?”

Joe laughed. He answered, “You bet I did. She caught me scenting the air near her and let me tell you, if looks could kill, I’d be dead seven times over. She smelled so nice to me I wanted to roll around in that goddamn scent. I asked her on a date instead. You know what she did? She said she might consider it if I asked her without scenting first. Took me three tries, but we eventually went. Turned out I smelled just as nice to her, but she wanted to make sure I wasn’t some knothead first. Smart lady, your mother.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said.

“Shame we couldn’t have more pups,” Joe said, “You know we woulda given you a whole litter of siblings given the opportunity.”

“Gross.”

“You’re a grown man, Steven. There’s nothing gross about it. It’s natural. Now why’re you asking me about containing your alpha? Is this about that Barnes boy you’re supporting?”

“First of all,” Steve said, “He’s not a boy. He’s a man. But yes, that is why I’m asking. I…I guess I’m struggling with self-control and God, Dad, it’s the worst. I just – want him, but I don’t want to be some asshole that can’t hold back. How do I even keep this in check?”

“You know Google’s a thing that exists, right?”

Steve rolled his eyes for a second time. He said, “Thanks, Sherlock. I just – I thought maybe you’d have something that worked for you. Personally, or something. I don’t know. Some alpha wisdom. You’re full of baseball metaphors. Throw me a bone here.”

“Uh, I dunno. Pheromone diffusers maybe? Me n’ your mom got together pretty darn quick after that first date. Your situation’s lightyears away from ours.”

That was true.

Steve’s parents couldn’t be more normal. The fact that they produced somebody as weird as their son still baffled Steve from time to time whenever he thought about it for too long.

Joe coughed and asked, “You’re not in danger of hurting that poor omega, are you? Because you gotta call Tony if that’s the case and get the guy reassigned to a different support.”

“No!” Steve snapped, “Hell no. I’d sooner kill myself than hurt Bucky.”

“Hoo boy,” Joe said.

“What?” asked Steve.

“Nothing,” Joe replied, too fast.

“What is it?” Steve said again.

“That’s…you really did find your mate in Bucky Barnes, didn’t you?” Joe said.

Steve let his face fall into his free hand and pressed his fist against one eye. He said, “I found an entire family, is what I did. I’m…I’m gonna screw this up. Shit, Dad, I already did screw it up. More than once. What do – maybe I should get Tony to reassign him. I’m not cut out for this. I’m fucking it up.”

“Son, mating’s one big series of screwing it up. Trust me,” said his father, “So’s being a parent. You’re going to do nothing but screw up a lot of the time.”

“Thanks, Dad. That’s real helpful.”

“That’s the truth of it, numbskull,” said Joe, “but all the screw-ups…when you get those good moments…those moments make every screw-up worth it. I’m sure you’ve already had those moments plenty of times, just like you’ve already had your screw-ups.”

Steve thought of looking at the stars and drinking cocoa, all five of them together. He thought of waking up to all three pups cuddled up on the bed with him and Bucky. He thought of decorating for Christmas and for Hanukkah, and how curious the pups were about every holiday that crossed their doorstep. He thought of little Win’s tearful goodbye when he had business in Los Angeles, and how Steve let slip that he loved them all.

Privately, he thought of the pups as his too, which he knew Bucky also didn’t like. So Steve kept that to himself.

But if Bucky and the pups left – Steve would be wrecked. He knew he’d be wrecked. Before Bucky and his babies came into Steve’s life, he was so alone, and so lonely, without realizing it. His last serious relationship had been with Peggy in college, and everything else was lending a helping hand for heats or just dead-end dates with people that smelled decent but nothing like Steve thought they should smell.

“Steve?” Joe said, “You still with me?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, “Sorry. I was thinking about the good stuff.”

“It’s worth it, right?” pressed Joe.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, “It really is. Thanks, Dad. I think I know what I need to do. Love you.”

“Love you too, kiddo,” Joe said, “Go forth and screw up.”

Steve laughed, “Thanks. I probably will.”

Steve hung up the phone, and approximately half a second later dialed his dad’s number again.

Joe answered with, “What did you forget?”

“Hey!” Steve said, even though the accusation was absolutely true, “I forgot Bucky said it’s okay by him if you and Ma wanna come over for Christmas stuff. I’ll ask about our usual Christmas Eve. It’s the first day of Hanukkah this year and Bucky’s Jewish, so we’d be doing some kind of morphed celebration if he gives the green light.”

“Your mother’s gonna be over the moon,” Joe told Steve, “She thought she wasn’t gonna get to see you at all for Christmas, and you know how she feels about Christmas.”

Suffice it to say that Steve derived his love of Christmastime directly from his mother.

“Great. Good. I’ll be in touch. Love you. Again.”

“I love you again too, Steven.”

**

Steve allowed an hour or so to come down from his strange mood – and for Bucky to brood over the argument someplace downstairs, probably finding new music on his laptop under a pile of blankets in his private bedroom. When Steve at last dared to venture out of his studio (and past a collection of stuffed animals left on the landing of the stairs, forgotten by Becky mid-play), he found Bucky doing exactly that, after he knocked and slipped into Bucky’s room.

Since his and the pups’ arrival at the house, Bucky built his separate bedroom into an omega’s safe haven, putting together a soft nest on the bed made up of homemade quilts and items soaked in the scents of loved ones. Steve almost did a double-take when he saw one of his t-shirts in the mix, stretched over a pillow. His chest ached at the sight, hard enough that his heart felt fit to burst out from behind his ribs.

At Steve’s arrival, Bucky pulled the earbuds out of his ears and let them hang around his neck. He closed his laptop and slid it onto the bedside table in one, deliberate movement. When Bucky didn’t speak, Steve decided to break the barrier.

“Hey,” Steve said.

“Hey,” Bucky replied.

Now that the conversation was upon them, every piece of the speech that Steve brainstormed while he stowed away in his studio escaped him. Steve rocked back and forth on his heels for a beat and sucked his lower lip between his teeth as he considered what to say.

“About what I said,” Steve started, “I didn’t – I didn’t mean it the way that it came out. I’m sorry.”

Bucky pointed his gaze at his lap and tugged at the earbud cord around his neck. His face twisted up when he lifted his eyes again, and he said, “I really don’t wanna make you do shit you don’t wanna do. That’s the last thing I want. You gotta know that, right?”

“I do want it,” Steve insisted. He wanted everything with Bucky, though Steve didn’t think that Bucky wanted to hear that.

“Then why did you say that shit?”

Steve sighed and said, “I don’t know! Because I want to take care of you, I guess. Because I want you to understand how important you are to me. I’d do anything for you, Buck, honest.”

“That’s the thing, though,” Bucky said, “I don’t want ‘anything’ to include crap that’s at your own expense. You overdo shit, Steve. It’s kind of your thing. You go big. You and Tony both. You go all the way or it’s not worth going at something at all, is what I see. And I know that I – or that you could do better than an omega like me, so if you feel like you have to –”

“‘An omega like me’? What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve asked.

“You know,” Bucky said, and made a sweeping gesture at himself.

“No, I don’t,” said Steve, “You’re gonna have to be a little more clear than that.”

“I’m – you know – fucked up,” Bucky said.

“You mean because you’re struggling with anxiety?” Steve said.

Bucky chewed on his lip and shook his head. He said, “Sorta. It’s like – okay, I look better than I did, sure, but I’m. Uh. Kind of gross.”

Steve couldn’t help it. All he could manage at that was an astounded, “What?”

“I look fucked up,” Bucky said, “Christ, how many times you gonna make me say it? I’m all scarred up and I look scary, okay? And I mean, the brain thing, that’s fucked up too. I’m fucked up all around. And you’re you, so I get it. Why would an alpha like you wanna do stuff with an omega like me?”

Steve thought he might be sick at Bucky’s words. His legs moved before his mind did, and in his paint-streaked clothes and bare feet he crawled across the mattress and pulled Bucky into his arms. Bucky made a muffled noise of surprise against Steve’s chest, but didn’t tug away, so Steve held on. He kissed the top of Bucky’s head – his hair smelled like one of the bath products Natasha brought him from her trip into town a handful of days before.

“You’re an idiot,” Steve told him.

“I guess there’s that too,” muttered Bucky.

“Cut that out,” Steve said, “That piece of shit alpha that had you put all these thoughts in your head and none of them are true. You hear me? You’re a goddamn gorgeous omega inside and out, and I guess maybe it’s my fault for not sayin’ so more often. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, was all. But Buck, I want you so bad. So bad it makes me crazy some days, like I might go out of my mind from wanting you too much.”

“But – why?” Bucky asked.

The crumpled, uncertain expression on Bucky’s face when he drew back from Steve’s pecs slashed right through Steve’s middle. He didn’t believe a damn word coming out of Steve’s mouth. He didn’t think himself any good, and of course he assumed no one else thought he was worth the time. Of course he took Steve’s declaration that he’d do anything for Bucky as an announcement of a sacrifice.

Steve stroked Bucky’s hair. Bucky leaned into the touch like a happy cat, eyes closing.

“It was so easy to want you,” Steve told him, “It’s the easiest thing in the world. You’re brave, and you’re smart as a whip and you love so hard. Sometimes things aren’t easy for you, but that doesn’t mean that I want you any less. What happened to you doesn’t define you. You’re not gross. You’re not dirty. You’re not wrong. You’re my Bucky and you’re wonderful just the way you are. Helps that you have a real showstopper of a face, too.”

Bucky’s eyes watered like he might cry, but the tears didn’t spill over. Nonetheless, Steve could hear the wobble in his voice when he complained, “You’re so fucking sappy,” and rubbed at his eyes with one fist.

“Maybe I am,” Steve said, “but it’s only because you give me a reason to be sappy.”

“Stop that,” Bucky said, “Stop saying nice things. You’re gonna make me cry and then this is gonna suck.”

“You can cry if you need to,” Steve said.

“You’re the worst,” Bucky said. His voice cracked and tears did spill, this time. He didn’t sob, but Bucky did hide his face in Steve’s shirt and sniffle, “I hate you.”

Steve scratched his fingers over Bucky’s back and said, “I know.”

“You’re such an asshole,” Bucky said.

“I know,” hummed Steve, “The biggest asshole.”

Steve cupped Bucky’s face with both hands. He wiped the stray couple of tears left on Bucky’s cheeks, then drew him into a gentle kiss. Bucky threaded his fingers through the hair on the back of Steve’s neck and kissed back. His lips were chapped and tasted salty, but the kiss felt incredible. Every kiss with Bucky was incredible. Steve just loved Bucky so fucking much –

Oh.

He loved Bucky.

Of course he loved Bucky.

Bucky shifted and straddled Steve’s lap. He leaned in for another kiss, this one deeper than the last.

When they broke to catch their breath, Bucky said, “You said you want me.”

“I do,” Steve assured him.

“Do you think about that? Sex with me?” asked Bucky.

“Uhh,” Steve stalled, unsure whether he should give an honest answer to that question or not. His face answered the question for him, and Bucky smirked at the flush.

“You’re blushing,” he teased, “Is that a yes?”

“Well, shit, Buck,” Steve said, exasperated, “Of course it’s a yes. I think about it all the dang time. I didn’t want you to feel unsafe around me, so I didn’t say anything.”

“What do you think about?” asked Bucky, voice a low growl.

At the rumble of Bucky’s voice, Steve felt his cock thicken in his pants. He blew all the air out of his lungs and then pressed his forehead to Bucky’s. He asked, “You really wanna know?”

Cheeks pink, Bucky panted, “Yeah. Tell me.”

“I think about lotsa stuff,” Steve said breathlessly, “I think about, um. I think about getting on my knees and sucking you off –”

“Alphas do that for omegas?” Bucky blurted.

“If they’re not waste of space douchewheels, they do,” Steve said, pecking a kiss to the dent between Bucky’s brows to ease it away as he went on, “Besides, I bet you taste just as good as you smell, everywhere. ‘Cause I was thinking I’d flip you over and eat you out, too.”

Bucky’s eyes darted to the side. Shyly, he said, “I don’t know what that is. What is that?”

Steve nosed along Bucky’s stubbled jaw and peppered kisses over his throat to soothe him. He forgot, sometimes, that Bucky went into the sub-basement at fourteen, and as the oldest of all his siblings he had no older brothers or sisters to pass along dirty knowledge – he and Becca were the pilgrims of naughty trivia in their family the same as Steve was in his, and while the internet was up and running before Bucky was kidnapped, the spread of knowledge wasn’t nearly the feast it was now.

“When you lick an omega open,” Steve said, “Or an alpha or beta, but it tastes better when it’s an omega if you ask me.”

“You can do that?” Bucky said, “Wait – you’ve done stuff with alphas and betas?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, “I’m pansexual, Buck. I’ve done stuff with lots of different people. My ex-girlfriend was an alpha.”

“I feel so dumb,” Bucky lamented, “There’s so much I don’t know about this stuff.”

“That’s okay,” Steve said, “I’ll teach you. Or you can use Google. Internet – so helpful.”

Bucky flicked Steve’s shoulder. He said, “C’mon. Tell me more. Tell me about the stuff you wanna do with me.”

The aroma of arousal, both Steve’s musky alpha and Bucky’s tangy omega, permeated the room. Steve wanted to roll around in that smell and wear it like a badge of honor. He nipped at Bucky’s lower lip and coaxed him into another, filthier kiss before he admitted, “I like thinking of all the ways we could do it. You don’t like being pinned down, but that leaves so much more wide open. You could ride me, for one. Just like this.”

To demonstrate, Steve rolled his hips up and pressed his erection up between Bucky’s legs. Bucky whimpered.

“That sounds good,” Bucky said, looking up at Steve through his eyelashes, “I like that a lot. How else could we…um, do it?”

“We could lie on our sides,” Steve said. He put his hands on Bucky’s waist and moved them both to demonstrate, stretching out to spoon Bucky the way that he did when they went to sleep. Steve kissed along the back of Bucky’s neck, scraping teeth against his skin to raise gooseflesh. He pushed his hips forward and rocked them together, murmuring in Bucky’s ear, “like this. You think you’d like that?”

Bucky nodded furiously. He said, “I like it a lot. What else?”

“Mm,” Steve hummed, “I thought – being pinned, you think it’s any way you can be pinned? Or just down? ‘Cause we could do it up against the wall. I mean, I don’t have to pin you if we do it that way. You could brace your hands up against it, or I could put my back to the wall and use my arms to move you up and down on my cock.”

“Holy shit,” Bucky gasped, “Could you really do that?”

“I’m an alpha. I’m pretty strong.”

Bucky rolled his eyes.

“Or,” Steve said, schooling the excitement out of his voice at the idea, “You could pin me down.”

Bucky turned to face Steve and said, “Huh?”

“Well, I mean – I don’t get slick on my own like you do,” Steve said, “but that’s why they make fake slick. I finger myself open, and usually you have to go slow at first, since I don’t open up same as an omega, but I’m pretty good at takin’ it harder if you want. I could wrap my legs around you, and –”

“You’ve done that before?” Bucky asked.

Steve grinned. He said, “Were you not here when I said my ex-girlfriend was an alpha, or –”

“She nailed you?” Bucky said, “But – but –”

“We both did it to each other,” Steve said, guiding Bucky into a lazy kiss, “and I liked it, just FYI.”

The pupils of Bucky’s eyes went ever-wider, dark black blown wide and pushing blue-gray to the edge. He nuzzled in close to Steve and threw a leg over his waist, close enough now that Bucky’s erection bumped Steve’s and slid along in a slow, delicious friction. The noise that burst out of Steve was an accident, but from the smirk on Bucky’s face, he guessed that his omega liked it.

His omega.

Steve wasn’t supposed to think of Bucky that way, but he did anyway. The alpha in him wanted to see the mark of his teeth on Bucky’s throat, wanted his scent rubbed into Bucky’s skin until their aromas became inseparable, became one entity: BuckyandSteve.

“I like all those ideas,” Bucky whispered to him.

Steve smiled into their kiss and replied, “Good. Me too.”

A crash thumped from someplace beyond the closed door of Bucky’s bedroom. They turned their heads toward the source of the noise, and a moment later, one of the pups wailed, “Steeeeve!”

Surprised, Steve glanced back at Bucky. Bucky smirked and said, “Ha-Ha. They want you.”

Steve sighed, smacked a wet kiss to Bucky’s forehead, and slipped out from under the covers to go break up the commotion. But before he could even touch the doorknob, he scented the air and cast a panicked look back at Bucky, who was reclining on his elbows on the bed.

“Buck,” he said, “I can’t go out there like this. I smell like I’m ten seconds from diving headfirst into an orgy!”

Realization dawned on Bucky’s face. He said, “Oh, shit,” and then, “I think there’s Febreze somewhere. Hang on. And tuck your boner.”

Steve spared a glance at the state of his jeans and felt his face heat. He reached into his underwear and grasped his erection. He gulped in air at the sensation and made himself reposition his cock into something less glaringly obvious.

The scent of pheromone-diffusing Febreze hit Steve in the face. He sneezed, and glowered at Bucky before he could help it.

“I know, I know,” Bucky said, “Can’t be all alpha when you smell like…" He scanned the label of the spray bottle, "Happy Spring.”

Steeeve!”

Another thump echoed to Bucky’s bedroom.

“Damn it,” muttered Steve. He sneezed again, smoothed out his t-shirt, then asked, “Okay. How’s this?”

“You smell like the happiest spring ever,” Bucky told him solemnly.

“Good,” Steve said, and ducked forward to kiss Bucky one last time before he left to pull the pups out of whatever trouble they managed to get themselves into.

**

After Steve closed the door behind him, Bucky followed and crept across the hall to the master bedroom, pointedly ignoring the shouted protests of his pups at whatever unfairness they believed they were experiencing. His whole body was keyed up, the insides of his thighs sticky with slick and his cock harder than a goddamn diamond in his underwear.

Bucky knew the way to take care of that problem, and for the first time since their rescue, he wanted to take care of that problem. He didn’t lock the door to the bedroom, but he did lock the door to the master bath before he shed his clothes and stepped into the tub. Instead of filling it for a bath like he typically did, Bucky switched on the shower function and let warm water rain down on his shoulders.

For several seconds, Bucky worked up the courage to reach down and touch himself. His cock ached from wanting to be touched, but in spite of his need, Bucky’s nerves fought to seize control.

No. He wasn’t going to let his stupid broken brain stop him this time. He was going to enjoy himself. He hadn’t done this since before his kidnapping. Before Pierce stole Bucky off the street, jerking off was a favorite pastime of his, both in and out of heat. He liked wrapping his hand around his dick and going to town, liked pressing his fingers inside himself and rubbing up against that nice spot inside until he painted the shower wall with come.

Bucky licked his lips, inhaled, and fit his hand around the base of his cock. He bit back a moan at the relief that the pressure brought and let his forehead fall forward against the tile. After another few seconds to convince himself to keep going, Bucky gave his erection an experimental tug.

“Fuck,” he managed, voice strangled.

Fuck, that felt good.

Bucky did it again, and it felt even better.

Of their own accord, his hips thrust into his touch as he worked himself over. Sparks of pleasure lit up his whole body. He remembered this. He remembered feeling this good, a long time ago.

Bucky wondered how this would feel if the hand on his cock were Steve’s hand. Steve’s hands were bigger than his. Softer than his, too. Steve would probably hold Bucky while he touched him, probably kiss the back of Bucky’s neck and tongue over the spot where a mating bite would go. Bucky shivered at the thought of a mating bite on his neck, both eager and afraid of what that would look like and what it would mean for the future.

