Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice,
Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet,
Those who love each other shall become invincible,
They shall yet make Columbia victorious.
“All fire and smoke and nothing inside you. You only pretend to be an American. We are brothers and we love each other.”
“Stevie!” Sarah was ready to go, fussing with her hair, a pin here and a pin there and another bobby pin in her mouth; it was nearly time, if they were going to catch the train.
Steve stuck his head into the bedroom. “Yeah, I’m ready,” he said, before looking down at the ground and kicking at it, pouting.
“Honey, you’ll have a good time,” she said, finishing the last pin before bending down to take his hand in hers. He tugged it back out, scowling, on the verge of tears. She sighed heavily, and that set him off. Tears started to leak out of his eyes.
“Uncle John and Aunt Bessie were good friends of Daddy’s,” she said, quietly. “I know you don’t remember them, but they’re nice.”
“I don’t see why we have to go to their house!”
“Because they asked us, honey, and it’s very nice of them, and if you want, we can ask them to tell us stories about Daddy.”
That stopped him for a minute; he clearly hadn’t considered that John and Bessie might know something he didn’t.
“Do you think they will?” he asked, scuffing his foot on the floor again, but less vigorously.
“I do. Especially if you ask nice.”
“Okay.” He sniffled dramatically, but reached up and took her hand. “Let’s go.”
“We have to put your shoes on first, honey,” she said, and smiled at him, even though her eyes felt tight and wet.
When they walked out of the theater, Steve wouldn’t stop talking. “Ma! Did you see that? How did they make the flames colors? How did they get cameras up in the planes?”
“I did see it, honey,” she said, laughing. “They paint the color right on the film. They can’t do it very much but they can do it for some parts.”
Steve was so worked up he was twisting and jumping as he walked. “And then the girl got to drive! Ma, I want to drive. No, I want to fly.”
“You can do anything you want when you grow up,” she said, threading her hand into his to try and rein him in.
Fat chance. He twisted out of her grip almost immediately, and said, “I want a friend like that! I want a friend I can fly with! Won’t fight over girls. That’s just gross!”
“You might change your mind about that.”
“Vrooooom!” He was making airplane noises with his mouth, crashing one hand into the other. “Ratatatat!”
But that night, she woke up to find him standing forlornly by the side of her bed, and she sat up. “Honey? What’s wrong?”
“It’s just sad,” he whispered. “That his friend died.”
“It is sad, honey, but it was just a movie. Nobody really died.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“Okay,” he said, and then, “can I sleep in your bed? I had bad dreams.”
She sighed. “Okay, honey.”
He was out like a light in two minutes. Of course he always windmilled around in his sleep, so she ended up trying not to fall off the edge of the bed for the rest of the night—but that wasn’t so bad.
That was the winter he got rheumatic fever, and after it, the doctor said his heart was never going to be the same. The mitral valve had gone funny from the inflammation, hadn’t really recovered, and Steve was always going to have some troubles—he shouldn’t run, shouldn’t be on any sports teams, should try to stick to quieter activities. The doctor looked at Sarah with eyes full of a certain fear that told her everything he wasn’t saying out loud. He was doing her a favor, for free, because he was sweet on her, because some nights if she didn’t have to go home right away after shift they might meet up in the spare storage room in the back of the building. So she knew the look in his eyes. She’d seen it directed at patients who didn’t realize yet how sick they were, patients he didn’t want to have to tell.
She shoved it down. Steve was her boy. Maybe he would never be a pilot, fine, that was just as well. Pilots’ families had to worry about them. Her boy could be something else, anything else. Anything but a soldier.
Sometimes Steve’s dad’s friends would tell stories about him. That was how Steve got to know his dad, a little—Uncle John’s laugh as he said, “And then Joe, that crazy b—son of a gun, he just looks the sergeant right in the eye and says, ‘All due respect, sir, that’s a pretty bad idea.’ Right in the eye!”
Joseph Rogers was a funny man, Steve learned, and would split his last ration with his buddies, no matter how many of them there were, so each man might only get half a bite, but at least every man got half a bite.
“Fair to the bone,” said Uncle Pat, not a real uncle either. “He was gonna be fair to everyone if it killed him.” Then Uncle Pat cleared his throat and said, “Did I ever tell you the one about the time he found where we stashed the still?”
Steve dragged the back of his hand across his nose. It was bleeding; the blood stood out bright red against his skin when he glanced down at his hand, which had gone waxy and pale. He shook his head, and gritted his teeth as he drew in a choking snort of blood and air. The metallic drip down the back of his throat was getting familiar.
He didn’t bother wiping his hand on his pants. Sometimes the blood scared them a little. The next bully—Jimmy, from three blocks over—stepped up for his turn, fists tightly balled, eyes wary but not frightened.
When Jimmy threw the punch Steve ducked, and it was lucky, but not lucky enough. He straightened up only to find Jimmy’s other fist connecting with his shoulder. It wasn’t much of a punch, didn’t knock the wind out of him, or sting like Bill’s had, but it still hurt.
Steve lashed out frantically and dug his bitten nail-stubs into Jimmy’s face. Jimmy howled and called him a little nancy boy, and then Steve kicked him in the shins, hard. Jimmy’s next punch connected and Steve went down, and by the time he was dragging himself up again, they’d taken off.
The pain in his shoulder and his face ached and throbbed, a continuous, steady burn. He dug out his handkerchief and wiped his face clean as best he could. Ma would give him a talking-to, but at least she didn’t hold with whippings.
At least Esther should have had time to get blocks away by then.
One summer, when Steve was well, he was sitting out on the stoop reading. He’d gotten a book at the library—it was about a knight in the Middle Ages, although the middle of what he could not have said—and he was getting to the part where the knight was going to rescue the princess.
Out on the street, some of the neighborhood girls were skipping rope, a pack of them making a game of it, with one ducking in under the rope with each verse of a chant and one at each end twirling the ropes together.
Mother, Mother, I am sick,
Send for the doctor,
Quick, quick, quick!
Doctor, Doctor, shall I die?
Yes, my dear,
And so shall I.
How many coaches shall I have?
Enough for you and
Your family, too.
Steve frowned down at the page, flipped it, then realized he hadn’t really read that last part, and had to turn back to it.
The girls moved on to another chant, this one about monkeys.
As if his heart wasn’t enough, Steve got sick in his lungs every winter. It was like clockwork—school would start up, it would get cold, and within a couple of weeks he’d be down with a fever.
Ever since he was three or four he’d had asthma attacks. He’d scared Sarah so bad that first time. She’d only been a nurse for a couple of years and it had been awful before she figured out what was happening. Even then, there wasn’t much she could do. Just hold her baby and wait for him to ride it out.
Getting sick meant his lungs were always about one step away from seizing up. She hated it, hated listening to him. Maybe this time would be the time he’d pass out. Maybe he wouldn’t make it through this time. Or maybe this would be the last time and he’d get over it, grow out of it, and never make these awful, wracking noises again. That hope was probably the worst part.
Steve was sitting on the stoop with a scrap of paper and a pencil when a kid, maybe a year or two older than him, came whooping down the street with a couple of other boys. Not enough for a good game. Steve dropped his pencil, and it bounced on the next step and came to a stop before rolling over the edge.
The kid looked up, maybe seeing it out of the corner of his eye, and then his face changed, warm and welcoming. “Hey, bud!” He held out the ball. “You want to play?”
“Sure,” said Steve, who was a little worried, but if his dad had been fair to everybody he could be, too, and if this kid wanted to play ball—well, nobody’d pushed him down yet.
“I’m Bucky,” said the kid, and Steve hopped down off the stoop. It turned out he wasn’t very good at hitting the ball, but nobody pushed him down then, either.
The horrible pulsing noise of the warning bell before school was intolerably loud; Steve squared his shoulders, stepping into the mad crush of students.
It was one thing at his old school, but this new school—he looked at the waves of students pouring in to the building, and all of them looked like they knew something he didn’t. They were older, mostly, so he felt much too young next to them. As if it wasn’t bad enough being one of the youngest in the class, he was still small. Sickly.
Somebody taking the stairs two at a time crashed into him, and when he turned his head to say something, they’d already passed him.
But on his way back from lunch, when he was trying to get from the second floor down to the first, he heard somebody bellow, “Hey, Steve! STEVE ROGERS!”
He turned to look, and it was Bucky, waving like a maniac. He grinned over the heads of the other kids, and in the seconds before Steve got sucked back into the crowd, Steve smiled and waved back.
The rest of the day felt a little better.
He ran into Bucky again on the way out of the building. Well, ran into made it sound like it was by accident, which it wasn’t, really. Steve had been hanging around a little, waiting. He was pretending to read a library book while he sat up on the edge of a low brick wall, and hordes of kids came streaming out of the building. Bucky might not come out this way. He might be staying late. But.
It took a couple minutes, but then he heard it again: “Steve Rogers!” and his head shot up.
Bucky was shouldering and elbowing his way through all the other kids, and when he got to Steve he was grinning big. “You want to see something?”
Bucky glanced both ways, dramatically, before pulling a matchbox out of his pocket and sliding it open. There, inside, was a tooth, with some gory dried blood still on it.
“What? Ew!” said Steve.
“I know! It’s mine! It fell out in math! The teacher said if I stopped showing it to people she’d give me the matchbox for it.”
“You going to keep it?”
Bucky walked partway home with him. He talked a lot—about his tooth, about the other kids in the class, about the Dodgers even though they weren’t very good. When Steve tripped and his foot came out of his shoe, he knew Bucky saw the layers of newspaper laid in it to cover the holes, but Bucky didn’t say anything about it, just kept on about Miss Drummond and her face when she saw the tooth when it still had a nerve dangling off it. (That was the moment he fiercely endeared himself to Steve.)
He had to peel off a couple blocks before Steve’s place, but he said, “Hey, I bet my mom would say it was okay if you came over this Saturday, you want to?”
Sarah was a little startled and a little bemused when Steve started talking nonstop about Bucky. He hadn’t mentioned it but apparently he’d met Bucky before, and now run into him again and there was a tooth and something about going to his house on Saturday? “Can I, Ma?” he asked, his eyes such a sweet, piercing blue, peering up at her for all the world like Joe about to cajole her out of a bad mood.
“Of course you can, honey,” she said. “It’s nice that you made a friend.”
The only other person he ever talked about was Miss Chambers, his favorite teacher (“ever, Ma, ever, she’s the best!”). And while Miss Chambers was, in fact, a lovely young woman, who had given Stevie a part in the Nativity (shepherd boy; he had not been terribly convincing but Bobby Fogarty looked like a ringer for the painting of Joseph they had up on the wall in front of the bathroom so he’d had that part sewn up), she wasn’t much of a friend for a little boy.
The two of them hung off the back of the truck, Steve trying to hold back laughter, eyes bright with it, and Bucky grinning lopsidedly. “We’re too damn big for this,” Bucky said under the noise of the traffic, visibly impressed at his own bravery in saying a swear word.
“Not as long as the whole back doesn’t fall off,” said Steve.
“You—okay, go for it,” said Bucky. Steve wriggled up over the edge of the truck and grabbed, real quick, and came back with a huge ice shard in his hand. He juggled it, making a face at the cold, and when the truck stopped next they dropped off the back and ran like hell.
They ducked up onto the stoop in front of Steve’s building, and Steve gasped for a while to catch his breath. Bucky broke the ice in two; they each licked their piece, content for a little while in the broiling heat that radiated up off the streets.
Steve liked the Enrights’ dog. Really, Teddy was more like the building’s dog. He roamed as he pleased. It wasn’t Steve’s fault if Teddy showed up to their door sometimes, snuffling around the crack until Steve opened up and let him in. When Bucky wasn’t there, Teddy was good company. Teddy was a patchy mutt, getting old and creaky, and liked to rest his weary bones in front of the fireplace in the winter.
Sarah didn’t come home until late most days, so Steve had plenty of time before she’d show up and wrinkle her nose and ask if that was wet dog. He’d let Teddy flop down in front of the couch, and he’d prop his feet up on Teddy’s back while he held his schoolbooks up to read. Something about the dog’s warmth and droning snores would send him to sleep half the time.
Days when Sarah came home and found him like that, fast asleep, she’d shoo Teddy out, but her voice was never as hard as she meant it to be.
Bucky wanted a dog, but his dad said no and meant it. Too much work. “You need a hobby, you start putting some real effort into your grades,” he said curtly. Buck’s dad could be a piece of work.
One weekend, Bucky was staying over at Steve’s, and they were pretending to be polar explorers. Sarah had the night off, so she’d made them thumbprint cookies with a drop of jam in the middle.
“Bucky,” asked Steve, “if you could explore anywhere, where would you go?”
Bucky rolled over, staring up at the ceiling in contemplation. “I don’t know. Somewhere warm, I think. Maybe a tropical island.”
“That sounds nice,” said Steve. He was starting to get drowsy. Pretty soon he was going to have to turn out the lamp, even if they didn’t go to sleep right away. Ma hated to waste the oil.
“Yeah, think about it.” Bucky was getting more interested in this hypothetical adventure. “Somewhere with breadfruit trees, right? So we don’t even have to work hard for food. We’ll have to find water. But if there’s trees there’s got to be fresh water, so we can find a spring, or, or dig a well.”
“Don’t wells have to be deep?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not as deep on an island. Anyway, we’d be the first people there. And we’d hear the birds in the morning, and monkeys at night. And there would be pearl oysters.”
“I never found a pearl in an oyster,” said Steve dubiously.
“They’re special oysters, I guess. Anyway, we’d learn to dive for them. We’d hold our breath, for minutes and minutes, I don’t know, hours, maybe, and we’d find the oysters, big as our heads, and inside there’d be a giant pearl.” Bucky held up his thumb and forefinger to show the staggering size. “When we got tired of the island we’d make a raft and come back and sell the pearls, and we’d be rich forever.”
Steve set his jaw. “I’d buy Ma a house.”
“Yeah, but even richer than that. Rich enough to buy out McGillivray’s candies.”
They were both struck silent with awe at that thought for a moment; the candy store was a brightly-lit heaven, glass bins waiting for Mr. McGillivray’s careful, slow hands to come with the scoop and measure out exactly as much as had been paid for, counting the pennies scrupulously.
“And I’ll get a dog,” added Bucky wistfully. “A big dog. I’ll name it—I don’t know.”
“Yeah, that’s a good name,” said Bucky, who secretly thought he could probably come up with a better name but would loyally have refused to admit it.
“Teddy’s a good dog,” said Steve. “It’s nice. He’s good to have around when it’s quiet.”
“I bet,” said Bucky. “It’s never quiet at my house. You’re lucky you ain’t got sisters.”
“I wouldn’t mind a sister.” Steve was twisting a thread from a pillowcase around his finger, around and around. “It gets lonely when it’s quiet.”
“Oh,” said Bucky. He couldn’t think of anything good to say in response to that.
Steve shook his head a little, shaking it off. “But it’s good when you’re here, because then we don’t have to share with anybody.”
“Yeah! My sisters can be such a hassle.” That was objectively true; there was no way, for instance, the thumbprint jam cookies would have lasted so long in the Barnes household, with so many sets of small grubby hands competing for them.
“I’m your best friend, right?” asked Steve abruptly. It sounded like it pained him to ask.
Bucky propped himself up on his elbows and said, “Yeah,” like it should have been transparently obvious. (It was to any outside observers.)
“Okay. Good,” said Steve. “So if we go exploring, we’ll go together.”
Steve yawned deeply. “I should get the lamp.”
“Yeah, okay.” Bucky started to hunt for the blanket. “You going to be warm enough?”
“I think so.” Steve got the lamp turned down, watching as the wick sputtered out. He climbed back down off the sofa. “You got the blanket?”
They each grabbed a side and tucked it around themselves, and they slept like that, back to back, dreaming of jewel-blue water and islands under the brilliant tropical sun.
Bucky’s dad didn’t like Steve, which was stupid, because Steve was great. Steve was funny. He’d make cracks about the other kids that would have gotten his butt whipped if the teachers heard him, but he was good at talking soft enough that nobody else did. Steve was easy to talk to. He never said remember to be grateful or your sister would never do that, and he wasn’t like the kids at school who always wanted to talk about marbles or other boring stuff.
But when Steve came over for dinner, Bucky’s dad would look at him over the top of his glasses with a little frown, and it would make Bucky’s shoulders tighten up, like he’d done something wrong.
Bucky’s mom loved Steve. She wanted to feed him, even when he wasn’t there. She’d send Bucky over with an extra cookie for him, wrapped up in a stray rag that Bucky knew better than to forget, and Steve would protest until Bucky said “Mom loves you, she wants to feed you up. Eat it.” Or sometimes, “Fine, we can split it,” and he’d take the smaller piece, which Steve would see, but he’d eat his, because he wasn’t an idiot. Just stubborn as heck.
So mostly Bucky went to Steve’s place, or if Bucky’s dad was gone for a while or working late Steve could come over for dinner, and if Steve picked up that Bucky’s dad didn’t like him, he didn’t say anything about it.
It was winter. Steve’s coughs were huge, wracking, turning him inside out. Every cough seemed to take every bit of breath he had and then some. Bucky watched him, eyebrows drawn together, but preternaturally still.
When that round of coughing stopped, Bucky got up in his sock feet and padded over to the stove. He put a kettle on, and Steve tried to say, “Don’t,” but Bucky just looked back at him.
“Steve,” he said, “you need some tea. Just sit down.” He sounded grown-up.
Steve subsided, wrapping the blanket tighter around himself, the hot water bottle sloshing on his lap. Bucky pulled a couple of mugs off the cupboard—he’d drink as much tea as he made for Steve, though he always steeped his second.
Bucky turned on the radio as the water came to a boil, and the soft, vibrant voice of the Shadow poured out. Steve took a deeper breath without noticing or meaning to, and for a second he thought he’d start coughing again, but it only caught and then came back out.
“Hey, Buck, wanna go to the candy store?”
Bucky’s head jerked up. “Do I? Ask a stupid question, buddy.”
Steve grinned, jingling change in his hand. “Did Mrs. Callahan’s chores. She said it was cheap at the price.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet!”
They got Tootsie rolls and the red wax lips, and they put the lips on at the same time and then laughed at each other. It was a funny look, on Bucky’s face, the red, red lips against his skin.
“Jeez, Steve,” said Bucky, a little muffled through the clumsy wax, “those things look ridiculous on you.”
“Oh, and they’re supposed to be making you look good, Mr. Dracula?”
“Shut your trap!” But the words were ruined by the way he had to lean against Steve to hold himself up through the fresh wave of laughter.
The jackhammers outside were screaming. It was a good day for them, bright and clear and warm but not too hot, and school hadn’t even been out for two weeks.
“I don’t know,” said Steve, slowly. “I could just wear my undershirt but I don’t have a good pair of trunks.”
Bucky punched his arm lightly. “Come on, you can borrow my old pair. Mom had to get new ones for me last month. They’re still fine and you’re so skinny they’ll fit.”
Steve chewed on his lip, visibly debating.
“There’ll be girls,” said Bucky, “and sand, and sunlight. Come on.”
The tension went out of Steve’s shoulders as he decided. “Okay. Fine. I got enough for fare and a hot dog if you got the bath house.”
“All right!” crowed Bucky, grinning. “Let’s go get the trunks and get the heck out of here. I need some summer!”
The water really was nice, even if the suit was itchy and baggy and the undershirt was definitely going to give Steve a sunburn the shape of the neckline. The boardwalk was creaky and they ducked under it to watch some of the older kids kissing, which was great until one of the guys looked up from his girl and said, “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
They scrambled back out, and Bucky threw his arm over Steve’s shoulders as they dashed off, laughing. “That guy’s face! I thought he was going to chase us!”
“Nah,” said Steve, “he had too much to do!”
They laughed again, harder, and Steve had to catch his breath on a cough, and of course Bucky immediately dragged them to a stop behind the lifeguard tower. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry about it,” he said, and ruined the effect a little with another small cough. Bucky wouldn’t settle down until he got them each a juice and Steve drank his without coughing again.
The first time Steve saw Danny McAllistair with a boy, they were hiding, a vacant lot not too far from their houses. Steve was hiding, too. He’d picked a fight with some kids beating up on a little kid a couple streets down, and he wasn’t sure they weren’t going to come back for a second round.
Danny was three years older, and he and the other boy Steve didn’t recognize were standing close together. Danny was doing something with his hand, his arm moving, and the other boy was looking down between them with a pained look on his face.
Steve just stepped a few feet to the side and slipped behind a torn-up fence board.
Danny’s face scrunched up, and he let out a huge gasp, shuddering, and then the other boy did the same thing, with a little yelp tacked on at the end.
“Shut up,” hissed Danny, “you want somebody to hear?”
The boy shook his head, hard, and Danny relaxed backward, dug a handkerchief out of his pocket, and—oh. Steve could see—they were cleaning themselves up.
“See you,” said the boy, and Danny nodded, jerkily, and then the boy vanished like a jackrabbit through the debris littering the lot.
Danny sat down, and sighed, and then scrubbed hard at his reddened face with his other hand. “Christ,” he said, out loud.
Steve waited until Danny stood up and left, before he climbed out from the rubble.
By the time they were getting on fourteen and thirteen, Bucky figured he knew why his dad didn’t like Steve. It was that Steve was short, and skinny, and looked like he was usually about one coughing fit away from dropping dead.
Bucky’s dad—for some reason, it was like he was worried Bucky was going to catch it, lose a couple inches, whatever, and turn into an asthmatic.
He didn’t try to talk to his dad about how that didn’t even make sense. He figured it was better not to push a sore point. And it wasn’t like his dad tried to keep them apart, so that was fine.
Bucky was confirmed the year before Steve, since he was older. His parents had his picture taken in a suit, which Steve thought just about beat all. Steve dropped by to see him in the morning, while they were still getting him ready, his mom fussing over him like he was a roast for company.
“Look at you!” he crowed. Bucky glowered at him furiously, trying desperately to get his hair to lie flat by getting it wet again, splashing water into his hands at the sink and then palming his hair.
“Ah, hush up,” said Bucky. “It’s just one day.”
“You going to make wishes?”
“Already made them.”
“Any of them about your hair?”
“None of your business!”
“You going to tell Jesus about your mom’s flowerpot?”
“I figure He’s got to already know, and if He doesn’t, then what He doesn’t know won’t hurt Him,” said Bucky, with an unexpectedly philosophical outlook.
“You’ll have to confess it.”
“You’ll have to confess everything.”
“Nah, or the priest would be there all day. I’ll confess as needs be.” It was an attitude Bucky was to keep, over the years.
Steve was, if anything, a little jealous that Bucky wasn’t going to have to spend so much time on instruction anymore, but then again, Steve didn’t mind. There was something comforting about the image of angels, even if he’d gotten used to the idea that they weren’t going to be doing much directly for him. He figured if they were, he would have gotten more of a response the times he’d felt like his lungs were closing up on him and he’d begged for air, prayed for it as hard as he could. It had never done any good. If that had been the heavenly response when he was a child and, he had been assured, as innocent as he was ever going to be, he couldn’t imagine the angels were going to get much more involved once he’d had a chance to build up an adult record of sin.
Bucky’s mom was saying something about Steve—Bucky wasn’t even really paying attention—when his dad snorted.
His mom cut her eyes over to him, looking already displeased. “What is it, Harold?”
“Winnie, it’s—look, that boy is lucky to have a friend like Bucky, and we all know it. Always hanging around. At least Bucky gets to prove he’s got a good left.”
That was the first time his dad had ever praised his left hook, which was interesting, and also raised the question of how he knew about Bucky’s left hook. Even if it was a thing of beauty.
His mom looked—stricken, sort of. “Harold!”
“It’s true, Winnie, and you know it. Steve Rogers is headed for an early grave and the way he goes around, it’s like he thinks he’s Hercules.”
“I think he’s very brave.”
“I think he’s a numbskull.”
Early grave, thought Bucky, and felt suddenly oddly like he wasn’t connected to the chair he was sitting in, or the plate in the front of him, or the fork in his hand, or even his hand.
Steve was such a little shit. Bucky rounded the corner to the boy’s room right as he heard the sound of a face meeting a fist, and he hit the doors so hard they flew open.
Steve looked up at him, crooked smile, from where he was hanging on to a sink for balance, no blood (thank God) but that lip was going to turn fat.
“Woody here was just calling me a bastard,” he said, cheerily.
“Oh, yeah?” Bucky took a step forward. He was in the middle of a growth spurt, had put on a couple inches over the summer. No weight to go with it yet, but height. “You talking bad about Sarah Rogers? Really? Because she’s a real nice lady, I like her.”
Woody was a smart aleck, and when he opened his mouth he was going to say something rotten, Bucky could tell, so he just went straight for a kick to the balls as Woody took a breath. Woody dropped like a rock. Sisters: they taught you so much about life. Alice might be a pain sometimes, but she’d sat Bucky down and made him learn how to knee a guy until he could have done it blindfolded in the dark.
Steve was laughing. “Jesus, Buck, I had it. You didn’t have to go for the crotch!”
“You’d think he wasn’t talking about your mama, Steven Grant Rogers.” Bucky put his nose up in the air primly, and marched them back to the hallway.
“Jesus, Stevie, what are you reading?”
Steve looked up, and held out the magazine wordlessly for Bucky’s inspection. On the cover was a man rippling with muscles, well-oiled, and grinning at the camera.
“Strength & Health?” Bucky read, and shook his head. “Don’t hurt yourself trying to look like that. That guy looks deranged.”
“They have some exercises. I’ll give them a try.”
“When you’re done, do you mind if I borrow it?”
“Sure, no problem. You want to look deranged, too?”
“Nah,” said Bucky, “just maybe they have some good ideas, you know?”
He sat down next to Steve on the bed, reading over his shoulder.
Steve started doing some of the exercises from the magazine. He couldn’t handle all of them; his arms were so thin, and his wrists would start to ache. But he could do push-ups, whenever he was well, although jumping-jacks got him in trouble with the neighbors, so he had to stop those.
Sometimes he’d look in the mirror and flex his arm, looking to see if it was getting stronger, and after a couple of months he could tell it was. The muscles weren’t big, but they stood out, sharper, and getting harder.
Buck caught him at it once and busted up laughing. “You doing the poses, Stevie?”
Steve’s faced got hot and he grabbed at his shirt. “Like you never steal my magazines!” he accused. “I bet you do this too.”
Bucky choked on that, going pink, waving a hand ineffectually in front of his face until he’d calmed down, and then what he said was, “Look, you want to come out and play ball?”
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” said Bucky. “It’s been one week since my last confession.”
Father Dalton never seemed to care that much about confession. He just sort of grunted his way through it and at the end you’d get some Hail Marys and you had to promise to think real hard about whatever it was you’d done.
Bucky had gotten out of the habit of telling Father Dalton everything a while back, but he still figured confessing most of his sins had to count for something.
“I’ve had impure thoughts,” he said. “And touched myself. And I got in a fight at school.” He resisted the urge to add that they had it coming; that only got you an extra couple of Our Fathers.
Father Dalton sounded like he was swallowing a yawn. “Five Hail Marys and two Our Fathers. And try to think of what our Lord Jesus would want you to do.”
Bucky knelt in the pew after he got out and ran through the penance as fast as he figured he could while still respecting the idea of it, and tossed in a prayer to Jesus that if he wasn’t supposed to touch himself, could Jesus maybe see His way clear to helping fewer impure thoughts cross his mind.
Bucky liked to dance and was pretty good at it, but he got shy real easy, so when Steve came into Bucky’s bedroom to find him dancing to the radio, he just waited for a minute.
Bucky was humming softly, until he made it to a turn and saw Steve. “—Holy Christ, don’t scare me like that!”
Steve held up his hands. “Didn’t mean to!”
Bucky looked a little embarrassed. “Jeez. Fine.”
Steve sprawled out on Bucky’s bed, looking down to where Bucky was sitting cross-legged in a welter of schoolbooks and paper. “Did you hear about the guy who got shot instead of Roosevelt?”
“Yeah, he died, right?” said Bucky, thoughtfully. “Glad it wasn’t the President. I mean, we just got through electing that one. I don’t want to listen to people go on about electing a new guy until I have to.”
“Ma made me listen to the whole speech on the radio.”
“Yeah, so did my dad. He said we’d be glad later.”
“Your dad’s always saying that about the stuff he makes you do.”
“You’re telling me,” said Bucky, making a face at his homework. “I’m supposed to be learning math why, exactly?”
“So you can do his books?”
“Ugh, I’d rather throw fish around at the market.”
Steve put on his best impression of Harold and said, “That can be arranged!”
Bucky made a face and threw a pencil at Steve. “It’s bad enough when he does it, don’t you start.”
