He shoves his things into his backpack, pushing his slipping glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Coming, Mom!” he shouts back, grabbing his backpack and skidding down the hallway, socks slipping on the worn linoleum. His mom is waiting in the kitchen, hands on her hips and an exasperated expression on her thin face, but her eyes are fond as she snags him and plants a loud kiss on his temple.
“Mom,” he protests, scrunching his nose in half-hearted disgust.
“Don’t forget your lunch,” she says, pushing it into his hands. “You have your inhaler, right?”
“Mom, I’ll be fine. I’ve been going to high school for two years. I think I have it handled.”
“Is that any way to talk to your mother? There’s only so many first days left, you know.” She cups his cheeks, eyes crinkling as she smiles. They’re a pale blue flecked with green, a perfect match for Steve’s, just like her blonde hair and wispy figure. “Look at my baby,” she coos, half-serious, “all grown up and a junior in high school. Next thing I know you’ll be going off to college.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “That’s still a long way off, Mom. Look, I gotta go. I’m going to be late.”
She shakes her head in amusement and kisses his forehead one last time, watching as he shoves his feet into his ratty vans and jogs out the door into the hallway, the overhead light flickering like it, too, isn’t ready to be awake.
“Be safe!” she calls after him, door propped against her hip. “Have a good first day!”
He turns just enough to wave, then hurries on down the stairwell of the apartment complex and out onto the cracked sidewalk. It’s a twenty minute walk to school, and the weather is nice for early September – not too hot, not too cold, the air crisp with early morning chill as the sun peeks through the buildings. The faded skinny jeans and white t-shirt Steve pulled out of the mess of his closet are keeping him the perfect temperature, and though summer is ostensibly his favorite season (no school, no snow, no illness), he thinks he could be convinced of fall’s superiority.
SHIELD High is buzzing when he arrives, students milling around outside and in the halls and greeting friends they haven’t seen all summer, others they no doubt saw every day. Some people are hardly recognizable, obviously having hit puberty over the summer, towering over the others and sporting greasy hair and faces full of acne, wiry muscles pushing at too-small shirts and the smell of body odor mixed with copious amounts of cologne thick in the air. Despite that, Steve envies them. He’s been stuck at five-foot-five for what seems like forever, and he’s unlikely to grow much more. Some of the freshmen tower over him, which seems extremely unfair – he’s sixteen, but next to everyone else he looks about twelve.
“Steve! Hey, Steve!”
Steve looks around and spots Sam, a grin breaking over his face.
“Sam!” He waves back, watching Sam weave effortlessly through the crowded hall to get to him. Sam has been his friend since freshman year, when he moved here from New Orleans and ended up in the same homeroom as Steve, then decided to talk to him for some unknown reason (Steve still suspects it was pity). He’s funny and nice and attractive and perfect, really, and Steve still has no idea why out of all the people he could choose, he’s friends with Steve.
“Hey, it’s good to see you, man.” Sam slings an arm around his shoulders, squeezing tightly. He’s got the kind of genuine friendliness to him that means everyone likes him, with an easy gap-toothed smile and a take-no-shit attitude that’s countered by boundless empathy, and on top of that he’s ridiculously handsome, tall and muscled from lacrosse and time in the gym, with skin that’s somehow mostly clear of acne and warm brown eyes guaranteed to make any girl (or guy) swoon – as intended, because he’s a terrible flirt. Sometimes, Steve feels like looking at Sam is like looking at the sun.
“Good to see you too,” Steve replies, shoving his glasses up again when they threaten to slip down his nose – they’re big, blocky black frames that swallow up his face, one of the temples taped together after it had been broken during a fight, and he has a love-hate relationship with them. “How was your summer?”
He and Sam had texted a lot, but Sam had been visiting family and friends in New Orleans for most of it so they hadn’t actually seen each other, meaning Steve spent most of the summer watching Netflix and drawing while his mom kept subtly urging him to go outside.
“Great!” Sam enthuses, as they start to drift towards their lockers. “Man, I missed Riley. I told him he should move up here but he said he’d die in the cold.”
“You say that every winter.”
