"Sorry, Rogers," the foreman says, not even looking up from his clipboard. "We're gonna have to let you go."
Steve's tired and too hot, coming off his shift on the assembly line, and at first he doesn't even register what Mr Brown is saying. He was only hired a few months ago, and he's been doing good work. He's been going home exhausted, shaking, his hands trembling for hours after he leaves, so he knows he's been doing good work.
"Why's that, sir?" Steve asks, doing his best to hold back the flash of anger that's building inside him. Maybe they've noticed him ducking out back a few times, trying to hide the desperate gasping that comes along with his asthma attacks. Maybe he's run out of believable excuses for the days – only three, he's sure of it, it was only three days – when the pain meant he just couldn't get up out of bed for trying and had to miss work.
The foreman shrugs. "No one's buying what we're making. Gotta cut back."
Steve's twenty-two and he's been fired a lot in his life, which is impressive given how few jobs there are to get in the first place. It's always for the same reasons: too slow, too weak, too small. He thought he was onto something with this factory job; there are a couple women working the line with him, and one guy with a bum leg. He thought he could keep up, and he had been, he's sure of it. It'd been better, anyway, than the coughing fits he'd get yelling headlines all day, or the way his body'd felt wrung out and empty after he tried hauling crates.
And he thought that maybe, if he had a steady job and some free time, he could find the will to pick up his pencils again.
Getting fired means spending day after day pounding the pavement, begging for work when there's guys twice his size and strength unemployed. It means seeing that dismissive look in peoples' eyes over and over again, for weeks maybe.
He can't help it. He opens his mouth.
"And I'm the first to get cut back, huh," he says. It's not smart, Steve knows it's not smart: Mr Brown could hire him back someday, if there were open positions again. But he's too angry to keep the words behind his teeth, too angry to even regret them once they're out. The foreman finally looks up from his clipboard and down to meet Steve's eyes.
"Yeah," he says. There's no malice in it, which makes Steve even angrier. It's fair to fire him, Steve knows that. It's almost always fair to fire him. He shouldn't be surprised, and he shouldn't be mad.
The heat of the anger doesn't go away, though, doesn't drain out of him like it ought to, and Steve finds himself standing still, breathing fast, bone-tired and wishing there were some way to prove himself. He's been keeping up, he thinks: he could have sworn that he was keeping up, this time.
"You can collect your pay with Madeleine," Mr Brown says, looking back at his clipboard. To him, Steve is already gone, forgotten, a faulty part that's been removed from the machine, replaceable.
Like he never even existed.
He collects his pay with Madeleine and starts the long walk back to the rooming house where he shares a suite with Bucky. It'd be better if his next job were near the Navy Yard, so he could be closer to home. Then maybe he'd have enough strength left after walking in to work to keep up with the other guys. Not that there's much out at the docks that he can do, that he hasn't tried. Big tall dockers usually take one look at Steve's skinny shoulders and laugh themselves sick.
A bunch of folks are sitting outside his building, lounging on the stoop and smoking or talking, taking it easy after a long day of work. He notices Danielle from upstairs, pretty in dark blue slacks, patterned blouse, and bright red lipstick, taking a long drag on a cigarette. She notices him back, and smiles.
"Hey Steve," she says. "Long day?"
"I got canned," Steve replies, and settles down beside her on the stoop. He'll rest for a minute before he tackles the stairs. He might as well.
"Goddamn it," she sighs. A couple of heads turn, but no one says anything. Steve smiles, thinking how his Ma would've lost it if she'd heard a lady blaspheming like that, especially someone like Danielle who's at every Catholic Worker meeting.
"Yeah," Steve agrees.
"They fire a lot of workers?" she asks, perking up. "Force everyone to take a wage cut? Are they cutting some people to overwork the rest?"
Steve grimaces; selfishly, he wishes it were any of those things. He wishes he believed Mr Brown's explanation about making cuts. "They pay pretty well. And I think it was just me."
"Aw, that's too bad," she says. There's a big rectangle of canvas folded at her feet, and Steve nudges it with his foot.
"You were all ready to paint me a sign, huh?"
She laughs, and takes another drag of her cigarette. "Anytime, Stevie. Even if you're a union of one. And even if you're the better artist between us."
He tries not to think about his sketchbook upstairs, gathering dust, still three-quarters empty. Last time he tried drawing, his hands had shaken so much, and he'd gotten so frustrated, that he'd thrown the pencil furiously across the room before running after it to make sure it wasn't broken. He hasn't tried since.
"Who were you out for today?" Bending down hurts, strains his already sore back, but it's worth it to pull up the corner of the canvas and have a look underneath.
"Walkout on War, for the student union down at Brooklyn College," Danielle replies. "Lost cause, really, but a good one."
Steve nods. He's seen the flyers around, arguing against government censorship and the militarization of the schools. "You don't think the students will join in the protest?"
"Too many of them think we should be going to war in Europe," Danielle sighs. "Dumb kids."
"Maybe we should be," Steve says.
"Don't even get me started on that one again," Danielle groans. "Anyway, this is a free speech issue. You want them censoring German language classes or shutting down student peace organizations?"
"No," Steve says. "I don't. I'm with you, Danielle. It's a long walk down to the college, is all."
"Well, the walkout is tomorrow, so we've already done as much as we can. I just don't think it's gonna be big enough to get much attention."
"Might as well go down fighting," Steve says. "Like with that protest for youth job programs we did. Or the Sugar Strike last year."
"Now that was a good strike," Danielle agrees. "I remember one young man in particular who fought like he had the fire-a-God lit under him."
Steve smiles. "If by 'fought' you mean 'took a lot of hits from billy clubs,' then sure, I fought," he says.
Danielle laughs ruefully. "You didn't budge, though, Steve. That's the important thing."
"Didn't do us much good, though, did it," he says. They'd all been replaced by scab labor. The only good thing about the strike had been meeting Pauline, now Danielle's roommate, who had clued them all in to vacancies in this building.
Danielle purses her lips, eyes far away. "They all do good," she says. "Even when we get beat. It's worth standing up for, even if that's all you can do."
Steve's seen Danielle thrown to the ground and kicked, seen a cop step on her face when she wouldn't stop yelling, seen her take quite a few punches, but he's never seen her throw one. During the Sugar Strike, whenever Steve had tried to get between the strikebreakers and one of his fellows, or come close to losing his temper and hitting back, it'd been Danielle's hand on his arm to tell him to get back in line. She really makes him believe in pacifism, sometimes, in what it could do if they all took it up.
"I know," he says. It's harder when he can't do anything about it, anyway, that's for sure. Tired as he is, he wishes he could grab a sign and link arms with some other guys and scream a few slogans at Mr Brown.
"If you've got some time off in the next few days you should come out with us."
"For Walkout on War?" Steve asks, confused.
"No, we're going out stumping for Norman Thomas. Knocking on doors, trying to get community support. You're always good at that stuff."
Steve likes it, too, the part where you connect with folks, convince them to come around to your way of thinking. He smiles.
"Remember old Mrs Miller?" he asks.
"Good God, I thought she was going to thwack you with her cane right there on her front stoop! But you talked her around. That's what we need for Norman Thomas, that kind of passion."
"I don't know if I'm gonna vote for Thomas," Steve says. "The race is gonna be tight in New York, they're saying. And I like Roosevelt."
"Thomas is the only one who sees the war machine for what it is," Danielle says. "Sacrificing lives for profit. Making war to make money."
"I heard the talking points, Danielle," Steve says. "I don't disagree. But war's gonna come anyway." He looks down at his hands, callused here and there from holding a hammer or a pencil, small and weak. If war does come, he could think of worse things than sacrificing himself – not for profit, or the war machine, but for somebody else. Another soldier. That would be a worthy thing to do. He imagines that President Roosevelt might understand that, wanting to do something good for others even if people might think you can't.
"Well, listen," she says, "you and I both know Thomas isn't gonna win the election. But his ideas are important, and maybe if we yell them out loud enough, it'll make the others have to talk about them, you know?"
"If you're not working right now, come do this work instead. Knocking on doors with us, talking to people. We'll tell them what we believe, that's all."
"I'll come, okay," he says, and smiles. "Too bad there's no money in that kind of work."
Danielle's not what anybody would call independently wealthy, but she has enough from her Pop, who runs an auto repair shop, for rent and food. She nods ruefully, and there's a long, comfortable silence between them.
"Seriously, Steve, if you need anything, money or whatever – "
"Thanks," he says quickly. He knows it'd offend her if he said it, but he doesn't think he could take money from a dame. He'd feel the ghost of his Ma breathing down his neck for sure if he did.
Danielle shrugs. "Shoulder to cry on, then," she amends. "I'm pretty good at that."
"Too bad there's no money in that either."
"Too bad," Danielle agrees.
Danielle's friend Valentine, dressed nicely in a purple dress and a matching hat, walks up briskly from around the corner. Her eyes flick warily over all the people sitting on the stoop, calculating how safe it is for her to be there, but then her gaze lands on Danielle and her expression warms as a beautiful smile breaks over her face. Steve feels a little twinge of jealousy. No one ever looks at him that way.
"Valentine!" Danielle exclaims. "I thought you were tied up all evening."
"I was, but then the fat cats at Tillman's decided to go ahead and do a lockout," Valentine replies, slightly out of breath. Danielle's eyes widen. She sticks out her hand, and Valentine takes it firmly. Steve watches surreptitiously, the place where their palms meet and their fingers clench and hold together.
"See ya, Steve," Danielle says, as Valentine pulls her up. "Dunno when I'll be back, but I'll be around tomorrow if you wanna talk. We're leaving at ten to go knock on doors for Thomas."
"Thanks," Steve says, and means it; he feels a lot better for having talked to her, even if he's still in the same situation as he was.
He watches Danielle and Valentine go off down the street, arm in arm, heads bent close together as they discuss whatever heroics they're about to undertake. Steve smiles.
"That fucking bulldyke," one of Steve's neighbors sneers, and Steve turns angrily toward him.
"You wanna say that again?" he asks.
The guy - Gerald, Steve remembers, he lives one floor up – narrows his eyes. "Not saying nothing that ain't true," he says. "I'm next door to that Mick girl. You should hear the caterwauling when the colored one visits." He laughs, and a couple of other guys around him laugh too.
"I don't care what you can hear," Steve says, standing up and squaring his shoulders, ignoring the aches in his body. His full height has never impressed anybody, but Danielle's right – it's worth standing up, if you can, for its own sake. "You treat those ladies with respect."
Gerald rolls his eyes. "Respect! That colored girl ought to show respect by not coming up into our neighborhood."
"Valentine does more good for this community than you ever do," Steve says. It makes him angry, to think that her hard work could be so invisible to this guy. "She works for the people in this neighborhood. So I'm telling you, watch what you're saying," Steve finishes, as evenly as he can.
"Or what?" He looks up at Steve with a smile on his face. Sitting down he's nearly as tall as Steve standing up.
"Or I'll teach you respect," Steve says, clenching his fists. The anger from before comes back, blooming under Steve's skin like fire, filling up his head with noise.
Gerald laughs, and his first swing is sloppy, so Steve gets two good punches in before he gets knocked down and kicked in the ribs. He scrabbles to get up again, but Gerald pushes him back down, knocking the wind out of him and leaving him gasping.
"Jesus, kid," he says, disgusted. "I don't wanna fight you."
That's the long and short of it, really. By the time Steve gets to his feet again, Gerald's gone, along with most of the other neighbors, though a few are still sitting out on the stoop and giving him the occasional interested glance.
"Nothing to see," Steve mutters, even though the little crowd seems to disagree. His ribs hurt like hell, though he's pretty sure they're not broken this time. He can't catch his breath and his joints hurt, but that's not so unusual. The real pain is in the way everyone looks at him, like he's nothing, or close enough as makes no difference. He stumbles up the front steps and manages to get the heavy door open. Alone in the little lobby he feels better, safer, though no less angry. His face is hot and he keeps replaying it in his mind, the moment when Gerald walked away like he wasn't even worth fighting.
At least when they fight him, he feels like he's real, like he makes some difference by being alive.
It's a lot of stairs up to the apartment. Steve lets himself take the luxury of going slow, pausing and taking deep, aching breaths every few steps. Long day, he thinks. It'll be better tomorrow. Tomorrow he'll beat the pavement and find himself another job. He's got a little put away from the last few months, at least, though it's not enough to last long.
With his thoughts chasing themselves around in an ever-collapsing spiral – how long will his savings last? how long will his next job last? will the next thing he gets knock him down with another fever? – he trudges up the last few rickety stairs to his rooms and fusses through all the junk in his pockets till he finds his keys.
Just then his next-door neighbors step out into the hallway. Steve is hit with a sweet wave of perfume, and the soft, enveloping scent stops the train of bad thoughts in their tracks. He turns around and smiles. Betty and Marlene are all dolled up in rouge and lipstick, brightly-colored flowers pinned to their lapels, eyebrows perfectly plucked.
"Steve!" Betty trills, reaching out to slap Steve companionably on the chest. "You look a fright, whatever can be wrong?"
"Fired again," he sighs, deciding not to tell them about the kick to the ribs he'd taken downstairs. The ladies cluck their tongues.
"You'll find something else, tiger," Marlene says, offering him a smile. She's so pretty and so sincere that Steve can't help but smile back.
"I hope so. I don't suppose either of you knows of any work?"
"I could ask around," Marlene offers, and Steve nods gratefully. There's a little pause. Steve fiddles with his keys again.
"Steve," Betty says slowly, "please don't take this the wrong way, but didn't I see you down at The Hotel St. George one time?"
Steve blinks in surprise, a wave of fear passing through him. He's been to the St. George now and then, and a lot of folks really let their hair down there. It'd be easy for someone to get an eyeful. There'd been the one guy who had kissed Steve in the lobby.
But no one has ever asked Steve about it before, and he's never had to talk about it.
"Yeah," he stutters, blushing. "It's just – it was only a couple of times, you know."
Betty nods. "And Marlene told me she saw you at Vincent's once, too."
Put together, it makes a pretty damning picture. "If she says so, then I guess she did," Steve agrees, clearing his throat. "You wouldn't tell, though." He's sure they wouldn't.
Marlene rolls her eyes at the suggestion. "We wouldn't throw stones, dear," she says.
"Marlene," Betty says, turning conspiratorially to her companion, "What would you say to the suggestion that we take Steve out on the town with us tonight?"
"Oooh!" Marlene smiles. "I'd say, I think that's just what he needs."
Steve's heart starts to race at the idea. It's been so long since he's let himself, and he's filled up suddenly with wanting it. Bucky's out with a new girl, probably won't be home till late, but still . . . he shouldn't. He gulps, looking for an excuse.
"Oh, but I'm not – I'm not all prettied up like you gals are, I'd look out of place – " He looks down, frowning, at his jacket, which is dirty from his up close inspection of the sidewalk, and wonders if he's got cuts or bruises showing. He's tired and humiliated and doesn't know if he could bear to show his face downstairs again.
"Nonsense," Marlene says, and ushers him into their apartment. Steve's never been inside before. It looks like any set of rooms that a couple of guys might share – hats on the hatrack, socks hanging on the tiny radiator – except for the little table in the corner with the propped-up mirror and the rows of cosmetics, and the scent of perfume, and the bright feathers and scarves and ties adorning every available surface.
"How long's it been since you went out on the scene, Steve?" Marlene asks gently. Steve thinks back, but he can't remember. He tries not to go too often. Bucky'd ask questions.
"I dunno," he says. When he's gone, it's always been on his own, leaning against a brick wall or the side of a bar until someone noticed him and took him somewhere private: up to a room, or out behind the bar, where they could make Steve forget his troubles for a bit. But Betty and Marlene, they get dressed up, they get seen, they – people probably know them, down at Vincent's or at the St. George.
"Too long, then," Marlene says softly, patting his arm.
Maybe it would be good, Steve thinks, to get out. To go with them. There's nothing to do in his apartment but sit and stew, anyhow.
"We can just tidy you up and lend you some clothes," Betty says. "We got boy stuff, we got girl stuff. Or we could give you the whole treatment."
"The whole treatment?" Steve asks. He can't take his eyes off of the little table, the gleaming bottles and soft-looking brushes that cover its surface. They all look so pretty.
"Lipstick, rouge, the works," Marlene grins. "I am dying to bring out those cheekbones."
Steve feels a heavy anticipation settle in his body, nervousness warring with the sudden desire to know how his cheekbones might look with some rouge, how he might look if he – if he really played the part of the fairy. He clears his throat. "I'd – I think I might like that," he says.
"Pansy in the making," Betty laughs. "You've never worn makeup before?"
Shaking his head, Steve says, "I've seen – you know, fairies and stuff, girls like you, and I always thought they looked so . . . glamorous." It's a dumb word to pick, and it does make Betty laugh, but her laugh isn't unkind.
"Less glamorous when your lipstick's wrapped around somebody's prick," she says, "but that's sweet, I like that."
"It makes me feel glamorous," Marlene says, with a pointed look at Betty. "We can do that for you, Steve."
He thinks back on Mr Brown, how he hadn't even glanced up at Steve while he fired him, and on the sight of Gerald walking away, not even willing to waste his time fighting. In makeup, at least, folks might have to see him.
"Okay," he says, almost sick to his stomach with nerves but unwilling to back down. "The whole treatment, then."
"Welcome to our salon," Betty says. "Won't you sit down?"
Steve, gamely, sits down on the little stool in front of the mirror.
"This won't take a moment," Betty says. She wipes his face with a wet cloth, frowning – he must've picked up some dirt when he hit the steps – and pulls out a little razor. "Stubble and rouge don't really mix," she says, apologetically. "Do you mind?"
He shakes his head no. Betty gets a little more water from the tap in the corner and comes back with shaving soap too.
"I can do that part, if you want," Steve says, feeling a little odd about it. He's used to shaving himself.
"But isn't it nicer when someone else does it for you?" Betty asks. "Here, see what you think."
She runs the shaving brush over his face, then scrapes away his whiskers with a few careful strokes. Her touch is light and delicate, moving his face this way and that, never once nicking him with the blade.
"Not quite barbershop quality, but Betty's got the touch," Marlene says, smiling as she watches the process.
"Yeah," Steve sighs. The humiliations of the day are fading in his memory, under the soft, kind feeling of Betty's hands on his face and neck.
"There," she says, finally. "I'm afraid I haven't got a hot towel, though." She wipes him clean instead with a rough regular towel.
"It's okay, that was nice," Steve says. "I might have to come to you for a shave every day."
"Two bits," she says insistently.
"Now the fun parts," Marlene says, coming to crouch in front of Steve with a little pot of rouge in her hands. "First, those cheekbones." She brushes some rouge onto Steve's cheeks, her touch feather-light against his skin.
Marlene's thumb, when it presses against his jaw to turn his head, is rough and callused; Steve wonders where she works during the day, what kind of trade job might not mind a fella showing up with his eyebrows plucked. Maybe she keeps her cap pulled down tight; Steve's seen fairies who could get away with that, though he imagines it gets embarrassing if you have to take off your hat for some reason.
They loan him a soft red shirt so outrageous that it might be a ladies' blouse, and a fresh yellow carnation to tuck into the buttonhole of his hastily dusted-off jacket. The flower doesn't look cheap, and Steve is warmed by the idea that they'd share the few special treats they have with him. The sight of the bright yellow smiling up from his lapel lightens his heart.
"You ever wore ladies' clothes before?" Betty asks, looking him over. She puts her hand through his hair once or twice, brushing it up and away from his forehead. It feels good, just to be touched like that, with care and kindness. After the day he's had, he finds he can't help but lean up into it.
"Nah," Steve says. "I don't even, uh, go out very much." He's too embarrassed to tell them the truth, that he's only ever cruised for as long as it took to find somebody warm and willing, that he's never worn anything special or been too picky about it. This is a whole new experience.
Betty puts a little lipstick on his lips, showing him how to press them together to make it spread around.
"Then we blot, darling, so put your lips on this," Betty says, holding out a kiss-stained handkerchief.
"I dunno if I should listen when a fairy tells me that," Steve cracks, and Betty and Marlene both laugh. But he leans forward and does as he's told. Opening his mouth for the little slip of cloth seems more intimate, in a way, than some of the blowjobs he's given.
Marlene moves in with another brush and a brick of mascara. "Hold on a minute, let me do your lashes. You've got beautiful long lashes, Steve."
"Thanks," Steve says, feeling his skin heat up again. He doesn't know what he'll do out on the street with all this stuff on, whether he'll look people in the eye or want to duck his head and hide.
Marlene smiles softly at him, and it makes him a little less nervous. He does his best to look up, like she tells him, and not blink while she applies the mascara.
"There," she says, after a moment. "All done."
"Be straight with me, girls, do I look like a dope?" He figures he'll look silly, a guy awkwardly playing dress-up, not like the sweet, beautiful fairies he's seen at the bars and nightclubs.
But when Betty presses her hands to Steve's shoulders and spins him around on the stool to face the mirror, Steve doesn't recognize himself for a long, intense moment. His cheekbones stand out with the rouge, making him look soft and girlish, caught in a perpetual blush. His lips look full and so, so red; his dark eyelashes flick up and down, reminding him of lady movie stars from the pictures.
The red of his shirt is intense too, eye-catching; his first thought, once he gets over the shock of it, is that he'll have to button his coat and put the collar up to hide the flash of color until they get there. The slippery material of the shirt – not real silk, surely, but still nice and soft – slides and clings along the lines of his shoulders and chest as if caressing them.
For the first time in his life, Steve looks at his slight build and thin bones and doesn't see a scrawny failure; the person in the mirror isn't frail or weak, but delicate, vulnerable, beautiful.
He touches his fingers to the edges of the carnation. It's soft, and still alive.
"Not too bad," Betty drawls.
"You look gorgeous," Marlene says, coming up behind them and looking over his shoulder into the mirror. "The fellas are gonna love you."
In the end, he doesn't keep his head down when they leave the building. He doesn't feel ashamed, or weak, like he should hide; instead, the makeup makes him feel powerful, like he's wearing a suit of armor and not just a touch of lipstick.
In the dark, he figures, no one's going to notice anyhow.
It's a bit of a hike to Vincent's, but Marlene and Betty go slow for him without him having to ask, and spend the walk filling him in on building gossip and teasing him gently about his pretty new looks, so that by the time they get there Steve's smiling, happy to be in company and letting go a little. His back's still hurting, but it's a hurt he can own, one he's taken on himself to go out and have a little fun. It's different from the hurt he gets from standing on the assembly line all day.
"Once more unto the breach," Betty jokes, as they open the unmarked door to the little hole-in-the-wall club on Sands Street. A wave of sounds and smells emerges: cigarettes, laughing, music, booze. Steve gestures the ladies in ahead of him, then follows them through the door.
He's only been to Vincent's a few times before, and never dressed like this. He didn't really need to get dressed up; his size and his features have always told the fellas everything they needed to know, and Steve usually kept to the shadows and went with the first guy who asked him.
In this new getup, he feels obvious, like a sore thumb in lipstick, and looks around anxiously more than once, worried that people are going to be staring at him. It's ridiculous, because Marlene and Betty are more dolled up than he is, and they're far from the most outlandishly dressed at Vincent's. The feeling sticks around, though, stubbornly, making Steve feel visible, and pretty, and self-conscious.
The bar hasn't changed, at least, since the last time Steve was here: young ladies and young gentlemen, most of whom'd be gentlemen – or, men, anyway – any other time of day. There are drinks and music and dancing, and everything's bright and colorful, a hidden pocket of beauty tucked into a dank, dismal corner of the street.
Steve watches the singers and orders himself a drink. He knows he should be saving what little money he has in case he doesn't land another job, but he can't find it in himself to care that much right now. The alcohol goes down easy and hits him fast; one good thing about being a little guy is that it doesn't take much to get him relaxed. Marlene and Betty dance almost every dance with various suitors, but switch off so that one of them is always with Steve at the bar. After about an hour of this treatment, now on his third drink, Steve grins at Betty and nudges her with his shoulder.
"I don't need looking after, you know. And that fella down the bar is giving you the eye."
"He can give me a drink or an offer to dance if he's so smitten," Betty grins, tossing her head in a way that would have thrown her curls over her shoulder, if she had any curls. "Anyway, we wanted to cheer you up, not drag you out with us and then abandon you."
"I'm having a swell time," Steve protests. Betty raises a fine, delicate eyebrow at him. "Okay, a nice time," Steve amends with a smile. He finds, as he says it, that it's true; there's something relaxing about the place, something about the girls in full drag twirling and sparkling, the laughter and the exaggerated flirting that makes him feel at home.
The fella from down the bar moves a few seats closer, so that he's sitting next to Steve. Steve wonders how he can encourage Betty to go dance with him without being too pushy about it. He's got plenty of experience from the times he's been out with Bucky, making Bucky feel okay about going to dance with some beautiful girl in the dance hall. It shouldn't be too hard to do it the other way around.
The guy is handsome, tall, broad in the shoulder, corded and solid with muscle. A real man's man, Steve thinks, but the effect is softened by his boyish face and the freckles scattered across his nose. When he smiles, it comes across sweet and a little shy, which Steve figures probably melts the hearts of all the girls. Jerk probably knows it, too.
"Can I ask you to dance?" the guy says, and Steve was so sure he was going to ask Betty that it takes him a while to notice that he was looking at Steve when he said it.
"Uh," Steve says.
"She'd love to," Betty replies over his shoulder, and pushes him forward. He topples off his stool and ends up standing right up close to the guy, close enough to feel the heat of his body.
To his credit, the stranger broadens his grin and holds out his hand, not touching Steve without permission. "Well?"
"Yeah, sure," Steve says, and takes it. "But I'm not much of a dancer." The fact is, he's never danced before at all, with anyone, and doesn't much like his chances now.
"I'll get you through it," the guy says, leading him away from the bar. His hand is big, his grip rough and masculine, enveloping Steve's fingers. Now that they're standing up together Steve can see that he's over six feet and built like a football player.
"I'm Frank, by the way," the guy says, laughing at himself a little for not saying so sooner. Steve smiles at him.
"Steve," he says. You don't give out last names at places like this. They move together to the music but it's not really dancing; just as well since Steve wasn't wrong about his two left feet.
"You're very pretty, Steve," Frank says, cupping Steve's cheek and rubbing a thumb over Steve's cheekbone. He might be rubbing off some of the rouge but Steve figures he can more than make up for it; his cheeks feel hot and he knows his blush is natural, now.
No one's ever said that to him before.
"Thanks," Steve says softly. Frank touches his face, his neck; wraps slow hands around Steve's waist and lets his fingertips dip lower, over Steve's thin hips.
"Always did have a weakness for blonds." Frank bends down and gives Steve a little kiss. Steve kisses back, though it's over before he can really enjoy it. He looks around, nervous, thinking that everyone must be staring, but no one seems to be paying attention to them at all.
Steve relaxes, and tries to follow Frank's movements. This dancing could be fun, if he could get the hang of it.
Then he steps on Frank's foot, and Frank yowls in pain. So, probably not a football player after all.
"Sorry, sorry," Steve says, wincing in sympathy. "I'm really not a dancer." Then, to make up for it, heart hammering in his chest, he forces himself forward: he wraps his arms around Frank's neck and pulls himself up, pulls Frank's head down, and kisses him sweetly. "I'm better at the other part," he breathes, daring.
"Oh yeah? You want to give up so soon?"
"More like – I'd like to focus on my strengths," Steve says. Looking up at Frank, he realizes that there's lipstick on his mouth, rubbed off from Steve: that Steve's kiss left marks behind.
"I got a place not far from here," Frank offers.
This is what he needs after a day like today, Steve decides: Frank's big arms around him and the opportunity to forget for a while. His heart thumps fast in his chest; it's been a long time since he's done this. He nods, biting his lip. "Let me say bye to my friends," he says.
He turns back toward Betty, where he left her at the bar, to find that she's watching him closely, grinning and making shooing motions at him. Impulsively, he blows her a kiss; she catches it in one fist, the way she'd catch a baseball, and winks at him.
Frank warns him that he shares his place with a couple of other guys, but hastens to add that they're both sailors and won't mind Frank bringing home some company. Steve's a little doubtful, but his doubts slip away when they open the front door to find two men in rumpled sailors' whites necking on the couch. At the sound they break apart and look up, then laugh with relief as they see Frank and Steve.
"Found a friend after all, hey Frankie?" one of them calls. Frank rolls his eyes.
"Steve, this is Bartie and George. Bartie and George, Steve." He's so quick at the introductions that Steve isn't really sure which one's Bartie and which one's George, but he also doesn't care that much.
"Hey fellas," Steve says, a little out of breath from the climb up the stairs. Then, as Frank sweeps in and picks him up, Steve laughs, "Bye, fellas." Bartie and George laugh behind them, but Steve doesn't care; Frank bears his weight easily, and he's hot where Steve is pressed against his body, and it feels wonderful.
"Never had anyone carry me over a threshold before," Steve says. Frank closes the bedroom door behind them with a foot and glances down, worried.
"Sorry, you don't like it?"
"No, I – it's good. I like, uh, how big and strong you are." Steve's never been very good at the kinds of lilting intonation that some of the fairies use for lines like that, the teasing girlish way of talking to men, but Frank smiles anyway, slow and warm, so Steve thinks he's doing okay.
"I like you too," Frank says, boyish again. For all his size, Steve doesn't figure they're very far apart in age.
There's a hot, awkward silence between them, which Steve breaks by gathering his courage and kissing Frank again. It starts soft and gets hard fast, so that before too long Frank is pressing him down into the squeaky cot, his weight almost too much to bear.
"Let me know if I'm squashing you," Frank whispers. Steve nods, and starts pulling off Frank's shirt, baring his wide, hairy chest and pink nipples. Steve can't help but sigh as he touches the freckled skin and rubs at the planes of muscle.
He's always gone for big guys, the few other times he's done this. He wants Frank's tall, powerful body, wants his strength and his easy grace, wants the force behind his fists and the thew of his chest, his neck, his thighs. Frank wouldn't lose in a fight to some street tough. Frank could haul crates for days, muscles singing with pleasure at the work. Pinned beneath all that raw power, Steve shivers, and kisses him again, desperately, wanting Frank's tongue in his mouth, Frank's body inside his.
"I have Vaseline," Frank says, after a few more minutes of kissing and squirming out of clothes. Steve's never used it for this before, but he's heard about it and nods. He's out of breath again, so he takes a minute to rest while Frank reaches over to a little night table and pulls out the jar.
"You okay?" he asks, when he notices Steve breathing heavy.
Steve almost lies, then remembers that he has no reason to, not here. Frank doesn't mind if he's . . . delicate. "I have asthma," he says, after a little pause. "Means I get out of breath sometimes."
Frank doesn't look disgusted, or call him weak; instead, he smiles softly and crawls back up the bed next to him. His big hands make quick work of Steve's pants and drawers. "Have you considered that you might be out of breath because I'm such a great kisser?" He kisses Steve's lips softly for emphasis. Steve laughs, kisses back.
"That too," he admits. Frank presses a kiss to Steve's hot cheekbone, then bends his head and kisses Steve's neck, too.
"I like how it makes you flush, though. So pink and pretty, all the way down your chest." He runs his hand over Steve's sternum and then down to wrap around his cock. "Pretty as a girl."
Steve shudders and rolls his hips up to meet Frank's grip.
"You gonna fuck me sometime soon, Frank?" he asks archly, when he's got enough breath back to do it. Frank's jacking him slowly and it's great, amazing, to be caught under his big body and loved by his thick hands, but Steve wants more.
Frank chuckles against his skin. "You bet." He coats his fingers with the Vaseline and uses them to open Steve up a little; the stuff is cold at first, but warms before too long.
"Oh," Steve says, at the feeling of those blunt fingers inside him, the obscenely wet slippery feeling of the Vaseline in his ass. It's way better than doing it with spit.
"Yeah, yeah, feels so good." Steve grips Frank's bicep as he curls his fingers up and strokes slowly. "So good."
"My cock's gonna feel even better, doll, you ready?"
"Yeah," Steve pants. "Yeah, do it." He rolls over to get up on his hands and knees, even though the position is a little uncomfortable on his joints. Frank comes up behind him and runs his hands up Steve's thighs and over his ass, then against Steve's sides. Steve squirms and laughs uncontrollably.
"Sorry." Frank laughs behind him, dropping a kiss to Steve's spine. "Ticklish?"
"Yeah," Steve giggles, and he's still grinning when Frank's dick goes in him, big and wide and exactly what Steve needs.
"Makes me wanna tickle you more," Frank says, rubbing Steve's ass with one hand and holding him open with the other while he pushes in. So big, Steve thinks.
"Don't – don't you dare," he replies, his laugh turning into a groan as Frank is finally pressed tight against him, all the way in.
"Oh wow, you feel good," Frank says, and after a moment he starts to thrust slowly, in and out, building up a rhythm. "You're so tight. Hot." His hand rubs restlessly up and down Steve's leg. "So beautiful."
Steve groans and digs his fingers into the bedsheets; with Frank's weight on top of him he doesn't think he can get an arm free to bring himself off.
"When I saw you at the bar, I knew you'd be good. So quiet, with that pretty face, and your soft hair." His hand trails up to Steve's head and gives a light tug to his hair; Steve feels it like a shock through his body, and lets out an involuntary moan as he pushes back again to meet Frank's thrusts.
"Please," Steve says, "please touch me, please – "
"Yeah," Frank's hand slides immediately around Steve's hip, and he starts up a steady stroke to match the pace of his fucking. His other hand goes up to Steve's shoulder, to hold him in place, and squeezes. "Yeah, I got you, sweetheart, I'll take care of you."
"Oh, that's so good," Steve says, overwhelmed by the sensation of Frank's hand on his dick, Frank's dick in his ass. "Oh, oh, oh, Holy . . . God."
Frank leans down over him, getting them closer together, his skin hot and sweaty against Steve's. He's surrounded, covered in Frank's strong, heavy body, inside and out, and that's when he comes, gasping, his arms shaking with the strain, his mouth open in a wordless cry.
Steve's coming back to himself, little shocks still running over his skin, when Frank bites down on Steve's shoulder and goes quiet, twitching against Steve's back for a long moment before pulling back out. Steve feels like a sticky mess back there, what with all the Vaseline and all, but it was worth it. He rolls over onto his back, pain in his knees and wrists making itself known now that the heat of the moment has passed.
Frank crawls up and settles in next to him, on his stomach, and shyly puts an arm over Steve's belly. His fingers play along Steve's ribs, touching soft and gentle, sliding up to his nipples and then back down again.
Sighing, Steve closes his eyes to bask in the sensation.
"Hey Steve," Frank asks softly. Steve opens his eyes and turns his head to look at him. "You Irish?" Frank asks.
Steve rolls up on his side to face him and frowns. "Yeah, what's it to you?"
