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The Cousin of Death

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You have never not been a slave.

 

...

 

In 1880, your father was born a free man named Joseph Collins, the son of two Irish nationalists. His parents aided a bombing campaign for Ireland's independence from the British. The Fenian dynamite campaign failed, and the government sold them to two different masters. Your father was five years old at the time, so he stayed with his mother; he never saw his father again.

In 1906, your father crossed the Atlantic with Charles and Emily Rogers; he was a wedding gift from Emily's parents. The voyage was lengthy and cramped, and the Rogers family was not overly wealthy, but they shared their blankets with your father to soften the wood floor where he slept. Your mother told you this story often, whenever she tried to remind you of how lucky you all were; she painted you a vivid picture of the cramped cabin, the swaying deck, and your father singing ballads to calm Mistress Rogers' nerves when the waves barreled hard against the walls. A single happy family.

In 1917, Charles sent your father to fight the war in Europe in his stead, because the third Rogers child had just been born, and Emily wanted her husband nearby. His calm conviction won him a place in the 107th, the first integrated unit in the U.S. Army. Eight months later, he came home on leave, and all he would say to your mother was that his heart was sick of war. Five months after that, he died in the trenches. The news sent your mother into premature labor, and you were born, underweight, amidst her sorrow.

In 1924, the Rogers' youngest came down with tuberculosis. Your mother nursed him through the worst of it, holding him tight through the horrible coughing fits and cooking him meat-rich broths. Matthew Rogers recovered to full health, though he would fight off a hollow cough every winter. But your mother caught the tuberculosis, and the Rogers were too short-handed to spare you to tend her sickbed. She died. You had never outgrown your frail infancy, barely able to carry coal or peel potatoes, always needing medicine or rest, so they sold you to the Army.

The Rogers children cried when you left the household. You had already spent all your tears at your mother's grave.

 

...

 

The Army sent you to West Point, where you shined officers' shoes and peeled even more potatoes. After a few years, you met Bucky there; his old master was a bachelor captain who'd had willed all his possessions to the Army. Bucky was tall and handsome, and he'd practice the soldiers' stances in his spare time; he could disassemble and reassemble any firearm in the armory in under a minute. He whispered at night about how he was going to be a soldier as soon as they let him; he'd rise in the ranks and save up all his spending money until he could buy himself, and then he'd marry a pretty girl and move to San Francisco.

You knew that you'd never rise in the ranks. You also knew that you weren't much interested in pretty girls. But as long as you never said those things aloud, both of you could pretend that bright futures lay ahead.

"Do you ever miss your old master?" Bucky asked you one night.

You shrugged. "I miss living with other kids. Sometimes they'd have extra penny candy and give it to me. Do you?"

A pause. "Yeah. I do." There was something about his tone, something sad and longing and faintly bitter. The silence that followed gave you time to replay his words in your head and examine them, wondering if a pretty girl was what Bucky wanted either. Maybe he wanted the same unnatural things that you did.

It felt easier to imagine that Bucky was an invert than to imagine that anyone could miss being owned.

 

...

 

When war broke out, Bucky got placed in the 107th. It wasn't the only integrated unit any more, but it was the best-known, and rumors said that it was the only one where the slaves weren't automatically in the front line. You tried to enlist, too, because Bucky was the only part of West Point that was home, but your supervisor laughed in your face. "They don't need cannon fodder that bad, kid. Go back to peeling potatoes. It's what you Irish do best, right?"

(Sometimes, at night, you'd flex your fist back and forth, wondering how it'd feel to punch Mr. Mason in the nose. You knew that he'd just laugh at you and have you whipped -- if you were lucky -- but just imagining it felt satisfying. Sometimes, you'd fall asleep and dream of knocking him to the ground, crouching over him, and punching him over and over, until his handsome face turned into a slimy red pulp. You woke up with sticky pants, after, and hated yourself a little.)

Without Bucky around, you had more time on your own, and you'd spend it drawing with pencil stubs and scrap paper that you rescued from the trash. You drew comics about a scrawny slave who joined the Army; everyone in his unit laughed at him, but in the battlefield he led the toughest charges and shot the trickiest targets. Private Stevens fought and never quit, because he was fighting for America, and America stood for freedom.

Eventually, Mr. Mason found your drawings. He tossed them on a table in the mess hall, so that all the soldiers could snicker at the weakling slave with fantasies of self-importance. Your cheeks flamed crimson at the laughter, but you refused to apologize for dreaming.

The next day, a foreign man named Dr. Erskine took you aside. He said that they needed test subjects for a top-secret project. The procedure was still dangerous -- that's why we're using slaves went unsaid -- but if it worked, you'd be transformed into a weapon to stop Adolf from taking over the world. You said yes.

 

...

 

Captain America was not a slave. That fact was so obvious that none of your interviewers even asked the question. Sometimes they'd ask about your childhood or background, but you'd flash them a smile and say that you were "just a kid from Brooklyn." If they pressed you, you'd tell them very seriously that the whole point of Captain America was that you could be anybody, because America was a land where every man had the right to stand tall and defend his country.

