Of all the things Bucky was expecting to find, trolling through the park after dark, it was not a tiny child with blond hair and a determined expression leaping up, trying to grab a backpack dangling from a tree branch.
He'd been hoping to find some muggers. Cliché, maybe, but hey, he wasn't going for originality points. He was hungry.
As he watched the kid crouched, leapt, fingers stretched, missed, and landed hard, falling on his rear.
It must have hurt, but he didn't make a sound. Just clambered to his feet and tried again. Again he missed and fell, thumping to the ground. He hissed in frustration at the uncaring tree, but he climbed determinedly to his feet, planted his hands on his hips, and glared.
Bucky felt compelled to find out what was going on.
He ghosted out of the shadows and into the light, taking care to make some noise since he didn't want to scare the kid. When he found that glare, one of the wickedest he'd ever seen, directed his way, he realised he maybe shouldn't have worried. "Hey, kid."
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," the kid told him and turned around, giving Bucky his back.
"That's good advice." It was, there was no denying it. "Your Ma tell you that?"
There was no response. Right, not allowed to talk to strangers. "I'm Bucky," Bucky said. "Technically that means I'm not a stranger anymore, and," he winced as the kid hit the ground again and, damn, didn't he ever give up? "And I can get that for you, if you want."
"I can do it myself." So much stubborn pride wrapped up in that, it practically coloured the air.
"But you don't have to."
The kid turned and gave Bucky a long, measuring look. Completely against his will, Bucky found himself standing straighter. Damn it, who was this kid? "Why?"
"Why do you want to help me?"
"Because I'm not an as—" No, don't swear in front of the kid, Bucky. Come on. "Because it's the right thing to do?"
Which was apparently the right thing to say, because the kid backed away. Bucky took that as his cue to step forward and reach up to untangle the backpack out of the tree and hand it to him. "There you go, good as new."
The kid clutched it to him, hugging it tight, and stared at Bucky like he couldn’t believe Bucky had actually done it, had actually given it back. "Thank you."
"Uh, you're welcome. How'd it get up there in the first place?"
The kid scowled and hugged it closer. "Jenny was supposed to be watching me, my mom pays her ten dollars, and we're supposed to stay in the house. But she said we were going to the park so she could play football. They threw my backpack in the tree when I said we had to go home. I tried to stop 'em. I tried." He threw his head back defiantly, like he was daring Bucky to say he hadn't, shades of the glare returning.
It was endearing as hell. "I know you did, kid," Bucky said, because he couldn't say anything else. He crouched down, and the kid took a half-step back, glancing around, then took a deep breath and held his ground. He was tiny and stubborn and brave, ridiculous blue eyes peering up at Bucky from under wispy blond hair, and there was no way Bucky could leave him here. It was dark, they were deep in the park, and Bucky knew he wasn't the only one trolling the place. "You've got your backpack now. How about I take you home. To your home," he added quickly.
That measuring look again, piercing, and Bucky made himself look as harmless as possible. He was good at it. Finally, after an endless moment, the kid nodded and said, "Okay." Then he added, "I'm Steve," like he was imparting a secret.
"And I'm Bucky."
"I know that. You told me already."
Bucky had to hide a smile. "Yeah, kid, I guess I did."
It was with an intense sense of bemusement that Bucky helped Steve get his backpack on, then felt Steve slip a tiny, warm hand into his. At least Steve knew where he lived, which solved one of Bucky's problems, Steve proclaiming, "I'm five, I'm not a baby," and rattling off his address when Bucky asked.
Which was how Bucky found himself leading Steve, tiny, fragile, stubborn Steve, by the hand as he walked him home. Except it'd obviously been a long day, because it wasn't long before walking turned into stumbling and hanging off Bucky's hand, but Steve didn't complain, he just kept going.
There were times Bucky missed breathing. Times like now, when he wanted to sigh in exasperation. Getting Steve home was going to take long enough as it was with how short his legs were; it was going to take three times as long with him staggering like a drunken sailor. But he'd known the kid less than half an hour and already had an inkling what offering to carry him would get him.
Probably a kick in the shin.
Probably worth a try. "Hey, Steve?" he said, drawing him to a stop. "Think it'd be okay if I carried you?"
"I can walk by myself. I don't need you to carry me." It was stubborn, determined, and he tugged at Bucky's hand, trying to make him keep walking, only to trip over his own tired feet. He would have fallen if Bucky hadn't caught him. On the spot Bucky devised a cunning plan.
He swung around in front of Steve and crouched down. "I'm gonna let you in on a little secret."
Steve, swaying slightly with exhaustion, stared suspiciously at Bucky.
"One of the best things you can do for a friend is let them help you when you need it. Because when you see a friend hurting it hurts you." Steve just blinked at him. "That means you should let me carry you."
Slowly, Steve's eyes grew wide and hopeful and filled with wonder. "Does that mean we're friends?"
Bucky smiled and said, "Course we are," because what else could he say? He was a vampire, not a monster.
Steve's answering smile was radiant and he held up his arms. Bucky scooped him up, and he remembered this, he remembered how to do this, remembered baby sisters and carrying them on his hip. He got Steve settled and in less than a minute Steve was fast asleep, head on Bucky's shoulder, drooling on his neck.
When Bucky knocked on the door of the house Steve had said was his a frantic-eyed woman with a heart screaming panic wrenched it open part-way through the second knock. She froze when she saw Steve. Bucky could smell the burst of adrenaline. He caught her eyes and he wasn't great at this, but he was good enough he could soothe her past the initial shock.
She calmed and Bucky said, "He's fine. He's asleep. He was alone in the park and I didn't think he should be trying to get home on his own." He handed Steve to her and she clutched him tight, the sheen of tears in her eyes. "He said the girl who was supposed to be watching him took him to the park and threw his backpack in a tree. That's why he was still there. He wouldn’t leave it."
"Thank you. Thank you, I didn’t know what to do, I was so worried. Thank you. Do you want t—"
"No!" It came out too loud, too fast, and her eyes went wide as she fell back a step, clutching Steve, who protested sleepily.
"No. Sorry. No. I have to go." He didn't let people invite him inside. It wasn't safe.
He could feel her eyes following him as he left, blending into the shadows.
When Steve's mom put him to bed, tucked him in and turned out the lights, he waited until the house was quiet then sneakily turned on his book light. Quietly quietly, because if he woke her up she'd take his light and make him go to sleep, he dug the markers and paper out of his backpack. Bucky had found him in the park and helped him and rescued his backpack out of the tree and said they were friends, and Steve drew pictures of him until he couldn't keep his eyes open.
The next day at school no one believed him when he told them about Bucky, but he didn't care. He didn't care that no one wanted to play with him. He had a friend now, he had Bucky, and he had the pictures to prove it.