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A Century of Sleep, Vexed to Nightmare

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The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-          “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

 

***

 

James Buchanan Barnes meets his best friend one cold February morning in 1929. He is ten years old, and he is in trouble. Now that the shouting and the strap are over with, the easy part of the punishment has arrived, if you consider pushing an ancient, back-breakingly heavy mop around a mud room easy. James does not, but his backside still stings, and he really doesn’t want to get hit again, so he keeps his head down and throws all of his weight into pushing the mop, feeling equal parts triumphant and frustrated when it scoots across the floor a few inches.

 

He looks up for a moment when the door opens and a nun, of all things, walks in pulling off her coat and turning impatiently behind her, saying,

 

“Come on, come on. Don’t take all day.”

 

A very small boy trails in behind her, who looks like he’s about seven years old. His eyes are watery and his blond hair lies lank and flat against his head. There’s a flush of red on two high points in his cheeks and James can hear his chest rattle with every breath he takes. He’s scrawnier than anyone James has ever seen before, and he doesn’t look very happy. James would say he’s the saddest looking kid he’s ever seen, but he doesn’t see many happy ones to compare him to. No, this kid looks about on par with all the other boys at this school. No one is ever happy to be sent to the Barry School for Boys; as a rule, people aren’t happy to find out they’re a lost cause. It’s been a while since James has seen a nun bring a boy in though.

 

His curiosity is effectively quelled when he sees the mud they’ve left on his once clean floor, but it’s ignited again when Mr. Snyder, the principal, notices him half an hour later.

 

“Barnes,” He calls, interrupting James’s trek to the back stoop to empty the now dirty bucket of mop water. “In here, now.”

 

James is worried that he’s in trouble for something yet again, and he wasn’t even trying this time, but he squares his shoulders and marches into the office. He doesn’t ever let anyone see him scared. Besides, Mr. Snyder only ever pays attention to you if you act guilty. If you act like you’ve been behaving yourself, you’re probably going to be fine.

 

“ – ought to be a lovely child,” the nun is saying as he slips inside and closes the door behind him. “He’s so respectful and polite to the sisters. But the fights he gets into.”

 

She’s gesturing emphatically with a hand full of paperwork at the little boy, who is staring hard at the floor, acting like he wishes it would open up and swallow him.

 

“He causes enough of a drain on our resources as it is, he’s such a sickly little thing. We can’t afford to be patching him up all the time, too.”

 

“Not to worry, Sister,” Mr. Snyder says confidently. “We’ll get the boy straightened out. We may make a model citizen out of him yet.”

 

He looks up and sees James.

 

“Barnes,” He says. “This is Steven Rogers, from the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage in Brownsville. He’s going to be going to school here, and he’s in your grade, so I want you to take him and show him around. Does that dorm room of yours still have the empty cot?”

 

“Yessir,” James says, dutifully, although he has no idea. Steven will be staying there if there’s room to spare or not, so it doesn’t really matter.

 

“Good,” says Mr. Snyder. “Get moving, then.”

 

James rushes back to the door, because the nun is making him a little nervous, like she’s hiding damnation under her habit or something. He glances over his shoulder, once, to make sure Steven is trudging obediently behind him, but he doesn’t say anything until they’re hauling Steven’s bag up the stairs.

 

“You don’t look like you’re ten,” is the first thing James says to him. “You have to be ten to come here.”

 

“I’m eleven,” comes the quiet answer.

 

“Are not,” James scoffs, and he backs up a little when Steven’s flushed and angry face whips up and is suddenly glaring at him full on.

 

“Am too,” he snaps. “Are you gonna make fun of me? Get on with it, then. I know I look like a baby.”

 

“No, not a baby,” James says, trying to sound at least a little soothing. “Just like a kid. But I guess it’s not your fault if you’re a shrimp.”

 

“You’re a jerk,” Steven mutters.

 

“I’m trying to be nice,” James protests. “It’s not my fault they stuck you in a reform school. You don’t have to take it out on me if the nuns didn’t want you.”

