Chapter 1: Fair Fare
Once they'd saved up enough cash, it took them more than a month to find a day to get out to the World's Fair. The first weekend neither of them tried, it was a three-day weekend and there were extra hours to be picked up because everyone else wanted to take off and go away for a summer holiday. The second weekend, Bucky couldn't get off Saturday afternoon and Steve couldn't get off on Sunday. The third weekend, it was reversed until Steve got a last minute reprieve, but by that point Bucky had gotten a date with Doris Lasker and Steve told him to go because Bucky'd been making eyes at her forever. The fourth weekend, Steve was laid low with a summer cold that left him sweating out the sheets and coughing hard enough that Mrs. Conlon sent Mollie upstairs at midnight with hot milk with honey and whiskey so that the building could get some sleep. The fifth weekend Steve was well enough to work, but Bucky didn't think him well enough to wander around outside all day. (At least that's what he said. Steve rather thought Buck didn't want to take off because he was still trying to make back the money he'd spent on Doris, who'd thrown him over for one of the Martin boys on Friday night.) The sixth weekend, it rained and they ended up going to the pictures instead, paying for Frontier Marshal and then afterward sneaking in to Beau Geste during the newsreel because the theater had air conditioning and it would give them hours more relief from the stifling city heat. Bucky dozed off, but Steve ended up riveted by the story.
When they finally got to take the trolley up to Corona Park, it was already late summer and there had been enough stories and newspaper articles and radio reports that they had a list of things they wanted to do and see. Electro the Motor Man, the Futurama ride, the Dream of Venus, the race cars, the Bendix Lama girlie show, the parachute jump, the Aquacade, the Perisphere. They saw a Vermeer, a pygmy hippo, and Bucky had to help Steve out of the Smell-o-Vision when he started to wheeze. They saw an electric calculator that had punch cards and did sums much faster than Steve could do for Mr. Shiner's store, as Bucky gleefully pointed out. They saw robots moving boxes faster than Bucky could, too, so Steve felt that they were evenly at risk for being unemployed in the future as General Motors imagined it.
The only real argument they'd had about what to do at the Fair had been about where to eat. Steve wanted to save up for the restaurant in the French Pavilion with its exotic menu and intimidating waiters and a chance to eat facing the International Pool and the fireworks show, Bucky wanted to go to the Swedish Pavilion because the waitresses were very pretty and the food wasn't too strange. "I've been working hard for this," Bucky had protested, holding up a bill of fare Steve had cut out from the Bugle at the start of the Fair season. "I don't want to eat snails or weird stuff. You can go to Prospect Park and eat snails for free, we don't have to go up to Queens to pay for that." They ended up at the Swedish Pavilion, which was really hard to find, because Bucky's other choice was Toffenetti's and that wasn't exciting at all -- it was ham and roast beef and it was just a branch of a real restaurant in Chicago. Smorgasbord took some getting used to -- they watched waiters tut-tut customers who loaded up their plates instead of coming back for round after round -- but it was a lot of food and maybe more exotic than Bucky had planned on and the waitresses really were very pretty.
The next year, the Fair was a little different. The French Pavilion still had its fancy restaurant, but the Germans had overrun Paris and the World of Tomorrow was looking a lot more like one that would require tanks and guns instead of moving sidewalks and pianos that played words. But at the Fair, it was sometimes hard to tell among the kaleidoscopes and the roller coasters. They ended up eating at the Belgian restaurant, since if it came down to eating the food of the invaders or the invaded, well, neither of them wanted to eat underneath the glare of the giant Mussolini statue. Bucky let him pick, joking that if he didn't like the choices, they could go over to Toffenetti's. Bucky was working at the giant Toffenetti's in Times Square on the weekends and while he hadn't gotten himself assigned to the Fair, some of his friends had been and they'd spare a pal a meal. (They probably spared a pal lots of meals; Steve had his suspicions about all of the 'unsellable' food Buck brought back to Brooklyn.)
A few years later and a continent away, they ate their way around Europe for real and the first time they were served snails -- sitting on hay bales in a barn in the Rhone valley, grateful for the first hot meal in the two weeks they'd been in-country -- Bucky started to laugh and couldn't stop.
Chapter 2: In Miniature
"Bucky, come quick! It's Steve."
He's up and running before Esther "don't call me Essie" Rosen has even finished speaking because (a) Esther doesn't normally talk to him at all, preferring to use intermediaries like Gertie or Fanny, (b) when she's absolutely forced to talk to him, it's never 'Bucky' and always 'James,' which she does entirely because he doesn't want her to, and (c) the panic in her voice is real and Esther doesn't scare easily, not even when Betty Mills got her brothers to follow Esther home calling her 'kike whore' all the way.
(Bucky's not shy about wishing Esther would give him the time of day. She's tall, stacked, and real pretty for someone who looks so very Jewish.)
He catches up to Esther and she points down Coffey Street toward the water. "Warehouse across from the pier," she says and he runs ahead, dodging a truck as he charges across Ferris without waiting for the right of way, horns beeping angrily behind him as he charges down the block, looking for where Steve might be. The warehouse and the pier are both busy with trucks loading and unloading and men pushing carts across the sidewalks and piling up their goods and Bucky doesn't see Steve until he's almost past him, a huddled lump of brown against the dirty wall with only a tuft of blond hair to show it's a person and not a bundle of rags.
"Jesus, Steve," Bucky sighs, crouching down and reaching out to touch his shoulder. Steve flails out an arm in self-defense at the contact and pulls himself into an even tighter ball, which makes him whimper in pain and then cough wetly and yeah, this one's a doozy. "Steve," Bucky says louder. "It's me."
An eye appears from behind a sheltering forearm and Bucky makes a face at it and then Steve unfolds himself slowly and with difficulty until he's sitting with his back against the brick wall and Bucky can look him over with delicate hands. Steve's a mess, one eye already going black and cuts on his face and hands and his shirt's torn and dirtied. "Hey, Buck," he wheezes out, trying to smile with bloodied split lips and then thinking better of it too late.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky sees blue in motion and pivots on his toes in case he has to defend them both, but it's only Esther, long curly hair a little wild as she stops short and smooths her skirt and then her hair. He returns his attention to Steve, who is now looking down between his knees, and wishes that Esther would go because while he appreciates the following-up, Steve's not gonna say boo with her there.
"What was it this time?" Bucky asks him anyway.
"Nothing," Steve answers, still looking at the ground. "It was nothing."
"It was not nothing!" Esther retorts angrily before Bucky can point out that nothing worked him over pretty good. "It was the Mills Brothers and Harold Wertz."
The Mills Brothers are a neighborhood menace, childhood bullies who grew up into apprentices in their father's collection of toughs trying to make claim to Red Hook. Betty's smarter than all of them put together, but her daddy doesn't think anyone should take orders from a dame, which is why the Mills Gang isn't ever going to be more than a neighborhood menace because Tommy and Jimmy Mills are big and mean and dumb as posts. Also, the Jews and Italians are going to stomp them like cockroaches if they get too ambitious or too lucky, especially if they go anywhere near the docks.
"They were going after Mary Murray," Esther goes on when Steve won't even look up, attention on a piece of loose gravel on the ground. It might be covered in his blood. "I was trying to get her away, but there were three of them and two of us."
She doesn't have to say more than that. Steve tried to even the odds and ended up being the distraction that let Esther get Mary out of sight.
"She okay?" Steve asks, risking a look up, wincing as he does. Bucky hopes nothing's too busted up inside. It took Steve months to pay off the hospital bill the last time he started coughing up blood after a beating and that was with him giving up and letting Bucky help out a little.
"She's fine," Esther assures, audibly tamping back her frustration. "You're another story."
It takes both Bucky and Esther to get Steve up to standing and Bucky listens and watches carefully as they give him a minute to get used to the change in position. Steve starts walking on his own, making tiny noises of pain for the first few steps but pushing away any effort to help him, which doesn't mean anything except that his pride's still mostly intact. When they get back to Conover, Esther pauses; she lives southeast while they go north before turning. Steve assures her that they'll be fine and thanks her for her help, which Esther frowns at but doesn't protest.
