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Middletown: A Study of Suburban Life

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MIDDLETOWN

with SCENARIOS and PERSONAGES by

MORGAN LEIGH DAVIES and KADY MORRISON

and WRITTEN by

MORGAN LEIGH DAVIES


If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new. We are told that the oldest inhabitants in Peru do not cease to be agitated by the earthquakes, but they probably see beyond each shock, and reflect that there are plenty more to come.

—George Eliot, Middlemarch


I went over to my window and opened it and packed a snowball with my bare hands. The snow was very good for packing. I didn’t throw it at anything, though. I started to throw it. At a car that was parked across the street. But I changed my mind. The car looked so nice and white. Then I started to throw it at a hydrant, but that looked too nice and white, too. Finally I didn’t throw it at anything. All I did was close the window and walk around the room with the snowball, packing it harder. A little while later, I still had it with me when I and Brossard and Ackley got on the bus. The bus driver opened the doors and made me throw it out. I told him I wasn’t going to chuck it at anybody, but he wouldn’t believe me. People never believe you.

—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye


SEPTEMBER

IN WHICH THERE IS AN ARRIVAL

How to describe Bucky Barnes? He was, as we shall come to see, a delinquent, a Russophile, a smoker, a pyromaniac, hopeless in a fight, hopeless in love, a failed punk, profoundly uncool, and, to borrow a phrase used by one of his less enlightened classmates at an inopportune moment, a “fucking faggot” (an insult regrettably reflective of the limited scope of the teenage mind, though admittedly technically correct). Over the course of one very eventful year he would incur twenty-nine detentions, one suspension, and furthermore be responsible for several small fires (none of any consequence), nine separate hallway disruptions, a student falling out of a tree, another student having repeated screaming fits in the cafeteria, and, to the astonishment of the collected teachers and administrators of MCUHS, the very first punch Steve Rogers threw in his life.

But all of that would come later. For now, Bucky Barnes was The New Kid, and he was weird.

“He smells like armpit,” Pepper Potts said, scrunching up her pale, freckled face once she and her friend June had passed him.

“You don’t know that that was specifically an armpit smell and not a feet smell, or a crotch smell, or any other kind of bodily odor that you find objectionable,” Tony Stark said, appearing as if out of nowhere, clutching his briefcase in front of him and looking vaguely bug-eyed as per usual. “Your nose is not that advanced, because you are, obviously, not a bloodhound or any other kind of canine that can differentiate those kinds of smells. Why not just say that he smells, because he does, and it’s unsanitary.” Tony’s face had the sheen of someone who had aggressively scrubbed at it with some heinous form of acne lotion a brief time beforehand, which was to say that it looked alarmingly, blazingly clean now but would return to its natural, grease-covered state in a matter of hours, or, perhaps, minutes. Pepper should have known, being similarly afflicted, although her skin was not as bad as Tony’s, whose was, in turn, not nearly as bad as James Rhodes’. But then, nobody’s skin was quite as bad as Rhodey’s these days. It was best to simply try not to think about it too hard, and also to look at a fixed point over his shoulder when talking to him if at all possible.

“I said he smells like armpit because I have smelled an armpit,” Pepper told him, clutching her notebooks to her chest as she scurried down the hall. “Also, I was being figurative.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Tony protested, following her down the hall, briefcase thunking against his knees. “It’s one or the other. It’s figurative or it’s the literal smell of a gross, smelly armpit, it’s not both—

“It is too, you just don’t want to admit that I’m right, because you are incapable of ever admitting that you are ever wrong about anything—”

“You guys missed the classroom,” June said from some distance behind them. June often wondered why she remained friends with Pepper, who was deeply annoying, and also looked like her taller, louder, slightly more redheaded twin, which meant nobody ever noticed her at all; but this is not, for the most part, a story about June (a fact she should consider fortuitous), so we shall not remain long in her musings, and comment instead only on the fact that Tony and Pepper realized that they had walked four entire doors too far, and then, flustered, had to walk all the way back next to each other, looking sullen.

And, indeed, such semantics would seem superfluous to Tony mere moments later when, upon being confronted with the reality of The New Kid, who had been assigned the desk next to his, all thoughts of besting Pepper in rhetorical debate flew out of his mind, replaced by concerns for his personal hygiene.

(It should be noted here for the record that Tony was the sort of young person who, in the briefcase he carried everywhere in lieu of a backpack, always had not one but two small bottles of Purell, and also hand sanitizing wipes, in cases of emergency, and who had, in defiance of his mother’s not inconsiderable efforts to break his resolve, staunchly refused to shake anyone’s hand since the age of twelve. All public places made him anxious, and as most of our readers will surely know, there is no more disgusting place on earth than a public high school. [Private high schools, one could argue, are equally disgusting, but in different ways.] But although his parents’ fortune could have sent him anywhere, they had rightly concluded that their son was, at sixteen, not at all ready to leave home.)

“I can’t sit here,” Tony told Ms. Hill, the English teacher, who blinked at him slowly.

“Is the chair a mirage only I can see?” she asked. “Have you lost the ability to bend your knees?”

Ms. Hill was popular, but only with certain students. Tony was not one of them.

“I—no, I’m not being metaphorical, don’t be ridiculous, I mean, I can’t sit here.”

“Tony,” said Ms. Hill, who had suffered through Tony Stark before, and emerged unscathed, “you are trying my patience.”

Tony looked at The New Kid, and clutched at his briefcase. The New Kid glared and slouched deeper into his seat. His eyeliner, Ms. Hill noticed with a kind of amused despair, had been applied with what was clearly very laborious ineptitude.

“He’s—he smells,” Tony hissed. The New Kid glared harder. “Why can’t I sit next to Rhodey?”

“Sit down, Tony,” Ms. Hill said, “and think about how being able to stop yourself from saying offensive things that cross through your mind may be a useful skill for you to develop in the long term.” Then she walked back to the front of the classroom, because Tony Stark was deeply irritating, and the new kid really, really smelled.

By the time the bell was ringing, nearly everybody had stumbled into class, found their assigned seats, and scattered their backpacks and textbooks around them as haphazardly as possible (teenagers, Ms. Hill found herself thinking, took up as much physical space as possible regardless of circumstance).

“Where’s Clint?” she asked, and half the girls in the class made a face.

“Gettin’ some,” Rhodey said from the back.

“Superb,” said Ms. Hill. “One moment. Don’t burn down the building.”

The new kid got a weird look in his eye.

Great, she thought. Another one.

Clint was mashed up against the lockers across the hall from her classroom with a girl she didn’t recognize.

“Mr. Barton,” she said. “We meet again.”

“Ms. Hill,” he spluttered, attempting to regain some modicum of dignity as he shifted his backpack in front of his crotch while the girl grinned at her.

“In, please,” she said.

“Bye, sweetie,” the girl said as he shuffled in, and then bounced off down the hall.

“Is she wearing a shirt that says ‘Got Satan’?” Ms. Hill asked, and Clint shrugged.

“She’s discovering her inner goddess or something,” he said. “It’s like, liberating. For her, like. Body. And her. Mind.”

“Ah,” she said. “Yes. I can see that.”

Everybody pretended not to be staring at the new kid while she got out the attendance list, and failed—though, she thought, in some cases it was generous to say that they were even pretending. He, in turn, stared intently at his notebook and his bitten-off fingernails from behind his messy curtain of brown hair. He both looked and smelled as though he had not showered in quite some time. She tried to see whether she could make out the outline of a lighter in the pocket of his leather jacket, but he was slouched too far down. That boy, she thought, is going to light something on fire before the month is out, which was technically correct, although that would wind up being nothing more than a series of old Vogues his mother had forgotten about in his backyard under relatively safe conditions. As pyros went, he could have been worse.

But he was definitely a pyro.

She read off the first few names before getting to the unfamiliar one: “James Buchanan Barnes,” she said, and he glared at her, reflexively.

“It’s Bucky,” he snarled, and half the class snickered.

“All right then,” she said, and made a note.

“More like Sucky, am I right,” Clint said, snickering, and Barnes—Bucky—turned bright red and slid down even further in his seat. She was slightly concerned he was going to wind up on the floor.

“Clint, you have the honor of receiving my first detention this year,” Ms. Hill said without looking at him. “Congratulations.”

“Motherfucker,” Clint hissed.

“Oedipus,” Rhodey said, reflexively, and Maria Hill thought about all of the nights she had spent over the course of the last year getting drunk on wine and imagining careers that did not involve sixteen-year-olds, and resigned herself to her fate.


*


“Physics,” the teacher was saying, with a look in his eyes that was definitely not natural, “is the science of the knowledge of nature, science based on the study of the world and how things interact with each other in the world—”

Bucky stopped paying attention. He didn’t care about physics. He wouldn’t even be taking physics if it weren’t for his stupid bougie parents who had moved to this stupid bougie town and were making him go to this stupid bougie school, as if school was the kind of thing that was actually worth anything anyway. What the hell was he going to use physics for in the rest of his life? Nothing, that was what. School was just another way to corral people into—society’s fucking rules, so that everybody acted like sheep all the time, and nobody thought outside the box, and it was bullshit, and he hated it, and the worst part of all was having to wake up at six in the morning because he really, really could not work up any sort of consciousness at that hour.

Having spent most of the summer sleeping until two in the afternoon and then being lectured by his father over dinner about his poor sleeping patterns, Bucky was not adjusting to his first day of school at MCUHS well. Also because school was a stupid waste of time, but the sleeping really didn’t help. What if he just fell asleep, right now? Right here? What if he just—put his head down—on his arms—and—nobody noticed—

(“What I’m trying to say, Jimbo,” his father had said at some point in July, sitting by the side of the pool, wearing what to most people would have looked like an amusingly predictable linen shirt and shorts combo along with his Ray Bans, and which to Bucky symbolized everything he loathed deeply and with all the intensity of his soul both about his father and about society at large, “is that you’ve got to have some kind of aspiration. Some kind of goal. Well, several goals, but one overarching goal, a professional goal, something you’re shooting for, that’s going to drive you through life.”

Bucky hadn’t said anything.

“Answer your father, James,” his mother had said, without looking up from her book.

“I want to move to Russia and raise yaks,” Bucky had told his father, who had looked gravely disappointed. They remained at a détente on this issue.)

“Now that we have all that sorted out, we’re going to pick lab partners,” the teacher was saying, jerking Bucky out of his haze. “Or, well, I’m going to pick lab partners. Out of a hat!” He laughed, amused at something. Bucky didn’t know what. He didn’t have any idea what was going on, or why it was going on, or why anybody cared, or why anybody was here at all, both in the specific and cosmic sense. He wanted to go home and watch an entire season of Iron Chef on his laptop in his bed with the blinds drawn. He hated everything. He hated everybody. Physics was terrible. It was already his most hated class. He had decided. Based on—something.

“Loki and… Clint!” the teacher, whose name Bucky was pretty sure he had never figured out in the first place, said, as though he were announcing the lottery, and two people who were apparently Clint and Loki, whom Bucky immediately and viscerally disliked based on their carefully curated griminess and outrageously slick getup, respectively, both looked appalled. One of them, he was pretty sure, was the one who had called him “Sucky” in English class. He glared at him, for good measure. The kid didn’t notice.

The teacher kept reading off names that Bucky didn’t recognize, so he stopped paying attention, until he finally heard, “James Buchanan Barnes—ah, yes, you’re the new kid, aren’t you? How are you finding MCUHS so far?”

Bucky stared.

“It’s fine,” he said, and then glowered to make up for not having been as rude as he would have liked. “Also, it’s Bucky.”

Everybody snickered, especially that one kid. Bucky glared at him again, which had no effect whatsoever.

He had, at his previous school, gone by James, as he had for some time, except at home, where his parents typically called him Jimmy (or, horrifically, Jimbo); upon moving to a new town he had decided it was time for a change and had, after some deliberation, settled on Bucky as a shorted form of Buchanan. Bucky sounded punk. Bucky sounded cool. Bucky sounded like a guy you wouldn’t mess with.

It was possible, he was now realizing, that he had made a miscalculation, but it was too late now. He had to commit.

“Well, I’m sure everyone will be making you very welcome,” the teacher said, smiling vaguely while Bucky stared at him. “Anyway, let’s see—ah, yes, Steve. Oh, my, you’ve grown, Steve. I didn’t even recognize you.”

“Hi, Dr. Selvig,” said a gawky blond kid, smiling. “Yeah, I, uh. Grew. Some. Over the summer.”

His pants, Bucky noticed, were substantially shorter than they should have been. He was wearing a blue polo shirt that looked like it had gone through the wash too many times—the collar wasn’t sitting right—and part of his hair was sticking up in a ridiculous cowlick.

“Say hello to your mother for me,” Dr. Selvig said, smiling beatifically, and continued down his list, while Steve whatever turned toward Bucky and grinned doofily.

Bucky glowered harder. Steve’s smile faltered.

“Hi, I’m—Steve Rogers,” he said, reaching out a hand. Bucky considered ignoring it, and then remembered the Stark kid from earlier, who had spent the entire day giving him a six-foot berth before announcing his intention of transferring out of any of their shared classes, and reached out his own hand to pump Steve’s once, fast, before dropping it like a burning coal.

“Bucky,” he muttered, and turned away.

“You’re new, huh?” Steve said.

“Yeah, my parents had to move away from my old town because they threw me out for dangerous and erratic behavior,” Bucky told him, and when he glanced back over Steve was looking at him with what definitely constituted alarm.

“I like to light things on fire,” Bucky said, which was substantially truer than his previous statement, and bared his teeth.

“I… don’t?” Steve replied.

“Bummer,” Bucky said, and turned back to the front of the classroom, while Steve stared at him, boggled, and tried to remember his previous interactions with the resident delinquents in the student body, some of whom were benign and others of whom were legitimately intimidating. They had never had a pyro, he didn’t think, although there had been that kid who had spray-painted penises on all the bathroom stall doors the year before, who had subsequently been expelled. They had also definitely never had a boy who wore that much makeup. Or, well, makeup was probably not the word. It was—concentrated.

“How’s it going, Sucky?” Clint asked, snickering, as he walked by when they were sorting out into their lab tables, and Bucky’s shoulders hunched.

Steve grit his teeth. He was going to have to consult his mother.


*


“I dunno,” he said, playing with his food over dinner. “He seemed—nervous, I guess. Not very happy to be there. I guess I wouldn’t be, if I had to move schools in the middle of high school. But we never moved at all, did we? So—I dunno.”

“Clint Barton has been a twerp ever since he was five,” Mrs. Rogers said sagely, and Steve grinned. “Not a bad kid, but a twerp.”

“He’s got a girlfriend now,” Steve told her. “They’re very—ugh.”

“I’m sure they are,” she said, rubbing at her wrist with her thin fingers. “What did you say his last name was, the new kid?”

“Barnes. James Barnes, I think? Bucky, he wanted us to call him.”

“That seems unwise,” Mrs. Rogers said. “Teenagers make such foolish decisions, so much of the time.”

Mom.”

“I think I heard about this—his father’s a new big-shot guy at Stark Industries, I think.”

