"Hello," Bucky says.
Twenty young faces stare back at him blankly, gangly limbs sprawled in their narrow desks. Bucky takes a moment to wonder if this is a huge mistake.
"I'm your teacher for the rest of the year." He turns, picking up the marker and writing in looping cursive on the whiteboard.
The actual science teacher just happens to be suffering from some rather nasty contusions and an abrupt departure from the country. Apparently, Hydra wasn't above recruiting high school biology teachers. Taking the Hydra teacher's job not only gives Bucky possibly the best cover imaginable, but allows him to keep an eye on the school for more Hydra infiltration. If Hydra is brainwashing students, something needs to be done.
He adjusts the black-rimmed glasses on his face before continuing to write the lesson plan on the board as the class murmurs and shifts. It's been five months since the Helicarriers, five months of staying hidden while trying to figure out who he is after Hydra. Memories have come back slowly, trickling in like grains of sand, and he's reclaimed the name Bucky, but he still doesn't feel like Bucky Barnes, Howling Commando and Captain America's Best Friend. Steve's best friend.
No, he can't face Steve yet, though he knows Steve is looking for him. He still needs time, though a part of him wonders if he will ever be ready to face Steve again, no matter how much time has passed. For now, he pushes it to the back of his mind, focusing on getting through every day. No one, even Steve, will expect the Winter Soldier to be working as a substitute biology teacher in Queens. Besides, with his hair pulled back, a trimmed beard hiding his face, and large glasses, he looks nothing like either the Winter Soldier or Bucky Barnes. He likes the thought of that, for some reason.
His metal hand is hiding under a black leather glove, and his carefully crafted identity as Iraqi war veteran James Beck (with a master's degree in natural science education) allows him to play it off as a war injury he wants to keep covered. He'd pulled on all his training to ace the job interview, a smile pulling at rusted facial muscles and artful words slipping from numb lips. It's been so long since he was anything but a blunt weapon, but the Russians had trained him well, and he'd pulled off his cover with ease.
Teaching kids, however, will be a different story.
When he finishes writing the lesson plan and turns, the students are still watching him with tired eyes, some still curled around coffee mugs and looking dead to the world. Apparently first period, eight a.m. is simply too early for sixteen-year-old high school juniors already three weeks into the semester. They're on the cellular energy and related processes unit, according to the syllabus of the recently departed Mr. Forsyth, and Bucky had inhaled veritable mountains of books on biology and teaching in order to prepare for the job. Luckily, whatever serum Hydra gave him seems to give him the ability to retain vast amounts of information, and he'd quickly caught up on modern science.
Learning about technology was even better. Bucky turns on the projector and pulls down the screen, opening up the incredibly useful powerpoint left by the Hydra asshole. He loves technology.
"This week is the cell," he starts, clicking to the first slide. "The cell-"
He stops, blinks. A hand waves in the air above a head of curly hair, jaw working around a piece of gum.
"Yes?" he says dumbly.
"What happened to Mr. Forsyth?" The rest of the students nod and look expectantly at him.
He was a Hydra asshole, he wants to say.
That gets him some raised brows and puzzled looks. Bucky takes a breath. "The-"
Seriously. He's really, truly, starting to wonder if he can do this. The Fist of Hydra, defeated by pimply teens. Or, one teen in particular, dark eyes narrowed and hand hanging lazily in the air.
"Yes," he growls. He thinks perhaps he should know the insufferable student's name, if he's going to be a real teacher. "What's your name?"
"America Chavez," she answers promptly. "You said the rest of the year. Do you mean until the rest of this semester, of the rest of the school year? Because this is a two-semester advanced biology course, and we're getting college credit for this. No offense, Mr. B, but I really need a five on the AP test, so I need to know if you can teach advanced biology."
He stares for a moment. Collects his thoughts. Remembers that murder is bad, and children are good. Breathes once, twice, three times.
"I don't know how long I'll be here," he admits. "But I know what I'm doing." He doesn't.
He'll have to figure out what the hell a five on an AP test is.
"I know biology," he says shortly, when Chavez still doesn't look appeased. That's true, at least. "You'll get your five."
Chavez looks dubious, but slumps back in her seat resignedly. Checking twice to make sure she's not going to interrupt again, Bucky turns his attention back to the slides at last and begins to read.
He thinks he did an okay job if he does say so himself. He read off the slides, answered questions, and didn't murder anyone. All the kids filed out of the classroom in one piece - no lab today- and now he only has to get through - he checks the clock - five more hours of school. Ugh.
He spends the hours between ten and noon doing more prep work for his afternoon introductory biology course, although he does use the internet to look up AP test scores. A five is a perfect, apparently. Well, Bucky knows a damn sight more biology than America Chavez - probably - but he'll get her that goddamn five if it's the last thing he does. Take that, America Chavez. He's a real teacher.
He spends approximately eight seconds banging his head on the desk before resuming his mission.
At exactly twelve o'clock he retrieves the paper bag stashed under his desk and eats approximately two thousand calories of meat and bread. Learning to eat again after Hydra had been an experience he's not keen to repeat, involving much experimentation, pain, and reappearance of most of his meals, usually with what felt like the entire lining of his stomach. Apparently, switching from intravenous feeding to actual food is hard even for a super-soldier, especially since he's discovered that his daily caloric needs surpass ordinary humans' by quite a lot.
After lunch is introductory biology, which is fortunately smoother than AP Bio. The kids don't really seem to care that there's a substitute except for a few who eye him in a way that makes him distinctly uncomfortable, and he even suspects that a couple don't actually notice. One spends the entire period asleep in the back. Half the students use their phones during class, but apparently they're so bad at deception and subterfuge it's not until halfway through that he realizes they're actually trying to hide their phone usage from him. They actually, truly believe they are successful, too. Bucky despairs at the state of humanity and barely resists the urge to bang his head on the desk again. That would not be useful to the mission.
He makes it through the class and its subsequent lab, releasing the students at the exact minute the school day ends at 3:02 pm. Mostly, he's finding, teaching involves reading from slides and giving students orders, which usually are followed with only the slightest amount of exaction. He'll have to consult his teaching books.
After cleaning up the room and setting up for the next day he leaves, walking the mile to his apartment in its run-down, crumbling neighborhood. His apartment is on the second floor of the complex, no elevator, and he only passes one person as he climbs up and lets himself in his door. The inside is small, just a living room and kitchen making up the majority of the space and a short hallway leading to the bedroom and bathroom, and it's bare but for the few sparse belongings he has accumulated. Newspapers are taped over the windows, rugs and shelves arranged strategically in the event of an attack. In the bedroom, journals filled with fragmented memories and crazed post-Hydra scribblings are piled by the mattress and sleeping bag on the floor, a go-bag stashed beneath a loose floorboard. Weapons are hidden everywhere, a knife under his thin pillow. He'd stolen quite a bit of Hydra money when he'd first gotten out, and the small closet is adequately filled with acceptable clothes for a teacher as well as comfortable clothes he's discovered and now hoards.
His slacks are exchanged for sweatpants, button-up for a black t-shirt. His fake glasses are placed carefully on the bathroom counter, a glance in the mirror showing the same unfamiliar face. He doesn't think the old Bucky ever had a beard, or long hair. He pulls the rubber band out, snagging on the strands, and frowns in frustration at the mess that falls around his face. There's a distinct dent from the band.
He would cut his hair short, but the thought of letting someone with scissors near his face is abhorrent, and he doesn't trust his own barbershop skills. Sighing, he gives up his hair as a lost cost and treads quietly to the kitchen.
When he opens his fridge, there's adequate food to last him a few days, and he grabs the jug of milk and drinks straight from it before grabbing a clean notebook on the counter and flipping to the first page, unclipping the pen from the binding.
Day 1, he writes. Monday, September 22, 2014.
The day's events go down in looping cursive, along with notes for future improvement. That done, Bucky pulls out his stolen Hydra laptop and googles how to be a good teacher. This yields dozens of results, and he flips to the next page in the notebook as he clicks on the first link.
How to be a good teacher, he writes in the notebook. And writes. And writes, until his growling stomach urges him to eat dinner - chicken and rice - and retreat to the sleeping bag on his mattress with a book on biology. The light outside dims, replaced with the pale yellow of his bare bulb, and eventually he makes his last tour of the perimeter and checks all the locks before curling up in his sleeping bag and shutting his eyes.
Nightmares visit him, as they do every night, and he wakes in darkness gasping and shaking. He lurches out of bed and flicks on the light, shaking flesh hand and whirring metal one fumbling for the battered half-full notebook and pen beside his bed. Pushing sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes, he scribbles out the details of his dream in shaky letters, the memory firming in his mind. Hydra, this time. A mission. One shot, the target falling through his scope.
He squints at the battered clock on the floor, sighing.
He knows he won't be getting any more sleep tonight, not with the memory of blood spattering cream walls fresh in his mind. Instead he grabs the worn copy of The Hobbit sitting next to the bed and reads until the first rays of sun peek through the curtains, bathing the room in light. He sets the book down, showers, dresses in slacks and a button-up. He makes a lunch and stuffs it into a paper bag. He wrangles his hair into a rubber band. He pulls the black glove onto the metal hand, slides the glasses onto his face, gathers his things in a backpack slung over his shoulder, and starts the day.
There's a coffee shop halfway to school, one of a popular chain called Starbucks that he's found himself quite addicted to even if their coffee is of dismal quality and they use too much sugar. The sweetness on his tastebuds is strange but not unwelcome, after years without food and more before that with only army rations. Besides, the caffeine is helpful for increasing functionality. He still hasn't fully shaken the withdrawal from the stimulants Hydra had had him on, though at least the withdrawal from the other drugs is over. That hadn't been a fun time.
He orders a bacon, gouda, and egg breakfast sandwich and a venti caramel macchiato and eats on the way, pushing through the doors of the school with cup still in hand. Since it's arrival time for students, the doors are completely unlocked and there's no security measures, which allows him to bring a fair number of knives with him every day. While great for him, it's slightly concerning for the vulnerable young students.
Knowing he has to ingratiate himself into the school, he ducks into the teacher's lounge to make an appearance and start contact with other teachers. He hasn't ruled out others being Hydra yet. There's a few teachers already milling around, drinking coffee and eating donuts someone seems to have brought, and Bucky stashes his lunch in the communal fridge as they notice him for the first time.
"Hey, you're the new teacher, right? For Chuck Forsyth?"
Carl Daniels, 57, English teacher. Wife, two children. 31-35 55th Street.
Bucky turns with an amicable smile, cheeks pulling at the motion. He holds out a hand to shake. "That I am. James Beck."
"Carl Daniels." His handshake is soft, like most civilians, and Bucky gentles his own. "Surprised us all, Chuck leaving so abruptly, without a word. Glad you're here. If you need anything, just ask."
"I appreciate it."
One by one, the other teachers introduce themselves to him, not that he needs the introduction. He's done his homework (hah!), and he already knows everything there is to know about them. Still, becoming close with them will allow him to detect any Hydra presence still in the school. None of them show any recognition, but then again the Winter Soldier's face or true identity isn't very well-known, even within Hydra. Only those working directly with him ever knew or saw his face uncovered. He'll have to be vigilant if he wants to identify undercover Hydra members.
He leaves the lounge with backpack still slung over his shoulder, not setting it down until he's in the classroom. Once emptied of essentials for the school day it goes under his desk, out of sight and hopefully out of reach of sticky-fingered teens. It wouldn't do to have them discover the knives tucked inside.
The half hour until students arrive is spent reviewing his lesson plan for the day, the action of reviewing settling his constant niggling anxiety. It helps, to have something resembling a mission. Too much unstructured time and his brain starts spinning out of control. He still can't help checking the windows, pulling the blinds, looking up every time someone passes the classroom door.
Eventually, 7:50 a.m. rolls around, and the AP Biology class files in, talking amongst themselves as they take their seats. He observes, cataloguing affiliations and tensions, part out of habit and part curiosity. American Chavez and her friend, who is apparently called Kate, discuss the oppressive heteropatriarchy and the intersection of race and class, which Bucky wonders is code or, perhaps, another language entirely. Most likely, another future thing he doesn't understand. Fucking Hydra.
Having learned from extensive internet searching and books that developing rapport is essential for teachers, Bucky, per the books, has the students recite their names and an interesting fact about themselves that has the added bonus of providing valuable intel. Kate is Kate Bishop, apparently, and she loves archery. America Chavez looks straight at him and, with a glint in her eyes that reminds Bucky of Steve for some reason, says, "I'm gay."
Bucky blinks, too surprised to do anything but nod. The class shifts and some smirk, but no one seems surprised. Common knowledge, then. America sits back in her chair with crossed arms as if daring him to do something, but Bucky doesn't know what. Sexuality is the last thing on his mind after seventy years of mind-control and then five months of being on the run from Hydra and learning how to be a person again. He's not sure what reaction he's supposed to have and, quite frankly, doesn't have an opinion at all. He knows, somehow, that being gay was a bad thing back in the original Bucky's time, but based on the scrambled memories of him and Steve he doesn't think they subscribed to that view. He's wondered, increasingly, if he and Steve were lovers, but he has enough to deal with that he's put it to the back of his mind. If America is gay, he's certainly not going to judge, or whatever she seems to be expecting. He really, truly, does not care.
The class passes in a blur, and then it's time for the lab, which involves microscopes and fragile glass slides in slippery teenage fingers. Luckily, advanced biology means the students actually seem to know what they're doing, and Bucky mainly prowls around the room and nods approvingly as they work through the lab packet and peer through their microscopes.
"Yes." Bucky wanders over to where America and Kate stand around their microscope, the bright and clashing colors of their clothing giving him a headache. Kate seems to have a serious penchant for purple - which, strange, but okay - while America seems to take her name literally and sports a blue t-shirt with a white star under a jean jacket with red and white stripes on the shoulders. Bucky pushes thoughts of Steve and the bloodstained holes in his Captain America uniform away.
"I'm not seeing the vacuoles. Can you take a look?"
Bucky nods, bending over the microscope and twiddling the dials until it comes into clearer focus. He's thankful he researched how to use a microscope, or his cover would be blown. He shifts the slide until a better cell is visible, and finds the vacuoles, straightening up.
"There's a clear one on the left side now." He thinks America already knew how to find it, she just wanted to test him. Well, point one for Barnes.
America looks, and then nods, appraising him. "Thanks."
Bucky feels like he somehow passed a test he didn't even know he was taking. He also thinks this is going to be a long year.
Gay, Bucky googles, shoveling store-bought mac and cheese into his mouth. He sits cross-legged on the mattress in soft sweatpants and a shirt, laptop balanced on his knees precariously. The search yields millions of results, and he starts the process of sifting through them, frowning at the plethora of new information. Apparently there's more than just gay and straight, there's a whole range of sexualities as well as genders, and Bucky is suitably impressed. Hydra apparently didn't consider this necessary information for him to know, and it feels like rebellion as he clicks and clicks.
Life is better than in the 1930s, he finds, though there are still issues. He thinks he remembers Steve being called fairy, coming home with bloody noses and righteous fury in his eyes. He googles Captain America gay, but besides a bunch of threads speculating on his sexuality and others condemning the very notion, there's nothing from Steve himself. For some reason, he's disappointed. He knows without knowing how that Steve never apologized for a thing in his life, never really cared what others thought about him. Maybe his memories are wrong. Maybe Steve really is straight, and he's just imagining things. Another trick of his mind.
