The first time James Barnes ever saw Steve Rogers it was on Pearl Street and Steve was working on getting beat up, only Bucky didn’t know it was Steve. It was just some dumb sap about to get his teeth knocked in.
Some big kids were pushing around some other kid when this skinny little shrimp of a thing marched right up and told ‘em not to do that. Bucky would’ve stood there and watched the fight like a normal person, except the shrimpy kid was about half the size of the rest of the kids.
On the other side of the lot there were some guys playing ball—some of them older, maybe sixteen or so. Bucky went over to one of the oldest-looking ones. “Hey,” Bucky said, jerking his thumb back over toward where the shrimpy guy was getting laid out. “I think they’re beating up your brother over there.”
Sure enough hellfire sprang into the older guy’s eyes and he stormed on over there. The kids who’d been playing ball stopped to watch.
“What’s Randy doing?” another boy said, coming up on Bucky’s elbow as Bucky watched Randy pull the other kids off the shrimpy one.
“Randy’s brother’s getting trounced,” said someone else who was standing next to Bucky.
The first boy frowned. “I’m Randy’s brother.”
“Gotta scram,” said Bucky, jamming his hands in his pockets and high-tailing it out of there.
The second time James Barnes ever saw Steve Rogers it was on Pearl Street and Steve was working on getting beat up again. Bucky still didn’t know who the shrimp was, but getting beat up seemed like some kind of life project of his.
This time it was about a girl. She wasn’t even that pretty—red-head and freckles, knobby knees and an ugly sweater. These two kids were making fun of her and they were all Class A twerps, but it never really occurred to Bucky to tell ‘em off for it.
The shrimp, though, walked right up and started chewing ‘em out, chewing ‘em out like he was six feet tall and they were peons—which they were, but not compared to this little beanpole. It was enough to make Bucky stop swinging the bat and look over there, because the twerps were both smaller than Bucky but still bigger than the shrimp.
For a second Bucky sort of hated the shrimp, because some of the other boys had finally let Bucky in line to bat and he shouldn’t have to feel guilty over some girl he didn’t know. But the thing of it was, the shrimp had a point and he was also gonna get himself killed, so Bucky tightened his grip on the bat he’d been swinging for practice and walked on over there.
“Say,” he said. “There a problem here?”
“I’ll say,” said one of the twerps who’d been picking on the girl.
“Is there?” Bucky put the bat on his shoulder and slung his other arm around the shrimp. “Is there really?”
Apparently the twerps weren’t really spoiling for a fight, or if they had been they didn’t really like the odds so much anymore, because they slunk off like a couple of skunks pretty soon after. Bucky took his arm off the shrimp.
“Thanks,” the shrimp said.
Bucky kept his bat over his shoulder and looked down at him. “What’s with you, anyhow?”
“Just a second,” said the shrimp, and then damned if he didn’t go try to comfort the girl—are you okay, don’t listen to them, they didn’t mean it—whole nine yards. She sniffled and nodded and the shrimp even offered to walk her home.
Bucky put the head of his bat in the dirt, leaned on it, and tried not to roll his eyes.
Eventually the girl went off and the shrimp came back. “She your girl?” Bucky asked.
“My—?” The shrimp looked confused, then chagrined. “No, no. Nothing like that.”
“Uh-huh.” Bucky kept leaning on his bat. “How old are you? Five? Six?”
The shrimp frowned. “I’m eleven.”
“Don’t look it.”
“Yeah.” Shrimp shoved his hands in his pockets. “Thanks for the save.”
Bucky watched him walk away.
The third time James Barnes saw Steve Rogers it was about ten blocks from Pearl Street, and Steve was gonna get his teeth kicked in again.
This time it was all over some curly-haired kid who wore a little hat. These bung-hole lugs had taken the hat and were calling the curly-haired kid names, and Shrimp came up from out of nowhere with this stupidly firm look on his face and said, “Give it back.”
Bucky was just walking by the alley, minding his own business, but by now he’d gotten sort of used to the Shrimp in the vicinity of Pearl Street. It was getting downright ritualistic.
