Most historians focusing on the private life of Barnes have been frustrated by a lack of pre-war evidence. Based on birth and scant housing records, Barnes grew up poor in one of the rougher corners of Brooklyn and abandoned formalized schooling to take on day work wherever it could be found at 15. There's a marriage license on record for August 4th, 1936 to Stephanie Grant Rogers, but little information beyond that. Barnes would have been 19; we don't know how old Stephanie was at the time of their wedding — it's commonly accepted her birth records were among those consumed in a 1940s fire that blazed through several Brooklyn municipal buildings.
But the little known about Stephanie Rogers only complicates things.
The letters found amongst Barnes' personal affects after he was lost behind enemy lines are tender but incomplete: a fragment of a larger document woven from their shared lives. We know that Rogers and Barnes grew up together, that they were childhood sweethearts, that Barnes ached for her in a way that is humbling to read. We know she was fragile, often ill, and there's a strong possibility based on fragmentary evidence that the couple had suffered a miscarriage. We know she was a remarkably gifted artist, and that she sent Barnes vivid, witty pencil drawings, tucked in among the pages of her fluid handwriting. She drew their neighborhood, their windowsill, the stray cats Barnes apparently fed and now wouldn't go away.
"I think 24 hours have stretched out, Bucky," she wrote to him, three months after his deployment. Barnes was in France when he received the letter. "I wake up at 7 like always and get dressed like always, walk to the hospital and work my shifts like always. But no matter how long they run — stop worrying they don't run that long — I come home and the apartment is quiet and I think it must not be that late, that you're not home yet, and I find myself sitting dumb on the couch as the shadows get longer, until another hundred years have gone by and I realize it's only just 10, and that you're not coming home tonight."
We don't know what he wrote back, although we know he did write back: among the 107th there were a few diarists, and Barnes was acknowledged to be steadfast in his marital devotion. If he had wartime indiscretions, none of his platoon wrote about it. Although one did write, "Sgt Barnes isn't like the rest of the married guys, or even the guys with sweethearts. They always talk forever about their girls or wives, and Barnes just hunches over her letters, reads them over and over again."
All of which only makes the mythology of his romance with Lady Liberty more confusing.
— Kramer, Edward J. Barnes: A Portrait. New York: Penguin, 1973. Print.
The first place she'd gone to sign up, she'd written "Stephanie Barnes" out of reflex. The processing nurse had taken a look at her paperwork and asked, "I thought you said your name was Rogers," and that had been that.
Bucky's always been right: Stephanie's a God awful liar, so she's not surprised she fumbles — badly — when she tries to spew out her excuses. In the end, she'd accepted their lecture about the Nursing Corps being for unmarried women only, nodded politely at their suggestions she join any of the women's service organizations and gone home to find the mailbox still empty — still no word.
Bucky had written like clockwork the first eight months of his deployment: one or two letters a week that made their way over the Atlantic too slowly. They were harried sometimes and scared most times and dirt smudged, and Bucky talked about a whole lot of nothing, which made Stephanie so worried she could throw up thinking about all the things he was keeping close to his chest, trying not to worry her. He talked about the other men in the 107th instead, until she thought she knew all of them: Danny, who was so young his voice was cracking and Chuck, who apparently spent most of his time harassing Bucky to see a picture of her.
Bucky's handwriting slants upward along the page, every line of jagged, cramped letters curving higher at the ends like the slope of a valley. Stephanie would recognize Bucky's letters just from the shapes of his sentences, the loops of his gs. They're poor compensation for the absence of him in all the spaces he belongs: at their rickety kitchen table, curled around her in their bed beneath the blankets.
She presses each letter she gets flat under her old sketchbooks — they're overflowing with pictures of him, and she pages through them like the faithful worry over their rosaries — so that the folds won't wear the paper through. And Stephanie knows it's stupid but she likes to run her fingers over the ink, lightly, feel the depressions on the paper and think about where the heel of his hand had sat across the grain, where it had smeared across the page. They grew up two streets apart, and he used to walk her to class every morning and home every night, and on the weekends she'd sit in the shade of a gangly tree and watch him play stickball with the neighborhood boys, draw the line of his nose and the angle of his elbow on scrap pages until he was done for the day, golden and sweaty and dirty as hell, smiling wildly. And even after he quit school for docks and day labor he was always there, scamming lunch off of her and stealing kisses, the reassuring palm cupping her cheek and the fingers she'd reach for on the way home from church. She'd never been apart from him before; his absence and the ocean between them are ever-unfolding.
The last letter had come to her in April, dated February, but it's June now, the summer heat pressing against the windows of their shabby apartment. Molly at the hospital says that the mail is just lagging, Stephanie, don't worry so much, but the walls in their building are thin and Stephanie has been hearing the telegrams coming, the crying after. Stephanie brings her bad soup and worse cake and her urgent need to do something, to help, and then they all take turns feeding Brooklyn's latest widow platitudes Stephanie is terrified they'll all use on her eventually: you'll carry on, he wouldn't want you to be like this, I'm sure he didn't suffer, he died protecting you — protecting all of us.
Stephanie's not superstitious, sometimes she barely believes in God, but even when she's keeping herself busy — at the hospital, with the local women's groups — her fear keeps chasing her around. She's so worried for him, and worried if she worries he'll suffer for it, that her nightmares, her waking moments of frozen horror, are going to signal something to the universe and that when they come to tell her he died somewhere cold and scared it'll be because she didn't believe strongly enough.
That last night, after they'd escaped the press and scrum of Stark's Expo, they'd fucked desperately. She'd left scratches down his back — "Aw, hell, Steph, the guys are going to give me hell for this." — and he'd left bruises on her thighs, a ring of marks around her wrist. And afterward, when she'd been lying across his chest as if her weight could hold him here, keep him in New York, he'd pressed his mouth against her wedding ring and made her promise not to do anything stupid.
"How could I — you're taking all the stupid with you," she mumbled at him.
"I mean it, Steph," he'd said, rolling them over, pressing her down into their bed again and tucking himself between her legs — pressing back inside her where she was sore and still so desperate for him her hips rolled up to meet him, instinctive.
She'd dug her nails into shoulders, into the skin and muscle she loves so much, wrapped her legs around him and gasped, "Just come back to me — you gotta come back to me, Buck," and he'd put his face in her neck and rode her through the mattress saying, "You're never getting rid of me, you hear me?"
Bucky's it for her. He's always been the whole of her, the pencil line that made up her borders. And she'd tried, she'd tried to be patient, but April had leaked into May and June was waning now into July, and Stephanie hadn't promised to obey — she'd promised to love, honor, and keep. She wants to keep him — she has to keep him.
So she gets up the next morning and knots her hair, pins it back neatly, and puts on a cotton sprigged dress. She says hello and how do you do today to her neighbors, to the boys from down the street who yell, "Good morning, Mrs. Barnes!" and Mr. Carlyle and Mrs. Adams and heads for the subway — unfolds the map in her lap with its marked-off recruitment locations and whispers to herself, "Stephanie Rogers — Stephanie Rogers."
She gets the name right this time, but that's the only thing that goes right.
The Red Cross center is hitched to an Army recruitment hub, a crush of people and soldiers and nurses and gawkers, too. She'd picked it precisely because it was always a mess of people: harried intake officers, people less likely to take the time to double check, who'd rubber stamp her, turn a blind eye, and send her off to where she was needed, somewhere she's not separated from Bucky by an ocean. These things they churn together: the urgency of her uselessness and her longing, gone frothing like a gothic romance novel. Sometimes Steph thinks she's her own woman in the attic.
She explodes to help when there's so much help needed and so little she can do here in New York, when she's not fit for factory work and no good at being a domestic goddess. And she knows they need more hands out there: binding wounds, sewing up soldiers, tending the sick and dying across the Western front. In New York she gives boys stitches and tells girls they may be pregnant, and all day long she thinks she should be in France, she should be in England, she should be where Bucky is so that even if the worse happens she'll be with him. Steph's never been right, exactly, as a woman, but she doesn't know how to be anybody else.
So she fills in all the appropriate lines on the intake form, her height and her weight — no point in lying about it — and she puts as her place of residence Paramus and her hand doesn't shake at all when she writes Stephanie Grant Rogers.
Except the woman who takes her form frowns down at it and up at her, and says:
"Rogers — Paramus?"
Stephanie swallows hard around a sudden stone in her throat. "Yes, that's me, ma'am."
The woman just frowns harder and says, "If you'll give me moment. You can wait — " she points to a curtained room in the corner, near where they've set off the triage examinations for the soldiers " — there, please."
"I can come back. If you're busy that is," Stephanie offers, panic rising now as she gets to her feet, clutches at her purse, eyes a line of exit.
But the woman's mouth hardens into a line and she says, "Not necessary, please give me a moment," in a way where the 'please' barely registers, and Stephanie staggers over to the waiting room and keeps staring at the signs on the walls: Falsifying your enlistment information is illegal.
She's worked herself halfway into an asthma attack when she hears the curtain swish open and someone saying, "Why are you doing this, Miss?"
The man in the doorway has glasses and a kind, curious face. He's said "Miss" like he knows it's a lie, like he's humoring her, and he's wearing worn brown clothes underneath a white doctor's coat. There's a folder in his hand, the edges of pages peeking out. His hair is a riot of gray strands flying in all directions, and Stephanie thinks he has the face of someone she'd be fond of, if she wasn't so scared of him right now.
It's too hot in the room and her hands are shaking where she's folded them together in her lap, and Stephanie just says, "Excuse me?" and hears her voice tremble.
He says, "Dr. Abraham Erskine. I represent the Strategic Scientific Reserve."
He speaks with a heavy German accent that makes her stutter as she says, "Stephanie Rogers," and because she's never been able to keep her mouth shut, especially when she should know better, she asks, "Where are you from?"
Erskine glances up at her. "Queens," he says. "Seventy-third Street and Utopia Parkway." And this time he looks down, at her file on the table, and says, "Before that, Germany — this troubles you?"
"No," she lies, but only a little. It's hard now to hear German without the reflexive flinch, to think of Bucky at the other end of a Nazi rifle, but Dr. Erskine has frazzled hair and frayed cuffs and looks nothing like the soldiers she sees in the news reels.
Dr. Erskine goes back to the file. "Where are you from, Miss Rogers?"
Stephanie stiffens, feels her spine like a metal rod.
"New Haven?" Dr. Erskine asks. "Paramus?"
"You might have the wrong file," she says, but it's not even convincing to her own ears.
"It's not the locations I'm interested in," Dr. Erskine says in a way he probably thinks is soothing but completely fails to be. "It's the attempts — five different Red Cross recruitment centers in the last two months. Why so desperate?"
She says, "I just want to contribute to the war effort — I know we need more nurses," the way she's been practicing in front of the mirror before bed, when her eyes are red-rimmed from a long day's pressure of not crying. It helps that it's true, too, but she wonders if Dr. Erskine can see the desperation on her, the needfulness in the tired slope of her mouth. In her mirror Stephanie always sees the truth writ large on her face.
"Yes, we do," he allows, and folds his arms across his chest. "But you could do that here, could you not? There are hospitals in New York, too, other things you can do to help with the war effort?"
"I don't want to sit here and collect scrap metal all day," she says, and it's not until it's out of her mouth she realizes how angry it's come out, and then it's too late to staunch the flow. "I don't want to work in a factory or start a rooftop victory garden or share tips on how to make fake stockings. I want to help."
"Scrap metal, factory work, gardens — they're all important," Dr. Erskine says, and she can hear that he means it.
Stephanie fists her hands. "I'm — I'm no good for factory work, you can see that."
Dr. Erskin coughs. "Well," he allows, but even men who never earned a Dr. in front of their names can guess she's 90 pounds dripping wet, that her arms and legs are too thin, and that she pushes through her shifts at the hospital fueled by stubborn willfulness and the knowledge that if she falls over, Bucky will come fetch her and yell at her all the way home.
"But I'm a good nurse," she argues. "I know I can help if you'd only just — "
He waves away whatever she's going to say, looking back down at her papers, and he asks, "Do you remember a woman named Marlene? Carradine?"
"Not really," Stephanie admits, wrong-footed. "Why?"
"She works for me, here, now," Dr. Erskine says, waving a hand around. "Frankly I find her terrifying, and so do most of the soldiers who come here. But — she remembers you."
Stephanie stays quiet, confused.
"Nurse Carradine tells me she used to work at Sacred Heart with a Stephanie from Brooklyn — " and Stephanie's heart stops for a minute, her vision swimming, and a voice in her head yells, caught, and by the time she manages to focus herself again, Erskine is saying " — tells me you have the strongest, best heart of anybody she has ever met. Well, and that our rule about unmarried women is foolish, but it's hardly my rule."
It takes a minute to gather the wherewithal to ask, "Excuse me?"
Dr. Erskine closes her file now, and when he smiles at her it is kind. "I am working on a project — one that is very top secret, and I need people on it who aren't squeamish. I believe that is you?" he asks.
Part of her is shouting for Stephanie to agree without reservation, but the part that controls her mouth just blurts out, "I — I wanted to go overseas, to help on the front."
"Oh, yes, Nurse Carradine told me, too," Erskine says, still philosophical, still smiling, and Stephanie tries not to hope too much. "About your — well, she called him 'her good-for-nothing-but-her' husband."
Stephanie snaps, "Bucky's a good man in every way," before she can think better of it.
"Yes, he must be," Erskine agrees, and he bends over to start writing something down in her file, saying, "Overseas is a possibility — but for now, let us at least allow you to help, yes? Do what you're good at?"
Stephanie says, "Yeah — I mean, yes, yes, Dr. Erskine."
"Good," he says, and when he unfolds himself, caps his pen, he reaches out a hand to her and asks, "Now — if you'll tell me who you are? Who you really are?"
And shy still, Stephanie shakes his hand. She says, "Stephanie Barnes, sir."
"Mrs. Barnes," he agrees, smiling. "It's very nice to meet you."
Erskine's flight to the U.S. became the rubric for later Paperclip scientists, though he differentiated himself by having been a conscientious objector before the war had reached fever pitch. His work was also likely more successful than that of many of his later peers, though this is speculative at best. The 1983 Howling Commandos Declassification Project turned loose in the world thousands on thousands of pages of their exploits, but Erskine's work remained largely redacted. It lives in the spaces where respected historians and conspiracy theorists collide, knitting together fragmentary references to a supersoldier program that was dismantled in either late 1943 or early 1944 — coinciding with the appearance of Barnes and his Howlies. In the early 1990s there were a spate of reports that bubbled through the then-infant internet about a successful supersoldier attempt, but there was never any corroboration or statement from the government. Most tellingly is that a successful supersoldier program would have been something to be heralded in the news of the time, to be promulgated near and far, whereas all that exists of Erskine's work are oblique references. So it must be assumed that while his work was successful — why else maintain the redaction to today? — it was not of the magnitude of the ubermensch.
— Darling, Clarissa. Unforgiven. Los Angeles: Doubleday, 1999. Print.
They give Stephanie her ANC uniform, her identification number — N-743960 — and a ride out to Camp Lehigh, where Erskine gives her a clipboard there and says, "Record the particulars, Miss Rogers."
The camp itself is sprawling with bunkers and low buildings, boys drafted into Basic so scared they shake whether or not the drill sergeants are yelling. Stephanie looks at the dying grass on the practice fields and mud pits in the obstacle courses and she thinks about Bucky crawling through barbed wire and sneaking cigarettes behind the mess. She thinks about him cold and hurt in France, in Poland, in England, in Italy and has to dig her nails into the meat of her palm to focus.
She learns everything she can, asks a million and one dumb questions that the corporals and privates and Colonel Philips indulge because Stephanie knows that rough-edged men like girls like her, girls that look frail and awed by them, blushing. So she asks about munitions and training and how the war is progressing — "Aw, Miss Rogers, don't worry your pretty head about that," and "Yeah, Missy, we'll be back and take you dancing soon enough!" — and drills it into her memory.
But that's general admission, she thinks of them. Stephanie's little corner of Camp Lehigh is bounded off by more barbed wire and armed MPs than the rest. She trots through the gates every morning and nods at Freebush and Clarkson and they doff their helmets at her in reply.
"Got a new visitor today, Miss Rogers," Freebush tells her, gossipy.
Stephanie arches an eyebrow. "New recruit?" she asks.
Erskine and Colonel Philips are locked in a not-insignificant war of wills. Philips keeps bringing in meathead thugs with ever lower IQs. Erskine keeps fetching recruits that look like they were pulled out of dumpsters. Given the givens, Stephanie prefers Dr. Erskine's. The men Philips bring in usually have to be convinced she's not up for grabs by the brutal application of needles.
"Naw, Miss," Clarkson whispers, gleeful. "An English lady."
"Oh," Stephanie breathes out.
The English lady is Agent Margaret — "Please, call me Peggy," she insists — Carter of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. She wears the olive drab uniform like armor and two hours into her arrival, Stephanie watches her punch Hodge in the face.
Stephanie goes on a hunt for wildflowers, and she leaves the prettiest ones in a jar of water on Agent Carter's desk, barely unpacked and already overflowing with paper.
Thank you and welcome to Camp Lehigh, Stephanie writes neatly on a card.
Later that week, when Hodge — clearly unteachable — decides to entertain himself during his daily physical exam by grabbing Stephanie's ass, Agent Carter arrives just in time to see Stephanie smack him in the head with a bedpan.
"An ally, at last," Agent Carter declares her, and shakes Stephanie's free hand, the one not brandishing a weapon.
Agent Carter — Peggy is a revelation.
Stephanie feels always a bit awestruck around her, and each day Peggy sits with her in the mess hall to talk strategy, to ask, "What do you think of the recruits, Miss Rogers," Stephanie is always, always, always momentarily stunned she'd want Stephanie's opinion. Peggy's lipstick is flawless, her hair curled every morning without a single flyaway. She teeters on high heels in mud and when she wears trousers, her hands are always at her hips so she won't be tempted to hit anyone as she's yelling at them. She attends every high level meeting, is secreted constantly away with Colonel Philips and Dr. Erskine, and Stephanie watches her come and go and marvels at her.
"You are quite remarkable yourself, Miss Rogers," Peggy says one night.
Late summer is pressing heavy overhead, the dark clouds swirling like a thunderstorm on the cusp. It's August now, four full months since Stephanie's heard from Bucky, and she stays at the camp most nights now, in the women's barracks, because the vast emptiness of their apartment is overwhelming.
Stephanie shakes her head. "There's nothing special about me, Peggy," she says, fussing at the hem of her nightdress. There's a ceiling fan rocking creakily overhead and crickets outside, singing at the swelling moon.
"From what Dr. Erskine says, you are one of a kind," Peggy disagrees, crossing one leg over the other and fussing with her cigarette case.
It's late, past midnight, but all four of the other female personnel have gone home for the weekend. Stephanie had volunteered to stay, and now the barracks are empty: just Stephanie and her absences and the coal orange tip of Peggy's cigarette when she lights it up. Even now, when Peggy's curls have frizzed in the humidity, she leaves a lipstick ring on the filter of her Camels and wears a gray silk nightgown — a vision of self-possessed glamor that makes Stephanie feel thinner and smaller and dowdier in comparison.
"Not really," Stephanie says, and suddenly confessing, she adds, "Actually I'm selfish."
"Oh, this reasoning I'll have to hear with my own ears," Peggy invites, blowing out a smoke ring and looking expectant.
Stephanie folds her legs up on the bed, draws them close to her chest and wraps her arms around her shins. She rests her chin on her knees and stares off out the window at the sodium orange lights around the camp. "Did Dr. Erskine tell you how I got involved? In this project?"
"I presume you signed up, and Dr. Erskine stole you once he saw your adept handling of bedpans as weaponry," Peggy replies, tart and with a laugh.
Grinning, Stephanie shakes her head. "I — well, I falsified a bunch of my information, kept going to different Red Cross recruiting centers to try and get someone to give me a chance," she says, realizing suddenly what she's confessing here: not just her size and sickliness, and the words fall away to quiet.
And it stays quiet between them for long moments before Peggy says, halting, "Stephanie, I can't imagine what you could say that would hurt my good opinion of you."
"I wanted to get shipped out. I wanted them to send me to France, or Italy. Or anywhere, really," Stephanie makes herself say, and the next part is harder, and it hurts more to murmur, "I wanted to find someone."
But Peggy's reply is soft, rasped through with tobacco smoke. "Your sweetheart?"
"Something like that, yeah," Stephanie admits, and rubs fretfully at her wedding ring, worn on her right ring finger as a distracted nod to a very poorly concealed truth. "I didn't want to stay home, be good, keep up appearances and — and make water pie. I wanted to do something."
"Stephanie, that's the sort of selfishness we could do with more of," Peggy tells her, authoritative, reaches out the window to ash her cigarette. "I'll have no more of this self-flagellation, then. Am I understood, Miss Rogers?"
"Sir, yes sir," Stephanie laughs — well, until it turns into a cough.
Peggy puts out her cigarette now, and she rubs Stephanie's back through the fit, muttering apologies and "why didn't you say anything, for goodness sake, Stephanie," and asks, later, as they're both about to fall asleep, "What's his name? Your sweetheart?"
Stephanie presses her face into her pillow, the cool cotton of it good against her cheek. She closes her eyes and fills in the blank spaces with the memory of Bucky wrapped around her in their bed, his mouth on her shoulder. She says, "Barnes — James Barnes. He's in the 107th infantry," and drifts off.
Hodge continues to be scum, but Bracken is okay, and so is Aldis Grenville, Chuck Capernick. Their band of potential recruits waxes and wanes and Stephanie's clipboard of their particulars expands to volumes of their details: their height and weight and stamina, remarks and general comments about their personalities.
"Colonel Philips believes we should select Hodge for the trial run," Dr. Erskine says, tearing through his office and his hair, harried and sounding annoyed.
Stephanie doesn't bother to hide her frown. "What does Peggy — Agent Carter think?"
"Agent Carter thinks Hodge is an ape, and unfit for this program," Erskine tells her, sounding grudgingly pleased by that, and glances up at her. "As, I suspect, do you."
She clutches her clipboard more closely to her chest, feeling the crisp seersucker of her uniform shift. "Any man who doesn't learn from two frontal assaults with a bedpan isn't supersoldier material, it doesn't matter how many jumping jacks he can do."
"I'm inclined to agree," he sighed, and pinched at the bridge of his nose. "But I have no compelling alternative, you see."
"You'd be far better off picking Agent Carter," Stephanie tells him primly, and extends her clipboard. "Here, you need to sign this and four other things."
Erskine swears in three Continental languages, but he fumbles his pen out of coat pocket, taking the clipboard off of her. It leaves Stephanie free to look over his shoulder, to the sun streaming down on their remaining five recruits and Peggy frowning at them as they do push ups in the parched summer grass.
In the after-hours conversations Stephanie has had with Peggy and Dr. Erskine, when they're all bone tired and ground down from a long day, Stephanie has learned her initial impressions were correct. Dr. Erskine is the kind of man Stephanie is helplessly fond of: constantly losing his glasses and happy always to admit when he is wrong. His office and lab are brisk and cheerful, and like any seasoned doctor, he defers to the nurses in all things. Marlene thinks the world of him, which just means she yells at him a little less than every other man on the base. Dr. Erskine says he hopes whoever they choose, in the end, for the supersoldier project, he is a good man more than a good soldier.
"Somewhere out there, Colonel Philips is developing a migraine as we speak," Peggy says to that, arching her brows.
Peggy sees the supersoldier program as a dangerous means to an end, and behaves in her capacity as operational supervisor for the SSR in that vein: with suspicion. Dr. Erskine sees it is a magnifying glass.
"It amplifies everything, the serum," he explains to them, deep into his stash of awful liqueurs. "Whatever is inside you, it amplifies. Even when it wasn't ready, it did it to Schmidt — turned him into a monster."
Peggy huffs. "He was already a monster, Dr. Erskine."
"I mean 'turned' in a rather more literal sense," he replies, wincing.
Stephanie doesn't know what she thinks of the serum, exactly. The idea's too big for her to feel the weight of it. To take an ordinary man and transform him, make him stronger and faster, all of it wrapped up in a little blue vial and an electrified coffin — it's like the comics she and Bucky used to share when they were kids: fantastical.
"Well," Peggy decides, "it hardly matters now — Grenville's been selected. Stark's seeing to getting us control of the grid. It's all on schedule."
"May it go well — or, fail completely," Erskine says, and downs another drink.
Seizing up Liberty in his arms felt right. He'd fought this for months, trekking with her and the rest of the Howlies through the remotest Alps and dense forests, trying to keep his focus on their mission. But he couldn't fight it anymore: the desire was overwhelming him. And Liberty was so different — with her bright blue eyes, the pink pout of her mouth, her gold tresses — than the nagging shadow he'd left behind in New York, whose letters felt like a lodestone where they sat, some unread at the bottom of his pack. They'd been so young, just kids, and Barnes wonders if he would have kept up the charade his whole life if he hadn't met Liberty.
"James," she whispered, voice tremulous. "We can't — your wife — "
"I don't love her, Liberty," he snarled. "I don't know if I ever knew love before I knew you."
Her eyes were endless blue pools. She was a soldier and a spy, but she was also a woman, and she whispered, "Oh, James," and kissed him, finally allowing them to give in to their passion.
— Penelope Hawkins. Seizing Liberty: A Howling Love Novel. New York: Avon, 1991. Print.
Peggy and Stephanie disagreed on who was more grateful to see the back of Hodge. Peggy argued she had earned it from having to put up with him through training; Stephanie argued Peggy hadn't been obliged to see him disrobed on a daily basis.
The end of recruit selection also heralded a return to Brooklyn, where apparently the municipal government was more amenable to risking a rolling brownout than the city government of Manhattan. The antique store front wasn't exactly in Steph's neighborhood — it was a bit too nice actually, a few streets outside of her and Bucky's price range — but she remembered that diner, where she and Bucky had shared a milkshake once, and that store, where he'd bought her a set of fine drawing pencils. Stephanie tells herself she's too busy to go back to the apartment, to the shuttered rooms, sweltering and stale now from emptiness and the relentless August heat.
There are still no letters.
"I've heard rumors that the postal service is being overwhelmed, Stephanie," Peggy had said, when she'd found her trembling in the supply cupboard, clutching too hard at the metal ledge of a shelf. "You must have faith."
Stephanie had nodded, because it was what she wanted to believe, that Bucky was getting the letters she wrote faithfully, every day, and that he was sending her his own, too, telling her all about the guys in the 107th and how badly weekend leave in the French countryside had gone for every last one of them.
But mostly Stephanie's too busy to indulge in panic attacks or to let the ache in her chest, in her lungs, the shaking in her arms and legs slow her down. She's deep underground at the antiques store for all hours, her and Erskine and everybody else working on the project: stealing sleep where they can, when they can, an army issue blanket clutched around herself for warmth.
It's how she meets Howard Stark for the first time.
Stephanie has her own favorite couch to sleep on: it has deep cushions and is secreted away behind one of the telescoping hallways that lead to nowhere or possibly anywhere. The room is small and musty, but perfect for a stolen-away nap, and almost everybody on the project has stumbled in there once or twice and folded themselves up on the sofa. When Stephanie gets a bit too wane at the edges, Peggy or Erskine or Marlene — who Stephanie remembers now, once a first-year nurse overwhelmed at Sacred Heart, who had just needed a patient hand — just order her off, tell her to go hit the sofa and get some rest before she falls over.
It's been a long two days of trying to calibrate and install the equipment that just came in from a secret lab in Rhode Island, and worse than that, the rattle and catch that Stephanie knows so well and hates so much is back in her throat. She can try to hide it and muffle her coughing, but she knows there's nothing for it, that if she starts to get sick now it's just a long drag through winter, the cold months moving into her chest and pushing out all the air. She tries not to think about what she'll do when she's too sick to get out of bed. Steph's never had any money, but she's been rich with people who will bring her a glass of water, rub her back, press a tender kiss to her temple. She and Buck have never had two dimes to rub together, but it was there in the bunker, being told to go sleep off her cold, damn it, Rogers, that she feels poor for the first time.
Marlene gives her two extra blankets and Peggy gives her a tube of Ben-Gay to rub on her chest for the coughing. Erskine catches her before she vanishes, arms overfull already, and gives her two Alka Selzter tabs, already fizzing away in a glass.
"Here," he says to her, and he presses the back of his hand to her forehead, testing. "At least you are not running a fever."
Stephanie shakes her head, but it makes the throbbing at her temples worse. "No," she rasps. "I'll just — "
"Go, go," Erskine says, waving her off. "I'll not let them bother you tonight."
Normally she'd argue she's fine and she'll be up if they need her, but she's a fraying rope right now, falling apart, and she's starting to sway on her feet. So Stephanie just thanks him and staggers down the long hallways. She barely remembers taking off her shoes, tugging off her hat. She's asleep the minute she curls her knees up on the couch, tucks herself under the blankets.
In Stephanie's defense, she's used to sleeping with another body in the bed, so when she feels the warm plane of a man's chest, she just murmurs, "Buck," and turns so she can press her face against it, into that joint of muscle at the shoulder she likes the best. And he's warm, but Bucky's always been warm, and Stephanie just burrows into him. It's still bad sleep to sleep sitting — no matter how many blankets she has — but now Bucky's putting his arm around her shoulders, drawing her in, and she hums softly into his chest and puts her nose in his neck, tucks herself against him.
Two hours later, the sleep wears off, and she feels better, if not well, and Stephanie thinks, oh, Bucky's here, before she thinks, wait.
She opens her eyes, and her lashes brush against the expensive poplin of a man's shirt, pinstriped, and she's staring down a line of buttons that — that move when the man sighs and drags her more tightly into him.
Since they were little kids Bucky's been accusing her of starting fights she'd have to have him finish, and he'd taught her how to throw a punch so she wouldn't break her thumb at least. Stephanie knows how to bust a man's nose and leave him looking at a future of childlessness. But here, now it's all reflex that has her shouting and kicking, shoving her way out of the hold and feeling her heart gone wild in her chest — until she manages to ground her foot into a thigh and shove until she hears the man yell, "What the fuck," and a thud as he hits the cold cement of the ground.
Her uniform is still buttoned up and she doesn't feel like anything's happened between her legs but hell if that means Stephanie isn't going to grab a nearby lamp and beat this guy to death.
That's how Peggy finds them two minutes later:
Howard Stark holding her at bay by the end of the lamp, yelling, "Lady, I apologize! I was just going to sit on the other end of the couch and get some sleep — I must have slumped over! Jesus Christ!"
"Oh, Lord," Peggy says.
Once Stephanie's been disarmed, Peggy forces Howard to apologize in earnest, which is handicapped by the fact that halfway through he says, "Although in all fairness, you were the one who got handsy with me first, Miss Rogers."
"Stark, don't make me give her the lamp again," Peggy says.
Stark is as unbelievable in person as he had been on the stage during his Expo.
Stephanie had only remembered him faint impressions, like a quick watercolor: the suit and slickness and kissing chorus girls, a levitating car that had crashed back to earth. She'd liked the car and dismissed the man.
Up close, in reality, exceptionally inappropriate nap judgment aside, Stark's annoyingly likable. He's rolled-up sleeves and engineering babble, liable to walk around the underground bunker all day with a pair of goggles perched in his hair and another slung around his neck. The slick suits get replaced by dusty canvas coveralls, and when he asks her questions, he looks at her face as she talks. She finds him asleep under tables, hunched over his drafting desk, on the couch she's suspicious of now. He doesn't mind dirt on his clothes or coil springs in his hair, and the more she sees him with motor oil under the nails she fonder and fonder she is of him.
"See, Miss Rogers, I'm not that bad," he says, trying to look dashing.
"Try that when I'm not sewing up your hand as a result of a dumb experiment," she tells him, forces him to stay still as she puts in a tiny row of neat stitches.
He just peers down at her work, curious. Stephanie's seen men twice his size faint at the sight, but Howard mostly looks intrigued.
"So this experiment — you think it'll work?" he asks.
"I thought the point of the experiment was to determine whether it would work," Stephanie answers him, and reaches for her scissors.
"You must have some opinion, Miss Rogers," Stark argues.
She sighs. "Well, if the serum works, and the Vita-Ray works — "
"It will," Howard interrupts.
" — then who knows," Stephanie concludes. "Maybe."
Stephanie's seen a lot of the failures with lab rabbits and rats. It's why Howard had been brought in, as the serum alone enhanced growth but in a way that tended to lead to deadly seizures. With a smaller-scale version of the Vita-Ray, there'd been an 80 percent plus rate of successful transformation. That still means Stephanie had buried a lot of dead rats and rabbits.
"That's better odds than I had with the flying car," Howard tells her, winking, and it's so stupid that Stephanie hears herself laugh — surprised — and goes pink all over at the way Howard smiles back, smugly pleased.
"You're awful," Stephanie tells him. Someone tells Howard he's awful once a week.
"And you got a gorgeous laugh, Dollface," he quips.
"I have someone already, that's what I have," Steph tells him, but she's smiling.
Howard's grin smooths away, goes solemn. "He overseas then?"
She nods and stares down at where she's bandaging his hand, hiding the stitches underneath snowy white gauze. She wonders if anybody is doing this for Bucky. She tries not to wonder about it for too long.
"He's with the 107th infantry," she says.
"Hm," Howard tells her. "We better get this working then and win the war — can't have him keep you waiting much longer, can we?"
This time, when Stephanie goes pink, she's not embarrassed by it.
"Yeah," she says to him, "that'd be nice."
Prior to the war, Stark Industries had been a middling success, the creator of interesting glimpses of futurism, but financially unstable. But Stark was self-made and ferociously hungry, and correspondence shows that even during the Phoney Wars period, he was already lobbying the government with weapons proposals and ideas. The infusion of government money into Stark's coffers fed into the company's rapid growth during the early 1940s, and at least some of the technology Stark premiered at his Expo in 1943 was derivative of high strangeness he was building for the military.
Interestingly, and oftentimes overlooked, is a period of Stark's war efforts that appeared to intersect with Dr. Abraham Erskine, an early German defector and a forerunner for future Operation Paperclip scientists. Their work remains heavily redacted and actively classified by the government, but Erskine's work has always carried with it the search for human perfection. His academic research while in Germany considered the possibility of magnifying the physical capabilities of man through science, and it must be assumed that he and Stark collaborated on such a project for the U.S.
Given the lack of results and supersoldiers walking among us, it must also be assumed to have been a failure.
— Patel, Sunita. Howard. Chicago: Random House, 2007. Print.
The day of the experiment, everyone is jittery and nervous. No one's slept well — or in Howard's case, slept at all — in the last 24 hours, and it's showing. Three times Marlene almost drops the serum bottles, until she finally shoves them into Stephanie's hands and says, "I can't be trusted with these." Peggy's bringing Grenville to the antiques store, and they'll have visitors in the form of a senator, several DoD attaches, and "some other parasites," according to Dr. Erskine, who — for a man turning a soldier into a machine — appears to find the trappings of war distasteful.
Stephanie checks and rechecks the ratios, doles out the serum into their glass injection test tubes and slots them into stained wooden racks. She checks on Howard. She checks on Dr. Erskine. She checks on the fittings on the Vita-Ray machine, which looks like one of those marvelous Egyptian coffins in the Met made for modern day: rivets and metal and six inches of lead taking the place of gold and lapis lazuli. This is 1943's eternity machine, Stephanie thinks, and touches her hand to one of the leather straps inside, where she and Dr. Erskine and Marlene have discussed tying down Grenville, about how it's impossible to know whether the procedure will hurt, or if struggling will interrupt the cellular regeneration.
She feels someone snake an arm around her shoulders, and then Howard's whispering into her ear, "You ready to bear witness to a great moment in human history, Dollface?"
"I just hope we're witnessing a step forward and not a tragedy," she says quietly, because she's given up on making Howard behave.
He laughs. "Your faith in me and the Doc is staggering, sweetheart."
For that, Stephanie gives him the sharp point of her elbow. "I have perfect faith in Dr. Erskine," she tells Howard, and because he looks wild-eyed and has blue pencil on his face, she adds, tart, "It's your radiation box I'm not so sure about."
"Without my magic box the Doc's serum is a hazard," Howard assures her, and an awkward beat later, he asks, "You hear anything from your boy?"
Now, Stephanie shimmies away from him, puts her hands back on the sensors and wires for Howard's Vita-Ray and counts the vials of serum again.
"Peggy says the mail's backed up," Stephanie hears herself say.
"Yeah, I hear that, too," Howard answers, but softly, like he's scared she'll bolt.
From upstairs comes the buzz of the bunker door, and Stephanie turns to catch Howard's eye, both of them suddenly, startlingly surprised that this moment is finally here, she thinks, that it's finally happening.
"That must be Peggy," she whispers.
"Must be," Howard agrees. He's gone from wide-eyed to gleeful in the space of seconds, and Stephanie wonders what his world must look like, the constancy of discovery, a sea of synthetic suits and levitating cars. "Look excited, Dollface!"
She doesn't say, you look excited enough for both of us, because the only other time she'd seen Howard so genuinely happy was when Senator Brandt had given him a defense contract with more zeros than Steph's ever seen written on it.
Peggy's lipstick is redder than usual, not a thread out of place. And Stephanie knows Peggy well enough to know now that the flawlessness of her today telegraphs how worried she must be underneath, that the more at sea Peggy feels under her skin, the better the tailoring in her clothes, the more perfect the wave of her hair. Next to her, Private Grenville looks like a wane ghost, and Stephanie spares him a sympathizing smile and says, "Agent Carter."
Peggy nods. "Miss Rogers — a word, please? Before we begin?"
Behind them, Stephanie can see Marlene saying, "Well? What are you waiting for? Strip!" and poor Private Grenville staring at her with bleak despair. Marlene is — somehow — an inch shorter than Stephanie's 4'10" and stronger than an ox. Stephanie can already see this playing out and leaving Grenville covered in bruises, shirtless.
Peggy, either oblivious or uncaring, just says, "I've had word — on the 107th."
And Stephanie's face must say everything she's afraid to, because Peggy rushes to add:
"Nothing bad, Stephanie, only that they're in Italy, and that their mail deliveries have been among those most badly affected."
The relief that rushes through in the wake of fear is almost as debilitating, making Stephanie's arms and knees weak, and she has to press a free hand to a surgical trolly for a long moment until she feels steadier, until she trusts herself to stand.
"Good," she croaks out. "That's — good."
Peggy smiles at her, presses a hand to Stephanie's shoulder, and then Dr. Erskine is calling out, "Nurse Rogers, please come help me set up before Private Grenville throws up again and is too dehydrated for us to proceed with the experiment."
Unfortunately, Erskine isn't joking by much. Grenville is good natured and as sweet as soldiers get, eager to follow orders, unquestioning, and incapable of conducting a conversation with a woman. Stephanie thinks he has a good heart and absolutely no head on his shoulders. He'd been an epic compromise between Philips and Erskine, and Stephanie supposes she'd be happy they're not giving the serum to Hodge, except Grenville looks so scared she wants to tell him he doesn't have to do this.
He looks exactly as young as he is: 21 years old and terrified, and Stephanie can feel the trembling in his body as she puts closes the straps over his wrists, as Marlene fits the vials of serum into the injectors.
"You don't have to go through with this, you know," she tells him softly, puts a hand on his shoulder. Grenville is 6'1" and one time he picked up an entire picnic table for her so she could get an apple that rolled underneath it. He's a good shot and throws an excellent right hook, and Stephanie thinks that right now, none of it matters at all.
He shakes his head at her, more pride than persistence. "No, I gotta, Miss, I gotta."
"Yes, he must, now is the time," Dr. Erskine says, but he says it kindly, with a reassuring hand on Grenville's arm and a smile for him before he turns to Stephanie. "Nurse Rogers, if you'll remove the breakables?"
Marlene attaches the sensors and engages the pneumatic injectors, and Stephanie just clutches the tube rack to her chest and stands there on the dais, keeping her face schooled and watching Dr. Erskine do his final checks — watches as he says, "Proceed."
There's a pressurized hiss, and Grenville's face is complicated, his body jerking reflexively in his bindings. He looks around for her, like he's lost sight of her even though she's just three feet away — going from scared rapidly toward panicked now — and he says to Stephanie, "Miss Rogers — Miss!" and Stephanie tries to take a step forward before Marlene grabs her by the arm, snapping, "Don't."
"Now, Mr. Stark," Erskine says, and Stark's assistant and an orderly rush forward to the metal wings of the Vita-Ray, pushing it closed on creaking hinges as Grenville's face gets whiter and whiter and his eyes get wilder and wilder.
"Maybe we should stop," Stephanie tries, but it's swallowed up by Stark yelling:
"I'm going to 40 percent power!"
The noise is tremendous, like a train barreling down on them, and the Vita-Ray chamber shakes and rattles, light streaming out of it, pouring out of every joint and rivet, any crack it can get through as the metal hums. Marlene's hand's gone weak now at what they're seeing, and there's no one to hold Stephanie back as she edges a little closer, just enough so that she can hear the beginnings of a scream underneath the noise of the machine — Grenville shouting.
Stark yells, "Power at 70 percent!" and the white light from the Vita-Ray goes ethereal.
Stephanie would think it was beautiful if it didn't coincide with Grenville's pained swearing transforming, melting into a high pitched scream.
She yells, "It's hurting him!" and it's overlapped by Peggy — banished to the viewing theater — hollering, "Stop it! Stop the machine!" and the sudden flurry of activity. Stark swears, violently, and starts to grab at his levers and dials and Dr. Erskine is snarling things in German, reaching for the handles of the Vita-Ray while Marlene rushes back up the dais with a first-aid kit. God knows how that will help, Stephanie thinks, and tries mostly to stay out of the way of the chaos as the machine steams angrily at them and the doors are finally pried open and —
The Grenville that's inside is taller than 6'1". He weighs more than his former 230 pounds of mostly muscle. His face is wider and his arms are the size of logs and he's heaving for desperate breaths — his wrists have torn through the leather bindings. Stephanie is frozen five feet away from the place where his massive toes touch the ground, staring at his face, because he looks less like the boy she felt a fearful tenderness for and like a character out of her childhood comics now: larger than life, impossibly big, someone who could pick up an airplane or throw a bus. His eyes are closed, he's gasping. He doesn't look triumphant — he looks wrung out.
"Holy shit," she hears from behind, from above, in Senator Brandt's voice. "It worked."
The literal stampede of government and defense observers from upstairs shove Stephanie violently out of the way, so that she ends up jammed awkwardly to one side — hip to hip with Howard's control panels — while Grenville's unstrapped and pulled out of the Vita-Ray, his knees wobbly and his face pale. It takes Howard and Dr. Erskine to hold him up, and standing in front of him Peggy has a look of sheer disbelief on her face, like she's been working on this project out of loyalty and not faith.
"This is incredible," Brandt is crowing. He's spanning poor Grenville's arm with two of his hands, looking gleeful and not anywhere near Grenville's stricken face. "Wait until Washington gets a look at this — exemplary work, Erskine, Stark — "
The explosion is surreal, louder than Howard's machine, and it sends glass cascading through the room.
Stephanie feels the heat of the fire and the sharp pain of a cut on her skin, but all she's thinking is, oh, no. All she's doing is curling around the serum vials, the ones she's still clutching, the four full ones they hadn't used, and looking wildly around the room in the pandemonium that's emerged — looking for who is coming for her.
The noise is going in and out — her ears aren't working, hadn't Bucky said something about that? how everything had sounded like it was coming through water after a day on the range in basic? — and the smoke is in her eyes, and it all feels like it's taking forever, that time has slowed to a molasses crawl. But it must only be seconds, a fraction of a second, before a man in dour glasses and a hat is reaching for her.
Bucky always told her not to stay and fight unless she didn't have anywhere to run — despite what Bucky likes to tell everyone, sometimes she does what he tells her — so she tries. She really does. She turns away with a shout into the din of the room, into the smoke and the broken glass and the flames licking away at the ceiling.
But she hears a shot and then something falling. Then it goes finally, blissfully quiet.
Subject: Report of Action for October 11, 1943 and October 12, 1943
(A) Senior Nurse ███████'s Report for October 11-14, 1943
(B) Copy of ██████████ medical reports (pre/post)
(C) Copy of damage report to ██████████ facility
(D) Copy of post-mortem for Dr. ██████████
(E) Copy of post-mortem for Pvt. ██████████
(F) Copy of post-mortem for enemy combatant
1. This report of action is compiled entirely from the memory of agents, officers, and medical staff present. Although approximate times and events are stated, it may be that some elements are in error or unclear.
2. Nurse ███████'s perspective on the events will, eventually, be invaluable to our records. She has regained consciousness but is currently under the care of physicians at a classified military facility; this report is submitted pending inclusion of her recollection of the events of October 11.
3. A separate report was previously filed with this office regarding Dr. ████████'s work on the ██████████ project, which would be useful as background and reference. I will not recap the larger context here.
On the morning of Oct. 11, Pvt. ██████████ was transported by myself and a four-man escort from ██████████ to the ██████████ experimental location, where █████ had negotiated for access to the municipal power grid at the lowest-use hours. We arrived without issue and entered the facility, where Pvt. ██████████ was turned over to Dr. ███████ and the medical crew — including ███████ — to prepare for the procedure.
As you will read in Senior Nurse ██████████'s recounting of the events leading up to and following the incident, this was the first ever ██████████████████████████████ and █████'s ██████████. Thus, the number of observers was kept at a minimum, which exceptions made for Senator ██████████, who had pushed through funding for both ███████'s project and ████'s machine with the Senate appropriations committee.
██████████ appeared uncomfortable but cooperative, and the procedure went forward as planned, with Senator ██████████ and most of the visiting observers for the project retreating to the second floor observation area. The delivery system injected him with 150 milliliters of ██████████'s serum (dosage calculated based on height/weight), and the doors to the ██████████ chamber were subsequently closed.
██████████, as medical personnel, remained on the experimental floor and in possession of the remaining vials (50 milliliters remaining), in glass test tubes in a wooden tube rack offside. As it was the initial ██████████ attempt, preparations had been made in case additional serum and/or time in the ██████████ were required. (See previous report on ██████████ project regarding required combination to prevent fatal seizures in mouse and rabbit test subjects.)
█████ was able to drive the ██████████machine to 70% power before Pvt. ██████████ began screaming and requesting a stop to the experiment. ██████ cut the power, and once the machine had sufficiently powered down, orderlies opened the doors and discovered ██████████'s ████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████. (These measurements were taken post-mortem, and thus may not be reflective of his immediate post-experimental state.)