He thinks America is brave, to announce it in class. He understands, now, her challenging stare, the hint of nervousness she'd tried to cover with cocky confidence. She does not apologize for who she is, and she should not have to. He finds himself with grudging respect for her, despite everything. She reminds him of Steve. She reminds him of Peggy Carter. She reminds him that there are people like Hydra in the world, but there are also people like her and Steve and Peggy, who stand up, look the world in the eye, and tell it to move.
He thinks he'd like to be one of those people.
At the end of the week, Bucky feels like he's got a handle on this teacher thing. Most students participate in class with the general apathy and barest competence unique to teenagers, with a few immediately standing out. America and Kate in his AP Biology class, and Peter Parker, Ned Leeds, and Michelle Jones in his introductory biology class. Freshman are infinitely worse than juniors, he's finding, but the strange trio of Peter, Ned, and Michelle make the class bearable. All exceptionally smart, Peter is a disaster, Ned is simply awkward, and Michelle radiates an aura of judgement and disinterest to rival America. Also, Michelle surreptitiously spies on Peter during class and draws him in her notebooks, and Peter seems to be terrified of her. It's fascinating.
He also notices the whispers about his gloved hand, the rampant speculation. Maybe it's all burned, they whisper. Maybe he's just weird. Maybe it's a prosthetic. No, look, the fingers are moving. The students don't even know his fake history as a Iraq war vet, so he supposes he shouldn't be surprised. He doesn't address the rumors, waiting for them die down eventually. Hopefully.
Bucky spends the weekend obsessively preparing, worried he'll mess up somehow and incur the disappointment of his students. Also, blow his cover and bring Hydra down on him, but for some reason that's starting to feel secondary. He tries to keep busy, stockpiling groceries for the week and going down the rabbit hole of the internet - it turns out, the heteropatriarchy is very bad and intersectionality is important - but time stretches on and his brain rewards him by not letting him sleep, making him sit in the corner with a gun in hand all night twitching at every sound. He's glad when Monday rolls around.
He gets ready, packs his bag, and strolls into the school, wishing the other teachers in the break room good morning. Karen, one of the math teachers, smiles at him and blushes. Carl Daniels discusses college football with Greg Roberts, the physics teacher.
"How was your first week?" Ellen Green, the history teacher, asks.
"Good," Bucky answers, unsure if he's telling the truth or not.
"I'm glad. It must be hard, coming in a few weeks into the semester."
"Yeah." The best lie is close to the truth. "I was a little overwhelmed at first, but I think I have it figured out now."
He might have been overstating it, he finds, when instead of leaving after lab, America saunters to the front of the classroom, shoves her hands in her pockets, and asks, "Can I eat lunch in here?"
He blinks, not prepared for this situation, brain drawing a blank. "Uh, yeah," he says, in lieu of anything else. An irrational part of his brain wonders if America is secretly a Hydra agent spying on him, before he dismisses it. Damn paranoia.
America grins and plonks down in an empty seat, withdrawing her lunch from her bag. As they seem to be attached at the hip, Kate follows her lead, opening a bright purple lunchbox and starting to eat. Bucky awkwardly edges out of the room and retrieves his lunch from the break room, hesitating before steeling himself and returning to the room like a man walking to his death. He sits at his desk and eats his food slowly while doing class prep, keeping an eye on America and Kate, who spend the period chatting and huddling over their phones conspiratorially.
When the lunch period ends, America walks up to his desk, pops a stick of gum into her mouth, and says, "For the record, I hated Mr. Forsyth. You seem cool." Without further ado, she saunters away, Kate in tow, leaving Bucky to stare dumbly at the door.
Bucky awakens with a scream on his lips, sleeping bag tangled around his legs and shirt soaked with sweat. He lays there gasping, the taste of rubber still in his mouth, the buzz of electricity ringing in his ears. His clock reads 2:20 a.m. He groans, pressing his hands to his head as he sits up and drawing a deep breath. He takes another, and another, until the shaking subsides slightly, then gets up. He checks his windows, unlocks and locks his door again, counts his weapons. Opens the fridge, guzzles milk. Throws up in the sink a minute later.
His hands shake as he brushes his teeth. He stares into the mirror, taking in the dark circles under his eyes, the sweaty strands of hair sticking to his face. His beard needs a trim. His skin is pale and waxy, lips pale and bloodless. A sudden surge of rage drives his fist into the mirror, shattering it in pieces.
"Fuck." He uncurls his hand, blood rapidly welling up. He pulls a shard from between his knuckles, tossing it to the floor as more blood spurts from the wound. Glass litters the floor, and he stares as blood drips steadily onto the tiles. It takes minutes before he snaps out of his stupor, gathering the glass shards in a towel and throwing them away then stripping one-handed and stepping into the shower. He scrubs the wounds in his hand, the pain barely registering, and doesn't bother washing his hair with shampoo, simply letting the water spill over his head. At least it's hot. That's more than he ever got with Hydra.
Eventually, he shuts off the water, bandaging his hand with the medical supplies stockpiled in the bathroom cabinet and pulling on new sweatpants and a shirt. The sleeping bag needs to be washed, still damp with his sweat, so makes a mental note to hit the laundromat tomorrow and grabs his gun, folding himself into the corner of the kitchen with the best sight lines. He stays there until light filters through the newspapers over the window, signaling dawn has arrived.
Without a mirror, he can't tell what he looks like, and he simply scrapes his tangled, frizzy hair back and hopes for the best. His head pounds, and he knows it is going to be a bad day. Luckily, this is one of the most benign bad days. Some, his head hurts so bad he can't even open his eyes and spends his day throwing up. Others, he loses time or spends the day so paranoid he can't even get out of the corner, gripping his gun. So in comparison, this is a medium day.
"Are you alright?" Ellen asks him when he comes in, brown eyes warm with concern. "What happened to your hand?"
Bucky forces a small smile to his face, looking down at his still-bandaged hand, the cuts nearly healed. "Broke a glass."
She nods, looking sympathetic, and no one questions it further. He teaches, and America and Kate show up at lunchtime to eat in his room, eating each other's food and bickering over something inane. Bucky tries to concentrate on his powerpoint notes but the bright screen makes his head ache and he rubs his forehead in frustration, closing his eyes.
"What happened to your hand?"
He opens his eyes to see America and Kate staring curiously at the bandage. He'd noticed the students looking at it in class, but no one had asked.
"Broke a glass," he grunts, dropping his hand to the desk.
"Oh, that sucks." America turns back to Kate, and Bucky goes back to pretending to read his slides, head pounding.
Peter and Ned are whispering, unaware that Bucky can hear every word they say as they hunch over their lab table.
"If you could successfully clone yourself," Ned says, "what would you do with the clone? See, personally, I'd make my clone go to school, so I could stay home and play video games."
Bucky stops right behind the oblivious teenagers. "Maybe your clone would pay more attention in class."
Peter and Ned both jump, cutting off curses.
"Mr. Beck," Ned stutters. "Sorry. I didn't know you were there."
Bucky tries for a smile, though it comes out more like a grimace. "It's fine. How is your lab coming along?"
Peter holds up the packet, obviously flustered. "Uh, we finished."
Bucky holds out a hand and Peter gulps, relinquishing the lab. He flips through it, nodding. It's completed perfectly, a testament to their work ethic even if their attentional skills require improvement. He hands it back.
"Good job. You can have the rest of lab free."
They break into smiles, eyes lighting up.
"Thanks, Mr. Beck!" Ned enthuses, before he and Peter start talking again, discussing the merits of cloning. Bucky moves on to Michelle's lab table, where she is the only person without a lab partner - her preference, it seems. Her lab is set aside and she's doodling in a notebook.
"Done?" Bucky questions.
Michelle looks up briefly and nods. Bucky doesn't bother checking her lab, knowing she's telling the truth. Despite her disinterested persona, she's a hard worker. He glances at her drawing. Peter again. He thinks he understands her, the act. She's too afraid to actually tell Peter she likes him. Perhaps she worries he won't like what he sees. Bucky is too afraid to let Steve find him. He worries he won't like what he finds.
One of the unfortunate occurrences of living in a crumbling apartment is that he has to go to the laundromat. With his sweat-stained sleeping bag and dirty clothes shoved in a bag, Bucky skulks into the dingy laundromat around the corner from his apartment. He chooses an empty washer in the very back, paying for the laundromat's detergent in quarters. People come and go, many equally shabby and exhausted, and no one pays him any mind. He keeps his back to the wall, eyes on the entrance, scanning the room from under the brim of his hat.
Thirty minutes and his clothes are done in the washer. He turns to move them into the dryer, anxiety spiking at having his back to the entrance. The sleeping bag has ten more minutes to go in the washer.
Footsteps sound and someone puts their basket down to his left, opening the washer.
He startles, head whipping around to see that the newcomer is Maria Reyes, the choir teacher. He's only seen her a few times, as the music department tends to stay separate from the science.
He clears his throat and extends his hand, forcing down the lingering panic. "Yes. Maria, right?"
She smiles, eyes crinkling as she squeezes his hand with a soft palm. She's young, probably around thirty, with pretty features and long dark hair. He checked her background, and she has no connections to Hydra, isn't likely to be Hydra in any case, but the fact that she's here makes him suspicious.
"I haven't seen you here before," he says casually.
She grimaces. "Yeah, my washer broke. It's such a pain getting it fixed. I thought I recognized you, small world, right?"
"Yeah." He forces a smile. It's a plausible explanation, but he can't afford to be complacent. He'll have to keep an eye on her.
They make small talk while their laundry cycles - or rather, Maria chatters and Bucky gives one word answers and occasionally nods. His laundry is done first, and he collects his things and bids her goodbye, walking out onto the street. He hefts his laundry bag and proceeds to make a convoluted series of loops and turns around the neighborhood in case he's being followed before heading back to his apartment, locking the door as soon as he gets inside. He checks the windows, the locks, sweeps for bugs in every crack and crevice, unscrews the light to check it as well. His clean sleeping bag goes on the mattress, but he only dozes all night, lying with a hand on his knife under the pillow.
Day 10. Wednesday, October 1, 2014.
Fellow teachers remain friendly. K displays behavior recognizable as "flirting." Could be future complication. Maintain distance, do not encourage interest.
AC and KB continue to eat lunch in classroom. Potentially reduce mid-day calorie intake to reduce suspicion.
MJ continues to observe PP covertly. Interested in potential resolution of situation. PP and NL oblivious.
Students seem to respond better to varied information. Reading off slides causes boredom, texting, and falling asleep. Research indicates students like funny teachers - try to come up with jokes?
Day 11. Thursday, October 2, 2014.
Jokes not a good idea. Very strange looks. May need to refine sense of humor. Internet?
On October third, the internet informs him Yom Kippur is starting that night. It is a day of atonement, he knows this. Remembers. He has missed the other observances, has forgotten until now, but the memories trickle in slowly. His mother, patiently teaching them Hebrew. His father's pretended indifference, as he bundled them to church every Sunday. The weight of grief, for skeleton bodies in striped clothing, their eyes accusing. The P stamped on his army tags, not a lie but not the truth, either.
He has much to atone for, this year.
He does not eat or drink. He finds his way to a small synagogue on Saturday, making himself as unobtrusive as possible near the back and listening to the services throughout the day. He writes down a list of the victims he knows, their names or what they looked like, what he did to each of them. His shaky handwriting fills pages and pages.
The rabbi finds him, as they seem to do. Some innate sense of the most troubled souls.
"What if," Bucky asks quietly, hand clutched around the papers in his pocket, "there is no forgiveness for what you've done?"
"Ah, but there is always forgiveness," the rabbi says, eyes kind and grey. "We just have to be brave enough to accept it."
He leaves that night feeling somehow washed clean, the heaviness in his heart almost comforting. He carefully takes the papers with his confessions and folds them, pressing them in the last page of his Memory Journal. They deserve to be remembered.
He dreams of forgiveness, and this time, he accepts it.
Bucky, frustrated of tucking strands of hair behind his ear, yanks out the rubber band to retie it, the band getting stuck in the tangles. He pulls again, and there's an audible snap as it breaks, his hair falling around his face. He sighs.
There's a soft whoosh and an elastic band lands on his desk in front of him. He looks up in confusion to see Kate raise an eyebrow at him meaningfully before going back to her book. Bucky rakes his fingers through his hair and picks up the hair tie, pulling it back successfully. Kate smirks down at her book.
He finds, when he goes to take it out that night, that elastic hair ties rip his hair far less than rubber bands. It's an important finding, and he adds hair elastics to his shopping list for the weekend.
Saturday finds him at the local grocery store, hat pulled low over his eyes, standing in the aisle as he contemplates the sheer number of options. There's simply too many. Who needs twenty different types of cereal? He's had a hard enough time learning to make his own choices after Hydra, he doesn't need this.
A hand reaches past him, snagging a box of Lucky Charms. He automatically moves aside for the customer, glancing at them only to do a double take when he recognizes Michelle. She gives him a salute and raises the box as she walks away.
"Later, Mr. B."
He just blinks, before turning back to the rack and grabbing the Lucky Charms. When he gets back, he pours the dubious looking cereal into a bowl and adds milk before taking a bite. It is...horrible, truly. Cardboard-tasting shapes, tiny colored marshmallows so fake they leave a film on his teeth. He loves it.
He also buys a coffee maker and five different types of coffee. It turns out to be the only thing getting him through the day. He still stops by Starbucks occasionally, but not enough that it is routine, should anyone try to follow him. He finds if he buys a insulated mug and fills it with homemade coffee in the morning, he can get another hit of caffeine at lunchtime. When he gets home, he makes another pot. It's enough to alleviate the lethargy and mood swings that have dogged him since getting off enough methamphetamine to send an elephant on a rampage. He'd read the encrypted Hydra files online about him no one else seems to have found. Methamphetamine, caffeine, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, opiates, steroids, anticonvulsants, the list went on and on. He's determined never to touch drugs again, but he'll make an exception for caffeine.
The days pass, and he starts to settle into his new life. He learns all the students' names, knows their habits and quirks, knows which ones actually do the work and which don't. The kids warm to him, start to be less uncertain in his presence. America seems to approve. Peter and Ned, when they realize he doesn't care about their intense debates during class if they do the work, begin to talk his ear off about everything and ask questions he's not prepared for. He has to get another book on biology just to keep up with them.
For some reason, America's habit of calling him "Mr. B" instead of "Mr. Beck" has caught on, and everyone addresses him as such. He doesn't mind it. 'Beck' is an invented name, but "Mr. B." could just as easily mean Mr. Barnes. And he's spent enough time trying to reclaim his name that pretending everyone is calling him it makes something warm grow in his chest.
The other teachers call him "James," which is still his real name, and Bucky thinks abruptly one day that what he's doing here feels authentic. There is no sign of Hydra in the school, and though he sees Maria at the laundromat and Michelle occasionally at the grocery store he's deduced neither of them are following him. So what is he still doing here?
If he's honest with himself, he likes it here. He likes being a teacher, likes the students, likes learning about biology. It's structured, relatively easy, and involves no murder or treason. He's putting good into the world. He is not terrible at being a teacher, either. He's not as good at it as he is at killing people, because no one is as good as him at killing people, but it's still something he's modestly good at. He doesn't want to fight anymore. He's done. He's had his share of blood and death. He wants to spend his days listening to the entirely mundane and petty problems of teenagers and lecturing on how plants photosynthesize.
It's a startling revelation, one that keeps him up at night. It's so tempting to think this can be his life forever, but he knows better. He's the Winter Soldier. Nothing he does will ever erase that, erase what he is. If Hydra doesn't find him, someone else will. Steve would be the best case scenario, but even he would want to bring Bucky in, fix him, probably try and get him absolved from his crimes. The government would snatch him away, and he'd either be executed, imprisoned the rest of his life, or used again. There are no happy endings for someone like him.
