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“Do you mean to tell me,” Phillips said as he settled himself behind his desk, “that you want to surround yourself with these men when the only thing they have in common is getting themselves trapped like rats in a cage?”

Steve paused before he spoke. There was nothing to be gained by losing his temper. “No, sir. I want to surround myself with men who’ve proven they have the strength and resourcefulness to survive that cage.”

Phillips’s brow grew only more furrowed. “Maybe they just got lucky. Did you ever think of that?”

“I heard from a reliable source—”

“A reliable source.”

“Yes, sir.” Steve waited, but Phillips said nothing. “Sergeant Barnes, sir.”

“Barnes—that’s the fella that set you running off half-cocked in the first place.”

Heat crept into Steve’s face. “Yes, sir, he’s my oldest—” He cut himself off when he realized Phillips was no longer listening.

Phillips shuffled through the files on his blotter until he found the one he was looking for. After reading for several minutes, his eyebrows lifted, then his gaze shifted back to Steve’s face as he set the papers back down on the desk.

“I see,” Phillips said.

What the hell was in that file?

As the silence dragged and Phillips stared, Steve was acutely conscious of the fact that Phillips hadn’t wanted Dr. Erskine to pick him in the first place—hadn’t wanted him even after he’d proven back in New York what he could do. Now it seemed Phillips had no choice but to put Steve to work, and he clearly wasn’t a man who liked being backed into a corner.

Phillips’s hand was resting on the desk, his fingers splayed over Bucky’s file. Finally, he sighed. “What the hell, it’s a damn fool’s errand anyway, and they might be the only ones crazy enough to go along with it.”

“Thank you, sir.” Steve suppressed the urge to reach across the desk and shake Phillips’s hand. “Thank you.”

“Now get the hell out of here so I can get some real work done.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Steve walked away, he saw the colonel’s harried assistant scurrying in to take the files from the colonel. He set them in a tidy stack on the corner of his own desk. Phillips’s voice boomed from deeper inside the tent. “Corporal!” He dashed away, leaving the personnel files on his desk. A few moments later, Colonel Phillips emerged from the tent and strode away, the corporal trotting to keep up.

The files were sitting there in the deserted tent. It was tempting. Steve could just take a peek. He walked slowly back to the desk. He could see Bucky’s file right on the top of the stack. His name was printed neatly on the tab. Steve hesitated for only a split second before grabbing the file.

The first few pages were unremarkable: enlistment forms and medical reports. Then came a surprisingly complimentary note from Bucky’s drill sergeant at basic praising his discipline. A couple of years ago, the idea would have made Steve laugh. Not that Bucky had ever failed at anything in his life, but for a long time he got by because he was too smart for his own good, not because he was disciplined. A training evaluation listed a lot of figures that Steve didn’t have the context to understand, but a note typed at the bottom pointed out Bucky’s skills with a rifle and his strong head for figures, recommending him as a sniper.

Steve skipped ahead several pages—none of this would make Phillips’s eyebrows hitch up like they had—until Bucky’s handwriting caught his eye. It was an official report:

MISSION REPORT OP GADFLY

  1. Recorded traffic of Sparrow near location at 070007JUL43.
  2. Target appeared 084007JUL43. 2.5 minutes of angle MSRD windage and 900 yd. distance approx from OP.
  3. Shot achieved with modified M1 Garand rifle and iron sights due to visibility concerns.
  4. Tank crew broke south of target and exited vehicle, scattered to attempt finding our location. PFC Dugan and SGT Barnes relocated into thick brush. SGT Barnes eliminated 8 SMs of Sparrow at distance >600 yd. before withdrawing to reload mag. No enemy presence so continued to SP. No one present at SP. Found German mine had hit the 107th’s M3 Half-track 1/2 klick south of location. Salvaged radio equipment. Attempted contact with 107th failed.
  5. At location of remains of M3 Half-track, encountered Rabbit scout troup. PFC Dugan salvaged an M2 flamethrower which was used to ignite gasoline for smoke cover, to lay suppressive fire at approaching detachment. No CKs at this time due to low visibility.
  6. Identified remains at M3 Half-track as belonging to SGT Lewish, PVT Miller, PVT Johnson, PVT Salazar. Further ID impossible.
  7. Remained at location of M3 Half-track until 040008JUL43. Upon which time proceeded to base.