 

Steven is quiet for a long moment but finally he says, “Sorry,” in a really small voice and he’s looking at his feet again and his eyes are too bright, so James reaches out to pat him awkwardly on the arm. He’s not exactly what you could call a kind person. He never goes out of his way to make people like him, but something about Steven makes him want to help. When Steven looks sad, it makes James feel sad, and James has never been much for asking why, he’s just interested in doing what feels good. Right now, that means making Steven feel good about being here.

 

“It’s not so bad, I promise,” James says, and he means it. “Mr. Snyder doesn’t really care much about what we do, so long as we don’t do anything bad enough to make the papers. No one here is really that bad anyhow. We’re just a little different.”

 

“Really?” Steven asks, looking up at him with his swimming eyes, and now that James is holding his gaze, he can see the fear and hope there alongside the anger and hurt.

 

“Really,” he promises, conveniently forgetting the rumours about how Jack Preston was sent here for trying to kill his baby brother with a pillow. “Even the teachers aren’t that tough. I mean, they’ll lay into you with a ruler if you give them any lip, and they’ll give you extra chores if you get in a fight or break a rule, but that’s about it. Just stick with me. I’ll take care of you.”

 

***

 

Steven, James learns early, is very hard to take care of.

 

***

 

“Steve, you gotta let people start standing up for themselves,” James chastises, as he delicately dabs at the cut on Steven’s face with a wet washcloth. “You can’t fight people’s battles for them.”

 

Steve squirms uncomfortably on the hard hamper lid, trying to land on a spot that isn’t stinging and sore. James understands and smiles sympathetically at him. Steven doesn’t notice.

 

“Arnie’s never gonna stand up for anything though,” he says, stubbornly. “He’s too worried that stupid board of trustees’ll keep him here forever if he steps out of line. Someone’s gotta look after him.”

 

Steve has only been here for about six months, but already this has become a familiar argument. James never would have believed that someone as weak as Steve could be so scrappy, but he probably gets into more fights than any other kid there. It’s not because he’s a bully, or even that the other boys pick on him, it’s because Steve will fight on other people’s behalf at the drop of a hat, without anyone ever asking him to. He never gets into a fight on his own behalf, but the second anyone starts to make fun of someone for being different, the gloves come off. Jack Preston usually sees the worst of it, either because he just won’t learn, or because he thinks making Steve angry is hilarious.

 

To be honest, James can imagine that the first few times you get attacked by the tiny unrelenting ball of rage that is Steve Rogers, it would be pretty hilarious. But Angry Steve can inflict an impressive amount of damage (even though he always gets the worst of it), and after getting caught by his right hook a few times, James thinks the joke would have to wear a little thin. Preston just doesn’t let up though, and even starts taunting Steve directly once he notices how much his haphazard bullying gets Steve worked up. The more James is left to patch him up afterwards the more he understands why the nuns all despaired of him.

 

“Someone’s gotta look after you,” James insists. Steve only grins at him.

 

“You look after me,” he says. “See? It all works out.”

 

James slumps over in dramatic defeat. Steve punches him good-naturedly on the shoulder.

 

“Buck up, Barnes,” he jokes. “No matter what Arnold thinks, we’re gonna be here for a long time. Can’t have you giving up on me already.”

 

“Buck up, huh?” James repeats, laughing. “You know my middle name’s Buchanan?”

 

Steve laughs, because they’ve just been memorizing the presidents in History, and threatens to start calling him Old Buck or Ten-Cent Jimmy. In the end though, the nickname that sticks is Bucky.

 

***

 

Mr. Snyder has a heart attack when Steve and Bucky are in the 7th grade. Mrs. Wagner, the nice secretary who acts like everyone’s mother and always give the boys hugs when she runs into them on her way into the school, finds him lying on the floor of his office. Bucky doesn’t really care much one way or the other. Mr. Snyder has never cared about Bucky, he knows, and in the end the man was just one more adult to lecture him about the dangerous path he was walking on, and to extoll the virtues of a “good life.” Bucky knows a line when he hears one, and in the end that’s all Mr. Snyder had to offer him: meaningless talk. But Steve seems pretty upset by the whole thing.