It doesn't stop him from wanting one so badly his soul aches.
It is halfway into October when he has a very bad day. He wakes with a blinding migraine and the feeling that ants are crawling all over him, burrowing into his skin. He tastes rubber, the scent of electricity in his nose. The seam of his metal shoulder burns with cold fire.
He drinks an entire pot of coffee and drags himself to work, squinting against the bright lights as his head throbs.
"You alright?" Carl asks. "You look a bit under the weather."
"Headache," he murmurs.
"Maybe you should have called in," Ellen says, always the motherly one. A hand lands on his metal shoulder and he flinches back, standing abruptly.
"I'm fine." He forces a smile. "Really. Happens a lot." He leaves before they can question him more, the room feeling claustrophobic. He escapes to his classroom, drawing the blinds and turning off most of the lights, curling into his chair and taking off his glasses to rub his temples. His stomach churns with nausea, even though he'd eaten nothing this morning. His hair is down, the act of pulling it back too much to deal with today, and it falls in his face annoyingly. How had the Winter Soldier done missions with it like this? Surely, someone must have proposed cutting his hair in seventy years.
"Fucking Hydra," he whispers. Saying it makes him feel better, somehow.
He spends the first thirty minutes of the morning huddled in his chair like a pathetic gremlin, only turning the lights on and opening the door at seven forty-five. He shoves his glasses back onto his face, hating them with every fiber of his being, rakes a hand through his hair, and steels himself. If he could make it through seventy years of Hydra, he can make it through this.
The students file in, coffee-soaked and altogether too loud for his aching head. When they're settled Bucky passes out their graded lab reports from the previous week, ignoring the curious once-overs. He's never worn his hair down before. He's also heard some of the things students titter - mainly the girls - and has learned, to his horror, that some of his students think he's hot. The glasses, apparently, and his face, and his shoulders. And the clothes. Everything, really. He's been called a hipster, which he looked up and decided he definitely isn't, thank you very much. Though he appreciates the usefulness of the man-bun, and has contemplated learning how to do it instead of his usual raggedy pony-tail.
Lab reports handed back, he takes his position in the front of the room, clearing his throat before starting to lecture. Looking at the projector screen hurts his eyes, so he relies on his memory of the material, speaker softer than normal in an attempt to save his head. He makes it through the lecture period, thankfully, and gets the students started on the lab, which involves them building a 3-D cell membrane. Students chat happily as they snip scissors through biomolecule cut-outs, making phospholipid bilayer boxes and taping proteins together, the noise grating on Bucky's nerves. The scissors grind, snip, and he stifles a flinch.
He hovers by America and Kate's table, watching as they build their membrane with sure fingers.
"What's with the hair, Mr. B?" America asks, glancing up at him briefly. "Casual Tuesday?"
"Didn't feel like putting it up," Bucky replies distractedly, struggling to focus.
"Hmm." America holds out a piece of tape for Kate. "Do you use conditioner?"
Bucky blinks. "Uh, no?"
"You probably should. Trust me, it'll make it easier to deal with." America twirls a lock of her curly hair around a finger.
"Right. Thanks." Bucky escapes to another lab table, head pounding insistently. The rest of the lab passes uneventfully, and America and Kate settle in for lunch while Bucky heads to the break room, grabbing his thermos of coffee sitting on top of the fridge and taking a sip. His stomach churns, and he weighs the likelihood of throwing up the coffee against the power of caffeine for soothing his migraine. Caffeine wins.
Ellen strolls in, taking one look at him and tsking. "How are you holding up?"
Bucky lifts his right shoulder in a shrug. "Fine."
"I've got some ibuprofen in my bag, if you want."
He shakes his head. "No, thank you." It won't work on him, anyway.
"You get headaches often?" She covers her mouth. "Sorry, that sounded nosy."
"It's fine." He fiddles with his mug. "I've got a uh....a head injury." It's not a lie.
When he looks at her in confusion, she clarifies. "Traumatic brain injury?"
"Uh, yeah." He's not sure of the distinction.
She nods, looking sympathetic. "My brother was in the army, that's how I know. Really, if you need to call out, it's okay."
He swallows, looking down at his hands wrapped around the mug. "Thanks." A strand of hair falls in his face and he frowns in annoyance, tucking it behind his ear. The crawling feeling is back, making him twitchy and restless, and he takes another sip of coffee to drown the taste of rubber in his mouth.
Ellen rummages in the fridge, getting her lunch, and Carl enters, giving Bucky a nod. Bucky edges past him, heading to the door so he can sit in his room with America and Kate, hopefully with dimmed lights.
"Oh hey, wait-"
A hand lands on his arm, the metal one. His mind goes white with static, and he blinks to find Carl's arm in his grip, metal hand inches away from his throat. Carl wears an expression of utter shock mingled with fear, and Bucky's gut twists. He never wants to put that expression on another human being's face.
He drops his hand, steps back. "Fuck. Sorry. I'm sorry."
Carl blinks, wide-eyed. Clears his throat. "You, uh, maybe you should, uh, take the rest of the day off. Go home."
Bucky's head pounds, vision tunneling. "No, no, I-I'm fine, I just-" A thought occurs to him and he sucks in a breath. "I'd never hurt the kids, never. Please don't-I don't want to be fired, I-I'm fine." There's ringing in his ears, his voice sounding a million miles away. "I don't hurt kids. They tried to make me, but I wouldn't. Even the spiders." Red hair and green eyes- "I never hurt them. I-"
"Okay, let's just take a breath." Ellen steps into his field of vision. "Carl, why don't you wait outside. I'll talk to you in a minute."
"Right, yeah, okay." There's footsteps and then the sound of the door closing. Bucky flinches.
"Sit down, hon. It's alright." Bucky sits down dazedly in the nearest chair, awareness trickling back in. He'd ruined everything, blown his cover, nearly attacked an innocent civilian.
He pulls off his glasses, tossing them on the table, and puts his head in his hands. "Fuck."
"You know, my brother struggled a lot when he got back," Ellen says, and he hears the scrape of a chair. "He's got a prosthetic leg and PTSD. An IED took out his whole unit." She pauses. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of. You were startled, that's all. Carl's just worried about you. No one's going to fire you for having a bad day."
"What if it's more than a bad day?" Bucky mumbles, face still hidden by his hands.
"Well, obviously it's more than a bad day. Doesn't mean you should lose your job because you're struggling." When he stays silent, she asks, "How long have you been home?"
Bucky presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Six months." He takes a breath, lifting his head. "I was...." He swallows. "I was a prisoner of war." It feels like a weight lifts off his shoulders, saying those words out loud to someone else. "I have...amnesia, and I'm still trying to figure everything out. I just...I really like this job. And I'd never do anything to hurt the kids. I swear."
"I believe you." He glances up, and Ellen offers him a small smile. "No one else needs to know about this. If I thought even for a moment you were a danger, I'd report you in a heartbeat. But I don't. So you just worry about taking care of yourself, alright?"
Bucky nods, relief flowing through him. "Thank you. And I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize. I'll talk to Carl. Now, do you think you can get through the rest of the day?"
"Yeah." He sits straighter, taking a deep breath. "Yeah. I'm okay."
He makes it through the rest of the day in a fog, thankful that there's no lab for intro bio that day. He dims the lights and presses a cold water bottle to his head until it's time to leave, immediately shutting himself in his apartment and curling up on his mattress. He forces down some rice for dinner and manages to fall asleep, waking to his stomach growling and his head significantly improved. Carl seems careful not to touch him at work, but there's something understanding in his eyes, and Bucky thanks G-d for Ellen. It seems he's found an ally here, against all odds. It's nice.
That weekend, Bucky stands in the grocery store aisle, staring suspiciously at the different brands of conditioner. They all tout different properties, from damage repair to smooth and sleek, and in the end he swipes three different types at random and dumps them into his cart. Back in his apartment, he hops in the shower and tries them out, following the instructions and unimpressed when the dime-sized blob doesn't even cover an inch of his hair. He squeezes more into his hand, and more, until he can coat his entire hair. After rinsing, he wraps a towel around his waist and picks up the comb he'd bought, staring into the newly hung mirror as he works it through the gnarled strands. After much cursing and what looks to be half of his hair on the floor, it's finally smooth and detangled, drying around his face in waves. He contemplates his beard in the mirror and trims it with scissors until it's neat again, making him look less like a sleep-deprived assassin and more like a normal human being.
When his hair finally dries, he finds it soft and silky, and he vows to never forgo conditioner again. Opening his laptop, he pulls up YouTube and spends the next hour learning how to put his hair up in a bun. The front strands still fall out, but he tucks them behind his ears, pleased with himself. Then he searches the internet for PTSD and TBI, writing down his findings in yet another notebook he'd bought, this time for future things he learns. Based on the information, he concludes that he has PTSD, and that mind-wiping could probably fall under a traumatic brain injury. His migraines certainly fit the bill.
He finds reams of information on how to cope with PTSD, and takes up two pages in his notebook with tips. Meditation, physical activity, social support, and healthy habits seem to be the most common suggestions, as well as professional help. He tabs that for later consideration.
Meditation just seems to be like the state of mind he falls into when waiting for the perfect shot. He's not sure he wants to go there again. Physical activity, he can do. He writes down running as a possibility, searches yoga videos on YouTube and becomes intrigued. He clicks on a good tutorial and does yoga in his living room, sustaining the poses with relative ease. He's out of shape, though, he can tell. Withdrawal, then relearning how to eat had stripped his body of fat, and lack of exercise has softened his muscles. He's starting to feel the strain on his spine from the weight of the metal arm. He makes a note to begin a training regimen.
Social support he immediately throws out. He's actively running from his only friend in the world, so. Though maybe Ellen counts as social support. Is she a friend? He has nothing but Steve to base friends on, and he doesn't think Steve is the best example. They practically shared a soul.
Healthy habits. The eating, he has down. The sleeping, not so much. He's not sure what to do about that, and sleeping pills aren't an option. He makes a note to revisit the subject in the future.
Sunday finds him working through stacks of lab reports and homework while also trying to create the midterm for both classes. Being a teacher is hard, he's found. And time consuming. But he doesn't mind the work, likes the organized tedium of it all. It's better than killing people and having his mind fried and then getting stuffed into a freezer every so often.
On Monday he comes in with hair smooth and shiny and pulled back into a bun, and both America and Kate give him identical looks of approval. Girls and guys alike giggle and blush. Bucky ignores it stoically. The week is devoted to review for both his classes, and then midterms are administered, frazzled-looking students hunching over their desks and scribbling furiously.
Bucky thinks he's done a good job preparing them. They've certainly been doing well on labs and the few things of homework he assigns them. He's not a big believer in homework, appalled at the students' already long days and exhausting workload, but it's apparently a necessary evil sometimes.
America is the first one to turn in her test in the morning, and Peter Parker is the first one to turn in his test in the afternoon. Maybe Bucky shouldn't have scheduled the midterms for two classes in one week, he thinks, as he looks at the looming pile of tests waiting to be graded. But come that weekend, methodically going through them helps to distract him from thoughts of impending doom, and he manages to only check his locks twice during the day. It's an improvement.
When he wakes up early from a nightmare, instead of huddling the rest of the night with his gun he drags on clothes and goes for a run, sweat quickly evaporating in the crisp air. It's the week of Halloween, and there are decorations on many of the buildings, spider cut-outs pasted in the windows.
Bucky runs for an hour before heading inside, booting up his laptop and doing yoga before taking a shower and getting ready for work. Eggs go in the pan, coffee percolating with loud slurping noises. He tugs on a sweater over his button-up, the chill in the apartment seeping through the layers. He runs hot due to Zola's serum, but he can't shake the cold of cryofreeze that settles into his bones. He's already thought about buying more blankets for his makeshift bed.
He eats, pours his coffee into his mug, pulls back his hair into a bun and slides his glasses on. Slings his bag over his shoulder, full of graded tests. Triple-checks the windows, then leaves the apartment and locks the door, jogging down the stairs.
The break room is teeming when he gets there, the teachers chatting amongst themselves.
"Ugh, Halloween," he hears. "There'll be no keeping them focused all week."
"At least it's Friday this year," someone replies. "Last year, there were kids showing up to school hungover."
"Seriously? They're way too young to be drinking."
"Doesn't seem to stop them. But come on, we all did the same when we were younger. Sophomore year of college, I got so trashed on Halloween I ended up sleeping in a bush. Woke up and went to class with leaves in my hair."
Bucky digests that mental image, squeezing around people to get to the fridge. He's pretty sure he has hazy memories of the Commandos getting outrageously drunk and Morita puking in a boot, but he can't connect it to Halloween. His only memories of the holiday involve soaping windows and then running like hell. The idea of going door-to-door begging for candy doesn't seem to have any relevance in his brain. Maybe the times were different?
"What about you, James?"
Bucky snaps out of his musings, turning to Greg. "What?"
"Any wild Halloween stories? You're the youngest one here, you've got to have a few."
He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, thinking desperately. "Um, I don't know." A memory comes to mind, unbidden.
Tweezers digging into his thigh, the smell of antiseptic, laughter.
"What are your kids going as for Halloween this year?"
"Power Rangers. Here, I've got a picture." The tweezers pause. A hand reaches across and the doctor peers at the phone screen, grinning.
"They're adorable. I miss those days. Now mine are in college, probably killing their livers instead of eating candy. Enjoy it while it lasts." The tweezers dig into his thigh again, gloved fingers pulling the wound apart. Sweat beads on his forehead. He grits his teeth, biting down on a scream.
He blinks, the memory dissolving in front of his eyes. The others are still staring at him, waiting for a response.
"Um." He clears his throat. "I don't really, um. Have any. Stories. Anyway, I should-I should go-"
He flees without waiting for an answer, not stopping until he's safely locked in his classroom. He sinks down in his chair and puts his head in his hands, trying to breathe.
The class bursts into laughter. Bucky frowns, confused, and looks back at the piece of paper he'd liberated from his students.
"It's pronounced meme," Peter Parker says, coming to Bucky's rescue. "It's like, something that's funny, but in an iconic way. Like a picture of someone making a face that goes viral."
"Right." Bucky only understands half of what Peter said. "No....memes in class."
Someone giggles. Bucky doesn't even want to know. He sighs, crumpling the paper and tossing it without looking, landing it perfectly into the trash.
"Nice shot," Michelle says from the back of class.
"Thank you. Now, back to your labs, or I'm giving homework."
There's groans, but the class obediently goes back to work, carefully wetting their seeds on paper towels. Bucky is already done with Halloween week, and it's barely started.
He does looks up memes when he gets home, and is thoroughly confused and amused. Kids these days are terrifying, he thinks.
On Thursday night, he runs to the grocery store and buys bags of candy, leaving some at home and bringing the rest to school the next day. It's Halloween, and some students wear costumes, even though the school had tried to discourage them. Bucky passes out the candy to his classes and leaves the bags on his desk for any greedy students, feeling inordinately pleased by the beaming smiles the kids bestow on him. Candy-giving elicits goodwill, apparently.
America comes to school wearing a Captain America costume. Bucky's heart skips a beat, and he swallows down the surge of emotion that threatens to overwhelm him. It's not like it looks anything like Steve's anyway, and he's used to seeing America in red, white, and blue constantly. He's not sure why it hits him so hard this time.
"Captain America?" someone scoffs. "No one's even heard from him since he did all that shit in DC. They probably, like, threw him in jail for almost destroying the whole city."
