Bucky paused his video game when he heard the knock on his bedroom door. "It's open!" he called out.
His uncle came into the room. "I have good news," he said with a smile. "The job's completed."
"Already?" Bucky said in surprise. "You said we'd be here at least another six months."
"Your work was key," Alexander Pierce said. "Everything fell into place after that, much faster than we'd anticipated. Excellent work, James."
"Thanks," Bucky said. The rising sense of pride was tainted almost immediately with a familiar sense of guilt.
"Pack your stuff up," Pierce said. "We're heading back to the States. You'll be starting classes at your new school in two weeks."
* * *
Washington, DC (Two weeks later)
"Looks like we've got four new kids this year," Jim said. "Two of them are international students. One of 'em's British, Pegs, you can translate for us." Steve dropped his lunch bag on the round table and slid into his usual spot next to Howard. He winced as he banged his knees against the underside of the table. He'd had another growth spurt and he was still getting used to his longer legs.
"I rather expect I'll have to, the way you boys butcher the English language," Peggy said from the other side of Howard. She ate a mandarin orange slice from the top of her chicken salad.
"There's a transfer from St. Catherine's - there, the red-headed hottie," Jim said, pointing to a girl at the lunch counter who had just selected the sushi tray. Her uniform had the crisp newness of clothing being worn for the first time.
"Nice," Howard said, with an appreciative whistle. Across the table, Maria rolled her eyes.
"And there's that kid," Jim said, pointing at a boy with shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair hanging in his face. He had his left hand stuffed into the pocket of his blazer and was loading pasta salad on his tray with the right. "What do you think, scholarship kid?" Jim asked the others.
"No way," Maria said. "A scholarship kid wouldn't look so scruffy." She tilted her head to take a good look at the new kid. "Expensive shoes. Parents are diplomats, probably. Or lobbyists."
"You get that from the shoes?" Jim asked. He reached for his drink and dipped his sleeve in his egg salad.
"Sure, shoes tell you a lot," Maria said. "Also, I saw the car he arrived in this morning." She offered Jim a napkin.
"Isn't Howard's brother new?" Steve said, looking around at the other students.
"Freshmen don't count as 'new kids'; they're all new," Jim said, trying to clean the mayo off the cuff of his blazer.
"Which one's Tony?" Maria asked. She opened her panini and removed the onions with a fork.
"He's at that table," Howard said, waving towards the west end of the cafeteria. "The short, loud, obnoxious one." Steve looked over and saw a dark-haired boy explaining something with elaborate hand gestures to a rumpled, shaggy-haired boy. While he watched Tony made an extra-large sweeping gesture and knocked a soda off the table.
"It's going to be a lot harder to pretend he doesn't exist now," Howard said mournfully.
"I'm sure he's not that bad," Peggy said. She took a french fry from Howard's tray. "Anyway, he's a freshman and we're juniors, so it's not as though we'll share a lot of classes. My cousin Sharon's started this year and I don't expect I'll see her at all." Peggy had filled out her shirt a bit over the summer, Steve realized, and then averted his eyes quickly when he realized he was looking.
"He's joining Robotics Club," Howard sighed. "Him and Bruce and Rhodey. I'll never be rid of them."
"I guess your life's over," Maria said dryly. "May as well give up now and transfer to public school."
"I'm going to graduate early and go to M.I.T.," Howard informed her.
"Aw, but you'd miss us," Maria said. She took a drink from her smoothie and set it down. Jim picked up the bottle.
"What is this sludge?" he asked, giving the green beverage a suspicious look. He read the ingredients. "Broccoli? Wheatgrass? Garlic?"
Maria snatched the bottle from his hands. "Don't like it, don't drink it," she said. "I need something to keep me awake in Stats."
"Try a Red Bull," Jim suggested.
Maria gave him a disgusted look. "I'll stick with the 'sludge'." She took another sip.
The long-haired new kid swiped his lunch card and shook his hair out of his face as he turned towards an empty table. Steve stared. "Bucky?!"
"What's a Bucky?" Jim asked.
"A friend," Steve said. He put down his ham and cheese sandwich and jumped up, banging his knees against the table again. Howard winced in sympathy. Steve eased himself out of the seat and stepped up to the new boy just as he set his tray down on a table.
The boy looked at him in confusion and for just a second, Steve thought Bucky had forgotten him. Then recognition dawned. "Steve? Steve Rogers?" he asked. He looked Steve over. "What are you doing all the way up there?"
Steve grinned. "I got taller," he said. "Told you I would."
"You also said the Mets would win a World Series in our lifetime," Bucky pointed out. He tucked a lock of hair behind his right ear.
Steve rested his hands on his hips and shrugged. "We're still young."
