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"Steve!"

He shoves his things into his backpack, pushing his slipping glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Coming, Mom!” he shouts back, grabbing his backpack and skidding down the hallway, socks slipping on the worn linoleum. His mom is waiting in the kitchen, hands on her hips and an exasperated expression on her thin face, but her eyes are fond as she snags him and plants a loud kiss on his temple.

“Mom,” he protests, scrunching his nose in half-hearted disgust. 

“Don’t forget your lunch,” she says, pushing it into his hands. “You have your inhaler, right?”

“Mom, I’ll be fine. I’ve been going to high school for two years. I think I have it handled.”

“Is that any way to talk to your mother? There’s only so many first days left, you know.” She cups his cheeks, eyes crinkling as she smiles. They’re a pale blue flecked with green, a perfect match for Steve’s, just like her blonde hair and wispy figure. “Look at my baby,” she coos, half-serious, “all grown up and a junior in high school. Next thing I know you’ll be going off to college.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “That’s still a long way off, Mom. Look, I gotta go. I’m going to be late.”

She shakes her head in amusement and kisses his forehead one last time, watching as he shoves his feet into his ratty vans and jogs out the door into the hallway, the overhead light flickering like it, too, isn’t ready to be awake.

“Be safe!” she calls after him, door propped against her hip. “Have a good first day!”

He turns just enough to wave, then hurries on down the stairwell of the apartment complex and out onto the cracked sidewalk. It’s a twenty minute walk to school, and the weather is nice for early September – not too hot, not too cold, the air crisp with early morning chill as the sun peeks through the buildings. The faded skinny jeans and white t-shirt Steve pulled out of the mess of his closet are keeping him the perfect temperature, and though summer is ostensibly his favorite season (no school, no snow, no illness), he thinks he could be convinced of fall’s superiority. 

SHIELD High is buzzing when he arrives, students milling around outside and in the halls and greeting friends they haven’t seen all summer, others they no doubt saw every day. Some people are hardly recognizable, obviously having hit puberty over the summer, towering over the others and sporting greasy hair and faces full of acne, wiry muscles pushing at too-small shirts and the smell of body odor mixed with copious amounts of cologne thick in the air. Despite that, Steve envies them. He’s been stuck at five-foot-five for what seems like forever, and he’s unlikely to grow much more. Some of the freshmen tower over him, which seems extremely unfair – he’s sixteen, but next to everyone else he looks about twelve.

“Steve! Hey, Steve!”

Steve looks around and spots Sam, a grin breaking over his face.

“Sam!” He waves back, watching Sam weave effortlessly through the crowded hall to get to him. Sam has been his friend since freshman year, when he moved here from New Orleans and ended up in the same homeroom as Steve, then decided to talk to him for some unknown reason (Steve still suspects it was pity). He’s funny and nice and attractive and perfect, really, and Steve still has no idea why out of all the people he could choose, he’s friends with Steve.

“Hey, it’s good to see you, man.” Sam slings an arm around his shoulders, squeezing tightly. He’s got the kind of genuine friendliness to him that means everyone likes him, with an easy gap-toothed smile and a take-no-shit attitude that’s countered by boundless empathy, and on top of that he’s ridiculously handsome, tall and muscled from lacrosse and time in the gym, with skin that’s somehow mostly clear of acne and warm brown eyes guaranteed to make any girl (or guy) swoon – as intended, because he’s a terrible flirt. Sometimes, Steve feels like looking at Sam is like looking at the sun.

“Good to see you too,” Steve replies, shoving his glasses up again when they threaten to slip down his nose – they’re big, blocky black frames that swallow up his face, one of the temples taped together after it had been broken during a fight, and he has a love-hate relationship with them. “How was your summer?” 

He and Sam had texted a lot, but Sam had been visiting family and friends in New Orleans for most of it so they hadn’t actually seen each other, meaning Steve spent most of the summer watching Netflix and drawing while his mom kept subtly urging him to go outside.

“Great!” Sam enthuses, as they start to drift towards their lockers. “Man, I missed Riley. I told him he should move up here but he said he’d die in the cold.”

“You say that every winter.”

“You can take the boy out of the south…”

Steve chuckles as they stop by his locker, spinning the dial with practiced ease. Sam reaches up out of habit and presses a hand against the warped top of the locker as Steve jiggles the handle, the locker finally popping open with a creak that sounds like a rusty door hinge had an affair with a car crash. He shoves his lunch and gym bag in there and slams it again, kicking the warped edge to seal it. For all the school spends on sports, one would think they would dedicate some money to actual upkeep. 

They stop by Sam’s locker next as Sam continues telling Steve about his summer, Riley the star of most of his stories. Steve knows Riley has been Sam’s best friend since kindergarten, and Sam was heartbroken when they had to move for his mom’s job, so he tries not to feel too jealous, or inadequate. Seeing as ‘inadequate’ is pretty much his default setting, though, it’s hard. Steve subscribes less to the be grateful for what you have philosophy and more to the bitterness and spite side of things – not to say he isn’t appreciative of his privilege, but that he’s had quite enough infantilizing bullshit for one lifetime, and also he’s a moody teenager so he feels it’s maybe a little bit his duty to be resentful. 

He and Sam have homeroom together by virtue of being close in the alphabet, and they sit side-by-side as they go through the motions of reciting the pledge, playing tic-tac-toe on a loose sheet of paper as Erskine hands out their schedules and comparing them only to frown when they learn their only class together – besides lunch – is last period gym.

“Ugh, I have math with Hill first thing,” Sam complains. “I cannot do math this early in the morning.”

“I have history,” Steve says, wrinkling his nose. His glasses slide down another inch on his nose. “I’ll probably just fall asleep. Everyone says Mr. Lee likes to ramble.”

“Hey, at least you’ll get to sleep. If Hill catches me sleeping she’ll probably make me write out problems on the board until I die.”

She probably would, Steve muses. Hill is notorious for being strict. 

The speaker crackles, and the room falls silent as they listen to the normal beginning of the year announcements, which include the hiring of a new principal, a Mr. Pierce. Steve hopes he’s an understanding sort of guy, because he hasn’t gone a year without multiple trips to the principal’s office yet. 

Finally, after the droning voice stops, they’re released to their first class. Steve says goodbye to Sam and makes his way to history, picking a seat in the middle of the room as other kids file in, taking seats by their friends. The only people Steve knows and is friendly with are Clint and Sharon, but it’s not like he expects to interact much in this class – Mr. Lee is infamous for his dry lectures that end only when the last minute of time has run out. Clint looks like he just woke up, coffee cup clutched in his hands like a lifeline and purple hearing aids curled around his ears; he slumps into a seat at the back of the classroom and looks to be falling back asleep already. Sharon gives Steve a small smile from beneath perfectly straight blonde hair and sits near him, but her attention is taken up by her other friends, all pretty and sporty and popular. Sharon’s nice, but she and Steve aren’t close by any stretch of the imagination. 

There’s only one seat left next to Steve when the last student files in, glancing around from under shoulder-length brown hair. Steve is sure he’s never seen him before, so he must be new, and that sparks a modicum of interest. The kid hesitates then makes for the empty seat, sliding in gracefully as he drops his bag to the floor with a thump. He’s wearing a baggy black sweatshirt and black jeans even in the warmth, and his long hair prevents Steve from getting a good look at his face, but his left hand is tucked into his sweatshirt pocket, right clutching a pencil tightly like he might have to stab someone with it.

“Hey,” Steve says awkwardly, and the kid jumps slightly, turning to face him. His eyes, now that Steve can see them, are a deep blue-grey underscored by shadows. His skin is pale, cheekbones standing out in relief above the remnants of baby fat on his cheeks, and he regards Steve with no small amount of suspicion, jaw set in a clench of defiance that’s familiar to Steve. 

“I, uh, haven’t seen you here before,” Steve says, now regretting his decision to speak. “You new?”

The kid nods but doesn’t say anything, hunching over his desk and side-eyeing Steve as if he’s a venomous snake about to strike and not a shrimpy teenager with taped-up glasses and a nose that’s been broken more than once. 

“I’m Steve. Steve Rogers,” he tries.

“Bucky,” the kid mumbles after a moment.

What kind of name is Bucky? Steve is tempted to ask, but he doesn’t really want to piss him off more than he already seems to have on their first meeting. Pissing people off is a specialty of Steve’s, but usually because they’re being assholes, and it’s not like he wants to pick a fight with every single person on the planet, contrary to what Sam thinks. He opens his mouth to say something, anything, but Mr. Lee’s creaky voice rings out, calling the class to order, and he snaps it shut again, facing forward in his seat. 

Mr. Lee goes through roll-call painfully slowly, and Steve listens closely for the new kid’s name, which happens to come up at the beginning of the alphabet.

“James Barnes?”

Bucky raises his right hand slightly, still hunched over his desk. 

“Ah, yes,” Mr. Lee says, squinting at him through his glasses. “You’re new right? Principal Pierce’s son.”

Bucky nods silently. 

The principal’s son? Steve thinks. He wonders why they don’t share the same last name. He hopes Pierce is nice; he would hate having the principal as his parent. 

Mr. Lee finishes roll call and dives right into lecture, his monotone voice putting Steve to sleep. He tries to take notes but mostly doodles in the margins, sketching a cartoon of Mr. Lee, even though he actually loves history. Lecture is just not for him. He’d rather read books on his own. He catches Bucky glancing over at him curiously, gaze sweeping across his doodles, but when their eyes meet Bucky looks away. 

They don’t talk the rest of class, or after class either. Bucky keeps his left hand stuffed in his pocket as he awkwardly shoves his notebook into his backpack and slings it onto his right shoulder, leaving before Steve can say anything. Steve sighs. Of course he managed to make the new kid hate him before first period was even over.

He has art next with his favorite teacher, Mr. Erskine, who smiles at him from the front of the class, lined face warm and kindly. He notices Natasha Romanoff sitting alone at a table, red hair spilling over her black leather jacket and mouth working around a piece of gum as she scribbles something in a notebook. She’s a perpetual mystery, and though she’s been going to the same school as Steve for years, he still knows nothing about her. In truth, she’s kind of terrifying. There’s a rumor she once stabbed someone, and although Steve doesn’t usually put much stock in rumors he wouldn’t have a hard time believing it.

Art is Steve’s favorite subject. It’s just about his only talent, really, besides pissing people off and getting punched. When he’s drawing or painting is the only time he isn’t thinking about the fact that he’s too small, too skinny, too poor, too everything. He can just let his mind go blank and pour himself out onto the canvas. He can make something beautiful, when he has never considered himself so. 

Mr. Erskine tells a few jokes as he talks about the class in his soft voice and takes roll call, and Steve eventually loses himself in the first day sketches, a fun introductory project that has them trying to draw their shoes. All too soon, it’s time to pack up and head to lunch, and he grabs his lunch bag from his locker before heading into the cafeteria, searching for Sam’s familiar face. A waving hand beckons him over, to where Sam is sitting with Clint, Bruce, Tony, and Rhodey at a circular table, chairs scattered haphazardly around and lunches spread across the surface. 

Steve nearly groans out loud. Tony isn’t his favorite person in the world, and most conversations between them end in a fight – verbal, at least. Tony, in his opinion, is a rich, self-obsessed white kid with more intelligence than common sense and a tendency to make horrible decisions and then play the victim. Steve’s really not looking forward to lunch together every day.

“Steve!” Tony exclaims, gesticulating wildly. “Come sit down. I haven’t seen you all summer.”

Steve represses his sarcastic comment and pulls out a chair between Sam and Clint, sinking into it with a sigh. 

“So, what’s new with your life?” Tony asks, popping blueberries into his mouth. He holds out the bag to Bruce, who takes a few silently. Steve doesn’t understand how Bruce and Tony get along at all – Bruce is quiet and moody and Tony is loud and brash – but somehow, they’re inseparable. The only person closer to Tony is Rhodey – James Rhodes, but no one calls him James unless they’re his mother –  who’s a year older but has been friends with him since kindergarten and somehow puts up with Tony with an incredible amount of patience, and who is the level head to Tony’s recklessness.

Steve shrugs. “Not much.” He glances up and is surprised to see Bucky Barnes sitting with Natasha at their own table, both of them chatting like they already know each other. They must, because Natasha doesn’t talk to anyone that easily. 

“The new kid was in my history this morning,” Steve says while it’s on his mind, hoping to squeeze some information from Tony. He seems to know everything, and his dad teaches physics, so he has the inside scoop on school politics.

Tony, predictably, lights up. “Ooh, the new kid.” He rubs his hands together and leans into the table. Curious, Steve mirrors him. “Here’s the scoop,” Tony says conspiratorially. “His name is James Barnes. His dad is Mr. Pierce, the new principal. Rich dude, apparently he’s known VP Fury forever and they’re super tight. But…” He drags out the word, “get this, new kid’s adopted. Apparently he lost his parents in a car accident a while back. Along with his arm.”

“His arm?” Rhodey repeats, wide-eyed. He rolls his wheelchair closer to the table, obviously intrigued now. He’d been an up-and-coming football star before he’d been shot by a police officer last year and paralyzed from the waist down. Mistaken identity, they said; resembled the suspect in a nearby robbery. He was fifteen. Tony got his dad to throw all their money into his case and won, the guilty officer fired (though not imprisoned, never imprisoned), but it will never erase what happened. 

Tony nods with obvious glee. “Yeah, he’s got a super high-tech prosthetic. Hammer Tech, I think. Moves like a real arm and everything. Clint got a peek at it in homeroom this morning.”

Everyone turns to Clint, who looks surprised at the attention. “Oh. Yeah, it was like, all silver and shit. Looked like a robot hand. It was cool.”

Maybe that explained why Bucky was so standoffish this morning. It must be annoying having everyone looking at his arm and gossiping about him, not to mention how losing his parents must have affected him. Steve feels a pang of sympathy. 

“How do you even know all this?” he asks Tony.

Tony waves a hand. “My dad. I guess Pierce talked a lot about him, requested special accommodations or something. My dad said to stay away from him ‘cause he’s a, you know, troubled kid. Came from the system.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Troubled kid? Wouldn’t anyone be after losing their parents and their fucking arm? Jesus.” 

Tony shrugs. “Just repeating what he said. Pierce took him in to try and straighten him out, or something.”

“Straighten him out.” Steve repeats the words with distaste. 

“I know, right. Whenever an adult says that I want to punch them in the face. Hey, speaking of that, how long has it been since you got punched, Rogers?”

Steve scowls. “I’m not going to answer that.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Bets on how long it takes Steve to get into a fight this year?”

“Hey, don’t encourage him,” Sam says. 

“Are you in or are you out, Wilson? Ten bucks.”

Sam hesitates, glancing at Steve, then sighs. “Fine. I say two weeks.”

“One,” Tony counters. 

“A month,” Bruce mutters.

“Your loss. Rhodes?”

Rhodey sighs, long-suffering. “I’m going to be extremely, extremely optimistic, and say two months.”

Steve groans and drops his head onto his arms as Sam pats his back consolingly. 

The discussion turns to other topics, and Steve nearly forgets all about Bucky Barnes until he gets to his next class and finds himself being put at a lab table with him. Mr. Jarvis, who is a little eccentric but funny, teaches the course, but Steve is pretty sure that despite his best efforts, he’s going to do terribly at chemistry, especially since he’s been paired with Bucky.

Scott and Luis are at the table behind them, Pepper and her friend Anna in front, and he almost wishes he had been paired with one of them instead. At least they’re nice, and smart as well. They’ll probably have no trouble with chemistry. Bucky isn’t looking at him, frowning down at the syllabus as if it might come to life and bite him. A glance shows his left hand still in his pocket, though now Steve knows why. 

“How’s your first day been?” he tries, figuring since he’s stuck with him all semester they might as well be friendly. 

Bucky shrugs without looking at him. Steve feels his sympathy ebb a bit – there’s no reason to be rude. He swallows a sigh and tunes in as Mr. Jarvis starts going over the syllabus. It takes most of the class to go over it and do the introductory slides, and Bucky doesn’t look at him once. Steve curses his luck. 

Finally, the class is over, and he troops to the gym, sitting on the bleachers with Sam as the teachers go over the introductory stuff and take attendance in a seemingly never ending monotony of names. His mouth tightens as he sees Gilmore Hodge in his class, sauntering around with all his football buddies. Gilmore is a bully, and his favorite target is Steve. He’s also the reason Steve has tape on his glasses.

Luckily, he hasn’t noticed Steve yet, but when they divide off into their sections, he ends up in the same one with Steve, and Steve once again curses his luck. They’re also in Colonel Phillip’s section, which is even worse. Colonel Phillips used to be in the army, which explains everything about how he runs gym class and also who he is as a person. The very first thing they’re forced to do is pile out into the sunshine, where the red track loops around the immaculate football green, and run a mile. 

“Faster!” Colonel Phillips barks as Steve jogs around the track, wheezing and puffing. “This isn’t kindergarten! Come on, Rogers!”

“On your left,” Sam says as he laps him, barely out of breath.

“Asshole,” Steve hisses. Sam looks back and grins.

Steve finishes the mile minutes slower than almost everyone and has to take a couple puffs of his inhaler before he can breathe again, wheezing with his hands on his knees as Sam pats his back helpfully. He’s sweating, hair sticking to his forehead and trickling down the back of his neck, and he’s grateful that gym is at least last period this semester so he can go home and shower immediately. 

Unfortunately, the torture isn’t over. Colonel Phillips makes them do an entire fitness test, complete with crunches, push-ups, and pull-ups. Steve does a grand total of five push-ups before collapsing.

“Just leave me here to die,” he moans to Sam, who is glistening attractively above him. He looks like some sort of angel haloed by the sun, while Steve feels like a worm that’s been left to dry out on the sidewalk. 

“Nah,” Sam says, reaching down to haul him up. “Too much trouble. Who else would I beat at Mario Kart?”

Steve mutters some choice words at him as they finally, finally limp back to the lockers. Sam blocks their little corner of the lockers while Steve changes – Steve has been openly bi since freshman year, and he’s been beaten up in the locker room before by guys thinking he was staring at them. As if. Steve has standards.

The clock finally hits 3:02 and everyone rushes to collect their things, following the stream of students leaving the school. Sam gives him a quick goodbye and jogs towards the buses while Steve heads in the other direction, hefting his backpack on sore shoulders and scuffing his shoes on the sidewalk as he breathes in the fresh air. He sees Bucky coming out through the doors and watches as he crosses to the parking lot, getting in a sleek black car with tinted windows before pulling away with a muted rumble. Steve shakes his head. What sixteen-year-old kid has a fucking Camaro, especially in Brooklyn?

His mom is gone when he gets home, working the evening shift at the hospital this week. She’s a nurse, something that came in handy dealing with all of Steve’s health problems as a child, though she barely makes enough to keep them afloat and pay Steve’s medical bills that have inevitably piled up. His scoliosis has been fixed, heart murmur corrected – via surgery that had left him with a long scar down the center of his chest – his asthma under control with his inhaler and anemia managed with iron supplements, but he’s gotten pneumonia too many times to count, and he still gets ill too easily, still weak and sickly. He hates being so small and weak sometimes, hates feeling like his body has betrayed him. His mom always says he has a big heart in a small body. Steve always tells her he’s not the Grinch.

He dumps his stuff in his room and showers, washing away the stress of the day. He swipes a hand across the fogged-up mirror as he climbs out, towel wrapped around his slim hips, and studies his face, disappointed as ever by what he finds: Angular face, overlarge, slightly crooked nose, heavy brows, permanent scowl. His blonde fringe flops over his forehead, constantly falling in his eyes like the world’s worst emo stereotype – minus the all-black. He is, to put it frankly, not attractive . And he shouldn’t care, doesn’t care; pretends he’s not interested in appearance or dating, except…he does care. He wants someone to be attracted to him, wants to share the closeness of a relationship – hand-holding and cheesy lines and all. He wants to find his person, like his dad was his mom’s person. 

He’s never dated anyone, never even had his first kiss, and it feels like maybe he never will. Like maybe no one will ever want to be with him, no one will ever think he’s hot or handsome or beautiful, no one will ever want to hold his hand and kiss him in the rain. God, if Sam knew how much of a romantic Steve is, he’d never stop teasing him. It’s bad enough when he jokes that Steve has twice as many options because he’s bisexual, nevermind that that’s not how it works. He’s trying to be supportive, Steve knows, but every time he thinks twice as many options and yet I can’t get one. At this point, he’s pretty sure he’ll die alone. 

Steve sighs, turning away from the mirror and slouching to his room to get dressed. Comfy clothes donned, he grabs a snack from the kitchen and settles at his desk with his sketchbook, letting his worries go with every sweep of the pencil. He draws and draws until his hand cramps and his stomach rumbles and the light outside dims, shadows lengthening across the floor, and if he finds himself drawing a pair of shadowed eyes, pencil skimming over high cheekbones, then it’s simply a coincidence, is all.

Chapter Text

Bucky pulls into the driveway and turns off the car, trudging toward the front door. Pierce’s house is large and opulent, with small, perfectly manicured front gardens and a half-brick, half-whitewashed facade, a driveway edged by a wall sectioning it from the next house. Inside holds gleaming wood floors and pristine furniture, not a single speck of dust daring to touch the perfectly arranged shelves. A staircase curves up to the second story, where Bucky’s bedroom is, cream walls offsetting the shining laminate under his feet. It's gorgeous, and perfect.

Bucky hates it.

He dumps his backpack on his bed and goes to take a shower, avoiding the ruin of his shoulder in the mirror as he unbuckles the strap of his prosthetic from across his chest and lets it slide off the stump of his left arm. Scars stretch out over his shoulder and down the stump, which ends a little above his elbow, swaths of red irritation visible now that the prosthetic is off. It’s state of the art, covering all the way up to his shoulder with electrodes implanted under his skin, light interlocking plates of titanium alloy made moveable by the electrode mapping, and he knows he’s lucky to have it. Pierce has told him this time and time again: He’s lucky.

Lucky. Lucky. Lucky.

Detached from his stump, the prosthetic is dead, articulated fingers still and silent. He locates the charging cable and plugs it into the port by the elbow, watching the tiny light blink yellow before turning away.

He washes thoroughly and gets dressed again, toweling his hair dry before he takes out his syllabi, carefully arranging them in their color-coded binders. He rarely has time to do school-work well, but Pierce still expects him to get decent grades. 

Pierce has done a lot for him, even though he doesn’t deserve it, even though all he does is cause trouble. Even though he’s ungrateful. 

He glances over at his prosthetic arm, gleaming in the soft light, and thinks: I hate it.

He hates it, but Pierce always reminds him that he’s privileged to have it. Most other people aren’t so fortunate. Pierce has given him a roof over his head, food, and ample money for his needs; he has a fancy car that Pierce had gifted him after he passed his driver’s test, though he mainly uses it for work. 

He gets a good education, though he’d had to change schools after the incident. 

He doubts he’ll like this one any better. At least at the other school everyone already knew about his arm and they mostly left him alone. The only good thing is that he does know Nat at this school, even if it is a further drive and gives him less time to do his homework in the afternoons. 

He’s lucky. He knows he is. Doing what he does for Pierce is a small price to pay for everything.

He’s lucky, but it doesn’t stop him from hating every second in his gilded cage.

He tries to get ahead on his work, reading from his textbooks and starting the assignments he can. He used to love school, he knows, used to love science and technology and books, and deep down, in the place where hope and happiness still dare to exist, he still does. He has a few books stashed under his bed frame that he reads whenever he can’t sleep, huddled under the covers with his phone light. In books he can escape, can be transported to other worlds where the good guys always win and the bad guys always are punished, and the plucky hero always saves the day. 

He writes, too – he has stacks of journals hidden under his bed, but those stories are not nearly as pretty. There are no happy endings there, no goodness to be found. 

 

At six, he ventures downstairs, opens the fridge, and grabs one of the pre-made meals neatly portioned out in Tupperware containers courtesy of their maid. He heats it up and wolfs it down quickly, barely tasting it. 

The alarm trills on his phone. He sighs, turning it off and putting his plate in the sink before slogging upstairs to put on his prosthetic. The lights of the bathroom seem to highlight every flaw as he stands at the mirror and applies concealer to cover the smattering of acne on his forehead, carefully smudging a hint of eyeliner around his eyes and finger-combing his hair until it’s artfully messy instead of just messy. A glass of water helps his medication go down, pill bottles arrayed like silent soldiers on the counter. His stomach twinges, though he’s long since learned to ignore the constant stomach ache that plagues him like an angry ghost.

He shoves his feet into his combat boots and zips up his backpack with all his supplies before heading down the stairs, footfalls near silent. Pierce is in his study, and he looks up when Bucky enters, scanning him from head to toe. Bucky straightens his back.

“How was your first day?” Pierce asks, tone deceptively warm, voice always silky like a businessman trying to close a deal. He looks the part too, with twinkling blue eyes in a kindly face, blonde hair neat and combed and suits always perfectly pressed, a pair of reading glasses occasionally perched on his nose. When Bucky first met him, he thought Pierce was the most charming person he’d ever encountered.

“Fine, sir,” Bucky replies. “There was no trouble.”

“Hmm. See that there isn’t.” Pierce checks his watch, a sleek silver thing that never leaves his wrist, then pulls out a piece of paper, handing it to Bucky. His eyes finally drift away as he takes a drink – scotch, top shelf – and Bucky feels like he can breathe again. “For the Russians. Mr. N requested you for nine. See that you aren’t late.”

Bucky swallows. “Yes, sir.” He nods and turns on his heel, pulling his keys from his pocket as he exits the house into the cool evening air. The car rumbles smoothly under him as it starts, and he takes a measured breath against the anxiety that always trickles through him at the sound, gripping onto the knob fastened to the steering wheel with his right hand as he pulls out and drives away onto the darkened streets, the route ingrained in his mind. 

It’s twenty minutes before he reaches his destination, an old brick building covered with vines. Madame B’s Home for Girls is embossed in large lettering on the faded sign. To the world, it is a home for orphaned girls. To Bucky, and to Hydra, it is known as something very different: The Red Room.

He parks behind the building as always and enters through the back door, staring up at the camera and waiting to be let in. A cold, winding hallway leads to a bustle of activity, rows of girls expertly packing piles of white powder. He notes Yelena and Anya, but not Natasha – she must be on client rotation tonight. The girls wave a distracted hello before returning to their jobs as he passes through and puts in the combination to the keypad on the locked door. The light flashes green and he pushes it open, shutting it securely behind him and making his way through the house. His boots scuff softly against the battered floor. The walls are covered in peeling wallpaper, flowers long since faded into the murky white illuminated by the flickering lights overhead.

He passes a couple men leaving through the side entrance, and one coming in. Madame B herself is on the main floor beneath the staircase. She cocks an eyebrow when she sees him, grey hair pulled back tightly and pale face ageless, eyes cold and unfeeling. She has a timeless feel about her, as if she had not grown from child to adult but simply sprang up, fully formed, without any of the softness of humanity; as if she has been here since the dawn of time and will continue to exist long after all else is gone, unchanging and unfeeling. 

“She’s upstairs,” she says, jerking her head at the staircase. “You get one minute.”

Bucky nods, jogging up the staircase and through the long hallway of rooms. The sounds from inside some are familiar, moans and rhythmic thumping, but Natasha’s room is quiet when he knocks on the door.

She opens the door with a smile, wearing a silky green dressing gown. Her striking red hair is in loose waves around her shoulders, a touch of makeup on her face. She looks simultaneously older and younger than her sixteen years.

“Hello, James,” she says, voice curling around the words with familiarity and a hint of something softer, almost fond.

“We only have a minute,” he replies, as she ushers him in. 

Natasha makes a face. “So, how was your first day at SHIELD?”

“Fine.” Bucky leans back against the closed door and shrugs. “You know, the same. Everyone just wants to stare at my arm.”

“Well, as long as you don’t punch them with it or throw any chairs like last time, you’ll be fine.” Natasha works her mouth around a piece of gum, blowing a bubble. The pop seems to echo in the hall. 

“Yeah.” Bucky nods at her outfit. “You got a client?”

Natasha shrugs. “Only one tonight. Should be here in an hour. You?”

He grimaces. “Mr. N.”

“Good luck with that one.”

“Thanks.” He checks the time on his phone. “I have to go. See you tomorrow?”

“You know it.”

He smiles and exits into the hall. When he looks back, she’s watching him from the doorway. He throws her a small salute before he descends the stairs, passing Madame B again and hustling back through the maze-like corridors to the main room. Yelena and Anya help him load one-ounce packages of white powder into his backpack and he leaves the way he came, stepping out into the rapidly cooling air as the sun sinks lower in the sky. 

His next stop is in a rough neighborhood, and he keeps his hood up as he’s buzzed up to the apartment. Wanda answers the door, red jacket thrown over her faded black dress and brown hair spilling wildly over her shoulders, rings glinting on her fingers. Pietro is sitting at the table throwing a ball up and catching it, scowling at Bucky from under a shock of bleached-white hair as he enters. Strucker, an older man with hard features and the tendency to inspect his drugs with a monocle, emerges from the hallway and Bucky unzips his backpack, pulling out most of the packages and placing them on the table. 

Strucker grunts, handing over a stack of bills that Bucky counts and stuffs in the backpack. Wanda and Pietro watch him silently. They’re illegal Sokovian immigrants, promised a new life by Hydra and used to deal drugs on the streets. Bucky has only spoken a few words to them, but he knows they’re starting their freshman year at SHIELD, so he’ll probably be seeing them more often. They also, undoubtedly, will be selling drugs to the students at SHIELD, since Bucky is not a good candidate for that position. No, his talents lie in…other areas. 

“Tell your employer that the cops are getting annoying,” Strucker sneers, voice faintly accented. German, Bucky thinks. “There are two new ones, and they are causing problems.”

Bucky clenches his jaw. “I’ll tell him.” He doesn’t want to think about what happens to the cops that Hydra can’t pay off.

 

His next stop is a warehouse by the water, his footsteps echoing on the cement floor as dark-clothed men load weapons into cars and stack them on tables, barrels gleaming in the low light. Lukin and Karpov grin when they see him, clapping him on the back with calloused hands. 

“Ah, our little soldier!” Lukin says in a thick Russian accent, moustache twitching up into a craggy smile. “What will it be today, soldat?” He picks up a nearby handgun on the table, holding it out to Bucky. “We just got these in yesterday. A beauty, yes?”

Bucky takes the gun, hefting it as he looks it over. It’s good quality, and small enough to be concealed easily. 

“If I outshoot you, can I have it for free?” he asks in fumbling Russian.

Lukin laughs. “I would be stupid to say yes. I know how good you shoot.” He wags a finger. “No, I do not play your games.”

“He is just angry because last time you outshoot him,” Karpov says, cigarette dangling from his lips. “He lost best knife because of you.” Younger than Lukin by far, with dark hair and a downturned mouth, his eyes are glittering beads under heavy brows that warn of the controlled violence sitting just beneath the surface. 

Bucky grins wolfishly and reaches into his boot, pulling out the knife. “And I still have it.”

“You are smart kid.” Karpov winks, tapping his temple. “Outlive all of us, eh?”

Bucky shoves the knife back in his boot, straightening up and pulling the piece of paper out of his pocket. He hands it to Lukin, who studies the order with a displeased expression. 

“He wants this much?” he grumbles in Russian. “This will be difficult to get. You would think he’s supplying an army.”

“Is he not?” Karpov replies. “Hydra is growing bigger than New York.”

Lukin sighs, folding the paper again. “Tell him we will get what he wants. We will let him know when it is ready.”

Bucky nods and turns to leave.

“Soldat!” Karpov calls after him.

He pauses, turning.

“Bring knife next time, and we play for keeps.”

Bucky grins. “Da!”

He climbs back into his car, blowing out a breath. Lukin and Karpov are cold-blooded killers, and some of the most dangerous men in New York. He’s lucky he seems to amuse them. He prefers it, over the alternative.

He checks the time. 8:30. He has two more deliveries to do. 

This time, he ends up on the high-end side of Brooklyn. His first delivery goes off without a hitch, an ounce of cocaine passed over, but the second one is troublesome.

“I asked for two ounces,” the guy says angrily, advancing on Bucky. He’s tall and wiry, with a penchant for ugly collared shirts and getting sucked off – by people that aren’t his wife – while high. “Not one. Two.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says, hands raised. “I only have what I was given.”

“I’m owed.” The guy reaches out and grips Bucky’s jaw, thumbing his lips. “Tell you what, you let me fuck that pretty little mouth of yours for free and we’re even.”

Bucky swallows and nods, dropping to his knees. It’s easy to undo the man’s jeans, easy to let himself sink into the familiar motions. He doesn’t give it as much finesse as he would usually, but the guy doesn’t seem to care. It’s only a matter of minutes before he comes, and Bucky leaves him to put himself back together, counting the money and shoving it in his backpack. The guy waves him off and Bucky wipes his mouth before rushing out the door, starting his car. 8:55.

“Fuck,” he hisses, fumbling through his backpack and popping a mint into his mouth before driving off. He makes it to the Hydra-owned hotel five minutes late, rushing through the lobby and jabbing the elevator button repeatedly as if that will make it go faster. The place is upscale enough to cater to New York’s richest and most corrupt, and exclusive enough not to draw the wrong crowd, maintaining a facade of superiority while housing some of the city’s most criminal for a variety of nefarious purposes – not that Bucky knows what they are. Hydra likes to cozy up to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. 

The hallway is empty, and he runs a hand through his hair before knocking on the door to the room he thinks of as his . It opens, and Mr. N frowns at him disapprovingly, tapping his watch and tsking. 

“Late,” he says. His dyed blonde hair is combed over his forehead in a way that doesn’t quite hide his receding hairline, shirt straining around his waist. He has cold, dark eyes and a smile that never reaches them, wrinkles settling unpleasantly around his mouth. 

“I’m sorry, sir,” Bucky replies meekly as he’s ushered into the room. “I got held up.” He gives Mr. N a small smile, widening his eyes. “It won’t happen again.”

For most customers, sex costs, and sex plus a drug delivery is extra, but Pierce also likes to loan him out to his friends occasionally to settle debts and soothe egos. Mr. N is an important and influential man, and Hydra needs him; having a judge on their side is crucial for business. For men like him, not swayed by the girls of the Red Room or any other service, Bucky is Pierce’s most valuable asset. 

Mr. N grunts, reaching out to place a large hand on Bucky’s waist. “See that it doesn’t.”

Bucky just smiles, swaying closer. “I’m all yours, sir.”

Mr. N’s lips are curving up, eyes growing hungry. He pushes Bucky backwards until he hits the bed, licking his lips as he begins to undo his belt. Bucky affects a scorching gaze as he watches, not letting his disgust show as the older man divests himself of his clothes. He reaches for Bucky next, tugging off his sweatshirt and jeans but leaving his t-shirt on. Some of his clients are fascinated by the prosthetic arm and the scars, some are repulsed. Mr. N is decidedly repulsed.

He’s pushed onto his stomach, and he buries his face in the mattress, letting his mind drift somewhere else. Mr. N isn’t the most gentle or thoughtful of his clients, and he knows he’ll be sore tomorrow, which is decidedly annoying when he has to sit in a cramped metal chair all day. He'd definitely hate school if it didn't happen to be the only time he gets a reprieve from work.

