He thinks about it sometimes, about making it official. God knows enough people talk about the two of ‘em, living together like they do. The ones who knew the Rogerses back when—few and far between as they are—they give them looks sometimes, say disapproving little things about what Stella’s ma would’ve thought about her going around with a fella like him without even having a ring to show for it. Bucky never met Sarah Rogers, but he’s pretty damn sure she’d have more to say about the way not a single one of those self-righteous fucks had an ounce of christian kindness to spare for her daughter when she was shipped off to the girls’ home.
But still he thinks about it, because ain’t it just proper? Not that they’ve ever done anything improper—they pay more than they have to just so Stella can have her own room, for christ’s sake—but sometimes he gets the feeling that life would be easier if they were married. He told some nurses they were engaged, once. It was the only way they’d let him in to see her after she collapsed at work, double pneumonia winning the war of wills she’d tried to play. He remembers the nurse saying “your fiance’s here,” and Stella rolling her head to look at him, mouth tugging wryly before she started hacking again, doubled up like a jackknife on the hospital bed. He held her hand that night, and told her it was for show.
He thinks about kissing her sometimes, thinks about doing more than kissing, thinks about lying flat on his back with her above him—in his fantasies, she’s always above him—and seeing if he can circle her waist with his two hands. But mostly he thinks about her in that hospital bed, and how he’d wouldn’t have been allowed to see her if he hadn’t lied about what they are to each other. That eats at him whenever he thinks about it too much. There’ve been others for the two of them, a few fellas he’s tried to set Stella up with so they could go on double dates, but everything always falls through, and in the end they find it’s always just them. They might not be what the other might’ve imagined, but he’ll be damned if they don’t make a good team.
He’s been thinking it over again after work one day when he hears the key rattling in their lock; the tumblers are sticky and the keys poorly cut, so it’s always a struggle to get into their place. He hops up and throws the bolt for her, then swings the door open to see her blinking there, key in hand. She’s sporting a new shiner and Bucky immediately feels the muscles in his back tighten.
"What happened to you?" he asks, trailing after her as she slips past him, taking her bag from her and setting it on the table as she sinks into a chair.
"Fell on the stairs," she smiles awkwardly, and he watches as it pulls at the place where her lip is busted.
He has his doubts, but he soaks a handkerchief in cool tapwater anyway and hands it to her. She lolls her head back in the chair to watch him as he kicks around their little kitchenette, trying to figure out what they’re gonna do for dinner. They’ve got a few potatoes left that don’t seem too soft, and he taps them for a few moments before swinging around.
She’s holding the handkerchief over her eye. “Mm?”
"Been thinking lately that maybe you and I oughta, y’know."
She lowers the handkerchief, twists around in her chair, and furrows her brow. “Oughta what?”
He shrugs. “Think about getting hitched, or something.”
The burst of laughter isn’t what he expected, and he instantly feels a hot flush of embarrassment go through him.
"Why would we do that?" she says. "You let Mrs. Rosetti on the third floor get to you, didn’t you?"
"Knock it off," he says, frowning. "It just makes sense, okay?"
She looks at him for a long moment, then breathes out softly. “No, you’re actually serious.”
He crosses the room and drops onto their threadbare relic of a couch. He’s embarrassed and he doesn’t handle that well, so he tosses off a flippant “if this is the way you always act around the fellas, it’s no wonder nobody comes calling twice.” In the moment, he thinks it’ll sound like he’s teasing, but once it’s out there, he realizes what a wretched thing it was to say.
Stella folds her arms across her chest and looks away. “I’m not gonna marry you just because you got a wild idea,” she says, sinking down a little further in her chair. Her skirt rides up when she does it, and from his place on the couch, he can see the pale skin of her inner thighs, just above her knees.
He’s already prickled, and that has long been one of his pet peeves, so he snaps, “Close your legs, for god’s sake.”
Stella’s brows draw together, her expression first looking surprised and then irritated. “The way I sit’s nobody’s business but my own,” she says, and as if to emphasize her point, she spreads her knees a little wider.
