Dr. Herbert Rush didn't much like the look of the sergeant.
The sentiment appeared to be reciprocal. Barnes was radiating mutiny across the desk. Although sitting in Rush's chair: they all looked mutinous, didn't they?—and suspicious, or fearful, or angry, depending on the circumstances which had brought them before the division psychiatrist, and from whom the order had come. Rush was having a difficult time reading Barnes. He suspected that the insubordinate expression was as calculated as the slouch, and therefore of limited use from an analytical standpoint. All it told him was that Barnes would lie through his teeth if it meant getting out of Rush's tent.
Apart from the glare, which had a great deal of energy behind it, Barnes was pale and grey-tinged, with great purple smudges sandbagging his eyes and hollowing out his already sharp cheeks, and he betrayed an intermittent tremor in his hands that Rush could tell he was ashamed of, though it was much more the sort of thing that Rush's colleagues would categorize as excitable rather than hysteric; there was nothing of the Parkinsonian about it. Visibly, though Rush would have to drag in a scale to be sure, Barnes looked much thinner than his draft weight of 161 pounds. He was clean, but his uniform was badly rumpled. In short he looked unhappy, unwell, and utterly exhausted.
“I'm sure you understand why you're here,” Rush began, “But for the sake of formality, let's go over the details.”
“By all means,” Barnes said, baring his teeth. It wasn't anything like a smile. “Let's. Sir.”
Rush adjusted his reading glasses, more for punctuation than necessity. Barnes's file was sparse, and the details didn't depart enormously from the other sixty-six interviews Rush had conducted in the last five days, with one exception. It was primarily for this reason that Rush had wanted to leave Barnes until last.
“You were captured on October 8th, following an exchange of fire at Azzano. Depending on how one defines the parameters, you were rescued on either November 3rd, when Captain Rogers—” Was that a snort? “—liberated the facility, or on November 9th, when you completed the trek from Kreischberg. The Medical Advisory Board,” Rush said, closing the file and placing it on his desk, where Barnes eyed it warily, “Has stipulated that you and your fellow captives in the 107th must be assessed and cleared before you can return to active duty.”
“I'm fine, sir,” Barnes said shortly.
Rush looked at his own fingertips, resting on the very edge of the file, and then up at Barnes, who clenched his jaw but didn't look away. “Dr. Goodwin recorded that you returned to camp in a state of profound anxiety. You refused to submit to a medical examination despite persistent otorrhagia. Out of curiosity, how long did it take for your ears to stop bleeding?” Barnes said nothing. “There isn't anything to be ashamed of, you know. Whatever it is that you're worried about: your conduct under fire, being captured, being tortured—being rescued. We often look back at such things and tell ourselves that we performed insufficiently, but in fact we did the best we could with the resources we were given. We're human beings, not automatons.”
“Is that right. Sir.”
They regarded one another across the table.
“How are you sleeping?” Rush asked.
Barnes's lip curled. “Like a baby, sir.”
“Do you have any trouble with nightmares?”
“Are you suffering pain or discomfort of any sort? Headaches, muscle strain, gastrointestinal upset? Dizziness, tinnitus? Frequent urination? Trouble staying warm?”
In a cataclysmic burst of noise, someone in the surgical truck dropped what sounded like an entire tray of instruments. Rush, who had always been sensitive to loud noises, flinched. Barnes didn't.
“Dreadful,” Rush said lightly, testing the waters, suspecting at their depths. “Doctors on either side of me. You'd think men so good with their hands would be less clumsy, but it's incessant. Impossible to get any work done.” He noted that Barnes's tremor had stopped, and that he looked very calm. Contrary to Barnes's appearance, Rush had the impression that if he were to approach, in this moment, he'd be lucky to come away with only a couple of broken fingers for his troubles. Some low, animal part of him was frightened, unwilling to go on. Don't move, the animal whispered. Don't breathe.
When he had conquered it, he said, “And how is your appetite?”
“That seems to me a concise summation. Is that what you'd like me to put on my report? 'In all regards normal.' I suppose it would save me some time.” Barnes cocked his head. “I'll consider it,” Rush said, leaning back, steepling his fingers, “If you tell me about your conduct behind the mess hall.”
Barnes went white.
“There's no use denying it,” Rush said. “I've three witnesses of good quality who state that on November 12th, at approximately seventeen hundred hours, Corporal Fisher approached you at the rear corner of the tent and tousled your hair. You responded by assaulting him. You're really very lucky,” Rush continued, thinking how strange, as Barnes's colour returned, almost as though he was relieved, as though he expected to hear something different—and then Rush thought: oh, surely not. “They believe he'll make a full recovery, and he's disinclined to pursue charges.”
“He—” Barnes stopped, looking furious. Rush gestured at him to go on. “He startled me. Sir.”
“Yes, I expect so,” Rush said sympathetically. He hadn't been aware that Barnes wasn't looking directly at him until, with a flick, their gazes met. Barnes had previously been looking at Rush's ear, perhaps, or his chin. “Sergeant Barnes, several days prior to Corporal Fisher's somewhat ill-advised decision to lay hands on your person, you had been a prisoner strapped to a table. It stands to reason that your survival reflexes—which I understand to be excellent in the field—would not, after such a traumatic experience, allow you to spend much time determining whether the hand on your head was friend or foe. I'm not trying to entrap you. I simply need to know whether or not this reflex is likely to make a re-appearance in the absence of Axis necks to throttle.”
