Stephanie's a good girl, she's not an obedient one, so when Sarah Rogers finds out that the no-good Barnes kid has been hanging around, she's deeply unsurprised.
They're just 10 right now, too young for her to get too worried, but she stands in the doorway of her spotless kitchen and watches Stephanie — all the thin arms and legs of her — vibrating with defensive instincts as she stands in front of her little friend, who's got six inches and 40 pounds on her.
"Stephanie, I told you," Sarah says, for all the good it'll do.
"Bucky's my friend," Stephanie says back, like it's that simple, like it doesn't matter that That Barnes Kid is known near and far throughout their neighborhood for brawling and breaking windows. He'd rolled up to Sarah's little girl with that crooked smile and a tug for her pigtails and she'd been gone, starry eyed and stubbornly in love already at five and unwavering ever since.
"And I'm your mother," Sarah tries.
At this point, the Barnes kid feels compelled to interject, "I'm gonna marry her one day, Mrs. Rogers, you'll see!"
Sarah doesn't swear out loud and she doesn't pour herself a drink, but that's only because little pitchers have big ears and it's the damn depression — nobody's got anything good to drink.
Stephanie's mom comes around that one terrible fucking winter five years after that, when Stephanie gets really sick and never gets better.
For weeks she lies wane in her bed with every blanket and sweater in the house wrapped around her. Sarah asks the neighbor women to watch Stephanie, but they're all busy with their own little bastards, and it's easy enough for Bucky to sneak off and find his way to Stephanie's bedside. She's always been so little: short and small in a way that made him feel like just holding her hand was insufficient protection. Pale-faced and struggling to breathe in the bed, Bucky thinks she looks like those Victorian etchings of women wasting away. He doesn't cry, not really, not even when Stephanie falls asleep after looking at him balefully. He just takes off his scarf and his sweater and wraps them around her, too.
It's one of those horrible winters that goes on forever, January dripping horribly into March, no sign of warmth in sight. Bucky sells papers and cigarettes, run's messages and errands all over the neighborhood. He saves up every penny and buys extra heating oil for the little stove in Stephanie's room; he buys her comics, those blank notebooks she likes, the nicest pencils from the art store. He sharpens them for her with a stolen razor blade. He tried buying her medicine, but Mrs. Rogers had looked so sad at him and said, "Sweetheart — you've done more than enough."
Some days Stephanie is better and some days she's worse. On the bad days when she cries because she hurts from coughing so bad Bucky wants more than anything to go out and pick a fight. He wants to become a rich gangster with three gleaming cars, and buy him and Stephanie and Mrs. Rogers three tickets to the South of France, where he'd hold Stephanie's hand in the sun until she warmed up, and they'd never come back to this miserable winter.
But Stephanie had just looked like he'd broken her heart when he shows up with black eyes and a busted lip, so Bucky is quiet and good and sits with her for hours instead. He reads her Robinson Crusoe and the newspapers he picks up after people discard them. He does the voices out of her favorite comics, and he tells her about the other kids in the neighborhood.
"And then Annie said — "
"Bucky," Stephanie tells him, looking pink in the face for the first time since November, "if you keep talking about Annie Spencer, I swear."
Annie Spencer's been gaga over Bucky since last year, makin' eyes at him from across the street and flicking her skirt up when he walks by. Annie Spencer has huge tits and a hot little mouth — but she'd also said, "Aw, Buck, why're you wasting all your time with that Rogers girl, she'll be dead any day now at this rate," and Bucky's never wanted to hit a girl more than that moment.
Stephanie doesn't know that though.
"You jealous, Rogers?" Bucky teases.
That just makes Stephanie even pinker, to Bucky's delight. "As if I would be — if you want to go with Annie Spencer then why don't you?"
Bucky just leans in close and grins at her because he loves pissing her off: something about the way her eyes get all electric makes him crazy.
"You wouldn't miss me?" he asks.
Her glare is embarrassed and amazing. "James Buchanan Barnes, you can go soak your dumb head for all I care!"