"And you're, uh-" Bucky said. He waved his right hand over Steve's chest.
"I work out a lot," Steve said, feeling self-conscious. "I got new asthma meds so I'm a lot more active now. You're looking pretty good yourself. After the accident-" Steve hesitated. "My mom said-"
Bucky pulled his left hand from his pocket. It was covered in a thin, black glove. "Did she tell you about this?" He pushed up the sleeve of his blazer and unbuttoned his cuff. Steve saw the flesh-toned plastic of an artificial limb.
"Yeah," Steve said softly. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Bucky said. "I'm used to it. It's a small price for surviving."
"I never got to say - I'm real sorry about your mom and dad," Steve said.
"Me too," Bucky said. "They liked you a lot. I swear you used to spend more time at our place then you did at home." He hunched in on himself.
"Hell," Steve said, letting his arms fall to his side. "I'm sorry. It's your first day. I shouldn't've brought it up."
Bucky took a deep breath and scrubbed the back of his right hand across his eyes. "No, I'm fine." He buttoned up his cuff and pulled the sleeve of his blazer down to meet the glove. "I missed you," he said.
"I missed you, too," Steve said. "I tried to email you."
"I know," Bucky said. "I didn't want to talk to anyone for a long time." They looked at each other for a moment and then Steve pulled Bucky in for a quick hug.
"I'm glad to see you again," Steve said as they drew apart. "Want to come eat with us and meet everyone?" He jerked his thumb towards the table where he'd been sitting.
"Sure," Bucky said. He stuffed his left hand back in his pocket and picked up his tray with his right.
"Hey, everyone," Steve said, leading Bucky back to the table. "This is Bucky. We were best friends back in Brooklyn, ages ago. Buck, this is Jim Morita, Maria Hill, Howard Stark, and Peggy Carter. Gabe's not here yet?"
"He's meeting with his counselor," Peggy said. "He was waitlisted for AP French and there might be an opening." She snagged another fry from Howard's tray.
"Hey, get your own!" Howard protested.
"They don't go with the salad," Peggy said.
"Then don't get a salad," Howard said. He turned his tray so the fries were away from Peggy.
"Did your parents actually name you 'Bucky'?" Jim asked. He reached for one of Howard's fries and got his hand smacked for his trouble.
Bucky set down his tray and took a seat at the table next to Steve, settling his left hand on his lap. "No, they named me James," he said. "My dad was James, too, though, so everyone called me Bucky as a kid."
"Another James," Jim said, offering his fist. Bucky hesitated for just a second, then bumped Jim's fist with his right hand.
"Do you want me to call you James?" Steve asked. He sat down next to Bucky (banging his knees again) and picked up his ham and cheese.
Bucky considered it, then shook his head. "Nah, you can call me Bucky. I missed it."
"How'd you end up here?" Steve asked Bucky.
"My uncle works in international relations," Bucky said. "He just got a contract as a consultant for a company here in D.C." He prodded his pasta salad with his fork.
"You live with your uncle?" Howard asked.
"Yeah," Bucky said. "My parents died in a car crash."
"We could start a club," Howard said, without humor. He and Bucky shared sympathetic looks. The others awkwardly looked elsewhere, giving the boys a moment of silence.
"How'd you end up in a place like this?" Bucky asked Steve, breaking the silence.
Steve shrugged. "My mom got a job in a hospital here and one of my teachers said I should apply to Stan Lee Prep 'cause of the arts program. And here I am."
"He's not too bad. For a scholarship kid," Howard said.
"You just keep me around to paint sets," Steve said dryly.
"You're auditioning this semester," Peggy reminded him. "You promised."
"Auditioning for what?" Bucky asked.
"The fall play," Peggy said.
"I'd be terrible on stage," Steve protested.
"I don't know," Bucky said thoughtfully. "I seem to recall an event at summer camp-"
"No," Steve said, suddenly remembering a community theater stage draped in flags. "Oh, Bucky, no."
"Fourth of July," Bucky continued, a grin playing at the edges of his mouth. "You were in red, white and blue from head to toe with a big white star on your chest." Steve covered his face with his hands. "What was that song?"
"Nobody wants to hear it, Buck," Steve said through his fingers. His cheeks radiated heat like he'd been sunburned.
"Oh, but we do," Peggy said wickedly. There were nods around the table.
"'Who's strong and brave, here to save the American Way?'" Bucky sang. "'Who vows to fight like a man for what's right night and day?' There was a dance with one of the girls here - poor thing, she had bruised feet for days." Steve dropped his head on the table and covered it with his arms. "Who will redeem, head the call for America, Who'll rise or fall, give his all for America,' something, something, 'The Star-Spangled Man With A Plan!'" He finished with jazz hands.