At this point, it was evident that the ████████████████████████████████████████ had been successful, if untried. Here, an attaché from the Department of Defense (see separate DoD after action #DD-6791a90-b-1-1-8) who had accompanied Senator ██████████ to the secure facility remote detonated an explosive on the second level.
In the chaos, ██████████ exercised stellar instincts and exceptional judgment in attempting to keep the enemy combatant from acquiring the remaining vials of serum she held in her possession. While a dozen highly trained officers, agents and two dozen MPs were fumbling around in the smoke and broken glass, only ██████████ had the presence of mind to recognize that the explosion would necessarily serve as a cover for an attempt to steal state secrets. I have submitted a separate request she be rewarded for extraordinary civilian courage under fire.
The close quarters made the following events extremely difficult to render with full accuracy, but the enemy combatant fired six rounds: one into Dr. ██████████, who died on the scene, and four into the back of Pvt. ██████████, who also exercised remarkable valor in hurling himself into the fray so weakened immediately post-procedure. He collapsed on top of ██████████ — whom he was bravely attempting to protect from harm — but was not able to prevent her being struck by the sixth and final bullet from the enemy combatant's weapon.
Realizing there was little likelihood of successful retrieval of a ████████████████████, the enemy combatant attempted to flee the scene, where he was successfully intercepted by Agent ██████████ manning the desk of the Brooklyn location. He was wounded in the knee but perished as a result of a cyanide capsule he broke after answering, "Hail Hydra!" upon questioning who his superiors were.
When I returned to the experimental lab, I discovered ██████████ and Senator ██████████ standing among the wounded and dead. Pvt. ██████████ was taken by the MPs and Senior Nurse M. ██████████ for immediate surgical treatment, and it was after their departure ██████████ realized ██████████ was unmoving on the floor.
The bullet had entered through her left mid back, likely puncturing a lung, and blood was rapidly pooling under her on the dais. When ██████████ and I turned her onto her back to perform emergency medical procedures, we realized her landing, and Pvt. ██████████'s subsequently on top of her, had resulted in the glass tubes containing the remaining 50 milliliters of serum to break jaggedly into her abdomen.
Initially it seemed unlikely she'd absorbed enough through her wounds and into her blood stream it would affect her, but ██████████ began showing signs of seizures — a common symptom of ██████████-only treatments in the earlier mouse/rabbit experiments — and ██████████ suggested and I ordered her to be transferred to the ██████████ machine. It was unlikely she would survive the procedure but would result in no harm to the project, national security or any further damage to her to make an attempt.
As ██████████ had already slipped into unconsciousness, ██████████ was able to successfully increase the ██████████ power to 100%. We suspect this is what made the crucial difference between ██████████'s results post-serum and those of Pvt. ██████████.
For a full recounting of the serum's effects on ██████████, please see Enclosure (B).
Stephanie wakes with a deep breath — one that flows through her bronchioles to the alveoli, and she sees the nonsensical crosshatch drawings from her nursing texts in her head, projected onto her darkened eyelids. She doesn't feel the usual hitch and hurt in her chest, from the nagging summer cold that is likely to turn into walking pneumonia this winter, that she's refused to consider without Bucky being there to rub his rough and well-loved hands down the knobs of her spine, pour camphor oil into her baths.
She takes another breath, feels the expansion in her chest, the pull in her belly, and it feels like a dream, one of those rare and perfect days in early fall when she can inhale and exhale and just feel it clean in her throat.
There's an ache, low on her back, and Stephanie presses her cheek to the pillow, tilts her shoulder away from a coil digging into her arm, trying to curl away from the pain and —
"Stephanie?" Peggy asks. She sounds urgent — hoarse. "Stephanie, can you hear me?"
Stephanie asks, "Peggy?" but she hears Howard talking over her, saying:
"She's waking up — she's waking up! Dr. Matheson — she's waking up!"
It reminds her, Dr. Erskine and Private Grenville, and Stephanie's eyes snap open.
She's in a hospital room, she recognizes that smell, and she has no idea what time or day it is because overhead is the buzz of a light and there're no windows on any of the walls. When she sits up it's with a twinge and the sudden shock of her own weight — she must be sicker than she thought — to stare straight into Peggy's pale and tired face. Her hair is drawn back in a braid and she's wearing no make up: her lips the pale flesh pink of someone distraught.
"What happened?" Stephanie asks, because she doesn't remember.
She remembers Private Grenville and Marlene nearly dropping the vials of serum, Dr. Erksine's hand on the hatch doors of the Vita-Ray, the shadow of people on the second story of the experimental amphitheater. She remembers an explosion.
She asks, "Was — was there a fire? An explosion?"
Peggy opens her mouth, her eyes are wet, and Stephanie wants to say, don't cry, but before she gets a chance Howard is barreling back into the room flanked by two doctors and half-dozen nurses, each grim-faced and determined.
Stephanie says, "Howard," like an idiot, feeling dumb and wooden all over, her body strangely heavy. She's felt his way before. She's probably running a fever, and she'd mention it except Howard looks so strange and pale at her, his hair a mess of pomade and fingertips run through it. He looks like Peggy, like they haven't slept in days.
"Dollface, you have no idea how glad I am to see you awake," Howard says.
Frowning, she tries to ask, "How long have I — ?"
But the doctors intervene, saying, "Miss Rogers, please lie back down, we need to examine you," and "Are you feeling any pain? How about here? Here?" and "Are you experiencing any difficulty breathing? Dizziness?"
"I feel fine," Stephanie talks over them. She keeps pushing hands off of her and her own hands look — strange. "I want to see Dr. Erskine." A nurse reaches for her with a rubber tie in hand and a phlebotomist's gleam, and Stephanie jerks back, away from her. "I want to see Private Grenville."
And here, conspiratorial, Peggy and Howard exchange a look. It's all Stephanie needs to know, like a stone in her stomach.
She stays stubbornly upright, because her chest is clear and if she's dizzy it's from shock, if she's breathless it's only because there're so many people gathered around her she can't get a proper gasp of air. She ignores the doctors plucking at her hospital gown, listening to her heart, to her lungs, writing things down on their notepads. She stares straight at Peggy's sorrowful face, Howard's shuttered eyes.
"Is he — are they hurt?" she asks, more out of hope than experience.
Peggy reaches out, takes her head. "Stephanie, it was a Hydra agent, the man who set the bomb in the laboratory."
Stephanie lets the nurse have her arm, and she feels the prick of a needle in the well of her elbow and she thinks, wildly, I can't see my veins under the skin and it strikes a dissonant note in her head.
"He had a gun, right?" she murmurs. She can't remember seeing it, but she remembers the sounds of shots fired — all the flashes of the laboratory smokey, scored by the sound of shattering glass. "I think he had a gun."
Peggy's fingers tighten around Stephanie's. "Yes," she says, measured. And after a beat goes by, she hazards a look to Howard — wary — before she asks, "Do you remember anything else about that day?"
That day? Stephanie thinks. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Two days," Howard tells her, and glancing at his watch, he adds, "And three hours."
Stephanie wonders, was I shot? Out loud, she asks, "They're both dead?"
"So is the Hydra agent," Peggy assures her, instead of any platitudes.
She can't think of Dr. Erskine dead, when he'd been swilling too much schnapps just hours ago in her memories, his white hospital coat fanning around him like a girls' skirt as he searched for his glasses, still perched on his head. She can't think of Private Grenville, scared and sweet and barely grown up, the way he'd dashed in to show her his olive drag cap and formal uniform and she'd felt a million years old in comparison. It's too big, far too big, and she presses a hand over her heart because it's too big for her chest, spilling out of its cage like a river running over its banks and —
"Stephanie," Peggy says, her voice quiet and steady and sure. She reaches for Stephanie's hand — which is too big — and closes her fingers around Stephanie's fingers — which are too long — where they are pressed against her breast.
Stephanie doesn't look down, doesn't dare to. She just stares at Peggy, feeling like someone's poured ice water into her veins.
"Stephanie, I need you to breathe," Peggy murmurs. "In and out."
"What happened to me?" Stephanie asks instead of breathing.
Howard crouches down by the bed. "You were shot, Stephanie."
She doesn't know what her face does, but Howard winces and jerks back a few inches as she snarls, "Getting shot changed my breasts?"
"You're also taller now?" Howard tries.
"Stark, stop helping," Peggy instructs him.
This feeling, this hyperventilation, the dizzying rush of not getting enough air is very familiar, and Stephanie's voice jumps an octave as she asks, "I'm taller?"
Peggy squeezes Stephanie's hand for her attention, flashes a tight smile. She says:
"Stephanie, I need you to listen and stay calm. That day, in the lab, you were shot."
"I don't feel shot," Stephanie retorts.
"That's because when Grenville was also shot, he fell on top of you and crushed those remaining vials of serum into your belly," Peggy carries on in the same matter-of-fact certainty of tone. "We don't know how much of the serum you absorbed, but it was enough that you began seizing."
Stephanie tips her chin up, because it might keep her from crying. "That's ridiculous."
Peggy ignores her. "You'd been shot in the mid back on the left side; you were bleeding profusely and now you were seizing. Stark — " she nods at Howard, who is keeping a careful foot of distance from Stephanie now " — said we needed to put you in the Vita-Ray. I made the call. We put you in the machine."
"That should have killed me," Stephanie manages. Her voice sounds wet.
"You lived," Peggy insists, and her hand is hurting Stephanie's fingers now. "And when we pulled you out of the machine, your bullet wound had closed to a bruise. You were a foot taller and six stone heavier."
"That's a bit over 80 pounds," Howard interjects helpfully.
"You lived," Peggy says. "That's what matters, Stephanie."
Stephanie feels suddenly, wildly alien inside of her own body. Hell, is it her body? It's a foot taller and apparently almost twice as heavy and her bones are bigger. Her breasts are bigger, heavy, she can feel them and they feel fucking pendulous against her chest. She can feel the space she takes up. She looks down at her hand, not because she thinks it's a good idea or that she believes Peggy — she hears Bucky's voice in her head, he's yelling, this is fucking bullshit — but because she has to know.
She thinks she's going to stare at the strangeness of her new collarbones, the broadness of her thighs, the sudden and impossible substance of her belly and the hugeness of her feet. And she sees all of it, feels it like dull and concussive thuds, but mostly what she sees is a deep bruise and a series of cuts around the ring finger of her right hand, and she holds it up — her fingers are so long now — trembling.
"It was too small," Peggy says quietly. "We had to cut it off of you."
Howard says, his voice small, "We still have the pieces — I can solder it back together."
It's this, finally, that pushes her over the brink, and Stephanie curls her hands — new, giant, naked — into fists and screams.
By 1944, innumerable copies of Rita Hayworth's famous black negligee photo had been shipped overseas along with U.S. soldiers. She was joined in their cigarette cases and folded up along all-too-precious letters by Betty Grable, peeping coquettishly over her shoulder in a white swimsuit and heels, hair piled high on her head. It was in this mix of longing and lust that the first confirmed image of Lady Liberty appeared.
Among the crumpled prints of Veronica Lake and bomber girls painted lushly across the noses of fighter planes — lucky charms with lucky charms of their own — Lady Liberty arrived in the American consciousness through the work of Gil Elvgren.
Elvgren, known for sexing up everything from lobsters to gardening, was then in the liminal period between his tight association with Louis F. Dow and his career with Brown and Bigelow. Sometime during the late months of 1943, Elvgren attended a USO event in Chicago, where the best ad men the military could recruit were trying something a little different.
Oh there were the ordinary stable of chorus girls and high octane kicks, but among the the spangled skirts another curiosity emerged. She was 5'10, with "fantastic gams," blue-eyed and pink-cheeked. She shored up on stage wearing a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty's crown perched on top of her glorious golden hair and a figure-hugging version of the statue's voluminous gown.
"I saw something really special the other night," Elvgren wrote to an associate later that week. "It was a USO show, and I was there mostly to see if I could spot any good models — well, I found one."
Lady Liberty's performances got more complex as her popularity and the staging of USO shows improved — one showstopping illusion had her lifting a motorcycle with three chorus girls perched on top — but they always used the same template.
At first, Lady Liberty arrived garbed with the quiet dignity of her task, serving as the guardian of the American Dream and welcoming your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. At this point in the show, some attractive urchin from the audience was pre-selected to burst onto the stage clutching a newspaper, yelling about how Hitler and his Nazis were threatening the very fabric of freedom — hurry, Lady Liberty, you've got to do something!
"Well," she'd always say, "I'd better join our boys over there!"
The house always broke into sheer pandemonium, and Lady Liberty would pull off the delicate adornment of her crown and toss it into the audience. She'd hitch up her skirts and cry out to the other chorus girls, "Come along, ladies! We better get to work!"
The next time they appeared on stage, a massive costume change had occurred: chorus girls were decked out as members of the Army Nursing Corps, as faithful wives and daughters winning the war effort on the home front, wearing the pressed uniforms of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
And Lady Liberty? She'd be in the middle of it all in a bomber jacket and scandalous tight trousers tucked into high boots. She wore a blue shirt, a red scarf, her blond hair flowed free. In a stroke of pure iconographic genius that surely, Elvgren could not resist, she clutched a round red, white, and blue shield — a star at its center.
Elvgren went on to produce the first definitive image of Lady Liberty: saucy in her leather jacket and gold curls, wearing a scandalously tarty pair of shorts, straddling a motorcycle. She wore the shield strapped on her back, reaching into the air overhead to hook her crown with one finger as the bike ate up the concrete. She was plushly pink and confrontingly sexual, depicted with a pistol tucked into a star-spangled garter belt and a smudge of dirt on her cheek.
It was equal parts scandal and instant mega-hit. A month after he submitted the image to a friend at the USO, there were thousands of copies of it accompanying Betty and Rita on their way overseas — papering mess tents, framed at recruitment offices.
— Greeley, Cooper. Pin-Up: A History of American Cheesecake. New York: Penguin, 2011. E-Book.
It takes Howard less time to repair her wedding ring than for Stephanie to learn her new body.
She occupies a vastly different amount of space now, and no matter what Peggy brings her to wear all of it looks impossibly strange on her, Stephanie's eyes always jumping immediately to the bustline, the jutting hips, the substance of her thighs and arms. For all of her life Stephanie has been able to see the blue rivers of her veins underneath the thin skin on the back of her hands, the inside of her wrists, the hidden curve of her elbow. She remembers the way Bucky had kissed her in these places, and whispered against her how he liked her, just the way she was. Now the map of her is hidden away under flushed, golden skin. None of this is her.
"Will it wear off?" she asks, looking at the new uniform Peggy's brought her, the formal button-down jacket and long skirt, the collar shirt and tie. She's brought a larger cap, because the circumference of Stephanie's head has grown.
Peggy is producing something from her handbag busily, laying out bottles and tubes, something that looks distressing like a powder compact.
"Not that we know of," she admits. "But this was the first experiment — we can hardly claim historical evidence."
Stephanie nods, because what else is there to do? She looks down at the bra on her lap: Allure brand, for "problem busts." Four days ago Stephanie's problem with busts was she didn't have one.
"I recognize all of it this quite disconcerting," Peggy says with some truly exceptional British understatement. "But you really must get dressed now, Stephanie."
Stephanie continues to stare at the bra. "Why?" she asks, feeling dull, muted.
"Because Colonel Philips and Senator Brandt are on their way and I imagine you'd prefer not to see them in your hospital gown with its back gaping," Peggy retorts, pulling a hairbrush out of her apparently bottomless bag. "Now, are you going to put that on or am I going to have to do it for you?"
"You're going to have to," Stephanie tells her glumly. "I've never put one on before."
"Jesus," Peggy swears, and attacks Stephanie in earnest, grabbing for the ties on her hospital gown and stripping her down with the same tender touch she'd utilized on Hodge during all those long weeks at Camp Lehigh.
Stephanie stares at the chain Howard had given her, at her ring hanging off of it, hanging in between the breasts that are attached to the chest that is hers now. Stephanie looks at the delicate repair work that Howard did and feels Peggy dragging her off the bed, jerking the hospital gown over her head — blond hair flying.
"Goodness," Peggy says, staring at something below Stephanie's neck, and that's finally what snaps her out of her daze — face going red and arms going up to cover herself.
"Why are Colonel Philips and Senator Brandt coming here?" Stephanie asks.
Finally managing to tear her gaze away, Peggy hands her a pair of delicate knickers, with triangles of lace at the hips. "Because as of this moment, you are the sole product of Dr. Erksine's work," she says, sounding angry. "We've put them off as long as we could."
Stephanie sighs, shivers into the knickers and suffers the profound strangeness of the pillowy softness of her breasts against her knees as she bends over to tug the underwear over her hips. At some point, everything about this body she's trapped in will stop being strange, but that day is not today, because as soon as Stephanie unfolds herself, Peggy's manhandling the bra onto her.
"Does that feel all right?" Peggy asks, hands fixing the clasp, adjusting the straps.
"This is awful," Stephanie says. "It's pinching me in four places."
"That's probably fine then," Peggy says, dismissive, and tosses the shirt and skirt at Stephanie's head. "Hurry up, they'll be here any minute."
Now it's Stephanie's turn to swear under her breath, shuffling into the button-up shirt and tucking it into the skirt as Peggy comes at her with the hairbrush, dragging it ruthlessly through the tangles. From the door, a nurse calls, "Agent Carter? Colonel Philips and the Senator are here."
"Two minutes, please," Peggy calls out, not missing a beat, looping the tie around Stephanie's neck and folding down the wings of her shirt collar, doing up the knot as Stephanie shrugs on the jacket, tight in the shoulders, and fumbles with the buttons up her stomach and feels it pull over her breasts.
"I think this is...too small," she says, marveling because she's never said that before.
"It's not, your breasts are too big," Peggy answers.
There are pins to pin on and shoes to toe into, and Stephanie tries to do all of these things without moving her head too much, because Peggy's behind her now, dragging Stephanie's blond and wispy locks into a neat chignon at the base of her neck, pinning it in place with a tortoise shell clip.
The final minute before the nurse knocks at the door and says, "Colonel Philips and Senator Brandt, ma'am," are spent with Peggy pulling out a bullet-shaped tube of lipstick and wielding her powder cake.
"It's rushed, but I imagine you'll be fine," Peggy says, when she's finished, wry.
Stephanie wants to ask for a mirror, but then the door is opening and she's squaring her shoulders — Jesus those things stick out, she thinks — and making herself stand up straight, schooling her face and trying, most of all, not to look as scared as she feels.
Philips and Brandt are in the middle of an argument when they push rudely past the nurse and into Stephanie's room, and she catches Philips saying, "...like hell you will, Brandt," before he looks up and comes to such an abrupt stop it's like an old Charlie Chaplain flick.
Stephanie nods at them, clasping her hands behind her back and trying not to fidget.
"Colonel Philips," she says, and it comes out with a rasp. "Senator Brandt."
They keep staring at her, gone long past the point of shock into something even more uncomfortable. Stephanie darts a look over to Peggy, who she finds rolling her eyes.
"Sir," Peggy snaps.
"Jesus Christ," says Senator Brandt, who either has a faster reaction time or a less aggressive personal filter.
Philips slants him a glower before turning back to Stephanie. "Miss Rogers," he says, nodding at her. "How are you feeling?"
Stephanie doesn't know how to answer that, exactly. She feels healthy, well in a way she's can only describe by what it's not: it's not fighting for every breath, it's not being persistently, miserably cold, it's not aching, it's not the constant drag of fatigue. She feels lighter, she feels good, like her bones aren't stretching so badly at her skin. But it doesn't feel like her skin, and underneath it, all the good strong muscles and arteries and organs that are buzzing joyfully away, feeding into her lungs and down her long legs, up her wide shoulders — all of it feels stolen, like there's some poor girl in New York now, who is stripped down to nothingness, left incorporeal, while Stephanie walks around in her hips and her hands.
She doesn't say any of it. She says, "Taller."
"Ma'am, you are more than just taller," Brandt leers. He looks her up and down that way men have, like just seeing you is having you, and Stephanie's no good at this sort of thing, doesn't have Peggy's ironclad dignity or Marlene's reflexive glower. Most of her life there wasn't much point to looking, and when they did, she could always tuck her arm into Bucky's and press a little closer. Right now, Stephanie feels her blood rush upward, to her cheeks and curling her hands into fists along her back.
"Brandt, you shut your mouth," Colonel Philips says, disgusted.
"I'm just saying, if our project had to go to hell, at least something good came of it," Brandt ripostes, completely unrepentant, and he turns to Stephanie and asks, "You're aware you're the last trace of the supersoldier project?"
Stephanie glances at Peggy, confused. "We — we kept records. We made notes."
Philips sighs, rubs a hand through his gray hair. "As an apparent security precaution — "
"Which was apparently needed," Peggy interrupts, favoring Senator Brandt with a searing look. "Who knows how much your...associate's associates might have been able to make off with otherwise."
" — Dr. Erskine destroyed most of his notes," Philips grinds on. "And what he did write down was incomplete. Our best scientists have taken a look at what remains, and we've been informed it's not enough to reconstruct the project."
In the background, Senator Brandt is saying, "He was not my associate," at Peggy, with false bravado and not a little bit of fear in his eyes.
Stephanie thinks of how Dr. Erskine left Germany by cover of night and in the back pockets of people who owed him favors — how he had looked constantly over his shoulder and how he'd carried with him a well of sadness. She remembers him saying that science was neither good nor bad, that the power and danger was in its use. She remembers turning in her records, remembers watching Dr. Erskine go carefully over his own notes each day at Camp Lehigh, in the Brooklyn laboratory.
She tips her chin up. "I'm sure he had his reasons."
Colonel Philips' face is a vision of resigned anger. "Yeah — I'm sure he did."
At this point, another man in a dark suit trails in, says, "We're ready for her," and Philips and Brandt seem finally inspired into action, saying Stephanie needs to be extensively debriefed, that her version of the events is a vital piece of what's missing in the official record.
In the back of a dark-windowed sedan, Peggy says to her, "They're hoping you know more, you understand? That Dr. Erskine told you about his work, that they can extrapolate enough to keep it going."
Stephanie thinks about Erskine's caution, his good heart, how he hoped the experiment would go well — not successfully, but well — or not at all. She doesn't know if she knows enough to to be dangerous, to be useful in this reconstruction, but she knows Dr. Erskine had taken a chance on her because of her good heart, that he had hated bullies and made terrified, dangerous choices because of his conscience. She knows he burned those notes for a reason.
She says, "I was just a nurse — I couldn't tell you anything about the science."
And Peggy smiles back at her. "You know, I suspected you wouldn't."
Among the feminist icons that emerged during World War II, none is more persistent nor more problematic than Lady Liberty.
Viewed as Rosie the Riveter's more cosmopolitan and well-traveled counterpart, Lady Liberty premiered on a USO tour in late 1943, visiting a dozen major U.S. cities and goosing the sale of war bonds to the tune of $6 million. She was buxom and beautiful, with a cascade of blond curls. She always cast off the dowdy solemnity of her Lady Liberty robes in favor of leather jackets and a Triumph motorcycle, and she and her cadre of chorus girls would each fight in their own way, with Lady Liberty promising she'd meet the boys in the crowd overseas. Each of her USO tour stops concluded with a dramatic number where cymbals crashed and the crowd oohed and ahhed as Lady Liberty threw a roundhouse punch at a skulking actor portraying Hitler.
And at the very end of the show, she always selected some young man from the crowd, one ready to ship off, and left him with a perfect lipstick kiss on one cheek. There are several contemporary news articles about fist fights breaking out at these rallies.
As a sexed up sales tactic for a grim and relentless war, Lady Liberty was an ad man's dream: earnest and all-American beautiful with her blue eyes and big smile. She was a bombshell who hated Nazis, loved apple pie and wanted you to buy a war bond to put a bullet in the barrel of your best guy's gun.
If her wartime contributions had been limited to a seemingly endless supply of saucy, red white and blue pin-up posters, then it's likely she would have vanished among the annals of WWII propaganda.
The trouble with Lady Liberty was — and remains — her apparent connection to the Howling Commandoes. More specifically, to James Buchanan Barnes.
— Bradley, Theresa, Sarah Jackson, and Nadia Turner. "God, Gams and Guns." American Quarterly 61.4 (2009): 294-237. Print.
The debrief goes on for hours, weeks, months, a year. They do it in a small room in an unremarkable building in Queens, and Stephanie loses all sense of time and space inside the cement walls. She drinks endless glasses of water and answers the same question four times, and then the same question asked a different way four times more. Stephanie has aged by 40 years or more by the time Peggy finally peers into the room, looking cranky as hell with a mean tightness around her eyes.
"Are you quite finished here?" she snarls at the military man who's spent the past 15 minutes asking Stephanie variations on the theme of, 'had you and Dr. Erskine colluded to destroy his experimental notes?' Stephanie's been saying, "no" in a monotone for 14 minutes now and she can't tell if she's more bored, or the interrogator is.
Out of a waning sense of duty, the interrogator says, "We have a few more questions."
"It's been seven hours — we're finished here," Peggy declares.
If Stephanie's been rendered numb, wooden, by the questioning, then Peggy's spent most of the day boiling over. In the time that it takes for Peggy to extricate Stephanie from the interrogator and walk her over to a cavernous series of rooms, Stephanie realizes in horror that Peggy has spent literally all day picking fights over her.
"Peggy, you didn't have to," Stephanie says, and feels all the blood in this body rush her face. She wonders what she looks like when she blushes now.
She'd locked herself into a bathroom with a full length mirror, not long after she'd finally managed to stop screaming about her new hands and feet and neck and her wedding ring, snipped into pieces, but then she'd been white as a sheet. Even still, Stephanie has to look at herself carefully, in tiny barely disrobed pieces. It's not that the new curve of her hips are ugly or that she hates the strength of her calves, but they still feel false, disconnected from her — and living inside of a shell that mismatches Stephanie's understanding of her space in the universe is horrible, inescapable.
Peggy continues to look like she is searching for an excuse to murder someone with her bare hands. "Of course I did. Your actions that day in the laboratory were instrumental in preventing Hydra from acquiring the serum, and they're treating you like a criminal instead of a hero — a fight with me is the least they ought to endure."
The last time Stephanie was this in love with someone, she married him 13 years later.
"Peggy Carter, you are one hell of a lady," Stephanie tells her.
Peggy goes pink, pleased, and composing herself to say, "Stephanie Rogers — likewise."
That doesn't really solve the problem at hand, though. Nothing can. Not Stephanie's cooperation through her gritted teeth or Peggy's campaigning. They take Stephanie's blood to study it and force her and Marlene and Peggy to go through the remaining notes, and Stephanie tries not to get too distracted looking at Dr. Erskine's beautiful handwriting — the long swoops and beautiful loops of it — and hurt for him, to know that he is gone and won't come back. She doesn't have the weight on her chest of her lifetime of asthma anymore, but she still feels breathless sometimes to know that for better or worse, she is the sum total of his legacy now, and she holds onto his secrets as tightly as she can because she thinks that's what he would have wanted.
Dr. Erskine wanted to help people, to give power to good men. Stephanie will be that good man, for as long as she possibly can be.
She can run for hours without tiring now, hold her breath for impossibly long periods of time. Her vision has sharpened, and the night doesn't seem so dark anymore. She can lift hundreds of pounds with ease. Marlene and Howard write all of these details down with equal parts professionalism and childlike astonishment. The supersoldier serum had worked, and worked beautifully, and Stephanie sometimes looks in astonishment at the weights she's lifted and the miles she's run and thinks, I could help now, I could really help now, if only they'd let me go.
To the SSR scientists, she is an apparently distracting curiosity. They stare at her when she walks past. They fight over the opportunity to study the ways her body's changed, there's something terrible and invasive about how they bat around numbers, talk about pre-serum Rogers at 95.6 lbs and post at 178 lbs, discuss her height and the span of her arms and how her head's gotten bigger, and do you think that it increased her brain size, too? Stephanie's biased, but she doesn't see the point of it if they're never going to be able to reproduce the serum; mostly, she tries not to listen, goes to hide away with Marlene and Peggy instead.
Funny enough, the only other person at the base who doesn't treat her any differently is Howard.
If ever Stephanie thought Howard as a regular fella, that thought dies when he calls across the SSR labs, "Miss Rogers, can you come move this shelf? It's heavy as hell," and then just says, "Thanks, Dollface," like nothing's changed at all when she does. He still sneaks up to her to put his arm around her, and keeps telling her about food she's never eaten: cassoulet, something called sashimi from Japan, fondue.
Stephanie wrinkles her nose. "Dry toast and liquored-up cheese? No thanks."
"Rogers, Rogers, you have no faith in me at all," Howard despairs, flashing her his best pleading brown eyes. "It's a whole big, cosmopolitan world out there — once we're done winning this war, I'll fly you out to the Swiss Alps, and fondue will blow your mind."
She smiles, because he still treats her like she's in desperate need of teasing.
"Will you now?" she asks. "Can Peggy come?"
Howard waves generously. "You, Peggy, that terror Marlene — you're all welcome."
He's a bright spot in the days, which seem to extend endlessly. Stephanie's talked to half the U.S. intelligence community now, she thinks, and she still doesn't have anything to tell them: no, she's not hiding anything, no, she doesn't know how to make Dr. Erskine's serum work any more than they do.
Eventually, they send in Colonel Philips again. He slides a cup of strong, black coffee in her direction and he doesn't look at her like she's a criminal. Instead, he says:
"I think we've been approaching this issue all wrong."
Stephanie raises her eyebrows at him.
Philips takes his own cup of coffee and leans back in his seat. "Here's the thing, ma'am, after that shitshow down in the lab, we went through and investigated every single person who worked with Dr. Erskine on the serum — turned their lives inside out."
Stephanie feels that familiar roll of nausea again, like she's back at the recruitment center and Dr. Erskine is asking her New Haven or Paramus? She says, "Did you."
"We did," Philips says agreeably. "So let's dispense with these falsehoods, Mrs. Barnes."
It's been so long since anyone's called her that that Stephanie's almost forgotten that's who she is. That she's more than a collection of scientific measures, an accident, someone's legacy, a woman left behind and pacing a widow's walk in her head, waiting for letters that must be coming, they must be.
She squares her shoulders. "Are you going to arrest me?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Philips says. "As if we have the time and resources or, hell, as if we wanted to draw attention to the fact that someone managed to pull the wool over our eyes for this long. Naw, Mrs. Barnes — I bring it up for another reason."
"I'm sure you're dying to tell me what that reasoning is," Stephanie says carefully.
Philips sets down his coffee, pushes it aside. He leans forward now, folding his hands together, lacing the fingers together. He is lowering his head a bit, tilting forward, his whole body an invitation to share a secret — radiating grandfatherly sympathy.
"Mrs. Barnes, you've got a man out there, haven't you? In the 107th?" he asks, saccharine with kindness.
Stephanie thinks this must work on men, because they haven't spend their whole lives so carefully reading each other out of wariness, to gauge the emotional temperature of the room. Stephanie thinks that just millimeters below the surface of him, Colonel Philips is a hot, roiling mess of impatience — she can't tell if he's mad at her or at himself that he's doing this, but she imagines it's a little of both. Stephanie's not scared of him, and not just because Dr. Erskine gave her by both accident and design an arm that would make her the starting pitcher on the Dodgers' lineup.
"From what you said earlier, you already know everything about me," she answers.
"Oh, I know everything on paper," Philips answers, widening his eyes. "You and I both know that what's on paper don't matter beans. It was those papers that said you were unfit for service with the nursing corps, and — " he opens a palm at her " — clearly you've proved them wrong. As for your husband, I know James Buchanan Barnes is a sergeant with the 107th Army infantry, and that he got excellent marks at basic and has a note in his file saying he has extraordinary potential as a sniper — but that doesn't tell me anything about the man, you know?"
Stephanie forces herself to breathe calmly in and out. "That seems to be all you'd need to know as a commanding officer," she retorts.
"Well, a good commanding officer takes an interest in his men," Philips continues, matter-of-fact. "So obviously I made some calls, rang up some people in some places and you know what they all told me?"
People have been trying to get at her through Bucky since they were kids, and Stephanie knows the steps to this stupid dance. This is Annie Spencer when they were 16 years-old, snatching Stephanie by her narrow wrists and telling her Bucky deserved better. This is Stephanie's mother telling her Bucky's going to spend the rest of his life doing dumb stuff because of Stephanie. This is the doctor at the hospital, telling her she and Bucky'd be stupid to try again, as if they'd been stupid enough to try on purpose the first time.
"What did they all tell you?" she asks, and she feels calmer now, knows where she stands with Bucky — she always has.
"That he was an exemplary soldier and an all around good guy — and that they'd never seen a man so gone on his girl," Philips tells her, grinning wryly. "Hell, Mrs. Barnes, you did a number on that kid, I'll say."
Stephanie doesn't have a response to that and never has. She can only guess at why Bucky loves her, really. She just knows that his gap-toothed smile is one of her first memories, that he's framed the moments of her life, that his hands are good, that his heart is good, and that her whole life, Bucky Barnes is the only certain thing she has known. If that's being gone on someone, she guesses she's gone, too.
Philips doesn't need an answer from her though. "Rest of the guys? Hooting at nurses, hollering at USO girls. Your boy? Laughing at them like he's got a secret none of them can touch — " he stops and he stares at Stephanie now, eyes darkening " — now ain't that a thing you should want to protect?"
The doctors here say she's in perfect health, so she's got to be imagining the skip in her heartbeat, the way her breath catches.
"Are you threatening my husband, Colonel Philips?" she asks.
"Me? No," he says. "That'd be treasonous in these times of war — but Mrs. Rogers, you have to see how all those secret you're keeping? They're keeping me from bringing your boy home."
Stephanie feels very cold and very still. "You're telling me that if I told you the secret of Dr. Erskine's serum, you'd what — bring Bucky home?"
"Ma'am, I'd do a lot more than pluck one man out of the mouth of hell to have that kind of weapon at my disposal," Philips tells her.
He's telling her the truth: his eyes are tired and his mouth is tired and Stephanie thinks that Philips thinks that this is really the answer, that if he shakes Stephanie hard enough Dr. Erskine's secrets will fall out. He thinks that if they send a battalion of giants with bulging muscles, who are happy to follow orders and happy not to think about it too much, that they'll win the war, and Stephanie looks at Philips' hopeful face and sees what Dr. Erskine must have seen: a vision of disaster, of all the ways good intentions would ripple outward into something hellish instead.
It takes her two tries to start talking, because she wants so badly. She thinks that if push came to shove she'd make up all manner of lies if it would get Bucky back in her arms, safe here in their city — but she can't tell them the truth of the thing, the little more she knows that she's holding back that may or may not be the key they're looking for.
"I can't tell you anything you don't already know, Colonel Philips," she manages finally, and she can hear the way her voice is shaking. She hopes she sounds angry instead of how she feels — dismantled. "But I can tell you the reason you don't know more is because of this right here."
Philips scowls at her. "I don't follow, Mrs. Barnes."
"Dr. Erskine was a brilliant man, Colonel. But better than that, he was a good man," she tells him, anger a frame on her every word. "He must have known all along that you would do something like this, resort to this."
"I made an offer, Mrs. Barnes, not a threat," Philips snaps.
She ignores him because she's so furious those two things sound the same to her. How dare he? How dare anybody? God knows what they're saying to Marlene.
"He must have always known he couldn't trust the project in your hands if he were to die," she goes on at him, her hands curling into fists in her lap. "And to answer your offered threat — I'd tell you anything you wanted to hear to get my husband back, I'd make up pages of science if that's what it took for him to come home to me. But I can't help you with this, and I think you've known that since you walked into this room."
In the wake of this, the room is very quiet. Stephanie stares at Colonel Philips because she's not going to lower her eyes or look away, and she sees his expression go from bushwhacked to angry to something like shame and she's glad for it. She hopes he feels it like the burn of a bullet or the flames that swallowed up the laboratory. Her blood's still roiling under her skin, and Stephanie thinks that she could reach out and end him if he said another word to her right now — that she's finally got the strength and he's given her the fire to do it.
She says, after a long time, after she thinks she can talk again without screaming, "Now, am I free to return to my work?" She pauses. "Sir?"
He laugh that startles out of Philips is impressed, disbelieving.
"Work?" he balks. "Where? Project's been disbanded for lack of scientific intel."
"I could go back into the general nursing corps," Stephanie bites out. "It can hardly be argued that I'm not fit enough to serve any longer."
"Like hell," Philips scoffs. "How are we going to explain you? Last time anybody checked your files you were a foot shorter and — you'll pardon me for being so crass — a significantly worse bet."
Stephanie closes her fist around the table leg to keep herself from doing something rash, like throw her chair at him.
"Then what? I live here, underground? In this bunker until you're all decided you're done with me?" she asks. "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't live like that."
Philips rubs at the bridge of his nose. "Jesus H," he swears. "We're not exactly working in familiar territory here, Rogers."
"Oh, now I'm Rogers again," Stephanie snaps at him, whip quick, before she can think better of it, and it leaves them staring at each other — the tension broken suddenly, Philips' mouth twitching and Stephanie's face gone red and hell, hell.
"Rogers," Philips tells her, meaningfully, "you are something else, you know that?"
Stephanie feels all the tension shiver out of her at once. It leaves her weak and rubbery through and through. "I've received complaints along those lines before," she mumbles.
"I guess I see why that man of yours is so gone on you," Philips says, and more softly, he adds, "That wasn't right — earlier."
Stephanie can read the apology in the awkwardness of the silence. She doesn't forgive him, but she knows what it means that he's said it to her, and she won't waste it.
"I hear war makes people do crazy things," she allows, and this time, Philips actually laughs, his voice cracking on the sound, tired as hell and worn out and he says:
"Don't it just — hell, Senator Brandt's been here all week trying to get you to go on a USO tour, like that would salvage this shitshow of a project."
She blinks at him, momentarily stunned. "I — excuse me?"
"USO tour," Philips repeats, like it's the funniest thing in the world. "You know, little skirts? High kicks? Dancing? Selling war bonds?" He waves the idea away like it's a fly. "He has this whole plan: U.S. first, and then overseas to, quote, 'give those boys something to fight for,' his words, not mine."
It's a long time later, long after Colonel Philips ushers her out of the interrogation room with gentler handling than usual and she sits in the workshop and watches Howard bang away at something while swearing for a while that she goes to Peggy.
"What would you do to get something you wanted?" she asks Peggy.
Peggy looks conflicted. "I'm...going to need more context for this question."
"Even if it was ridiculous," Stephanie asks, feeling a rising and panicked urgency. "If it was — was just plain stupid — but it would get you what you wanted — would you do it?"
Peggy looks at Stephanie's face, wordless, frowning like she's trying to read something Stephanie's features, the worried wrinkle between her eyes, the downward slope of her mouth, the tension of her chin.
She says, finally, "Is it worth it? The thing you want? Is it worth being foolish?"
"Yes," Stephanie says, automatic, a cog in clock motion. "Absolutely."
Peggy's smile is a touch sad here. "Then I suppose you have your answer."
It's another two days before Stephanie sees Senator Brandt, skulking around the SSR looking like a nuisance. She thinks of short skirts and high kicks and selling war bonds and she thinks she'd crawl through broken glass to get to Bucky if that's what it took and walks toward him, says, "Senator Brandt — I hear you were looking for me," as she goes.
Very few of Barnes' letters to his wife have survived, but the few confirmed pieces of correspondence we have from him are revealing and intimate. The letter reproduced below was sent shortly before 107th army infantry unit was given new orders to march on Italy. For context, mail delivery during the war could be extremely fraught, and researchers speculate that all but the most high priority of communications lines had been closed off for the 107th for several months. Barnes abbreviates his wife's name to S or Steph in all cases:
Got a BOOK of your letters yesterday. Not a minute too soon, was starting to think you'd met some handsome young draft dodger, but turns out all the guys here ended up with their big packets. Now I wonder if you've been getting my letters, either, and if you're worrying yourself dumb over me. I hope you're not but given that I've known you since we were five I'll just assume you are and remind you about that not doing anything stupid promise you made me before I shipped out.
We got orders yesterday that we're █████████████████████████████████, and I gotta say everyone's excited for the change in scenery. This will come as a horrible truth, Steph, given how we used to stay up to all hours talking about going to the ███████████, and how I'd tease you until you put on some tiny dress and come sit with me in the sun, but █████ is fucking terrible. I think it rained the entire goddamn time I was there; there was mold growing in Gary Haverford's socks.
Couple of the guys in the 107 are second generation ███████████, and they keep saying that the sun's a different color ███████████, that golden orange-red you always mixed with your paints, like the yolk of an egg. They keep talking about tomato and cheese and vinegar salads, and hell, after so many months of shit on a shingle, tomato and cheese and vinegar salads are starting to sound good. Hell, pasta and peas is starting to sound good. Don't get mad at me, Steph. That's not just you being a shitty cook, that's just foul blandness even without your contribution.
I dream about you a lot. Nothing dirty (unfortunately). Just strange things that apparently holed up in my head over the years. Do you remember when we were 15, after I first kissed you and you let me get away with it? I never told you, but Father O'Donnell pulled me up after church one day by the collar and told me he was onto us, and laid in all kinds of threats. Stop laughing, S. You'll never know how many of those damn conversations I've had over the years with goddamn everybody. I don't mind though, I've always known they were right, that between you and me, we were equal parts dumb and lucky and I'm glad for that. Anyway, O'Donnell pulled me up and Steph I am not joking, this man talked about the rhythm method, and last week, in a muddy field tent in █████, I woke up half the men in the camp when I woke yelling, "I swear I'll pull out, Father!" so you can imagine how this week's been, overall.
I'm also imagining your face reading this, knowing that some army redactor's gone through it, too.
Tell me how Brooklyn's doing. Tell me what awful stuff you're cooking. Tell me if Ellington's still coming around (she's the orange striped one). Tell me how you are. Tell me you miss me.
Always — Bucky.
— The National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.
Senator Brandt is shallow and lustful, greedy for power and recognition in a way that makes it easy to get him to do what she wants. He — unsurprisingly — latches onto her offhanded mention of the USO tour like a lamprey, and when she says, "Oh, I think I'd be too shy, Senator," he redoubles his effort, says, "I won't take no for an answer, Miss Rogers — I've already come up with a name for you and everything."
Stephanie allows herself to be persuaded to try on a "smaller" tour, a six-city jaunt through the U.S.: San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and New York. Just the thought of being in front of that many people in that many cities in the skirt she can read all over Brandt's leer is enough to make Stephanie sick.
Out loud, she says, "I guess if those go all right, I'd be okay to try on the front."
"Miss Rogers, you've got a good heart," the senator says, pawing at her elbow and falling over himself fatuous. "It'll do those boys over there good to see you."
Brandt must pull a hundred and one strings, and less than 48 hours later Stephanie's out of the bunker, Colonel Philips' knowing look trailing her out the door. Thank God Peggy's been spirited away from the SSR office that day, or God only knows the stink eye Stephanie would have gotten, to have bartered herself off to Senator Brandt.
As he's a man who can't do anything by halves or quietly, it's a sparkling car that transports her from the SSR offices to her old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Stephanie spends most of the ride hoping against hope the people who have lived in their neighborhood their entire lies have all moved away in the months she's been absent. Which sends her off on a hyperventilating realization that less than the horror of having to explain why she's traveling around in the type of car only bootleggers and bastards could afford, there's no explaining how she looks.
"Ma'am?" asks the driver, who is a nice boy who couldn't be a day over 18. He's looking at her nervously in the rear view mirror.
Stephanie puts her head between her knees, a hand on the back of her neck, listening to the car motor putter and purr. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon, which means...nothing, it means absolutely nothing. Their neighbors are nosey and kindhearted and half the borough must know there's a strange, flash car parked in front of this building by now, which means every blue-haired lady in all of Brooklyn is parked behind their delicately tatted lace curtains, narrowing their eagle eyes — waiting.
"I'm fine," Stephanie lies.
"You're — um, you're not moving, ma'am," the kid says, and too eagerly, he asks, "Do you want me to open the door for you?"
Stephanie tries to imagine getting out of a car with someone else opening the door for her, stepping out one pointed toe first like movie stars in Hollywood, lights and palm trees in the background. She lets out a groan and says, "No. It's fine. I'll be fine in just a minute — thank you."
It takes her more than a minute, but she lets out a rattling long sigh and gets out of the car. She keeps her chin high and her back straight and puts one foot in front of the other, ignores the whispering she feels more than she hears, rumbling from the apartment windows overhead and the sidewalks around her.
The boys down the block who yell, "Hey, Mrs. Barnes!" at her don't say anything at all, just stare at her big-eyed, and Stephanie thinks she must look like a giant white elephant in uniform, stepping into the doorway of the building and going for the steps. She's lucky nobody's loitering in the halls because hell if she knows how she'll explain when she gets to her front door. Stephanie swears Bucky made the whole building sign a contract that they'd hover over her in his absence.
It takes the same jiggle and push to get the door open, and when she crosses the threshold, it's to an empty, half-finished room. There are papers on the kitchen table, two dishes in the drying rack by the sink. In the sewing basket on the sofa, Stephanie's left one of Bucky's work shirts half darned, the needle tucked in neatly until she can come back to it. There's laundry folded but not put away, and Stephanie knows if she walks into the bedroom, their bed will be neatly made, with Mrs. Barnes' cross stitched pillows tucked up near the headboard.
She stands there and feels her knees go weak in a way that's all in her head, and even though according to the U.S. Army, she's the peak of human perfection now, she has to clasp the door frame to steady herself.
These weeks she's been yearning, but it's been the background, and now she's back in this house that's not a home it hits her like a ton of bricks. She'd always thought if she were stronger, if she were healthier, if she were maybe just a little taller, she'd be able to carry that weight — turns out she's wrong about that like she's been wrong about a lot of things. People still stare. She still feels lost. She still hurts.
Stephanie doesn't know how much time she wastes there, half way in the hall and halfway through the door of her own house, but a creak and clunk from the fourth floor is finally what gets her moving. She closes the door behind herself and goes to the bedroom, where she runs a hand over Bucky's pillow before she goes to her knees, reaching underneath to drag out a canvas bag. Everything feels lighter and smaller except for herself, and the floor still hurts her knees just as much, even if her thighs seem to fill up acres of space across the wooden beams.
