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Christmas in Connecticut

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“He’s a fine soldier,” Phillips said, and Peggy tilted her head to look out to where Sergeant Barnes was, for the second time today, walking towards the mess tent.

“He’ll collapse if he keeps this up,” she said, because Barnes showed up three days ago with dozens of international soldiers. It’d been a mess of paperwork trying to figure out who went where, and which letters needed to be either recalled or followed up with a ‘mistakes happen—there’s a war on’ letter.

“He’ll be fine,” Philips dismissed.

James Buchanan Barnes smiled, laughed, and was the picture of the perfect soldier when anyone was looking at him, and stared, blank and deadened, when nobody was. He was like a toy soldier, one of those wind-up ones.

“He needs to go home,” she said. “Faster than procedure.”

Philips looked at her, and then to Barnes, who’d tilted his face up at the sky, frozen, eyes closed. The American in the bowler hat, the one with the ridiculous mustache, clapped him on the shoulder and unfroze him, and the two head into mess.

“I got a letter here,” he said. “One of those programs that wants to host soldiers for Christmas.”

He dug around in his desk, and Peggy thought that at least if they were ever taken by the enemy, Philips’ desk would be impossible to decipher. He held an envelope to her.

“Oh my God,” Peggy said as she read it, laughter welling up in her throat. Henry Stone, publisher at large, had hand-written an invitation for one brave serviceman to spend Christmas with Stephanie Rogers, the most wonderful cook in America, on her beautiful Connecticut farm. She wondered if Stephanie knew about this yet, and smiled at Philips.

“I think Sergeant Barnes deserves a quiet Christmas, sir,” she said. “Don’t you?”

***

“He did what?”

“I know, I only just found out about it,” Maria said. She threw herself down in one of Stephanie's eight rocking chairs, her mink coat fluffing up around her, her perfectly curled black hair resting gently on her flushed cheek. Maria was very lovely, Stephanie’d always thought, right when she’d been about to murder someone. She was distracted from the pure bliss of murderous rage by the chair rocking, and she huffed in exasperation. “For God’s sake, Steph, how many of these do you need?”

“I didn’t realize that saying I was searching for a rocking chair would mean people would send them to me,” Stephanie said. “With notes attached about how they rocked their children to sleep in them. Apparently, if I’m looking for a rocking chair, it must mean my husband and I are expecting. Everyone in my building has one now, and Mrs. McCarthy is giving each of her daughters one for Christmas, and I don’t know what else to do with them. I suppose we could make a bonfire.”

“And yet apparently I don’t merit one,” Maria sighed, as though she hadn’t just redone her own apartment in lovely blue and cream furniture, dragging Stephanie all over the city in search of just the right tables, lamps, and rugs. “Seriously, though, Stephanie. Mr. Stone invited a soldier to come and spend Christmas with you on your farm, with your husband, and apparently one’s been found.”

“A husband or a soldier?” Stephanie asked, and then, “Stone thinks I live on a farm in Connecticut.”

“Well,” Maria said, plucking at her gloves and not looking up. “He's such a boor about the truth, as though that sells papers, but he's the one who wanted more of a human-interest angle to your articles.”

She felt she didn’t need to point out that the “quaint” details about a farm in Connecticut had been all Maria’s idea, as was going by “Mrs” because no one wanted to listen to a “Miss” about housekeeping. Instead, Stephanie put down her pencil carefully and leaned back in her rocker to stare Maria down, no small feat. Even sitting, Maria was a good couple of inches taller than Stephanie, who hadn’t managed to pass 4’10. Still, years of experience and years of enduring her own mother’s terrible stare gave Stephanie an edge that Maria lacked.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, how was I to know he’d do something so foolish?” she demanded. “Honestly.”

Maria Carbonell had been Stephanie’s agent for the past two years, and she was one of her dearest friends. She was a fast-talking, glamorous woman who took no shit, and two weeks ago there was a rumor going around that when Skip Calloway got a little fresh at the holiday party, Maria had taken off one of her delicate gloves and clawed him across the face and sent him home to his wife. Where Stephanie was skinny, skin so pale it was translucent in the depths of winter, Maria was tall and lithesome, with huge dark eyes and beautiful hair. It had been years since Stephanie had felt self-conscious about her looks, but sometimes she wished that she had whatever it was Maria had that allowed her to pull off a mink coat in quite that way.

More important than all of that, Maria was good at her job, and because of her Stephanie’s column made weekly appearances in dozens of newspapers across the country, and she had a monthly pseudo-diary column in Stone’s best-selling Smart Housekeeping Magazine, helping wives and mothers make good food in spite of rationing. Her mother always said that growing up poor would do her soul good, but she doesn’t know that Sara Rogers meant quite like this. Stephanie had a nice apartment, could afford her medication and doctors appointments, and she knew a lot of that she owed to Maria.

Obviously the agent of her rise should be the agent of her downfall.

“Well what am I supposed to do about it?” Stephanie demanded.

“What’s the problem?” Howard asked from the doorway, and Stephanie allowed himself one brief moment to mourn the farce that was her life, and turned around to glare at Howard Stark.

“Stephanie, honey, darling, don’t look at me like that. I can’t bear it if I think you’re unhappy with me.”

“Stephanie, if you cry and tell him it’s his fault maybe he’ll kill himself and we’ll all be released from our misery,” Maria said, and Howard pretended to startle.

“Miss Carbonell,” he said, smooth and charming and greasy as an oil slick. “For a moment I thought you must be a painting.”

“What are you doing here, Howard?” Maria asked, standing up and lifting one of her perfectly arched brows. “Did you come to propose again? I promise, I can shut you down just like Stephanie can, only I’ll enjoy it so much more.”

Howard grinned at her. “You wound me. Darling,” he said to Stephanie, who had sort of hoped they’d forget she was here, “she’s so cruel, how can you stand it?”

“I thought you weren’t going to be in the city until tonight,” Stephanie said, ignoring them. Howard tilted into her space, fond and familiar as he put his hand on her back, dropping an absent kiss to her forehead.

“This way I get to spend more time with you. And help you out of whatever jam the two of you have gotten yourselves into.”

“I’ve been pushed into this jam,” Stephanie said. “This jam isn’t my fault.”

Howard shot her a frankly insulting skeptical look. If, if Stephanie was more frequently in a jam than anyone else she knew, it was only because her friends were more terrible than anyone else’s.

“My publisher,” Stephanie relented, “wants me to host a soldier for Christmas.”

“That sounds like a fine idea so far,” Howard said. “What’s the catch?”

“You know how—“

“Mr. Stone is under the impression that Stephanie actually lives in Connecticut, on a farm,” Maria interrupted. “The Christmas celebration isn’t going to be here, in Stephanie’s apartment, it’s going to be on the farm. With her husband.”

“The one you don’t have,” Howard clarified, tugging on the end of that abominable mustache of his. The last time he proposed, Stephanie told him she’d accept only if Howard agreed to be mustache-free for their entire marriage, as Stephanie has delicate skin. Howard had said that Stephanie would grow to love the mustache, and to shave it off now would be unkind.

“Look, Stephanie, he wants to meet with you,” Maria said. “Which is what I was going to tell you, before we were interrupted.”

“Well, I’ll just tell him,” Stephanie said. I’ll just tell him that—he’ll fire me, won’t he.”

“And me,” Maria said.

“Hang you,” Howard dismissed. “Stephanie, you do your painting, it’s not as though you don’t have a fall-back plan. And if it comes to that, I hear you have a handsome, dashing beau who isn’t what you’d call poor.”

“Good, do you know his number, I’ll have to get in touch with this man,” Maria said.