“I ain't fixing to punch out any more corporals, sir.”
“I'm very glad to hear it.” When Barnes didn't comment further, Rush added: “Of course, I believe you'd say anything if it got you out of that chair.”
Barnes's face went stormy. “Not sure I like what you're implying. Sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I didn't tell them Krauts a single thing,” Barnes snapped. “Not one damn thing.”
Rush blinked. He hadn't, after all, meant to imply anything of the sort, but now that it was on the table, he'd be a fool not to pursue it. “I'm given to understand that you were semi-conscious when you were found. How can you be sure?”
Barnes jerked as if there was a fish-hook caught under his ribs, and someone at the other end of the line had just given it a sharp tug. He bounced to his feet, clenching his fists, the whole movement so graceful and menacing that made Rush very aware of his small, ageing frame, the arthritis in his fingers that was already beginning to make difficult the act of holding a pen. Oh, you young eagles, Rush thought tiredly. Perversely, his anxiety had fled, now that Barnes had shown his claws. The boy was so frightened that Rush could almost smell it.
“I'm not taking that kinda talk from some limp-wristed pencil-pusher,” Barnes said darkly.
There were times when Rush felt every one of his years heaped on his back like stones. He wished there were windows he could open, a flap he could pin besides the door, which when open had the detriment of haloing his patients in light as though they were saints, already dead. It was close and stale; there was only so much you could do about canvas and the smell of vomit. Rush had felt queerly unsettled this morning, when it had happened. A man to whom he could say: yes, you're done, you're going home. Or near enough, anyway. But it hadn't felt at all like a victory, nor had it felt exactly like failure—or even like a mixture of the two, one of those complex blended emotions that one supposed, at least, could be slotted into a genus or talked circles around until it made sense. It had been a different creature altogether. A medieval monster, something with its face in its chest or one enormous foot, or the cyclopean horrors in Dr. Mütter's jars. It hadn't felt like a human thing at all. How Leo would laugh at him, Rush thought. Must you complicate even your own emotions? he would say, if he were here now. Leo would no doubt have plenty of ideas for how to deal with young Barnes.
“Sit down,” Rush said. When Barnes didn't: “Sit down, for pity's sake! Please. I'm not your superior officer and I'm certainly not your enemy.”
“Ain't my friend, neither,” Barnes said. He was still visibly on the verge of flight, trembling with the effort of holding himself still. “You don't know a damn thing about it.”
“I was nearly a decade younger than you when I went over the top at St. Eloi, with the 2nd Canadians,” Rush said. Barnes tried to mask his surprise and couldn't quite. “It was extraordinary. A sulfurous heap of mud and parts of men. We walked on them wherever we went, piled in the muck like cordwood, and sometimes the sides of the trenches would exude a fresh body we hadn't realized we were missing. If you were lucky, you didn't recognize them. And there wasn't enough of anything to go around: not guns, not helmets—not even defensive positions, because the trenches were flooded and the shell-holes full of dead. We were fighting for individual craters, by the end. When the dust cleared we were all back where we started.”
“I thought—” Barnes sat, finally. “Christ. I thought—you must be fifty. You don't look it.”
“Forty-seven,” Rush said. “Give an old man his pride.” The corner of Barnes's mouth twitched. “Let's dispense with the formalities, shall we? We both know very well that we're playing dancing bears for the brass, and things will go a damn sight easier if we acknowledge it. They want to know you're fit, and they don't want to send you to the rear if they don't have to.”
“If you keep accusin' me of telling tales, we're gonna hit stalemate pretty quick, Doc.”
“Are you fit, then, in your estimation?”
“Yes,” said Rush. “That's what worries me.”
Barnes said nothing.
“How many days were you under shelling before your capture?”
“Dunno. Wasn't one of the things I was worried about counting.”
“But you were counting some things.” Rush raised his eyebrows encouragingly. “Bullets, bandages…?”
“Men. Couple'a privates whispering together. I figured them for runners straight away.”
“And did they?”
“No,” Barnes said. “They died.”
“Somewhere near Padna.”
“I'm sorry. That was a mess, and none of it the fault of those with their boots on the ground.”
Barnes's expression became a hair less mulish. Rush's effervescent mentor, Dr. Crane, used to call this moment goosing the leopard; the knife-edge opportunity when the patient either opened up or shut down completely. Hoping to unbalance Barnes with the change of subject and perhaps startle him into answering, Rush said, “Why did you refuse a medical examination?”
Barnes shot him a cool look across the table. “Wasn't anything wrong.”
“Don't you think that's for the MO to decide?”
“He's gonna,” Barnes said. “You think Colonel Phillips'll let me get away without one? Jesus H. I just wanted one God damn week where nobody was sticking needles in me. Is that what you wanna hear?”
In a sense it was, and the matter-of-fact belligerence was, in its own way, a relief. Rush would not need to open the dispensary tonight. There was a type of soldier who was cheerful, who was fine, who was very fine, who was fine, fine, fine, until one day he wasn't; and that type almost invariably refused to acknowledge that anything untoward had happened at all, even when the facts were laid out in front of him. In cases of cranial injury it was sometimes very difficult to assess whether the amnesia was objectively real or a form of conversion. Rush knew too many physicians on the front who believed in the efficacy of pentothal narcosis in such cases, in much the same way a priest might believe in the Body of Christ, but Rush was not convinced. As a method for returning men to duty with all haste, it was inarguable, but in Rush's experience it was far from ironclad, and turned many of those who experienced it into time bombs on the field, dangerous to themselves and often to others.