He worries about her, this slip of a girl who gets into fights and won’t keep her legs closed, and he doesn’t know how to tell her that all those things she thinks are wrong with her—her raw knees and her bony wrists, her straight hips and her lack of chest—those things she thinks keep men from looking at her, they won’t save her if someone gets mean. He knows men, he knows men in a way she never will, and it’s not about attraction, it’s about power. He knows it’s not fair, especially not to a girl like Stella, who’s got a lion’s heart and a stubborn streak a mile wide, but sometimes he wishes she would keep her head down, her head down and her legs closed and her mouth shut.
"You didn’t really fall on the stairs," he says, blood heating. He’s not going to be polite about her lies, not today, not now.
Her jaw sets. “What if I didn’t?”
He scoffs. “What was it this time? Boys torturing a cat? Somebody yelling at a kid? Did you catch someone trying to lift a wallet again?”
"Leave off, Buck," she scowls, slumping down further still, entrenching.
He feels his fists ball in frustration, and it’s with a half-snarl that he says, “For fuck’s sake, Stella, you’re a girl. Why can’t you just be ladylike?”
He regrets it the instant he says it, because he can see, he can see it fall apart, can see the minute that she slots him in with all the others who’ve ever hurt her like that, can see the betrayal that he of all people would get onto her about this. Because isn’t it something she’s heard all her life—act like a lady and girls don’t do that, and isn’t he supposed to protect her from hurt? And he’s sorry, jesus he’s sorry, but there’s no calling the words back.
"Okay," she says, "okay." And she closes her legs, and then she stands.
He begs with her, begs while she throws some clothes in a bag, but she doesn’t say anything else, just picks up her bag and her sketchbook and walks stiffly out. He follows her all the way down to the street until someone puts a hand on his chest and says “buddy, there a problem here?” and she doesn’t even stop, doesn’t turn around. And, oh, he knows he’s fucked it all up as she vanishes around the corner, and he goes back upstairs and kicks one of their chairs so hard that it breaks, and that only makes him feel worse.
He goes out soul-sick and angry and he drinks too much, spending money he tells himself he was maybe gonna use to get a ring. His “buddies” from the docks are all sympathy, rowdy and rough-talking sympathy, and he soaks in it for a little while until they try to console him by tearing her down. Someone calls her bitch and his back stiffens; someone calls her cunt, and the next thing he knows he’s taking a swing and people are shouting.
He goes home bleeding and bruised and he drinks too much, and he tries patching himself up in the little mirror in their closet-sized bathroom while the buzzing of the bare yellowed bulb plucks on his last frazzled nerve. He’s just maudlin enough to think of Stella’s thin, cool hands doing it instead, and the only thing that keeps him from putting his foot through the wall is that his balance isn’t good enough at the moment.
Two days later he’s out of whiskey and out of self-pity, so he goes and gets some glue and he puts the busted chair back together. When it’s all mended, he goes and finds her, hiding out in a one-bedroom apartment that’s already home to three other artists. The woman who opens the door looks him up and down and scowls. He stands there while she calls back behind her, says nothing when she ushers inside with a flick of her lipstick-stained cigarette. Every surface is cluttered with overpainted canvases and mostly-empty makeup containers and laid-out clothes and tin cans full of pencils and brushes and houseplant clippings, and there in the middle of the mess is Stella Rogers, sitting curled up in a blanket on the floor.
He drops to his knees to be level with her, ignoring the way the other woman scoffs, and he says, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please come home, I don’t care how you wanna live, please just come home,” with his cut-up face and his two-day stubble.
And she looks at him and she says, “I’m not gonna marry you.”
"It’s fine," he says, because it has to be fine, because that’s what he has to say, because she’d never believe him now if he told her it wasn’t just obligation that made him ask, "it’s fine, it was a stupid idea anyway."
"You have a lotta stupid ideas," she says.
He laughs, this dry rattling thing, and he says, ”yeah, I do.”
But she comes home with him, unpacks her stuff again—and suddenly he’s glad he had the foresight to make her bed before going to find her. There’s no evidence now of the way he crawled into it that second night alone, when he’d been too drunk and too self-pitying not to; he’d just wanted a moment to breathe in the ghosts of Ivory soap and mineral spirits, not ladylike but perfectly her.
