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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.

*

Chapter Text

JANUARY

IN WHICH LEISURE TIME IS EXPLORED, AND SOMETHING ELSE IS EXPLODED

The MCUHS Birding Society and Ornithologist-in-Training League met twice a month, on alternating Saturdays. Meetings began promptly at ten in the morning and lasted until sundown, and were typically conducted in a wooded area in the nebulous area between Middletown and Centerville (not terribly far, in fact, from the Barnes residence) which development, bound by the stipulations of conservancy regulations, had not been able to destroy.

There were only two members of the Birding Society and Ornithologist-in-Training League, and they made strange bedfellows, for Sam Wilson was the sort of teenager who wore unflattering metal-rimmed glasses, even more unflattering fleece vests (and, on the appropriate Saturdays, outdoors gear he deemed appropriate for bird watching), and an afro that needed to be shaved more often than it was; had unnaturally good posture; and spoke rarely but, when pressed, in long and complex sentences riddled with SAT words. He was, that is to say, a very awkward young man, yet one who seemed stubbornly to refuse to acknowledge his own awkwardness, remaining instead blithely oblivious to it, instead lost in some foggy alternate reality populated mostly by birds, books about birds and other animals and natural phenomena, homework, shows on the nature channel, and web forums about birding and other outdoor activities otherwise populated mostly by middle-aged people.

His fellow ornithologist-in-training lacked Sam’s nuanced scientific understanding of the birds in question and their habits and migration patterns and so on and so forth, but what knowledge he lacked he made up for in enthusiasm. And Clint Barton was enormously enthusiastic about birds. They were, in fact, the only thing he was enthusiastic about that was not sex, and his very bad garage band (which came, if he were being very honest, a distant third).

It should be stated here for the record that, although Clint and Darcy Lewis, his Satanist girlfriend, had been going out since the summer, and had spent the entirety of the school year making out obscenely all over the school, that they had not yet actually worked up the nerve to Do the Deed. It should also go down on record that their avoidance of this seeming inevitability was due to reluctance on the part of both parties, though of course they never actually took it upon themselves to discuss this, being teenagers.

There were probably some students at MCUHS having sex, somewhere, but whither those students, no man could say. Even Brock Rumlow was not having sex, for though he was the sort of person who would, in a teen movie, have most certainly had a cheerleader girlfriend on his arm whenever convenient, in reality no girls would come within ten feet of him, and so he just sulked around the periphery of the dating world, solitary and virginal, like everybody else.

It would probably have surprised most of Clint and Sam’s fellow students to see them, on this very early January day, perched—not unlike birds themselves, albeit much less gracefully, on the whole—in the branches of a tree in the previously described woodsy area between the two towns, binoculars around their necks, peering up at birds. The author shall refrain from specifying which particular winter birds they were observing, in deference to Sam Wilson’s expertise on the subject, which could hardly be matched, and also to avoid giving further clues to the location of this particular Middletown and Centerville to the especially investigatory reader. Suffice to say that Sam was keeping track of his observations in a little notebook, and Clint was humming tunelessly to himself while keeping an eye out for the aforementioned unspecified birds through the large binoculars that were hanging on a fraying strap around his neck, both of them bundled up in truly ridiculous-looking winter weather gear, breath clouding in front of their faces, surrounded by week-old snow.

It was difficult to say whether or not, exactly, Sam and Clint were friends: Sam did not really have “friends,” per se, unless you counted the kids from the science quiz team, with whom he ate lunch, while very seriously discussing the latest scientific breakthroughs of the day, oblivious to the movements of the outside world, and of course the people he talked to regularly on forums such as Birdwatchers Anonymous and Friendly Fowl, who had screen names like “montanamom87” or “xxpalilaloverxx” or “fall_of_a_sparrow.” (Sam himself went by the pseud “falcon_redwing,” out of admiration for the nobler bids, of which there were very few in Middletown or Centerville.)

Clint, meanwhile, spent most of his time either with his tongue down Darcy Lewis’ throat or listening to her talk about the curative values of Satanism, or with the fellow members of his garage band, who were similarly greasy and under similar delusions about being a countercultural force at work against the staid hegemony (they did not use this word) of Middletown. In fact most of their peers ignored them whenever possible, which in most cases was easy, and was only difficult in Clint’s case because he simply refused to make himself conveniently invisible, instead choosing to insinuate himself in conversation in the most annoying way possible, that is, by talking about sex.

And yet, despite Sam’s general impatience with Clint’s tendency toward innuendo (he was also interested in leaf peeping, having recently developed an appreciation for the region’s foliage patterns, but knew better than to ever say such a thing in front of Clint), and Clint’s inability to understand what Sam was talking about at least half of the time, they met religiously on every other Saturday, most of the time in that nebulous wooded area between the towns, but sometimes daring to venture further afield. Anyone who has raised teenagers will be familiar with the strange and somewhat touching contradictions that can be found within each and every one of them, in this respect: though by most metrics Clint Barton remained a frightfully immature person, his utterly inexplicable yet manifestly real interest in bird watching seemed also, in a sense, to be the last true remnant of childhood left to him. It would not even have occurred to him to be self-conscious about his hobby, should it ever have come up publicly—he lacked the self-awareness for that particular kind of insecurity or self-repudiation. He really just liked—as he had always liked, since he was a very small boy—to look at birds.

What Sam and Clint did not know was that, on that very Saturday afternoon, some middling distance away, Steve Rogers was wandering through the woods after Bucky Barnes, who was clomping several feet in front of him and rambling somewhat incoherently about the two subjects that were, at that particular moment, dearest to his heart—that is to say, the cherry bombs he was carrying in his backpack, and the early seasons of the American version of The Office, which had become his recent obsession, for reasons that he, as a teenaged male, had chosen not to examine very closely. In fact his viewpoint on the show was not what the reader is perhaps imagining, based on speculations on his current state of mind (or, more accurately, heart): while still naturally rooting for Jim and Pam’s star-crossed romance to come to fruition, he tended to find woebegone, hangdog Jim intensely irritating, first because he didn’t just do something and then because once he had done something he just left.

Though his chatterings at Steve were strictly confined to the antics of other characters, in fact the crucial element of his obsession with the show lay not with Jim Halpert’s shambolic charm but rather with Pam Beesly’s slow, timid journey of self-discovery. If anyone else had been there to see him watching episodes curled up in his nest of a bed, computer screen far too close to his face, they would have been treated to an array of comically—or perhaps tragically—exaggerated expressions of agony and dismay every time something unfortunate befell her, or especially when her own actions turned self-defeating (which was often). Despite refusing to analyze his overinvestment in her emotional wellbeing, he nevertheless had the vague sense that admitting it, even to Steve, would seem weird and unmasculine, and so Pam remained, like so many other things in Bucky’s life, a secret.

Steve, who could not have begun to fathom the exhaustingly complex contortions of logic (or, perhaps more accurately, illogic) in Bucky’s brain on the subject of The Office, or indeed on any subject, was following, smiling bemusedly and only vaguely paying attention, since he had never seen the show and therefore could not comment on any of its particulars, and also knew nothing about cherry bombs, except that setting them off in the middle of a suburban wooded area was a very stupid idea. However, since he was also a male human in his teenage years, instead of firmly putting a stop to this deeply stupid behavior, he had half-heartedly argued with Bucky for around fifteen minutes before giving in to his wheedling, agreeing to drive him, and tramping along after him, bundled up in a sweatshirt, his battered winter coat, his warm scarf, a hat Bucky had squashed on his head upon clambering into the car—“Don’t you argue with me, Rogers,” he’d said, hammily, with an exaggerated scowl, pointing a finger at him, before turning back around and slamming the door shut behind him—and carrying a backpack full of snacks, two water bottles, and the small fire extinguisher that his mother typically kept beneath the sink.

The procurement of the cherry bombs had been a somewhat storied affair, for of course Bucky could not allow his parents to know that he had purchased them, and yet, as a teenager with no job and therefore no income, had no money of his own, and no debit card with which to purchase such a product from any number of suspicious-looking online retailers. Temporarily making off with his father’s credit card would not be particularly difficult, but there remained the small matter of the bank statements, which would reflect a mysterious transaction to an unknown source—and that, Bucky knew, his father would never let slide.

He spent several days—at least, he thought it was several days; in fact it was the course of a single afternoon, but time passes strangely when you are sixteen—contemplating this, and finally came up with a strategy that, it transpired, was miraculously not doomed to fail. Having pooled together his birthday money from his grandparents and other various relations, whom he barely ever saw in person but who nevertheless sent him envelopes with cash in the mail every Christmas (even though he was fairly sure you were not supposed to do that), he made his way to the kitchen, where his mother was sitting listening to Josh Groban on the stereo and humming to herself while she tapped out an email on a keyboard connected to her iPad.

“Hi, Mom,” he said, and she hummed vaguely. He waited for a moment, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and then stepped forward and put the neat stack of cash down in front of her, having already calculated how much of his haul he deemed it prudent to spend on the acquisition of small explosives from the internet, and left the rest of it in his room. (The fact that “anything more that zero dollars” seemed like a sensible figure to him is something we shall simply have to put down to youth, stupidity, and pyromania.)

“I want to put some money in a PayPal account,” he said, heart pounding.

“A what now?” his mother said.

“A PayPal account,” he repeated.

“I’m not sure what that is, dear,” she said, still without looking up from her iPad.

“It’s a thing online,” he said. “You put money into it and then you can use it like a credit card.”

“What do you want to buy?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, and forcibly stopped himself from scowling. “But I have some money from Christmas and I think I’ll probably want to—buy some stuff online, so. I’d like to put it in there. And,” he continued before she could say anything, “I want to have it in my own thing so I don’t have to use dad’s credit card so I can be. Independent.”

As he had anticipated, this line of argument worked like a charm. If he had been as motivated in other areas of his life as he was by his desire to possess small explosives which were only barely legal in the United States and not at all legal in Canada, he would perhaps have been considerably less of a disaster of a human being. But as it happened, his motivation in this particular area was singular.

And so it was that Bucky Barnes came to be in possession of a PayPal account, and, through that account, and through the services of SparkleMart.com, a number of brightly colored cherry bombs, which were delivered to his home one Wednesday afternoon during Christmas break. Having obsessively tracked the status of his package, Bucky raced out to intercept the UPS man when he saw the truck pulling up in front of the house, looking like nothing so much as an electrocuted raccoon—a fact upon which the UPS man graciously chose not to comment—before signing for his package and darting back across the snow and through the front door, teeth chattering, box clutched to his chest.

There was, he had insisted to Steve, a large clearing in the middle of this woodsy area, which he had discovered on a reconnaissance mission for this very purpose some time earlier, before it had gotten cold enough to snow; in fact, he had just been lonely and bored and angry at his parents and had decided in a fit of pique that he didn’t even want to be in the house with them, which had led him to wander around in the damp late-autumn woods, which were no longer red and gold but a sort of grayish-brown color, and very muddy. They had, at that particular moment, very much reflected his own interior landscape, and he had therefore found them somehow reassuring, or perhaps reaffirming. Now, however, they were lined with week-old, settled-down snow, and seemed much brighter by comparison—which also reflected something of a change in his own internal state, though of course he would never have registered as much, since he was not attuned to these things, and since pathetic fallacy and other such symbolic movements of nature are known only to those who write them down, and then those whose pleasure it is to read and interpret them, not to the actors in the eye of the metaphorical or literal storm, who rarely take the time to stand back and appreciate the symbolic weight of the trappings of their own stories.

It was telling that Steve, who was, generally speaking, a sensible boy, and who had grown up with a deep-seated sense of paranoia about his own well-being and the well-being of those around him, had been cajoled into coming out here, into the woods, for the exclusive purpose of making things explode, even with his fire extinguisher on hand (which would, the author would like to point out, be of little use if either a) they lit an entire tree on fire, or b) they exploded something into their faces). It was just very difficult, he had found, to say no to Bucky, when Bucky wanted to do something—really wanted to do something, was excited about something, when he was happy and talking and—lit up from the inside, instead of closed off and sullen and dead in the eyes. There was some part of Steve that grew frantic and panicked when Bucky looked like that, somewhere deep inside of himself that he could not exactly name or identify, but in some vague way he knew he did not like it, wanted to avoid it if at all possible: and so it was that he found himself in the middle of the woods enabling Bucky’s pyromania, as indeed he had the previous month, in his own backyard, in considerably less dramatic fashion.

(He sort of felt like his mother was about to burst out from behind a tree and ask them what on earth they thought they were doing. But that was silly. Because she was at work, and they were in the middle of the woods. But. He still sort of felt like that.)

“How are you going to do this, anyway?” he asked, interrupting Bucky’s long recreation of an episode of The Office where some character burns himself on some sort of cooking device, which if you, like Steve, had never seen an episode of The Office, lost something in translation. (Bucky was, needless to say, not a master storyteller.)

“I told you already,” Bucky huffed, stomping one of his extremely expensive snow boots, which he would wear perhaps five times that winter, into the snow with great satisfaction. “There’s a little fuse off the end of it. So you put it on the ground, and light it, and then run the fuck away, and then it—boom!—goes off.”

“This sounds so stupid,” Steve said. “So stupid. What if it goes off in your face. What if your eyes start bleeding and you blind yourself and I have to take you to the hospital—”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “I’m not gonna blind myself, Steve.”

Steve scowled at him, but he didn’t mean it, really. Bucky grinned.

“That hat looks dumb,” he said, delighted.

“You’re the one who made me—wear it,” Steve muttered, and Bucky said, “I know,” sounding criminally pleased with himself, before bounding forward, while Steve followed.

When they finally did reach the clearing, Bucky set about getting prepared with a singleness of mind which, had it been applied to his schoolwork, would have left him in considerably better academic standing. (Though he would have been appalled to hear it, there were ways in which he and Thor Odinson were not so very dissimilar.) Steve, meanwhile, brushed the lingering remnants of snow off of the top of a rock by the edge of the trees and settled himself down, taking out the fire extinguisher and setting it down on top of his bag before tucking his hands under his arms.

“All right,” Bucky said, once he had taken out one of the cherry bombs and placed it ceremoniously on the ground, and then hurriedly moved his backpack over to where Steve was sitting, a considerable distance away. He flicked his lighter a few times in nervous anticipation as he walked back to the center of the clearing, eyes glowing with a slightly manic intensity.

“Are you sure you’re going to be able to get away from there in time?” Steve called out.

“Of course,” Bucky said, and leaned down, adrenaline pumping, to light the fuse, which took a few seconds to catch, before scrambling up and starting to run away.

In a twist of fate that would have surprised no adult had there been any present, he fell flat on his face immediately.

“Oh, shit,” Steve said, suddenly processing very rapidly how extremely stupid they had been, and lurched off of the rock where he had been sitting.

“I’m fine!” Bucky spluttered, scrambling in a very ungainly fashion to his feet—or, well, almost—and careening forward. “No—go—the other—way!”

“Do you hear anything?” Sam asked Clint, some—but not a very substantial—distance away, where they were camped out up in their tree.

“No,” Clint said, lowering his binoculars. “Hear what?”

“Motherfucker,” Bucky shouted as he started to slip again, and Steve, feeling grimly determined, pitched himself forward and knocked him over, covering his slightly-smaller-than-average body with his slightly-taller-than-average one just as the fuse blew, with a thundering boom.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” Clint screamed, and promptly toppled out of the tree.


*


Everything went suddenly, deafeningly quiet. The birds, which had all shot up from their perches in the surrounding trees into a confused frenzy in the sky, flew cautiously back down, cheeping suspiciously.

Sam leaned forward and wrapped his arms firmly around the trunk, blinking owlishly as he looked down at where Clint was spread-eagled on the ground.

“I think I’ve broken something,” Clint croaked.

“You would probably be screaming,” Sam said very practically, and Clint, wincing, raised up his hand to give him the finger.

Across the woods, Steve raised his head, looking dazed. Bucky? he mouthed, or at least, it looked like he was only mouthing it: Bucky guessed he was probably saying it out loud, but he couldn’t hear anything except a faint buzzing in his ears.

Bucky? he said again, leaning in closer, and closer—

“You’re really heavy,” Bucky wheezed, and Steve toppled over, off of him.

“That was really stupid,” Steve said a moment later.

“My eyes aren’t bleeding,” Bucky pointed out, after considering this, and squawked when Steve shoved a handful of show in his face.

“You two have been up to something,” Mrs. Rogers said when she came home that evening and found them sitting on the couch watching the latest episode of Coco Cabana, looking suspiciously dirty and also like they had stared death in the face.

They both looked immediately, profoundly guilty, and then tried to pretend that they didn’t.

“No,” Steve said weakly.

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “I’ve decided I don’t want to know.” She looked at the TV for a moment. “I also don’t want to know what the latest update is on this.”

“But Nadine is facing off against Lorelei in this week’s head to head death match,” Bucky said, leaning over the back of the couch and looking slightly deranged.

“I sincerely don’t want to know what any of that means,” she told him, but the sad fact of the matter was that she knew exactly what all of that meant, because that was the reality, she had discovered, of living in a house with teenagers who were obsessed with a reality television program. There was no escape. You absorbed it, like osmosis. Soon she was going to have a Coco Cabana-themed dream, and then she was going to do something terrible to Bucky Barnes, and she was going to deliberate over it for a long and satisfying period of time before thrusting in the metaphorical knife.

Steve and Bucky had spent an entire day earlier in the break catching up on Coco Cabana, which was ironic, in light of Bucky’s previous vocal disdain for it and all other things that were popular with other kids at their school. But somehow, while sprawled out on the Rogerses’ couch one late morning, flipping idly through channels while still in their pajamas, Bucky having slept in the guest bedroom the night before as part of his continuing quest to effectively move out of his own home and into the Rogerses’, they had stumbled upon the first episode of a marathon designed to hook new viewers. This was, of course, exactly what had wound up happening, since by four in the afternoon they still had not showered but were surrounded by a variety of empty containers of snack foods and were staring at the television with the kind of rapt fixity that Bucky typically reserved only for the back of Steve’s head in English class, and that Steve reserved only for homework that he did not understand but was trying very hard to push through anyway.

It was unsurprising that Coco Cabana was as popular as it was not only with the students of MCUHS but, indeed, with teenagers—and, indeed, people broadly speaking—across the country, for it gave off the entirely accurate impression of having been created in a laboratory out of the elements of successful reality shows of years past, hodgepodged together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a television program that should never have succeeded and yet, in spite of itself, had become the most-watched show on the air every week. The show’s brief was deceptively straightforward: after touring the nation to find twenty aspiring singers worthy of the (dubious) honor of competing on the show, three celebrity judges (names redacted) flew with them to a small tropical island in the middle of nowhere (location redacted) and divided them up into opposing teams, at which point they were forced to compete against each other in various challenges that incorporated both inspirational musical numbers and things like eating local insect life.

At the end, the winner had to choose between either one million dollars in prize money or a record deal—an unfortunate situation, particularly in light of the fact that by the time as such decisions were being made, the winner was sure to be a) profoundly sleep deprived, b) malnourished, and c) rapidly approaching a state legally classifiable as “insanity.” (Currently in its third season, Coco Cabana had already featured one nervous breakdown in the final decision stage, and was likely to feature more, but as anyone who watches reality television knows, this was not exactly bad for business.) As the show went on, and contestants were eliminated, staying alive became a feat not only of remaining somehow sympathetic to audiences at home but also of managing, in spite of the terrible living conditions, to not totally destroy your voice; nevertheless, the quality of singing was decidedly low as compared to, say, American Idol or The Voice. But it goes without saying that musical virtuosity was not really the reason people were watching Coco Cabana in the first place, so this hardly mattered.

The producers of the show had, sensibly, held off on the particularly gruesome challenges during the first several episodes—lulling the audience, as it were, into a false sense of security—and so it was that Steve and Bucky found themselves staring in abject horror, in the early evening, at grim-looking, dirty men and women steeling themselves to eat some really, really repellant-looking beetles.

“No,” Bucky was saying, utterly horrified, “no, no, they can’t be doing that, this is the worst, they can’t make them—”

One of the women raised a beetle to her mouth, looking queasy.

Argh,” Bucky yowled, and hurled himself sideways, into a pillow, practically writhing—thinking, no doubt, about any number of the various repellant “experiments” his mother had forced on him over the years, starting at such a young age that it was frankly cruel (we can all, the author is sure, picture him as a very small child, sitting at the table, staring at some horror or another, lip trembling, trying very hard not to cry, and also simply refusing to eat it, out of sheer terror of what it might do to the inside of his mouth), which we shall not catalog here, for sometimes things are more frightening if left to the imagination.

Steve looked down at him, bemused. While it was undeniably true that Bucky behaved much differently in private with him than he did in public, in the presence of other people, this was unprecedented. “Are you having a seizure?” Steve asked.

“Is it over?” Bucky asked, muffled.

“I don’t—augh,” Steve said, glancing up in time to see some chewing happen. “Oh, oh, that’s so disgusting, that’s so gross—”

There was an audible crunch. Bucky yowled into his pillow. Steve patted him awkwardly on the shoulder.

“I’m never going to eat again,” Bucky mumbled. “I’m going to wither away into nothing and die.”

“I don’t think Coco Cabana is worth dying over,” Steve said, and Bucky raised his head up suddenly, looking crazed.

“Food is ruined for me now,” he said. “All food. Forever.”

“Oh, no, worms—” Steve said inadvertently, having glanced at the screen, and Bucky shrieked, and fell off the couch.

“Turn it off!” he wailed. “Turn it off!”

“I can’t,” Steve said, curling his legs up to his chest, staring. “I can’t look away. It’s so gross.”

“I’m finding the remote,” Bucky said from the ground, pulling himself up gracelessly, looking around. “I’m turning this off, I’m making an—executive decision—”

No,” Steve said, looking around for the remote amongst the blankets, “don’t you—dare—” (It goes without saying that neither of them had any idea how to turn the TV off using actual buttons on the machine itself.)

“You can’t stop me,” Bucky managed. “This is a—fight to the death—”

“Nerves of steel,” Bradley Jarrett, the host of Coco Cabana, was saying appreciatively, on the TV behind them, as somebody else ate a worm.

“Ah!” Steve shouted, having finally laid eyes on the remote at the other end of the couch, and lunged for it. Bucky flailed after him, but it was no use: he was too late.

“I’m going to—get you—” Bucky panted as he set off after him, and so it was that Mrs. Rogers arrived at home to find her seventeen-year-old son being chased around the house by his best friend, holding the remote high above his head, which was, as said friend was shouting, “An unfair advantage, you—asshole! You’re too tall! Fuck you! Fuck you!” as he slid around on his sock feet behind him, jumping up and down, while Steve laughed maniacally to himself, completely uncharacteristically.

“What,” Mrs. Rogers said, putting down her grocery bags next to her, “is going on.”

“Uh,” Steve said, distracted by his mother’s presence—a fatal error, which allowed Bucky to slam into him from behind, toppling them both over the back of the couch.

“They were eating bugs on TV,” Bucky huffed, when he had reappeared, panting, clutching the remote. “Get off—me—” Steve was groaning, but Mrs. Rogers could not, at that particular moment, see him. “It was so gross.”

She looked at the television. “It’s a teeth-whitening commercial,” she said, and Bucky glanced over his shoulder and realized that this was true.

“Well,” he said. “Yes.”

“I’m going to kill you,” Steve choked.

“You are five-year-old children,” Mrs. Rogers said, and then immediately thought she was probably not being very generous to five-year-olds.

Bucky suddenly let out a squawk and vanished as Steve let out a cry of victory.

“I’m going upstairs,” Mrs. Rogers said. “You deal with the groceries.”

On the television, somebody started warbling out of tune.


*


IN WHICH ONE ODINSON IS DETHRONED, AND ANOTHER HAS A REVELATION

And so school reconvened, and all of the students were forced to drag themselves out of bed at six in the morning once again to drive blearily to the waxed and polished hallways of MCUHS, fatted on Christmas cookies and for the most part wearing new clothes. (Steve, needless to say, was still wearing the same battered coat, having asked for other articles of clothing and some books, a conservative list which Mrs. Rogers had supplemented with a fancy phone that he had gaped at, agog, and tried half-heartedly to give back, insisting that it was too expensive—but she had seen him eyeing Bucky’s, and indeed, in the wake of having received it, he had started spending considerably more time hunched over it, smiling stupidly and snickering to himself, tapping at it with a certain charming, graceless inefficiency with his index finger while it buzzed rapidly with every flurry of oncoming texts. There were worse things, she thought, than technology, though she could not pretend to understand the vital necessity of Steve talking to Bucky literally all of the time when they were going to be seeing each other for most of the hours of every day anyway. Even she and Joseph—but she cut off that train of thought before it got very far.)

The big news at MCUHS on that first day back from the winter break was that Something Had Occurred at the Odinsons’, or with the Odinsons, or to one of the Odinsons—it was initially unclear, until a number of increasingly implausible stories began to spread throughout the student body. The difficulty was, however, that everything about the Odinsons was so implausible in the first place that it was entirely impossible to rule anything out purely on the grounds of it sounding preposterous. The facts as they stood were as follows:

  1. Thor Odinson was no longer driving his bright red Maserati to school every day, with Loki looking sullen in the passenger seat. Instead, Loki Odinson had started showing up driving a brand-new green Ferrari, looking very smug indeed, while Thor looked deeply sad—though not, it should be noted, precisely sullen—sitting next to him.
  2. Loki’s previous antipathetic behavior towards Thor had boiled over into a full-fledged Cold War, characterized by him sitting as far away from his brother as possible whenever they were in the same room, staring at him with vaguely bulging, definitely crazy-looking eyes, and occasionally muttering to himself under his breath. Ms. Hill, who had them in class together near the end of the day, had begun to find this perturbing.
  3. Apropos of what appeared to be nothing, on the first day back from break, Sif Sigurdsson had marched up to Loki in the cafeteria, grabbed him by his collar, dragged him out to the courtyard, and socked him in the face so hard that the cluster of spectators gathered at the windows inside could hear the audible sound of her fist connecting with his cheek. Thor had hurried out to pull her off of him, and he had gazed up at her as he bled from his nose, looking deeply betrayed, and also like he might be concussed. Sif, for her part, had looked like she wanted to punch at least seven more people, and when she had turned to look over at the window, the crowd of underclassmen had scattered in terror.

When, after a week and a half of this—the general tension, not the violence, although Sif did now look like she was perpetually on the verge of jumping across a desk and hitting Loki in the face again—temperatures had not cooled, Ms. Hill suggested to Mr. Coulson that he bring both of the Odinson boys in to talk to them about what the hell was going on. “Separately,” she clarified hurriedly, going pale. “Definitely separately.” And so it was that he wound up sitting across from an uncharacteristically subdued Thor one January afternoon, reflecting that vast quantities of money did very strange things to people, and by extension to their children.

“I’m fine,” Thor said. He resembled nothing so much as a five-year-old child trying to hide his emotions from his mother. By comparison, Bucky Barnes was a veritable wizard of subtlety and discretion.

“You seem less, ah, boisterous than usual,” Mr. Coulson said mildly. He had not encountered Thor directly too often, but it would have been difficult to pass through the corridors of MCUHS without feeling his palpable influence.

Thor’s shoulders slumped. “My dad thinks I did something and I didn’t do it and I don’t know what to do,” he said, sounding deeply pained.

Mr. Coulson blinked, and tried to remember if he had ever seen a student give in to his prodding so rapidly.

“What does he think you did?” he asked.

“Crash my car,” Thor said, shoulders slumping further.

“Who did crash it, then?” Mr. Coulson said, although was pretty sure he knew.

“I have no idea,” Thor said, finally looking up at him with a sublimely clueless expression on his face. “It just showed up crashed by the side of the road a mile away from our house, and he wouldn’t believe I was at a party the whole time, not driving myself.”

“I see,” Mr. Coulson said, and Thor sighed deeply once again.

“He says I can’t have the keys again—well, to another car, that one’s ruined—until I’m responsible enough to deserve them,” he said morosely, “but I don’t know what to do prove it to him.”

Live a few more years, Mr. Coulson thought, but refrained from saying. “Well, I don’t know that there’s much you can do except do your best to show him through your actions that you’re more responsible than he thinks,” he said. “What does your brother think about all of this?”

Thor shrugged. “He said that I should have been watching the car more carefully,” he said sadly. “And that he was really sorry. But. That I needed to—grow up eventually.” He looked crestfallen. “I guess he’s right. He’s smarter than I am, you know.”

“I heard that Miss Sigurdsson, ah, had a disagreement with him the other week,” Mr. Coulson said. “She was… quite unrepentant, although she wouldn’t say much about it.”

Thor frowned. “She thinks he did it,” he said incredulously. “And I told her, no, Loki would never do that, he’s my brother, but she wouldn’t listen.” He frowned. “Then she told me I was being stupid, too,” he mumbled. “But I’m not,” he added a moment later, stubborn. “I mean—I know that, anyway. That Loki wouldn’t do that. Even if I’m not—very smart.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Mr. Coulson said once he’d patted Thor on the shoulder and sent him on his way. “This is tragicomic, Monica.”

“Everything always is,” she said sagely.

“I really don’t think you understand,” he told her.

“And I am very happy with that state of affairs,” she said, and stapled something viciously.

It was remarkable, he thought the next day, looking at Loki, who was sitting in the same chair that Thor had occupied in the day before, how utterly dissimilar he was from his brother in every way: they really bore no resemblance to each other at all, but it was not that that struck him so much as their utterly oppositional personalities. Siblings were never, he knew, as similar as you might expect them to be—but the level to which that was the case varied dramatically on a case-to-case basis. And then, on an entirely different scale, there were the Odinsons.

Loki was sitting with his arms crossed in front of him, entirely still, with the expression of a man considering how best to commit a murder. His hair was slicked back in a way that Mr. Coulson thought he probably thought made him look mature but in fact made him look completely ridiculous.

“Hello, Loki,” Mr. Coulson said, and waited for a response that he did not anticipate would be forthcoming.

It was not.

“Your teachers tell me you seem to have been, ah. Troubled. Lately,” he continued.

Loki smiled. It made him look even more psychopathic, which was impressive.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“You don’t seem fine,” Mr. Coulson told him, and for a moment he scowled like a small child who has been reprimanded before his features smoothed back into resting Murder Face.

“I’m splendid,” he said.

“It seems like you and your brother haven’t been getting along very well recently,” Mr. Coulson said, folding his hands in front of him on his desk.

“He’s not—” Loki started viciously, and then stopped.

“He’s not what,” Mr. Coulson prompted.

“We’re fine,” Loki said, smiling the same psychotic smile. “He’s wonderful.”

“Uh huh,” Mr. Coulson said.

“Yes,” Loki said, eye twitching.

“How about Miss Sigurdsson,” he said, switching tactics, and for a moment Loki looked hunted.

“What about her,” Loki asked, trying to seem nonchalant and failing utterly.

“Well,” Mr. Coulson said. “She seemed to be very upset with you about something.”

“I have no idea what that might have been,” Loki said very stiffly. “She did not dignify me with any explanation for her conduct.”

Tonight, Mr. Coulson thought, he was going to go home and have a very stiff drink.

“So she just did that out of the blue,” Mr. Coulson said, and Loki’s eye twitched again. “Keep in mind that I’m not justifying her behavior. But it does seem a little odd, since she’s never done anything like that before.”

“I don’t know what she was thinking,” Loki said, looking pinched, and—Oh, Christ, Mr. Coulson thought. Two stiff drinks. Teenagers.

“Possibly crashing your brother’s car hasn’t had the effect you were anticipating, has it,” he said, and leaned back in his chair. For a moment, Loki’s face went blank with shock, before he struggled to regain his composure.

“I don’t know what you’re—talking about—” he spluttered.

“Hmm,” Mr. Coulson said, tapping a pen on his desk. “Yes. Miss Sigurdsson probably wasn’t so thrilled. But she’s very clever, you know. You miscalculated.”

Loki looked like he’d drawn a gun on him. Sometimes, Mr. Coulson thought, feeling satisfied, you just had to play dirty.

“I didn’t do anything,” Loki said, voice suddenly sounding very high-pitched.

“Of course,” Mr. Coulson said drily. “And I believe that about as much as Miss Sigurdsson. Though I’m sure you care much less about my opinion than hers. Of course, Thor does believe you, so you’ll live to fight another day, I suppose. Brotherly loyalty.”

“He’s not—” Loki started again, snarling, and, once again, cut himself off.

“He’s not what?” Mr. Coulson said, sincerely confused.

“What would I tell you if a very rich man in this town had performed an illegal adoption and was raising one of his greatest enemies’ sons as his own,” Loki said very rapidly, looking deranged. But he was breathing very heavily, and his hands were shaking, and he had never looked anything like Thor.

Mr. Coulson stared at him.

“What?” he said.

Loki sunk deep into his chair, cheeks red.

“Hypothetically,” he muttered.

Mr. Coulson kept staring. “You aren’t—a Stark, are you?” he said, which was not at all the right response to this kind of—insane revelation, but then, he had really never had to deal with anything like this before in his career.

The blood drained out of Loki’s face.

“I’m sure you’re not, you and Tony don’t look anything alike,” Mr. Coulson said hurriedly, although he couldn’t think of any other family whom Odin Odinson would consider a “great enemy.” But even going down that line of thinking meant accepting the idea that illegally adopting an enemy’s child and raising it as your own was… not a fundamentally incomprehensible thing. Which it was.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “What?”

“Never mind,” Loki muttered.

“No,” Mr. Coulson said. “Definitely—mind. What?”

“I think they worked out the paperwork—a while ago,” Loki mumbled, scowling. “It’s not illegal anymore.”

“I,” Mr. Coulson said faintly. “You. Do you know—who—”

“No,” Loki said. He went pale again. “What if—it is—what if my twin is—Tony—

“Don’t think about it,” Mr. Coulson said immediately. “Don’t think about it.”

Loki looked nauseated.

(He and Tony did kind of—look alike—no. No. He was going to take his own advice and not think about this.)

“Uh,” he said. “Why? Do you have any idea—I. I mean. That is.”

“He’s insane,” Loki said, sounding resigned, which frankly sounded about right. Though honestly the bigger question was how he had come to be in possession of—the baby—in the first place, which—what the fuck. Just. What the fuck.

“What the fuck,” Mr. Coulson said.

“Yeah,” Loki said, morose.

There was, of course, the possibility that Loki was a) a pathological liar (well, he was, but, more to the point, the possibility that he was specifically lying pathologically about this), or b) somehow very confused or deluded about what was going on, but he really—did not—seem like it. He looked, for the first time in Mr. Coulson’s memory, like a normal depressed teenager. It was, frankly, terrifying.

“I should call social services,” Mr. Coulson said faintly.

“Don’t,” Loki said immediately, looking frantic. “They’ll sue you and you’ll lose all your money and get locked up in a dungeon for the rest of your life.”

Mr. Coulson looked at him. “People don’t get locked up in dungeons anymore, Loki,” he said. Loki waved a hand.

“Jail, whatever,” he said.

Mr. Coulson leaned his head in his hands. “I’m imagining this,” he said into his palms. “I’m imagining this.”

“That’s what I thought,” Loki said. “I can regrettably inform you that this is all terrifyingly real.”

Mr. Coulson leaned back, dragging one hand down his face. “Well,” he said. “I’m going to have to—think. About. That. I can tell you in the meantime that going after Thor is probably not going to be your best play, here.”

Loki immediately went back to looking like a homicidal maniac instead of a normal teenager. “Thor is my enemy,” he hissed.

“He’s really not,” Mr. Coulson said.

“Yes,” Loki said slowly, as if speaking to an exceptionally stupid person, “he is.”

“They lied to him, too,” Mr. Coulson pointed out, but Loki just scoffed.

“Making him look bad is not going to make you look better,” he tried, instead.

“Yes it will,” Loki said, the gleam of religious fervor in his eyes.

“Right,” Mr. Coulson said. “I can’t accomplish this today. You should probably—come in once a week. I’m going to have to—figure out. What to do. About this.”

“I’m not coming in here once a week,” Loki sneered.

“Yes you are,” Mr. Coulson said. “Because if you don’t, I’m going to call a lot of people you definitely don’t want me to call.”

Loki stared.

“We can talk about whatever,” Mr. Coulson said. “Just come in and talk about Sif or something, it’ll be fine. Oh, don’t look at me like that, I’m not an idiot.”

“Fine,” Loki muttered a long moment later.

“All right,” Mr. Coulson said. “I think that’s enough for the day, don’t you?”

Yes,” Loki said, and practically shot out of the room.

Once he had left, Mr. Coulson sat in the empty room for a long minute without moving. Then he picked up his phone, dialed Monica’s extension, and said, “Get Ms. Hill down here her next free period,” and leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling.

At least three stiff drinks, he thought weakly. He was going to need. At least three stiff drinks.

“What’s up?” Maria said from the doorway a few minutes later, and then began to look alarmed when he just started to laugh hysterically.

“We live,” he said, “in a town of maniacs.”

“Well, technically neither of us live here,” she said, pulling up a chair. “But yes. Let’s have it.”


*


Homework Assignment, Loki Odinson
Second Grade
Assignment: Write About Your Best Friend

My best friend is my brother Thor he is my best friend because we do everything together and we even live together because we are brothers! Sometimes we go outside in the woods but I dont like that as much because Thor is faster than I am but if I tell him to wait he always waits for me as long as I am loud enough to here. We fight sometimes but that is ok because we allways make up and my Mom says that it is normal for brothers to fight and then we watch a movie and he doesnt even make me touch his dog (I dont like him!!!) while we do it and that is nice of him. Somtimes we send messages through the walls at night when we are supposed to be sleeping which nobody knows about so dont tell anyone! Somtimes when my Mom takes us places people think we are just friends and not brothers beecause we dont look the same and I dont like that but Thor always tells them I am and then says their stupid if they cant tell which is nice. Thor is nice even if he can be a dunce somtimes. My best friend is my brother Thor because we go on adventurs together and even when we fite we allways love each other very much but dont tell enyone I said that because its mushy but its true. The end.


*


FEBRUARY

IN WHICH BUCKY DISCOVERS LITERATURE

There came a time every year at the beginning of February when Maria Hill sat down at her kitchen table with a full bottle of wine, an old spiral-bound notebook, that semester’s Moleskine, her old, battered copy of The Catcher in the Rye, and prepared herself for battle. There were not many times that she regretted quitting smoking—or, well, that was not quite right; she never regretted quitting smoking, but there were rare but distinct instances when she missed being able to smoke, and this, Catcher in the Rye Night, was one of them.

Her copy of The Catcher in the Rye had been cracked open and flipped through so many times that it looked to be on the verge of falling apart, and the ballpoint annotations on its yellowing pages were old enough that they were starting to get discolored. The old spiral-bound notebook of notes and lesson plans wasn’t much better, and, horrifyingly, she could now see that her handwriting had changed slightly in the years that had passed since she had first written them out.

She had spent too many years of her life, she thought every February, like clockwork, talking to teenagers about The Catcher and the Rye. And she would keep on doing so until she was old and gray.

The great irony of all this was that she very much liked the book. It was probably better that she liked the book, although that did not stop her from pettily wishing that she hated it, at least once a year, when she had to Deal With It. There was something particularly demoralizing about watching teenagers misinterpret a book that you liked—had once loved, even—to such wild extremes.

