The envelope was thick, made of an expensive paper that was completely unnecessary but gave the impression of importance. The letter inside was much the same. Carter University was printed on the back, embossed on the envelope. It was pretty obvious what it was. It took James Barnes only a moment to open it, tumbling the equally heavy paper into his hands. Shaking hands unfolded it, heart beating hard in his chest as he skimmed the opening line before sagging a little, against his bedroom door.
Bucky stared at the letter in his hands after he finished, shocked, as key phrases caught his eye. Pleased to offer you a position, jumped out at him first. Then, on the second page – a whole separate letter, even, unable to provide financial aid… no development program for figure or dance skaters… numerous hockey scholarships on offer. His fingers tightened a little on the paper, scrunching it just enough to startle him out of his thoughts. He dumped the document on his desk, sat heavily on his chair.
He knew he couldn’t afford college on his own, or even with his parents helping. They had enough on their plate, putting his sisters through school and paying for as many competitions for him as they could afford. If he gave up competing, they could probably put him through a year? Two? Still, only half of a degree. He picked up the letter again, flipped to the second page and skimmed it again. They were pushing him off with one hand, and dangling another stupid scholarship in front of his eyes with the other, like he was a damned horse to be led with only a carrot and a promise. His gaze drifted to his skate bag, the white logo glaring at him from the black bag.
As a kid, he’d wanted to be a hockey player, right from the start. But as soon as he’d put on a pair of rental skates, that first time his ma had taken him down to the rink – to make him quit whining, she would say fondly at every retelling – he’d known.
There had been a skating class on, using half the rink, when they’d gotten there. He’d had to wait until they were done, but he’d been pressed up against the boards, barely tall enough to look over them, and he’d watched, eyes wide. It had been a figure class, that much he remembered, for a group of older students, and they’d been learning jumps. He didn’t remember much else, as he’d only been six at the time, but he remembered telling his ma, in that no nonsense way children have, that that’s what he wanted to do when he grew up.
He’d pulled through so much, refused to feel ashamed for his choice despite teasing from schoolmates, never felt like he’d made the wrong decision about which skates he chose to lace up. Until now. Now it seemed like his decision was going to screw him over in the end.
Bucky bit his lip, tapped his foot, knee bouncing in and out of the bottom of his field of vision. Eyes on his skate bag. An idea came to mind, one so irrational and ultimately Bucky that it might actually work. He stood abruptly, shoving his feet into his shoes before crossing the couple of steps to his bag. He scooped it up, tossed it over his shoulder, and headed out of his room.
“I’m going to the rink,” he called out, and waited until he heard a muffled yell in response from his mother before shoving his wallet in his pocket, grabbing his keys, and heading out, phone in hand.
If they wanted a hockey player, they’d get one.
He headed into the familiar building, head ducked and turned away just a little from the small crowd of people in the foyer. There were enough people that he recognised within the group to be recognised himself, and he didn’t want that, not now. He made a beeline for the rental booth, head down, and only looked up when a warm voice said his name.
“Jamie, it’s been a while since you’ve come to visit me,” and Bucky smiled warm, genuine, as he saw who’s behind the skate rental counter. He planted his hands on the wood, leaned across, and bussed his lips against a wizened cheek, before settling back on his feet with a grin.
“What a charmer,” the woman said, dry, but there was a gleam in her eye that said she was pleased, and he laughed.
“Not on purpose Marlene, you know that,” he responded, leaning his elbows on the counter. “College applications kinda suck the life out of you.”
The older woman lit up at that, looking as pleased as if she’d been told her own grandchildren were going to college, though they were barely old enough for elementary. “You’ll have no problem,” she told him, “Your mom showed me your grade card last semester. Just make sure you think hard about picking one,” she continued, and Bucky caught a glimpse of the sharpness in her eyes that had made him so scared of her when he’d been young.
“Been offered a place,” he told her, fingers twisting on the edge of the hardwood, following cuts in it from clumsy skate blades. “It’s real nice, we went and toured the campus a few weeks back. Big ice rink there, they have a hockey team, a pretty good one from what I hear. Expensive though.”
“Is it friendly?” Marlene asked, holding her hands out for his skate bag, and he handed it over with a little shrug.