Howard looked at her and smiled, sighing hugely. “Miss Carbonell,” he said, “If I thought you’d give me the time of day, I might throw over Stephanie here and devote myself to worshipping the ground you stand on.”

“Vile,” hissed Maria, taking a full step back.

“This,” Stephanie told them, sliding off his stool and reaching for his coat, “is better than any show in town. You two should go into business.”

“What are you going to tell him?” Maria asked. “Just—tell him your husband is very private and that you were planning on traveling for the holiday, to spend it with your husband’s family. Or—tell him your husband is deathly ill. Typhoid. For God’s sake, tell him you’ve got Scarlet Fever. We don’t even know that would be a lie—you might yet come down with it, after all, it’s a holiday”

“Typhoid,” Stephanie agreed, pulling on her scarf and reaching for her hat and gloves. The gloves were the only gift she’d ever kept from Howard: warm, fleece-lined leather, fine and buttery and indecently decadent.

“I do feel a bit feverish,” Howard said as Stephanie headed for the door.

“God doesn’t love me enough for you to have typhoid,” Maria said flatly. “Ring when you’re on your way back, Stephanie, we’ll have drinks.”

Stephanie wondered how long it would take them to realize they were alone in her apartment.

***

Henry Stone was an enormous man, the kind of man who thought nothing of letting food spoil in his icebox and using his influence to get more than his share of ration. Stephanie had no doubt, within three seconds of meeting him, that the entire motivation for this whole fiasco was so that Stone could drum up more subscriptions and good press.

She sat, hands clenched tightly together in her lap, in Stone’s enormous office. It was designed, she knew, to make even very large men feel small, and so the effect was a little overwhelming, and everything in her was furious.

“Mr. Stone, of course there’s nothing I’d rather do than invite—“

“Excellent, Mrs. Rogers, I knew you’d feel that way! Poor young man was a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp for several months, and you can just imagine how he must long to experience your fine American cooking in the company of decent, honest Americans.”

“Well, yes, but you see, I—“

“Oh, your cooking, Mrs. Rogers! I follow your columns faithfully, you know.” He levered himself up from his seat, his great booming voice too loud for even the large room, walking around the desk to stand near Stephanie. It was classic: see me, I am a man, and I know what’s best for you little women. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world—your husband is a terribly lucky man. Your Christmas menu, you know—“

“Yes, but—“

“No no, don’t worry your head about it, Mrs. Rogers. Ah, Doris, yes, please send a telegram to Miss Carter and tell her that Mrs. Rogers will be delighted to host Sergeant Barnes.”

“Mr. Stone, there’s something you should—Miss Peggy Carter?” Stephanie demanded, momentarily derailed.

“Yes, she’s the liaison for the unit the lad’s out of. Fine woman, I’m sure.”

Stephanie was going to murder Peggy. “Mr. Stone, I really have to tell you—“

“Nonsense, I’m sure everything will be wonderful! And of course, it’ll be a boon for circulation: ‘American Hero Home for the Holidays’—what do you think of that?”

“It’s very nice, sir, but—“

“But nothing! Of course, we’ll have to arrange a bonus for you, as we’re putting you out at the holiday. Oh, no, I know, you’re not doing it for any mercenary reason! You’re a fine upstanding American woman and wife, doing your patriotic duty gladly. It’s one of the reasons I’m so pleased to have you on our staff. Still! Think of it as my way of expressing that pleasure.”

Something in his face indicated that he’d like to express his pleasure in another way, and Stephanie thought wildly that if she punched him in the face, then maybe that would call this whole mad thing off.

Instead she found herself ushered out of the office and halfway out of the house before she realized that she hadn’t managed to use the typhoid line.

“Mrs. Rogers,” the butler said. “Is everything all right?”

Stephanie looked at him and said, “It will be.”

Only Mr. Stone was coming out of the office as Stephanie was headed back in, and he beamed, gripping her arm. “Oh, Mrs. Rogers! I know just what you’re going to say, and of course I accept!”

Stephanie stared at him blankly. “What? I mean—what?”

“You were going to invite me to Christmas Dinner, were you not?”

“I—“

“You really are the most thoughtful little thing,” Mr. Stone crooned, patting her shoulder.

***

“—meat goes such a long way when one makes a stew. A fresh loaf of bread, and you’ll be sure to keep your family healthy and satisfied,” Bucky finished reading with a flourish.

Dugan stared at him. “That’s awful.”

“It’s not—that bad,” Bucky argued. His ma read these kinds of articles, sometimes, to get new ideas about what to do with the same old ingredients.

“Don’t get me wrong, Sarge,” Dugan said, “Anything that gets you the fuck out of here, I’m all for.”

“I don’t see why I can’t go see my family, instead of some woman I don’t know and her husband. That seems funny. If anyone should be an awkward third wheel, it should be Dernier. The French are into that kind of shit.”

“Not as good a story if the poor soldier isn’t an American war hero,” Dugan said somberly, pressing his hat to his chest. The only reason Bucky didn’t throw something at him is a) the only thing nearby was the magazines and clippings Agent Carter gave him and told him study, and b) Bucky had a strict policy of ignoring Dum-Dum as much as humanly possible.

The thing was, Stephanie Rogers seemed like she was okay. Her recipes sounded good, she was earnest about the war effort without being preachy or sermonizing, and she could be wicked and funny—it was kind of sly, but it was there. Not like some of those magazines his ma read, where the women talked about their sparkling kitchens and joy of being them.

It’d been nine months since Bucky’s last leave, when he’d gotten back from Africa only to be shipped off to Europe. He wanted to see his family, to half-sit on Billy during midnight Mass because otherwise he wouldn’t stay still, wake up far too early because it was Christmas morning, and there were presents and Ma’s best spread breakfast to be had, and it seemed impossible to miss even a moment of that.

Last Christmas he’d been in the Egyptian desert, and it had been so warm, and painted gold and yellow and brown, that it seemed impossible that Christmas could be happening anywhere. It was easier to ignore when nothing seemed familiar.

“I’m going to be less than a hundred miles—three whole hours—from home,” Bucky said, throwing down the invitation, “on Christmas, and stuck with someone else’s happy family. I have to come into New York and then go down to Connecticut, and then turn around and hope I get to Brooklyn before I come back.”

“Well, Sarge,” Dugan said bracingly, “I always said your life was a special brand of shit.”

***

“Well, that’s that,” Maria said, staring at her cocktail. “We’re fired. How could you let him invite himself to Christmas, Stephanie?”

“I felt like a puppet, I opened my mouth, he talked,” Stephanie groaned, putting her head down on her arm. “I’m supposed to send him the address tonight.”

“What address?” Howard asked.

“The one to my farm in Connecticut,” Stephanie said, and felt the stem of a glass press against her fingertips. She raised her head to stare at the martini for a second before deciding she might as well be drunk for this.

“I was under the impression that to take you out of New York would give you fits, darling,” Howard said dryly.

“All the fresh air would probably kill me,” Stephanie agreed, only half-joking. The fact that Stephanie was 23 was something of a miracle: Doc Cushings said at this rate she’d probably outlive everyone, now that she’d managed to survive her childhood.

“As pretty a picture as this is,” Howard said, “the two of you, beautiful and crushed, it makes me want to be your white knight.”

“Howard, I say this with all sincerity,” Maria said, waving for another drink, “go jump off the Chrysler Building.”

Stephanie lifted herself up enough to work on her drink, chewing the olive sullenly.

“I have a farm in Connecticut,” Howard announced into the melancholy silence.

Maria and Stephanie stared at him, and Howard smiled, relaxing against the bar. “And nothing to do this Christmas but play the white knight. Darling, marry me? Mr. Stone will get his Christmas, you’ll get your article, the soldier will get his all-American holiday, and Ms. Carbonell will keep her job, for whatever that’s worth.”

