Bucky’s new neighbours move in while he’s asleep. He only knows he has new neighbours because he remembers hearing the old ones packing late into the night, the sounds of boxes sliding across hardwood and packing tape being drawn taut an auditory puzzle to occupy his idle mind.
He’d spent weeks visualizing the mirrored layout of the neighbouring unit, old Mrs. Neighbour sorting belongings into piles for keeping or tossing, and old Mr. Neighbour stacking sealed cardboard boxes in the living room even as he complained loudly of his aching back. Bucky had pictured the careful cataloguing of belongings and matched the scritch of a felt-tipped marker to the action of labeling boxes: kitchen-dishes, study-books, bedroom-clothes.
Awake now, Bucky hears the process in reverse. Packing tape is sliced open, cardboard flaps wrenched apart, linens stuffed haphazardly into closets, and a minimum of dishes stowed in the kitchen cabinets. Bucky hears the soft shushing of a woman’s voice and the dutiful agreement of a boy’s -- presumably a mother and her son. Mother Neighbour cautions Junior of thin walls and the importance of first impressions. Junior urges his mother to turn in for the night, to leave the unpacking to him. She has long work hours at the hospital the next day.
Bucky doesn’t actually enjoy eavesdropping. He might derive some entertainment from puzzling out actions from their sounds, but overhearing the conversations of his neighbours is more mind numbing than listening to paint dry, so he draws back the blackout curtains of his living room and unlatches the window. He slips outside, dropping soundlessly onto the yellowing grass beneath the window. The wind outside supplants the conversation of his new neighbours, a pleasant white noise that doesn’t run up the bills Alex so meticulously manages.
Bucky sits down in one of the two swings of the tiny playground centered in the housing complex’s courtyard. He forgot to put on boots again and Alex is always upset when Bucky tracks dirt back into the house, but what’s done is done. Bucky closes his eyes and digs his toes into the dust. He pretends it’s sand on a sunny beach.
It’s some time later when the slam of the dumpster lid startles Bucky to his feet. The autumn air is sharp in Bucky’s throat, the dim streetlights balls of orange fire in his sharp vision. A short boy is caught in Bucky’s line of sight, both hands raised with empty palms in apology or defense.
“Sorry! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-- the lid was just a lot heavier than I expected,” the boy whispers loudly, wanting his voice to carry across the courtyard without disturbing the other residents who were undoubtedly sleeping in their beds at this ungodly hour.
Bucky takes in the apologetic twist of the boy’s thin lips, the creased brows above wide eyes, the pale hair tucked beneath a worn knit hat. The boy looks laughably small in his oversized coat. Bucky wonders how he managed to get the dumpster opened in the first place.
“It’s all right,” Bucky says -- or tries to say. His voice cracks on the first syllable and hisses into nothing on the rest, rusty from disuse. “It’s all right,” Bucky repeats, and is satisfied when the words seem to carry to the boy’s ears.
The boy stares at Bucky for a moment longer before nodding. Then he stands for a few seconds looking uncertain before he seems to come to some sort of decision. The boy then strides purposefully across the courtyard, closing the distance to stop right in front of Bucky. The top of the boy’s head isn’t even level with Bucky’s chin, but the boy looks dead straight into Bucky’s eyes, extends a hand and says, almost aggressively, “My name’s Steve Rogers. What’s yours?”
Bemused, Bucky looks down at Steve’s outstretched hand and it takes a moment for him to realize that Steve wants to shake his hand. To be fair, Steve’s forceful movements made it look more like a botched punch, so Bucky can’t be faulted for his confusion. Bucky takes Steve’s hand with unnecessary trepidation, noting the twitch of Steve’s fingers as Steve tenses in surprise before completing the shake with an awkward jerk. It’s almost like Steve’s never shaken hands before. Not that Bucky is surprised. Steve looks like he can’t be more than thirteen years old.
“I’m… Bucky,” Bucky answers, settling on the more youthful of his names. It’s his preferred name anyway.