His mind fell back to all the dirty things that Steve described doing with Bucky. Bucky liked the sound of every single one. He wanted to ride Steve and pin Steve, wanted to wrap his legs around Steve’s waist and let Steve’s alpha strength do all the work. Something about the image of Steve’s big body enfolding Bucky, of the cock inside Bucky belonging to Steve, who was kind and giving and somewhat overzealous in his generous nature, did Bucky in.

With a choked-off noise, Bucky bit around his fist and came, orgasm sweeping over him like the crashing waves of high-tide. He panted through it – he hadn’t had an orgasm like that since…God, he couldn’t even remember.

Brain melted and body like jelly, Bucky fell back against the shower wall.

For the first time in a long time, his body felt like his own. His body didn’t belong to Alexander Pierce, and it didn’t belong to Steve, either. It belonged to Bucky fucking Barnes, and he could do what he wanted with it. He could jerk off if he wanted to. He could jump around and scream if he wanted to. He still couldn’t pat his head and rub his tummy at the same time, but hell, he could try. The revelation of it all startled a laugh out of Bucky.

He laughed because he was happy, and he laughed because this was ridiculous.

Bucky belonged to himself.

Of course he did.

Of course.

Chapter Text

Bucky so seldom witnessed Steve relinquish his even keel that watching him flit from room to room like an excited bird, on the cleaning warpath, stunned him. Steve scrubbed and sprayed and swept and mopped, sucking the scent of home out of the air with pheromone-neutral, lemony cleaner that made Bucky’s nose itch. He wanted to snap at Steve and tell him to calm the fuck down, but Bucky understood anxiety regarding parents. Steve had been kind regarding Bucky’s parents, so Bucky would be kind regarding Steve’s.

Even if the smell of cleaner tested Bucky’s patience.

Today, Bucky and the pups would meet Joe and Sarah Rogers for the first time. Bucky promised himself that he would be on his best behavior, or that he would at least attempt to be. The idea that Steve’s parents would judge Bucky and find him lacking hung over his head, and while Bucky knew he was in all likelihood being irrational he couldn’t shake the thought from his head.

Steve was so good. Steve’s folks had to know that.

Bucky wasn’t…bad. He just didn’t exist on the level that Steve did. Bucky struggled to survive, while Steve thrived. He lent his energy to those that needed it, the Buckys and pups of the world.

At least Bucky and the pups would meet Steve’s parents before the holidays.

After much discussion, Bucky and Steve decided it would be better to introduce Joe and Sarah before Christmas Eve-slash-the first night of Hanukkah, so that Bucky and the pups wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the presence of strangers on top of the whole of Bucky’s family visiting, because of course Bucky’s entire family invited themselves over for the first night of Hanukkah. Bucky wanted them there, because of course he did, but…family was overwhelming en masse, no matter how much he loved them.

Steve, of course, grew up an only child, and while he didn’t grasp the concept of a massive Jewish family gathering, he did understand being stressed out by the imminent threat of visiting parents, as evidenced by his manic cleaning tirade.

“Babe,” Bucky said, in a tone he most often used for addressing misbehaving pups, “The house is as clean as it’s going to get. Besides, they’re not here to see the house. They’re here to see you. And meet me, I guess.”

Steve dropped his can of Pledge and turned away from the bookshelf in the living room, whose dark wood could not possibly gleam any more than it already did in the winter sunlight streaming in through the front windows. Steve’s mouth opened and closed several times in as many seconds before he questioned, “Babe?”

Oh. Bucky’s face reddened and he said, “Uh, sorry.”

A self-satisfied smirk edged its way onto Steve’s face and he answered, “Don’t be. I liked it.”

Bucky shoved at Steve’s shoulder and Steve barked out a happy laugh. His alpha’s shoulders moved down a fraction away from his ears at Bucky’s teasing. He rubbed a hand back through his hair and said, “It’s not that – exactly, anyway. It’s…it’s dumb, actually.”

Bucky nudged at Steve with his shoulder and said, “It can’t be that dumb.”

Steve huffed out a soft, resigned exhale, as though he knew that he could keep nothing from Bucky for more than ten minutes put together, and even then only if he put effort into his resistance. He said, “I think – um. Honestly, I think it’s an alpha thing. Like my hindbrain’s kicking my ass into gear and telling me I need to show my parents that I’m taking good care of,” – Steve paused – “the omega in my charge, and –”

Bucky lifted a brow and repeated, “The omega in your charge?”

“I might have been about to call you my omega,” Steve said, lowering his eyes in a show of submission, “but I know you don’t like that, so…”

Bucky waved him off. He said, “Look, Steve. I know what I said, but, uh. I’m starting to – to reconsider it. The other day, after we got all, you know, handsy,” – Bucky narrowed his eyes at the growing smirk on Steve’s stupid face – “I kind of had a moment in the shower.”

Steve cast Bucky a pained look and said, “I know. I smelled your moment.”

“Oh, eat me,” Bucky said.

“Is that an invitation?” murmured Steve, lowering his voice so that the pups wouldn’t hear.

“Jesus,” Bucky breathed, “Not yet; it’s not. As I was saying – you can call me your omega, you know, if that’s still something you want.”

“Of course I want that,” Steve said, mischief sucked from his face and replaced with the most stupidly earnest expression that Bucky had ever had the misfortune of witnessing.

Bucky edged forward and rubbed his palm over Steve’s forearm, letting his fingers play over warm, smooth skin before he guided Steve’s hand to rest on his waist. Bucky leaned his forehead against Steve’s, and then pecked a chaste kiss to his lips. He said, “You can call me your omega,” he repeated, but added in a murmur, “if I can call you my alpha.”

A pleased rumble peeled out of Steve, something so quintessentially alpha that Bucky couldn’t help but smile at it. Bucky bent into the scent of Steve, of that masculine fragrance that calmed him so much and leveled his chattering mind to a slower roll. Since Bucky’s moment in the shower, his desire for Steve had sharpened, or perhaps his awareness of his desire became clearer. When Steve first strode into the courtyard at the Stark Omega Clinic, Bucky’s desire was for nearness, for comfort.

Now, Bucky desired something more, and while in theory Bucky knew what more he wanted, in practice he didn’t know at all. Sex remained foreign to him, just as mystical and far away as it had been as a freshman in high school, a collage of scents and acts giggled and whispered about under the breath.

Bucky didn’t know sex.

Bucky knew rape.

At the thought, Bucky nuzzled in closer to Steve, clutching a hand in Steve’s t-shirt to draw him in as close as they could be. Bucky wondered what being even closer would be like, to be surrounded wholly by Steve’s body and by his scent, to be on top of him, to have Steve inside him.

Perhaps sensing Bucky’s train of thought, Steve wrapped his muscled arms around Bucky’s back and pulled him tight to his chest. He buried his nose in Bucky’s neck and scented unrepentantly. When he drew back, he guided Bucky into a slow, possessive kiss that made Bucky think of the whole sex thing all over again.

How long they remained standing with their heads pressed together, Bucky couldn’t say, but until the doorbell echoed in the living room, they didn’t pull away from one another.

Backing off from their embrace, Bucky plucked up the can of Pledge from the bookshelf and said, “I’ll put this away. You go grab your folks.”

Steve opened his mouth as though he meant to say something, but then snapped his jaw shut in the next moment and shook his head. Bucky shoved down the crescendo of anxiety swelling beneath his ribs and ducked into the kitchen with the cleaning supplies to tuck them away beneath the sink. Behind him, he heard the front door swing open and the delighted voices of strangers.

When Bucky straightened from his crouch, two more people stood in the kitchen than before, alongside a grinning Steve. Joe Rogers had the same build as his son, broad-shouldered and all alpha, though Sarah Rogers’ angular face clearly spawned Steve’s puppy-dog looks. Both Steve’s parents smiled when Bucky drew all the way to his feet.

“Um,” Bucky managed, “Hi.”

“Bucky,” Steve said warmly, “These are my parents, Joe and Sarah. Parents, this is Bucky Barnes. Where’d the pups run off to, anyway?”

“They’re just hiding,” Bucky said, “Guys, come on. Come meet Steve’s parents.”

Win was the first to emerge, peering out from behind one of the armchairs before she ventured forward. She tugged at the leg of Steve’s jeans and made grabby hands to be lifted. Steve obliged and balanced her on his hip with a soft, “Hey, sweet girl,” and a kiss to her forehead.

Win looked between Steve and Sarah before she settled her attention on Joe. She asked him, “Did Steve grow in your tummy?”

Joe let out a raucous burst of laughter. He said, “No, no. I’m an alpha. Steve grew in his mother’s tummy.”

“Oh,” Win said, considering, “I grew in my daddy’s tummy. That’s my daddy. He’s the best daddy in the whole world.” A thoughtful look crossed her chubby face a beat after, lips drawn into a tiny pout, and she added, “and Steve is the best Steve in the whole world.”

Perhaps encouraged by their sister’s bravery, George and Becky scuttled out of their hiding places. They ran to Bucky, and both of them tucked themselves behind his legs and held onto his clothes. Bucky pushed his fingers through their dark hair and said, “It’s okay, guys. We like Steve’s parents.” He almost started to say They made Steve, and Steve’s good, but that line of logic would be far more damaging than helpful in light of his pups’ own origins.

“We’re gonna eat lunch with my mom and dad,” Steve explained, “I thought we should order some pizza. What do you guys think?”

“Pizza?” George said, cautious but hopeful. He leaned out from behind Bucky.

“Yup,” said Steve, “You want pepperoni on yours, buddy?”

“Yeah,” George said shyly. He returned his face to being half-buried in Bucky’s side, but kept his eyes on Steve as Steve futzed one-handed with his phone and dialed their usual local pizza place to put in an order. Meanwhile, Win held onto Steve’s neck in a way that suggested she had no intentions of being let go.

Bucky stroked his fingers through George’s hair and cleared his throat. He addressed Sarah first, as her omega smell made him less nervous than the sharpness of Joe’s alpha aroma (no matter how much it echoed the way that Steve smelled), “So, how was your flight?” That was adult small-talk, right? Bucky had never had to make small-talk before his kidnapping.

Now everyone seemed to expect him to know how to function like a normal adult, and Bucky didn’t have the first clue how to start doing that beyond what he’d already been forced to learn to be a good parent to his pups.

But Sarah’s smile – Steve’s smile, Bucky realized – comforted him. Her smile filled the entire bottom half of her face, the same way that Steve’s did and lit up the room. She said, “Oh, the usual. Lots of anxious pups and not enough room. But we made it! It’s so wonderful to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” Bucky said, “I was wondering where my awesome alpha came from, you know.”

Across the kitchen, still on his cell ordering the pizzas, Steve rolled his eyes.

“I’m serious, Stevie,” Bucky said, “I’ve got the best there is. He had to come from somewhere.”

“We’re very proud of him,” Sarah agreed, “I couldn’t have asked for a better son.”

“Ma,” Steve complained. He pocketed his phone and cast Bucky a look.

“Oh, don’t be so sensitive,” Sarah chided. She turned her attention to Bucky and added, “You know, he was always this way, even as a pup. Too modest, I always thought. And here he is, doing a world of good, and he still thinks that it isn’t good enough. There is only one man that saved the world dying on a cross, Steven Grant, and it was not you.”

Bucky smothered a snort behind his hand.

Steve rubbed his free hand over his face and sighed, “How did I know you were going to embarrass me?”

“Like I said,” Sarah sniffed, “Too sensitive.”

“I have a feeling you have a whole bunch of stories about Steve that I need to hear,” Bucky said, a tiny smile growing on his face.

Steve groaned.

“And so dramatic,” Sarah added with a fond smile.

After a handful of minutes of stilted conversation more, the talk seemed to ease into something less fraught. When Joe and Sarah looked at Bucky, their faces held none of the pity Bucky was used to seeing in strangers that recognized his face. They did not, as it happened, bring up the basement at all. They asked Bucky how the pups were settling into a new home, but that was as close as Steve’s parents got to asking him about the eleven years of Bucky’s life that came before Steve.

The pups wandered from the living room until the pizzas arrived, at which point they were more than happy to join the adults again. Win and Becky regaled Sarah with tales of everything, from their arts and crafts projects with Clint to literally every single thing that they liked about Steve. George remained at the table only as long as it took to eat two slices of pepperoni pizza, and then retreated back to the nursery with Winter padding alongside him.

The girls got bored at about the same time that Steve offered, “Hey, why don’t I give you guys an updated tour of the place?” to his parents. Bucky trailed behind them while Steve showed his parents the nursery and new-and-improved pup-friendly features of the home with wild hand gestures and animated expressions.

Sarah Rogers fell back to Bucky’s side as soon as she noticed him hanging a couple feet away from them. She touched his arm with the tips of her fingers and said, “I meant to ask earlier…is Steve treating you well?”

Bucky stared at her for a long second without speaking, mostly because he couldn’t believe that she thought such a question needed to be asked. His brow knit and he answered, “Of course he is. Steve is…” Everything. Wonderful. A dream. So many different things. “Everything. Everything to me and the pups,” he paused, worrying his lower lip between his teeth and asked, “Do you think – if – uh. Damn it. Never mind.”

Sarah gazed at Bucky with imploring eyes, those eyes that were the same kicked puppy-dog eyes that Steve turned on him when he really wanted something, big and blue-green. She said, “What is it?”

“It’s nothing,” Bucky said, too fast.

“You can tell me,” Sarah assured him, and lowered her voice to a whisper to say, “I promise I won’t tell a soul.” She punctuated the statement with a saucy wink that teased an unexpected laugh from Bucky’s lungs.

Bucky rubbed at the back of his neck before he admitted, “If me and Steve were to…were to mate, and I’m not saying we will, because I know that’s real big and stuff and, um,” – he cleared his throat and tried to gather his thoughts – “I’m just saying, like, theoretically, if that happened, do you think Steve would want a pup of his own?”

“Good heavens, I should fucking hope not,” Sarah answered. Bucky’s body sagged with relief at her reaction, though perhaps she was optimistic about Steve’s desires, as she was the omega whose oven Steve baked in for nine months. She tightened her grip on Bucky’s arm and said, “The pups – he already acts as though they’re his own. You know how alphas are. So territorial. He probably thinks of them as his pups in any case. And, well, three is more than enough, don’t you think?”

Hell yeah, three was more than enough. Not that Bucky had had any choice in the matter. He imagined that had he a normal puberty and a normal life that he might have found somebody to settle down with and that perhaps pups would be on the table in his late twenties. Bucky never imagined that he’d birth his first pup at fifteen. He never imagined that he would have three pups when he was barely into his twenties.

Bucky never imagined that the alpha of his dreams wouldn’t also be the sire of those pups.

But all of those things happened, and Bucky never wanted to be pregnant again. No pain compared to the agony of birthing his pups alone, with no medical attention of which to speak, in a ten by ten room lit by a single, jerry-rigged lightbulb swinging from the ceiling. Logically he knew that were he to pup again that it would take place in a sanitary hospital environment with pain medication to take the edge off and physicians to help him, but that knowledge couldn’t stop the fearful cold sweat that broke out over his entire body at the mere idea of being pregnant again.

There inlaid the problem. Alphas tended not to like pups that weren’t their own and often struggled to accept the pups of another alpha. Hard-edged step-alphas dominated tragic backstories of fictional characters in movies and books alike.

So Bucky wondered from time to time if Steve wanted to put more pups in Bucky’s belly so there would be little ones that Steve would know as his. But each time he thought about it, he remembered Win’s princess birthday party, or Becky’s hot pink winter coat, or George’s telescope. He remembered Steve making different voices for the characters in the pups’ picture books when he read them bedtime stories. He remembered the carefully-crafted suppers that all the pups and Bucky would like and could stomach.

Bucky remembered Steve leaving for his business trip and saying to Win I love you too, sweet girl. He thought of Steve less than a couple hours before, not hesitating for an instant to lift Win into his arms and call her his sweet girl again. He didn’t fumble before he kissed the top of her head; the affection was as natural as a spring flowing from the mountains.

Steve loved the pups. He didn’t think of the pups as belonging to Alexander Pierce, because the pups never had belonged to Pierce. Pierce never once expressed a desire to know or cherish the pups. He called them names and referred to them as things. Steve taught them to color within the lines of their coloring books and fell asleep with the pups curled up on his lap.

(Bucky had an entire album on his phone dedicated to pictures of Steve conked out with one, two or all of the babies draped over him. When Bucky’s episodes came to play, he liked to flick through the photos to bring his battered mind back to the present. The pictures were evidence. He lived with a good alpha. His pups were safe.

Sometimes those pictures were the only things that could get Bucky to breathe.)

Sarah squeezed Bucky’s arm. He blinked himself back to the world and realized that he’d started to teeter on the edge of dissociation. Maybe Sarah knew. Whether or not she did, she’d brought him back before the episode could get ugly.

“Omega to omega,” Sarah whispered to Bucky conspirationally, “The only way Steve could make those pups more his was if he peed in a circle around them. Such an alpha, that boy.”

Bucky wrinkled his nose and cried, “Ew, Sarah!”

“Although he’s nothing compared to Joe when he was young,” Sarah mused, “After we mated, he wouldn’t let me walk around the campus without his scent on me. He growled at any alpha that as much looked at me.”

“Steve does that when people look at us funny in public,” Bucky said.

“My Steven? Growling at strangers?” Sarah said, “He wouldn’t.”

“Oh, he would,” Bucky replied, “I would know. I was there.”

Sarah cackled, and soon after, Bucky dissolved into his own laughter. From their place in front of them, their two alphas turned curious looks on them, but Bucky and Sarah just laughed harder and told them that they wouldn’t get it.

Bucky had made a friend.

Chapter Text

The change crept into Bucky’s body so gradually that one day in late December his reflection came as a surprise. When Bucky arrived at Steve’s house in April, brought by a driver because Bucky never grew old enough to learn how to drive, he’d been near-skeletal in appearance, ribcage pressing up against paper-thin skin, collarbones sticking out far enough to cast hollow shadows, with tired eyes set far into a sallow face.

After Bucky woke and splashed water on his face, the man that met him in the mirror that morning was near indistinguishable from the person that he used to be. He looked…healthy. Riotous bedhead aside, Bucky’s body had bulk to it now, meat on his bones. No longer did he look like one of the walking dead, but he looked good, if still a little on the skinny side.

Once Bucky noticed the difference in his appearance, the change wouldn’t leave his mind. He saw it not only in his reflection, but in his gestures, in his habits – he didn’t flinch when Steve popped up from behind him in the kitchen that morning. He even leaned into the kiss that Steve brushed across Bucky’s stubbled cheek, threaded his fingers through Steve’s uncombed hair, and pulled him down to scent at Bucky’s neck.

The difference appeared not only in Bucky, but in the pups. Their faces matched the faces of their peers, now, with bright smiles and chubby cheeks. Some days they struggled with their motor skills, but they’d come so far from where they started that Bucky could cry from relief. This was the life that he wanted for them all along when they huddled there together in that tiny room. He wanted them to be able to run, to scream, to embrace the freedom that childhood should have allowed them from the beginning.

And now, the snow piled up high enough to hit Bucky mid-calf, he enjoyed freedom with them. George chased Winter through the tallest snowdrifts in Steve’s yard. Becky enjoyed jumping from the swings and into a pile of soft, fluffy snow, and beside Bucky, Win furrowed her brow in concentration as she imitated movement of Bucky’s arms and legs to make her first snow angel.

When Bucky stood again and helped Win to her feet, she frowned at her snow angel and announced, “That doesn’t look like an angel.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Bucky.