Sniper’s notes: request new rifle. M1 Garand cooling mechanism limiting factor to speed of shot and reloading time proved dangerous in the field. Suggest M1941 Johnson/can mod as required.

Steve indulged in a moment of fond pride for Bucky’s skill: 900 yards? That was half a mile. But the rest of the report was shocking: no one to pick Bucky up at the rendezvous point, and his rifle malfunctioning. Back home, Steve had been desperate to understand what was going on over here, but maybe it had been a blessing not to know. It might have driven him insane to be stuck stateside knowing the details. Bucky had gone on and on about chance, and it made sense to Steve now—brains and skill wouldn’t be enough to keep you safe in chaos like that. Had Bucky known those soldiers? Some of their bodies had been unrecognizable. No wonder he didn’t ever talk about any of this.

Bucky’d seen so much already—had already been wounded, though he’d made light of getting hit by shrapnel—and he said Dugan had been in the Pacific too. Now Steve was going to be their CO. I have no idea what I’m doing, he thought frantically. I’m just here because I fit the uniform. God-damn Captain America. He squelched the panic. He would listen to his men—not just Bucky, all of them. He would listen and get them the equipment they needed and let them do their jobs.

Steve moved on to the next page. It was clearly some kind of commendation, but it wasn’t until Steve, his mind still half on the mission report, saw the typed number at the bottom—47—that he realized this was the kill count Bucky’d talked about in his letters. A line had been drawn through that number and another one penciled in next to it: 51. Bucky had killed 51 people. It was clear on the page that the brass was pleased with Bucky’s success rate, but it took only a moment for the horror of it to catch up in Steve’s mind. Bucky had said he was ashamed of bragging, and now Steve understood both the satisfaction and the shame. Bucky had a rare talent. But dozens of people—it was hard to take in.

Voices outside the tent forced Steve out of his reverie. He turned the page, still wondering how Phillips had found anything objectionable in what he was reading. It was all impressive, by army standards. The army wouldn’t care about the burden on Bucky’s soul.

But the next few pages answered Steve’s unspoken question. First came an official-looking form with multiple signatures, including Bucky’s, looking shaky, right there at the bottom under First Sergeant Robert Douglas. Reading the report was an exercise in frustration. It didn’t exactly clear Bucky—didn’t even list formal charges. The officer writing up the report mentioned a letter but circled and hedged, using phrases like “under considerable stress” and “possible intoxication” and “questionable content” to slide past the issue without really explaining.

Steve remembered that letter, and it had been followed by a decided lull in Bucky’s correspondence, making Steve more than a little nervous. The dates of that lull coincided pretty closely with Bucky’s punishment: according to the form he’d been given extra duties for several weeks. Had Bucky been too ashamed to write? Or just too busy, with all of the extra work? After a few more forms that were equally vague, Steve found a typed transcript.

Q. Are you aware of why you’re here, Sergeant Barnes?
A. Our ship didn’t get deep-sixed by the U-boats? … No, I’m not aware of why I’m here.
Q. Have you practiced any lewd contact with a fellow soldier?
A. What? No.

A knot of anger and dread formed in Steve’s belly. Bucky’d been pulled in for questioning? He hadn’t said a word about this, not in letters and not in person. It was awful to think about Bucky going through this on his own—the humiliation and the fear.

