When Steve was old enough to read, but still too young to know better, he inquired why Mommy didn't have Daddy's name on her wrist.
Fortunately he asked Sarah, who ruffled his hair and said, "We don't all find our soulmates, Sunbeam, no matter how hard we look."
"Don't you love Daddy?"
"You can love someone who isn't your soulmate," Sarah said, but she sounded sad, so Steve climbed into her lap and wrapped his skinny arms around her neck. "I wanted to have a family. This is worth it."
It wasn't until he was older that Steve thought to wonder why his mother had a woman's name on her wrist, and by then he'd learned not to ask about that kind of thing.
One night, when his father was very drunk, he told the story of the name on his own wrist, Elsie Taggart, an old woman who'd formed a brain tumour the size of Joseph's fist when he was still a teenager. He said that he'd sat with her as she passed, and that the glow of love had been like every song he'd ever heard.
"I love your mother, and I love God," he said, bracing himself on the table as he stood, "but sometimes I think the bastard has a sick sense of humour." Then he stumbled off to bed, collapsing next to Sarah, who let him pillow his head on her chest.
The blasphemy made Steve blush, but he didn't disagree, either. It didn't seem fair.
More unfair still, when Joseph Rogers' eyes started to turn yellow and his mind wandered, and the doctor they couldn't really afford said he had something wrong with him that Steve couldn't work out how to pronounce. When it took his life a year later, Steve hoped that Joseph found his Elsie in heaven.
The soft, persistent scratch at the window dragged Steve out of a sound sleep. When he was awake enough to recognise the pattern, he waved a hand at the window, silencing the noise, then checked Sarah's cot across the room. No movement there. She'd worked herself into dead exhaustion again, and wouldn't stir until Steve shook her awake an hour before dawn.
The moon was just enough past mid sky to throw a bit of light though the grimy window and cast a grotesque shadow of Steve's visitor across the floor, its body intercut with washing lines and railings. It stepped aside when Steve pushed up the sash and slipped out onto the fire escape.
Arnie Roth throw his own jacket over Steve's shoulders before he could even rub his arms against the brisk spring air. Steve shrugged into it, knowing there wasn't much point protesting. Anyway, he liked how it was warm from Arnie's body and how it smelled of paprika and vinegar from Mrs Roth's cooking.
"Thanks," Steve whispered. "What's up?"
Arnie didn't say anything, just grabbed Steve's arm and pulled him up the two flights to the roof, where he checked for loiterers and nesting couples before saying, whisper matching Steve's, "My mark's come in."
"Oh!" Steve said, and instinctively reached for Arnie's wrist. "What's it say?" They'd both been expecting it, but of course Arnie had been first. He always came in ahead of Steve, but he always shared what he had too, so it made sense that he'd run across the neighbourhood in the middle of the night to show Steve first.
Only he didn't seem to be showing Steve. Instead, he was cradling his right arm against his chest, like he'd broken it.
"Arnie," Steve said, more carefully, "What's it say? Who is it?" For a second he wondered if the name would be his, but no, they'd have figured that out by now, wouldn't they? Weren't you supposed to know, even as children?
Steve turned his hand over and held it out, palm up. "Come on."
Slowly Arnie reached across the space between them, pushing up his sleeve as he did, and turned the pulsepoint to Steve. Even by moonlight, the writing was clear: Michael Bech, in solid round cursive, neat as a grammar book's.
"Ah, Stevie," Arnie sighed. "What am I gonna do?"
Steve considered. He thought about his mother, and her choices, and about the trouble that came to the young men who risked walking openly with a sway in their hips and bright ties in elaborate knots. "I dunno," he said, and Arnie tried to pull his arm away again. Steve held on, closing his hand over the letters. Arnie stilled, waiting. "You make that E a little taller, and add another one the end–" he fished though Arnie's jacket pocket for a pen, and eventually had to scratch what he meant on Arnie's wrist with the corner of his fingernail. "If you did this in ink or something... there, see?" He asked, having outlined a passible Michelle, albeit one with very little space before the Bech.
"Keep your sleeves buttoned, dummy."
Arnie was still frowning at his wrist, but said doubtfully, "If anyone asks, I can say it's an Italian, and I don't want Ma to know." Abruptly, he looked up and grinned at Steve, an expression to warm even the coldest night. "Yeah. That'll work." He dropped to dangle his legs off the edge of the roof, pulling Steve down beside him. "Do you think he's a fairy?
"I dunno," Steve said. "He doesn't have to be, does he?"
Arnie shrugged. "That's how this works, isn't it?"