She'd taken some clothes with her in a neat overnight bag to the Brooklyn lab, but the whole facility's been sealed off while the military's best scientists try to puzzle out the other half of the magic equation. Howard's Vita-Ray still works ("Dollface, I'm hurt you think some dumb bullets would break Stark engineering," he'd said to her), so she imagines mostly they're crawling around the floor trying to soak up little bits of serum, where it hasn't been polluted by her blood or Grenville's blood or Erskine's blood. She has the shake the thought physically out of her head and reach for the wardrobe, reach for her dresses and sweaters, another pair of shoes.
The clock ticking away on the bedside reads nearly 3 p.m. now, and Stephanie hustles: packs up her tiny bathroom without looking in the mirror, brings her mother's Bible, her father's dog tags, Bucky's pocketknife he'd left with her. She snatches up a little bag of her knitting, takes the unfinished shirt, too, and dashes out again, locking the door behind herself and tapping down the stairs with the bag over her shoulder. Stephanie feels like she's being chased by ghosts.
She almost makes it except Mrs. Carlucci from the ground floor is by the mailboxes with the postman, and she stares at Stephanie with narrowed eyes, her hands on her hips.
"You," Mrs. Carlucci declares.
Stephanie smiles awkwardly. She'd barely recognized herself in the mirror, when she'd finally dared to look, once Peggy had finally gotten her to stop screaming all those weeks ago. To Mrs. Carlucci, Stephanie must look like a stranger, a thief.
"I was just picking up a few things — for Mrs. Barnes," Stephanie says. It almost sounds convincing, but she guesses that's only because it's close enough to the truth for horseshoes and hand grenades.
Mrs. Carlucci's eyes get — if possible — even narrower. "Oh, are you," she says flatly.
Stephanie tightens her hands on the straps of the bag. "Um, yes," she decides.
"If you're sniffing around Bucky, you can forget about it," Mrs. Carlucci warns, and behind her, the mail man chokes on a laugh, stopping it with enormous power of will and trying to focus on doling out bills.
"Ma'am, I would never," Stephanie lies, because she's spent most of her life sniffing around Bucky, and that must show on her guilty, lying face, because Mrs. Carlucci looks like she's two seconds away from dousing Stephanie with holy water and calling for a priest. "I — Mrs. Barnes is going away for a bit with the nursing corps and asked me to bring her some of her things. I swear."
"I know your kind," Mrs. Carlucci says, ignoring her completely. "You and Annie Spencer."
Considering how much Stephanie hates Annie Spencer still, she can't help but to be equal parts offended and worried, not in the least because Stephanie had thought that Annie Spencer had married some steel worker two years ago and given up on Bucky once and for all. And if that's not the case, then Stephanie's got some choice words for everybody involved and she's about to ask Mrs. Carlucci — clearly a valuable intelligence asset — just when the hell Annie Spencer has been coming around when the mailman interrupts, saying:
"Uh, if you're bringing things to Mrs. Barnes, would you mind bringing her mail, too, ma'am?"
It's a bundle of letters, a volume, a tome, and Stephanie floats out of her building — Mrs. Carlucci forgotten — and floats back into the car with the wet-behind-the-ears driver and loses track of the time. There must be 20 letters here, each three or four pages of Bucky's parabolic writing and she rifles through to the latest one first — not reading for content, just checking that he's all right.
He talks about the food using words Stephanie's reasonably certain the redactors blacked out for sheer horror Bucky was sending to a lady. He talks about the continuing, ever-deepening crisis of Gary Haverford's socks. He talks about marching at night, the stars overhead as they go through dark fields and underneath the river of the sky. He talks about how he misses her, misses sleeping pressed along her back, misses their apartment and his stray cats and Brooklyn and Mrs. Carlucci, who had the best glare in the entire borough. Stephanie can read what he's not talking about: I'm cold, I'm not eating well, I ain't been sleepin', Steph. I hurt, and I miss you, but I'm alive — I'm alive.
Once she knows he is, she can go back to the beginning, she's got the courage. She's folding the pages — carefully, so carefully — back into their envelopes when the car rolls to a stop and the driver says, "We're here, ma'am."
'Here' turns out to be an unattractive two-story office building with drooping bushes clustered around its base in uninspired formation. It's unmarked on the outside, drab on the inside, and serves as the stateside headquarters for a hand-picked group of USO performers. It is also Stephanie's Waterloo.
She's introduced to the choreographer, the stage manager, the touring manager, a man who offers her a choice of eight wigs, and then she's pushed into a ballet studio room with two dozen suspicious chorus girls. Stephanie doesn't blame them, she's appeared sight-unseen in pride of place, buoyed up by her connection to Senator Brandt, whose name inspires a collective scowl on their faces. It's a shame they're meeting this way, Stephanie thinks — getting stuffed into practice clothes and so filled with crippling terror she's gone mute — under other circumstances, they could have been very good friends.
"So have you performed before?" asks one of them, when the choreographer calls them all to huddle in the center of the room.
Stephanie stares at her, at her skeptical face, and confesses, "Not...exactly."
"Oh, this is going to go great," the girl says.
Steph's a hard worker and no girl of Bucky Barnes' wouldn't know how to dance, but the dance hall near the naval yard in Brooklyn left her unprepared for this. She can't remember all of the steps — being that there are approximately 1 million steps in any 2 minute routine, Stephanie learns glumly — and if she's focusing on her feet she misses the music, and then if it isn't Gloria glaring at her then it's Rhonda glaring at her. The best she can hope for is Clarissa's pity.
Bucky's always been devilish handsome with one of those absolutely infuriating smiles, so Stephanie's used to girls hating her, but this is an entirely different matter. Jealousy's ugly on a person, but frustration and confusion is uglier. Nobody talks to her, really, only the odd moments of reflexive polite interaction, the accidental, "Oh, excuse me," or "Beg your pardon?" that punctuate the oppressive discomfort. There's a lot of whispering. Stephanie would ignore it except that apparently the serum had done a number on her hearing, too, and she phones Howard to tell him about it.
"Super hearing — fantastic!" Howard yells, and starts talking about how he'll have to design an experiment so they can see how much improved over a normal person's range she is, and Stephanie thinks bleakly that at least Howard is happy.
Meanwhile, Stephanie had locked herself into a bathroom stall to have a muffled, hour-long cry the first night she'd been at the studio and tried to change into one of her old night dresses — worn and comforting cotton — and ripped it into two pieces trying to pull it over her head. She'd sorted through all of the clothes she'd (stupidly) packed and thought that all of it was pointless: every carefully hoarded slip and dress, every single pair of her knickers. It's the horrible realization of her waking all over again, to know that every single thing she can wear now is Army issue, delivered to her by Peggy, by one of the nurses Howard sent off with a wink. Her ring is too small. Her dresses don't fit. The person she was before might as well be dead, and that makes her heart thrash in her chest as if the serum and Howard's Vita-Ray hadn't taken at all.
So she doesn't think about it, tries not to think about it. She goes to bed in the night dress Peggy gave her and wears underwear courtesy of the U.S. Army and she ties back her hair in the morning and washes her face — gets on with her day. Stephanie's not sure how well she's hiding her misery, but she's also not sure anybody cares she's miserable.
It might not be so bad if she was learning the same steps as everybody else in the chorus line, but Brandt had a vision and he's inflicted it on her. Not only was she shoehorned into the crowd, she's supposed to stand out from it.
"What the hell kind of name is Lady Liberty anyway?" Rhonda Ferigno asks, not at Stephanie, but at the room, after three days of watching Stephanie trip over her own two feet and the effusive Greek drapery they've tailored within an inch of its life.
Gloria Cartwright snickers. "Don't start with her, Rhonda, God knows what she'll tell the senator if you do."
Stephanie crushes the foam crown she's been holding, and in her throat she's got a shout waiting to escape — except then there's a hand on her wrist and Clarissa Eden is whispering, "Oh, don't listen to them," in her ear.
Clarissa's 19 and all lush curves. She was selected from more than 200 girls who'd gone to audition for USO slots, and while she hadn't made Bob Hope's tour, they'd plucked her out of the madding crowd for this instead. Stephanie learns that Clarissa grew up in a two horse town ten miles outside of the nearest three horse town, and that the first week she'd been in New York City every sound on the street had terrified her, she'd been so innocent of it all. She has a drawl as slow as molasses and some bottomless well of patient good will that Stephanie feels as if she's constantly drinking dry.
"They were nasty to me, too, when I just got here," she says simply, later that night when she sits purposely with Stephanie for dinner. "And anyway, I only see Senator Brandt lookin' at you — you're never lookin' back."
Stephanie shudders at the thought.
"That's what I thought," Clarissa says, smug.
"Thank you, though," Stephanie says, hoarse and shy all over from so long biting her tongue. "I — I know I'm not picking this up the way I should."
"Well, it's not the easiest thing in the world," Clarissa allows, so Southern sweet in her circumspect choice of words Stephanie could kiss her. "I figure, you probably just need a a little help, if you don't mind me volunteering?"
Stephanie is embarrassingly grateful for it. They log in long hours after ordinary practice, and Stephanie practices until she dreams about it, slips seamlessly from her bed in the dormitories to the studio again, going through the footwork. She still has moments, when sleep won't come for her even on the wings of exhaustion, that she feels like she's failing — that after scamming her way into Dr. Erskine's project and surviving a gunshot and the serum and Howard's monster box, that it'll be the chorus line that keeps her from getting what she wants. It makes her sick to think about it, so she tries not to think about it, curls up on her side late at night and rations out another one of Bucky's letters like they're butter and white sugar — letting them melt across her tongue.
Three weeks into practice, Martha, the choreographer pulls Stephanie aside.
"Rogers," she says, "your delivery on every line is less convincing than the one before."
Stephanie deflates. "Oh," she says.
Martha claps her on the shoulder. "You better get that shit fixed before we hit San Francisco."
Later that night, while Stephanie is wrapping up Clarissa's ankle — she jumps too high, lands too hard, and is always turning it — Clarissa says, "Honestly, Steph, if you're having trouble here, how are you gonna manage when there's 500 people in the audience hootin' and hollerin' at you?"
"I was hoping I'd go into some sort of fugue state and wake up when it was all over," Stephanie mumbles, and pins off the bandage. "There, ice that before you go to bed and again in the morning — and go easy on yourself."
Clarissa just folds herself over, balances her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands and stares at Stephanie like she's an extra puzzle piece, frowning.
"You don't want to do this at all?" she asks. "You aren't a little excited?"
Stephanie thinks about her three different costumes during the routine, and how her options are skintight grecian robe, skintight trousers and boots, and the spangled miniskirt and dazzling halter. She looks ridiculous enough just standing there in the get up while looking at herself in the mirror — the idea of going through dress rehearsals and eventually performing for a crowd's enough to turn her stomach.
Out loud, she says, "I don't think I'm meant for this."
"Then why'd you sign up?" Clarissa says reasonably.
Because I'm crazy, Stephanie thinks. Because Bucky's right, I never listen to him, and he didn't manage to take all the stupid with him. She thinks about Dr. Erskine and what he'd said a lifetime ago now, about how victory gardens and scrap metal and keeping up appearances were important — genuinely important — and Stephanie feels a mean twist of guilt to know she doesn't believe it, that to her, it feels like empty consolation for everybody left behind. Everything she's done has been to try and close the distance between herself and her husband, but maybe it's been to close the distance between herself and the war, too. Stephanie's always been too sickly, too small, too thin to do anything, to help anybody; maybe shots fired had just made it all boil over.
She'd wanted to serve as a nurse and now she's better suited to serving cocktails and suboptimal dancing, Stephanie thinks bitterly, and for the millionth time since she came to this place she wonders if it wouldn't be better for her just to walk away. Peggy's furious with her, still, but Stephanie thinks that if she turned in her dancing shoes and admitted the error of her ways Peggy might fold her back into the SSR. Hell, Stephanie could roll up to Howard's lab and make herself at home. It might honestly take him a couple of years to remember she wasn't supposed to be there at all.
But none of that gets her over the ocean and none of it gets her to Bucky.
From his letters, he may be breathing, but it's not well, and Stephanie is well aware she's being crazy, but that's never stopped her before. It won't stop her now.
She tells Clarissa, hesitating, "My — well, I've got someone. Overseas."
And Clarissa's face softens just like that, a tenderness creeping her features. "Aw, Steph, why didn't you say earlier?" she murmurs, and careful, like she's heard bad news like this before, she asks, "You heard from him recently?"
Stephanie's smile is crooked and automatic. "He sent me a dozen dirty letters," she tells Clarissa, who turns a fantastic shade of red. "Half the pages are redacted, just for moral reasons, I think.
"Oh. My. Gosh," Clarissa laughs, and it breaks the tension of the moment well enough that a few minutes later, Stephanie's being hustled back to her feet, Clarissa saying, "Come on now — let's work on your lines again! You've got to sell them to me, Steph!"
Liberty quivered. She knew men thought of her in a certain way, but in truth, she'd always been shy about masculine attention. No matter what the soldiers might have whispered, she was pure and untried. James had been her first kiss, not so long ago, his arms strong and muscular around her. She felt petite in his hold, and now, especially, laid out in this hayloft with a fire blazing nearby, she shook with her desire and fear. James was unbuttoning his shirt, and Liberty felt herself quicken as she saw the thick pelt of hair on his chest, the strong definition of his muscles.
"Oh, James," she sighed, clutching her shirt closed — all the buttons had been lost in the sortie earlier, damn Nazis! "Are you sure about this? Your wife — "
"Damn my wife," James spat, and crawling over to her, he pressed her down in the hay, putting a hand lovingly to her cheek. His eyes were dark blue oceans, and Liberty drowned in them, overcome with by his powerful sensuality. "She's my wife in name only — God only knows how many sailors she's run around with."
Liberty gasped, horrified Stephanie could do something like that to James of all people.
"I don't love her," he went on, pulling her hands away so that her abundant breasts spilled outward and he could lave wet kisses on them. "You — you're my only love."
Liberty felt a single tear roll down her face. She was crying not in sadness, but joy.
"Don't cry, my precious beacon of freedom," James whispered, his hands searching the length of her body and stroking over the perfect flat planes of her stomach. His fingers quested lower, and Liberty had no words for an answer, just a guttural, erotic cry as he found the core of her and breached her.
She shook her head back and forth, overcome.
"Hush, dearest," James said, gnawing sexily on her nipples. "It will only hurt the first time — I'm so honored you're giving me this: your purity."
Liberty had been too busy learning spy craft and war tactics for much time gossiping with the gals. She only wished she knew more. She just nodded, brave to the end, and whispered, "I want to feel you, James. You're the only one I want to have this."
"God, you are the sexiest woman on the planet," James gushed, playing her gently like the most precious of violins until she couldn't bear it any longer and begged for him just to take her, make her his woman.
She was convinced, when she first saw his glistening member, that there was no way he would fit inside, but he held himself by the base firmly and smiled rakishly.
"Trust me, Liberty — we're made for each other."
— Rayne, Anjelica. Liberty Burning. Avon: New York, 1986. Print.
San Francisco is a disaster.
Stephanie forgets the steps, forgets her lines, forgets that she means to be there, because the moment the curtains open and she stares out across the overflowing concert hall, she goes weak in the knees. It doesn't help that the costumes are terrible. Stephanie tries not to think about what Bucky would say to see her wearing something this glittery and short because all of it would be disgusting.
She gets through it because Clarissa keeps jabbing her with an elbow or dragging her left or right, and Stephanie just about stutters through the chipper and suggestive dialog they've written for her. She's still terrible, but there's a weird comfort in knowing that if her skirt or her top are scandalous enough, all the fellas in the audience will be too distracted to care and all their gals too annoyed by it either way.
Sadly, the other chorus girls aren't as forgiving. Or easily distractible.
The silence grows, somehow, more oppressive, and Stephanie can feel the razor edge of impatience coming closer and closer to breaking skin. She has a little of their patience left, but that and no more, she thinks, with an ever-rising panic.
"I've seen you draw," Clarissa says that night, when they're cuddled together in the front seat of the bus that's hauling them across the twilight state lines, from California toward Illinois. The highway is ever-unfolding, and Stephanie hurts all over from sitting. "I've seen you sew and you're real good at folding things."
Stephanie can't help but smile. "Thank you. I think."
"Honestly, sayin' a few lines is not that hard compared to drawing, Stephanie," Clarissa continues, reproachful now.
That leaves Stephanie frowning down at her hands, at where she's been patching together the squares of a quilt. She'd cut up her old clothes, transformed them into new things that fit her as well as she could, and she's been piecing the scraps into a pattern. The strangeness of it all is unceasing, but so had been the constant sickness and discomfort and fatigue of her old body — Stephanie is learning that with sufficient time she can get used to anything.
Clarissa doesn't have time for introspection. Jabbing Stephanie in the side, she asks, "Well? What do you have to say for yourself, Brooklyn?"
"It's — it just feels ridiculous," Stephanie says finally, feels it bubbling out of her. "You give me these words to say and I say them and they just sound absurd in my ears."
Her 'script,' as it is, involves her sashaying out onto the stage in her Lady Liberty costume, giving every man woman and child in the audience a saucy look, and saying, "I'm a girl worth fighting for." Her explicit direction from the director had been, "Say it as if you're trying to seduce a man," and then any other suggestions he may have wanted to give her had been forestalled by the apparent undisguised horror on Stephanie's face.
"So it's not Shakespeare," Clarissa concedes. "But can't you see the spirit of it?"
"I'm a girl worth fighting for?" Stephanie hisses at her.
There's a berth of empty seats around them, Stephanie's social pariah status so intense after the debacle in California that the other dancers are treating her ineptitude like the measles and quarantining them in their corner. Outside the windows, highway lights whiz by and small towns in the distance are lit up, and Stephanie feels that weightless indirection from too long traveling, the boundaries of everything melting away.
"You're Lady Liberty," Clarissa reasons. "Don't you think Liberty's worth fighting for?"
"Liberty's a right, not a foam crown and a low-cut dress," Stephanie retorts, bitter.
Clarissa sniffs. "What use is Liberty if she's so precious there's only one way to have her and a million ways to do it wrong?" she asks. "And don't tell me this tour isn't doing important work, Steph, we're selling war bonds."
There's a creeping, irritating sense of shame nipping at Stephanie's heels because Clarissa is right and always has been about these things. But this singing and dancing, her foam crown and slinky costumes, they feel the same way collecting scrap metal and sharing tips on extending the life of makeup had felt. Stephanie always looks at these things and thinks, this isn't real. More and more frequently, she looks at these things and thinks, this isn't real to me.
"I'm just not used to so many people staring," she prevaricates, because while it's true, it's not the whole truth, and Stephanie suspects Clarissa knows that, even.
"Maybe we should just get you drunk before the show," Clarissa muses.
By the time they reach Chicago, getting drunk before the show is sounding like a better and better idea. Stephanie knows her lines now — the endlessness of the drive had taken care of that —but she sounds fake when she says them, or maybe that's only because she's saying them to herself, whispering them over and over under her breath sitting in the empty seats of the theater.
The other girls are all gathered backstage, putting on lipstick and curling their hair. Stephanie had taken the silent cue and gone to sit apart from them, the sense of unwelcome a cloud around her.
There're men on the crew putting up stage sets and wiring lights. The band is setting out their instruments and calling back and forth to each other. There're girls and stage hands and assistants all over, running up and down the aisles, and Stephanie feels like a singular, absurd point of stillness in all of it, her hair in rag curls, wearing Bucky's old work shirt over her costume in the chill of the room. She feels more than just a few states away from their apartment in Brooklyn; she feels a million years old. Just a few months ago, when the furthest outside of New York she'd ever been was sitting on her fire escape imagining the French Riviera with Bucky, she'd dreamed of cities like San Francisco and Chicago. Now she's been and she's going and it's all nothingness to her: tall buildings and big crowds. Stephanie feels like the real version of her, the little one, is lost inside one of those Russian nesting dolls: first the new body, then this bus of chorus girls, these cities, this war. She has no idea what she's doing — why she'd left the SSR offices, where at least she'd known Marlene and Peggy and Howard. She's afraid to admit she probably regrets this, that her desperation has made a fool of her.
But then Clarissa's bursting through the wine-red curtains on the stage, her eyes wide, and she yells out, "Stephanie!" like she's scared.
Steph doesn't remember getting up and running, but later, the guy who does their stage lighting will tell her she vaulted over two rows of theater seats and made the stage in six strides — her costume flapping dramatically. At the moment, all she sees is the way Clarissa's face is bloodless. Then, once Stephanie has grabbed Clarissa by the hand and asked, "What happened? Are you okay?" she's drawn backstage and all she can hear is the agonizing silence of all the chorus girls gathered in a cluster.
Near the stage door exit, propped open by their tour manager, is a Western Union man holding his hat and a telegram. Stephanie can hear only indistinct murmurs — she doesn't know if that's because they're too far away or that she can feel her entire body shutting down in familiar, crippling fear. This is the mailbox in Brooklyn again, the way her hands had shaken as she'd opened Bucky's orders to report for basic.
"It's not Robert," Gloria is saying, more to herself than anybody else Stephanie thinks. Rhonda is holding her up, pressing their temples together. "It's not. We're not married yet, they'd tell his Momma — it's not Robert."
"'Course it's not Robert," Rhonda is saying, sounding braver than she looks. "Robert Glassman is a dumb dog of a man but even he's bright enough to know if he doesn't get back here to make an honest woman of you, he's getting my fist in his kisser."
Clarissa is clinging to Stephanie tightly, holding her hand. Clarissa's never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed, but when she'd asked Stephanie if she did — blushing the whole time — Stephanie had said, "Can you keep a secret?" and told her the whole truth. Her husband is away and her ring is on a chain around her neck and even the scar on her knee she'd gotten when she was 17, after skidding down a flight of steps storming away from a fight with Bucky, is gone. She'd needed to tell someone, repeat it to herself and to someone else to make it feel real; she guesses this is how religious people feel. Right now, Stephanie wishes she talked to God more.
There's a whisper building, weaving through the girls like a late winter wind: whose married? is anyone here married? have a brother, a father? Stephanie thinks they only need to look for the other women in the huddle who are still and silent like Galatea waiting for Pygmalion to breathe life into them.
The discussion at the doorway continues, and the telegram man is pointing at a name now, their tour manager frowning down at the document and pointing at something else. The the sun is beginning to set behind them, the color of the light melting into a rich orange-red, their shadows creeping along the floors backstage, reaching for the dancers, and Stephanie stares at her feet and just knows.
She knows it might not be her, because she's still listed on the tour documents as Stephanie Rogers, and though for the SSR she may be an open secret, to everyone else there'd been no particular need for further disclosure or clarification. So maybe they are confused by the name on the telegram, wondering why it says Barnes and not Rogers, although the tour manager must know they have a Stephanie, he yells her name in anger enough. But she also knows it can't be her, because Bucky's last night, he'd pressed his body on top of hers, into hers, and he'd promised she was never getting rid of him, that he'd come home to her. In all the years they've known each other, Bucky's never broken any promise that mattered — Stephanie doesn't care about any of the other promises right now, from before or that will come after, as long as he keeps this one.
"Stephanie — you're hurting me," Clarissa whispers, urgent and bruised-sounding, and Stephanie drops her hand, feels her fist unfurl, and she looks at the angry red lines she left across poor Clarissa's fingers and is horrified.
"Oh, God," she whispers. "I'm so sorry — I didn't mean — "
"Girls," Frank, the tour manager says, a note of unusual kindness in his tone, "take a deep breath — it was a misdirect. It wasn't meant for any of us, all right?"
Stephanie doesn't mean to yell, but it whips out of her, and she says, "Did you see the name? What was the name on the telegram?"
There's a murmur of agreement from the girls around her, and Frank looks pained.
"Jesus, Rogers — I just said it wasn't for one of you guys," he complains.
Stephanie thinks under any other circumstance, she'd have a well-articulated argument for why that's bullshit, and why he ought to tell them anyway. Right now, it feels as it someone has ripped her throat wide open with the dark talons of a nightmare caught up to her, and the only thing that keeps coming out of her mouth are hurt noises. She wants to say, I don't trust you, and You don't know the whole story, and Tell us the God damn name, Frank.
Thank God, Rhonda does it for her.
"There're more of us than there are of you, Frank Winters," she snaps at him. "And we're all carrying hairbrushes and high-heeled shoes — you better cough up that name."
Frank throws his hands up in the air and he says, "For fuck's sake: Greg Bishop, all right? Are you happy? This is me, loose lips and sinking ships, Jesus H," and maybe he says more but Stephanie misses most of it on account of her knees giving out.
Clarissa yells, "Stephanie!" and Rhonda and even Gloria and a dozen other women rush over, crowd around her, but Stephanie can't make out their faces through the sudden river of tears. She's so grateful she's shaking, hard enough that she can barely keep her hands pressed to her face, barely keep her gasps muffled. She's so glad someone else is dead or that someone else is lost and it's so horrible and wonderful it's hit her all at once, knocked the breath out of her and the strength out of her.
It takes the entire chorus line to help move her, to help her to a chair instead of collapsed in a pile of limbs on the stag, and Stephanie keeps saying, "I'm so sorry," and "I'll be all right in just a second." Clarissa keeps saying, "Stephanie, stop lying," and "I don't care what you say, I'm tellin'," and she does, she holds a glass of water to Stephanie's lips and tells everybody — about being left behind and Bucky and the letters she'd only just received, about signing up for the tour on the thinnest of hopes.
It's Stella Hurley who talks first, brow wrinkled. "This explains your dancing, Rogers," she says, and after a beat passes, adds, "I guess that oughta be Barnes, then."
"You've gotta be the only USO girl dumb enough to want to go into a warzone," Rhonda tells her, and there're shakes, too, in her voice.
Stephanie scrubs at her face, blows her nose on the handkerchief Frank had more or less flung into the madding fray before escaping for his life. She mumbles, "You sound like my husband."
"Maybe he's the smart one in that relationship," Stella muses.
"I've seen his picture," Clarissa tells the group. "He doesn't need to be smart."
And then they all need to see Bucky's picture, and Steph's forced to dig out Bucky's compass, pass it around so they can see his face tucked into the lid like a secret. "How come we've never seen you fooling around with this thing, Stephanie?" Gloria asks, after ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Bucky the way all the neighborhood girls used to. And then Stephanie has to say, "Oh, I just — I guess I draw him a lot."
Her drawings of Bucky have always felt more intimate than any photograph could be. A picture is just a picture, but a drawing is Steph's hand to paper, her pencil shaping out the line of his nose, the curve of his lower lip, trying to trap that particular gleam in his eye. All her dirty sketches, the ones of his beautiful back and the wonderful muscles of his arms and his thighs, the rough hair on his chest, the way his face looks when she's mouthing over him — she'd left those in Brooklyn in a box under their bed. The notebook she's carrying is more innocent stuff: Bucky laughing, Bucky working on a car down at the shop, a smudge of oil on his face and his hair a wreck. There's Bucky all dressed up to go dancing, in fine clothes with his hair slicked back, admiring himself in the hall mirror. Her husband's vain — but at least he's got a right to be.
It's almost an hour later that Frank pokes his head behind the curtain and rips into them about wasting them and nattering away and aren't they going to start practicing for tonight or do they not want anybody to buy war bonds? Rhonda, who Stephanie is beginning to like a lot, throws a shoe at him.
"They're going to hate me again after dress," Stephanie says bleakly, helping Clarissa lace herself into her sparkling costume. In it, Clarissa looks like a million bucks, her dark brown hair a rich cascade of dramatic curls down, and gleaming pinned up.
"Tell them if they're mean to you, you won't let them look at Bucky's pictures anymore," Clarissa teases.
What actually happens at dress rehearsals is that Gloria says, "Stephanie, if you hate those lines so much, why don't you just change them?"
Stephanie colors and is about to say, "Oh, I don't know if I should," before Frank is yelling, "Rogers — Barnes, if you change the lines I'll have your hide for leather!"
Gloria cocks an eyebrow, smirking. "Well?"
Stephanie changes the lines. She goes through her notes, the ones she'd marked up so badly on the way from San Francisco to Chicago and scowls at the double entendres and stupidity. There're little kids in the audience and ladies, too; they can't possibly be enjoying this, she thinks. Stephanie thinks about what she's actually trying to say, what they're actually trying to do. She thinks about war bonds and putting a bullet in the barrel of your best guy's gun, and how Stephanie would do a lot worse than put on a short skirt if it would help the 107th — but she could do a lot better, too.
This chapter is filled with historically implausible activities for the USO given the state of the Allied forces and the map of who controlled what in Europe during late 1943 and it's making my teeth hurt but I'm rolling deep with the Captain America canon. Extra special thanks to Twentysomething, who is a kung fu master in both wheatgoogling and knows way too much about wars.
So I Think It's Time We Talk About What a Dick James Buchanan Barnes Actually Was
March 10, 2014
By Lisa Chow
According to the Smithsonian, today is James Buchanan Barnes's 97 birthday. Or would have been if he hadn't been lost behind enemy lines after a brief but celebrated and illustrious career leading the legendary World War II guerrilla team The Howling Commandos.
I grew up playing Howling Commandoes with my three brothers. My parents, who were New England liberals of the worst kind, made us vow to take turns playing Barnes. For long hours, we'd tear through the woods behind our house acting out his great accomplishments: blowing up Nazi Hydra bases, saving quaint European towns, fighting back to back with Lady Liberty, who — in our games at least — was always equipped with a minimum of two (imaginary) uzis.
Driven both by a lack of interest in romance and an early wariness of anything even approaching sibling incest, our childhood games neatly ignored any references to Barnes and Lady Liberty's relationship. By the time I was a teenager, however, I'd found Penelope Hawkins' (in)famous Howling Love series and had bought wholesale into their star-crossed, world-ending love story.
Early boyfriends were compared against the template of Barnes, and were mostly found unfavorable. Were they brave enough to withstand torture? Had they managed to break free of their captors, animated by help from Lady Liberty and motivated by his love for her, to rescue hundreds of men on top of it? Not only did they march through the forests of Europe from deep behind enemy lines, they'd stolen like, five tanks from the Nazis. Dan Thigpen, who I went with briefly in the 10th grade, couldn't even remember that at that point in my life, I only drank Diet Coke.
Even beyond the obvious heroics that had contributed both to the mythos and practical realities of the Allied fight during WWII, what made Barnes hypnotically attractive to me and millions of other young girls who keep the flame burning was the sheer romance of it all.
A hero in his own right, he was rescued by the mysterious Lady Liberty, who apocryphal accounts say abandoned a USO performance when she heard hundreds of members of the 107th infantry had been left behind enemy lines and were written off for dead. According to various retellings, she stole a helmet and a Jeep or bribed an intelligence officer for a plane ride and went deep behind enemy lines where she'd found him: near death and mumbling his name and serial number. Their eyes met across a metal torture table, and it was love at first sight. They fought together or adjacent for the rest of the Howling Commandoes' run; Lady Liberty sometimes feeding intel to the Commandoes and sometimes stepping in herself in skintight pants and a bomber jacket. She matched him in hotness and bravery, and if Hawkins' embroidered smut-peddling or, hell, the historical accounts, are to be believed, they never missed an opportunity to canoodle on the side of a frigid Alpine mountain, in a tent in the middle of a sea of mud, sitting high up in trees waiting to ambush some Nazis. You know, romantic stylez (Jake Peralta TM).
Like a lot of other women, this dream was shredded by the historical truth.
College fucked up my conception of a lot of things: the presumed ambrosia of independence (lol poverty), the presumed ambrosia of sexual intercourse (lol NAME REDACTED BECAUSE WE EVENTUALLY GOT IT TOGETHER BUT DUDE YOU KNOW THE FIRST TIME SUCKED), the presumed unimpeachable love of James Buchanan Barnes and Lady Liberty.
I'm just going to come out and say it: that guy was a dick.
Did you know he was cheating on his wife? Did you even know he had a wife? If we're basing our understanding of him and his romance with Lady Liberty based on television movies and feature films you're lucky if there's an offhand mention of the woman he left behind in Brooklyn, New York, before he'd been shipped out for war.
The source material that does depict her does it ambivalently, without any kindness. Stephanie Barnes is always plain and unremarkable at media's most generous, or a monstrous harridan and nag at its most vile. She never loved him, or maybe she did in a toxic way. Oftentimes, the speculative and heartbreaking corner of the permanent Smithsonian exhibit dedicated to baby clothes found and sourced to the couple from the early years of their marriage is used as a justification for the marriage at all: she faked a pregnancy, she tricked him. It's fine that he went and grossly cheated on her.
And for a while after I realized my teenaged readings of Barnes were absent a major biographical point, I assumed that maybe it was just like so marriages: dissolved. People fall out of love. Relationships don't stand the test of time. Maybe they were both ambivalent, only it was the 1940s and people just stuck it out in their shitty marriages.
This ate at me, a gnawing guilt, and when I moved to New York after college I went to the New York Historical Society, which has a collection of the Barnes' materials.
"The Barnes'?" I remember asking the woman at the library desk.
She smiled at me, like she got this question a lot. "They were a married couple."
I spent days with them, in the intimacy of their married lives, and here is what I know:
Stephanie Barnes, nee Rogers, was more than a sickly footnote. She was the beloved only child of a man who died from mustard gas in World War I and a nurse. She herself was a nurse, and worked harrowing shifts seeing harrowing things. You'd never know it to see her letters, the beautiful, effortless drawings she made. She drew Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s with a loving eye and hand, and she drew her husband. She called him Bucky, and never dated her pictures. She drew him on their fire escape surrounded by "his cadre of stray cats" and she drew him putting in long hours at a garage, in battered coveralls and wiping his hands down with grease-stained rags. Her letters, the ones recovered from Barnes' belongings left in Europe, are longing. And that would have been enough to make me feel like an asshole except then the librarians mentioned the other collection.
The other collection is a private holding, sold into the possession of Howard Stark in the 1970s, but a contemporary guide from Christie's describes it thus:
"Lot #36 is collection of 120 individual drawings executed by Stephanie Barnes (nee Rogers), w. of James Buchanan Barnes. Stephanie Barnes, briefly an art student during the late 1930s, was an extraordinary talent, and these pictures were discovered by friends of the family as they were cleaning out their apartment following the couples' death during the war. For decades, they were remanded to storage and considered unfit for consumption, despite a high level of curiosity for documents pertaining to Barnes. The drawings are intimate and largely sexual in nature: Barnes in nude repose, Barnes aroused. One particularly spectacular rendering depicts only part of Barnes' face, the rest obscured by the vee of a woman's thighs. This collection is an unmatched treasure, both in terms of artistic skill and historical value. This lot has a confidential reserve."
These weren't the scribblings of a nag or a shrew. She was a woman in love and afraid for her husband, who worked through the war in hospitals — she stayed faithful.
Barnes' liaison with Lady Liberty wasn't a desperate grab for human connection. He didn't unwisely fuck a randy widow or find an Italian prostitute. I'm not saying those types of transgressions would be more forgivable, but they'd at least be understandable. He flagrantly, cruelly carried on a love affair with the war's most visible female icon.
We can never know the reality of any couples's relationship. Maybe they had an understanding; maybe before he'd gone off to war they'd made rules for having an open relationship. Maybe as they're knocking down old buildings to throw up new condos in Brooklyn Heights they'll find some other stash of correspondence showing Stephanie Barnes' own salacious affair.
I don't think we will. And more important than that, I think what we owe ourselves is a careful review of what makes a man great.
Barnes' contributions during the war cannot be overstated or disregarded, but nor can his very real shortcomings. His great acts during trying times don't erase his wrongdoing. We owe it to the historical record to have an honest representation of our heroes — and after everything I've read and studied, I think we owe it to Stephanie, to his wife, to correct the record.
She was real. She was not a monster. They were in love — at least for a little while.
— Chow, Lisa. "So I Think It's Time We Talk About What a Dick James Buchanan Barnes Actually Was." Jezebel. Gawker Media. 10 March 2014. Web. 7 July 2014.
Frank's so overjoyed that Stephanie actually manages to say her lines with something approaching enthusiasm that he only yells at the troupe for forty minutes after their first Chicago performance. Once he's left red-faced and huffing, sounding hoarse, it's Gloria who raises her hand, saucy, and asks, "So does this mean we can make other changes, too, because I got objections, too." After that, it's open season.
By the time they wrap up their first tour back in New York, Frank's more or less packed it in on the grounds that he'd been promised USO dancers, not suffragettes.
"Fuck 'im," Gloria says around a mouthful of bobby pins, hunched over Stephanie's left shoulder doing something complicated with her hair.
Rhonda, perched over Stephanie's right shoulder, hums around her own mouthful of bobby pins. They've been sticking bobby pins in Stephanie's hair for about an hour now. Steph thinks that if they collected all the bobby pins that have been applied to all the girls in this USO show, the military could build a tank. A fleet of tanks.
"What are you guys doing?" Stephanie asks, trying to turn her head to see. Gloria humors her for all of 15 seconds before pressing her long-nailed hands threateningly to Stephanie's face and turning her back to the smudged vanity.
Over the half-empty bottles of carefully hoarded makeup, the stray feathers and snatches of fabric, the pincushion and shears they'd clawed out of Stephanie's hands to play with her hair instead, hovers the face of a stranger. She's wreathed in the dingy orange light backstage, and it throws dramatic shadows over her face. Her eyes look darkly blue and fringed ebony, and Clarissa had dabbed and dabbed at Steph's lipstick until the mouth she saw was a perfect crimson bow. It still doesn't feel like it belongs to her, though when she lifts her hands to touch her cheek, it's the pads of her own fingers she feels. Even the callous from gripping her pencils too tightly, the slight bend in her right middle finger, has gone away.
She's over the worst of it, where she'd look in the mirror and get sick to her stomach, horrible shock pooling in her belly like cold water. But she still does a double take at herself sometimes. Stephanie is an artist, and she sees beauty in all sorts of strange and ordinary things — her face in this mirror is strange, but not ordinary. Objectively, she thinks that the woman she's wearing is beautiful. So she knows it's crazy to catch herself missing her old body, her real body, the way it couldn't breathe and always looked hollow at the cheeks, how it drew stares of pity and not the leering Steph gets now. How it was perfectly happy to go about business never needing a brassier.
"You know I charge good money for this much effort back home," Gloria tells Stephanie, and inserts another five hundred bobby pins.
Stephanie lets herself slump down another half inch into her seat, propping her chin with her hands and elbows akimbo on the vanity table. She looks past the Greta Garbo lips and the pin-up pink cheeks to her eyes, which are the same eyes she's always seen in the mirror.
"I guess I'm just not used to the attention," Steph murmurs. The way the lips — her lips move around the words are a little mesmerizing, and she guesses she knows why those dirty magazines asked for so many drawings of saucy ladies eating bananas. And why Bucky liked so much to gather her hair up away from her face when she sucked him.
In the mirror, next to the riot of blond curls and bobby pins and Stephanie's slightly stunned expression, Rhonda looks completely unconvinced.
"Honey, everybody in Brooklyn must be blind," she says.
"Oh, not everybody though," Gloria teases, winking, and produces a red kerchief and starts tying it up around the back of Stephanie's hair. Every time she moves her head it feels like there are one million tiny nails scraping at her scalp. "After all, Buck noticed."
Even caked under an inch of stage makeup, Stephanie can see herself blush.
"Buck being the handsomest, smartest, kindest boy in Brooklyn," Rhonda picks up.
"And so observant," Gloria laughs, "seeing through the forty bushels under which Steph here would need to hide her light."
Stephanie finds herself laughing, because they're so wrong and so right at the same time. Bucky is the handsomest, smartest, kindest boy in Brooklyn, and even when Steph didn't have anything, she's always had Bucky. She wonders what Gloria and Rhonda would have thought if they'd met her a year ago, if they would have whispered or just raised their eyebrows in disbelief to see her and Bucky walking around hand in hand, so thoroughly mismatched.
But if it's one thing this body's taught her so far, it's not to carry imaginary grudges.
People react to her differently now. They make an entirely new set of assumptions. People who see Miss Stephanie Rogers, headlining as Lady Liberty, think they know the whole of her life, imagine she must be spoilt and untouched by sadness, that being — and even in the privacy of her head, it's so awkward to say — that being beautiful has been an anodyne to whatever life hands out. People are both nicer and meaner to her, in unexpected ways, too. Steph would have thought fellows would be more gracious, but when they are it's all implied expectation, and when women are meaner, it's always got a note of worry. Stephanie remembers being on the other side of the conversation so well she can't even get upset. Mrs. Stephanie Barnes would have hated Lady Liberty, the way she would have turned Bucky's head, even though Bucky was a good as gold. And so many of the kindnesses she'd come to know — the way peoples' edges softened around her, just enough to get by — have vanished, and she wonders how much of it was pity, back then, and how much of it now is presumption. Stephanie feels like a spy, living life under the cover of her own skin.
"You two have no idea," Steph tells them, but she's smiling, she can't help herself. "Most of our old neighborhood thought I'd gotten into witchcraft to catch Bucky's attention."
Rhonda's expression in the mirror is mostly pursed lips and disbelief. "Honey, that ain't witchcraft — those are your titties."
Because she's not used to having them still, when Stephanie crosses her arms over her chest reflexively, she does it wrong and has to do a wiggle and a shimmy to reposition her hands. She hears herself say, "Rhonda," the way Mrs. Horowitz had said Stephanie Grant Rogers that time she'd caught her and Bucky necking on the roof of the building.
"It isn't lewd if it's the truth, Stephanie," Gloria informs her, and affixing the kerchief with a final bobby pin, declares, "Finished!" She waves her hands busily. "You may now return to your work as impromptu seamstress to the entire USO troupe."
All the girls know how to darn socks and fix buttons, but darning socks and fixing buttons is a league away from repairing the hard living of their USO costumes. Steph had come across Clarissa exercising genteel Georgian variants of actual profanity, hunched over one of her costumes, and taken it out of her hands. Clarissa grew up with nannies and housekeepers, nice clothes and doting parents; she's got a good heart and clumsy hands for housework. "I don't mind," Stephanie had told her, honest. "I like having something to do with my hands." Ever since, all the girls have been bringing her their torn stockings, their dresses with ripped seams, sat next to her asking question after question about what it's like in New York, about Bucky, about how she knows Senator Brandt, while Stephanie sinks into the muscle memory of fabric and thread.
It's not progressive, she guesses, but Stephanie's always taken pride in her sewing. She can crochet lace and knit, sew up dresses and mend rips. She might be only an okay cook and plain in her small stature — well, before, anyway — but everybody agreed that Mrs. Stephanie Barnes made beautiful things. Bucky always had the handsomest clothes, tailored for his shoulders and long legs, elegant gloves and coats and scarves.
Bucky used to save up, squirrel away pennies and nickels until he would show up at home with the most gorgeous fabrics for her: pink peonies and green leaves arrayed on a pale blue background, sprigged lawns, sea-glass green voile to make up for the dress he'd ripped getting her out of that one time.
"Beautiful things for my best girl," he'd say, and then ruin it by leering and adding, "You've got good hands, I've always said." Stephanie would try to hide her smile, try to sound sufficiently reproachful as she said, "I regret intensely everything I've done with these hands insofar as they involve you and that shed behind the church."
That was then. Now — now Stephanie is rearranging her problem bosom inside the bodice of Lady Liberty's grecian gown, feeling Rhonda and Gloria pulling out all of the bobby pins and putting on Stephanie's crown. There's no soup bubbling away on the stove and nobody to wait for in bed. There's just the war and today and the world narrowing to this singular moment before the curtain rises.
Stephanie feels her hair fall, cascade down her shoulders and back like a golden cloud, feels the dress swish around her feet, hears the audience through the heavy drape and the announcer's voice booming throughout the auditorium.
"Last show, Lady Liberty," Clarissa says, winking and handing Stephanie her paper mache torch and her tabula ansata.
Stephanie lets out a shaking breath. She's numbed to this, but she's not used to this.
"Last show," she agrees, and fussing with the drape of her dress, she asks, "You think they'll send us overseas, after this?"
Clarissa grins at her. "Those boys over there'll have a riot if they don't," she says.
"Yeah," Stephanie murmurs, "yeah," and the curtains go up, the roar of the crowd rolling over her like the frothing whiteheads of a wave. She lets herself close her eyes for one infinite, breathless second — to get her bearings, to remind herself where she is, where she's going, why she's done this, that her name is Stephanie Grant Barnes — before her lashes flutter up and she puts a smile on her face.
Lady Liberty experts disagree whether or not she ever replied to soldiers' letters to her, or if the most consistent handwriting that appeared in the responses belonged to some other, anonymous woman — long lost to bad record keeping. However, there is universal agreement that the personal responses servicemen received would have been impossible if attributed to a single woman. Lady Liberty fielded thousands and thousands of pieces of first class and victory mail during the heyday of her wartime fame.
Reproduced below is a note from the Pacific Theater, received and collected by the USO Office in mid-1944:
Dear Miss Liberty —
My name is Luke Treadwell, 43rd Infantry Division. I know you must be getting a lot of letters from fellows like me, but I hope you have the time to read this one, and maybe write back if you have the chance! You see, I was the lucky so and so who got pulled on stage with you in Chicago, ma'am. I'm sure I didn't leave much of an impression, I could barely get two words out.
You've got to take responsibility for that though, Miss Liberty, since you did lay one on my cheek on stage. I carried that lipstick mark with pride for days! I would have shipped out with it on my face if my Ma hadn't forced me to wash it off.
I don't have anything particular to say, exactly, only that I told the boys here about my brush with fame on that Chicago stage and they've been bugging me to write to you, to ask for a photo or a letter back. One of these lunks asked for a handkerchief with perfume, but ma'am, you shouldn't send that. These ain't gentlemen over here.
I heard from around camp you might be doing a tour overseas. I'd sure love to see you again, but hell if I can decide if you ought to come here at all. It's hot and wet and terrible here, Miss Liberty.
War's not like what the movies and comics make it out to be. It's mud and filth and blood and other terrible things. My friend Eddie — you would have liked him, Miss, he could play all kinds on his harmonica — ████████ the other day. I stepped over ████████████, and it wasn't like those books, ma'am. He didn't say anything. He didn't look ████. His eyes were just ████ and ████████████████. Our CO's writing a letter home to his Momma now, and I'm sitting here writing to you, thinking about Eddie's sweetheart back in Iowa. I couldn't find his harmonica. I think he was carrying it that day. It's not in his stuff here. I wish I could send it back to her.