Frank buries a giggle into the pillow. "Nothing, 'cept my last name starts with O. And my first is really Frances." Steve relaxes, astonished that Frank would share those details so easily. "I just was thinking – you know, my Ma, she's always telling me to bring home a nice Irish girl." Frank's fingertips continue to trace over Steve's body, his arm from shoulder to wrist, his thigh, the soft hair on his belly above his cock. "I sometimes think – nah, it's stupid."
Steve licks his lips. "Go on," he says. "It's not stupid."
Frank gives him a wry smile. "I sometimes think, when I meet a sweet pretty fairy like you, I think, hey, there's nothing my Ma could object to if I brought this one home."
Steve laughs, because Frank's knuckles are only a couple inches from a part of Steve that Frank's Ma would object to pretty strenuously. Frank grins, maybe hearing that Steve's not laughing at him, but with him.
"I like that," Steve says, imagining how it'd feel if he were someone's girl, if he were supposed to be small and thin and delicate.
There'd been a lady, Mrs O'Keeffe, who used to come over for coffee and gossip with his Ma, back when he was little. One day, the last time that his Ma had ever had her over, Steve had overheard her saying that Steven was a sweet boy, and that it was too bad he'd do so much damage to the race if he married an Irish girl.
Steve had never heard his Ma's voice go so cold and hard, not even when he and Bucky and their pal Arnie got in the worst trouble. "Steven was my gift from God," Sarah Rogers had replied. Mrs O'Keeffe had smiled and said, of course, of course, so long as he kept his own gifts to himself, and away from her daughters.
Frank bends almost double and kisses Steve's belly. Steve strokes his hair and thinks about how it would feel to have someone's Irish Catholic mother welcome him to the family.
"My family's gone," Steve says, quietly. "But I dunno, it seems like no one should mind if I find a big strong fella to take care of me."
"They should congratulate you. I'd be a good provider," Frank says, playing along. "Got a steady job and all."
"You work down at the docks?" Steve guesses. Frank nods. Steve leans forward and kisses him once, softly, on the mouth, before getting up and finding his trousers.
"Well, if you hear of anything a little guy like me could do down there, let me know, huh? I got fired today."
Frank winces in sympathy. "I'll do that. You down at Vincent's a lot? Maybe I'll see you again."
"I dunno," Steve says slowly, buttoning his soft red shirt over his chest. It feels good to put it back on, like putting on a part of himself. Like he's still just wearing his skin even if he's clothed.
He looks around for his jacket to cover it up. It'd been so nice, to wear the shirt and the makeup, and to joke with Betty and Marlene, and to flirt with Frank. He could get used to that feeling.
"Maybe I'll go again sometime soon," he says. "Not that I can really afford it."
"Oh, that reminds me," Frank says, and rummages again in the little table next to the bed. "Here." He stands up and hands over a quarter, which Steve takes with a smile.
"Thanks," he says, tucking the coin in his pocket.
"All I got," Frank shrugs. "You leaving?"
"Yeah." Steve leans up and kisses him one last time, letting himself bask in the presence of his big, powerful body. Frank kisses back. When they break apart, they shake hands warmly, like friends, and Steve slips out the door. In the front room Bartie and George are curled up sleeping together on the couch, and don't even notice him going.
There's a bathroom in the hallway, where Steve stops long enough to clean himself up and scrub the makeup from his face. When he's finally got most of it gone, he looks at himself in the cracked, cloudy mirror and shakes his head ruefully. He's only been wearing the makeup for a few hours, but all of a sudden, the same old face he's used to seeing in his reflection doesn't feel like his own anymore.
He will be going back to Vincent's, he knows that for sure. And he'll be asking Marlene and Betty to doll him up again, too. He wants to look in the mirror and see the girl from before, the pretty fairy with the long eyelashes and delicate cheekbones.
He looks away from his reflection, the same old boring Steve Rogers who can't hold down a job.
When he gets back home, he listens for a moment at Marlene and Betty's door, but doesn't hear anything. He grins to himself; maybe they lucked out like Steve did, and found trade at Vincent's to leave with.
His apartment is dark, but Bucky's snores alert Steve to his presence before Steve has to wonder if he's home. He crawls into his narrow bed, trying to be quiet, but a moment later he hears Bucky's voice from a few feet away.
"You're out late," he murmurs, sleepily. "Meet any girls?"
For a moment Steve is bizarrely tempted to answer Yes, one, but he shuts down the impulse. Instead he says, "Nah. Just having a drink." Then, because it'll be an easier confession in the dark, while Bucky's still half-asleep, he adds, "I got fired again, Buck."
Bucky sighs in a slow, sleep-addled way. "You'll get another job," he says, like he always does. Bucky could probably have this conversation in his sleep. "And anyway, I'll take care of you, Steve. You know that."
"Yeah," Steve replies, warm now under his blanket, listening to Bucky's breathing as it evens out again. "I know."
At their Catholic Worker meeting that Sunday afternoon, Danielle convinces everyone that they ought to be supporting the workers at Tillman's, and so they plan to join the protest on Tuesday. Steve starts making the signs; at least now that he's out of a job his hands aren't shaking so bad.
"I know you gotta look for work," Danielle tells him, after. "I get it if you can't come out for every cause."
"I liked stumping for Thomas," Steve says, shaking his head. "And you're right, about Tillman's. They're taking bread out of the mouths of the poor, people we've been working hard to feed. It makes sense to go to the root of the problem."
She sighs, nodding. "I get goddamn sick of all the palliatives," she says. They're five steps off church property, but Steve frowns anyway, making her laugh.
"Never in the house of God!" she promises. "But a gal doesn't grow up in a mechanic's shop and not pick up a thing or two." She pats at her hips, realizes she's wearing a dress and doesn't have any pockets, and sighs. Steve thinks he can guess what she was looking for.
"Come on, I'll buy you a smoke," he says.
"My Ma has me convinced I can't wear trousers to church," Danielle says. "Like it'd shock the priest, I guess."
Steve gets her a cig and a book of matches with some change he finds deep down in his pockets, and she lights it immediately, inhaling gratefully.
"You'll bring the guys from the rooming house, on Tuesday? Any bodies we can get will help. Valentine's got contacts with the Negro papers, they're gonna be there to cover it since there are so many Negro workers in the lockout."
"I'll try. The guys at the rooming house don't care for me much."
Danielle shrugs. "Don't gotta like you. Just gotta show up."
Steve does his best, but the only bodies he manages to get to the Tillman's protest on Tuesday are his own and Bucky's, and Bucky complains about it the whole way.
"I'm not saying it ain't important, I'm saying I got work tonight," Bucky says, rubbing his eyes and almost dropping his sign.
"Yeah, well, we all gotta make sacrifices, Buck," Steve mutters. "You wanna build a better world, don't you?"
"Yeah, Stevie, I do," Bucky murmurs, and puts his hand on Steve's shoulder, squeezing lightly before pulling away again. Steve's reminded, viscerally, of Frank's hand on his shoulder while he fucked him, and has to shake the image away.
It's not like he doesn't have practice keeping his thoughts in check around Bucky. You'd think he'd be better at it by now.
He hoists his sign – hand-drawn with a cartoon of the Tillman's bosses as actual fat cats – a little higher on his shoulder, and sets his jaw, forcing his mind back to their conversation. "Then it doesn't matter if we hurt, or we're tired. We got a responsibility to help."
They're almost there; Steve can hear the protesters chanting from a block away.
"What, like, a responsibility to God?" Bucky asks. "Like Father Calhoun used to say?"
Steve shrugs. It's hard for him to think of it that way, in the abstract. "If you want. Or at least – a responsibility to each other."
Bucky nods. "I'll try to think of it that way," he says. "But you might have to keep dragging me out to these things. I don't think I'm good enough to do it on my own."
Looking up into Bucky's face, Steve has to shake his head. "You're plenty good, Buck," he says, softly. "You look after me."
With a chuckle, Bucky says, "Only because you're too busy looking after other people to do it yourself. I know this hurts your knees, and the shouting's bad for your lungs."
"Eh, it's not so bad," Steve says, playing it off. "At least this way I'm doing something. It's worse when I don't shout."
"I know," Bucky says, softly. "I can see that. It's what makes you who you are."
His hand lands on Steve's back again, this time just running over Steve's neck and down between his shoulderblades awkwardly, like Bucky wants to touch him but isn't sure what's the right way. Steve presses back into the contact, unconsciously, but it's gone almost before it begins.
He concentrates instead on the crowd that he can already hear, chanting fierce and loud.
They get to the protest, and Steve shouts until he coughs. Then he has someone hold his sign for a bit, and gasps for breath, and then gets up and shouts again.
When he comes back to the line, Bucky smiles at him so warmly that Steve has to look away.
The next day, when Steve's spent hours pounding the pavement and looking for jobs, when he's exhausted and empty after hearing no a dozen times, there's a knock at his door.
"Come out with us again," she says, when Steve opens it.
He starts going to Vincent's a lot more often, with Marlene and Betty at first, but then sometimes on his own as well. He doesn't always pick up trade, and he's given up on dancing after that first disastrous attempt, but he likes the attention, the feeling of belonging. Sometimes he just sits at the bar and has a drink, chats with folks, or flirts with a fella or two without it going anywhere. He gets used to the idea that when they look at him they see his painted lips and dark lashes, that when they touch him or kiss him it's because he's a sweet little fairy.
It makes him feel good, easier in his heart, so that he can face the next day that he has to spend looking for work and not finding any. No one at Vincent's thinks he's too small, or too weak, or looks past him. Behind that door, he's pretty, desirable; more than that, he's one of them, and gets treated like a friend.
It shouldn't come as a big surprise that Bucky gets curious about where he's been going. At first, Steve tried to time it to when Bucky was at work, or out on his own, but as the weeks have gone by Steve's gotten more daring, even leaving a couple times while Bucky was at home.
So when Bucky asks, Steve's already anticipating the question, but he still has no idea how to handle it. They're walking down the street together, and Bucky's on his good side, so Steve can't pretend not to have heard. He shrugs.
"Nowhere," he says, completely unconvincingly. He's not a good liar to begin with, and Bucky knows him way too well. Bucky's never been anything but polite to Marlene and Betty and the other queers and fairies who live on their street, but that's not the same as sleeping in the same room with one.
Bucky's eyes narrow. "You got a girl you're not telling me about, Steve Rogers?"
In a way, Steve does; she's Steve's height and build, pretty and pale, and a really easy screw. For a second Steve considers actually saying so to Bucky. Of course next thing would be Bucky wanting to meet her.
"No, I don't," he says, and at least this time he sounds honest.
"Got a new best friend?" Bucky nudges him with his shoulder. Steve laughs.
"No. I'm just blowing off steam, I swear. It's been rough, looking for work."
"So long as it's not the kind of blowing off steam where I have to stop your face from bleeding later on."
Steve points at his face, which is completely unmarked at the moment. There's a suck mark under his collar, though, that Bucky can't see.
"Good enough, I guess." Bucky slings a big, warm arm around Steve's shoulders, the way he's done since they were kids together. Steve lets himself lean into the touch, lean in towards Bucky's strong shoulder and wide chest. Bucky holds him close for a second, squishing their sides together in half a hug. His body gives off heat like a furnace.
"Jeez you're cold," Bucky laughs, rubbing his hand up and down Steve's arm to warm him.
"I'm always cold," Steve points out, because Bucky already knows this about him.
"We gotta find you someone to warm you up," Bucky says.
"You're doing fine," Steve says, unable to help himself. Bucky doesn't laugh or push him away, though; just gives him another one-armed hug, then keeps his arm slung over Steve's shoulder, easy and friendly, for the rest of the walk.
Election day rolls around, Danielle and Valentine knocking on their door early in the morning, both dressed to the nines and proudly displaying their "Vote Norman Thomas – Socialist" buttons.
"I got buttons for you and Bucky if you want them," Danielle says. She holds out a couple more, and Steve shakes his head.
"I made myself a sign instead," he says. He grabs it from where it was sitting beside the door and holds it up. VOTE TODAY!, it reads, with a big cartoon of New Yorkers lined up to put their votes in the ballot box.
"I love it," Valentine says. Steve, not wearing his hat, mimes a hat tip to her anyway.
"What's going on?" Bucky calls, from the other room. Steve rolls his eyes.
"Bucky's not awake yet," he informs them.
"Well, tell him that he better wake up and participate in democracy!" Danielle yells. Valentine shushes her.
"You know I'll kick your ass if you don't come vote with us, Buck," Steve says. Bucky emerges from the bedroom, rumpled but presentable.
"I gotta get to work by ten," Bucky says.
"You're supposed to get two hours off to vote," Valentine says, narrowing her eyes. "They passed a law."
Bucky shrugs. "No one told the guys at the warehouse."
"We're gonna be hearing that a lot today," Danielle says to Valentine. Valentine nods.
"We can try threatening to report," she says, grimacing.
"It's not gonna do much to convince my boss," Bucky says.
"Then you'll just have to vote early," Valentine says. "Come on."
Bucky wears one of the Norman Thomas pins on his left lapel and the Roosevelt one that Steve got for him on the right.
"You're gonna confuse people that way, Buck," Steve says, but grins as they march together down the street, knocking on their neighbors' doors to get people up and moving. Their little group gets bigger, people linking arms and laughing as they all walk to the polls.
"People ain't that easily confused," Bucky shrugs. "A guy can support lots of things. It just means I'm intellectual."
Steve pushes at his shoulder, and Bucky sways alarmingly far to the left, as if Steve's strength is triple what it really is. It makes him light up a little, inside, when Bucky does that: treats him like his touch has more effect on him than it really does.
It's funny, but walking side by side with Bucky and Danielle and Valentine like this reminds him a little of walking in to Vincent's with Marlene and Betty: he's anonymous in the crowd, one among many, but visible and important too, part of something bigger and more powerful than he is.
There aren't that many Norman Thomas buttons to be seen, but there are more than Steve would've thought, and plenty of Roosevelt, of course. Maybe all of Danielle's campaigning did some good after all.
Norman Thomas has good ideas, and the courage of his convictions; Steve just isn't sure he's the man to lead them during a war.
Valentine goes off for a while, to meet up with a group of Negro activists coming up to vote; there's no polling place in their neighborhood, and some of them are walking almost twenty blocks. She hurries everyone along, though, making neat checkmarks on her clipboard, and before long there's a strong Negro contingent walking behind the white group. Steve shakes hands with a few guys Valentine introduces him to, and promises to show up for the anti-segregation protests they're having in front of local businesses next week.
"If I have time," Steve says, thinking of his rapidly shrinking savings, the collection of bills and coins in an empty soup tin under his bed. He doesn't want to go back to slinging newsprint, but it's gonna be his only option pretty soon.
Danielle gets up a round of The Internationale, and a bunch of people join in. Steve's voice isn't much, but he tries to make up for it with enthusiasm. As they sing, a few people throw stuff at them, which Valentine, for the most part, fends off with her clipboard.
There's a group of white guys who are a little more aggressive about it, though, and once they see Valentine batting away the bits of newspaper they throw, start aiming directly for her.
"May we?" Steve asks her, and she narrows her eyes and nods.
"Be my guest."
Steve nudges Bucky with his elbow, and the two of them move in perfect synch to take a position between Valentine and the guys. They manage a pretty synchronized glare, too, Steve thinks.
One of them is carrying a sign that says WILLKIE, NOT THE WEAKLING. Steve curls one hand into a fist.
A few bits of crumpled-up newspaper and trash hit them, and Steve takes his cue to turn towards the nearest guy. The secret, with a group, is to pick out one guy and focus on him.
"You," he says, pointing. "You want one in the nose, pal?"
The guy tries to laugh, but looks confused at Steve's insistence and vehemence.
"I don't think you can reach," the guy yells back, after conferring anxiously with his fellows.
Next to him, Bucky laughs. "Wrong answer, kid," he mutters, as Steve runs over to him, grabs a handful of his shirt, and yanks as hard as he can to bring him down to Steve's level.
He makes a fist and brings it up to show the guy. "You throw one more thing at my friends and I will pop you one," he says, calmly and quietly. Being calm and quiet usually makes 'em freak.
"Let go," the guy says, squirming away. "Jeez."
Steve smiles, releases him, and jogs back over to Bucky's side. Bucky claps him on the back.
"Not so hard, Buck," Steve mutters, trying to catch his breath. Bucky smiles down at him.
"I wish I could vote for you, Stevie," he says, fondly. "It'd made the whole process a lot easier."
"For the record," Valentine says quietly, "I wouldn't really want you to hit anyone on my behalf. The chivalry was plenty."
"Sorry," Steve says, frowning. "I was trying to scare them off."
"I know," Valentine says, sighing. She glances over at the group of guys, who are talking amongst themselves and pretending like some little guy didn't just intimidate them. "It did work, in this case. Other times, they might've gotten more violent."
At the polling station, Valentine stops, turning to Steve, so he stops too, Bucky and Danielle walking on in front. She gives Steve a serious look. "Don't vote for the war machine, Steve. Roosevelt is already conscripting young men to fight for big business overseas."
"Why's it matter?" he asks, watching her carefully. At her horrified look and confused glance at the sign in his hands, he clarifies, "I mean, why's it matter to you who I vote for, in particular? Thomas won't get in."
She shrugs. "You're a friend. It's important to tell friends what you think the right thing is. And stand up for them when you can."
He smiles, and offers his hand. She shakes it firmly.
"Then thanks, Valentine," he says. "For standing up for me."
"Val?" Danielle calls, from up ahead, where the crowd is getting thick. "Come on up here with me."
Valentine nods at Steve once, then walks over to stand next to Danielle.
"Who are you gonna vote for, Steve?" Bucky asks. Steve frowns, and puts his VOTE TODAY! sign back onto his shoulder, sighing.
"I dunno," he says.
"Everyone says Roosevelt saw us through the Depression, and he'll see us through the war, if it comes," Bucky says, uncertainly.
"If it comes," Steve agrees. They'll end up fighting fascism in Europe, won't they? They already are. Steve doesn't know if all the pacifism in the world can stop it.
In the end, Steve votes for Roosevelt, just like his Ma did in '32, and tries to feel good about it. If there is war, Roosevelt is the one they want in charge, he thinks. He's strong, no matter what the Willkie supporters say to discredit him.
Afterwards, he says goodbye to his friends and walks ten blocks to talk to a factory foreman about a job, but the guy gives him one look, sweaty and breathing hard from all the exercise, trying to hide a limp from the pain in his knees, and tells him to go home.
He sees Frank around Vincent's now and then as the weather gets colder, and even goes home with him again a few times, so they get to be pretty friendly.
"You still looking for a job?" Frank asks one night, after they've sucked each other off. Turns out Frank likes playing the pansy too, sometimes. Steve doesn't object.
Steve wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and nods. "Nobody's hiring. Might be some temporary work at the slaughterhouse as it gets on to winter, though."
"You ain't gotta go that far, I hope," Frank says, wrinkling his nose. "I mention it cuz I might have something for you. At the docks, we need someone to supervise shipments, someone good with numbers maybe. I thought you might be."
Steve finished ninth grade and was always a fair hand at math, but it's not like he knows anything about shipping. "I've never done that kind of thing," he objects.
Frank shrugs. "So I tell my foreman you were the supervisor at a job I used to do. You tell him you're 25. He'll never follow up to check. You want the job or not?"
"Yeah," Steve says, "though I don't like lying about it."
Frank smiles and kisses his forehead, the way his Ma used to do. "You're such a sweetheart, Stevie," he says. "Okay, tell you what: I'll tell him you're smart and hardworking and you'll do a great job. How about that?"
"So long as you don't think of that as lying," Steve grins.
Frank tilts up his chin with two big strong fingers and takes his mouth, hard and domineering, confident by now that Steve will like it that way.
"You fishing for more compliments or what, doll?"
"Maybe I was just fishing for you to kiss me like that again," Steve teases.
Frank doesn't hesitate.
When he gets to the site on his first day, he realizes that he's probably not the first queer Frank's set up with a job. There are a few guys, even some big tough-looking ones, whose hats are pulled down suspiciously tight over their eyebrows, and a couple other faces he recognizes from Vincent's or the St. George. He notices one guy in particular, and stares at him for a long, confused moment before the guy rolls his eyes and bats his eyelashes pointedly; Steve suddenly recognizes Betty. With a start, he realizes that he's never seen her out of makeup before.
"Arthur," she says, offering her hand to Steve. Steve chuckles.
"Steve," he says, with a twist of his lips. "I didn't know you knew Frank."
"I don't let my precious Stevie go with any old lout," she grins.
"Just the louts you know, huh?" Steve asks. It's a little embarrassing, but it also makes him feel warm inside to think that Betty was setting him up with Frank, that first night out, to make sure he'd find someone sweet and have a good time. He doesn't know why she'd want to look out for him like that, but it's nice.
Frank nudges Steve with his elbow; there's a harried-looking middle-aged guy with a paunch and a clipboard coming towards them, probably the boss.
"This your new man, O'Malley?" he asks, without addressing Steve directly.
"Steve Rogers, sir," Steve says, putting his hand out. Looking surprised, the foreman takes it, maybe out of pure reflex. He gives Steve the hairy eyeball, looking him up and down, then up and down again as if he's hoping there'll suddenly be more of him.
"You're a little scrawny," he mutters.
Steve does his best to keep smiling. "I'll work hard," he promises. "Anyway, I heard you needed someone to use their brains more than their brawn."
"Well, I ain't gone wrong with one of Frank's boys yet. You bring in the best catch, ain't that right Frank?"
Beside them, Arthur coughs into her hand. Steve tries not to look at Frank directly, afraid he'll start laughing.
"That's right, sir," Frank agrees wholeheartedly. Steve would never have suspected that the wholesome freckled Irish boy was so good at bullshitting.
That night, when he heads home from the docks, Steve doesn't have any aches and pains beyond the usual, and he knows he did good work; the boss had been grudgingly impressed. He's on top of the world, and even if he hasn't got any pay in his pocket yet, he wants to celebrate.
"Let's go out," he says to Bucky, grabbing him by the arm. "My treat."
"Hey, you don't have to twist it," Bucky laughs. "I'm happy to let you buy me drinks."
Steve flushes, thinking about the guys who buy him drinks when he's out on the scene. He pushes the thought away.
On the way down the stairs, they run into Danielle and Valentine, who are just on their way in.
"Ladies," Bucky says, smiling. Steve doesn't think Bucky's ever gotten the message about them, or else he really can't help but flirt with any dame he sees. Steve smiles ruefully.
"Mister Barnes," Valentine says, then turns her attention to Steve. "How's it going on the job hunt, Steve?" she asks. "If you haven't found anything, I heard of a guy who's looking for part-time help at a shoe store."
"I just got a new job down at the docks," Steve says, unable to help himself from smiling. Bucky's watching him, and he smiles too, when Steve smiles, like he's glad to see him happy.
"The docks?" Danielle asks, and Steve can't blame her for the doubt in her voice.
"Steve's supervising now," Bucky puts in quickly. "Bossing everyone else around."
"Sounds like a natural fit," Danielle grins. "That's great, Steve."
"I had my first day today," Steve says. "We were going out to celebrate, if you girls wanna come along."
He can feel Bucky looking at him, and Steve almost wishes he hadn't said anything; Bucky's always thought he was sweet on Danielle.
He isn't, not really. He admires her, that's all; she's strong and brave and when she yells the beginning of a chant there's nobody around who doesn't join in, swayed by the power of her voice. Valentine's a lucky lady. Bucky never seems to take this explanation seriously, though.
"Yeah, come along," Bucky says, too quickly. Steve blushes, even though he can't quite figure out why.
"Love to," Danielle says easily, "but we're just stopping in for a second before heading up to Harlem. Valentine's cousin is singing in a club there, we're going to support her."
Steve doesn't get up to Harlem much, but the guys at Vincent's say it's a real lively scene. Maybe he'll go one day when he's got extra time to spend on the 8th Avenue Subway.
"Sounds fun," Steve says. "You can tell me all about it tomorrow, maybe."
"Will do," Danielle agrees, and she and Valentine head back inside while Steve and Bucky continue down to the street.
"She likes you," Bucky points out. Steve tries not to grimace. He knows Bucky just wants the best for him.
"She likes Valentine better," Steve points out, and Bucky laughs. Steve isn't sure if he gets it or not, though. There's a long pause, and Steve isn't sure what to say.
"Lots of people like lots of things," Bucky says, after a while. He sounds a little unsure, not like his usual confident bravado. "They – you never know. You should ask her out."
"I guess," Steve agrees, and then Bucky lets the subject drop. They talk about the Dodgers the rest of the way there. Steve's got a great new job, he's got Bucky and Danielle and Marlene and Betty and Frank, and for the first time in his life he feels like he might be going somewhere. Maybe it's not too much to hope for the Dodgers to win the series next year, too.
They head to one of the better local joints, a place down off Tillary that's at least a step above their usual dives. After a few drinks and a game of pool together Bucky takes up flirting with a couple of girls, and Steve plays pool with some other guys in the meantime, fellas he knows from around the neighborhood but whose names he mostly can't remember. When Bucky comes back over to him, the group of girls has apparently been narrowed down to one; Bucky has his arm slung over her shoulder, the way he puts his arm around Steve all the time when they're walking together. Steve suppresses the irrational surge of jealousy and gives him as bright a smile as he can manage.
"We're gonna head out of here, Steve," Bucky says. It's his way of saying that he wants their rooms to himself for a little while. Steve nods.
"Sure thing. Have a good time." Bucky grins his thanks and leaves, leaning down to whisper something in the girl's ear. Whatever it is, it makes her throw her head back and laugh, full-throated and rich. She's very beautiful, maybe a little older than Bucky, even.
He misses his shot, and the guy he's playing against takes advantage, sinking the last two solids and the 8-ball. "Good game," the guy says with satisfaction, scooping up the money from the table. "Go again?"
"Nah," Steve says, and smiles. At least if he's losing, nobody's beating the hell out of him in the alleyway for having the temerity to win. "You cleaned me out."
He thinks about walking around for a while, even though it's pretty cold out. They're a good ways from the shore, but it's still not the safest neighborhood. Steve's tempted to do it anyhow. Leaving the bar, he sticks his hands in his pockets to warm them up, considering his options. He feels his keys, a couple wadded up pieces of paper from work, and the bent stick of chewing gum that's been riding around for a week or so, nothing useful, but then his fingers bump against something strange. Frowning, he pulls his hand out of his pocket and sees that he's holding a little silver canister of rouge. He blinks in confusion for a moment before remembering that Marlene stuck it in his pocket two nights ago, asking him to hold it for her while they walked. She'd forgotten to get it back.
Steve was carrying it around all day at work without even knowing.
"Well, maybe it's a sign," Steve sighs to himself, and, half-smiling, holds tight to the little object until he gets to the right neighborhood. He rubs a little on his cheeks and his lips, checking his face in a tattoo shop window, and heads into a club on Sands Street, still a couple blocks away from Vincent's. He's never been to this place before, doesn't know if it's rough.
Something makes him feel reckless, dangerous, like a predator in rouge. He's wearing his usual guy clothes so when he gets into the nightclub he puts it all into the way he walks, the way he lets himself look at men, like he's sampling from his own personal buffet table.
He grabs the first likely-looking fish he can find (big, strong, dark-haired, dark-eyed, just his type) and sucks his dick out back without even bothering to get his name. The guy's dick is big, too, long and thick and exactly what Steve needs in his mouth. He holds the guy's hips against the cold brick wall and gives it all he's got, sucking ruthlessly, relentlessly, the same way he'd punch him if this were a fight. The guy groans, fucking his mouth in short sharp thrusts, and Steve takes it all. When the groans finally stop and the guy spills hot into Steve's mouth, Steve is almost disappointed. He wanted more, wanted it to go on forever. He spits, wipes his mouth, and looks up.
Big, gentle hands card through Steve's hair. "You're sweet," the guy says, out of breath. "What's your name?"
"James," Steve says, without thinking about it. "Jimmy."
"I'm Dick," the guy says. Steve can't quite suppress a laugh, and Dick grins down at him, sheepish. "I know, I know. But it's my name."
"It does draw attention to your best feature," Steve agrees, standing up to his full height, such as it is.
"You wanna get to know my best feature a little better?" Dick is fisting his dick, which is already starting to fill out again. It's pretty impressive.
"Right here in this dirty alley," Dick says, breathless.
Steve doesn't let himself think, just undoes his belt and buttons, shoves down his trousers and shorts, and then turns to brace his arms against the wall.
"Do me hard," he says, and Dick chuckles.
"No worries about that, buddy," he says. Steve hears him spit into his hand a couple of times, and then he's pressing up against Steve's hole, his huge prick shoving Steve open wide.
Steve grunts at the first full thrust. It hurts, but he waits through it, and after a minute it gets better, and then gets perfect: the perfect, completely distracting sensation of Dick fucking him hard and rough, taking what he needs from Steve's body.
"Harder," Steve says.
"Yeah? You want it?"
"Yeah, yeah," Steve pants, resting his forehead against the wall. It's cold out, not below freezing yet, but enough that his bare thighs are shivering against the air, and that Dick's body against him feels like fire, burning Steve up from the inside out. Dick starts to thrust faster, shoving Steve's body forward so that he has to catch himself with his arms to keep from being pushed into the wall. It's brutal, unforgiving, halfway between getting fucked and getting beaten up. The alley setting is perfect either way.
"You like that? Hard like that?"
"Yeah, fuck me, c'mon," Steve gets out through gritted teeth. He's forgetting the cold, forgetting the little flares of pain in his wrists, lost in the fullness he feels, the rough pace, the friction, the desperation. Dick reaches around and takes him in his hand, and the two sensations together make Steve want to scream, to just throw his head back and bellow with it, how good it is to feel used like this. He doesn't make a sound, but he does throw his head back, unable to suppress a dark chuckle as Dick pounds him harder and harder.
"Such a pretty little thing," Dick growls. "So pretty. I love – unh – fucking your ass, Jimmy."
Steve comes to the sound of the wrong name, helpless and groaning in the dark, wrung out and spread out and held up against the brick so he doesn't fall.
Dick fucks him for a while longer, still hard and rough, and the aftershocks go back and forth from amazing to painful, setting off unpredictable sparks of feeling throughout Steve's body. Steve doesn't say anything or ask him to stop, just takes it, every rough thrust that shows him what he's good for. When Dick's finally done he pulls out slowly, and Steve groans at the friction as the prick leaves his ass.
He gets his pants back up and his belt buckled before he turns around. Dick kisses him as soon as he does, and Steve kisses back eagerly. He's euphoric, almost drunk with the feeling of pleasure and abandon, so that he doesn't see the cops at first, walking up the sidewalk toward the club.
"Oh, shit, it's a raid," Dick whispers. He's still staring stupidly at the mouth of the alley when Steve grabs him by the wrist and drags him back into the shadows.
They run together for a few blocks, until Steve's chest starts to feel tight and his breath starts to rattle even in spite of the adrenaline coursing through him. He waves at Dick to go on without him, stopping to bend over with his hands on his knees, but Dick slows and turns around to wait by his side.
"I think we're all right," he offers hesitantly, as Steve works and works and works to breathe. His lungs won't draw air, so every attempt at a breath is a harsh useless pull, a gasp that sticks in his throat and leaves his lungs flat and empty. He squelches the panic that looms up inside him, knowing that it's not going to help, and focuses on getting one good breath.
"Um, are you okay?" Dick asks, looking around. They're on a pretty quiet street, no clubs or bars to draw people at this hour, and no one's nearby. Hesitantly, he puts a hand on Steve's back and rubs slowly, up and down, between his shoulderblades. The feeling reminds Steve of how his mom used to touch him when the asthma got bad, to soothe him. He tries to focus on the touch instead of on his lungs.
When Steve finally manages to get air into his body again, he lets himself have five good breaths before he finally answers Dick's question. "Yeah." He coughs the word out. "I'm fine."
Dick doesn't take his hand away. It feels nice. "You got somewhere you can go? You're welcome to stay with me if you don't."
Steve glances up at that; he didn't expect that kind of offer from a stranger. But then, Dick probably isn't afraid that Steve's gonna roll him, and – more than that – they're not exactly strangers anymore. He feels guilty for lying, for giving him a fake name; he wishes he'd told Dick who he really is. "Yeah," he says again. "But thanks, Dick."
Now Dick takes his hand away, stepping back so they're a normal distance from each other. "Hey, no problem. It was fun running from the cops with you." His grin is broad and bright, enough like Bucky's that it makes Steve's heart hurt as it hammers in his chest.
Steve stands up straight again and smiles back. Dick takes another glance around the street; seeing no one, he leans in briefly and plants a soft, gentle kiss to Steve's lips.
"Maybe I'll see you around again, Jimmy," he says.
"Maybe," Steve agrees.
With a last apologetic smile, Dick darts off into an alleyway, and Steve starts for home.
It's late enough that Bucky should be asleep, even if he had company over for a while, so Steve doesn't really worry about the state he's in – rouge still on his face, hair a mess, mud splashed onto his cuffs, the back of his pants wet with spunk. Their suite is reassuringly dark and quiet. But when Steve heads towards the little standalone water tap in the front room to get himself cleaned up before bed, suddenly the shadows shift and Bucky steps out of the corner, wearing his pajamas and ratty wool socks, holding a glass of water.
"Oh, hey, Steve," he says, yawning. Then he blinks and takes in Steve's appearance. "Hey," he says, more seriously, "hey, Steve, what happened to you?"
"Nothing," Steve says, and curses all the times he told Bucky it was nothing when he had a black eye or a split lip from fighting. Bucky frowns and walks right up to him.
"Shit, are you bleeding?" Bucky's hand comes up to Steve's face and he rubs his thumb gently against Steve's lip; Steve is so caught up in the touch that he doesn't think to back away until it's too late.
When Bucky sees that what he's got on his thumb is rouge, not blood, his expression changes.
"Hey, you sly dog, you were out with a girl, weren't you?"
Steve sighs, all of the night's events crashing in on him at once, and suddenly he's too tired to pretend. He doesn't want to lie to Bucky like he did to Dick. Borne on a sudden swell of emotion – anger, recklessness, bravado – he comes to a decision.
"No," he says, reaching up to pull the cord for the lightbulb. "No."
In the light, Bucky can see the rouge on his cheeks, as well as his lips; he frowns in confusion.
"I was out . . . well. Out being a girl, I guess you could say." Steve clarifies. "I'm sorry, Buck."
He wishes he knew what he was apologizing for.
Bucky's expression of shock is gone in an instant, replaced by something darker: confusion, maybe anger. Steve braces himself.
"What, like – like the two down the hall?"
"Maybe not quite the same," Steve allows, "but like that. To – to meet men."
"You're a fairy," Bucky says slowly. Steve bites his lip, but nods.
"Shit," Bucky breathes. "I don't – Stevie, how come I didn't know?"
Steve shrugs. He might as well go all in now, since he's committed. "I hid it," he admits. "I didn't want to see that look in your eyes."
"What – Jesus, Steve, you spring this on me in the middle of the night and you expect me to just – "
Steve puts up his hands, surrendering. "I know. It's fine." He feels his stomach twist into knots, but forces out his next words. "If you want me out I'll understand. I'll find a place." He's already thinking that he could ask Frank; he knows that Bartie and Georgie are only there part time.