“I want to hear whatever you have to say,” said Rush instead. “However, since I suspect you'd rather not say anything, and in the absence of visible symptoms, my options are rather limited. If you insist on your fitness for duty, then that's what I'll have to write in my report.”
“You understand that I don't want to.”
In a dead, flat tone, Barnes said, “Yeah.”
Curiosity got the better of him. It wasn't an uncommon sentiment, but the vast majority of those who expressed desire to return to their units were passionate, even to the point of mania. Barnes wasn't acting to form. “Don't you want to go home?”
“No,” Barnes said, but the word was unformed. There was a pause that felt significant, perhaps because Barnes's eyes were still on him. They reminded Rush of wolf's eyes; their pale sheen and the unflinching quality of them. “I guess it's not that simple. I just want the war to be over.”
“As do we all,” said Rush.
“My da had the combat fatigue,” Barnes said suddenly. He looked startled, as if he hadn't meant to let it slip. “Sent home from Lys in '17. I guess you'd remember better than me what they called it then—clinically, I mean. 'Neurasthenia'. What a word. I always thought it was—” Barnes grimaced. “So God damn Victorian. A relic, y'know what I mean? Quinsy. Catarrh. Neurasthenia. My gran used words like that and there you all were still dragging 'em around in the twenties.”
“How did your father feel about his diagnosis?”
“How do you think he fucking felt?” Barnes exploded. Rush was angry at himself for jumping. He should have anticipated that it was coming. “How's any reasonable fucking person supposed to feel when they get told they're fit for nothing? 'Course,” Barnes laughed, low and hard, “I guess they didn't think he was reasonable, did they? Half of 'em thought he was a loony and the other half thought he was putting on the dog. Jesus Christ. Times I could've killed, the things them quacks said to him with all his kids listening. Like anybody was gonna fake—” And Barnes jerked like a marionette, performing a series of explosive, stuttering motions Rush was only too familiar with: the hysterical tic of a man ducking repeatedly for cover, helpless to stop himself, as though the whine and thump of the shells had worn a groove into the body and was forcing it to relive, over and over, that terrible moment of fear. The imitation was all the more disturbing for having been performed by a healthy man, and with such precision. Barnes must have witnessed it weekly, perhaps even daily, for years on end.
“Your father was very brave,” Rush said. Barnes frowned and opened his mouth. “Don't misunderstand me! Bravery isn't a lack of fear and nor is it gung-ho heroism. Courage manifests itself as pride, especially in the hearts of frightened men, and makes them hide their fear, and so in the end they perform the impossible task regardless. War doesn't make men more courageous. It only reveals the courage that is already within them.”
“He barely saw combat,” Barnes said. “Just sat in a trench day in and day out—”
“That's very nearly worse.”
“Pull the other one.”
“Truly,” Rush said. “Perhaps it's an old-fashioned notion these days, but I was taught that it frequently isn't the horrors of battle that cause psychoneurosis—”
“We really calling it that?”
“You prefer neurasthenia?”
“No,” Barnes said, and rolled his eyes.
“—It's the waiting,” Rush finished. “The stress, the immobility—it's helplessness, plain and simple. When a man feels trapped he'll do anything to escape it, even if it means escaping into his own mind.”
If Rush hadn't been watching so closely, he would have missed the flinch. Barnes looked away, and then down, pretending to study his nails, cat-like, as though he'd meant to do it all along. Rush could see him collapsing in on himself, bringing the walls back up.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Rush said gently. “James.” He waited until he had Barnes's attention, and then picked up the file and slid it into the drawer, shutting it harder than was necessary. “Please. I only want to help, and I promise it won't appear in my report. Tell me the truth. Do you really sleep as easily as all that?”
Barnes grimaced and scrubbed at his mouth. “My da had night terrors,” he said tightly, instead of answering. “Screaming, crying. Wetting the bed. He said it was like turning back into a baby.”
“That's the last thing you should allow to eat at you,” Rush said. “There's no evidence of a familial component in cases like these. You aren't destined to turn into your father. On the contrary, I would be far more concerned if you weren't having bad dreams. You were held for nearly a month in appalling conditions, it isn't—”
“Christ, it was only a few days!” Barnes's weariness had returned, and with it a dark undertone of laughter; it made him sound more like he was irritated by a filing error than speaking of his own captivity. “The—the table, it was only a few fucking days, not the whole month, and it ain't like I got beat regular or—or passed around. I had—I knew folks had it worse'n that in a weekend when I was coming up. Ain't any reason at all I should be having nightmares.”
“But you are.”
In a whisper: “But I God damn well am.”
“Good,” Rush said. Barnes's head jerked up. “Let them happen. Listen to them. Listen to what they're telling you. Trying to ignore them or stop them will only make them put down roots in your psyche and become worse things entirely. What you must do is keep your eye on the beast until you can wrestle a leash onto it, and then the fear will be yours to use how you see fit. Be afraid, for God's sake. Ride the fear, and it will sustain you when all your other reserves are empty. It's the only way to get through this madness with your sanity intact.”
Barnes swallowed. His pale eyes weren't wide, but their intensity gave that impression, a sense that there was a great deal more going on behind them than Barnes wanted to reveal. No common soldier, this, Rush thought, and felt a frisson of anger so hot it was nearly panic. It was happening again, an entire generation of brilliant young things turned into so much meat, and it would set back the emotional progress of civilization by ten years: and for what? Suddenly Rush couldn't stand another moment on the other side, across the gap of humanity someone else had created for him; the smell of the canvas, the wooden desk smeared with clamouring reports, the tightness of his uniform at his neck. The performative cloak of safety.
