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AP Espionage (Language and Culture)

Chapter Text


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."

Steve groaned.

"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."

* * *


Chapter Text

On Friday afternoon, students gathered in Lee Prep's Performing Arts Center for auditions. Some of them lounged in the seats reading scripts and running lines while others blocked out scenes on stage or recited monologues to the air.

Steve had a seat in the third row. He spotted Bucky coming down the aisle and waved him over. Bucky had his hair tied back and he'd swapped his school blazer for a pullover hoodie printed with the school logo. He dropped his messenger bag and plopped down in the seat next to Steve. "What are we auditioning for?"

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Steve handed him a stapled handful of photocopied script pages. "It's basically a remix of Hamlet from the POV of two minor characters who can't remember their own names. It's about free will, fate and death."

Bucky flipped to the second page. “'If I asked you straight off—I’m going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather be alive or dead?'" he read. "'Naturally, you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all.' Well, that's disturbing."

"It's theater." Steve smiled at Bucky. "Or literature. Well, both. Here, read this part with me," he said, tapping the page. "You be Rosencrantz and I'll be Guildenstern." They read through the scene a few times, switched characters, then read it again. Feeling pretty comfortable with the words, they sat back in their seats and watched the other students. Maria had a clipboard and was handing out scripts to a couple of students who had just drifted in. Peggy and Gabe had located a couple of swords and were choreographing a fight scene on stage. Steve sketched idly on the back of his script pages. "Do you miss your friends back in Moscow?"

Bucky picked at a thread on the cuff of his left sleeve. "We weren't all that close, really. I went to an international school with lots of ex-pats and diplomats' kids and we all got bounced around a lot."

"Where were you before Russia?" Steve asked.

"China, for about six months, and Saudi Arabia before that," Bucky said.

"Wow," Steve said. "I've never even been outside the U.S."

Bucky gave Steve a half-smile. "I've met some interesting people," he said. "I was dating someone in Moscow, but they got sent to Bogotá about a month before I found out we were coming back here."

Steve stopped sketching for a moment, his pen paused over the paper. "Do you keep in touch with her?"

"Um," Bucky said. He scratched behind his ear. "No, we didn't part on the best of terms." He looked as though he was going to add something to that, but then he shook his head and went on. "We weren't serious, anyway. It was mostly about having someone to hang out on weekends and, you know. Do other stuff with."

"Oh," Steve said. He suspected his ears had turned pink, though in the dim lights of the theater, it probably wasn't noticeable. He looked down at his sketch.

Bucky took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "And it's him. Not her." He twisted the drawstring of his hoodie around the fingers of his right hand.

"Oh!" Steve said. His ears were definitely pink and probably turning red now. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't've assumed." 

"It's okay," Bucky said. "I like girls, too. It just depends on the person." He looked over at Steve. "We're cool, right?" He kept his tone casual but the anxious look he gave Steve betrayed the tension behind the words.

"'Course we are," Steve said. He bumped Bucky's knee with his own and smiled at his friend. "I haven't done anything with anyone," he admitted.

Bucky released the string of his hoodie and leaned back in his seat. "Do you want to?" he asked.

"Yeah," Steve said. "I think so." He looked up at the stage. Peggy blocked a sword blow from Gabe and looked out in the audience to see Steve watching her. She grinned and gave him a little wave, then turned back to Gabe just in time to dodge his attack. Steve smiled and gave her a thumbs up. "With the right person," he said to Bucky.

Bucky slid down in his seat and stuck his feet up on the seat in front of him. "Someone you can be friends with?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "I think that might be the most important part."

"But not someone you're already friends with," Bucky said. "Because that would ruin the friendship."

"Well," Steve began, then stopped and looked at Bucky, who grinned at him. "Shut up," Steve said, poking Bucky with his elbow. He bent his head over the sketch he was working on.

Bucky leaned forward. "What are you drawing?" He pulled the page from Steve's hand. "Whoa," he said softly. "That's me."

The sketch, drawn with a blue ballpoint pen, showed a teenage boy from the chest up. A few strands of hair had fallen loose from his ponytail and the drawstrings of his hoodie hung unevenly, the right dangling an inch or so longer than the left. The boy grinned at something, or someone, just off the page. "It's only a doodle," Steve said, reaching for it. The cheap ink had clotted in a few spots and a smear marred the boy's right shoulder where Steve's thumb had rubbed it.

Bucky scrambled upright and leaned away from Steve. He titled the page to catch the brighter lights from the stage. "You've gotten really good," he said.

Steve shrugged. "Art scholarship," he reminded Bucky. "I spend half my time sketching or painting these days. This isn't a good sample, though. The composition's off and the shading's sloppy." He made a grab for the page again and Bucky held it out of his reach.

"Show me the good stuff, then," Bucky said, making it sound like a challenge. Steve lifted his eyebrows and Bucky amended his statement. "I mean, if you want to."

"Sure, if you want," Steve said. "Maybe you can pose for me sometime so I can do a proper drawing of you."

Bucky grinned. "I'm not posing naked."

Steve's cheeks burned, but he lifted his chin. "I'll drape you in a sheet, then. Very tasteful. Don't even need to see your face." He grabbed the hood of Bucky's sweatshirt and pulled it up to cover the other boy's head. It hung over Bucky's forehead and hid his eyes in shadow. "No," Steve said after a moment. "I like your face." His hand rested on Bucky's shoulder, fingers still curled around the edge of the hood.

"Yours ain't so bad either, Rogers," Bucky said softly. He rested the hand holding the sketch on Steve's knee, paper still in his grip. He flicked his tongue over his lower lip. "Listen, I-" he began, but the house lights abruptly shut off and the stage lights slammed up to full brightness.

"Halt!" a voice boomed from the wings. The students on stage spread out to the edges to make room for the newcomer. Steve let go of Bucky's hood and turned to look at the stage. Bucky slumped back in his seat. He held up the sketch in two fingers and Steve took it from his hand.

A man wearing leather boots, breeches and a doublet emerged from the wings. He carried a round-handled cane which he used to shoo a couple of students out of his way. "'Deaths and disclosures,'" he intoned in a crisp Shakespearean accent, tapping the cane solidly in the center of the stage. "'universal and particular, denouements both unexpected and inexorable.'" The words sounded familiar. Steve tilted his script so he could read the speech using the reflected stage lights. "'We transport you into a world of intrigue and illusion. Clowns, if you like, murderers—we can do you ghosts and battles, on the skirmish level, heroes, villains, tormented lovers—set pieces in the poetic vein.'" He spread his arms wide. "Welcome," he said, "to the Stan Lee Preparatory Academy The-a-ter Guild." He switched to an accent that sounded like he'd stepped off the streets of London. "I am Trevor Slattery, the director, and I am here to whip you lot into a theater company worthy of the great kings of Europe."

"He knows we're American, right?" Bucky whispered to Steve.

"I don't think he even knows we're teenagers," Steve whispered back.

"Gentlemen!" Trevor jabbed the cane towards Steve and Bucky. Both of them froze. "If you are so eager to speak, let you do it upon the stage." Steve looked at Bucky and together they rose, uncertainly, from their seats in the audience. "Yes, hurry up, we haven't got all day," Trevor snapped, and Steve and Bucky hurried onto the stage. "Read the scene from act one. You-" he poked Bucky with the cane. Bucky narrowed his eyes and took a step towards Trevor. Trevor withdrew the cane quickly and rested it on the stage. "You read Rosencrantz," he said, keeping distance between himself and Bucky. "Start with, 'I want to go home.'" 

* * *

"Okay, he's a little bit nuts," Maria admitted later over coffee at the Excelsior Cafe.

"A little," Steve agreed, tracing an abstract pattern in the condensation on his mocha.

"I think he was high," Bucky said. He grabbed a couple of packets from the sugar dish and passed it on to Howard.

"He was definitely high," Howard agreed. He dumped four packets of sugar in his coffee and swirled it with a spoon.

"Please tell me he didn't try to sell you drugs again," Maria pleaded.

"That only happened once and it was just pot," Howard said. "It wasn't even good pot."

Maria rested her hands on the table and sighed. "He's really a very good director and a great teacher," he told the others. "He's just a bit... eccentric."

"Well, I thought we all did quite well." Peggy was drinking her tea with a bit of milk. She scooted her chair to the side to make room around the table for Gabe to add a seat. On the other side of Gabe, Jim moved his chair as well.

"Those of us who auditioned," Gabe added, looking pointedly at Howard and Jim.

"Someone's got to keep things going behind the scenes," Jim said. 

"That's what I tried to tell them," Steve sighed.

Peggy patted his hand. "It wasn't that bad, was it? You and Bucky looked like you were having fun."

"I guess it was okay," Steve admitted grudgingly.

"Speaking of fun - my place, tomorrow, first party of the semester," Howard said. "You're invited, too, new kid, if you think you can handle it," he added to Bucky.

"Oh, I can handle whatever you've got," Bucky said. He leaned back in his seat and wrapped his right hand around his coffee mug. "What've you got - wrestling bears? Teaching cats to braid hair? An Ed Wood movie marathon?"

"Hey, don't go talking shit about Ed Wood," Jim warned. "I will fight you."

"It's just a party," Steve told Bucky.

"Just a party?" Howard gave Steve a look of great betrayal. "No, my friend, it is one of my parties, the thing of which legends are made. Great heroes fight monsters and turn down the girls for a chance to enjoy one event of my hosting. Where there are better girls," he added. Peggy and Maria both shot him dirty looks. "What? That's a compliment!"

Bucky shrugged. "I'll check my schedule," he said airily. "Maybe something'll open up."

"We usually stay all night," Steve told him. "There's no parents, so a lot of people drink, and nobody drives home unless they're one hundred percent sober."

"Nobody wants to leave anyway," Howard said. "There's bedrooms for all. Though if you want to double up with someone, we won't stop you." He winked at Bucky.

"Your mom doesn't mind you coming to these parties?" Bucky asked Steve.

"She's fine with me spending the night at Howard's place," Steve said. "I don't fill her in on the details. Think your uncle will let you go? I can pick you up, if you don't mind riding on the back of the motorcycle."

Bucky hesitated for just a moment, then nodded. "Yeah," he said. "He'll let me go."

* * *

"Steve Rogers and James Barnes," Steve told the security guard at the gate, who studied the guest list on his tablet. 

"Do we need to show our IDs?" Bucky joked. He wore a leather jacket over his zip-up hoodie and his jeans were tucked into black combat boots. Steve had on a brown leather jacket over a button-down shirt and khakis.

"That won't be necessary, sir," the security guard said. He rotated the tablet on its stand to show them the guest list and tapped Bucky's name. His school ID photo popped up. "You boys have a good time." He tapped an icon on the tablet and the iron gates opened up to let Steve's bike through. Steve parked on the paved grey stone driveway that circled in front of the house. He recognized Peggy's Mini Cooper among the cars that had already arrived. Bucky dismounted the bike.

"Pool's at the north end of the house," Steve said. He pulled off his helmet. "There's a patio there and a lawn in the back where we play Frisbee and baseball. The lounge is above the pool and there's bedrooms on the second and third levels where we'll be crashing tonight."

Bucky pulled off his own helmet and ran his hand through his hair. The four story mansion overlooking the Potomac stood alone on the hill and had high glass windows facing east. It was painted a warm cream color with dark grey trim and could probably house over two hundred people if it were converted to military barracks. "Well, this is an excellent example of the extreme excesses in American capitalism," he said.

"You're American," Steve pointed out, with a fond smile. "And you live in a penthouse." He hadn't seen the inside of Bucky's apartment, but the lobby of the building could put the White House to shame. 

Bucky grinned at him. "So I know what I'm talking about. How many people live here?"

"Just Howard, Tony and their guardian," Steve said. "They've got a full crew - you know, butler, maids, gardeners - but everyone except security should be gone for the night and their guardian's out of town."

"See," Bucky said. He pulled his hair into a ponytail at the back of his neck and secured it with a hair tie. "Excessive."

"And you haven't even seen the garage." 

* * *

"Holy mother of god," Bucky breathed. He ran his right hand over the hood of a 1966 Porsche 911S. Steve grinned. He'd seen the Stark car collection before but it never failed to impress. The garage on the mansion's lowest level ran the full length of the house.

"Do not scratch it," Howard warned. He wore red pinstripe suspenders with slacks and a tie. Steve noticed that the dark shadow on his upper lip was finally starting to look like a mustache. Bucky moved to the next car, an Audi R8, and ran his hand over the hood of that one as well. "Do you have to touch every single one?" Howard complained.

"What, are you kidding me?" Bucky asked. "Of course I have to touch them. Is that a Shelby Cobra?" he asked, his attention drawn to the next one, a retro blue sports car with a white streak down the center.

"It is indeed," Howard said. "1967 427. This baby can go from zero to 100 and back to zero in thirteen seconds."

"Why would you ever want to go back to zero?" Bucky asked breathlessly. "Let me drive it."

"Not a chance in hell," Howard said. He swatted Bucky's hand away from the hood.

"I thought you didn't have a license," Steve said. He hooked his thumbs on his belt buckle and settled into a wide stance. Watching Bucky discover the cars was a better show than the cars themselves. 

"That's just a technicality. I'm a really good driver," Bucky said. "Please?"

"No," Howard said. "But if you're nice, I might take you for a ride."

"How nice do I need to be?" Bucky gave Howard a suggestive grin. 

"Very," Howard said, waggling his eyebrows. Then his expression changed abruptly to irritation. "What the hell is that?" he demanded.

"I think it's a Maserati GranTurismo," Bucky said, voice thick with car lust. He walked over and stroked the hood lovingly. 

"Tony!" Howard yelled. "Tony, get your ass in here!"

A couple of moments later, Howard's little brother came into the garage. "Howard," Tony said. "What have we said about using our inside voices?"