"How would I know?" Steve demanded, like he hadn't thought just minutes ago that his name might be on Arnie's wrist, like he hadn't wondered what kind of woman his mother was meant to be with. "Why don't you ask one?"
"Fine. I will."
But they stayed sitting shoulder to shoulder watching the moon sink into the city lights. By the time Steve gave Arnie's jacket back, the warmth had long since faded from it.
Steve's mark came in some six months later when he wasn't looking. He'd been lying on his back, eyes staring at but not seeing the ceiling of their two-room tenement flat, while the voices on the radio carried him to a world full of adventure. He was trying to picture what it looked like when the Chauffeur dove into flooding ship's hold and pulled the Midnight Racer to safety, just seconds before he drowned, and when Steve glanced down at his own wrist, a black line of text was just there.
Steve sat up so quickly he felt dizzy, or maybe it was the rush of finally, finally seeing the name of the person he was meant to spend his life with. If he could find him. It wasn't like queers could put their name in one of the directories.
He barely took the time to turn off the radio before he tore out of the flat, down the three flights to their walk-up and out onto the street. Arnie's place was across East Houston, in the Jewish quarter, but running flat out it only took Steve five minutes to get there.
By that time, he couldn't breath well enough to talk, but Mrs. Roth just waved him through to Arnie's room without a word. Her sleeves were rolled back to her elbows, clearly showing the blocky Hebrew characters of her husband's name, even through the dusting of flour.
Without out even pausing to say hello, he hadn't got his wind back anyway, Steve yanked his sleeve up and thrust his arm under Arnie's nose.
Arnie considered it for a moment, before saying, "Huh." After a minute more, he said, "Well, I don't think you can make that look like a girl's name."
"I don't want to!" Steve snapped.
"Huh," Arnie said again. He was still sitting at his desk, like he had been when Steve busted in, arm braced on the back of his chair as he half turned to face Steve. That Arnie had his own room, with a desk and a door that closed made Steve traitorously jealous, even though he knew the Rogers wouldn't be able to afford their two-rooms, save that Sarah needed the kitchen to take in laundry. Steve had a sudden, sinking feeling that he'd said the wrong thing, that he shouldn't have shown Arnie after all, but kept it to himself. He'd never heard another word about Arnie's own soulmark after that night, nor any mention of him finding a queer or a fairy or someone to ask about it.
For about ten minutes, Steve had thought his mark meant they were the same, even if they weren't meant for each other. Yet now... "Look, Arnie," he started to say, but Arnie waved him off.
"You gotta be careful, is all, Stevie. You get beat up enough already, without anyone seeing that."
"But you don't mind?" Steve asked, still not sure what this all meant. Arnie was hesitating, holding something back for the first time since they'd known each other. He could see him calculating while he watched Steve, like he was trying to work out the odds.
"Don't be stupid," Arnie said after far too long a hesitation. He hooked his arm around Steve's neck and pulled him into half a hug. His palm felt clammy against Steve's skin, and his breath sounded a little fast, but his grip was solid. "I just worry about you."
Steve started breathing again, then coughing, and Arnie had to make him sit on the edge of the bed and thump his back until he stopped.
"Chrisake," Steve managed, eventually, which at least made Arnie laugh.
"So let's see that mark again," Arnie said, settling beside him on narrow bed. When Steve didn't immediately comply, he took Steve's arm himself and rolled it so the wrist faced up. "'Tony' could be Italian, or maybe like in them old books, 'Oh, Antony!'" he declaimed, one hand to his heart, the other still white-knuckling Steve's wrist. "'Where are thee?' Maybe he's rich."
Steve shrugged as best he could with one arm pinned. "I don't know," he said. He didn't care either, save that the money would keep his mother from the hours she worked.
"Obviously," Arnie said, carrying right over him, "if you knew, you'd be talking to him, not me. Now 'Stark' sounds kinda German, don't it? So you're looking for a pansy with an Italian ma and a German dad. That narrows it down a bit."
"I guess," Steve said, though hadn't Arnie been talking about a rich guy a minute ago? He pictured an old man with a monocle and an Austrian accent. He liked the Italian better, he decided. His Tony would be a kid like him, who'd grown up on the streets, but had never fit in either. He'd have dark hair like his mother, and maybe blue eyes like his dad. Pretty, but strong. He'd have to be very strong.
While Steve had been gathering wool, Arnie had fished a book out from under his bed. Steve caught a flash of the cover, Graphology and a fancy coat of arms with lots of books on it, before Arnie started paging through, eyes flicking between Steve's wrist and the text.
Steve sighed, and thought about protesting in defence of rationality, but figured at least Arnie was talking to him. Not only talking to him, but engaged in helping him. He'd spent more enthusiasm on Steve's mark in two sentences than he had on his own in six months.
