It’s not that Bucky thinks the universe is out to get him. Really, he doesn’t. But junior year sure as hell seems to be doing all it can to make him think it. And this isn’t even about the fact that he’s barely two months into the semester and he’s already landed himself more than half a dozen detentions. No, that’s just the machinations of one asshole teacher. Nothing cosmic about that.
No, it’s the fact that Steve fucking Rogers just walked into detention and slouched into a chair two rows in front of him. It’s the fact that Bucky’s going to have to spend the next hour staring at the back of his head. It’s the fact that he’ll have nothing to distract himself from his on-and-off crush since first grade whom he hasn’t even really talked to in years.
“Fuck,” he hisses into his arm.
“What was that, Barnes?”
Bucky straightens up in his chair to send an innocent look to the detention monitor. Mr. Phillips—it’s Col. Phillips, I earned that rank and you will respect it—glares at him before settling back into his seat. Steve snorts quietly, and Bucky sinks back into his seat.
Maybe the universe isn’t out to get him, but something is. Maybe he did something awful in a past life, and now the karmic payback is hitting him all at once. It would make so much sense. Steve shuffles in his chair, tapping a pen against his leg. For a long moment, Bucky can’t do anything but stare at the play of his fingers, listen to the thawp as the pen hits his thigh.
He groans and thumps his head against the desk. This is just cruel.
The worst part is that this is the first time since middle school that Bucky’s really gotten a good look at Steve. Just uninterrupted, undistracted staring. Sure, they’ve been in a couple classes together, passed each other in the hall a few times, worked on a group project together for English. But there were other things to focus on. Bucky could always fill his thoughts with getting to class and balancing equations and the fact that Holden Caulfield’s kind of a douche.
But now he can see how Steve’s gotten taller. He’s always been on the smaller side, and even though he’s grown a little, he’s still more lanky than anything else. And Steve definitely makes it work. He’s all sarcasm and laidback confidence. And now Bucky has nothing to distract him from fixating on the curve of Steve’s shoulder and how the hair at the back of his neck curls just above the collar of his shirt.
When he lifts his head again, Steve’s turned in his seat, looking back at him. He cocks an eyebrow at Bucky and says, “So is this existential angst or just regular teenage angst?”
Bucky huffs out a weak laugh. He glances at Col. Phillips, but he doesn’t seem to care that they’re talking during detention. “Little bit of both I’d say.”
“Honestly, I never thought I’d ever see the day you’d end up here. What’re you in for?” Steve’s tone is just this side of teasing, and most of the anxiety just melts away in the face of the warmth in his voice. He’d forgotten how much he enjoys talking to Steve.
“I don’t even know,” Bucky says. “Pierce just said I looked like I was ‘up to something.’ Whatever the hell that means.”
“It means he doesn’t like you,” Steve says dryly.
Bucky rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I kinda figured that out when he sent me to detention twice in three weeks.”
“He’s the new hire, right?”
“Yeah, filling in for Fury’s history class while he’s on sabbatical.”
“I think Peggy has him. She said he was alright, but a little dogmatic sometimes.” Steve tilts his head. “Why’s he pissed at you anyway?”
Bucky snorts and gestures vaguely at himself, at the piercings, the ripped jeans, the combat boots, the pins studding his jacket. Steve makes a comprehending noise. Because really, most of the teachers have gotten used to the way he dresses by now, but Pierce doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo
Just before the start of freshman year, Nat had gotten tired of the hoodies and the T-shirts with lame chemistry puns, so she’d forced him into what felt like Hot Topic’s entire back catalogue. It was honestly the most ridiculous thing he’d ever worn, but by the end of summer, the look had kinda grown on him. He toned it down, got rid of the band shirts and the fishnets, but kept a lot of the rest.
It’d earned Bucky some stares and suspicious looks from the teachers, and eyerolls from the rest of the student body. But they stopped bothering him about it after the novelty of painfully dorky Bucky Barnes dressing like a Fall Out Boy groupie wore off. At least until Pierce showed up.
“Ah, so he’s one of those,” Steve says.
“What, does he think the nerds and jocks should segregate themselves to separate lunch tables?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “That’s so eighties.”
“I just think the look is cool,” Bucky moans. “And now my disciplinary record’s shot to shit.”
Steve chuckles. “Don’t be dramatic. You’re excruciatingly straight-laced. Two detentions in four years won’t do jack to your college prospects.” Then he wrinkles his nose with mock disgust. “And besides, you always have every teacher singing your praises by the time mid-quarter reports roll around.”
“No, you don’t understand how absolutely fucked I am. He gave me detention for squinting at the whiteboard.”
Steve blinks. “Oh shit. Yeah, you might be a little fucked.”
“I just know he’s gonna get me suspended by the time the year’s over. There goes my chance at making the honor roll.”
It’s surprisingly easy to fall back into the old rhythms of conversation with Steve. They’d been friends at some point, best friends even. It had been an epic bond forged from endless nights acting out mock battles with Gabe and Monty and Dum Dum in Peggy’s backyard.
He’s always found it kinda bizarre that they have all this history together, but they’re really nothing more than acquaintances now. Bucky knows what Steve’s allergic to and that he used to have an irrational fear of octopuses, but he doesn’t even know what college he wants to go to.
Steve snorts. “Oh my god, I can’t believe anyone would ever think you were a troublemaker.”
“Yeah, and you always get away with more than you should, Mr. Plaid and Khakis.”
“I still get busted sometimes. I’m in detention now, aren’t I?”
“You are. Which makes me wonder, why are you here?”
“Just a little recreational vandalism.” Steve shrugs.
Bucky arches an eyebrow. “Seriously, recreational? You’ve never done anything just for shits and giggles.”
“Fine, extracurricular vandalism. Is that better?”
He stares at Steve who just smiles innocently back at him. “You’re not going to tell me what you did, are you?”
“It’ll ruin the surprise if I give it away now,” Steve says, his lips pulling into that trademark shit-eating grin. Then he leans forward and drops his voice into a whisper. “Y’know I can go after this Pierce asshole for you. Get him off your back, redirect all that midlife crisis bitterness. You’ve worked too hard to lose your shot at a decent scholarship to a jackass like that.” He shrugs. “Think of it as payback for helping me out against Gil Hodge in second grade.”
For a moment, Bucky’s speechless. He’d forgotten how Steve can get. Really, this is just like him. Steve Rogers making an enormous gesture to announce to the world just how much he doesn’t care for the system, but always always in the little in-between moments, he shows that he cares deeply about people. Individuals.
“I—thank you. That’s,” Bucky clears his throat, “very nice of you. But no, you don’t need to—you shouldn’t have to put up with that for me. I’ll figure something out.”
“You sure? I can be really irritating. He’ll be so pissed at me, he won’t even remember who you are. And hey, better me than you, right?”
“No, it isn’t. You can’t just—we’re not even friends anymore. We haven’t really talked in years. You shouldn’t just do this much for a guy you barely know.”
Steve raises an eyebrow at the ‘friends’ bit, but it’s true. You can’t really call yourself a friend with a guy you haven’t hung out with for almost five years. But apparently, that’s just a point the two of them will have to disagree on. “It’s no big deal,” Steve says. “He’s an ass, and well, what’s six more detentions? I’ve already got plenty.”
Bucky doesn’t say that it’s exactly because Steve doesn’t think it’s a big deal. He’ll always feel just a little responsible for keeping Steve safe, even now when he doesn’t need it anymore. He can’t watch Steve shoulder his burdens for him. “It’s a big deal to me, so could you just leave it? I’d feel like crap if you had to deal with this bullshit because of me.”
“Fine, but if you need anything, just ask, alright?” Steve says. He looks at Bucky with a strange intensity. As if this is something really important to him. His eyes are that muted blue that Bucky’s always been just a little obsessed with. He really can’t say no.
“Okay, I will.”
“Good.” Steve nods.
From the front of the room, Col. Phillips slaps his hand against the desk and barks, “Hour’s up. Get out of here.”
They both bolt out of the room and don’t stop running until they hit the parking lot. Bucky stretches, breathing in the fall air. “Oh my god, that was the longest and shortest hour I’ve ever sat through.”
“That’s detention for ya. It’s like doing time in purgatory,” Steve says. “You’re lucky Phillips was in charge of this one. I swear Zola gets off on watching students suffer.”
Bucky shudders. “Yeah, I had him my first detention. He stared at me the whole hour. Like he wanted to cut me open and dissect my brain or something.”
“Jesus, what a creep.”
Bucky snorts, and they walk on in silence. The days are shortening, growing cooler, and he notices that Steve’s just a little bit flushed from the late afternoon chill. His hair sticks up at weird angles. His flannel is rumpled. Bucky wants nothing more than to reach out and smooth it all down, straighten the collar of his shirt, comb his fingers through Steve’s hair. He looks away. The bus stop is just ahead of them, and Steve slows down while Bucky keeps on walking.
“You’re not catching the bus?” Steve asks.
“Oh, uhh,” he says. “I live—” Bucky gestures vaguely in the other direction, “close by.”
Steve looks surprised and then shuffles a little sheepishly. “Right, yeah. I guess I’m just used to you being farther away. The elementary school being across town and all.”
They stare at each other in silence for a long time. Bucky rubs the back of his head. He really wants to say something, maybe tell Steve he’d like to hang out more often. They should catch up. Grab lunch together or watch a movie for old time’s sake. He shoves his hands into his pockets and instead says, “Hey, so I’ll see you around?”
Steve nods, still looking up at Bucky. There’s an expression he can’t quite read on Steve’s face. “Yeah, see you.”
Bucky turns and starts to walk home, passing the parking lot, the baseball field, and the construction site for the new sports center. All the contractors have gone home for the day, so the usual racket is quiet. Then Bucky stops and bursts out laughing.
It was the construction barriers.
The dull gray walls surrounding the site had been completely wallpapered with dozens of copies of the same poster. It’s a stunning piece of art. They’re all of a hand-drawn illustration of a bank robber stealing tubes of paint and brushes from an oblivious student’s backpack. It has a sort of roughness to the lines and shading that make it feel raw. Honest.
But it’s the words that are stenciled over the drawing that really capture his attention. In those stark black letters, Steve had declared the exact amount of money cut from the Visual and Performing Arts program in this year’s budget, and just underneath that, the projected cost of construction for the new sports center. It’s a damning set of numbers.
Bucky blows out an impressed breath. Recreational vandalism, his ass.
The first thing Nat says to Bucky when they meet after homeroom is, “So Rogers was in detention with you yesterday.”
Bucky stares at her. “How do you even know that?”
“I have my sources,” Nat says cryptically, and he’s almost impressed with the speed of her information network until she continues, “And also the ten thousand posters plastering the construction site. God, you can be so slow.”
“You couldn’t have known that was Steve.”
“Except that he’s the only person in this whole school with both the balls and the artistic ability to pull it off.”
Bucky groans, accepting defeat. “Fine, I was in detention with Steve yesterday.” Nat crosses her arms and stares at him expectantly. “What? Nothing happened.”
“Yeah, and you haven’t had all-consuming feelings of love for him since third grade. What happened?”
“Oh my god, nothing did. I stared at the back of his head for a while, and then we talked.” Then Bucky’s brain catches up to the other part of her sentence. “And I’m not in love with Steve. It’s just a crush.”
Natasha rolls her eyes. “If it were a crush, you wouldn’t be able to string two words together in his presence. You’d blush and stammer every time he so much as looked at you. Barnes, you don’t want to kiss him, you want to marry him and spend the rest of your life cooking stir-fry in his kitchen. You want to argue with him about how biased mass media is and how useless pennies are. That is not what people fantasize about doing with their crushes.”
“We are not talking about this,” Bucky says, thumping his head against his locker door. “Can we please talk about how Pierce is going to ruin my life?”
“So he doesn’t like how you dress. Just start wearing those stupid science T-shirts from eighth grade again. I know you still have them in your closet.”
“First of all, it’s the principle of the whole thing. My clothes follow the dress code to the letter. It has a whole clause dedicated to its commitment to preserving the students’ right to self-expression—”
“I still can’t believe you’ve actually read through the dress code,” Nat mutters.
“—and second, he already hates me. Wearing an ‘All the good chemistry jokes argon’ shirt isn’t going to change that.”
Nat raises an eyebrow at him.
“Fine,” he says and strips off his studded jacket, takes off his piercings and his rings, and shoves them into his locker. It leaves him in just a plain dark T-shirt and jeans, a perfectly innocent outfit by every standard. He crosses his arms.
“See? That wasn’t so hard.”
“I’m just saying, it’s not going to help anything. He has it out for me.”
“Then file a complaint. Your grades and your disciplinary record before this are pristine. The fact that you’re getting so many detentions now should raise a ton of red flags.”
“I’m planning on it,” Bucky says, “but you know how the board is. It’s gonna take months to review my case, and Pierce is going to be harassing me the whole time.”
Nat hums thoughtfully. “That might be something.”
“Nothing, just a suspicion.”
The bell rings before Bucky can question her further. He groans when he remembers that his first period of the day is history. “Can’t I just say my appendix burst?”
“And ruin your perfect attendance record?”
“I hate you,” Bucky says and follows Nat down the hall to class.
Pierce turns from the whiteboard when he sees them walk in and smiles. It would almost be nice if it weren’t for how his eyes narrow ever so slightly when he looks at Bucky. He turns back to the whiteboard, and Bucky shoots a pointed look at Nat as they take their seats.
They’re still covering early European and Native American contact and how it affected both cultures. So that’s what Pierce opens with. “Now the popular narrative about the relationship between the Native Americans and the colonizing Europeans goes one of two ways. There is the belief that the Europeans were welcomed with open-arms, and that everyone got along swimmingly, and nothing bad ever happened.”
He breaks off to shoot a smile at the class. “I think we all know what was wrong with that. But there is the second, more popular line of thought that the Europeans were flatly evil and subjugated the Native Americans from the start. It’s an easy thought process to fall into. If they weren’t friends, they must’ve been enemies. And in any sort of narrative, someone needs to be the antagonist. At first, the Native Americans were cast in this role, but more recently, as we revise our opinion of history, the Europeans have become the villain.”
Pierce pauses and paces across the room, letting the class stew in pensive silence. He comes to a stop by his desk. For a moment, Bucky is sure Pierce is looking directly at him. “But neither narrative is entirely correct. The truth falls somewhere in the middle. There is no good or evil in this story, merely groups of people, each complex in their own way. Some of them got along, some of them didn’t, and everyone was advancing their own interests. The Europeans came out the victor, but that was more a matter of luck rather than divine right, technological superiority, or intellectual power. They happened to come from a continent with malicious, tenacious, and highly infectious viruses. And those diseases did the majority of the work. Any questions?”
