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Bombshell

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August 1932

 It was a stupid, crazy, stupid idea. And this was why it was so great.

 (Knock. Knockknock.

 “Good afternoon, Betty.”

 “Afternoon, Mrs. Rogers. Is...”

 “Hey, Bet, hang on – Mom, where's my sketchbook? Right, I'll see you later, have a good afternoon.”

 “You're having him for dinner, right?”

 "Ma insisted. You'll be working late?”

 “All this week. Give my love to your family, okay?”)

It was a familiar feeling of ambivalence: annoyance at Steve for thinking it up and having the nerve to go through with it, regardless of how dangerous it was; and that jump of excitement in her gut that was directly because of the danger. Not to mention the flash of envy, because she'd never have the guts or the imagination to come up with something like this.

(“You want to do what?

“It's not that bad. You make it sound like we'd be doing something illegal.”

 “We would be. Ever heard of trespassing? What if we got caught?”

 “Then we run.”

 “No, I run. You get an asthma attack.”

 “That's my problem, isn't it?”)

Crazy and stupid, maybe, but she'd be damned if she was going to let Steve Rogers have all that fun on his own. It kept her away from looking after her kid siblings, and beat an afternoon of watching Steve trying to pick fights with bullies in their own neighbourhood. Still, Betty was feeling the weight of her return trolley fare in her pocket, reminding her of the fare she’d already paid coming out. Steve was certainly feeling it too, and if it wasn't for him she'd have opted to walk or cycle all the way. She couldn't do that to him,though.

With both feet planted on the floor, she swung on the handle like a little kid with the motion of the trolley, and glared at her friend. He grinned back at her like he could see only smiles on her face.

“You know this is a crazy idea.”

“You mentioned that.”

“Any way I can talk you out of it?”

“No way.”

She stared at him, unable to keep up the glare for long against his ridiculous smile. In the end, she felt the corner of her mouth give way.

“We can't be long. I have to be back to help with dinner. Jerk.”

It wasn't just dinner: Teddy was at that age where he needed two pairs of eyes on him at all times, and Martha was still too young to look out for him. Betty figured that if it came to it, mother could just nag Jimmy into doing his bit, but Betty was the oldest: watching the baby should be her job. And even though her mother adored Steve, and they were excursing with the permission and implicit approval of both mothers, Betty worried about what she was leaving at home.

But maybe that was why it had felt so important to go along with him on this. Because they had started to worry about this sort of thing: the fares in their pockets, the chores at home. They were both running out of time to be the crazy kids who grabbed the trolley downtown for no real reason, the boy and the girl who got to be friends without having to listen to capital-T-and-italics Talk.

Rather than continue the conversation, Betty and looked away from Steve, only to end up staring at their reflections in the window. She wondered if she shouldn't start wearing lipstick. Her reflection wrinkled its nose at her - more like a bratty kid than a Hollywood starlet. She was taller than Steve, not that she’d ever been anything but. Now she’d started growing, though, the difference was marked. Steve still looked three years younger than he was; if Jimmy had been with them, bystanders might assume she was chaperoning the two of them, rather than two friends of the same age with a little tag-along. 

Meanwhile, Betty was getting older, in time and in body, and these adventures out to the corners of the borough were getting less and less like the adventurous scrapes of a wayward girl, and more an unladylike distraction from things the world told her she should be doing. There would come a time very soon when she’d grow out of socks, and grazed knees would no longer be acceptable – even if she did get them by standing in the way of Steve and the boys he kept trying to pick fights with. They were never coward enough to raise their fists to a girl, but a few of them would push her down out of the way. And then she’d just have to wait until they got bored with dealing out beatings, and she could patch Steve up like she would one of her brothers.

And Steve – Steve, the little shit, he would never stop picking the damned fights even when he knew she'd wade in after him.

He was looking at her. She'd been whistling softly to herself without noticing (The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: “I oughta cross you off my list, but when you come knocking at my door...”) and now she glanced at him, and her smile returned. Goddammit, though, if he didn't make life fun. Sure, she couldn't blame him for all the stupid things she'd done in her life so far, but there was something about that sideways smile – not to mention his constantly simmering righteous anger – that gave her courage when she wanted it.

Home was responsibility and housework and siblings. Steve was freedom and excitement and the city outside the four walls of her apartment. Did she really have to give that up just because she was giving up her undershirt?

Nuts to that: Betty decided to make this ridiculous day trip last as long as she could stretch it to. Jimmy could step up and watch his little brother if they weren’t back.