“Howard, I’m not mar—ow!” Maria’s long nails dug deeper into Stephanie’s hand, and Howard watched, looking amused.

“She’d love to. Of course, I’ll come with you.”

“As what?” Stephanie demanded. “My spinster sister? And Howard, that’s very kind of you, real decent, but Stone won’t keep a secret, and it’ll be all over his papers that you and I are married, which isn’t the kind of story you—”

“Please,” Howard scoffed. “You’ve been my excuse for avoiding marriage for years, and you know it. No, come on. I won’t hear excuses, but I do have to ring up my housekeeper. You’ll like her, Stephanie, she’s Irish.”

He darted off through the crowd to go use the phone, and Stephanie said absently, “Do you think he thinks, because his housekeeper is Irish and my mother was Irish, that we’re related?” before she turned to glower at Maria.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “This saves both of us, and you know Howard actually does care for you, in his own way. I’ll come along so he can’t do anything like try to actually marry you, and if I’m a relative then the poor soldier won’t feel quite so awkward—imagine going to a couple’s home for the holiday. You’d feel like such an intrusion.”

“Mr. Stone will be there.”

“Well, I’ll be there to manage him, too,” she decided, tapping the base of Stephanie’s glass with a long fingernail. “Drink up, my love. You’ve got two weeks to resign yourself to being Mrs. Howard Stark.”

***

The journey home was long and painful. If he was lucky, they’d get to New York just outside a week, but because he wasn’t lucky, it was possible he was going to spend Christmas on this godforsaken boat.

He found a few other kids headed home, mostly the ship was for POWs being sent to the camps spread across the midwest, but he taught Pete Riley, from who-the-fuck-knows Wisconsin to play poker, and then to cheat when it became clear that he was going to get fleeced.

“You tell him it’s cheating?” Bill Lake asked. Lake was 35, missing an arm, and headed back to his wife and the son he hadn’t met yet.

“Would he be doing it if I had?” Bucky asked, and Lake laughed and said,

“You’re such an asshole, Barnes.”

Everyone was talking about what they were going home to, how excited they were it was before Christmas, and Bucky kept his grin up just as long as he had to. He was tired all the damn time, but every time he dreamed he was back on that goddamn table, and—

And he was 25 years old and he wanted his goddamn mother to tell him everything was going to be fine and his father to agree and he wanted—he wanted to make sure Dernier was going to be okay, and that Jones was actually going to go to that school he’d been talking everyone’s ear off about.

He wanted to go home, and he felt like he was abandoning the men he was leaving behind, and on nights when the Atlantic tossed them about he closed his eyes and thought about his family, and how his ma would be so mad at him if he got this close to getting back to her, only to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic.

***

It was just as well they’d had two weeks to prepare, because in the intervening time, Henry Stone contacted Senator Brant, and two or three other Congressmen. Howard had made some inquiries, and it seemed they just had the general idea—Stephanie Rogers would be hosting a war hero for Christmas, and of course now it was more than just Stephanie and Maria trying to keep their jobs. Now it was a national story.

A courier caught them just as they were leaving for the train, and it wasn’t until they were safely en route that Stephanie opened the envelope. There was a card on top of the papers, scrawled in Peggy’s handwriting:

You’re welcome.

Peggy was in a war zone, so obviously Stephanie didn’t wish her harm. She just didn’t wish her well, either.

The papers were a highly-edited summary of one Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes.

Aged 25, had signed up right after Pearl Harbor and done a tour in Africa, and then Europe before being captured for several months before escaping. At war for three years, then, Stephanie realized, and Peggy was sending him home quickly because of that time as a POW, though of course she couldn’t say that, and Stephanie couldn’t say how she knew it. She wondered how badly he was hurt, though she supposed if there was any sort of necessity it would be here—if he couldn’t eat meat or dairy or required frequent rest.

There was nothing to that effect, though she thought she might encourage Howard to keep things quiet—oh. He was from Brooklyn.

She wondered where—if they had been neighbors, or if he had family. She hoped he didn’t: it would be terrible to have to be so close and yet so far from them on Christmas. If he did, she’d find a way to get him to them, provided that was what he wanted. Maybe he didn’t like his family, Maria certainly didn’t like hers.

She wished Peggy had sent her a photo, though. Not that it would matter, of course.

She tucked everything back away into her luggage and watched out the window as New York faded into Connecticut, and thought, Oh God, I’ve got to be married to Howard.

As it happened, Stoneleigh, Connecticut, was absolutely beautiful. There was at least two feet of snow on the ground, and though there were several cars around, most people seemed to be getting about on horse-drawn sleighs. Howard had one waiting for Maria and Stephanie, and Stephanie watched was the houses melted away the further they got from the center of town. It was idyllic, like time moved on everywhere but here. The war even seemed far away: at home the blue and gold stars were everywhere, a noticeable lack of men on the streets and women in factory garb with dirt and oil grit under their fingernails. Here it seemed—like all that was terribly, terribly far away.

“I hate this,” Maria said quietly, pressed tightly next to Stephanie, a heavy blanket draped over their laps. She gripped Stephanie’s gloved hand in hers. “It’s so quiet, it seems impossible.”

“Howard wouldn’t know how to keep a quiet house if his life depended on it,” Stephanie said.

“I never thought I’d see the day I’d be grateful to Howard Stark,” Maria admitted, smiling.

Stephanie always thought that if Howard had met Maria first, and not Stephanie, they’d already be married. It wouldn’t be a quiet, settled marriage, but one of those explosive ones, ranging across all of Howard’s many houses, but they’d be happy.

Stephanie met Howard in 1942, when she took a job as secretary for Dr. Abraham Erskine, who was working on Project Rebirth for the SSR. For four months, Stephanie, Howard, and Peggy Carter had been thick as thieves, and then the war had come to Brooklyn, and it all fell apart. Peggy had gone overseas, and though Stephanie wrote to her dutifully, most of her letters were either redacted or terse telegrams like,

S.
Still alive weather is bloody bloody
Yours, P.

Howard, only nominally affiliated with the US Government inasmuch as he wanted to be, had made space for himself in Stephanie’s life. Howard was brash and prone to distraction, but he had been the one to lift Stephanie away from Erskine’s bloodied body, had pulled out his handkerchief and wiped away the blood, and it had been Howard who had handled the funeral arrangements—or Howard’s staff, really. Howard had taken Stephanie out on the town, and once or twice Stephanie had let Howard take her to California, only because she’d always wondered what it looked like. Sometimes Stephanie’s face wound up on the society pages as “Mr. Howard Stark’s date”, but that was fine. Howard liked it because he was just seen with Stephanie just frequently enough to be courting him and off-limits to the women looking to snare him, and infrequently enough that he could date whomever he wanted.

In spite of himself, Howard Stark was a good man, which was why Stephanie wasn’t beating him about the head when he lifted her up and said, “Darling, let me carry you across the threshold!”

“You’re a horrible, horrible man,” Maria said, and Howard laughed and put Stephanie down just inside the door, heading back out to hand Maria down from the sleigh and escorting her inside.

The house itself was large and sprawling, a kind of manor, in reality, not the cottage Stephanie had written about, but she supposed that she could pass it off as a figure of speech, if pressed.

“Go on upstairs,” Howard said. “Kathleen’s drawn baths for you both, and Stephanie there’s a whole wardrobe for you.”

“I brought a trunk,” Stephanie said.

“Yes, darling,” he agreed. “I’m going to burn everything in it.”

“Howard,” she snapped, and he said,

“Honestly, honey, my wife wouldn’t wear what you wear. I also have a ring for you, ask Kathleen, she’ll have it.”