Howard strode over to a contraption on the far side of the Maserati. "What the hell is that?" he asked, jabbing a finger at it. It looked like a large, mechanical, jointed arm built onto a cylindrical base.

"Dummy," Tony said. He walked over to the device and flipped on a switch.

"What," Howard said.

"D-U-M-dash-E," Tony said. He whistled. The device's pincer hand rotated ninety degrees and chirped. "I built it," he said proudly. "It's got a very sophisticated A.I. Dum-E, say hi to your Uncle Howard." The robot chirped again. It lowered its arm to waist height and extended it to Howard, as though offering a handshake.

"Have you been welding next to my car?" Howard asked furiously, ignoring the robot.

"I put a cover over it!" Tony protested. Dum-E chirped sadly and pulled its hand back.

"What if you'd burned through it? What if you'd knocked something onto it?" Howard asked. 

"Uh, I didn't," Tony pointed out. "The car is fine and by the way, it's not your car, it's ours."

"No, this one's mine," Howard said. "You're not even old enough to drive."

"So?" Tony asked.

"So don't go near my car!" Howard yelled.

Bucky came up beside Steve. "Is this normal?" he murmured in Steve's ear. His breath was warm against Steve's skin.

"For them, yeah," Steve told Bucky in a low voice. He shrugged. "I guess it's a brother thing." Bucky nodded knowingly, though both he and Steve were only children.

Tony held out both hands and pressed them against the hood of the Maserati.

"Stop it! You're getting fingerprints all over it!" Howard complained. Tony leaned down and licked the windshield. "I'm going to strangle you." Howard moved towards Tony, but Steve strode over and put a hand on Howard's arm.

"He's not hurting it," Steve said. In fact, Tony was now polishing the windshield with the sleeve of his shirt and muttering something to the car that sounded like an apology. "Come on, Bucky still hasn't seen the pool."

"Leave it alone," Howard yelled back at Tony as Steve pulled him out of the garage.

Dum-E chirped sadly again as the walked away, its hand drooping. Bucky patted it lightly with his left hand as he left. Dum-E perked up and gave him a cheerful chirp goodbye.

At the pool, a group of kids had gathered by the lounge chairs, some lounging, some sitting, and some standing with drinks in their hands. A boy in a bowler hat stood behind a freestanding wet bar, mixing a drink. "My God, Dum Dum, what is that thing on your face?" Steve asked.

Dum Dum stroked his walrus mustache. "Don't be jealous, Steve, that peach fuzz on your cheeks is perfectly normal in a boy your age. Who's the new kid?"

"I'm Bucky," Bucky said, a bit wearily. Steve wondered if he was getting tired of being called "new kid".

"What kind of a name is 'Bucky'?" Dum Dum asked.

"Glass houses, Dum Dum, glass houses," Howard said. He spotted a blonde girl in a bikini dangling her feet in the deep end of the pool. "Ah, Christine's here. I'll catch you fellows later." He patted Steve on the back and walked over to the girl.

"What're you drinking?" Dum Dum asked Steve and Bucky.

"What've you got?" Bucky asked.

Dum Dum swept his hands over the bottles on the bar. "Mixers of all kinds, a fine selection of craft beers and a lovely 21-year-old single malt scotch."

"I'll try the scotch," Bucky said. 

"New kid's got taste," Dum Dum filled a glass and handed it to Bucky. "How about you, Steve?"

"Coke, please," Steve said.

"Want some rum in that?" Dum Dum asked.

"I'm allergic to alcohol," Steve reminded him.

"Shame." Dum Dum popped the cap off a glass bottle of soda and handed it to Steve. "You play poker?" he asked Bucky. "We're starting up a game of Texas Hold 'Em."

"Oh, yeah, I got a poker app for my phone a few weeks ago," Bucky said brightly. "I've racked up a lot of high scores."

In fourth grade, Bucky ran a gambling ring which netted him a Nintendo DS and got five kids suspended. Steve kept a straight face. "They play for real money, Buck," he warned, playing along.

"Oh, man." Bucky looked worried. "I don't have anything smaller than a hundred with me."

"We can make change," Dum Dum said. He clapped Bucky on the shoulder. "How about you, Steve?" he asked.

"Nah, not tonight. Go easy on him, it's his first week," Steve said.

"Of course!" Dum Dum's smile should've come with fins and pointed teeth. Bucky's could've been on the face of an angel. 

A Frisbee spun towards them and Steve snatched it out of the air before it smacked Bucky in the head. He heard Jim yell, "Think fast!"

"You're supposed to say that first!" Steve yelled back. "I'm going to join the Frisbee game," he said to Bucky. "Try not to lose too much cash."

* * *

Bucky was up seventy bucks by the time Dum Dum realized he'd been hustled. Bluffing his way to the pot with a pair of fives could be excused as beginner's luck but when Bucky took his sixth pot in a row with nothing but a two of diamonds and a four of spades, Dum Dum leaned back in his chair, pushed up the brim of his hat and sighed. "You've played this game before," he said.

Bucky tucked the cash in his wallet. "A few times," he admitted with a grin.

Gabe tossed down his cards and laughed. "Your face, man," he said to Dum Dum. "Almost worth losing the cash to see the new kid whip your ass."

"They're new, too," Bucky said, pointing to the other two players at the table. Jacques and Monty were international students from France and the U.K., respectively.

"Can't call you all 'new kid'; that'd just get confusing," Gabe said reasonably. "Any other skills you're keeping secret, new kid?"

"It's no fun if I tell you everything," Bucky said. He swept up all the cards on the table and shuffled them. "Another round?"

"Only if you're talking drinks," Dum Dum said. "Refill?" Bucky handed Dum Dum his empty glass. He was on his third round, now, and feeling nicely toasty.

"What next?" Monty asked.

"I've always wanted to learn darts," Bucky suggested, with wide-eyed innocence. Howard strode over to the table, the stub of a cigar in the side of his mouth. He clapped Bucky on the shoulder. Bucky tensed up at the sudden touch.

"Come on up to the lounge, boys, we're starting up a game of Never Have I Ever," Howard said.

A red-haired girl wandered over to the table. Her name was Natasha, Bucky remembered. She was in his Russian class. "Ooh, poker," she said. "That looks like fun."

"Join us, if you like," Dum Dum said gallantly. 

"All right," she said. "I could use the practice. I haven't played since I was a kid." Bucky got out of the seat and offered her the deck of cards with a wink. She smiled sweetly and thanked him.

Gabe looked at Bucky, then at Natasha. "I'll join you guys upstairs," he said, standing up and picking up his drink. "I think my luck's run out down here."

The lounge had hardwood floors and was furnished with a long, L-shaped, cream-colored couch and several matching chairs arranged around a low coffee table. Bucky and Steve sat at the short end of the L and Maria, Christine and Jim sat on the long side. Gabe and Peggy sat in the chairs. 

"The rules are simple," Howard said. He swirled his drink and sat down in a leather chair at one end of the table as though he were settling into his throne. "You make a statement about something you've never done. Anyone in the room who has done that thing must take a drink. Be honest. If you lie, you're only cheating yourselves."

"And us," Jim said.

"And us," Howard said.

"Mostly us," Jim added.

"But all this is off the record," Maria said, turning to Christine, whose last name, Bucky had found out, was Everhart. She was an editor on the school paper.

"I don't publish private conversations," Christine said defensively.

Maria lifted her glass. "Never have I ever written editorials containing veiled references to a friend's personal confessions."

"Nobody knew it was you," Christine grumbled, but she took a drink.

Peggy was next. "Never have I ever shoplifted," she said. About two-thirds of the room took a drink, including Bucky. They went around the room. Never have I ever smoked a cigarette. Never have I ever seen an episode of Friends. Never have I ever left the country. Never have I ever been to a Twilight movie marathon. ("Seriously?" Howard asked, when Jim took a drink. "It was for a girl," Jim said. "Totally worth it.")

"Never have I ever gotten a tattoo," Gabe said. To everyone's surprise, Maria took a drink.

"Hang on, I've seen you in a bathing suit," Howard said. "Is it new?"

"Nope," Maria smiled.

"Let's see it," Howard said. 

"Not a chance."

When Bucky's turn came around, he gave Steve a sly glance and said, "Never have I ever punched an umpire."

"Oh, come on!" Steve protested. "I was nine."

"Tell us the story," Peggy urged Bucky.

"I want to hear this," Gabe agreed. Several others around the room nodded.

"Little League," Bucky said. "It was this girl's first game; tiny little thing, but man, could she throw. I don't remember what she did -"

"Threw an inside pitch and hit a guy in the balls," Steve remembered.

"Oh, yeah," Bucky snickered. 

"Ninth inning, score was tied, everyone was yelling instructions at her, she got flustered and lost control of the ball," Steve said in defense of this girl. "The umpire thought she'd done it on purpose."

"Yeah, so the umpire strides over to the mound and starts chewing her out. She's crying, tears running down her face and the guy's towering over her, red-faced and screaming," Bucky told the room. "Steve was on deck and he dropped his bat, ran over to the mound and took a swing at the umpire. The guy was twice his size!"

"It got him to stop," Steve said.

"Because you hit him in the kidneys," Bucky said.

"My aim could've been better," Steve admitted. 

"He had to sit out the next five games," Bucky told them.

"Worth it, though," Steve said. He took a long drink of his coke. 

When the game circled around to Christine, she said, "Never have I ever kissed a girl." Steve tapped a finger against his soda bottle and studiously examined his knees.

"Still?" Howard said, looking at Steve in disbelief. "All right, this situation needs to be remedied. Peggy, can you take one for the team?"

"Oh, no," Steve said, eyes wide and cheeks flaming. "Howard, leave her alone."

Peggy's cheeks were pink, but she said, "I'm willing if Steve is."

Steve's mouth opened, but no words came out. Peggy stood up, adjusted her skirt and walked over to the couch in front of Steve and Bucky. She held out her hand and drew Steve to his feet. "Hi," Steve said softly.

"Hi," Peggy smiled. They gazed at each other for a long moment but didn't move any closer. Bucky rolled his eyes. No wonder Steve had never kissed anyone. He reached up, put his hand on Steve's back and shoved him forward. Steve stumbled against Peggy and grabbed her waist to keep himself from falling over.

"Uh. Sorry," Steve said. Peggy put her hand on his cheek and brought her lips up to his. Cheers went up from the room. Bucky slouched back on the couch and tried not to think about the twist in his stomach at the sight of Peggy kissing Steve. Steve was happy; that's what was important. 

It was a brief kiss, barely more than a touch of lips before Peggy and Steve pulled apart, both red as tomatoes and trying not to look at anyone else in the room. Steve let go of her waist and they both went back to their seats.

"Lipstick," Bucky told Steve, tapping his own lips. Steve quickly swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, leaving a smear of bright red lipstick on his skin.

"Well," Howard sighed. "It's a start."

When Bucky's turn came around again, he said, "Never have I ever kissed anyone in this room," just to see Steve's cheeks flame up again.

Howard took a drink. "That could be remedied, you know," he said.

Bucky was drunk enough to say, "Are you offering?" Steve nearly choked on his soda. Bucky expected Howard to brush it off, but the other boy looked him up and down, then beckoned him over with a finger. Howard set his drink down on the coffee table and stood up. Bucky pushed his drink into Steve's hand and strode over to meet Howard. They were very nearly the same hight. 

Howard slid his fingers into Bucky's hair and leaned into him. Howard's tongue brushed Bucky's bottom lip and Bucky opened his mouth to let Howard in. Howard's mouth was hot and wet and tasted of scotch and cigars. Bucky dropped his hands to Howard's waist and pulled him forward until they pressed against each other, hip-to-hip. Bucky twisted his hips just slightly so that his right thigh was between Howard's legs.

Howard pulled out of the kiss and exhaled, a faint groan at the back of his throat.

"Was that nice enough for me to get a ride?" Bucky asked.

"Come on upstairs later and find out," Howard said.

"Never have I ever driven a Maserati," Jim called out.

"Not a chance," Howard said, to laughter and cheers. He drew away from Bucky and took his seat. Bucky rubbed his thumb over his lower lip and gave Howard a smile. Well, that was one way to come out. He returned to his seat next to Steve. "Now that was a kiss," Howard said, picking up his drink and holding it up towards Bucky. Bucky took his drink back from Steve and lifted it up in a matching salute. "You could learn from this guy," Howard told Steve.

Whose eyes were wide and whose mouth was hanging open. "Close your mouth, you'll let in flies," Bucky said.

"I just didn't-" Steve cleared his throat. "I didn't think you and Howard-"

"It doesn't mean anything," Bucky said. "It's just a kiss." He downed the rest of his scotch.

"Just a kiss?" Steve asked. "What do you do if you really like someone?"

Apparently, he'd push them towards the girl they're actually attracted to. Bucky shrugged. "Depends on the person." He put his empty glass down on the coffee table with slightly more force than necessary.

A little freshman girl with strawberry blonde hair poked her head into the room. "Um, Howard, I think you should know that Tony's doing something that's probably going to-"An explosion from a far wing of the house shook the floor and walls. The girl pointed her finger roughly towards the noise. "That," she said with a sigh.

"That's my lab!" Howard said, outraged. "Tony, you little shit!" He ran out of the room with the girl tagging behind him.

The game broke up after that. A delivery of pizza and hot wings arrived and they went downstairs to hang out poolside and get some food. Bucky and Steve picked up another round of drinks (scotch for Bucky, soda for Steve) and joined Peggy and Gabe at a table. The freshmen kids showed up after a bit, herded by Howard. They pounced on the hot wings. Tony looked slightly scorched and very irritated.

Howard joined Bucky's table, plopping down between Bucky and Gabe. "That kid, I swear to God." 

"Go easy on him," Peggy said. "He looks up to you."