 

“He was only ever trying to help us,” he says. “Now he’s gone.”

 

“He was only ever trying to make a living,” Bucky corrects, quietly so none of the teachers will overhear him. “I promise you, that guy could barely remember our names. I’m not gonna miss him now that he’s gone.”

 

Steve gives him a pained look, like he always does when Bucky says something he disagrees with. Bucky just grins at him and reaches out to ruffle his hair, which causes Steve to begin frowning in earnest and slap Bucky away with both hands. When Mr. Stoller catches them they’re each given a week’s worth of KP duty and a hiding that makes Bucky’s rear end throb, for “roughhousing.” Bucky complains until Steve loses his patience and slaps him in the face with a dirty rag. When Mr. Stoller breaks them up a second time they end up with a month’s worth of KP and sitting through classes the next day is a new kind of agony, but Bucky can’t stop thinking about how loudly Steve was laughing, and privately thinks it was worth it.

 

***

 

Mr. Douglas seems a lot like Mr. Snyder when he first arrives. He doesn’t pay much attention to any of the boys, and only is really half-interested in disciplining them when they’re marched into his office. Steve doesn’t like him at all, and keeps saying he wishes Mr. Snyder was still there.

 

“They’re practically identical,” Bucky protests. “Mr. Douglas is thin and Mr. Snyder was fat but that’s the only way they’re different. I think you’re a little off in the head, Steve.”

 

Steve, however, is adamant.

 

“The teachers don’t like him,” he insists. “They don’t like him, and they don’t trust him. Watch how they stare at him sometimes. There’s something wrong.”

 

As much as Bucky would like to laugh off Steve’s paranoia, when he pays any sort of attention at all, he has to admit something’s strange.

 

It’s not that the other teachers ever say anything bad about Mr. Douglas. To his face they are the pictures of polite professionalism. But there’s something in the tense way Mr. Sullivan holds himself when the new principal is in the room, and in the way Mr. Bradley is forever frowning when Mr. Douglas interrupts classes to ask for a favour. It’s nothing Mr. Snyder wasn’t guilty of, but it’s almost as though the teachers know something about the new principal that the boys don’t.

 

It’s when Mr. Douglas hires a vice principal that the teachers finally start to disappear. Not in a creepy, Al Capone way, but leaving all the same. Bucky often wonders why Mr. Douglas hired Mr. Atherton, who is a lot like Jack Preston on a bad day. He seems to make a game out of targeting the weak students and hurting them; scaring the youngest boys until they cry, and whipping the older ones at the slightest provocation – sometimes when they haven’t even done anything at all. But what is irritating in someone your own age is downright intimidating in an adult who’s been given the authority to punish you. He throws the students and teachers both off-balance, but the teachers at least aren’t locked up in the building every night.

 

Mr. Bradley actually quits in the middle of a lesson, when Mr. Atherton interrupts, insisting that Alexander Kenny go to the principal’s office immediately, on Mr. Douglas’s orders. According to the boys in class, Mr. Bradley just handed Mr. Atherton a piece of paper, said goodbye to his class, and walked out the door. Steve tells Bucky later that he caught a glimpse of the paper and that it was a resignation letter. Mr. Sullivan is actually fired, but no one knows why.

 

It’s a little frightening, because jobs aren’t easy to find right now, and even Bucky had liked Mr. Sullivan, who hardly ever whipped students at all, even when they deserved it. He wonders what all his old teachers will do now that they’re out of work. Meanwhile the retreating teachers are replaced with men who are just as hard and unforgiving as Mr. Atherton. Before long, grumpy, fussy Mr. Stoller is the only member of the old faculty left.

