Growing up in a single-parent household, Steve was no stranger to bullying. One of his first memories was of him running into his mother's arms, almost choking on his cries and stutteringly asking for new shoes. Not the hand-me-downs that were technically new to him, but actual new shoes from the department store. Sarah Rogers held her son close, reaffirming that his worth does not come from what he wears on the outside but what he has on the inside. Steve still wanted those new shoes but his mother's tears quieted the pounding request in his chest.
Things had been hard since his father went away to defend their country, and he had felt the moisture from his mother's silent cries when she thought he was asleep in her arms. Then the phantom dampness would cling to his skin uncomfortably for days after. So Steve wiped his face on a wash cloth and sat on the kitchen stool, watching his mother prepare dinner.
The next day, he ignored Sam Seaborn showing off his new shoes to his friends; Steve kept his head up and eyes forward, resolutely not looking down so he won't see his own shoes – scuffed and stuffed with newspaper. He didn't care about frivolous things, because he was practical and knew people should be valued not by what they have, but what they do.
(Sam was just excited.)
Steve was in the second grade when he first stood up against a bully. The teacher had called on Steve to solve a math problem on the blackboard. Double digit addition was difficult enough for him without his classmates' eyes on his back. When he floundered, unsurprisingly and furiously, the teacher sent him back to his seat and called on Toby Ziegler. Toby solved the problem with annoying ease and uncharitable smugness, shooting a smile at Steve as he returned to his seat.
The irritation stuck with Steve all day, culminating in an explosion when Toby approached him after school and asked if Steve needed help with his homework. Bullies mocked people who weren't as gifted as them and flaunted their successes. Steve had snarled his refusal to Toby's offer before charging at him. For a split second, Steve had the upper hand but then Toby landed a sharp elbow against his neck and Steve was left gasping on the ground.
Struggling to regain his breath was how Bucky Barnes found him. Bucky had been impressed by Steve's telling of what happened, commending Steve for standing up to the dweeb. A friendship formed and they pledged to stick together and take on the injustices of the world.
(Toby only wanted to help.)
Steve was a freshman when he first started noticing girls. Donna Moss was popular and had lovely blonde hair that shone platinum in the sunlight and unlike anything Steve had seen before. Due to his near debilitating shyness and her immense popularity, they had no interactions outside of Steve's lingering looks in the hallways.
Steve was working up the courage to ask her to the homecoming dance, Bucky alternating between cheering him on and preparing him for rejection, when he saw her cornered by Josh Lyman next to the lockers, her personal space clearly not respected. Steve acted before he could think, barreling forward and slamming his weight into the bigger boy. The momentum knocked them onto the ground, all three of them as Josh still had an arm around Donna's waist.
They untangled themselves as teachers rushed out of classrooms – Steve yelling for Josh to respect a lady, Josh screaming at Steve to back off, and Donna covering her bloody nose. A week of detention was Steve's punishment, which he accepted not because he was wrong but because Donna got hurt. He didn't mean to hurt her but he had to stand up to a bully with no knowledge of how to treat a dame. The elation of doing the right thing overshadowed the guilt of hurting an innocent.
(Josh and Donna were dating.)
Steve was twenty and loved his country fiercely. Unable to enlist, he sought out other way he could serve; calling out a disrespectful man was just one of them. Unflinchingly, Steve followed the larger man out into the alleyway, knowing exactly what would happen – because the only way to stop a bully was to speak up and act, a lesson he learned quickly in his childhood. Steve would shout himself hoarse until he could drown out the bullying voices and he would fight everyone who dared to stand in his way.
The bigger man, Jed Bartlett as he later learned from Bucky, knocked Steve down effortlessly and repeatedly. When he landed on the ground for the third time, his face swelling and his clothes muddy, Steve allowed himself a moment of respite before jumping back to his feet. He felt a thrill of victory when Jed seemed taken aback by Steve's tenacity. He could do this all day, and would until the end of his days.
When Bucky arrived, over a decade of friendship meant he knew to look for Steve in the alleyways first because Steve hadn't gone more than a week without confrontations and bruises, Jed stalked off muttering angrily about missing the cartoons. Steve smiled victoriously at Bucky as his friend helped him up.
(Jed lost his brother to the war.)
At twenty-one, Steve knew how to spot bullies and Gilmore Hodges was, without a question, a bully; his friend Leo McGarry was likely one as well, the way McGarry had laughed at Hodges' bawdy jokes. While Steve had little experience, he heard plenty from Bucky to know there was a fine line between being funny and crude.
Not that the knowledge helped in any way, and he hadn't been able to approach a girl since Donna in high school – he was heartbroken when he heard Donna had gone to the dance with Josh, bitterly wondering why bullies seemed to get the girls; he found some comfort in the fact that Bucky, who was not a bully and Steve's best friend, got the girls too.
Steve struggled to keep himself from stepping up to stop the tawdry story Hodges was telling. Bucky had warned Steve about confrontations once Steve got accepted, there were rules for discipline and a chain of commands – disobedience could lead to a dishonorable discharge. So Steve clenched his jaws and focused on arranging his bunk, thankful when they were called out to the field a bit later. His face relaxed into a small smile when Agent Carter's fist landed on Hodges' nose. At least one bully got what he deserved.
(Leo was trying to fit in.)
Steve disliked Tony Stark immediately, instinctively, and immensely. Tony exhibited all bullying traits, and seemed to take joy in exaggerating them to the maximum. Just being around the man had made Steve tense, his muscles rigid as if he were back in the ice again. Steve called out the unacceptable behaviors at the first available moment, and despite how Tony dismissed the reprimand, what Steve said must have left an impact because Tony eventually stepped up and made the sacrifice play. This gave Steve hope, that perhaps Tony could be changed into a better man.
Determined, Steve did not hesitate to point out Tony's flaws, sometimes in front of teammates who relied on Steve to advocate for a respectful team environment, in order to keep Tony on the right path. He refrained from using his fists, deciding to give Tony the benefit of the doubt and trusting in Tony's self-proclaimed genius to understand how to interact with people civilly - without needing the lesson beaten into his thick head. A reminder to watch his language, a censure of his boastful talks, a nudge to keep the insulting and incessant techno-babble in the lab, a helpful hint that his impropriety likely drove Ms. Potts away, and so on.
Over the years they spent together, Steve saw a vast improvement. Yes, there was still work to be done but overall Steve was satisfied and almost ready to consider the man a close friend. Yet there was something holding him back from trusting Tony completely, Steve was both gratified and disappointed when his gut feeling turned out to be correct with The Accords mess.
That shield doesn't belong to you. You don't deserve it! My father made that shield!
Steve wasn't surprised, bullies never wanted to share.