Steve rolled over, laughing, and dropped the pencil back in front of Bucky. He looked up, and Bucky couldn’t help smiling back at his upside-down face.
“You want to go see King Kong this weekend?” Steve said.
Steve was always drawing in the margins of books, his papers—whatever he could get his hands on. His ma eventually gave up trying to keep him from doing it, and just tried to grab the neighbor’s newspapers if they were going to toss them. The BDE always looked like Steve was trying to give it tattoos.
“You’re pretty good,” said Bucky, staring over his shoulder at a sketch that was taking shape in the upper right corner. It was recognizably Mary Linehan from class, who was stuck-up but pretty, and Bucky had tried drawing people before and knew it was hard.
Steve just made a “hnn” noise and stuck his tongue in the corner of his mouth, like he always did when he was drawing, and Bucky settled back with the funnies to wait until Steve was done defacing the Business section. Not like anybody really wanted to read that, anyway, even on a Sunday.
Later, Steve told Bucky that when his ma found the drawing of Mary Linehan, she got a real serious look on her face and sat him down for a Talk, with a capital T, the Facts-Of-Life TALK, and Bucky said, “Jeez, my dad talked to me about that when I was twelve.”
“Yeah, but I think Ma was hoping I’d be a priest or something.”
Bucky started to laugh, huge, wheezing laughs, at the idea of Steven Grant Rogers as a priest, and said, “Has she met you? Does she know that thing you did last Lent?”
“No! She can never know.”
“Well, she ain’t going to hear it from me, but can you imagine?”
“I thought about it,” said Steve. “For a while. Figured maybe—don’t know if I’m going to grow much, don’t know if I’m ever going to find a girl. Might be easier to just be a priest.”
“Easier. Yeah. That’s why guys go for the priesthood. That’s what they all say, it’s a cakewalk.”
Steve frowned. “Well, it’s not like I never thought about it. That’s all I’m saying.”
Bucky had to try to picture it, then, Steve’s face (what would he look like grown-up? Taller?) above the white collar, and just couldn’t.
“Does she know about the fish?”
“Okay, fine, I won’t say it. But you were never going to make much of a priest, buddy.”
Bucky had started losing the baby fat that had made his face round when he was fourteen, but it didn’t really set until he was fifteen, sixteen. It was strange sometimes, seeing the face he was going to have as a man in the face that was still a kid’s.
His face was sweet and a little soulful, and the girls liked it, even if he did usually have zits going. He talked to them really nicely, not quite like he talked to his sisters because he flirted with the girls at school, but he got a reputation for not pushing, just saying things like “You look nice in that dress” and “Hey, it’s the prettiest girl in English.”
Sometimes he’d see Steve’s face out of the corner of his eye when he was talking, if Steve was around, and the expression on it gave Bucky an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach, the way Steve’s eyebrows would draw together and a little line would come up between them. Like he was mad, but not really.
Bucky had always liked people, but the older he got the easier it was to make them like him back.
Brooklyn teachers always liked to make students read Brooklyn writers, which was how Steve figured he was going to end up memorizing Whitman whether he wanted to or not. He did a book report on Leaves on Grass, because it was one of the options, even though there was the little star by it on the sheet that meant it might not be suitable. He sifted through it, dog-earing pages, taking notes, but half-heartedly at best. Steve wasn’t a poet and had limited interest in it. Words weren’t like pictures, especially in poetry. They were clunky. It was hard to tell exactly what somebody meant by them.
Know’st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards,
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
He wrote, rather laboriously, “Whitman describes the interest of war and soldiers as a natural question for poets,” and then set his pencil down and sighed.
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love gave him pause for a minute, but he kept going.
It is a painful thing to love a man or woman to excess, and yet it satisfies, it is great
Loving to excess. What an idea. How could you love too much? It was one thing that didn’t cost a penny, and it didn’t have to hurt; you could hold on to love in your heart and create more of it, an infinite amount more, as you needed to.
Prodigal, you have given me love—there I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love.
“Whitman also talks at length about love, in a general way, as a way to liberate the human spirit,” wrote Steve, and was proud of himself for working the word liberate in.
Wherever he goes men and woman accept and desire him,
They desire he should like them, touch them, speak to them, stay with them.
(That part, though, reminded him of Bucky.)
Sarah always liked to sing along to the radio. Ever since Stevie was little, he’d perked up when she did, which suited her just fine. It was nice to be appreciated.
Even at fifteen, when most boys his age had started trying to act like they were found in a jungle instead of raised by their parents, when he came home after school to her singing in the kitchen on her days off, his face would soften and he’d smile, and if it had been a very good day for him, he might even join her. She loved his voice, which was sweet and steady, and had cracked into a deep voice like a man’s, now smoothed over most of the rough spots.
She knew from what she’d come home to him listening to that he liked some songs better than others, some singers better than others. He’d never sing along to Ruth Etting, but he’d belt his heart out to Bing Crosby. Until or unless she made a sound, and then he’d turn around so fast he’d give himself whiplash, and he’d stop singing and say, “So how was it today, Ma?”
Sometimes she made things up. Sometimes she’d tell him the truth. It was one of those evenings when she came home after a long, long day, found him sitting sprawled out on the couch with his sketchbook, singing along almost under his breath, you’re getting to be a habit with me. The light was casting a funny shadow, and for a minute he looked so much older.
He glanced up and smiled. “Hey, Ma, run late?”
“Hey, honey.” She pulled out a chair and sat down, heavily.
She hadn’t taken off her coat, and Steve’s face sharpened as he searched hers. “What happened?”
She sighed, and then, to her surprise and disgust, she started to cry. She put up a hand in front of her face, but her shoulders kept heaving, heaving. Steve was up off the couch in a shot, scrambling over to her, pencil rolling away; he threw his arms around her from the side, awkwardly crouched even though he wasn’t tall, and he said, “Shhh, shhh, what is it, Ma? It’s okay, I’m here.”
She shook her head a few times, and got the sobs under control. “It was a girl at the hospital today,” she said. “She got in trouble and she went to somebody to try to take care of it. Oh, honey, she died. She was so sick by the time somebody brought her in, and so scared, and she just looked up at me and she died.”
This wasn’t the first girl who’d died like this on her. She’d gotten used to it, as much as you can. But this girl was the youngest, far and away the youngest, couldn’t have been more than thirteen. And so scared. Just a little baby. The horrible stench of putrid flesh wafting up from her vagina when they got her stripped on the table, the stench of sepsis. There’s nothing like it, and she knew it as soon as she smelled it, knew that girl was a lost cause. She’d bottomed out not two hours later, for all they tried.
“Stevie,” she said, “I’m going to tell you a couple of things. Okay? They might tell you about it in school, but I need to know you know it.”
He’d pulled up a chair, and now, sitting next to her, hand still resting on her back, he nodded, fiercely.
He already knew about the birds and the bees, the basics. So she told him about rubbers, which maybe the Pope didn’t approve of but nurses did, and how a girl in trouble needs a friend, and if he’s going to be a good friend to girls, he’ll never get them in trouble, and he’ll take them to the hospital sooner, a lot sooner, if anything does happen. You can buy rubbers in stores now, Stevie, sweetie, nobody needs to show up at the hospital like that poor girl, like all the poor girls.
She started to cry again, more tired this time, no sobs, just tears tracking down her face in the hazy light from the lamp. “Promise me, honey,” she said. “You won’t send me any girls.”
“I promise, Ma,” he said, looking stricken.
“It happens to good girls, too, you know. Just be careful. Be careful with girls.”
“I promise. I will. I always will.”
He started her a cup of tea, and took her coat to hang up to dry, and then came back and sat with her. He held her free hand as she drank her tea, until she had herself back under control.
“You’re a good boy, Stevie,” she said. “Somebody’s going to love you so much, you need to be good to them. I know you will.”
When they were kids they’d slept in a lot of places. Couch-cushion forts in the living room, draping a sheet over the furniture to make a palace or a tent. “Okay, so, we’re soldiers,” Steve would say, and Bucky would roll his eyes but go along with it. Or they’d both wriggle onto Steve’s bed, which was narrow but so were they, back then.
They didn’t do it so much around the time they started high school. Bucky’d just kind of stopped staying the night so much, and Sarah hadn’t noticed anything and neither had his parents. If Steve had, he didn’t say anything about it, just chewed on his lip and looked at Bucky with pondering eyes, which was godawful annoying.
The first girl Bucky kissed was Marybeth Miller, in the fifth grade; she screamed like a stomped cat and hauled off and slugged him for it, so maybe he was a little gunshy.
The second girl Bucky kissed was Viola Lukins, in the ninth grade, and it was just a little kiss at the end of a dance, and she blushed like crazy and giggled and he had to hear about it for weeks from guys asking sing-song if she was his girlfriend. Finally they stopped, but not until he’d decided that kissing girls was an awful lot of trouble.
The third girl Bucky kissed was Eleanor Hawley, in the tenth grade, and it was amazing, and he couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t been doing more kissing. Why was it so amazing? Maybe because it was when they snuck out the back of the dance and sat on the stoop, talking a little, before they started kissing; maybe because she smelled like roses, maybe because she slid onto his lap while they kissed and she was so warm and he didn’t know where to put his hands but he settled on holding her waist and they just pressed their lips together and when they started breathing heavy, mouths a little open, he could feel how wet and soft and hot her mouth was, and he made a little noise in the back of his throat, and she giggled, but this time it didn’t bother him at all. It wasn’t until a door somewhere in the building slammed that she gasped and jumped up from his lap and said, “Come on, somebody’s going to see us!” and dragged him back in by his hand.
Bucky started trying to get Steve dates when Steve was sixteen. Steve protested, vigorously.
“I can’t dance,” he yelled from the bathroom.
“You’re not kidding,” yelled back Mr. McInnes from next door, through the bathroom wall.
“Thanks, Mr. McInnes,” he shouted directly at the wall. Mr. McInnes’ booming laugh came back through.
“Look,” said Bucky when Steve came back in, hair slicked and wet, “I’m not saying you have to be good at it. You just have to try.”
“I don’t want to try!”
“Come on. Angie’s your year, you could have fun.”
“She’s my year and she knows who I am. We’re not going to have fun. I don’t know how you got her to go.”
“I’m going with her big sister, this was better than staying home. Maybe she’ll like you.”
“Buck, I don’t like her. She never says anything in class.”
“Neither do you!”
“Yeah, but she seems scared. I just don’t want to.”
“So she’s mousy, you can work with that.”
“Work how?” Steve made a face. “I don’t—I don’t want to get anything out of it!”
“Not like that! Just, you know, have a good time. Small talk. Chit-chat. Say dumb stuff about people you know until you feel comfortable.”
“Is that what you do?” Steve looked genuinely curious and a little appalled.
“Huh. It sounds nuts.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You’ll try it out, because you’re coming tonight if I have to drag you there by your belt loops, Steve Rogers, I got you a date and you’re giving it a shot.”
After that, Bucky said, “Maybe it would help if you learned to dance.”
“That’s what I said, genius.”
“No, I mean—I could teach you.”
Steve laughed out loud. “Oh, what, you’re gonna lead? Nice.”
Bucky’s face went off-balance, mouth curling ruefully. “Okay, that would be weird.”
“I... okay, I guess I could just... show you? We wouldn’t have to dance together.”
“That’s the hard part!” Steve threw his hands up in the air. “Look, let’s make a deal, you don’t sign me up for any more dancing and we call it good.”
“Yeah,” said Bucky. “Sure.”
One time, when they were kids, twelve, thirteen, Bucky had said, “You want to practice kissing?”
Steve’s head had jerked up from the book he was reading and he just said, frowning, “No.”
Bucky had meant—nobody needed to—he just let it go.
The first girl Steve kissed was Evelyn Holligan, and she thought at the time how cool he was, not breaking into a sweat like the other boys she’d kissed, or shaking, or trying to get her to go any farther. But for all that, it was still nice; maybe more than nice. He was short and skinny, but so was she, and if he was mostly knobby elbows and bony knees, he held her like she’d seen movie stars do, one big hand spread out against the small of her back and the other resting at the nape of her neck, her arms laced around his neck. And he did heave a shuddering breath, rubbing her back a little, which felt like he was admitting something.
After, he’d asked to borrow her handkerchief to make sure there wasn’t any lipstick on him, and she was indignant until he held up the white cloth, smiling, and sure enough, there was a little mauve ghost of Lilac Heaven.
“You’ve got a reputation to keep, Evie,” he said, and she laughed.
“Evie and Stevie,” she said, a little delighted by it. But the next day at school, after she’d talked to Cathleen and Dot, they’d convinced her that however nice he was, he wasn’t the kind of boy she should go on more dates with. He seemed all right with that, which was a little insulting, wasn’t it? But convenient, at least.
At eighteen, Bucky felt restless all the time, a cold crawling in his skin. He would drag Steve to the movies, as often as he could. The October he was eighteen and Steve was seventeen, he made Steve go to a showing of Wings. Steve had told him it was his favorite movie as a kid, he’d gone to see it a bunch of times in a row, and Bucky had seen it once and kind of remembered it but not very well.
Jeez. He could see why Steve loved it. Heroism all over the place, the steady drumbeat of war. Nobody was happy to think about war just then—too much going on in Europe, too much to worry about—but Steve was, Steve always was. He stared at that screen like he wanted to eat it.
When the pilot realized he’d killed his best friend, Steve’s breath hitched, and Bucky glanced over at him, which was how he almost missed when the pilot leaned down and gave his friend a quick kiss that landed partly on his mouth. He blinked at the screen, so he wasn’t looking at Steve’s face, which was fine, probably fine.
Once, when Bucky had been drinking with his dad but his dad had gone to bed complaining about a headache, he tried to explain to his mom why Steve fought so much.
“See,” he said, “if you think, who’s going to win, then it doesn’t make any sense at all. Right? Steve’s not gonna win.”
She nodded, looking at him curiously.
“So it’s not about winning. Steve’s always doing it for something else. Make a point. Get somebody out of the way, if they’re in trouble, or making trouble, or just prove he won’t just take it.”
His mom’s mouth had half a smile on it, but still looked sad. He thought if she understood, maybe she would know there was no reason to look sad. Steve got beat a lot, but he didn’t mind it, not the way another guy would, a guy who thought he might win. Steve started fights to lose them. He knew he was going to lose them. If it wasn’t about winning the fight, then you always had to look at whatever Steve was winning by losing the fight.
And sure, it was pretty bad to see his face, sometimes. When he came staggering in with a shiner or a bloody nose or a fat lip. But he was doing all right.
Steve took French. Bucky never got tired of giving him shit about it: “Pardonnez-moi, m’sieur!” he would bellow. “Excusez-moi!”
Those happened to be the only two phrases he knew in French, but he was doing just fine with German, thanks, and when Steve said, “At least French sounds romantic, German sounds like you’re choking on something,” Bucky had wiggled his eyebrows and said, “Maybe that’s part of the charm! Who knows what—” and Steve had waved it away, busting up laughing, yelling “Stop, stop! My tender ears!”
Sitting up on the roof was popular when it was warm, so that was out of the question. The stoop wasn’t private, not with kids playing stickball (and yeah, so sometimes he’d help them, coach a little or something, but not today). In the end he dragged Steve down to the empty lot two blocks over, and then pulled the two bottles of beer out of his jacket with a flourish. Steve took one look at his face and laughed, a stupid loud honk, then clapped a hand over his mouth, eyes dancing.
“Oh, come on,” said Bucky, “I got these special! It’s an occasion!”
“Do I even want to know what this occasion is?” asked Steve, settling down against a pile of boards (quick glance back for nails, none, good).
“I got a job! I’m starting tomorrow.” He’d had little pick-up jobs before, but this one paid actual money. And wasn’t with his dad.
Steve looked—well, jealous, actually, but he shut it down fast. “That’s great, Buck!”
“I know. I can finally start taking care of some things myself. Tell my dad to stick it.”
“You’re going to finish the school year, though, right? Graduate?”
“Hell, yeah. I told Mr. McPherson I wouldn’t do it otherwise. He says it’s not a problem, he can always use more guys over the summer so I can work part-time before and then go full-time and if it works out I can stay on.”
“That’s—that’s really good.”
“Yeah, I’m having fantasies about getting my own place. Get some privacy for once.”
Steve actually went a little pale, and Bucky couldn’t tell—was he rubbing it in, should he shut up? He opened his mouth but Steve beat him to it.
“So you’ll, uh, you thinking about—settling down?”
“What?” Bucky’s eyebrows climbed up. “No! Soon? No, no. No.”
“Oh, okay. I just figured—” Steve shrugged. “Your own place, steady job. You could, if you wanted to.”
“Well, I don’t want to,” said Bucky. “Christ, I’m eighteen. I’m not—no.”
“Okay,” said Steve, and something eased in his shoulders, and Bucky pretend he hadn’t been looking for that, and he lifted his beer and took a long pull from it, and it was okay, really, then.
Steve handed his bottle to Bucky. Bucky flexed his wrists as he opened it, showing off. Steve took a drink and pulled a face at it, but drank again anyway.
The year the coldest winter hit, Steve was still seventeen and Bucky turned nineteen. The frost on the outside of the panes kept threatening to climb inside. Bucky would come over after work and surreptitiously smuggle some coal into their bin; if he timed it right Steve didn’t spot it, but if he slipped up Steve would frown at him deeply, visibly wounded.
Sarah was having a tough year at work. She was working extra shifts almost all the time, splitting time between two hospitals because one hospital wouldn’t let her work that much. The second place was a TB ward, and the first place wouldn’t have let her keep working there if they’d known, but she wasn’t stupid, she washed her hands real well and changed uniforms between, and so far so good.
Steve was sick, but not as sick as Bucky had been afraid. He coughed like he meant it, but he could still breathe pretty easily in between, and he wasn’t sick enough to let Bucky hover over him like a mother hen.
“Buck,” he said, sighing, waving away the towel. “I’m not breathing that.”
“You’re breathing steam if I have to knock you out to make you do it.”
They glared at each other over the pot of boiling water for a minute before Steve gave in, and got up from the couch to come over to the stove and prop his head under the towel.
“Alice says it’s good for your skin, anyway,” said Bucky.
Steve laughed reluctantly under the towel, and it only turned into a half-cough, quickly over. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s my problem with the girls, my skin.”
It wasn’t, of course. His skin was clear, clearer than any seventeen-year-old had a right to. Bucky, on the other hand, was always halfway through a horrible break-out. Alice probably hadn’t even told him about the steam, he’d probably read it in one of her magazines while he was trying to figure out what to do about his skin.
“Nah,” said Bucky, “your problem is you got no confidence.”
“I got plenty of confidence.”
“I’m not talking about getting in dumb fights.”
“Well, then I guess maybe it could be.”
Steve caught a flash of Bucky’s smile from under where his head was draped with the towel, which was rapidly wilting under the pressure of the steam.
The heat wave summer hit just before Steve’s eighteenth birthday. Bucky said, “Come on, let’s go to the beach.”
Steve groaned from the couch. “It’s not a bad idea. I’m just not convinced getting up is a good idea.”
Bucky was shuffling in the living room, tapping out little dance moves with his feet along to the radio. Summertime, crooned the radio—not Billie Holiday yet—and the livin’s easy.
“We don’t have to wear swimsuits with straps,” said Bucky. “Come on, it’s so hot!”
“Yeah, and the ride is gonna be hot, and the beach is gonna be hot, and the sand is gonna be hot, and I don’t know if it’s worth it to get up just to go be hot a bunch of other places.”
“Cool water,” wheedled Bucky. “Cool, clean water, the sound of the waves, fresh air, a breeze, come on, a breeze, don’t that sound good?”
Steve finally had to laugh, eyes still shut, and he said, “Fine. Fine, we’ll go. But I gotta see about borrowing a suit from Tim.”
“Okay, let’s do it!”
That day they ended up at Steeplechase Park (“STEEPLECHASE: THE FUNNY PLACE”), on the namesake ride. Everybody knew the horse with the most weight would go fastest on the track, so they’d pile onto the horses two at a time. Bucky climbed on first and glanced back over his shoulder, smiling. “Come on, Steve!” he yelled.
Steve turned the ticket around in his palm, climbed on behind Bucky. He wrapped his arms around Bucky’s waist and held on, tightening them as the horses started to move on their mechanical tracks. The wood under him was hot to the touch from the sunlight, which seemed like it just got hotter as it fell through the glass above them.
The drop in the pit of his stomach was just the ride starting up. He could smell the lime of Bucky’s hair cream from here.
Steve was so light they were never the fastest anyway, even though they doubled up.
“You want to do the Ferris wheel next?” Bucky called back over his shoulder.
Steve thought about sitting next to Bucky, maybe pressed against him if the car was full. “Sure,” he said.
The year Jessie Owens won the Olympics, Steve grinned broadly and punched Bucky lightly in the shoulder.
“They said he couldn’t do it!” he crowed. “Well, they can eat it.”
Bucky smiled back at him, fondly. “You can’t help yourself, can you? Always got to root for the underdog.”
“He was only the underdog because he’s black. White man could run like that, everybody would have called him the favorite.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
It was reassuring; you could set your watch by Steve Rogers’ desire to see somebody who wasn’t getting a fair shake win, against any and all odds.
(Except, perhaps, if they were up against the Dodgers.)
The punch took him by surprise. It was closed-fist and came from the shadows by the bar door, and it was a clumsy swipe but it still grazed his head.
“Christ! What the h—” Steve turned, but even as he was turning another punch came, and that one got him on the ground.
“Fucking fairy!” the guy shouted, and now he was looming over Steve. “What, did I mess up your hair?”
“What is your problem?” Steve yelled, starting to push himself up from the ground. “What the hell?”
The guy kicked him, hard, in the ribs, and that took him down, gasping. Steve could smell the reek of alcohol on him—stale and gross, the odor that comes from having been drunk long enough to start sweating it out.
“My problem is little cocksucking fairies like you,” the guy said, heavily, leaning over like he was going to kick again.
There were advantages to already being on the ground. Steve grabbed his ankle and yanked it out from under him.
When the asshole went down, Steve clambered to his feet. The ground was slick with rain, and the guy was drunk enough that he wasn’t going to get up again for at least a couple of minutes. Steve shouted at him, half-crouched above him, “Shut your mouth, asshole, or you want to tell your buddies you got your ass handed to you by some pansy kid?”
The drunk was breathing in ragged gasps. Steve didn’t like to hit a man while he was down, but he delivered a stinging backhand slap, and the drunk’s head lolled to the side, and then he turned and walked away. Briskly.
Nobody followed him. Guess the asshole hadn’t had any friends with him after all.
When he got home, Bucky was sprawled on the floor on his stomach, pillow tucked up under his chest, reading one of Steve’s bodybuilding magazines. He usually had one floating around.
“Jesus,” said Bucky when he got a look back over his shoulder, dropping the magazine. “What the hell happened to you?”
Steve touched his face—he hadn’t thought he was bleeding, but—oh. A bruise was already starting to puff up his right cheek.
“Some drunk on his way out of a bar thought I looked like a fairy and needed a lesson,” he said. “I won, though.”
Bucky shot to his feet. “What the hell!”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.” Steve laughed, going for a washcloth. “Got lucky, though, he didn’t have any friends with him. And he was so drunk he practically just fell down.”
Bucky reached out for Steve’s face, fingers carefully braced along jawline and cheekbone, tipping it back and forth in the light. He was squinting intensely at Steve. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. He got in a couple punches but like I said, I won.”
“You don’t get to say that very often.”
“Every once in a while.”
Bucky let go of his face, then hesitated. “Did he—do you know why he went after you?”
“No! It was the nuttiest thing! I was just walking by the bar and he must have just come out, and I think he wanted to pick a fight.” Steve sighed. “Okay, what is it?”
Bucky was staring at him, mouth twisted in thought. “I—maybe it’s the hair? It kind of looks—I don’t know, like you bleached it.”
“I’m blond! I’m Irish!”
“I know, I know, but maybe that asshole didn’t. Maybe he figured it was on purpose.”
“So what, you want me to dye my hair so I don’t get punched?” Steve laughed harshly. “This ain’t the first time I been called a fairy, it won’t be the last. I’m not a big guy. They figure they can win.”
Bucky was shaking his head. “No. Nah, you shouldn’t dye your hair. Just—you weren’t—you know, doing anyt—”
“What the hell? No, of course I wasn’t!”
“Okay, okay!” Bucky held up his hands, palms out. “Just, you know, it’s really something. Really something.”
“You’re telling me,” said Steve, pressing the damp washcloth to his cheek.
“You want me to get some ice?”
“Yeah, how much good is that going to do? I’m already going to swell up, I might as well not waste the ice.”
They went to see A Star is Born because people kept saying nice things about it, even though it meant a ride into the city on a train packed for the weekend, the subway smelling of mildew and sweat.
Before it started, there was a newsreel that had the Hindenburg, in all its huge blaze, almost but not quite glory; Steve couldn’t take his eyes off it, just stared and stared, marveling at how it looked up there in black and white, the film rolling by. Like it could be unwound, undone. But disasters only progress in one direction. The fire ate the shell off the frame like fire eating into a photograph, until the frame was naked, geometric, and then collapsing in on itself. Black smoke billowed up from it. “—the white-hot skeleton,” the announcer said breathlessly, “the incandescent tangle,” and he wasn’t wrong, it was incandescent, like the frame had been the filament of a lightbulb.
The movie was good, but on the way home, Bucky kept staring off into space as the train rattled along. Steve nudged his shoulder with his own.
Bucky looked over, still frowning. “Just—there was a thunderstorm, you heard that?” he asked. “That they rode out.”
“Yeah,” said Steve.
“Imagine that. You get through a thunderstorm in that thing, thinking maybe you’ll go up like a match, and then you’re ten minutes from landing on a flat damn field. And boom.”
“There’s always room for something worse to happen,” said Steve.
Bucky looked back out the window. “Yeah.”
When Bucky was twenty and Steve was nineteen, Steve came down with something awful, worse than the usual. It wasn’t just the coughing. He was burning up, he was a million degrees, and Sarah had to work, hovering at the foot of his bed anxiously until he pulled a smile out of somewhere and said, “Get on, Ma, you’re gonna be late,” and she was reassured enough by that to go. Jobs were thin on the ground, and she’d been selfish, keeping two.
So it wasn’t a surprise when Bucky came over. Ma had probably called him from the hospital.
“Hey, buddy,” said Buck, leaning over the bed. “You look like garbage.” It was a joke, but not really; Steve thought he should maybe laugh, but not really.
“Feel that way,” said Steve, and had to turn his head so he could cough and cough and cough. There was a whoop at the end of it.
“You need some water?”
Bucky grabbed a glass and went to get water, and when he came back he brought a couple of aspirin with it.
Steve sighed, looking at them, but palmed them and took them with the water without a fuss. He really was burning up. He could feel the fever, light and bright behind his eyes, making them ache, making his skin alternate between too hot and too cold.
Bucky disappeared and came back again with the Vap-O-Rub, and Steve couldn’t help making a face, even though his heart wasn’t in it.
“Don’t give me that,” said Bucky, but his voice had no heat in it. Just quiet and sad. So Steve pushed the blanket off his chest, and coughed a little more, and Bucky dipped his fingers into the jar and rubbed the salve on his chest, slow and thorough, like he always had.
“You gonna get married, Buck?” slurred Steve, eyes drifting shut again.
Bucky’s hand didn’t pause. “Dunno.”
“You should. You’d be a hell of a husband. Hell of a wife.”
“Already got Mom on my back about it, don’t need you, too.”
The slow, rhythmic circles were so soothing. Steve found himself starting to drop off to sleep. The fever dreams weren’t good, but they weren’t bad, either. Just uncomfortable, hot and too bright. Huge, spooling walls of color.
That was the time when the fever got so high it messed up Steve’s hearing, a little, even though he pretended nothing was the matter. Bucky figured it out—of course he did—but didn’t say. Just turned the radio up louder when they listened to it.
When he got close to graduating from high school, Steve was getting antsy. They needed more money than Ma was bringing in, even working as much as she did.
Getting the job as a clerk at the drugstore was a godsend, even if the hours were sparse. Mostly, it was because the pharmacist was somebody Ma knew from the old days, and when he moved back into the neighborhood and started working at the shop, she reached out and asked him if he knew anybody that might hire her skinny little smart-mouthed son.
Steve ended up missing work sometimes when he was sick, but not much. He didn’t get sick the way he had as a kid—not as much, anyway. He told the pharmacist, Mr. Brennan, as much. And if Mr. Brennan didn’t completely believe him, well, he never fired Steve, either. He let Steve out in time for the art tutoring he did for a little extra money (and the practice). And he always asked after Ma, even when she started to go downhill, later.
