He meets Bucky Barnes on a miserable-cold day in November, on the losing end of a fight that he’s too stupid and too stubborn to walk away from. One minute he’s getting his teeth rattled in his skull; the next, somebody else is doing some rattling of their own. It ends in screaming and cussing and the fella who’d been roughing Steve up running off with a dislocated shoulder. Bucky spits blood and grins while pulling Steve to his feet.
It takes him three weeks to discover Bucky’s a girl.
It’s not that Bucky necessarily tries to hide it. She’s just not what anyone’d think of as particularly feminine. She’s tall and square-cut and she wears trousers just about every day. She even goes by a boy’s name, a corruption of Buchanan, which was her ma’s maiden name before it became her middle one. She might be considered handsome if she were male, but as it is, she won’t be inspiring any poets to sonnets.
Steve, for one, doesn’t care a lick. Bucky’s about as straight a shooter and good a friend as a guy could ask for, an incorrigible flirt, a mean fighter. She has an apartment with some of the other girls from the linen factory where she works, but in the summer of 1938, she offers to go halves with Steve on a by-the-month set of rooms in Brooklyn Heights. She claims she likes his company better. The landlady doesn’t care, and Bucky doesn’t care, and Steve sure as hell could use a roommate, so he swallows whatever objections he has about what it could mean for Bucky’s reputation and allows her to convince him.
“Gonna have to quit smoking,” Bucky says thoughtfully they day they move in, sitting atop her lone suitcase because they don’t have any chairs yet. “Don’t suppose it’s good for your lungs.”
It does tend to bring on his asthma, it’s true, but he feels bad. “You could smoke on the fire escape?”
Bucky hops up to throw open the window before clambering through. Steve watches curiously as she turns around and around, licking a finger and testing the air. “Nope,” she says, crouching down on the metal grating so that she can talk to Steve. “Wind’ll carry the smoke into your room. I’ll have to quit.” She grins suddenly, fierce and bright. “Save me money anyway. Jesus, this is gonna be swell. Right?”
“Right,” Steve says back, despite his misgivings. Bucky’s just the sort of gal you agree with.
Sometimes, when it’s a bad day--when they’re cold or hungry or sore, when someone has beat the stuffing out of them, when someone’s words have hit harder than their fists--he finds Bucky holding the single photograph of her little sister. Rebecca Barnes has fine features, big eyes, a sweetness to her face. She’s exactly as delicate and as feminine as Bucky isn’t. She’s been dead for years, passing when she was eight from the same fever that took Bucky’s ma and half her dad’s mind, leaving only Bucky herself unscathed.
Bucky’d loved her with a deep, sharp love, the echo of which rears its head whenever Bucky’s hurting.
“She was so pretty,” Bucky always says eventually, tucking the photograph back into the scrap of leather she calls a wallet. She shakes her head every time, like she’s following a religious mantra. “Pretty things don’t last in this world.”
He never knows what to say, but both of them keep on lasting.
When he’s twenty-three, he finally works up the courage to ask Bucky out dancing.
Or try to, anyway.
“Christ almighty, Steve,” she says, hands on her hips. “Is that the way you’ve been talking to the dames I try to set you up with? No wonder they drop you like a cold fish. You gotta lemme show you how to treat a lady.”
And somehow that leads to him being waltzed around their tiny kitchen, Bucky leading like she does in every other aspect of their lives, his head on her shoulder. She twirls him and three-steps him until he’s worn out, his breath rattling in his chest. And when he looks up at her, she stops humming and smirks.
“Now,” she says, “if god sees fit to let you get this far, you look down at her and you say, Mary Williams, you’re the prettiest gal I ever did see, and you kiss her.”
They both know he’s never gonna look down at her, and for a moment he thinks about pulling away.
Then she whispers, “Steve Rogers, you’re the prettiest gal I ever did see,” and she brushes her lips against his, so soft, so light, and his heart skips inside of him.
Then she laughs and steps back. To his everlasting shame, he doesn’t reach out until it’s too late.
Bucky sits beside him in the darkened theatre, watching the news clips. There’s a feeling inside of him, too big for his body; it feels like it’s going to burst out of him, an indefinable ache to be there, to be beside the men captured in stuttering black and white.