With the handshake completed, Steve drops Bucky’s hand like Bucky’s touch burns, and Bucky would take offense if not for the obvious flush in Steve’s cheeks. “Hi, Bucky,” Steve says awkwardly, but he doesn’t comment on the unusual name, so that’s a plus.
“Hi,” Bucky says.
Steve’s bravado seems to fluctuate. “I just moved here,” Steve says. “Do you live here? I mean, you probably do since you’re in the courtyard and all, but I don’t want to assume. I uh-- I’m starting at the high school on Monday, so we’re probably going to see each other, maybe even share some classes? I’m in grade nine--”
“I don’t go to the high school,” Bucky says, surprised that Steve’s a high schooler.
“Oh, of course. Sorry. I just assumed you were around my age--”
“No, I-- I’m homeschooled,” Bucky lies.
“Oh.” Steve looks disappointed, but the expression is quickly covered with a cautious smile. “That’s cool. So, you do live here?”
“Yeah.” Bucky hesitates. “I live in number eight.”
Steve’s smile grows. “I’m in number ten. We’re neighbours! Like directly, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Bucky repeats, letting the corners of his lips curl up with the encouragement of Steve’s warming demeanour.
“That’s great,” Steve says. “I was kinda stressed, y’know? November’s a weird time to start at a new school and I was worried about meeting new people, but now I’ve met you. Even if we won’t be sharing classes, it’s nice.”
Bucky nods agreeably. He’s seen enough teen dramas on the television. High school seems tumultuous.
Steve opens his mouth to say something else, but the words don’t come. The eyes which had mostly been fixed to Bucky’s face have finally darted low enough to take in Bucky’s unshod feet, and the crease reforms between Steve’s eyebrows. “Your feet…”
“It’s late,” Bucky says, which is true. “I’m heading in. You should get home too.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees slowly, frowning but letting Bucky avoid Steve’s unspoken question.
“It’s nice meeting you, Steve,” Bucky says, backing slowly towards the walkway that leads around to the front of the complex. He doesn’t want Steve to watch him clamber through a window. “Goodnight.”
“Yeah. Goodnight,” Steve echoes, watching Bucky until Bucky rounds the corner.
Fortunately, Steve doesn’t follow and Bucky is able to scale the side of the end unit unobserved. Bucky remains low on the roof until Steve finally crosses the threshold of number ten, and only lets himself slip home through the window after several more minutes have passed.
There are hours yet before dawn, but the unexpected socializing has tired Bucky and he cannot even bring himself to clean his dirty footprints off the flooring. He’ll deal with it later. Anyway, Alex will not be back for another week, so Bucky just closes the blackout curtains and trudges into the bathroom. He lays down in the tub and pulls the dense pile of thick quilts snug over his head. Like this he cannot hear beyond his own soft breaths, but he wonders if Steve is asleep yet. He wonders if Steve is still happy to have met him.
School goes about how Steve expects it to. Most of his peers take one look at his scrawny body wrapped in his bargain-bin clothes and dismiss him from their awareness. Those of his peers who spare him a second glance barely hide their mocking laughter as they elbow each other and exchange meaningful looks that Steve knows all too well. This one. This runt.
As usual his teachers begin with reserved but somewhat optimistic expectations for him. He looks bookish in his sweater and collared shirt, and timid with his hunched shoulders and small stature, but his teachers soon become wary of his participation and slowly stop choosing his raised hand. They're unused to hearing opposing opinions voiced with conviction and supporting facts. Steve doesn't mean to sound like a defiant know-it-all but he can't smoother the desire to speak up when the aged history teacher glosses over atrocities, or when the math teacher makes a spectacle of a student who failed a test. It cuts him from the herd; makes him easy pickings for the bullies who quickly make themselves known.
Hodge is beefy and his overbearing presence is padded with the additional bulk of his friends and the cloud of his overapplied Axe. The mixed scent of sweat and cloying deodorant is almost enough to knock Steve down, and Hodge finishes the job with a couple gut punches behind the school after the last bell on Wednesday. Hodge walks off with his friends. They laugh and pat each other on the shoulders. Steve limps his way home clutching his backpack by its only unbroken strap.
