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Demobilization

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June 20, 1945

Even though it’s only been a couple of hours since sunrise, it feels like an honest-to-God eternity before the ship finally approaches New York Harbor.

Most everyone’s out on the decks now, and there’s no room to fucking breathe in deeply, let alone turn around or stretch or find somewhere more comfortable to stand. Bucky’s managed to get a spot by the railing on an upper deck, and his hip’s all bruised up from being pressed hard into the metal barrier. The atmosphere is nice, though. With fifteen thousand men shoulder-to-shoulder, you’d think it’d be rowdy as hell, but right now it’s pretty subdued. Guys are laughing, chattering, excited, but every pair of eyes is trained on the shoreline creeping closer ahead of them.

He sighs heavily. “Shit. It’d be faster to swim.”

A First Lieutenant named Foley snorts. “Barnes, what the hell kinda crawl you thinking of doing with one arm?”

It’s a good point. “Watch me, I’ll race ya,” Bucky grins anyway. “You’re a good officer and all, Foley, but you ain’t in the best shape. I bet I could drown and still get there faster than you.”

They’re all feeling good-natured, so the laughter isn’t mean. “Faster than the damn boat, at any rate,” Foley grumbles. Bucky claps him on the shoulder.

When the Statue of Liberty slides into view, the whole ship roars. It’s deafening. Bucky throws his fist in the air and yells along with everyone else. His heart is in his throat. The Statue of goddamn Liberty. Bucky wants to climb up her robe and kiss her sour green face.

The cheers rise up again as they go by her, and then die back down; most of the guys are just happy to sit and smile and watch the city float lazily into focus. They know they’ve got days more of barracks and bunks and cheap train seats before they’ll get to see their families in Pittsburgh, or Columbus, or Chicago. But Bucky’s home, he can see Brooklyn, and he laughs and shades his eyes from the sun and feels crazy with happiness, and this has to be the slowest fucking boat in the world, but at least he has a good view while he dies of impatience. Manhattan Island, the Brooklyn docks, growing bigger and more real with every minute. The shimmering, sunlit skyline. Home.

An airplane drones overhead. Everyone looks up and watches it disappear into the sun. The wind had dropped after they entered the harbor, but there’s still a cool breeze and it carries the sound from the shore. They can hear the crowds on the docks now, and a band. Buildings are slung with flags and pennants; one of them has a big red banner shouting WELL DONE in huge white letters.

Everyone’s starting to get to their feet again, and the guys in the middle are climbing on each other’s shoulders to get a better view. The figures on the docks are waving and waving, and all the guys on the boat are hanging off the edges to wave back. Bucky’s getting an ache in his arm from it, and it matches the one in his face from smiling. He can’t make out any details of the people on shore—just the shape of the men’s hats and the colors of the women’s dresses, their white gloves fluttering back and forth in the sun—but it feels like every goddamn one of them is waving just for him. He knows one of them is his ma.

Oh God, his ma–and Bucky climbs up to balance on the bottom railing and leans way out to scan the crowd, as if there was any chance she could see him, as if he’d be able to spot her by getting up a bit higher. He wonders who else will be there to meet him; if his dad could get the day off work, if his brother is waiting too. Maybe Becca's there with her little daughters, the two of them in their Sunday clothes, waving tiny American flags.

He doesn’t know if Steve will come down to meet him. He hasn’t had mail all year, too many transfers from hospital to hospital meaning that the mail drops just couldn’t keep up, but he knows his folks must have had a telegram about the boat coming in. They would have told Steve about it.

Bucky kept on writing, even though he wasn’t getting any letters back. God knows he didn’t have anything else to do besides sit and wait and hope that he might actually get back soon. The waiting drove him nuts, so he wrote. Dear Ma, I hope this finds you well. I am as well as I can be, although I miss home. He’d figured they’d all be upset he was wounded, and reassured them carefully in every letter.

I’m just glad I’m still alive. Could have been a lot worse.

It’s nice to be in a real bed.

I don’t have much pain any more. They’re weaning me off the morphine.

He wrote to Steve too. It’s a mess but it don’t hurt. They took everything from just above the elbow.

Don’t go getting any ideas about beating me in a fight. I always said I could take you with one hand behind my back, I guess now I’ll be able to prove it.

He didn’t write Jesus God I miss you. He didn’t write I’m sorry. Sometimes he whispered it under his breath before he fell asleep.