“He has a point,” Maria said, smiling slightly. “Howard Stark’s wife is more of a furs and diamonds kind of girl.”

“And yet I’m the one stuck playing his bride,” Stephanie snapped, and headed upstairs.

Outfitted in the clothes one of Howard’s secretaries had picked out, she doesn’t feel like herself. Maggie, one of the maids, had done up her hair, and dithered over shades of red before picking one that she promised wouldn’t make Stephanie look like a dead thing with a bloody lip.

The woman in the mirror was very fine, hair brushed and shiny, somehow, a pale gold. The blue dress fit perfectly, in the way dresses so rarely did, even after she’d altered them, and gave the illusion of hips, and breasts, and a shapely figure instead of that of a prepubescent child.

“You are lovely,” Maria said from the doorway.

“She’s right,” Maggie agreed, pulling away. “Lovely.”

There was a diamond at her throat, and diamonds in her ears, and a heavy, obnoxious diamond on her left ring finger.

“And yet I feel like a burglar,” she said. “What if I lose one of these?”

“That just means I’ve stolen it and am laughing my way from the jeweler's,” Maria dismissed. “Come on, I want to see Howard’s face. It’s so rare that he goes silent, I want to savor it.”

“Ah, Darling!” Howard said as she came downstairs, and his eyes did bug a little, but Stephanie was distracted by the man beside him, dressed in his army brown uniform, under his arm.

“Oh my God,” Maria muttered, and Stephanie couldn’t help agree.

“Meet Sergeant James Barnes. His train got in earlier than expected,” Howard said, and it wasn’t until Maria poked her in the back that Stephanie was able to finish walking down the stairs. “Sergeant Barnes, my wife, Stephanie Stark, and her sister, Miss Maria Carbonell.”

Sergeant Barnes smiled at her. “I thought your name was Rogers,” he said.

“Oh—that’s my—maiden name,” Stephanie said, and prayed that she wasn’t as red as she felt like she was.

Sergeant Barnes’ eyes flicked in question to Maria.

“Maria’s actually my cousin,” Stephanie said. “We were raised together, you see, and so we’re as close as sisters, and it’s so easy to forget how confusing things can be to people who aren’t family.”

If Sergeant James Barnes was buying any of this, Stephanie would eat her shoes.

***

Stephanie Rogers—Stark?—wasn’t at all what he’d expected. Bucky had expected a forty- or fifty-something matron, built like a battle-ax, not a tiny slip of a girl, all delicate bone structure and pale like sunlight in the middle of winter.

He also hadn’t expected her to be Howard Stark’s wife. Howard Stark, who only last month had been photographed in the embraced of a USO chorus girl (or two, depending on how you rotated that particular picture).

“I’m so pleased to meet you both,” he said. “Thanks so much for inviting me into your home.”

“Oh, it was no trouble,” Mrs. Stark said, smiling. Her sister—cousin?—was a tall, movie-star looking woman, all curves and arched eyebrow and Bucky thought she could be fun.
“Mr. Stark? Mr. Henry Stone,” the butler announced, making way for what might have been the most enormous man Bucky had ever seen in real life. His suit was all tailored, but he was tall and wide and if Howard Stark gleamed like a sports car, this man had the sort of entrenched staunchness of old money.

“Mr. Stark—“ Mr. Stone said, frowning. “I—I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Stark, I believe—“

“Mr. Stone, welcome to our home,” Stark said, smiling and drawing Mrs. Stark against him. She went easily enough, though she seemed more amused to be there than comfortable, or even happy. What the hell was going on?

“Your—but Mrs. Rogers—“ He frowned, pointing one beefy finger between them accusingly.

“My pen name,” Mrs. Stark said. “You’ll forgive me not correcting you, Mr. Stone, it’s just that I’m so used to using it around people in the newspaper business.”

“She’s a silly little thing sometimes, my missus,” Stark agreed.

Miss Carbonell’s look flickered to pure murder for just an instant before smoothing back into polite vapidity.

What the fuck was happening.

“Oh, of course!” Stone said, chortling loudly, as though the follies of women were to be enjoyed and dismissed. Winifred Barnes would have knocked this man into next week with her frying pan and then sent Alice and Becca to finish the job. It was kind of a nice mental image, and Bucky let himself enjoy it.

“And of course,” Mrs. Stark was saying, and she moved from her husband’s embrace to put a hand on Bucky’s forearm, smiling, “this is Sergeant Barnes.”

“Entirely proud to meet you, young man. Very proud, indeed,” Stone said, pumping his hand. Bucky smiled at him the way he’d smiled at officers who were fucking morons, and figured he could afford to do it, because Stephanie Rogers still hadn’t let go of his other arm, and seemed to be squeezing it in solidarity.

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Stone,” he lied. Mrs. R—Stark tilted her head down to the ground and touched at her lipstick, as though that would hide her smile. He caught her eye when she looked up and winked. Stone, of course, was oblivious. Obviously the kind of man who only saw people when he needed something from them. Mrs. Stark flushed the prettiest shade of pink Bucky had ever seen, and still hadn’t moved away from him.

Sure didn’t act much like a married lady.

***

Dinner was a fascinating affair. It was obvious that, for whatever reason, Howard Stark and Henry Stone didn’t like each other. Stark kept making these digs about Stone’s publications, and Stone kept on alluding to some people’s pasts.

Bucky turned to Mrs. Stark. “I always wondered,” he said, “How did you start writing?”

“Oh,” she said. “Actually, it’s Maria—she’s my agent, you see, and I was just writing for the local paper, but she saw it and there was a need. People who hadn’t ever dealt with cooking without things like sugar suddenly having to, and I grew up without, so I already knew all the tricks.” She smiled, and it lit up her whole face, and Bucky couldn’t help smiling back at her.

“So she’s your cousin and your agent?”

“Well,” Mrs. Stark prevaricated, glancing at the other end of the table and leaning into him a little. “Mr. Stone doesn’t know that, because we worried he might have ideas about nepotism.”

She was a godawful liar, Bucky thought fondly. Alice had been a better liar when she’d been two.

“Oh, of course,” he said, and she shot him a narrow-eyed look of suspicion. Bucky was a very good liar, and so he just smiled at her.

“Yes, and I’m sure the chorus girls were very grateful to ride around in your car,” Miss Carbonell was saying to Stark. “Right up until it stopped working.”

“My cars are a modern marvel,” Stark said, glancing at her

“A modern marvel of junk,” she agreed. “You’re too busy trying to make them fly—“

“Miss Carbonell, I worry about your lack of imagination,” Stark said seriously, widening his eyes. “Do you think that that might be why you’re having such trouble attracting a—?”

“I saw your flying car at the expo,” Bucky interrupted, because he had a feeling if he didn’t step in Maria Carbonell was going to take Stark by the hair and slam his face into the fine china until he stopped moving. Mrs. Stark, who inhaled at the exact moment he started talking, looked at him with a smile, like he was some kind of white knight.

“Didn’t exactly go as planned,” Stark admitted. “Honestly there’s very little time for pet projects nowadays.”

He turned to Miss Carbonell with something like a leer, and she lifted her chin, prepared to give as good as she got, when they were interrupted.

“Good for innovation, though,” Stone pronounced. “Deuced good for the economy. You know, I know men who were on the brink of ruin, and then this all broke out—Stark, you must be profiting handsomely off of it, can’t say it’s hurting your pockets. And my God, circulation is up, up, up; the public is ravenous for information, and so it’s a good time to be in the business of news.”