“Oh,” Steve said. There were two sorts of people in Steve’s school district: the sort of people like the Starks, and the sort of people like the Rogers, who lived on a fraction as much, and didn’t complain about it.

“Eyeliner, huh,” Mrs. Rogers said contemplatively, leaning back in her seat, and looking out at the evening light of the autumn summer fading out over the lawn. “Well. I’d be nice to him, Steve. I don’t think he’s probably having a very good time right now.”

“I’m always nice to everybody, Mom,” Steve said, sounding vaguely affronted, and Mrs. Rogers smiled, thinking of him tottering after small, wounded wild animals in the backyard or in the road at four, at six, insistent that they could be fixed somehow, when he himself had been little more than toothpick-shaped and sickly.

“Yes,” she said. “I know you are. You’re so nice, I don’t know where you came from.”

“You,” he said, looking even more affronted, and outside, a car—surely driven by an erstwhile youth—screeched by playing something by Kanye West at full volume.

“This has been very meaningful,” she said. “Let’s do the dishes.”


*


IN WHICH A BLOOD ALLIANCE IS FORMED

As anyone who has grown up in the American public school system will know, no situation—not bus rides, not lunch periods, not hallway encounters—solidifies the social hierarchy of high school as definitively as gym class. Though not, in fact, as cliquey as it could perhaps have been, the divisions between groups of students at MCUHS nevertheless became trenchant within the walls of its gymnasium, presided over and encouraged by one Johann Schmidt. Although he insisted upon being called Herr Schmidt, he was alternatively referred to as That Fucking Nazi (“That’s inappropriate,” Steve Rogers was often heard saying, weakly, for even he could not muster up much in the way of sympathy for Herr Schmidt, who looked at his pupils with the bug-eyed gaze of someone trying to figure out how best to make them suffer) or the Red Skull, in homage to the shade of his shining bald pate when he was angry.

Although Herr Schmidt was mandated by the school’s curriculum to lead his predominately unenthusiastic students through a wide range of “sports” activities over the course of the year, it was a time-honored tradition that, after a week of preliminary fitness evaluations—themselves their own particular brand of torture—he opened the year with a week of dodgeball.

For those readers lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the strategies behind dodgeball—a game generally considered to be imbecilic and unnatural by most kind-hearted and rational adults—there are essentially three approaches a player can take, outlined as follows:

  1. Extreme aggression. The extremely aggressive player does not fear for his own safety. The idea of being hit by a ball flying at high speed does not faze him. His only goal is the destruction of the opposing team.
  2. Survival. This player, who exists in the middle ground, simply wishes to survive. He tries desperately to avoid getting hit. He will, perhaps, occasionally throw a ball, in order to avoid being singled out by the gym teacher for not participating sufficiently. His inner monologue is a constant stream of, “Why am I doing this why am I here why do I have to play this stupid game,” but he nevertheless abides by the rules.
  3. Escape. This player has no patience for the game. He simply wishes to get out of it. He will do anything to get hit—once, painfully, as though ripping off a Band-Aid. The gym teacher hates this player, but, if the gym teacher is truly dedicated to the rules of the game, will not make him re-enter play. This is dependent on the gym teacher not having a bad day. The escape artist is, therefore, a risk-taker—but a highly motivated one.

The junior class students of MCUHS, at least the ones in this particular gym period, fell across this spectrum fairly evenly. Steve Rogers, who disliked dodgeball intensely, feeling that it encouraged a bullying attitude amongst students who otherwise would not have been able to get away that sort of thing, was nevertheless a survivalist par excellence. He had, over the years, perfected his ability to make himself an unnoticeable and unappealing target: he had, after all, been for years a very small and rather frail person, and though he was now suddenly considerably taller and had, over the course of the years, become progressively less frail, he was still basically ignored by the student body at large, an advantage when it came to dodgeball and other similar situations.

He rapidly noticed, however, that Bucky Barnes was having no such luck.

Over the course of their first two weeks of physics classes, during which time they had conducted such revolutionary experiments as rolling balls up and down ramps and dropping various objects from identical heights, Bucky had said almost nothing, and instead spent most of his time glaring at inanimate objects. Steve had never been popular but he had always been friendly, and yet, in spite of this, he had yet to figure out what to do to make Bucky Barnes talk to him. It was just, he thought, going to be very awkward to be lab partners with somebody all year long who refused to speak, just stared at experiments like he wanted to blow them up with his mind. That was next year, in chemistry, and anyway you had to use a Bunsen burner.

But now, watching him in his gym clothes—which looked, Steve thought, very wrong on him, in lieu of his typical artfully ripped skinny jeans and smelly t-shirts and carefully scuffed leather jacket, particularly since his eyeliner had not vanished along with the rest of his get-up—cowering against the back wall of the gymnasium, looking equal parts terrified and baffled, while Thor Odinson cheerfully hurled ball after ball in their general direction with what seemed to be superhuman strength, Steve found himself thinking once again of what his mother had said about Bucky probably not having a very good time, and thought that she was probably right, as usual.

Bucky, who had heretofore primarily been shunted from private school to private school as his father moved from job to job, had not had to deal with dodgeball since the age of seven. (Perhaps there are private schools in America where middle and high schoolers are forced to suffer this indignity just like their public school brethren; if there are, this author does not know of them.) His paralysis was such that he felt fairly certain that his legs actually would not move if asked. He could not decide whether he wanted to get hit, so as to be relieved of this nightmare, and go sit at a safe distance from the couple of girls on the sideline who had very obviously sabotaged themselves early on—who were also wearing way too much eyeliner, and to whom he would absolutely not speak for any reason should this occur—or whether he absolutely did not want to be hit by the ball ever for any reason. In any event, it was all a moot point, because he definitely could not move either way.

“Hi,” somebody said to his left, and his head twitched over just enough to see that Rogers kid standing next to him. His hair was sticking up weirdly, as it always did, every single day. Bucky found this irritating. His own hair was a disastrous mess, but this was intentional. Rogers clearly tried to look presentable and failed. There was a difference.

“Hi,” Bucky ground out, as a ball zoomed by his head. Thor let out a roar of disappointment.

“That was Sif, I think,” Steve said, turning to look at the terrifyingly fit girl with the long dark hair at the opposite end of the gym, who was looking at them like she wanted to skin them alive. “She’s almost as bad. But not quite. She’s not as—loud. Um. Emphatic.”

Bucky grunted, and shrunk further back against the wall. Steve looked at him, and sighed.

“This happens every year,” he explained. “It’s like a—hazing ritual.”

“It’s imbecilic,” Bucky said.

“Yeah, I know,” Steve agreed. “Oh, watch—!”

Bucky lurched to the side, narrowly missing being hit, and Steve picked up the ball and threw it aimlessly back over. Somebody cried out.

“Oh,” he said, sounding faintly surprised. “I think I hit Tony.”

“I’m hurt!” Tony was shouting. He looked even scrawnier and more awkward in his gym clothes, which was an achievement. “My arm!”

“Shut up, Stark!” Herr Schmidt shouted. “Take it like a man!”

“I think it’s broken!” Tony wailed, punctuated by another shout.

“Oh, no, Thor’s hit Loki,” Steve said, turning to look.

“I’m going to kill you,” Loki hissed.

“All in the name of sport, brother!” Thor shouted cheerfully, bending to pick up another ball with one of his enormous hands and tossing back his overlong golden locks.

The players were, unfortunately, dwindling, which meant that Steve and Bucky were rapidly becoming more obvious targets. Bucky had not stopped clinging to the wall, so Steve took to budging him over and down when necessary to avoid being hit, and at one point actually caught a ball from one of Thor’s jock friends, whose name he could never remember, to his own immense surprise.

“Impressive, Rogers!” Herr Schmidt called out.

“We’re going to die,” Bucky whimpered. “We’re going to die.”

“Thor’s too nice to kill us intentionally,” Steve said. “But he might do it by accident.”

There were only five minutes left in the period when everything came to a head—literally—when, upon realizing that he and Bucky were the only ones remaining against Thor and Sif, Steve accepted the fact that he was not going to get out of the gymnasium without some kind of serious bruise. The rest of the class was watching from the bleachers with a kind of morbid fascination that he could not resent: he was sort of morbidly fascinated himself, in spite of his own impending doom.

“Fuck,” Bucky whispered. “Shit fuck shit fuck—”

Thor picked up a ball. If all of this had been taking place in a movie, everything would have gotten very slow, but it was not, so everything proceeded at exactly the same pace as events do typically: so, he threw it. It was headed straight for Bucky’s face, and Steve, being in some ways a very stupid but very kind-hearted person, did what seemed to him the natural thing to do, although to be perfectly honest he was not really thinking about it: he lunged in front of the ball, and proceeded to find himself on the floor, with Bucky Barnes staring incredulously down at him.

“Ow,” he said.

“Why did you do that?” Bucky asked. The rest of the class was whispering excitedly at the metaphorical bloodshed (in fact it was literal; there was some coming out of Steve’s left nostril) but Steve could not hear them. He was too dazed. He hated dodgeball.

“It was going to hit you in the face,” he said, already feeling his left eye starting to swell shut. “It seems stupider in retrospect.”

Bucky kept staring, with the kind of slightly unsettling intensity that made teachers and students alike uncomfortable and that did not faze Steve at all, which would later be a defining characteristic of their friendship. “What’s wrong with you,” he asked, as Herr Schmidt came over to cursorily make sure Steve hadn’t broken anything.

“I don’t know,” Steve said. “Could you help me get up, please.”

Bucky stared at him for another long moment before reaching down and awkwardly pulling him up.

“Oof,” he said.

“Well-fought, Steve!” Thor called cheerily, smiling his dazzling, munificent smile. Steve smiled bleakly back and waved across the gym as everybody filed out, leaving him and Bucky there alone.

“Well, I guess we’d better change,” Steve said, feeling gingerly at his eye. “Ow.”

“We’re going to the nurse,” said Bucky, suddenly and with great purpose, and that was how Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes wound up spending their entire lunch period in the nurse’s office, while Steve held an ice pack to his face, and Bucky fidgeted awkwardly, and somehow, in the strange and unfathomable ways of teenagers, they became friends.


*


OCTOBER

IN WHICH BUCKY CAUSES A DISTURBANCE

MCUHS was a venerated public high school that served not one but two towns, Middletown and Centerville, which had been joined together by some quirk of educational zoning decades before into Middletown-Centerville United High School. The vast majority of the student body hailed from Middletown, a town that considered itself stolidly middle class, and was then augmented by additional students from Centerville, a much smaller and considerably wealthier town, full of outrageously vast properties upon which people like Howard Stark and Odin Odinson (“At least he didn’t name one of us after him, too,” Loki Odinson was wont to say, snidely) had built enormous mansions, new-money-ish in the case of the former and positively medieval in the case of the latter.

People like Steve Rogers, who had never had a friend who lived in Centerville, viewed the town as a kind of strange foreign country from whence only very peculiar people emerged, and in a way this was not a bad way of looking at things, for the most prominent teenaged expatriates of Centerville were Tony Stark and Loki and Thor Odinson, who were collectively about as peculiar as it was possible to be. Stark and Odinson, the area’s two great technology barons, were perpetually in competition with each other, and so Tony had always felt that he ought also to be in competition with Thor and Loki. Over the many accumulated years of his childhood and adolescence, he had thus far succeeded only in making Loki look at him like he was something on the sole of his shoe. Whether or not Thor had yet noticed that he existed was up for debate.

The Barneses’ house was situated exactly on the town line between Middletown and Centerville, which of course meant that it should never have been built in the first place—but it had, somehow, and so they had gotten a good deal on it, although a “good deal” was a relative term when discussing a McMansion with a pool and something that was worryingly close to a cabana. Bucky loathed it deeply and with the same intensity with which he hated everything having to do with his parents: it was shiny and perfect and bourgeois and devoid of personality and it represented everything about the world that he disliked. He could not drive, and on his bus rides home, he often found himself looking at the smaller, squatter houses in Middletown and thinking that they seemed much nicer than the monstrosity to which he had been consigned. (They probably had nicer people in them, too, he thought gloomily.)

Like nearly all delinquent teenagers, in the privacy of his own exclusive company, Bucky Barnes did not act much like a delinquent. On this, the first long weekend of the school year, he found himself alone in his objectionable house, although it was also undeniable that the house became considerably less offensive when his parents were elsewhere. He found himself with three entire days of blissful freedom, which to him meant wandering around in his sock feet, soft old school t-shirts, and pajama bottoms; watching endless reality television instead of doing his homework; and indulging in the outrageous luxury of ordering not one but two pizzas at once, with as many toppings as he could think of, to the point where the person taking his order on the other end of the line seemed nonplussed. He took a certain vicious pleasure in ignoring the carefully labeled Tupperware containers full of meals that Mrs. Barnes had left behind for him, which were full of things like tofu and chickpeas and quinoa and kale and all sorts of foods that did not appeal to teenage boys and which he was nevertheless forced to eat on a daily basis.

Monday morning found him passed out on the couch with two open pizza boxes and a greasy face, curled around his laptop, on which he had open not one, not two, but seventeen different YouTube videos of baby sloths. He blinked blearily at the light coming in through the French doors and scrunched his face up in a ridiculous yawn that made him look, in fact, not unlike a baby sloth, and realized that he was going to have to dispose of the pizza boxes somewhere his mother would not find them.

And so it was that he found himself walking halfway across Middletown, having already systematically fed the prepared meals he had not eaten down the garbage disposal, holding two empty pizza boxes and heading to the dumpster he knew sat in perpetuity behind the shopping plaza in the center of town. It took twenty-five minutes to get there, and when he arrived, he looked at the dumpster contemplatively for a moment before tossing the boxes in, one after another, and turning around to trek back home along the mostly sidewalk-free streets that would lead him back to his ridiculous house.

It should not have surprised him, really, that a car pulled up alongside him as he was walking, and that that car was driven by Steve Rogers, who was Bucky’s only friend and upon whom he was desperately attempting to make some impression of normalcy. (Bucky’s idea of what constituted “normal” was so wildly off-base that it goes without saying that he had already failed spectacularly at this pursuit; fortunately for him, Steve, for whatever ineffable reasons of interpersonal alchemy, seemed to like him not in spite of but because of his weirdnesses, but Bucky had not yet realized this, and would not for quite some time.)

He scowled.

“Bucky?” Steve said, baffled.

“Steve,” Bucky confirmed.

“What… are you doing?” Steve asked.

“Walking,” Bucky said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I can see that. Do you… need a ride somewhere?”

Bucky crossed his arms in front of him, and tried to scowl harder, so as to create the illusion of forbidding eye makeup, which he had not bothered to put on to take out the trash. Clearly, this had been an oversight, one that he would not make in the future.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I was just at the drug store picking up a bunch of stuff for my mom,” Steve told him. “Seriously, do you need a ride? Did something happen? Where are your parents?” His brow creased, anxious. Bucky made him anxious. Bucky never talked about his parents, ever, at all. Steve didn’t talk about his mother that much, but—he did talk about her. And even the kids who complained about their parents were talking about them when they complained.