Howard snorted. "He does not. He's determined to piss me off. I was working on a major project and he screwed it up. He's set me back by weeks. He's got his own lab; why can't he use that?"

Gabe patted Howard on the shoulder. "There, there," he said.

Once the pizza and wings had been stripped down to bones and leftover crust, Howard proposed they go down to the game room for a round of pool.

"Peggy'll wipe the floor with you," Steve told Howard. "Again."

"She got lucky," Howard said.

"Three times?" Gabe asked. He leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows at Howard.

Peggy gave Howard a sweet smile. "Perhaps we could put a small wager on it. The loser has to wear an outfit of the winner's choosing on the next Casual Day at school."

Howard ran a finger around the top of his glass and grinned at Peggy. "You want to see me in a skirt and heels, you just have to ask."

"Oh, no," Peggy said. "I want to see you walk in a skirt and heels. All day."

"Are you allowed to wear something like that at school?" Bucky asked.

"If it's allowed for the girls, it has to be allowed for the boys," Peggy said. "It was added to the charter a few years back."

Howard lifted his glass and raised it to Peggy. "You're on."

The wood-paneled game room had a pool table, a dart board, a pinball machine and a foosball table. Several overstuffed brown leather chairs were arranged along the wall near the pool table. A couple of ashtrays rested on the side tables between the chairs and the air still reeked of leftover cigar smoke. Steve began coughing. Howard switched on a fan, but Steve shook his head. "I think I'd better sit this one out," he managed between coughs.

Bucky glanced at Howard, then back to Steve. "I'll go with you," he said. "I'm no good at pool anyway." Gabe snorted and Bucky grinned at him. "You can teach me another time."

Outside, Steve took a long breath of cool night air. "Do you need your inhaler?" Bucky asked. They walked along a stone path that curved around the lawn. 

Steve shook his head. "Just fresh air." He gave Bucky a wry smile. "Can't drink or smoke, just another evening with no-fun Steve."

"Don't be an idiot," Bucky said. "You're plenty of fun without that stuff." He stumbled. Steve caught his arm.

Steve smiled. "I suppose I can walk, at least."

"I just tripped on a stone," Bucky grumbled, but when they reached one of the park benches along the path, he decided to sit down for a few minutes. A lamp post next to the bench gave them plenty of light to see each other. "Maybe I should teach you how to kiss," Bucky said. The alcohol weighed down his words, so he had to shape them carefully.

Steve blushed. "I know how to kiss," he said.

"What, that chicken peck you gave Peggy tonight?" Bucky brushed that away with a wave of his hand. "Grandmothers kiss babies with more passion."

"What was I supposed to do with everyone watching us?" Steve demanded. "I'm not like you." 

"Like me?" Bucky raised his eyebrows.

"You always had girls throwing themselves at you," Steve said.

"That's not even close to the truth!" Bucky protested.

"How many girlfriends did you have in fifth grade?" Steve asked. "Let's see, there was Katie, Vivian, Luna," he checked them off on his fingers. "Natalie, Amanda, Kelly..."

"We were ten. We'd 'date' for a couple of weeks and maybe hold hands after school," Bucky said. "Nobody's ever 'thrown' themselves at me, Steve."

"You've been here a week and you've already," Steve waved his hand vaguely, "with Howard."

"I just kissed him," Bucky said testily. "Jesus, Steve, it was a party game, not a night in Vegas."

"I'm not saying that, Bucky. I'm actually a little jealous," Steve said.

Bucky's eyebrows shot up again. "Jealous?" he asked, his heart beating a little faster.

"You can flirt and date around and kiss people without hardly thinking about it," Steve said.

Bucky looked out over the lawn. "I do think about it, Steve, I just don't let that stop me."

"I wish I had your confidence," Steve sighed. "If I ask Peggy out, I'll probably make a complete mess of things."

Bucky leaned back and rested his left arm on the back of the bench, behind Steve's shoulders. "You probably will," he agreed. "I've never met someone so awkward about girls."

Steve snorted. "Thanks."

"You should do it anyway," Bucky said. He kicked Steve's ankle lightly. "She's into you. You'll go up to her and start blushing and saying idiotic stuff and she'll say yes anyway. She's a smart girl, Steve; she knows a good thing when she sees it."

"Yeah?" Steve smiled.

"Yeah," Bucky said. "You're the best guy on the market." 

"You make me sound like a piece of meat," Steve said.

"Grade A U.S. prime beefsteak," Bucky poked him in the center of his chest with the index finger of his right hand.

"Hey!" Steve grabbed his hand and wrapped his fingers around Bucky's. The warmth of his skin was welcome in the cool air.

"You still need to learn how to kiss," Bucky told him.

"Okay," Steve said, lifting his chin to meet the challenged. "Teach me."

Bucky brushed his thumb over Steve's knuckles, then pulled his hand free. "Start with a touch," he said, resting his right palm against Steve's cheek. "A physical connection. Make eye contact." His eyes met Steve's. "Right now, it's just you and them, no matter if you're in front of a crowd or all alone." Steve matched Bucky's gaze. He curled the fingers of his right hand at the back of Bucky's neck. "Good, like that," Bucky said. "Give them room. If they look somewhere else or try to pull away, they're not interested." Steve didn't look away. "Get close," Bucky said, leaning forward. "But let them meet you halfway." Steve shifted closer until Bucky could feel Steve's warm breath against his lips. He smelled faintly of pizza. "If you've gotten this far, they're probably into it, but if you're not sure, it's okay to ask." Bucky brushed his thumb lightly against Steve's lower lip. "Can I?" he asked softly.

"Yeah," Steve said, his voice cracking slightly. He cleared his throat. "Yeah."

"Tilt your head." Bucky cocked his head to the right and Steve mirrored him. "No, the opposite way I do, so we don't bump noses." Bucky tilted his head to the other side at the same time Steve did the same.

Steve winced and laughed and shook his head. "Sorry, I'm ruining it, aren't I?"

Bucky grinned. "It's okay. You don't lose points for bumping noses or laughing."

"Okay." Steve dropped his hands to his thighs and wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans, then brought his right hand up to rest against Bucky's collarbone. He leaned in again. "What's next?"

"Lick your lips," Bucky said. He ran his tongue over his lips and Steve did the same. "Lips are key here," he said. "You want them parted, but not gaping, not too wet, not too dry, not too relaxed, not too rigid." He moistened his lips again and kissed Steve. Their lips brushed together and Bucky sucked lightly on Steve's lower lip. He flicked his tongue between Steve's lips without thinking, then pulled back abruptly, his heart pounding. "You've got it, Goldilocks," he said, roughly.

Steve nodded. His hand was still resting against Bucky's neck. "Thanks, Teach," he said. His eyes lingered on Bucky's face. 

Bucky thought to hell with it and said, "Here's the next lesson." He kissed Steve again. Bucky drew his tongue across Steve's lower lip and Steve opened his mouth. When Steve's tongue met Bucky's, he felt his chest tighten. He wrapped his left arm around Steve's waist and slid his right hand back until his fingers slipped into Steve's short blond hair. The movement brought their chests together and Bucky could feel Steve's heart pounding against his own. Steve brought his hand up and cupped Bucky's cheek just below his ear. Bucky's heart rate increased and he felt his body react to the kiss. God, he'd wanted this. He made a soft noise, a light hmmm of pleasure. Steve drew back and their lips parted.

"You're drunk," Steve reminded him, and Bucky wondered if he was imagining the regret in his voice. Regret for kissing or regret for stopping?

"Only a little," Bucky said. His voice slurred slightly on the last word. His heart still pounded from the kiss.

Steve touched his forehead to Bucky's. "You passed 'a little' a ways back," he said, with a soft smile. "C'mon, I'll get you up to bed."

Bucky had left his bag in one of the upstairs bedrooms and Steve led him there now. Bucky was sober enough to take off his shoes, at least, and he changed into his sweatpants while Steve went to find him a bottle of water. Steve returned a few minutes laster with two bottles of water and a bottle of aspirin. He put one of the waters on the nightstand and handed the other one to Bucky. He watched closely as Bucky took a long drink. Bucky sighed and screwed the cap back on the bottle. "Steve, I'm fine," he said, carefully keeping his words from slurring. "I'll sleep it off. Go enjoy the rest of the party."

Steve shrugged. "It's winding down anyway. I'm going to be just across the hall if you need me."

"All right," Bucky said. He dropped back and let his head hit the pillow.

"Do you want to get under the covers?"

"Steve. Seriously."

Steve lifted his hands. "Okay. Good night, Bucky."

"Night, Steve."

Bucky did decide to slide under the covers once Steve had left. The AC was on and the room was a bit chilly.

* * *

Bucky's phone alarm buzzed against his leg a couple of hours later. He reached into the pocket of his sweatpants and turned it off. He groaned and rolled over. He'd definitely gotten too drunk. His instructions were to drink a small amount to blend in with the others, but fuck that, these were his friends and he was damned well going to enjoy the party.

His eyes snapped open. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He'd kissed Steve. He pressed his face into the pillow. Really kissed him. Nothing says 'awkward' like making a move on your probably straight best friend. Way to make a complete mess of things.

He groaned and threw the covers off of himself. He swallowed two aspirin and downed the rest of the water bottle, then went into the bathroom to pee. He came back out, stumbling a bit as he walked. He shook his head sharply to clear it. At least this wasn't a job that required precision. He just had to put the tech in place. Being a little drunk could actually help if he ran into anyone, since he could always claim he'd gotten lost. But the sounds of the party were gone and the lights outside the window had been dimmed. By this time of night, everyone should have found a bed and would either be sleeping it off or keeping themselves busy.

Bucky rubbed his eyes and shook his head again, then got the pouch from his bag and slipped it into his pocket. The sooner this was done, the sooner he could go back to sleep.

Maybe Steve wouldn't even remember the kiss in the morning. Yeah. Completely sober Steve with nearly photo-perfect recollection. Fuck

* * *


Chapter Text

Most of the kids crashing at the Stark place were still asleep when Steve woke up the next morning. He got dressed and went downstairs. 

"The awakening begins," Jarvis said when Steve entered the kitchen. The butler was mixing a bowl of batter and several waffle irons were lined up on the counter, heating up.

"Am I the first one up?" Steve asked. He hovered next to a bowl of fruit, not sure if he needed to ask permission or not. 

"The first to the kitchen, but I hear stirring above, so I doubt we'll be alone for long," Jarvis said. "Eat whatever you like," he said nodding at the fruit bowl. "Full breakfast will be ready soon, though a bit of assistance will make it arrive faster."

Steve smiled and took a banana. "How can I help?"

Jarvis provided a bowl of strawberries for Steve to hull and slice. It was a simple task and Steve had time to sift through his thoughts about last night. Should he ask Peggy out? She sure seemed willing to kiss him when Howard asked. She'd smelled nice, too, like flowers, only with a hint of spice. Maybe Bucky was right and she wouldn't care if he made a fool out of himself. Bucky...

Steve's cheeks burned pink at the memory of kissing Bucky. He bent his head over the strawberries he was slicing and hoped Jarvis wouldn't notice the blush on his face. What had that been about? Did Bucky like Steve, like, like Steve? But Bucky'd kissed Howard, too, and he'd said that didn't mean anything. Maybe Bucky just liked kissing.

Except Steve liked kissing Bucky and he wasn't sure what that meant. Was he like Bucky and kissing didn't mean anything, or did it mean he liked Bucky as more than a friend? Steve hadn't thought about kissing a guy like that before, but he hadn't really given it much thought at all before now.

He finished slicing the strawberries and gave them back to Jarvis. Maybe if he talked to Bucky, this would make more sense. Besides, the waffles would be ready soon and Bucky wouldn't want to miss breakfast.

Steve knocked on the door to Bucky's room. "Hey, it's Steve." He heard a muffled grumble. "Bucky?"

"C'me in," Bucky said with a yawn.

Steve opened the door and saw Bucky sprawled in the bed on his stomach, sheets and blanket wrapped around him and his face half-hidden in a pillow. Bucky's prosthetic arm rested on the nightstand next to the water and aspirin Steve had left him the night before. One foot stuck out of the covers and the sock had slid halfway off. "You doing okay?" Steve asked, amused. He poked Bucky's exposed foot and it disappeared under the covers like a turtle retreating into his shell. 

"'m sleeping," Bucky grumbled.

Steve sat down on the bed. "You're talking."

"People talk in their sleep all the time," Bucky muttered against his pillow. "Shakespeare wrote Midsummer Night's Dream in his sleep. Hired a guy to sit in the corner each night and write it down."

"Liar," Steve said.

Bucky heaved a great sigh and flopped over onto his back, twisting the blankets up even more. "What d'you want?"

"The butler's making breakfast," Steve said.

"Butler," Bucky snorted.

"You have a driver," Steve reminded him.

"He's personal security and anyway, I don't have a car," Bucky said.

"Tell you what, come downstairs and eat. You can lecture me on the pitfalls of capitalism and I can explain public transportation," Steve said.

Bucky dragged a spare pillow over his eyes, partially blocking the sunlight from the windows. "Maybe later."

"Waffles," Steve said, in a low, seductive voice. "With whipped cream and fruit and syrup." Bucky lifted the pillow slightly to look up at Steve. "Eggs, scrambled, poached, or sunny side up. Bacon, the really thick slices, fried up until it's crispy." In his regular voice, he added, "Dunno how long that's going to last once everyone gets downstairs."

"Fine." Bucky threw the pillow at Steve, who caught it and grinned. "I'll be down in a minute."

"I'll try to save you a waffle," Steve said. He tossed the pillow back to Bucky and got up to leave.

"Hey, Steve?" Bucky asked. The tone of his voice had shifted. Steve turned back. Bucky sat up and swung his legs off the edge of the bed. "Last night..." Bucky scratched his chin. "I was pretty drunk." He watched Steve.