“Yeah, the people seem nice, and the LGBT community is pretty big as well,” Bucky said, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. It wasn’t the first time he’d told her, not the first time he’d admitted to the woman he saw as family that he wasn’t straight, but it never got any easier. She reacted as she always did though, just patted his hand before pulling his skates out of his bag.
“Good, you pick a place where you can be proud of yourself,” she said matter-of-factly, as she pulled the soakers off and checked his blades. “I’ll run these over with the stone, they don’t need the machine yet,” she added, crouching to pull out the hand sharpening kit from under the desk.
“You’re too good to me Marl,” Bucky said with a smile, nerves easing a little as he grabbed his wallet to pay. “Also, do you think you could grab me a pair of the hockey skates in a nine?” He smiled winningly at her as she paused, looking at him sceptically.
“James Barnes, what are you planning?” she asked dryly after a long moment, finishing up one skate and moving to the other.
“I’ll tell you if it works,” Bucky responded. Marlene just laughed, handed him back his own skates and went to grab him the rentals.
It only took him a minute to work out how to do them up, the clips sitting much differently across his instep compared to the laces on his own skates, and probably very differently to actual hockey skates. Standing on the edge of the rink, however, was much harder. He wasn’t even on the ice and he was teetering, rocking back and forth as he leaned back, caught himself, leaned forward to compensate, then started all over again. He growled under his breath, shaking first one foot, then the other, before shaking his head a little.
Part of him wished he’d thought to put his crash pads on, but then again, he hadn’t felt like he’d need them. Bucky regretted the cockiness now. Hand tight on the edge of the boards, he stepped onto the ice, carefully transferring his weight to the shorter blade.
He was still upright, he mused after a moment, both feet still, holding onto the boards hard enough that his knuckles went white. Bucky hadn’t been this scared of the ice since he was a kid, and even then he had been full of childlike recklessness, uncaring of the brief pain, enjoying the thrill of skating too much.
The rink wasn’t busy, at least. There was one girl looping the ice backwards, face set in concentration as she practiced backwards crossovers. A couple of people in rentals, dicking around on the other side of the rink, but keeping out of people’s way, and a few people chatting by the blue lines in the ice. Enough people to make him really not want to fall.
He took a breath, squeezed the rail, and bent his knees a little, before pushing himself back a little bit from the boards. The blades wobbled under him, but he stayed on his feet, coming to a stop a few steps away. Now, the hard bit – getting back to the wall. In theory it should be the same, he knew that, but Bucky doubted it would be in practice. At least he’d stopped rocking, his training finally kicking in and keeping him mostly settled in the middle of the curved blade.
Another deep breath, and he tipped his left foot out, pushing back and shifting his weight to his other foot at the same time. It didn’t go horribly, and he glided forward, back to the boards in a slow but stable movement.
He recognised the flaw in his plan a split second before he had to act, and he leaned back a little, hands reaching out as he shifted his feet to stop himself before he hit the boards hard.
And instead, he hit the ice hard.
The fuck resonated in the air around him, but he knew it wouldn’t have carried far, and he glared at his feet, which were in front of him instead of under him, like they should be. “Stupid hockey skates,” he mumbled under his breath, before shifting to his knees and pushing himself to his feet, being more careful than he’d ever been considering the different blades. He lunged forward just as he got his feet under him, got his hands on the wall, and let himself hang over it, feeling rather pathetic. Thirty seconds in these skates and he was on his ass.
“You okay there? That was a pretty hard fall.” Bucky lifted his head, stiffening a little, and turned to look over his shoulder. The girl who’d been doing laps was standing just behind him, mild concern on her face. She looked comfortable in her hockey skates, and a part of him, a larger part than he’d like to admit to, was jealous.
“Yeah,” Bucky said after a moment of staring, realising she was still waiting for an answer. He straightened up, carefully, holding on tight. “I’ve had worse,” he added, turning a little to face her and smiling a little ruefully. “It’s harder than I expected.”
“First time?” She asked, sympathetic, and the selfish part of him wanted to yell I’m basically a professional! I’ve been skating for twelve years!
Instead, he shrugged a little. “First time on hockey skates.” Her expression changed a little, and she looked more amused than anything else.
“It’s pretty different from figure, isn’t it? I tried figure skates, thought I’d learn both, and haven’t switched back in eight months,” she laughed, skating a little closer. “I’m America, I can give you some tips if you want? It’s easier to switch out of figure skates, so you should pick it up pretty quickly.”