“It’s fine,” Bucky muttered. “They’re away. So I had to walk. Because I can’t drive.”

“Oh, right,” said Steve, who had rapidly figured out that this was a sore spot. “So do you want a ride home, or what?”

Bucky huffed. “Fine,” he said, as though he were the one doing Steve a favor, and clomped around to the other side of the car, slamming the door behind him.

“Oh, boy,” Steve said when he saw Bucky’s house, while Bucky squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, perhaps trying to sink back into it and disappear entirely.

“I hate it,” he muttered. “It’s terrible. I’d rather live in a bungalow.”

“Is this Middletown or Centerville?” Steve asks.

“No man’s land,” Bucky said with grim humor. “Well, I guess you can come in. Since you drove me and everything.”

“I don’t have to if you don’t—”

“Oh, come on, Rogers,” Bucky huffed, and Steve, secretly pleased, followed him up the unnecessarily long walk to the front door.

Privately he agreed with Bucky’s assessment, upon seeing the interior of the house, which looked so expensive that he was afraid to touch anything. “My room’s up here,” Bucky said over his shoulder, thumping up the stairs with all the grace of his sixteen years, which was to say, none whatsoever.

Bucky’s room emanated the particular stench of all teenage boys’ bedrooms, which Steve did not really notice, his own bedroom being similarly afflicted, in spite of his comparative cleanliness. There is nothing to be done about this phenomenon: it is simply an inevitability of the species. But where Steve’s room was, for a boy of his age, almost miraculously neat—a fact which, like many other aspects of his life, caused his mother to sometimes worry about him—Bucky’s was in a state of barely organized chaos. There were clothes strewn everywhere—dirty and clean seemed indistinguishable—along with what might generously be deemed “crap.” He had left his laptop, which was large and shiny, on his bed, and there were similarly large and shiny speakers and an iPad on his desk, along with mostly unopened textbooks and notebooks and some beat-up comic books, several dirty plates stacked on top of each other, and six different half-full glasses of water.

He stood in the center of the mess, fidgeting, and found himself thinking, with a kind of mad irrational panic, that it was at least good that he did not have a television in his room, since that would make him seem even more unbearable than he surely did already.

What Bucky did not know was that Steve, in spite of his preternatural friendliness, and in spite of the fact that he had not been meaningfully bullied since his early childhood, when he really had been tiny and sickly and too physically weak to fight back, had never really had good friends—another thing about which Mrs. Rogers worried, late at night, staring at her bedroom ceiling, unable to sleep. She thought he was too nice, maybe, and a little too retiring, but mostly what she feared was that in the wake of his father dying so very, very early on he had simply clung too close to her—something which she was sure she had encouraged. But what could you say to your child—“Make friends, Steve”? It seemed to mean so little. He had friends, sort of, but he was always seventh or eighth down on the list: he was an afterthought. And this enraged her. For who could not see that Steve deserved, always, to be first?

All of which is to say that Steve had not been in anybody’s house or bedroom in as long as he could remember, and had not really realized that it was something he was missing. But now that he was here, he did not care that Bucky’s parents had a big ugly rich person house and weird nouveau riche tastes, or that Bucky had fancy toys that he did not. He liked Bucky because inside of that big fancy rich person house he had stubbornly carved out a space in which to lived like an absolute slob, and put kind of embarrassing posters of punk bands on his walls, and probably write bad poetry that would undoubtedly be poorly hidden somewhere very obvious (between the mattress and the box spring). Steve liked people who were sincere, and Bucky was very emphatically himself. But most of all Steve liked Bucky because Bucky had let him in, for reasons that remained somewhat mystifying to him, and this was a sentiment that Bucky reciprocated.

“We should probably go downstairs,” Bucky said, looking around. “It’s… nicer.”

“I don’t mind,” Steve said, and so they sat on Bucky’s no doubt filthy comforter, and Steve chattered away about growing up, and his mother, and carefully talked around the subject of his father’s death, and when he very earnestly turned to Bucky and asked him about his parents, and what his other schools had been like, Bucky found that, for the first time in his life, some part of him actually wanted to tell him, although he utterly lacked the vocabulary to do so.


*


Not long after Steve first set foot in the Barneses’ palatial abode, Mrs. Barnes acquired a juicer, and Bucky incurred not only the first of what was to be a multitudinous series of detentions over the course of the school year, but also got himself into his first “hallway incident” (so classified by Mr. Coulson, the guidance counselor of the junior class) requiring adult intervention.

In truth, Bucky was not an exceptionally poorly behaved student, just a surly one, and it was his surliness that led him to do things like, for instance, neglect his reading routinely, which on days when Ms. Hill administered pop quizzes posed something of a problem for him. Where most students, however, would have bullshitted something in exchange for a failing grade, Ms. Hill being famously adept at spotting bullshit, Bucky simply refused to take the quiz at all, as a misguided form of protest.

“You do realize, Mr. Barnes, that you are the one who has created this problem in the first place,” Ms. Hill clarified, as he glared him at her. Steve, who sat a couple of seats in front of him and one row over, was turned around and watching the scene with a pained expression on his face, but there was, needless to say, nothing he could do about it.

It transpired, however, that detention with Ms. Hill was not so bad—it was, in fact, frustratingly inoffensive. Although Bucky, at sixteen, utterly lacked the self-awareness to understand or to articulate this, his most fervent and desperate desire in life was to provoke a reaction of any kind in people, particularly adults, and Ms. Hill was inscrutable. It was impossible to upset her, or to frustrate her, or to make her lose her temper—this was, in any case, the perspective of her students, who did not see her at home, where she watched an excess of violent television and drank possibly too much wine on the weekends. To them she was just a frighteningly put-together teacher with weirdly shiny hair who could probably kill you just as with one of her outrageously high heels as with her famously cutting rhetoric. When Bucky arrived, glowering, ready for the worst, he found himself instead at a desk being left to his own devices while Ms. Hill read with her stocking feet kicked up on her desk, heels abandoned on the floor next to her desk. The only other student present was Natasha Romanoff, who was profoundly terrifying and whose presence was a mystery to Bucky, since she definitely had not incurred a detention: all she did in class was sit silently looking severe and judgmental and intensely goth under her maroon hair that clearly came from a box. He still had no idea what color her hair was actually supposed to be. She appeared to be halfway through Crime and Punishment at the moment. He did not ask her about it.

“You want me to do something, or what?” he asked Ms. Hill upon his arrival, in as confrontational a tone as possible, and she replied, “Catching up on the reading would probably be a good idea,” and so he found himself slogging through The Sun Also Rises, which was so boring that it really only reinforced his conviction that homework was a waste of time, and possibly a totalitarian scheme intended to brainwash the youth into a state of mindless obedience.

“Is this whole book just him whining cause he can’t get it up?” he asked Ms. Hill eventually, when he could no longer take it. “Cause that seems like a really dumb thing to write a book about.” (Even Bucky, in the full flush of his teenaged libido, thought this seemed excessive.)

“I don’t write the curriculum, I just teach it,” Ms. Hill said mildly, remembering the college essays of her youth, in which she had torn Ernest Hemingway to shreds. Truly, she reflected wearily, those days were long gone now.

The “hallway incident,” though more serious, was pathetic in its own way, on any number of levels. As the author has previously noted, MCUHS was not, in fact, as segregated into factions as many similar such schools across the country; even so, there were several easily identifiable groups, some of which were to be stringently avoided if at all possible. The school’s athletes broke down into two primary groups: that which was spearheaded by Thor Odinson, who in spite of his general blockheadedness was generally acknowledged to be an innocuous, or even a benevolent presence (if any teenager can ever accurately be characterized as benevolent, which in this author’s opinion is a very dubious question); and, on the other hand, the contingent led by one Brock Rumlow. Thor was the captain of the school’s soccer team (and was, it must be said, somewhat deluded as to the general popularity and influence of his sport on the national scale, a matter of great contention between him and his much slighter, darker brother, who liked to remind him on a routine basis that, in fact, nobody actually cared about soccer [“Of course they do!” Thor roared at him—Thor usually roared, when provoked to any kind of disagreement]); Rumlow, predictably, the quarterback of the football team, and this disparity says nearly everything that needs to be said about the differences between them.

It was not in Thor’s nature to dislike anyone intensely—or, indeed, to be disliked intensely himself, except by Rumlow, Rumlow’s cronies, Loki (an unfortunate recent development, to the despair of their mother), and some of the more “alternative” students who could not abide even the friendliest of jocks. Perhaps most telling of all was that, while the faculty tended to find Thor endearing, if wearisome, most struggled not to express their outright antipathy for Rumlow to his face, or in front of any of the other students; Maria Hill, who had to endure him and most of his friends in the same period, was known to shut herself in the safe, soundproofed walls of Phil Coulson’s office at opportune moments to discuss such pressing matters as the fact that the name “Brock Rumlow” sounded like it belonged to a 1970s porn star.

“Imagine what your students would think if they heard you saying such things,” Mr. Coulson liked to say, smiling mildly, to which Ms. Hill typically responded, “Frankly, I don’t think they’d be that surprised,” or something similar, which was true for around fifty percent of her pupils, and not at all true for the remaining half.

Rumlow, in any event, was a bully, and his friends fell in line with him in the unpleasant way that people generally—but adolescents specifically—tend to do. It was in some ways surprising that it took them until October to make their way to Bucky, who in his newness stuck out like a sore thumb (in fact, his entire persona was unconsciously designed to make him stand out like a sore thumb wherever possible, a fact he would have stringently and with great horror denied if confronted), but with whom Rumlow himself did not share any classes. He had never paid much attention to Steve, either—he did not remember this, probably because it did not suit him to, but when they had been small children, he had in fact bullied Steve—then sickly and frail and utterly incapable of doing anything about it, and unwilling to complain to any higher authorities—quite severely, until Natasha Romanoff had taken matters into her own hands and stuck so much gum in his hair that he had to get it buzzed off. (The fact that Rumlow did not remember this was telling, for it had been a traumatic event in his early years. He retained, however, a healthy terror of Natasha, which he could not rationally explain to himself.)

Natasha had not been friends with Steve—or anyone else—at the time, and was not now, but she had never said anything quietly, lethally cutting to him, either, which coming from her was about as close to a sign of affection as one was likely to get. Even the teachers, barring Ms. Hill, were afraid of her, a fact that probably owed its roots in part to the fact that she had never been punished for her crimes against Brock Rumlow’s hair, the teachers at the time having felt that justice had been served, thereby presumably having encouraged her vigilantism early. (She became a serial assaulter of hair by way of chewing gum over the years, much more carefully and with great skill—but we are still at Bucky and Rumlow, and all of this will come later.)

The “hallway incident,” which would lead to so many others, and indeed so many other things in general, which it is not yet time to discuss, was banal in the extreme. Rumlow and his cronies were moving through the hall in a pack, as they were wont to do, and as a result shoved Bucky—smallish, weird-looking, very much in need of a shower, and wearing a Nirvana t-shirt—into a locker.

“Fascists,” he muttered nonsensically, in the way of teenagers everywhere (though in his defense, they had been moving in a somewhat alarmingly regimented form).

Rumlow went still.

“What was that?” he said, turning slowly to the side. His friends shifted along with him. (It really was unsettling, though again, not really on the scale of Mussolini or Hitler.)

Bucky had also frozen, looking at the pack of football players bearing down on him. A sensible boy would have murmured an excuse and saved himself, but a sensible boy would not have called a pack of jocks walking by him in the hall fascists in the first place.

“I said, fascists,” Bucky muttered, surly, and things devolved from there.

In his (extremely abbreviated) recounting of the events to a horrified Steve not so very long after, Bucky would stress that he had held his own against Rumlow, and that getting his face bashed (carefully, to avoid permanent damage—Brock Rumlow was an idiot but he was no fool) against a locker had only been the conclusion of some kind of equal engagement. In fact this was not the case: the whole thing was over in a matter of moments. Which was really not surprising.

As per usual, Rumlow’s friends swore up and down that he had been needlessly!—unfairly!—gratuitously! (they did not know this word, but would have used it if they had)—provoked. Also as per usual, Mr. Pierce, the football coach, came to collect him from Mr. Coulson’s office, smiling ingratiatingly, while Rumlow looked smug, and Mr. Coulson thought a series of expletive-laden invectives about the football team and the scholarship Brock Rumlow was likely to receive to some university far away from Middletown and Centerville, all while Bucky held an ice pack to his face and stared at the floor. He was, Mr. Coulson noticed, wearing very expensive clothes that had very carefully been just about halfway destroyed.

“Bucky,” Mr. Coulson said, “I think that’s what your teachers have told me you like to be called.”

“You can just call me James,” Bucky muttered from where he was hunched behind the ice pack, sounding small and defeated.

“I wasn’t under the impression you liked to be called that,” Mr. Coulson said mildly, and Bucky managed something approaching a baleful glare.

“I don’t,” he muttered. “But you can do—whatever.”

Mr. Coulson surveyed him. “Mr. Rumlow’s friends say you provoked him.”

Bucky shrugged. He was staring at the floor again.

“You know, I’m surprised this is the first time I’m seeing you,” Mr. Coulson said. “When I spoke to your parents on the phone in August, I told them I wanted to see you here in the first week of school—of course, we’d have been seeing each other soon for quarterly reports anyway, even if today’s… incident hadn’t occurred. But I should have welcomed you to the school. I was in remiss of my duties. I should have made more of an effort.”

Bucky gave him a vaguely disgusted look with his one visible eye.

“Whatever,” he said.

“How are you finding MCUHS so far?” Mr. Coulson asked.

“It’s fine,” Bucky said.

“I hear you’ve become friends with Mr. Rogers.”

Bucky bristled. “So?”

Mr. Coulson looked at him. “I like Steve,” he said baldly. “From what I hear he’s never had many friends—not good friends. He’s well-liked, among the teachers. So is his mother, around town.” He paused.

“I’m glad you’re friends with Steve,” he said finally. “He could use it.”

Bucky was staring at him with an expression of utter bafflement and no small terror.

“Try not to run afoul of Rumlow’s crowd,” Mr. Coulson said to him, shuffling some things around on his desk totally needlessly. “They’re not worth the time. Now, go, you don’t want to miss your lunch period.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky said, agog, and fled, leaving Mr. Coulson to wonder whether Mr. Barnes had insisted on being called sir—which, indeed, he had, up until around the point when Bucky started wearing eyeliner; now it only came out on special occasions—and also about what had gone on in that house, to make a kid become so strenuously bent on destroying such valuable things, including but not limited to his clothing.


*


The complicated—or perhaps not-so-complicated—reality of teen delinquency, which Mr. and Mrs. Barnes would never understand and which Phil Coulson understood very well, was that, no matter how much the delinquent in question believes that he despises authority, and adults in general (standing in en masse, naturally, for his own parents), in truth his deepest desire is simply to be seen by those very same adults, and not turned away at the metaphorical door. Bucky was so used to feeling a baseline level of resentment toward any and all adults in his presence, even those for whom, like Ms. Hill, he could not muster up active hatred, that he found himself thrown seriously out of whack walking down the hallway coming out of the guidance office. What Mr. Coulson had said to him—about everything—about Steve—had been—unsettling.