"It's kinda pointy, which means," he flipped a few pages, "Oh, he's active, huh, wouldn't have thought..." he flipped some more, "And he might talk a lot and be bad at keeping secrets, which is probably bad for a guy like him. But he's also creative, maybe an artist. You should start looking in the Village, Stevie. But I think the T like that means he's selfish, and the dash at the end is because he's pretty sure about himself." He'd flipped through most of the book by now, and with a confidence that betrayed his familiarity with its contents. "Sounds like he might be kind of a jerk," Arnie concluded.
"He's not!" Steve retorted immediately. "You know those books are bunk."
"Are not!" Arnie snapped back, but he was laughing at Steve, not yelling at him, so Steve felt pretty safe in yanking his arm back and shoving Arnie off the bed, which almost worked, except Arnie snagged his shirt on the way down and they landed in a heap on top of each other. Arnie shoved free of Steve's shoulder enough to say, "It says in the front that it's proven by science!"
"So does phrenology," Steve panted, reaching for the book, which Arnie held just out of his reach. "And mesmerism."
"What?" Arnie asked, but before Steve could explain, Mr. Roth got sick of the noise and tossed them both out of the house by their collars.
"Well," Arnie said as they sat on the front step, "If he turns out to be a jerk, don't say I didn't warn you."
"He won't," Steve said, "I bet he's really sensitive. An artist."
"I thought you said graphology was bunk."
"It is," Steve grumbled. "But I still bet Tony's an artist."
Sarah got in from doing for Mr. Callahan a few hours after Steve got back. She looked at Steve's wrist for a long time before pursing her lips and saying, "Oh, Sunbeam, that's a hard row ahead of you."
"I'll find him," Steve told her, not sure if he was flushing from embarrassment or pride.
"I know you will," Sarah told him, and kissed his cheek. Then she turned to the thin soup Steve had scraped together, and didn't mention Tony again.
Steve dreamed of Tony.
The dreams changed, but two things remained, the warmth of his presence, and the vagueness of his appearance. He seemed to have dark hair, usually, and kind eyes, and a mouth that smiled easily, but when Steve tried to draw him in waking moments, it never came out right. In the dream he just knew it was Tony, and him being there made Steve feel warm and safe.
It also left him with a humiliating hard-on in the morning, which he curled around to hide from Sarah, and which she presumably ignored. He wasn't sure what to do about them. Rather, Arnie had told him what to do in some detail, but it sounded messy, and he was rarely alone in the room, and almost never with certainty of not being interrupted.
One Saturday, when Sarah had left early, and Steve didn't have any delivery runs until mid-morning, he closed his eyes and tried to think of Tony, of what it would feel like to kiss him, and feel Tony's hands on him. He's have rough hands, probably, from working, and they'd slide and drag over Steve's skin, down his arms and across his chest. It would feel so warm to be touched, and Tony would let Steve's hands go everywhere. Tony's short nails would pinch his nipples (Steve did this as he thought of it), then rake down his sides to his hipbones. He wouldn't mind that Steve was so skinny, but would touch every bit of him. He would tease Steve, drawing it out for hours. His hands would go everywhere but where Steve wanted most. Finally, Tony would kiss his neck right below his ear, and tell Steve he loved him as he took his dick and stroked it.
He wanted it to last forever, but Steve had hardly touched himself before he came. He whispered Tony's name as he did.
Then he had to figure out how to clean up so that Sarah wouldn't know what he'd been doing.
"Stevie! There you are. I been looking all over for you."
Not surprising. Steve had found a couple new hiding places since the boys from his tenement's gang hand given him a fresh pounding. They hadn't seen his wrist, but had still inflicted out their usual remonstration for his refusal to run with them, and for being an egghead in general. He'd taken to hanging out in the construction site down by the River in its quiet after hours, and had just slipped through the fence on his way home when Arnie caught up with him.
"Haven't seen much of you either," Steve said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He seemed to have been avoiding Steve recently. When Steve had seen him at all, he'd always been with a girl, usually a different one each time, and Steve had a sinking suspicion that he was earning the change to take them out by running numbers. But every time he'd tried to bring it up, Arnie had said he was on the level, and of course he wouldn't do anything like that, and of course it wasn't anything Steve had done.
"Been around," Arnie said, vaguely. "But listen, I gotta show you something."
When Steve tried to ask him what, he clammed up, and just took Steve's arm and started to pull him up away from the River.