He'll miss Bucky like a part of himself, but he'll do it if Bucky wants him to.
Bucky looks away, like he can't stand the sight of Steve, and then scrubs his face with his hands. "Come on, come talk to me." He walks over to the low broken down couch and takes a seat. Steve collapses down next to him.
He waits for Bucky to talk, and it takes a long time. His palms sweat.
"Is this – is it because you don't get so many girls? Because there could be a girl out there for you, Steve, it's just a matter a time."
Steve thinks about this. It's not that he's never liked a girl, it's just – he's always liked men more.
"The way you put it, it makes me sound pathetic," Steve says bitterly. "Rejected and . . . and desperate."
Bucky shifts on the couch, uncomfortable. "Isn't that – I mean, isn't that how it is with guys? Like sailors off at sea. When there's no other option."
Steve shrugs. He hates having to put it in words, and hates being asked to explain himself, but he doesn't see any other way to keep Bucky here and keep him talking, so he tries again. "I've – I've always wanted it. I want it more than anything else."
This is worse, much worse, than taking a beating. Steve wishes that Bucky would hit him instead. When he's dared to imagine this happening, he's always imagined that Bucky would hit him. That made it easier, put it in terms Steve was used to. Steve isn't used to this uncomfortable curiosity, especially not from Bucky.
"So every time I tried to set you up with girls, you were pretending. To make me happy."
Steve crosses his arms defensively. "Yes," he says, then, to be honest, he says, "No. I don't know, Buck, I – maybe, one day, I could find the right girl, someone I like, who'd like me back. But I know I like this." He tries a wry smile. "I know it feels better, most of the time, to be a girl than to go on a date with one."
Bucky bites his lip for a second, then sighs. "You always gotta be difficult. You know that? Can't just go along and get along, no. You make me crazy sometimes, Steve."
This has such a familiar, exasperated, teasing tone that Steve glances up at Bucky hopefully. "You're not mad?"
Bucky shrugs, and looks down at his feet. Without looking up again, he says, "I ain't mad, Steve."
Steve ought to be satisfied with that, he knows it. He oughta take the win and leave it there. But he's never been good at that, and even that little encouragement makes him want to push.
"And you don't think – you know, with what Father Calhoun said and all. You know it's a sin." Steve swallows hard, and asks what he has to ask. "Are you disgusted?"
Bucky shakes his head, but not in a way that looks like a no. "It's weird, I'll say that. It's not what I . . . it's not what I thought you were like." At Steve's stricken expression, Bucky adds, "But the Father – he always said that the right thing was, was, raising up the poor, and fighting for our rights, and helping others. And you do all that. More than anyone I know."
Steve remembers those sermons, all about how Jesus would've supported the trade unions, or how it was their duty as Christians to fight for fair pay and fair treatment. They always used to get Steve fired up with the idea that he could do God's work here on Earth, right down the street where someone was getting evicted or where a factory owner was working hard to keep people in poverty. There had been comparatively few sermons about sex of any kind; mostly some confusing private talks about the Sin of Onan and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah and the temptations of lust. When he was eleven, Steve had spent a terrified summer completely sure that jerking off could turn you to a pillar of salt.
It'd been Bucky who'd explained to him that it couldn't. They'd been sleeping on the couch cushions at Bucky's parents' place, and Steve had woken confused in the night to the sound of Bucky masturbating. Steve had shaken him to get him to stop, and when he'd explained why, Bucky had laughed.
"It's fine, you'll see," Bucky'd said. "You can confess it to Father Calhoun on Saturday."
So Steve had lain in the dark, worried, listening to Bucky touch himself, utterly surprised when nothing bad happened afterwards.
Now Bucky looks to the ceiling, as if searching for God in the cracked yellow plaster. "I'm not disgusted, Stevie," he says, softly. "If anything, I'm more of a sinner than you. I can't imagine God not wanting you, Steve, I just – I can't."
"It's true you weren't much of an altar boy," Steve points out, daring to make a joke. Bucky had once accidentally set Father Calhoun's vestments on fire.
Bucky's gaze falls to land on Steve again, and he frowns. "Do you – did you ever confess this stuff to a priest?"
Steve takes a deep breath. "Yeah. When I was . . . after the first few times it happened. It was okay. He gave me penance, and told me to resist temptation."
"How come you didn't?" Bucky asks. He sounds surprised, like it never occurred to him before that Steve might go against something a priest told him to do.
Steve hasn't been to Mass or to Confession in six years, not since six months or so after his Ma died. He doesn't think Bucky's been in a long time, either. It's strange, but at this moment he misses it, opening his mouth for the body of Christ, the cool privacy of the confessional, the knowledge that Jesus, or the priest, could give you absolution. It was so much simpler than this, the torture of explaining and hoping that Bucky can still see him as a good man.
"I did for a while. I don't know, maybe I should've tried harder. But I couldn't – I couldn't ever convince myself that it was evil. In my heart. I know Father Calhoun would say that evil things feel good sometimes to tempt us. To make us evil."
"God," Bucky says, apparently unconscious of the blasphemy. "What the hell kind of evil could you ever be?" he asks, like it's beyond anything he could imagine. Steve shrugs, uncomfortable.
"I don't know. Maybe I'm the kind of sinner who tries to make up for it with other good works. Maybe that's why I do all that Catholic Worker stuff, to convince myself I won't go to hell."
Bucky starts shaking his head before Steve even finishes talking. "No," he says, and he sounds sure now. "No, you do that stuff cuz you want to make peoples' lives better. I know you, and I know that for sure."
"Thanks, Buck," Steve says, softly, and wishes he could hug him.
"Yeah, so I don't care what those guys say about, about evil. You've always been the one I looked to. To know what was right. I can't – if you were evil, then I don't know what I would do anymore. I kinda always thought – you know, with heaven and hell and stuff, I thought you'd be the one putting in a good word for me."
Steve's heart begins to slow. He takes a deep breath and throws himself forward, asking the question. "You still think that?"
"Yeah. I do." Bucky sounds increasingly confident, as if he's still figuring it out himself. He sighs again. "I dunno, the fairy stuff – you really like that? Being, uh, girly?"
That's the hard part for Bucky to get past, Steve realizes. Not the part about sin, or even the part about fucking men. "I know you always wanted me to be . . . more like you. Manly. But I'm not, Bucky. I mean, look at me."
Bucky bites his lip. "I think you can be anything you want, Steve," he says softly. Then he fidgets, as if to reach out and touch Steve's hair or his face, but he pulls back before the gesture can get very far.
Swallowing hard, Steve asks, "Even if I want to be a fairy?"
Bucky takes a long time to answer, but then he shrugs. "Yeah, you know, I guess so." They both stare at the floor for a little while. Steve wishes he knew what else to say.
Breaking the tension, Bucky punches him in the arm, rocking him gently sideways. "But Good Christ, why do we gotta have this talk at three in the morning? Go to bed already, we can talk tomorrow."
"All right," Steve says, smiling at the warm proximity of Bucky's body. Maybe this isn't the disaster he thought it'd be.
"And go wash up or something, will you? You smell like – " Bucky pauses, perhaps in that moment realizing exactly what Steve smells like. Steve flushes and ducks his head.
"Uh, yeah," Steve says.
"Right," Bucky says, blinking once or twice. Maybe in his head being a fairy had been one thing, and walking around with another man's spunk in your pantleg from an hour ago was something else. "Um, I'm going back to sleep."
"Okay," Steve replies inanely, as if it's any other day, and heads over to use the tap.
There's a little shaving mirror hung on the wall above it. Steve stares at the man reflected there for a long time.
Whatever else that man is, at least he's honest. At least he doesn't have to lie to his best friend. That's gotta be worth something.
He expects it to become a problem, maybe the next morning when Bucky's had some sleep, or in a week when Bucky doesn't think he can be polite about it anymore, or in a month when Bucky decides he can't live with Steve in a tiny two-room suite, knowing what he knows.
Bucky doesn't talk to him much for the first couple days, just the usual stuff about work or baseball, the safe stuff. Steve wants to talk to him again, maybe try to explain himself better, but he doesn't know how to start, or if that would drive Bucky further away.
After a while, Steve gets annoyed, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He watches Bucky being extra courteous to Marlene and Betty in the hallway, watches Bucky very carefully not offer to introduce him to any of the girls he meets at the dance halls, and doesn't know whether to feel respected or left out. He gets bold, full of a perverse desire to push his luck, to see how far Bucky will go before he snaps. He starts putting on makeup before he leaves the apartment, or wearing the little scarves or blouses he borrows from Betty even after he comes home from the clubs. Bucky doesn't say a word about it, though he always looks at Steve carefully when he's dressed up, as if trying to figure out how to treat him when he's in partial drag, not the man he thought he knew but not a woman, either, quite.
Steve is filled with a feeling that's half relief and half embarrassed frustration, and he doesn't know how to live in it.
"You look . . . nice," Bucky says, one night, as Steve gets ready to leave, and Steve can't help but blush as Bucky's eyes take in his red lips, his scarf, his darkened eyelashes.
"Thanks," he says, pulling on his coat and cap to cover himself up. When Bucky looks down at the floor again, Steve frowns. "But you don't have to be polite about it, Buck. It's okay if you . . . don't like it."
Bucky purses his lips, looks away, and doesn't say anything, and Steve leaves it at that.
All in all, it's more than he ever could have hoped for.
"All right, be honest," Betty says, one night when it's just the two of them at the bar in Vincent's, a slow night when hardly anyone's dancing or singing. "Did you make that James Barnes into your man, or what? Because I seen you going to and fro all pretty, and he don't look like he minds much."
Steve rolls his eyes. "Just because I live with him doesn't mean I'm letting him screw me. Bucky's just . . . Bucky."
"Uh huh," she says, tapping her cigarette against the ashtray. "What does that mean?"
"It means – I don't know. We've been friends since we were kids. I guess – it seems like there's not much I could do that would make him – you know. Leave me." He feels a soft confidence in the words as he says them. He never really expected that they could be true.
"You don't think he wants you, now he knows? I seen him with lots of girls, it's not like he's not horny enough."
Steve tries to laugh, but it comes out more bitter than he means it to. "Bucky's real manly," he says. He's always looked up to Bucky, who was strong and handsome but still kind to Steve, even when they were little kids. Even then Steve always wanted Bucky's big, solid body, always looked at him with envy and desire.
Betty laughs like Steve's just made a joke. "Oh honey. What would you call Johnny? Or Hyam? Or your boy Frank?" Hyam's sitting a ways down the bar from them, chatting with some fairy Steve doesn't know. Even sitting down, he towers over the guys standing near him, tall and broad as an oak tree. His full bushy beard and booming laugh fill the space around him.
"For that matter, you should see Helena during the day. Walks around with five o'clock shadow at nine in the morning, all denim and biceps." Helena's got a beautiful prancing walk and the sweetest little giggle, but Steve hasn't missed that she's six foot four even without the heels. She could bench-press Steve with one hand, but still plays the pansy to a T. In a way, Steve's lucky that he's small and fine-boned; no one here's ever mistaken him for anything but a sissy. He doesn't have to work at it, the way some of the bigger guys do.
"I know, I know," Steve grumbles. "It's more that – Bucky's different."
"Yeah, because you want him," Betty says kindly.
If he can't admit it here, where can he admit it? It's not even a new feeling, or something he doesn't know about himself. Just an old painful truth that's been worn smooth by time.
"Because I want him," Steve agrees. Betty pats his hand.
The other shoe never does drop, and while Bucky's hesitant around him for a while, eventually they get back into their old rhythm. Christmas comes, and they spend it together like always, drinking the eggnog that Mrs Ryan, from upstairs, dropped off for them. They have added a special ingredient of their own, though.
"Young boys all by themselves at Christmas, I shudder to think," she'd said, giving them a tin of ginger cookies as well. "Be sure you bring my things back, now."
"Yes, ma'am," Steve and Bucky had chorused.
Pooling their resources, and with Steve's new job, they actually manage a decent spread of food. Steve is particularly proud of the gift he'd managed to get for Bucky; the year before he'd been too poor to even consider it.
After they eat, and after most of the eggnog and bourbon is gone, Bucky opens it. Steve can't help but grin at the look on his face. He pulls the baseball card slowly out of the box and stares at it.
"Steve, you can't afford this," are the first words out of his mouth.
"Eh, I know a guy." Technically, Steve knows a drag queen who's also a big Dodgers fan, but he decides not to tell Bucky that part. "It wasn't too expensive. And anyway, I know you still have your collection from when we were kids. Your 1920 team roster wouldn't be complete without him."
Bucky stares back down at the card for a long time: 33 Zack Wheat, it says, below the picture of the smiling, broad-featured man in his Brooklyn Robins hat. "It's in really good condition, too," he points out, running his finger lightly along the edges. "For a twenty-year-old card."
Steve remembers going with Bucky and his family to see a game in '26, Zack Wheat's last game with Brooklyn. Bucky'd nudged Steve every time he came up to bat, fascinated by the way he turned at the plate and batted left, even though he always threw right.
"That's a real talent," eight-year-old Bucky had pronounced, and Steve had nodded wisely. They'd called Zack "Buck," because of his last name, and it'd made Steve feel like he was cheering for Bucky, like it was Bucky out on the field running for first with the warm brown earth under his shoes and the sun on his shoulders.
Now, Steve clears his throat and nods, trying for a casual tone. "Yeah," he agrees. "He'll look all bright and shiny when you put him in the box next to McKinley. I bet his brother's been lonely in there without him."
McKinley Wheat was never the talent that his brother was, but Steve had always liked the idea of them together, teammates, sharing a dugout and a locker room, good to each other even if only one of them could ever be a star.
Bucky, still looking down at the card, blinks rapidly. "I don't know what I'd ever do without you, Steve," he says, after a while. Steve is surprised by the shakiness of his voice. "Nobody knows me like you do."
"Hey, you too, Buck. You know that."
Bucky rubs one eye with the palm of his hand. "Go on, open the one from me," he says. His voice sounds steadier now.
Steve lifts the lid, and for a moment he can't even tell what he's looking at. It's so far from what he would've guessed Bucky would get him that his eyes refuse to see what's sitting right in front of him.
"You got me makeup?" he asks. There's a lipstick, and a tin of rouge, and other stuff too, good stuff – eyeshadow, mascara, the works. Steve doesn't even know how to put half of it on, but he's already planning on begging Marlene for a lesson or two.
"I, uh, hope it's okay. The lady at the store seemed to think that you'd be real specific about the colors you would want."
"Who'd she think you were buying them for?" he asks, already knowing the answer.
"She thought you were my girl, of course. Look underneath."
Steve furrows his brow, then pulls up the little piece of tissue paper that was sitting under the makeup. At the bottom of the box, gleaming with the shine of real silk, is a pair of stockings.
"Oh," Steve says. He reaches down, almost afraid to touch them. They're soft and smooth against his fingers, catching a little on his calluses. "They're beautiful."
"Yeah? I didn't know if you'd like them or not. But Betty said I should get them for you."
Steve flushes, embarrassed that Betty would try to push him and Bucky closer like this. "Betty is a busybody," he says, before he can think about it. Bucky cocks his head, not understanding.
"No, I went and asked her about it," Bucky clarifies. "I never – I don't know what to get girls for presents, I guess. Not that you're – I mean. I've gotten you lots of guy presents before, but I wanted you to know that I – that your girl half is my friend too." He looks awkward and shamefaced, like he's sure he's said something wrong. Steve is still feeling the silk against his fingertips.
"Thank you," Steve says. He's never worn ladies' stockings before, never even thought of it, but now he wants to roll these gently up his legs and see how they feel. It's such a strangely intimate gift; he wonders if Bucky even realizes how intimate.
"And anyway, Betty said she was sick of you using all their stuff, and you needed some things of your own. Said it'd be as much a gift to her and Marlene as a gift to you."
Steve laughs, and then he can't help it: he leans up and hugs Bucky tight. Bucky, to his relief, hugs him back just as hard. There's no more space between them now than there used to be, and Steve melts a little to know that, to have that confirmed.
After they pull apart, Steve has to glance away. He fiddles with the lipstick for a second; when he opens it to look at the color, it's the most beautiful shade of red he's ever seen.
"You want a mirror?" Bucky asks, almost eagerly.
Made bold by the gift, by the hug, Steve follows a sudden whim and holds the lipstick out to Bucky. "Will you do it?" At Bucky's surprised look, he tries to justify the request. "I mean, it's your present, after all. You should do the honors."
Bucky takes the lipstick from him. Their fingers brush. "I don't know what I'm doing," he says, with a nervous laugh.
"You've seen dames do it," Steve points out. "Just touch it to the – to my bottom lip."
Bucky gets an intense expression on his face, the way he always does when concentrating on something difficult. He sticks his tongue out between his teeth, like he's focusing on a tricky shot in pool or something, and Steve has to hold back laughter. It's comforting to know that Bucky, regardless of the situation, will always be Bucky.
The touch of the lipstick is light, almost unnoticeable, and gone as soon as it arrives.
"There," Bucky says doubtfully. Steve rubs his lips together, and Bucky lights up. "Oh, yeah, that's better!" he says.
"How's it look?"
"It's a good color," Bucky says softly. "But you've got a little – here – " reaching out, he rubs his thumb against the skin above Steve's upper lip, removing a smudge. Steve waits through a long moment while Bucky touches him, grappling with what to say next.
"So I guess the lady at the department store where you got the stockings thought you were buying for your girl too, huh?" Steve asks. He can't get the image out of his mind, Bucky looking over rows of stockings, wondering which ones to buy for him.
"Yeah, and she didn't think much of it," Bucky laughs, still fixing Steve's lipstick. "Guess there's a lot of that going around, fellas buying stockings for their girls without buying rings first. I almost told her it was for a guy, I think she'd've looked less sour if I had."
Steve nods. He feels it again, the soft quiet tension between them, and he wants to break it by reaching out, touching Bucky's face, kissing his mouth.
He imagines what Betty would say if she knew he'd had this moment and let it go by. Bucky always said he was brave, and damned if he wasn't going to live up to Bucky's good opinion of him, whatever the cost.
"What if I want to be your girl?"
It comes out softer than he means it, huskier, more demanding. Bucky's eyes widen, but he doesn't back away.
"What – what do you mean?"
Steve flushes, annoyed. "You know what I mean." He glances down at the little pile of makeup and stockings in his lap, as if for reassurance. Bucky had wanted him dressed up and painted pretty, had thought about it and spent his hard-earned money on it. He looks back up, looks Bucky in the eyes. "Do you want me?"
Bucky opens his mouth, then closes it, then opens it again. "I don't know," he says. He sounds honest, painfully so, like he's telling a secret. "I don't know, Steve, lately you've been so pretty, and so confident, and it – honestly, it kind of burns me to think of you with other guys. But I don't know if it's just because you're my best friend and I've known you so long. And because – well." He blows out a breath, and meets Steve's eyes. "Because, to be honest, it's not like I haven't . . . been with a fairy before."
Steve tries a smile, even though the idea makes him feel – not jealous, not quite, but regretful, the feeling of having missed out on something he could've had. "Anyone I know?" he jokes. Bucky doesn't laugh.
"Uh, it was Marlene, actually," he confesses. Steve's eyebrows shoot up into his hair. At least that explains why Betty had been so insistent on him going after Bucky. "We were both drunk, and she was – it was really nice."
"I'm a little jealous," Steve says. Daring, he reaches down and takes Bucky's hand. Taking a sharp breath, Bucky opens his palm so that Steve can lace their fingers together. "But then, I'm jealous of all your girls."
Steve kisses him then, which isn't that ladylike but it's not like Bucky was ever gonna make the first move. Bucky kisses him back, maybe just out of reflex at first, but then he sinks into it, and Steve finally understands why all the girls like Bucky so much; he's a great kisser, slow and gentle and considerate, so that when he does filthy things with his tongue it still seems gentlemanly and chaste. Steve is filled with this new knowledge, his skin buzzing with it. It's absurd that he could've known Bucky this long, known so many things about him, but still not known something as simple as how he likes to kiss, or what his mouth feels like pressed to Steve's.
Bucky cups Steve's jaw with one big, broad palm and tilts his chin up, holding Steve in place and deepening the kiss. Steve groans into his mouth, and Bucky pulls back abruptly.
"Sorry," he says. "I, uh, I don't know a lot of girls who make noises like that."
Steve brightens. "You mean I can still show renowned lothario James Buchanan Barnes a thing or two?" he laughs. Reaching out, he rubs at the lipstick that's now smeared all over Bucky's face.
"Oh, well, I doubt that," Bucky demurs. "But you did surprise me." He looks shy all of a sudden, and his teasing demeanor melts away. "Do you mean this, Steve? You don't – I don't know, you're not going to regret it tomorrow?"
"No way in hell," Steve breathes. "I just worry that you'll regret it tomorrow."
Bucky shrugs. "I don't think I will. I don't know. But I know I'll still want you here, no matter what. That's never gonna change, Steve."
Steve nods, and kisses him again, soft as he can. He's trembling a little with repressed desire, the urge to go faster and harder, but he thinks he manages to cover it. When they break apart a moment later, Bucky glances down at the stockings in his lap.
"So, you gonna try those on, or what?"
Steve feels a wash of relief, though he doesn't know why. His hands are shaking as he picks up the stockings.
"They're your present. You should do the honors," he says, just like before.
There's a dark gleam of desire in Bucky's eyes. Biting his lip, Steve undoes his trousers and pushes them off, leaving his shorts on. He gets rid of his socks, too, and has a moment to be embarrassed by the calluses and hair on his feet before Bucky takes his left foot in his hand.
Slowly, he rolls the stocking up his foot, up past his knee, until it rests tight around his thigh, right below where his shorts end. Steve could wear these in public, if he wanted, under his clothes, and no one would know.
"Just gotta get the garter belt and straps for them," Steve says, admiring the look of them against his skin.
"Yeah, I wanted to get those too, but – maybe next paycheck," Bucky says, frowning.
"I love 'em, Bucky," Steve says firmly, making him smile.
Bucky does the other one with equal care, and Steve raises an eyebrow. "You seem to know a little bit more about these than you did about lipstick," he says, and Bucky grins. His fingers brush the inside of Steve's thigh, slowly smoothing the edge of the stocking. Steve lets his legs fall a little further apart, revels in the shivery feeling of Bucky's thumb only an inch away from his bare skin.
"Putting them on ain't so different from taking them off," he says. "Look at that, a perfect fit."
"Well, never let it be said I can't fit a ladies' size medium," Steve notes dryly.
"You look amazing," Bucky says softly. Steve blushes, because he can't really see how that could be true. "I mean it, Steve, you – ever since you started wearing stuff like this, makeup and stuff, I can't stop thinking about you in it. It's like once I started seeing how pretty you were, I couldn't stop."
"Kiss me again," Steve says, dry-mouthed. Bucky does, and it goes on for a long time, until they're tangled together on the low couch, Bucky on top, his weight a delicious pressure on Steve's body. He can feel Bucky's dick, hard against his hip, and he can't help the pride he feels. I did that, he thinks. I made him want this. He slides his silk-covered ankles up under Bucky's pantleg, brushing soft against his skin, and Bucky makes a low, involuntary moan at the sensation.
"I hope you know," Steve murmurs into Bucky's ear, "that there's no way I'm letting you fuck me while I'm wearing these. They'll get runs for sure."
Bucky blinks at him, sex-addled. It's a look Steve's never seen on him, not up close, anyway, and he files it away with the rest of his new knowledge of his old friend.
"But you're letting me fuck you if I take them off again?" he asks, eventually.
"Yeah," Steve says, breathless. "Yeah, I am. You wanna do me, Buck?"
Bucky takes his mouth again in what Steve assumes is an exuberant yes. Together they work their way out of their shirts, and Bucky runs his hands over Steve's chest, up and down, hesitating over his nipples.
"I like it," Steve says, to encourage him. "Do it." Bucky rubs his thumbs against Steve's nipples, slow perfect circles, and Steve sighs and arches up into the touch. In return he wraps his hands around Bucky's waist, starting a slow massage with his fingertips just above Bucky's ass. Dipping his head back down, Bucky mouths at his throat, then sucks hard at Steve's collarbone, enough to leave a mark.
"Yeah," Steve says, mindlessly. "Please." Bucky does it again, on the other side, then licks and kisses his way back up, sucking gently at Steve's Adam's apple, his earlobe, the soft underside of his jaw, before kissing him again.
Steve almost wants to protest, to tell Bucky that he's not actually a girl, that he's hard and ready to go and can they get to the screwing please, but there's something in Bucky's demeanor that stops him. He's so reverent, so tender, that he inspires an answering tenderness in Steve, inspires him to accept his attentions gracefully. He kisses Steve slowly, and gently, in the way Steve's always imagined him with the girls: a passionate lover, but also considerate, adventurous but kind.
It should make Steve feel like just another notch on the bedpost, but instead it makes him feel special, or even loved, like something precious that Bucky has to take care to keep from breaking.
So Steve lies back, and gasps as Bucky sucks his nipples, as Bucky caresses him and makes love to him. He's always been embarrassed to stand next to Bucky, Bucky who was so tall and so strong, Bucky whose body didn't betray him at the least provocation. But now, as Bucky presses his lips to the soft, pale skin of Steve's neck, he finally feels right, like his body is finally right. With Bucky kissing him and holding him and going so slow, Steve doesn't feel ashamed to be naked in front of him. He feels beautiful, and he feels sure that Bucky, looking at him, will find him beautiful.
With a nervous little smile, Bucky takes off Steve's new stockings, his fingers brushing ticklishly against Steve's skin as he rolls them down and off. He sets them carefully on the floor, then comes back to Steve, who's just in his shorts now.
"You should take those off," Steve says, trying to sound confident. "I'm feeling underdressed."
"You are a little naked for the front room couch," Bucky agrees. "If you were a girl, I'd pick you up and carry you to my bed."
Steve suddenly wants nothing in the world more than that. "Yes," he says, stupidly. "You should."
When Bucky solemnly lifts him into his arms, Steve is struck by a memory: the time he broke his leg in a fight and Bucky, all of fourteen at the time, carried him to the doctor. Bucky smells achingly familiar, like a million different memories that they've made together; Steve buries his head against Bucky's chest and lets himself drift among them.
When they get to their shared bedroom, Bucky shucks off his pants, and then, after a moment's hesitation, his shorts as well. Steve's heart begins to race. It's not that Steve has never seen him naked before, and it's not even that Steve has never seen him hard before; it's that now, in this moment, Steve gets to touch him, gets to feel the heat of his skin and the power in his hands.
"You too," Bucky says, softly, and Steve unbuttons and then pushes off his drawers, lying back on the bed completely exposed. He doesn't have anything that Bucky hasn't seen before either, but it makes him want to squirm and preen when Bucky looks anyway, when Bucky takes in the whole of Steve's small naked body with hunger in his eyes.
"C'mere," Steve says. Bucky crawls on top, his hair falling into his eyes as he looks down at Steve.
"Can I do you like this?" he asks, running a broad palm up Steve's thigh.
Steve's only done it face to face a couple times before, and it wasn't very comfortable, but he knows why Bucky wants it. He wants it too.
"Yeah," he says. "Get the Vaseline, though."
Bucky grabs it from the nightstand that they share. Usually, as far as Steve knows, its only use is to heal winter-cracked knuckles and abrasion burns from Bucky's job at the warehouse.
He figures that Bucky won't want to do the next part, so he gets his own fingers slick and lifts his hips to give himself access, pushing inside with a little grunt of pleasure. Bucky watches, eyes wide, and places a soft kiss on Steve's bent knee.
"Can I?" he asks. "I mean, is that okay?"
Steve nods, and Bucky slicks his fingers up and takes over, pressing into Steve up to the second knuckle.
"I'm inside you," Bucky whispers. "Oh, God, Steve."
Steve rolls his hips, pushing down further onto Bucky's fingers. "Imagine how it'll be when you stop screwing around and take me already," he says.
"God, God, are you ready? Jesus."
"I'm ready, I'm ready. You know Sister Mary Catherine would be shocked to hear you blaspheme like that."
"Probably isn't the best time to bring up Sister Mary Catherine," Bucky laughs, as he slides into Steve's body for the first time.
"Oh," Steve says, a long, drawn-out syllable. "Oh, yes, okay, whatever you say, Buck, just do that again."
"This?" Bucky grins, pulling out and fucking into him again, slow, rocking his hips at the end.
"Yeah," Steve says, feeling desperate now. "Yeah, c'mon, again." The pressure and the motion hurt a little, but Steve wouldn't change this moment for the world. He tries to lift his hips higher on the bed, give Bucky better access, and it works; on the next thrust they're lined up perfectly, so Bucky sinks right down into him. Steve groans at the sensation, full and stretched on Bucky's cock.
"You're amazing," Bucky says, "amazing, Jesus. Steve. Are you okay? Does it hurt?"
Steve grins up at him. "I can do this all day."
Bucky grins back. He speeds up a little, and Steve meets him thrust for thrust, rocking upwards as Bucky rocks down into him. Bucky's hot, giving off heat just like he always does, and Steve wants to arch into that too, up into the aura of warmth that Bucky carries around with him. He pushes in and out of Steve's body, in and out, over and over until Steve can't bear it anymore, until he needs to cry out with the slow rolling pleasure that shudders through his body on every thrust.
"Bucky," Steve says, his dick hard and aching against his stomach. He's full to the brim with the feeling of Bucky inside him. "Bucky. Bucky."
"You're so beautiful," Bucky says, looking down into Steve's eyes. "So beautiful."
"Yes," Steve says, tension building within him, cresting. "Yes, Bucky, yes – "
Bucky's smile, in that moment, is so familiar that it makes Steve ache to see it: he tosses his hair up out of his eyes, and flashes his teeth, and it's everything about him that Steve loves: his confidence, and his masculine beauty, and his easy, graceful charm. It's the smile that says, the smile that's always said, I know you.
"Such a beautiful girl," Bucky whispers, his voice breaking.
Steve groans and grabs his own dick, coming over his stomach and chest, coming and coming until it feels like he's never going to stop, while Bucky fucks him through it, thrusting long and slow to draw it out. A minute later, while Steve's trying to catch his breath, he goes still, his prick all the way inside, burying his face against Steve's leg as he cries out silently.
A minute after that, it's over, and he and Bucky are lying next to each other on his narrow bed the same way they did last February when the building's heat broke down, shoulder to shoulder, sharing space and heat. Steve is struck by the dizzying overlap of feelings: the familiarity of Bucky's body pressed against his own and the complete strangeness of it, too, that they're naked together, breathing hard together, with the smell of sex filling the air around them. Even if he and Bucky don't do this again, Steve thinks, he'll remember the way he feels in this moment: the swollen feeling of his lips where they were pressed to Bucky's lips, the suck marks on his collarbones, the wet sensation of Bucky's spunk in his ass. All the residue.
"C'mon," Bucky laughs, after a minute, standing up and reaching out a hand for Steve to take. Steve remembers belatedly that he's always like this after he gets laid, jovial and easygoing. He smiles in spite of himself. He takes Bucky's hand.
"C'mon c'mon, you're getting my sheets all messed up."
"I think the sheets are a lost cause," Steve replies, as Bucky pulls him to his feet.
They clean up together at the tap, using a couple of washcloths they keep around. Better than trying to sneak down the hall to the communal bathroom, even if it's not the greatest solution. Steve feels awkward at first, avoiding Bucky's gaze as he wipes himself off, but then Bucky starts cracking up, and Steve follows after him, till they're both snickering and trying hard to keep the giggles under control.
"Here, here, here," Bucky says, still laughing under his breath. "I can't even tell you what a mess your lipstick is."
Steve glances in the mirror and has to laugh at himself: the red smeared over his mouth, the hair sticking up, the big swollen lips. No doubt what he's been doing.
"Oh jeez," Steve says, as Bucky uses a fresh cloth on Steve's face, rubbing away the lipstick. "Not so beautiful now," he mutters.
"Hey," Bucky says awkwardly. "Still beautiful." He kisses Steve again, with less heat now but with a lot of determination, giving Steve time to sigh and sink into it.
"Always beautiful, Steve," Bucky says again, with more certainty, when their mouths part.
Steve shudders – from the compliment, from the cold air on his naked skin, from the utterly, deliciously vulnerable sensation of Bucky looking at his skinny messy body in the stark light of the bare bulb and wanting him still. Bucky kisses him, and kisses him, and Steve clings to Bucky's heat as long as he can before he breaks away.
"It's freezing," Steve says. "And your bed's a mess."
"Guess I'll have to sleep in yours, then," Bucky says. Steve takes his hand shyly, and together, hand in hand, they walk back to the bedroom.
It doesn't take long for them to warm up the cool fresh sheets, not with both of them huddling together under the blanket, with Bucky's human furnace act, with their limbs rubbing together, hot friction between their bodies.
"Merry Christmas," Steve remembers to whisper, as he starts to fall asleep.
"Merry Christmas," Bucky replies. His words are already slow and drowsy, and a moment later he's snoring softly on his half of the pillow, the same snores that Steve's fallen asleep to for years.
The next day Steve has to go back to work early, and leaves Bucky sleeping, since he doesn't have to be back at work until the day after. Bucky's sprawled out on the bed, unselfconscious and naked, and Steve wishes that he could stay with him, kiss his chest, make him come again and again and again. But he doesn't dare waste a day when he feels like he does now, strong and awake and ready to move mountains.
He runs into Danielle on the way out of the building.
"Steve! Just the man I wanted to see," she says.
She puts one hand on his shoulder lightly for balance as they head down the stairs. "I need warm bodies to do some doorknocking this evening. Union stuff, up your alley. It would be after your shift. Do you think you and Bucky could take some flyers and go up and down Jay Street?"
"Well, I can't speak for Bucky," Steve begins, "but I'll do it."
Danielle laughs, skipping a little as they step onto the last landing. "He'll go wherever you go," she says confidently. "He adores you."
The idea is completely new to Steve and so overwhelming that he stops walking for a moment, making Danielle turn around, a couple steps later, to see why he's not with her. That Bucky loves him, would forgive him anything, would do anything to help him, Steve already knew; but for some reason, he's always thought that those feelings came, at least a little, out of obligation or pity or just the fact that they've been friends so long. It's honestly never occurred to him that Bucky might . . . might adore him.
"Are you all right?" Danielle asks. Steve nods, and catches up to her.
"And where Bucky goes, so go the eligible ladies of the neighborhood," Steve adds.
Danielle looks at him shrewdly. "And the men of the right persuasion," she adds, winking. It's not like Steve's been keeping his new look secret from her, not really, but it's still a little embarrassing.
"You're not wrong," Steve admits. "We can probably recruit a few warm bodies for you."
Danielle nods. "Good. Come find me when you're done work. Valentine is making cookies for our volunteers!"
"Don't let that get out, or you'll have more volunteers than you can handle," Steve jokes. Danielle smiles, the extra-bright smile that she always gets when anyone says anything nice about Valentine. With a shock, Steve realizes that that's probably how he looks when people talk about Bucky.