He did not like him, he told himself, forcefully, later on in his lunch block, while Steve was looking at him worriedly out of the corner of his eye. Guidance counselors were stupid and useless and he had sat in enough meetings with them and his parents to know that thinking about anything they said was a fucking waste of time

But what had he meant, that Steve could use it? What had he meant?

Bucky tried to glance at Steve surreptitiously, which was difficult, because his eye was all swollen shut.

The fundamental insanity of Mr. Coulson’s remark rattled around inside his brain and would not go away. It was so—it was so. Steve—but—Steve had friends, didn’t he? He talked to—Bucky didn’t know most of their names. Rhodey, he thought. And—other—people—there were definitely—people—

Mostly, Bucky realized, Steve talked to him, which suited him just fine, since his typical pattern of behavior by this point when Steve was talking to anybody else was to lurk somewhere vaguely over his shoulder and glare. But still, he was a reasonable enough person to know that this made no sense. Steve was—was nice, and well-behaved, and socially competent (by teen standards, anyway, and what other standards did Bucky have to go by?), and if anybody was lucky it was Bucky because why on earth would Steve want to talk to him? About anything? Except that he did which was baffling and Bucky wasn’t complaining but the whole thing just—made no sense—and what if Steve stopped? What if he realized that there had really just been some terrible misunderstanding and that it didn’t make sense for him to be friends with Bucky of all people because why would anybody even bother

“Bucky?” Steve asked, sounding concerned. (He was concerned. Bucky’s swollen eye, which had been red when he’d come into the cafeteria, was now a horrifying shade that more closely recalled a fire truck, and his other eye was twitching as he stared fixedly into space.) “Do you have anything to… eat?”

“What?” said Bucky, shocked out of his panicked spiral.

“You’re not eating anything,” Steve pointed out, not sure how he had only just noticed.

“Oh,” said Bucky, realizing that this was true. “Whatever. It’s in my locker, I guess. Just fucking—kale, anyway.”

“Kale?” Steve asked, confused, and tried to figure out which of the various disgusting, un-discussed lunches of Bucky’s this might have been referring to.

“Salad,” Bucky said gloomily. “Really gross salad.”

“Oh,” said Steve. “Well, um. Do you want half of my sandwich?”

He tried to figure out what he had done that could possibly have warranted the look Bucky gave him, of mingling bewilderment and horror, and failed, but we must forgive him—and it is easy to do so, for he was only seventeen, and to seventeen-year-olds other teenagers are the world’s deepest and most impenetrable mysteries. He was, in any case, relieved when Bucky took the proffered half of the sandwich, and ate it wordlessly, wincing slightly around his swollen lip.

On their way out of the cafeteria he paused while Bucky, looking not unlike a stray dog, took his pick of the French fries the other students left on their meal trays. “Do you have—any idea! How unsanitary that is!” he heard Tony shrieking from the hall, and when he looked up he saw Rhodey dragging him bodily away from the door, briefcase thunking against his legs. He raised up a hand; Tony, who looked to be on the verge of an aneurism, did not wave back.

“He’s going to be a billionaire someday,” he said to Bucky, who thought, though he did not know for certain, that his parents were millionaires (they were definitely millionaires), and who snorted around his mouthful of cold French fries.

“Never go to reunion,” he said once he had swallowed, in a rare moment of uncanny prescience, and startled Steve into a laugh.


*


IN WHICH THERE IS A VISITATION

The following morning, Mrs. Rogers awoke to find her son blearily staring at the lunch-making materials in their kitchen, some time earlier than she would have expected to see him awake. Steve did not think much about the relative oddness or normality of the fact that his mother still made his lunch for him every day, even though she worked and he was a junior in high school: it had simply ever been thus, and so he had never had any reason to question it. It was therefore with an understandable sense of suspicion that his mother approached him now.

“Steve,” she said. “What are you doing.”

He blinked at her for a long moment, as though processing her words were taking him a very long time. (It was.) “I’m making—lunch,” he said finally, groggily, rubbing at his eyes.

“Why,” she said, and he blinked.

“Uh,” he said. Sometimes Mrs. Rogers worried about the fact that Steve so manifestly lacked the ability to lie to people, but mostly, selfishly, she appreciated it. It made her job so very much easier.

“Did something change between yesterday and today that has altered your lunch requirements?” she asked dryly, and he immediately began to look skittish.

The problem with children, she thought, was that you could not put them on hold until you had had your coffee.

“I was going to make… two… sandwiches?” he said, as though he were asking a question, though she knew he was not. “Because… I… wanted to?”

She looked at him. He wilted.

“Mrs. Barnes sends Bucky to school with the worst food,” he said emphatically—far too emphatically, she felt, for six AM, particularly for a teenager. “It’s all got—weird names, and it looks funny, and there’s never any meat—but they’re not vegetarians. Officially. I don’t think. It’s so gross, Mom. Nobody would want to eat it. And he never does—and he always looks hungry—and he’s—he’s pretty small anyway—and I know I’m hungry all the time—”

He broke off, blinking fuzzily at her. His hair was sticking up everywhere, and his t-shirt was on inside-out, and he smelled, and Mrs. Rogers looked at him and had one of the beautiful moments when she thought that she had not, in fact, done everything wrong and damaged her son irreparably, but that she had instead somehow shepherded him along into being about as perfect as anybody could hope for—even if he was a teenager and therefore a menace just waiting to break loose. It was, she thought, all worth it: even the sleep deprivation, and the steadily increasing caffeine dependence and slowly building headache that was coming upon her as a result.

“Go shower,” she said. “You stink. I’ll make you an extra big sandwich and you can offer him half, you’ll seem more suave that way.” Steve’s face opened up into something like gratitude, except that it was too early to really tell. “On one condition.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said.

“Bring him over for dinner,” she said, and Steve froze as though she had threatened him with death by firing squad.

“Um,” he said.

She raised her eyebrows.

“I don’t,” he started, and paused. “I don’t know—if—that’s—um.”

“I’d like to meet him,” she said as mildly as she could, since Steve still looked like he had at least one and possibly several guns trained on him. “You certainly talk about him enough.”

This only served to make Steve look more hunted. “I don’t—I—you might not like him,” he said defensively, and Mrs. Rogers thought, ah ha, to herself. “He’s not—I mean—he’s not the sort of person you’d necessarily expect me to be friends with,” he said very rapidly, and then turned bright pink.

Mrs. Rogers told herself that laughing at your children when they were emotionally vulnerable was cruel, even if you really, really wanted to, so instead she said, “If you like him, I’m sure I will. Now please go shower, sweetheart, you really do smell.”

Steve did not look—or, indeed, feel—particularly reassured, but he did what she told him to, out of a distinct lack of alternative options.


*


Mrs. Rogers liked Bucky immediately.

He did not, naturally, intuit this, being under the impression that adults were a monolithic entity and that he made an instantaneous bad impression on all of them, particularly while still sporting the (mostly) faded bruises of a recent (one-sided) fight. (The fact that he had explicit recent evidence in the form of Mr. Coulson that this was not necessarily the case did nothing to relieve him of this firmly held belief.) He had come to the Rogerses’ house bearing, naturally, a salad—this time arugula and chickpea—of which he was intensely embarrassed, and which he would have somehow attempted to dispose of had not been for the fact that his mother had dropped him off at the end of the Rogerses’ driveway, and also his vague sense that all adults—being monolithic in nature—were in collusion and that this was the sort of behavior that would inevitably get back to his mother, an outcome he wished very much to avoid, in spite of his protestations of rebellion.

“Here,” he muttered, shoving the salad at Mrs. Rogers over the threshold of her house, and then cleared his throat, remembering that he was supposed to be trying to seem—normal. Ish. Not horrible, so that, when he left, Steve’s mom wouldn’t turn to Steve and ask him why he hung out with that kid and couldn’t find better friends.

“My, um, my mom made it,” he mumbled, which he did not feel was a substantial improvement on his opening remark, but at least partially absolved him of responsibility—and, therefore, blame—for the abominable salad he had presented her with. He glanced at Steve, who was lingering over his mother’s shoulder and looking uncharacteristically anxious, and attempted to keep the deep animal terror he was experiencing off of his face—a failed enterprise, it turned out, because Mrs. Rogers recognized it instantly, though she had more than enough clues to be going on as it was: his hunched shoulders, his roving eyes, the way he had seemingly unconsciously knotted his hands together the second she’d taken the salad bowl out of them.

Also, there was the eyeliner, and the ripped skinny jeans, and big clunky boots, and leather jacket, and rat’s nest hair, all of which both Steve and Bucky himself probably thought of as A Statement, but which Mrs. Rogers recognized immediately for what they were, which was something very different, something funnier and sadder at the same time.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ve made a lasagna.” She didn’t do this often—it was too much effort—but she thought with a kind of grim satisfaction that the hours of toil had been worth it when she saw Bucky freeze and look up at her (she was taller than he was, though admittedly not by much) with an expression of such incredulity that it was almost as though she had made this announcement in French. (Both Steve and Bucky were currently taking French. They were very bad at it.)

“We’re not Italian but I still think it’s a competitive lasagna,” she continued, and he blinked as if coming out of a trance.

“La-lasagna?” he asked haltingly, and looked over her shoulder at Steve again, as though for confirmation. It was good, Mrs. Rogers thought, that she was not a very strong person, for if she were, she would likely have broken the salad bowl in two by now.

“I hope that’s all—” she started, and he interrupted her with a panic-stricken, “No!”

“I mean,” he continued, flushing, “that’s, um. That’s fine.”

“All right,” she said, and made a point of leaving the salad on the counter, as though she had forgotten it there.

Steve’s mom, Bucky found himself thinking not so long after, when he was eating his second piece of lasagna at a slightly less disgusting pace than that at which he had consumed his first, was amazing. She had asked him some questions about his family, and his other schools, but she didn’t seem to mind when he gave short answers basically devoid of information, and now she was telling him embarrassing stories about when Steve had been a little kid, which were making him get all red and uncomfortable—“Mom!” he was wailing, as she recounted a long anecdote that involved him getting into an extensive disagreement with his fourth grade teacher about presidential history, and a much-loved and ultimately destroyed president placemat, while Bucky snickered.

“He could recite them all in sequence,” she told Bucky confidentially, raising an eyebrow. “Very quickly. Almost without taking a breath.”

“How old?” Bucky asked, delighted. He himself had never gone through a history phase as a child, preferring instead to impersonate wild animals until far too old an age to be doing so—and then, naturally, only in the playground at recess, terrorizing small girls who ran to the teachers on duty, who then dragged him back inside to sit sullenly alone for the rest of the period. At home he had mostly stayed in his room, or vacuously watched things on the television, or amused himself alone in the backyard, for as long as he possibly could stand it before snapping and throwing a hysterical temper tantrum that got him shut in his room for a long period of time, which was distinctly different from all the other times he sat in his room by choice, because in these instances he could not leave.

Now he stayed in his room all the time, because it was the only place in the house he was completely sure to never run into either of his parents.

“Oh, I’d say nine,” Mrs. Rogers said, looking at Steve appraisingly.

“I could not,” Steve was muttering. Mrs. Rogers gave Bucky a look that very clearly said otherwise.

“No baby pictures this time,” she said sagely, however. “I have to parcel this out.” Steve went pale, and Bucky nearly spit out his lasagna from laughing.

She had not, he noticed, eaten very much herself, which was insane, because it had been the best thing Bucky had eaten in months. She was really skinny, but not like his mom, who perpetually resembled a sort of—gulping fish attached to a flamingo’s body. Just—skinny.

Still, she looked satisfied enough, and Bucky found himself so moved as to attempt to dredge up his manners from some deep, long-repressed part of his brain, and so said, “Mrs. Rogers—that was—it was—really, really good—”

She smiled. “Thank you, Bucky. I’m glad you enjoyed it.” And then she looked straight at him with her clear blue eyes like she could—see him, and he shivered, and though he would not have been able to articulate it, he simultaneously wanted to sink down in his chair as low as he could, and to do whatever he could to make her keep looking at him like that for as long as possible.

It was very confusing.

“All right,” she said, putting her napkin on the table and standing up.

“Do you need help with the dishes?” Bucky blurted out, and immediately felt deeply stupid.

“Yes, thank you, Bucky, that would be wonderful,” she said after the briefest of pauses. “Steve, why don’t you take the garbage and the recycling out to the curb, it’s pick-up day tomorrow.” And so Steve left them alone, looking as though he had no idea what had just happened.

Neither of them said anything as they cleared the table. Once they got back into the kitchen, Bucky saw the untouched salad bowl, and felt embarrassed all over again.

“We didn’t eat the salad,” he muttered.

“Yes,” Mrs. Rogers said. “I know. I guess I had better put it in some Tupperware so you can take the bowl home without your mom suspecting, huh?”

Bucky made a non-committal sound and looked at his feet. She considered him for a long moment, small and uncomfortable and, under it all, sad, standing there in the fluorescent light of her kitchen. She reached out to rub his shoulder. He started violently.

“Your mom’s probably not much of a hugger, huh?” she asked, and he shook his head without saying anything.

“They aren’t, always, I’m afraid,” she said, and gave his shoulder a little squeeze. And when Steve came back in from outside he found them standing next to each other in what seemed to be companionable silence, his mother washing and Bucky drying, in tandem.

He had no idea what was going on.

Not long after, when he and Bucky were waiting on the porch swing for Mrs. Barnes to come pick him up, Bucky said, “Your mom hardly ate anything. At dinner.”

“Oh,” said Steve, who was so used to this that he had not really noticed. “Yeah, she—her stomach’s not so good. She’s kinda—sickly, I guess.” He smiled, or maybe grimaced. “I guess I got it somewhere.”

Bucky turned to look at him, baffled. “But you’re not—what?”

“Oh,” Steve said. “Right. I guess I’m okay now, pretty much. I got sick a lot, when I was a kid. Like—a lot. I was—really small. I only grew this summer. It was—weird.”

Bucky was frowning, a sharp line in-between his eyebrows. “Don’t worry,” Steve said. “I’m fine now. And it wasn’t like—I dunno. There was never anything—wrong with me, exactly. I was just—not very healthy.” He shrugged. He was fine, and his mom was fine, too, probably—fine-ish. She had never been totally fine. He wasn’t sure what that would look like. He was healthier than she was now, that was for sure—he had been, he thought, for a long time. She told him not to worry about it, that it was no big deal, that she was all right, but he did worry, of course; he always had; he couldn’t help it—how could he not worry? She was it. If anything happened—well.

It seemed very unfair, anyway, that of all people to be—not sick, exactly, but just—off, not well, it had had to happen to his mother, who did not deserve it at all, even a little bit.

Bucky’s mom drove up to the curb and honked. Bucky stared out at her car for a long, inscrutable moment before getting up with the determined stare of a soldier about to go to war. Steve got up, too. He had been worried, before Bucky had come over, about his house being small, and old, and a little run-down in parts, but he wasn’t anymore. He just felt sad for some reason.

“Well,” Bucky said. “Thanks. See you on Monday.”