When it’s over, and Mr. N is lying languid in bed, he slowly gets up and pulls his clothes back on, wincing and hissing under his breath. There’s only two rules for those who get to use Bucky for free: no visible marks, and they have to use a condom. Marks hidden by clothing, however, are acceptable, as well as any manner and number of sexual acts, which is why Bucky is grateful these appointments aren’t too often. His normal paying customers usually get far less privileges, and they pay extra for any marks or damages. 

He leaves quietly, stopping on the way home to put the money from his backpack into a dead drop. It’s late by the time he trudges up to his room, sore and tired, and he detaches his prosthetic and plugs it in to charge overnight before taking a shower. He rubs some lotion into the chafed skin of his stump and falls into bed, curling around his journal. 

It was my first day at SHIELD, he writes, and I guess it went alright. There’s this kid in my history and chem who actually tried to talk to me. Steve. He’s tiny and kind of adorable, all blonde hair and blue eyes. Natasha says he’s always getting into fights because he stands up to bullies. I think that’s really brave. I’m not brave. I wish I was. Maybe then I wouldn’t be here.

Someone fucked up and shorted K an ounce so he made me give him a bj for free. And then I was late to my appointment with Mr. N because of it. Pierce will be angry if he complains. 

God, I hate appointments with Mr. N. Everything hurts. 

Second day of school tomorrow. I’m already exhausted. It feels like it never ends. 

At least Steve will be there. He seems like a good person. If I had friends, I’d want him to be mine.

He tucks the journal back under his mattress and falls asleep thinking of blonde hair and blue eyes and the scritch-scritch of a pencil across a page.

Chapter Text

For Steve, the second day of school passes much the same as the first. It’s the first day of chemistry lab – which despite the subject he’ll take any day over gym – and he and Bucky lean over their lab table together, the silence awkward and strained. Bucky is dressed in jeans and a hoodie again, black combat boots scuffed and left hand shoved securely in his pocket, hair falling around his face in rumpled waves like he just rolled out of bed. 

“So,” Steve says into the hum and chatter of the room, picking up a beaker. “This is for…mixing things, I guess.”

Bucky glances up at him, and Steve could swear the corner of his mouth lifts. He looks down again, eyes scanning the lab – today is on using the basic lab equipment, so their task is to measure and weigh things and perform all the safety procedures so they don’t end up setting themselves on fire or something. It’s dull, but at least it’s not difficult. 

“Measure out five hundred milliliters of water,” Bucky reads off, voice softer than Steve expected and a little hoarse, like he has a cold. “Then add ten grams of ice. Measure the water displacement.”

Without further comment, Bucky begins to carefully measure the water while Steve weighs the ice, sneaking glances over at him occasionally. Bucky’s handwriting is neat and cramped – surprising, for someone who looks so rumpled and careless – and he catches his lower lip between his teeth in concentration as he pencils in the amounts in the lab. His eyes flick up to Steve’s for only a moment before he ducks his head and a curtain of hair hides them again.

It’s simultaneously the easiest and most frustrating group work Steve has ever been a part of. Bucky follows Steve’s lead throughout, helping when needed and never questioning Steve’s ability, following his instructions without complaint; but he seems to do everything in his power not to talk to Steve. His very presence seems diminished, as if he is no more substantial than a ghost, liable to dissipate into smoke at the barest puff of air, yet at the same time there is something about him that is undeniably real – and intriguing, to say the least. When they move to using the Bunsen burner, safety goggles in place, he takes both hands out of his pocket to help, and Steve finds himself fascinated. He tries not to stare, but it’s beautiful, the interlocking plates moving smoothly and creating a fluidity of motion that has Steve’s fingers itching for his pencil. Bucky notices his gaze and frowns, tugging his sleeve down over his hand.

“Sorry,” Steve says, flushing. “I didn't mean to stare. It’s just…really cool.”

Bucky blinks at him in surprise, brows drawing together. His eyes flick to Steve then skitter away, back down to the table. “It’s alright,” he says quietly. He glances up again to see Steve still staring at him and abruptly colors, ducking his head and hunching his shoulders like a turtle retreating back into its shell.

Watching him shift uncomfortably, watching the anxious dart of his eyes and the clench of his fingers around his pencil, Steve has a sudden epiphany.

Bucky is shy

Yes, he thinks. Yes, that must be it. For all Steve’s faults and failings and self-centered frustration, in every interaction they’ve had Bucky has been quiet and reticent, not looking him in the eye, but not because he hates him – at least, he doesn’t think so. No, he’s been nothing but helpful and polite. It’s because Bucky Barnes, tall and grumpy looking and more than a little intimidating, is really super fucking shy. 

It stuns Steve – that he’s the one who makes Bucky nervous, not the other way around. No one has ever been intimidated by Steve. He plays back their interactions, running through them again and again, and comes to the same conclusion. Bucky has never once been rude to him; that was what Steve first assumed, given his silence, but it’s completely untrue. Bucky has been quiet and awkward and standoffish, but never once rude. 

Steve feels a little thrill go through him. Maybe this year won’t be so bad after all. It looks like Bucky could use a friend. He smiles to himself, trying not to look too maniacal as giddiness leaps around inside him like a fawn.

“So,” he tries, as their water bubbles over the flame, “where did you transfer from?”

“Brooklyn High,” Bucky replies, not looking at Steve. This time, he doesn’t take offence. He is surprised, though. Brooklyn High is close by, which means Bucky must not have moved very far. He supposes with Principal Pierce taking the job at SHIELD it made sense for Bucky to switch schools as well. SHIELD is smaller than Brooklyn High, more of a niche school, and he knows it must be hard for Bucky to fit in, especially with his…everything.

“How are you liking it so far?” he presses, trying to engage Bucky in conversation.

Bucky shrugs. “It’s okay.” 

God, it’s like pulling teeth.

“What classes are you taking?”

“Besides the two we have together?” Bucky raises an eyebrow, and there’s definitely dry humor in his voice. Steve wants to fist-pump in victory. 

“Do we have class together? I didn’t notice,” Steve says sarcastically. 

Bucky surprises him with a short, sharp laugh. He has a nice smile, teeth white and mostly straight except for a few crooked ones on the bottom, and his eyes crinkle a bit at the corners. He should smile more, Steve thinks. It changes his face, lights him up from the inside somehow, less like a ghost and more like a flame – and Steve the moth drawn inexorably toward him.

“You’re a punk,” he says, glancing sideways at Steve with that smile still curling his lips. 

“Jerk,” Steve replies, feeling a bit like he’s just achieved something monumentally important.

“See if I ever help you with a lab again.” 

“Oh no, whatever will I do,” Steve deadpans.

Bucky snorts as he stirs his mixture absentmindedly. “Make something explode, probably.”

Steve gasps in mock-affront. “I would not.”

“You’re literally burning water.”

“I’m–wait, what?” He turns to the burner, yelping when he realizes it’s boiling over. He quickly shuts it off, then looks around and sighs in relief when he sees Jarvis isn’t looking. He points a finger at Bucky. “That was totally your fault.”

Bucky’s lips twitch. “Whatever you say, pal.”

Steve grins at him, and Bucky sobers and ducks his head, blushing adorably. He again retreats back into his shell, hair hiding his face and shoulders drawn up by his ears, but it feels like the ice has been broken, some invisible boundary crossed, and Steve grins because Bucky is funny and cute and nice and maybe, just maybe, chemistry doesn’t seem so bad anymore – at least not with him. 

 

The weekend can’t come soon enough. Even though Bucky’s silence no longer infuriates Steve, classes still drag in an endless monotony of work that has him bursting out of his skin with the need to do something. It’s a relief to slump into Sam’s comfortable couch and stuff junk food into his face while they play a friendly game of Mario Kart – 

Well, perhaps not too friendly.

“Fuck you!” Sam shouts as Steve’s car races past him to cross the finish line, his own spinning in the aftermath of the blue shell. Steve cackles, flopping back on Sam’s couch and throwing his controller next to him. 

“Not cool, man,” Sam grumbles as the results come up, Steve’s Bowser jumping happily on the winner’s stand. “You’re supposed to be my friend.”

“There are no friends in Mario Kart,” Steve says solemnly. “Only winners and losers.”

Sam punches him in the arm and laughs, leaning back against the arm of the couch and grabbing a handful of chips from the bag on the coffee table. He chews with his mouth open, expression daring Steve to say something. 

Steve rolls his eyes and sighs. “I can’t believe we’re already done with the first week of junior year.” He makes a face. “Ugh. I have to start, like, thinking about college and stuff.”

“Dude, that’s so far away,” Sam groans. “Please do not make me start stressing about this now, because I will.”

“Oh, please. You have nothing to worry about. You’re on the honor roll every year. All the teachers love you. ”

“Doesn’t mean I’m not stressed about college!” Sam sits up. “I have zero idea what I want to do. Zero. My mom keeps hinting that I should be a doctor.”

Steve frowns. “I thought that’s what you wanted to do?”

“I don’t know. I thought so, but healthcare freaking sucks in this country. Like, I’d have to sell my kidney just to afford medical school, and then be stuck dealing with insurance companies and anti-vaxxers my whole life.”

“You’d be rich though,” Steve points out.

Sam shoves him. “Like you care about that, Mr. Eat-the-Rich.”

“I’m just saying. My mom works harder than any of the doctors there, and she gets paid a fraction of what they do.”

“It’s not fair,” Sam agrees. “But no, I want to do something I love, you know? I want to make a difference, save lives.”

Steve shrugs, shoving a handful of chips in his mouth. “So be a doctor.”

“Ugh.” Sam flops back on the couch. “What about you?”

He shrugs again. “No idea.”

“You could go to art school. You’re crazy talented.”

Steve makes a face. “I dunno. What would even be the point? It’s not like I’d find a job. The starving artist stereotype exists for a reason.” 

“Well hey, if I become a rich doctor, you can always live in my basement.”

“Absolutely not.”

“It’ll be a nice basement.”

“I don’t need your charity.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Dude, relax. And you’ll be fine at whatever you do. Come on; you’re smart, you’re talented…”

“You can’t think of another positive quality, can you.”

“…you’re an asshole who cheats at Mario Kart –” 

Steve launches across the couch and Sam wisely decides to run, though not before Steve manages to get him in a headlock that Sam, being almost twice his size, decides to humor. It’s not a perfect weekend, but it comes pretty close, and if he has another reason to look forward to school now that Bucky is there it can only be a good thing.

Doesn’t matter that he hasn’t talked to Sam about Bucky. Something about it feels to fragile, too new. Or maybe he’s just selfish, wanting Bucky all to himself. Whatever it is, when Monday comes, Steve finds himself making the decision before he even thinks about it.

“Hey.” Steve slides into his seat next to Bucky, flashing him a smile.

“Hey.” Bucky’s smile is smaller and more unsure but there. 

“You have a good weekend?”

Bucky shrugs, looking away. “It was alright.”

“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask…I know you sit with Natasha Romanoff at lunch, but…if you want, you could sit with us.” Steve holds his breath, heart rabbiting in his chest.

Bucky blinks at him in surprise. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Steve tries to look nonchalant, though he’s not sure he pulls it off.

“Can Natasha come too?”

“Um, yeah, sure.”

“Okay,” Bucky says after a moment, looking down at his desk again. Mr. Lee walks in and class starts, but even his droning voice can’t dim the little bubble of happiness in Steve’s chest.

At lunchtime, both Bucky and Natasha are there, pulling out chairs at their table. Bucky sits next to Steve, Natasha between him and Clint. The others stare at Steve a little wildly, and he gives them significant looks, hoping to convey just be cool at them. In retrospect, maybe he should have said something to them at some point before this.

“Oh, hey Barnes,” Tony says, and Steve braces for everything to go pear-shaped very quickly. He hadn’t exactly asked anyone if Bucky and Natasha could sit with them.

Bucky nods at Tony, picking at his cafeteria lunch. Natasha whispers something to him that sounds like another language, and he scowls at her. 

It’s awkward at first, no one sure what to do, but eventually someone picks up a thread of conversation and gradually the table settles back to normal. Bucky and Natasha don’t speak, sitting in silence as they eat, even though Steve tries to draw Bucky into conversation a few times. Bucky shifts a lot in his seat, looking uncomfortable, and he figures Bucky is shy with so many new people. One nice thing, though, is that eating lunch together means they can walk to chemistry together as well, the silence between them more comfortable than the week before. 

“My friends can be a lot,” Steve says. “They’re really great, I promise.”

Bucky gives him a tight smile, looking vaguely confused, and Steve lets the subject drop. Walking next to Bucky in the halls is an experience. Bucky has a menacing sort of prowl, expression fixed in what Tony would call “resting bitch face.” People scurry out of his way, throwing him glances that range from terrified to scornful, and Steve sees more than one person whispering behind his back. He’s not sure why the whole school is so obsessed with Bucky, other than the fact that he’s an intriguing mystery and a new entity, but he feels bad for Bucky being the center of all that attention.

Unfortunately, Steve is just as likely to be the center of attention in SHIELD High, for different reasons. 

He’s at his locker before lunch the next week when someone shoves him into it, hard. His books tumble from his arms, spilling across the floor, and there’s uproarious laughter from Kyle Hubert and his group of friends, some of Steve’s regular bullies. 

“Drop something?” Kyle taunts. 

“Hey.” The voice makes Kyle turn, and Steve looks up to see Bucky standing there, fists clenched and expression as dark and mean as Steve’s ever seen it. “Leave him alone.”

Kyle laughs, and his friends echo him. “Oooh, Rogers got his boyfriend to come protect him.” He glances over at Steve. “Hey, he fuck you with that robot arm yet?”

Bucky moves faster than Steve would have thought possible. One moment he’s standing there, the next he has Kyle pinned up against the lockers, prosthetic hand around his throat. Steve feels a flash of fear at the sheer violence of it, the palpable threat emanating from Bucky.

“Bucky,” he tries, finding his voice. “Hey, let him go.”

Bucky doesn't respond, leaning in close to Kyle. “Say that again, and I’ll show you what it feels like,” he growls lowly, and Steve’s surprise turns to horror.

“Hey!” he snaps, grabbing Bucky’s right arm. “I said let him go!”

Bucky’s eyes flicker over to Steve, cold as ice, and slowly, he lets Kyle go. Kyle slumps against the wall, grasping his throat and wheezing.

“Boys!” Mr. Stark runs up, looking harried as he pushes through the crowd of students that has gathered to gawk. “Principal’s office, now!”

Bucky’s face tightens and he turns on his heel, marching towards the main office. Steve follows, and Kyle trails behind as more teachers attempt to rein in the situation, dispersing the lingering students. 

Steve hurries to keep pace with Bucky, lowering his voice. “What the fuck was that?”

Bucky doesn’t answer, eyes fixed forwards, and Steve seethes. Who the fuck does Bucky think he is, fighting Steve’s battles for him? And what was that? Why was he so violent?

The three of them slump into chairs in the main office as they wait for Mr. Pierce, Mr. Stark watching them like a hawk. Finally, Pierce emerges, expression one of disappointment. He’s older but still ruggedly good-looking, with sandy blonde hair and genial blue eyes, crinkles of laughter around his eyes and mouth. He makes them all sit in his office and in a calm tone asks them to explain what happened, eyes lingering on Bucky. Steve thinks he seems like a reasonable guy, better than the last principal at least, and so he tells him.

“Kyle pushed me in the hallway,” Steve starts, “and Bucky told him to stop. Kyle made a crude and homophobic joke and…” He darts a glance at Bucky, his expression unreadable. “Bucky retaliated.”

“He choked me,” Kyle bursts out. “He’s crazy.”

“James?” Pierce turns his gaze on him. “Do you have anything to add?”

Bucky’s jaw clenches. “No, sir,” he bites out. 

Pierce sighs. “I see. Now, I think this was just a case of a little misunderstanding.”

“What?” Steve frowns. “No, he–” 

“Mr. Rogers,” Pierce says lightly. “If you would be so kind as not to interrupt.”

“Sorry,” Steve says, instantly ashamed. 

Pierce gives him a fatherly smile. “I understand you’re worked up. I think everyone’s temper is a little high today.” He pauses. “Mr. Hubert, would you agree this was just a misunderstanding? It seems you were just having some fun and James misinterpreted it. He does tend to have a temper.”

Kyle opens his mouth to reply, brow furrowed. 

“What?” Steve is fuming now. “He shoved me. And he made a disgusting comment about Bucky’s arm.”

“Now, now. I’m sure it was just a little teasing between friends. Boys will be boys, you know.” Pierce chuckles. “The way I see it, James is the only one in the wrong here. Come on, let’s have a handshake and forget all about it.”

Steve grits his teeth. He looks over at Kyle, who glares back. Mr. Pierce is still staring at them expectantly, and it sinks in that he’s serious, that this is going to happen and they can’t do anything about it. Steve sees the understanding dawn in Kyle’s eyes at the same time as it does for him.

He takes a deep breath, swallows, and sticks out his hand. Kyle, after a moment, grasps it in his, just long enough for their sweaty palms to meet, and then withdraws, Steve’s skin crawling in disgust.

“Great!” Pierce claps his hands, and Steve jumps slightly. “I’m so glad to see you getting along. You two are free to go. James will be staying to discuss the consequences of his actions.”

Steve opens his mouth to protest, but Pierce smiles and then between one moment and the next he’s being herded out the door. It shuts in his face. He turns to Kyle, who grins smugly. 

“Fuck you,” Steve hisses, striding up to the front desk. They’re written late passes, and they head out, thankfully going in different directions. Steve shoots Kyle one last venomous glare but walks away rather than have to repeat their useless trip to the principal’s office. Now that it’s over, he feels off-balance. It had all happened so fast – Bucky’s violent reaction, Pierce steamrolling over him, the abrupt end to the whole thing. He hopes Bucky isn’t getting punished too badly. Now that he’s met him, he decidedly hates Pierce.

When he gets to the cafeteria, everyone wants to know what happened. He fills them in on the story, glossing over the queasy feeling in his gut at Bucky’s brutality.

“I heard he tried to kill him,” Rhodey says, not without a measure of dubiousness. “Like he was some kind of Terminator or something.”

“No he didn’t,” Steve protests. “He was just trying to defend me.”

“I don’t know.” Tony twirls his spoon between his fingers. “I don’t trust that kid. I think he’s a psychopath.”

“He’s not a psychopath,” Steve hisses, feeling himself grow more and more upset. “Stop acting like you know him!”

“Oh, and you do?” Tony counters. “Name one thing you know about him.”

“He…” Steve pauses. He knows that Bucky is shy and quiet and surprisingly smart. He knows that Bucky is self-conscious about his left arm, by the way he always hides it. He knows the exact shade of his grey-blue eyes, and the sound of his quiet laugh, rare as it is. He knows how weirdly neat his handwriting is, cramped letters marching across the page. But when he really thinks, he doesn’t know a single thing about Bucky. 

“That’s not fair,” he finally says. “I’ve only known him for a couple weeks.”

“You keep telling yourself that.” Tony pops a spoonful of pudding into his mouth and points the spoon at Steve. “But don’t blame me when he murders you and hides the body.”

Sam glares at him and turns to Sam. “Sam, back me up.”

Sam, however, looks grim. “Yeah, I hate to say it Steve, but I’m not a big fan of him either. He’s said what, two words to us total? He just glares and ignores everyone. Not really a nice guy.”

Steve feels a twinge of betrayal. Sam is supposed to be on his side. He looks around the table, but no one is disagreeing with Sam. Natasha, the one person who probably would, isn’t here. She hasn’t been here all day. 

Bucky shows up to Chemistry, but he refuses to talk to Steve. They do the lab in silence, tension thick in the air between them. Steve glances at Bucky out of the corner of his eye and wonders, for the first time, if his friends are right. 

 

Steve is about to leave when Bucky jogs up, expression tense and anxious.

“Steve. Can I – can I talk to you?”

Steve nods warily, fingers wrapped around the straps of his backpack. 

“I’m sorry,” Bucky blurts, eyes wide and earnest. “I didn’t mean…I just…I saw him push you and I just wanted to help, but then he said that and I–I just got so mad and I understand if you hate me but I just–I just wanted to say sorry and I’ll never talk to you again if that’s what you want.”

Steve blinks in surprise. He thinks that’s the most words he’s ever heard Bucky say at once. 

“Bucky,” he starts, uncertain, “I don’t hate you. You just scared me a little. Why’d you ignore me in class?”

“I…” Bucky bites his lip. “I didn’t know what to say. I thought you were mad at me.”

“Why would I be mad?”

“Because I…” Bucky frowns. “Because I fucked up?”

“Buck.” Steve takes a step closer, doubts fading away in the face of Bucky’s distress. “You stuck up for me. Not many people do that. I’m not mad, or at least not anymore. But Jesus, did you have to nearly kill him?”

Bucky grimaces, looking down at the ground. “I’m sorry. I get…out of control sometimes. I overreact. I just get so angry.”

“Okay.” Steve knows what it is to be angry all the time. “I understand,” he says. He hesitates. “About what he said…”

Bucky hunches his shoulders, peering down at Steve uncertainly. “What?”

“I just…he said those things because he knows I’m bi. He’s a homophobe. So. If you have a problem with that. I’d rather know now.”

“What? No. It’s…I don’t care,” Bucky stammers. “About that, I mean.” He scuffs his boot on the ground, eyes fixed on it. “It’s fine.”

“Oh. Okay. Good.”

“Good,” Bucky repeats. He glances up, then down again; tucks a lock of hair behind his ear. “So I’ll…see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Did you get in any trouble with your dad?”

Bucky shrugs. “I have detention for a week.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. I deserve it.” Bucky hunches his shoulders again, taking a step back. “I should go.”

“Okay.”

Bucky gives him a fleeting smile, then turns and walks away. Steve blows out a breath. His friends were wrong. Bucky isn’t a psychopath. He’s troubled, maybe, but he’s not evil. He stood up for Steve when he didn’t have to. He cares, in a strange, fumbling sort of way. 

Steve may not know much about Bucky Barnes, but he knows what matters: he is a good person, and Steve will fight anyone who dares to tell him different.

Chapter Text

Bucky has no idea why Steve Rogers has decided to be his friend. 

Bucky doesn’t, as a rule, have friends, but getting rid of Steve isn’t that easy, even if he wanted to –  and he doesn’t want to. It’s terrifying, knowing that any moment he might fuck up, might ruin everything, might reveal who he really is. It’s even more terrifying wondering what Pierce might do if he finds out. He’s already in enough trouble for fighting – less trouble than he deserves – and if Pierce finds out how compromised Bucky is by Steve he’ll be forced to end this friendship just like the others. 

Steve makes his stomach flutter and his palm sweat and his heart skip a beat. He doesn’t know what it means or why Steve makes him so nervous; it’s not even a bad nervous, like before a client, but something closer to excitement. Whatever it is, Steve makes him feel it, and Bucky wants to hold onto it and never let go. 

He only has one other friend, if Natasha can be called that. She’s more like an ally. He’s known her for four years, since they were both awkward twelve-year-olds, but while he had just been learning the brutality of the world, Natasha had already known it for years. She’s been with the Red Room since she was a small child. He doesn’t know when she first started seeing clients, but he knows it was younger than him. She was the one who helped teach him how to please his clients, how to fake pleasure and smile through disgust, how to make it hurt less. She’s the one who’s kept him alive all these years. 

It’s one of her nights off and they’re sitting on the rusted swings in the back lot of the Red Room, smoking their way through a pack of cigarettes and passing a bottle of cheap liquor back and forth, sweat drying on their skin from an impromptu sparring session. Their brand of fighting is something cobbled together from street experience and whatever they could find on the internet – a sort of hand-to-hand that only loosely resembles boxing and more closely resembles feral cats, claws and all. Bucky’s shins are still smarting from a particularly nasty kick Natasha landed, but the restless anger inside him has settled down to a simmer and his head is clear for the first time in days.

“I don’t know what to do about Steve,” Bucky admits, cigarette dangling loosely from his fingers as a lazy curl of smoke drifts upwards. 

“What about him?” The swing creaks as Natasha rocks it back and forth, worn converse digging grooves into the dirt.

“You know we can’t have friends, Tasha.” He takes a drag of his cigarette and exhales a stream of smoke. “What if I fuck it up? What if Pierce finds out?”

She shrugs. “Fuck it, and fuck him.”

“You don’t mean that.” Natasha has never stepped a foot out of line. She’s a favorite in the Red Room. He stares at her, taking in the harsh set of her mouth. “Wait a minute.”

She side-eyes him. “What.”

He points at her with his cigarette. “Out with it. What’s going on?”

“Nothing’s going on.” She takes a healthy swig of liquor and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “Maybe I’m just tired of us having our lives dictated, is all.”

“This have anything to do with the way that kid – Clint, right? – follows you around like a lost puppy?”

“No,” she says peevishly. She takes another sip from the bottle and sighs. “Okay, fine, he’s…amusing. And sweet. But you said it yourself, it can’t mean anything.”

“Yeah, and you said ‘fuck it.’”

Natasha mutters under her breath in Russian, but he only catches half the words. He’d learned the language from her; apparently she’d been born in Russia, but she never talks about it. 

“Look,” she finally says. “If you like Steve, then go for it. You deserve something good in your miserable fucking life.”

He doesn’t, but he knows better than to argue with her. “So do you,” he says. 

“Maybe.” She takes a drag of her cigarette, the embers glowing in the falling darkness and painting shadows on her face. She is washed out, face bare of makeup and ghoulish in the dim light, pale skin stretched over fragile bones. She laughs suddenly, like rusty gears, and raises the liquor bottle in a toast.

“To our miserable fucking lives,” she says, and her voice drips with bitterness. 

“To our miserable fucking lives,” Bucky echoes, voice fading away into the darkness.

 

There is little in Bucky’s life that he can say he enjoys. Love, as Natasha always tells him, is for children. But Bucky can say, without any doubt, that he fucking loves detention.

Instead of going back to Pierce’s house, he gets to sit in a quiet classroom for an hour and do work where Pierce can’t make him do anything and no one else can do anything to him. Plus, the week he’s there as punishment for the fight,  Ms. Martinelli is overseeing the detention. He has English with her second period, and her class is his favorite part of the day. She’s always bubbly and bright, smiling like she actually loves her job and isn’t just there to make money, and she never treats him like he’s stupid or troublesome. There’s a reading quiz every class, and he’s gotten a 100 on every single one, sometimes staying up early into the morning to finish his reading.

So when he gets out of detention, he immediately searches for a way to get back in. Nothing major, so Pierce won’t be too angry – the way he was after the fight, which Bucky can still feel in his bruised ribs and cramping stomach –  just enough to get him a detention. 

He shows up late to history for a week and manages to land himself a detention, trying not to smile as he accepts the slip of paper from a disappointed Mr. Lee. He knows Steve is disappointed in him too, always nagging him about getting to school on time, but it’s not like Bucky can tell him the real reason why he’s doing it.

Ms. Martinelli is there again, and he thinks perhaps he’s having a streak of good luck for once – though he should know by now there’s no such thing. He surrenders his phone to the front desk and slides into his seat, getting to work on the chemistry lab he has to finish and resisting the urge to hum under his breath. With Steve as his lab partner, he feels obligated to turn in his best work lest he impact Steve’s grade, and finally, he’s getting the chance to.

“James?” Ms. Martinelli stands by his desk. “Can I speak to you outside?”

He nods numbly as his good mood evaporates, body moving on its own as he follows her into the hall. What did I do wrong? he wonders distantly.

He keeps his eyes on the floor as they exit the room, flinching as the door closes with a thud. There’s a tight ball of anxiety in his chest, squeezing the air from his lungs. 

“I know you’re a good kid, James,” Ms. Martinelli says, making him look up at her in surprise. “But I heard you’ve been late every day this past week. Is there something going on that makes getting to school hard?”

He swallows, feeling trapped by her kind gaze. Mutely, he shakes his head, looking down again.

“Is there anything you want to talk to me about?”

He shakes his head again, hair tickling his chin with the motion.

“Okay. Well, if you ever need anything, you can always come to me, alright?”

Bucky clenches his jaw against a sudden surge of frustrated anger, nodding his head sharply. Ms. Martinelli sighs.

“Okay, in you go.”

He gladly goes back to his desk, not looking up until she announces that detention is over. He tries to summon his good mood again, but he can’t. The thought of disappointing Ms. Martinelli lodges in his chest like a stone.

When he gets home, Pierce is there, expression unreadable. Bucky swallows hard, setting his backpack down and clasping his hands behind his back, and thinks this is what I get for believing in luck.  

“What’s this about another detention?” Pierce asks, voice calm and pleasant. Too pleasant.

The moisture evaporates from Bucky’s mouth, leaving his tongue feeling thick and heavy. “I was late, sir,” he says, keeping his gaze on the floor. 

“Every day?”

A cold sweat breaks out over his body, and he struggles to keep his voice even. “Yes, sir.”

The blow is swift and sudden, pain blooming across his cheek as his head snaps to the side. A strong hand grabs his right wrist, twisting it behind his back in a bruising grip as he’s shoved against the kitchen counter, and tears spring to Bucky’s eyes, his teeth gritted against the pain.

“I expect you to be on time every day,” Pierce says evenly. “Understood?”

Bucky nods desperately, heart rabbiting in his chest. Pierce wrenches his wrist, bone grinding under his fingers, until Bucky lets out an involuntary cry of pain. 

“Understood?” he repeats.

“Yes, sir!” Bucky chokes out. 

Pierce releases him and he crumples to the floor, cradling his wrist as shock sends shivery tingles throughout his body.

“Get up.” Pierce’s footsteps ring loudly against the floor and Bucky struggles to his feet, shaking and blinking back tears. “You’re to stay in your room until it’s time for work.” Pierce walks to the fridge and pulls a combination lock out of his pocket, slipping it onto the locking device already installed and clicking it shut. “If you want to eat, you will get to school on time tomorrow.” He turns to Bucky and raises an eyebrow.

Bucky clears his throat. “Yes, sir.” At Pierce’s dismissive nod, he grabs his backpack with his prosthetic hand and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, immediately collapsing onto his bed. His pulls his sweatshirt sleeve up and inspects his wrist, biting his lip as his chest stutters painfully over a breath. The skin is already bruising, the imprint of fingers standing out in stark relief. Moving it is painful, but it doesn’t seem broken. He would know. Lucky.

He stares at his backpack lying innocently on the floor, a symbol of his failure. The thought of trying to write makes him nauseated, and he fights back angry tears, choking on the emotion that claws its way up his throat. 

It’s all his fault. He was the one who tried to get detention just so he could do his schoolwork, and now he can’t do any work at all. He wants to hit something, wants to scream and rage and destroy everything in his wake, but he knows from experience it would only make things worse. So instead he pinches his thigh with his prosthetic hand until the rage quiets, simmering just beneath his skin, until there is nothing but the cold emptiness that carries him through the evening with stiff, practiced movements.

At least there’s not much work tonight, and he gets home earlier than usual, managing a clumsy shower before crawling into bed. He does the only work he can – his reading for English. His wrist throbs, so he takes ibuprofen plus a double dose of his medication in order to knock him out so he can sleep. In the morning, his wrist is an impressionistic painting of colors, the shape of a hand clearly visible over the puffy swelling. His face is unmarked, as he knew it would be. Pierce knows exactly how hard to hit. He tugs the sleeves of his hoodie down to cover his wrists and ignores the pangs of hunger as he heads out the door, arriving with plenty of time to spare. Steve smiles at him as he slides into his seat, and Bucky’s heart gives a pathetic little lurch.

“You’re here on time!” Steve exclaims.

Bucky can’t find it in him to smile back and looks away, mentally calculating the minutes until lunch.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he mutters. He puts his head down on his arms and dozes through history rather than try to take notes, smarting at the unfairness of it even though he knows it’s his fault. He feels even worse when he goes to English and has to sit there under Ms. Martinelli’s gaze, utterly useless. Now she’ll be even more disappointed in him and finally realize what a worthless, stupid person he is. He turns in the reading quiz completely blank, and wonders if he’d die if he stabbed himself in the eye with his pencil. Maybe if he got it deep enough to reach his brain.

Ms. Martinelli asks him to stay after class, and he shifts by her desk, wondering what new, deserved torment he’ll have to deal with.

“I noticed you didn’t do the quiz,” she says in her gentle voice. “Did you not do the reading?”

It’s unfair because he did do the reading, he did it and it doesn’t even matter. He clenches his jaw and stares at the floor, wishing it would swallow him up.

“James?”

“I did it,” he blurts without thinking, voice quiet and raspy.

“Okay. Is there a reason you didn’t do the quiz, then?”

He shifts on his feet, biting his lip. “I can’t write,” he finally whispers, feeling the telltale burn of frustrated tears.

Ms. Martinelli perches on the edge of her desk, trying to no avail to meet his eyes. “Why can’t you write?”

For a moment, he thinks of showing her his arm before he thinks better of it. Last time he’d shown someone his injuries, they had called CPS, and though Pierce had enough connections that nothing came of it, Bucky still paid the price. 

“I tripped,” he says. “And hurt my wrist.” 

“Do you need to go to the nurse?”

He shakes his head. “I’m fine.” 

“Okay, well how about this? You can just answer the question out loud right now and I’ll give you full marks.”

He looks up in surprise. “Really?”

“Of course.” She gives him an encouraging smile, worry still dancing in her eyes. “You can always come to me if you’re having difficulty with something. It’s not your fault you got hurt.”

Yes it is. He clears his throat and looks down again. “Okay.”

She picks up a nearby quiz and asks him the question, and this time he can answer. By the time he’s finished with his rambling analysis, stuttering with nerves, Ms. Martinelli is smiling.

“That was perfect, James. Next time, just come to me first, okay?”

He nods.

“Go on, get out of here. I’m keeping you from your lunch.”

His hunger comes back in a rush and he stutters out a thank you before walking quickly down the halls to the cafeteria. There’s twenty minutes left of lunch, more than enough time to eat. He goes through the line, uncaring what he gets as long as it’s food, and plops down in the empty seat next to Natasha at their table. He doesn’t acknowledge anyone, focused on shoving food in at a steady rate. His wrist aches and burns but he ignores it, barely breathing between bites.

“Pierce locked the fridge again, didn’t he,” Natasha growls in Russian.

Bucky shrugs. “He found out about me being late last week.”

She sucks in a breath. “Did he hurt you?”

Bucky glares at the table, hunching his shoulders. “I’m fine.”

“He did, then. Where?”

“I said I’m fine!” he snaps, vaguely aware of the whole table staring at them. “Leave it alone, Natashka.”

Her lips thin to a thin line but she subsides, turning back to pick at her own food.

“You two speak Russian?” Tony asks incredulously. “What are you, Russian spies? KGB?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Natasha returns, lifting an eyebrow smoothly. 

Steve nudges him and Bucky suppresses a flinch, turning to him.

“You okay?” Steve mouths, forehead creased in concern.

Bucky nods and forces a smile. 

 

Chemistry is only lecture today, not lab, and he spends the class period watching Steve alternate between note taking and doodling in the margins. He’s quite good. Bucky wishes he could see more of Steve’s actual art. After Chemistry, Steve heads to gym while Bucky heads to the library. He’s excused from gym given the whole prosthetic thing, even though it’s fairly functional. It does hurt if he overdoes it, and its movement is limited, but he thinks the reprieve is more just Pierce not wanting to risk anyone seeing him undress. His body is a map of bruises on a good day.