Bucky raises his hand.
“No? Then let’s move on.” Pierce starts to flip through his lecture notes. Then pauses. “Ms. Romanoff, yes, did you have a question?”
Nat lowers her hand and leans forward. “I did. I think Bucky had a question he wanted to ask.”
Pierce sets his book down and crosses his arms. He chuckles a little. “Mr. Barnes doesn’t have a question,” he says. “Mr. Barnes would like to challenge an assertion I made based on his perception of the events I just covered. And while he very likely would illustrate my point regarding present day biases about this particular point in history, it would be more productive for all of us if we didn’t waste time arguing the minutia of retroactive guilt.”
Which is so shitty because all Bucky was planning on asking was why the European continent happened to have those diseases and the Americas didn’t. Pierce smiles again at the class and continues with the lecture. Nat sends Bucky an apologetic look, and he mouths a “Thank you,” at her for trying anyway.
The rest of the period is hell. Pierce flat-out refuses to call on Bucky whenever he raises his hand. It starts to get downright humiliating when Bucky’s hand is the only one raised, and Pierce starts calling on everyone else but him. To top it all off, when Pierce finally does acknowledge him, it’s only to give him another detention for disrupting class by raising his hand too often.
“Mr. Barnes, I understand that the majority of your teachers give you priority for one reason or another, but in my lectures, the learning of the class as a whole is more important than the individual ego of one student.”
And that’s that.
Finally, the bell rings. Bucky stalks out of class, his face burning with mortification and helpless anger. “I told you so,” he mutters to Nat. She bumps her shoulder against his sympathetically.
“Well, that was cruel and unusual,” Tony Stark says behind them.
He groans. “Tell me about it. You see it too right? He’s totally targeting me. I’m not just going crazy.”
“The guy definitely has it out for you,” Tony says. “Though he wrapped it up in so much intellectual bullshit that I don’t think anyone else really picked up on it.”
“You gotta file that complaint, Barnes,” Nat says. “It’s getting worse. He at least pretended to tolerate you last week.”
Tony snorts. “Good luck. The guy’s basically teflon. He goes golfing with the principal every month, and he’s poker buddies with half the school board. It’s how he got the job in the first place.”
Nat turns to him with an arched brow. Bucky groans. Just perfect. He doesn’t just have a teacher who hates his guts. He has a teacher with the full force of the school administration behind him who hates his guts.
“And how do you know that?” Nat asks.
“The school firewalls are laughable. And his digital records are like suspiciously sparse, so I went snooping through his office.”
Nat points a finger at Tony. “You, your skills are useful. I have a project I need help on.”
Tony shrugs. “Sure, but only if you very publicly ask me out to the winter formal. Pepper’s pissed at me, and I need her to think I’ve still got game.”
“You don’t have any.”
“That’s why we’re faking it. God, keep up.”
Nat rolls her eyes. “Fine, but you’re picking me up in your dad’s Tesla.”
“Sure,” Tony says over his shoulder as he walks away. “I’m expecting a banner and at least two romantic violinists.”
They watch him swagger down the hall. “You might’ve just ruined Sam Wilson’s whole semester,” Bucky says.
“Sam wants to take me to the formal?” Nat tilts her head. “Interesting.”
“It’s something he’s thinking about, according to Maria Hill.”
“I didn’t know you knew Maria.”
Bucky shrugs. “She’s a mathlete. We bonded at regionals.”
“Weird, I heard she did badly on the math portion of the PSATs.”
“She just doesn’t test well. It was something we had to work on for competition.”
Nat smiles slyly at Bucky. “But you know who did do well on the PSATs?”
“Steve Rogers. He’s a shoe-in for National Merit finalist.”
Bucky groans. Of course, she’d bring the topic right back around. “You don’t know that,” he says. “Scores aren’t even out till January.”
“Am I ever wrong? Trust me, the guy’s a secret savant at standardized tests. It’s why he gets away with so much shit. His scores bring up the overall average of the school, so our standing is higher in state rankings.”
“Oh my god, he must hate that.”
“Despises it. That’s why he keeps pushing the administrators so hard. He should’ve gotten suspended for the stunt he pulled yesterday, but they just gave him a bunch of detentions and a slap on the wrist.”
“He could just fail the test on purpose.”
Nat rolls her eyes. “Would you? He’s got too much pride.”
He stares at her for a while, and he knows that she isn’t lying, but it just doesn’t make any sense. Steve is smart, sure, but he’s never really been the type to apply himself to excelling academically. He’s more likely to rant about how deeply classist the current educational system is than actually study. Steve still does his schoolwork and gets decent grades. Because even he gets that removing himself entirely from the system won’t really hurt anything but himself. Organizing a mass walkout is more effective, and he’s still working on that as far as Bucky knows.
But national standardized tests are, in Steve’s book, one of the education system’s greatest evils. So the thought that he would be good at them is just downright bizarre.
“Steve hates standardized tests,” Bucky says. “Why would he be good at them?”
“Steve hates them because he understands how they work.”
Bucky blinks. It kinda makes sense in its own weird roundabout way. He’s always seen the SATs as an unpleasant but necessary thing he would eventually have to do. A means to an end, but he certainly doesn’t have to like it—his feelings towards the SATs have never really gone beyond that. But vague dislike can easily turn to a very specific hatred the more you understand the nature of something, the history and why it’s constructed the way it is. If there’s anything particularly malicious about the SATs, Steve would be exactly the person to figure it out.
Which means Steve would have to know a lot about the SATs. Certainly a lot more than Bucky did.
“Oh my god, Nat. I think you might’ve just saved my life.”
She blinks at him. “I mean, yes. But what specifically?”
“You said so yourself, a good score on the SATs can balance out a bad disciplinary record. Even if scores come out too late to make a difference with Pierce, it might convince the admissions officers reading my application to ignore all my detentions.”
Nat regards him silently for a long moment before shaking her head, an amused smile on her face. “So you’re going to ask Steve to tutor you?”
“And that’s the only reason?”
Bucky groans and turns his back on her to walk to second period. Behind him, Nat’s laughter rings through the halls.
“Again, Barnes?” Col. Phillips says when Bucky trudges into detention and dumps his backpack next to his usual seat.
Because he has a usual seat now. It’s five rows back from the front. It gives him buffer from the scrutiny of the detention monitor in charge, but he also doesn’t want to seem like he’s hiding in the back. Normally, Bucky’s a second row kind of guy—close enough to be present but doesn’t make him seem too desperate for the teacher’s approval. But detention is a different sort of beast, so fifth row it is.
Bucky slides into his seat. “Teenage rebellion struck late, I guess.”
“Somehow, I don’t believe that.”
He shrugs and slouches in his seat. Col. Phillips keeps looking at him like he wants to say more, ask why an honors kid is here at least once a week now. Steve walks in before he can.
“What’s a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this,” he says as he sits on the desk in front of Bucky.
Bucky barely keeps from flushing, but his voice still cracks a little when he replies, “Wallowing.”
“It’s too soon for that I think.”
“I like to get an early start. Procrastination is never a good thing.”
“Ugh, it is so weird that you’re here,” Steve says and then turns to the front of the class. “Isn’t it weird?”
“It is,” Col. Phillips says, and he’s still looking at Bucky like he’s thinking he might do something about it.
Bucky resists the urge to groan. “Speaking of weird,” he says, changing the subject, “Steve, I think I might have something you can help me with.”
“Oh, is it trashing Pierce’s car? Have you seen that thing? It’s a BMW. It’s like suspiciously above his pay grade.”
“Um no,” Bucky says and casts a glance at Col. Phillips. “Shouldn’t you be more careful about saying that here?”
“I hear nothing, I know nothing, Barnes,” Col. Phillips says with the air of someone who’s tried to stop Steve many times, and has now resigned himself to just pretending Steve isn’t doing whatever it is he’s doing. It’s a feeling Bucky knew well in elementary school.
“So fucking up Pierce’s car is a go?”
Bucky blinks. “What? Oh my god, no. I just wanted to ask if you’d tutor me in the SATs.”
“Well, that’s—” Steve stares at him for a while, “not what I was expecting you to ask.”
“I just,” Bucky starts and flushes a little. He’d really planned on having a smoother transition into this topic. “I don’t really know if I can do anything to stop Pierce before the semester’s over. Even if scores come out too late to make a difference with him, it might convince the admissions officers reading my application to overlook my disciplinary record.”
“No, I get why you want to do well in the SATs. I don’t know why you’re asking me.”
“Nat says you understand how it works,” Bucky says.
Steve just keeps staring at him with an expression that’s confused and just a little like he’s feeling cornered. “I don’t even know how she’d know that,” he says. “It’s not really something I advertise.”
“I try not to think too hard about how she does it.”
“Good call,” Steve says. “But you know there are more direct ways of dealing with this than just studying for the SATs.”
“But I’m not so sure if they’ll work. Pierce has clout with the school board or something. I don’t even know if I can touch him.” Bucky realizes that he’s clenching his fists, and he forces himself to relax his hands. His nails left little half-moon indents in his palms. Steve notices but thankfully doesn’t say anything. “But I can’t do nothing. I’ve worked so hard, and—”
“I’ll help you,” Steve says.
“Yeah, I mean being stuck in a shitty situation and not being able to do anything about it—it sucks. A lot. I get it. So yeah, I’ll help you.”
“No problem, dude. But I gotta warn you, I’m a shitty teacher. You’re better off just buying the practice book yourself or going to a prep class.”
“Ahh, well.” Bucky shrugs, embarrassment heating his cheeks. “I went to the library and checked out a prep book, but they’re all for the old test format. They haven’t updated their collection with the new SAT yet.”
Steve flushes too when he realizes what Bucky’s getting at. Because they both know the Barneses aren’t exactly—well off. They get along just fine, sure. His dad works hard and pulls in a solid income, and his mom makes up the rest by working part-time. But they’re a household with four kids who’re all around the same age, and his parents are determined to put them all through college.
Bucky’s the oldest, and he just can’t stomach the idea of using any of that money for himself. Practice books and SAT prep classes just aren’t things he can justify to himself, even when he knows they could improve his chances significantly. But he just—can’t. Not when Ruth wants to go to med school, and Esther’s been dreaming of the Ivys since kindergarten. Not when Becca is the brightest goddamn mind he’s ever seen. So for Bucky, it’s always been either he gets a full-ride somewhere or he goes for a scholarship in-state. Or community college.
“Right,” Steve says after a while. “I can lend you some of my books, and we can go through them together.”
“Seriously, no problem. We really haven’t, y’know hung out in a while. It’ll be nice to catch up.”
Steve’s smiling, small and genuine, and there’s a fluttering in Bucky’s gut at the sight of it. Steve smirks and grins and laughs, but it’s rare for him to just smile. Like he’s just enjoying the here and now. His mind is always on something else. He’s always thinking through implications and subtexts, forgetting to just let things be. It’s clear to Bucky that at least this much hasn’t changed since they’ve drifted apart.
He smiles back. “Yeah, I’d really like that.”
They end up going to Bucky’s house for the first tutoring session. Steve brings a small bookstore’s worth of prep books in a duffel slung over his shoulder. Once Bucky lets him inside, he glances around and comments, “It’s smaller than I remember.”
Bucky snorts. “You were like eight the last time you were here. Of course it looks smaller now.”
“I used to think you lived in a mansion.”
Steve pauses in front of the mantel with a picture of them and the other boys dressed up in oversized camouflage. They’re all grinning and covered head to toe in dirt. He smiles. “I can’t believe we’ve managed to stay on the Barnes family mantel.”
“You’re definitely getting booted off once Esther hits freshman year and starts winning every award known to man,” Bucky says as he walks over to the staircase. “I don’t even know if I’ll manage to stay on.”
“You’re crazy if you think your parents aren’t going to frame your acceptance letters and hang them up.”
“Oh my god, you’re right.”
Steve looks around curiously once they’re in Bucky’s room. Bucky self-consciously looks around, trying to remember how it’s changed since elementary school. He’s gotten a bigger bed, and the curtain and duvet cover have been replaced with ones in drabber colors. One of his leather jackets is slung over the back of his chair, and some of his old action figures are still lined up on his desk. Overall, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but he still feels heat rise in his cheeks as he watches Steve raise an eyebrow at the vintage WWII posters.
“Clashes with your aesthetic a bit, doesn’t it?”
“There’s nothing more punk rock than good old-fashioned American patriotism,” Bucky deadpans.
Steve laughs. “That makes an almost bizarre amount of sense.” He slings his duffel off his shoulder and onto the bed and starts to dig out practice books.
Bucky watches quietly for a while before asking, “Why do you even have these?”
“They’re Peggy’s. She studied for the PSATs at my house over the summer.” Steve shrugs, going a little redder. “I picked up a bunch of stuff from her and went through the books on my own when I got bored.”
He’s careful to keep the disappointment off his face. It’s not a surprise as much as it is a—jarring reminder. Steve and Peggy have been a duo that’ve just worked for years, a couple whose personalities complemented each other eerily well. When it seemed like everyone else in the school was getting together and breaking up in messy spectacular fashion, Steve and Peggy have been a rock of emotional stability. They were never really demonstrative, but it was common knowledge that they were destined from the start to be high school sweethearts. He’s always known it wasn’t something he had any right to interfere in.
Steve doesn’t seem to notice the troubled silence Bucky has fallen into. He picks up one of the practice books and flips it open. “Okay, so I guess we should get started with some overview. And the most important thing you need to keep in mind when you’re taking the SATs is that this test isn’t actually meant to evaluate your aptitude. It’s meant to evaluate how well you can take this test.”
Bucky gets himself comfortable as Steve winds into a long spiel about the injustices of the SATs, which are apparently many. The fact that it doesn’t really correlate to high school or college academic success, but does correlate strongly to household income. And then there’s a whole thing about keeping international student acceptance rates low by introducing passages from US history and American literature into the reading sections of the test. How historically awful the test is for ESL test-takers.
It’s all very impressive as Steve gets himself all worked up describing the racist, classist, and possibly anti-semitic failings of the test. He gestures animatedly to make his points, and there’s a flush high in his cheeks. It’s always an enjoyable experience watching Steve talk about something he’s genuinely passionate about. He almost throws his entire body into the act of speaking, and it’s in these instances that his intelligence and eloquence truly shines.
At the end of it all, Bucky can only rock back on his heels and blow out a breath as he takes all of that in. “Okay yeah, I can see why you hate the SATs that much.”
Steve smiles and shrugs. “It helps me focus when I take the damn thing. Nothing keeps you motivated quite like the desire to spite a test rigged against you by doing well. But yeah, let’s just focus on how to actually take it. I assume you’re good on general test-taking practices, yeah?”
