I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years.
From Sonnet 1, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Is it working?” asks Peggy. “I don’t think it’s working.”
Howard shushes her. “It’s working,” Steve insists through his teeth.
They hunker down behind the truck to listen. Their breath steams out in cotton-wool puffs, their fingers turning to icicles in their gloves. Peggy didn’t think it would still be so cold south of the Alps. She can hear the Hydra guards shouting and running, and beneath that, the source of their panic: the distant tramp of marching feet, and the rumble of many tanks, as if a great army were approaching.
The sound effects are frighteningly realistic. She has to give Howard that. If she hadn’t watched him in the studio, and helped lug the speakers ten miles from their dropoff point in Azzano on her own back, she’d think Colonel Phillips was descending on the base in person.
As it is, Schmidt’s guards are abandoning their posts and rushing to meet the phantom Allied attack, just as Steve planned. Not as planned, the sentries on this side of the camp don’t seem to be going anywhere. “All right, Plan B,” says Peggy. “Steve, you stay here with the equipment. At the count of three, me and Howard are going to launch ourselves out from behind this truck and go punch some Nazis.”
“Why do I have to stay behind?” Steve demands.
“Why do I have to punch Nazis?” asks Howard. “You said I wouldn’t have to punch anyone. We agreed I was the brains, you were the brawn, and Beansprout over here was the—”
Steve stares him down. He’s all angles and elbows, violent shadows pooling in the hollows of his face. A thought slips uninvited into Peggy’s mind: The heart. “The paintbrush,” Howard finishes helplessly. “Anyway, there’s gotta be twelve of them at least. Even you can’t punch them all, Carter.”
“Want to bet?”
“Plan C,” says Steve, loud enough to cut off the imminent argument. “We’ll blow up the tank, set off a few flares to make it look like we have real artillery, and then we’ll all sneak round them while they’re shooting at shadows and get them from behind.”
Peggy is mostly baffled by Steve’s unit—the 23rd, though nobody ever calls them anything other than the Ghost Army—but she knows this: when one of them says blow up the tank, they mean it literally. As in blowing up one of their trusty inflatable M4 Shermans, with lungs and windpipes if no other equipment is available, and leaving it somewhere half-concealed for the enemy to spot. It’s clever, even if Peggy does prefer to blow things up in the more detonative sense.
She exchanges a look with Howard. “I can think of eight different problems with that plan,” he says.
“Fourteen,” she says. “Let’s do it.”
Steve is already pulling a bicycle pump from his rucksack. Uninflated, the dummy Sherman is an unwieldy mass of canvas and rubber tubing that probably outweighs him, though not by much. They take turns pumping as quietly as they can. Steve’s face glistens with sweat, his brows drawn together in a look of ferocious concentration. It is a look that could lift mountains and part seas, and in that moment—miles deep in enemy territory with two semi-trained men and a bagful of props—Peggy will swear on her life that they are going to come away victorious with the liberated POWs of the 107th, the Hydra base a smoking ruin behind them.
Howard nudges her, and she glances away, embarrassed to be caught staring. But he’s too busy looking at Steve himself to notice. “Do we know why he’s doing this?” he murmurs. “I thought he was a camo artist. Not—” He waves a hand at the fast-forming shape of the dummy tank. “Whatever the hell you call this.”
Peggy shrugs. She is always careful, talking about Steve. They have so much in common that it’s easy to assume she understands him inside and out, to forget that she’s only known him for a few weeks. Time is strange in war, anyway; hours feel like months, years like days. “Intel suggests there are two hundred and one Allied soldiers held prisoner in that camp, subject to torture and hard labour. If he didn’t do it, Howard, I would.”
“Yeah,” says Howard. “But I’m getting the feeling our friend Paintbrush here is doing it for the one, not the two hundred, if you know what I mean.”
Peggy thinks of the pale, drawn faces of the survivors from the 107th, of Steve sprinting across camp in the pouring rain to burst into the Colonel’s office. Barnes, sir. B-A-R—
“Yes,” she says. “I know.”
It takes them twenty minutes to get the tank fully inflated. It retains a suspicious lumpiness, and probably wouldn’t fool anyone in broad daylight, but the night is frigid and moonless—as wretched as the grey day that preceded it—and darkness and confusion will work for them. “Help me move it over there,” says Steve. “With the cannon sticking out behind the truck, so they’ll see.”
“As the resident brain, I gotta ask a question,” says Howard. “You realise the Red Skull is somewhere in there, right? The living, breathing Frankenstein of a supersoldier?”
In unison, Peggy and Steve say, “Frankenstein’s the doctor.”
“We’ll get them both,” adds Steve. “The doctor and the monster. Howard, you got the flares?”
Howard sighs. “Yep.”
“Fists ready, Peg?”
She rolls her eyes. “They’re always ready.”
“Great,” says Steve. He picks up the front end of the Sherman and steps out from behind the truck. “Here goes no—”
That’s when the flashlight clicks on, shining full in his face.
For five full seconds, they all stare at each other: Peggy and Howard in the shadows behind the truck; Steve caught in the open with his stupid rubber tank; the Hydra guard in helmet and full body armour, his gun poised to fire. Peggy isn’t melodramatic enough for her life to flash before her eyes, so only the parts with Steve in them do. Meeting him in Basic, watching him capture a flag that hadn’t been brought down in seventeen years. Going back to camp together in the Jeep, Peggy driving, Steve alternately chattering about Cubism and putting his foot in his mouth. Watching him sketch on a rainy day, and Phillips saying, “Far be it from me to tell a young lady what to do with her life, but don’t get too attached. This poor sod won’t live to see thirty.”
She draws her pistol, moving to cover Steve. She wonders how Phillips feels, being wrong all the time.
But before she can fire, the flashlight beam reels away, and Steve is plunged into darkness again. The guard shrieks. “Mein Gott!”
He lets off a few blind shots. Steve has the presence of mind to throw himself flat to the ground. The tank teeters, and starts to tip over on its side. The guard screams again, shriller than before. Then Peggy hears him scramble away, bellowing the whole time in German. She can only make out one word.
Howard fires his flare gun into the shadows and subsides to the ground, shaking with suppressed laughter. The yelling redoubles, taken up by the other sentries on the perimeter. But the voices are receding, not approaching. Steve looks flummoxed. “What? What’d I do?”
“Dropped a tank on him, that’s what,” wheezes Howard. “Good job.”
Peggy’s nerves are blazing with adrenaline, but her hands are steady. She longs for the crack of her pistol, the crunch of cartilege under her knuckles. So must the ancient Greeks have felt when they sang the paean; when Alexander’s army sacrificed to Phobos, god of fear, the night before the great battle at Gaugamela. “I suppose Plan C worked,” she says. “Shall we get a move on?”
Comprehension breaks on Steve. A slow grin spreads across his face, jaunty and impish, and he pushes up his sleeves. “On my signal.”
August 20, 1943
I hope you’re all right, wherever you are. It’s so hard to get news of your unit nowadays. If you’ve sent anything to the Brooklyn apartment since May, I haven’t received it, I’m away in [CENSORED] now on that new job I mentioned in my last letter and things don’t always get forwarded. It’s hard work and a lot of travel, but I don’t mind. It’s nice to be able to use my [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] skills in the cause of [CENSORED], to know that they’re good for something besides painting bathroom walls and drawing pin-ups for fifty cents apiece. I know I’m being really vague, but I’m not allowed to share any details because [CENSORED].
Believe it or not, I’m trying my best to follow rules and be a good soldier. Stop rolling your eyes. They’ll fall out.
The girls miss you a lot. I’m sorry to say Lizzie’s enlisted with the [CENSORED] like she always threatened to. She’s really excited about getting to bash [CENSORED] in the head with a [CENSORED], but don’t worry, I don’t think it’ll come to that. She’s not even due to sail till [CENSORED]. On the bright side, Julia’s decided not to run off with that Air Force mook and Becky is sending out college applications by the truckload. Your ma’s worried about tuition, but we’ll manage. I’ll fly down to MIT myself and club the Scholarship Committee with my palette if I have to.
I gotta go. [CENSORED] is starting in five minutes and [CENSORED] doesn’t like it when we’re sloppy. My fingers are crusted over with [CENSORED] and I have permanent stains on my [CENSORED]. I’m getting a bit tired of [CENSORED] all day, every day, but I’m keeping my hopes up that we’ll be [CENSORED] and get to see some real action soon. Don’t make that stupid lemon face. You know I can’t stay at my easel doing nothing forever. I’m going to [CENSORED] whether you like it or not, and maybe there our units will [CENSORED].
I have a premonition that our paths will cross soon. Call it wishful thinking if you like, but I won’t pretend that I don’t miss you.
Take care. Don’t die. I’ll be really angry if you do.
“Look,” says Steve. He thrusts the sketchbook into Bucky’s hands, beaming like he’s just won the Nobel Prize.
Bucky looks. He looks for what feels like five solid minutes. Steve’s mind can be a strange place, and it’s not always easy to see where he gets his ideas, but this time it is. The pencilled figure bears a clear resemblance to Joseph Rogers in that old photo Miss Sarah used to keep on her dresser, with the strong jaw and prominent nose and the broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist. It’s the man Steve’s father used to be, before the Great War and the battle fatigue, before he started looking for answers in the bottom of a bottle and got too free with his fists—the man Steve always thought he’d grow into, someday.
Except Bucky is almost sure Joseph Rogers never wrapped himself in the American flag and went out to lift a car. Definitely not a shiny red convertible with a license plate that reads CAPTAM, and three chorus girls beaming from the open roof.
“So?” says Steve. “What d’you think?”
It’s not a hallucination. Steve is really here, wearing army greens only a bit too big for him and grinning at Bucky over a frothy glass of beer. They’re in a pub somewhere in London, where everything is too loud and too close and the guy at the next table has been laughing the same hearty laugh on repeat for the last ten minutes and someone is crashing out a jazzy piano rendition of Over the Rainbow that vibrates against Bucky’s skull and makes it hard to breathe. At least it was quiet when he was dying on Zola’s operating table. “I think—”
He thinks he just wants to take his ears off and scoop his eyeballs out and lie down for a long time, but Steve will probably try and fistfight him if he says so. “I think he’s very handsome. But, ah, he doesn’t really look like you.”
Fortunately, Steve isn’t in the mood to take offense. “He doesn’t have to,” he says. “It’s trompe l’oeil. An optical illusion. You remember that from art school?”
The only thing Bucky remembers from his truncated semester of art school is coming out of class one morning to the news about Pearl Harbour and the world going to hell. He shrugs. “Art school was always more your thing. I thought you were still doing that. I thought you were working with your artist friends, you know, making airbases disappear or something.”
That’s as much as he’s gleaned from Steve’s letters, so heavily censored that reading them was like trying to fill in a crossword where his only clues were his own deep but uncomprehensive knowledge of the Rogersian psyche. Hadn’t there been a unit of camoufleurs who’d hidden a whole aircraft factory in Maryland, just by painting it over to look like farmland and country roads from the air? That’s the kind of work Steve was born to do, with his clever hands and cleverer eyes—good, honest, life-saving work. But of course it wasn’t enough for him.
“I was at first,” Steve admits. “But they realised there was so much more we could do on the front. A dummy tank here, a flare gun there, a backing track of truck noises—”
Bucky groans. He’s forgotten how exhausting Steve can be. “Well, they deployed us to Italy to work with Phillips,” says Steve. “And then I heard what happened to you, and—”
He shrugs. It is an eloquent, argument-ending shrug, the one Steve has deployed after a hundred bar brawls and back-alley scuffles to mean, Jeez, Buck, what else was I supposed to do? Bucky groans again. “And you grabbed your trusty blow-up tank and a couple of friends and went for a stroll behind enemy lines, as you do. And now the Nazis are scared shitless and convinced we’ve got a supersoldier of our own.”
Steve puts on his most demure face. It’s a nightmare in broad daylight. “That was an accident.”
“And it’s not a bad thing,” says Steve. “They’ve got theirs, we can have ours.”
Bucky’s getting a migraine just thinking of Steve and the Red Skull in the same breath. He buries his nose in his glass, only to remember that he emptied it about twenty seconds into this conversation, and the mulish set to Steve’s face means he’s going to make a scene if Bucky tries to order another. “Steve,” he says. “Steve, please.”
Steve trundles on, undeterred. “You’re alive. We got your buddies out, and Peg and I didn’t even get court-martialled. I know my plans don’t always work, but this one did.”
“Am I alive?” Bucky muses. “That’s a good question.”
Steve’s face falls. Possibly he’s just realised this isn’t something he can magick away with a wave of his paintbrush, like one of his airbases. He stares at his feet for a few seconds with his lower lip jutting out, long enough for Bucky to wish he hadn’t spoken aloud. “You’re upset,” says Steve slowly. “You’re not—happy for me. Of course you’re not. I dunno why I thought you’d be.”
Bucky could tell him why. Because Steve can be—in spite or because of his selfless ideals—a bit of a self-absorbed prick. Because his head is stuffed so full of honour and patriotism that it’s a miracle it doesn’t float away like a helium balloon. Because he’s an idiot. But he’s Bucky’s idiot, is the thing. And so Sgt. J. B. Barnes’s discharge papers will languish forever in their fat envelope on his bunk, unread and unneeded, because Bucky’s war cannot end while Steve’s is just beginning.
“No,” he says, just as slowly, just as carefully. “I’m not happy. But I’m proud of you. I think it’s one of your less stupid ideas, what you’re doing.”
They both look at the sketchbook. Steve’s smile returns, a little more tentative than before. “Yeah? They can’t 4F this guy.”