He’s supposed to be doing a stupid assignment on sports in place of gym class, but instead he gets his reading done for English. He’ll do anything to make Ms. Martinelli look at him like that again – like he was someone special and smart and worthy.

Pierce is waiting for him when he gets home. Bucky swallows and sits down at the table when instructed. Pierce pulls out another chair and sets it close so he’s facing Bucky, clasping his hands on his knees. 

“You know I’m only hard on you because I want what’s best for you,” he says softly. His expression is kind, and Bucky finds himself trapped in his gaze, anger beginning to thaw.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” Pierce says. “Hydra is trying to make this city a safer place. If we control the drugs, we can ensure there is no dangerous tampering and lacing, and that only the safest practices are used. If we control the weapons trade, we ensure that only we have access to dangerous weapons, not criminals. We provide regulation and restriction on the things that have torn this city apart.”

He leans closer, looking at Bucky imploringly. “I have made many sacrifices for Hydra. All I ask is that you do your part, after everything I’ve done for you. I want you to succeed. I gave you an exceptional prosthetic so your disability would no longer affect your life. I try to give you the best education. I work so hard to give you a future, even when it takes me away from my work with Hydra. So you see, when you act out, it’s very difficult for me.”

Pierce lifts a hand and Bucky flinches, but he only curls a finger under Bucky’s chin and tips his head up to meet his eyes. “I know it’s hard to understand, but I’m doing what’s best for you. You know you get out of control so easily. We’ve talked about this with Dr. Zemo. Punishment is necessary to help you learn. Do you understand?”

Bucky nods. 

Pierce smiles, warm and comforting. “Good boy. I’ve had Renata set out some milk and cookies for you. Go ahead and have a treat before you leave for work.”

He feels dizzy with relief. Pierce’s praise settles something deep within him like balm on a raw wound, and he feels his previous anger melt away. He knows Pierce just wants what’s best for him. He’s been so selfish, when Pierce has done so much for him and asks for so little in return. It’s no wonder Pierce was upset with him – Bucky is a worthless, spoiled brat. 

The cookies on the counter are still warm, and he dunks them one by one into the milk, eating them the same way he always does: First one half, then half of the remaining half, then the last quarter. The ritual soothes him, the cookies crumbling in his mouth in a burst of sweetness. He savors them, going slowly, and when he’s done takes his medication with the last of the milk, feeling calmness spread through him. His schedule is written on a notepad on the table – it’s a long night. He takes a shower and gathers his things before heading out, still floating in a serene haze.

Today the girls of the Red Room are packaging heroin, each dose packaged with a clean needle. They always rotate the drugs they get in every few days in order to evade detection and for efficiency. Natasha is working on packaging, but she’s short with him, obviously still upset about earlier.

“Natashka,” he sighs. “I was just upset like I get sometimes. Pierce talked to me. I’m okay now.”

“You’re not okay,” she snarls, slapping the Hydra logo on the package she’s making with more force than necessary. “None of it is okay.” She looks around, then takes a deep breath, face smoothing out in purposeful composure. “We can’t talk now.” 

“Okay.” He shakes his head, holding his backpack open as the girls fill it up. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

Natasha nods curtly, not looking up from her work. Bucky sighs and leaves her be. She’s been increasingly moody this year. He knows she’ll calm down eventually.

After dropping off a share of the drugs to Strucker, Bucky goes to meet with his first client. The guy at the front desk of the hotel nods to him as he passes, long used to him. Hydra uses it for their sex workers to keep them safe, Pierce says. It keeps them off the streets and away from dangerous people. For all that Bucky’s clients occasionally rough him up a bit, he knows Pierce would never let him come to serious harm. He’s been a favorite since he was twelve. It’s only fair he pay Pierce back for all he’s done for him. 

Ivan opens the door when he knocks, grinning in his wry way. He’s lean and tall, with dark hair and scruff that tickles Bucky’s cheek when he kisses him. His hands settle on Bucky’s waist as he kicks the door closed, thumb rubbing softly over his stomach.

“How is my little bird?” he asks, eyes crinkling at the corners. “I swear you get taller every time I see you. You used to be so small and adorable.”

Bucky pouts, following the script, and Ivan laughs, tugging him in by his belt loops to press a kiss to his lips. 

“Don’t worry, you’re still adorable,” he says. He trails kisses down Bucky’s neck. “And all mine.” Pulling back, he winks. “For an hour, at least.”

Bucky smiles, and lets Ivan slowly start to strip him out of his clothes. Ivan has always been gentle with him, even from the start, when he was just easing Bucky into his work, and he’s one of the rare clients Bucky doesn’t hate. Ivan doesn’t mind his prosthetic arm either, paying no mind to the scars that mar his skin. He does stop when he sees Bucky’s wrist, tutting softly.

“Why would anyone hurt such a beautiful boy?” he murmurs, brushing his fingers over the swelling. “What happened this time?”

Bucky looks down. “It was my fault.”

Ivan tuts again. “You always say that.” But he accepts Bucky’s deflection, continuing his single-minded pursuit of pleasure. Bucky lays back against the rough sheets and lets his body respond to Ivan’s ministrations, making sure to moan and pant and smile at all the right times. He even gets hard thanks to Ivan’s relentless touches, and Ivan strokes him until he finishes, pressing praises into his skin. 

Afterwards, they share a cigarette, passing it between them in comfortable silence. Ivan is the one who first introduced Bucky to smoking, and their after-session cigarette is a long-established ritual. He still remembers how he used to cough and choke on the smoke as Ivan laughed, patting him on the back. 

Finally, Bucky cleans up with the wet wipes he keeps in his bag and dresses, tying his sex-mussed hair up in a bun and accepting the stack of bills from Ivan, no longer counting them after so many years. Ivan sends him out the door with a smack to his rear and a smile, leaning on the doorframe as he watches him leave.

Next he does a couple deliveries, sucking his clients off before leaving them to their drug-induced stupor. He checks his phone – just enough time to grab dinner before his next client. He’s thinking pizza.

Maybe in another life he was a pizza delivery boy, providing warm cheesy bread in return for money instead of sex and drugs. The thought makes him laugh to himself a little maniacally.

He buys a slice with the credit card Pierce lets him have and sits at a table in the corner of his usual place with his hood up as he eats. Pierce tracks his credit card usage, reviewing it every week for frivolous or unnecessary purchases. Food is usually fine, though excess junk food he doesn’t need is frowned on. He knows Pierce just hates to be wasteful, especially with money, so Bucky tries to keep his spending to a minimum. 

The pizza shop is a little hole-in-the-wall place whose counters have probably never seen the light of day under the layer of grease and grime on them. One of the lights is flickering, the place empty besides a couple guys with cigarettes dangling from their lips, cards spread on the table between them. The smell of grease and cheese is thick in the humid air, a fan clanking rhythmically.

The pizza is greasy and tough, but Bucky doesn’t care. He washes it down with a coke and steps back out onto the streets, keeping his hood up. It’s a long walk and a subway ride to his next destination, given he’d be stupid to bring his nice car into this area if he didn’t want it stolen, and he quickly becomes aware that he’s being followed. He sighs and feigns ignorance, slowing his pace.

When the mugger finally gets close enough to make a grab for him, Bucky whirls, years of training with Natasha – and occasionally the Russians – kicking in. He closes his prosthetic hand around the gun, yanking it out of the guy’s grip even as it fires harmlessly into the dark. A swift kick to the guy’s knee makes him cry out, dropping to one knee, and Bucky pistol-whips him across the face, sending him crumpling to the ground. He stands there panting as the adrenaline fades, before disassembling the gun and dropping the pieces next to the unconscious man. He turns and walks away into the growing darkness, the taste of grease still sitting heavy on his tongue.

Chapter Text

“– and that’s how I got my ass grounded for a week,” Sam says, as the lunch table bursts into laughter. Steve rolls his eyes, having heard this story too many times to count, and looks over as Bucky plops into his seat next to him, expression curious.

“What’s going on?”

Sam stops laughing immediately, shooting Bucky a cold glance. “Nothing.”

Steve frowns. “Sam was just telling the story of how –” 

“It doesn’t matter,” Sam interrupts. “Why do you even care, anyways?”

Bucky’s face closes off and he looks down at the table, jaw clenched.

“Sam!” Steve hisses, aghast. “What the hell? He was just being nice.”

“Oh, of course you’d take his side.” Sam stands with a screech of his chair, gathering his things.

“Where are you going?”

“Somewhere away from him.” Sam stalks off, an awkward silence falling over the table.

“I should go after him,” Steve says, making to stand. 

Rhodey stops him with a hand on his arm. “Let him go.”

Steve slumps back into his chair with a sigh. “I don’t understand.” He looks over at Bucky. “Why does he hate you so much?”

Bucky shrugs, picking at his food.

“He’s jealous,” Natasha says, bored tone indicating she thinks it’s obvious and Steve is a moron – though that could just be his own insecurity talking. He’s gotten to know Natasha better over the past few weeks, but she’s still an enigma, and a terrifying one at that. He half expects her to gut him if he so much as looks at her wrong. 

“Jealous?” Steve repeats in confusion. “Of what?”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Of Bucky, dumbass. He thinks you’re replacing him with Bucky.” 

“That’s ridiculous. Of course I’m not… replacing him. I can have more than one friend.”

Natasha shrugs, stuffing a bite of mac & cheese into her mouth. “Tell him that, not me.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says quietly.

Steve turns to him. “What?”

Bucky looks down miserably at his food. “It’s my fault you’re fighting.”

Steve doesn’t know how to tell him it’s not his fault without lying, because it is because of Bucky, but it’s still not his fault. It’s Sam’s fault for getting jealous over nothing. Steve is allowed to have other friends.

Bucky evidently interprets his hesitation as confirmation of his blame. “I can stop sitting here,” he says in a monotone. “You only have to see me in class.”

“What? No!” Steve gapes at him, fists clenched in frustration. “How could you say that? You have just as much right to sit here as Sam.”

“He’s a better friend than me,” Bucky says, still not looking at Steve. “I’m sorry I fucked everything up.” Without another word, he rises from the table and walks away. 

Steve feels hurt tears spring to his eyes. That’s it? Bucky can just walk away from their friendship that easily? Sam thinks he can just decide Steve’s life for him?

He spends the rest of the day fuming. Bucky doesn’t talk to him in Chemistry, and Steve pairs up with Alyssa Olcott for gym while Sam pairs up with Calvin Hoffmann, who’s weird and pimply and smells. Steve feels a surge of vindictive pleasure at that.

Steve barely says hello to his mom when he gets home, storming past her to throw himself down on his bed with a dramatic huff. The floor creaks a minute later and his mom raps on his door gently before entering and sitting down on the edge of the bed. She reaches out and sweeps Steve’s bangs out of his eyes with a gentle hand, eyes full of concern.

“What’s wrong?” 

Steve scowls, sitting up and scrubbing at his face where a few tears have slipped past his lids. “I had a fight with Sam.”

“You never fight with Sam. What was it about?”

“He and Bucky don’t get along. He hates him. He was being really mean to him and I defended Bucky and he got mad and left. Natasha says he’s jealous of Bucky; that I’m trying to replace him. But I’m not! Bucky’s my friend too.” He sniffs. 

“Oh, honey.” His mom rubs his arm. “I’m so sorry. Have you talked to Sam about it?”

“No,” Steve grumbles. 

“Maybe you should try. It sounds like he’s hurting too. He’s been your closest friend for years. It’s understandable he’s jealous of Bucky if you guys are getting close.”

“I’m allowed to have other friends,” he protests.

“Of course you are. I’m not saying Sam is right. Just…try to see where he’s coming from? He really cares about you, and he doesn’t want to lose you.”

“I’m not even that special. I don’t get why anyone would fight over me.”

“You are special.” She cups his face, looking him in the eye. “Don’t you ever believe you’re not. You’re a smart, kind, wonderful young man and anyone would be lucky to have you as a friend.”

His chin wobbles. “I don’t know what to do,” he says, voice thick and choked. “Now Bucky won’t speak to me either.”

“Why not?”

“He said it was his fault Sam and I were fighting, and then he said Sam was a better friend than him and he was sorry and now he won’t talk to me anymore.”

His mom sighs, mouth tightening in sympathy. “He feels guilty, hon. How would you feel if one of his friends was fighting with him over you?”

Steve sighs. “Yeah, I know, I guess I’d feel bad. I get why he did it, but I just…how can he give up that easily? Doesn’t he want to be friends with me?”

“I’m sure he does. But it sounds like he’s really insecure.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“I bet he really wants to be your friend, but doesn’t want to get between you and Sam. He might think you’re better off without him.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“I know, hon. But that’s probably how he feels. You said he’s really shy and doesn’t have many friends, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And he’s the new kid in school. Everything’s probably pretty overwhelming for him. Can you blame him for feeling like he should step away?”

“I guess not.” Steve sighs. “I still hate it though.”

“I know. That’s okay. None of this is your fault. You’re allowed to be upset. But you should talk to Sam. And Bucky. Tell them what you told me.”

Steve sighs again. “I will. Thanks, mom.”

She pulls him into a hug, rocking him back and forth slightly. 

“Everything will work out,” she says. “Trust me.”

She rubs comforting circles on his back until the tight knot of hurt in his chest unwinds slightly, helped even more by an evening spent eating ice cream and watching cheesy movies. For all that Steve sometimes chafes under his mom’s fussing, relishing his increasing independence, it’s times like this when he remembers how much he loves his mom, and how much he still needs her. He may not have the perfect life, but he knows, above everything else, that he has the most perfect mom in the world, and he wouldn’t change that for anything

 

Steve corners Sam at his locker after school the next day. Rhodey had told him that Sam ate lunch in a teacher’s room, and Sam had avoided him all day, passing by him in the hall without so much as a glance. It hurts, but Steve remembers his mom’s words and plants himself in front of Sam, determined not to move until he talks to him.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Sam says shortly, not meeting his eyes.

“Can we talk?”

The hallway is emptying, the crowd in the halls thinning. Sam glances around and then nods. “Not here.”

They end up walking aimlessly, scuffing their shoes on the sidewalks and avoiding each other’s gaze.

“I’m sorry,” they both say at once, breaking the silence, and then dissolve into awkward laughter, the tension broken.

“I’ll go first,” Sam says. He takes a deep breath. “Look, I…I overreacted, I guess. I just…Riley’s been really busy so he hasn’t been replying to me, and I saw you and Bucky getting close and it hurt. It felt like you were abandoning me.” He shrugs. “I don’t know. I really don’t get what you see in Bucky, but…I shouldn’t have gotten so mad at you. You’re allowed to have other friends.”

“Sam, you’ll always be my best friend,” Steve says. “You know that, right? Nothing could change that.”

He’s rewarded by a slight curl of Sam’s mouth upwards, and when Sam glances at him, his eyes are forgiving. 

“Yeah man,” he says, and gives Steve a little shove. “Of course.” After another minute of walking in silence, he adds, so quietly Steve strains to hear, “Thank you.”

Steve just nods, and they walk for a while in comfortable silence broken only by bird calls and the faint crunch of stray leaves under their feet.

“So,” Steve finally says, “does this mean you’re going to be nicer to Bucky?”

Sam snorts. “Don’t count on it. That kid is wack.”

Steve elbows him. “Hey! Don’t be mean!”

“I’m just saying–” Sam puts his hands up. “Listen, I know you have some sort of crush on emo Snape, but–”

Sam!”

“–I’m not judging your preferences, I’m just wondering if maybe you’re actually blind–”

“I do not have a crush–”

“–as your best friend, I feel it’s my duty to be honest–”

“I take it back, best friend status revoked.”

“Don’t even joke.”

“Too soon?”

“Nah.” Sam slings an arm around his shoulder and ruffles his hair. “We’re all right.”

 

Bucky is, unfortunately, a harder fix than Sam. He wears his aloofness like an impenetrable shell, avoiding Steve’s every attempt to talk to him. Steve finally employs underhanded tactics and sits next to Natasha in art class, nearly vibrating with nervousness.

“Hi,” Natasha says cooly, giving him a once-over that reminds him of a lion hunting a zebra. 

“I need to talk to Bucky,” Steve blurts.

Natasha raises an eyebrow and turns away, dabbing paint on her ceramic mug. “So talk to him then.”

Steve shifts his stool closer. “I can’t. He keeps avoiding me.”

“Hmm.”

“You’re friends with him, right?”

“Sure.” She carefully twirls her paintbrush between her fingers and brushes a lock of hair out of her eyes, foot tapping erratically on the floor.

“Can you tell him to talk to me? I just need him to listen.”

“Why.”

“Because…” He sighs in frustration. “I think he thinks it’s his fault me and Sam had a fight, but it wasn’t. Sam and I worked it out. So if he would just talk to me I could tell him and…I don’t know. I just wish he’d stop avoiding me. I don’t even know if he wants to be friends anymore.” 

Natasha hums thoughtfully again.

“So?" Steve presses impatiently. "Can you talk to him?”

“Maybe.” She sets down her paintbrush and turns toward him, the intense focus of her green eyes dizzying. “In return, you have to promise me something.”

“What?”

She leans forward, inches from his face, and goosebumps break out over Steve’s skin. “That you will never, ever hurt him,” she says, quiet and threatening. “Because if you do, I will kill you.”

Steve gulps and nods. There is no doubt that she is serious - from anyone else the threat would seem quaint, but not from her.

“Say it,” Natasha demands.

“I promise!” he gasps, thoroughly rattled. “I’d never try to hurt him.”

Natasha studies him, searching his eyes, then finally nods and pulls back, picking up her paintbrush like nothing happened.

“I’ll talk to him,” she says.

Steve exhales. “Thank you.” He makes to get up to go back to his usual table, but Natasha stops him.

“You can sit here,” she says tonelessly, eyes intent on her mug, “if you want.”

“Oh. Okay.” He sits back down and picks up his own mug, stealing a glance over at Natasha. Behind a curtain of red hair, he could swear he sees a smile.

 

The next day, as soon as Chemistry lab starts, Bucky sets down his pencil, looks at Steve, and speaks to him for the first time in days.

“Natasha told me to hear you out,” he says, voice rough and eyes fixed somewhere over Steve’s left shoulder.

“Oh. Okay. Yeah. Sure.” Steve shifts closer and takes a breath, lowering his voice to deter curious eavesdroppers. “Okay, so. I want to be your friend. Like, really want to. I’m not better off without you, or whatever you think. Sam was just having a rough time. He’s totally fine with you now. I promise. It wasn’t your fault at all.”

Bucky doesn’t respond, but the furrow in his brow tells Steve he’s listening.

“If you don’t want to be friends, that’s fine,” Steve continues, “But don’t do it because you think it’ll ruin my friendship with Sam. Please, just…just stop ignoring me.”

Bucky glances at him from under his hair, eyes filled with a mixture of hope and fear.

“Are you sure?” he asks quietly, and the question is laden with meaning that Steve can't grasp but knows is important. 

“Positive.” Steve injects as much surety into his voice as he can, meeting Bucky’s gaze. This is one decision that is easy.

Slowly, eventually, Bucky nods. “Okay,” he says, carefully forming the word as if it’s foreign. 

The rush of relief nearly sends Steve to his knees. Instead, he sticks out his hand. “Friends?”

A small smile quirks Bucky’s lips. “Friends,” he says softly, and clasps Steve’s hand with his own. His grip is gentle, skin warm and slightly damp against Steve’s, and when he pulls his hand away his cheeks are slightly pinked, eyes flicking around Steve’s face without settling.

“So,” Steve says, with an awkward cough, “Um, I just realized I don’t have your number. You know, so I can text you.”

Bucky’s face falls. “I can’t.”

“Oh. I understand.” Hurt slides under his breastbone like a knife.

“No! It’s not…” Bucky looks desperate. “I want to. It’s just…Pierce reads my texts. And I don’t think he’d, um, be okay with me talking to you.”

Steve blinks, stunned. He can’t imagine his mom invading his privacy like that. It feels wrong. And the thought that Pierce wouldn’t be okay with Bucky talking to Steve makes him want to punch Pierce in the face himself. Who is he to control who Bucky talks to?

“Okayyy,” he says slowly. “What about social media? You can message me there.”

Bucky shakes his head. “He has an app that monitors my phone. If I set up an account, he could see it.”

“Shit.” He’s getting the sense that Pierce is a grade-A asshole. “Shit, Bucky, I’m sorry. That sucks.”

Bucky shrugs. “He’s just trying to keep me safe.”

“That’s ridiculous. By spying on your every move?”

Bucky shrugs again and looks uncomfortable, shoulders hunching steadily inwards.

“Hey. We’ll figure something out.” Steve gives him a small smile. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

“Why would I want to get rid of you?” Bucky asks with a frown.

Steve rolls his eyes and turns away, but not before he catches the flash of confusion on Bucky’s face and realizes, with a shock of surprise, that he was completely serious.

 

“Mom?”

“Hmm?” She gives the soapy plate a last rinse and hands it to Steve, who dries it. 

“Did you know there’s an app that lets parents spy on their kids’ phones?”

She raises an eyebrow, glancing at him sidelong. “I do know they exist. But if you’re asking me if I have it, that’s a no. I wouldn’t do that even if I knew how.”

“I know, mom. That’s not what this is about.”

“What is it?”

“I asked Bucky for his number, and he said he couldn’t because Mr. Pierce reads all his texts and can, like, spy on his phone. And that he wouldn’t approve of Bucky talking to me.”

His mom stills, hands submerged in the soapy water.

“Mom?”

She takes a deep breath, turning to him. “I think,” she says carefully, “I might like to have words with Mr. Pierce.”

“I’d like to do more than that,” Steve grumbles. 

His mom takes another measured breath before she dries her hands and sets them on his shoulders, looking more serious than he’s ever seen her. “Steve, baby, what else has Bucky said about his father?”

“He’s not his father.” She gives him a look and Steve makes a face, thinking. “Um, not much? I mean, the only time I’ve seen them interact was when we got sent to the principal’s office for that fight, like I told you.”

His mom’s brow is furrowed, lips pressed in a thin line. “He hasn’t said anything else about him?” she presses. 

Steve frowns, confused. “No. Why?”

She sighs, shaking her head, and pulls him into a hug. “Nothing, love.” She releases him but keeps her hands on his shoulders. “If you notice anything, anything that seems wrong to you, anything about Bucky, you tell me, okay?”

“Um, okay. Why?”

She purses her lips. “I’m just not sure Mr. Pierce is a very good parent, is all.”

“Yeah, me too.” Steve pauses. “Do you know if there’s a way to get around the spy apps?”

His mother smiles, small and wan. “If there is, I’ll let you know. You’re a very good friend, Steve. I think Bucky is lucky to have you looking out for him.”

Chapter Text

“Hey.” Bucky looks up, surprised, as Sam sits down next to him, giving him a friendly nod.

“Hey,” he says back hesitantly. Ever since he and Steve talked, things between him and Sam have been…okay. He likes Sam, and he’s glad he and Steve made up. Steve deserves friends like him. 

“You watch the new Game of Thrones episode last night?” Sam asks.

“…Is that a show?”

Sam gives him a weird look. “Yeah dude, it’s only the most popular show ever. What, do you live under a rock?”

“I don’t…watch tv,” Bucky mumbles awkwardly. 

“You’re not missing anything,” Steve says from behind him, making Bucky jump a little. He drops into the vacant spot on Bucky’s left – Natasha is making up a test – and steals a tater tot from Bucky’s tray, popping it into his mouth. “That show is just sexist, racist crap.”

“I mean, I’m not arguing with you about the racism,” Sam says. “There’s fucking dragons, but no Black people. But come on, it has a ton of strong female characters.”

“Yeah, who either get raped or die.” 

Bucky twitches and sets his fork down.

“It’s a dark show. Everyone has horrible shit happen to them.”

“Yeah, but they make a point of showing graphic rape scenes, with only women, and it’s always really sexualized. It’s really voyeuristic and shitty.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t have its flaws, but I think it’s got a lot of good things too.”

Steve sighs. “What do you think, Bucky? Would you watch it?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.” Steve steals another tater tot and Bucky pushes his tray towards him. “Here. You can have them.”

“You don’t want them?”

He shakes his head. “I’m not hungry.”

Steve gives him a dubious look before shrugging, picking up another tater tot. “Your loss. These are great.”

“Those things are going to kill you,” Sam says. “School food is disgusting.”

“Yeah, except for the tater tots,” Steve agrees. “I could eat them everyday for the rest of my life.”

“You are what you eat,” Bucky mumbles without thinking.

Steve turns to gape at him. “Did you just call me a tater tot?”

Sam bursts out laughing. “Oh my god, you so are !”

“Am not!” Steve says, offended.

“You definitely are.”

“Oh hey,” Sam says, as they finally settle down, Steve still glaring at him from across Bucky, “I was thinking, Mario Kart tournament at my house this weekend. You, me, Bucky, Clint.” He turns to Bucky. “You can invite Natasha too.”

Bucky blinks in surprise. Sam is inviting him over to his house?

“Um, okay,” he says.

“Cool. What’s your number, so I can text you the address?”

Bucky rattles off the number as Sam plugs it into his phone under Asshole. He’d done a whole bunch of favors for his clients in exchange for cash he kept secret from Pierce, and used the money to buy a burner phone. Now he can text Steve, though they keep the exchanges sparse – he can’t afford many minutes at a time. He keeps the burner phone well-hidden under his mattress, and prays Pierce never finds it.

True to his word, Sam texts him the address and time. It’s a Saturday afternoon, but Bucky mercifully doesn’t have to work until six, and Natasha is free as well – she’s finally forgiven him for what he said to her during the Sam and Steve fight. Pierce is gone all day on Hydra business, so he won’t know where Bucky is. Even if he checks his phone’s GPS, Bucky is planning on leaving it at home, and the same with his car. Walking is safer than risking Pierce finding out.

It takes a half-hour to get to Sam’s, even with half the trip by subway, and anxiety churns in his gut as he knocks on his door, Natasha a solid presence beside him. He hasn’t been over to a friend’s house since he was little, and Sam hated his guts not too long ago. A part of him wonders if this is some trick to humiliate and hurt him.

Sam opens the door, grinning when he sees them. “Come on in,” he says. He points to a mat in the entryway. “You can put your shoes over there.”

There’s a woman walking up behind him, the resemblance to Sam obvious. His mother, then. She offers Bucky a wide smile, the corners of her eyes crinkling with the motion, and holds out a hand.

“Hi! You must be Bucky and Natasha.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replies, shaking her hand. “Thank you for having us over.”

“Oh my, aren’t you a polite one.” She has a small gap between her front teeth like Sam. “You guys want anything? Iced tea, water, soda?”

“No thank you,” he says, and Natasha echoes him.

“Alright, well if you change your mind, just ask.”

They both nod, and follow Sam into the living room, where Steve and Clint are already sprawled on the couch. They look up at their arrival, Steve’s eyes immediately fixating on Bucky, and the smile that stretches across his face makes something fluttery happen in Bucky’s stomach.

“Have you guys played Mario Kart before?” Sam asks as he squeezes between Steve and Clint. Bucky and Natasha sit on the floor in front of the couch, Bucky beneath Steve and Natasha beneath Clint. The back of his neck prickles at the vulnerable position, but he forces down his anxiety.

“No,” he says, watching the colorful screen. Pierce doesn’t allow him such frivolities as watching television or playing video games. He says it kills the mind. It’s not like he would have time, anyway.

“Nope,” Natasha echoes, crossing her legs and examining the controller she’s handed. “But I’m sure I’ll win anyway.”

“Ohh, so that’s how it is, huh?” Sam grins. “Okay. Crash course. Two is for go, turn it to steer, and use these things –” He models pushing the top and bottom of the little plus sign on his controller “– to throw objects backwards or forwards.”

“What about the brake?” Bucky asks.

Sam smirks at him. “Only losers brake in Mario Kart. But it’s one. Ready?”

“Ready,” Natasha repeats. She’s leaning forwards, looking excited. Bucky holds his controller gingerly, checking to see if anyone is staring at his prosthetic fingers. They aren’t. 

“Character time,” Sam says. “No one pick Rosalina. She’s mine.”

Bucky tries to use the little plus sign to scroll through the characters, but his artificial fingers simply click uselessly against the plastic, sliding and mashing the whole button. His face burns with shame.

“Hey.” Steve leans over his shoulder and he tenses. “You can steer, and I’ll throw things.”

“I thought you wanted to play?”

Steve shrugs. “Only four people can play at a time. We’ll take turns.” He passes his controller to Clint, who had been sitting out. “Come on, get up here.” He stands up.

Confused, Bucky takes his spot, stiffening when Steve squishes back in next to him, pressed up against his prosthetic arm. He reaches over and toggles up and down on Bucky’s controller, flicking through the characters. Everyone else has already chosen theirs.

“Which one?”

“I don’t care,” Bucky says, still off-kilter at the feeling of Steve plastered along his side. No one ever touches his arm so casually. No one touches him, period, unless they’re hurting him, fucking him, or both.

“Hmm.” Steve scrolls for a moment, then settles on a pink and white spotted cartoon character. “Toadette, I think.”

Bucky presses A with his right hand, and the screen changes. Steve helps him pick out a car, telling him which ones are better and which are worse, and slowly the tension eases from Bucky’s body, replaced by anticipation as Sam explains the last few things and the game begins. 

He starts driving, surprised at how difficult it is to keep his kart on course, the slightest twitch of the remote sending the kart careening. He falls off twice in the first minute and Steve laughs at him, but it’s not unkind.

“Tell me when,” Steve says, as the object comes up on a box in his corner of the screen. 

“Now.”

Steve reaches over and presses the button, only throwing off Bucky’s steering for a moment, and the blue shell flies over his head.

“Oh fuck,” Sam swears, as his kart goes up in a flash of blue.

“Sorry,” Bucky says, but he’s kind of not sorry.

“I hate you so much.” He’s pretty sure Sam is joking. Maybe. “You’re the absolute worst.” Well, that’s true.

He manages to snag tenth. 

Steve grins and high-fives him. “Teamwork!” 

Bucky smiles, and feels that little bubble of warmth in his chest expand.

They play for an hour or two before settling down with snacks and drinks to talk. Bucky isn’t used to so much talking. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to say. He has nothing to contribute to any conversation; no funny stories or anecdotes, no opinions or jokes. He doesn’t even have a sense of humor. 

Natasha has the same problem in some ways, but she also has a sense of humor. She’s good at mimicking normal people, good at slipping into whatever role she needs to. Next to her, Bucky feels like a failed puppet or a broken automaton; a weak imitation of a person.

Clint’s telling a story about how he broke three coffee pots in a week, and Natasha is looking up at him with a soft expression, lips curved into a smile. Bucky catches her eye and raises an eyebrow, and she answers with a downturned quirk of her lips. He widens his eyes, flicking them between her and Clint, and she narrows hers at him.

Mind your own business, he hears. 

He’s never seen her like this with anyone. As far as he knows, she was a loner through most of school. She knew everyone, but no one knew her. But Steve had brought Bucky into the circle, who brought Natasha, and now she’s an established part of the group. They’re friends. They’re over at Sam’s house, which isn’t something non-friends do. And Natasha is hanging onto Clint’s every word, and he keeps glancing at her when he thinks she isn’t looking, and Bucky has the sudden realization that they like each other. Like like. Not just the friend sort of like, but something different than that; romantic or sexual or maybe both. 

They don’t do this. They don’t get to have relationships, not with what they do; with who they are. Natasha has never wanted one. But she’s looking at Clint like maybe he’s her salvation, like maybe she has the same funny feelings in her chest that Bucky gets when he looks at Steve – not that Bucky likes Steve that way. Or maybe he does. He has no idea. He doesn’t really know anything about relationships, besides what he’s read in his books.

He asks Natasha about it as they’re walking back, jackets zipped up against the sudden chill.

“Are you and Clint…I mean, do you…like him?”

Natasha takes a long time in answering, gaze fixed in front of her. “Yes,” she says. She glances over at him. “We’ve been hanging out sometimes.”

“What?” He stops in the middle of the sidewalk. “When?”

“Just a few times. After school and on the weekends. We meet at the park and talk.”

“About what?” He starts walking again, forcing down the small pang of hurt that she hadn’t told him. 

She shrugs. “Whatever. He’s a good listener.”

He slows down again, nausea churning in his gut. “Does he know…?”

“No!” She pauses. “Not really. He knows something, but he doesn’t know exactly what.”

“Natasha, you know what would happen if anyone found out you said anything–” 

“I know! Don’t lecture me, James. I’ve been doing this longer than you have.”

He closes his mouth with a snap, ashamed. “Sorry.”

“He’s nice,” she says sharply, voice laced with anger. “He’s good, and kind, and he cares about me. He listens. And I know I said it can’t mean anything, but I don’t care. I like him.”

“Okay,” Bucky says quietly. He swallows. “You’ll be careful, though?”

She raises an eyebrow, face softening. “Like you are with Steve?”

“Yeah.”

She sighs, looking up at the sky. “You know, the Red Room wouldn’t even care. We’re allowed to have friends. They don’t monitor our every move. As long as we make them money and don’t tell, they don’t care.” She smiles sadly. “I never had friends because I didn’t care. I thought, what’s the point? They’d never understand me. I had the girls, and later, I had you.”

“Nat–”

“No, listen to me.” She stops, turning to face him, and there’s desperation in her eyes. “I have a choice. Sell my body, and the Red Room takes care of me. I don’t have to worry about food or shelter or safety. I don’t have to be on the streets, or with some foster family. I have a family. I have the girls, and I have you. And maybe it’s wrong, and maybe it fucking sucks sometimes, but it’s what I’ve got.”

She steps closer, putting a hand on his cheek, and even though it’s light he twitches at the touch. “But you, you don’t have a choice. You think you deserve what he does to you, but you don’t.”

He opens his mouth to protest but she shushes him. 

“Steve is the first time I’ve ever seen you do something for yourself,” she says. “It’s the first time I’ve seen you fight back in a long time. So don’t you dare let him go. You fight for him, whatever it takes. You understand? You fight for him, and you don’t give up.”

  

It’s late Friday night – technically Saturday morning now – and Bucky is exhausted. He’d had not one, but two of his special clients for Pierce today on top of regular work, both for more than an hour, and he hurts all over. He can feel handprint bruises blossoming on his hips, and his throat feels raw, jaw aching. He’ll have to scrounge up some tea with honey if he wants to keep his voice.

He has one more delivery to do before he’s done – some fucking asshole who wants Bucky to show up to a club so he can do coke and get a blowjob in the bathroom, probably – and he just wants to get home and finally go to sleep. His foot is bearing down on the pedal, speedometer inching above the limit. 

Lights flash and a siren whoops behind him. Bucky swears, pulling over onto the side of the road. He clutches the steering wheel tightly and tries to keep his breathing even as the cop gets out of his car and walks towards him, shining a flashlight into his window. 

Bucky rolls down the window, the cool night air causing goosebumps to erupt over his skin. The cop leans over and Bucky squints in the brightness of the flashlight, momentarily blinded.

“How old are you, kid?”

He swallows. “Sixteen.” His voice comes out raspy, and the cop’s gaze sharpens with suspicion.

“You know you’re not allowed to be driving this time of night, right?”

Right, the fucking junior license law. Fuck. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says.

The cop peers into his car, shining the light in, and Bucky’s heart skips a beat. 

Fuck.