Bucky could feel himself freezing, the rage burning in his gut the freezing kind, like last March when they’d been stuck in the Goddamn trenches and Private Rivers had frozen to death without a word, and Caldwell had lost three toes, and the burning cold of that examination table under Bucky’s skin—

Mrs. Stark’s small hand wrapped around his clenched fist and she squeezed. “Howard doesn’t think of it as profiting,” she said, and her voice was strong and furious. “Not when there are good men laying down their lives—too many boys not coming home. He’s dedicated Stark Industries to doing everything he can for the war, no matter the cost to his fortunes. There will be time later, when everyone is home, to think of profit.”

Stone huffed a small laugh, as though the opinion of a woman was a silly little thing, and Howard said—something, Bucky wasn’t paying attention, because she still hadn’t lifted her hand from his.

“Maybe I’ll quit,” she muttered. “There are other papers.”

“They all think the same way,” Bucky said, finding his voice at last. He carefully slid his hand out from under hers, because she was someone else’s wife, and had just defended her husband, and she wasn’t his to take comfort from. “It’s unusual for your husband to think otherwise.”

“Oh,” she said with a sly look, “I mean, he’d never be so gauche as Stone—he’d never say it—but I don’t know that it hurts Howard’s feelings he’s making money. I think, actually, he likes being necessary.”

That, Bucky understood. It had been a terrible thing, but sometimes being relied upon was the only thing that kept you going.

“That’s not such a bad thing,” he said. Mrs. Stark smiled at him.

“No, I suppose we all like to feel like we’re contributing something.”

“Stone, you’re a blustering ass,” Stark announced, drawing their attention to the other end of the table. “And I am going to whip you at cards, or enjoy watching Miss Carbonell do it.”

***

While Howard and Maria set about fleecing Stone at cards, Kathleen brought out decorations for the tree, and hot toddies to ward off the chill.

Stephanie left Howard to it—he’d said Stone was the kind of man who liked to throw his weight around, but that Howard was someone he had to tread carefully around.

“I’m very rich, and the President takes my calls,” Howard had said. “Stone knows it.”

If Maria thought that participating would somehow sell the con, Stephanie would leave them to it. Though she couldn’t help thinking that they made a lovely pair, their dark heads bent together, both of them absolutely wicked. She wondered how much longer it would be before they realized it—or maybe they had, she thought, as Howard leaned over to look at Maria’s cards, brushing her hair back from her shoulder.

“You said you’re from Brooklyn?” Sergeant Barnes asked Stephanie, and she startled, smiling at him as she climbed up the small ladder to hang the ornaments he was holding for her.

“My whole life,” she agreed. “My mother came over from Ireland, and my father died in the Great War, but yes. The same apartment on the same block my whole life. Well, until I started making enough money to move to one with reliable heat, but even then it was really only just up three blocks.”

“Me too—Brooklyn born and raised,” he said. “Strange I never ran into you, could have sworn I knew every pretty girl.”

“Well, there you go,” she laughed. “I wasn’t pretty, and I was sick. And I don’t dance, which I imagine is where you saw most of your ‘pretty girls’.”

“You dance now,” he said.

“No,” she disagreed, wincing as an ornament that probably cost more than her years’ rent slipped from its branch. Sergeant Barnes caught it, and she smiled at him.

“Your husband doesn’t take you dancing?” He looked—outraged, actually. He was grinning, and he looked like he was teasing, but his eyes were tight, and she felt oddly thrilled at that.

“My—oh,” she said, shaking her head. “No, we don’t dance.”

“Mrs. Stark,” he said, “that is a damn tragedy.”

***

Everyone had gone to bed by nine, Stark arguing it was country hours, and Bucky was still all turned around from the long trip, so around midnight he crept down to the kitchen to have a snack, thinking maybe that would put his mind to rest.

Naturally, that was when Stone walked in. From what Bucky had managed to gather, Stone had arranged for Bucky to be hosted by Stephanie Rogers, America’s Sweetheart—and then invited himself along. Bucky doubted he even saw it that way: Stone probably thought that Step—Mrs. Stark had invited him, not that Stone had invited himself. He seemed like the delusional type.

“Help yourself, I was just—“ Bucky started, standing, trying to calculate how quickly he could leave, but Stone waved him back down into the chair.

“No, no, my dear boy,” he said, sitting and putting a napkin into his collar. “I suppose an experience like yours leaves you with a hearty appetite, and Mrs. Stark does have such skill at domestic arts.”

Bucky decided to eat before replying, and pulled chicken from the bone and chewed it for a bit before agreeing: “She’s a great cook.”

There was something about Stone’s jowled face that made Bucky itch to punch him, though Jones would probably argue it was just that Stone had a face, and Bucky always wanted to punch things.

“How long has she been married?” he asked.

“Oh, since she’s been in my employ, and she’s been writing for us for two years now. Miss Carbonell could say exactly, of course, but I do believe it’s been two years. Bit of a surprise, though, I admit. You would have thought Stark would have made a bigger production of his wedding. Give people something happy to think about on the home front, you know.”

Last December Howard Stark had been seen with no fewer than three Hollywood starlets, Barbara Stanwyck among them. He was a playboy, there was even a rumor about him and Miss Carter from the SSR, though Bucky had a hard time believing a lady like that would be caught dead letting Howard Stark anywhere near her. It made sense, actually, that she kept her own apartment—probably needed some space from the husband who flirted with his wife’s cousin all through dinner, and then had had the audacity to call for an early night to take his sweet wife up to bed.

Or maybe not, because Stephanie Stark was peering at them from behind the kitchen door, still in her evening gown.

“Hello,” Bucky said, smiling at her. “You caught us red-handed.”

“No,” Mrs. Stark said, coming in and smiling back at him, and then, “Well, yes, but I’m glad you feel at home.”

“Do join us,” Stone invited, sitting back down and gesturing to the other seat at the small kitchen table.

“Oh, no, I—“ her protests were drowned out by the sound of a cow bellowing. Bucky turned and looked at the door.

“Well, that sounded close,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound uneasy.

“What was it?” Mrs. Stark demanded, fingers in the long velvet skirt of her dress as she looked with narrow-eyed suspicion at the door.

“Ah, this must be your cow!” Stone said, beaming and heading to the door, opening the top to peer down at the cow, who stuck its head into the kitchen and let out another terrible noise. “Yes, you mentioned in one of your articles how affectionate she is! What did you say her name was?”

Mrs. Stark was staring at the cow with the kind of fascination Bucky felt, which was strange, given that she lived here and had undoubtedly seen cows before, whereas this was Bucky’s first sighting of one in its non-steak form.

“Uh,” Mrs. Stark said. “Oh! Her name is—is—Peggy!”

She sounded triumphant, and Mr. Stone just nodded and beamed and patted “Peggy” on the head. Bucky wiped his thumb across his lips, trying not to laugh. If Stephanie had ever seen a cow before today, he’d eat those damn medals they wanted to give him.

“I’ll help you get her back in,” Bucky offered, smiling down at Stephanie. She was still staring at the cow.

“Oh, no, I don’t—I’ll get one of the—“

“No, don’t, it’s so late,” Bucky said. “I’m sure we can do it, after all, you did write that she’s very fond of you.”

“She what?” she asks, still staring at the cow. “Oh, I mean—“

“I insist,” Bucky said. “Brooklyn kid like me, I’ve never seen a cow in real life.”

“Well, I—“

“I’ll get your coat,” Bucky told her, heading out to get the heavy mink from the closet, because as funny as this was—and it was—she looked like the kind who would catch pneumonia at the drop of a hat. On second thought, he grabbed her hat and gloves, too.

Stephanie let him help her in, turning a bit pink, and Bucky tried not to let his fingers linger over the smooth skin at the back of her neck. He smiled at her, opening the door. “Shall we?”