“No way,” Bucky agrees, trying to be nice, because he doesn’t want to fight with Steve. He doesn’t want to fight, period. “He’s gonna get the draft. Phillips will have him on the front in three days tops, you wait and see.”
Steve takes a sip from his own glass, still mostly full, and stands up with the sketchbook under his arm. “C’mon. You need fresh air. Let’s take a walk and clear our heads, and after that you can help me paint this thing.”
Bucky remembers, then, and the sense of absurdity redoubles. “Did they know you were colour-blind when they recruited you to do camo?”
Steve throws back his head and laughs. Heads turn. In the smoky fluorescence of the pub, his glowing face is a beacon, a point of startling clarity. “Guess.”
They thread their way towards the exit. Steve leans close and slips his hand around Bucky’s wrist to steer him around tables and barstools, and with a herculean effort Bucky manages not to flinch at the touch. “God, Buck,” Steve murmurs, as they clear the door. “I missed you so much.”
On May 7, 2013, the sixty-eighth anniversary of Steve Rogers’s death, the war record of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was declassified. Overnight, their work in World War II became public knowledge: a “Ghost Army” that deceived and terrorised Axis forces with phantom troops, decoy inflatables, spoofed radio signals, professionally recorded sound effects—and the myth of Captain America himself.
For decades, Rogers has been touted as supersoldier and superhero, the United States’ patriotic response to Hydra’s Red Skull. Millions of American children—the present author included—have grown up collecting Howling Commando action figures, playing Cap Saves Bucky in their backyards, writing term papers on Rogers’s missions and contributions to the war efforts. His face stares out of textbooks and museum exhibits, t-shirts and tote bags, movie posters and internet shrines. But today the headlines say, ROGERS A MERE MORTAL, splashed above the now-famous photographs of skinny, sickly pre-serum Rogers. Others, less restrained, proclaim things like, CAPTAIN AMERICA: A LIAR AND A LIE.
With a public figure as close to the heart as Rogers has been, it is perhaps difficult not to take the shock revelation personally. The declassified papers, however, seem to raise more questions than they answer. And so—three days after the news breaks—I pay a visit to former Director of SHIELD Margaret “Peggy” Carter to do some digging into the details.
Carter, 95, is a diminutive silver-haired woman, not in the best of health. The heating is on in her cosy Washington, D.C. apartment, though it’s about 70F outside, and she sits propped against pillows on her daybed under a shawl and blanket. Still, there is something monumental about her—something about the way she sits, straight-backed and bright-eyed, with her legs stretched out and her hands planted on either side of her—that puts me in mind of a marble statue from classical antiquity. This is a woman who takes up space, and is not ashamed of it.
I start to introduce myself, but Carter cuts me off. “I already know who you are,” she says. “My secretary keeps me up to date. Shall we begin?”
I wonder why, over twenty years since she retired, she still has a secretary. “Of course, Director.”
She smiles. “I prefer Agent.”
INTERVIEWER: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me. I’m sure you’ve had a lot to deal with this week, what with the press going crazy over the so-called “Truth about Captain America” and all.
CARTER: Obnoxious, but understandable. The story has been hushed up for the better part of the century.
I: Why was it such a big secret?
C: I suppose people are coming up with the most sordid ideas, but the truth is really quite prosaic. The Ghost Army was the greatest military deception in American history. We had the finest minds of our age—artists, engineers, set designers, filmmakers, you name it—working with the best technology we had at our disposal. Everyone’s talking about Steve dropping a rubber tank on that Nazi, but the inflatables were only part of it. You wouldn’t believe the havoc you could wreak with a ten-minute studio recording of a truck engine, interspersed with the odd cough and a Put out that cigarette, Private!
I: I’m guessing it would sound like an entire army on the march.
C: It was very disconcerting. Imagine being a Hydra guard on night shift and hearing that out of the dark. Most of them ran screaming. We took a lot of the Red Skull’s bases that way, through deception, without ever firing a single real bullet. The key word being deception. We defeated Hitler and Mussolini and the Japanese, but then we thought we’d have to fight the Russians next. Or the Chinese. There’s always someone. We might have needed the Ghost Army again, and a magician who tells his secrets is no longer a magician.
I: You were there the night the magic started, weren’t you? What exactly happened in Azzano after the alarm went up?
C: Mostly there was a lot of panic. And explosions. [She laughs.] They thought Phillips was launching a full-scale assault on the base, led by a supersoldier with the strength of ten men and an ox. It was chaos. We snuck in there, got Barnes and the others, and got out. We’d have gotten Zola too, if he hadn’t pulled the self-destruct switch and set the whole place on fire.
I: I don’t want to sound sceptical, ma’am, but I’ve seen pictures of Steve Rogers—you know, the “pre-serum” ones, and he was—well—
C: A twig. No, I know what you mean. Those pictures of him were genuine, by the way. As were those medical reports. But I’ve heard people say a good wind could have blown him over, and that wasn’t true. He was tiny, but he had a mean right hook.
I: How did he manage to look like a guy twice his size?
C: On the field? He didn’t have to. He might as well have been a Rorschach inkblot. The enemy knew we’d been trying to create a supersoldier since the end of the Great War, that our research efforts had only intensified when we heard the Germans had beat us to it. It was only a matter of time till we made our own, or so they thought. They got paranoid. Remember, this was just a couple of months after the Erskine-Stark Experiments.
I: Which didn’t work, right?
C: Oh, no. Poor Gilmore Hodge came out of that Vita-Ray capsule every bit as ugly and dim-witted as he went into it, and had to sign about thirty NDAs and disappear forever. But Hydra didn’t know that. They thought we were close. So close they felt compelled to send an assassin to do away with Dr. Erskine and steal some of our serum for themselves.
I: I understand you were the one who foiled that plot.
C: Yes. I eliminated their agent. No, that’s such a euphemism. I chased the man through the streets of New York City and he took cyanide when he saw he couldn’t get away. Hydra never learnt that our serum was a flop, and they’d been primed to see supersoldiers in every shadow ever since Zola made his monster. All it took was for Steve to show up with a tank on his shoulder, and the story spread like wildfire.
I: What happened when you got back to camp? Were you and Rogers in trouble?
C: For a while. I mean, we’d commandeered Army property and launched an insane attack behind enemy lines, all without permission. If Howard’s sound equipment had been found—and mind you, a tape recorder and a giant boom box was state-of-the-art back then—it would have been all over for the Ghost Army. But Phillips was an opportunist. Once he’d stopped yelling, he saw the whole thing for the gift that it was. Steve’s propaganda posters were very persuasive.
I: Like this one?
[I show her a photocopy of one of Rogers’s famous posters: Captain America as a young golden Achilles, dressed in Greek-style armour with a shield and red-plumed helmet, sawing the head off what appears to be an anachronistic Lernean Hydra (Fig 4., watercolour on canvas, 1943).]
C: Ah, this is one of my favourites. We argued about it for ages. Steve, I said, maybe you don’t study the classics over in the colonies, but Achilles never fought the Hydra, you’re thinking of Hercules. Well, maybe I just like Achilles better, he said. You can’t see, but in the original sketch there was even a tiny Patroclus off to the side. For Bucky, you know, Bucky Barnes, but he made Steve erase him.
I: How come?
C: Well, Bucky was a sniper. He didn’t need propaganda.
I: Was that the only reason?
C: No. No, I suppose not. He never said, but I think he thought it was a bad omen. What with—[She falls silent for a long time.] Oh, you know.
I: I’m sorry.
C: Don’t be, it was a long time ago. Anyway, Bucky was having a pretty bad time of it. I thought he should have been given an honourable discharge and sent straight home, but he wouldn’t hear of it. When we formed the Howling Commandos—they called us Captain America’s legendary strike force, though I really must say that we were just a rabble of con artists with no sense of self-preservation—he was right there next to Steve.
[She sighs.] He should have let Steve put him in the posters. Maybe then he wouldn’t have been remembered as a teddy bear of all things, the poor man.
I: I love Bucky Bear. Had one as a kid—still do, actually.
C: So does my niece. Their memorial’s just a fifteen-minute drive from here, if you haven’t seen it. You should pay a visit, take some pictures for your book.
I: It’s an empty grave though, isn’t it? They didn’t find Rogers with the Valkyrie, and Barnes—
C: Of course. No mingling of ashes for the modern hero. O death, where is thy sting?
[She smiles, open-mouthed and toothy. I am momentarily taken aback, because whatever we were just talking about, it is not a sad smile.]
There I go, mixing my mythologies. I must be really sleepy. I’d better take my afternoon nap now. Angie will be home soon, and I always need my wits around me when I’m bickering with her.
[As I get ready to leave, Carter points out a framed photograph on the wall, a Polaroid snapshot of herself with former off-Broadway starlet Angie Martinelli. They are in sundresses on a beach, both white-haired and beaming, their arms around each other.]
I: Have you been living together a long time?
C: Oh, only about sixty years.
Explosions and thunderstorms have nothing in common, except in the space between the flash and the boom. Then they’re identical.
“You start counting as soon as you see the lightning,” Bucky’s dad used to say, when they drove out to the countryside with the girls to picnic and chase thunderstorms. “Right up till you hear the voice of Thor. Then divide by five, and you’ll know how far away the storm is.” This delighted Bucky, who had yet to learn long division at school but had worked out a method for doing it in his head anyway. He’d count aloud, bouncing with excitement, Becky clapping along as if to a song. One mississippi, two mississippi—
“Incoming!” Steve calls.
Bucky throws himself face-first behind the rock outcropping where the Howlers are dug in, and squeezes his eyes shut. Carter kicks the shell away. The backs of his eyelids blaze a brief bright red, and in his ears his father’s laughing voice gets all the way to, One mi—
It’s like dying, every single time, except without the blessed oblivion after.
When he can hear again, he becomes aware of Dugan blaspheming fulsomely on his right, and two laughing voices on his left, one familiar, one not. Steve and Carter are giggling like kids at a fireworks show, and if that isn’t a sign that they’re made for each other, Bucky doesn’t know what is. “It worked!” yells Steve.
“They think Phillips is here!” adds Carter. Her face is streaked with dirt, and she’s glowing like a bride. “With the whole division!”
“Yes,” says Falsworth, “and now all that’s standing between us and death is a blond wig and a line of dummy tanks.”
Phillips is, at the moment, marching his troops through the French countryside twelve miles east under conditions of deep secrecy. Not that the Germans can tell, what with Steve’s half-camouflaged dummies and Stark’s sound effects and Jones’s spoofed radio transmissions drawing attention to the Howlers’ emplacements instead. Their equipment is rigged to blow in case of disaster, and they’ve all got a cyanide pill each. Every last trace of the Ghost Army must be erased rather than fall into enemy hands, including themselves. Especially themselves.
“Should we deploy Cap?” asks Morita, peering over the edge of the outcropping. Bullets ping against the rocks, a steady stream of them, thud-shing-thud-shing-thud-shing. “They’re getting close.”
“Yeah,” says Jones. “We gotta give them a glimpse at least, after all the hints I dropped on the airwaves.”
Bucky sighs. Predictably, Steve gets on his Rage Face in five seconds flat, the one with the jutting jaw and the crease in his forehead. “You don’t gotta, Buck.”
That’s how it always is with Steve. Heroism is his be-all and end-all, but it’s optional for everybody else. Flat on his back under the blue-grey sky, Bucky starts pulling off his overcoat without looking at him. It’s better just to get it over with. “Sure,” he says. “Don’t gotta. Give me a cue when it’s time.”
The suit is outrageous, meant to baffle the eye—all spangles in red and white and blue, with a big star on the chest that just about screams SHOOT ME. But it’s as close to bulletproof as Stark could get it, and like any other piece of Ghost Army equipment, the whole thing is wired with self-destruct explosives. Bucky slips a hand into his belt pouch and feels for the foil wrapping of his cyanide pill. It gives a comforting crinkle, as if to say, Don’t worry. I won’t let them take you alive again.
It makes him feel safer than the shield ever does.
“Just show yourself and come right back,” says Carter, as he tosses his coat away. “Five seconds tops. We’ll cover you.”
“Use this thing,” Morita adds, handing Bucky the shield. “Don’t do anything heroic.”
What he really means is that he’s the best medic in the 107th, not a miracle healer, but he doesn’t need to say that aloud. Bucky nods, and lets Dugan slip the wig over his head. “Break a leg, Bucko.”
The timbre of the gunshots changes. The German tanks are advancing. Bucky looks around at his friends, daring them to laugh, wishing they would laugh, because he looks like a fucking clown and he knows it, but they all gaze solemnly at him like he’s going off to fight beneath the walls of Troy. Dernier claps him on the back. “Courage. T’es supersoldat.”
“Nothing super about me,” says Bucky bleakly, above the crackle of enemy fire.
“T’es soldat,” says Dernier. “Ça suffit.”
“On my signal,” Carter calls.
Steve squeezes Bucky’s hand. Bucky can tell from the brief, ferocious pressure that he’s still angry. They both are, about the same thing, though for different reasons. This was Steve’s idea. It should be Steve in the suit. It should be Steve running the risk, playing the hero, drawing fire from his men. But it’s not, and they’ll just have to live with that.
“Now,” Carter shouts, just as another shell whistles through the air towards them. Bucky knocks it away with the shield, sends one of the inflatable tanks flying with a well-placed elbow, and launches himself into the open, guns blazing.
After many circuitous phone calls, e-mails, and requests verging on outright bribes, I manage to schedule an interview with engineer Tony Stark, the self-described “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” and son of the late Howard Stark. I am more than familiar with the press rooms of Stark Tower, but on arrival I am led instead to a private elevator and taken to a workshop on the forty-second floor, higher up than I’ve ever been. “You’ll have to make this quick,” says Stark’s intern, a high school senior called Peter Parker.