He’s a fucking idiot.

A small bag of cocaine peeks out from his open backpack, clearly visible. He was just going to pocket it to bring into the club, and he was tired and out of it and so didn’t zip up his backpack after he rifled through it for breath mints.

“I’m going to need you to step out of the car.”

Pierce is going to kill him.

 

He curls up on the bench of the holding cell, tired but unable to sleep. They’d confiscated his backpack, and as soon as they saw the Hydra logo on the cocaine they’d stuck him in here. At least it had only been an ounce – any more and things would be worse than they already are. It’s early morning now, and the police station is dead. It’s too early for Pierce to have heard, despite the efforts of the police per the law regarding minors, and for him to send someone to bail him out. Bucky doesn’t know if he hopes it takes longer or not.

Finally, after a few hours, there’s the sound of footsteps and a clank as the cell door is opened. Bucky uncurls and lets the cop handcuff him. The guy frowns at his prosthetic arm and then cinches the cuff as tight as possible.

He’s surprised when he’s led into an actual interrogation room. Two plainclothes detectives are inside – a tall black man and a fair-skinned woman with brown hair pulled back in a twist. Both are mid-thirties and good-looking, the guy cradling a cup of coffee as the woman scribbles something on a notepad. Bucky is sat on the cold metal chair and cuffed to the bar on top of the table, left hand gleaming in the light, and the detectives sit down opposite him, making his heart rate ratchet up. 

“James Barnes?” the woman asks.

He nods mutely.

“I’m Detective Carter. This is my partner, Detective T’Challa.” She points to the guy. “We’re with organized crime.”

Bucky swallows. Organized crime?

“The drugs you were found with had a mark on the bag. A logo. Do you know what it is?”

He glances up involuntarily. Ah, so they’re after Hydra. That would explain all this for a small drug offense.

“It’s Hydra,” Carter confirms when he doesn’t answer. “They’re the most dangerous crime ring in all of New York right now. Their drugs are flooding the market. We’re not after you, we’re after them. All we need is the name of your dealer, or whoever gave you the drugs.”

He stays silent, resisting the slightly hysterical urge to laugh. His dealer? He’s the dealer. They think he’s just some druggie kid. He knows they’d never guess the actual truth. 

He wonders if these are the new cops that are causing so much fuss in Hydra. He wonders how long it’ll take before they’re dead or on the payroll.

“Listen.” Carter leans across the table. “This is going on your record. A drug offense is a big deal. You tell us who it is, maybe this doesn’t ruin your future.”

What future? Bucky wants to ask. Instead he leans back in his chair, tipping his head back and meeting Carter’s gaze with affected nonchalance.

“You think this is just going to go away?” T’Challa growls. “This isn’t some joke. Rich kid like you, you think you can get away with anything. But I promise, I’m going to make sure this sticks. Tell us what we want to know right now, or you can say goodbye to your future.”

Bucky’s heart pounds beneath his breastbone, sweat trickling down the back of his neck. Whatever they threaten, it’s never going to be worse than what Pierce will do to him if he talks. He doesn’t care about his future. He’s worthless; a foregone conclusion. 

He shifts uncomfortably on the chair, soreness coming back in full force. He still feels unclean, sticky with other people’s sweat and other things, the feeling of hands on him still lingering. He desperately wants to shower, wants to scrub until every last bit of evidence is erased from his skin. He’s nauseous, head pounding with a combination of sleep deprivation and dehydration, stomach twisting into knots. 

“James –” Carter starts, but she’s cut off as the door opens and Detective Rumlow strides into the room, Rollins in tow.

Bucky feels the blood drain from his face. The room spins, and for a moment he thinks he might actually throw up. 

“We’ve got it from here,” Rumlow says.

Carter stands. “What?”

“He’s being cut loose.”

“What do you mean, ‘cut loose’?” T’Challa asks dangerously.

Rumlow shrugs, eyes falling on Bucky, and he clenches his hands into fists unconsciously. “Turns out Jerry might have searched his car illegally. Plus, look at him. He’s just a rich kid with a bit of coke. You really think you’re going to get to Hydra through him?”

Bucky knows it wasn’t an illegal search, and he’s definitely a straight route to Hydra. It’s a good thing most of the cops in the city are on Hydra’s payroll, or believe Pierce to be a saint.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Carter looks like she doesn’t believe it for a second.

“Wish I were.” Rumlow smirks. “Charges are being dropped. Pierce is here to pick up the kid.”

Bucky wishes he could drop dead. He’d take another night locked up over going home to Pierce’s punishment.

Rumlow moves to uncuff him, handing over his backpack, and Bucky’s legs feel like lead as he shuffles out of the room. Pierce is waiting for him, talking loudly with the cops like they’re good friends.

“You know how it is,” he’s saying. “You do everything you can, but these kids from the system… they’re tough work. Especially the older ones. You know, I’m trying with James, I really am, but he’s got issues, and a bit of a rebellious streak. It just got worse once he really hit the teen years.”

“Oh, I feel you,” someone answers. “Dealing with my daughter is a nightmare. She lies, she sneaks out to go to parties, she wears such revealing clothing I want to lock her in the house. She questions everything I do. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to say ‘because I said so.’”

Pierce chuckles. “Oh, I know that phrase quite well.” He turns as Bucky comes in, face a mask of fatherly disapproval. “James. You can’t believe how worried I’ve been about you. We’ve talked about this.”

Bucky ducks his head, gritting his teeth. “Sorry.”

Pierce sighs for effect. “Come on. We’ll talk about this at home. You’re going to be grounded for a very long time, young man.” He puts a hand on Bucky’s back to show him out, and Bucky stiffens at the touch. 

“Thank you so much, officers,” Pierce says to the room as they leave. “I’m so sorry for any trouble he caused.”

As soon as they’re outside, Pierce drops his hand from Bucky’s back and grabs his arm, grip painfully tight. “Get in the car,” he growls, and Bucky climbs into the back, hugging his backpack to his chest and fighting back nausea as the car rumbles and lurches. The ride home seems interminably long, the early morning light washing over the passing buildings and filtering through the windows to shine in strips across Bucky’s legs. 

Pierce is quiet as they enter the house, flicking on the light and shedding his jacket. Bucky follows him to the study and Pierce locks the door, unbuckling his belt. 

Bucky swallows, feet moving towards the couch without conscious awareness as Pierce slides the belt from its loops and coils it in his fist. Bucky pulls his sweatshirt over his head, then his t-shirt, before climbing onto the couch and kneeling with his chest pressed to the backrest. He undoes his pants and pushes them down to his knees, dropping his forehead onto his crossed arms and clutching the back of the couch with shaking hands.

“Do you know how much trouble you caused me?” Pierce asks, voice even and cold. “I woke up to my cops informing me that you’d been arrested because of your own stupidity and recklessness. Do you even understand what I had to do to make this all go away?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Bucky whispers, feeling shameful tears prick his eyes.

“And yet you still did it. Why is it so difficult for you to learn?”

“I’m sorry,” he repeats, voice cracking. “I’m sorry, please–” 

The first blow takes him by surprise, body jerking into the cushions as he cries out. His fingers dig into the backrest, back trying to arch away from the pain even as he fights to stay still. The blows land across his back and thighs in a sharp, even pattern, each one calculating and restrained. His world narrows to the slap of leather against skin, the jerk and twitch of his body with every blow.

By the time it’s over, Bucky is shuddering and sobbing quietly, pain pulsing through his body in deep, throbbing aches and tingles. He hears the muted clink of the belt buckle as Pierce sets it down, the sharper sound of ice hitting a glass and the smooth rush of liquid. 

“Come here,” Pierce orders, and Bucky pulls up his pants with shaking fingers and eases his aching body off the couch to stand stiffly in front of him, tears still drying on his face. Pierce takes a sip of his drink, looking at Bucky with a cool gaze.

“You know I don’t enjoy punishing you, but it’s the only way you’ll learn your lesson. You cost me not only a customer last night, but several favors from the police. I don’t have the time to always be cleaning up your messes. I expect competence, and I expect obedience. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” he rasps. He feels numb, disconnected from his body. He’s still shivering, breaths drawn through raw airways.

“Good. Get cleaned up. And for God’s sake, pull yourself together. You’re a mess. No one wants to fuck a whore who cries all the time.” He reaches out and pats Bucky’s cheek, chuckling.

He doesn’t know why it happens. He never does. All he knows is that he’s tired and hurting and ashamed and angry and everything in between, and something inside him snaps. All he knows is that one minute he’s standing and the next Pierce’s glass shatters against the wall and he’s screaming. 

Strong hands lock his arms behind his back and he hits the floor hard, face scraping against the carpet. There’s a knee pressing into his bruised back, keeping him down, and all he knows is that he’s angry, so angry that there is nothing else except for the anger, the burning rage that whites out his vision. 

Eventually, he stops screaming, reduced to hitching breaths that burst from his chest in small, wordless sounds of rage. He’s shaking, shuddering so hard his teeth clack together and he can’t breathe, he can’t think, every sense obliterated by the emotion that spills through him like wildfire. 

Eventually, though he couldn’t say how long it’s been, there are more hands on him, pulling him up, and he struggles, lashing out against their hold. A hand grabs his chin, forcing his mouth open, and he feels the weight of bitter pills on his tongue before his mouth is forced closed again with a hand over it, suffocating him. 

“Swallow,” someone says in his ear, and he thrashes, but the hand doesn’t move, and eventually he swallows the pills with a scrape of pain. The hand is removed, and he gasps in lungfuls of air. They pry his mouth open, run a finger along his gums. His struggles slowly grow weaker, minutes ticking by as lethargy creeps through his veins, sweet syrupy calmness descending over him. 

 

He wakes cuffed to his bed. He’s lying on his aching back, right arm pulled over his head by a thick leather handcuff around his wrist that’s attached to the bed frame, his prosthetic detached. He turns his head and a face blurs in his vision, brown hair and dark eyes in a harsh face. Fear worms its way through the haze of drugs. Zemo.

“Wha–” he croaks. “Why–?” 

Dr. Zemo leans forwards, pushing his glasses up. “You had another episode, James. We were forced to sedate you.”

He searches his memory, but it’s blurred and fragmented, the pieces drifting away before he can grasp them. He remembers pain and anger, flashes of hands holding him down. He never remembers his episodes, not really.

“We need to talk about your prescription,” Dr. Zemo continues. “I don’t believe your current one is working. It may be time to increase the dose.”

“No, I–” He swallows. “I don’t need…I don’t…” 

“This most recent episode suggests otherwise. We have to get a handle on this, James. You’re a danger to yourself and others.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, voice no more than a rasp. “I’m sorry, I–” 

“Now now, calm down. That’s it. I’m here to help you.” Dr. Zemo pulls a pill bottle from his jacket and holds it up. “Now, I think this may help you, in addition to a higher dose of your current medications. Will you take this for me?”

Bucky swallows painfully and nods. Dr. Zemo smiles and leans over, undoing his cuff, and Bucky struggles to sit up as Dr. Zemo brings him a glass of water, shaking out two white pills into his palm. He watches Bucky take them and accepts the empty glass when he’s done, setting it on the nightstand.

“You’re taking your old medications twice a day, correct?”

Bucky nods. His head feels heavy, stuffed with cotton wool. 

“That’s good. I want you to increase that to three times a day. Morning, right after school, and before bed. Sound good?”

He nods again. 

“And this new medication, just like the last one, I want you to take this anytime you feel yourself getting upset. It will help stop an episode before it begins. I think we might finally be able to get a handle on this, James. This is a good thing.”

He’s been having episodes for years, he knows. They’ve tried one drug, then another. They all make him feel tired and fuzzy, everything numb and muted. Dr. Zemo says he has a serious mental illness. He can’t remember what it is, but he knows Zemo must be right. He’s a psychiatrist, after all. He knows what he’s talking about. 

He can’t remember a lot of things, even though his brain is mostly healed from the crash, even though those memories came back – except that now, when he thinks about them, they’re hazy and unreal, like a dream. Dr. Zemo says it’s his illness. Sometimes, Bucky wonders if he’s lying, because the drugs make him forget. 

That’s another symptom of his illness, Zemo says. He’s paranoid. Delusional. 

Of course they’re just trying to help him. 

Why wouldn’t they be?

 

He wakes when he hits the floor, curling into himself and whimpering with pain.

“Come on. Up,” Rumlow says, pulling him up by the grip on his arm. “You’ve got a client. I’m driving you.”

When did he get here?  Bucky wonders vaguely. He has no idea what time it is, even what day it is, but it feels like it’s been an eternity since the cold jail cell.

He stumbles as Rumlow drags to the shower and shoves him in, then strips off his clothes with rough, careless motions. Freezing water spills over his head and he yelps, cringing against the wall. 

“For fuck’s sake,” Rumlow says. “Get cleaned up and meet me downstairs in ten.”

The bathroom door slams behind him and Bucky slumps against the tile, staring at the water swirling down the drain. Everything is hazy, the world spinning slightly. His head pounds. 

He cleans himself with clumsy motions, muscles weak and lax. His back aches, and he knows from experience it is a map of bruises, perfect stripes criss-crossing over each other in a colorful array. His thighs are the same. There’s mottled bruises on his right arm, fading smudges of handprints from where he was restrained. 

It takes him several long minutes to re-attach his charged prosthetic and get dressed, pulling on clothes painfully slowly. Rumlow is waiting downstairs impatiently, face like sour milk, and Bucky follows him to the car, sitting stiffly with his back away from the seat as they drive. The radio is on, and Rumlow hums along under his breath, fingers tapping on the steering wheel. 

After some indeterminate amount of time, which smears past Bucky incomprehensibly, they pull up to the motel and Rumlow drags him inside, uncaring that Bucky stumbles and wobbles. 

“You’re lucky K doesn’t care about bruises,” Rumlow says, and the breath leaves Bucky’s lungs. He digs his heels in, feet skidding against the floor uselessly.

“No,” he says, small and quiet. The world spins. “No, please–”

They lurch to a stop. Rumlow knocks twice on the door, gripping Bucky’s arm hard enough to bruise. It opens, and Bucky is shoved in, stumbling and falling to the floor.

“Two hours,” Rumlow grunts. “He’s a little banged up. Still pretty drugged, too. Pierce sends his apologies, and his thanks for handling the situation at the station.”

“That’s not necessary. But thank you.”

Rumlow grunts again, and the door closes. Footsteps shuffle across the carpet and K crouches down next to where Bucky is curled, drawing a finger down his arm.

“I hear you’ve been a very bad boy. We’ll have to fix that. I always like you better when you’re like this. So meek and quiet. So good for me. Are you going to be good for me tonight?”

Bucky squeezes his eyes shut and goes far, far away in his mind, where nothing can hurt him.

  

Rumlow wrestles him out of his shirt as Bucky stands numbly in the middle of his room, swaying slightly on his feet. His gaze is fixed on nothing, everything muted and distant. Calloused fingers open his mouth and slip two pills in, a bottle pressed to his lips. He drinks, choking and sputtering on the taste of alcohol, but Rumlow holds his jaw in a tight grip, tilting his head up until almost half the bottle is gone. 

“Ah ah ah,” he says, finally withdrawing the bottle and capping it. “I’ve had better things to do all day than helping Pierce with your psychotic ass and driving you around like a fucking babysitter. I think I deserve a little compensation.”

He pushes Bucky to his knees, a hand reaching for his fly. Everything is falling away as the alcohol travels through his system, the drugs clouding his mind.

Bucky remembers it only in flashes, in bursts of sensation among numbness: the pad of a thumb pressing at his lower lip, a hand tugging at his hair; the scratch of cotton sheets under his cheek and the tickle of hot breath at the back of his neck; harsh grunts followed by a groan.

At some point, he is alone, curled up on damp sheets. At some point, grating nerves force clumsy limbs into motion. He scrubs under the shower spray until pale skin turns pink, watching the water swirl down the drain. He sits on the tiles and stares at his feet until the water goes cold, then gets up.

He struggles into sweatpants and a sweatshirt, limbs made uncoordinated by the cocktail of drugs and alcohol still swimming through his system. He looks at his bed, and can’t make himself get in. The sheets need to be washed, he thinks. Renata will do it tomorrow. 

He has off tomorrow. Nothing to do tomorrow. Pierce is gone tomorrow. He can rest tomorrow. When is tomorrow?

He doesn’t know how to make it to tomorrow.

He drops to his knees by the bed, reaching under and pulling out the burner phone from its hiding place. 

u awake ? he texts with a clumsy thumb. His left hand can’t text. His left hand isn’t real. He lost his left hand. He remembers that. Screeching tires and pain and the drip drip of blood. 

Yeah what’s up?

cn I cme ovrr

It’s late. Why?

please

Okay. But my mom is asleep. You’ll have to be quiet.

Steve sends his address, and Bucky shoves his feet into shoes.

Are you okay? Steve texts.

Bucky doesn’t respond, opening his door silently and creeping down the stairs. The house is dark and quiet, Pierce’s door closed and dark underneath. He finds the alarm system and punches in the code to disable it, slipping out the door into the darkness. A few stars twinkle overhead in the hazy sky, fighting to be seen against the light pollution.

He doesn’t know how long it takes him to get to Steve’s. He’s distantly aware of pain, but it seems far off, the uncertain rhythm of his shoes on the pavement echoing through his head. 

He climbs the fire escape to Steve’s window and knocks lightly, slumping against the brick. There’s movement inside and Steve opens the window, face creased with concern in the soft light spilling from his bedroom. 

“Buck, are you okay?”

Bucky climbs through the window, falling onto Steve’s floor with a soft thump. 

“Bucky!” Steve hisses, crouching down to help him. He squints at Bucky from behind his glasses, hair tousled adorably. He’s wearing plaid pajama pants and a t-shirt that’s too big for him, exposing one slim collarbone, and he feels like the safest thing Bucky has ever known.

“Are you drunk?”

Bucky latches onto Steve’s arm desperately, the world spinning around him. “Don’t make me go back,” he whispers. “Please.”

“Okay, Buck. Okay.” Steve sounds worried, and he slides his arm from Bucky’s grasp to close the window, coming back around and crouching in front of him. “Hey, I’m not kicking you out. You can stay here tonight. You want my bed?”

Bucky shakes his head vehemently, making the world spin. “Please,” he repeats.

“Okay.” Steve grabs a couple blankets from his bed, piling them on the floor next to it. “There. Just wait here. I’m going to get you a glass of water.”

He pads across the room and out the door and Bucky tips over into the pile of blankets, drawing them around him. Steve is back a moment later with a glass of water, and he makes him drink it all, voice soft and coaxing. Bucky leans forwards and presses his lips against Steve’s, a clumsy hand finding the drawstring of his pants. 

Steve pulls back like he’s been burned. “What are you doing?”

“Pay you back,” Bucky slurs, Steve’s face blurring in his vision. “Owe you.”

“What? You don’t owe me anything.” Steve sighs. “You’re drunk. Go to sleep.”

“Okay.” He curls back into his blanket nest and closes his eyes. The blankets smell like Steve. 

Sleep finds him readily, drawing him into its peaceful embrace.

Chapter Text

Part I: Peggy

Margaret Elizabeth Carter, or Peggy to her friends, has never been one to back down from a challenge. Born and raised in England, she enrolled in university to study criminal justice only for her careful plans to be ripped apart by the presence of one Angie Martinelli – American study abroad student, education major, and the eventual love of her life. Moving to the US, marrying Angie, getting her citizenship, and joining the police was the only natural course for someone like Peggy – as crazy as it had seemed to all her friends at the time. The corruption in the police force is just the latest hurdle in a long line that Peggy has had to overcome, and she intends to overcome it with a vengeance. After making detective in the gang division, she’d been partnered with T’Challa – probably because no one else wanted to work with either of them. Like her, he’s reform-minded, solidly against corruption, and willing to make a few enemies in the process.

Their latest enemy is Hydra, an ever-expanding organized crime ring that has a stranglehold on New York City. They’ve traced its origins to Brooklyn, but the leader still remains elusive, a shadowy figure no one will admit to knowing but everyone seems to know. Every Hydra member they’ve taken in has wound up dead one way or another, either by suicide or found dead without evidence or recourse. Their only leads are a couple of names linked to the weapons trade and a few low-level drug dealers too scared to talk, but Hydra’s means of import and distribution are still unknown, its members unknown, its very nature unknown. It is a beast with many heads, as its name suggests, and when one is cut off, yet another one seems to spring up in its place.

Peggy taps a finger to her chin, studying the board in front of her, photos and question marks and scraps of paper pinned up and linked by threads of varying color into a blurred tapestry, the picture still unclear. The newest addition is a small school photo, the subject scowling into the camera, long hair shadowing his face. James Barnes is scribbled underneath, with a question mark curving delicately afterward, a loop of string hanging slack from the pushpin. 

He fits into this somehow, Peggy is sure of it. More and more kids have been turning up with Hydra drugs, too many to have gotten them from the regular avenues. No, the drugs are somehow getting into select schools, and SHIELD High is one of the worst. James Barnes seems like the type to do drugs – rich and troubled, with a school record of violence and several prior arrests that are curiously lacking in details – but for some reason, there’s something about him that needles at her, something it feels like she’s missing. But what? 

She's so deep in thought that she doesn’t notice T’Challa approaching until he’s standing next to her, scowling at the board.

“I hate rich kids,” he grumbles. “Break any law they want and their father will just pay to get them out of trouble. Nothing we can do.”

“Hmm,” she says, still staring at James’ picture as if it will reveal what interrogation hadn't.

“What? You don’t agree?”

“Oh no, I do.” She taps a finger against James’ picture. “But I can’t help feeling like we’re missing something. Don’t you think it was too convenient that they found out Jerry conducted the search illegally?”

“Of course it was convenient,” T’Challa scoffs. “Pierce has enough money to make that happen. He’s done it before; just look at the kid’s arrest record.”

“Hmm,” Peggy says again. “I don’t know. Something just feels off, and I always trust my gut.”

T’Challa sighs. “Alright. I trust your instincts. If you think something is wrong, we’ll look into it. I just think we’re wasting our time. Like Rumlow said, a rich white kid with some drugs isn’t going to get us an entire criminal organization.”

“No, but he could be a place to start. We know there are drugs getting into that school. He could help us find out how.”

T’Challa shakes his head. “Any one of those students could do the same. Pierce is the principal of the school, we can’t go investigating his kid.” He turns away. “Give up on Barnes, Carter. He’s not worth it.”

 

“Hi honey.” Angie greets her with a kiss as she steps through the door, thoroughly exhausted after a long day. 

“Hi there.” She lets herself be wrapped up in Angie’s arms, hair soft against her cheek, before they separate so Peggy can divest herself of her gun, locking it securely in the safe. There's a heavenly smell emanating from the kitchen, and when she emerges from her shower it's to find a steaming bowl of pasta waiting on the table, a full dish of garlic bread making her mouth water.

Peggy groans. "Angie, I love you."

"I know," Angie says with a wink, pulling out her chair. Peggy shakes her head and starts doling out their portions, quibbling lightly over the division of garlic bread. They chat about nothing for a while as they eat, unwinding, but finally Angie sets her fork down and fixes Peggy with a look, hands steepled under her chin.

“Alright, English, spill. What’s bothering you?”

Peggy sighs, swallowing her mouthful and dabbing at her lips with a napkin. “Do you know James Barnes?”

Angie straightens in her chair, face suddenly serious. “Yes, he’s in my class. Why?”

Peggy takes a sip of water instead of answering, deliberating. “What do you think of him?”

“I think he’s a good kid,” Angie says immediately, surprising her. “He works hard and he’s always so respectful and polite. I’ve never had a problem with him in class. I think he’s had a rough life, though.”

“Hmm.” Peggy takes another sip of water. 

“Why?” Angie presses, a worried wrinkle between her brows. “Did something happen? Is he alright?”

Peggy hesitates, debating whether to tell her the truth. She tries to keep her work separate from their life, but at the same time Angie always insists on knowing what Peggy does. They don’t keep secrets, not from one another.

“He got arrested,” she finally says. “They found Hydra drugs on him. But we couldn’t get him to talk, and…well, someone intervened. We had to let him go. Pierce has the money to make it all go away, I think.”

“Oh.” Angie sits back, still frowning. “Drugs, really? What kind?”

“Coke.”

“Huh.” Angie shakes her head. “That just…it doesn’t seem like him.”

Peggy raises an eyebrow. 

Angie sighs. “No, I know. What do you ever really know about your students? But James is…he’s quiet. Shy. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of kid to use cocaine. Weed, maybe. Alcohol. But he usually just looks tired.”

“That could be a sign of cocaine use,” Peggy points out softly. “Besides, it was a weekend. Most kids aren’t going to be doing hard drugs during school.”

“I know, I just…” Angie sighs, reaching for her wine glass. “I guess I just don’t want it to be true.”

“I know. You care about your students. That’s not a bad thing.”

“It’s just…I’ve been teaching for a while, Pegs. I know what it looks like when a student is hurting, and he’s hurting. I’m not sure if Principal Pierce realizes how much, or if he just doesn’t know how to help him, or doesn’t want to damage his reputation, I don’t know. But if he has a drug problem then he deserves help, not punishment. I know you’ve seen what Hydra drugs can do to people.” She reaches across to take Peggy’s hand. “Promise me you’ll try to help him, if you can?”

Peggy nods, unable to deny Angie anything. “I don’t know that there’s much I can do, but I’ll try. And please, be careful around Principal Pierce. I’m not sure he’d appreciate you being married to the detective investigating his son.”

“I will,” Angie promises. “I’ll see if I can talk to James, too. I’m telling you, he’s a good kid.”

 

Later that night as Peggy lies awake, Angie sleeping peacefully next to her, she can’t help but replay that morning, pieces fitting differently. Instead of cocky arrogance she sees panicked silence, sees stress and exhaustion in James’ pale, sweaty face. She sees the glint of fear in his eyes and the slight tremor in his hand; thinks back to the items they pulled out of his backpack, a strange array that now weighs on her mind: A first aid kit – bandages, antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen – all opened and half-used; condoms and lube, half-used; a small bag of makeup; an extra change of clothes; a packet of breath mints; a carton of cigarettes; a battered copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; and a wallet in which a small picture was tucked, edges worn and soft.

In the picture, a boy and a girl stood, arms around each other, crooked smiles stretching across their faces. 

On the back was written, in a mother’s flowing script: Bucky + Becca, 2012

Chapter Text

Part II: Sarah

Sarah hums softly as she sips her tea, relishing in the tranquility of the morning. No matter how much she works during the week, she always has Sundays off, and she treasures her peaceful mornings when she can take an hour or two to just relax. Steve won’t be awake for hours yet – he is a shining example of teenagers’ late-shifted sleep schedule. 

Just then, she hears his door open. There’s the patter of feet into the bathroom and then the unmistakable sound of vomiting.

She sighs before setting her tea down. Poor Steve must have a stomach bug. With his luck, he’ll end up missing Monday’s classes. 

She gets up and fills a glass with water before walking down the hall and entering the bathroom. 

“Steve, honey?”

She stops short in surprise.

It’s definitely not Steve hunched over the toilet. The kid looks up at her entrance and freezes, eyes wide in his pale face. He looks to be Steve’s age, with long, tangled brown hair and puffy bags under his eyes; her gaze catches on the gleaming silver of his left hand and the pieces click into place.

Ah, she thinks. This must be Bucky.

Bucky lurches to his feet, swaying alarmingly as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He looks like he’s about to pass out, skin pale as milk and eyes blown wide, body trembling noticeably. There’s a smudge of a bruise on the corner of his mouth the size of a thumbprint.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and his voice is a rasp that hurts to hear, like he’s swallowed sandpaper. “I’m sorry, I–”

“Mom?” Steve appears behind her, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “What’s going on?” He sees Bucky and blinks owlishly, obviously still half-asleep.

“It’s my fault,” Bucky blurts, and his shaking has gotten worse. “I made Steve let me stay, it’s my fault–”

“Hey, hey.” Sarah raises her hands and Bucky flinches. She swallows down horrible suspicions. “I’m not mad. I was just surprised, is all. You’re perfectly welcome here. I just wish you’d told me beforehand.” She tries for a reassuring smile, holding out the glass of water like a peace offering. “Here. I know how awful being sick is.”

Bucky takes the glass slowly, squinting at it in confusion. Eventually, he drinks, his eyes staying fixed on her as he takes slow sips. He hands the glass back silently, hand shaking.

“Thank you,” he rasps.

“Of course, dear. Why don’t you freshen up and I’ll make you some tea? Extra toothbrushes are under the sink.”

Bucky blinks at her like she just told him she’s an alien from another planet. She carefully steps out of the bathroom, leaving the door ajar, and ushers a still-groggy Steve down the hall and into the kitchen.

“Steve.”

“Huh?” Steve squints at her, his hair sticking up in all directions and glasses sliding down his nose, red lines still imprinted on his face.

“How did Bucky get here?” She fills the kettle from the faucet, turning on the burner.

“Oh.” Steve yawns and slides into a chair at the counter, seeming marginally more awake. “I’m sorry. He really wanted to come over. He seemed really, um, upset. I didn’t want to turn him away.”

She waves a hand. “I don’t care about that, Steve. Of course he’s allowed to come here. I just wish you’d told me.”

“Sorry. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

“What happened?” She pops bags of ginger tea into two mugs, setting them on the counter as the water heats up.

“He texted me late last night and asked if he could come over. I said okay, and he climbed in my window like, half an hour later. He was, um…” Steve winces. “Drunk, I think? He was pretty out of it. He really didn’t want to go back home.” His eyes flick to the side shiftily and his cheeks color. He clears his throat. “So yeah.”

Before she can say anything else, Bucky emerges from the hallway, hairline damp like he’d splashed water on his face. He moves carefully, every step a slow shuffle, left arm held tightly to his side and jaw clenched. 

He moves like every single bone in his body hurts.

Sarah presses her lips together to hide the swell of emotion that rises up. She doesn’t have proof, nothing but a gut feeling, but at once she knows in her heart that someone has hurt Bucky – emotionally if not physically. 

“Hi there,” she says, keeping her voice light. She pours hot water into the mugs, scooting one towards the empty chair next to Steve. “Come sit down. How are you feeling?”

Bucky shuffles to the chair and levers himself into it carefully, biting his lip. He hunches into his oversized black sweatshirt, slowly reaching out and wrapping his right hand around the mug.

“Fine,” he says quietly. “I can leave.”

“Absolutely not,” Sarah says sharply, then changes tact when Bucky stiffens. “I mean, you’re obviously not feeling well, and you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. Unless you need to be home?” She doesn’t want to cause him more trouble if he’s supposed to be home and isn’t.

Bucky shakes his head, staring down at his tea like it contains the mysteries of the universe. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to…I can–I can pay you back–” 

Sarah’s hand tightens around her own mug and she swallows a burst of anger. Pay her back for what? Human decency? “Bucky,” she says, and it’s an effort to keep her voice even, “you don’t owe me anything. It’s no trouble for me. Really. I’m sure Steve would appreciate your company today.”

She gives Steve a significant look, and he blinks at her before straightening up slightly as his eyes widen in understanding. “Oh. Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, definitely. I’d love it if you stayed.”

Bucky glances between them for a moment, then nods hesitantly. “Okay.”

Sarah lets out an inaudible sigh of relief. “Great,” she says with a smile. “Why don’t you go lay down for a while? I’m going to make some breakfast. You and Steve can watch tv. That’s what he usually does, anyway.”

Steve catches on quickly this time, sliding off his stool and grabbing his mug. “Come on, Buck,” he says. “Have you ever seen the Great British Baking Show?”

Bucky shakes his head as he gets up to follow, and Steve’s voice fades as they move into the living room, rambling on about the show. It’s a good choice, she thinks – there’s nothing upsetting whatsoever about the Great British Baking Show. Whenever Steve is having a bad day, they always put it on and watch together as they eat ice cream.

She busies herself making eggs and toast, listening to the soothing drone of British people baking in the background. The food gets divided onto two plates, and she carries them out into the living room, setting them down on the coffee table. Bucky is curled against the arm of the couch, a blanket on his lap, and Steve is sitting on the other end, still in his pajamas. On the screen, Mary Berry is complimenting someone’s pastry while Paul frowns and deliberates.

“Here you go,” she says, watching as Bucky perks up slightly at the arrival of food. His eyes look a little glazed, not quite focusing on anything, and she wonders about drug use. If Steve is correct, he was drunk last night, but he could also have been on drugs. She makes a mental note to keep an eye on him. 

“Thank you,” Bucky says softly as he pulls the plate into his lap one-handed.

“You’re welcome.” She collects their empty mugs. “Do you want more tea?”

He shakes his head. “No, thank you.”

“Okay. If you need anything, just ask. I’ll be around.”

Bucky nods, but she doubts he’d ask for anything, even if it was critical. He seems desperate not to inconvenience her. That sort of thing comes from years of being seen as an inconvenience. Her impression of Pierce is of a cold, controlling father who wants to present a perfect image to everyone around him. She doubts that he treats Bucky as anything but a tiresome responsibility.

She wonders how much of Bucky’s painfully shy demeanor comes from the past trauma of losing his parents and his arm – as well as the foster care system, however long he was in it – and how much comes from Pierce’s parenting. There’s no doubt in her mind that Pierce is, at the least, controlling and emotionally abusive – his spying on Bucky’s phone and restricting his friends made that clear even before she witnessed Bucky’s compulsive apologizing. What remains to be seen is whether he’s hurt Bucky in other ways. She’s a nurse, and she’s seen enough victims of abuse to know the subtle signs, and also to know that the best thing she can do right now is to be kind. If Bucky doesn’t trust her, they’ll never get anywhere.

All she has so far is a hint of a bruise and body language that screams of fear and pain. It’s not enough, but it’s what she has, and she’s determined to uncover more.

 

 

The day passes slowly. Sarah cleans the house and catches up on bills and emails and the like, pausing occasionally to check in on Bucky and Steve. A couple hours into the show, Bucky had fallen asleep on the couch, curled in on himself so tightly that, for all that he was a head taller and forty pounds heavier than Steve, he looked just as small. He’d surfaced near lunchtime just long enough to eat, looking dazed and confused, and then promptly dozed off once more. 

Steve sticks by his side the whole day, alternating between watching Netflix on his laptop with his headphones in and working on homework. He whispers to Sarah that they both have a history paper due Monday, but he doesn’t know if Bucky did it. Sarah grimaces and tells him to let Bucky sleep. It looks like he needs it. 

Finally, in the late afternoon, Bucky emerges from his blanket cocoon, blinking sleepily. His long hair is irredeemably messy, frizzing around his head not unlike dandelion fluff. He cracks his jaw in a yawn and winces, struggling to sit up. Sarah retreats around the corner to drink her tea and can’t help overhearing Steve and Bucky’s conversation, their voices low.

“What time is it?”

“Around four. You’ve been asleep for most of the day.”

“I’m sorry,” she hears Bucky say. “I…I just barged in on you. And then I just slept all day, I didn’t even do anything –”

“It’s fine, Buck,” Steve says. “Seriously.” There’s a pause. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Bucky’s voice has suddenly gone flat.

“You were drunk, Bucky. You begged me not to make you go back. And then you…you know.”

“I’m sorry.” There’s no inflection in Bucky’s voice. “It won’t happen again.”

“Jesus, Buck, that’s not what I’m saying. “I just…what happened?”

