Elizabeth Mabel Rossetti, known fondly as Betsy, Lizzy, and Bug, knows three things for sure.
The first thing is that there are good guys in the world and there are bad guys in the world, and that when there are things like booms coming from the direction her daddy works, that there are especially bad guys.
The second thing is that Anthony Petro, the seven year old next door, a full nine months and three days older than her, is a dirty rotten liar.
And the third is that on the day after there was a lot of booms, and her daddy picked her up from kindergarten early and told her to stay in the house in his big deep voice that means business, she went to play in her backyard and there was, in the ground, sticking out like a piece of the moon itself, Captain America’s shield.
She knows what it is on sight. Her mommy took her to see the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian every Saturday for almost a month; Bug spent a lot of time watching the movies because that’s her favorite part. There’s a voiceover with a bouncing, funny way of talking, and Captain America is handsome when he smiles and helps people and when Bucky Barnes punches him in the shoulder.
Her mommy goes to look at the picture of her grandfather, who was in the 107th and used to talk about Captain America like some people now talk about Tony Stark. Although Bug doesn’t like Tony Stark very much - he seems like he’s made from the very same stuff as Anthony Petro, which makes her very suspicious of the whole institution of boys named Anthony.
But she knows that what is there in the ground, sticking up like a piece of the moon, is Captain America’s shield.
It takes her the better part of six hours to dig it up. There is a part of the day where her mommy comes out to make sure she’s okay, because sometimes she doesn’t do what her head wants and she ends up tired and cranky and sunburnt. Her mommy tells her, on those days, that she should just come inside, but Bug refuses every time.
There’s something about the stubbornness that makes her feel better.
But her mommy offers to help and Bug lets that stubbornness take her away, and so she digs and digs and digs, and soon she has Captain America’s entire shield, whole and looking like the entire moon, or maybe Pluto. It’s cold and strange to touch, because where she thinks it might be still it’s not, but when she knocks on it with her fist it doesn’t act like any other kind of metal she’s ever touched.
And that’s how she knows it’s the real thing.
The first visitor comes after she parades it around the neighborhood. Anthony Petro tries to steal it, but she holds on tight to the arm straps and he can’t quite get a grip, so he calls her small, and stupid, and dumb, and kicks a clod of dirt on the shield. Bug spends the better part of a day cleaning it, and decides maybe she shouldn’t show it off as much, but it’s okay.
“Bug, you have a guest,” is how it begins, which is funny because no one comes to visit Bug; people want to visit daddy, but not Bug.
The first visitor is the Black Widow.
Bug knows it’s the Black Widow because she wants to be just like her. She saw her on TV, and she has the action figure, and she thinks maybe there aren’t superheroes whose heads don’t quite work and who get angry and sunburnt and fussy, and who are stubborn as mules, and who hate boys named Anthony, but it doesn’t matter.
Black Widow smiles at her. “Bug, huh,” she says, and she smiles like she does on TV when she talks about things like safety. “I hear you’re holding something very special that belongs to a friend of mine.”
Black Widow kneels down, which is nice, because people usually look down at Bug; she’s short for even six. “Captain America would like his shield back, please,” she says. “I came to get it for him.”
Bug thinks about this for a long time, which is maybe a minute, before she shakes her head. “He can get it himself,” she says, and she leaves just in time to her her mommy say that it’s up to Bug.
That night Bug sleeps on top of the shield, or rather, inside it, curled up and holding the arm straps. No matter what Anthony Petro thinks, she’s no dummy. She knows that the Black Widow may be a superhero, but that the shield is important, and if Captain America wants it, he can get it himself.
Two days later, Bug is playing on the shield when a tall man with skin darker than her daddy’s, even, knocks on the backyard gate. “Is your mom home?” he asks, and she just stares at him, because there’s something familiar about his face; she can’t place it at first. He looks friendly and kind, but still, Bug isn’t supposed to talk to strangers.
“She’s a stupid baby!” she hears Anthony Petro yell from across the alley that separates their houses, and she throws a rock in his general direction.
The man turns and looks at Anthony Petro, who doesn’t seem undeterred. “Well you are,” he shouts, and Bug throws another rock.
She looks back at the man. “Mommy’s inside,” she says, “but are you here for the shield?” she asks, because Anthony Petro is wrong. She is not stupid, and if she thinks she’s seen this man before it’s on TV, and there’s only one reason anyone on TV would come and talk to her.
“I am,” he says, “but I wanted to see if your mom would help me ask you to get it back.”
“You can ask me yourself,” she replies, angry suddenly, her face hot like a sunburn. “she won’t make me give it up, and I shouldn’t talk to strangers anyway, even ones that know Captain America! How do I know you won’t take it home for yourself?”
He looks a little surprised, and when he smiles she sees there’s a gap between his front teeth. “I told you she was stupid!” Anthony Petro howls, and Bug turns on her heel. “A stupid baby!”
“Shut up!” she says, even though she’s not supposed to say things like shut up, and the man raises both eyebrows. She turns back to him. “You can tell Captain America he can come himself, because I know better! You could be someone awful, with Hydra, or something!” she yells, because she’s six, but she knows who Hydra is. Everyone knows who Hydra is, even Anthony Petro, who is probably part of Hydra.
