His face met the wall with a resounding thud.
Pain, not unfamiliar, blossomed throughout his skull. It distracted him long enough that he clumsily landed amongst trash bags, overflowing with rotting food. Black dots spattered across his vision as he blearily failed to push himself up.
A vicious spit in his direction, followed by, “Maybe pick on somebody your own size, squirt.”
There was the sound of a jaw being smashed against bricks, followed by the sole of a boot hitting the small of a back.
Warmth spread through Bucky. Steve.
Gingerly, large hands pulled him from the mess of burst trash bags. His head finally managed to stop spinning enough for him to pull away, brushing himself down. A muddy-brown banana peel appeared glued to his torn jacket.
Sighing resignedly, Bucky ran a hand over his thin face and glowered at his shoes. “I was managing fine on my own—I don’t need you to fight for me.”
A laugh, not condescending but comforting, reverberated against the narrow of the alleyway. The light from the street cast Steven Rogers in an almost ethereal glow, highlighting his tailored army clothes that gave the six foot mammoth an even more intimidating look.
Bucky had always lived in Steve’s shadow. He hadn’t minded; not when they were kids. When Steve would keep the bullies away from Bucky and his ill health, when Steve would sneak through Brooklyn’s dark streets to climb through Bucky’s window and play with him until he managed to fall asleep. It had been so easy, when Bucky was only slightly smaller than the other boys.
When they’d hit puberty…well, things changed. All of the boys around him shot up, broadened, practically readymade soldiers when the war came around. But Bucky stayed as weedy as ever, limbs stick-thin and chest riddled with every disease that swept the neighbourhood. His mother promised that he was a good-looking enough guy; strong jawline, amazing facial structure, topped with silky brown hair that would stay in a swept back style for hours. Steve loved him like a brother, but without the cruelness of sibling rivalry. He never pointed out the physical differences between them, only emphasising the kindness within his best friend whenever somebody asked.
But Bucky knew. He knew he didn’t deserve Steve Rogers. Girls and boys pointed it out often enough. Steve practically radiated goodness. When he smiled, it was like you were seeing the very definition of America. White, straight teeth, perfectly styled blonde hair. Broad, impeccable muscles, kept in shape by Steve’s constant training. If the guy was dying, he would hop up one last time to help that old lady cross the road, or to push somebody out of the way of a car.
In all honesty, he had no idea why Steve had stuck with him this long.
He never dared mentioned it to Steve, or anyone for that matter. The blonde would just get irritated, and spend the rest of his days trying to convince Bucky he was worth it.
So he kept quiet.
Steve chuckled lightly, clapping a hand round Bucky’s shoulder. He tried not to wince—but yep, there would definitely be a bruise there.
“Where have you been hiding, Buck? I went round to your apartment, but your Mom said—“
“Mom knows what I’ve been doing,” Bucky sighed, chewing his lip as Steve led him from the alley. “She doesn’t support it but hell, she never shuts up about you getting in.”
Steve paused at the lip of the alley, turning to him. There was a pained expression on his face that Bucky never ever wanted to be responsible for.
Uncomfortable under his stare, he looked down again. “What?”
“Give me them.”
“What? Give you—hey!”
Steve’s hand delved into his pocket, yanking the crumpled papers out before Bucky could grab them back. Heat rushed to his cheeks and he squealed, “Give them back!”
“Really, Buck? Really? What’s this, your fifth time? Sixth?” Steve glared at him, then back at the admission papers as though they’d personally offended him. “Where are you gonna be from next, hm? You’ve already tried nearly every state this side of America.”
A lump formed in Bucky’s throat, refusing to let him swallow. “I should be going, Steve.”
“But you don’t want to go to fight, do you? You want to go so you get the uniform, the reputation of being in the army. Men are going to die, Bucky, and nobody’s going to remember them.”
Anger pulsed red-hot in his chest and he cried, “But they’ll remember you, Steve! Everybody will! The guy who wanted to go to war. The guy who wanted to lay down his life in service of his country.” His voice faltered and he quietly croaked, “You’ll be a hero no matter what you do.”
He should’ve felt embarrassed at his outburst, but he didn’t have it in him. Why couldn’t he surprise people for once? Why couldn’t people look at him for once and say, wow, I didn’t expect that?
Bucky’s shoulders dropped. He knew why. A wave of ridiculousness washed over him and he sent Steve a guilty smile.
“Sorry, I—wait, why are you here?”
Steve sighed, face light again, and he tucked the ‘DECLINED’ papers back into Bucky’s pocket. “I, my friend, am here to collect you. Although I thought you’d be a bit more prepared to go. You reek of onions.”
“Well, that tends to happen when you land face-first in garbage. Where are we going?”
Steve beamed. “The future.”
The girl was far more interested in Steve than him, that much was clear. He didn’t resent Steve for it—God, how could he?—but he didn’t want to intrude on what seemed to be a very nice date between the three of them. Bless, Steve barely touched the girls beyond squeezing their hands gently. How noble of him.
Bucky couldn’t strain his neck over the crowd to see Stark’s invention, which seemed to be amazing the public if the ‘oohs’ and ‘Oh my gosh’ s were anything to go by. It was fine—if the girls could see, it was fine. They’d have fun with Steve.