Sometimes he thought it was funny, that out of all his friends he was the one who could buy rubbers if he wanted to without anyone having to know. Not like he was going to, not like he had any use for them. He thought sometimes he should have gone into the priesthood, after all.
Mr. Brennan kept a bottle of Scotch in the back, in his little room, where he slept. One night at closing he said, “Steve, my boy, have a glass with me.”
He leaned back on the bed, back against the wall, while Steve tried to get comfortable in the straight-backed chair. They toasted, and then Mr. Brennan said, “My boy, I’m worried about this war.”
Steve didn’t have to ask what he meant. The papers were full of it, getting louder and louder, Hitler starting to creep into everyone’s territory. He just nodded, trying to sip at the scotch without making a face. It tasted like something he’d strip paint with.
Mr. Brennan leaned forward, a look on his face so serious it could have been comical. “I really hoped,” he said, “that after the last one we’d be done with it. But the damn Germans can’t be done, can’t they? So promise me something.”
“I—sir?” said Steve.
“They’ll start drafting us all again. It’s just a matter of time. So when they draft me, promise me you’ll find a good boy, somebody responsible, like you, to help run the store. Hell, or a skirt. Doesn’t matter so much, in wartime. I just want a shop to come back to.”
There were so many shades of unfair in that it was hard to parse them all out, but instead of saying Don’t you think I’ll go, too? or You’re too old for them to want to draft you, he looked at Mr. Brennan’s face, a little sweaty in the chill room, and said, “I promise.”
“Good boy, Stevie,” he said, settling back. “Just like your dear ma said.”
Snow White came out, and after Steve spent days talking about what an achievement it was and how interesting it would be to see the animation, which was all supposed to be hand-painted, on glass plates, but in full color, Bucky said, “Enough, already! Let’s go. Tomorrow night.”
Steve beamed liked Bucky had made a great concession—like they didn’t go to the movies all the damn time anyway.
The theater was pretty packed, and the seats right in front of theirs were taken by a couple, probably seventeen or eighteen. They started out just smiling and leaning together over popcorn, the boy offering the girl in her neat pinned-up brown hair and tight-busted dress the box, and she smiled back at him with red-painted lips.
After the lights had gone down, the girl put her hand on the armrest between them, and the boy’s hand covered hers.
When Snow White was running in fear through the forest, the boy’s arm slipped up over the girl’s shoulders, and she leaned in to it. By the end of the movie, when the lights came up, they were curled together like they’d always been right there.
When Hitler took over Austria, Mr. Brennan spent the whole day staring at the paper, folding it, unfolding it again.
“This is no good, Steve, my boy,” he said. “No good at all.”
“Yes, sir,” said Steve, unpacking the new shipment of cigars. They smelled rich and dark, a hell of a lot better than they smelled when someone was actually smoking one.
“He was born there, you know. I think he always wanted it back. Always.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” said Steve. He dragged the stepstool over to get up to the shelves behind the counter.
“But it’s just a taste, to him. Just a taste. I know wolves like that. He’ll want more blood.”
“I didn’t think there was any blood,” said Steve, balancing on one foot while he just barely stepped up onto a lower shelf to reach the higher one. “Wasn’t it supposed to be peaceful?”
“Just a matter of time.”
Steve would have liked to disagree, but sliding a box into place, paper catching on the box next to it, he thought of the grim face in the papers, stories of crimes against Jews, and he didn’t.
As it turned out, Mr. Brennan was right sooner rather than later. The SS Blackshirts killed a man, a monarchist, two days later, and it was on the front page of the paper. Maybe he was threatening them, maybe he wasn’t; maybe he shot himself (but he probably didn’t).
Mr. Brennan left early. “Close up for me, Steve,” he said, on his way out. “Regular time.”
I speak in the name of millions of inhabitants of this wonderful German land, the newspaper read, and Steve set it down. Mr. Brennan had laid it aside in the morning.
“What do you think?” he asked Bucky that night, over a sandwich at the automat. “Think Mr. Brennan’s right?”
Bucky said, “I hope to God not.” But his eyes were grim and sad.
The front page had led with Deny Jews Vote in Austrian Shakeup. Crowds cheer at intimation Hitler aims to be Emperor.
Nobody needed an emperor anymore. This wasn’t Rome, and besides, look how that had ended.
Sarah died when Steve was twenty-one.
She’d gotten sick when he was twenty. It was ugly, and painful. Steve kept sending her letters in the sanatorium, but the sanatorium wasn’t one of the nice places, because they could never have afforded that. Her life insurance was just enough to cover the funeral, and Steve had a feeling that the insurance man had talked to the undertaker, but what the hell. He just wanted it over with.
Bucky started out offering him rides, but pretty quick Buck stopped offering and started just showing up, because he’d figured that out—that Steve had a hard time saying yes. And normally he would have just ragged on Steve until Steve said yes, but not now. This was different.
Lots of things were different.
After the funeral (Ma in her coffin had looked nothing like herself—just wasted, thin and frail, with the halo of sad straggly blonde hair, and it was exhausting to see her like that, he felt more tired than he’d felt in years), Bucky walked back up the steps with him to the place Steve had moved into when Ma went into the sanatorium. It had felt like letting her down, but there was just no way he was going to be able to keep to old place without the nursing money coming in. Bucky had argued with him then, too. “Why don’t you come live with me? Just until you—until things are settled?” but Steve had said no, and Bucky had looked tragic, like Steve had hit him.
So it started up again, and Steve shook his head, again, and said, “I can make it on my own.”
Bucky leaned in toward him and said—low and fierce, almost angry—“but you don’t have to,” and Steve couldn’t answer that.
“I’m with you to the end of the line,” said Bucky.
That night he thought about making a fort of pillows on Bucky’s floor, like when we were kids, but he didn’t feel like a kid anymore. Maybe he should, maybe he should feel small and scared and alone, but instead he just felt tired.
They went to the Fair in the fall of ’39, a couple of months after, long enough that Steve was maybe okay with being distracted. They surfaced from the subway at the Amusement Zone.
“Wow,” drawled Bucky, dryly, “a whole zone for amusement. That’s got to be good.”
Steve was flipping through a guide. “Okay, what do we want to start with? We aren’t going to get to see the whole thing. Got to pick.”
“I heard Dali’s is wild,” said Bucky, squinting down over Steve’s shoulder, twisting his neck to see the map. When he had their location pegged, he started tugging Steve that direction with one hand on his wrist. The building was pretty—tall and creamy, covered in plaster coral, some of it painted red. Dream of Venus, in big red letters. A girl out front was waving people in, wearing a bikini with a bathrobe over it. It was extra money, but Bucky got them in.
Steve felt himself starting to turn red almost immediately. Dali’s mermaids were topless, by and large. Some larger than others. There was a girl sitting in what was supposed to be an undersea diorama or something, combing her hair, fiddling with it, looking bored. Her breasts were small and round, with little pink nipples, pert as anything. Bucky smiled in at her, but it was like she didn’t see him.
Where they could see another mermaid swimming, Steve looked away, face still hot. The windows into the tank went high up the walls, and her suit covered pretty much everything except her breasts, fabric cut out around them. This one came up to the glass, smiled and flirted, did barrel-rolls under the water. Bucky grinned and wiggled his fingers at her in a little wave. Steve held down the urge to kick him in the ankle.
When they left, Steve quiet and still feeling the heat in his face, Bucky said, “You hate it that much, buddy?”
Steve just shrugged. “I guess.”
“Okay. Well, let’s see what’s next.” Bucky didn’t even suggest the Crystal Lassies, thank God, or the Sun Worshipers, which—Steve could kind of see one of the girls near the entrance, probably on purpose for advertising, and she wasn’t wearing much of anything on her top half, just what looked like a little cover-up made out of the same material as pantyhose. Which didn’t really cover anything.
Past that was the Parachute Jump. “You want to do that one?” asked Bucky.
“Let’s do it.”
Steve wasn’t sure where Bucky had the extra money for the Fair from, but—Bucky hadn’t looked happy a lot lately. And today seemed like it was a good day, his face smoothing out, smiling up into the sun. So he said, “Sure,” and followed.
The line was annoyingly long, and they bickered a little over whether Steve was too punk to even go on these things, and whether Bucky was a jerk for suggesting it, and what they should go see after, and whether they should get food next. They got up to the ride, eventually, and Steve had to take a deep breath as they got strapped in to it.
Nobody was saying war too loud yet but he couldn’t help but think about it, whether Bucky was going to end up in one of these things for real, whether he was.
The lift to the top was excruciating, and when it finally went out from under him and the whole thing plunged down, he couldn’t help the sharp gasp. He didn’t look at Bucky, strapped in next to him, just at the buildings all around, the splashes of color and the rows of trees and—they stopped with a jerk, and he felt wrung-out, limp.
They got free and on the way out, Bucky said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Nah,” said Steve, “guess not.”
“Probably a good thing we did it before lunch.”
“You throw up once,” said Steve.
“But what a once!” Bucky was grinning. “Come on. Penguins or dancers?”
So they went to see the dancers jitterbugging, and Bucky’s toe tapped along, humming a little, smiling. And they went to see the penguins (Steve liked the penguins better than the exhibit, although Bucky insisted on reading everything before he’d let them leave the island).
They turned in to see an exhibit labeled “FROZEN ALIVE” in huge block letters, white on dark blue, with “DEATH-DEFYING FEAT” under it in smaller letters.
“Well, hell,” said Bucky, “I want to see a death-defying feat.”
“Fine,” said Steve, “but I bet there aren’t any penguins.”
There weren’t. There was a girl, who was going to be encased in a block of ice. It took Steve a minute to catch on to what was happening, but she was standing next to what looked like a coffin made of ice, thick but still clear enough he figured you could mostly see through it. She wasn’t wearing much, just some heels and a shining white swimsuit, and a big smile. Her hair was brass-blonde and piled up on her head in big curls. The announcer was talking a mile a minute, explaining that she’d be in the ice for as long as they could possibly leave her in, risking death with every passing moment.
“Doesn’t sound like a good time,” he mumbled to Bucky, who nudged his shoulder and shushed him. Somebody next to him in the crowd jostled him a little.
When it was time for her to go in, they pulled back one of the slabs on top, and she shimmied out of her swimsuit (which left Bucky’s eyebrows raised and a little grin on his mouth) and stepped out of her heels into the coffin.
She laid down, full-length, and they slid the slab back into place over top of her. Steve could make out the curls of her hair through the ice. Over the back of the stage there was more writing, Frozen Alive Girl! Coast to Coast! Exotic!
She stayed in there for a long time, long enough that Steve was starting to worry, imagining her pale skin turning red and then blue with it—trying to picture what it would be like to be that cold, for so long, just staring at the ice just a couple of inches in front of her eyes.
When they finally let her out, she swung her legs out, and threw her arms wide to cheers from the crowd. Her skin was red everywhere it had been touching or close to the ice, but she looked fine.
“I’ll be damned,” said Bucky, as they started to walk away. “I thought for sure it would be some kind of trick, but I don’t think it could be.”
“I know,” said Steve. “They couldn’t have put anybody else in there or anything, I could see her the whole time.”
Bucky shook his head. “Hell of a way to get paid.”
They wandered out into the other zones. When they made it to the Community Interests zone, Steve loved the art teaching exhibit. “Of course you do,” sighed Bucky, rolling his eyes, as Steve stared at the students all drawing. “And of course a girl topless here is different than a girl topless somewhere else.”
Steve pulled out their guide to the Fair and a pencil from his pocket and in a few quick lines dashed off a figure drawing of her. “Wow,” said Bucky, peering over his shoulder at it. “You’re barely even looking at her.”
“You get used to working fast if you want to draw people,” said Steve, trying not to preen. “They’re always moving even if you ask them to hold still.” He shot Bucky an accusatory glance, and Bucky laughed.
They both loved Futurama. Bucky liked the seats speeding sideways, and Steve liked how crisp and well-organized everything looked. The city spreading away underneath them, lines stretching out, making the city look clean and happy.
“What do you think you’re going to be doing by the time they make cities like that?” he asked after they walked out.
Bucky frowned over at him. “Retired, maybe.”
Steve shrugged, dodging a pair of giggling girls. “You know what I mean. You going to work there forever?”
“I’ll work there as long as it makes sense to work there. How long you going to work at the drugstore?”
“Long as it takes for the Louvre to recognize my talents.”
“You’re going to be waiting a long time.”
“Speaking of the Louvre, you want to go see the art exhibit?”
“The paintings? Sure.”
Steve loved wandering around looking at the Old Masters. The museums in the city were great, but this was something else again, piece after piece he’d only seen in books from the library.
They did make it to see the Perisphere and the Trilon, tilting their heads back to stare up at the huge slender needle and the giant white sphere from the moving walkway. Democracity was neat. It felt like everywhere they looked, there were echoes of the coming war. Just a matter of time.
At the very end of the night there was an Aquatic Cavalcade that Bucky insisted they had to see, and the performers were all done up in red, white, and blue. It was a hell of a spectacle, huge and bright and beautiful, and Steve thought, Wonder what next year is going to look like.
They went to see Wizard of Oz as soon as it came out, braving the crowds. The moment when everything went Technicolor was amazing, just amazing. Bucky stared at it, heart in his throat.
When the Tin Man started talking, though, his blood went cold.
Afterwards, it was like Steve hadn’t noticed anything. Steve kept going on about how great the colors were. Bucky smiled and nodded, throat tight, and he looked down at the plate of French fries they were splitting.
“You okay?” asked Steve, finally, not quite looking at him.
Bucky nodded. “Yeah. Just. Got a lot on my mind.”
“Like what?” Steve nudged Bucky’s elbow with his own. “You getting serious with Annie?”
“No. Nah, I’m, I’m actually thinking we might be winding down.” Winding down. He’d been finding reasons not to see her for three weeks. He figured she’d take the hint, sooner or later.
“Oh. That’s a shame.”
“She’s a nice girl.”
“There are lots of nice girls out there, Stevie.” He stared at the fry in his hand. “Doesn’t mean every one of them has to be right for me.”
“Yeah,” said Steve, but he looked a little confused.
“Anyway. The movie was great.”
Steve’s face lit up with a smile. He leaned forward, jabbing a fry at Bucky. “Damn right! They had fun with it, too. Flying monkeys, melting witches, and did you see how bright the ruby slippers were?”
“I remember them silver in the book,” said Bucky.
“They were. But you think they were going to go silver for Technicolor? Not a chance.”
Bucky let him keep talking. Let him keep waving the fries around. Just watched him talk, smiled at the right times, tried not to think about the lisp and lilt of the Tin Man’s voice or the way the Cowardly Lion had said I’m just a... dandy lion, the knowing smile on the face of the woman on his right when she’d elbowed her friend partway through.
Hitler invaded Poland.
Annie broke up with Bucky.
Steve said, “Ah, jeez. I’m sorry.”
They went out to a bar, and Bucky bought them each a beer. “I ought to be buying for you,” said Steve, “considering the circumstances.”
“Just don’t get in a fight and we’ll call it even.”
Steve managed not to, for once. It was a good night.
They went to see Gone With the Wind when it came out, and Steve kept jittering, excited to see the book up on the screen.
“I hear it’s good,” he said.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Yeah, you’ve only said that about ten times. You know saying it more won’t make it more true, right?”
Steve rocked up onto his toes in the line, hands jammed in his pockets. “It was a pretty good book.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You should read it sometime! It’s not bad.”
Bucky was watching the little clouds of steam from Steve’s mouth. It was a cold night, too cold, and getting Steve home later was going to mean watching that stubborn son of a bitch shiver through all the streets between the theater and home. His jacket wouldn’t keep a dog warm, and a dog had a built-in fur coat.
When they finally got into the theater, Steve had to blow his runny nose, and Bucky sprang for a bucket of popcorn to share while Steve saved his seat.
By the time he made it back in, the newsreel was just starting. Steve waved him down, and he watched as the announcer gravely told them about troop movements as the Germans angled for Scandinavia. The papers were up to date more, but the newsreels made it seem more real.
The movie was long, damn long, but good. The Civil War seemed remote enough that Bucky could watch it without thinking too much—
“You're afraid of what may happen if the war comes, aren't you? But we don't have to be afraid for us. No war can come into our world, Ashley. Whatever comes, I’ll love you, just as I do now, until I die.”
Steve was watching intently, the whole time, like he was trying to memorize the movie. Bucky held out the popcorn for him and he reached in without looking, fingers swiping through the puffy little kernels.
On screen, Ashley was failing to be romanced by Scarlett’s best advances. Bucky and Steve sat together, watching the blond Southern gentleman try and fail to make himself clear, push her away for real, Rhett smiling like a demon. Bucky ate the rest of the popcorn without remembering to share.
On the way out Steve said, “See, Buck, wasn’t that worth seeing?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Bucky. But he cut Steve a half-smile, and out of the corner of his eye he could see how pleased Steve looked with it.
When he was turning twenty-three, Bucky’s skin had cleared up completely, and he was a better dancer than ever—strong enough that he could dance for hours, almost non-stop. Girls liked that; he tried not to get their hopes up, so he didn’t dance with the same girl too much. He loved the heat of the dance floor, the way his heart would pound, their hands in his and the quick bright noise of their feet in the floor, tapping in time.
Steve said, “Bucky, when you going to settle down? You keep taking out pretty girls, they’re going to start thinking you’re only after one thing.”
“Hey, maybe I am,” said Bucky, and Steve laughed.
“Yeah, right,” he said, sizing up Bucky fondly. “You think you’re fooling anybody with that big talk? I know high schoolers these days who’ve gotten further than you have.”
“So long as none of them got anywhere with you,” said Bucky, “I won’t have to perish from the shame.”
Later, after they’d decided Steve would stay for dinner, Bucky said, from the stove, “Besides, I don’t know—I don’t want to get hitched if I’m just—if I’m going to have to leave.”
Steve didn’t have to ask. That made sense, didn’t it? It had been six, seven months since Hitler tore into Poland like he owned the place. Everyone could feel the air shifting. And for everyone who said we should mind our own damn business, somebody else was pointing out that guys like Hitler didn’t know the meaning of the word enough.
“He’s somebody you can’t trust to back down,” said Bucky. “No matter what. I got a feeling he’s not going to stop until somebody stops him.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “I think you’re right.” He glanced down, setting the second plate on the table. “Wish it could be me.”
“You’re nuts,” said Bucky flatly. “Nobody wants to go over there. It’s going to be a mess. And you’d get beaten to a fucking pulp.”
Steve dropped the spoon with a clatter. “At least I’d try. If somebody’d give me a chance.”
Bucky’s shoulders tensed up harder, and when he turned around with the saucepan, his mouth was a hard, thin line.
“Right, Rogers,” he said. “The problem is all the assholes who won’t let you kill yourself. I get it.”
They ate in frosty silence until Bucky visibly relented and said, “You want to see the Friday game?”
“Yeah.” Steve dunked the bread into the soup. “That sounds good.”
They didn’t talk about it again for a while.
Steve shook out the paper about a week after Bucky’s birthday. The front-page headline was a boxer who’d been caught and confessed to a murder, a brutal beating of a German consulate attaché.
As he browsed the story with about half-interest, he caught the words improper advances and stopped suddenly. His eyes skimmed back up to catch the context.
It was after improper advances were made that he struck him ‘in a fury,’ said Haas
“keep my wife out of this” the confessed murderer had said
They’d gone back to the attaché’s house—why? It wasn’t clear—and they had retired to the bedroom and then [Police reported Dr. Engelberg then made improper advances]
He struck the doctor in the face with his fist. After that, he became angry and picked up something (doesn’t know what it was) and struck the doctor again.
His heart was pounding. He could feel the slight thrill of it in his chest, vibrating with the sudden demand.
found lying in a relaxed position, with hands unclenched, as if he had been struck down in his sleep
A number of points in the prisoner’s story, police said, called for at least further clarification
Struck down in his sleep. Improper advances. Retired to the bedroom.
Steve’s hands were shaking as he set the paper down. Would—it was in the paper, it started on the front page. Of course everyone was going to read it. No point in trying to shield anybody from it.
Of course if they could prove there’d been improper advances—Haas would have an easier time of it, wouldn’t he? Because everybody would figure, the jury would figure, the guy had deserved it somehow.
Haas—Kehler, his real name was—the boxer, went on trial near the end of February. They covered it in the papers again. Men, and men alone, fit into the crime which was uncovered on Dec. 6. And then, in that tone, that unbearable tone, At first it was thought there might be international espionage entanglements but soon there were revealed only the sordid details of a 42-year-old bachelor’s private life.
bloody fingerprints, a large bathrobe and size 11 bedroom slippers bedroom slippers, Christ, hit in the head while he slept
And the next day there was a story about selecting jury talesmen. Possibles being excluded for admitting they didn’t like Hitler—that was something, wasn’t it—and We must know, too, if the jurors have any prejudice because Engelberg was afflicted with a sexual perversion.
Turkus again asked: “Would you be influenced if he were a Nazi and a homo-sexual?” Sheridan said he would not.
Bucky went out with some guys from work. He didn’t invite Steve. They wouldn’t have liked him, he wouldn’t have liked them. (Bucky didn’t like them, much, but they were all right.)
They went to a bar, a grimy nasty little place, and Bucky paced himself so he was never quite as drunk as they were.
They told jokes, practically screaming them. “See, a fag gets home,” said Claude, “and he finds a man in bed with his wife. He’s telling his friend about it later and his friend says, ‘So what did you do? Did you let her have it?’ and he says, ‘You bet I did! I really slammed that door on my way out!’”
Bucky smiled over the rim of his bottle while the other guys hooted with laughter.
In mid-March, after two weeks of running into reminders in the papers when he least expected it, hearing murmurs about it at the shop, Haas was convicted. Steve’s hands shook, just barely, as he read Judge Brancato told the jurors... “This was a clever, shrewd murder.”
Twenty years for manslaughter. Well, it was something.
That was the spring Bucky started acting like a freak, if Steve had to nail it down later. He was over at Steve’s almost every day after work. Jumpy at everything, worrying about Steve all the time—worse than usual. He was always looking like he was waiting to find a firecracker under his pillow. It went on all spring, and into the summer.
“Jesus, Buck,” said Steve one evening when a car backfiring had him jerking bolt upright in the chair by the window, where he’d been just sitting and listening to the radio with a sock he was darning (one of Steve’s, though Steve hadn’t been about to point it out to him).
Bucky shook his head and ran his hand over his face. “Christ, I don’t know. I’m just—things got me on edge.”
The radio murmured at them softly about Hitler’s terrifying progress. The Battle of Britain.
“You think about what it must be like, to be over there?” asked Bucky, softly. The darning egg and the sock sat forgotten in his lap. He was staring out into nothing. “Getting bombed. All the damn time.”
Steve said, “Hm.”
“I can’t imagine,” said Bucky. He shut his eyes and leaned back. “I’ve tried. Can’t. It’s hard enough to get a life started over here with none of that.”
“What life are you starting?” asked Steve, absently, working on a sketch he was supposed to have done for the woman who was buying it two days ago. “Haven’t seen you settling down.”
Bucky looked down at the darning egg in his lap and snorted out a laugh. “Looks like you’re the lucky prizewinner,” he said.
Steve laughed, obligingly, and dropped his eyes to his sketchbook. And after a minute, Bucky picked the sock back up and started working on it again.
They didn’t make it back to the World’s Fair that year, which was probably for the best. Money was tighter than usual for Steve while he tried to put more time in on his art. The museum where he’d been taking some classes had been dangling out the hope of maybe getting to teach a class of his own, and he was ramping up for it. Bucky came over the weekend after Steve’s birthday and found that he’d actually set up a real little oil painting station in his living room—he’d clearly built the easel himself from scrap, Steve always was bad with a hammer, but there were smears of paint on the canvas.
“Hey,” he said, “what’s that?”
Steve glanced over. “More like what it’s going to be. Right now I’m just doing the underpainting.”
“Oh.” Bucky watched Steve pulling the pot of oatmeal off the stove, rooting around in the cupboard for the condensed milk. “You see the news about the bombing?”
“At the Fair? Yeah. Hell of a day to do it.” It had been the Fourth, Steve’s birthday. Steve had seen Bucky, just for a couple minutes when Bucky was on his way home from work. He’d come by and dropped off Steve’s presents—a new shirt from him and a pair of knit socks from his mom—and then he’d had to leave again.
“They know who did it yet?”
“Don’t think so.”
Later, Steve’s memories of that fall would be gilded with brilliant sunlight, a little harsh, a little chill, but still pouring over the world like molten gold. It was special because it was the last fall, even though he didn’t know it then. He thought Bucky might have known. Suspected, at least.
The induction center was cold. It got to Bucky, gave him goosebumps on top of goosebumps. The waiting room was full of men, lacking chairs for everybody, and the line rolled along so slowly he wasn’t sure there was one.
When it was finally his turn, of course he had to take his clothes off for the physical. The doctor wasn’t bothering with smiles; he just waved at the drawers and said “Off with ‘em, kid.”
So Bucky stripped out and stood naked, and the doctor left him like that while he listened to his chest, his back, his gut.
The doctor straightened up, pulling the stethoscope out of his ears and draping it around his neck. “So, you like girls?” he asked, like he didn’t care what the answer was.
“Like ‘em just fine,” said Bucky, and the words left his mouth naturally.
“Put your clothes on and go through that door, to the left. Fingerprinting.”
Fingerprinting was messy, and still cold. The black ink was thick and sticky and felt like he’d dipped his fingers into tar. The card with his prints, set aside to dry, caught his eye for a minute. But then it was on to scrubbing his hands off as best he could, and armed with a serial number, 32557038, and then he had to swear an oath, for God’s sake.
"That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America; that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all enemies whomsoever; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles of war."
He mumbled his way through it, and then got the hell out of that room. In the men’s room he splashed cold water on his face, took a deep breath. The other guys trying not to freak out, either, didn’t say anything.
When Bucky said “I’m going into the service,” it took Steve a long time to figure out what he meant.
Bucky was fiddling with his hat, turning it over and over, and Steve said, “Wha—what? The service?”
“Army. I’m leaving next week.”
Steve stood there, hands still full of laundry.
“Oh,” he said.
Bucky’s mouth was wobbling—he was chewing on his lip. He said, “I’m sorry. I know—I know you wanted to go.”
“I did,” said Steve. “I do.”
“It just—it was time.”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Heading to Georgia soon. With the 107th.”
“107th?” Steve slowly lowered his handful of shirts into the wash water. “Oh.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” said Bucky, in a rush, “it just—it worked out that way.”
“Okay. No. It’s okay, Buck. I’m—I’m proud of you.”
“I didn’t want to go without you.”
“I know. But it’s better this way. If I—don’t get over there, you should get started. You’ll get promoted.”
Bucky leaned against the edge of the tub. “I need to know—tell me you’ll write.”
“I’ll write. All the time. You’ll get sick of it.”
“And send me cookies.”
“You want my cookies? They’re crap.”
“I want your cookies.”
“How am I going to know, uh, where to write? What about when they move you?”
“They forward it. It doesn’t always work I guess, but I’ll keep sending you my address. Don’t—don’t move, okay? If you move send me the new address first.”
“Yeah, no, I’m not going to move. Not unless they let me in.”
Getting the letter was bad. Greetings. But Steve thinking he’d volunteered—letting Steve think that—it was worse, but it was better.
Steve didn’t tell anyone when he tried the first induction center. There was no one left to tell. The doctor frowned at him, and before they even got started on the interview, he said, “Son, let me listen to your lungs.”
Steve took deep breaths as directed, tried not to let them rattle. Useless. The doctor moved the cold disc from one side of his back to the other, then again, and again, and around to his chest, up under his collarbone.
The doctor pulled back, shaking his head. “I’m going to go ahead and end this. Your lungs are in a sorry state, son. I’m sorry, but you’re not going anywhere but right back home.”
The train down to Camp Stewart was so boring Bucky had to consider the possibility that he might actually die of it. He had a scrap of letter to Steve half-started, and another to Mom and Becca and Angelica and Bets, but the motion made it hard to write, made a little bit of nausea creep around behind his eyes. He didn’t get carsick, hadn’t since they bought the car when he was fifteen, but the train was cramped, close and sweaty, and it was different.
“Where you from?” asked the guy next to him, short and young, too young. Bucky was only twenty-three but this kid couldn’t be more than eighteen, and four years felt like it might as well be a million.
“Brooklyn,” he said.
“Yeah. Born and raised.”
“That’s pretty neat. I’m from Jersey. Not any big city. Little place, Masonville.”
“Yeah?” said Bucky, not sure they really needed to be having a conversation. The short kid had been napping earlier and had woken up, eyes blinking into the twilight of the train. It was getting too dark to be writing anyway.
“Yeah, it’s not bad. My name’s Roy.”
“How’d your family take it?”