The two of them were the only passengers when the trolley reached the end of the line. As it rattled to a stop, she raised an eyebrow at Steve, asking him one last time if he was sure about this, but Steve was already heading towards the door, his hand stretched out to her. She grabbed his wrist – her hand still able to close over it completely – and allowed herself to be tugged off onto the sidewalk.

From there, it was just a short walk to Floyd Bennett Field. Steve's hair-brained scheme was this: find a hole in the fence, push their way through, and pretend like they were supposed to be there all along, as a cover for watching actual aircraft up close and personal. His excuse was that he wanted to make sketches for a comic book idea he had, but Betty figured it was actually just because he wanted to do something stupid. She was actually impressed with how poorly thought out it was.

But it was a plan better suited to Steve than to her, as was made clear when he found the expected small hole. Ever the gentleman, he crouched on his hands and knees and scrambled through first, ready to take the full force of the punishment for trespassing just in case. Full of himself and his own chivalry, Steve ignored Betty’s protests until he was already through.

“Steve…”

“It’s clear. Hey, come on through, Bet. This is incredible. I can see all the planes.”

“Steve.” Betty crouched, resting one hand on the dirt, and peered through at him. “Steve, I can’t crawl through this.”

“What? Sure you can. I did.”

“I can’t get through without lying on the floor like you did, and that will ruin my – it’ll ruin everything.”

Betty gestured down, taking in her dress, her socks, her shoes. Day trips out to who-knows-where with Steve, her mother would forgive. Ripping a dress and adding to the darning pile: that would just be something else for Betty to do herself. Steve, obviously, hadn’t thought of that. (And why, she thought sullenly, should he?)

She stood up, almost expecting Steve to come scrambling back through to her. But he just stuck his head back through and looked along the fence.

“You'll have to go in the front.”

“What? No. Steve!”

“No,” Steve said thoughtfully. “It'll be easy. You're smart, and a girl. Just hold your head up and act like you belong.”

“I'll get caught.”

“Com'on, Bet. We can't just go home.”

Betty stood up, and used her heel to pointedly kick dirt into his face to show exactly what she thought of him and his stupid plans.

“Bet!”

She dusted down her coat and dress and used her fingers to comb her curls down. She was here now, and she wasn't going to troop all the way back home  - not when she was so close. Looking a bit more presentable, and maybe not like she just tried to sneak in under a fence, she turned and walked the perimeter, to where the wooden fence gave way to wire, so the splendour of the main buildings could be seen on the approach.

"Hold your head up,” she told herself,  “act like you belong.” And they would just assume she did? She quickly made it a thought rather than a muttered prayer, and walked on, softly whistling Sophie Tucker's I ain't Taking Orders from No One.

At first it looked like it worked: Betty wandered straight through the gate at the front of the field, and past the beautiful red brick and white building with its airport tower looking down on the concrete runways. She kept Steve’s position mentally on her right and walked towards the long, low brick-and-iron building under the sign saying CITY OF NEW YORK DOCKS FLOYD BENNETT FIELD. There, hiding under the steel girders holding up the roof, she could see a variety of planes, and the temptation to get close was strong –Steve was nowhere near this close to the planes, and the smell of oil was surprisingly enticing.

She resisted that urge,  and made herself adopt her best “frustrated sister” scowl – something that with two kid brothers AND Steve, she had a lot of practice in. Wearing it proudly, she marched straight past the hangar, looking around as if she knew who she was looking for and he’d be in trouble when she found him. She told herself a story: she was the daughter of a famous aviator, and had every right to be here, to drag him home to Ma and the babies.

She walked unchallenged past a knot of male pilots laughing in a cloud of cigar smoke, and made it out to the field. There – she realized she couldn’t find Steve at all. He had been right there, she was sure of it: just along the fence, which she realised was farther than she had expected. The planes had distracted her too much.

Rather than give in to looking in any way lost, she leaned against the wall of the hangar and folded her arms, as if waiting patiently for “Pa” to land and join her. Maybe it was a great act, or maybe it was transparent as hell, because after only a few minutes one of the men she had passed came over and stood right next to her.

He was barely a man himself, maybe twenty or younger, but carried a cigar in his mouth under a slick little moustache. He carried goggles and a hood in one hand, but his perfect slicked hair suggested he hadn’t put it on yet today. He gave her a sly smile – not one of Steve's trust-me smirks, but one that suggested he knew more about her than she knew herself, even before saying hello.

“Interested in planes, are you?”

Fully aware that she wouldn’t be able to lie convincingly, Betty gave a noncommittal shrug. “They’re okay.”

“You do know this is a private airfield?”

“Yeah, I know.”

He was looking at her intensely, and Betty found herself struggling to keep from squirming, hoping Steve wasn’t watching in case he got the wrong idea. She didn’t need him coming in and getting into a fight. But she said nothing, waited for the rich guy to continue the conversation.