 

***

 

Some days Steve is too sick to go outside for the scheduled yard work and chores, so Mrs. Wagner arranges for him to come inside and help her with the filing and paperwork. Since Steve is such a smart kid, he takes to it like a duck to water and before too long, Mrs. Wagner is arranging for him to do office work more than he does regular chores. At first the other boys grumble about it, and Bucky is worried that they’ll get Steve into trouble. It wouldn’t be Steve’s fault, but the new teachers almost seem like they look for reasons to punish people. Whippings happen a lot more now, and for a lot of new reasons. Steve insists some of the teachers make the rules up as they go.

 

Ultimately it’s Steve’s quiet complaints about the new teachers that get the other boys to stop fussing about his new job, because the longer Steve stays in the office the more convincing his accusations get. Apparently, Steve’s new responsibilities come with healthy doses of information, and Steve is not the kind of kid to withhold information to gain the upper hand. The closest he ever gets to holding what he knows over someone’s head is when he sees someone (Preston) being a bully and point blank refuses to keep talking until that person (Preston) knocks it off. 

 

It doesn’t take long for Steve to sort out that all of the new teachers have been hand-picked by Mr. Douglas, and that their paperwork shows they’ve all worked at the same places as Mr. Douglas in the past, like they follow him from place to place. They also show that most of the new teachers have been fired more than a few times for inappropriate behavior.

 

“He’s just hiring all of his friends!” Steve hisses to a small group. “And none of them can get work anywhere else because they’re too mean to keep jobs where they get to be in charge of normal kids.”

 

Steve’s vocal and insistent hatred of the new faculty is worrying to Bucky, who has enough trouble keeping the damned kid in line and out of trouble on a good day. Still, he doesn’t really see the writing on the wall until the day Mr. Eckert actually hauls Peter Carlson out to the shed behind the school in the middle of class and whips him until he bleeds. The other boys gather at the window and watch with horrified expressions as Mr. Stoller tentatively approaches the shed at the commotion and calls out to Mr. Eckert uncertainly. As soon as Mr. Eckert has stormed out and starts to head back to the main building, shouting incoherently over his shoulder about cotton and “stupid little jigaboos who don’t know their place” the boys scramble back into their seats so they won’t be caught staring. Steve stays at the window the longest, something dark and angry raging behind his eyes, watching Mr. Stoller reluctantly help a crying Peter hobble towards the dorms. Mr. Atherton gets mad at Mr. Eckert and tells him off in the hallway, but not for hurting Peter.

 

“We’re inner city here, Martin, and the fence only keeps the kids on the inside, not the noises they make. You don’t go airing the dirty laundry out where anyone can overhear you, you understand? There’s a perfectly good basement in this building, use that.”

 

“They’re all just a bunch of bullies,” Bucky hears Steve mutter as they watch Mr. Atherton walk away, and his stomach drops down into his boots, because he knows how Steve deals with bullies, and now he also knows how this school will be dealing with difficult students. Somehow Bucky doesn’t think considerations will be made for Steve’s fragile health. It’s not the first time Bucky’s been afraid that Steve will die and leave him before they’ve had a chance to grow up together, but it’s the first time he’s realized that it might be something other than sickness that makes it happen.

 

***

 

One morning, a few months after Mr. Douglas arrives, Bucky can’t get the normally punctual Steve out of bed with the wake-up call. Steve has been getting sicker and sicker with the latest bout of illness going through the school, so Bucky has a second of heart stopping terror before he reassures himself that Steve is still breathing, wheezing painfully like he can’t get enough air.

 

“You okay, Steve?” He asks gently, shaking Steve’s shoulder. “Do you need help getting to breakfast?”

 

Steve only moans pitifully in his sleep. His face is flushed bright red, and there’s a grimace on his face as though the threadbare sheet covering him is somehow causing him pain. Bucky makes a face of resignation and carefully slips his arm around Steve’s shoulders as he tries to haul his friend up into a sitting position. The old faculty might have put up with Steve being too sick to move, but ever since Mr. Atherton told Steve he could breathe if he really wanted to and tried to beat Steve out of an asthma attack, Bucky tries not to risk drawing any undue attention towards them. And now there’s the added problem of the boiler room, where more and more kids have been getting dragged to since the incident with Peter Carlson, instead of getting their backsides tanned in front of the class.