She's picking up one of her pillows to smack him with it, so Bucky grabs her hand — laces their fingers together, and darts in before she can think better of letting him get away with this nonsense and lays a kiss on her.
She gasps against his mouth, and Bucky feels a wave of heat roll over him like a housefire, and it lasts forever and no time at all, and then Bucky's makin' himself pull away before Mrs. Rogers comes back and murders him in the street.
Stephanie's face is flushed almost as bright as her eyes, and her mouth is an o of surprise and she's beautiful, her pale blonde hair a mess and her skin translucent from so many months inside. Bucky hurts all over to have her.
"You know you're my girl, Rogers," he says, because he's shy and doesn't know how to say it any better.
But that's okay, because before she drags him in — by the hair, why Miss Stephanie Rogers — for another kiss, she says, "I better be your forever girl, Barnes," and he wisely says, "Yes, ma'am," so that he can feel her smile against his lips.
Mrs. Rogers, when she finds them half an hour later, throws him out of the house for a week. It's completely worth it.
For once, Bucky's sick.
June's officially gone sticky and punishing, and one minute Bucky had been moving some crates down at the docks and the next he was blinking up at Stephanie's furious face.
"Barnes, you really redefine the word stupid," she swears at him, and when he tries to sit up, she raises her eyebrows. "And if you try to get up again, I will put you in a world of pain."
Because he took all the stupid with him when he went to work this morning, he tries again and gets thumped for his trouble. But then he's sitting propped up on some pillows and getting fussed over with all of Stephanie's year-old nursing school expertise. He keeps offering to let her play doctor on him, and she keeps pretending to look scandalized while Bucky's mom is nearby and giving him speculative looks as soon as Mrs. Barnes leaves the room.
"You're working way too much, Buck," she says to him, once she's watched him put away a sandwich and a bowl of pasta and peas. "I barely saw you at all last month."
Bucky shrugs, because he's not good for much, but he's got plans, and if he learned one thing grinding away at Mrs. Roger's steadfast dislike of him over the course of 18 years, it's to keep working at it.
"Got some things I want to do, Steph," he tells her, trying to sound cool about it. But then she sits on the edge of the bed so she can lean against his chest, tuck her head under his chin, and hell if that doesn't make Bucky dumb and pliable, every time, to wrap his arm around her narrow shoulders and know she loves him.
"Just be careful, okay?" she whispers, into the dirty cotton of his shirt. "I wouldn't know up from down without you, you idiot."
But Steph is busy, too, actually, with her classes and her freelancing dirty pictures that she's sworn Bucky to secrecy over. None of the nice ladies magazines really pay that much, but the lad rags are happy to hand over cash for saucy drawings; Bucky doesn't know whether to be jealous or laugh, honestly.
So he goes back to it for another few weeks, and it's miserable and exhausting and his mother sees right through him — "I could just give you a loan, kiddo." — but July 2 he walks into Rubenstein's a rich man and out the door again a hopeful one.
Two nights later, they drink lemonade and eat fried chicken Bucky's mom made on a big picnic blanket Mrs. Rogers had lent him with a bleak look on her face, like she knew what was coming. It's dark and still hot, the wind skimming off the neighborhood buildings, when Bucky digs the ring box out of his pocket. His hands are all sweaty from nerves, and in the end his proposal is shoving the damn thing at her, saying, "Uh — here. Just — please."
She just says, "Oh — oh," and instead of saying 'yes' and crying delicately, Stephanie puts the ring on her finger and disgraces him on the picnic blanket.
The fireworks are going off overhead, and he makes her sit on top because she's still so little he's scared he'll crush her, and her hair keeps getting tangled on her ring as she leans over to kiss him muffling all manner of wailing noises into his mouth, and Bucky swallows them up greedily, leaves a savage set of fingerprint bruises on the naked line of her hip.
Afterward, when he's spent himself on her — and Jesus Christ, just thinking about it makes him hot all over again — Bucky tips her onto the blanket, her hair like gold floss against the green July grass, and kisses her between her thin legs until she screams.
"We can never come to this park again," she huffs at him, flipping her dress back down while Bucky stuffs her panties into his pocket. If she doesn't notice him stealing them that means they're fair game.