“Let's go outside,” Rush said, and stood. Barnes, startled, scrambled to parade rest. “At ease, lad. Pretend we're colleagues going for a stroll. I think we both need to get out of this damn tent.”
“Sir,” Barnes said, sounding relieved, and followed him.
They met no one on the ring road, and the evening was indecently lovely. Here they were, a few scant miles from the front and probably in less danger than the citizens of London, and to think: out there at this very moment there were thousands of men dying in trenches, in planes, in jungles, in pieces, their body-clocks smashed to bits rather than winding down gentle as the universe intended. Rush had thus far met less conscientious objectors in the current war than the last, and he supposed it must count for something, that at least this time around the carousel, boys were dying to stop a great evil instead of throwing themselves onto a pillory banked by squabbling royals, but it offended his sense of justice that young men must die at all, regardless of the reasons. This was the twentieth century, he thought, outraged and ashamed; surely we aren't still barbarians, compelled by fear to sacrifice our children to devouring Moloch with its engine-mouth and its belly full of gears. Surely they expected us to be better men than this.
Rush walked with Barnes out past the surgical trucks, past the T. & R. tent with its overblown handpainted sign—someone had scrawled in pencil, after the word Admission: To Hell Is Free—and over the dying trampled-down grass of the field to the forest, where Rush took a deep breath among the beeches and felt, for a moment, cleansed. Beside him he heard Barnes do the same thing. Rush once read, in an American settler's diary, that the beech had 'a grateful and wholesome smell', which Rush hadn't been able to forget due to the loveliness of the phrase, but which he'd never quite understood. They smelled like wood, to him, unremarkable and perfect.
It seemed as though Barnes agreed. He was looking up at the trees with something that was very nearly a smile.
“Beautiful,” Rush remarked, linking his hands behind his back. “We have these at home in Virginia. The American variant, I should say. Though where I was born, in Ontario, we had a stand of Roseomarginata beeches in the park which were from Europe originally. They have dark green leaves with a bright pink edge, and when the leaves change, the green centre turns to copper. There's nothing in the world more beautiful than a Roseomarginata in the autumn.”
“I'd like to see that,” Barnes said. “Aside of Central Park, we don't have much of this where I'm from.”
“It has other charms, I'm sure,” said Rush, and Barnes grinned at him, quick and sharp. “Ontario really isn't very far away from New York City. You should go on a little trip when the war is over, to celebrate.”
Rush had thought he might procure another smile, but Barnes hunched up his shoulders and turned away. He was silent for some time, as they moved between the trees. Finally he said: “D'you think it'll ever be over, Doc? Really over. Or do you think we're just gonna repeat the same shitbrained mistakes a couple more decades down the road?”
“I believe there will come a day when we'll have no more use for war,” Rush said. “Whether by humane agreement or by international force, there must be peace. The pace of technology being what it is, we'd destroy each other otherwise, in time. But then I would be a very poor psychiatrist if I didn't believe in the human capacity for betterment.”
“I dunno. Seems to me sometimes we're only getting worse.”
“We all have a certain myopia in that regard. I don't know whether it's comforting or not to know that hasn't changed. There's an ancient tablet which reads: There are signs that the world is ending. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer obey their parents—and everyone is writing a book,” Rush said, which made Barnes laugh. It might even have been genuine, and it was a dear sound in the midst of so terrible a thing.
“Da thought the same way as you,” Barnes said. “He used to say that if war was coming then there'd be just one more war, and then there wouldn't be any more wars after that, on account of there'd be nobody left to fight it.” Barnes scuffed his heels through the dry earth. A pebble flung itself into the undergrowth and bounced off an unseen log. “I dunno if that counts as optimism. Gave him comfort, anyway. Even if folks thought he was cracked.”
“Many believe pessimism to be more rational than optimism,” Rush said. “It simply isn't true—matters regress to the mean far more often than they devolve into chaos. I have hope. Which is, in the end, the only thing they're not capable of taking from you.”
“Will, I'd've said. Ain't the same thing as hope, Doc. Man can know he's fucked sideways and still keep trudging.”
“Surely determination springs from the same source. How else do you explain the front lines?”
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” said Barnes, and shrugged. When Rush only raised his eyebrows, Barnes added: “I used to believe in honour too. Least until I saw the kind of things they were calling honourable.”
“Glorious.” Rush's voice sounded strange to his own ears. He realized after a moment that he had never before said the word aloud, as he hadn't previously encountered the need. “It used to be glorious, in my day: a glorious battle, a glorious sacrifice.”
Barnes hissed through his teeth. “Sacrifice. Christ. I heard the most earnest God damn cornfed lieutenant say that the other day and just about bust a gut tryin' not to laugh. Sacrifices gotta be used for something. S'no different from the stockyards if all they do with the meat is bury it.”
“Perhaps that's our gravest mistake,” said Rush, startling himself with his own vehemence. “Believing, even for a moment, that there is anything sacred about war.”
Barnes, looking amused, ducked a branch.