Sorry, Miss. I shouldn't be saying this stuff. But we don't talk about this stuff here, and I can't write home about it. My Ma's already so scared all her letters could just be pleading with me to write how I'm fine over and over again. I tell her a lot of things, but I don't tell her I'm fine.
If you are going to come overseas, and you think you might come to ████████████, come see us for sure. The guys in our outfit agree: we think you're swell, and our favorite gal!
Send a picture if you can, or even better, a letter back! We'd all love a letter back.
Records don't show whether or not Private Treadwell ever received a reply, but it was unlikely he would have lived to see it. He was killed in action roughly two months after sending this missive. He was 20.
— Garver, Brandon. Victory Mail. Chicago: Putnam, 1960. Print.
The less said about the amount of vomit Stephanie sees on the flight over the better.
Most of the gals clutch their rosaries and bibles. Steph clutches the drawing Howard had done for her on the back of some probably classified files, when she'd finally knocked up her courage and gone to tell him she was going to Europe.
He'd drawn out the specs for the Boeing 314 Clipper, a long-range flying boat, with his spidery, jagged letters and arrows pointing out this and that, but mostly, in all capitals at the bottom of the diagram written: YOU'LL BE FINE. THE PHYSICS ARE ON YOUR SIDE. Stephanie worries about Howard, about how he'll ever settle down if he thinks that writing THE PHYSICS ARE ON YOUR SIDE is the sort of thing that comforts nervous women. He's going to die alone. With nobody to take to fondue.
But the inside of the Clipper itself is extraordinary, richer and more beautiful than any space Stephanie's ever been in. She feels out of place, mismatched to the seats that fold down into beds, and she remembers Bucky reading her news stories about these planes, last winter when she was weak with the last lingering effects of pneumonia. How he'd stroked a hand through her hair in the warm cocoon of their bed, and how his voice had sounded around the consonants and vowels, talking about six-course meals served by French chefs on an airplane sailing toward places like Hong Kong and Southampton in England — places Steph could barely imagine, then.
And now she's on one of those Clippers, headed toward Europe for a show.
Stephanie looks out the window the whole time, through the quaking roar of liftoff and the ear-popping climb of ascent. Clarissa's curled up in a seat next to her, murmuring prayer after Baptist prayer with her eyes squeezed shut. Stephanie can't imagine not watching, not consuming every second. This isn't the leisurely runaway she and Bucky had whispered about, late at night and laughing to each other, when he'd pin her knees to her chest and grind into her like they could be any closer. But this is an airplane and these are Stephanie's fingers, pressed to the window, her body lifted up, the earth a million miles below and getting further — the ocean a shimmering mirror beneath them.
"How is it?" Clarissa asks, her voice shaking something awful.
"It's beautiful," Steph hears herself breathe out in a church whisper, the way she used to talk to her mother during mass. The plane's drone isn't in Latin, but it's soaring higher than any of the organ music ever did. She says, "Clarissa, you should look."
Clarissa laughs awkwardly, horribly. "I'm scared silly, Steph."
Stephanie doesn't say me, too, because Clarissa is talking about the plane, about their great height. She's talking about vertigo from looking down. The roiling feeling in Stephanie's stomach is from knowing where they're going, from the sickening desperation she feels. Bucky could be anywhere, and Stephanie's suspended above the Earth on the dismal chances that when she lands, she'll find Bucky waiting for her: whole and healthy and unhurt. But she has to — there's no other option.
Then she hears Rhonda say, "I'm going to be sick."
By the time they land, Rhonda's been sick. She's been sick plenty, and eventually that got Gloria going. They manage to get their act together after a while, but there's no saving Frank, who spends hours five through fifteen of their flight camped in one of the bathrooms moaning like a funerary dirge. The girls take turns bringing him water and trying to tempt him with crackers, but just the mention of food usually sends him off on another jag of horrible noises. When they touch down, Stephanie can't tell if his abrupt drop to his knees is to kiss the ground or just because he's so dehydrated.
Stephanie looks up and around herself, at the overcast sky and prodigious amounts of mud, churned up by Army Jeeps and soldiers' boots, and she has to put a hand over her heart to keep it tucked inside her chest. She's an entire ocean closer to Bucky, and it's only now that the hugeness of this continent, too, is sinking in. From her vantage point in Brooklyn, all she thought of was the unyielding sea. Here, she thinks of France and Nazis and infection, of the men who'd already been invalided home and who they had to belt to their beds at night, to keep them from going to end it all.
That won't be Bucky, Stephanie has decided. She promised till death do they part, but she's never meant it; Stephanie has always thought that people like Bucky live forever. She'd put her mark on him and traced it until it was in his bones. Stephanie thinks sometimes that when she dies, if they cleave her open, they will find Bucky's fingerprints on the inside of her ribcage, along the spoon of her hip, on the back of her kneecaps.
They do their tawdry act in London, and either Stephanie's gotten better at being saucy or it's really been that long since these soldiers have seen a woman. Clarissa,when Stephanie floats this theory, rolls her eyes so hard they're liable to fall right out of her head.
The other girls, they soak up the attention. Stephanie goes to the hospital.
She's used to convincing ornery, overworked doctors she can pull her weight, but in the past it had been because she was so small and skinny, frailness written into every inch of her. Now, Captain Capshaw looks at Stephanie's chest for a beat too long, as if the uniform isn't registering and he can see right through to her brassier, before looking back up at her with such condescension Stephanie's a little impressed.
"There's a whole group of gals over yonder spooling bandages, if you want to pitch in, darlin'," he tells her, all languorous syllables.
Stephanie narrows her eyes and she's gearing up to give him a piece of her mind when there's an airlift alert.
"Shit," Capshaw says, and dashes off without another word.
Stephanie considers this more or less permission to follow him, and rolls her sleeves as she goes. She's glad for it when she sees the patients.
The 77th Station Hospital mostly serviced heavy bomber bases, and everybody that plowed through the doors was badly wounded: flak casualties, shell fragments buried in arms and legs, skull and facial fractures, bodies — and pieces of bodies — scavenged from crash sites, dragged out of the rubble of their planes.
The men who have just arrived fall squarely within the statistics. They are young and grievously injured, and when Stephanie starts jogging alongside a gurney, one of the other nurses asks, "You trained?"
"Brooklyn Hospital School of Nursing," Stephanie says and tucks her tie in between the buttons of her shirt, keeps it out of the way. "What can I do to help?"
Capshaw chooses this moment to notice her presence and yell, "Hey! I thought I told you to get out of here!" Stephanie's saved from having to respond when one of the duty nurses tells her to put pressure on a freely bleeding wound and yells back, "She's been drafted!"
The 77th is nothing like the brisk hum of Stephanie's hospitals back home. There are no families or the elderly and infirm. Everybody she lays hands on here is a boy, many barely men, and Stephanie takes notes from the transferring medical staff and triages who has to wait out a dose of morphine before surgery, the ones who need to be stabilized so they can move to a more robust medical facility, the ones who just need stitches, the ones who need amputations. She sees boys with brassy blond hair and men with somber black curls, and she presses her hands to their wounds and their wrists — searching for heartbeats — and tends to the ill and dying as best as she can.
In each of them she sees someone she knew back home. Every person that comes in is a jolt in the guts for her, and she searches their faces wildly, looking for Bucky's nose and mouth, his eyelashes.
By the time Frank's dispatched to locate her, Stephanie's bloody and creased and exhausted in a way she hasn't felt since she woke up from in this new body. Sweat and her hands have matted down her hair, and she has a scrape on her knee from jamming it into a sharp corner. There's smudges of God knows what all over her uniform, and Frank's expression of undisguised horror is tremendous.
"What the hell happened to you, Barnes?" he barks at her.
Stephanie stares back. Only with prodigious restraint does she refrain from waving an arm at the ocean of injured soldiers.
Frank rips off his hat and scrubs a hand over his face, muttering, "Jesus Christ," before grabbing her by the elbow and hustling her off. "You've got a show to headline in ten minutes, girly-girl — I only hope they got some magic to pretty you up."
Stephanie ignores him to turn and call out over her shoulder, back at the doctors and duty nurses, "I can come back after — if you need me!"
They do. She does.
Steph and the girls do three shows a day, and afterward, she swaps out into her increasingly creased and battered uniform and darts away to the field hospitals and medical tents in whatever camp they find themselves. She tells the soldiers who are awake and trying to be brave jokes until they laugh and it hurts them worse, and they beg, "Ma'am, stop it, that's awful," at all dirty ones she learned from Bucky. She tells the boys who are in and out that she's here, that they'll be better soon. She tells the ones begging for more morphine when they can't have any that she's giving it to them right now, and pinches them to close the loop on her lie. It's a trick she's seen the other nurses do, and she's always wordlessly, endlessly grateful that it works, that their eyelids get heavy and they tumble off into sleep.
Clarissa is the first one who starts following her to the hospital, and Steph loses track of her quickly only to find her crying in a corner later that night, hands red from somebody's bandages and shivering. But Clarissa's stubborn, too, and she follows Stephanie every time after.
"I may not be an actual nurse, like you, but I can change bandages and tell dirty jokes just as well as you can, Stephanie," Clarissa had said, even though she looked white-faced and frightened, hands shaking. Stephanie recognizes this mulishness, knows its twin in herself, so she just loops her arm into Clarissa's and walks with her.
Stephanie still hates being on stage, but the fourth night of performances, one of the men she'd stitched up at the station hospital is sitting in the audience, blushing ferociously and staring. When Stephanie winks at him, when she smiles at him, it's because she's happy and she means it: he's lived, he's survived, and she's glad to see him sitting here.
They perform in big camps with hundreds of men, for small audiences in ad hoc fields. They rumble through the English countryside, watching the trees and serenity fade away into the bombed out patches of London. They sing and dance during the daytime, in a playhouse that's now an open-air amphitheater absent its roof.
Along the way, every step of the way, Stephanie steals every moment she can to ask the superior officers if they've had news of the 107. Have they heard of a man named James Barnes? Middle name, Buchanan. She asks the doctors if Bucky's passed through their hospital doors. She asks the nurses if they remember a handsome patient who'd probably sassed them and tried to pretend he wasn't scared of needles like a little kid.
No one's heard anything. Not here, not stateside, according to Howard.
Unfortunately still no news on your boy. The 107 was last in Italy, as far as I can find out, but no word on them since. Try to direct your troupe there next? Howard had written, his penmanship angular and architectural, the sort of hand cultivated by an engineer. Also I'm sending you this letter to let you know I'm flying out there myself in short order on SSR business and ferrying Agent Carter along with me. Here's hoping we cross paths. Even if we don't get to try that fondue, I'll introduce you to Spotted Dick. Which is a dessert. Scouts honor.
Stephanie assumes that her letter will cross Howard as he's coming over the Atlantic, but it'll be waiting for him when he gets back to New York, so she writes:
We're going to Italy next. Thanks for letting me know. I can't decide if I hope to see you and Peggy over here, although if you do and you two see the spangly skirt, at least my humiliation will be complete and I can move on to worrying about other things. Also, you're disgusting. I was considering putting in a nice word for you with one of the girls from the troupe, but I told her that line about Spotted Dick and she called you bad news. I'll keep looking for you, but you're obviously making it very difficult.
Going to Italy means another plane ride, one committed in the dead of night with no lights for fear of aerial attack. It's a puddlejumper of a plane, nothing like the grand luxury of the Clipper, and Stephanie keeps her eyes closed and laces her fingers with Clarissa's. She's still clutching Howard's diagram.
"What the hell is that, anyway?" Clarissa asks, pointing at the folded paper. Extended exposure to GIs and — likely more deleterious in effect — Rhonda and Gloria has really done a number on Clarissa's vocabulary.
Stephanie glances down at her hands, at the fist she's formed around Howard's letter.
"It's a picture," she admits. "Of how planes work. A fellow I worked with drew it for me."
"A fellow, huh," Clarissa says, but she manages it through gritted teeth, the words breaking over the chug-thump of their plane being tossed around in turbulence. The noise of the propellers is monstrous, and Stephanie can't help but to feel like they should be able to hear them coming from Berlin.
Steph squeezes Clarissa's hand. "Not all fellows are that kind of fellow," she says.
Clarissa swallows hard. "What kind of fellow is he then?" she asks. "Tell me about him so I don't have to — " the plane rattles threateningly " — God focus on this."
When Stephanie thinks of Howard, it's still to the first time she saw him: all flash and pomade hair, offering up a flying car and charming the audience when it crashed to earth. It makes her think of how she'd shouted at the meathead in the theater to shut his mouth when he'd been heckling the newsreel, and how he'd been halfway through saying something rude to her when Bucky had slipped into the seat next to her and told him to either take it back, or say it to Bucky's fist. It makes Stephanie think about going to the expo hand in hand with him, seeing marvels and marveling, at the way the whole night was colored with carnival lights and her own premature grief, the hugeness of her fear. She remembers going to her toes midway through Stark's demonstration, of tugging Bucky close so she could whisper, "Let's go home," in his ear, and how she'd barely been able to keep her hands off of him on the way back. Stephanie had peeled him out of his pressed and perfect uniform, hurled his cap across the room, stripped him of everything that made him someone else's until it'd just been his skin and his mouth and the good weight of his bones, the fat head of his dick filling her, fucking an empty space into her that she's carrying around now, still. She thinks about how she'd gone back to their apartment, after Bucky had reported for duty, and how she'd sat on their neatly made bed and cried for three hours, not bothering to muffle her wails or worrying about who heard her through the thin walls of the apartment building.
Out loud, to Clarissa, she says, "You ever heard of Howard Stark? From Stark Industries?"
Clarissa's eyes round. "Howard Stark drew you a picture of how a plane works?"
"Don't get enamored," Stephanie counsels. "He also threatened to feed me Spotted Dick."
From the seats next to them, Rhonda says, "Barnes, what in hell?"
Stephanie talks about Howard — about his fancy clothes and mustache and how he's a nice man, in spite of himself — until the pilot hollers out into the belly of the plane:
"Brace yourself, girls, it's going to be a rough landing!"
The warning itself is enough to have Frank throwing up on his shoes, which is enough to distract everybody until they slam violently down against the earth, the plane losing all of its height at once and the body of it jostling down the dirt and grass. Stephanie can hear a whole lot of prayer and at least one girl sniffling, but she doesn't register much of it. She presses a hand to the window and watches the flashlights of soldiers coming toward the plane and thinks that she's in Italy, and so is Bucky.
MRS. STEPHANIE BARNES
177 WATER ST APT 2B
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR HUSBAND SERGEANT JAMES B. BARNES HAS BEEN REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION SINCE 12 NOVEMBER IN ITALY IF FURTHER DETAILS OR INFORMATION IS RECEIVED YOU WILL BE PROMPTLY NOTIFIED.
JA ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL
Stephanie doesn't wait for daylight or anything — as soon as they're close enough to the camp to see tents, she makes for the field hospital. She just shoves past the stunned-looking soldiers — none of them are Bucky — and goes, feet sinking into the mud and her heart racing. Stephanie reminds herself that with skilled treatment servicemen have been showing an 80 percent survival rate when transferred from field to station hospitals. She thinks about how Bucky is young and strong and promised her he would live forever, the night her mother died, that he'd never leave her.
She hears someone say, "Ma'am," and she ignores them to close the last distance, throwing herself into the orange-dim light of the field tent and staring wildly around for the doctors, the nurses.
"James Barnes," she hears herself say, gasps it at a young woman in a stained uniform that walks close enough to hear her. "Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, he's with the 107 — have you seen him?"
The nurse's face softens. "No," she says, and Stephanie has a moment balanced between gratitude Bucky hasn't darkened this doctor's tent and agony that he' still missing to her, before the nurse adds, "But these men at camp are what's left of the 107."
Bucky is not at the camp.
Stephanie's sure because she runs out of the field tent yelling Bucky's name, and if he was lucid and here he'd come to her. She's sure because she scans the soldiers sitting fireside — at least a couple of whom gasp, "Lady Liberty?" like that's a real name, and when she takes advantage of their attention to ask about Bucky, they say, "No, ma'am, we don't know him."
But even so there's too many people milling around, and Stephanie knows Bucky's not here because when she'd burst into the head of camp's tent, she'd seen Colonel Philips creased-paper face, scowling already before she's opened her mouth.
"I should have known better than to think Senator Brandt had somehow found a way to make you compliant and biddable," he swears at her.
"James Buchanan Barnes," Stephanie spits at him. "You know his name. You told me lots of things of things about my husband when you were threatening him — where is he? Is he here?"
Philips' face hardens, the way it must while he dictates missives home for mothers and wives and sisters and children who are about to have their lives ruined, their hearts ripped out. He offers her a chair. "Would you sit?"
"Is he dead?" Stephanie hears someone ask. It must be her. Nobody else has followed her into the tent, and whoever said it sounded like she was crying already.
"We don't know," Philips tells her.
His voice isn't soft, but it's not the hard edges of 30 seconds ago either. He pushes the papers on his desk left and right, nudges a lantern over, until he unearths a stained and dog-eared map to spread out on top of the condolence letters, the slips of telegram dictation. He points at somewhere on the page and none of it means anything to Stephanie. She stares down at the paper and thinks that her usually perfect visual memory is useless if she's so dizzy she can barely see.
"This dotted line here, that's the as far as Allied forces have been able to press up into Italy," he tells her. "The 107 was making a push deep into enemy territory, and your boy was among the front lines."
Stephanie gives up on the map, presses her face into her hands, rocks forward for balance, to keep from throwing up. She whispers, "Oh, Jesus. Please, God."
It's too huge, this possibility of loss. She thought it was too heavy to carry as a child when she worried about her mother; she thought it'd weighed too much as a woman sending her man off to war. Right now, sitting in a muddy field tent in Italy in a drenched coat with hot tears squeezing out of her eyes, all Stephanie feels is panic, choking her as effectively as her asthma ever did.
"The Nazis had specialized weapons," Philips goes on. "We lost a lot of men, and just before their commanding officer was killed in action he gave the order to fall back."
He folds up the map and leans forward, closes his leathery palm over Stephanie's knee. Stephanie thinks this is how her father would have told her bad news, had he lived long enough to give her any. This is how the doctors at her hospitals told women bad news.
"We did a count this last night — the unit has 213 men either killed in action or lost behind enemy lines," he concludes.
Stephanie looks up at him, at the tired hurt on Philips' face. "And Bucky's lost."
"Yes, ma'am," he murmurs.
She looks at him, looks at his map — glances out the tent flaps into the rain, sleeting down and hazed orange from the lights. There're people gathered out there whispering, and her enhanced hearing is helping her pick up pieces of conversations even with the din of the precipitation. Who is that? they're asking, where did she come from? Did you see that broad? She stormed right into Philips's office — must have brass ones. Are you assholes kidding me? How do you not recognize her? That's Lady Liberty. Don't pretend you haven't been jerking it over that picture of her for weeks already, Weams.
"When are you going to retrieve them?" she asks, matter-of-fact now, because that's right, there are other soldiers here. She knows some of them from Bucky's letters, and Philips is here, which must mean this is a pivotal theater of war.
Philips just stares at her. "Barnes," he says flatly.
"I'm not trained, but I'm strong," she goes on, before he can give her any excuses. "If you show me how to use a gun and get me some pants, I could help. I could lift things."
Now Philips is scrubbing a hand over his face. "Jesus Christ."
"I could serve as a field medic," Stephanie assures him, reaching over to where he'd put down the map so she could study it again, actually see the borders and contours and demarcations. She'll need to know this if he lets her go along; she'll need to know it even better if she has to sneak after them. "Surely your men will need medical treatment, especially if they've been in hostile territory for some period of time."
Philips lifts his hand from her knee to close around her wrist — where it's hovering in the air guiding her fingers toward the map. He waits until she's frowning at him, looking directly into his somber eyes, and then he says:
"Barnes — we're not going back for them."
She doesn't say anything out loud, but he must hear her anyway.
"They're 40 miles behind enemy lines," Philips tells her. "Those boys out there — they're all that's left of the 107. I'm not sending them back on a suicide mission to gather bodies — if there even are bodies."
Stephanie jerks her wrist out of his grasp, and she's strong enough that the momentum pulls Philips forward across his desk, eyes going round. She forgets sometimes that she's not just wearing a new human suit, but that it's superhuman. Apparently so has Philips, because he looks at her now with a new wariness.
"Do you understand what I am telling you, Barnes?" he asks her.
"You're leaving your men to die is what I understand," Stephanie says evenly. She has no idea how she sounds so even.
Philips doesn't flinch and his expression doesn't change, and Stephanie doesn't know if it's because he already knows what she's accused him of or if he doesn't care. He's unmoving and unmoved, and he says, "I'm making the tough call. It's why I'm their commanding officer. You can hate me all you want, Mrs. Barnes — I can carry that."
She won't give him the satisfaction of a hysterically female reaction, Stephanie decides, and rises to her feet, feels suddenly the wet heaviness of her coat and how her toes are freezing in the mud, the world and the way it has grabbed onto her rushing in.
"If that's all, may I be excused, then?" she asks, precise and cold.
"Barnes, you scammed your way onto a top secret government experiment to try to get to your man," Philips says to her. "And when that blew up in all of our faces, you scammed your way onto a USO tour to get overseas, also to get to your man. If you think for one second I am letting you walk out of this tent unsupervised, you have another think coming."
The historical reality of Lady Liberty is one of modern history's most enduring mysteries. Bletchley Park may have been declassified, but the U.S. government remains stubbornly tight-lipped on the identity of its most famous pin-up cum female soldier.
During the war, there was no question of revealing Lady Liberty's true identity. Even the newsreels took care to note — in between lavishing attention on her spectacular curves with Sergeant Barnes glaring ominously at the camera in the background — that Lady Liberty's civilian persona was a state secret, and that loose lips sank ships. It's been convincingly argued by various scholars that Lady Liberty was among the first female superheroes, between her exaggerated strength and her secret identity.
The prevailing theory is that she was more spy than soldier, and that to reveal her civilian name would be to give historians a paper trail that would dust up too many incriminating questions. Edwin Garvey recently published a paper in the American Historical Review speculating that Lady Liberty, in her entirety, was the work of ad men and propagandists, designed and manufactured specifically to draw the eye toward the flashy work of the Howling Commandos and underline the dangers Hitler's Hydra unit. It's a fascinating theory that built on an unsatisfying foundation. Liberty appeared during the height of the war, as Allied forces were pushing aggressively into Nazi-occupied Europe and every man, woman and child hung onto every piece of information journalists could send back home. This was no ambivalent nation.
Even more baffling is to examine the secrecy shrouding Lady Liberty in the context of her companions, the Howling Commandoes. Each of them decorated soldiers, they became major celebrities upon her arrival, starring in countless miles of newsreel footage from the front. No kid growing up under the auspices of the American flag escaped their primary education without a segment about James Buchanan Barnes, Jim Morita, Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan, Gabe Jones, Montgomery Falsworth and Jacques Dernier — both seconded to the American forces after helping said American forces steal a number of Panzer tanks from the Nazis during their escape from captivity.
We know about Morita's childhood in Fresno, about his extended family's internment during the war and his subsequent 30-year political career, climbing from the California state senate to the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee before his death in 2008. We know that Gabe Jones returned from the war and continued his illustrious academic work with the help of the GI bill, eventually going on to become a celebrated poet and civil rights advocate. He would also enjoy the good fortune of marrying the Strategic Scientific Reserve's Agent Peggy Carter. She went on to become the first post-war director of the SSR, hiring Dugan and naming him assistant director during her tenure at the agency. Montgomery Falsworth went back to England, where he took back his title and then emptied the coffers of his family fortune building and rebuilding hospitals. Jacques Dernier divided his remaining years between San Francisco and Paris, and eventually died in the arms of three burlesque dancers. At his funeral, Dugan told the crowd, "God damn it. I have no idea how he fucking does it. And now that asshole will never have to tell me."
Barnes, in addition to being the subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin's seminal Brooklyn Boy among other rapturous historical treatments, has lived a passionate second life in bestselling romance novels, where he broods darkly at women until they tumble, bosoms heaving, into his arms.
But even though more often than not the bosoms heaving are her's, what we know to be factually true about Lady Liberty could barely fill a page.
We know that Lady Liberty was a real person, and that she actually saw combat. We know that she was instrumental in the rescue of hundreds of POWs from a Hydra work camp, and that the intelligence she was able to provide about Hydra operations was key to helping turn the tide against Nazi forces. We know that Barnes tucks her blond hair behind her ear exactly five times on film, and that one time the camera unintentionally records them in a languorous kiss, necking lazily in the distant background while Dugan grits his teeth around an upbeat message about how condoms are a soldier's best friend. We know that she was present at Barnes' final mission, the one that killed him, as it's her recounting of events that remains the official, government historical record.
We suspect she was a nurse, as stories of her involvement on the battle field usually include anecdotes about her administering medical treatment. We think that she was from New York. We do not believe she survived the war; her image and her presence — once ubiquitous — vanishing in the months following Barnes' death.
No amount of paranoia and redaction is perfect, however, and in 2002, in the wake of the Howling Commandoes Declassification Project, a passage was discovered from the account of a soldier stationed in Italy that's become a classic of the Lady Liberty canon.
"Unbelievable," wrote Private Dexter Weams, a member of the 107th Army Infantry. "Today LADY LIBERTY blew through our camp. She was in a crazy rush though, ran straight through an acre of mud to medical, shouting for someone, and then bold as brass ones stormed right into Colonel Philips's tent. She's almost as tall as him in those little heels of hers, and we all huddled by the door in awe thinking about her with her head tilted back, shouting right in Philips's face. We got shooed away before we could hear anything too interesting, but some of us got pulled out of regular rotation to stand watch around Philips's tent later that night. None of us are Lady Liberty, so nobody asked the Colonel what the hell we were guarding, but there was a lot of angry noise coming from inside and that afternoon, when Lady Liberty's USO troupe performed, there was a swell brunette playing the statue — not a blond."
Intriguingly, the date on this entry is November 28, 16 days after Barnes and more than 200 other members of the 107 were left deep behind enemy lines in Italy. Private Weams seems to imply that Lady Liberty arrived at the camp looking for something — maybe someone.
Conspiracists of varying intensities enjoy citing this passage as evidence of a pre-existing relationship between Barnes and Lady Liberty. The number of ifs that drive this narrative are countless: if she was from New York, if she'd been a nurse during his time in basic, if she'd been part of the ANC during his deployments. If somehow in her time with the USO she became privy to extremely classified military intelligence and then found a way to him across the borders of Nazi-occupied nations.
The wildest of these conspiracies was put forth by Rosemary Hutcherson in her 1983 book, Obfuscating Liberty: The Government Conspiracy to Strip Lady Liberty of Her Agency and Smear Bucky Barnes. Initially put out by a specialty occult publisher in a limited run, the book went into four printings on the back of its madcap theory that Lady Liberty was none other than Stephanie Barnes.
Equal parts romantic and apologist, in an interview following the revelation of Private Weams's diaries, Hutcherson told the New York Times that her theory was the only possible interpretation of the passage.
"We know the government was doing experiments on building supersoldiers, which could go a long way to explain the alleged height disparity between contemporary descriptions of Stephanie Rogers and the widely circulated images of Lady Liberty," Hutcherson said. "Weams's diary is — as far as I'm concerned — conclusive evidence."
Jorge Stringer, who wrote the article, also quoted Edward Kramer, who penned one of the earliest and most comprehensive biographies of Barnes.
"That Rosemary Hutcherson woman is crazy as a f—— fox," he told the paper.
— Hartley, Stella. Liberty. New York: Macmillan, 2009.
Philips keeps her inside the tent through a combination of yelling, threats and the explicit provision of orders to use terminal force on the prisoner should she attempt to break free.
"She?" one of the MPs called to the tent asks.
"Son, you've got to toughen up. It's a fucking war," Philips says with an astonishing lack of sympathy. "You wouldn't punch a Nazi if it were a woman?"
Another voice says, "...but that's Lady Liberty."
"Pretend she's Mussolini," Philips counsels.
Stephanie's not Mussolini. She knows how to punch a man when he's getting grabby and stare down uncooperative drunks in the emergency room. She can kick someone in the crotch and once she stabbed Billy Cooper clean through his filthy, encroaching hand with a freshly sharpened pencil.
But Steph has never used her fists or her feet to finish a fight on her own. She sees the broad-shouldered shadows on the two soldiers outside the tent, the muddy heels of their boots, and she wonders how she would fight them — if she even could. Is it enough to be stronger, faster than the average person? She can't believe they would actually shoot her with the heavy guns they're carrying, but she imagines making a run for it and then feeling the hot shock of a bullet in her back.
She puts a hand on herself, where she should have a scar, where she should have bled to death on the floor of the lab in Brooklyn with Dr. Erskine and Grenville.
Stephanie leans against the tent pole and calls, "Are you guys really going to shoot me if I come out?"
There's an awkward silence that goes on forever. Then one of the MPs begs, "Ma'am, please."
"I'm supposed to go on stage tonight," Stephanie reminds them, listening for signs of weakness. "In a short skirt — dance around. I'd hate to disappoint just because Colonel Philips is sore at me."
There's a deep sigh from outside.
"Ma'am, if I shoot you, the boys'll kill me for hurting Lady Liberty," one of the men reports bleakly. "But if I don't shoot you, Colonel Philips will kill me. Either way, I get dead. So ma'am, please, just stay in there."
Stephanie stays in the tent, but she digs through Philips's desk, his papers. He said stay put, not stay still, and she tunnels through the documents he left untended when he'd stormed out in a huff until she finds the map again.
She looks at the mountain passes and marked-off forests, memorizes them the way she does the perfect moment of sunlight breaking over the iron bannister of their fire escape, the boys downstairs playing stickball, Bucky's sleeping face, his mouth plush from kissing. Steph shoves that image down somewhere deep, because in her head Bucky's blinking his blue eyes open and there're bruises on his face now, blood on his neck, and she feels herself shredding paper, tearing at the binding of one of Philips's book to think of Bucky —
"No, no," she tells herself, slamming through the drawers of the desk now, hands shaking badly enough she's having trouble holding onto the papers she's sorting. She sees notes, telegrams, the errata and detritus of war. She looks for things that might help her, once Philips lets her out of here, steals a folding hunter's knife and some matches, tucks away the map. Back on top of the desk, she finds shorthand debriefing notes, and she can't read them for shit, quarters them and jams them into her brassier to show the girls in the troupe later.
Stephanie thinks it'll be an hour, maybe two — tops — before Philips gets sympathetic and sad about her the way all men contrive to be about women and lets her out.
Three hours later, when she's mutinous and starving and the MPs at the door have been swapped out for different — equally uncooperative — MPs at the door, Philips stomps in with a meal tray and a frazzled scowl on his face.
"My men think I'm torturing you," he informs her, slamming the tray down on his desk without a second glance at the papers. Stephanie's bizarrely insulted by that; she'd spent 20 excruciating minutes trying to reorder them. "I've gotten more and dirtier looks since your backside fetched up in my here than in all my years yelling at fresh meat during boot camp."
Stephanie hazards a look down at the tray: shit on a shingle. Dark pink meat pieces swimming in white gravy. When she takes Bucky home from this war, he's never allowed to complain about her cooking again; they'll have a window box and grow some squash and some tomatoes, and she'll fry him slices of bacon and they'll eat like kings.
She flicks her eyes back up at Philips. "To be clear, you are unlawfully detaining me."
"Woman, you are without question one of my current, greatest sources of stress and discomfort," Philips tells her, something approaching awe in his voice. "And given that we are camped a mere 5 miles outside of Nazi territory in Italy, there is no level of detainment as it pertains to you that would be considered unlawful."
"I'm going to be late for my performance," Stephanie tells him, lifting her chin and trying to sound confident. By her mental clock, the girls must be doing their last minute preparations know, Frank yelling at any and everyone while trying to rig up the mics. "I'm needed on stage any minute now."
Philips scoffs. "As singular as yours might be, ma'am, you are not the only one with legs fit for a skirt," he tells her. "I have taken the liberty of informing your USO troupe that you're being held for your own good until further notice."
Stephanie arches an eyebrow. "You must not have much care for your reputation, sir."
The vein on Philips's forehead throbs violently, and Stephanie watches him rub at the bridge of his nose for a half-beat before he scrounges up enough willpower to ask, "What are you talking about, Barnes?"
"You were plainly discourteous with a lady," Stephanie starts, ticking off points on her fingers. "You've forcibly detained me in your personal quarters — " she waves meaningfully at the cot and the covers in disarray " — and you've told those poor boys you have guarding the door not to let me out on pain of death and not to ask any questions."
Philips stares at her.
"Well?" Stephanie asks. "You draw your own conclusions."
Something complicated is happening with Colonel Philips's face involving unsettling jowl movements and the sound of teeth grinding, and it goes on for a long time before he says, "Eat your dinner — I'll let you know when we've decided what to do with you."
Stephanie eats, because she's always hungry these days, and because she wants to know what Bucky's been eating. It's salty and cloying and terrible, and Stephanie eats it and grips the knife in her pocket and waits.
She has a clear picture in her head now, has memorized the map from its overhead view and is trying to alter the terrain for what it will look like when she goes by foot. She'll need to get the embarrassingly fine boots of her costume, and the pants, too, since Stephanie's a poor excuse for a lady at this point but hell if she's going into enemy territory in a dress. She'll have to borrow a shirt from one of the soldiers here — nothing she has is anything like a camouflage color — and maybe she can abscond with a gun, too, while she's at it. They can't be that hard to use. She'll need medical supplies and morphine, in case. She's clutching the knife so hard she can feel the metal warping.
Through the rapidly gathering dark, there's a commotion and the flicker of strong lights, and for a minute Steph's heart leaps into her throat — are they under attack? have the boys come back? — and she runs to the tent flaps and throws them open. The MPs at the door try to stop her, but Steph's not pushing that hard and neither are they. She just wants to see.
But it's not the Nazis and it's not their lost boys, it's — it's a plane with her face on it.
Stephanie blinks hard, twice, in the dark, and when she squints she realizes it's her face, attached to her neck attached to a body in a non-standard army uniform her bosom is fairly falling out of. On the nose of the damn thing is written, HELLO BOYS!!
Over the din of the plane powering down, she hears Howard Stark say:
"You like it? Completely worth having Agent Carter here threaten my manhood."
Half an hour later, he's still backpedaling.
"Men are idiots, Dollface," he tells Stephanie, clutching her hand and looking the vision of contrition. "You know if I hadn't pretended to like their idea they would have hit me with their brutish fists." He touches his fingertips to his cheek. "I'm a scientist, Steph — this brain's gonna be the source of my riches."
Stephanie ignores him in favor of looking at Peggy, whose mouth is twitching out of grim disapproval and into a smile so frequently it doesn't help Stephanie's efforts to keep from laughing at all.
"I can't believe you let him do it," she says, trying to sound furious.
Stephanie guesses she would be mad if it weren't Howard and if he hadn't flown into Italy with Peggy on that thing — probably fuming the whole time — and if Steph weren't so glad to see their faces that she aches with it.
"You've met Stark, and thus know the futility of preventing him from doing anything," Peggy counters, a smile melting across her face now. She's still the most beautiful woman Stephanie's ever seen: brown curls perfect, red lipstick without a smudge. Steph's plastered all over on posters and in pin-up photos, she's painted onto some airman's bomber jet — she'll never be as stunning as Peggy. "Especially since I wasn't allowed to use lethal force."
Steph grins back. "Shame."
"Ladies," Howard pleads, "I'm right here."
So is Philips, who lets out a beleaguered sigh for the ages. "Stark, Carter — can we get on with this already?" he asks and yells for the MPs outside to come in, saying, "Gentlemen, please escort — " Peggy clears her throat in warning, and Philips just rolls his eyes " — please escort Lady Liberty back to her USO troupe and make sure she doesn't make a break for any Nazi strongholds."
And then it's Stephanie clutching at Howard's hands, then it's her turning Peggy, saying, "Bucky's behind enemy lines — they left him there."
It takes two seconds for Peggy's expression to go from confused to something complicated, something apologetic, and worse than Colonel Philips's threats that stokes the fire of panic roaring in her belly, has Howard gasping, "Dollface — ease up on the grip there," leaving her stammering out "sorry, I'm so sorry."
"Do I need to repeat myself?" Philips is roaring at the MPs, who hustle forward, grab Stephanie's arms, and start to guide her out of the tent. "Out! Back to the USO group, and don't you fucking let her out of your sight!"
Then Peggy's voice cuts through the din, shouting, "Wait," and when Stephanie twists around to catch her gaze, it's to find Peggy's face a solemn mask, her mouth grim and her gaze level.
"Wait for me," Peggy says, too carefully. "We'll talk about this — do you understand?"
Howard, behind her, tips back in his chair and winks.
"I — yes," Stephanie manages. "Yes."
"Good," Peggy tells her with a nod.
And then the MPs are pulling her out of Philips's tent, mumbling, "I'm so sorry, ma'am," and "Just following orders," and "We're not hurting you, are we?" Stephanie says things like, "No, no," and "I completely understand," and "Of course not," and "Could I borrow that cap of yours, soldier? I think it'd be a great addition to our show."
She thought sometimes — lying in the scraggly grass of the hill behind the school — of St. Martin of Tours, born in Hungary, grown in Italy, aged in France. She gnawed on the cuffs of her school uniform and stared up at the white gauze of clouds overhead, listening to the distant shout and rabble of the other girls.
St. Martin spent his Earthly existence as the Bishop of Tours, and pilgrims passed through his hands on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain — a place so fantastically imaginary Peggy imagined it in the same thought as mermaids and flying horses. She knew her geography, of course, but Spain was a place for wealthy people to summer, girls in expensive frocks to travel on their grand tours toting parasols and fanned by their French lady's maids. Peggy was born in London, and came out screaming with grit already under her fingernails, her father liked to joke.
It a rare, hot day in April, with the sun ferocious overhead, and Peggy closed her eyes and let is seep into her skin, exposed from her rolled-up sleeves and where her skirt was hitched high over her knees. She breathed in the sweet brightness of it, imagined the taste of oranges in Seville and the adventurous misery of a pilgrimage, made to the shrine of St. James in the cathedral in Santiagoa de Compostela, how her feet would ache and the clod of horses's hooves would turn monotonous.
At thirteen, she knew only that she was sheltered beneath the same sky as so many impossible places, but that no matter how much she reached, the distances in inches on maps and globes were lifetimes, legacies away from her. Peggy wasn't content with this, but she knew it, held it as firmly as the hot grass beneath her back, where it tangled in her dark hair under her head.
Everyone Peggy knew who had been to the Continent, who had crisped under the Italian sun and gazed upon Moorish buildings, had gone under the banner of the Great War. They had returned altered, with great jagged pieces missing or damaged.
Maybe since she'd come screaming into existence, she'd known her life was too big for the small terrace house belonging to her parents, the high street nearby, the school — just a stop on the way to revelation — but she knew, too, to be wary. That oftentimes to see and accomplish great things was to risk great harm, to know that upon your return you would never again belong in the safe spaces created for you by your family, your friends, in the original form you had occupied.
— Lee, Alexis. Margaret Called Peggy. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.
The girls flock upon Stephanie's return to the USO tent, and in the way that beaks and claws have driven crowds away, the MPs flee into the rapidly gathering night, too. Stephanie's too numb to pay much attention, letting Clarissa and Rhonda and Gloria drag her hither and yon until she's settled onto a chair and someone is brushing the hair out of her face and asking, "Stephanie — what happened? Are you all right? He didn't do anything to you, did he?"
She blinks, and the blur of her version resolves into Clarissa's stricken expression. The hand on her cheek belongs to Rhonda; the fingers on her knee, Gloria.
"They left Bucky behind," she croaks, the horror of it welling in her throat again. "He's 40 miles behind enemy lines. They're not going back for him."
There's a quiet rumble through the assemblage, and Stephanie clutches more tightly at the helmet in her lap, stolen from one of the MPs in the madding fray when they'd delivered her here. The women are saying, "Oh, Steph, I'm so sorry," and "How could they," and they're murmuring their Hail Mary's and Our Father's.
Stephanie just looks around the group, at their pale faces and pitying eyes.
"Do any of you read shorthand?" she asks.
Darlene Mayhew, who enjoyed convincing men she couldn't even read, had graduated first in her class from secretarial school and come to the USO auditions directly from an eight hour shift at an attorney's office in Dallas. Stephanie digs the crumpled notes out of her bra — "Nice," Rhonda tells her — and hands them to Darlene, who unfolds them with the brisk efficiency of the only person in an office who ever gets anything done.
Clarissa endures Darlene's scrunched expression and silent concentration for all of half a second before crying, "Well? What does it sa — ?" which gets cut off when Gloria muffles her with a wadded up robe.
Thirty seconds after that, Stephanie's gone from shocked dumb to wretched, watching Darlene's expression transform from one of study to concern. Stephanie's gripping the chair too tightly. She can hear the wood protesting, the pads of her fingers rough against the grain; this sort of pressure hurts her hands but she can't let go.
"Is it bad?" she asks.
She's worried saying, is my husband dead? am I a widow now? have I come all the way for nothing? will leave her here on the mud floor of this camp, breathing shallowly until a storm washes her away.
Darlene looks conflicted. "It's confusing," she admits finally, and she makes the girls clear out a patch of nearby table so she can flatten the note against it, pointing here and there among the nonsense scribbles on the page. "See this? Up to here, it all makes sense, some kind of field report about engaging with enemy."
Stephanie looks on the page, but it looks like code and scratches to her. She lines up the tips of her fingers to a row of looping characters, chasing each other across the paper, and she imagines the horrors of war the way she imagined gothic monsters as a little girl. She feels none of the thrilling fear now, just the slow rock of gut-churning loss.
"It says they found an old factory that the Nazis had converted for some kind of weapons production," Darlene goes on, "but that when they met enemy combatants, they had guns they'd never seen before."
"What, like, bigger machine guns?" Gloria asks, voice wavering. She must be thinking about Robert, about how he's gotta be facing down these guns, too, and how he better shape up and live so she can make his life hell, that he promised her he would. Stephanie thinks that Bucky had promised, too.
"No, like guns that left no bodies," Darlene says, sounding baffled.
"Which is why Colonel Philips cannot in good conscience send out the remaining members of 107," comes a familiar voice.
Stephanie whips around to see Peggy, her dark hair frosted with the fine mist of rain, wrapped up in a dark coat and smiling, wry.
"I should have known you would have stolen those notes," Peggy adds.
Stephanie just squares her shoulders; she doesn't have a defense and doesn't want one.
Except then Rhonda is demanding, "How do you know she stole them?" and Clarissa is chiming in to say, "That's very rude. She picked this up outside the tent," and Darlene is suggesting, "And who exactly are you anyway, to be making accusations?"
"Agent Carter, Strategic Science Reserve," Peggy answers, her smile gets fractionally wider and she says to Stephanie, "Looks like you've made friends."
Stephanie is speechless for a long time when she realizes that it's true, that Rhonda and Clarissa and Darlene and maybe even Frank are her friends. That they keep her secrets and keep her company. She's fixed their sweaters and costumers, and they've put pin curls in her hair. They've shared long bus rides and roadside cigarettes. Stephanie's found — by accident and alchemy — friends here, in the least expected of places.
"I have," she says finally, and clearing her throat, she tells the USO girls, "It's okay — Peggy — Agent Carter and I know each other."
Peggy takes in the troupe's array of confused expressions with great satisfaction. "Indeed we did, and — " she meets Steph's eyes " — I must ask to borrow your Lady Liberty for a private discussion."
The girls take some convincing to let Stephanie go, given that she's already been put under more or less military arrest once that day. They go so far as to surrender the notes Stephanie had stolen, and Peggy — always keen to the subtextual dynamics of any room — plays along and implies that their return has purchased her cooperation and silence.
Outside the tent, the temperature has dropped from a bleak November chill to the dark cold of true winter. Stephanie clutches at herself instinctively, feeling the prickling of her skin and the way the wind lashes her hair across the face, across her cheeks, gold strands sticking against the wet, chapping skin of her mouth. She looks at the familiar planes of Peggy's face and she waits, sick with anticipation.
But Peggy just shivers in silence, staring and staring at Stephanie's face. She looks like she wants to say something but doesn't know how to start, and the anticipation is so awful that Stephanie finally blurts out:
"If you'd waited a while longer, they might have stuffed me into that God awful costume."
Peggy barks out a laugh. "That'd be more to Stark's benefit than mine."
Stephanie shrugs, but it comes out as a full-body shake. All Bucky's childhood fantasies about Italy being warm, the sun being golden, it's all turned out to be lies. She says, "Probably. Well," inanely, because she's not sure what else to say. The silence between them is awful and new, an extension of how awkward Stephanie feels in her body.
"Those men, the ones who didn't come back, they probably died horrible deaths," Peggy says suddenly, her voice shivery and deep, solemn. "There're multiple accounts that the stronghold the 107 was attempting to breach was not merely a Nazi base, but one for its secret high technology group, Hydra. They're rumored to have weapons that will be able to permanently turn the tide of war."
Stephanie digs her nails into the meat of her own arms, hard enough she must be drawing blood. Her legs are weak.
"Your friend hadn't gotten to this part, but the guns, the weaponry, described by the survivors are purported to shoot some sort of blue light," Peggy goes on. "They do not appear to need reloading. Those soldiers who were only grazed by the weapon or suffered a glancing blow had wounds that were immediately cauterized by the heat, but lost limbs in the process — they said it was like having a part of themselves burnt off."
"Why are you telling me this?" Stephanie asks. She can hear herself crying.
"Because if you're going to run into enemy territory under the cover of night, you ought to be prepared," Peggy tells her, ruthless. "And because I'm not a fool, Stephanie — I know what you're planning."
That's saying something, because Stephanie's plans are formless and imprecise even in her own head. She only knows that there's the slimmest chance that Bucky's still alive, and that the slimmest chance makes it worth the danger. Her plan was to pack her things and to walk in the direction of the factory from the map under the cover of night. Stephanie has never fended for herself in a forest or fought anyone or fired a gun but she can lift a Triumph motorcycle and hear three times as well as ordinary people and she doesn't care about the risks.
"You can go back to your troupe," Peggy offers. "You can put on your spangled dress and Howard and I will sit in the front row and it will be as important as the Victory gardens and rationing. You can work in field hospitals as you have been."