Steve's cheeks heated up as he remembered the feel of Bucky's lips against his. "I noticed," he said.

"Yeah," Bucky said quickly. "Can we forget about that? Just not mention it again? Ever?"

"Sure," Steve said. He rubbed his finger over his bottom lip, then realized what he was doing and dropped his hand. "It's just kissing, right?" 

"Right," Bucky said, sounding relieved.

"It's forgotten," Steve said. If it didn't mean anything to Bucky, it didn't matter how Steve felt. "Hurry up, or the bacon'll get cold." He closed the door and left Bucky alone to get dressed. There, he didn't have to worry about it after all. Problem solved.

* * *

Bucky made it downstairs about fifteen minutes later. Jarvis had every surface in the kitchen piled with some kind of breakfast food and had roped a couple of the teenagers into cooking with him. Turned out Dum Dum was damned good at flipping eggs. Bucky took a little bit of everything and a lot of some things and brought his plate out to the dining room. Most of the kids from last night's party had taken seats around the huge, square, glass dining room table. One wall of the room was a single window, ceiling to floor, which looked out over the pool.

Bucky took a seat next to Steve, who snatched a piece of bacon off his plate. "Hey!" Bucky objected.

"You can't eat all that," Steve said.

"Watch me!" Bucky crammed an entire slice of toast into his mouth and grinned at Steve through the chewed-up bread.

Steve made a face. "Manners, Barnes."

"That's super gross," declared a brown-hared girl sitting on the right side of Steve. She sliced off a bite of waffle and ate it, clearly not very bothered by Bucky's atrocious table manners. Jim sat on the other side of her and gave Bucky a thumbs-up from behind her head.

"I'm sorry, he was raised by wolves," Steve said to the girl. Bucky drank a mouthful of orange juice to try and help him swallow all the dry bread. "I'm Steve, and the Neanderthal is Bucky," he said.

"Yeah, I know," the girl said. "Saw you guys last night. I'm Darcy."

"You should've said hi," Steve said.

Darcy shrugged. "You were a little busy at the time. Didn't want to interrupt."

Steve gave her a puzzled look. "Busy?"

"Making out by lamplight and all that," Darcy said. "I was a little annoyed that you guys claimed the bench before we did, but hey, you looked like you were having a good time, so I guess I'll forgive. Pass the butter?"

Steve handed the silver butter dish to her. "We weren't-" He glanced over at Bucky, who had frozen with a glass of orange juice at his lips. "I mean, we were, but we weren't - we were just practicing."

Darcy snorted. "Yeah, we did a lot of 'practicing' last night, too." She winked at Jim, who grinned at her.

Steve looked helplessly back at Bucky again. Bucky swallowed the last of the orange juice and bread in his mouth and tried to find words. Most of the kids at the table watched them with curious interest.

"Oh, relax," Darcy said. "Nothing wrong with a little tonsil hockey between friends. Are you going to eat your strawberries?" She pointed at Steve's plate with her fork.

"Yes," Steve said, pulling his plate closer.

"I'm sorry," Darcy said, in a softer voice. "I didn't know it was a secret. Although," she added, snagging a strawberry off Jim's plate instead, "I'd suggest finding a more private place next time."

"There's not going to be a next time," Steve said.

Darcy shrugged. "Then it's no big, right?"

"Sure," Steve said, uncertainly. Bucky noticed that Peggy was the only one at the table not looking their way. Her eyes were focused tightly on her plate as she cut her waffle into precise little squares.

"It was nothing," Bucky said to Darcy, standing up. "Me being stupid, that's all. I'm going to get more juice. Want me to grab you some strawberries?"

"Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks!" she said.

Steve looked at Bucky. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Bucky raised his eyebrows. "Get me some juice, too, will you?" Steve finally said.

* * *

The cast list was posted late Wednesday afternoon on the notice board outside the theater. Steve and Bucky went over after Lit class to check it out.

"Congratulations, man," Gabe said, clapping Steve on the shoulder.

"You, too," Steve said. Gabe had been cast as Hamlet. Howard's friend Christine would be playing Ophelia. Steve's eyes skimmed up to the top of the list.

Guildenstern - Steven Rogers

Rosencrantz - James Barnes

The Player - Peggy Carter

"Hey!" Gilmore Hodge was talking to Trevor, the director. "The Player's a guy's role. What the hell is a chick's name up there for?"

"I cast according to talent," Trevor said, tugging at the lapels of his jacket. "Despite her gender, Sarah Bernhardt played one of the finest Hamlets this world has ever known."

"She ain't Sarah Bernhardt," Gilmore said, jerking his thumb towards Peggy. 

"And neither, sir, are you," Trevor declared. He leaned in a bit and lowered his voice theatrically. "Besides, it's a bit of a sausage fest, as written. Good to get a bit of eye candy on the stage; grabs the audience's attention."

Gilmore looked over at Peggy. "Guess she's good for something."

Peggy's back was rigid. "I can hear everything you say," she told them.

"See?" Trevor said to Gilmore. "She's a spitfire, this one. She'll light up the stage."

Peggy gathered up a great deal of self-control and strode away from the theater. Steve caught up with her at the end of the hallway. "I'm sorry," he said.

"For what?" Peggy asked.

"... Men?" Steve offered.

"You can hardly hold yourself responsible for forty-nine percent of the world's population," Peggy told him. She glanced back towards the theater and exhaled sharply, half-sigh and half-snort.

Bucky caught up with them. "You want me to punch him for you?" he asked Peggy.

"Which one?" Steve asked.

"Either," Bucky said. He punched his right hand into the palm of his prosthetic hand. "You just say the word."

'Thank you, but I can do my own punching," Peggy said sharply. "I'm not looking for a white knight."

Bucky let his hands fall to his side. "Sorry," he said sheepishly.

Peggy softened. "The sentiment is appreciated, however."

"Maybe we could work out a trade," Bucky suggested. "I'll punch someone for you, you punch someone for me."

"That has potential," Peggy said. "I'll consider it if an opportunity arises." She smiled at Bucky, who smiled back.

"Are you going to accept the part?" Steve asked. 

"Absolutely," Peggy said. "It's an excellent role."

"Great!" Steve beamed. "I guess the three of us will be spending a lot of time together." Peggy and Bucky exchanged a brief look that Steve couldn't interpret, but it was gone so quickly Steve wasn't sure if he'd imagined it.

Bucky hunched his shoulders, stuffed his hands in his pockets and rolled forward on the balls of his feet. "You didn't ask if I was going to take the part," he pointed out.

"If I am, you are," Steve told him. "You got me into this." He turned back to Peggy. "Bucky never told you his part in that Fourth of July play."

"Because it's not very interesting," Bucky said.

"He was the Third Amendment," Steve said.

"She doesn't care, Steve," Bucky said.

"He did a tap dance," Steve said.

"Soft shoe," Bucky corrected.

"'No soldier shall, in time of peace-'" Steve started to sing. Bucky jabbed him in the side with his elbow and they grinned at each other.

Peggy looked between the two of them and a resigned smile played at her lips. "Sounds like you've both had excellent stage training."

* * *

Starring in the play didn't get Steve out of set painting duty, however. The next Saturday, the play's crew and part of the cast showed up at school in the morning to build sets. Steve was given an enormous piece of canvas and the instruction, "Draw the inside of a castle". He unrolled a sketch of of a stone hallway draped with tapestries and taped it to the wall. With a ruler, he drew faint pencil lines across the sketch and then took a yardstick and drew the same lines to scale on the backdrop. Bucky leaned against the proscenium and watched Steve work until Jim came by and handed him a hammer. "We're here to make scenery, not be scenery, so stop decorating the wall, pretty boy, and help me nail some wood," Jim said.

"Very Freudian," Bucky said.

"You can join Peggy and Gabe, if you'd rather," Jim said. "They're screwing in the wings." As they passed by, Bucky could see that indeed, Peggy was using a power drill to repair a chair while Gabe held the pieces in place.

Howard showed up an hour late and fuming. "My brother stole my car," he announced as he stalked up the aisle. He tossed his jacket over one of the seats in the front row.

"Tony?" Jim asked. "Can his feet even reach the pedals?"

Howard scowled. "He's going to scratch the paint and spill stuff on the upholstery and probably destroy the transmission. I had to take the Porsche this morning."

"Swap you for my Honda," Jim offered.

"He ruins everything," Howard sulked.

"You want to hit stuff with a hammer?" Bucky asked. "It's pretty fun."

"No, I need to upgrade the lighting," Howard said. "I could use a hand, though. You scared of heights, Bucky?"

Bucky helped Howard rewire the lighting system, which involved carrying a lot of lighting fixtures up and down the catwalk and zip-tying cables into place while Howard hooked up wires. It was pretty tiring work, so they took a break after an hour or so and plopped down in the third row of seats to drink sodas and rest while they watched the others work on stage. 

Steve was standing with his back to the audience, hands on his waist, taking a long look at the canvas. He appeared to make a decision and knelt down to sketch some more.

Howard looked over at Bucky watching Steve and grinned. "Nice view, huh?"

Bucky quickly looked away from the stage. "He's straight."

"Yeah?" Howard asked. He took a drink from his bottle of soda. "Did he tell you that before or after he had his tongue down your throat?"

Bucky's cheeks flamed. "I kissed him."

"Are you saying he said no?" Howard asked. "Because then we're going to have a very different conversation."

"No!" Bucky said. "He said yes."

"When you asked him," Howard said.

"Yes," Bucky said.

"Let's examine the facts," Howard said. "You, James Barnes, who currently identifies as male, requested a kiss from Steven Grant Rogers, who also currently identifies as male. He consented. You then pursued oral interaction for - how long was it?"

"'Oral interaction'?"

"Was it shorter or longer than when we kissed?" Howard asked.

Bucky shrugged. "Dunno. Longer?"

"At any point, before, during, or after, did Steven Grant Rogers express displeasure at having your tongue in his mouth?"

"No, but-"

"Did he or did he not?" Howard asked.

"He didn't," Bucky admitted.

"Has he ever made a declaration of his sexuality within your presence or hearing?" Howard asked.

"No, but-"

"Your honor, I believe I have established reasonable doubt and I ask the jury to consider that Steven Grant Rogers is not, in fact, heterosexual."

"You're hilarious," Bucky said dryly.

"Try 'observant'. Or 'insightful'," Howard said. "Have you asked him?"

"It doesn't matter," Bucky said. "He's into Peggy."

Howard sighed and leaned back. "My friend, he has expressed interest in Margaret Carter for the last two years, she has given signs that she is inclined to return those feelings and yet he has not made a move."

"Because he's an idiot," Bucky said.

Howard paused. "Plausible," he admitted. "But I have a suggestion for you."

"What's that?" Bucky asked.

"Tell him how you feel and let him make up his own damned mind," Howard said. He took another drink.

Bucky groaned and slumped down in his seat. "Do you realize how badly that could blow up in my face?"

"You know Steve," Howard said. "Even if he turns you down-"

"He'll be nice about it," Bucky said. "Of course he will. He'll be sweet and we'll still be friends except that it'll be awkward and weird. I'm awkward and weird with enough people as it is. I'm the one-armed new kid."

"We're getting pretty used to you around here," Howard said. 

"Yeah, but-" Bucky picked at the label on his soda bottle. "Six months from now, I'll be the new kid again somewhere else. Maybe I'll hit three or four more countries before I turn eighteen. Steve's the one person who remembers who I was before everything." He lifted his left hand and dropped it back into his lap.

"What about your uncle?" Howard asked.

Bucky shook his head. "The first time we spent a whole week together under the same roof was when I got out of the hospital. He was always traveling and besides, he and my dad couldn't stand each other. He sent me birthday cards each year and showed up for Thanksgiving now and then, but Steve was always around. He knows me. I'm just getting him back and I can't screw that up because of a stupid crush."

Howard shook his head. "You're both idiots," he told Bucky. "I wash my hands of the whole thing."

Steve noticed them out in the seats. "Hey!" he called out. "If you're here for the show, come back in six weeks. Some of us are working here." Peggy and Gabe emerged from the wings carrying the repaired chair.

Howard took a long swig of his soda and screwed the cap back on. He stood up and stretched. "Maybe we should order in some lunch; what do you say?" His phone rang. He glanced at his screen and swiped the screen with an irritated flourish. "If you aren't on the way back with my car in pristine condition-" He stopped, listened to the caller and the color slowly drained from his face. "I'm on my way," he said finally. He ended the call. "Tony crashed the car."

Bucky's stomach lurched. "How bad?" he asked.

Howard stared down at the phone in his hand. "His friend Bruce says the car shut down while they were driving. Engine died, brakes locked... They went off the road and hit an embankment. The car's totaled." He saw their faces. "Bruce says they weren't badly hurt."

"Well, that's terrible, but-" Peggy began.

Howard shook his head. "They couldn't get cell signal so Bruce and Rhodey went for help. When they got back, Tony was gone. He's missing."

"Maybe he went to get help?" Steve asked.

"No," Howard said. "He left his phone behind. He never leaves his phone anywhere." Howard ran a shaking hand through his hair. "I don't understand. The car was just serviced."

Bucky remembered sneaking down to the Stark garage late at night and attacking tracking devices to every car. "Tracking" devices, sure. He felt sick.

"They've called the police, haven't they?" Peggy asked. 

Howard nodded. "I need to go," he said, taking his keys from his pocket. Bucky closed his hand over Howard's wrist.

"Maybe you shouldn't drive right now," Bucky suggested. A "tracking" device on every car. That'd been the assignment. Son of a bitch

"I'm fine," Howard insisted.

"Bucky's right," Peggy said. She jumped down from the stage and walked over to Howard. "I'll drive you. Your car will be fine here."

"Okay. Sure," Howard said, still pale.