Sarah feels bad for eavesdropping, but it’s not like they’re being quiet, and the apartment is much too small for privacy. Besides, this is important. There are things she needs to know, things Bucky might not want to say to an adult.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bucky says after a long pause.

“Okay. But, I mean, when you…last night. Did you mean it?”

“Mean what.”

“You kissed me.”

Sarah blinks in surprise, stifling her slight gasp. She’s suspected that Steve has a crush on Bucky, but it sounds like it might be reciprocated. Now she truly feels like she’s eavesdropping, but it’s impossible to stop listening.

“I…I don’t…I don’t know–”

“You said you owed me. You said something about paying me back.”

Sarah puts a hand over her mouth, stomach churning with nausea. Oh god. What child views sex as currency? 

Unfortunately, the answer is grim.

“I–I don’t…it’s not…I…” Bucky audibly struggles. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry about what?”

“I…I just…I don’t really remember.”

“Oh.”

“Can we just…can we just forget about this? Please,” Bucky adds, a note of desperation in his voice. “I’m sorry I fucked things up again, and I understand if you don’t want to be friends with me anymore –”

“Whoa, whoa. What? Bucky. Of course I want to be friends with you. What are you talking about?”

“I always fuck everything up,” he says, and there’s something ugly in his voice. “And you’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time and I ruined it because I’m a horrible person and I can’t do anything right and you shouldn’t be friends with me–”

“Bucky, Bucky. Stop!” There’s a sharp intake of breath from someone. “Stop,” Steve says firmly. “You didn’t fuck anything up. Bucky, come on. I’m the one who wanted to be friends with you in the first place. I couldn’t believe you actually wanted to be my friend, too. I’m short and scrawny and prickly and–and too outspoken and I hate people helping me. I don’t have a lot of friends because of that. And you’re really nice, and smart, and you always stick up for me, and I’m really glad we became friends. You didn’t ruin anything. Stop saying you did.”

“Okay,” Bucky whispers. And then, "I think you’re the best person I’ve ever met.”

“There’s nothing special about me.”

“Yes there is.” Bucky sounds sure for the first time since she met him. “Everything about you is special. I don’t know how to have friends, but I’ve wanted you to be mine since the day we met.”

“Bucky,” Steve says softly. He sounds fragile. “I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Then no one’s been very nice.”

Steve laughs quietly. Sarah backs away into the kitchen and braces her hands against the counter, taking deep breaths until she can compose herself again. A few minutes later there’s the sound of footfalls and Bucky appears, looking calmer and more together than he has so far.

“You can stay for dinner, if you’d like,” Sarah says, forcing her voice level.

Bucky shakes his head. “No, that’s–that’s okay. I should get back.”

“Do you want me to drive you?”

“No!” He visibly pales and swallows. “No, it’s fine.” He twists his sweatshirt strings in his fingers. “Thank you for letting me stay, Mrs. Rogers. I’m sorry I intruded.”

“You’re welcome anytime,” she says again, hoping that with enough repetition it will stick. 

He nods and grabs his shoes from Steve’s room, finally emerging and lingering by the door, looking like he’d do anything not to have to leave. Sarah’s heart breaks for him.

“I’ll see you on Monday?” Steve asks.

Bucky nods. 

“Let me walk you out,” Sarah says.

Steve waves, watching them go from the doorway, and Bucky follows Sarah down the stairs and out onto the street. He hesitates, biting his lip and looking uncertain, and she jumps at the chance.

“Bucky,” she says. “If there’s ever anything you want to talk about, you can come to me. You can tell me anything.”

His face closes off, going expressionless, and his jaw clenches. “Okay,” he says flatly.

Sarah curses herself. It’s too soon. She shouldn’t have pushed. She gives him a small smile. “Okay,” she echoes. “Be safe.”

He gives her one last suspicious look and then nods before setting off. She has no doubt it’s a long walk, but trying to get him in a car with her is a foregone conclusion.

She sighs, hoping what waits for him at home is peace. It probably isn’t, but she can hope. She turns and goes back inside to find Steve sitting on the couch with a troubled expression. 

“You heard everything, didn’t you,” he says.

She sits down next to him with a sigh. “Yes.”

“I’m worried about him, mom.”

She wraps an arm around him and pulls him close, pressing a kiss to his temple. “I know, hon. So am I.”

She feels a surge of pride in her son, who is so incredibly kind and empathetic sometimes that it hurts. He’s got a core of strength in him that amazes her. Every inch of his small frame is filled with goodness, and sometimes she wonders at how she brought such a person into the world. She would give her life for him a thousand times over. 

She wonders if Bucky has ever felt that sort of unconditional love. If anyone has ever held him in their arms and said I’ve got you. If they’ve looked him in the eye and said I’m on your side. 

Well, he’s got her on his side now, she thinks. Whatever is going on, she’s going to find out. And by God, if she finds out anyone has laid a hand on that child, she will not rest until she’s seen them razed to the ground.

Chapter Text

“Fuck off, Rogers!”

“Make me,” Steve snarls, tipping his chin up defiantly. Higgins sneers, towering over him, and Steve balls his hands into fists, bracing for a blow that never comes.

Higgins blanches, stepping back and looking at something over Steve’s shoulder. Steve doesn’t have to turn to know what it is. Or rather, who.

Bucky’s arm brushes his as he comes to stand beside him, expression set in what Sam has affectionately dubbed his “murder face.” 

“Whatever,” Higgins scoffs, turning away. “You’re not worth it, anyway.”

“That’s right, run away!” Steve shouts after him. He turns to Bucky, smiling. “Hey.”

“Hey.” The tension eases from Bucky’s face as he scans Steve for injuries. “You okay?”

Steve rolls his eyes. “I don’t need you to fight my battles for me, Buck.”

“I know.” Bucky hurries to keep up as Steve strides down the hallway, people parting for them like the red sea. “I worry about you, is all.”

“I’m touched. You get your grade for the history paper back yet?”

“Yeah. Mr. Lee said he couldn’t give me full credit since it was super late, but I got an eighty.”

“That’s great! You want to study for the test together this weekend?”

Bucky bites his lip, eyes downcast. “Um, I’ll see. I don’t know if I can sneak out.”

“Yeah, no, I totally understand.” Steve stops at his locker and spins the dial, putting in the combination on muscle memory. “Your fake dad is a total dick.”

“Don’t say that,” Bucky grits out. “You don’t know him.”

Bucky still refuses to admit that his adoptive father is a shitty excuse for a human being, and Steve still doesn’t understand it. Why would he defend him? As far as he knows, Pierce restricts Bucky’s life to the nth degree and Bucky seems to hate going home. But every time Steve brings it up, he shuts down or changes the subject. 

“He’s trying his best, I know, whatever,” Steve says in annoyance. “Point is, it sucks that we can’t even hang out unless you sneak out. I mean, aren’t you allowed to have friends?”

Bucky shrugs, looking uncomfortable. Steve sighs. Honestly, Bucky is impossible when it comes to Pierce.

“What if you told him I’m tutoring you?” he suggests. “Then he’d have to let you come over.”

Bucky frowns, but he looks like he’s considering it. “I don’t think he’d buy it.”

“You don’t know until you try. Tell him something, anything, it doesn’t matter. Come on, I want to see you more. Please?” He turns wide eyes on Bucky, sticking out his lower lip.

Bucky narrows his eyes. “Just because you make that face doesn’t mean I’ll do whatever you want.”

Steve widens his eyes more. “Pleeease?”

“Okay, fine!” Bucky tips his head back to look at the ceiling in exasperation. “Come on, we’re gonna be late.” 

Steve grins, shutting his locker and happily following Bucky into History. 

Five minutes into class, he sees Bucky nodding off, eyelids drooping. Bucky always seems exhausted, but it’s worse in the mornings. His eyes have a glazed sort of look to them and he can’t seem to focus on anything. He’s like a zombie. Steve keeps telling him he needs to get more sleep; Bucky keeps deflecting.

He subtly kicks Bucky under the desk. Bucky jerks upright, drawing a few glances, but they look away as soon as Bucky’s head swings around to them. Since the incident with Kyle, everyone gives Bucky a wide berth. It’s like they think he’s a psycho killer or something. It makes Steve sad, because under the hair and the glower and the all-black clothing, Bucky is the sweetest person he’s ever met. He just wishes other people saw that.

“Pop quiz!” Mr. Lee says, and the class groans. “The test is next week, you should all be studying by now.”

There’s disgruntled murmuring as the quiz is passed out. Steve looks down at the questions and scribbles down answers – it’s incredibly easy. Next to him, Bucky is frowning down at the paper. Minutes tick by, and Bucky writes nothing. When Mr. Lee finally collects them, his quiz is blank. 

“Hey.” Steve nudges his chair with his foot. “You okay?”

Bucky shakes his head and drops it onto his forearms on the desk, not looking up for the rest of class. 

 

“I told Pierce we have a group project for History,” Bucky says the next day at lunch. “I can go over to your house on Sundays only. I thought maybe…we could study together?”

“Bucky, that’s great!” Steve grins, ecstatic. 

“I told him the project would take the rest of the semester. I mean, if it’s okay…I don’t–I don’t have to come over if you don’t want me to–” 

“Bucky. Of course I want you to come over. If it was up to me, you’d be over every day.”

Bucky blushes slightly, ducking his head and fiddling with his fork. “Okay,” he says shyly.

That weekend, Steve wakes early on Sunday morning, brimming with excited energy. The thought of Bucky being able to come over every weekend is incredible. He had lied to Pierce, too, which is unlike him. Steve thinks he is a fantastic influence on Bucky.

Bucky arrives at nine, armed with his History materials. Steve’s mom greets him warmly, plying him with tea and cookies that Bucky accepts with wide eyes and murmured thanks, and they retreat to the living room to spread out on the couch, sitting cross-legged at either end with their things arrayed between them. 

“How are you feeling about this test?” Steve asks.

Bucky grimaces, looking down and picking at his jeans with one hand. “I, um. I don’t think I’m going to do very well.”

“Why not?”

Bucky shrugs. “I just…I don’t know any of it. I try to pay attention and I just can’t, and I do the work but it just doesn’t stick in my head.”

He sounds miserable. Steve’s never had a problem with history – he loves it, in fact – and he can pretty much recite any event backwards and forwards. The studying was just an excuse to see Bucky. But now that he’s here, it seems Bucky really does need to study.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll help you. Don’t worry, you’re gonna do fine.”

 

“This is stupid,” Bucky says angrily an hour later, slamming the book shut. “This isn’t working. I don’t know any of this and I’m going to fail because I’m so fucking stupid and I can’t remember anything.” He drops his head into his hands and digs his fingers into his scalp, chest hitching with frustrated breaths. 

“Hey, hey.” Steve grabs his wrists, pulling them away from his head gently. “You’re not stupid, Buck. You were the only person who got a hundred on that chem quiz, remember?”

“That’s different.”

“Just cause you’re not good at history doesn’t make you stupid. History is stupid. Mr. Lee is so boring I don’t know how anyone learns anything.”

“You do.”

“Yeah, well, I’m weird. I like history.”

“You’re not weird,” Bucky grumbles. Steve smiles slightly, thumbs rubbing circles on Bucky’s wrists. The material of his left one is smooth and slightly warm to the touch, his thumb catching on the divide between plates.

Bucky glances down, seeming to realize that Steve’s still touching him, and pulls his hands away like he’s been burned. Steve feels a pang of disappointment followed by sadness. Bucky is still so self-conscious of his prosthetic, and Steve doesn’t know how to tell him that it doesn’t matter to him, that it’s just another part of Bucky. 

“Hey, how about we take a break,” he says instead. Bucky sighs and nods, then gets up to follow Steve into the kitchen. Steve’s mom is at the kitchen table doing a crossword, and she looks up at their arrival, smiling.

“Hey. How’s the studying going?”

“It’s going,” Steve replies. 

His mom laughs and returns to her crossword, pen tapping thoughtfully against her lips. Steve rummages in the cupboard, sorting through a few snacks before holding up a half-empty box of oreos.

“Want to finish these off?” he asks Bucky.

Bucky’s eyes widen and he glances between Steve and his mom. “Is that allowed?”

“Yeah, of course.” Steve sets the box on the counter and gets milk out of the fridge, pouring it into a glass. “You want milk with them?”

“Sure.”

Steve gets another glass and fills it, sliding it over to Bucky as they both lean against the counter. He takes an oreo and separates the two sides, dunking the plain one in the milk and popping it into his mouth. Bucky hesitantly dunks his entire cookie in the milk and shoves it into his mouth in one go.

“I’ve never had oreos and milk before,” he says once he’s swallowed. “Only cookies and milk. Sometimes Renata leaves some out for me.”

“Who’s Renata?”

“The maid,” he replies, and Steve can’t even imagine being rich enough to have a maid. “She cleans everything and makes all the food.”

“What, Pierce doesn’t cook?” Though now that he thinks about it, he really can’t imagine Pierce cooking.

Bucky gives him a strange look. “No. Renata puts everything in containers, so if the fridge isn’t locked I just eat those.”

“Wha–wait, hold on.” Steve reels back in horror. “What do you mean, ‘if the fridge isn’t locked’? Does Pierce lock the fridge?”

“Yes?” Bucky frowns. “So I can’t get into it.”

“Oh my god. That’s–that’s awful. How do you eat anything?”

“No, it’s not–it’s not that bad,” Bucky says hurriedly, eyes wide. “I eat at school. And, I mean, it’s only when I’ve done something wrong, when I deserve it.”

“No you don’t.” Steve stares at Bucky, feeling nauseous. “Of course you don’t deserve that. Pierce shouldn’t do that to you.”

“No, you don’t–” Bucky’s face creases in frustration. “It’s not his fault. I’m–I’m difficult. It’s not like he wants to do it. I make him.”

“Bucky, he chooses to do that. You’re not making him do anything.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky insists stubbornly, voice quiet and eyes averted. “It hasn’t happened in a while, anyway. Can we just forget about it?”

Steve is about to protest that there’s no way he’s forgetting about this, but he hesitates as he sees Bucky’s clenched jaw, the resentful glint in his eye. Arguing about this isn’t going to change Bucky’s mind, he realizes, just drive Bucky away. And then how is he supposed to help him?

“Okay,” he says, and sees the naked relief on Bucky’s face. “Want to try studying some more?”

Bucky nods, and they collect their glasses and cookies, trailing back towards the living room. Steve looks back as they pass, catching his mom’s eye, and sees the tight set to her mouth. She gives him a nod, eyes full of anger, and Steve knows she heard it too. He’s not the only one who thinks what Pierce is doing is wrong. He’s not the only one who thinks something bad is going on with Bucky. 

Steve helps Bucky study for hours, quizzing him and telling him stories about history to make it more interesting. And when they take the test that week, Bucky emerges looking tired and anxious but hopeful. The next weekend, Bucky comes over again, and they work on Chemistry homework together in between episodes of the Great British Baking Show. 

They both have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to Chemistry, but between them they ace every assignment. Steve loves learning the shape of molecules, can put them together in his head and draw them from memory, but when it comes to doing calculations, he’s terrible. Bucky struggles with memorization, but put a formula in front of him and he solves it every time. 

He’s really smart, Steve is learning; more than that, he’s a nerd. He reads textbooks for fun and gets excited about reactions, and even admitted that he has a cache of novels under his bed.

“I stole them from the library,” he whispers to Steve. “I just hid them in my backpack and walked out.”

Steve hoards the scraps of information he gets from Bucky, the tiny things he lets slip and the secrets he tells. Bucky never tells him much, if anything, but it’s enough to start to put together a picture of who he is, the life he’s led.

“My parents died when I was ten,” he says as they lay on Steve’s bed, homework forgotten between them.

“My dad died before I was born,” Steve offers in return.

Sometimes Steve can coax out more, but sometimes Bucky shuts down instead.

“I have a little sister,” Bucky says another day. “I haven’t seen her in over four years.”

“Why not?” Steve asks.

Bucky’s expression closes off and he looks away. “It doesn’t matter.”

At these times, Steve doesn’t push, though he desperately wants to. It’s enough that Bucky is trusting him with these small pieces of himself.

There are other times where Bucky doesn’t have to say anything. Where his actions speak louder than his words.

“How did that test go?” Steve’s mom asks, and Bucky bites his lip.

“Okay. I got a ninety.”

His mom beams. “That’s wonderful! I know you worked so hard. You should be so proud of yourself.”

Bucky looks like he could be bowled over by a feather. His expression is a mixture of longing and wonder and disbelief all at once, and as Steve watches, a small, shy smile breaks out over his face, making his eyes sparkle with life. He looks at Steve’s mom like she could tell him to jump off a cliff and he’d rush to obey. He looks like no one has ever given him a single word of praise in his life.

Steve’s never felt so grateful for his mom in his life. His mom, who is warm and kind and always listens and supports him, no matter what. His mom, who taught him that what is on the inside matters more than the outside. His mom, who tells him to always stand up for what is right. He can’t imagine life without her.

Bucky’s never had that, he thinks. Or, if he did, it’s long gone. But Steve knows his mother, and the endless well of her love, and thinks she can spare some for Bucky, too. Bucky is theirs now. Fuck Pierce’s abusive ass, Steve thinks; they’re Bucky’s family now, and if there’s one thing to say about the Rogers, it’s that they’ll fight the entire world to keep their family safe.

 

 

Halloween is fast approaching, and teachers struggle even harder to get kids to pay attention, everyone preoccupied with holiday plans. Tony is throwing a Halloween party again this year, and it promises to be the biggest event in school. Everyone is invited, costumes are mandatory, and alcohol will undoubtedly be flowing with abandon. Steve’s never really been a party person, but his friends have cajoled him into attending for two years running, and he’s even coordinated a costume with Sam, so it’s not like he can back out now. They’re going as Captain America and the Falcon, a comic book superhero duo, and Sam has even made fake wings and a jetpack out of cardboard, red goggles strapped around his head. Steve has a red, white, and blue outfit planned out, with a cardboard shield that he feels extremely dorky carrying around.

When the topic comes up at the lunch table – it seems to be the only thing anyone is talking about anymore – he turns to Bucky, heart fluttering in his chest.

“So,” he says casually, “are you going to the party?”

Bucky frowns and shrugs. “I don’t know. Nat mentioned it, but…” 

“You should come,” Steve says when Bucky doesn’t elaborate. “It’s actually pretty fun.”

“I don’t have a costume.”

“That’s okay. We can think of something.”

Bucky gives him a doubtful look. “The party is this weekend.”

Steve shrugs. “You don’t have to have a fancy costume or anything. Some people just put on cat ears and call it good. I’m sure we can come up with something.”

Bucky still looks unsure, but considering, so Steve presses his advantage. “You don’t even have to stay a long time, or drink, or anything. But everyone here–” he gestures to the lunch table “–is gonna be there, so it’s not like you won’t know anyone.”

Bucky chews on his lip. “Okay,” he finally says. “I’ll…maybe.”

Steve beams.

 

The party is the Saturday after Halloween, so Steve spends the day with Sam, Bucky, and Nat, watching movies and eating the leftover candy they’d bought to hand out on Halloween, and Sam’s mom makes them hot apple cider and pumpkin cookies which they quickly demolish. They order pizza for dinner and then begin the process of getting into their costumes, Clint arriving later with a plastic bow and suction-cup arrows for his Robin Hood costume. Steve still doesn’t know what Bucky’s costume is, as he’s been closed-lipped about it, and Natasha quickly hustles him off to the bathroom and closes the door so he resigns himself to waiting for the final product. 

Everyone is just about ready when Bucky shuffles from the bathroom, and the sight of him takes Steve’s breath away.

He’s dressed as Furiosa, with a dingy white t-shirt, tight black skinny jeans, and an assortment of leather belts around his waist. His eyes and forehead are smeared with black, hair hanging down around his face and goggles perched on his head, and Steve thinks he has never been more attracted to anyone in his life. The crowning piece, however, is his arm.

Steve has never seen the entirety of Bucky’s prosthetic, but it’s on display now, shiny metal clearly visible, and Steve finds himself wanting to draw it, to trace the delicate plates. Bucky is hunching as if trying to make himself smaller, uncertainty on his face as his eyes find Steve’s, searching for validation.

Steve grins.

“Bucky, you look amazing!”

And just like that, Bucky exhales, tension draining from his body as he gives Steve a tentative smile. The others echo Steve’s sentiment, enthusiastically praising his costume, and Nat squeezes his arm, giving him a meaningful look that Steve doesn’t know how to interpret. She’s dressed up as a zombie – or more accurately, dressed down – in baggy, frayed jeans and an oversized flannel spattered with red paint, face artfully made up to look dead and rotting and hair wild. She looks exceedingly comfortable compared to everyone else, and clearly not trying to be “sexy” like so many of the ridiculous costumes for girls.  Not that Steve is judging girls who wear sexy costumes, but does everything need to be sexy? It’s Halloween, for crying out loud.

“Awesome,” Clint says, grinning at Natasha, and she grins back, the expression gruesome due to the makeup but somehow more real than he's ever seen, tinted with a childlike excitement.

“Oh, don’t you all look so cool!” Sam’s mom says, phone in hand as she steps into the room. “Let me get some pictures before you go!”

They pose for photos, squishing against each other and striking different poses, splitting up to take individual ones as Sam’s mom clicks away. Steve takes a photo with Sam in their matching costumes, dorky superhero poses turned up to the max, and manages to coax Bucky into a photo of the two of them, preventing him from hiding behind the others. Bucky puts his right arm around Steve’s shoulders, body warm and solid against him, and Steve’s heart beats hard against his breastbone as he wraps an arm around Bucky’s waist, fingers resting over the assortment of belt buckles. He he smiles for the camera, trying to ignore the way Bucky’s body fits against his so perfectly. He now regrets his choice of costume, because the blue leggings don’t leave much to the imagination, and every time he looks at Bucky’s legs in those skinny jeans or the way his shirt clings to his body – which Steve has never seen, always hidden under his hoodies – or the icy blue of his eyes standing out among the black, he finds himself with a problem.

It’s too late to tell himself he’s not crushing hard on Bucky. It was inevitable, really. Before him, his biggest crush had been Sam, but he knew Sam would never see him that way and besides, they’re better as friends. But Bucky…he finds himself wanting to touch, to kiss, to explore parts of himself he’s never really known before, and those feelings have only grown stronger as time goes on. There are still so many things he doesn’t know about Bucky, but what he does know is enough to tell him what kind of person Bucky is, and it’s one he is hopelessly in love with.

He’s scared to make the first move, terrified that it will drive Bucky away, but sometimes…sometimes when Bucky looks at him, he thinks maybe he shares the same feelings. 

Friends, Steve reminds himself as he follows Bucky out onto the street. You’re just friends. Don’t fuck it up.

When they get to Tony’s house, the party is well underway, music pumping from speakers and teenagers spilling out onto the lawn. Tony’s house is huge, with back gardens and even a swimming pool, and Tony himself is flitting to and fro in a suit, drink in hand. 

“Heyyy!” he shouts as he spots their group, hurrying over at a dizzying speed despite the fact that he seems quite drunk already. “Look what the cat dragged in.” He catches sight of Bucky and whistles. “Damn, terminator! Looking good!”

Bucky scowls and steps behind Sam. 

“Tony.” Steve tries to take his attention off Bucky. “What are you?”

Tony gasps, affronted. “I’m Gatsby!”

“Right. You’re just…” Steve gestures weakly to him. “Wearing a suit.”

Tony winks. Then, while Steve is still trying to decipher that, he spins around, glass sloshing dangerously, and yells something before disappearing. 

“Wow,” Sam says.

Steve nods in agreement. 

“You think they have food?” Clint asks.

Natasha hooks her arm through his. “Why don’t we find out?” She turns briefly to Bucky. “You good?”

Bucky nods, and Natasha and Clint wander off, leaving Steve, Sam, and Bucky alone. Bucky is drawing a few looks, but surprisingly not too many, as he looks quite different from usual, no longer huddled into a hoodie like a turtle. Most people assume his arm is part of the costume, and Steve is glad for that, as Bucky gradually relaxes, seemingly coming to the same conclusion as Steve.

“Hey.” Steve has to lean close to Bucky to be heard over the music. “You want to go get a drink or something?” Steve doesn’t really drink much, but he’ll gladly sip on something.

“Sure,” Bucky replies.

Steve repeats himself to Sam, and together they work their way through the crowd, getting jostled and bumped. Bucky’s looking a little on edge, and Steve keeps losing him in the crowd, so when Bucky gets close again he slides his hand through his and holds on tight, heart beating overtime.

Bucky startles, but then his hand tightens around Steve’s, and he lets Steve tug him through the crowd, following the wings on Sam’s back.

They finally find themselves a little pocket of space in the kitchen, where the music is quieter and most of the people have already vacated for the outdoors. Clint and Nat are already there, stuffing their faces with cheese balls as Clint shoots suction cup arrows at the ceiling. Rhodey is chilling near the drink station, his wheelchair decorated to look like the iron throne, and Bruce is in the corner with his face painted green, looking terrified but elated as Betty Ross, white lab coat buttoned up to her chin, rambles excitedly about something.

Steve bypasses the dubious-looking punch bowl and instead pours himself a glass of orange juice with a small splash of vodka. Bucky tips quite a lot more vodka into his cup, and downs the whole thing in one go, barely even wincing, before pouring another. 

“Damn,” Sam says, sounding vaguely impressed. “Just don’t get too drunk. I am not carrying you back to my house.”

Bucky just smirks and takes another drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He seems more confident now, in his element somehow.

“What, you can’t keep up?” he teases.

Sam narrows his eyes. “I am not falling for that. Y’all can get as drunk as you want, but I have some dignity.”

It’s funny, Steve later thinks, looking back on it; because Sam, for all his words, can’t resist a couple drinks, and then a couple more, and then he gets roped into beer pong, leaving Bucky and Steve alone, and by the time they find him again, he’s completely wasted, singing along to the music as he dances with zero inhibition. Steve is worried for a minute, but Sam’s having fun, and the people around him are loving it, his wings flopping all over the place and drawing laughter. 

“Dignity, huh,” Bucky murmurs in Steve’s ear, warm breath making goosebumps prickle along his skin. He’s definitely drunk as well, and Steve is feeling pretty tipsy, everything hazy and swirling and warm. He wants nothing more than to kiss Bucky stupid, but the still-rational part of his brain says that’s a very bad idea.

Bucky’s hand slips into his, warm and slightly sweaty, and he’s murmuring into his ear, asking him if he wants to go outside, and Steve is helpless to do anything but nod. The cool air is refreshing on his skin as they meander out into the gardens, the relative quiet letting Steve take a breath. He shivers as the sweat starts to dry on his skin, the air crisp and chilly even if warm for late October.

“Cold?”

He looks up, and Buck’s face is so close, his eyes bright and clear in the dim light. Steve finds himself leaning in, their faces inches apart, their hands still clasped together, and everything else fades away, the sounds of the party muffled. The moon is rising in the night sky, casting an unearthly glow over everything, and Bucky seems to shine in the moonlight like a silver star. His eyes flicker over Steve’s face, something unknowable in his eyes, and Steve exhales softly as he sways towards him, pulled inextricably by the thread of tension between them – 

And stops. Bucky is still looking at him, brow slightly furrowed, pupils wide, and Steve vividly remembers a night not so long ago, Bucky’s lips pressed to his, mumbled words between them – pay you back – 

He rocks back on his heels, and it’s enough to break the moment, the tension sliding away. It’s not right. Bucky is drunk, and Steve is drunk, and…it’s just not right. He knows Bucky, and he knows he is, not fragile, but vulnerable, and Steve can not take advantage of that. If he initiates this, right now, right here, and Bucky reciprocates, he will never be sure if Bucky really meant it. 

He clears his throat; gives Bucky’s hand a squeeze before letting go. 

“Yeah. I’m pretty chilly. Want to go back inside?” 

Bucky nods, but as Steve turns to go in he could swear there’s a flash of disappointment in his eyes. 

 

Eventually, the party starts to wind down, and their group re-forms, significantly more drunk and ragged than at the start. Sam is a little more sober than earlier, and complaining about Nat – who miraculously seems completely sober even though Steve knows she’s been downing vodka all night – forcing him to drink water; Clint is stoned and has lost all of his arrows somehow, though he doesn’t seem to care; and Bucky is clearly tipsy but not too bad off. Steve himself is pretty sober, the buzz of earlier having worn off, though he can already feel a headache starting behind his eyes. Nat, upon hearing this, swoops down on him like a zombie bat and shoves a water bottle in his face. Steve really isn’t sure where she’s getting them from, but it feels pretty good against his flushed skin.

They make their way to Sam’s house, trying to be quiet and failing miserably. Sam’s mom is still up, and she makes them drink even more water before setting them up in the living room with blankets and pillows – as well as a few trash cans. They’d all brought their overnight bags, so they take turns using the bathroom to change and wash off any makeup before collapsing onto their various spots on the floor. Natasha is on the couch, as she won the spot in a game of rock-paper-scissors, and Steve is very jealous. 

He and Bucky end up next to each other, and as the lights go out Steve turns onto his side toward him, eyes tracing over Bucky’s profile, skin once more free of black paint. 

“Did you have fun tonight?” he asks quietly, though the others are still settling down, Clint swearing as he bangs his shin on the coffee table. 

“Yeah.” Bucky rolls to face Steve as well, metal arm gleaming in the sliver of moonlight peeking through the window. “Thank you. For inviting me.”

“Of course. I’m glad you came.”

Bucky smiles, a small upturn of his lips, and his eyes are soft and fond as he looks at Steve. “Yeah,” he says. “Me too.”

 

Things go back to normal after the party. They don’t talk about the almost-kiss, though Steve doesn’t even know if he can call it that. It was more of a thought, a singular moment of temptation. Bucky probably didn’t notice anything, and if he did, he’s not acting any differently. They go to classes, they eat lunch together, they study together. It’s a routine, and a comfortable one, except for the fact that Steve’s life is still hell in some ways.

Everyone has learned by now not to mess with Steve when Bucky is around. That doesn’t mean they stop bullying him at all – no, it just means they hide it better.

It happens in the early mornings, before Bucky or Sam arrives. It happens between classes when Bucky isn’t there, with a shove or a cruel word hissed in his ear. Steve doesn’t tell Bucky about it, or anyone else for that matter. It won’t change anything. Kids like Gilmore Hodge have been bullying him since elementary school, and they won’t stop anytime soon. Everyone else, especially Bucky, has other things to worry about. They don’t need to be fretting over Steve as well. He can take care of himself.

Steve is just coming out of gym class one day, waving Sam off to the buses, when Gilmore corners him, looming over him threateningly.

“I saw you looking at me in the locker room,” he growls, mouth twisted in a sneer. “You better keep your little faggot hands to yourself.”

“Like I’d look at you,” Steve returns hotly, feeling anger wash over him even as the rational part of his brain tells him not to antagonize, not to retaliate. “Your face looks like a toad. I bet your own mother can’t even look at you.”

The punch is sudden and swift, knocking him to the ground. He struggles to his feet and attempts to return one of his own but Gilmore knocks his hand away, punching him again. Steve sees stars. Gilmore grabs the front of Steve’s shirt and raises his fist, face twisted in anger.

“You fucking faggot,” he snarls. “I’m gonna beat the shit out of–” 

Bucky hits him like a freight train.

They both go sprawling across the floor, and Gilmore coughs and sputters and then Bucky’s on him, fist flashing through the air as he punches him over and over and over again, not stopping even as Gilmore cries out and cowers under the blows, arms up in a futile attempt to protect his face from the onslaught.  

Steve feels a surge of fear. He struggles to his feet, reaching out for Bucky as he wipes at his bleeding nose.

“Bucky. Bucky, stop.”

Bucky doesn’t stop, eyes chillingly blank and focused.

He’s going to kill him, Steve thinks suddenly. Bucky is going to kill Gilmore.

“Stop!” he shouts, grabbing at Bucky’s arm. “Stop, it, please!”

Bucky pauses, panting, and then the adults are there, pulling him off as he struggles and snarls with wordless rage. Gilmore is lying curled on the ground, sobbing, blood streaming down his broken face, and Steve looks from him to Bucky, horrified.

“What did you do?” he whispers. “What did you do?”

Chapter Text

Bucky stares down at his hands as they rest in his lap, tracing the drops of blood on gleaming metal. Next to him, Steve is slumped in his own chair with his arms crossed, not looking at Bucky. The door opens and Pierce strides in, stopping in front of them with a thunderous expression. Fury, the Vice Principal, is in tow, regarding them with one cool eye, the other hidden under a black eyepatch.

“Would someone like to explain what happened?” Pierce asks. “Because there’s a kid in the hospital with a broken nose right now, and both of you were involved.”

Steve is the first to speak. “Mr. Pierce, it’s…Bucky was just defending me.”

“I don’t want excuses, Mr. Rogers. I want the truth.”

Steve swallows and glances over at Bucky. Bucky keeps his gaze fixed on his lap, everything numb and disconnected. 

It happened again. He nearly beat a kid to death. This time, though, he was defending Steve, not himself. He doesn’t know if that makes it better or worse.

“Gilmore was making homophobic comments to me,” Steve is saying. “So I insulted him. He punched me, and threatened to beat me up, and then Bucky knocked him off me and started hitting him.” He glances at Bucky again. “He was just trying to defend me.”

He doesn’t know why Steve is being so nice. He probably hates him. He had been mad last time, and Bucky hadn’t even hurt Kyle. Steve is never going to want to speak to him again after learning how crazy and dangerous he is.

Pierce sighs. “Thank you, Mr. Rogers. Nick, if you could deal with him. I’ll handle my son.”

Fury nods, ushering Steve out. Steve hesitates in the doorway, looking back and trying to catch Bucky’s eye unsuccessfully. Finally, he turns and walks out, the door swinging shut behind him. Pierce turns to Bucky.

The sound of flesh hitting flesh is loud in the quiet room as Pierce’s hand makes contact with his face. His head snaps to the side, cheek tingling.

“Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused? That kid is in the hospital. You’re lucky his parents aren’t pressing charges.”

Bucky swallows, shame coursing through him. His cheek stings, blood rushing to his face and cold sweat starting at the back of his neck, his fingertips going numb.

“You’re suspended for a week,” Pierce says, composed once more. “We’ll discuss your punishment at home. Hopefully this time you’ll learn your lesson for good.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky whispers.

“Get out of my sight. I don’t even want to look at you.” Pierce turns away in disgust.

Bucky gets up, moving stiffly to the door. The hallways are quiet as he walks through them, all the students gone, and the cool fall air raises goosebumps on his skin as he steps outside. He crosses the parking lot and gets into his car, putting his hands on the steering wheel. His eyes fall on the blood still caught between metal plates and he tips his head forward to rest it against the wheel, a hitching sob escaping his chest. He allows himself only a few moments to fall apart before he composes himself and starts his car, heading home.

It’s hours before Pierce gets home, and Bucky is waiting, watching as Pierce dismisses Renata and strolls into the kitchen, filling a glass with a small amount of milk and sipping it slowly. Bucky’s heart is pounding in his chest, limbs filled with a shivery feeling, and nausea clenches at his throat, making it hard to breathe. Pierce drains his glass, rolling it between his fingers contemplatively.

Bucky barely has time to raise his arms before the glass shatters against them, shards slicing open fragile skin. Pierce strides forward and grabs him by the hair, throwing him to the floor where he curls, blood dripping down his forearm.