 

At one time, Bucky may have thought it was better to face punishment in private than be humiliated in front of an entire room full of his classmates, but that was before he got sent to the boiler room himself, for finishing a fight that Steve started. Rulers don’t just whip the backs of your thighs down there but land up and down your whole body, front and back; hands close into fists on more than one occasion. When you’re really bad, they unscrew the lone light bulb in the room and take it with them before sending for Mr. Hodgson, the only person besides Mr. Douglas and Mr. Atherton to carry his own complete set of keys. After you’ve been locked in alone and in the dark, to “think about what you’ve done,” the rats start to come out of the corners and there’s nothing you can do to get away until the door opens again. Bucky works very hard to keep both himself and Steve as far away from the basement as possible.

 

This morning, though, as soon as Steve is in a sitting position, his eyes fly open and he lets out a wail of distress, arms jerkily going to wrap around his stomach as he hunches over. He’s very, very hot, and Bucky notices a strange rash just starting on his arms. Steve sits there shuddering for a moment before Bucky reluctantly lowers him back to the bed. He sits next to him quietly, knowing he’ll be punished, but unwilling to let them hurt Steve without trying to stop it, either.

 

***

 

They do admit that Steve is sick in the end, but only after they’ve given Bucky a black eye and shoved him across the room to yank the sheets off of Steve and force him to stand. Steve yelps loudly and falls over in a heap, looking like he’s trying hard not to cry.

 

“Now what the hell do you think he’s gotten into to cause that?” Mr. Hodgson wonders aloud as he stares at Steve’s abnormally oversized and deformed ankles.

 

“It’s just a cold,” Mr. Douglas says, dismissively. “Let him sleep through the worst of it. It won’t kill him to miss a few meals.”

 

***

 

Steve doesn’t get any better. Bucky tries to sneak food up to him and sit with him whenever he can, but nothing much changes, and the fever and rash both keep getting worse. On the second day, Steve won’t respond to any prodding at all and Bucky is so, so scared that he’ll die, but that’s about when Mrs. Wagner walks into the dorm with a determined step and false cheerfulness in her voice.

 

“They just told me Steven won’t be helping me for a second day in a row. It’s not like him to be truant, so I wanted to make sure he was alright.”

 

“I’m taking care of him,” Bucky says, stubbornly. Mrs. Wagner smiles absently at him, but the usually indulgent expression is stretched thin as she gingerly picks up Steve’s arm and examines it. The rash has gotten worse by now, and the swelling in his joints seems to be spreading to his elbows and wrists.

 

Mrs. Wagner disappears into Mr. Douglas’s office and from what Bucky can tell, she doesn’t leave all morning. Once Bucky walks past and hears her say something about “rheumatic fever” and “aspirin” in a loud voice, but she doesn’t seem to be able to get through to the principal, because right about when the bell rings, Bucky sees her storm out and grab her coat and hat. She calls out over her shoulder that she’s taking a long lunch when she goes, and comes back a little over an hour and a half later with a doctor in tow. Mr. Douglas is almost purple with rage, but he doesn’t stop the doctor from looking over Steve. Bucky hears him mutter something about roughhousing when the doctor asks about some of Steve’s bruises. When the doctor looks uncertain, Mr. Douglas sighs slightly and says,

 

“These aren’t normal boys, Doctor. They live hard; injuries are hardly uncommon.”

 

“If you ever need me to come in and look after any of those injuries, I would be happy to offer my services,” The doctor says. “In the meantime, I’m going to leave you with some aspirin, and some instructions on how to keep him hydrated. It’s good that you sent Mrs. Wagner for me. Rheumatic fever can have deadly consequences if it’s not properly monitored.”