Bucky’s hand finds his knee, clasping so tight that he thinks he might bruise. The light flickers over her face, the square cut of it, the thick brows and strong jaw. He’s torn between watching the screen and watching her.
“We should be out there,” she says suddenly, her voice rough.
“But Bucky,” he starts, surprised, but the look on her face is enough to choke out the rest.
Here’s the irony: Bucky passes her physical with nothing but a sock in her drawers and her naturally flat chest.
Here’s the irony: she’s Sergeant James Barnes while Steve is on his fourth rejection.
Here’s the irony: she begs him to stop trying to enlist, dressed in her smart uniform with the little sewn satchel of cloth shoved down the front.
He could’ve told them before she left. He could’ve told them during training. He could’ve told them when he learned about the decimation of the 107th--maybe Phillips would’ve mounted a rescue then.
He didn’t tell anyone. He just went.
He finds her strapped to a table in what looks like a lab, deep in the guts of the enemy base he was dropped over. She looks sick and hurt and so small, and he expends more effort than necessary wrenching the bindings off of her, panic and rage dancing inside of him.
It isn’t until the next morning, on the march back, that he’s able to get a good look at her. She's so skinny, so skinny and bony and unkempt, bruised and filthy, and maybe even he would think she was a boy if he didn't know any better. He hates that he was saluting his way across stages while she was suffering--shame and disgust sit at the back of his tongue.
He wishes he could explain that better. She doesn’t seem to understand. She keeps introducing him to the other POWs as her pal from back home, bemused pride fighting its way through exhaustion in her voice. When they reach camp, she leads a cheer and the whole company starts hollering.
He keeps biting down on protests. It wasn’t a brave or a noble thing he did. He just couldn’t stomach the thought of being in a world without Bucky Barnes.
She’s drinking whisky at the Whip and Fiddle’s bar, and he’s pretty sure she’s laughing at him as he tries to convince a group of men that they should put their lives on the line under the command of a green captain who’s never been on an official mission in his life. But it turns out you can buy loyalty with guts and enough free malt liquor, and he’s got a team by the time he joins her.
“You’re coming too, right?” he asks, trying to keep the nerves out of his voice.
She runs a finger around the rim of her glass and smirks without meeting his eyes. “Sure you want a, a--” she stumbles over the word, right in the middle of the pub, like just being with him is making her forget herself, “--on your team?”
“I want you,” he counters, and it’s probably the most honest thing he’s ever said in his life.
She laughs like it hurts.
“Bucky,” he sighs as he pushes into her, and her sharp hips dig into his. She’s got one arm covering her face, the other covering her nipples, like she’s ashamed to be here, to be naked under him. He kisses her knuckles as he rocks, but she only shakes her head and makes tiny noises of unhappiness.
He stops, heartbroken, and slides out of her. “Bucky, please,” he says, voice choked. She’s lying so still, like she’s just waiting for it to be over. She’d seemed plenty okay earlier, outside the pub, when she’d pulled him down by the tie to kiss him, and it hadn’t been soft and light then, but crushing and sharp, liquor-flavored. She’d seemed okay when he’d hefted her up against the door of his quarters, her legs going around his waist while his heart beat so hard he was sure she could feel it in his throat. She’d seemed a little quieter, maybe, when their clothes had started coming off, exposing miles of skin he’d only seen in bits and flashes before. Now she’s shaking, her bony elbows wavering in the cool air of his room.
“Did I hurt you?” he asks, because some dusty part of his brain is dredging up old stories, tall tales in the orphanage he spent a few years in, anecdotes from the other artists he sometimes worked with doing WPA projects--a dame’s first time, or going too fast, and it hurts ‘em. He’s a goddamn idiot, he thinks, too caught up in finally grabbing what he’s always wanted, like this new body entitles him to things.
She shakes her head again, a violent jerk of her chin. He doesn’t understand.
He pulls her hand away carefully, and she’s got her eyes closed. Her lashes are dark against her cheeks, still mottled from fading bruises and scrapes. He has seen her sport the craziest shiners known to man, and he’s never felt as helpless as he does at the faint green-purple tinge near her ear.
“Do you want me to stop?” he asks, aware that maybe he should’ve brought it up earlier. But she just shakes her head again, brows drawing together. He doesn’t buy it. “Bucky, tell me you wanna stop and I will.”