They carried on for some time, wrapped in a silence which felt more companionable the longer it went on. Rush, not looking at all forward to returning to the Scylla of paperwork and the Charybdis of tomorrow's assessments, lead them broadly towards the small stream he had found the week before, just below the point where the land began to climb. There was a stream which split charmingly around a boulder so large it must have been deposited when glaciers last groaned down the mountainside, and Rush had fancied that there was a hint of magic about it, a breath of the older, wilder Earth: as though, if one turned away and glanced back through one's eyelashes, one might see something that had long ago passed out of this world.
All of this was at the back of his mind as they walked, so when they came within fifty feet of the stream and looked up towards the highlands, there was a confused moment in which Rush thought several impossible things—and then the mirage cleared, and Rush realized that it was only Phillips's new bête noire, Captain Rogers, perched on top of the boulder and gazing out towards the east. As they came closer, Rush saw that there was a pad of paper in Rogers's lap, and he was moving a pencil in quick, deliberate strokes across the page. He appeared to be entirely absorbed, and didn't lift his head at their approach.
There wasn't any whiff of the effeminate about Rogers, but he reminded Rush inescapably of women's fashions in the late 1890's, which his mother had worn with a sense of perversity until her death in '29, rightly convinced that they suited her beautifully: wide shoulders, a slender waist, narrow hips, and a profile that Mucha would paint. What Rush had seen over the previous week, as Rogers strode manfully between command tents, had brought to mind a recruitment poster made flesh, invulnerable as a tank; but caught away from war-work the sharp lines of Rogers's face were softened by a boyish and simple joy, and he seemed now very human under the leaf-light, and very breakable.
A glance at Barnes confirmed several of Rush's suspicions.
Barnes was looking at Rogers with an unmistakable mixture of terror and bewildered devotion; a look altogether too honest, and too lovely, and too clean to exist in this, the Year of Our Lord nineteen-forty-three, crouched as they were in the basement of civilization, gear-bellied Moloch scratching at the door. Rush couldn't imagine that Barnes would have let the expression live if he'd known he was wearing it, and Rush wanted desperately to put his hand over Barnes's face to protect it, as though it were the fontanelle of an infant or a fatal wound.
Without letting himself stop to think at all, Rush turned away as if to study the trees and said: “I'm not sure whether to extend congratulations or sympathy.” There was a rustle as Barnes looked at him. Rush very carefully didn't look back. “Your Rogers being here, I should say. Mine's in the Pacific.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Rush watched as Barnes froze, ticced, and forced himself to relax. To give himself time, or perhaps to cover his reaction, Barnes fumbled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one. After a moment, he offered the packet to Rush, who would normally have refused but now, in the name of amnesty, did not. He felt the tension peak and hover between them as Barnes leaned forward to light the cigarette from his own. Trees of the wood must beware each other, Rush thought bitterly. He felt very keenly the axe laid on the ground between them. They were both touching its wicked edge.
“He in command?” Barnes asked at last.
“No. Infantry, like yourself. He's thirty-six.”
Barnes let out a long, low whistle. A degree of tension drained out of his frame. “Christ, Doc. How the hell'd you manage that?”
“I'm afraid that was all Leo,” Rush said. “I'd still be a fretful bachelor wasting away in faculty housing if it weren't for him.”
“You got a picture?”
While Barnes was admiring the many assets Leo's dress uniform put on display, Rogers visibly noted their presence and slid down from the top of the boulder in a single graceful movement, his papers tucked under his arm. Glancing back and forth between Rush and Barnes as he approached them, Rogers began an uncertain salute, but Rush shook his head and extended his hand.
“Herbert Rush,” he said, and received a persuasively starched “Steve Rogers, sir,” in return.
“Relax, Stevie,” Barnes said. “Doc's all right; he's one of us. Hey, get a load of his fella.”
“Wow,” Rogers said appreciatively. He plucked the cigarette out of the corner of Barnes's mouth and took a long drag, then handed the photograph to Rush. “You sure his platoon's gonna let him leave?”
“I can only hope.” Rush smiled as Barnes stole back his cigarette with a strategic elbow and a put-upon expression. Rogers allowed it, then responded with a gentle-seeming elbow of his own that nearly sent Barnes sprawling. It was as if he didn't know his own strength; a young mastiff playing with a terrier.
“What're you two doing all the way out here?” Rogers asked, fending off another swat and leaning on Barnes's shoulder.
“Weren't looking for you, if that's what you're fishing for,” Barnes said, then: “Oh, you know. Walkin' and talkin'. Doc's a better conversationalist than you, Rogers, you better watch out I don't throw you over for a Canadian whitecoat.” Barnes inclined his head at the boulder. “Anyway, I could say the same about you.”
“Phillips said if he saw me again before sixteen-hundred he was gonna turn me into a canoe and paddle me up the Piave,” Rogers said. “Although he said the same thing to Stark, and last I heard they were still in his office shouting at each other about hydrogen ion concentrations. What-all'd you talk about?” and Rush was surprised to find that this last was directed at him.
“War, primarily,” said Rush. “With side ventures into schoolboy Latin and the general perfidiousness of mankind.”
“Doc here was just clearing me for duty,” Barnes put in. When Rush glanced at him, he was affecting a nonchalance so hearty it verged on pantomime, smirking at the cigarette lifted halfway to his mouth, hips cocked, one thumb tucked firmly under his belt. The performance was as sad as it was blatant—Barnes would plainly rather go up against the wall before a firing squad than let Rogers go into battle alone. By all rights Rush should have been irritated at the sight of it, but instead he felt a wash of sympathy almost too unbearable to hold inside the shell of his skin.