Unlike in decades previous, most of her students hated Holden Caulfield and, by extension, The Catcher in the Rye on sight. There were, of course, those students who simply hated everything she made them read (or, in certain cases, not read) by virtue of it having been forced upon them; then there were others who hated the book because Holden was so annoying, he was so whiny, the way he talked was so irritating and not how people really talked (“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘phony,’” Ms. Hill said at least once a year). That is to say, there were students whose own solipsism was so total and all-encompassing that they could not find any sympathy for Holden in their narcissistic adolescent hearts—but then there was also the much smaller but considerably more exhausting contingent whose solipsism was… so total and all-encompassing that they saw Holden’s plight as, essentially, identical to their own.

She could never decide which group was more annoying. But ultimately it was never really about groups at all: it was the accumulation of everything capped off with that one exceptional individual, every year, who went so completely off the deep end for the book that she started to wonder whether the school was going to wind up on fire. Nothing would surprise her anymore.

There was always one, she thought wearily. There was always fucking one. Usually there was one in every class. Sometimes, there were more. Those were the worst years.

On the first day of the unit, when the kids were passing the books back down the rows of desks, her eyes alit on Bucky Barnes, who was contorted in what looked to be an incredibly uncomfortable position in his seat, his hair falling all over his face, wearing a pair of ridiculously tight pants tucked into stupid clunky black boots.

Oh, no, she thought, as he looked down at the book in his hands and frowned, playing with the cover. Oh, no.

“Oh, yes,” Phil said later that day, leaning back in his desk chair and smiling his stupid shit-eating grin.

“He’s going to actually read it, too,” she said, morose, as she put her ankles up on the edge of his desk. “I don’t know what you said to him, before break, but he’s actually—doing his homework. Not particularly well. But he’s doing it.”

“I’m not telling you,” he said, raising his nose. “We all have to protect our tricks.”

“It probably wasn’t you at all,” she said, sinking deeper into her chair. “It’s probably just the effect of Steve Rogers finally kicking in. Slow-acting.”

Sometimes, now, when Bucky was staring at Steve in class, he forcibly jerked himself out of his reverie, and turned to look at her instead, like he was actually trying to pay attention. This typically lasted for around five minutes, but it was still an improvement on his previous performance.

“Hmm,” Phil said, noncommittal.

“Oh, fine,” she said. “Take the credit.”

“Thank you, I will,” he said. “I need it to fortify me against Loki.”

She made a horrified face.

Bucky was trying to—do his homework. And—pay attention. It wasn’t easy. It was, in fact, really fucking hard. It was particularly difficult because Steve had noticed, because of course Steve had noticed—Steve had been needling him subtly about this all fucking year, the asshole—and once he had, he kept trying to be helpful, which he thought meant doing things like studying together, to be—encouraging, or something. Which was not helpful at all. The only way Bucky was going to get anything done was to seal himself off in an entirely Steve-free area. An area quarantined of everything relating to Steve. Steve was a distraction, and he made Bucky self-conscious, and—it was just better for Bucky to grimly turn off his phone and close his computer and muddle through his textbooks and read PDFs he didn’t understand for Selvig until his brain couldn’t take it anymore, and he flopped facedown on his bed, and then pulled his phone out and turned it on again, and texted Steve something like, homeworks gonna kill me why wont u run away to Russia with me, a substantially more coherent message than he would likely have been sending as little as five years earlier, as a result of autocorrect.

You wouldn’t like Russia, Steve typically texted back.

f u, Bucky replied.

Having just recovered from final exams, for which he had been forced to attempt to write coherently about both Ernest Hemingway and a wide variety of poems he had not remotely internalized, Bucky was looking forward to the next unit of his institutionalized torture with a kind of weary, grim resignation. One month’s worth of effort—such as it was—had been so… much. And now there was more. And there would be more after that.

It was the sort of thing that made a person want to lie facedown on a bed and not get up or do anything except send text messages, frankly.

“Aww, come on, Bucky,” Steve said, smiling bemusedly down at him where he was twisted over the side of the bed. “It’s not that bad. It’s not that long of a book, even.”

“Fine,” Bucky said, muffled from behind his arm. “If it kills me with—horrible—boringness—then I am blaming you.”

“You’ll be dead, won’t you,” Steve said pragmatically. “So you won’t be able to blame anybody.”

Bucky raised his arm enough to glare at him. Steve looked back at him innocently.

But even in Steve’s wildest imaginings of what he might be able to do to get Bucky to actually care about doing well in school (pathetically, or perhaps endearingly, he had in fact spent no inconsiderable amount of time considering this), he could not possibly ever have predicted what was to come to pass with The Catcher in the Rye, for Steve was not an adult acquainted with the book’s strange, dark power over the hearts of wayward teenagers: to him it was just another assignment, a little book with an unassuming white cover.

He would never, for instance, have predicted that Bucky would find himself awake at two-thirty in the morning, curled up in bed with only his bedside lamp on, eyes wide, as he raced through page after page of the novel, practically physically incapable of putting it down. Steve, for his part, had read the assigned four chapters and written the requisite two paragraphs about his reaction thereto; he liked the book fine so far but he had not felt any strong emotion in either direction while reading it. (He had also gone to bed, incidentally, at a reasonable time.)

Bucky, meanwhile, was a trembling ball in his blankets going on three AM when he read, “It's funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody,” and started choking out great, heaving, dry sobs that he had to muffle with a pillow, shoulders heaving.

The next morning, he looked even more catatonic than normal when Steve picked him up, which was really saying something. “Hnngh,” he said, squinting at Steve after he’d closed the door behind himself.

“Hi,” Steve said slowly. “Are you all right?”

Bucky made another incoherent noise.

“Bad morning?” Steve said a few minutes later, glancing over at him. Bucky rubbed at his face with one uncoordinated hand.

“Didn’t get any sleep,” he mumbled. “Or. Like. Couple hours.”

Steve frowned. “Did something happen?”

“Just—reading,” Bucky said, and Steve, who at the time just thought that was a really weird answer, would later reflect that this was probably the most sane Bucky would ever sound while discussing The Catcher in the Rye.

Ms. Hill knew from the moment that Bucky staggered into her classroom, sat down at his desk, and pulled out his copy of the book and put it carefully down on his desk like it was some kind of prized possession, that it had happened. Nobody else looked like they’d gone crazy yet, which she supposed was something: but, as always, there was the one. She suppressed a sigh.

May as well get it over with, she figured.

“So,” she said, when everybody had sat down, and the door had closed behind them. “How did we feel about the first four chapters of the book?”

There was a pause.

“I thought he was pretty annoying,” June said. Out of the corner of her eye, Ms. Hill saw Bucky twitch.

“I mean,” somebody else said. “Why does he talk like that? Like, ‘phony’ and all that stuff. Nobody talks like that.”

“Well,” Ms. Hill said. “The book was written in 1951.”

Nobody looked very convinced by this point.

“That stuff with his—roommate, too,” said Rhodey. “That’s not cool, man.”

“What’d you know about cool, huh,” Clint said, smirking, and everybody said oooooh.

“More than you do, that’s for sure,” Rhodey said, grinning, and everybody said oooooh again, but louder.

“Everyone,” Ms. Hill said loudly, and they shut up. Bucky, she noticed, looked like he was on the verge of committing homicide.

“Did anybody not find Holden annoying?” she asked, bracing herself.

“He was all right, I guess,” Steve said, and Bucky froze, staring at him intently. “I mean, I didn’t really—get what he was—about.” He looked a little self-conscious. There were no other students in her class, Ms. Hill was pretty sure, who would have voluntarily admitted they “didn’t get” the book they were reading. “But I didn’t think he was—annoying. Exactly.”

Bucky had slumped back down into his seat, she saw.

“I was interested in discussing what the ducks symbolized,” Pepper said, holding a stack of colored notecards in her hand, and Ms. Hill reminded herself that committing physical acts of violence against students was illegal, and that humiliating them verbally was highly discouraged.

To what was initially her immense shock, but which she quickly realized was not at all surprising, Bucky said nothing the entire period, just glowered from his seat at the side of the classroom at all of the other students who were, presumably, expressing opinions he found offensive. He did, however, linger while everybody else filed out, even Steve, who looked at him strangely and only left, shrugging, when Bucky made an abortive shooing motion in his direction.

“Yes, Bucky?” Ms. Hill said, looking up at him from her seat behind her desk. He was holding the book in his hands, curling it nervously, and chewing at his lip.

He didn’t say anything for a long moment, and then opened his mouth, and closed it again.

She sat back in her chair. “I noticed you didn’t speak up in class today.”

“I never speak up in class,” he replied automatically.

“Except to say things that get you detentions,” she said, and he turned red. “How did you like the first few chapters of the book?”

“I read the whole thing last night,” he burst out, and then closed his mouth very suddenly, teeth clicking together, looking embarrassed.

“The whole thing?” she said mildly, totally unsurprised.

“Yes,” he said, looking faintly manic.

“I take it you liked it, then,” she said.

“I,” he started, and then stopped. “I don’t understand—how they could think he was annoying,” he said, sounding so sincerely confused and wounded that she wanted to just—lie down on the floor, or, horrifyingly, give him a hug, which was—not at all a thought that often crossed her mind, when she thought about her students.

This was the problem, she thought grimly, about being friends with Phil. You started to get to know too much. Bucky Barnes was standing there looking very small and lost and confused and clutching his beat-up school copy of The Catcher in the Rye and she really wanted to be able to tell him that people didn’t find him annoying, but the simple fact of the matter was that that was not true: of course people did; he was a teenager. Holden was an annoying little shit, too. But in the end it did not really matter. You did not stay a teenager forever. Some people, of course, stayed annoying for their entire miserable lives—but that was a separate problem.

Regrettably, this was not a pep talk that you could give to any actual sixteen-year-olds if you wanted to have any kind of positive effect on their lives or general well-being. She could not even tell him that, for instance, Steve Rogers definitely did not find him annoying, which she was pretty sure was his central concern. Because if you just cut to the chase with teenagers—peeled away all the psychological delusions that they layered over everything—they exploded in your face. Adults did that too sometimes, of course. But teenagers did always, without exception.

“Well,” she said instead. “Sometimes people aren’t as sympathetic to characters in books as we might hope. Teenagers especially. Or to people in real life, in fact,” she added, raising an eyebrow.

He didn’t say anything, just tightened his fingers around the book. She suppressed a sigh.

“I like the book a lot,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things on the syllabus.” He looked up at her, surprised. “Most people don’t like it very much when I teach it, though. You should actually speak up in class from time to time, say what you think about it. Give some balance to the proceedings.”

“Okay,” he said hesitantly, staring at her, and she thought she was probably going to regret that piece of advice intensely—but what else, really, was she to do?

“You’re going soft,” Phil said, amused, when she told him, and she kicked half-heartedly at him, and put it down to old age.

In the end, it was difficult to say whether or not she regretted her actions: unleashing Bucky Barnes on the rest of her class meant that she had to expend a great deal of effort keeping him in some modicum of control, but it also had the frankly delightful effect of putting the fear of god into them, and she was not so jaded that she could not admit that there was something—dare she say it—heartwarming about watching a previously surly, silent student suddenly so impassioned about something, even if that something was—god help her—The Catcher in the Rye.

Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Steve by Bucky’s sudden enthusiasm for English class, in part because Steve simply did not get The Catcher in the Rye at all. He thought it was fine, as a book. Some pretty bad stuff happened to Holden, and Holden did some stuff to other people that wasn’t very pleasant, and—well, that was sort of it, wasn’t it? There had to be something, he thought, that he was missing—some vital piece of something, because Bucky acted like the book had been sent down directly from the heavens, and it seemed to pain him intensely that Steve didn’t… get it. He kept looking at him with these expressions like he was just waiting for him to understand—something. Steve just had no idea what that “something” might be.

He tried reading the book a second time, paying more attention, looking for—clues, or something, brow furrowed, and when his mom asked him what he was doing, he said, “I’m rereading this book to try to figure out what I missed the first time.”

She gave him a look.

“Bucky really likes it,” he said, frowning. “Like, he really likes it. And I don’t really. Get it. So I’m reading it again.”

“That’s very sweet of you,” his mother said, rubbing him on the shoulder before going into the kitchen to check on dinner, and he frowned down at the book, which was still not cooperating.

It was as though there was some… thing, that he could sort of—feel, but not actually get his hands on—but he knew it was there, and it was driving him insane, because he new that once he did get his hands on it that he would get it, he would understand, he would get what Bucky clearly wanted him to get but wouldn’t or couldn’t tell him.

But he really had no idea what was going on, was the thing. That was the problem. He was just making his brain hurt.

He could ask his mom, he guessed, but for once he really didn’t want to. He wanted to figure out… whatever it was, on his own. He just wasn’t sure if he could.


*


IN WHICH THERE IS PORTRAITURE

On an inauspicious gray day around a week into their Catcher in the Rye unit, Steve showed up in front of Bucky’s house to pick him up in the morning wearing his nicest blue oxford, which his mother had pressed for him the night before, under his standard ratty coat and scarf. His hair was carefully combed and parted to the side, and he was sitting up a little straighter than normal, self-conscious.

He forgot about all of that when he saw Bucky come out of the house, slamming the door behind him and walking furiously down toward him like a man possessed.

“What on earth,” Steve said, aloud, to the empty interior of his car.

Bucky was wearing—it was—it was all very hard to describe. Or, well, no, it wasn’t difficult to describe at all, but it was very difficult to process. His hair was actually—clean, and tucked behind his ears, and he didn’t have any eyeliner on, and he was wearing a nice forest-green sweater and khaki pants and—loafers. He was wearing loafers.

“Drive,” he growled the second he’d slammed the door behind him, while Steve was still staring at him, mouth agape.

“Uh,” Steve said.

“I said drive,” Bucky said, leaning over to punch him in the shoulder.

Ow,” Steve said, wincing, but pulled the car out of park and started to drive away, eyes darting between the road and where Bucky, next to him, was practically crawling into the backseat.

“What are you doing?” he asked, consternated. “Do you need me to pull over?”

“No, keep driving,” Bucky said, muffled. “I’m afraid they’re going to follow you.”

“Did your mom force you into those clothes herself?” Steve asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bucky said tersely, and then made a victorious little ah! sound.

“What are you—where did those come from?” Steve asked, boggled, as Bucky reemerged clutching a pair of converse, black skinny jeans, a really unappealing t-shirt for a band called The Slit, an old leather jacket that Steve didn’t recognize, and an eyeliner pencil.

“I stashed them in here last week,” Bucky said grimly, and started to pull off his sweater and unbutton the white oxford he was wearing under it.

“What are you—doing!” Steve squawked.

“Changing,” Bucky said. “Watch the road, you’ll get us killed.”

Steve swallowed.

Bucky tugged off his sweater and shirt—which got caught, naturally, on the seatbelt—and tossed them into the back as fast as he possibly could before tugging the shirt on, glancing covertly over at Steve, who was staring at the road with his lips pressed together, knuckles white on the steering wheel.

“Sorry,” Bucky mumbled, shame rolling through his body. “I shouldn’t—sorry. I just—um—”

Steve started and glanced over at him for the briefest of moments before looking back at the road.

“It’s, um, fine,” he said. “I—that’s not. That’s not why—” He was a little pink in the cheeks but it was the frown furrowing his brow that Bucky was paying attention to—the frown he always got when he was anxious about something, and trying to work out what to do about it. He raised his right hand and rubbed at his forehead, pushing his perfectly combed hair into its customary cowlick.

Somehow, Bucky had never realized that was where it came from. He suddenly felt very stupid.

“Pull over,” he said, “I’ll get in the back to do my pants.”

Steve’s lips twitched, and he did.

Bucky was awkwardly pulling on his jeans in the backseat of the car, which Steve was driving very carefully under the speed limit, when he heard Steve suddenly say, “I was just, um—my dad—died? In a car crash. So. That’s why. Um.”

Bucky froze, pants around his thighs, and stared at him over the seat.

“What?” he said, stupidly.

Steve glanced at him once, very quickly, in the rearview mirror.

“Yeah, uh,” he said awkwardly. “That’s how—he died. I was really little, I don’t remember it or anything. But, um. You know. Car crash. So.”

Bucky made himself pull his jeans up the rest of the way, because he just refused to have the rest of this conversation without his pants on, and then he sat back and looked at Steve in the rearview mirror again. Steve held his gaze for longer this time, although he looked back at the road soon enough.

“Steve,” he said, and realized his voice sounded funny.

“Yeah,” Steve said, and he sounded a little strange, too. He opened and closed his hands on the steering wheel. “Well.”

When they got to the school Bucky toed off his loafers and pulled on his beat-up old Converse, and shrugged his arms into his old jacket, which he’d had to requisition because his mother had fucking stolen the one he normally wore to avoid this exact circumstance coming to pass. He wasn’t warm enough but he’d survive, he guessed. He stood outside of Steve’s car shivering, and waited as Steve came around from the driver’s side, and stopped in front of him.

“Well?” he said after a long moment, smiling humorlessly. “How do I look?”

Steve looked at him consideringly for another moment, before stepping forward, pulling off one of his gloves, and raising his hand to mess up his hair. Bucky made a sound and tried to duck away instinctively, but Steve grabbed him by the shoulder and kept it up for a few seconds.

“There,” he said, looking amused. “Now you’re all right.”

Bucky blew some hair out of his face and hoped it didn’t look as red as it felt.

Picture day at MCUHS was an inauspicious event every year, but particularly this year, when it was taking place in chilly, dreary February in lieu of the comparatively optimistic, warm days of September. The school photography service had been on strike in the fall, and so the students had been forced to wait until the beginning of the spring semester for their mandatory day of torture. Most everybody had either a manic or a hunted aura about them, and either, like Steve, looked like their mothers had had an especial hand in dressing them that morning, or, like Bucky, seemed to have gone hard in the other direction.

The junior class was shifted through the gymnasium in the early afternoon, in shifts, all looking profoundly bored as they moved slowly along the line up toward the photographer. Tony Stark was dressed, unsurprisingly, in a full suit, which regrettably did not have the effect of making his forehead any less shiny than usual, and Pepper Potts, wearing a blazer that looked like it had come out of her mother’s closet, was glaring at him from where she was standing several places behind him in the line, while June stared down at her phone and hoped that she didn’t start complaining vocally about how his very presence was ruining her life.

Loki Odinson had gotten stuck in the line behind his brother, much to his evident displeasure; Thor, naturally, was wearing his letter jacket, and was talking animatedly to Sif Sigurdsson, who was glaring at Loki over his shoulder. Loki glared back. Historically, the Odinson twins had been in the habit of doing choreographed school photos—truly ridiculous affairs: Loki throwing some thing from one frame to Thor in the next, both of them making complementary ridiculous gestures, and so on—but in recent years Loki had put a stop to this “trivial habit” and it went without saying that this was not the year the tradition was going to be revived. He went after Thor, his smile as slick and unsettling as Thor’s had been winning, and the photographer leaned back, alarmed.

“Thanks, that looked great,” he said, and Loki smiled again, creepily, before scuttling away. He bumped into Tony on his way out and gave him a look of such unmitigated loathing that even the photographer stepped back automatically. Tony, for his part, wound up under the bleachers.

Teenagers, the photographer thought wearily, and waved over the next one.

Farther down in the line, Bucky and Steve stood next to each other in companionable silence, waiting their turn. Steve’s collar had somehow gotten messed up, as it always did, and his cowlick had not improved; as usual, Bucky was doing all in his power to stop himself from just—reaching up and fucking—fixing them. He yawned, instead, and reached up to rub at his eye before he stopped himself, reflexively—couldn’t rub his eye, that would smear his—

Eyeliner—

Which he wasn’t—

Wearing—

He froze. A chill went down his spine.

Steve,” he hissed.

“What?” Steve asked, distractedly.

“Does anything look—unusual—to you,” Bucky said, urgently, tilting his head slightly to peer up at him.

Steve turned to look at him. For a moment his face was a total blank, and then he blinked, surprised. “Oh,” he said. “That’s—oh.”

“See?” Bucky said, sounding strangled.

Steve thought, privately, that it was kind of—nice, to be able to actually see Bucky’s eyes; but then, he had also thought that the sweater Bucky had been wearing that morning had been kind of nice, too, and he had also had the sense not to say that, as it was so very obviously not the desired reaction.

“Well,” Steve said, glancing at the line, which was growing shorter by the moment, “I don’t think there’s much we can do about it now—”

“I can’t—have my picture taken like this,” Bucky interrupted, sounding panicked. “I can’t—that can’t—”

“You look fine, Bucky,” Steve said. “Your eyes look—I mean, they look fine.”

Bucky just glared at him.

“You have really nice eyes,” Steve said meekly, and Bucky glared harder for an instant before covering them up with his hands.

“Do you think they’ll let me take my picture like this?” he asked, sounding slightly muffled.

“No,” Steve said.

“Fascists,” Bucky said.

“Don’t call people fascists,” Steve said hurriedly. “It only gets you into trouble.”

Things were truly looking grim—or they would have been, had it not been for the fact that at that very moment Natasha Romanoff was walking toward them, away from the photographer, chewing her gum pointedly. In what was truly an unprecedented turn of events, she stopped in front of where the two of them were whispering frantically at each other and raised her eyebrows.

They both stared at her for a moment.

“Hi, Natasha,” Steve finally said, weakly.

Bucky peeked out at her from through his fingers. She looked from him to Steve and back again.

“Come on,” she said to him, and started walking toward the door. Bucky glanced, baffled, at Steve, who shrugged, equally lost, and then hurried after her.

She stopped at a locker just around the corner from the doors to the gymnasium and opened it with three sharp turns to the padlock before swinging the door open, reaching inside, and pulling out a little makeup bag. It was bright purple. Bucky had not been expecting the purple, he thought to himself, slightly hysterically.

“Close your eyes,” she said, and when he just stared at her, she glared, so he hurried up and did so.

It didn’t take her very long: she was very quick, and precise, and her fingers were careful but not too careful on his skin. “There you go,” she said, when she had finished, and stepped back.

“Uh,” he said. “Thanks.”

She tossed the bag back in the locker and closed it again. “You’ll miss it if you don’t hurry,” she said, and he hurried back toward the gym.

“Hey,” he huffed out when he got back to Steve, who was nearly at the front of the line.

“Hey,” Steve said. “Feel better?”

“A million times,” Bucky said, although he also just felt—really weird. “That was weird, right?”

“That was definitely weird,” Steve said.

“Oh, good,” he replied, “I was hoping it wasn’t just me.”

“Next!” the photographer shouted, and Steve nudged Bucky along.

It will surprise no one, the author should imagine, to hear that Bucky, in spite of the immense effort he had exerted to be dressed and made up exactly as he wished to be, was utterly uncooperative when it came to actually having his photo taken. Steve stood at the beginning of the line with one hand over half of his face watching as Bucky glared straight into the camera, and then, upon being asked to smile, did… something, which in no way resembled his actual smile but which definitely made him look like some kind of serial killer.

“Uh,” the photographer said. “Maybe don’t do that, actually.”

“Which one do you want,” Bucky said through grit teeth.

The photographer stared. “Dead-eyed stare,” he said, and the rictus grin dropped off of Bucky’s face in an instant.

“You’re ridiculous,” Steve said when he came up behind him, sounding impossibly fond, and Bucky started.

“Yeah, well,” he muttered. “So are you.”

Steve rolled his eyes. The photographer wasn’t paying any attention to either of them. Bucky made a face at him that he knew probably was more befitting of a four-year-old, but it made Steve laugh, so he figured it was probably all right.

“Okay,” the photographer said. “Next up is…?”

“Steve Rogers,” Steve said.

“All right, you can go, Mr. Barnes,” he said, and Steve smiled at him again.

“Just—one thing,” Bucky said, and, because he just couldn’t help himself, reached out a hand to fix Steve’s erstwhile collar.

“Oh,” Steve said, sounding surprised. “Thanks.”

“Anytime,” Bucky said, which was a lie, and went to wait in the wings for him to be finished.

Steve sat on the little stool and smiled politely at the photographer’s terrible jokes, but he kept getting distracted by Bucky, who was standing off to the side and looked terribly bothered about something—What? he mouthed at him, but Bucky just pulled a face. What? he mouthed again, more insistently, and Bucky made an exaggerated expression before running his hand through his messy hair once and then making a frankly totally incomprehensible gesture around his head.

“Mr. Rogers?” the photographer said, and Steve glanced back at him. “You ready?”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Steve said, looking back toward Bucky, who was making his unfathomable gesture (in reality, a “smooth down your ridiculous cowlick” gesture, though Steve did not know this) more insistently. “I’m ready.”

“Give it a big ol’ smile on the count of three,” the photographer said, utterly without inflection, and Steve smiled absently, but his eye caught again on Bucky throwing his hands up in the air, defeated, and so in the end the photo that was taken of him did not feature him looking at the camera and smiling awkwardly in the canned way standard of school pictures: he was looking off to the side with a bemused little grin on his face—one might even say an infatuated little grin, though this author would hardly dare presume to go that far—one corner of his mouth pulled up higher than the other, his hair sticking up on one side at the front.

When Mrs. Rogers opened up the photos a couple of weeks later, she looked down at them thoughtfully. “Something going on off-screen, huh?” she asked a little dryly, and he laughed.

“Bucky was doing the weirdest thing,” he said with an easy laugh. “I had no idea what he was trying to say. He never told me.”

“He is a strange one,” she said absently, looking down at the photos of her son, and sliding them back into their envelope, something inside of her twinging with an old ache rediscovered and twisted into something entirely new.


*


IN WHICH THERE IS ROMANCE

The students of MCUHS got themselves into a tizzy every year when Valentine’s Day rolled around, as did, indeed, teenagers in schools across the nation. Years before, some former principal had approved the chorus’ now-infamous Singing Valentine tradition, which despite (or perhaps because of) its infamy was so renowned that even the school’s current, objectively terrifying principal, Nick Fury, could not get rid of it. Innocent, unsuspecting students were thus liable to be set upon by small groups of overly enthusiastic members of the chorus, who traversed the school in small bands, not unlike any other species of predator, with “messages” from the students who had bought their services. It was barbaric.

Fortunately for everyone involved, most of the smitten teenagers walking the halls of MCUHS were sensible enough to forego such extreme measures. Clint showed up to English class with a bouquet of black roses—“You can buy those?” Steve said to Bucky, incredulous—while Rhodey leaned obnoxiously over his desk and over onto June’s. (June, wisely, pushed him away, and sneaked a hopeful peak back at Natasha over her shoulder. Natasha was reading War and Peace, and did not look up.)

But alas, “most” was not “all,” and so it was that Sif Sigurdsson found herself sitting in the library in her free period, systematically working through her trigonometry problems with the absent-minded speed of one particularly gifted with that capability, when suddenly she realized that there was a group of… people. Standing. In front of her.

“No,” she said.

One of them cleared her throat.

“No,” she said again, looking up at them.

The one farthest to the left hummed a note and started bobbing his head.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Sif said, as they broke out into the strains of a horrible a cappella rendition of “Lover You Should Have Come Over.”

She stared at them, mouth agape, for a full fifteen seconds, then placed her hands carefully on the table, fingers splayed, leaned forward, and hissed, “I will rip all of your limbs from your body,” at which point all of them scattered immediately, terrified out of their minds.

Out of sight behind a bookcase, Loki wilted.

“Jesus Christ,” Sif muttered to herself.

(It should be noted for the record that Loki’s infatuation with Sif was long and storied and took place entirely within his own brain, though they had known each other for most of their lives and had, indeed, been friendly for the majority of that span of time. Early in their acquaintance, when one of Thor’s other friends had knocked Loki over and kept right on running, Sif had stayed behind, crouched next to him, prodding carefully at his scraped knee, and tramping back to the house with him to help him get it patched up. Now, at age seventeen, Loki very often monologued melodramatically to himself that Sif was the only person who had ever shown him kindness, forgetting the dozens if not hundreds of other people who had shown him similar courtesies over the years, to say nothing of his actual family members. In any event, his obsession had only grown in intensity as time had passed, and his newfound antipathy [not to say outright loathing] of Thor had done nothing to quench his somewhat deranged infatuation with Sif, who remained totally clueless to any of these proceedings, and thus had absolutely no idea who would have been insane enough to send her a fucking—singing Valentine—in the middle of the morning.)

Thor, for his part, had finally worked up the courage to simply—ask—Jane Foster—out. A simple soul, he had been somewhat—somewhat—humbled by his recent experiences, and so told himself that he had nothing to lose. If she said no, after all, he would simply keep trying. He felt strangely at peace with this, once he had come to his conclusion—at least, he had until he found himself standing at the edge of the cafeteria, staring at Jane where she was sitting alone, reading a printout of something and chewing a very large bite of a sandwich.

Thor took a very deep breath, and steeled himself. He could do this. He could do this. It didn’t matter that he had never spoken to Jane outside of physics class. No matter! No matter.

He walked determinedly over to her table and sat down across from her. She didn’t seem to notice him for a moment, then blinked as if coming out of a trance.

“Uh,” she said. “Hi.”

“Hello,” he said, shifting awkwardly in his seat.

She blinked at him again.

“How… are you?” he asked.

“I’m… fine,” she replied, suspicious. “Should I be anything other than fine.”

“No?” he said, confused. “What?”

“Okay,” she said. “Do you need something?”

This was, he felt, terribly unfair. He was never awkward. He always knew what to say to make people laugh. Why, he thought desperately, were girls so hard? All girls should be like Sif, who wasn’t difficult to talk to at all, except that the idea of dating Sif made him want to vomit.

“What are you reading?” he asked somewhat desperately.

“A paper on Mono-Higgs-Boson collider signatures,” she said. He was pretty sure whatever she had just said hadn’t been English. “Dr. Selvig copied it for me.”

“Just for—fun?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, as though he were very stupid.

“You’re really smart,” he said, completely sincerely and without thinking about it at all. She was just—really smart.

She stared at him.

“Thanks,” she said after a long moment. “I think.”

“Do you want to go out sometime?” he asked.

“What?” she asked.

“Out,” he said. “With me.” Everything, he thought, was terrible. He hated—everything. He wanted to go home immediately and close the blinds and put on some of Loki’s loud awful music and lie on the bed with Rajah and put a pillow over his face and not think about anything for at least six hours.

Thor rarely had thoughts that bore any remote resembled the above, but adolescent romance is very hard.

Jane stared at him.

What?” she said.

“On, like,” he said, careening into mumble more rapidly with every word. “A, uh. Date. Or. Something. A date or something.”

He wanted to shrivel up and die. Girls. Were. Terrible.

Jane giggled.

What, Thor thought.

She giggled and her—cheeks turned pink and she—covered her mouth with one hand—

“Are you… laughing at me,” Thor said suspiciously.

“Um,” she said. “No. No? I’m not, I’m—you want to go on a—date? With—me?” She had turned approximately the color of a tomato.

“Yes,” he said. She had shrunk down into herself and was staring at him with wide eyes and had started giggling again. He had no idea what was going on. Girls were mystifying. He needed to talk to Sif immediately.

“Oh my god,” Jane whispered. “I need to talk to Darcy.”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Thor said finally, slightly too loudly, for he was nothing if not direct.

“Yes,” Jane said, eyes bugging slightly. “Yes, I will—definitely go on a date with you. Um. I mean. Okay. I guess.”

“Oh,” Thor said.

They stared at each other.

“Oh my god,” Jane said again, in a tiny voice, and clapped her hand over her mouth. Thor smiled stupidly at her.

“Well isn’t this sickeningly cute,” Darcy Lewis said from behind them, sounding smug, and Thor nearly fell out of his chair. “You know, I kept telling her something like this was—” But she was cut off by another quartet of singers serenading an outraged Pepper Potts across the cafeteria with “Baby Got Back,” while Tony Stark snickered along from the sidelines.

“I am going to kill you,” she was shrieking at him. “I am going to murder you in your sleep! Do you think this is funny! Do you! Do you!”

Rhodey and June, though doomed for romantic failure, looked at each other in weary solidarity, and raised their eyes to the heavens.


*


Bucky Barnes, meanwhile, was grimly considering the various aspects of Valentine’s Day that he found odious, which were myriad in number, chief among them that he had been forced to listen to Steve talk endlessly for an entire week about—Peggy Carter, whom Bucky now hated on principle, even though he didn’t actually know her at all and even though she did seem kind of nice from afar. He hated her. He had decided.

Steve had a—crush, or—whatever, on Peggy, which was nothing new, but Steve was a dumb sap and didn’t do anything about it, just sort of stared at her from across the cafeteria sometimes and occasionally talked about things she had said in American Government while Bucky pretended to listen and instead thought about literally any other subject he could possibly think of. But for whatever stupid reason of—commercially invented fucking holidays—now he was—really paying attention to Peggy and—staring at her more and—trying to talk to her (though he never really succeeded in doing so, as far as Bucky could tell), and it was—ugh. It was terrible. Bucky had taken to glaring at her whenever he saw her just to counteract Steve’s mooning faces. Nobody deserved that much mooning. It wasn’t scientifically healthy, he was pretty sure.

“So, what,” he’d asked the weekend before, fed up. “Are you gonna ask her out or something?”

Steve had balked, staring at him. “I—no,” he’d said, turning red. “I can’t—do that. I mean we hardly even know each other, really, it would be—it would be weird, I don’t… it would be inappropriate,” he’d finished weakly.

“Well, I’m not sure where all this is going, then,” Bucky had said flatly, and then didn’t say anything more about it at all.

If he were Holden Caulfield, he’d thought, he would have one of those hunting hats, and then could bring the earflaps down and tie them around his chin and not have to listen to Steve at all. Of course then he’d be wearing a hunting hat, which would be its own particular problem, but everybody has to make sacrifices sometimes, don’t they.

He was in a foul mood the whole day. When Steve asked him why, he told him that Valentine’s Day was a bourgeois holiday invented by capitalists and that he wasn’t going to dignify it by pretending to be cheerful. “People are just happy about being in love, Bucky,” Steve said, lips quirking up at the corner. “I think it’s kind of nice.”

Bucky shoved himself down further in his seat and turned to watch Middletown go by, so that he didn’t have to look at Steve’s face anymore.

At the end of the day Steve was even more cheerful than he had been throughout, which was saying something. “What’s got you all fat and happy?” Bucky asked, and Steve laughed.

“I talked to Peggy after class just now,” he said, grinning. “Or, well, not that much, but—I said something about what we were talking about in class and then she said something back about it and I said something else and then she laughed—and it was really nice—”

“Oh,” Bucky said, and got into the car and slammed the door behind him before Steve could say anything else.

“You all right?” Steve said, poking his head through his door, arms resting on the roof.

Bucky swallowed. “Fine,” he said.

“Okay,” Steve said dubiously. “Anyway, I barely got two sentences out, really. But that’s better than nothing, I figure.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Good for you.”

He squeezed himself into the corner of the couch all afternoon, as far away from Steve as possible, staring intently at his homework without really seeing anything, since giving off the illusion of productivity meant that Steve wouldn’t say much. He glanced up when Mrs. Rogers came home and then looked back down again quickly, eyes burning suddenly, for no reason at all.

“Hello, boys,” she said. “I’m surprised you’re still here, Bucky, I’d have thought your mom would have been here by now. Isn’t she usually earlier than this, on her way back from—whatever it is that she does on Tuesdays?”

“Yeah,” he said. “She’s late.”

“Ah,” Mrs. Rogers said. “Well. Let me wrap up some cookies for you, anyway. Are you sure she’s coming? Steve can take you home.”

“She’s coming,” he said. “She’s just late.”

“Mom,” Steve said brightly. “I talked to Peggy today.”

“Who?” Mrs. Rogers said.

Mom,” Steve said. “Peggy Carter. You know. The girl from my history class.”

“Oh, right,” Mrs. Rogers said from the kitchen.

“She was really nice and everything,” Steve said. Bucky felt his jaw set. He dug his fingernails into his palm.

“That’s nice, dear,” Mrs. Rogers said, and he heard the pop of a Tupperware lid being closed. “Oh, I think your mother’s outside, Bucky.”

“Okay,” he said, throwing his things into his backpack as fast as he could and making a beeline for the door.

“Bye,” Steve called from behind him, sounding slightly bewildered.

“Wait a moment,” Mrs. Rogers said, and stepped out onto the porch behind him, shivering in the cold. “Here are your cookies, I’m told they’re very good.”

“Oh,” he said, looking down at them. “I, uh. Thanks. I guess.”

She looked at him for a moment and then reached out and wrapped one of her thin arms around his shoulders, rubbing one hand up and down his back. “It’s all right, you know,” she said very quietly in his ear, as he stood frozen. “It’s all right.”

He became aware that his free hand was clutched in her sweater when she pulled away from him and he let go suddenly, cheeks burning. She reached up to touch his face. “I think you’ve grown a little,” she said thoughtfully.

“Steve’s still taller than I am,” he said automatically.

“I know,” she said. “But you’re as tall as I am, now. Nearly, anyway.”

He rubbed his hand under his nose. “I gotta go,” he croaked. “I—I gotta go.”

“I know you do, sweetheart,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”

And so he tramped down their front walk, clutching the Tupperware full of cookies to his chest, shoulders hunched against the cold, resolutely not crying, although he was sniffling a little, and his eyes were red.


*


IN WHICH JUSTICE IS SERVED

At the end of the month, Maria Hill sat down at her kitchen table with a glass of wine once again, this time with a stack of poorly formatted, and likewise poorly written, essays on The Catcher in the Rye. She shuffled through them for a moment, found Natasha Romanoff’s, and put it at the bottom of the stack: as any teacher will know, it was important to have the promise of one brilliant essay to keep oneself going. She fished out Pepper Potts’, sighed, and started to read that one first.

The Catcher in the Rye is a book full of symbolic elements. Some of the most important symbols in this novel by J. D. Salinger are Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat, the ducks at the lake in Central Park, and Holden’s dead brother’s baseball mitt. In this essay I will analyze the meaning behind each of these motifs, all of which symbolize the futility of the inner human struggle.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Ms. Hill said, and wrote a large “?!”in red pen in the margin.

She did not hit Bucky Barnes’ essay until around halfway through the stack, and approached it with some trepidation. A line set in between her brows as she read.

But I don’t think the book is about how Holden is dumb or immature or just has to grow up or anything like that because it’s not like he doesn’t do anything for anybody else or is that selfish or anything. For instance he thinks about his brother all the time even though he’s not around anymore and he wants to look out for his sister and take care of her. The only thing he wants to do is be the “catcher in the rye” which in his head means taking care of kids anyway. I think to be a grown up means looking out for other people and if you’re thinking about looking out for kids all the time I don’t think you can really be a kid anymore yourself.

Besides which it’s not like the adults in the book are that nice to Holden either. He doesn’t always do things that are the best to everybody but nobody is really looking out for him and his teacher who says he’ll help him doesn’t do that at all. When you are a kid you are supposed to have lots of people looking out for you but he doesn’t so he has to figure everything out somehow anyway. And sometimes he doesn’t do it very well but I don’t think that’s immature. I think we’re supposed to think he’s trying as hard as he can but everything might just be too much with his brother dying and everything. I don’t understand why anybody would think that was dumb.

Ms. Hill put her pen down, leaned her head into her hand, and let out a long sigh before covering her eyes.

That Monday, she handed the essays back at the beginning of class, facedown, looking totally impassive as per usual. Bucky felt like someone had reached inside his guts and squeezed. He didn’t know why. He never got nervous about assignments (well, sort of, but not really; he always knew he wasn’t going to do well, so it didn’t really matter). She put his essay down in front of him carefully, fingers lingering on top of it for a moment, before moving further down the line, and he stared at it for a moment, as though it might start—staring back, or something.

Finally he turned it over as fast as he could and—stared at the A-minus written in red and circled on the top of the page.

