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Strength in Numbers

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Chapter 1

Spring, 1928

“Do you wanna come play?”

This was a perfectly normal – generic, even – question for one seven-year-old boy to ask another in the middle of a park. But Steve Rogers was too sick most of the time to be considered a “normal” boy, plus he was pretty sure that there was something important about the fact that this boy just said one of the many lines of words that littered Steve’s body – a set of silver words, which as a seven year old, were Steve’s favorite because he’d wanted to hear them for so long.

There was something about all of his words that made him unusual too; he often heard his parents’ worried whispers because he had nine sets of them... but wasn’t that a good thing? He vaguely understood that they were supposed to have something to do with marriage and friends, and didn’t more words just mean more friends? He knew that he didn’t want to marry this boy like a lot people do when their words matched! But friends? He could be friends with him! He was just excited that someone had asked him to play – that he wanted to be his friend!

Wait… he did want to be his friend, right? Steve looked around for any other children before asking the boy to make sure, “You wanna play with me? You’re sure you want me?”

“Yeah, sure!” the boy answered happily, proudly showing him a set of wooden guns. “Playing soldiers is no fun with just one person.”

“Okay,” Steve said, smiling as he accepted one of the guns. “I’m Steve Rogers.”

“I’m James Buchanan Barnes.”

“That’s a big name… can I call you Bucky?”

“I like that. Now, come on, let’s go play.”

And for a little while they did – until Steve felt it starting to get hard to breathe. He didn’t want to stop playing – afraid that Bucky would grow bored with him and leave him lonely again – but Bucky noticed without Steve having to say anything.

“Time out!” Bucky called loudly from behind a tree before running over to Steve with worry scrawled across his face. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’,” Steve muttered. “I don’t usually run a lot.”

“Why not?”

“It makes it hard to breathe sometimes,” he admitted grudgingly.

Then Bucky did something that floored Steve. He flopped onto the ground, looking like he expected Steve to follow suit, and suggested, “Then let’s not run anymore.”

This was new. Other kids didn’t normally act like this when Steve tried to play with them… It made Steve like Bucky even more. “Alright,” he said slowly, settling beside Bucky before asking cautiously, “Can I show you somethin’?”


Steve nibbled on his lip and then rolled up his left sleeve – which his mama would definitely tell him not to do “because of all the words” – until the gray words were seen as clearly as the grass under the boys’ feet. “You said this to me, and Mama told me it means we’re gonna be friends. But I think I have to say the right thing to you too for it to count.”

“You already did!” Bucky grinned at him and jerked up the sleeve of his right arm, proudly showing Steve the silver words in the crease of his own elbow: “You wanna play with me? You’re sure you want me?”

Steve’s smile was as bright as the sunshine because he finally had a friend. Then he noticed his mama coming over with another mama – Bucky’s, maybe? – nearby, both of them looking worried… probably when they saw that Steve was showing Bucky his words – words that he shared with Bucky! He hoped he wouldn’t get in trouble for showing them.

But then he didn’t worry so much when, just in the nick of time before their mama’s could hear him – Bucky leaned over and promised, “I’ll always want to be friends with you, Stevie.”

Summer, 1930

With Bucky around, Steve’s childhood had definitely taken a turn for the better. Bucky’s steadiness had given Steve the courage to do the things that he wanted to do – or at least attempt them – no matter what they were… to the point that it wasn’t long before Bucky started swearing that he was the sane one, which was true.

One thing that Steve wanted to do was go swimming – he liked swimming              , especially during the summertime – but that wasn’t often possible in the middle of Brooklyn. Plus he would have to show so many of his words if he wore nothing but swimming trunks. But it was hot and he wanted to cool down!

He expressed these things – well, everything but the “words” conundrum – to Bucky as they lazed around Steve’s apartment one summer afternoon.

“I wish,” Bucky muttered, the corners of his mouth suddenly getting a little turned down as he said, “But you can take your shirt off if you want. It’s just the two of us and your mama won’t be back from the store for a while.”

Steve shook his head, both of them staring up at the ceiling from where they were laying on the floor underneath the open apartment window. “My parents don’t like me to.”

“We’re nine, punk, and they’re never gonna find out – not from me at least – so you can do whatever you want.”

That was the question, Steve realized. Did he want to? Did he want Bucky to see that he had so many words? So many of what they had come to understand were soulmates? Steve had never heard of anyone else in the world having nine soulmates, and he didn’t want to make things weird with Bucky; that was why he hadn’t told him about the surplus of marks yet – that was practically the only thing he hadn’t told the other boy about himself. His parents had always taught him to be careful about never showing more than one or two of them, so he didn’t – not even to Bucky… but he wanted to.

Steve sat up shakily, stammering, “O-okay.”

Bucky looked at Steve quizzically, sensing something was off, and the boys studied one another as Steve painstakingly undid the buttons on his shirt one at a time, waiting for a frown, a twitch, from Bucky – anything to signal that he was getting uncomfortable.