"You'll see," was all he'd say, and Steve let himself be herded. Steve had felt strangely lost without Arnie bossing him around these last few months. True he'd been working odd jobs when he could get legal ones on the weekends or after school, when he could get honest ones, and filling spare hours with reading and drawing. But he'd used to spend that time with Arnie, and even filling every waking minute didn't make him miss his best friend any less. He couldn't help feeling like it was his fault somehow, or Tony's, despite what Arnie had said about his mark. If only he could figure out where things had gone wrong with Arnie, and fix it, then maybe they'd be like they used to be.
Like they were now, at least until Arnie dragged him up to a grindhouse on the Bowery and Steve finally dug in his heels. The marquee read Sex Maniac on one side and The Cocaine Fiends on the other, and advertised shows all day and all night. At nine in the morning on a Saturday, they weren't charging much yet, but Steve had no interest in what they were showing. "No way, buddy. Not for half the price."
"Oh hush," Arnie said impatiently. "We ain't here for the pictures. I said I wanna show you something." But he still gave the man at the counter a dime and headed in like they were going to the movie. Only at the last minute he turned left instead of right and headed up for the projection booth. Curious now, Steve followed without protest.
Arnie had been here before, and knew the knock to get in, as well as some kind of password that Steve didn't catch. There was a young man up in the booth, maybe thirty, Italian looking with his black hair slicked straight back. Steve's heart skipped, and wondered if this might be Tony, but then Arnie said, "Pete, this is Steve. Show Pete your mark, Stevie."
There wasn't a lot of room in the projection booth, not without tangling in the film, which Pete had on a motor, but still seemed to have to mind. The sound drowned out most of what they were trying to say, but Steve hardly heard it, staring at Arnie instead.
"Do you trust me or don't you?" Arnie demanded. "Show him."
Even after the last few months, Steve knew the answer to that, so he unbuttoned his sleeve and rolled it back. Pete rubbed a sharp-smelling cloth over it, making Steve's skin feel cold, then nodded.
"Okay," he said. "Looks legit. You here for the list?"
"Why else would I bring him?" Arnie asked before Steve could say, "What list?" He also stepped on Steve's foot.
"Okay," the man said again. He pulled a film canister off the shelf, this one in a cracked old case with The Son of the Sheik stamped on the cover. "Come here, kid." When Steve squeezed past the projector to stand next to him, he started to unwind the film.
Only it wasn't a film. It was a long piece of ticker tape with names scratched on it. Or pairs of men's Christian names, written together with a dash between each pair. John & David – Bobby & Lou – Daniel & Stephen..., the list went on and on; a soul mark directory, Steve realised, like normal couples entered, only a secret one just for queers. As soon as Steve figured out what he was seeing, he scanned for his name and Tony's together, scanned for any Tony with that bold T and looping y.
"If I see my name, how do I find him?" he asked.
Pete shrugged. "People come back. I let them know."
Too soon, the tape ran to blank paper, and there were no more names. Steve sighed. No Tony & Steve. His throat felt tight, and he had to swallow back the tears before they made a fool of him.
"You can write your name, if you like," Arnie said. "Maybe Tony will find you."
"Maybe," Steve said, without much enthusiasm, but wrote his name and was about to write Tony's when he thought of something. "Say, what happens if cops come?"
"Burn the list," Pete said grimly. "I pay me dues, so it don't happen too much."
Steve finished writing their names, and watched Pete coil the paper back up. He noticed that Arnie & Michael wasn't listed, but later when he asked about that, Arnie just said, "I'm gonna try something else," then wouldn't say what.
When Steve checked the theatre a month later, the city had shut it down for violating the liquor laws.
Still, there would be other lists. There had to be.
On Steve's thirteenth birthday, Sarah had given him Joseph's battered old bible, the one he'd brought over from the Old Country, and made him swear on it that he wouldn't quit school, no matter who offered him a job, then told him that was her second gift. There had also been a very small cake, but Steve's expectations for his fourteenth were not high.
So he was astonished when he came in from school, and Sarah said, "Go look on the table."
She was up to her elbows hot water, and didn't look like she was minding Steve, but he could feel her eyes on him all the same.
On the table sat a box, and in the box were more books than Steve had seen in one place outside of a library.
"Mr. Callahan's a bit short and had to pay me in books this month," Sarah said casually, as though they weren't worth at least a year of weekly cooking and cleaning, "But you should read them before I sell them on."
Steve thought about cantankerous old Mr. Callahan on the fifth floor, and of all the wonderful books that Sarah had told him he'd had. He had shelves of them, she'd said. Steve had never owned more than funny books and a Bible. Now he did, at least for now.
He took out one book after he next, stacking them in a neat pile after he looked at each one. He liked the way their spines lined up. He liked the way the covers felt: none were leather, but a couple had cloth bindings, and the rest were good quality board, their corners worn round with care.