Rush recalled that last, inevitable fight with Leo in the kitchen, both of them digging their trenches three weeks before the final drawing of the kit bag, the train station, the bloodless public clasping of their hands. Rush had asked one last time for permission to write to the Board, not with any sort of damning evaluation but simply a statement of unfitness, a recommendation for cerebral work, the sort of thing which could best be done in the safety of an American city, or even the slightly more dubious safety of an English one. They had merely to wait one more year, and then Leo would turn too old for the draft. The powers that be had refused Rush twice that autumn already, citing his own age. It was very noble, they'd said, congratulatory: really very commendable, they said, all these veteran volunteers, but you'll do more good with a pencil than a gun, Dr. Rush; and he'd returned home in the grips of a panic so vast he feared it would stop his heart.
I won't send some beautiful boy to die in my place, Leo had shouted at the end. It isn't right, Rush had pleaded: Would you have separated Pylades and Orestes before their mortal hour? Leo had looked at him sadly and said: We've a few too many wrinkles to be classical heroes, my lamb.
But they haven't, Rush thought, looking at Rogers and Barnes. Rush wasn't at all a religious man, but he felt as though he were sending a wish heavenwards all the same: Please, let this choice, of all the choices available to me—let it be the most righteous one.
“Yeah?” Rogers was saying. “You fit to be seen in public, Buck?”
“Yes,” Rush said, before his silence could make Barnes a liar. “Yes. I was indeed. In fact, I suppose I'd better finish my evaluation so I can return you to your men.”
“We'll walk you back,” Rogers said genially. “With any luck, Phillips'll be done reaming out Stark and he'll be too tired to argue with me about tactics.”
“Phillips doesn't get tired,” said Barnes, as he fell into formation on Rogers's other side, with what appeared to be a sharp and practised two feet of air between them. “He hadn't slept for nearly a week the time that Brigadier General made a call he didn't like, and he still made the guy cry for his momma.”
“How'd you know he wasn't sleeping?”
“'Cause he was whistling The Economic Situation at two in the God damn morning, that's how.”
“It's I Can't Get Started you'll want to watch out for,” Rush observed, once Rogers stopped laughing. “Even Agent Carter won't dare to venture into the command tent when that particular tune is in the air.”
“Christ,” Barnes said prayerfully, and set Rogers off again.
Dusk was beginning to fall upon the forest, making progress slower than it had been at the outset, but more for Rush's sake than theirs; he could see by their confident steps over the slab-like roots and brushy scrubs of the undergrowth that their night vision was far superior to his. After a quarter of an hour they were still a fair distance from the camp, and so Rush was not very much surprised when Rogers cleared his throat and said, “You live with your fella, Doc?”
“Do you tell folks he's your brother, or your—cousin, or—”
“Neither,” Rush said. “Leo specializes in patent law. His practice and living quarters are on the first floor, and mine are on the second. The fact that I also sleep downstairs is inconsequential, from the outside.”
“See, that's a lot more practical than your plan to change our names and move to Hoboken,” Barnes told Rogers.
“But are you happy?” Rogers asked abruptly. Begged, nearly; it tore Rush's heart to ribbons. Barnes, who'd hardly taken his eyes off Rogers since spotting him atop the boulder, was watching Rush with the expression of a man who's spotted a well in the desert. It reminded Rush of the first time he'd encountered the story of Daniel in a childrens' Bible; the book had been charmingly if naively illustrated, and the beasts had looked very sad indeed, with their hanging-open mouths and the sharp slats of their ribs. Rush couldn't imagine anyone failing to pity them, at least a little. Under Rogers and Barnes's regard, he felt a certain kinship with Daniel, thrown into the pit.
The question had been: are you happy? but what Rush heard was: Is it possible to be happy? To be safe? Can we love without fear? Can we love at all? In 1944 or '48 or '50, when the war is over, can we live? Will it be worth the wounds? Can we grow old together in a house by the sounding sea?
It would be all too easy to tell them: no. The daily hobgoblins which vexed those like him, like them, were endless and greedy, scratching at the souls of man with subtle claws. He could tell them how gentlemen used to walk so intimately with one another in the days of his youth, and how beautiful he'd thought it, and how it became dangerous just in time for him to miss the experience of strolling arm-in-arm with a lover under the Roseomarginata. He could tell them about the swooping terror he and Leo felt when the police had pounded on their door on a spring evening in 1938, and their selfish, nauseated relief when it had turned out to be regarding a missing child instead. He could describe those certain men passing through the office to whom Rush could offer sympathy but not fellow feeling, circling their shared and unnameable griefs like birds round a lighthouse. He could say that there were times in which it wasn't worth it: the fear and trembling, the humiliation, the secrecy which became such a habit that lying came to feel more natural than the truth. He could tell them, couldn't he?—that love was, in the grand summation of things, only a curtain thrown over the birdcage of death to keep it from singing a little longer.
But they were familiar with these things, Rush knew, without having to ask. He supposed that in some ways it might have been easier for them, growing up in New York rather than a small town in the rurals of Ontario, but in some ways it must have been harder, too; and they had leaned into the fear, and chosen to love regardless. They had stood firm, and gazed into the dark and said: no, I will not be moved.