Fortunately, there's a lot of work for Steve to catch up with, so he's kept busy in the evenings while his mother pulls double shift after double shift. There's not much time to feel sorry for himself between reading his textbooks and unpacking more boxes, but somehow Steve's thoughts constantly wander back to somber blue eyes veiled behind ink-dark hair.
Though Steve peeks out the window every night before bed, he doesn't see Bucky again until late Friday night. Bucky is a dark smudge in the shadows of the playground, but his pale feet give him away, ghostly as they kick lazily beneath the swings.
Steve tells himself he's not excited to see Bucky again, but he almost trips over the threshold as he hurriedly pulls on his coat and locks the door of the unit behind him. It doesn't occur to Steve that Bucky might want to be alone until Steve is already at the edge of the playground, but the timid smile Bucky gives Steve puts any worries to rest.
"Hi, Bucky. How are you?" Steve genuinely wants to know, but he winces at how inane he sounds.
"That's good. Do you, uh, mind if I sit here?" Steve gestures at the unoccupied swing.
Bucky shrugs. "It's a free country, ain't it?"
They sit together in silence for a while, Steve's anxiety gradually fading as he realizes Bucky is perfectly content with quiet company. For the first time in days, Steve lets his posture melt, his muscles unknotting as tension seeps out and evaporates with the condensation of his breath. It’s odd to be so comfortable in the presence of a near-stranger, but that’s how Steve feels. He takes deep inhales of the chill autumn air without feeling its usual bite at his asthmatic lungs. He matches the sway of his swing to Bucky’s, stretching legs that were curled for too long during his studies.
Steve is a little surprised when Bucky clears his throat to speak. “How’s… how’s school?”
“It’s all right,” Steve answers. “Just a little more work than I’m used to since I’m starting late, that’s all.”
“Why’s that? I mean, why’d you start late? Or move here.”
Steve huffs out a self-deprecating laugh. “If it’s not obvious, I’m not exactly in the best of health.”
Bucky digs his toes into the ground, bringing his swing to a halt. “You-- you dying or something?"
“That’s good,” Bucky ducks his head a little. His longish hair swings down, but not enough to obscure his tiny grin.
“Yeah. I’ll say.” Steve feels an answering grin break across his face. “It’s just that I get sick easy. I’m asthmatic to boot, and you can imagine the kind of bills that piled up between medication and living costs back in Brooklyn, so my ma and I moved out somewhere quieter-- and cheaper. Hopefully all this fresh air’ll do me some good too, right?”
“It is pretty quiet here. Especially at night. It’s nice, I guess. I’m sorry you had to move for those reasons, but I-- sometimes it’s a bit too quiet, so I can’t say I’m all that sorry about you moving here,” Bucky admits shyly.
“There aren’t any other kids in this complex, are there,” Steve remarks. “It seems a bit lonely getting homeschooled. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Bucky shakes his head.
“Me neither. It’s just me and my ma. How about for you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Bucky bites his lip, looking almost nervous before answering, “My dad. Just me and my-- my dad.”
Steve nods amiably. “What’s it like getting homeschooled? I’m curious. If it weren’t for my ma’s profession and her crazy hours, she’d probably homeschool me to keep me from catching so many bugs. It’s not like she wants to keep me in a bubble, but she’s always going on about schools being breeding grounds for disease. She won’t let me out of the house without a little bottle of hand sanitizer, not that I can blame her with my immune system.”
“Yeah, I can see the glass bones and paper skin you got to go with that shoddy immune system,” Bucky teases, the corners of his eyes crinkling impishly as he darts out a finger to poke Steve lightly in the side.
Steve folds in half with surprise, sending his swing into a sudden spin that twists the chains above his head. Steve’s heart rate picks up, but not for the usual reasons. He’s used to prickling under such comments from other kids, but this kind of teasing is-- different.