Win thought about it for a moment and then decided, “She doesn’t have a halo.”

Bucky crouched forward and drew a circle in the snow above the imprint of Win’s little head. He asked, “How’s that?”

“Better,” she said, and hugged Bucky’s leg.

Before Bucky could answer, a snowball exploded in the center of his chest. He jerked his attention over the trajectory and found Steve and Becky laughing from behind the swings. Bucky narrowed his eyes and said, “Oh, is that how it is?”

“Oh, that’s how it is,” Steve replied.

“You’re on, punk,” Bucky said. He stooped to dip his gloved hands in a fresh patch of snow and packed a scoop together to make a snowball. Often Coloradan snow didn’t make great snowballs – it tended to be drier, fluffier snow than the wet slurry of the east – but Bucky managed to get the flakes to basically stick together before he hurled the snowball at his alpha.

The snowball smacked the side of Steve’s face.

Becky started laughing again and said, “Ha-ha, Steve, Daddy threw one at you too!”

All five of them dissolved into a sloppy snowball fight, at least until George threw one too hard at Win and smacked her in her cold-pink nose with enough force that she began to cry. Bucky shushed her and propped her on his hip, making a show of taking a look at her face before he kissed the tip of her freezing nose and said, “That was owie, but I think you’re okay, baby.”

Win glowered and shoved her face against Bucky’s navy peacoat, but only after she blew a loud raspberry at her brother.

And bless Steve, who prevented an all-out war by asking, “Hey, have you guys ever built a snowman?”

“What’s a snowman?” Becky asked, and when Steve ducked to show her how to start building one, he captured George’s attention, too. A candle-flame of warmth flickered in Bucky’s heart watching his older pups so fascinated with the motions of Steve’s hands as he worked to build a (somewhat crooked) base for a snowman. Again, the Coloradan snow wasn’t ideal to create one, but the sheer volume of snowflakes made up for the lack of moisture in them. Soon enough, after watching her siblings and Steve working for a handful of minutes, Win kicked at Bucky to be let down and trudged through the snow, looking tiny in her bundle of winter clothing in snow that easily reached the top of her legs.

The wind picked up and cast loose snow over all of them. A shiver rolled through Bucky’s spine. The sounds of his children’s laughter and the rumble of Steve’s voice faded into the background, and they became characters on a television show echoing in an adjacent room. Bucky didn’t like the cold, didn’t like it one fucking bit. Bone-deep chills pulled him into a soup of memories of the sub-basement, of a cold so all-encompassing that he’d stopped knowing what warmth felt like.

Bucky didn’t know how long he slipped from reality, only that he came-to with his nose in Steve’s thick scarf and his big hand rubbing circles on his back. Steve wrapped his arm around Bucky’s shoulder and asked, “You with me?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Steve assured him, and his voice changed to speak to the pups – “Hey guys, I think it’s time for some hot chocolate. What do you think? Cocoa and movies?”

“Yeah!” Becky shrieked.

They trundled the pups and Winter back into the house, removing snow boots and coats at the sliding glass door so that the melted snow didn’t seep into the hardwood floors and warp the boards. While the pups yelled and ran to their room to change into dry clothes, Steve lingered to rub Bucky’s shoulders.

After a beat, Bucky said, “Thanks, Steve.”

“Got your back, Buck,” he replied, and reeled Bucky in for a sloppy kiss to the side of his head.

Bucky was hard-pressed not to feel like an idiot after floating away in the middle of the backyard, especially as he’d feared that the cold outside would bring it on. But he didn’t want to let his stupid fucking brain prevent him from playing in the snow with his babies, so he swallowed his nerves and went out despite himself.

Should have known better.

Bucky shook his head and retreated to the master bathroom, where he shed his wet clothing and dumped it in the laundry hamper. Steve turned the thermostat up, he knew, but Bucky’s skin was cold to the touch after being outdoors so long, and a full-body shudder wracked his body before he could stop it, gooseflesh peppered across his naked skin. He scurried into a long-sleeved shirt of Steve’s and a pair of his own pajama pants, and rolled thick socks over his frozen toes.

The moment that the clothing settled on him, Bucky’s stomach eased and body warmed. He let out a sigh of relief before he stepped back out into the living room, where he found the pups arranging themselves into a comfortable pile while Steve puttered around the kitchen, preparing a mug of hot chocolate for each of them. Bucky pecked a kiss to the back of Steve’s neck and then joined his babies on the couch, pulling a blanket over his lap and welcoming Becky when she crawled over to sit in his lap.

After passing cocoa to each of them, Steve snuggled in next to Bucky on the couch and plucked the remote from the coffee table. He started, “Would you mind if – nevermind.”

“Would I mind if what, Steve?” Bucky asked.

“We don’t have to…I just…it’s tradition for me, is all,” Steve began, and grabbed at the back of his neck before he went on, “Would it be okay if we watched an old Christmas movie or two?”

“Sure,” Bucky said, “I’ve seen a couple of those in my day, you know. When you’re the only Jewish kid you know you tend to adopt random Christmas shit just to fit in.”

Steve frowned and said, “But I don’t want you to –”

“Steve,” Bucky said, “Just turn on your dang Christmas movie, you weirdo.”

Steve managed to suppress a roll of his eyes, but Bucky could tell that he’d wanted to do it.

While they settled in to watch the movie in their typical form – Bucky always finding his way into Steve’s arms, against his chest and surrounded by his smell, the pups crowded around and on top of them – Bucky’s cell buzzed with a text notification from his twin sister.

5:25 Becca: Do you want me to bring anything tomorrow?

Bucky’s fingers hovered over the keyboard while he considered his answer. The much-anticipated Barnes-Rogers Hanukkah-slash-Christmas-Eve Bash was tomorrow, and while Bucky wanted to say that he’d never felt less prepared for something he knew he’d encountered far worse debacles in his life. The first part of the evening, Bucky’s parents and sisters would be there for cooking and games and naturally the lighting of the beautiful menorah that Steve brought back from California, and later, after they finished Christmas Mass, Joe and Sarah would join them. Then they’d celebrate Steve’s part of their strange little cobbled-together family.

To Bucky the celebration sounded strange, but he knew his pups wouldn’t care. Besides, a dual-religion celebration could serve as a marker of a new life. A new, happier – albeit more chaotic – life.

5:29 Bucky: your sanity

5:29 Becca: LOL good fucking luck with that

Bucky smiled and shook his head before tucking his phone away. Becca was right, of course. Sanity would be in short supply at a full on Jewish-Catholic mishmash holiday extravaganza. Bucky hoped against hope that Steve’s parents would be able to tolerate his rambunctious litter of sisters and his nosy parents. He sent a silent prayer to anyone listening, in fact, that everything would go well.

The anticipation of tomorrow rode high in the air for them all, pups included. Their energy overflowed through supper and into bath time, and when it came time for them to sleep, Bucky found them jumping on their beds and throwing stuffed animals at each other instead of brushing their teeth as he asked them to do.

Bucky sighed.

Wrangling the pups under their covers, even with Steve’s help, took the better part of an hour. Win babbled excitement over seeing her granddad and bubbe, while Becky was curious about Hanukkah and George wanted to know how many presents there would be.

(“Why did you tell them there would be presents?” Bucky griped at Steve later, because damn it, they’d just started to settle when Steve fed them that particular tidbit of information)

By the time that Bucky and Steve fell into their bed, by all accounts, Bucky should have been exhausted. He had dissociated, however briefly, and all day his pups had been so rowdy that dashing after them felt like an old Scooby Doo ghost chase montage, slamming doors and costumes included. But no, energy crackled through Bucky, simmering just below the surface. When he glanced over at Steve beside him, Bucky realized what the energy was.

He was fucking horny.

How the hell did he forget what that felt like?

“Buck?” Steve said, brows drawn together, “You doin’ all right there, babe?”

Bucky’s lips fell into a coy grin. He leaned over and kissed Steve. The kiss was thorough, nothing like the chaste kisses that they tended to share throughout the day when being caught canoodling by the pups was an inevitability. Bucky wanted to draw Steve into him, to bring their bodies as close as possible. He rested his hands on Steve’s shoulders to balance himself while he swung a leg over Steve’s and straddled his lap. He liked kissing like this, sitting in Steve’s lap, with Steve’s big hands searing-hot against his waist. Steve never pinned Bucky, but kept him steady.

Steve whined into Bucky’s mouth and broke their kiss to press his lips to Bucky’s jaw and neck, little wet kisses that sent Bucky’s insides squirming with a flurry of emotions, of foreign neediness and affection for his big dumb alpha, the simultaneous desire to nuzzle into Steve and do all the dirty things that Steve had described to him in filthy whispers when their encounters grew heavy like this.

With a hum of approval, Bucky pressed his hips forward and moved his body against Steve’s. He liked this part. Even though neither of them had ever gotten off rubbing up on each other, Bucky loved the feeling he got from it, the building sensation that teased at orgasm but didn’t have to be one, because Steve was patient and good and didn’t expect anything of Bucky. Beneath him, Steve hardened and hell, Bucky loved the way he felt when Steve stiffened up. Like that, the aroma of Bucky’s slick surrounded them.

Steve didn’t expect anything of Bucky, but maybe Bucky wanted to do something nice for Steve anyway.

“Steve,” Bucky breathed.

“Mm?”

“Can I, um,” Bucky drummed his fingers where he held Steve’s shoulders, “Could I – can I see you naked? Maybe? If that’s okay?”

Steve failed to disguise his astonishment. His lips parted, his brows rose, and he asked, “Are you sure?”

“Um,” Bucky said, “I mean…I wanna try something. Can I try something?”

Steve’s surprise melted away into an easy, shit-eating smirk. He ran both palms up and down Bucky’s sides and said, “Sure, Buck. I trust you. But you gotta get off me if you want me in my birthday suit.”

“Your birthday suit?” echoed Bucky, “You fucking nerd.”

But Bucky climbed off of Steve as requested and scooted back to his side of the king bed. Steve slipped off of the mattress and stood. He pulled his t-shirt (something from the Denver AIDS Walk, because of fucking course Steve participated in fundraisers like that) over his head, fluffing his blond hair up haphazardly. Though Bucky had seen Steve’s chest countless times, he still took a moment to admire it. Steve was, simply put, a work of art. Give Bucky some marble to carve and he’d sculpt his alpha’s likeness, slap “Steve” on the title card and stick it in a museum.

Before tonight, Bucky never wanted to lick every inch of Steve’s body just to find the places that teased those whiny alpha noises out of him, but now he wanted nothing more.

And then…

Then, Steve hooked his thumbs under the elastic waistband of his star-patterned pajama pants and shucked them off.

Bucky’s eyebrows soared up on his forehead.

“Jesus,” he gulped, “That’s – how do you get blood to your brain when you, you know, get going?”

Granted, Bucky’s scope on the appearance of alpha dicks was limited to a couple weeks of freshman health class, Neolithic internet porn, Alexander Pierce, and now, Steve, but out of all of that, Steve’s cock was by far the biggest that he’d laid eyes on, thick and flushed purple-red between Steve’s muscled thighs.

Steve went pink in the face and carded his fingers through his hair. He muttered to his feet, “It’s not that big.”

The sheer size of Steve’s cock intimidated the hell out of Bucky. How was he…if he decided he wanted Steve to lend a helping knot during his heat, how was that thing gonna fit inside Bucky’s body? He swallowed the lump of nerves lodged in his throat and patted the space on the bed beside him. He’d worry about the mechanics of a heat with Steve later. He didn’t have to worry now. For now, he wanted to take care of Steve like he deserved to be taken care of.

Gingerly, Steve climbed back into bed, propping his back up against the pillows. A reassuring smile filled his face, but his eyes stayed sharp, alert to Bucky’s every move as he slunk over the foot of space between them and rested his palm on Steve’s thigh. Bucky leaned over to steal a kiss before he swung over and straddled Steve’s legs.

First, Bucky touched Steve’s chest. He’d done that before, but he never tired of running his hands over the ridges and valleys of alpha muscle, thumbing over Steve’s nipples so that he could listen to the catch in his breath. A happy hum vibrated through Steve’s body when Bucky’s hands slipped lower than ever before, tracing along Steve’s bare hips and coming to rest on either thigh.

Steve’s cock lay against his abdomen, a bead of precome at the tip glinting in the yellowish light from the lamp on their bedside table. Bucky bit down on his lower lip, and then, before he could talk himself out of it, reached out to run the tip of his finger through the fluid at the tip. A startled whine peeled out of Steve. The room stank of arousal, of needy alpha and interested omega, weaving together into a new third scent that left a pleasant buzz thrumming throughout Bucky’s body.

Then Bucky drew his hand back and frowned. He said, “Wait. Is it okay for me to touch you?”

Steve met the question with a wry, almost desperate smile and said, “A’course, Buck. I woulda stopped you if I didn’t want your hands on me.”

“Okay,” Bucky exhaled the breath he’d been holding, “Okay, good. Just wanted to make sure.”

This time, Bucky didn’t hesitate. He wrapped his whole hand around Steve and stroked, just once. An experiment. Steve’s skull hit the headboard with a thunk and he groaned, low and deep. He said, “God, that’s good. You feel real good.”

“You think so?” Bucky asked.

“I know so,” Steve replied, eyes heavy-lidded and voice languid. He leaned forward to draw Bucky into a searing kiss, bringing his hands up to cup Bucky’s face on either side. Bucky wiggled into the embrace, pleased. His own cock hardened beneath layers of cotton and flannel, and the back of his underwear went to hell, soaked through with more slick than he knew his body could even make.

Bare on the bed with his legs spread and his hair disheveled, Steve looked like the very picture of sex, like every wet dream that Bucky ever had, all pink and gold and panting.

“So you blush everywhere, huh?” Bucky teased.

Steve blushed harder, but his voice was husky when he pecked a kiss to Bucky’s lips and answered, “Yeah.”

“I like it,” Bucky told him, “I like it a lot,” and took Steve’s cock back in hand.

The motion of touching Steve, of rubbing the soft skin over his solid erection, returned to Bucky as easily as the steps of riding a bicycle. Before everything, before Pierce and the basement and the pups, Bucky was a horny teenage omega just like the rest of ‘em, and touched himself enough that there was no disguising what his excessive Kleenex usage was for. Touching Steve, the angle was different, but the concept remained the same. Bucky touched Steve the way that he remembered he used to like, a light but firm grip sliding easily, with special attention to the head.

Only with Steve, the base of his cock started to thicken with his knot. Bucky put pressure on the growing knot, working his fingers against the skin, and Steve’s hips stuttered, seeking friction.

“Um, babe –” was all that Steve managed before he went off like a bottle rocket under Bucky’s hand.

A truly impressive amount of come coated Bucky’s hand and Steve’s dick, all the way down to his knot and the wiry thatch of dark blond hair between his legs.

“Wow,” Bucky remarked.

“Shut up,” Steve whined.

“That was a long time coming, huh?” Bucky asked, and then, “Get it, Steve? Long time coming?”

Steve rubbed his face with his hand and said, “I don’t know who let you think you’re funny,” but pulled Bucky in for a tender kiss that lasted just long enough to make Bucky’s whole body feel weak.

After they broke their kiss, Bucky edged up close enough to rest his head against Steve’s sweat-damp chest. The pounding of Steve’s heart echoed against his ear, a heavy thuh-thump thuh-thump, still beating fast as he wound down from his orgasm. The room stank of their combined arousal, of Steve’s fresh, masculine scent overwrought with need and hunger, and Bucky’s gentler smell thickened with desire.

Steve brushed his lips against Bucky’s forehead and asked, “Do you want me to return the favor?” and petted a hand over Bucky’s hair.

At that, Bucky drew back from his resting spot on Steve’s chest and studied him. He swallowed to wet his abruptly dry throat, and a second later, he nodded. Steve didn’t move at the nod, so Bucky added shyly, “Yeah. Yes. Yeah. Let’s try that.”

Bucky slid off of Steve and pulled his shirt off, first. He didn’t look as nice as Steve, but hell, he looked better than he had. Scar tissue stretched in jagged pink over patches of his left arm, but Steve had already seen it. He’d seen Bucky naked plenty of times, just never when they were fooling around.

When Bucky dropped his pants, Steve’s eyes went dark. His lips parted. He looked like a panther poised to pounce at any given moment, and Bucky stood before him as prey. But Steve didn’t do that. Instead, he reached out his arms and murmured, “C’mere. I wanna kiss you some more.”

Bucky slotted right up against Steve’s chest, in his arms. He’d never felt intimacy like this before. He’d never settled against somebody skin on skin, never scented alpha arousal all around him and thought yes, I love this smell. Nothing smelled as good as Steve, and when Steve pushed his mouth to Bucky’s and traced the inside of his mouth with his tongue, Bucky decided that nothing tasted as good as Steve, either. Something about Steve fired off alert signals in his brain that said yes, this is right. Yes, this is good.

Yes, this alpha.

But as Steve’s palm slipped from Bucky’s hair and roamed down his chest, an acidic burst of nerves split open in his gut.

Steve jerked back immediately at the smell of omega fear piercing through the cloud of arousal. He stroked Bucky’s hair and his back and said, “We don’t gotta do anything you don’t want to, Buck. It’s okay if you need to stop.”

“No,” Bucky insisted, “No, I wanna try.” He wanted to feel Steve’s hands on him. He wanted to enjoy this moment with Steve. Bucky liked Steve’s touch and he liked Steve’s smell. For all his size, Steve was gentle and careful, rubbing soothing patterns over Bucky’s bare skin and applying kisses all around his neck and shoulders.

Steve’s hand rested against Bucky’s thigh. He slid the pad of his thumb back and forth, back and forth, over and over until the scent of nervousness died back down. Bucky hated that he required this amount of patience to deal with at the same time he relished Steve doling it out, his eyes all puppy-big but wolf-sharp with attention as his touch drifted to the erection between Bucky’s legs. His warm, thick fingers closed around the girth and a bolt of sensation ripped a gasp from Bucky’s throat.

Bucky didn’t look the way that omegas looked in magazines, plucked and hairless without a pore or scar to be seen. Out of self-consciousness, he’d shaved everything in high school, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it again since being topside again, not with the way Alexander Pierce’s voice drawled in his ear, a sinister murmur of, oh, look how pretty you are. Did you do all this for me?

The first time Bucky had been conscious for Pierce, Pierce whispered how much he liked that Bucky didn’t have hair on his legs or his balls, that he was all shaven like a pretty omega should be.

Dark hair peppered his legs now, and grew thick between them.

Bucky didn’t look like an omega should look.

He wanted to look like an omega should look. For Steve.

The grip of a hand on Bucky’s cock made him blink back blurred vision. He hated when Pierce touched him there. He always hated Alpha coming to the basement room but Bucky hated it most when he wanted Bucky to enjoy the encounters, when he wrapped his too-soft fingers around Bucky’s cock and yanked painful orgasms from his body, and told Bucky what a good boy he was for coming for his alpha.

Bucky hated that he could smell omega need under the heavy blanket of alpha. He hated that his body worked without the permission of his mind and more than anything, oh, more than anything, Bucky hated when Alpha put on a show in front of Bucky’s pups. He told them to watch. Told them to see how much their filthy omega enjoyed what he was doing, while Bucky snapped and crumbled beneath Alpha’s weight and sobbed.

And when the fugue cleared and Bucky found his baby boy cleaning the sweat and slick and spunk from his back, George said, “Alpha says you like it when he hurts you but he’s wrong. You don’t like it.”