"Uh," Bucky says, because as he's folding up the picnic blanket he's seeing a lot of stains — grass and other...stuff.
"Damn it," Stephanie says, frowning at a drying smear of semen.
She balls it up and throws it into the river, and watching her hurl it over the bank, Bucky laughs himself sick, so in love he's overflowing with it
This crazy woman's going to marry him. He's dizzy with it.
Thing is, he thinks she knew as soon as they bombed Pearl Harbor. They'd huddled around the radio, and it hadn't been hard to figure it out, that the war was come to them, and it meant that every boy in Brooklyn was gonna head overseas. Hey, maybe Walter Kovicz would get to see the old country, just the way that his grandma had always been going on about. Get to die there too, just like his granddad before him.
So they know it's gonna happen, and the thing is—the thing is, if he signs up fast, it's a lot of money. They'll pay him to go through basic, and if he makes it up the ladder—well, pay increases with the decorations on your chest, and if he's gonna have to do it anyway…He can't really see the sense in putting it off.
So he walks into the recruiting office, gives them all his information, writes Stephanie Barnes in the line for spouse and listens close when the recruiter talks about how their old ladies will be taken care of. The weigh him, get his medical history, take down his height, some doc peeks into his mouth and they make him do a couple jumping jacks, and just like that he's got a stamp on his form and he's got to ship out for basic training in fucking Jersey in a week.
He doesn't tell her, though. folds the papers up tight and sticks them in his inside coat pocket, picks up a loaf of bread on his way home, and tries to rescue whatever soup she tried to make before she fell asleep
Hospital doesn't care that she's tiny, they run her ragged, and Steph's not the kind of girl who complains. Bucky pours two bowls of soup and doesn't think about how much he hates her working at the hospital. How much he hates her being around that much sick, because they can't have that fight again, and he just—he just can't fight with her tonight.
They send him paperwork. He gets home from a shift digging fucking graves (Mrs. Smith from two buildings down, died from the cough last night), and it's spread on their shitty little table. "They want you there by Sunday," Steph says, her thin shoulders thrown back. Bucky can't repress that shiver—she's always so beautiful when she's pissed, and he got conditioned long ago, before he knew better, anyway.
"Was gonna happen anyway, I just—am beating them to it. Plus, if I can make it up the ranks, hell, if I could hit Sergeant before I go out—you'd be okay."
"When you die, you mean," she says. "I'll be okay, when you die."
"I might not," he feels compelled to point out, mulish. It's one thing for him to prepare for it, but she could at least pretend he's gonna make it out of this (he won't, probably. He only stayed in school to seventh grade, but he can still read a goddamn paper).
Stephanie stands up, then, lit up and furious. "You should have talked to me first," she says. "You're so stupid. You should have—I told you, didn't I? I told you, I don't know up from down, and you promised—you said. You said I was gonna be your forever girl."
"You are my forever girl," he says, grabbing at her hands because he doesn't think she'll let him hold her tight, the way he wants to. He wants to fucking cling, drop to his knees and press his face into her ribs, close his eyes and pretend that it's just gonna be them, two dumb kids from Brooklyn. "You are. But that's why I gotta take care of you, and you know it was going this way anyhow."
Her face crumples at that, and that's somehow worse than any of it, but he just stands there, waiting it out, because last time he tried to kiss her when she was crying over something he did, she made him go sleep in the lobby (he'd climbed up the fire escape and slept outside their window until she'd muttered and let him back in. He'd still had to sleep on the floor). Eventually, she pulls one of her hands free and wipes at her eyes and says, "You're an asshole, Bucky Barnes." And he knows he's been forgiven
It doesn't make it easier, though. There's something brittle between them, something that's not just—it's not just between them. Everyone's feeling it, like they all read the papers, and they all know what's going to happen, but they're all pretending that it's gonna be fine. They're all pretending that maybe a husband or a son's gonna go away for a while, but he'll be back. That people aren't gonna be putting black up in their windows. That the streets of New York are gonna be that much emptier.
It's easier, really. To pretend.