The streets are covered in grey muck and his shoes get pretty thoroughly soaked before he gets to work, but the sun is shining and it feels like there's still something of Christmas in the air, people smiling at each other for no reason and laughing as they step carefully over patches of ice. Steve wraps his scarf over his face so that the cold won't bother his lungs too much and turns his eyes to the sun, letting the warmth sink into his skin. He feels good, even with his cold wet feet, even with the prospect of a long day of work ahead of him, even having left Bucky behind, warm and asleep in his bed.
After he gets in, he starts organizing the shipping manifests for the day, and keeps catching himself whistling as he does it. He flushes each time, self-conscious, and makes himself stop, but then a few minutes later he finds he's doing it again, whistling a tune he can't quite place but that sounds happy.
"Have a good Christmas?" It's Betty's voice, behind him, and Steve whirls around, feeling caught in the act even though he's only whistling over paperwork.
Arthur is standing there, but it's definitely a Betty type look on her face as she tilts her cap back and arches one perfect plucked eyebrow.
"Hey, B – Arthur," Steve amends. "I did have a good Christmas, yeah."
Frank comes up behind her and almost knocks into her.
"Hey, Art, what's the big deal, you're blocking the door."
"I was just noticing something different about our pal Steve," Arthur says, with Betty's lilting intonation. Frank looks over his shoulder.
"He does look kinda red in the face," Frank says. Then he winks. "Not that I haven't seen that before."
"He was whistling," Betty pronounces, as she saunters into the room, letting Frank lumber in after her. The door shuts behind them, and since it's the only door, Steve sees no way to escape.
"Can't a guy whistle to himself on the day after Christmas – " Steve begins, but Frank shakes his head.
"Nope. Spill. What, did you have a hot date last night?"
Steve looks down at his shoes. He wants, desperately, to tell his friends about what's happened, to throw his arms up in triumph, to shout it from the rooftops, but it's not really his job to go telling people about Bucky if Bucky wouldn't want it known.
"I – maybe," Steve allows, and Betty and Frank glance behind them to make sure no one else is coming, then run up next to Steve.
"Tell us all about it," Betty insists.
"Yeah, like, who was the gent? Anyone we know?"
Steve hesitates again. "I – look, I don't know if I should say."
"Bucky," Frank says, nodding to himself. Betty grins.
"Definitely Bucky. Whew, well, that took a good long time, didn't it?"
Steve realizes that his mouth's fallen open. "I – what – I didn't say it was Bucky!" he insists, in a fierce whisper.
"Why oh why wasn't I at home last night," Betty implores the heavens. "I might've been able to press my ear up against the wall and hear the long-awaited consummation of their deep, star-crossed – "
Steve throws a pencil at her, and she ducks, laughing.
"Really, that's great," Frank says. "I know how you were pining."
"I wasn't pining," Steve insists, nettled.
"Oh, young love," Betty sighs. "I do remember it well."
"I'm older than you," Steve says.
"Back in the misty days of my golden youth."
Frank looks sheepish, biting his lip and shuffling his feet. "So I guess you guys are – you're an item now?" he asks. Steve feels his love for Frank bloom up unexpectedly, and he's surprised how badly he wants to say no.
"I dunno," Steve says. "It's really new."
"In other words, they fucked their brains out and fell asleep right after," Betty summarizes. Steve can't really deny it.
"Well, I – I guess we'll find out," Frank says. Steve looks out the ramshackle building's little window; there's no one coming. Moving as quick as he can, he tilts back his cap, lifts up on his tiptoes and gives Frank a soft kiss on the mouth.
"Doesn't mean I'm not still head over heels for you, ya dolt," Steve breathes. Frank smiles.
"Foreman's gonna miss me pretty soon," Frank says.
"So get in gear already," Steve replies. For good measure, he smacks Frank on the ass, which makes him blush all pretty under his freckles.
When he goes, Betty sticks around for a minute. "So did Bucky tell you?" she asks, waiting for Steve to fill in the blanks.
"Tell me? About Marlene?"
"Yeah," he says.
"You know she's in love with him," Betty says. "Has been for ages."
Steve leans against the little folding table. "Is she – jeez. Is this going to break her heart?"
Betty shrugs. "We all get our hearts broke eventually. Marlene's a tough kid, she'll do okay. You should just be gentle with her, is all. You can gossip about Bucky's bedroom prowess with others. Me, for example. I will happily hear stories about the size of his – "
Steve smacks her on the arm, encountering only hard bicep and rough cloth. "I'm not gonna gossip about anyone's . . . prowess, come on," he says.
Betty shrugs and offers him an insouciant grin. "Worth a shot," she says. Then she pulls her cap back down her head and hunches her shoulders forward, and it's Arthur who heads back out the door.
Steve thinks about Frank's question for a long time, though, and he can't find an answer to it no matter how hard he tries.
When he gets home from work that evening, Bucky's no longer splayed across the bed, naked and vulnerable like Steve left him; instead he's sitting on the couch, reading one of his Amazing Stories magazines by the light of the bare bulb by the sink.
"Hey, Buck," Steve says softly, like it's any other day. Like he hadn't woken up this morning with Bucky's skin pressed warm to his, Bucky's body still bearing the marks of Steve's kisses.
"You gotta read this one, Stevie," Bucky says, not taking his eyes from the page. "It's all about a secret robot conspiracy."
"Eh, I'll let you tell me about it," Steve says, sighing. "Those stories are better when you tell them, anyway. You should write them."
"Yeah, sure," Bucky laughs. "Not me. But maybe you could draw the covers," Bucky says, finally looking up at Steve. Steve smiles at him, unsure. He hangs up his jacket on the peg by the door and goes to sit next to Bucky.
"I don't know how to draw robots," Steve says, softly. Bucky looks sideways at him and smiles.
"Well, it's like drawing people, but shinier," he explains, and Steve chuckles. Bucky leans back against the threadbare cushions, magazine lying on his lap, and he looks thoughtfully up at Steve. "You have a good day?"
Steve shrugs. "Like any other day, I guess," he says. He's still leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, keeping some space between him and Bucky.
"C'mere," Bucky says, low and quiet.
Steve moves closer and leans back, breath catching in his throat as his shoulder rubs against Bucky's. He's done it a thousand times, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bucky, so much that he stopped noticing, but now it feels daring, and new, and strange.
"I been missing you all day," Bucky says. He watches Steve steadily, all dark-eyed temptation, and Steve feels his heart start to thump hard in his chest at Bucky's words. "You miss me?"
"I missed you," Steve says.
Bucky reaches out and strokes his cheek. Steve closes his eyes and swallows hard.
"I couldn't stop thinking about how pretty you looked in your lipstick I got you."
Steve opens his eyes again. "Want me to wear it for you again, Buck?"
Bucky nods, breathless, so Steve finds the lipstick and puts it on. When he does, Bucky kisses his neck, and his cheeks, and down to his collarbones, but not his mouth.
"You don't wanna kiss me?" Steve asks.
"Don't wanna mess up your work," Bucky confesses. He shrugs, and looks away, and it strikes Steve suddenly that he's shy.
"Let me mess it up, then," Steve says, grinning, brazen, determined. He gets down on his knees on the floor, between Bucky's legs, and opens his pants.
"Jesus Christ," Bucky groans, as Steve takes out his dick. "Jesus Christ, Steve."
"Still blaspheming," Steve notes, laughing, and sucks him down.
They're just getting into it, Steve's head bobbing and Bucky's hips shifting restlessly and little lipstick smears finding their way onto Bucky's dick, when there's a knock at the door.
They both freeze in place. Steve looks up, his mouth still full, and sees Bucky blinking and obviously struggling to concentrate.
"Yeah, who's there?" he manages, after a minute.
"Bucky?" comes Danielle's voice. "Is that you?"
"Yeah?" Bucky says. Steve pulls off Bucky's dick and grimaces; he forgot that he promised Danielle some door-knocking.
"You and Steve still coming out with us tonight?"
Bucky glares at Steve, wild-eyed, and Steve opens his mouth to reply only to find his voice hoarse and broken. He coughs and tries again.
"We'll meet you downstairs in a few minutes, Danielle," he promises.
"Okay," Danielle calls back. She sounds a little confused. Steve holds his breath until he hears her steps retreat back to the stairwell. He breathes out, and Bucky does too, and then they laugh quietly and desperately together with Steve's head on Bucky's thigh.
"What the hell, Steve, why didn't you tell me we were gonna get interrupted!"
"I forgot!" Steve protests. "I told her we'd help her canvass the neighborhood tonight." He looks up at Bucky, who's laughing and beautiful and half-naked spread out in front of Steve, his dick still hard and red between them. "But you were so tempting."
"Tell me you're not going to make me go canvassing right now," Bucky groans, throwing his hand over his eyes.
"I am," Steve says. "I promised. But I'm gonna finish you off first."
Bucky looks down to meet his eyes. "Yeah?" he manages. Steve nods solemnly.
"Yeah. Gonna make you feel real good, Buck."
Bucky's hand finds Steve's head, his big palm curling around and cupping Steve's neck. "So do it, then," he says, and draws Steve forward. Steve goes along, bending his head back down and taking Bucky in again.
He comes fast, with Steve sucking and lipping hard and fast, comes up into Steve's mouth with a soft cry and a push of his hips. Steve takes it all.
He makes as if to get up, but Bucky stops him with a hand on his shoulder.
"You too," he says, awkwardly. "C'mon. You too."
So Steve maneuvers himself back up onto the couch, and lets Bucky open his pants, and then Bucky's big hand is wrapped around him, squeezing hard and pumping fast and making him come in a few seconds flat. Steve finds himself gasping for a long time afterward, his chest heaving up and down. Bucky gets up to wash himself at the sink, and Steve collapses back on the couch, his pants still undone, trying to catch his breath.
"Come on, get moving," Bucky says, nudging him with his toe. "Unless you want Danielle in here, seeing you look . . . seeing you look like this," he finishes, shrugging.
Steve washes up and buttons his pants, and he's turning to put his jacket on when Bucky stops him with a hand on his shoulder. Bending down, Bucky takes his mouth softly, sweetly, his tongue pressing at Steve's lips. Steve sinks into the kiss and grips hard at Bucky's shoulders, his arms, his chest.
"Wash your mouth, doll," Bucky murmurs, when he pulls away. Steve glances over his shoulder, at the mirror, and sees his lipstick-red mouth, no longer pristine but still painted enough to get noticed.
"Aw, jeez," Steve says, while Bucky laughs. He washes it off as best he can, though it leaves his lips looking puffy and pink anyhow.
"Shame to make you take it off," Bucky says, bumping his shoulder into Steve's as they leave the suite.
"Shut up," Steve says, but feels himself blushing.
When they get downstairs, Danielle is leaning against the brick wall of the lobby and counting leaflets.
"Took you two long enough," she says, her eyes traveling over them. Steve feels exposed, ashamed, like his pink cheeks and mouth are way too obvious to her.
"We're here, ain't we?" Bucky grumbles.
"Sorry, I didn't have time to get anyone else," Steve apologizes. "I got home late."
"No problem," Danielle says. She hands them each a stack of leaflets. "So long as you fellas don't mind knocking on a few extra doors yourselves."
The weather's not too cold, so time passes quickly as they canvass. Bucky's sweet and charming to every neighbor who opens their door to him, and Steve can't help but watch, taking in his soft smile and his slow blink with growing fascination.
Danielle nudges his shoulder when they regroup, a few blocks in, and he looks up at her in surprise.
"Eyes front, Rogers," she murmurs, and Steve flushes in hot embarrassment.
"It's not what you – "
"Ain't gotta explain nothing to me," Danielle says, cutting him off, and Steve can't help but huff out a laugh.
"It's new," he says, more quietly, and Danielle nods.
"Then I wish you all the luck in the world," she says. It's the kind of thing people say at weddings, or engagements, and it's shocking and pleasing to hear it from her.
"Thanks," he says. "Thanks, Danielle."
They move on to the next door. Bucky smiles at the lady and charms her, and then Steve shakes her hand and looks her in the eyes and asks for her support. She takes a leaflet.
They give out a lot of leaflets together.
Together, he and Bucky slowly settle into their new arrangement. A lot of the time it's the same as it always was, two guys sharing space, laughing together, going out together. But every now and then Bucky's gaze will turn hot, and he'll touch Steve's hand or run his fingers through Steve's hair, and Steve will shiver happily in response. They fuck a lot, at first, so that by the end of the second week Steve's had more sex with Bucky than he's had with anyone else. He likes it, the way he gets to know Bucky's body so well, so that he can find every sensitive spot, every way to make Bucky tremble and shudder against him. He gets to know the weight of Bucky's cock on his tongue, the thickness of it in his ass, the smoothness of it in his hand. He gets to know how Bucky breathes when he's really close to coming, and how he grins when he wants Steve to come, and most of all he gets to know the feeling of Bucky's hands on his body, surrounding him, covering him, making him warm and safe.
"Beautiful," Bucky whispers into his ear, as they fuck their way through one dark evening, a week or so after New Year's, hardly noticing the cold apartment with all the heat they're generating together. They've both come once already, and now Bucky's just fucking him slow, all the tension gone, easing into him and back out, over and over, like a fuck that doesn't even need to end. Steve loses track of how long they've been doing it, that slow, easy motion, how long he's been filled full of Bucky's prick.
Steve groans, stretching against Bucky's body behind him, feeling the pleasure all the way down to his toes. "You're fucking me so good, Bucky," he says, "you're so good to me."
Bucky kisses his ear, and trails his left hand down Steve's waist to his hip. His hands are so big that Steve can almost get lost inside them when Bucky touches him like that. He shudders.
"That's cuz you're my good girl, Stevie," he whispers. "You're so pretty when you take my prick like this."
He pulls out even more slowly, pushes in inch by devastating inch, then stays buried deep for a few seconds, rotating his hips to open Steve up a little more. Steve hooks his leg back over Bucky's, giving him better access.
"Oh, yeah," Bucky says, "that's right, baby, just like that."
When Bucky calls him those names, calls him baby or beautiful or tells him he's a good girl, it sets something loose in Steve, some wild bright feeling of finally being where he should be. Steve can't help the fantasies he gets sometimes, of being Bucky's girl forever, his sweet little fairy in lipstick and a dress, his to fuck and use whenever he wants.
"Bucky," he says, "Bucky, God, don't ever stop fucking me like that," he gasps. "Just like that, oh – "
Bucky bites his shoulder, then licks where he's bitten to soothe it. "Good girl," he murmurs. "Good girl, Steve, so good for me."
Much later, when Steve finally comes, he almost doesn't notice; he's been on the edge so long, fucked for so long, that the orgasm is nearly indistinguishable from the warm, easy pleasure that's already coursing through his body. He hears himself cry out, feels a little ways outside of his body even, like he's lost his tether to the earth.
He feels Bucky press his forehead to Steve's shoulder, hears his heavy breathing, and rocks himself back harder, squeezing on Bucky's cock.
"Come on, Buck," he whispers, before he feels Bucky shuddering against him, shuddering all over and groaning helplessly.
A minute or two later, Bucky pulls out of him, and Steve rolls over so they're face to face. His asshole kind of hurts, after all that, and his right knee is a little sore, but it was more than worth it.
"You're really really good at that," Steve laughs, stroking Bucky's face.
Bucky smiles and kisses Steve's palm. "You bring it out of me, baby," he says.
After his next paycheck, Bucky does get Steve a garter belt to go with the stockings, simple and black, and they fumble together to get it on.
"Don't tear the stockings," Steve says, as Bucky pulls them too fast up his legs in his haste.
"I won't, I won't," Bucky insists, nettled, kissing the top of Steve's thigh before he starts fastening the straps.
One by one, the straps hook onto the stockings, holding them in place.
When Bucky's done, Steve's hard, his cock standing up between his thin, feminine legs.
Panting, Bucky wraps a slow hand around Steve's dick and starts to stroke; Steve groans and falls against him.
"Let me give you a hand with that, Stevie," he says.
"Please," Steve says, "Bucky. Please."
It doesn't take him long, like that, with Bucky's rough callused hand holding him tight, with the stockings on his legs making him look so small and delicate.
"You could wear 'em whenever you want," Bucky says, after. He's still running his hands up and down on Steve's thighs, over the edge where the stockings end and Steve's skin begins, like he can't bear to stop touching him.
"Yeah," Steve breathes. He's already imagining it, how they could go under his trousers, could be his to wear in secret to work, or around town.
How he could be a fairy all the time, if he wanted to be.
A few days later, Steve finds himself sitting at home on his day off, wrapped up in a blanket on the living room sofa, and drawing for fun, for the first time in months. When Bucky fell asleep next to him, his fingers had itched with an old familiar longing, and for once he wasn't too shaking and exhausted to answer it. He'd managed not to wake Bucky when he got up to get his sketchbook and some pencils. As he traces the shape of Bucky's strong jaw, the dark fall of his eyelashes, the soft curl of his ear, Steve wonders if he'll ever have another moment this peaceful, this perfect. He can't imagine what more he might need in life.
Of course Bucky ruins it by waking up suddenly, snorting and blinking and looking around.
"I was just thinking how much more peaceful the place was with you sleeping," Steve teases. "Good morning."
"God, I can't believe I fell asleep. What time is it?"
"Relax, it's only eleven. You don't have to work until five tonight, remember?"
At this Bucky sighs and relaxes back into the couch. "Right. Good." Looking around slowly, he finally notices the paper and pencil in Steve's hands. "Hey, you're drawing," he says.
Steve shrugs, not really ready to talk about it. It's been so long since he's picked up his pencils, and he doesn't know how long this creative feeling is going to last. "A fairy's gotta have some artistic pursuits, and we both know I'm no dancer. Besides, you looked so cute all sacked out there."
Bucky gets up and shuffles over to sit next to Steve, looking over his shoulder at the drawing. "Not bad," he says, his fingertips reaching toward the soft pencil lines. "Though you neglected to draw me as handsome as I truly am."
Steve rolls his eyes and elbows him. "You're lucky I don't cover you with warts."
"My handsomeness would prevail." Steve laughs. Bucky reaches out a hand for the sketchbook. "Can I look?"
Steve hesitates, knowing what's in the sketchbook, but then figures he's got nothing to hide. "Sure," he says.
Bucky flips through, looking at each picture soberly, without the ribbing Steve would expect over the boring pictures of trees and mothers with baby strollers. "How come you haven't been drawing lately?" he asks, not taking his eyes from the pages.
"I dunno," Steve says, thinking of the days when he came home exhausted, shaking, emptied of his last resources. "I had more important things to do, I guess. It's not like I've actually managed to save anything up for art school."
"Hey, we'll get you there," Bucky promises. "It might take a couple years of saving, but we'll do it. In the meantime, why don't you submit stuff freelance?"
Steve sighs. "I should, I guess. Just hard to do, knowing that I'm such an amateur compared to some of the guys out there. I think my last paid commission was doing an educational comic for one of Danielle's flyers. The pros would probably toss my stuff in the garbage anyway."
"Well," Bucky says slowly, "they certainly might not understand this." He flips the sketchbook around so that Steve can see. Even though he knew that Bucky would probably find that page, Steve blushes to see it.
"Yeah, the proportions are all off in that one," he says.
"Forget the proportions, Steve, is that Arnie Roth? From school?"
In the drawing, Arnie's skinny and slight, no more than fourteen or fifteen. He's leaning back on the old metal-frame bed he'd shared with his three brothers, and his hand, a mess of badly-drawn sausage-fingers, is wrapped around his dick. His other arm, mercifully, is tucked beneath his head so that the fingers don't show, but yeah, that bent elbow is really where all the proportions started to go wrong; Steve winces at the implied length of the forearm.
"Sure is," Steve says. He lets a beat go by between them before he says, "First boy I ever kissed."
Bucky whistles. "And here I thought you were a late bloomer."
"I was just a different kind of flower," Steve agrees.
"I think you mean fruit," Bucky replies, tartly. Steve laughs. "So did you and Arnie . . . ?"
Steve shrugs. "Yeah. Just schoolboy stuff, you know. Fooling around." It seems so long ago, but Steve still remembers how it had felt to him at the time, the breathless anticipation, their bodies warm and barely touching under the thin blanket, mouths and hands and the overwhelming pulse of recognition.
"So, I guess this is – " Bucky clears his throat. "It's not new, for you. It's been going on a while now."
Feeling his heart start to race, Steve nods. "Long as I can remember."
Bucky nods quickly, still looking at the picture. "You ever – when we were kids, and you were doing schoolboy stuff with Arnie, did you ever . . . " Bucky trails off, and Steve can see that he's blushing. It breaks Steve's heart and makes him brave at the same time.
"Long as I can remember, Buck," Steve says, softly. The words don't even stick in his throat. "I wanted you."
Biting his lip and meeting Steve's eyes, Bucky says, "I wish I'd known." And if Steve's heart wasn't broken before, it sure as hell is now.
"Me too," he says.
Blushing even harder, Bucky looks back down at the drawing and runs his fingers over the lines, up Arnie's bony shoulder, down his slim torso to his thigh. Steve winces again, noticing how weirdly shaped the left thigh is compared to the right.
"I wonder where old Arnie is now," Bucky says.
"Actually, I heard from someone down at Vincent's that he's settled down. Got himself a husband, an architect or something, living quite comfortably out in Queens."
"Bully for Arnie," Bucky smiles. He shuffles a little further down on the sofa, so that he's sitting with his head on Steve's knee. Tentatively, Steve runs his fingers through Bucky's soft, dark hair.
"Yeah, we'll see how long it lasts. Maybe I'll see him at the queer bars again before too long."
"Speaking of, you haven't been in a while."
"Yeah, I've been busy with you," Steve grins.
"I was just wondering," Bucky says, still running his fingers over the lines of Arnie's body. "I was wondering if you were going to go back."
Steve frowns. "Well, it's amateur night coming up soon, and Betty always does this act where she sings and tells jokes. I promised her I'd go. The guys all say she's pretty good."
"Right," Bucky says, too quickly. "Right. What I mean is, if you meet a fella when you're there, and you want to go home with him, you should."
Steve stops petting Bucky's hair. "Okay," he says. "Are you saying that because you want to go home with other . . . with other girls?"
Bucky rolls over a little and looks up at him. "Not other fairies," he clarifies. He looks nervous, worried about Steve's reaction. "Just girls, like I used to. Is that okay?"
"Yeah," Steve says, full of affection, "yeah, that's fine, Buck. You know I never expected you to go steady with anyone, least of all me."
It's funny, because Steve used to be so jealous of all the girls Bucky dated, but now he has what they had: he knows the taste of Bucky's lips and the sounds he makes when he's fucking and the feeling of his weight pressing downwards. And now that he knows, it's like the heat goes out of his jealousy, and he doesn't mind sharing.
Bucky's hand comes up to stroke Steve's jawline, and Steve leans into the touch. "If it were anyone, I think it'd be you," he whispers. Steve kisses his fingertips gently.
He knows that, if it's anyone, it really shouldn't be him. Bucky can have so much more. But Steve will keep him while he can.
"These last weeks have been nice," Steve says, "but to be honest I do kind of miss the scene. You can see other girls, and I'll see other guys. And we'll still have this."
"You'll still be my best girl," Bucky says softly.
Leaning down, Steve kisses him, a brief touch of their lips together.
"I've been thinking," Bucky says, when Steve pulls away again. "Do you want to draw me?"
Steve furrows his brow. "I just did. That sketch was pretty much done when you woke up, I don't need to do anything more with it."
"No, numbskull," Bucky says, exasperated, "I mean, like you drew Arnie."
"Ohhh," Steve says. "You just want an excuse to show off."
"Maybe I do. Can you blame me?"
"Okay, tiger," Steve grins, "strip down and lounge against something and I'll see what I can do." Taking back his notebook, Steve flips to a fresh page. Bucky starts skinning out of his clothes.
"Don't forget my handsomeness this time," he cautions. "I don't want to be misremembered by future generations."
Steve laughs. "If by your handsomeness you mean your prick, then I'm sure I won't be able to miss it."
"You bet your ass you won't, punk," Bucky grins, lounging artistically against the arm of the sofa. Of course he lounges like an old pro, loose limbs and an easy manner. His body was made for this, made to be seen: clean lines and solid muscle, his dick half-hard amid dark pubic hair, his face open and expressive.
The first stroke of Steve's pencil against the paper feels like a caress.
The next morning, while Bucky's sleeping off his night shift and Steve's waiting around to head to work, Steve can't put the sketchbook down. He keeps opening it up to the drawings of Bucky he did the day before, adding little details here and there, putting in some shading, but mostly just staring at it. It's nice to be able to have the version of Bucky that he always sees in his head rendered on the paper in front of him.
He thinks for a long while, sharpening his pencils carefully with a knife and wondering what else he might want to draw.
Deciding that it's not anything currently in the apartment, he grabs his materials and his jacket and heads out the door. On the landing, he runs into Pauline, Danielle's roommate, coming down the stairs. She's in a smart-looking tie and skirt suit, her purse in her hands; she looks like she's headed out for her job in the typing pool.
"Hi there," Steve says amicably. "Off to work?"
"Yeah, Valentine is visiting, so." She trails off, obviously unsure if she should say I'm giving them some time alone. She smiles at Steve awkwardly.
"Huh, I was thinking of knocking on their door," Steve says. "You think they want, uh." He searches for a word other than privacy. "Quiet?"
Pauline shrugs. "They're reading the paper," she says. "I gotta get to work anyway, I just thought I'd head out early."
"Have a good day," Steve says, as she heads down the stairwell.
He walks up the two flights of stairs, breathing hard, and knocks on Danielle's door. He figures they'll tell him to buzz off if they want some time to themselves.
"Steve!" Danielle says, opening the door. "Come in, let us make you some tea."
"I'm not interrupting?" Steve asks.
"No, Valentine was just reading to me from the Catholic Worker. Did you hear about these miners organizing in Detroit?"
"Yeah, I hope they can make some headway," Steve says.
"So what brings you here on this fine morning, Steven?" Valentine asks, flipping the edge of the newsletter down and looking over her reading glasses at him.
"I've got an hour or so before work, and was thinking I'd like to draw something." He smiles. "Or someone."
"Huh," Danielle says. "And you thought of us?"
"Well you're only one floor away," Steve says, "so mostly it was easy."
"I didn't know you were an artist, Steve," Valentine says.
Steve shrugs, not wanting to get into a long explanation. "I'm trying to get back to it. It's been a while."
"Well, before I commit to having my likeness sketched, I shall have to see a sample of your work," Valentine replies, clipping her accent upwards like a fancy Manhattan lady. Danielle shakes her head and heads over to their hot plate to put the kettle on.
Steve turns to his recent portrait of Bucky – the clothed one – and holds it out to her. She gazes at it critically. "I did that yesterday," he says, to fill time while she looks it over. "I don't have a lot of other recent stuff, I haven't been drawing much."
"Did you know that my mother is an artist?" Valentine asks.
"I didn't," Steve says. "What medium does she use?"
"Oils," Valentine replies. "Though she has less opportunity for it since the family moved down here from Harlem. She's had to work a lot more."
"This is really great," Valentine muses. "You've got a gift for capturing personality; it feels just like Barnes. Why haven't you been drawing?"
"I haven't had any models beautiful enough," Steve replies. "As you can see, I had to settle for my roommate."
"Yeah, he's pretty hard on the eyes," Valentine says, handing the sketchbook back to Steve.
"I can barely stand living with him," Steve agrees.
"That's not the impression I got," Danielle says, teasingly, bringing him a cup of tea. Steve takes it carefully in both hands before setting it on the battered little table next to the couch.
Steve grins and ducks his head. "So, what do you say, ladies? A free portrait?"
"Why not," Danielle says. "We've got nothing on till later today."
They settle together on the couch, with Danielle perching awkwardly at first on the edge of the cushions. After a moment or two, Valentine grabs her arm and pulls her backward so that they're lying back against the couch together, Valentine's arms around Danielle's shoulders.
"Who's gonna know," Valentine says, and kisses her on the cheek. "Steve won't tell."
Steve blushes to be allowed to see them like this, relaxed in each others' arms. He draws them like that, tangled up together.
"How still do you need us to be," Danielle asks, twisting around with a half a frown on her face.
"Not too still," Steve says. "You can talk."
"Well thank God for that," Valentine says, and they all laugh. Steve draws the corner of Valentine's mouth, tilting up in a wry smile. "Then let's talk about something desperately important to justify all this time we're spending doing nothing."
"They're about to start construction again on the Second Avenue Subway," Steve offers.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Danielle snorts, inelegantly. Steve draws her short, frizzy hair.
"Is that honestly the best topic you could think of, Steve?" Valentine demands. "I ask you for something important and you bypass politics and world movements for local construction projects?"
"Hey, providing cheap, easily-accessed transportation for everyone is part of raising up the working class." He draws Valentine's arched eyebrows.
Danielle laughs. "He's got you there, sweetheart," she says. Valentine smooches her on the top of the head, hard, in revenge.
"I suppose so," Valentine smiles. "Local action for local results. Actually there are a lot of Negro women down in my neighborhood who would benefit from a new subway."
Their conversation passes on to the various local unions that are forming or trying to form, to the people leading those unions, and then eventually descends into pure gossip.
"No, I'm telling you, he made time with her sister," Danielle insists. Steve gave her permission to light a cigarette, which she did with obvious desperation, and she takes a slow puff now, considering the situation. She's careful to blow the smoke away from Steve, though, because she knows it makes him cough. "Not classy."
"And I'm telling you," Valentine argues, "you're thinking of the wrong woman. Alice's sister is Florence Reed – "
"Yes, exactly, Florence – "
"And Florence Reed has never gone out with a man in her life," Valentine concludes triumphantly. Meeting Steve's eyes, she says, "She's one of us."
Steve can't help but smile, pleased to be included in the "us." Danielle huffs.
"Florence Reed is the one who dated that Italian guy for a month and a half, they were practically going steady," she says.
"That's Florence Landon," Steve puts in. "And the Italian guy was Lorenzo Conti, who's with the Steelworkers, remember?"
"Florence Landon," Valentine says, slapping her hand on the couch. "I knew there was another Florence."
"Wait, is Florence Reed the one with the trousers and the cute suspenders – "
"Yes!" Valentine says.
"Oh." Danielle wrinkles her nose. "Well, jeez, she's never gone out with a man in her life."
Steve laughs, and Valentine buries her face against Danielle's shoulder, and Steve draws the place where their hands touch, their fingers laced loosely together.
In the sketch, Danielle looks a little uncomfortable and long-suffering, and Valentine has a satisfied grin on her face, but they both look happy, glad to be in each other's arms and smiling for the portrait.
"I'll do some more shading and stuff before I give it to you," Steve promises. "Right now I gotta get off to work. But here it is." He holds it out to them, sheepishly, and Danielle takes it.
"Wow," she says. "You made Val look really beautiful." Valentine pokes her in the ribs. "Ow," Danielle says. "I don't mean you're not beautiful! I mean he, y'know. Captured your beauty."
"Well, that's all right then," Valentine says. "I also think Steve captured the fact that you're a stubborn ass, look, you can see it in your eyes."
"It's lovely, Steve," Danielle says pointedly, handing it back to him. "When you bring it back, we're gonna put it right up on the wall."
"Pauline won't mind?" Steve asks, replacing the paper carefully in his book to work on later, after work.
Danielle winks. "Pauline'll be jealous. That girl can't keep a lady around long enough to sit for a portrait."
The spring passes on into the clear bright summer of 1941, and Bucky doesn't change his mind, or kick him out, or stop grabbing Steve up in the front room, every now and again, and kissing him soundly. Steve keeps on drawing, and he finds himself going out to the bars more and more often, laughing and clapping at the drag balls, getting squired by a series of big, handsome guys who treat him right, and coming home to Bucky and their shared bed.
He wears his stockings to work – not all the time, just now and then, and on the days he does he feels different, stronger and taller, gorgeous with every slide of the soft material against his legs.
The Dodgers do pretty good that summer, too, and look like they might even make it to the series.
Marlene and Betty start coming over, sometimes, so that they can all get ready together, and Bucky ends up acting as fashion judge half the time, a role he takes to eagerly and lasciviously. Steve never gets quite as dragged up as they do, staying mostly away from ladies' clothes and embellishing with bright shirts and scarves and flowers, but he wonders what it might be like to wear the stockings Bucky gave him under a soft little flower-print dress. Maybe one day he'll try it, when he can save up enough to buy something pretty to wear; both Marlene and Betty are way too tall for him to be able to borrow anything.
"We never should've prettied you up in the first place, Steve," Betty laughs, taking a pull of her cigarette. "We can't get noticed with you around. You should see him, James, there's no girl commands attention at the clubs like your Steve."
Bucky grins. "I'm sure that's true. I'll have to come along sometime."
"You'd just cramp my style," Steve says, punching him lightly in the shoulder.
"You'd be the center of attention," Marlene says, smiling softly at Bucky. Bucky smiles back.
"Any chance you'll be 21 sometime soon, Steve? Maybe we can get you drafted into the military and have the place to ourselves again."
Marlene frowns. "That's not the nicest thing to say, Betty," she says. "Anyway, won't you be 21 soon?"
Betty sighs. "Darn it, you're right. I'm getting too old for this life; I'll be 21 in December. But I'll make sure the Army doesn't take me; I'll just tell them I'm a faggot and they'll turf me out."
"Good luck ever getting a job again after that," Marlene says, furrowing her brow.
"I've been thinking about it," Steve says softly, and the rest of them turn to listen. "I think I'd like to serve, when the time comes. I'm already past 21, actually, though I haven't gotten a letter yet."
"You will. Roosevelt wants us to go to war, it's gonna happen eventually," Marlene says.
"I think we should be in it officially already," Steve replies. "It's not enough, to send supplies and whatever else. Roosevelt's right. Even the communists are fighting Hitler these days."
"But that doesn't mean you have to go," Bucky says slowly. "You're not – I mean, what if you had an asthma attack or something?"
Steve shrugs. "I'd have them whether I'm here or there. Seems like I could do some good there."
Bucky gets the look on his face that he's been wearing a lot, lately, the look he gets whenever Steve brings up the war. He doesn't know how to interpret it. He hopes it's just protectiveness.
"Anyway, this isn't helping us get ready for tonight," Betty sighs, cutting through the tension. "We're supposed to be putting on makeup and talking about frivolous, girly things, not dishing on war and presidents and such."
Steve nods, swallowing back what he wants to say.
That night at Vincent's Steve flirts and laughs and goes home with a new guy – Tommy – but for some reason he can't shake the gloom from his shoulders, not even in the warm summer air, the feeling that something isn't quite right. It's not until he's on his hands and knees for Tommy, waiting to get fucked, that he realizes what it is.
"Such a pretty, soft little ass," Tommy is saying, as he slides inside. Steve arches back into the familiar pleasure, but Tommy's words feel jarring and wrong. He recognizes, suddenly, the old feeling of misfit, the idea that his body isn't shaped right for the things he wants it to do. He hasn't really felt this way in over a year, not since he started going with guys regularly, not since he got his new job.