Stephanie boggles at that, at the idea that knowing what she knows and with the advantages and strengths of the serum that to do such a thing would be forgivable. Even in Brooklyn, when she'd been a foot shorter and a 100 pounds lighter and she'd struggled to catch her breath some days, waging domestic wars against butter and sugar had felt like the worst cowardice — not when Stephanie could bind wounds and sew gashes. Bucky used to say she was too much in every sense of the word. Maybe in this she's always overreached, sought things beyond her grasp — but her grasp keeps lengthening, changing.
"I'm going for sure," Stephanie says finally. She hesitates a minute before adding, "I — I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell Philips until I had a good head start."
Peggy sighs. "Stephanie, you're impossible."
She guesses it's true, so she lies and says, "Sorry."
"You're a terrible actress," Peggy reprimands, and looking at her watch, she says, "Go — get your things and meet me back here in an hour."
"An hour," Stephanie repeats, frowning.
"An hour," Peggy confirms. "It'll take that long for Stark to steal a plane."
MPAA RATING: R
Reviewed by Charles Adebayo on Nov. 2, 2011 | @ewadebayo
Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Mamma Mia) walks a fine line in his portrayal of Howard Stark. Occasionally manic in his fits of genius, Cooper manages to convey a completely grounded pathos: this is a man at once enthralled by the technological magic of his weaponry and all too aware of the lives they will take. Director Joe Johnston — mostly known for helming visual effects-heavy thrillers — has managed in the midst of the high concept grit and color-timing of World War II espionage to find a smaller and surprisingly intimate story. Borrowing heavily from Anna Gunn's bestselling historical fiction series, Cooper's shaped his Howard Stark as a man of passions denied his most fervent desire. It's a subtle but resonant performance, met with equal skill and power by Natalie Dormer's Lady Liberty, who intrigues and beguiles Stark and never for a moment considers loving him.
— Adebayo, Charles. "Paramount (2011)." Entertainment Weekly 20 November 2011: 23. Print.
"An hour," Howard scoffs, two hours later.
They're tumbling through a raucous storm over enemy territory, flying almost entirely blind. Peggy's got a light turned on in the guts of the plane — this one flimsier than even the tin can the USO troupe had taken to Italy — but there're heavy blackout curtains separating them from Howard in the pilot's seat.
They may keep out light but not sound.
"An hour," Howard repeats.
This mantra's gone from disbelieving to insulted to mockery to outright pouting at this point; Steph's used to this procession of male frailty, and there's a part of her that wants to press a hand to Howard's knee and tell him he's impressive as hell, just to shut him up. Peggy, who is either made of sterner stuff or genuinely (and falsely) believes he'll eventually stop on his own, is trying valiantly to look unmoved.
Yelling over the airplane's rattle and shouts and muffled through the curtain, Howard goes on, "Do you know the last time it took me an hour to steal anything? I was still at my father's knee back then, Agent Carter. An hour."
Peggy catches Stephanie's eye with a flat expression of blue murder. "If I knew how to pilot a plane on my own, I would kill him and throw his corpse into the forests below."
"I know, I'm sure you'd do it beautifully," Stephanie assures her, pressing the hand she'd meant for Howard on Peggy's knee instead.
Looking mollified despite herself, Peggy goes back to the map they'd stolen, the notes they'd absconded with. The ink markings are harder to read in the sallow yellow light, and here, now, soaring over villages and forests and mountains larded with Nazi forces, the hugeness of what Stephanie's committed to do is beginning to sink in. Her fingers and toes feel frozen in the tips of her boots and through the leather motorcycle gloves she's wearing. Stephanie doesn't get cold the way she used to, not since the serum and its funhouse mirror effect, so this must be ice from some lost well inside of her, fearfulness overflowing, flooding the banks.
Stephanie guesses fear is catching, because suddenly, Peggy hisses, "Shit."
"Um," Steph says, and removes her hand.
When she looks up, Peggy's face is lined deeply with her worry, her mouth folded into an angry downturn. She's searching Stephanie's face for something and Stephanie thinks she'll come up empty — Stephanie's only ever been a nobody from Brooklyn. That she's here is a testament to dumb luck and her father's mulish nature, her mother's willingness to keep at it.
"Do you even know how to shoot a gun?" Peggy asks suddenly. "Throw a punch?"
"I know to keep my thumb on the outside," Stephanie retorts, cheeks hot.
"You don't even know how to start a fire," Peggy mumbled, mostly at herself. "You've never been trained for any of this. It doesn't matter how strong you are — this is absolute insanity, Stephanie, I never should have — "
The whole time Steph's known Peggy, she'd known there was this, too, some wellspring of soft places usually hidden underneath her uniform and covered up by careful application of Victory Red lipstick. Nobody fights as carefully and unrelentingly as Peggy does unless they've got a heart bleeding constantly over it, and Stephanie looks at Peggy's crumpled shoulders, her angry expression, and wishes she could say something to make her feel better. Instead, she says:
"It wouldn't matter, Peggy."
"You wouldn't be on this plane if it weren't for me," Peggy says reasonably.
Steph grins. It's hiding how much she wants to cry, how scared she is. She doesn't want to be in this plane, on this continent, in these pants or clutching the shield she'd stolen along the way. She'd rather be home feeding Bucky's stray cats and fixing supper for her husband, sleeping safe on his chest.
"You said it yourself, I'd be hiking through enemy territory on my own," Stephanie tells her. "This is not your fault."
Peggy musters up a smile. "It's slightly my fault."
Stephanie ignores her to dig around her pockets and — yes! "And I don't need to know how to make a fire," she said, smug. "I brought matches."
"I see my concerns were for naught," Peggy answers, dry as tinder, and her frustrated worry dissolves into unwilling laughter as she slaps Stephanie's matches out of her face to say, "Come on — let me show you how to use a gun while we still have the time."
By gun, Peggy means specifically the Smith & Wesson M&P, a selection she makes on the basis that it's a pistol used by U.S. forces, and therefore something Stephanie may know. She's disabused of this notion approximately three milliseconds later when she's forced to shout, "Trigger discipline," and snatch the weapon out of Stephanie's hands.
The M&P is a six-shot double revolver, mounted on a wooden handle with a diamond hatch on the broad sides. It's surprisingly heavy in Stephanie's hands — the weight of it a shock when Peggy sets it into her palm — and Stephanie stares at its long metal barrel and listens to Peggy talk about ammunition and kickback, stares at the marks the weapons's left on Peggy's hands. Stephanie wonders if it'll leave scars on her hands, too.
"There are four fundamental rules of firing a weapon," Peggy is saying.
She's saying it as she's looped her arm around Stephanie's body, folding Stephanie's fingers around the unloaded body of the M&P — lining up their index fingers so they're resting on the outside of the trigger guard, pressing Steph's other hand to cup the weapon and the weight of her own hand. It's even heavier this way, arm extended outward, and Stephanie stares down the sight at the dark black cloth of the curtains and imagines that it'll be a person once she gets down on the ground. That she might have to shoot a person in the belly or the chest or the shoulder or the face, and that she must not hesitate because they will not hesitate to hurt her.
"Always treat every firearm as if it is loaded," Peggy lectures, and mutters, "This situation being outre, obviously, since under normal circumstances pointing a weapon inside a plane would be absolutely forbidden."
From beyond the blackout drapes, Howard yells at them, "What the hell are you doing back there?"
Peggy ignores him to go on, "Never point the gun at anything you don't want to shoot."
Stephanie wants to make some tasteless joke about Howard, but all she can manage is a nod, because she doesn't want to shoot anybody.
"Keep your finger off the trigger unless you're coming up on target and you're ready to shoot," Peggy tells her softly.
The breath that escapes her lungs is trembling, and Stephanie thinks about what she might think of as a target, who that person might be, if they have a sister or a wife, a father, if they have friends. She wonders if it's all right to shoot someone in the back, or if she should wait until she has no choice, once she sees the whites of their eyes. She wonders if they won't be as hesitating as her, if while she's making revisions and decisions they won't stop exercising trigger discipline of their own and shoot her. She doesn't remember being shot the first time, but Peggy says she'll die all the same if she's left bleeding out in a Nazi forest.
"Lastly, always be aware of your target and what's behind it," Peggy concludes, pulling away and taking the gun from Stephanie — she's been clasping it so tightly there're red lines on the skin of her hands.
Stephanie's fingers shake their way through Peggy's rushed lesson about reloading ammunition, as she gets bullets stuffed into her pack, another knife — "But I have the one I stole from Colonel Philips," Stephanie protests — and an alarming number of grenades. Peggy explains patiently that they're different types of grenades.
From up front, Howard shouts, "I don't think we can get any deeper — I'm going to start putting us down — "
Whatever else is lost in the clattering thunder of gunfire, in the sudden riotous shake of the plane, Howard's steady stream of teeth-grinding profanity. Peggy braces herself and Stephanie pins her against the bulkhead with an arm, clasping at one of the metal benches to hold them both in place as well as she can. She thinks about Howard's drawing of how planes work, thinks about wind splitting over the wing. She thinks about being under enemy fire, and what will happen if a bullet goes through the belly of the plane, if they knock out one of the engines.
So she's yelling, "I've got to jump — Howard has to turn around, it isn't safe!" reaching for one of the parachutes even while Peggy is yelling back, "And jumping is safe?"
"Jesus, give me a minute! You've never jumped before, I can still put it down," Howard's calling over his shoulder, trying to dodge live fire and also avoid mountains, death, gravity.
"It'll be fine," Stephanie lies, and pulls on the rollup door in the cabin, stares numbly down into the blur of black and deep blue forests below as the wind whips at her and the sound magnifies by hundreds. She can hear the plane screaming and the bullets flying, the night sounds of war.
"Christ," Peggy tells her, quiet compared to the roar, and grabs her own parachute and the transponder she'd been trying to explain earlier, she shouts, "Stark, we're jumping — turn back now!"
If Howard answers, Stephanie don't hear it, because Peggy's saying, "Count to ten and then pull your cord, am I clear?" and shoving Stephanie out the airplane into the dark.
To: Sally Floyd (email@example.com)
From: Ben Urich (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: no joy
not surprised, still annoyed, even more convinced it was ll.
The Daily Bugle
desk: (212) 645-9012
cell: (718) 233-5467
U.S. Department of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, D.C. 20535
December 15, 2012
Mr. Ben Urich
9830 67th Road #1B
Forest Hills, NY 11375
FOIPA Request No. 4765567 - 000
Subject: BATTLE OF NEW YORK CCTV FILM
LAW ENFORCEMENT ACCOUNTS AND NSA
RECORDS OF BATTLE OF NEW YORK
Dear Mr. Urich:
This responds to your Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts (FIOPA) request.
The material you requested is located in several files which are exempted from disclosure pursuant to Executive Order 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1), which allows for the withholding of properly classified documents in the interest of safeguarding national security and defense interests.
In applying this exception, I have determined that the files you have requested are national security records, and that their release would create the reasonable expectation of interference with intelligence and military activities. For a more detailed explanation of the exemption, please see the enclosed Explanation of Exemptions form.
You may file an appeal by writing to the Director, Office of Information Policy (OIP), U.S. Department of Justice, 1425 New York Ave., NW, Suite 11050, Washington D.C. 20530-0001. Your appeal must be received by OIP within sixty (60) days from the date of this letter in order to be considered timely. The envelope and letter should be clearly marked "Freedom of Information Appeal." Please cite the FOIPA Request Number assigned to your request so that it may be identified easily.
Records Management Division
Stephanie had been worried about the fall. She should have worried about the trees.
The drop from Howard's plane had been awful, harrowing, sudden cold and pervasive darkness, the sound of bullets and bangs overhead and the roar of wind in her ears. She'd started counting late, panicked by six and pulled the ripcord, and just moments before she'd hit the forest, she'd finally seen through the darkness to the reaching arms of branches grasping skyward.
She and Peggy had crashed through them with a tooth-rattling racket, all the breath rushing from her. It's a blur: the bite of sharp pain on her leg, a breathtaking hit of the gut, the starburst bruise of slamming tits-first into a branch — by the time she manages to cut herself free of her parachute strings to fall the last two feet to Earth, Stephanie figures she looks like she was dragged backward through a propeller.
Peggy's parachute neatly trails her, the strings in orderly lines. Her hair's charmingly tousled, a flush of pink on her cheeks and a single, artful cut along the round swell of one cheek is the only sign she's just crashed through a forest.
Alternatively, there is a cut up the inside of Stephanie's thigh bleeding sluggishly into the skintight trousers of the Lady Liberty pants. She's lost a couple of buttons from Bucky's work shirt, the zipper on the leather bomber is shredded. Underneath the helmet Stephanie had absconded with, she can feel how sweat-damp and flat her hair is.
"How," Stephanie chokes out.
Peggy grins. "Practice," she says, like she hurls herself out of planes over Nazi territory on every other day ending in 'y.' Upon reflection, Peggy probably does.
"You're showing me how to do that later," Stephanie promises, and digs and digs in her pockets until she finds Bucky's compass — tries not to stare at his face in the photograph hidden inside. "Here, hold this."
Peggy does, quietly staring down at Bucky's golden boy smile, the all-American grin he'd had during their small wedding ceremony. The picture in his compass is just that, her own thin face of elated disbelief and chemical joy folded away until it's just Bucky: his dark hair and light eyes, the shape of his chin. He'd been on his best behavior during the blessing, all solemnity in front of Father O'Donnell, but it had all fizzed away by the time of the photograph, color creeping into his cheeks, pressing kisses to her palms.
The longer Peggy stares, the more Stephanie wants to say that it's not just Bucky that the 107 had left behind, that there are other good men there. If Peggy decided to stay here with the transponder Stark had given them, Steph would understand, but everything that is already terrifying would be a hundredfold worse going alone, trying to remember everything she'd been taught about a gun before being thrown out of a plane.
If Stephanie was good — really good — she'd say, "You don't need to come with me," but she's not, she's only human. And anyway, she thinks that if Peggy didn't want to come, she'd still be in Stark's airplane, not sitting here watching Stephanie's wounds close over with superhuman speed in a Nazi-infested forest.
So she doesn't say anything, she just pulls out the stolen map.
It's ripped pretty badly and heavily stained with a generous mix of dirt, God knows what, and Stephanie's blood. "Well, we'll need to burn this before leaving it in enemy hands," Peggy sighs, and holds a lighter to it — unsettlingly close, casting ominous, orange shapes across the page. They negotiate the light and the map and the compass, and after a tense moment of correction or two, Peggy says, "This way," and they go.
The walk is long and awful, bitterly cold, and Stephanie mostly remembers it in fits and starts with an underlying and unceasing worry for Peggy. The low pass where the 107 had fallen back after the disastrous sortie is still two miles of dense and dilapidated forest away and the temperature keeps dropping. Stephanie feels the cold and sees it on Peggy's face, pale except for where she's flushed from the pace.
"Stephanie, if you don't stop looking at me with that expression of worried pity, I will find a way to injure you despite the best combined efforts of German and American engineering," Peggy promises, the fourth time Stephanie turns to check over her shoulder that Peggy's keeping up, that she's all right.
"Just tell me if you're tired," Stephanie says, mortified, because she'd hated that look with a passion when it had been directed at her in the past. "I mean, I could carry you."
Peggy — reasonably — punches Stephanie in a one of her slower-healing bruises.
The inky black of deep midnight is melting into the pale blue of early dawn, before the pink seeps in, by the time they cross the last ridge, scaling and scrambling over a field of broken and downed trees — their corpses jaggedly broken in half and left gleaming raw. Stephanie thinks she will always remember this: the smell of new wood and night, just clinging, standing freezing at the foot of a hill, and seeing in the distance the orange glow of factory windows, steam pouring from the guts of a building in the forest.
"Is that on the map?" she asks, hushed. She doesn't hear any footsteps, any human noises other than herself and Peggy, but there are the rattling noises of rabbits in the dead leaves, her own blood pumping in her ears. She doesn't trust the near-magical properties of the serum, though she lives them every day now.
Peggy holds the paper up to a place where the leaves overhead have parted for a shaft of moonlight, squinting at the page.
"Marked as an old lumber processing plant," she says after a beat.
In the distance, Stephanie thinks she sees the shadows of people moving around the orange windows. She wonders how many people are in the factory — how many of them are Allied soldiers, and if among them is her husband. She thinks about how she might die here, or Peggy might die here, but worse she might have to kill someone tonight. Stephanie's watched a lot of people die, but it was with her hands over their wounds, cupping their fingers in her palms; this is something different, worse, and her fear is making her voice tremble the way the cold doesn't any longer.
"How — what do we do now?" she asks, because Peggy must know what to do.
Peggy frowns past the trees, narrows her eyes at the factory. She murmurs, "We need to get closer and do some recon. Our best bet is to go in quietly — see if we can locate any survivors."
With "quiet" as the directive, every noise in the forest amplifies, from the night sounds of animals to the faint mechanical hum of the looming factory. Stephanie's breath sounds like a nor'easter; Peggy's jacket, brushing against the cragged bark of a nearby tree sounds like the roll of thunder.
Creeping low and in the darkness, it takes them two hundred years to close the distance to the factory, and Stephanie feels the chill of cool dawn icing the sweat on her neck. She clutches at the exposed roots of ancient trees and she scales hills, climbs silently up rocks, until they come upon a deserted path that still smells like truck exhaust and dash over to the nearest cover of trees again, hearts thudding at the possibility of detection.
They're close enough now that Stephanie can see the gates, hastily erected watchtowers, the people milling around and in them. She knows just enough nouns in German to pick up daughter and cold and lunch, and one day Stephanie thinks she'll lie awake at night staring at her ceiling, thinking of the strangeness of this: huddling in a shadow listening to ordinary people talk about their children and the weather and sandwiches, and to think of them as any kind of enemy.
Right now, she watches the way people are ambling away, tired, how they're carrying their things, the color of the sky, and she whispers:
"It's shift change."
Peggy slants her a look. "Pardon?"
"Shift change," Stephanie repeats. "This looks like a skeleton crew — and that always meant 12 hour shifts at the hospital." She swallows around the cold marble of fear in her throat, making her sick with need for Bucky. "We should go, now, they'll be their most disorganized. Before the new team gets in place with fresh eyes."
"Right," Peggy agrees, and scanning the distance, says, "Oh, truck."
Stephanie assumes this declaration means, "hide," only Peggy seizes her by the elbow and says, "Jump, quickly, this is our ride in."
Peggy chases the truck and jumps to cling to it — swinging herself through the woolen fabric flaps in the back, and Stephanie swears under her breath, reaching for the back gate twice before getting a good grip, and then nearly skidding to her probable death before managing to lever herself inside. She lands with a thud, ugly, on her knees, and by the time she scrapes all of her ponytail out of her face, it's to see a soldier with a rapidly-purpling face cradled against Peggy's front — her legs wrapped around his hips — and her elbow hooked under his chin as he pulls at her arm and she mutters, "Christ, pass out already."
Near Peggy is another man, already unconscious, face-down, and Stephanie stares at the drawn gun he had out and looks back up at Peggy, who just says:
"Do me a favor and punch this one in the face to speed this along?"
"Oh, this I know," Stephanie says, and though she can't take the requisite two steps back to really throw her weight into the right cross, it seems to do the trick anyway. The man's gone still in Peggy's lethal embrace, and Stephanie mumbles, "Wow — I've never managed a knockout before," barely audible over the roar of the truck.
Peggy must hear it anyway, because her laugh now is as great as it had been back at Camp Lehigh. She reaches down to steal the bullets off the men on the truck bed and throws Stephanie one of the ammunition cartridges, saying, "I am impressed."
"I'm also good at kicking fellas in the family jewels," Stephanie reveals.
"Stark surmised that about you shortly after your altercation with the lamp," Peggy retorts, but she says it smiling.
From what they can see from between the tarp coverings on the truck bed, the factory is looming ever closer, the sky still that pale gray-blue just before dawn in earnest. There's a tense moment where they both ready their weapons — Stephanie keeps her index finger pressed alongside the trigger, feels her wrist trembling — as the truck pulls up to a guard tower, but they're waved through. Someone up front laughs. Someone else calls out a laughing response, and the truck rumbles through the gates, sputtering to a stop near a loading dock made even more anticlimactic than the weapons tower because the drivers alight and don't check in the back.
Stephanie and Peggy must huddle there for minutes, almost a quarter of an hour, before Peggy peels aside one edge of the tarp flap to carefully survey the area. Stephanie can hear machines and people, cars in the distance, the sound of metal screaming against metal that makes her back teeth hurt.
"Looks like it's clear," Peggy whispers, twisting around to catch Stephanie's gaze. "Are you ready?"
They talked about this, in the all-too-short and eternal ride in the back of the truck. Two women against an entire base of soldiers are long odds; they're best bet is to enter and exit as quietly as possible.
"Follow my lead," Peggy had ordered. "If we're separated, look for an exit if at all possible and go back to the woods — to that outcropping we decided earlier." Stephanie had nodded, agreeable, until Peggy had gone on, "And if it comes to it — you leave me, do you understand?"
Peggy had kept at it until Stephanie had been forced to lie and say she did, but Peggy had at least looked resigned and dubious by her eventual compliance. Steph was confident her actual meaning had been conveyed by her extravagantly uncooperative sarcasm.
Here, now, about to get out of the relative safety of the truck and dive into the guts of the factory, Stephanie's interior is a warzone of fear and greedy hope. She looks at Peggy's grim expression, at the gun in her hands, feel the compass where it's tucked inside her jacket. She nods. This is it.
"I'm ready," Stephanie says, and they move.
The rest of this war will be documented to the millimeter, but I doubt this will ever be declassified. It seems sometime while I was occupied elsewhere, the SSR took it upon themselves to inflict untested super soldier medical flimflammery upon an ANC nurse. Apparently, she found the results agreeable and is now part of a guerrilla team of Allied forces to destroy Nazi bases throughout the Western Theater I am not supposed to know about in order to maintain plausible deniability.
Stark — who is unbearable — has assured me Lady Liberty (as she goes by these days) has the "phenomenal strength of 10 men" and "no plans to bring legal action." That Stark feels these are the issues over which I require reassurance are exactly why I find him unbearable.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 23, 1944.
— XY234786, Library of Congress.
When they duck inside, through an unattended, unlocked door, Stephanie thinks first, No wonder they didn't hear us.
The roar of hulking machines, of vast things being clanged and welded together, is enormous, consuming. And though the whitewater rush of blood under her skin and muscle has been the steady tattoo of this entire journey, it suddenly falls away, covered up by the mechanical drone of the factory.
Inside the constancy of the noise, there are soldiers milling around, clad in featureless black leather and clutching guns glowing blue light.
"Do not get shot by one of those," Peggy hisses at her, and moves.
She follows, trying to breathe as quietly as possible, clinging to the shadows and perimeters of the room. Stephanie can only just see the suggested shape of things, a little of the men working on the machines, and from their tattered clothes and frail limbs, she thinks they must be POWs but she's not sure. She doesn't think she sees Bucky among them, and when she hesitates — staring at the gloomy overhead lights skimming just so over one man's dark hair — Peggy jabs her in the ribs and gives her a shove, ever closer to a darkened, unmanned doorway and away from the factory floor.
She feels so suddenly angry — that Peggy won't let her look for her husband just a second, that they're here at all, that so many lives have been sundered and cities have been razed.
All she can think is that when she'd seen Bucky off, she had not been alone, that whole families had gone to press desperate kisses and lay hands on their fathers and brothers and sons. Stephanie thinks about London, its buildings in ruins. She thinks of Clarissa and Rhonda and Gloria. She thinks of the abstract hugeness of death's greed in war — of the concentration camps and soldiers and the sickening waste of it, of everyone who is dying for this.
Stephanie still doesn't want to kill anyone, but now she's pretty sure she can.
The hallway they find on the other side of the door is dark and damp-smelling, and Stephanie closes a hand over Peggy's arm to still her, so that their breathing can quiet and she can close her eyes and listen. The machines are still a riot in her ears, but beyond that all she hears are dripping water, the sound of fabric from Peggy's clothes. They're alone. You'd have to be crazy or a fool to be this deep behind enemy lines. Stephanie supposes she's the fool and that Peggy's the crazy one.
"Anyone?" Peggy whispers, when Stephanie opens her eyes.
She shakes her head. "Where next?"
"We follow the light," comes Peggy's reply, and they go toward a distant corner, where a single anemic lamp is swaying like a hanged man from a cord, looped over a rusted-over fitting on the wall.
Each of Stephanie's footsteps sounds like a clattering thud, every small noise amplifying as they draw further away from the hustle and buzz of the machine floor. Now, Stephanie hears the constant sounds of water pooling, sloshing under Peggy's boots. She hears wind shrieking through the cracks of windows, the sound of an old concrete building groaning to bear up.
It feels like wending endlessly through the darkness, following haphazard and poorly lit hallways until they dead-ended. Twice, Stephanie shoves herself and Peggy into dark alcoves, hands pressed over their months, as a patrol saunters past. Nobody stops and peers around the corner suspiciously, frowns or inquires further at an off noise.They keep walking, but it still takes Peggy pressing a hand to the back of Stephanie's neck and whispering, "Breathe," for her to start again.
And then so slowly that Stephanie thought she'd been imagining it, noises start to filter in again: metal clangs, the faraway murmur of voices.
Peggy warns, "Careful," but two feet later there's the sound of a door swinging open, and in the half-second before they hear it slam shut, there's the most beautiful sound of all — an angry, American voice shouting:
"And fuck you guys, too!"
The only reason Stephanie doesn't make a break for it is a hand on her elbow holding her back, Peggy mouthing, wait. Stephanie does, tense like a violin string, until the sound of a pair of boots and fatigued German complaints fade away in the opposite direction, down a better-lit hall that they'd explored earlier, that led to mostly deserted bunks and a small mess. The wait is infinite, unending, and Peggy makes Stephanie stand there vibrating out of her skin for two lifetimes before she nods and whispers, "All right — let's go."
There's no lock on the door, slivered open by a warped piece of metal, and beyond it Stephanie only hears eerie silence. She looks at Peggy, who looks at her.
"No reason to shout if no one will hear it," Peggy says reasonably. "Saving their energy."
"Okay," Stephanie whispers in agreement, and allows herself to be maneuvered toward the door's hinges, behind Peggy's much shorter frame. She points her gun as directed — index finger laying parallel to the trigger — and when Peggy pushes the door open there's an agonizingly loud scream of rusted-over hinges.
Peggy's reflexive, "Fuck," is almost entirely hidden by someone inside the room yelling:
"Come back for more? Stop hiding behind those bars, you Nazi piece of shit!"
Weeks later, when Peggy is telling a starry-eyed Howard how Stephanie laid a man out with one swing, Steph will insist shyly that it was panic and pure instinct, and only Bucky's good teaching that got here there. At the moment, when she'd heard someone yell, "Dort anhalten!" behind her, she'd forgotten all about the gun she was holding, made sure her thumb was on the outside of her fist, and swung for the fences.
This is different than the man in the back of the truck, who'd been halfway passed out already. This is someone stunned and angry, pointing the glowing blue tip of his gun at her, and Stephanie forcing herself to plant her feet instead of reflexively backing away.
The first guy she'd ever punched was Donnie Carver, who spent most of their shared childhood not understanding how to take "no" for an answer. Stephanie knew that telling Bucky about how Donnie sometimes got grabby was just going to earn the kid a one-way trip to the dentist, so why bother; Donnie was a shrimp and mostly harmless.
She'd figured getting engaged would at least get him off her back — it'd just made him panic and grab for her hard enough to leave a bruise on her wrist.
Hitting him in the face had hurt her hand like crazy, left her knuckles first an angry red and then covered in a dark and telling bruise. Donnie had still ended up at the dentist, and Bucky had bragged about it far and wide around Brooklyn for years.
Hitting the soldier is nothing like that. There's still the immediate sunburst of pain, of the bones of her hand hitting the bones of his face, but she can feel the force behind her punch, the way something in the man's cheek breaks, and he goes down like a puppet with its strings cut, in perfect silence.
She and Peggy both stare at him, at where he's lying unmoving on the ground, astonished. It takes the same voice from inside hollering, "What the hell's going on up there?" before they spring into action again.
"Keys," Stephanie says, and Peggy nods, dropping down to paw at the man's belt, where a thick circle of them hangs from the leather. She throws them to Stephanie.
"Go," Peggy instructs. She lays her finger along the trigger of her gun. "I'll keep watch up here — and quickly. More are almost certainly on their way."
It's so dark on the other side of the door it takes a beat before Stephanie's eyes adjust. She points her gun, waves it left and right, and the black is so oppressive and thick it feels like fabric, soft against the backs of her hands and the barrel of her weapon.
The voice from earlier has gone quiet, and Stephanie wonders if it's from fear or plotting. She wants to call out, but she's not sure if that wouldn't bring their captors here more quickly, so she keeps quiet, tip-taps her way across the ground, which creaks metallic beneath her ever footfall.
The first thing her eyes pick out of the dark is the glimmer of dripping water, and then the dull gleam of pipes, overhead and suddenly underfoot. When Stephanie blinks again, it's to a monotone gray world where she's standing on a suspended metal walkway, and when she looks down, it's into cells, and at the baffled faces of men down below. None of them are Bucky.
A black man in an Army uniform frowns up at her.
"Who are you supposed to be?" he asks.
"Um," Stephanie hears herself saying. "Lady Liberty."
The lack of reaction from below goes on long enough that Stephanie's found her way down to the gates of the cells, dropping down below with a shimmy and a shove, dragging the heavy key ring up and trying each key against the lock.
Another man in the cell says slowly, "I — beg your pardon?"
There were a dozen cells that she could see, each with a little over a dozen men crowded inside, and even after she'd let all of them out and they were crowded curiously around her — some in better shape, others in worse — she couldn't see Bucky's dark head or face anywhere.
She asks, "Is there anybody else? Any other cells?" and her voice comes out like sand in an open wound: grating, hurt. "I'm looking for a Sergeant James Barnes."
It's an Englishman who answers her, falling into step. There's dirt and blood on his face. "There's an isolation ward in the factory, but no one's ever come back from it," he says.
Ignoring the second half of that isn't a conscious decision, it just slips away from her. She points them up the scaffolding, toward the dim light of the opened door, and she says, "Up there — there's a woman at the door named Agent Carter with the SSR. She'll lead you guys back out."
"I beg your pardon?" the Englishman says again, only the inflection means a universe of different things this time.
"The tree line's northwest, 80 yards past the gate — get out fast and give 'em hell," Stephanie goes on, eyes on a door in the distance and another trellis of cheap naked bulbs. It's how she found these men; it's how she'll find her man. She's not leaving here without him. "I'll meet you guys in the clearing with anybody else I find."
"We can't just leave you here," argues the black man from earlier, and next to him, a fellow who has — improbably — managed to hang onto his bowler hat says:
"This is no place for a lady."
Stephanie pulls out her gun, because if any of them tries to stop her they're getting a taste of friendly fire.
"Feel free to climb back into those cells if the chivalry overwhelms you," she retorts, and waves them toward the door, to where she can see Peggy frowning down at them now. "Otherwise — get a move on. I don't know how long the guy at the door is going to stay unconscious."
Bowler Hat stares, and an Asian man mutters, "Jesus Christ, lady."
"Go," she says again, and softening a little, she says, "Don't worry. I've knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times."
They don't look reassured, but Stephanie doesn't really have time to worry about it. Any longer here and Peggy is going to come looking for her, or they're going to think too hard about this and stop her. So she shoves past Englishman and Bowler Hat and and runs for it, darting through the opened doorway just in time to hear Peggy swearing at her in the distance and one of the men asking, "Who the hell are you two?"
Stephanie's memory for spaces in three dimensions is second to none.
She remembers the shape of the corridors, where the factory space would lay beyond and down possible hallways. Most of the factory space is just that, broadly open and uncovered factory space, taken up by vast numbers of machines across the floor. The dimensions of the building from the outside means there's a floor of offices, maybe two, with low ceilings on the upper levels, and Stephanie runs up stairs because the only thing that's down them is Nazis and glowing blue weapons.
The cluster of old administrative rooms is a maze, and Stephanie would have wandered them until Peggy came and dragged her off by the hair if it weren't for hearing a clatter and footfalls, splashing across a hall. She darts around a corner — chasing the sound — to see a squat little man in smeary glasses and a hat coming out of one of the rooms, looking perfectly terrified.
He doesn't stay still long enough for her to fumble out her gun, and her body's moving, propelling her forward, toward the opened door and the dim lights inside.
There're heavy metal gates — too keep people in, she thinks — flung open, abandoned, and she's touching her fingers to the red rust on them when she hears the voice, murmuring and murmuring in the swallowing darkness of the room.
She must move, because before she was standing at the gate in the door and now she's standing at the head of a metal lab table, a flickering bulb over head, and under the sickly light Bucky is bruised and filthy and feverishly groaning words out from between his chapped and bloodied lips.
Stephanie's never seen him so thin — not the worst of it during the Depression, not the leanest years when Bucky was a boy, growing inches and feet overnight like a weed. There're hollows in his cheeks (there are bruises on his cheeks, a deep cut along his jaw), and the bruises under his eyes look permanent. There's sweat tacky on his face, a scratchy growth of whiskers. There's blood on his teeth, and his hair's slicked back from mud and grease and who the hell knows what else.
"Oh my God," she whispers, she puts her hands on his shoulders, slides them down his arms — his shirt's so thin; it's so cold outside; it's so cold in here, and he's still burning up under her touch — until she can feel the leather ties on his wrists, feel the open and sluggishly bleeding abrasions there, too. "Oh — God."
Bucky's awake, his eyes are open — they're red from crying; there're tear tracks down his face Jesus Christ what did they — but he's staring at nothing, past her, he's mumbling:
"Sergeant — Sergeant James Barnes — 32557038."
She listens to him say it three times in a row because there's a sudden wound in her throat, as wide and terrible as the ocean, and when she tries to talk again it comes out like a croak. Stephanie says, "Bucky — Buck, it's me."
He just squeezes his eyes shut, squeezes his fists closed where she's touching his hand, keeps slurring his name, rank, serial number, until Stephanie hears herself crying and presses her hands to his face — her palms on his freezing skin — and says, "Bucky, hey, hey — look at me — it's me."
Bucky looks at her, but he does it slow, with dread — dreadfully.
He stares and stares at her face, and this time when he opens his mouth, he says, "Steph?"
She laughs, but it comes out wet and desperate and wild. "Yeah, Buck, it's me."
"You're — you got taller," he manages, and Stephanie doesn't care that he's filthy, that she can smell the sourness of sweat and vomit on him and see the blood on his skin, she presses a ferocious kiss to his temple at that, just so she can get her mouth on him.
"I don't cough anymore, either," she promises, and turns to his wrists, his ankles, where they've tied him to the table. His knees are raw. They've left him his boots, but they're soaked. There's a puddle under the table and she's so furious she's cold with it, numb with it, even as she rips off pieces of Bucky's own fucking work shirt to tie off his wrists, as if that'll help him in this cesspit of infection and —
Bucky asks, "Am I dead then?"
She stares at him, and he turns his head — it looks like it hurts to turn his head — so he can look at her. He looks like he's drinking in the sight of her, and he looks like his heart's breaking. The cut on his lip looks somehow worse than two minutes ago.
"I just figure they'd send you to get me — when I kicked off," he goes on, like he's talking sense. "You — my you, you're still in Brooklyn, right?"
Weeks later, when they're in London, Stephanie will remember this moment while she's putting iodine on a cut on Bucky's hand and burst into tears.
Right now, she doesn't cry at all. She just says, "Bucky, I am your me."
His hands are free now, so he can reach up with them and touch her face. His palms are rough and his nails are ragged but the weight of his fingers on her skin is exactly the same, just the same as the first time he cupped her face or her breast or hitched her closer, so he could press into her, until they were puzzle pieces slotted together. But his eyes are wet and crazy with imaginary loss, and he thumbs the collar of her shirt — his shirt and mumbles:
"I don't want you here. You were safe back home."
She swallows back the wail that's perched at the back of her throat, the long scream she wants to free into the night. Stephanie makes herself say instead, "Well you weren't doing so good here without me — I had to come get your dumb ass."
It's like he doesn't really hear her. "She's still alive right — she's okay?" he begs, and this time Stephanie just lets herself cry as she chokes out, "Yeah, Buck, she's okay," and begs, "Come on — sit up, I gotta get you out of here," and pulls him to his feet.
"You know in our neighborhood, Bucky — nobody ever called him James, not even his Ma — Bucky was like a movie star. He was so handsome, and his Daddy was a soldier and he was so smart. He could always make you laugh. His little sisters used to follow him around like ducklings when they were babies, before things got bad and they got sent Upstate with an aunt or something. And you know he could have had any girl in Brooklyn, but he only ever had eyes for Steph. She wasn't anything special, you know? Not bein' mean, just honest. She was real small, and sick all the time, and even outside of that she was ornery and ordinary, but to Bucky? She hung the moon and stars. And when you watched him watch her, you know, you thought, 'God, maybe there's something to that girl. I ain't ever loved anybody like that.' Gosh, one time, she got so sick one time. It was one of those fall colds that turned into a winter cold, and she was so sick, and he had to work, you know? And her Ma had just passed, and Bucky's folks were Upstate with the girls, and imagine my surprise when Bucky comes and asks, 'Annie, I'm so sorry. I'd ask our neighbor but Mrs. Carlucci's getting up in years — I gotta go to work, and someone's gotta stay with Steph.' So I stayed with her all day. Gary — my first husband — had just made site overseer so I'd quit my job. So I sat with her for days, mopping her brow, listening to her cough — it was awful. She was so sick. And her fever was wild. Sometimes, she'd just cry and grab my hand and fling it away again, like she could tell it was wrong, and she'd just cry and say, 'Bucky, I want Bucky,' over and over again. I guess I'm just saying, those two deserved each other. I mean that as nicely as possible."
— Spencer, Annie. "The Howling Commandos Oral History Project." American University. 1965. Tape.
And for everyone who has made better choices and doesn't immediately recognize the reference, FDR was writing an entry in the President's Secret Book. If you still do not know this reference, whatever you do, do not go and immediately watch the cinematic masterpiece, National Treasure, starring Nic Cage.
Bucky can't walk, not at first, so she carries him, slings him onto her back and wraps his arms around her shoulders and runs. He's still broader than her and taller than her and he's an uncooperative mess of limbs, saying how she's pretty fucking rude for a reaper, so there's no reasoning with him and the toes of his boots drag the length of the hallways as she tries to find them a way out.
She finds a lot of other things first: maps, logbooks, the detritus of battle plans. The maps she memorizes — Bucky's breath hot and desperate on her neck, gasping — the books she zips into her jacket, feels the pages crinkling and tearing as she runs. She takes a magazine of glowing bullets, some instruments she doesn't recognize, just the things she can reach and carry, and then she's telling Bucky, "Okay, let's get you out of here," over her shoulder and running into the hall.
Steph doesn't bother to make him be quiet or attempt stealth, because sometime after she dragged him out of the torture room there'd been a conflagration outside followed shortly by a half-dozen explosions, a hearty round of English profanity, and then she'd seen out of a dirty window that apparently half the factory was on fire.
At some point, Bucky starts making noises of infringed male pride on her back, telling her to put him down and, "No, I'm not being stubborn — Jesus, just let me down, I can walk." The hell of it is, he can, and Stephanie knows there's no way he should be able to, but he just looks smug and obnoxious and says, "See."
"If you so much as stumble, I'm carrying you bridal style out of this joint," she warns and reaches for his hand and —
And he pulls it just out of her reach, grinning as he does it, the way he does at stranger girls who fall madly in love with him at first sight. "Sorry, sweetheart," he tells her. "I got a girl already — but I promise I won't stumble."
Stephanie grits her teeth against the reflexive need to yell at him until he recognizes one of her hysterical fits, but only because she doesn't have time to do it right. When they're out of here, when they're safe, Bucky's getting it for the ages right in the medical tent, in front of all his buddies. Until then, then.
She jerks her head toward the stairs — the catwalks.
"This way," she says, because she sees the map of the place in her head and the way out's up and down the long way if they don't want to risk the factory floor.
Bucky follows her at least, keeping up somehow, hissing, "Christ," when he sees the melee down below: ugly fighting and flames licking up everywhere along the factory floor. "What the hell happened here?"
He's gaining better control of his consonants now, like his legs. He sounds stronger and crisper, better-defined, and when Stephanie turns to look where he's close at her heels, his eyes are less fever bright and more alert. She can't tell if the color on his face is the fire or her desperation or fact.
She says, "I freed everybody else in the cells I could find."
He turns to look at her. Bucky looks lost, bewildered, by more than his surroundings. He asks, "What about the Nazis?"
"I told your pals to give 'em hell," Steph says, more than a little impatient. "Which is why I'm trying to get us to run out of this burning factory as fast as possible."
Something complicated crosses Bucky's face, almost a smile. "Okay," he allows.
Naturally, this is when the fire on the factory floor is encouraged by a series of explosions that send the flames volcanic, flaring upward, consuming the building and railings and gangways. Stephanie swears a lot, and not even under her breath, but none of it's audible over the calamity below, and she chivvies Bucky up stories and stories of metal staircases, until she finds a catwalk relatively untouched by fire to cross the inferno below. She's pressing his hands to the railings, saying, "Just hold on and get over okay — there're stairs outside on the other side," when someone calls out through the smoke and fire:
"Lady Liberty — how exciting!"
Bucky says, "What the hell," and Stephanie looks up, narrows her eyes through the black ash unfurling upward into the barrel of the factory ceiling and sees the distant lines of a face across the catwalk. It's a man in a leather duster, hair neatly combed; he has the sleek, well-fed look of a Nazi in a prisoner of war camp.
She stares as he closes the distance to the catwalk on the other side of the factory — there's a red symbol on his shoulder, in a patch on the leather — and even through the smoke she can see something strange about this face, the funny way the leer on his mouth sits, like the skin isn't right.
"I'm a huge fan of your pin-ups," he goes on, baring his teeth and pressing a hand to the same railing Bucky's touching right now
It's reflex that has Stephanie dragging Bucky back, tucking him behind her body.
"Who the hell are you?" she hollers back, over the sound of something imploding below. She tries to ignore the way the building is shaking.
He doesn't answer her, but he does step onto the catwalk in long strides, still smiling, and even with the distance between them Stephanie can feel the way his eyes are tracking her: a quick glance at her face, then a long look at her shoulders, something hungry in the way he studies the length of her torso, the line of her legs. He doesn't want her, not exactly, not the way she's passingly familiar with now, anyway.
Stephanie doesn't know why she climbs on the catwalk to meet him halfway, why she shakes of the way Bucky grabs for her shoulder, saying, "Wait," only that she needs this catwalk — she needs it to get Bucky to the other side and out of this burning building. She remembers thinking she'd crawl over broken glass to get to husband; she'll walk up to this monster, no question.
"I had so wondered after he snuck away from me, but it appears Dr. Erskin managed it after all — or, well, he managed something," the man goes on, still looking at her, still narrowing the space between them. "I recognize his work."
Stephanie can hear Bucky's boots clanging on the catwalk after her, and she squares her shoulders, plants her feet across the metal, builds herself up like a wall between them. She lifts her chin and forces her voice to stay even. She says:
"Get out of our way."
"Tell me," the man asks, and his leering smile is back; it sits on his face more oddly than ever, and Stephanie thinks of her anatomy books, the diagrams of muscles and skin, "were you the only one he could convince to try it — or was he just lonely, after I sent his whole family off ahead of him?"
Stephanie doesn't mean to punch him, the swing bursts out of her, an explosion from the shoulder and through her fist — her whole body propelled into it. Like with the soldier earlier, she can feel something hard under her knuckles, the power of the hit.
"Go to hell," she spits at him.
But the man in the duster doesn't slump over, unconscious, he just staggers, gasping, touching a gloved hand to his now-bleeding mouth as he looks up at her and —
"Jesus Christ," Bucky says from behind her, his hands on her, searching her, saying, "Get back — right now — "
Because her punch had knocked something loose, and the skin around the man's eyes has pulled away, like the glue's come undone, and Stephanie feels her own eyes rounding, her mouth gaping open, gasping, "What — ?" before she feels Bucky grabbing the butt of the gun she's got tucked in her trousers.
The next part happens fast, and Stephanie notes it in flashes: the man on the catwalk rearing back to punch her, and the way she braces for a strike that never comes, because next to her left ear comes the concussive bangs of five shots that land all in his chest, knocking him backward along the catwalk.
When Stephanie turns to stare — at her boy who rescues birds and baby cats and her, too — it's to find Bucky's hands aren't shaking: they're still as a tomb at night as he holds the gun. There's a hard edge on his features she doesn't recognize, something new and unknown in a face she's memorized like the geography of their bed.
There's no opportunity for her to touch his cheek, to whisper his name, because instead of being — understandably — dead, the man on the catwalk is groaning.
"Are you kidding me?" Bucky yells, but he sounds all the way like himself again — the sound of Bucky when the city ices over and he tears his pants falling down their front steps, all the old ladies upstairs leaning out their windows to laugh.
Across the catwalk, though, the man in the duster is staggering to his feet, laughing wildly as the factory burns around them. The dumpy little man with smeary glasses from earlier has thrown a lever and it takes two beats before she processes what's happening, and then Stephanie hears herself yelling, "No! No!" as the catwalk separates and withdraws, their path closing off.
She dives for it, makes a wild effort to reach, and it's Bucky who grabs at her, snatches her by the collar and drags her back. She claws at the metal railings as they fold away, the gulf between the factory sides widening.
"No matter what lies Erskine told you, you see, I was his greatest success!" the Nazi yells at them through the blood in his teeth, the blood in his smile — and he starts tearing at the skin of his own face, from the jagged corner of his mouth and up and over.
At first Stephanie thinks in mute horror she's seeing the blood and muscle of his skull, until it's clear that is his skull. His bone is glossy scarlet like lacquer, the cartilage of his nose gone, just the veined bulbs of his eyes floating in their sockets remain. It turns her stomach, it makes something in her throat hurt — to think someone could live through whatever made him into this monster, that Dr. Erskine had helped at all.
"I read your all your speeches, Miss Liberty, I saw films of your act," the man — the Red Skull yells at her, and all Stephanie can see are the ragged pieces of bright bloody flesh that are masking the roots of his teeth where they are burrowed into his jaw. "You are wasting a precious gift on short skirts and motorcycle tricks; we have left humanity behind, and I am not deluding myself of it — I am not afraid."