“Bye,” Steve said, and watched as he walked down the drive in the dark to his mother’s waiting car, holding the empty salad bowl.

He went back inside and found his mother standing in the kitchen, staring into space.

“Mom?” he asked, and she snapped out of it, startled. “He left.” He paused. He knew the answer to the question he was going to ask, but that wasn’t going to stop him from asking it: he just really needed to—well, to hear her say it. “Did you—like him?”

“Oh, Steve,” she said. “Yes, of course I liked him.”

“Oh,” he said. “Okay. I just wasn’t sure, before, because of—you know—” He gestured meaninglessly at his face, but Mrs. Rogers knew what he meant: she had raised him, after all.

“Don’t underestimate me,” she chided him, “I lived through the nineties,” and he looked appropriately chastised.

“I think he really liked the lasagna,” he said very earnestly, and she didn’t know whether she wanted to laugh or cry.

“Yes,” she said, “I think so,” and stepped forward to hug him, which still felt a little strange, since he had only so recently outgrown her.

And Steve, even though he knew it was not cool, thought privately that there were not many things in life that he liked better than to be hugged by his mother, and Bucky, who at that moment had his forehead pressed against the glass of the passenger seat window of his mother’s car while she listened to country pop, would never have judged him if he had known.


*


NOVEMBER

IN WHICH A COLD WAR BREAKS OUT, AND THE INVOLVED PARTIES REACH A DÉTENTE

And so October rolled into November, and the fall foliage in Middletown and Centerville faded and then vanished entirely, and the more enterprising students in the junior class found themselves beginning to worry about the SATs, and applying to college (Pepper, née Virginia, Potts had a large binder already full of college brochures and extensive research which she had typed out meticulously and then color-coded, all of which was broken up into neat sections by dividers with neon tabs), but at the moment nobody was worrying about much of anything except how to keep Clint Barton from seeing their paintings in art class, since his ability to look at anything anyone had painted, be it a blue splotch, a landscape of a field, or a bird, and somehow turn it into a metaphor for sex or genitalia in the most vulgar terms possible, was renowned.

Nobody ever knew where Clint was going to sit because Mr. Sitwell claimed to have an artist’s soul and therefore did not assign seats, and unlike all other teenagers on the earth (or nearly all of them, anyway), Clint Barton did not habitually sit in the same seat every day. He shifted. The sport of securing a non-Clint adjacent seat was strategic and it was intense, and nobody was particularly good at it except for Loki, who somehow wound up on the exact opposite side of the room from him every single period, and then looked smugly out at everyone else from behind his canvas in his corner, digging the hole he found himself in socially deeper by the day.

On this particular November day, Steve and Bucky made a dash from their French class, took two seats at the side of the classroom by the windows, and prayed. Natasha Romanoff was already sitting in the spot with the best light, on the other side of the room, since the only time Clint had tried to say something suggestive about what she was painting (ironically, the one case in which such a comment had been decidedly accurate, if not warranted), she had simply turned to look at him with an expression so profoundly terrifying that he had snapped his jaw shut and said nothing else for the entire period—an unprecedented event, and regrettably also a unique one, since they now simply ignored each other.

“Fucking shit,” Bucky muttered as Clint slammed the door open theatrically—also unnecessarily, since it had already been propped open wide enough for a person to walk through—and ambled over to the two of them. Steve smiled up at him, looking strained.

“Hi, Clint,” he said, and wobbled a little when Clint slapped him on the shoulder. Clint seemed not to notice that Bucky was glaring at him with the kind of loathing most people reserved for politicians revealed to be white supremacists, but he also had not noticed that his hair had reached the stage in teenage boy greasiness where it actually looked like he had just gotten out of the shower, but at all times, so it was perhaps safe to say simply that Clint Barton had no clue about anything.

“Oh no,” Pepper whimpered upon entering the classroom and seeing that the only two remaining seats were next to Clint.

“Suck it up,” June muttered, who had endured much worse.

Sitwell’s art class was, truth be told, something of a joke. There were no assignments in the strict sense of the term, and the basis upon which he assigned grades remained a mystery, but he never gave out anything less than a B-plus, so complaining (which Pepper, who always got B-pluses, did every semester, in spite of the fact that art class did not count toward her GPA—“It’s the principle of the thing,” she had told her best friend, on the internet, careful not to divulge personal details; but he was also a high school student and therefore understood how unfair it was to be penalized so arbitrarily and not even to be told why, although she assumed he was an athlete or triathlete or something because his username was “ironman89”) was a futile endeavor. He was, himself, only moderately talented, but was pals-y with the students, and therefore popular with some of them, and disliked intensely by others: he had an odd kind of aura about him that seemed to indicate a desire to be a teenager again himself, despite being a kind of dumpy almost-middle-aged man, which is of course the great trap that all high school teachers must never fall into, and which is easily avoidable for the good ones among their number. Steve, anyway, found him vaguely off-putting for reasons he couldn’t quite pinpoint, Bucky found him alarming, and Clint thought he walked on water, presumably since he did nothing to curtail his antics.

“Righteous, man,” Clint said, craning over to look at Bucky’s painting, which mostly consisted of angry splashes of red and black paint applied haphazardly to the canvas, with neither artistic skill nor intention anywhere in evidence. Bucky glared. Righteous? Steve mouthed to himself, brow creasing.

“Very, uh, well,” Clint said, and they braced themselves. “Labial, if you know what I mean.”

“How could they possibly not know what you mean?” Pepper said shrilly from his other side, evidently unable to contain herself. “That is an anatomically correct term, Clint.”

“You bet it is,” he leered, and Steve, who was bright red by this point, raised his eyes heavenward. Bucky, who had never seen anybody’s labia and had no interest in doing so, though he had divulged this information to no one at MCUHS, or indeed anyone at all since his father had said, “Well, all right, Jimbo, I sure hope this doesn’t make things difficult for you,” and his mother had added, “You’re still young, you can’t really know these things yet,” three years before, scrutinized his splatters of paint and attempted to discern whether he had done something inadvertently.

No, he decided. Clint was just an asswipe.

He glanced sideways down the line of easels. Pepper liked to think that she was good but she wasn’t, really, at all, and Clint was horrible—Steve was the only one who was worth a damn, besides Natasha, upon on whom Bucky had become weirdly fixated over the course of the past month: Natasha, who was talented and terrifying and whom he knew he could never speak to, which was agonizing because her family was Russian and he had decided arbitrarily that he should have been born Russian, probably, since they were tough as nails and drank lots of vodka straight (neither Bucky nor Steve drank at all) and—sounded cool when they talked and—communism, probably, and—other reasons.

“That makes literally no sense,” Steve had said, upon being informed of this latest development. It had made literally no sense. Steve read the news online because his mother had taught him to, growing up, as a natural extension of his obsession with the histories of various US presidents, and now American government and his other history classes were his favorites, along with art of course, because even if Sitwell was weird and Clint was annoying, he got to sit and draw for an hour and talk to Bucky while he did it, or just sit companionably without saying anything at all, which was almost as nice in its own way. Anyway, Steve liked to read the news, and kept up with politics, and he thought there was a lot wrong with America but he liked it, and he certainly didn’t think Russia would be an improvement.

“You don’t know anything about Russia,” he had pointed out, and Bucky had scoffed.

“It can’t be worse than here,” he’d replied theatrically, throwing himself back so far that he’d topped off of Steve’s bed and wound up half on the floor. Steve had leaned over and looked down at him.

“I don’t really know anything about Russia, either,” he’d said, “but like, generally speaking, that’s definitely not true.”

To employ a perhaps excessively precious metaphor, November also ushered in a cold war of sorts between the boys, who, being seventeen and sixteen respectively, obviously could not simply communicate with each other in a straightforward fashion, using the tools of language at their disposal. It was the great irony of their relationship—and, indeed, though they would never have been able to see it, a large part of the reason that that relationship existed in the first place—that they were each so deficient in areas in which the other possessed an abundance: in Steve’s case, food; and in Bucky’s, money—or perhaps more accurately, the material goods that were the natural consequence of money.

Of course, Bucky was not liable to actually starve, even if he often felt that way in his more melodramatic moments (of which there were many), and the Rogers were hardly about to go bankrupt. But it was nevertheless the case that Bucky often went to bed staring at the ceiling as his stomach grumbled, and had (before the first run-in with Rumlow) made a too-regular habit of grazing on abandoned trays in the cafeteria (causing Tony Stark, who had indeed managed to successfully transfer out of all the classes they had shared within a matter of days but who could not escape Bucky’s seemingly germ-filled presence forever, no end of intense aggravation, which at one point culminated in a long rant about hamster balls that would go down in the history of their class as the apogee of his adolescent neuroticism); and it was equally true that Steve’s pants remained a little too short for him in the leg, and more pressingly, given the season, that his winter coat was ragged and clearly worse for the wear. Starting in early November, he started to shiver whenever he stepped outside and did not stop until he had made it indoors again, particularly since he only had a pair of those crummy five dollar stretchy mittens—gloves, technically—you buy at the drug store and that come in a variety of colors, which are really meant for small children but which somehow fit onto his overlarge hands. Steve, who had spent much of his life in physical discomfort and who had trained himself early on to never complain about anything, took this simply as the way things were. He had a coat, he reasoned vaguely, when he thought about it at all, which was rarely. That was all that mattered really.

Needless to say, this attitude drove Bucky insane.

Despite the fact that Bucky’s oddly situated house was not really on Steve’s way to school, he had taken to picking him up in the mornings and dropping him off in the afternoons (when Bucky got a detention, he did work in the library until he was finished, a behavior Bucky found so deeply and profoundly beyond understanding that he could not bring himself to bring it up, or therefore argue with him about it). The alternative was Bucky taking the bus, as he had at the very beginning of the year, and this was so bone-chilling a proposition that Steve really considered himself to be doing a service to the public along with a favor to a friend. Anyway, it didn’t really feel like a favor; he would rather have had Bucky in the car with him, blinking not unlike a newborn animal that has just been thrust out into the world and is feeling slightly betrayed about the whole situation, except with a lot more eyeliner. Also he liked provoking Bucky with NPR, which was what he tended to listen to in the car, a lifestyle choice Bucky found fundamentally incomprehensible.

All of which is ultimately to say that, as the weather got colder, Bucky had ample opportunity to observe Steve blowing on his hands and rubbing them together, and shivering under the slightly fraying shoulders of his coat, all the while smiling amiably, cheeks ruddy. It was—intolerable, Bucky thought, maddened. The entire situation was—utterly intolerable.

He spent no inconsiderable amount of time obsessing over the matter of how he might go about giving Steve a new coat, and probably also a scarf, and gloves, and maybe also a hat, because he didn’t seem to have any of those things either, which even Bucky, from his position of privilege, knew was ridiculous: a coat was one thing, but you could, he was sure (despite having never actually purchased any of the articles of clothing in question himself), find something like a hat for a reasonable amount of money, an amount of money that Mrs. Rogers—who had by this point acquired mythic stature in Bucky’s impressionable young mind—would be willing to pay if she saw Steve like this every morning and afternoon. But Steve never—complained—about—anything! And Mrs. Rogers had her job at the clinic, and couldn’t notice everything, and—and—

The hell of it was, he had a coat that would be—perfect, a coat that his mother had bought him and that he would never, ever wear: it was a gray wool pea coat and it even had a plaid cashmere scarf to match, and he was smaller than Steve but not that much smaller, not really—their shoulders weren’t too different, he didn’t think, and the coat was a little long on him anyway. His mother had been, perhaps, a little optimistic about his dimensions when purchasing the garment, but upon receiving it he had simply glowered, said, “I don’t need a winter coat, Mom, leather is for all seasons,” grabbed it, and stomped upstairs, so she had not had the chance to discover this, and correct for her error.

But Bucky couldn’t just say, “Hey, Steve, my mom bought me this coat and it doesn’t really fit and I don’t really like it anyway, do you want it?” firstly because if he said such a thing it would sound as though aliens had taken over his body, and secondly because of the situation with the lunches.

As she had promised him, Mrs. Rogers had started packing twice the amount of food as normal in Steve’s lunches, which he would then vaguely, under the auspices of some excuse or another, divide between the two of them, which had resulted in Bucky actually getting to eat lunch like a real human for the first time in as long as he could remember— and also, he realized around a week into this miraculous change in his circumstances, the Rogers spending twice as much money on lunch food.

He tortured himself over this for around another week before deciding that he could not go on eating Steve’s food, and steeled himself to rejected a thick tuna a sandwich in favor of some hideous-looking things with white beans and bits of broccoli. (Mrs. Rogers always made tuna sandwiches on Mondays.)

“What do you mean, you don’t want any,” Steve said suspiciously, trying to force his half of the enormous sandwich on him. The bread, obviously, was the same size, but there was a lot of meat on it.

“I’m fine with… this,” Bucky said weakly, looking down at his bean broccoli thing. It was less than appetizing.

“No, you aren’t,” Steve said flatly, and Bucky out a low, frustrated noise at Steve’s inconsiderate refusal to play along with the predetermined script he’d composed in his head.

“You’ve been giving me—a lot—of food,” he muttered. “And—you’re driving me—every day—”

Steve went very red and his face got sort of—pinched. Bucky immediately wished he could be teleported somewhere very far away and also terrible, like Siberia (the fact that he was supposed to want to run away to Russia did not, at that moment, occur to him). “That’s not—just take the damn sandwich, Bucky,” Steve said very quietly, without looking at him, and Bucky, who had never heard him utter any kind of profanity whatsoever, did so in silence.

So he could not just give him the coat. Or the scarf. Or the hypothetical gloves or hat, although he was less concerned about those at present. He had to come up with—something. A plan. A scheme. Something clever. Being a sixteen-year-old boy, his faith in his own capacity to come up with clever schemes was complete and total, despite his utter lack of demonstrated ability in this area. It would therefore not have been a massive surprise to anybody but Bucky himself that he found himself stumped, but he was, needless to say, very frustrated indeed.

The central problem that had to be overcome was that Steve could not know that the scarf et cetera were coming from Bucky, but also that if they were not coming from Bucky that they had no reason for existing at all. This was a conundrum. Ultimately, after what felt like endless deliberating but which was only around three days’ worth of sulking, Bucky decided that his best bet was simply to break into Steve’s locker, carefully position the scarf at the back as though it belonged there, and act like Steve was crazy for thinking that it was in any way out of place when he discovered it.

It was not a very good plan, but then, teenage boys, in spite of their overabundance of confidence, are in fact highly deficient when it comes to matters of this nature, and indeed most other commonsensical pursuits, so perhaps we can forgive him his foolishness in light of the altruism of his ultimate goal.

The actual act of getting the scarf into the locker was in no way difficult, since Bucky had long ago memorized Steve’s locker combination. (He did make the mistake of staring very obviously in either direction as he worked, clearly indicating that he was in the process of committing some malfeasance, but the only teacher who saw him was Ms. Hill, whose classroom was down the hall, and who knew where Steve Rogers’ locker was and had also already spent enough time in that still-young school year watching Bucky Barnes stare at the back of his head that she doubted very much that he was doing anything too nefarious to his private property—in truth, she was curious to see how whatever this was panned out. Even teachers, after all, have to get their kicks somewhere.) The problem, unsurprisingly, arose when Steve opened his locker later in the day to switch out his textbooks and noticed it.