“Just do it,” she says, eyes still tightly shut.
He rolls off of her instead, into what space is left in the narrow bunk, and shucks off the rubber he’d been wearing. He wants her, he’s wanted her for years, but not like this. He knows he’s handsome now, in that objective way, because of the way that people look at him. It makes him uncomfortable, but some vain and boyish part of him had hoped it’d work on Bucky too, make him desirable where he wasn’t before. He guesses he should’ve given her more credit than that.
She’s curled away from him now, the line of her broad shoulders tapering down to her narrow waist. He can see the ridge of her spine by lamp’s glow, suggestions of light and shadow between her shoulderblades. He remembers her changing her shirt sometimes, back in Brooklyn, facing the wall. She’d tell him not to look, and usually he didn’t, but every now and again, he’d steal a glance at her muscles bunching, the slide of bones beneath her skin. He would draw her like that sometimes, slacks slung low on her hips, back curving as she bent to pick something up. He used to feel so guilty; he’d destroy the drawings afterward, shred or burn them, so no erased ghosts would remain. He bets if he’d asked, though--if he’d asked, straight up, she’d have let him watch her, let him draw her, let him touch her. How many things has she given out, given up, for him? He makes a low noise and presses his hands into his eyes.
“You didn’t have to,” he says, voice sounding hurt despite himself. “This isn’t like giving up smoking.”
There’s silence for a moment, then she looks over her shoulder at him. “What?”
He doesn’t know how to explain himself. “Don’t do anything you don’t wanna do just for me, okay? Promise me.”
A few heartbeats pass, then her face goes a little wry. “I took up smoking again. They just give you the cigarettes with your meals. Seemed like a waste.”
He can’t help it, he laughs.
She smiles back, just a tiny thing. She reaches off the bed to grab the blanket, tucks it around herself, and finally rolls over to face him again. She pillows her head on one arm and looks him over; he’s acutely aware he’s still naked, but there’s no way to cover himself without getting up or taking the blanket from her, both of which he’d rather die than do at the moment. And what does it matter, anyway? This isn’t his body anymore; it’s a creation. Somewhere there are clinically-cold color photographs of him, every inch of him, with rulers and measuring tape for reference--just part of SSR’s post-procedure documentation. What’s one more set of eyes?
But because it’s Bucky, it different. It’s always different. He ducks his head so he doesn’t have to see her looking at him, wishing there were enough space for him to curl like she did.
Then her hand is on his face, and he flicks his eyes up to hers. “As long as we’re making promises, kid,” she says, and though she’s smiling, her voice breaks a little, “tell me you’ll stop settling.”
He doesn’t understand; he’s never settled for a thing in his life. That’s why he’s here now, instead of screwing caps on shells back in Brooklyn.
“Agent Carter’s a knockout,” Bucky says leadingly, at his confused expression. “I’ll help you out, you know I will, though I’m pretty sure you won’t need it much, pal.”
Talking about another woman, even Agent Carter, while lying in a bed with Bucky--when he’d been inside Bucky not five minutes ago--feels so wrong to him that he pushes away from her, sits up and draws his knees to his chest. Her hand catches his elbow and she props herself up, brows drawing together. “What’d I say?” she asks, like she really doesn’t know.
From this angle, he can see down the bunched blanket, see her nipples dark against her skin. He looks away. She’s never had to wear a brassiere, never had to bind anything down. When he’d tugged her Army-issue winter undershirt over her head earlier, there her breasts had been. What’d she said at the time? He closes his eyes, cuts through the memory of his own desire to find it. She’d apologized. Apologized to him for the way she’d looked. A thought occurs. “What d’you think I’m settling for, Buck?”
Her silence tells him everything he needs to know.
He turns back to her then, something almost like anger clenching in his chest. He’s not mad at her, just... Christ, he’s so bad at this. He’s always been so bad at this. He’s never known the steps in this dance, but he always assumed she did, and maybe that was unfair. “I have never once--” he starts, and she almost looks scared, but he can’t stop because there’s a good chance that this is the most important thing he’ll ever say, “--listen to me, okay, I have never once settled. Not on who I was, not on what I could do, and sure as hell not on you.”