****

Bucky insisted on taking the cow’s lead—“I know she’s fond of you,” he said, “but what if she makes a run for it? You’d ruin your coat, and mine’s standard issue, the army’d have to give me another one. I’m not fully discharged, yet.”

Usually Stephanie prickled against that, about people assuming she’s too weak to do anything, but Bucky—Sergeant Barnes—seemed like he was laughing as he said it. Not laughing at her, though, more like—more like he was inviting her in on the joke, like he knew he was lying, and she knew he was lying, and since they were both in on it, it was all fine. And somehow it was.

“Beautiful night,” he said. “Moon, snow, cow.”

“Almost romantic,” she said, smiling up at the sky. She felt calm, happy, even though everything was such a disaster.

“It’s a first for me,” he agreed. “Never been on a date with a cow as a chaperone.” He startled, turning to her, “Not that—I didn’t mean to imply that this is a date.”

“Oh, no, neither did I,” she said, stomach twisting up. Her heart was beating so fast she was sure he was going to be able to hear it, soon. It couldn’t be a date, because she was Mrs. Howard Stark for the purposes of this farce, which was just. Awful.

It was funny, really, in a cruel kind of way. She’d never been the kind of girl who fell for anyone, really. She’d been so ill as a child, nobody had expected her to survive to puberty, and then when she had she’d still looked like an eight year old, only developing any hint of curves when she’d turned sixteen, and by then most of the boys worth looking at were already snapped up, and she was just Stephanie Rogers, the girl who perpetually might not make it through the winter.

Then there’d been the war, and she’d joined the SSR as Erskine’s assistant, and there were men around constantly, flirting slyly and teasing but none of them had ever appealed to her. Never made her breath catch or her heart beat too fast—even Howard, who she was very fond of, was only a brother.

So of course here, on Howard’s farm, while she’s Mrs. Howard Stark, she’d meet the one man who might—

“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked, because maybe if she broke her own heart it wouldn’t hurt as much. “Do you have a sweetheart waiting in Brooklyn?”

“There’s a Brooklyn girl I like,” he admitted, smiling. He was so—he had the best smile, really. “Prettiest thing I ever saw, and I’ve been all over the world at this point.”

“Are you in love with her?” she teased, pausing to lean against the fence, looking up at him. He paused too, grinning down at her.

“Well, I might be,” he said. “She’s about the best thing I ever saw, cooks like you wouldn’t believe.”

“She’s the best thing you ever saw, and you only think you ‘might’ be in love?” Stephanie laughed.

“Well, she’s married,” Bucky admitted, and Stephanie ached for him.

“Oh,” she said softly, regretting she’d ever brought it up, and scuffing her feet in the snow. Then she jerked her head up to—because it was ridiculous, of course, to think—but maybe—

Bucky was grinning at her, his eyes all creased up, teeth lit in the moonlight, and unapologetic.

“Bucky Barnes,” she said, pleased her voice was coming out in anything but a strangled shout of laughter, “are you flirting with me?”

“I’d like to point out,” Bucky said, “that you started it.”

“You’re right,” she agreed, unable to stop smiling so widely her cheeks were bound to hurt any moment. “That was very bad of me.”

“I find it hard to believe you’re married,” Bucky said, and Stephanie laughed.

“You know, I find it hard to believe myself,” she said.

“You don’t act as if you were married,” Bucky persisted, and Stephanie thought, if she was smarter, if she liked him less, she’d remember the cow, and get out of the moonlight, but she’d never been that smart, and she said,

“I don’t feel as if I was married,” she said.

“Probably the moon, the snow,” he said.

“And the cow.” She glanced at the cow, who was placidly watching them with—well, it was probably her imagination but it sort of seemed as though the cow was very disapproving, which was absurd, because Howard wanted to eat her, and Stephanie was only—very nearly cheating on her pretend husband, whom Bucky thought was her real husband.

“We should get her back to the stable,” she said, standing up, and her feet skidded in the smooth tracks in the snow that she’d made while swinging her feet. Bucky caught her just as she grabbed his coat, and when she looked up he was bent over her, his mouth so close, and her heart started beating like crazy all over again. His hands were on her arms, and his eyes dropped to mouth and he looked—starving, was the only word she could think of to describe it.

“Careful," he said, shaking his head a little. “Seems a little icy.”

“Yes," she agreed, making her fingers unbend from his coat and heading towards what she hoped was the barn. “We should get Peggy home.”

They got the cow all tied up, and Howard was at the door. He raised his eyebrows at her.

“Everything all right, honey?” he asked.

“Oh, the cow—“ she said, unbuttoning her coat, and it was only when she saw Howard’s eyebrow leap that she realized maybe it was a little strange to have just expected Bucky to be there to take it. But he was, lifting it off her shoulders and sliding it down her arms, and she shivered a little, smiling at him over her shoulder.

“That damn cow,” Howard agreed, putting his hands in his pockets and chewing a bit on his cigar. “Always getting out.”

“Well, she was good enough to let me tag along,” Bucky said, all smiles as he hung up the coats, holding out his hand for her hat and gloves. “Never seen a cow that wasn’t already a steak.”

“City kids,” Howard said with a grin. “Well, we’d all best get to bed before we turn into pumpkins. Coming, dear?”

Stephanie glared at him, and Howard’s smile stretched even wider, but she took his arm and said, “Good night, Sergeant Barnes. Thank you again for your help.”

“Good night,” Bucky said.

“I’m not sleeping in bed with you,” Stephanie said the instant they were behind closed doors.

“Honey, are you trying to cuckold me without even being married to me?” he demanded, sounding pleased as he stubbed out the cigar

“Howard, would you like to discuss the love bite on your neck?” she inquired. “I’m sleeping in the—oh wait, are your sheets clean?”

“What a thing to accuse a man of!”

“You and Maria have had at least an hour,” she said, and grinned as he opened and closed his mouth in complete outrage and shock that was about as convincing as Bucky’s smile when was talking to Howard. “I’ll take the couch, then,” she said, and then paused delicately. “Unless—dare I ask?”

“You know, I never noticed this side of you,” Howard said. “I don’t know that I like it. Maybe I want a divorce.”

Stephanie grinned at him. “Did you finally kiss and make up with Maria?”

“A gentleman never tells.”

“Howard, it’s a little late to insist you’re a gentleman.”

He sat on the bed and grinned at her. “How true. I’m more of a rogue, a dapper dan, if you will.”

“I won’t.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” he sighed. “There’s another room off the bathroom, honey. That one’s yours, and yes, before you ask, the door locks.”

“I do trust you,” Stephanie said, smiling at him. “You know that, don’t you? In spite of yourself, you’re a good man, Howard Stark.”

“Oh, honey,” he sighed dramatically as she kissed his cheek. “You’re terrible for a man’s reputation.”

***

“A cow?” Maria repeated, staring at her. She had barged into Stephanie’s room first thing in the morning, her clothes draped over her arm, still in her nightgown. “Oh God, vile, disgusting, wretched. Cows should be steaks or milk but not—alive.”

“I know, but what could I do?” Stephanie asked. “He wanted to see her, and I couldn’t argue, and it was—nice. It was a beautiful night, snow, the moon…”

Maria arched an eyebrow at her, halfway through pulling up her dress. “Stephanie Rogers, did you kiss him?”

“No,” Stephanie said, shaking her head and trying to laugh.

“Oh God, but you almost did? Or did you proclaim your undying love in the—I was joking!” she shrieked, shoving Stephanie down onto the bed and staring at her. “Are you in love with our admittedly dashing Sergeant Barnes?”

“I’ve just—never met anyone like him in my whole life. Do you know we grew up just a few blocks from each other? Isn’t it strange that we’d meet like this, and not—“

Maria was smiling at her fondly, and Stephanie broke off, flushing. “Terrible timing, anyway,” she said.