“What on earth,” he muttered, pulling it out and staring at it in consternation.

“What?” said Bucky, in a slightly higher-pitched tone of voice than normal.

“This got—into my locker somehow,” Steve said, frowning. “That is—really unsettling.”

“It’s not yours?” Bucky said, entirely unconvincingly. Steve, oblivious, shook his head.

“I’ve never seen it before,” he said, perplexed. “This is so weird. I guess it must have been a—mistake?” He rifled through the rest of the stuff in the locker. “Nothing’s gone—not that there’s anything anybody’d want to take anyway—so… I’ll just put it in the lost and found, I guess.”

“You’re sure it’s not yours?” Bucky asked again, somewhat desperately, but Steve just shook his head again.

“Nope,” he said. “Never seen it before.”

Bucky ground his teeth together.

Because he was a teenager, Bucky did not do what most people would consider the sensible thing, and reassess the situation, and his options going forward: stubbornly certain of the superiority of his plan compared to all other possible alternatives, he simply tried it again two days later—as if that extra day would somehow make Steve forget about the first incident, or the fact that he did not own a very expensive plaid cashmere scarf.

“What on earth,” Steve said incredulously, unaware not only of the fact that he sounded exactly like his mother and also that Ms. Hill was standing casually in the doorway of her classroom, watching the little drama in miniature unfold before her.

“How weird,” Bucky said unconvincingly.

“I put it in the lost and found,” Steve insisted. “You saw me.” Bucky had indeed seen him. He had also doubled back not five minutes later, while “going to the bathroom,” to retrieve it before anybody else did.

Steve was frowning down at the scarf, looking like he was concentrating very hard.

“Are you sure it’s not yours?” Bucky asked, in what he presumably believed to be a normal tone of voice. “It has been here… twice…”

Steve looked up at him. Bucky looked back at him, and swallowed.

Steve’s eyes narrowed.

“Bucky—” he started.

“What?” Bucky cut him off, too fast. Steve was starting to scowl.

“Bucky,” he said again, sounding ominous. “Where did this come—”

“I’ve never seen it before!” Bucky said, too loudly. “I have no idea! You should probably just keep it!”

He cut himself off, staring with altogether too much intensity at Steve’s right shoulder. He had gone very red in the face.

Steve stared back at him, mouth slightly agape, before stuffing the scarf into his backpack and slinging it back over his shoulders. He said nothing in response less out of a decision to let it go than out of an inability to process his emotions quickly enough to get the necessary words out.

They walked down the corridor next to each other, as usual, except that instead of talking, they were both resolutely silent, red-faced, and clutching somewhat desperately at the straps of their backpacks.

Ms. Hill closed herself inside her classroom and actually said, “This is too much,” aloud to the empty room—because it was really, truly too much.

“What was he thinking?” Steve said to his mother that evening, outraged. He was standing on one side of the dinner table, pacing vaguely back and forth, and Mrs. Rogers was sitting on the other, watching him and trying not to either yawn or laugh; the offending article of clothing had been tossed on the table between them. “‘Oh, Steve won’t notice this—scarf—that I put in his locker—that he’s never seen before’—I’m not stupid, Mom.”

“I know you’re not, dear,” she said, and he huffed again, looking validated. “I don’t think Bucky is stupid either, just a little… misguided.”

“It’s just such a stupid idea,” Steve said again, voice rising. “How could he possibly have thought it would work?!”

Mrs. Rogers very determinedly did not laugh, or yawn.

Steve’s righteous anger was, unbeknownst to her, particularly ironic in light of his recent practice of slipping candy into Bucky’s backpack and then pretending he did not know where it had come from: that is to say, he was in the habit of doing exactly what Bucky had done, but on a slightly more minor scale; in fact, this was probably where Bucky had gotten the idea, although his conscious mind had not begun to make any kind of link between the two things. But while Steve was evidently not ready to consciously admit the similarity of his and Bucky’s actions, it was also fairly clear that he knew on some level that there was an affinity between them; he would likely not otherwise have been shouting at his mother about it until he was red in the face.

Bucky, he had discovered some time earlier, had a horrendous sweet tooth that was unsurprisingly never indulged at home (Mrs. Barnes liked to tell people, in the tones of someone relaying a message directly from God to a mere peon, that she believed in “natural sugars,” though since Steve had still never met her he had only experienced Bucky’s theatrical recreation of this comment, itself quite evocative) and about which Steve, after watching Bucky eat half a pan of his mother’s brownies with single-minded focus in one sitting, had decided to do something. Bucky would voraciously eat sweets the likes of which Steve personally found repugnant, but that did not stop him from spending his meager allowance on them at the drug store. The first time a package of Gobstoppers had appeared in Bucky’s backpack, he had stared at it for a long moment before his eyes had darted up to Steve’s face and then darted back away. He had just shoved it back in and Steve had spent the entire following period panicking before he saw Bucky eating them very surreptitiously, almost as though he didn’t want him to notice.

There was also the complicating factor of Bucky’s recently acquired smoking habit, about which Steve harangued him constantly and at considerable volume, but about which he simply could do nothing, since it was driven by that most powerful of adolescent motivators, parental resentment—though, given the lengths to which Bucky went to keep his smoking a secret from his parents (only doing so very covertly out the window, which neither of them could see, compulsively Febreezing his [persistently foul-smelling] room, and consuming more breath mints than was strictly healthy), the teen rebellion value of his ever-increasing nicotine addiction remained somewhat abstruse.

In any event, some vague, barely conscious part of Steve’s brain also seemed to be hoping to substitute one unhealthy addiction for another—a nice idea, if a faulty one; Bucky just ended up with two. But he resolutely would not acknowledge, even to himself, the similarities between what he had been doing (and would, indeed, continue to do) and what Bucky had done. For the simple fact of the matter was that it was much easier for Steve Rogers to be kind to other people than to accept other people’s kindnesses to him.

“He just wanted to give you the scarf,” Mrs. Rogers said finally, when he started running through his somewhat incoherent list of grievances for the fourth time. “But knew you wouldn’t take it, which—he was right, wasn’t he?”

“But—I—” Steve spluttered. “He shouldn’t have. I’m—fine. I don’t—need him to—give me—stuff—”

Mrs. Rogers sighed. “But he wanted to, sweetheart,” she said. “And it’s something you haven’t got.”

Steve fell silent. He was still very red.

“Sometimes other people have more than you,” she said gently. “It’s not always a bad thing when they try to give it away.”

He stared at the scarf for a long moment. “It does look nice,” she said, reaching out and picking it up to fold it in two. “Here.”

He reached out a tentative hand to take it, and couldn’t stop himself from running his fingers over it. It was very soft.

“I’m going upstairs,” he mumbled, and shuffled out all of the sudden. Mrs. Rogers held her arms out and looked upward for a moment before shaking her head and getting up to see about dinner.

The next morning, Steve was wearing the scarf when he picked Bucky up from his house. They did not ever talk about it, and the coat hung forlornly in Bucky’s closet, but Steve wore the scarf every day that winter, so: that was something, at least, Bucky figured.


*


DECEMBER

IN WHICH AN ODINSON COMES INTO AN INHERITANCE

If Middletown was a cozy, unremarkable suburb, full of meandering streets lined with squat colonials and mostly identical front lawns, then Centerville was its decidedly stranger cousin: people in Centerville mostly did not live in houses; they lived on estates, or properties, and no one estate or property bore much resemblance to another. There was the Barneses’ monstrous McMansion (so irritatingly located on the town line, and complete with the already described pool and almost-cabana), the Starks’ ludicrous Spanish villa (out of place in the state in which this tale takes place, which the author has taken pains not to divulge, but which the reader should surely be able to conclude by this point was no place for such an architectural structure), and finally, the home of Thor and Loki Odinson, which as previously mentioned looked like nothing so much as a medieval fortress.

Odin Odinson was rarely seen in public in either Centerville or Middletown, but it was commonly agreed by residents of both towns that he was a decidedly strange character. The number of stories that circulated about his various strange doings was directly proportional to his habitual seclusion, as tends to be case in suburbia. Even his wife Frigga—much friendlier, everyone agreed (though this was not exactly difficult)—was… odd. A little new-agey, the women in town felt, for someone who was married to an energy baron.

But then there was the strange matter of what exactly Odinson Energy Ventures actually did. Nobody quite knew. Their website was maddeningly vague on this front—“Developing and promoting global energy solutions for the twenty-first century” was, everyone agreed, a completely meaningless statement—and certainly Frigga Odinson could never be persuaded to say two words about her husband’s business: “Oh, let’s talk about something else, I don’t know anything about those things,” she said whenever it came up, very unconvincingly. It was all very peculiar. All anybody knew with certainty was that Howard Stark was hell-bent on besting him in the nebulous capitalistic war in which their corporations were engaged, and that Odin Odinson (“But why is he called that?” new residents of the towns always asked themselves, perplexed, before eventually being forced to accept the strangeness of the new reality into which they had stumbled, unawares) must have felt the same, for every once in a while OEV put out a press release with something terrifically, subtly rude about Stark Industries hidden halfway through the body of the text, on which nights muted explosions could usually be heard coming from the Stark house from several miles away.

(The residents of Middletown and Centerville made up a substantial portion of the OEV public mailing list. Despite this, the actual operations of OEV beyond “developing and promoting global energy solutions for the twenty-first century” remained a total mystery.)

Thor and Loki Odinson, having spent their entire life to date in a strange almost-castle deep in the woods of the suburbs of this particular unnamed state, had yet to realize—and possibly would never realize, wealth being what it was, and insanity having a strong presence in the family line—that their lives were and had always been deeply irregular on practically every level. It was simply not normal, for instance, to grow up in a castle in the woods—most of us know this—but they did not. It was also not normal to see your father only on weekends, if he barely ever left the house, except on occasional very long business trips from which he would not return for months on end; they did not know this either. It was, finally, particularly unusual for your father, as the owner of a large and utterly mysterious energy conglomerate, to have spent his entire life telling you that either you or your brother would one day take over the company, only to decide that it would be the slightly elder of the two of you (“Six minutes,” Loki was fond of snarling, “six minutes”) on the day you both turned seventeen years old.

Particularly, it simply must be said, if that slightly elder brother was Thor, who was in no way equipped for or suited to run anything except his high school soccer team, which he did with great efficacy and panache, but which required very little higher thought, and depended mostly on everybody else liking him.

It should be put on record at this point that, based on the current evidence of his personality, all signs seemed to suggest that Loki would also do a terrible job at being in charge of a large corporation, at some hypothetical future time; still, there was something comical about the idea of Thor, whose default expression betrayed the presence of almost no brain cells at all, and whose bedroom walls were plastered with posters of soccer players from around the globe from floor to ceiling on one side and bathing suit models on the other, excelling at anything having to do with conniving business strategy and scientific prowess. He liked, as Loki often said, snidely, to run around on a patch of grass and hit a ball with his foot, and sometimes his head. To top this off, he was borderline incapable of being unkind to anyone intentionally. The entire situation was comical.

On the night of this auspicious announcement—which Odin had made from the head of their long mahogany dining table, the head of an enormous stag mounted on the wall behind him, while Frigga smiled stiffly and pretended that everything was fine—both of the boys went back up to their rooms without speaking. It was possible that Thor was experiencing a rare moment of intuition, of perceptiveness into another human’s consciousness—that he could sense the barely contained anguish, rage, and borderline mania that was very palpably emanating from his slighter, darker brother as they trudged up the stairs together—but in reality it was far more likely that he was simply boggling at what had transpired and therefore too preoccupied to speak.

Loki spent a considerable amount of time thinking very unflattering, self-pitying things about how his mind was so very much deeper than Thor’s, and possessed so much more capacity for complex emotions, and while it was undeniably true that Loki was an unbearable person whose capacity for complex emotions in no way rendered him more interesting, sympathetic, or valuable than his brother, it was also undeniably true that his assessment of their respective personalities was on some level fundamentally accurate. Thor was not deep.

Their rooms shared a wall, which had, in their childhoods, been the source of much entertainment and conspiracy: though Loki’s attempts to teach Thor Morse code had failed spectacularly, they had nevertheless developed a fairly elaborate system of communication that relied on tapping out various patterns on the wall when they knew they could not get away with sneaking out into the hall and into one another’s rooms, or when the sneaking itself would have gone unnoticed but the subsequent chatter would have caused Frigga to come in and drag whichever one of them back into the appropriate bed. Loki had also, at one point, designed a highly elaborate mechanism that traveled out his window and into Thor’s, with two cans on either end and wire tubing along the middle, through which they had communicated late at night, whispering far more obviously than they thought they were. Frigga had let them have it for a while simply out of respect for Loki’s ingenuity, but then a thunderstorm had come and knocked it aside, much to everybody’s dismay. She had not forgotten and would never forget the sight of Loki, aged eight, crouching down over the ruins of his little contraption, trying not to cry, while Thor looked down from above him and patted him very seriously on the shoulder with his chubby little child’s hand.

She tried to think about this and other similar memories when the two of them were sitting across the table from each other and Loki was looking at Thor like he wanted to personally pull out all of his bones and string them up from the ceiling. It was what got her through most dinners.

This particular evening, Loki went into his room and immediately put on Panic! at the Disco at full volume, which was so loud that the floor actually began vibrating, one of his typical tactics for annoying Thor, none of which ever worked to his satisfaction. Thor slammed one of his large hands against the wall a couple of times before putting on his noise-cancelling headphones and settling down onto his (unmade, nest-like) bed with his laptop and pulling his knees up toward him, at which point he forgot about Loki entirely, and began instead thinking about Jane Foster, who would probably be impressed and interested in the whole OEV thing, because it had something to do with science—he, like the rest of Middletown and Centerville, was unclear on the particulars—because she liked science. He had been trying to figure out some way to get Jane Foster to like him for the past three months, and having concluded that she liked nothing except science, he had no strategies except, essentially, becoming science, a venture in which this new development in his life would, he felt, prove manifestly helpful.

“A girl,” Loki said the next morning, over breakfast, looking like he wanted to die. (The Odinson boys also did not quite understand that the fact that they actually got up and ate breakfast in the mornings, at the kitchen table, was unusual. But although neither of their parents was ever present for this ritual, it was decidedly not an optional event.) Thor’s dog, an enormous Bernese mountain dog named Rajah (now elderly, having been acquired in Thor’s childhood, in the midst of the boys’ Aladdin phase) that liked to slobber all over everything and was of a remarkably similar disposition to his owner, smeared spittle all over his knee, and he jerked backwards. Even before he had decided that Thor was his mortal enemy, Loki had disliked Rajah intensely. (By “disliked intensely,” the author of course means “feared with a mortal terror deep in his bones.”)

“Yes,” Thor, who had not noticed this, said very earnestly. “Jane Foster.”

“I know,” Loki said, staring at Rajah with an expression of deep suspicion. “You never stop talking about Jane Foster. I know. About Jane Foster.”