Bucky hesitated, then swallowed his pride. Nodded. “Bucky, and I’d really appreciate the help.”
Bucky shifted his bag on his shoulder as he fumbled for his keys, wincing to himself as the shift pulled at aching muscles. He hadn’t been this sore after a skate since he’d first learned axels, he was sure of it. He got his key in the lock, shoved the door open, and as soon as it was closed behind him he leaned back against it, groaned.
“Bucky?” He blinked open eyes that had only just slid shut and looked up at his mom, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He sighed quietly, and pushed himself upright, dumping his keys in the key dish on his way over to her. “You were gone a while, is everything alright?”
Bucky took the tea towel draped over her shoulder and wrung it in in his hands, looking down at the bright green material before looking up at her again. Concern pulled her eyebrows down at his silence, and she cupped his cheeks gently, tilting his head up so she could look at him properly. “I think I’m making a mistake,” he said after a moment of just letting her look, and she shook her head slightly, before kissing his forehead like he was five.
“Put your stuff away, then come see me, I’ll be in the living room.” She took the towel back from him and turned without waiting for a response, heading back into the kitchen. He could hear her turning down the elements on the stovetop, switching off the range hood. Bucky sighed, quiet, and headed down the hall to his room.
It only took him a few minutes to unpack his skates, pulling the laces loose and the tongues forward despite the fact that he hadn’t worn them that day. He dumped his shorts in the hamper, peeled off his compression pants, and swapped them for loose track pants before heading back down to the other end of the house.
His mom was right where she said she’d be, mug in her hands as she sat, feet tucked up under her, on the couch. She’d pulled her hair back, and it made her look younger than she was, but nothing hid the look of quiet concern on her face when she saw him. Winnifred had been the one to get him into skating in the first place, had supported him every step of the way, stood up for him and helped him stand up for himself in the female dominated sport, and Bucky suddenly felt hesitant to tell her what he was going to do. What he was doing.
“Sit down honey, talk to me,” Winnie said after a moment of him just standing in the doorway, and he gave her a little smile, sat down at the other end of the couch she was on.
There was silence for a few moments, and she didn’t press him to talk, for which he was thankful of. Eventually, he started at the beginning.
“I got a letter from Carter, and of all of the colleges I applied for I liked it the most,” he said, looking at his hands. “They offered me a place, but not any of the scholarships I applied for.”
Winnie leaned forward a little, elbows on her knees, mug still cradled in her hands. She didn’t get overexcited about the fact that he was accepted into his top university choice, even though he thought she probably wanted to. “And?”
“There was a letter in there, along with everything else, from one of the sports coaches. Someone must have passed my information on to him or something, I guess. He said they don’t have anything for figure skating, no scholarships or even a support team or coach, but they do have hockey. And they have a lot of scholarships for hockey.” Bucky kept looking at his hands as he talked. Part of why he wanted to go to Carter University in the first place was their rink, and the fact that they’d at least have somewhere for him to train, even if they didn’t outright train him. But without the academic scholarships, without the financial aid, he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford more than a year.
He told his mom this, and she listened, quiet, considering. “And you’re avoiding a loan, why?” She asked, not accusing, but trying to understand why he hadn’t mentioned it.
“I wouldn’t be able to pay it off. I don’t want to get stuck into something, be in debt to such an extreme, when I have no idea what I’ll be doing at the end of it.”
“And how is this a mistake?”
Bucky took a breath, lifting his gaze from his hands to his mother’s face. “It’s not. The fact that I’m seriously considering going for a hockey scholarship is.”
There’s a moment of silence, and Winnie regarded him carefully, just for a moment. Then, “And how do you plan on doing that?” She said, voice neutral.
“I’ve got enough saved to get myself a pair of decent skates, and I spent most of today on a rental pair, and I think I’m pretty stable now, I just have to get used to them. They’re very different.” He started, and she nodded, waving him to continue before sipping at her drink. “What I was thinking was, I could pay for first year with what I have saved, with what you guys have saved for me,” He knew it was a stretch, asking this way, but he also knew his parents had been saving since he was born, to give him the chance if he wanted to go. “I spend the year teaching myself what I need to, to be able to at least make it into the team. The coach, Fury I think his name was, said in his letter that he’d be willing to hold off a scholarship for me, if I wanted it. I’m not even sure if he can do that, but apparently he can, and he’s willing to, for me, for some reason.”