He blinked and brought the paper closer to his face, squinting. It didn’t stop being an A-minus.

Next to him, Pepper made a squawking sound. “I—Bucky got a higher grade on this than I did? Bucky? How is that possible? This grade is—ridiculous—”

Virginia Potts,” Ms. Hill said, sounding icily homicidal. “I should remind you that discussing other students’ grades in front of the class is highly inappropriate. I also seriously doubt that anyone else is particularly interested in hearing anything about your own performance.”

“But—but this is—” Pepper spluttered.

“A perfectly fair assessment of the caliber of that essay,” Ms. Hill said. “I suggest you read my comments.”

“I just—him?” Pepper exclaimed, and Ms. Hill leveled her an expression that was so chilling that the entire classroom froze.

“Yes,” she said. “He had a much more sophisticated grasp on the material than you did, Pepper. He is also not the one who will be serving detention with me this afternoon.”

Pepper’s eyes went round and her cheeks went red.

Bucky looked up at Ms. Hill, feeling his cheeks burning, but she only she glanced at him for the briefest moment before continuing on down the line. Steve was craning his head around in his seat to look at him, curious, but he avoided his gaze, instead turning back to his essay, boggled, and flipping to the back.

Work on writing in a more formal manner in future—not exactly the place for all the “I thinks” and “anyways” and “or anythings.” Please see my comments throughout. I also recommend using more direct quotes in future (as is, in fact, required).

Try not to incur so many detentions in future, Bucky. You could be a very good student if you focused a little more on school and a little less on making sure nobody helped you out. You might recognize a little bit of that in Holden. When you don’t have many people looking out for you it’s best not to push away the people who actually are trying to help you do better.

He stared at it for a moment before carefully flipping the front pages back over and straightening them out. He didn’t look up again once for the rest of the class, and made sure to get out of the room before there was even the remotest chance of him being the last one alone with her.

“Hey,” Steve called out in the hallway after him, hurrying to keep up. “What’s all this about?”

“Nothing,” Bucky said automatically, but Steve was looking at him oddly, kind of—knowingly. He swallowed and clutched his notebook closer to him, the essay pressed against his chest, feeling as though it were emitting some kind of strange energy, or heat, or—something.

“You do well on your essay?” he asked, and Bucky felt himself turning red. He nodded, and Steve—Steve—smiled. Just one of his—beaming fucking smiles, and Bucky could feel something shaking inside of himself, and wanted to—vanish, go somewhere else, anywhere else, where Steve would not be looking at him like that.

“I got a B,” he said, and shrugged amiably. “Like usual.”

“I got,” Bucky started, and then stopped.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Steve said. “I mean, it’s not—I’m glad you did well, but it doesn’t really. Matter. I don’t mean—you know what I mean.” He reached up and rubbed at his forehead, pushing up his hair. Bucky felt a muscle in his jaw twitch.

“I got an A-minus,” he blurted out, and Steve blinked, and smiled even more broadly, and oh, Bucky definitely wanted to die. He wanted. To die.

“That’s amazing,” Steve said, and Bucky looked determinedly at the floor.

“Yeah, well, it probably won’t happen again,” he muttered.

“Why not?” Steve asked. “I mean, it happened once.”

“Well, I guess I just—got the book,” Bucky said, feeling his mouth twisting unpleasantly. “So.” And Steve, looking at him standing there with his notebook clutched to his chest, his knuckles white, staring at the ground, felt something shift inside of him, as he suddenly—got it.

“I,” he started, and then realized he had no idea how to tell Bucky that the fact that he hadn’t really understood the book didn’t mean that he didn’t get—him. (Although he wasn’t always certain he did get Bucky, but that wasn’t really the point, he thought somewhat fuzzily.) There wasn’t, he didn’t think, any way to say it. His tongue felt thick in his mouth.

“Well I guess we’d better go to math,” he said instead, stupidly.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, and started shuffling along next to him without looking up. Steve knocked their shoulders together and Bucky glanced up at him, tentative, and Steve grinned at him as doofily as he could.

“Well Pepper looked real dumb, huh,” he said, and Bucky smiled a very small smile, and Steve didn’t know why whatever the tightness was in his chest didn’t loosen and go away.


*


MARCH

IN WHICH TECHNOLOGY IS EXPLORED

Pepper Potts’ bedroom, which she and her mother had redecorated during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, looked like it had come directly out of the pages of a Pottery Barn catalogue. Everything was either pink or a very pale shade of green that had a specific name that Mr. Potts had been told repeatedly and had never been able to remember, in spite of the resulting ire of both his wife and his daughter, and unlike most teenagers’ bedrooms, the centerpiece item was not a television set, or a computer, or a poster, or even a bookshelf, but rather a hulking monstrosity of a desk, which despite not breaking the room’s color scheme looked like it should have belonged in the office of a high-level corporate executive. It went against all reason that any teenager could possibly have enough documents and—textbooks and papers and—things—to fill such a desk, particularly in this digital age, and yet Pepper in many respects defied reason.

She and her mother had been very proud of her room, so pleasantly pastel-colored and so utterly lacking in feng shui. Mr. Potts avoided it at all costs—not exactly a difficult task—and on the one occasion that Mrs. Potts’ much younger sister had visited from across the country with her very small son, and he had toddled along the hallway and looked inside, he had immediately burst into tears.

Pepper, whose mother was a prosecutor so terrifying that sometimes people stopped when they saw her in the supermarket, paralyzed by their fear, spent the vast majority of her time on her schoolwork, and with the notable exception of English she was at or at least very near the top of all of her classes. She was in competition with Tony Stark in everything which was maddening because he was the most annoying person she had ever met in her entire life and she wanted him to walk off of a cliff or maybe burn to death as slowly and painfully as possible. While she watched. She would enjoy it.

One of them was going to be valedictorian, and she needed to get a better grade in English class if she wanted it to be her, because fortunately Tony was not doing very well in his section of English class either. Ms. Hill was impossible. (Pepper knew all of Tony’s grades because she told June her grades and Tony told Rhodey his grades and they conferred, wearily, and then passed along the information they had gathered to their respective parties. Both Rhodey and June frequently pointed out that it would have been considerably simpler for Tony and Pepper to just tell each other themselves but this, Tony and Pepper both argued, animatedly, would have been—impossible! Inappropriate! And so the charade continued.)

In her minimal free time Pepper had also been studying like a maniac for the SATs, both because she wanted to get a perfect score (in order to get into Yale and then become the valedictorian of her class at Yale and then do… something [Pepper’s goals, unfortunately, were oblique beyond “being the valedictorian of various institutions”]) and also because she wanted to beat Tony. June frequently pointed out to her that this was weird, and probably kind of unhealthy, and when she did so Pepper glared at her, looking manic, and June, who was only sixteen and had not yet learned that sometimes people are just never going to change, sighed, and shut up.

But in her even more minimal free free time, which even her mother did not know about, Pepper did something… else. She did not lock the door to her bedroom, because that would have been a cause for suspicion, but she climbed onto her bed with the computer, screen facing the wall, spread flashcards out around her, and logged onto BabbleCore.

BabbleCore was a decidedly strange internet chat website populated predominately by teenagers and “young people” in their early twenties, which, unlike Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook, did not support images of any kind. Its interface was remarkably simple: you could bounce from user to user (“babbler” to “babbler”) but unlike its initially hot but quickly obsolete precursor, Chatroulette, you could add other “babblers” to your account, and chat with them repeatedly. In an interview, the anonymous founder of BabbleCore had said in response to questions about his site:

Isn’t this just a glorified chat service, not unlike Gchat?

Well, yeah, but you can’t meet random people through Gchat, can you.

But you can meet random people on the internet through other means, no?

Well, duh, of course you can, but it’s not as, like, spontaneous, obviously. I mean, people wouldn’t use the site if they didn’t like the spontaneity, and the, like, total anonymity.

In that case, isn’t it just a glorified version of Omegle?

I guess you could say it’s a lot like Omegle, except not shady as fuck.

And indeed, though the services provided by BabbleCore were not fundamentally so very different from services provided by many other websites, it was nevertheless wildly popular, and resolutely ad-free, and so it continued to grow, and grow, shrouded in an aura of mystique that was so perfectly symbolically aligned with its manifesto it seemed to have been written in a book.

The appeal of BabbleCore to the likes of Pepper Potts need hardly be explained. Though she herself would never have admitted it, and in fact would have been outraged at the suggestion, the frankly insane level of pressure being leveled upon her by her parents, society, school, and herself, were enough to make anybody completely insane. She had no hobbies outside of school and her proscribed extracurricular activities (yearbook, Model UN, student council), and only one real friend, who, it goes without saying, found her profoundly exhausting. Her repeated attempts to befriend Peggy Carter, Sif Sigurdsson, and even the likes of Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, and, most terrifyingly of all, Natasha Romanoff—“It is important that women stick together,” she had been heard saying more than once, in what her classmates did not know was an exact (if unconscious) impersonation of her mother—had, unsurprisingly, failed spectacularly. Although she was categorically an obnoxious person she was also a rather sad case, particularly since she really was not as brilliant as she so desperately wanted herself to be. But she had not yet figured out how to be anything else.

And so she spent rather a lot of time on BabbleCore.

Specifically, she spent rather a lot of time on BabbleCore talking to somebody with the handle “ironman89,” who was also in high school, although he didn’t actually talk about school very much. (She did. She couldn’t help herself. She did not have very much else to talk about.) He made obscure references to “sprints” and “marathons” which she assumed meant his triathlon training or whatever, although he didn’t really go into details on that, either. Mostly he just talked about, like, real stuff. Like, how fucked up the world was and how bullshit everything was and also how his parents were tools.

ironman89: yeah i mean my dad is such an asshole u have noo idea

ginevra__potter: um i dunno my dad is pretty nice i guess

ironman89: no idea
no idea
such a fucking dick god what an asswipe
he has like this corporation or whatever
which i would like to state for the record i have no interest in owning
ever
at any point in time
anyway he thinsk hes like this important person
but
i mean he is kind of important
but its not like anybody lieks him its just his money
like
whatever
he doesnt even make cool shit anymore

ginevra__potter: what does he do

ironman89: if i told you id have to kill you
hah
hah
hah

ginevra__potter: oh you dont have to say anything
i didnt mean to pressure you into saying anything

i wasnt trying to be weird

ironman89: cool it ginny
i was kidding
im not telling you though
it’d spoil the fun
at least your dads nice though iguess

ginevra__potter: oh yeah hes fine i dont talk to him very much
my moms alright
kindof

ironman89: sounds suspicious

ginevra__potter: no no no shes great thats not what i meant

ironman89: what the fuck did you mean then

ginevra__potter: oh i dunno just
shes kinda scary i guess just
yeah
shes got an important job
she can be kind of
um
intimidating
i guess

ironman89: puts the fear of god into you huh

ginevra__potter: no its not that bad!!!

ironman89: uh huh

ginevra__potter: shut up

ironman89: uh huuuuuh

ginevra__potter: youre so obnoxious

ironman89: its part of my charm

ginevra__potter: you are not charming
you are annoying
i dont know why i talk to you
ugh

ironman89: im definitely charming dont fool yourself sweetcakes

ginevra__potter: that is actually disgusting

ironman89: yeah im sorry i retract that that was gross
that was a mistake
i have regrets

Sometimes, Mrs. Potts poked her head into Pepper’s room while Pepper was talking to “ironman89” on BabbleCore, at which point Pepper would slam her laptop shut with a wide-eyed, manic expression, cheeks flaming pink under her freckles, and ask, “What do you want?” several octaves too loudly.

At these moments, across the town line, in Centerville, Tony Stark would blink at his computer, where “ginevra__potter” had vanished, assume that the previously described interaction had taken place, and roll his ridiculously expensive computer chair back from his ridiculously expensive computer desk, upon which sat his ridiculously expensive desktop computer, a machine that was so advanced it was not yet available for purchase to the general public, and say, “Well, JARVIS, there she goes again.”

“Terribly sorry, sir,” a posh English voice belonging to the Artificial Intelligence operating system that ran the entire Stark Mansion would reply sympathetically from the ether, and Tony would sigh pathetically. (JARVIS had been Tony’s earliest stroke of genius, at the tender age of ten, and his parents were privately of the opinion that he had been something of a happy accident, but had had the sense not to tell him so.)

Tony hated Ginny’s mom. Ginny’s mom was so annoying. Ginny didn’t realize her mom was as annoying as she very clearly was because Ginny was under the delusion that parents weren’t terrible nightmare people. Tony, as the son of the great Howard Stark, had been disabused of this notion early.

He spent a lot of time wondering where Ginny lived (America, suburbia, a climate similar to the one in which he lived, he had gathered, though not necessarily too terribly similar [in fact, identical]), and about what she looked like (he really, really hoped she was hot, although he had come to the truly horrifying conclusion some time ago that, barring some kind of extreme circumstance, her being not hot probably wouldn’t matter), and about what her voice sounded like, and what her real name was, and all sorts of other horrible things. He had never been—infatuated—with anybody before, and it was an absolute fucking nightmare, and he wanted to eradicate it from his entire body, and also to figure out where Ginny lived and get her on a plane to Centerville immediately.

He hated everything.

He often patted himself on the back for having created BabbleCore some three-and-a-half years previous, when he had been but a mere youngling of thirteen—less of a technical achievement than JARVIS, admittedly, but, he liked to think, more of an innovative one—and similarly for having the sense to keep it to himself. He had, in fact, put the site up without his parents’ knowledge, and so he could have done it—plastered his name all over it, COPYRIGHT TONY STARK, TONY STARK WAS HERE, SUCK IT MOTHERFUCKERS—but he had not. He liked having secrets. A double life, as it were. He would not have been able to articulate this, exactly, but he lived in a kind of stark (pun intended) terror of turning out, like his father, to be a person equated with his achievements: he wanted people to like him, not merely to pander to him. (He also could not quite recognize, at least not yet, the fact that while Howard’s status did very much derive from his accomplishments, his popularity with, ah, certain groups of people [women who were not his wife] did not entirely hinge upon his professional accomplishments: the man was a narcissistic maniac, but he sure had charm.)

Unfortunately for Tony he simply was not, at this stage of his life, particularly likeable, since he had been raised to be terrified of the outside world and without social skills of any kind. He was, in fact, so utterly unbearable that even his father’s status had not conferred upon him some kind of social desirability. He was merely a pariah.

But on the internet nobody knew who he was, and nobody knew that he was Howard Stark’s son, and he didn’t awkwardly stumble over his words or talk too loudly or bump into things, and there weren’t any fucking germs anywhere, and basically it was totally amazing, except for the part where he didn’t know who Ginny was or where she lived and he couldn’t make out with her or have sex with her and it was awful because he really wanted to have sex with her even if she wasn’t hot which was terrible and not something he had ever thought he would say about anybody (though he still really really hoped she was hot).

It was all very exhausting.

(On the plus side, when his parents had found out that he had created a website that had suddenly become one of the most highly trafficked social networks on the internet, his father had grinned at him, clapped him on the back, and said, “Well, would you look at that,” and hadn’t even made a comment about him being a chip off the old block, which had been unnerving, but nice. And then he hadn’t ever suggested Tony go public about having created it, which Tony thought was possibly about not detracting from himself but was also possibly about not fucking up Tony’s life. This—his father looking out for his welfare—was an even more unnerving scenario but seemed a likely one. He had decided not to push it. On par, then, Tony came down squarely in favor of the internet. It seemed make his father insane, but in a good way, for a change, about which he could not really complain.)

“Ah,” JARVIS said, one evening when Ginny had vanished suddenly to places unknown. “It appears that dinner is served.”

“Great,” Tony muttered.

“Your mother is not in a terribly good mood,” JARVIS added helpfully, and Tony sighed before trudging first downstairs, and then all the way across the mansion, and finally into the dining room, where he and his mother and father sat as far away from each other as they possibly could at the dinner table, and ate some ridiculously fancy fish dish whose name Tony definitely couldn’t pronounce.

“How’s school coming,” Howard said.

“Spectacularly,” Tony told him.

“Beat that Potts girl yet,” Howard said. Tony scowled.

“I haven’t calculated all of our grades to my satisfaction yet,” he said.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Howard said.

“No,” Tony admitted.

“Well,” said Howard cheerfully, “you’ve got time.”

Tony glared.

“Months,” Howard, who really could not have given less of a shit about Tony’s status as valedictorian, salutatorian, or otherwise, pointed out. “And then a whole year. Your crusade continues apace.”

“I’m going to crush her,” he said. “Like a bug.”

“Evocative,” his mother said.

“Consider poetry,” Howard said. “Who needs science anyway, really.”

Tony glowered, and stabbed at his fish.


*


IN WHICH ADOLESCENCE IS VERY PAINFUL

Tony Stark’s singular, solitary real-life friend, James Rhodes, had long ago resigned himself to his fate of putting up with Tony’s neuroses and his monologuing. As a child Tony had been slightly less aggravating, and besides, children make friends by the simple rule of proximity, and Rhodey’s mother had dumped him in a playpen with Tony Stark at the age of one-and-a-half and that had been the end of that. All Rhodey really knew for a long time was that his mom was friends with Tony’s mom and that that meant that he was friends with Tony: for a boy of five, this was a reasonable enough explanation for anything. Besides, Tony liked computers, too—one time Tony had taken apart an entire computer and put it back together in a completely different (but still totally functional) way, and that had been when they were only, like, seven—and he was smart, and his dad was funny. Rhodey had always liked Tony’s dad, even though he knew his mother didn’t, so he had to pretend like he didn’t, either. Tony’s dad knew about this somehow because sometimes he winked at him and didn’t say anything, just walked on by and whistled, and then came back later with some crazy new gadget when Rhodey’s mom wasn’t there anymore.

Now, at the advanced age of seventeen, Rhodey was no longer impressed by Tony taking apart computers—he deliberately made sure never to show his computer in Tony’s presence, in fact, for fear of it being summarily dismantled and built into some newfangled device he didn’t want—and also realized that not only his mother but also Maria and Tony all hated Howard, because Howard cheated on Maria all the time. (Like. Really all the time.) Rhodey still liked him, though, even if he didn’t think the cheating was a good idea. Howard hadn’t done anything to him except be nice to him his whole life, and he knew it wasn’t the same to have somebody as your dad as it was to just know him, but to hear Tony talk about Howard, you’d think he breathed fire.

There had been a time, some years before, when he was around twelve years old, that he really, really had not wanted to be seen with Tony Stark anymore, who despite being his oldest friend was rapidly becoming more and more unbearable. Tony at seventeen was a menace; Tony at twelve had been an absolute fucking nightmare.

“You listen to me, young man,” his mother had told him once, eyes hard. “That boy has been raised by crazy people. He has got nobody else. You are not going to abandon him in his time of need. Besides, you do not want to be the person who screwed him over if he turns into a murderer one day. Or hacks the stock market and the government mainframe,” she added, which seemed considerably more likely.

“Mom,” preadolescent Rhodey had replied, “that’s not a very good reason to be friends with somebody.”

“I don’t care,” she’d told him. “I don’t want you to die, or go to prison for life.”

And so here he was, five years later, listening to Tony rant to himself about Pepper Potts in Spanish class.

“Just make out with her already,” Rhodey said without looking up from his worksheet, and Tony made such an outraged noise that Rhodey was pretty sure it could have been heard from space.

“Make—out—with—her—” Tony spluttered, voice growing increasingly shrill.

From the desk in front of them, Peggy Carter snickered.

“You’re telling me,” Rhodey said.

“Oh, be quiet,” Peggy said, but fondly.

“What, you don’t want to talk about making out with me?” Rhodey asked, faux-aggrieved.

“No,” Peggy replied without turning around. “We’ve established this.”

They had, in fact, established this. Rhodey, an inveterate flirt, had yet to have any luck with the female population of MCUHS, though this seemed not to have dampened his spirits, and certainly had not stopped him from trying.

“Come on, Peggy,” he’d said some weeks earlier, leaning against the lockers next to hers in-between periods. “I’m a catch. I’ve got prospects.”

“And what exactly are those,” she’d asked, as she took books out of her backpack and stacked them in her locker.

“I’m going to get into any college I want and then I’m going to join the CIA or some shit,” Rhodey had said. “FBI. Or I might become a math professor, I haven’t decided yet.”

She’d looked at him out of the corners of her eyes. “How do you know you’re going to get into any college you want?”

“I’m a black mathlete, baby,” Rhodey had said. “I’m the captain of the mathletes. And I’m from fucking Middletown. You kidding with me here?”

Peggy had snorted, and then Rhodey had fist-pumped, which had lost him any points he might have just won, but it was all irrelevant, because she definitely wasn’t going to date him regardless. And neither was June, or any of the other girls he could be found flirting with shamelessly at any and all hours of the school day. Everybody liked Rhodey, even the girls who were never going to go out with him; he was fundamentally likeable person. His unfortunate association with Tony Stark was simply something that had to be borne.

“So, uh,” Steve Rogers said at lunch that day, picking at his half of the enormous ham sandwich he had split between him and Bucky Barnes, which was a thing Rhodey had never asked about and was never fucking going to, “are you and Peggy a, uh. Well, you know.” He frowned intently at his food, but not nearly as intently, Rhodey noticed, as Bucky was glaring at his half of the sandwich—he was looking at it as though it had personally offended him. “A thing?”

“What?” Rhodey asked, trying to string the words he’d just said together into some kind of coherent statement. “Wait, me and—Peggy Carter?”

Steve glanced up at him tentatively.

“No,” Rhodey said. “Uh. No.”

“Oh,” Steve said, sounding relieved.

“Why, you like her?” Rhodey asked. Bucky glared at him, and then back down at the sandwich.

Steve turned pink. “I mean, I don’t think she even really knows I exist,” he muttered.

“Wait,” Rhodey said. “You being serious right now?”

“About her not knowing I exist?” Steve asked, frowning. “I mean I was kind of being—figurative—”

Rhodey looked at Bucky, who was viciously ripping off little bits of the crust of his sandwich and smushing them between his fingers.

He looked at Steve.

People, he thought, were really fucking dumb.

“Okay then,” he said. “Well, uh. Knock yourself out, I guess. Good luck to you, and all that.”

Steve smiled a little, looking shy. “Thanks,” he said. “I mean—it’s probably nothing. Just—we’ll see, I guess. I mean, why would she even—anyway.”

Next to him, Bucky looked pained.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked, when he glanced over and noticed. “Bucky? Are you okay? You look like you’re about to pass out or something.”

“Fine,” Bucky ground out. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure it’s not the ham?” Steve asked, leaning over to inspect the sandwich. “I think it’s new but I’m not sure—does your stomach feel all right?”

Bucky looked over at Rhodey with an expression of desperation on his face, but Rhodey just shrugged. He was not equipped to deal with this shit.

“Well, all right,” Steve was saying, sounding skeptical. “If you’re sure.”

At least, Rhodey reflected, he and Tony weren’t secretly, obliviously in love with each other, and then he was so horrified by that thought that he choked on his burrito.


*


It had, indeed, become very difficult for Bucky to trudge through his day-to-day existence, now that he had suddenly noticed that Steve was so—Steve—all of the time. There had been no flash of lightning, no thunder-crack of epiphany, just a slow build-up of simultaneous trembling anticipation every time Steve looked at him and careening despair every time he actually thought about Steve, and himself, and his life, and—everything. It was terrible. He wanted to give it back. The worst thing—the worst thing—was that Steve had—had no idea, because Steve was his best friend but Steve was nice to everybody and Steve wasn’t—like that, anyway, so he wouldn’t—wouldn’t—it wouldn’t occur to him. To think. About it.

Bucky spent a lot of evenings curled around his laptop in bed watching one reality television program or another, morosely eating whatever repulsive candy Steve had snuck into his backpack that week, which, in combination with the lunches, the way Steve hovered over him like a worried mama bird, Steve’s general disinclination to go anywhere without him, and the flat-out adoring way Steve looked at him literally all of the time (barring the moments when he was rolling his eyes in [fond] aggravation), would have said—and, in fact, did say—to any sensible person that his massive fucking lovesickness problem was definitively, if obliviously, reciprocated. But Bucky, being a sixteen-year-old boy, could not read any of the signs, and probably would not have taken the hint even if Steve had been walking around with a sign over his head that read, STEVE ROGERS LOVES BUCKY BARNES in flashing neon lights. It was, in fact, possible that Steve standing outside his house with a boom box playing romantic music would just have made Bucky worry that he had lost his mind, and possibly also robbed an old person in order to procure said boom box.

Because how on earth could it even be possible? How could Steve, who was so—good, and kind, and had a crush on Peggy Carter (who should just go—die, already, or at least transfer schools), possibly like—him? It was still baffling enough that they were friends. Bucky was lucky that they were friends. He wasn’t going to—do anything stupid to mess that up. He wasn’t an idiot.

This resolution didn’t really make anything any better, because he still felt that—weird shaking fizz all over the inside of himself whenever Steve smiled at him, and felt himself trying to make Steve laugh all the time, and doing his best to avoid doing anything that would make Steve upset, and on the very occasional days he had to go home instead of to the Rogerses’ for whatever reason he felt like he was at the bottom of a black hole staring up at the sky a very long way away and that he would probably never make his way out again and that he couldn’t even move, really. And whenever Steve talked about Peggy he had to pretend like it didn’t feel like all of his organs hadn’t deposited themselves immediately out of their usual places and into his legs, leaving a horrible vacant space inside of his abdomen, waiting to be filled with—misery. Just misery and despair and—horrible things. Lots of horrible things.

Also sometimes he thought about how after next year Steve was going to go off to college and maybe if he was lucky he’d go to college someplace too but it definitely wouldn’t be at the same college and he didn’t want to think about it but sometimes he couldn’t help himself because texting and the internet were only good for so much and sometimes he thought the only thing that got him through the day was having Steve there basically all the time but he knew that in eighteen months (not that he was counting) he wouldn’t anymore.

He tried not to think about it but he did sometimes anyway.

(Peggy Carter would not be at whatever college Steve went to. Which would be a plus. But there would be lots of other girls. And no Bucky.)

Mrs. Rogers sat in the kitchen sometimes when they were in the living room and watched them over the back of the sofa while she was paying the bills or writing emails or sort of reading a book, and never quite knew whether the way they laughed uncontrollably at each other’s half-told jokes—they never seemed to need to finish what they were saying before they were both collapsed in hysterics—and otherwise communicated largely without speech, before taking turns gazing at each other and then hurriedly turning away when the other noticed, was hysterically funny or deeply, deeply tragic. She supposed that in the end it couldn’t be anything other than both—most of the most tragic things came back around to being funny eventually, just by dint of people not being able to deal with them otherwise, after all, and most of the funniest things were after all very dark indeed. At some point, she was sure, they would both figure it out, but she was not optimistic that the timeline for this journey of self-discovery would be anything less than interminably long—for teenagers, as we have already clearly established, are very dense creatures.

And so Bucky resigned himself to a life of torture unique, he was certain, from the lives of all of his peers, and Steve blithely carried on none the wiser, and Mrs. Rogers (not to mention Ms. Hill and Mr. Coulson) worked very hard not to make her amusement and occasional bouts of frustration clear to them, and their fellow students thought that it was really amazing that Barnes and Rogers hadn’t gotten their heads out of their asses yet.

“I think it’s cute,” Darcy Lewis said to Jane Foster, who was manifestly uninterested in the romantic shenanigans of anyone besides herself, as she watched the persons in question from the other side of the library instead of doing her homework.

“It’s none of your business,” Jane muttered, chewing on the end of her pencil.

“Bucky might be cute under all the—you know,” Darcy said, gesturing at her face. “But it’s pretty hard to tell. Although,” she added, grinning and leaning forward, “I guess he’s not really your type.”

Jane turned pink.

“I gotta tell you,” Darcy said. “I never thought I’d see you dating somebody that dumb.”

“Thor isn’t—dumb,” Jane said weakly, because Thor was definitely dumb, and they both knew it.

“I think it’s heartwarming,” Darcy said. “I think you’re growing as a person.”

“Thanks,” Jane said sourly.

“Hey, maybe you’ll broaden his mind,” Darcy said. “Or at least—enlarge—some other part of him—”

Jane hit her with a textbook.

“Girls!” the librarian said shrilly from behind the desk.

“You and Clint deserve each other,” Jane muttered darkly, and Darcy beamed.


*


IN WHICH ADOLESCENCE CONTINUES TO BE PAINFUL, AND STEVE AND BUCKY ARE BANNED FOR LIFE

As anyone who has grown up (as indeed this author has) in one of the many suburban towns of America will know, there is in each of those towns without exception (at least none that the author can name) one non-chain coffee shop, the décor and ambiance of which aspires to something approaching cool, and to which high school students flock, desperately trying to seem hip and urban. (These coffee shops are typically manned by twenty-somethings who, upon graduating from college, moved home and couldn’t find jobs elsewhere. The cycle is vicious, but you can’t say that it isn’t poetic.)

The coffee shop in Middletown (which also, of course, boasted a Starbucks, patronized nearly exclusively by terrifying stay-at-home mothers) was called Middletown Coffee Works, and neither Steve nor Bucky had any idea what it looked like inside, because neither of them had ever been there before. It would never have occurred to Steve to go by himself, before Bucky had crashed gracelessly into his life at the beginning of the school year, and for a while Bucky hadn’t even been aware that the place existed. Once he had found out about it he had immediately dismissed it, because other people liked it, and he did not like things that other people liked—except Coco Cabana, and also every other TV show he watched, and also The Catcher in the Rye (which, although it had been largely unpopular amongst his classmates, was not exactly an esoteric text), and also YouTube videos of baby animals, and a whole host of other things that do not bear listing here. In short, there were snarling wannabe punk kids in every high school in every town across the country, and all of them thought that they were absolutely unique amongst their species, and they probably all bought the same jeans.

But as the months passed, and they drove repeatedly past the little strip mall that housed Middletown Coffee Works, their curiosity began to mount, along with a vague sense of defiance—against whom, they would not have been able to say, except probably, in Bucky’s case, Society—all of which led them to wonder if maybe they—should go—just to see—what the fuss was. It was more fun, after all, to have somebody to do things with, to have schemes with, to giggle about things nonsensically with: and this was definitely nonsensical.

And so, as the result of some vague incomprehensible conversation, they found themselves walking up to the doors of the coffee shop, feeling vaguely transgressive, huddled slightly too close together, as though this would offer some kind of protection against… something. The threat that other people—specifically, other teenagers—presented, simply by existing in close proximity to where they were.

Steve pushed open the door.

They both blinked owlishly for a few seconds, eyes adjusting to the gloom—which was not, in fact, that gloomy—and looked around the room, both feeling excruciatingly self-conscious, although nobody in the coffee shop was paying them any mind at all. (This, of course, is the central hallmark of adolescence: the feeling of being constantly watched by one million eyes, when in fact nobody much cares what you do most of the time, certainly not in the ways that you think.)

There were a few ratty armchairs scattered around the edges of the winding room, and one sagging sofa, along with the small square tables and beat-up chairs surrounding them. Everything, in fact, looked old, which to the teenagers sprawled out everywhere gave the place an aura of ironclad authenticity—as did, of course, the exposed brick walls (which, unbeknownst to them, the proprietors had paid good money to have installed). There was also a lot of art hanging on the walls, most of it terrible.

“You’re better than all of this crap,” Bucky told Steve. “Wait, is that—Natasha’s?”

They turned to look at one of the paintings in the corner. “I think so,” Steve said, and paused.

“It really does look like a vagina,” Bucky said, cutting to the chase.

“I mean—I wouldn’t know,” Steve said, turning pink. “But, um. Yes.”

It really, really looked like a vagina.

“So do we—go up and order?” Bucky muttered, looking askance at the barista, who had an undercut, a gauge in his ear, and a full sleeve tattoo. He stuck his hand in his hair and messed it up even more than it already was (which was: very) and tugged self-consciously at his jacket.

“Uh, yes,” Steve said. “And then… sit down. Somewhere.”

There were hardly any free seats anywhere, which was hardly surprising, given that there wasn’t anywhere else to go in town if you wanted to… go anywhere. The closest movie theater was a half-hour outside Middletown, and the only restaurants were boring and full of their parents all the time. It was Middletown Coffee Works or it was bust, and so for Steve and Bucky it was usually bust—except for today, when they were branching out. Expanding their horizons.

“I don’t drink coffee,” Bucky said.

“Neither do I,” Steve replied.

For a moment they were both paralyzed with irrational terror, and then Steve realized that there were a bunch of pastries by the register.

“Oh, good,” he said, relieved. “There’s cake and stuff.”

“Cake?” Bucky said hopefully.

“Um, hi,” Steve said when they’d gotten to the register. “Can we have—well, I’ll have a piece of the banana bread, please? And—you’ll have that chocolate thing, right,” he said to Bucky, who was in fact staring at the chocolate thing so intently it was somewhat surprising he was not actually salivating over it.

“Yes,” Steve said dryly to the barista. “The chocolate thing. And, um—we don’t have to—order coffee, do we?” he asked tentatively. “Or—tea?”

The barista looked at him, amused. “No,” he said. “You don’t have to order coffee.”

“Uh, right,” Steve said, flushing. “Yeah, of course. That—makes sense. I’ll just, um. Pay for those, then.”

“Sure,” the barista said, trying very hard not to laugh, as Steve carefully pulled the bills out of his wallet.

“Oh,” Bucky said when he finally managed to drag his attention away from the desserts and saw the barista giving Steve back his change. “Oh, Steve, you—you shouldn’t—”

“Hmm?” Steve said absently, stuffing his wallet back into his pocket. “Here, take yours.”

“I—you didn’t have to,” Bucky muttered.

“Oh,” said Steve, who in fact had not thought twice about paying for Bucky’s food as well as his own, and then shrugged. “Well, it wasn’t very expensive.”

They wound up sitting at stools at the bar a ways down from the register, specifically designed like an actual bar to give the teenage patrons of the coffee shop the illusion that they were at an actual bar. Neither Steve nor Bucky was thinking about this, not being remotely adult enough to have any interest in bars, although they did appreciate the fact that nobody else had occupied any of the stools, therefore leaving them in relative privacy (or as much privacy as one can have in a crowded coffee shop). Steve went off to get them glasses of water, and Bucky looked around surreptitiously.

He didn’t know anybody there. He barely even recognized anybody. It was all very strange.

“Here you go,” Steve said, setting the glasses down on the bar in front of them and sitting down again. “This is kind of—nice.”

“Who are all these people?” Bucky asked, baffled. Steve turned and looked at the rest of the shop.

“Other students?” he said. “That I don’t… recognize?” He paused. “Now that I think about it, we don’t actually know very many people.”

They both thought about this for a moment, and then shrugged.

“Oh well,” he said, and started to eat his banana bread. Bucky set into his chocolate thing.

“Do you think this is what real life will be like?” Steve said thoughtfully. “Just—going places where you don’t know anybody and—I don’t know. I guess that’s a stupid question.”

“Is this not real life?” Bucky asked. Steve laughed.

“You know what I mean,” he said, and Bucky rolled his eyes.

“I’m going to move to a big city,” he said, “and nobody will have any idea who I am, and I’ll be able to do whatever I want. That’s the whole point of cities. Not like these fucking—hellhole suburban towns.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, picking at his banana bread. “I guess.”

“What?” Bucky said a moment later, once he’d sucked the chocolate off of his thumb, since Steve was still sort of frowning at his food, and not looking at him.

“Oh, nothing,” Steve said, in a tone of voice that meant it definitely wasn’t nothing. “I guess, just. Do you know—do you know what you want to—do?”

Bucky blinked at him.

“Uh,” he said.

Steve swallowed but didn’t look away. Stubborn jerk.

“…No?” Bucky said. “I… don’t?”

“Oh,” Steve said. “Okay. I was just—wondering.”

“Do you?” Bucky asked, perplexed. Steve shrugged.

“I guess I was just—thinking about it,” he said, and frowned again, looking down. “A little. I dunno, it’s just all this—SAT stuff, whatever.”

Bucky swallowed, throat dry. “Yeah,” he said. Steve glanced up at him. He’d picked his slice of banana bread almost entirely apart into crumbs.

“I dunno,” he said, while Bucky watched, waiting. “It’s just—scary, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “It’s pretty scary.”

Steve smiled a little, crookedly, and there was something sad and old in his eyes that Bucky had never seen before, and which made him shiver. He pushed his plate further into the bar and folded his arms down on the slick wooden surface, and then rested his head down on them, looking up at Steve, who looked funny from this angle. “What are you scared of, Rogers?” he asked, and made a silly face, which made Steve smile in spite of himself.

“I,” he started, and looked down at his hands, turning his water glass in-between them. “I… I dunno. I guess I actually—” he paused and made a sour face. “I actually like my mom, so, um. There’s. That. And she’s got her—health—stuff—yeah, um. I dunno.” He paused again, frowning down at his glass, twisting one way and then the other. Bucky didn’t say anything, just waited. He could never say anything like this, but Steve could, sometimes. But Steve was braver than he was. You just had to wait for him, a little bit. “And I, um. I guess… I dunno, I mean, I dunno if people will—like me, or—whatever. Wherever I wind up—um. I mean—nobody ever really…” he trailed off, cheeks turning red, and his eyes flicked up to Bucky’s for a single second before flicking back down again. “Ever, you know, really. Liked me. Before. Um. You know.”

Bucky didn’t move, just looked up at him, at his red face, and his hands twitching around his glass. “Everybody likes you, don’t be dumb,” he said eventually.

“No they don’t,” Steve said quietly.

“Yeah they do,” Bucky said.

“Not—not really,” Steve insisted. “Or maybe they do but they don’t—notice.”

Which, Bucky realized, was true. And it made him mad but also—relieved—because if they noticed then surely Steve wouldn’t have to bother with him anymore, and then he didn’t know where he’d be.

Of course, in eighteen months he literally had no idea whether either of them would be, which was the real matter at hand.

“Everybody’s gonna—love you,” Bucky said, tripping over the words, for he truly had no idea what he was doing, only that he needed to do it; that it was important, for both of them—and that he meant it. “Everybody.” He swallowed. “You won’t have to worry about me for very long after you go off to—wherever, probably, they’ll all love you so much.”

Steve stared at him. “Don’t say that,” he said vehemently. “Don’t say that. I don’t—have to worry about you. Bucky—I—come on.”

Bucky looked away from him and curled his fingers into his sleeve.

“Bucky,” Steve said again, and Bucky could—feel—his hand lingering indecisively over his shoulder before settling down and squeezing tentatively.

“Okay,” Bucky said, as Steve squeezed again, and moved his thumb back and forth. “Okay.”

Steve pulled him up gently and they both sat there for a moment, not saying anything.

“It’ll be all right,” Steve said, even though he’d been the one who was worrying, which—always happened; he always wound up trying to make Bucky feel better, and it made Bucky so—angry, because sometimes Steve should just be—allowed to be sad or worried or whatever. So he leaned his head in his hand and looked over at him and raised his eyebrows.

“You got any other plans for this real life you’re talking about?” he asked, and Steve shrugged.

“I dunno,” he said. “I don’t know what I want to do, either.”

“Hmm,” Bucky said. “Famous artist.”

Steve snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“What,” Bucky said. “I don’t think that’s that much of a stretch.”

“Sure,” Steve said, rolling his eyes, cheeks bright red. “If you say so.”

“Look at this garbage on the walls,” Bucky said, gesturing. “I told you, you’re—at least twenty times better than all this crap. Except Natasha’s,” he amended loyally.

“This is a coffee shop in Middletown,” Steve said dryly. “I don’t think that’s a very good barometer.”

