The soldier stood there a while, looking at the sign and trying to work out why it was important.
He had been supplying himself with food, getting shelter when he needed it, hiding and protecting himself. Until this moment he had thought that that covered all his needs, but now there was this. It was something that was like and unlike going in after a mission to be cleaned and repaired and put away. Something he could do now, in fact, as it was nearly 3:30 on Saturday, without endangering himself.
He tried to work out how he knew he wouldn't be in danger, but the risk assessment stayed solid, as impenetrable as it was definite. He needed this, and he could have it, even if he didn't know why.
Reconciliation, the sign said. Saturday 3:30.
He hesitated still, looking down at himself. He had to be clean, neatly dressed, to go to.... He looked up again at the big building. Yes, of course. It was a church, and churches were safe. A bullet might take a man outside a church, but not inside, nor while he stood silhouetted in the doors--not even an unmarked bullet fired by a man who would never be found.
His clothes were fairly clean, his metal hand safely covered. He had bathed the day before, and he didn't smell badly enough for people to notice at arm's length. He had passed among people earlier today without being noticed. Still, he felt a strange hesitation. The phrase Sunday best drifted uselessly across his mind, attached to the image of clothing he had never worn--had not worn in a long time. His shoes, he thought, should be shiny.
He glanced at the sign again, fixing on the word Saturday. It was all right not to be in his Sunday best on a Saturday; something about this reasoning fit into a well-traveled groove somewhere in his head. He felt suddenly, fiercely certain that it was all right to wear one's working clothes on a Saturday, even into church, no matter what anyone might say.
Spurred by the forcefulness of that thought, he broke cover and strode quickly across the open ground to the church doors. The interior was dim, but it smelled right, like church, like safety. It smelled familiar, but he knew he had never been here before. Still, he knew this place. Sanctuary.
He felt the same sense of returning-to-base that he thought he had felt at the ends of missions, coming in to for maintenance and repair. That meant pain, and forgetting, but it was the order of things: complete the mission, and then return to base.
This might mean the same thing. Perhaps that was what was required to be reconciled. But he kept breathing in the slightly dusty smell of waxed wood and the faint tang of incense burned long ago and smoke from snuffed candles, and he found that his body was not bracing for pain. His body, in fact, was soothed, tension ebbing from his muscles as they would when ongoing pain ceased.
He went further inside, through another door, and found himself standing at the back of the big open space of the church, under a vaulted ceiling of dark wood. Only a few lights were lit, and one was off to his right, showing the dark wooden structure of the confessional.
That was what reconciliation meant. He was here to confess, to do penance, and to be absolved of his sins. What he had done wrong could be made right. There was a procedure. He felt a rush of relief and gladness. There was a procedure. He didn't have to wander alone anymore, not knowing what to do next. He could hand himself over now.
He approached hesitantly and saw that the penitent's door of the confessional was open, a signal he recognized. He stepped into the darkness of the little box and pulled the door shut behind him. The next movements were as automatic as handling a weapon in the midst of a fight. He knelt before the screened window into the other side of the confessional, touched his fingers to forehead, chest, left shoulder, right, and said more words than the soldier could ever remember speaking together.
They came in a well-worn fluent rush, easier than any post-mission report: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been a long time since my last confession."
There was a brief pause, and then a male voice--adult but younger than he had somehow expected a priest to be--said, "That's all right. You've come now. Is there something in particular troubling you, to bring you to confession today?"
The soldier marveled, even as he spoke, at the way he didn't hesitate to report, the way he knew that he could and must speak freely here. "I had a mission, Father. I could have completed it, but I didn't. I could have. I didn't--want to. I chose not to. I let him get away. I let him ruin everything, and then I saved him instead of letting him die. I went out of my way to save him."
The pause from the priest was longer this time, but he finally said, "You are confessing to not killing a man? Saving his life?"
Only when the question was asked did he realize that that was backward. It was what he would have reported--confessed--if he'd been taken in like normal after a mission. This was different, though. He ought to be confessing other things; he thought he remembered confessing killing men, a long time ago--not in a box like this, but somewhere drafty and cold.
He had killed men; he had killed people of all kinds. There was a kaleidoscope of them in his mind, from his mission, from--somewhere else, some other mission, or many missions. He couldn't make the details come clear. But the priest had asked what brought him today, and all those other missions were over, done, reported and reconciled.
He was here today about the last mission, the one left undone. The one he had willfully failed. The one that had left him out here alone. "He was my mission. I'm confessing that I didn't complete my mission. I disobeyed orders."
The pause was not quite as long this time. The priest's voice showed some signs of strain. "Tell me about these orders. Who gave them to you?"