“I don’t like it,” he rasped, “You’re right, baby. I don’t like it.”

I stopped, Bucky, please!

“You don’t stop,” Bucky whined like a pup, “I ask you to stop and you don’t stop. You never stop. I just want you to stop.”

Buck, babe, c’mon.

Babe?

So much happened all at once and Bucky’s dizzy head couldn’t catalogue it all. He felt Alpha pump into his body, hips snapping into dry space, wet space, hands gripping Bucky’s flaccid cock, hands tugging at an erection, the pups touching his face, the pups crying quietly because they knew they couldn’t be loud, the scent of them as they wriggled into Bucky’s arms after Alpha left them and the door in the ceiling slammed closed with a billow of dust, Steve’s scent when Bucky jerked awake in the night –

Steve.

Steve’s scent?

Bucky opened his eyes and pulled away from the scent of Steve’s throat. The sub-basement collapsed like a theatre set and the room that swam before him was the living room, in the place that he’d come to think of as home. He shifted to look down at Steve, whose lap he was sitting on in the corner of one of the armchairs. Steve’s eyes were big and red-rimmed with the effort not to cry.

“What,” was all that Bucky managed to say.

Steve pushed a stray lock of hair behind Bucky’s ear and said, “We were fooling around and, um, you flashed back and dissociated.”

Bucky remembered. He remembered loving how Steve looked with his legs spread and lips parted when he came. He remembered Steve asking if he wanted the favor returned, and Steve’s stupid, gentle hands before Bucky just – wasn’t there, anymore.

Sometime between then and now, Steve cleaned both of them up, redressed them in their pajama pants, and hauled Bucky out to the living room. He’d tucked Bucky’s face into his neck and held him on the armchair and waited for scent to bring him back.

“Fuck,” Bucky said. His eyes shuttered closed and he inhaled a breath that rattled his ribcage.

“It’s okay,” Steve said softly, “You’re okay. I’ve got you. We’re gonna be all right.”

Bucky rested his head on Steve’s shoulder and tried to believe him. He wanted to share intimacy with Steve and trying blew up in his fucking face. He was – Bucky thought he was getting better. He and Steve kissed more. Touched more. The scent of alpha arousal didn’t scare Bucky into hiding under the covers in his private bedroom anymore. Hell, touching Steve worked just freaking fine.

But as soon as Steve touched him…

“Why am I so fucked up?” he lamented.

Steve nuzzled his nose against Bucky’s forehead. He answered, “You’re not. You’re healing. I got about a thousand things that Sam would say ready for you, but I’m kinda thinkin’ that’s not what you wanna hear.”

“I know, I know,” Bucky said, “He’d say it’s not linear. It’s a process. I’m not gonna get better overnight. Blah-blah-fucking-blah. I’m tired of being broken, Steve! Alexander Pierce is locked away in a fucking prison cell and he’s still controlling my life!” Bucky brought his fist down against the armrest of the chair, bones snapping against the taut leather.

Steve’s face hardened, but before he could say anything, Bucky felt a tug at the back of his pajama pants. He twitched in surprised and shifted around to see Becky, uncharacteristically clutching a stuffed duckling to her chest.

“Daddy,” she said, blue eyes big and watery, lower lip wobbling, “George went away.”

“What?” Bucky said.

“Where?” Steve asked, “Where did he go? I just checked on you guys; he was right in the nursery.”

Alpha panic bloomed in the room like a mushroom cloud.

“No,” Becky said, “He went away. Like Daddy does.”

Bucky and Steve exchanged a meaningful look and scrambled up from their place tangled together on the armchair. They followed Becky back to the nursery, which was lit only by a nightlight on top of the dresser in the far right-hand corner of the room.

Steve flicked on the light and illuminated chaos. Win was sobbing without noise in her bed, fists tight on Bear’s arm as though the stuffed animal were her only lifeline. George wasn’t in his bed, but instead sat wedged between the art table and the wall, arms wrapped around skinny knees. An all-too-familiar distant look clouded his eyes, and though Winter lapped at George’s hands and face, he stayed miles away.

“Shit,” Steve said emphatically.

“Can you carry him out to the living room?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah,” Steve said, “Yeah. Good idea.” He scooped George into his arms. A long whining noise pinched out of Winter, but she didn’t hesitate to follow when they left the room and deposited George on the couch. She leapt up beside him and licked at George’s cheek.

Bucky knelt at George’s side and took one of his small hands in both of his own. He said, “Sweetheart. George. It’s okay. Daddy’s here. You’re at home with me and your sisters and Winter and Steve. It’s December. Come back, baby. Your doggy needs you. Your sisters need you. I need you. You’re safe. You’re safe.”

Whether Bucky’s speech or Winter’s licking pulled George to the present, Bucky couldn’t say, but several agonizing seconds after bringing his oldest pup out to the living room, George reached over to stroke Winter’s big ears and said, “Winter?”

“That’s right,” Bucky said, “Winter’s right here. She was worried about you.”

“Daddy?” George whispered, and threw his arms around Bucky’s neck. Bucky enveloped his pup in a tight embrace and cradled him to his chest. He was much heavier than he used to be – closer to the weight that a ten year old boy should be. That didn’t stop Bucky from holding him close, heaving George up with the strength of his legs so that he could settle down on the couch with George on his lap.

“Where’d you go, sweetheart?” he asked gently.

George snuffled at the crook of Bucky’s neck and said, “You smelled scared.”

“I smelled scared?” echoed Bucky.

“I woke up and you smelled scared and S-Steve smelled weird and it smelled like it did in the dark,” George cried, “but I don’t remember what happened after that. You were scared and I got scared and then I was here with you and Winter.”

(And Steve and the girls, though the three of them hung back at the periphery of the room, one girl tucked against either side of Steve’s broad body.)

“I went away, too,” Bucky said, “That’s why I smelled scared.”

“Did you go away because Steve smelled weird?” asked George, but he didn’t remove his face from Bucky’s neck.

“No, baby,” Bucky said, “Remember what I told you a while ago, about how sometimes adults like to do stuff that might make pups because it’s something that feels good?”

“Sex,” George said.

“Yeah, sex,” Bucky confirmed, “Me and Steve were…um. We were practicing for when I have my heat, okay? But my brain got mixed up and I thought I was with Alpha instead of Steve, so I got scared. But Steve took care of me. He made sure I came back, and then he helped carry you out here so we could bring you back, too.”

George didn’t respond with words, but instead, a dry sob. For several minutes, Bucky shushed and rocked him while Winter stood sentry on the next cushion over, and Steve and the girls watched from the edge of the living room. As soon as George’s cries wound down to sniffles and shaking breaths, Bucky stroked his back and said, “It’s pretty late and we got a big day tomorrow. I think it might be time to go back to bed.”

“I don’t wanna be alone,” George wept, clinging to Bucky with a level of desperation that Bucky hadn’t seen from his son in months.

“Shh, it’s okay,” Bucky said, “You don’t have to be. We can –” but Bucky cut himself off. They couldn’t all pile up in the king bed in the master bedroom, not when it smelled like sex. He recovered a beat later to finish, “We can sleep in my room, okay?”

“Okay,” George agreed.

Bucky’s bad arm ached as he hefted George up and walked him down the hallway to his bedroom, which smelled innocuous and seldom-used, despite the nest piled up on top of the bed. Bucky deposited George on the edge of the mattress, and he immediately crawled underneath the blankets. The girls followed their father and brother into the room, both with stuffed animals in their arms, but only climbed into bed after Bucky hugged and kissed each of them and assured them that he and George were both okay.

Winter, too, leapt up, and settled at the bottom of the bed.

“I’ll be there in a minute, okay?” Bucky said, and met Steve at the doorway. He rested a hand on his alpha’s waist and said lowly, “I think it’s best if we stay in here tonight. Are you gonna be okay?”

A tired smile flickered over Steve’s mouth. He said, “I’ll be fine. If you need anything…”

“Wait!”

Bucky and Steve turned. George popped his head out of the covers and stared wide-eyed at them. He asked, “Where is Steve going? Why isn’t he coming to bed too?”

“Do you…want me here with you guys?” Steve asked.

George nodded.

“Then I’ll stay,” Steve said. He stepped back into the bedroom and closed the door behind him with a faint click. Then, Steve rounded the bed for the best point of entry into the nest, while Bucky shimmied back in from where he’d crawled out. Steve slipped under the covers against Bucky’s side, and the pups shifted to accommodate their support alpha.

As soon as Steve settled, George threw himself on top of him, looped his arms around Steve’s neck and pressed his face right into the scent gland of their support alpha. Steve’s brows lifted a fraction and his eyes darted to Bucky, but other than that, he didn’t react beyond heaving George close and cuddling him to his chest.

“You doing okay, kiddo?” Steve asked.

George burrowed further into Steve and didn’t say a damn word. But Steve hummed as though George had said something, pulled one of the nest’s blankets up over them both, and melted back into the bed, side pressed to Bucky and pup sprawled on top of him.

Bucky closed his eyes, but couldn’t fall asleep. He couldn’t shift much, not with Win and Becky tucked up to him on one side and Steve and George on the other, but he did open his eyes, and found Steve gazing back at him.

“Can’t sleep?” Steve whispered.

Bucky shook his head.

“Me neither,” said Steve, “I just…about earlier. I want you to know I don’t think that you’re broken, okay? I like you just the way you are.”

Too tired to argue the point, Bucky closed his eyes again and sighed, “Whatever you say, Steve.”

**

Steve came-to smushed between George and Bucky, George eighty-some pounds of snoring, deadweight pup directly on Steve’s chest, and Bucky’s arm thrown over the both of them, mouth open and eyes fluttering beneath the lids as he slept. Steve hated to wake them, but a seed of anxiety had taken root in the pit of his stomach – one of his favorite days of the year, Christmas Eve, and the sense that something would go wrong hung over his head like a fat, black cloud.

Last night was a hell of a way to jumpstart a joyous season.

Steve couldn’t remember ever feeling so scared in his life. One instant, he and Buck were all tender kisses and naked limbs, and in the next Bucky’s eyes went vacant and terrified. The scent of omega fear sapped the arousal from the room, and through the fog of Steve’s post-orgasm brain, he had to clean both of them up to wipe the smell of sex from their skin, redress himself and Bucky, and carry Bucky out to the living room to take in fresh air.

Steve didn’t breathe right until Bucky came back to him, couldn’t fill his lungs up until he knew his omega was safe and sound.

And then George suffered because of them.

 But somehow the pup still wanted Steve to be in their nest.

“You’re thinkin’ too hard,” rumbled Bucky’s voice.

Steve slid his gaze to his side and found Bucky staring at him through sleepy, barely-open eyes. He yawned and stretched like a happy cat in the sun, and then nuzzled close to kiss Steve’s cheek.

“How do you know what I’m thinking about?” Steve asked.

Please,” Bucky flatly answered, “I can read you like a book, you punk. You’re already worried about making everything right for our families, and you’re blaming yourself for last night, and probably taking last night as some harbinger of doom for the holidays.”

Steve frowned, unwilling to admit that Bucky was right.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” Bucky asked.

“No,” Steve replied petulantly.

“You sure?” he prodded, nosing in closer so that he could nip at Steve’s neck.

Steve whined and let out a huff of air. He said, “Fine. But you can’t tell me that last night didn’t set the mood.”

“Cut the melodrama, you baby,” Bucky said back, “It’s a new day.”

“Well, technically –”

“Did you go to sleep and wake up?” asked Bucky, and didn’t bother to let Steve reply before he went on, “Then it’s a new day. And, you know, at the risk of sounding like my ma, ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ okay? Last night was last night. Today is today. We don’t have time for theatrics; we got a house to gussy up.”

“You’re uncharacteristically optimistic,” Steve muttered, but he knew that Bucky was right. Today was a new day, and he was determined that he would make this the greatest holiday ever celebrated. Of course, the pups didn’t have a threshold for their expectations for the day; they only knew that excitement was on the horizon. Bucky, on the other hand, had a bank of holidays from which to draw memories and with which Steve had to compete.

Bucky hadn’t enjoyed Hanukkah with his family for ten holiday seasons, instead trapped in a dank room that was little more than a hole in the ground, whispering stories to his pups and telling them of sacred holidays the same way one relayed a fairytale. Now Bucky had a chance to share those holidays on this plane of existence, and Steve wanted everything to be perfect for him.

Steve needed to start readying everything for the day, so that everything could be perfect for his omega.

George rubbed at his eyes and complained when Steve lifted him up and maneuvered his way out of the bed, but curled up in the warmth that Steve left in the indented sheets and fell back asleep in mere minutes.

In the kitchen, Steve busied himself with setting the coffee pot to brew and filling the kettle for Bucky’s tea at the tap, all the while worrying his lower lip between his teeth. The house wasn’t in terrible shape, but he did need to air out the master bedroom, which he’d have to do behind closed doors to avoid scaring the pups with any lingering smell of turned-on alpha and their terrified father. He smeared a hand over his face and turned to find Bucky behind him, arms crossed over his chest and one brow cocked high.

“What?” Steve said, trying not to sound defensive.

“What did I say about thinking too hard, hmm?” Bucky asked, and circled the kitchen table to sling an arm around Steve’s waist. He ushered Steve into a hug. He rubbed at the knots of stress in Steve’s back until Steve groaned long and loud, and caved in.

He sighed, and let his chin rest on Bucky’s shoulder before he said, “Sorry. I just – I want this all to be perfect for you and the pups.”

“It’s not going to be perfect, and that’s fine, Steve. It’s going to be crazy and messy, because we’re a family. Families tend to be crazy and messy.”

Steve lifted his head at family. He opened his mouth to ask Bucky what he meant, but when he glanced down, Bucky’s face twisted into a scowl, the ‘ask me, I fucking dare you’ scowl. So Steve ducked and kissed the scowl, just to be contrary. A muffled squawk of protest tore out of Bucky, but as soon as the surprise waned, he kissed Steve back with twice as much enthusiasm.

They were a family.

The alpha in Steve considered them family long before Bucky said the word aloud, considered Bucky to be his mate and the pups to be his pups. No omega, no human being at all, had ever smelled as good to Steve as Bucky did. Words couldn’t describe his scent. It wasn’t particular to something. He didn’t smell like treated leather as Tony did, or sweet and flowery like Natasha. Bucky smelled right, the olfactory equivalent of the missing piece to Steve’s puzzle.

Steve and Bucky didn’t discuss mating. They hardly discussed the prospect of Bucky’s heat, even as the predicted January dates drew ever-nearer.

Bucky calling them family implied mates. Implied permanence.

Steve’s alpha purred at the idea.

“Try not to smell so fucking smug,” Bucky said, and Steve grinned broadly at him.

Bucky rolled his eyes, but leaned up for another kiss anyway. Steve couldn’t help but take advantage and brush his nose against the soft skin of Bucky’s throat. His mouth went dry at the thought of putting a mating bite right there, where everyone could see. His Bucky. His omega. His family. Instead, Steve just applied a kiss to the skin he wanted to bite, and turned to pour his coffee into a handmade mug that Pepper gifted him a few Christmases before.

Getting the house in order took less effort than expected: Steve took to the master bedroom with Happy Spring Febreze and a plug-in pheromone diffuser, but he left the window open a crack for good measure. Bucky covered the living room, directing the pups to pick up their toys with all the command of an army sergeant.

Just as Steve stashed the Swiffer at half-past one, the doorbell rang. On the stoop, he found three pink-nosed Barnes sisters: Becca, Joanna, and Rachel. They exclaimed over Steve and strong-armed him into tight hugs and lipstick-fresh kisses, and after handing off their winter coats to be hung in the foyer closet, moved onto the pups and Bucky, who changed from his cleaning attire of sweatpants and a t-shirt to sturdy jeans and a button down.

A smile spread over Steve’s face as he watched Bucky suffer through hugs and kisses like the rest of them, scrubbing lipstick stains from his face with the heel of his hand. He didn’t miss the way that Bucky lit up when he watched his sisters and his pups together.

“Where’s everyone else?” Steve asked.

Becca cast Bucky a world-weary look that made her look eerily like her brother and said, “We took two cars because Ma filled half the Chevy with her entire kitchen. I told her you guys have stuff for cooking, but you know how she is. You won’t have the right stuff, or what if you forgot something…you fill in the rest.”

Win made grabby hands at Becca, and Becca obliged her, scooping her off of the floor and propping her on her hip. She grinned at her niece and said, “How are you, cutie pie?”

“I’m not a pie!” Win said, “I’m a person.”

“You’re right,” Becca said seriously, “That’s my mistake.”

The front door had been closed behind the three eldest Barnes sisters for no more than five minutes when the bell rang again. When Steve answered it this time, there were no hugs and kisses. Instead, Winifred Senior threw an armful of gifts wrapped in shiny paper and said, “Could you hold those, Steve? You’re an angel. Where should George and the girls put all our stuff?”

“Kitchen’s fine,” Steve said, and watched as Bucky’s parents bickered with the two youngest Barneses about where to put this pot or that grocery bag, and where did you put the bag with all the goodies in it, Rhoda Beth? Steve elected to set the presents beside the Christmas tree, with the rest of the wrapped packages. The bright, cheerful blue of the Barnes’ gifts stood out against the sea of red and green beneath the branches of the spruce. Steve’s smile widened at the collage of color, the evidence of their family blending.

“James!” George called, and Bucky trekked into the kitchen to where his father was unloading groceries on the kitchen island one item at a time. He patted Bucky’s shoulder and said, “I’m making sufganiyot. You’re helping. You think Junior’s gonna want to get in on this?”

“George, baby, you wanna help Daddy and Grandpa make doughnuts?” Bucky called over the countertop.

George nodded and dragged one of the kitchen chairs to the island, standing so that he could see what George Sr. and Bucky were doing. Steve watched the chaos unfold with a glow behind his ribs, warmth that he sustained as Winnie and Joanna argued over the best way to start the latkes, Meanwhile, Becca and Rachel unloaded one of the bags to reveal gelt – and a dreidel for each pup, even though they technically only needed one to play the game.

Steve would have contented himself with watching, but Becca waved him over and said, “Steve, come play with us! Do you know how to play?”

Steve shook his head.

“We’re teaching Win and Becky, anyway,” Becca said.

“Wait for me!” George exclaimed from the kitchen.

“I thought you were helping us making sufganiyot, sweetheart,” Bucky said.

“That’s boring,” George said, “You guys are just mixing stuff. They’re playing!”

George Senior chuckled and shook his head. He said, “Go have fun, Junior.”

“My name is George,” George said.

“Yes, baby, George Junior,” Bucky said. He stuck his thumb in his mouth to wet it and pressed down a cowlick that stuck from out of the top of George’s head. He added, “My dad is named George, too. He’s George Senior.”

George squinted at his father and his granddad and said, “What-ever. I’m gonna go play with the – with the thingie.”

“Dreidel,” Bucky said.

“Yeah, dreidel,” George agreed, and dragged his chair back to the kitchen table before he joined his aunts, sisters, and Steve on the floor of the living room. Winter parked herself beside him. Becca dealt George in with fifteen pieces of chocolate gelt, one of which he picked up and scrutinized like a test subject.

“There’s chocolate inside,” explained Rachel.

“Can I share with Winter?” George asked.

At the mention of her name, Winter’s tail beat against the floorboards.

Steve said, “Chocolate makes dogs sick, but me and Daddy got her some special treats to eat tonight and fancy food for tomorrow.”

George petted Winter’s head and said, “Sorry, Winter. Chocolate’s not for doggies.” Winter cocked her head, then slid down and lay beside George with her back legs akimbo against the floor.