But it wells up inside him suddenly, the knowledge that wanting this fucking is inconsistent with the other things he wants, the other things he wishes his body could do. Tommy runs his big hands up and down Steve's sides, over his thighs, going on about how pretty Steve is, and Steve is caught between desire and disgust, between the compliments that he's always loved and the feeling that, even if his body is good at this, it's still not good enough.
"Harder," he tells Tommy, through gritted teeth, "do me harder," but it turns out that Tommy isn't much of a long-term prospect, and he comes in Steve's ass before Steve can get very into it.
He apologizes and jacks Steve off afterwards, which is pretty sweet of him, so Steve tries to be polite and lets himself come over Tommy's hand. Tommy kisses him, and it's nice, it's nice, it feels good, but the way Tommy cups his cheek and presses in with his tongue is also a reminder of how men see him: a pretty little fairy, not a real man, and never a soldier.
"You're real sweet," Tommy says softly, wetly, against his mouth. "Can I see you again?"
"Maybe I'll see you around the bar sometime," Steve says, getting up to leave. He doesn't even stick around long enough for Tommy to give him some money. He doesn't know if he does ever want to see him again.
There's a fire hydrant hissing water outside of Tommy's building, and Steve stoops down next to it and cups water in his hands, using it to scrub the makeup off his face. When he thinks he's gotten most of it, he pulls out his handkerchief and uses it to mop up.
There are a couple leftover smears of lipstick and eyeshadow on the cloth when he takes it away from his face.
Stomach rolling at the sight, he jams it into his pocket.
When he gets home, Bucky is sitting on the stoop with some of the neighbors, drinking a Piel's and joking around in the late summer twilight.
"Hey, Stevie," he says, happily, as he sees Steve coming up the steps. "What's going on?"
"Looks like someone held him down and washed his face for him," some guy sitting next to Bucky – Charlie, maybe, from downstairs – cracks. "About time."
Steve wipes self-consciously at his mouth, and turns his focus on Charlie. "You got something to say to me, you say it," he growls, already feeling his fists curling up in rage.
"Hey, Steve, let's go upstairs and have a beer, whaddya say – " Bucky begins, standing up, but then Charlie stands up too.
"I'm not too proud to pound a fucking fairy like you into the ground," he says.
The unintentional double entendre makes Steve want to laugh, so he lets it out in a slow, seductive smile. "I bet you're not, honey," he says sweetly, and bats his eyelashes. It gets him the desired reaction.
As he hits the ground, Steve lashes out against the body on top of him, kicking and punching, feeling the blows from Charlie's huge fists but taking them easily. Twisting, he knees Charlie hard, in the groin, which gives him enough time to struggle on top and punch him in the face for good measure.
He can hear people laughing and cheering around him, can almost pick out Bucky's voice in the din, calling his name, but his world is narrowed down to the big, strong body pressed up against his, the taste of blood in his mouth, the singing pain in his knuckles as he belts Charlie again, and again, until Charlie holds up his hands in surrender.
"Stop, stop, Jesus," he's saying, to the hoots and hollers of the crowd.
Steve gets up off of him and offers him a hand up. He doesn't take it.
"Okay, how about now we head upstairs," Bucky murmurs, taking him by the shoulders and pushing him forward. Steve lets himself be led.
"I'll wear whatever I fucking want," he yells back, over his shoulder. Bucky grabs him by the collar and manhandles him up the stairs.
When they get to their rooms and close the door, Bucky gets a rag and cleans up his face and knuckles with cold water from their tap. Most of the bleeding stops right away.
"Take off your shirt," Bucky says, the first words he's said since they shut the apartment door.
Steve's tempted to make a joke, but he's not sure Bucky would appreciate it right now. Instead he does as Bucky says, unbuttons the shirt he was wearing and shrugs it off. It's bright green, so the little dots of blood on the collar look grey-black where the green has mixed with the red. He peels off his undershirt next, and sits half-naked in front of Bucky, skinny ribs and narrow arms exposed.
He doesn't feel beautiful, like he usually does when Bucky looks at him. He feels small.
Bucky pokes carefully around the edges of the bruises that are forming on his chest and belly, making Steve hiss in pain a few times.
"Sorry," he says, perfunctorily. As he follows the line of Steve's ribs, he says, "You know, you didn't have to egg that guy into fighting you."
Steve shrugs, though the motion hurts his shoulder. He thinks it hit the pavement when Charlie tackled him. "I gotta stand up for myself."
"You gotta prove something, it ain't the same thing," Bucky says, angrily. "Is this about what I said before, about you not going into the Army?"
"No," Steve says. Bucky doesn't ask again, just carefully runs his fingertips over Steve's wounded body, checking for breaks or unusual bruising. His touch is gentle and knowing; he's done this for Steve dozens of times since they were kids.
"Maybe," Steve corrects himself. "I don't know, it's all messed up in my head."
Bucky nods. "I'm sorry I said it. I worry about you, Stevie, that's all."
"Yeah, I know," Steve says, and he's suddenly tired: from the unsatisfying fuck, from the fight, from the long flights of stairs up to their rooms. "It's just sometimes that feels – like you don't see what I really am, or what I want."
Bucky snorts. "You're the one who picks fights with guys twice your size," he says.
"I'm the one who wins fights with guys twice my size," Steve corrects him.
"You're not wrong there," Bucky says. He gets to the last rib and finishes his examination. "Well, I don't think there's anything broken, which is funny because this is one time we could actually afford a doctor for you if you needed one."
There had been a time, a few years ago, when a guy had broken Steve's arm, and they were too poor to do anything but treat it themselves. Bucky had tied Steve's arm to the brace solidly, silent and frowning the whole time, and he hadn't said a word of blame to Steve's face.
It'd healed pretty good in the end. He still has some numbness in his pinky finger, but it's only his left arm, anyway. Steve sometimes thinks it was worth the pain, and the numbness, to see Bucky's face when he patched him up, solemn and careful, like Steve was something precious to be taken care of.
"Thanks for looking after me, Buck," Steve says, voice hoarse.
"It's what I do," Bucky shrugs.
Leaning forward, Steve kisses him softly, as a thank you at first, but it gets deeper pretty quick. Kissing Bucky half the time is so good that Steve plain forgets there's anything else he'd like to be doing; he searches for that feeling now, of getting lost in the lush press of Bucky's lips against his.
"You might wanna slow down, pal," Bucky says, against his mouth. "You got beat pretty bad."
Steve growls at this and pushes Bucky's shoulders down to the couch, climbing up over his lap and kissing him again.
"Or," Bucky says, breathlessly, between hot kisses, "you could," kiss, "do the opposite," kiss, "of what I say."
Laughing low in his chest, Steve says, "That's pretty much my strategy."
He leans further down, kissing and biting at Bucky's throat, running his teeth against the stubble there. Bucky groans and squeezes his ass. It feels a little – odd, not like it usually does, but Steve pushes on. It won't be like it was with Tommy. It'll be good, and then Steve can forget about Tommy, forget about Charlie, and just focus on Bucky's body against his.
"I want you inside me," he whispers. "Please, Buck."
"Okay, okay," Bucky says. "C'mere." He wraps his hands around Steve's torso, spanning his ribs, then stroking up to thumb over his nipples. The weird feeling intensifies, and his stomach clenches as a wave of dizziness rolls through his head. This is too close, too claustrophobic, Bucky's big hands covering so much of Steve's small body, and he squirms away.
"Sorry, I hit a bruise?" Bucky asks, trailing his fingers more carefully over Steve's unmarked belly.
"No." Steve backs up again, so he's straddling Bucky's knees right at the edge of the couch.
Bucky blinks at him, confused. "Steve, I can't really fuck you without touching you," he says reasonably.
"I know, I know," Steve grumbles. He hesitates; he wants the old familiar feeling of rightness that he gets from Bucky's hands on his body, but when Bucky touches him, he doesn't feel right. He feels like he did in Tommy's bed and held down by Charlie's body, small and weak and wrong.
"What's the matter, baby?" Bucky asks, and the nickname grates and scratches and doesn't fit inside Steve's head.
He stands up, putting some distance between them, and finds his undershirt. He feels a little better, pulling it on. "I dunno," he mutters, not meeting Bucky's eyes. "Maybe – is it okay if we don't fuck right now?"
"Yeah," Bucky says. "Of course."
Steve nods, picking up his green shirt. It's so soft, so delicate. He marches it into the bedroom and throws it onto the floor next to his bed.
Bucky comes in behind him, leaning against the doorframe. "Hey, Steve, can we talk about this? Did I do something wrong?"
Steve takes a deep breath and turns toward him. "No, I – " He grasps for the words. "I keep wondering when my conscription letter is gonna come. I keep wondering if I should even be a soldier."
Frowning, Bucky sighs. "I guess I've been feeling that way too," he says. "I'd worry about you, if you were over there fighting."
"I'd worry about you too, Buck," Steve says, crossing his arms.
"You know what I mean."
"You mean I'm weak," Steve says, and feels angry tears springing to his eyes. "You mean I'm small, and weak, and girly, and I shouldn't be – shouldn't be – "
"Hey, hey," Bucky says, coming a little closer, reaching out and then pulling his hand back before he can actually touch Steve's shoulder. "Whatever the hell else you are, Steve, I can't imagine anybody thinking you're weak. And I know you're a fighter at heart," he says.
Steve looks up at him. "But you don't think I should go to war."
"God, Steve, I don't know. It's hard to get my head around it, that you can be so sweet and soft and then such a scrappy little shit at the same time."
Steve nods, breathing out shakily. "I'm both of those things, Bucky."
"I know," Bucky says. "Hey, can you – will you come over here? Sit down with me."
He sits on the edge of the bed, and gestures Steve to sit beside him. Steve walks over and thumps down onto the thin mattress. He and Bucky have fucked here so many times. Bucky called him beautiful, and called him his girl, and it'd felt so good, like finding a part of himself in the way Bucky looked at him.
But now the war's on it feels like he's lost something, too, that he didn't think he'd need.
Bucky slings an arm around his shoulders and squeezes. "I've known you your whole life," he says. "You gotta remember that, Stevie. Doesn't matter how you change or what you decide you want, I'm still gonna know you. Even if I mess it up sometimes."
Steve nods. His head is bowed, and he watches two tears – one from each eye – fall down onto his pants.
"That means a lot, Buck," he says.
"You can tell me anything," Bucky says. "I'm always gonna listen."
"Okay," Steve says. It's true, he can feel the truth of it, that he could wear anything, want anything, do anything, and Bucky would be there for him. Would understand him, or if he didn't understand, would listen until he did.
Squeezing him again, Bucky says, "Can I do anything? Make it better?"
Steve smiles. "Maybe just don't let go, Buck," he says.
"Here," Bucky says softly, "here, Stevie, lay down with me."
Steve looks up at him, and nods, and they shift slowly down onto their backs, Steve lying mostly on top of Bucky on the narrow bed.
"I gotcha, buddy," Bucky whispers.
For a few days, Steve doesn't go out to the clubs, or put on any lipstick, or even look at his body when he changes his clothes; sometimes even the thought of seeing himself is enough to make him feel down.
Bucky's real nice about it, letting Steve hold his hand or kiss him when he feels up to it, so that after a while the feeling starts to go away, and he doesn't feel so on edge every day, just walking around.
He manages to shake the gloom off a while later, and before too long he finds himself back out with his friends, pretty and glad in the lipstick Bucky bought him, in the new shirt Betty lent him, shoulders back and ready to holler for the drag queens who sing the house down. He goes out and gets fucked and it's okay, mostly, it's okay. Except for the sick feeling of disgust that resurges, every now and then, and makes him want to avoid the mirror, the clubs, the interested glances of men. It makes him mad, that the thing he's loved most about his life lately, the thing that's given him such a sense of belonging, doesn't always belong to him anymore.
When that happens, Bucky holds him, and doesn't fuck him, and strokes his hair, and it's almost good enough.
The Dodgers make it to the series, up against the Yankees no less, and even though they get pretty thoroughly trounced, he and Bucky manage to make it to a few of the games, and get to witness the trouncing themselves. The feeling of Bucky's thigh pressed up against his in the stands takes Steve back to when they were kids, when watching the Dodgers lose together was an uncomplicated pleasure.
But then again, the feeling of Bucky's mouth pressed against his, elation and joy spilling between them after the Dodgers actually squeak out a win in Game Two, is the kind of complicated pleasure that Steve doesn't think he could bear to live without.
As the fall passes into winter, Steve tries not to think about the conscription letter that hasn't come, and focuses on his drawing instead: buildings, dogs, people he sees in the park. On days off, when he's not at his Catholic Worker meetings or picketing somewhere with Danielle, he sets up a stand on the street and sells a few portraits, which adds a little income as the weather starts getting cold again and heat starts getting expensive.
He tries to get better at drawing fast, so he can get the basic lines of a composition down in a few seconds flat, then fill in later if the subject's moved on. He mostly does the sketches on spare bits of paper that he finds lying around: old newspapers, candy wrappers, shipping manifests from work, that kind of thing, but he adds a few to his sketchbook, too, when he likes how the sketch came out.
One night, while Bucky's off having dinner with his folks, Steve sits and doodles random things from the apartment – the bare light bulb, Bucky's little row of pomades, his own foot – wondering whether or not he feels like going out to a bar. His knees are bad today, but he hasn't seen a lot of the guys in a while. Hyam and Helena are supposed to have started something up, at least according to Betty, and Steve would kinda like to check in and get the latest news. On the other hand, it's already late, and it's dark outside, and he might've missed the crowds anyway.
Just as he's trying to convince himself to get up, grab a lipstick, and get going – it's not that far to Vincent's – there's a knock at his door.
When Steve answers it, it's Marlene standing on the other side, her makeup smeared and running with sweat, her clothes in disarray. It's not like he's never seen her a little messed up after a night out on the town, but he's never seen this expression on her face: scared, shocked dismay.
A cascade of images runs through Steve's mind, of all the things that might possibly have gone wrong: rapes, muggings, and beatings are all common enough around here, especially if you're walking alone and wearing makeup.
"Hey, Marlene, you okay?" he asks, standing aside and gesturing her in. She's been in the apartment before, but never when it was just her and Steve. She moves easily enough, at least, and doesn't look hurt from what Steve can see.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she says, but she's holding her hat in her hands and worrying it around with her fingers. She steps inside, and Steve closes the door. "But everyone else isn't. Vincent's just got raided."
Steve's eyebrows go up. "Damn," he says. "Who got arrested?"
Marlene grimaces. "Helena. Jackie. Benny. A bunch of people I didn't know." She takes a deep breath. "And Betty."
As she's talking, Steve's already shoving his shoes on his feet, doing up the laces hastily. "Okay, so we go down to the police station – "
Marlene puts her hand on his shoulder and shakes her head. "I already been. No one's getting out till morning, they say."
Steve takes a deep breath. "Is there something we can do, though? Get bail or something?"
Running a hand through her hair, Marlene purses her lips. "There is no bail. They haven't even charged anyone yet. The cops only rounded up a few of us, like an example. I think they're just being held long enough to scare them."
"Okay," Steve says. "Okay." That's the best-case scenario, really, if they're not going to charge anyone with Homosexual Solicitation. No charges means no names in the papers, none of their friends sent to Rikers this time. He fidgets, wishing there were something he could do, someone he could yell at, some way he could work to make this right.
"I know, I couldn't – it's infuriating, knowing they're all locked up and who-knows-what is going on and there's nothing I can do about it."
"Yeah," Steve says, "I guess we have to wait." Slowly, he unties his shoes and kicks them off. It feels like surrender. He sighs. "You wanna sit down? Or I guess we could go out and get a bite at Childs or something, if you're hungry."
"Can I hang around here a while?" Marlene asks. "I mean, it's been a long night, and I – I knocked on your door because I didn't want to go home by myself."
Steve nods. "Yeah, of course. Hang on, I've got a little tin of biscuits if you want."
He goes into the bedroom to fetch them off the shelf. When he comes back, Marlene is glancing over the sketches Steve was just making, the silly detail drawings.
"Not really my best work," Steve says apologetically, setting down the tin.
"Thanks, Steve," Marlene says. She takes a biscuit, crunching into it dryly. Steve wishes they had some tea or something he could offer her. "These are really good, actually."
"Thanks," Steve feels a little embarrassed, because they're not really much of anything.
"Do you have any others I could look at?" she asks. Steve smiles.
"Yeah, hang on." He fetches his sketchbook from under the tiny, rickety table. "Not all of these are for a ladies' eyes, you understand."
This makes Marlene laugh, and Steve relaxes a little at the sound. "Honey, I may be a girl, but I ain't no lady," she says, sounding just like one of the tough dames from the pictures.
He doesn't show her the ones of Bucky, because it feels a little too personal and also he doesn't want to hurt her feelings, but he shows her all the clothed pictures, and then the couple of nudes he's done lately: one of Frank, laughing with his face pressed into disarranged bedclothes, blushing under his freckles; and one of Hyam, after the first of a few nights they'd spent together, his full lips smiling behind his beard, one leg drawn up on the bed, his dick lying quietly against his thigh.
"Gosh," Marlene says. Steve grins, embarrassed.
"I know it seems a little . . . you know, blue or something," he says, feeling himself flush when he says it. It's like he still worries his Ma's ghost is going to come down and slap him. "But it's – I mean, I always feel really close to the people I draw that way."
Marlene nods solemnly. Her thumb rubs against the corner of the page, right below the place where Hyam's right leg fades away at the ankle. Steve still gets annoyed trying to draw feet sometimes.
"Do you have one of Bucky?" she asks. She looks up at him, clear-eyed, and he shrugs.
"Do you think he'd want me to see it?"
Steve huffs a laugh. "He specifically told me to mimeo some copies and plaster them around town. And gave me a list of names of particular people he thought I definitely ought to show it to."
"That flattering, huh?"
"I guess," Steve says, suddenly shy about what that drawing might reveal about how he looks at Bucky. Biting his lip, he flips back to those pages, first to the drawing of Bucky asleep, which makes Marlene smile, and then the nude one.
"Wow," she says.
"So, it is pretty flattering, then," Steve says, trying to make a joke. Marlene doesn't reply right away, running her finger over the sketch, about an inch above the surface so she doesn't smear it, tracing the lines of Bucky's shoulder, his hip, his ankle.
"It's not really that," she says, eventually. "It's more like – the way you see him. The light around him, the look on his face. It looks just like him." Smiling up at Steve, she says, "You really love him."
Steve coughs against a sudden tightness in his throat. "Yeah," he says. Clearing his throat again, he says it a little more clearly: "Yeah. But Betty, uh, Betty told me about you and Bucky."
"Oh yeah? She tell you I was in love with him?"
"Yeah, she did," Steve says.
Sighing dramatically, Marlene flops back against the couch. "Hope you're not the jealous type, then."
"Nah," Steve says. "I think he's gorgeous too, after all."
"Good, because I'm wildly jealous of you two. All shacked up playing house, husband and fairy. Quite the dream." She smiles softly to make sure Steve's not offended.
"I'm – we're not – Bucky and I still see other people," Steve says, trying to get his head around that word, husband. People talk about it that way sometimes, when a pansy finds a guy to look after him, a wolf or a queer or someone like that, a little older, maybe, with some money. But he and Bucky aren't – Bucky isn't his –
"Still," Marlene insists gently. There's a long pause. Her eyes go far away for a minute, and her mouth pulls downward.
"Thinking about Betty?" Steve asks. It's weighing on him, too, the idea of his friends locked up all night, maybe being hurt or raped or humiliated by the cops. He clenches his fist, almost crumpling the sketchbook page with Bucky's nude. He lets go as quickly as he made the fist; there's nothing he can do right now. He can't start a fight with a whole station full of police.
It's a good thing he wasn't there when it went down, or he might've tried. He's been in and out of a bunch of different clubs, but Vincent's is where his family is.
Marlene nods. "I talked to Hyam, he was there but they don't arrest the queer men, you know, just the fairies and drag queens usually."
"He said Betty – " Marlene looks like she might be about to cry, and Steve turns toward her in anticipation of those tears, shuffling closer. "Betty threw her shoe at the cops," Marlene manages eventually, breaking out into laughter.
"She – what?" Steve asks, as Marlene chuckles helplessly. "She threw her shoe?"
Marlene nods, still laughing, and Steve starts to laugh too, struck by the image.
"Like, she unlaced it, took it off, and – "
Marlene shakes her head, touching his shoulder to get him to stop. "No, no, Steve," she says, "tonight's amateur night. She was singing."
"She was in drag," Steve realizes, in awe.
"She threw a size eleven red high heel," Marlene says, eyes wide. "It hit a cop right in the face. Cut him pretty good, too."
"Jesus Christ," Steve says. He's amazed, but also, that's not gonna bode well. "Did they – is she okay?"
"Hyam says they didn't see who threw it," Marlene says, and a slow smile comes over her face. "And a bunch of the kids in drag all kicked off their shoes so they wouldn't be able to tell. Whole floor was scattered with heels and loafers and so forth."
"That's amazing," Steve breathes. "Oh wow."
"So I'm worried about her," Marlene says. "And also – sad that I missed it, too, y'know?"
Steve nods. He doesn't want to go to prison any more than the next guy, but damn, it sounds like it was something to see.
Marlene toys with the edge of Steve's sketchbook again, and it looks like it's an unconscious movement, fretting with the paper as increasingly dark thoughts spin through her head.
"You want me to draw you?" he offers, the words popping out of his mouth at the same moment that the thought occurs to him. "Might take our minds off things."
"God, I'm a mess," Marlene says, running her hands through her hair. She keeps it a little longer than most fellas would. Usually she slicks it back with pomade, but right now it's falling forward into her eyes, making her look unkempt and rough.
"Well, it's not a photograph," Steve says. "I'll take artistic liberties. But if you want you can use my makeup and fix yourself up a little first."
She hesitates, and Steve moves back to make more space between them on the couch. "I mean, it's fine if you don't want to – "
"No, I want to," Marlene says, grinning at him a little cockily. "I was just thinking about what your husband might think if he came home and saw me naked in your rooms."
"He'd think I was getting lucky," Steve says, grinning back. "And he's not my husband, Marlene, jeez."
"If you say so."
"Lipstick and stuff's in the bedroom, on the little table," Steve says. "Use whatever you like. I owe you after all the stuff you guys have lent me."
"You're damn right you do," Marlene laughs. She pulls on the overhead light and takes a few minutes freshening up; when she comes back out, she's neat as a pin, hair slicked back, scarf tied in an asymmetrical knot in the open collar of her shirt, eyeshadow done in the bright blue that Bucky got him and that Steve hasn't yet been brave enough to try.
"Gorgeous," Steve says.
She strikes a little pose, then falls out of it, laughing. "I think I smell like Bucky now," she says. "Is this his pomade?"
"Yup," Steve says. "He's got a little fairy in him."
"Oh really," Marlene says, and Steve blushes bright red at what he's just implied. "Does he? Now and again? Well, no one's gonna ask what you two get up to behind closed doors, are they."
"I didn't mean it like that," Steve says, wishing he could erase what he said.
"It's okay, Steve," Marlene says, softly. She puts a hand on his arm, and in that touch Steve can feel a whole world of compassion. "I was teasing. I'm sorry. Maybe I shouldn't tease you, about him. I know I wouldn't like it if it were – if it were me."
Steve nods, and breathes out. "It's only that – you know. He's really not a fairy. He goes with girls a lot."
"Yeah, I've seen him." Marlene's hand slides down his arm until their hands touch, and she curls her fingers around his tentatively.
"He's not like the queer guys, like Frank or Johnny. He can get married. Be a real husband to someone. Have kids. I think he wants kids someday."
"Damn," Marlene says, softly, compassionately. Leaning down – she has three or four inches on Steve – she kisses his forehead. "You ever talk to him about this?"
Steve shrugs. "I don't want to make him feel obligated to me."
"Uh huh," Marlene says. She gives Steve's hand a squeeze, then walks backward, putting a few paces between them.
"All right," she says, "where do you want me? And what do you want me wearing?"
Steve lets out a breath. "Up to you," he says. "You can sit or lie down however you're comfortable."
"Comfortable, huh," she says, staring at the tiny couch shoved into the corner of the small room. She tries a bunch of different positions, adjusting her elbow or her leg awkwardly, trying to find a natural way to sit. "Why have I forgotten how sitting works?" she asks, exasperated.
Steve laughs. "Sometimes it helps to imagine a relaxing situation," he says.
"You'd think I'd be more relaxed without Betty around," she says, folding and then unfolding her legs. "All that peace and quiet, no one yelling dirty jokes in the street at two a.m. and threatening to get us beaten up and robbed."
Steve nods, flipping to a blank page in his sketchbook. "She's got a big personality, all right," he agrees.
Marlene laughs, her head settling on the arm of the couch, her left hand behind her neck to cushion it. Her right leg falls down off the edge, until her foot is planted on the floor. The position looks pretty comfortable.
Steve makes the first marks on the page, a few vague lines to get the general shape she's making. She turns her head to look at him.
"I ever tell you how Betty and I met?" she asks. Steve shakes his head, and starts drawing the bend of her elbow.
"Tell me," he says.
"I was new in the city," Marlene says. "I'm from Ohio, from a little farming town."
"I didn't know that," Steve says. "What was that like?"
"Not so bad. Good parents, good work. Good people. Had a boyfriend, too, and we'd meet to tumble around in the hayloft together."
"Maybe you should get Norman Rockwell to draw this," Steve jokes. Marlene laughs.
"Wait, that reminds me, I wanted you to do it with my clothes off," she says.
"Oh really," Steve says softly, mimicking her tone earlier, and she rolls her eyes at him. "Take off whatever you like," he says.
Slowly, she unbuttons her shirt and slides it off her arms, so that it's left on the couch beneath her shoulders, trailing down to the floor on one side.
"That's nice, leave that," Steve says, when she moves to pull it out from under herself.
"Okay," she says. She takes off her pants and socks, kicking them off the end and onto the floor; then all that's left is her shorts and the brightly colored scarf knotted around her neck.
"What if I left my scarf on?" she asks, smiling up at Steve.
"I suppose that would be all right," Steve grins, as her strong tradesman's hands unbutton her shorts and push them off. Her cock isn't hard, but it isn't quite soft, either, just on the verge of filling and standing up.
Steve finds himself breathing harder at the sight of her, the way her arms are tanned from the elbow down but pale above, the bright red of her lipstick and the dark hair between her thighs.
"You're really pretty," Steve says. "You look pretty like that."
Marlene's smile is slow and sweet. "Thanks, Steve," she says. "Um, is it normal if – I have to say I'm kind of enjoying this."
"I can see that," Steve says. Marlene's prick is slowly getting harder against her thigh. He wishes he could film it, not just draw it. "You're not the first. It's fine by me."
"Good," Marlene breathes, laughing a little.
"So you were telling me about your idyllic upbringing in Ohio, queer boys falling out of haystacks left and right – " Steve encourages.
"Ha, not quite. But it was fine, for a while."
"Did you get found out?" Steve asks, because he's heard that story: Dad catches you in a clinch with another boy, you're beaten, run out of the house, living on the streets at fifteen. It's as old as the hills.
"No, nothing so dramatic," Marlene says. She keeps her head turned, facing Steve; Steve draws her bright lips and eyes, shading them in a little as he goes. "My boyfriend found someone else to fuck, and I longed for the glittering lights of the great queer metropolis, so I left home at sixteen and came here. Used every penny I'd ever saved to get here, too."
"You didn't hitch?" Steve asks. He's never been outside of New York, himself, but Betty's told him stories about the kind of wild times to be had on the road for a fella willing to pay his way. He's never been clear on whether they were Betty's stories or second hand.
"God, no, I was too shy," she says, and Steve can just picture it, Marlene but scrawnier and quieter in dull-colored boy clothes, sitting on her bus seat, waiting for New York to rise in the east and make her into all she ever wanted to be. "When I got here, you know, it was hard to find work, but I knew a lot of carpentry from the farm and that helped. But for the first three months, I never went out to a single bar or club, or even met guys in the park. On my big adventure in the big city and I was too scared to meet anybody."
Steve draws her chest, vulnerable and exposed, shading a little on her large dark nipples and the hollow beneath her ribs.
"One night I was sort of . . . skulking around the Village, you know. Holding up a lot of walls. I'd heard that was where the action was, but I didn't go in anywhere."
"And Betty showed up as your knight in shining armor?" Steve guesses. The question makes Marlene grin, and Steve draws it, the shy delight on her face as she remembers the first time she met Betty.
"Knight in shining lipstick, more like," Marlene says. "She was in a red tie and a tailored suit and she was smoking a cigarette outside of some club." Marlene's prick is half-hard between her legs, and Steve decides to draw it like that, how it looks when she first starts to feel turned on. Marlene's hand is on her thigh, next to it, but she doesn't make any move to hold herself or stroke herself harder, just letting things happen.
"Up in the Village?"
"Yeah, this was back in – 1936, I guess, when the cops weren't cracking down as hard as they are these days. She lived up there for a while, but it got too expensive, and then she got that job in the Navy Yard, so she moved back down here."
"So she spotted you, this fresh-faced lamb, this diamond in the rough, and she said . . . ?"
"She said," Marlene screws her face up into an imitation of Betty's best unamused scowl, "'Kid, you're obviously a cocksucker, so get the fuck inside before you freeze to death.'"
"Just like in the movies," Steve laughs. "What a hero."
"I was terrified!" Marlene screams, throwing back her head. "Lurking around a corner in shit-colored boy clothes and still spotted for a faggot! But of course the idea of not doing what she said was more terrifying, so I went in."
"I hope she treated you right," Steve says, lingering on the long lines of Marlene's legs, the thick muscles of her thighs.
"She made me come out, and introduced me all around, and by the end of the night I was, in fact, sucking cock," Marlene says, a fond smile on her face.
"Not hers, though," Steve says, only half a question. Marlene sighs and shakes her head no.
"It was some sailor. You know me and seafood. I never saw him again, but it's funny, I can still remember how he tasted."
"Salty?" Steve asks, making the old joke.
Marlene, who's a kind soul at heart, laughs. "Yes indeed."
Hesitating over the shadows of Marlene's thighs, Steve clears his throat and says, "Can I ask you something?"
"Do Betty and I ever fuck?" Marlene asks, staring right through Steve.
Steve nods. "You don't have to answer," he says.
"I don't mind. Yeah, sometimes it's a bit lesbian between us. Kiss kiss and all that. Kind of a thrill to kiss someone else wearing lipstick."
Steve's blood pulses a little hotter at the image, two pansies pressed together, painted mouths desperate against one another. He draws Marlene's knees, her long, inviting legs.
"And other times, well – sometimes you just want a dick inside you, you know? You just wanna feel good. And I like it best with someone I know, who knows me."
"You feel seen," Steve guesses, and Marlene nods.
"Yeah. Like right now." She gestures down at her prick, getting bigger all on its own, without even being touched.
Steve puts the last few lines onto the drawing; everything else is shading that he can do later. He puts the pad aside.
"All done?" Marlene asks, surprised.
Steve shrugs. "Mostly," he says. "I can finish up later."
Arching her eyebrows, Marlene rolls on her side to face Steve more completely, and brings her hand down to her cock. Her scarf flutters at the motion, and her red lips part wetly. "Yeah? What are you going to do now?"
Kneeling next to her, he bends down and kisses her belly. "I was gonna ask if I could suck you," he breathes. Her abdomen twitches at the feeling of his breath against the skin.
"Yeah," she says, wrapping her fist around her hard dick. "Please."
It's exactly what Steve needs – what they both need, he figures, to feel good on this dark night, to feel this simple and easily affirmed connection between their bodies. Steve uses his mouth and his hands on her, and she arches back against the couch, nothing that they haven't both done a hundred times before. Steve slides his hand up her thigh, then back down to stroke her balls and the space behind, to push his thumb up against her hole.
It's like all the blowjobs he's given or gotten, like the ones he's given Bucky, maybe like the ones Marlene has gotten from Betty. A language they can speak together, this exchange of touch and of vulnerability, as Steve takes Marlene's dick into his mouth, as Marlene takes Steve's fingers in her asshole.
They're both fairies together, and that counts for something. Steve hopes that the kids down at the police station are together, too, that they can look out for one another till morning.
Marlene groans, and grips Steve's hair in her callused fingers, and comes into his mouth, not so different from all the other times he's done this. He gets up and spits into the sink, then comes back over to kneel beside Marlene again. Her chest is heaving, her strong thighs shifting as she sits up.
"Thanks, Steve," she says, reaching out and touching his face. He leans down and kisses her, once on each cheek, softly. She kisses back.
"It felt really good," he says, and she nods, knowing just what he means.
"Wanna fuck me? I like it after I've come, it's like a whole nother level of existence."
Steve grins. "Yeah?" She's so pretty, in her makeup and her little smile, and Steve's belly flutters a little bit thinking about it: how she'd be so soft and giving for him, how he could sink down into her and smell her perfume, how she'd open up willingly beneath him.
He's half hard already, just from blowing her, but he also feels a low, lazy sort of contentment, and doesn't want to mess with it. Sighing, he goes from kneeling to sitting on the floor. He rests his arms on the couch near Marlene's knees, and his head on his arms.
"Maybe a raincheck," he says. "Right now I think I want to sit here for a little while."
She nudges him with her knee. "Then pass me my shorts, Rogers, for God's sake, this building is colder than hell in the winter."
Marlene leaves a little while later, to go sleep in her own bed, and when Steve curls up in his he feels warm, and hopeful, and ready to fight tomorrow.
The next morning, Steve knocks on Marlene's door, and she answers still in her rumpled singlet and shorts.
"Hey, Steve," she says, confused. "I thought the police station doesn't open for hours."
"I got an idea for something we can do in the meantime," Steve says, grinning. "You know Helena's roommate, right? And where Jackie lives now he's left the Y? I've been by Benny's place, he lives with his family in a tenement house not far from here."
"I know Helena's roommate," Marlene says slowly. "And Jackie's living off of Flushing. Stevie, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking we need more ammunition," he says.
They end up getting to the police station ten minutes late, but it doesn't make much difference; the cops make them wait for hours anyway, until they're both missing work with no good excuse. Steve figures they're gonna be shorthanded down at the docks, with Steve gone and a bunch of the others locked up, but right now there's nothing else to be done. Marlene is grimly determined to wait it out, in her suit jacket and smart hat with the blue feather carefully removed from the hatband, and Steve's gonna sit this quiet protest with her. At least he probably won't get fired over this, and he can afford to miss a day's wages.
When they finally come out, they all look shaken but relieved. Steve watches Helena as she ducks her head to get past the low doorway, and she gives him a little nod and a wink despite what looks like a nasty cut right below her eye.
"I think it's okay," he says. "They're being released."