"Then why are you running?" Stephanie retorts, over the licking flames, and his only answer is another wild grin, getting dragged backward by the man in glasses, pulled into an elevator as the doors close.
There's nothing left to do in that instant other than look at Bucky, and his face, when she catches his expression — orange-lit from the explosions below and filthy — is disbelieving. It's the precursor to so many versions of the same fight they've had since they were just kids that Stephanie can go through all the paces in her head without Bucky's active participation.
"Come on," she says, grabbing his elbow, "let's go."
Another level up they're in the vaults of the ceiling, but there's a structural beam welded together with rough whorls of metal. It spans the factory below them and is maybe a foot, a foot and a half wide, and it's the only way to get across the burning gulf below. Stephanie doesn't think, she just acts, and she says, "You first," and starts shoving Bucky over the railing, heart pressing at her throat once his feet hit the metal and he starts to pick his way across, dog tags catching the firelight.
The heat from the fire below is making the metal buckle, and Stephanie swings from horror to elation in less than a second, watching the strut give way — and then watching Bucky make a run for it, scrabble at the railing on the other side, climb over into safety.
She doesn't think to be scared until she sees the way Bucky's staring back at her, clutching at the rail, something wild in the shape of his eyes and mouth.
"There's gotta be something — a rope, something!" he yells at her, and that's when Stephanie blinks and sees again that the strut's collapsed all the way, clinging on by one shitty weld at her end, dangling freely into the flames between them.
She yells, "Go on, get out of here!" at Bucky out of reflex, but the spike of pain when he yells back, "No, not without you!" is fresh like a knife in the gut.
Stephanie knows that dumb look on Bucky's dumb face. He calls her stubborn but he's the one who carries her to doctors in driving snow, throws out the priest Mrs. Fugazzi sends for the last rites when things get real bad. He keeps her going. Bucky doesn't entirely believe it's her, but that won't stop him from standing there while the factory burns down around them.
When Stephanie peels apart the railing and jogs backward to leap, she doesn't know it'll work — doesn't know she'll make it to the other side. She just knows she has to jump, that she has to try.
She doesn't look down or the think about how it will feel to fall. She just stares straight ahead into Bucky's stricken, dirty face, and feels her body propelled through the air — closing the distance between.
She doesn't know what else to do. She just wants Bucky to live.
Stephanie lands — with a clatter, with a bang, in a flurry of limbs and the tail of her braid whipping wildly — into Bucky's wide-open arms, and they slam into the metal walkway underneath their feet. Stephanie skins both her knees, and Bucky swears violently about bruises on his tailbone but he's smiling like a madman, eyes bright through the smoke of the factory, hands on her waist.
The New Howling Commandos Run is a DUMPSTER FIRE
Oh, man. It's so bad, guys.
By Katelin Moss| January 3, 2011 at 4 p.m.
There's no two ways about this, folks: the Howling Commandoes reboot is a mess. A hot, bottled, dumpster fire mess. While we hate this run flat out, if we created a Maslow's hierarchy of rage, the most fundamental component would be Lady Liberty's sexpot makeover.
It's not a new interpretation by any means, but it's one that official Howling Commandoes runs have generally (wisely) steered clear of. Over the years, Liberty's been portrayed as one of the guys, a mastermind SSR agent, a spy — she's served as a reliable bulwark against some of comics industry's grosser instincts. However much you want to put balls out rocket titties and a boob window on a female character, it's not going to fly on a broadly revered icon on the level of Bucky Barnes or any other Howlie; her historical and cultural status has insulated her — to a degree.
The first issue kicks off the awfulness with a bang by having Lady Liberty crawling out of a Hydra honcho's bed after a night of sexual interrogation. (YEP.) Then Bucky Barnes shoves her into a wall in the middle of a fight about her literally sleeping with the enemy. (YEP.) Also apparently Liberty is now a chain smoker and a functional alcoholic because I guess she needs to be to numb the torture of boning down on Nazis in the name of freedom. (YEP.)
This run is so comically awful it almost feels like Marvel is fucking with us, but given its pride of place on their site today it looks — unfortunately — like this is the Howling Commandoes comic they think we all wanted.
Have you guys read it yet? What did you think? Sound off below!
— Moss, Katelin. "The New Howling Commandoes Run is a DUMPSTER FIRE." The Mary Sue. Mediaite. 3 March 2011. Web. 7 July 2014.
When they spill out into the morning light, it's colored deeply by the orange flames and smoke of the factory beginning to collapse in earnest behind them. There is noise and gunfire and still-thickening chaos around them, and Stephanie's only tether to the reality of this moment is the way Bucky's hand is gripping her own — warm, alive.
All around them she sees POWs, newly freed, throwing themselves into the fight: seizing weapons off of the captors, disintegrating them with blue light. The man in the bowler hat is reaching into the guts of a tank and hurling its drivers out onto the ground, and Stephanie hears Peggy shouting up at the black man from before, who's dropping into the belly of the beast now:
"Corporal Jones, clear a path through the forest — don't hesitate to use those guns."
"Ma'am," Jones tells her, something like love on his face underneath the streaks of ash and blood, "you don't have to tell me twice."
Then Peggy's pivoting with a narrow-eyed look, scanning her environs until she locks onto Stephanie. Peggy's curls have gone flat and her bangs are pasted to her forehead now; her cheeks are hot red spots of fury. Somehow her lipstick is still perfect. There's not even any on her teeth, which Stephanie can verify by the way Peggy bares all of them to bellow, "You are unbelievable," at her while storming over.
Stephanie's ears are ringing a little, from the explosion, from Peggy, from Bucky's shots. Half dumb, she says, "I'm back."
"We'll have words later," Peggy promises, and somehow that's worse than almost getting punched in the face by the red monster inside the factory. Peggy turns to Bucky now, scowling, "And you — you must be Sergeant Barnes."
Bucky, because he got it from his Pop and can't turn it off, responds the way all Barnes men do to a dame. He grins crookedly and says, "One and only. And you are?"
Peggy's eyebrows creep toward her hairline, and when she darts a look over to Stephanie, Stephanie just sighs, resigned.
"Special Agent Carter, Strategic Science Reserve," Peggy says eventually, still looking more at Stephanie than Buck, but now there's a smile twitching at the corner of Peggy's mouth and a knowing look on her face, like this interaction is helping a few puzzle pieces about this mess click into place. "You look to be in surprisingly good condition, Sergeant — you had Stephanie extremely worried."
Bucky's easy smile's at odds with the way he's clutching at her fingers, with pressure that would hurt if Stephanie weren't who she is now.
"I guess if you know Stephanie, you know what a worrier she is," he says, casual as you like, so easygoing that all the absence marks out the boundaries of his anger. Stephanie thinks distantly that Peggy's going to have to get in line to tear her a new one, because Bucky's going to get dibs.
Stephanie only has a second to register the slight widening of Peggy's eyes before she's shouting, "Down!" and Bucky's jerking both of them to the muddy ground — the flaming bones of the factory exploding behind them with a hot breath of fire and a great force that roars through the forest. It makes Stephanie's teeth chatter in her head; it makes her curl her fingers into Bucky's shirt and clutch him closer, even though his face is already pressed into her neck. It makes her scared all over again, because if she'd been a little later, if she'd taken a wrong turn, he'd be under all the concrete, his nose and his mouth wouldn't be here on his face, pressed into her nape and —
"Right — time to go," Peggy huffs, pushing herself back to her feet.
It turns out that the POWs — being all male — have appropriated no fewer than four tanks, but no trucks, and Steph has to liberate one when they can't find the keys, probably lost to the foot-deep mud of the forest floor forever.
"Fascinating skill set you have there," Peggy teases, as Stephanie digs around the gullet of the car for the right wires. From over her shoulder, Bucky's seized by a coughing fit even as Stephanie says, blithe, "Oh, yeah, Bucky taught me how for my 16th birthday."
And ever since Bucky had showed her how to hotwire a car the first time, she's always been better at it: smaller, more meticulous fingers, and her near-picture perfect memory trying to make up for all the ways her body failed her otherwise. The bucket of bolts is moving in no time, and Peggy says, "I'll drive," which is perfect because it allows Stephanie to shove Bucky through the flaps, into the covered back and look him over.
She goes for his wrists first, because they're the most obvious wounds, but when she unwraps the makeshift bandages, the deep and oozing cuts look better. Stephanie frowns and finds that lots of Bucky looks better: the gash that's soaked through his knee is starting to close over a little, and his hands are barely shaking anymore. The dark bruising on his neck, the ugly marks on his face, the busted lip, they're all starting to vanish with bewildering speed. He doesn't look like the man the man she found strapped to that examination table any more, mumbling his name, rank and serial number, breaking her heart, and there's no way he should be getting better this quickly — he should be feverish, breaking out into cold sweats, seized by infection.
"Come here," she tells him, and reaches for the buttons on his shirt because she's looked him over all she can without stripping him down. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"Jesus," Bucky swears, and snatches her hands out of the air, holds them six inches away from his chest like she's not allowed to touch — and his face, when she looks up, is a complicated mess of expressions: annoyance and fear and deep, deep suspicion.
Stephanie tries to jerk her wrists out of his grasp, and finds she can't. That's so ordinary and established in the known relationship of their bodies that it doesn't strike her as strange until later — until long after she's snapped at him:
"Filth could be seeping into your cuts as we speak, Buck."
He closes his eyes, pained. "Look — you, just — stop, let me look at you for a minute," he pleads, and he lets out a breath — shaking, trembling as the truck bounces along — before opening his eyes and staring at her, consuming.
Stephanie watches the way Bucky's irises telegraph the way he's inspecting her: her wet hair, her crooked widow's peak, the ash-colored lines of her brows, the line of her nose. He avoids meeting her gaze, but looks at her cheeks, her mouth, her neck and new shoulders, takes in the way Stephanie takes up more space now, is not so small against the universe. But she can see it in the particular wrinkle on his forehead, the way his mouth slants downward, how he's still clutching her wrists that he doesn't believe her, that he doesn't believe he knows her, and Stephanie murmurs, "Hey — look at me," before Bucky glances up to catch her eyes on reflex.
Bucky's eyes are gray or blue, in the right light. On Sunday mornings, after mass when he's hiding from Father O'Donnell in a patch of shade, Bucky's eyes are gray and quiet as he walks her home from services, their fingers laced together. At night, as Sunday's bleeding into Monday and they're tangled up in bed, Stephanie thinks Bucky's eyes look like little chips of lapis lazuli — supernaturally blue.
Right now, in the half-shade of a covered Nazi truck, with mud on his face and the road thudding under the wheels, Bucky's eyes aren't sure of her. They're blurry like the liminal space on a cold beach where rock sand meets a winter ocean. Stephanie feels that salt water welling up in her throat, choking. If she's come all this way, if the serum that had gotten her here—gotten her performing for senators and throwing herself out of airplanes and punching a man with a red skull to flee a burning factory so she could come get him—turns them into strangers, she doesn't know what she'll do.
She's been scared of this all along, under the surface.
After — after the serum, people had looked at her jealously. Even Clarissa—who was so happy and spoilt and beautiful she'd never thought to be anything other than happy and spoilt and beautiful—had sighed with envy at Stephanie's curves and bow lips. But all Stephanie had ever seen in the mirror was sallow, constant worry that her new skin and hands and the new line of her elbows would make her a stranger, and she'd come awake — tears on her face — from nightmares where she finds Bucky and he doesn't know her, where he shoves her out of the way to keep looking for Stephanie — his Stephanie.
Like right now — like right now, where Bucky just stares and stares at her, and Stephanie feels feverish and all pricked over with needles, desperate with waiting. She thinks she's going to burst from the waiting, and then Bucky's jaw twitches, his throat bobs, and he presses a thumb over the pulse at her wrist.
He whispers, "Christ, Steph — is that really you?" and his eyes are huge and hurt.
There's an awful noise, halfway between a sob and a laugh, and it takes a few seconds before Stephanie realizes it's come from her. If she tries to talk, she'll either yell at him for scaring her or burst all the way into tears, so she just nods and sucks in a breath, and clutches at his fingers, shameless.
His presses closer to her, on the bench, and when he cups her cheek with his free hand it's hesitating, like they're fourteen again and he's not sure if he's allowed. It makes her vision swim, hot and blurring with tears. Stephanie knows it's stupid, to have him here and alive and to cry over this, over feeling unknown.
"What happened to you?" he asks, eyes searching her face now. "What'd they do to you?"
"Do you believe it's me now?" Stephanie blubbers, instead of answering, because how she'll explain the SSR bunker in Brooklyn, or talk about poor Grenville and Dr. Erskine and Marlene she doesn't even know. She doesn't want to revisit that wound, to remember waking up in the hospital bed with her wedding ring cut in two — she just wants Bucky to know her, to touch her like he's always touched her.
He laughs at her, and it's a as wild a sound as he looks. "I always knew it was you," he lies to her, leans in so he can press his forehead against hers because he knows she likes it, keeping him close by. "Just wasn't sure if I wasn't dead and dreaming."
She hits him because she always hits him when he says stuff like that, but he deserves it harder and worse under the circumstances, and she talks through the chestful of crying she has saved up to mumble, "That's not funny, Buck."
"I know," he whispers, gentling, and he lets go of her other hand so he can cup her face in his two palms, tilt her just so, and so he can nose at her nose and mumble, "Rescue a fella proper, Steph."
Stephanie tells him he's a jerk, but she says it into his mouth. His lips are sealed but she can still taste the blood on him, smell the smoke and sweat off of his hair. He's heavy and real and when she runs her hands down his shoulders she can feel the corded muscle of him, the familiar strength underneath the dirty clothes. And all of a sudden even though she's looping her arms around his neck, drawing him in so she can rub them closer together, Stephanie misses him so badly it's an avalanche — an unbearable pain, and it seals up her throat with how badly it hurts not to have him, not to be able to press themselves into one piece, knit back together like before lightning had split them in two.
They need to breath eventually — Stephanie wants Bucky to breathe always — and it gives her a chance to gasp, "I thought I'd never see you again, your letters stopped coming, I was going crazy, Bucky," while he's saying, "I kept having fever dreams about you, God don't be another fever dream, Christ you smell like home," and she has to kiss him some more so he stops breaking her heart into pieces, talking like that.
He's got both hands in her hair, and she's climbed into his lap, knees on either side of his hips and she thinks, I haven't changed that much, I still fit here. Bucky's grinning that confidence man smile at her, putting his hands all over her, saying, "Hey there, gorgeous," and she's smiling back and —
"You've gotta be kidding me," someone yells.
That's about when Stephanie realizes that Peggy's stopped the truck so they can pick up stragglers and the injured, and when she turns her head, it's to see a baker's dozen of filthy, bedraggled soldiers looking torn, incredulous — impressed.
"Barnes, you have been out of Nazi hands for less than an hour," says one of the men.
"And that is Lady Liberty," protests another.
A third soldier just talks directly at Stephanie and says, "Barnes is a dog, and he's married, but I ain't," at which point she realizes she's still straddling Bucky in front of a bunch of strangers and climbs off him so quickly she might knee him in the balls a little.
Bucky, because he is a married dog, is pretty much unfazed verging on shameless, and Stephanie drags him more or less by the ear toward the front of the truck. This has the dual benefits of making more room in the back for the injured and preventing the worst-case scenario where he keeps telling awful stories back there until Stephanie immolates from embarrassment.
"You ashamed of me, Steph?" he teases, letting her drag him around.
"That's exactly it," she retorts, and opens the truck door so she can shove him into the free seat next to Peggy — who's biting her lip so hard she's about to break skin and — "How is your lipstick still perfect?" Stephanie hears herself asking.
"Well," Peggy says, unbearably poised, "my involvement in this rescue mission involved significantly less kissing."
"I'm going back in back," Stephanie replies, gathering up all her wounded dignity and ignoring the way Bucky's laughing like a moron. "Those men might need medical attention."
Peggy nods graciously, smirking. "I'll just continue to focus on driving, shall I? We might even make it back in time for your evening show."
Stephanie grits her teeth.
"Show?" Bucky asks, and because the last thing Stephanie wants is to hear Peggy relay the debacle of her USO tour, she takes the cover provided by the sudden arrival of their miniature fleet of stolen tanks — Bowler Hat and Jones hollering like loons — to steal into the back of the truck again, already rolling up her sleeves.
The men stare at her, but they all do, they always have. It used to be because she was so little. Now, maybe they recognize her from those awful posters they've pasted up everywhere. Maybe they just like staring. It doesn't make a lick of difference either way here, and she finally pulls off the pack she's been wearing all along, starts dumping out the supplies she'd brought.
Now the men are staring at the bandages, the needles and capsules she's pouring into her lap, and they're looking at her in a whole new light.
Good, Stephanie thinks, and asks, "All right — who's the most injured among you?"
Effie hadn't quite got the hang of calling them pubs yet, and she sat at the counter of one, thinking, bar, bar, until there was the sound of expensive fabric and Howard's voice suddenly, asking if he could sit.
"I didn't know you were in London," she said, instead of giving him permission, and he read it permission anyway. He was too much of a gentleman to do anything as brazen as press their knees together in the close quarters, but he was just enough of a scoundrel to get close enough she thought he might.
"Scotch, neat," Howard told the bartender, and he told her, "I heard you were here."
Effie was annoyed to feel herself smiling. The corners of her mouth were twitching.
Howard had an architect's handwriting and an equally sharp gaze: she could feel it like the scrape of blunt fingernails down the column of her neck, into the vee of her collar, along curves of her arms. Effie was a spy and a soldier and she knew she was beautiful, that when she walked into a room she could turn a lot of heads, but Howard burned his way through love affairs hot and bright like a filament, and there was no reason he should have still been looking at her like this, not this long into their acquaintance.
"We're being sent out, tomorrow," Effie said finally, and peering over her glass, she asked, "And what's your excuse?"
"I came to bring you some things," Howard explained, expansive and grinning, leaning into her. "So that when you and those hooligans go out, they see to it our Lady Liberty comes back safe and sound."
Effie cocked an eyebrow. "I don't know whether to be touched or insulted you think I need the coddling."
"This is pure self interest," Howard protested, and tapped the bar in thanks when his scotch arrived, neat.
Effie could smell it, the peat and earthiness of the amber redolent, Howard was so close. She could smell his brill cream and the cotton of his shirt, and Effie thought that if she loved him a little better, wanted him a little more, that he might be something uncomplicated and good for her. If only.
He took a swig and proposed, "I'll trade you: one of the finest weapons around."
"For?" Effie asked.
"Your name," Howard said.
"You know my name," Effie told him, a reflex, her knee kicking up in the doctor's office as a little girl in Iowa, corn growing tall green fingers toward the sun.
"Like hell Liberty's a real name," Howard snapped at her, and she could see a little flashfire in his eyes, something angry in the pupils that contracted and dilated sometimes, when she reminded him of the particular boundaries of this thing they had.
She steeled herself. "It's all you're going to get, you know that, Howard," she said.
He was quiet, and cultivated his silence like a gardener through his first tumbler and midway through his second. Effie didn't know why she stayed, only that there was something in the tension of his shoulders that made her hurt for him, because Howard was her friend and she couldn't even give him her name, couldn't stroke the letters into the meat of his palm: a secret. But he knows that, she told herself, he always knew that.
"He's married, you know," Howard burst out suddenly, and Effie's spine went stiff at the mean edges of his sentence. "He's got a wife, back in Brooklyn. After all of this is over, he's not going to take you home, marry you, you know."
Effie threw back the dredges of her awful whiskey, felt it burn down her throat, and through the heat of it, said:
"I'm not marrying you either, Howard."
— Gunn, Anna. Liberty. New York: Random House, 1981. Print.
By the time the collective mess of them stumbles back into the camp, it's raining steadily and Steph's had her hands on just about everybody she can reach: trying to clean and bind up the worst of the injuries, stopping the caravan for makeshift splints, ordering people off of their feet and into one of the jeeps. Bucky tries three separate times to give up his seat before Peggy snags him by the back collar and advises, "Sergeant, for all our sakes, sit still," which finally does the trick, underlining yet again Peggy's general mastery of all skills female or otherwise.
There's a mass of shouting, chattering soldiers at the gate, and as soon as the 107 begins realizing whose knocking down their doors again, they go up in a roar.
It's instant chaos: doctors and field nurses rushing from the tents and Stephanie reciting her mental list of triaged patients, who were the most dire cases, who was okay to wait a while, who was just whining so she'd get close enough so they could try to see down her shirt. By the time all the worst of the injured are sorted away and they're all accounted for in the mud tent village of the camp, there's nothing left to do but find Bucky and face the music. She opts to find Bucky first.
It's a literal sea of bodies in the same olive drab, so it takes her a while to push through the crowds — ignoring the occasional gasps of, "Fuck me, it's actually her," that rise up — and find Bucky. He's been swept up by Bowler Hat, the Asian man and Jones, the British soldier from the cells and a short man with an absurdly well-kept mustache. They all look like eight miles of bad road, and they're all grabbing each other in too-desperate hugs, clapping one another on the back like each thump is a reassurance that they're here, that they lived.
She's not listening, exactly, to their conversation. Mostly what she'd learned at Camp Lehigh was that large clusters of men aren't worth listening to, but she catches "hell of a thing, Barnes," and "how the hell?" and "Lady Liberty."
More importantly, now that she's close enough to hear, she's also close enough to put a hand to the back of Bucky's arm, slide her fingers around the hard muscle of his bicep, and tug and tug until he turns away from his friends and back to her.
He looks stunned all over again when he sees her, and she allows the half-beat it takes for him to croak out, "Hi," like he's remembering everything: the factory, the escape, their ride through the forest.
She smiles at him, and he comes a little closer, boots squishing in the mud. Bucky's hand still fits, cupping her elbow, and he still looks at her mouth, first, and then searches her face until he finds her eyes.
"It's still me," she promises. "I'm really here."
Behind him, Bowler Hat is saying, "Fuck me, Morita. Am I actually seeing this?"
"Yes," says the Asian man — says Morita, and then Mustache is saying something in beautiful, fluid French, after which Jones just echoes, "Oui. Christ — oui."
Bucky doesn't seem to hear them, and Steph's ignoring the whole babbling, moving crowd around them because Bucky's smiling at her, wobbly. He complains, "You were supposed to be in Brooklyn."
"You promised you were coming back," Stephanie says, but there's no fire in it, because Bucky's got his hands on her. She can feel the weight of his fingers through her clothes and she can see the familiar, beautiful lines of his face, and Stephanie's never been so happy before than right now, standing in the mud in the forest, because he's alive and if she wanted to, she could snake a hand into his shirt and feel his heart beating under her palm and lie on his chest, listen to him breathe. It's better than their childhood fantasies of the south of France, of Italy with its golden lacework of sun through olive branches.
That gets her a flush and a scowl. "I had a plan," he lies. "I was working on it."
"The factory was on fire," she points out. "You were tied to a table."
"Shut up," Bucky mumbles. "Here — kiss me some more."
She'd sass him but mostly she wants to kiss him some more, too, and she's more than earned it — nobody's ever worked harder to get a kiss from their husband, good Lord — when the white noise of the roar suddenly drops out into whispers.
Bucky's eyes widen first, and then Stephanie hazards a look over her shoulder.
Colonel Philips is drenched, and so red in the face he looks like an overripe tomato.
Steph thinks it was coming to her sooner or later, so she clears her throat, takes two steps forward, and says,"Some of these men still need medical attention — " Philip's eyes bulge in a way that can't speak well of his blood pressure " — and I'd like to surrender myself for disciplinary action."
"God damn it," Philips swears at her, over Bucky's long-suffering groan. "You are fucking unbelievable, do you know that?"
She just sticks out her chin, the way she's done for years now standing up to rude doctors and crazy patients. Steph says, "I'd like permission to see Sergeant Barnes to medical, first, before you take me into custody."
"Nobody's taking you into custody," Buck cuts in, ragged.
Philips slants him a glower. "Barnes, I presume?" he asks.
Bucky squares his shoulders. "Yes, sir."
Rubbing at his face, Philips just mumbles, "Fucking unbelievable," again, mostly to himself.
Then Peggy's melting out of the crowd. She's taken the time Stephanie spent fussing at Bucky to straighten her field jacket and pin her dark curls into a perfect chignon at the base of her neck. It's infuriating. She's saying, "I must agree with Sergeant Barnes, Colonel."
Some wiseass in the crush spouts out, "Hey, you can't arrest Lady Liberty," and Morita adds, "We'd be dead or still rotting in that Hydra factory if it weren't for her, sir." And then the gossipy whispers and protests just turn into a chain reaction, a cacophony, and Stephanie just watches Philips's face get more and more folded up into angry wrinkles.
"Sir?" she tries, half-shouting over the noise now.
"Unbelievable," Philips swears at her once more, and with a finger in her face, he says, "Forget the punishment — just stop inciting riots."
"Yes, sir," Stephanie answers, a tremble in her voice now.
And then she swears Philips smiles at her, just a small, crooked little thing, that must last forever, a year, that warms his eyes and transforms every angry line of his face into something affectionate. "All right then," he tells her, still soft for a second before he shakes it all off, draws on his armor again, and barks at the crowd:
"You heard the lady — if you need medical, get to medical!"
Some soldiers go, follow orders, but it's reluctant and throwing curious looks back over their shoulders, being led away from the scrum by Philips's stomping.
It leaves Stephanie feeling overwhelmed — by the number of people clustered around them still, by Bucky's nearness. Overwhelmed that she'd parachuted into Nazi territory and stolen back her husband and that they're standing here in the center of a group of hooting and hollering soldiers, and that Bucky's smirking at her.
"Just realizing what you did, huh?" he asks, because Bucky's always known her mind.
All she can do is nod, her throat tight.
Bucky's face goes awful and tender, and he reaches over, plucks the hideous helmet off of her, murmuring, "Here — come here."
Stephanie goes because this she knows, this she'll always know, and she's putting her hands on Bucky's face, feeling his fingers in her hair. She's closing the space between them so she can kiss him when she hears Peggy laugh,"Let's hear it for Lady Liberty, then!" and Stephanie barely registers the hurrahs and shouts before Bucky's mouth is on her and the world whites out into grateful, dizzying bliss.
One of the stranger artifacts of the Allied propaganda machine was an abandoned effort to position Lady Liberty to the housewives of the U.S. and Great Britain as an aspirational role model. There were a series of posters commissioned with Liberty garbed in a flounced apron over her field uniform, baking a nutritionally balanced meal with a week's worth of rations; tending to a victory garden; making do and keeping her chin up on the homefront.
They were comically unpopular, a sentiment that wasn't helped when renowned war correspondent Martha Gellhorn reported that Lady Liberty herself said the posters were "absurd."
Famously interview-shy, Liberty had told Gellhorn:
"Keeping up the home front's too important a task to demean it by inflicting my cooking skills on it."
Barnes, who was not as interview shy, had added, "Yeah she's safer fighting Nazis than trying to feed you a flopped-over cake."
Gellhorn noted in an essay published in 1959 book, The Face of War, that that Liberty and Barnes were a cute couple. Gellhorn also spent four years of marriage to Ernest Hemingway fighting like two cats trapped in a burlap sack.
— Jackson, Amber. The War at Home. Los Angeles: Clarion, 2011. Print.
Stephanie's been dealing with Bucky all her life, so she knows exactly when his adoring kisses go from genuine to an attempt to distract her from dragging him to medical. But also she's missed him and his dumb, handsome face, so she lets this go on longer than normal before she says, "Come on, did you think I'd forget?"
"Aw, Steph," he complains at her.
By now, the soldiers that had been crowded around them — yelling hip-hip-hooray, and wasn't that something — have dissipated into the camp, collapsing into tents or stumbling through debriefings or wailing bloody murder in the medical tent. How men will sass and sass a bully to keep getting punched in the teeth and then fold like a wet paper bag the minute a lady with a sterilized needle comes near them, Steph will never know. She's lost count of the number of passed-out husbands she'd stepped over to hurry his wife off to give birth.
"I'm better, you can see," Bucky goes on.
Stephanie bites back all of her knee-jerk retorts, about not long ago he was strapped down to a table, his wrists infected and bleeding and seeping puss everywhere, how he was wasted away and feverish with sick — how he'd looked on the verge of death. She doesn't say how every time their truck stopped so that the guys could get some water at a river, so that she could do a check of the wounded and triage appropriately, Bucky looked better and better in a way he shouldn't have. She doesn't say how she's not worried that he looks hellish — she's worried he looks healthy.
She's heard the rumors in the SSR bunkers, about the stomach-turning experiments the Nazis were doing so their prisoners. And she thinks about the man with the carmine skull in the factory and feels a jolt down her spine, wonders if they'd done that to Bucky.
"Humor me," she orders instead, and tugs a little harder at his wrist so he'll follow.
Stephanie knows better than to mess with another nurse's triage system, so she just tries to insert them as seamlessly as possible into it. She sets Bowler Hat — who introduces himself as Corporal Timothy Dugan, which makes Bucky scoff, "Timothy?" — to keep Buck from trying to make his escape.
"If by the time there's a doctor free for him, he's gone, your exam's gonna be real uncomfortable, Corporal," she tells Dugan.
“Barnes always said his girl was a looker, didn't mention you were mean as hell, ma'am," Dugan retorts, but he's grinning, trying to scrape his mustache back into order.
Bucky, slumped next to him, scrubs at his face. "Dum Dum — I am sitting right here."
Steph tries to smother her laugh into a quick kiss; Bucky says, "You ain't foolin' anyone, lady," so she guesses it doesn't work, but can't get fussed about it. She tells them, "Play nice," and goes to throw herself into the fray.
She chooses to be happy that most of the guys they pulled out of the camps seem all right. They're all dehydrated and malnourished, worse for wear, but only simple fractures and relatively manageable wounds. There's an awful implication there, because Dugan and Morita had cleared out the POWs in holding, but they'd come back short in the end — their spaces prominent in the body of the 107, either dead in the forest or worse in the factory. Maybe they'd been on the table before Bucky. Maybe nobody had come for them, unbuckled their shaking hands.
It's too awful to think about all the dead, so she thinks about the living instead, directs her focus to the men and boys in her care.
She helps set a lot of broken wrists and tape up fractures, clean and sew gashes as soldiers who’d just trooped — stone-faced — through miles of freezing forests, suddenly turn into ninnies and whine about needles, her cold fingers, a bruise. She makes her formal acquaintance of the Englishman who’d so bleakly begged for her pardon back in the factory; he babbles from low blood sugar as she stitches up one hell of a cut on his back, stopping intermittently to smack him upside the head so he’ll stay still. Morita spends the entire time she’s looking him over passing nervous glances back over at Bucky, until Steph sighs in frustration and asks what the hell’s making him so nervous.
“So you’re Barnes’s old l — his wife, then?” Morita asks.
Stephanie raises her eyebrows. “That’s right.”
Morita snorts. “Then of course I’m nervous,” he tells her. “You know Barnes put a snake in a guy’s shoe because he kept trying to sneak a look at his pictures of you?”
From his spot on the bench next to Dugan, Bucky yells, “Garter snakes don’t count.”
“There’s something really wrong with you, Barnes,” Morita yells back.
Instead of telling Morita that given Bucky’s colorful history of both starting fights over her and finishing fights for her, a garter snake in the shoe really doesn’t count, she jabs Morita in the arm with some penicillin. God knows what’s in everybody’s cuts here.
“I’m sure the snake was a mistake,” Stephanie lies through her teeth, smiling, and Morita, who’s no dummy, wrinkles his nose and narrows his eyes at her.
“You know you look a lot like Lady Liberty,” he tells her.
It throws Stephanie for a loop. To her, Lady Liberty’s not a person: she’s hours of rag and pin curls, the silly costumes, the motorcycle trick where the stage hands hook up wires, but Steph’s realized she can lift it on her own with or without them. It’s funny to be standing here ankle deep in mud peeling a bloody shirt off of a soldier and to be asked about her.
“It’s been a long time, Specialist — I’m sure a lot of blond ladies are starting to look like Lady Liberty,” she teases.
“I know from blond ladies, ma’am,” Morita assures her, still studying her face carefully. “And you don’t look like the other blond ladies.”
Stephanie rolls her eyes and holds up a pair of scissors. “You can either cooperate and take off your shirt so I can see to your ribs, or we can dispense with the fiction your undershirt can be saved and I can cut it off you.”
Morita tries to lift either of his arms, swears extensively, and says, “Scissors.”
That’s his last moment of demonstrated emotional maturity, as Morita complains bitterly through the rest of his exam and treatment. Five stitches into his “yes, Specialist, completely necessary” fifteen stitches, he starts making wounded animal noises. Stephanie reminds herself that under her hands is the same man who’d toted artillery weapons while ignoring the 15-stitch wound and then commandeered a Hydra tank, but it’s difficult with him asking, “Are you done yet? Jesus — what about now?” at 5 second intervals.
She’s about ready to thump him unconscious so she can get to work on someone else when one of the other nurses puts a hand on her shoulder and murmurs, “I can finish up here — Dr. Halliday just called for Sergeant Barnes.”
A.V. Club > TV Club > Reviews
HBO’s Lady Liberty drama kicks off with an ambitious, lavish pilot
By Leon West @lwest_onion April 3, 2014
After withering away in development hell for almost a decade, HBO doubled down on its your-first-hit-is-free paradigm by throwing enough money and resources at Liberty that it’s easy to overlook the rough patches.
And to get them out of the way immediately, there are significant rough patches.
While no origin story for Lady Liberty would satisfy the plurality of opinions held faithfully by fans and historians, choosing to co-opt the essentially tin-hat Stephanie Barnes Is Lady Liberty theory made the first episode a lot to swallow. Also unsettling was the casting of Sebastian Stan as Howling Commandoes leader Bucky Barnes. Stan was last seen attempting to fish with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth during one of his (more) sober interludes as the first openly gay kid in the White House in USA’s Political Animals. Concern about his ability to carry both the grit, and — frankly — the guns needed for this role proved distracting.
But director David Nutter and series executive producer Doris Egan are keenly aware that they’re trying to sell you a shady bill of goods and do a tremendous job keeping audiences too entertained for critical viewing.
Liberty is a lavish hour of television drama, with the budget of Game of Thrones and the historical grounding of Band of Brothers. The sets are huge and beautiful, and the no expense has been spared to create photography that echoes the America — more specifically, the Brooklyn — of the 1940s. Costumes are exquisite, and the cast of side characters and day players afforded to the pilot make the universe feel fully inhabited, exceptionally real. It’s an impressive, immersive experience. In the show’s credits, there are five separate researchers listed on staff, and the extra effort shows.
The pilot starts off by fully exploiting the promise of doing an hour-long drama on HBO: with a graphic sex scene. We find out by deduction and with an assist by bitten-off, climactic utterances that we’re watching James “Bucky” Barnes and his wife, Stephanie, engage in desperate goodbye sex; he’s shipping out the next morning. Stan and Katheryn Winnick (Vikings, Bones) as Stephanie are game and have good chemistry, although there’s a legitimate question of whether or not Winnick — an incredibly badass martial artist — is convincing as the sickly, waif-thin figure of Stephanie.
Orgasms dispatched, they share an “asthma cigarette” and Barnes tries to extract a promise from his wife she won’t do anything crazy in his absence or as a result of it. Stephanie promises, and in voiceover as the couple get busy again (Stan ass shot count: 2), she tells the audience, “I lied.”
From there, the script and Nutter waste no time, sending viewers on the fastest, most stripped down montage of boot camp and basic before flinging them headlong into the bloody gore of battle. In a particularly operatic sortie, Barnes meets and befriends the rest of the Howlies — among them, Tim Kang is a standout playing Specialist Jim Morita with his trademark deadpan humor. Back home, we’re treated to Stephanie’s harrowing shifts as a nurse, her relentless bad health and many lingering shots of how empty her bed is without Barnes on the other side of it.
Through all of this, Stan and Winnick are narrating with excerpts of the couple’s real letters, and it’s this through-line that saves the pilot from being an exercise in plodding predictability.
In truth, despite the conspiracy theories and speculation, the story of Lady Liberty and the Howling Commandoes is a known quantity. It’s a war story and it’s a love story, and everyone who every passed through AP U.S. History has read the Garraty overview. This show was never meant to show you anything you didn’t know — it’s meant to deepen how you feel about this particular moment in history, and these particular people.
With that context, the decision to adopt Rosemary Hutcherson’s Stephanie Barnes/Lady Liberty makes perfect sense. This isn’t a gritty story about a husband driven to wartime philandering or an affair carried out with a spy. Liberty is the World War II equivalent of Gone with the Wind, a lush romance novel enriched with period details that is unashamed for having a point of view. In interviews prior to the premier, Stan and Winnick have talked extensively about how startlingly intimate this story felt, though for almost half of the 13-episode season, they’ve filmed separately. Their longing is painful and adroitly depicted, and if Liberty’s goal is not to educate or illuminate, but to force its viewers to feel, then it’s succeeded.
In particular, toward the end of the first episode, there’s a scene where Barnes is sitting in a tent somewhere in Italy. Around him the Howlies are eating Spam and talking shit, but all the noise goes muffled until all that’s audible is the sound of a pen scraping across paper, and the viewer follows the line of Barnes’s gaze to the letter in his hands. You don’t see what’s written, but you hardly need to — it’s all there on his face like an open wound.
— West, Leon. “HBO’s Lady Liberty drama kicks off with an ambitious, lavish pilot.” The A. V. Club. Onion Inc. 3 April 2014. Web. 11 August 2014.
When Stephanie goes to Bucky, he says, “Steph, the only way I’m going to get through this exam is if you aren’t here,” and then he says, “I’m not kidding, Steph — you stay here, I’m going to bolt.” She looks at his knuckles, white where he’s clutching his seat; she looks at his face, tight and miserable; she looks at the way he won’t look at her; she looks at the doctor, who looks like he’s seen this kind of thing before. She believes him, but it still eats at her, it’s still hard to say, “Okay, Buck.”
She goes outside, because she keeps looking over to the curtained-off room where she can see the hunched shadows of Bucky’s shoulders, hear the faint murmur of Dr. Halliday underneath the white noise of the other soldiers in the med tent. Stephanie thinks she could sneak close enough to listen, but promises she makes Bucky aren’t the kind she makes other people — the kind to end annoying conversations, the kind she never means to keep. She digs her nails into the meat of her palm and ducks out into the cold, clean air, the November stars sheltering overhead and the rain ended, and Stephanie wonders what would happen if she just screamed.
From over her shoulder she hears, “Is Sergeant Barnes well?”
Stephanie shrugs, and when she turns it’s to find Peggy changed into an olive drab uniform again, clutching a clipboard. She’s pink-cheeked from the cold and the artful bruise on her face from their little adventure has faded into a dusky green.
“He asked me not to be present for his examination,” Stephanie admits. “All but said he’d run screaming into the forest if I tried to stay.”
Peggy makes a considering noise. “He might not be comfortable — with you knowing his injuries, that is.”
Stephanie’s mopped up Bucky’s blood and vomit and scrubbed out his shorts. She dragged him off of that table in the factory, and now she thinks crazily to Sunday masses and of Jesus mixing earth and spittle and healing the blind.
Out loud, she says, “I’m a nurse. I’ve seen worse.”
“It’s been less than a day,” Peggy says, in the way people say things knowing that nothing will help. She cups a hand around Stephanie’s elbow. “He needs time.”
That might be it, something as simultaneously complicated and simple as shell shock. Peggy’s right; they’re both worlds and only miles away from Bucky’s captivity, and maybe with his head a bit clearer Bucky’s less given to gratitude at seeing her and more uncomfortable in his own skin. Stephanie’s seen soldiers come back before, with scars from the Great War in the bone — but —
“He’s healing too fast,” she hears herself blurt out.
Peggy’s hand tightens on Stephanie’s arm. She repeats, “Too fast?”
“He was so sick when I pulled him off that table,” Stephanie goes on, babbling now, all of her earlier unspoken uncertainties pouring outward. “He had a fever, he was sick as a dog and all of his wounds were infected and I swear he moved like his ribs were broken.”
Hesitating, Peggy says, “Barnes was moving well when we pulled up to the camp.”
“He should have been unconscious,” Stephanie goes on, knowing she sounds hysterical now. “He was walking, he’s in there hassling some guy he’s calling Dum Dum and — ”
Peggy is bad at hugs. She grips too tightly and her arms come up midway along Stephanie’s upper arms like restraining bands. And also Stephanie thinks Peggy must have a couple of guns and knives strapped on, because she can feel the grip on something digging into her ribs, but she’s grateful for it — grateful she can clutch at Peggy’s absurdly well-pressed uniform and hide her face in Peggy’s absurdly well-coiffed hair and suck in desperate, shaking breaths.
Stephanie feels Peggy press a hand into her hair, stroke down to cup the back of her neck, and it makes an ugly, wet noise come out of Stephanie’s throat.
“He lived — he’s alive,” Peggy whispers to her, soothing — low.
Stephanie hears herself ask, “What did they do to him?” all her words muffled into Peggy’s shoulder. “What did they — ?”
“Hush,” Peggy tells her, and it’s the sound of the word and not the meaning that starts to calm the frantic animal in Stephanie’s chest. “Hush, my love — you saved him.”
“We saved him,” Stephanie protests.
She feels Peggy smiling, it radiates through her awful hug, through her lovely skin.
“We did, and he’s safe now,” Peggy agrees, and she draws away enough so that she can peer at Stephanie’s probably red and awful face. “All right?”
Peggy and Bucky share a talent for making Steph feel meek at the most surprising moments, suddenly shy when she’s never cultivated a talent for coyness. And right now, it’s all she can do to nod, embarrassed and still shivery, in her stolen Lady Liberty costume with nettles and leaves stuck in her hair. But Peggy’s right: Bucky is alive, he’s come back to her, and everything else they can settle later — they have time.
“Good,” Peggy declares, and drawing her arms and the bruising edge of her clipboard away, she adds, “Now — a quick wash and a proper change of clothes would do you a world of good, I think.”
Steph gets both in the tidy, tiny tent housing the nursing staff at the camp. The water is cold, but one of the base MPs kindly brings her bag over from the USO gals. “You wouldn’t mind letting them know I’ll swing by in a bit, would you?” Steph had asked, and the kid’s face had gone red, stumbling over an effusive promise that yes, yes he would find some time to go talk to all the pretty girls in their dancing costumes — again.
The rest of the costume is basically a loss, but the bomber jacket is still warm if worse for wear, so Steph pulls it on and tromps out of the nurses’s tent. The temperature’s dropped another 15 degrees and even now, even with Dr. Erskine’s serum running through her veins, her teeth chatter at the suddenness of cold.
A few yards over, the medical tent is still bursting at the seams; she could go over, put herself back in to help with the triage. She could go to the USO group and give them the update, but Clarissa would box her ears if she went without bringing Bucky along, and that just makes the pang in Stephanie’s chest sharper.
She presses her palm over her left breast — to where her heartbeat is the same faraway thing in the cavern of her chest. Before, she used to look at the tiny knot of her fist and imagine the muscle struggling to get through the day. Now she looks at her new hands, the new length of her fingers and feels the weighty flesh of her new breasts under her new palms and the end result is the same.
Stephanie stares back up, at the crystalline river of stars overhead, to more stars than the skies over New York has ever housed and feels tiny in a vast sea of everything, humbled by the enormity of the war around her and —
“I was drunk — I took it for a spin!” comes — comes Howard’s voice. “Like you never imbibed a little too much and made a regrettable decision, boys.”
Then Philips is telling him, “Stark, you absconded with a Grumman TBF Avenger from this camp, after you’d more or less absconded with it from an even larger base over yonder Channel. That’s completely ignoring the issue of you allowing some pretty faces talk you into breaking all kinds of rules.”
Stephanie reorients herself, and when she does, she sees Howard — muddy and a mess — getting frogmarched across the base, Colonel Philips dogging his heels. They’re too wrapped up in yelling at each other to notice her standing in the shadow of the medical unit, and before she has a chance to talk herself out of it, Stephanie’s jogged over to intercede on Howard’s behalf.
“Wait!” she says, cutting off the duo of MPs clutching Howard by the shoulders.
Howard’s ugly, stubborn smirk changes entirely, into something bright and wide open. “Dollface — I knew you’d make it back in one piece!”
Steph blushes, and Philips takes the opportunity to snarl, “Rogers, I swear.”
Howard waggles his brows. “In front of a lady, too, Philips.”
Philips just sticks a finger in Howard’s face, and it conveys a spectacular amount of menace for being just a digit, Stephanie thinks.
“Whatever punishment you’re going to give him, give me,” Stephanie says, and she’s only halfway through her pitch before Philips is putting his face in his hands, groaning profanity under his breath. “Mr. Stark never would have taken the bomber if I hadn’t begged him. And Peggy. If I hadn’t masterminded the entire thing. They both risked life and limb to help me, and whatever disciplinary action you’re going to take, I should — ”
“Walk around her,” Philips tells the MPs, who look brutally torn between reflexive obedience to a commanding officer and the prospect of crossing Lady Liberty. “Just stick Stark in my tent.”
Which is how Stephanie ends up back in Philip’s quarters, back arguing with him over the paper tornado of his desk while Howard allows himself to be placidly shackled to a tent pole.
“You’re being unfair,” Stephanie tries. “If neither Agent Carter nor I are subject to punishment, then how is Mr. Stark different.”
The colonel glares at her. “Firstly, Carter may lead the SSR but she’s seconded from her maj, and even if I could chain her to a pole, some smart mouth told me earlier this week that locking up women in my tent made me look bad.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes.
“Secondly, I can hardly lock up Lady Liberty, as I would have a riot on my hands, half from the boys who’ve only seen your gams on posters, and half who you dragged out of that warehouse through sheer cussedness,” Philips went on.
She crossed her arms over her chest, frowning.
“And finally, I am locking up Mr. Stark because Mr. Stark is, importantly, an American citizen and vaguely attached to the military, thus giving me the thrilling ability to make an attempt to scare him straight,” Philips concluded. “Furthermore, you may not have noticed, what with you being an exceptional pain in my backside anyway, but Stark’s number two for being a thorn in my ass, and that was before he took a showgirl behind enemy territory with a stolen plane.”