“You can take the boy out of the south…”
Steve chuckles as they stop by his locker, spinning the dial with practiced ease. Sam reaches up out of habit and presses a hand against the warped top of the locker as Steve jiggles the handle, the locker finally popping open with a creak that sounds like a rusty door hinge had an affair with a car crash. He shoves his lunch and gym bag in there and slams it again, kicking the warped edge to seal it. For all the school spends on sports, one would think they would dedicate some money to actual upkeep.
They stop by Sam’s locker next as Sam continues telling Steve about his summer, Riley the star of most of his stories. Steve knows Riley has been Sam’s best friend since kindergarten, and Sam was heartbroken when they had to move for his mom’s job, so he tries not to feel too jealous, or inadequate. Seeing as ‘inadequate’ is pretty much his default setting, though, it’s hard. Steve subscribes less to the be grateful for what you have philosophy and more to the bitterness and spite side of things – not to say he isn’t appreciative of his privilege, but that he’s had quite enough infantilizing bullshit for one lifetime, and also he’s a moody teenager so he feels it’s maybe a little bit his duty to be resentful.
He and Sam have homeroom together by virtue of being close in the alphabet, and they sit side-by-side as they go through the motions of reciting the pledge, playing tic-tac-toe on a loose sheet of paper as Erskine hands out their schedules and comparing them only to frown when they learn their only class together – besides lunch – is last period gym.
“Ugh, I have math with Hill first thing,” Sam complains. “I cannot do math this early in the morning.”
“I have history,” Steve says, wrinkling his nose. His glasses slide down another inch on his nose. “I’ll probably just fall asleep. Everyone says Mr. Lee likes to ramble.”
“Hey, at least you’ll get to sleep. If Hill catches me sleeping she’ll probably make me write out problems on the board until I die.”
She probably would, Steve muses. Hill is notorious for being strict.
The speaker crackles, and the room falls silent as they listen to the normal beginning of the year announcements, which include the hiring of a new principal, a Mr. Pierce. Steve hopes he’s an understanding sort of guy, because he hasn’t gone a year without multiple trips to the principal’s office yet.
Finally, after the droning voice stops, they’re released to their first class. Steve says goodbye to Sam and makes his way to history, picking a seat in the middle of the room as other kids file in, taking seats by their friends. The only people Steve knows and is friendly with are Clint and Sharon, but it’s not like he expects to interact much in this class – Mr. Lee is infamous for his dry lectures that end only when the last minute of time has run out. Clint looks like he just woke up, coffee cup clutched in his hands like a lifeline and purple hearing aids curled around his ears; he slumps into a seat at the back of the classroom and looks to be falling back asleep already. Sharon gives Steve a small smile from beneath perfectly straight blonde hair and sits near him, but her attention is taken up by her other friends, all pretty and sporty and popular. Sharon’s nice, but she and Steve aren’t close by any stretch of the imagination.
There’s only one seat left next to Steve when the last student files in, glancing around from under shoulder-length brown hair. Steve is sure he’s never seen him before, so he must be new, and that sparks a modicum of interest. The kid hesitates then makes for the empty seat, sliding in gracefully as he drops his bag to the floor with a thump. He’s wearing a baggy black sweatshirt and black jeans even in the warmth, and his long hair prevents Steve from getting a good look at his face, but his left hand is tucked into his sweatshirt pocket, right clutching a pencil tightly like he might have to stab someone with it.
“Hey,” Steve says awkwardly, and the kid jumps slightly, turning to face him. His eyes, now that Steve can see them, are a deep blue-grey underscored by shadows. His skin is pale, cheekbones standing out in relief above the remnants of baby fat on his cheeks, and he regards Steve with no small amount of suspicion, jaw set in a clench of defiance that’s familiar to Steve.
“I, uh, haven’t seen you here before,” Steve says, now regretting his decision to speak. “You new?”
The kid nods but doesn’t say anything, hunching over his desk and side-eyeing Steve as if he’s a venomous snake about to strike and not a shrimpy teenager with taped-up glasses and a nose that’s been broken more than once.
“I’m Steve. Steve Rogers,” he tries.
“Bucky,” the kid mumbles after a moment.
What kind of name is Bucky? Steve is tempted to ask, but he doesn’t really want to piss him off more than he already seems to have on their first meeting. Pissing people off is a specialty of Steve’s, but usually because they’re being assholes, and it’s not like he wants to pick a fight with every single person on the planet, contrary to what Sam thinks. He opens his mouth to say something, anything, but Mr. Lee’s creaky voice rings out, calling the class to order, and he snaps it shut again, facing forward in his seat.