"Thanks," Bucky offers, too. He gets back a curt nod and then she's off across the street.
They make slow progress up Conover because Steve's bravado can only carry him so far and by the time they get to Wolcott, he's accepting Bucky's help.
"You gotta stop doing this, Stevie," Bucky tells him as they wait to cross Conover. "Your mouth is running up bills your body can't pay. You gotta learn to pick your spots better. A lot better."
It's hard for Steve to talk and walk at the same time, so they get to the opposite corner before he replies. "They were saying awful things to Mary, Buck. Really awful things to make her cry."
Bucky rolls his eyes. "Of course they were," he agrees. "But all they were going to do was talk. They weren't going to do anything more than that. You can't go to war over words. Especially when they're true."
Mary Murray's father ran off a couple of years ago but she's got a brand-new baby brother because her mother started taking in more than washing.
"It shouldn't matter if they're true," Steve huffs and Bucky pauses because Steve's winded and wound up and if they don't stop, he'll get an attack.
"You can't expect to teach the Mills Brothers manners," Bucky tells him with a frown. "They're not smart enough to learn the lesson. Esther getting her away from them was the right play."
They make it back to the rooming house and past Mrs. Conlon's watchful gaze -- this isn't the first time Bucky's brought Steve back bloodied -- and they go straight to the bath on their floor and Steve knows the drill, shucking his shoes and taking everything else in with him so he can clean the blood and dirt off his clothes at the same time. Bucky goes back to their room to get a towel and clean clothes and soap and he waits inside because if he goes back to their room, Steve will turn up dressed and Bucky wants to see how bad the damage is. They have to get to work soon, but he'll beg off for the both of them if he has to take Steve to the hospital. He never wants to wake up again to the crash of Steve falling to the floor, unable to breathe as he coughs up blood, and while Steve has promised him that that won't happen again, Bucky's not willing to take chances because Steve's determination to do what's right regardless of consequences does not extend to his own care.
The bruises are ugly, but his ribs are where they're supposed to be and Steve's breathing easier, so Bucky leaves him to finish getting dressed, taking the wet clothes back to their room to hang on the line. They go right back out and Bucky walks him all the way to the printers because the Mills Brothers might not be done for the day.
"I'll pick you up on the way back," Bucky tells him, not staying long enough for Steve to protest. Bucky works down at the new A&P market on Columbia as a part-time shelf-stocker, one of the only jobs he can do that doesn't require him to be in a union, which he can't afford to join. It's a hard job, but it's a job and it pays okay and if the hours aren't enough to let him live easily, they at least let him still finish school (which is probably more important to Steve than to him) and he can still buy the dented cans and past-prime perishables for cheaper than the public can. It won't be enough to live on forever, but he and Steve put together make do for now. Make better than do, really, because they both know the stories of what happened to the other kids who aged out of the children's home before them.
He's got a bag of sorry groceries with him when he stops off to pick up Steve, who thankfully has actually waited for him. Steve's got something on his lap as he sits, a brown paper parcel tied up with string.
"Esther stopped by," Steve explains as he gets up gingerly, hissing in pain so that Bucky reaches out to steady him. "She said it was from her and Mary. I think it might be pastrami."
Bucky cocks an eyebrow. Mary Murray doesn't have two pennies to rub together and Esther's family runs a grocery in the Jewish part of Williamsburg. Steve shrugs in acknowledgment.
The package is indeed pastrami, enough for the both of them to make ridiculously fat sandwiches with the day-old bread Bucky bought. (Steve would have shared even if there'd only been enough for one, but Bucky takes it as a positive sign that Esther was generous enough to include him, even if she might have done so because she knew what Steve would do, too.) They eat it with bruised apples and the content of a dented can of cooked peaches and, after they clean up, they deposit the coins they would have spent on dinner at the counter at Partridge's in the milk jar they use as a bank. The money's for the rent, mostly, but also for things like trips to Coney Island because they might be wise for their years, but their years combined still only add up to thirty-five.
"Don't make a habit of getting yourself beat to a pulp for a good meal," Bucky tells him as they pull out their schoolbooks to do their homework. He's got a history test tomorrow that he'll probably do okay on and an English test he probably won't because he can't stay awake long enough to actually get through the reading. Dickens can turn the French Revolution into a slog. "Or at least wait until the damsel in distress is Harriet Baxter and you can get some porterhouses for your trouble."
Harriet's father has a butcher shop on Ninth.
"I'll keep it in mind," Steve promises absently, sitting awkwardly at the desk. They take turns at the desk, depending on who needs it, but Steve can't sit on the bed and work tonight and Bucky's handwriting is bad enough that a level writing surface won't improve it much.
"You do that."
Chapter 3: Antediluvian
They got on the long line at the recruitment office after work. Every guy in Brooklyn was already on it, it seemed. There were plenty Bucky knew would never get in, the too-old and the too-young and the too-lame, and then the ones the Army might've taken if it really needed bodies. And then there was Steve, who wasn't the only hopeless case lined up with his enlistment papers in hand, but he was the only one Bucky cared about. Steve was no fool and knew he could't sign up to be on the front lines, but maybe he could do other things -- he had drafting and designing experience, he could draw maps, he knew about printing and he could type. Steve was smart and he was too brave for his own good and maybe the Army would see that instead of the scrawny guy who couldn't run down the block without wheezing.
They didn't. Bucky could tell there was a 4F next to his name before Steve said a word, before Steve even realized he was there because he was in such a fog.
"You got in?" Steve asked as they walked down the street past the line that hadn't gotten any shorter for it being almost nine o'clock. They would go to Brown's for dinner; it was Wednesday and there was a beef and beans special.
Bucky nodded, tamping down his satisfaction out of respect for Steve's disappointment. "It probably helped that they could see that I was born on Governor's Island."
Which translated into 'son of a professional soldier,' which Bucky was, granted, but only on paper. His father had died when he was still in diapers and he had been in the children's home not five years later after his mother and then a series of increasingly disinterested relatives had been unable to care for him. Bucky wasn't the Army brat his enlistment papers said he was, but he was an able-bodied young man and that had probably been all they were looking for. But he could say otherwise for Steve's sake.
"You were born on Manhattan Island," Steve corrected, because he always did. Bucky bumped him in the shoulder with his own in response, sending Steve to the curb but not over. "I'm glad you got to do this. It's what you were supposed to do."
Bucky snorted. "I wasn't supposed to do anything."
There had been Barneses in the Army since before the Civil War, or so he had been told as a very young child before he'd finally been packed off to the orphanage. It hadn't been any kind of pronouncement of a destiny or family pride or anything like that, just the calculation of how many years they'd have to feed him before they could ask the Army to do the same.
Despite knowing his family history and having not a few dreams of what his life would have been like without training accidents or cancer or hardship, Bucky hadn't ever thought of the Army as a career option. Not that waitering was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life -- he didn't know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life -- but it paid well and kept him in New York, which was what he wanted. The Army moved you around, put you where they wanted you, which was how Bucky's parents had met, apparently, when his father, who'd never seen an ocean before having to cross one to fight the Boche, had gotten stationed in the middle of one on Governor's Island after the Great War. The war that had not ended all wars, which was why there was now another Barnes in the Army.
"Don't go back here when you try again," Bucky said as they crossed the street. "Go somewhere else, like the Bronx or Staten Island."
Steve didn't bother to pretend that there wasn't going to be another time. "I was thinking of just going down to Midwood."
"The doctors rotate between the centers," Bucky told him. "I heard them talking. The guy who looked me over was saying he'd been down in Brighton Beach yesterday and was going to be at Brooklyn College on Friday. You don't want the same doctor recognizing you."
"They see so many guys every day now, they won't remember me from one day to the next," Steve scoffed, but he didn't quite sound like he believed himself. They both knew that most of the guys who were lining up looked like Bucky and not like him.
A week and a trip on the Staten Island Ferry later, Steve had his second 4F (possibly his third; he had gotten home very late from class one night and mumbled something about finishing a project that didn't sound quite right) and Bucky had official papers that informed him he was to report to Fort Dix six weeks hence for inprocessing and training. The next night, Bucky came back from the restaurant with two butts of a pork loin and the combined remnants of three trays of scalloped potatoes to find Steve poring over the Tribune's classifieds.