Mr. Callahan had apparently paid Sarah almost entirely tales of the fantastic by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burrows, a dozen books in all, save for the last, at the bottom of the box.
"I thought you might keep that one," Sarah said, over he shoulder, before turning back to the counter and thumping something inside the pot.
The last book was thick with forest-green board cover that had once had gilt lettering, but all but the last trace of that had worn off. Steve felt out the letters with his fingertips, and frowned. Opening to the title page confirmed what he'd thought he read, but didn't explain it. "Thank you," he said anyway. "This is swell."
Sarah chuckled. "Just read it, Stevie."
Setting aside the more attractive pile of adventure stories, Steve sat crosslegged next to the open window and began to read. It wasn't until he got to a long poem called "Starting from Paumanok" that Steve understood his mother's sudden insistence that he take an interest in Walt Whitman.
Then he blushed to his hair and tucked the book under his arm as he bolted out the window and up the fire-escape to the roof. It wasn't until he made sure that absolutely no one was there that he opened the book again and reread:
I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love, indicating it in me,
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
Later he found those evangel-poems, and lines that made him flush even more deeply and at the same time feel warm all over. He wondered if Sarah had read all the way through, if she'd read about how Whitman's young lover parted the shirt from his bosom-bone, and plunged his tongue to his bare-stript heart. He hoped not.
Steve whirled across the dance floor, trying to keep his breath amid the sequins and the heat and pounding bass drum. Miss Tiger Lily was swaying in his arms, her hands creeping a little lower than a true lady's should, and Steve had to keep his feet moving if he wanted to lead this six-foot black gentleman in a shocking orange ballgown, though the lady in question was obliging enough. She hadn't even commented on the state of Steve's best suit, which hardly did justice to her silken flounces.
"Good to have a few gents in trousers around," Miss Tiger Lily had said when he'd asked for her card, in all seriousness, as though he fully expected her to have one. "It keeps the heat off." Her rouge had crinkled as she frowned. "Though not much does, these days."
"Sorry to hear it," Steve had said, like he'd gone to pansy balls all of his life, not only just now. "But I still want a dance with the prettiest girl in the room."
Miss Tiger Lily had laughed, throwing her head back so that her wig almost slid off. "As long as you don't want anything else, darling. You're a little young even for me."
Steve hadn't, and she'd let him swing her around the hall, her skirts swirling around his ankles, though they were somewhere between the old hooped style and the new, so that they made a cone of layers and ruffles in back, but weren't so big in front that Steve had to hold her at arm's length. She was warm in Steve's arms, and her hand felt solid in Steve's, though it was a fine hand, refined with painted nails. Steve wanted to glance at her wrist, but she was wearing black satin gloves that obscured her mark.
The band was trying to play an old waltz, but its roots kept showing, and it would slid into jazz trills and spirals as soon as the band leader looked to the floor, where, despite what Miss Tiger Lily said about the cops, skirts and trousers were not exclusively paired off.
"Night's just getting started," Miss Tiger Lily observed. "Might go past your bedtime."
If Steve had been Arnie, he would have laughed and said he was up for whatever the evening might bring, but instead he leaned forward and said, "I heard there was a list."
"Oh." Miss Tiger Lily lips pursed thoughtfully. "Oh. Well then." She turned Steve's wrist to see it, wiping a gloved thumb across the perspiration there. "I suppose there might be, honey." She didn't say anything else, but nudged Steve into twirling her, which left them both in a giggling heap leaning against each other. Steve's cheek rested on her bare shoulder, feeling a fine prickle of stubble against his skin, and let Miss Tiger Lily pet his hair. "A more serious horticulturist than I might look in the kitchen."
"Thanks," Steve said. The song was winding down, and he didn't suppose that Miss Tiger Lily would be short a partner for long.
This would be the fourth list he'd found since Arnie had put him onto them, and none had had Tony on it. With each new one he felt a spark of hope. Especially on a night like this, where so many gathered from all over New York, state as well as city. Tony could be here, right now, if only Steve knew where to look for him.
A couple young toughs, both in trousers, guarded the list, and Steve had to show his wrist again to get into the kitchen. They'd written it on a huge sheet of news print, and it was two-thirds covered already. The bottom edge trailed the gas ring, ready to ignite. Steve scanned quickly, and again found nothing, then took a second look, checking for Arnie and Michael, but again nothing. It was only on a third pass that he caught a familiar name.
"How do I find someone here?" he asked one of the boys.
"Tell me," she said in a voice several octaves higher than Steve had expected. "I seen everyone that's been." Sure enough, when Steve told her the names, she took off into the press, leaving Steve to wait in the kitchen.