“I kissed Howard last night,” Maria said.

“Yes, I saw the evidence,” Stephanie agreed wryly. “Really, now Bucky—“

“Bucky?”

“—is going to think that Howard and I were up all night—you know—and—“

“Maybe not, maybe he’ll think that Howard and I were up all night you knowing,” Maria said, buttoning up her dress and sitting down to put her earrings in. Stephanie was an only child growing up, but Maria, she thought, played the part of sister fairly well. She was so easy in Stephanie’s space, so easy to be around, and absolutely infuriating.

“Then he’ll want you to divorce Howard and run off with him!”

“Which is wonderful, except that I will get fired, which is the whole reason for this—this farce,” Stephanie sighed, unrolling the last of her curls and reaching for the pins. “I would though,” she said. “Run away with him.”

“I know you would,” Maria said softly, and pressed a kiss to her temple. “You know I’m going to figure out a way for you to snare him, don’t you—and keep both of us employed.”

Stephanie smiled at her. “Yes, Mrs. Stark,” she said, and made her exit to the dulcet sounds of Maria’s agonized groan.

***

Christmas Eve was clear and beautiful, and Bucky thought that his mother would be just getting the kids to the store, and Alice would be down at the butcher, arguing with Young Jerry while Old Jerry smoked in the corner. His father would be at the office, where he’d work until exactly 3:00 and then head home, picking up chocolates and the fish for dinner.

Bucky wondered if the Starks were Catholic—he hadn’t even thought to mention, though it must have been in the file he was sure Carter sent over.

And even though Stephanie was a wonderful cook—and she was, really, aces—it wouldn’t be his mother’s recipes, and it wouldn’t be as loud as their house got. It’d probably be louder than he remembered, since Alice had the twins, and Becca had written that they’d gotten a cat to harass poor Lady, the old mutt that followed his father home from work one day and never really left.

He shrugged off the chill, the sour metallic taste of his memories. He got up and started to make the bed, then paused at the sight of all the blood. He lifted his fingers to his nose and felt the tacky build-up; nosebleeds had become his norm, one of the base doctors had said sometimes it was stress, sometimes just the cold air. Maybe it was the dry air here in the house. He stripped the bed down and bundled up the linens, got dressed and stared at himself in the mirror.

He looked better, he thought. Less—haggard. He wouldn’t worry about going home, looking like this. His mother would fuss, and cry, but the bruises on his face were gone, and his cuts were healed up, and he just looked like himself, or at least whatever was left over from that Nazi doctor.

One of the maids was just stepping out of a room, and he said, smiling apologetically, “I’m afraid I got a nose bleed last night—I’ve stripped the linens, but I thought I’d mention.”

She blinked at him, and then smiled brightly and said, “Oh, well, that was very thoughtful, sir!”

Bucky watched her go into his room and wondered what kind of rat bastard Stark was that stripping the sheets when they were dirty was a novelty to his staff.

Stephanie was in the kitchen, cooking pancakes, and Bucky frowned for a second at the chairs that had been pulled from the tables over to the counters before he realized that she was using them as stools because her husband was too inconsiderate to rearrange his goddamn kitchen for her.

“Where’s your husband?” Bucky asked.

“Hm?” she asked, and then frowned. “Oh, probably harassing Mr. Stone, it’s his favorite new hobby.”

She sounded incredibly fond, and her frown melted into a small smile before she turned back to her batter. “Either that or he and Maria are at it again—that is, I mean, fighting.”

Bucky lifted his eyebrows. “He seems to enjoy that, as well.”

“Yes, well, Howard’s happiest when he’s driving everyone insane and proving he’s the smartest man in the room,” she said, spooning batter onto the pan. She turned to grin at him over her shoulder. “Frankly it’s his worst quality.”

“It’s a wonder you married him.”

“Oh,” she said, and then prodded at the pancake with her spatula. “That is—“

“Are you making pancakes?” Mr. Stone asked in delight as he barged into the kitchen. “How splendid.”

“Yes,” St—Mrs. Stark agreed. “Usually, of course, the cook would, but I thought Sergeant Barnes might like home cooking.”

“Of course, of course,” Mr. Stone approved.

Breakfast was surprisingly subdued. Bucky wondered if that was due to the fact that Miss Carbonell was spending more time trying to hide the love bites on her neck. Stark was watching that effort with no small amount of pride, and it was Bucky, this time, who was inclined to bash his head into the table.

How could he do that to his wife?

"We've got a town dance to go to at 2:00," Stark said as they were finishing up. "War bonds and support the cause and all that. Starts at two, done in time to have dinner."

“I wonder what you have to wear to a party,” Miss Carbonell said to Mrs. Stark, who glared at her before she noticed Bucky watching, and then flushed. Miss Carbonell winked at him, and dragged her up the stairs.

“Women do love a party,” Stone chuckled. “Excellent! What a charming town you live in, Stark.”

Stark caught Bucky’s eye and pulled a wry expression, offering him a cigarette. “Join me for one outside, won’t you, Barnes?” he asked. “Can’t in the house, the missus’ lungs aren’t so hot, she can’t stand the smoke.”

It was cold outside, but not bitter, and they smoked in relatively companionable silence. Bucky thought of Dernier’s shitty cigarettes, and the way Jones had coveted his, lighting just enough for an inhale before pinching it out again.

“Did they let you go see your family, before they trotted you out to us?” Stark asked, squinting into the distance.

“There wasn’t time,” Bucky said, a bit startled by the question..

“Well, if you can stand to spend Christmas morning with us, I’ll drive you to Brooklyn myself—you’ll be there by lunch, hell 10:00 Mass. I’d send you tonight, to be honest, if it was just Stone who was invested in this stunt they’re pulling, but it’s a war bond story, now, and Congress is all wrapped up in it. If you stay until morning, it satisfies the byline.”

Bucky stared at him, and Stark’s lips twitched.

“Look, I’m not a complete asshole,” he said. “Stephanie’s been trying to figure out a way to get you out of all of it since you told her about your family last night, and what she wants, she gets. I think it’s because she’s tiny, you don’t see it coming,” he mused, puffing away.

“Thank you,” he said after he was sure his voice wasn’t going to be hoarse, and Stark clapped him on the shoulder.

“We’re gonna be pals, Barnes,” he said. “Just you wait and see.”

Bucky thought probably that could happen, if not for the fact that Bucky wanted to run away with Stark’s wife and beat Stark senseless for cheating on her with her cousin.

***

The dance was, as so many social events were, an excuse to get people together, and to get them to buy war bonds. It wasn’t so very different from New York, once everyone was collected in the same place. Still more girls on the sidelines of the dance, or dancing with each other, or dancing with their fathers or uncles or grandfathers. Bucky wasn’t the only one standing out in his uniform, but he was the most handsome.

All of the girls looked at him when they walked in—even before they noticed Howard, which Stephanie thought had to be a first. She smiled and sat on the sidelines, watching Howard coax Maria out onto the floor, and Bucky turned to look at her.

“You’re not gonna leave me hanging, are you?” he asked, holding out his hand, and Stephanie said,

“Bu—Sergeant Barnes—“

“I like ‘Bucky’ better, actually,” he interrupted.

“Sergeant Barnes,” she insisted, sure that she was bright red in mortification, because she was so stupid, honestly. “I wasn’t being coy, earlier, when I said I don’t dance.”

“You just haven’t found the right partner yet,” he said, tugging her up. “See, it’s nice and slow, now—would you feel better if you just stood on my feet?”