“Ha ha,” Steve says, rolling his eyes and hoping the warmth in his face isn’t manifesting as a blush. He lets his swing unwind, his legs thrown out by the centrifugal force. Bucky’s toothy grin flashes in and out of sight as Steve twirls back around, transforming his face more than the motion blur of Steve’s vision.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Steve reminds Bucky once his swing is fully unwound.
Bucky’s grin dims. “Well, um, there’s nothing really interesting about it. I just-- I take some online courses.”
“So how old are you?”
Bucky raises an eyebrow in mild challenge. “How old do you think I am?”
“That ain’t fair. I told you how old I was.”
“No you didn’t. You told me what grade you’re in.”
“Close enough. You ought to tell me something back.”
“That was your choice to share info. I ain’t obligated to share nothin’.”
“Yeah, but--” Steve splutters. “You’re making me out be some kinda interrogator. I just wanna know you, is all.”
“Maybe I just like makin’ you squirm.” Bucky throws Steve a mischievous smirk and something in Steve’s gut tightens. Hodge must’ve punched him harder than Steve had thought.
“Are you fifteen?” Steve asks mulishly. “Sixteen? Seventeen--” Steve gets all the way up to twenty-three with little more than a prim crossing of Bucky’s legs as Bucky exaggerates the motions of settling in for a long wait. “Fine! Don’t tell me, you jerk. I might be younger than you, but I’m old enough to be secure in the knowledge that I can count to a hundred without needing to prove it, and to know that you can’t be more than twenty-five. Though you’re probably… 17 since you’re homeschooled, not in college.”
Bucky nods along to Steve’s reasoning, then pouts sympathetically. “You can only count to a hundred?”
“Oh my God,” Steve groans. “No, I got it. You’re thirteen.”
“What! No, you’re thirteen!”
Steve never knew conversation with someone near his age could be so easy, but with Bucky it is. If asked, Steve wouldn’t be able to summarize the majority of what they chatted about, but hours slip by unnoticed, Steve drunk on the late hour, or his sleeplessness, or Bucky’s little bitten-back smiles, lips left puffy and chapped from the abuse.
Steve would happily spend the rest of his weekend just so, on the swings in the cold, fingers as frozen as Bucky’s bare toes must be, but the peaceful bubble of the courtyard is pierced by the slam of a car door.
Bucky bolts up from the seat of his swing with such speed and such silence that Steve nearly flips backwards out of his own seat.
“Jesus, Buck,” Steve laughs, “those lying pants of yours finally heating up?”
“I-- I oughta go,” Bucky says absent mindedly, staring somewhere over Steve’s shoulder.
Steve cranes his neck around to see what Bucky’s looking at. A man stands by the side of the end unit, features obscured by the high collar of a great coat and hands tucked into its pockets. The man just stands there, but Bucky drifts haltingly towards him, sparing a moment to toss Steve a hasty goodnight before loping the rest of the way, filled with a sudden grace and energy Steve hadn’t even realized Bucky had been missing. Steve watches as Bucky comes to a stop before the man, watches as Bucky leans forward before rocking back on his heels as if dizzy, watches as the man places a firm hand at the small of Bucky’s back to steer him around the corner.
Steve leaps to his feet as they disappear out of view. Steve jogs out of the courtyard, only slowing when he rounds the corner and sees that Bucky and the man are making a beeline for unit number eight. Steve barely preserves a socially acceptable distance behind them and dithers uselessly outside his own front door as he watches the man usher Bucky over the threshold of number eight. The man disappears into the dark unit after Bucky, not turning to acknowledge the neighbour kid gawking openly at their backs. The door clicks firmly shut and Steve hears a bolt slide into place. Steve strains his ears but hears nothing else, and after another moment he pushes his house key into the lock of his own front door.
Steve paces the length of his living room the rest of that night, all the tension he’d exhaled returned. His breath is short even after the dawn rays stretch through the window to warm the air. Steve feels--
He doesn’t know why.