Steve first meets Bucky Barnes when he catches the kid stuffing rolls down his pants, stealing them from the sandwich cart on Schermerhorn. Steve is twelve at the time; the other boy looks about the same. “You should pay for those,” he says solemnly, wondering how his mom will react if he comes home with another black eye. But he likes the guy who runs the sandwich cart.
“Would if I could,” the kid says. He adds “sorry,” and Steve believes that he means it. He runs off, but not before Steve sees the hungry look in his eyes.
Steve leaves a nickel for the rolls. He wonders if four stolen rolls are all the kid’s going to eat that day. Or that week.
He finds the kid down at the docks skipping stones. It’s been two days, but he’s wearing the same ratty pants, the same sooty jacket. It’s cold at night, and Steve wonders where he’s been sleeping.
“You got a place to stay?” he asks out of the blue. The boy startles.
“Jesus, where’d you come from?” he asks. Steve just shrugs. People don’t usually notice him.
He holds out a cold ham sandwich, cut from the roast his mom made for Sunday. It’s supposed to get them through the week, but Steve doesn’t eat much anyway. “Thought you could use this.”
The kid hesitates, but just for a second. He eats like he’s famished. He’s alone too; there isn’t a gang with him, like Steve thought there might be.
“What’s your name?” he asks, and the kid looks up sharply.
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m Steve,” he says, holding out his hand to shake. “Rogers. You’re new around here.”
The kid looks at him for a moment before he laughs. Steve nearly startles - the change is unreal, the way he lights up, his laughter reaching all the way to his eyes. “Bucky Barnes,” he replies, shaking Steve’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
He meets Bucky down by the docks nearly every day - he’s trying to talk Bucky into going back to school, but Bucky laughs. “School’s the only thing I don’t miss, Steve-O,” he says. As they walk through the neighborhood, Bucky waves at a pretty girl in a green flowered dress. The girl waves back with a smile.
“You lookin’ at my girl?” There’s a boy the next stoop over, standing up with a grim look on his face. He has friends with him.
“Just bein’ friendly,” Bucky says with a tight smile. To Steve he says, “Run, Rogers.”
Steve’s got bad vision and flat feet but the thing he hates most is the asthma. They manage to run far enough that the gang gives up the chase, but by that point Steve is having a hard time getting a breath. He hasn’t told Bucky about it - Steve tries to ignore the fact that he’s sick any time he’s not - but Bucky notices.
“Hey, come on,” he says, pulling Steve onto a quiet side street and pushing him to sit on a stone step. “Breathe with me,” he says and Steve focuses on his face, his mouth, the steady in-and-out of his breathing, until he can do it on his own.
“Sorry,” he gasps. “Sorry.”
“Nah,” Bucky says with a grin. “Just, now I gotta teach you how to fight, if you’re gonna be that bad at runnin’.”
Steve only has his mom, but she’s his whole world, and he can’t imagine losing her. Bucky shrugs it off when Steve asks what happened to his parents. “Pop died in the war,” he says, “and mom got typhoid last year. She was a fighter, but -” He trails off and Steve doesn’t push.
Steve invites him home for dinner. “I don’t need charity,” Bucky snaps.
“It’s not charity, it’s dinner,” Steve tells him. “If you’re not interested...”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested,” Bucky retorts.
Steve’s mom treats him like an honored guest, laying out the good plates and the scuffed silver spoons her grandmother brought over from Sweden. “It’s not often Steve brings friends home,” she says, and Steve feels his face heat up. Steve spends most of his time drawing and going for walks. He’s no good at sports and has no interest in the kinds of cruel games his classmates play on each other. He’s still not sure why Bucky hangs around him.
“Well, you know Steve,” Bucky says smoothly. “I’m sure he doesn’t want you to work too hard, ma’am. I mean, this is quite a spread.”
Steve’s mom smiles at him over the simple meal of roast chicken and new potatoes and brussels sprouts. “Thank you, James,” she says. That was how Bucky’d introduced himself to her - James Barnes.
Dinner is nice; Bucky eats seconds of everything, even the sprouts. After, Bucky and Steve go to Steve’s room to flip through Steve’s small collection of baseball cards.
“Hey, thanks,” Bucky says at one point, flipping a card over his knuckles and back again.
“For what?” Steve asks.
“Just. Bein’ a good guy,” Bucky says, his cheeks flushing a little.
Steve doesn’t know what to say. “You a DiMaggio fan?” he asks finally, and Bucky grins up at him.
“What do you think?” And they’re off, talking baseball like boys do, like Steve figures friends do.
It’s late when Steve’s mom pokes her head in. “Bedtime, Steve.”
Bucky stacks his cards and hands them slowly back to Steve. “I guess I should -,” he starts, but Steve’s mom talks right over him.
“Why don’t you boys pull the cot out of the closet - make sure James gets the extra blanket from my room, okay?” she says. Bucky opens his mouth like he wants to protest, but no sound comes out. Steve notices his fingers shake a little, holding a Gehrig.
“Okay, mom,” Steve says. “Come on, Barnes, hop to.”
Bucky’s cot stays set up in Steve’s room for the week, then through Christmas, and the years beyond, until the War changes everything.