Howard pointed at Bucky. "I like him," he told the table.
"I don't," Steve said, head still covered with his arms.
"Well, I'm sold," Maria said. "I expect to see both of you at auditions."
"Both of us?" Bucky asked, startled. Steve lifted his head and grinned.
"You're a natural." Maria smiled at Bucky. "The director will love to meet you."
Bucky looked helplessly at Steve.
"You just sold me out for a song," Steve told him. "If I have to audition, so do you."
"Friday, in the theater, after classes," Maria said. "No excuses."
"What's your schedule like?" Steve asked Bucky.
Bucky pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. "Uh, I have pre-calc next. Building C - I haven't been there yet."
"I'll show you," Steve said, taking out his own schedule to compare. "I'm in the same class."
"JROTC?" Bucky asked, looking over his shoulder. "Still going to join the Army?"
"That's the plan." Steve touched one of the class listings on Bucky's paper. "You're taking AP Russian?"
"I spent the last year living in Moscow," Bucky said. "It's been five years," he said, at Steve's surprised look. "A lot's happened since I saw you last."
Steve touched Bucky's arm and smiled. "We'll have to catch up, then." He looked back at the papers. "We're in the same chemistry class, too. And American Lit - I think we're all in that together," he added, indicating the others around the table.
"Guess we'll be seeing each other a lot, then," Bucky said.
* * *
Pre-calculus was taught by Dr. Selvig, who seemed nice, if a bit inclined to ramble. He knew the parents of one of the kids in class; a poor fellow saddled with the name Loki. The parents turned out to be mythology professors, which explained the source of the name, if not the motivation for sticking it on their kid.
Chemistry was taught by Dr. Erskine, who Steve had had for biology the previous year. "I expect good things from you this year, Steven," Dr. Erskine said with a smile, when he came across Steve's name during roll call.
Bucky turned to look at Steve. "When'd you become the teacher's pet?" he whispered.
"Questions are to be saved for the end of class, James," Dr. Erskine said. Bucky's cheeks reddened and he slid down in his chair.
American Literature was the next building over. Steve and Bucky had to set a good pace to get there before class started. Half the Chem class was going to the same place, but plenty of other students were headed in the other direction, so there was a lot of jostling as everyone tried to get to their classroom before the second bell rang. They were nearly there when a brawny kid by the name of Gilmore Hodge pushed through the crowd, his shoulder slamming into Bucky's shoulder hard enough for Bucky to fall against the lockers.
"Oh, hey, didn't see you there, new kid," Gilmore said with an artificial smile. He offered a hand to help Bucky up, but Bucky ignored it as he pulled himself upright.
"Then open your eyes and watch where you're going," Bucky said sharply.
Gilmore looked him over. "I don't know where you're from, new kid, but you're going to have to learn how things work around here."
"How do they work, Gilmore?" Steve folded his arms across his chest and took a step towards Gilmore. A few kids pushed past them, but a half-circle of students gathered to watch the show. Steve saw Howard and Peggy approaching from the other side.
Gilmore's gaze flickered between Steve and Bucky, then settled on Bucky. "For one, there's a dress code." He pointed at Bucky's glove. "We all love the 80s look, but unfortunately," he said with mock concern, "it's not part of the approved Lee wardrobe. Unless," he added, "there's something wrong with your hand."
Bucky straightened up. He held up his left hand with the back of his hand directly in front of Gilmore's face. "My hand," Bucky said, "is in perfect working order." He tugged the glove off with his right hand. His mechanical hand had long, slender, bonelike fingers. The flesh-toned plastic was just translucent enough to show the internal mechanics. There were murmurs from the students watching. Bucky slowly curled his fingers towards his palm until only his middle finger remained upright. "Oh," Bucky smiled and gave his head a little shake, as if he'd just remembered something. "Except that finger. It always sticks a bit." He touched the tip of his middle finger with the index finger of his right hand and slowly pushed it down until he was holding a closed fist in front of Gilmore's face.
Gilmore's eyes narrowed and Steve could practically see the wheels chugging in his brain as he tried to think of a response.
Howard gave a low whistle. "That is a nice piece of tech."
Peggy elbowed him. "That's his hand, not one of your toys."
"My projects are not toys," Howard retorted.
The bell rang while Gilmore was still struggling for words. Bucky put his glove back on and shifted his shoulders to settle his backpack in place. "But thank you," Bucky said to Gilmore, "for your concern." He pushed past Gilmore and went into the classroom.
"I like him," Howard repeated, standing shoulder to shoulder with Steve.
"Yeah," Steve replied with a grin. "Me too."
