She laughed in his face when he asked. “You think you’re the first soldier to ask me out?”
“Sergeant,” he corrected with a cocky grin. “And you know what the song says—you can’t say no to a soldier.”
She managed not to roll her eyes and went back to the paperwork in front of her. “Well, sergeant, I’m surrounded by soldiers. I have to say no to some of them, or I’d be spending all my time on dates instead of working. And going on dates won’t win the war.”
“It can’t hurt,” he said, leaning forward, palms flat against the desktop. She spared a glance up at him; he was handsome, but even Clark Gable was going to war, and he was a real movie star, not just some sergeant from Brooklyn. “It’s good for morale. Especially for us boys shipping out soon. Helps remind us what we’re fighting for.”
Connie stifled a sigh. That was a line she’d heard more than once; it was losing its power. “You’ll have to try harder than that,” she said flatly. Quickly sliding forms into folders, she muttered, “Besides, don’t any of you have mothers you want to fight to protect?”
“None of us from the orphanage do,” he said lightly. Then he sighed.
“Look. I’m leaving and my best friend, who’s never wanted anything more than he wants to join the Army, is 4F. I don’t want to leave him, and—” He broke off and looked away for a moment. “Maybe I can convince him not to do anything stupid while I’m gone. But I just want one more good time with him, where we can do somethin’ fun and be normal and not think about the…possibilities.” He smiled, small and crooked, and said, “And normal means me with a beautiful girl. If there’s no girl, it’ll just seem wrong.” The sergeant swallowed.
It was quite the sob story, but men had tried more outrageous stories on her before. “This better not be some kind of line, sergeant—”
“Barnes. James Barnes.” He stuck his hand out. “Everybody calls me Bucky, though."
She took his hand and shook it firmly. “Connie Oswald.”
“Constance?” His grin was picking back up.
“Only to my mother.”
“I promise you, it’s not a line.” He certainly seemed sincere; his eyes were wide and just short of pleading. Though she hated herself a little for it, she relented.
“Should I bring along a friend?” she asked, and he grinned.
“You read my mind. I’ll pick you up—”
“We’ll meet you,” she said firmly. “I don’t need a strange sergeant knowing where I live.”
“Fine.” He shrugged, like it made no difference to him that she’d basically accused him of having less than honorable intentions. As long as she got his name and rank right, she suspected nothing she said could bother him much. “We’ll meet at the fairgrounds at 7:30. Sound good?”
“Fine with me. See you later, Sergeant.”
He leaned over the desk and gave her a peck on the cheek. Then he swaggered out.
Bucky’s friend was small and quiet and didn’t seem all that pleased to be there. And the looks Bonnie was shooting her were none too impressed, either. Connie just shrugged. So she’d failed to mention that Bucky’s friend was 4F; that didn’t mean he wasn’t a perfectly nice fella. And besides, they were at the Stark Expo. There was plenty to look at there to distract Bonnie from her disappointment. That included Mr. Howard Stark, who Connie knew for a fact her friend thought was the cat’s meow.
Connie would readily admit that the inventor on stage was a dish. But that wasn’t why she was so excited about seeing him. The things he came up with were amazing; the one that really got her imagination going was the car. A car that could fly would be a dream come true. You could go anywhere—well, nearly anywhere. She wondered if Mr. Stark thought much about the possibility of time travel, or going to other planets. It seemed to her that if anyone alive could do it, Howard Stark could.
She’d prefer it if the car were blue, though.
Connie wasn’t really all that surprised that Steve left. He obviously had a lot on his mind that even Howard Stark’s flying car couldn’t distract him from. She watched the two men argue from where she and Bonnie waited, while her friend complained about getting the short straw, literally, on their double date. The men's conversation ended with a hug and Bucky was all nonchalance as he joined them, but she could see the sadness in his eyes.
The dance hall was crowded. The heat and loud music apparently had a reviving effect on Bucky, or at least allowed him to mask his feelings with laughter and smiles. Connie barely had a moment to rest with so many men in uniform asking her to take a turn with them—it seemed like the whole city was shipping out in the morning. She finally collapsed into a seat, grateful for the chance to catch her breath as Bucky and Bonnie danced. So when an unfamiliar voice with an uncommon accent asked “Clara?” close behind her, it was not a welcome interruption. Before she even turned to look, an unfamiliar man stepped into view.
“Clara’s my mother. And my grandmother,” she said, slowly, unsure why was she answering with such an explanation. She’d teased Bucky about being a strange man, but this man was truly strange. He was dressed in tweed and a bowtie, but it all somehow looked wrong. The trousers were too tight, the hair a bit too long. He took the empty seat next to her and started talking a mile a minute.
“If you’re not Clara, then who are you?”
“Who are you?” she retorted.
He smiled for the first time. “I’m the Doctor,” he said, just as the music swelled, so she missed his name.
She leaned closer. “Sorry, what?”
“No, who.” This was apparently highly humorous to him.
Connie frowned. “Which one are you, Abbott or Costello?”
“Just the Doctor. And you are?”
“Connie—Constance Oswald.” She tried for haughty, but she wasn’t entirely sure she pulled it off.
“Constance.” He seemed amused by the idea, but kept talking, businesslike. “Now, Miss Oswald, where is your mum?”
That took him aback. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and it looked like he meant it. “Was it recent?”
“Years ago. I was young.” She shrugged. It wasn’t that it didn’t bother her; but it was in the past, and nothing that happened now could change it.
“That doesn’t mean it hurts any less. Every loss is a part of you forever.” The odd doctor paused for a moment, long enough for her to wonder if he was thinking of his own losses, before asking, “Was she born here, in New York?”