Betty comes out still in drag, twirling around magnificently in her ballgown, a fresh shiner on her face and a lot of bruises on her arms and neck. Steve notices her feet, bare except for torn stockings, and all the others without shoes too. He smiles, unable to help himself.
Betty walks right up to Marlene and gives her the biggest, firmest, most manly handshake Steve has ever seen, which puts them all in stitches, right there in the middle of the police station.
"Okay, gorgeous, let's get out of here before they arrest you again," Marlene says, in an undertone, but Steve sees her glad smile and the way she spins Betty around, so that they can keep holding hands without the cops getting an eyeful.
They all troop outside together, and once they're a few doors down Steve stops and hefts the bag he brought with him.
"I got shoes," he says, "who wants 'em."
"Oh, me, please, Santa," Helena says, her laugh booming. "They made us march over icy cobbles and broken glass and all sorts in our socks, and my feet are killing me."
"I got something for everyone," Steve says, handing them out. "What we could find still on the floor at Vincent's and the rest as best we could."
"You're supposed to keep them on your feet and not commit felony assault with them," Marlene says sternly, handing Betty's nice brown dress shoes to her. "You scared the hell out of me."
Betty blows Marlene a kiss in exchange for the shoes and hops to get them on her feet. "I'm fucking sick of running from raids," she says. "It's getting worse and worse around here. Used to just be up in Harlem and the Village, but now the pigs are trying to shut us down too. We start running, they'll never let us stop."
"You're lucky they didn't break any bones," Marlene insists. "You think with a shoe in your hands, you're gonna stop them from – "
"Doesn't matter what you got in your hands," Betty insists, cutting her off. She's got her shoes tied, and is making an absolutely ridiculous fashion statement with the shiny brown leather over her torn stockings and under her glittering gown. She pulls herself up straight and looks them in the eye, more serious than Steve's ever seen her. "If you can stand up, you stand up, and if you can push back, you push back. Sometimes you just gotta, Marlene, you know that."
"I know," Marlene says. "But I'd have to get a new roommate if you were out on Rikers, and you know I don't like most people."
"I know, buddy," Betty says, wrapping her arm around Marlene's shoulders and pulling her close, the way Bucky does to Steve sometimes.
"We got you some pants, anyway," Marlene sighs. "You can change behind the trashcans like the whore you are."
"Perfect," Betty says, and takes the clothes from the bag to go change – behind some trashcans, as instructed. Steve shakes his head.
"These are my old shoes. From my house," Benny says, looking through the bag. "Steve, did you bust into my parents' house and hold them up for shoes?"
"We knocked," Steve says. "Your mom is really nice. She gave me cake."
"Hey, I don't think I know you," Marlene says, to one of the fairies Steve doesn't recognize either. He's still got a little smudged mascara around his eyes.
"Ira," he says, quietly. "I don't usually – I mean, I've never. Well. It was really nice of you guys to come pick us up." He finds a pair of shoes in the bag that fit his feet. "These aren't mine, but I'll wear 'em for now if no one minds. I'll try to find mine at the bar, I guess."
"That's all they had, I'm sorry," Marlene tells him. "Things got messed around in the shuffle and if it's not in there, it's long gone."
"Those are my old shoes for work, actually," Betty says, emerging from behind the dumpsters in a collared shirt and trousers, doing up her tie. She looks Ira up and down, taking in his patched trousers and frayed collar. "But tell you what, kid, you can have 'em."
Steve raises his eyebrows at this gift; he knows Betty can't afford a new pair of good leather shoes anymore than he can.
"I'll pay you back," Ira says, wide-eyed at her generosity. "I promise."
"Then we're fine," Betty declares, slinging her arm around him. Once everyone's got something on their feet, they all decide to head down to Childs for a bite.
"The food in prison is terrible," Helena declares, "especially in the sense that there was none of it."
"Hey, Ira," Marlene says, as they walk. She says it quietly, so that Steve, standing next to her, is the only one who hears. "Tell me this wasn't your first time coming out."
Ira swallows and nods. Marlene shakes her head. "Listen, it's not always like that. It's usually a lot more fun and a lot less getting beaten up, I swear."
"They said we could go with a warning," Ira says. "So we're not getting charged?"
"Nope," Marlene confirms. "Free as a bird."
"But they said next time . . . " Ira trails off.
Marlene sighs. "Next time they might charge you, try you, stick you in jail. I did sixty days for Degenerate Disorderly Conduct once," she says. "It was pretty bad."
"You did?" Ira asks, maybe confused as to how a convict like her could be out on the streets. Steve stays quiet, listening; he didn't know this about Marlene either.
"Yup. And you know what I did, when I got out?"
Ira shakes his head.
"As soon as I had a little money, I went right out and bought myself a lipstick," she says, her voice getting loud enough for everyone to hear. "You might not feel the same way, after this. You might wanna stay home and lock the door. But if you wanna come back out, there's a drag ball in two weeks. December fifth. You're invited."
Steve shoves his hands in his pockets, smiling and feeling strangely light; with everyone together like this, walking shoulder to shoulder, the police raid is fading away from their memories, turning into a story they can tell one another for a laugh.
"Wait," Betty says, turning around to frown at Marlene. "Is the drag ball still on? Is Vincent's closed down? The cops didn't tell us anything."
"I talked to Leonard," Marlene says.
"Who's Leonard?" Benny asks.
"Leonard is Vincent," Betty explains impatiently. "If there is still a Vincent's." She yells. "Is there still a Vincent's?"
"Leonard said they didn't take his license," Marlene says, then grimaces through the round of cheering and applause that follows. "But," she continues, "but, if he doesn't get rid of his disorderly clientele by the next time the State Liquor Authority comes around, he's done."
Everyone sobers up quick. "So, is Leonard gonna get rid of his disorderly clientele?" Betty asks.
Marlene shrugs. "He said he would hire a new bouncer, try to keep out the plainclothes," she says, "but that they were gonna have to come and take his bar from him because he wasn't gonna give it up for free."
The second round of cheers is even louder, a bunch of guys all hooting and hollering as they burst through the doors to Childs. Ira surreptitiously wipes his face on his shirt, and Steve gives him a thumbs up when the makeup's all gone.
"So, the drag ball's still on, then," Ira asks quietly.
Steve nods. "Take more than that to stop us."
When the drag ball finally rolls around, Steve's held up at work, so he has to run straight from the docks to Vincent's without a chance to freshen up first, slipping on the icy sidewalks and almost falling twice. Still in his rough work clothing and without a lick of makeup on, he bursts through the doors right before the festivities are due to start. The running has put him out of breath but hasn't quite triggered his asthma, so that he's able to choke out a few words to the people who greet him on the way in, and give the password to the bouncer.
"Steve!" Helena says, taking his hand. "Marlene has been distraught, certain you wouldn't show up. She said you were supposed to help her pick out a lipstick for tonight."
"I know," Steve gasps, and then can't say any more. Helena, noting his distress, pats him condescendingly on the shoulder and points him toward the makeshift staging area, demarcated by a curtain.
"Steven, that had better be you," Marlene says, as Steve walks up to the edge of the curtain.
"It is," Steve says, a little disconcerted by her use of his full name. His Ma used to do that.
The curtain is yanked aside and Marlene revealed on the other side, in a full ball gown, wig, makeup, and very high heels. Steve whistles.
"Marlene, you look gorgeous," he says.
"Well, no thanks to you, you cad," she says, only a little placated. "I notice you haven't bothered to dress up."
"I had to run straight from work," Steve says. "I got here as soon as I could." Ducking his head, he smiles. "Besides, I figured I'd butch it up tonight, not take away from all you girls."
Marlene sighs. "We all know that you're the one all the boys will be after regardless," she says. "It's that blond hair and the big eyes and all those delicate bones."
Taking another step forward, Steve leans in to kiss her on the cheek. "You make it sound like I'm in a butcher shop," he laughs.
"Stand me up again, and you might be," she warns. "Now come in here and help me do my eyes, they’re being difficult."
Steve steps in and takes the brush from her hands.
"Close your eyes," he says, remembering the first time she and Betty did this for him.
"It's been so long since I've done one of these," she sighs, as Steve carefully brushes a line along her upper eyelids. "I feel like such an old lady."
"You're gonna knock 'em dead," Steve promises.
Once Marlene is satisfied with her look, Steve heads back out to get himself a seat in the crowd. All the chairs are taken, but when he lays eyes on Frank, Frank stands up and offers Steve his chair.
Strangers offer Steve their seats all the time, on the subway or on the bus, when they see him panting or about to fall. Steve never takes them.
He takes this seat without hesitation, smiling warmly at Frank, glad to have the opportunity to sit and catch his breath after his run.
"You ever seen Marlene in one of these shows before?" Franks asks, crouching down beside him to speak in his ear.
"No," Steve says, "I missed Halloween, and she hasn't done it since."
"Hey, Steve," someone says, from a few seats away. Steve looks up, and sees Ira, wearing lipstick about as defiantly and nervously as Steve's ever seen.
"Hey there, Ira," he says. "Glad you made it."
"Couldn't disappoint Marlene," Ira says, and Steve nods ruefully.
"Know the feeling."
The first few performers are really great, and Steve claps and hollers his appreciation. They all have such poise and confidence, even though they've been told all their lives never to do exactly this. They take joy in it, and so does Steve, in their bravery, their willingness to stand up on stage in a dress in front of a hundred other people and feel beautiful.
He wishes he were that brave.
But when Marlene comes out on stage, it's something entirely different. It takes Steve's breath away. Even backstage, when she'd looked beautiful, she hadn't looked like this: like a dangerous femme fatale, like a striking snake of a woman who could eat any man in the place. Marlene is the quiet one, the sweet one, the one who smiles wryly at Betty's dirty jokes and scolds Betty for taking dumb risks; but now, on this stage, she's devastating.
She takes a drag from an unlit cigarette and mimes putting it out on the forehead of a guy from the crowd; she hikes up her skirt and shows off her strong legs in her spiked heels; she tosses her hair back over her shoulders and Steve could swear that the motion causes the seas to tremble.
"She's amazing," Steve breathes. He's not even aware that he's saying it out loud, at first, just can't help speaking the thought that fills his head and his heart.
"Yeah," Frank whispers. "It gives you hope, somehow."
Steve congratulates Marlene afterward, trying to express everything he felt and saw, and he must get some of it across because Marlene is blushing by the end of his spiel. He wishes he could give her back the feeling she gave him, of joy brought down to a single point, like she was the embodiment of every ounce of happiness inside him.
And later, when the party at Vincent's is winding down, Steve drags Frank back to his apartment and jumps him, desperate for the feeling of their bodies together, of Frank's hard prick inside him. Frank fucks him down into the mattress, both of them sweating and gasping, every sensation rough and perfect, and Steve laughs when he comes.
That Sunday Steve meets up with Danielle when she gets out of church, and they head together to their Catholic Worker meeting.
He smiles at the incongruous sight of her in a dress, and sticks his hands in his pockets. He can't get out of the habit of putting on his Sunday best for the meetings, even if he doesn't go to services.
"You never feel weird, going to Mass?" he asks her, as they head to Nelly and Robert's house, where the meeting's being held this week. She shrugs.
"Not as weird as I'd feel if I didn't go and my Ma whooped me," she says. "And I believe in most of it. Raising up the poor, turning the other cheek."
"Just not the part where you and me are unrepentant sinners?" he asks, with a smile. To his surprise, she doesn't make a joke.
"I don't know. Maybe. But maybe it's a kind of sin I can live with." She pauses, squinting up at the sunlight. "Or can't live without. But I couldn't bring myself to abandon God's work, no matter what."
Steve nods. "I know what you mean," he says. He wonders if Danielle confesses her love for Valentine every week, like it's a sin. That's what he couldn't bring himself to do anymore, but maybe Danielle feels differently about it.
They spend some time that day organizing bundles for the British War Relief Society, but not very much else gets done, except that they all agree to write a letter of support to the striking steelworkers out in Lackawanna. Steve leaves the meeting feeling frustrated.
"How much good does all this letter-writing do?" he asks Danielle. "It feels like we write and write and nothing changes."
"How did you feel, during the Sugar Strike, when we got letters of support?"
Steve sighs. "Yeah. Pretty good, I guess."
"Every little bit helps. Speaking of, Valentine's speaking at a rally this afternoon, up in Harlem. They're founding a new committee to protest segregated businesses and do other local work the NAACP isn't doing." She smiles over at him. "The subway ride's on me."
Steve smiles back. He'd like to rest, but Sunday's the traditional day for action, and he wouldn't want to miss Valentine speaking somewhere. "Sure."
He hasn't been up to Harlem in a while; he always wishes he could come up here for the nightclubs, but it's just a lot easier to stay close to home in case he gets suddenly tired, or has an asthma attack.
Valentine's standing on a crate, speaking to a small gathered crowd of white and Negro listeners. "Against the background of Hitler's treatment of the Jews," she is saying, "the Negro's fight in this country is an embarrassment to the war-mongers in Congress. Let us see Congress pass bills guaranteeing our rights to organize as workers, to bargain collectively, to strike in defense of our hard-won standard of living. Let us see Congress pass laws against the willful oppression of Negro men and women in this country: let us see a Congress elected that represents our votes, given freely and fairly in the absence of these so-called Jim Crow laws."
Steve glances over at Danielle, who glows with pride as Valentine speaks. Valentine's voice is clear and calm, carrying easily to all the people assembled. Her breath plumes out in front of her, but she doesn't seem to feel the cold.
"The common people across the world do not seek war. The common people seek instead an extension of democracy at home. And because we know that once again the Negro will be called upon to fight and die for a country that will not let him vote or live in peace, we oppose the war. We oppose the self-righteous rhetoric that calls on us to defend the freedoms of others, defend them with our lives, when we are given none ourselves. We oppose the self-righteous rhetoric that tells us we are fighting for freedom, when in reality we are fighting for the rights of rich nations to keep what they have plundered through conquest. We oppose the war, and we work for peace at home."
There's a round of applause, not that enthusiastic but not too bad for a cold Sunday afternoon in December. Valentine starts to wrap up, calling on the crowd to put their names down for the new committee. A lot of people do sign up, but just as many wander away, muttering about idealism or socialism. A few stay afterwards, chatting to Valentine, shaking her hand and listening to what she has to say. Steve doesn't know them all, but he assumes they're part of Valentine's Harlem activist community.
Steve and Danielle step up and put their names on the list.
"Committee for Peace at Home," Steve reads. "Is this your idea, Val?"
Valentine shakes her head. "An old friend of mine is talking about forming a similar organization in Chicago," she says. "Working for Negro causes, based on the principles of nonviolence. I talked to some people around here, and they thought it would be a good idea to try to do the same. Might take a while to get it off the ground, though."
Danielle nods. "Fighting for peace in America," she says.
"A little bit at a time," Valentine agrees.
"Well," Steve says, "if you need a cartoonist, you know where to find me. My pencils are at your service."
"Thanks, Steve, I'll probably take you up on that before long." She cocks her head at him curiously. "I thought you didn't agree with me on this, though."
"I do agree with you. After that speech, I agree even more. But I think we need to protect people in Europe as well as people here. Fascism's everywhere."
Valentine raises an eyebrow. "That's true enough, but there's nothing that supports fascism more than war."
"The posters," Danielle coughs, giving Valentine a significant look. Val is momentarily startled, then rolls her eyes. Steve grins at her, and she chuckles.
"But, yes, Steve, I would appreciate your artist's services. I wanted to make some posters for – "
She trails off, looking up the street; Steve and Danielle turn around to follow her gaze. All up and down the street there are people coming out of their front doors, hands clasped over their mouths, yelling indistinctly at their neighbors. One fella comes running towards them and up to Valentine.
"Tom, what's going on?" Valentine asks, grabbing the young man by the shoulders and holding him still.
"Attack on American soil," Tom gasps out. "The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, out in Hawai'i."
Steve can't even put the words together to make them make sense.
"What?" Valentine asks, clearly struggling as well.
"It was just on the radio," Tom explains. "They bombed for hours, to destroy the naval base there. They don't know yet how many people are dead."
It takes Steve a few seconds just to process the words, and his first instinct is to say that it’s not true, that Tom got it wrong, that someone’s playing a joke. Then he blinks, and takes in all the people on the street: crying, gasping, shaking their heads. And it hits him, that people are dead, that Americans are dead, that planes are dropping bombs on America, just like London on the newsreels. He can almost imagine the explosions, destroying a beautiful island paradise with fire and flying debris.
Steve's been arguing for months that they ought to be in the war, ought to be doing a lot more than sending supplies, and now it's here. Now it's really going to happen. Roosevelt promised not to intervene in foreign wars, but this one isn't foreign anymore.
Steve feels cold. Hot tears spring to his eyes.
"Fuck," Danielle says.
They all take the subway back home together, none of them speaking very much. Valentine holds the list of potential Committee for Peace at Home members in her hand, and keeps accidentally crumpling it up, then smoothing it out, then crumpling it up again.
Everyone on the train is either subdued or talking loudly about the upcoming war.
When they get back to the rooming house, Valentine says, "Come up and sit with us a while, Steve. I know you don't have a radio. Bring Bucky if he's home."
Steve opens the door to their rooms to find Bucky sitting with Marlene, both of them on the couch, Marlene's head on Bucky's shoulder. It's always funny to see her in her rough carpenter's clothes, without any makeup; Steve figures she must've come here right after work.
She springs up guiltily when Steve walks in.
"It's okay," Steve says, immediately. "C'mon, Danielle and Valentine invited us up to listen to the radio."
Bucky and Marlene follow Steve up the stairs, and they all crowd into the tiny front of the two-room suite. Valentine sits on Danielle's lap, leaning back against her, holding her hand and rubbing her thumb against Danielle's index finger, over and over, the way she'd kept crumpling the sign-up sheet on the subway.
Marlene sits between Steve and Bucky, the three of them pushed together on the tiny couch. Bucky puts his arm around them both, his fingertips barely reaching the back of Steve's neck. Steve leans back, into the light, halting caress, and right, against the warmth of Marlene's arm.
They put on the radio, which is playing a bunch of different accounts of what's been going on, but doesn't really have anything new to say.
"Sounds like hundreds," Steve says, after a while. "Even thousands."
"Thousands of people dead in a few hours," Danielle says. "Seems impossible."
"This means we'll be at war with Japan," Marlene says. "But does it even mean we'll be at war in Europe?"
On the little table, Valentine is folding little scraps of paper and standing them up, the way Steve and Bucky used to do as kids, to play soldiers. At Marlene's question, she starts knocking them over one by one.
"Japan attacks the United States," she says, and knocks one of them down. "The United States declares war on Japan," another one. "Germany declares war on the United States." Another. "Italy declares war on the United States." Another. "The United States declares war on Germany and Italy." The last paper soldier falls. "And we all fall down," she finishes flatly.
"And no one gives a damn about peace anymore," Danielle says. "Or the needs of the common man. Or the exploitation of Negros at home."
"Guys out on the street are already out for blood," Bucky puts in quietly. "They're clapping each other on the back and racing to sign up."
Marlene nods slowly. "It's going to be all out war," she says. "We're all going to be drafted."
"Danny and I won't be," Valentine points out. "Unless they start taking women."
Danielle huffs out a laugh. "They should. Why should the men be the only ones to die?"
Valentine pats Danielle's hand. "I admire your dedication to equality," she says. "But do you really want to make yourself into cannon fodder?"
"Not cannon fodder," Steve says slowly. "But – if people will be drafted, if they're going over there to fight, if they end up trying to liberate Europe – "
"They need protection," Danielle finishes, smiling at him. Steve nods at her.
"It's a choice," Valentine insists. "It's a choice you can make, to be made into a weapon or not. Do you want to kill people, Danny?"
"No," Danielle says, "and I doubt I'll face that choice. But if killing is going to happen, I want to give my people every chance to live. If there's a way I can help with that . . . maybe I should."
"I don't want to kill anyone," Bucky says. His eyes are downcast, his lips pursed together, his skin pale.
"But if there are thousands already dead," Steve begins, then trails off, not sure how he can finish the thought when Bucky looks so goddamn scared.
"We have a duty," Marlene says, softly, finishing it for him. "We didn't ask for it, but we do."
Valentine shakes her head. "I don't know what to say. I don't disagree. But this is like . . . destiny, like we never had a choice at all. Like every day we spent working for peace was meaningless. Like violence really is the only driving force in the world."
Steve's never seen Valentine cry before, not in pain or frustration or loss, so it's only now he learns that she does it quietly, tears slipping down her cheeks almost invisibly. Danielle leans back and kisses her jaw, and as Valentine moves to meet the kiss a soft sob escapes her throat.
"You don't believe that," Danielle says softly. "I don't, and I know for sure that you don't, Val. What we did made a difference."
"It's always worth standing up," Steve says. "Even if they beat you back down."
"But when will the opportunity for peace come again," Valentine asks. She doesn't say it like a question. It sounds, instead, like something from the Bible; a lament.
"There are other forces in the world," Steve says. "Not just violence. There's action. They call us violent when we strike, and when we protest, but it's different."
"Putting your body into the line with your fellows," Danielle says. "Linking arms."
"Standing up for the little guy," Bucky adds, cracking half a smile. His fingers keep on brushing the back of Steve's neck. Steve meets his eyes and nods, but Bucky's smile falters.
"This is going to change everything," Marlene says. "It won't be for a week or a month, will it. It'll be years. Like the last one."
Valentine bites her lip. "Yeah," she says. Leaning forward, away from Danielle, she picks up her crumpled list of potential members for the Committee for Peace at Home and looks it over. "It will. If we can't stop the war, then we'll have to make another choice. Each of us will."
Steve watches her dash away her tears, her expression becoming businesslike again.
"Which means," she says, "that we've got a lot of work to do."
Steve thinks about what Valentine said for a long time, about the choice they have to make. It's all anyone talks about, wherever he goes: signing up, doing their duty, helping the war effort. And as recruiting stations spring up everywhere, and old factories are pulled back into production, and every shoulder gets put to the wheel, Steve feels again the old sensation of being the wrong shape, the wrong size, of being wrong. There's no place, in that kind of war, for a slim, short, pretty pansy like him, not when the girliest of dames is getting fitted for trousers and ready for factory work.
On a grey day in January of 1942, Steve gets to work to find a bunch of guys huddled around the back of an empty truck, sharing coffee from their thermoses and talking close together, white plumes of breath sticking and mingling in the air.
"Steve," Arthur says, grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him into the huddle. "We were all just talking about the war."
Steve isn't surprised. Looking around, he notices Frank and Johnny and all the other guys from the club – all of Frank's boys, all the queers and fairies and punks.
"Yeah," Steve says, nodding at them to go on.
"Some of us are going to go and sign up," Johnny says. "We thought we might go together. See if we can't get into the same squadron or something."
"I don't think that's how it works," Jackie pipes up. He's got his shoulders hunched and his hands shoved into his pockets like he's freezing cold, but Steve wonders if it's just nerves. "And I ain't sure the Army wants an all-queers squad anyway. Imagine us, prancing over the battlefield."
Some of the other guys laugh, but Steve doesn't, and neither does Arthur. She's grimacing, chewing her lip.
"I for one think it's a good idea," she says. "I never backed down from a fight and I ain't gonna start now."
"They won't let you throw your heels at the enemy, Betty," Frank laughs. Arthur hops on one foot, making as if to take off her shoe and throw it at him, and everyone joins in the laughter.
"But seriously," Frank says soberly, slowly. "I'm with you."
"Me too," Steve says. "We all got a duty to help however we can."
"Jeez, Steve, they'll spot you for a fairy for sure," Johnny laughs. Steve raises his fists and widens his stance.
"You wanna call me a fairy again, Johnny?" he says, to uproarious laughter. He isn't sure how funny it is, though.
"Steve can butch it up with the best of them," Arthur grins, clapping him on the shoulder. "You shoulda seen him back when I first met him, always with a black eye, and not cuz some fish missed his mouth with his dick."
"That happened one time," Jackie complains, as his pals nudge him with their elbows.
"I heard something else, too," Hyam puts in quietly. "From a guy I met in the park a while back. That Herbert guy, Frank, you met him."
Frank nods. "The German guy," he says. "He hangs out in the tearoom in Martin's sometimes. I know him."
"Yeah, well, he's a Jew," Hyam says, glancing around and daring anyone to say anything about it. "So he knows. And he says the Nazis are rounding up our kind, too. Fairies, homosexuals, whatever."
Frank frowns. "The newspapers don't say – "
"The newspapers ain't gonna say nothing, Frank, but it's happening," Hyam insists. He's a big guy, has a few inches on Frank, even, and when he crosses his arms he looks like a statue, immovable. "Herbert told me about the things that go on. It's horrible."
Steve clenches his jaw. He's been beaten up once or twice for the makeup, come pretty close to being grabbed in a police raid. He has no trouble imagining how easily it could go further and further until it came to camps, like they've heard about. Looking up at the tall, brawny dock workers standing around him, Steve takes a deep breath.
"We're none of us strangers to scrapping," he says somberly. "We all know what it is to stand up for ourselves, even when the odds aren't good. I bet those European queers know it too, and they need our help. We got a duty to help our own kind, and it doesn't matter if all we got to throw at 'em is our shoes."
That shakes a few smiles out of them, and they wait for Steve to go on.
"My dad died in the Great War, and I know most of you fellas lost family to that war too. We got no right to do any less. I owe it to him, and to my Ma." Around him, the guys are looking at each other and nodding their agreement. "I say we sign up, and do our part. Let's go together. Today. After work."
"After work," they all agree. When the foreman comes over to yell at them for lollygagging, they all shake hands warmly before going their separate ways, confident in their new camaraderie.
After work, while all his queen and queer and fairy buddies enlist, Steve receives his very first 4F.
Steve looks up from the bar; the guy who's just sat down next to him has a soft, inviting manner of speaking. He's handsome, almost what you'd call striking, with dark eyes and sharp features, and a network of red scars trailing down his face. He's wearing a shirt and jacket, but Steve can see that the scars continue, poking out of his cuff, and lead to a hand with fewer fingers than the usual.
"Yeah," Steve says, squinting through the haze and trying not to cough. "I tried to enlist, but." He shrugs. This guy can probably guess why he didn't make it in.
Tom's Place is a lot smokier than Vincent's, because the ceilings are so much lower and there's no ventilation; it's one of the reasons that Steve started going to Vincent's in the first place.
But Steve hadn't wanted to be around the other guys, all their nervousness and excitement about basic training, their rock-solid surety that they were going to do something good. So he'd come here instead.
Nobody knows him here. He rubs his thumb against his glass of whisky. It's his third one.
"Ah," the guy says, giving him an evaluative look, probably the same look that Steve gave him a minute ago. Sizing him up for whatever it is that makes him too weak to serve. "I got drafted a while back," he offers. "Told them I'd go, that I had a way of holding things and could hold a rifle."
"They said no, huh," Steve says, tossing back his drink. The spreading warmth from his gut is comforting. He hopes it stops him thinking sometime soon.
"Turns out there's a finger minimum," the guy says primly. Steve laughs. He sticks out his right hand, then thinks better of it and offers his left.
"Steve," he says, almost forgetting where he is and giving his last name, too.
"David," the man responds, taking Steve's left hand with his own.
Smiling and a little drunk, Steve murmurs, "'Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.'" At David's surprised look, Steve adds, "Sorry, that wasn't a come-on line. I used to be an altar boy, and some stuff sticks with you."
"'How are the mighty fallen,'" David smiles, continuing to the next verse, "'and the weapons of war perished.' I always liked that one. Not many Catholics know the story of David so well." He nods at the bartender, who starts pouring him something. He must be a regular here.
"Well. Just that part," Steve admits. When he was a kid, that verse had seemed miraculous, and he'd read it over and over, astonished by what it seemed to be saying. But he'd never really thought about the next part, or how David's love for Jonathan pours out at that moment, as a counterpoint to the great defeat in battle. Jonathan the lover and Jonathan the weapon of war, both the same person, both dead.
"I guess it's just as well not to become a weapon of war," David sighs, raising his glass to thank the bartender for the drink.
"Seems like they tend to perish," Steve agrees ruefully. "A friend of mine calls it the war machine, says we get used as raw material, ground up in the gears."
"Ha. That's how I got this," David says, lifting his right arm stiffly and wiggling his remaining fingers. "Steelworker."
Steve shakes his head. "Those plants are terrible. I marched with the steelworkers, years ago. Sympathy strike. Saw a lot of injuries like that."
"Unfortunately a lot of the reforms the union put into place were a little late for me," David says.
Steve nods. "So, you're not going to war, you gonna stay working here?"
David shrugs. "I figure my old job at the plant might be open again pretty soon, with so many guys shipping out. And this place is gonna be hopping. It could be worse."
"What do you mean?" Steve asks. David grins.
"An endless supply of fresh-faced soldiers and sailors, passing through one of the largest port cities in the world, all heading towards danger, burning with curiosity and virginity . . . "
"Wow," Steve says, laughing softly. "I never thought of that."
"Maybe we'll be grateful for those 4Fs," David suggests. He finishes his drink, and waves a no when the bartender holds up the bottle questioningly.
"Maybe," Steve says. He grips his glass a little harder, and tries to feel grateful, but all he feels is rejected and worthless, nothing more than a stamp on a government document saying unfit.
He turns on his barstool, facing his companion. David turns, too, so they're face to face. At this hour, the place isn't crowded, but there's enough clientele to make them invisible, two queers among many.
"Right now, it's just you and me," Steve says, and reaches out to run his thumb over David's left wrist.
David waves the bartender back over and gestures for that second drink after all, looking down at the place Steve's touching him.
He has to break the touch to toss it back, so Steve sets his hand on the bar and waits.
"I'm not a fairy," David says, when he sets the glass back down on the bar. "A lot of guys assume I am but I'm not."
"That's fine by me," Steve says, dry-mouthed. "I am."
"Yeah? You don't act much like it." This time it's David who reaches out, with his scarred right hand, to touch Steve's knee. Steve knows what he's doing, making sure that Steve isn't going to be disgusted by his arm before they get too serious. It's a test, a dare, and Steve's body flares into hot desire as he accepts it.
"I left my lipstick at home. Didn't think the Army guys would appreciate it."
"Yeah, I hear the Army's real particular about what shade you can wear," David says, making Steve smile. He runs his two fingers up Steve's leg, then back down to his knee, over and over.
"Okay to touch?" Steve asks, his hand hovering over David's on his knee.
"Yeah," David says. Steve strokes his hand up David's fingers to his wrist, over the rough, pebbled skin, then takes hold.
"Where can we go, David?"
"Rooms upstairs," David says, swallowing. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a few dimes, more than he needs to pay for the whisky, and tosses them onto the bar. "We got an hour."
The bartender hands David a key, and they head up a rickety set of stairs in the back corner of the bar.
Once they get into the room, David seems a little more nervous than he had down at the bar. "Why didn't they want you? The Army," he asks, as Steve pushes him against the wall and kisses his throat. He's kind of short, maybe three inches taller than Steve, and it's nice not having to stretch up like he usually does.
"Not the sexiest line I ever heard," Steve says, using his teeth against the tendon in David's neck.
David grabs him by both shoulders and pulls him back. "Really, though," he says, and he looks upset. Steve isn't sure why.
"Asthma," Steve says, after a moment. "Fatigue. Heart trouble. Bad constitution. Joint pain. Don't hear good in my right ear. You name it. List as long as your arm."
David snorts, and Steve realizes in retrospect that it sounds like a bad joke.
"Sorry," he says.
"S'okay." He frowns. "You know, I can't really hide my arm or my face," he says, "but you could probably hide most of that stuff, couldn't you? Enlist under a different name, if you want, so they can't get any medical records. Lie."
Steve looks up into David's eyes, surprised to find this much compassion from a guy he's just met. "You think?"
David's expression hardens. "Why not? If you know you can do it, what right do they have to tell you no?"
"Yeah," Steve says softly. "I guess."
Kissing him gently, David murmurs, "Bet you'd look real cute in a uniform."
Steve laughs, made some strange mixture of turned on and uncomfortable by the compliment. "Yeah?" he asks, swallowing back the tide of anger and disappointment that's been rising in him since he got his 4F. "Little fairy soldier?"
"Exactly." David smiles breathlessly. "C'mere, soldier."
Steve's gut clenches and his dick starts to get hard in his pants, and he closes his eyes as David takes his mouth.
They both scrabble at their belts and buttons, not bothering with anything inessential, both of them fumbling and desperate as the heat builds between them. David guides Steve down onto the mattress, which only has a few fleas and a few come stains, nothing too bad for a place like this. Steve buries his face against his arms and breathes in and breathes in, trying to get that list of his physical defects out of his mind.
His body is good for this, he tells himself. He can do this.
As David starts fucking him, Steve learns that he really has worked out some smart ways of using his bad arm; he holds Steve down hard and firm, keeping him still while he tries different angles and movements.
"Yeah, yeah, there, there," Steve pants, as he rubs against the sweet spot. "Like that."
"I got you, doll," David says, and Steve groans, caught between the sheer physical pleasure of the fucking and the sinking feeling in his chest, between the joy of his building orgasm and the deep, crawling self-hatred that's been stuck in his throat since he left the recruitment office.
He grits his teeth and focuses on the good feelings. The cock inside him feels good. This is what he is.
"Talk to me," he says, a couple minutes later.
"What do you want me to say?" David asks. He's really good at fucking, long full strokes that set off sparks throughout Steve's body, his hands roaming sweetly over Steve's skin.
"I want," Steve says, and then gulps, and pants, and closes his eyes. David's practically a stranger; Steve might never see him again. And he's just drunk enough to say what he really needs. "I want you to tell me I'm good," he chokes out.
David's fucking slows down a bit, and Steve feels the rough skin of his right arm trail down his shoulder, a slow, gentle caress.
David kisses him below his neck, between his shoulders, and in a very soft voice he says, "You're good."
It feels so genuine that it makes Steve sob with relief, his body flaring with deep physical pleasure: so deep it's in his bones, his blood, breathed out on the air from his defective lungs.
"Yes," he says.
"So good, Steve," David says, kissing his shoulders again, the base of his neck, the knobs of his spine. "A good little fairy."
It's exactly what Steve needs; he groans and pushes back against David's hard solid fucking, squeezing his ass rhythmically around David's prick.
The weight is already a lot for him to take, and if he lifts an arm to get himself off he'll collapse right down into the bed, but his cock is aching, leaking, desperate for touch.
"Can you – David, I can't – "
"Gotta be my right," David says, like a warning. "I'll lose my balance."
"Yeah," Steve says. "S'fine."
David does a lot with two fingers and most of a thumb, fluttering and squeezing and stroking over Steve's dick, and before long Steve's lost in it, in those gentle touches and in the simple joy of the fucking, coming over David's hand and around David's cock, biting off the cry that wants to tear loose from his throat.
"Hold still," David is saying, "hold still, hold still for me, Steve, please, oh – "
Steve stays as still as he can, letting David have him just how he wants, and after a few more shaky thrusts it's over, David's spunk leaking out of Steve's ass as David pulls out.