Q. What’s the nature of your relationship with Private Silver?
A. Never met him.
Q. First name John. 52nd Chemical Division.
A. John Silver? You’ve got to be kidding me. Like Long—like Treasure Island? I don’t know. We met in the mess. We talked about chemistry. He’s a chemist, does cloud cover? That the one? Seems to be doing a real service to the military.
Q. Did you engage in genital contact with Private Silver?
A. No.
Q. Are you aware that he has a record of improper conduct in the military?
A. Then why isn’t he the one who’s here? He didn’t do anything with me. I didn’t do anything. We didn’t touch each other ‘cept to shake hands. I’m interested in chemistry.

Bucky had talked about John and his cloud cover in his letters. Seeing Bucky’s obvious admiration of John reflected on the page had made Steve feel a little flash of jealousy when he first read it, but now he only felt sorry that John had gotten dragged under suspicion again because of Bucky and Steve.

It was grossly unfair, all of it, and Steve’s first impulse was to raise hell. But any objection would only put all of them—Bucky, John, and anyone they were friendly to or worked closely with—more under the watchful eye of those who seemed to take sadistic pleasure in dragging a man’s private life through the mud. So Steve had to keep his mouth shut. And they had to be careful.

Q. And what’s the nature of your relationship with Captain—
[sidebar]
Q. To recommence, what’s the nature of your relationship with Steven Grant Rogers, lately of Brooklyn, New York?
A. Best friends from childhood. Like a brother to me. Not ashamed to say it.

If this was what Phillips had seen, it was no wonder he’d looked at it askance. Everything was so vague, and the questions so insinuating—it made the situation sound worse than it actually was. But Phillips had read this and still allowed Steve to select Bucky as his sergeant. A fool’s errand, Phillips had said. Did he think the whole venture was doomed? Did he figure suspicions like this wouldn’t matter if the guilty parties were being sent on a series of suicide missions?

Q. Are you aroused by the sight of a naked man?
A. No. What? No.
Q. What is the meaning of this remark, written June 28th, 1943, in a letter to Steven Rogers: “your nose isn’t THAT big, punk. You’re flattering yourself”?
A. That was, ah… I was making a lewd… that was a lewd suggestion such as I think many of us guys tend to make when presented with the opportunity, sir.
Q. You continue, “maybe it’s better for me to imagine you that way. Ya know?” What did you mean by that, Sergeant? What’s the implication there? Are you implying that, ah, Mr. Rogers’s genitalia are of particular interest to you, personally—
A. I don’t know. I was a little drunk writing that letter. I think it was teasing. Just teasing. You know, like a kid brother. Is that what I wrote? I guess I wrote that. It was a joke, though. Ask any of the guys in my unit, they’ll tell you, I joke around a lot.
Q. You specifically say, “I had to sit down and write this while I was sober.”
A. Then I don’t know. I was joking, I guess. I don’t remember all the letters I send, I send a lot of letters.

The stuff they were quoting—Steve didn’t remember any of that in Bucky’s letters. When Bucky’d first explained about getting in trouble, Steve had assumed he meant the letter where Bucky talked about asking too much. The one where Bucky lied about not minding the idea of Steve going off with girl. The one signed with “Love.” It had come so close to the surface with things they had to leave unsaid—Steve had begged Bucky to be careful. Though later, Steve had read that letter a thousand times. He’d read all of Bucky’s letters over and over till he almost knew them by heart, and none of the phrases in the transcript were in any of those letters. There must be another letter, one that never got sent.

Q. Do you send letters to a woman, a romantic interest, back in Brooklyn?
A. No, I don’t have a girl back home.
Q. Why not? Please stop laughing, Sergeant.
A. I don’t know.

Even with just the bald dialogue in the transcript, Steve could picture it: Bucky laughing at wasting time with this farce when there were a million things that were more important. But the laughter would have a manic edge to it too. Bucky rambled a little when he got nervous—it made his terse denials that much more heartbreaking in contrast. And through it all, Steve had been half a world away.