"I'm going to need to find a cheaper place with you gone," he explained. "It's either that or get a second job."
Steve's scholarships at Cooper Union paid for his art supplies and the odd textbook with a little left over for living expenses, but his time in classes and completing his assignments -- and traveling to and from Brooklyn -- were hours that he couldn't work to make money for rent or food. He worked weekends, but Bucky, with his sixty-hour weeks and ability to charm leftovers and barely-touched plates from the captain was the real reason he could donate so much time to his studies. And that would have to change once Bucky went off to Jersey.
(They'd fought exactly once about the division of labor and contributions to household accounts. Bucky had won, even if it had been a messy enough victory that it had taken Steve a week to get over it.)
Mrs. Conlon's place wasn't the Ritz, but it cost money and she'd raised the rates last year and this and it would probably go up again now that the Navy Yard was going to be on a real war footing and not just the pretend peace that was Lend-Lease.
"I'll chip in a little if you bring my stuff with you and you let me crash when I'm on leave," Bucky said, pulling the plates out of the cupboard. "You should look in Manhattan so you'll be closer to school."
Steve spluttered about the first, agreed with the second, and they still hadn't come to an agreement on exactly what Bucky would be contributing when it came time to move their entire collection of worldly goods from Red Hook to Stanton Street. Steve's new home -- and Bucky's temporary one, for the dime-a-day rental of a cot -- was small but clean and the landlady was used to students, although possibly not American ones because there was a lot more Yiddish than English spoken in the hallway. Bucky finished his last week at the restaurant, where he was treated to a glorious meal after service on his last night. He took the leftovers home to Steve and, when Steve was down the hall in the bathroom, tucked five dollars into the milk jar bank. Francois had given it to him to go buy a girl for his last night of freedom, but Bucky didn't need to buy girls and Steve was still looking for a job in Manhattan so he wouldn't have to travel back to Red Hook on the weekends.
Basic training was just that, a haircut and a lot of yelling and ugly threats and running around and learning how to survive in an environment where you had no friends. It was a lot, too much for many, but Bucky got through it without any tears because, really, what had his childhood been but this? Being ordered around by people paid to make sure you lived but not to care about you, learning how to defend himself and protect those who couldn't, eating not enough crappy food prepared with indifference to how it tasted, wearing clothes that had been issued to him and worn before by someone else in the same situation... all that had been missing was the room bedwetter and he had had his suspicions about Fonseca.
"It was exactly like St. Agnes's except the nuns wear black hats instead of habits," newly-minted Private Barnes told Steve at lunch at a Horn & Hardart automat during his first leave. He had been released from Fort Dix with orders for Fort Benning for more training, with the understanding that he might not get to finish it before getting put on a boat for Europe. He had four days in New York before he boarded a train for Georgia. "Seriously, they even spout the same stuff about God and duty, except your duty is to Uncle Sam instead of Jesus. They punish you when you don't make your bed right, when you don't stand up straight, when your hair's not combed right. Sister Margaret didn't scream at us when our rifles weren't as clean as she wanted them to be, but she would have if we'd had them back then."
Steve, laughed, but it wasn't a laugh that made it up to his eyes. He'd shrugged and deflected the question when Bucky had asked him how many more enlistment attempts he'd made.
"I'll keep it in mind," Steve said, sipping on his Coke. "But it sounds like I was right -- this is what you were supposed to be doing all along. That's why they're sending you to Georgia."
Bucky had a mouth full of hamburger, so he could only shake his head until he swallowed. "They're sending me to Georgia because I can't read a damned map to save my life."
Which wasn't precisely true, but it wasn't untrue, either. His drill sergeants had seen something in him that made them think that he could be more than standard cannon fodder, but he'd been warned plenty that this wasn't a reward and he'd be just as dead if a German shot him no matter how much extra training he got.
Nonetheless, Bucky understood that he'd taken to soldiering in ways that most of his recruit platoon had not. The physical endurance and skills were easily enough acquired. He was a crack shot with both pistol and rifle, which had come as a bit of a surprise, and could run forever with his pack banging into his kidneys and no food, which hadn't been a shocker. He had done okay when it had been his turn to plan an assault on the neighboring training platoon, but he was shit at land navigation, although so was everyone else in the platoon from the city. Samuelson and Forster and Plowman, the farmer kids from Jersey, were the only ones who could identify a constellation, let alone figure out which direction to go from them.
The rest, the mental part of it that had drawn the cadre's attention, well, that was just what he'd told Steve: a lifetime of being unloved and unwanted and seen only for what use could be made of you was the perfect preparation for Army life. The guys who'd grown up in their own families, whose mothers had cried when they'd enlisted, who'd never had to choose between work and school or rent and food, those were the guys who'd had the hardest time of it no matter how fine their bodies were or how good a shot they were. Fonseca ran like a tiny Sicilian Jesse Owens and could slip free of any grapple, but he was a momma's boy and he'd gone from being doted on to being in the Army and the enthusiasm of payback against the Japs hadn't been enough after the first week.
Bucky spent his four days in New York enjoying himself. He swung around to the old neighborhood and 'accidentally' ran into Anna Senckiewitz, who was still more than willing to put out in exchange for dinner and a movie. He went down to Coney Island with Steve and made him go on both the parachute jump and the Cyclone, knowing he hated both, and then they both got nearly sick with too many fried oysters on the boardwalk. He slept in on the dime-a-day cot, had lunch at a place that didn't have specials on tough-as-hide beefsteaks, and, when Steve got back from classes, he dragged him to one of the girlie shows over on Tenth because Steve was still too shy to go on his own. It wasn't one last gasp at the good things because he thought he was going off to his death or anything, which was a possibility -- his father had died in a training accident, after all, and after training would be what he was going to be training for. At least he didn't think he was. But he was leaving New York for a long time -- he was going to Europe after Fort Benning, whether or not he finished his training first -- and even if (when) he did return, he was aware enough to understand that he wouldn't be the same person, even if he wasn't sure who that new person would be. He'd felt the changes start at Fort Dix, the way he had to think differently when pretending to be in combat and keeping his unit safe, the way it was nothing like the skirmishes from his childhood -- the way those skirmishes felt like childhood and further away in time than they actually were. This week, he just wanted to enjoy his hometown one last time as the person he still was. He wasn't sure how much of this Steve understood and it wasn't like he was going to try to explain it, but Steve was a sharp guy and seemed to understand something and didn't make a fuss about how much money Bucky was spending on him or on himself.
Fort Benning was miserable and that was before he actually did anything. New York this time of year was unpredictable, some days screaming of spring and other days clawing desperately to winter, but Georgia was just hot and getting hotter. "Just wait until summer," he was promised. "You'll wish for these days."
He didn't get to see summer at Benning, at least not the legal definition of it, but it had been plenty miserable for weeks when they'd been ordered to form up in the blazing sun and then told to pack their gear because they were going north so that they could go across the Atlantic.
They would be going back to Dix, although whether they were sailing out of Newark or Brooklyn was going to be decided after they got there. Bucky hoped for Brooklyn, obviously, and so did his unit because they were already asking him for places to eat and get girls and booze, but all that probably meant was that they were going to get stuck in Jersey. He wanted to tell Steve to clear out an afternoon in case he got leave before they were marched on board a ship, but it would have to wait until Dix because the line for the phones was just too long. Besides, Steve would still be at his studio at school and trying to leave messages with his landlady had historically not gone well. (Mrs. Zilansky was a very nice woman, but her command of English was spotty and her hearing worse and Steve had had to wait for the letter to realize that Bucky had gotten a promotion to Private First Class and was not marrying a girl named Piefsky.)
They were indeed leaving from Jersey, but there were day passes and Bucky took the train up to New York. He met Steve at school, getting to see his studio space and what he was working on. Steve had been doodling for as long as Bucky had known him, but it wasn't anything either of them had considered as a way to earn a living until late in the game, when Steve had been encouraged by teachers to apply for a spot at Cooper Union and extra scholarships to make even a free school affordable. Steve's plan had been to go work in an ad agency -- there was no romance in being a starving artist when he'd been one all along -- at least before Pearl Harbor. Steve was still trying to get in to the Army or the Navy (the latter because he figured you had to run less on a boat), but he seemed to be a little less frustrated that he couldn't yet. "It's getting bigger and bigger," he'd told Bucky in a letter to Georgia. "They'll get around to me eventually."