Captain America wasn't a slave, but Steve Rogers never stopped being one. When you flew into Nazi territory to rescue Bucky, you knew that you weren't just facing court-martial; a slave was a slave, and leaving without permission was an escape attempt, and the only question was whether a judge would order branding or death. You went anyway.

 

...

 

The law was the law. Howard Stark tried to buy you when he heard you were to be punished, but Colonel Phillips just shrugged with genuine regret. "He's not mine to sell. The deal was that we'd use him until we won the war, and then he'd go back to the people who helped us make him -- some goddamn top-secret agency, I don't even know."

They branded you on the forearm, a small lowercase "r" in a circle: "runaway, not dangerous." The brand took two months to fade away on your perfect skin. The law said that it had to be burned back on, but that could only happen if its absence was reported, and no one ever quite bothered.

 

...

 

"Sir, I have a unit of men who're the best soldiers I've seen," you told Colonel Phillips. "I have no doubt of their ability to wipe Hydra off their map. But if you want us fighting at our peak, I need two things. First, I don't care if you have a freeman as a figurehead who stays on base, but I need to be able to give orders in the field without getting them individually approved. And second, these men need to know what they're fighting for. I want you to give them manumission papers when they get their discharge papers."

Phillips raised his eyebrows high, but he nodded. "I'll do what I can for them. But you know I can't promise the same for you."

"I know," you said. If it meant saving that many others, you could swallow any sacrifice.

 

...

 

Mistress Carter -- "call me Peggy, please" -- was beautiful, strong, and unafraid of any man, woman, or slave. You'd noticed the way she looked at you, of course, but you waited for her to act first, because everyone knew what happened to slave men who tried to compromise their mistresses.

"I'm with SHIELD, you know," she said to you once, when you were alone.

"Who?"

"The agency that helped the Army make you. We'll get you back as soon as we win this thing, and then -- I have an estate, back in England, out in the countryside. I could pull strings, have you live there as my bodyguard, and nobody would have to know that it was different."

"Just another slave," you agreed, a soft note of irony in your voice, and Peggy made a face.

"Steve, I've never treated you as anything but an equal." Her voice sounded honestly hurt.

"I know," you said, conciliatory. "It sounds like a good life."

You thought about Bucky's teenage fantasies: a pretty girl and a house of their own. This, you supposed, was as close as you were likely to get.

 

...

 

In 1944, you crashed into the ice. Captain America, who was never a slave, became a legend. Steve Rogers, who was never free, redeemed the world.

 

...

 

In 2012, you wake up. SHIELD gives you quarters of your own while they decide what to do with you; they're the biggest and most luxurious rooms you've ever slept in. "We take care of our own," Master Fury tells you.

They give you history books and dossiers on the people you left behind; they take photographs of you, clothed and unclothed, and document all your skills, military and otherwise. You start to guess their motives when your history reading catches up to the 1960s and their "sexual revolution." There's no longer any shame about keeping slaves for pure pleasure, the books say; Americans can explore their erotic desires freely, no matter the gender or legal status of their partners. The newspaper's bestseller list contains two memoirs written by slaves about their sexual exploits; one is a tasteful, romantic epic, while the other describes the most salacious experiences with multiple partners and strange fetishes, all in sordid detail.

Half the country seems proud of the growing liberalizing of society; the other half complains about "political correctness run amuck" and argues that society ran better when everyone put slaves in their place.

You're certain that SHIELD is watching everything you read, so you don't dare look up the state of abolitionism, and the movement only ranks a brief mention in the history books; thanks to America's widespread tolerance, they say, the country provides a safe haven even for radical groups, from animal rights activists to emancipationists -- as long as they respect the laws of the land.

You do look up SHIELD, though. There isn't much about them, but you find out what their name stands for: Selective Humans Indoctrinated, Enhanced, Located, and Delivered. They're the most elite slave dealership in the world, with a renowned R&D department and an industry-standard recapture program for escapees. (You haven't seen any overt signs of the "indoctrination" part, but perhaps they assumed that you're already sufficiently tame.)

You spend a month in limbo, learning about the modern world while you prime your body for whatever they need of it. They keep you waxed and groomed and comfortable. At last, Master Fury finds you in the gym one night, and he slaps a thick dossier on the nearest table. "You up for a challenge, Captain?" he asks.

"Always, sir," you say, because what else can you answer?

"Good man," Fury nods. "We've got high standards and a good reputation, here at SHIELD, and I'm counting on you not to let us down. So let me tell you about Tony Stark."

You miss fighting for a cause you believed in, and you miss the Commandos, and you miss Bucky like air, and you're sick of the self-congratulatory open-mindedness of this world you fought to save. But you still remember what your mother said once, exhausted from a day wrangling the Rogers children at the beach. "Life's like those waves," she said. "You can't keep it from pummeling you, but at least you can choose to face it head-on."

You step forward and pick up the dossier.