Not even caring about the dirty sheets, Steve collapses the rest of the way down and rests his forehead against his arms, groaning at the pain in his elbows and knees. It's been a long day.
"That was great," David says, and to Steve's amusement he leans down to kiss Steve's ass, a wet smack on his left cheek.
"Yeah," Steve agrees, finding the strength to roll over a bit, grimacing as he thinks again about the state of the bed. He sits up instead, and starts pulling on his pants. He looks up at David and smiles, and David's answering smile is beautiful. He really is drop-dead gorgeous, like a movie star or something.
"I don't, uh," David says, scratching the back of his head shyly. "I don't suppose I can see you again?"
Steve hesitates; he felt so exposed, when David was fucking him, when he said what he said, and the feeling is coming on worse now. But he gets that David maybe feels the same, and Steve doesn't want to make him feel rejected.
"I hang out at Vincent's sometimes," Steve says. "If you wanna come by."
"Huh. I don't usually go there," David says. He lifts his bad arm briefly, and says, "Had a bad incident the first time I went."
Steve frowns angrily. They all like the way Steve's delicate constitution makes him girly and breathless, but he can imagine how David gets treated, especially since he's not a pansy.
"I'd take anyone who did that outside," Steve promises, and David chuckles.
"Thanks," he says. "My little fairy soldier-protector. I could get used to it."
Steve's heart beats harder at the idea. "Maybe – I might try out again, like you said. For the Army. But if I don't, I'll find you."
It wouldn't be so bad, he thinks, to spend the war that way, kept company by someone like him, who understands him.
"I'd like that," David says.
They part ways amicably, and Steve sets out to walk home, trying to hold on to the good feeling he had while David was fucking him, trying not to get lost again in the resentment sickening his blood.
As he walks, it starts to rain, but he's far enough on his way that it's not really worth it to stop and get the subway. He walks through it instead, letting it soak his clothes and his hair and hoping he doesn't get a fever as a result.
When he gets back to his building, dripping wet, he hears loud voices behind the door to their suite and feels angry, overwhelmingly angry, that Bucky might be having a party while Steve's feeling this way. It's a stupid reason to be mad, but Steve can't help the snarl on his face as he opens the door, the way he slams it closed behind him.
Bucky's on the couch with Lizzie, one of the girls he's been seeing lately. Marlene and Betty are sprawled out on the floor, a record spinning on Betty's little phonograph in the corner.
"Steve!" Bucky says, as he comes in, "Come join us. We're celebrating."
Steve catches sight of the whisky bottle on the floor, half-empty and way beyond any of their means. "Celebrating what?" Steve asks, suspiciously. Glancing at Lizzie's face, and then at Marlene and Betty, Steve sees only dark expressions. And Bucky himself looks jovial, but it doesn't feel right.
Bucky laughs and says, "I got drafted."
Later, when their guests have left, Steve lies next to Bucky on the floor and caresses his thumb, his finger, the dip of his wrist. The room spins slowly above him.
"I don't want to go," Bucky says, hoarsely. It's what he hasn't said all night, all year, even, since they've been talking about the war. "I know I'm supposed to but I don't want to go, Steve."
"I know," Steve says. "It's okay, Buck. I know." He keeps up his slow caress, just that one point of their bodies touching, for a long time. When he finds the strength to roll over onto his side, he expects to see Bucky passed out asleep, but his eyes are wide open, staring at the ceiling.
"Hey," Steve says softly, and pulls Bucky up into his arms. Bucky's heavy and it's awkward, but Steve manages to get them positioned so Bucky's head is on his shoulder. "It's okay," he says again, helplessly. Bucky's embrace is loose at first, but then it tightens all of a sudden, Bucky's fingers grasping desperately at Steve's arms, and Bucky sobs a few times into his shoulder.
"I'm scared," he says. Steve holds him tighter, and kisses the top of his head.
A few minutes later, when Bucky's forced himself to take a few deep breaths, he lifts his head again to look Steve in the eyes. He looks terrible, red in the face and eyes, hair a mess, mouth open.
He kisses Steve, and Steve kisses him back with everything he's got. It makes the room start spinning again, but Steve figures he can take it.
He gives Bucky the slowest blowjob he can manage, right there on the floor, and when it's over he hoists him up and gets him into bed.
"I'll come after you, Buck," he says, softly, fiercely. Bucky's already asleep, but Steve says it anyway. "I'll find a way, and I'll come after you."
They fuck a lot in the three days before Bucky's report date, the mood desperate and angry, Bucky shoving him up against a wall and taking his ass, Steve dropping to his knees again and again to take Bucky's prick, every orgasm a balm that doesn't quite satisfy the low, painful itch they both feel.
"Steve," Bucky breathes out, when they do it, "Steve, please, please, please – "
Steve doesn't know what Bucky's begging for, all those times, but he kisses him and shushes him and takes him in his body, gives him the best he has to offer.
"It's okay," he says, over and over. "It's okay, Bucky, it's okay, it'll be okay."
After Bucky leaves for basic training, Steve tries to enlist a second time, under a different name, like David suggested. He takes the subway across the river to a different recruiting office and makes sure to go in on a good day, when he's not limping and hasn't had an asthma attack. But even though they don't have his medical records, he fails the physical.
He's heard people in recruiting offices say that some of the Army doctors wave you through no matter what your health looks like; Steve tells himself that all he has to do is find one of those.
Until then he'll shiver in his drawers, lined up with men bigger than him on either side, holding still, keeping calm, and hoping that this time someone will let him pass. It's like protesting arm in arm with Danielle: he tells himself to be patient, and wait for his moment, no matter how much he wants to push his way past the makeshift walls of the recruiting center and grab his 1A stamp for himself.
He keeps himself busy, working double shifts now that half the experienced dockers are gone, replaced by new guys who are 4Fs like Steve or else by the burly gals who come with recommendations from Danielle. Steve ends up having to train a bunch of the new people, show them the ropes, and even though it means taking home extra pay he feels exhausted all the time, walking home long after sunset and lacking the energy to even slap on some lipstick and head to Vincent's.
It's just as well; Vincent's is full of new recruits, too, folks passing through from all over the country on their way overseas, and it doesn't feel the same without all the familiar faces.
Instead, when he can find the energy and get his hand to stop shaking, he writes to all the guys he misses who've already gone off to Basic or shipped out: Bucky, Frank, Hyam, a couple others from around the clubs. He hears from Marlene that little Ira signed up for the Navy, so Steve takes the time to write him, too. Marlene herself had her report date pushed back, and Betty got held up for special training, so the two of them have a little more time before they leave. Steve has them over, more than once, so they can all write letters together.
"We oughta start putting together care packages, too," Marlene says, as she writes to tell Frank all the latest news around the neighborhood. It's probably the same news Steve put in his letter, but he's sure Frank would rather get two letters than one. "Little treats and such."
"Think Ira'd like it if I mailed him a lipstick?" Betty asks, pausing with her pencil over the paper.
"Maybe his commanding officer would," Steve jokes. The care packages are a good idea, though; he's got the dough for it these days, so he could send Bucky some of the candies he likes, and maybe some pomade.
"Will you write to us, too, Steve?" Marlene is scratching out a letter to some beau of hers that Steve only met a couple of times, Stewart or Stanley or something like that. "When we ship out?"
"You bet," Steve agrees. "What shade of lipstick should I send?"
Betty hmmms, looking down at her letter. "You know, we joke, but we could send a little lipstick along if we wanted to."
Steve blinks at her, and Marlene shakes her head in exasperation. "What terrible scheme are you getting up to now, Betty?"
Betty raises an eyebrow, meets each of their gazes in turn, and bends her head deliberately to press her mouth to the paper she's been writing on. She leaves behind a perfect red kiss mark.
"Betty, oh my God," Steve breathes, realizing how perfect it is.
"And I'll just sign it, 'Your Darling, Betty,'" she concludes, as satisfied as a cat with a canary. Marlene starts to laugh.
"I can definitely make my letter to Stanley a little less boring if I can sign it as a girl," Marlene grins. "Perfect."
"I'll get supplies," Steve says, and gets up to get his lipstick from the bedroom. He hasn't written Bucky's letter for today yet.
He writes mostly what he would've written anyway, about how he's feeling and what everyone has been up to, about how busy they are down at the docks, about how Lizzie's got herself a job in a munitions factory and is learning a lot about explosives. But at the end, instead of signing the way he usually does – 'Your Buddy, Steve,' – he writes what he wants to say most, what he could never say without the subterfuge.
At the bottom of the letter, he writes, "Missing you every day, your kiss, your smile, your voice, your strong hands. Please stay safe so I can feel your arms around me again. Love from your Best Girl." And, solemnly, he kisses the paper.
As he sits up again, he sees Marlene and Betty watching him quietly, and when they shuffle closer and hold out their arms, he can't help but hug them tight. The three of them end up all squashed together, there on the bare floor, and Steve doesn't know what he'll do when they leave, too.
When he puts his kissed letter into the mailbox with all the others, he whispers: "I'm coming after you, Buck."
Steve tries out for the Army a third time, and when he coughs against the first cold press of the stethoscope, he gets told to put his clothes back on.
He tries out a fourth time, and the doctor scowls at him as soon as he comes through the curtain. It takes Steve a puzzled moment to figure out why, but then recognizes him as the doctor who did his physical the second time through.
"I saw you in . . . Queens," the doctor says, accusingly. Steve feels his eyes go wide as panic floods his system.
"I – are you sure?" Steve asks. "You must see a lot of fellas."
The doctor strides closer to him. He's a big guy, grey hair, broad in the shoulder, a commanding presence.
"I don't see so many five foot two blonds with scars like yours, kid." The doctor sounds unimpressed, but he's not calling for military police or telling Steve to get his clothes back on, either; a little spark of hope ignites in Steve's chest.
"Look, I just want to serve," he says, switching to an undertone, pleading with the doctor. "I can do it, I swear. I know I'm not as big as some of the other guys, but I'll work hard – "
The doctor shakes his head, cutting him off. "This isn't a job interview, son. I'm not here to be convinced into taking a chance on you."
"But it's your decision," Steve insists. If he can get this guy, this one guy, to see him for what he is, it could change everything. If this doctor could just see that Steve may be small and pretty, but he's tough too . . . "I only want to do what's right. My duty."
"You got heart, I'll give you that," the doctor says, and the spark in Steve's chest latches onto that like kindling.
"Please, let me in," Steve says. "I want to – want to be a part of something, something important. This is what I should be doing, I know it. Please."
Sighing, the doctor shakes his head again. "I'm sorry. I remember your file. The asthma alone keeps you out, and there's no way you can hide that from a CO."
It's like a door being slammed in his face, like Mr Brown firing him without looking up from his clipboard, like the street toughs who think his makeup is an invitation to take his money. Angry, miserable, desperate, not even sure what he's doing, he hops off the examination table and takes a step closer to the doctor.
"Please," he says again, chest heaving with the force of his breath. He swallows down a sick feeling and whispers, "I'll do anything you want."
Trying to stop his hand from shaking, he rubs his palm firmly over the outside of the doctor's pants, up and down a few times, without much finesse but without hesitation, either.
"Anything," he repeats, and it's the worst he's ever felt in his life, worse than getting beat down with a billy club, worse than his worst fever, worse than being fired or rejected or called a weakling. He's had sex with lots of men, had sex for money, even, but this is different, a perversion of something free and joyful, the delight of his bright fairy lipstick made sordid and dull in this cold examination room.
The doctor blinks at him, his mouth falling open as he exhales shakily. Steve steps even closer, sure for a long second that his plan is going to work and he's going to have to go through with it.
A blowjob, he tells himself, or a dicking, it's not like he hasn't had both plenty of times. It's funny, he thinks, and has to bite back a pained laugh, that this is what it'll take to get the Army to see him as a real man.
There's movement then, someone walking by on the other side of the curtain, and the doctor backs up a step and shoves Steve away with one hand. Steve stumbles back against the rickety exam table.
"So that's why you want in so bad," the doctor spits. He looks shaken and paranoid, glancing out through the gap in the curtain to make sure no one saw. "After all that bullshit about doing the right thing."
Steve is torn into pieces by the accusation, caught off guard, wishing he could take it back.
This guy is going to call the cops on him. He's sure of it. This guy is going to call the cops, and then Steve will spend the war in prison.
"You think the Army is your personal faggot pleasure cruise, well, it's not," the doctor says, his voice getting louder. "You fairies disgust me."
"Okay," Steve says, holding up his hands, "okay, okay, please don't – don't shout – "
"And you almost convinced me you were soldier material," the doctor says. "That you wanted to serve."
Steve picks up his clothes as fast as he can and starts putting them on, determined at least not to be dragged out in his drawers. "I do," he says, gritting his teeth. "I do want to serve, that's what I want – "
"Get the hell out of here," the doctor growls. "You're lucky I don't call the police."
Pulling his shirt over his head, Steve narrows his eyes and stares at the doctor, recognition dawning on him in an angry wave.
"I know why you're not calling the police," he hisses. "I know why, and you know why, and you're a goddamn hypocrite."
The doctor doesn't have much to say to that, so Steve jams his feet into his shoes and leaves as fast as he can, shirttails trailing unbuttoned behind him. He ignores the looks of the men he passes on the way out, ignores their whispered comments and speculations.
When he gets out onto the street, he runs. He pushes himself, and ignores the pain in his joints, and he runs until he's in the right place, on the right street, as twilight starts to paint the city in rich, unreal colors.
It takes him a while to catch his breath, but that's okay. He settles in against a wall, taking the pressure off his knees, and watches the men walk by.
He doesn't have any makeup with him, or anything colorful to wear, not so much as a red tie or a lavender scarf. It doesn't matter, though; he knows what he is, and he can make sure other men know, too.
"Hey soldier," he calls, to a guy walking by himself, a guy who looks a little too uncomfortable in his uniform for it to be anything but brand new. The guy turns, and seems shocked to see Steve lounging against the wall, his shirt open, one leg drawn up against the bricks.
"Yeah, you," Steve grins. "C'mere, sweetheart, I ain't got all day."
"Uh, I'm not – " the guy begins, but he takes a few steps closer, and that's all Steve needs.
"I can see what you are," Steve says, laying it on thick. "Big strong soldier, out on the town, looking for some fun." Reaching out, he reels the guy in by his lapels, so that Steve's next words are breathed against his lips. "That's right, isn't it, fella?"
The soldier breathes fast, eyes darting down to Steve's lips and then up again to his eyes.
Steve pulls him back further into the alley, where they won't be seen. The kid comes willingly, step by step, as Steve walks backward.
"You want your dick sucked or not, pal?" Steve asks, pushing him up against the wall.
"Yeah," the soldier says, licking his lips. "Yeah, okay."
Grinning, Steve pushes his hand down into the guy's front pocket, rubbing up and down against his dick, making him groan and collapse back into the wall. Steve pulls out the two quarters he finds there.
"Fair?" he asks, holding them up. The soldier nods and gulps. Steve pockets them and does his best to kneel down somewhere dry and relatively clean.
The first taste of cock on his tongue makes Steve groan himself, the familiar hot salty stretch of it taking away the memory of the doctor's disgusted voice, the horrible feeling of the doctor's cock getting hard under his hand.
The kid can't be more than twenty, and Steve wouldn't be surprised if this is his first blowjob, so he doesn't waste any fancy tricks on him. He just takes him in and sucks hard, using his hands and his spit to ease the way. With every bob of his head he feels better, more in control, and when the soldier's hands land in his hair he feels the tension start to drain from his body.
"God, God, oh my God, oh wow," the kid is saying, and Steve chuckles as best he can around the big, hard cock that's filling him up. A few more deep sucks and it's all over, the soldier spilling into Steve's mouth and crying out way too loudly as he does so.
Steve spits onto the ground, smiling.
"How's that," he asks, standing up again. He tucks the kid back into his uniform pants and buttons him up, nice and neat.
"Good," the kid says, "Yeah."
Steve laughs, and stands up on tiptoes to give him a little kiss. The kid's mouth is loose and wet, and Steve sucks and lips at him greedily for a while before pulling back.
"Then off you go," he says. The kid grins and pushes away from the wall.
Steve watches him go, and as he does he notices another guy standing a few feet in from the mouth of the alley. He gets ready to run.
"Don't want any trouble," Steve says, warningly, and squares his shoulders.
"Maybe I do," the guy says. He's in uniform, too, but a few years older than the kid who's just left, taller and broader, with real muscle under his dress greens. Steve licks his lips.
Coming a step closer, the guy holds up two bits.
Steve shakes his head and lounges back against the bricks. "A dollar," he says.
"What," the guy laughs. "Are you kidding?"
"You know I'm serving my country," the guy says, doubtfully, like he's not sure if the usual soldier's discount applies for backalley blowjobs. Steve laughs, the feeling clear and good in his chest.
"So am I, sweetheart," he says, crossing his arms. "Just wanna do my part for the war effort."
"I could make you," the guy says, walking closer, still holding his quarter. Steve comes up off the wall and strides right up to him, getting into his space.
"You think so, huh?" he asks, warningly, puffing out his chest. The guy blinks in surprise, and for a moment Steve almost wants an excuse to hit him. Then he smiles suddenly. "Well, maybe you could try. But I don't think you want that."
Leaning upwards, Steve kisses him on his throat, under his jaw, up to his ear. "I think," Steve says, between kisses, "that you want a sweet," kiss, "little," kiss, "fairy. To treat you real nice." He pulls back a little. "Nobody sucks dick like a fairy. Isn't that right?"
Nodding, the guy gulps. "Yeah. That's right," he says.
"A dollar," Steve says, and the guy comes up with three more quarters.
This time, Steve doesn't bother trying to keep his pants away from the dirt of the alley; it's not really working, and anyway, who is he kidding? He gets down on his knees on the damp dirty ground and opens his mouth. This time he makes it last, going as slow and as sweet as he promised, giving the guy his money's worth. It feels so good, the smell of the uniform's wool mixed with sweat and musk, the press of cock against his mouth, the sounds he wrings out of the guy's throat as he sucks.
There's another guy after him, and then another, and another. Steve's jaw starts to really ache after a while, but he likes it, a kind of pain that he can choose to endure. The sixth guy offers him a buck if he can fuck him, and Steve, painfully hard inside his trousers, nods and agrees without even bartering.
He's a small guy, not much bigger than Steve, but he makes up for it in force and stamina, shoving Steve against the brick wall on every stroke, fucking into him over and over for what seems like forever. Steve groans and jacks himself off and comes twice before the other guy finishes, so that by the time he's done Steve feels destroyed, aching and gorgeous and well-used.
Steve turns around after, though, counting on the wall to hold up his exhausted legs, and grins at the guy as he does up his pants.
"Almost feel like you shoulda paid me for that one," the guy says, a self-satisfied grin on his face.
"No refunds, soldier," Steve purrs.
It takes him a long time to get back to the subway station near the recruitment center; his legs are shaking, and every step is painful. He can't help but think, though, that his newfound money will earn him more than a few subway rides.
When he finally gets home he collapses into bed and lies still for a long time. He hurts all over, aches and pains flowing up and down his body to center in his knees, his back, his neck, his jaw, his hard-used ass. He holds still and revels in every last twinge.
A few days later he gets a letter from Bucky saying that he'll be back from basic training soon, and Steve counts up what money he has, wondering if he could afford to take Bucky out on the town while he's on leave and still manage to pay for the two-room suite at the rooming house. It's tempting to go out fishing again, but now his blood's not up he recognizes that it's not the safest thing to do, really, so he decides to work a few more hours at the docks instead. They could certainly use him down there.
One day, coming back home after a long shift, there's a clattering out on the stairwell as Steve is walking in the door. He hears Danielle screaming, or maybe yelling, the sound of it echoing all over the building. He runs as fast as he can up the stairs to find Danielle storming down them. Valentine is trailing down the stairs after her, looking around fearfully.
Danielle's in her new WAAC uniform. Even worried as he is, Steve stops, breathless, to notice how well it suits her.
"Danielle, just come back upstairs so we can talk – " Valentine is saying. Danielle throws her hands up and continues down the stairs. She almost runs into Steve.
"Goddamn it!" she yells. "Sorry, Steve."
"Are you ladies, uh, okay?"
"We're fine, we just need to talk," Valentine insists. She's pitching her voice low, probably hoping that no other neighbors come running to see what the fuss is about. Steve grimaces; he doesn't know if Danielle always sees what she deals with, coming up to this neighborhood to visit.
"We're done talking," Danielle says, loudly, making Valentine wince. Sure enough, a door opens upstairs, and Gerald yells at them to keep the racket down.
"You let one in and the neighborhood goes to shit," Gerald fumes, apparently for the general public to hear, and slams his door.
Danielle turns back to look up the stairwell and blinks.
"I'll be gone when you get back," Valentine hisses quietly, furiously, and turns back towards the apartment, presumably to get her coat. She closes the door softly behind her.
Danielle looks like she wants to say something to the closed door.
"Can I help?" Steve asks.
Danielle furrows her eyebrows as if she's only now seeing him. "We fought," she says shortly, leaning back against the dirty, uneven wall of the stairwell. She looks about ready to collapse down onto the stairs.
"Yeah," Steve agrees, because that seems safe enough.
"Over this," she adds, picking at the crisp khaki lapel of her new uniform.
"She didn't want you to join up?" Steve thinks about this. "I thought Valentine supported you."
Danielle sighs. "No, it's not that. Or – it's not only that, I guess. She did say she supported me signing up. She just doesn't think I should have to lie to do it."
Steve frowns. "They're asking the women too now, huh?" he asks, softly. Betty and Frank had told him the stories of their psychiatric evaluations, all the awkward questions about sex. He wonders if the questions are different for girls. Steve would've thought they'd want dykes and daggers in the Army, for the same reason they don't seem to want fairies, but it's not like the Army is known for making sense.
"That's what I hear."
"Well, it's not like she hasn't done it before, is it? Doesn't Valentine work at the typing pool with Pauline?"
Danielle gazes up again at the door: plain scarred wood that's seen better days. "Valentine's opinion, which is not wrong, goddammit, is that asking someone to serve or die for their country is different than asking someone to type letters." She pulls out a cigarette with shaking hands, speaking her next words around it while she tries to strike the match. "And, you know, no one at the typing pool ever asked. She never had to deny anything."
"I get that," Steve says, nodding. He's familiar enough with that fine line himself.
"She wants to stage a protest. 'Let Queers Fight,' that kind of thing. Mostly on behalf of our pansy brothers-in-arms, of course." The cigarette flares to life and Danielle breathes in.
Steve whistles. "Is that dame afraid of anything?"
Blowing out a long trail of smoke, Danielle says, "I'm pretty sure she's afraid of me leaving her."
"Other stuff too. Spiders."
"You're probably scaring her right now, then."
"Yeah." She takes another long drag. "I don't mean to, it's – there's no way to fix what needs fixing, you know? She's not wrong."
Steve nods. There's an awkward pause between them.
"They do say that the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps is going to be a hotbed of lesbians and prostitutes," Steve offers, trying a small smile.
"Fuck, then she oughta join up too," Danielle says, blowing out smoke. A couple of tears slip down her cheeks. "Sounds like a party."
"You – should probably go talk to her," Steve says. "She looked like she wasn't fond of the scene you were making."
"Shit. I know. We've even talked about this, and I promised to do better, and – she's gonna be so pissed now. Like it wasn't hard enough for her around here. Goddamn it. We shoulda moved up to Harlem like she said." She bangs her head against the wall a couple of times, and a couple more tears escape from her eyes, and she says, "Gimme a minute, though, okay? I need a minute. Talk to me for a minute."
"All right," Steve says. He tries to think of something else to say. "The uniform looks nice," he offers.
"Yeah? It's not the best cut, I gotta say. But I do like the hat."
"Very smart," Steve agrees.
Danielle gives him a knowing look and raises an eyebrow. "You wanna try it?"
Steve flushes. It's not such a bad idea, actually; maybe one of the recruiters would take him if he put on some drag and signed up as a woman. If he walked right, if he dressed right, maybe they'd never even think to check.
He's never worn a skirt, but he has a few pairs of stockings that he wears under his trousers sometimes, and has always wondered how a skirt would feel, brushing against his calves. The WAAC uniform is olive drab just like in the regular Army, has the same tie and the same buttons, and if Steve wore it he would be girly and useful and able to do service for his country.
"It might be a little big on me," he says, swallowing hard.
Danielle searches his face for a minute; then, with her cigarette held between her lips, she unpins her cap and sets it on Steve's head instead. It fits perfectly, snug above his ears.
She brushes his hair up under it, then, dashing away her tears, she takes him by the shoulders to survey her handiwork.
"Your job," she says officiously, growling around the cig, "is to replace men. Be ready to take over."
"Yes, ma'am," Steve says solemnly, then breaks and laughs. "Is that really the WAAC slogan?"
"It's on the first page of the handbook!" Danielle says, laughing quietly and pressing the heel of her hand against her eye. "I couldn't have made that up. Damn, I've been ready to replace men in certain crucial jobs for ages now. I'm just glad the government has finally made it official."
There's a noise from upstairs, the door finally opening again, and Danielle's gaze swings towards it. Steve hastily takes off the cap and puts it back in her hand.
"You're both afraid," Steve says, in a low tone, as Valentine emerges from the apartment. "And you're both right to feel the way you do."
"I know," Danielle sighs. "It's fucking terrible."
"So stop being such a jerk," Steve says. "Don't take it out on her."
She starts up the stairs towards Valentine, sensible heels clacking against the bare wood.
Steve doesn't hear what she says to Valentine; she speaks softly, pitched for Valentine's ears alone. Valentine, holding her coat tight in one hand and a little valise in the other, listens, and gradually her grip loosens, and she nods, and they go back into the apartment.
Sighing, Steve stares at the door and wishes them well.
He doesn't know how it went until a few days later, when Valentine comes by to invite Steve and Bucky to Danielle's going-away party.
"You came around, huh?" Steve asks, leaning against the doorframe to take pressure off his knees.
Valentine breathes out through her nose, annoyed. "No. But what the hell else can we do?"
Steve doesn't think he's ever heard Valentine blaspheme before, and raises his eyebrows. "I know a lot of queers who signed up. Nobody likes it."
"Yeah. I know," she replies. "But if they're going to be forced to fight a war, nobody should have to do it without acknowledgement."
Steve thinks about all his friends, out in basic training or being shipped off; about Bucky, who'll be back from basic on Thursday and will ship out again soon after that. Danielle probably won't be near the combat, but who knows what could happen if the WAAC mechanics are called up near the front lines. And the rest of them could die easily, so easily, with nobody knowing how they loved, who their friends were, what life they chose for themselves.
He nods, unable to think of anything to say that might comfort Valentine.
"Is the Committee for Peace at Home organizing a protest for integration?" he asks. "For the armed forces, I mean."
"Right now we're just trying to integrate the YMCA," she says, crossing her arms. She looks tired. "You gonna come out and protest with us? It's for the Y here in Brooklyn this time."
"Sure. Tell me when," he says. "So long as I don't have to be at work."
"I will," Valentine says. "We need as many bodies as we can get."
"Bodies are gonna be thin on the ground, with everyone signing up," Steve says. "But you can have mine." He laughs ruefully. "The Army didn't want it."
"You know when the war is over, they're gonna make movies about it," Valentine says. "Like they did for the last one. All white men, no women, no Negros, no fairies, just square-jawed lily-white Protestants from one end of the screen to the other."
Steve can imagine it, all too easily. "The dumb thing is, I still wanna sign up anyway."
Valentine spreads her hands in frustration. "You and Danielle both, and I don't blame you. So here we are. Danielle is leaving on Monday, and I'm proud of her even if nobody else would be. And I want her to have some good memories to hang on to. So we'll have a little get-together down at my parents' place on Friday night."
"I'll be there," Steve promises. "Bucky too, he wrote me he's coming back for a few days' leave on Thursday before he ships out."
She nods firmly. "Then we'll give him a sendoff too," she says. "Invite Marlene and Betty if they want to come."
"That's really nice, Val, thanks." Steve's caught for a moment, wanting to reach out to touch her, maybe give her a hug, but not sure if she'd appreciate it, or want the neighbors to see.
Valentine solves the problem by hugging him instead, briefly but really hard, before stepping back to put a decorous two feet between them again.
"Pauline's going to get a new roommate," she says, smiling at him sadly. "So we might not see much of each other after that." Steve nods, knowing that even though the building manager has turned a blind eye to Valentine's daytime visits, her money is never going to be good enough for her to stay the night.
"Maybe after the war," Steve says.
"It looks good on you," is all Steve can think to say when Bucky comes home from Basic Training in his uniform. It does: it accentuates the breadth of his shoulders and the trimness of his waist, making him look even taller than he is. A part of Steve wants nothing more than to curl up in his arms, let his man take care of him and tell him everything's going to be all right.
Another part of him just wants to get inside it.
"It's pretty binding," Bucky says, pulling at the collar. "I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable in it."
Steve shrugs. "Maybe your comfort isn't the goal. You represent something now."
"Guess so." He tugs self-consciously at the cuffs, flattens the lapels, touches the hat to secure it in place. Annoyed, Steve steps in and fixes the things that actually need fixing – the back of his collar, the flap of a pocket. As he brushes imaginary dust from the shoulders he smiles, and Bucky leans down to kiss him. It's their first kiss in over two months, so Steve figures it's all right to let it linger. He slides his hand up into Bucky's hair, so much shorter than Steve's ever seen it before. He might have to reconsider sending him pomade.
"Who's ever gonna look out for me when you're not around?" Bucky asks.
"I'll catch up to you. Just don't get yourself killed in the meantime and we'll call it good."
Bucky frowns a little. "You're going to try again? I thought the Army recruiter said – "
"I've tried a few times now. They all said no. But there are other Army guys in other cities, and someone'll take me. There's a war on."
Bucky's big, strong hands are moving slowly up and down Steve's arms, cupping his shoulders and then sliding down almost to the elbows. "How many times have you tried?" he asks.
"Four," Steve says. "Fifth time's the charm."
Bucky nods. "At some point, maybe it's time to start thinking about something else you could do."
Steve's boss had actually been delighted to hear about his 4F. Steve figures he could stick around his current job and be running the whole place in a year, maybe with no one but 4Fs and burly bulldykes for dockers.
"Maybe," he says. "Maybe all I need is to find the right recruiter."
Bucky frowns, stroking Steve's jaw with his thumb. "Or – okay, listen. I've been thinking. Maybe it's good. Maybe fairies shouldn't be in the fighting. Like girls. Steve, you're so . . . "
"So what? Weak?" Steve can't bring himself to step back out of Bucky's embrace, but he looks down at the floor, unable to make eye contact. They've been through this, Steve thought they were done with this.
"No," Bucky says firmly. "You're strong, I know that. But you're also, you know. Girly. Beautiful."
Steve doesn't feel beautiful. All he feels is longing for the rough khaki uniform that Bucky fills out so perfectly. "Maybe everyone needs to fight, if they can. Fairies and all. All the other pansies in my barbershop quartet signed up last week. Hell, maybe dames should be fighting too, you know what Danielle says."
Danielle's been talking about nothing but allowing women in combat since before she got her WAAC uniform. He figures if he can get to be girly when he wants, the girls should get to do manly things, too.
"I know. It's just, during training, I got to thinking. A lot of the guys, they have a girl back home, someone to hold on to. A lot of them showed me pictures, and I – it was funny, but I wanted to show them a picture of you. I thought – I don't know. If I could imagine you here, living the same life, pretty and happy in your lipstick and rouge, wearing that scarf I got you . . . maybe it wouldn't be so hard to go."
Steve can't help but reach up to cup Bucky's cheek, stroke his thumb along his cheekbone. "I get that. But I can't be that for you, Buck." He frowns. "Maybe one of your other girls, Lizzie or Gertie – "
"Hey, you're my best girl, you know that," Bucky says affectionately, giving him a little shake. Steve smiles up at him. "Even if all you want is to get inside my uniform pants."
Steve laughs. "You don't know how true that is." Affectionately, he slides his hand down the front of Bucky's uniform, over the stiff material and the wide cold buttons, until he's cupping his hand over Bucky's dick.
"Sometimes I wish the opposite, you know," Bucky breathes.
"Yeah?" Steve rubs slowly, his hand sliding up and down the khaki.
"Yeah. That you were going with me. I missed you in Basic. I thought about you."
"We could share a tent," Steve smiles. "Get up to all kinds of things."
Bucky laughs. "That's true. But it's not what I thought about." Leaning down, he kisses Steve's neck gently, as Steve keeps up the slow, teasing massage.
"What did you think about?"
Head buried against Steve's shoulder, Bucky says, "That you'd make me brave enough to go through with it. The way you always make me brave."
Steve brings both his hands up to Bucky's face, cupping his jaw so he can kiss him, slow and deep, trying to say everything he doesn't have the words for.
When he pulls back, Bucky smiles at him.
"You want to take this conversation somewhere a little more private, soldier?" Steve asks.
Bucky tosses off a salute – terrible, very disrespectful of the service – and lets Steve pull him by his short tie into their bedroom, towards the two single beds that Steve's kept pushed together, even in Bucky's absence. Bucky usually likes being in control, is usually the one to strip Steve down and lay him on the bed, but now he's uncharacteristically still, letting Steve slowly peel him from his uniform. Steve undoes each jacket button slowly, thumbing it out from its buttonhole, until he works his way to the belt, which he unfastens and pulls from the loops. He unbuttons the uniform shirt underneath, then runs his hands down Bucky's undershirt, over his belly, until he gets to the edge of his uniform trousers. He lets his hand rest there, brushing the soft bare skin where Bucky's undershirt is rucked up, dipping his fingers under the waistband.
"You waiting for something in particular?" Bucky teases, and Steve grins.
"I just like this," he answers, letting himself move and undo the trousers. "Us."
"Me too," Bucky says.
The buttons on the trousers and drawers are next, so that Steve can finally reach in and give Bucky's cock a quick tug, just to get the feeling of it in his hand. And then Bucky is standing before him, open from neck to thigh, his skin flashing out beneath the olive drab. He looks like an animal being skinned.
"C'mon," Bucky says. "C'mon." And he puts his hands on Steve's waist like they're dancing, walks backwards toward the beds.
Steve ends up on top, nestled in among the folds of half-removed clothing. He wiggles down the bed until he's level with Bucky's cock.
Bucky runs a warm hand through his hair. Steve takes him in. It doesn't take long, not when they know each other so well. Steve knows exactly how hard to go and Bucky knows when he can start to thrust and together they build and build until Bucky's coming hard in Steve's mouth, crying out and gripping Steve's hair just right.
Steve gets up to spit, then lies back down again, resting his cheek on the soft skin of Bucky's belly, exposed where his undershirt has ridden up. He listens to him breathe for a while.
"You don't want to get off?" Bucky asks softly, after a while.
Steve's hard, but he doesn't know if he wants to come or not. This feels more important, this still moment with Bucky lying split open beneath him. He moves up Bucky's body, so that he can lay his head on Bucky's shoulder, and pushes his nose under the edge of Bucky's open uniform shirt.