But right now, Steve was still an art student during the week and a printer's assistant on the weekends and Bucky, in his uniform because the Army thought it would make him less likely to go AWOL if he had to do so in his skivvies, was happy to see what he was turning out these days. Their room in Red Hook had stopped being quite so cluttered with sketchbooks and pencil shavings once Steve had started at the school and while it had made the place easier to clean, Bucky had missed it in a way. Steve lived in his head a lot, too much usually, and looking at the last pages in his sketchbook was sometimes the best way to understand him. Steve realized this too, eventually, which was why he'd stopped detailing his daily indignities in picture form after the first time Bucky had taken a look at a sketch and beaten Bobby Mauer to a pulp the next day. But Bucky could still read Steve's drawings like the thought balloons in the comic books and time and distance hadn't changed that.
"You need to get yourself a girl, Stevie," Bucky said as he finished his tour of the tiny space. "One you are allowed to touch and not just ask to move her arm so you can get a better look."
What he really wanted to say was 'I wish you had less to worry about' because horniness wasn't the dominant theme of the collection. (Point of fact, Steve's nudes were always somehow tasteful and respectful, even when he had a better angle than you could get sitting in the front row of the Laughing Tigress.) Steve was afraid, afraid for Bucky, afraid to be left behind and alone, afraid he'd never be able to do anything for the war effort or in life, and Bucky hated it. Steve probably wasn't wrong to worry about him, but for the rest... for a guy whose courage had outstripped his common sense for so long, Steve still found a way to see the everyday hazards all too clearly and to recognize them as dangers. And the time had passed from when Bucky could minimize those hazards -- or Steve's reactions to them -- in any real way.
From the too-hard, too-long hug they exchanged before Bucky got back on the train to Trenton after their dinner out, maybe Steve understood what he'd said anyway.
Bucky had always understood that he was signing himself up to probably die, although his willingness to accept that on the bone-deep level came and went depending on where he was and what he was doing, but there came a point when it came and struck true and, he understood in that moment, it would never leave him until he did die or until he took the uniform off one last time. It wasn't the first time he stood underneath German bombers dropping payloads (in Suffolk, too far away from anything worth running to use as a bomb shelter to do anything but look up and watch) and it wasn't the first time he was shot at (still on the beach west of Oran, water up to his ankles already turning red with blood). It was the third time he was shot at, outside of Oran, when his unit came across some Vichy bastards who'd sniped off five guys before their position had been identified and Bucky was one of the three who was sent to take them out. This was the first time he'd been shot at as an individual, not as part of a group where any hit was a good one, and it was the precision of it, the lack of chaos and randomness, that got through to him in a way the whizzing bullets and pink seafoam hadn't. He killed his first man that day, not with his pistol but with his combat knife, and, once the skirmish was over and he'd thrown up and then emptied his canteen, he came away from the experience with a new and terrible understanding. And a sniper's rifle. And, soon, a battlefield promotion to corporal.
He was a sergeant by the time he got back to the States, at least on paper because he still hadn't been issued the extra chevrons to sew onto his gear so they hadn't bothered with a promotion ceremony. He'd been gone more than a year, although it felt like five most times. He'd spent it almost entirely in North Africa before a hellish return trip back to England and he hadn't thought he'd be going home at all -- he'd been sent north to join V Corps, which was apparently bitterly short of NCOs with any more experience than the privates they led. But the battalion he was supposed to be joining had found someone else, so he was instead being given orders that amounted to 'go back to Fort Benning and wait until we figure out where to put you,' a block leave before that, and a ticket back to New York.
"Don't get too comfy back home," the major who signed his orders in London warned. "You'll be back here before Christmas."
Which turned out to not be true, but only because he didn't go back to London before invading Italy. His orders to join the 107th came while he was still on leave, but those lasted until exactly four days after he reported because the 107th was getting reorganized and turned into a coastal triple-A defender and the S1 thought he could trade a combat-tested infantry NCO to a front-line unit and get back someone who knew anything about anti-aircraft artillery, which Bucky did not.
"How do you feel about Jump School?" Captain Yount asked him.
"Sir?" Bucky had been in the Army too long to believe that his opinion mattered for shit.
"If you were parachute-qualified, then I could trade you to the 82nd Airborne for someone who knows how to load an artillery piece and lot more besides, Sergeant," Captain Yount explained meaningfully. "Unless you have your heart set on doing paperwork for the rest of the war. How's your typing?"
After more than a year of intense desert fighting, doing paperwork for a while didn't really sound like such a bad idea -- he'd have been happy to learn how to use coastal artillery pieces, too. But he understood that neither of those were actual options on offer. He'd proven himself too good at the ugliest parts of war to be allowed to rest in the rear echelon, not anymore.
"I feel very good about Jump School, sir," Bucky replied, since it was the only acceptable answer. In truth, he'd met some of the guys from the 82nd in Tunisia and there were worse units to end up with.
He wrote Steve about the change while on the train back down to Georgia (he wouldn't find out for another year that Steve never got the letter because he'd already been sent to Camp Lehigh). Jump School was both very easy and incredibly hard -- learning how to fall and land was straightforward, but he really hated being treated like a recruit again, yelled at by the instructors like he'd never put on combat boots before. Also, he really wasn't wild about flying at all, let alone jumping out of perfectly good aircraft, but he could grin and bear it and qualified for his Airborne patch and his jump wings with nothing more than a slightly turned right ankle.
Which was how he found himself jumping out of a plane over Salerno, wondering out loud at the top of his lungs how anyone, even an officer, could believe that floating down to Earth while every soldier and airplane and AAA battery could take pot-shots at him and his parachute was the future of modern warfare.
Three weeks later, he found out the hard way that the Germans had other ideas about the future of modern warfare and, strapped to a table in a mad scientist's laboratory, he was about to become a part of it.
Chapter 4: La Caduta
Warning for medical torture. What the movie made implicit, I am making explicit.
"How do you feel, Sergeant Barnes?"
Bucky felt like he was on fire, warm all over but pooling in his crotch, not like arousal at all but just straight heat, and he might've pissed himself.
"Sergeant Barnes, please describe how you feel," Zola repeated in his precise voice, just a warning tone to it but not anger. Not yet.
"Hot," Bucky rasped out. Or tried to, but it didn't come out right the first time and he had to repeat himself, still not quite landing the T. The injection before this one had turned him boneless and floppy and he'd hoped to sleep through the rest of the session because it was too much to open his eyes. Sometimes Zola let him, not needing to ask questions that blood draws and the fancy monitors hooked up to him couldn't answer for him. But not today.
Zola was patient, Bucky had learned the hard way, and extremely intolerant of disobedience. Failing to obey was sometimes unavoidable and Zola accepted that, but failing to attempt to obey was met with swift punishment.
"Do you feel any stronger?" Zola sounded closer, maybe standing next to the gurney, but Bucky had no desire to open his eyes to see him. He wasn't sure he would be able to if required and that would just fucking suck because he was still feeling the effects of the last time he'd been deemed difficult.
(Zola had drugs that just caused pain, incredible pain, and he'd shoot you up with them if he thought you weren't going to be useful to him that day. You'd be wheeled back to your prisoner pen to curl up and sweat out the misery and the entire pen would go without food and water for the day to give you incentive to not to do that again.)
"No," he got out, his tongue getting in the way.
He felt something at the corner of his mouth pushing in and then liquid. The baby bottle of water. He worked to swallow and, when he did, he got another squirt. It should have been embarrassing to be fed water from a bottle with a nipple on it like a newborn, but he needed the water more than he needed his dignity, at least right now.
Zola didn't ask him any more questions after the bottle went away and Bucky might've fallen asleep. The next thing he knew, he was back in his pen, on the floor with his blouse folded up under his head.