“Yes,” Thor said beatifically, beaming. “She likes science.”

“I am, in fact, aware,” Loki said, looking increasingly constipated.

Thor had, thus far, failed to make any progress whatsoever beyond getting her to say terse things to him over their lab table during physics class. Consequently, the effort he had expended on his science homework thus far that year was unprecedented, and frankly, his mother thought, somewhat alarming; she was in no way opposed to her son actually making some kind of effort in school, but the radical shift in his personality in this area was some cause for concern. Of course the sad fact of the matter was that, no matter how hard he tried, Thor was simply not good at physics—but he soldiered on nevertheless.

“I just don’t understand what you see in her,” Loki was fond of saying, face screwed up unappealingly, thinking about Jane Foster and her skintight black shirts and cargo pants and black nail polish and lipstick and the awkward-looking choker she always wore with a big cross that she aggressively said was not religious, if anybody asked. (She did not need to wear white makeup to make herself look paler than she was, for she naturally possessed the unhealthily pale complexion of somebody only barely acquainted with the sun.) But to be fair, Loki spent most of his time staring covertly but undeniably creepily at Sif Sigurdsson from across various rooms, and so his appreciation for girls who were not jock goddess types was limited.

Also to be fair, Thor was completely incapable of articulating what exactly it was that he saw in Jane Foster, but whatever it was, it was definitely something, and he definitely saw it. And she definitely had no idea that this was the case.

Which, it has to be said, was pretty funny, because Thor spent the entirety of every physics period—and also all other times when and Jane were in any sort of proximity to each other—staring at her with the devotion with which his dog Rajah stared at him at all times. But teenagers, as we have already manifestly demonstrated, are impressively oblivious creatures.

“Jane,” he said, as she scribbled down some lengthy equation in her notebook that, from his point of view across the table, looked like gobbledygook. (It would also have looked like gobbledygook if he had been reading it properly, but Thor lived in a world of happy delusions.) “Yesterday was my birthday.”

“I know,” she said, without looking up. Half of the soccer team had carried him down the hallway into the cafeteria during their lunch period while the other half blew on vuvuzelas. In the corner, Loki had broken a pencil in half by accident.

“Yeah, well,” he said, shifting in his seat. “My father has decided to make me the heir to his company.”

“Congratulations,” Jane said.

“His renewable energy company,” Thor said, although to be honest he was not sure it was renewable energy. He really wasn’t sure what the company did at all, except pay his family’s bills.

“There’s a lot of… science… involved,” he said.

“Okay,” Jane said. Her roots, Thor noticed, were badly in need of upkeep. (Thor noticed things like this.)

He realized he had not actually thought of anything to say beyond the thing about science. He had assumed that that would work.

It was very difficult to talk to Jane Foster.

She was, he thought, with all the earnest infatuation of which only seventeen-year-old boys are capable, a very remarkable person.

“Oh, shit,” Clint Barton said from across the room, right before the circuit board he and Loki were working on shorted out, and Loki’s hair all stood on end.

“Oh dear,” Dr. Selvig said vaguely. “Is everything all right?”

“Fine,” Loki said through gritted teeth. “Everything. Is fine.”

“Radical, dude,” Clint said. Radical? Steve mouthed at Bucky, at their table in the back of the classroom. Bucky shrugged, and poked at their circuit board with a little too much force, scowling, sort of hoping that he, too, might get electrocuted.


*


IN WHICH MR. AND MRS. BARNES DEMONSTRATE A THEORY OF PARENTING, AND STEVE ROGERS FACILITATES PYROMANIA

Phil Coulson had spent more time than he would perhaps have liked thinking about Bucky Barnes over the course of that autumn. It was difficult, however, to avoid thinking about Bucky, who had shown up in his office repeatedly, looking banged up and refusing to sufficiently blame Brock Rumlow for the damage, instead staring blankly at the carpet or blankly up at him. Mr. Coulson considered it a small victory if he managed to get Bucky to look surly, and a more significant one if he managed to get him to move beyond past teenage surliness and into some form of actual, regular personhood. But this was a rare occurrence indeed.

Teenagers, he often thought wearily, who were hell-bent on self-destructing were very hard to stop. And Bucky Barnes, while not set on as catastrophic a path as certain other students he had encountered over the years, was nevertheless in a tailspin par excellence.

So it was not surprising, though it was very, very depressing, that he found himself sitting in his office one mid-December afternoon with Bucky in a chair on the other side of his desk, boasting a nasty shiner and an even nastier split lip, having said something very unpleasant indeed to Brock Rumlow, whose behavior had been bad enough that even he had also been brought in and summarily dealt with and sent home. Now Mr. Coulson had to deal with Bucky, and—more unfortunately—Bucky’s parents, who were apparently on their way from home, where Mr. Barnes had picked up Mrs. Barnes before heading to the school.

Bucky was staring fixedly at the floor and picking at the ace bandage holding the splint to his left wrist.

“You’re lucky that’s not broken, you know,” Mr. Coulson said. Bucky didn’t react.

Mr. Coulson sighed. “I know that you don’t want to hear it,” he said, “but you’re only hurting yourself by doing this. With them—” He paused. Bucky was still staring at he floor, and fingers twitching over the bandage.

“You just remind me a lot of myself at your age,” Mr. Coulson said wearily, and Bucky’s eyes snapped up to his face, wide and alarmed. “It’s always difficult to watch when this happens.”

Bucky opened his mouth and then closed it. He opened it again. “But,” he said, and then stopped.

“It doesn’t work,” Mr. Coulson said. “Trust me.”

His phone rang. “Yes?” he said once he’d picked it up.

“They’re out here,” Monica said. “Mr. and Mrs. Barnes.”

“Send them in,” he said, and steeled himself.

Of course they were exactly what he had been expecting them to be: rich, shiny, full of nothing except ego. They were performances. But he had been working at MCUHS for long enough that there was very little that surprised him anymore: he knew their type.

“What did he do this time?” Mr. Barnes asked, and Bucky’s leg twitched.

“Well,” Mr. Coulson said, leaning back in his chair. “There was an altercation with another student. Bucky… said some things, and the other student… overreacted. He’s been sent home already, with his parents, with a very stern warning about anything like this happening again.”

“I’d hope so,” Mr. Barnes huffed.

“Yes,” Mr. Coulson said, glancing at Bucky, who was sitting in a chair dragged some distance away from his parents.

“I was hoping we could all talk a little bit about what might be helpful for Bucky,” he said. “At home. I think he needs your support right now and since we’re all here—well, I think it can be helpful to have somebody on the outside facilitating those conversations, sometimes.”

Mr. and Mrs. Barnes were staring at him with matching expressions of total bafflement on their faces. Bucky, he saw, was looking down at his knees with a twisted little smirk on his face.

“Well I’m not sure what you mean,” Mr. Barnes said.

“We give him lots of support,” Mrs. Barnes said very quickly. “He gets as much support as any child could possibly want, Mr.—”

“Coulson.”

“Yes,” she continued. “Well. He’s very supported. We’re very supportive.”

“I’m not sure whey he’s behaving like this,” Mr. Barnes said baldly. “We don’t really go in for all that in our family. Never have.”

Bucky’s good hand was twisted into his jeans so tightly that his knuckles were white, and his face was clenched together just as tightly, to keep it from wobbling. But Mr. Coulson knew that he was not going to cry, even though he was clearly on the verge of doing so, because when you have parents like Mr. and Mrs. Barnes you learn how to stop yourself from crying early.

“Well,” he said mildly, looking back at the two of them, “you moved at the beginning of this school year, which can cause a lot of upheaval at an already difficult time. Being a teenager isn’t easy for anybody, even kids with very good parents.”

Mr. Barnes looked skeptical.

“We’ve moved before,” he said. “I’d think he’d be used to it by now.”

“Well, some kids might get used to it, that’s true,” Mr. Coulson said. “But others might just get—unmoored. Every time.”

“Well, I don’t see how that translates to fighting in the hallway all the time,” Mr. Barnes said.

“He comes home looking like this so often,” Mrs. Barnes chimed in.

“Yes,” Mr. Coulson said. “I’m aware. Which is why I’ve called you in. To discuss with all of you how you might help Bucky right now.”

“Not what my father would have done if I’d pulled this,” Mr. Barnes muttered.

“Theories of parenting have advanced substantially over the past few decades,” Mr. Coulson told him, smiling humorlessly. Mr. Barnes huffed, and his face shuttered even more than it had been when he had entered the door.

“Well,” he said, in the tones of someone who had decided he was done with the conversation in which he was currently engaged. “We’d probably better be going. Come on, Jim.”

Bucky flinched.

“Actually I think Bucky has a test in his last period,” Mr. Coulson said. “Don’t you, Bucky.”

Mr. and Mrs. Barnes turned to look at him, blinking. “Why’d you bring us all the way out here if you don’t want us to take him home?” Mr. Barnes asked, annoyed.

“Your wife said it wasn’t an inconvenient time,” Mr. Coulson said blithely, which she had.

Mr. Barnes glared at her and she turned red.

“I’ll get them to call for Mr. Rogers on the PA,” Mr. Coulson said, picking up his phone. “Thanks very much for coming in, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“You too,” Mr. Barnes said, but Mr. Coulson already had the phone to his ear.

He didn’t catch what Mr. Barnes said to Bucky, voice low, but Bucky didn’t get up out of his seat and barely looked up at him. Mrs. Barnes leaned down and wrapped her skinny arms around him, patting him on the back once or twice, almost cursorily, before the two of them filed out.

Could Steve Rogers please report to guidance,” they heard fuzzily blare over the PA system outside. “Steve Rogers, report to guidance please.”

Mr. Coulson sighed. “Well,” he said. “At least that’s over with.”

“I don’t have a test today,” Bucky mumbled, not looking up.

“Yes, well, I wouldn’t know about it if you did,” Mr. Coulson said. “Can’t say I feel too bad about lying.”

Neither of them said anything else, or moved much at all, until he heard Monica say, “You can just go in, dear,” and then Steve Rogers—looking as gawky as ever, cowlick firmly in place, collar askew, and wearing his utterly tragic nylon jacket with the school logo on it—appeared in the doorway, looking confused.

“Bucky?” he said. “You weren’t in English class, so I—” He stopped, suddenly. Bucky’s shoulders hunched down even farther for a second and he clenched his right hand in a fist before he turned to look up at Steve.

“Jesus, Bucky,” Steve said, and Bucky winced.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

Steve was standing very still, eyes flicking from one thing to another. “Your wrist’s not broken, is it?” he asked. Bucky shook his head.

“Sprained,” he said.

“Okay,” Steve said. “That’s—that’s good, right? I mean. That’s good.” He swallowed. “Are you—are you—”

“I’m going to get some air,” Mr. Coulson said suddenly, getting up out of his chair and walking around them toward the door. He clapped Steve on the shoulder for a moment, smiling. “Make sure Mr. and Mrs. Barnes find their way out of the building right. It’s nice to see you, Steve. I’ll talk to you sometime soon.” He was out of the room with the door closed behind him before Steve could say anything in response, and leaned back against it, exhaling slowly.

“Bad one?” Monica asked quietly, and he nodded, rubbing his hand over his face.

“What’s going on?” Steve said, inside his office, looking at where Bucky was sitting, hunched in his chair. “Bucky? Are you—are you okay?” Bucky was looking down at his feet and not moving, so Steve pulled over one of the other chairs and sat down next to him. “Your parents were here?

“Bucky?” he asked again, and this time he noticed that Bucky’s eyes were all—red and shining and—not right, like he was going to cry, except he wasn’t crying, just sitting there staring at the floor and kind of—twitching, a little.

“Are you okay?” he asked again, because he really didn’t know, and slowly Bucky’s head jerked back and forth, in one direction and then the other, just the tiniest bit, and he was biting into his trembling split lip without even seeming to realize what he was doing, just to keep himself from crying, Steve guessed, and it was all just—awful, and he didn’t know what was going on but he didn’t like this, he didn’t like it, he wanted it to stop, so he did the only thing that he knew how to do, really, and reached out and sort of awkwardly put one arm around Bucky’s shoulders and put the other arm up to meet it, and they sat there for a moment, uncomfortable, without moving. And then Bucky sort of—tipped over, into him, and pushed his face against his shirt (not against the awful jacket) and started shaking very badly indeed, although he still did not cry, and Steve didn’t know what was happening but something inside of him hurt somewhere he had not known existed, and he thought that if he ever met Mr. or Mrs. Barnes—which he still, at that point, had not—that he was going to have a very hard time being nice to them.

“Sorry,” Bucky mumbled finally, voice shaking, although he still hadn’t moved.

“It’s okay,” Steve said, even though Bucky really, really smelled, and even though when he pulled back some of his eyeliner had smeared off onto Steve’s shirt.

“Wanna get out of here?” Steve asked, the corners of his lips twitching up into a smile, and Bucky stared at him for a moment before realizing he was serious.

“Yeah,” he croaked. “Please. Please, let’s get the fuck out of here.”


*


It will surprise no reader to hear that Steve Rogers had never played hooky from school a day in his life, and yet in spite of his obvious furtive glances as they walked down the hallway and slipped out the main doors of the school, nobody paid them any mind—nobody, that is, except Tony Stark, who was coming from the bathroom in the opposite direction as they made a beeline for the exit, and stopped, mouth agape, when he saw them in the process of what he immediately and accurately deduced was an act of truancy.

It was really trying for the other students, as well as for the teachers, that Tony was as brilliant as he was, on top of being so deeply, deeply irritating; although, to be fair, those two things were not exactly unrelated.

“What are you doing?” he asked, at full volume. Bucky was walking kind of jerkily, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, or maybe a malfunctioning robot of some kind, and didn’t look at him, just—twitched, again, like he kept doing. It was making Steve anxious.

“Tony,” he said, in a tone of voice he was pretty sure he had never heard come out of his own mouth, “I swear to god, if you say another word—”

He didn’t know what, precisely, his own next words would be; he had not, as far as memory served, ever threatened anyone in his life. But of course as we all know the most compelling threats are often those that come from the most unexpected sources, and Tony was so startled by the expression of almost maniacal determination on Steve’s face that for once in his life he did, in fact, shut up.

Shortly after this, when they were driving in no particular direction except away from the school, the sky a dull grey overcast over the scraped-bare tree branches and shriveled lawns waiting for snow, Bucky, who was curled away from Steve, pitched toward the window, said, “Coulson said,” and then stopped.

Steve, who had already been glancing at him so frequently that his driving was probably uncharacteristically compromised, blinked. “Said what?”

He didn’t reply for a long moment. “He said—he said that I—reminded him of—him. When he was a kid.”

“Oh,” Steve said a moment later.

“What’s—what’s that supposed to mean?” Bucky spat out, or tried to; really it sounded more like croaking. “What does that even—mean?”

“Um,” Steve said. “I think it means—what it sounds like.”

“He’s not—we’re nothing alike,” Bucky said emphatically. “I don’t know what that was supposed to mean.”

Steve glanced at him again. He was still staring out the window.

“Well we didn’t—know him,” Steve pointed out. “When he was, um. Our age. Obviously.”