Not five minutes later, she was back with a sharp-faced white woman in a top hat and tails.
"Beth?" Steve asked, not quite believing what he was seeing, what he had found. "Beth Grant?"
The woman, Beth, hadn't been expecting him either. "Who's asking," she demanded in a Queens accent acid enough to peel paint.
Steve took a breath then stepped forward, holding out his hand, "Miss Grant, I'm Steve Rogers, Sarah's son. She used to be Sarah Dolan, if that's what your mark says."
Beth pressed both hands to her mouth, grey eyes first wide, then gleaming with tears. She leaned against the counter for a moment, breathing hard then stepped forward to take Steve's hand. "Does she want to see me?" she asked, finally.
"Of course she does," Steve told her. "You're her soulmate."
By the time they made it back to Steve's tenement, Sarah was just getting in from her second shift at the garment factory, and even in the dim light of their flat, her skin looked grey. Hours of heat and steam had flattened her hair so that it hung limply in clumps about her face, and her eyelids were dropping as she struggled to stay awake long enough to make it home.
"Oh," Beth gasped. "Look at you, my beautiful girl."
Sarah looked up and twenty years of care seemed to drop from her shoulders. "Beth," she said, and it wasn't a question. "You're here."
Beth took Sarah in her arms, and pulled her head down to her shoulder. "I'll always be here."
Steve spent the night at the Roths'. He stayed up past midnight, wanting to tell Arnie what had happened, wanting to tell him that the lists worked, and if he could find Beth he could find Tony, or Michael, but Arnie never came in that night, and hadn't yet by the time Steve left for church in the morning.
After overwork and pneumonia finally dragged Sarah under, and Beth fled west, cloaked in grief, Steve found a Federal Art Project job designing posters. It probably saved his life, and it certainly kept him from sleeping on the streets.
Every silkscreen he laid out, the women were Sarah and Beth, and the men were Arnie and Tony. Their faces weren't identical, but the woman on the nutrition poster had Sarah's eyes and Beth's jaw, and the boy on the theatre advertisement had Arnie's smile, a smile he hadn't seen in years now. He saw reflections of Tony everywhere, and wondered with every face he drew if this one might be prophetic.
There was no way to sign the posters with anything but WPA Federal Art Project. NY. But he liked thinking that somewhere in the city Tony would see one, and maybe see something of himself in it, or of Steve, and he tried to put hope for a better world in every one.
"Here," Pete told him, lifting the brush out of his hand. "Like this."
They were sitting half way up the face of a building, legs dangling off the end of the scaffolding, their shoulders brushing. Steve had been seconded to fill in blocks of colour on one of the big murals near the Village, and had been pleased to see Pete from the grindhouse of years ago working on the same project.
"We're not–" he started to say, but Pete shushed him and wrote Steve's name than Tony's across the cement. His imitation of Steve's handwriting, and of his mark, was uncanny.
"Now give it a minute to dry, then roll over it with that nice light orange. It'll look like you painted over graffiti, but most boys know where to look, these days.
Lists were getting harder to find, as the police stepped up their raids, and the people who had once filled the dance halls and the bars turned inward to protect themselves. Steve kept his sleeves buttoned, and hoped that no one would ask.
"As long as the coppers don't," Steve muttered, but only to cover how much he liked the idea of his and Tony's names written together for all to see. It felt like the poem about crossing Brooklyn ferry, the one that felt so real even though Steve had grown up in the shadow of the bridge that replaced the ferry, proving Whitman wrong. It felt like being with every generation to come, knowing that they would see what he now saw, that they would be a part of the same rush of the city as he now was.
Even if he never met his Tony–and who knew if he would, with a war coming on, and Steve planning to join up as soon he could talk someone into enlisting him–someday Tony might look at this mural and see his name, and know that Steve had never stopped looking for him.
Steve had never seen stars like this growing up. On a good night in the old neighbourhood, you could see the moon, but now they filled the sky by the millions, each one an immortal sun. He lay on his back in the tall grass, trying to make out the shapes they were supposed to make, and not coming up with much.
Beside him, Bucky was breathing deep and even, if a little too deliberately. He was trying to make Steve think he was asleep, to hide that he hadn't been sleeping well since he came back from all that special training. This had been meant to be more training, but the forecasted dire blizzard they were to survive had turned out cold but clear, and it was more like a camping trip really. Or so Steve assumed. He'd never been camping.