"Didn't think you were coming back this time, Sarge," Sopel said as Bucky tried to push himself to sitting and failed, landing awkwardly and hard back on his side. Sopel crouched down to move his hand out from underneath his torso, not bothering to prop him up. "You were gone for ten hours."
Bucky could only grimace and then he was out again.
Sopel and Martin woke up him at some point later because there was food and he hadn't eaten in two days. Yesterday he'd been too sick to keep anything down and the day before nobody had eaten because Zola had decided he was being uncooperative. He hadn't meant to be uncooperative, but whatever he'd been shot up with had given him a high-pitched whistle in his ears and he hadn't been able to hear anything. He'd felt even worse once he did become aware of his surroundings because Barzanian's sore throat was getting worse and the water, at least, could have helped.
Martin helped him eat, holding the bowl to his lips so he could sip at the soup and breaking up the bread into small pieces so that he could feed them to himself with only some effort. There was a chunk of meat in the soup and Bucky frowned at Martin, who didn't misinterpret the look and shrugged. There were six of them in the pen and they were supposed to rotate who got the meat and eggs that found its way into their communal pot, but Bucky had gotten meat twice this week and that meant someone else had gone without.
Bucky was the only test subject in the pen; there'd originally been three, but Smith and Kugel had disappeared and while they'd been replaced with two new prisoners from downstairs, neither Dalton nor Witkower had been dragged off yet. Either Zola or the guards or some combination had realized that mixing up the pens was the most effective prisoner management -- the healthy could keep the test subjects alive longer and then also be used as threats to ensure compliance in the lab.
Bucky was the NCOIC in their pen, which sometimes mattered and sometimes, as in the case with today's meal distribution, really didn't. Sopel was a second lieutenant, captured two weeks into his first deployment, and everyone else was a corporal or private and all of them put together didn't have Bucky's combat experience. Sopel didn't pull officer shit, but it made everyone feel a little better if he was the one organizing meals and sleep rotations and occasionally bullying Bucky into accepting care because he was the only one who could make it an order. It was a tiny taste of normal in a world where absolutely nothing else was and they clung to it tightly.
He was feeling well enough to stand woozily when it came time for the pen's daily field trip to the showers and shitters, although he accepted Witkower's help to walk there as they were paraded silently past the other pens surrounded by guards. This, too, was a privilege that could be taken away, but it rarely was because otherwise the prisoner areas would stink much more than they already did and the guards had to breathe the same air. It was easier to starve them than hose out the pens more than once a week. There was no way to get really clean in the showers with little time and less soap, but they could get clean enough, rinse out their clothes -- Bucky's were always full of sweat and sometimes puke or piss or worse -- and regain a little bit of their humanity.
Dalton, the buck private, was on laundry duty when they got back, hanging up everyone's clothes on the pen bars to dry while they sat in their damp skivvies and tried to keep each other entertained and sane. They did PT in shifts, since there wasn't the space, and gave each other the business for who still couldn't do thirty pull-ups on the upper bars. They had a deck of cards and sometimes they played word games and sometimes they talked baseball or movies or told stories about their lives before they'd enlisted. Barzanian had worked as a bartender in a nightclub in LA and he always had stories about actors and what they were really like, or at least what they drank. Dalton was from Nebraska and most of his stories involved cows. Sopel had his college years. Bucky had New York City, which only Sopel had been to before, and the World's Fair and Steve. Sometimes there were group naps, which made them all feel like babies, but being cooped up in a tiny cage was remarkably exhausting.
At night they slept in shifts, five men asleep and one man awake, and tonight Bucky insisted on taking a turn because he'd slept most of the last two days. He would sleep through the night if they let him, but he needed to do this for himself. To push himself a little as his own choice and not because of a threat to the others held over his head. Sopel very clearly debated pulling rank on him to say no, but they exchanged a look and then Sopel nodded and told Dalton that he got to sleep through the night.
The next day, Captain Prinzler from the pen two over -- this level had the pens alternating occupied and not -- was marched by on his way to Zola's lab and Bucky hated himself a little for being relieved that it wasn't his turn today.
Prinzler didn't come back that day or the next and the little core of rage and self-hatred and fear burned a little hotter in Bucky's belly, making it hard to eat. He gave his piece of sausage to Barzanian, who was losing his voice entirely, which they could joke about, but also starting to get feverish, which they could not. The guards had only one response to sick prisoners: they were taken to Zola and, more often than not, never seen again.
(This was true for lab rats as well as the control group; Bucky had gotten dragged back to Zola when he'd started throwing up and couldn't stop even after it was just dry heaves. But maybe because he was sick from what Zola had done and not from one of the bouts of disease that raced through the pens like lightning, Zola had simply given him an injection and left him on the gurney to sleep it off. When he'd woken up and been pronounced improved, he'd been frog-marched over to the lab table to be strapped down as that day's experiment.)
They hid Barzanian's fever as best they could, not wringing out their socks after they washed them so they could use them as compresses and giving him double rations of water and food, and it seemed to work. Barzanian wasn't getting better, but he wasn't getting any worse and Bucky thanked whatever demon forces watched over this place -- God certainly had lost the address -- that Zola wasn't shooting him up with anything that made it hard for him to hear or see or move or respond to questions so that his pen wasn't deprived of what little they got. He was instead shot full of things that made his heart race and his body feel alive in ways it hadn't since his capture and he could have wept from the euphoria that left him higher than the best sex.
He made the most of his alertness, actually paying attention to his surroundings as he was taken back to the pen and being engaged with the guys once he was there so that they didn't have to take care of him for once. They were amused by his energy, but also relieved and that, he suspected, would do them better than extra rest, which they all got because he knew damned well that there was no way he was going to be able to sleep tonight, so he took the entire night's watch.
The next morning Barzanian's fever spiked. He didn't know where he was -- no, that wasn't true, he knew exactly where he was. It just wasn't here. He thought he was back in LA at the Boca del Luna serving gin and tonics to Randolph Scott. Bucky, still feeling weirdly energized by whatever he'd been given by Zola yesterday, sat with Barzanian and engaged him in a long conversation about the drinking and eating habits of celebrities, using his own experiences as a waiter to keep Barzanian's attention so that he wouldn't start shouting for more clean glasses or a new crate of lemons. He got Barzanian to eat by telling him that it was an experiment by the chef because he'd heard Myrna Loy was coming in that night. The pretend act could only work for so long, though, and Barzanian was getting agitated again at just the wrong time, when the guards were coming for them to take care of the three S's. But they got him to the showers without incident and ran him under the cold water until his fingertips turned purple and he quieted, going back to their pen easily and sleeping. But he woke up in the middle of the night screaming that he was under attack by bees and nothing they could do would quiet him. Bucky and Dalton tried to hold him down, but the screaming just got louder and the guards came.
Bucky wasn't even thinking when he launched himself at the guards who were going to drag Barzanian off. He just did it, fueled by all of his fury and whatever was still in his system and he heard Sopel's barked order to stop and felt hands pulling at his arms and his body and his neck, but he couldn't stop. He'd been helpless for so long and now, in this moment, he wasn't. For everything that had been done to him by Zola, keeping five men's lives as security against his own obedience was the worst. He'd always gone along with it as best he could because what were five men's lives compared with just his own? He was their sergeant, they trusted him, and he would not let them down. He was going to die here anyway, he knew that. He was going to die screaming, in agony, begging for whatever relief death could bring and praying that Zola hadn't figured out a way to raise the dead so he could do it again tomorrow. He was going to die here, but there was no reason Barzanian should, too.
He woke up strapped down on Zola's gurney, head foggy and sore and blood in his mouth and in his left eye. And this is where it ends he said to himself.
"Not quite, Sergeant Barnes," Zola said from somewhere Bucky couldn't see him. "Tell me how you felt from the time you left here."
Zola had to ask the question a few different ways before Bucky could give him the answers he wanted. By that point, Bucky could figure out that Zola wasn't planning on killing him (intentionally, at least) today and that his attack on the guards hadn't been considered an act of disobedience but, instead, a kind of side effect.
"Did you feel aggressive or angry at all before the guards came to take away... Private Barzanian?"