As soon as the pups settled in, Becca and Rachel explained the different sides of the dreidel. The game got off to a slow start as the pups fumbled with their dreidels and stumbled over learning the sides, but after the first round they caught on. Steve’s luck failed him on his first spin of the dreidel, and he added three pieces of gelt to the pot. Becky didn’t seem to care much for the game, and after winning half of the pot on her turn, she scurried to curl up in one of the armchairs, where she began to eat her winnings.

Win migrated onto Steve’s lap partway through the game and had him spin her dreidel for her. George did well for himself several rounds in a row, and cheered every time he raked more chocolate into his possession. He announced, “Ha-ha, Steve, I beat you.”

“You sure did,” Steve agreed, biting back a stupid smile.

“Be nice to Steve,” Bucky called from the kitchen, pointing a wooden spoon at his son.

Winnie finished latkes before Bucky and George had even finished the dough for the sufganiyot, let alone gotten their oil boiling, and as she pulled a baking tray from the oven, she called for the dreidel game to come to a close so that everyone could enjoy food as a family. The pups raced to be the first at the table with the smack of little feet on the floor, but Steve ambled behind and snapped some pictures of the Barneses all together, smiling and joking and laughing as though Bucky and the babies had never been missing from the picture.

The pungent scent of potato and shallots permeated the kitchen as the pups sat at the table. Steve leaned against the kitchen island and followed Winnie with his phone camera as she dished up plates for the babies.

“Here, try one,” Winnie said, as soon as the pups had their plates, “Have you ever had latkes?”

Steve shook his head.

“Oh, well, not to brag, but my latkes are the best that you’ll ever have,” Winnie said. She slid a couple of latkes off of the tray and onto a plate for Steve.

“Wouldn’t doubt it for a second,” Steve said.

“You want applesauce or sour cream with yours?” Winnie asked.

“Can I try both?” he asked.

“Of course you can,” Winnie replied, an undertone of approval in her voice. She arranged a dollop of sour cream on one end of Steve’s plate and a blob of applesauce on the other, and then passed the plate to him with a warm smile.

Across the kitchen island, Becky tugged at Bucky’s jeans. Melted gelt covered her face from her nose down, and her hands were just as bad. At the sight, Bucky made a noise of displeasure, and crossed the kitchen to wet a towel. As he wiped her face, he asked, “Did you need something, baby?”

“Do we get to open presents today?” she asked.

“Yes, we do,” Bucky said, “Hold out your hands.”

Becky obeyed, and as Bucky scrubbed at the chocolate residue smeared over her palms and little fingers, she asked, “When do we get to open presents?”

“After we light the menorah and say our blessings,” hummed Bucky, and when he straightened back to his full height, he tossed the soiled towel to Steve. Steve caught it one-handed while he munched on his latkes.

“When do we do that?” Becky prodded.

“After the sun goes down all the way, sweetheart,” Bucky said.

“Why?” asked Becky.

“That’s tradition, Becks,” he told her.

Becky looked like she might pout, but Winnie distracted her with a second serving of latkes. The girl loved her food; that was for damn sure. The whole gathering struck Steve as surreal. He never dreamed last Christmas that his life would look like this in time for the next holiday. Before Bucky and the pups, Steve lived alone. His parents visited him for Christmas, of course, but Christmas as an adult didn’t sit the same as Christmas as a pup did.

Before Bucky and the pups, Steve spent his time alone in his studio. His art was his whole world, until one friend or another dragged him bodily from his house for drinks or socialization.

And now Steve stood in the center of a whirling, chaotic family gathering, surrounded by the noise of happy pups and laughing young women while the smell of latkes and the dough frying for the sufganiyot hung heavy in the air.

By the time that the sun vanished from the winter sky and dark settled over the house, they’d all eaten their fill of chocolate and doughnuts and latkes. The pups slowed from up and running to coloring pictures at the kitchen table with their aunties while everyone else lounged in the living room and talked nonsense things while they nursed their full bellies.

“I think it’s time we light the candles,” Winnie said, and crossed back to the kitchen, where she’d moved the grocery bags of belongings that she’d brought with her. From one, she drew an old, scuffed-up, brass menorah. Beside Steve, Bucky stiffened a little, and his eyes went wide.

“You okay?” asked Steve.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Bucky murmured back, “That’s just – it’s the first time I’ve seen our family menorah since…since you know.” A naked torrent of emotion shapeshifted on Bucky’s face, from nostalgia to sadness to joy and back again, a fast-morphing creature that lasted only the space of a few seconds before Bucky stood and said, “We have a menorah, too.”

“You do?” Winnie said.

“Steve, um, he commissioned it from one of his Jewish artist friends,” Bucky explained, and pulled Wanda’s hand-carved menorah from the fireplace mantle where it had been watching over them all December.

Winnie held a hand to her chest and said, “It’s beautiful.”

Bucky arranged Wanda’s menorah side by side with the Barnes family menorah. Together, Bucky and his mother laid candles out. Bucky cleared his throat after he placed the shamash in the center slot of their wooden menorah and asked, “May I say the blessings this year?”

Winifred Senior reeled Bucky in for a one-armed hug and pressed a loud kiss to his forehead.

“Of course you can,” she said.

They all gathered around the kitchen table, then, drawings and emptied plates set aside as Bucky lit the shamash on each menorah, all quiet as he stumbled over old blessings he must once have known well. He stammered a handful of Hebrew words, and then he took up the shamash from Wanda’s menorah and lit the first candle. Winnie mirrored him and lit the first candle on the Barnes family menorah. For a stretch, everyone stayed quiet and watched the candle flames twirl in place on the wick.

Until Becky piped up from her place on Joanna’s lap: “Now can we open presents?”

They all laughed. Across the table, Bucky lifted his eyes heavenward and said, “Yes, baby, now we can open presents.”

In the living room, Steve passed the gifts up to the pups, who tore into the blue paper with relish. Becky got her very own tea set, while George peeled back the wrapping on an astronomy almanac, and Win a floppy stuffed panda bear to add to the ever-growing menagerie on her bed. Bucky opened a package addressed to him and Steve on the tag, and revealed an impressive set of pots and pans for the kitchen.

“You don’t have any decent ones,” Winnie explained, “Everyone needs a decent set of cooking pots.”

Bucky hugged his mom and whispered, “Thank you, Ma,” while Steve tried not to look too pleased that Winnie and George Senior had marked the gift for both him and Bucky, together, as a unit.

They all settled down, then, draped over each other as the food settled and the good feelings washed over them. Win fell asleep face-down on her panda bear, while George climbed up beside his bubbe and instructed her to read to him from the astronomy almanac. Becky dozed in Steve’s lap, at least until the doorbell rang again and Steve had to hand her off to Bucky so that he could welcome his parents into the mess of humanity littering the house.

His mom wrapped her arms around him as soon as she saw him, and Steve’s dad gripped his shoulder and squeezed with a, “Heya, kid.”

Steve ushered his parents into the living room and took their coats. Bucky shifted Becky onto a corner of the couch so that he could stand and introduce Sarah and Joe to all his folks. As Steve joined them again, Sarah leaned forward to smile and say to Winifred, “Thank you so much for letting us share the holidays with you.”

The arrival of Steve’s parents revived the pups, who greeted Sarah and Joe with far more enthusiasm than they had at their first meeting (Steve suspected this was in no small part due to the fact that his parents were holding a stack of presents in their arms).

Steve set Christmas music to play on the stereo, and the house buzzed back to life in time for everyone to help Sarah and Steve bake gingerbread people and decorate them at the kitchen table (George insisted upon making a gingerbread dog, so that his gingerbread-George could have a gingerbread-Winter).

With cups of peppermint cocoa, they all settled around the Christmas tree for one of Steve’s favorite traditions: opening one present on Christmas Eve, a very specific present. He spent a day of shopping with Bucky, the pups, and Natasha purchasing a Christmas Eve gift for every guest that would be at their home on Christmas Eve, so naturally anxiety overtook Steve as he distributed the presents that he’d selected and wrapped himself.

On a traditional Rogers Christmas Eve, everyone received pajamas, soft, warm pajamas that would protect against the bite of winter. While technically Steve’s credit card purchased his own pajamas, he hadn’t seen them – Bucky bought his pajamas and wrapped them up, his package a little more lopsided and sloppily-wrapped than any that Steve put together, but just as wonderful. When Steve ripped open the paper, he found flannel drawstring pajamas patterned in dogs wearing Santa hats. He laughed, and before he even thought about it, he pulled Bucky in for a kiss in front of everyone.

“Thanks, Buck,” he said, “They’re perfect.”

Bucky rested his forehead against Steve’s and bit down a soft smile before he pecked a follow-up kiss to Steve’s mouth and said, “I’m glad you like them.”

“Boo, get a room,” Becca called, from her spot beside the Christmas tree. Bucky turned around and made a face at her, but only after he ensured that his children weren’t watching him do it.

The pups insisted upon changing into their new pajamas as soon as they unwrapped them, and rejoined their family in time for Steve to switch from Christmas music to his personal favorite Christmas movie, Elf. It may not have been a childhood classic, but he loved it all the same.

While the movie played, Winifred Senior and Sarah laughed over cups of hot peppermint tea in the kitchen. Steve exchanged a glance with Bucky – their mothers were getting along like a house on fire, and while their laughter and happy chatter livened up the atmosphere, Steve suspected that his mother in conjunction with Bucky’s ma would be a force to be reckoned with.

Bucky’s shoulders shook with silent laughter at the look on Steve’s face, but he followed up the teasing by snuggling in close to Steve’s side, a warm, steady presence. Bucky belonged there, huddled up against Steve like a surly, protective blanket that smelled almost too good to be true and poked fun at Steve for knowing every line in the movie.

By the time that the credits for Elf rolled, the pups were passed out across furniture and relatives, and their messy, crazy Barnes-Rogers Hanukkah-Christmas Eve Extravaganza wound down to a close. An onslaught of Barnes hugs and kisses fell over Steve and Bucky and the pups like a loving avalanche, and while Sarah and Joe’s goodbyes were a little more reserved in nature they were no less loving. Steve promised his parents that he would text them when they could join them at the house on Christmas day, and then watched from the porch as their car pulled from the driveway and rumble along down the street.

Inside, the flame of the menorah flickered on and the colored lights on the Christmas tree blinked and twinkled. The kitchen sink was full of greasy plates, frosting and candy and sprinkles coated the table like a minefield, and wrapping paper debris crunched underfoot as Steve herded yawning pups from the living room into the nursery, but all of it felt so much like home, like everything was as it was meant to be. The clashing scents of gingerbread and latkes tangled in the air, Bucky’s arm was a warm weight against Steve’s back, and sleepiness settled over them like one of Clint’s knitted blankets.

When the door to the master bedroom clicked closed behind them, Bucky leaned up on his toes, wrapped his arms around Steve’s neck, and pulled him down into a lazy kiss. Steve smiled against it and asked, “What was that for?”

“Thank you,” Bucky said, “Just – thank you.”

Chapter Text

The last week of December snapped by in a flurry of lit candles, ripped wrapping paper and weather cold enough to bite beneath the clothes. Steve’s folks dropped by on Christmas Day and Bucky’s family visited twice more, and by all accounts, the collective Barnes-Rogers household should have been overcome with exhaustion. Instead, energy zipped through the pups, and their energy fed on itself, roping from pup to pup like power lines between electricity towers.

“I want to have a New Year’s party,” Bucky said to the ceiling, two days before the holiday in question.

Steve made that stupid-adorable face of sleepy confusion when he glanced over the top of his iPad, on which he was reading a book (He bought Bucky one of his own for Hanukkah. It probably should have waited for the final day to be a grand finale, but the pups ratted Steve out and he ended up giving it to Bucky early. He’d watched Bucky speed-buy himself a library,  a contented look on his dumb alpha face, and a pleased alpha smell hanging around him), and pushed his plastic-framed reading glasses on top of his mussed blond head. He ventured, “You do?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. He shifted to sit up further, and explained, “Listen, I know what you’re thinking.”

Steve cocked a brow.

“I do!” Bucky insisted, “We’ve been doing a lot of shit, but listen, Steve. This is – it’s – it’s important. I know New Year’s Day is just another day, but it’s like…symbolic or something. I know me and the babies got a new start when we got here, but this is like a party for that. Like we've come so far from where we started, and now...now we're starting something new.”

Steve didn’t say anything right away.

“Or not,” Bucky added, “I mean. It’s just – maybe it was a stupid idea.”

“Buck,” Steve said softly, “It’s not stupid. Let’s do it. Who do you want to invite?”

“Becca, at least,” Bucky said, “and Nat and Clint. And Sam.”

“The usual suspects?” Steve asked, “Tony’ll bring expensive booze if we invite him.”

“As long as he brings his mates to rein him in,” Bucky snorted. Bucky didn’t know where he stood with Tony. He mostly liked him because he knew that – acerbic interactions between the two aside – Steve cared about Tony deeply, and he was one of Steve’s oldest and dearest friends. Tony’s boisterous nature didn’t mesh well with Bucky on his bad days, but New Year’s wouldn’t be one of the bad days, or so Bucky hoped. New Year’s would be a celebration.

Bucky privately thought of the New Year’s party as an ‘I’m Somehow Fucking Alive and Mostly Okay’ celebration.

Pepper and Bruce did rein Tony in, as to the party he brought an enormous box so full of liquor that the weight strained against the Amazon Prime tape across the bottom and ballooned out the cardboard like a belly. Tony cracked open the hard stuff without blinking, and he and Natasha sat down at the kitchen table for vodka-based drinking contest.

As much as Bucky wanted to throw caution to the wind and get blackout-drunk for New Year’s Eve like he imagined doing as a young teenager, he kept his alcohol consumption to a sip of beer (he did not like it) and a glass of champagne (it was okay). To the letter of Bruce’s advice, he avoided hard liquor, though he was as curious about the appeal now as he had been at fourteen, listening to older students whisper about beer bought by older siblings and bourbon swiped from their parents' liquor cabinet.

Even with as little as he’d imbibed, Bucky’s head swam as images of the ball drop in New York flashed across the television screen in the living room and cheers from the speakers filled the background beneath the laughter and conversation of their friends and family. Natasha conquered Tony in their drinking contest, and while her laughs and limbs came a little more loosely than when she arrived, Tony was trashed. Becky and Win were making a valiant effort to stay awake until midnight, but George already slumped over Winter on the carpet next to the coffee table, fast asleep with his face buried in her fur.

Steve snuck up and pulled the empty champagne glass from Bucky’s hand, replacing it with a mug of Bucky’s favorite hot tea. With a half-smile, Bucky pecked a kiss to Steve’s clean-shaven cheek and accused, “Alpha sap.”

Steve held his hands out in a helpless you caught me gesture and said, “Trust me on this: you don’t want to experience hangovers,” before retreating to the kitchen to tuck the champagne glass into the sink.

Bucky waved him off and blew across the steaming top of the tea before tasting and letting the warm liquid settle over him. Natasha smirked over at him and said, “He getting more protective?”

“I mean, kinda,” Bucky said, “but he’s always that way. It’s in the job description, ain’t it?”

“You’re getting close to your heat,” Bruce said, lifting his champagne in a salute, “He knows it on instinct and he’s already trying to take care of you. It’s not Steve’s fault, though. He has no idea he’s doing it. I can only tell when I’m doing it to Tony because I’m trained to recognize it, you know?”

“Alphas, am I right?” Tony grinned an alcohol-hazy grin, and clapped a hand to Bucky’s shoulder, “Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.”

Bruce rolled his eyes and cast a look at Pepper, where she stood across the room, deep in conversation with Becca over something or other. Bucky lost interest after the first few minutes, but he was happy to see his twin sister slip seamlessly into another branch of his life, one that she hadn’t touched before. Pepper cast a sympathetic look back at Bruce, but made no move to help him.

On the TV screen, the camera panned away from a reporter with a toothpaste smile and the crowd at her back, over to the ball.

“Steve!” Bucky called over his shoulder, “Countdown’s about to start.”

Steve bustled from the kitchen and back to Bucky’s side, grinning from ear to ear as he slipped an arm around Bucky’ s waist. On instinct, Bucky curled closer into Steve’s clean, woodsy scent. Bucky wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Steve smelled even more appealing than usual, his alpha calling to Bucky’s omega like the opposite poles of a magnet. Eight months before, Steve’s scent settled Bucky and brought him back to earth, but the alpha overtone of his aroma still brought Bucky’s hackles up.

Now –

Now things were different. Bucky could roll around in Steve’s scent and wear it like a coat.

“Ten!” everyone shouted.

Bucky turned his attention to Steve, only to find his alpha gazing back, an odd expression on his face. He smiled when Bucky met his eyes.

“Nine!”

“Eight!”

“Seven!”

Steve leaned down and nuzzled his nose along Bucky’s hairline, and his voice rumbled lowly in Bucky’s ear as he murmured, “Six.”

“Five,” Bucky counted.

“Four!”

“Three!”

Maybe the champagne had well and truly gotten to Bucky, but warmth suffused him, as satisfying as a late evening bubble bath or a hot pot of tea and a good book. He turned into Steve’s embrace and looped his arms around his neck.

“Two,” Bucky said.

“One,” Steve said back, and a cheer erupted from the room. Steve ducked his head to capture Bucky’s mouth in his. Bucky fell into the embrace easy as anything, easy as pie, let Steve mark him up with his scent – let the scent of happy alpha bloom around their bodies overtake them both.

Steve’s eyes twinkled when they split from one another. He pecked a follow-up kiss to the center of Bucky’s forehead and said, “Happy New Year, Buck.”

I’m somehow alive, Bucky thought, and mostly okay.

“Happy New Year,” he agreed.

**

On January third, Bucky woke in a puddle of his own fragrant sweat. He peeled his body out of Steve’s arms and stumbled into their walk-in closet to swap his soaked pajamas for a fresh, clean set. Pain puddled low in his abdomen, tight and cramping.

Oh.

Oh.

Bucky paced into the bathroom and plopped down on the closed toilet lid and gnawed on his thumb nail. Through the open door, dim, pre-dawn light cast the master bedroom in a blue-gray glow, just enough to illuminate the dark outlines of furniture and the lump of sleeping alpha tangled in the covers of the king bed. The tantalizing smell alpha threatened to grip Bucky by the balls and haul him over Steve’s lap.

“Fuck,” Bucky muttered into his hand, and he jiggled his leg in place while he considered what to do.

The pups. He had to get the pups out of here. Smelling Bucky in pre-heat would be bad enough on its own. He couldn’t let his body escalate into a full-blown heat before he got the babies out of the house and someplace safe. Shit, couldn’t his heat have waited until at least after the sun came up? Frustrated, Bucky ran both hands back through his hair before he dared stand and venture back into the bedroom.

Bucky put a hand on Steve’s shoulder and jostled him. Steve snuffled in his sleep and drifted closer to the edge of the mattress, leaning into the space where Bucky stood, but didn’t wake.

“Steve,” Bucky whispered, and tried shaking Steve again.

“Ngh,” Steve complained, but he opened his eyes. He squinted up at Bucky and asked, “What? What’s wrong?”

Bucky waved an urgent hand at his abdomen and said, “It’s – it’s the fucking pre-heat – we’ve got like a couple hours before it hits, I think –”

“Oh, fuck,” Steve cursed, “Fuck me.”

Bucky couldn’t help himself: “No, that comes later.”

Steve snorted a, “Ha-ha, very funny, asshole. Christ. Um. Let’s see.” Steve pushed himself up to sitting and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with closed fists before deciding, “We can’t let you at the pups; you smell like a brothel already.”