He’ll never tell her about it, because this thing between them now is still fragile, just a rope stretching the chasm—they’ll be friends again in time, he knows they will be, because they go together, the two of them. It’s a cold comfort, but it’s what he has.
Years later, she comes looking for him and he thinks he’s died when he sees her—a dirt-streaked goddess in smudged stage makeup, right there in that enemy base. Bucky, she says, her voice like a lifeline, and he keeps expecting to turn his head and see her there, five-foot-nothing and straw-thin, even as she supports his pained hobble. He sobs into her lap that first night like she’s his mama, and like the saint she is, she pets his hair and never mentions it again.
He nearly chokes when he sees the tour posters back in London—she’s done up in ‘em like some sort of mix between Betty Grable and one of those riveter women, her long, shapely legs disappearing into something that could barely be called a skirt while she brandishes a shield in one hand and a machine gun from the hip in the other. She’s done up in blues the color of her eyes and reds the color of her lipstick, and some bright advertising mind took “Stella” literally and made a five-point star her motif. Captain America, they’re calling her, like that makes any kind of sense at all.
She’s not quite like the posters in real life—her build is more athlete than movie star. She’s got broad shoulders and her hips haven’t really gotten much curvier; there’s still not a single wasted ounce on her, but it’s in an entirely different way than before. And she’s called their bluff and kept the captain title, transforming it from stage name to actual rank through sheer audacity. But there’s no denying that she’s not invisible anymore.
He lasts all of three days before it becomes a problem for him. He’s following her at two paces coming out of a pub into the dark London night, counting his change, when he catches the tail end of a catcall some shit-for-brains G.I. gives her. He looks up in time to see Stella’s shoulders stiffen and the man elbow a buddy and make an obscene gesture at crotch level—and just like that, it’s as though someone flipped a switch.
Before he’s even really thought it through, he’s pulled the guy around by the arm. He would’ve hit him, he really would’ve, but the guy’s pal has reflexes like a goddamn snake and puts an elbow into Bucky’s face first, and that throws him off enough that he loses his grip and gets punched for his trouble, too.
"Hey!" Stella screams, like she might at a bunch of fighting dogs, and suddenly she has the other two by the shirt collars and is yanking them back. However strong she looks, it’s nothing compared to what she can actually do, and both men are wearing identical startled expressions. "Get outta here, sober up, and learn some manners," she scowls, then shoves them down the street before whirling on Bucky.
"You don’t gotta be the hero all the time,” she spits, the pin-up curls brushing her cheeks almost absurd in contrast to the tight fistful of shirt she hauls him into a nearby alleyway by. The color’s high in her face, embarrassment and anger both. “You think that was necessary? For god’s sake, Bucky, I can take care of myself now.”
He can’t look at her, because she’s too different and too familiar all at once, and he finds that frustration and disappointment look the same on her as they ever did. Instead he rubs at his face with one wrist and winces at the smear of red across his skin. “You always could,” he mutters.
Her expression goes a little strange, and she releases his shirt and smooths it back down. After a long moment, she says, “You wish I was back home, don’t you.”
He snuffles blood and doesn’t answer.
"If I was back home, you’d be dead right now. You weren’t there in that camp when they were writing the letters. Nobody was coming for you," she says, and even though her voice cracks a little, the set of her jaw is a familiar one. "You gotta see that I’m supposed to be here."
"Yeah," he replies vaguely, knowing he’s being less than gracious.
Suddenly her hands are on his face, large and warm. “I’m supposed to be here,” she repeats, like the emphasis makes it undeniable. “But I need you here too. I need to know you’re with me, that you’ll follow me if I ask you to, that we’re a team. We’re a team, right, Buck?”
He thinks of all the teams they’ve been, that they could’ve been. To say he never foresaw this would be an understatement, but if he’s gonna be honest with himself, Stella Rogers was never cut out to be someone’s girl back home, and national darling Captain America is nobody’s wife. He has to take her as she offers herself or not have her at all.
"We’re a team," he whispers, and he closes his eyes and loses himself in the warmth of her palms.