“I dig a little digging,” Pierce says casually, voice almost bored. “And it turns out there is no history project. You’ve been lying to me, James.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky chokes out, dread coiling in his insides. Pierce knows about Steve.

A kick to his ribs has him gasping and curling tighter, shielding himself with his metal arm.

There’s a squeak, and Bucky looks up to see Renata frozen in the doorway, mouth agape.

“I…I forgot my phone…”

Pierce sighs. “Oh Renata. I do wish you would’ve knocked.”

“I’m calling the police,” she says, seeming to regain some semblance of speech.

Pierce waves a hand. “Very well then.”

Renata gives him a suspicious look, then edges past him to pick up her phone, bringing it to her ear. Her eyes flit between Pierce and Bucky, wide with stunned horror.

911, what is your emergency?

“I am in Alexander Pierce’s house and he is hurting his son,” she says, voice accented thickly with distress.

Pierce watches quietly and Bucky shifts to sit up against the cabinets, cradling his bloodied arm.

“Yes. Yes, that’s correct. Thank you.”

Renata sets down the phone. “The police are on their way.”

Pierce smiles. “Yes, I’m sure.”

Run, Bucky wants to scream at Renata. Run away and don’t come back.

The police arrive ten minutes later – or rather, Pierce’s lackeys arrive. 

“Evening, officers,” Pierce says. “We’ve had a bit of a misunderstanding here. James broke a glass, you see, but this lovely woman seems to think I had something to do with it.”

“I saw you!” Renata cries. “You kicked him!”

“I’m sure you thought you did. It’s alright, I know you must be tired. It’s so easy to mistake things. Officers, if you would be so kind as to escort her from the premises?”

“What? Wait, no, you cannot do this!”

“Come along, ma’am,” the first officer says, taking her arm. “We’ll get this all straightened out, don’t worry.”

The door closes behind them. The second officer raises an eyebrow at Bucky, then turns to Pierce.

“Don’t worry, we’ll handle it.”

“See that you do.”

The officer shoots Bucky one last leer, winking, before walking out. Pierce turns back to Bucky.

“Now, where were we?”

 

 

Bucky sobs, tears spilling down his face and mingling with the blood as it drips to the floor. Everything hurts, one eye swelling shut and back burning with every breath, dizziness threatening to overtake him. Pierce crouches in front of him, grasping his bloodied chin in a firm grip until he meets his eyes. 

“You know I never like hurting you," he says. "This is for your own good. You lied to me, James, and I can’t abide liars.” His other hand comes up to push a strand of Bucky’s hair out of his face, and the touch is so gentle that Bucky’s breath hitches in a sob. 

“That Steve Rogers is a very bad influence on you. Since you’ve met him, you’ve been fighting, you’ve been lying, you’ve been getting arrested…I think it’s for the best that you don’t see him again.”

Bucky lets out a whimper. No. Steve is his friend. 

“I know it’s hard. But look at what he’s done to you. Your illness is getting worse. You’re out of control, James.”

He shakes his head, making a muted sound of protest. No.

Pierce’s tightens his grip on his chin. “You put a boy in the hospital today. You’re dangerous. I’m just trying to protect you, and everyone around you. You know I’m right.”

Another tear slips down Bucky’s cheek silently. 

Pierce is always right. Bucky is bad, and he deserves to be punished for what he’s done. Except…except there’s a voice in his head that sounds like Steve, saying you don’t deserve this. This isn’t okay. 

“James.” Pierce gives his head a shake. “Look at me.”

He looks, and Pierce’s gaze is sure and steady, like the eye of a storm. How can he not trust Pierce, when he has done so much for him? Steve doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know Pierce like Bucky does. Pierce is kind, and he works so hard, and he asks so little of Bucky. He’s trying to help him, even though Bucky is difficult. 

You deserve this, says his head.

No you don’t, cries his heart.

“You’re nothing,” Pierce says. “You’re a worthless cripple, but I took you in and made you something more. And now you’re turning to other people instead of me, listening to them. Why is that? Why are you so ungrateful?”

Bucky’s lip trembles, eyes squeezing shut briefly. 

“I’ve tried to teach you, time and time again, but you just refuse to learn. Maybe I’m wrong to expect much from you – I know it’s hard for you to grasp things. But I thought I taught you well enough. Now it seems I’ve been spoiling you, allowing you too much freedom. Too many outside influences on your vulnerable mind. That won’t go on. You’re going to spend this week thoroughly learning your lesson until it sticks, and then I expect you to show improvement in your behavior. You will no longer associate with the Rogers boy, and you will be home whenever you aren’t at school or work. Medication will be strictly regulated. Food privileges will resume on a trial basis. Understood?”

Bucky nods slightly. Pierce’s nails cuts into his flesh.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky whispers through split lips. 

“Good.” Pierce grabs the pill bottle on the counter and shakes two out. Bucky opens his mouth, and swallows the pills when they’re given to him. Pierce pats his cheek. 

“Dr. Zola will be here soon. After he’s finished treating you, you’ll be confined to your room until I release you.”

He stands, and Bucky slumps back onto the floor, curling into himself as much as he can. Dr. Zola arrives minutes later, a short man with beady eyes behind round spectacles, forehead permanently dotted with sweat. 

“Oh my,” he tuts as he sets his medical bag down, looking Bucky over. “What are we to do with you?”

He helps Bucky onto the couch and then begins to inspect his injuries, poking and prodding without care for gentleness. He’s been on Pierce’s payroll for years, which means instead of going to the emergency room and raising questions, all Bucky’s injuries over the years have been treated quietly, away from prying eyes. Of all the people who have touched his body, Bucky thinks he hates Zola the most. 

His ribs are bruised, and the gash in his right arm needs stitches. His back is a mess of bruises and welts, but it will heal. His face is rapidly purpling, cheekbone swelling where it had connected with the edge of the counter. Pierce never uses his fists; he prefers not to dirty or injure his hands. 

Zola patches him up with cold, uncaring hands and escorts him to his room, locking him in. Bucky eases his aching body onto his bed, the drugs making everything hazy and distant.

Under his bed, his burner phone buzzes. He dangles an arm down and grabs it from its hiding place, checking the messages.

Steve [3:30pm]: Buck are you okay?

Steve [3:43pm]: I’m not mad. I just want to talk.

Steve [4:52pm]: Bucky I’m rly worried about you

Steve [5:01pm]: Text me back when you can

Steve [7:20pm]: please

Steve [8:00pm]: I hope you’re okay

Bucky turns the phone on silent and drops it back under the bed, out of sight. He curls up again, breathing shallowly against the pain, and lets the drugs pull him under.

 

 

Steve [Tues, 7:30am]: I heard you got suspended hope you’re doing okay

Steve [Tues, 3:15pm]: I have detention but VP Fury was actually pretty cool about everything

Steve [Tues, 10:00pm]: Goodnight. Hope you’re ok

Steve [Wed, 12:14pm]: Everyone at the table says they miss you. Even Sam.

Steve [Thurs, 4:00pm]: Did Pierce find your phone?

Steve [Fri, 3:32pm]: Everyone’s really worried about you

Steve [Sat, 11:25am]: pls text me back

Steve [Sun, 12:03pm]: I guess you’re not coming over ?

Steve [Sun, 11:30pm]: Bucky please let me know you’re okay I’m so worried

 

 

A new maid is in the kitchen when he gets home, her eyes sliding past him. He spares a thought to wonder what happened to Renata, then limps upstairs. 

 

 

The assortment of bruises collected over the week have mostly faded by the time Bucky goes back to school – at least, the visible ones. He dabs concealer on the lingering green-yellow of his face and dresses in layers with a hoodie and leather jacket on top, scarf wrapped around his throat. He slinks into History five minutes before it starts and tries to ignore the way Steve sits up straight as he sees him, eyes searching and worried.

“Bucky,” Steve says as Bucky sits down. “I tried texting you but you wouldn’t respond, what happened?”

He sounds so concerned, so genuine. But Bucky has spent a week in hell, every day a new torture, a new hurt. Every day locked in his room unless he was seeing a client or running drugs, escorted everywhere by Rumlow. Every day Pierce telling him how he’s helping him, how Steve isn’t a good influence. And Bucky is tired. He is so tired, the haze of drugs making his mind scattered and dull, the fog of pain hanging over everything. He doesn’t want to think, doesn’t want to do anything but what he knows. And what he knows is that he cannot be friends with Steve anymore, even if it feels like ripping his own heart out.

“Leave me alone,” he growls, ignoring the stunned hurt on Steve’s face as he turns away and buries his head in his arms, wishing the floor could swallow him up.

After a week of missing classes, Bucky is even more behind than he was. He can’t find it in him to care. 

Ms. Martinelli makes him stay behind after English. He’d done the reading, but he’s missed a week’s worth of quizzes and lecture. Somehow, disappointing her is worse than anything.

“How are you doing?” she asks, as if she genuinely cares. 

“Fine,” Bucky mumbles.

“Are you free during lunch? You can make up all the quizzes you missed. I know missing a whole week must have been rough.”

Bucky glances up in surprise. “I can make them up?”

“Of course.”

“Oh. Okay. I mean, I’m free now.” He’s starving, and lunch will be the first time he’s eaten since yesterday afternoon, but at least he doesn’t have to go to the cafeteria and face Steve.

“Great! Just have a seat.” Ms. Martinelli rummages through her desk, finding a paper clipped stack of quizzes and setting them on his desk. “Take your time, and let me know if you have any questions.”

He nods, and gets to work answering the questions about the readings. The cut on his arm still twinges as he writes, the skin itching around the stitches. Zola should be taking them out today.

By the time he’s finished, lunch is half over. He hands in his quizzes and sets off towards the cafeteria, getting his food and relocating to an empty table in the corner. He can see Steve and his friends at their table, questioning looks thrown his way, and watches as Natasha gets up, coming over to him and sliding into the seat on his right.

“What happened?” she asks softly.

Bucky hunches his shoulders. “He found out I lied to him about the group project so I could see Steve.”

“Oh, Bucky.” She rests a slim hand on his arm and he twitches. 

“I can’t be friends with him anymore,” he says dully. 

“We’ll figure something out. He doesn’t have to know–”

“He always knows,” Bucky snaps. “Just…I can’t, Nat.”

“Don’t give up. I know Steve won’t.”

“Steve’s an idiot,” he hisses. “He’s better off without me.”

“You can’t believe that.”

“Leave it, Natashka.”

“Bucky–”

“No.”

Natasha’s expression hardens. “I told you to fight for him.”

“Because you’re a stupid little girl who doesn’t understand how the world works.”

She recoils like he’s slapped her, anger flashing across her features. 

“Fuck you,” she hisses. 

Bucky curls his lip, huffing a bitter laugh. “Wouldn’t be the first.”

“Don’t do this, Bucky,” she warns.

“Do what? Tell the truth? Lying’s what fucked everything up in the first place.”

“You wouldn’t have to lie if Pierce wasn’t such a monster.”

“He’s not a monster.”

“Yes he is. How can you not see it?” Natasha’s eyes are wet and desperate. “He’s killing you. He’s killing you and you’re letting him.”

“I didn’t ask for your opinion.” Bucky stands, picking up his tray. “Go back to your whorehouse, Natashka, and stop interfering in things you know nothing about.”

Natasha stands, vibrating with rage. Her hands clench into fists as she blocks his path.

“What are you going to do?” Bucky asks, voice dripping with venom. “Hit me?”

She falters, and Bucky shoves past her, dumping his tray out before stalking from the cafeteria. A tear slips down his face and he dashes it away angrily. He ducks into the bathroom and spends the rest of lunch huddled in a stall, and when Chemistry comes he ignores Steve’s attempts to talk to him, writing notes in silence. 

As soon as lab starts, Steve turns to him. “Bucky,” he says. “Come on, talk to me.”

“Nothing to talk about,” Bucky says shortly. He writes his name on the lab. “What are we doing?”

Steve sighs and explains the lab. They work in silence, only talking when necessary, and Bucky can feel the waves of hurt confusion coming from Steve. When class ends, Bucky sees Mr. Jarvis for the missed labs and makes an appointment to make them up during lunch periods so he doesn't have to deal with anyone. The hallways are mostly empty by the time he leaves, but Steve is waiting for him outside the classroom, not deterred when Bucky starts walking away. He hurries after him, short legs working double the pace of Bucky’s.

“Bucky, please, just talk to me. What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Bucky returns, and is brought up short when Steve plants himself in front of him, cutting off his escape. “Leave me alone, Steve.”

“No,” Steve says stubbornly, chin jutted out. “Not until you talk to me.”

“What do you want me to say?”

Steve gestures with his hands in the air. “I don’t know, anything! Why you haven’t been responding, what happened last week, why you’re ignoring me…” 

Bucky grits his teeth, heart pounding in his chest. “I can’t be friends with you anymore.”

“What? Why not?” Steve narrows his eyes. “Is this because of Pierce?”

“Why does everyone think that?” Bucky half-shouts, hands curling into fists. 

“Because it’s true!”

“Fuck off!” Bucky snarls, taking a menacing step closer to Steve. “You don’t know anything about me, or my life!”

“I know he hurts you, doesn’t he?”  

Bucky falters. Steve’s eyes are blue and intense, and for a moment Bucky wants nothing more than to drown in them. Then he shakes himself, anger snapping back into place.

“You don’t know anything,” he spits. “Just leave me alone.”

“Why?”

Bucky summons every scrap of anger he has and hurls it at Steve. “Because I don’t want to be your friend,” he bites out cruelly, feeling his heart break with every word. Steve should hate him. It’s the only way. “I hate you. You ruined my life. I wish I’d never met you.”

He sees the moment Steve’s heart shatters, for it’s the moment his does as well. 

He doesn’t wait for a response. He pushes past Steve and flees to the parking lot, shutting himself in his car before hunching over the steering wheel and starting to sob.

Chapter Text

Steve sobs into his mom’s arms as she rubs his back comfortingly, rocking them back and forth.

“He said he hated me,” he chokes out. “I don’t understand what I did wrong.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” his mom murmurs, pressing a kiss to his hair. “You know he didn’t mean it, not really. He’s just hurting, baby.”

“I know , but why won’t he let me help him?” Steve sniffs and hiccoughs. “I know Pierce is hurting him. He didn’t even deny it. Instead he–he–” He bursts into another round of tears.

His mom sighs, tightening her arms around him. “That’s how these things work, I’m afraid.” She pulls him back to cup his cheeks, thumbing away his tears. “People who have been hurt like that…it’s really hard for them to get out. Sometimes they can’t even admit they’ve been hurt.”

“But why? I mean, don’t they want it to stop?”

“Of course, baby. But they’ve been hurting for so long…sometimes it seems impossible for it to stop. Sometimes they think they deserve it. Sometimes it’s because the person who’s hurting them is the only person they have.” She strokes Steve’s hair. “Why didn’t you tell anyone you were being bullied?”

“Cause I didn’t want them to worry,” Steve mumbles. “It wouldn’t change anything.”

“Now imagine your bully is your family; your father. He’s all you have, and he controls every part of your life. He cuts you off from your friends, doesn’t let you go anywhere, doesn’t let you talk to anyone. Maybe you don’t even know that what you have isn’t normal. You don’t have anyone to tell, and even if you do, you don’t know that telling them would change anything. No one’s ever been on your side before. What would you do then?”

“Oh.” Steve digests this. “But I’m on his side.”

“I know, sweetheart. I know.” She wraps him in a hug again, squeezing him tightly. “So am I. And I know it hurts; I know he said cruel things, and that’s not okay. But he’s hurting, and that’s not his fault. No one is ever at fault for being hurt, okay?”

Steve nods against her shoulder. “I just wish I could help him.”

“I know. All you can do is just be there for him, whenever he comes to you. Don’t push, just listen. But Steve, you can’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm. You matter too. Don’t forget that.”

“Okay,” he whispers. He clings to her tighter, tears soaking into her shoulder as she holds him and murmurs soothingly, letting him fall apart in her arms.

 

 

Everyone wants to know what happened between him and Bucky. Steve tells them they had a fight, but won’t give any details. Everyone takes his side anyway. Sam calls Bucky an asshole, and Tony offers to play a prank on him. Steve snaps at both of them and doesn’t speak the rest of lunch. 

Natasha sits with them, and glares at anyone who tries to comment. Bucky is conspicuously absent, and Steve is almost glad he’s making up labs, so he doesn’t have to see him at lunch. 

“Do you know what happened?” Steve asks Natasha. He knows she and Bucky have some sort of history, but he’s never asked.

Natasha sighs, ripping apart her bread. “He’ll hate me for telling you this, but…Pierce found out he lied about having a group project so he could hang out with you. He was already in enough trouble for fighting, so…“ 

Steve remembers the fight, remembers the startling violence Bucky had displayed, the sound his fist made when it impacted with Gilmore’s face. Gilmore is back at school, his nose set and bruises blooming on his face, but he hasn’t bothered Steve once.

Then the first part of Natasha’s statement sinks in and Steve feels sick. Bucky had been lying for weeks. He can’t imagine how angry Pierce must have been, and if he hurt Bucky for it…he’s starting to understand why Bucky lashed out. Steve had been the one to pressure him into lying. It’s Steve who Bucky was protecting when he attacked Gilmore. Bucky is right; Steve ruined his life. He must hate him.

“It’s not your fault,” Natasha says, as if she can read his mind. “You didn’t make him do anything. He’s angry with himself.”

“Why?”

Natasha shrugs. “Take a guess. He’s always blaming himself for everything. But you’re not the only one he’s pushing away.”

Steve blinks at her in surprise. “You too? But I thought…I mean, you guys seem really close.”

“Yeah. We’ve known each other for a while. Doesn’t mean anything when he gets like this.” She’s finished ripping her bread into pieces and started tearing the bigger chunks into even smaller pieces.

Steve bites his lip. “You’ve known him for a while, so you…I mean, you must know…stuff about him, right?”

Natasha glances at him out of the corner of her eye. “What are you asking, Steve?” Her voice is carefully flat.

“Has he told you about…” Steve lowers his voice. “I mean, what Pierce is doing to him?”

She looks at him sharply. “Whatever you think you know,” she says, voice barely audible, “keep it to yourself.”

“Why?”

“Because you won’t like what happens if you don’t.”

With that cryptic warning, she throws her bread pieces down and moves to the other side of Clint, effectively ending the conversation. Steve watches her smile at Clint and seamlessly ingratiate herself into the conversation, but every so often, when he isn’t looking, he feels her eyes on him like a cold weight, full of secrets.

 

 

Life goes on. Slowly, the gossip about the fight dies down, though everyone gives Bucky an even bigger berth. Bucky looks exhausted, dark circles stamped under his eyes and skin pale, cheekbones standing out in high relief. Steve so badly wants to talk to him, to smooth away the lines of stress around his eyes, but he can’t. Bucky has made it clear he wants nothing to do with Steve, and Steve doesn’t blame him, not after what happened because of him.

He hangs out with Sam, but he finds himself missing Bucky’s presence, missing their quiet study dates bent over homework together. They hadn’t even been friends long, and yet already Bucky had carved out a place in Steve’s life, and now where he should be is nothing but emptiness, cold and silent.

Bucky himself is cold and silent, more often than not coming in reeking of cigarettes and sleeping through class, long hair shielding his face. His only acknowledgement of Steve is one-word answers to questions during lab, but his eyes never meet Steve’s, skittering away as if Steve’s very gaze might burn him. Gone are the shy smiles, the commiserating glances and stifled laughter, the whispers between bent heads. Sometimes, it seems as if they never existed at all.

 

 

Steve’s friendship with Bucky may be in tatters, but inexplicably, his friendship with Natasha is blossoming. Under her cool exterior is a girl who is smart and funny and surprisingly kind, and Steve finds himself liking her more with every day. Art class is more fun with her there to swap jokes as they work, and Steve has never met anyone who quite shares his brand of dark, dry humor like Natasha. They just seem to click, somehow, even though on the surface they couldn’t be more different. Natasha is, admittedly, technically terrible at art, but she seems to genuinely enjoy the act of creating, even if her creations border on disturbing. Her works are sharp and angry, painted boldly in black and red or slashed and tattered, molded into something hateful and broken, and it makes Steve wonder if that is what she feels inside. He himself has felt the jagged edges of rage and impotence and frustration, has poured it into dark pencil lines and haunting sketches, but never to that extent.

Steve knows little of Natasha, or her life. He had thought Bucky was secretive, but Natasha takes it to another level. He cannot say that he knows anything true about her. Even what she has said, most of it she later contradicted. There’s so many stories about her that he has no idea which, if any, are true, and he senses that she likes it that way. She’s a mystery. 

Here’s what Steve does know about Natasha: She is sixteen, she can speak Russian, and she is an orphan. He knows that she likes cashews and hates peanuts, and that she thinks wearing socks with sandals is an unforgivable sin. She thinks capitalism is stupid and school is a waste, and she spends an entire art class teaching Steve how to properly throw a punch. She hangs out with Clint more than anyone and is rapidly picking up sign language, and when someone teases him about his hearing aids she threatens to kill them. She’s aloof yet protective, strong yet soft, and mysterious yet strangely open, for no matter what facade she wears, she is always unbearably human. 

They will never be as close as Steve was with Bucky, or as she is with Clint, but despite losing one friend, Steve has gained another, and he is glad. He should have done it a long time ago. It is a lesson, he thinks – not to judge a person by their appearance, or by what others say of them. All these years, he could have been friends with Natasha, if only he had made an effort. She, like Bucky, is wholly different from the image she presents. They are both made of brittle shells and soft insides, vulnerable to the slightest blow. They are both slightly broken, yet still fundamentally good, underneath, still undeniably human. And maybe, if there’s hope for Natasha, then there’s hope for Bucky. 

God knows Steve isn’t the kind to give up.

Chapter Text

Every day is worse than the last. Every time Bucky sees Steve his heart breaks all over again, and it’s not fair, except that he deserves it. Every time Steve speaks to him, just to ask a question or collaborate on the lab, Bucky wants nothing more than to open his mouth and spill everything; to tell him he’s sorry and he didn’t mean it, that Steve was the best friend he's ever had. He wants to kneel at Steve’s feet and beg his forgiveness if only he would look at him like he used to, like maybe Bucky was worthy of something. 

But every time, he remembers why he can’t, and the silence between them grows. Sometimes Bucky thinks he will shatter like glass from the emotion that floods through him with nowhere to go, the cracks in his facade growing wider. He drowns the emotion with alcohol, with cigarettes, with pain, but nothing seems to help. 

Even Natasha he has pushed away. His one true friend, and he had hurled insults at her and brushed her aside like nothing, has ignored her attempts to talk to him. He can’t even find it in himself to regret it. She’s better off without him. Everyone is.

He is a lit match burning down to the end. He is a sparking fuse. He is a bomb about to blow.

 

 

Bucky swallows the last mouthful of whiskey, grimacing at the taste of cheap alcohol before tossing the bottle aside. He pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one, inhaling and feeling the rush of nicotine spread through his system as he exhales a long stream of smoke. He leans against the wall of the alley, tipping his head back against the rough brick and closing his eyes.

“What’s a pretty boy like you doing in a place like this?”

He opens his eyes, staring flatly at the speaker. Mid-thirties, blonde, frame lean but muscular. Bucky straightens up and puts his cigarette between his lips as he digs out the bag of heroin, flashing it in the air before pocketing it again. 

“Price is up, J,” he says. “It’s an extra ten.”

“Whatever,” J says, stepping close. His hot breath washes over Bucky’s face. “I just want to fuck.”

Bucky opens his mouth to reply, but J is already grabbing him by the shoulders and turning him around to shove him face-first against the wall, scraping his cheek in the process. A hand presses into the center of his back and his hands scrabble at the brick.

“Wait,” he says, trying to catch his breath, to regain his rhythm. He’s done this so many times, this should be easy, and yet…and yet suddenly it’s not. Suddenly, he doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t want to do this at all. 

“Wait, just–” He whips around, pushing back at the larger man.

J shoves him again, harder this time, and Bucky’s head cracks against the brick, throat going tight with panic. His heartbeat is loud in his ears, his vision blurring, and he struggles against J’s hold as fingers fumble at his jeans.

“Stop,” he says, voice cracking. “Wait, please–” 

The sudden bloom of pain in his cheek knocks him back as J’s knuckles connect with a crunch. He cries out, and then there is a hand around his throat, squeezing tighter and tighter as he gasps for air, fingers scrabbling at J’s wrist.

“Shut the fuck up,” J growls, voice laced with anger. “I’m fucking paying you for this, you worthless whore.” His free hand goes to Bucky’s jeans again, fumbling with the button, and Bucky struggles and chokes, eyes watering with the pain. 

He doesn’t want this.

He doesn’t want this.

Fingernails dig into his neck, J’s sneer dancing in his fading vision as the horror builds, and all at once something inside him snaps.

He kicks out with the last of his strength, and distantly feels his knee connect as everything goes red.

The next thing he knows, J is on the ground and Bucky is on top of him, fists driving into his face and blood spraying against brick, J’s face contorted in pain. Distantly, he hears the sound of sirens, and people shouting, and then a clear voice cuts through the chaos.

“NYPD, freeze!”

He freezes, panting heavily with fist still raised as he stares down at J’s bloodied face, head lolling limply against the pavement.

“Hands on your head!”

Slowly, he puts his hands on his head, everything at once startlingly clear and dreamlike. His own breathing is too loud in his ears, heart thudding in his chest. 

Footsteps, and then his arms are yanked behind his back and cuffed, grabbed in a vice grip as he’s hauled off J. He’s patted down, the drugs fished from his pocket; someone reads him his rights and he nods vaguely, lights spinning around him dizzyingly.

“This is Detective Carter,” a crisp voice says nearby. “I need an ambulance at…” The rest of the words are lost as he’s shoved into a police car, the door shut after him. 

The drive passes in a blur as Bucky sinks further into detached numbness. He’s brought into the police station and sat down in the interview room, wrists cuffed to the table. Detectives T’Challa and Carter sit down across from him, a file slapped down onto the table.

“So, what happened?” T’Challa asks. “Drug deal gone bad? Didn’t feel like paying? Help us out here.”

Bucky stares down at his hands, unblinking, the detective’s words washing over him without sticking. 

“You nearly beat that man to death,” Carter remarks. “He was your dealer, I assume?”

There’s blood on his hands. The knuckles of his right hand are torn and bruised, the left spattered red. Blood drips to the table.

Drip, drip, drip.

Blood, everywhere, dripping. Drip, drip, drip. His sister crying to his right. Drip, drip, drip. The screech of tires and smash of glass. Drip, drip, drip, don't look don't look don't–

“James.” A sigh. “This is your second drug offense, and you’re looking at an assault charge. We’ve been following Jenkins for a few days on the suspicion of a connection to Hydra. It’s just lucky we heard the commotion and decide to investigate. We just want to know how you fit with all of this.”

How he fits. Does he fit? He doesn’t fit anywhere. He’s worthless – worthless whore. This is his fault. He’s unstable. Out of control. Pierce will know. Pierce will punish him for this. For what? He’s bad. A bad kid. Cigarette smoke and the taste of alcohol on his tongue. A lit match. What’s a pretty boy like you doing in a place like this?

Another sigh. The rustle of paper, spread out in front of him. White, glowing in the light. Faces upon faces.

“Do you recognize any of these people?”

People. So many people. Hands on him, in him, twisting and pulling and hurting. 

“James.”

James .”

He can’t breathe. Everything snaps back into focus, sounds rushing in and light assaulting his eyes, the scrape of breath in his lungs painful and harsh. His head pounds. He coughs, handcuffs rattling against the table and breath wheezing through bruised airways.

“What’s happening?”

“I think he’s having a panic attack. James?” 

He’s shaking, struggling for every breath as panic lights up his nerves, flooding every sense. 

“Look at me.”

His eyes find Carter’s and they draw him in, steady and unflinching.

“Breathe with me.”

He tries to match his breaths to hers, heartbeat loud in his ears. 

“That’s it. Good job.”

He can’t look away from her gaze. It’s the only thing holding him together, the only thing he can focus on in the chaos of his mind. 

“Are you with me, James?”

“Yes,” he says quietly, voice a rasp. 

Carter rests her forearms on the table, expression firm but kind. “Let’s start over. Do you want to walk us through what happened?”

“I–” He’s drawn into her gaze, resistance crumbling away. He wants to tell her everything. He wants her to help him, God, please, why won’t anyone help him ? He wants, he wants…

He opens his mouth, deadly secrets on the tip of his tongue. “I–”

The door opens with a bang and Rumlow strides in. Bucky’s mouth closes with a snap and he shrinks back, fear flooding through his veins again. Had he really been about to spill everything? What was he thinking?

Rumlow uncuffs him from the table, re-cuffing his wrists in front of him, and grabs Bucky’s arm, fingers digging in painfully. Carter stands with a screech of her chair, T’Challa straightening up from where he’s leaning against the wall. 

“What the hell are you doing?” Carter demands.

“Sorry, folks.” Rumlow smirks. “He’s not yours anymore. Come on, kid.” He yanks Bucky’s arm and Bucky stumbles out of his chair, swaying a little on weak knees.

Carter moves to block their exit. “Where are you taking him?”

“He’s my case now.”

“What?” T’Challa steps forwards. “You can’t do that.”

Rumlow shrugs. “Take it up with the Lieutenant. He thinks you guys are wasting too much time on a junkie when you should be going after Hydra. So the kid’s mine now.”

“He has connections to Hydra,” Carter bites out. “This is our case.”

“Like I said, take it up with the Lieutenant.” Rumlow starts walking, pulling Bucky after him as he brushes past Carter. Bucky looks up and meets Carter’s eyes for a moment – help me, please, why won’t you help me WHY WON’T ANYONE HELP ME – and then he’s being dragged from the room.

 

 

Rumlow marches him into the house with a hand on his arm, Bucky stumbling on numb legs. Pierce is waiting for them, fingers drumming on the counter. 

“You need me to stay?” Rumlow asks.

“If you would, please.”

Rumlow nods, retreating to the corner to watch. Pierce studies Bucky, and he has an intense feeling of deja vu. Why does this keep happening to him?

“You nearly beat a client to death.” Pierce’s voice is even. “I’d like an explanation.”

“I…” Bucky swallows, throat clicking. “He–he attacked me.”

“Don’t lie to me.” Bucky flinches. “What really happened?”

“I didn’t want to,” he blurts. “He was hurting me, and I–I fought back, and I didn’t mean to–I didn’t–” 

“You nearly killed him. Just because you didn’t want to sleep with him.” Pierce makes a sound of disgust. “Your job is to keep clients happy, whatever it takes. Instead you decided that what you wanted came first, and you lost control.”

“He–” Bucky’s eyes fill with tears. “He was hurting me.”

The backhand snaps his head to the side, cheek stinging. Pierce grabs Bucky’s chin in a bruising grip, making him look up at him. “I don’t care,” he says coldly. “How are your clients supposed to feel safe if you snap at the slightest provocation? You’re my greatest asset, James, and I can’t have you failing to perform your duties.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky gasps, squirming against the vice grip on his face. “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again, please–”

“You’re right, it won’t happen again. This is the second time you’ve been arrested this year, James. You’re drawing the wrong kind of attention. Clients are concerned. J had to be…taken care of to ensure he didn’t talk.”

“Please,” Bucky says again, tears spilling down his face. “Please, I’m sorry.”

Pierce lets go of his face. “Turn around. You know what to do.” He begins to unbuckle his belt.

Bucky tugs off his shirt and faces the counter, body trembling in anticipation of the pain to come. He undoes his pants, shoving them down his hips with shaking hands. A cold palm on his back pushes him down roughly, bending him over the counter. He buries his face in his forearms and listens to the clink of the belt buckle, the steady rhythm of Pierce’s breathing.

The leather connects with his back with an audible thwack, punching a muffled cry from his lips. His forearms slip against the smooth counter, prosthetic arm whirring softly. Another stripe falls on his back, then across the backs of his thighs, leaving trails of fire in its wake. 

It seems to last forever, a steady rhythm of blows that has Bucky’s knees shaking and tears dripping down his face, cries muffled into his forearm. Pierce moves closer, fisting a hand in Bucky’s hair and doubling up the belt as he brings it down hard against Bucky’s thighs. Bucky sobs, struggling weakly in a futile attempt to get away, but Pierce only strikes him harder, yanking on his hair painfully. 

Finally, he stops, breathing slightly elevated. The hand tangled in Bucky’s hair loosens, letting go, and there’s the clink of the belt buckle on the counter.

“If you insist on behaving like a child, you will be treated like one,” Pierce says calmly. “You seem to think there will be no consequences for your actions. You don’t take your responsibilities seriously, and when faced with the slightest inconvenience or difficulty, you throw a tantrum. You cause me trouble time and time again, and yet I keep giving you another chance.”

Bucky whimpers softly against the counter, breathing raggedly. 

“There will be no more chances. You must prove to me that you can handle your responsibilities, otherwise I may be forced to reconsider your usefulness to me.”

Bucky chokes on a sob. No. He can be good, he can.

“Detective Rumlow will see you to your room. Detective, please make sure he has taken his medication and his door is locked for the night. I will be in my study. I expect not to be disturbed.”

“Yes, sir.”

Pierce’s footsteps retreat and a door closes somewhere deeper in the house. A hand glides up Bucky’s back and he flinches, arching away from the touch with a cry of pain.

“You look so pretty like this,” Rumlow whispers, breath tickling Bucky’s ear. “All bruised up and on display. I think I should take you right here, don’t you?”

Bucky whimpers louder and Rumlow presses a hand over his mouth.

“Shh. Don’t want Pierce to hear, do you?” His other hand travels down, smoothing over Bucky’s hip and grasping at red, smarting flesh. “Yeah, that’s a good boy.”

Tears leak from Bucky’s eyes as Rumlow keeps going, making him squirm and arch away involuntarily. A hand goes to the back of Bucky’s neck and grips hard, forcing his face against the counter as Rumlow presses up behind him. Bucky shudders and sobs, biting down on his forearm to keep quiet.

Time narrows to the pulse of pain, the soft chuff of Rumlow’s breaths, the sweaty palm gripping the back of his neck.  Everything has gone numb and distant again, as if he is existing outside his body. He’s jostled against the counter, the edge digging into his stomach.

Finally, Rumlow stills, exhaling. He releases Bucky’s neck, the sound of a zipper loud in the silence, before reaching around Bucky’s hips and pulling up his pants, doing them up with sure fingers. 

“Come on, kid,” he murmurs, grasping Bucky’s arm. “Time for bed.”

Bucky follows him numbly, knees almost buckling under him as he leans on Rumlow for support. Rumlow sighs and allows it, helping Bucky limp up the stairs and into his room. He strips Bucky’s clothes off again, yanking the prosthetic off with rough hands, and shoves him into the shower, letting the water pour over Bucky’s head as he rummages around for Bucky’s medications. 

The water eventually shuts off, and Bucky shivers, blinking in the harsh light of the bathroom. There’s the clatter of pills against plastic and Rumlow grabs his hand, tipping a handful of pills into his palm. Bucky throws them back one by one, accepting the glass of water Rumlow fills for him from the sink.

The drugs start to creep through his system as Bucky struggles into sweatpants before crawling into bed, curling on his side. 