And no, it wasn’t right that these lugs had taken Curly’s little hat, but you weren’t supposed to stand up to them over it. You waited until they were done and then you went and told Curly about how they were all dumb lugs. You picked Curly’s hat up out of the dirt, dusted it off, gave it back to him, and then later you untied the lugs’ shoelaces when they weren’t looking so they’d trip in the mud.
Not Shrimp, though. Shrimp was just gonna up and ask for that hat back, and tell them they were wrong for tossing it around.
Shrimp had balls of brass, and he was going to die. Curly was gonna die too, probably, just by association.
Bucky didn’t particularly want to be a witness to murder. Even if they both deserved it.
Both Curly and the Shrimp were already laid out by the time Bucky got there, and it wasn’t like the time with the twerps—these lugs were big, and there were three of them. Shrimp was already trying to get back up, just like the dumb little punk he was.
“You wanna piece?” one of the big lugs asked Bucky.
“Look what I got,” Bucky said, and came closer, holding out a hand clutched around something. They were so stupid they actually stepped up, and Bucky flung the dirt into their eyes. They started howling. “Run,” Bucky shouted, turning back.
Curly, who was obviously the learned intellectual of the pair, got up and ran. Shrimp, however, was having none of that.
“Run,” Bucky said, and shoved him in the chest.
“I don’t run,” Shrimp said.
“Now you do,” Bucky said, and grabbed Shrimp’s arm.
Shrimp was standing so firm Bucky was pretty sure he felt the arm dislocate as he yanked on it, but he just kept yanking, and finally Shrimp started running.
“This way,” said Curly, and they high-tailed it.
After a couple blocks and around a couple corners, they finally stopped to catch their breath—except for Curly, who wouldn’t stop blubbering.
“Shut it,” Bucky said, lungs burning, and maybe Shrimp was gonna die after all. He kept wheezing just like he was drowning. “What’re you blubbering for, anyway? We got away.”
“My yarmulke,” sniffled Curly.
“What’s a yarmulke?”
“It’s—” Shrimp waved a hand over his hair, but then he just kept wheezing like he couldn’t talk.
“Your hat?” said Bucky, turning back to Curly.
Curly nodded sadly.
“It’s a hat,” Bucky said. “Not worth your life.”
“Yes, it is.” Shrimp’s wheezing was clearing up, a bit.
Curly shook his head. “Ma’s gonna kill me!”
“I’m gonna go back.” Shrimp was already pushing off the brick wall, turning back the way they’d come.
“Oh, no you’re not.” Bucky caught his arm.
“You can’t tell me what to do.” Shrimp tried to shake him off, which was a little bit like a twig trying to wave itself off a tree.
“I’m going too,” said Curly.
Curly wasn’t exactly heading off in that direction, but he had a grim look of determination on his face. Bucky looked back at Shrimp, who wore the same expression. “You kids are crazy,” Buck said. “It’s a hat.”
“It’s not just a hat.” Shrimp yanked himself away. “It’s important.”
“It’s like a religious thing, isn’t it?” Bucky turned to Curly. “You a Jew?” Curly shrugged, and Shrimp just glared at him. “Okay. All right, already.” Bucky put his hands up. “If we’re going back there, we at least got to have a plan.”
“What kind of plan?” Curly wiped his nose.
“A plan of attack.”
“I don’t plan on attacking,” said Shrimp. “I’m just going to ask for it back.”
Bucky laughed. “’Cause that worked so well the first time, genius.”
Shrimp gave him a thoughtful look. He took a couple of seconds, and then he nodded. “All right, then. We’ll need a distraction.”
The plan was good. The plan was masterful.
The plan was mostly Steve’s.
Steve was Shrimp’s name and Elijah was Curly’s. Steve and Bucky were the distraction and Elijah was the man of action. Steve wanted to be the man of action, but Bucky pointed out how he himself didn’t almost die when he busted into a run and he was stronger than Steve anyway, so Steve reluctantly agreed. Then Elijah pointed out it was his yarmulke, and that won that argument.