"My... commander," the soldier said hesitantly. He could remember the man's face, his voice, but details blurred when he tried to focus on them. He did not know the man's name or rank. "He said--it was very important. For the world. Shaping--the century. He said I had to. No one else would be able to stop him, but I could."
"Son," the priest said. "Was this that battle in Washington a few weeks ago? SHIELD, and the helicarriers?"
The soldier sighed relief at being understood, and let his forehead rest against the screen. "Yes, Father."
"In the midst of all that, someone ordered you to kill a man?"
"Yes, Father," the soldier repeated. Since the priest already knew the rest of it, he explained, "I was supposed to kill Captain America."
The priest let out a shaky breath. "And you didn't do it."
"I didn't," the soldier affirmed, because he knew that sometimes saying just yes or no was the wrong answer. "And I can't--I can't go back, now. I don't--I won't let them give me another mission. I won't kill him. But I don't know what to do now. I was disobedient. I need to be reconciled."
"Well," the priest said. "It doesn't sound like you repent of your disobedience, does it?"
The soldier flinched, but told the truth. "No, Father."
"It also doesn't sound to me like your disobedience was a sin," the priest added. "I can't offer you absolution for doing the right thing, son, even if it's landed you in a hell of a mess. If you need some other kind of help--"
"No," the soldier said, because this wasn't going right, this wasn't the procedure. He pushed out of the small dark box and strode quickly out of the church, ignoring the priest calling after him--
But one hesitation was programmed into him more deeply than his need to escape. The soldier stopped when he stepped into the central aisle, dropped to his right knee, and made the sign again, touching forehead, chest, left shoulder, right. The priest's door started to open as he straightened up, and the soldier turned and strode out quickly, not breaking into a run but not taking any chance of being caught, either.
One thing Bucky still hadn't gotten used to about serving under Captain America was the way Steve acted like the best kind of officer, making sure his men were tended to before he accepted anything for himself. Everyone ate before Steve did, everyone bedded down before Steve would take a load off, and when they were in camp at the right time, every Catholic commando went to confession before Steve would take his turn with the chaplain.
That made sense to Bucky--of course Steve was a good officer--except for the fact that Steve included Bucky in the category of everyone. Steve always went first when he and Bucky went to confession. Steve always wound up with a longer penance even when he and Bucky confessed to doing all the same things; that was what you got when you confessed to every single solitary sin of pride and wrath and envy on top of what you actually did. Steve went first, to get a head start on his penance, and that way he and Bucky finished together.
Bucky was one of Cap's men now, though, so when Dum Dum came back and knelt down a little way from the fire to do his penance, Bucky got up and went to take his turn. He felt Steve's eyes on him every step of the way, but he didn't look back.
The door of the chaplain's tent--Bucky couldn't remember his name, but it didn't matter as long as he was a Catholic priest who spoke English--was tied open, signaling that no one else was inside. Bucky tugged the tie free, letting the canvas fall shut as he stepped in. It was cold in the tent, and the wind rattled the sides when it gusted, but this was still better than being in some ancient stone church with a local priest who only spoke French and Latin.
Bucky walked over to the little curtain rigged up from a bedsheet that was serving as a confessional. There was a folded blanket on this side. Bucky knelt down on it, dipped his fingers into the tin cup that stood for a font, and crossed himself. "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It's been two big missions and three road skirmishes since my last confession."
"I understand, son," the priest said, and Bucky detected New Jersey in his voice--Italian, probably. He felt a weird, distant twinge of homesickness for Brooklyn and St. Mike's and Father Cooley, who'd heard his and Steve's confessions for nearly twenty years before they came over here.
The chaplain was here now, though, and it was time to confess. Bucky had been tallying it up while he sat by the fire, waiting for Dum Dum to finish his turn, so he had it all straight. He couldn't give a priest the shaved numbers he told the guys. He had to confess the true ones, including the spooky shots that he couldn't explain how he'd been able to make, firing even before he'd seen movement.
The spookiness itself curled darkly in his chest like a sin all its own, heavier than any commandment Bucky had ever broken, but Bucky stuck to the facts.
"I've killed nineteen men since my last confession, Father," Bucky reported, and to save the catechizing he recited, "enemy soldiers, in combat, under orders, to protect my men." To protect Steve, nearly every time, but Steve protected all of them, so it worked out to the same thing.
The priest made a faint noise like amusement or impatience--probably didn't like Bucky jumping ahead. "Did you enjoy killing those men?"