“Mr. Stark’s willingness to risk your temper helped save a lot of lives, Colonel,” Steph retorted. “How does that figure into your equation?”
“It should feature prominently,” Howard contributes, piping up from over her shoulder.
Philips doesn’t rise to the bait, just stares at her with a beady-eyed, narrowed look for a forever-long minute before asking, “If I don’t let him out, you’re just going to follow me around this godforsaken camp like a dog nipping at my heels, aren’t you?”
Squaring her shoulders, Stephanie admitted, “It’s not a good plan, but it’s what I have.”
“Christ,” Philips says, seizing up a set of maps from his desk. “Fine — die on this hill.”
Howard hisses, “Ask him for the key!” at her, as if Stephanie is somehow in better graces than he is at the moment, but Philips just smiles — mean, showing all his teeth — and says, “Looks like I lost that set, kids,” and motors for some tactical meeting or another. Which is how Stephanie ends up sitting on an overturned bucket fishing bobby pins out of her hair and watching Howard pick his own handcuffs.
“I’ll be honest, Dollface, this isn’t how I imagined our first shared moment of intimacy with handcuffs would go,” Howard grumbles, squinting down at the lock.
Stephanie leans forward, elbows on her knees and chin in her palms, sighing. “It’s a wonder there aren’t nice girls from across the nation banging down your door right now,” she tells him, watching him make tiny adjustments before asking, “Can I help?”
“Yeah, actually, hold this one,” Howard says, indicating one of the pins, and thirty seconds later, Steph claps politely as the unlocked cuffs flung away to the other side of the tent.
“Thanks to my beautiful assistant, Miss Rogers,” Howard says, joking like always, but it makes Steph feel strange and serious — enough that she takes one of his hands into her own and tells him:
“No, Howard — thank you.”
Steph’s seen Howard manic from lack of sleep and proud as a rooster. She’s plucked coils out of his hair and he’s looked as abashed as a boy when he’d given back her wedding ring, soldered carefully back into one piece. She’s only known Howard for so little of her life, but Stephanie thinks herself one of the lucky ones, to know Howard at all, and standing here, his face is shy and pleased. If only other girls could see this, they would be knocking down his door.
“All part of the service, Dollface,” he says, but he says it quietly. “I’m glad you got your guy back.”
She’s seized by tenderness for him, because Stephanie guesses that most people don’t ever get to know this side of Howard, and its sweetness is humbling.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she whispers, and leans in to press a kiss to his cheek, squeezing his hand. “Thank you.”
Later she’ll confess to Clarissa and Rhonda and Gloria that even if Bucky hadn’t found them at that exact moment, it was still pretty unlikely he and Howard would have ever gotten along. That said — it definitely doesn’t help.
A less-examined aspect of the Lady Liberty mythos is her well-documented relationship with SSR technological wizard Howard Stark. While we have almost no (known) paper trail between Liberty and Barnes, we know she and Stark collaborated extensively throughout the war. We have this evidence only because Stark kept their correspondence, pressed into pages of engineering manuals — presumably with the assumption that if compromised, he’d be forced to destroy all of it anyway, and any fire he set would take the letters as well. Instead, they were part of a bulk WWII document declassification made by SHIELD in the early 1980s that was subsequently surrendered to the National Archives, and which provided a wealth of insight into Lady Liberty’s critical role in information acquisition for the Allied forces.
Liberty and Stark have an affectionate, lived-in banter. Given Stark’s romantic reputation it’s difficult to avoid speculation that their professional relationship extended to something more intimate. While there’s no evidence in the historical record to confirm this hypothesis, there’s plenty of fodder for people who want to believe.
“Howard,” Liberty starts one of her notes, dashed off in beautiful penmanship on a scrap of paper with coordinates and crosshatches on the back. “Looks like we just missed you. Test run went well, and despite my reservations I’m leaving details from the run with that ‘lab assistant’ of yours. You know I think she’s genuinely illiterate? Related: Clarissa says there’s no amount of rich that could excuse your sauciness, so I guess not all good Southern girls like a troubled genius.”
In reply, in Stark’s architectural hand and jotted in crushed letters beneath Liberty’s original note, was this:
“Eva doesn’t need to read she’s good at handing me things. I mean that literally. Also, Dollface, stop it with the teasing you’re breaking my heart here. Any time you want to upgrade you let me know and I’ll be there with jet boots on.”
Kept separate to this note was a likely unrelated telegram from Liberty to Stark, but the content feels appropriate to include at this juncture:
“STARK, SOMETIMES I THINK YOU LIKE GETTING HIT BY WOMEN.”
— Chapman, Hurley. Boy Genius. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.
Bucky wears his door-to-door salesman smile the whole time he's in Stark's presence: too wide, too white, and has the shine like the tang of a blade. He keeps an arm looped around Stephanie's waist, grabby, and she can see the muscles and veins in Bucky's forearm straining as he shakes Howard's hand.
"Howard, this is Bucky — Barnes," Steph says, and hopes he hears, please don't antagonize him like she actually means.
Howard just smiles like a jerk and shakes Bucky's hand. "Barnes, nice to finally put a name to the legend I almost got shot down over," he says.
Stephanie puts a hand over her face.
"Shot down," Bucky repeats carefully, and his fingers tighten on Steph's hip.
"And we met, previously, Sergeant Barnes," Peggy sweeps in, because she's an angel. "You're looking much better."
He does, and Steph tries not to worry at the way that's part of the problem. Because Bucky's an absolute popinjay, sometime between where he'd more or less ordered her out of the medical tent and away from him and now, he's gone and found a clean uniform and scrubbed up. His face is clean and red from cold and cold water, and he's even found a razor somewhere to trim up the worst of his whiskers. His brassy hair is still a touch long but Steph likes it this way, and she reaches up — automatic — to run her fingers through the strands at the base of his neck, at the knob of his spine, smiles at how he shivers a little and leans into her touch like a cat.
"You do," she tells him quietly, looking and looking and looking at his face, at his throat, at all of him she loves so well. "You look good, Buck."
There's something that looks trapped and lost in Bucky's eyes, that she sees because she sees all of him all the time. He swallows too hard, too fast, and he clutches at her — not jealously, like before — but like he needs her, like he's holding on so he can stay standing, and Stephanie presses herself close and knows he'll understand what she's saying, what her body's saying: I can carry you; I can hold this weight.
"Yeah?" Bucky says, finally, after too long a silence. "Couldn't embarrass my best girl in front of her new friends, could I? Not after you came all this way."
Stephanie thinks that there's nothing Bucky could do that she wouldn't forgive him for, that she wouldn't see beyond, learn how to love him in spite of. But that's too much to say in front of other people, maybe it's too much to say at all, so she just smiles at him tight-lipped, to keep her confessions close, and leans in to kiss him, close the space between them. Now, he tastes like Colgate and smells like Lava soap, all the sourness of fear and sickness washed away, and even this close — still shaking the adrenaline and fear out of her system — Stephanie thinks if she hadn't found him half dead on the table, she'd never know that he'd barely made it, that she'd barely held onto him.
"It's okay, sweetheart," Bucky's murmuring, into her mouth when he breaks for air, then into the shell of her ear when he drags her in, presses her face into his neck so she has somewhere to hide her expression. "I'm okay."
Stephanie doesn't trust her voice, so she fists her hands in the back of his shirt, anchored in the safe weight of him. Steph's changed, but Bucky hasn't, not in any way that matters, and she still loves the width of his shoulders and dense muscle of his chest, how his palm searches out the well of her spine — it takes him a little longer now, fingers skimming, discovering, but he gets there, and the heaviness of his touch is the same.
Then Howard says, "So, Barnes, you seen Steph in her dancing get up, yet?"
Peggy, good woman, cuts in with, "Stark," but Bucky, who's oftentimes a bad man, says, "Dancing gear?" with something approaching genuine interest.
And that's how Steph gets suckered into doing one last USO performance.
Objectively, it's one of Steph's worst showings since that first, disastrous performance in San Francisco, but Bucky's shining at her — all bright eyes and laughing — from the front row and she can't help but to ham it up.
She feels fizzy, joyful, embarrassed, overwhelmed; she feels everything, all of it. She looks at Bucky in his clean uniform and his neatly combed hair; she looks at Peggy and her Blighty red lipstick, her brazen smile; she looks at Stark, whose hooting and hollering and — when she lifts up the motorcycle — jumps on the bench, yells, "God bless America!" It's a catastrophe. It's wonderful. Her best guy is safe; her friends are here. They bring the show close to thunderous, absurd applause, and Stephanie bursts into her own laughter, her own whoops, and jumps straight off of the stage and into Bucky's waiting arms, kissing him and kissing him and kissing him because she can, he's here, they're alive, and the possibilities are infinite.
The reappearance of the 107 felt like the first of many miracles, and overnight images of Lady Liberty transubstantiated from cheesecake posters to religious icons among the men and women of the Allied Forces. A study of the depictions of Lady Liberty over the months immediately before and after Howling Commandos' rescue shows a sharp pivot: from glamorous pinup to something with a sharper edge. Lady Liberty went from short skirts and suggestively bullet-shaped lipstick tubes to a less-sexualized, more mission-driven style. Now, Lady Liberty wore boots and a well-tailored uniform, smoked cigarettes with the boys. Her golden curls were tucked up in a bun underneath a helmet, and when she encouraged audiences to buy war bonds, it was her own gun she was urging you to keep loaded. If references to the Howling Commandos as a military strike force too-frequently omit her presence, then it's only because Lady Liberty is best remembered in the way Constantine described a cross of light above the sun at the Battle of Milvan Bridge. She became an idol, an overnight sensation and saint, and to reduce her to her martial accomplishments would seem to ignore the way the world went to bed one night and woke up the next morning with a new and living beacon in the midst of a war. In some of the darkest moments of the war, she had brought our boys home, and for that, no laurels would be sufficient.
— Specter, Hope. Art and Iconography in World War II. New York: Phaidon, 1980.
Nobody gets any sleep that night.
Over a celebration dinner that gets scraped together from all the held-back rations and hoarded chocolate bars and all the Coca-Cola everybody can drink, Colonel Philips makes a rousing speech of exactly twelve words.
"I'll be God damned," Philips says to them all, looking overwhelmed as he stares into the sea of servicemen before him. "God fucking bless you. Every fucking one of you."
The cheer is deafening.
There's a lot of chipped beef at dinner, and Spam fifty ways. One of the POWs from the factory, the Frenchman, had turned up a sack of onions somewhere, confiscated the bouillon powder from everybody's rations, and gussied up a massive pot of soup. Some industrious soul had taken all the oatmeal packets and all the stray sugar and milk powder and made some kind of cookie bar, and it was receiving a hero's welcome. All over the mess tent was decorated in toilet paper bunting and hanging with stars folded out of VD warning posters.
It feels like a party, everybody dressed as fine as they can, and someone's absconded with Philips's record player, because in short order there's music. The mess tables get pushed out of the way and Stephanie hears herself laughing to see Clarissa dragging a stunned-looking soldier out onto the impromptu dance floor.
Bucky loves dancing, but tonight, Stephanie doesn't want to share him with the music. He's sitting with his legs spread at a corner bench, and Stephanie is curled up best as she can on his knee. Once upon a time, she fit in his lap neat as a package, and he could close the span of his broad chest around her. Now she contents herself with his arms, with pressing their temples together. She leans in and she kisses him, every time she realizes she's not kissing him any more, and it's bliss, it's wonder, it's terrifying. It's a luxury she hadn't known was a luxury, that she'd almost lost.
"Looks like your friend's makin' friends," Bucky says; this close, his voice is mostly a rumble in his chest that she feels resonate in her own. She hurts all over from how she loves him. This is worse and better than their first kiss, the night she'd spread him across her momma's picnic blanket.
Steph looks over, to the center of the music and fuss, and sees Clarissa luminous and laughing, twirling in some young man's hands. "Do I need to go tell him off of her?"
"That's Hollingsworth," Bucky murmurs, into the shell of her ear and pressing a lingering kiss at her neck after, nosing her cheek. "Boston born and bred, youngest of a family of seven — extremely Catholic."
The giggle startles out of her. "Oh, this'll be good."
"Yeah, he's got that moon-eyed look already I recognize," Bucky teases, grazes his teeth against her jaw. "That one I recognize on me."
Stephanie pulls away, enough so she can smile at him and press her hands to his face, and she whispers, "You're my best guy — to the end of the line, you know that."
Bucky looks at her like they're back in that factory, separated by the burning building and the dissolving metal struts, and there's nothing for it but pressing their foreheads together. Steph feels them breathe together: the shaky rush of oxygen. This close, she can feel the reassuring weight of his arms and the reassuring heat of his mouth and it's almost enough to make her feel awakened from the nightmare of the last months, to discard the nauseating memory of Bucky on that table, Bucky on the edge of leaving her behind. Stephanie thinks, I would have laid down next to him, but Bucky's murmuring, "Hey, hey, stay with me here, sweetheart."
She's suddenly tired, exhausted, drained in a way she hasn't felt since Howard's serum and that infinity box they'd shoved her bleeding body into — since she woke up a stranger inside of her own bones. The joyful noise around them is painful, now, and Stephanie wants to be alone the way she hasn't been alone in months and months: with Bucky, with no one else.
He hears it through the hitch in her breathing, the tremor in her thighs, Stephanie bets, and Bucky smooths a hand down her back and hushes her, "I got you, don't worry about it, Steph," and he starts to get up to his feet and help her down to her own.
Nobody gives them a hard time about leaving early. Even if giving your NCO shit is standard SOP for Army boys, Bucky had whispered they're all feeling shy around her. "If I'd known it was you I would have confiscated a lot of fuckin' posters and pinups, Steph," he'd whispered, and Stephanie had turned red like one of Howard's cars and thumped him, hard, on the chest. He'd wheezed a little but looked unrepentant.
The rest of the camp's pretty well deserted, just the stray MP or two on punishment duty, the officer or soldier who'd come back in body but not spirit, huddled in a corner with a cigarette lit. There's the ever-busy clutter of people and voices in the medical tent, bustling with nurses and combat medics, whining privates, and Steph can see far off that the lantern's on in Philips's tent, the outline of tired shoulders cast in the fabric. Stephanie wonders where Peggy's gone, where Howard's gone, but she doesn't dwell on it because Bucky's pressing a hand to her belly, dragging her into a tent.
It's private quarters, something Steph's not sure an NCO should have, but hell, she'll take it, and she stumbles to sit on the cot while Bucky putters around getting a light up, pouring her a tin cup of water. Her hands shake so bad when he passes it over she spills half of it over her dress skirt, and Bucky sighs and takes it away again.
"This is combat fatigue," he tells her, like he's read it out of some NCO handbook, unfolding a scratchy blanket over her shoulders.
"No," Steph says, higher and complaining, but all her other words have left her. She fists a hand in at the tail of Bucky's shirt instead, and they stare at each other a beat before he figures it out.
"All right, all right," he agrees, and he sits next to her, drags the blanket around both of them, cocooning, and it feels like a shock of spring after ceaseless winter, the frost melting from her chest to her toes for the first time since she'd seen him off to basic. Bucky lips kisses into her jaw, hooks a foot around hers where their legs stick out from the army-green hem, whispers, "That any better?"
She's shaking, still, but she manages a nod. "If you die on me, I'm marrying Stark just to spite you," she swears at him.
"Christ, don't tell him that," Bucky mutters. "He'll defect and have me killed."
Stephanie hits him again. "That's not funny, Buck."
"I know," he sighs, and now he's pressing her back onto the bed, bearing her body down into the narrow, creaking mattress.
Outside, the music is a muffled, rollicking din, and they are all still perched here in this moment of false peace in the midst of a raging war. There are people dying on battlefields and in death camps, from ordinary human evil and something different and new — the sizzle of blue from that factory and the ghost memory of Bucky's face as he'd followed her, thinking they were going to their graves. Stephanie's been running on desperation for so long, grabbing just enough to live and wake and breathe, that now she's got Bucky here, now she's overflowing with everything, she's realizing how far she's come without looking over her shoulder, without daring to be scared.
Brooklyn, their bed, their building — they feel impossibly far away, and it's hard for Stephanie to hold the reality of the two worlds simultaneously in her head. Their little apartment and sofa, the neat kitchen and the sewing basket, Bucky's flock of stray cats and their neighborhood grocers were real and exist, just as she and Bucky exist here, in Italy, in this darkening tent on border of an endless war, just like the circle of weak yellow lantern light that holds the night at bay.
"I didn't even think, I didn't let myself," Stephanie grits out, teeth squeaking, to keep her voice from shivering too bad. Bucky hates it when she's shivering — gets him panicky and calling for doctors they can't afford. "I just — I just knew I had to come for you."
Bucky makes a noise into her throat that might be a laugh, but probably not. It takes two awful, wet gasps before he says, "You just came for me. You just came to the European theater, to a POW camp where they were — " he shuts himself up, but Stephanie hears it anyway, torturing, she's always heard him " — keeping us."
"It was the only thing I could do," she tells him, and now she rolls herself over in the swaddle of their blanket, so that she can pull Bucky more solidly into her arms.
She wants the weight of him on her chest, the buttons of his uniform shirt leaving bruises on her breasts. She wants the discomfort of his heavy shoes and his pointy knees. She wants the reality of him, the marks he'll leave on her. Bucky always knows what she wants, always knows exactly how to give it to her, and he presses his hot, wet face into the vee of her uniform jacket, his forehead into the thin skin of her throat, so that they can hurt for each other.
"Other people grew victory gardens, Steph," Bucky tells her, mumbles to her collar bone.
She presses a kiss to his hair, to the whorl of it that she's loved since she was old enough to love anything: like something ancient and everlasting that had welled up in her like water from a cavern in the earth — always waiting.
"Jesus, who let you even come here," Bucky moans at her. "Who let you get anywhere near this fucking war."
But Stephanie knows what Bucky needs, too, more than he knows himself, so she doesn't answer him. She just fits them together, careful, like re-carved puzzle pieces, until his head is in the cradle of her neck and she can tuck a thigh between his. They still click, not exactly the same, but they still belong, still need each other to complete a picture, and Stephanie lets Bucky huff wet noises into her jacket, lets her cheeks get wet. She's not much of a crier; she doesn't know where all of this is coming from. Or maybe it's like a river that's been dammed up. Maybe it's that way for both of them.
They must fall asleep like that, and sleep ugly and hard. Stephanie has a vague memory of waking up at some point, parched and desperate for the toilet, and then staggering back to the cot where Bucky was still dead to the world. When she wakes up again, her lips are cracked and her eyes are crusty, every inch of her body aching, and it's sunset outside — the sky a spectacular array of purples and oranges — the camp noises efficient and awake. Bucky's nowhere to be seen, but she finds a note on the pillow.
Reporting in to Philips, he's written her. You sleep better now — you breathe easier.
She must look like a disaster, staggering out of their NCO's tent in a kit so wrinkled any drill sergeant would rightfully rake her over the coals for disgracing the U.S. military. But Bucky must have been right about the lingering sense of embarrassment, because nobody looks at her at all, all clearing a path and stuttering out answers to her questions, deferential, and it makes Stephanie think of the littlest alter boys at their church, who are sweet on her and intolerably cute for it.
The camp bears all the indicators that last night was a Big One, and people are staggering to and from their duties with sheepish, happy malaise. The USO girls are sprinkled here and there making themselves useful and distracting. Rhonda is in the mess hall doing something violent with a bunch of cans, but she gives Stephanie a tin mug of piping hot, completely dreadful coffee, so Stephanie allows it. Clarissa is helping in the medical tent, and since Clarissa is there, so too is her young man, trailing her with stars in his eyes and a little pink in his cheek.
"Not a single word, Rogers!" Clarissa yells at her, flushing.
Stephanie guesses she'll always be Rogers to her girls, and smirks. "You better make an honest man out of that one, Miss Eden — God's got eyes everywhere!"
Hollingsworth goes white like a sheet. "Lady Liberty — ma'am," he chokes out in horror.
"Did you tell him you're a Baptist yet?" Stephanie adds, gleeful.
At this, he drops the tray of dirty bandages he'd been ferrying around.
"Oh, Lord," Clarissa says.
"I'm going to find Howard," Stephanie informs them cheerfully, and goes.
She finds Howard outside of Philips's tent, looking thoughtful and not a little sad, staring into a trash barrel, its interior smoking gently from some kind of fire. Peering inside, all that's left are the carbonized remnants of paper, and Stephanie darts a look up at Howard to ask, "Classified files?"
"Your Sergeant Barnes has a mean streak in him," Howard says cryptically.
As if summoned, Philips's tent flap opens and Bucky pokes his head out. He looks polished and pressed, a vision of American exceptionalism, and she'd hate him for it if he didn't look so annoyingly handsome.
"Good, you're here," he says, and tilts his body so that Steph and Howard can see: the big map, the war room table, overflowing with files, and Colonel Philips and Peggy, waiting for them just inside.
To: Ben Urich (email@example.com)
From: Rachel Bloom (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: Access Request
Dear Mr. Urich,
Thank you for interest in the Stark Industries Archive. We have received your request (No. 3569-11) and it is being reviewed by our staff; if we are able to provide assistance, one of our archivists will reach out with further details.
Please note that given Stark Industries long record of successful collaboration with the U.S. government in developing cutting-edge technology to safeguard the nation, there may be records and files that we are unable to share with the public.
Rachel Bloom | Junior Archivist | Stark Industries | 212-467-8003 | archives.si.com
News gets around fast in camps.
After all, the 107's just enjoyed a miraculous return and the USO troupe has injected new, gossipy blood to boot. In the scant hours they've been back at base, the legend of Agent Carter and Lady Liberty's escapades has grown mythical in magnitude. Stephanie overhears three different versions of it before they get their marching orders to travel with all due haste to London, none of which bear any resemblance to the truth. For one, there hadn't been any bears in the forest, and even if there had, Peggy was unlikely to have defeated one in single combat.
"The version going around the intelligence tent involves sexual favors," Peggy reports, because Peggy — almost as much as Bucky — liked watching Steph squirm.
"Peggy, when would we even have had a chance," Stephanie begs, red all over. She's a grown woman; she hates how flustered she gets.
Howard loops an arm over her shoulder. "Where there's a will, Dollface."
"I will pay you £50 to call her that in front of Sergeant Barnes," Peggy offers.
"Please don't," Stephanie tells them both. They're awful. She has no idea why her mouth is twitching into a laugh.
After their emergency meeting, Philips had made a number of what, generously, could be described as phone calls. In practice, it was more him shouting down the line to someone somewhere else, while the MPs guarding the door delicately pretended they couldn't hear all manner of highly classified information being bellowed to all and sundry. Philips had ended the phone call with the same light touch he'd started it, and he'd been mean as a badger when he'd stomped out of his tent and told them all to stop fucking loitering and get packing, they were all going to London.
It's an eventful trip.
Bucky insists he ought to stay with his men, so he travels in the rustbucket that's long-hauling the 107 back and forth. Stephanie understands, but she's not happy about it, and it leaves her in a rotten mood in the plane Howard's piloting himself back into London, since, quote, "I already stole it and all." With complete self sacrifice, he offers to ferry all the USO girls, too. Without the Damocles influence of Bucky, Howard's on his worst-ever behavior, and Stephanie spends the bulk of the trip parked in the co-pilot's seat making him teach her how to fly a plane so he doesn't take Peggy's comment about impregnating anybody midair as a dare.
When they eventually land, it's to Clarissa and Hollingsworth reuniting after less than 24 hours apart as if they've been cleaved from one another for a decade. Howard immediately vanishes, the plane still powering down, lest anybody from command gets wind he's arrived back on Allied soil and decides to make a military arrest for theft of the plane. The USO girls get ferried off by their handlers — Hollingsworth is inconsolable — and when Steph is waffling on whether to go with them, Peggy snatches her by the back collar and holds her back.
"You are no longer a showgirl, Rogers," Peggy says sternly, and hustles her toward the unmarked black car awaiting them on the corner. A driver in a sharp, British military uniform relieves her of her bags and ushers her into the backseat. Peggy tells him, "SSR headquarters, please — and deliver her to Guillaume when you get there."
"Yes, ma'am," the driver says, and as he's dashing back to the front of the car, Peggy leans down, and says into the opened window, "Tomorrow, 8 a.m. sharp, I'll see you at the bunker," before thumping the side of the motorcar and waving her off.
That leaves Stephanie in an awkward liminal place, no longer belonging to the USO and not anything like a soldier. Guillaume turns out to be a thick-framed Frenchman in the disheveled trappings of a three-piece suit, one of the quiet bureaucrats that operate the levers and dials of the SSR that keep it running.
"Let's see — Rogers, Stephanie," Guillaume says, inspecting a clipboard. "Captain."
Stephanie chokes. "Captain?"
Guillaume looks unruffled and puts away his papers. He extends a hand down sterile corridor and says, "I guess congratulations are order on your new promotion — Captain Rogers, if you will?"
She's issued a private room at the SSR offices, no doubt Peggy's string-pulling the same way her updated rank must be, and Stephanie sits in it wondering if they'll know to send Bucky to her, if he'll be sent off with his men.
Mostly she wonders what the hell they do from here, where they go.
"Home," she says to herself, to the tidy, spartan walls of her room, but it sounds awkward in her mouth and strange in the air. 'Home' is a nebulous thing. It feels like a time more than a place, the thing before the war, and Stephanie reviews the memories of herself and feels an impossible tenderness toward herself — getting married; making their bed; darning Bucky's work shirts — she feels that the girl in her memory is impossibly young and infinitely far away. Stephanie knows how to get back to Brooklyn; she doesn't know if she can get back home. She wonders if Bucky feels the same way, or if he wants more than anything to go back, to cross the ocean. Maybe he, too, feels the sense of nauseating certainty that they have buried those young people, the memory of themselves, that the dead will not rise again. Stephanie doesn't know if it'd be better or worse one way or the other.
It's another hour before there's a knock on her door, and when she says, "Come in," it's Bucky who does, still all neatly folded hospital corners, the rough edges of a day's beard coming in. She says, "Oh," and feels herself go to him, drawn like magnetic north, and has to kiss him, first, before anything else.
"Hello to you, too," he says, voice husky as he pulls away, but his hands stay on her hips, grabbing at the thick serge of her uniform and his fingers digging into her ass.
That kind of behavior should be rewarded, so she kisses him again, more slowly this time, grabbing at the collar of his jacket.
She's forgotten her door's still open until she hears Howard complaining, "Jesus, Dollface, at least don't rub it in our faces you're off limits," and Stephanie kicks the damn thing shut with one foot while she hauls Bucky off toward the bed.
"Dollface?" he asks her, when they land with a bounce, the mattress squeaking.
"You were gone, I missed someone sassing me," she deadpans, and rearranges herself so she's sitting on him, thighs on either side of his slim hips and skirt rucking up.
Bucky slides his hands up her thighs, until his thumb and forefingers settle into the joint where her thigh meets her hip. It's not a heated touch, though, just comfortable, and Steph lets her weight settle back on his thighs and stares and stares at him, looks for any indications of sickness or wear. She should be happy she doesn't find any, but. The whole moment, the room, feels foggy and slow, like gray mornings in their bedroom waiting for rain, and she reaches down so she can touch Bucky's face, press a thumb to his lips and feel him kiss the whorls of her fingertips. She still misses him so much, even though he's right here. Stephanie wonders if she'll ever stop.
"The guys," Bucky says suddenly. "They made me promise to drag you out for a drink."
Stephanie cocks an eyebrow. "The guys?"
"The Howlies — the Howling Commandos," Bucky adds, and off her look, says, "In my defense, they came up with the name without my input and forced it on me."
She thinks back to all the men from the factory, the ones who'd been penned together, and comes up with a few faces. "Corporal Jones," she guesses. "And — Morita?"
"And Dernier and Dum Dum and Falsworth," Bucky finishes, gives her thighs a squeeze. "You up for it?"
We should talk, Stephanie thinks, staring into his face. There's a lot we need to say.
"Okay," she agrees, and feels something tighten in her stomach at the relief on Bucky's face. "Yeah, sure. Let's go meet the Howlies."
Above Top Secret > General Conspiracies
Lady Liberty Lives - Conclusive proof!!
posted on July 3, 2012
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Lady Liberty Lives.
It's a pretty popular topic among the ATSers so I was shocked nobody else had posted this. It's a youtube clip from the Battle of New York, and I know there's some dispute on if it was a false flag but I think if my analysis is right we knock out two birds with one stone. If you look in the lower left, you can see in with Iron Man and that green thing (DEFINITELY government splice program result!!!) there's a blond woman.
Now holzer57 has done a lot more LL research than me and he's put together this pretty compelling post on her specs, and if you match them up you can see it clear as day: that is HER! Screw teh official story there's nobody else it could be.
Now then the only questions why the government hasn't come out publicly with this? The official story we were all fed in school was she died in the war, but maybe she's a splice, too? Didn't RadDad have a post a while back about theorizing ultra-slow aging??
"Ma'am," says Dum Dum.
"Oh, please — call me Stephanie," Stephanie says.
They're huddled together in a bar, the streets of London all quiet from curfew, but the inside's rollicking with music and voices, muffled by the thick blackout curtains. It's cold as hell outside, and Steph's breath had come in white clouds all the way over. But she'd been shivering in an army-issue coat with Bucky's arm around her, rubbing hot kisses into her cheek every few steps, and it wasn't the serum keeping her warm.
"You'll call her ma'am if you know what's good for you," Bucky mutters.
Deliberately, Dum Dum looks at her and says, "Stephanie, you gotta know your husband's a real piece of work."
"God damn it, Dugan," Bucky swears.
"One of my favorite things about him," Steph tells the table, and Dernier says something foul-sounding under his breath in French. He's already tried offering her a cigarette four times, and every time Bucky says, "Jesus, bub, I'm right here."
Steph's wearing a dress she and Clarissa had cobbled together on tour, made a pattern out of newsprint and sacrificed an old navy silk and velvet dressing gown they'd found in one of the theaters, forgotten by one actor or another. It was too big by far for any of the gals, and they'd looked and looked and looked at it before they'd started cutting. They'd pinned down the velvet lapels to a deep v-neckline and cut the sleeves short, darted a beautiful waist that flowed to a tight-fitting skirt that came partway down Steph's shins. With the leftover scraps and pieces Steph had made a little purse she'd given to Clarissa, and when she felt the fabric move over her knees and thought of Clarissa searching around for her powder and lipstick, she didn't feel her girls were so far away.
But between the slip of the dress and her skin is the fight she can feel coming, like grit in an oyster. She keeps running her hand through Bucky's hair, pressing close because she can, huddled in Bucky's circle of foxhole brothers like they could wall out the thing simmering just beyond their circle.
"Absolute hardass," Dugan continues. "If he wasn't such a crack shot, I swear to God."
Stephanie remembers the burning warehouse in that nightmare forest, the percussive boom of Bucky pulling the trigger, and how his eyes had looked quiet and perfectly calm, as still and steady as his hand.
"So I hear," she makes herself say, and wonders if Bucky could just put that away, that particular savage truth about himself, if they went home. Or if it would live with him like an insistent, unshakeable shade. They are, both of them, different people now.
"Jesus — she's a lady, Dugan," Bucky complains. "How's this what you say to a lady?"
Morita returns with a fresh round, just in time to contribute, "We could talk about all the brothels instead, how every hen house we ran into women would swarm you."
"Sniping's good," Bucky revises quickly.
"I'm gonna need to know about these women," Stephanie tells Morita.
Morita tells her about these women. It earns Bucky a lot of slanted-over looks, which he accepts with a kind of sheepish, smug expression she knows from a lifetime of watching every girl on their block in Brooklyn fall all over herself to get a piece of his attention. Bucky had grown up with a gaggle of sisters, biological and geographical, and they'd followed him around like ducklings. Women like Bucky; Bucky likes women. Steph's not worried about it and Bucky knows, but it's like the two-step in a dance they do, a little flirty and a lot hot.
"Oh — I see how it is," she says, to Bucky but mostly to his boys.
"You're a punk, Morita," Bucky accuses, but his mouth's twitching, a laugh just under the surface. He looks bright and young and happy, and it makes Steph's throat hurt.
She pokes him in the shoulder. "Don't you blame your friends for your tomcatting around, buster."
"Me?" Bucky says, all astonishment. "Tomcatting? Ma'am, I don't know what you've been hearing but I'm an upstanding man — "
Dum Dum hoots.
" — I've got a wife and everything, back home in Brooklyn," he concludes, holding up his left hand, his scarred up ring gleaming in the dim light. "Honest."
Stephanie wonders how many other times he's said these exact words, in different tones, at a different volume, to different women. She doesn't blame those girls — Stephanie looks at Bucky and sees the sun, too, and in the neverending coldness of this horrible fucking war, she would reach for him whether or she had a right. It's only tenderness she feels for them, a shared longing, and it's why her smile comes out so shaky, and why her voice is hoarse when she tells him, "Yeah, Buck — I know."
They're getting Looks from the other Howlies, but Steph can't find it in herself to feel embarrassed. She'll feel shy about it later, maybe tomorrow morning when she wakes up in the cradle of Bucky's arm and remembers tonight. Right now, she just feels: too much and everything and overwhelmed. She looks at Bucky and Bucky's ring, and she remembers — the way you remember a photograph suddenly — the way it had been filthy like the rest of him had been filthy, strapped down on a table in that lab. Stephanie thinks she could live a hundred years and never be able to shake that memory, the way it makes something cold and sick well up in her throat, even as she reaches for him, the warm weight of his fingers and the solid strength of his hands.
"She's always gonna be my best girl," Bucky says, quiet and just for her. "You got that?"
Steph nods. Her throat's sore with how much she loves him. "Yeah, Buck."
"So no funny business, Lady Liberty," he teases, and Stephanie's glad for it, the excuse for a laugh to break the tension, and she covers her eyes like the joke's that good, feels the hot drip of tears into her palms.
The Howlies read the cards right, and they all respond accordingly: with hoots and laughter and good natured poking at Stephanie, at Bucky. They order another round and regale her with more stories; they don't mention her red eyes at all.
Stephanie's drinking her fifth pint of the night — she'd never been able to drink much, before, but she's getting a taste for it — when a hush falls through the room, an appreciative silence so loud it draws everybody's attention. It starts at the entryway and winds through the heaving crowd, until Stephanie looks up to see what's the fuss and and goes a little lightheaded herself. Holy smokes.
"Peggy," she says. It comes tumbling out just before a gasp, all delight.
Peggy's arrived in a blazing red dress that hugs all of her curves. Under normal circumstances, in her sharp uniform and sensible shoes, Peggy is a stunner; tonight, she looks like a pin up — like she ought to be on the posters, and not Lady Liberty.
"Stephanie," Peggy says, warm-eyed and smiling, and glancing round the table, asks, "Am I interrupting?"
The Howlies fall all over themselves to assure her she is not.
Room is made, immediately, for her to join them, and Stephanie slots the extra chair in next to her; after Peggy sits, Steph has a moment of dizzy happiness. She's crushed in a smokey, over-loud bar in between her best guy, and the best friend she's ever had; how'd she get so lucky? how'd she get it so good? Peggy's voice melts into the conversation as if she's always belonged, and Stephanie leans against Bucky, leans into the hand he puts on her thigh, and listens to the way his voice rumbles through his body, the vibrations buzzing through her skin and into her bones.
Peggy is beautiful, but even better, she's kind and funny and smart, and she tells awful stories, about Lehigh — about Hodge.
"Oh, no, Peggy, don't," Stephanie pleads, but she's laughing too hard, remembering.
Peggy ignores her entirely. "Now, at this point, I'd already punched Hodge in the face, and Stephanie had rebuffed him innumerable times — "
"Flattered, sweetheart," Bucky teases her, murmurs it into her ear, and Stephanie lets out a giggle and pokes him in the side.
" — but of course, he absorbed none of these previous lessons and continued to attempt, aggressively, to grope her," Peggy went on, absolutely hamming it up for her captive audience. Stephanie's never seen her so arch and English, her eyes gleaming so brightly. "As you are all aware of and beneficiaries of, Stephanie is extremely resourceful and has a tendency to take matters into her own hands."
The Howlies say as one, "Here here!" and raise a pint to her, and Stephanie feels herself flush all over, she's so warm with it, all of their smiles. It makes her shy and overfull of something that feels achingly sweet, and she loves them, individually and together, so much more than she thought she could love a cluster of near-strangers. She clutches at Bucky's fingers on her thigh and lays her cheek on Peggy's shoulder to feel the circuit close: her whole body run through with something electrically happy like the filament of an Edison bulb, burning too hot to sustain itself, but miraculous all the same.
"So it came to pass that Hodge's vile personality and Stephanie's more violent tendencies would obviously intersect in the most spectacular ways," Peggy said.
"My hand was forced," Stephanie protested.
Reaching up to tug at a lock of Stephanie's hair, Peggy laughed, "Oh, certainly, forced to seize a bedpan and hit Hodge in the face with it hard enough to disjoint his nose."
Bucky bursts out laughing first, his whole body shaking, and he wheezes out, "Steph, oh, God, sweetheart," while Morita reaches across the table to shake her hand, saying, "From one medic to another: good job," and Dum Dum chokes.
"Frankly I think it was a vast improvement to his face," Peggy concludes, and Jones is so moved by the story — or by watching Peggy's mouth move; Jones isn't a subtle man — he volunteers to pick up the next round, and Bucky and Dernier go to help him.
Peggy reaches for her handbag and sorts through it a moment before saying, "Bugger — Stephanie, might I borrow you for a just a moment?" She glances back up, to the remaining Howlies. "Female troubles, you understand."
In the cramped confines of the pub's bathroom, Stephanie starts to say that she hasn't got anything on her, either, but Peggy just trots into the bathroom, shuts and bolts the door, and when she turns around, her entire face is transformed.
"This must be a really bad period," Stephanie says faintly.
"You've got to run," Peggy tells her. "Tonight — immediately if possible."
Stephanie blinks. "Peggy, what are you talking about?"
"Before I came over tonight, I was ejected from a meeting between the SSR and varied Allied intelligence representatives: they were discussing where and how to deploy you," Peggy tells her, matter-of-fact and briskly emotionless.
There're a half-dozen stupid questions Stephanie could ask: as a nurse? as a showgirl again? But there's something sharp and cold in Peggy's eyes that makes her swallow hard.
"Doing what?" Stephanie asks.
Peggy's calm breaks. "What does it matter?" she demands. "You are a nurse, not a soldier, and certainly not a spy. And you have Sergeant Barnes back — don't you want to go home?"
Home is a time she used to live, Stephanie knows now. Brooklyn wouldn't be the same; their apartment and their fire escape cats wouldn't be the same. Their bed might creak just like it used to, but their bodies would be different: they might not fit anymore.
"You just said we had to run," Stephanie retorts. "I can't go home if I'm running."
"There were unanticipated consequences," Peggy tells her. "When we rescued Sergeant Barnes and his compatriots. Prior, they had viewed you and your transformation as little more than a failed fringe wartime experiment — if they were able to use you to gin up bond sales, then it wasn't a complete wash. But we returned from a Hydra POW camp with nearly 200 men thought to be lost behind enemy lines, and the tales of your super-heroics have altered the tactical discussion. Stephanie, this is not time for your pride."
Stephanie doesn't know how to explain it, the way it's not just her rotten temper or the chip on her shoulder that pushes her. That's gotten her in plenty of losing fights over the years, but the war felt urgent, and everything Stephanie feels here is a magnification of everything necessary she's always known. She can't ever go home again; and where would she run to? what would she do instead? Stephanie tries to imagine living under a false name in dyed-brown hair growing a victory garden and feels sick with guilt.
"I've spoken with Howard, he's agreed to help," Peggy pushes on, interpreting her silence as agreement, which is a mistake Bucky's never been fool enough to make. "I can create a diversion, later tonight, but you and Sergeant Barnes will need to be careful, making your way over to the airstrip."
"And what will happen to you and Howard, when they realize we legged it," Stephanie says, quiet. The last time Howard and Peggy put it on the line and a plane got involved, Howard got handcuffed to a tent and Peggy got an official censure in her file.
Peggy's mouth hardens. "Stephanie, if you stay, you will be conscripted."
Stephanie closes her eyes. She thinks about Howard and Peggy. She thinks about what she saw in the factory in the forest, the blood and sick in the laboratory. She thinks about all the young men in all the field hospitals she met along the way, wrapping up their spilling guts in her USO uniform. She thinks about Bucky, and how all she wants is for him to be somewhere safe and happy and good, and she thinks about how he keeps staring off at something over her shoulder these days. His hands don't shake; any cuts he gets shaving with his cheap razor are healed too quick. She thinks about the Howlies, how every one of them is staying in the Western theater. She thinks about all the good men and frightened men and weak and strong men, and how they've all been willing to lay down their lives. She can't be any less than them — can't do any less.
"We should get Bucky home," Stephanie says instead. "They'd send him home, right?"
Someone starts knocking on the bathroom door.
"If you think that man is leaving without you, you're completely mad," Peggy snaps.
The knocking pauses just long enough so someone can yell, "Oy, you can't just stay in there all night," before resuming, angrier than before.
"I can't just leave, Peggy," Stephanie insists, and she fists a hand before she slams it on the door once, twice, and hollers, "Go away."
They don't go away. They whine, loudly, "It's too cold to piss outside."
Stephanie had walked here from the SSR barracks in a skirt. Men are useless.
"Are you even going to speak with Sergeant Barnes about this?" Peggy demands.
"It's my choice," Stephanie tells her, but she knows it for the fabrication it is, because she'd made solemn promises in front of their family and friends and God that say otherwise. Bucky doesn't care if she wants to work or wear trousers or how she's going to vote; but he cares if she'll be hurt, if they'll be apart. She can't ask him about this — he'd tell her to run; he'd go with her.
Now, the guy knocking at the door gets company, and Steph can hear other voices gathering, asking, "Christ — what's taking so long?"
She swallows hard. "Peggy, I can't."
"You won't," is Peggy's reply, savagely resigned. "Don't pretend there's not a difference."
"There's not a difference to me," Stephanie tells her.
"Christ," Peggy swears, and jerks open the bathroom door to find two red-nosed drunks, Jones, Bucky, and Howard Stark clustered in the little hallway just outside.
"Hey!" Howard jumps to say, too eager and nearly jittering out of his own skin. "Hey — hey — my best girls. You — you guys ready for the thing that we talked about?"
"She's opting to stay," Peggy says, equal parts sharp and pointed, looking directly at Bucky as she says it.
The story of Lady Liberty serves as a frustrating nexus of rampant speculation and factual evidence, just out of reach. It's the U.S. historian's imperial tomb: just beneath the surface and impossible to know. That her story remains classified, that there's been such an unwavering cabal of silence around her all of these years, can only imply that the truth of the matter is a fantastical one.
Liberty wasn't a pin-up model whose name was lost to the annals of history, nor was she a flash in the pan: she toured with the USO, she helped run covert missions with the Strategic Scientific Reserve, her account is the official record of the death of Sergeant James Barnes. This was not an imaginary woman nor a composite of identities; she was as real as any of us.
Twenty-five years ago, when Obfuscating Liberty was first published, it was by a courageous specialty publisher on — I suspect — a whim. It attracted a little discussion, but very little in the way of consideration by so-called serious historians, and that would remain the case for more than two decades, after.
But in the wake of recent events, with the appearance of enhanced humans and mutants the world over, it reinforces my original point: not only is it possible that Lady Liberty was Stephanie Barnes, in fact, it is the only logical answer to the mystery of her identity.
— Hutcherson, Rosemary: Obfuscating Liberty: 25th Anniversary Revival. Los Angeles, 2008. Print.
For the most part, Steph and Bucky don't fight.
They've known each other so long that their rough edges turned into a familiar grind years ago, and they've grown calluses for each other, or carved themselves to fit a jagged edge. But when they blow, it's always big: the kind of fight that starts in the bedroom and trails them all around the apartment, down the stairs and into the street. Their neighbors have opinions about their fights. The postman. The newsboy who sells the afternoon edition.
This one starts in the alley behind the pub, under one of the roof eves in the bitter cold.
"Are you fucking — Jesus Christ, Steph," Bucky says.
"I gotta, Bucky," she argues. She does. She has to.
"What the fuck does that even mean?" he swears at her. Bucky's cut from the same neighborhood Stephanie is, but he's got a better temper and grew up with sisters. He doesn't like yelling at her, but when he does, he means it.
Stephanie curls her hand into a fist, jams it into the pockets of her coat and locks her spine into place. She can take it when he yells, but she hates it.
"It means that for the first time I can do something," she grits out.=
Bucky doesn't crowd her the way a lot of guys might — he's too used to being so much bigger than her, knowing he could really hurt her even with a soft hand — he just scrubs his hands over his face and twists away from her, away from the cover of the roof. It's snowing a little now, a wet half-frozen shower, and Stephanie wants him to come back to her, where it's a little warmer and a little drier and he's near enough to touch.
"You — I — this isn't you playing nurse in a warzone, do you get that?" he demands. "There are so many important jobs — "
"Oh — what? Collect scrap metal?" she scoffs.
"Fucking yes!" Bucky hollers. "Do you get it? If you do this, you don't get to wear a little hat, have a big red cross on it. You do this, they're going to fucking shoot you, or — " Bucky swallows hard, around some agony in his throat " — or worse, do you understand that? Is that getting through?"
She gives in, she reaches over, drags him in again. His coat's already sparkling with beaded up rain and melting snowflakes; his nose and his cheeks are red, and this close, he looks angry in a flat, frictionless way that makes her shiver.
Stephanie's careful when she slides her hand down the inside of his arm, over the wet fabric until her fingertips reach the clammy skin of his hand. He twitches, when she scrapes her nails over the inside of his wrist, but he doesn't pull away, and she takes it as permission to thread her fingers into his.
When she speaks, it's in a whisper:
"There are men laying down their lives," she tells him, closing the space between them in careful inches. "I got no right to do any less than them."
Bucky's hand goes suddenly tight around her own, gripping her fiercely enough that she aches with it. "You're not a man, Stephanie."
So what, Stephanie thinks. "I have to do this, Bucky — I want to do this," she says.
Bucky closes his eyes, turns away from her. The only light in all of London is the moon, and he's so beautiful silvered in it Stephanie hurts all over, the way she'd felt at 15, so in love with him she couldn't sleep, she was so hungry for him all the time. She wants to kiss him. She wants to take him home. She wants to leave all of this behind them.