America's eyes flash. "He saved the city, asshole. He saved the world! Or would you rather Hydra took over?"
"I don't believe that shit about Hydra. I think it's a cover-up for what really went down. Captain America tried to take over the government."
"Are you stupid? You fucking-"
"Enough!" Bucky's voice cracks like a whip, and a stunned silence falls. He's had enough experience wrangling young soldiers and, worst of all, the goddamn Howling Commandos and Steve-I-like-getting-punched-Rogers to know how to make people fall in line. His blood is boiling, rage simmering under his skin. How dare they believe Steve the villain in this, when the real villain is standing right in front of them.
He takes a deep breath, unclenching his fists. "I don't care what else you learn in this class. Hydra is real, and they do bad shit." He feels the surprise in the room at the curse. "If they'd won in DC, we'd all be living in a very different world." He wouldn't be here, for one. "Steve Rogers has given his life for this country, and he nearly gave his life again to stop Hydra in DC." He thinks of blood blossoming against white stripes, the crack of a cheekbone under his fist. "Steve does what is right, always, not what is easy. And if you think for one moment that he's the bad guy here then you don't know him at all. Hydra have always been the bad guys. Always."
The kid who argued with America - Kyle - raises his hand. "Mr. B., all due respect, but if Hydra really was inside the government all along, wouldn't someone have noticed? I mean, come on. Evil Nazis, really?"
"No," Bucky says, trying to keep his hand from trembling. "No one noticed, because Hydra isn't evil Nazis with armbands. It's people with families, people who talk about taking their kids trick-or-treating while they're elbow-deep in someone else's blood. It's your neighbor, your teacher, your goddamn friend. It's Alexander Pierce, who apparently turned down a Nobel Peace Prize, but caused so many people pain and suffering. They're people you think are good. They believe in what they're doing. They don't look evil, not on the surface. Not until they stop seeing you as human. And people can do terrible things when they stop seeing you as human." He swallows. "Horrifying things."
"Thanks for saying that." America perches on a desk at the front of the room, Kate in her strange purple costume next to her, bow in hand. "It's really concerning that a lot of people don't believe the Hydra thing was real."
Bucky scowls. "It's real."
"I know. When we're older, both me and Kate want to be Avengers."
Bucky looks up, shocked. "What?"
Kate raises her arrow-less bow. "I'm going to be the next Hawkeye. America wants to be the next Captain America. We want to fight people like Hydra, make a difference."
Bucky is viscerally reminded of Steve. "There are a lot of other ways to make a difference, you know."
Kate shrugs. "Yeah, but I like this one best."
"But you're not, you know..."
"Superpowered?" America suggests.
"The original Hawkeye doesn't have super powers," Kate points out. "Neither does Black Widow."
Bucky frowns, sure somehow that that isn't true. She's enhanced slightly, he thinks.
"Tony Stark is a normal person, too," America chimes in. "He's just got the iron man suit. I'll figure something out."
"I get that you want to help," Bucky says carefully, "but sometimes fighting isn't the answer. It's....there's a lot of bad in the world, and once you have a target painted on you, it never goes away. You don't get a normal life."
America smiles ruefully. "I was never gonna get one anyway. And I already have a target painted on me, might as well make the most of it."
Maybe, Bucky thinks, she has a point.
"So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving this year?" Ellen asks, digging a fork into her mac and cheese.
Bucky shrugs. "Haven't thought about it." He'd forgotten it existed, truthfully.
"Going to see family?"
He swallows, sets his fork down, coldness spreading in his gut. "Don't have any."
He'd looked up his family, after he found out what his name was. Parents, a sister - Rebecca. Becca. He remembers them now, but it's too late. They're all dead.
"Oh, god, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed-"
He shakes his head, picks up his fork again. "It's fine."
"Celebrating with friends, then?"
He stares down at his food, wonders what Steve is doing right now. Who is Steve going to spend Thanksgiving with?
"No." He shakes his head to clear the image of Steve alone, takes a breath. "No."
Ellen just nods, and they don't talk about it again. He likes Ellen. She seems to get him, the way many of the others don't. He supposes it's because she thinks she knows his background, the war. He's taken her advice, and applies his coping methods daily. He's taking care of himself. He's more than surviving, he's living. He still has bad days, but there are good days too. He's starting to relax into his new life, fearing less and less that Hydra is around every corner. He checks the news obsessively, and it looks like the Avengers are taking out bases in Europe. Hydra is hopefully too busy to search for him. Hopefully.
A parent-teacher conference rolls around, and Bucky has to stand in his classroom as a line of parents talk to him about their children. Kate's parents are obscenely rich and also assholes, America's parents don't show up, and Peter Parker's aunt and uncle are sweet and supportive.
"Peter absolutely loves your class," May Parker says, smiling widely. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
He's flattered by the number of kind comments he gets, and annoyed by the parents who take up all his time to discuss their problematic children. No, Ms. Halstead, he thinks, Kyle isn't a nice, hard-working young man. He's kind of an asshole, to be honest, and I see where he got it from. No, I can't bump his grade up.
It's late by the time he gets to leave, the sky already dark. The mid-November chill worms its way around the collar of his wool coat, making him shiver and walk faster. The cold makes the seam of his metal shoulder ache, spreading into his back and chest. It takes twenty minutes of yoga in the relative warmth of his apartment to loosen the muscles again, his left side feeling heavier than ever. He curls up in the fleece blankets he'd bought and drifts off, cocooned in warmth.
He buys an assortment of scarves that weekend, along with hats and more gloves. The fuzzy socks stop him in his tracks, and he ends up buying ten pairs. When he wears the scarves to school, he gets more comments about being a hipster, the students now directing their comments to his face instead of whispering behind his back. He's not sure whether it's an improvement.
"I think you look cool, Mr. B," Ned says loyally, grinning.
"Thank you, Ned." Bucky adjusts his glasses. "Kids these days have no respect for their elders."
The class laughs. "Come on, Mr. B, what are you, thirty?"
Bucky smirks. "No, I'm..." He trails off, frowns. "I'm, um..." He was born in 1917, died in 1945, so he would've been twenty-eight. He's not sure how long he was awake over the seventy years. In the beginning, when they trained him, he was awake for longer, he thinks. Maybe a year? And then missions, awake for maybe a week or two at a time. Maybe a year again? Probably upwards of two years total then, maybe add another year that he doesn't remember.
He swallows. "I'm, uh, thirty...no, thirty-one?"
There's a silence over the classroom.
"Do you...not know?" Christine pipes up hesitantly.
"No, I-I know, I just..." He clears his throat. "Anyway, so, osmosis..."
He slides into the chair next to Ellen, feeling panic claw at his insides. "I don't know how old I am," he blurts.
Ellen looks up at him, frowning. "What?"
"I don't-I don't know how old I am," he repeats desperately. He shuts his mouth with a click, berating himself. What is he doing, telling this to Ellen? He could blow his cover. He shakes his head, trying to keep his breathing even.
"You don't know your birthday?" Ellen asks, looking thoroughly confused.
No, he'd looked that up, he knows that. "March tenth."
"I-" He can't tell her the real year. "I don't know."
He nods silently.
"Okay, well, can you look it up?"
"No." He shakes his head.
"It should be in your medical files, and on any ID you have." She's still looking at him strangely. "Pull out your wallet."
He blinks. "Don't have one."
"You have your driver's license with you?"
"Don't have one."
"You have some sort of ID, documents. You just have to find it. It'll be on there," she says soothingly.
She just thinks he's having some sort of episode, he realizes. She thinks he's forgotten it now, and panicking, and he can just look it up again. But he can't. Without going through Hydra's records and figuring out exactly how long he was awake, he'll never know how old he is.
"No," he says, frustrated. "No, you-" He stands up abruptly. "I don't know how old I am. I was twenty-eight when...when I fell, but I don't know how long, they-" He exhales, runs a hand through his unraveling hair. Pulls himself back together. "Never mind," he says. "Just-forget it." He turns and walks out the door before he loses his composure.
I don't know how old I am, he writes in his journal that night. Hydra stole my whole fucking life, and I don't even know how old I am.
He spends Thanksgiving eating store-bought mashed potatoes and surfing the internet. The long break threatens to drive him insane, hours with nothing to do but circle his own mind around the drain, but he pulls out all the stops on his internet-gleaned coping methods and manages to weather it with little incident except one panic attack and the installation of three new locks on his door. The panic attack is triggered by the shower of all things, as his brain decides to helpfully gift him with the memory of being waterboarded. It's a new complication, as he quite enjoys showers. Following internet advice to face his fears, he sticks his head under the tap and practices breathing exercises until he doesn't feel like dying. He rewards himself with apple pie. After that, the shower is manageable.
The pie makes him think of his mother, hands dusted with flour and apron tied around her waist, a sparkle in her eyes. The memories come fragmented but clear, full of light and warmth. The sound of Becca's laughter. His father's booming voice. His mother's hand on her hip, the other brandishing a wooden spoon. Scraped knees and hair ribbons and meat pies in grubby fingers, a warm hand against his forehead and a soft voice singing him to sleep. Admonishments and soothing words. Love. Family. Home.
Alone in his darkened apartment, Bucky weeps for everything he has lost.
Bucky dusts snow out of his hair as he walks into school, scowling in displeasure. He thinks he used to be a fan of snow, until he fell into an icy ravine and lost an arm and then was periodically frozen like a slab of meat. Now it's kind of ruined for him. He pushes open the door to the break room, nodding hello to the few teachers there as he stows his lunch in the fridge.
"I always love this unit," Ellen is saying, "but it's going to be weird this year, with everything that happened in DC."
Bucky stiffens, turning slowly. "What about DC?" he asks casually.
"Oh, I'm starting the World War Two unit with my intro class," Ellen explains. "So usually I talk about how Captain America and the Howling Commandos fought Hydra, how he flew the Valkyrie into the ice to finally defeat them. But apparently they weren't actually defeated, so..." She makes a helpless gesture. "There's going to be a lot of questions."
"Right." Bucky swallows. "What are you going to tell them?"
"I'm not sure. The problem is, no one knows exactly what happened. All the SHIELD files were dumped on the internet, but people are still sifting through those, and there's a lot still unanswered. I mean, how did Hydra go undetected? What exactly are they responsible for over the years?"
"A lot," Bucky says grimly. "They shaped the century. Assassinations, infiltration of the government, experimentation and weapons development, international policies, sabotage, information acquisition and control. Anything you can think of, they were there. They had a hand in everything."
"You some kind of expert or something?" Greg jokes.
Yeah, I had a literal hand in some of those things, Bucky thinks. He stares at Greg, then blinks, makes himself shrug loosely. "I read the files."
Carl leans a hip against the table, taking a sip of coffee. "What else did the files say?"
"You know, anything."
Bucky shrugs again, anxiety crawling on his skin. "Hydra is evil, they've done a lot of terrible shit, the government let it happen because they wanted scientists and didn't care if they were Nazi psychopaths who liked to experiment on people. Alexander Pierce should have died slower." He grabs his coffee cup, turning away. "I hope the Avengers hunt down every last fucking one."
He wakes huddled in his bathtub, freezing water pouring over his head. He turns the water off and stumbles out, teeth chattering, mind humming with panic. Strips out of his clothes, dries off hastily. Makes it to the bedroom, diving into his bed and wrapping himself in blankets, body wracked with shivers. He squeezes his eyes shut, curling tighter into himself, and thinks of cold nights on the Western front, Steve pressed against him as the wind howled. The warmth of Steve along his back, legs tangled together, an arm holding him secure. He suddenly wishes Steve were here, yearns for the safety of his arms. He draws the blankets around him tighter instead, feeling impossibly small and alone.
When he finally drags himself out of bed for work, he pulls on a thick sweater over a long-sleeved shirt, looping a scarf around his neck and tugging a knit hat over his unruly hair. He leaves the scarf on when he gets to school, retying his hair in a bun and enduring the teasing comments about his appearance. He reheats his coffee in the microwave and sits with his hands cupped around it, the occasional shiver working its way up his spine. The seam of his metal arm aches and he rubs at it, rolling the joint and wincing at the twinges of pain.
"I have one of those rice bags," Ellen says, barely looking up from her tea. "Best investment ever."
Bucky frowns. "Rice bags?"
"Yeah, like those bags you can get filled with rice or corn. Just pop them in the microwave and they're all nice and toasty. I use it on my back."
Bucky feels himself perk up. "Where can I get one?"
That night, he pops his new rice bag into his new tiny microwave and waits. When it comes out, it's hot and wonderful, and he drapes it over his shoulder as he sits in bed, writing in his various journals.
Rice bags, he writes in his Future Journal. Absolutely amazing. 10/10 would recommend.
I have trouble with the cold, he writes in his Recovery Journal. Dreams of cryo and the snow. Cannot get warm.
The rice bag helps, and he sleeps relatively well, waking up at five a.m. to write down his newest dream and doing yoga inside as snow falls past his papered windows. He walks the familiar route to school, snow crunching under his boots and breath fogging in the air, steam wafting from his red Starbucks cup. James is written on the side in sharpie, like always, and the little reminder makes him smile. He tilts his head up towards the sky, opening his mouth to let a snowflake land on his tongue. A giggle escapes, and he suddenly can't remember the last time he laughed. He thinks this is the first time he's laughed in seventy years.
Peter is wearing an absolutely ridiculous sweater, a red and green monstrosity with small studded lights embedded into it.
"What. Is that," he says when Peter walks in, looking too cheery for such a ghastly sight.
Peter grins. "You like it?"
"It looks like Christmas threw up on you."
Peter grins wider. "That's the point. It's an ugly Christmas sweater. It's Christmas first."
"December first. Officially time to start Christmas everything."
"Sure," Bucky replies dubiously, still eyeing the garish sweater. How is one meant to escape notice in a sweater like that? Although, maybe that's the point.
"You celebrate Christmas?" Peter asks, sliding into his seat.
Bucky blinks, trying to think. He does remember Christmas, a tree with twinkling lights, him and Becca squabbling over presents. Steve is there, in his memories, and Steve's ma, too, her warm smile. But there are also memories of candles in the window, his mother murmuring Hebrew. Both, he thinks. They celebrated both.
"Yeah," he says finally. "And Hanukkah."
"Cool," Peter says. "Me too. Okay, so I have a question about the reading. I know, like, traits can be inherited from parents, like eye and hair color, but what about, like, weird traits?"
Bucky leans on Peter's lab table, pushing his glasses up his nose. Students are filing in and taking their seats, chattering amiably. "Weird how?"
"Well, what if your genes were changed? Like, Captain America. If he had children, would they inherit the serum?"
Bucky frowns. "I'm not sure." The thought of Steve having children is terrifying. One Steve Rogers is enough for the world, he thinks. "If the serum actually changed his genetic makeup, and they were inheritable traits, then maybe. But if it just enhanced him, then no."
"What if you cloned him? Would his clone have the serum?"
"Uh, probably." Bucky taps a finger on his chin, intrigued despite himself. "The serum has regenerative capabilities. Cell metabolism is extremely fast. He'd actually probably be a good candidate for cloning. Though no one should ever try to clone him." He gives Peter a hard look. "Human experimentation is bad."
"I know. Just, like, what if. Wouldn't two Captain Americas be cool?"
Bucky grimaces, straightening up as the class starts to settle and Ned slides in next to Peter. "Kid, you have no idea what you're talking about. Two Steve Rogers would be the opposite of cool. The world would spontaneously combust."
"I thought you liked Captain America?" Peter calls after him as he strolls to the front of the classroom.
He raises an eyebrow. "Never said I didn't."