No one wanted to build sets after that, so Maria called it a day and they put everything away. Steve offered Bucky a ride home.

* * *

As soon as he got home, Bucky went straight to his uncle's office and pounded on the door. "You told me they were tracking devices!" he said furiously, when his uncle opened the door.

Alexander Pierce looked at Bucky, gave a small nod and pulled the door open wide. "Why don't you sit down and we'll discuss it.

"No," Bucky stood rigid in the doorway. "Why didn't you tell me what they were?"

Pierce blinked in surprise. "Because I knew it would upset you, as it clearly has."

"Upset me?" Bucky threw out his arm, roughly in the direction of the school. "Howard's my friend. His brother could have been killed. He could have been killed. You're damn right it would upset me!"

"Do not speak to me in that tone of voice," Pierce said sharply. "My team was in sight of the car and activated the device when they were sure it would be a minor accident. Hurting the Stark boys serves no purpose."

Bucky's jaw tightened. "Where's Tony?"

"That's not your business, James," Pierce said.

"I'm involved in this. You made it my business," Bucky said, hands clenching into fists.

Pierce grabbed a handful of Bucky's shirt and slammed him against the door frame. "You work for me. I don't work for you. If not for me, you'd be living in a group home with a hook for a hand so you will shut your mouth and show some respect." Bucky's head spun from the impact with the wood. Pierce released him and added in a quieter voice, "The people I work with are trying to take down a terrorist group called the Ten Rings. The boys' guardian, Obadiah Stane, has been providing them with weapons. That attack that was in the news last spring used guns from Stark Industries."

"Tony didn't have anything to do with that," Bucky said, not quite able to suppress the anger in his voice. Pierce gave him a hard look and Bucky pressed himself back against the door frame. But Pierce didn't touch him.

"No," Pierce agreed. "He's the leverage we need to bring Stane to the discussion table."

"What happens to Tony if Stane doesn't do what you want?" Bucky asked.

"Stane will," Pierce said. He rested his hand lightly on Bucky's shoulder. "James, if the roles were switched and he'd captured you, I would do whatever it took to bring you home. The boys are his weakness, as you are mine." He squeezed Bucky's shoulder affectionately. "Which he knows," Pierce added wryly. "I'm afraid your protection detail will be increased for the time being. I'm sorry about that."

Bucky didn't say anything, just kept his jaw tight.

Pierce sighed. "I know you feel like you're all grown up, James, but you're still very young. I keep things from you for your protection." He smiled. "I know there's nothing more frustrating to a teenager than being told 'you'll understand when you're older', but one day you will see the big picture. We're making the world a better place. It isn't always a pretty task, but it's one that needs to be done." He stepped back and Bucky released a breath. "Go to your room now. I need to finish the work I was doing when you interrupted."

* * *

Steve called the next afternoon to invite Bucky over to play video games. Bucky knocked lightly on his uncle's office door and waited for Pierce to open it. "Can I please go over to Steve's place?" he asked.

Pierce slipped his hands in his pockets and looked Bucky over. "I'd like an apology first. You were very rude yesterday."

Bucky clenched his teeth.

"Or you can stay home and think about it for a bit longer," Pierce said.

"Sorry," Bucky spat out.

Pierce nodded. "I think it would be best if you stayed home today." He started to close the door. Bucky thrust out his hand to stop it.

"No, I'm sorry," Bucky said quickly. He jerked his hand back. "I-" he took a breath. "I shouldn't have said anything."

"You can always come to me with problems," Pierce said sternly. "But you need to speak to me with respect and accept that there are things I am not going to tell you."

Bucky nodded.

Pierce considered and finally relented. "All right. You've got school tomorrow, so be back no later than nine. Brock will drive you and stay with you until you're ready to leave."

"I'm just going to Steve's place," Bucky protested. "I don't need a babysitter."

"I'm not risking your safety," Pierce said.

"I'm not some helpless kid. I know how to protect myself," Bucky said. "You're the one who wanted me to take all those lessons."

"And I hope you'll never need to use them," Pierce said. "Brock is going with you. This is not up for discussion."

* * *

Steve and his mother lived in a two-story Colonial-style townhome with a red brick walkway leading to the door. Brock parked at the curb in front of the house. Steve answered the door when Bucky knocked. "Hey," Bucky smiled. 

"Hey," Steve said. He looked past Bucky to the car parked at the curb. "He doesn't need to stay," Steve said. "I can give you a ride home."

Bucky shifted the strap of his messenger bag. "He kind of has to stay," he said grudgingly. "My uncle thinks I should have protection." 

"Oh. Okay," Steve said. "Tell him to come inside, at least. I can make coffee."

Brock brought a laptop bag in with him and set it up on the table while Steve made coffee. "I'm not here to get in the way," he assured Bucky and Steve. "I'll just hang out here and work on my homework. You mind if I use the wifi?"

"You're a student?" Steve asked, after giving him the password.

"Part-time," Brock said. "I skipped college and went straight into the Army after high school so it's going to be a while before I get a degree."

"Why'd you leave the Army?" Steve asked.

Brock grimaced. "Took a bad hit," he said. "Got a bunch of bones replaced with metal, which is real fun at airports, let me tell you."

"My dad was in the Army," Steve said. "The 107th." 

"Knew a couple of guys from the 107th," Brock said. "Good men. You thinking of joining up?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "My mom wants me to go to college first, though."

"Smart lady," Brock said. "Come in as an officer. It's a much easier life."

"I don't want easy," Steve said. "I want to make a difference."

Brock laughed. Steve scowled. "I'm not laughing at you," Brock said quickly. "You just remind me of myself at your age. I wanted to change the world."

"You don't now?" Steve asked.

"Sure I do," Brock said. "It's not just as black and white as it seemed when I was sixteen. Go to college, kid. You want to make a difference, you need to use every tool you can find." His eyes flicked over to Bucky, who stood there, frowning, with his arms folded across his chest. "I think we're boring James," he said. "You guys go enjoy yourselves. We can talk more later if you like."

"Come on, the rec room's downstairs," Steve told Bucky.

The basement had a couch, a TV, and an entertainment system set up against the far wall. One corner of the basement served as a laundry room and the rest was taken up with storage, stacked with plastic bins and old sports equipment. Steve switched on the Playstation and Bucky synced up his controller. He had a custom-built one designed for one-handed play.

"Have you heard from Howard?" Bucky asked, after they'd been playing for a while.

Steve shook his head. "Peggy texted me earlier. They've got the FBI and everyone all over the case but there's no news yet. Howard's a mess right now."

"Yeah, I bet," Bucky said. He chewed on his lower lip.

"The Starks have all that money," Steve said. "I never thought about how that makes them a target."

"Stark Industries does weapons manufacturing," Bucky pointed out.

"You think it was terrorists?" Steve asked, alarmed. "Or some kind of industrial espionage?" 

"No!" Bucky said quickly, then shook his head. "Maybe. I don't know."

"I'm glad you're safe," Steve said, knocking his knee against Bucky's. 

"Me?" Bucky asked warily.

"That's why you've got a bodyguard, right? In case someone goes after you to get at your uncle?"

"Yeah," Bucky said. "It's no big deal, though. He's just paranoid."

"He's not, though," Steve said. "It happened to Tony. I'm glad he's looking after you."

Bucky nodded. "I guess I'm pretty lucky," he said, testing out the words. "I could've ended up in a group home somewhere."

"Nah," Steve said. "You would've moved in with us. My mom was trying to get custody of you before they tracked down your uncle."

Bucky stared at him. "Seriously?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "That'd've been cool, huh? But of course, he's your family. Oh, I almost forgot!" He jumped up and went to rummage through one of the storage bins before Bucky could respond. He returned with a present wrapped in red and green Santa Claus wrapping paper. The colors had faded with age. He handed it to Bucky and sat back down. "I got this for you just before-" Steve paused. "Well, it was supposed to be your Christmas present that year but I never knew where to send it."

"And you kept it?" Bucky smiled.

Steve shrugged. "I figured I'd find a way to get it to you sooner or later."

"Thanks," Bucky said softly. He held the package as if it were something precious.

"You can open it," Steve prompted. "That's the point of a present."

Bucky grinned. He braced the package against his leg and tore the paper open with his right hand. SPY WATCH, the package said. RECORD EVIDENCE. MAKE SECRET VIDEOS. On the package, a boy dressed all in black with dark sunglasses posed dramatically with the watch on his wrist. Bucky laughed and Steve blushed.

"It looked really cool when I was eleven," Steve said.

"It's great," Bucky said. "Help me get the package open." They wrestled the toy from the packaging and Steve tried to buckle it around Bucky's right wrist. The strap was too short, but Steve tugged at it and managed to fasten it on the very largest notch. "Fits perfectly," Bucky said. He flexed his hand and the plastic strained. "Okay, now help me take it off before I lose all feeling in my fingers." Steve laughed and unbuckled the strap. Bucky tucked the toy away in his messenger bag and hugged Steve. "Thanks," he said. "I didn't have anything for you."

"I figured," Steve said. "You always did your shopping at the last minute. Remember the time you got all your presents from the 7-11 because nothing else was open?"

"Oh my God," Bucky covered his face with his hand and dropped his head back against the couch. "I'd forgotten about that." He cringed. "I gave you a bottle of motor oil."

"'For your future car'," Steve remembered. "I let my mom use it in her car. I hope that was okay."

"I'll make it up to you this year, I swear," Bucky said. He turned his head to look at Steve.

"You don't have to buy me presents," Steve said. He rested his head against the back of the couch so his face was only inches from Bucky's; so close that the air warmed between them.

"Oh? Never mind, then," Bucky said. "Too bad. The Circle Q has some great jumper cable sets."

"You can if you want," Steve said, and Bucky suddenly wanted very badly to close the space between them and kiss Steve. He jerked away and picked up his game controller again before he could give in to the impulse. Steve looked... disappointed? Bucky wasn't sure. Steve sat up and picked up his own controller. He started the game, paused it, looked like he was going to say something, then shook his head and started the game again.

Bucky paused it. "What?"

Steve swallowed. "This is going to sound really stupid," he said, "but that night at Howard's party - was that really just about teaching me, or was that something else?"

Bucky squeezed his eyes shut so tightly that he scrunched up his nose. "Oh, God, is this Stupid Things Bucky's Done Night?"

"Never mind," Steve said quickly.

"No," Bucky said. He let out a long breath and avoided Steve's eyes. "No, it wasn't just about teaching you."

"When you kissed me," Steve said slowly, "it wasn't like when Peggy kissed me."

"No shit, I used tongue," Bucky said. He watched Steve from the corner of his eye.

"No - well, yeah - but that's not what I mean," Steve said. He frowned, looking like he was trying to puzzle out the solution to a particularly difficult homework problem.

"It's different with different people at different times," Bucky said. He turned to meet Steve's eyes. "One kiss doesn't mean anything."

"Should I try to kiss Peggy again, then?" Steve asked with a grin.

Bucky flicked his tongue over his lips and didn't smile. He could say yes and take a tactical retreat. "Are you asking me as your friend or as the guy who wants to kiss you?" he asked. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. "Because I gotta tell you, pal, you're not going to get the same answer."

"You can't be both?" Steve asked, his grin fading.

"As your friend, I say Peggy's a great girl and kissing her's probably pretty nice," Bucky said. "As the other guy..." he shook his head slowly and looked up at Steve through his eyelashes, "I don't want you kissing anyone else." He gave a half-shrug, trying to lighten the words.

Steve blinked once, then twice, then lifted his hand slowly to cup Bucky's cheek. He caught Bucky's gaze, then closed his eyes and brought their lips together. Bucky's fingers brushed against Steve's side. He hesitated, then slid his arm around Steve's waist and drew him closer. Steve's shirt rode up in the back and Bucky traced circles on the warm, smooth skin with his fingertips. Steve's hand moved forward and he curled his fingers at the base of Bucky's neck.

Someone knocked on the basement door. "Steve?" Mrs. Rogers called out. Steve and Bucky jerked apart so quickly that Bucky's teeth snapped on his lower lip. He swore under his breath. Mrs. Rogers opened the door and came down the stairs. "Steve, there's a gentleman upstairs that says he's with you... oh, hi, Bucky. Wow, you've really grown up, haven't you?" she said, as Bucky stood up. She walked over and gave him a hug. Bucky realized with a shock that he was taller than she was now. She still smelled the same as she had when he was a kid, though, and the scent of fresh shampoo and hospital antiseptics brought back a sense of home that made his chest ache.

"Hey, Mrs. Rogers," Bucky said.

"I think you're old enough to call me Sarah, if you like," she said. Mrs. Rogers - Sarah - still wore her scrubs from work. "You look good, Bucky. Really healthy." She pushed a section of hair off his face. "You could use a haircut, though," she said with a small frown.

"I like it," Steve said protectively. Bucky shot Steve a smile.

"Doesn't harm anything, I suppose," Sarah conceded with a sigh. "Come on upstairs. I picked up some chicken on the way home. You can introduce me to your friend."

"He's my bodyguard," Bucky admitted.

"You can introduce me to your bodyguard, then," Sarah said. "He can eat, too. There's plenty of food."

"We'll be up in a minute," Steve said. "We should, uh, straighten up a bit." He looked around and picked up the wrapping paper from Bucky's gift.

"All right," Sarah said, amusement in her eyes. "Don't be too long; the chicken will get cold." She went upstairs and closed the basement door behind herself.

Steve turned to Bucky. "Sorry," he said. "Bad timing."