“Nighty-night,” Rumlow says, and the door closes with a click, the lock turning audibly. Bucky lays there a moment, then gets up, limping back into the bathroom. He paws at the array of pill bottles, opening them at random and swallowing a few dry, wanting something, anything to stop the pain, to stop everything, to let him sleep.

The world grows dim, and he sways on his feet before slumping to the tiles, waiting for the drugs to take him under.

 

 

He wakes vomiting, pain thrumming through his body. His first thought is it didn’t work, before darkness drags him back under.

 

 

Someone is shaking him, voice raised in anger. He cracks his eyes open, the world blurring in his vision.

“–fuck’s sake, kid. What the hell did you do?”

He groans, curling into himself. His head throbs, pain radiating through his entire body. 

“Get the fuck up.” Rough hands haul him up, smacking at his cheek until the world focuses. Rumlow scowls at him, shaking him for good measure. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

Bucky cringes away, face screwing up. 

Everything hurts. Everything hurts and he just wants it to stop.

“Never mind. You’re coming with me.”

He’s dragged downstairs, into Pierce’s study, still disoriented and confused and hurting, always hurting.

“Kid tried to overdose on his meds,” Rumlow grunts as he shoves Bucky in front of Pierce. “Found him this morning.” Bucky crumples to the ground, hot tears blurring his vision. 

Pierce crouches down next to him. “James, I thought I told you to stop being childish. This attention-seeking stunt is unacceptable.”

“I want Steve,” Bucky sobs. Steve is good and safe and everything Bucky wants but cannot have.

“What?”

“I want Steve,” he repeats, voice small and broken. “Please, I can’t–I want Steve.”

“And what makes you think you deserve to see him?”

“I’ll do anything, please, I’ll do better, I’m sorry, please–” 

“Anything?”

Bucky nods feverishly. “Please.”

Pierce is silent a moment, studying him. “I don’t want to reward this kind of behavior,” he finally says, and Bucky’s heart cracks in two. “But…perhaps you need some incentive to stay in line. You’ve clearly not been learning from the consequences so far.”

Bucky doesn’t dare to breathe, hope blossoming in his chest.

“You may see Steve whenever you are not needed,” Pierce decides. “I expect the quality of your work to remain the same or improve. No more incidents. And if I find you’ve stepped one toe out of line, or breathed a word to anyone, especially this Steve, your privileges with him will be revoked. Understood?”

Bucky looks up with wide eyes. “Yes, sir,” he says breathlessly, still reeling.

“I have no need of you this weekend, as I’m attempting to fix your mistakes. You will take your medications when prescribed, even if you are not home, and they will be counted each week to check for misuse.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now get out of my sight.”

Bucky scrambles to his feet, swaying, and stumbles out of the room. Rumlow shoots him a dark look before turning back to Pierce, and Bucky escapes to his bedroom, getting ready as fast as his aching body and mind let him and throwing things into his backpack with feverish haste. He has no idea if Steve will forgive him, no idea if he still hates him, but he has to try. 

It’s raining outside, the early morning sky dark and grey. The wipers beat against the windshield as Bucky drives, ignoring the way his vision swims. He parks on the street and forces his aching body out into the rain. He’s wet and shivering in seconds, ducking into the relative warmth of the building gratefully. The stairs seem interminably long, and he has to stop and clutch the rail every few steps, breathing through the pain. 

Finally, he reaches the Rogers’ door, standing outside dripping onto the floor. He slips his backpack off his shoulder, letting it drop by his feet, raises a shaking hand and knocks three times.

A minute passes, then there’s the sound of light footsteps and the door opens. 

“Bucky?” Mrs. Rogers stares at him in surprise, quickly morphing into concern. “Are you all right?”

“Is Steve here?”

“Yes, he is.” She looks behind her. “Steve?”

“Yeah?” Steve’s voice comes from further in the apartment. He appears over Mrs. Rogers’ shoulder, stopping abruptly when he sees Bucky. “Buck?”

Mrs. Rogers steps aside, letting Steve approach Bucky hesitantly. 

“I’m sorry,” Bucky blurts, feeling hot tears prick his eyes. “I didn’t mean it, I’m sorry, I don’t hate you, I’m so sorry–”

Steve moves forwards and Bucky sobs, but instead of hitting him Steve is suddenly standing on his tiptoes and wrapping his arms around him, face buried in his shoulder. 

“It’s okay,” he says. “I forgive you. It’s okay.”

Bucky hitches a breath and then starts to cry in earnest, arms coming up to wrap around Steve’s slender frame in return.

It feels like it takes forever for him to stop crying, reduced to hitching breaths against Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s arms around him don’t feel restrictive or threatening, just safe .  

The moment is broken as Steve rubs his back and Bucky hisses in pain, jerking away.

“Buck? What is it?” Steve draws back, looking at him with concerned eyes. 

Bucky shakes his head, swiping a hand across his eyes. “Nothing.”

Steve frowns, reaching up to brush the bruise on Bucky’s cheekbone from where J had hit him. His touch is feather-light, and so gentle it hurts. “What happened?” he asks softly.

“Got in a fight.”

Steve raises an eyebrow, looking dubious, then sighs. “Okay. Want to come in?”

Bucky swallows and nods, picking up his backpack and following Steve into the apartment. He walks carefully, trying not to limp, but he can tell it’s futile by the way Steve frowns at him. Mrs. Rogers is making tea in the kitchen, and she slides a cup across the counter, smiling warmly. 

“Hi. Sit down, have some tea. Do you mind if a took a look at your injuries?”

Bucky stares in surprise, then suspicion. She must have an ulterior motive for checking him over. After all, he’s standing. She knows he can’t be too hurt.

Then again, she’s a nurse. Maybe this is normal for her. 

Bucky nods slowly, sliding onto a chair at the counter and suppressing a wince. He can’t stop the sharp intake of breath, and he knows Steve and his mom caught it by the look they share. 

“I’ll be right back with the first aid kit,” Mrs. Rogers says as if nothing happened. “Make yourself at home.”

Bucky pulls the mug of tea closer to him, blowing on the hot liquid as Steve hops up onto the chair next to him, propping his chin on his hand.

Mrs. Rogers emerges from the bathroom with a white box, setting it on the counter next to Bucky and opening it to reveal what looks like a whole hospital’s worth of supplies. 

“Steve gets in a lot of fights,” she says, mouth tugging upwards sadly. “And I’m a nurse, so I tend to keep our first-aid kit well stocked.” She turns to Bucky. “Can I see your hand?”

Bucky holds up his right hand, the knuckles bruised and swollen, and Mrs. Rogers wets a washcloth and dabs at it gently, washing away the last of the dried blood and cleaning out the scrapes. She wraps Bucky’s hand in soft gauze and has him hold an ice pack to it, the cold soothing the inflamed joints. 

When she lifts the washcloth to Bucky’s face, he flinches instinctively, muscles locking up. The first touch of the cloth is excruciatingly gentle, cool water easing the throbbing pain. It’s followed by light, soft dabs over his cheekbone, her other hand stabilizing his jaw so lightly the touch barely registers. He feels as if he’s been drugged again, muscles relaxing and tension easing, eyelids fluttering heavily. It’s pleasure, but not the kind he gets from cigarettes or the occasional forced orgasm – no, it’s a different sort of pleasure, one pure and simple: the pleasure of a kind human touch.

He blinks slowly, looking up at Mrs. Rogers as she works, her eyebrows furrowed in exactly the same way that Steve’s always are, eyes brimming with kindness and gentleness. He thinks he would do anything for her, if only she didn’t stop making him feel like this. 

Too soon, she pulls back, setting the washcloth down.  “Did you hit your head at all?” she questions.

Bucky sifts through his fractured memories and shrugs. “Not really.” He's had worse - way worse.

“Okay.” She peers into his eyes. “Your pupils look a bit dilated. Have you taken any drugs or alcohol recently?”

He bites his lip and nods. 

“What did you take? Don’t worry, you’re not in any trouble. I just want to make sure you’re not in any danger.”

He swallows. “I don’t–I don’t know. I take…lots of different ones. But. I took more. I wasn’t supposed to.”

“Can you give me any idea what they were?”

“I have them. With me.”

“You do?”

“They’re in my bag.”

“Okay. Can I take a look?”

He nods. She picks up his bag and holds it out so he can rummage through it, pulling out each pill bottle and setting it on the table in an orderly line.

“Oh my god,” he hears Steve breathe behind him. He hunches his shoulders, letting the backpack drop to the floor.

Mrs. Rogers picks up each one, studying the label and frowning. “You’re taking all of these?”

He nods. 

“Do you know what they’re for?”

He bites his lip, casting his eyes down. “I get…episodes? Sometimes. I get…really angry. So. They make me calm down.”

“They do a little more than that.” Mrs. Rogers presses her lips in a thin line. “When was the last time you took these?”

“Last night. But I…I took more than I was supposed to. It made me sick.”

“You overdosed?”

He shrugs, looking away.

“Nausea, vomiting?”

He nods.

“Lightheadedness, disorientation?”

Another nod.

“Any other symptoms?”

He shrugs. He can’t tell what’s the drugs and what’s the pain from everything else. 

“Okay. Well, drink a lot of fluids and stay away from any alcohol or other substances. That could be very dangerous.”

He nods again. 

Mrs. Rogers takes a deep breath. “Alright. Now, aside from the bruising on your face, you’ve got some bruising on your neck. Any pain or difficulty swallowing?”

He shakes his head. No more than usual.

“Any other injuries you want me to take a look at?”

He bites his lip and shakes his head vigorously, making his face throb. Just the thought of her seeing the damage to his body makes him nauseated.

“Okay, well if you change your mind, I’m always willing to help.” She leans forward, taking his bruised hand in hers. “Bucky, I’m very concerned about how you got these injuries. Is there anything you want to tell me?”

He feels the way his expression goes blank, anger bubbling up through panic. “No,” he says brusquely. If he says anything, if they think they know anything, he knows he’ll never get to see Steve again.

“Buck,” Steve says softly behind him.

“I told you, I got in a fight.” He clenches his jaw, holding his breath. It’s not even a lie, he tells himself. It was a fight. 

Steve sighs. “Okay.” 

The tension drains from Bucky’s body as he exhales in relief.

“How long can you stay?” Mrs. Rogers asks.

Bucky shrugs. “I have the weekend free. And I can come over whenever I’m not busy.”

“Really?” Steve looks pleased.

Bucky nods.

“Why don’t I get you another ice pack for your face,” Mrs. Rogers says tactfully, “and you can watch some tv.”

Bucky nods gratefully. He accepts the second ice pack she hands him and grabs his tea with the other hand as he makes his way to the living room, sinking into the couch. He shifts so he’s sitting propped on his side, and presses the ice pack to his face while Steve turns on the tv. The couch dips as Steve sits next to him, close enough to touch, and for the first time in a long time, Bucky feels like maybe he could be okay. 

Chapter Text

Steve sketches silently, trying not to move. Bucky is leaning against him, asleep, his head on Steve’s shoulder and long hair tickling his neck. His legs are tucked up on the couch, socked toes curled adorably, and his prosthetic hand rests across his thighs, gleaming softly in the light. 

Steve is so glad Bucky came back, so glad he’s no longer pushing him away. Bucky came to him and let them help, let himself be vulnerable, and that’s more important than anything. He’s curled so sweetly against Steve that he makes Steve feel like he’s the large one, the strong one. No one has ever made him feel that big before, like they’re looking to him for protection instead of fussing over him condescendingly. With Bucky, he doesn’t feel small and weak and useless; he feels like he could move mountains. 

Steve likes Bucky, he’s long since stopped denying that. Bucky is cute and sweet and everything Steve wants, but cannot have. Bucky may be okay with him being bi, but it doesn’t mean he’d be okay with Steve having a crush on him. And it’s not fair either, when Bucky is going through so much. Steve has no right to put this on him when Bucky just needs a friend.

Steve so badly wants to take Bucky’s shoulders and ask him what happened? Who did this to you? What is going on? But he knows his mom is right when she tells him not to push. He had seen the way Bucky shut down at questioning; it will only drive him away.

Bucky shifts in his sleep, curling tighter like a pillbug. His prosthetic arm whirrs as the plates ripple, hand spasming momentarily before falling still. Steve adjusts his sketchbook and starts to draw the hand, studying the tiny plates that make up his fingers. 

Bucky starts to wake just as Steve is putting the finishing touches on his sketch. He raises his head and yawns, face screwing up as he rolls his shoulders, then looks over, eyes catching on the drawing and surprise coloring his expression.

“You drew it?” he rasps.

“Oh. Um, yeah.” 

“Why?”

Steve shrugs, passing over the sketchbook so Bucky can look at it. “I think it’s cool.”

Bucky runs a finger over the drawing, expression unreadable.

Steve bites his lip. “If it wasn’t okay for me to draw it…” 

“No, it’s…” Bucky blinks rapidly. “It’s, uh, it’s fine.” He clears his throat. “Can I look through this?”

Steve hesitates. He’s never shown anyone his sketchbook. It feels too private.

“Sure,” he says finally. 

Bucky flips through the sketchbook with care, studying each drawing as if it’s something special and not just Steve’s random scribbles and sketches. 

“These are so good,” he says softly. “You’re so talented.”

Steve feels his cheeks burn. “Thanks. I mean, it’s just practice. My drawings aren’t anything special.”

Bucky gives him an exasperated look. “Steve. These are amazing. Shut up and say thank you.”

Steve rolls his eyes, cheeks so hot he thinks they might burst into flame. “Thank you.” He sneaks another glance at Bucky, wondering if he’s noticed that many of Steve’s recent sketches happen to resemble him. “Would you mind if I, um, drew you sometime?”

Bucky looks at him in surprise.

“I mean, it’s so hard to find models,” Steve hastens to say, cheeks flaming. “It would just really help my…art.”

“Okay.” Bucky smiles at him shyly. “You can draw me anytime you want.”

Steve looks away before he does something stupid, like kiss Bucky. “Okay.” He clears his throat, searching for a way to change the subject. “So, do you want to play some video games?”

 

 

They spend the day playing video games and lazing about. Steve’s mom leaves for work around three, so Steve is expected to make food for both of them. He decides on pasta and garlic bread, enlisting Bucky to help him, and quickly realizes that Bucky has no idea what he’s doing.

“Have you ever cooked before?” he asks.

Bucky shakes his head, and Steve remembers their conversation about Pierce locking the fridge. Yikes, he thinks. Bucky probably doesn’t even know how to work the stove. 

“Well, I’m not great, but I can make the basics,” Steve says, heating water over the stove. “My mom always says cooking is the most valuable adult skill.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Laundry is the second. She says if you have clean clothes and food to eat, everything else is secondary.”

“I don’t think I have any skills,” Bucky says doubtfully, lifting the lid of the pot to peer inside.

“Well, you can learn, I guess. Also, a watched pot never boils.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means stop looking at the water, cause it makes it take longer.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Bucky’s brow furrows. “Water boils at two hundred and twelve degrees fahrenheit, or one hundred degrees celsius. Watching it shouldn’t affect anything.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “It’s an expression. I guess things seem to take longer when you keep checking on them, rather than leaving them alone.”

“Okay.” Bucky still doesn’t look convinced. 

“Here, come help me make the garlic bread.”

Bucky dutifully spreads garlic butter on the bread, arranging each piece perfectly on the tray with an expression of extreme concentration. The water is boiling, so Steve adds the spaghetti, stirring the noodles as they soften. The sauce goes in a saucepan to heat up, parmesan cheese set on the table, and then they wait.

The smell of garlic bread starts to suffuse the kitchen, making Steve’s mouth water. When it emerges, it’s golden and crispy, soaked with melted butter, and Bucky looks like he might faceplant directly into the pan. 

Steve gets Bucky to help him drain the heavy spaghetti pot, steam wafting up, and between them they get everything plated, pouring liberal amounts of sauce over their spaghetti and smothering it in parmesan cheese. Bucky groans as he takes his first bite and Steve almost chokes on his own.

“Good?”

“So good,” Bucky garbles, shoving another forkful into his mouth. “Ohmygod.”

Steve beams. 

It’s even better when Bucky tries the garlic bread. His eyes flutter and he looks like he just found heaven, groaning so sinfully it makes Steve’s cheeks flame.

“Ohmygod. Ohmygod. I want to eat this for the rest of my life.”

“Jeez, have you never had garlic bread before?”

Bucky shrugs. “Probably, when I was little. Don’t really remember it. Things are…blurry.”

“Why?”

“Car accident.” Bucky swallows, eyes flicking to his left arm. “When I was ten. Hit my head. I got Amnesia.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Bucky shrugs. “It’s better now. I remember most stuff; you know, the basics. The details are just fuzzy.”

Steve can’t imagine forgetting a huge chunk of his life. He wonders if Bucky even remembers his parents, then decides not to ask.

“So you were ten when…what happened after?”

Bucky rips off another chunk of garlic bread with his teeth. “I was in the hospital for a while, then went into the system. Pierce adopted me when I was…eleven, I think?”

“Where’s your sister?”

Bucky’s expression closes off, like a door slamming shut. “Don’t know,” he says shortly, and Steve decides not to press. It’s clear that’s a touchy subject.

“Have you always lived around here?” he asks instead.

Bucky shakes his head. “My family lived in Indiana.”

“You went from Indiana to here? Jeez.”

Bucky shrugs. “What about you? Have you always lived here?”

Steve nods. “Born and raised. I’m a Brooklyn boy through and through.”

Bucky smiles, a small thing that makes his eyes look especially sad. “Must be nice.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Never knew anything different. Had to go to school with the same kids for years, though, and none of them liked me. I didn’t really have many friends.”

“I still don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be friends with you.”

“Buck.” Steve blushes. “You’re too nice. But seriously, until Sam came along I didn’t really have a best friend or anything. I had friends like Clint and Rhodey, and Tony when he wasn’t being an asshole, but I wasn’t ever close with any of them.”

“I’m sorry.” Bucky shifts in his seat, propping his elbow on the table. “I didn’t have friends either. No one at my old school even talked to me.”

“That sounds horrible.”

Bucky shrugs. “I didn’t really want to be friends with anyone. Not until you. I’m glad I moved schools.”

“Why did you?”

Bucky grimaces, glancing down at his empty plate. “Got kicked out for fighting.”

“Oh.” Steve thinks of Gilmore’s broken nose and the blankness in Bucky’s eyes. “Sorry. Guess I keep dragging you into more fights, don’t I?”

“It’s not your fault.” Bucky’s mouth quirks up sadly. “Protecting you is just about the only good thing I’ve ever done.”

Steve doesn’t really know what to say to that, so he settles for grabbing another piece of garlic bread and shoving it into his mouth.

 

 

After a brief fight that touches on everything from Steve’s scoliosis to Bucky’s bruised face, Steve reluctantly takes the bed while Bucky camps out on the couch in the living room under a mass of blankets. Steve huddles under his own blankets against the chill of the apartment, unlocking his phone and tapping out a message to Sam.

Bucky and I made up.

Sam [11:04pm]: rly? Happy for u. Did he apologize?

Yeah. He’s staying over.

Sam [11:06pm]: What really? Again? Doesn’t he have his own home?

It’s...not great for him there. He’s hurt. Said it was a fight but...

Sam [11:10pm]: Shit dude. That bad?

That bad.

Sam [11:11pm]: Shit.

Yeah. Idk what to do. He won’t tell me anything. Every time I try to ask he changes the subject.

Sam [11:13pm]: Can’t you, like, call CPS?

Idk I’ll ask my mom. But I’m worried it’ll just make things worse. Bucky refuses to admit anything.

Sam [11:15pm]: That sucks I’m sorry. 

I feel bad that I’m telling you this. Like, I know he doesn’t want anyone to know. I feel like I’m breaking his trust but idk what to do

Sam [11:18pm]: I don’t think this is the kind of thing you should keep secret. You can always talk to me

Thanks, Sam

Sam [11:19pm]: Anytime. Bucky can talk to me too. I know we’re not like, best friends, but I’m still there for him if he needs. He’s actually pretty ok once you get to know him. Sorry I’ve been trashing him lately, I was so mad at him because he broke your heart

He didn’t break my heart

Sam [11:25pm]: Sure. I know you. You’ve got major heart eyes for him

… ok so maybe I like him a little

Sam [11:27pm]: A little?? A little?? Dude you’re so fucking gone on him it’s not even funny

Look, nothing can happen. I don’t even know if Bucky likes me that way, and besides he’s got so much going on. It’s not fair.

Sam [11:29pm]: Ik. But I think he likes you too.

????

Sam [11:30pm]: I said what I said

 

 

Steve wakes slowly, blinking in the dim light peeking through the blinds. He gets up, shuffling into the bathroom and then out to the kitchen, greeting his mom with a kiss on the cheek. She’s sitting at the table sipping tea and doing the Sunday crossword, blonde hair pulled up in a loose bun. 

Steve pauses as he remembers that Bucky is here, and he peeks into the living room, squinting at the still form on the couch. Bucky is sleeping on his stomach, blankets kicked off and tangled around his ankles, head pillowed on his arm. Steve catches a glimpse of the prosthetic plugged into an outlet across the room. His shirt is rucked up slightly, and as Steve looks closer he sees– 

“Oh my god.” He rushes forward, dropping to his knees beside the couch and staring at the mess of dotted purple bruising on Bucky’s lower back, allayed in criss-crossing welts that look red and puffy. He reaches out, brushing the heated skin with his fingertips, and Bucky jerks, emitting a whimper of pain. 

“Steve? What is it?” His mom walks into the room, brows creased in concern. Bucky starts to wake, making soft sounds as he shifts, and Steve’s mom crosses the room to see what Steve is staring at, sucking in a breath sharply as she stops next to the couch.

Bucky raises his head, blinking confusedly at Steve, and then realization flickers in his eyes and he scrambles to sit up, yanking down his shirt with a hiss of pain.

“Bucky–” Steve starts.

“Don’t,” Bucky grits out. His jaw is clenched, face white with pain, and he looks away from Steve’s gaze with wet eyes.

“Bucky, honey.” Steve’s mom crouches down in front of him. “You don’t have to hide if you’re hurting. I just want to make sure you’re okay, that’s all. Can I take a look at your back?”

Bucky takes a shaky breath, jaw clenching, and after what feels like an eternity nods, still avoiding their eyes. Steve steps back as Bucky twists slightly on the couch so Steve’s mom can sit behind him, pushing up his shirt. 

Bucky’s whole back is a map of bruises marred by angry red lines, and it looks unbearably painful. There’s another bruise that runs in a straight line across his hip bone, like he’d caught the edge of something.

Steve’s mom doesn’t touch, just looks, and Bucky shifts on the couch, face creasing in discomfort.

“How far down?” Steve’s mom asks, and though Steve doesn’t understand the question Bucky touches his mid-thigh. “Okay.” She shifts closer. “Bucky, I’m a mandated reporter. That means if I have reason to believe a child is being abused–”

“No.” Bucky stands abruptly, fist clenched. “No, that’s not…it was my fault.”

“It’s never your fault for being hurt. There’s nothing you could do that would make you deserve this.”

Bucky looks away. “I almost killed someone.”

“What happened?”

Bucky swallows, gaze flitting to Steve, then his mom, his eyes glassy and wide. “I didn’t mean to, I just…I didn’t want to, and I said no, but he hit me and I…I just started hitting him and I didn’t stop. And then I got arrested.”

Steve can’t follow the thread of the story at all, and his mom doesn’t look any less confused, but she rallies, face arranged into something kind and sympathetic.

“It sounds like it was self-defense.”

Bucky shrugs, wrapping his hand around his left shoulder like he’s trying to hold himself together. “It was my fault,” he repeats. 

“Was the person you defended yourself against the same person who did this to your back?”

Bucky looks away, jaw clenching.

“Bucky?”

He shakes his head.

“Did Pierce do this to you?”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” The words are measured and even, with no inflection.

Steve’s mom sighs quietly. “Okay. Why don’t you lie down again and I’ll get you some ice packs?”

Bucky looks a little suspicious that the subject is being dropped so easily, but eventually eases himself back down onto the couch on his stomach as Steve’s mom disappears into the kitchen. He takes a hair tie off his wrist and puts his hair up in a sloppy tie one-handed before propping his chin on his forearm, face drawn. Steve sees a bruise on the back of his neck in the faint shape of a hand, similar to the one on the front of his neck, and feels a surge of anger. A fight, Bucky had said. Yeah, right. Steve’s not an idiot.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” he can’t help asking, dropping down to sit on the floor next to the couch.

Bucky turns his head towards him, scowling. “It’s not that big of a deal, Steve.”

“Yes it is!”

“I’m fine.”

“No you’re not.”

“Can you just leave it alone?”

“No.” He juts his chin out, staring daggers at Bucky as if maybe he can sink it through Bucky’s skull by will alone. 

Bucky sighs. “Look, I get into trouble a lot. It’s my fault. It’s not like I’m dying. It’s just some bruises.”

“Pierce did this to you?”

Bucky bites his lip, not meeting his eyes. “He’s just doing the best he can. It’s not his fault I’m difficult.”

“That’s not an excuse.”

“What do you want me to say?”

Steve throws up his hands. “I don’t know, that he’s abusing you? That you’ll let us help you? For fuck’s sake, Bucky, why can’t you see it?”

“You don’t understand.”

“No, I don’t.”

Bucky looks away, anger simmering in his eyes. “Maybe I should go.”

“No!” Steve’s heart skips a beat in alarm. “Please, stay. I won’t ask you about it anymore, I swear.” He crosses his heart. “Come on, Bucky, don’t leave.”

After a terrifying moment, Bucky looks back at him. “Okay.”

Steve exhales in relief. His mom enters the room, arms laden with ice packs and bags of frozen peas, and begins arranging them over Bucky’s back and the backs of his thighs. Steve turns on the tv and leans back against the edge of the couch as his mom makes them both breakfast.

When it’s ready, Steve helps unearth Bucky from his ice pack blanket, watching as he stands stiffly. He takes a step and winces before limping slowly across the room. He forgoes sitting in favor of leaning on the kitchen counter, accepting the plate that’s slid over to him.

After he eats, Steve has to watch as he lines up his ungodly amount of pill bottles and takes from them one by one. After, they relocate back to the couch to watch movies, and Steve watches as Bucky starts to nod off, eyes glazing over. He suddenly understands why Bucky can never pay attention during history in the mornings – he’s not tired, he’s drugged .

They work on homework after lunch, books spread on the floor so Bucky can lay on his stomach. He gnaws on a pencil, brow furrowed and hair pulled back in a bun now that he’s put his prosthetic back on, a few stray wisps framing his face. Steve thinks long hair suits him, and his fingers itch to draw the sweep of the strands. They munch on chips as they work, steadily working their way through the bag. Steve is determined to spoil Bucky with as much junk food as possible. Pierce and his fridge-locking can go fuck himself.

Bucky takes more of his pills in the afternoon, once again descending into a daze, but he perks up at the mention of food. He stays for dinner, perched awkwardly on his chair as he wolfs down leftover spaghetti. Steve’s mom smiles sadly at him from across the table and offers him seconds, which he accepts readily, expression one of glazed transcendence.

Bucky packs his things back in his backpack and folds the blankets carefully on the couch, leaving no sign he was there. Steve wants to beg him to stay, wants to wrap him up in blankets again and keep him safe from Pierce, but it’s not his decision to make. He hugs Bucky one last time before he goes, being careful not to squeeze too hard, and feels Bucky relax against him before pulling back.

“See you tomorrow?” Steve asks, and hates himself for the quiver of uncertainty in his voice.

“Yeah.” Bucky fiddles with his backpack strap. “Thank you, for having me. I’m sorry I imposed.”

“Nonsense,” Steve’s mom says from behind him. “You’re always welcome here.”

He gives her a faint smile, hefting his backpack on one shoulder before leaving. Steve watches him limp down the steps and get into his car, pulling away with a muted rumble. He sighs, turning to go back inside.

“Mom?” he asks when the door is shut behind him. “Can’t we, like, call someone?”

His mom nods, phone already in her hand and mouth a thin line. “I’m already on it. CPS has to investigate within twenty-four hours.”

“Will Bucky know that you called?”

“He might guess.”

“Oh.” Steve grimaces. “He’ll be mad.”

“Better mad and safe than hurt.”

“Yeah.”

She dials, bringing the phone to her ear.

“Hi, this is Sarah Rogers…” 

Steve sits down at the table to wait, tracing the grain of the wood with his finger as his mom makes a report. When she’s finished, she sits down next to him and he leans into her, resting his head on her shoulder. She wraps her arm around him, rubbing circles on his bicep.

“What now?” he asks.

She sighs. “Now, we wait.”

 

 

Bucky is in school Monday, looking stiff and sore but relatively fine, the bruise on his face faint through a layer of concealer and a scarf and baggy sweatshirt hiding the ones only Steve knows are there. He sits with Steve at lunch, and though Tony and Rhodey view him with suspicion, Natasha and he seem to have made up, if the whispered Russian is any indication, and Sam welcomes him back with a friendly smile. It’s nice having another person know about Bucky. Steve doesn’t feel quite so alone in his suspicions and worry. Plus, now that Sam is in the know, he’s even nicer to Bucky than usual, big heart winning out as Steve knew it would. Sometimes, he thinks the world doesn’t deserve Sam.

Fuck you, Bucky texts Monday night.

???? Steve replies, but he gets no answer. He thinks, with a mixture of hope and sadness, that CPS must have come.

I’m sorry, Bucky texts the next morning before school. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it.

What happened?

Please just let it go. A minute later he adds, you’ll only make things worse.

Bucky comes to school late, and though there’s no visible injuries – besides the ones he already has – he seems more tired than usual. He gives Steve a weak smile and then falls asleep, staying that way until Steve wakes him at the end of History.

The rest of the week passes much the same. The bruises on Bucky’s face and neck fade, though Steve doesn’t know about his back. Bucky doesn’t bring up the call to CPS again and neither does Steve, not sure he wants to know what worse means.

On Friday, they get a letter. His mom reads it and her expression grows stormy, angrier than Steve has ever seen her. 

“What is it?”

She sighs, passing a hand over her face. She looks, at once, impossibly old. “CPS said they found no evidence of abuse.”

“What? That’s crazy.” Steve gapes. 

“I know.”

“What can we do?”

She shakes her head and pulls him into a hug, squeezing him tightly with hands that tremble just the slightest bit. “I don’t know, Steve. I really don’t know.”

Chapter Text

Christmas is fast approaching, and Bucky spends every minute he can over at Steve’s, a warm sort of glow taking up residence in his chest. Sometimes Sam or Natasha come over as well, or they go over to Sam’s, and they watch movies and eat too much and talk about everything and nothing. This is what it feels like to have friends, he thinks. But what he feels for Steve is more than friends, it’s something different. He finds himself thinking about kissing Steve, about holding his hand, maybe even going out on a date like he’s read about in books. It’s a strange feeling. He can’t remember ever feeling like this about anyone. Relationships are for other people with normal lives, not him, and he doubts Steve even feels that way about him. 

But he wants him to. He wants it more than anything.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” Steve asks one day, as they’re lounging on the couch with their books spread between them. They’re getting two weeks of break from a little before Christmas to after New Years, but a lot of teachers are giving tests right before they go.

Bucky shrugs. “We don’t really do anything. Pierce usually gets me a gift and we have a nice meal.”

“Do you want to come over? I mean, we don’t do anything really special, cause it’s just me and my mom, but we always make pancakes in the morning and then open presents.”

“I don’t want to intrude.” Bucky is sure he’s already inconveniencing them enough with how often he’s over; they don’t want him ruining their Christmas, too.

“You won’t!” Steve’s eyes are bright and earnest. “My mom told me to ask you. Seriously, we’d love to have you.”

Bucky hesitates, but longing wins out. “Okay,” he says.

Steve beams, and Bucky’s heart skips a beat.

 

 

Bucky peers over the banister, watching as teachers mill around below, drinking and chatting. He spots Fury, the Vice Principal, chatting with Ms. Danvers, one of the PE teachers, while Mr. Erskine sips from a scotch glass and nods at whatever Mr. Stark is saying; Mr. Jarvis just looks worried, which seems to be a perpetual state for him.The house is festooned with elegant wreaths wrapping the banister and candles twinkling in the window, a magnificent Christmas tree standing tall in front of the fireplace. The floors are polished, kitchen no doubt full of canapés and alcohol and whatever else fancy adults eat, and it looks beautifully, sickeningly perfect. Bucky hates it.

Pierce throws a holiday party every year for all the teachers and administrators at the school, and every year Bucky skulks upstairs or sneaks down to steal alcohol. He can’t even go over to Steve’s to escape – Pierce explicitly told him to stay home.

The door opens and a new couple walks in. Bucky catches sight of Ms. Martinelli first, and then his gaze drifts to her left and his breath stutters in his chest.

Detective Carter. 

He sees the surprise mirrored on Pierce’s face and creeps down lower to listen in, staring in shock. Ms. Martinelli knows Detective Carter? 

“Detective Carter,” Pierce says, sounding thrown. “I didn’t expect you here. How do you know Angela?”

Detective Carter smiles, hair falling around her face in curls rather than the stiff updo Bucky had seen her in before. She’s dressed nicely, too, a red dress instead of a suit, but she doesn’t look any less dangerous for it.

“Oh, I thought you knew.” Her voice is sweetly neutral. “I’m Angie’s wife. Peggy Carter.” She holds out a hand.

“Right.” Pierce shakes her hand, smile fixed in place. “Well, I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s nice to meet you, officially.”

“Likewise.” Her eyes flick upwards, finding Bucky on the staircase with unerring focus. He freezes, startled, and Pierce turns, a scowl flitting across his face at seeing him.

“Ah. I’m sure you remember my son James. James, come join us.”

He swallows and descends the stairs, crossing the floor warily to stand beside Pierce. Pierce claps a hand on his shoulder, squeezing too hard to be accidental, and Bucky suppresses a flinch.

“James, you remember Detective Carter?” Pierce chuckles, giving her a commiserating look. “Don’t worry, I’m keeping him out of trouble.” He gives Bucky’s shoulder another painful squeeze.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that.” Detective Carter’s voice is even, face unreadable. 

“You know, James is one of my best students,” Ms. Martinelli says, aiming a smile at Bucky. He feels a real smile tug at his lips in return, cheeks heating with the praise.

“Is that so?” Pierce chuckles. “Well, I must be doing something right. I’m telling you, keeping him out of trouble is a full-time job.” He turns to Bucky. “And speaking of school, don’t you have work to do, James?”

Bucky scowls at the floor as he turns with Pierce’s guiding hand. Pierce leans in close, fingers digging into his shoulder.

“I thought I told you to stay out of sight,” he murmurs into Bucky’s ear. He gives him one last warning squeeze and lets go. Bucky hunches his shoulders, cheeks burning as he ascends the stairs. 

He hears Pierce chuckle behind him. “Sorry about that. He’s been a bit rebellious lately. Teenagers, you know?”

He clenches his hands into fists and quickens his steps, ducking sharply into his room, where he takes a couple deep breaths, hand shaking with jittery nervousness. He needs a cigarette. Or better yet, alcohol.

He paces his room, listening to the muted sounds of the party down below and digging metal fingers into his forearm in an attempt to quiet the restless buzz under his skin. Finally, a hush falls and he cracks open his door, creeping out onto the staircase again. Pierce is standing in front of the crowd, wine glass in hand and smile on his face, evidently in the middle of giving a toast.