Bucky looked at him shrewdly. “You’re never scared of anything,” he said. “Don’t get why you’d start with that.”

“I’m scared of stuff all the time,” Steve said immediately, and Bucky blinked. “And that’s not—I’m being reasonable.”

“Being reasonable is overrated,” Bucky said. “Besides, you’re really good at something, so—you should do it.”

Steve was looking at him with an expression he couldn’t read. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing,” he said, and instead just—smiled, a small, sweet expression that made something inside of Bucky go hot and aching. “Nothing.”

“You’re fucking with me,” Bucky said, and Steve laughed. “You are. You’re fucking with me somehow.”

“I’m not,” Steve said, laughing. “I swear to god.”

“Hmm,” Bucky said, looking at him, eyes narrowed. “All right. Sure.” He paused. “Well, we know Tony’s gonna take over Stark Industries.”

“Obviously,” Steve said.

“Jane Foster’s gonna, like, figure out how black holes work or some shit,” he continued. “Darcy’ll probably be leading a cult.”

Steve snorted. “Clint’ll be living in his mom’s basement.”

“Definitely,” Bucky agreed. “That Wilson kid’ll have discovered some new species of bird and’ll be living in the woods in a tent somewhere studying it—”

“Funded by Stanford or something.”

“And Thor and Loki will probably still be living in that crazy house fighting with each other,” Bucky said.

“Pepper will be running an office and making people cry,” Steve said sagely.

“So many tears,” Bucky agreed. “Rhodey’ll be doing some top secret math thing for the government probably. And you’ll be a famous artist,” he said, leaning forward a little, as Steve looked down at his glass, smiling a little, almost—shy, “and I’ll be your weird groupie or something, I’ll move your—crates, or, I dunno—”

A flash went off.

“What the fuck,” Bucky said.

“Just taking a photo for the wall,” the barista said laconically, gesturing to the wall behind him, which was, they noticed, covered with pinned-up photos of patrons—almost exclusively teenagers—sitting around the coffee shop, smiling and talking to each other animatedly.

There was a roaring in Bucky’s ears.

“Delete that,” he said.

“Uh,” Steve said. “I’m sure it’s—fine—”

The barista, who was actually holding a clunky camera, and not an iPhone, was giving them a weird look. “Uh, look, I wasn’t—”

Delete it,” Bucky growled.

“Look, buddy,” the barista was saying, starting to look really irritated, “it’s got film in it, I can’t fucking delete it—”

“That’s a film camera?” Steve said, boggled, leaning forward to look at it, as though it were some kind of antique.

“It matches our aesthetic—”

“Take the film out,” Bucky growled.

“Bucky,” Steve said, still peering at the camera, “I think you might be overreacting—”

“I’m taking that,” Bucky said, reached out wildly, and grabbed it.

“What the fuck,” the barista said, as Bucky clutched the camera to his chest and backed away.

“I’ll reimburse you,” he shouted, and dashed out of the coffee shop.

Steve stared.

“Uh,” he said. “I’m—sorry?”

“What the fuck?” the barista shouted, and started to move out from behind the counter, so Steve high-tailed it, too, darting clumsily around armchairs and tables full of baffled patrons—“Sorry!” he yelped as he bowled around them—and finally slamming clumsily out the door to make sure he got to the car in time to drive them away before the barista got a hold of Bucky and beat the shit out of him, or—whatever. He didn’t really look capable of beating anybody up, but Bucky looked even less capable of doing that, so.

“Get in the car,” he shouted as he sprinted after Bucky, who was careening toward his car, hitting the unlock button on his keys, and they both hurtled in gracelessly, practically knocking their heads together before Steve managed to get the keys in the ignition and slammed the gearshift into reverse. “Is he there?” he shouted, even though Bucky was around a foot away from him.

“He’s coming but he’s not behind us yet,” Bucky shouted back, and he pulled out of his parking spot before peeling away, out of the lot and into the street.

“What the hell was that about?” Steve asked a few moments later, at a normal volume, panting slightly as he watched the barista and Middletown Coffee Works—from which they would henceforth, unsurprisingly, be banned for life—recede and then vanish from his rearview mirror.

“I don’t like having my picture taken,” said Bucky, who was still clutching the camera to his chest.

“I have like seventy pictures of you on my phone,” Steve said, which was a gross exaggeration, but still a fair point.

Bucky scowled. “I don’t like having my picture taken by strangers without being warned for the purposes of—advertisement,” he growled, and Steve just shook his head, because he really did look shaken.

Bucky was really weird sometimes, he thought. You just had to accept it.


*


Later that week, a bewildered but not particularly curious Mrs. Barnes dropped off an envelope of developed photographs to Bucky in his room, which he grabbed out of her hand before slamming the door in her face. He sat down on his bed and flipped through them as fast as he could before he got to the one of him and Steve, and pulled it out and put it down on his comforter, staring at it.

It was horrible.

He was—leaning in, with this—expression on his face, this fucking infatuated expression, like he thought Steve was the fucking sun, like he thought he was the only thing in the whole fucking world that was worth anything—he was smiling in this stupid fucking love-struck way, leaning into his space, and Steve had no idea, but he didn’t know how, because it was so obvious that you’d have to be an idiot to miss it. He felt nauseous. Everybody had to know, he realized. Everybody—everybody had to know. He knew, in a vague and uncomfortable way, that Mrs. Rogers—knew, sort of, but—if he was looking at Steve all the time like this—everybody had to know. Everybody. Everybody but Steve, apparently.

He tossed the envelope full of pictures of strangers on the floor and lay back on his bed, staring at the ceiling, his heart pounding in his ears. He picked up the photo and looked at it again. He was smiling at Steve like some stupid—puppy dog, and Steve was smiling down at his glass, and it made his chest hurt, just looking at him, smiling because of something Bucky had said. That was how bad it was. This whole fucking—thing.

He turned and pulled out the little drawer of his bedside table and put the photo inside before lying back on his bed and staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what the fuck he was supposed to do now.


*


APRIL

IN WHICH BUCKY’S ACADEMIC RECORD IS CONSIDERED

And so March rolled into April, and the SATs were dispensed with (celebrated, by Steve and Bucky, with an all-day, comatose marathon of season two Coco Cabana, the one which had, appropriately, ended in a nervous breakdown), and something that seemed to be resembling spring began creeping up on Middletown—though the resemblance was only vague, and the creep very slow indeed.

It was certainly not sunny enough to warrant the sunglasses Bucky had suddenly started wearing everywhere—quite literally everywhere, with a stubborn determination that had thus far resulted in three separate detentions from fed-up teachers who could not persuade him to take them off during class. Steve had also tried to reason with him, but Bucky had just glared at him—from behind the tinted lenses—so he had given up, too; when Bucky got set on something there was really nothing you could do to change his mind (or so, at least, he thought). He did not, of course, know that Bucky’s sudden mania for sunglasses was a direct result of the Episode at Middletown Coffee Works—a strategy he had come up with, in his muddled adolescent brain, to keep his evidently uncontrollable doe-eyed gaze in Steve’s direction at least hidden from the public view.

This line of thinking was so abstruse that nobody realized what he was trying to do, but it was equally ineffectual: the damage had, after all, already been done, and it was not as though a pair of sunglasses could somehow disguise an entire body’s turning toward another body like a flower turns toward the sun.

Besides, he would never dare show up to Ms. Hill’s class doing something like—wearing sunglasses—and even though he actually mostly did—pay attention—in English class now, he still did spend a lot of time gazing at the back of Steve’s head from his prime position a few desks behind him, in full view of the rest of the class, if they felt inclined to look.

He still didn’t like his other classes—he endured them, long-suffering, and tortured himself over his homework (nearly) every night because he knew that if he didn’t then Steve and potentially Coulson (and potentially, someday, Mrs. Rogers, although it hadn’t happened yet), would be disappointed in him, which was—the absolute worst thing—and he wasn’t sure he’d say that he liked English, either. It was still school. Even admitting to himself that he didn’t hate it made him feel all weird and anxious, because—because—if he didn’t hate school, then—well, then who was he, really. But he had started trying to—try, and then Ms. Hill had started to write all these long notes on all of his assignments, like she was actually—reacting to what he’d said, even though he was always pretty sure whatever he’d written had been stupid, and asking him questions, and telling him how to make his writing better, and all that kind of crap. He had the very uncomfortable feeling sometimes, now, that she was actually—keeping track of him, which really never happened, with adults, unless you were counting detentions or other forms of punishment and rule-breaking. It was—very unsettling.

“I assume you’ll be asking Maria to write one of your letters of recommendation,” Mr. Coulson said in their mid-semester meeting, looking over his records.

“What?” said Bucky, baffled.

“Ms. Hill,” Mr. Coulson said, glancing up at him.

“My—what?” Bucky said again.

“A letter of recommendation,” Mr. Coulson said. “For your college applications.”

“Oh,” he said. “I—she won’t do that. Probably. I mean. She wouldn’t, would she?”

“I am quite confident that she will,” Mr. Coulson said dryly, and looked back over at his computer screen.

That evening Bucky went home and looked at his English notebook, which was largely full of weird unskilled doodles and a large stain in the corner where a pen had exploded and bled through the entire thing. But nearer to the back there started to be actual—work, if by work you meant incoherent scribblings about Holden Caulfield and then some weird short stories and now The Death of a Salesman, which was making Bucky very uncomfortable indeed. He stared at, at all his pages of—thinking, and his fingers trembled as he felt, low in his gut, the intense urge to just—rip them out of the notebook and burn them up, right then and there. He had five different lighters in his room, and a big metal trash bin, and there was the bathroom down the hallway, and—and—

He put the notebook down on the desk and climbed onto his bed, tugging his legs up to his chest and resting his chin on his knees, hands tucked under his feet, and sat there like that for a long time.

For the next week he watched Ms. Hill suspiciously all class, although she didn’t seem to be acting in any way differently from normal, which he supposed was to be expected, since nothing had changed for her. He still couldn’t quite believe what Mr. Coulson had said, that was the thing. It would be one thing for Ms. Hill to write a letter of recommendation for Natasha, who was a terrifying genius, or for Steve, who was not a brilliant English student but who did all of his work and said thoughtful things in class and was—responsible, and nice. Bucky was—none of those things. He wasn’t even sure he was going to go to college at all.

Finally he ambushed her at the end of one period, when she was wiping down the whiteboard. He cleared his throat awkwardly, having shooed Steve away with a flapping hand.

“Yes, Bucky?” she asked, putting down the eraser and looking down at her hands, which were now covered in fine dark bits of whiteboard marker residue, and made a face.

His jaw worked for a moment. “Mr. Coulson said you were going to write one of my letters of recommendation,” he blurted out, clutching his hands around his notebook so hard that the edges of the pages were practically cutting into his palms.

She blinked. “Well, you have to ask first,” she said dryly. “And it’s a little early still, although college application season does get crazier every year.”

Bucky felt his face go bright red. “That’s not—I mean—I wasn’t—” he stuttered, and she smiled a little, lips quirking up at the corners.

“I know,” she said. “I was just making a point.”

He swallowed. “I meant,” he started, and paused. “I meant, he said I should ask you, and I didn’t think—I didn’t know why you’d—want to—do that.”

She looked at him for a moment before leaning back against the pen tray and crossing her arms in front of her.

“You got a B-minus first semester,” she said. “Not a very good grade, but not exactly a terrible one, either. Your grades so far this semester have all been along the B-plus to A-minus line.” She shrugged. “That’s pretty good work.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but I’m—in detention all the time, and—and—”

“Not in months,” she said mildly.

Yeah,” he said, frustrated, “but—but—”

“Bucky,” she said, interrupting him. “Did you like the play?”

He blinked. “Death of a Salesman? Uh, I—yeah. I think so.”

“You think so,” she said. “What does that mean.”

“Um,” he said. “It made me feel—weird.”

She raised her eyebrows, and he huffed, annoyed.

“I dunno—weird. Like—uncomfortable. I don’t—I feel like a lot of people in class didn’t get it,” he burst out, which he had not realized he thought before saying it. “Like, all that stuff about—the American dream or—whatever—like, who—who cares about that stuff? Or maybe I just—don’t get it—but—what does that matter? I thought it was really about—I mean I know you’re supposed to feel bad for him—kind of—but he’s—he’s not a good person,” he burst out. “He doesn’t ever—figure it out. He just keeps trying to make everybody else what he wants them to be and he never figures out—anything—about anybody else. He’s—he’s really selfish,” he continued, voice trembling slightly. “I thought—I thought that was the point. Of the play. I, um. I—sorry. I don’t really know anything about it, I just—”

But she was rubbing at the bridge of her nose, so he stopped talking, and when she stopped and looked up she was smiling a crooked smile at him that he was pretty sure he had never seen before. “It’s his father,” she said. “Don’t you think? That’s not what I’m supposed to be teaching. But it’s pretty obvious.”

“What?” he said.

“Willy Loman,” she said, gesturing at where the name was written on the board behind her. “Arthur Miller’s father.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Everything anybody writes is really about their parents somehow,” she said dryly. “And everything we read we make about our parents somehow, too. Other people, also, but they’re secondary.”

He wasn’t really sure what to say to that.

“Willy Loman was my dad, too,” she said. “I’m not supposed to tell you guys things like that. But, well.”

He looked hesitantly up at her.

“I don’t recommend going down the Biff route,” she said.

“I don’t want to,” he said, and realized that it was true.

“Keep doing your work and I’ll write your recommendation,” she said, turning around to wipe off the rest of the board.

“Okay,” he said, and hurried to the door. “Um, Ms. Hill?”

“Yes?” she asked, turning to look at him.

“Um,” he said again. “Thanks.”

She smiled again, just a quirk of her lips. “You’re welcome, Bucky.”

He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, exhaling slowly and squeezing his eyes shut for one long moment before digging through his backpack, putting his sunglasses on, and going off to find Steve.


*


IN WHICH THERE IS A CHANCE ENCOUNTER WITH PERSONAL WARMING LUBRICANT

Much has been made already in this tale of Bucky’s hygiene or lack thereof, but the author fears that no medium, least of all the written word, can sufficiently convey the extent of what Mrs. Rogers privately thought of as The Situation: for what are words—Bucky did this, Bucky said that—when confronted with the sheer, all-encompassing horror of the physical reality of a teenage boy? And Bucky was so very much of a teenage boy. If even Steve smelled—and Steve, in his natural state, smelled foul—then Bucky was a truly hopeless cause. (His hair was also not entirely a situation of his own making—but it was mostly, and so we can feel little guilt in pinning that one mostly on him, and his stench mostly on genetics. His skin, at least, was blessedly mostly clear, for which he felt absolutely no gratitude at the time—being, of course, a teenager.)

Although he acted as though he did not care about the truly foul state of his body odor—since acting as though he cared about anything would be admitting weakness—it will surprise no one to learn that Bucky did, indeed, care very deeply about how he smelled. (He had not really figured out his hair yet: all things, after all, come in their time.) At the age of thirteen it had come on out of nowhere and ever since there had been nothing he could do about it: he had tried every kind of maximum strength deodorant, and actually did shower all the time (though he did not bother washing his hair that often), but it was all to no avail. He just smelled. He was going to have to wait it out.

It was incredibly depressing. It had been depressing before—before, but now he spent most of his time around Steve wondering obsessively about stupid things like how he looked and whether he smelled horrible (which he always did), and even though Steve never seemed to notice (in fact, Steve spent so much time around Bucky that he had completely acclimated to what he smelled like—perhaps unsurprising, given that he was similarly, if much less severely, afflicted). And thus it had recently become infinitely worse.

So one Saturday found him wandering the aisles of the local pharmacy while his mother did the same, off in some other section of the store, clutching the bare minimum essentials of his life: three new eyeliner pencils, a fat packet of makeup removal wipes, and a tube of toothpaste clearly designed for children. He was standing in front of the deodorant, gloomily contemplating his various options, before finally reaching out and grabbing the only one that he hadn’t tried before—STEALTH ROX MAXIMUM STRENGTH TRIPLE XXX, the label read, in horrifyingly lurid red and silver and black lettering—and turning it over to read the back.

“Oh, hi, Bucky,” Steve said from his left, and he jumped around a foot into the air.

Steve was holding a basket that was halfway full of stuff—mouthwash and toothpaste and laundry detergent and sponges and women’s shampoo—and smiling fuzzily at him, hair sticking every which way. Bucky clutched the deodorant to his chest behind the comparatively benign makeup removal wipes and toothpaste and tried to figure out how to get it back onto the shelf without Steve seeing.

The thing was—the thing was, it only worked if nobody knew. That he knew. That he smelled so—gross. Then it just became—pathetic. Whereas this way it just seemed like he didn’t give a fuck. And was all—rebellious, and. Cool. That was what he had always told himself, anyway. (Preposterously, of course, because in no context had he ever been cool in his life.)

It would be—particularly bad, he thought, in an irrational panic, if Steve saw the—deodorant. Steve couldn’t—know—that he—used—deodorant—like—everybody—else—

He just couldn’t know. That Bucky worried about these things. He just couldn’t. It was very important.

“You here with your mom?” Steve was asking, blinking, sloe-eyed. It was horrible. It was fucking—horrible. Bucky was going to die.

“I—yes,” Bucky said. “I should probably—go find her—”

“Oh, all right,” Steve said, and Bucky, in a panic, shoved the deodorant back onto the shelf, instead of doing the sensible thing, and taking it with him, and depositing it on a random shelf for an employee to later find, annoyed, and replace in its rightful place.

“I—oh,” Steve said, and turned a violent shade of red. “Um. Yeah, I have to—get something. Over—there. I’ll—bye! See you later! Bye!” And darted around into the next aisle before Bucky could reply.

Baffled, Bucky turned and looked at where he had shoved the deodorant, only to be faced with a row of varies types of Personal Warming Lubricant.

There was a dull roaring in his ears. How, a distant corner of his mind wondered, could there possibly be multiple versions of—personal warming lubricant?

But mostly it was just a dull roar.

He looked around the aisle to see if there was anything with which he might easily kill himself, but unless he was about to commit death by deodorant or—lube—he was shit out of luck.

He wondered if he could die from embarrassment. Could you die from embarrassment? Was he in the throes of death right now? Were these his final moments? Was his life going to start flashing before his eyes?

Maybe he would just never use deodorant again as a protest against the indignity of this moment, he thought hysterically, and then immediately reneged on that idea, which was clearly terrible: he definitely needed to keep wearing deodorant. Even if he was going to take a vow of confinement and never leave his room again due to the profound shame he was currently experiencing, which was probably going to incapacitate him for the rest of his life.

He took one last glance at the offending shelf, shuddered, and fled.

Steve, meanwhile, was hiding in the crafts aisle, clutching his basket, feeling vaguely traumatized. He had only been awake for an hour. He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t need to know what Bucky—used—for—whatever. For whatever! He didn’t even really know what that—did—or why Bucky would—need—he was going to stop thinking about it, he decided. There was nothing he could do but stop thinking about it.

He was staring intently, he realized, at a glittery coloring book with some Disney character he didn’t recognize on the cover. He’d been standing here for—at least five minutes. That was probably safe. Right? Right? He could probably leave now. He could just—check out, even though he hadn’t gotten everything his mother wanted him to, and then—get the hell out of here.

He took a deep breath and marched out of the aisle toward the registers, and promptly slammed straight into Bucky, who knocked backward into a tiny, emaciated-looking woman who shot him an annoyed look until Bucky croaked, “Steve,” in tones of intense distress.

“Oh,” she said, standing up straight again, and adjusting her shirt. “Are you—Steve?”

“Uh,” Steve said, wondering what he had done to deserve this. “Yes?”

Bucky looked like he wanted to be vaporized on the spot.

“It’s so nice to meet you finally,” she said, smiling insincerely and reaching out a bony hand. “I’m Mrs. Barnes.”

“Uh,” he said again. “I’m… Steve.”

She left her hand hanging in the air for a long moment before he snapped out of it, awkwardly shifted his (really very unreasonably heavy) basket onto his left arm, and shook it.

“What a coincidence,” she said, and they both winced.

In spite of the fact that Bucky spent most afternoons at the Rogerses’ house, and Mrs. Barnes picked him up in the evenings on a fairly regular basis, Steve had never until this moment actually laid eyes on her, except as a shadowy, distant figure in the driver’s seat of the car at the end of his driveway. She had never deigned to actually walk up to their front door and say hello, an omission that had led Mrs. Rogers to privately think of her simply as “beep beep,” in honor of the manner in which she so often announced herself. Bucky, for his part, had been more than happy to keep Steve and Mrs. Rogers as far away from his parents as possible, but now was feeling that he had made some kind of massive miscalculation in not pressing the issue earlier, given how everything had now come to a head.

“Jimmy’s told me so much about you,” Mrs. Barnes was saying to Steve, which was not at all true; Bucky told her as little as he could possibly get away with about his life, Steve in particular. “I think it’s so nice that the two of you hit it off so well so early in the school year, since we’d just moved to town, and, well—you know how difficult moves can be.”

“I’ve never moved, actually,” Steve said. Mrs. Barnes laughed. Her teeth were an unnatural shade of white.

“Well aren’t you lucky!” she said. “We’ve had to move so many times, you know, because of Jimmy’s father’s job. But you do what you have to do, right?”

“I guess?” said Steve, who was mostly too busy trying to wrap his mind around Bucky being called “Jimmy” to process anything she was saying.

“You know when Jimmy was—oh, you must have been six or seven,” she said, “we were moving from—I can’t even remember which towns, that’s how long ago it was. Anyway, we were moving from somewhere to somewhere, and there was some box of Jim’s things out on the lawn, and he just—sat down! On top of it! Do you remember this, Jimmy?”

“No,” Bucky said, staring at the floor.

“Well, you did. You sat down right on top of it, and you said, ‘We can’t move now, because you can’t move my stuff.’ And you stayed there the whole afternoon! Didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom! It was some show of dedication, I have to tell you. Of course finally his father had to come pick him up so that the movers could take the box,” she said to Steve. “And now he doesn’t remember it at all.”

“Well, I will now,” Bucky said.

“I guess that’s right!” she said, and laughed again. It was making Steve’s skin crawl. “I guess you will.” She peered at Steve’s basket. “Are you doing the shopping for your mother, Steve?”

“Yep,” he said.

“Well aren’t you a good kid,” she said. “If only I could get this one to do that. Can’t even get him to get his license.”

A muscle in Bucky’s jaw twitched.

“Well, she’s pretty busy,” Steve said. “So, um. You know.”

“I think it’s wonderful,” Mrs. Barnes said, leaning forward and looking at him with unsettlingly manufactured sincerity. “Really just wonderful, especially given—well, you know. The whole… situation.”

Bucky was staring at her outright now, an expression of abject horror on his face.

“Uh,” Steve said. “Thanks. I’m, uh. I’m going to—pay. Now.”

“Of course, dear,” she said. “We should, too.”

“I need something,” Bucky said loudly. “Over—here. Somewhere. Something else. Somewhere.”

“Well all right,” Mrs. Barnes said, looking confused. “I thought you said we had every—”

“Nope,” Bucky said, cutting her off. “I just remembered—something. Bye, Steve.”

“Bye,” he said, and then added an automatic, “nice to meet you, Mrs. Barnes.”

“Oh, nice to meet you too, Steve,” she replied, “I’m sure I’ll see you again soon,” which wound up being true, although she didn’t really mean it.

Steve paid for his things as fast as he possibly could and practically ran out of the store to his car with them, tossing them haphazardly in the back before climbing into the driver’s seat and letting out a long breath. His phone buzzed in his pocket so he dug it out, rubbing at his face.

Sry, Bucky had texted. She’s horrible.

It’s okay, Steve replied, and then, because it seemed so trivial in the aftermath of the horror he had just endured, personal warming lubricant?

fcuk u, Bucky sent. i was putting back ducking deodorant ok

sure, Steve texted back.

IT WAS DEODORANT, Bucky replied, u fucking dick, and Steve just laughed to himself, leaning forward and resting his head on the steering wheel for a moment before sitting back and looking at his phone again.

yeah I think that’s kinda the idea of lube, he replied before he could think about it, and, somewhere inside of the pharmacy, Bucky Barnes choked on his own spit.


*


IN WHICH BUCKY MAKES A MISTAKE, AND SUFFERS THE CONSEQUENCES

But of course, as anyone who has known someone like Bucky will know—and really, who among us has not—any step forward comes with two steps back, and possibly several sideways: that is to say, progress is never a straight line in one direction, for humans are not simple creatures, and it is no easy feat for a boy of sixteen years old to undo all the work that has been done to him for those many years to make him feel he is little more than a troublesome burden and a disappointment, and to break away from the cycle of self-destructive behavior he had imposed upon himself from the first pangs of adolescence to fulfill that sad prophecy.

It became more and more difficult to resist his impulses to do something—stupid, something that would make everybody hate him, and realize what a terrible mistake they were making, the more time that passed. He had begun to feel like he was pulling some kind of con over on everybody, tricking them into thinking he was worth all this—effort—he had felt that way about Steve for ages, of course, and about Mrs. Rogers for nearly as long, but now Mr. Coulson was in on it, too, and Ms. Hill, and—it was overwhelming; it made him feel like he was suffocating all the time, or maybe drowning. He was going to slip up at some point, he knew, and then—and then—it was all going to be over, all of it. They would realize what a horrible mistake they had made and he would go back to sitting sullenly in the back of the classroom staring out the window and nobody would pay any attention to him except to look vaguely annoyed at his presence, and that would be that.

This had been percolating vaguely at the back of his mind for some time, growing increasingly frantic and paranoid with time—laced, of course, with Steve won’t want anything to do with you if he finds out—where it coexisted with his plodding, determined efforts at actually making a go at doing well (or, well, passably) in school: for teenagers, and, indeed, people, are very irrational indeed, and can hold many thoughts in their heads at one time. But it ultimately found its expression one afternoon when Bucky was walking alone in the hallway toward the cafeteria, and saw Brock Rumlow approaching from the other direction.

He and Rumlow had gotten into repeated scuffles over the course of the year, though not for the past couple of months—scuffles that always ended with Bucky bruised and just short of battered, and Rumlow with a slap on the wrist and no serious disciplinary action. Bucky didn’t understand how exactly this was possible, except that Coach Pierce was really very frightening and seemed to have some kind of weird secret power that he couldn’t possibly understand, but which made Mr. Coulson look like he wanted to hit something—which was unusual, because Mr. Coulson was about as laid-back as it was possible to be, Bucky thought.

Rumlow noticed him, and smiled. Bucky scowled back. If he were bigger, he thought, he would just—hit him in the face, but he was not, and he never even got a chance to try to fight back before he wound up with his face against a locker or dumped on the floor or something. His one comfort was that Steve had never seen any of these embarrassing encounters, because Rumlow was sensible enough to go after him only when he was alone. Steve wasn’t exactly a formidable physical force, but he got angry enough seeing the aftermath of Rumlow’s bullying that if he were there in person he would probably raise some kind of hell, Coach Pierce be damned. (A logical person would probably have seen this as a reason to hope that Steve would be around to witness Rumlow’s actions. Bucky, naturally, was more concerned with preserving his hypothetical dignity.)

Anyway, he was hopeless against Rumlow in a fight. Rumlow was around twice his size, literally, and, regrettably, he had practice.

“Hey, Barnes,” Rumlow said, smirking, when he got close enough, quietly enough that the one or two people at the end of the hall couldn’t possibly hear him. “Where’s your boyfriend today? You two having a little lover’s spat?”

Bucky’s mouth went dry. “I don’t know,” he heard himself saying. “You’d probably know more about that kind of thing than I would.”

Rumlow paused and gave him a weird look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What, you don’t have a girlfriend because nobody’ll look at you twice or because you’re too busy in the locker room?” Bucky asked, and Rumlow’s eyes went wide for a moment.

“Jesus Christ, you queer little piece of shit—” he started, and Bucky just smiled, with all his teeth, for a brief instant before his head snapped back when Rumlow punched him in the face (the sunglasses, fortunately, having been abandoned some time before).

From the doorway to the classroom behind them, June stood, frozen, one hand over her mouth, and then turned and sprinted down the hallway to find a teacher.


*


Mr. Coulson sat behind his desk with the heels of his palms digging into his eyes. “He said what, June?”

“Um,” she said, eyes wide. “He said—Rumlow would probably know more about that kind of thing than he would.”

“And then?”

“He said—Rumlow didn’t have a girlfriend—because girls wouldn’t want to date him—or, um, look at him, I think? Or because he was, um. Busy. In the—locker room.”

“Jesus,” Mr. Coulson muttered into his hands.

“And then,” June continued, voice quivering, “Rumlow called him a—a—”

“You can write it down if you’d rather not say it,” Mr. Coulson said, sighing, and lowered his hands.

“No, it’s all right,” June said. “He called him a—queer piece of—of shit.”

Mr. Coulson sighed, and looked at her.

“Thank you,” he said. “And I’m sorry you had to hear that.”

“It’s all right,” she said. She had, he saw, picked at one of her cuticles until it bled.

“It’s really not,” he said, feeling exhausted all the way to his bones. “But I’m glad somebody did. I just wish it had been a teacher.”

She shrugged, looking uncomfortable.

“All right,” he said. “Why don’t you go back to class.”

“Thanks, Mr. Coulson,” she said, and scurried out the door, letting it slam behind her. He picked up the phone, and told Monica to send in Rumlow, who was waiting outside.

“I didn’t do anything,” Rumlow said immediately, once he had sat down, looking as blithely self-satisfied as he always did.

“You beat up Mr. Barnes so badly that our nurse is checking him for a concussion,” Mr. Coulson said, and Rumlow shrugged.

“I’ve spoken to the principal and we’ve decided to suspend both of you for two days,” Mr. Coulson continued, watching as Rumlow’s eyes went wide. “I’ve already spoken to your mother about it on the phone. She’s less than thrilled.”

“You can’t do that,” Rumlow said.

“Excuse me?” Mr. Coulson said.

“What does Coach Pierce say?” Rumlow asked.

“Mr. Rumlow,” Mr. Coulson said. “There was blood all over the floor of the hallway. Mr. Barnes may be concussed. You used a derogatory slur. You have been beating people up all year and I have allowed other people to push me around regarding your conduct. I have had it. You are going home.”

Rumlow gaped.

“He provoked me,” he said. “He—he said—”

“Mr. Barnes, as I said, has also been suspended,” Mr. Coulson said. “I will be telling him the same thing that I am telling you right now, which is that if the two of you get into any altercations in the future you will be suspended again. This is unacceptable behavior. Do you understand me?”

Rumlow stared.

“Do you understand me, Mr. Rumlow?” Mr. Coulson repeated.

“Yes,” Rumlow ground out. “Can I go now.”

“Yes,” Mr. Coulson said, looking down at the papers on his desk. “Monica will give you some forms for you to take home to your mother, and then you should drive yourself home.”

Rumlow stalked out without saying another word, and slammed the door behind him.

Mr. Coulson let out a long sigh, and picked up the phone again.

“How’s Bucky?” he asked.

“All right, relatively speaking, it sounds like,” Monica said. “They’re sending him down here. And his parents are on their way.”

“Excellent,” Mr. Coulson said dully. “Get Steve up here, this is going to take damage control.”

“Yes sir,” Monica said, and hung up.

Bucky, he thought, looked bad. He had seen him in various states of having-been-pushed-around-by-Brock-Rumlow but this really did take the cake. His entire left eye was swollen shut and had started to turn purple, his jaw was mottled and not quite the right size along the left side, either, and there was a long scrape across his right cheek. His left arm was in a sling. Mostly he looked defeated, though, which was the worst thing. His hands were trembling.

“Bucky,” he said. “I’d like you to explain.”

Bucky didn’t say anything.

“You said some very unpleasant things to Mr. Rumlow,” Mr. Coulson said. “And then he said some very unpleasant things to you. I’m a little confused about why all of this happened.”

“He’s a jerk,” Bucky muttered without looking up.

“Yes, I think we all know that,” Mr. Coulson said. “I’m struggling to understand why you provoked him.”

“I didn’t,” Bucky said, low and sullen enough that he could hardly hear him. “He provoked me.”

“Based on what June said that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Bucky’s mouth twisted sourly, but he didn’t say anything. Mr. Coulson sighed, and tried not to feel frustrated with him. Frustration didn’t help anybody: the important thing to remember, always, was that it wasn’t about him. It was about whatever was going on in Bucky’s head. He was just a kid—that was what you had to remember. They were all just kids.

“You’re making very good progress, you know,” he said. “Doing this doesn’t help anybody, least of all you.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, and Mr. Coulson sighed again.

“Getting into one fight isn’t going to ruin everything,” he said, leaning forward, and Bucky went still. “It’s just going to make everybody worry about you. But doing it over and over again—that’s not a very good plan. It doesn’t tend to work out very well in the long-term.”

He could see that Bucky was clenching his teeth together so hard that the muscles in his battered cheeks were twitching. “It doesn’t feel good,” he said. “To keep doing this over and over again and then forcing everybody away from you. It feels awful.

“One day you wake up and you’re alone somewhere and you won’t remember how you got there or what you’re supposed to be doing but you’ll know, completely, that you’re alone. And you’ll have nobody to ask for help because you’ll have made sure they all won’t pick up your calls, or answer your messages, even if they still care about you. And I promise you that it’s harder to undo that than it is to get there in the first place.”

Bucky looked up at him slowly, eyes wide with something like terror.

“Don’t do it,” Mr. Coulson said, leaning back in his chair again. He was so tired he felt like his bones were going to give up and dissolve and leave his body nothing more than a mass of flesh and muscle and organs. “It’s not worth it.”

“I,” Bucky said, and then he didn’t say anything else.

The phone rang.

“Yes?” he said.

“They’re here,” Monica said.

“All right, send them in in just a minute,” he said. “Your parents are going to come in and I’m going to send you outside right away, okay? Even if they try to talk to you just keep going, I’m going to tell them I want to talk to them alone. You’ll have to come in after that, but. I’ll at least have calmed them down.”

“Okay,” Bucky said.

“Okay,” Mr. Coulson said, standing up and gesturing for him to do the same, and then the door opened.

“Jesus Christ, James,” his father said. “What the hell did you get yourself into this time?”

“Look at you,” his mother said, face twisting. “Oh, look at him.”

“This is just unbelievable,” his father was saying. “Unbelievable. Jesus! Look at you!”

“I’d like to talk to you alone, please, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes,” Mr. Coulson said, and looked at Bucky, who was frozen in place. “Alone, thank you, Bucky.” Bucky turned to look at him, as though through a fog, and then seemed to remember himself, and started to scramble for the door.

“Well I think he should hear whatever you have to say, don’t you, Sheila?” Mr. Barnes said. Bucky stopped, looking between him and Mr. Coulson.

“I’ve already spoken to him,” Mr. Coulson said, and nodded at him. “I really think it would be better if we spoke alone for a few minutes.”

Bucky looked at them for another moment before hurrying out the door and closing it behind him.

He sat in one of the chairs in the waiting area, across from Monica’s desk, kicking his feet and trying not to think about what his face and arm and—stomach and ribs—felt like. Across the waiting room, he saw, was that—weird kid, the one with the anger issues, who mostly didn’t say anything and then sometimes just started—screaming. Bruce Banner, that was his name. He was staring intently at the carpet, gripping his hands around the arms of his chair. Bucky didn’t have any classes with him. He thought he was mostly in—special classes. Sometimes he saw him in the cafeteria, though, eating lunch alone. He mostly tried not to think about him. Thinking about him for too long made him feel weird.

Bruce Banner looked up at him. For a moment Bucky thought he was going to say something, and sat, frozen, but then he just looked down again.

Bucky looked down, too, and tried not to think about anything at all.

The door slammed open a few moments later, fortunately, and Steve appeared. “Where is—” he started, and then saw him, and stopped dead in his tracks, face pale. Bucky tried to smile crookedly at him, but he was pretty sure he failed.

“Are you—are you okay?” Steve asked, throat working.

“I’m all right,” Bucky said, shifting a little in his seat, wincing. “I’m not concussed.”

“What—what happened?” Steve asked, coming forward and sitting down slowly in the seat next to him.

Bucky avoided his gaze. “Rumlow said something dumb and I—said something dumb back,” he said. “So he, uh. Did this.”

“What did he say?” Steve asked.

“Nothing,” Bucky said.

“Well, it can’t have been nothing if—this happened,” Steve said.

“It was nothing, Steve,” Bucky said. “I don’t want to talk about it.” He paused. “So, uh, my parents are in there and I’m—suspended. For a couple days. He didn’t actually tell me that, but, um, the nurse said something about it—she likes me—so, I’m pretty sure they’re gonna tell me when I have to go back in there. They suspended Rumlow too. First time for everything, I guess,” he said, going for a joke.

He looked over at Steve, who wasn’t smiling at all. “I just—I just don’t understand why you keep doing stuff like this, Bucky,” he said, sounding tired and earnest and—disappointed. He sounded disappointed. It made something curdle in Bucky’s stomach. “I just don’t get it. I don’t understand.”

Bucky didn’t say anything for a long time.

“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t,” he said finally, voice tight.

“What do you mean,” Steve said, voice thin. “That’s what—I don’t understand.”

“Nothing,” Bucky said. “It’s nothing.”

Steve made a low, frustrated sound.

“It’s not nothing,” he snapped, low, so they wouldn’t hear it through the door. “It’s clearly not nothing or else this wouldn’t be happening but you won’t tell me what’s going on so I don’t know what I’m supposed to—say, or—do, or—or—”

Bucky looked down at his hands—the one in the sling and the one curled into the leg of his jeans.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he said, voice so low he was barely making any sound at all, “because your mom actually—cares about you, so—so—”

Steve stared at him, gaping. The door to Mr. Coulson’s office swung open and they both started.

“Bucky,” Mr. Coulson said, sounding weary. “Could you come in, please. Just for a moment.” He glanced at Steve and smiled a little, before ushering Bucky in and closing the door, leaving Steve, at a loss, alone in the waiting room with Monica, who was sitting hunched behind her tall, wraparound desk with her head in her hands, trying not to be seen, or heard, and Bruce Banner, who had some time earlier pulled his hood all the way up over his head and put his face down on his knees.


*


In the wake of his suspension Mr. and Mrs. Barnes saw fit to ground Bucky for two entire weeks, which both Bucky and Steve felt was cruel and unusual punishment, although Bucky didn’t actually complain about it. Bucky, Steve noticed, had gotten—strange, in the wake of the whole thing—not angry or sullen, as he might have expected, just kind of—quiet, and dull. It was extremely worrying. He spent a lot of time worrying about it. He thought he would prefer Bucky being angry to this, which was not something he would ever have expected himself to think, but this was—he didn’t know what this was, but it was making him—well, the word was frantic, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it; all he knew was that there was something knocking around in his brain that was making him go slowly insane.

And he was—lonely, too, all those afternoons and weekends with nothing to do and nobody to talk to. He sent Bucky around a thousand text messages a day, but it wasn’t the same as having him on the other end of the couch making stupid faces and saying stupid things. It was just—the whole thing was just sad. His mother must have been able to tell, too, because she started making all of his favorite foods in a row, one night after the next.

“Thanks, Mom,” he muttered, and she just squeezed his shoulder.

It all got even worse when he realized, from looking at Bucky’s Facebook (even Bucky, as sullen and rebellious as he was, was on Facebook—all teenagers, as we know, are on Facebook), that his birthday fell during the second week of the grounding. Bucky hadn’t mentioned it, which Steve took to mean that he wasn’t getting a—day off, or whatever, from being grounded, and he found himself suddenly consumed with an incredible rage unlike just about anything he had ever experienced. It was, in fact, so intense that it mostly just served to freak him out.