"It's okay," Bucky said. "We could maybe - another time?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "Yeah, that sounds good." Neither of them moved towards the stairs. Steve's eyes focused on Bucky's lips and the boys moved slowly towards each other - and then jumped back when Steve's phone rang. "Sorry," Steve said again. He took out his phone. Peggy's number was on the screen. He looked uncertainly at Bucky, who waved his hand at the phone. The moment was already gone. Steve swiped the screen. "Hey, it's Steve," he said, turning slightly away from Bucky. "They did?" he asked Peggy. "Oh, thank G-" He stopped. "How bad?" he asked, and then, "Okay. Thanks for letting me know." He ended the call and stared at the phone in his hand.

"What happened?" Bucky asked, dread seeping through him.

"They found Tony," Steve said.

Bucky swallowed. "He's... is he...?"

"He's in the hospital," Steve said. "Whoever had him, they drugged him. Probably to keep him quiet." Steve looked at Bucky. "He had a heart attack."

"Christ," Bucky whispered.

Steve set his jaw. "Whoever's behind this is going to pay."

* * *

Chapter Text

Bucky usually got to school just in time to dash to his first class, but on Monday morning he arrived early so he could meet Steve before school started.

"Hey," Bucky said, leaning against the locker next to Steve's. He smiled, then self-consciously tugged at his lower lip with his teeth.

"Hey," Steve replied, a slight blush creeping into his cheeks. 

"Have you heard anything about Tony?" Bucky asked.

"Howard said it doesn't look like Tony'll need surgery, but the doctors are monitoring him closely," Steve said. "Howard's camped out in Tony's room at the hospital, so I don't think he's going to make it to school today."

"Do they know who took him? What they wanted?" Bucky asked.

Steve shook his head. "Howard thinks Obie - that's his guardian - paid them off, but he doesn't know what they were asking for." He slammed a hand against his locker. "I just want to find who did this and punch them in the face."

Bucky grabbed Steve's hand. "I think the Starks have people for that," he said, only half-joking. "I'm sure they've got everyone on the job." Without thinking, he brought Steve's hand to his lips and kissed it. Realizing what he'd just done, Bucky jerked his hand back and his cheeks reddened.

Steve gave Bucky a curious look and took hold of Bucky's hands. He took a deep breath. "I liked kissing you," he said.

Bucky didn't want to move, for fear of spoiling the moment. "Me too."

"Kept thinking about it last night. Even with everything going on," Steve said.

"Me too," Bucky said. "Want to do it again?" He tugged Steve's hands, pulling him forward into Bucky's personal space. Steve leaned forward. The bell rang. Bucky groaned and dropped his head back against the locker.

Steve smiled. "Rain check?" He let go of Bucky's hands and got his portfolio out of his locker; art was his first class. 

Bucky heaved a great sigh and nodded. "I'll see you at lunch?"

"Yeah," Steve said. He slung the strap of the portfolio over his shoulder. They smiled at each other for a moment. 

Abruptly, Bucky leaned forward and gave Steve a quick peck on the lips. "Lunchtime," he said, and walked away from Steve before he could do anything else stupid.

* * *

AP Russian got out a little late. Bucky loaded up his plate at the pasta bar and made his way over to their usual table. He plopped down his tray and looked around. "Where's Steve?" Gabe pointed across the cafeteria. "Crap," Bucky sighed. He wove through a sea of tables, chairs, legs and backpacks to where Steve stood between Gilmore and a couple of freshmen girls. Steve was face to face with Gilmore, his hands curled, leaning in so their foreheads nearly touched. If Steve had been a cat, his tail would have been thrashing.

"... don't care, they said no, so you better walk away right now," Steve said.

"I was being friendly," Gilmore's face was red with anger. "What, that's a crime now? They should be flattered. Couple a little -"

"Beat it, Gilmore," Bucky said, coming up on Steve's right side. The girls took his approach as a cue to flee. Gilmore shot an angry look at them, but Bucky blocked Gilmore from following them. Bucky had his arms folded across his chest and Steve's hands were clenched into loose fists. 

Gilmore looked at the two of them. "Fine," he spat. "I got better things to do."

"Then go do them," Bucky said. Gilmore stalked off. Bucky and Steve watched to make sure he wasn't following the girls and then walked back to the lunch table.

"I didn't need your help," Steve muttered.

"You start a fight in here, you'll get suspended," Bucky pointed out.

"I wasn't-" Steve began. Bucky gave him a disbelieving look and Steve abandoned the denial. "He deserves a punch to the face."

"Do it off-campus," Bucky advised.

Jim sighed heavily when they sat down at the lunch table and handed five bucks to Gabe, who accepted it smugly. "I was sure you'd hit him this time," he said. "Dammit, Barnes."

Bucky eyed the money changing hands. "Didn't know you had money riding on it."

"There's a pool, too. You want in?" Jim said. "Thought I'd go for a little side action, though. I was really feeling it today."

"I'll get him next time," Steve assured him.

"So you two," Jim said, pointing his finger at Steve, and then Bucky, "are you officially a thing now?"

"No," Bucky said, at the same time Steve said, "Yeah." There was a brief pause, and then Bucky said, "Maybe," just as Steve said, "I guess not." 

There was an awkward silence for a moment, broken when Bucky looked at Steve. "Yeah, I think we are?" Steve's answering smile was like sunshine. "We are," Bucky told their friends.

Jim held out his hand to Gabe, who returned the five dollar bill with a sigh. "You couldn't've waited until Saturday?" Gabe asked.

"Congratulations," Peggy said quietly, and while it wasn't enthusiastic, it was sincere.

Bucky gave her a grateful smile. "Thanks."

* * *

Howard returned on Wednesday and he didn't need to be prompted to talk about the kidnapping. "Someone put disablers on every single car," he told them over lunch. "They bugged Obie's office, the library, the guest dining room, the east study, the west study and the sitting room. We had an ex-CIA guy come in and sweep the place."

"Who did it?" Peggy asked. "How did they get in?"

"Don't know for sure yet. We fired the entire security team and the FBI is investigating them," Howard said. "Working theory is that one of them was bribed to let in the guy who did this."

Steve frowned. "Pretty awful to think someone you trusted did this." Bucky dipped a chicken nugget in ketchup and said nothing.

Howard nodded. "Jarvis is investigating the household staff. Most of them have been with us for years."

"Are there cameras in the house?" Peggy asked.

Howard shook his head. "Outside only, but they haven't turned up anything useful. The video files are only saved for a week and we don't know how long the bugs were there before someone activated the disabler."

"Tony's recovering well, though?" Peggy asked.

"Yeah," Howard said. "The bed rest's driving him batty, though." He managed a small smile. "He tried to program the heart monitor to play poker. Nearly gave the on-duty nurse her own heart attack when the signal cut out."

"We need to do something," Steve said, stabbing his spaghetti with his fork. 

"We could send her a bottle of Howard's whiskey," Peggy offered dryly.

Steve shook his head. "About the kidnappers. About the people who did this."

Bucky dropped his chicken nugget and ketchup splattered on the white cuff of his sleeve. "What? Steve, no. That's what the FBI is for."

"Maybe we can do something they can't," Steve said.

"Like what?" Bucky demanded. "Monologue at them? Steve, Tony's home and he's as safe as he can be. The FBI's going after the kidnappers and it's all under control."

"Under control? The people that kidnapped Tony haven't been caught!"

"Who are you now, Nancy Drew?" Bucky asked. "Going to solve a case the FBI can't crack? We don't have anything to go on."

"Actually," Howard said. "Tony's been trying to hack into the FBI database."

Steve looked interested. "He can do that?"

"He's a smart kid," Howard said proudly.

"That's - that's a felony," Bucky said, rubbing the spot between his eyes with his right index finger. "I think that's a lot of felonies."

"We can use that," Steve said. "Howard, get any information you can from Tony. Peggy, your stepdad has law enforcement contacts, right?"

"Might be treason," Bucky said.

"Mostly military, but he knows a couple of people in the local P.D." Peggy said thoughtfully. She flipped open a notebook and wrote fast, neat notes. "I'll find out what I can."

"We should look through social media," Maria said. "Someone could've caught the kidnappers in the background of a selfie or a Vine."

"Good idea," Steve said.

"I can help with that," Gabe said. "There's a lot of ground to cover."

"Me too," Jim said.

"Excellent," Steve said. "Bucky -" He looked at Bucky, who was frowning with disapproval. "Bucky, how about you just hang out and be a wet blanket?"

Bucky's frown deepened. "Steve-"

"You know, you used to be a lot more adventurous," Steve said.

"I think," Bucky said, in a tightly controlled voice, "that it should be pretty freaking obvious that I'm not the same person I was five years ago." He clenched his left fist. Steve looked abashed for a moment, but Bucky continued, "But you still think you're the hero of some adventure story. You think you're going to swoop in and save the day, but if you recall, whenever you tried to play hero, you ended up with the shit kicked out of you and me hauling your ass out of trouble."

Now Steve looked furious. "I'm not the same person I was back then, either. I am not some weak kid!" 

"And these are not some back alley bullies!" Bucky's voice rose on the last words. He glanced around the cafeteria and dropped his voice again. "These people are professionals. Killers. They are way above your pay grade." He knew it was useless even as he said the words. Nothing made Steve Rogers cling to an idea harder than someone telling him he couldn't do it. Bucky looked around the table and knew they were all on Steve's side. He crumpled up his napkin and threw it on his half-eaten tray of chicken nuggets. He'd lost his appetite. He stood up. "You're all idiots," he told his friends, who gave him stony looks. "You're going to get people killed. Actually killed, not coming back for the next matinee killed."

"Thank you, Bucky, but we are aware of the difference," Peggy said crisply. "You are under no obligation to participate in this. We've managed thus far without your guidance and I think we may risk doing without it a bit longer." Steve gave her a grateful smile. Bucky fumed.

"Peggy's right," Steve said. "It's not your call."

Bucky twisted his lips and lifted his hands in defeat.  Jaw clenched, he picked up his lunch tray and stalked away.

* * *

Rehearsal that afternoon was painfully awkward. Steve and Bucky shared every single scene they were in, so they had no choice but to be on stage together. They refused to speak to each other outside of their scripted lines, though, and their anger bled into their performances. Trevor finally dismissed them in disgust and called up Peggy and several other actors to work on the play-within-the-play.

When Brock pulled the car up to the curb, Bucky yanked open the door, dropped into the back seat and slammed the door behind himself.

"Rough day?" Brock asked, from the driver's seat.

"Piss off," Bucky muttered.

"Watch your fuckin' mouth, kid," Brock said.

Bucky snorted.

"You want to talk about it?" Brock asked.

"Not with you," Bucky said.

Brock shrugged. "Fair enough. Want to hit the gym? Spar a bit?"

Punching things sounded good. "Sure," Bucky said. "Why not."

* * *

Steve decided to stay around and paint the backdrop he'd designed. He got to watch a bit of the rehearsal while he worked. They were blocking out choreography for a stylized fight scene. Peggy played the leader of the acting troupe in Hamlet and here she played the Player as Hamlet opposite Jacques as the actor playing Laertes. She learned the blocking quickly, but when they ran through the scene with the props, she lunged forward and stabbed with such force that she broke the tip of the sword on his chest.

"This is theater," Trevor reminded her, as Jacques rubbed the spot where she'd stabbed him. "We are here to evoke, entertain and enlighten. Not to injure."

"It's just make-believe!" Steve called out, and Peggy scowled at him.

"I'm really sorry," she said to Jacques.

"It is all right," Jacques said. "I love feeling the touch of a beautiful woman." He gave her a lascivious grin. Peggy slugged him in the arm. Ow, he mouthed at Steve, caressing the spot with his hand. Steve shrugged, completely unsympathetic.

"Again, from the top," Trevor ordered. 

Peggy came over to Steve after the rehearsal ended. "Some of us are going to the Excelsior to work on homework. Want to join us?"

"Sure." Steve scratched his cheek, then realized he'd left a smear of brown paint. "Lemme just wash up a bit."

"I'll see you there." Peggy smiled.

Steve joined his friends at the back of the Excelsior Cafe, where they'd pushed a couple of tables together. Maria had her laptop out and Gabe and Jim were on either side of her, discussing something on the screen. Howard had a tiny disc on the table in front of him, hooked up to his laptop. It was about the size of a fifty cent piece. A matching disc sat on the table nearby. It looked like he'd pried the pieces apart. 

Peggy had her AP Government book and notes out. Steve sat down next to her. "What are you writing your paper on?" he asked her, taking out his own notes.

"Leviathan and the role of fear in maintaining social unity and civil peace," Peggy said. She tapped her pencil against the spirals of her notebook. "I've got quite a bit about how the English Civil Wars influenced Thomas Hobbes's writing but I need to tie it into modern examples."

"How about the way politicians use the threat of terrorism to convince people to vote away their civil liberties?" Steve suggested.

"That's not a bad idea," Peggy said, scribbling down a note. "What are you writing about?"

"The influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the writing of the U.S. Constitution," Steve said.

"Are you going to sing?" Peggy teased.

"Only if Ms. Hand gives me extra credit for it," Steve said. 

Howard frowned at the disc he was studying and carefully touched one of the circuits with a screwdriver. The lights shut off above them and every laptop and phone in the back half of the cafe went dead.

Cries went up from all the tables. Maria said something absolutely filthy involving Howard's ancestors in anatomically improbable situations.

Howard ignored the outrage and looked around the room to see which electronics were still on. He adjusted another circuit and power returned.

"You should have warned me." Maria gave him a death glare as her laptop rebooted. 

"I didn't know what it would do until I tried it," Howard said, unconcerned. "And I needed the data." When his laptop rebooted, he tapped a few keys and pulled up a page of data from the little disc.

"There's something to be said for good, old-fashioned pen and paper," Peggy said to Steve with a smile.

"Comes in handy a lot around Howard," Steve agreed. He opened up a notebook, flipped through it to find a blank page, and found a picture of Bucky that he'd doodled during Lit class the day before. It was a simple profile sketch and showed Bucky watching the teacher with his pencil resting against his lip. Steve frowned at the page and ripped it out. He crumpled it up and dropped it on the table.