“Pretty much,” Bucky says and starts to tick the list on his fingers. “Don’t waste time on difficult questions. Just put down your best guess, move on, and return to it later. Try to find the best answer and not just an answer that works. If you’re stuck, eliminate the answers you know aren’t true, then guess from there. Make sure to read through all the answers before deciding on one. Make notes on the passage as you go along to remember it better. That sort of thing.”
Steve nods. “Yeah, I figured you would because you do pull good grades. Let’s see, things specific to the SATs would be they’ll give you a bunch of the same answers in a row, but they never go above five in a row. You’re no longer penalized for getting the wrong answer, so it’s better to just guess than skip over a question you’re confused on. The questions are roughly organized from easiest to hardest, so generally the questions you’ll have the hardest time on are the very last ones. Don’t waste too much time on those until after you’ve finished the easier questions.”
Steve tosses a practice book at Bucky, and it thumps into his chest, knocking the breath out of him. “Jesus, these are hefty,” he wheezes.
“There are specific question types they’ll ask in every section, but the best way to get a sense for them is by taking the test and seeing the patterns yourself,” Steve says and tosses a pen into Bucky’s lap. “Let’s get started.”
The next few weeks start to get the feeling of routine. Steve meets Bucky after school, and they walk to his house together to go through the practice books that are now permanent residents in his room. Bucky would do a section while Steve fiddled around with his phone or sketched in a little pocket notebook. Then when the timer went off, Steve would lean over Bucky’s shoulder and talk into his ear about what he did right or how the specific question tricked him into answering wrong.
It’s a wonderful and maddening thing.
He can feel the heat of Steve’s body inches away from his back, his breath tickling the hairs on his neck, the low rolling quality of Steve’s voice when he speaks quietly to avoid distracting Ruth who’s studying in the next room over. Sometimes he kicks off his shoes and lies sprawled on Bucky’s bed, humming a song he heard on the radio. And later that night when Bucky is falling asleep, he imagines he can catch the musky scent of oil paint on his sheets.
He even stays for dinner some days, and Bucky’s parents are thrilled to see Steve in his life again. They ask him all sorts of questions about how Sarah Rogers is doing. When Bucky’s doing the dishes in the kitchen, Ruth and Becca sit on the counters and slyly poke fun at him for his obvious crush on Steve. Esther was too young to remember Steve from when he used to hang around with Bucky, but even she warms up to him quickly.
Sometimes he has to lean back in quiet amazement at how easily Steve Rogers has slotted himself back into his life. Little traces of him start to show up around Bucky’s room. Steve left one of his flannels slung over the desk chair, and Bucky never quite got around to returning it. He tears some of the sketches he particularly likes out of his notebook to show to Bucky, and somehow, those too start to accumulate. They’re piled on his desk, pinned to his cork board, unearthed from underneath his bed. Steve leaves little doodles in the margins of Bucky’s notebooks, sometimes on his arms when he can’t be bothered to find paper.
Then there are the days when Pierce is riding him especially hard, and he winds up in that claustrophobic detention classroom, reduced to wordless helpless anger. Steve strolls through the door every time, even on the days when he hasn’t gotten into any trouble at all. And he just sits next to him with a finger pressed against the crook of Bucky’s elbow, the base of his neck. As if Steve can somehow draw all of his frustration out of his body with that single point of contact.
Once, Bucky is looking over his results compared to the answer sheet, absent-mindedly listening to Steve ramble about how he’s convinced Natasha and Tony in collusion is possibly the most terrifying thing he’s ever heard. He nods along because yes, it is kind of a horrifying prospect, but there’s really nothing they can do to stop it.
“—just saying, Tony can be a scarily destructive force, but he’s directionless. But him plus Natasha’s focus and drive, we might as well bow to our new overlords. Tony would never take over the world on his own because he’s too busy dicking around in the robotics lab—”
“It’s not really a lab,” Bucky says and starts to turn in his seat to talk to Steve directly, “It’s just a weird little room tucked under the parking structure that Tony claimed for the club. I mean, they freaking call it the Bot Cave—” he trails off, his throat going dry.
Because Steve is standing in front of his mirror, admiring himself as he wears Bucky’s favorite jacket. It’s made of leather worn soft by years of use, and it’s just a little too big on Steve. The sleeves flop over his hands and the hem almost comes down to mid-thigh. He looks completely ridiculous. Bucky feels a rush of heat rise to his cheeks.
“Oh my god, it’s called the Bot Cave? That’s amazing,” Steve says. “I swear the only reason the robotics team even medals in regionals is because of Tony. He’s the only one in that club that actually knows what he’s doing.”
“And that’s exactly why he’s in it. Lording his superior knowledge and skills over the plebs is exactly what Tony wants out of life.”
Bucky hears a snort before he feels Steve’s shoulder brush up against his as he plucks the answer sheet up from the desk. “Not bad,” Steve says with a hum. “You’re definitely improving. I think we should start you on full practice tests now to build your endurance.”
“My...endurance?” Bucky asks, stuttering a little when Steve shoves the sleeves of his jacket up to his elbows, exposing the pale underside of his forearms.
“Yeah, taking the SATs is like running a marathon. I’d say the PSATs are probably a more fair evaluation of your aptitude simply because the pacing and length of it isn’t as exhausting. But the SATs are almost four hours plus the five minute breaks they toss in between sections. Those breaks can give you valuable breathing room, but you’re also at risk of losing your momentum.”
Steve flops down on his bed, and for a moment, Bucky can’t even remember what they’re talking about. There’s just something about the late afternoon sunlight filtering in through the slats of the window shade. The way Steve’s hair lies askew on Bucky’s pillow, how the leather jacket is all bunched against his body, and the hint of skin where his shirt rides up. Bucky’s ability to pay attention was doomed the moment Steve decided to wear the jacket.
“The test is too long to do it now, but we can do a timed practice test a day starting tomorrow. First with no distractions, and once you’ve got that down,” Steve smiles in a way that gets Bucky’s gut twisting, “I’ll do my best to be very distracting.”
Bucky doesn’t whimper, but it’s a near thing. “Got it,” he manages to croak out.
“Anyway, I think we’re good for the day. I’ll get out of your hair.” Steve hops to his feet and moves to shrug the jacket off. Then he pauses and wiggles an eyebrow at Bucky. “Think I can pull the look off?” he asks.
“A lot better than me, probably.”
Steve turns to look at himself in the mirror again and shrugs. “I’m keeping this for today,” he announces and then saunters out the door.
Bucky sits there frozen for a long time after he hears the front door close. Then he picks up the phone and calls Nat.
“Fuck,” is the only thing he says when she picks up. Nat laughs herself sick for a solid five minutes.
Steve wears the leather jacket to school the next day, and everyone seems to know about it by the time homeroom rolls around. Bucky first notices the unusual amount of staring and talking when he stops by his locker first thing in the morning. He’s kinda used to flying under the radar most days, so he thinks that it must be something about Pierce until Nat appears beside him and just immediately starts laughing.
“Oh my god,” Bucky says when it clicks. “He didn’t.”
“It doesn’t even fit him. It’s way too big for him. It looks like—”
“A boyfriend jacket?” Natasha says with an innocent smile.
Bucky leans in close to her, using the locker door to shield them from prying eyes. “People are going to think we had sex,” he hisses.
“People already did before this.”
Nat rolls her eyes and tugs on the back of Bucky’s collar to pull his head out of his locker. “They’re not blind. You guys walk home together practically every day, and it’s no secret how sickeningly in love with the guy you are.” She slams the locker door closed. “People can connect the dots, you know.”
“It’s not, we’re not—it’s just tutoring.”
“And Steve’s wearing your favorite leather jacket.”
Bucky groans. “I wouldn’t care if the rumors were actually true.”
“Hey, at the very least, it comes off as a declaration of intent,” Nat says and pats him on the shoulder.
“Yeah, except for the fact that he’s dating Peggy Carter.”
Nat sighs. “That—I’m not even going to touch that. You should go and have a very awkward talk with her about this whole thing and see what she says.”
“I hate you.”
And well, the day is kind of downhill from there.
The only upside is that Pierce is actually out sick, and the substitute teacher lets them have a silent study period. But that also gives his entire class the opportunity to talk, and Bucky quickly realizes a few things. One, the state of sex education in this school is even more terrible than he thought. Two, everyone’s apparently known about his crush on Steve since freshman year, which is even before Bucky knew. Three, everyone seems completely unsurprised that Steve is cheating on Peggy.
By fourth period, Bucky wants to scream a little. Because apparently half the student population has forgotten the fact that he does crossword puzzles in the library for fun, and they’re now painting him as some sort of devil-may-care homewrecker sweeping dorky artsy Steve Rogers off his feet. Which is just ridiculous. For Christ’s sake, he rides a ten-speed not a motorcycle.
“Just let them talk,” Nat says at lunch.
Bucky’s slumped against the table, picking at his soggy tater tots. “I broke up the power couple. Steve was going to be Peggy’s politically outspoken trophy husband as she ran for Congress.”
“Okay, seriously,” Nat says, raising an eyebrow. “It’s legitimately concerning how specific that fantasy is.”
They look at the other side of the cafeteria where Steve sits with his friends, the leather jacket slung in his lap while he eats. They’re talking and laughing, and Peggy’s even sitting next to Steve, playfully teasing him like nothing’s wrong.
“Am I the only one who cares?” Bucky moans.
“About what?” Tony says as he deposits his tray next to Nat. “Rogers finally making an honest woman of you?”
“We didn’t sleep together.”
“Who said anything about sex? I was talking about Rogers wearing your emo letterman.” Tony stops and blinks. “Wait, did you guys actually sleep together because I gotta say I didn’t think you had it in you, Barnes.”
Nat snaps her fingers at him. “Hey, focus. We’re on a tight deadline.”
They huddle together and start to talk furiously in undertones. Bucky doesn’t even try to listen in. It’s better for his sanity if he just doesn’t know. He turns to Clint on his left side who’s somehow sustained at least three more minor injuries since they saw each other in second period.
“Dude, did you know you can make a legit bow and arrow from PVC pipes,” Clint says, and well, that explains a lot.
“We’re studying projectile motion in physics. Thought it’d get me extra credit.”
It makes absolutely no sense. But honestly, Bucky’s just relieved that Clint seems to be the only person in the school who isn’t interested in bothering him about the jacket debacle. He just rolls with it. “And did you get it?”
“No,” Clint says. “Apparently it’s a ‘threat to the physical safety of my peers,’ and I should ‘reconsider my actions before building weapons of war.’ Which is bullshit.” The whole statement comes complete with outraged scowling and sarcastic air quotes.
“Maybe Ms. Cho just meant that it’s more of an extracurricular activity than anything else,” Bucky suggests.
Clint gets a thoughtful expression on his face as he snags a tater tot from Bucky’s plate. “Maybe I can use it to convince Col. Phillips to excuse me from PE this semester.”
“Please don’t threaten him with bodily injury. I actually like him as a person.”
“Dude no. It’s got like a forty-pound draw weight. I can use it to prove I’m not an out-of-shape wimp.”
Bucky eyes him skeptically. “Um, aren’t you an out-of-shape wimp?”
“I’ve totally got guns,” Clint says and flexes a little. It’s completely unconvincing. With all the baggy hoodies and the slouching, he just looks like a gangly stoner.
Bucky pokes at his upper arm, and his eyes widen. “Holy shit,” he says, squeezing harder because Clint wasn’t kidding. Underneath the sloppy oversized shirts, he’s actually in shape. His arms are corded with solid muscle, and he can even feel the strength in Clint’s shoulder and back muscles through three layers of clothing. “What the actual fuck.”
Clint smiles smugly. “Told you.”
“Skeet shooting with archery. It’s totally a thing.”
“I feel like I need to revise my entire image of you because oh my god,” Bucky says.
“Are we interrupting anything?” A voice says behind them.
Bucky twists in his seat to see Steve and Sam standing next to their table. And at around the same time, he realizes he’s still groping Clint’s remarkably well-muscled body. He snatches his hand back. “Nope, not interrupting at all.”
Nat and Clint don’t even bother helping him by offering an explanation. They just laugh at him, the traitors. Steve gives Clint a weird look, and Sam has an expression like he wants to inflict physical injury onto Bucky. But that’s kind of Sam’s default expression around him ever since Bucky accidentally dinged his car last year. He still sticks around when Steve settles down in the empty space left on the table bench. Which isn’t much, considering it’s only meant to accommodate four people and they’re already at capacity.
Sam eyes Tony dubiously for a few minutes before deciding he’d rather stand, and Steve ends up squeezed in between Bucky and Clint. The leather jacket rustles a little as he shifts to get himself more comfortable. His thigh is pressed flush against Bucky’s. He can feel Steve’s breathing brush against his shoulder.
“Well,” Tony says dryly. “This is fun.”
Sam and Nat simultaneously roll their eyes and then smile at each other over their shared exasperation with Tony. It’s enough to break the ice between the two, and they start chatting about the upcoming Fall Play. Sam’s apparently the Sets and Props crew head which is how he knows Nat, the stage manager.
“Hey, I just wanted to thank you for lending me your jacket,” Steve says, leaning in even closer so Bucky can hear him over the cafeteria noise.
“It’s no problem,” he says and coughs when Nat sends a sly smile his way. “Really.”
“Anyway I figured I should return it to you. I know how much you like it.”
And then Steve starts to tug his arms out of the sleeves, jostling around, pressing his side into Bucky as he wiggles the jacket off. It should be awkward more than anything else. There really isn’t enough space on the bench for this. But Bucky can only swallow and try not to stare when Steve’s collar goes askance, exposing the line of his clavicle. He finally manages to wrangle himself out of the jacket and bundle it into Bucky’s arms. The leather’s still warm from his skin.
“Wait, that’s your jacket?” Clint says from Steve’s other side.
Bucky really hopes he’s not blushing, but he’s glad for the distraction from Steve literally undressing in front of him. “Clint, I’ve been wearing this jacket for at least three years,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I’m the only person in this school who wears leather with any regularity. How do you not recognize it.”
Nat catches Bucky’s eye from across the table and nods her head to the cafeteria around them. And that’s when he realizes the attention of almost half the student body is directed at Steve very publicly returning Bucky’s jacket to him. She silently mouths, “Declaration of intent.”
And then to Clint, “Your powers of observation need serious work. When has Rogers ever dressed like that in his life?”
“Apparently when he’s shacking up with Barnes,” Tony mutters with a snort.
Bucky thumps his head on the table. His friends are the worst.
“Hey, is it cool if I work on this while I’m here?” Steve asks when Bucky opens the door to let him in. He has a small duffel slung over his shoulder and a canvas tucked under his elbow.