“Steve--” she counters, and she’s going to fight him on this, he can see it in her eyes.
Before she can, he drops his head down and brushes his lips against hers, as softly and sweetly as he knows how.
“Jane Barnes,” he says, voice an unexpected rasp, “you’re the prettiest gal I ever did see.”
“Ain’t nice to lie, Rogers,” she replies, and it might be half a sob.
“Never lied, either.” She barks out a laugh and tries to cover her face again, but he catches her hands before she can and gives her a lopsided grin. “Okay, maybe I lie a little. But I’m not now.”
Bucky sobers a little and looks at him, quiet and calculating.
“You trust me, right?” he asks.
She shifts in his grip. “Come on--”
“You trust me enough to face death following me,” he insists. “Trust me in this.”
She screws her face up. “Jesus. Can’t believe you can get away with saying shit like that. Anybody else, and I swear to you, I’d think they were pulling one over.”
Steve just dips his head again and kisses her. There’s a moment’s hesitation, then her mouth opens under his. He smiles into it, running his fingers into the short hair at the top of her neck. The wool of the blanket is still between them as he slides back down next to her, but he can feel the warmth of her body through it anyway.
He breaks away, kisses her cheek, her throat, her shoulder, her sternum. He can feel her tense and relax, over and over again, every time, muscles shuddering under his lips. Slowly, gently, giving her time to stop him, he begins to pull the blanket down. He closes his mouth over one of her exposed nipples and she gasps. He lets the noises she makes thrum through him for a moment, light up the blood in his veins, then continues moving down her body. She keeps her fists balled in the sheets, so tight that her knuckles are pale, as he palms at her sides, her hips.
Finally he draws the blanket down her thighs. She’s covering her face again, and he feels like his face is on fire, but she makes no attempt to stop him, just shifts her legs a little further apart as he takes a steadying breath. He presses his tongue flat to her, floods his mouth with earthiness and the bitter aftertaste of the rubber he was wearing. She gasps again, hips hitching up against his mouth, and oh, oh finally.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing, just going off stories he’s heard other fellas tell and instinct, but when Bucky fists a hand in his hair and sobs his name, he thinks he must have the right of it anyway. He keeps licking into her, focusing his attention wherever gets the best noises out of her, makes her thighs clench around him. He’s not expecting it when she comes--she growls and cusses, her back arching as it rocks through her, and he can feel the strength of it against his mouth.
Afterward, he rests his cheek against her hipbone, fingers wrapped around her knee while she strokes his hair. He’s hard and his skin feels electrified, but it’s not as important as the relaxed way she’s letting him touch her, and he knows he can wait.
He turns his head a little to brush a kiss next to her navel. “I love you,” he murmurs against her skin.
“Jesus,” she says, and laughs.
The rest of the Commandos don’t say a word when Bucky ducks behind trees to relieve herself, when she cusses at her blood-spotted long underwear, when she never has to shave, when she slides into Steve’s bedroll for the night.
Bucky marches as hard as the rest of them, plans as carefully, fights as mean. She can drop a man at five hundred yards, in the dark, through the rain.
Nobody says a word.
He nearly gets his head taken off at a HYDRA base outside of Berlin. The bullet dents his helmet and gives him a screaming headache. By the time they’re safely camped for the night, he has a ringer of a bruise all along his temple.
Bucky draws him further into the woods afterward, away from the rest of the guys. Before long, she’s thrusting herself up and down in his lap with unbelievable urgency, kissing his jaw, his neck, his collarbone, open-mouthed and desperate. He laughs (he might be a little concussed), using his big hands to hold onto her just below her ribcage. By the time she slides off of him, sweaty and shaking, the old rubber he’s been carrying in his pack has been completely mangled. He has to fish a finger up inside of her to retrieve part of it, and they both giggle like children with the afterglow when he finds it and throws it into the darkness behind them.
“Marry me,” he says, his face in her neck.
She laughs. “We’ll have Falsworth do it. Lords can marry people, right?”
Steve wraps his arms tighter around her. “M’serious.”
She hesitates for a moment. He can feel her pulse against his cheek. “Win the war first, Cap,” she says eventually. “Then we’ll talk.”
She clings to the railing, terror in her eyes.
To his everlasting shame, he doesn’t reach out until it’s too late.