"It's a lousy sketch," he explained to Peggy, when she raised her eyebrows.

Peggy picked up the crumpled paper and stretched it out by the corners to get a good look. "I suppose you know more about art than I do."

"He's a self-righteous jackass," Steve told Peggy. "He doesn't get it. I need to help."

"I'm on your side," Peggy reminded him. 

"I'm glad," Steve said. "You're really amazing, you know that?"

"I like to think so, but it's good to have outside confirmation." Peggy gave him a rueful smile and pushed the sketch of Bucky towards him. "Bucky's a good guy. You'll work it out." She closed her notebook and picked up her books. "I'm going to see if Maria needs help."

Steve took the sketch back. He smoothed out the wrinkles and looked at it for a moment. Then he folded it carefully in half and tucked it inside his notebook.

* * *

Bucky pointedly walked past their usual lunch table the next day at noon and set down his tray with a clatter on a nearby table. He sat down with his back to Steve and their friends. A few minutes later, Howard brought his own tray over to join him. "You're not wrong," he said, after a few minutes.

Bucky put down his burger. "Thank you. Now will you talk some sense into that idiot?" He flipped his hand in Steve's direction.

"You're not getting it," Howard said. "He knows it's dangerous. We all know it's dangerous. But so is not doing anything. You know Peggy's stepdad has a security clearance higher than the president? Suppose someone goes after her? Maria's mom works for the NSA. A lot of people here could be the next target." Howard leaned back in his chair. "But no one's going after a nurse's son and you only care about Steve."

"That's bullshit," Bucky said furiously. "I care about all of you, which is why I want you to stay out of this."

"Look," Howard said. "If we don't find anything the FBI couldn't find, then there's no reason for anyone to bother us. If we find something the FBI can't, then it's worth the risk."

Bucky rubbed his hand over his face. It had a certain amount of logic, from their perspective. But Bucky had a sick suspicion that someone at the FBI already knew who was involved in this and why. His uncle had a way of pulling strings and making deals. What if Tony's probe found something there and stirred up a whole hornets' nest of trouble? 

But maybe it should be revealed. Maybe some secrets shouldn't be kept.

Only couldn't someone do it without getting his friends killed? Bucky's head ached.

"We're doing it with or without your approval," Howard said. "But Steve's been sulking like mad since you guys fought, so I figure you join us, he'll be easier to tolerate."

If he helped them, he'd be in on what they were doing. He might be able to steer them away from something dangerous or warn them if they uncovered the worst. Bucky closed his eyes to consider it, but really, there was only one choice. He nodded. Howard gave him a grim smile and clapped him on the back.

Bucky carried his tray over to his friends' lunch table and sat down next to Steve. "You're idiots," he told them. "But you'll be better off with me watching your backs, so I guess if I can't stop you, I'll join you."

"How generous," Peggy said dryly, but Steve's face lit up with a smile.

"Knew you'd come around," he said, and began telling Bucky what they'd gotten so far.

Bucky hoped he'd made the right choice. And that protecting them wouldn't force him to reveal what he'd already done.

* * *

Howard texted both Steve and Bucky on Saturday morning with the information. They'd found the location where Tony had been held and planned to visit it that afternoon. Bucky was still saddled with a bodyguard when not at home or school, so he and Steve conferred and worked out a plan. They went to a movie together and Bucky convinced Brock to stay outside the theater and give them a little bit of privacy. Once the lights darkened, Steve and Bucky snuck out the back, where Howard and Peggy picked them up.

They drove to a single family home located in a neighborhood that Peggy described as "rough". Bucky thought it looked sad and neglected. A number of places had faded real estate signs stuck in their front yards and the ones that were occupied had faded paint and untended yards. "According to the FBI records, they kept Tony here," she said. She pointed at the house as they passed it and went to park around the corner. 

"Hasn't the FBI already swept the place?" Bucky asked.

"Yes, but it's possible we'll discover something they missed," Peggy said. Bucky found that unlikely, but it seemed like a fairly safe angle of investigation, so he wasn't going to discourage it. 

Peggy parked the car a couple of blocks away. The house had a wooden fence surrounding the backyard, white paint faded and peeling. The neighboring houses were empty and tagged with graffiti. It was an isolated place on a street where the people didn't bother asking questions. Bucky could see why the kidnappers had chosen it as a base. Fortunately, this also meant no one was likely to care about a few teenagers poking around. He stepped over an old condom in the yard and thought that local teenagers probably did spend a lot of time in these abandoned places. He couldn't imagine hooking up with someone in a place like this. Seriously, there had to be diseases.

Steve reached over the top of the gate and released the latch. At the back door, they put on rubber medical gloves. Peggy took out a small case, about the size of a woman's wallet, and picked the lock with a couple of lockpicks.

"Where'd you learn to do that?" Bucky asked, impressed.

Peggy smiled. "That's classified."

The back door led into the kitchen, where a garbage can stuffed full of fast food bags had a ripe smell and flies buzzed around it. "I guess kidnappers don't take out the garbage," Howard said with distaste.

"I don't think they planned to stay here very long," Steve said. 

But under the smell of garbage, Bucky picked up a distinctive, coppery scent. He grabbed a large knife from a block on the counter. 

"Bucky, what the hell?" Howard asked. Peggy pulled a taser from her purse. 

"You smell it?" she asked Bucky. He nodded. They pushed open the kitchen door with caution, but no one was in the living room.

No one alive, at least.

Blood pooled around two bodies in front of the television. It looked as though they had been forced to kneel, then shot execution-style in the back of their heads. Howard gagged and threw his arm across his face to cover his nose and mouth. Bucky tasted bile at the back of his throat.

"I'll check the other rooms," Bucky said, turning quickly away from the sight.

"I'm going with you," Steve said. The house had three bedrooms and one bathroom, with small closets, so it didn't take long to verify that no one else - living or dead - was inside the house. One bedroom had bolts driven into the floor with shackles attached and a dirty bucket against the wall. Bucky imagined being chained in that spot, on the filthy carpet that reeked of ancient cat urine and had unpleasant dark blotches staining the carpet. The chains weren't long enough for the prisoner to be able to stand, not even for a short kid like Tony. He must have kicked up a hell of a fuss being trapped like that. Probably why they decided to drug him.

"All clear," Bucky said grimly, when he returned to the living room. Peggy was snapping photos with her phone, while Howard stood to the side, looking rather green. "Going to Instagram those?" Bucky asked, anger seeping into his voice.

She shot him a fierce look. "We are here for evidence," she said, her voice steady, though she looked rather green herself. 

"The blood's not dry," Steve said. For that matter, he wasn't looking all that well either. Bucky wondered if he himself looked as sick as the others. "This happened recently. Probably no more than a few hours ago."

"It's a message," Bucky said grimly. "A message to us." The other three turned to look at him.

Peggy frowned. "That seems unlikely. How would anyone know we were coming?"

Bucky's hand brushed against the pocket that held his phone. "I don't know," he lied. "Maybe someone else tapped the FBI database and knew we'd been looking at it."

"We need to call the police," Steve said. 

"I can't be here," Bucky said, a thread of panic wrapping around his chest. "I'll get in trouble."

"We're all going to be in trouble," Howard muttered. 

Peggy rested a hand on Howard's arm. "I'm sure they won't press charges for trespassing under the circumstances."

"With my uncle," Bucky said. "We snuck out."

"I'll take a few more photos and then we'll take you back to the theater," Peggy decided. "We'll call the police from Howard's place and no one need know that the two of you were here." Bucky looked down, but the filthy carpet wouldn't show their footprints. As long as they didn't step in the blood. He shivered.

"Thanks," Steve said. 

"I'm going to wait in the kitchen," Howard declared, and Steve and Bucky saw no reason not to join him.

The ride back to the theater was utterly silent. 

"Keep me updated," Steve told them, as they got out of Peggy's car.

"I will," she said.

Bucky and Steve went around to the back entrance of the theater. At the back door, a bored theater employee leaned against the wall, playing a game on his phone. When he spotted them, he straightened up with a guilty look and stuffed the phone in his pocket. "Yo, you can't come in this way," he said. Bucky held out a twenty dollar bill. The guy looked at it, shrugged, and took the money. "All right, whatever," he said, and let them in the door.

Bucky and Steve slipped back into their seats to watch the end of the movie. With his right hand, Bucky slipped his fingers through Steve's and clung tightly to the other boy. He couldn't have told anyone how the movie ended. He just took what comfort he could from having Steve pressed against his side.

Brock closed his textbook and stood up when Steve and Bucky exited the theater. "Did you enjoy the show?" he asked, with a sly grin.

"Best first date ever," Bucky muttered.

* * *

Bucky went straight to his room after he got home and sat on his bed for a while, aimlessly playing games on his phone and trying not to remember the sight of two men in pools of their own blood, brains splashed against the wall.

His uncle came home about an hour later. He knocked on the door of Bucky's room. Bucky ignored it. Pierce knocked again, and when Bucky didn't respond, he pushed open the door.

"You bugged my phone," Bucky said, not looking up. He had his legs pulled up to his chest and his arms rested on his knees.

Pierce slipped his hands in his pockets. "Technically, it's my phone. I pay for it," he said lightly.

Bucky tossed the phone to him. "Take it, then. I don't need you spying on me."

Pierce caught the phone and placed it gently on the dresser. "It seems you do. I can't keep you safe if you're going to sneak off and put yourself in the middle of a delicate operation."

Bucky scrubbed his right hand over his face. "I tried to talk them out of it," he said.

"You weren't very persuasive," Pierce said. "Perhaps the message I had delivered will help your words sink in."

Bucky stared at his knees and tried to keep his expression neutral. "Did you have to kill them?"

"The kidnappers? Oh, yes," Pierce said, with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry, they would have been removed in any case. I dislike loose ends." He came over to the bed and sat down. "I'm concerned, James. I want to help you, but you have to talk to me. Your friends are meddling in very dangerous business. You and I can keep them safe, if we work together."

"You want me to spy on them for you," Bucky said bitterly.

"I suppose that's one way to see it," Pierce said. "I'd like to be able to head off problems at the pass before more drastic measures need to be taken. Do you see what I'm saying?"

Bucky did. He nodded. 

"Good," Pierce said. He patted Bucky's leg. "Dinner will be ready in about an hour." He closed the door when he left the room.

Bucky dropped his head back against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe seeing those bodies would be enough to discourage his friends from their investigation.

* * *

"You okay?" Steve asked when he saw Bucky on Monday morning. "I sent you something like twenty texts this weekend."

"Sorry, I lost my phone," Bucky said. He'd actually beaten it to pieces with a meat tenderizer. "Look, I need your help. That's the third phone I've lost this year and I don't want my uncle to know I need another one. Could you give me a ride to the electronics store at lunch?" They weren't supposed to leave campus during the day, but sneaking out wasn't tough.

"Sure," Steve said. He took Bucky's hand in his. "You sure you're okay?" he asked in a low voice. "What we saw on Saturday - that'd shake anyone up."

Bucky gave him a small smile. "I'm okay," he reassured Steve. "About that -"

"You were right," Steve said bleakly. "Someone knew we were coming. We need to back off." Something loosened in Bucky's chest and he felt himself breathe easier. Thank God, Steve was going to see sense and drop this investigation stuff. But Steve continued, "We need to find out how they knew about us before we do anything else."

Bucky dropped his head back against the lockers. "Steve...," he pleaded.

"They're trying to scare us away because they're afraid of what we'll find out," Steve said. 

"And if that doesn't work, what next?" Bucky asked. "Who else is going to get hurt?"

"Nobody," Steve said stubbornly. "I'm not letting anyone get hurt. That's the point."

"Jesus, Steve, you can't save the world!" 

"I can try," Steve said, setting his jaw. Bucky shook his head. Arguing with Steve was like pounding your head against a brick wall. "Buck, we're not rushing in again. Next time we'll be prepared."

"Sure," Bucky said wearily.

But weeks went by with no leads. They settled back into their school routine: classes, rehearsals and studying sessions at the Excelsior Cafe. Tony came back to school, thinner and paler but recovering well. Two weeks after he came back to school, he set off an explosion on the physics lab that triggered all the fire alarms and sprinklers. They had to sit in the parking lot for two hours while the emergency crew verified that the school was safe. Tony and his friends sat on a low cement wall, clothes drenched and ties scorched, as the fire marshall, the physics teacher and the principal lectured them each in turn.

"That's my brother," Howard grinned, watching them. "Kid's smart." He leaned against his Maserati and took out a deck of cards. "Little bit of poker before we go back to class?" He'd relaxed a lot since Tony came back to school. He hadn't thrown any of his famous parties lately, but he was organizing the Drama Club's annual New York trip. Bucky suspected Howard was planning a few off-Broadway destinations that weren't on the official itinerary. "Do you have a fake ID?" Howard asked him. "I know a guy who does excellent work."

* * *

Bucky spent a lot of time in the rec room at Steve's house, where "studying" and "playing video games" both looked remarkably like making out. Steve's mother learned to knock on the basement door very loudly and open it slowly when she called them to dinner. 

The theater had an old couch backstage, under a wall covered in hats and next to a rack of wooden swords. Bucky and Steve snuck back there whenever they could, but they weren't the only ones who used it and more than once they'd found it already occupied by Jim and Darcy, or Howard and his latest, or, on one very awkward occasion, Peggy and Gabe.

Bucky and Steve backed out of the room and into the hallway, where Bucky slumped against the wall and sighed dramatically. "You had to get a motorcycle."

"What's wrong with my bike?" Steve demanded.

"It doesn't have a back seat," Bucky pointed out. "Is it too late to swap it for a van?"

"Yes," Steve said firmly. "Why don't you get a van?"