“Not bad,” he said. There’d been wailing and gnashing of teeth, but in the end they’d been all right. He hadn’t been able to lie to them about being drafted, not looking into his mother’s eyes.
Roy leaned back and sighed. “My mom had a cow. I’m her only boy, she kept saying ‘Well, when are you going to get married? I’m not getting any younger, I want grandchildren before I die, carry on the family name,’ all that jazz.”
“Jeez,” said Bucky, trying to sound sympathetic.
“My dad’s dead, though. So she worries more.”
“My dad keeps a shop,” said Bucky, and then wished he could take it back immediately. Roy perked up at this piece of information.
“Yeah? That must be pretty neat. I always thought it would be fun to go into a shop after close and just play around.”
Bucky half-snorted, half-laughed. “I don’t think Dad would have been very happy if I’d done that.”
“Yeah, well, just an idea. You got any idea what you want to do in the service?”
Bucky shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’d be good at.”
“I’m hoping for something where I get to stay far away from any action. I think I’d be a good supply clerk, something like that.”
“Not a chance!” Roy laughed. “I want to do my time and come home safe, you know?”
“Yeah,” said Bucky. “Me, too.”
“At least it’s not the Navy. I know, I know, people say that Navy is easier, but you know how long they go without even seeing any girls on those ships?” Roy shook his head.
“Look, I think I’m going to try to get some shut-eye,” said Bucky. Roy nodded and, for once in his goddamned life, shut the hell up.
Setting up in the barracks was easy enough. He just chucked his stuff onto a bed halfway down the room in the middle and called it good.
The shouting from the drill sergeant started right off the bat, which was fine. What use was having a dad if you didn’t get used to shouting?
Steve went to the movies a couple of weeks after Bucky left. It was weird, going by himself. The last couple of years it seemed like they always worked it out so they’d get one night every week or two where they had the time and the money to go and watch something, maybe something new and fancy, or a solid old double-feature.
He wasn’t even sure what he ended up picking, sitting there in the quiet theater with his empty hands sitting loosely in his lap. Nothing about war. The newsreel came on.
“In Washington State,” the announcer droned, urgently, “the massive Tacoma Narrows Bridge has suffered from catastrophic failure. Like a nightmare, high above the river, the bridge twists and turns in a way you would not believe unless you could see it for yourself, as you do now.”
Steve stared. The bridge was pulling like taffy, twisting almost completely around. It writhed like a living thing, like a snake, yanking at the cables pinning it until those tore, and then it started to fall apart from the center out, huge chunks of the bridge dropping into the river beneath it.
When it finally stopped, there were hunks of metal jutting out from the remnants of the bridge on either side. They looked sharp, broken like that, torqued to breaking.
He pressed the flat of his palm into his leg, slowly, increasing the pressure until it distracted him from how it felt to watch the bridge collapse. He knew something about falling apart. Leaving a few pillars standing, cables dangling in the wind.
Hey, you pill. Are you still in basic training? Thanks for the postcards, looks like it’s not too bad down there. This winter’s a hell of a thing, snow everywhere, but not as bad as that big one a couple years back. Drew you a Christmas tree in case those losers forget you need one, you big sap.
Bucky set down the letter, stared off into space for a minute. It had come a couple weeks to Christmas, with a book—that was great, even if Steve’s idea of good reading was a history book about Abe Lincoln. What, did he need to be inspired?
The Christmas tree he’d drawn in had the angel topper Bucky’s family always used, and some ornaments he could recognize, too. There was a present drawn in under it with a little arrow and a note that read “will send it soon.”
“You heading down to the store?” asked Clarence, sticking his head around the corner of the door.
“Maybe,” said Bucky. “Why, you guys going down?”
“Yeah, think so.”
“Okay, I’ll come with. Hang on.” He jammed his feet into his shoes, dropping the book he’d been working on, and joined Clarence and Frank and Eugene, who was trying very hard not to acquire the nickname “Yoooo-Gene” for how he said it.
The store was small, chilly like everything was chilly but with a stifling quality to it from being closed up overnight. Bucky leaned against a counter and browsed the postcards, thumbing through them—he’d already sent Steve two, but hell, maybe another one. Maybe another one for his mom, too.
“Jesus,” said Frank under his breath, next to him.
Bucky glanced up. What—oh. There was a fairy with what looked like a working girl, next to him, just looking at the candy like he didn’t have a care in the world. He wasn’t bad-looking, really skinny, bad skin, maybe a couple inches shorter than Bucky, and he didn’t look like he was trying to get some trade, either. He was talking to the girl, who wasn’t wearing any makeup—who would, middle of the afternoon, with the weather like this—and they weren’t even paying attention to the soldiers.
“Huh,” agreed Bucky.
He figured they’d leave it alone, but Frank was tense, and Eugene was catching it, glancing up at both of them and then to the fairy and the girl and then back. Clarence was over looking longingly at soap and hair cream and paying no goddamn attention. Jesus, like he was going to need hair cream in the Army.
“Think I’m going to get a postcard,” said Bucky, with some unnecessary emphasis, making Frank look back at over him. “Maybe a couple. What do you think my mom would like?”
That kept Frank from starting any shit for a couple of minutes, Bucky criticizing the postcards (“why’s it so purple? there isn’t any purple around here”) and playing dumb (“how often do you think I should write her? how often are you writing your mom?”), and by the time Frank remembered, the kid had paid for some candy and left with the girl, and the tension that had been worse than the weather was gone.
Some of the guys—okay, most of the guys—would get into trouble in town if anybody gave them half a chance. So mostly the COs didn’t give them a chance, but sometimes they took one anyway. And Bucky was nothing if not bold, so he went along one night.
The guys he was with were headed to pick up working girls. Bucky said, “You know, I really just want a drink,” and they let him ditch the party to head into a bar. He figured one beer and then back to base, but he ended up getting sidetracked.
The kid from the store was there. He was leaning across the bar, talking quietly to the bartender. Local queer, local bar, figures they’d worked something out so he could come in and spend whatever money he had. Maybe he was hustling.
Bucky’s hand went to the letter in his jacket pocket, and he fiddled with the edges for a second before pulling it out again. It was getting close to his birthday and Steve hadn’t said anything about a birthday present before Christmas. A Christmas present would still be better than nothing. Maybe some cookies. He’d sent a batch of them right away so they almost beat Bucky down to the base, long gone, shared with guys who razzed him about his mom sending her grown kid cookies. So what if they were dry and kind of chalky, they were good. And he’d gotten a letter from her, too, right about the same time, so what the hell, he let them think his mom sent them. Didn’t want them thinking anything weird about Steve. Or about Steve at all.
He drank slowly, not wanting to waste the beer, staring at the sketch of the tree. If he looked close enough he could see each of the little lines that made the whole thing. Better look while it was still fresh. The sides would get rubbed together and eventually the details, in soft pencil, would wear away.
Somebody sitting down across from him got his attention. Working girl. He twigged to her instantly—not hard, wearing that makeup. It was the girl from the store, too. She was a little stocky, short, but not bad with the full face on.
“Hey, mister,” she said, “that letter’s got you looking sad. You want to buy a girl a drink?”
He managed a little smile for her and shook his head. “Sorry.”
She shrugged. “Well, thanks anyway. Have a good night.” She got up to go, but then she paused, turned back, said in a much lower voice, “If you’re in the mood for something a little different, you can see Georgie.” She jerked her head at the queer, who was sitting at the darker end of the bar, nursing a beer.
He blinked at her, and she shrugged. “Just if you’re looking for it.”
“Yeah,” he said, “nah, but thanks.”
After that, he drank the rest of his beer faster; no one else tried to talk to him, and he got up at the end and left, and collected the guys from the shacks where they’d gone with the girls.
Training was dumb as hell. They didn’t even have real equipment half the time, so they had to practice like they were shooting guns without actually shooting, hauling flour sacks around for targets, and they spent as much time building the damn camp as they did drilling. Drills weren’t too bad. Bucky could let his mind fade out, just focus on getting his mind blank and his body loose, ready to snap into the next command. Some of the guys were always overthinking it, getting into patterns, but the drill sergeant was never going to let a pattern go for very long, unless it was specifically to screw with them. Left FACE, left FACE, right FACE, right FACE, about FACE, about FACE, right FACE, left FACE, I SAID LEFT FACE SOLDIER, CAN YOU HEAR ME, ARE YOU A DUMB FUCK, SOLDIER? I CAN’T HEAR YOU got pretty fucking old, but as long as nobody was fucking it up too bad, it wasn’t the worst way to pass time. And the hikes, Jesus, who wanted to spend that much of their life walking? And walking that fast? Still better than the calisthenics, but nowhere near as much fun as the hand-to-hand combat practice, amateur as it was. Classes in the afternoon, learning the guns and the vehicles and a little bit about a lot of things there was no way he was going to remember.
Nights were better. Some nights he was tired enough to just drop right into his bunk and pass out. Sometimes he could read a little before lights-out. He was done with Abraham Lincoln and had traded him for a shitty crime novel. He’d joked to Clarence that anything titled The Red Box should have more sex in it. Clarence had guffawed like the weird huge giraffe he was.
He got a package from Steve right before his birthday, and when he opened it he had to grin, and Ed said, “Hey, what’s that? What have you got there?”
It was cookies, layered on top of a sheet of wax paper, which Steve never did, which meant under it—holy shit, three nudie pics. These were going to be gold.
“That is not from your mother,” said Ed.
“Nah, friend of mine sent ‘em,” he mumbled around a mouthful of cookie.
“Damn good friend,” Clarence said, leaning over to see.
He picked up the top one. There was a note laid over it that said, Figured you might get bored. You can thank me later.
“His mom wanted him to be a priest,” said Bucky.
Ed raised his eyebrows, looking awed.
“Yeah, I know,” said Bucky, and ate a cookie, and showed the guys the pics, but not the letter.
Hey, hope the pictures I sent make it through. Figured you’d want something new. Or you can at least trade them for something. Don’t know how hard these are to come by. Don’t say it.
Happy birthday. Christmas present is still coming.
Steve was a damn menace.
On his birthday, he said nothing to anyone, because the drill sergeant had been a complete dick to the two guys who’d had birthdays since they showed up. No extra pushups for him, please and thanks.
He did have the chance to get away to Hinesville for a beer, not just down to the store but all the way into town, which was great. None of the guys wanted to come with, because they’d pulled some dumb shit the last time and the bartender threatened to clock them if they came back. Bucky felt a little uneasy being singled out in any way—even if it was because he wasn’t getting threats from a bear of a man who couldn’t get five steps out from behind the bar before he started gasping for air—but it was okay.
The girl wasn’t there. Neither was Georgie. He nursed his beer again and, even though he was feeling broke as hell, got himself a slice of pie.
His Christmas present showed up. Well, two of them, one from his family and one from Steve.
The present from his family was a whole bunch of candy bars, just a box full of them, with a couple of smallish books jammed in there. Goldmine.
The present from Steve came two days later (but still before Christmas), a smaller box and a little beat up. Bucky almost pretended he was going to wait until Christmas to open it, but he gave in immediately and opened it to find that Steve, that clever punk, somehow managed to send him several pairs of socks and underwear, and a book on engineering that looked like a real snoozer, and in a hollowed-out Bible, there was a flask full of whisky. Good whisky. Bucky would have asked how, but he would have been afraid of what the answer would be. Christ, if they started searching the packages better it was going to be a crying shame.
The letter was a little—more personal, this time. And longer. Steve wrote It’s cold as hell, I hope Georgia is less godawful. It’s so cold I’ve got every blanket in the place piled up and I’m still cold. You’d be so mad at me if you were here, but I haven’t gotten sick yet.
Seems like everybody and their uncle from the neighborhood is getting drafted now. No luck for me yet. (That dumb punk must have tried to sign up.) Of all things, there’s a shortage of Christmas trees, so hang on to that one I sent you. Stark keeps showing up in the news with new inventions that are supposed to make it easier to economize, but what do rich people need with economy, anyway? And they’re the only ones who are going to be able to afford his stuff.
Don’t think I’m getting sentimental here, but you know this is the first time we won’t see each other on Christmas since 1928? Your family invited me over, though. Don’t worry, I’m going. I can just see you thinking I’m going to sit in my place alone and starve to death while freezing like I’m Tiny Tim. It’s not that bad, not by a long shot. I’m still teaching art lessons, and the Museum says they’re going to hire me for the new program, which would be great, and in the meantime I still help out whenever they need a hand for a couple of days. The more guys sign up, the more jobs there are left for the little guys like me.
Are you doing stupid stuff yet? Seen any good movies?
Steve always signed things Sincerely, Steve Rogers, which was kind of hilarious, as if Steve couldn’t be insincere as hell when he wanted to be.
So Bucky skipped the postcard and wrote a real letter, over three nights before lights-out, and mailed it.
Christmas dinner at the Barnes’ meant ham with a mustard and brown sugar crust, cloves pushed in, and also Harold’s eyes on Steve whenever he thought Steve wasn’t looking, a narrow, calculating stare. The big story in the paper the day before had been a feared German attack on the British on Christmas Day, but they’d had the radio on almost all day and there hadn’t been a word about it, so that was one bullet dodged. If the Germans attacked Britain with ground troops—that didn’t bear thinking about, but kids like Bucky would end up getting into the mix, he was sure.
But Harold wasn’t going to want to hear that. Steve kept his mouth shut as much as he could. He tried to just ask the girls about how things were going, but then he noticed Harold’s sharp eyes darting back and forth between Steve and Alice and he had the sudden, horrifying thought that he was old enough that Harold might think he and Alice—good Lord, like he’d be able to support a fam—no. After that he just gave up on talking altogether.
After dinner, Harold asked if he wanted to stay and have a cigar. Steve pled out by saying he needed to get some work done on a new commission and escaped into the chill. He could hear the girls singing in the kitchen as the door shut behind him.
Steve had the postcards tucked in a neat pile on the kitchen counter, but the letter was nicer. Better. Definitely longer, at any rate. It came after Christmas, before New Year’s, when the city had that Twelve Days feel still hovering over it.
Boot camp is for suckers. You should not be trying to come here, you would die of boredom before the work killed you.
Thanks for the packages, they are just what the doctor ordered. Nobody around here can cook for shit. We eat like dogs. Actually, dog food might be better.
And thanks for the tree. It gets pretty bare around here. We have been put to work building things but I think this might actually be a real swamp. There are forests around but they are not good for much.
Send some drawings of the neighborhood. Or pretty girls. Or both. And if you can find any gum, that would be good. There is a store we can walk to but they only have one kind and it is like chewing on a blown-up tire. What kind of store has one kind of gum? It cannot be good for business. They must know we got nowhere else.
P.S. Shut up, I can hear the jokes from here. Yes, I am a Private. For now. Hoping to get bumped to Private First Class soon just so I can hear some new jokes.
Steve propped his chin up on his hand, reading it over dinner that night, which was potatoes (again). He drank some milk from the bottle—cream skimmed that morning, put in the potatoes—and looked out the window.
Might as well do the view from here. He grabbed some paper and a pencil, and started doing the buildings on the other side of the street. Pretty girls would be easy enough.
“Ladies,” sang out the drill sergeant, “get your lily-white powdered asses out here in three.”
“Laaaaaadies,” mimicked Moose—his real name was Walter, but he was built like one—in a falsetto. “Christ, I wish he’d give it a rest.”
“Why, darlin’?” asked Homer in his thick drawl. “You don’t like his tender gentle manner with us?”
Moose snorted as he jammed his feet into his boots. “I don’t like anything about that cocksucking asshole.”
Bucky said, looping the bootlaces around his hand, “Let’s get a move on. He said three, you know he’s going to be an asshole about it if we’re not out in two.”
There was a time it all lined up. He went to the bar. None of the guys were there, but Georgie was, and he made a point of catching his eye when the bartender’s back was turned and tipping his head toward the door a little.
Georgie nodded, barely, and finished his drink and headed out. A minute later Bucky finished his and headed out, too.
Georgie waited at the end of the street, outside of the light. They didn’t walk all the way back to the shacks. This was a town but it was a hick town, and they didn’t have to go far to find woods.
Georgie charged for his time, and he made sure Bucky knew it. When Bucky nodded, tightly, Georgie smiled and instead of kissing him, he just palmed Bucky through his pants. When Bucky throttled off the gasp, Georgie grinned like Bucky’d done something good. He got down on his knees easily, and he blew Bucky like that, back up against a tree, getting bark in his hair, which would be easy enough to explain away. Everybody was looking pretty filthy by then.
Bucky had to breathe through his mouth to stay quiet. His fingers ended up fumbling in Georgie’s hair, and Georgie didn’t seem to mind. It was quick and hard. When he came, he did gasp, knees going weak but catching himself.
Georgie stood back up, wiping his mouth—he didn’t even flinch, just swallowed—Bucky handed over the cash, and George smiled at him fondly, walked him back to the road.
“Have a good night,” Georgie said, and Bucky managed to nod and say, “You, too.”
He was smart enough to know that he could get away with it once in a while but not often, so he didn’t do it often. Just enough. A couple of times. Georgie never kissed him, and always swallowed, and Bucky wondered if any of the other guys—honestly, which of the other guys, visited Georgie like he did, and if Georgie swallowed for them. He was such a kid, couldn’t be more than seventeen, eighteen. Probably not old enough for the draft yet. They’d been talking about bumping it down but right then it was still twenty-one.
He tried to picture Georgie in uniform and couldn’t come up with anything. Those narrow shoulders didn’t belong in olive drab.
Teaching was nice. Steve liked a lot of things about it—the paycheck wasn’t big but it was enough that he could tell Mr. Brennan to hire on somebody else, and Steve would work part-time and pick up the odd shifts here and there, which Mr. Brennan reluctantly decided to put up with because Steve had come to know the store well enough that firing him wasn’t sensible—and he liked that for a couple hours a week he was surrounded by people learning, the quiet, friendly atmosphere of the room where the classes were held. It was a little small for the class and tended to get too warm, but the walls were butter-yellow and there was a big set of windows in one wall. They’d thought about putting him in the basement but he’d argued the class needed the light.
He had one student in an intermediate level class who was pretty good with still life, and one day he was commenting on the way she’d done the planes of her current underpainting when he noticed that she wasn’t looking at the canvas while he talked. She was looking at him. There was something a little too open, a little too yearning, in her face. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. She was unobjectionable verging on pretty but she still had an unfinished look, like she hadn’t grown out of the face she’d had as a child. She was short enough that she had to look up at him when he talked.
He finished up the critique and stepped back from the painting, and smiled at her with somebody else’s face.
Someone else was in charge of hiring the life models, Miriam, probably, so he never gave it much thought. One evening a young man came in, drops of water clinging to his dun-brown hair. He smiled and stuck out his hand to shake Steve’s.
“Lonnie,” he said. “You must be Steve?”
“Where shall I change?”
“There’s a storeroom that adjoins,” said Steve, pointing out the door. “We’ll be starting class in about five minutes so there’s really no hurry.” Lonnie grinned at him and vanished into it.
He came back out with just a length of fabric wrapped around his hips and perched on the platform, and when the students were all ready, he let it fall. He was circumcised, good-looking, slim but with broad shoulders and clearly defined muscles. Not much body hair. Excellent model for beginning students. Very easy to follow his lines.
“So you’re an artist,” said Lonnie, buttoning up his coat after his third session, a few weeks later.
Steve glanced up and smiled from the sink where he was rinsing out his brushes. “Looks that way.”
“I’m an actor, myself,” said Lonnie, and it made sense, with his easy way with the students. He didn’t talk to them during, of course, but before and after if he ran into them he’d chat with them briefly. “Modeling is a nice way to supplement that a bit.”
“You sound like you’re not from around here.” Steve finished up and turned off the water, and started laying the brushes out.
“Oh, not hardly. I’m from California.”
That seemed impossibly far away. “What brought you out here? California has cities. California has Hollywood.”
“Yes, but I don’t want to get into movies. I’m pure stage. Broadway or nothing.” Lonnie laughed. He had cheekbones sharp enough to cut paper. Sparkling brown eyes. “And Brooklyn’s got cheaper places than Manhattan.”
“Can’t argue with that,” said Steve. He had turned around to talk to Lonnie. He was still holding the brushes.
“Are you from around here?”
“Born and raised.”
“You sound like it, too.” Lonnie was grinning at him. Standing close to him.
One corner of Steve’s mouth lifted in a crooked smile. “Is that a compliment or an insult?”
“Take is as a compliment,” said Lonnie with another little laugh. “Brooklyn’s great.”
They looked at each other for a moment, smiling. Steve let the silence drag out too long and Lonnie said, with a rueful little raise of his eyebrows, “Well, I’d better get going. It’s not going to get any drier out there.”
“I’ll see you next time,” said Steve, stepping back, smiling his teacher’s smile, and turned back toward the sink. When he heard the door close behind him, he put his hands on either side of the sink and leaned forward for a minute, heavily.
He straightened up after a minute and went back to clean-up, tucking bottles of solvent back into cupboards and organizing them, turning all the labels to face forward, even though it didn’t matter at all.
Basic must be over by now. How was it? Is it easier now, or do they just keep right on yelling?
Teaching classes is going really well. My students are interesting, some of them are even good, and so far I haven’t gotten hit with a single spitball.
Feel free to make any jokes you like about the life models and nudity. I would say get it out of your system but something tells me that will never happen.
“Are you in love?”
“With that English girl?”
Steve was re-reading A Farewell to Arms. He figured he probably hadn’t liked it as a kid because he hadn’t understood it very well—maybe it would make more sense on a second try, and anyway, he had the book. They didn’t have that many books, Ma hadn’t had much time for reading them, and it just made sense to read what they had when he was too tired to go to the library.
This time it still felt heavy, like trying to read it ground him down.
“You can make fun of the priest.”
“That priest. It isn’t me that makes fun of him. It is the captain. I like him. If you must have a priest have that priest. He’s coming to see you. He makes big preparations.”
“I like him.”
“Oh, I knew it. Sometimes I think you and he are a little that way.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do sometimes. A little that way...”
He put the book down and stared out the window at the pattering rain while the radio softly chattered at him. It was a funny story, he thought, but he hadn’t been listening to the beginning so he had no idea what it was about now.
“Oh I love to tease you, baby. With your priest and your English girl, and really you are just like me underneath.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, we are. You are really an Italian. All fire and smoke and nothing inside you. You only pretend to be an American. We are brothers and we love each other.”
In the end, when everyone who was going to die in the book was dead, he thought maybe he’d been right about it as a kid after all.
“Kiss me once and tell me you’re not serious.”
“I never kiss you. You’re an ape.”
“I know, you are the fine good Anglo-Saxon boy. I know. You are the remorse boy, I know.”
That night in bed he curled his hand around his cock and jerked off. Fast, hard, functional.
“Hell,” I said, “I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?”
“Yes. I want to ruin you.”
“Good,” I said, “that’s what I want, too.”
Bucky got leave to go home for a visit early in the spring. Just forty-eight hours but he’d take it. He sent word to his mom and, separately, to Steve.
Steve showed up to meet him at the station. He looked thinner, which, it wasn’t like he had a lot of fat on him to lose in the first place. He was wearing the same damn jacket over the same damn sweater and the same damn shirt. Bucky threw his arms around Steve in a bear hug so massive Steve’s breath came out in a little hrk but Steve squeezed him back as hard as he could, a quick hug but a powerful one. They stepped back and Steve said, “Going to try to turn some heads in that uniform?”
Bucky grinned at him, lopsided, feeling like his mouth didn’t work anymore. “Ain’t got time for that,” he said. “Just here to impress my mom.”
He pulled off his hat when they went into the station, headed back for the el. Steve’s eyes slid over to him—well, the hat was instinct by now, hell, it had been months. You learned quick not to keep getting screamed at for the same old thing. His shoes looked pretty good, he kept one pair of them polished to a high shine and just barely touched up the others that he mostly wore. He’d worn the more scuffed-up ones but for a minute he kind of wished he’d gone for the ones like mirrors.
“How was the train?”
“Not bad. Quiet. Got a nap in.”
“You’ll need it. I think Alice is going to be in hysterics by the time you get back.”
Bucky tried to imagine Alice in hysterics. “I doubt it.” Steve bumped his shoulder companionably as they walked.
The el was on the crowded side, hot, smelling of metal and smoke and perfume. Steve and Bucky were standing so close every time the carriage shuddered it knocked Steve up against Bucky, even though he was holding onto a strap.
They didn’t talk much on the way home. Bucky was thinking about asking, Did you try again, you numbskull? but Steve was still here, wasn’t he, so even if he had they’d still had some sense. You do anything stupid? But who was he to talk.
At the Barnes’ house, Winnie opened the door already in tears. Steve hung back and watched her drag Bucky down for a kiss on the cheek, and Bucky’s face was soft, smiling, warm. “Aw, Mom,” he said. “I missed you, too.”
Bucky was broader across the shoulders, for sure, the jacket straining a little like it had fit him when he started but that was months ago. Seeing—seeing Bucky in the uniform—something awful kept twisting in Steve’s chest. His little, narrow chest, like his little clenched fists, and he had to put his hands behind his back until Winnie turned and smiled at him, and waved him in after her son, the returning hero.
“Angelica’s coming home in a bit, dear, she has a late shift. But she said she wanted to see you, so you have to stay awake.”
“Oh, I slept on the train, Mom. I think I can manage.”
Winnie had put together enough food to feed a couple dozen hungry bears, and it took some time working through it before Harold put down the fork and said, “So, son, you want to tell us about the camp?”
“Half-built when we got there,” said Bucky. “Maybe less than half. We’re working on finishing it up, but it is a pain and a half.”
Betsy said, “Are the other boys your age?”
Bucky nodded. “Mostly. Some are real young, you know, turn 18 and first thing they do is go enlist. And some are older. The officers, mainly. I swear we have some guys who served in the last war.”
His eyes flickered over to Steve like he knew he was maybe pushing it, but he left it at that, and Steve just took another bite of mashed potatoes even though it felt like a burning stone in his belly.
“Bets just wants to know because she’s going boy-crazy,” said Alice with a dismissive little snort. (She did not, in fact, look like she was going to have hysterics, and had at no point looked that way.)
“Am not!” protested Betsy, but the way she wrinkled her nose suggested otherwise.
The family put on the radio pretty quiet and sat around the living room after dinner, the girls going to wash up, and Harold said, “Are you making any new friends?”
Bucky shrugged. “Not a lot of time for friends when you’re up at ass o’clock every morning and busting your hump all day.”
“Ah, well,” said his dad. “I remember when I was working for the Army, it seemed like the guys made some pretty good friends for life. Maybe that will happen for you.”
Steve found himself choking on the words He already has one but let them go. He almost never came over when Harold was going to be home—and who would, who would want to, with what a sour son of a bitch Harold could be sometimes. And it was something, wasn’t it, that Steve kept thinking he’d be happier if it was him and Bucky just listening to the radio over at his place, maybe if Bucky got the hell out of that uniform, stopped sitting like he had a steel beam in place of a spine.
“How are you settling in?” asked Steve, trying to contribute something, anything.
Bucky was fiddling with a loose thread on the sofa, just his fingers moving. “Not much settling to do. We get our space, you know, and we all kind of have things we do. Lots of reading. We swap books. Thanks for the Lincoln book, that ate some time.”
“You sent a book?” asked Harold.
“Yeah, biography of Abe Lincoln,” said Steve.
“Must have been a good read.”
“I hope so.”
Bucky coughed a little. “Yeah. Say, Dad, how’s the sales?”
“Oh, good. Can’t complain too much. We’re a little down from last month, but it’s probably just people worrying over the war.”
“Well,” said Winnie, “it’s not like that’s unreasonable. There’s so much happening so fast.”
Harold sniffed. “I still think Britain is going to keep it under control.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about that,” said Bucky. “Seems like there might be more there that they can handle.”
“Hitler’s just a bully. He’s all puffed up about nothing.”
“There’s been bigger bullies who did a lot more than Hitler’s tried so far,” said Steve.
Alice stabbed at her pork chop viciously. “Can we just talk about something that isn’t war? For once?”
“Of course, dear,” said Winnie. “Tell your brother about your dance coming up! She’s on the decorating committee.”
“Oh, really?” Bucky raised his eyebrows at her. “I thought it would take an act of God to get you on a committee.”
“More like Billy Sorenson,” muttered Betsy.
Bucky whooped, and Alice smacked his arm. “It’s not like that! Shut up!”
“I’ll believe it when I see it. Alice and Billy? You said he was a wimp!”
“That was last—you know what, you jerk, you just leave it alone!”
“Fine, fine. Bets? Any hot prospects?”
Bets just shoved a whole mouthful of corn in and then waved at her full mouth in mock dismay as she chewed. Bucky’s sense of humor didn’t come from nowhere, that was for sure, although between Harold and Winnie it was hard to see it.