“Gee, thanks,” Bucky interjected.

Steve ignored him and carried on, “So I’ll wake them and get them ready. You can call Natasha and tell her we need her to pick them up. After that…just focus on keeping comfortable, okay? And if you need something from me, you tell me, capisce?”

“I capisce,” Bucky sighed.

While Bucky's parents offered to take the pups when Bucky's heat hit, he knew it would be better for them, at least this time, to stay with somebody they knew well. They saw Natasha every week at the clinic at least twice, and taking into account every time that Nat had come over to the house just to hang out, she or Clint had been the ideal candidates for a stay. Staying with Sam wouldn't be precisely ethical, and when they asked Clint what he thought, his reply had been along the lines of: "Whoa, you don't want your pups in my apartment."

So Natasha it was.

Steve rolled off of the bed and stumbled into action while Bucky reached for his phone and dialed Natasha’s phone number. The phone rang several times before she answered, groggier than Bucky had ever heard her before as she said, “It’s happening, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, almost breathless – how could that be happening already? Maybe his panic was greasing the wheels.

Natasha let out a long exhale on the other end and said, “All right. Give me like thirty minutes.”

“Hurry,” Bucky couldn’t help but say.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nat grumbled, and the phone clicked as she hung up.

Bucky ducked out of the bedroom and found the pups already lined up on the couch with Winter on the floor at their feet, all dressed with their bags back and tired frowns turning down their mouths. Steve sprayed pheromone-diffusing Febreze right at Bucky’s face as he passed. Bucky sneezed, and let out a offended, “Damn it, Steve.”

“I’m trying to keep the smell to a minimum,” Steve said.

“We’re not stupid,” George said from the couch, “Daddy’s going into heat and then you’re going to have sex with him.”

Steve sputtered. Bucky laughed, but the resulting noise was more hysterical than he cared to admit. He couldn’t help but laugh at the way that Steve hovered over the pups, spraying Febreze around them in a protective bubble with a stubborn set to his jaw that Bucky had come to associate with Steve believing against everything in his own rightness. Even through the brewing agony in his gut, the expression still made Bucky snort to himself while he sifted through the tea cabinet for the special blend that Bruce recommended to him for the duration of the heat.

Natasha showed at the front door, knocking briskly seconds before the kitchen timer dinged cheerily to alert Bucky that his heat-tea finished brewing. He flung the front door open and found her uncharacteristically casual, slouched against the side of the porch in gray yoga pants and beaten ballet flats, her red hair thrown into a bun on the top of her head.

Natasha wrinkled her nose and remarked, “God, you smell.”

“Thank you for your support, Nat,” Bucky deadpanned. He sipped his tea. It tasted like shit. He sipped it again, anyway.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” she asked, and swept past him to the pups and their pheromone-free bubble of space. She grinned at the three of them and said, pitching her voice to sound excited, “Who’s ready to hang out with Auntie Nat?”

None of the pups took the bait. Becky frowned and asked, “Is Daddy gonna be okay?”

Bucky’s breath left his body in a way that had nothing to do with his heat and everything to do with the crushing weight of having to part from his pups under the circumstances. He was scared, but they were just as scared as he was, if not more. Even smelling the wreck that he did, he crossed the room and scooped Becky into his arms. She tucked her nose into his throat and scented, but jerked away in the next moment and said, “You smell icky.”

“I know, sweetheart,” Bucky said, reaching out to tuck a lock of hair behind one tiny ear. He kissed her forehead and said, “I’m gonna be fine. Steve’s gonna take care of me, okay? We’ll talk on the phone every night and you can tell me all the fun stuff you got to do with Auntie Nat while I work on getting better.”

Bucky gave each of his children a hug and a kiss despite complaints against his smell (he couldn’t blame them – he could smell himself now, all musky-sweet, same way he smelled in heats in the sub-basement, only this time the stench of fear didn’t stretch beneath heady heat-scent like the bad omen it was), and Steve trundled them off, moving Win’s carseat from the minivan to Natasha’s car, spritzing Febreze all the while.

After Natasha’s car peeled away from the house, Steve returned inside, the front door closing with a decisive click. He raked a hand back through his still-uncombed blond hair, blew all the air out of his lungs, and asked, “What now?”

Bucky tensed.

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

Steve rubbed his palm across his jaw and the back of his neck and said, “First things first: if you want me involved, then you gotta take the birth control shot. If you don’t want me involved, then I guess…tell me how I can help. I got toys stashed in our closet. I got ideas on how we can start.”

“Ideas?”

Steve licked his lips and pulled away from the front door. He said, “Yeah, I got ideas. I was thinking – thinking we could start with something Pierce never did for you. He ever suck you off?”

Bucky’s face heated. He shook his head.

Steve’s eyes were darker now, pupils wide and alpha scent interested. He stepped closer and asked, “He ever eat you out?”

Bucky shook his head again.

“Then we can start there. If you want.”

The heat that had been building all morning crested in instants at Steve’s suggestions, breaking Bucky wide open. The back of his underwear went wet with slick and dizziness warred with the desire to yank Steve into him and tear his pajamas from his body. Bucky forced himself to breathe through his mouth, forced himself not to inhale too much of Steve’s intoxicating scent, so he had some semblance of his brain together when he said, “Okay. That – that sounds nice. Let’s try that.”

A fierce nod, and Steve leapt into action. He cupped Bucky’s elbow and hauled him back toward the master bedroom, where he deposited Bucky on the bed before he disappeared into the closet. Steve returned with two things: the auto-injector of birth control, and a box of toys. He dropped the box of toys on the carpet beside the bed and said, “Just in case you need them,” before he pulled the birth control from the box and asked, “You want me to do it, or you want to do it?”

“You,” Bucky said. He squeezed his eyes shut and prepared for the sting of being stabbed by a needle. Instead, he felt the reassuring weight of Steve’s warm palm on the back of his neck.

“Breathe,” Steve said, and on an exhale the injector came down into the meat of Bucky’s thigh. A strange sensation spread from the site of the injection, a feeling of coolness working against his heat from the central point of the site that faded gradually as the medicine spread.

“Open your eyes, Buck,” Steve said.

Bucky did, and found Steve kneeling in front of him, blue eyes looking plaintively up at him. Steve’s big hands came to rest on either side of Bucky’s waist, and he rubbed warmth into Bucky’s skin before he asked, “How do you want to do this?”

Bucky wrung his hands. He said, “Can we both be naked? Please.”

“A’course,” Steve murmured. He straightened to his full height and shed his t-shirt first, revealing that PlayOmega-Grecian-statue torso, and then his pajamas, releasing his erect cock and the aroma of alpha need with it, thick and spicy and so, so very perfect. Bucky wanted to rub that smell all over him, wanted Steve to coat his skin and suffuse his senses. He fell to his knees before Bucky for the second time, and waited patiently while Bucky gathered the courage to shed his own clothing.

And then they were both naked.

An onslaught of emotion slammed into Bucky in the same moment that he let his underwear fall to the floor, an onslaught he should have been prepared for but hit him mercilessly all the same. There were the good things in it: adoration and care and trust, as well as the unfamiliar: need and desire and want and the sensation of his body being empty, of needing something inside it. There also came the bad: terror and apprehension and memories of every heat before this one, Bucky’s heats that seized him as a scared pup alone in a dark room, pumping him full of hormones until his body betrayed his mind.

Steve knelt in front of him as Bucky trembled in place. He didn’t move to touch him, didn’t open his mouth to speak.

Steve waited.

“Okay,” Bucky said on a shaking intake of breath, “Okay. Please. Let’s try.”

Because Bucky needed this. He needed Steve. Hell, he wanted Steve. He knew that Steve would take this shit slow, as slowly as Bucky needed him to.

As though reading Bucky’s mind, Steve started with the touch of his hands, running his palms from Bucky’s sides down his thighs, his touch and scent pulling desire that Bucky didn’t know existed in him right from his core. Slick leaked from his ass to the bed, coming faster as the heat set in, as primal need marched like a colony of ants below the surface of Bucky’s skin.

Steve nuzzled kisses into Bucky’s skin, pressing the first to a place just above Bucky’s navel. He worked down, letting his tongue flick out to taste the sweat and musk of omega heat as his hands massaged soothing patterns into Bucky’s back on either side of his spine. Steve’s eyes peered up from his stupid-long eyelashes as he brought one hand around to Bucky’s front and wrapped his fingers around the base of Bucky’s cock.

“How you doin’, Buck?” he asked.

“M’good,” Bucky answered hazily.

“You tell me if you need to stop,” Steve said, and though the words weren’t spoken with his Voice, there was an alpha edge to them that suggested Bucky would be unwise to go against the command.

“I will,” Bucky promised, and when Steve didn’t move, Bucky smiled down at where Steve knelt between his legs and said, “I promise, you shithead. Now come at me. I’m dyin’ up here.”

Steve rolled his eyes but obeyed the will of his omega. He leaned in again, kissed each of Bucky’s thighs, and then pressed his lips to the head of Bucky’s cock. He watched Bucky like a hawk from beneath those lashes all the while, and Christ, nothing could be hotter than that, how attentive his alpha was even in a position thought traditionally as submissive, his lips stretched around the tip of Bucky’s erection just enough to look obscene.

“Fuck, Stevie,” Bucky managed.

“Mm,” Steve hummed around him, and that was it – Bucky was done for. He whined low and long in his throat, a sound that could be mistaken for none other than omega need. The sound spurred Steve into action, and he slid his mouth down the rest of Bucky’s cock to take his length in full.

The wet, tight heat of Steve’s mouth around his cock was a goddamn revelation. Bucky had never felt anything like it, didn’t have a single ugly memory banked to match the zig-zag of pleasure-pain sensation that jolted through him as Steve bobbed his head and sucked and hummed like it was his freaking job. Of their own accord, Bucky’s hips lifted up to meet the push and pull of Steve’s mouth around him, and vulgar, sticky noise filled the bedroom as they worked. Slick steadily leaked from Bucky and drowned the room in the familiar scent of intense heat.

Steve reached beneath Bucky’s balls, not quite to his slick hole, and pressed his fingers up against something that made Bucky twitch up off of the bedspread and far enough into Steve’s throat to make him sputter his surprise. Steve pulled off of Bucky’s cock to cough out a laugh, but dove back in before Bucky could apologize, and oh, it was heaven.

“Please,” Bucky begged, although he wasn’t sure what he was begging for.

Steve doubled his efforts. He sucked harder, stroked his fingers against that fucking magical spot and –

Oh – “Holy – fuck,” Bucky stammered, and came like he’d never come before. He exploded, waves snapping into his body as though beating against the shore. He’d come before, at the touch of his own hand and at the touch of Alexander Pierce, but this was different. The power shocked him, and he locked his thighs around Steve’s throat to hold him in place as he spilled his come into his mouth.

“Wow,” Bucky managed, after the orgasm subsided.

Steve grinned, lips red and spit-slick. He asked, “Feel good?”

“You know it did,” Bucky grumbled. The orgasm felt so good, in fact, that the sting of heat in Bucky’s belly and swimming in his head dulled enough for rational thought – at least enough to string entire sentences together. He cupped Steve’s jaw in one hand and pulled him up into a kiss.

When Bucky licked into Steve’s mouth, he could taste himself on Steve’s tongue.

But fuck, it wasn’t enough. The heat urged Bucky to cant his hips up and present, but the rest of his brain hated that idea. He didn’t want Steve to hold him down, didn’t want that strength to pin him – but God, did he want to feel Steve inside him. Nothing would slake the heat unless Steve knotted him; Bucky knew that.

“Buck?” Steve said, “You okay?”

Bucky blinked. Steve was frowning at him.

“I…I think I need…” Bucky made a helpless gesture at Steve’s cock where it hung heavy and full between his legs.

“All right,” Steve replied easily, “How do you want me?”

“Um,” Bucky considered, mind flipping through the dirty ideas Steve had whispered to him before. He settled on, “Can you – uh. Can you sit on the bed? Please?”

Steve listened, scooted up so his back pressed against the headboard. His legs sprawled in front of him like a dirty magazine spread, and the sight of his cock sent slick gushing to coat the insides of Bucky’s thighs while his mouth went dry. Bucky swallowed against the nervousness in his throat and crawled to join Steve. He straddled his lap but didn’t make a move otherwise, just stared at Steve where he sat below him and tried to figure out how the hell he was going to do this.

“I’m scared,” Bucky confessed.

“I know,” Steve said, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have anything to prove, okay? If you want, we can stop right here and you can use one of the toys. I could even sit with you while you used one, if you wanted.”

“You would do that?” Bucky asked, “Sit here while I fucked myself on some silicone knot, let me scent you while I did it?”

Steve’s face was unreadable, but he answered, “Yes. I’d do what you needed me to do.”

And that was why Bucky reached down and took that thick alpha cock in hand. His heart beat so fast that it sang, pumping adrenaline into his veins as he spread his legs open wide. Bucky trained his eyes on Steve, watching his face as Bucky ignored the erratic symphony of his overheated body and pulled courage out of reserves he didn’t know that he still had. He wanted this. He wanted this not only because his body would feel better, but because he wanted Steve, wanted to be as close as possible and be filled by Steve’s scent. He wanted to drink him in. Wanted to feel Steve’s knot stretch the inside of him, wanted to be locked together.

Bucky pulled Steve into a hard kiss. Their teeth clacked together as Steve kissed back, equally aggressive –

Until Bucky lowered his body and pushed down on Steve’s cock. Then, Steve gasped into Bucky’s mouth.

Bucky whimpered at the sensation.

He hadn’t felt an alpha inside him since March.

Ten months, and perhaps this was still too soon – but Bucky’s heat dictated that he needed to be fucked and God, did it feel good. As amazing as it felt to be filled, to have the empty space gone and Steve in its place, the sensation teetered on the knife’s edge of familiar darkness, of floating away to another world while his body worked on autopilot.

Bucky buried his face in the crook of Steve’s neck and let himself breathe for a few moments.

“S’all right,” Steve murmured into Bucky’s hair, “Whenever you’re ready. You’re all right.”

Bucky kissed Steve again, desperate and seeking. Steve met him halfway with that level determination that pulled Bucky back to shore when he was an empty bottle bobbing in the ocean. Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve’s neck, and when he finally drew away he asked softly, “Can you show me how to – to –”

“Ride me?” Steve asked.

Bucky nodded.

Steve braced his hands on either side of Bucky’s hips and coaxed him up. He said, “Just like we do it with clothes on.”

Bucky rolled his hips experimentally. Beneath him, Steve whined and tossed his head back against the headboard. A full-body blush bloomed from the apples of Steve’s cheeks and hooked back around the shells of his ears, all the way down his chest and back, under the glimmer of sweat. He looked incredible, and he was Bucky’s alpha. Steve belonged to Bucky like Bucky belonged to Steve, a revelation that cracked Bucky wide open and doused him in biting feeling, a feeling that Bucky didn’t quite have a word for but knew he’d do anything to keep.

They found a rhythm together. Steve never overtook Bucky, never overpowered him and pinned him to the mattress as Pierce had done. He didn’t whisper in Bucky’s ear about how much Bucky liked what they were doing, just let out little choked noises of pleasure and pulled Bucky in to kiss him like a thirsty man who’d found his oasis.

“Please,” Bucky cried out, “Please, Steve.”

“Please, what?” Steve asked, voice almost growl-low.

“Knot me,” Bucky said, “Knot me knot me knot me please. Make me yours.”

They moved harder, faster – Bucky bounced in Steve’s lap, leaking slick over both of them and moaning when the base of Steve’s cock began to flare with the start of his knot. The grind of their bodies went low and dirty when Steve’s knot became too large to pull away from. When Steve gripped Bucky’s erection where it rubbed between them and stroked his big hand over the head and down the shaft, Bucky let out an embarrassing, broken noise and painted them white.

Only a minute more of grinding down in Steve’s lap, and the knot locked them together. Steve tucked his nose to Bucky’s throat, ran the flat of his tongue over his pulse as he came inside Bucky, their scents stronger than they’d ever been before and so tangled up they could not be distinguished from one another. Apart their scents were whole, but together their aroma was something new and exciting that made Bucky’s heart jackhammer in his chest.

“I love you,” Bucky blurted.

Steve stared just a beat too long.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said in the next moment, “Sorry. Sorry, you didn’t sign up for that.”

Steve carded a hand through Bucky’s sweaty hair. He said, “Don’t apologize. Don’t ever apologize for that. I love you too.”

“You have to love me.”

Steve rolled his eyes. He said, “I don’t have to do shit. I love you because you’re fucking amazing. I love you because you smell like a revelation. I love you because you are the father of our three pups. I love you because you want to try stupid crap even when you shouldn’t. I love you because you made my house into a home, into your nest, and I love you because you let me be in it. I love you because for every stupid, idiot thing you do, there are three more wisdoms that you have at the ready. I love you because you dance in the kitchen to music that nobody else hears. I love you because you appreciate the importance of the small things. I love you even though you leave your towels on the bathroom floor and I love you even though you clog my shower drain with your hair. I just goddamned love you so much. I love you so much that I can’t remember what it feels like not to love you. So don’t you give me none of that horseshit about me having to love you. Nobody makes me do anything. I love you because I want to.”

Bucky managed a slow blink.

“That…was a hell of a speech,” he said.

Steve snorted and flopped back against the pillows. He said, “Eat me, Barnes. It’s the truth.”

“Ha-ha, you love me,” Bucky teased, sing-song.

Steve reached up and cupped the back of Bucky’s neck. He yanked him down into an unrelenting kiss and tasted every inch of him. They both panted when they broke apart, and Steve grinned a Cheshire grin as he said, “You’re damn right I do.”

Chapter Text

Steve clung to Bucky while their bodies were locked together. He tried to rein in the alpha instinct that crawled along the edges of his brain, but found himself brushing Bucky’s hair back to fuss over the bruises he didn’t know he’d sucked into his skin. He drew his thumb over the darkest of them and remarked, “I didn’t know I marked you.”

“I don’t mind,” Bucky said into Steve’s sweaty shoulder.

The heat and tightness of Bucky's body pressing down on Steve's cock kept him soaring. Slick leaked from Bucky onto Steve's thighs and filled the room to the brim with the overwhelming, earthy scent of sex. Bucky stayed slumped against Steve's chest, sated, and nuzzled against his scent gland. The urge to care for his omega beat against the shore of Steve's brain in waves, and Steve rolled with it, rubbing Bucky's back and stroking his hair, doing all that he could to ensure Bucky's safety.

From the perch of Steve's shoulder, Bucky gazed up at him clear-eyed. He assured him, “I'm fine. I promise.”

Those words escaped Bucky's lips more than once as a blatant lie, but the scent of Bucky corroborated his insistence. Contentment rolled off of Bucky beyond the sweat and slick and sweet smells of heat.

Being that Steve had not engaged in sexual activity in far longer than he cared to admit, his knot kept caught inside Bucky for almost an hour and a half, time in which he and Bucky both dozed and woke sticky and crusted together. Carefully, Steve lifted a sleep-pliant Bucky off of his lap. Bucky whined in complaint, so Steve stooped low to brush a kiss across his forehead and assure him, “I'll be right back.”

In the bathroom, Steve gave himself a once-over with a washcloth, redressed in loose, fresh clothing, and started the bath before he brought a clean, warm washcloth out to the bedroom. He sat on the edge of the mattress and with care he cleaned the bodily fluids from Bucky's abdomen and from between his legs. Already Bucky began to smell interested again. They'd get filthy all over again, but Bucky loved his baths and Steve loved Bucky, so a bath it was.