“Is this a bad time?” I inquire.
“Nah,” says Parker. “I mean, not more than usual. It’s just that something might blow up when we turn on the power for the new Mach 12 foot and you’ll want to be gone by then.”
Stark is in a welding helmet, working on what appears to be either a greave from the Middle Ages or an extremely high-tech prosthetic foot. I’m not sure why this is in danger of blowing up and am afraid to ask. “Five minutes,” he says, without so much as looking up from his work. White sparks fly from the Mach 12. “I’m sorry, honey, that’s all I’ve got.”
INTERVIEWER: I’ll cut to the chase, then. Were you aware that Captain America, the so-called supersoldier your father helped create, was really just a propaganda myth?
STARK: Nope. Heard about it on Twitter last week, same as everyone else. All hail Cold War secrecy and poor family communication, hmm?
I: I’m sure the gag order had something to do with it. How do you feel about the revelation, Mr. Stark?
S: As a rule, the only person allowed to ask me questions starting with How do you feel is my therapist.
I: Okay. My bad. Let’s talk tech instead. Can you tell me a little bit more about Cap’s shield?
S: What do you want to know about it?
I: It’s a strange choice of weapon, isn’t it? Why not a machine gun? A lightsabre? What kind of man, given super strength and enhanced reflexes and access to the most advanced tech of the time, would go up to Howard Stark and say, “Make me a shield”?
[For the first time, Stark seems to take an interest in the conversation. He puts his tools down, takes off his welding helmet, and stares at me.]
S: You know, I wondered that too. I’ve spent a lot of time studying that shield. Or at least Rogers’s concept art and Dad’s preliminary sketches, since we don’t know where the real thing’s pissed off to. Fun fact, it wasn’t really vibranium. Wakanda wasn’t speaking to us at the time, who can blame them really, so Howard made it out of a titanium-adamantium alloy. [He taps the Mach 12 with a screwdriver.] This stuff.
I: What about the suit?
S: Oh, the suit’s boring. It’s mostly patriotic Kevlar. The point was just to keep the wearer alive—whoever he was—for as long as possible.
I: Whoever he was?
S: Have you looked at Steve Rogers in those pre-serum photos? I have, okay. I spent a good chunk of my star-crossed youth holed up in my bunk studying those photos—don’t smirk at me like that, I’m a Kinsey five, not dead—and I can tell you one hundred percent, six-sigma certainty, p less than point-zero-zero-five, he wasn’t the guy in the suit. No amount of special effects could have made him look like that.
I: There was an interesting article in the news today, I don’t know if you saw it. Someone ran the dimensions of that suit through a simulator and found it would have fit Sergeant Barnes perfectly. There was a lot of detail about, ah, waist-to-hip ratios and thigh circumferences.
S: Oh my God, tweet it to me. I love that. You hearing this, Pete? Captain America confirmed for five hundred Bucky Bears in a suit. No, seriously, that explains everything. Rogers invented Cap, but someone else had to play the role. I guess they thought Barnes had the most heroic jawline.
I: I’m starting to understand why Rogers wanted a shield.
S: To protect his boyo? Yeah. I got my girlfriend a ninth-century Viking longaxe for our anniversary, so I totally see where he was coming from.
I: Where do you think the shield is today?
S: No idea. Just for the record, I hate saying that. See, I’m a bit of an art collector, and the thing about stolen art—stolen anything, really—is that it always turns up on the black market sooner or later with an exorbitant pricetag on it. Same goes for contraband weaponry. I’ve had my people keep an eye on all the usual channels ever since the Valkyrie turned up empty, but so far we’ve got nothing but imitations. One, I kid you not, was literally a painted Frisbee.
I: How much was it?
S: $300. I’m not ashamed to say I bought it.
[In the far corner of the workshop, Parker flips a switch. The Mach 12 begins to whir and emit smoke. I take this as my cue to leave.]
I: I’m going to wrap this up with a bit of a weird question. What do you think about the theory that Captain America is still alive today?
S: He’d be, what, ninety? A hundred? Johann Schmidt got the serum and he died on that plane. Steve Rogers got jack shit, and he didn’t have the longest life expectancy to begin with. I don’t buy it. But then, I’m a scientist, not a conspiracy theorist.
I: That’s reasonable. Thank you for your time, Mr. Stark.
[I start to show myself out, but Stark calls me back.]
S: To answer your question at the beginning—because I’m an asshole, but not that much of an asshole—I know there’s lots of people who feel like their whole lives are a lie because they found out their hero was just a glorified dress-up doll for the SSR. But for the record, I like the idea of a smart, scrawny kid living on his wits a lot more than a super-fast, super-strong, deathless demi-god. I relate to that a hell of a lot better.
I: Me too.
[Stark puts his welding helmet on and goes back to work. Parker shows me out quietly. I almost make it out of the Tower before I hear the explosion.]
“That thing looks absurd,” says Steve.
Bucky’s sitting under his favourite oak tree on the edge of camp, trying to get his hands to stop shaking long enough to clean the bullet marks off his shield. Steve’s shield. Whichever. “It works,” he points out.
They made it back in one piece with all their equipment, their mission a resounding success—Phillips got to his rendezvous without trouble, and going by what their sources in the French Resistance are saying, it’s unlikely the Nazis and the squids will be able to hold on to Paris past the end of summer. By all accounts, they should be in high spirits. But Steve, it appears, is in the mood to pick a fight. He glowers like a Gorgon, looming over Bucky with his tousled head blotting out the sun. “I should’ve asked Stark to make it bigger.”
They can just glimpse Howard in the field across the road, having trucks driven around him in circles so he can record with no dopplering. His discography now includes such titles as Tanks on Grass and Tanks on Asphalt and Marching Infantry ft. Distant Artillery, but his greatest hit might be Captain America Leads the Charge, a three-second recording of Steve stage-whispering, “Onward, boys!”
It ought to be hilarious. But if Bucky in his clown outfit isn’t funny, then nothing is worth laughing at any more. “If it were any bigger, I could serve dinner on it.”
“You should,” says Steve. His mouth has gotten very thin. “Then at least it’d be good for something besides getting shot at.”
Bucky looks down at his shaking hands. He’s had a lifetime of practice at living with Steve—at hearing the words left unsaid, looking past the mask of righteous rage to the uglier things it hides. Everything’s changed between them, but this, it’s like riding a bicycle. “It’s a good idea, Steve,” he says. “This Captain America scheme. It saved lives today. We’re doing a good thing together, you and me.”
“Yeah?” says Steve. “Coulda fooled me. I feel like I’ve committed an atrocity.”
“You have atrocities on the brain.”
“They’re in season,” says Steve. “I’m going to get you killed.”
There are worse things than getting killed, Bucky thinks. He slips his hand into his pouch again and crinkles the foil of his cyanide capsule. He’s taken to keeping it on him all the time, even at camp or on leave. “You know I’d already be dead if not for you,” he says. “Just—will you please shut up about it for two minutes?”
Steve shuts up. He might be sulking worse than Achilles in his tent, but he’s had practice living with Bucky, too. So he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move away when Bucky sags forward with an explosive breath and rests his forehead against Steve’s thigh. The rag falls out of Bucky’s hand, and the shield rolls away. It’s no use here. Steve can tear them both apart without bullets if he wants to.
“Would you be happier,” Bucky asks, “if you got to carry it?”
“I don’t want to carry it,” says Steve. “I don’t want you to carry it.”
They’ve had this argument before. They’ll have it again and again, after every mission, until Bucky’s bullet finds him—the one that will slip under the shield to worm into his heart and stop it forever—and then Steve will go on having it with himself for the rest of his life. “I know,” says Bucky. “But I gotta. You’d hate it even more if one of the others did it.”
This, at least, Steve can’t argue with. He sighs and tangles his fingers in Bucky’s hair, and Bucky loops his arms around Steve’s bony khaki-clad legs. Steve smells like earth, like musk, like stubborn green things that lie fallow all winter to burst into violent blossom in spring; and Bucky thinks, Sing O muse.
“You were always the good one,” says Steve, quiet. “You could have been so much, if you hadn’t met me.”
“You’re a handful,” says Bucky. “It’s my favourite thing about you.”
Fig. 7. Steve Rogers captures a German soldier in Monte Cassino during the Battle for Rome, May 1944.
It takes some sleuthing to track down celebrated World War Two diarist Sidonie Roussel-West.
Roussel-West’s earliest published diary, Les Souvenirs d’une Petite Fille (Recollections of a Little Girl, translated from the French by H. G. Price), tells the charming and occasionally harrowing tale of a girl coming of age in a French village at the height of the war. Perhaps the most memorable anecdote in the Recollections is that of the author’s accidental run-in with Captain America in the summer of 1944, shortly before the Liberation of Paris. Roussel-West’s lively narration provides a refreshingly different view on Rogers and his Howling Commandos, and affords the modern reader a glimpse of what the famous unit was really like in action.
The author, now 82, lives with her American husband in a converted farmhouse near Portland, Oregon. She quickly agreed to a meeting, and sat down with me in her living room to retell the famous tale.
ROUSSEL-WEST: I always think it’s funny, how the story of the supersoldat has become the most well-known of my Recollections. I wrote only a little of that encounter. One paragraph, maybe two. I remember, I was so shocked that day I hardly knew what to write.
INTERVIEWER: How old were you at the time?
RW: Eleven. My father and I were going to town that day to buy groceries. During the war, you see, sometimes you had to trek many miles to find something as simple as milk and eggs. My mother always fretted when my father took me with him—it is not safe, she said, Sidonie is only a little girl. But my father said I was the bravest little girl he knew, and he always let me come along.
That evening, we were on our way back when we heard noises along the road. Men’s voices, a lot of hammering, the chink chink of tools being picked up and set down. Immediately I reached into my pocket for the knife my mother gave me, but my father said hush, listen, they are speaking English. We realised they were Allied troops and we went to see if we could do anything for them.
I: And you saw the Howling Commandos?
RW: I saw a group of strangers in uniform, maybe seven or eight of them. I didn’t know who they were at the time. Anyway, I stopped thinking of sensible things when I saw them pick up a great big truck and move it before my eyes.
RW: To be fair, it was twilight. I couldn’t see very well. I could make out a man and a woman holding up the truck by its front wheels, swearing and arguing quite loudly. Here will do, he says. No, over there, she says. I remember she lifted her hand to point, and held up her side of the truck with just her other hand, like it weighed nothing at all.
I: What were they like?
RW: Sweaty. [She laughs.] The woman had victory rolls, big messy curls coming loose around her face, like she had been working outside all day. The man was blond and skinny. Child that I was, I thought how funny he looked, because his nose was so red and his eyes were watering. He must have had allergies.
I: What did they do when they saw you?
RW: Oh, they stopped yelling right away. They stared at us and we stared at them and suddenly it was so quiet. My poor papa, I could tell he was afraid because he dropped the bag of eggs and they all broke. I found my tongue, and I said the only thing I could think to say, which seemed to me rather smart at the time. Wow, les américains sont si forts!
The woman lifted her chin and said, Je ne suis pas américaine, in stiff schoolroom French, but she was smiling. They were all smiling in a strange breathless way. It was like something terrible had almost happened, but didn’t.
I: Something terrible?
RW: It didn’t occur to me then. I was only a silly fillette writing about a war I did not understand—it was why my first diary sold so well, you see, better than all the later ones. Especially once they translated it into English and made me sound even more silly. Smart men, educated men, they liked to read my scribblings and call them “cute”, and “quaint”, and feel good about themselves.
But anyway. Now I have read all about the Ghost Army, and I think to myself: this is a great American secret, and it was the height of the war. No one was supposed to know that those trucks were dummies and that Captain America was a short little man with hay fever. What if I had not said what I said? Would they have shot us right there?
I: Were you afraid?
RW: Not that day, no. Not really. Remember, my father thought I was the bravest girl he knew. My mother thought that if I ever saw a Nazi on the street I would go right up to him and kick him in the crotch, and that was why I must be kept at home, or I would get myself killed.
But there was one man who scared me a little. He was holding the back of the truck, so I didn’t see him until he put it down and came forward. He had a rifle slung over his back, and long messy dark hair and eyes like you wouldn’t believe, eyes like the dead. He was in a blue wool coat—not very Army-like—but it wasn’t buttoned up all the way, and I could see he was wearing something else inside, with the stars and stripes and the American colours. By then I had seen the propaganda posters. I recognised that uniform. And I was afraid.
I: You were afraid of Captain America?
RW: Yes and no. In a matter of speaking. I was afraid of his eyes. I thought, if even the great supersoldat looks like that, then surely the war is lost. His face—Mother of God, I have thought about his face all my life. I never allowed any of my children to enlist for fear they would end up looking like that. They’ve tortured him, I thought. They’ve taken out his insides and hollowed him into a shell, and on top of everything he has a big scruffy beard and he is not even blond.
I: Did you speak to him?
RW: I said, Vous êtes Captain America? Vous ressemblez pas à Captain America. And he laughed, and I saw he was not a bad man, only a man with bad things in his head. He said no, he was just a prop. At least I think that was the word he used. His French was terrible and my English was worse.
I: Your English is excellent, ma’am.
RW: Of course it is excellent now. I have lived in the U.S. half my life. But back then… Well, whatever he said, it upset the blond man. They started to argue. The blond man put down his side of the truck and snapped something, I didn’t understand that either, and the man I thought was Captain America slouched away and sat down to clean his rifle. His shoulders were all hunched over, and even from that distance I could see his hands were shaking. He looked like—well, he looked like my uncle who drank too much and picked fights with my mother when she took his brandy away. But I didn’t think it was because of drink.