“You’re staying in tonight, right, Bucky?” asked Winnie, and Bucky nodded.
“Sure thing, Mom. Wouldn’t want to miss Angie.”
“Or breakfast,” muttered Betsy, whose mouth was clear again.
The circle of dark heads with the light glowing on their hair like haloes, bowed over plates heaped with food, was so warm and alive with chatter. Steve couldn’t help thinking of his ma and how quiet their place had been, always the crackle of the radio, the noises from the street, how often he’d come home when she was still at work and sat down to work on a sketch or read, or just lay down and think while the shadows marched across the wall.
“Steve,” said Alice, smoothing her hands across the napkin in her lap, “how did that thing last week go?”
“Oh, not bad,” said Steve. “The model showed and most of the students did, too, so we had a pretty good session.”
“Steve’s been hired by the museum for their new art classes,” Alice said to Bucky. “He’s finally going to get paid real money for art.”
Bucky smiled over at Steve, like he hadn’t written about it. “Good work, buddy,” he said, and Steve smiled back against the slow roiling feeling in his chest.
“It’s not a sure thing yet,” he said. “They could still change their mind about making it permanent.”
“They’re not going to,” said Betsy with a firm positivity.
“Well, let’s hope.” Steve picked up another forkful of pork chop. He was making slow progress on it.
“What did you think about that Tobruk business?” Harold asked Bucky.
“Honestly!” Alice said hotly. “Can’t stop talking about it for five minutes, can you?”
Harold shot her a look, and suddenly in it Steve read something—concern, for Bucky, for an eldest and only son—and Steve felt, not so much a thaw in his heart, but a sympathetic crack.
Angelica came home toward the end of dinner, and she threw her arms around Bucky, who hugged her back, fiercely. Her dress was yellow gingham, brown hair pinned up neatly with only a few strands escaping, and she didn’t look anything like somebody who sold dances at dance-halls, but she smelled like pipe smoke and gin. There were purple smudges under her eyes, and her mascara was wearing a little, but she was still as pretty as—she was still pretty, with Bucky’s bone structure, a little dimple in her chin and high cheekbones.
After Bucky and Angelica talked a little, the girls got down to cleaning up, handling the dishes, and Bucky and Harold and Steve ducked in to the living room to sit by the fireplace, the radio chattering quietly in the background.
Harold pulled out a bottle of whiskey. “Little something for my boy?”
“Sure, Dad,” said Bucky, taking the offered glass.
“Steve?” Harold was polite enough to hold out the decanter, and Steve, in a fit of pique, took a glass. “So what do you think about Tobruk?”
Bucky leaned back and sighed. “Dad, I don’t know that much about it.”
“Still. I think it’s a good sign. The Brits whipped them soundly.”
“At one port, in Libya,” said Steve, just to be contrary. “I don’t know if that’s going to be any indication of how the war goes.”
Harold glanced at him sharply. The light from the fireplace flickered over his glasses, and Steve lost his pupils for a moment. “Well, look at Benghazi.”
“The Italians aren’t the Germans. The Germans are harder.”
“We don’t know that.”
“They’re putting Rommel in charge in Africa. It’s going get ugly.”
Harold set his glass down harder than he needed to, and it clinked on the coaster. “Damn it, boy, why do you have to be such a—”
“Dad,” said Bucky, warning. “Steve’s reading the papers, same as you.”
Harold looked over at Bucky and sighed, some of the anger draining out of his face, but the lines still clear and hard. “Seems to me somebody’s been reading his strategy books again,” he said, like a joke but too tight and stiff to be one.
Steve said, “Been reading them a long time.”
“For all the good it’s done you.”
“Dad,” said Bucky. “Steve. Just drop it, okay? Just drop it.”
Steve was turning his glass around in his hands, and he lifted it and took a sip. It burned—it was decent but not particularly good whiskey, he was still Irish enough to know that—but it settled in his stomach and eased the tight ring around his throat a little.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes,” said Steve. “I don’t mean to upset you.”
Harold’s face was no less grim over that—being upset was something a woman did—but he was big enough to let it go. “Of course. Well, maybe your sister is right, Buck, maybe we should talk about something besides the war.”
When it got late, Steve said, “I should probably get going,” and Harold made a noncommittal noise that sounded a lot like agreement.
“I’ll walk you out,” said Bucky.
At the doorway, they stood, looking at each other for a long minute; Bucky’s shoulders, broader now, stiff in the uniform he still hadn’t taken off, and Steve—Steve figured he looked about the same, and maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it was good to be a familiar touchstone.
Bucky surprised him by grabbing him in another near-strangling hug. They didn’t say anything, just held on, and Steve could feel when the hug went from being a long hug to an unusually long hug—but he still didn’t let go, or even loosen his grip. Bucky first.
When Bucky let go, Steve stepped back, and it seemed like maybe Bucky’s face was—Bucky’s eyes were shining.
“Hey,” said Bucky, “tomorrow after breakfast, before my train, I’ll come say hi, okay?”
“Sounds good,” said Steve.
Steve had a hard time sleeping that night, tossing and turning, the ugly low rage at the war (and at Harold, and the world, and his own body) burning right behind his breastbone, and something else, which he had never named before and did not intend to start now.
He said a Hail Mary, and then another, the tempo dragging out slower and slower in his mind, until he slipped into sleep without quite realizing it. The next time he woke up, the sky was light.
Bucky slept in his old bed that night. It had gone to Alice when he moved out, but she was returned to her old place with Angelica for the night, and his room seemed smaller and noisier than he remembered. Trucks kept rumbling by all night, and there were lights from the street that kept prickling at his eyes.
He curled up on his side after a while, thinking it was a shame to waste the privacy, first he’d had in months. So he jerked off, silent but slow, with the luxury of time, and his mind drifted from Georgie’s mouth to—to other things, places it had no business being, but nowhere he minded in the middle of the night, when it was just him and a sleepless city.
Afterwards he cleaned up (dirty sock, real classy but no way he wanted Mom finding it in the laundry, he’d take care of it himself back at camp) and fell into a light, shaky sleep.
Bucky came by after breakfast, like he said he would. He knocked on the door while it was still early—Steve had dragged on a pair of pants and a shirt earlier, and was just sitting drinking a cup of mostly-cold tea by the time the knock came.
There were bags under his eyes. He hadn’t slept well, either, great.
“Hey,” Steve said. “Come on in.”
Bucky had brought his bag, and he dropped it next to his chair at the table. Steve got a second mug of tea and pushed it across the table to him.
“Thanks,” said Bucky. He just held the mug under his nose for a minute, breathing the steam.
“How’s your mom doing?”
“Oh, she’s okay. She cried a little, you know, her only boy back off to the races.” Bucky’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Christ, you know it’s cold in here, right?”
“Yeah, it’s not so bad.”
“You’d say that if you were freezing to death.”
“Nah, I’d just think about all the dumb shit you’re up to and steam would blow out my ears.”
“Hey,” Bucky protested, “for all you know I haven’t done any dumb shit at all.” But it didn’t sound right. Mechanical, rote.
“Buck,” said Steve. He let it hang on the air for a minute. “You all right?”
Bucky shook his head. “I’m all right enough. Christ, it’s only been a couple of months. You’d think I was gone for years.”
“You might be,” said Steve. “When do you think you’re going to get leave again?”
“Before we declare war, that’s for sure. Everything’s moving like molasses out there.” Bucky was staring off into the distance. “The Germans are pulling all this shit and everyone’s acting like they’re just going to stop? Nah. It’ll be a while, but we’re going to end up in the middle of this war.”
They sat in heavy silence for a minute.
Bucky sighed, glancing at the clock. “Look, I got to get going. You want to walk with me to the station?”
“Yeah,” said Steve, even though it was still freezing out and his coat wasn’t going to do him a whole hell of a lot of good. “Let me get my shoes.”
A little later in ’41, they went all-out on the draft. Widened up the ages and suddenly there were men flooding in where there had only been a trickle. Bucky’s batch had done most of the hard construction work, so by then there were real barracks, even if they were still practicing with brooms and flour sacks full of dirt half the time.
Somebody got the bright idea to add a theater, which went a long way toward making the whole thing more bearable.
Steve kept writing, kept sending packages. Most people’s friends were starting to peter out by then. The first batch of draftees were supposed to be done in October, but Bucky had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen.
He went back on a 72-hour pass around Midsummer. He spent the second night out with Steve, dancing—well, he was dancing. Steve wasn’t. Steve was sitting on a barstool, drink in hand; then Steve was missing—where was he? Caught a glimpse of bright blond hair out of the corner of his eye. There was Steve, leaning up against a wall, watching him dance.
He grinned, spun his partner with a little extra flair. Steve lifted one corner of his mouth in a crooked smile, chin up, like he always did when he was waiting to get hit.
Afterwards, they sat in silence on fire escape outside Steve’s place. They didn’t have anything to drink, and besides, they were already a little drunk. Steve was fussing with a notebook, sketching a little. Bucky stole a look—the skyline through the narrow channel of their alley, buildings sticking up from it raggedly.
Bucky tipped his head back against the brick, and Steve glanced over at him.
“You really have to wear the uniform?” he asked, softly.
“Everywhere.” Bucky let his eyes drift shut. “Court martial offense if I don’t.”
“Good thing it suits you.”
He chuckled, eyes still closed. “Everything suits me, ‘cause I’m such a looker. Didn’t you know?”
Steve didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Then he said, as Bucky ground out a cigarette, “Seems like most of the soldiers at least try chasing some skirts while they’re back.”
“Yeah, I got better shit to do,” said Bucky without looking at Steve.
Steve said, “Mmm,” and let it go. Bucky could hear the soft noise of the pencil scratching.
They started maneuvers that fall. It was fun, actually. Well, sleeping on the ground, not so much. But getting to use some of the skills they’d been training on—Bucky did a pretty decent job, he figured.
Maneuvers ended right around the beginning of December, and everybody headed back to their bases. A couple of hundred thousand guys, stinking up the landscape, sweating and grinning and complaining about their feet as they headed home.
The day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Bucky didn’t hear about it at first. He was on KP and he was up to his elbows in greasy water all night, and then staggering through the day with a sack of potatoes or a stack of plates.
But when he did hear about it, he had to take a minute, had to sit down. Nobody gave him crap about it, either.
“What the hell?” he said, finally, out loud to no one in particular. Nobody answered him.
If the guys coming in when the draft expanded had been a flood, this was a deluge. It was funny, in a way, Bucky who’d been so raw coming in and who still hadn’t seen a lick of action now being one of the old hands, the experienced guys. It had been over a year; he was a Private First Class; their fates were still mysteries.
What had been a hick town was now a hick town with a booming military base next to it, getting bigger than the town was in a hurry. It kept getting bigger and bigger, and Bucky was looking at it, wondering how many more men were going to show up.
He got a letter from Steve, he figured it must have been sent the day of. Steve just said, Christ on a crutch, I hope you’re ready. Everybody here is losing their damn minds about it.
At the recruiting center, Steve pasted a big fake smile on his face when they called him back.
The doctor said, “Have you ever looked at your own records?”
“No, sir,” he said. “But I don’t think there can be anything too bad in them.”
The doctor raised his eyebrows. “You don’t think a heart that’s fit to bust is anything to worry about?”
Steve shrugged. “Everybody’s heart has got to go sooner or later.”
“Yeah, well, I put you on a boat and yours is going to go a lot sooner. Sorry, but that’s a no.”
Watching the men struggle up the hill, all Bucky could think was, Jesus. We’re screwed. Which was funny, wasn’t it, because he’d been just as big a lunkhead when he showed up at first, but it had been almost two years, and now he was trying to get these guys to act like a unit instead of a bunch of farm hicks and city boys.
The calisthenics were the part the men probably complained the most about, but the part Bucky hated most was still inspection, some sergeant getting up in his face about a loose thread or a dull shoe.
That night after the parade exercises, Dopey—his real name was Harvey—came back from the showers, towel around his waist. Lucky Lynn yelled, “Show it off, baby!”
Dopey grinned and made a show of turning around slowly, like a girl at a strip show, teasing the bottom of the towel. The guys hooted with laughter as he faked like he was going to drop it.
“Real nice, Dopey,” said Nick. “You’re a classy dame.”
Dopey blew kisses to them off the tips of his fingers and then flipped them off. He dropped the towel and changed.
1942 was a year that mostly went by like this:
Steve got up in the morning.
Steve read the paper.
Steve went to teach his classes.
Steve did some pieces of art on commission.
Steve worked on a mural for the WPA. They liked it, and he got a few more commissions as a result.
Steve worked odd shifts at the drugstore.
Steve wrote letters. A lot of letters.
Bucky came back every couple of months on a 48-hour or 72-hour pass. He looked tired every time, but he’d still smile, and he’d complain about the guys he was training. He didn’t talk himself up. Of course he didn’t.
Steve watched Bucky when he came back, and they’d go out for a drink. They wouldn’t talk much; they’d have dinner at Bucky’s parents’ house where Harold and Steve would sit thin-lipped without talking, and whenever Bucky ended up at Steve’s place for a bit they’d be quiet again.
Steve fell asleep alone in his bed. Every night.
In August, Bucky heard about a guy out in Wisconsin—friend of a guy in his unit, Moping Moe—who’d been caught by MPs in a queer bar.
“Sittin’ in the brig,” said Moe, shaking his head, “when he never did nothing like that. I ought to know, I know the guy. He’s normal!”
“That’s rough, buddy,” said Lucky. “But he had to know, right? That it was—that kind of bar?”
“Yeah, I don’t know, I guess he knew. But he just wanted a drink!”
“Rough break,” said Bucky. “Everybody needs a drink now and then.”
The last time Bucky came to visit was in September. The trees were turning colors, and the kids were going back to school, the streets quieter during the day. Steve gave his evening class to another teacher so he could spend the day with Bucky, and they ended up going into the city, supposed to be going dancing.
“You know there just aren’t places in Hinesville like there are here,” said Bucky on the train. “Not even in Savannah.”
“What’s Savannah like?”
“Very Southern. Very old money. It’s ridiculous, everybody takes forever to say anything.”
“Bet they get a kick out of you.”
“I think they’d rather get a kick in at me.”
“Oh, come on.”
“No, it’s true. The old money don’t like us sniffing around their daughters.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. “You do much sniffing?”
“We get leave for a day, come on, I’m not looking for anything but a dance.” There was something tight around Bucky’s eyes. “But the looks we get from the fogeys lined up at the bar! It’s ridiculous.”
“They just don’t know you’re a gentleman.”
“Yeah, they think all the soldiers are just disasters in disguise.”
“They’re not wrong about that, necessarily,” said Steve, and Bucky grinned and whacked him in the arm.
“Shut it,” he said. “You’re just jealous I get to go to a bunch of clubs for rich assholes and order the cheapest drink on the menu and then get the cold shoulder a lot before I go back to base.”
“Deeply,” said Steve. “You got me.”
“Our stop.” Bucky cupped Steve’s elbow, pulling him along. “Let’s go.”
When they got up to the street, the air smelled like hot asphalt, even though the sun had nearly gone down. “You got a place in mind?” asked Steve.
“Yeah,” said Bucky, “little place where we can dance or get a drink.”
Bucky found a girl to dance with while Steve found a table, but after a couple of dances Bucky came back over, beer in hand, and dropped into the chair next to Steve.
“Worn out already? You must be getting old.”
“Hush, Junior,” said Bucky. “Man spends all day drilling, his feet get tired.”
And in the end it didn’t matter why so much, did it. Just that they got to sit and shoot the breeze, Steve’s cheeks getting hotter as he drank, Bucky’s smile getting looser, until they finally got the train home and Buck slung his arm around Steve’s shoulders, humming something only he could recognize.
Getting the news that it was time to go overseas—really time, finally time—made Bucky feel like his head was two sizes too big. It didn’t feel real.
There was supposed to be a stop-off in Brooklyn, because they were going to catch their ride out of the Navy Yard. Bucky’s heart beat wildly: could he send a telegram—maybe he could—no. It wasn’t a good idea.
Steve stared at the letter for a long time. We’re heading out. Can’t tell you when or where, but I’ll write when we get there. It could be a while though.
The trip from the train to the ship didn’t take long, and inside three hours they were shipping out. There wouldn’t have been time, after all.
I’ll write when we get there.
Hey, Steve. I don’t know if I can tell you where I am but it sure as shit is not Paris. The trip was fine, big damn boat, had a little stop-over in a place where they really like their Queen. I did not get seasick at all. Had a visitor or two but they did not get to make a trip back to Papa Fuhrer courtesy of our pals. Got pretty tired of being cooped up though. Well, we are not exactly cooped up now. There is almost too much space. I don’t really know what to do with myself most of the time. It is nice, though, the guys we are working with have books, so I am finally getting around to reading some things. I am missing that Abe Lincoln book pretty hard now. It is all books about crime and detectives and most of them don’t even have any parts that would make a nun blush.
I don’t know how long we will be here but if you send letters they should get here. Victory mail is fastest. Probably. Sometimes I see whole bales of the stuff go by so it is not like it is on a regular timetable.
He didn’t write about England, a cobble-stone lined alley, a rough brick wall with his back pressed up against it, and he didn’t write about the landings. The water made being loaded down with heavy equipment even worse. Christ, nobody thought these things through. That was the first time he saw a man die, bullet hole puncturing his uniform, surprised look on his face, a kid he didn’t even know who couldn’t have been more than nineteen tumbling forward into the knee-deep water when he’d barely gotten down off the ramp. But they made it through the landing, stumbling up to safety sopping wet and hauling the godawful packs, and eventually got themselves set up, working with the Brits.
The sun in Tunisia was so bright. It wasn’t like the sun in Brooklyn. One of the British guys wiped his forehead on a hot, boring afternoon, and said, “What I wouldn’t give for a good fog right now.”
“A good what?” asked an American sitting near him—Ralls—and laughed.
“Fog, that’s a good lad,” said the British guy scathingly. “It’s enough to make me miss London. And I was not all that fond of London.”
Bucky was a rifleman, and he was getting used to it. The rifle itself was easy; the heft of it, the places his hands went to instinctively now, after training on it for years. The red, gritty sand was annoying, kept getting in where it would jam the rifle if he wasn’t careful. It was just another part of his shoes by now. Had to keep cleaning the mechanism.
“You’d think we’d get desert training,” said Doug.
Bucky shrugged. “You’d think a lot of things.”
Steve tried again. He didn’t mention it in the letter. Bucky kept saying, over and over again, It’s a hell of a thing. I’m glad you’re there and not here.
Steve did push-ups, ate his vegetables, never could convince himself to drink raw egg.
The doctor was frowning at his heartbeat, stethoscope cold against his skin, the same, as always, and said, “With a heart like this, there’s no way. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way your heart could take it. And your lungs, too.”
“Look,” said Steve, “I could be useful. If I die, I die, but at least I could do it over there.”
The doctor kept shaking his head, and Steve had to unclench his fists.
The company commander was dumber than a sack of shit and twice as mean, and the sergeant Bucky spent most of his time dealing with instead wasn’t a whole fucking lot better.
Bucky ducked his head under the brief flurry of bullets that came pinging in, ricocheting off the occasional rock. He was dug in—a two-man slit trench, one of the Brits had told him, drunk off his ass from a secret stash on Bucky’s third night in North Africa. And it was good advice, really. Bucky and Private Kane, Doug, worked well together, Bucky laying down the sporadic covering fire it took for Doug to get the beginnings of the hole well and truly dug.
The sergeant had cottoned on pretty quick once he saw what Bucky and Doug were up to, taking credit for it, of course, and now everybody in their platoon did the two-man slit trench, after their examples—Bucky and Doug and the fucking sergeant.
But this objective wasn’t going to come easy. It was a hill, just a stupid fucking hill, like every other stupid fucking hill in this area, all of them somehow inexplicably named like that was going to make them important, and all of them fucking infested with Jerries. The best hills only had Italians, who weren’t all that committed to the war or the glorious visions of their leaders. But it seemed like every hill Bucky ended up headed to was full of angry Germans, better-armed and full of themselves.
There was a body not that far away that had been laying out on the open ground so long it had started turning black, swollen and leaking fluid, split down the side of the face. He tried not to look at it.
The first couple of dead bodies they’d seen like this, not the newly dead of the landing, he’d felt an ugly wrench in his gut. But he’d thought of Coney Island and Steve turning green on the Cyclone, and that had helped, in a sick way. He still couldn’t have laughed. But it helped.
The sergeant kicked him awake. Didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep. He blinked into the dawn—it came all at once, here, instead of having the decency to start slow, so there’d be a good time for mobilization. “Come on, Barnes,” he said. “We’ve got to get up that hill by nightfall.”
Somehow, they did, but they lost it again not long after.
You could send canned telegrams if you wanted to, a couple of stock phrases. He sent one to his mom: Have arrived safely in North Africa and am well. Hope you have received my letters I miss you.
You could only pick two sentences. It left no room for “love” but he figured she knew.
Dysentery was a real fun thing. It went through about a third of the guys like wildfire, and Bucky got to spend the better part of seventy-two hours in a kind of horrible daze, dragging his sick ass back and forth to the latrine.
The fever made him feel like he could break like glass; it made him finally feel like he was something separate from his body.
Getting water in wasn’t really a challenge, though, and he mostly kept it down just fine. So he figured he could be doing worse. Some of the guys got so bad they had to go to the medics. He just kept up the back and forth until he slept for a couple of hours, then more, and when the fever broke, he slept like a corpse. He knew, because one of the guys, Stanovich, woke him up prodding him with the toe of his boot. Gingerly.
“Oh, thank Christ,” he said, when Bucky woke up groaning and swatted at him. “I thought you were dead.”
“Shut the fuck up, asshole,” said Bucky, and pulled his jacket up over his head. The hot desert wind was wicking away the sweat that had soaked him. He was going to need a shower soon, and more water.
He managed to get himself to the showers, jury-rigged in the middle of the camp, pipes that would manage to either barely spit huge drops of water at you or completely soak you in a fine but stinging spray, depending on where you stood. He picked a spot where he’d get soaked, and as brief and uncomfortable as it was, it felt like a luxury. He opened his mouth and let the water pour in as he scrubbed at his tight prickling skin, taking gulps of it.
Of course, by the time he got his feet jammed back into his boots, he was already lightly coated with the red dust again. But at least he didn’t reek of sickness. Shaving wasn’t going to happen, not until they had another inspection visit.
Kasserine Pass was a fucking disaster. Bucky walked out of it a Corporal, once the paperwork went through. His sergeant never walked out.
It was a little more complicated than that. It was like this: they got the orders. Sergeant Penn talked with the company commander and the other sergeants, heads together, voices low, before breaking and coming to talk to the squad.
“Okay, privates,” he said. “Get your shit together. We’re headed out.”
It was Valentine’s Day, of all the fucked-up things. Well, the Jerries were going to get a whole lot of Valentines, if the tanks grimly rolling along had anything to do with it.
When they got cut off, Sergeant Penn went about half-mad with rage. He was spitting mad, waving angrily at the Jerries coming up out of nowhere, and then the top of his head was just—gone. His body went backwards, and Bucky turned his face away, a bright sort of shock ripping into the continuing dull panic he’d been in for the last half-hour. He spotted a Jerry up on a low ridge, breathed out, and took the shot; against the odds, the guy crumpled and went down.
“Come on!” Bucky bellowed. He half-dragged Doug back, past the corporal, who was groaning and bleeding heavily from his leg, which was on at the wrong angle. Once they got the field telephone, he yelled, “We need artillery cover! Now!”
They had questions about coordinates—he was frantically scrabbling at the map. The corporal dragged himself up and yanked it out of his hands and gave them where he figured they were, give or take. Friendly fire might scare the Germans long enough to get them the hell out of this fucking ambush.
The long, whistling trajectory of incoming—it could be friend or foe, and either way it could blow them up. But it didn’t.
The Jerries stopped firing for a little while. It was long enough. He saw a lot of men dead on the ground on his way out. Graves Registration wouldn’t be coming for these bodies any time soon.
That was the day he learned that retreat wasn’t a dirty word at all, if there was a line of Jerries ready and waiting to cut you off from the rest of the troops and pick you off one at a time, like lambs to the slaughter. Sidi Bou Zid was not worth it. Not even a little bit. Almost a hundred tanks, between all the losses. How many men? Don’t think about it.
They had to keep running for five days. Then were dug in for three, before reinforcements came.
Corporal Edwards got promoted to Sergeant Edwards, and he said, “Well, Buck, looks like I’m going to need a new corporal. How about it?”
Bucky squinted at him in the light, took a drag off his cigarette. “What the hell,” he said. “Sure.” He didn’t believe Edwards would make it happen, but he must have. When he got the new stripes, he held them in his palm for a minute, looking down at them, the red dust still in his mouth and powdering his boots, just a new hill to go die on waiting for him.
He sent Steve a letter. He hadn’t gotten any since they landed, but he kept writing, figured Steve would get them eventually.
Dear Steve, he’d given up on the casual insults pretty fast when he realized that any letter could easily be the last one, Hope you are well. Haven’t gotten any mail here in a while. Seems like the ships are full, or maybe it is the planes that are held up. Anyway, it is a quiet party.
Most of the guys send letters that just tell people what a great time we are having. I send those letters to my mom. I am telling you that so you know not to tell her.
It is hell over here. It’s hot as hell in the day and cold as hell at night. I miss little things, like socks and shaving more than once every blue moon. And latrines, Christ, if I never have to sit next to every asshole in the platoon while I’m trying to take a shit, it will still be too soon.
The guys are always reading. It’s good, I guess. Except on long marches we got rid of most of the heavy books, so we are down to just a couple, and we have worked out who gets to read them when.
I think I write more now than I did in school. When I can’t get my hands on a book I write letters instead. I probably have to erase about half of what I write. Can’t tell Mom about the guys who aren’t coming home. I’m scared shitless you will get in somehow. He erased that. I know you are probably still trying to get in, but buddy, knock it off, okay? War is no place for somebody with talent.
He had to stop writing for a while. He just massaged his right hand with his left, working the stiffness out of it.
I’m a Corporal now. Figured I should tell you. Not much in the way of dirty jokes about that one.
Not much you can send me anymore, either. Never thought I would miss your godawful cookies from Basic but wow, do I ever. But if even letters aren’t making it over I would bet dollars to donuts we are never going to see any food anybody sends.
It is getting dark. I better finish this up. The sun goes out like a light around here and we can’t leave any lights outside on or the enemy will spot us.
I miss Brooklyn so bad. I miss you. Take care.
He put it in the queue for censorship before he could think better of it.
Steve went to an exhibition, of sorts, in the city. It was out in the open air, in the plaza. It was called The Nature of the Enemy, which he could be pretty sure of as that was a sculpture in black letters that were several feet high, and it was a series of exhibits intended to show citizens the horrors they were working against.
The Militarization of Children. The Desecration of Religion. Slave Labor. Abolition of Justice. Concentration Camps. Suppression of Thought.
Buy a Bond and Sign the Bomb. Sign the Block-Buster Headed For Hitler.
Steve couldn’t afford a bond, and signing a bomb seemed—well. Probably good for morale, but still. Vindictive. And that wasn’t a good way to go into this. If you were going to set out to kill someone, to end a human life, you had to do it with a clear head. You had to know what it was you meant to achieve through it.
Otherwise, you weren’t any better than the cartoonishly evil Nazi with a puffed-up chest and wrinkled shirt sitting in the judge’s seat in the Abolition of Justice display, facing down a noble-looking man who might bear a sideways resemblance to Steve, as Steve sometimes was in his fantasies: tall and straight-backed, despite the way his wrists were crossed loosely behind his back, dwarfed by the kangaroo court.
The Militarization of Children display kept drawing his eye back, over and over again. Kids had it hard in the war. He knew that. But there was something about the figures in their gas masks, lined up in a row, rifles over their shoulder and still in short pants, that got to him.
The quotes at the bases probably weren’t accurate. He hoped. Then again, in a world where everyone had gone insane, maybe they were. Maybe Goering had said “Our business is not to do justice but to destroy and exterminate.” Maybe Goebbels had said “The people who criticize us should consider themselves lucky to still be alive. It would be too much of a good thing if those who live at our mercy should be allowed to criticize.”
The huge pictures at the end—he couldn’t stop looking at the ships in flames. Transport ships, like the ones that kept ghosting in to Brooklyn, sitting and waiting where people could peer down at them off the bridge if they didn’t mind getting hassled by cops. Bucky was—and so many others. They were huge ships. How many men did they hold? How many men had already gone over?
A woman with her hair done up in little curls, loose to her shoulders, was laughing in front of one of them. Her friend was leaning in, smiling. There was light pouring over them, and behind them, the sucking darkness of the ships burning.