Bucky couldn't help but laugh. He was a Nazi lab rat, a prisoner of war treated worse than a stray animal, and Zola was asking him if he'd been angry? Bucky sometimes had trouble remembering when he hadn't been consumed by rage, when his life had been fueled by something other than anger and fear.
"Sergeant Barnes," Zola warned.
"No," he replied, sobering. "I felt good. Really good."
The high was still there, a little, buried under the pain of the beat-down he'd gotten from the guards, but maybe making that hurt not as much as it should have. He admitted as much to Zola when asked. Zola made an interested noise, then told the guards to unbuckle him and take him to the showers to clean off -- thoroughly, with soap -- and bring him back.
Bucky scrubbed himself raw, washing his hair and between his toes and everything in between because he knew without a doubt that whatever came next was going to wipe that lingering euphoria out like a match in a snowstorm.
When it was over, he woke up back in the pen, someone's blouse folded up under his head as a pillow and another one draped over him like a blanket. When he sat up, the world spun and when he was introduced to his new pen-pal, Corporal Sowalchuk, he saw three of him.
When he saw Steve standing over him in Zola's lab, he thought he was hallucinating. Earlier Zola had shot him full of something that had made him nearly buck off the gurney despite the straps, made his heart hammer, made him hyperventilate and shake and spasm like he had stepped on a live wire. Then there'd been another injection and then nothing. When he'd woken up, he'd been loopy and sluggish and he'd hoped to hell that Zola wasn't going to ask any difficult questions because he wasn't sure he could even manage his name, rank, and serial number if pressed.
Zola hadn't asked him anything, though, because he hadn't been there, although there'd been no way for Bucky to know that strapped down on the table and just lucid enough to realize that he was high as a kite. His ears rang and shadows were swimming at the corners of his vision and he knew that they weren't the orderlies, although he wasn't sure why. So when Steve appeared, Bucky had accepted it as just another way his drug-addled brain was messing with him. He'd imagined Steve before, but they'd been back in Brooklyn and not in Zola's lab.
He went along with the hallucination because there was nothing else to do while strapped down on the table, at least while Zola wasn't asking him questions or requiring him to do anything. Letting his mind wander was how he passed the time and kept his fear at bay. In the daydream, Steve, who was now taller than he was and dressed like Captain America, freed him from the table and led him through the building, which was now exploding around them. His heart was hammering again and he wondered if the sedative Zola had given him was wearing off -- in which case why was Captain America Steve still here? -- or, worse, that the sedative hadn't been strong enough to counteract whatever the first shot had been and he was going to die of an exploding heart even while skunked on the other stuff.
And then Doctor Schmidt, an occasional and fucking terrifying visitor to Zola's lab, started taunting Steve and pulled off his face to reveal a monster head underneath and Bucky was ready to wake up now, even if it meant saying goodbye to Steve again. But he didn't wake up, instead made like a tightrope walker over a crossbeam and Steve jumped forty feet through a fireball and then they were running from more explosions and, at some point, the hallucination stopped and he fell asleep again. The last words he heard before he did so were Steve's, gentle in his ear. "I got you, Buck."
He woke up as he often did, a uniform blouse pillowed under his head and another as a blanket.
"Easy there, Sarge," Sopel warned him when he started to move. "Rest easy. We're not going anywhere for a while."
He opened his eyes to see Sopel's knee two inches from his face, which wasn't that unusual, either. But when he rolled away from it, he was shocked to see trees and blue sky and he sat up in alarm, overcompensating and falling over in the other direction before he could stop himself by putting his hand down in dirt.
"It wasn't a dream?" he asked, mostly to himself because he wasn't sure how the hell he'd gotten here. Or if here was even what it looked like, Maybe he'd finally cracked up like Barzanian and Zola would put him down, too. Or chalk it up to another side effect and send him back to the pen.
He noticed that the blouse he'd been using as a blanket wasn't a blouse, it was a leather jacket. Steve had been wearing a leather jacket. But there was no Steve here, just Sopel and, on the other side of him, Martin who was lying down and maybe asleep. And a lot of other sleeping men and sitting men, some faces he recognized, but no Steve.
"I don't know what you were dreaming about, Sergeant, but if it was about Captain America showing up and breaking us all out, then no, it wasn't a dream," Sopel told him. "But I have to tell you, you are the biggest liar in the history of liars for all of your stories about your little pal Steve the artist, the one who was always getting beat up and couldn't get into the Army because he was a hundred ten pounds soaking wet. Although considering he only rescued us because he was looking for you, I suppose I can forgive you."
Bucky smiled, but he still wasn't sure all of this -- any of this -- was real. He'd seen too many things that just made no sense, very much including Steve as Captain America, and sometimes, especially right after being in Zola's lab, he wasn't sure how much he could trust his own mind anymore.
"You should go back to sleep," Sopel told him, gesturing with his chin toward where Bucky had been lying. "We're staying here until dusk and then we're going to push through the night. You are going to need your strength."
Which he didn't have right now, no need to add.
Sopel gestured vaguely with his hand. "He's around, perimeter checks, setting up pickets, whatever. He said he'd be back here when he's done. Sleep, Sergeant. I'll tell him to wake you up."
Bucky didn't believe that last part for a moment, but he lay down anyway with a muttered "yes, sir" and fell asleep breathing the scent of dirt and fallen leaves and not the chemical scent of the lab or the more human odor of the pen.
He woke up to a hand on his face and he startled, dazedly trying to shake off Zola or Schmidt or whoever else was examining him.
"Buck, relax, it's me," Steve's voice penetrated the fog of his mind and he looked up and there Steve was, crouched over him, looking nothing and everything like the Steve Rogers he'd left behind in New York. "I didn't mean to scare you. I just wanted to see that cut on your forehead."
He didn't bother to lie and say that he hadn't been scared. Steve, no matter what he looked like -- and Jesus, what he looked like now! -- was always the first to call him on his baloney.
"Come on," Steve exhorted in a low voice, gesturing over his left shoulder. "We can go talk over there. It's still inside the perimeter but it's not on top of everyone else."
Bucky wasn't sure he could stand up without falling over, but Steve did and then offered him a hand and pulled him up easily and he couldn't help but laugh at this reversal of fortune. Of Steve being the big, strong one. Steve must've been thinking the same thing because he grinned at Bucky, the same doofy grin as always.
They stepped carefully past the sleeping Sopel, nodding at Martin, whose shift it now was, and headed off in the direction Steve had indicated, although Bucky needed to make a pitstop to pee once they were away from where the main of the group was resting. Steve led them far enough away for privacy but not so far that they couldn't get back easily and wouldn't be mistaken for the enemy. And then he dropped down against a massive tree truck and waited for Bucky to do the same before pulling him in to a one-armed hug, the way Bucky used to do for him when they were young. Bucky moved into it easily and eagerly, surprising himself with how desperate he was to put his burden down and let someone else worry about him for a while.
"What the hell happened, Stevie?" he asked, his forehead against Steve's neck. "What the hell happened to us?"
There was no answer, or maybe too much answer. After a long moment, Steve loosened his hold enough for Bucky to lean against the tree trunk, but he kept his arm slung around Bucky's shoulders and between that and the fact that Bucky was wearing Steve's leather jacket, it was an awful lot like a date, but it was comfortable and it was them and Bucky didn't give a fuck. Steve started to talk, telling him about what had happened after he'd gone off with the girls at the Stark Expo -- Bucky couldn't even remember their names now -- and Camp Lehigh and the secret lab in Brooklyn and Abraham Erskine, for whom he clearly felt a strong fondness and a debt of obligation.
"That's who Schmidt was talking about," Steve explained. "Schmidt monkeyed around with one of the earlier versions of the formula and turned himself into, well, that."
He shuddered and Bucky, under his arm, shuddered, too, but not entirely for seeing the freakishness of Schmidt's true face. It was because that was the moment he realized why he'd been a lab rat for Zola. So that Schmidt could have brothers and sisters. Bucky had been meant to be one of them. Like Steve maybe, but more likely like Schmidt. He was pretty sure Steve's transformation hadn't taken as long or hurt as much as what Zola had been doing to him, but he'd never say as much. This was Steve getting what he wanted for once in his life. Even if Bucky had always been glad that this was supposed to have been the one wish never to be granted, that Steve would never see the ugliness of war and be corrupted by it like he had been, well, here they were. And right now, however many miles they were from the burning rubble of the HYDRA base, Bucky was grateful for it.