Bucky looks down at the paper in his hand, artfully covered with images of snow. "A holiday party?"
Carl nods. "Yep. We do this every year. It's always a fun time. You should come."
Bucky folds the paper, shoving it in his pocket. "Yeah, alright." He'll think about it, at least.
The invitation states the party as occurring December 20, at Carl's house in a nice suburb. Apparently, it rotates. It's a chance for all the teachers to get together, have a few drinks, talk about the semester. Bucky knows he should go, but first he has to figure out how to get there. He doesn't have a car, or any transportation besides walking.
"Are you going to the party?" Ellen asks at lunch, as Bucky reheats his coffee.
He shrugs, knowing he can tell her the truth. "I'll think about it. Have to figure out how to get there - I don't have a car."
He shakes his head. "Can't get in a car with a stranger."
"Where do you live?"
He hesitates, paranoia rearing its head. What if she's Hydra, what if she's going to turn you in-
He pushes the thoughts away. Ellen is his friend. He has to start trusting people at some point.
"Bout a mile that way." He points in the direction of his apartment. There, it's not an exact address. His paranoia is appeased.
"I can pick you up. It's on the way."
"Are you sure?"
Ellen smiles. "Positive."
Bucky chews his lip and then nods. "Thank you."
"Of course. You'll have a great time, I know it. The ugly sweater competition is always the best."
Bucky had seen that on the invitation, but he's not sure what that means. "What is that?"
"Oh, everyone buys the ugliest or craziest Christmas sweaters they can buy, we vote for a winner every year."
"Huh." His mind flashes to Peter's horrid sweater, and he gets an idea.
He corners Peter during lab that day, lowering his voice.
"Hey. Where did you get your ugly Christmas sweater?"
Peter grins, giving him a sly look. "Mr. B., are you thinking of getting one?"
"Maybe. Just tell me where."
"Alright, alright. I mean, you can get a lot of more expensive ones online if you search, but honestly I've found the best ones at Goodwill for like, a dollar."
Bucky straightens up, nodding. "Thanks."
"Are you going to wear it to class?"
Peter pouts. "Can you take a picture at least?"
Bucky raises an eyebrow, turning away. "Absolutely not."
"Back to work, Parker!"
Bucky steps out of his classroom just in time to see Kate's face flush an ugly red as she launches herself forwards, fist drawn back. He slides in front of her, catching her fist with his hand. It's a pretty strong punch, for an untrained teenager, but his hand barely moves with the impact. She blinks in shock, the gathering of students gaping openly at him.
Bucky gives her a pointed look to stay still and turns around, coming face to face with the startled face of her attacker. He's medium height, with a smattering of acne on his sallow cheeks and dark hair more messy than artful.
"What did you call her?" Bucky asks, voice low and dangerous. He sees a flicker of apprehension in the boy's eyes, knows he's feeling the primal terror the Winter Soldier elicits even if he doesn't know why.
The boy huffs defensively. "Come on, it was just a joke. She's just being sensitive."
Bucky takes a step towards him, making him shrink back. "That's not what it sounded like to me. I don't tolerate slurs, so I suggest you apologize to Kate, or face the consequences."
The boy shifts, gulps, and then finally nods. "Sorry," he mumbles, looking at the ground.
Bucky takes one more step forwards, for good measure. "If I ever hear you use language like that again, it's an immediate detention and a call to your parents. The next time, I take it straight to the principal, and you're suspended. Understood?"
The boy nods hastily, eyes wide. Bucky jerks his head. "Get outta here." He looks around at the assembled crowd. "Show's over, folks. Go on."
The students scatter, talking amongst themselves, and Kate follows Bucky into his classroom. He shuts the door and turns to her, concern replacing anger.
"Are you all right?"
Kate nods, mouth pulled into a scowl and shoulders hunched. "You should've let me punch him."
"I won't say he didn't deserve it, cause he did." Kate looks up in surprise. "But then you'd be in trouble. And you don't deserve that."
Kate seems to deflate, sinking into a chair. "Oh. Yeah. Guess you're right."
Bucky walks over and perches on the desk. "Listen, kid, don't ever let the world steal your fight. You've got a right to be angry. But you can't punch your way outta everything. Sometimes you gotta use your head instead."
Kate's mouth twitches. "So, you're saying I can headbutt them."
Bucky laughs, seeing Steve in front of him instead of Kate, that same spark in his eyes. "Really though. He's not worth it. What happened anyway?"
Kate shrugs. "He asked me out. I told him I was dating America. He said he could 'make me straight.' I told him what I thought of that, and..."
"Yeah, he really did deserve to get punched."
That draws a laugh out of Kate, and she looks up at him. "Thanks, Mr. B."
"Anytime." Looking into Kate's pale, dark-haired face reminds him of his sister, drawing out the soft side of him that's been crushed under seventy years of war. "Listen, if you ever need anything...my door's open. You and America are always welcome in here. And if you need me to get that kid suspended, I can do that too."
"Thank you." Kate smiles. "I'm really glad you came here, Mr. B. I hope you stay."
So do I, Bucky thinks. So do I.
Bucky rifles through the rack of sweaters, scanning the store periodically from under the brim of his hat. He looks at the next one on the rack and his heart skips a beat.
It's Steve's shield, set on a dark blue knit with white snowflakes and red designs. Small white Christmas trees march across the bottom. It's not even ugly, but Bucky doesn't care. He has to have it.
He brings it to the counter, forking over a few bills and heading out into the frosty air, making a couple loops around the block before he's satisfied no one is following him. He wonders what Steve is doing for Christmas. Probably spending it with the Avengers, maybe the man with the wings and the Black Widow. But neither of them have family left, or each other. They had always spent Christmases together since they were children, as far back as Bucky can remember. And then, during the war, they were together for Christmas, the fighting paused for a day. This, Bucky thinks, is his first real Christmas without Steve.
How easy it would be, though, to find Steve, to be together for Christmas. It's tempting, so tempting, but it cannot happen. Even if they did get Christmas, managed to escape from the forces against them, it wouldn't be the same. Bucky doesn't remember half their Christmases, half their traditions, is only half the man Steve remembers. It wouldn't be a real Christmas, the way Bucky remembers distantly. The way he yearns for, with lights and laughter and sticky kisses beneath pilfered mistletoe.
He hangs the sweater carefully in his closet, smoothing a hand over the knitted shield and feeling the weight of distance and grief and guilt, mingled with hopeless longing.
"I'm sorry," he whispers into his barren apartment, as Christmas music filters from beyond his wall. Outside, snow blankets the earth.
On the night of December 16, Bucky lights the first candle on the old menorah he'd managed to acquire. It won't be visible through the papered windows, the way it's supposed to be, but the ritual settles something inside him. He tries to make latkes the way he remembers his ma doing, and manages some decent ones, buying both applesauce and sour cream to put on them. He's still undecided which is better, though he thinks younger Bucky had a preference for sour cream.
The latkes seem to trigger an obsession with cooking and baking, and Bucky ends up trying different recipes he finds online. The chocolate chip cookies he makes turn out the best, and he saves a batch to take with him to the holiday party.
On December 20, he dons the Captain America sweater, hair down but silky and soft, strands just brushing his shoulders. He slides his glasses on, wraps a scarf around his throat, and pulls his coat on, grabbing the tin of cookies and waiting on the sidewalk near his apartment complex until Ellen pulls up. He slides into the front seat, shivering as the warmth of the car chases away the chill, setting the cookies on his lap.
"Ooh, what'd you bring?" Ellen asks, looking at the box.
"Cookies. I baked them myself," he admits. "I've been learning to bake." He feels a sliver of pride at his accomplishment, something no one else had helped him with or told him to do, something that isn't even from his past. This Bucky Barnes bakes. It is his, and no one else's.
"That's great." Ellen pulls away from the curb. "My husband does all the cooking, and he loves to bake. Me, I just like to eat what he makes."
Bucky chuckles, ducking his head. "My, uh, my ma was a great cook. I tried to make her latkes, but they didn't turn out as well."
Ellen cocks her head. "Are you Jewish?"
"Yeah." Bucky fiddles with his gloves. "On my mother's side. My dad was Protestant. Did both of everything. So, Hanukkah and Christmas."
"That must have been interesting. You know, I've noticed you have a bit of an accent sometimes. Not Queens." She glances over. "Brooklyn, maybe?"
"Yeah. Been a while since I've been there, though. I don't think I'd even recognize it now."
"You might be surprised. Home is home, you know?"
"Yeah." He stares out the window, watching the buildings rush past. They're unfamiliar, like everything in this new world, but familiar at the same time. Bricks, concrete, people. The recipe is the same, though the result may vary. Maybe home isn't a place, he thinks, but people.
His mind drifts to Steve.
A person, maybe.
Soon they're pulling up outside Carl's house, a nice two-story suburban home with wreaths in the windows. Ellen parks the car in the crowded driveway and they head in, the door opening at the bell to reveal Carl in a bright red sweater with a large green Christmas tree adorning the front.
"Merry Christmas! Glad you could make it." He ushers them in, directing them to hang up their coats in the hall and follow him into the living room. Bucky's cookies are whisked away to the kitchen by Carl's wife, who tells him she's heard so much about him and she's so glad to finally meet him, following by an exclamation over his sweater.
"I love it. Big Captain America fan?"
Bucky smiles wanly. "Something like that."
The living room is already full of teachers, standing around chatting with drinks in their hands. Bucky gazes in wonder at the high ceilings, the gas fireplace, the large Christmas tree taking precedence in the corner. It's beautiful, and far bigger than any house he's been in. The floors are polished wood, a soft rug laid overtop, couches and chairs strategically placed. The opulence astounds him, though he supposes this is normal these days. He's used to a modest Brooklyn home and now, a matchbox apartment. The only extravagant homes he remembers are those of his victims, and he certainly never took the time to appreciate them. He doesn't want to count them, anyway.
"Your home is beautiful," he tells Carl truthfully, accepting a beer from him.
"Thank you. We put a lot of work into it. Mortgage nearly killed us, luckily Susan has a good job. Don't need to tell you how little teachers make."
Bucky nods understandingly. From what he understands, teachers' salaries are criminally low. He doesn't need his, of course, has thousands in stolen Hydra money, but he grew up during the Great Depression, and can understand not having money even if they were better off than most. His salaries now go into a bank account he'd opened for the purpose, untraceable to him. His forged identity is solid, if no one looks beneath the surface.
He takes a sip of his beer, finding it not preferable but palatable. Alcohol doesn't affect him anyway. He mingles to the best of his ability, the amount of people making his anxiety bubble and the lack of known sight lines and defensible positions causing his gaze to perpetually flicker around, constantly cataloguing threats. He doesn't know the layout of the house, doesn't know what the best escape route would be. It's exhausting.
Maria Reyes catches his eye, draws him into the conversation.
"James and I kept crossing paths at the laundromat for a couple weeks," she laughs, fingers curled around her wineglass. "He walked me to my car a few times." She glances over at Bucky. "Thanks for that, by the way."
Bucky returns her smile, shifts uncomfortably. "You're welcome. Bit of a rough neighborhood."
"Hey, it's got its charm."
The people Maria's talking to turn out to be the band and orchestra directors, a sharp-featured woman named Nancy in her fifties and a short-haired, heavyset woman named Trish in her thirties. The conversation drifts to music, and Maria's talking about her choir students and the musical the school just put on, something light and cheesy.
"Any musical knowledge?" Maria asks, courteously including him in the conversation.
Bucky adjust his glasses, pulling on strands on memory. "I used to love music." Swirling music, shoes scuffing on the floor, laughter. "I was a good dancer." He also remembers his mother's hands on his, bodies pressed together on a narrow bench, her lilting voice in his ear. "Played piano, too, but I don't know if I was any good at it."
"I'm sure you were better than you think," Maria says. "How long did you play for?"
"Not sure," Bucky admits. He gives a self-deprecating smile, taps his head. "Amnesia."
"Really?" Nancy asks. "That's awful."
Bucky shrugs. "It's getting better. I remember most things now. Others are just jumbled."
"I've heard muscle memory is still there even with amnesia. Come on." Maria nudges him towards the upright sitting along one wall. "Play something. It's tradition to play something on Carl's piano."
"I don't know..." Bucky flexes his metal hand. "My left hand isn't, um, so good," he says lowly.
"Not a problem." Maria sits down on the bench and pats the seat to her right, flicking through the sheet music. Bucky slides in next to her, regarding it dubiously, and the others gather around. "You do the right hand, I'll do the left," Maria says. "You know how to read music?"
He squints at the music, the shapes suddenly making perfect sense. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do."
"Try the first line."
Bucky reads the notes, right hand hovering hesitantly over the keys before he begins to play. It's a simple melody, the lyrics written underneath. Some kind of Christmas song, slow and pretty. His fingers press into the smooth ivory, notes filling the air softly, and he finds his wrist lifting, hand relaxing as something slots into place. His muscles know this, even if he doesn't.
As he grows more confident, Maria joins in, adding embellishments not written in the music. The chatter in the room fades, and Bucky feels eyes on him, but it's a comfortable weight. Maria's body is nearly pressed against his left side, so close to his metal arm, but for once the contact is welcome. She starts to sing, voice soft and melodic, and Bucky has to blink away tears at the memory of his mother doing the same, Becca squealing in delight as their father twirled her.
The song ends to light applause, and Maria flips to another one, looking askance at Bucky. "Told you it'd come back."
He smiles, a real one, and they start the next song, a cheerful, bouncy one about a snowman that has the whole room joining in on the chorus. Bucky laughs, feeling his eyes crinkle and nose scrunch up, the kind of laugh he did not know he could still do. It is the kind of laugh he knows from a grainy film clip in a museum, Steve's blinding smile beside him.
After they at last have run out of songs, after they have bowed to applause and retreated to the kitchen to grab more drinks, Bucky leans close to Maria and says quietly, "Thank you."
Maria just looks at him and nods, understanding in her eyes. Then she stretches up on her toes and kisses him on the cheek, the barest brush of her lips. Bucky blinks in surprise, and Maria disappears into the crowd, leaving him reeling. It is the first time someone has touched him like that since before Hydra, he thinks suddenly. With gentleness.
He drains his beer and grabs another one, feeling off-balance. Greg comes up, congratulating him on his performance, and Bucky quickly gathers himself, pasting on a smile.
The night passes quickly, with games and the announcing of the ugly sweater competition winner. It's Karen, as it turns out, with a fuzzy monstrosity that has strings of lights twinkling on it, and she gets a red pen as her prize. A running joke, it seems. The pen is coveted.
Karen still flirts with him, but they manage to have a passable conversation, and find commonality in their love of math. Bucky knows he's always loved math, been good at it, knows that's what made him a good sniper. He carried a notepad around with him during the war to calculate shots. He wishes his love of math wasn't tied to killing, but it seems he can't escape that part of him. He made the calculations for Steve's shield, too, he remembers vaguely. They figured out how to throw it together, Bucky making the calculations and Steve throwing over and over again until he got it right, the angles and the speed, the curve of his throw.
"Everyone says I'm crazy for loving math," Karen says, obviously tipsy and sidling closer to him every minute. "But it's just so....great, you know? I feel like you understand."
"Mmhm." Bucky shifts back as she comes closer, the role reversal from predator to prey in the face of a tiny blonde woman with no training bewildering. He slips out from between her and the wall, searching for an escape route. "Listen, I'm going to go get a drink. I'll get you a water."
He flees to the kitchen, getting a glass of water and bringing it out to Karen. Karen pouts as she accepts it. "You're so sweet."