Mr. Lee goes through roll-call painfully slowly, and Steve listens closely for the new kid’s name, which happens to come up at the beginning of the alphabet.
Bucky raises his right hand slightly, still hunched over his desk.
“Ah, yes,” Mr. Lee says, squinting at him through his glasses. “You’re new right? Principal Pierce’s son.”
Bucky nods silently.
The principal’s son? Steve thinks. He wonders why they don’t share the same last name. He hopes Pierce is nice; he would hate having the principal as his parent.
Mr. Lee finishes roll call and dives right into lecture, his monotone voice putting Steve to sleep. He tries to take notes but mostly doodles in the margins, sketching a cartoon of Mr. Lee, even though he actually loves history. Lecture is just not for him. He’d rather read books on his own. He catches Bucky glancing over at him curiously, gaze sweeping across his doodles, but when their eyes meet Bucky looks away.
They don’t talk the rest of class, or after class either. Bucky keeps his left hand stuffed in his pocket as he awkwardly shoves his notebook into his backpack and slings it onto his right shoulder, leaving before Steve can say anything. Steve sighs. Of course he managed to make the new kid hate him before first period was even over.
He has art next with his favorite teacher, Mr. Erskine, who smiles at him from the front of the class, lined face warm and kindly. He notices Natasha Romanoff sitting alone at a table, red hair spilling over her black leather jacket and mouth working around a piece of gum as she scribbles something in a notebook. She’s a perpetual mystery, and though she’s been going to the same school as Steve for years, he still knows nothing about her. In truth, she’s kind of terrifying. There’s a rumor she once stabbed someone, and although Steve doesn’t usually put much stock in rumors he wouldn’t have a hard time believing it.
Art is Steve’s favorite subject. It’s just about his only talent, really, besides pissing people off and getting punched. When he’s drawing or painting is the only time he isn’t thinking about the fact that he’s too small, too skinny, too poor, too everything. He can just let his mind go blank and pour himself out onto the canvas. He can make something beautiful, when he has never considered himself so.
Mr. Erskine tells a few jokes as he talks about the class in his soft voice and takes roll call, and Steve eventually loses himself in the first day sketches, a fun introductory project that has them trying to draw their shoes. All too soon, it’s time to pack up and head to lunch, and he grabs his lunch bag from his locker before heading into the cafeteria, searching for Sam’s familiar face. A waving hand beckons him over, to where Sam is sitting with Clint, Bruce, Tony, and Rhodey at a circular table, chairs scattered haphazardly around and lunches spread across the surface.
Steve nearly groans out loud. Tony isn’t his favorite person in the world, and most conversations between them end in a fight – verbal, at least. Tony, in his opinion, is a rich, self-obsessed white kid with more intelligence than common sense and a tendency to make horrible decisions and then play the victim. Steve’s really not looking forward to lunch together every day.
“Steve!” Tony exclaims, gesticulating wildly. “Come sit down. I haven’t seen you all summer.”
Steve represses his sarcastic comment and pulls out a chair between Sam and Clint, sinking into it with a sigh.
“So, what’s new with your life?” Tony asks, popping blueberries into his mouth. He holds out the bag to Bruce, who takes a few silently. Steve doesn’t understand how Bruce and Tony get along at all – Bruce is quiet and moody and Tony is loud and brash – but somehow, they’re inseparable. The only person closer to Tony is Rhodey – James Rhodes, but no one calls him James unless they’re his mother – who’s a year older but has been friends with him since kindergarten and somehow puts up with Tony with an incredible amount of patience, and who is the level head to Tony’s recklessness.
Steve shrugs. “Not much.” He glances up and is surprised to see Bucky Barnes sitting with Natasha at their own table, both of them chatting like they already know each other. They must, because Natasha doesn’t talk to anyone that easily.
“The new kid was in my history this morning,” Steve says while it’s on his mind, hoping to squeeze some information from Tony. He seems to know everything, and his dad teaches physics, so he has the inside scoop on school politics.