He liked this, though, getting away from the camp and pretending to be the dullest knife in the drawer and endless KP assigned by an irate Sargent Duffy. Away from the army scrutinising his every move, and the tests, and the psychologists making sure he wasn't starting to crack up. They seemed especially worried about that, and that his head might actually explode, and about the name on his wrist. He'd spent the last week hearing the word "invert" more than he'd ever wanted to. He'd even caught himself wondering if an artist like Tony would like his new body, of he'd rather have the old Steve, which is when he knew he was about to crack up like the headshrinkers predicted.
Out here, though, it was just clean air, and silence and a friend.
"Do you ever get tired of it, Buck?" he asked.
Bucky made an irritated noise in the back of his throat. "Tired of keeping up with you, you mean? You bet."
He'd offered to make a joke of it, but Steve couldn't. "No, I mean, lying to Uncle Sam."
"No." The word came out automatically, but a pause followed, as Bucky went so still he seemed to stop breathing. "I don't really have to, do I?"
"Says the kid with Cyrillic on his wrist," Steve said, then regretted it. He knew Bucky got hassled for his mark, and he didn't want to add to it.
Bucky didn't seem to mind this time, just saying, "Yeah, but I just say, 'No, sir, I don't know who that is,' and 'Yes, sir, I'm loyal to the US of A,' and, 'No, sir, I'd never even think of selling out to the reds.' No lies there."
Steve supposed not. "I had to lie a lot," he admitted.
"Yeah." Bucky's voice was low and sympathetic.
"I hate it," Steve said, knowing that it sounded like a whine, but at the same time needing to tell someone the truth. "I hate that they make something ugly of one soul's love for another. I hate that the only way to be a good soldier is to lie to your CO. I just want to serve my country, and they're tying me in knots to do it."
Beside him, Bucky shifted in the dark. He put a hand on Steve's elbow and squeezed it lightly. "Better than the alternative," was all he said, but it was enough.
Steve sighed. "Yeah, I know." Across the Atlantic, the Nazis were rolling across Europe, and they had to be stopped. Steve had done what he needed to to fight for his country. He was trying to protect all the Tonys and Arnies and Sarahs and Beths of the world, even when that country would not. "I still hate the lies."
Yet at the same time he was beginning to realise that there was more than one way to be a perfect soldier, and Steve's idea of bravery and honour did not have to align exactly with Uncle Sam's.
"Come on, Bucky," Steve said. "It'll be fun."
Bucky actually laughed at him. He'd taken over the pocket mirror, and was slicking back his hair into lines that looked neat and careless at the same time. "You'd think that a two-day liberty this close to the Big Apple would be, but we've done this dance before."
"I thought you had a good time, last time." Steve was trying to straighten his tie, but the knot had turned wrong, and he was going to have to take it apart again. He still wasn't quite used to how things fit now. "You met that girl, what was her name?"
"Edith, and then you dragged me off to another joint, and the next girl was called Edith too, or so she said." Satisfied with his hair, he turned and yanked Steve's tie off, and tugged the knots loose. "You might not mind every fairy in New York thinking you're rough trade–" he flipped the tie around Steve's neck and knotted it with a deft twist, "–but I got better things to do with my pass than buddying along with you to every queer joint in the Five Burroughs."
"I've never been to Richmond," Steve said, though what he wanted to say was, "but what if I miss him?" New York was whirling, the whole city a dance floor filled with strangers. He could turn a corner and come face to face with Tony, just fresh off some train or other, or on his last day of liberty before deployment. He also didn't say, "What if he ships out tomorrow, and I never see him? Like it would have been if I hadn't gone to that dance, and Mom had never found Beth. It was so close." But only because he knew he'd said it too many times already. He brushed Bucky's hands away and cinched the tie up himself, then checked the mirror.
The reflection showed Bucky peering over his shoulder, his expression softened, taking on a knowing edge that a kid his age shouldn't have. "Steve," he started again. "We're heading for France in two days. I just want to kick back and see a movie, not cruise six joints in two hours."
Steve sighed. Bucky too was looking at his first real action overseas, and as much training as they'd been through, Steve remembered how nothing had truly prepared him for the terror and thrill of live fire and real people actually trying to do him harm.
"Sure, partner," he said, slinging an arm around Bucky's shoulder. "What did you want to see?"
He would look for Tony another time. If he were here, Steve thought, Tony would understand.
There would always be London on the way back.
That next mission, they almost died.
Baron Blood caught Steve under the chin and slammed him backwards over a stall door. Steve had lost his shield some time before, and just slugging the guy didn't seem to be doing much, nor kicking him in the jewels. Blood just kept his hold on Steve's face and pushed his head back to expose his throat. His teeth were gleaming in the lantern light, and punching him in the mouth only tore Steve's re-enforced leather gloves. He didn't have much faith in his uniform protecting his neck.