The man holds his hands up, like surrender. “Okay,” he says, calmly. “I’ll tell Cap.”
And she thinks, when he turns to go, that he gives Anthony Petro a stern look, but she doesn’t know why grownups think that kids even care about that kind of thing. Boys like Anthony Petro don’t, especially.
It’s very quiet, and dark, and when Bug wakes up she looks at the star clock on her dresser. It says it’s three thirty-two in the morning, and Bug knows, without any doubt, that there is someone outside her window.
Her bedroom is on the second floor.
She is still and she curls on Captain America’s shield and she thinks she will fight anyone who isn’t Cap who wants to take it from her, even if they win, it won’t matter. Because Captain America would want her to.
She opens the window and she announces this is a sleepy voice, and closes the window, and goes back to sleep.
This happens again, and again, for three nights in a row.
Anthony Petro attacks at sunset, after school, when the entire world seems to be asleep, with a water balloon filled with purple paint.
Bug is not ready for the attack. She has the shield, of course, but because it’s under her and not over her head, she takes the brunt of the splash. She yells in reply, and gets up off the shield to throw a clod of dirt or maybe try and run across the street when she sees movement and turns, and the shield is gone.
What happens next is an accident. She thinks at first that she sees something moving, and she isn’t very fast. Anthony Petro throws another water balloon - blue paint this time - and she can see it wobbling in midair, in slow motion, and it hits her on the head with a mighty splash. She wants to throw another clod of dirt, but she doesn’t, instead she launches herself as best she can towards the gate, and she crashes into the man who is trying to leave with Cap’s shield.
“No, no, no!” she yells, holding onto his ankle, and then she bites down, and the man in black yelps, more out of surprise than anything else.
The entire world seems to hold it’s breath, because he picks her up but the hips and holds her upside down, and Anthony Petro is laughing, and she’s aiming her tiny fists at the man who has the shield across his back. “Don’t you dare, it doesn’t belong to-”
And then she stops because even upside down, she knows that face. “Bucky?” she asks, and he almost drops her, but catches her before her head hits the ground.
She grips his wrists and Anthony Petro is laughing because she’s dripping paint and he’s about to throw another one when she grabs the shield, somehow, and manages to turn just in time. Red explodes over the shield. “Go eat your own boogers and them poop them out!” she yells, because desperate times call for desperate curses, and there’s a terrible kind of silence for a moment.
Bucky makes a noise and Anthony Petro makes a face like maybe pooping is happening right now, and runs away. “I coulda done that,” Bug grumbles, and Bucky doesn’t say anything in reply. He touches her head, instead, careful. “Are you taking it back to him?” she asks, because now the shield is mostly in her hand, the leather strap familiar and warm.
He doesn’t say anything, he just looks at her, with this sad look on his face. But then finally he does speak and it’s like his voice is coming out of a creaky book and from far away. “What if someone throws paint at him?”
“If that’s true, I need it more than he does,” she grumbles back, and holds on. Maybe she doesn’t want to give it away. Maybe she wants to meet Captain America.
“What if they throw something worse?” he asks, and he sounds so scared. “I’m not-”
She doesn’t need to hear the rest. She’s not stupid. She looks at the shield. “You’re his best friend, right?”
There’s silence for a minute. “I think so,” he says. “I think I loved him,” he adds, and that’s important. Grown ups don’t think kids understand, but they do.
She rubs some of the red off, and hands it to him. “Okay,” she says, “but only because you love him.”
He looks at her for a long minute, and sets her down to take the shield. “He won’t know it was me,” he says. “I don’t think-”
“Dummy,” she says. “He’s gonna know,” she adds.
“You’re just like him,” he tells her, and isn’t that something.
A week later there’s a knock at the front door. Her mommy doesn’t even ask Bug where the shield went; maybe she thinks that Bug lost it, as if that was possible.
On the other side of the door is Captain America, only he’s wearing a blue shirt and he looks very confused. “Is this the house of Miss Elizabeth Rossetti?” he asks.
“Bug,” she says, in the smallest voice she has.
He looks at her, and he smiles, a real smile, not the sad smile he has on TV, and he kneels down. “Thank you for helping me get my shield back,” he says.
“The real one, or Bucky Barnes?” she asks, because Anthony Petro is stupid and he’s wrong, especially.
He turns so she can see the shield on his back like he’s a turtle. But then she leans in. “I’m working on the real shield,” he says, and she knows what he means. “Do you have a best friend like that?”
“Not yet,” she says, holding her head up. “But I think I should,” she replies. “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m just like you,” she says.
“Small and brave, right?” he asks, and she nods, and he ruffles her hair and thanks her again.
He still comes, like a stray cat, and she opens the window and she talks about nothing, and sometimes he breathes loud enough for her to hear and sometimes she doesn’t, but she thinks that there are some things Captain America isn’t ready for, so she doesn’t tell anyone, not a soul.
And maybe Anthony Petro isn’t sorry, but there’s no way she’s letting a bully get to her.
She’s got people to make proud.