-⥀-

He doesn’t even get off the stupid boat until almost evening. He’s been hanging around below decks since they docked – they all have – and distracting himself with half-hearted games of poker against a bunch of pilots from the 8th Airborne. They can hear as each unit gets called to the gangplank. They act like they aren’t listening.

The injured guys, the ones that are still recovering, get to disembark first. And Bucky can’t begrudge them that, those poor saps with their casts and stretchers and crutches; he might not be exactly in one piece himself, but he can’t be too mad. It’s June of 1945, and he’s fixing to walk back onto American soil using his own two goddamn feet. If he has to wait a bit longer, at least he can be thankful that he’s not going straight from the ship to another hospital.

When they finally call his unit to line up, he grabs his duffel and shoulders it in one movement. Nobody needs to help him with it anymore; in the last couple of weeks, he’s gotten used to hefting it with just the one arm, and it no longer pulls him off balance to carry it more than a couple of steps. He realizes that after today, he won’t have any use for the bag. Jesus, he barely remembers what a chest of drawers looks like.

At the gangplank, his heart starts hammering. It’s dark and quiet under the canopy of the terminal building. The guy in front of him holds up the show by dropping to his knees as soon as his feet step off the ramp, pressing his lips to the concrete. Bucky wants to kick him out of the way. For fuck’s sake, keep moving, pal.

Most of the men are being herded off to more buses and more waiting around, but Bucky nods his thanks to the overseeing officers and turns in the opposite direction, towards the sunlight spilling from a far doorway. He doesn’t think to say goodbye to any of the other fellas. He just points his feet toward that bright doorway and breathes deep.

When he steps through, it’s not as chaotic as he expected, not after the madness of the ship. The big crowds had drifted away after they docked. There’s a cleared concrete area, outside of which a few hundred people are pushed up against wooden barriers; he sees soldiers surrounded by little groups of civilians, hugging their kids, kissing their girls. He squints and walks out further into the sun.

“Bucky!”

He spins. It’s a little girl running at him with her arms out, and he blinks and stumbles as she barrels into his legs.

“Mary?” He knows it can’t be Mary, but his brain won’t catch up.

“No, Uncle Bucky, I’m Janet.”

Holy shit. “Yeah, of course you are, honey.” Christ, Rebecca was still pregnant when Bucky shipped out. Janet was born in February of ‘43, when Bucky was busy invading Italy, and he got the news of her arrival a month after the fact. She’s going on three now. She looks exactly like her mother. He dumps the duffel on the ground and puts his palm on her dark head. Feels her warmth. Blinks back tears. “Hi, Janet.”

And then Mary is there, and Teddy, both smiling huge and yelling his name, and if Bucky was thrown by seeing Janet, then his kid brother loping up all six feet tall and gangly as hell damn near knocks him on his ass. He huffs and hugs him and says “Wow,” and Teddy picks up the duffel, and Mary leans into Bucky’s belly and he puts his hand on her back. “Shit, Mary, you got so big.”

“I’m five now,” she reminds him, proud. “And watch your language. We saw your boat! Did you see me waving?”

A hand on his arm, then. He turns and it’s his ma, looking a little plumper and a little greyer, wearing a hat and not wearing an apron in acknowledgement of the occasion. She says his name and he says hers, and he scoops her forward into a lopsided embrace. They stand there like that, and she’s crying, so for a second he doesn’t pretend he’s not.

She takes a breath, pulls back and kisses him on the cheek, then holds him out to appraise him. “You look thinner.”

That cracks him up, shouting a real laugh. Of course that’s the first thing she says to him in three years. “Jesus Christ, Ma. They weren’t exactly feeding us turkey and gravy on the regular.” He wipes his face.

“Watch your language. She reaches out and brushes the pinned-up sleeve on his left. Crosses herself. “Look at this. My poor boy. Didn’t I tell you to be careful, James?

Buck rolls his eyes.

“He’s a hero, Ma,” says Teddy, and Buck fights the urge to roll them again. He for sure isn’t that.

“Where’s Dad?” he asks, to change the subject.

Mary jumps in, grabbing Janet’s hand away from Bucky’s pinned sleeve. “He’s still at work. Mr. O'Regan drove us here in his car. Mrs. O'Regan brought strawberries and Lizzie made peach pie.”

He raises his eyebrows and is about to say who’s Lizzie, but then he glances over Ma’s shoulder and his heart jumps.

“No way.” He untangles himself from his mother’s hands.

“Hey, buddy.”

“Holy shit, Rogers.” Bucky doesn’t know what he’s saying. “What are you doing here?”

Steve shrugs with his hands still in his pockets and pretends to frown. “Watch your language, Buck.”