Bucky tries not to stare too hard at the smudges of paint covering Steve’s forearms. He’d pushed his sleeves up to avoid getting his shirt dirty. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “Go ahead.”
And so Bucky ends up spending the afternoon bubbling in questions to the sound of Steve’s brushes scritching against his canvas. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning forward with an elbow braced on a knee. His pallet is balanced precariously on his other knee, and a little tub of walnut oil is on the rug next to him. He’d covered the area around him with the day’s classifieds, so he wouldn’t get paint everywhere.
It’s a pleasant quiet as they both do their own thing. Bucky slowly works his way through a passage about economics. The day is kinda catching up to him, and he keeps nodding off. Steve is quiet and focused in a way Bucky’s rarely seen but knows happens when Steve’s really burying himself in a painting.
For a moment, he just looks at Steve, taking in how he absent-mindedly gnaws on his lower lip a little. Steve’s brush rests on the groove of his thumb and the first knuckle of his ring finger. Almost like how you’d hold a pencil but not quite. His breathing is slow and even, a counterpoint to the brisk movements of his hand.
And all Bucky can think about is how easy it would be to fall in love right here, right now. He looks away.
Eventually, Steve glances up from his canvas and says, “Oh, you’re done? Let’s see how you did.” He walks over, flipping open the answer book to the correct page.
While Steve’s occupied with that, Bucky wanders over to where the canvas is propped against the wall. He’s made a surprising amount of progress since getting in this afternoon. When he’d first arrived, Steve only had a drawing sketched out in red on the canvas. Now, most of the main colors have been roughed in, and Bucky can get a sense of the final result. It’s a portrait of Sam, looking off to the side. His expression is neutral, but there’s an intense, almost angry feeling to him. The colors are bold, drawing out the reds in his skin with deep purple shadows cutting into his face. It’s very different from Steve’s other art, and Bucky realizes this is the first time he’s ever seen one of Steve’s oil paintings.
“You’re definitely improving,” Steve says from across the room. “Remember to use the paired questions in the Reading sections to your advantage. If the answer you give on the first question isn’t supported by any of the evidence in the second question, that means you got the first one wrong.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And don’t let your existing knowledge of a topic fool you into giving the wrong answer. The correct answers will only have information explicitly stated in the passage. Don’t extrapolate and don’t assume anything. You can infer, but only to a certain extent.” Steve glances up from where he’s writing a note with a red pen. “Oh, yeah, that’s still pretty rough. I’ve got a lot of work to do on it.”
Bucky smiles. “It’s really good. I think I’ve only seen your doodles and your posters,” he says. “This for Erskine?”
Steve walks back over to stand in front of the painting. He eyes the piece critically. “Yeah, it’s for my concentration. I’m doing portraiture this year.”
“Not your wheatpastes?”
He laughs. “Nah, those are fun, but they’re easy. I wanted to challenge myself in a medium I’m not as comfortable in. I’m thinking I can use my concentration for my portfolio next year when apps roll around. Colleges go for traditional oils more anyway. Erskine’s going to write my rec letter.”
“I’d be surprised if he didn’t,” Bucky says with a snort. “The guy loves you.”
Steve looks down and smiles. “Yeah, he’s pretty great.”
Honestly, it’s kind of an understatement. When they were in elementary school, Steve’s dad died overseas. He’d already been shipped out for almost a year, so the last time Steve talked to him was on a blurry Skype call with the audio randomly cutting out. Joseph Rogers’s death had hit his family hard, Steve in particular. He used to hang out in front of military recruitment centers, demanding they send him overseas so he could find his dad.
The high school art teacher, Mr. Erskine, found him there one day and just decided to take him under his wing then and there. He helped Steve a lot in the months after, pulling him out of his grief, teaching him how to deal with the snarled mess of anger trapped in his chest. Steve learned how to channel all of that emotion into art, making something of it when all he wanted to do was burn everything down. He would’ve gone crazy long ago if he didn’t have that. He’d found something like a father in Erskine. Hell, the high school art building’s basically a second home to Steve.
“You know,” Bucky says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sam look this angry. Not even when I hit his car.”
Steve laughs. “Yeah, he’s pretty chill. Gets annoyed sometimes, but nothing ever really pisses him off.”
“So why’s he mad in your painting? It seems like an odd choice.”
Steve shrugs, the humor fading a little from his face. He focuses on the painting to think for a moment. “I dunno, I was just feeling—frustrated. I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff, and I guess it all started to come out on the canvas.”
“What were you thinking about?” Bucky asks quietly.
He doesn’t answer for a while. He just picks up his brush, dips it into the oil, and starts to clean it off on a plumbing ad. His mouth is set in a grimace. “I’ve just been wondering if this is really the best solution, if we should be doing more.”
Bucky goes still. “You mean about Pierce? Things are fine, Steve. I mean, it’s not great, but I can deal with it. It’s not that bad.”
“Just because things aren’t actively getting worse doesn’t mean they won’t,” Steve says mulishly.
Bucky groans. “I know, but what else can I really do? If I move against him directly, it’ll only escalate things.”
“It doesn’t have to be you who goes after him.”
“No,” Bucky says, then realizes just how sharply it’d come out. He softens his voice. “Please. Don’t risk it. It’s not worth it.”
He holds Steve’s gaze for a long time until Steve breaks off with a sigh. “Okay,” he says quietly. “Okay, I won’t. Let’s just—try the next Math section.”
The matter drops, but Steve looks just a little too pensive for Bucky to believe this is going to be the last of it.
For a while, Bucky had almost gotten used to Pierce’s bullshit. He lands a detention or two every week like clockwork, and he’s just stopped trying to figure out a way to stop it. He’s gone to detention so many times on the thinnest of pretexts. Pierce has accused him of skipping class after he asked to go to the bathroom, for challenging his authority when he asked questions in class, for being disruptive when his pencil rolled off his desk and onto the ground. And every time, Col. Phillips looks at him with a wrinkle between his brows like he’s trying to figure out what’s going on.
The school board doesn’t seem interested in doing anything about it just as Tony had predicted. Pierce is just something he has to endure, so Bucky keeps his head down, and eventually, he gets used to it. After a while, detention even becomes a nice reprieve from the daily stresses of school. He can just sit in a quiet room with Col. Phillips and Steve and whoever else got themselves in trouble that day.
So of course it gets worse.
Bucky’s only black pen runs out of ink in the middle of one of the biggest tests of the year, and he knows he’s fucked. Because he’s only gotten about three-quarters of the way through the multiple choice section, and he’s got five short answer questions and a full essay left. He’d managed to at least pull decent grades in this class so far, but now—he groans quietly. He knows down to his very bones that there’s absolutely no way Pierce’s going to let him borrow one to finish the test.
His legs start to shake under his desk. Bucky frantically glances around the room. Natasha’s sitting just a few seats away, and Pierce is prowling down the rows, watching for cheaters. The hairs on his neck prickle. The sound of Pierce’s polished oxfords scuffing on the floor grates on his frayed nerves. He slows to a stop just behind Bucky.
“Problem, Mr. Barnes?”
The useless pen creaks in his grip. “No, sir,” Bucky grits out.
Pierce clucks his tongue. “I advise against coming unprepared next time.”
He moves on, leaving Bucky quivering with the effort to not scream and tear his hair out. It’s always these pointed little comments. These words that seem innocent but have dozens of barbs hidden just under the surface. He can never talk back. Hell, half of his class doesn’t even seem to notice there’s anything wrong most of the time. Pierce somehow just makes himself seem so goddamned reasonable all the time. As if it genuinely pains him every time he saddles Bucky with another detention. He’s so good at it that sometimes Bucky starts to believe that he really does deserve it.
Pierce stops again next to Natasha’s desk and leans over to listen to her murmur a question to him. He smiles at her, slides a ballpoint pen out of his pocket, and places it on her desk. Bucky ducks his head. His face heats with humiliation, and his breath comes out fast and uneven. Pierce wouldn’t have been so genial, so obliging if it’d been Bucky who’d asked.
A flash of movement catches his attention, and he looks up just in time to see something flying through the air towards him. It rises up and then down in a perfect arc, landing neatly in his lap. A ballpoint pen. He quickly glances up. It’d been timed right as Pierce was rounding the corner of his circuit, just when his back was turned.
“Thank you,” Bucky mouths to the back of Natasha’s head. She’s hunched over her own test, scribbling away. The perfect picture of an attentive student. He leans over his own test and gets back to answering questions.
And he actually does manage to finish in time. Barely. His conclusion paragraph is a little on the short side, but Bucky’s just glad he scraped through this whole hellish test. The bell rings, and the class shuffles to the front to drop their tests onto Pierce’s desk. Natasha appears next to Bucky and bumps shoulders with him. He squeezes her hand gratefully. They’re one of the last ones to leave the class.
Just as they reach the door, Pierce’s smooth voice speaks up behind them. The sound of it chills Bucky down to his very core. “Mr. Barnes, a moment, please.”
He sends Natasha a frantic look, but both of them know she can’t really do anything. “I’ll wait for you outside,” she murmurs to him.
Bucky nods. The door closes behind Natasha, leaving him alone with Pierce. He turns.
Pierce idly pages through one of the tests for a while, a red pen held loosely in his right hand. His mouth is pursed in a perfect imitation of paternal displeasure. After several excruciating minutes, he sets the paper down and taps his finger on his desk. Only then does he acknowledge Bucky.
“I believe you have my ballpoint pen. I’d like it back please.”
Bucky nods mutely and jerks it out of his pocket, slides it onto the desk. “Is that all, sir?”
Pierce makes a considering noise. His hand brushes against the test paper in front of him, and Bucky recognizes his own handwriting on it. “Did you know that cheating is a serious offense, Mr. Barnes?”
“Yes,” he says, his voice hoarse.
“I do not tolerate academic dishonesty in my classroom. Repeat offenses are grounds for suspension,” he pauses, “or worse.”
“But—” Bucky cuts himself off when he sees the dangerous glint in Pierce’s eye. “I understand, sir.”
“I’m letting you off with a warning this time, Mr. Barnes.” He pauses and sighs regretfully. “Unfortunately I will have to notify the administration about this infraction, but I hope that we will be seeing no further offenses of this kind. Is that clear?”
Pierce smiles, and Bucky’s blood freezes in his veins at the sight of it. “Good,” he says. “Now get to class. We wouldn’t want you to be late.”
Bucky jerks his head into a nod and stumbles out of the classroom, white-faced. Natasha immediately runs up to him, steadying him with both hands on his arms. “What happened?” she asks.
“Pierce isn’t—” he manages to gasp out. “He’s not trying to get me suspended. He’s trying to get me expelled.”
Steve doesn’t usually come over on weekends, but Natasha must have said something because he’s on Bucky’s doorstep that Saturday morning. His hands are tucked into his pockets, his weight shifted back onto his heels. He doesn’t actually ask about what happened yesterday with Pierce, but Bucky knows that’s why Steve’s here.
He sighs and starts to head back to his room. “More practice tests today?” It’s what they always do after bad days with Pierce. Steve never coddles or pities him. He just quietly hands Bucky another practice book, knowing that it helps him settle down to focus all of that helplessness and frustration into something constructive.
“Yeah, we’ve got a little under a month till the exam.”
Bucky groans. “I might be fucked.”
“Nah, we’ve done like half a dozen practice tests already.” Steve drops into his usual spot on top of Bucky’s bed. “You’ve pretty much got the material down.”
And he has to admit that Steve’s right. He really does have it down. They’ve gone through this test so many times, he feels like he knows it inside and out. All the little quirks and traps meant to trip him up, he can recognize. More importantly, he knows what the questions are really asking. Bucky pulls out one of the practice books they haven’t started on yet and flips it open.
“So really,” Steve says, “I think it’s time for you to start practicing while you’re distracted.”
Bucky swallows. “Distracted, right.”
“No test environment is perfect. There’s always going to be something driving you crazy. The asshole behind you keeps clicking his pen. Someone else is wearing too much Axe. The girl in the front row has a bad cough.” Steve grins. “So distractions.”
He springs to his feet and strolls to Bucky’s closet.
“What are you—?”
“Just take your test.”
Bucky turns back around, starts the timer on his phone, and tries his best to focus. The sound of Steve rustling around his closet behind him is a lot harder to tune out than he’d thought. He keeps frantically wondering what he has in there, even though he knows it’s just his clothes. He doesn’t make a habit of keeping embarrassing things hidden in obvious places. After all, he is in a family with three nosy sisters.
He circles an answer, trying not to read into the small triumphant noise followed by a distinct lack of rummaging around. Which means Steve’s found whatever he was looking for. Bucky tries to concentrate on reading through the next question. There’s the swishing of clothing on skin like Steve’s messing around with whatever he’s found in Bucky’s closet, and somehow that’s even more alarming than him just digging through it.
Steve makes a soft noise suspiciously like a grunt, and there’s the ominous creaking of a seam being pulled a little too hard. And Bucky can’t take the suspense anymore. He slaps his pencil onto the desk and whirls around in his chair. And there’s Steve standing in the middle of his bedroom with his shirt off and trying to struggle into one of Bucky’s T-shirts. Except it’s just a little too small for him. Because it’s one of Bucky’s shirts from middle school.
“What are you doing?”
Steve yanks at the hem of the shirt, and it finally slips free, coming down to cover his torso. He’s always been kind of a skinny guy, but it’s still a little tight around the shoulders. The hem is just a few inches too short. “Jesus, I don’t remember you being this small.”
“I grew a lot,” Bucky says, doing his best not to look at the strip of skin showing between the shirt and the waistband of his jeans. “I can’t believe you can even fit in that.”
Steve plucks at the fabric covering his chest. He’s wearing the one that says Chemistry: We Do Stuff In A Lab That Would Be A Felony In Your Garage. “Hey, shouldn’t you be taking your test? The clock’s still running.”
Bucky groans and gets back to his test. He manages to finish the questions for the passage he’s on with little trouble and is just starting the next when Steve speaks up again. “Did you know oxygen went on a date with potassium?”
Bucky pauses in the middle of underlining a sentence in the passage. “What?”
“I heard it went OK.”
It’s so nonsensical that Bucky has to turn in his seat again to stare at Steve. He’s sitting cross-legged on top of Bucky’s bed, his shoes kicked off haphazardly on the floor. He just looks back at Bucky straight-faced. And then it hits him. “Oh my god, that was terrible.” He can’t keep from laughing just a little at the sheer awfulness of the pun, and Steve finally cracks a smile.
“Keep taking your test, Bucky.”