Bucky shifts uncomfortably, unsure how to respond. Suddenly Karen sighs, slumping back against the wall and looking up at him.
"This isn't working, is it?"
"You're obviously not interested. It's okay, I get it."
"I'm sorry," Bucky says genuinely. Karen seems like a nice person, and she looks so heartbroken by her revelation.
She shakes her head. "No, I'm sorry, I've been throwing myself at you like an idiot." She takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders. "Friends?"
Bucky smiles. "I'd like that." He moves to lean against the wall next to her, lowering his voice. "For the record, I'm, um. I'm gay." Saying it out loud makes it slot into place, a truth he's known all along.
"Oh. Oh!" She turns her head to look at him, relief in her eyes. "That actually makes me feel a lot better, as selfish as that is."
"It's fine." Bucky feels amusement curl in his chest. The conversation flows easily after that, only a hint of awkwardness remaining, and Bucky finds himself enjoying Karen's company. They drift, talking to other teachers, and Bucky finds himself opposite the language teachers, who have seemingly banded together.
"We're debating the merits of learning different languages," Rosa tells him. "I say Spanish is most useful in the US, because there's so many people who speak it here. Emile says French, because Canada is so close. The school stopped teaching German a couple years ago, that's a shame."
"I stand by Latin," Carl says. "We had to learn it in school when I was a kid."
"What about you?" Emile asks. "What language did you take in school?"
"Um, Latin," Bucky says. "Already knew some Hebrew. Then I learned German and French during the war. Bunch of others later."
"How many languages do you know?"
Bucky bites his lip, unsure. Upwards of ten, he knows, but that's not normal. Hydra probably programmed them all into his head. "I don't know," he finally says.
"Amnesia," Carl whispers to Rosa.
This amnesia thing is really coming in handy, he thinks.
"Sabes Español?" Rosa asks.
The language comes to his tongue easily, though he doesn't remember learning it. "Sí. ¿Enseñas dialecto español o mexicano?
"Español. A veces ambos. La mayoría de las personas que lo hablan aquí son de México, así que trato de enseñarles eso."
Bucky nods. "Muchos olvidan que no tenemos un idioma nacional."
"Tan verdadero. Tu acento es impecable, ¿dónde aprendiste?"
"No me acuerdo."
Rosa grimaces in sympathy. "Puede que no recuerdes, pero todavía lo sabes. Eso es un regalo."
"Soy suertudo." Bucky quirks his lips.
Rosa chuckles. "He speaks Spanish!" she declares in English. "Quite well. I'd think you were completely fluent."
Bucky shrugs. "I just have a knack for languages, I guess."
"So Spanish, French, German, Latin, Hebrew?" Emile says, ticking them off on her fingers. "And you know even more than that? I'm impressed."
Cal speaks up. "What's another big language - oh, I know, Russian. Can you speak Russian?"
Bucky tenses, anxiety spiking. Yes, he knows Russian. Knows it better than English, sometimes. He was Russian, for decades.
He swallows, rubs at the seam of his metal arm. "Yes." Ready to comply sits on his tongue, heavy and bitter.
Luckily, the conversation steers away, and Bucky relaxes. The night is drawing to a close, people starting to leave, and Bucky helps collect beer bottles and wineglasses that have accumulated on every tabletop. He says his goodbyes, surprised by how many people he's talked to tonight, how many give him genuine smiles. Ellen finds him and together they head out to her car, breath fogging in the night air. The car starts and pulls away, and Bucky relaxes into his seat, suddenly bone-tired.
"You have a good time tonight?"
He nods, finding it the truth. "Yeah. I'm glad I went."
"Good." Ellen pulls out onto the darkened street. "You and Karen seem to be getting on well."
Bucky chuckles, knowing her implications. "We're just friends." He sobers, staring out the window at the Christmas lights twinkling on houses. "I've only ever loved one person my whole life, and....well." He flexes his metal hand, feeling the plates shift. "I'm not the person he remembers."
"Maybe that's not a bad thing."
Bucky huffs a small breath. "Maybe. But he...he deserves more. Than me. And I can't...face him. Not yet. Maybe someday. I guess I've gotta figure out who I am first."
Ellen glances over at him, eyes soft. "Well, from what I've seen, it looks like you're doing a pretty good job. And you know what they say about Christmas."
"It's the time of the year you tell the people you love the truth."
The last two days of school barely count. Christmas is days away, and the students unable to focus. Bucky passes out candy canes and doesn't give homework, and tries not to think about Steve. He goes home the day before Christmas Eve feeling more lost then ever, his apartment too big, too quiet.
Peaches, he thinks, lying flat on his bed. Steve loved peaches. They only got them once a year in Brooklyn, and they were expensive. They'd stolen some once, when the vendor's back was turned, plucked them right out of the crate. Bucky never told Steve about the dime he'd left, sitting right on top.
He bundles up and walks to the grocery store, buying a bag of peaches. Steve is easy enough to find, living in a modest brownstone in Brooklyn. Bucky walks there Christmas Eve, arriving late into the night. The lights are on, and when he creeps close he hears the sound of someone moving around. He carefully places the bag of peaches on the doorstep, then slips away into the darkness, picking a covered spot to observe.
Steve opens the door moments later, having heard the rustling outside as Bucky knew he would. He looks around, frowning, before his gaze drops to his feet and lands on the peaches. Something cracks in his gaze, and he picks them up carefully, staring at them. Then he looks up and around frantically, expression one of hope and disbelief.
"Bucky?" he calls softly.
Bucky feels a tear slip down his face. Steve is bathed in the yellow porch light like some kind of angel, and he can imagine the exact shade of his eyes, wide with hope. He has never wanted to go to him so much.
A minute passes, and Steve crumples, sitting down heavily on the steps. He starts to cry. Bucky watches, guilt gnawing at his stomach, and Steve's sobs subside. He looks up, taking a deep breath.
"Thank you," he says into the still night, no more than a whisper. "Merry Christmas, Buck."
"Merry Christmas, Steve," Bucky whispers, too quietly to be heard. He steals away before his resolve breaks, along with his heart.
Christmas morning he wakes early and goes for a run, the streets quiet and peaceful. Lights flicker on as he goes past, children waking tired parents with excited squeals, families eating breakfast together. He runs until the emptiness inside him lessens, and then goes back to his apartment, doing yoga and writing in his journals. He makes breakfast and coffee, eats as he watches cat videos on YouTube. Showers. Reads Harry Potter. Curls up in his blankets. Naps. Eats. Writes. Repeats.
School is out until January fifth, a week and a half away. Bucky has no idea what to do with the time. He's gotten so used to the routine of school that the change is destabilizing. What had he done those first few months after the Helicarriers? Run, he remembers. Run, and hide, and shake his way through withdrawal, learn to eat again, make it to New York. Survive.
Now that he has basic function down, a place to hide out, he desperately needs a mission. Something to keep him from spiraling.
The internet says pets are good for keeping busy. A dog would be best, but they need to be licensed, and Bucky is leery of that much exposure. Besides, he works long hours sometimes. No, a cat would be better.
He finds himself at the shelter, staring at the rows of cages. They're all cute and fluffy, sniffing his hand through the bars. As he moves on, a white cat in the next cage hisses and spits at him, blue eyes furious. Bucky checks the tags on the cage: Alpine. Female. 3 years old. Spayed. Needs a quiet home. No children.
"That one," he says to the employee. "I want her."
The employee gives him a dubious look, but nods. Soon, Bucky is leaving with Alpine growling softly in a carrier, huddled against the back. He's already bought all the necessary things, including a litter box, cat food, and a bed, and he locks his door securely before opening the carrier and stepping back. Alpine shoots out, disappearing down the hallway, and Bucky doesn't bother to look for her. He knows what it feels like, to be trapped, terrified, at the mercy of unfamiliar people. He recognizes himself in Alpine's blue eyes.
She avoids him for two days, though the food he leaves out is eaten by morning. It's hard to hide in his apartment, no space under his bed or furniture in his living room, but she makes a point to be in the far opposite room from him. He doesn't mind. It's nice, having someone else here. If she never lets him touch her, that's okay. She deserves her autonomy.
A neighbor gets rid of an old armchair, tossing it in front of the apartment complex for free, and Bucky takes it. He puts it in his barren living room, and an hour later Alpine is curled on it, snoozing in the faint patch of sunlight managing to break through the newspaper over the window. Bucky makes a decision, and tears the newspaper away from the top panes, replacing it with heavy curtains. He leaves them open in the day, and Alpine basks in the sunlight, white fur gleaming. It opens him up to sniper fire, but only in a slim margin of space, and he's extra cautious when crossing in front of the windows.
He has a bad day halfway through the week, staying curled in his bed as his head whirls and pounds. Time passes in odd jumps, his mind fragmented and full of confusion. Memories of Hydra flash before his eyes, pain and blood and screams.
There's a dip in the bed, and then soft fur against his bare arm. Alpine settles against his chest, purring loudly. Bucky stays still, afraid to hurt her in his unstable state, afraid to crush her small body with the gleaming silver arm. But gradually, her purrs lull him into a peaceful sleep, and he curls around her, face pressed into her fur. He wakes feeling drained but himself again, and chances stroking a hand over her head. She yawns and twists onto her back, soft belly inviting. He rubs it and immediately is attacked with teeth and claws, small pinpricks of pain. A laugh bubbles up.
After that, she doesn't leave his side. She winds around his legs as he does yoga in the morning, curls up on his lap as he reads. He wakes from a nightmare to a soft meow and a thump on the bed, a rough tongue scraping over his hand.
Bucky goes out and buys a real phone instead of the burner he'd gotten for his job. It has a camera, and after figuring out how to use it he takes pictures of Alpine from every angle, filling up rows and rows in the camera roll. The thought of having these pictures to look back on, memories tangible in his hands, is freeing. He starts taking pictures of things he wants to remember - a fresh patch of snow remarkably untarnished, a patch of sun on his floor, cookies he'd made himself. He's careful not to photograph any identifying places, or himself, in case the phone is hacked, but he takes joy in flipping through the photos and transporting himself back to when it was taken, a tiny spot of happiness.
The New Year comes, and Bucky writes down his resolutions.
Get more memories back
Get kids a 5 on the AP Exam
He crosses the last one out. There's no use thinking about it.
As midnight approaches, he climbs onto the roof of the complex, looking out over the city. Stars twinkle distantly beyond the haze of light pollution, moon shining down brightly. The city is lit up, a beehive of activity, people laughing and drinking together for the new year. The clock strikes twelve and fireworks burst into the sky in vibrant color, the crack-boom making Bucky twitch. He lies on his back on the rooftop, staring up at the trails of color, and it feels like a fresh start. A new year, a new Bucky. No Hydra, not even Steve to lean on. For the first time in his life, he is completely his own person.
"Happy New Year," he whispers to himself, words lost to the night.
Soon enough, school is rolling around again, the last month of the semester. Bucky walks to school with a spring in his step, white hairs still sticking to his slacks. He greets the other teachers when he arrives, asking about their holidays, about their children. Ellen's told him about her kids, all grown now, and he knows she had a lot of family coming home for Christmas.
"You look happy," she comments. "Have a good break?"
"Yeah." Bucky smiles, pulling out his phone. "Got a cat." He opens the camera roll to show her the photos of Alpine.
"Oh, she's adorable! What's her name?"
"Alpine." The news has drawn a few more people over, and they all crowd around Bucky's phone, exclaiming over his cat. He preens internally.
He's happy to see his class again, has missed them if he's honest with himself. Even the ones he doesn't like. AP Bio is much the same, the course continuing into the next semester. He doesn't have to worry about them. His intro class, however, will be ending this semester, a brand new one starting next semester. They're on their last two units, before they wrap up and review for the final.
Michelle continues to stare at and draw Peter, Peter and Ned continue to be oblivious. Peter and Ned bombard Bucky with questions, and Michelle judges him silently. America and Kate continue to be enigmas. All is normal.
It's a Friday when the news breaks. Bucky does his morning yoga with Alpine and showers, opening his laptop as he eats his breakfast. The headline scrolls across every news outlet, making nausea surge in his gut.
Winter Soldier Identified as Howling Commando James Buchanan Barnes
There's pictures, black and white, of his face, young in his uniform. Him, smiling next to the Commandos. Next to Steve.
There's pictures of the Winter Soldier, grainy and blurred, fighting on the causeway in DC. More from the data dump, indistinct images of him, the metal arm.
There's pictures of him on the operating table, arm a bloody stump. Pictures with needles in his arms, straps holding him down. His face, smooth in sleep behind the window of the cryo tank. Notes on their experiments, their progress. A link to his Russian file, just now decrypted and unearthed from the data dump. He reads the highlights, scanned paper and spidery Russian handwriting. There's a transcript converting it to English, but he doesn't need it.
February 1945. Subject No. 017: Barnes, James Buchanan. Sergeant, US Army. 32557038.
Subject shows signs of enhancement, having survived fall into frozen ravine. Recommend further investigation and experimentation to determine exact nature and replicability. Inform SSR and Captain Rogers of subject's death.
March 1945. Subject successfully revived and stabilized. Experimentation underway [see notes p. 1-3].
May 1945. Subject shows high levels of combativeness, even after punitive measures. Five soldiers deceased. Unable to replicate serum. Recommend stasis until further measures can be taken [see stasis chamber, p. 4].
June 1954. Notes per Arnim Zola, lead scientist: Inability to replicate serum in other subjects leaves subject 017 the only option for a supersoldier. Subject displays exceptional enhancements of strength and healing. Other enhancements unknown due to noncompliance of subject. Severing of left arm mid-humerus due to fall presents problem. A technologically superior prosthetic must be developed if the subject is to be used. Dr. Fennhoff's services will be invaluable in generating compliance with Hydra and Russia's goals.
July 1954. Metal prosthetic developed [see p. 5]. Subject awakened from stasis. Left arm amputated at shoulder to accommodate prosthetic. Prosthetic attached successfully, but subject violent when conscious. Attempted escape. Subject put back in stasis until mind control is developed.
May 1955. Subject awakened from stasis and Fennhoff's methods applied to induce state of compliance. Subject successfully started training. Balance affected by prosthetic. Fracture of bones and tearing of prosthetic from shoulder resulted in reinforcing of subject's skeleton - vertebrae, scapula, clavicle, and ribs 1-3 [see p. 6]. Subject appears to be in significant pain.
June 1955. Subject broke from Fennhoff's control. Ten soldiers deceased. Attempt to control mind again. Introduce conditioning.
August 1955. Subject continues to resist conditioning and control. Fennhoff attempting new methods.
September 1955. Subject continues to break control after a few hours. Noncompliant and combative. Rapidly endangering personnel. Suggest stasis until more effective method is developed.
April 1956. Subject awakened from stasis. Electroshock treatment administered to suppress prior memories [see p. 7]. Subject emerged confused and disoriented. Dr. Fennhoff developing programming related to cue words [p. 8]. First trial is a success.
May 1956. Subject has successfully been programmed with the Russian language and false memories. Displays exceptional fighting abilities and intelligence. Training resumed.
June 1956. Treatment seems to wear off quickly. Subject regained memories and became combative. Measures taken to ensure safety. Electroshock treatment administered again, and more programming implemented. False memories adjusted. Subject seemed disoriented at first but amenable.
July 1956. Electroshock administered again after relapse. Sensory deprivation used to increase compliance and malleability of mind. Subject shows great strides in training. More languages programmed, current knowledge updated.
September 1956. Subject completed baseline tests successfully. Recommend continuation of electroshock and sensory deprivation treatments alongside programming.