Steve hugged him tight again -- Christ, he was strong -- and maybe he was talking out loud again and didn't realize it. Or maybe Steve just knew what he was thinking, which had never changed no matter how long they'd been apart. They stayed quiet for a few minutes before Steve started talking again, this time about his USO days -- "I am going to have a really long laugh about all of that once we're back home, Captain" -- and how he'd hoped to run into Bucky and then finding out that that would be impossible because Sergeant James Barnes was not only not in the 107th, but he was also classified as Missing/Captured.
"We were so close and not doing anything... I had to do something, Buck. I had to."
With his eyes closed, Bucky could ignore all of the other changes because the voice was still Steve and the tone was the same and him insisting that doing the right thing was always more important than the fact that the right thing was impossible... For a blissful moment, he wasn't in an Italian forest hiding from the Nazis. He was home.
But that moment couldn't last. Steve might not have been thinking beyond getting Bucky out of Nazi hands, but in the process he'd acquired more than a hundred other POWs, not all of whom were healthy and able to walk on their own, and they had no food or water, although they were working on that. They did have a ton of weapons, but Steve didn't want to have to fight his way to freedom all the way. There'd already been one firefight that Bucky had apparently slept through, tucked into a corner of one of the trucks with the rest of the wounded.
"If we go through the night, we should be able to be okay," Steve explained and Bucky could tell from his voice that there was a little more hope in this plan than Steve would otherwise have liked to confess to. "Agent Carter let me sneak a look at some of the intel briefings and the Germans are preparing their big defense north of where we are, so we're kind of in the squishy part between where they say their lines are and where their lines actually are. There's going to be a big US push north all across Italy, so we just have to keep pushing south until we meet 'em. The Allies were preparing to cross north of the Volturno before I left, so maybe they have already."
They talked about business then, Bucky being a relative veteran of troop movements compared to Steve, the details of what they had and how fast could they go and what they were likely to encounter as far as mounted and dismounted patrols or aerial recon or, god forbid, a bombing run or getting strafed by fighters. Steve understood some of Bucky's questions and was unable to answer many of them. He had already confessed that this had been his first combat action, that he had trained as a soldier but then been turned into a showgirl and everything he'd learned about warfare had been entirely theoretical before he'd convinced Agent Carter to ask Howard Stark to fly him behind enemy lines and do the first parachute jump since he'd gotten his Airborne qualification.
"Jesus, Steve," Bucky muttered as the enormity of what Steve had done -- for him -- sunk in.
"I know," Steve sighed, completely misinterpreting. "That's why I need you to help me cram. I can't--"
They were still sitting close enough that Bucky could elbow Steve in the ribs -- hard, which did nothing because his chest was even harder -- to stop him talking. "That's not what I meant. You're doing fine. Better than fine. Believe you me, getting this many people this far with what we've got -- and what we don't got -- is nothing short of amazing. You've got at least one field grade officer in this pack and a few captains who could pull date-of-commission rank on you and nobody is. Instead, they're asking you what to do next. So stop talking down on yourself -- the way you look now, it sounds even sillier -- and just get on with things. You have a question, you ask. I won't let you do anything too stupid, even if you're an officer now and can't help yourself."
The grin Steve game him was vintage Steve, despite the fuller face.
Eventually someone came looking for Steve -- for Captain America -- and they went back to the others. Bucky gave Steve his jacket back because the star on his chest was as good as a bullseye and Steve accepted it before heading off to discuss plans with the guys who'd been acting as sheepdogs to his shepherd. He asked Bucky to go with him, but Bucky told him he had something to do first. He went back to Martin and Sopel and asked the question he hadn't been alert enough to ask earlier.
"Witkower was killed in the escape," Sopel answered. "Dalton's back with his unit -- half of his platoon was being kept downstairs, remember. He stopped by while you were sleeping. Sowalchuk's with his buddies, too. Haven't seen him since we bedded down this morning, but he got a nasty burn on his leg from one of those blue blaster weapon things, so he's probably just resting. He'll have to ride when we get going."
There'd been a water source found while Bucky had been sleeping, a creek a couple hundred yards west that wasn't poisoned and wasn't patrolled and wasn't giving anyone the shits, but they didn't have canteens, so everyone had to go and drink there. Bucky went with Martin and Sopel and went as far downstream as the sentries would let him so he could wash away the sweat that still stunk of chemicals and fire before drinking until his belly was full and he had to pee again. Then he found Steve and was introduced to the motley crew of deputies he'd found -- a Nisei, a Brit, a Free Frenchman, a black guy, and Dum Dum Dugan, about whom Bucky had heard rumors since he'd been a private and had always suspected was just a myth but was actually standing there with his even more mythical hat on his head. He wasn't sure they'd be all that happy to see him or how they'd see him: Captain America's buddy, someone who'd been carried from the base instead of fighting, or worse, one of Zola's walking experiments? But they greeted him warmly and without open pity, telling him that he was the reason they were all free and Cap had been talking him up like he was Eisenhower and Patton rolled into one.
"You do realize he doesn't know what he's talking about, right?" Bucky asked, embarrassed.
Dugan clapped a giant paw -- his fingers were like sausages -- on Bucky's shoulder and assured him it didn't matter, that the truth never compared to the legends and that he, of all people, should know.
It took them a week, almost, to get to the Allied lines. They had to fight their way past the Germans on the third day -- a mixed blessing because it allowed them to pick up boots for the shoeless and canteens and food and medicine -- and then again on the fifth. And then they nearly got themselves blown to hell by their own side because, unsurprisingly, the US troops hadn't believed that HYDRA tanks and men carrying HYDRA weapons could be anything but trouble. Which nobody could blame them for, but after so long in captivity and then a week on the run, none of them were willing to be very understanding about the confusion. Being led by Captain America made it even worse, since everyone knew he was just an actor and who else would the Germans send to hold the false flag of this parade? But eventually they convinced the guy holding US Army-issued guns on them that they weren't the enemy -- mostly by insulting them for a few hours -- and were given a pass and allowed to proceed south into Allied territory.
On the ninth day, they arrived at Steve's destination. Bucky would've liked to have seen the chewing-out Steve got for going AWOL, but he got caught up in his own storm of paperwork and bureaucracy. The Allies didn't seem to know about the nature of the prison at all and thought it had been another labor camp, not even realizing that it had been a HYDRA facility until they'd shown up with HYDRA weapons and, it quickly became apparent, had no idea what sort of hell Zola and Schmidt had created there.
Bucky went through his interview with the goal of saying as little as possible and getting done as quickly as possible. He didn't want to end up in a psych ward somewhere or, God forbid, in whatever lab Erskine's successors had set up to make themselves siblings for Steve. He told them nothing about Zola or the experiments, just gave them the details of his capture and transport north and the names of soldiers he'd seen at the facility but who had disappeared before their rescue. He'd gotten in early enough that the interviewers didn't know where to press, so it wasn't that hard, especially when he could talk in detail about their flight through the Italian countryside. Which didn't mean that the whole experience was easy or quick. Army bureaucracy was both ridiculous and infuriating after everything he'd been through. But just when the frustration was getting to be too much, he got asked if he believed that the address listed under his next of kin was still accurate so that they could send a telegram to inform them of his recovery. Steve was his next of kin and so he said no, that no telegram was necessary but if they wanted to send a note to Colonel Phillips's tent, they were welcome to do so.
After he finished, he made his way to Steve's tent, where he'd bunked down last night, and lay down on Steve's cot. The interview had been exhausting; he hadn't had to talk so much since before he'd been captured and he'd found that he couldn't, not easily. He'd had to talk to survive -- to answer Zola's questions, to make sure his pen-mates were not getting lost in their own despair -- and now that he didn't have to anymore, he didn't want to. Steve had done most of the talking when they'd been marching south, both when it was just them and when they had to address the group as a whole, and while Bucky could see the questions in his eyes, Steve had never pressed him to say more than he wanted to. So he'd said nothing. What had happened to him in Zola's lab was over, to be put away and forgotten like the commendation he'd gotten in Tunisia because the memories just hurt too much to be revisited.