"Soon you'll be like me," Baron Blood hissed, which didn't make Steve want to clobber him less, but still sent a shiver of fear through him. Please, Jesus, anything but that.
"Not this time," Steve grunted and kicked the legs out from under him, which made him fall forward onto Steve, and the stall door creak then shatter under their weight. Blood landed on top of Steve, and his hands scrabbled to find Steve's throat, fingers catching the edge of his cowl and yanking Steve's head towards him. Steve tried to get his legs up so he could rabbit kick the vampire off, but Blood kneed him in the stomach, winding him, and for a second it looked like that was it.
Then Bucky clocked Blood in the back of the head with a swing that would make the Bambino proud. It knocked him free long enough for Steve to shove out from under him, and make it clear of the barn, Bucky hot on his heels, still holding the makeshift crucifix that he'd used as a slugger.
"What–" Steve started to say, but then the barn exploded, and he was grabbing Bucky and propelling them both into a muddy ditch.
"Do you think we got him?" Bucky asked struggling to pick himself up. He slipped and went down again, but Steve caught his arm before he landed on his face. "I lit off enough TNT to take down an elephant."
Steve started to grimace, then wiped the mud off his face and tried again. "Not hardly, but he's gone; that's for sure. Good hit though."
He gave Bucky an arm up, then shoved him out of the ditch ahead of him. It was so easy now with his strength; he felt like he could almost fly. But would Tony love him still, he wondered again, especially now that he was a monster of mud and blood and muscle that had just tried to kill a man?
"Come on," Bucky said. He was reaching back down like Steve might need his help. Dark was coming on, and the flames of the barn reflected off the mud, making him look like the ghoul. "If we hustle, we can make base by chow time."
Steve took his hand, letting himself be pulled back to level ground, then went pry his shield out of the tree it had blasted into. "Sounds good, Buck," he said, and slung the shield onto his back.
But as they jogged back to the rendezvous, Steve thought about how if he hadn't made it out of that barn, Tony probably never would have known what happened to him, might not even known he'd lived at all.
They didn't make London by chow time, unless Bucky counted tea time the next day, and it was well after dinner by the time they debriefed and made it to the mess.
Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos had gotten in the night before, and had clearly had a better mission than Steve and Bucky. As usual they'd spread out to take over most of the tables in a loud, interracial, multilingual running argument. As far as Steve could tell, the Commandos had pretty well picked up where they left off when they shipped out a week ago, the hot topic of the moment being why Morita's girlfriend hadn't written back in a month. Lost mail was a strong contender, as were another man, another woman, her being a spy, and alien abduction.
Morita was doing his best to ignore the lot of them while he worked on a new letter, which showed admirable dedication with Manelli standing behind him declaiming every new sentence, in a Russian accent.
Fury was passing out contraband wine, and Steve briefly considered trying to stop him from offering it to Bucky, but then gave up. Fury was unstoppable anyway, and Bucky had earned it.
"To Bucky Barnes!" Steve shouted, raising his own glass. "I wouldn't be here without him."
The company hooted back, but generally in approval, and it was worth it to have made Bucky blush, though he almost choked on his reconstituted mashed potatoes too, and Steve had to pound him on the back.
"Easy, partner," he said, and Bucky flipped him off.
Morita had turned back to his letter, and Steve watched him with a certain envy. With his parents gone, and Beth and Arnie having fallen out of touch, he didn't have anyone back in the States to write. He tried to imagine what it would be like if he'd managed to find Tony before the war. Would he be in it, or at home working? Would he write Steve every week, like some of the girls did? Steve knew for sure that he'd write back, even if he wasn't allowed to say much.
But then, if Tony existed, the army probably wouldn't let him send letters at all. Steve twirled the glass between his palms and thought about how it might go, but couldn't see a way out.
"You got smoke coming out of your ears," Bucky said, and ducked as Steve tried to elbow him. "What's going on in that head?"
"Just wish I could write Tony a letter, you know, in case something happened to me," Steve said, trying hard not to feel blue and bring down the crowd. "Or if I wrote one, that I had some way to send it without Uncle Sam cutting the meat out." Or burning it unread. "They've been after guys for putting on too many Xs and Os."
"You should write him anyway." Bucky's gaze slid across the room to where Fury was breaking out a box of fresh cigars, then back to Steve. "We might know a man who's good at flying too low to see."
"Yeah, I guess we might," Steve said, watching Fury as well.
Over the years, he'd already thought a lot about what he'd put in a letter to Tony, but it still might take a couple of drafts to get it right, work best done away from Manelli.
He would write it tonight, he decided. He would do anything if it meant that Tony had a chance of finding out how much Steve had loved him, even if Steve never got to tell him himself.