The plan involved a construction site, where Steve said they were working some plumbing or something underground. Anyway there was a pretty big hole in the ground and it wasn’t a big deal to sneak onto the site and get some of the tarps they were using to keep their equipment dry, then use the tarps to cover the hole. The plan also involved goading the lugs so Steve and Bucky could be the distraction, and that was when Bucky found out Steve was a really bad liar.
They’d found the lugs again and snuck over close, just within hearing range. Then Bucky stepped out with a shit-eating grin, hands in his pockets, and said real loud, “You see their faces?”
“Yeah.” Steve had stepped out just as sure as Bucky, except he looked like he couldn’t think of what to say. He was gonna give the whole game away if he kept looking around like that.
“Covered in dirt,” Bucky said. “Just like they deserve.”
Steve put his lips together and frowned a little, and Bucky had to punch him on the shoulder just to remind him what to do. Steve blinked at him, then said. “Oh, right! Ha ha, that was so funny.”
“What a bunch of bung holes,” said Bucky.
“Um,” said Steve. “Yeah.”
Once the lugs started chasing them it was easy to lead them in the wrong direction and then right over the hole with the tarp. Then Elijah scrambled in and Bucky threw rocks while Steve tugged his arm and told him that wasn’t part of the plan, and Elijah got his hat back and they all got away.
After that the three of them were friends, and no one murdered anyone, not even Elijah’s ma.
The fourth time James Barnes saw Steve Rogers it was on Pearl Street and Steve wasn’t about to get his teeth kicked in. Not anywhere close.
It had to do with this kid named Larry Drake. Larry Drake was big and mean and ugly. He picked on kids, pulled their pants down, had a foul mouth, and no one liked him—not to mention he was fat. This kid was fat. Incredibly fat. Hippopotamus fat, and Bucky hadn’t ever seen a hippopotamus, but he’d seen Larry Drake and that seemed like enough. Probably couldn’t fit any water around him in his bathtub—he was that fat.
On the scale of things, being fat wasn’t all that bad, but Larry was horrible and cruel and the fact that he was fat was a way to get at him. Larry didn’t care that he was horrible and cruel; he was actually kind of proud of it. He laughed when he made kids cry and he laughed when people called him a bully. He laughed when people said his mama should teach him some manners, but call him a pig and he went ballistic—so that’s what Bucky did.
It was Bucky and some of the kids from the lot on Pearl. The leader of that group—captain of the ragtag baseball team—was named Jeremy Smith, and he was all right. At first the group was skeptical of Elijah, but when Bucky vouched for him Jeremy said okay and let him on the team. Bucky and Elijah were starting to make friends there.
Steve, not so much. Steve didn’t come ‘round very often, and at first Bucky was disappointed. Getting back Elijah’s yarmulke had been what you call a regular coup—a way to die as well, but they’d done it and they’d survived, and they’d felt like heroes afterward. There was never a dull moment with Steve; you turn your back and he was picking on some other bully, which made for interesting times at the very least. The best thing about it was that it felt so clean, even when Bucky ended up with mud down his front and blood on his face.
When Steve didn’t show up on Pearl Street for the next week or so, though, Bucky guessed Steve was probably one of those types that liked to be inside a lot. Probably liked to curl up and read and do math problems in his head. Probably only went outside when mommy said he needed fresh air. He definitely looked like a bookworm, so little and pale and weedy. It was kind of crazy Bucky hadn’t realized. Even crazier was how powerfully he was disappointed by it.
Elijah was great, though, and that day was fun because everyone had finally realized what a pecker head Larry was, and Jeremy and this other kid Hank had backed Larry into a corner. They were all standing around telling Larry how fat he was—Jeremy and Hank and Bucky and Elijah, and it was kind of like getting back Elijah’s yarmulke. They got to pull one over on a bully.
Jeremy had started by calling Larry a hippopotamus, and Bucky had said that bit about the bathtub. Elijah had said something about little piggies at the market, and Bucky was thinking of other words for fatty when Steve stormed up.
Bucky hadn’t even known he was around, and then there he was, all of three and a half feet, blue eyes flashing just like lightning. “Back off,” he said, and stepped in front of Larry.
“Steve?” said Bucky.