Tony, predictably, lights up. “Ooh, the new kid.” He rubs his hands together and leans into the table. Curious, Steve mirrors him. “Here’s the scoop,” Tony says conspiratorially. “His name is James Barnes. His dad is Mr. Pierce, the new principal. Rich dude, apparently he’s known VP Fury forever and they’re super tight. But…” He drags out the word, “get this, new kid’s adopted. Apparently he lost his parents in a car accident a while back. Along with his arm.”
“His arm?” Rhodey repeats, wide-eyed. He rolls his wheelchair closer to the table, obviously intrigued now. He’d been an up-and-coming football star before he’d been shot by a police officer last year and paralyzed from the waist down. Mistaken identity, they said; resembled the suspect in a nearby robbery. He was fifteen. Tony got his dad to throw all their money into his case and won, the guilty officer fired (though not imprisoned, never imprisoned), but it will never erase what happened.
Tony nods with obvious glee. “Yeah, he’s got a super high-tech prosthetic. Hammer Tech, I think. Moves like a real arm and everything. Clint got a peek at it in homeroom this morning.”
Everyone turns to Clint, who looks surprised at the attention. “Oh. Yeah, it was like, all silver and shit. Looked like a robot hand. It was cool.”
Maybe that explained why Bucky was so standoffish this morning. It must be annoying having everyone looking at his arm and gossiping about him, not to mention how losing his parents must have affected him. Steve feels a pang of sympathy.
“How do you even know all this?” he asks Tony.
Tony waves a hand. “My dad. I guess Pierce talked a lot about him, requested special accommodations or something. My dad said to stay away from him ‘cause he’s a, you know, troubled kid. Came from the system.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Troubled kid? Wouldn’t anyone be after losing their parents and their fucking arm? Jesus.”
Tony shrugs. “Just repeating what he said. Pierce took him in to try and straighten him out, or something.”
“Straighten him out.” Steve repeats the words with distaste.
“I know, right. Whenever an adult says that I want to punch them in the face. Hey, speaking of that, how long has it been since you got punched, Rogers?”
Steve scowls. “I’m not going to answer that.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “Bets on how long it takes Steve to get into a fight this year?”
“Hey, don’t encourage him,” Sam says.
“Are you in or are you out, Wilson? Ten bucks.”
Sam hesitates, glancing at Steve, then sighs. “Fine. I say two weeks.”
“One,” Tony counters.
“A month,” Bruce mutters.
“Your loss. Rhodes?”
Rhodey sighs, long-suffering. “I’m going to be extremely, extremely optimistic, and say two months.”
Steve groans and drops his head onto his arms as Sam pats his back consolingly.
The discussion turns to other topics, and Steve nearly forgets all about Bucky Barnes until he gets to his next class and finds himself being put at a lab table with him. Mr. Jarvis, who is a little eccentric but funny, teaches the course, but Steve is pretty sure that despite his best efforts, he’s going to do terribly at chemistry, especially since he’s been paired with Bucky.
Scott and Luis are at the table behind them, Pepper and her friend Anna in front, and he almost wishes he had been paired with one of them instead. At least they’re nice, and smart as well. They’ll probably have no trouble with chemistry. Bucky isn’t looking at him, frowning down at the syllabus as if it might come to life and bite him. A glance shows his left hand still in his pocket, though now Steve knows why.
“How’s your first day been?” he tries, figuring since he’s stuck with him all semester they might as well be friendly.
Bucky shrugs without looking at him. Steve feels his sympathy ebb a bit – there’s no reason to be rude. He swallows a sigh and tunes in as Mr. Jarvis starts going over the syllabus. It takes most of the class to go over it and do the introductory slides, and Bucky doesn’t look at him once. Steve curses his luck.
Finally, the class is over, and he troops to the gym, sitting on the bleachers with Sam as the teachers go over the introductory stuff and take attendance in a seemingly never ending monotony of names. His mouth tightens as he sees Gilmore Hodge in his class, sauntering around with all his football buddies. Gilmore is a bully, and his favorite target is Steve. He’s also the reason Steve has tape on his glasses.
Luckily, he hasn’t noticed Steve yet, but when they divide off into their sections, he ends up in the same one with Steve, and Steve once again curses his luck. They’re also in Colonel Phillip’s section, which is even worse. Colonel Phillips used to be in the army, which explains everything about how he runs gym class and also who he is as a person. The very first thing they’re forced to do is pile out into the sunshine, where the red track loops around the immaculate football green, and run a mile.