Bucky strides over to him, grinning. “Yeah, fuck you, pal.”

He grasps Steve’s shoulder, shakes him, and then they both dive into a hug, laughing. Steve smells the same. He feels the same. He’s here. Bucky doesn’t let himself press his face to Steve’s neck like he wants to, or pet Steve’s hair, or fall to his knees and sob into Steve’s shirt with joy and relief. The effort, the restraint, feels Herculean. Bucky wants to scream from it. He lets himself cling for a few seconds.

When they move apart, they both laugh again. Steve’s smiling kinda watery and he looks so good, healthy as hell and maybe even a little more filled out. He’s still thin, with big hands and bony shoulders, but not sick. There are no shadows under his eyes.

Holy Christ, those eyes. Bucky never kept a photo of Steve with him while he was overseas, too afraid of giving himself away. He pictured those eyes every day, though. Every night. Every time he was scared or lost or in fucking agony, Steve’s gorgeous eyes would appear in his mind. He was afraid he’d forget, that he was getting them wrong after so long. But they are exactly as Bucky remembers them.

Steve grins properly, and Bucky feels dizzy, hysterical. Then Steve’s smile fades and he touches Bucky’s sleeve in the same way Ma had.

“I’m real sorry, Buck.”

Bucky scrunches his nose, looks at his shoes, nods. “Yeah, well.” He’s getting used to the way people look at him now that he’s a cripple, the frowns and the stares. He hates it, but he can live with it, he guesses, from strangers and even from his ma, but not from Steve; he hadn’t prepared himself for that. Right now that punk is getting all sad-eyed, and Bucky wants to flinch away from the pity. He has a sudden urge to throw a punch.

But then Steve’s lips quirk a little, and he says, “Hey. You took A Farewell to Arms too literally, huh.”

They both snicker. Bucky loves Hemingway. “Sure did. Pretty stupid, right?” He slings his good arm over Steve’s shoulders. He’s unspeakably relieved. “I guess the Germans were real set on taking away my Second Amendment rights.”

It takes a moment, but then Steve groans. “Oh God, you asshole.”

Bucky’s unrepentant. “I had a lot of fuckin’ time in hospital, bud. No way did you think of more arm puns than me.”

-⥀-

They pile in the car, Mr. O'Regan having returned to pick them up. The O'Regans have lived down the hall from the Barnes family for decades; Buck knows neither of the O'Regan boys made it out of the war. He is intensely aware that this kind man has come to the docks to welcome him, somebody else’s son, instead of Len and Ralphie and their sticking-out ears and big, goofy grins. Mr. O'Regan insists on opening the door for Bucky and says, “We’re all proud of you, son.” Buck can barely look him in the eye, but he shakes his hand and says, “Thank you, sir” about fifty times, and gets in the front seat next to him. Nobody mentions Len or Ralph. Bucky tries to forget their names, if he’s honest, and then he feels like a shitbird for it. Ma and Teddy and Steve squeeze into the back seat with Mary on Teddy’s lap, and Janet falls asleep right away, tucked into Bucky’s shoulder.

Brooklyn streets glide past, uncanny. He is struck with the feeling of the past and the future colliding in front of his eyes – everything is the same, but also utterly, indescribably changed. He knows things look different, but he can’t say how. As soon as he catches something new, the original’s gone from his mind and he can’t conjure it back.

He looks back at Steve. “Is Frank’s still open?”

“Uh-huh. Joanie still works there, too.”

“Hallelujah,” he sighs. “I been dreaming about a corned beef sandwich and a Coke for months.”

Steve guffaws. “Thought you were gonna say you been dreaming about Joanie.”

“Thought I’d spare you the details of those dreams, buddy. Let me concentrate on the sandwich first. Joanie can wait until I’m done my damn Coke.”

Steve and Teddy crack up, and Bucky’s Ma yelps, “James!”

“Sorry, Ma.” He tries to look contrite, but winks at Mary, who’s giggling. “Guess the Army wrecked my manners.”

Ma tuts and gives him a Look. “Never mind. Just get to fixing ‘em, now that you’re home.”

Buck nods. He turns to look out the front window again and holds his niece gently. The hum of the car lulls him a little. Then he glances back. “How did Janet know me?” he asks softly.

His ma smiles. “Rebecca has your picture on the wall. Janet kisses it every night at bedtime.”

-⥀-

Inside the Barnes living room, Bucky stares at the big oriental rug and the old photographs on the sideboard. The girls are beside themselves with excitement, jostling each other and bouncing around Bucky like puppies. Teddy announces proudly that he’ll take the duffel into the bedroom, and Mary leads Buck by the hand to sit in one of the chairs by the fireplace.