January 1957. Subject exhibited noncompliance and combative behavior after further testing. Programming improved and electroshock targeted more successfully [see p. 9].
April 1958. Subject put in stasis until next mission to preserve longevity.
March 1959. Subject given to control of KGB. Awakened from stasis and treatment administered. Mental implantation achieved, programming updated to reflect position. Subject believes himself to be KGB agent. Completed first field test successfully. Resumed training within Russian forces.
September 1959. Subject given codename: Winter Soldier. Put in stasis until next mission.
May 5, 1961. Winter Soldier completed mission successfully.
November 22, 1963. Winter Soldier successfully completed first mission on American soil. Returned to stasis.
He skims the next years, nothing but lists of mission reports and updated programming to fit the times. Collaboration with the Red Room. The Widows.
March 1975. Winter Soldier failed to report to exfil. Found in Brooklyn, NY. When questioned, the Soldier could not explain his actions. Confused and disoriented. Electroshock treatment administered. Reassigned to General Aleksander Lukin as personal bodyguard until problem with programming can be corrected.
January 1976. Winter Soldier's behavior continues to degrade. Unstable and erratic. Electroshock treatments altered - new designation: wipes - and trigger words implemented in programming [see handling book]. Wipes to occur on weekly basis when soldier is out of stasis.
More missions, more wipes.
December 16, 1991. Attempt to recreate supersoldier serum failed. Subjects became violent and were put into stasis. Winter Soldier remains valuable operative.
December 25, 1991. USSR dissolved. Winter Soldier - new designation: the Asset - transferred to Alexander Pierce in American branch.
The Russian file ends there. There's more pictures attached - schematics of the arm, him cut open on the operating table as they put it in, the chair and its schematics, him in it, face a rictus of pain. He swallows down nausea. There's another file, a digital Hydra one, and Bucky clicks on it, needing desperately to know.
January, 1992. The Asset awakened from stasis. Confused and disoriented. Russians appear to have withheld crucial trigger words to activate his programming. Multiple wipes were given to achieve compliance, and the asset showed signs of cognitive damage. The asset completed the mission successfully, but became distressed and violent. Returned to stasis until solution found.
April, 1994. The Asset awakened from stasis and wiped. Drug regimen started to offset effects of wipe and maintain compliance. See list below:
The Asset switched to intravenous nutrition. Drug interactions appear to be mitigated by serum. Asset stable. Updated with modern information, selectively withheld to reduce chance of independent functionality. Completed mission successfully and returned to stasis.
Missions, more missions. The Asset behaving erratically at times. The increasing push to get rid of him.
May, 2014. The Asset activated on final mission before termination once Project Insight is launched.
There's videos this time, full color and high definition. Bucky clicks on one at random.
He's in the chair, eyes wide with panic and struggling against the cuffs.
"Let me go!" he screams, chest heaving. "YA ne ponimayu. Pozhaluysta. Pozhaluysta!"
The chair whirs to life, paddles sparking with electricity as they lower over his head. He struggles, panics, but there's no escape, and they clamp around his head. His body goes rigid, knuckles whitening, and he starts to scream.
Bucky watches with a strange detachment, numbness creeping in. Eventually, the screams stop, replaced with heaving breaths, and on the screen he strains against the cuffs again, visible eye wide and glazed with fear. His body trembles with aftershocks. The paddles are still tight against his head.
His metal arm whirs, hand clenched in a fist, and rips through the restraints, grabbing the nearest technician by the throat. Immediately, agents swarm him, pinning his arm down and securing it again with magnetic cuffs.
"Again," Pierce's voice says.
His chest hitches in a sob. "Please," he says in English, face crumpling. "No, please-"
He stiffens, screams as the electricity jolts through him again. Bucky slams the laptop shut and lurches to his feet, making it to the bathroom just in time to lose his breakfast. He stays hunched over the toilet for some minutes, panting and shaking, trying to shut out the flashes of memory in his mind. Eventually he pushes himself to his feet, brushes his teeth, scrapes his hair into a bun. Shoves his glasses onto his face, looks in the mirror.
He doesn't look exactly like the soldier, at least. The hair, the glasses, the beard all make his face look different. It's filled out, too, and lost its sallow, waxy hue under Hydra. He's gained weight, no longer lean, sharp lines of muscle but rounded softness. Cryofreeze had prevented him from ever gaining weight, the drugs too. They had devastated his body in the name of making him their perfect soldier, but he has reclaimed it. He is healthy, fit. He has color in his cheeks. He looks nothing like the soldier.
Except that he does. It is the same face, the same eyes. Anyone taking more than a passing glance will notice the resemblance, to the old Barnes as well as the Soldier. The glove on his left hand is a dead giveaway. Anyone would connect it to the metal arm.
He contemplates running, packing all his things and disappearing without a trace. But he can't. He has his students, counting on him. He has friends. He has Alpine, who he can't uproot just as she's settling in. If he runs, it will be immediately clear where he was. If he takes the day off, they'll know. They'll track him down from here. But if he stays....if he manages to avoid suspicion, maybe, just maybe, he can stay off the radar. Maybe he can keep his life here, wait for this to die down. It's the only option he sees.
He takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders. He can do this.
The break room is buzzing when he gets there, everyone on their phones and discussing the news. Bucky keeps his face a mask of normalcy, going through the motions of his daily routine, heart beating wildly against his ribcage.
"You see the news?" Carl asks.
Bucky grunts an affirmative. Carl peers at him.
"Huh. Anyone ever tell you that you look like him?"
Bucky makes his mouth tug up slightly, emits a scoff. He's planned for this, has a backstory. "Yeah, every day of my life, pal. Apparently he's a distant relation. Great uncle or something. Everyone always said I was a dead ringer."
Just like that, everyone is appeased, accepting the story without question. And why wouldn't they? No one would expect the Winter Soldier to be teaching high school biology. They probably expect him to be dangerous, or barely functioning. Which, that's true, but he's getting better.
"Distant relation, huh?" Karen says, mouth twisting in sympathy. "It has to be hard, learning what happened to him. I mean, he was a war hero. Everyone loved him. To find out he got turned into an assassin by Hydra...just wow. I'm in shock." She sniffs. "And what they did to him. I can't even imagine. It's horrifying. I couldn't watch the videos."
Bucky clears his throat, smiling wanly. "Yeah, you and me both."
His hand is shaking when he finally escapes the break room, allowing himself a moment to break down at his desk before he composes himself and readies for the day. He can hear his students talking about it but ignores them, focusing on the lesson. The whispering intensifies, and eventually he breaks.
"What are you whispering about?" he demands.
America raises her hand. "Okay, I know it's weird, but you look a lot like Bucky Barnes."
Bucky sighs. "Yeah, we're related. Listen, I know this is big news, but now's not the time for it, okay? Save it for after class."
The class murmurs their agreement, and falls silent as Bucky continues teaching. He can feel them basically vibrating with tension, though, and as soon as class is over he's swarmed with students asking how he's related to Bucky, what he thinks of the news, what it means.
"Alright, alright," he finally says, feeling his mental state fraying. "I'll say this once. Yes, I'm related. Great uncle or something. Yes, I look like him. The news sucks. Hydra is evil. The end." He raises an eyebrow. "Shoo."
The students sigh and scatter, finally leaving Bucky alone. He sinks down in his desk, takes off his glasses, puts his head in his hands. Tries not to fall apart.
You're here, he tells himself. You're safe. This will blow over eventually.
It doesn't help the fact that every time he closes his eyes, he sees his own face, hears his own voice pleading as they burned him away.
"Hey." Ellen sits down across from him. "How are you doing?"
Bucky blinks, coming back to awareness with his hands wrapped around his mug. "Hmm? Fine, why?"
"This must bring up bad memories, huh? Especially since you're related and all."
"Oh. Yeah." He ducks his head, escaping strands of hair falling into his eyes. "I'll be alright."
"I still can't believe it. You know it's implied he killed JFK?"
Bucky chokes on his coffee. "What?"
"Seriously. There's more, too. This changes history. My job is about to become interesting. Just imagine when we get to the Howling Commando unit in my AP US class this spring. I'm going to have to change everything I taught about Bucky Barnes."
"Yeah. Guess he's not a hero any more," Bucky murmurs, staring down at his hands.
"Oh no, he absolutely was." Ellen sounds appalled, and Bucky looks up in surprise. "He's not responsible for what Hydra made him do. Good grief. The poor man was mind-controlled. Just thinking about it breaks my heart. No, I'm going to have to revise everything on his death, and include all that horrible stuff about what happened to him. This changes everything, but not who he was. He was a good man."
Bucky swallows, blinking away tears. "Yeah." His voice is rough. "Yeah, I guess he was." He bites down on his lip. "What about-what about after? Do you think he's still...is there anything left of him?"
Ellen looks thoughtful, eyes cataloguing his expression. "I don't know. No one knows what happened to him after DC. I like to think that maybe he got away from Hydra and is hiding out somewhere, undoing what they did. I heard he never stopped fighting them, right up until the end, so I think, you know, Bucky Barnes was definitely still in there somewhere. I wouldn't give up hope."
Something unfurls in his chest, hot and painful.
"You sure you're alright, hon?" Ellen reaches across to lay a hand over his metal one, and he jerks it away. He takes a shaky breath, flashing her an apologetic smile, and stands.
"Sorry, I should, uh, go before America and Kate burn down my classroom."
He's gone before she has time to respond, ducking into the teachers' restroom and locking himself inside as he succumbs to the swell of emotions crashing over him.
He doesn't know how he gets through the day, in the end. Muscle memory and training move his body, shape words with his lips. He repeats his cover story to curious students and waves away their questions. When he gets back to his apartment, he locks himself in and retreats to his bedroom with his laptop, scanning the news. Alpine curls up by his feet, blissfully unaware of the way the world is crashing down around him.
The Winter Soldier Revealed
Bucky Barnes: Villain or Victim?
The Winter Soldier: 70 Years of Horror
Discovery Shocks Nation - Hydra Agent Revealed to be James Barnes
Howling Commando James Barnes, The Winter Soldier
Bucky Barnes: Traitor? Data Dump Unearths Horrifying Discovery
@jhenry: I don't understand how people are blaming Barnes. How do you ignore 70 years of torture and brainwashing? He's not the villain here people #BuckyBarnesisavictim
@braddmw: @jhenry What torture? Show me where it says they tortured him. I'll wait.
@jhenry: @braddmw Literally right here??? "punitive measures," "conditioning," "electroshock treatment," "sensory deprivation." That's all literally torture??
@deblyion: @jhenry @braddmw If you watch the videos, there's no way you can say it isn't torture. His screams are ringing in my ears.
@grwhite: Horrifying to think this has been going on under our noses. The Winter Soldier is rumored to have killed JFK. JFK! He needs to pay for his crimes #WinterSoldier
@ronnpres: For all the snowflakes crying about 'oh, but he was brainwashed,' that's not an excuse. He still did all those things. He needs to be locked up #WinterSoldier
@jbbuchannan: @ronnpres Uh, hello, brainwashing is definitely an excuse? They literally wiped his memories, mind-controlled him, and brainwashed him? He's not responsible for what they made him do.
@daverrryans: I was in DC. The Winter Soldier was fucking terrifying. I don't care who he was, he needs to be put down for all our sakes #WinterSoldier
@amygenn: @daverrryans I agree. Yeah, it's sad they did that to Bucky Barnes, but it doesn't change the fact that he's a dangerous assassin now. It'd be merciful to kill him.
@jenmerwaters: Everyone blaming Bucky Barnes should be ashamed of themselves. Did you guys even read the file? He fought back the whole time. They literally had to wipe his memories AND mind-control him. #BuckyBarnesIsAVictim
@keyyx: Is everyone seeing this? 'Electroshock treatment,' 'programming.' This shit is fucking crazy. And that list of drugs...how is he not dead?? #BuckyBarnes #WinterSoldier
@kyleroxx: @keyyx I'm a biologist, and no one could be given those drugs without dying. They wouldn't even work correctly because of the interactions. Someone obviously just made that list up. It's not real.
@keyyx: @kyleroxx "Biologist." You're a fucking freshman biology student at a community college. It's real, you're just an idiot who can't read. They said the serum neutralized the interactions. They probably didn't care what it did to him anyway.
@jamiellyn: Oh my god. Those videos. I can't. #BuckyBarnesIsAVictim
@junebugg: @jamiellyn I cried when I saw the first one and had to stop it. Haven't watched the others. Horrifying.
@julieccc: Childhood ruined. #BuckyBarnes
The files are everywhere. The pictures, linked to every article and tweet. Videos talked about, dissected. His undoing, his pain, his sins there for the world to see. People calling him a traitor, a monster, others defending him. Analyzing every line of the files, every horrifying detail.
This file is going to give me nightmares, someone posts.
Bucky wonders what that means for him.
He wakes screaming into a nightmare that doesn't end. He cannot separate past from present, real from unreal. Panic crashes over him in waves, drowning him. Time blurs. He finds himself huddled in the corner, a knife in his hand, not knowing how he got there.
He stands. Pulls on black pants and a hooded sweatshirt. Guns and knives tucked underneath. Scarf wrapped around his face. Sneakers. Gloves.
The door shuts softly behind him. The streets are dark, the moon rising overhead. He has a location in his brain, insistent. A base.
He walks for two hours. It's a low building, innocuous. He's been here before. The lock breaks under his metal hand. The inside is dim, fluorescent lights humming softly. One guard mans the desk. An arm around the neck and he slumps to the ground, unconscious.
His footsteps are silent as he moves forwards, body knowing the way. Another guard down, barely a whisper of sound.
Bucky kicks him in the head, shutting him up. Shakes his head against the sudden fog. Keeps moving.
The door to storage opens with a soft crunch. He grabs a duffel, scans the shelves methodically. Tac gear, more weapons. A sleeve for the metal arm, holographic flesh. He shoves them in, zips up the duffel. Finds a security guard, digs a phone out of his pocket. Dials 911.
He leaves the way he came, slipping away into the night.
Bucky wakes with a start, sucking in a breath. The room is bright, sunlight peeking from the curtains. A warm weight on his feet indicates Alpine's presence. The dream melts away and he sighs, moving to run his hands through his hair.
He stops, staring at his hands in horror. Blood, red and vibrant, drying against flesh and metal. Horror rises up. What have I done?
He remembers a dream, breaking into a Hydra base. But in the dream, he hadn't killed anyone.
Dangerous. He should be put down.
"Oh god," he breathes. "Oh-" He chokes, breaths coming too fast, hand shaking. What have I done?
He curls over his bloodied hands, harsh sobs wrenching from his chest. He should've known it wouldn't be that easy, should've known he can't escape what he is. Now he's hurt someone again, possibly killed them, and it's all his fault-
Something wet trickles from his nose. He licks his lips, tastes blood. Raises his arm, dabbing his nose with his sleeve. It comes away red.
Suddenly he is laughing, tears streaming down his cheeks in giddy relief as the events of the night slot into place in his mind.
He'd broken into the base, that is true, but he hadn't killed anyone. He'd come back home, had a nosebleed, and went back to sleep. He hadn't snapped, hadn't finally gone insane and killed someone. His mind is his own.
He staggers to the bathroom, cleaning off the blood and taking a shower, the hot water washing away the last of his tension. He laughs again until he cries, a hand braced on the shower wall. Maybe he is going insane. A nosebleed isn't a good sign. More brain damage, probably. A result of the half-formed trigger word the guard had uttered. But he's in control. He is not a mindless killer. Not anymore.