 

Mr. Douglas thanks the Doctor politely for his time and carefully listens to the rules that are laid out. Bucky listens too, from the doorway, because he knows that no one here has any intention of helping Steve except for him and Mrs. Wagner, and anyhow, Steve is his responsibility. If he can’t charm the cooks into making up a little broth for Steve at meal time, he doesn’t deserve the title of best friend.

 

Mrs. Wagner brushes the hair out of Steve’s face fondly before she leaves the room, after the doctor and Mr. Douglas have gone. She spots Bucky skulking as she walks past, too, and stops to give him an unexpected but warm hug.

 

“You keep looking after him,” she whispers.

 

Bucky nods solemnly, and Mrs. Wagner calmly walks back the front office and her desk. Later Elmer Schulz will swear that he saw her start packing her things the second she walked in, and that Mr. Douglas barely got a chance to properly fire her for insubordination before she’s walking out the front door.

 

***

 

Mr. Douglas calls Bucky into his office one day in the summer while the other boys are out doing chores. All of the good teachers are gone by now, and even most of the ‘just okay’ ones. Mrs. Wagner has been gone for months, and when Preston unsuccessfully made a run for it a few weeks ago, he was whipped so hard he couldn’t get out of bed for a week and a half. Things seem about as bad as they can possibly get, but Bucky knows deep down that they can always get worse.

 

Mr. Douglas still doesn’t pay much attention to the students, isn’t interested in hitting them or shoving them around like most of the other teachers are, but that doesn’t mean Bucky trusts him. Mr. Douglas likes people based on what they can do for him, which is why he doesn’t have much use for a bunch of delinquent boys, and why he prefers to let the school run itself. Bucky has no idea what he’s doing in the man’s office.

 

When Mr. Douglas raises an arm and gestures for him to come around to his side of the desk with a carefully manufactured smile, Bucky starts to get the picture. He feels like he’s walking into a tiger cage at the zoo, but he does as he’s told anyhow. Steve is just on the other side of the door, diligently filing like he always does, helping the school justify not hiring a full-time replacement secretary. Bucky wants to walk the other direction, back to where he knows he’s safe, just in case, but Bucky isn’t brave like Steve is. Bucky’s never been good dealing with rights and wrongs, because he gets scared, and then noble ideas like justice get clouded over with the need to survive and get by. Sometimes it’s so much safer to do what you’re told and play the game, even when the game isn’t safe either.

 

“Good boy,” Mr. Douglas says, when Bucky slowly comes to a halt next to his chair.  He slides back a little and turns so he’s facing Bucky, his hand reaching out and patting Bucky amicably just above his hip bone. “Tell me James, how long have you been at this school now?”

 

“Long time,” Bucky mutters, then adds “A few years” when Mr. Douglas raises an unimpressed eyebrow at the first answer.

 

“Would you like to leave one day?” Mr. Douglas asks, seriously.

 

Bucky nods.

 

“That’s a good answer,” says Mr. Douglas, taking hold of the top of Bucky’s pants like they’re a harness and guiding him closer to him. He lets the hand slide round to the back of Bucky’s waist as he indicates to Bucky’s file sitting on top of the desk. “But I’m a little worried that you don’t mean it. You get into a lot of fights, James.”

 

“I finish a lot of fights,” Bucky corrects, automatically. He can feel Mr. Douglas’s hand still resting on the top of his pants. “I don’t start them.”

 

“You spend your time fraternizing with students who are known to be excessively violent and a danger to others,” Mr. Douglas says as Bucky forces down a hysterical laugh, like Steve could ever be considered dangerous. “I want to see you succeed in life, James. I really do want to see you get out of this place and maybe see you make your own way in the world. But how can I give the board of trustees the go-ahead to let you back out into society when you aren’t taking your future seriously?”

 

The hand is starting to dip down into the back of his pants now. Bucky has to lock his knees to keep from squirming away.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says, saying the first thing that comes to mind in an attempt to distract himself from what Mr. Douglas is pretending isn’t happening. “I’ll try harder. I’ll be better.”

 

“Good boy,” Mr. Douglas repeats, softly. “If you’re serious, this is a very big step for you. This school only has your best interests at heart.”