Rush could tell them instead how his hands had shaken when he'd held a copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques in the red-lit cellar of a bookshop in Terrebonne, in 1918, and how he had seen for the first time in his life that he was not a singular aberration. How Leo's niece Catherine always brought a bouquet of three dozen hothouse roses whenever she visited, which was oftener than they deserved. How Rush's mother had, in the last summer of her life, taken his hand between her petal-soft fingers and said, I love Leo very much, you know, and it had been all they would ever say on the matter and all he would ever need. How there was nothing Rush liked more than waking up next to Leo on drizzly pre-dawn mornings, when he could listen to the tap-tap-tapping of the rain as he watched the play of the streetlamps and the moon on Leo's craggy face, unobserved, in the long minutes before some sense of being regarded woke him. How knowing Leo had made Rush kinder, and more patient, and more attuned to all that was bright and good in the world—more attuned to how the world was bright and good in fact, and not merely in theory. Leo, who had taught him not to be afraid of the unknown. Leo, who by his very existence had caused Rush to believe that the abyss, if it existed, was a sea; not empty at all, but full of potential, weighted with the whole of human history's capacity for hope. And if one should gaze long into those uncharted places, then peeking through the rents in that vasty darkness there would always be, Rush thought, unexpected light.
But are you happy?
“Perfectly,” Rush said. “Deliriously. Yes. And more so, every single day.” Something of the feeling must have appeared on his face before he said a word at all; the corners of Barnes's mouth were beginning to lift, and Rogers was already smiling.
And Rush, his heart in his throat, saw that they were walking together beneath the beeches, hand in hand.
Rush expected that he would see very little of Rogers and Barnes, going forward, but to his surprise he encountered them frequently amidst the chaos of the camp, and they always greeted him good-naturedly. Even less predictably, he saw them both in a professional capacity: Rogers three times, and Barnes another four, beginning when the indomitable Agent Carter all but threw them bodily into Rush's tent after a particularly anarchic mission. If she'd been able to lock the door, he suspected she would have.
Individually, Rogers had a sunny humour and was very deferential, though not to a fault; he argued charmingly with Rush on psychological or spiritual points as easily as he might have with a friend or social equal, and wasn't especially fussed about being caught in a lie, such as when he denied knowledge of reprimands for putting himself too squarely in harm's way. Barnes, meanwhile, never lost his black wit, and once he relaxed in comparison to their first session, he had a sparkling personality and was a pleasure to know, and it was a bittersweet experience to see glimpses of the soft and open-hearted boy he must have been before the War. Under the charisma Barnes harboured an increasing bloodthirstiness towards the enemy that Rush found by turns concerning and admirable. His own feelings depended, Rush was distantly aware, on how recently he had visited the clearing station, and seen for himself what new horrors of weaponry had been used to turn human beings into so much meat and mangle. As the psychological casualties from both battlefields and liberated facilities mounted, Phillips remarked that Rush should install a revolving door on his tent. It hadn't been a joke—not really.
It was Rogers and Barnes's exceptional kindness which touched Rush the most. When he was unable to escape from his work until long past the closing of the mess, he would sometimes find packets of food tucked just inside the door, though he'd heard no one approach. During the worst of the chicory season, they had managed to find an entire can of real coffee and hide it under his bunk. When they learned that his footlocker had been burgled, and that of all the stolen items he mourned his pocketknife the most, they gave him a new one within a matter of days. (Rush knew better than to ask where it had come from.) Barnes had carved a tiny roaring lion onto one of the faces, and Rush wondered whether the carving was simply another kindness, to remind him of gentler times, or whether it had been a deeper intuition. He hadn't told either of them that the stolen knife had been a gift from Leo.
During what would respectively turn out to be their final sessions, both Rogers and Barnes told Rush to take care, and that Phillips would surely grant him leave if he requested it. They had looked so very worried, which perplexed him enormously. Certainly he looked terrible in the mirror, but that was to be expected; there was a war on, after all, and everyone looked terrible that winter, even when they weren't covered in mud. He was fine, really. He was all right. He was only a little tired.
It was so easy, then, to forget that one had a body at all.
After twenty-two months of service, following an increasingly battered Army across what felt like the entirety of Europe and back again, Rush found himself boarding the USAHS Charles A. Stafford on a bitterly cold January evening. He only discovered the exact date after some days aboard. That first evening, he'd attended little beyond the calmness of the sea, the watery sunset light, the kitten-licks of waves against the hull. It was very quiet. For two whole hours there were no planes in the sky.
The hospital ship itself was crowded with the limbless and the lost; boys whose faces had been melted like candles, boys who were unable to remember their own names, boys whose psyches had been smashed to friable pieces by ten straight days of shelling. Rush wandered among them dazedly, searching for features he recognized, pressing hands when there were hands to press, unable in his waking hours to believe that the coast of North America was truly inching closer. His dreams were another matter. Each night he danced through an impossible succession of reunions: his first lover, his long-dead parents, his childhood spaniel—and Leo, beautiful Leo, home from the Pacific through some somnolent miracle Rush's dream self never questioned, even as Leo flung himself again and again through the door of the brownstone so they could kiss, wildly, in the middle of the street. When Rush roused himself from these dreams to the rolling of the ship and the bleat of horns calling weirdly over the water, the waking world seemed, by comparison, unreal as cities glimpsed in the Atlantic fog.
It was only when he had been placed on the train to Alexandria that Rush thought, almost irrelevantly: I'm home. In October he had been stabbed by a wildly hallucinating patient, and this realization felt very nearly the same, a live-wire crack of shock and confusion. It was lucky that they had given him a private compartment. He had, he would discover in the months to come, developed a reputation overseas as a midwife of soldierly souls, a gentle angel coaxing guns back into the hands of men who no longer trembled, and to the American public's immense satisfaction, here was the great doctor himself returning in glory. He was to be afforded all the luxuries he had been denied. The great doctor, insensible to these honours, wept in his compartment like a child.