She shook her head. “London.”
“But you weren’t. You don’t have an accent.”
“Sure I do. It’s just not the one my mom had.”
“Your father?” She shrugged, and he muttered, “Where do you girls come from? I’m beginning to think you’re like amoebae, just dividing yourselves up into perfect copies.”
“As far as I know, I came about in the usual way. I just have less memory of my father than of my mother. Did you know her? Maybe you’re my father!” she suggested brightly, just to see his reaction.
It was predictably overdramatic as he reared back, hair flying as he shook his head. “Me, your father? No. I never met your mother, but I wish I had. Let’s dance.” He bounded out of his seat, grabbing her hand as he rose, and dragged her onto the floor as the band started “Stardust.”
They staggered and stumbled against each other, completely graceless. Though he looked normal—relatively—his limbs were apparently somehow far too long and gangling for his body. Finally she was forced to say, “You’re a terrible dancer.”
“Am not!” His expression was utterly incredulous.
“Are too. Who taught you, somebody with four legs?”
“And it’s just a slow dance! I suppose I should feel lucky you’re not trying to jitterbug. I might lose an eye,” she teased.
There was a gleam of something like admiration in his eye. “Then how about we stop dancing? We could go to the exposition if you like. These people have some very interesting ideas about the future.”
Connie raised an eyebrow. “‘These people’?”
“Americans. Though I suppose you’re one of them now. I didn’t expect that,” he admitted. The things he said were so weirdsville, but he said them with such certainty that it was hard to doubt him.
“I’ve been to the expo. Thanks.”
“Anything catch your eye?” He watched her face closely as she answered. She lit up as she talked, more vivacious than she’d been before, which had been plenty to begin with.
“It was all fascinating. Did you see the flying car?”
“I did. I was tempted to fix it for him, wouldn’t have taken two shakes. But more importantly, what did you think?”
“It was amazing! Can you imagine flying in your own car, high over the city?”
Her eyes widened further. “And just think: if Howard Stark can make a car fly, what’s next?”
“What would you like to be next?”
“If we already have airplanes and flying cars—”
“Almost flying cars, it doesn’t work properly yet.”
“—then wouldn’t the next step be leaving Earth?” she pressed on. “Seeing the stars up close?”
“Do you want to see the stars, Constance? I can show you them.”
She smiled sadly. “I know you’re not from around here, Doctor, but this is New York City. We’ve got neon and searchlights, but few stars.”
He leaned in, a nearly manic look in his eyes that didn’t scare her in the slightest. “Up close, Constance Oswald. I can do you one better than a flying car, and we can go anywhere. See anything you like. I’ve been looking for you.”
“I thought you were looking for my mother.”
“Your mother, your grandmother, you. I can’t figure any of you out, but I will. Starting with the one at hand.”
“Gosh, thanks,” she said flatly. He looked down at her and saw the expression on her face. He smiled.
“Will you come with me?”
“I’m not sure I can trust you.”
“Well, of course you can.”
“But how do I know I can? How do I know you’re not crazy?”
“Oh, I am, I am definitely that. But what else have you got to do? Work in an office or a factory until this war ends? That will be boring,” he spat.
“We all have to do our part. What are you doing? Why aren’t you fighting?”
He was suddenly grave and stiff and distant. “This isn’t my war.”
“It’s mine, though.” She could be all those things, too, and the body that had been so pliant against his was ramrod straight and a respectable distance away. She looked at the dancers around them. “And see all these people? All these men in uniform? It’s theirs. I can’t just go running off. Especially not while I’m on a date,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
His mouth tightened into something neither a grimace nor a smile. “Your mother named you well, Constance.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, without really knowing what she was sorry about. Sorry to see that look in his eyes, like he was resigned to being refused, being alone. It made her want to take it all back and go wherever he wanted, just so he’d lose that look. But the song was ending and she couldn’t leave without explaining to Bucky.
All the same, she wanted to go. Really, really wanted to go, regardless of whether or not he was crazy. “Maybe…after it’s all over? Maybe I can go then?”
“Maybe.” He smiled, gently, and dropped her hand. Connie saw Bucky and Bonnie approaching out of the corner of her eye even as he turned and started to walk away.
“See you around, Doctor.” She tried not to make it sound like a question. He answered anyway.
“I’m sure of it, Miss Oswald.”
Despite her earlier misgivings she let Bucky walk her home. He was leaving soon anyway; it didn’t matter whether or not he knew where she lived.
“Sorry about Steve,” he said when they stopped at the bottom of the stoop.
“It’s not me you need to be apologizing to. Don’t worry about Bonnie, though,” she said, waving a hand. “She’s fine.”
Bucky took her hands. “I’m glad you came out with me for my last night.”
“It’s not your last night ever, Bucky. But I had a good time, too, so thank you.”
“Can I ask you a favor?”
“Now that you know who Steve is, can you maybe look out for him?” He rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable. “He’ll hate me for asking, but I’d really appreciate it. If you don’t mind.”
She knew better than to say it, but it was very sweet of him. So she just shook her head and smiled up at him. “I don’t mind.”
“Thank you.” He dipped his head down and kissed her, briefly and then longer. When they parted he straightened up and adjusted his coat. “Guess I better get going.”
“Guess so.” She ought to say something else, so she added, “Be careful.”
“I’ll do my best. And maybe I’ll see you when I get back, huh?”
She looked into his eyes and saw that he didn’t believe it. “Just get back and you’ll see me.”
Connie watched him until he’d walked down the street and out of sight. Then she looked up, to where the stars should have been. Satisfied that they still weren’t visible, Connie walked up the steps to go inside and wait.