Surprising her, he looked back over his shoulder to his friends, one of whom raised a challenging eyebrow and nodded meaningfully at Betty. Had they been talking about her?

“Listen…” she started, willing to jump up and run back out, find Steve, get the heck out of here, but he cut her off by raising a finger before removing his cigar and putting it out on the wall next to her.

“You want to learn to fly, is that it?”

Betty stopped short, staring at him. Of all the things, this was the last she expected him to say. He ignored her silence, apparently taking it as agreement.

“No point loitering up the airfield if you’re not going to learn a skill. Come on, I’m sure we’ve got a hood that will fit you.”

She trailed after him into the hangar, arms folded defensively across her chest. “You’re not really gonna teach me to fly?”

“Is that a problem?”

Betty could not shake the feeling that she was being set up for some elaborate prank. She looked over her shoulder at the men whom he had been talking to, and back at the flyboy.

He grinned rakishly at her. “Okay, I admit it. I have an ulterior motive.”

Betty stepped back, her chin rising. “If you lay a finger on me, I will scream, and my man…”

He laughed – outright laughed at her. “Oh, you’re sure to grow up to be a bombshell, but you’re what… sixteen?”

“Fifteen.”

“Even worse. No look, sister. The thing is, I built that plane over there.” He nodded towards a plane Betty couldn’t really distinguish from any others, and continued, “And was just boasting that it handles so smoothly and the controls are so intuitive I could teach anyone to fly it. I’ve got money riding on this, you see.”

Betty narrowed her eyes at him, and carefully looked him up and down. His pants were immaculate, his leather looked new. He dressed like someone who could maybe afford to lose a bet, and the sideways tilt of his moustache looked inclined to agree with that assessment. But then, she looked him in the eyes and thought they looked a little more intelligent than reckless. Like maybe he was only pretending not to care about money, and really didn't particularly want to lose. Betty thought over her options. She could call him on his obvious bullshit, gather Steve up and get the trolley home in time to help with dinner.

Or she could play along, maybe get into trouble, but maybe actually fly an actual airplane.

It wasn’t a tough decision, when it came down to it.

“The name’s Stark, by the way,” her would-be tutor announced while in the process of finding her the promised flight jacket. “Howard. What do I call you, Bombshell?”

“Betty,” she said blankly, and quickly added: “Elizabeth Ross Barnes. Everyone calls me Betty.”

“Patriots, your folks?”

Betty shrugged, decided not to mention her sister's middle name was Washington.

Stark handed her a jacket, gave her a long look over, apparently trying to fit the name to the girl in front of him. Then he turned and strode out to the field, leaving her to follow behind him.

The cockpit was small, even though it was apparently designed for two people with the seats arranged one behind the other. When Betty sat in the front seat and craned her neck to look behind, she wondered where exactly Mr. Stark’s legs were going to go. With a moment of shock, she realised that the only way he could fit would be for each of his calves to go either side of her own hips. That, combined with the fact that she’d had to hitch her skirt up two inches to get around the joystick between her knees, made her wonder exactly how stupid she was being.

But Stark didn’t sit in just yet, and nor did he give any impression of wanting to prey on headstrong and careless young women. He knelt on top of the wing from which he’d just helped Betty climb into the cockpit, and leaned over her shoulder to point at the instrument panel in front of her. He smelled of pomade and cigarette smoke - not exactly the same brand as her father’s, and probably with some cologne mixed in. Most of all, though, he smelled of gasoline.

“Okay, pay attention, because it’s going to be harder to point this out in the air,” he said, his smirk and jovial tone replaced by something serious, but passionate. “Air speed indicator, altimeter, gyro compass, attitude indicator, turn-and-slip, artificial horizon.” With each title, he tapped at one of the dials on the panel with his index finger, with no pause in between to explain what any of these things meant.

“What?” Betty said when he was done.

He went over them again, this time much more slowly.

It was complicated and made no natural sense, and in the fifteen or so minutes it took to talk her through the ‘simple, intuitive’ controls, she almost walked away. But then he was climbing in behind her and she was concentrating so hard she didn't care about his legs either side of hers. And then they were racing down the runway, and when the air seemed to scoop her up by her wings and throw her into another world, Betty’s breath caught in her throat. Half a second later she was caught by something heavy, something solid, which she suddenly realised was the air underneath the plane wings, and her breath came back to her.

The next thing she heard was her own laughter, and then Mr Stark’s, which broke off sharply as she almost crashed the rotten thing.

“Holy shit!” She probably said that five or six times on her first flight. Later she wouldn't remember saying anything else.