"Because my uncle would still make Brock drive it," Bucky said. "I just wish we could get more time alone." He wrapped his hand around Steve's tie and pulled his boyfriend in for a kiss. Steve kissed back, then stepped in close enough that he was pinning Bucky against the wall with his hips. Bucky thumbed open the first button of Steve's shirt and pushed the collar aside so Bucky could kiss his neck. With his lips only inches from Steve's ear, Bucky whispered, "I really want to have sex with you."

Steve's breath hitched. "Uh," he said, words failing him.

Bucky drew back, suddenly uncertain. "If you don't want to, that's okay," he said quickly.

"No, I do," Steve said, just as quickly. "I really do." Bucky watched as familiar determination took over Steve's features. "I'll find a place," he said firmly.

Three days later, Steve met Bucky at his locker after the lunch bell rang. Half of Bucky's hair had slipped free of his ponytail and it dangled over his face as he struggled to swap out his Russian book for his pre-calculus text without knocking his history book out of his locker, which he'd balanced on top of his photography and chemistry books earlier. Steve stepped in and caught the history book before it could fall. "Thanks," Bucky said.

Steve turned over the book in his hands while Bucky rearranged his locker. "You know that thing we were talking about?" he asked. The top button of his shirt was open and his tie was crooked. Bucky really wanted to kiss that spot on his throat where his shirt gaped open.

"We talk about a lot of things," Bucky pointed out.

"That one particular thing," Steve said. He turned the book over in his hands again.

Bucky  took the book and stuck it in his locker. He closed the door and spun the dial on the combination lock. "If we're going to do it, we should be able to say it," he teased.

"Fine," Steve sighed. "You know how we were talking about having sex?"

Bucky flicked his tongue over his lips. "Yeah," he said, his mouth suddenly dry.

"My mom's working a double shift overnight this weekend," Steve said. He licked his own lips. "Do you want to have sex at my house on Saturday night?" He hooked his thumbs in his belt and tried to look relaxed.

"With who?" Bucky grinned. He tried to push his hair back, but it fell into his face again.

Steve narrowed his eyes. "Yourself, probably."

"I'd rather do it with you," Bucky said, eyes drawn again to Steve's open collar.

"Don't be a jackass and maybe you can," Steve said. He reached out and tucked Bucky's hair behind his ear.

"I'm never going to meet those conditions," Bucky said. He tilted his head slightly so his cheek touched Steve's hand.

"Be slightly less of a jackass, then," Steve said. He brushed his thumb over Bucky's cheek and drew his hand reluctantly back.

Bucky let out a heavy sigh. "I'll do my best," he said mournfully.

Steve cast his eyes upward and shook his head. "What am I supposed to do with you?"

"I found some videos on the internet ..." Bucky offered.

"Saturday night," Steve said firmly and gave him a quick kiss before they headed to the cafeteria.

* * *

Steve showered, shaved, put on aftershave, put on more aftershave, decided he was wearing too much aftershave and showered again. He tried styling his hair with gel, but it had gotten too long and just flopped down in his eyes. He tried adding more gel until his hair was a sticky mess, at which point he gave up and showered again to wash his hair.

His hair was still damp when Bucky arrived. Bucky had his hair tied back in a ponytail, with a few strands falling forward and framing his face. He wore his leather jacket over a white t-shirt, with stylishly-torn jeans over black combat boots. Steve wore a light blue button-down shirt with grey slacks.

"Come on in," Steve said. Bucky stepped into the house, gripping the strap of his backpack and looking around the kitchen as if he'd never been there before. 

"Is, uh...," Steve looked out the window.

"Brock's here." Bucky sighed. "I told him to stay in the car tonight. He's a bodyguard, not a chaperone. It's his job," he reminded Steve, when Steve looked concerned. "He's got a Kindle, he'll be fine."

Steve nodded. "Okay. You can put your bag in my bedroom and I'll start the oven."

"You're cooking?" Bucky blinked in surprise.

"Frozen lasagna," Steve said. "Is that okay? We could order something."

"It's good," Bucky assured him. "I like lasagna."

They looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, then Steve put his hand on Bucky's waist and dragged him forward for a kiss. Bucky let his backpack fall to the floor and wrapped his arms around Steve.

"Or," Steve said, a few minutes later, when they came up for air, "we could have dinner later."

"I had a big lunch," Bucky said.

Steve grinned. "Come on." He took Bucky's hand and pulled him towards the bedroom. They stopped every couple of steps to kiss. Bucky yanked off his jacket and tossed it at the couch in the living room. It missed and landed on the floor, but Bucky didn't stop. Steve unbuttoned his shirt and dropped it outside the bedroom door. 

They fell on the bed together. Steve tugged at the bottom of Bucky's t-shirt, but Bucky pushed his hand away. "I have a lot of scars," he said.

"I don't care," Steve said.

Bucky hesitated. "You know they had to cut me out of the car after the accident?" Steve nodded. "They had to cut some of the car out of me, too."

"Oh, Bucky..." Steve frowned and laid his hand lightly on Bucky's chest.

"No," Bucky said. "Don't treat me like I'm broken. I'm not."

"I know," Steve said. 

"I'm serious," Bucky said. "If you start pitying me, I'm putting my shirt back on." 

"I won't, I promise," Steve said.

Bucky grabbed the back of his t-shirt and pulled it over his head. Steve couldn't help a quick inhalation of air at the sight of the ropes of scar tissue twisting over Bucky's torso and the straps holding his arm in place.

"Like Frankenstein," Bucky said wryly.

"Actually -" Steve began lightly.

Bucky held up a hand to cut Steve off. "Don't tell me Frankenstein was the doctor. They were both Frankenstein. Father and son." He dropped his shirt on the floor next to the bed. "And both monsters."

Steve slid his hand over Bucky's stomach and Bucky's breath shortened. "You're not a monster," Steve said firmly. "You're a miracle."

"None of that, either," Bucky said, though his annoyance was weakened by Steve tracing circles on his chest. 

"You're alive," Steve said. "You're alive, you're beautiful and you're here with me." He pressed a kiss against Bucky's collarbone and Bucky closed his eyes. "I think the last one's the biggest miracle," he added.

"I dunno, Rogers," Bucky said. "From where I'm sitting, it's the other way - fuck!" Steve's hand slid over the front of Bucky's jeans. "Oh, just get your pants off already." Steve grinned and kissed him. And took his pants off.

* * *

They fell asleep together, naked, Bucky resting his head against Steve's shoulder. At some point, he sprawled out and ended up with most of his body draped over Steve, who just wrapped an arm around Bucky's waist and went back to sleep.

Bucky woke abruptly and it took him a second to realize what had woken him - someone was at the front door. He leapt out of bed and grabbed a baseball bat from the corner of Steve's room. "Wait here," he told Steve in a low voice, and slipped out of the bedroom and into the living room. He gripped the handle of the bat in both hands, ready to swing. He kept his back against the wall. 

"Steve?" Sarah Rogers asked. "Are you up?" She flipped on the living room light. "Bucky!" she said in surprise, and Bucky realized in horror that he was standing in her living room, holding a bat, completely and utterly naked. 

"Bucky? Mom!" Steve had had the sense to grab pants, at least. Bucky silently resolved to never, ever sleep naked again. Especially in someone's mom's house.

"I thought someone was breaking in," Bucky said weakly.

"I gathered that," Sarah said, carefully keeping her eyes on Steve. Who, Bucky realized, with a fresh wave of horror, had red scratches along his side from Bucky's fingernails. They weren't deep enough to draw blood, but they stood out against Steve's fair skin.

Bucky tried to say, "I'm going to go put on pants," but his throat had gone dry and he only managed to squeak out, "Pants." He dashed back into the bedroom anyway. It wasn't really an action that required narration. He grabbed his jeans and pulled them on, not bothering with his underwear, since he wasn't sure where that had ended up. He did find his shirt, at least, and his socks had fallen right next to his boots. He was lacing them up when Steve came back into the room. 

"You okay?" Steve asked.

"I can never look at your mom again," Bucky said, staring at his boots.

"Um," Steve said, grabbing a t-shirt from a pile of laundry and pulling it on. "She said she wants to talk to you."

Bucky groaned. "But she saw me naked!

"Yeah," Steve said. "I think that's why."

Bucky looked up anxiously. "Is she angry?"

"I don't think so," Steve said. 

Bucky double-knotted the shoelaces on his boots and flopped backwards on the bed. "I could just sneak out the window," he suggested, staring up at the ceiling.

Steve laid down on his side next to Bucky and put his arm across his boyfriend's waist. "Don't worry, she likes you."

"She used to!" Bucky moaned. "Why is she here? I thought she would be gone all night."

"She said she would be!" Steve said. "Someone came in to cover the second shift."

"I hope they regret what they've done," Bucky said. He sat up, ran his hands through his hair a couple of times to finger-comb it and tied it back with a hair tie. He leaned down to kiss Steve, taking the time to linger above Steve's lips. Every man should get a last meal.

Steve cupped his hand around the back of Bucky's neck. "You'll survive," he promised.

"If I don't," Bucky said, "I want you to know it was worth it." He kissed Steve again, then got up. 

Sarah Rogers was at the kitchen table with her hands around a mug of coffee. Bucky stopped in the doorway of the kitchen. "Come in, Bucky. Sit down. Do you want some hot chocolate? Or," she glanced down at her mug. "I suppose you're old enough for coffee."

"Hot chocolate's good," Bucky said. He shuffled over to the table and sat down across from her seat.

She poured hot water and the chocolate mix into a mug and stirred it. "I don't have any marshmallows."

"That's okay," Bucky said. He accepted the drink from her, glad to have something to do with his hands. "We didn't know you were going to be home," he said weakly.

Sarah chuckled. "I'd gathered that." Bucky was pretty sure his face was hotter than the hot chocolate. "Did you use protection?" 

He was going to melt into the floor and die. "Yes," he said. He took a drink, trying to hide his face behind the mug.

"Good," she said. "Are you aware that you should never use oil-based lubricants with latex condoms?"

"Oh my God," Bucky squeaked. He cleared his throat. "I know. I had sex ed and I've read a bunch of stuff online. You can give me a written test if you want but can we please not talk about it?"

Sarah smiled. "Sorry," she said. "Nurse's instincts." She took a drink of her coffee. "I should probably call your uncle."

"Don't," Bucky said quickly. "Please don't."

"I won't," she said gently. "Are you worried about how he'll react?"

Bucky shook his head. "I'm just not ready to talk to him about this stuff."

She studied his face, then nodded. "Okay." She offered him a business card. "Here's my cell number, my work number and my email address. If you need help with anything, a place to stay, someone to talk to or anything else, you can call me. I won't tell anyone, even Steve, unless you want me to. I can come get you wherever you are." Bucky stared at her in surprise. He took the card, studied it, then slipped it carefully into his pocket. 

"Okay," he said roughly, his throat suddenly tight. She came around the table and pulled him into a hug. 

"You're so young," she said softly.

"I'll be seventeen in March!" Bucky protested.

She smiled. "And you're growing up so fast." She pushed a lock of hair out of his face and frowned. "You could still use a haircut. If you want me to cut it sometime -"

"I like it," Bucky insisted.

"All right." She cupped his cheek for a moment then let her hand fall away. "Do you need a ride or will the gentleman outside see you home?"

"He'll take me," Bucky said. He paused, then said. "Thanks."

"Anytime," Sarah said. 

* * *

When Bucky got home, he went into the bathroom, locked the door and sat down on the edge of the tub. He took out the card and ran his finger over the card, feeling the impression of the printed text under his touch. It was really sweet of her to offer, but he knew he'd never call her. Still, he memorized everything on the card before he tore it up and flushed it down the toilet.

* * *

The next morning, Bucky's uncle came into the kitchen while Bucky was eating breakfast. "I'd like to see you in my office at ten," Pierce said told him. 

Bucky nodded. "Okay." Pierce left with a glass of milk. Bucky stared down at his cereal, appetite suddenly gone.

Bucky knocked on the door to Pierce's office promptly at 10 am. His uncle disliked tardiness. "Come in," Pierce said. He was in a suit, though he'd hung the jacket over the back of his office chair. He stood up from his desk and handed Bucky a folder. "I have a new assignment for you."

Bucky opened the folder and saw Peggy's name. He skimmed over the document, closed the folder and set it down on the desk. "No," he said.

"Excuse me?"

"I'm not doing it," Bucky said. He flicked his tongue nervously over his bottom lip. "I'm done. I'm out."

Pierce gave him a long look. "I think you should reconsider," he said calmly.

"No," Bucky said. "I'll leave, okay?" He pressed his hands flat on the desk to hide that they were shaking. "You don't have to take care of me. I'll pay you back all the money you've spent on me." He swallowed. "I don't know how, but I will, I swear. I'm grateful for what you've done for me, but I can't do this anymore." 

Pierce looked at him again in silence. Bucky took his hands off the desk, leaving damp palm prints on the wood. He rubbed his hands against the legs of his jeans and tried not to look as scared as he felt. Pierce pressed a button on his desk phone. "Brock," he said. "Please come into my office."

Bucky stared at his uncle, confusion shifting abruptly to fear. He turned to run, but the door opened and Brook gave Bucky a shove that slammed him into the bookcase behind him. Several books hit the floor and Bucky heard something glass smash. He tried to get up, but Brock punched him in the stomach, twice, in quick succession. Bucky gagged, doubled over and tried to suck in air. 

Brock grabbed him by the ponytail and dragged him into the center of the room. He twisted Bucky's hands behind his back and forced the boy to his knees. Bucky tasted blood and bile and his head spun. He tried to shift his weight and break free, but Brock twisted his arms again and forced him back down.

Bucky looked up at his uncle. "James," Pierce said, his voice heavy with disappointment. "I really hate that it's come to this." He slid open a desk drawer and took out a gun.

* * *