“Do you think you can do it?” There wasn’t any judgement in her voice, just even acceptance, like she was trying to make him truly think about his answer.
So he did. “I think so. What I want to do, study wise, is kinda tough, but I think I could balance it if I stayed on campus. It’d be hard, but yeah I think I can.” He shrugged a little, tucking his feet under him in a mirror of her position. “I have other colleges I’ve applied for, though I haven’t heard anything back yet. But this place has the best ranked psych school, and there’s the whole-” the words caught in his throat, for a moment.
“Queerest college in the east thing?” Winnie offered, amused smile on her face. She knew he found it hard to say it, sometimes.
“I’m going to ask you again, why do you think this is a mistake?”
“I don’t know? If I don’t get selected, or Fury doesn’t like me, or I don’t keep my grades up, it’ll be the biggest waste of money I could possibly manage. I can’t afford to stay there without the scholarship, unless I take out a massive loan. I could be making the worst decision of my life.”
Winnie smiled, reached out a hand to rest it on Bucky’s shoulder. She squeezed a little, waited until he looked her in the eye again. “Or, it could be the best choice you could ever make.” She didn’t offer anything else, and Bucky knew she wouldn’t unless he asked, so he did.
“What do you think I should do?”
“How long do you have to respond to their offer?” She asked first.
“A month or so.”
“Okay. I think you should wait for a bit, see how your other applications went. Give it a couple of weeks. But keep practicing with the new skates, and I’ll talk to your dad about getting you a pair so you don’t have to touch your savings. If you haven’t changed your mind on it after you hear back from other colleges, good or bad, come talk to me or your father.” Winnie smiled, warm and soft, and leaned over, pulling him into a quick, one armed hug. “How does that sound for a plan?”
Good, it sounded really good, and Bucky couldn’t hide the grateful smile on his face. She always knew how to make things better. “It’s good, perfect, even. Thanks ma,” he said, hugging her back quickly.
“Good, now I better get back to dinner before something goes funny.”
Bucky’s new skates fit well, even though they fit weirdly. The support he was used to wasn’t there, but the boot was more rigid, looser around his foot than his Edeas were. He had the lacing technique down, not too much different from his normal skates, but still found himself flexing his toes, bending his knees a little until the tongue, or the ankle guard, stopped the movement. He’d wiggle his toes against the top of the toe cap, until his feet felt weird, or would rock side to side, switching from inside edge to outside edge and back again when he was standing still, until America hit him lightly and reminded him to stay still.
He still fell, a lot, finding himself falling into his old habits, getting lazy and sitting back a little and expecting his tails to catch him, and hitting the ice as punishment. He’d started wearing his crash pads, and the one on his left hip was taking a beating. When he was concentrating, he was alright, for the most part, but he continuously overcompensated in his right crossovers, and the shorter blade was unforgiving at best. America didn’t help much there, too busy laughing herself hoarse at him to even help him up whenever he did it.
But he was getting better, there was no doubt about it. Getting used to the way the skate fit his foot, the way the blade curved, the way he could move on it – faster, sharper. The skates themselves were more responsive, which made his movements faster, and he found he was having a lot of fun just playing on them.
After two weeks, his acceptance pile had grown, three more colleges had offered him a place, and two had even offered scholarships. However, none were full rides, and none would get him through his four years when combined with what they had saved. A big part of him resented that fact, but another part of him was excited about it. His crazy plan became more and more viable with each letter he received, and he began to like the idea more and more.
Yes, he was still a figure skater, he told himself, time and time again. He made sure to skate as much in his Edeas as he did in his new Bauers, but he was also -what. There wasn’t really a word for it. He wasn’t a hockey player, but he could skate in hockey boots. He wasn’t a hockey player, but he’d just started skating with a stick, and all of the distractions and balance changing that brought with it. He wasn’t a hockey player, but he was, almost.
“I’m gonna do it,” Bucky told his mom, out of the blue one day. He was sitting at the breakfast bar, feet swinging, as he watched her cook.
“Do what, honey?” She asked absently, stirring the sauce in the pot in front of her.
“I’m gonna go to Carter.”