“Bucky’s birthday is on Thursday,” he told his mother over dinner, the night of his discovery.

“Is it,” she said, and he hummed.

“What are you going to do about that?” she asked.

“I was thinking about—showing up at his house,” he said. “And seeing if his mom would make me leave.”

“Seems sensible,” his mother said.

“Okay,” Steve said. “Okay.”

And so it was that he found himself on the front stoop of the Barneses’ palatial abode, swallowing nervously and clutching a poorly wrapped birthday present one April evening. He squared his shoulders—difficult, since his posture was rather bad—and pushed his finger against the doorbell.

Mrs. Barnes looked vaguely confused when she opened the door, and then very surprised when she saw who it was.

“Steve?” she said, sounding confused.

“Hi, Mrs. Barnes,” he said. “I’m, um. I’m here to see Bucky.”

“Oh,” she said, and frowned. “I—well—”

“I have a birthday present for him,” he said. “I want to give it to him. If that’s all right.”

She blinked up at him. “All right, dear,” she said. “Do you know where his room is?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, who in fact only vaguely remembered, having been there just the once. He edged past her and hurried up the stairs regardless, heart pounding.

He really, really did not like Bucky’s mother.

It wasn’t very difficult, in the end, to figure out which door was Bucky’s, because there was a thudding bass coming out from under the door. Steve smiled, and pounded on the door.

What?” Bucky shouted.

“It’s me,” Steve shouted back, over the music.

“What?” Bucky shouted, again.

“It’s me,” Steve yelled. “I’m opening the door.”

He pushed it open and found Bucky curled up in his mess of a bed with his laptop. Bucky stared at him, eyes wide—or, well, in the case of his left eye, as wide as it could go—and stabbed his finger at the pause button on his keyboard.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, baffled.

“Um,” Steve said. “Happy birthday.”

Bucky goggled.

“I brought you a present,” Steve said helplessly, waving it vaguely in front of him.

“Uh,” Bucky said. “I. Okay.” He pulled himself upright and dragged the comforter over, depositing his computer haphazardly on the ground. Steve picked his way across the crap on the floor and settled down next to him.

“My mom let you in?” Bucky said, sounding amazed, and Steve nodded.

“I don’t think she knew what else to do,” he said, and handed him the present. Bucky stared down at it, hesitant.

“Open it,” Steve said.

“You didn’t—you didn’t have to do anything,” Bucky muttered.

“You didn’t even say anything,” Steve said. “I—I like birthdays. They’re—nice. I dunno.”

“Sap,” Bucky muttered, and tore off the end of the wrapping paper, pulling out two shiny paperback books. He slid them apart, looking at the titles: Franny & Zooey and Nine Stories.

He didn’t say anything, or indeed react at all, for long enough that Steve started to get nervous. “Um,” he said. “I just thought—since you liked the other—book, I thought—you’d—um. I, uh, I—I don’t—”

But Bucky’s fingers were curling against the covers of the books, and his shoulders were hunching in a way that Steve by now could easily recognize as him attempting to suppress some kind of intense emotion.

“Um,” he said. “So they’re—okay?”

Bucky carefully put one on top of the other and put them down on the bed next to him. He turned back to Steve and, without saying anything, clumsily put his bony adolescent arms around him and squeezed, resting his cheek on his shoulder so that his face was hidden.

Steve sat frozen for a moment and then slowly wrapped his own long, gawky arms around him and squeezed back.

“Thanks,” Bucky whispered.

“You’re welcome,” Steve replied, voice low, rested his chin on Bucky’s rat’s nest hair, something shuddering deep in his chest, and closed his eyes.


*


MAY

IN WHICH VARIOUS ROMANCES INCH MINUTELY CLOSER TO RESOLUTION

When Loki Odinson had, on a night when his brother Thor was getting hammered at a party at a teammate’s house, snuck down to the garage, pushed it open manually with a great deal of effort (he was very out of shape), and driven down the endless, pitch-black driveway at a crawl on the way to crash Thor’s Maserati—it having been left at home, sensibly, in anticipation of the intoxication that was to come for all except the two players on the team who had had the misfortune of drawing designated driver duty for the evening—in what he erroneously felt was a calculated and reasonably safe manner into a tree, he had not imagined that, five months later, his life would remain essentially the same. True, Thor still was not allowed to drive anywhere, but now his—annoying girlfriend just drove him everywhere in her frankly terrifying Jeep, which Loki was fairly certain was going to explode any day now, if she didn’t kill them both first, which, given what he had observed of her driving, was a distinct possibility. Either of those options would be perfectly fine since either an explosion or a crash would take both of them with it, but in the interim Loki found the car’s very presence offensive. It was just so… much.

The problem, really, was Jane Foster herself. He had been trying to make sure that his mother and father (Loki and Thor had always called both of their parents Mother and Father, another of their eccentricities that neither of them realized was unusual) remembered that he was really the valuable son, not—Thor, even though Thor was their real son, so no wonder they’d always favored him and acted like he was special and Loki was just a pain in the ass (at least as far as Frigga was concerned, this could not have been farther from the truth, but Loki, even more so than most teens—a considerable statement indeed— was skilled in the art of revisionist history). But then Odin had mysteriously vanished on business for months—something he did relatively often, and which none of them ever questioned—and Thor had gotten a girlfriend and Sif just spent all her time glaring at him like he was evil or something. So basically the entire thing was a catastrophe except for the car, which he didn’t even really care about except to make Thor feel bad, and Thor didn’t even seem to care about that, so it had all come out to a big, fat, whopping zero.

Thor did not, in fact, care about his car. He did care about his father not trusting him anymore, but the car itself could not have been further from his mind, and his father wasn’t coming back for some vague unspecified period of time, so he wasn’t really worrying too much about that, either. His mind could only do so much at once, and currently it was entirely occupied with Jane Foster.

Jane was even more amazing than he had heretofore imagined—a perhaps unsurprising revelation, since his prior communications with her had been limited to monosyllabic grunts over a lab table and lots of staring. It turned out that when you got her started on something, she did not stop talking, until she realized she had been talking for… a long time, and then stopped, and looked embarrassed, until Thor told her to keep talking, even when she was talking about something he didn’t understand at all, which was fairly often.

His physics grade had taken a sharp turn up since February, a fact which Dr. Selvig, perpetually oblivious, thought baffling. Thor found himself spending a lot of his afternoons in the Fosters’ slightly shambolic, exceedingly messy house, or alternatively its overgrown garden, which combined made up perhaps a twentieth of his family’s acreage. The house was very small, and all of the Fosters were very small, from Jane’s parents to her little brother James, and Thor did not really fit physically in the space they had carved out for themselves in the house, and he was exceedingly happy there. (Once again, although Bucky would have been horrified to hear himself compared to Thor Odinson, the similarities between their circumstances need hardly be explicated.)

So Jane explained the basic concepts of physics to Thor while reading journal articles on black holes and other more advanced concepts that he could not even begin to grasp. In the first week of May she took the AP Physics test, which she had been dutifully studying for all semester, although he had the impression that she could probably have aced the test without having prepared at all. “It’s so dumb,” she told him at one point, irritated. “None of the classes in this school are leveled out. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like somebody just thought that would be convenient or something, to just stick us all in there together. Well, it’s not. It’s inconvenient. I should be in an AP class and not bothering with all this for no reason.”

She seemed to realize what she had said and then looked over at him, guilty. “Erm,” she said. “Not that this class is—a joke—or—anything—”

“I’m not offended,” Thor said honestly. “You’re a lot smarter than I am. You should probably be taking college physics classes already.”

Jane turned pink and muttered something incoherently, tugging on the ends of her hair with one hand, and then they played footsie under the table for the rest of the afternoon while doing the rest of their homework.

“It is soooo sickening,” Darcy often reported to Clint, on the relatively rare occasions when they actually spoke to each other for extended periods of time.

“Good for ol’ Foster,” Clint said. “Gettin’ some.”

“Hell yeah,” Darcy replied, and they went back to making out (but not having sex).

Sif, meanwhile, felt like she was going slowly out of her mind. “I just don’t understand,” she found herself saying, repeatedly, voice rising, “how nobody else sees this. Am I the only person connected to reality around this issue? Is nobody else even aware Loki exists? Do they just look straight through his stupid face?”

“I know all about Loki,” said her younger sister, Maia, sounding pained. “I know literally everything about Loki because you never stop talking about him.”

“That’s because he is evil,” Sif told her. “He’s out to murder Thor. Or something. It’s going to be bad.”

“You’re being melodramatic,” Maia told her, which, coming from a thirteen-year-old, was a damning indictment indeed.

“I am not,” Sif snapped. “I am being totally reasonable. Everything going on in my head right now is completely reasonable and normal and fine.”

Maia looked up at her from behind the thick lenses of her glasses and looked back down at her homework without saying anything.

Sif remembered being thirteen. Thirteen had been a bad time. She had had a crush on Loki of all people at thirteen. Hah! What, as her father would say, a laugh riot! She sure had dodged a bullet there. She’d rapidly moved on to feeling profoundly embarrassed in his presence (awkward, given Thor), and then to hating him intensely, and then onto a blissful evolved state of being Above It All. Loki was fine. She was fine. It was all fine.

Except that had been naïve of her, clearly, because Loki was not fine. Loki was evil and probably trying to kill Thor and she was going to get to the bottom of it god damn it. Because she was fine. She was completely fine, and her anger was proportionate and reasonable.

“Your eye is twitching,” Maia told her. “Like, there’s a vein. It’s really weird-looking.”

“You’re really weird-looking,” Sif retorted automatically, and Maia looked disgusted.

Maia was exhausting. Thirteen-year-olds were exhausting. Sif was never going to have children. Babies were all right, she thought. It was once they hit puberty that everything went to hell.

“I already told you,” Thor said, sounding sort of confused, when she brought up the subject again. “Loki’s can’t have done this.”

“I’m curious about your use of the verb ‘can’t,’” she said through gritted teeth. “Since he was the one with the access and the motive.”

“He can’t because he wouldn’t,” Thor said slowly, as though explaining something simple to a very slow child. “What brother would do that to his brother?”

“Loads,” Sif said immediately, imagining what it would have been like to grow up the same age as Maia. Thor looked consternated, and then shrewd.

“That’s not why you’re mad,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking pleased with himself.

“What?” she asked, confused.

“Nothing,” he said cheerfully, and wouldn’t say anything else about it—whatever “it” was.

“Sif and my brother are secretly in love with each other,” he told Jane the next day, cheerfully. She blinked.

“That’s an unexpected development,” she said.

“Neither of them will say anything to each other about it,” he said, equally cheerfully. “They just keep acting stupid.”

“Boys usually are stupid about everything,” Jane said. “And I think you’ve probably all infected Sif.”

“Probably,” he said happily, and tugged on one of her pigtails. She slapped his hand away.

“What’s the deal with your brother, anyway?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “He’s mad at me about something but I don’t know what.” He paused. “But he’s more mad at our parents.

“Sif thinks he smashed my car but I know he didn’t,” he continued a moment later. “He would never do something like that. Still. He’s been… tiring. Recently.”

“That sounds pretty shitty,” Jane said, and he blinked, surprised.

“Oh,” he said, realizing that it did. “I guess so.”

“Maybe you guys should just fight about something,” Jane suggested. “That’s what my mom always says about her and Kevin. ‘I just gotta fight with him about something and then it all gets better.’ They’re still married so it seems like it’s worked out all right.”

Thor hummed. “Maybe,” he said, and then somehow wound up talking about Odin for an entire hour before he realized what had happened.

“Wow,” Jane said. “That is some fucked up shit.”

“Is it?” he asked, frowning.

“It definitely is,” she said, looking alarmed.

Talking to people from the outside, Thor thought, was so helpful sometimes. Especially if they were Jane. Who was brilliant.

He reached forward to tug one of her pigtails again and when she was making a noise in protest kissed her, and then felt pleased with himself when her irritated sound suddenly turned into a squeak.


*


Although the MCUHS junior prom was not until June, the drama about who was going with whom began in earnest an entire month before—“Because,” Maria Hill said to Phil Coulson, wearily, “if there’s an opportunity to elongate the theatrics, why not take it?” And so Bucky found himself surrounded by a bunch of people who suddenly had gone insane, which was saying something, since they had all been nuts in the first place.

He decided that he already hated prom, and he hadn’t even been.

He particularly hated the way Steve stared at Peggy across the cafeteria all the time, and lingered awkwardly at certain spots in the hallway where he knew she’d be passing, because he had her schedule memorized (this did not, in itself, strike Bucky as particularly odd; it went without saying that all students had the schedules of their objects of affection memorized, for stalking purposes). So then Bucky would have to linger awkwardly with him, for absolutely no reason, since Steve never actually said anything to her, except, very occasionally, one- or two-word guttural utterances that mostly resembled the sounds that lower primates make while courting their mates.

Peggy was very nice to him on these rare instances, in a way that seemed to suggest that she totally forgot about him the second he was out of her sight. Bucky’s opinion of her was rising, though of course he still hated her.

“I think I’m going to ask her,” Steve said one evening, biting anxiously at his thumbnail, which wasn’t even something that he did. Bucky glared at his finger as though it had offended him. “I mean—it can’t hurt, right? And then I’d get to talk to her all night—and hopefully be able to actually, like, talk.”

“Yep,” Bucky said. “Well, I hope you have fun.”

Steve blinked. “What?”

Bucky shrugged. “I hope you have fun,” he said, slightly strained. “At the prom.”

“Won’t you be there?” Steve asked, forehead creasing. Bucky managed to stop himself from closing his eyes in despair, but it was a near thing.

“Not sure I see the point,” he ground out, and Steve just blinked, speechless.

The one consolation in all of this was that nobody else seemed to be having any luck, either—except, of course, Clint and Darcy, and Thor and Jane. Nobody had agreed to go with Rhodey yet, perhaps because he had propositioned six different girls already, and both Sif and Loki had spent most of their time recently stalking around the school glaring at people. (“They should go together,” Steve had joked to Bucky, not having a single clue how sadly apt his suggestion was.) Pepper, meanwhile, had taken to monologuing loudly and at great length about how the prom was a sexist institution and also unreasonably expensive; complaints which, as June told her, were pretty transparently derived from the fact that she could not get a date.

“I—June!” Pepper spluttered. “That is—not true! Who would I even want to date at this school, anyway! All the boys are—terrible!”

“Just go ask out Tony already,” June said wearily. “Do you think Natasha’s going to go?”

Tony,” Pepper shrieked. “Of all people!”

June rolled her eyes.

“I can’t believe you would even suggest that,” Pepper hissed. “I can’t believe it. And no, I don’t think she is. I think it’s—below her.”

June sighed.

“She doesn’t know that I exist,” she said sadly.

“You’re right, she doesn’t,” Pepper said unsympathetically, which, while harsh, was absolutely correct. “Please, can we get back to the fact that you actually suggested that I go to the prom with Tony Stark.”

“I don’t know why I’m friends with you,” June said, though the author assumes it is fairly clear that the answer was some combination of desperation and Stockholm’s syndrome.

Tony was facing a similar problem, and receiving similar advice.

“I can’t believe you would even suggest that,” he said to Rhodey, appalled. “Pepper. Just. Ugh. Gross.”

“When you two eventually bang I am going to laugh so hard I’m going to crack a rib,” Rhodey said. “Or six.”

“I did not need that mental image,” Tony said, looking queasy. “I’m going to be ill. I’m going to vomit all over you and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.”

“Fly in your internet girlfriend or whatever, then,” Rhodey said, and Tony froze. “Oh, come on, man, I’m not an idiot.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony said very slowly, and Rhodey rolled his eyes.

“You sent me up here to plug in that crazy video game thing you invented to the computer like, three months ago,” Rhodey said. “There were like eighteen messages from some chick on your screen. I wasn’t snooping around but it was kind of hard to miss.”

“I speak to many different people on the internet,” Tony said, sounding strangled. “I don’t prefer any of them to the others.”

Rhodey gave him a look. “She said she wished you lived in the same place so the losers at her school could see what a cool boyfriend she had. Which, I’d like to point out, is seriously questionable.”

Tony choked.

“It is possible,” he said. “That she thinks. I am. An athlete?”

Rhodey stared.

“Not that I am admitting she exists,” Tony said, realizing his mistake.

“Uh huh,” Rhodey said.

“Due to my… screen name,” Tony continued. “Also I maybe mentioned marathons without specifying that I was referring to coding.”

“You did what now?” Rhodey said.

“It wasn’t on purpose,” Tony said, voice rising in desperation. “I wasn’t trying to lie. I do call them marathons. She just—misinterpreted my statements! And then I didn’t ever correct her! For eleven months!”

Rhodey started to laugh, and kept laughing until he was crying.

“This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said, wheezing, “and I’m including that handjob at nerd camp last summer, which is so fucking sad, man, but true. This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

“Somebody gave you a handjob at nerd camp last summer?” Tony asked. “And you didn’t tell me?”

Rhodey wiped at his eyes. “It never came up.”

“You are the worst friend,” Tony said, and sunk deeper into his chair, sullen.

And so it was that, the following week, James Rhodes found himself standing in line in the cafeteria, listening to Pepper Potts get increasingly annoyed in conversation with a gaggle of high-achieving, irritating girls who were also on the student council, who were all talking about their various plans and strategies for prom.

“Oh, you don’t have a date yet, Pepper?” one of them asked, and Rhodey, several people ahead of them in line, could practically hear her teeth grinding together.

“No,” she said, and then, in a different, shriller tone of voice, added, “I have a boyfriend, actually. On the internet. He’s an athlete. He runs marathons.”

Rhodey dropped his tray.

“You all right there?” the lunch lady asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “I am very all right.”

He had been so wrong, he realized. This was the best thing that had ever happened to him. This wasn’t on the same fucking scale.

Steve and Bucky were discussing the particulars of the forthcoming finale of Coco Cabana when they heard the shriek all the way across the cafeteria.

“Is somebody dying?” Bucky asked.

“Is that Tony?” Steve said at the same time.

No,” Tony shouted. “No. I refuse to believe it.”

“What on earth,” Steve said.

Tony came marching over to the table where Pepper was eating lunch with the student council girls, and stood over her, fuming. He was not a very intimidating presence, so it was an odd sight.

Yes,” Pepper said, smiling around at them as if to say, How about this weirdo?

“Rhodey tells me,” he growled, panting, fists clenched at his sides, “that you have an internet boyfriend. Who runs marathons.”

The girls around her tittered. Pepper turned red.

“Are you jealous?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder up at him.

“Marathons,” he said. “Sprints. Tests of endurance.”

Pepper’s face went pale.

“Does your internet boyfriend drink a lot of Gatorade during his marathons,” Tony asked, sounding strangled. The girls at Pepper’s table looked confused. Rhodey was watching from behind, barely able to contain his glee, and June, who had just come in from a meeting with a teacher, looked mystified.

“No,” Pepper said, turning around slowly, in tones of deep horror.

“Hello, Virginia,” Tony said. “Oh, what does that shorten to? Let me think—”

“What marathons were you running?” Pepper hissed.

“Marathons of coding!” Tony yelped. “Coding! Web design!”

“And it never occurred to you to correct me!” Pepper shrieked.

“What on earth is going on,” Steve asked.

“I don’t know,” Bucky said. “I hope somebody’s filming it.”

“You were very insistent!” Tony shouted. “You didn’t want to be dissuaded!”

“What the fuck were you coding anyway?” Pepper yelled back. June covered her mouth. Pepper did not swear, ever, for any reason.

“I was coding the fucking website!” Tony shouted, and then snapped his mouth shut, teeth clicking, face pale.

“You were—what?” Pepper asked, and then stood up very slowly. “You were what?”

“I was coding a website,” Tony said very slowly. “A—personal website. As a hobby.”

You,” Pepper hissed. “It’s you.”

“No, seriously,” Steve asked, “what are they talking about.”

“I have,” Bucky said, “no idea.”

“This was all,” Pepper said, in between deep inhalations, growing redder by the second, “a—a scheme. To—distract me. You probably looked up my IP address. You pretended to be an—an athlete, instead of a twerpy little—nerd—and all so you could—beat me—”

It occurred to Tony for the first time that he could, in fact, have looked up the IP address associated with “ginevra__potter,” and wasn’t sure whether it would be worse to insist that this hadn’t even crossed his mind, or to admit that it… hadn’t even crossed his mind.

“I did not!” he told her. “I did no such thing! I had no idea that you were—you!”

“I don’t believe you,” she hissed directly in his face as he leaned back, horrified. “You’re a—a deceitful liar. I’m never using your stupid website again. I’m never talking to you again. Except to tell you how horrible you are. Which, by the way: you’re horrible.”

“Yeah, well, you’re worse,” Tony snapped back. “Because—because! You are!”

“Glad we have that settled!” she shouted, grabbed her bag, and stomped out of the cafeteria. “June!” she yelled over her shoulder, and June made a helpless motion and scurried off after her.

Rhodey whistled, and started a slow clap. “Bravo, man,” he said. “Bravo.”

“Somebody just shoot me,” Tony said, covering his face with his hands.

(That evening, when he told his father what had happened, he laughed hysterically at him for a solid five minutes, and any traces of goodwill Tony had been feeling toward him vanished like dust into the wind.

Howard wiped at his eyes, still wheezing. “I mean, you have to admit,” he said. “It’s pretty—oh, Christ, I can’t breathe—it’s pretty fucking funny.”

“It’s the least funny thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Tony snapped, and stomped upstairs to do anything at all on his computer except talk to Gi—to Pepper on the internet.)


*


IN WHICH STEVE AND BUCKY HAVE A DISAGREEMENT, AND WORDS ARE EXCHANGED

What exactly was going through Steve Rogers’ head in the run-up to his finally managing to ask Peggy Carter to the prom, it would be impossible to say. Peggy had only moved to Middletown three years earlier, at the beginning of high school, and so they did not have the same history Steve had with most of the other students at MCUHS, who still remembered him as a tiny, sickly, intermittently bullied child. (Though of course she had lived through two years of Steve being slightly shorter than she was and looking rather stick-like, as opposed to simply gawky, as he did currently.) Perhaps this was part of her appeal: for though Peggy herself was replete with many winning qualities, the fact remained that Steve really did not know her very well.

The oldest of four children, Peggy spent most of her time doing her homework, working on the school newspaper, ignoring her younger brothers whenever possible, or sitting with her feet kicked up at the tiny run-down independent movie theater in the next town over where she worked on weekends, occasionally selling tickets but mostly doing homework, reading books, and eating popcorn. She was the type of teenage girl who had not yet quite figured out how to dress herself and who wore her hair cut straight all the way across the bottom—but it was very nice hair, and she had a very nice face, and as teenagers went she was not a very awkward girl. She was just very practically minded.

She was also not the type of girl who ever assumed anybody had a crush on her, but after around the fifteenth time Steve Rogers tried stutteringly to talk to her and failed, she could no longer deny the evidence.

“It’s kind of cute,” her best friend Caitlin said, lying back on her bed and making her way methodically through a thing of Rollos. “He’s like a puppy dog. So misguided.”

“I just feel kind of bad,” Peggy said. “I mean it’s kind of annoying but not that annoying because it’s not like he really does anything. But he stares a lot.”

“Though not nearly as much as Bucky stares at him,” Caitlin said gleefully. “Which he doesn’t seem to notice at all.”

Boys,” said Peggy, disgusted.

“We should take bets,” Caitlin said. “How Long Will It Take for Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes to Man Up and Make Out.”

“That would be cruel,” Peggy said. “Gratuitously cruel.”

“Somebody should whack one of them upside the head, though,” said Caitlin, who had spent a perhaps excessive amount of time observing the little drama that was Steve and Bucky’s unintentional courtship over the course of the year. “They’re never gonna fucking figure it out on their own.”

“How would you even do that, though,” Peggy said. “Like, ‘Oh, excuse me, Steve, it’s come to my attention that your best friend is in love with you’?”

Caitlin leaned back, cackling, kicking her feet with delight.

We can, of course, speculate for our own purposes about the state of Steve Rogers’ blithely oblivious mind—though, truth be told, what need be said about the matter? He had not yet charted a course through that fog of oblivion which had settled so thickly down upon his being such a very long time before, and until he did there is little that can rationally explain his actions except a desire to avoid confrontation with the glaring light of reality.

And so it came to pass that he found Peggy by her locker at the beginning of lunch several days after Tony and Pepper’s Incident, and cleared his throat nervously, cheeks already pink.

“Oh,” she said, looking over at him. “Hi, Steve.”

“Hi,” he said. “Um. Hi, Peggy.”

She smiled a little and went back to taking books out of her bag and putting them into her locker.

“I was, um, I was wondering if I could, uh, ask you something,” he said, voice slightly reedier than usual.

“Okay,” she said, sort of impressed in spite of herself, and also, obviously, mortified.

“Um,” he said, cheeks a much brighter shade of red by this point. “I was wondering if—if you might like to—go—to the prom? With? Me? I—I know we don’t know each other that well, but, I—I like you a lot, and I always think you say—smart things in class—smart and—interesting things, I mean—so—um. I think it would be—fun.” He curled his fingers into the bottom of his polo to hide how badly they were shaking. “I mean, I’d really like it, anyway.”

“Oh,” she said. “Um. Thanks. That’s really nice, Steve, but I—I already have a date.”

“Oh,” he said, deflating.

“Yeah, I’m going with Sam—Sam Wilson,” she said, and he blinked, face screwing up in confusion.

“With—what?”

“Sam Wilson,” she said slowly.

“I—really?” Steve said, in tones of disbelief.

“Yes,” she said, glaring at him. “He speaks to me in full sentences, which I find is helpful.”

Steve, who had only ever heard Sam speak in full paragraphs about different types of birds, thought this may have been true, but more to the letter, not the spirit, of the law.

“Well,” he said. “I hope you have fun.”

Peggy sighed, and rubbed at her forehead. Boys were so stupid. If only Caitlin were here to intervene on her behalf, she thought, but she was not, so Peggy was going to have to do this herself. It was for their own good, she thought. Also the public good, probably. Just—because.

“Steve,” she said. “I—look, I’m not trying to be rude or whatever, you seem—nice, this is very—flattering? I guess. But you spend literally all of your time talking to Bucky.”

“I—that’s not… totally true,” Steve said.

“You follow each other around like puppy dogs,” she said. “I’m quoting Caitlin. I probably wouldn’t have put it exactly like that, but. I mean. It’s pretty… correct.”

“I,” Steve said. “But. You.”

“Oh my god,” Peggy said, covering her face with her hands. “Bucky is like—oh my god—do I have to actually say it to you out loud. Are you going to make me do this.”

“What?” Steve said.

“I hate this,” she muttered, covering her face again before lowering her hands and shaking them out. “Bucky is like, into you. If he were a ten-year-old girl he’d tell all his other little ten-year-old girl friends that he like-likes you except that he wouldn’t have any other friends because you’re his only friend.”

“That’s… not,” Steve stuttered, eyes wide. “That’s—no. No.”

“And I’m sorry but you asking me out is just—dumb,” she continued, even though she really—wanted—to stop—talking. “You don’t even—know me! You’ve said like seven words to me in your whole life! Meanwhile you don’t seem to even notice that Bucky smells awful and Caitlin told me you told him that his painting was good the other day in art class in, like, a sincere way, which is—obviously not true—and you do that thing where you slip him candy all the time—into his disgusting backpack which nobody else would touch with a ten foot pole—like, I’m sorry but I just really don’t think I’m the person you want to be asking to the prom.”

Steve was staring at her with his mouth hanging open.

“Um,” she said. “I’m sorry. That was really inappropriate. I just—you’re actually the fourth person who’s asked me, if you count Sam and Rhodey, who—probably doesn’t really count—and that—creepy kid from math class who smells even worse than Bucky and looks like he wants to eat people all the time. Tim. So I’m just—kind of—frayed. Right now.”

“That’s fine,” Steve said hoarsely. “I’m going to… go. Now.”

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s never talk about this again.”

“Sure,” he croaked, and fled. She stuck her head all the way into her locker and let out a groan loud enough that somebody tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Miss Carter? Are you all right?”

She jerked back and banged her head on the upper shelf.

“Fuck,” she said. “Um. Hi, Dr. Selvig. I’m okay. Just—prom stress. Sorry about the—swearing.”

“As long as a wormhole hasn’t opened in your locker,” he said, chuckling at his own joke, and walked away. Peggy cringed, and rubbed at the top of her head, where a lump was forming.

“Great,” she muttered. “Just great.”


*


Anyone who has had the experience of ignoring something for a very long period of time—ignoring something so successfully that you are not, in fact, aware that you are ignoring it at all—will have a fairly decent idea of what Steve Rogers was experiencing as he drifted through the halls of MCUHS with Peggy Carter’s words ringing in his ears. His heart was pounding. His hands were shaking. His limbs felt like jelly. There was a strange white noise in his head, behind her voice being played back on a loop, and it was all—very—terrible—

“Hey,” Bucky said, from out of nowhere, and Steve jumped around a foot in the air. Bucky frowned.

“You all right?” he asked. “Steve?”

“Uh,” Steve said. “Fine. I’m fine.”

He was fine. He was totally fine. Peggy was wrong, and he was fine. What did Peggy know? Peggy didn’t know Bucky at all. She was just—making assumptions

“You don’t really… look… fine,” Bucky was saying, leaning in to look at him, still frowning. Steve lurched backward.

“I’m fine!” he said, slightly too loudly and at slightly too high a pitch. “Everything is—fine!”

“Right,” Bucky said skeptically. “Well, uh, do you want to… eat?”

“Yes,” Steve said, relieved. Normal. This was normal. Lunch was—normal.

They sat at a table in the corner, where they often sat, and Steve pulled out his (overly heavy, as usual) lunch bag to put on the table. When he pulled out the huge sandwich, he stared at it.

“Something wrong with it?” Bucky asked, peering over his shoulder.

“No,” Steve said. “No, it’s—totally normal.”

“All right then,” Bucky said dubiously, reached over, and took his half.

“My mom sent clementines today if you want any,” he said around his mouthful of food, digging them out of his own, much smaller bag of food, and tossing one at Steve, who only barely caught it. “Organic. Obviously.”

“Uh huh,” Steve said.

“Otherwise it’s—something with lentils, today,” Bucky said, peering into the bag with an expression of utter disgust. Something twisted in Steve’s gut. “Even the word sounds gross. Lentil.”

“Uh huh,” Steve said again, hoarse.

Bucky, he realized, really did smell.

Also there was a thing of Twizzlers in his backpack that he hadn’t managed to slip into Bucky’s yet. There were actually two, since he always kept a backup.

He put his hands under the table.

“You not hungry?” Bucky asked, mouth full again.

“Nope,” Steve said.

“You really don’t look so good,” Bucky said again. “Like, really bad.”

“I’m fine,” Steve snapped, and Bucky leaned back in his seat.

“Well, okay, jeez,” he muttered, and neither of them said anything else for the rest of the period.

When they got up to walk to physics Steve noticed that Bucky’s shoulder knocked against his the entire time, and also that Bucky kept glancing up at him in a way he probably thought was surreptitious. He curled his hands around the straps of his backpack and looked straight ahead, down what seemed to be an endless corridor, and told himself to just keep walking.


*


“Man, I don’t want to do this fucking physics homework,” Bucky said that afternoon, flipping through his notebook in the car as they pulled out of the high school parking lot. “Waves and optics, whatever. Is the blue I see the same as the blue you see? How do we know if we’re seeing the same things at all? Do we even exist? Is the Matrix real?”

“I think that’s freshman year philosophy, Bucky,” Steve said, distracted.

“Yeah, well, whatever,” Bucky muttered, scowling down at his homework. “Still. Pain in the ass. At least your mom made those cookies this weekend.”

“I think I’m just going to take you home, actually,” Steve said, drumming his fingers on the wheel. Bucky’s head snapped up.

“Why?” he asked.

“What do you mean, why?” Steve replied defensively. “There doesn’t have to be a reason.”

“Um, yes there does,” Bucky said, frowning. “I go over to your house every single day after school.”

“Maybe I have—something to do,” Steve said, staring intently at the road.

“What do you have to do?” Bucky asked, baffled.

“Stuff,” Steve said evasively. “Things.”

“Do you have to go to the dentist?” asked Bucky, who could come up with no other feasible explanation for this behavior.

“What?” Steve said. “No.”

“Is your mom all right?” Bucky asked, sitting up straighter. “Something didn’t happen, did it?”

“No, she’s—she’s fine, that’s not—” Steve said, and cut himself off.

“That’s not what,” Bucky said. “That’s not what, Steve.”

Steve opened and closed his fists around the steering wheel, gaze flicking to the rearview mirror and back to the road but resolutely not over to Bucky. “I mean, I just don’t think we have to spend—every afternoon together,” he said.

Bucky stared at him.

“What?” he said.

“I’m just saying,” Steve said. “I don’t think we need to do everything together all the time.”

“Why are you saying that,” Bucky said, pushing himself back in the seat so his body was pressed against the window. “Steve? What’s going on.”

“Nothing’s going on,” Steve said irritably. “Stop acting so—weird.”

I am not the one who is acting weird,” Bucky said, too loudly. “Steve, I am not the one who is acting weird.”

“Well, maybe I just want some—time to myself,” Steve snapped. “Okay? God.”

“Since when?” Bucky asked.

“I don’t know, a while,” Steve replied, which was completely and utterly false.

“How long is a while?” Bucky said, voice sliding higher and higher.

“I don’t—I don’t know, why are you asking so many questions,” Steve said, starting to look hunted. “I don’t think I’m being that unreasonable, we spend literally every waking moment of our lives together, I think that’s kind of a lot, don’t you—”

“No!” cried Bucky. “I don’t!”

“Well I think that’s weird!” Steve shouted. “It’s—it’s weird!”

A terrible and deeply uncomfortable silence fell over the car.

“You think it’s—weird,” Bucky said slowly, an interminable period of time later. Steve winced.

“I—yes,” he said. “It’s a little—strange—”

“You weren’t exactly complaining,” Bucky said.

“Well, I mean—I didn’t want to—make you—feel bad—” Steve said in a moment of pure selfish unkindness, just as he pulled up to the Barneses’ house. For even Steve, who at his heart was as kind and good a person as anyone is capable of being, was also capable of being small, and petty, and cruel, and as anybody who has been in love knows, it is those we love against whom we commit our most grievous acts of emotional violence, for it is those we love whom we know best: it is those people whose hearts we can pull out of their chests as though no flesh and muscle and bone stand in our way.

Bucky let out a low wounded sound not unlike a growl, and wrenched open the passenger door before the car had entirely stopped moving. (It is a testament to the complexity of the human mind that Steve’s gut reaction when he saw this was a split second of panicked worry about car safety and Bucky’s well-being, despite the fact that the car was now going perhaps two miles an hour, and rapidly coming to a halt.) He grabbed his backpack and slammed the door shut behind him before stomping around the front to Steve’s door and knocking on the window, looking livid. (He would have opened the door, but the car locked automatically while it was being driven. Theatrics, it seems, are often so sacrificed at the altar of modernity.) Steve slowly lowered it.

“You—didn’t want to make—me—feel bad,” Bucky hissed, sticking his face close to Steve’s and baring his teeth. (Steve, needless to say, recoiled, but there was only so far that he could go.) “You. I only moved here this year, Rogers, and I’m a fucking delinquent piece of shit, of course nobody wants to talk to me. You’ve lived here your whole life and you don’t have any fucking friends. You don’t want to make me feel bad? You’re—you’re pathetic, is what you are. You’re a sad fucking case. You never fucking stand up for yourself about anything, you just let yourself get pushed around, so nobody notices you and nobody fucking gives a shit. You’re just some little—mama’s boy with no fucking spine and no fucking life, and if you think that you are better than me you are fucked in the head. All right? Get the fuck off of my property. Did you hear me?” he added a moment later, when he’d leaned back and Steve was still staring at him, mouth open. “Fuck. Off.”

Steve fumbled with the gearshift and drove away. Bucky watched him go, walked up to his front door, wrenched it open, stomped up the stairs, and slammed the door to his room closed with so much force that it actually shook.

He stood very still in his pigsty of a room for one moment before slowly taking off his backpack, letting it fall to the ground, and curling down into a crouch on the floor, pressing his face into his knees, rocking back and forth, and making a long, broken sound like a wounded animal, but still not shedding a single tear.


*


Steve got home shortly after, looking shell-shocked.

“What’s wrong?” his mother asked immediately, upon seeing him.

“I,” he said, and paused. He was looking around as if he didn’t quite know where he was. “I.”

“Steve,” she said, standing up from her seat at the kitchen table. “I have to go in for an evening shift soon but I can get somebody to cover me if it’s urgent. I mean, I’m already covering for someone but—Steve. What’s going on.”

“No, you should go to work,” he said distantly. “I’m—it’s okay. I, uh. I don’t—I.”

“Steve,” she said. “Tell me what happened. Where’s Bucky.”

“We had a… fight,” he said slowly. “I—we had a—a fight—”

“Steve,” his mother said. “Are you all right?”

“I,” he said. “I don’t—know—I—Mom—we—we—” And then he hiccoughed, and his face slowly went red, and crumpled, and big, fat tears started running down his face as he kept choking on his breath, so she got up and walked across the room to wrap her arms around him and stroke his hair, as though he were still a little boy who had been pushed down on the playground, and did not understand why—even though he was not little anymore, and had been the one to push first this time, and did, somewhere buried deep inside of himself, understand what had happened, and what it was that he had done.


*


IN WHICH EVERYONE FINDS OUT

It did not take long for word to spread around the school the following day that Something Had Happened with Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Steve had shown up alone, looking—well, looking terrible, as though he hadn’t slept at all the previous night (he had, in fact, slept for two whole hours, from four in the morning to when his alarm went off at six), with his hair sticking up even more outrageously than usual. And Bucky had stalked into school off of—of all things—the school bus, whose schedule he had had to look up online the night before, the riding of which had been one of the chief indignities of his life to date. A bunch of freshmen had turned and stared at him, eyes wide, until he glared at them hard enough with his terrifyingly bloodshot eyeballs that they huddled back behind their seats, whispering audibly and occasionally peeking over the backs in fascinated terror.

When an unsuspecting underclassman bumped into him in the hallway on his way to first period, he snarled, “Watch where you’re walking!” loudly enough that everybody in the hallway stopped talking for a moment, and then stomped off down to his American Government class, which, blessedly, was Steve Rogers-free.

The problem, of course, with structuring your entire life around another person was that when you suddenly wanted to be anywhere other than where that other person was that things got very complicated. It was, of course, fortunate that Steve and Bucky knew each other’s schedules as well as they knew their own, and therefore knew exactly where not to be at any given time, but that did not stop Steve from automatically walking toward the place where they normally met after first period on Tuesdays, until he remembered himself, and frantically turned around and hurried in the other direction.

None of this was any good, of course, when it came to the actual classes they had together. Steve was already sitting at his desk in Ms. Hill’s classroom, staring determinedly straight ahead of him, jaw set, when Bucky appeared in the doorway and stopped dead in his tracks. Steve glanced over for a split second before staring back at the whiteboard.

“Hey, buddy, you gonna just stand there all morning?” Clint asked, chuckling to himself, and Bucky scowled and stalked around the back of the room to get to his desk, slamming down both himself and his backpack with equal force.