“How are you feeling?” Steve asked, casting the dirty washcloth aside on the carpet.

Bucky mulled it over for a minute before he answered, “Sticky.”

The laugh that escaped Steve surprised both of them, but hell, he was hormone-drunk and in love. Bucky laughed too, in spirits good enough that he didn't protest when Steve insisted upon helping him to the bathroom, a firm weight while Bucky went wobbly-legged beside him.

With a satisfied exhale, Bucky sank into the warm, clear bathwater. Steve let the faucet fill the tub the rest of the way before he sifted through the cabinet beneath the sink and asked, “Bath bomb?”

“God, yes,” Bucky said, “I want Never Mind the Ballistics.

Steve's eyes darted from Bucky and his blissed-out expression to the rainbow of bath bombs and bubble bath stashed in the cabinet. Last time Steve drove into Denver to meet with a client, Bucky sent him with an extensive list of shopping items at the mall and Steve left Lush hoisting nearly four hundred dollars worth of bath bombs over his shoulder.

Suffice it to say that Steve accepted the help of an eager omega salesgirl to gather Bucky's list, and that he had no fucking idea which one was Never Mind the Ballistics.

“The red and yellow one, babe,” Bucky said patiently.

Relieved to be given direction, Steve palmed a red and yellow bath bomb from the cabinet and let it fall into the bath with a succinct plop. The bomb fizzed excitedly, and Bucky smiled. His eyes crinkled at the corners, but the smile dissolved into something softer when Steve coaxed him back to start washing his hair. Slowly, Steve went through the ritualistic motions of scrubbing his omega clean, massaging soap into his skin and hair and rinsing away the grime.

When he finished, Steve said, “C'mon, we gotta get you out.”

Bucky whined.

“Buck, babe, we have to make sure we eat and hydrate before the next wave of heat starts,” Steve said.

Bucky thunked his head against the tub and whined again.

“I know, I know,” Steve said, “but I'll take care of everything.”

With a little more convincing, Steve managed to cajole Bucky out of his bath and into a towel. He tried to leave Bucky to his own devices, to let him change into something comfortable and easy to slip on and off, but Bucky clung tight to Steve's arm and insisted upon his presence while he stepped into soft lounge pants and a t-shirt that belonged to Steve and was saturated with his scent.

While Steve set to work boiling water for Bucky's heat tea and compiling ingredients for sandwiches on the counter, Bucky curled up in a chair at the kitchen table, drawing his knees up to rest his chin on them. He watched Steve, emanating happy omega underneath Never Mind the Ballistics.

Steve set sandwiches and water out while the tea steeped and sat in the chair closest to Bucky's. The overwhelming need to protect, to tend and take care, drew him closer into Bucky's space. He stayed as close as he thought that he could get away with without being accused of hovering, and dug into his food. Steve hadn't realized how hungry he was until he swallowed the first bite of sandwich, or how thirsty he'd gotten until he chased the sandwich with a swallow of water.

Beside him, Bucky appeared to be experiencing something similar, as he ate through the first half of his sandwich like a trash compactor and began to chug his glass of water. Steve pulled the glass down and chided, “Slow down. You'll make yourself sick.”

“Okay, dad,” Bucky said with a roll of his eyes, but he listened anyway and drank the rest of the water in small sips.

The timer for the tea finished with a ding. Steve stood to prepare a cup for Bucky, which he placed on the table with a definitive, “I want you to drink all of that before we do anything else, okay?”

“Is there anything else, Alpha McBossyPants?” Bucky asked.

Steve frowned. “You're kind of being a shit,” he concluded.

Bucky shrugged one shoulder, nursed his cup of heat-tea, and folded his hands on the table before he sagely replied, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Steve snorted and shoved at Bucky's arm. Bucky pushed back and in the process scooted his chair half a foot from the table. Instead of pulling it back up, he leapt from his seat and jabbed Steve in the side. What started as back-and-forth poking at one another dissolved into a wrestling match against the kitchen table. They shook the furniture as they pulled and tugged at each other. For a moment, Bucky had the upper hand, but in the next Steve took the reins with a triumphant laugh.

So Bucky took the practical route of retaliation: he kissed Steve, looping his arms around Steve's neck to pull their bodies tight together. Steve melted under the touch and kissed back. Affection surged through him, followed by the knowledge that he would do anything for Bucky, for his omega, his –

Bucky pushed Steve down on the table.

They knocked Bucky's tea over.

“Ha!” Bucky said, “Gotcha.”

Steve said, “I'm making you another cup of that.”

Bucky sighed. “You're no fun,” he said, but he eased off of Steve and let him get up to prepare a new cup of tea and mop the spill from the table. He was quieter after that. His aroma sharpened enough that the back of Steve's neck began to prickle in response, his brain going fuzzy, but he kept it together while he waited for Bucky to finish. He studied Steve from over the rim of the ceramic mug, a pensive expression gracing his face.

Halfway through the cup of tea, Bucky asked, “You ever thought about mating?”

Steve had not expected that.

“Um,” was all he could get out.

Because of course he'd thought about mating. He'd thought about mating as a romantic teenager and he'd thought about it as a lovesick young man tangled with a beautiful red-lipped alpha in her dorm room, and more than anything, he'd thought about what it would be like to mate Bucky, to sink his teeth into Bucky's throat and mark him as his own, to make the ultimate claim and declare Bucky and the pups as pack.

“Yes,” Steve at last said.

Bucky pulled his lower lip between his teeth. He asked, “Ever thought about mating me?”

“Yes,” Steve answered, unable to make his voice louder than a whisper. He cleared his throat to clarify, “But Buck, you know I'd never pressure you. It's...just because I've thought about it doesn't mean shit if you don't want it. I mean, I think about it a lot, I think –”

“You do? You think about mating me?”

“Yeah,” Steve admitted.

The expression on Bucky's face shifted several times over, but Steve could determine the meaning of none of them. Bucky drummed the tips of his fingers against the outside of his tea mug. Then, he lifted his gaze and stared directly at Steve, right at him, boring into him – nothing like the distant stares settled just to the side of Steve's eyes, no submissive glances from beneath his lashes. Hard determination cut across Bucky's irises, his throat bobbed with a swallow, and he said:

“Do it.”

“What?” Steve croaked.

“I want you to do it,” Bucky said, “I want you to mate me. I want to be yours.”

Steve's jaw unhinged before he could stop it. The fear that Bucky would take the pups and leave him all but evaporated in the wake of Bucky's command to mate him, replaced with a rush of searing-hot alpha hunger. Yes, this omega was his. His. Belonged to him.

They belonged to each other.

“Promise me something first,” Steve said.

“Anything,” Bucky replied.

“If I give you my bite...” Steve said, “then you give me yours.”

Struck speechless, Bucky opened and closed his mouth several times before squeezing out the words, “But – omegas don't do that.”

“Omega/omega couples do,” answered Steve.

“Alphas can't be bitten!”

“Yes, they can. Alpha/alpha couples do it, too,” Steve said.

“But we're not an alpha/alpha couple, or an omega/omega couple,” Bucky said.

“No, we're not,” Steve agreed, “but I'm yours. I'm your alpha. I belong to you. And you? You're my omega. You belong to me. When I leave this house, I want everyone to know. I want them to see me and know that I'm spoken for. I want them to see you and know that you're mine. I want them to see us, and I want them to know that we belong to each other.”

An incredulous laugh escaped Bucky's throat. At first, Steve thought he said something wrong, that he read it all wrong, but then Bucky spoke. He reached across the table, gripped Steve's wrist in his warm hand, and said, “You and your fucking speeches and your all or none shit,” he shook his head and smiled and went on, “All right. Yeah. I'll bite you, you fucking weirdo. But me first, okay?”

Steve surged forward. He cupped Bucky's face in both hands and kissed him with every ounce of energy that he had. Bucky's mouth fell open under the pressure of Steve's kiss and he moaned. Their tongues pressed together. Over the herbal aroma of tea and the faint, residual scent of soap and bathwater, Bucky's heat leaked through, wrapping around Steve like tentacles and drawing him in tight.

“Fuck,” Bucky murmured, “S'back. Heat's back.”

“I know,” Steve said back, “I can smell you. How do you want me this time?”

Bucky licked his lips. His eyes flickered over Steve's body, surveying, before he asked, “How strong do you think you are?”

“Dunno,” Steve said, “Let's see,” and cupped the back of Bucky's thighs, heaving him up against his chest.

Instinctively, Bucky wrapped his legs around Steve's waist and latched onto him. Though Bucky weighed a great deal more now than he did coming into Steve's house, he didn't feel heavy – at least, not heavy enough to wear through Steve's alpha strength. Adjusting his grip on either of Steve's shoulders, Bucky rolled his hips up.

Steve sucked in a breath at the sensation of Bucky's half-hard cock rubbing up against him through their clothing. His own dick perked up in an instant, strung along by the twin enticements of Bucky's body shifting against his and Bucky's scent falling all around him like sheets of rain.

“Think we can do it like this?” Bucky whispered.

Steve tested the weight of Bucky in his arms.

“Probably,” he said, “What if I held you up against the wall? Would you like that? Or would that feel too close to being pinned?”

Bucky's eyes flicked to the wall. When he looked back to Steve, a bead of sweat rolled down the side of his head, disappearing into the tangle of his dark hair. The grip of Bucky's thighs tightened on Steve's waist as he said, “I guess we won't know until we try.”

At the note of trust in Bucky's voice pushed Steve's heart into skipping a beat, and as Steve looked down into Bucky's gray-blue eyes, his good fortune struck him. Steve's body moved before his brain, and he leaned in to capture Bucky's lips in a long, hard kiss. Breathless, Steve panted, “I love you so damn much.”

“I love you too,” Bucky said.

Steve grinned and said, “Let's do this,” and set Bucky down.

With a mischievous smile, Bucky turned on his heel and bolted to the bedroom. Chase, Steve's brain told him, and he scrambled to catch up with his omega. He gained on Bucky in the hallway, but Bucky still beat Steve by an inch. As they crashed together into the bedroom, Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky, heaved him back up, and allowed his body to fall backward, landing haphazardly on the mattress.

Bucky ripped his t-shirt up over his head. Sweat gleamed on his chest, and the scent of his heat had condensed enough that it assaulted Steve's senses at all sides. He could smell nothing but Bucky, his omega in heat, his omega that needed his alpha. And when Bucky leaned down, Steve thrust his hands into Bucky's hair and yanked him into a kiss at full force, desperate to taste all that he could.

Bucky whimpered into Steve's mouth. The sound did Steve's self-control in. He shoved his hands beneath the elastic waist of Bucky's lounge pants and helped Bucky kick them off. Bucky yanked at Steve's clothes, and they rolled together until they shed every last piece and lay in nothing but skin and sweat, breathing hard against one another.

Steve,” Bucky whined, “I need you to – I need you – your knot –”

Steve hoisted Bucky up and pressed his back to a strip of wall between two of his own favorite paintings, one of his mother and himself as a brand new pup in her arms, and a far more recent piece of Bucky in profile, a mug pressed to his lips and a book open in his lap while he stared out across the landscape of Steve's property. Their property, as soon as they bore one another's bites.

“How you doin', Buck?” Steve mumbled into Bucky's mouth.

Bucky responded by sucking Steve into a relentless kiss. Steve pulled away to kiss down Bucky's neck, scraping his teeth against the skin on his throat and teasing at what was to come. He drew his lips across the pinkish-red skin he left behind, soothing. Then, Steve pressed Bucky into the wall harder, used it for leverage so that he could free a hand to slip down and touch Bucky's leaking hole, sliding one thick finger inside of him.

Bucky's head bounced against the wall and he moaned. “God, that's good,” he squeezed out, “Need more. C'mon. I'm already wet enough. Just get in me already.”

Steve laughed into the crook of Bucky's neck and gripped his cock at the base, where already his knot was threatening the skin. He willed his body to behave itself, positioned the head of his dick at Bucky's entrance, and thrust into him with one, fluid movement. Though he'd been in Bucky's body no more than an hour before, somehow being clasped in that tight, slick heat sent Steve flying further than he remembered. He nipped at Bucky's neck, and though he wanted nothing more than to fuck into his omega with wild abandon, he rasped, “This good?”

“It would be better if you fucking moved,” Bucky complained.

Steve peeled his face out of Bucky's neck and found Bucky looking down with one brow raised. But even that expression failed to mask the desperation in Bucky's tone, the catch of his words and the frenzy of his scent. He pecked a kiss to Bucky's lips and said, “Whatever you say,” before drawing half-out of his body and snapping back in.

As Steve drove in and out of Bucky's body, pushing him into the wall, little noises hiccuped from Bucky's throat, a soft uh-uh-uh that encouraged Steve to work faster, pump harder. He would do everything in his power to satisfy his omega, worked against sweat and the strain of his muscles to coax Bucky's noises into louder, longer moans.

When Steve's knot caught at the rim of Bucky's ass, he shifted into slower, rolling thrusts of his body. He nuzzled his nose over Bucky's cheek, ghosted their mouths together, and said, “You really wanna be mine?”

“Is that even a question?” Bucky asked, “Bite me, punk.”

“Jerk,” Steve half-heartedly murmured in reply. He lowered his mouth to Bucky's throat and scented for that just-right meat of the shoulder beneath the slope of his scent gland. Steve smiled into that skin before he could even bite. Love for Bucky poured into him, cradled him and clenched his heat in its hands. He pressed a final kiss to the skin, opened his jaw, and pierced Bucky's skin with his teeth.

The copper taste of blood flowed on his tongue seconds before the weight of the mating bond railed into Steve. He gasped, all at once sensing the cocktail of Bucky's emotion, being wrapped up in Bucky's love and nagged by his frantic heat and made cold by the twinge of ever-present fear.

“Fuck,” Steve huffed.

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed. He looked drunk, his eyelids slipping down as a punchy grin spread across his face.

Steve kissed the grin and left behind a smear of blood on Bucky's mouth. He said, “Now me.”

Bucky stroked the backs of his knuckles along Steve's neck. A shiver rattled Steve's body at the motion, but he tipped his head back and bore his throat all the same. Bucky tucked his face there as he always did, but scented more carefully, his nose drifting over flesh.

A puff of hot breath against Steve's shoulder, and a burst of pain, and –

The bond sang, vibrated like the strings of an instrument at the sweetest note. He and Bucky melted together in body and soul – but then, hadn't they become integral to one another's lives already? The moment that Bucky stepped out of the car from the clinic and into Steve's home, he painted Steve's world in vibrant oil-colors, in shocking reds and soothing greens. Somewhere between the cups of tea and the joy of the small things, Bucky forever altered Steve's world.

The double-bond cranked every emotion, every piece of Steve that belonged to Bucky and every piece of Bucky that belonged to Steve, to the highest volume, thumping through them so hard that music rushed in their ears and so powerful that even outsiders would hear the bass beat of their mating.

“Wow,” Bucky said, “Fuck, I love you.”

Overwrought, Steve couldn't pull together enough brain power to reply. He just heaved Bucky into kiss and resumed grinding his cock inside him. The push and pull of sex crackled with twice as much electricity. Both of them made broken noises.

“Not gonna last,” Steve warned, and reached between them to take Bucky's erection in his hand.

Steve barely had his hand on Bucky, barely stroked, before Bucky's legs locked around Steve's waist like a vice and he came between them. Steve picked up the pace of his hips. Though limited in his range of movement by the swell of his knot inside his omega, his mate, each jerk was ectascy.

Steve's hips hitched and he spilled inside Bucky with a deep growl.

For a long time, neither of them spoke. They did not move away from the wall, just panted into each other's damp skin and waited for their hearts to stop racing. The bond snatched Steve up like the throes of a wonderful drug, and he struggled to keep up. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but he came to himself when Bucky began stroking his hand through Steve's hair.

“Hey,” Bucky whispered.

“Hey,” Steve said back.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Are you kidding?” Steve laughed, “I couldn't be better.”

**

Night enclosed the world. Outside faded to black, and inside yellow lamplight soaked the bedroom. Wrung out and satisfied, Bucky sprawled across the bed, once again freshly bathed and draped in comfortable clothes. Steve reentered the room with Bucky's laptop and set it down at the edge of the bed.

The bite on Steve's neck peeked out from the collar of his white t-shirt, stark in contrast to Steve's fair skin. The wound already scabbed, and both Steve and Bucky wore their mating marks at their darkest point. He couldn't help himself. Bucky bowed into Steve's neck and nosed at the mark, pleased at the sight of his handiwork on his alpha.

“Knock it off,” Steve said, swatting at Bucky's arm.

“No,” Bucky said, and pulled in closer.

“Don't blame me when we gross out the pups, then.”

“That sounds like their problem,” Bucky answered, but he did pull away enough to watch Steve set up Skype and call Natasha.

Natasha didn't dawdle. She appeared on screen in pajamas with her hair pulled back. Bucky's pups crowded in with her. Win clutched Bear in a tight hug. George's eyes were red-rimmed as though coming down from the end of a temper tantrum. As soon as they saw Bucky and Steve, though, the grim expressions lightened.

Becky shouted, “Daddy! Steve!”

“Are you okay, Daddy?” George asked.

“When do we get to go home?” Win wanted to know.

Becky sucked in a loud breath and held her hands over her mouth before she burst, “Is that –”

“All right, all right, all right,” Bucky said, “One at a time. Becky, you first.”

“Do you have a mating bite?” she blurted.

Bucky snorted and ran a hand back through his hair, still wet from the shower that he shared with Steve a half-hour before. He tugged down the shirt just far enough to show the bite in its entirety, and then reached over and did the same with Steve's shirt. He said, “Steve has one too.”

Natasha laughed softly at that. She said, “He insisted, didn't he?”

“Yes, he did,” Bucky replied, throwing a knowing look at her before he pointed at the on-screen George and said, “George. Go.”

“Are you hurt?” George demanded.

“No, baby,” Bucky assured him, “Steve's taking good care of me.”

“I wanna come home,” Win said.

“I know you do, sweetheart,” Bucky said, “and you'll get to come home soon. As soon as my heat is over, okay?”

“How long is that?” Win asked.

“We don't know for sure, honey,” Steve said, “Probably a couple days. Aren't you having fun at Auntie Nat's? I don't know about Daddy, but I want to hear about all the fun you're having.”

“We did jump on my trampoline,” Natasha offered.

“You have a trampoline?” Bucky said, but his question drowned in the enthusiastic yelling of his children regaling him with trampoline tales. The pups recounted their day from start to finish, from breakfast in a restaurant, to Natasha's trampoline, to her cat Liho, and back to the trampoline again.

But inevitably, they circled back to the glaring marks of teeth on Bucky and Steve's neck, when Becky asked, “Does this mean Steve is our daddy too?”

Steve cast a helpless look at Bucky, so Bucky answered, “If you want, sweetheart.”

“You can call me Papa,” suggested Steve, voice uncharacteristically tentative, “if you want to.”

“I'll call you Papa!” Win volunteered.

“I don't want to,” George said.

“You don't have to, baby,” Bucky assured him. The telltale prickle of heat already sank its tiny claws under his skin again. From the look on Natasha's face, she knew that he was on the cusp of another wave.

“Okay, guys, I think Daddy and Papa have say goodnight,” Natasha said.

“But –” George said.

“We'll call you again tomorrow, okay?” Bucky said, “and if Auntie Nat is okay with it, you can text my phone any time that you want.” Or, more than likely, the pups would dictate to Natasha what they would like to say to their father and Natasha would do the texting.