It was with a sense of ecstatic dread that Rush finally turned the key of his own front door. He was hardly the same person he had been when he left two years ago; was there still a place for him under this roof? Would the walls still recognize him? Would the floor still creak beneath his feet? Would his chair accept his weight? He felt insubstantial, unmoored in space and time, the soles of his boots drifting over the pavement without landing upon it—and so he was even less prepared than he might have been for the door to open before he had turned the knob, and for Leo to be standing on the opposite side, leaning heavily on an aluminum crutch.
They stared at one another like children waiting helplessly for proper adults to come along and introduce them. When the spell finally broke, it was with a single convulsive motion towards one another, and they very nearly enacted one of Rush's dreams on the stoop, propriety be damned. It was only when Rush had been embracing Leo for ten paradisical minutes in their stuffy front hall that he could manage to whisper: “God—God, I missed you; I missed you so much.”
Leo had only been home for a little over two weeks, after he was invalided out of Guinea for having three-quarters of his right foot shot off. Their letters had passed one another in the night, and perhaps even their ships. Catherine had moved into Rush's unused suite to pick up after her beloved uncle, and upon Rush's arrival he told her she could go home if she liked; he would have things well in hand. She gave him a speculative look and said, “It's all right, Uncle Herbie. I won't get in your way.” He was shortly forced to admit that she was right to stay. Feverish while the rest of them had been freezing, beset by insects and disease and terrible isolation, Rush expected that Leo would be compromised by jungleish terrors, but instead it was Rush who found he couldn't speak of what he'd seen—Rush who sweated nights and woke half-mad with fright, hardly knowing where he was, or who was stroking calmly down his spine and murmuring his name.
“They shouldn't have kept you so long,” Leo said, after a particularly bad episode. “Your constitution—”
“Are you calling me feeble?” Rush asked, not without humour.
“You're a sensitive instrument,” Leo retorted. “It was all too much grit in your lens. I would've spared you that if I could—just as you tried to spare me.”
The passing of two months afforded neither of them very much success. Leo could scarcely hobble on his prosthetic foot, and longed to exchange his crutch for a cane, and to walk along the Potomac for hours as he used to. Rush avoided the radio and found himself unable to open mail bearing an overseas stamp. They struggled equally to put on weight, despite Catherine's near-daily applications of ham biscuits and marble cakes. Which was not to say they made no progress at all: Rush was most pleased with how he and Catherine turned the front office into a sitting room, to bridge the gap until, if ever, Leo felt ready to return to his practice. Leo's mood lifted enormously after a week of sun-drenched mornings, reading four separate newspapers before noon and drinking as many cups of tea, and Rush's mood buoyed in turn, merely by virtue of watching the warmth on Leo's face—or the warmth which had begun to shine through it again. There wasn't a word in any language for the thankfulness Rush felt at eight o'clock every morning, setting his eyes on Leo, safely ensconced in his overstuffed chair.
It was on one of these exquisitely beautiful March mornings that Leo said, as Rush brought in his first cup of tea and Leo's second, “Such a shame, this.”
It was fortunate that Rush had just placed their teacups on the side table, for he would certainly have dropped them had he looked up a moment earlier. Splashed across the front page of the newspaper in Leo's hands was a face Rush knew far better in the green light of a tent, or set golden against a wall map, or at dusk under the kindly beeches. The photograph they had chosen was far from flattering, its subject hunched and half turned-away over the seat of a Jeep, as if trying to escape the camera. The headline read: CAPTAIN AMERICA DISAPPEARS.
“The poor lad,” Leo continued. “It says here he lost his best friend only a month previous.”
Rush shut his eyes.
There was no accounting for the grief that struck him. He had hardly known them, in the end. There were soldiers he had felt he knew far better, both in the day-to-day minutia of their lives and in their inner workings, while Rogers and Barnes had been something of an enigma despite his best efforts; there had been something a little alien, deep within them, which he hadn't been able to touch. Perhaps it was a false intimacy, born in the moment they'd held Leo's photograph. Perhaps it was their little charities, which had been immaterial to the war effort, and yet so essential to forestalling Rush's impending collapse. Perhaps it was nothing at all. But Rush stepped closer to Leo's chair and reached out for his hand all the same, and Leo adjusted his paper and took it, and squeezed it without looking, without needing to ask. Leo was always so ready to give comfort.
“Here now,” Leo said. “The 107th—wasn't that the regiment you were attached to? Did you know them?”
“Yes,” said Rush. “I suppose I did.”
Leo draped the newspaper over the arm of his chair and glanced up. Perhaps for the pleasure of it, perhaps for what he saw, Leo clasped Rush's hand more firmly, then brought it to his mouth. Rush had never been more grateful for the curtains Catherine had sewn for them over one long night, and hung on the sly: they were sheer enough to let through heaps and bushels of sunlight, but solid enough that passers-by saw only dim shapes within. It was one of the loveliest things anyone had ever done, Rush thought, as Leo kissed his hand in their front room with the windows flung wide.
“Well,” said Leo after a moment, very gently. “Go on, old boy—don't keep me in suspense. What were they like?”
“They were soldiers,” Rush said. He pressed his face into Leo's peppering hair, and breathed in, and found himself smiling unaccountably. “They were Pylades and Orestes, darling. They were the very best of men.”