“So,” Ms. Hill said a few moments later, watching as Bucky glared murderously at the back of Steve’s head instead of gazing adoringly upon it as usual, while Steve stared at her with a desperate glazed expression that would have looked more appropriate on somebody being led to a guillotine, “uh, A Separate Peace…”

“I just feel bad,” Peggy said that afternoon. “I feel bad, I feel like I did this, they looked like they were going to murder each other.”

“I know,” Caitlin said gleefully. “I’ve never seen anything like it in real life.”

“You watch too much television,” Peggy said gloomily.

“I do,” Caitlin said. “But this shit is so. Much. Better. It’s real pain and suffering, instead of manufactured pain and suffering. What more could you ask for.”

“I hope when you experience heartbreak and misery somebody off the scenes of your life laughs at you and mocks you horribly,” Peggy said. “As recompense for this.”

“I hope so, too,” Caitlin said. “As long as I don’t have to hear about it. I hope my misery brings somebody else pleasure.”

“Go on TV, then,” Peggy muttered.

The sensible reader of course knows that it would be difficult to pin blame on either of the aggrieved parties, for though it was Steve who had drawn the first blood, and Bucky who had lashed out harder, it all came down, really, to a muddle of hurt feelings and bitterness and rage and barely contained nervous breakdowns and spirals of self-loathing. But though neither Steve nor Bucky made any effort to speak to each other over the course of that interminable week—in fact, the opposite, awkwardly walking as far from each other as they could in the hallways, and not looking at each other in class, and communicating in physics using only a series of grunts that would have been indecipherable to anyone else but which, paradoxically, seemed to make perfect sense to them—it did start to seem, to everybody watching this particular drama unfold from the sidelines, like Steve was somehow… less at fault, of the two of them; for it was not in Steve’s nature to be performative in his distress, though he might feel it acutely, while Bucky, though he had been raised to sublimate his pains, was by his nature the sort to lash out when threatened, as we have so recently observed.

And so their conduct in the wake of their falling out reflected this essential difference: Steve walked through the halls of MCUHS with a slightly pinched expression, pallor off, occasionally winding up in the wrong room or the wrong hallway, generally seeming very lost and forlorn, while Bucky stalked around looking like nothing so much as an electrocuted cat, hair and eyeliner even more disastrous than usual, practically baring his teeth at anybody who looked at him wrong and terrorizing the freshmen whom he had previously ignored. Nobody had any idea what, exactly, had transpired, but the longer Bucky acted like a lunatic, the less inclined they were to give him the benefit of the doubt—particularly since he was, as he himself had said with a kind of sad prescience, the weirdo delinquent new kid, even after a year of having lived in Middletown (or Centerville, nobody could ever tell), and Steve, while hardly popular, had been around forever, and had never hurt a fly.

All of this came to a head that Friday, which was, of course, only four days after the incident, but which, in adolescent time, felt like a considerably longer period. The people who had thought that whatever it was that was going on would blow over were by this point starting to doubt themselves, and Maria Hill and Phil Coulson had stayed late at the school the day before worrying over the situation—pointlessly, because they had no idea what had happened, and no way of finding out short of asking, which was sure to backfire spectacularly, and as such could do nothing but wait.

“We’re too involved,” Maria said, chewing at her thumbnail. “We’re overly invested.”

“I know,” Phil said, leaning back in his chair. “But look, I spent an hour listening to Loki Odinson talk about his problems this afternoon. By comparison this is a relief.”

“God,” she said. “I can’t even imagine. Well, I can, but—I choose not to.”

“You have,” he said, a haunted look in his eyes, “no idea.”

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that she waited for the two of them to arrive for class on Friday. Predictably, Bucky practically clung to the walls as he walked to his desk, so as to stay as far away from Steve as possible, and then stared stubbornly out the window while everybody else filed in, while Steve stared miserably down at his notebook, glancing over his shoulder just once before hastily turning back around.

She was exhausted just looking at them.

“All right,” she said when everybody had settled down. “We’re going to talk about subjective first person point of view today—”

A low groan broke out.

“What can I say,” she said. “I like unreliable narrators. What’s the fun if somebody’s just telling you what’s going on all the time? You gotta do some guesswork this way.”

“But do we have to talk about it,” Clint muttered.

“Yes, Mr. Barton,” she said blithely. “We do indeed.”

“That was the same deal with Catcher in the Rye and that Hemingway book from the beginning of the year,” Clint said skeptically. “The dick book.”

“Yes, thank you for reminding us, Clint,” Ms. Hill said. “You could say there was a similar theme in Death of a Salesman, couldn’t you?”

“Uh,” said Clint. “Could I?”

“Well, one could; I’m not entirely sure that you could,” she said dryly. “We have to trust that Biff is telling us the truth about his father for most of the play, isn’t that right?”

“…Yes,” Clint said cautiously, as though he were expecting to be caught out at any minute.

“In any event,” she said, restraining herself from rolling her eyes, “yes, this year’s syllabus draws heavily on novels written from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. Hard to imagine why the English department thought that would be a good idea for teenagers,” she added, raising an eyebrow, and they all stared back at her blankly, uncomprehending.

“Anyway,” she continued, “we’ve already talked a little bit about World War II and the draft, and injury and athleticism and being fit to serve and how all of those things fit together within the novel, but before we go any farther I thought we should really talk about Gene and what he’s telling us and what that tells us about him and what it tells us about Finny—and what it can say about Finny.”

They all stared at her.

“Do I need to rephrase?” she asked. “I didn’t think that was very complicated.”

“Do you mean—well, we don’t know what Finny is really like, because we only see him from Gene’s point of view?” June asked.

“Yes,” Ms. Hill said. “Exactly.”

“But—he’s not real,” she said, frowning. “So—it’s not like there’s some—real version of him—that we’re supposed to—figure out—”

“Yes, correct,” Ms. Hill said, and smiled at her. June looked alarmed. She should probably smile more, she thought, if that was the reaction it elicited in her students. “Characters in stories aren’t real, they don’t exist, and talking about them as though they do is an easy way to get into trouble. So I don’t mean that there’s some other version of Finny we’re supposed to be discovering”—although of course there was, they just hadn’t gotten that far into the book yet—“just that the fact that Knowles chooses to write the story this way is supposed to tell us something.”

She could never quite decide whether she was profoundly glad or sort of annoyed that they didn’t make her teach Gatsby.

“Well, it’s all about Gene, isn’t it?” Rhodey said, rocking his chair onto its back legs.

“Four legs down, Mr. Rhodes,” she snapped immediately, “you’re going to break your skull.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, thumping his chair back down to the floor. “Anyway, I was saying, it’s not really about Phineas at all, it’s all about Gene moping and feeling guilty and sh—and stuff.”

“Eloquently put, but yes.”

“Yeah, and he’s a dick,” Bucky said suddenly, glowering out at all of them. Everybody turned to stare at him.

“Language,” she said, when she remembered herself.

“Sorry,” he said, not sounding remotely sorry. “He is, though. I mean, okay, he’s best friends with the dude, right?” he continued, looking at her challengingly, and her heart sank. “And they’re like—everybody else is kind of an asshole or whatever, or just really weird, but they’re supposed to be best friends, except he’s secretly competitive and never says anything about it, and instead of saying anything, he pushes him out of a tree and ruins his life forever. His best friend. He pushes his best friend. Out of a tree. That’s not how you’re supposed to treat your friends.”

He was by this point glaring at the back of Steve’s head, eye twitching. Steve was looking straight ahead of him with an expression of such deep and utter mortification that she almost wanted to put him out of his misery.

“That is… true,” she said. “I don’t think we’re supposed to think he’s a particularly pleasant person, but most characters in books aren’t really pleasant people. It’s more important that they’re interesting.”

“Finny’s pleasant and interesting,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Finny’s annoying,” Steve muttered, and Bucky froze. In the back of the class, Caitlin leaned forward in her seat, chewing on her pencil, eyes wide.

What,” Bucky hissed.

“Finny. Is. Annoying,” Steve said, looking down at his notebook and twiddling his pen in his hand.

“Why don’t you elaborate on that,” Ms. Hill said, giving up.

“Well,” Steve said mulishly, “he’s not very perceptive. Or considerate. He just—takes people for granted. And everything always has to be about him all the time—”

Bucky made a small, outraged noise.

“I don’t think he’s a very good friend,” Steve said, glaring at the whiteboard. “I don’t think friends treat friends like—”

“Oh, come on,” Natasha said from where she was sitting in the back of the room, kitty corner to Bucky’s desk. “They’re completely fucking gay for each other, come the fuck on.”

From her position at the front of the classroom, Ms. Hill had a prime view of Steve and Bucky’s eyes bugging out at exactly the same time.

“Well,” she said. “That was going to be next week, but we can start early.”

“They are—not—why would you—that’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard,” Bucky snarled. Steve just looked shaken. “What do you know, anyway? You never even say anything, you’re not some expert.”

Natasha narrowed her eyes at him as he wrenched himself back around in his seat, folding his arms across his chest and scowling.

“Well,” Ms. Hill said, giving him a look, “that is the prevailing interpretation of the book amongst people younger than fifty.”

Bucky’s eye twitched.

“I mean he did spend a lot of time staring at that one dude’s ass,” Rhodey pointed out.

Clint opened his mouth. “Mr. Barton, I swear to god,” Ms. Hill said. “One word. One word.”

He closed it.

And so things progressed, with Bucky staring intently at his desk and Steve staring intently at the whiteboard without actually reading anything on it, until the end of the period, when Bucky got up to leave, grabbed his notebooks, and, upon reaching up a hand to adjust his hair, let out something that could only be described as a screech.

“What the fuck,” he yelped.

“Bucky?” Ms. Hill said. She never had been able to bring herself to call him Mr. Barnes.

“There’s fucking—gum!” he shouted. “In my hair! Like—way in there! What the fuck!”

Clint snickered as he filed out. “That’s what she said,” he said.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ms. Hill heard Pepper say, voice fading into the distance. She peered into Bucky’s hair, trying to keep herself from making a face.

“Well,” she said. “That does appear to be the case.”

Steve was lingering in the doorway, but flushed when she spotted him, and hurried out.

“I think you’re going to have to cut it,” she said, and the blood drained out of his face.

Steve, standing at the other end of the hallway, looked up and saw Natasha popping a new stick of gum into her mouth. “How did you do that?” he asked. She shrugged.

“Magic hands,” she said, waving her fingers.

“It seems a—a little harsh,” he said weakly. “I thought you gave that up, anyway.”

She looked at him for a second, chewing noisily—on purpose, he figured, since she was silent as the grave most of the time.

“Don’t worry about me being too mean to your boyfriend, Rogers,” she said. “I promise, I was doing you a favor.”

“He’s not my—” he started, and she rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” she said, and walked away.

That’s the most words I’ve ever heard her say at once, he thought, and realized he didn’t have anyone to say it to.


*


JUNE

IN WHICH AN UGLY DUCKLING IS REVEALED TO BE A SWAN

The following Monday ushered in not only the last month of the school year but also the dawn of a new era in Bucky Barnes’ life, and the lives of everyone who knew him in Middletown and Centerville: the Post-Haircut Era, as it would be remembered for years to come by all who had been present at the time.

“Holy shit,” Caitlin whispered to Peggy, goggling. “Holy shit, holy shit. Bucky is hot.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Peggy said faintly. “But he is—very—pretty.”

“Wow,” Caitlin said. “Wow. I was not expecting this. This complicates things so substantially.”

“Does it?” Peggy asked. “Does it really?”

Bucky glared balefully at them, although she was pretty sure he couldn’t have heard them from all the way down the hall.

“Looking good, Barnes,” Darcy Lewis catcalled shortly after, and Bucky scowled, shoulders hunching.

“Damn, son,” Rhodey said, turning to look. “That is transformative.”

Bucky turned and hurtled into the nearest empty classroom and slammed the door shut behind him without bothering to look at which teacher it belonged to. He should have come to school with a bag over his head. A bag. His parents were cruel and unusual and tomorrow he was going to—find a hat. A really—ugly—hat—

Upon returning home from her Zumba class the previous Friday afternoon, Mrs. Barnes had found her son in their kitchen, attempting to hack off a large chunk of his hair with a pair of kitchen shears, and had, at this sight, let out a blood-curdling shriek that would have stopped any man in his tracks, not least her own child. Bucky had frozen, eyes wide and guilty, and she had practically vroomed across the room to snatch the offending implement out of his hand.

What,” she had shrieked, “are you doing?”

“Um,” Bucky said. “Cutting… my… hair?”

“What would possess you?” she cried. “I mean, as you know I’ve been begging you to get it cut for months but—but—not! In this—fashion!”

He got a shifty look. Her eyes narrowed.

“James Buchanan Barnes,” she said. “Tell me what exactly is going on here.”

“There’s some… gum… in my hair,” he mumbled.

“Excuse me,” she said.

“It’s not mine,” he said, irritably, in a louder tone of voice.

“Did someone,” she said icily, “put it there?”

“Clearly,” he said, “somebody put it there.”

“And you don’t know,” she continued, “who?”

No,” he growled, “I don’t.”

“Well,” she said, eyes glimmering, for she could see an opportunity when it presented itself. “I guess it’s time we went to the haircutter then, isn’t it.”

Bucky went pale.

And so it was that he had come to find himself in the halls of the school on the first really hot day of the year, with his hair cut dramatically short on the sides and longer on the top, in what he tried desperately to tell himself was a punk way but which mostly made him look like he had gotten lost on his way from the nineteen-forties. It did not hang over his eyes in the protective way that he had grown accustomed to previously, and his neck and his ears and his—whole face—felt—very bare, and also because of the heat he had been forced to wear a short-sleeved shirt without his jacket, though obviously he had not been and would not be for any reason induced to wear shorts. So he was feeling, generally speaking, very unprotected, and now everybody was looking at him and it was horrible and he wanted to hide in a hole and die or alternatively run away to Alaska and live in the wilderness forever with no companions but the bears and the wolves and maybe one loyal dog and a small collection of books and also Netflix.

He would, he felt, enjoy Alaska.

A teacher he did not recognize opened the door, looking puzzled. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“No,” he said, with a sigh. “I’m going now.”

Which was how he found himself slinking into English class a few minutes late, which had, he realized upon entering the room, been a very fatal error indeed, because now everyone really was staring at him, in concert, even Ms. Hill, although she just blinked once and then said, “You’re late,” before turning back to the class.

Regrettably, the students were not so unfazed.

At the back of the room, Caitlin wolf-whistled, and everybody laughed. Bucky swallowed, face flaming red, and watched as Steve, who was the only person who had remained staring determinedly at the whiteboard, glanced over and then quickly back away again.

And then seemed to pause, and look back. Bucky stared at him for an uncomfortable moment before making his way over to his desk in as sullen a fashion as possible while everybody whispered and tittered around him.

“Ladies,” Ms. Hill said, sounding deeply irritated. “Gentlemen. Get a hold of yourselves, please. You are not twelve.”

Bucky saw Steve turn to glance covertly at him and then hurriedly turn back around when caught. Bucky turned and determinedly glared out the window for the entire rest of the period, teeth grinding together while he pretended not to listen to Ms. Hill talking about how Gene and Finny apparently totally wanted to do it.

He clearly had been wrong in thinking that English class was kind of all right, he thought. English class was terrible. The worst. He never wanted to read another book again, except The Catcher in the Rye, which he would just read over and over again, an infinite number of times. Who needed other books? Who needed other people? Who needed anything, anyway?

He glared at the parking lot. He hated parking lots. He hated cars. He hated trees. He hated his stupid fucking haircut.

Steve turned to sneak another glance at Bucky over his shoulder. It was—very unsettling. The haircut was very unsettling. It was—he had not been prepared for the haircut. He didn’t know why it was freaking him out so much. Probably it was just that it made Bucky look like an entirely different person, even though obviously he was still scowling in exactly the same stupid infuriating way that he always did, because he was stupid and infuriating and Steve didn’t miss him at all. He hadn’t been—attached—to his stupid ugly hair before, because it had been smelly and dirty and gross, that would have been—stupid. And this wasn’t—it was just that he looked different. That was all. Steve was feeling nothing unusual at all. Well, he was feeling very uncomfortable but that was just the disorientation, and not the fact that all of the sudden you could—see Bucky’s face, and his neck, and the smooth angled lines of skull, along with the fine little hairs at the nape of his neck, that was—not relevant at all, he wasn’t thinking about any of those things. He was thinking about how Bucky was stupid and how he didn’t want to talk to him at all because Bucky was a jerk and it was fine, it was all fine, and just because Gene and Finny apparently wanted to make out all over the place didn’t mean anybody else did—

He didn’t know where that train of thought had come from. It had gotten hot in the classroom. Had it gotten hot? The school was air-conditioned but it was really hot outside today. He was sweating. Bucky was so annoying. He didn’t care about his haircut at all.

He turned around to look at it again.

Ms. Hill, having spent an entire year watching Bucky Barnes gaze at the back of Steve Rogers’ head, found herself thinking somewhat hysterically as the ludicrous scene unfolded before her that it really had only been a matter of time before their roles wound up reversed.


*


IN WHICH HOSTILITIES ESCALATE

As the junior prom approached, tensions continued to rise, not only between Bucky and Steve but also between Tony and Pepper, and Loki and everybody else. There was a sense among the class as a whole of barely contained chaos on the verge of exploding into full-blown anarchy.

For instance, when Tony was in hearing distance, Pepper could frequently be heard saying things along the lines of, “Well, you know, I really value the rare few people who aren’t liars and imposters and malfeasants—”

“Wow I guess somebody is still reading her SAT prep book before bed,” Tony said loudly in retaliation, causing Pepper’s face to go white and then red, lips pinching together.

“Do you really do that?” June asked wonderingly.

“Not anymore,” Pepper hissed, dragging her out of the way, while Tony smirked.

“Good job,” Rhodey said. “You keep that up, she’s definitely going to want to go out with you.”

Tony snorted. “You continue to operate under the assumption that I want to go out with her, which is so obviously misguided that I don’t even know where to start—”

“I’ve known you since you were two,” Rhodey said. “You think you can lie to me, but you can’t. It won’t work. Sometimes I wish it would, but it doesn’t.”

“I lied to you about BabbleCore for years,” Tony said primly.

“Yeah, but I didn’t give a shit about that, and never asked,” Rhodey pointed out. “That doesn’t count. I am so on top of this, dude. You can’t get away from me this time.”

“That was unexpectedly sexual,” Tony said.

“Please don’t take it that way,” Rhodey told him.

“I wasn’t going to,” Tony said, making a face. “Why is Loki staring at me again?”

Rhodey looked over his shoulder, where Loki was, in fact, staring at Tony with a murderous expression on his face. “I dunno, man. Why does Loki do anything?”

“He’s taking pleasure in my misfortune,” Tony muttered. “He’s probably—reporting back to his father. They’re probably laughing about it.”

“You are so fucking paranoid,” Rhodey said. “That could not be more implausible.”

Of course, there were any number of things regarding the Odinsons that may or may not have been true that were all considerably more implausible than what Tony had just suggested, all of which jostled for prominence in Loki’s brain on a rotational basis. The more happily, obliviously love-struck Thor became, the more rapidly Loki descended into seething rage, a trend that Sif noticed, and to which nobody else bothered paying attention.

“You are so paranoid,” Thor said benignly, clapping her on the shoulder. “Loki is just being Loki.”

“He’s looking at you like he wants to skin you alive,” Sif insisted. Loki was sitting across the cafeteria from them, looking intently at Thor as if, indeed, he wanted to skin him alive.

“I don’t think I’m the one he’s staring at,” Thor said, sending her a significant glance, which was an odd look on him. (Though Loki spent an unsettling amount of his time staring at Sif, in this instance, he was definitely staring at Thor.)

Sif spluttered.

“I do—not—what—” she managed, and Thor just smiled, and clapped her on the shoulder again.

“Some day you two will figure it out,” he assured her. “Your entire life is going to change. I can’t really explain it.”

“Sex has made you so obnoxious,” Sif choked out, and it was Thor’s turn to look consternated and vaguely guilty.

“Oh,” Sif said scathingly. “Never mind. I should have said, true love has made you obnoxious.”

“Yes,” Thor said, raising his chin. “I think so.”

“Disgusting,” Sif muttered. “You’re this insufferable and you haven’t even done it yet.”

“Well,” Thor said. “I mean, it depends on what you mean by—”

“I don’t want to know,” she shouted. “I don’t want to know.”

He sat back, looking pleased with himself.

“Unbearable,” she said, “I don’t know why I put up with you at all,” though in fact she had been feeling rather lonely lately, for Thor had been spending most of his time mooning over Jane, both in person and from afar. And Sif definitely, definitely did not want to—do—that—with Thor (ugh, ugh), and Jane seemed—fine, she guessed, although Sif had never really known how to talk to girls and consequently had no idea what to say to her, and had mostly just avoided her as much as possible thus far for this reason. Anyway. She seemed nice. Thor liked her, which was good, and she was smarter than he was, which was also good, because Thor was really fucking stupid, and needed somebody to make him see sense. But still, it was—well, it kind of sucked.

Sif looked down and picked at her burrito.

“You put up with me because you love me,” Thor said munificently, and she rolled her eyes, and pushed at him.

“Moron,” she said.

“Tough guy,” he replied, as usual, and they went back to eating their lunch.

But of course the worst of everyone was Steve and Bucky, whose relationship, unlike Pepper and Tony’s, and Loki and everyone else’s, had not previously functioned on a primarily antagonistic basis, and had therefore undergone the most radical change. Bucky had only grown more performatively miserable and liable to lose his temper at any moment, and Steve, miraculously, had also become increasingly sullen. In his case this mostly manifested as simply staring gloomily at nothing, but occasionally did escalate to something approaching a glower. Neither his fellow students nor his teachers knew quite how to react to this: it was just so utterly without precedent.

Of course, none of them was living with him, as Mrs. Rogers was, and therefore none of them was being subjected to the full brunt of his suddenly discovered teenagerdom, which consisted of throwing himself dramatically on the couch, glaring intensely at the television, whether or not it was turned on (the season finale of Coco Cabana had been a particularly charged two hours, the likes of which she hoped never to experience again), making angry noises to himself while he did his homework (he obviously kept doing his homework), stomping around noisily, playing loud music in his room, and saying nothing at the dinner table, instead scowling at the food and stabbing at it angrily with his fork. It was, as teenage rebellions went, ludicrously tame, but Mrs. Rogers found herself both on the verge of laughing hysterically at him and shouting at him to snap out of it nearly all of the time. She wanted, most of all, to tell him that he was really going to be all right, but having done that once and been balefully rebuffed, she had given up for the time being: Steve wanted to wallow, and by god, he was wallowing. Sometimes a little self-indulgent misery was necessary, if, she thought wearily, rather tiresome.

Also, hilarious, because, as she realized at some point in the second week of all of this, the angry music he was listening to that was giving her persistent headaches had to all have been coming from playlists Bucky had been sending him for months. (Steve, after all, listened mostly to NPR, and bland acoustic indie bands whose names she could never remember.)

She laughed into her pillow for so long after she figured that one out that she actually made herself nauseated.

Steve and Bucky were still mostly avoiding each other in school, insofar as that was possible, though not completely; neither of them could entirely restrain himself when it came to provoking the other. It was not unlike watching five-year-old boys fighting, except equipped with slightly more advanced vocabularies with which to insult each other.

“God,” Steve said one day, having bumped into Bucky on the sidewalk in the front of the school, while he was on the way out to the parking lot and Bucky was waiting for his mother to come pick him up to go get his tuxedo fitted for the prom, which he had, ultimately and unsurprisingly, decided to attend. (The door with the most direct route to the parking lot was on the other side of the school, so the readers are free to infer what they wish about Steve’s movements, and about the fact that he managed to bump bodily into Bucky on a not-very-crowded sidewalk.) “Move out of the way, would you.”

Bucky gestured expansively at the sidewalk, which was rapidly clearing of other students, who, having spotted the two of them, were sensibly fleeing the scene. “Lots of way for you to move, Rogers.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Steve said.

“Well, you’re the one who ran into me,” Bucky said. “I was just standing here, waiting. You can just move along now.”

“Waiting for your mom,” Steve said snidely.

Yeah,” Bucky said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m waiting for my mom and then I’m gonna knock her out and hijack her car and go on the run.”

“You can’t even drive,” Steve told him.

“He’s a virgin who can’t drive,” said Clint from out of nowhere behind them, snickering to himself. (He and Darcy, in-between make-out sessions, had found time to watch Clueless a few dozen times: it was, in fact, their singular non-make-out-related activity.)

“Clint, I swear to god, get the fuck out of here,” Steve shouted, at the same time that Bucky hollered, “Fuck the fuck off, Barton!”

Clint blinked, only moderately fazed, and went back to humming tunelessly to himself and watching the trees for birds while waiting for his mother to pick him up to go to the doctor.

“Well, I’m going to learn,” Bucky said, raising his chin and staring at Steve challengingly. “And then I’m going to run away. To Alaska. And live with the bears and the wolves where nobody will ever fucking bother me again. Or should I say, where I won’t bother anybody else again, with my presence.”

“I thought you were going to run away to Russia,” Steve sneered.

“Yeah, well, Alaska’s more legal!” Bucky shouted as his mother pulled up. “Goodbye!”

Bye!” Steve shouted back, as Bucky climbed into the car and slammed the door behind him, face bright red, and then stomped off down to the parking lot toward his own car.

Bucky sat in his mother’s car with his arms folded in front of him, glaring at the road out his window.

“Something going on, dear?” she said absently.

No,” he snarled, and neither of them said anything until they got to the tuxedo rental place.

“I think that looks wonderful,” Mrs. Barnes said some time later, when Bucky was staring at himself in the mirror, wearing a… tuxedo. Apart from the eyeliner, with the suit and the haircut, he looked almost—normal, he guessed.

It felt weird.

He wondered what Steve would think if he—

He looked down at his feet and scowled.

“I have to say I never understood going to the prom without a date,” his mother said, and he froze. “But if you really think you’ll enjoy yourself, you know, I’m certainly not going to stop you—”

“Who the fuck would I ask, exactly, Mom?” he said, not looking at her, instead keeping his eyes fixed on his socks.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, I’m sorry, dear, I wasn’t thinking.”

“Yeah, no shit you weren’t,” he said before he could stop himself, and then neither of them said anything for a long moment.

“So, ah, will that be suitable?” the tailor said uncertainly, and they both started.

“Yes, I think so,” his mother said, patting him twice lightly on the shoulder.

His toes were curled into the thin carpet and he slowly made himself flatten them, and unclench his hands, which had been fisted in the sleeves of the jacket, until his arms hung by his sides, fingers dangling by his sides.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, it’s fine.”


*


IN WHICH MRS. ROGERS DISPENSES ADVICE

The Saturday before the prom, Mrs. Rogers was sitting in her family room, reading a fat old book and eating baby carrots out of a bowl, a fan clicking away in front of her, when she heard the faint sounds of somebody knocking hesitantly on her front door. She frowned, listening to make sure she had heard right, before getting up and opening the door to reveal, to her total lack of surprise, Bucky Barnes standing shiftily on her stoop.

“Hello, Bucky,” she said.

“Um,” he said, twitching nervously and not meeting her eyes. “I, um, I was coming to—get something that I, I—left here. I think.”

“Sure,” she said. “Why don’t you come in.”

“Steve’s not here, is he?” he blurted out suddenly, looking up at her. “I, I didn’t see his car, but—but—”

“No,” she said, “he’s out picking up his tuxedo.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, deflating. “Okay.”

“Come on,” she said, stepping aside, and he stepped up into the house.

“Your haircut looks nice,” she said, and he shifted awkwardly.

“I hate it,” he muttered.

“I think it’s nice, to be able to see your face,” she said. “You have a very nice face, you know, it’s a shame to hide it away like that.”

Bucky scowled at the floor, but without any real force.

“Now,” she said. “What are you looking for.”

“Um,” he said, “my—I left my copy of, of Catcher in the Rye here. I think. I think it’s in Steve’s room.” He glanced up the stairs, looking terrified.

“Why don’t I go look for it,” she said, and he nodded, looking relieved.

“All right,” she said, and rubbed his shoulder as she walked past him up the stairs.

Steve’s room was messier than usual, as it had been all through the past couple of weeks. She rolled her eyes and started to look around—it wasn’t on the desk, or the bookshelf, and it didn’t look it was on the floor, either, at least not in any obviously visible place.

“Ah ha,” she said after a few minutes of poking around, when she found it carefully tucked down the side of the bed, into the frame, behind the bedside table. She pulled it out and thumbed through its worn pages before rubbing at the bridge of her nose for a moment, and heading back downstairs.

“Here you go,” she said. “I assume this is it.”

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s it.”

He took the book from her and looked down at it for a moment, and then kept standing there, awkwardly, in the foyer.

“Why don’t you sit down, Bucky,” she said gently.

“Oh,” he said, “I should… I should go…”

“Come on,” she said. “I have cookies.”

He perked up a little, reflexively. “Well, maybe just for a little,” he said, starting to trail after her.

She watched him in silence for a moment as he chewed his cookie, in just as ungainly a fashion as always. He glanced up at her when he’d finished one and blushed, shamefaced, as he swallowed.

“Sorry,” he said, rubbing the back of his hand with his mouth.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve seen it all.”

He looked down at his plate again, picking at another cookie and frowning, chewing at the corner of his lip. “I,” he started, and then paused for a long time, as though he truly had no idea what he wanted to say next—she suspected he really did not. “What—what do you do,” he started out, haltingly, “if you’re really—mad at—somebody—and they’re—mad at—you—but you—don’t—you don’t—you—” He was frowning deeply now, fingers shaking so hard around his cookie that he put it down hurriedly and shoved his hands under the table.

Mrs. Rogers looked at him for a long time. “People get mad at each other, you know,” she said, and his eyes snapped up to her face, wide and frightened. “It happens all the time. People get mad and say—pretty terrible things, sometimes. Even people who are—pretty good people say pretty awful things to people when they’re upset, for—one reason or another.”

Bucky opened his mouth, and then closed it again, and looked down.

“My husband and I almost broke up once, you know,” she said. “Well, we did break up. I mean, we weren’t married at the time. That was our last year of college. An—ex-boyfriend of mine was in town—my boyfriend from high school, actually—and—well, the details don’t matter, he got very jealous over nothing, really—not nothing but mostly nothing—and it all got very—out of control, and we wound up—screaming at each other and saying all sorts of ridiculous horrible things and then didn’t talk to each other for three months. The whole winter.”

Bucky was staring at her, a faint line between his brows.

She shrugged. “But, you know, I was in love with him, and he was in love with me, and we missed each other, and we were just being stupid. We were stupid kids. So, it all worked itself out.” She paused. “I don’t think I’ve ever told Steve that story, actually. I probably would have—we probably would have—if, you know, things had turned out differently, but. They didn’t. I don’t talk to him about any of that very often. Hardly ever.”

“But,” he started, voice hoarse. “But, I—I—”

“Bucky,” she said gently, “I don’t know—what exactly has been going on. But sweetheart, I promise you, whatever you’ve done, you haven’t committed some kind of irredeemable crime. I know kids never want to hear this but you’re both so young. You have no idea what you’re doing. It’s all going to be all right.”

His face was wobbling. “I—but I—I said some—I said some really bad things, I don’t—I don’t—”

“It’s okay,” she said. “He’s going to forgive you. I promise. I know.”

He was shaking his head, fingers digging into his cheeks, eyes red. “You don’t—you don’t—”

“Well, whatever it was you did, or said, I forgive you,” she said, and he squeezed his eyes shut, still shaking his head. “Yes, really, even though people saying rude things about Steve makes my blood boil, as you know.” She reached out and tugged one of his hands away from his face, her fragile fingers on his wrist. “I forgive you because you’re a good person,” she said. “And maybe you did mean it at the time, I don’t know. But you feel bad about it now, don’t you?”

He nodded shakily, staring at her, eyes watery and bright, and she said, “And I forgive you because I love you, sweetheart,” and finally, for the first time in years, they spilled over, sliding down his cheeks, and he hiccoughed, harsh, ugly sobs bursting out of his chest, and she scooted her chair around to put an arm around him, and rubbed her hand up and down his back as he curled into her, so much like and so unlike her own boy, and her heart ached, because she did love him, and it was a pain in her own chest that she could not reach out and simply snap off the pain that hung in the center of him like a stone of infinite weight: but she could not. It was just part of him. Some part of it would always be there, she knew.

“It’s all right,” she said quietly, resting her head on his, rubbing a hand up and down his back. “It’s going to be all right.”

He froze when he heard the car pulling into the driveway, and pulled back, sniffing and not meeting her eye.

“Well, I guess you’d better be going,” she said. “Here, take the whole Tupperware,” she added, getting up to hand him the box of cookies.

“Thanks,” he whispered, holding it to his chest.

“You’re welcome,” she said, and he sniffed once more, and she walked him to the family room and watched as he made it to the front door, where, of course, he ran bodily into Steve.

“What the—” Steve started, and then stopped, and stared, for Bucky, who had not cried in years, had never learned that lesson that nearly all women and a certain subsection of men learn, which is that hysterical tears and eyeliner do not good friends make, and his face was consequently an absolute wreck.

“Move it,” Bucky growled wetly, without heat, and stomped down the front steps and down the driveway, Steve watching incredulously from the doorway.

“Mom?” he said. “What was he—doing here? What was—what?”

“He came to pick up his copy of The Catcher in the Rye,” Mrs. Rogers said. “Which I found, incidentally, tucked away in your bed, practically.”

“I—Mom!” Steve yelped, face going red. “How could you—give that to him! Now he’s really going to go to Alaska!”

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Rogers said, “what?”

“He’s going on and on about going to Alaska,” Steve cried, “but he didn’t have his book and without his book he’d obviously never go but now he’s got it so nothing’s stopping him—”

“Except everything else about—running away to Alaska,” Mrs. Rogers interjected, though Steve seemed not to notice.

“—So you—you shouldn’t have given it to him! And—did he just walk home by himself! Did he walk here himself? But that’s so—god! He’s so—stupid! He’s so! Stupid! God! You should have just made him go away when he showed up, he shouldn’t have even come in here anyway, god, Mom—”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Steve,” she snapped, “would you please grow up and get a hold of yourself for just one moment, my god.”

He stared.

“I—what—”

“Could this be any more obvious,” she said, waving a hand in the air. “You are—”

“Nothing is obvious about anything except that Bucky is an idiot and also that he is going to run away to Alaska now apparently, because you gave him his stupid book—”

“Steven Grant Rogers!” she shouted. “Get a hold of yourself! You are acting like a child. I have had it up to here with this—ridiculous behavior, do you hear me? That boy was just crying in that kitchen over you and you are shouting about Alaska and I am just—fed up with this whole situation, so you need to just grow up and stop all of this ridiculous nonsense, I swear to god.”

Steve was staring at her, mouth agape. She closed her eyes, and sighed as she heard him dashing up the stairs and slamming his door behind him.

“Shit,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes, and went to drink a glass of water and splash some on her face before trudging up the stairs after him, and knocking on his door.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” he said, muffled.

“I’m coming in anyway,” she said.

“Fine,” he said grudgingly, after a pause.

He was curled up on his bed, facing the wall and hugging a pillow. She sighed, and went to sit down on the edge next to him, running his fingers through his hair.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she said. He stayed curled up in a ball. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

He let out a little grunt.

“I stand by most of my statements, though,” she said gently, still running her fingers through his hair. “You’re not doing either of you any favors at this point, you know.”

“He’s being stupid,” Steve muttered.

You’re being exceedingly stupid,” she told him, and he let out an aggrieved huff into his pillow.

“I thought the boy I liked in high school didn’t like me because we had a spat so I went into a sulk for weeks and shouted at my mother and cried all over the place, so I understand where you’re coming from,” she said, “although it was considerably less operatic than this. But it’s not really a very good use of your time.”

“I’m not—I don’t know why everybody keeps saying that,” Steve muttered.

“Steve,” his mother said. “When you were in the second grade, you followed around that fourth grade boy, Chad Bartnicki, like he walked on water, for the entire school year. You drew pictures of him, and also for him, and he had no idea you existed. That summer you turned fourteen you made me take you to Inception four separate times. I had to buy you three different magazines with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the cover. You probably still have them somewhere.”

“Uh,” Steve said, slowly turning bright red. (He did, in fact, still have the magazines carefully stacked on the bottom shelf of his bookcase.)

“It really doesn’t matter,” his mother said. “It’s certainly not a surprise to me, anyway. And in this case it’s not like Bucky doesn’t know you exist. I think he may actually be aware of your existence to the exclusion of other people’s.”

Steve didn’t say anything, just clutched at his pillow harder.

“What are you afraid of?” she asked gently. “I’m asking seriously, that’s not a rhetorical question.”

“I don’t know,” he whispered miserably, a long moment later. “Mom, what if—what if—I—if we—if it—if it doesn’t—”

She stroked her hand through his hair once more. “You’ll figure it out, Steve,” she said. “You’ll figure it out, and it’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

“But—but what if it’s not?” he whispered, still not looking at her.

“It will be,” she said, and leaned down to kiss his cheek. “It’ll be fine. I love you. You’ll always be all right.”

She started to get up, and Steve hurriedly pushed himself up and said, “Mom?”

She turned back around and said, “Yes?”

“Thanks,” he whispered, and hugged her awkwardly, all elbows. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” she said, rubbing her hand over his shoulder. “It’s all right. I really don’t mind. You’re the best kid a person could ask for, you know.”

He let out a pathetic little sniffle and curled his fingers into her shirt, and she smiled to herself over his shoulder, biting her lip, and thought that that there was only so much that they ever grew up, really, when you thought about it.


*


IN WHICH EVERYONE GETS READY

Naturally, in spite of Mrs. Rogers’ efforts, the day of the prom dawned with little visible progress having been made in Steve and Bucky’s war of attrition: while neither of them had gone out of his way to antagonize the other in the school week leading up to that most hallowed day of the year, they continued to glare at each other with all the surliness they possessed, skulking about and wandering through the high school respectively, deep in the throes of their acute and, they were quite certain, unique wretchednesses.

That Friday, Ms. Hill had the gall to assign them a response paper to the end of A Separate Peace—which had disturbed both Steve and Bucky greatly—to be turned in the following Monday. An immense furor had arisen amongst the students.

“But Ms. Hill,” Clint protested. “It’s prom this weekend.”

“Yes,” Ms. Hill said. “I’m chaperoning. I am aware.”

Normally she could never have been induced to suffer through such an event, but, in light of recent events, she was somewhat concerned that Steve and Bucky might wind up mauling each other, and that Loki might set the place to blow. It had seemed prudent, therefore, for her and Mr. Coulson to put their names on the chaperone list, sighing as they resigned themselves to their fates.

“But—but—we’re all going to the prom,” he said. “All of us. This is just—it’s just not cool, man—”

“I’m not going,” Natasha said in a monotone from the back of the room. Clint looked unnerved.

“Okay,” he said. “Well, everybody else. Right?”

There were vague nods of assent throughout the classroom. Ms. Hill noticed that Steve had turned to glance at Bucky and then turned rapidly back around, stricken, when he did not also exempt himself. She made what she felt was a gargantuan effort not to roll her eyes.

“Prom isn’t until Saturday night, boys and girls,” she said with grim satisfaction. “It’s two pages double-spaced. Do it tonight or tomorrow morning. It won’t kill you.”

“It might,” Clint said, consternated.

“Then we’ll all attend your funeral, and I’ll feel very guilty,” she told him.