“I love you, Daddy,” Becky said.

“I love you more,” George said, smug.

“I love you more-er,” Win declared.

“Goodnight, babies,” Bucky said, and blew a kiss to the laptop monitor, “I love you so much. Be good for Auntie Nat, you hear me?”

“Wait!” Win said, “I didn't say goodnight to Ste – Papa yet. Goodnight, Papa. I love you.”

Bucky glanced over at Steve and found him barely able to keep it together, the fucking sap. He nudged Steve with his shoulder, and Steve gave a watery smile to the computer before he replied, “Goodnight, sweet girl. I love you, too. I love all of you.”

 

Chapter Text

By day four of Bucky’s heat, the desperation to be filled and claimed and bred wound down to an annoying buzz that prickled the back of his neck and kept him wet between the legs. He’d taken enough bubble baths in the past seventy two hours to tire him of bubble baths for the foreseeable future, a feat he hadn’t thought possible since emerging from the sub-basement.

After one such bath, Bucky and Steve lounged naked on the couch and watched trash television they wouldn’t have screened with the pups home. Bucky sprawled over Steve’s alpha bulk, limbs starfished and head cushioned against one of Steve’s pecs. Idly, he played with Steve’s exposed nipple, running the pads of his fingers over the sensitive skin until it pebbled under the touch.

The breath caught in Steve’s throat. He murmured, “You keep that up and we’re not gonna know if the housewives ever forgive each other.”

Bucky purred in response, a telltale tingle zinging from his spine to his balls, animating his body from its slump to a more suggestive arch. Against his hip, Steve’s dick perked up, ever-content to satisfy his omega.

A thought occurred to Bucky.

“Did you mean it?” he asked Steve, puffing hot breath against the still-healing mating bite on his alpha’s throat.

“Mm,” Steve hummed, “Mean what?”

“That I could…” Bucky trailed off, “That you’d let me be on top. I mean, like –”

Steve’s eyes went dark and hooded in an instant. A salacious smile spread over his lips and he asked, “You want to be inside me, Buck? Want to bend your alpha over and take me? Want to feel me around you, all hot and tight?”

Bucky’s mouth dried and cock hardened. He cursed, “Fuck, Steve. I – I want that. Please.”

Steve’s smile softened, just a little, and he leaned up to press a kiss to the dent between Bucky’s brows. He said, “This’ll be easier on our bed.”

Later, Bucky wouldn’t remember how they made it to their bedroom, only that they went a tangle of limbs on the couch to the bed, where Steve lay below him like a feast, strong legs spread wide and welcoming to the touch of Bucky’s fingers. A bottle of synthetic slick sat enticingly mere inches from Steve’s thigh. Bucky popped the cap and drizzled the lubricant onto his fingers. A curious scent drifted from the liquid – something fake, but not unpleasant, manufactured to smell of nondescript omega for omegas that couldn’t self-lubricate.

Bucky pulled Steve’s cheeks apart. Below him, Steve whimpered. The noise shot straight south. Bucky surged up to yank Steve into a heated kiss. He fumbled for a moment before he slid a finger inside Steve’s body. Steve didn’t feel too different than Bucky did on the inside, all molten hot, though he was tighter. His body needed more coaxing to open, and Bucky obliged. He took it slow, relaxing the muscle in gentle (if somewhat clumsy) strokes of his finger.

Only when Steve started to squirm and whine did he press another finger inside his alpha. Bucky massaged in tiny, slow circles. He kept his eyes fixed on his alpha for signs of discomfort, but Steve looked just as turned on as he did when he fucked Bucky, all bitten, parted lips and that full-body blush that overtook his fair skin every time they had sex. A hint of sweat shone at the notch of Steve’s neck and around his temples.

God, he looked amazing.

“How did I get so lucky?” Bucky murmured.

Steve laughed a little. He said, “I think you mean you’re stuck with me.”

In retaliation, Bucky shoved his fingers in harder and Steve keened, head tossed against the pillows.

“Please, Buck,” Steve begged, “Give me more. I can take more. Please.”

“My pretty alpha,” Bucky said, “So good for me,” and he thrust three digits into the clench of Steve’s body. A moan tore from Steve’s throat. He smelled of alpha arousal, of desire so overwhelming the aroma urged Bucky to tuck his nose into Steve’s neck, to lick to the sweat from his throat and scrape his teeth over the mating bite beneath his mouth.

“Mine,” Bucky growled.

“Yours,” Steve agreed, “Fuck. Please. I need you – get in me – I need –”

“You need what, sweet alpha?” Bucky asked.

Steve honest-to-god pouted up at him and said, “You know what I need, you jerk.”

“I want to hear you say it,” Bucky told him.

“Fine,” said Steve, “I need you to fuck me. I need you to – ah.”

Bucky withdrew his fingers and Steve went silent, eyes pleading. Bucky made a show of reaching for the slick, of cracking it open and pouring a generous amount over his dick where it strained up, red and so, so hard between his legs. He pinned Steve’s legs back and exposed his lube-shiny hole, open from Bucky’s ministrations. Then, with care, Bucky positioned the head of his cock against that entrance and pushed.

“Holy hell,” Bucky managed. He’d never been inside anybody before. He had no goddamn idea that it would be this good, the walls of Steve’s ass bearing down on his dick with delicious pressure.

“Buck,” Steve whined, “You’re not even all the way in.”

“Jeez, give a guy a second,” Bucky panted, and then, obliging, he shoved his body forward and sheathed his cock entirely in the heat of Steve’s body. Steve looped his legs around Bucky’s waist and held their bodies together. Bucky dropped his head and pressed their foreheads together, sucking Steve’s mouth into a wet kiss.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing here, Stevie, so you’re gonna have to cut me some slack,” Bucky joked.

“It’s not hard –”

“Really?” Bucky said, eyes flicking to Steve’s massive, almost-purple erection, where already his knot swelled, “because you look pretty hard to me.”

“You’re not funny,” Steve said.

“You tell me that a lot,” Bucky said, “but I’m starting to think that you just don’t appreciate comedy.”

“It’s not difficult,” Steve amended, “You just pull back a little and then thrust back in. Rinse and repeat. Though I wouldn’t mind if you paid some attention to my knot while you’re doing it, if I’m being honest.”

“That is the least sexy description of fucking I have ever heard,” Bucky felt the need to inform his alpha.

“Whatever,” Steve said, “Just do it already!”

Still smiling, Bucky withdrew and, with a hitch of his breath, drove back in.

Steve groaned long and low, eyes shuttering closed.

It wasn’t coordinated. Bucky found a rhythm, but slipped out more than once. As he steadied his cock to thrust into Steve again, he said, “I feel like there’s a learning curve here.”

Steve said, “Might be easier if you put me on my belly.”

Bucky paused. He stroked the hair plastered to Steve’s forehead back with tender hands and asked, “Is that…okay?”

Steve smirked. He let his legs fall from their grip around Bucky’s waist, nudged Bucky back with his foot and flipped to his hands and knees. Then, he lowered his shoulders, tilted his head to expose his neck and lifted his ass.

Steve presented.

“Oh God,” Bucky cried, “Fuck. You’re so gorgeous.” He placed a hand against Steve’s hip for balance and used the other to guide his shaking body into Steve’s. His cock slid into place as though this were the place it truly belonged, held tight inside his alpha’s ass. He whined, then leaned over Steve and braced his hands on Steve’s shoulders, digging his nails into the flesh.

And then he moved, grinding his body into Steve’s, driving his hips forward in a dirty roll while he kept his alpha pinned beneath him. Despite the limited range of motion, Steve tried desperately to hitch his hips back to take Bucky in deeper, harder.

“Bucky,” Steve said, begging again, “Harder.”

More than happy to please his alpha, Bucky fucked into Steve’s body with as much force as he dared. Their skin slapped and unstuck to a filthy beat, fraught with heavy breath and frantic noise, moans and whines and whimpers and everything in between. A familiar heavy sensation lit Bucky up below, foreshadowing orgasm, and so he yanked a hand from Steve’s shoulders and reached down to cup Steve’s knot in his hand. Steve canted his ass back in surprise, and hell, that felt amazing.

He kneaded Steve’s knot as he plowed into him, slid his hand up along the length of his cock and down to roll his sac between his fingers. Under the touch, Steve melted into a shivering mess of helpless, needy noise, quivering. He had the pillows clutched so hard in his fists that the skin on his knuckles pulled and went white.

Without a word of warning, Steve shouted and came, spilling onto the sheets as he would into an omega.

It was, without a doubt, the sexiest thing that Bucky had ever seen in his life. Not that he had a lot to go on other than the past several days – but damn, the image of Steve losing his shit with his ass in the air for Bucky’s taking would stay branded in Bucky’s brain for the remainder of his days on planet earth.

“C’mon,” Steve urged, “Keep going. I wanna feel you fill me up.”

Jesus.

Bucky worked his hips in harder, the beat stuttering and disjointed as he climbed closer and closer and closer and –

“Ah, fuck, Steve!” he shouted. The cresting throb of one hell of an orgasm ripped through Bucky like a rogue tide, crashing, violent waves that left the shore a changed land. He went limp over Steve’s back, which Steve took as a sign it was okay to pull their bodies apart and use his alpha strength to hold Bucky up and shift them face to face. He enclosed Bucky in his limbs like a clamshell and rained kisses over his brow and down his neck.

“Mine,” Steve said, voice ruined and rough. He pulled at the tender skin of Bucky’s mating bite with his teeth and repeated, mind lost to alpha instinct, “Mine, mine, mine.”

“Yours,” Bucky said, “Your omega. I love you.”

“Love you,” Steve nodded along, “Love my omega. Perfect omega. Good omega. Soft om –”

“All right, babe, you’re laying it on a little thick there,” Bucky said.

Steve narrowed his eyes and shot back, “Shut up,” and then more quietly, “You make me so happy.”

And maybe he was a sap and an idiot stupid with love for some goofball alpha, but Bucky couldn’t help but reply, “Me too. You make me happy too.”

**

By the time that the heat petered out, the entire house stank of pheromones and most of the contents were askew, from couch cushions on the floor to rumpled bedding stained with God-knew-what to stickiness on surfaces where Bucky knew no stickiness should be. And while Steve notified Natasha that the heat subsided, they warned her not to return their pups until they deep-cleaned the house and gave her the go ahead.

Cleanup extended through the better part of an entire afternoon. Only after four loads of laundry, redressing every bed (even the ones they didn’t fuck on, which Bucky thought might have been overkill but rolled with it and let Steve do as he pleased), scouring the hard surfaces with heavy duty cleaner, dousing the furniture and carpets in Febreze, and plugging a pheromone diffuser into the wall of every room was Steve satisfied with the state of the house enough to allow their children back into it.

Ever-efficient, Natasha arrived only half an hour after sending a simple we’re on our way :^) in response to Steve’s text that they were ready.

Bucky only managed to open the door a couple of inches before his pups bowled him over, chanting and yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” at the top of their lungs. When George knocked into him, Bucky released a soft oof at the weight of the impact.

“Hey, guys,” he said, and crouched low to scoop all three of his babies into a hug.

God, Bucky hadn’t realized how much he missed his pups. Quiet overwhelmed the house without them, drained the spirit from the place. The cheerful echoes of their voices bouncing off the vaulted ceiling of the living room brought their home back to life. Bucky nosed at their hair and their necks, breathing in deep to scent, and unashamedly the pups did the same to him.

At first, Steve hung back, but Win wrenched herself from Bucky’s grip and launched her body at Steve. She hugged his leg until he reached down and hefted her onto his hip, hugging tight.

“Hey, sweet girl,” Steve said.

Win didn’t answer with words, and instead planted her face directly in Steve’s neck, where the skin around the mating bite was still pink.

“You smell like Daddy,” she told him, and rested her head against Steve’s shoulder.

“That’s because I mated your daddy,” Steve told her. He nuzzled across the top of her head and Bucky’s heart wrenched at the sight, at how much his pup loved her alpha father and how much her alpha dad loved her back.

“How come?” Win asked.

“Because I love him,” answered Steve.

“I love Daddy too,” Win replied.

With a smile on his face, Bucky straightened to turn his attention to Natasha. He asked, “Anything I should know about the stay? They behave okay for you?”

“They missed you,” Natasha said, “but I think they’re still too wary to misbehave in unfamiliar places. We had fun, though. I’ll have to have everyone over at my place sometime. They liven up the joint.”

“I was just thinking the same thing about this place,” Bucky said, sweeping a hand back at the living room, where the floor looked naked without toys scattered across it, and the television was like a stranger for not playing Cinderella.

“They’re good pups,” said Natasha.

“Did I thank you already?” asked Bucky.

“A few times,” Natasha responded, “but I could stand to hear it a couple more.”

Bucky barked out a laugh and said, “Thank you for looking after them. I was…um. I was pretty scared that this wasn’t gonna go too hot, but I think that it went okay. Couldn’t’ve done it without you.”

“You’re welcome,” Natasha said warmly.

Bucky extended his arms out in the universal sign for a hug. Natasha accepted, coiling her slender arms around Bucky and letting him wrap his arms around her. She felt small in his arms, incongruent to the normal vibe she exuded – a big personality that drew the limelight from anyone without the personality to compete. Her gentle omega scent surprised him too – nothing spicy, just crisp, clean sweetness.

The pups hugged Natasha goodbye before she left, as did Steve. She cared about them all, but Bucky could see the relish behind her eyes at the prospect of having her house to herself again. By nature, Natasha seemed a solitary creature.

Once she was gone, none of their little family wanted to leave one another’s sides. Steve cooked dinner per usual, but instead of eating at the kitchen table, they constructed an elaborate fort made of cleverly stacked couch cushions and warm sheets fresh from the dryer. Win insisted upon her blanket from Clint being included as a part of it. Bucky found himself grateful for the demand as soon as he settled in with his babies and his mate. Win’s blanket made the fort smell like family. Like pups. Like his.

Bucky was home.

**

“This is bullshit,” Bucky complained.

It was March 10, 2017. He was twenty six years old. Eight days ago, Bucky’s middle pup turned seven on a cool but sunny, blue-skied day.

But today, beyond the tall living room windows on either side of the television, a spring blizzard dominated the landscape. Fat snowflakes blew in aimless flurries. Bucky had stepped out onto the front porch and found the wind icy-sharp, cutting straight to the core.

“Babe, come on,” Steve said, “I made coffee.”

Bucky perked up and peeled away from the window, but not before casting a final dirty look at the blurry white outdoors on the other side of the glass. He sidled up to Steve where he stood before the coffee pot and wrapped his arms around his alpha. Bucky applied a kiss to the back of Steve’s neck and muttered, “This is still bullshit weather.”

“I know,” Steve said in that voice that meant he was only saying something to placate Bucky, but he handed over a mug of fresh coffee before Bucky could open his mouth and complain.

The now-dead plan for the day included Bucky’s favorite people coming to the house to celebrate his first birthday since the escape from that dank, dirty hole in the ground where he’d birthed his pups. He didn’t need presents, but wanted to share food and laughter with the good people that Bucky was lucky enough to have in his life.

Now…he begrudgingly nursed his coffee and waited for the cancelation texts to sweep in.

Only, they didn’t. Even as Bucky polished off his coffee and dressed for the day in a broken-in pair of jeans and his favorite red Henley, even as he brushed and braided his daughters’ hair, even as he settled into his armchair to crack open a new book – his phone remained silent.

Sam arrived first in a sporty red and gray ski jacket. Snowflakes clung to his goatee and his eyebrows. A jauntily wrapped gift sat clutched between his gloved hands.

When Bucky didn’t move from the doorway, Sam said, “You gonna let me freeze out here, or what, Barnes?”

“You’re here,” was all that Bucky could think to say.

“Your powers of observation never cease to amaze me,” Sam drawled. He pushed past Bucky and into the entry way, where he stomped melting snow from his boots and shucked his coat off his arms.

“But,” Bucky said, “Snow.”

“I know y’all don’t think I’m scared of no snow,” Sam cocked a brow and shoved the gift into Bucky’s arms before he went on, “I woulda thought you had a better opinion of me.”

“I – don’t be a dick,” Bucky complained.

“Don’t make it so easy,” Sam smiled. He laughed, shook his head, and clapped Bucky on the shoulder. He said, “Happy birthday, man.”

After that, the guests flowed in. Bucky’s parents and in-state sisters showered him with hugs and kisses and an assortment of gifts that by that point spread across the kitchen island like an elaborately wrapped buffet. Bucky lost time – he blinked from one moment to the next and found his house crowded with people, people that drove through a Coloradan March blizzard just to get to his birthday celebration.

Tony brought expensive booze, bracketed on either side by his mates.

“How are you doing?” Bruce asked him.

“Oh, uh,” Bucky said, and unconsciously touched the small, still-healing scar beneath his belly button, the only outward evidence of the tubal ligation he had done the instant that he was allowed. He shrugged a shoulder and said, “Everything seems normal.”

“I didn’t mean your surgery,” Bruce said, tone fond, “I meant you. How are you doing?”

Bucky considered the question for a moment, a moment in which George went running past, pursued by Winter, who was being pursued by Becky, who inexplicably was running with a dirt-caked hand rake brandished in the air. In one smooth movement, Bucky confiscated the rake and gave Becky a look.

“I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why you can’t do that,” he said.

“Whatever,” Becky replied, and went dashing to find where her brother had gone.

Bucky slid his gaze to Bruce and said, “This is a lot. But. Um. Like, in a good way? You know?”

“That’s my omega in a nutshell, so yes, I do know,” Bruce said, and flicked his eyes to the rake in Bucky’s hand, “A rake, huh?”

Bucky snorted, twirled the hand rake, and said, “Don’t ask, because I don’t know where or how she got it, but I’m gonna go put it someplace where my pups are less likely to reach it.” He decided upon the cabinet above the refrigerator, a cabinet whose contents seemed more and more like a container for pup contraband (Bucky kept any and all breath mints and gum tucked behind some kind of homemade slingshot that Becky fashioned and promptly used to crack a window by launching rocks at the side of the house).

After he tucked the rake away, Bucky hung back against one of the kitchen counters to breathe. He watched his guests smile, watched Win play some kind of hand-clapping game with his sisters and looked on while Thor made wide, enthusiastic hand gestures at Bucky’s parents. He jumped when he pulled his attention back to the kitchen and found Steve at his side, a dopey look of affection on his handsome face.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Bucky complained.

“Like what?” Steve asked, but from his smirk Bucky knew the bastard knew exactly what he was doing.

“You know exactly like what,” Bucky said back.

Steve stepped into Bucky’s space and looped his arms around Bucky’s waist. His cocky grin melted into something more private, something just for the two of them, before he leaned in and brushed his lips over Bucky’s temple, soothing with his alpha presence and his steady, familiar scent.

“You okay?” Steve asked.

Bucky nodded into Steve’s shoulder, but admitted, “Lost some time.”

“Looked like it. Want me to start clearing people out?”

“Nah,” Bucky said, “I just need a sec. I can’t believe all these whackos drove in this bullshit weather just to be here on my birthday. And what’s with all the presents? I said nobody had to get me presents.”

“Well,” Steve reasoned, “They love you. We all do. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Bucky said.

And you know what? He meant it.

That wouldn’t always be his answer. He wouldn’t always be okay. But here in his kitchen, wrapped up in the arms of his alpha, surrounded by people that loved him and their laughter, in a warm house in one hell of a blizzard – Bucky meant it. He was okay.

The End