One of the things about Tunis was the whores. They were everywhere. Every time he got out for a couple of minutes, it seemed like they were all over him. And most of them looked—nice, like regular women, girls, sometimes, too young to be doing this. But the things they said and did left no doubt. They knew exactly what a GI would pay for.
At the brothel, the guys would line up, and on their way in, the docs would do a short-arms (get it, Barnes, heh, elbow to the ribs) inspection, and on the way out, they’d get a dose of prophylactic straight into the head of their cocks. He figured the reason they got the pro on the way out was because anybody getting it on the way in wouldn’t be able to get it up for what he’d paid for.
The guys would never, never have shut up about it if he hadn’t gone. One of the real young kids from Iowa or some shit hadn’t when he had the chance, two weeks ago, and they were still calling him choirboy and asking if he was saving himself for marriage and a couple of the crueler dogfaces had started making cracks about how he’d look better on the other end of a cock anyway.
Bucky went. He stood in line. He paid. And the woman he went in to looked at him without seeing him—or saw right through him, right to the bone. Her eyes laid him open, flayed him. He saw the freckles on her collarbone, her breasts; the thick, curling pubic hair; the stomach with stretch marks from pregnancies. Neither of them said anything.
He finished, didn’t bother tucking himself in since the trip back out just took him past the docs.
Wondered what part of the Hippocratic Oath covered drugs up the dick for GIs far from home.
Months in, he finally got a batch of letters from Steve. They were on V-mail, shrunk so he could fit a whole envelope practically in his palm, but he could still read it just fine.
Work is good. Brooklyn is pretty quiet. Stark’s got some kind of new automatic thing he’s testing out, supposed to replace the trolleys.
The museum job is great. I’m actually teaching a couple of classes, so I get to work with some older people who are just starting, plus some people who are a bit farther along. It’s really nice to see things through their eyes. Reminds me what it feels like when you start being able to make your drawings actually look like real things.
I know you’re probably keeping busy. The papers are full of the war right now, so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on where you’re likely to be, which is nice.
Your mom invited me over for lunch last week so I went. She just wanted to talk about you. Don’t worry, I kept to the party line. You’re doing great, it’s a picnic. Also your mom made me take about a dozen sandwiches home. I think she’s afraid I’m going to starve to death if she doesn’t feed me, doesn’t matter how many times I tell her the teaching actually pays okay.
There are new crappy movies out every week about the war. I keep wondering what you would think if you saw them. Do you? Are there movies out there?
So you can stop worrying I’m not eating, Bucky heard, in Steve’s voice, and your mom is doing fine. Which he knew, she wrote all the time, and he had a letter from her that had come in at the same time. But he’d opened Steve’s first.
Do you have a new nickname over there or do they stick with Bucky? I ran into a guy on leave and he said everybody gets nicknames, his is Short Stack. It’s not nice but it is accurate. He said I would definitely get nicknamed Shorty.
Still not moving, though. Same address.
He hadn’t gotten in, then, though he wasn’t telling Bucky if he’d tried. Go figure.
You know Sister Anne who was Mrs. Murtaugh’s husband’s sister? She passed away last week. I feel like a jerk but I’m sure she’s still going to haunt my dreams when I’m afraid I’ve done something bad. Sometimes I wake up and my knuckles ache.
Before he got through the stack, his Sergeant came around and said, “Bucky, come here, we need to go over some requisitions.” He was good at math, so he’d been getting suckered into helping with the calculations.
“Yes, sir,” he said, and got up off his bed. He dropped his cigarette into the sand and ground it in with his boot. The letters, he shoved under his pillow for later.
Steve met a soldier on his way home from visiting his mother’s grave.
The soldier was standing on the el platform, looking confused, trying to read the signs. Steve said, “Can I help you get somewhere?”
He looked around and smiled, a big grin, his eyes taking in Steve. “Yeah, if you could tell me how the heck I’m supposed to get to the St. George Hotel?”
“You’re almost there, actually,” said Steve. And somehow that turned in to getting invited for drinks, and he figured, what the hell, so he went.
When he walked in with the soldier—Mel, he’d insisted on—he felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.
“You don’t mind it, do you?” asked Mel, anxiously. “My buddies just told me this was our kind of place.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Steve, mouth running ahead without him. He’d known—he knew it was this kind of place. But it was one thing to know it was around and another thing to go in, with a soldier, who was tall and willowy and dark-haired and who had his hand on Steve’s elbow to steer him through the crowd, up to the huge bar on one side. This side—this side seemed to be where—our kind of guys were standing.
“Hey! Bill!” Mel called over the chatter. Bill turned out to be a brawny Midwestern guy with a flat Kansas voice, and when they were introduced Bill’s eyes dipped below Steve’s waist before coming back up to his face, and Steve could see it, could see the look just like the looks he’d gotten from girls at dances. Insufficient.
“You know,” said Steve, “I should probably get going pretty soon.”
He stayed for a quick drink that made his cheeks flush. When he left, Mel looked upset; Bill looked relieved. The other guys hadn’t shown yet. His arm was still warm from where Mel had been resting his big, calloused hand on it. He didn’t look back.
The part where Bucky got to go home felt like he’d won some kind of lottery. Nobody got leave. Nobody. But some of the guys, about five of them from the whole installation, got word that they were getting a three-week rotation, and by the numbers that may have meant it was going to be a century of war before all the guys got to go home, but he’d take any unfair advantage. And here he was, off a plane, headed back to the neighborhood. He stopped at his family’s house, to the tears and screams. He told them he was going to be a sergeant, and they were impressed, and his father actually managed to look proud. It looked a little bit like he was constipated, but it was the thought that counted.
When he knocked on the door, Steve opened it; he was there, looking—Christ, looking older. That was a new one. Even before, he’d just looked thinner.
“I’m only back until I get a new set of orders,” he said to Steve. Steve nodded, jerkily.
“Want to get a bite to eat? The automat?”
“Yeah.” Bucky nodded. “Yeah.”
At the automat, Steve watched Bucky eating. They were sitting in silence, perched on the wire-frame chairs, the room half-empty around them.
Bucky looked thinner—the uniform was still tight across the shoulders, but the solid thick waist was narrower. And his face was thinner, too. Ever since he lost the baby fat his face had still had a kind of round quality. Not anymore.
“How was it?” Steve asked, feeling the inadequacy of the words and hating them.
Bucky shrugged, letting his sandwich dangle from one hand while he grabbed for a napkin with the other. “Awful.”
“Sounded like it.”
“Steve, I just... I can’t see why you want to go. It’s not like there’s anything noble out there to do. None of it is.”
“I just want to be useful.”
“You’re useful here.”
“I’m a joke here.”
“To who?” He could see the anger flare in Bucky’s face, before Bucky passed a hand across his face. “Fuck, Steve. Anybody thinks you’re a joke is a sack of shit.”
“Yeah, you’re telling me.”
That got a little laugh out him—a little awkward snorting laugh. Which was a lot better.
All told, he had more than two weeks back, the travel time cutting in at either end. He spent most of it with his folks, listening to his dad talk about the war like some kind of damn idiot, but he never corrected him, not once.
He spent some parts of it over at Steve’s, sitting up with a beer in his hand, listening to the radio. Steve loved that thing, always had, listened to it with his ma, and ever since his ma died it seemed like it was always on every time Bucky came over. Like the empty place needed filling up with something, and that something was music.
They talked a little, but more than not, they’d just sit in silence, sharing lost thoughts.
“How’s your heart doing?” he asked, once, out of an idle curiosity. Steve couldn’t be doing too badly, not with the good color in his cheeks.
Steve shrugged. “Fine.”
“Asthma kicking up?”
They left it at that.
He figured going to confession while he was back might be a bit much. The priests back here didn’t know, not like the chaplains overseas. They’d heard the worst of it. Hell, some of them had seen it, too.
But he was back over a couple of Sundays, and his family dragged him. And when he was in that little booth, he managed to keep it short. I’ve killed for my country.
“Not a sin, my son,” said the priest. “As long as you regret that this is necessary.”
“Oh, I regret it,” he said. “You got no idea how much.”
He found Steve getting his ass kicked in an alley. Jesus Christ. Can’t leave him alone for two minutes. It’s been a lot more than two minutes. How many fights was Steve getting in while he was gone? “You just don’t know when to give up, do you?” the guy was asking. Like Steve had ever had an answer for that.
He stepped to the side—invisible against the wall—and came up behind the guy like a ghost. He was ready to just pull the big dumb ox off and leave it at that, and he heard his own voice—“Pick on someone your own size”—and knew Steve was going to hate that. But it didn’t matter, because the asshole didn’t know when he was licked. A right hook and a kick and he was gone. Didn’t even have to put down the paper.
He put on his swagger like a coat and walked down the alley to where Steve was pulling himself back up to his feet.
“Sometimes I think you like getting punched,” he said.
“I had him on the ropes,” Steve said, panting a little. “Ah, shit.” He touched his face gingerly. What was—great, he’d dropped another fucking deferment card. Didn’t have to look at it to know what it was. 4F. Again. He gave Steve a little shit over that.
“How many times is this? Ah, you’re from Paramus now? You know it’s illegal to lie on the enlistment form. And seriously, Jersey?”
When Steve looked up from swiping the back of his hand across his mouth, Bucky could see the minute it dawned on him; his face went still and drawn, looking him up and down, mouth still hanging open a little like he’d forgotten to close it. The pressed uniform, the new stripes sewn on. “You get your orders?”
He drew in a breath and squared his shoulders, mocking the news. “The 107th. Sergeant James Barnes. Shipping out for England first thing tomorrow.”
Steve huffed out a breath, eyes drifting to stare off into space, chin dropping. “I should be going.”
He threw his arm around Steve, squeezed tight, painfully tight. He found a smile somewhere. “C’mon, man. It’s my last night! Got to get you cleaned up.”
“Why,” said Steve, deeply skeptical, “where are we going?”
“The future.” He flung away the card and handed over the paper with the ad for the expo, and Steve frowned down at it.
They went back to Steve’s apartment because Bucky’s mom would have been ticked about the fight. Even after all these years, she still thought of Steve as a twelve-year-old who got pneumonia every winter.
Bucky stopped Steve at the bathroom door with a hand on his chest, and stripped his shirt off him. No use getting blood on a white shirt. Steve watched him do it, hands sure on the buttons.
He hung the shirt over the bathroom doorknob and grabbed a towel. He got it wet in the sink, cold water, and washed Steve’s face, fingers spread against his jawline, bracing him. Steve stood in his undershirt. It was worn so thin there were places it was almost see-through.
When he finished, he dried Steve’s face with the corner of the towel and let him go. Steve just looked at him for a minute. Then went to get a fresh shirt.
When they walked out the door, Steve could see—could really see Bucky put it on, the whole thing: the way he talked and shrugged, rolling his shoulders, smiling. It was unnerving, seeing it and at the same time seeing behind it.
Bucky was hustling him toward the Stark Expo, and his voice was calm, fond. Believable. “I don’t see what the problem is. You’re about to be the last eligible man in New York. You know there’s three and a half million women here.”
Steve didn’t meet his eyes. “Well, I’d settle for just one.”
“Good thing I took care of that.” Bucky was smiling, chest puffed out. Waving at—a girl, two girls. Steve’s heart gave a painful little jerk.
“What did you tell her about me?”
“Only the good stuff.”
He watched out of the corner of his eye as Steve tried to push his bangs out of his eyes. Christ, Steve was always jumpy around girls. Nervous as a cat.
You couldn’t be like that. People noticed.
She grabbed Bucky’s hand and dragged him up. “It’s starting!”
Howard Stark looked kind of ridiculous, his neatly trimmed mustache, slick shit-eating grin. But the hovering car—that was cool. “Holy cow,” he murmured.
When it crashed, he craned his neck to grin at Steve, mouth already running. “Hey, Steve, what do you say we treat these girls—” But there was no Steve there. Gone again.
He followed Steve to where he had to be, standing and staring at the enlistment poster.
“Come on, you’re kind of missing the point of a double date. We’re taking the girls dancing.”
Steve looked distant. He was somewhere else in his head already. “You go ahead, I’ll catch up with you.”
“You really going to do this again?”
“Well, it’s a fair. I’m going to try my luck.”
“As who? Steve from Ohio? They’ll catch you. Or worse, they’ll actually take you.” The fear was an ugly hollow in the pit of his stomach. He took half an involuntary step forward.
“Look, I know you don’t think I can do this, but—”
“This isn’t a back alley, Steve. It’s war.”
“I know it’s a war, you don’t have to tell me—”
“Why are you so keen to fight? So many important jobs—”
“What do you want me to do,” Steve said without any real anger, “collect scrap metal in my little red wagon?”
“Yes! Why not?”
“I’m not going to sit in a factory, Bucky!”
“I don’t—” Talking over each other, around each other, like they always had. Voices merging in a hum of heatless annoyance.
“Bucky, come on. There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do less than them. That’s what you don’t understand. This isn’t about me.” And of course Steve could meet his eyes while he said it, full of the righteousness he’d worn since he was a kid.
“Right. ‘Cause you got nothing to prove.”
Steve was getting ready to say something, and Bucky had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it, when his date’s voice floated over them. “Hey, Sarge!” Distant, sing-song. “Are we going dancing?”
He spun around. “Yes, we are!” he called, his voice syrupy. Looked back at Steve; their eyes met, and his flickered away, and back again, a long, silent moment. He took a deep breath, blew it out. “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” he said, starting to back away with long strides.
“How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.” It sounded automatic. It would do. It would have to do. Steve’s eyes ran quickly up and down him again. He went back, just a couple of long steps, to pull him into a brief, fierce hug.
“You’re a punk.”
“Jerk.” He hugged Steve, felt Steve’s firm pats on his back. “Be careful,” Steve said, as he pulled back, the corners of his mouth pulling down, and then as Bucky walked away again, louder, “Don’t win the war ‘til I get there.”
Bucky turned back, saluted grimly.
“C’mon, girls,” he said, walking over to where they were waiting by the fountain, putting his hand on her shoulder to guide her down the steps. “They’re playing our song.”
After that, he thought about getting drunk, really drunk, and seeing if he could fuck his date. He was pretty sure he could. He was a handsome soldier, and she was unattached, unclaimed, at the age where a nice-looking boy was a lot more fun than Monopoly.
He smiled instead and took her home. He crawled into bed in his mother’s house and rested his head against the pillow, smelling the smoke of the crowd going stale in his hair. It turned his stomach, but it wasn’t the smoke of cordite. That was something.
When the MP came in, Steve felt the familiar oh, shit in the pit of his stomach—getting caught—great. Fuck. Not the glorious ending he’d hoped for, but at least Ma was dead, because this would kill her.
But then the—doctor? He must have been a doctor—walked in. He held himself differently than the other doctors did, somehow. Shabby brown suit, ill-fitting, hanging off him. Beard verging on overgrown stubble.
“Thank you,” the doctor said to the MP in a thick German accent, quietly and dismissively, and the MP left. He turned to Steve and his voice got louder, maybe mocking. “So, you want to go overseas? Kill some Nazis?”
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“Dr. Abraham Erskine. I represent the Strategic Scientific Reserve.” He held out his hand, and Steve took it, accepted the lengthy shake.
“Steve Rogers.” Erskine nodded, glancing down at the file. Steve asked, “Where are you from?”
“Queens. 73rd St and Utopia Parkway.” Dr. Erskine had a little and fuck you for asking thing going on with the corners of his mouth, and he adjusted his glasses. “Before that, Germany. This troubles you?”
“No,” Steve said, raising his eyebrows, shaking head.
Erskine started in on him about why he was there, what he wanted to do.
Steve took a breath, started to say something, started to say something different. This didn’t sound like somebody who wanted to arrest him. Don’t screw this up. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
Erskine nodded, glanced sidelong at him. “Well. There are already so many big men fighting this war. Maybe what we need now is a little guy. Huh?”
Steve could feel hope leaping in his chest; at least, he was pretty sure that wasn’t just the murmur.
Erskine pushed back the curtain, leading him out of the room. “I can offer you a chance. Only a chance.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Good.” Erskine sounded genuinely pleased. “So where is the little guy from? Actually.”
“Congratulations, soldier.” Erskine pulled out a stamp, used it, handed the file to Steve.
Steve opened the file, and staring back up at him: 1A. He took a deep breath, and looked up smiling.
When the plane landed, Bucky was so tired—got no sleep, thinking any minute he was going to start hearing fire. He peeled himself up off the floor, and clambered out, pack in hand. The train to the camp lulled him until he almost missed his stop. He bailed off the train and stood for a minute, blinking, before he got his bearings.
When he made it to the camp, he was dead tired, looking for a cot, any cot.
“Sergeant Barnes!” somebody shouted. He picked it out.
“Doug!” he yelled back.
Doug came up, his shambling walk, familiar grin. “Hey,” he said, “good to see you. We’re stuck in Glasgow for a little while. You know the girls here are like glue? There haven’t been any good men here in way too long.”
“I don’t know if I can keep my eyes open long enough to see girls.”
“Look, we’re supposed to be heading out pretty soon. So if you want to get any socializing done, now’s the time.”
“Doug, I just wanna sleep,” he said, plaintively.
“Suit yourself.” Doug shrugged. “Come on, princess, we’re bunking over here if the beds meet your highness’s needs.”
As soon as his head hit the mattress, he was out like a light.
Steve didn’t have to do the second physical. Erskine made sure he got sent straight to Camp Lehigh. He did have to talk to a shrink once he got there, but it was all more variations on the theme of so you want to kill Nazis, and one brief half-hearted attempt to get him to admit to any sexual perversions. He looked the shrink right in the eye and said, with bottomless sincerity, “Well, sir, I’ve been hoping to meet the right girl and get married, but that hasn’t happened for me yet.”
The shrink waved him out, must have passed him. He couldn’t believe it.
He took the uniform he was handed. It was huge, swimming on him, but he wasn’t about to complain. The quartermaster gave him a sharp look, daring him to say something.
He picked the cot in the Quonset hut by virtue of being the last guy to show up, so he got the only one the other guys hadn’t taken. It also had the advantage of not landing him on anyone’s shit list. Nobody tried to pick a fight over it.
Hodge was, of course, a raging asshole about Steve being in the same program as him, and when Steve refused to fight him (not now, not so close), Hodge kept calling him a coward and a faggot, sissy pansy fairy. He got a reputation he knew he wasn’t going to shake. Hodge wasn’t the only one, though he was the worst. But Steve knew. Land a punch and he could be out.
Not going to give anyone any excuse to send him home.
Jesus, even the socks were the size of boxing gloves on him.
They were lined up for inspection the first time he saw her.
“Recruits, attention! Gentlemen, I’m Agent Carter. I supervise all operations for this division.” Steve’s eyes slid sideways—he knew, eyes front—but he had to see her. She was magnificent. From her styled hair to the powerful muscles of her calves. She deserved a portrait, in oils, life-sized—
“What’s with the accent, Queen Victoria? Thought I was signing up for the US Army,” Hodge’s voice rang out, and Steve’s head turned a little towards them to catch her response.
Her face didn’t give anything away. “What’s your name, soldier?”
“Gilmore Hodge, Your Majesty.”
“Step forward, Hodge.” When he did, she specified: “Put your right foot forward.”
He grinned slyly and talked a little shit, which was how Hodge didn’t see the punch coming that knocked him flat. Steve couldn’t help it; he could feel the corners of his lips lifting into a satisfied little smile.
She turned around, maybe a little too quickly. “Colonel Phillips.”
“I can see that you are breaking in the candidates. That’s good.” And aside, to Hodge, “Get your ass up off the ground and stand in that line at attention until someone comes and tells you what to do.”
Colonel Phillips turned to glower at them. “General Patton has said that wars are fought with weapons but they are won by men. We are going to win this war because we have the best men.” (Steve caught the look his way, the weighty pause. Add Phillips to the unimpressed list. Impress him.) “And because they are going to get better. Much better. The Strategic Scientific Reserve is an allied effort made up of the best minds in the free world. Our goal is to create the best army in history. But, every army starts with one man. At the end of this week, we will choose that man. He will be the first in a new breed of super-soldier. And they will personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of Hell.”
Steve had left instructions with Mrs. Leamy, his landlady with tender eyes and a hard narrow mouth, for mail forwarding. So far, so good; he got Bucky’s letter just a couple of days after he got to the camp.
No letters yet, but then we are in a whole new place so maybe the mail has not caught up with us yet.
Hope you are making some progress on that mural. It sounded like a lot of work but I know they will be happy with it.
Steve felt a guilty twinge. He could tell Bu—no. No, he wasn’t going to tell Bucky. He could feel it already in his gut. Bucky would worry, and Steve might not get selected, and if Bucky ended up worrying about him while he ended up back in Brooklyn anyway, what good did that do?
So he wrote back and made something up about the mural, and talked mostly about things in the national news.
“Squad, halt! That flag means we’re only at the halfway point. First man to get that flag gets to ride back with Agent Carter.”
Steve watched the other men scramble, Hodge dragging himself as far up the pole as he could manage. Steve was still bent mostly double, dragging in as much air as he could get, hands braced on his knees. Once everyone else had given up and started to fall in, he walked over to it.
He went straight for the linchpin and gave it a good tug. The pole came down smoothly, and he grabbed the flag. The sergeant stood there looking gobsmacked.
Agent Carter in the Jeep was obviously trying not to laugh, looking back over her shoulder, her hair shining in the light.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, handing it over, and hauled himself up into the Jeep.
Carter’s smile got bigger, and he watched sidelong as she tried not to laugh, curling her lips in around it.
On the way back, she didn’t talk to him much, thank God, he had no idea what to say to her. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen and I love the way you punch men taller than you weren’t great conversation starters. But she did say, “How did Dr. Erskine find you?”
“I’m not sure, ma’am,” he said. “I was trying to enlist, and he was kind enough to come in and have a few words with me.”
“I can imagine,” she said, and let it go.
Learning how to drive could have gone better. Steve was a city boy. If he needed to go somewhere, there was always the el, the subway, transit around every corner. Who needed to drive? (Every once in a while Bucky had driven him places in the family car, that big metal boat gliding around corners.)
The jeeps and trucks at Camp Lehigh were a far cry from the elegant sedans in Manhattan, more like the milk-trucks rattling around out in Brooklyn. Steve could work the pedals all right, but it was a stretch sometimes if he needed to be shifting gears on top of it.
Bryans, one of the other candidates, who’d been a farm boy and driving since he was twelve, took pity on him. He showed Steve some tricks. By the end of training, Steve could get the jeep out and around for a loop of the camp without any wobbling over the imaginary center line. His pride was bruised, but not badly.
Now, the motorcycle—that was more fun. It seemed built more for somebody like Steve, and he could lean in to it, lean in until the wind barely touched him. Why did anyone still ride horses?
He found himself, briefly, picturing Agent Carter hanging on to his waist to ride behind him. It gave him the ghost of a smile and he almost skidded out on his next turn.
Steve was going to be damned if he gave anyone an excuse to send him home, vet him, at this stage. There were calisthenics every morning, hikes most afternoons. He never complained. His lungs might be burning, he might hurt in every muscle he had, and there might be times after exercises when he could feel his heart hammering in his teeth like it was trying to escape. But he was going to do it all, everything the other guys did, and he’d do it as well as he possibly could. Better. Push. Push harder.
Agent Carter’s voice drifted to him as he levered himself up on his aching arms, his wrists feeling like they were about to splinter. “Faster, ladies! Come on. My grandmother’s more life in her, God bless her soul.” Somehow the taunts sounded even more cruel in a British accent.
They were into the jumping jacks portion of the calisthenics when he heard the shout.
Here? How? Didn’t matter; it was there. It was skittering across the ground, a malevolent dark blot. The guys scattered. Steve lunged for it and scrabbled with his arms to bring it under him, the hard lump pressing in under his ribs. Out of the corner of his eye he could spot Agent Carter starting to run toward him.
“Get away!” He flailed with his free arm. “Get back!”
After a few seconds, it dawned on him that it wasn’t exploding.
“All clear, get back in formation.”
Steve looked up, gasping for air. What the fuck were they doing? “Is this a test?”
Colonel Phillips was glowering. “He’s still skinny,” he said in a voice that probably wasn’t intended for Steve to hear.
Dr. Erskine gave him a fond smile, self-satisfied.
Steve’s birthday came and went, unremarked. Except that he got a letter from Bucky—which immediately sent a wave of something like paralyzing guilt through him; he hadn’t written since that first letter, and even though Bucky always talked about how unreliable the mail was overseas he was probably worrying—and also Erskine (who else would have?) left a bottle of beer under his pillow. He looked at it, smiling, before the other guys started to filter back in; when he heard the door creak he stashed it again. Save it for a rainy day, Rogers.
But he settled in with the letter.
I’m in fog country again, but it is not that bad out right now. Some of the locals are telling me this is enough summer. I would have to cordially disagree. But at least it does not get sweltering, like it always did back home. I do not miss being about a million degrees and sleeping on your crappy roof.
We are probably headed for action in the not too distant future, so any prayers you feel like saying for my soul (or paying someone else to say) would be in order. There are great chaplains over here, really. I missed them when I was back home. The priests back there have no idea.
There are things it is tough to ask for absolution for. I don’t think there is any amount of Hail Marys that would get me out of this one.
I hope you are safe and well. Mom says in her last letter that you have not been by in a couple days. She worries. Of course she worries, but I mean you need to eat and it’s not like she isn’t cooking for everybody anyway.
“Steven,” said Dr. Erskine, “a moment, if you please.”
“Yes, sir,” said Steve, setting aside his book and sitting up. It was evening—after dinner—and he’d been looking forward to this chapter, on formations for land battles. But Dr. Erskine wasn’t someone he wanted to keep waiting.
Dr. Erskine came to sit on the cot next to his, and said, evenly, “Steven, I have made the choice of who to select for the experiment.”
“Oh,” said Steve, whose heart was suddenly thundering again. Dr. Erskine looked grave and that meant—he wasn’t—was he. Christ. Back home again, this time without a job or an apartment. They’d taken him this far, maybe they’d let him—sort mail, or something, a desk job. Anything. He’d beg.
“Will you do it?” Erskine’s eyebrows lifted a little, at the end, and the note in his voice was profoundly sad.
It took a long minute for Steve to process that, and then, through the blood rushing in his ears, he said, “Yeah. Yes. Of course.”
“You may die,” said Dr. Erskine. “In fact, it is quite likely. This will not be the first time this has been tested on a human. Previous tests were not successful.”
“I don’t care,” said Steve.
Dr. Erskine still looked sad, but he smiled a little, and said, “I did not think you would.”
Hodge just about had an apoplexy when he found out, but the rest of the guys were pretty decent about it. They got shipped out almost immediately. He didn’t know what happened to most of them.
The idea that they were going to Italy next didn’t really sink in for Bucky until they were on ships. This was familiar, at least. The long chug out to sea, high in the north so the air was frosty on his face, and then the turn back, so they could slide into the Mediterranean, that was a little new, but the constant high-alert hum of waiting for the Jerries to spot them—any minute now. Any minute now there’d be the scream of a torpedo. There’d be a U-boat. It was just a matter of time. The hours dragged by.
They got close, and closer. Bucky shrugged into his gear. He got his men and went to wait by the landing craft in the darkness, chill with wind coming off the water. No torpedoes.
Finally it was time: down the side of the ship, fingers half-numb already on the nets, and into the Higgins boats. The waves crashing up over their heads, over the high walls of the craft, loud as bombs, and all the guys getting seasick, puking all over everything. It was like being in Hell, except in Hell at least you knew you were already dead, and the worst had happened.
Here, the worst was always possible. And could happen any time.
Sicily was—he made it through Sicily just fine.
They were clearing a building when he came across a Nazi, who had his back to Bucky. He had a gun in his belt. Bucky was so close, tripping over him, there wasn’t room to get his rifle up, to shoot clean.
He got his arm around the guy’s neck and just hauled back with everything he had. He wasn’t powerful enough to snap the neck, so he had to hang on until the guy’s hands stopped scrabbling fruitlessly at his arm, stopped struggling, and then longer, just to make sure.
He left the body there, didn’t say anything about it. The other sergeant gave him a funny look when he came back out and gave the OK sign. That was it.
Dr. Erskine came back, the night before the experiment.
“Why me?” asked Steve, when he’d worked up the nerve for it.
Dr. Erskine paused before answering. “I suppose that is the only question that matters. This is from Ausberg.” Tipping the dark bottle so the label was in the light, he glanced down at the label. He told Steve about Schmidt, power-mad, Hitler’s tool. And a trial of the serum.