Here, again, is the sense of the past dissolving everywhere he looks; the red flowered curtains seem brighter, and the chairs are different, or maybe they had just been moved – already he can’t remember. The soft, beloved images of home that he’d carried with him all this time, from the mud at Salerno to the dingy field hospital at Hürtgen Forest, slide blurrily away wherever he looks. Objects he’s known his whole life reconfigure into something unfamiliar, as if he were viewing them backwards in a mirror.

Janet’s run off into the kitchen yelling, “Mommy! Bucky’s home!” and there’s a shriek and Becca comes flying in, wiping her hands on her apron. Buck just has enough time to stand before she reaches him, and he hugs her hard while she sniffles into his chest.

“Jesus, not more of this,” he grumbles, wiping gently at her face. “Everyone quit crying.”

“I’m sorry,” she laughs. “It’s just...You’re home.”

Bucky nods and smiles down at her. “Yeah.”

She’s wearing a long skirt and blouse instead of the shorter dresses she always had before, and at 24 she really looks like a grown woman. Her husband Charlie is still out, fighting in the Pacific, and she’s raising Mary and Janet on her own. It shows on her face—tired, more lines on her forehead and around her mouth. He remembers her wedding, how beautiful she looked, eighteen and in love, and how happy Bucky was that she’d found a guy who would take care of her. How it never occurred to any of them that Charlie would get called up.

It gets chaotic in the house pretty quick. Becca herds Janet and Mary into the kitchen, and then the O'Regans show up with all their daughters, who fidget and stare and giggle when Bucky shakes their hands and kisses their cheeks as if he could remember them at all, or even tell them apart. Teddy tries to flirt with one of the younger ones, and Bucky and Steve hide their smiles and pretend they aren’t watching.

Mrs. O'Regan hugs him and cries, and Bucky thinks of Ralph and Len again, and he feels like a shitbird again. He stands by the fireplace as more people come by – Uncle Albie with some of the cousins, a few of the older neighbors, a bunch of people Bucky doesn’t even think he knows – and they variously wave and hug him and clap him on the good shoulder, and all the women keep trekking through to the kitchen with dishes, and the men sit for a few minutes and make small talk while they wait for their women to come back. Bucky knows it’s a mean thing to think, but even though everyone is smiling, it reminds him of a wake.

Through the commotion, Steve stays in the living room with Bucky, saying hi to the visitors he knows, but not offering any more conversation.

After so long away from him, Bucky feels his presence now almost like a physical touch. He tries not to stare, elated with the sight of him, the fact of him, his particular combination of soft skin and hard angles that makes Bucky weak. His fingers still remember how that skin feels, even after all this time.

He had decided, in a cold tent somewhere in the middle of Italy, that if he ever made it home alive he was going to tell Steve. He'd practiced it in his mind: Never been anyone else for me. Well, here he is, one sweaty palm and his heart pounding, but alive, at least. And after all the shit he's been through, there's no way he’s backing down now.

He knew it would be tough, that he’d have to steel himself to do it. But he definitely didn’t figure he’d have to wait around for hours with half of Brooklyn jammed into his ma’s front room, all calling him a hero till he wants to puke, and everyone trying to avoid looking at his stump, and Steve right there.

It’s starting to feel like torture, the waiting, wanting desperately to be alone with him. He’s forced his eyes away and is staring out the window, considering whether he could just drag Steve into an empty bedroom, when Steve clears his throat behind him and says, “Hey, Buck. There's someone I want you to meet.”

Bucky looks around. Steve’s big blue eyes have a nervous smile in them, and his terrible hopeless hair is flopping over his forehead like always, and his arm is around the waist of the girl standing next to him.

What, shouts Bucky’s brain.

His mouth doesn’t say anything. It kinda hangs open a little.

“Buck, this is Lizzie. Elizabeth Randall. Lizzie, this is Bucky.”

“Hello, Bucky,” the girl says. “It’s real good to meet you, finally.”

She’s short, but then, she’d have to be. A little pale, a little plain, not a looker, but she fits nice in her dress and her hair is some kinda strawberry blonde colour that you don’t see too often, and her smile is wide and friendly. She offers her right hand to Bucky, and puts the other one in Steve’s.