He pulls on fresh clothes, glancing at the duffel bag sitting on the floor but not opening it. He feeds Alpine and makes himself breakfast. Collects his bloodied bedding and makes a trip to the laundromat, even more conscious of any eyes on him. The stains don't come out, and he makes a note to buy new bedding in the future. When he returns to his apartment, he makes more food and checks the news cycle again, unable to help himself. He needs to know, to stay ahead of any developments.
Winter Soldier File Continues to Rock Nation
Who Is Bucky Barnes? From National Hero to Feared Assassin
Everything You Need to Know About the Winter Soldier
Where Is Captain America?
A Cancer in the Heart of America
History Rewritten - Unraveling the Winter Soldier Files
He's surprised to see that more and more people are supporting him, outnumbering those who call him a traitor and a monster. However, the sentiment remains - even if Bucky wasn't responsible for the Winter Soldier's actions, he is still the Winter Soldier now. He is still dangerous.
Where is the Winter Soldier now? people question. Is he still in Hydra hands, or is he running loose? Did he go down with the Helicarriers? Should we be afraid? Where is Captain America? Are the Avengers going to do something?
@AmericaChavez: I'll punch anyone who tries to blame Bucky Barnes #BuckyBarnesIsAVictim
@KateBishop: @AmericaChavez What she said #BuckyBarnesIsAVictim ]
Bucky strokes a hand over Alpine's fur slowly, the repetitive motion soothing. She's a warm weight on his thighs, purring gently, the tip of her tail twitching occasionally. Tentatively, he pets her with the metal hand, careful to keep his touch light. She doesn't stir, and something inside him loosens. He scratches her under the chin and she raises her head to give him a better angle, eyes half-lidded in pleasure. A frisson of pressure on the plates of the arm as her tongue darts out, rasping against the metal. He can only feel the pressure, nothing else, but he finds his eyes incongruously filling with tears. The arm has only been used for death and pain, and yet Alpine doesn't seem to care, leaning into his touch. It is his arm now, he thinks, no matter how it was gotten. He must live with that.
He grabs his phone from beside the bed and takes a picture of Alpine in his lap, sans metal arm. He smiles, the heaviness in his heart lifting momentarily. Maybe he'll be okay.
Unfortunately, now that the dam is broken, there's no stopping it up again. His dreams are haunted by memories of Hydra, and he wakes only hours into the night sweating and shaking, nose bleeding again. In the months since Hydra, he has been so focused on surviving, on dealing with the physical symptoms, that he has not focused on the psychological. He's had nightmares, and panic attacks, knows he is hypervigilant and paranoid, but the Hydra memories have often been vague and distant, not fully connected. Now, every time he closes his eyes the memories are there, vivid and horrifying; inescapable. It's like a block has been removed from his mind, and he wonders if this is programming breaking, his brain rewriting itself. He hopes so.
He returns to his PTSD coping journal, doing more research. Alpine is good for his mental health, and he writes her down on his list of good things for when he struggles to remember.
Dessert (separate category)
Having a bed
The sleeping is still an issue, but he doesn't want to take drugs to knock himself out - leaving him open to attack - and there's really no other solution. He doesn't see his PTSD going away anytime soon. Alpine helps sometimes, waking him by meowing, but he's afraid he's going to lash out and hurt her one day.
He pokes at the dark bags beneath his eyes, and sighs. Oh well.
The rest of Sunday he spends catching up on neglected grading. Monday morning he opens the stolen duffel bag and slides the holographic sleeve over his metal arm, the material perfectly fitted. It extends up to his shoulder, and when he turns on the hologram it looks like ordinary skin, if one doesn't touch it or look too closely. The fingers and hand are a bit bulkier than a normal hand, moving not quite the same, but it should be enough to fool any normal person at a glance.
He puts on a button-up and leaves the glove on for mystique. He has to have had a reason for wearing it, so he'll pretend there's some scar or something still. A flash of forearm is all he needs to convince everyone there's no metal arm hiding under it.
Hair up, glasses on, coffee in hand, he kisses Alpine on the head and walks to school, scarf wrapped tightly around his throat. The break room is busy as always, and Bucky makes sure to say hello to everyone, putting on a cheerful front. He takes off his coat, hanging it on a communal coatrack, and then ever so carefully slops coffee on the sleeve of his shirt, exclaiming mournfully.
"Oh no!" He frowns down at the stain. "I'm always so clumsy."
"Here." Karen wets a paper towel and dabs at it, lip caught between her teeth. "That's going to stain, sorry."
Bucky sighs. "It's fine. You know what, if I just roll it, no one will notice." He rolls up the sleeve to his elbow, exposing what looks like a normal forearm, glove still in place. The stain disappears, and he rolls the other sleeve to match, covertly checking everyone's reactions. There's a few stares, a few furrowed eyebrows, cocked heads. Eyes glancing down to his glove, curiosity piqued. Mission success. Any suspicions of him being the Winter Soldier should be assuaged.
There's similar reactions from his students, who stare more openly than the teachers.
"You rolled your sleeves," America comments, when he comes around during lab. "I've never seen you do that before."
"Spilled coffee," he says. He leans closer, conspiratorially. "Besides, didn't want people thinking I was hiding a metal arm under there. Everyone's a little paranoid right now."
"Good point." America scribbles on her lab. "Though if you were him, I wouldn't mind. It'd be cool, actually."
"Sorry to disappoint."
"It's okay. I'm sure you'll make it up somehow."
Kate leans over. "No homework?"
Bucky laughs. "Now you're pushing it."
Peter and Ned linger after class, and Bucky prepares for their usual interesting questions.
"Okay, so I was just wondering, because a lot of things don't make sense in those files, like, how would you actually program someone's mind? Is mind-control a real thing?"
Bucky tries to keep his face impassive, pulse jumping. "Yeah, mind-control is real. How it works? I have no idea. Hypnosis was-is part of it, I think."
"Oh right," Ned says. "Can't people hypnotize people and give them fake memories? I heard about that."
Peter brightens. "Yeah. That's so cool. I mean, obviously, not cool, you know, that Hydra did that, I'm not saying it's cool, it's, well, it's horrible, really-"
Peter's mouth snaps shut.
"I get it. Listen, I'd like to know how they did it, too. It's okay to be curious. I know you're not going to use your powers for evil."
Peter's eyes are wide and innocent. "Of course not. I'd never."
Ned crosses his heart, nodding. "I swear, Mr. B. We were just curious."
"Sorry I can't help you more. I really couldn't tell you how exactly they did it. I suppose we should be glad they didn't spell it out for anyone to read."
"Do you think it matters that he was enhanced, though?" Ned asks. "Like, wouldn't the electroshock kill anyone else, or turn them into a vegetable?"
Bucky swallows, trying not to think of the hum of the chair and the smell of ozone. "Probably."
Peter and Ned ask him a couple more questions before scampering to their gym class, and Bucky heads towards the break room to grab a cold bottle of water for his rapidly blooming headache. Carl is in there, doing the same, and Bucky nods to him as he opens the fridge, grabbing his bottle of water.
The pain hits him suddenly, a spike through his forehead. There's a whine in his ears, the chair powering up. The bottle of water slips from numb fingers and he claps his hand to his head, staggering as the world spins and blurs.
"Whoa, James, you alright?"
He cracks open his eyes to see Carl's blurred form in front of him, face creased in worry. He's hovering, clearly not wanting to touch Bucky and have a repeat of their incident, but hands held out as if to catch him.
"Head," Bucky manages to croak, still disoriented.
"Come on, let's sit down." Bucky follows Carl's gesturing hands and stumbles to a chair, sinking down into it. "You're bleeding."
He feels the warm wetness on his lip, clarity returning. "Fuck."
He takes his glasses off, throwing them on the counter. A paper towel is held out and he takes it, tilting his head back and pressing it to his bloody nose. The pain in his head has ebbed to a dull ache, and he closes his eyes, focusing on drawing deep breaths.
You're here, you're safe, you're in control.
There's the scrape of a chair as Carl takes the seat across from him.
"You need to go to the doctor or something?"
"No, no. I'm fine. It's nothing." He definitely can't go to a doctor.
"You don't look so good. This related to your...amnesia?"
Bucky swallows, squeezes his eyes shut tighter. "Yeah." He takes a breath and opens his eyes, dabbing with the towel and finding the bleeding slowed. "It's getting better." He says it as much to remind himself of that fact. He's leagues from where he started.
"Well, that's good at least."
"Yeah." Bucky crumples the towel in his hand. Carl hands him his dropped water bottle and he presses it to his forehead, the coolness numbing the ache. "Thanks."
They sit there for a while until Carl leaves to do some work, Bucky reassuring him that he'll be fine. He drinks some water and then retreats to his classroom to nurse his headache and do some prep work, America and Kate coming in at lunchtime. The day passes quickly, and Bucky escapes to the solitude of his apartment, on edge.
He makes the mistake of checking the news, which only heightens his anxiety. The internet frenzy has still not slowed. People have made small moving images - gifs - of the videos, analyzing every second, zooming in on his face. Seeing his own face, expression so lost and hurting, makes hot shame gorge him, and he has to look away. People liked him to a kicked puppy, and they're not wrong. That's all he was - a dog.
But I knew him, people quote everywhere, accompanied by profusions of emotion and incomprehensible text. Bucky does not even remember saying that, beyond the vaguest sense. It seems they burned it out too well.
He makes dinner and cuddles with Alpine on his bed, trying to ease the hollow ache in his chest. Again, his mind drifts to Steve. Steve, who had caused Bucky to question for the first time in years. Steve, who he remembered even after everything they did to him. He remembers the Helicarriers, his metal fist cracking against Steve's face, the anger and confusion in his mind. I'm with you to the end of the line.
He looks up Steve, but there's nothing recent. He has seemingly disappeared after DC. Bucky wonders what he thinks of all this, if he's read all the files. He hopes not. He doesn't want Steve to know what they did to him. Facing him, knowing that he knows....he can't do it, no matter how much his heart yearns for Steve.
He curls up in his nest of blankets, miserable and alone, wishing he could just disappear. How does he keep going, knowing that almost every person in America - nay, the world - knows every horrific detail of his life? Knowing that they have watched him scream, watched him beg, read the worst of what Hydra did to him. Hydra had taken away his privacy, his dignity for seventy years, but this is worse. This is the whole world.
And then there is everything he has done. The missions, the people dead at his hands. Everyone knows that now, too. Knows the monster he became. They are right to fear him, right to blame him. Right to want him locked up. He didn't have a choice, but he did it. There's no escaping that. Can he really have a life now, knowing all that? Does he deserve to live?
There's a soft mrrw, and Alpine licks his cheek. He realizes he's crying and sits up, wiping his face and retrieving his thoughts from their negative spiral.
Alpine needs him. His students need him. He is doing good in the world. He cannot change what happened, but to give up now would make it all for nothing. He has fought hard to free himself from Hydra. He won't throw that away.
He takes a deep breath. Straightens his back. Retrieves his coping journal and spends some time on it, reminding himself that he can get through this. There are still things he wants to do in life, food to eat, cat videos to watch. He wants to see Hydra fall for good. He wants to see his students succeed. He wants to even out the balance of his crimes before he dies. He wants to make sure Steve is okay.
Maybe he needs a little bit of Steve right now, he thinks. No matter what, Steve always got back up. He never gave in. And that's what Bucky needs to do.
He doesn't sleep that night, kept awake by nightmares and anxiety. He pets Alpine and reads some Harry Potter, resists the urge to check the news, only patrols his apartment twice and cleans all his guns once. When morning comes, he prods the bags under his eyes hopelessly and drinks an entire pot of coffee, which only makes his anxiety double. He's probably pushing it with his caffeine intake, but he stops at Starbucks on the way to school, ducking into the warmth and bustle of the store. The place is packed with people, putting him on edge, and he tries not to fidget as he waits in the long line. Finally, he's up to the counter, and a man about his age takes his order, eyes raking up and down his body in a way that makes Bucky's arm whir and recalibrate.
Does he recognize me? Is he Hydra? Have I been made?
"What can I do for you?" he drawls, giving Bucky a crooked smile.
"Uh, tall caramel macchiato please," Bucky says, ducking his head. He's tried many different flavors here, even the seasonal ones, and is constantly amazed at the way they can make coffee into a dessert. The pumpkin spice latte was his favorite in fall, and the peppermint mocha near Christmas.
"James," the guy repeats, whose name-tag reads Patrick. He scrawls Bucky's name onto the cup and types into the register, giving him his total. Bucky hands over a few bills and shuffles aside to wait for his drink, eyes constantly scanning the room. His drink is ready seven minutes later, and as he accepts it he notices more writing on the side. A number, and a message.
In case you're interested ;) - Patrick
Huh. He glances up at the barista, and then down at the cup. Not Hydra, then. Just interested in him.
It's, on one hand, baffling, and the other flattering. Bucky thinks about it as he resumes his walk to school, scarf tugged up around his face against the biting wind. He won't call, he knows that. Even if he wasn't a ninety-something-year-old brainwashed assassin with PTSD, he's been in love with Steve since the 1930s. He's not exactly dating material. Still, it's kind of nice to receive the offer, to know people can look at him and see someone someone they'd like to get to know instead of someone to be afraid of. He used to be popular in his day, he remembers faintly. Charming, handsome, flirtatious. All a cover, of course, but the girls loved him regardless. Or maybe because of it. Maybe that isn't all gone after all.
His coworkers notice his cup, of course, as he sets it down to unwind his scarf from his neck and shrug off his coat.
"Ooh, an admirer," Karen says lowly, sidling up to him with a smile. "Gonna call?"
Bucky shakes his head, pasting on quick smile. "Nah."
"Not your type?"
"Something like that." Again, his mind goes to Steve.
He wonders which would be worse - if Steve didn't love him back, or if he did.
The end of the semester comes quickly after that. He doesn't sleep, drinks coffee like water, and tries to keep himself together. Alpine continues to be the light of his life. His students are either stressed or utterly Done™. The news cycle on him evolves, fades slightly. All the files have been worked through completely by now, analyzed and publicized and ranted about on fifty different websites and blogs. Mostly, people wonder where he is now.
You wouldn't believe me if I told you, he thinks, as he passes tests out to his students, a pencil already in hand for the kid who always forgets one. There's a drawing taped to the whiteboard, a caricature Michelle drew of the class - she drew him with a messy bun and overlarge glasses, scowl exaggerated. He loves it. Below the drawing, a corner of the whiteboard is sectioned off, home to an assortment of writings and drawings from his students. Meme of the day, the first line reads. He doesn't understand any of it. In a box next to his desk is an assortment of snacks, for the kids who come to school hungry but are too proud to say anything. He has a favorite pen. He got observed and the principal himself told him he was doing a great job. He's been offered the chance to stay on permanently.
Things Bucky Barnes is doing - this.
It really is the ultimate fuck you to Hydra, he thinks, with every test he grades, every smile on his students' faces, every time someone sees him and not the Winter Soldier. He can see himself staying here, until the world forgets about him, until he is nothing more than another teacher. He likes the idea of that.
The end of the semester is bittersweet. Both his classes take their exams, but his AP class will be continuing on next semester, unlike his intro class. Saying goodbye is harder than he expected. He's gotten attached to these kids, even the ones who were annoying. He wishes them good luck on their finals and regents and sends them out the door for the last time, their parting words ringing in his ears. There's a week of regents and then a few more days off before the next semester starts, and Bucky cleans up his desk, filing away papers from his intro class and starting over again for the next one, this time making his own syllabus.
Welcome to Introductory Biology! he writes. My name is Mr. Beck, but you can call me Mr. B....