Bucky frowned down at his own hands. He couldn't remember the last time he'd enjoyed anything, not like what that word used to mean back home, or on his first leave or two. "I was glad they were dead and my men weren't. Killing doesn't make me happy."
"Do you regret the necessity of it?"
Bucky made his own little noise of amusement under his breath. "Do I regret being here? Yes, sir. I regret all of this."
"Drafted, were you?" the priest said, seeming to understand.
Yes, Bucky wanted to say, but you couldn't lie to a priest in the confessional, even one as makeshift as this. "To begin with. I volunteered for this part."
"Mm." The priest didn't tell him it was his own fault then, which Father Cooley probably would have, shaking his head at Bucky for following Steve into trouble again. "Well, I'm sure you've been told before, it's not a mortal sin for a soldier to kill in battle. Anything else you want to confess? Fornication?"
Bucky bowed his head and let his shoulders shake. Didn't he wish, but there had hardly been time in the last month, and--he thought of Steve, the way he looked at that picture of Peggy tucked into his compass so that Bucky couldn't even feel jealous. Good for Steve, that was what that was.
Even if there had been time, or anyone who gave him a second look, Bucky didn't think he could bear to be touched. He couldn't let anyone close enough to him to know--
"No, Father," Bucky said. "Didn't get a chance. Impure thoughts, sometimes. And taking the Lord's name in vain, although I still say some of those were prayers. And I stole a cigarette off Jim," he added, remembering. He felt genuinely bad about that one, even though Jim had had it to steal because Bucky usually gave his ration away to whichever of the others was nearby when he opened it. Jim had been thinking he'd have that one to smoke and Bucky had taken it. The fact that Jim had promptly caught him when he lit up and smoked half of it with him was beside the point.
"Stealing from your own brother in arms," the priest said, gently scolding. "Now that is something to repent of."
"Yes, Father." Bucky ducked his head. "I do repent of that."
"And what else?" the priest said. "Something's troubling you, son, I can hear it in your voice. You could die any day. Don't go to your grave without speaking of what's really troubling you, and don't waste time confessing to things you don't care about. God's time is infinite, but mine isn't, and neither is yours."
Bucky tried to think of something else to confess, but that was just stalling. He knew better than to lie. And maybe--maybe it was some kind of sin the priest could put a name to. Maybe Bucky could confess and be rid of it somehow.
"I said I didn't enjoy killing anyone," Bucky said quietly. "And it's true, Father, I swear, but--I'm so good at it. Better than I used to be. I was captured, and they, they did things to me, I don't even know what. But I've been different ever since. There's something in me, something--something wrong. They changed me."
Even as he said it, Bucky realized he was wrong; he couldn't be absolved of the darkness, because he couldn't repent it. Steve would have been dead six times over since Bucky's last confession if he were only as good a sniper as he'd been with the 107th. Whatever this thing inside him was, whatever they'd made him into, he couldn't regret it and he sure as hell wouldn't ask God to take it from him.
"Ah, son," the priest sighed. "War leaves scars on every man. But you must hold fast to your faith in the Lord, and not give in to the sin of despair. You must remember that you will be redeemed from every sin. Do you believe that?"
"Yes, Father," Bucky said obediently, because you didn't tell a priest you didn't believe, no matter how improbable it seemed. But Steve showing up a foot taller and a hundred and fifty pounds heavier to rescue him from those Hydra bastards had seemed pretty improbable, so maybe it was true that God's mysterious ways could spare some mercy for whatever Bucky was these days.
"Is there anything else, then?" The priest was softened a little from his brusqueness, but he still had plenty of other confessions to hear tonight, and Steve was waiting his turn.
"All my other sins I have forgotten to name," Bucky recited. He rattled through the Act of Contrition without being prompted, not letting himself think too much about the pains of hell and loss of heaven as the words poured out of his mouth.
The priest said his part, assigning Bucky a couple of rosaries to say, one for the souls of the men he'd killed and one for his own, but the absolvo te didn't budge the darkness in Bucky. It only turned him loose.
He walked back to their camp with his hands in his pockets, and Steve waited until Bucky had gone and knelt down by Dum Dum before he got up and went to take his own turn. Dum Dum crossed himself and handed his rosary over to Bucky without a word, and Bucky took it. It dangled loosely from his hands and the beads made a lonely sound clacking against each other as they swung, but Bucky ignored that and pressed his thumb against the crucifix as he started his prayers.
His own voice mumbling the Creed under his breath wasn't enough to keep his mind on what he was supposed to be doing penance for, though. He whispered out his I believe, but all he could think was It didn't work. I'm still not ready to die.
But they had a mission to get to tomorrow, so Bucky got on with saying his prayers.