He must've fallen asleep because the next thing he knew, Steve was shaking him awake and telling him it was time for dinner.
Processing the returnees took days and drew a crowd. There were extra supplies to order -- food, cots, underwear -- and between the liberation of so many POWs and the identity of the man who'd done it, well, the brass loved a spotlight and there were generals and visiting politicians lining up to shake Steve's hand. He hated it, deeply, and Bucky felt bad for him up to a point. "This is the price you pay to get what you want. You're in the Army now, Punk, you gotta dance to the piper's tune."
"I danced plenty when I was selling war bonds," Steve muttered darkly as they watched a couple of congressmen shake hands and slap backs, treating the POWs like they'd been on a sunny Italian holiday instead of living in hell. "It's different now. I am different now. I finally understand why everyone was looking at me like gum on the soles of their shoes when I first got to Europe. I was supporting an imaginary war and they were fighting in a real one. The imaginary one is good versus evil and fight, fight, fight to the finish and I get to punch Hitler in the end."
The real war, he didn't finish, was bloody and disgusting and a fucking tragedy and involved pulling your best friend off the table of a mad Nazi scientist.
"You want to be a real war hero, then?" Bucky asked, since he didn't want to go down that road any more than Steve did. "You go dive on a grenade and sweep those politicians out of the ranks and into the CO's tent so they'll leave everyone alone."
Steve frowned, nodded, and took a deep breath before putting on his Captain America smile -- which was really nothing like his actual smile -- and calling out to the congressmen to draw their attention.
From across the quad he saw Dugan, who must've seen him send Steve off to his sacrifice, and he nodded once, then disappeared.
Bucky couldn't hide from the Intel people forever, although he'd started to hope that somehow he'd be able to. But too many of the POWs had known he was one of Zola's favorite lab rats and so eventually, he was called in again. He debated not going, but Steve, to whom he'd said nothing and to whom it still didn't matter what he'd said, begged him not to blow it off or play dumb.
"If you don't go along, they're going to ship you home on a medical chit," Steve warned him, a pleading note to his voice. They were in his tent, which was about as private as it got on in this overflowing camp. "They're doing that with some of the others. You'll wind up in a hospital and God knows when they'll let you out."
Bucky knew Steve didn't mean a hospital like the ones they'd been born in. A loony ward like St. Elizabeth's, maybe, someplace where the scientists who'd created Steve's new body could get a crack at him to see what Zola had gotten up to.
"I know you don't want to talk to anyone about it," Steve pressed on. "I wouldn't want to talk about it, either. But if you do this--"
"If I do this, they will definitely send me home on a medical chit," Bucky spat out sourly. He'd noticed his own strange behavior since they'd gotten back, his inability to be social and easy with people and happy. Steve had certainly noticed it. The Intel people, which included head shrinkers, would notice it, too.
"You were always a little off in the head," Steve replied dismissively, waving aside his protest airily before sobering. "There's talk that they're going to let me put together a team for real, to do crazy things for the good guys with actual prior sanctioning and not this after-the-fact story we all ginned up so nobody looks like a fool for letting me run off and 'America's Hero' doesn't have to face a trial for desertion."
There was no way in hell Steve was gonna get rung up for even Failure to Repair once he came back with everyone, but asses had had to be covered and so Steve's crimes had been rewritten as orders.
"If you do this, if you go talk to them and get cleared, I can formally ask you to volunteer for it," Steve went on. "I don't know if you even want to fight anymore, let alone with me when I don't know what I'm doing, but... I think whatever I end up doing, I will end up doing it better if you're with me. Like we're supposed to be. So please, Buck, don't make them chase you down."
Bucky closed his eyes. "You are impossible, you know that?"
Because Steve had to know that there was no way in hell that Bucky was going to let him wander around warzones without someone he trusted to watch his back. And Bucky had historically trusted nobody but himself.
When he opened his eyes, Steve was grinning.
"I'll go with you if you want?" he offered, but Bucky shook his head.
"No," Bucky insisted forcefully, holding up his hand. "We've never really had secrets and I probably have even fewer from you than I think I do, but this, this is gonna be one of them. I don't want you or anyone else we might end up working with hearing what I am going to have to tell them."
Steve, because he was Steve, understood why and nodded once. "It won't change anything, Buck."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Of course it will. I don't even remember half of what they did to me, but the parts I do remember, I don't want anyone to know about because it's all they'll see. It's what I'll become. And then I'm no use to you."
He debated lying to the Intelligence team about how much he remembered and how much he'd figured out and then debated it again when he saw Agent Carter slip in and take a seat on the side like she belonged there. But in the end, he told the truth as he remembered it, which might or might not have been of any use. He hadn't known at the time what Zola's goal had been -- information flow had been a one-way street -- and if he'd never have seen Steve and then Schmidt, he'd never have figured it out on his own.
"You people don't understand," he'd told them in a weary voice. "They treated us like bugs -- they could pull off our wings just because it was something to do, not because it had a real reason. They didn't need real reasons. They didn't give us any. And when we stopped being useful or started being more trouble than we were worth, they killed us."
They asked him why he hadn't been killed and he swallowed the rage that surged up at just the implication that he'd been helping Zola, that he'd made sure he was being useful for his own gain. "It wasn't for lack of trying," was what he did say. "I survived by chance."
When it was over, they thanked him for his time and he took the dismissal and left. It was bright and sunny out and he had to squint and get his bearings. Steve wasn't around today -- he'd had to go down to Salerno to shake some more hands -- and Bucky wasn't sure if he wanted to find a different friendly face or just be by himself for a while. His decision was made for him by Sowalchuk, hobbling toward him on crutches and his leg wrapped up like a mummy.
"Sarge!" Sowalchuk called, broad smile on his face. Bucky smiled back and hoped it looked legit. "You should come to lunch. It's a pen reunion. Except for the LT, he's been in officer country since we got in."
Bucky nodded and fell in to step with Sowalchuk, who was happy to carry on the conversation all by himself. He updated Bucky on who he'd seen and what he'd seen and seemed to think that Bucky had kept Steve's identity a secret on purpose.
Martin and Dalton were already on line and they took advantage of Sowalchuk's injured status and the fact that all of them were still wearing the scrap of cloth on their left arm that indicated that they were one of the POWs to cut in and join then. The food was typical Army chow, mostly unidentifiable, questionably edible, and served with indifference. But it was still better than what they'd been getting in captivity and what they'd been able to scrounge on the flight south, so they ate it with more enthusiasm than it merited.
Sowalchuk already had his departure date; he was going to be on the convoy heading down to Salerno on Monday, along with the rest of the lightly injured who hadn't already been evacuated. Dalton and Martin had heard that they would be leaving at the end of next week, maybe Thursday. Everyone was going home, at least for a while, although some were getting their discharge papers, at least the rumor mill said. They were surprised that Bucky hadn't heard anything yet, but he shrugged and told them that the spies had to finish with him first, which they understood for the obvious reasons and the ones they'd never speak of aloud to him. They were all so happy to go home after wondering if they ever would and Bucky felt genuinely glad for them -- they had families to return to. His was off trying to convince Eisenhower to let him run suicide missions with a bunch of misfits.
He ended up leaving before anyone, packing in to a transport truck with Morita, Jones, Dernier, Falsworth, and Dugan to join Steve down at Salerno so that they could all fly to London. Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter and some other types were in jeeps, but they -- the Howling Commandos, named by Dugan for a reason only he knew -- rode in the truck with the crates and the gear. And they were fine with it, especially after Dernier pulled out a couple of flasks of brandy he'd been given by the representative of the Free French who'd come as part of the celebrity tour. It was good, Bucky thought as they made their way south with with warm burn of the alcohol in his belly. He could work with these guys. He could live with them. He might very probably die with them, but that would be determined later.
Steve's guerrilla unit wasn't a done deal yet -- the OSS was still fighting over turf -- but they were going in anticipation of it getting worked out so that they could officially volunteer for it. Falsworth, who was apparently some kind of nobleman in England, promised them a good time whether or not this happened.