And so the morning (or what teenagers consider to be the morning, which in fact occupies the hours of eleven to one in the afternoon) of the prom—temperate for June, partly cloudy, decidedly ominous—found the students of Ms. Hill’s various English classes hunched over their desks, or kitchen tables, or counters, bleary-eyed, clacking away at their laptops, producing, for the most part, nothing very worthwhile about the conclusion of A Separate Peace, which, for the uninitiated, involves death, injustice, and a great deal of otherwise very depressing material.

I thought the line about the Maginot line at the end of the book was very symbolic in what it said about war and also interpersonal relationships, Pepper wrote.

Gene’s kind of a dick, Clint wrote. Are we supposed to care about this dude? He is such a dick. (I’m not just saying that because he’s into dick.)

I was sort of surprised by the fact that the book ended with Gene thinking about Phineas this way, given that it opened with him seeming to have moved on and having established a more substantial distance between himself and his past. There’s disjoint. It feels like a flaw of the book on some level—it’s very inconsistent—but I wonder if it isn’t really just a way of showing that, through the act of remembering, Gene has become closer to Phineas again—that his distance at the beginning of the story is an illusion, a kind of façade, that he’s putting on for both himself and for the audience: he’s trying to convince himself of his own ambivalence, whereas by the end of the novel he’s given up on that charade (of his own distance and of a straightforward reading of their relationship) and accepted the reality of what it is (something intense, which he hasn’t gotten over, and not straightforward but romantic—how could you read that last page and not see that he’s in love with him? You don’t even need to read into it; it’s barely subtext by that point), Natasha wrote.

Why do we always read books about boys? June wrote.

I think this was my favorite thing we read this year, Steve wrote. Is that something I should be writing in a response paper? I guess it’s supposed to be your personal reaction. I don’t really have any smart things to say about it. I mean, I’m interested in American history and World War II and all that kind of stuff so that was interesting and I was thinking about how scary it would have been to be alive in that time and have to wait to find out whether you had to go to war, and if you and your friends would get separated, which I guess you pretty much always would. That seems pretty terrible to me. But I guess I kind of understand Phineas wanting to contribute and feeling like he was useless once he got hurt, although I’m not athletic or anything. I don’t really get sick anymore except normal colds or whatever but I used to a lot and it was really frustrating and I guess if I thought the war was important I would feel that way, too. Although I don’t know if I would want to leave my friends.

Also I thought the fight between Gene and Finny was really upsetting. Especially since then he died before they could make up and everything. I thought that was really terrible.

I hated this book, Bucky wrote. I hated it, okay, I’m sorry but it was horrible. Why the hell would you end a book like that? So they have this big fight and Finny tells him all this stuff and it turns out he really does kind of know Gene tried to push him out of a tree and it’s all terrible because Gene feels awful but what’s he going to say anyway, he did try to push him out of a tree, and he tries to be helpful and whatever, but then in the end Finny dies and they never even got to make up? And then Gene’s just miserable for the rest of his life? What is that? That’s just unfair, I don’t know why anybody would write something like that, he must have been an awful person.

Assignments blessedly finished, the junior class of MCUHS was free to pursue the truly important task of the day: preparing themselves for the evening, a truly auspicious occasion, since it was, in fact, the only school-sponsored dance of any kind aside from the senior prom that took place at any point during the year. Other schools had homecomings and winter formals and all sorts of other similar events, but MCUHS rejected such traditions in favor of vague apathy and what was seen as a vague countercultural bent. In reality, nobody much cared. And so the two proms had acquired a particular significance: they had no competition.

The hair salons of Middletown were therefore full to bursting with girls getting their hair put up in hideous updos, sprayed with so much hairspray by their slightly manic hairdressers that you could have knocked them on the heads and not moved a strand out of place. Others were pulling on the dresses they had spent agonizing weeks fretting over and finally selecting, which were all, with hardly any exceptions, hideous; mostly satin, mostly bright colors they would regret in later years, with all sorts of weird ruching along their torsos and under their breasts that seemed to most of their parents wildly inappropriate, or alternatively with enormous and extremely impractical skirts. Many of them had made the ill-advised choice to wear dresses without straps, and were now, as a consequence, wrangling strapless bras. (They would later be spending the entire night tugging their dresses up needlessly, out of paranoia.) They had strappy, shiny heels that anyone older than eighteen who was not in a sorority would have thought hideous, and they could not walk in them, and they were wearing too much makeup, and they were all terribly excited and nervous to the point of nausea, except for the ones who were just feeling morose and grimly determined, having been forced into attending by their friends.

“I hate this dress,” June said gloomily, looking at herself in the full-length mirror, tugging at the bodice. “Why didn’t I pick something with straps.”

“It looks great,” Pepper said without looking at her.

“It’s lavender,” June said. “Our hair is the same color. You tried on a purple dress and said it made you look terrible.”

“Yeah, but it looks great on you,” Pepper said vaguely, peering at her right eye in the round mirror she and mother had bought for her to use for doing makeup, and which she never used, since she never wore makeup except lip gloss and foundation, in a futile attempt to hide her acne. Her hair was not in an updo but it was curled in a fairly hideous fashion. June had decided to pass on that particular aspect of the prom experience, but she had gone along anyway, to witness the spectacle. Spectacular had been one word for it, that was for sure.

“Well, you’re just wearing red because it’s Tony Stark’s favorite color,” June muttered, irritated, and Pepper huffed.

Across town, Thor was crammed into Jane Foster’s tiny upstairs bathroom, sitting on the toilet and holding her eye shadow in one hand and her eyeliner in the other while she shifted her (also strapless, also purple, though much, much darker) dress around and looked down at it critically, before looking at the mirror again.

“Eye shadow,” she said, holding out a hand, and Thor, who was wearing a shiny waistcoat of an exactly matching shade of violet, obliged.

Once she had finished her eye makeup (which was very dramatic, and matched her dress perfectly), she looked down at the remaining boxes and bottles and tubes of makeup arrayed on the sink in front of her. “I’m worried this is going to be too much color,” she said.

“I think it will look very nice,” Thor said. “But you should do whatever you want. You’ll look good however.”

Jane looked at him for a moment, expressionless, and then smiled, before putting on dark red lipstick, and, for the first time in her life, blush.

“Oh my god,” her younger brother James said when he saw them come out of the bathroom, eyes bugging out of his head. “Mom! Mom! Jane looks normal!”

“I’m going to kill you with my shoe,” Jane said. “It’s really pointy.”

“Jane looks normal!” he said, singsong, as he darted away from her and down the stairs. “Jane looks normal!”

Jane had turned bright red under her makeup. Thor beamed down at her. “Brothers,” he said.

“Brothers,” she said bleakly, and they went down the stairs after him.

Meanwhile, deep in the bowels of the Stark mansion, Tony and Rhodey were drinking expensive imported Belgian beer, provided for the occasion by Howard, in preparation for what was to come.

“I don’t condone this,” Maria had said earlier, wearily, “but I’m not going to try to stop you.”

Suffice to say, both Tony and Rhodey looked patently ridiculous in their tuxedos—rented, in Rhodey’s case, and custom tailored, in Tony’s. Rhodey was drinking his beer with the casual nonchalance of someone who has made the habit of pilfering liberally from his parents’ stock, and Tony was nervously taking very small sips from his, making a face each time.

“Why do people like parties,” Tony whined. “You have to be in a room with a lot of other people for no other purpose than to talk to them. And they might touch you.”

“Tony,” Rhodey said. “Are you aware that, in order to have sex with somebody, your bodies have to be in physical contact with each other? Like, lots of touching is gonna happen there. Fluids will be exchanged.”

“Please don’t remind me,” Tony said, looking queasy.

“That’s what the condom is for, Rhodey my boy,” Howard said in a terrible English accent, swaggering into the room. Tony gagged theatrically. “Someday you’ll come around, Tony. To both the exchanging of fluids and the parties.”

“Please,” Tony said. “Shut up.”

“Anything for my favorite son on this most auspicious of evenings,” Howard said, grinning from ear to ear, as Tony continued to glower.

Mrs. Rogers had never seen Steve as anxious as he currently was about anything in his entire life, which, although he had not by disposition been a terribly anxious child, was saying something. He had put on his tux and was alternating between pacing around the family room in his sock feet, tugging at his cuffs, and standing in the bathroom, fussing obsessively over his hair for just about the first time in his life, which she knew perfectly well was a futile endeavor, because he was just going to mess it up in exactly the same way that he always did the second he saw Bucky and reached up to rub at his forehead nervously.

“Steve,” she said, stopping him finally. “You look very handsome. Calm down. You’re going to have a wonderful time.”

“I’ve never even been to a dance,” he said, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “I mean—what are you supposed to do, I don’t know what—I don’t have a date, who am I going to talk to, what’s—”

“Smile, don’t freak out too much, and go find Bucky,” she said, smoothing the shoulders of his jacket.

“I can’t just—talk to him,” he muttered. “We’re—we’re in a fight.”

“And to get out of a fight you do typically have to speak to the person with whom you are fighting, using words,” she said, straightening his tie. “Do you still want to be fighting?”

Steve didn’t say anything, just looked so dejected she had to work hard not to laugh at him. He wouldn’t understand, she thought, that it would be because she loved him so very much.

“He’s still mad at me, though,” he said, woebegone, and she kissed his cheek.

“I think you’ll find him amenable to reconciliation,” she said.

Bucky was, in fact, more than amenable; he had spent the last week chewing gloomily on Mrs. Rogers’ cookies in secret in his room and smoking equally gloomily out his window. It was decidedly less fun, he thought, to smoke without Steve there to frown and earnestly explain to him that he really ought to stop smoking, because it was so bad for you, except that now he had a nicotine addiction, so he had to walk all the way to the sketchy gas station at the edge of town to buy illegal packs of cigarettes by himself and then walk all the way back, which was a very long way, and it was hot now, too, and really everything was just very terrible. He really, really needed to get his license. And then he needed a car. And also he needed Steve to not hate him anymore. That was actually his chief concern.

He pulled on his undershirt, and his shirt, buttoning it carefully, and then hopped into his pants, which were somehow disorienting for not being skinny jeans, before putting the waistcoat on over his shirt. He looked in the mirror and stuck his fingers in his hair, pulling the long part to the side and combing through it, tugging down until it almost came down to his eye—and then watching it pop back up when he let go. (He did not actually comb it, because he did not own a comb.) He sighed, gave up, and turned to look for his eyeliner.

He grabbed it and turned to look in the mirror again, but paused before he brought it up to his eye. The tux fit him, now, unlike in the shop, and he had actually washed his hair that morning, and scrubbed at his face, which was, in any case, mostly clear. He had aggressively rubbed so much deodorant under his armpits that he didn’t think he smelled at all—or, well, not much, anyway. And he had shaved, which he hadn’t had to do, really, before the past few months and which he suddenly now—really did have to. He turned his face—you could, he thought, see faintly where the stubble would come in (slowly, admittedly) if he let it. Which was unsettling. Everything about it had been unsettling, from the weird long hairs coming out of his chin to his father clapping him on the back and shoving him in front of the mirror and showing him how to slather shaving cream on his face, as though they were somehow the same in any way, when Bucky knew with absolute certainty that this was not the case.

He blinked at himself, eyes wide and clear, lashes long. He reached up a finger and pulled his lid over, stretching it. He looked weird. He didn’t look like himself at all. His pants were wrong, and his jacket was wrong, and his hair, and his eyes.

He tossed the eyeliner on his desk and rubbed his eyes, blinking back up at the mirror when he’d finished. Well, there he was. He pulled his door open and trudged downstairs, sock feet making almost no noise at all on the hardwood floors.


*


IN WHICH EVERYONE DEPARTS

The parking lot outside of MCUHS that evening was the site of barely contained chaos on a mass scale. Teenagers hurried around to each other as fast as their high-heeled feet could carry them, shrieking at pitches so high that a number of the older parents in the crowd could not actually hear them, hugging as though they had not seen each other in years, instead of around twenty-four hours, and then holding each other at arm’s length and shouting once again about each other’s dresses. The boys tugged awkwardly at their collars and fiddled with the buttons on their waistcoats, rapidly starting to look very sweaty. The time-honored tradition of awkwardly pinning on corsages and boutonnieres had for the most part already taken place at people’s homes, to be documented to an excruciating level of detail by parents who took pictures with actual cameras, not phones, so all that remained was for everyone to exclaim over one another, take large group photos if they had not already done so at pre-prom events, and then slowly file onto the large, distinctly unglamorous busses that the school had rented for the occasion, to take the students to the hotel in the closest largeish metropolitan city, which the author shall refrain naming, to preserve some sense of mystery (surely futile, by this stage, but we all must stick to our principles) about the setting of our tale, at which the event would take place.

Tony and Rhodey, of course, were taking the Starks’ limousine to the hotel, but everyone else we have been following in this chronicle was taking the bus, even the Odinsons: Thor had yet to regain his car privileges, and was perfectly happy to take the bus in any event, and Loki had nobody to go with, which would have made a limousine ride even more depressing than a bus ride in the presence of Thor, and a whole host of other people who did not like him very much.

Odin was still away on whatever unspecified business he had in some other part of the world, leaving Frigga alone to meet Thor’s mysterious girlfriend, whom her son had kept hidden from her all these many months thus far. She spotted them across the parking lot from where she was standing with Loki, who was seething quietly, as was his usual custom as of late, meandering over with a tiny woman who had to be the girl’s mother, and an even smaller boy who couldn’t have been more than nine or ten, who was bouncing excitedly around Thor as they walked forward, and with whom Thor was visibly laughing and joking congenially, at one point holding his hand up, raising it even higher when the boy tried to jump to touch it. “That’s not fair,” she heard him say, high-pitched, and Thor laughed.

Next to her, Loki glared, and hunched down even farther into his perfectly pressed tuxedo. She patted his shoulder absently.

“Hello,” she said when they finally reached them. Thor, she realized, looked suddenly slightly nervous. The woman—Mrs. Foster—peered up at her through very thick spectacles. Her hair was very unkempt and she was not wearing a bra under her linen tank top.

“Very nice to meet you,” she said briskly, reaching out her hand and shaking Frigga’s firmly.

“You, too,” Frigga said. “And you, Jane. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“So have I,” Jane said with absolutely no expression on her face.

“So have I,” the boy said, winding himself around his mother. “I know everything.”

“Do you really,” Frigga said, doubting this very much.

“I guess you won’t find out,” the boy said ominously, disappearing behind his mother again.

“We’ve very much enjoyed having Thor around the house,” Mrs. Foster said, speaking in her straightforward way once again. “He’s a very good boy.” Thor, Frigga saw, had turned pink.

“Yes,” she said. “We’ve always thought so.”

“Not exactly what I was expecting Janie to bring home,” Mrs. Foster said, “but that just means I can make fun of her.”

Jane glared.

“I understand the feeling,” Frigga said, and Mrs. Foster smiled again, a small, slightly wicked expression.

“Well,” she said. “We’d better be going.” She looked at Loki. “Nice to meet you, too, Loki,” she said. “We’ve all heard a lot about you, also.”

Loki blinked, looking off-balance for a moment, before resuming his typical glower.

“Well, have fun, everyone,” Mrs. Foster said, patting Jane on the shoulder before corralling her son back toward the rest of the parking lot.

“I hate her,” Jane muttered.

“I liked her very much,” Frigga said, and felt satisfied by Jane looking chagrined. “Well, it was very nice to meet you, Jane, even for just a few minutes. You both look wonderful. I do hope you’ll come by sometime, even though I know our house is a little on the strange side. And now I’m going to leave you all to it. Have a good time. Don’t get too drunk, don’t get in fights, don’t set anything on fire, you know the drill.” She leaned over to kiss Loki on the cheek and caught him before he could lean away, and got a hug from Thor when she repeated the gesture. There was a slightly relieved look in his eye, she could tell, and she felt a small, obscure sadness that he had been afraid for some reason, that he had been hiding for all these months. She rubbed his back, and squeezed a little.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said, although in fact, unbeknownst to her, she would see them sooner.

“Jaaaane!” came a high-pitched screech a moment later, heralding the arrival of Darcy Lewis, teetering over on outrageously tall shoes, wearing a very tiny, very tight dress, and Clint Barton next to her, wearing a suit that looked as though it had possibly once belonged to his father, and reeking of marijuana.

“Spare me,” Loki muttered, and vanished.

“Ohmigod,” Darcy said, hurling herself at Jane, possibly in an attempt to keep herself upright. “You look amazing.”

“Hey, man,” Clint said, smiling hazily at Thor. “What’s up. What. Is up.”

“Is this too short?” Darcy asked. Thor and Jane looked down. They could see the very bottom of her ass beginning to peek out from the bottom of her dress. “I thought maybe it was too short but it looked so good so I got it anyway—”

They looked at each other.

“Great,” Thor said, at the same moment that Jane said, “Definitely not too short.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling her,” Clint said. “You guys are just on my level.”

On the other side of the bus, Steve Rogers was standing with his mother, looking nervously around at everyone, all of whom seemed, he thought, to be better-dressed than he was—objectively false, although his tux was inevitably a little loose on his gangly frame.

“Calm down,” Mrs. Rogers said. “You look like you’re about to crawl out of your skin.”

“I feel like I’m about to crawl out of my skin,” Steve mumbled, worrying his fingers together. She reached up to rub a hand on his back surreptitiously.

“Oh no,” he said, head suddenly snapping straight in front of him. She glanced over in the direction where he had been looking and saw Bucky flanked by two people who looked—pretty much exactly how she would have imagined Mr. and Mrs. Barnes looking, but that fact did not lessen the unsettling chill that ran down her spine at the sight of them. Mr. Barnes had the puffed-out chest and slicked-over hair of a very successful businessman, and was wearing an expensive polo shirt and khakis to match, and Mrs. Barnes had a pinched, horsey, anorexic look, along with, predictably, clothes that were simply too fancy for the suburbs. Mrs. Rogers could barely stop herself from shuddering to look at them. Worst of all, though, she thought, was the way they looked and did not look like Bucky; the way his faces was inevitably reflected in theirs, but in a strange, unsettling way: the emotionless mask she had sometimes seen shutter his face had frozen into a kind of rictus over their features, like they were made of wax, and somebody had to push up the corners of their mouths of to make them smile.

Bucky looked very small standing between them, even though he was taller than his mother. His wide pretty eyes, she saw, were free of eyeliner, his long dark lashes visible against his pale skin even from afar, and she smiled to look at him.

He saw them and froze, so she smiled more broadly and raised a hand. He just shrunk down into his suit, face bloodless, and practically grabbed his parents to drag them away.

“Well he looks handsome,” Mrs. Rogers said mildly to her son, who hissed, “Shut up!”


*


Soon enough, it was time for all of the parents to drive themselves home to their houses free of teenagers, and pour themselves a glass of wine or open a beer, and resolutely not think about what their children might be getting up to in one of the so-called ballrooms of a large, featureless (but ritzy) chain hotel in the downtown of the city of which their town was a suburb. And when they had gone, their children were left to board the bus, which was, in certain cases, a very fraught prospect indeed.

Most of the students were, of course, faced with the uncomplicated proposition of sitting next to their dates; others, like Pepper and June, were sitting next to friends who also hadn’t managed to find one. But the last few—the very bottom of the barrel, as it were—were those students who had no dates, and also nobody to sit next to, and were therefore thrown to the metaphorical wolves, for the busses were sold out, and so they all had to sit next to somebody. Which was how Bucky and Steve found themselves standing in the aisle in the middle of the bus, staring at each other, turning to stare at the set of two empty seats next to them, and each turning around and frantically looking for somewhere, anywhere else they might set themselves down.

“Oh,” Loki said when Steve collapsed next to him. “It’s you.”

Steve looked at him.

“…Yes,” he said. “It… is.”

Loki sighed theatrically.

“You’ll do,” he said, which seemed ominous.

That was considerably less ominous, however, than what Bucky faced when he toppled into the first single open seat he saw, and then turned to see himself faced with the smiling, predatory face of Caitlin Chen. He swallowed.

“Hi, Bucky,” she said, leaning dangerously far into his personal space. “Let’s. Talk. About. Steve.”

He gulped.

Ms. Hill settled down into her seat at the front of the bus after she had gone through and checked that they were all there, and not (visibly) stashing away anything illegal.

“Impressive, Mr. Barton,” she’d said, and he’d just blinked at her, confused.

“Well,” she said. “Here’s nothing.”

“Once more unto the breach,” Mr. Coulson agreed, and they both laughed, slightly hysterically.

“What about Steve?” Bucky said once the bus had started moving, looking at Caitlin suspiciously. “I don’t have anything to say about Steve.”

“I’m sure you have lots to say about Steve,” she said, eyes glinting. “Did you see him before? Doesn’t he look handsome?”

“No,” Bucky ground out. “I didn’t see him. And I wouldn’t have noticed. Even if I had.”

“He looked reaaaally handsome,” Caitlin said. “His eyes were soooo bluuuuue, and his hair was actually straight for once—though I doubt that will last—and he was all tall in his tux and everything—”

“Do you have,” Bucky said, eye twitching, “a point.”

She grinned. “Your tortured love looks so good on you,” she said. “You even cleaned up for him, I’m so touched.”

“I’m going to kill you,” Bucky told her.

“You can’t,” she said matter-of-factly. “Coulson wouldn’t let you. Also this is all just misdirected anger, you guys just have to bang a bunch and you are going to be so zen.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “That was Gene’s problem, too,” she added. “See, you do learn things in English class.”

“How long does it take to get downtown,” Bucky said desperately.

“That,” said Caitlin, eyes glinting, “depends on traffic.”

Farther back, Loki had begun regaling Steve with his unsolicited tales of woe, while Steve looked around awkwardly for an escape route that persistently refused to present itself.

“It’s like she has no idea that I exist,” he said morosely. “I mean, she does, but she has no idea of my—affections.”

“Nobody says that,” Steve said, rubbing at his forehead and pushing his hair up, predictably, into its cowlick. “Have you, uh, talked to her? About your… feelings? Or, uh, whatever? I don’t think I’m really the right person to be giving you advice about this.”

“I have made my position clear,” Loki said stiffly. Steve looked at him.

“What does that mean,” he said.

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Loki sniffed.

“You’re the one unburdening yourself to me while I’m trapped here next to you,” Steve said, exasperated.

“What else do you have to do?” Loki asked.

“Obsess about my own problems!” Steve exclaimed. Loki waved a dismissive hand.

“Mine are more important,” he said, and Steve huffed and rolled his eyes.

“Who is it, anyway?” he asked.

“I’m not telling you,” Loki said, disgusted. “It’s a secret.”

“Who would I tell?” Steve said.

“That’s beside the point,” Loki said.

“I don’t see how I can give you any advice if I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Steve said.

“Be general,” Loki said dictatorially, and Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes again.

“Just—talk to her,” he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Whoever it is! I don’t care. Just talk to her. That is—literally the only thing you can do in this situation.”

“I don’t see you talking to Barnes about your problems,” Loki said snidely.

“How do you—” Steve started, turning red. “Look, I never said I was an expert, you’re the one who’s making me do this!”

Loki just looked at him witheringly.

“Pathetic,” he said. “Just pathetic.”

Bucky was not faring much better. “Oh, come on,” Caitlin was saying to him, leaning on the armrest, chin on her hands. “Don’t you have sappy daydreams about his smile and his stupid mannerisms and his big wide hands all day long?”

Bucky looked around desperately, mouth dry. “You are—evil,” he croaked.

Peggy leaned over the back of the seat in front of them. “Stop torturing him,” she said. “This is just mean.”

“It’s for his own good,” Caitlin said.

“I don’t think you can reasonably make that argument at this point in time,” Sam said, appearing next to Peggy, blinking behind his glasses.

“Well, all right, Mr. Logic,” she said.

“Sit down back there,” Ms. Hill called from the front, and they slid back in their seats.

“No one can save you now,” Caitlin said, pulling a face. Bucky cowered.

Several lanes over on the highway, Tony and Rhodey sat on opposite sides of the limousine, legs kicked up onto the seats in front of them. “We could be on the bus right now,” Tony said. They both considered this for a moment, and then, even as minimally inebriated as they were, burst out laughing.


*


IN WHICH THERE IS A PROM

The ballroom of the hotel was beige-colored, dimly lit, crammed full of round tables, and essentially unremarkable in every respect, except in that it was currently full of scores upon scores of teenagers in formal dress.

“Well, that seems like a terrible idea,” Ms. Hill said to Mr. Coulson, looking at the one small tea light dotting the center of each table.

He sighed. “As long as they don’t burn the whole building down,” he said.

“Just a few floors, right?” she said.

“Right,” he agreed, and turned to usher more of the students through the door.

Steve was, fortunately, saved from the presence of Loki by the arrival of Tony and Rhodey, both of whom were looking slightly—slightly—more relaxed than usual.

“What up,” Rhodey said, raising his hand for Steve to awkwardly high-five. “Let’s lock down one of these tables while this dude pretends he’s not looking for Pepper.”

“Right,” Steve said, and they laid claim to one of the tables near the edge of the room. Pepper and June, unsurprisingly, wound up sitting not very far away.

“Predictable,” Rhodey muttered. “The shit I put up with, man.” June waved, smiling wanly. When Tony wasn’t looking, Rhodey mimed shooting himself in the head theatrically, and she made a face.

All the way across the room, Bucky had somehow wound up getting caught up with the Odinson party, and he would have been equally hard-pressed to explain how this had come to pass as any of them, except that he had fled from Caitlin Chen the second the bus stopped, and Thor and all his extended circle were all very affable, except for Loki and Sif, and Loki was too busy hating Thor to bother with anyone else, and Sif was too busy glaring at Loki like a maniac to notice anybody else at all, so evidently nobody had noticed him. And then, when he had tried half-heartedly to leave—he didn’t particularly want to stay there with them, but it wasn’t like had anywhere else to go—Darcy grabbed onto his arm and said, “Nooo, Bucky, don’t go!” and he had stared at her with such alarm that he had forgotten to keep moving. (She had then immediately stopped, grinned up at him, and continued what she had been saying about the empowering message of Satanism, which Bucky could not follow at all.)

“Here, you can sit next to me,” she said cheerfully, when they were all shuffling around awkwardly to figure out where to sit down.

“Uh,” Bucky said. “Okay. I guess.”

She beamed. It was unnerving.

Steve was sitting next to Rhodey, toying with his napkin and watching Tony push his finger very intently along the little beads of condensation gathered on the outside of his glass of water.

“Are you guys—” he started, and then realized he had no idea how to politely ask if somebody was drunk.

“Pregaming, my friend,” Rhodey said munificently, leaning back and spreading his arms wide. “Give it a shot sometime.”

“Hah,” Tony exclaimed. “Terrible pun.”

“We were not doing shots,” Rhodey said.

“Right,” said Steve, who had never touched a sip of alcohol in his life.

“Prude,” Tony said. Steve gave him a look.

“Shouldn’t you be off sitting with your—boyfriend?” Tony said, waving a hand vaguely at him.

“Shouldn’t you be sitting with your girlfriend?” Steve countered, glaring.

That,” Tony said, “is not the same.”

“No,” Steve agreed, “it’s not. Yours is way more embarrassing.”

Rhodey ooohed loudly, cackling to himself, and Tony shot Steve a look of utmost disgust.

“You guys just gotta make up with your paramours tonight, my friends,” he told them, leaning back in his chair. “Isn’t that what prom’s for? Grand romantic gestures and all that shit.”

“Prom’s for getting wasted and losing your virginity,” Tony said immediately, looking out at the sea of people.

“I’d say you’ve watched too many teen movies, but I know that’s not true,” Rhodey said. “Also, you are definitely not going to lose your virginity tonight, so give up on that one right now.”

“I’m not speaking to you anymore,” Tony said. Steve turned and looked where he was looking, unsurprised to find Pepper sitting there with June, sitting up very straight and looking like she was monologuing about something.

They really, he thought, deserved each other, if they could just get over themselves.

Once everyone had gotten in and sat down, the DJ started playing bland acoustic-y music while the chaperones sent them up to the food tables in rotations based on their placement in the room. Steve and Rhodey hung back, holding their empty plates in front of them, while they watched Tony and Pepper bicker over the vegetables.

“Man, I don’t know whether my life is gonna get way better or way, way worse when they finally get their shit together,” Rhodey said. “Cause I gotta tell you, I am sick of listening to that dude whine about that girl, but I have a feeling they are going to be insufferable.”

Steve watched Tony start to mockingly repeat everything Pepper was saying as he followed her to the next side dish. “They’re definitely going to be insufferable,” he said.

Rhodey sighed. “I know,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep the hope alive.”

After they had all sat down, the Odinsons’ table and the few surrounding theirs got up and got in line, slowly making their way along the various platters and dishes, full of unappetizing pasta in cream sauce, chicken, and various vegetable sides.

Sif and Loki found themselves standing next to each other over the broccoli, which was looking less than fresh.

“Loki,” Sif growled.

“Sif,” he said stiffly. “You look very nice today.”

She leaned in suddenly, and he looked so alarmed it was almost comical. “You may have fooled everybody else,” she hissed. “But you haven’t fooled me. I know you’re up to something. I know you have something planned. I’ve got my eye on you.” And with that she flounced around him, dress rustling behind her, leaving him looking boggled in her wake.

Bucky, who was standing only a few feet away, at the carrots, was staring at them both with an expression of extreme disquiet.

He sat eating, watching Loki staring at Sif, and Sif glaring at Loki, and Thor and Jane smiling at each other, and Thor saying something jokingly to Sif before looking amusedly between Sif and Loki, and Jane talking to Darcy, and Clint eating with a single-mindedness of purpose that was somewhat admirable if also fairly terrifying, before raising a hand to bump his fist against Sam’s when he and Peggy walked by, a maneuver they achieved with complete confidence and no change in their facial expressions whatsoever. Bucky wondered if this was what it was like, to have a—a group, of friends. He had never had one before, so he wouldn’t know. They didn’t seem to really have anything to do with each other, except in one long meandering line: Loki was Thor’s brother, Sif was Thor’s friend, Thor was Jane’s boyfriend, Darcy was Jane’s friend, and Clint was Darcy’s boyfriend. But even though Loki and Sif both looked sort of homicidal, they all seemed like they sort of… belonged together. It made him kind of—sad, he guessed. And he didn’t even want a group of people. He just wanted one.

“Hey,” Darcy said. “So, like, everybody’s totally talking about your whole… thing, with Steve.”

Bucky paused with a bite of pasta halfway to his mouth. “There’s no—thing,” he said, more wearily than anything.

“Yeah,” she said, “I know. But there, like, totally is, though.”

“No,” he said, putting his fork down. “There’s not.”

Yeah,” she said slowly, looking at him significantly. “But. There is.”

“Is that supposed to mean something?” he asked.

“Look,” she said. “Like, no offense but you kind of have to deal with the fact that there is something going on. I know everybody’s butting into your business and telling you do this or do that about all this stuff happening in your life whatever when they don’t even know what’s going on, and I’m just doing the same thing. But the sooner you just do something, the sooner everybody will leave you alone.

“So, like, you should do whatever,” she said. “And don’t, like, worry about what we think or whatever. Just, like, do whatever’s going to make you happy. Cause you look like a puppy somebody kicked and that’s just sad.”

He blinked at her. “Um,” he said. “Thanks. I think.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, and smiled.

“You dispensing wisdom, babe?” Clint asked, in tones that suggested he had not listened to a word of what she had said.

“You know me,” she said. “I’m so wise.”

“That’s my girl,” Clint said, clapping her with slightly too much force on the back.

People, Bucky thought, were really, really weird.


*


It was, soon enough, time for the dancing to begin, which was signaled by the DJ turning up music up substantially, putting on a thudding, tuneless song, and sitting back and waiting for the requests for other equally thudding, tuneless songs to flow in, which they did, at great speed, along with a few for maudlin power ballads, which he divvyed up appropriately throughout the evening.

“Maybe I’m just old,” Mr. Coulson said, watching as the students started to dance, “but I don’t remember it being like this.”

“Well,” Ms. Hill said. “You are old. Because I definitely do, although I wish I didn’t.”

Across the room, Mr. Sitwell was chatting with some of the students, his shiny blue bowtie glinting in the low light as he laughed too loudly, clapping one of them on the shoulder.

“I hate that man,” Ms. Hill said distastefully.

“My thought about him is always that he has no life outside of the school,” Mr. Coulson said, taking a sip of his sparkling cider, “but then I think about my own life, and censure mysel—oh, Christ, don’t look to the left.”

Naturally, she looked, and let out an anguished sound. “Are they actually having sex?”

“No,” he said, pained. “I don’t believe so.” Clint and Darcy were not, in fact, copulating, but they were making out so enthusiastically—with, you could say, their whole bodies—that an uncomfortable perimeter had formed around them, about which they seemed to have remained oblivious.

“I’m so glad I’m not seventeen anymore,” Ms. Hill said, relieved.

“And yet we’ve chosen to spend our lives surrounded by seventeen-year-olds,” Mr. Coulson said.

“Therein lies the rub,” she said, looking into her glass, and wondering why it wasn’t full of real booze.

Jane and Thor were, some distance away, dancing enthusiastically and utterly without skill, while Peggy and Sam moved back and forth stiffly, room for an entire extra body in-between them, all surrounded by a hoard of other teenagers with whom we need not concern ourselves. The other subjects of our interest were, for the most part, still seated around their tables, gazing gloomily at the dance floor—or, surreptitiously and with considerably more ire, at each other.

“Shit, man, I can’t take any more of this,” Rhodey said finally, and got up and walked over to where Pepper and June were sitting, both of them studiously not staring at Tony.

“You wanna dance?” he asked June. She looked like she was about to automatically tell him no, but he gave her a significant, slightly desperate look, and then she looked at Pepper, and then over at Tony, and then back at Pepper again.

No,” Pepper said, glaring up at him and raising her nose. “She doesn’t. Now please leave us alone to talk in peace.”

“Yes,” June said, standing up. “Dancing sounds great. Totally great. Definitely. Lead the way.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Rhodey said, and practically dragged her off, Pepper making squawking sounds behind them.

“I don’t really want to dance,” June whispered once they had gotten some distance away. “Not, uh, like—that.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Rhodey said. “That was a rescue mission.”

“Thank you,” she said, relieved.

“Well, it got me outta there, too,” he pointed out.

“Traitor,” Tony was muttering, arms crossed sullenly over his chest as he and Steve watched Rhodey and June practically run across the room over to the dance floor. Steve glanced over at Pepper, who was now the last person at her table, although actually there were a lot of people still sitting around talking: the dance floor was only so big, and it was also terrifying. She was slightly hunched, but only for a moment, and then she sat up perfectly straight again, and started fiddling with her phone—except Steve was pretty sure she couldn’t have anybody to talk to, since she didn’t have any friends except June, and Tony had been the friend she talked to on… the internet. Which she obviously couldn’t do anymore.

“How old were you when invented that website?” he asked. Tony sighed deeply, as though this were a question he had been asked many times, by many stupid people, even though it obviously wasn’t, since basically nobody knew about the whole thing with BabbleCore at all.

“You don’t invent a website,” he said. “You create a website, or you build a website; you invent a program, or a—oh, never mind. It’s not relevant to your grasp of the situation.”

“No,” Steve agreed. “It’s not.”

Tony looked at him, annoyed. “I was twelve-and-a-half,” he said.

“Wow,” Steve said, and Tony shifted awkwardly in his seat. “Why?”

“Why was I twelve?” Tony asked peevishly.

“Why’d you make it?” Steve asked, rolling his eyes.

“I was bored,” Tony said, looking down his nose at him. “It was something to do.”

“Right,” Steve said. “Okay.”

“Was that not a satisfactory response,” Tony said peevishly.

“Nope,” Steve said. Tony glared at him, and they both turned back to look at the people dancing.

“It is possible,” Tony said grudgingly, several moments later, “that I find communicating with people in an environment without germs, where words can be chosen carefully in advance, more rewarding than… this.”

“Okay,” Steve said.

“Okay?” Tony said, slightly too shrill. “Okay what?”

Steve shrugged. “I can see where you’re coming from, I guess.”

Tony goggled at him for a moment before narrowing his eyes. “Hmm,” he said noncommittally, and Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes until he had turned away, tapping his fingers obsessively on his cutlery.

“I need to go talk to someone,” he said suddenly, and then stood up, leaving Steve alone.

Solitude, however, was probably preferable to Bucky’s current predicament: he had been left at the table with Loki and Sif, who were sitting three seats apart from each other with equally murderous expressions on their faces.

“Anything fun planned for the night?” she snarled, without looking at him.

“Oh, you know me,” he bit back. “Lots of fun. All the time.”

“In your car?” she asked. “Better make sure you don’t crash it.”

“I am an excellent driver,” he said primly. “I always get exactly where I want to go.”

These people, Bucky thought, were insane. And exhausting. And insane. But if he got up, he might run into Steve.

But if he stayed here, he was going to have to keep listening to Sif saying things like, “Oh, you’re a car crash, all right,” and not gag audibly, because if he did she would probably kill him. She could kill him in two seconds, if not one second.

But if he got up, he might run into Steve.

It was a conundrum.

Across the room, Pepper was typing nonsense into a text message addressed to no one when Tony appeared standing above her, glowering. “We need,” he said ominously, “to talk.”

“I think we’ve talked enough, don’t you?” she said, looking back down at her phone so intently she thought she might be able to burn a hole through it with just the power of her vision.

No,” Tony growled, or would have, if his voice had gone that low. “I think. We need. To discuss this situation.”

Pepper’s hand clenched around her phone. Her hair where it brushed her shoulders felt approximately like straw, and not at all like her hair. She was beginning to think that formal dress was overrated.

Fine,” she said. “Let’s talk.”

“Not here,” he said, sounding scandalized. “Somewhere private. I’m not going to be eavesdropped on by some—peon.”

“The fact that you use words like peon is the reason that people dislike you,” she told him.

“The fact that you tell people why people dislike them is why people dislike you,” he shot back.

“Where’s private out here anyway?” she asked, gesturing around at the ballroom. “There are a million people everywhere.”

“There are not a—” Tony started, and visibly stopped himself, letting out a long breath. “My father’s limo is very nice, and quiet, and air conditioned. There are refreshments.”

She looked up at him, eyes narrowed. “Fine,” she said. “Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! That’s it!”

“I do not want to be sitting alone in a car with you for more than fifteen minutes,” Tony said in tones of utmost disgust. “Trust me.”

They both looked around as though they were doing something illegal as they made their way toward the elevators, but nobody paid any attention to them at all, so they rode down to the side-entrance to the hotel in horrifically awkward silence before walking to the limo where it was sitting in the parking lot, a light on in the front. Tony knocked on the window.

“Happy, open up,” he said, and the window rolled down.

“Oh, I see you got your girlfriend here,” he said, smiling. “Nice to meet you—Pepper? Was that her name?”

What has my father been telling you?” Tony yelped, alarmed. Pepper looked like she wanted to die.

“All sorts of things, Mr. Stark,” Happy said blithely. “There you go, doors are unlocked.”

Tony lurched forward to pull the door open and shot through without offering to let Pepper in first.

“I never said that,” he insisted, livid. “My father is—terrible.”

Pepper, who had been listening to stories of the many and varied horrors Howard Stark had visited upon his son over the past year, actually believed him, although she still gave him a cool look, to maintain her position.

“So,” she said, smoothing her (wrinkled) dress over her legs. “What are we supposed to—talk—about.”

Tony just looked at her for a moment, jaw working.

First of all,” he said. “I didn’t know it was you. Okay? I don’t know how many times I have to tell you. I had no idea.”