“Go on and go,” Steve said, turning back to Larry. He put his hand on Larry’s shoulder and had to reach up pretty high to do it. “You don’t have to listen to these guys,” Steve said.
“Stay away from me,” Larry said, shrugging him off. “I don’t need some sissy helping me.”
“Steve,” said Bucky, stepping forward. “You got the wrong idea.”
Steve turned his flashing eyes on him again. “What, you weren’t making fun of someone for their size?”
Bucky just stopped dead.
He’d noticed how small Steve was before, but he’d never quite realized just how small. Steve was tiny. Steve was miniature. Bucky was over half a foot taller. He could have knocked Steve flat with next to no effort, and Steve was standing there, just standing, like he didn’t care if he got hit, didn’t care how this was just like every other time Bucky had seen Steve face down bigger kids than him.
“Come on,” said Elijah. “Larry’s a bully.”
“I don’t care,” said Steve.
“Get out of my way,” said Larry, and pushed Steve.
Bucky caught him before he could go down to the ground and then he was just there, holding Steve in his arms and not knowing what to do. “Steve,” Bucky whispered, and for some reason he was begging Steve to understand, “Eli’s right. Larry’s a big fat bully.”
Steve struggled out of his grasp. “I don’t care what he is,” he said again. “He doesn’t deserve to be called those names.”
“Bunch of sissies,” said Larry, and stormed off.
Steve went after him—just like he’d gone after that redhead girl, just like he’d gone after Elijah’s yarmulke, just like Larry was any other kid who had been hurt.
And Bucky had been the one to hurt him.
“Kid’s no fun,” said Hank.
“Stick in the mud,” said Jeremy.
“He got me back my yarmulke,” said Elijah.
Bucky just stood there staring at Steve, who was talking to Larry Drake just like Larry Drake was a human person and not a fat mean bully.
“Come on.” Jeremy’s hand landed heavily on Bucky’s shoulder. “He’s all wet. Let’s find something else to do.”
“Nah.” Bucky shrugged him off, then shoved his hands in his pockets. “I was gonna scram anyway. See you louts around.”
Bucky started walking toward Steve and Larry, but he couldn’t do it. He honest to God couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stand for Steve to look at him, so at the crucial moment he veered left.
A couple blocks down Bucky found a can and kicked it all the way home, and even though Steve never knew it, that was the day James Barnes became friends for life with Steve Rogers.
The fifth time Steve met James Buchanan Barnes, it was on Pearl Street, and Steve got wrestled to the ground. Bucky didn’t save him. He was the one who’d done the wrestling.
Bucky wasn’t the first guy to defend Steve. There were plenty of people who’d done that before, people who thought Steve wasn’t strong enough to fight his own fights, or people who thought Steve was right and stood by him. In fact there were a lot of people who stood by Steve, people who came to his defense or else looked up to him and expected him to come to theirs, people who thought Steve Rogers was an angel.
Steve was never very comfortable with that, because he wasn’t an angel. He was just a normal kid. Trouble was whenever he tried to hang around normal kids he couldn’t keep up and couldn’t hit the ball, and sometimes he had coughing fits. And other times normal kids wanted to do things like push Larry Drake around, and the problem with Larry Drake was he was an asshole but Larry’s dad was a bigger asshole.
Steve had been watching baseball when Don started trying to kiss Hannah. It wasn’t a real game; they were just playing catch and practicing swings. Bucky and Elijah had bats, but they hadn’t said anything to Steve. Steve hadn’t really expected them to; after that thing with Larry he’d guessed they wouldn’t really be pals. Steve didn’t really blame them; he just wanted to watch the game, but then Don had to start acting like a class-A asshole.
Don was fifteen and thought he was a big shot; Hannah was fourteen and real pretty. It was obvious Hannah didn’t want to kiss Don, but Don kept trying, so Steve got up to go tell Don to cut it out already.
Bucky must’ve seen Steve on his way, because suddenly he was over by Steve’s side. “Don’t be stupid,” he said.
“What?” said Steve.
“They’re going steady,” said Bucky.
“Doesn’t mean he gets to kiss her,” said Steve.