He rolls his eye but obediently turns back to reading through his passage. He manages to get through the first few questions before, “What happened to the man who was pulled over for having sodium chloride and a nine-volt in his car?”
Bucky snorts, but he doesn’t look up from his test. Because apparently Steve’s idea of distraction is wearing one of Bucky’s old shirts and making awful chemistry puns. “I dunno. What happened?”
“He got arrested for a salt and battery.”
And it goes on like that. Bucky finishes the first reading section and moves on to the writing and then the math section, occasionally pausing to laugh at some of the more ridiculous puns. Steve has a truly impressive repertoire of terrible chemistry jokes.
“What do you do with a dead chemist?”
“You barium,” Bucky says. “That one I knew.”
Steve’s eye roll is almost audible. “Well, not all these jokes can be winners. I only update them periodically.”
And Bucky has to set his pencil down to laugh. He twists in his seat to look at Steve and sees that he’s got the biggest grin on his face. Steve waggles his eyebrows at him, then wiggles his toes in his socks, and it’s just so ridiculous that Bucky can only laugh harder. “I give up,” he gasps out. “You win.” He stands up and flops down on the bed next to Steve.
“Weak. The SATs will eat you alive,” Steve says teasingly, but obligingly scoots over to make room.
“I guess I’ll just have to take the next one,” Bucky says, “and you’ll have to keep tutoring me.”
Steve hums. “That doesn’t sound too bad. I’ve still got a lot more jokes to burn through.”
“Lay it on me.”
Steve meets Bucky’s gaze, the skin around his eyes crinkling with amusement. He pushes his bangs back from his forehead as he thinks of one and then, “Why was the mole of oxygen molecules excited when he left the singles bar?”
“He finally got Avogadro’s number,” Steve murmurs.
Bucky smiles and leans back until he’s tipping over onto his back. “You’re ridiculous.” He closes his eyes and soaks in the moment. Yesterday was awful, but today’s a good day. The weather is warm outside, almost sunny despite the season. One of the last nice days of the year before fall starts to give way to winter. He could be outside enjoying it, but somehow, staying in here with Steve and listening to his frankly terrible jokes is so much more appealing.
Bucky cracks an eye open after noticing that Steve’s been quiet for while. He sees him leaning back, his weight propped up on one elbow, and he’s looking at Bucky. There’s warmth in his expression, something a lot like tenderness that makes Bucky’s throat tighten at the sight. But there’s also a little wrinkle between his eyebrows like something’s bothering him.
Bucky lightly pushes against Steve’s side. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I’ll be fine.”
“He’s trying to get you expelled.”
“He won’t. I can handle it.” Which is a lie, but the morning is too nice to be ruined by something like this. “We’ll figure it out.”
Bucky smiles up at him, and for a moment, there’s a deep anger flashing over his expression before Steve visibly tamps it down. He bites his lip, smiles tentatively back, and lets the matter drop. “A neutron walks into a bar,” he says instead. “He asks the bartender, ‘How much for a beer?’ And the bartender smiles at him and says, ‘For you, no charge.’”
They laugh together, and that warm feeling from earlier returns. It lingers all throughout the rest of the morning and into the afternoon when they watch 90s sci-fi movies together. The feeling doesn’t really go away until well into the night after Steve leaves. And that’s when Bucky realizes what it is.
Because Natasha had been wrong weeks ago when she’d said Bucky was in love with Steve. He wasn’t then, but he sure as hell is now. And no matter what she might say about declarations of intent or whatever, Steve is very much off the market. Because he has a fucking girlfriend.
“Pull yourself together, Barnes,” he mutters aloud.
The following Tuesday, the hair on the back of Bucky’s neck prickles the moment he reaches his locker. Something in his stomach goes tight with unease. But when he looks around for what caused the bad feeling, there’s nothing that catches his attention. The hallway is filled with his classmates, sleepily talking to each other as they wait for the first bell to ring. For a moment, he thinks he catches a glimpse of a familiar blond head disappearing around a corner.
“You studied for the Brit Lit pop quiz?” Nat’s voice drawls behind him.
Bucky startles and glances back at her. “Did you run into Steve today? I thought I just saw him.”
Nat sighs impatiently. “Focus, Barnes. Steve’s homeroom is on the other side of the school, and you’ve got a pop quiz to cram for.”
“I think you’re forgetting what a pop quiz actually is.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t figured out Coulson’s MO yet,” Nat says, arching an eyebrow. “He schedules them on presidents’ birthdays.” How she managed to work that one out, he has no clue. Nat just picks up on patterns that no one else does, and Bucky’s long since given up on trying to decipher her thought process.
“So whose birthday is it today?” he asks.
“James Garfield.” She levels him a stern look. “Please tell me you did last night’s reading.”
“CliffsNotes, Nat. I’ll be fine.” Bucky says, his eyes flicking back down the hall. There’s a weird prickling under his skin. Like he’s missing something. “You sure you didn’t see Steve?”
Nat sends him an appraising glance. “Exciting weekend then, huh?”
“Well, y’know. Steve doesn’t really have much reason to trek all the way across campus here. Nothing motivating him to come here, except you just so happen to also be here,” Nat says with a sly smile. “So anything you want to tell me, Barnes? Any hmm, new developments?”
Bucky groans and thumps his head against his locker door. “Am I the only one that still remembers that Steve’s actually dating someone else?”
“Oh my god, I thought I told you to talk to Peggy about that.”
“And what? Tell her that I’m in love with her boyfriend?”
For a moment, Nat doesn’t respond. If Bucky didn’t know better, he’d think she was stunned into silence by his scathing reply. But he does know better, and not once has Nat ever failed to come up with a witty rebuttal—or at least, redirect the conversation when she’s on the verge of losing. Bucky turns around and glares at her.
“You said you’re in love with him,” Nat says, her customary smirk slowly broadening into a triumphant grin. “Not a crush. Not puppy love or whatever you’ve been convincing yourself to believe. You’re in love.”
“Yeah, thanks. Great,” Bucky snaps out and slams his locker closed. He hefts his backpack higher and starts to stalk away. “I really enjoy it when you rub just how unrequited my feelings are in my face.”
Nat catches him by the arm. He turns to snarl out her, but the look on her face stops him short. “Seriously,” she says quietly, “talk to Peggy.”
“Fine, okay.” He sighs. “Let’s just go to class.”
Nat doesn’t bother him about it anymore throughout all of homeroom, and he’s almost managed to forget about it altogether by the time he’s walking into first period. Then he sees Pierce standing towards the back of the room, frowning thoughtfully at one of his posters. The weird uneasiness that’d been itching at his attention earlier comes back with a vengeance. Bucky perches nervously in his seat, but Nat doesn’t seem to notice anything’s off. Maybe it’s just paranoia. She has better instincts for these things than him.
Pierce starts his lecture, and the sense of wrongness only grows when he doesn’t make a single jab at Bucky. He even gives Bucky some participation points for answering a question. No veiled insults or backhanded compliments. Not even a single judgmental look. It’s downright bizarre. By the end of class, even Tony starts to look a little freaked out by Pierce actually treating Bucky like just another student.
“Have a good day, Mr. Barnes,” Pierce says as Bucky leaves, and there’s not a hint of disdain in his voice. He sounds just like a pleasant teacher saying goodbye to one of his favorite students. Bucky shudders.
Nat’s biting her lip pensively as they walk.
“That was so fucked up,” Bucky says, “and he didn’t even do anything.”
“Something happened.” Nat frowns as she thinks. “He wouldn’t act like that out of the blue.”
“Or he’s screwing with my head. Gaslighting the shit out of me because he’s a sadistic bastard.”
“Maybe.” But Nat still looks unconvinced.
The sense that something bad was about to happen becomes harder and harder to ignore, and he’s a mess of restless unfocused energy the rest of the day. He nearly brains himself in an in-class Physics experiments and only just manages to avoid getting sent to the nurse’s office. He definitely flunks Coulson’s pop quiz even with Nat tapping the answers out in Morse code on her leg.
It all finally comes to a head when Clint mentions offhand that he didn’t see Steve in Spanish. It’s not the first time he’s missed class, but it’s too much of a coincidence to ignore. Nat’s eyes widen and she says, “You said you saw him when you were at your locker this morning?”
Bucky looks at her for a long moment, taking in just how scared she looks. Then it clicks, and the blood drains from his face. “Shit.”
He bolts upright and makes for the door. Because there really isn’t a reason for Steve to be on the east side of campus in the morning. He doesn’t have any classes there this semester, and most of his friend group has homeroom with him in the western wing of the school. There’s nothing in the east side that he’d care about aside from maybe Bucky—and Pierce’s classroom.
He remembers that mulish look on Steve’s face just before he agreed to drop the subject. Bucky should’ve known better because Steve Rogers has never once in his life just let something go. It’s not in his nature, and it never will be. Bucky slides to a stop in front of the history room, gasping for breath. Luckily it’s empty, and he’s glad that at least he figured this out during the lunch hour when Pierce is probably eating in the teachers lounge. The door’s even unlocked.
He eases his way inside and notices that one of the posters from the back of the classroom is lying on top of Pierce’s desk. The same poster he’d been looking at this morning. It’s a generic one with a lineup of the founding fathers and some facts about them. It was hard to tell earlier, but now that it’s laid out on the desk, it’s obvious that a small hole had been cut into it. Tucked right in the crook of Benjamin Franklin’s arm.
“You big idiot,” Bucky groans. Steve had actually planted a hidden camera in Pierce’s classroom. And apparently he’d gotten caught doing it.
He freezes at the sound of the door closing behind him.
“Friend of yours?” Pierce’s voice says behind him, dry as dust. “You must imagine my surprise this morning when I noticed a student I’d never met before entering my locked classroom.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Bucky mutters under his breath.
Pierce just looks at him with an awful little tilt to his mouth. Like he’s just won whatever fucked up game he’s been playing the whole semester. “And what would you be doing here, Mr. Barnes?” he continues on, his voice heavy with false concern. “You know my office hours are after school, and I’m not usually in my classroom during the lunch period. What could you possibly want in a teacher’s locked classroom knowing I wouldn’t be here?”
“The door was unlocked.”
Pierce’s smile only widens. “Was it really?”
And Bucky’s very much aware that if it really came down to it, it doesn’t even matter if the door was actually unlocked. If Pierce told the principal and the school board it was locked, it may as well’ve been locked. Bucky’s word against a teacher’s. He hunches his shoulders, curling into himself. “I was just here to—”
“I understand, Mr. Barnes. I really do,” Pierce cuts in smoothly. “I’ve seen your record. You have quite the history of academic excellence. Truly admirable.” He trails off for a moment. His eyes flick over Bucky’s face, and for a moment, the concerned mask slips away to reveal just how goddamn pleased he actually is.
Bucky stiffens. Every instinct screams at him to run. “What?”
“I’ve seen many students like you in my time, and they’ve always been so afraid of failure.” Pierce tuts and shakes his head, but his sharp gaze never leaves Bucky’s face. “The very prospect of it can drive them to some rather extreme actions. Say for example,” he walks over to his desk and taps the stack of graded tests from last week, “breaking into a teacher’s classroom to change a failing grade.”
And that’s when Bucky sees the full shape of the monster. Pierce must’ve looked up Bucky’s file right at the start, maybe even before he first set foot in this classroom. Bucky’d been his target from the get go. It’d never been about his clothes or some out-dated high school stereotype. It’d been his fucking grades.
Because Pierce is just the kind of fucked up to target the high-achieving and the high-strung for his little mind games. From the start, it’d been about power and control. The rush from breaking down a student who’d never gotten a grade below a B, who wouldn’t even begin to know how to deal with failure. Bucky stares at Pierce and wonders just how many times this has happened before. How many teenagers he’d driven to the edge with that insidious benevolence of his. He can’t breathe with the sheer enormity of it.
“I gotta go,” Bucky manages to gasp out. “I’ve got to—” he stumbles a step toward the door, not even caring that it takes him closer to Pierce. He just needs to get out.
Pierce steps aside to let him pass. He drops a hand onto Bucky’s shoulder, the picture of paternal concern. It’s all Bucky can do not to shake it off immediately. “Be careful, Mr. Barnes,” Pierce murmurs. “We wouldn’t want you to—crack under the pressure.”
“Thank you, sir,” Bucky grits out, and then he’s finally out of the classroom and into the empty hallway. He has to find Steve.
The art building is a squat little rectangle tucked next to the rear gate of the school grounds. It’s always been kind of a haven away from the rest of the drama and chaos. The domain of the art kids. And even before they were in high school, it’s always been the place Steve retreated to when he needed space.
It’s the first place Bucky looks for Steve in.
The rooms themselves are filled with half-finished projects and supplies that the students never quite got around to putting away yet. There’s a whole shelf of assorted bottles, household odds and ends, and baskets of fake flowers. He even sees a rotary phone and a Polaroid camera. It’s strange seeing the pallets with drying paint on them and the yogurt tubs filled with murky water and paintbrushes, but there’s not a single student here. Even Erskine isn’t here, and Steve himself is nowhere to be found.
There isn’t any sign of Steve’s art in the classrooms at all. After years of Steve wheatpasting posters all over town, Bucky’s seen enough of it to get a sense for his style. Really, his art is a lot like Steve himself. Bold blacks standing out starkly against bright colors. Loud and utterly unafraid to make its point. There’s nothing like that here amongst the still lifes and the oil pastel portraits. Bucky leaves the art building with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
Something white and fluttering flashes in his peripheral vision, and when Bucky turns to look at it, he sees it’s a piece of paper blowing in the wind. It slaps against his leg. He has an awful feeling that he knows what it is even before he picks it up. It’s only confirmed when he sees the dark lines depicting Peggy with her hair tied up in a bun, her back to the viewer.
Bucky starts to walk toward the back of the art building where the paper had been blown from. He feels almost sick with dread when he sees all of Steve’s canvases and sketchbooks haphazardly dumped on the ground. The loose papers are whirling about in the wind, catching and landing in the puddles left behind by the morning rains. Bucky quickly rescues them and does his best to soak up the water with the hem of his shirt.
The sketchbook pages crinkle a little when he presses them close to his chest. For a long moment, he has to force his panicked breathing to slow down. Bucky never wanted to get Steve wrapped up in all this. He never wanted Pierce to even know he existed, but he should’ve known better than to think Steve would stay quietly on the sidelines while Bucky tried to sort this out. And now Pierce is on the warpath, and Steve is standing right in his way.
From here, he can see that the back gate is still open. Steve’s long gone by now, and Bucky has no idea where he’d go from here. Bucky slowly walks over to close the gate. Then he leans against it and closes his eyes. For all their childhood history together and the hours spent studying at Bucky’s house, he really doesn’t know Steve all that well.