But she was still laughing, out of exhilaration but also out of fear and embarrassment, half an hour later when she came tumbling down to a rough but safe landing.

And Steve was standing by the runway, red faced and wheezing from chasing them down.

“What were you thinking?” He didn't give himself anytime to see if Betty was actually okay, but lunged past her to Stark. Betty stepped between them immediately

“Steve.”

“He almost got you killed!”

Steve.”

It took a second to calm him down, and she worried that time that his asthma would show itself. But he did calm, and looked a lot less like he was going to try and kill Stark (and her) right in front of his flyboy friends.

Stark seemed to think this amusing, but he addressed Betty next, not Steve, saying the second most surprising thing he'd said to her all day.

“Actually, kiddo, you’re a natural,” he said, sounding half surprised himself. “What’d you say about coming back?”

Betty flushed hotly. “I can’t,” she said quickly. “I mean, thank you, Mr. Stark, you’ve no idea what this means to me, but I can’t do this regular. I could never have the time. Or…”

Or the money.

She flushed hotter, wishing that Steve wasn’t here to see this, but wishing more than they weren’t still being watched by rich strangers. Did anyone have the money these days to lounge around learning to fly? Apparently some people did. Betty didn’t have the slightest idea how much it cost to learn, but she expected it was more than it cost to feed her family of six.

“That’s a shame,” Stark said. “See, I need to train up a new mechanic as well, and I don’t want any of the greasemonkeys around here messing things up by doing it the wrong way. And I thought, if I taught you to fly, I could have a mechanic who knew what they felt like in the air and on the ground. That way, you could pay your own way and I’d have a useful spanner around.”

She stared at him. He smirked back.

“And of course I’d pay you for your time as well. As much as you’d earn working in a store or a factory.”

Steve cut in: “No. You pay her what you’d pay any of your mechanics.”

Amused, Stark raised an eyebrow at Betty. Despite herself, she shrugged and smirked widely.

“Watch it. He will fight you if he has to.”

“Alright,” Stark conceded after a second. “I’ll pay you a trainee mechanic’s wage. For the time you spend on the ground. Flight hours happen in your own time. Think about it.”

Betty gave one last glance to the plane, and grabbed Steve by the wrist again, pulling him away without another word. She was so scared the word would be ‘yes.’

 


She did the sensible thing and brought the subject up with her parents over dinner. And then looked at her father expectantly, waiting for him to bring her back down safely to the ground.

He chewed on his meat and he looked at his wife.

“Well?” he asked finally. “Can you spare her, Edith?”

“What?” asked Betty.

Her mother ignored her in favour of answering her father. “It means leaving school, of course. But the money wouldn’t do much harm.”

“What?” Betty repeated.

Steve, who had also been expecting a firm no – who had spent the journey home talking Betty into expecting a ‘no,’ – looked up, caught her eye, and smiled.

“I’ll go along if you want, keep an eye on her.”

Jimmy scoffed: “Really think you’re going to protect her honour, Steve?”

Betty reached over and hit Jimmy in the arm hard enough that he yelped in complaint.

Elizabeth!” Her mother snapped it instinctively, but went on to address Steve: “Don’t be silly, Steve. You stay in school or your Ma will have our heads. But, Betty.”

Now she turned to her daughter, leaning forward across the table with a raised fork.

“You’re a grown woman now, my girl, and you’ve got enough sense between your ears not to let this Stark fellow turn your head. You are going to learn a skill, remember? And earn a wage. You’re not playing at being Amelia Earhart. Engines first, flying when he says you can.”

Betty realised she was staring when her father cleared his throat.

“Answer your mother, girl.”

“Yes, Ma.”

“And you don’t slack off your chores around here.”

“No, Ma.”

“But it’s about time Jimmy pulled his own weight.”

Ma.” That was Jimmy.

“Yes, Ma.” Betty was grinning so hard she was almost laughing.

“And it’s a long ride on the trolley, so you’d better get to bed early so you’re up in time to tell Mr. Stark you’re taking him up on it, and for god’s sake thank him kindly.”

“Yes, Ma.”

 


It was even earlier than expected when her mother actually shook her awake, having lit a lamp by the window to supplement the oncoming dawn.

“Ma?”

“Now don’t start getting silly on me,” said her mother, sitting Betty down heavily in a chair. “But I thought I couldn’t let my daughter go off to work without her face on.”

Betty blinked at her through the sleep weighing on her eyes, but didn’t think to object on the grounds that mechanics probably ended up covered in grease anyway.

This was it. This was the woman Betty Barnes was going to become: greasemonkey and flygirl. She’d happily wear make up for that.