“Faster!” Colonel Phillips barks as Steve jogs around the track, wheezing and puffing. “This isn’t kindergarten! Come on, Rogers!”
“On your left,” Sam says as he laps him, barely out of breath.
“Asshole,” Steve hisses. Sam looks back and grins.
Steve finishes the mile minutes slower than almost everyone and has to take a couple puffs of his inhaler before he can breathe again, wheezing with his hands on his knees as Sam pats his back helpfully. He’s sweating, hair sticking to his forehead and trickling down the back of his neck, and he’s grateful that gym is at least last period this semester so he can go home and shower immediately.
Unfortunately, the torture isn’t over. Colonel Phillips makes them do an entire fitness test, complete with crunches, push-ups, and pull-ups. Steve does a grand total of five push-ups before collapsing.
“Just leave me here to die,” he moans to Sam, who is glistening attractively above him. He looks like some sort of angel haloed by the sun, while Steve feels like a worm that’s been left to dry out on the sidewalk.
“Nah,” Sam says, reaching down to haul him up. “Too much trouble. Who else would I beat at Mario Kart?”
Steve mutters some choice words at him as they finally, finally limp back to the lockers. Sam blocks their little corner of the lockers while Steve changes – Steve has been openly bi since freshman year, and he’s been beaten up in the locker room before by guys thinking he was staring at them. As if. Steve has standards.
The clock finally hits 3:02 and everyone rushes to collect their things, following the stream of students leaving the school. Sam gives him a quick goodbye and jogs towards the buses while Steve heads in the other direction, hefting his backpack on sore shoulders and scuffing his shoes on the sidewalk as he breathes in the fresh air. He sees Bucky coming out through the doors and watches as he crosses to the parking lot, getting in a sleek black car with tinted windows before pulling away with a muted rumble. Steve shakes his head. What sixteen-year-old kid has a fucking Camaro, especially in Brooklyn?
His mom is gone when he gets home, working the evening shift at the hospital this week. She’s a nurse, something that came in handy dealing with all of Steve’s health problems as a child, though she barely makes enough to keep them afloat and pay Steve’s medical bills that have inevitably piled up. His scoliosis has been fixed, heart murmur corrected – via surgery that had left him with a long scar down the center of his chest – his asthma under control with his inhaler and anemia managed with iron supplements, but he’s gotten pneumonia too many times to count, and he still gets ill too easily, still weak and sickly. He hates being so small and weak sometimes, hates feeling like his body has betrayed him. His mom always says he has a big heart in a small body. Steve always tells her he’s not the Grinch.
He dumps his stuff in his room and showers, washing away the stress of the day. He swipes a hand across the fogged-up mirror as he climbs out, towel wrapped around his slim hips, and studies his face, disappointed as ever by what he finds: Angular face, overlarge, slightly crooked nose, heavy brows, permanent scowl. His blonde fringe flops over his forehead, constantly falling in his eyes like the world’s worst emo stereotype – minus the all-black. He is, to put it frankly, not attractive . And he shouldn’t care, doesn’t care; pretends he’s not interested in appearance or dating, except…he does care. He wants someone to be attracted to him, wants to share the closeness of a relationship – hand-holding and cheesy lines and all. He wants to find his person, like his dad was his mom’s person.
He’s never dated anyone, never even had his first kiss, and it feels like maybe he never will. Like maybe no one will ever want to be with him, no one will ever think he’s hot or handsome or beautiful, no one will ever want to hold his hand and kiss him in the rain. God, if Sam knew how much of a romantic Steve is, he’d never stop teasing him. It’s bad enough when he jokes that Steve has twice as many options because he’s bisexual, nevermind that that’s not how it works. He’s trying to be supportive, Steve knows, but every time he thinks twice as many options and yet I can’t get one. At this point, he’s pretty sure he’ll die alone.
Steve sighs, turning away from the mirror and slouching to his room to get dressed. Comfy clothes donned, he grabs a snack from the kitchen and settles at his desk with his sketchbook, letting his worries go with every sweep of the pencil. He draws and draws until his hand cramps and his stomach rumbles and the light outside dims, shadows lengthening across the floor, and if he finds himself drawing a pair of shadowed eyes, pencil skimming over high cheekbones, then it’s simply a coincidence, is all.