I: What did the blond one do?
RW: He went after him. I thought they might brawl—I was quite excited—but they just sat without talking, and the others left them alone. The woman threw up her hands and started dragging off the truck all by herself. I was so amazed, I think I fell a little bit in love with her.
My father and I just stared. They had a Frenchman with them—Dernier, later we became great friends with his family—and he came over and spoke to us. He said we should not be afraid, that they meant us no harm, and we could just forget the whole thing if we wanted, but if we would spread it in the villages that Cap and his forces were in the area preparing for a great battle, they would be much obliged to us. Then he gave my father a cigarette and went away.
I: Did you spread the word?
RW: My father didn’t. He said nothing at all that night, but I knew he was troubled. I heard him telling my mother that the rumours were true—that the Americans had their supersoldats now as well as the Germans, and nothing would ever be the same again, not even if the Allies won the war. I think maybe that was why I didn’t write much in my diary that night. I was nervous.
But well, what can I say, I was always a gossip, and I was best friends with every girl in the village. I meant to keep quiet, but by the end of the week everyone knew I had seen the supersoldat and he was a real live man who could indeed lift a tank. Even if he had brown hair and looked nothing like the posters. I told my sister Simone that someday I was going to marry an American, so that my children would grow up to have super strength. And I did!
[She takes out her wallet and, after some digging, produces an old sepia photograph. It is a picture of her husband, 1st Lt. David F. West, USAF, currently retired. From the scale of the shed in the background, I estimate his height to be at least 6’5”.]
I: He does look like he could have super strength.
RW: Ha! Not my David! He cannot even open a jar of marmalade. But I love him very much.
I: One last question, ma’am. What do you think happened to Steve Rogers after the war?
RW: How do you mean? He crashed into the Arctic, that’s how the story goes, no?
I: Yes. The official story.
RW: Ah. [She smiles at me knowingly.] Well, it is very strange for Captain America to disappear without a trace just as the war is ending. I couldn’t believe it when they found the Valkyrie empty. And Sergeant Barnes, his friend, the one I was afraid of—he disappeared in the Alps too, didn’t he?
I: What do you think happened?
RW: I don’t know what happened. But I think if I were Captain America, I would not want to stay and work as the government’s propaganda puppet after the war was over. I think I would take my friend and disappear.
RW: How else could he live out his life in peace? His commanders would never let him go home. Otherwise he would be asked to do press, to go on TV and lift cars and talk about being a hero, and people would look at him and say, Why are you small? Where are your muscles? No, he must be thought to die, greatly and heroically. He must lay the myth to rest if he is to have any chance at all at a normal life.
I: You’re saying he faked his death? To live under a different name?
RW: Who knows? Maybe he lived. Maybe he died. I was interviewed by the American press when the Valkyrie was found, and I said it was very strange that there were no bodies on board. No Steve Rogers, no Red Skull, no shield. They laughed at me and called me crazy.
I: I don’t think you’re crazy.
RW: I am a writer, a diarist. I have been writing my life story ever since I knew how to hold a pen. I know how to arrange it so it will be suspenseful, so it will sell many copies. I exaggerate some details, leave out others, pretend to be frightened and innocent when really I was fuming mad at the monsters overrunning my country, so mad I was ready to kill a man. No one wants to read about an angry eleven-year-old dreaming about disembowelling Nazis with a pocket knife.
So I am a con artist in my way. And I believe Steve Rogers was, too. That is my crazy theory. But then again, I am only a silly village girl. What do I know?
[She laughs. The mirth lights up her weathered face from within, making it look almost young again, almost guileless.] Nothing. Nothing at all.
“So,” says Steve, “I asked Peg to marry me after the war. And she said no.”
Paris has been free for a week. The Howlers are on a stretch of much-needed recreation leave, and Steve and Bucky are lazing on the grassy bank of the Seine, soaking in the last of the August heat. The wind has a cheerful voice, whispering hopeful things in the willows, and iridescent dragonflies flit like sunbeams over the rippled surface of the water. It takes a moment for Steve’s announcement to percolate into Bucky’s sun-baked sopor, but when it does, his eyes fly wide open. “Steve. What.”
“Calm down,” says Steve. He’s calm all right, stretched out next to Bucky with his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows and his sketchbook propped open on his chest like a tent. “She’s got the right to say no if she wants.”
He says that every time, with every rejection. Bucky’d thought things would be different with Carter. It’s the fatalism that hurts the most—he wouldn’t mind so much if Steve would get angry, if he would indulge himself in hurt feelings and self-pity at least in private, but he just accepts and accepts with the battle-hardened resignation of an infantryman. “She say why?” asks Bucky.
Steve rolls over to face him, dislodging the sketchbook. Bucky sees that he’s been mistaken about the calm. Steve is smiling, his eyes shining, his cheeks aglow with pink. He couldn’t look more radiant if he were already lifting Carter’s veil at the altar. “She wanted to. She said she really wanted to. That’s enough for me. No lady’s ever wanted to go on a date with me, let alone marry me.”
“But?” Bucky prompts.
“But life,” says Steve. “But reality. But there’s no after the war, not for me.”
This is too much. “Look,” says Bucky. “Carter’s got a great heart, and I respect her, but if she said that to your face—”
Steve waves him away impatiently. “We all know it’s true. I’ve made myself a state secret. You too. They won’t ever let us go home now.”
This was supposed to be a restful day, a day for sitting in the sun and eating baguettes and pretending for a few hours that the war did not exist. But the words filter in to Bucky one at a time, like a trickle of mercury seeping into a well, until drop by drop it is no longer summer. “They can’t do that.”
“Yeah?” says Steve. His eyes are still bright and glossy, but limned with sadness now. “There are films about me. Songs. Comics. You’re a fucking teddy bear. People need something to believe in. We don’t belong to ourselves any more.”
Bucky hasn’t belonged to himself since he got his draft papers. He stares up at the sky, vast and cloudless and hopelessly blue for miles around. He can almost feel his father’s rifle-callused hand on his shoulder, one old soldier to another. Count the seconds and divide by five, and you’ll know how far you are from home. “So I guess they’re gonna lock us in a bunker somewhere as soon as the war is over, keep us hidden till they need us again.”
“They’ll want to,” says Steve. “They can try.”
He only sounds so confident when he’s plotting something. His is the voice of a doctor at a dissection, of a priest at the Last Rites. Forget Achilles: he could be a Stoic philosopher in the old Roma Aeterna, or a painter of the High Renaissance, all reason and proportion, all things in their place. But Bucky doesn’t have Steve’s mathematical equanimity. All he can think of is the ramshackle tenement he left behind on the far side of the Atlantic, of his grandmother’s old record player sitting on the kitchen counter, and Steve’s easel by the window next to it. One mississippi, two mississippi—
Steve swings himself up on his elbow in a sharp movement and leans over Bucky. “Don’t do that,” he says. His composure is gone, cracked into something harsher. “Don’t go away inside your head where I can’t reach you. You’re safe, okay, Buck, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
His eyes are intent on Bucky, his expression an alarming melange of Rage Face and Brawl Face and Scheming Face rolled up in one. “We deserve to go home like anyone else,” he says. “We had families, jobs, a shitty apartment. We had each other. I won’t let some five-star general with a ceremonial sword take that away from us.”
When Steve looks at him like that, Bucky still forgets how to arrange words into sentences. He needs to explain, slowly and clearly, that Steve can’t fistfight the entire Allied high command and break a beer bottle over the U.S. government’s head like that one time in that gay bar in Harlem, but when he opens his mouth all that comes out is, “Steve, I’m so tired.”
“I know,” says Steve. “All I’ve done since Azzano is watch you. I know.”
His fingers close around Bucky’s wrist. Long, fine-boned fingers: an artist’s, or a thief’s. Bucky looks around reflexively. He has been hiding longer than Steve has, and his instincts are sharper and more deeply ingrained. But they’re alone behind the stand of willows, and the Seine muffles their voices with its lulling shush. “I’m going to fix this,” says Steve. “I have a plan.”
Bucky groans, out of sheer Pavlovian despair, but Steve goes on in a rush. “I have to talk it over with Peg and Phillips. They’ll help. I shouldn’t let them, they’ll put their whole careers at risk, but we need Phillips to be complicit at least, and Peg—of course she needs to be a part of it. You see now why I can’t marry her, don’t you? It would trap us both.”
He breaks off, out of breath. His hand is still circling Bucky’s wrist. People are always shocked by Steve’s grip, by the firmness of his handshake, but not Bucky. He’s mended too many holes in the drywall to have any illusions about the strength in those bony fists. “I’m gonna kill Zola for doing this to you,” says Steve. “I’m gonna bring you home. And then I’m gonna take care of you till you don’t feel like you gotta walk around with cyanide in your pockets all the time.”
The sky and the Seine and the willows liquefy, each nebulous shape running into the next, until Bucky feels like one of the dragonflies skimming over the surface of the world. He didn’t think Steve noticed. Stupid. Steve notices everything. “Pal,” he says, a little hoarse. “I think that’s gonna take a long time. Forever.”
“We’ll have forever,” says Steve.
He lies back down next to Bucky, much closer this time, the contours of his shoulder and elbow and hip resting in their familiar places against Bucky’s side. It’s been a long time since Bucky felt anything resembling desire, but he feels a precursor of it now, a promise: heat stealing through him to warm his limbs, melting the permafrost inside him. Steve is here, and Paris is free, and the last dregs of summer are hot and hopeful and heady.
“Okay, Steve-o,” he says. He lets his eyes slip shut, lets his head loll so that his cheek comes to rest against Steve’s. “Whatever you say.”
Fig. 13. Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes on leave in Paris in August 1944, soon after the liberation of the city. In an early interview, Colonel C. Phillips described Rogers's disregard of dress code regulations as "endemic".
The universe grants them a full week of downtime before the next crisis.
September sends the Howlers on a headlong dash to the banks of the Moselle by the German border, where they plug a vulnerable gap in the Allied lines by pretending to be twenty thousand men, as one does. Bucky, Jones and Dugan sew 75th Infantry patches on their uniforms and spend a gratifying fortnight sitting in pubs, loudly discussing the movements of their division and the exciting run-in they had with Captain America the other day. The real 75th is still trudging over from Paris, and the real Cap is laid up with the flu, but no one needs to know that.
Through it all, Steve schemes. He and Carter spend hours with their heads together in dark corners, having intense, near-silent conversations. As soon as they rendezvous with Phillips in Luxembourg, the Colonel gets roped into the discussions as well. There is arguing, and swearing, and table-pounding. Bucky doesn’t ask. Ignorance doesn’t make him feel better, but knowledge will make him feel worse.
“You know what I think, Buckoboy?” asks Jones, looking up from his radio and a sea of papers dotted with Morse. “I think they’re fighting about you.”
“I know,” says Bucky.
The battle in the Ardennes might be the worst one yet.
The Battle of the Bulge, the press calls it. Nobody saw it coming, and nobody knows what went wrong. They won, in theory, but no one who was there would count it a victory. The casualty numbers filter in, different every day: twenty thousand dead, or maybe it’s twenty thousand missing, or both, and God only knows how many wounded. Numbers that high lose their meaning.
But the Howlers are safe. They are the golden eight, the charmed eight, lucky as they’ve been from the beginning; and suffused in the fragile light of their narrow escape, Christmas in Luxembourg is a strangely festive affair. They spend the holidays in the seminary building they’ve been using as a base between missions. Dernier and Falsworth disappear on a mysterious errand on the morning of the twenty-fourth, and come back late in the afternoon covered in pine needles and grinning like loons, towing an enormous Christmas tree on a cart between them. They put it up in the main hall to general applause, and Steve says, “Didn’t you get any lights?”
He’s been sketching at his easel under the tall Gothic windows with Bucky lounging on the rug beside him, providing commentary. Neither of them have any money to spare—they’re both sending home every last cent of their pay to put Rebecca through college—so in lieu of buying gifts, they’re doing portraits of everyone. Steve does the line art, and Bucky the watercolours after. “There weren't any to be had for love or money," says Falsworth. "Dernier can always cook up some for us.”
Dernier gazes up at the tree, looking thoughtful. “Bien sûr, je peux faire quelques petites choses.”
“Non,” says Morita indignantly. “You are not blowing up our Christmas tree. Steve, will you please make my moustache smaller.”
Dugan peers over Steve’s shoulder. “Make mine bigger.”
“And make sure my hair doesn’t look like fusilli this time,” says Carter. “What about a star? We can’t have a Christmas tree without a star.”
“We could make one from newspaper,” says Falsworth doubtfully.
Jones snorts. “Yeah, have you looked at the headlines recently? That’d be one morbid tree.”
Bucky stretches out more comfortably, bumping a pile of brushes and palettes with his leg. He’s gotten a head start on the eggnog, and there’s a pleasing lullaby quality to the way the banter flows around him, keeping the snow and the forests at bay. “I’ve got a star,” he says. “You can get it from my uniform.”
The high-walled hall rings with laughter. Carter raises her glass. “I’m all for this plan.”
“Are you sure you want a view of Barnes’s décolletage?” asks Falsworth.
Dugan gives a hoot. “The Germans wouldn’t know what hit them!”
“There is nothing wrong with Bucky’s décolletage,” says Steve mildly, to fresh laughter. “We still have all those empty tin cans we saved from the time we were making explosives, right? Can’t we cut decorations out of them?”