Q. You’ve spoken with Corporal Cristallo and others on several occasions about a sweetheart. However, the only addresses on your letters home have been to your family and to Mr. Rogers. Why is that?
A. God. I—I guess I wanted to show off? I was bull—I was making stuff up to seem more impressive. You know. To keep my morale up. I wanted to feel like I had someone.
Q. So you admit you’ve been dishonest about the nature of your sexual and romantic life?
A. Come on, that’s all the guys.

Had Bucky just been making it up? Or had he been thinking about Steve? He’d admitted to Steve in letters that he’d bragged about him—made the other guys think Steve was in charge of the whole USO show. Reading the letter, it had been wonderful to think that Bucky would be so proud of him. But now Steve had to wonder how many of the men Bucky’d bragged to might suspect something.

Q. And the nature of your relationship with Mr. Rogers? A reminder that further dishonesty will result in severe consequences under the laws of this Army and this nation.
A. He’s like family to me. We grew up together.
Q. Do you frequently use endearments with family such as “love,” and express the desire to “hold him around the chest”?
A. Sure. I have three sisters. I’d do the same with them. Except not the chest part now they’re older. But I always used to rock them to sleep, as kids. And Steve grew up with real bad health, so I guess I feel protective. Sure I love him. That’s not against the law. He’s a continent away anyhow, so it’s not like there could even be contact of—of the sort you’re talking about.

Right in the middle of this farce—was it even an official court martial?—Bucky had admitted he loved Steve, but Steve couldn’t even savor it. Bucky’d been trapped.

Q. Have you made any lewd verbal overtures to members of your present unit? Private Dugan? Private Richmond? Any others? Have you ever sustained eye contact with a member of your unit while engaged in masturbatory acts?
A. Well—I mean we all—I mean it’s close quarters, it’s not like we never—
Q. Do you become aroused when in close quarters with the men in your unit?
A. I would call that an incidental rather than purposeful turn of events depending upon context, sir.

It made Steve smile, in spite of his worry and shock. He’d been imagining Bucky shame-faced and cringing under the scrutiny of a panel of glaring officers and was encouraged to find even this slight evidence that Bucky hadn’t let himself be completely cowed.

Q. Do you engage in physical contact with men of your unit, with or without their knowledge, while engaging in masturbatory acts yourself?
A. I’m sorry? I mean, if we’re b—if we’re neck-deep in a foxhole it’s not really the time for that anyhow. No. I don’t. No.
Q. As a non-commissioned officer in this Army, have you ever used your power or authority to make illegal or unwanted sexual advances towards any of the soldiers under your command?
A. No, I said no.
Q. Did you ever give false statements or commit perjury during your enlistment process, or when taking your oath of enlistment?
A. No.
Q. Have you collaborated in perjury during anyone else’s enlistment process?
A. What do you mean? Are you talking about… no, I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t do that.

Now they were trying to blame Bucky for Steve lying on his enlistment forms? Anger flared up only to be swallowed by guilt. Bucky’s warned him not to lie, not to keep trying, but he’d been so damned determined.

Q. Have you noticed and failed to report any acts of homosexual conduct among the soldiers under your command, or soldiers in any adjacent unit?
A. Not that I can recall.
Q. Would you agree that the language you use in your letters to Rogers is consistent with that of an invert talking to his supposed sweetheart?
A. It’s jokes. It’s just jokes. I’m not—I mostly complain about the food.
[sidebar]
Q. We’re going to adjourn at this time. Do you have any further statements you wish to make?
A. No.

For a moment, Steve just stood there, staring at the page in his hand. What was the point of it? They’d brought Bucky in and humiliated him, but never officially charged him with anything. Why would they call Bucky in to be disciplined like that but then punish him with only a slap on the wrist? Had they meant to scare him into behaving himself?

Steve set the page aside so roughly the corner of it tore. The next page was a letter. Steve stared—it was the letter from Bucky, the letter talked about in that damned report.