“Did it make him stronger?” Steve could feel his pulse pounding. The Holy Grail of a lifetime. Stronger, and a soldier, and he could finally go overseas. Maybe a unit full of men like him, and they’d—
“Ja. But,” tilting his head, “there were... other effects. The serum wasn’t ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside. So good becomes great. Bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion.”
“Thanks. I think.”
Erskine drew in a breath as a hiss. “Whatever happens tomorrow,” he said, pouring the glasses, “you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” Pointing at his chest with good and man.
“To the little guys.”
Steve said, after watching Erskine drink for a few more minutes, “Will you do me a favor?”
“What is it?”
He pulled an envelope out from where it was tucked into a book. “If I, if I don’t make it, will you send this? It’s—he’s my next of kin. Nobody else left.”
Erskine took the letter and nodded slowly.
The letter wasn’t much. Just to tell Buck he’d tried. And failed. But died trying, at least.
The Army dumped them in Brooklyn the night before, at the “secret” base in the park that everybody knew about, but Steve didn’t try to see anyone; he was a test subject, and anyway, there was no one to see.
The morning of the procedure, Agent Carter knocked on his door. He’d been up for a while, already dressed and ready. She escorted him to the test site. Watching the neighborhood go by—it was funny, he hadn’t been away for that long. But it already felt old, alien. Even the familiar places, it was like he was looking at them through the wrong glasses.
“I know this neighborhood. I got beat up in that alley.” Pointing out the window. “And that parking lot. And behind that diner.” He looked down, after that, at his lap.
“Did you have something against running away?” Her eyes were forward, but her voice just had a kind of gentle curiosity. A little dubious, maybe.
He shook his head, looking over towards her but not meeting her eyes. “You start running, they’ll never let you stop. If you stand up, push back, they can’t say no forever, right?”
“I know a little of what that’s like. To have every door shut in your face.” She glanced briefly over at him.
“Guess I just don’t know why you’d want to join the army if you were a beautiful dame. Or a beautiful—a woman. An agent. Not a dame. You are beautiful, but.” Christ, what was he doing?
Watching him, a little smile on her lips, she said, “You have no idea how to talk to a woman, do you?”
“I think this is the longest conversation I’ve had with one.” He grinned in spite of himself, but it fell off his face. “Women aren’t exactly lining up to dance with a guy they might step on.” It came out—bitter, and ugly, and he didn’t like that. It sounded like he blamed the—well, maybe he did. But he shouldn’t. He knew that.
“You must have danced.” Her accent dragged out the a in danced, softened it like pity, and that made it worse. But he was settling in to this, awkward as it was.
He shrugged a little. “Well, asking a woman to dance always seemed so terrifying.” (That part wasn’t a lie.) “And the past few years it just didn’t seem to matter much.” (Also not a lie.) “Figured I’d wait.”
“The right partner.”
Getting out of the car, still flustered over the conversation, he pulled his hat off, and only realized what he was doing and went to put it back it on just as they walked into the building.
Through heavy pair of dark curtains, and bookshelves swinging back. It felt like walking into a mystery. Steve looked sideways, to Agent Carter, glanced back at the MPs; she looked perfectly composed. When they got into the experimental chamber, he walked right up to the edge, staring over the railing at the hive of activity below. His treacherous heart thrilled, the beat like a vibration in his chest. He looked over to Agent Carter again. Her eyes met his, and the fear in them was not reassuring. She turned and headed down the steps. He followed her.
“Good morning,” said Dr. Erskine, quietly and kindly, shaking his hand. A flashbulb went off much too close to their faces. “Please, not now,” he said, testily, and the photographer faded back.
He turned back to Steve. “Are you ready? Good. Take off your shirt, your tie, and your hat.”
Steve glanced back at Agent Carter, and then started taking it off. He had to climb up a metal stepladder just to get up to where he could lie down on the chair. It was imposing, in black leather and steel. Goosebumps came up on his skin from the chill of it.
“Comfortable?” asked Dr. Erskine.
“It’s a little bit big.” They traded a little laugh. “Save me any of that schnapps?”
“Not as much as I should have, sorry. Next time. Mr. Stark, how are your levels?”
“One hundred percent. We may dim half the lights in Brooklyn, but we are ready. As we’ll ever be.”
Erskine reminded Agent Carter to go back to the observation deck, but she twisted to look back at Steve before she went.
Erskine’s speech to the observers rumbled in Steve’s ears. His voice was pleasant, a little gritty. He sounded calm—not serene—but calm. The leather was warming against Steve’s back.
“We begin with a series of micro-injections into the subject’s major muscle groups. The serum will cause immediate change. Then, to stimulate growth, the subject will be saturated with Vita-Rays.”
The cold pads come down over his chest, and the ranks of needles lined up in the pieces that fit over his arms. A nurse with a regular syringe stood to his left, just out of his good line of sight now, and gave him an injection in the arm. He glanced up Dr. Erskine and said, “That wasn’t so bad.”
Erskine made a little wry, half-regretful face. “That was penicillin.” Steve frowned at him—for what—VD? He couldn’t think—but there wasn’t time left to think. The countdown started.
“Serum infusion beginning in 5. 4. 3. 2. 1.”
Now this, this hurt. He was clenching his eyes, his jaws. His eyes flew open—the pain in every major muscle group—was it unbearable? No. No. He’d bear it. He’d borne worse. Into his head came an image, unbidden: a child in short pants, wearing a gas mask, carrying a gun. Ready to march, goose-stepping. It was from that exhibit downtown, hastily sculpted but haunting, and it got bigger and bigger in his mind’s eye. Bucky’s face. No. Gas mask, slow suffocation. Militarization of Children. This. This is what it’s for. He held onto it. The pain crested, started to subside.
“Now, Mr. Stark.”
The chair tilted upward, and the lid began to close, like a coffin, like an iron lung, his brain suddenly filling in that picture in a sharp panic. Steve had to breathe, had to breathe carefully. Like an asthma attack, Steve, count through it, count through it (Bucky’s voice, his ma’s), one, two, three, the child in a gas mask, the lid was shutting with a heavy clunk. Breathe. Breathe. There was a knock on the lid. “Steven? Can you hear me?”
He took a deep breath. He could, his lungs still worked. Make a joke. Use the part of your mind that remembers how. “It’s probably too late to go to the bathroom, right?”
He heard, as if from a great distance, “We will proceed.”
Oh, so the pain from the injections had only been the beginning. That had been topical pain, surface, superficial. On and in him but not part of him. This was different; this new pain penetrated into his organs, his bones. It poured through him like water. He had no body. He was only the light, and the light was the pain. There was a noise, swelling, louder and louder, and he realized dimly that it was him. Someone outside was yelling shut it down! Shut it down! Steven! Banging on the lid.
“Kill the reactor!”
He forced his mouth to work. “No! Don’t! I can do this!”
The light was blinding even through his closed eyelids, absurdly bright. Until it softened and died. Something died in him with that light. There was some part of him that was gone, now, that had lived out a petty eternity in between the light going on and the light going off.
There was the soft whine of the machinery winding down, and then it opened. He was taking huge, gasping breaths—head lolling on his shoulders—he couldn’t hold it up. He was so tired.
There were people there, immediately, to support him. Like nurses, or like his ma and Bucky, helping him up to the bathroom in the middle of a fever that left him weak. The room was disorienting, at a new, strange angle. “Did it,” he muttered, slurring in exhaustion.
“Ja,” said Dr. Erskine, with something like tenderness. “I think we did.”
“You actually did it.”
Agent Carter was standing in front of him. It was hard to make his eyes focus, to make her come into focus. “How do you feel?”
How do you feel. Weak as a kitten. Wrung out. Like a god. “Taller.”
“Good. Um. You look taller.” Her hand darted out to, just for a split second, touch his chest.
He saw Erskine look up, saw his face go still and afraid. And then the explosion, and shots rang out. Erskine’s shirt went red in a small, deadly circle. And Steve dropped to his knees by Erskine, hearing Agent Carter shooting, but unable to make sense of the noise yet.
Erskine tapped his chest, twice. And his eyes shut, and he sagged into death.
Steve started running. And he didn’t stop, ran like he had only run in his dreams before. He crashed into Agent Carter and apologized, but started running again as soon as he could get back on his feet. All that practice getting back up was good for something. He didn’t stop, even with broken glass in his feet stabbing him with every step, even getting shot at through the roof of the taxi, until he was kneeling over a HYDRA agent who was laughing into his face and then dying.
“Who the hell are you?”
“The first of many. Cut off one head, two more shall take its place. Heil HYDRA!”
Two dead men in one day, the first men he’d ever seen die like that, so close, so very personal. It was a hell of a day.
It was there at the docks, standing there, dripping wet, that he finally looked down and really saw himself.
He thought about writing to Bucky. He did. But what the hell was he going to say?
“Think you got enough?”
“Any hope of reproducing the program is locked in your genetic code. But without Dr. Erskine, it will take years.”
“He deserved more than this.”
“If it could work only once, he’d be proud it was you.” He looked over at her, and she looked up, back, at him. He had a fragmentary image of kissing her—it would be so—but his arm stung from the needle. He could feel his body trying to heal around the mark already.
Arguing with Phillips about whether he should be part of the team tracking down HYDRA was useless.
“I asked for an army and all I got was you. You are not enough.”
The Senator walked up after Phillips had moved away. He was jiggling his hat in his hand, looking smug and sly. “With all due respect to the Colonel, I think we may be missing the point. I’ve seen you in action, Steve. More importantly, the country’s seen it. Paper!” The aide handed him one. “Enlistment lines have been around the block since your picture hit the newsstands. You don’t take a soldier, a symbol like that, and hide him in a lab. Son,” clapping his hand on Steve’s shoulder, “do you want to serve your country on the most important battlefield of a war?”
“Sir, that’s all I want.”
“Then congratulations.” He shook Steve’s hand. “You just got promoted.”
Steve breathed out hard. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Nothing to it. Sell a few bonds, bonds buy bullets, bullets kill Nazis. Bing, bang, boom, you’re an American hero.”
“It’s just not how I pictured getting there.”
“The Senator’s got a lot of pull up on the Hill. You play ball with us, you’ll be leading your own platoon in no time. Take the shield. Go!” And the guy shoved him through the curtains.
If this was a test, well, why not? There had been tests before. So Steve started practicing. He worked on his lines when he was pretty sure he was alone; and then, he started working on them in front of the girls. They made him sand down the Brooklyn edges. “Nobody wants to hear a hero who sounds like a street rat,” said Gertie. She’d had professional elocution lessons, and she taught him to make his os sound round and high-class, to make sure he stopped dropping gs on the ends of words. “Project,” she said, a command, “enunciate.”
He had never thought, before, about how much work had to go into a sentence to make it sound sincere. He kept thinking about Bucky, smiling and cocky as all hell, and how Bucky would put that on and take it off when it suited him. And how long had it been? How long had Bucky been doing that? Not when they were kids, no, he’d learned it, picked it up somewhere along the way. When they were teenagers, maybe. By the time he started—no, by the time Steve was—no. He couldn’t pin it down. There had to be a time, though. There had to be a division between the Bucky he remembered standing there in the street with a ball in his hand, and the Bucky he remembered walking away from him at the Expo.
When had Bucky started putting it on when it was just them? He must have, because it had been—it had been a shock when he hadn’t, when they came home that last time, Bucky’s hand on his face. The look on Bucky’s face.
“We can’t all drive tanks,” he said, with a smile he had practiced in the mirror and in front of the girls who would put up with him until even Marlene agreed it was winning. Marlene was a tough sell. She’d been in Hollywood and she’d been on Broadway, and she’d met stars so big she swore their names alone would make Steve wet himself.
One night, just a couple of cities in, the girls tried to get him drunk. Everybody was backstage after the show and Sylvia said, “Hey, Cap, you want to get a little toasty?”
“What?” he asked, absently, scrubbing at his face with the edge of a towel as he peered into the mirror, trying to get the last of the cold cream out of the crease around his nose.
“I’ve got gin,” said Sylvia. “I was saving it, but I don’t know what for.”
“Oh, let’s drink the gin,” said Alma. “I could use something to take the edge off. My feet are killing me.”
“What do you say, Cap?” asked Lorraine. “Going to join us?”
He said, “Sure,” even though it was going to be a waste of their gin. Why not. The girls hadn’t generally liked him at first, had taken a while to hash out that nobody was going to touch him, that he wasn’t going to touch anybody, that he wasn’t going to play favorites. (It was, of course, misleading. Marlene, with her hard eyes, and quiet Julia, who had taken over mending his costume, were his favorites. But no one needed to know that.)
They sat around the girls’ rooms, about a dozen of them packed into one of the little spaces. “To getting in the movies,” said Wanda, who had beautiful teeth, white and even and pearly, and shining completely artificial bleached hair, and who had to be the least modest of all of them. Steve had seen her in states he’d never imagined he’d see a woman like her.
“To the movies,” echoed Sylvia, who had dug out the bottle and was sloshing the gin into the little glasses they’d rustled up from the hotel kitchen.
“What do you think?” Velma said to him, leaning back against Marlene’s shoulders. Her breasts were huge, looked soft and pillowy, and it was only a lifetime of training that let him keep his eyes on her eyes. “Are they going to make movies with us?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “They don’t tell me much.”
“Do the voice, do the voice!” said Phyllis, leaning forward off one of the cots the hotel staff had pulled out for them.
He rolled his eyes. “Come on, Phyl.”
He took a deep breath. “I don’t know,” he boomed, voice resonant and clear in the confines of the little room, too loud. “They don’t tell me much.”
“There we go!” cackled Phyllis. “There’s our boy.”
“Right,” said Lorraine, sipping her gin.
Steve couldn’t remember ever imagining that he’d be in a situation like this, sitting in a dingy hotel room full of beautiful girls in various states of undress, but if he had, he would have bet it would have been a little like this—knowing that none of them would try anything with him.
“Drink up,” said Marlene, and Steve obeyed.
“So, Cap,” said Sylvia from where she was sprawled on the floor, twisting to look at him. “Where’s your girlfriend?”
“Don’t know anybody answering that description,” he said, setting down his empty glass. Alma made a face at him and refilled it.
“No, for real,” said Velma, sounding almost bored. “You’re really something. Tell us.”
“Haven’t we been good?” asked Phyllis, licking a stray splash of gin off her mouth. Her lips were still a little dark from the lipstick, even though she’d gotten most of it off. “Don’t we deserve to know?”
Steve shook his head. “Doesn’t matter how good you’ve been. There’s nothing to know.”
Sylvia was squinting at him in level disbelief. “You just don’t want her to know you’re fucking around on the road?” she asked, knowingly.
“Nope. No one to know. And nothing to know.”
As long as the grilling went on, and it did continue, in between snippets of stories from the girls about their boyfriends back home, men they’d met on the road, love and loss, he kept saying, Nothing to tell. And it was true, wasn’t it. No girl back home. No girl anywhere. The closest he had to something with a girl was Agent Carter, and she was in Europe, well out of reach.
You must have danced. Christ, that could still sting.
Between the shooting and then the constant travel and sharing rooms, it took a week or two after the—the transformation before Steve was alone and in a state to do much about it.
It was a single room at a seedy hotel. It was the size of a broom closet, in fact might have actually been a broom closet, but he had it to himself for the night.
The show that day had gone over well. His feet never got tired anymore, not like they used to when he’d been standing at the drugstore or hovering over his students’ shoulders. His head didn’t hurt, nothing ached from the noise, his throat was clear despite all the perfume.
He was curled up on his side—hard to break the habits of a lifetime, hard to sleep any differently, even though he wasn’t cold, might never be really cold again.
He gently cupped his cock through his pajamas, and it twitched obligingly. Nothing hurts, he thought, and pressed harder, grinding down against it. It pulsed, hardening, and he slipped his hand under his pajamas, wrapping his hand around himself.
For a minute there was the disconcerting sensation of something happening in stereo: he was touching a cock, but it wasn’t his; a hand was touching his cock, but it wasn’t his. He inhaled sharply, silently, and started jerking himself roughly.
A big hand on his cock, a big cock under his hand
A big hand on
He came biting the back of his other hand, hard. It was never quite like that again.
Steve got a letter forwarded to him while he was on the road, which was maybe more than he really wanted the US Army to do for him.
It was short, scribbled really, V-mail with two addresses crossed out on the envelope. Bucky said, Well, we won. Sicily is all Allied now. Have not gotten any letters in a while, the mail out here is atrocious. Mom’s are coming through, though, and she says she has not heard from you in ages. Are you ok? Let me know.
He saw Julia seeing him holding an envelope, and she raised her eyebrows, but didn’t say anything—put her index finger up in front of her mouth. He felt a wash of relief and gratitude.
In Catania, Bucky thought to himself, Christ, I hope they didn’t take him. And when he talked to the chaplain, he said as much. He said, “I want us to win as much as anybody, but I want him out of it. I want him safe. He’s my best friend.”
“Friendship is very important, son,” the chaplain said. “It is one of the things that can sustain the soul through times like these. I believe in my heart that your friend is writing, and that his letters are delayed, but if that is not the case, then he has good reasons.”
“Yeah,” said Bucky, “see, good reasons are exactly what I’m afraid of.”
“Who’s strong and brave, here to save the American Way?”
A couple of the meaner girls thought it was funny to whisper dirty things to him backstage, right before a show, to see if they could make Captain America blush and stutter. It only got to him the first couple of times; after that, he learned to listen to whispers of You ever thought about the crowd seeing you naked, staring at your cock? and You ever come on a pair of big, sweet titties, Cap? without flinching.
It was an education.
“Maybe you are a virgin,” said Sylvia, settling back into the bench. The truck’s engine rumbled under them.
“Maybe I never said that,” said Steve, comfortably. It was an act, but he was getting better at that.
She glanced sideways at him and snorted in disbelief. “You’re really something,” she said, and it wasn’t a compliment, or even an insult, necessarily.
“Not all of us can storm a beach or drive a tank, but there’s a still a way all of us can fight.”
When Julia figured out he didn’t know how to dance—at all—she took pity on him, and taught him a couple of easy steps while they were up late, trying to adjust to a new time zone. Most of the girls were sacked out already, and it was just Steve and Julia in the little kitchen. (Steve didn’t sleep much, couldn’t seem to sleep on a schedule anymore, so when one of the girls couldn’t sleep she had decent odds of finding him, usually making himself a sandwich—he couldn’t sleep but God could he eat, he could eat all day and night. It made him feel selfish and a little sick, but the new body burned it all like a furnace.)
“No, see,” she said, wrapping his hand around her waist, which was tightly encased in a girdle—he could feel it slick and unyielding under the thin fabric of her dress, “you have to hold like this and then step this way—come on, you have to lead. I’m trying to show you how you lead, you can’t just do what I’m doing.”
He sighed. “You sure you want to do this?”
“It’s fine,” she said, shaking her head a little, the curlers wiggling under the headscarf. “Just don’t step on my feet. Or loan me your boots if you can’t help it.”
He stepped on her toes, but didn’t break anything, and she was very nice about it.
“Who vows to fight for what’s right, night and day?”
As the newspapers picked him up, there was a steady increase in public attention. More and more people, mostly women, waiting at stage doors. Things to sign, babies to kiss. He did it all, smiling the whole time.
“You have to smile with your eyes,” said Marlene, “or you look like the insincere fucker you really are.”
He smiled with his eyes.
Sometimes the women got handsy. He was pulling off his cowl in the barracks tent they were staying at in this city, a divider hung up between where he and Barry were staying and the girls’ side, and he sighed and ran his hand through his hair.
“Gets to you, doesn’t it?” said Wanda.
He looked up. She was stripping out of the costume with clinical efficiency in what could only be described as public space. He looked away again—maybe slower than he should—maybe on purpose.
“All the touching.”
“It’s the problem with being beautiful,” she said, flashing him a smile that was all sharp white teeth as she bent over and started rolling her stockings down. “People think you’re public property.”
“I think I am,” he said, “legally speaking.”
She laughed out loud and grabbed her shoes up off the floor in one hand before she walked back to the girls’ side.
“Series E defense bonds! Each one you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun.”
A flashbulb went off in his face as he smiled at a woman whose photo of him he was signing.
The picture was in the papers the next day. Slow news day.
For some reason, fans liked to give him things, and one of the things he’d been handed recently was a copy of Leaves of Grass. It made him smile—he remembered book reports on Whitman, what, ten years ago, the teacher’s conspiratorial smile, the suggestion that this material was adult but Steve would be entrusted with it.
He cracked it open, and found it very different than he remembered it.
Man or woman, I might tell how I like you, but cannot,
And might tell what it is in me and what it is in you, but cannot,
And might tell that pining I have, that pulse of my nights and days.
Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity,
When I give I give myself.
He closed it, and set it aside, that night, with the lightbulb shining grimly over the barren little room he was sharing with Barry and Al.
“Something bothering you?” asked Barry, who had his nose in a new Raymond Chandler mystery. He refused to actually grow the mustache, so he was always red around the lip from the spirit gum.
“Nah,” said Steve. “Just, I had to read this book in school.”
“Oh, those are no good. Just leave it behind.”
He didn’t. He opened it again on the road the next day.
My rendezvous is appointed, it is certain,
The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms,
The great Camerado, the love true for whom I pine will be there.
“Who will campaign door to door for America, carry the flag for America, Hoboken to Spokane, the Star-Spangled Man with a plan!”
“Looks like you’re getting your wish,” he said to Phyllis. “They’re going to do a couple of movie spots for newsreels.”
She grinned. “Can’t wait.”
It turned out there were fewer chorus girls in the movie shorts, but they still got their faces in a couple, and Steve liked the change of pace. It felt awkward at first, but he got used to the bandolier of bullets draped across his chest, walking in place in front of a projection screen, crouching in front of prop tanks that couldn’t have limped across a studio. Besides, he was already used to the makeup process, and it was nice to have somebody else to do it for him.
“Cut! Guys, don’t look at the camera.”
On a break, one of the grips brushed up against him at the snack table. He glanced up, ready to apologize, but the set of the man’s face, the ways his eyes roamed down before coming back up to meet his, suggested it had not been accident. The words died on his lips, and there was a long minute before the grip shrugged and smiled and said, “Sorry, Cap,” and walked off.
When he went to a screening for the longest movie, he slumped down in his seat, but he couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face. What a fine, silly thing, Steve Rogers in the movies.
That night he picked up the book again. He kept setting it down and not picking it up again for days at a time, maybe a week. Sometimes reading it felt like a physical blow, like he had to bear up under it.
The boy I love, the same becomes a man not through derived power, but in his own right,
Wicked rather than virtuous out of conformity or fear,
Fond of his sweetheart, relishing well his steak,
Unrequited love or a slight cutting him worse than sharp steel cuts,
First-rate to ride, to fight, to hit the bull’s eye, to sail a skiff, to sing a song or play on the banjo,
Preferring scars and the beard and faces pitted with small-pox over all latherers,
And those well-tann’d to those that keep out of the sun.
“Hmm? Yeah, sorry,” he said, looking up.
Al was frowning at him. “I wanted to know if you’re going to wear the helmet for the bit tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I think so. Right? It goes with that number—”
“Yeah, yeah, I think so.”
...the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him
The strong sweet quality he had strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
Bucky knew one of the guys in the company was a fairy. Hell, everybody knew. He didn’t even try to hide it—he was the chaplain’s assistant, knew how to sing, sewed half the costumes for the shows the guys put on.
Sometimes Bucky would see him on his knees behind the canteen, the fabric of somebody’s slacks puddled around their ankles on the ground, but he always looked away, always made himself walk away.
Nobody gave the guy shit. Mostly. Yet.
“We all know this is about trying to win the war. We can’t do that without bullets and bandages, tanks and tents. That’s where you come in. Every bond you buy will help protect someone you love and keep our boys on the ready. The Germans will think twice about trying to get the drop on us.”
He turned around and punched Barry, who was really an entirely adequate Hitler, to a cymbal crash. The chorus girls were all smiles, lacing their hands together over their hearts.
He hoisted the motorcycle loaded with three chorus girls over his head, and there were thundering sound effects for fake artillery fire. Everything was so bright, brightly colored, beautiful. Nothing like the grim backstages, mildewing carpet, smell of diesel on the truck.
He was trying to fall asleep, lying in the swaying truckbed, and he thought, I wonder what real artillery fire is like, and thought I should send, and knew he wasn’t going to.
Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
Have you ever loved the body of a man?
Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?
Sitting in a hastily thrown-together theater in Catania, really an overgrown tent with ideas above its station, Bucky settled in to watch a war movie.
There were a couple of shorts first. A newsreel, and then some promotional something, with a guy who was—well, built like a brick shithouse. Flailing a shield around. Captain America. They didn’t take long thinking that one up, and what was going on with that stupid hood with little wings on the side?
But the guy, he looked like something out of Steve’s old bodybuilding magazines. And if Steve had ever had any notion what Bucky borrowed them for—well. Sure. Exercises. Some of them a little more for the forearm than others.
He tried to pay attention to the plot, but it was tough. And not really worth it.
Sitting in his bunk after one of the shows, Steve wasn’t even sure which city they were in. There were a lot of states, and he’d been criss-crossing them, never more than a couple of days in the same one. Always on to another city, another show.
He stared at the paper. It had been too long, way too long. Bucky was worried about him. Bucky was in Sicily, Bucky was probably bored out of his mind now that the Germans had retreated. (God, he hoped Bucky was bored.)
He started. Dear Bucky. That part was easy.
I’m sorry it’s been taking me so long to write. I’ve been pretty busy, and I’m tired, but I am safe. So far so good, no raids on Brooklyn.
With everything getting rationed, I figured maybe I should change digs. I have a neighbor who makes sure I get my mail, though, so keep sending it to the old address. I might move again pretty soon so there’s no use giving you the new one, I’d just have to change it again. This way I just have to keep one person updated.
I hope you are doing okay over there. The news made it sound pretty hairy.
When he got the letter and saw Steve Rogers on the envelope, Bucky let out a breath he’d been holding every day at mail call for weeks.
He wasn’t dead. Okay. And the return address was—huh, somewhere in bumfuck Nevada? Well, whatever. Maybe Steve was taking a road trip or something. Helping somebody paint a mural, what the fuck ever.
The letter didn’t clarify that much, and Bucky flipped the envelope back over and glared at the tiny print. Half-smeared, like Steve wanted to make sure he didn’t know where it was coming from. He checked it against the second address.
No. They wouldn’t take him.
He asked one of the guys from Nevada where the town was and whether there was a base near there. There wasn’t. That was good.
There was a sketch in the margin that had come through the microfilm transfers, light and a little broken but still there. It was Steve giving him the thumbs-up. He shook his head—such a punk kid—but that was the one he stuffed in his pocket, alongside his cigarettes.
The USO shows were nice, always a distraction. It could get hard to hear sometimes, with all the guys—thousands of them, tens of thousands—crammed into stadiums that had been half-bombed out. Messina wasn’t any different, but the guy on stage was doing enough slapstick that Bucky didn’t need to be able to hear perfectly to get the gist. The Tommies had rolled out the day before, a line of tanks leaving town, and everybody knew it was going to be their turn shortly.
The guy on stage was introduced as the Clown Prince of Baseball, and he did a bunch of skits about things going wrong at a game. He started off by asking if there were any guys from Brooklyn there, and when a guy just a couple rows down from Bucky stood up and waved vigorously, somebody else yelled something uncomplimentary about the Dodgers and they got a solid five minutes of material out of that. He laughed, hard, and it felt rusty but good.
The next morning, they were on the move.
The offensive up the peninsula wasn’t good. But it was better than Africa. There were Jerries everywhere, around every damn corner, but they were actually on the move, forcing them back and back and back.
“You’re going to see the boys in Europe,” said Al, and Steve sat straight up, letting his boot fall to the ground.
“Really?” He’d been suggesting it for weeks. Getting close to begging for it.
“Yeah, we’re working with the USO. We’re flying out in a couple days. Don’t know when. Don’t tell anybody. I’m warning the girls but that’s it, nobody else gets to know. Barry ain’t coming with us, nobody wants to see a fake Hitler out there and he might get some attention he don’t want.”
He tamped down the urge to write to Bucky, ask where he was. He should have—he’d have time. He’d find out.
Christ, what was he going to say to Bucky? What was Bucky going to say when he saw Steve?
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
When they got to Italy, they started in the south, where it had been safe the longest. They worked their way up, the girls singing and dancing as Steve bellowed patriotic things. The girls were more popular than Steve pretty much everywhere, but then again, they had better legs.
Where Steve actually did okay was in the hospitals. He’d stop in, and smile, and somebody would take pictures of him with the guys who were laid up. He saw guys missing limbs—well, missing just about everything, especially the basket cases. No arms or legs left. Just had to get carted around in baskets like babies in bassinets.