Bucky turns back and catches sight of a figure huddled against the wall just outside the back gate. He exhales, the coil of fear inside his gut slowly unwinding. Everything might be going to shit right now, but at the very least, they can work this out together. Somehow.
Bucky walks to Steve’s side and realizes he has no idea what to say. Steve glances up at him and his mouth tilts up into something resembling a smile. “Hey,” he murmurs.
“Hi,” Bucky says. “Are you—well, I guess you aren’t okay.” He doesn’t ask what happened. The stack of canvases behind them paints a very ugly picture of what went down.
“It was the windows,” Steve says. “In the morning, the sun shines through at an angle that hits the back wall of Pierce’s classroom. Any sort of lens there would reflect the light. That’s how he found it.” He wraps his arms around his knees and presses his cheek against it. “I would’ve known if I was in his class, but I'm not.”
Bucky just keeps standing there, awkward and wrong-footed. He doesn’t know the first thing to do because he’s never seen Steve like this. Bucky’s never seen him look so—small. Regardless of his actual height, Steve’s always had a knack for filling a room by sheer force of personality. Stubborn and outspoken in all the right and wrong ways. You could never just ignore the guy when he’s standing next to you. But now Steve looks like he could just quietly shrink into himself until he disappeared.
“I don’t think I ever really understood until I heard him talk.” Steve shudders, his hands clenching and releasing. “He convinced the principal to kick me out of the art program. Made it sound like he was doing me a favor. I had to thank him for being so fucking lenient.”
Bucky’s throat tightens. He knows exactly what Steve’s talking about.
He can imagine how it must’ve happened. Steve’s record is already full of the trouble he’s caused at school, and he’s always managed to get away with it because the administration cared more about his test scores than minor acts of rebellion. But with Pierce whispering in their ears, secretly recording a teacher might just be the last offense that destroys all remaining good will. Maybe Pierce talked about how he could press charges for this. Expulsion would be the least of Steve’s worries.
But Pierce is nothing if not a merciful man. Bucky can almost hear him say he would never do that to a student. But of course they can’t ignore Steve’s history of delinquency. Detention just hasn’t quite been enough. Perhaps more stringent disciplinary measures should be taken, and that would be the moment Pierce proposes kicking Steve out of the art program. It’s really such a small price to pay. Steve would only be barred from a handful of electives. After all, that’s a much kinder punishment than being unable to graduate altogether, isn’t it? Doesn’t Pierce deserve a show of gratitude for his generosity?
He recognizes the expression on Steve’s face all too well. It’s the same bone-deep disgust every time Bucky has to swallow his resentment and frustration, and call Pierce ‘sir’. It’s the nausea churning in his stomach as he politely says good morning every day. And now Steve—wonderful, prideful, unshakeably forthright Steve—knows exactly what it’s like to force a smile for the sadistic bastard.
“It’s what he does,” Bucky says. “You can’t outtalk or outmaneuver him. He holds too many cards, and he’s been at this a lot longer than either of us. This isn’t a game we can beat him at.”
Steve curls into himself tighter. “I’m not even allowed to go into the building anymore. I won’t be able to see Erskine now because teachers aren’t allowed to socialize with students outside school.”
Bucky sucks in a breath. Pierce probably had no idea just how devastating this attack on Steve was. In one move, Pierce had removed Steve’s refuge, his confidant, and his only outlet for his frustration. But then again, it’s such a viciously precise attack that maybe he really did know just how important this was to Steve.
“Then all your art? Did he—?”
“No,” Steve says. “That was me.”
Bucky goes still. “Why?”
Steve glares at the ground and snarls out, “What the hell am I supposed to do? Haul all of this home to rot in my attic? It’s not like I can afford the supplies I need on my own. The only reason why I could even make anything is because I had access to the art building.” He laughs bitterly and scrubs a hand over his eyes. “There’s no way in hell I’ll be able to put together a decent portfolio for college now, so goodbye to any scholarships I might’ve been able to scrounge up.” Steve’s voice cracks at the end, and his mouth twists angrily.
Bucky slowly leans over and holds out the sketchbook pages he’d managed to rescue earlier. Steve glances up at the offering, and the fight seems to drain out of him entirely. He looks like he’s going to start crying then and there. And suddenly Bucky understands what drove Steve to go after Pierce in the first place. Because he would do anything to never have to see that awful expression on Steve’s face again. He’d burn down the entire world to keep it from hurting Steve anymore, consequences be damned.
“It’s just so stupid. I know it’s all just canvases and paint. I shouldn’t even care because I can do just as much with pencil and paper, but—” Steve heaves out a shaky breath and presses the heel of his palm to his eye. “It still hurts. I feel like he gouged out a part of me, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“But it’s not just canvas and paint,” Bucky says. “You’ve been sneaking into the art building years before you started taking Erskine’s class. Hell, he’s practically a second dad to you. Pierce—he knows exactly where to push, and this is important to you. Always has been.”
Steve’s head lifts, and he meets Bucky’s gaze. He nods wordlessly, head bobbing up and down for a while until he collects himself. He reaches out to take the still damp paper and tucks it close to himself. Bucky watches him for moment before settling down next to him.
They sit in silence for a long time.
Eventually Steve turns to Bucky and asks, “Help me carry the canvases home?”
And Bucky agrees, even though Steve’s far from home right now. Even though he knows they’ll have to trek halfway across town to get there. He walks beside Steve the whole way.
When Bucky sees Peggy Carter waiting for him by his locker, he can barely keep from groaning aloud. Because of course she’d decide to have this conversation on what’s quickly becoming one of the worst weeks of his life. Steve’s been hurting a lot since that hellish day. He’d walked back home with Bucky in silence, and in the days since, he’s barely said more than a handful of words. They hadn’t seen much of each other since. Steve doesn’t come over anymore to help him study for the SATs.
And Bucky gets it. Really, he does. Steve needs time and space to sort himself out, and that’s a lot harder now that he’s barred from one of the few places in the world where he can really think. Because Steve hadn’t expected this. How could he have? He probably thought he’d have to put up with some snide comments and ineffectual posturing from Pierce, but nothing that could actually touch him. Pierce didn’t have any power over him, not like he did Bucky. Except apparently he did.
But just because Bucky understands why they can’t really be around each other for a while doesn’t change that it kinda sucks. He still sees him every day from the other side of the cafeteria. They pass each other in the halls on their way to fifth period. Sometimes they say hi. Steve’s still around, but Bucky can’t help but feel a little lonely.
He hadn’t really realized just how much space in his life Steve had filled up until he was gone. All the little conversations and jokes, Steve claiming Bucky’s bed and idly commenting on his decor, the doodles that kept showing up everywhere. Steve had somehow become a fixed point for Bucky. Like the sun. Like true north and gravity. He said as much to Nat at some point, and she’d lightly gripped his arm, a pained smile on her face.
So yeah, a week without Steve around has turned out to be kinda awful. Even worse, Pierce is carrying himself with all the sated contentment of a tiger after a fresh kill. He seems to relish Bucky’s subdued attitude. Sometimes Pierce prods him with an idle jibe or pointed comment, but mostly, he’s content to let Bucky stew in silence.
He really should’ve expected that Peggy would decide to corner him now. This conversation’s been a long time coming if Nat’s ominous hints are anything to go by, but he can’t for the life of him figure out what it’s going to be about. If it was about Bucky’s not-so-secret crush—now love, Jesus Christ—on Steve, he’d think she’d interrogate him weeks ago when Steve wore his jacket. And now when Bucky’s probably the least prepared to deal with this conversation, Peggy decided this was the perfect time.
“Please tell me this isn’t what I think it’s about,” Bucky says when he comes to a stop next to Peggy.
Her mouth twitches up into a wry smile. “That depends, Barnes.”
“Are you here to tell me that Fury magically came back early from sabbatical, and I’m free from this Pierce hell?”
That gets a laugh out of Peggy. She shakes her head. “Sorry, but no. That’s not what I want to talk to you about.”
She sets her hand lightly on his shoulder and holds his gaze. “Barnes, I’m not dating Steve.”
Bucky blinks. “I’m pretty sure you are. Since like eighth grade.”
“The true nature of our relationship isn’t widely known. It was—” Peggy pauses, and for a moment, she looks almost embarrassed. “Well, it was a pact of sorts. We both were coming to terms with our sexual orientations at the same time, and well, it was simpler if it wasn’t a matter of public scrutiny.”
“You were each other’s beards?”
“For the sake of privacy and personal protection, yes. Non-heterosexual orientations are still rare enough to draw a certain amount of attention, however well-intentioned it might be. We just wanted to get through high school in peace.”
And yeah, that’s something Bucky understands. People’ve gotten better in recent years, but tolerance tends to come with maturity, and maturity is rare in middle school. It’s hard to find in high school even. Bucky’s mostly dealt with it by being such a non-presence, he barely draws notice anymore. But Steve has never been able to simply fade into the background. Neither has Peggy for that matter. Like them or hate them, people have always tended to orient themselves around those two.
And maybe that’s why no one really thought to question Steve and Peggy’s odd little relationship. In hindsight, it really was weird how undemonstrative and platonic their dynamic was. But because they’re pretty singular personalities, everyone just kinda assumed that was how they worked. Really only the particularly observant would be able to see it for what it really was.
“Nat figured it out on her own,” Bucky says. It’s not a question.
Peggy nods anyway. “A few of our closer friends knew because we told them, but it wasn’t something we made a habit of talking about.” She smiles a little sheepishly. “But yes, Natasha deduced the truth barely a month after we started.”
“And now you’re telling me.”
“Yes,” Peggy tilts her head and studies him. “Why wouldn’t I tell you? Protecting a pact made a long time ago shouldn’t cancel out a chance at a relationship. At well, love.”
It’s a lot to chew over. In a lot of ways, it’s hard to imagine Steve deciding to hide any part of himself out of fear of scrutiny. But a drive that would outweigh even his pride would be the need to protect the people he cares about. He wouldn’t accept a pact like this for his own sake, but he would for Peggy’s. He must’ve looked at her as they were both on the cusp of adolescence. She would be brilliant and mature for her age, and hiding a fear of what the future will bring under a carefully constructed front. Steve would see the truth of it because that’s how he is. And he would offer to make the pact to shield Peggy in this small way.
“That’s why he didn’t say anything. Protecting the pact—protecting you—would be more important to him than his own happiness.” Bucky meets Peggy’s steely gaze. “And that’s why you’re telling me the truth. Because you can’t let him make that decision.”
“Loyalty runs deep for Steve,” she says. “He gives himself wholeheartedly to the people he cares about, and it’s very hard for him to place his own needs above the needs of his friends. He will keep giving long past the point that he can afford to give any more.”
Peggy sighs, her body listing over to the side a little. It’s a small movement. Bucky wouldn’t have noticed it in anyone else, but the loss of composure, however small, becomes obvious in someone as poised as Peggy. “This has been bothering you for a long time, hasn’t it?” Bucky says. “And you couldn’t confront Steve about this directly because well, he’d dig his heels in. There are some things he just won’t budge on. Not even for you.”
“And not for you either,” Peggy replies wryly. “But there’s a great deal that he would sacrifice for your sake. Which is why you more than anyone else need to be mindful. Of everyone in his life, you, Barnes, hold the lion’s share of his loyalty. You were one of the first people he devoted himself to, and it’s not easily forgotten. You are a person that Steve has not, will not, and doesn’t want to ever say no to. So you need to be very careful of what you ask of him.”
“I haven’t asked for anything from him. I just wanted him to tutor me.”
Peggy nods, smiling wearily. “I know, but he’ll wage war for you even when you don’t ask anything of him.”
“He wanted to go after Pierce directly from the start. A full-frontal assault that would’ve gotten him immediately expelled. How is that any better?”
“Honestly, Barnes,” she says with a snort, “Do you really think your only two options are retreat or full-frontal attack? You’re smarter than this.”
When Bucky comes home and finds Steve sitting in his desk chair, letting it swivel back and forth, he can't really say he's surprised.
Steve just looks up at him, shrugs and says, "Your mom let me in."
Bucky nods. For a while, the room is quiet except for the slight squeak of the chair as it turns. Steve seems more frenetic than usual. There's more tense energy pent up inside. It's been a long week for the both of them.
"I never wanted you to fight my battles for me," Bucky says. "I wouldn't ask that of you. I didn't want you to get hurt because of me."
Steve's eyebrows raise. "You talked to Peggy." He doesn't look upset per se, but there's a resigned sort of air to him nonetheless. "And let me guess, she's worried about me."
"Mostly she said my plan was never going to work." Bucky sits on the bed and looks down at his lap. "You think that too."
A pained grimace twists Steve's mouth for a moment. "Pierce isn't a problem you can ignore and just," he gestures vaguely, "hope he goes away."
"But your plan wasn't going to work either."
He blows out a breath. “Trying to beat him at his own game? Yeah, I guess that wasn't the smartest approach either."
"What were you even expecting? Some sort of villain monologue with a Powerpoint presentation of his eight-step plan for world domination? If he was stupid, we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place."
"I couldn't just do nothing. You were—“ Steve groans and tips his head back, scrubbing a hand through his hair, "You don't know what you look like after a class with him. You get this look on your face like something important has been sucked out of you. You look like a fucking suicide risk, and Christ, Buck, I know you're strong, and you think you can just endure this. But you shouldn't have to."
"And watching him take everything from you is supposed to be better? You think it'll be better if I have to watch you take the bullet for me?"
“What he did to me wasn’t as—”
“Don’t bullshit me,” Bucky cuts in. “Of course it’s just as bad. It’s worse. Pierce hit you where it hurt.” Steve starts to puff up in that way he does just before he starts to argue. “I know you’ve been avoiding me.”
That brings Steve up short. “I haven’t. I just needed—”
“Time, I know.” Bucky’s voice softens, and he reaches out to touch his arm briefly. Steve leans into the contact. “I get it. When you’re hurting, sometimes all you want to do is curl up and hide away from the world. But it’s like you said,” he murmurs, “Pierce isn’t a monster you can defeat by hiding.”
They sigh and fall into their respective pensive silences. Pierce had no qualms about crushing Steve the moment he caught a hint of resistance from him. He’d shifted focus to the new perceived threat with such ease. Systematically dismantling a person, breaking them down until they’re too terrified to move against him—he’d done it to Steve with a casualness that’s chillingly terrifying. It really does seems like the bastard does it just because. Because he can. Because he enjoys the feeling, and it really doesn’t matter who he destroys to get his next hit.
It makes him wonder just what the kids before him must’ve tried to do to stop him. The desperate plans they’d thrown together. The attempts to gather proof against a man too calculating to be caught. The pleas to administration. What even would work against a guy like this? It’s enough to drive a person over the edge to know down to their bones what Pierce really is and not being able to do a thing about it.