The idea is met with resounding approval. Steve gets up, presumably to attend to the all-important business of tree decoration himself, and stops to poke Bucky with his foot. “Here, I’m done with this set. Paint them whenever you feel like peeling yourself off the floor. Where’d my sketchbook go?”
Bucky feels around blearily. “I’m lying on it.”
Steve laughs. “Don’t squash anything, you big lug.”
His feet recede across the floor. The others go with him. In their absence, the room feels several degrees cooler, and the empty spaces in his head go dark and desolate without the soothing criss-cross of voices over him. When he closes his eyes he sees a line of Nazi soldiers shambling towards him out of the trees, cloaked all in white in the falling snow, like an army of enchanted winter-creatures. We beat them back, he reminds himself, we got away, but it feels hollow, like a word you’ve stared at for so long it doesn’t look like a word any more.
He sits up and reaches for the sheaf of portraits, in desperate need of a distraction. They’re good, better than anything Steve did in art school. There’s a new honesty in his work now, a kind of tenderness in the pencil strokes that make up Morita’s laugh lines, Falsworth’s sardonic brow, Jones’s toothy grin; even the taut muscles of Bucky’s bare back as he hunches over to clean his rifle, his expression closed off and faraway, like a shuttered window of a house put up for sale.
Bucky doesn’t want to paint them. They’re perfect the way they are. Instead he extricates Steve’s sketchbook from under his leg, flips to the last page, and starts on something of his own. He hasn’t done this for a long time. It’s soothing, daubing colour across the page; almost mind-emptying, like looking through his crosshairs and waiting to squeeze the trigger in the space between breaths. The others wander by to watch him work, but he doesn’t look up. “My God, Bucko,” says Dugan. “You never said you could paint.”
Jones squints at the page. “It’s very Baroque.”
“I think it’s more Mannerist,” says Morita, through a large bite of scone.
“Like you know anything about manners, talking with your mouth full.”
The bickering drifts away. Bucky dips his brush, mixes paint and water, applies himself to the page, dips his brush again. It’s messy, because he’s drunk, but he never paints well sober anyway. Sober, he’s a thuggish lout more comfortable with a rifle than a brush; too self-conscious, too aware that he doesn’t have Steve’s eye. Drunk, he’s solipsistic enough not to compare the two of them. Apples, oranges, he thinks. Guns, grenades.
He doesn’t know how much time has passed when a new voice says, “I’m going to get Steve to fetch you some water.”
He looks up. Carter is standing at his elbow, surveying him over the rim of a wineglass. Her hair does not look at all like fusilli. He feels a distant twinge of shame, provenance unknown. “That’s fine, ma’am. This pail’s still pretty clean.”
“I mean to drink. You’ve had nothing but eggnog since lunch.”
It’s hard to decipher her expression. She is Steve’s best girl, and he is Steve’s best guy, and they can never really be friends, just as they could never really be enemies. For a few seconds she looks at his painting with a strange intensity in her eyes—they’re amber, as sharp as Steve’s, and darker—and then she, too, drifts away. After a minute Bucky becomes aware of a conversation issuing in low whispers from the far side of the Christmas tree. Steve’s voice says, “I know, Peg, I’m worried too. But there’s no way we can get him out before the Germans surrender.”
Carter sighs. “I suppose he wouldn’t go without you, anyway.”
The whispers stop. Then someone comes up next to Bucky and plucks the brush out of his hand, and two skinny arms loop around his neck, holding a glass of water to his lips. “Drink.”
Bucky tries, ineffectually, to swat it away. “I can’t see.”
“Just a sip.”
Bucky sips the water, just to get it out of his face. The glass recedes. “We’re gonna turn in for the night now, okay, Buck?”
“I’m not done painting,” Bucky protests. “It’s my masterpiece. My chef-d’œuvre. And it’s still early.”
“Not that early,” says Steve. “Anyway, we better lie low for a while. Dugan dared to insinuate that Peggy couldn’t hold her liquor, so she challenged everyone to a drinking contest, and if we don’t disappear now we’re gonna be the ones stuck carrying them all to bed.”
Bucky laughs, and allows himself to be tugged to his feet. Steve’s been drinking too; Bucky can smell it on his breath, feel it in the loose lines of his posture. “The portraits. I haven’t finished them. I haven’t started.”
“That’s fine,” says Steve. “Everything’s fine.”
They are moving, the bright hall dissolving into the shadows of the first-floor landing. Laughter drifts through the open doors of the dining room. Bucky’s brain can’t parse his surroundings, but his feet find and climb the stairs without giving the rest of him any say in the matter. “I wanted to see the tree. I wanted to see the tin-can stars.”
“It’s a mess now. You can help me with them in the morning.”
“I didn’t paint the portraits,” Bucky says again. It seems imperative that he make Steve understand this. The doors of the upstairs hallway flow past them; they stop in front of one, and Steve reaches out to fling it open. “I made a mess in your sketchbook. You better tear it out before it smudges everything else.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
The world revolves, and then he is horizontal on a soft, lumpy, and vaguely hospitable surface. The lock clicks. With a whump, Steve joins him on the bunk, plastering himself over Bucky’s chest. His hair tries to go up Bucky’s nose. It’s very yellow. It’s so yellow Bucky is going to sneeze. “You look like a pad of butter.”
“Guess that makes you the waffle,” says Steve sleepily. He smells of brandy and scones and Peggy Carter. “Waffley Bucky.”
Bucky pats down the very yellow hair, trying to make it lie flat so he can breathe. “Always so difficult, Stevie. Always gotta argue with me.”
Bucky closes his eyes. On the backs of his eyelids he sees Steve’s buttery head and Peggy’s fusilli one, bent together over maps and dossiers that have nothing to do with any of their missions. “What are you scheming about now, huh? You and Carter?”
“You,” says Steve. “Me, too. But mostly you.”
Bucky unsticks his eyelids. Steve’s hair is the brightest thing in the room, glinting in the pool of moonlight coming in through the open window. One of them should get up and close it. Neither of them is going to move. “How. When. Why. What.”
“We’re working on that,” says Steve, with a familiar note of oxhead stubbornness. All his sharp places are jutting insistently into Bucky’s soft ones, as if to illustrate his point. “It’s turning out to be harder than we expected, but we’ll think of something. You don’t gotta worry.”
Steve sighs, puffing out hot breath against Bucky’s neck. It’s nice having him so close, skin against skin, even if Bucky’s too tipsy to do anything about it. Maybe tonight he won’t dream about Azzano or the Ardennes for once. “Trust me. Remember we met when Billy Jenkins from fifth grade tried to steal your lunch money and I stopped his cronies beating you up.”
“As I recall,” says Bucky, “we both ended up in a dumpster, and he took my lunch money and yours.”
“Yeah,” says Steve, “but at least you didn’t have to sit in the dumpster by yourself, right?”
This is the most ridiculous thing Bucky has ever heard, and he jabs Steve in the cranium so he’ll know it. Then, because it makes perfect sense in an eggnog state of mind, he presses a kiss to Steve’s temple to balance things out. “I always trusted you.”
“It’s the source of all your problems,” says Steve. “Good night, you jerk. Stop moving around.”
They are asleep within minutes. It’s Carter who wakes them the next morning, and tells them the news about Zola, and the Alps, and the train.
My next interview is an unorthodox one. The declassified documents on the Ghost Army are a wealth of military and strategic information, but more than anything else, I am curious about the personal aspect of the Captain America myth. How did Steve Rogers feel about the hero he created? What about Bucky Barnes? What was life like for a professional con artist on the frontlines?
Rogers was not a prolific letter-writer, nor did he keep a journal of any sort. So, for a window into his personal life, I turn to a different kind of source: the seventeen sketchbooks he left behind when he boarded the Valkyrie, currently in the safekeeping of the Brooklyn Museum.
I sit down with Syafiqah Khalid, painter, curator and art historian, in a private lounge at the museum. The sketchbooks sit in an intimidating stack between us, each encased in its own protective plastic folio. They are arranged in chronological order, dating from Rogers’s famously riotous teenage years almost to the day of his death. When I explain what I am here for, Khalid pulls out one of the later books from the bottom of the pile and suggests I start there.
KHALID: This is the second-last sketchbook in the collection, from late 1944.
INTERVIEWER: What are those little doodles in the corners?
K: It’s a flipbook animation. [She peels back the sketchbook pages with her thumb and lets them flip open one at a time, so that the corner sketches appear to move. A woman with curly hair draws back her fist and punches a man in uniform, and he falls cross-eyed at her feet, stars circling his head. I can’t help but giggle.]
It’s quite cheeky, isn’t it? We’re quite certain that’s Peggy Carter knocking out an unfortunate American soldier. You can see he’s quite senior—he’s wearing the single bar of a Lieutenant or Second Lt.
I: Do art historians know if this is based on a real event?
K: Probably. Going by Rogers’s doodles, Carter must have gone around punching men all the time. My personal favourite is the one where she beats Mussolini with a table leg.
[We leaf through the book together. The pages are filled with landscapes and architectural designs, mostly done in black pen or pencil, but I am drawn most to the portraits. I recognise a few faces, Agent Carter and Sergeant Barnes among them.]
I: Were there any tell-tale signs in Rogers’s art that he was no supersoldier, just a regular man in the Ghost Army?
K: It’s been speculated for quite a while, actually, that Erskine’s serum didn’t cure Rogers’s colour-blindness. You can see from his pre-war work—[she hands me another sketchbook from higher up in the pile]—that he rarely coloured his drawings. The few exceptions all have a little B. in the corner—you can see one here, and here—so we know that’s Bucky’s work, Bucky Barnes. Rogers did the sketches, and Barnes went over them later with paints or coloured pencils.
I: And this went on during the war, after Rogers had supposedly gotten the serum?
K: Yes. Of course, they were very close—most modern scholars agree they were romantically involved—so it’s hard to say whether Rogers still didn’t see colours very well, or if he just liked Barnes to help.
I: He did draw Barnes a lot.
K: Yes. There’s this one piece in particular that’s puzzled art historians for decades. [She shows me another pencil sketch from the 1944 book, this one of Bucky Barnes in the Captain America suit, sprinting into battle with the shield in one hand and a revolver in the other.]
We used to interpret this drawing in a metaphorical light, as a “he too is Alexander” sort of gesture, and that’s still perfectly valid, but we now know this was also a literal depiction. Barnes did actually wear the suit and carry the shield into battle, something that I imagine must have been quite traumatic for both of them.
[Khalid calls my attention to a drawing that appears to show Timothy Dugan, Jacques Dernier, and James Morita lifting a tank between the three of them. A speech bubble above their heads proclaims, “%@#$%^&!”]
This one, I recall, spawned the theory that all the Howlers had gotten a dose of Erskine’s serum. [She laughs.] Well, 20/20 hindsight and all that.
[On the very last page of the sketchbook is a piece different from any of the others: a watercolour portrait of Steve Rogers in profile, laughing at something just off the page. I look for the B., and sure enough there it is, almost hidden in the mass of brushstrokes that is Rogers’s shirt collar.]
I: A self-portrait?
K: Interestingly, no! This one is all Barnes. It’s a little-known fact that he attended art school with Rogers, though he got the draft towards the end of his first semester and had to drop out. We don’t have any other samples of his work except for the odd scribble in Rogers’s sketchbooks, so this is really quite something. He dated it too, so we know this was done on Christmas Eve in Luxembourg, 1944.
I: It’s kind of eerie. I’m not sure why.
K: I think so too. It ought to be a gentle holiday scene, Rogers having fun and getting to unwind for a bit, but there’s nothing gentle about it. The colours are really vivid, all those reds and blacks, and the shadows are so harsh you can’t see much of his eyes. It’s very ominous.
I: Yeah, that’s it. And Rogers is turned away, so there’s a—I’m afraid I don’t know the technical term for it—a disconnected feel to the whole portrait, maybe? Like sure, he’s laughing, but the viewer is excluded from the joke.
K: Exactly. Most of Barnes’s paintings are fastidiously neat, like he’s afraid to ruin Rogers’s line art, but this one is really loose and messy, almost chaotic. You can see the slash of his hand in every brushstroke. It’s hard not to read that as a sign of his mental state at the time—he’d been on the frontlines since ’42, he’d been captured and tortured at Azzano, and now he’s consistently put in the position of greatest danger on the field.
I: And in less than three months, he’ll be dead.
K: That too.
I: This is going to sound morbid, but can I take a look at the pieces Rogers did between Barnes’s death and his own? Are there any?
K: Sure. There’s just one, dated March 16, 1945, the day after Barnes fell from the train.
[She opens the last sketchbook in the pile. This one is mostly empty. The final image is of a tenement block that I recognise as the place Rogers and Barnes lived before the war. Two figures are perched high up on the fire escape, smoking. They are faceless, but one is tall, the other short. The caption reads simply: HOME.
To my horror, I find my throat closing up.]
I think it speaks for itself.
I: Yes. Yes, it does.
The train mission was supposed to be a simple one.
Steve comes up with the plan, and they get to Switzerland a full fortnight in advance to move all the pieces into place. The cryptic radio messages. The fuses to stop the train without harming any delicate scientific equipment—or personnel—on board. The sections of weighted white canvas that will be allowed to fall into the valley at a distance, simulating a large strike force coming down on badly camouflaged parachutes. With any luck, Zola will surrender without a fight.
He does not. And then, ten minutes into the assault, Bucky gets shot.
He knows immediately that it’s bad. The bullet is deep in his left shoulder, and he can’t move it, can’t even see or think straight for the fire blazing down his nerves. The shield slips out of his limp fingers with a terrible clang and rolls away across the carriage floor. He sinks down behind a wall of metal crates, gasping. There are four, maybe five Hydra agents on the other side of the makeshift barrier, and he’s alone, with only Carter for backup.