“Thank you all for coming tonight, and a huge thank you to all the teachers and administrators who have worked tirelessly to make this school great. I know I haven’t been here long, but it’s already starting to feel like home.”

Ugh. Bucky’s eyes drift and land on the unwatched bottles of wine in the kitchen. Bingo.

He sneaks down the staircase and slips into the kitchen on silent feet. Pierce is droning on about hard work and impacting the lives of children, or something. Bucky has heard it a million times before.

“–like my son James, who came to me a young, troubled orphan and for whom I have worked tirelessly to give every opportunity–” 

Bucky uncaps the nearest bottle and chugs.

“–and so I wanted you all to be the first to know that I am once again opening my home and my heart, and am soon to be the proud parent of two young boys who lost their own parents just recently–” 

The bottle falls from numb fingers, hitting the ground with a clunk. Bucky reels. No. This cannot be happening. He knows what will happen to those kids. He knows.

It was only supposed to be him.

Applause sounds and Bucky stumbles out of the kitchen and into the hallway, ducking into the bathroom. He locks it behind him and barely makes it to the toilet before he throws up everything in his stomach, which is mostly alcohol. He wipes his mouth with a shaking hand and sticks his head under the tap, rinsing out his mouth before sliding down to sit against the cabinet. His chest stutters with harsh breaths, heartbeat pounding in his ears. 

He scrabbles at his pocket, clutching his pill bottle with a shaky hand and struggling to pop the top off. Finally, it falls to the floor and he shakes a few pills into his hand, swallowing them dry. He pulls his knees up and rests his forehead on them, waiting as his heartbeat slows, breaths evening out. 

Bucky isn’t completely stupid. He knows he’s not privy to all of Hydra’s plans, or Pierce’s for that matter, but he can read between the lines. He’s being replaced. Maybe he’s finally become more trouble than he’s worth, or he’s just getting too old. Maybe Pierce wants to start younger. Maybe he just wants more kids to exploit, to expand his business.

No doubt Pierce will promise them everything they could wish for and more, but he will drain them dry and there’s nothing Bucky can do to stop it. He shouldn’t, anyway. Working for Hydra is a small price to pay for the opportunities they’ll receive. They should be grateful.

Then why does it feel so wrong?

Bucky stands, turning on the tap with a shaky hand and splashing water on his face. He looks up at the mirror and catches sight of his reflection staring back at him, eyes haunted and tired. He’s pale and sweaty, cheeks hollowed, and his hair sticks to his neck messily, split ends brushing the hood of his sweatshirt. He looks exhausted, and all at once so much older than his sixteen years.

Bucky scowls and turns away from the mirror, cracking open the door. He peers out, seeing the hallway empty, and slips through the gap– 

Only to nearly collide with Detective Carter. He reels back, blinking at her in surprise as he sways slightly, the drugs making his limbs into lead.

“James?” She looks equally surprised, sharp eyes flickering over his face as if trying to see underneath.

“Sorry.” He glances down the hallway nervously, chewing on his lip. If anyone thought he was talking to her… 

“Are you alright?” Her eyes are kinder than he’s ever seen them, full of a worry that baffles him.

“I’m fine,” he mumbles, avoiding her gaze. His hands clench convulsively at his sides. 

She gives him a dubious look but continues. “I know our last meeting was in…less than ideal circumstances. But I just want you to know that if you ever need anything…” She holds out a business card with a number scribbled on the back. “You can call me anytime.”

Bucky takes the card warily, sure it’s some sort of trick. Why would a detective want to help him? She must want information. She knows something, that’s obvious, but he doesn’t know how much.

He glances down the hallway again anxiously. If he’s found with Detective Carter’s card on him he’s dead. She’s dead. He should throw it out the first chance he gets.

A voice comes closer, right around the corner. Bucky takes a step back, shoving the card into his pocket as he glances at Detective Carter one last time, and then flees.

He doesn’t stop until he’s back in his room, closing the door behind him and taking a deep breath. He pulls the card out of his pocket and hesitates, rubbing at the numbers. He should throw it away. He has to.

He takes a deep breath and shoves it back into his pocket.

 

 

“You didn’t tell me.” Bucky’s hands are trembling where they’re clenched into fists at his sides.  The house is empty and quiet, the light in Pierce’s study dim, and Pierce is sat comfortably on the couch, sipping on a glass of scotch. 

“You didn’t tell me about the kids,” Bucky repeats when Pierce only raises an eyebrow at him.

“Should I have?”

He grits his teeth, confused by the tears that spring to his eyes. “I had a right to know,” he says hoarsely.

“Did you now.” Pierce’s voice carries a note of warning, but Bucky can’t bring himself to care.

“Why?” Bucky’s voice cracks, but he looks straight at Pierce, brave the way he never is. 

“Why what?”

“Why do you…why do you need them? I thought…” 

Pierce gets up, face twisted in amusement as he strolls nearer. “You thought what? That you were special?”

Bucky’s face burns.

Pierce laughs, reaching out to squeeze Bucky’s bad shoulder and lean close, alcohol strong on his breath. “You know why I’m replacing you?” he asks, voice soft and mocking, his eyes boring into Bucky’s. “Because you’re a failure. I put so much time and money into you, and look at you.” He scoffs, a hand sweeping to encompass Bucky, and his amusement turns into something darker, hateful and bitter. “Such a waste. I never should have picked you.”

Pain lances Bucky’s chest, so sharp he nearly gasps with it. A tear slips down his cheek, his throat thick with hurt, and Pierce grips his chin, lifting it so he’s forced to meet his eyes.

“But, if you’re very, very good,” Pierce says, the darkness suddenly cleared from his expression, his eyes kind once more, “then you can keep all your privileges. I want you to help your new brothers, you understand? Teach them what it means to work for Hydra. If you can do that for me…I’ll be very grateful. I’ll even let you keep seeing the Rogers boy, whenever you want, and nothing…unfortunate has to happen to him. How does that sound?”

Bucky nods, unable to speak, and Pierce smiles and pats his cheek.

“Good boy. I’m glad we had this little talk.”

With that he turns and walks away, leaving Bucky alone with his churning thoughts.

 

 

Steve opens the door with a smile, ushering Bucky into the warmth of the apartment. He shucks his heavy jacket and boots, dusting the snow out of his hair, and sets his presents down under the small plastic tree in the living room before following Steve to the kitchen, where Steve’s mom – call me Sarah, dear – pushes a mug of hot chocolate into his hands. It’s Christmas Eve, and Pierce doesn’t need him home until late tomorrow, so he’s free to enjoy the holiday the way he hasn’t in years, not since his family was alive.

He and Steve curl up on the couch and watch Christmas movies in their pajamas with Steve’s mom, and Bucky ends up pressed against Steve’s side, his head on his shoulder. Snow is falling gently outside, blanketing the world in white, Christmas lights twinkling in the darkness, and for the first time in a long time Bucky feels safe. He feels…loved.

He hasn’t had a home in so long, not a real one, but he thinks that here, in these walls, with Steve and Sarah, it feels like home. Steve feels like home. Bucky loves him, he knows that much. He doesn’t know what it means, or even exactly what it is he’s feeling, but Steve is at the center of the glowing warmth in Bucky’s chest. He wants to be with Steve always, wants to press so close their heartbeats meld together and they cannot separate one from another. He wants to kiss Steve, to feel those soft lips against his own. He wants with an intensity that scares him. He is not used to wanting like this.

He lays awake long into the night, restless with the overflow of feelings, and eventually drops off to sleep only to be woken by murmured voices and the smell of coffee. He stretches on the couch, back popping audibly, and rubs his eyes before padding into the kitchen. Steve and Sarah are there already, pancakes browning on the griddle and eggs frying in a pan, the smell making his mouth water. 

Steve beams at him from a stool, frame swallowed beneath an oversized Christmas sweater in reds and greens with tiny snowflakes embroidered on it, sleeves pulled over slender hands that are wrapped around a steaming mug.

“Merry Christmas, Buck,” he says, smile so bright it could power the entire city, so bright Bucky cannot help but smile in return. 

“Merry Christmas,” Sarah echoes, turning from the stove. “Coffee?”

He nods, and she pours him a mug, sliding it across the counter as he hops up into the stool next to Steve. Steve knocks their feet together and Bucky feels his smile spread even bigger across his face as he nudges him back. 

Soon enough, the food is ready, and they sit around the table as they eat. Bucky drowns his pancakes in maple syrup and shoves them in his mouth, nearly groaning aloud as the sweetness bursts across his taste buds. He doesn’t think he’s ever tasted anything so heavenly. 

He helps Sarah with the dishes after as Steve pokes around in his stocking, stuffing a candy cane into his mouth. He offers Bucky one of his and Bucky closes his eyes as he sucks on the sweet candy, getting lost in blurred memories of laughter and a bright smile, his mother’s voice in his ears. 

The small plastic tree in the living room is hung with an eclectic mishmash of ornaments and lights, some obviously hand-made by a younger Steve. There’s an ache in Bucky’s chest as he looks at them – his own things from childhood are long gone, nothing but a distant memory. His sister had made the star on top of the tree, this he remembers; a crooked piece of construction paper spattered with glue and sparkles in a fit of six-year-old creativity. He wonders what happened to it. Thrown away, probably, with the rest of their things, while Bucky lay in a hospital bed with the world shattering before his eyes.

“Hey.” Steve nudges him and Bucky blinks, returning to the real world. “Ready to open presents?”

Bucky nods, and the three of them sprawl around the tree, shifting the small assortment of boxes and bags into piles. Bucky is surprised to see two presents for him – one from Steve and one from Sarah. Steve kicks off the gift exchange by unwrapping one from his mom, a blue knit scarf that matches his eyes. 

“Unwrap mine,” he tells Bucky excitedly, a trace of nervousness in his expression. Bucky obeys, carefully sliding his finger under the tape and trying not to rip the delightfully festive wrapping paper adorned with cartoon penguins. It’s thin and rectangular, and he grasps what feels like a thick piece of paper and pulls it out, staring in surprise.

It’s a drawing, rendered in Steve’s careful pencil lines. In it, Bucky has his arm slung around Steve and they’re both smiling, the background undefined and hazy.

“What do you think?” Steve asks with an anxious edge to his voice. 

Bucky looks up at him, mouth open in astonishment, that warm glow in his chest feeling like it might suffocate him. 

“Steve…” He struggles for words. “This is…incredible.”

Some of the anxiety goes out of Steve’s face, replaced by a blush and a small smile. 

“You made this for me?” Bucky questions in disbelief. He thinks of the time Steve must have spent, the thought he put into it. No one’s ever done something like that for him before. 

“Yeah, I–I didn’t really know what to get you,” Steve admits, “but I wanted to make you something special, so I thought…” 

Bucky feels a soft smile break across his face. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”

The pink flush across Steve’s cheeks deepens, and Bucky thinks it’s the most adorable thing he’s ever seen.

“You’re welcome,” he says. He clears his throat. “Mom, you’re next.”

Bucky watches as she opens her gift, and then Steve opens Bucky’s, jaw dropping in surprise. Bucky had saved and scrimped to buy the watercolor set, and the hours of overtime and bruises and scouring the shelves for the perfect gift were worth it just to see the look on Steve’s face 

“Bucky,” he says breathlessly, “wow. This is too much.”

Bucky shrugs; it’s his turn to feel awkward, heat creeping up his face. 

“Thank you, Buck,” Steve says earnestly, watercolors clutched tightly in his hands. “Really. This is amazing.”

Bucky smiles back at him, happy because Steve is happy, and being the cause of that feels like the best thing in the world. There’s one last gift, from Sarah to him, and he opens it with the same care as the last one, carefully creasing the wrapping paper.

It’s a scarf to match Steve’s, the same soft shade of blue, and Bucky can’t believe she went out of her way to get him something when she didn’t have to. She’s already done so much and he doesn’t deserve this sort of kindness, but when she looks at him and smiles, he feels like maybe he could. 

“Thank you,” he says softly, fingering the warm knit. 

“You’re welcome, dear,” she says, and stands, pulling Steve into a hug before turning to Bucky as he eases himself to his feet. He has a moment to be surprised before she’s hugging him, arms folded gently around him and hair tickling his cheek, the smell of her perfume in his nose. Something in him unknots, and his arms come up to hug her back carefully, a silent breath escaping as his body relaxes and he tucks his face into her shoulder. He can’t remember the last time someone held him like this, but then he thinks, Ma, the sense-memories echoing through his bones, and he feels tears prick his eyes as his throat sticks with unnameable emotion. 

When she lets him go, he has to surreptitiously swipe at his eyes and pull himself back together, still reeling. He thinks he could stay in her arms forever; he knows, deep in his soul, that she would keep him safe. Adults are never safe, he has learned that. They are cruel and ignorant and greedy. But Sarah Rogers is safe. She and Steve are the safest things he knows.



Bucky arrives home – no, not home, it has never been home – to find the house alit in twinkling lights, the Christmas tree shining through the window. The boughs drip with glittering ornaments, each one fragile and beautiful, yet for the first time Bucky can’t help comparing it to the small, cheerful tree of the Rogers and finding it wanting. Someone else had decorated it, and the ornaments hold no significance beyond their looks; in fact, there is no sign that anyone lives here at all.

Something cold and sorrowful lodges in his chest, and he carefully unwinds the scarf from around his throat, shoving it deep into his backpack before slipping quietly through the empty halls and up the staircase to his room. He showers and dresses in the clothes laid out on his bed – a pair of slacks, a dress shirt, and a sweater. The collar is stiff and uncomfortable against his throat.

Finger-combing his hair, he descends the stairs once more, following the aroma of food to the dining room. The table is draped in a pristine white tablecloth and laden with more food than anyone could ever eat, fine china gleaming faintly among the dizzying array. 

“Good evening,” James.

He startles slightly as Pierce walks in, taking a seat at the head and gesturing for Bucky to join him. Bucky swallows and slides into his chair, stomach rumbling and mouth watering at the sight of the rich foods in front of him even though he’s already eaten so much today, helpless to refuse the sweets pushed on him by Steve. It’s a rare occasion that he gets to eat as much as he wants, and though he knows from experience that his overindulgence will only end in misery later on, the temptation to eat everything he can is too much.

As soon as Pierce gives the okay, he’s loading his plate as fast as he can, trying to remember his manners as he chokes down food like a python. The tenderloin is juicy and flavorful, the potatoes so hot they burn his tongue; he sinks his teeth into soft rolls dripping with butter and feels his eyes roll back in his head.

It’s almost enough to make him forget where he is, but Pierce interrupts his dreamscape of food with a quiet clearing of his throat and Bucky freezes, cheeks still bulging around a roll.

“Slow down,” Pierce chides lightly, delicately cutting a strip of meat and bringing it to his mouth. “It’s unbecoming to eat like a wild animal, James.”

Bucky nods, swallowing with much effort and suppressing a wince. “Yes, sir,” he manages, when he can breathe again. 

Pierce gives an approving nod, and they pass the rest of dinner in silence. The maid comes in to clear away their dishes, leaving them alone, and Pierce takes a sip of wine and dabs at his mouth with a napkin, leaning back in his chair. The lines around his eyes have softened, his obvious good humor letting Bucky relax, slumping a bit in his chair and rubbing at his stomach.

“Would you like to open your gifts?” Pierce asks, smiling indulgently, and Bucky nods, curious despite himself. Pierce’s gifts are always expensive, and they never fail to make Bucky feel a mixture of grateful and guilty. He’s surprised he’s even getting anything this year, with how terrible he’s been.

Pierce brings the artfully wrapped boxes out from his study and sips his wine while he watches Bucky open them. Inside are headphones and a new pair of gloves, soft and sleek, and sure enough the stirrings of guilt dig claws into Bucky’s insides.

“Thank you,” he says, throat tight. 

“You’re welcome.” Pierce smiles, and Bucky is reminded how lucky he is to have him, and how ungrateful he’s been. Pierce has been so stressed; it’s only natural that he’s seemed more harsh than usual. In fact, he’s been more than lenient, considering the enormity of Bucky’s mistakes. 

He smiles back, heart squeezing, and tells himself the rush of relief is in knowing that Pierce does care. But later that night, lying awake with his journal, teeth worrying at the end of his pen, he finds the same sucking void in his chest, the same bone-deep exhaustion. He finds himself wishing he were in the Rogers’ house instead, with its laughter and color and happiness. 

He thinks about Steve’s gift, and Sarah’s, both so simple and yet filled with so much meaning, so much thoughtfulness. Pierce’s gifts feel…empty, somehow. Expensive, yet hollow. 

Care, he thinks. That’s what is missing. 

But Pierce does care…right?

He cares about Hydra, about making money. He cares about power. But does he care about Bucky?

His heart seems to know the answer, even if he can’t admit it to himself.

Bucky curls around his journal, closing his eyes against the prick of tears, and falls asleep that way, dreams filled with bright lights and laughter and a pair of blue eyes, warm and fond.

 

 

It’s late, and Steve and Bucky are lying on their sides facing each other on Steve’s bed, the apartment quiet and still. Sarah is working the night shift, Sam and Nat gone home after hours spent playing video games. Bucky has been over to Steve’s almost every day since Christmas, reveling in the respite from school, even his workload for Hydra reduced in light of the holidays. 

Steve’s features are soft in the low light, eyelashes limned in gold and hair falling in messy waves over his forehead. Bucky’s eyes are drawn to his lips, parted slightly on a breath and rosy against his pale skin.

On impulse, he leans forward, pressing his lips against Steve’s. It lasts only a second, dry and chaste, and then he pulls back, heart racing in his chest. Steve stares at him, eyes wide and startled.

“Why?” he whispers, so quiet it’s nearly inaudible.

“I…” Bucky does not have the words for it, this yearning ache in his chest. “I want to kiss you.”

“Why?” Steve repeats, searching Bucky’s eyes for something.

Bucky has let so many things slip from his lips, has spun lies and flirtations and uttered things that should be unspeakable. But for some reason, it is this that is the hardest to say. 

“I like you,” he says, the words halting and awkward, his cheeks heating. “I just…I…”

“You mean it?” Steve leans closer, their faces inches apart. “You really like me? You’re not just kissing me because you want to…” He hesitates. “...repay me?”

Bucky shakes his head. “No.” This, he is sure of. This is something pure and real, something more. “I like you.”

A smile breaks over Steve’s face slowly, eyes searching Bucky’s and finding whatever it is he was looking for. It’s he who leans forward this time, soft lips meeting Bucky’s, and though it is inexperienced and slightly awkward, noses bumping, it is the best kiss Bucky has ever had. 

They trade kisses for a while, Steve’s hand finding Bucky’s jaw and cupping it gently. Bucky rests his hand on Steve’s side, bodies curving toward each other like closed parentheses.

Eventually, they break for breath, eyes fluttering open to stare at each other across the sheets. 

“You’re really good at kissing,” Steve says, slightly breathless. He traces the curve of Bucky’s jaw, then trails his finger over his cheekbone, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. Bucky turns his face into the touch, sparks lighting up beneath his skin. 

“You’re the best person I’ve kissed,” he admits quietly. 

Steve makes an inquiring sound, hand coming to rest on the side of Bucky’s neck. “This wasn’t your first kiss?”

Bucky shakes his head slightly. Then he blinks, brow furrowed. “Was it yours?” 

“Yeah.”

“Oh.” To know that he was Steve’s first…he doesn’t know how to feel. “Was it good?”

Steve grins. “Yeah Buck. It was good.”

“Good.” He wants all of Steve’s firsts to be good. To know Bucky made it good, gave that to Steve, is everything. He never had that luxury.

Steve’s thumb sweeps across his neck in a slow, soothing motion, and Bucky curls closer to him, their heads nestled into the same pillow. 

“Sleep with me?” Steve asks, and Bucky thinks already? but then Steve blushes, looking mortified. “Not like that,” he blurts. “Stay, I mean. Here.”

“Okay.” As if Bucky could move with Steve’s hand on him, his warmth so close. 

“Okay,” Steve echoes, and they stay like that, curled next to each other, until they both fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Steve wakes to soft breathing in his ear and a warm body next to his. He turns and finds Bucky asleep, curled around the pillow with his hair falling over his face and mouth slack, eyelids fluttering in sleep. Steve is thankful he’s near-sighted, so even without his glasses, he can still appreciate the sight. Bucky looks unbearably cute, and Steve still can’t believe that he actually likes him back; that somehow, Bucky Barnes, gorgeous and sweet and kind, likes Steve Rogers, small and angry and unattractive. It’s too good to be true.

Bucky makes a snuffling sound, limbs uncurling, and slowly blinks his eyes open; a faint surprise dawns in them as he catches sight of Steve, and he smiles shyly and buries his face in the pillow, peeking at Steve from the corner of his eye.

“Hi,” Steve says, unable to stop the grin that pulls at his mouth.

“Hi,” Bucky mumbles back, cheeks tinged with pink. Steve can’t resist lurching forward to kiss him, except Bucky turns his head at the same time and they end up bonking noses, uttering matching exclamations of pain.

“Ow,” Steve says, mortified. “Fuck. Sorry.”

Bucky rubs at his nose with his right hand, the other across the room charging. Steve feels inordinately pleased that Bucky had trusted him enough to take off his prosthetic with him there, even though he’d made Steve turn around while he had his shirt off. Now, Bucky blinks at him owlishly, still rubbing his nose with a perplexed little crinkle between his eyes, and a giggle escapes Steve. Bucky stares at him and then starts to laugh as well, both of them giggling at the ridiculousness of their situation.

“Try again?” Steve suggests once they’ve stopped laughing, eyes fixed on Bucky’s lips.

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky breathes, and this time when Steve leans in it’s perfect, lips slotting together cleanly. 

Well, almost perfect.

“Ugh.” Steve pulls back, making a face. “We need to brush our teeth.”

Bucky laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and Steve falls for him all over again. 

 

 

The holiday break rushes past, and soon the New Year is before them, bright and glittering with possibility. Of course, the occasion wouldn’t be complete without a Tony Stark party, so late New Year’s Eve finds Steve tugging on his best skinny jeans and a blue sweater and clambering excitedly into Bucky’s sleek black car, squishing in next to Natasha and Clint. Bucky shoots him a smile from the driver’s seat, then dips his head toward Sam, seated next to him, with a roll of his eyes.

“Sorry,” he says, and Steve is entranced by the way his hair, loose and silky around his shoulders, shifts with his every movement. “Sam called shotgun.”

Steve manages to free his hand from between him and Nat to flip Sam off. Sam just smirks and returns the gesture while Nat silently holds out a fist for Steve to bump.

“Hey,” Clint protests, popping his head out from the other side of Nat, where he’s squashed against the door. “Why don’t I ever get fist bumps?”

“You’re just not cool enough,” Steve deadpans, and Nat fist-bumps him again, the upward quirk of her lips betraying her impassive exterior. 

Bucky glances at them in the rear-view mirror and shakes his head, a smile tugging at his lips. His eyes flit to Steve’s in the mirror and Steve’s heart skips a beat.

He’ll never get used to this, he thinks, will never get over the feeling of Bucky’s eyes on him, dark and intent, or the way every kiss, no matter how chaste, melts his bones and leaves him reeling, breathless for more. The few kisses they’ve shared, little more than dry presses of lips, had still left Steve’s heart racing and his skin tingling, head dizzy and light. Steve’s never kissed anyone before, never been in a relationship – if that is what this is, and god does he hope it is – but he thinks Bucky was worth waiting for. He can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss anyone else.

It’s only eight but the sky is already dark, illuminated only by the light pollution of the city. Bucky drives with the ease of someone used to it, one hand on the knob affixed to his steering wheel as he weaves through the streets. Soon enough, they’re pulling up to Tony’s house, and everyone piles out of the car, stretching their cramped legs – except for Sam, of course, who had been perfectly comfortable in the front seat. Music pulses from the house, lights spilling out onto the grounds, and Steve slips his hand into Bucky’s as they make their way to the door. Bucky glances over at him, a shy smile curling his lips, and gives Steve’s hand a gentle squeeze. He’s swapped out his typical black skinny jeans and hoodie for soft blue jeans and a red henley, the top buttons open to show a hint of collarbone and pale skin. His left hand, without a pocket to hide in, gleams in the light. 

Inside the house is a mass of people clad in various kinds of dress, from formal to casual, all drinking and dancing to the music. Steve follows Bucky toward the drink bar, avoiding the dubious-looking punch and settling on a can of White Claw while Bucky goes straight for the serious alcohol. As Steve watches, he and Nat pour matching cups of vodka and orange juice and knock their cups together in a toast before throwing back most of it in one go. Thankfully, their refills contain slightly less vodka, and they seem content to sip them at a leisurely pace. Steve shakes his head in bemusement and cracks his can open, sipping the fizzy beverage as he looks around the room. He spots Tony talking to Pepper Potts in the corner, very obviously flirting, and from Pepper’s expression she doesn’t actually seem to mind. Interesting, Steve thinks, for while he’s never one to get involved in any drama he can’t say he doesn’t enjoy hearing about it. Pepper and Tony have been dancing around each other for years, Pepper – a straight-A student and probable valedictorian – constantly professing her disdain for Tony. It seems love and hate are a fine line indeed if the sparks between them are any indication.

Drinks secured, Steve and Bucky wander around, hands linked and shoulders pressed together. Sam flits in and out, breaking off to chat with his other friends, and Clint and Natasha drift here and there, drinking and laughing. Expectation settles over the crowd as the clock ticks closer to midnight, the music turned down low in favor of the countdown. Steve and Bucky find a pocket of space and curve around each other, Steve tipsy and Bucky verging on drunk, both of them loose and uninhibited.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six… 

Steve loops his arms around Bucky’s waist, smiling up at him, and Bucky cups his cheek with a warm hand, thumb caressing his cheekbone.

Five, four, three, two, one… 

As the clock strikes midnight, Steve rocks up on his toes to kiss Bucky, the cheers around them fading out of his awareness. Bucky’s lips are warm and soft, the taste of alcohol bitter against Steve’s tongue as it slips into Bucky’s mouth. He feels Bucky’s left hand settle on his back, drawing him closer, and sparks alight down his spine, filling him with electric warmth. 

Finally, they pull apart, faces still inches away, and Steve opens his eyes to meet Bucky’s, pupils wide and dark. There’s a flush on Bucky’s cheeks, lips parted and wet from kissing, and he looks like the most beautiful thing Steve has ever seen. 

The pop of a champagne cork startles them, breaking the tension, and Steve laughs faintly before dropping his head against Bucky's chest, hugging him.

"Happy New Year," he murmurs.

Bucky's arms encircle him in return, his touch light and gentle, his body a firm line of heat against Steve's. "Happy New Year," he replies quietly, and something in Steve's heart lurches uncontrollably, catapulting him off the edge into the unknown.

 

 

Steve stumbles up the stairs, giggling quietly, as Bucky steadies him and laughs under his breath.

“Shut up,” Steve hisses, unable to stop smiling. “You’re way more drunk than me.” Though that may not be true anymore, considering Bucky can definitely hold his alcohol better than Steve, and Steve had drunk way too much champagne because Tony is an asshole.

They finally reach the top of the staircase and creep down the hall, leaning on each other. Somehow, Steve finds the right door and they tumble through, laughing uncontrollably. Nat looks up from the floor where she’s playing cards with Clint and Sam and raises an eyebrow.

“Look who’s finally decided to join us,” Sam says. “You doing alright there, Steve?”

“Yes,” Steve says, abruptly dropping to the ground next to him. Bucky settles by his side with much more grace, dropping an arm around his shoulders, and Steve leans into him happily.

“Ew,” Sam says, “no, gross, keep your couple-ness away from me.”

Steve knows better than to take Sam’s words seriously though, because Steve had texted him the day after Bucky kissed him, relaying the news with a great many exclamation points, and Sam had just said finally and then I’m happy for you, so Steve just flips him off and presses closer to Bucky, grinning. The alcohol is making everything pleasantly floaty, his body warm and light, and he thinks he’d like to just stay here forever with Bucky’s soft hair tickling his cheek.

Nat offers to deal him into the poker game they’re playing, but he declines in favor of watching Bucky play, occasionally whispering advice into his ear. The stakes are pretty low, with the pot consisting of a few corn chips and one lone Cheeto, but Steve is nothing if not competitive, and helps Bucky secure their win. They split the winnings, though the Cheeto is lost to Clint’s swift fingers, and afterward they all play rock-paper-scissors for the king bed that dominates the guest room. Sam, Bucky, and Steve end up winning while Nat and Clint get the couch and the floor, respectively. There’s enough room on the bed for all three of them to lay comfortably, Steve tucked in between Sam and Bucky on the soft mattress, and he falls asleep quickly to the easy rhythm of Bucky’s breathing.

The next morning is considerably less fun, as Steve is nursing a wicked hangover, but he bundles into Bucky’s car again, this time claiming shotgun, and tries not to throw up as they drive around dropping off each person. He’s glad to get home, where he takes a lengthy shower and collapses on the couch with Bucky to watch movies while his mom cooks them breakfast out of pity. He naps on Bucky’s shoulder most of the day, only rousing to eat, and that night after Steve’s mom is asleep Bucky sneaks into his room and slides into his bed, lying back against the pillows.

“Are we dating?” Steve asks abruptly into the silence, thoughts tumbling around in his head like rocks in a stream.

Bucky rolls onto his side and props himself up on his elbow, frowning down at Steve.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Do you want to be?”

Steve swallows, glancing over hesitantly. “Do you want to be?”

“I–” Steve’s heart starts to sink, but Bucky forges on. “I don’t really know how to…I’ve never…I mean, I–” He makes a frustrated sound. “I want to. I just…don't know how, or if you–what you want.”

Steve turns to face him, a hand tucked under his pillow. “I want to, too,” he says. “And I’ve never done this before, either. I don’t know what I’m doing. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page. I want this to be a relationship. Like…well, like boyfriends.” He shrugs, blushing slightly. “If that’s what you want.”

Bucky searches his eyes, then offers him a small smile. “I want that too.”

“Boyfriends,” Steve says quietly.

“Boyfriends,” Bucky echoes like he’s testing out the word. He bites his lip, a smile crinkling his eyes. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Steve smiles back, then frowns as another thought occurs to him. “What do you want to do about school?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean, I don’t know if you’re out, or…?” Steve blinks. “Actually, I don’t even know how you identify.”

“Oh.” Bucky is silent a moment. “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t really thought about it.”

Steve scooches closer on the bed. “About being out, or your sexuality?”

Bucky shrugs one-shouldered. “Both?” He blows out a breath, eyes skittering away from Steve. “I, um, I don’t think we should let anyone know.”

“Why not?” Steve’s instinctive response in anger – he doesn’t want to hide, and he doesn’t want to date someone who wants to hide him – before he remembers that this is Bucky and gives him the benefit of the doubt.

“Pierce, um, wouldn’t like it.” Bucky’s shoulders draw steadily inward like he’s trying to make himself as small as possible. 

“Oh.” This time, Steve’s anger is firmly directed outwards. Fuck Pierce. He offers Bucky a wan smile. “Hey, it’s okay. We’ll just keep it between us. Our friends won’t say anything, I promise.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Buck, it’s fine. I get it.” He reaches out, placing a hand on Bucky’s cheek, and Bucky finally meets his eyes, his own troubled and guilty. “There’s no rush.” He leans forward and presses a gentle kiss to Bucky’s lips, a little thrill going through him that this is something he can do now. 

Bucky’s mouth is pliant under his, and when Steve pulls back the worry has faded slightly from his eyes. He counts it as a win.

“Come here,” he says, patting the bed between them, and Bucky shifts closer until their knees touch. Steve rolls over and wriggles until his back hits Bucky’s chest, hearing him take a stuttering breath. “Is this okay?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Bucky breathes, warm air puffing over the back of Steve’s neck, and Steve feels the taut line of his body relax. Steve falls asleep surrounded by Bucky’s warmth, his heart full to bursting.

 

 

The tail end of the semester flies by in a flurry of studying and schoolwork. He and Bucky spend hours together preparing for their exams, the circles under Bucky’s eyes growing deeper, but it pays off in the end when both of them get high marks. Soon enough, it’s time for the next semester, and Steve prays to every god that he and Bucky end up in a class together again. Steve is taking Advanced Figure Drawing with Mr. Erskine, and Bucky confesses shyly that he’s taking a creative writing course with Ms. Martinelli, which makes Steve happy for him since he knows how much Bucky liked English with her. Bucky is also taking physics with Mr. Stark, and he and Sam end up in the class together, while Steve ends up in the same English class as Sam as well as Nat. He and Bucky end up with one class together – Precalculus with Ms. Hill. Steve silently thanks the gods, because math is not his best subject, but Bucky is great at it. He’s even more thankful that he doesn’t have to take gym, as Juniors and Seniors only have to take one semester each.

He and Bucky keep their relationship under wraps at school, even though the temptation to grab Bucky’s hand in the hall or kiss him in the morning is almost too much to bear. Steve doesn’t want to get Bucky in trouble or make his life any harder than it already is, though, so he doesn’t voice his annoyance to Bucky. It’s enough that he gets to see Bucky so often outside of school.  

Their first official date is at Steve’s favorite coffee shop, a cute hipster place that also sells the best pastries Steve’s ever had. Bucky arrives in a thick leather jacket with the scarf Steve’s mom gave him wrapped around his neck, snow dusting the hair that falls in waves around his face. His cheeks are flushed from the cold, eyes sparkling despite his dark circles, and Steve’s heart gives another funny lurch in his chest.

“Hey,” he says, rising from the table to give Bucky a hug and then a quick kiss, Bucky’s lips chilled and slightly chapped from the cold. “I haven’t ordered yet.”

Bucky shivers in the warmth, stripping the glove from his right hand and tucking it into his pocket. “Okay. What are you getting?” He follows Steve over to the counter, surveying the blackboard on which the menu is written in curling cursive. 

“Probably a hot cocoa and a chocolate chip muffin,” Steve says, after a moment of deliberation. “Their muffins are really good.”

“Hmm.” Bucky chews on his lip. “I’ll get the same thing, then?”

“Sounds good.” Steve reaches out to tangle their fingers and squeezes his hand. He orders for both of them and pays despite Bucky’s protests, smiling at his disgruntled expression. Their cocoa comes out in steaming mugs dotted with marshmallows and topped with whipped cream, and Steve smiles wider at Bucky’s wide-eyed look of amazement at the first sip. He takes a large gulp of his own and giggles as Bucky reaches out to wipe a smear of whipped cream off his nose, licking it off his finger. Snow is falling outside the window, blanketing the world in white, and warmth spreads from Steve’s stomach outwards, settling into his bones. The muffin melts in his mouth, perfectly crumbly, and when both of theirs are gone they link hands across the table and sip at their cocoa, content to sit in silence as Bucky plays with Steve’s fingers, his jacket off and draped over the back of his chair to reveal a soft white sweater underneath. He looks incredibly huggable.

He also looks…happy, or at least as happy as Steve has ever seen him. There are shadows under his eyes, and the faint impression of bruises wrapping around his wrist when his sleeve shifts up, but there is a softness in his eyes as he looks at Steve that betrays more than he says. Whatever Steve is feeling, this flare of warmth in his chest, Bucky is feeling it too. And that…that is enough. 

It’s more than enough. It’s everything.