He did sketches for them, which it turned out they loved. Artists would come through sometimes and do drawings, sometimes caricatures, sometimes taking requests, and Steve was enough of an artist to make it work. He drew more than a few pin-up girls while he was there, but he mostly drew the boys—their faces, still animated and bright while they talked about their favorite baseball teams or what celebrities were up to, something they’d been reading in Stars and Stripes or the weekly. He could always get a laugh out of them by bemoaning the fate of the Dodgers. Some of them said they were keeping the sketches, but most said they were going to send them home.
So maybe he wasn’t the hero he’d dreamed. At least the hospitals were something. The reek of carbolic acid reminded him of his ma, anyway, and there were more than a few minutes he lost slipping into memories that felt bright and soft-edged, her voice humming something he could just barely remember in their kitchen. Her bare feet padding across the floor in the night when she’d come in with her shoes off, trying not to wake him up.
(what indeed is finally beautiful except death and love?)
“Orchids to Captain America,” ran a page two item in Stars and Stripes, “for knowing when to keep his mouth shut; he hasn’t tried to kiss any babies or baby-faced doughboys since starting his whirlwind tour of Italy, but he has drawn some nice pictures for our boys in the hospital. We think some of them might not pass the censor, and that’s reason enough to be glad the guy in the winged hood is out here, even if he isn’t punching any Nazis in the face.”
Marlene read it to him and said, “You believe the nerve? Not even mentioning us.”
“They just couldn’t figure out the words to say how lovely and charming and talented you were.”
“They better find some,” she said, and laughed, leaning back on the bus bench. It was making Steve’s ass go numb, but she sprawled out like she owned it.
“Marlene,” he said, “you’re a rare treasure. Never change.”
But when I hear of the brotherhood of lovers, how it was with them,
How together through life, through dangers, odium, unchanging, long and long,
Through youth and through middle and old age, how unfaltering, how affectionate and faithful they were,
Then I am pensive—I hastily look away fill’d with the bitterest envy.
He called in a favor, through Al’s oblique channels, and when Marlene opened up the paper four days later she laughed out loud. “Steve, you asshole,” she said, fondly.
“Whatever do you mean?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“There’s a letter from a Pfc. Rogers about how the best part of the Captain America show is the ‘lovely, long-legged, lithe and lissome dancers, whose voices are like the radiance of angels.’”
“Fella must have good taste.”
“Don’t think I don’t know it was you, buster.”
“Me? I would never. I’m no shill.”
She smacked his leg. “Honey, if you weren’t off-limits I’d have you for breakfast. Now get your fucking boots off my gear or I’ll slit your throat and spare the Jerries the trouble.”
...merely of two simple men I saw to-day on the pier in the midst of the crowd, parting the parting of dear friends,
The one to remain hung on the other’s neck and passionately kiss’d him,
While the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.
Bucky’d been dug into a foxhole for almost a week, relief supposed to show up any fucking time now, when the fucking blue light spitting tank showed up.
When the Jerries got to them, there weren’t a lot of options. Surrender or die.
Bucky was a lot of things, but suicidal wasn’t one of them. So he nodded grimly to the guys, and one by one, they put their hands up. Maybe the guys in positions further back were going to get away from this one. But Bucky’d gotten lucky a lot of times in a row, and this was it. Time was up.
“For you, the war is over,” said the Jerry that captured him. Laughing. Then repeated it in German, then in English again. These ones had different uniforms than all the others they’d seen, black and sleek. Goggles that made their eyes invisible.
They hadn’t heard a lot about POW camps, but Bucky had a bad feeling as soon as he saw theirs. It wasn’t a camp, really. It was a factory. And from the beginning, the Jerries didn’t do anything the trainings said they were supposed to, which gave Bucky a real bad feeling about their odds of getting out of there alive.
There were already guys there, a couple hundred at least, crammed into cages that held maybe a platoon each. When they dumped him in he was groaning, and somebody said, “Who’s the new guy?”
“Bucky,” he said, and gasped as he levered himself up to sit with his back against the cage.
“Nice,” said the guy, who turned out to be Japanese-American. “That’s a stupid name.”
Bucky said, “I will get back to you when I come up with a comeback for that.”
“I’ll be waiting with bated breath, Ace,” said the guy. He turned out to be named Jim Morita and Bucky liked him, because Morita was always ready to give absolutely everybody shit.
They got food (barely) and water (regularly enough), and a bucket for a bathroom. They all smelled like hell all of the time, but Bucky got used to it. After being in the trenches, this was just maybe one level worse. And at least the guys could take their boots off. Some had had their boots taken off for them, and they figured it was to help keep them from running. Not that anyone had much of a chance—or inclination—to run. They’d seen the blue-light weapons.
It didn’t take long for the guards to start picking at them. Bucky’s German, he kept secret. They might screw up and say something in front of him. Mostly, they talked shit to each other, which prisoners they figured for weaklings, which ones looked strong enough to bet on how long they’d last. He hated them for that. Sometimes the conversation drifted and he couldn’t quite follow it, something about who was strong enough for something, and that sounded ominous, too. Plus they kept saying “For you, the war is over,” which they seemed to find hilarious.
There were some pilots. They had burns—long-healed—marking out where their goggles had shielded their faces from the heat of a cockpit or a gunner’s position in flames. A couple of guys Bucky recognized from artillery. But mostly infantry.
One day one of them, the one Dum Dum in a nearby cage had nicknamed Fathead, jerked his head over at Bucky and said in German, “What do you think, schwul?”
Queer. Bucky’s blood ran cold. He didn’t let his face change. Of all the places to be singled out, to be a target. Christ.
“How should I know?” asked the other guard, sounding bored.
“I’m only saying, I think he looks it.”
“You think everybody looks it. You’ve got a degenerate mind.”
“Be quiet, Heinrich, I’ve got a headache and this is going to be a long shift if you keep talking.”
Heinrich shut up, but with a belligerent jut to his jaw.
The thing was, they weren’t even really trying to break them. They were getting perfunctory attempts at extraction, just the same bored-looking official periodically having them pulled into an office to try to get them to give up the other guys in their squads who (please Jesus) hadn’t been caught. Bucky just gave them the same tight smile and name, rank, serial number, every time.
They didn’t even seem mad. And one guy at a time, regularly, would get yanked from the cells, and escorted away, and they wouldn’t see him again.
This didn’t feel like they really cared about information. It felt like they were bodies. Sure, they did some of the work—but never all of them, because it took so much guard supervision it hardly seemed worth it, so they worked in shifts. And it still didn’t feel like the forced labor was what they were there for.
“To the lab?” asked one of the guards, once, when they were hauling a guy away.
“Yes, the lab,” the other guard said. “Where the hell else, genius?”
Jesus. A lab.
A guard Bucky started thinking of as Big Ears said, about a week in, “Do you know where they’re sending the shipment?”
“They didn’t put it on the label. Isn’t that strange?”
“They always put it on the labels.”
“I think they’re not sending it to the usual places.”
“Where else would they send it?”
“I heard a rumor.”
“Don’t try to be mysterious, just tell me.”
“There’s a base they haven’t told us about.”
“Do you know where?”
“Do I look like an asshole? Even if I knew I wouldn’t tell you.”
“So you don’t know.”
The next time they dragged out a prisoner, one of them said, “The usual?”
The other guy wasn’t one of their regular guards. “Yes. Test to destruction.”
That was when Bucky’s skin started to crawl, and he started to think hard about escaping.
“How many of you are ready to help me sock old Adolf on the jaw?” Dead silence. “Okay, uh, I need a volunteer.”
Somebody in the crowd shouted, “I already volunteered, how do you think I got here?” General laughter followed, a rumble of agreement.
“Bring back the girls!”
He turned, glancing to the side, searching for Al’s face. “I think they only know the one song, but uh, let me—I’ll, I’ll see what I can do.”
“You do that, sweetheart.”
“Nice boots, Tinkerbell!”
How familiar. He settled into resigned disappointment. “Come on, guys. We’re all on the same team here.”
“Hey, Captain, sign this!” His jaw clenched as the wise guy pulled down his pants, flashing his bare ass. Then guys start throwing food. The girls came rushing back out, breathing heavily as they thundered up the rickety wooden stairs.
Al’s face was tight with second-hand embarrassment. “Don’t worry, pal. They’ll warm up to you. Don’t worry.”
“Really, Steve?” hissed Marlene on her way past him. “Only know the one song? Fuck you.”
“You know I can’t ad-lib for shit!” he whispered after her. She gave him the finger behind her back.
Pouring rain was soaking everything—even out of the rain, the paper felt damp under his hands. But the noise of the pen scratching on it was soothing.
“Hello, Steve,” he heard in an achingly familiar voice.
He twisted to look back. It was Peggy, hair a little damp, as beautiful as he remembered. “Hi!”
“Hi.” She shifted her overcoat in her hands as she came to sit.
“What are you doing here?”
“Officially, I’m not here at all. That was quite a performance.”
“Yeah, uh,” he said, turning away, “I had to improvise a little bit. The crowds I’m used to are usually more... twelve.”
“And I understand you’re America’s new hope.”
“Bond sales take a ten percent bump in every state I visit.”
“Is that what Senator Brandt tells you?”
“At least he’s got me doing this. Phillips would have had me stuck in a lab.”
“And these are your only two options? A lab-rat or a dancing monkey? You were meant for more than this, you know.” He turned to look back at her again, and then away. “What?” she asked, more gently.
“You know, for the longest time I dreamed about coming overseas and being on the front lines, serving my country. Finally got everything I wanted.” He looked up and around, taking in the tent. “And I’m wearing tights.”
Her mouth tightened, eyes sad, but they got distracted as a cacophony started up, horns honking. An ambulance showed up, tearing through the camp.
Steve stared out at the men, who didn’t seem to care much about the rain. “They look like they’ve been through hell.”
“These men more than most. Schmidt sent out a force to Azzano. Two hundred men went up against him, and less than fifty returned. Your audience contained what was left of the 107th.”
A spike of adrenaline started in his stomach before he’d consciously registered the words, the world bottoming out.
She was still talking. “The rest were killed or captured.”
“The 107th?” he said in a rush.
“What?” She was looking at him in confusion.
“Come on!” He took off across the ground, Agent Carter running behind him, holding an overcoat over her head.
“Colonel Phillips!” He was pretty much begging for the information, he knew, but he would have done worse than argue with Phillips about this. Worse than beg.
Phillips finally cracked a little and said, “I have signed more of these condolence letters today than I would care to count. But the name does sound familiar. I’m sorry.”
He could feel his stage-face slipping. Get it together. Get it together. “What about the others? Are you planning a rescue mission?”
“Yeah, it’s called winning the war.”
“But if you know where they are, why not at least—”
“They’re thirty miles behind the lines. Through some of the most heavily fortified territory in Europe. We’d lose more men than we’d save.” Phillips turned away from the map—the map. Look at the map. “But I don’t expect you to understand, because you’re a chorus girl.”
Sure. Hit the sore spot. Just let me see—look at the map, look at it. Need to remember. “I think I understand just fine.”
“Then understand it someplace else. If I read the posters correctly, you’ve got someplace to be in thirty minutes.”
“Yes, sir. I do.” He was staring at the map. Phillips hadn’t noticed. Or maybe he had, maybe this had been on purpose. Pointing it out, on the map, it was like a dare, maybe he meant for Steve to do what he couldn’t—didn’t matter. Either way. It was burned into his brain.
“If you have something to say, right now’s the perfect time to keep it to yourself.”
When the guards came for Bucky, he was at best halfway through collecting what they were going to need to try a jailbreak.
He didn’t stand a fucking chance. He was debating between trying to do some damage or just going peacefully, not let on, keep morale up, but when one of the guards fucking touched him it was like something in his brain shorted out, and he found himself with his forearm crushing the goddamn voicebox of that fucking piece of shit, talking to him, softly, in German, whispering I am going to kill you, you are going to die.
It took three guards to take him down. By the time they dragged him off that guard, he was blue in the face, and kept coughing, choking, long after Bucky’s arm had been hauled off his throat, and Bucky thought, savagely, I hope he dies, and then said it out loud, in German still, “I hope he dies, I hope you all die, you are going to be corpses and you are going to rot—” and they hit him again and his head snapped back and he tasted blood and saw stars. He wrenched at his arms, almost got one free before they hit him on the back of the head with the butt of a gun. He was out for just a few seconds, but long enough, and woozy when he started coming back to. They were dragging him down to the end of the factory floor, and down a short hallway, toward what had to be the lab.
Thoughts felt hazy and disconnected. When one of the guards jerked him up roughly, he puked on them. There was a little bit of satisfaction in that.
The satisfaction was short-lived. They strapped him down, and left him, head splitting, body aching from more kicks than he could count. Not that he could count very high right then.
After a few minutes, a face swam into view over him; actually, it looked like two faces. Bad sign. Concussion, Barnes, you have a concussion.
“I apologize for my men,” said the face, in halting but good English. “They are very enthusiastic. I had hoped you would not be damaged.”
“Sergeant James Barnes,” he said. “3-2-5-5-7-”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” said the face. “We are not here to talk.”
He felt a sudden patch of chill on his arm—what—rubbing alcohol? And then the prick of a needle, the slide of it up into his vein.
“Or rather,” said the face, “if we are here to talk, it is not about your military secrets. I am much more interested in what sort of man you are.”
“Sergeant James Barnes,” he said, and grinned, through the pain and a sudden wave of nausea on the back of a strange, ugly feeling, cold, creeping up his arm.
“Sergeant James Barnes,” said the face thoughtfully. It was round and pale, like a moon, if the moon really was made of cheese. “You seem very strong, and very angry. These are not bad things, you see.”
“Sergeant James Barnes,” he said, again, “3-2-5-5-”
“Oh, dear,” said the face, and sighed. “Well, if you are going to keep talking, I might as well give you another dose.”
Something happened with the needle in his arm, and then his whole body felt very far away.
“That’s better,” said the face, but he hardly heard it. There were colors leaking out of his eyes. And his skull. His skull was a fountain. Something was rushing out of the back of it. He shut his eyes, but it didn’t matter. But they still didn’t ask him anything.
Agent Carter found Steve cramming supplies into a bag. She tried to talk him out of it—at least, he figured that was what she was trying to do—and followed him to the jeep. His heart was still pounding. He was going to find Bucky. Bucky was going to be alive. Bucky was going to—Bucky was going to be so mad at him, for the experiment, for taking the risk, but Bucky was going to be alive. Don’t think. Just move.
“Steve!” She sounded as close to anguished as she ever got.
He stopped and said to her, intently, staring at her like he could beam into her brain how important this was, “You told me you thought I was meant for more than this. Did you mean that?”
Her hair was wet rain; her eyes staring out from under it, burning. “Every word.”
“Then you got to let me go.”
She gave a ghost of a smile. “I can do more than that.”
The face said, “I hope you will tell me how this feels.”
Bucky said, “Sergeant James Barnes. 3-2—” but the pain rushed into his skull, the light pouring through his veins, and he had to stop talking, because he had to start screaming. Again.
“The HYDRA camp is in Krasburg, tucked between these two mountain ranges. It’s a factory of some kind.” The map lay in her lap, her finger tracing out the location. The noise of the plane, the vibrations, filled the air around them.
“We should be able to drop you right on the doorstep.”
“Just get me as close as you can,” Steve called up the front. “You know, you two are going to be in a lot of trouble when you land.”
“And you won’t?”
“Where I’m going, if anybody yells at me I can just shoot them.”
“They will undoubtedly shoot back.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s good for something,” he said, tapping the shield briskly.
Stark called to them from the front of the plane: “Agent Carter, if we’re not in too much of a hurry, I thought we could stop off in Lucerne for a late-night fondue.” He sounded so sleazy about it; Steve rolled his eyes.
Peggy looked annoyed, and dismayed. But she still defended him, through gritted teeth. “Stark is the best civilian pilot I’ve ever seen. He’s mad enough to brave this airspace. We’re lucky to have him.”
He nodded, barely. “So you two—do you—fondue?”
She glanced down, didn’t dignify that with an answer. “This is your transponder. Activate it when you’re ready and the signal will lead us straight to you.”
“Are you sure this thing works?”
“Been tested more than you, pal!” shouted Stark.
That was when the flak started—shells exploding outside the plane, lights and bangs. Tracers lighting up the sky, one for every six bullets.
“Get back here!” Agent Carter looked simultaneously terrified and murderous. “We’re taking you all the way in!”
He yanked the door open. “As soon as I’m clear, you turn this thing around and get the hell out of here!”
“You can’t give me orders!”
“The hell I can’t! I’m a captain!”
And then he was plunging out, down, down, the rushing air in his ears, crazy bursts of light in the air around him, the smell of explosives. Not like the ride at the Fair, then. Nothing at all like the ride.
But exhilarating, all the same.
He did get stuck halfway up a tree, but he yanked at buckles until he could get himself out of the parachute harness, and dropped the rest of the way to the ground with only a few nasty cuts from branches.
Finding his way through the woods turned out to be easier than he’d expected. Searchlights sweeping the area led him right back to it. He leaped onto the back of a transport, found himself staring at two men wearing masks and goggles—faces completely hidden. Faceless, anonymous. Practically invisible. “Fellas,” he said, by way of greeting, and then they were sailing out of the truck. When they got there, it was simple, again, to wait, and then to hit. So much more power in the new arms. Don’t think. Keep moving.
He crept through the tanks, side-stepping carefully, quietly. Didn’t need to be silent in this industrial place, there was noise everywhere. Just quiet enough.
On the factory floor, it was hard to figure where the prisoners would be. The bizarre, absurd blue light, glowing everywhere, was something—new, but not completely new; it reminded him of the Vita-Rays, except this was cold where they’d been warm.
He stumbled over the prisoners almost by accident, but the guards walking patrol above them tipped him off. He took one down with a punch from behind, and grabbed for the keys.
“Who are you supposed to be?” asked a tall black man, staring up at him through the bars, looking deeply dubious.
“Beg your pardon?” asked a man with a British accent.
“Is there anybody else? I’m looking for a Sergeant James Barnes.” He kept looking, but couldn’t see the familiar walk, hear the voice. No one seemed to know who he was talking about or where there might be other prisoners. Hundreds of guys he was turning loose, and none of them knew, or at least he couldn’t get close enough to get loud enough. (Don’t think. Don’t think about Graves Registration. Don’t think about—don’t think, don’t think, the last time you saw him his hand on your face in the bathroom, the white of the porcelain sink, metal tap, his hand on your face and his eyes on your eyes, boring into you, so close, too close, the rough drag of the wet cloth and his hand on your face and his fingers on the buttons of your shirt don’t think don’t think)
“There’s an isolation ward in the factory, but no one’s ever come back from it,” said the British man. He’d be there. He had to be there.
“All right. The treeline is northwest, eighty yards past the gate. Get out fast and give ‘em hell. I’ll meet you guys in the clearing with anybody else I find.”
“Wait. You know what you’re doing?”
“Yeah. I’ve knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.” He knew that wasn’t going to be clear, didn’t care. He took off.
He could tell from the shouting that the give ‘em hell part was being carried out per orders, which was satisfying, although the gunfire meant some bad things were probably happening.
An alarm sounded almost immediately, klaxons blaring through the factory. The explosions got much, much louder.
Steve was sweeping the floors, up through the facility, back to the factory floor. There had to be a ward. Where the hell was the ward? He spotted something at the far end that looked—possible. Probable. Call it probable.
When he spotted the man in the corridor, he was obviously not a soldier. Was he a doctor, a scientist? Running away like a scared rabbit. Steve could have gone after him, but if he was a scientist, that meant he must be leaving—a lab. This would be the isolation ward. Had to be.
He heard a groan. He knew the voice, even before the words started. He ducked in sideways, through the door. There was a figure on a gurney with a web of straps holding him down. Familiar.
“Sergeant Barnes. Three two—five five—”
“Bucky! Oh, my God.” He looked down at the straps, couldn’t think how to undo them, started ripping them apart with his bare hands. The fabric cut into his palms as he tore it free. Bucky’s head lolled to the side, unseeing eyes flickering over him. “It’s me! It’s Steve.”
“Steve. Steve?” He smiled. Good Lord, he actually smiled. His hair was sticking to his forehead, limp and damp. There were red marks on his arm, the skin looked tender, a soft mottling of blue bruises. Keep it together.
“Come on.” He grabbed Bucky, half-rolled him up off the bed, hands under his arms. “I thought you were dead,” which was half a confession. There were cuts on his cheek—blood—he touched Bucky’s cheek, fast, with one hand.
Bucky looked him up and down. I looked at you like that once—He looked so bewildered. “I thought you were smaller,” he said, voice thick and slurring.
There was a map on the wall. Another map. Memorize it. Fast, faster, like the line of a model’s body in figure drawing, like the edge of Bucky’s face on the fire escape. No time.
“Come on,” said Steve, looking to the side, arms wrapped around Bucky. He felt so light, now, like Steve could pick him up like a ragdoll.
“What happened to you?”
“I joined the Army.”
Bucky moved and it wasn’t clear whether he meant to shrug off Steve’s grip, but Steve let go, reluctantly. Bucky could walk on his own. Well, stagger. But it worked, and it left Steve’s hands free; he needed to get them out, get Bucky safe, away from this place. Bucky’s face was shining with sweat—he’d felt hot, like a fever.
“Did it hurt?”
Not like this. “A little.”
“Is it permanent?”
Bucky kept sliding to the side when he tried to walk, staring, blinking after Steve.
(It was him. Somehow, it was. He knew. He was dizzy and sick but he knew, he knew, he knew. You didn’t forget, you couldn’t be fooled. There wasn’t a drug on Earth that could make Steve unrecognizable to him.)
(But how, how, why, was Steve so—how could he be—)
“So, Dr. Erskine managed it after all. Not exactly an improvement, but still. Impressive.”
Steve threw a punch that caught Schmidt in the cheek. It felt wrong, didn’t take the force right. “You got no idea,” Steve said, viciously.
“Haven’t I?” The punch dented the shield—holy shit, he could see the shape of each finger through it. Steve landed a kick, but it didn’t do half what it should have done.
The catwalk started moving, separating them.
“No matter what lies Erskine told you, you see, I was his greatest success!” Schmidt peeled the face off, and under it was—Jesus. A red face, like a skull.
“You don’t have one of those, do you?” asked Bucky, grimly.
“You are deluded, Captain!” called Schmidt. “You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly, without fear.”
“Then how come you’re running?”
The elevator door closed behind Schmidt and his scared rabbit. The explosions were getting worse.
“Come on, let’s go. Up!”
Steve boosted him up, over the rail, hands gentle on his arms. “One at a time.”
Bucky was woozy, inching along the girder. He could feel Steve’s eyes on his back. Looking down—Christ. The flames beneath him. He needed to move faster. He made it with a leap he threw himself into, just in time, the girder collapsing beneath him. He was clutching the railing, holding himself up.
“There’s got to be a rope or something!” he shouted to Steve.
“Just go!” Steve shouted. “Get out of here!”
“No! Not without you!” His eyes were burning, was it the flames from the explosion, the fumes, the heat? Go without Steve, what a load of horse shit, he had to know, he had to know, that was never going to happen.
He could see Steve’s mouth set, grim, and then he took the running jump, and the explosion was happening, shit. Bucky flung his arms out and grabbed as Steve swung up over it and fell into him and onto him and he almost caught an elbow to the eye, rolling until they came to rest. Steve pushed up off him and they stared at each other for a second.
“Goddamn,” Steve said, grabbing his hand, “let’s go!”
“You said it,” said Bucky, and let the new and improved, absurdly strong Steve haul him to his feet like he weighed nothing.
Getting outside the perimeter was easier than Bucky had figured, mainly because pretty much everybody from HYDRA was dead and it didn’t look like they had backup ready. Couldn’t count on it never getting there, but they’d have a little time to get started moving. It was dark; it would be light soon enough and they could get some distance between them and the base.
“Joined the fucking Army, huh,” said Bucky, when they got to where they could see the guys clumped up at the treeline.
“Yeah,” said Steve, sounding sheepish, like he knew what he’d done.
“Then what the fuck happened?”
“Medical experiment,” said Steve. “Harmless, really, just made me taller. And stronger.”
“Do you glow in the fucking dark?” asked Bucky, suppressing the urge to laugh hysterically.
“Not so’s I’ve noticed.”
“What happened to your voice?”
“Uh.” Steve’s face was doing something complicated. “They had me do some, uh, publicity, and I had to learn—well, I had to learn to talk right for it.”
“STEVEN. FUCKING. ROGERS. Are you Captain America?”
Steve snorted a little laugh, gestured down at his clothes. “Costume didn’t tip you off?”
“I think I got a concussion. I got an excuse. You fucking moron, what were you even thinking?” he ground out, past a combination of choking laughter and choking rage.
They were reaching the men, and Steve said, “We need to figure out who can walk, who we can carry, and who’ll have to ride on the tanks.”
“Yes, sir,” said Bucky, and snapped a lazy salute. It was worth the twinge in his shoulder to see Steve roll his eyes, embarrassed smile on his mouth. “You know where we’re going?”
Steve pulled out a compass and flipped it open. “Yeah, we’re going to be heading south by southwest. If we cut that way we should run into a creek. There’s a series of paths, I think we can mostly keep to them with the tanks. I was planning on going on foot straight through the forest but the tanks are too good to leave.”
“Damn straight, those things are fantastic.”
“Yeah. Hoping they buy me a little wiggle room with the brass.”
Bucky shot him a look, but let it go. Steve looked at him for a minute—goosebumps coming up on Bucky’s chest, prickling over his collarbone, exposed in the freezing air—and took off his leather jacket.
“Stevie, aw, what are you doing,” said Bucky as Steve started to drape it around his shoulders. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
“So am I,” said Steve. “I’ll take it back if I get cold.”
“It’s pretty nice. Maybe I’ll fight you for it.”
“Think I can take the guy I found drooling on himself.”
Bucky flipped him off but stuck his arms into the sleeves of the jacket. It was big on him. He got a gun off one of the guys who’d grabbed two, taking it and hefting it with care.
Bucky was pretty quiet most of that first day, after he spent some time sorting out with the men who was going to be where for the march back. Steve kept sneaking glances over at him as they walked. He kept his hand on his gun the whole time, but sometimes he’d list a little to the left, or he’d stagger.
“You all right, buddy?” asked Steve once, quietly.
Bucky blinked hard a couple times and said, “Yeah, yeah. Just still feeling it.”
“What did they—” Steve hesitated. “Is there anything they did,” to you, “that—that I should do something about?”
Bucky’s face took on a little grimace, and for a second Steve was alarmed, until he realized it was supposed to be a smile. It didn’t reach Bucky’s eyes. “Already did, Stevie,” he said. “Already did.”
The forest was actually beautiful, if somebody had time to appreciate it. Just the occasional dusting of snow. There weren’t many birds. Most of the trees were pine, so they were still deep, robust green even while the other trees just had gray skeletons of leaves clinging to them.
Sometimes the paths were wide and sometimes they were so narrow that the tanks would rip up huge chunks of grass from either side, plow into the occasional tree. Steve and Bucky were leading, the tanks rolling behind, down one narrow path. Men clumped up behind them in little groups.
“So, how’d you find us?” Bucky asked Steve.
“Had your location from a map.”
“Really? What are you, some kind of one-man strike force now?”
“Well, no. Mostly, I sell war bonds.” He tilted his head to one side a little, looking up into the heavens, and added, “I don’t have to do the singing or the dancing, so it’s fine.”
Bucky turned his head to stare at Steve. “So what are you doing here?”
“Seemed like a good idea.”
“Is—Steve. Why did you come out here? Did somebody t—no.”
“I heard about the factory,” said Steve, but he had a guilty hangdog look.
“Yeah?” Bucky’s lips tightened down, curling inward, until he could press his teeth into his upper lip. “What did you hear?”
“That, uh. That the 107th had POWs there. I was performing with the USO in the area.”
“And you just happened. To show up.”
“I may have gotten, uh, a ride in.”
“On a plane. They dropped me off. It wasn’t... it’s not an operation, there’s no okay from the brass.”
“You parachuted in to Nazi territory to liberate a factory by yourself. Do I have it right?”
“Yeah, that’s about it.”
“For Christ’s sake, Rogers, you trying to get shot?”
“Hey, a lot of guys shot at me but look at me now. I’m fine.”
“I’m going to break your head if you try shit like this again.”
“Good luck, it’s only gotten thicker.”
Bucky shook his head slowly, trying not to jar another shock of pain and nausea loose, laughing.
“You are the living end,” he said, and it came out admiring in spite of himself. They traded a smile, Steve looking rueful, and even though the face was half a foot up from where it should be, that was Steve’s smile; Steve’s face; Steve.