“Barnes,” says Carter. Her voice is muffled and far-off. “Breathe.”
Something cold touches his fingers. She’s putting the shield back into his hand, his right hand. Through the closing haze of delirium he strains to keep a hold of it, of her, of the carriage around them both. His shoulder is a morass of agony. All he can think is that the gunman must have been aiming for his heart. “Carter?”
If she answers, he can’t hear. The Hydra guards are shouting, with a strange note in their voices he doesn’t like—gleeful and excited; hell, downright joyous. He can’t see why. Steve and Dernier were doing something nefarious with circuitry and explosives in the engine room last he heard, and the rest of them split up to search for the doctor, but his comms went dead a long time ago. Carter leans in, close to his ear. “Barnes, you need to get up."
All in a rush he sees what she means. The guards saw him go down. They think they’ve killed Captain America. They think they’ve killed Steve.
“Sweet mother of fuck,” he says, slurring through the pain, and wrenches himself to his feet.
He pokes his head up above the crates. The tenor of the shouting changes at once. Bullets whiz at him. He catches them on his shield, deflecting them into the wall, and—with a tremendous heave—flings the full weight of his body on the barricade of crates.
Several hundred pounds of reinforced steel slide across the carriage floor and slam into the guards. The shouting turns into swearing. The ground rushes up to claim Bucky again. Dizzy with agony, he has a muddled impression of his left sleeve soaking with blood; of Peggy picking up the shield and cocking her subautomatic, jumping over him and hurling herself through the breach. Gunfire rattles around him. Then he loses track of her.
He doesn’t have much time. With his good hand, he fumbles in his belt pouch for the cyanide pill. All the shouting and crashing seems to be converging on him, and his consciousness has shrunk down to a single coherent thought: there’s no telling how long it’ll take for him to bleed out. Zola might still find him alive. His fingers find the small hard shape of the pill and break the foil around it, a movement he’s rehearsed so often he could do it asleep or dying. The suit is wired to blow the instant his pulse stops. They won’t get any part of him. Better this way. Better to—
A strong hand closes around his own. He feels the pill leave his grasp; hears a terrible wail, a shrill animal noise of pure terror, and realises it’s coming out of his own mouth. “Bucky,” says Peggy’s voice. “For heaven’s sake.”
He resurfaces in time to see her fling the pill away. Then she bends over him, covered in blood like a berserker queen, and puts pressure on his shoulder. In the fresh torrent of pain he loses his grip on consciousness again, and the last thing he hears her say is, “If you die, Steve is going to kill you.”
He knows where he is before he’s all the way awake. He’d recognise a med bay by smell anywhere in the world—the bitterness of antiseptic and disinfectant, of linen and gauze, of death and dying, so familiar it churns his stomach and prickles his skin with sweat. But the voices drifting over him are speaking in English, and all of them are familiar.
“Those weren’t your orders, Captain,” Phillips is saying. He must be furious. He only uses the title when he’s being sarcastic. “Your orders were to take Arnim Zola alive. Why else do you think I sent you and not any of my highly trained and, you know, entirely real commando units?”
“I understand, Colonel,” says Steve, with icy courtesy. His voice is much closer at hand. “I take full responsibility for the doctor’s death. I temporarily lost control of the situation when I saw Bucky fall.”
Bucky rallies his strength and peels his eyelids open. It’s like bench-pressing a car. He catches a fuzzy glimpse of his left arm swaddled in bandages, and Steve on a stool next to him, looking earnest and sad. “What?”
The vitals machine makes cheerful beeps. Steve pets his hand soothingly. A thundercloud swims into view at the foot of the bed. Bucky blinks, and the cloud resolves into the human figure of Colonel Phillips, frowning down on them with his arms folded across his chest. “Yes,” he says. “About that. I would like to know how, exactly, you managed to get one of my best men killed.”
“Colonel,” Bucky wheezes. They must have him on very strong painkillers.
Steve gives his hand another absent rub. His eyes are wide and mournful and full of satisfaction. “There was a large detonation on the train,” he says. “It blew a hole in one of the carriage walls. Bucky was flung out in the blast. I tried to reach him, but he fell.”
“Five thousand feet into the Alps,” says Phillips thoughtfully. Bucky wheezes some more. “Any idea what caused this convenient detonation?”
“A mix of bad luck and Hydra gunfire, sir,” says Steve. “Our demolitions expert will vouch that it was a terrible accident.”
“I’m sure he will,” says Phillips, with a wry twist of his mouth. “Very well. I expect to find no discrepancies in any of the official reports. I will write to Sergeant Barnes’s family—again—and see that all the usual compensations are in order.”
“Thank you, sir,” says Steve. “I’m sure his sister will appreciate it.”
“What,” says Bucky again. It should not be possible for his arm to be numb and sore at the same time, but there it is.
Phillips gives him a doleful look. He puts his hat back on and reaches for the door. “Rest in peace.”
“Rest in peace,” Steve echoes.
The door clicks shut. Uncertain if he’s dreaming, Bucky stares up at the white plaster of the ceiling, at the small blurry shape of Steve leaning over the bed, his golden head hovering above Bucky like a halo in a Byzantine icon. His hand closes around Bucky’s with savage force. “I mean that, you big dead lug,” he says. “Rest. You’re out of the war and we can send Becky to college. Now shut the hell up and go to sleep.”
Words evade Bucky. He draws a laborious breath. “Steve—”
Steve pushes a lock of hair out of Bucky’s face and half grins, half grimaces. “I’m here,” he says. “It’s all right now. I told you I’d take care of it.”
Bucky does rest in peace, after a fashion. The next day, his sleep is interrupted by a steady stream of mourners, all dressed in sombre colours and succeeding in varying degrees not to laugh. “Alas, poor Burick,” Jones intones, gazing sadly down at Bucky in his hospital bed.
“A good friend,” sighs Morita, as Falsworth lays a sprig of white lilies on the nightstand. “He will be missed.”
“Paix à son âme,” Dernier agrees.
“I hate you all,” Bucky informs them.
Peggy’s visit is more edifying. “Is Zola dead dead?” he asks, when she tosses him a candy bar—he’s not supposed to have them, strictly speaking—and sits down by the bed. “Or just dead like me?”
Her lipsticked mouth twitches. “There’s a body, Barnes. Bits of one, anyway. I understand he locked himself into his cabin and Steve told him he’d have Dernier blow him up if he didn’t come out. Upon which the good doctor laughed and called him a dancing monkey, and said he’d never dare. “
Bucky follows this to its logical conclusion. He winces. “Boom.”
They look at each other. The fog of painkillers has subsided a little, and Bucky’s head is clear, clearer than it was at Christmas. They are on equal footing now. He trusts her, and she understands him. They are still not friends, but they had each other’s back when it counted, and maybe that’s all that matters. Trench buddies, his dad would have called it.
“I told Steve what happened,” she says at length. “On the train. But—not everything.”
Bucky’s almost forgotten. It comes back to him now, the crinkle of foil, the capsule between his fingers. He feels for his belt pouch out of habit, but of course it’s gone, and the cyanide too. It’s for the best. No one could hurt Steve more than his Patroclus, his Hephaestion, his Juliet.
“Thanks,” he says. Then, impulsively, “Are you sure you won’t marry him?”
Peggy laughs. “Good God, no. He’s going to disappear after the war, and I mean to do the exact opposite. It would never work out. And just between you and me—”
She smiles, though the shape of her eyes is sad. “We’d butt heads all the time if we ever had to live together. We’ve just got too much in common.”
Steve drifts in sometime after midnight, bringing with him a sheaf of documents and a preoccupied expression. He tiptoes across the dark room to peer down at Bucky; then, seeing he’s awake, pulls up a stool and sits down by the bed. “Sorry I was away,” he says. “Howard dragged me off to the lab to look at Zola’s serum samples. It’s—never mind, it’s not important.”
Bucky gives him a withering look. Over the years, he’s developed a rule of thumb for dealing with Steve. The less important he says something is, the more it’s bothering him, and the less he wants to worry anyone with it. If Bucky thinks of it in terms of correlated variables and algebraic formulae, it doesn’t hurt his brain so much. “I’m dead, not stupid,” he says. “Out with it.”
Steve sags. He looks at the papers in his hands, makes a face, and lets them tumble to the floor in a violent cascade. Anyone else would have picked up a few tidy habits after two years in the Army, but not Steve. “They’re placebos,” he says. “Saline solutions. Totally useless.”
Bucky frowns. “He tricked us? Destroyed the real stuff before we could get our hands on it?”
Something funny happens to Steve’s jaw when he’s angry. In the half-light, with his chin squared, he almost looks like he could be the tank-lifting superhero from the posters. Bucky arrives at a few disturbing realisations. He rolls onto his elbow, and then, before Steve can help him, pulls himself to a sitting position against his pillows. “Steve,” he says. “You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”
Steve ducks his head. His chin squares even more. “Nope.”
It would be easy to get angry with him, especially when Bucky has spent two weeks strapped to a table in Zola’s lab, two weeks that will cast their pall over the rest of his life. But he doesn’t have the energy. “If you actually thought for half a second that any of us would’ve let you experiment on yourself with Hydra tech—”
“I know, I know,” says Steve. “It’s stupid, I get it. It’s just so unfair.”
“As opposed to the rest of the war?”
Steve doesn’t look at him. His feet swing, restless, childlike. “Do you remember,” he says, “when Mom was dying in the TB ward, and they wouldn’t let me see her in case I caught it? And you went in to say goodbye for me, and afterwards you told me about the little girl in the next bed, the one who was coughing up blood and bits of lung all over her teddy bear?”
Does he remember? She’d been no older than six or seven. He's been trying to forget her since. “Do we really gotta talk about this n—”
“Every single patient in that ward would have given anything for a drop of that serum,” says Steve. His voice is low and quick, addressed to his feet. “It could have changed everything. No one would have died of disease ever again. But no, Zola kept it for himself, and the only fucker who profited was Johann creepface Schmidt.” He aims a kick at Bucky’s nightstand, as if it had been somehow complicit in the girl’s death, in his ma’s. “I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna tear him to pieces with my bare fucking hands.”
Bucky can feel a headache coming on. They’ve been over this before. “It doesn’t always have to be you, Steve.”
Kick, kick, kick. “Gee, I dunno,” says Steve. His foot dislodges a bouquet of stargazers and several get-well-soon cards. “I’m starting to feel a real affinity for the guy. It’s like I’m the only one who knows what to do with him. By which I mean punch him in the fucking face.”
Bucky turns his eyes ceilingwards, and wishes he’d thought to ask the cute nurse for a bit more morphine before lights-out. “At least wait till I’m back on my feet. Someone’s gotta fish you out of the dumpster after.”
Steve’s face instantly acquires a few more right angles. A pack of cigarettes and Peggy’s candy bar join the mess on the floor. “You’re wounded. Even if you weren’t legally dead, the war will be over by the time they let you back on the field. You’re done, Buck.”
“Oh, yeah,” says Bucky. “Thanks for reminding me. I’m still mad at you for faking my actual goddamned death without so much as a by-your-leave.”
Steve has the good grace to look ashamed. His pendulum foot stops ticking. “I wasn’t planning to do that. We were gonna talk it over with you first.”
“Me and Peg and Phillips,” says Steve. “We came up with a dozen ways to make you disappear—me, too—but none of them were believable. We couldn’t just run off, or people would think we’d deserted and send the cops after us. Most of my ideas involved rubber corpses and closed coffins, but Peggy thought that was ridiculous—”
Rubber. Corpses. “Is this a fucking joke?”
“—and then I saw you half dead on the train,” says Steve. He’s gone even paler than usual, his lips grey and ashen. “I just knelt there next to you and stared for, I think it must’ve been ten minutes. The train had stopped, and the view from the window was—it was so beautiful it was heart-rending, Buck, all that blue sky and white cliffs, and the rocks below, and all I could think was how close I’d come to losing you.”
He swallows. The tendons in his neck move. “Then I realised it was so much simpler to fake an MIA than a KIA. The mission had already gone so wrong, I figured no one would question it. I would have asked you first if you weren’t, oh, I dunno, busy dying.”
He gives the nightstand a final vicious kick. All the rest of the flowers fall off in an unceremonious heap. The water jug wobbles, and nearly shatters. Steve swipes at his eyes with his sleeve, makes a disgusted noise, and buries his face in his hands.
“Steve,” says Bucky. His throat feels tight and sore. “Stop destroying my room and come here.”
Steve goes to him. He can listen to sense sometimes, but only at rock bottom, when nothing could possibly get worse. It takes a bit of manoeuvring. Eventually he manages to perch on the edge of the bed without crushing Bucky’s bandaged shoulder, and drapes himself across his side. “I called your name,” he says, his voice muffled against Bucky’s neck. “You didn’t even stir. I hate you. I’ll never forgive you.”
Bucky wraps his good arm around him and tousles his fine blond hair. The corners of his eyes are searing, and the ceiling lights are out of focus, and all he can see is Steve. “I’m okay, Stevie. Wasn’t before, but I think I will be now.”
Steve hums. “I blew up a guy for you,” he tells Bucky’s clavicle.
“Don’t regret it,” says Bucky. “If you ever met Zola, you wouldn’t.”
“I don’t regret it,” says Steve irritably. “I still need to figure out how to make myself disappear.”
“We’ll think of something. Maybe Schmidt has another train.”