“Well then why would you have lied about the fact that you invented the website?” she asked.

“You don’t—never mind,” he huffed, looking irritated. “I’d been lying about that for years, don’t think you’re that special.”

She just looked at him.

“So what if I hadn’t, you still wouldn’t have assumed it was me,” Tony pointed out. “That piece of information is functionally useless in determining how you would have interacted with ironman89 on BabbleCore.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t have gone on BabbleCore at all if I had known you had invented it,” she said, glaring.

“Oh, please, if I really wanted to track all your digital movements I wouldn’t have to be the creator of BabbleCore to do it,” he said, and her eyes bulged.

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?”

“But I haven’t!” he shouted. “That would be creepy! And weird! I’m a weirdo but I’m not a creep!”

“That’s for me to decide, not you,” she said with a sniff, and he groaned, and rubbed his hands over his face. When he lowered them, she was looking at him strangely.

“Are you drunk?” she asked.

“I had one drink,” he said, chagrined. “One.”

“Oh my god,” she said. “Oh my god.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, rolling his eyes and waving his hands. “So scandalous. Poor Pepper, it was too much for her weak heart.”

“I’m not as—as innocent as you think I am,” she huffed.

“Pepper,” he said. “I’ve talked to you every day for the last year. Until, uh, a month ago.”

She turned bright red.

“Well, I could drink,” she said. “If I wanted to.”

“How does now sound?” Tony said, turning and leaning over—slightly precariously—to push the button that swiveled out the fully stocked bar.

“Oh,” Pepper said. “Um.”

They both stared at the foggy bottles and ice bucket. (Howard was nothing if not forward-thinking when it came to alcohol.) “I have no idea what any of these things are,” Tony admitted. “Like, specifically. Since they. Don’t have labels.”

“Why not?” Pepper asked.

“Too bourgeois,” Tony said.

“I shouldn’t,” Pepper said.

“Yeah,” Tony said, leaning back and looking up at the ceiling of the car. “I guess I should have known you couldn’t take it.”

There was a long pause.

“Oh, give me that one with the—brown-colored stuff in it,” she snapped, and held a hand out.

“If you insist,” Tony said, and obliged.


*


Upstairs, the rest of the students were working through varying stages of coming down from their pregaming, steadily increasing drunkenness due to liquor they had snuck onto the premises, or, in many, many regrettable cases, sobriety. (As an ex-teenager who survived adolescence in a state of uninterrupted sobriety, the author wishes to clarify that it was not the state of sobriety itself that was regrettable but its application at this particular moment, in this particular poorly lit beige hotel ballroom—this, perhaps, was regrettable.) Ms. Hill and Mr. Coulson were now making slow rounds of the perimeter and watching as various terrified-looking students scattered at their approach.

“Not incriminating at all,” Ms. Hill said, watching as one of them fell over behind a table.

“No,” Mr. Coulson agreed.

Steve and Bucky, they saw, were still sitting forlornly on opposite sides of the room, sneaking occasional glances in each other’s direction before hastily looking away. “This is just so pathetic,” she said. “I want to have an intervention for them but it’s like it doesn’t count if you interfere.”

“Well, that’s teaching,” he pointed out, and she sighed.

Bucky was still sitting with Loki and Sif, but they had stopped proclaiming things melodramatically at each other a while earlier, and now all three of them were just glaring vaguely at nothing. Suddenly, though, Thor and Jane burst out from the crowd of people, looking sweaty and vaguely disheveled and utterly delighted with themselves.

“I love the prom!” Thor announced, thudding into a chair and leaning back, grinning around at all of them while Jane shuffled around in front of the one next to him, holding her dress awkwardly, and finally sitting down, too. “Dancing. Why don’t we have more dances?”

“Teen pregnancy rates in Middletown would skyrocket,” Loki said snidely.

“Statically that’s highly unlikely,” Jane said. “If you leave everybody with nothing to do they usually manage to drink and fuck without direction.”

Loki stared at her. Sif started to laugh hysterically. Bucky slowly put his head down on the table.

“You two should get out there,” Thor said to Loki and Sif, gesturing with his glass of water after he’d drank most of it in one go. He put it down and started rolling his sleeves up. “I’m sure you’d enjoy yourselves.”

“No,” they snapped simultaneously.

“Oh, come on, Loki,” Thor cajoled. “Mother gave us both dancing lessons for years from when we were only four!”

“Seriously?” said Jane.

“Yes, of course,” Thor said, blinking. “Is that another weird thing?”

“Yes,” Jane said.

“Oh,” Thor said, frowning slightly.

“Not bad,” she said. “Just weird.”

Well,” Loki interrupted, glaring. “I guess the dancing talent must have passed down through your side of the family.”

Thor laughed. “What are you talking about?”

“I guess it was just in the genetics,” Loki said, eye twitching. “Since you were always better at it than I was. What was it that Father always used to say when Mother made us show him what we had learned? I just had two left feet. No. Wonder.”

“I’m lost,” Jane said.

“I’m sure my real parents were also terrible dancers,” Loki snarled, and Bucky pushed his chair back from the table with such force that the glasses and the little tea light all rattled.

“You all enjoy this,” he said. “I’m out of here.”

They stared at him for a moment, and then back at each other.

What?” Thor shouted.


*


Tony was peering at Pepper through the bottom of his tumbler. “You look—funny,” he slurred, and she giggled.

“Your eye is huuuuge,” she said, leaning back against the seat of the car. Her hair crunched behind her, but it was a lost cause by now. Her shoes had gotten off somehow, too—she had definitely done that; she had not let Tony Stark touch her—and she was staring at her toes where they were propped up against the leather seat across from her.

“My toes are really long,” she said, and he put the glass down and looked at them.

“Look—normal, to me,” he said. “Normal for. Toes.”

“Alcohol tastes gross,” she said. “What were we even drinking? What was that? I have. No idea. That was stupid. That was sooo dumb.”

“I think,” Tony said. “That was. Whiskey. My dad drinks a lot of whiskey.”

“Your dad has terrible taste then,” she said, and he cracked up. He almost—he almost—looked nice, when he laughed, she thought. Almost.

“He does,” he said. “He has the—the worst taste ever. In anything. Of all time.”

“Why do people with so much money have such bad taste?” she asked, scrunching up her face. “It’s like—always. All the time.”

“I dunno,” Tony said. “When I’m a super rich person I’ll have really good taste. Watch. I’ll have an—art collection and everything.”

“You don’t know anything about art,” said Pepper. He waved a hand in her vague direction.

“I’ll hire somebody to do it for me. And to—buy my clothes, and do my house, and everything. I’ll be really fucking good. At being rich.”

“That’s fucked up,” Pepper said, pointing at him, and reaching over to pick up her glass where she’d rested it on the seat next to her. She took the last little sip and made a face. “God. Eww. That is just. Gross. But that’s—fucked up.”

“I’m also going to invent something to—save the planet from global warming,” Tony said complacently, slouching down so far that his suit jacket was around his ears. “And something to wipe out germs, at least within my own home. But. On top of that. I am going to be. Really good at being rich.”

“I’m going to—” she started, and then stopped, because this was a sentence she would never have began sober.

“Gonna what,” he said.

“Do something,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “But. What.”

“I’m going to beat you for valedictorian,” she said, scowling, and he rolled his eyes, pushing himself up a little on wobbly arms.

“I don’t actually care about that,” he said. “I didn’t think we actually cared about that. I thought it was just. Rivalry. Whatever. It’s not like it matters.”

Pepper stared at him.

“Of course it—matters,” she spluttered. “It’s—it’s very—important—”

“It’s totally meaningless,” Tony said. “Like, literally nobody will ever care whether I was valedictorian or salutatorian. Or, you know. You. Were which one. Of those things. You were smart. Whatever. Lots of smart people don’t get good grades in school at all.” He hiccoughed, and went cross-eyed for a moment. “My dad almost failed out of MIT because he was—busy. With other stuff. So, like. Whatever.”

“Well, your dad’s a genius,” Pepper said. “And you can just—invent websites, or whatever. I don’t have—that stuff.”

“Oh, you’re just insecure,” Tony said, as though this was hitting him only just now.

You’re just insecure,” Pepper retorted automatically.

“Oh, whatever, Potts,” Tony said. “We all know I’m a genius, it’s no big deal. It’s pretty whatever most of the time. I wouldn’t be that jealous.”

“If that isn’t the most—Tony Stark thing I’ve ever heard,” she huffed. “‘Oh, I’m just a genius, it’s overrated, blah blah blah.’”

“I have a deep-seated terror of all germs, I can’t talk to people, and my dad likes to do things like talk to me about seminal fluids,” Tony said, irritated. “It’s not exactly a walk in the park.”

Pepper glared at her toes. “Why was your dad talking to you about seminal fluids,” she asked finally.

“You don’t want to know,” Tony said stiffly.

“Your dad was telling his chauffeur about me,” Pepper said.

“That. Appears. To be the case,” Tony said. “Yes.”

She let out a long sigh. Her stomach was doing something weird—nerves, maybe; she didn’t know what was going on at all. “You are so. Annoying.”

“I know,” Tony said. “Trust me.”

Her throat was clenching now. Tony was really not actually—bad-looking—even though he was really, really irritating—her stomach clenched—

“I’m gonna be sick,” she said, and hurtled toward the door, pushing it open just in time to vomit all over the parking lot pavement.

“Well,” she heard a familiar voice say above her. “Here we are.”

“Ms. Potts,” another familiar voice said, and she slowly looked up to see the hazy faces of Ms. Hill and Mr. Coulson floating above her.

“Oh, shit,” she said.

“You know,” Mr. Coulson said conversationally, “students are very strictly not supposed to leave the prom area for the duration of the event. One of the employees of the hotel alerted us to the fact that the two of you had, ah, made a break for freedom.”

“That was ages ago,” Tony said, outraged.

“It really wasn’t that long,” Ms. Hill said. “I think you’ll find you got drunk a little faster than you think.”

“Anyway, we decided to let you enjoy yourselves for a little while,” Mr. Coulson said. “Since we were pretty sure you weren’t going very far. And you do seem to have… enjoyed yourselves. After a fashion.”

“Oh no,” Pepper said. “Oh fuck—”

Ms. Hill grabbed Mr. Coulson and dragged him back while Pepper threw up again.

“I really don’t miss being young,” Mr. Coulson said to Ms. Hill while Pepper moaned, and Tony tried to keep himself from fainting.

“No,” she agreed. “It’s overrated.”


*


“Your real parents?” Sif said.

“Yes,” Loki said, glowering. “My real parents. Who are not Frigga and Odin. They are—other people.”

“What are you talking about,” she said. “Who the fuck do you think they are, then.”

“That remains unclear,” he said shiftily, looking nervously around the ballroom, and seeming relieved when he didn’t see Tony Stark anywhere, though of course the rest of them could not have known this.

What?” Thor shouted again.

“I found the documents, Thor!” Loki shouted, eyes bulging. “I found them in Father’s desk. They adopted me illegally and played me off as your twin.”

“This is—the most—ridiculous—thing—I’ve ever—heard!” Thor managed, growing steadily redder. “Loki! Stop saying all of this! Stop it immediately!”

“I will not!” Loki shrieked. “You can’t stop me! You can’t stop the truth!”

“I think everybody needs to calm down,” Jane said.

“Shut up!” Loki shouted at her. “You aren’t even involved!”

“Don’t tell her to shut up!” Thor bellowed. Everyone around them started to back slowly away.

“You aren’t the boss of me!” Loki told him, voice jumping up an octave, as Thor fumed, growing steadily redder in the face.

“Oh my god,” Jane said, covering her own face with her hands. “Oh my god.”

Bucky, a good distance away by now, glanced back over his shoulder in the direction of the noise, and shook his head. Those people, he thought for the thousandth time that evening, were out of their minds. He rubbed his fingers together—he wanted to smoke, just to be—not here, doing this, but he couldn’t, obviously, until he got home later, and then it wouldn’t even be satisfying, probably.

He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Steve standing at the edge of the crowd, holding a glass of water—of course he was drinking water, he thought slightly hysterically. Of course. He stopped in his tracks, staring, his tongue suddenly feeling thick in his mouth. He should—go up to him, probably. Say something. That would be—good. He should just—find out, once and for all, if Steve really hated him forever, just so he would—know, whether he was going to be miserable for the rest of his life. He could take it, probably; he had been miserable for most of his life so far. He just—he just wanted to know. That was all.

Steve glanced up and caught his eye for a second and he whirled around and walked a few feet forward, so that he was standing amongst a couple other people milling around, heard thudding wildly in his chest.

He should probably talk to Steve, or, alternatively, he could avoid him for the rest of his life. That would also work.

Steve, for his part, had spent the entire night in an intensifying state of despair, watching everybody around him have fun (they were not, in fact, all having fun, but that was certainly how it seemed to him) while he sat alone, studiously trying not to think about Bucky and therefore thinking about Bucky and Bucky’s suit and Bucky’s haircut and Bucky’s eyelashes and the soft white skin beneath his eyes and Bucky’s smile, which he had not seen in what felt like around a million years, a very great deal. He was deeply miserable. And, on top of this, Bucky seemed to be deliberately avoiding him—he had sat with Loki the whole night to avoid coming anywhere near Steve, and Steve had been forced to sit with Loki on the bus ride. He knew that that was a truly desperate measure.

He took a couple halting steps toward him. He should just—talk to him, he thought, slightly hysterically. He needed to know, he just—he needed to know. But that would mean having to actually talk to him and being the first one to talk to him and it was so hard and he just—he just didn’t know if he could do it—

He was still standing there indecisively, listening to the dulcet tones of the Glee cover of “Don’t Stop Believing,” when Brock Rumlow pushed past him and bumped straight into Bucky, who skittered backwards in his dress shoes. “Watch it,” Bucky muttered, and Rumlow looked down at him.

Oh, shit, he thought, as Rumlow smirked.

“You watch it, you fucking faggot,” he said. Bucky’s lip curled—and, several feet away, Steve felt his blood boil. His head filled with shrill, high-pitched white noise.

“Hey, asshole,” he said, stepping forward, grabbed Rumlow by the shoulder, wrenched him around, and, with fairly considerable force, if utterly without skill, punched him square in the face.


*


“They always loved you more!” Loki had, moments before, been shouting across the ballroom. “Always! I was just poor little Loki, black sheep of the family—”

“You are insane,” Thor shouted back, “you are out of your mind—”

“When I was the one they should have been paying attention to!” Loki continued. “You were just the—stupid jock! I was the one with potential!”

“Do you believe me now!” Sif interrupted. “Do you believe me? About the fucking car?”

Thor turned to look at Loki, eyes going wide. “You,” he gasped. “You were the one who crashed the car.”

“Of course I was the one who crashed the car!” Loki shrieked. “Only a fucking idiot would have persisted in thinking otherwise for this long! Could it possibly have been more obvious? And even then they didn’t pay any attention to me!”

“Because you didn’t do anything but crash a car, Loki,” Sif shouted.

“You’re not involved,” he shouted back. “Take your stupid crush on Thor and get out of here.”

All three of them stared at him in outrage.

“She has a stupid crush on you, you idiot,” Jane said.

“I,” Loki said. “What?”

“What are you planning?” Sif said. “What are you going to pull?”

“What?” Loki said, staring at her. “What? What do you mean, planning? I only had one plan, which didn’t work, do you think I’m some kind of evil villain or something?”

Yes,” Sif cried.

“I am going,” Thor roared, “to kill you.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Loki shouted, and Thor charged him.


*


“What,” Rumlow said, bringing up a hand to touch his face, “the fuck.”

“What the fuck,” Bucky said, eyes wide, staring at Steve.

“Um,” Steve said, staring at Rumlow.

“You’re going down, you motherfucker,” Rumlow said, and knocked him to the floor—and, momentarily, unconscious—with a single punch.

“How do you like that,” Rumlow said. Steve groaned, and Rumlow bent down to pull him up for a second go, but before he could get farther than lifting Steve’s dazed face up by the collar, Bucky had toppled him over, making a sound like a wild animal. Steve skidded under a table.

“Ow,” he muttered.

Somewhere, somebody was warbling about streetlight people.

“I am going,” Bucky was shouting, “to kill you!”

“As if,” Rumlow spluttered, but in his reckoning of all their previous encounters, he had never yet had to factor in the spike of sheer adrenaline-fueled rage resulting from an animal witnessing an attack on its mate.

He looked up at Bucky’s deranged face above his and suddenly, for the first time in his life, felt fear for his person.

Across the room, Thor and Loki were rolling around on the floor like five-year-olds, having already rolled around on top of the table behind them, and made it over the other side, now shouting nonsensically at each other and banging into furniture while bystanders jumped out of the way. Jane was dancing from one foot to the other, hands over her mouth, until looked over and saw—

“Shit,” she said. “Shit shit fuck shit motherfucker—”

There was, on the top of the table, a very small fire burning at the center of the tablecloth.

Sif,” she screamed. “Sif, come help me put out this fire immediately.”

“What?” Sif yelled from where she was trying to pull Thor and Loki apart, as Jane clambered onto a chair and then up onto the table.

“Leave them alone and help! Me! Put! Out! This! Fire!” she screamed, attempting to smother it with her dress.

“What the fuck,” Sif said.

Strangers! Waiting! Up and down the boulevard! came over the speakers, as the DJ stared at the spectacle unfolding in front of him, frozen.

“What the shitting fuck!” Rumlow was now choking, as he staggered around with Bucky choking him from behind and then fell back to the floor again.

“That’s right, motherfucker,” Bucky shouted, and punched him in the face again. “Jesus fucking Christ that hurts!”

“So stop hitting me!” Rumlow wailed. Nearby, Steve groaned wordlessly. Bucky just grinned down at him, teeth bloody where they’d slammed into a chair moments earlier, and hit him again.

Above them all, the fire sprinklers started to go off.


*


Having deposited Tony and Pepper with hotel staff downstairs, Ms. Hill and Mr. Coulson leaned against the back of the elevator, snickering to themselves.

“It really is like television sometimes,” Ms. Hill said.

“I know,” he said. “You can’t make this shit up, as they say.”

“No,” she said, “you—”

And then the elevator doors opened onto the ballroom, which was full of students either beating each other up or fleeing the scene, partially on fire, and being rained on from the ceiling.

What,” Mr. Coulson shouted, “the fuck.”


*


Shoes abandoned by the elevators, Ms. Hill sprinted toward the beverages table as the water from the sprinklers rained down on her, and stared at what was available. Sitwell appeared in the doorway in front of her, shepherding a disheveled and disgruntled Clint Barton and Darcy Lewis. They all stared.

“Is this the apocalypse?” Clint asked.

“Thanks for dealing with this while we were downstairs, Jasper!” she shouted. “Guess they were really an urgent matter!”

“Public indecency,” he said snidely.

“I thought you were cool, man,” Clint said, looking deeply betrayed.

“Clint,” she barked. “Which one of these bowls of punch doesn’t have booze in it! Do not fucking lie to me! This is a safety issue!”

“None of them!” he said, frazzled. “Nobody does that anymore! Nobody even drinks punch!”

“You two, punch bowls, follow me,” she said. “I’ll give them back to you when I’m done!” she shouted at Sitwell over her shoulder, and walked as fast as she could while holding a large bowl of horrible-smelling, fruit-free, fruit-flavored juice in her arms, Darcy and Clint tottering behind her.

“Move out of the way,” she shouted at the top of her lungs when they got to the table upon which Jane was standing, frantically trying to contain the fire (upon which the sprinklers seemed to be having minimal effect) while Sif found little bits of water to dump on it. Jane toppled off, looking haggard, and Maria turned to Clint and Darcy. “Count of three!” she shouted. “One, two, three!”

It seemed to make a sad little noise as it was extinguished, although maybe that was just her, exhaling in relief.

“Good work, team,” she said, patting each of them on a bedraggled shoulder.

“Thor and Loki are trying to kill each other,” Jane said weakly from the floor.

“Yes,” Ms. Hill sighed. “I’m going to go try to deal with that now.”

She trudged over to them, where they did not seem to be doing much more than shouting and rolling on top of each other and dripping water in each other’s faces.

“Mom always loved you best!” Thor was shouting.

“She did not!” Loki was shouting back.

“Boys,” she said. “This is really just embarrassing.”

They froze, and looked up at her.

“I have no idea what’s going on here,” she said, “and I don’t care to. But please, for the love of god, stop acting like you’re five years old. I’ve just put out a fire, and I’m soaking wet. I don’t need this shit.”

Their eyes went wide.

“Yes,” she said. “I said it. Now get the fuck up.”

“Oh my god,” Jane said in a small voice from behind her.

“Don’t report me,” she said, and squeezed out her hair.


*


“Bucky,” Mr. Coulson said. “I think you’ve pretty well beat him.”

Bucky blinked, hazy. Rumlow was lying on the ground beneath him, looking dazed. His left eye was swollen shut, his lip was split, and his face was otherwise mottled.

“Very impressive,” Mr. Coulson said. “But I think you can probably give it a rest for now.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. “Uh. Yeah.”

He slowly got up and stumbled backwards, and then made the mistake of moving his hands. “Fuck,” he hissed. “Oh, motherfucking fuck.”

“Yes,” Mr. Coulson said dryly. “That is the unfortunate aftereffect.”

Ow,” he said woefully. “It hurts.”

“Probably not as much as Mr. Rumlow’s face,” Mr. Coulson said. “Why don’t you go find Mr. Rogers, and I’ll deal with Mr. Rumlow here.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. “Right. I’ll, uh. I’ll do. That.”

“I think those are his legs right there,” Mr. Coulson said, gesturing, and Bucky stared for a moment before slowly crouching down and crawling under the tablecloth. Steve was staring at the underside of table, blinking. His face was puffy and bruised, and Bucky felt angry all over again, and also deeply, deeply satisfied.

“Um,” Bucky said. “Hi.”

Steve blinked again, and turned to look at him. “Oh,” he said, as though very surprised to see him, and then he smiled, slowly, until it had taken up his entire face. “Hi. Hi.”

Bucky smiled back, and tried not to cry, and if he didn’t entirely succeed it was all right, because it was just the two of them there under the table anyway, and nobody else had to know.

Of course, when they came out, it was the two of them and the entire junior class and the fire department and the police waiting to take them and most of the people they knew down to the station to maybe be arrested, but, you know. For the moment, it was nice.


*


“This is a lot of people,” Steve said. “I mean. Wow. Like. A lot of people. We’re in cells.”

“I think this is just holding,” Bucky said, looking around. “At least they let us come back to Middletown. Is that illegal? I’m pretty sure that was illegal. They’re probably not going to arrest us, then. They’re probably just trying to scare us.”

Loki and Thor were sitting across from them, leaning against each other and looking dazed; not unlike, in fact, Tony and Pepper, in the next big cell over, although Pepper was really looking significantly worse for the wear. Loki had given Tony a look like he wanted to maybe kill him when they’d come in, which Bucky did not want to know anything about at all, and which he suspected was the reason the cops had hurriedly moved Tony and Pepper into the next cell over, with Jane and Sif.

“What do they think you guys did?” Steve had asked through the bars, when they’d all sat down.

“They think we set the fire,” Jane had said, rolling her eyes. “Because that sounds likely.”

“Cops, man,” Clint had muttered.

“What about you, Barton?” Tony had asked.

“Public indecency,” Darcy had replied, smiling at him with all of her teeth. “And you?”

“Underage drinking,” he had muttered, and everybody had snickered. He’d shut up after that.

“I think,” Thor was now saying, his golden head leaning against Loki’s black one, “that maybe. We should be angry with our parents. And not each other. About this whole. Situation.”

“Maybe,” Loki said grudgingly. “I could maybe be persuaded to see your reasoning.”

“Never trust anyone who lives in a castle in the woods,” Steve muttered to Bucky. “Especially not when they’re from suburbia.”

“Good advice,” Bucky said around a yawn.

“Your hand’s really fucked up,” Steve said.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, looking down at it. “I know.”

Steve reached out tentatively and took it in his, curling his fingers around the wrist for a moment and then splaying them out under Bucky’s swollen ones. He traced the bruised and scraped up skin on the top of his hand and fingers with his other hand, slowly and carefully, and when he had finished let both of his curl around it, barely touching, so it didn’t hurt.

Bucky shivered, and looked down at Steve’s big pale hands around his smaller mottled one. He turned to look at him, swallowing. “Thanks,” he croaked. “For—you know.”

Steve frowned for a moment, confused, before his face cleared. “Oh,” he said. “It was—you know. Somebody needed to punch him finally.”

“You didn’t have to,” Bucky said.

“Yeah, I did,” Steve said. His eyes were very bright, and very blue, and he was looking at Bucky—he was looking at Bucky—Bucky knew how he was looking at him. Bucky was looking at him the same way. There were a million things he wanted to do but none so much as to kiss him very carefully on his slightly open lips, but it was the night of the prom and instead of ending on a football field or in somebody’s backyard or in a bed they were in a prison cell, and he wasn’t going to do that. He wasn’t going to do that here. And he couldn’t bear to look at him anymore, not at his bright blue eyes and the look on his face and—and—everything, all of it, so he curled his head down to rest it on his shoulder instead, and there they sat, breathing in time with each other, Steve’s hands carefully encircled around Bucky’s, and waited to be taken home.


*


It was drizzling outside as Mrs. Rogers drove across town to the Middletown police station, wipers thunking against her dashboard, and it was still drizzling when she parked her car in the parking lot, got out, and tried and to open her umbrella.

“Come on,” she muttered, pushing at it. “Come on.”

“You need some help?” Howard Stark said, leaning down into the driver-side door and smiling in his general roguish way.

“By all means,” she said, and handed it to him. He took it, tossed it up and down in his hand a couple of times, and opened it without difficulty.

“Of course,” she muttered, got out, and locked the car behind her.

“What can I say,” he said, grinning, as he held the umbrella over her, and they started making their way across the parking lot. “I have a way with gadgets.”

“So they tell me,” she said. “I take it you are also here to pick up your son on this auspicious evening?”

“That I am,” he said. “Good ol’ Tony’s finally gotten himself into some trouble.”

“Well, so has Steve,” she said.

“You know, Sarah,” he said, “if I had had to guess one kid who was less likely to get brought in by the police than Tony, it would probably have been Steve, and yet—here we are.”

She laughed. “Here we are.”

“They grow up so fast,” he said, grinning down at her and collapsing the umbrella before pushing the door open and ushering her through, one hand on her lower back.

“I really do pity the poor woman who married you, you know,” she said as they walked through the hallway to the lit-up door at the end.

“So do I, most days,” he said. “But, somebody had to do it.”

“Fatalistic,” she said.

“Realistic,” he countered, and reached out to tuck one free strand of hair away behind her ear, lightning-quick, before holding the door open for her again. She had to keep herself from laughing when she looked around and saw Steve’s English teacher and his guidance counselor, looking bedraggled, sitting on chairs in front of the desk. The holding cells in the back, she saw, were full of teenagers.

“Hello,” she said.

“Well,” Howard said from behind her, handing her her umbrella. “What do we have here.”

“Oh, hello,” Ms. Hill said, standing up. Mr. Coulson rubbed at his eyes, suppressed a yawn, and stood up just after her. “Mrs. Rogers, Mr. Stark. You’re here to collect your children, I presume?”

“I believe I’m taking Miss Potts, also,” Howard said, sounding deeply amused. “To avoid, ah. Her parents seeing her in such a state. Obviously I have no such compunctions.”

“And I’m taking Bucky,” Mrs. Rogers said.

“Yes,” Mr. Coulson said. “I figured.”

“Well, why don’t you go speak to the attendant about Tony and Pepper,” Ms. Hill said to Howard. “They’re not going to press charges or anything like that, they just wanted to scare them.”

“I figured,” he said, and smiled his blazing smile at all of them before vanishing.

“Bucky and Steve actually got into a physical altercation,” Mr. Coulson said, rubbing at his face. “Fortunately I’ve convinced the, uh, aggrieved party not to press charges.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Rogers said. “Thank you. I’m—not sure I want to know how you managed that.”

He smiled, looking somewhat frightening all of the sudden. “No,” he said. “You probably don’t.”

“Blackmail,” Ms. Hill interjected, sending him a look. “Kid wants a football scholarship.”

“Ah,” Mrs. Rogers said. “I see.”

“Please,” Mr. Coulson said, pained. “This never leaves this room.”

“My lips are sealed,” Mrs. Rogers assured him.

“Oh, they want me over there,” he said. “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Rogers.”

“You, too, Mr. Coulson,” she said. Ms. Hill yawned once he had gone.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been a very long evening.”

“I understand,” Mrs. Rogers said, smiling at her. “I can hardly imagine.”

“I put out a fire with punch,” Ms. Hill said, raising an eyebrow. “Very eventful.”

Mrs. Rogers laughed. “Well,” she said. “I can see why Bucky likes you so much.”

Ms. Hill blinked, startled. “I—oh,” she said.

“So does Steve,” Mrs. Rogers said. “But not like Bucky does.”

“That’s… good to hear,” Ms. Hill said slowly.

“He doesn’t say it in so many words,” Mrs. Rogers explained. “But I can tell.”

“Yes,” Ms. Hill said. “I know what you mean.” She paused. “He’s a good kid.”

“I know,” Mrs. Rogers said. “He’s a very good kid.”

“He’s going to be all right, I think,” Ms. Hill said. “I mean, I’m not just saying that.”

“I think so, too,” Mrs. Rogers said. “At least, that’s what I hope.”

“Oh, I think they’re ready for you,” Ms. Hill said, and Mrs. Rogers went over to the place Howard had vacated, to speak to the attendant.

“Well, well, well,” Howard said, looking down at Tony and Pepper when he was let into the cell. “Looks like you two lovebirds had quite a night. Romance in the air, and all that.”

Tony blinked blearily up at him. “I hate you,” he croaked. “This has been a night characterized primarily by vomit. I have nothing romantic to say. About vomit.”

“Quite the lady killer, isn’t he, Pepper,” Howard said. “It’s quite the pleasure to make your acquaintance finally.”

Pepper glared up at him, or at least she tried. She didn’t have much force left to her.

“Well, maybe I’ll make your acquaintance tomorrow,” Howard said. “Incidentally, you’re both going to feel much, much worse in the morning than you do now.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Tony said. “That’s really helpful.”

“She doesn’t say much, does she?” Howard said, turning to look at Pepper. “That is not the impression you gave me, kiddo.”

“Well, she’s not exactly feeling—” Tony started to say, at which point Pepper suddenly threw up all over Howard’s shoes.

“I changed my mind,” Tony said peevishly. “I have something romantic to say about vomit now,” and his father just started to laugh.

“Thanks very much,” Mrs. Rogers said across the room, once she’d spoken to the desk attendant, and then she turned to look at Steve and Bucky, who still had not noticed she had arrived, and who were curled into each other like that had been so many times on the couch—but it was different this time, she thought; it was closer somehow, more intimate, because this time they knew. She could not have said how she knew—but she did. Bucky’s head was down on Steve’s shoulder and Steve’s head was resting on top of his, and their bodies were curled entirely toward each other’s—and it was so very, very clear that they knew. Her heart hurt, inside her chest.

One of the cops slid the door open and waited by the side. “Hello, boys,” she said, and smiled when they looked up at her, eyes bright. “It’s time to go home.”


*


EPILOGUE

IN WHICH A BODY MEET A BODY COMING THROUGH THE RYE

Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years? For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval.

—George Eliot, Middlemarch

And that is where we should leave them, is it not? That one moment, preserved in these final pages like amber, shot through with light—albeit the dull fluorescent light of the Middletown Police Station—that moment, when the realization of everything had come upon them, and in spite of all their bruises and discomforts the full flower of love was only just beginning to bloom, and the undiscovered country was nothing but rolling hill upon rolling hill seeded with the endless optimism of youth: what reader would want to go past that moment, or at the very most to go past that summer into which they tumbled out of their prison like newborn things: for as all of us who have grown up in these places know, there is an unreal magic to those summers of our childhoods in the suburbs, in which time does not pass, and everything happens and does not happen, until suddenly, in September, it is all is winked out in a moment.

For despite what our great poet of humanity Miss Eliot would have us believe about our own desires to see everything through until the very end of things, to follow each individual strand until it is unraveled into nothing, or chopped off prematurely, in these tales—these tales of adolescence—who truly could agree with her? How, when we have come to love our youths so dearly, when we have looked at them next to each other and thought: yes, those two people have been made for each other, they improve each other, I cannot imagine them being happy with anyone else—how then can the story continue, when the inevitable conclusion is separation? For as anyone who has gone to high school, and gone to college, and gone on and lived—for anyone, that is, who has grown up—knows, the bonds formed in adolescence do not all stand the test of time, and the people with whom we fall so desperately in love when we are sixteen are not usually the people whom we marry as adults. Instead, we are shaken like marbles and scattered over the world, let to spin where we may until, finally, we become ourselves, our childhoods and teenage years receding into the distance, a strange mirage that seems almost, but not quite, tangible forever—and yet farther and farther away with every passing month, with every passing year.

Who wishes to hear these things? Only a very hard-hearted person would want to read on into the next chapters of Bucky Barnes’ life—for the author hopes that the readers understand, as she does, that if this is anyone’s story it is his. Only a hard-hearted person would willingly follow the inevitable thread of separation, of Skype calls, of text messages and Gchatting, of lying in bed thinking about Steve’s face pixelated on the screen of his computer, hundreds of miles away in another state. Only a hard-hearted person would want to read about him turning his face into his pillow to keep himself from crying, or about him flirting with the boy next to him in his art history lecture, and going home, and wondering why; only a hard-hearted person would want to know when it would slip away, the strange, sudden break of everything as though there had never been anything at all—and, in that state hundreds of miles away, the hysterical sobbing phone call the boy he had once beat somebody up for would make to his mother, who would not be there to comfort him: for they were neither of them children anymore.

And only a hard-hearted person would want to know about the last nightmarish meeting, the awkward eye contact across the room in the bowels of the Stark mansion, the drunken come-on and then pushing away; only a hard-hearted person would want to know about the string of hookups that were to follow, and that would taper off eventually into something like equanimity—because it would be then that they were both all right, or something like it, and that their lives would truly diverge, one branch splitting into two: for that, after everything, is finally adulthood.

Who wishes to hear tales of later boyfriends, and jobs, and of lives lived? Who wishes to hear of Bucky returning to his parents’ home in Middletown, years in the future, a year after the Starks would die, and Tony would spin out of control, and Stark Industries would collapse in on itself, when Mr. Barnes would take another job somewhere else, and they would pack up their home in Middletown and not come back? Who wishes to hear about Bucky going through all of his ephemeral possessions, the physical proof of his having lived there, in that time, and that place, with those people, and wondering whether to go see Mrs. Rogers, and choosing not to—even though, in looking back on all of his adolescence, it was her house, and her yard, that he would remember as the place where he had grown up? For Bucky now would not really be able to believe he had ever gone to high school for those two years in Middletown, not in every part of himself—they were the most real thing to have happened to him in his childhood and the most illusory, and they were embedded within him but they were gone, and the rest of his life, his life outside of this place, and outside of the Rogerses’—outside of Mrs. Rogers’ smile and her attentiveness and her humor, and outside of everything about Steve that he had once so obsessively loved—remained.

It would take someone with a heart of stone to wish this, not after everything that we have read, and seen, and known: better let the future stay in the quiet dark, an eternal mystery, than be forced to confront this painful reality, even if—even if one day, years in the future, Bucky Barnes would find himself in a city hundreds of miles away from Middletown, in the borough across the river, standing behind the counter at a coffee shop and wiping down glasses, and suddenly hear someone say, “Bucky?”—and turn, and see Steve standing there, still gawky, smiling sheepishly and rubbing at the back of his neck, the late-day amber light coming in through the windows and illuminating the blue of his irises just so—and say, throat suddenly closed up, hands suddenly shaking—“Steve?”

For what is that? That is nothing more than a wisp, a glimmer: hope, perhaps, but in this author’s view it is better to simply cut the future off at the root, rather that indulging in that exercise: for nothing is certain, human affections least of all, and hope is a transient thing that cannot be weighed, or trusted, or judged.

(Though it is perhaps important to say here that Steve Rogers, standing in that same coffee shop—looking at the familiar curve of Bucky’s neck down to his shoulder from the back, and the familiar scrape of short hairs at the nape of his neck, along with the unfamiliar veins raised on his forearms, and something else about him that he could not identify but that he simply did not recognize—clutching the strap of his bag as his heart pounded in his chest, would never, never have agreed with her.)

Better, then, to leave them in that hazy, lazy summer—that summer of lying around the Rogerses’ house in front of the fans, and sticking their faces in the freezer, and disappearing down to the basement to do all sorts of things that Mrs. Rogers pretended she did not know about in the cool dark. Better to leave them to the first time they kissed, not long after the prom, when Bucky, heart pounding madly in his chest, stood in front of Steve while Steve was trying to change the channel and, apropos of nothing, reached down and put his hands on either side of Steve’s face and kissed him gracelessly, with absolutely no modicum of skill, and Steve kissed back equally incompetently, and when they pulled away they were red and grinning and had to wipe the spittle off of their mouths. Better to leave them in that summer of crummy part time jobs, of Steve moving around produce at the farm stand and gaining a very tiny amount of muscle tone, and Bucky sitting in the little movie theater with Peggy and pestering her about books, and watching the entirety of Lost and getting angry about it. Better to leave them in the summer of Bucky finally learning how to drive, with Mrs. Rogers having a heart attack in the passenger seat and Steve making benignly encouraging comments from the back; in the summer of Bucky laboriously quitting smoking after having laboriously picked up the addiction over the course of the year, whining and lying all over Steve whenever he got the itch, while Steve just stuck his hands in inappropriate places or tugged on his hair and smiled doofily up at him, love-struck—let us leave them, finally, at this, the end of their story, in the summer of sitting on the back steps watching the rain slam down from the heavens onto the Rogerses’ backyard, amidst the great oaks and small maples and the neatly trimmed grass, curled around each other, getting needlessly wet, and loving each other: for that is what they were really learning now to do. They were learning how to love. And so they were learning how to be: for is that not how we prove our existence? By loving?

Better to leave them there, rain-splattered, Bucky’s fingers splayed on Steve’s neck, looking at him with something in his eyes that in our insufficient language we would call love, but which in reality cannot be summed up by any one word, into anything: it was the blood beating in his heart and through his veins, it was every sparking synapse in his brain, it was the sweet heat inside of him and the thing that was slowly overwriting the smallest portion of the damage that had been done to him by so many years of neglect. And Steve, too, was equally afflicted, and similarly drunk on it; and if he was not as damaged as Bucky it is important to remember that he, too, carried a void inside of him that would never truly be filled. But suddenly next to the void there was love.

It is, the author is sorry to say, true: they would not, despite what they thought then, love each other ceaselessly, forever. And yes, they would see each other again in that café, and life would lead them on where it would, into dark unknown places where even this author has yet to travel. But she would like to pose the suggestion to the reader that in the end, if these things matter—which they inevitably do—they do not matter as much as the fact of the beating red heart of love inside of each of them on that day in the rain, that summer Steve turned eighteen: for whatever would happen to them, they had been there, and they had been there together, and they had loved each other. And Bucky had leaned in to kiss Steve’s wet lips and Steve had curled his fingers into Bucky’s shirt and they had had no concept of the unspooling thread of life and its bitternesses and its disappointments: for they were only teenagers, and they were in love with each other. And no matter how long either of them lived, neither of them would ever forget it. They had been: they had loved: and that, in the end, after all of this, after everything, is all there is to say about it.



FIN