Bucky turned and looked at him, unimpressed, through his good eye.

“I’m just saying,” Steve said. “You don’t—know. Adults don’t—it’s not like you just. Can tell everything about them by looking at them.”

“Sure,” Bucky muttered.

“I mean,” Steve continued, stubbornly, “it’s not like people can just—look at you and know everything about you by looking at you. Can they.”

Bucky went very still.

“Uh,” Steve said. “Or. Me? Or. Anyone.”

What, he wondered slightly hysterically, on earth was going on. He needed his mother. But his mother was at work, and he was in the car, right now, so—so. He was—dealing with it.

“We’re nothing alike,” Bucky mumbled again, curling down into his seat again, looking dull and miserable. “That’s just—stupid.”

“Okay,” Steve said.

Neither of them said anything for a long moment, and Steve kept driving to nowhere, trying to figure out what he was doing. “What do you want to do?” he asked Bucky finally, in the absence of any good ideas.

Bucky just shrugged.

Steve chewed at the inside of his cheek and looked over at him out of the corners of his eyes. “You wanna set some stuff on fire?” he asked, and Bucky blinked so hard he actually jerked his head backward.

“What?” he said, mouth slightly agape.

Though this narrative has taken other twists and turns, the reader will no doubt remember having been told early on in our tale that Bucky was, in fact, an inveterate pyromaniac—therein, needless to say, lay much of the appeal of smoking as an activity of rebellion—and while this story has largely neglected this aspect of his personality thus far, it had very much been in evidence over the course of the autumn. Steve spent a considerable amount of time trying to get Bucky to either put out small fires or to not set things on fire in the first place, so the magnitude of this offer was not lost on him.

“Okay,” he said, and that was how they wound up sitting on rickety beach chairs in the Rogerses’ backyard with a fire burning cheerfully in an old, empty metal paint can, Bucky feeding it dried up leaves and other bits and pieces of things while Steve sat back and watched, or occasionally leaned forward to warm his hands before sticking them under his armpits again, and then humming tunelessly until Bucky was forced to roll his eyes.

That evening, when Mrs. Rogers came home, feeling worn-out and irritable, a headache pounding behind her eyes, she walked into her kitchen to find, in the next room, her son and his friend curled against each other in the sagging low point in the center of their couch, practically swallowed up by their lumpy old afghan as they watched an episode of Friends from before they were born on the television. Bucky, she reflected, looked somehow smaller than normal like this—he was not that much shorter than Steve, not really, just a couple of inches—but he just—seemed much smaller. Especially today.

She frowned when she noticed his splinted wrist resting carefully on the afghan, but didn’t say anything. They were giggling about something, and they sounded like kids, but they weren’t anymore, not quite. Not exactly.

Of course, she thought, when she turned and looked back into the kitchen properly, and saw their backpacks and coats where they had been dropped haphazardly in a pile in the middle of the floor—not something Steve even did normally (and that Bucky, incidentally, did not do either, in the comfort of his own home, since there his possessions were strictly regulated to his room)—they were also definitely not adults yet, either.


*


IN WHICH A HOLIDAY IS CELEBRATED, AND CERTAIN THINGS ARE REMEBERED

It had not been long before Christmas, all those many years before, that Joseph Rogers died, in an emergency room in the hospital one town over from the clinic where his wife was working as a receptionist. To Steve he would always be a face in photographs and a few scattered, fuzzy digital recordings that his mother painstakingly converted from file format to file format as time passed and technologies shifted, but to Mrs. Rogers the memory of the phone call to her desk, from a doctor she could imagine perfectly—she saw them in the hallways every day—letting her know that her husband had died in a motor vehicle accident, became particularly, gruesomely vivid each December, when the days grew shorter and the night encroached and the roads grew slick with ice.

“Drive safe,” she always told Steve, whenever he went out, even though she knew that he did, and even though his father’s death had not been his own fault but the fault of another driver skidding across the road.

She had, on that night all those years ago, working an extra shift to fill in for a coworker, put the phone down in its cradle and thought, before thinking anything else, a cacophonous ringing in her ears, I need to call the babysitter.

But the truth of the matter was that it had been a long time since her husband had died—sixteen years, that year—and she had always tried not to resent the month for its having taken him into its dark clutches, for she had always liked the winter, and its holidays, and she had known ever since that string of late nights that immediately followed the implosion of the universe, when Steve would not sleep if she were not in the room with him, instead just lying there silently awake, eyes round and glistening uncannily in the moonlight, that there would be a great shadow over his life no matter what she did to counteract it.

The weight of the knowledge bore down on her so heavily that for those weeks that, although she moved about the world, and went to her job, and spoke to strangers (even though everyone seemed to think that she should not be doing any of these things), she felt as though she were never going to be able to get up again: as though, instead, she would be sitting in the rocking chair next to Steve’s bed forever, pinned down by some unfathomable weight, watching powerlessly as he grew from a baby to a toddler to a teenager and, finally, to an adult—and then got up and walked away, leaving her alone. There were, perhaps, things that she had hoped to avoid repeating, corrections to her own past she had hoped to make with her own child, her own boy—the particulars of which are of little consequence to us, for though we have dipped back into the past, this is not Mrs. Rogers’ story but a story about her son and the boy he was going to fall in love with. We need perhaps only say that her phone had been ringing with calls from her own parents and that she had not been picking up: for she had done everything in her power to avoid failure, she thought, and failure had nevertheless come slamming through the door.

It would have been impossible to point at anything as a cause for change, although a change did occur: perhaps we may simply accept that Mrs. Rogers was a particularly resilient creature, and that in the end her grief was something she could, if she tried very, very hard, hold for periods of time in a box inside of her, where by contrast her love was everything and everywhere: and that one morning as the dawn broke over a sleepless night she rubbed at her (still very young) tear-stained face and leaned forward to put one careful hand on her son’s head, and thought that maybe she would be able to keep on going somehow after all.

So Christmastime was a strange thing, in the Rogers household, though perhaps it would be most accurate to say that it was bittersweet: for more than anything it was the time when Mrs. Rogers thought about her husband, and her son, and the entire strange unfolding and refolding flower of her life; and the time when Steve thought not so much about his father, who to him would always be a ghostly aching absence, but about his mother, in oversized sweaters making Christmas cookies in the kitchen, and sitting in the armchair reading while he did his homework on the couch, and his old memories of her lying on his narrow bed next to him stroking his hair when he haltingly told her about what the other kids at school had done to him, and her explaining to him what that did and did not mean, about them, and about him. The season was for them a kind of hibernation, a turning inward, for there had always been ways in which the two of them had nobody but each other.

It was a kind of burning ache deep in the heart of her to see Steve, now, turning out to the world and then wobbling back to her: she lay in bed sometimes and thought about what it would be like to call her mother and ask if this was just how it was, the urge to push them out into the maw of life and also to pull them back toward you. But she knew that that would never have been possible—and anyway, this is not her story. This is Steve’s. And soon the smooth unbroken circle of light that had connected the two of them for as long as his conscious memory went back would snap and be replaced by a single line, for that was the natural condition of adulthood—and as we know, all teenagers are really just adults in progress.

It hurt her sometimes, in any event, to look at Bucky Barnes, and to see the way he looked at her with a kind of terrified hopeful adoration, as though he could not believe that she was being kind to him, as though he did not believe that kindness could have any kind of permanence—as though he did not trust it not to vanish, as if it had never been, the moment that he closed his eyes. And she knew that in-between the two of them there was another ghostly figure of a woman she had not yet met, to whom he had been reaching out his whole life and never yet been able to touch—and that was what made her want to curl her arms around herself, suddenly cold, as if the ghost itself had turned and passed through her.

It was different, she thought, when she watched him with Steve: it was more real. His love was real and so was his bone-deep terror of that love being taken away, and she could see Steve turning toward it, the strange sort of unconscious understanding that had set in, which of course was not real understanding but still something deep in the bones, something fierce and desperate and which she knew with a kind of inevitable sadness was coming from him, too, whether he liked it or not: for he was living with a different kind of ghost, and different kinds of fears.

There was only so much you could do, she had learned slowly and painstakingly over the years, for your children: it was everything you had but it would never be everything they were going to need. And for other people’s children—the children who got left out in the cold, peering in through the windows, eyes wide, cheeks hollow—you could do even less. But of course you had to try. You always had to try. There was nothing else that you could do.

And so when Steve told her that Bucky had to spend Christmas Eve at a big party at Howard Stark’s mansion—at which he would be expected to socialize with Rhodey, who liked Steve and therefore tolerated him, and Tony, who did not; and more importantly would have to dress up in formal clothing and speak to all of his fathers’ colleagues and friends and act like a sociable person and awkwardly pretend like he knew how to talk to people serving him weird appetizers he didn’t want to eat—she told him that he should invite him over to their house instead, even though it had only ever been the two of them.

“Oh,” Steve said, and she could see something happen in his face—conflict, maybe. “I—really?”

“I think he deserves it, don’t you?” she said. Bucky’s arm was still taped up from his run-in with Rumlow. Steve went ruminative for a moment.

“Yeah,” he said. “I do.”

I love you, she thought, and was struck not for the first time by the insufficiency of language, for all the things that happened in her that she would never be able to explain to anyone, for want of a means of expression.

“Are you sure?” Bucky said, when he asked, and Steve shrugged.

“I mean, we just—I dunno. Make cookies, and—stuff. It’s nothing special,” he said, although it was. “I mean, you don’t—I just thought maybe. You know. The party doesn’t sound very fun.”

“Please,” Bucky said, and didn’t say anything else, just opened and closed his good hand into a fist.

And so it was that he found himself sweating under his collar in the vast ballroom of the Starks’ house—there actually was a ballroom—pushing his way out to the door, avoiding eye-contact with any of the bejeweled women and tuxedoed men who were chattering inanely at each other and mostly not paying any attention to him, although it certainly felt like they were all boring holes straight into his rumpled suit jacket. (Tony and Rhodey had been quarantined on the other side of the hall by Rhodey’s parents, who were probably the most sensible people in the room, particularly in light of the fact that they had taken one look at Bucky and made the executive decision that sequestering him with their son and Tony Stark would be a terrible idea.)

He had no idea, anymore, where the coatroom was, nor did he care; he had cigarettes and a lighter in his pocket, and according to the texts on his phone Steve was fifteen minutes away. He could be cold for fifteen minutes, or however long it would take him to get the hell out of here. His parents could bring his coat home with them. (They had made him wear the pea coat. He had not been pleased.)

He found himself in an antechamber that opened up onto four separate, indistinguishable hallways.

“What the fuck,” he muttered.

“Looking for the exit, sir?” a disembodied English voice said, and he jumped around a foot in the air, and then froze.

“Door to your right, all the way down,” it continued cheerfully.

“Are you coming from the—ceiling?” he asked.

“I suppose you could say that,” it answered, and he stared up for a moment longer before scurrying off down the hallway and eventually to the front door, and out onto the endless driveway.

He had not, of course, anticipated the gate at the end of said driveway, which was locked using some kind of terrifying electronic mechanism that he could not even begin to pretend to understand.

Fuck,” he muttered, teeth chattering, loafers crunching on the snow. Something clicked.

“Just give it a push,” the voice said again.

Jesus Christ,” Bucky yelped.

“Not until tomorrow, I do believe,” the voice said, as he hurried through the gate and clanged it shut behind him.

And that was how Steve found him, when he pulled up several minutes later: leaning against the closed gate, one arm folded in front of him, another holding a cigarette in his mouth, just at the edge of the glow of a spotlight shining down from the top of the gate, hair tucked behind his ears. Steve blinked when he saw him, and stared for a moment: he had never seen him in regular clothes. He looked—well, there was something different. Just—something.

Bucky looked up and straightened his shoulders, shaking out his neck, and flicked his cigarette onto the ground before crushing it under his foot. By the time he got into the car nothing about him seemed unusual anymore, even though he was wearing weird clothes: he was scowling and jittery and reassuringly familiar.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” Steve said automatically, and Bucky sent him a look.

“Sure, whatever,” he said. “The Starks have a talking—English—guy. Thing. From the ceilings. And the doors.”

“What?” said Steve, baffled.

When they got back to the Rogerses’ house, Mrs. Rogers was pulling lamb and potatoes out of the oven. “You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to, dear,” she said when she saw Bucky, “I know you’ve just come from a big party—”

“No, that’s fine,” he said eagerly, peering over at it. “I could eat.”

“You look very nice,” she said, and he scowled automatically, then seemed to remember he didn’t like to scowl in her presence, and then seemed to get very confused about what he should be doing instead.

“Not that you don’t always,” she told him, trying not to sound too amused. “But that’s a very sharp suit.” It wasn’t, in reality, very sharp, but one of the important things to do with teenagers, she had found, was to lie to them.

Bucky turned red. She smiled beatifically.

And so they sat around eating lamb and roast potatoes, and Steve got Bucky to talk about the horrible people at the Starks’, and what the inside of the house looked like, and also about the weird English voice, and Mrs. Rogers told the story of how once many years ago she had had her car breakdown by the side of the road and none other than Howard Stark had stopped and helped her fix it with a ridiculously elaborate toolkit from his trunk and also tried—in her words—to “put the moves on me,” which made both Steve and Bucky yowl in agonized disgust, which had of course been her intention. (She did not tell him that the entire thing, while of course highly laughable, had also been eminently enjoyable, and that Howard—whom she saw not infrequently, around town, in implausibly normal places that she was fairly certain he did not typically frequent—had smiled his shit-eating grin at her before driving away again, leaving her with a car that had somehow run for suspiciously longer than it should have. She had a lot of faith in Stark Industries.)

After they had eaten they all cleared the table and stood in the kitchen washing up, and then she sat them down on the couch with a plate of cookies and settled down on the armchair with a smaller plate of the same, and let them pick which Christmas specials they wanted to watch, and watched the two of them instead of the television. And when, finally, it was time for Steve to take Bucky home—“My parents are so pissed,” Bucky said, in the tones of someone who somehow both has and has not stopped caring—she walked them to the door and watched them walk down to the car.

“Drive safe,” she called, and Steve turned and looked up at her.

“Yeah,” he said, and Bucky waved.

“I love you,” she said, because words were, sometimes, important, if not sufficient.

“I love you, too,” he said, and she kept watching as the two of them got in the car together, their faces illuminated briefly by the interior light as Bucky said something, animated, and Steve laughed before the light cut out and they were left in the dark to drive away into the night.

Steve got home a half-hour later and found her sitting on the couch with a cup of tea, looking at the lights on the Christmas tree in the dark room. “Hi, Mom,” he said. “I got back okay.”

She turned and smiled up at him. “I knew you would really,” she said, although of course you never can really know.

He sat down next to her and looked at the tree, too. “Would you tell me something about Dad?” he asked, because he always did, one day of the year, even if Joseph Rogers was only a ghost, and so she did, and he curled up against her like he was still smaller than she was, still a child, his head on her shoulder, and she thought of things other than that night in December all those years ago, when the universe had imploded, and she had put down the phone in its cradle, and thought: I have to call the babysitter.

*