Steve sighs, and folds himself more comfortably beside Bucky. He’s put on some muscle over the last year, what with meat rations every day and all the heavy equipment he ports around, but he’s still so small. “I’m never gonna let you wear that suit again,” he mutters. “I can’t bear it, Bucky, I can’t.”
Me neither, Bucky thinks, but he doesn’t say it aloud. He can be brave now that he’s a ghost.
In the last eleven chapters, I have tried to provide a comprehensive chronicle of how the Captain America myth began. Now—with some reluctance—I turn my attention to how it ended: to the few painful weeks between Barnes’s death in the Swiss Alps and Rogers’s in the Arctic, and the mysterious hours on the Valkyrie. How did Cap die?
In search of answers, I pay a visit to Dr. Robert Yamamoto, Professor of U.S. Military History at the University of Virginia, and author of the bestselling biography Howling: A Tale of Eight. His campus office is lined with books and charts and pushpin-studded maps, but it is the framed pictures on the wall that draw my eye. One is a photograph of Dr. Yamamoto with the Howling Commandos James Morita and Gabriel Jones, and another is a reproduction of a 1943 propaganda print, showing Captain America delivering a roundhouse kick to a flailing octopus. There is no name on it, but by now I don’t need one to recognise Steve Rogers’s signature tongue-in-cheek.
Dr. Yamamoto offers me coffee, though it’s five in the afternoon. It’s almost as if he can tell that I’ve stayed up for thirty-eight solid hours by this point, going over old news reports and SSR files in preparation for this meeting. I down the coffee in two gulps. I can see I’ll need the strength.
INTERVIEWER: I have to open with a bit of a zinger. How do you feel about the fact that much of your book has been, well, jossed by the latest news about the Ghost Army?
YAMAMOTO: I gotta admit, there was a bit of swearing. Here’s to academia. [He laughs. Our coffee cups clink as we toast.] It’s not like the book was completely undermined. The history’s solid. The facts are solid. It’s just that we’ve been completely misinterpreting Cap’s military significance up to this point. That’s a testament to how brilliant, how immaculate the Ghost Captain myth was, and there’s something wonderfully meta about that.
I: The Ghost Captain. I like that.
Y: That’s the title of my new book. A tad melodramatic, but people have been throwing around Christ allusions since the Valkyrie turned up empty, so I think I can indulge myself a little.
I: What, you don’t think he came back to life on the third day?
Y: That’s silly. There are any number of rational explanations for what happened. He could have bailed before the crash, in which case his body might be anywhere. Ocean currents are a greater force to be reckoned with than most people think. The greater mystery, to my mind, is what he was doing on that plane to begin with.
I: The usual story is that he was fighting the Red Skull.
Y: Sure. But there are quite a few problems with that story. To start with: the fact that Steve Rogers was a sickly young man who stood about five foot four, and would never have had a chance against Hydra’s supersoldier.
I: Assuming it was a fair fight.
Y: The thing about Steve Rogers is that he never fought fair. I don’t mean that in a perjorative way. He just didn’t have the privilege of doing that.
I: How do you think he beat Schmidt then? If he did at all?
Y: Oh, I think he did all right. The first clue lies in the documentation for the Valkyrie mission. The SSR files show that there were two agents sent to board that plane, not one.
I: Ah. [I try to sound as if this is not news to me.]
Y: Don’t worry, it’s easy to miss even if you’ve gone over those papers a hundred times. They don’t say so outright, or I have a feeling they’d never have been declassified. It’s all in the technical details. There were two comms channels set up for the mission. Four sets of firearms and ammo—which, by the way, is a frankly gratuitous amount of weaponry. Not even a supersoldier can fire four assault rifles at once.
I: Nor would he need to.
Y: Exactly. Some analysts think the second agent was Peggy Carter, but we know from Rogers’s final transmission that she was with ground control. So was Chester Phillips. Howard Stark was busy blowing up his Cambridge lab in a very public and well-documented explosion that day, and five different primary sources place the other Howlers in Germany, leading a feint across the Rhine.
I: Bucky Barnes—
Y: —had been dead for two months.
I: I see. [I don’t see.]
Y: I’m not done yet. Remember when they found the Valkyrie? There were bullet holes in the cockpit walls, some of them with stray bullet fragments embedded in them. It’s hard to say, given the condition the plane was in, but the latest models suggest that those shots were fired from pretty high up in the cockpit. Say, from a crawlspace or a ceiling niche of some sort.
I: Like a sniper’s perch.
Y: Yes. Make of that what you will.
[I help myself to a second cup of coffee, and take a long, careful sip.]
I: What do you think happened to Schmidt’s remains?
Y: I’m just going out on a limb here, but I imagine the SSR would have wanted to make his body disappear as soon as possible. It wouldn’t have done wonders for Cap’s reputation if his arch-enemy were found to have been sniped in the back of the head on his own plane.
I: You think that’s how he died, then? Shot by Rogers—or his mysterious companion?
Y: It’s possible. Schmidt would have been taken by surprise. Don’t forget he had no reason not to believe, as we did for the last seventy years, that Steve Rogers was not a supersoldier like him. He would have been expecting a very different kind of fight.
I: What do you make of Rogers’s last transmission to Peggy Carter?
Y: That’s hard to say. We only have eight seconds of a staticky, low-quality recording. He said, and I quote, “I gotta put her in the water.” The story goes that the Valkyrie was full of nukes on course for the world’s major cities, and Rogers was planning to crash it into the ocean. It was a highly emotional moment, as Hollywood has shown us, and that’s led many people to assume he went down with the plane. As far as I’m concerned, that makes about as much sense as Jack drowning because Rose wouldn’t move over.
I: You think he bailed?
Y: I’m sure he bailed. Certainly he might have drowned, or succumbed to hypothermia, or died of his wounds after that. But there was no reason for him to have crashed with the plane.
I: Some have suggested that he stayed on the plane as an act of suicide. As you say, it was shortly after Barnes’s death.
I: But—and I’m going on a journalist’s intuition here—you’re operating on the assumption that Barnes was on that plane with him.
Y: That’s possible too.
[He twinkles a smile through his thick wire-framed glasses. I pour a third cup of coffee.]
I: Dr. Yamamoto, do you believe—yes or no—that there is any chance Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes survived the war?
Y: You know, I’ve asked that question myself.
Y: Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege of meeting most of the Howling Commandos in one capacity or another. I worked for Peggy Carter as an undergrad. I attended a lecture by Howard Stark here at UVA, one of the last he gave before he passed away. I interviewed James Morita for his authorised biography, and I distinctly remember sitting in his living room with my notebook and tape recorder, just like you right now, and asking him the same question. And he laughed, and said I was an adorable young man and an honour to the motherland, and changed the subject quite skillfully.
I: It’s annoying, isn’t it, sir? When truth keeps evading you?
Y: It’s important to understand why it does that. I’m sure Dr. Morita had good reasons for not answering. Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe he did, but didn’t want to say. Maybe, like me, he’d achieved some hard-fought professional and academic success and didn’t want to ruin it by becoming known as a crackpot. Maybe he didn’t think historians should get mired down in speculation and wishful thinking.
I will say this, however. Not as a professor, not as a historian, just a human being who draws courage and inspiration from Cap and the Howlers, like so many others do. I like to think he made it, he and Bucky. I really like to think that he got to come home from the war. That he’s still out there fighting for us, somehow, somewhere.
I: So do I, Professor. Thank you for the coffee.
They fetch up on Howard’s speedboat, drenched in salt spray under a slate-grey Atlantic sky. Steve is red-faced and ecstatic, spewing snot, tears and declarations of victory all over the blanket he’s sharing with Bucky. “I punched him,” he says, over and over again. “I punched him, and then Bucky shot him!”
Bucky rolls the shield away so he can twitch the blanket more closely around their shoulders. It’s going to be hilarious if Steve dismantles Hydra, outlives Hitler, and kills the Red Skull only to die of pneumonia from his brief dip in the ocean. “The look on his face when you started wheezing,” says Bucky reverently. “I’m gonna remember that all my life.”
“Wait, what?” says Howard, glancing back from the tiller. “You had an asthma attack in front of the Red Skull?”
“I did not,” says Steve with dignity. “I just got excited, is all.”
“You’re always excited when it comes to punching people,” says Bucky. “It’s part of your charm.”
It’s been a long day. As far as Bucky is concerned, any day that starts out with a five-hour wait in the cargo compartment of a Nazi plane is a long one. Steve had been near-frantic with impatience, which made him about as sociable as a swarm of wasps, and Bucky had been aching all over and convinced Schmidt’s henchmen were going to find them before the plane ever got off the ground. The stupid plan worked, though. They made it. He looks at Steve’s bright head sticking out of the blanket like a crocus, at the choppy expanse of the ocean around them, and wonders how long it will take for everything to sink in.
The radio crackles to life. “Mission control to the Triton,” says a man’s voice. “Situation report, Captain?”
They exchange looks, unsure which of them ought to answer: Steve, the real Captain, given a limited definition of real; Bucky, the decoy; or Howard, who owns the boat they’re on. After a few seconds Howard says, “No sign of him yet. I’m still looking.”
“Oh, give me that,” says another voice, muffled but familiar, and then Peggy comes on. “It’s all right. Speak freely. Is Steve okay?”
“Yes,” says Steve loudly.
“No,” says Bucky. “He’s got a cold.”
“Bucky? How are you doing?”
“My legs are sore from the crawlspace,” says Bucky. “Also Steve elbowed me in the neck five times and I have a headache. I got shot, I shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
“You got shot?”
“In March,” Steve yells.
“You see,” says Howard. “We suffered heavy casualties. They’re both dying. And they’ve finished all the bourbon I had on board.”
“I’m sorry you’ve chipped your manicures,” says Peggy. “Steve, listen. Phillips is telling everyone you went down with the Valkyrie. It’s all sorted out. I’ll meet you and Bucky at the harbour with your false papers and take you to the safehouse.”
“Why is it they get a safehouse and I get four more weeks ‘searching’ the ocean for them?” asks Howard.
“Because you’re strong and brave, here to save the American way,” says Steve. He sneezes enormously.
“It’s not so bad,” says Bucky. “You can take a different girl out with you every day, tell her the tragic tale of how your friend was lost at sea. Look broody and weep a lot.”
“Good point,” says Howard. “You’re my favourite, Bucko.”
“Before I leave you to your carousing,” says Peggy, “I have one last piece of news.”
“I don’t think I can take any more,” says Bucky.
“I’ll just tell it to Steve, then,” says Peggy. “The Germans surrendered this morning. We won.”
Five interviews later, at the tail end of my detective journey through time, I find myself a stone’s throw from where I began: at the Captain America memorial in Washington, D.C., a short drive from Agent Carter’s apartment.
It starts, as these things do, with a phone call. My mobile rings as I come out of the shower in my hotel room, and I pick up to hear Peggy Carter say, “Hello, dear. I was just wondering how your book was coming along.”
Surprised and touched, I tell her the truth. “It’s fine, ma’am. I’ve spoken to some brilliant people and they’ve told me a lot. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something big.”
There is a pause. Her breath crackles over the line. “Did you ever visit the memorial like I said?”
“No.” It’s slipped my mind entirely. “I’ve been meaning to.”
“Well, I feel like paying a visit myself,” says Carter. “If you don’t mind swinging by to pick me up, we could go together.”
An hour later I am pushing her in her wheelchair up along the drive to the memorial. People don’t go in for larger-than-life, Augustus Caesar-style statues nowadays. Instead the memorial is a minimalist sculpture of Cap’s shield, done all in white marble, the concentric circles and star picked out in low-relief etching. At the base of the shield, a plaque reads:
CPT. STEVEN G. ROGERS
July 4, 1918 – May 7, 1945
SGT. JAMES B. BARNES
March 10, 1917 – March 15, 1945
“O death, where is thy sting?”
INTERVIEWER: I can’t help but wonder where the real shield ended up. No one I’ve talked to seems to know.
CARTER: I expect it drifted off to wherever Steve did.
I: Doesn’t it ever bother you, Agent Carter? Peggy? That he—drifted off, and no one ever got any closure?
C: It certainly seems to bother you, my dear.
I: We have his full military record now. We know all about his missions, his art, his life, his relationships, hell, his favourite food. How can we not know the first thing about how he died?
C: Some would say that it’s time to let bygones be bygones.
I: I’m a journalist, ma’am. I don’t believe that truth is ever a bygone.
[Carter is silent for a long time. I keep shooting sideways glances at her, hoping I haven’t been too insensitive.]
C: O death. Where is thy sting, indeed.
I: Did you choose the epitaph?
C: I did.
I: What does it mean to you?
[At first I don’t think she is going to answer. She wheels herself up to the base of the memorial and runs a thin, long-fingered hand along the names and dates on the plaque.]
C: “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory…” It’s from the Bible, 1 Corinthians. I’m not that religious, usually. I chose that verse shortly after VE Day, when all anyone could think of was death and victory, one way or another.
But oh, well. I’m a little tired. The sun must be getting to me. Will you drive me back?
I: Of course. I think we’re done here, anyway.
[Peggy Carter stares up at me. Her eyes are keen and searching, the eyes of a fighter, a seeker, a map-maker. I start to wonder why she brought me here; what, exactly, she wanted me to see.]
C: On the contrary, I think we’re just getting started. Do stay for tea, dear. We have so much ground to cover.
Straightway I was ‘ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove—
“Guess now who holds thee!”—“Death,” I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang, “Not Death, but Love.”
From Sonnet 1, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Hey, Steve,” says Bucky. “You feel like going out today?”