"Come on inside, boys. Learning's not happening in the hallway," said Mr. Coulson, standing at the door of the classroom and gesturing for them to come inside. "Well," he corrected himself, "learning happens everywhere. But the class is in here."
* * *
"Do you have a ride home?" Steve asked Bucky after class. They were on the steps at the front of the school, watching the clutter of cars and buses that battled for space at the curb. "I can give you a lift on my bike if you need one." He grinned. "I got it this summer."
"Did you get a motorcycle?" Howard asked, eyes widening in a parody of surprise. "Oh, right, you did mention it once - or twice - maybe ten times - I lost count." His eyes shifted sideways towards Bucky's left hand, but he quickly looked back at Steve.
"Oh, stuff it, Howard," Steve said, reddening. "Not everyone had a fleet waiting for them when they turned sixteen."
Bucky smiled at him. "I'm good. My uncle's driver is picking me up."
"Driver?" Steve's eyebrows shot up.
"Yeah," Bucky said, with a self-conscious shrug. "My uncle's got a little more money than my parents did. Okay, yes, you can look at it," Bucky snapped at Howard. He tugged at the fingers of his glove.
"You don't have to show me," Howard said, looking slightly ashamed.
"Yeah, I do, or you're going to keep staring," Bucky sighed. He slipped off his blazer, tugged off his glove, unbuttoned the cuff of his sleeve and rolled it up to expose his arm. He flexed his fingers, clenched them into a fist and then splayed out his fingers.
"How does it work?" Howard asked, looking at the joints. Bucky turned his hand over and back so Howard could see it move. Steve watched, interested, as Bucky showed Howard how he controlled his hand with the muscle movements in his upper arm. "It's amazing," Howard said. "Thanks for letting me see it."
Bucky buttoned up his cuff. "Just ask, okay? Don't stare." He gave Howard an easy smile.
"I'm sorry about him," Steve said. "He's obsessed with everything mechanical."
"I'm not obsessed," Howard said indignantly. "I'm an engineer."
"Isn't that the same thing?" Steve asked.
Howard shook his head in dismay. "I can't believe I'm getting crap from a guy who spent the whole summer looking at naked people."
Steve felt his cheeks burning red. "That was a life drawing class and it was just for a couple of hours on Saturdays."
"Shoulda just asked Peggy to pose for you," Howard said. Steve hadn't realized his cheeks could get hotter.
"You and Peggy, huh?" Bucky asked, and there was an odd note to his voice that Steve couldn't identify.
"No!" Steve said quickly. "She's not - we're not -" he stammered.
Howard rolled his eyes. "He's had a thing for her since freshman year," he told Bucky. "Yet he's never made a move."
"She's my friend," Steve said. "I don't want to ruin things."
Howard shrugged. "Never been a problem for me."
"Well, you're-" Steve stopped.
Howard raised his eyebrows. "Go on."
"Friendly. With a lot of people. I mean, you're friends, you're easy - easygoing-"
Bucky snickered. "Good to see you haven't lost your way with words."
"Are you slut-shaming me, Rogers?" Howard demanded.
"Not shaming," Steve said, and sighed. "I'm just saying people like you."
"They like you, too," Howard pointed out, and added, "Peggy likes you."
"I guess I've missed a lot," Bucky said, shoving his hands into his pants pockets.
"Not that much," Steve assured him. "I'm glad you're here."
"Yeah, me too." Bucky smiled at him. He glanced at the line of cars. "My ride's here. Gotta go." He nodded at Howard. "It's good to meet you." They said their goodbyes and Howard started towards his car. Steve hung back for just a moment to watch Bucky get into a sleek, black town car with tinted windows, and then caught up with Howard on the way to the parking lot.
* * *
Bucky slid into the car and found his uncle sitting inside. The smile slipped off his face.
"I've got a meeting nearby and I thought I'd save Brock the extra trip," Pierce explained, before Bucky could ask. "I'm glad to see you're making friends already," he said casually. "Is that one of the Stark boys?"
Bucky yanked the car door shut. "I thought we were done," he said bitterly, giving his uncle a hard look.
"I never said that," Pierce replied.
"We're in the U.S. now," Bucky protested. "They're American. You don't need to-"
"I'll judge what I need to do, James," Pierce interrupted sharply and then added, in a gentler tone, "The problems I deal with don't stop at the border." He rested his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "What I do - what we do - we do for their protection as well." Bucky pulled his shoulder back. Pierce squeezed it and dropped his hand. "You'll understand better when you're older."
Bucky looked at him, then clenched his jaw and turned away. He stared out the tinted window and watched Howard laugh at something Steve had said.
"Sure," Bucky said. "Protection."
* * *