Steve looked at Bucky’s spiky, slanted handwriting: Okay, Steve. Like Bucky was talking right to him. But if Phillips knew about Bucky’s punishment and knew that the offending letter had been intended for Steve . . . it certainly would put Steve’s determination to rescue Bucky in a particular kind of light. Christ, they’d have to be careful. Steve would use whatever influence Captain America had to protect Bucky, of course, but if the wrong person found out, there might not be anything that could keep them safe. Not with this black mark already on Bucky’s record.

It was impossible not to imagine Phillips seeing the letter in the file and judging Bucky. Steve was almost afraid to read it, but there was no resisting. He dove into it the way he always did when he got a letter from Bucky, desperate for news and any little coded bit of encouragement or flirtation that Bucky’d managed to sneak in. But there wasn’t much sneaking in this letter. And it was beautiful. It stole Steve’s breath from his lungs.

All sweat and salt and licking our fingers in the washing throb of waves, the letter said. It made his heart race and his clothes feel too tight. A new world entirely. Steve could barely comprehend what he was reading. He was so greedy to see what came next that his mind stumbled over the images—a technicolor jumble in his head. Fruit on the trees so many kinds so sweet they burn your mouth and make you sweat and tremble. Steve’s hand was trembling already, the paper crinkling slightly between his fingers.

I’ll just hold onto you and we’ll watch the sky get darker and darker purple at night and the last thing we’ll see is one more wink of blue before it all fades.

His heart was ready to break from the melancholy beauty of it. There was so much sadness in what Bucky had written. Bucky was brave, strong, but of course he’d want to escape from it all. But right after he wrote this letter, he was questioned and punished—the hopelessness Bucky had been feeling when he wrote this letter must have increased a million-fold after that interrogation.

“Captain Rogers.”

Steve whirled around, Bucky’s letter still in his hand, and found Colonel Phillips behind him.

“It warms my heart that you’re so eager to get started,” Phillips said, “but I believe I recall telling you to make yourself scarce.”

Steve was caught snooping, but he’d be damned if he’d slink away with his tail between his legs. He looked Phillips right in the eye. “I read Sergeant Barnes’s file, sir.”

Phillips waited silently for a few beats and then nodded slowly. “You read the file.”

“Yes, sir.”

“As is well within your rights as his commanding officer.” Phillips brushed past Steve, circled around his desk, and sank into his chair with a tired groan.

“Oh.” Steve felt silly. The sneaking around had been for nothing. “I didn’t—”

“Is there anything in that file that comes as a surprise to you, Captain?” Phillips said. “Or that changes your determination to have Barnes as part of your team?”

Steve was shocked. It took him several tries to choke out, “No, sir.” “And have you forgotten that I have oh-so-generously given you and your men two days of leave before I send you out there to give ‘em hell?”

A little huff of disbelief escaped from Steve’s throat before he could stop himself. “No, sir.”

“Then we have nothing more to discuss. I suggest you find your men and start enjoying your weekend, captain. Because I have a feeling once we get started none of you will be getting much R and R.” Phillips pointed a stern finger at Steve. “And come back on Monday morning with some viable plans. You wanted this job. It’s up to you to figure out how to do it.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve answered promptly.

After only a moment of hesitation, Steve folded Bucky’s letter and slid it into his pocket. He knew Phillips was still watching, but it was his letter, after all. He tidied the rest of the papers into the folder and set it neatly on the stack with the others. Then Steve turned to look at the colonel, standing straight and tall to give a slow salute.

Phillips pulled himself to his feet with a sigh, but he returned Steve’s salute. “Now leave me the hell alone.”

Steve walked briskly away from the tent, hardly knowing where he was going. His hand kept returning to his right thigh, where he could feel Bucky’s letter through the fabric of his pocket. He wanted to read it again, but maybe that would be stupid, out in the open like this. Right from the beginning, Steve was determined to be careful.