"Just let me lie here for a minute," he says.
Bucky doesn't say anything, but he tugs up the edges of his shirt and jacket and pulls them up over Steve, wrapping them around Steve's arms and shoulders like a blanket. Steve sighs against the scratchy feeling of the wool against his skin, the weight of it on his shoulders, enclosing them both together in olive drab.
On his back, there's a strip of skin left uncovered, where Bucky can't quite get the edges to meet. There isn't enough uniform for two.
Curling his body up effortlessly, Bucky kisses the top of Steve's head. "Take as long as you need," he says.
Valentine's party is huge, way bigger than Steve anticipated, with so many people that they spill out onto the street, with folks rotating in and out of the neat tenement house as the night goes on. There are a bunch of people he recognizes from some of Val and Danielle's political events, a lot of dapper dykes and daggers with their girls, and a lot of fairies and pansies, too, though they're a lot better dressed than Steve is in his makeup and green shirt; that makes Steve a little nervous, and he keeps checking to make sure he got the bloodstain out of the collar. There are a lot of people who seem to be artists of one kind or another, but from what Steve can tell it's modern art, or poetry, not the kind of commercial stuff he usually does.
Sensing his nervousness, Bucky squeezes his shoulder as they go in. "You all right, pal? It's just a party, we can go back home if you want."
Steve shakes his head. "I'm fine."
Once inside, Steve spots Valentine and Danielle near the door, arms around each others' waists, both of them with a glass of champagne in their hands. Danielle's in trousers and suspenders with a white collared shirt, her WAAC cap perched on her head, and Valentine's in a blue party dress cut daringly short, much shorter than she'd ever wear it up in Steve's neighborhood. It's nice to see them both so relaxed.
"Steve! Bucky!" Danielle calls. "What are you drinking!"
"We brought booze," Steve laughs, kissing each of them on the cheek in turn, then backing up so Bucky can do the same.
"Very good. You can deposit it in the kitchen, through there," Valentine says, pointing. Steve nods.
"So this is your folks' place, Val?" he asks. "What did you tell them was going on?"
Danielle laughs, and Valentine grins. "I told them I was having a party for all my queer communist activist artist friends," she says. "I think they're out on the stoop with Auden and Salvador Dali."
"Salvador . . . " Steve blinks. "Dali?" Did they pass Salvador Dali on the way in here, step over him maybe, and Steve didn't notice?
"Valentine's parents are kind of bohemian," Danielle explains.
"Give Steve a minute," Bucky says. "He likes that Dali guy."
"Auden's much nicer," Valentine smiles. "He writes for the Catholic Worker sometimes, you know. And he's one of your lot." She jerks her head towards the corner of the room, where two young Negro men are standing, holding hands, their heads bent close together. As Steve watches, one of them smiles slowly, and the other one laughs at whatever he's said and kisses him, easy as could be, before continuing the conversation.
It's not that Steve hasn't seen men kiss each other like that plenty of times before, in queer joints and even on the streets after dark, but the party is so big, and so full of mixed company, that it's still a little shock.
"You oughta have parties like this more often, Valentine," Bucky says, smiling.
Danielle kisses Valentine on the cheek. "She's usually too busy organizing more important things," she says. "But I don't disagree."
"Marlene and Betty are around here somewhere too," Valentine says. "In case you're in search of a familiar face in all the din."
"Thanks," Steve says, still wondering whether he can creep out on onto the stoop and hide behind the railing to spy on Salvador Dali.
He and Bucky drop off the liquor they brought after pouring themselves each a generous serving, and of course they bump into Betty next to the booze.
"Steve, oh my God," Betty says. She's lovely in a light grey suit with peacock blue accents: handkerchief, hatband, cufflinks, and shirt. Steve's never seen the outfit before, and it must've cost her a fortune; he wonders if she bought it just for the occasion. "Can you believe this party? I was getting worried that we were invited as a curiosity, like the burlesque dancers or the monkey trainer. Or the monkey."
"There's a monkey?" Bucky asks. Betty looks around for it, then shrugs.
"Somewhere," she says.
"It's a little overwhelming, to be honest," Steve admits. Betty nods and tosses her drink back before pouring another.
"Well, stick with me, then," she says. "I want to meet each and every one of these fascinating people and I don't want to look like I'm desperate and here alone."
"Where's Marlene?" Steve asks.
"She found a very cute, very shy young painter to talk to, and they've been canoodling for half an hour now," Betty says. "I couldn't bear to interrupt."
Steve laughs. "Okay. Then let's go."
"I might mingle too," Bucky says, eye obviously on a group of pretty, laughing women in one corner of the main room. Some of them look pretty tough, and the ones who don't are cuddled up to the ones who do.
"Yeah, good luck with that," Steve laughs.
"Don't need luck," Bucky says. Steve snorts and starts to turn away, but Bucky's hand on his wrist stops him, turns him back.
"Hey," he says, and then, awkwardly, tilts up Steve's chin and kisses him. Steve returns it, bemused.
No one looks at them.
"Huh," Steve says, grinning.
"See you later, gorgeous," Bucky says, and then kisses him again, fast, before turning away with a mischievous expression.
"Huh," Steve says again, looking around. There's a couple sitting nearby, a dagger in a tuxedo and top hat, her girl curled up in her lap. They're watching Steve with amused expressions, and the girl raises her glass in a salute.
Steve smiles and nods his head in their direction, blushing a bit.
"Ain't it a hell of a thing," Betty says. "Never gets old."
They have a good time, chatting, laughing, telling stories, getting to know a bunch of new people. A lot of them are actually talking about the war, about who got a 4F or a deferral for one reason and another. One guy, Alexander, tells them he took his 4F on morality grounds.
"Told them I was a punk cocksucker and that was that," he says, taking a sip of wine. "So I'm not moral enough to join the Army, as it turns out. But the joke's on them, because the Army isn't degenerate enough to join me."
Steve laughs and elbows Betty. "That's what you told me you were gonna do," he says. "Remember?" Betty and Marlene had both volunteered, in the end. Betty heads off to Basic next week, and Marlene will go a few days after her.
"Yeah," she sighs. "I wish I had your balls, Alexander."
Alexander shrugs. "Anytime you like," he says, making them all laugh.
Much later, Bucky comes wandering back over with a couple of guys and gals in tow. He flops down into the chair that someone else has just vacated, then looks down at Steve on the floor and frowns.
"You wanna sit?" he asks quietly. Bucky's used to giving up his seat for Steve, but this time Steve doesn't think it's necessary. He smiles shyly.
"We could share," he says.
Bucky grins his goofiest grin and spreads his arms wide. "Come on then," he says. Steve curls up in his lap, tangling their legs together and getting comfortable.
"Your friend has been telling me that you're quite an artist," one of the new guys says. He's not quite handsome, but his pretty lips and sharp eyes, along with his British accent, make him striking. Steve smiles and ducks his head.
"It's commercial type stuff," he says. "Portraits, sometimes cartoons. Not much."
"But you do the art for Valentine's posters?" the guy presses. He gestures with his glass towards the kitchen, where a bunch of the posters are displayed on the walls. When Steve nods, he smiles. "I like those. Beautiful linework. And a lot of personality. You can feel how much you care about the causes you're drawing."
"Thanks," Steve says. "I'm Steve, by the way," he says, offering his hand.
The guy takes it warmly. "Wystan. Have you been drafted yet?"
"Tried to enlist," Steve says, as he has a bunch of times tonight. It's a pretty hot topic of conversation, especially with all of Val and Danielle's pacifist friends. "They didn't take me."
"They didn't take him four times," Bucky corrects, running his fingers over the back of Steve's neck softly.
"They wouldn't take me either," Wystan says. "Two different countries wouldn't take me, in fact, and I did offer. But now I don't mind. You and I can stay here in Brooklyn, Steve, and make art while everyone else makes war. If you need a place to live, I can rent you a room."
Steve nods. "That doesn't sound so bad," he says. Beneath him, Bucky kisses his throat, just below his ear.
They go on talking and drinking for a long while. Wystan tells them about his poetry, and Steve, at Wystan's insistence, draws a quickly sketched portrait of him, which he subsequently pronounces "grand." Bucky doesn't say much with words, but he keeps his hands and lips on Steve's body, making the whole room see the way they kiss and touch.
Later, when Wystan and a few of the others get up for new drinks, Steve leans his head back against Bucky's shoulder and sighs.
"You've been affectionate tonight," he murmurs. He's only been affectionate with Steve, though; he doesn't even smell like perfume or have lipstick on his collar, other than Steve's. When Steve had looked over, before, he'd been playing poker with the group of ladies he'd gone to talk to.
Bucky's hands still. "You don't like it?" he asks.
Every touch of Bucky's body has been lighting him up all night, making him feel so safe and so exposed at the same time, and he never wants to stop basking in the sensation. "I love it," he says, stretching a little to kiss Bucky's ear.
"I guess it's just – you know. I ship out soon. I don't want to miss out on anything I can have, before I go."
"In case you die," Steve murmurs, meeting his eyes.
"Yeah, asshole, in case I die," Bucky sighs. "I'm not you, I'm not brave like that."
"You are," Steve says. "You'd never stand to see someone hurt, not if you could stop it."
"Yeah, but change it from backalley brawling to huge armies with guns and tanks and it becomes fucking terrifying."
"It's the same," Steve insists. "The decision is the same. Don't be scared, Buck."
Bucky kisses him, soft but passionate, like a movie star kiss, like the last kiss before their clasped hands are pulled apart by the departing train, or the first kiss when they see each other again in a crowd after years of absence.
"You make me not scared," Bucky breathes. "Let's go home."
Steve nods. They say their goodbyes to everyone they've met, and to Marlene and Betty, and to Valentine and Danielle, once they finally locate them out on the stoop smoking.
To Steve's surprise, Danielle grabs Bucky up tight and hugs him firmly.
"I'm gonna light you a candle and say a prayer on Sunday," she says.
"Thanks," Bucky says, smiling softly. "You stay safe, huh? There's no knowing how close you might get to the fighting."
"Mister Barnes," Valentine smiles, and offers her hand. Bucky looks for a second like he might shake it, but kisses it instead.
"Miz Johnson," he replies. They all laugh a little.
"I'll light you a candle of your own, Danny," Steve says, hugging Danielle up. "I got time to say lots of prayers."
"Yeah?" Danielle asks, surprised. "Thought you didn't pray anymore."
Steve shrugs. He doesn't, but it's not because he doesn't believe in God; it's more because he couldn't live up to his end of the bargain. "I'll make an exception," he says.
"Good thing, too," Danielle sighs against his neck. "If there's anyone who could convince God to get on our side, Stevie, it's you. If nothing else, you'll wear him down."
She releases him, smiling, and the mood as he and Bucky walk home is melancholy. Steve wonders how many of the people he met tonight he'll see again, how many will be dead in a year.
"I want you to fuck me slow," he tells Bucky, when they get back to their rooms. "I want you to fuck me so slow tonight, Buck. Make it last forever."
Bucky smiles as he pushes Steve's jacket off his shoulders and lets it fall to the floor. "Dunno if that's possible," he says. "Gotta end sometime."
"Try," Steve says, and Bucky nods, and takes his mouth, and slowly, slowly, undoes every single button of Steve's shirt.
He ends up saying his last goodbye to Bucky in public, so it's just a hug and a few words. They can't kiss, and Steve can't say everything he means, so he tries instead to breathe in the familiar smell of him and keep the memory of this moment in his head for as long as he can.
Steve tells Bucky that he's planning on trying to enlist again, and this time Bucky lets it go, mostly, lets him go so he can make his own decision.
"Don't do anything stupid until I get back," Bucky says.
"How can I?" Steve asks, falling into their old familiar rhythm. "You're taking all the stupid with you."
Bucky's grin stretches his face as he says, "Punk."
Steve grins back. You bet I am, he wants to say, but there are a lot of people around, so he just says, "Jerk."
"Be careful," Bucky says, probably because he thinks Steve's more likely to get in trouble in Brooklyn than he is in a war zone. Steve loves him hugely, outrageously, and wishes more than anything that he could go with him and keep him safe.
"Don't win the war till I get there," he calls.
He's always thought it would be something to sacrifice for another soldier, sacrifice time or health or comfort or even his life, but right now he wishes he could do anything, sacrifice anything, for that soldier to be Bucky.
Bucky salutes at him. Then he heads off with Lizzie and Gertie, and Steve heads off to meet one more recruiter.
Maybe this time he'll get a sympathetic doctor.
1A, the form still says.
Steve can't help himself; he keeps opening up his folder again, gazing at the stamp in the bottom right corner. The stamp that means he's worthy, good . . . or, good enough, at least. He still doesn't quite understand what Dr Erskine wants him for, or what he sees in him, but he doesn't care. All he cares about is the opportunity he holds in his hand: to serve, to do his duty.
To catch up with Bucky.
It turns out there are a bunch of tests and a lot more paperwork that Dr Erskine kind of skipped over when he gave him his stamp, and the rest of the Army guys are insistent that Steve should go through them. Steve fills out forms, gets measured for a uniform, and, after a couple of hours of being shuffled from waiting room to waiting room, he finds himself in a tiny, makeshift office with removable walls, sitting across from a bored-looking bald guy in his fifties.
"You like killing people?" the guy begins. Steve blinks; didn't he already answer this for Dr Erskine?
"No, sir," he replies.
"You ever killed anyone?"
The guy actually glances up from the clipboard in front of him and gives Steve a glance up and down. Steve's acutely aware of the bruise that's breaking out on his jaw from the fight in the alley behind the movie theater. "You get in fights?"
"Yes, sir, sometimes. Standing up for myself. I don't start them, if that's what you mean."
The guy scribbles on his pad of paper for a minute. Steve tries not to fidget.
"You like girls, Rogers?"
Steve likes girls fine, so he says, "Yes, sir?" The guy narrows his eyes.
"You don't go with men, I mean. Like those fairies."
Oh. He was so caught up in the idea of finally getting in that he'd forgotten about this question. Anyway, he's already thought this through. He's made his decision. He knows the right answer, and gives it.
"Does the idea disgust you, make you angry?"
For a second Steve considers faking disgust and anger, in case it's what they want, but he's never been a good liar and doesn't want to have to go through some elaborate charade. "Uh. No, sir? I figure it's not my business." He makes himself take a deep, slow breath, trying to look calm.
The guy nods. "Okay. You ever hurt an animal?"
Steve lets himself breathe out. "No, of course not. Sir."
All in all, the interview lasts three minutes. When it's over, someone measures Steve for his new hat.
He writes everyone he knows with the news: Bucky's mom and sister, Frank, who's already overseas, Betty and Marlene who've just left for Basic, Danielle wherever her motor pool is right now, Valentine in Brooklyn, on and on down the list to Bucky himself.
I've been accepted into some kind of special training program, he tells them. They still haven't told Steve much about it, and Steve figures it'll be classified anyway, when they do.
On Bucky's letter, he writes a postscript: Be there to see you soon, pal. Save me half a tent.
On the day Steve meets Peggy Carter, she punches a guy, yells at a line of soldiers twice her size, and makes them all do pushups.
Steve never could manage much in the way of pushups, but for her he wants to try. She's not exactly the kind of drill sergeant he expected to find in the Army, but she's tough, and strong, and doesn't take any guff from the men. He's met tough dames before, got beat up by more than one growing up, but there's something about the way Agent Carter uses her strength – not to punish, but to protect, and to maintain discipline – that makes him take notice. When she hits Hodge she reminds him, a little, of Bucky, stepping in to end a fight that Steve had started. She hits him once, just once, enough to prove her point but no more.
She happens to be passing by, sensible shoes pressing down the soft springy grass, when Steve manages a half decent pushup, actually getting up in a reasonable amount of time.
"Good, Rogers. Another like that," Carter says. The simple praise makes Steve feel warm, confident, and he grits his teeth and manages to press out another good pushup.
"Good," she says again, before passing on to the next recruit. Steve gasps and lets himself take a moment before he tries for another one.
"Showing off for the lady boss, huh Rogers?" Hodge teases him, when they head for the showers. "I saw you saving up your strength to try to impress her when she came by. Too bad your strength is still pretty pathetic."
Steve frowns. He hadn't been saving up, it'd just been – Agent Carter had brought out the best in him, is all. "It's not like that," he says, and Hodge laughs. Steve knows a bully when he sees one, and walks away, not wanting to let him get another word in.
But he wonders about it, after, what it was about Agent Carter that made him want to work so hard, be what she asked him to be, why she could evoke that feeling that he usually only felt around big, strong men. Steve isn't too proud to admit he's been attracted to one or two bulldykes in his day, tall women in trousers with short hair and a bit of chew behind their teeth, but Agent Carter's nothing like that.
As time goes by, though, and he gets a better sense of what she is like, he finds himself liking her more and more. Maybe this is how it's supposed to be, he thinks, when you fall in love with a girl.
On the other hand, maybe he's still got it wrong, because much as he tries to imagine himself kissing her, just as a sort of experiment, all he can think of is her pushing him down and kissing him instead.
The training is grueling. Steve falls into helpless coughing fits on their runs, his breath emptying out of him for long minutes until he finds himself on his knees in the woods, woozy, gasping hard until he can get his lungs open again, then getting up and running some more. His joints scream at him when he lifts the first double-weight pack, and every time after that the agony of it increases until he has to grit his teeth and close his eyes just to get through it. And almost every night, when he gets back to barracks, he finds himself shaking hard, like he never has before, uncontrollably, so that he has to hold on hard to the sink, to the walls, to the bedrails, just to keep himself from shaking to pieces.
Agent Carter sees him shaking, once, after a particularly bad day, and calls him over to her while the rest of the men file back into barracks. He clenches his hands into fists.
"Ma'am," Steve says, doing his best to stay upright.
"Rogers, it seems to me that you are in bad shape at the moment."
It's stupid to deny it, but Steve does it anyway. "I can handle it, ma'am," he says.
Her eyes darken. "That was not my question, soldier. Are you in pain?"
"Yes," he replies, feeling a slow sick surge of humiliation roll through him.
"Are you in pain such that it is interfering with your ability to complete your duties?"
That one's harder, and Steve gapes for a moment.
"Answer me," Agent Carter says, her voice steely and quiet.
"Sometimes, ma'am," he tries. "But I can get through the training program, ma'am, I swear it."
"Oh, I'm quite sure you'll get through it, even if you kill yourself in the process," she says, and looks him over again. He knows he's chalky white, that his whole body is trembling, that he's still aching and gasping for breath after a run that ended half an hour ago. He wishes she couldn't see all that, all his weaknesses, all the things that make him not good enough to serve under her. He tries to stand up straighter.
"All right, Rogers," she says, after a minute. "I'm going to talk to Colonel Phillips about lightening your duties. And perhaps your pack."
He opens his mouth to protest, but shuts it again at her glare. "Dismissed," she says, in a tone that brooks no argument.
Steve clenches his jaw and takes himself off to the barracks.
A couple hours later, after he's got his breath back and his hands have stopped shaking, he's completely exhausted but still restless. He lies down, but he can't sleep. It's not quite lights-out; some of the guys are still up, talking or playing cards. He can probably catch Agent Carter in her office, if he's quick, and try to convince her not to talk to Colonel Phillips. The last thing he needs is special treatment.
He adjusts his cap nervously as he walks down the hallway. If he's pin-neat and pressed, maybe it'll help Agent Carter forget the image she has of him from before, sweaty and exhausted. A guy can hope.
Her door is ajar, so he knocks quickly before pushing it open and stepping inside.
It's not like he gets an eyeful or anything; everyone is fully dressed and buttoned up. And it's not even like he catches them in a clinch, either, because they spring apart quick enough that Steve only sees one bare second of them together, arms wrapped around each other, the woman's face in Agent Carter's hands.
"Private Rogers," Agent Carter manages, self-consciously touching her fingers to the edge of her mouth to check her lipstick, then hastily putting her hand back down again. The other woman turns around, and Steve recognizes one of the SSR secretaries.
"Agent Carter," he says, drawing himself to attention and saluting. "Private Lorraine."
"I'll prepare those documents for you, Agent Carter," Lorraine says, picking something up off of the desk and walking towards the door. Unlike Agent Carter, she seems completely unembarrassed, so much so that Steve would question what he thought he saw if he weren't so sure. He almost doesn't notice Lorraine stopping by the door, stooping swiftly, and picking up her shoes, and if he hadn't, he certainly wouldn't have noticed that she was in her stocking feet.
Agent Carter clears her throat. "What – what can I do for you, Private Rogers?" she asks, surreptitiously smoothing down her skirt, obviously trying to tough it out. "At ease," she adds, hastily.
"I won't tell anyone," he blurts out, before he can think better of it, then winces. He shifts awkwardly to parade rest.
She strides towards him then, tall and imposing. Her heels click on the floor. "You won't tell anyone what, Private?" she asks, glaring down at him.
"Nothing, ma'am. I – I didn't see anything." She's standing close enough for him to feel the heat from her body and see the fury in her eyes.
For a long moment, while she holds his gaze, all Steve wants in the world is to be the girl she was just kissing.
Agent Carter takes a deep breath and then tugs down her jacket and turns on her heel.
"So we're back to my question, then," she says, taking three long steps back behind her desk. "What can I do for you?"
"I – wanted to ask you for something," Steve begins, then thinks better of it. Anything he asks for, at this point, is going to seem like blackmail. He ducks his head for a second, then raises it again to look politely over her shoulder. "But I think I'd better go."
Agent Carter raises her eyebrows in surprise. "You're not going to ask me to let you keep your current duties?"
Steve smiles. "No," he says, with finality. "I'm not."
She looks at him, considering, taking her time. A flush of heat passes over Steve's skin, along his cheeks and up to his ears. He doesn't move. He allows her to look.
"You really want to continue doing the same tasks designed to test men twice your size?" she asks.
"Yes, ma'am, I do."
"You're enduring a lot of unnecessary pain." Her eyes search his face for an answer.
He smiles at her. It's been a while since he felt this way, glad to be seen, visible. "It's my pain, ma'am. And I don't see it as unnecessary."
She returns his smile slowly. "Very well, Private Rogers," she says. "It's your decision."
"Thank you, ma'am," he says. "And . . . I hope this isn't offered in exchange. You don't owe me anything."
"No, I don't," Agent Carter agrees. She takes up a pen and begins writing something on an official-looking document. "You're dismissed, Private Rogers."
He turns to go, but is called back by her voice.
"And Private Rogers?"
He turns back. "Yes, Agent Carter?"
She doesn't look up from her papers as she clears her throat and speaks. "Thank you for your discretion."
When Colonel Phillips throws the grenade, Steve dives for it; of course he does. His body may not be strong, or quick, or skilled, but it's good for this, good for one battlefield tactic: getting between the shrapnel and his fellows. It's different than taking a hit from a cop's billy club so someone else doesn't have to, but only in scale.
In the long seconds while he waits for it to go off, before he realizes that it's a fake, he thinks that, if he has to die, at least Agent Carter might be proud of him.
After a few weeks, he starts getting letters from some of his friends, a few of them showing signs of having been routed all over the place before they found him. Marlene writes that she's learning a lot about seamanship in the Navy, and Steve can just imagine what her quiet smile looked like when she wrote that line; Danielle tells him that the WACs are all real friendly and they're having a heck of a time, but that she misses Brooklyn; Bucky's mom, Winifred, writes to let him know they're all thinking of him and Bucky, and sends along some hand-knit socks; and Valentine writes him a long letter full of socialist gossip with a partially blacked-out section at the end about the protests that the CPH has been working on lately. She sends along a tin of cookies, the same ones she used to bring along to protests and strikes.
He eats two immediately, and they taste almost as good as they do when they're fresh. They came from the oven in her parents' house, he thinks, from the same home where he and Bucky had drank and kissed and curled up together in a chair in front of God and everyone.
For the first time, he wonders if he made the right choice, to try to enlist that last time. They still haven't told them how many will be chosen for this procedure they keep talking about, or if their unit is ever going to join up with regular infantry. Steve's gonna do everything he can with this chance he's been given to serve, to do something good, but there's a part of him, too, that wishes he'd stayed in Brooklyn, making art with Wystan and watching the ships go by with David.
That night he's out walking behind the building, trying to avoid the noise and hustle of the barracks before lights-out. Bucky'd make fun of him, probably, for wanting to avoid a room full of big burly half-naked men, but all Steve really wants, since he read his letter from Valentine, is some privacy. He nods at the MP who's guarding the gate, and strolls a little around the grounds. Mostly it's nothing but dirt pack and scrub grass, nothing too pretty, but in the dark it's not so bad.
He looks up just in time to catch sight of a window coming alight, and inside, silhouetted against a thin curtain, two men embracing. He's stuck, stopped, held in place by the suggestive image; for a few yearning seconds, as he watches the two figures kiss, he wants nothing more than to stay where he is and shove his hand down his pants. He shakes off the impulse almost immediately; it would be a terrible breach of privacy, and besides that, anyone could walk by here and see them. Counting windows, he figures it's the first floor visitor's washroom, and dashes inside before the MP can get bored and start looking around.
He has to pound on the washroom door for a while before anyone replies.
"Occupied," comes a strained voice, and Steve rolls his eyes. They're not in some queer bar on Sands Street, or some department store tearoom, for God's sake.
"I know it is," Steve whispers back harshly, "because I can see everything you're doing from outside."
There's a long pause, and then the door opens. Two of the guys from his squad are in there, clothes hastily arranged but obviously not far from a state of complete disarray. Before Steve can say anything, one of them reaches out, grabs Steve by his shirtfront, and pulls him in. The door shuts with a bang behind him.
"Subtle, guys," Steve sighs. "Look, I don't want any trouble."
"You're gonna get some trouble," the first guy – Smith, Steve thinks his name is – growls. He hasn't let go of Steve's shirtfront. "I don't know what you think you saw, but – "
Steve raises his hands in surrender and cuts him off. "Just what I've seen a million times, a couple of guys having a good time together. I'm really not gonna tell anyone. But I thought I should tell you that you were two minutes from being spotted by military police."
Slowly, Smith's hand unclenches, releasing Steve's shirt. Steve brushes at it, frowning; he hopes it won't wrinkle.
"Shit," the other guy says. Steve thinks his name is Stepnowski. "You tellin' me there are three queers in this program? We thought it was funny there were two."
Steve grins. "I thought it was funny there was one," he says, and the two guys chuckle.
"Maybe they only picked queers," Smith offers. "Maybe the Army thinks they can fix us with this, whatever, science experiment of theirs. And all the other guys are faggots too."
"Even Hodge?" Steve asks.
"Especially Hodge," Stepnowski laughs, and Steve can't help but laugh along. It would fit.
"I dunno, I've heard stranger theories," Steve admits, cold fear rolling suddenly through his stomach. "I wonder what'll happen if one of us gets picked."
"You mean, would we turn normal?" Stepnowski asks. Steve nods, and Stepnowski shudders dramatically, reminding Steve so much of Helena in that moment that he's filled with tender longing for his old life. "In that case, I'd have to turn them down." His voice rises to an arch, incredulous falsetto. "Me, give up dick?"
"Wouldn't work anyway," Smith grins. "There's no fixing you."
There's an easy sweetness between them, and Steve wants nothing more than to bask in it; he didn't even know how much he'd missed men of his own kind until this moment. But he can't help thinking that it's now the three of them who can be seen from outside.
"Anyway, fellas," Steve says. "I don't think we should all be in here. Remember, it's not a safe spot, least not in the dark – it's a perfect peep show from outside, in fact."
"Glad to hear we could be of service," Smith leers. Steve rolls his eyes again, stepping back out of the door.
"Just fix your collars, willya? You're making me embarrassed for you."
The next day, Smith and Stepnowski line up next to him for chow, and the three of them trot out to the morning's training all in a row, Steve in the middle, like they've decided to stick with him. This time, when Hodge comes by ranting and fuming and making a fuss, Stepnowski makes a quiet comment between one pushup and the next – "get her," – and Steve is too busy trying not to laugh and waste his breath to even notice the look on Hodge's face or the garbage that comes out of his mouth.
Later, when they're all running along the trail, Hodge passes them by again, and Smith elbows Stepnowski, making all three of them laugh out loud this time.
"Go easy, fellas," Steve says lightly, pitching his voice so the others can't hear. "The angry ones are always the best in bed."
This sends Smith and Stepnowski into gales of laughter, and Steve grins, able to ignore for the moment the pain in his ankles, and the burning in his lungs, feeling only the bright sunshine, the fresh, clear air, and the company of friends beside him.
Towards the end of the run, Agent Carter is standing with a clipboard, evaluating each of the men in turn. She's looking them all up and down, but her gaze turns sharper when she sees Steve with Smith and Stepnowski, smiling as he does his best to keep up.
"Good work, Rogers," she says, as he passes.
"She likes you, huh," Smith teases, elbowing Steve in the side.
"It's not like that," Steve says. It makes the other two laugh and make jokes, because of course it's not like that between a glamorous military lady and a fairy like Steve. But it also feels a little bit like a lie, because when Agent Carter looks at him, and when he earns her praise, it makes him feel warm inside like he always used to in Frank's arms or in Bucky's, worthy and beautiful.
And if he wonders, some nights, if a gal like Peggy Carter might ever look at a girl like him, well, that's his secret to keep.
He knows he isn't gonna get picked, of course. The experiment is supposed to make whoever gets it a better soldier, but Steve knows they'll probably use a normal guy for the first time. Even if Dr Erskine seems to like him, and Agent Carter, that doesn't mean they think he's cut out for this. He hopes they don't pick a jerk like Hodge, but he knows they're not gonna pick him.
If he can get through Basic, though, prove himself, maybe they won't revoke his 1A. Then he could finally get into the Infantry, catch up to Bucky like he'd promised.
That's what's on Steve's mind when Colonel Phillips calls them together for a briefing: the idea that they're finally going to pick someone, or a bunch of someones, and Steve can get the heck out of here. But then Colonel Phillips starts a sentence with "Only one soldier has been chosen for this illustrious honor" and ends that same sentence with the words, "Private Steven Grant Rogers."
He's in shock while people shake his hand – Colonel Phillips, with a gruff "congratulations, son," and Dr Erskine, beaming and clasping Steve's hand between two of his, and Agent Carter, offering him a sly smile and then a brisk nod. Then Steve is surrounded by his unit, all the other guys shaking his hand, clapping him on the back, offering congratulations and smiling, being good sports.
Steve isn't sure whether to feel like he's won or lost.
Smith is one of the last to give him a hearty handshake and shoulder clasp, smiling knowingly at him.
"I guess we'll find out how much it changes you, huh?" he says quietly. Steve nods, his stomach sinking. Stepnowski squeezes his shoulder. "Let us know how it goes, if you can."
"I will," Steve promises. If nothing else, if it does – does make him normal, and they start giving the procedure to other guys . . . that's not something he'd want any queer soldier to do without knowing it in advance. If it makes him normal, maybe he can get the word out so guys can turn it down. Or volunteer for it, he supposes.
"You can send us a postcard. Stepnowski and me are hoping we'll be assigned somewhere together. Word is we're being pressed into regular infantry until they finish experimenting on you."
That's exactly what Steve always dreamed of for himself, to be in the same unit with his best buddy, his lover, fighting for their country. "You two look after each other," Steve says firmly. "I want to see you both at the reunions in twenty years' time."
Stepnowski steps up beside them, catching the end of what Steve's saying. "Like we'd miss getting to flirt with that many men in uniform," he grins, leaning his elbow companionably on Smith's shoulder.
"Just make sure you're one of 'em," Smith says, nodding at Steve.
"It will make you bigger," Dr Erskine explains, when Steve asks. "Stronger, faster. Maybe even smarter, we're not so sure about that. And it will make you healthy, if it works. No more asthma."
Or heart palpitations, or joint pains, or poor hearing, or fatigue, or weak constitution, Steve thinks, almost incapable of imagining a life without those things.
He's struck by the memory of the time he came down suddenly with one of his fevers, when he was at work with Frank and the guys; Frank had taken Steve back to his place, tucked Steve in his bed, and taken care of him. It's the only time Steve can ever remember being grateful for a fever, but for some reason it's all he can think of now, faced with the prospect of not having them anymore: the way Frank had brushed his hair gently back from his forehead, and kissed his cheek, and wrapped him up in his strong arms when he got the shivers. Frank had said that it felt good to look after him.
"Will it – I mean. Will it change who I am?"
"Fundamentally, I do not think so." He pauses, as if trying to decide how much to say. "I hope not." Erskine pats him tentatively on the shoulder, and Steve allows himself to be reassured.
But as the date of the procedure creeps closer, he begins to realize that there's no way he can be the same man, afterward. He always knew he was a fairy, knew it from his own slim build and short stature, his mostly hairless body, even from his delicate constitution. He wasn't built to be the man in a relationship. He likes the feeling of being held and fucked by someone bigger than him, of being carried, of being treated like he's sweet. Even the two or three big queens he knows, like Helena or Jackie, will tell you about their soft, sloping shoulders or their small feet, the signs they've found on their own bodies that reveal them for what they really are.
Steve's pretty sure that, when he steps out of the machine they use to fix him, he won't be a fairy anymore. He'll have a real man's body, with a real man's desires. Frank, Hyam, Bucky, all the others, they all thought he was beautiful, small and girly. Bucky had taken care of him, and Steve had wanted him to, wanted to stay always in the safe, warm circle of Bucky's arms. But if the experiment works, and he gets made tall and strong – well, the one thing he knows for sure is that he won't be beautiful anymore.
The last night before the procedure, Erskine finally tells him what's behind the serum, what kind of risk he's really taking.
"Whatever happens tomorrow," Erskine says, "you must promise me one thing: that you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man."
Steve promises, though there's no way of knowing if he can keep his promise. I won't be who I am anymore, he thinks, then suppresses the thought. He just hopes that he can still be a good enough man for Dr Erskine.
After Dr Erskine leaves, Steve tries to sleep, wishing desperately that he could sneak off base somehow, find the right kind of bar in the right part of town and the right guy to screw him, just one more time before that part of his life is over. He imagines what it would feel like, knowing that it's the last time, how much he would crave that sensation of cock filling him up and splitting him open, of spunk wet against his thighs, of a big, solid man wrapped around him, holding him up, breathing hot and heavy into his ear. If they were still here, Steve thinks he'd ask Stepnowski and Smith, but they're long gone, their bunks neatly rolled up at the other end of the barracks, and Steve is alone.
Anyway, there are rules: he's supposed to rest up, and he's definitely not supposed to be carousing in some smoky club in the queer part of town. And also, he thinks, with a quirk of his lips, Dr Erskine just told him he has to avoid fluids.
So he lies in his solitary bunk, thinking about the procedure while he tries to get to sleep, wondering if it will hurt when he's made into somebody else.
Even if it does, he knows he can do it, live through the pain. If it's the price he has to pay for his uniform, for the right to serve his country, then he'll pay it.
"How do you feel?" Agent Carter asks.
"Taller," Steve replies.