“Ser—“ she protested, but it was no use, because now she was out here, and oh, God, she really hadn’t been lying. She’d never danced, never been someone who was asked to. Oh, sure, her mother had taught her, dancing around their little apartment when Stephanie had been well enough to endure it, but—

“Stop worrying so much, doll,” Bucky murmured, taking her hand in his, his other hand on the small of her back. “I’m aces at this.”

“That’s not—“ she started, and then sighed. Well, he’d see.

He didn’t. She couldn’t tell if it was because Bucky Barnes was the most stubborn man she’d ever met, or if he was such a good dancer he made her look good in comparison.

Initially she’d thought that she’d have to dance at least one with Howard, so that Stone didn’t start asking questions, and then perhaps even reserve one for Stone, though she shuddered at the mere thought.

But she got distracted, or just stopped caring, because it was so nice, here in Bucky’s arms. Easy to pretend that she wasn’t lying, and that he was courting her for real, that they’d go back to Brooklyn hap—

She started coughing, and Bucky said, “Let’s get some fresh air.”

He didn’t pull her all the way outside, just into the small entry of the church, where the air was clearer, chillier but not the cold shock that would, inevitably, have left her watery-eyed and weak, throat rasping and lungs aching.

“One of the kids in my unit had asthma when he was a kid,” Bucky explained to the questions she didn’t realize she’d asked. “When it got cold—real, nasty cold, he always coughed, like his lungs couldn’t handle that kind of air.”

“It’s not as bad as it was,” she said. “Now that I have regular heat and can afford a doctor.”

“Amazing what a little money will do,” Bucky said wryly, and she laughed, because it was true. People always said money didn’t buy happiness, but it bought security, and sometimes that was close enough.

It was funny—she felt like she’d always known Bucky. It was easy to talk to him, to sit on the small bench and talk about wishing she’d been able to go to Coney Island, about how she was still working for the government drawing posters and illustrating war bond advertisements, how when her mother had died she’d been so completely alone. It was easy to press her cheek to his shoulder, let his arm wrap around her, and listen to him talk about his family, in their house in Brooklyn, and how he was afraid of getting stuck in the family house.

She didn’t notice Mr. Stone watching them at all, which was unfortunate. She could only be grateful that he waited to confront her until they were home, not during the sleigh ride. Bucky was looking more and more tired, his chin dipping, and Maria kept shooting Stephanie pointed looks. Stephanie wanted to know what she was supposed to do--Bucky was a good foot taller than she was, it wasn't as though she could just pull him down onto her shoulder. Especially not in front of their boss and her "husband." Which she and Maria were going to have words about, because honestly: couldn't she have waited until all of this was over before letting Stark suck bruises into her neck?

In any event, when they did get home Bucky excused himself upstairs, hopefully to take a nap. She made a mental note to ask Maggie to go fetch him an hour before dinner, which would still give him three hours.

She sighed and hauled a chair over to the cupboards so she could start dinner. Howard's chef must have been a giant, putting everything up so high.

“I suppose you fell in love with him, then!" Stone shouted at her. Stephanie startled and gripped the shelf to keep from falling.

"What?"

"The hero, Barnes,” Stone sneered impatiently. "I saw you, in the church--a church of all places!"

“What?” They hadn't done anything in the church! Bucky had talked, she had talked, they had danced...perhaps more exclusively than they should have, but still, what sort of man brought it up? Stephanie glared at him.

“What the hell is this racket—“ Howard demanded as he walked in, frowning when Stone shouted over him, waving a fat, accusing finger at Stephanie:

“You’re in love with him, aren’t you, Mrs. Stark? There’s no point denying it! Shameful, I’ve never seen such wanton, disgraceful—“

“Stone!” Howard snapped, “you wait just a goddamn minute—“

“Oh no, Stark. You may have less than no moral fortitude, but I have a magazine—an empire to protect, and I won’t have loose morals tainting it! Why, the American people look to you, Mrs. Stark, and this is how you behave?”

“Stone, I swear to God I’m going to let Barnes knock you into the middle of next week if you don’t shut up,” Howard insisted. “He’s been itching to do it since you walked in the Goddamn door.”

“You will do nothing of the—“ Stone bellowed

“Mr. Stone, be quiet!” Stephanie finally shouted, and he startled, staring at up her, and she climbed down off the chair. “Now,” she said, at a much more reasonable level, because Bucky was trying to sleep, and it was a big house, but not that big. “The truth is that I have never lived on a farm, and I’ve never been married.”

“WHAT?” He looked fairly apoplectic, and for moment she worried he might have a stroke, or a heart attack, or possibly both.

“While my cooking advice and recipes are mine," she continued, "when you asked for more of a wholesome image, we added elements of a country life, the sort of thing a person might like to read about to escape. While life might be terribly hard, reading about a woman in Connecticut on her farm who seems to be making the best of it makes you feel better. That’s all that was, fiction.”

“People want the truth!” Stone bellowed.

“No,” Howard said, sounding terribly amused, “They really don’t.”

“We did all of this to satisfy you—God knows why,” Maria snapped as she walked in--Stephanie assumed she'd just been listening at the door, because Maria was notoriously bad about that. “And then you got the Senator and the Congressmen involved, and printed the preview, and got Barnes sent along, and frankly, it does make a nice story. It’s just what people want to read about, and if you have any sense at all you’ll run it without throwing such a ridiculous fit.”

“Why I never—“ Stone stopped, his face turning purple. “You’ve made a fool of me!”

“No, the only person who’s going to make a fool of you, is you,” Stephanie told him. He turned on her, massive and furious, and she saw Howard and Maria both start towards her, faces furious, but Stephanie had had just about enough of Henry Stone's horrible bullying. He was like some kind of tyrant, no wonder his own family had found excuses to be without him on Christmas. Well he wasn't going to ruin Bucky's--Bucky deserved a nice Christmas, and he was going to have it, and by God, Henry Stone could go pound sand if he thought otherwise.

"You listen, you little—" he snarled, leaning into her face, spittle flying, and Stephanie was, simply put, done.

So she slapped him.

“I quit.”

***

“That,” Bucky said, “was better than any USO show I saw.”

All four of them whirled around to stare at him—Stone shoved past him and went storming upstairs, presumably to pack, and Bucky turned back towards the remaining three. Howard Stark looked a little nervous, Maria Carbonell startled, and Stephanie Rogers looked absolutely radiant, like some sort of avenging angel.

“Do you always hit that hard?” he asked, standing up from where he'd been leaning against the door frame. He'd heard the racket from his room and come down to investigate, and by then they'd all been so absorbed in their little scene that they hadn't noticed him at all.

“Yes,” she said, and he nodded.

“My mother used a wooden spoon when she could get ahold of it," he said, and Stephanie grinned.

"I didn't have one, and throwing the paprika at his head seemed messy."

“Sergeant Barnes, I can explain—“ Miss Carbonell started, and Bucky grinned and ignored her flat out.

“You’re not married," he said, walking towards Stephanie. "You didn’t feel like you were married, because you’re not."

“Surprise,” Stephanie agreed, shrugging her shoulders and smiling. She looked only a little worried, which was good. It’d be better if she wasn’t worried at all, but it had been a big night.

“Would you like to be?” Bucky asked, stopping in front of her and taking her hands, sliding the atrocious diamond off of her finger and putting it on the countertop behind her.

“Surprised?” she asked, not really paying attention to that, staring at her bare finger, then up at him.

“Married,” Bucky clarified.

Stephanie looked up at him, and her eyes were so blue, and her smile so bright, and she wasn’t married, so there was nothing stopping him from kissing her.

“Yes,” she said, and kissed him.

***

Telegram delivered to Agent Margaret Carter, posted somewhere in Europe:
DEAR PEGGY
I FORGIVE YOU
SINCERELY YOURS MRS STEPHANIE BARNES