 

Mr. Douglas’s free hand reaches forward to undo the front of Bucky’s trousers while the second hand works itself into the back of Bucky’s pants entirely, even past his underwear. Bucky can’t stop himself from trying to pull away this time, but there’s nowhere he can move that won’t push himself further into Mr. Douglas’s hands and no one else has ever, ever touched him in these places and he’s so uncomfortable and suddenly it feels like he’s having trouble breathing.

 

“Please stop,” he whispers, and just saying those words is so hard that his eyes are brimming over with tears. Mr. Douglas shushes him, but he doesn’t stop touching and this is it, Bucky realizes. This is really going to happen.

 

Which is about when the door to the office swings open wide. Mr. Douglas snatches his hands back, nowhere near quickly enough, and Bucky suddenly wants to start crying for real, because Steve is standing on the other side of the door with a stony expression on his face.

 

“What’s going on?” He asks, quietly.

 

“Nothing that concerns you,” Mr. Douglas says calmly, hands folded on the desk like they just weren’t caught all over Bucky. Like Steve can’t see Bucky’s pants hanging open and barely seated on his hips.

 

Steve crosses his arms, and Bucky has no idea how a kid that tiny can look so menacing.

 

“I feel a little concerned,” he says.

 

“Rogers,” Mr. Douglas says, using his Teacher Voice. “Out. Now.”

 

“I’ll leave when Bucky leaves with me,” Steve says, not wavering for a second. “Elmer Schulz somehow broke his hand yesterday afternoon, so I told Miss Matson we’d help take over his KP duty today.”

 

When no one moves or speaks for a few moments, Steve walks behind the desk and over to Bucky like it’s nothing. He goes to take Bucky’s hand, but since they’re both still clenching the desk so tightly his fingers feel like they’re about to break, Steve settles on grabbing a wrist and tugging on it gently but firmly until Bucky releases his hold.

 

“Miss Matson is our favourite cook,” he explains to Mr. Douglas, like he’s talking to a friend about the damn weather. “She’s always friendly, and she loves to tell stories about how her wedding planning is going when we ask her. You knew she was getting married, didn’t you? You should ask her about how she met her fiancé sometime. It’s a great story. Someone stole her father’s watch from her boarding house and he was the officer who came to take her statement. He worked all this extra time to find the watch and then asked for permission to call on her after he got it back. He’s very dedicated to his job, she says.”

 

At some point Steve has managed to herd Bucky away from the desk and to the office door. Now that he has some breathing space Bucky shakily remembers his pants and clumsily moves to straighten them out. Steve is levelling the coldest glare he’s ever seen given to anyone at Mr. Douglas.

 

“If you touch him again, I’ll find out. If you get rid of Miss Matson and her policeman fiancé, I’ll find someone else to tell. You don’t touch James. You don’t touch anyone. You’ll regret it if you do. Just – just don’t – “

 

Steve breaks off, and shakes his finger vaguely in Mr. Douglas’s direction. Bucky can see a tremor run through it just a little before Steve grits out,

 

“Don’t. Touch. Bucky.”

 

He shoves Bucky out the door and pushes him blindly towards the kitchen.

 

“It’ll be okay,” he mutters. “It’ll be fine now.”

 

“You’re not gonna tell anyone, are you?” Bucky asks, feeling queasy. He doesn’t want to try to imagine how someone like Miss Matson would look at him if she knew.

 

“Miss Matson probably wouldn’t say anything to anyone even if we did tell her,” Steve admits. “She blushes when she says the word ‘marriage.’ But Mr. Douglas doesn’t know anything about her. I bet he hasn’t said two words to her. And besides, she’s going to give notice in a couple weeks anyhow, because her new husband doesn’t want her working while she keeps house. She seemed like the safest option all-around.”

 

“Steve…” Bucky tries, before trailing off because what can he possibly say about any of this? He feels shaky and exhausted and sick and he always knew he hated this place, hated it even more since Douglas took over, but now he feels a whole new level of powerlessness that he hadn’t been prepared for.