Bucky stands dead still for a second and blinks. He feels like he’s back on the fucking ship, and it gives a big queasy roll beneath his feet. He wonders briefly if he’ll ever be able to move again, and his chest fills with panic when he realizes they’re waiting for him to speak. But he’s used to hiding, he’s the world’s greatest actor, and he smiles. Makes his shoulders relax.

“Sergeant First Class James Barnes. It’s swell to meet you, too.” He steps forward and takes her hand.

“Steve talks about you all the time,” she says. “We’re all thrilled you’re home safe.”

“Thanks,” he grins. “I’m plenty thrilled myself.” He turns to Steve, raises his eyebrows as high as they’ll go, and blows a breath through pursed lips. “Are you kidding me, Rogers? This is your girl? You been holding out on me!”

Steve frowns, flustered. “Lizzie’s a nurse. I met her at the hospital.”

The boat rocks again and he tenses to keep himself upright. “That right? Well, you’re about the prettiest nurse I ever saw, and believe me, I saw plenty.” He’s talking too loud. He turns back to Steve in mock outrage. “I swear to God, Rogers, I’m never gonna forgive you for not telling me you had a sweetheart. Guess you want to make sure you keep her to yourself, huh? Not telling your best pal?”

Steve blushes a little and suppresses a grin, shoves his hands in his pockets and says, “I wrote you about her. Back at Easter.”

“Ain’t had mail since Christmas, buddy.”

“Oh.”

“I was in France kinda recently, though, and they got some nice fancy candies there that Lizzie could have enjoyed this very evening, if I’d known. But I ain’t heard a word about it till now. Isn’t that a shame?”

“Surely you should have been bringing candies back for your own girl?” she teases, and Bucky shakes his head. He forces a smirk onto his face.

“Well, you see, there ain’t room in my luggage for twenty tins of chocolate, and if any of ‘em found out that I brought French candy home for just one girl, well,” he dials up the cocky smile and winks at her, “I’d have nineteen separate rounds of explaining to do.”

She takes his performance good-naturedly, smiling as Steve rolls his eyes, and Bucky keeps going, talking fast so his voice won’t shake.

“Now, for Steve Rogers’ girl, I could spare room for a tin of candy. I ain’t ever seen him court a lady before, so I know you gotta be something special. This here’s the pickiest guy I ever met.” He slaps Steve on the back and laughs again, then leans in to her and drops his voice. “He treating you okay? He take you places? Don’t get too fresh, does he?”

Bucky,” Steve groans.

She laughs. “Thanks for your concern, but Steve is a perfect gentleman.”

Bucky looks at her sideways and snorts. “You sure you know the same Steve Rogers as me? There's nothing perfect about this guy, and nothing gentlemanly either, not once in his whole life. This punk’ll argue the ears off Christ Himself. Listen, sweetheart, the stories I could tell you…”

“All right, all right, I think she gets the idea,” Steve grumbles, but the girl’s delighted.

“I look forward to that.” She laughs again. “I might be able to tell you a few of my own.”

“That right? Sounds like you’re in trouble, pal,” and he’s about to start in on a story, one of the Steve’s Bad Temper stories, anything to keep his mouth running as long as he can, but someone calls her name from the kitchen, and she says, “Oh – the peach pie – excuse me for a minute,” and squeezes Steve’s hand before she goes.

They both look after her, and of course, now they’re the only ones in the room. Suddenly, Bucky needs to get out of there, but Steve is turning to him, bashful, and Bucky can’t tell if his heart is going too fast or stopped altogether.

“Sorry,” Steve’s saying. “I thought you got my letters.”

“Nah. S’okay, I was just kidding. She seems real nice.”

“She is. She used to come to the store and we’d talk.” He smiles. “She likes my drawings.”

Bucky wants to throw up. “That’s swell.” He can’t make himself say any more.

Steve scratches behind his neck. “Figure if she sticks around until the manager job opens up, I’ll ask her to marry me. Might be soon.” He shrugs but looks proud.

Bucky knows he should react, this is news that demands a response, so he twists his face in what he hopes is a smile. “Yeah? Good going, Rogers. She’ll for sure say yes.”

“You think so?”

He nods. “I can tell. She’ll treat you right. That’s real swell.”

Steve’s about to say something else; he opens his mouth and takes a breath, but Bucky speaks over him, says he’ll be right back, knocks Steve gently in the shoulder with his fist as he leaves the room, then he’s staggering breathless down the hall to the bathroom and the boat tips and rolls like crazy, and when he gets the door closed behind him he sags back onto it, leans over and squeezes his eyes shut, gasps and sniffs and pushes his only hand over his mouth as hard as he can to stop the sob from coming.