He found himself wandering away, hands tucked deep in his pockets. Sadness rolled through him as he felt his skinny thighs bumping into his hands as he walked. Couples dawdled past him, arm in arm, clearly not here for the expo, but rather to share inside jokes and radiate happiness.
A glowing board finally made him pause. The mirror where the soldier’s face should’ve been could barely even reflect the top of Bucky’s dark head. Story of his life. His ears pulsed with an empty noise. He was an embarrassment enough on the outside, but the inside…maybe God had intended for him to be the runt of the litter. Maybe he knew how little compassion, how little kindness Bucky had within him, and punished him how he saw fit.
But couldn’t he see how much Bucky wished he could be compassionate? Be kind?
Vaguely, and not for the first time, Bucky’s mind conjured the image of what if. What if he’d been Steve? The big, lovable soldier. Attractive enough to have women falling off his every word. Purity oozing from him every time he opened his mouth.
Somebody shoved his back and Bucky stumbled forwards. His half-image disappeared completely from the mirror. He only barely managed to catch himself from tripping onto the floor.
Where I belong.
Crap. He turned, a sigh looming in the back of his throat.
Steve glanced at the board, his eyelids fluttering with sadness as he looked at Bucky. His voice was almost inaudible as he breathed, “Why are you doing this?”
Bucky pretended to pick at a loose thread on his arm. “I’m not doin’ anything—“
“You’re torturing yourself. With this—“ He gestured toward the board. “With the constant attempts to get into the army, with the fights every damn day.”
A silence fell between the two of them, only punctuated by the thrum of noise from the expo.
Steve stepped closer to him and breathed, “Why can’t you just be happy staying alive, Buck?”
“I want to be part of this! I want to fight—“
“Right, because you have nothing to prove.”
Bucky couldn’t stop the blush rising in his cheeks and he cursed himself for how whiny he’d sounded all freaking day. How to make himself seem even more pathetic.
“You could get a job in an office. Work at a—“
“No, n—c’mon, Steve! Men are laying down their lives, I’m not going to sit behind a desk—“
“You’re being stubborn—“
“You’re being my mother!”
Steve sighed, the kind that was laced with disappointment. Bucky desperately wanted him to just understand. His entire life, he’d lived as little James Barnes from down the road, the small guy who was always sick. He’d missed half of his school life because he was too ill to concentrate.
Bucky could vividly remember one day when his mother had come home from work and he’d been sick with the beginnings of pneumonia. Steve had left a few hours earlier, escaping school at lunch to come and check on him.
Her hair had been wispy from the stressful hospital shift, and she’d come into Bucky’s room with a harassed expression on her young face. There was a puddle of vomit on the floor from where he hadn’t managed to even get out of bed. A pile of unwashed clothes loomed in the corner of the room, most soaked through completely with sweat. Bucky had stared back at her with bleary eyes, a cough rattling his throat.
Her head had jerked, like she was irritated. Which freaked him out, because his mother was never the type to get annoyed at him.
The words she’d said to him refused to leave his mind. Her face had crumpled into something representing disgust, and she’d whispered, “Christ, sometimes I wonder if you’re even worth it, James.”
Sometimes I wonder if you’re even worth it.
Of course, her face had immediately flooded with regret and she’d hurried over to him, pressing kisses to his sweaty hair, promising, “Oh God, James, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean that at all—sweetheart, I’m so sorry, I’m just tired—“
He’d raised a weak arm, squeezing her as tight as he could. “I know, Mom,” he rasped. “I know how hard your shifts are. It’s okay.”
But he’d never quite forgotten it. The person he trusted the most, alongside Steve, thought he wasn’t worth it. She said she didn’t mean it, but quite frankly, if Bucky was her, he would’ve felt the same way.
He was a waste of space.
Unworthy of the money she continuously had to spend on him.
She could’ve had a fit, strapping son like Steve. Steve could’ve had a best friend who he could roughhouse with, who he could drink long into the early hours of the morning beside. But they’d both pulled the short straw; instead, they got Bucky. Small, pathetic and incapable of fending off the common cold.
A well of tears flooded his eyes but he solidly refused to let them fall. That was something he could control. He didn’t want to seem even weaker in front of Steve than he already did.
Steve’s date—Betty, Bucky remembered—called over to him, arm linked with Bucky’s supposed date, Wendy. She waved at him, shouting, “Come on, Stevie, let’s go!”
The blonde beamed at her, before turning to Bucky and sighing, “Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
“How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”
Laughing, Steve yanked Bucky into a gentle hug, squeezing him as hard as he could without hurting. “You’re a punk.”
“Jerk,” Bucky replied, hiding a tiny smile into Steve’s enormous shoulder.
As he watched Steve walk away in the distance, he had no idea that would be the last time he saw his best friend.
But with the admittance to army—finally—with the help of Erskine, the uprooting of his life as he moved to the training camp, and the harsh conditions of the actual training with the massive brutes he was supposed to call his comrades, it was hard for Bucky to give Steve a second thought.
That’s what he liked to tell himself, anyway.
But when he couldn’t sleep during the darkest of nights, he found himself tracing the outline of Steve’s face with his stubby graphite pencil.
Not that he would ever admit to it.