“We’ve never actually attacked him head on,” Bucky says aloud, another thought striking him.
“Something Peggy said. She asked me if I really thought my only options were retreat and full-frontal assault.” Bucky pauses, the pieces slowly clicking into place. “But this whole time, we’ve been fighting Pierce on his own battlefield.”
“So the way out of this is to just refuse to play the game.”
Bucky nods tightly. There’s a nervous churning in his stomach. “This whole time one of the rules was that neither of us acknowledged what was actually going on. He wouldn’t because he’s not an idiot, and I didn’t because I was afraid he’d escalate if I did. But by that definition, we can’t actually attack head on. If we did, we’d have to address the truth.”
Steve’s watching him with a strange light in his eyes. He leans forward in his chair, to the point that he’s almost tipping over into Bucky’s lap. “Change the rules,” he whispers. “Make him engage us on our terms.”
“I—I need to tell the truth.” Bucky breathes slowly, trying to keep the panic tamped down. “Tell everyone. Because straight-up honesty might actually be the solution. What the fuck has my life come to, seriously.”
“If you’re fighting a monster that sees in the dark, just light a candle.” Steve smiles ruefully.
“No more hiding,” Bucky says, takes a breath. “Guess I should get started now.”
It hits him then just how close Steve is to him. He can feel Steve’s breath against his cheek, and he can even see the faintest brush of freckles on Steve’s forehead. Bucky licks his lips nervously, watching how Steve’s eyes automatically track the movement. For a moment, they sit there, nearly chest to chest, breathing in tandem.
“No more hiding,” Bucky repeats. Steve’s lashes flicker a little when he looks up to meet his gaze. “You’re not dating Peggy.”
Steve goes still. “I thought she talked to you about Pierce.”
“She did,” Bucky says, “but it was also about this.”
“Guess the cat’s out of the bag.”
“You’re not dating Peggy,” he says, “and I think I’m in love with you.”
He watches Steve’s eyes widen, his mouth parting slightly. Before he can respond, Bucky takes a fortifying breath and presses forward. It’s a light touch of lips, one moment of contact before he pulls back, flushing.
Steve closes his eyes. His expression tightens with guilt. “Not now. Not when—”
“I know,” Bucky says. “Pierce first, and then we can—”
“Figure this out, yeah.”
Nat shoves an armful of disposable confetti cannons into Bucky’s arms. “Go recruit random passersby,” she orders. “This needs to be impressive.”
“The deal with Tony.”
Bucky stares at her blankly.
“Remember? Ultimate promposal?” Nat huffs and turns to herd several members of the marching band into a line. “I don’t have time for this. Tony likes to roll in exactly five minutes before the bell, and it’s already 7:45—Bruce! Get your ass over here!” She strides off in pursuit of a skittish-looking trombonist.
“You’re not even asking him to prom,” Bucky says, but she’s already disappeared amidst the crowd of orchestra kids and their assorted instruments. Apparently, Nat had enlisted the entire music program. “It’s just winter formal,” he mutters to himself, already resigning himself to his task.
Apparently most people are happy to shoot loud and extremely messy projectile weapons at Tony Stark it turns out, so Bucky’s almost out of confetti cannons within a few minutes. He taps a red-headed girl on the shoulder and holds out the last cannon. “Hey, we’re shooting confetti at Tony’s face, do you want in?”
The girl turns, laughs a little, and asks, “I’m sorry. What did you say?” And it’s Pepper Potts because fuck his life.
“Confetti cannon. Tony’s face,” Bucky says as he frantically tries to think of an exit strategy. “Uh, how are things with him by the way?”
“At the moment, Tony is working on his apology to me. He stole a race car and decided to duel a drunk guy armed with a whip on the track field.”
Bucky blinks. “Yeah, uh, I heard. That was like months ago. It was almost the start of semester.”
“Tony’s bad at apologies,” Pepper says as if that explains it. Which it kinda does. “Anyway, why are we shooting confetti at Tony?”
“Oh, well,” Bucky shrugs and tries to look everywhere but at Pepper’s face, “Nat’s kinda asking him to the winter formal.”
Her response is remarkably understated. Pepper simply tilts her head and asks, “Isn’t she out of his league?”
“Aren’t you out of his league?”
Pepper laughs. “Fair enough.” Her hand wraps more tightly around the confetti cannon. “Okay, so what’s Tony doing for Natasha?”
Bucky opens his mouth to answer and realizes that he has no idea. He’s known about their deal for months. He’s watched them whisper and plot at dozens of lunchtimes. But he still doesn’t even have the slightest inkling what it actually involves. “I have no clue, actually.”
Pepper looks like she wants to say more, but then Nat sweeps by again, towing along a confused freshman. “Nat!” Bucky calls out. “I need to ta—”
“Busy,” she snarls out.
The five minute warning bell rings, and Tony waltzes around the corner right on cue. There’s half a dozen thunderous bangs as the assembled crowd pops their cannons, spraying confetti everywhere. Rhodey had managed to get him square in the face. He pumps his empty cannon in the air triumphantly as Tony squawks and sputters indignantly.
Nat gestures frantically at the assembled musicians, and they start to stumble through the first notes of an AC/DC song. It’s surprisingly decent considering there’s basically zero guitars or drums actually involved. Just a ragtag group of first chair washouts and sophomores on trumpets.
“Shoot To Thrill, huh?” Tony says with a smirk. “I’d be impressed, but you forgot the banner.”
Nat smirks right back. “What do you take me for, of course I didn’t.” She jerks her finger at the trombonist she’d pulled aside earlier. He waves at Tony who immediately starts to crack up.
“Bruce Banner?” he says, shaking his head. “Okay, you got me. That’s pretty hilarious.”
Nat takes a step forward and pulls a little plastic container from her bag. She pops it open, then slides a corsage made of white flowers onto Tony’s wrist. “Will you go to the winter formal with me?”
“I dunno, I’ve got this really great girlfriend already…” Tony says. Pepper rolls her eyes. “It’s so hard with all these smoking hot girls falling all over themselves to ask me out.”
“How terrible,” Nat remarks dryly. “You must feel truly wretched.”
“But if you insist, then I guess I have to accept. And please,” he sweeps his arm dramatically, “don’t fight over me.”
“I think I can manage,” Nat says.
“Somehow I’ll survive the burning jealousy,” Pepper says.
There’s a loud bang as another confetti cannon goes off, and Tony jumps with a yelp. The gathered crowd snickers and begins to disperse as students start to wander off to homeroom. Tony and Pepper walk away, bickering amiably. Nat appears at Bucky’s side, hands him a large trash bag, and they quietly start to gather up the scattered confetti. The floor’s almost ankle-deep with the stuff.
“Not bad, huh? Nat says. “That’s a promposal for the books.”
“It’s more like a winter formal-posal.”
“That’s not nearly as snappy.”
Their homeroom teacher passes by with a mug of coffee, looking them over with a raised eyebrow. “I guess I’ll mark you on the attendance sheet,” he says, and Nat salutes.
Bucky watches him stroll away. “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“I think I’m gonna go public with this,” he says quietly. “Tell people about Pierce.”
Nat slows to a stop to twist to look at him. “Why?”
“It’s just something I was talking about with Steve. If you can’t outmaneuver, outsmart, outwit him, then you just gotta change the rules of engagement.”
Bucky watches as her face flicks through a full gamut of subtle expressions. There’s pride there, but exasperation and resignation. Guilt too. Finally, Nat settles on weariness, and she rubs her temples. “I can’t even tell if this is too soon or too late,” she grumbles. “Or fuck it, maybe the timing’s perfect.”
He looks at her, but she seems reluctant to clarify. He doesn’t even have the slightest clue about what she’s talking about. He supposes that’s been happening a lot lately. Nat has always had her secrets, and Bucky’s never been one to pry. Their friendship was never really about knowing every little thing that happened in each other’s lives. If it was important, he’d always trusted that she would at least tell him at the right time. This was just another one of those things. This and her deal with Tony.
“So did you and Tony finish whatever you two were working on?”
“Tony’s finished his part,” Nat says. “Hence the,” she gestures vaguely at the confetti, “dramatics.”
Bucky nods. “So I guess I’ll be seeing heads roll soon.”
“Just one,” she tilts her head, “hopefully.”
It’s a clue. A big one. Nat can keep a secret locked down tighter than anyone, so if she’s letting something slip, it’s because she wants to. She’s not the type to ever really say anything outright. Half the time, Bucky has to figure out whatever the hell she really means when she talks. This is Nat giving him part of the puzzle and trusting him to figure out the whole picture.
So one target. They have to be a person big or difficult enough to drive Nat to bring in backup. That says a lot because there’re very few people that Nat can’t take down alone. This would be a project that requires Tony Stark’s specific skillset, his knack for engineering and technology. But Tony’s too unpredictable to trust with anything too sensitive. He’s good for a lark, but he’d be an active liability the moment he got bored. And well, Bucky supposes it’s obvious.
“You’re going after Pierce,” he says. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Nat’s mouth twists, and she crosses her arms. She looks almost embarrassed when she admits, “I wasn’t even sure there would be anything we could pin on him.”
“But you suspected that there’d be something. With the way he carried on, you figured I couldn’t be the only one.” It’d taken Bucky months to even grasp that this might not be an isolated incident. Nat had probably realized this within a week of Pierce’s arrival. The sheer force of her perceptiveness and intuition is truly staggering sometimes. “Did you find anything?”
“I wouldn’t be telling you about it if I hadn’t,” she says simply.
And he gets that. Nat is all sharp-edged brutality, but she isn’t cruel. She protects her own. Keeping her silence until she was absolutely certain that she had everything she needed to pin Pierce down. She knows how building up hope only to tear it all down can destroy a person, and she could never do that to Bucky. In anyone else, it would’ve made him angry that they would’ve kept something like this from him. But this is Nat. She keeps secrets like she breathes. If it’d ever been something that bothered Bucky before, well, they wouldn’t be friends now.
Bucky sighs. “So when should I start looking for places to hide?”
“Any chance that shit isn’t going to hit the fan during first period? When I’m y’know not trapped in the same room as Pierce.”
Nat at least has the decency to wince slightly. “Unfortunately that’s the only time of day when I have an excuse to be trapped in the same room as him without arousing suspicion. Walk with me, we’ve got a lot to cover.”
Thursday rolls around the same as any other day. The halls are full of quiet students milling around, and the atmosphere seems weirdly relaxed. There isn’t the frantic fluttering of kids cramming for the test of the day. The library printers are quiet for once. Nat picked the day carefully, he thinks. This would be one of the rare mornings that doesn’t have any major tests or papers scheduled. There won’t be anything to distract from Pierce’s downfall today.
Nat meets Bucky at his locker like she does everyday. They prepare for the day in silence, exchanging grim looks when the bell for homeroom rings. He tries not to think too hard about what’s about to go down in the next hour. Tony’s nowhere in sight when they begin the brief trek over to their first period class. The paranoid part of Bucky whispers that it’s because he bailed on them, but his rationality knows better. Tony’s wrapping up the last part of his deal with Nat. He’ll come through. He has to.
Pierce is waiting for them, leaning against his desk, a hand pushed into his pocket. There’s that idle smile on his face as he watches his students file in. “Good morning, class,” he says once they’ve settled in. “I would like to start with a note regarding last night’s reading. The first half of the 19th Century brought into focus the deep hypocrisy at the core of America’s founding ideals. I’m referring, of course, to the inherently paradoxical nature of a government that claimed to cherish freedom and equality above all else, while it simultaneously explicitly endorsed the continued existence of slavery.”
He looks over the class, his eyes locking on Bucky when he continues, “Most interestingly, however, is just how much of the Southern economy relied on the institution of slavery. It can be argued that America’s ability to gain the degree of economic freedom from Britain that we did is because of our reliance on free labor. This is a society built on controlling a subset of people for the benefit of the nation as a whole. The structures of slavery have never really disappeared. Instead, they’ve simply changed their shapes and names over the decades to placate our delicate sensibilities. The Black Codes in the years following the Civil War, Jim Crowism in the 20th Century, and the mass incarceration and exploitation of prisoners today. We’ve never fully lost the taste for subjugating a class of so-called lesser peoples for our personal and economic benefit.”
Pierce finishes his speech with a somber nod. He turns to the board and starts to draw a timeline. “But I digress. For this period of time, it’s important to rememb—”
“But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort,” Bucky blurts out. Nat sends him a sharp warning look, but he can’t help himself. “Just because we haven’t fully stopped it doesn’t mean we should just give up.”
Pierce turns around slowly. He’s smiling, a strange glint in his eye. “Institutional racial exploitation is a many-headed beast. A hydra if you will. You think you’ve killed the monster, when in reality it’s reforming into a newer, more insidious shape. And every time, it becomes just a little bit more difficult to identify and destroy.”
“If you want to kill a hydra, you just need to burn the problem at the root before it can regrow.”
“Yes, but the root of the problem is baked into the core of American government and society. More importantly, it’s inextricably tangled with all of modern society. The full effects of European colonialism is impossible to quantify, but its influence is certainly entrenched in every modern nation. How do you suggest we solve that? Burn the world down and start anew?”
“So we should just do nothing?” Bucky snarls out. “Is it really better to just ignore the problem because it’s too big, it’s too hard to deal with because it’s so widespread? We don’t even have a chance at becoming better if we think like that.”
Pierce walks over to Bucky’s desk. “That’s all well and good, Mr. Barnes. But this isn’t a civics class. I’m merely commenting on how a particular historical trend continues to today. It’s an example of how the present is still very much beholden to the past.” He pats a hand on his shoulder, pressing down slightly harder than is strictly friendly. His smile is just shy of patronizing. “I know it’s easy to mistake the patterns I note in class for my personal beliefs, but that is simply not the case.”
“Mr. Barnes,” Pierce says, his tone sharpening. “I will not tolerate further disruptions of my class. If you feel compelled to debate politics with me, you can write an essay outlining your beliefs in detention.”
Bucky opens his mouth to protest further when his phone buzzes in his pocket. A few desks away, Nat’s phone rattles a short staccato rhythm on her desk. There’s a series of chimes as several other people’s notifications go off. The room is filled with the sound of shuffling as everyone goes to check their phones. Bucky goes still. He’d gotten so caught up in arguing against Pierce’s fucked up worldview that for a moment, he’d completely forgotten what today was.
Nat’s turned in her seat, and she’s looking at him with a queasy expression on her face. He wasn’t supposed to draw attention to himself today. The plan was to fade into the background as Pierce got wrapped up in dealing with the mass text Tony sent out. But now Bucky’s at the center of Pierce’s attention right as the shit hits the fan. “Get out of here,” Nat mouths at him.