“Actually, it does.”
“Not if she doesn’t want to.” Steve went on over there.
“Dammit,” Bucky said.
Don didn’t looked too pleased at Steve interrupting, but it was enough of a distraction that Hannah got away. That was the main point, but now all of Don’s attention was on Steve.
Then there was Bucky, arm around Steve, holding a baseball bat just like the first time Steve remembered seeing him. Steve didn’t really get why Bucky was getting involved if he thought it was stupid. Thought Steve couldn’t handle it, probably. Even if Bucky was right, it was annoying.
Don could easily have taken both of them, but decided it wasn’t worth it—whether it was because of Bucky’s bat or because fighting eleven-year-olds would’ve made him look like an ass, Steve wasn’t sure. But Don wandered off and Bucky looked down at Steve. “You’re stupid,” he said again.
Steve shrugged off Bucky’s arm. “You were just gonna let it happen.”
“You callin’ me a bum?”
Bucky was smiling, like he thought it was funny or something, and Steve was annoyed enough by then that he said, “Yeah, I guess I am.”
Steve scowled at the unexpected insult. “Jerk.”
Bucky just smiled bigger. “Twerp.”
Steve’s scowl deepened. “Dunderhead.”
Bucky flicked Steve on the forehead with his fingers. “Numbskull.”
Steve blinked. It hadn’t hurt; it was just . . . “Nincompoop,” Steve said, and flicked Bucky back.
“You said poop,” Bucky said, and pushed him.
“You are poop,” Steve said, and pushed him back.
“Ignoramus,” Bucky said, and tried to muss Steve’s hair with a knuckle.
Having had his hair mussed with enough knuckles in his life, Steve knew what Bucky was about to do and knocked his hand away. He shoved Bucky again in retaliation. “Birdbrain,” said Steve.
“Dope,” Bucky said, and punched him in the shoulder.
Steve had never really been punched that way before. It was obvious Bucky had pulled it, but it still smacked enough to sting—just like Bucky didn’t think Steve was a fragile piece of glass. It was almost like Bucky thought he was a normal person.
Steve hated the doubt that crossed Bucky’s face, so he punched Bucky in the chest. Kind of hard. “Imbecile,” said Steve.
“You’re on,” said Bucky, and pushed him down into the dirt.
It hurt but it didn’t hurt, and the way Bucky got down on top of him, Steve could easily flip him over and get on top of Bucky. “Pecker head,” said Bucky.
“Lug nuts,” said Steve.
“Dirty,” said Bucky, grinning. He rolled over on top of Steve again.
“Scumbag,” said Steve, and kneed Bucky in the groin.
“Double dirty,” said Bucky, and winced.
Steve scrambled off of him. “Did I—”
“As if,” said Bucky, taking advantage of Steve’s hesitation. He pushed Steve over again and held him down.
“You’re a dirty rotten cheater,” said Steve.
“Say uncle,” said Bucky.
Steve writhed under him. “Oaf.”
“Say it,” said Bucky.
“Not on your life,” said Steve, picking up a handful of dirt and pushing it down Bucky’s shirt.
“Asshole,” said Bucky, and clobbered him for real that time.
Steve couldn’t stop laughing. He laughed until he was wheezing and coughing and Bucky finally let him go. When Steve finally stopped coughing, Bucky was standing up, looking down at him. His eyes were sort of bright, and Steve knew Bucky was gonna say something to muck it up—something like sorry, something like you shouldn’t be doing that, something like I didn’t mean to; I forgot; I won’t ever do that again.
Instead Bucky offered him his dirty, sweaty hand and Steve took it. Bucky hauled him up. “You’re a schmuck,” said Bucky.
“What does that even mean?” said Steve, so relieved he could barely see straight.
“I dunno,” said Bucky, “but Elijah says it’s really, really bad.”
“Turd,” said Steve.
“Nitwit.” Bucky’s face was streaked in dirt, and he was grinning. “Come on,” he said, and clapped Steve on the back. “Amos says his dad got bottle rockets.”
Bucky would never know it, but that was the day Steve became friends for life with Bucky Barnes.