 

Steve looks at him sympathetically, but then they reach the kitchens and there isn’t time to say anything else.

 

***

 

That night Bucky is scared to close his eyes for more than a second, even though he knows Mr. Douglas goes home to his fancy house in his clean safe neighbourhood every night, and wouldn’t stoop to setting foot in the overcrowded dorms, even if he didn’t. The only problem is that suddenly Mr. Douglas isn’t the only threat. Suddenly he notices that a lot of the kids are told to stay behind after class, alone with one of the teachers. Everything has started to look suspicious and alarming.

 

Still, despite his jittery nerves, when he feels the cot dip down next to him, he only sighs in relief and feels his body start to relax for the first time in hours.

 

“I could hear your heart racing from all the way in my bed,” Steve whispers, raising himself up on one elbow to look into Bucky’s eyes. “You okay?”

 

Bucky shrugs noncommittally and says,

 

“I’ll be fine. I’m not a baby.”

 

“No,” Steve says, chuckling a little. “You’re a kid.”

 

Bucky smiles a little, too. He flinches the next second, and the room lurches slightly when he feels Steve’s hand cautiously slide under his shirt and start slowly rubbing his chest. The unsteady feeling fades almost instantly when he recognizes the familiar motion, one that usually comes from his own hands, when he’s trying to help Steve breathe through a bad asthma attack.

 

“That feels good,” Bucky manages after a minute, because it does. He can almost feel his eyes starting to drift shut despite himself.

 

“I know it does,” Steve says, the smile still evident in his voice. “I know this isn’t quite the same as your lungs jumping around inside your chest, but I thought it might help for shaking, too.”

 

“I’m such an idiot,” Bucky whispers, feeling his cheeks get wet before he can stop himself. “I don’t know why I just stood there.”

 

“Because you knew I was right outside,” Steve says, gently. “And you knew that this is exactly the kind of fight that I’m good at finishing. You can’t start punching teachers now, can you?”

 

“You looked like you were going to start when you opened that door,” Bucky admits, trying to sound jovial, but pretty sure he’s failing. He always just stands by and lets the bad things happen. He doesn’t know what Steve sees in him at all.

 

Steve scoots a little closer, still rubbing the same soothing patterns. It makes Bucky think vaguely about his mom, before things got really bad and he started getting in trouble with the police for stealing.

 

“You tell me if anyone tries anything again, okay?” Steve says, even quieter than before. “Ever since Mrs. Wagner left I’ve been paying more attention to the kinds of records they keep in this place. I haven’t found everything I need yet, but I’m sure there are secrets about the people in charge here that can get them into a lot of trouble.”

 

“Oh yeah?” says Bucky. “What terrible things have you found so far?”

 

“Mr. Stoller’s first name is Burgess, for a start, so his parents didn’t like him, either,” Steve says, with such derision in his voice that Bucky lets out a snort of laughter that forces a few more tears down his face before he covers his mouth with his hand.

 

“You’re right,” he chokes out. “You keep digging up stuff like that, you’ll have Dodge cleaned up before the week’s out, Wyatt.”

 

Steve looks at him in delight for a few seconds before he sobers a little and reaches out to wipe some of the tears off Bucky’s face.

 

“I’m looking for secrets that won’t hinge on police taking the word of a couple of punk kids,” he says. “And when I find them, I’ll use them to get us out of here and bring the whole school down around their ears.”

 

Something inside of Bucky’s heart unclenches and even though he doesn’t think anything will be as straightforward as Steve makes it sound, he laughs again, and there’s more control in it this time.

 

“No wonder he’s never called you into that office,” he says.

 

“Why?” Steve asks, and Bucky looks up to see him smirking slightly. “Because I’m an ugly, loudmouthed, scrawny little titch of a guy? I wouldn’t want to call me into that office, either.”

 

“No,” Bucky says, impulsively pulling Steve into a hug, trapping Steve’s hand between them. “Because you’re the scariest student in the entire school.”