Saturdays are stay-in days, usually. Bucky doesn’t like the weekend crowds, and Steve’s elbows and cane are not a good mix with the busy Brooklyn sidewalks. But it’s the first day since Steve’s birthday that hasn’t been obnoxiously hot, and there’s a golden, incandescent quality to the sun this morning that appeals to the artist in both of them. “Maybe later,” says Steve, looking up from a stack of students’ paintings. “I’m expecting a guest. Hey, come here and tell me what’s wrong with this landscape.”
With a sigh, Bucky limps across their studio apartment to Steve’s couch. The thing about being ninety-six is that you get used to it. Your bones forget that there was ever a time when they weren’t slow and creaky, when you pranced around in a superhero costume blowing up tanks and beating up Nazis. Time is a mindfuck in itself. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s called Normandy on D-Day,” says Steve. “Why did I assign a landscape for the final project, ugh, now I gotta look at forty of these things.”
Bucky squints over his shoulder. One of Butterscotch’s kittens—the fat cream one—comes nosing over to him, and he picks her up so she can prowl along the back of the couch. “The perspective is wrong?”
“Those trees look weird,” adds Steve. “Like matchsticks.”
“And the shadows are too long,” says Bucky. “But mostly I think it’s that we saw D-Day ourselves and we know what it really looked like.”
Steve wrinkles up his nose. “No one’s gonna believe me if I tell them I was there.”
As if by way of consolation, the as-yet nameless kitten skids down into his lap, where she lands with a startled meep on top of her tortoiseshell sister. A brief and clumsy scuffle ensues. Then both cats try to climb Steve, mewling for attention. “Shoulda just let them paint soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, huh,” says Bucky. “Got any more commissions for me to colour?”
Steve disentangles the kittens and gives them each a placating rub. In a stroke of luck, cats are the one thing in the world he doesn’t seem to be allergic to. “Not this week,” he says. “You know I could do the colours myself if I had to, right, Buck?”
He could. Steve might not see reds and greens exactly right, but he’s got all his paint tubes and coloured pencils labelled with painstaking care, and his mathematical mind processes RGB values and hexadecimal codes just fine. It’s like Beethoven composing deaf, going on string vibrations and sense memory alone. “I know.”
“But I like it when you paint for me.”
Bucky smiles. “I know that too.”
Steve leans back against Bucky’s chest. They stay that way for a minute, or two, or ten. Steve has been lucky enough to keep all his hair, though the gold has leached to a pure, luminous silver that puts Bucky in mind of elves and enchantments and meetings by moonlight. They have been together in every age of their lives, scrappy childhood to frustrated adolescence to adulthood on the battlefield and beyond, into the calm, steady companionship of their post-war afterlives. Bucky doesn’t know what will come after, but he’s not worried. They’ve seen it all by now.
The doorbell rings. The kittens hiss and scramble, brandishing bottle-brush tails. “Your guest,” says Bucky. “One of your students?”
Their robot butler trundles across the apartment in a flurry of beeps and whirs to see who it is. Steve puts the stack of paintings aside, careful and deliberate. “No.”
The robot performs its usual visual and retinal scans, and then the door swings open. On the threshold is a young woman with olive skin and large brown curls, a laptop and voice recorder under her arm. “Excuse me, Captain Rogers? Sergeant Barnes?”
The old ranks make something twinge in the back of Bucky’s head. “You’re that journalist, aren’t you?” says Steve. “I told Peg she could send you over. Come in.”
Comprehension dawns. “Oh, thank God,” says Bucky. “It’s about time.”
The woman comes in, looking around the apartment with both the wide-eyed awe of Steve’s adoring students and the efficient, assessing cast of a detective. Bucky watches her take in the robot, the cats, the prints and photographs on the wall. “I promise I won’t write about any of this in my book,” she says. “I won’t even record if you don’t want me to. I just—I just had to know.”
“No, that’s fine,” says Steve. The robot wheels off to pour tea, and the kittens commence a thorough investigation of the visitor, sniffing and pawing at the woman’s ankles. “Like Buck said, we’ve been waiting a long time to talk.”
“You’d better turn that recorder on,” Bucky adds, plopping down on the couch next to Steve. “We have a lot to say.”
The transcript of my seventh and final interview is presented here without comment or analysis. I believe it speaks for itself.
INTERVIEWER: First things first. What really happened on the Valkyrie?
BARNES: Oh, no. Don’t get him started.
ROGERS: I punched the Red Skull in the face.
B: There he goes.
R: Okay, let me start from the beginning. We got word that Schmidt was fleeing Europe with a plane full of nukes. You know that part.
I: That’s how it’s taught in schools, yes.
R: So Bucky and I snuck on board the plane and stowed away in the cargo compartment until it took off. It didn’t take long for us to realise that something was wrong. We’d expected Schmidt to have at least a few cronies with him, but he was alone. And the nukes on the plane weren’t missiles meant for New York and Paris and Milan and wherever, they were just plain old explosives.
I: Wait, he was planning to blow the plane up? With himself on it?
B: See, the squid Nazis were under the impression that Steve here was a supersoldier. The Allies’ answer to the Red Skull, if you will. Their plan was to lure him onto the plane with the cover story of the nukes and blow him to smithereens.
I: I may be a little biased, but I’m having some trouble believing that the head of Hydra would abandon his plans for world domination on a suicide mission.
B: That’s what I thought. I was practically shitting myself trying to work out what his game was, and Steve just walked right up to him in the cockpit and socked him one on the jaw.
R: Don’t exaggerate.
B: I was there, Steve-o. I know what I saw.
[Rogers rolls his eyes, grinning at me as if to say, “See what I have to live with every day?” I can’t help but note the easy affection he still shares with Barnes almost a full century after their first famous meeting in an alleyway outside their elementary school, aged seven and eight.]
R: Now, look, Bucky’s leaving out quite a few details for dramatic effect.
B: You mean like how you two rolled around like a pair of drunk sailors in a bar until I managed to get a shot in?
I: Am I hearing this right, Captain Rogers? You, uh, got into a fistfight with the Red Skull?
B: Steve, she doesn’t know about the thing.
I: What thing?
R: And it’s really just Mr. Rogers. Or Private First Class Rogers, Retired.
I: No, what thing?
R: Good God, you mean you really don’t know? I thought you could find everything on Google these days. Johann Schmidt was no supersoldier. He wasn’t even the head of Hydra. That was Zola. The Red Skull was just a story, a bit of propaganda, no different from Cap or Rosie the Riveter. I think Schmidt was some third-rate actor Zola saw in a silent film and slapped a creepy mask on.
B: I would like to state for the record that Steve didn’t know any of this when he punched him.
I: Wait, what? Zola’s serum didn’t work?
R: He didn’t have a serum, any more than we did. It took us the whole war to figure that out.
B: He was still desperately trying to make one in ’43. I should know, I was one of the poor schmucks he experimented on.
[Rogers frowns. He takes Barnes’s hand and holds it in his lap, twining their fingers together. A glint of light catches my eye—I look at their joined hands, and realise they’re sporting identical silver bands.]
R: In case you were feeling sorry for Schmidt, don’t. He might have been an actor, but he was a Nazi to the bone. He bought into his own myth. He thought he was sacrificing himself for a noble cause, to destroy Dr. Erskine’s monster and save what remained of Hydra. When he saw what I really looked like, well—[They both laugh.]
B: I think they realised at the same time that they were both fakes. It was priceless. I woulda died laughing if I hadn’t been petrified.
R: Schmidt changed his mind about the suicide mission immediately. Guess he thought I wasn’t worth dying for. He was gonna knock me out, activate the explosives and bail. Hence the, ah, bar brawl. [He waves a knobbly hand dismissively.] What he didn’t know was that Bucky was on board the plane as well, with a rifle pointed at the back of his head.
B: Yeah, yeah, and I couldn’t fire for the first five minutes because you were right up in his face.
R: What was I supposed to do? Not punch him?
B: See, ma’am, Steve was a bit upset I shot Schmidt. He said it wasn’t—what was the word you used, Stevie? Honourable. I said, who the fuck cares, he’s a Nazi. Really, Steve was just mad he didn’t get to do it himself.
R: I’m still mad.
[They smile at each other, their hands still intertwined on Rogers’s lap. A tortoiseshell kitten nips at their feet. I feel like I should leave.]
I: What happened after that?
R: Well, we got out. Howard—our chief engineer, Howard Stark—found the Valkyrie about a week later and had Schmidt’s body taken away, per the Colonel’s orders. I guess they didn’t want people dissecting the corpse and realising the Red Skull wasn't real, since that would have cast doubt on Cap as well.
The Valkyrie was allowed to drift away after that. No one expected it would turn up again. When it did—well, I guess that’s why they decided to declassify the whole Ghost Army thing. People were starting to ask uncomfortable questions, and it was only a matter of time before they found out about me.
I: No one ever said you were alive, though.
R: Yes, that was part of the agreement. That even if they declassified my files, I’d stay a private citizen. Bucky, too. I could speak to the press, but only if I wanted. Privacy is a precious thing nowadays.
B: Ma’am, look. There are people denouncing Steve in the papers and on the internet, saying he was a fraud, just another lie the government was feeding the world, and I gotta say that makes me boiling mad.
R: I mean, they’re not wrong—
B: People can say whatever they like. I just hope you’ll make it clear in your book that Steve didn’t know Schmidt was just an actor when he went on that plane. We’d all heard the horror stories about the Red Skull, that bullets and blades couldn’t harm him, that he’d, I dunno, pick up a building and drop it on a whole infantry division if he felt like it, and we had no reason to doubt what we heard. Steve literally walked up to a guy he thought was Superman and threw a punch at him.
R: I’m not stupid, Buck, I had an inkling.
B: An inkling isn’t good enough to risk your life on. He didn’t know, ma’am. Write that down. Bold it and underline it.
I: I will.
R: Please don’t let Bucky give me all the credit. The Ghost Army wasn’t just me, or even the Howlers. There were over a thousand guys in the 23rd—that was what our division was called, officially—and every single one of them risked their life over and over again to draw enemy fire from our so-called real troops. They were brave and brilliant and I won’t hesitate to use my stick if I hear any disrespect.
B: When do you ever hesitate to use your stick? [He gives me a long-suffering look.] Can you believe it, ma’am? Ninety-something candles on his cake and he still gets into fights on a regular basis. Angie tells me Peggy’s the same. I don’t know how we put up with it.
I: Speaking of which, what have you two been doing since the war?
R: Protesting more wars, mostly.
B: Steve got a job at an ad agency when we got back, but he didn’t like it much. Mostly he painted and went to protests and used his Ghost Army tactics on the street. One day I’m gonna write a tell-all memoir, and in it there’ll be a whole chapter about the time Steve foiled a bank heist back in ’85 by pretending to be the FBI.
R: Shut up. I’m reformed. I’m teaching art down at the community college now, have been for decades—
B: Last time they tried to make him retire was twenty years ago. The students nearly rioted.
R: —and Buck studied engineering at MIT, same as his sister Rebecca. They both graduated in 1950. She went to space and commanded the ISS—you probably knew that—and Bucky worked for Howard for a while. That robot?
[He snaps his fingers. The robot butler promptly wheels over to pour us more tea, deftly avoiding the kittens and chirping all the while like something out of Star Wars.]
It’s Stark tech, but Buck and Beck developed it together. It’s really handy around the house now that we’re both kind of limpy and achey.
I: Are you holding up all right, living here by yourselves?
R: Well, we have LifeAlert. [They laugh.] We’re not in bad shape. All my life doctors told me I wouldn’t see twenty, and then thirty, and then forty, and now I swear to God I’m gonna live to be a hundred and ten just out of spite.
B: We stay pretty busy. Of course, my idea of busy is playing bingo down at the VA, and Steve’s is beating up guys with his walking stick for catcalling women on the street.
R: That was one time. Don’t listen to him.
I: Before I go, I have one last burning question. Where is the shield now?
[This seems to give them pause. They look at each other.]
R: Did Sharon ever give it back when she was done with that cosplay?
B: That was last year, she brought it back ages ago.
R: So where did you put it?
B: Where did you put it?
R: God, Buck, I can’t believe you’re blaming me for—oh, wait, no, I know where it is.
B: Please don’t say you lent it to Natasha. That young lady is bad news.
R: No, no, it’s at the college. I brought it in as a prop for a life drawing class last semester. It’s somewhere in my office. Those kids thought it was a replica.
B: This lunk would lose his own feet if they weren’t attached to him. I’ll make him send you a picture for your book when he gets in on Monday, ma’am. He’ll pose with it and everything.
B: Honestly, I think he just doesn’t want me near it. He thinks it’s unlucky. And I gotta say I’m pretty sick of the thing myself, it gives me nightmares. We’re probably gonna foist it off on the Smithsonian soon.
R: Or sell it for like ten million dollars and donate the proceeds to the VA. I’m not above committing daylight robbery for young Sam.
I: I think that’s a great idea. Thank you so much for your time, Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes. And can I just say what a pleasure it is to meet my childhood heroes in the flesh.
B: Aww, he’s blushing.
R: You’re blushing.
They present me with a box of homemade brownies—Barnes is going through what Rogers calls “a baking phase”—and walk me to the door, still holding hands. The electronic butler fistbumps me with its robot arm, and the tortoiseshell kitten attempts to climb into my shoe, both of which I take to be affectionate gestures of farewell. Then, too soon, the door is closing, and I am walking away.
As I head down the sidewalk, I hear their voices drifting out through an open window in the building above me. “That was a relief,” says Barnes. “I can’t believe we sat on that secret for seventy years.”
“I told you I’d bring you home, whatever it took,” says Rogers. “Now sit down and look at these landscapes with me. Where the hell did I put my glasses?”