But would it be enough? Steve imagined Bucky being pulled in for questioning again. It would be worse the second time around, with that transcript already in his file. Was it fair to put Bucky at risk? Steve himself was probably safer.

What if Bucky had changed his mind? Steve could hardly blame him. He’d been questioned and punished, just for writing a letter. Would he want to risk harsher punishment? Maybe a blue discharge? And that letter . . . was that what Bucky really thought? Could he only imagine them being happy in a fantasy?

Steve remembered what Bucky’d said in the transcript: I was making stuff up. . . . You know. To keep my morale up. I wanted to feel like I had someone. Maybe that’s all it was. Was Bucky just going along with what Steve wanted because of all the letters? Because of a couple of desperate kisses at a train station? Steve had always worried that Bucky felt an obligation to take care of him, to finish his fights and scrounge up extra money when he got sick. It would just about kill him to think that Bucky would go along with this, just because he felt obligated.

Unable to wait any longer, Steve pulled the letter out of his pocket. No one would be able to read it without coming close enough for Steve to notice.

I just wanted you to know. I folded the last letter up really fast. Before I could think. Because of how I signed off and all.

Bucky’d signed the previous letter with “Love, Buck.”

But I was serious. One hundred percent.

They hadn’t had any privacy, not more than a few snatched moments of whispered conversation—most of what they’d said had been in front of the other guys. But nothing in Bucky’s behavior so much as hinted that he regretted anything he’d written, that he was going to run and hide, or give Steve up. If Bucky had changed his mind, Steve was sure he would know. In spite of everything, it seemed Bucky still wanted him. Bucky really loved him. He’d said as much during the interrogation, but he’d waved it like a red flag to divert attention. Here in the letter, it shone from every line.

Steve started to read again. He wanted to lose himself in the images: sensuous and wonderfully confusing. He could see all the colors now—knew them in all the bright variety he’d been missing out on his entire life, but he would never forget that he first saw them only through Bucky’s eyes.

The sound of an engine on the path behind Steve pulled his attention away from the page. As he stepped aside to let the Jeep drive past, he realized how late it had gotten—it was starting to get dark. He’d told Bucky he’d find him after talking to Phillips, but instead he was wandering around in a fog. After tucking the letter safely back in his pocket, Steve wove his way between the tents and around patches of deep mud until he found the mess tent. Dugan’s laugh rang out in the dusk from inside, already familiar, and Steve knew all the guys would be with him.

When Steve entered the mess, he hung back, watching. Bucky was listening to Dugan and smiling—he looked happy and relaxed, and doubt flooded over Steve again. Bucky could be happy without him. It wasn’t fair to ask him to take such a huge risk.

At that moment, Bucky turned his head and caught sight of Steve. His entire demeanor changed: he sat up a little straighter, his smile widened, and one arm lifted off the surface of the table as if he would reach out and take Steve’s hand in his, though he was all the way on the other side of the tent. Bucky’d been smiling before, but this was different. It was like they were the only two people there. Steve’s eyes locked with Bucky’s, and he felt a smile spreading across his own face.

Steve wanted to run to Bucky that very moment, to grab him and kiss him and tell him that everything was going to work out just fine. No, not fine—it was going to be wonderful. It was a risk, granted. And maybe they couldn’t fight the system, but they would hide inside it. Now that they were together, they’d be unstoppable. What might be a suicide mission for others would be their bread and butter. They’d thrive on the challenge, on the impossible odds.

Bucky beckoned to Steve with a little sideways nod of his head. Steve walked past the rows of tables, rounded to where Bucky was sitting, and slid onto the bench next to him. Bucky leaned close to make himself heard over the other guys’ greetings.

“What’re you smiling at?” Bucky said. “I thought you were meeting with Phillips.”

“I was.”

Bucky made a face. “I’ve never seen anyone grinning like that after talking with that cantankerous bastard.”

“Maybe he’ll surprise you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Steve didn’t even try to fight his smile. “Everything is going to be great.”