Around them, his classmates are whispering as they slowly scroll through the mass texts. They glance up at Pierce with furtive looks. Bucky and Nat are the only two students in the room who don’t have their phones out. The murmuring swells the further their peers get into the exposé. Pierce surveys the room with narrowed eyes.
“Mr. Barnes, your phone please,” he says.
Bucky glances at Nat who jerks her head towards the door. “Just go,” she hisses.
He doesn’t need to be told twice.
Pierce’s voice is rising behind him. He doesn’t sound angry per se, not yet at least, but there’s an undercurrent of ire that Bucky knows is about to get a lot worse. He’s already out the door of the classroom, quickly making his way down the empty hallway. There’s the even tapping of Pierce’s shoes as he follows him. The rest of the class is further behind, curiously watching the drama play out.
“Do not walk away from me, young man.”
A few doors are opening as students poke their heads out of their classrooms to look at the crowd. When they catch sight of Pierce striding down the hallway, they start to trickle out to join the group of spectators. Bucky keeps walking, but there’s no chance for him to disappear into the crowd. They’ve cleared a path for him and Pierce. All eyes are watching the two of them.
The more people gather, the more visibly relaxed Pierce comes. His wrath fades to indignation and then to studied indifference, as if he just happens to be strolling in the same direction as Bucky. But the facade is cracked. There’s a tightness to his face and a forcefulness to his walk that reveal just how angry he really is. Pierce pastes a smile on his face and calls out, “Skipping class, Mr. Barnes? I would keep in mind the consequences of my actions if I were you.”
Bucky stops and turns around to face him. The crowd goes silent when they sense the oncoming confrontation. Maybe this is how it was supposed to end. The two of them standing face to face, the world standing behind them as their audience—their judge and jury. This is what he and Steve had been talking about. Drag everything out into the open, and let everyone decide for themselves. Who is in the right. Who is the monster in this story.
“I’ve been minding the consequences for months,” Bucky grinds out, his hands clenching. “I’ve been careful of what I say, of how I act, of what I do around you. But you didn’t care because nothing I could’ve done would’ve changed your mind. You made me feel like I was stupid and delusional.” He stops and takes a breath. “You don’t give a damn about consequences. Why should you? You’ve never had to deal with them before.”
“I understand that you must be feeling very angry and confused right now. This is a trying time in a young person’s life.” Pierce takes a step forward, reaching out to clasp Bucky’s shoulder. He shies away from the touch. “You’re feeling many irrational, directionless emotions, and the only thing you can do is lash out at the people around you.”
An angry murmur ripples through the gathered spectators. Enough of them have read far enough into the mass text to understand just how manipulative he can be. But seeing it in action is so much worse than reading about it.
“That’s bullshit, and you know it,” Bucky says.
Pierce glances around, and for the first time, he begins to look concerned. “What was in that text?”
“The truth,” a voice says from behind Bucky. They all turn as one to the source, and there’s Steve, shouldering his way forward, phone in hand. “Alexander Goodwin Pierce,” he reads aloud. “Taught for almost one and a half decades. Hasn’t remained with any school for more than two years. Has transferred to different high schools all around the country. Glowing reviews from colleagues and school boards alike. Has won several teaching awards during his tenure. Relatively well-respected within the teachers community.”
Pierce rounds on him and starts to stalk towards him. Steve glares at him defiantly and reads on. “For the past decade, almost half of the schools that Pierce has taught in has a student suicide on record during or shortly after his stay. The MO is fairly uniform. Most of the suicides were students with excellent academic records, heavy involvement in extracurricular activities, minimal histories of delinquency, and by all accounts, had bright futures ahead of them. Many were involved in student government or community service organizations. Their deaths were surprising to all who knew them.”
Steve pauses briefly and meets Bucky’s gaze. He tilts his head, silently urging him to walk into the crowd and disappear. Bucky’s stomach twists when he realizes that Steve’s deflecting Pierce’s anger to himself once again. Before Pierce can reach Steve, another voice joins Steve’s.
“Of the schools with no recorded suicides,” Nat says, her words carrying loud and clear as a bell, “there have been incidents where students that fit the profile experienced mental breakdowns. Overall, they displayed a higher frequency of panic attacks and other symptoms of anxiety disorders after Pierce’s stay than before. Many chose to remain at in-state or community colleges rather than study out-of-state as they’d initially planned to.”
Bucky hears Sam add his voice in. “The high-achieving are just as vulnerable to insecurity and self-doubt as any other student. If anything, they experience it even more acutely because their fear of failure can be so overwhelming.”
“Alexander Pierce leaves every school a worse place than the one he arrived in,” Peggy says. “He hasn’t once faced the consequences for his actions because he’s always been too careful to be caught.”
And then the names start.
“Eliza Mitchell. Alison Parker. Andrew Hill.”
With each name, more and more people join in. It’s a damningly long list, too many to ever be considered a coincidence. Bucky meets Steve's eyes again, takes a breath, and steps forward. "James Barnes," he says, his voice hoarse.
Only the people standing closest to him hear him, and they stare at him with shock. All around them, the list of names gets longer and longer. The names of the dead and the survivors. A girl he doesn't know touches his arm sympathetically and starts to read from the list, louder than before. The others follow her lead, and soon, Bucky is just another name on the list. No more scrutinized or targeted than any of the others. It's bizarrely freeing.
The group reading from the list gets louder and louder, reciting each name like a prayer. In the middle of it all, Pierce stands rigid, his expression wiped clean of emotion. There's no way for him to twist this around into something it isn't. There's nowhere for him to hide. Bucky turns and pushes into the crowd, slowly working his way away from the epicenter. The entire hallway is packed with students, and more and more of them are streaming in from the classrooms. The teachers stand in their doorways, some visibly confused, some silently supportive. None of them move to try to stop things.
Finally, he reaches the edges of the crowd where there are only scattered bunches of students, each murmuring names under their breath. They don't pay attention to him. Bucky slows to a stop and breathes in slow, even pulls. He doesn't know what he feels. He doesn't feel particularly happy or victorious that Pierce got his due. The list of kids is staggering. This had been going on for years, and every time, Pierce had been fully, completely, devastatingly effective.
And Bucky isn't any stronger than any of those other kids. He couldn't have stood up to that kind of manipulation forever. And he knows down to his bones that if Pierce had had more time, if he'd gotten the chance to run the full course of his plan, Bucky would very likely be—well, he'd be a statistic. A notch on Pierce's scorecard.
It wasn't personal. It didn't matter who he was or what he did. Bucky just happened to fit a particular set of characteristics, and so he'd been targeted. He still doesn't know if that makes him feel better or worse. That in the end, Pierce didn't even really care about Bucky specifically. Just what he represented in Pierce's fucked up mind.
“Bucky.” Because of course Steve would follow him out.
“You don't fit his MO,” he says.
Steve frowns. “What?”
“I’d thought that he just went after whoever happened to catch his attention. But he didn’t. He only cared about a very specific kind of person,” Bucky says, his eyes fixed on a distant point. “He went after me because I fit. He could've gone after Peggy, or hell, Pepper. But he wouldn't have gone after you. You don’t fit.”
“Bucky, it's not—”
“He went after you because you were protecting me. He knew we were friends.” He rubs a hand over his eyes. “You keep putting yourself in the line of fire for me, and I can’t—”
“And you would do the same for me,” Steve cuts in sharply. “You’d rather let him push you until you’re right on the verge of going off the deep end, than let me help you. You’d rather take all of it yourself, than let me endure even a small part.” He steps forward and grips the tops of Bucky's arms, jostling him ever so slightly until he finally meets Steve's gaze. “And that's why I did it. I'd do it again. Because you would do the same for me. We protect each other.”
“Peggy thinks I’ll blindly jump onto the grenade because I don’t know how to put myself first. What she doesn’t get is that the people I care about are the kinds who wouldn’t even think twice about stepping in the line of fire for someone else. Peggy would, Sam would,” he looks up at Bucky, smiling a little sheepishly, “and you would too. Everything I’ve given is something you wouldn't hesitate to give in return. It's kind of selfish that way.”
Bucky looks at Steve for a long moment, takes in the fierce light in his eyes, the way his brow draws down, the stubborn set of his jaw as if he can make Bucky understand with sheer force of will alone. It’s a ridiculous line of argument. Just completely stupid and sentimental and so Steve. He's going to get himself hurt one day. And it’ll be someone who cares for him, someone who's just as loyal and stubborn and utterly unwilling to let go even when it hurts like hell. Because he wouldn’t allow anyone less close enough to do the hurting.
Bucky pulls him into a hug, gripping him hard, feeling Steve’s arms come up to wrap around him. He presses his cheek into Steve’s hair and breathes in the scent of him. Peggy had refused to be that person. And Bucky silently resolves that he never will be either. He closes his eyes. “We don’t have to worry about Pierce now,” he says.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “He won’t come after you anymore.”
“You’re not dating Peggy,” Bucky continues.
Steve pulls back a little to look up at him. “Yeah,” he repeats.
“And I’m in love with you.”
“What a coincidence,” Steve says, a small smile curling his lips. “I’m in love with you too.”
The morning is cold. Winter’s finally starting to get settled in, and a crowd of students in coats wait huddled outside the school. The nervous anticipation in the air is almost tangible. Bucky catches sight of a few prep books here and there, a couple of thousand-yard stares from kids who’ve gone almost catatonic with stress. It’s quiet except for the sounds of students quizzing each other on different questions. Oddly enough, Bucky feels calm.
A body bumps up against him from behind, followed by, “Fuck, it’s cold.”
Bucky turns around, grinning to see Steve standing behind him all grumpy and ruffled. His cheeks and the tip of his nose are flushed from the morning chill. And he remembers a moment like this months ago, at the start of the school year just when autumn began to make itself known. Steve’s hair had been all mussed up, and his collar was crooked, and Bucky couldn’t even reach out to fix it. Now it’s winter, and he can.
“What’re you doing here?” he says, straightening out Steve’s shirt and carding a hand into his hair to smooth it out. He gets a fond huff in response. “You’re registered for the March exam.”
Steve presses closer, burrowing his face into Bucky’s chest where it’s marginally warmer. “I’m wishing you luck,” he mumbles. “Why else would I be at school at 7:30 in the morning on a goddamn Saturday? There’s no way in hell I’m missing the chance to see you ace this stupid thing.”
“I could still fail it y’know.”
Steve just scoffs and doesn’t dignify that with an answer. Bucky smiles and wraps his arms around Steve to help him warm up a little. A few of the other students glance up at them before returning to their last minute SAT cramming.
“Apparently, there’s a study that says it’s better to think about other things right before a test,” Bucky says.
“There’s also a study that says many popularly referenced studies are actually from shady journals that’ll publish anything for a quick buck,” Steve says just to be contrary. Bucky snorts.
“And was that study from a reputable peer-reviewed journal?”
Steve grumbles and doesn’t answer.
“Dubious science demands that you distract me,” Bucky says. “And we don’t want all your hard work to go to waste.”
An eye roll and, “Well, we can’t have that happen now can we,” before Steve starts to ramble about the goings on. The bowling alley is shutting down, and they’re selling their pins for five bucks a pop. Angie Martinelli asked Peggy out now that the cat’s out of the bag—or more accurately, the closet. Sam and Nat are circling around each other in ever tighter loops, and they might even get around to confessing their feelings outright by graduation.
He doesn’t talk about the school administration finally sacking Pierce to redirect any suspicions about willful blindness on their part. The story had hit the local news stations and papers a few days after the mass text got sent out. The timing, the carefully cited sources, and the understated yet oddly theatrical quality of the articles have Nat’s fingerprints all over it. It was all meticulously well-crafted and undeniably damning. There was no way the school board could’ve swept this under the rug. They had no choice but to hang Pierce out to dry.
Steve doesn’t mention it because Steve’s been acting careful around him. The plain fact that Pierce had destroying kids’ lives down to a science still turns Bucky’s blood cold. They’re okay now—at least, they’re getting pretty close to that—but they very nearly weren’t. It’s hard to forget how close they’d gotten to being very much not okay.
“I talked to Erskine,” Bucky blurts out, forcing away the darker thoughts.
“I—we might have something for you,” he says. “A job. Maybe. It’s at the YMCA. They have painting classes on weekends, and they’re always in need of teachers.”
Steve stares up at him. “You got me a job?”
Bucky shrugs. “Well, kinda. Usually they only recruit from art majors at the community college, but Erskine said your portfolio’s strong enough for them to take you anyway.” He glances away from the increasingly stunned expression on Steve’s face, suddenly a little embarrassed. “I mean, of course you don’t have to take it. But I heard about it from Becca the other day, and I thought it might help. If you get the job, you have access to their supplies. You’ll get more flexibility on what kinds of projects you can work on, and uhh, I heard that you learn the concepts better anyway when you’re teaching other people.”
“Bucky,” Steve says. “You—”
There’s a blush creeping over his cheeks. “And you’re good at it,” Bucky continues. “Teaching, I mean. You helped me. A lot. And I know how important this is to you, and I have no idea if the board will re-accept you into the art program, but this might be better for you anyway? You can add this to your app, and you can work on your portfolio there, so you won’t have to y’know—worry as much…”
Bucky trails off. Because Steve—he has this look on his face. Like he’s lighting up on the inside, like the world is reorienting and everything’s going right again. His eyes are a little creased at the corners, and his lips are pursed together like he’s trying not to smile but failing at it. The tiny wrinkle he usually has in his forehead has smoothed over.
Then Steve’s grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and clumsily smashing their mouths together, too impatient to even try to get it right. His nose pokes awkwardly into Bucky’s cheek before he readjusts, his teeth dragging just a little too hard against Bucky’s lips. Neither of them have all that much experience with kissing, and they’re both kind of hilariously bad at it. It’s hard and a little sloppy. And it’s about as perfect a kiss as it gets.
They pull back a little to catch their breath, their foreheads still pressed together. Steve’s grinning like an idiot, and Bucky’s pretty sure his own smile looks just as stupid. Around them, students are shuffling into the building. Bucky presses in for one more quick kiss.
“I gotta go,” he says. “The SATs await.”
Steve shoves him lightly towards the door. “I’ll be here when you finish.” Bucky joins the stream of test-takers, his heart light, his face flushed. Just before he gets inside, he hears Steve yell, “Make it your bitch!”
Bucky laughs. “I can’t believe I’m in love with you!” he shouts back and then pushes his way into the building. Steve doesn’t get the chance to respond until exactly four hours later when Bucky strides out of the test room, grinning from ear to ear as he pumps his fist triumphantly in the air.