But that's not the only thing she wants — not anymore.
"You don't have to stay," she tells him, and now she's scared of herself, feels jittery inside to have thought what she just thought; she's never thought anything like that before. "You could go home, or stay here, in London."
He shoves her away, shakes her hand off, and that hurts more than his grip had when he was grinding her bones, earlier. He's looking at her again, at least, but it's with huge, furious eyes and no color on his face. She feels sick. Jesus. Fuck.
"Bucky — "
He puts a hand on her shoulder, and pins her backward, against the brick of the pub.
"I gotta go," he tells her, hoarse, hollowed out. "I don't want to talk to you right now."
Her vision's starting to swim. Since Howard and Peggy put her in that infinity box, her vision's been perfect. She can hear it in her voice, she's crying. "Bucky, please."
Bucky's hand moves away, and her shoulder burns from the cold absence.
"Don't — I don't wanna see you right now," he tells her.
He sounds awful. He sounds like he's talking through glass. She would cut her tongue out to take it back, everything she said, as long as he'd stay and keep fighting with her, put his hands back on her.
She watches him turn around, stuff his hands in his pockets, start for the door, and she yells, "Buck, where you going?" He doesn't stop and he doesn't turn around, and she just manages to say, "Bucky, it's cold out here," before he disappears around a corner, consumed by the mouth of a coal-black shadow.
Stephanie cries for a long time, standing outside. It doesn't help anything, she just can't stop. Three separate guys come staggering out, already reaching for their zippers, and nearly hurt themselves zipping back up when they find her standing out there wailing, trying to clean her face with the cuffs of her coat.
"I'm sorry," she tells the third guy, because she's getting cried out. Mostly she's just frozen now, feels like she just fell down a flight of stairs. It's not doing her any good to stand out here and wait and hope the next guy through the door is Bucky, and not some poor stranger trying to take a leak. "I'm almost done."
"Um, can I help you?" the man asks, genuine in his concern, both hands still on his fly.
"No," she says, because it's true and she's sick with it. "No. I'll just — "
She goes, ducks into the bar where the shock of warmth is almost as bad as the cold, and she hugs the wall and steers clear of where the Howlies are still holding court in the back room. There're even more pint glasses on the table now, though they're missing three people, and Stephanie can see Jones scanning the room all open hope on his face. She'd think it was cute if she didn't know her face was swollen from crying and almost being peed on three times.
Stephanie realizes she cries all the way back to the SSR bunker, which turns out to teach her some surprisingly useful lessons about traveling incognito and human behavior. All the men she passes look immediately away; all the women level her a querying look just long enough for her to flash them a watery smile that say, no, it's fine, before they do the same. If she needed to stealth her way back to headquarters, there's evidently no better way than to do it weeping.
The SSR bunkers is always a low hum of bustling activity; without windows, there's no natural light, anyway, and the hours slip seamlessly into each other. Stephanie's presence is a curiosity, but not the biggest of them, and she gets a hairy eyeball from the guard at the door, but he lets her in without any commentary and she's grateful for it.
She gets to her quarters without having to talk to anybody else, and she manages to feel safe for all of two seconds before she realizes Stark's sitting on her bed, flipping through a notebook she's filled with sketches.
He holds it up, to a page where she'd penciled in the the body of two lovers entwined, and grins.
"Nice," he says.
She stomps over to snatch it out of his hands and jam it under her pillow, face flaming. "Howard, what are you doing in here?"
He shrugs, too casual to be unaffected or unrepentant, and she turns her back to him, hustling around the room straightening things that are already at right angles.
"Saw you left that pub in a hurry, thought maybe you'd want some company," he says.
Stephanie glares at him over her shoulder. "There are lamps within my reach, Howard."
"You know there're women three-deep on multiple continents who'd eat their hats to have me panting after them the way I pant after you," he teases, but his face is soft as he says it. "Dollface, come here, sit down."
She turns back to the tiny, SSR-issued desk: olive-green metal, battered at the corners already. She can't stop thinking about Bucky and the way he'd looked at her, like she'd broken his heart deliberately. They've hurt each other all kinds of ways, but this feels different, this feels worse, and Stephanie fists a hand and presses it over her chest, thinks she can feel her heart spasm through the fabric of her coat and her dress, through the meat of her body and the bones that cage it in. Steph's been on death's doorstep before, but this is a different kind of nausea, emotional vertigo.
She stares down at the desk. "He's real mad at me, Howard."
She hears him sigh, one of those that billow out of him like an east wind. The bedsprings creek, and he says, "Yeah, Dollface, I guessed that," as he comes up to her, puts a hand on the back of her neck so his thumb is pressed behind her ear.
Howard smells like brill cream and engine oil and something with a tang like chemicals, and Stephanie gets all of it in a rush when she sucks in a shuddery breath.
"I don't think he's ever been this mad at me," she whispers.
"You ran through enemy territory to save him out of a POW camp from half-magic Nazi criminals," Howard says. "I can't even get a gal to to let me take her to fondue. Barnes can pound sand."
The laugh startles out of her, but it just shakes a couple more tears loose, too, and Stephanie ends up saying, "Oh, no, Howard, he's right — he's right to be mad, I'm being so selfish," through the soaked fabric of her coat sleeves, trying to mop it all up.
"I respect Sergeant Barnes for his valor, and I'm grateful for his service," Howard says, as brusque and serious as he's ever sounded, and that's what finally makes Stephanie hazard a look up at his face. Howard's a handsome man, in a fashion, but too inconstant for anything to really stick to him; right now, he looks serious and stone-faced and like a stranger — not at all like her friend who gets coils in his dark hair. "But I don't know him from a hole in the ground and you're — when they write the books about me, they'll say you're my greatest accomplishment, but I hope they'll also remember to say you're one of my best friends."
That lights something in Stephanie's throat, a hot flicker, and she has to close one freezing hand over his wrist, squeezing.
"Maybe you are being selfish, I'm not going to be an unbiased judge," Howard admits, pressing on, and his voice is quiet and unyielding, hypnotic. This is how he gets all those girls to hand him things, Stephanie thinks, dizzy. "But you are not wrong to want to be more than someone's best girl — the world is big enough for you to do more, and right now, we desperately, desperately need you to."
The USO girls had liked to tease her for her letters from Howard, for his meticulous diagrams of flight mechanics and his flagrant flirtations. Maybe he's always meant it, every provocation and outrageous come-on, but Stephanie thinks Howard's never really looked at her that way. He met her when she was sick and small and not worth his effort, but he'd teased her then, too. Stephanie doesn't know how she will feel about going in the books — and of course there will be books about Howard, how could there not? — as his greatest accomplishment, but she hopes, too, that they'll remember she was his friend. She remembers the old timers from the Great War, talking about finding God and love and new brothers in mud-filled foxholes, and she thinks for her and Howard and Peggy, their ditch was a basement lab in Brooklyn, that she must love each of them in some way, some amount — just enough to hurt and thrill her. Enough so that he can tell her that she's needed and dissolve her last hesitation, make her knees weak with how awful it is, how much she wants to do this and how much it will hurt Bucky to let her.
"This is gonna be bad for him," she manages, babbling it through tears. "Either he goes home and he hates me for staying or he stays and he hates me for making him stay."
"Fix it later — help us save the world, first — you can fix it later," Howard whispers to her, and now he's wrapping his other arm around her, over her soaked greatcoat and putting a hand in her hair. She presses her wet face into his shoulder, and over the noise of her own sobbing she hears him grind out, "You can't leave me here all by my lonesome, Dollface. I made you a present for tomorrow and everything."
She lets him pet her hair until she stops shaking, until she's cried a big ugly spot into his shirt, and then she lets him complain at her about stains until she wets a handkerchief, folds it to press over her eyes and shouts at him to get out.
"Before I go, got any sketches of me I ought to see?" he asks.
Stephanie throws a shoe at the sound of his voice, and she only hears the bang of it hitting the door as he slams it shut, hooting as he takes off.
It's later, late enough that she's mostly asleep that the quiet of the room gets broken by the shuffle of boots on poured cement and the click of the door. Stephanie's eyes open, slow, but there's only the littlest sliver of light in the room seeping in from the hall outside, and she feels hypothermic, frozen through, and it's all she can do to blink and mumble, "Bucky? Buck? Is that you?"
She feels a weight on the mattress, a depression in the shape of a hand, and Bucky says, "Who else would it be — unless Stark came back."
Stephanie closes her eyes again, puts her face in the pillow.
"I don't want to fight with you, Bucky," she says into the fabric.
"You know some guy pulled me aside, soon as I walked in and told me?" he goes on, and now his hand's gone from the bed to her back, stroking down and skimming down until he closes his palm over her thigh — his fingertips pressing into the soft skin on the inside turn, his thumb tucked into the crease of her ass and her leg. "He tells me Stark had come barreling in looking for you, that you let him into our room."
She doesn't bother arguing that Stark let himself in; it wouldn't help.
"I threw a shoe at him and sent him running," Stephanie says, sluggish, shifting around so she can close her thighs around his fingers: a singular point of warmth in the chill of the entire room. She doesn't know how Bucky can be so warm, anyway. He must have been walking around outside for hours.
"Jesus," Bucky laughs, low and rumbling and with a little growl, "you're brutal, Steph."
She turns toward his voice, opens her eyes into the darkness slowly. She can only see the familiar outline of him: his hair limned in gold, the slope of his back. She sees his hand move and feels the way his fingers press closer between her legs, the way he's curling up his fingers to rub at the seam of her cunt through the heat-damp fabric of her panties, hidden underneath the heavy fabric of her skirt.
"You sayin' I should have let him stay, comfort me?" she asks, and she twists her body around so she can reach for him, put a hand on his side and slide it down toward his hip.
Bucky snaps his wrist and slaps her on the tender place where her thigh joins her ass, and Steph gasps, jumps at it, as he growls out, "I thought you said you didn't want to fight."
"I like provoking you," she tells him, panting, and now she lets herself scrapes her nails over the fly of his trousers, so he'll feel it through the fabric. "I don't get to see you jealous much."
That gets another swat, as good as the first one, Jesus.
"Fuckin' unbelievable," Bucky swears at her. "After all the fights I've been in over you."
The cold's leaching away now, some hot wanting filling in the blanks it leaves behind. Stephanie's been with Bucky so long that touching him's easy, instinctive, natural, but right now, when she can't see his face and in this anonymous room, in the new shape of her body, it feels bold as brass to cup at the outline of his cock, to feel the muscles in his thighs shift under her hand.
He's rubbing his hand at the hot, saucy little stings he's left on her now, sleazy as hell, and Stephanie can't help but to roll up into it like a little cat, purring. It's been so long, and she feels the dizzy, atmospheric rush of finally being able to take a deep breath after worrying all night. He's here; his hands are on her; he's still mad, but she'll make it up to him, she can apologize. It'll be like Howard said — she'll fix it.
"A fella could get worried, coping with a girl like you," he says to her, mostly growling.
"Lemme show you," she begs. "You've got nothing to worry about."
waldorph @waldorph - 56m
so is writing Lady Liberty/Bucky Barnes porn rpf asking for a friend
Stephanie loves sucking Bucky's cock.
In the early days, when they were younger and she was smaller, despite her best efforts to get him to give in he was all precious about popping her cherry and then all precious about fucking her proper. But Bucky was only human and Stephanie's sneaky and mean, and she'd learned early on she could take him apart if she got on her knees real sweet, look up at him through her lashes. He'd let her get away with murder for that, much less getting his cock out and giving it little kitten licks until he groaned and let her do whatever she wanted.
Stephanie's seen maybe a million and a half dicks in her professional life, but she likes Bucky's best, still: thick and veined and heavy in her hand, and she likes laying him out flat across their bed so she can bend over him, squeeze the base of his cock with one hand and suck the head wet and slow into her mouth and listen to him fight for air.
She does it now, pushes him down across this creaky single cot so she can pull his cock out, kiss the base of it, wiry with dark hair, and feel it twitch under her mouth.
Bucky puts a hand in her hair, threads his fingers through it until her careful victory rolls from earlier are in utter disorder, until he's pulling on the long blond strands, and he squeezes until it hurts, just a beat, before he croaks, "Don't let Stark in our room anymore, Steph."
"I promise, baby," she coos, feeling him firm up against her cheek, and she can't help but to run her mouth down the side — just a little tongue tip peeping out to taste the salty skin of him.
It makes Bucky jump, makes him swear, "Fuck," makes him jerk at her curls.
Stephanie just exhales, breathing hot over him, wraps a hand around the base of his dick and just rubs a thumb down the bottom of it, along the vein there, easy. And because she knows it makes him crazy, she jerks him slow and loose and ducks her head down so she can suck wet, open-mouthed kisses over his balls — take one and then another into her mouth, easy and unhurried. She could do this all day, leave him soaking, suck at him until her jaw's too sore to talk tomorrow.
By the time she's done with that, Bucky's mumbling nonstop threats at her, overhead, so she takes pity on him and licks up the length of him and swallows the length of him down, slow, pushing the plush purse of her mouth down over the head of his cock and listening to him plead. It feels like that first breath of air when she woke up healthy; it feels like being able to run through a forest; it feels powerful; it feels good. And she keeps chasing it, that chemical kick of Bucky's love and need and wanting, takes him deeper and deeper into the hot suction of her mouth until she can feel the head of his cock bumping past the back of her palate, and she closes her throat around him just to hear him shout, to feel him jerk under her hands.
Bucky loves it wet, not just her mouth but the slick of his come and spit making a mess of her, so she lets herself drool — just keeps her teeth wrapped and gags herself on his dick, until her jaw hurts and her throat hurts and Bucky pulls her off by her hair, dragging her up the length of his body.
He looks wild, his eyes just little chips of light, and he strokes a thumb over her ruined mouth, smears the mess there across her cheek.
"You make me crazy, Steph," he says, his voice a wreck. "You know that? You make me fucking nuts."
She says, "I'm sorry," but she doesn't really mean it. Bucky's only allowed to be crazy over her. When she's thinking with just her lizard brain, a reflex kick, Stephanie wants all kinds of crazy, impossible things: for Bucky never to look at another woman, to think only about her all day long — if he said that kind of thing to her, she'd laugh in his face, but she wants it all the same.
"God, you — " Bucky starts, and startles himself laughing, hoarse. "Jesus, I don't know what to — Steph, you're different all over."
That sickening fear, just after she woke up with new bones in her new body floods in again now with nauseating suddenness. It shakes her out of the the drowsy heat, wrenches something in her gut, and Stephanie knows every muscle on her's gone taut from the way Bucky's voice softens, he gets all whispery.
"Hey — hey, I didn't mean it that way, sweetheart, come on."
"I don't think I'm turning back, Bucky," she tells him; her voice is shaking.
"Don't do that, don't worry," he says, the rough weight of his fingers, earlier, going soft as he cups her face, kisses her soft and sweet on each cheek, on her bruised, wet mouth. "I just meant I don't know if any of my old tricks will work on you, now."
Steph clutches at him, desperate, and nods because she doesn't trust herself to talk.
Bucky's hand skims down her back again, pushes under the elastic of her panties and rubs rough over the swollen lips of her — to remind her who she belongs to, and the thought makes Stephanie rock back into his fingers.
"All right, maybe some things stay the same," he laughs, and it's all Stephanie can do to protest, "Bucky," before he's kissing her silent, rolling them over on the cot.
When he pulls away, it's to mutter, "Gotta see if you taste the same," against her mouth before he's pushing up her skirts and settling down between her legs, dragging the panties down her legs and throwing them God knows where. Stephanie knows she's already getting wet, that her tits are hardening up because Bucky's got a thing about eating her out — likes to leave her in shivering pieces.
"Oh, this I know," he says, in between sharp little bites to the inside of her thigh. "Dark pink and soaking already — I remember this."
Stephanie swallows hard, her throat parched.
"You remember the first time we did this, sweetheart?" Bucky croons at her, pressing open-mouthed kisses to the mound of her, lingering. "You took a chunk of my hair out and you went all docile and sweet for a whole hour — God, that was something — " he presses his thumbs into the hollows inside her thighs, revealing all the soft pink wet of her, and hums, pleased " — yeah this is just the same: same soaked little snatch."
She's moaning absolute garbage the whole time, undignified begging, but it's Bucky and he's got his mouth on her, pulsing his tongue on her clit, and she can feel herself dripping — her body as desperate as her mouth is. He ignores her the way he always does, takes his time, slides three fingers knuckles deep in her pussy and fucks her through one of those half-orgasms, the physical sensation of a descending scale, and Stephanie gasps as her body seizes and opens up again, like making a fist, while her heart jackhammers in her chest.
Bucky waits until she can hear the wet slick of his fingers, the sheets between them and her slip damp through now, before he presses his tongue flat on her clit and she falls apart — wails loud enough probably the Nazis hear her — and seizes down on his fingers, her body milking at his hand, thirsty.
Her eyes are wet, all of her skin feels too much, and she's whispering, "Bucky, Bucky, please, you gotta," and he sucks a wet kiss to the turn of her hip before dragging his shorts and trousers down a little further so he can shove his cock into her.
It hurts, a shock, an ache Steph can't just chalk up to how long its been, how when she rubs herself off she doesn't bother pressing her fingers inside.
"Fu—uck," she manages, the second half of the syllable going airy on the exhale. Something about the way her thighs tighten and her back arches and her face looks shuts Bucky down at the pass, has him freezing, his balls pressed slick with her spit and their shared slick against her. The thick root of his cock so fat she feels feels her body fighting him — throbbing in time to her heartbeat.
"Shit — did I hurt you?" he whispers. Bucky pushes himself up from his elbows, reaches down between them, starts to pull out, but —
Stephanie locks her legs around him, shakes her head. "Don't — give me a second."
So he just settles in again, close and careful, but it still moves him inside of her, makes her shiver a little. Stephanie hears herself let out a little whimpering "ah" and Bucky brushes the hair off her face and mutters, "Christ, sweetheart, I'm sorry."
She laughs instead of telling him it's okay, shifts her hips under his, feels herself getting used to the stretch and heat of him all over again. She says, "No, no, Bucky, I think — " she settles herself again, feels the sharp sting and the savor after, the way her body keeps trying to close around him, the heat and press of it " — I think — "
"Oh my God, were you — did I just fuckin' pop your cherry again?" Bucky hisses at her.
Now Stephanie's laughing in earnest, because holy Christ, how hadn't she thought of it before? She'd woken up with all her scars erased, her lifetime of run-ins smoothed away into new, pink skin, of course she would have closed up, too, come out the other side virginal as a Victorian bride — in a way she hasn't been since she was a teenager and Bucky had spent an hour fingering her open with most of his hand stuffed up her snatch before he'd let his dick get anywhere near her. Jesus. Of course.
"You're a fuckin' piece of work, Stephanie Grant Rogers," he swears, but he doesn't try to get away again, just lets his weight sink into her and rolls them onto their sides, hitches her left thigh higher up his hip.
"Barnes," she reminds him, hiccuping giggles. "You aren't getting rid of me."
"A fucking menace is what you are," he retorts. "A little warning would have been nice."
"I didn't know," she promises in between cracking up. "Ow, shit. Sorry, I swear it didn't even occur to me — fuck. Careful."
Bucky rubs circles into the small her back, cuddles her close, mumbles, "Careful my ass," and he waits out the long moments until her muscles loosen enough that he asks, "You all right? Sure you don't want me to stop?"
She lets herself move again, roll her hips in careful little circles, and behind the immediate sting she feels the familiar heavy goodness, now, that stretch going for ache to satisfaction like an overworked muscle. She shakes her head, snakes a hand down between their bodies to where she's swollen and slick and strokes the tip of her finger over the tender bud of her clit, perched just over where he's splitting her open; it's good. It's just what she wanted; it's just what she needed.
"No, come on," she whispers to him, presses a kiss to him, close-mouthed but patient, until his shoulders go soft under her hands and he makes grumbly, sweet noises at her.
She's had him all kinds of ways in their bed, in their marriage, but this is the first time he's been prissy about it, ignores her complaining and pulls out. He strips her down all the way now, helps her out of her little dress and slip and brassier, peels away his own uniform and a-frame, shucks off his boxers and pants. And once they're both skin to skin, he rearranges her until she's on her belly, both of the shitty pillows fluffed up under her hips. He kisses her on the back of the neck, down the valley of her spine, then kisses her swollen, upturned cunt, sticky and red from abuse.
"You better tell me if this hurts," he warns her, and she hums, all pleasure, feeling the solid heat of his body blanketing her, the slick head of his cock bumping the inside of her thigh.
"I'm going to be sore as hell anyway so you better make it worth it," she teases.
"Stephanie," he tells her, and presses his dick back inside, slow, "I swear to God."
She wraps a hand around his thigh, letting out a shuddery exhale, holds him there halfway inside for a few seconds until she gets her bearings, and said, "Yeah — okay, now," and he slides the rest of the way in, easy and unhurried.
Bucky's in a mood now, she can tell, everything honey-dipped, so Stephanie just lets herself float along on it, stretches out her spine like a cat and keeps her hand tucked along the back of his knee, pull him as close as can be. The hot hurt from earlier is melting stroke by stroke into that middle place, just sensation her body can't decide is good or bad. This isn't like the first time he ever fucked her, when she was desperate to love it and he was terrified she'd hate it: now she knows just to trust their bodies to know how to give in to one another, that Bucky's skin and muscles will remember hers, even if she looks a little different now, even if it's been a little while. She exhales and she inhales, the breath coming in easy, and she's dizzy with how close he is, the way he's dropping kisses to her shoulder, the side of her face, how he keeps whispering, "Jesus, Steph, Stephanie — Christ," as he grinds his pubic bone against her, makes room for himself inside of her where he's always welcome and has always belonged.
When it gets good, it gets sweet by degrees, like a peach ripening on its stem. It's that little hitch of breath that gets her, first, the way she feels a muscle twitch in her stomach. There's a tell-tale throb in her clit, the way her pussy clenches down on Bucky's cock now, getting greedy, and that blurry sense of just feeling is getting some edges, shaping itself into something tantalizingly, desperately good.
"You feel so good, sweetheart," he tells her, tells the curve of her neck, says it into the wild mess of her hair, all come undone now. Bucky's giving it to her rough now, all their sudden new-again-newness forgotten, his hips jerking into her so hard she's trembling with it, feels her ass getting hot from the smack of muscle and bone on skin. That percussive thud's so fucking good, ratcheting her up higher and higher, and she lets out an honest-to-God wail when Bucky shifts his weight onto one elbow so he can reach up and pinch at her nipple, scrape his nails down her stomach and —
"Fuck!" she yells.
— gives her a little smack over the mound of her pussy, hard enough that her whole body spasms with it — something like the ballistic version of an orgasm running through her toes and fingertips — before Bucky's blunt fingers are back all slick from where he's pounding her and searching through the folds her cunt for her clit.
Stephanie loses the thread in the last parts of this, just knows she's chanting his name and letting out a series of only half rational threats. She feels herself throb on Bucky's cock, feels her lungs give out, feels the way everything narrows down to the essentials, so desperate and so needy and so — so — she can't stand it, she's not going to survive it — until she feels Bucky's teeth bite down on her shoulder and she goes mute with it, comes so hard her throat closes and her vision blanks out.
She checks back in to Bucky croaking, "Jesus, Stephanie, don't cry," and wiping at her face. The only thing to do's roll over into his chest, let him hold her close and mumble nonsense into her hair until she's got her breathing under control, until every little bump and touch near the apex of her thighs stops forcing a sharp noise outta her mouth, triggering the shakes. It takes ages to come all the way back down.
At some point, Bucky says, "We should probably get a rag or something. I think I've got some of your blood on my dick."
She punches him in the ribs for that the way he deserves, but she lets him get up without any complaints.
leupagus @leupagus - 32m
your "friend" is a fucking pervert fyi RT @waldorph so is writing Lady Liberty/Bucky Barnes porn rpf asking for a friend
One of those silent benefits of friendship with me is surprise cameos in fan fictions. Kisses, Gus and Waldorph!
Stephanie's bruises are gone by morning.
She puts on her brassier and her skirt, feels the remembered press of Bucky's hands into her body — sees him watching her, patient and still, over her shoulder in the little mirror in her room. She brushes her hair back, twists it at the nape of her neck from new muscle memory, sees Bucky push up to his feet — there're no scars on his body, just beautiful lean lines of muscle, the sharp cut of his hips — and close the space between them until he slides a hand up her spine, warm through her uniform jacket. Stephanie feels a breath shudder out of her when Bucky presses his palm over the back of her neck, where he's kissed her a thousand times: cloaked in the buttery sunlight of their kitchen, in the dark of their marriage bed, last night in this bunker.
"So are you leaving?" she asks. Stephanie doesn't mean for it to come out as a whisper, but it does: hesitating, fearful.
He leans in, until his forehead is pressed to the curve of her skull. "Are you staying?"
Stephanie closes her eyes. "I have to."
Bucky sighs against her skin, fingers tensed on her neck. He says, "Then I gotta, too."
There's not a mark on her, not a mark on Bucky, but Stephanie wonders if he feels the way she does: run through with the fingerprints of phantom aches, they leave her walking tenderly, moving slow, too carefully negotiating her body in the space in which she inhabits. She feels raw, like their silence has rubbed sandpaper across her throat, and Stephanie feels stoppered, like she's limping, awkward with it, and by the time they've wound through to the public silos, Stephanie feels formlessly angry about everything — that after everything, even this has to be hard.
It's the underwater sensation of the mid-point of a fight, like they had to stop shouting because something bigger came up, and now she can't remember what and how exactly wrong Bucky is, and the whole thing's taken on a mute frustration. It makes everything too bright and too sharp and too loud, even muffled underground in a metal cube.
Stephanie turns up to debrief mad as a wet cat and it must show on her face, because Howard takes one look at her — there's road rash on his neck; Stephanie has a moment of detached certainty he's going to kill himself before the Nazis get to him — and then slants his gaze to Bucky.
"You did it wrong, Chuckles," Howard stage-whispers.
Bucky favors him with a look Stephanie last saw him level at a man with a red skull over the sight of a pistol. "Excuse me."
"Stark," Peggy says, sweeping into the room in a pressed uniform and victory rolls. "He's a valuable intelligence asset and, I'm assured, extremely dangerous. Contain yourself."
Stephanie decides she's safest glaring at the map of the Western Theater, an opinion shared by Philips, who stomps into the room clutching a tin cup of noxious-smelling coffee and throws himself into a chair in an external expression of her internal mood.
"Rogers," he mutters across at her.
Bucky leaves off trying to kill Howard with his eyes long enough to turn that look on Stephanie and ask, "Rogers?"
She puts her face in her hands. "Bucky, please."
Stephanie doesn't see what Howard's face is doing, but whatever it is, it gets Peggy saying, "Stark, why exactly are you here for an intelligence debrief anyway?"
"I'm the genius combustion engine of the Allied war effort, in case you don't read the papers, Carter," Howard replies, syrup sweet. "Dollface could have mission critical information I need for my 'magical war machines.'"
Bucky isn't given to jealous fits, but he inherited George Barnes' deep suspicion of sauciness of all kinds, and any minute now Bucky's going to start formulating some unfathomably annoying comeuppance for Howard that Stephanie's going to be apologizing about unconvincingly for years.
Meanwhile, the gimlet-eyed analysts are filing into the chamber, pasting up new topographical maps and gnawing on the ends of unlit cigarettes. The braver (or dumber) ones risk oh-so-curious glances over toward where Philips is enjoying Stephanie reaping what she's sown with frankly unchristian glee.
"Shouldn't we start the briefing?" Stephanie asks — begs.
Philip's response is an expression of angelic dismay. "Shouldn't we wait for everyone to get here first?"
Stephanie scowls at him.
Then there's the sudden warm weight of a hand, pressed on her knee, and when Stephanie turns, it's to Peggy's crooked grin and a marker in her hand. She nods at the map at the front of the room, pinned to the corkboard and already dotted over with speculative markings.
"Go on," Peggy tells her, all laughter in her voice.
"You're the only adult in his room," Stephanie says earnestly, and takes the pen.
Bucky, tipping back in his chair so she has to shimmy and shove to get past him in the narrow space between him and the wall, calls over his shoulder, "Oh yeah? Says Stephanie Rogers?" Howard, situated at the front of the room fairly beaming with shit-eating bliss, says, "Dollface, truly, this is the best morning my life," and him, Stephanie shoves away without reservation before she uncaps the pen, muttering, "For Christ's sake," and starts to draw.
MR. EDWIN JARVIS
1 E 70 STREET NEW YORK NY
UNBELIEVABLY COLD. FOUND SOMETHING THAT SPEAKS PROGRESS. VERY SPARKLY. SENDING WITH A MILITARY ESCORT. WRITE DR BRANDON. PUBLISHED ON HYPOTHERMIA. TELL CARTER IM PEACHY.
— Stark, Howard. 20 February 1951. The Howard Stark Collection, 1930-1960 (No. 3569-11), Stark Industries Archives, New York, NY.
Stephanie's memory works in strange ways, not gridded out or in linear time like Bucky, always recalling events by the progression of hours or their relationship to a relative point in space. Stephanie remembers things near photographically, in discrete, intense perfection. People guess, "Oh, that must be why you draw so well," but Stephanie's art's all learned muscle reaction, all in the sensitivity of a fingertip knowing how much to press down on a page — it's nothing at all to do with memory.
But Stephanie admits she started to draw because she was too young to say all she could see, every time she closed her eyes. Even little, dust would float in sunbeams a specific way, drape like a silk shawl over the neat spread of her grandmother's quilt. At six, she didn't know how to say how it made her feel — safe, at home — to sit at the foot of the brass bed frame and look at the afternoon in the air of the room, but she could draw it, and when she showed her mother, it was a little like being understood.
Older, with more words in her arsenal, the shape of something still articulated itself so much more clearly than Stephanie was able to: the chronic ache of missing her mother, the quiet repeated sketches of her father's photographs, the architectural reproductions of her hospital hallways. She could draw 100 pictures of Bucky, and every single one would give away another one of her embarrassing secrets, some poorly concealed longing. The morning after her wedding night, she'd drawn the disarray of their bed, shaded in all the lines and folds of the linens while Bucky had pressed whiskery, whispery kisses down the line of her fragile spine, so that she would never, never forget.
Stephanie doesn't remember remembering the factory, its dizzying levels and stairs, and if she tries to grab for the clarity of a blueprint, it slips out of her fingers like so much sand. But she remembers the way its right-angled hugeness sat in the depths of the forest, the way the craggy hills gave way to an artificial clearing, the stumps of trees still soaked, blond wood — newly cut down. She remembers the crunch of stone and sawdust under her boots, the press of Peggy's body against hers as they'd wended through the trees, the neglected paint of the metal doorframes, the corrugated walls of the old factory, the steel gates that still gleamed from new construction.
She draws everything she can remember, traveling from the black unknown of the deep forest into the burning heart of the factory. She feels cold sweat damp on the back of her neck, sick fearfulness welling up again. She remembers the walkway, the fire. She doesn't draw the state of Bucky, when she'd found him — it's too private, he's too much hers — draws the space around him instead: the maps, the objects, the flickers of words and city names, the flagged locations on a terrain map she barely understands.
Stephanie doesn't know if it's from drawing too long in one frozen shape, or if this is just as painful coming out as it had been going into her memory. She keeps at it, purges herself; maybe if she writes it all down, she'll stop seeing it every time she closes her eyes.
She doesn't know how much time passes before she hears Bucky say, "Stephanie."
She freezes, the pen skipping in its progression across the page, and when she blinks, she realizes her eyes hurt and her shoulders hurt and she's clammy with cold, a sudden plunge back into sensory awareness that had drifted away from her.
When Stephanie turns to Bucky, to follow his voice, he's left his seat at the table to stand by her instead, so close he's the warmest thing in the room. All the anger from before has left him, leaving in its wake the tight line of his jaw and gritted teeth, worry radiating. He closes a hand around her arm, a loose fist sliding down until he can press the whorl of his thumb into the well of her elbow, and he tugs her away from the map, from the cold spot that had bloomed around her into the warmth of his chest through the tired green of his uniform.
"Bucky?" she asks, and her mouth feels strange, her tongue feels strange inside it.
He smiles and it looks hurt. "Yeah, I'm right here — come here, let's sit down a while."
They sit down a while, away from the maps and pictures and in a little corner alcove, where there's a disused desk piled high with papers, an Army-issue chair with a cracked-upholstery seat cushion. Bucky puts her on it, and hitches up onto the desk, closes her hands inside his own before he brings their clasped fingers up to press lingering, tight kisses over her fingertips. Stephanie feels the pressure of his mouth on her nails and loves him, feels the hot gust of his breathing and loves him, stares at the whorl of hair at the top of Bucky's head and loves him.
All that and she needs more, wants something else, too — what a bottomless well she is, Stephanie thinks, eyes hot and her chest tight, and she wishes she was the kind of girl who could burst into repentant tears now. To cry, "I've told you everything I remember, can we go home now?" but the words and the weeping get stuck in her throat. She'd never thought so before, but now she sees her stubbornness for what it can be, sharp from both ends, and she feels it cutting and cutting her but she can't let go.
"I'm okay, Buck," she says finally, hoarse with all the crying she can't do.
He presses his forehead into her wrists, his brow wrinkling. "Jesus, your memory."
She wants to free her fingers so she can run them through his hair, but Stephanie thinks that right now, Bucky doesn't want that — wouldn't stand for any softness. In the background, she hears Peggy's voice and Howard's patter, the anonymous noises of strangers talking. There's paper moving and footsteps two rooms away. She feels both present and far-flung from her body at this moment, staring at Bucky bowed over their joined hands like he's praying for patience, trying to remember his vows.
"I know I'm hard work," Stephanie hears herself saying. "I'm sorry, Bucky."
"Yeah, well, I've never been afraid of hard work," he tells her.
When she squeezes his fingers there's only the memory of the rough skin of his palms, cracked from cold, the cuts and scabs that should be there after what he's been through. All she feels is smooth, unmarred skin. He's sitting here in front of her in a brand new body, a freshly starched and ironed and hemmed up Bucky Barnes, and she's met him equally spit-shined, just-tumbled off a production line with its out-of-order gears replaced. Their bodies are new, and new to each other. Maybe it means something. Maybe it means nothing. But it means Stephanie's scared to let go of Bucky's hands, even though he feels like a handsome mimeograph, a Hollywood picture of the man who'd promised to have her and hold her, and Stephanie must feel just the same to him, a black and white still in soft lighting, not Bucky Barnes' best girl at all.
That paradoxical smallness and hugeness is back. Stephanie gets dizzy with it, the gravitational drag from the weight and reality of her place in this world, and the equal insignificance of her dotted on the larger canvas. She thinks that it was the best intentions that led her to this — the worst of best results. She thinks about her desperate love, her desperate fear that drove her hurtling, bursting violently free from the person she had once been happy to be. And it feels like she's outside looking inward at the lost city of her past; it wasn't just her clothes and her shoes and her wedding ring — it was all of it, every single shred of her. Stephanie's too big to fit any longer.
Stephanie wants to say, "Please keep trying." She wants to say, "Please forgive me; please love me anyway." She wants to say, "Please understand me, the way Howard did." She wants, more than anything, for Bucky just to know her, to know from sharing space and breath and her body, to be absolved by omission.
That only happens in books, in the pictures.
What happens here, in real life, in this horrible little bunker in this horrible big war, is that one of the MPs comes tiptoeing up to Bucky and says, "Sergeant Barnes? Someone's looking for you," and that Peggy comes and takes Stephanie away from where she's staring at the line of his back, disappearing down a hall, into a dark little room where no one can see them talk.
"Let's win this war," Peggy tells her, twining her arm around Stephanie's waist and murmuring it into her cheek, tender-warm and coaxing. Peggy smells like her face powder and clean linen, and Stephanie's so skin-hungry to know she's doing the right thing she presses herself into Peggy's side, leans heavy on her. "When we're done here, take him home and love him — he has a lifetime to forgive you."
Stephanie cries and nods at the same time, scrubs her face with her new hands, feels the warm metal of her new-old ring. She wishes Dr. Erskine was here. She wishes her Ma was here. She wishes that Bucky had never left Brooklyn, that she wouldn't have followed. Stephanie guesses it all boils down to wishing there wasn't a war on.
"What if he doesn't?" she asks; she hates her voice when she cries.
"He will," Peggy tells her, complete with certainty. And after a beat she says, "And if he doesn't, you start your glamorous post-war life as Mrs. Howard Stark."
Stephanie gives her a shove, laughing. "Peggy — honestly."
"Honestly," Peggy teases, and then it's the devil himself, hollering down at them:
"Are you two done canoodling yet? We got magic Nazis to kill!"
We can never know how Barnes felt and what he was thinking in those feverish months after his rescue. In the weeks after, he must have spent time recovering from physical injuries and reckoning with the cuts that didn't leave any marks. It's hard to imagine, from the safety of relative peacetime and with full knowledge of the horrors yet to come, making a choice to plunge back into the maelstrom, to — with eyes open — throw yourself back into the fray. It's what made the Howling Commandos so extraordinary, and such an enduring subject of fascination. Their courage is the kind that wells out of a hole gouged deep into the foundations of something, a surprise after a horrible hurt. Barnes, Jones, Dernier, Morita and Falsworth clawed their way from the jaws of death only to turn around and try to knock a few teeth out of its mouth.
No explanation but humbling bravery can be identified for the others, but in Barnes, we've discovered a shared cultural hook. It must have been his love affair with Lady Liberty that anchored him in the Western Theater, instead of taking a well-deserved trip back stateside to the loving arms of his wife.
Ask any quorum of romantics or historians about Barnes and it starts academic and rapidly devolves into a passionate argument. The fight will be a microcosm of the sexual politics of any given group of combatants, their personal feelings on monogamy, anthropological arguments about its sustainability; at some point, someone will say the words "open marriage," at which point everyone without skin in the game should just hit the deck.
The Smithsonian has a lovingly curated collection of Barnes's effects: his watch, a pair of shoes, a cigarette case. There's a small display of a photograph of his wife, Stephanie, next to a handkerchief — beautifully embroidered "JBB" — that had been folded carefully around it so long that even when I visited the exhibit for the hundredth time in 2006, the creases were still in the fabric.
I stood there long enough to feel my chest get tight, and to overhear two women on the other side of the display from me whispering.
He must have really loved her, said one to the other. But do you really think he had an affair with Lady Liberty?
Of course, her friend answered, why else would he have stayed and formed the Howling Commandos? He must have loved her more than anything to have stayed in that horrible war when he could have gone home. He must have really loved her, too.
— Kerrigan-Wang, Sasha. "Infidelity." New Yorker, Nov. 7, 2009, pp. 64-67.
Killing magic Nazis is at once harder and easier than it sounds.
For one, they're magic.
For another, the U.S. Army is a little at loose ends when it comes to the appropriate application of a band of internationally sourced POWs with rarified knowledge of high value German targets and one ex-showgirl-cum-nurse who technically rescued and outranks them all. It's a complicated tactical situation which Colonel Philips approaches with the same measured dignity and calm that had so characterized his command in the field, via his preferred medium of communication: yelling at Stephanie. In what's now Stephanie's preferred medium of communication with Philips, she respectfully absorbs all his decibels and then conspires to do whatever needs doing anyway with Peggy and Howard, all of her new ex-POW friends and one husband who's clearly on a knife edge of tolerance for the war, this bullshit, and most specifically, Stephanie herself.
All the frictionless ease of growing up together, of falling in love, they're paying for that with interest now, Stephanie thinks. She spends a lot of time biting her tongue, clutching at her chest.
All the things she'd always loved so much about Bucky, peacocked to the neighborhood girls over — all of those things were only true in context. In Brooklyn, Bucky always thought of her first, always wanted to protect her; he never got bossy about her choices, didn't act like a bully like some of the other husbands she's known. In wartime, Bucky still thinks about her first, still wants to protect her — only now the best engineering minds of the SSR assure her she's got the strength of ten men and Howard keeps helpfully reminding Bucky it'd be treasonous for Stephanie not to use what good old American engineering gave her for the cause. In the European Theater, Bucky's all kinds of bossy about what she does and where she's going, and it leaves a sucking hurt in her belly to think that all these years her freedom was just a rope long enough she couldn't see the end of it in Bucky's fist.
"You don't really think that," Peggy scolds. "Sergeant Barnes is a good man."
"Lots of good men want their wives at home darning their socks and making soup," Stephanie retorts.
Peggy arches one of her perfect brows, and a curl of dark hair whips across her forehead. "You're not exactly knitting here, Stephanie."
They're standing at the outskirts of a near-deserted town in France, its one claim to fame a bicycle factory that should have been abandoned ages ago. There's blue light in all its dusty windows, and Dernier, Dum Dum, Morita and Falsworth are laying down a series of explosive charges around its perimeter. Bucky's arranged himself somewhere high with a good line of sight and a Springfield '03 sniper rifle, and left Stephanie down below, armed with her wrinkled veil of dignity, the shield she'd stolen out of Howard's bag of murderous goodies and a gun Bucky keeps making her practice reloading.
"He stopped talking to me once we crossed into France," Steph argues.
"Stephanie, please know I say this with profound affection for you, but your need for people to share your convictions with every evidence of total happy agreement is the least attractive part of your personality," Peggy tells her kindly.
It only hurts because Stephanie knows it's true.
"Next time I see Howard I'm telling him I got you drunk in France and you cried all over me about how you want to hand him things and do fondue."
The radio scratches before Peggy can threaten to throw Stephanie's shield in a ravine: "Ladies, you're clear on side entry — over."
"Copy, Jones, over," Peggy says, and they're off.
It's so much and nothing at all like that first night picking through the forest, cutting parachute cords and punching Nazis. It's another factory, another Hydra base, another warehouse of horrifying unknowns, only now the fear Stephanie feels is tempered not by desperation, but the guilty-good adrenaline kick of lowered stakes.
This time, Stephanie's not seasick with longing, half crazy with fear, making stupid decisions she can't believe Peggy let her get away with. This time, Bucky is healthy and alive and aggressively armed, sore with her and sulking by climbing up a tree to better snipe Nazis. This time, the only worry she's cultivating about Howard is how he'll cope trapped underground in the London SSR bunker — not because he can't entertain himself, but that left unsupervised without any mitigating influences, he'll probably get so out of hand and annoying the analysts will kill him and throw him in the Thames. This time, she's got Jones and Falsworth and Dernier and Dum Dum and Morita over the radio line and close at hand, waiting to fall in as soon as they give the signal.
The hum she feels under the skin, the impatient rush, that's not fear, Stephanie knows: that's excitement, that's purpose, it's the rush of the serum, the scalding heat of Howard's immortality coffin, it's bursting wildly to life after existing so long on the edge of something else altogether.
Ready? Peggy signals, and Stephanie answers by taking off in a run, by closing the distance between the edge of the forest and tired shape of a badly neglected door — its lock rusted over, its paint long worn away.
That she'd noticed any details about the Hydra lab where they'd held Bucky was pure muscle memory; she'd been so scared then, so wracked with worry the only thing she'd been looking for was the shape of Bucky's shoulders, the color of his hair. Now, Stephanie looks at everything, drinks it all in and populates a blank piece of sketching paper in her head: the broken tile of the flooring, the cinderblock walls painted an indistinguishable industrial neutral that might have once been white. Peggy had started to pick the lock, and the door had just swung open, its hinges cat-paw silent and security an afterthought out here, in the nothing in between of major Nazi strongholds. These people aren't worried; this all feels relaxed to them. There aren't enough guards, aren't enough safety measures to indicate prisoners here — it must be something like a research lab, all patrician Nazis in white lab coats who argue philosophy over afternoon tea. Stephanie thinks, why are you alive when Dr. Erskine isn't, and forces herself to push the fevered, sudden heat of her anger away. Her anger's always a foolish, fearless thing, throwing punches first and throwing another punch later.
Just inside the doorway, there are only enough naked bulbs to describe the shape of corridors and rooms, and they progress from one prison-like storage chamber to another. Stephanie feels like she's traveling the labyrinth with no ball of twine, listening for the sounds of boots or voices, the tell-tale signs of people — the hot breath of a monster. Outside the windows, the sky is fading from the cornflower blue and milk-yellow cloud streaks of early evening to the orchid purples and pinks of the sun melting into the horizon, and it casts panes of supernaturally beautiful light across the dusty floors of the room. Every step a quick watercolor sketch, a moment of unexpected color in the pen-and-ink crosshatch of the reality of war.
Stephanie looks and makes sure she sees: she sees the orderly shape of the factory floor, the big tables where not so long ago, red and blue and silvery bicycles must have been bolted together. Now, in their place, she sees the skeletons forms of weapons; she sees a wooden and steel-reinforced crate at the front of the room, heavily chained and padlocked, blue light seeping out of its seams. No workers are left, and the factory floor has the soft emptiness of temporary desertion — a classroom at 7 p.m., neglected but unworried. She tries to memorize the arrangements of tools, each neatly put to bed on top of worn, clean towels and knolled at right angles. It's a little after 5:30 p.m. and all the good fascists have neatly cleared their stations and headed for home and hearth. Stephanie can't wait to burn down this building.
Stephanie wonders where they sleep, if they're in makeshift barracks somewhere nearby or if there've occupied the local village, taken over the tidy homes and their tidy beds the same way they'd run their tentacles through this tidy factory. She grabs every blueprint she sees, every discarded note. Peggy goes through the trash can near the doors, retrieving documents and smoothing them out, folding them down inside her jacket. Stephanie takes a hand-made sign with some kind of benchmarking system written out in remaindered blue paint in an engineer's hand. She tucks it into the rucksack she's wearing, hidden between her back and her shield: safe.
If she closes her eyes and listens beyond the noise of her own breathing, the sound of blood rushing in her ears, she can just hear the noise of footsteps far away. Stephanie's getting better at translating her newly acquired prodigious hearing to real-world distances, and she thinks she can identify two people, walking separately from one another, patrolling but not in a pair, and in no seemingly orderly way.
She looks to Peggy. Box? she mouths, pointing at the crate in the front of the room, its blue light and faint hum a slow pulse in the room.
Peggy looks momentarily torn, before pointing at Stephanie and miming a dead lift.
Stephanie shrugs, maybe, and Peggy's speculative expression turns thoughtful.
Maybe later, Peggy decides before adding, upstairs, and leads the way.
The stairs are disintegrating metal, and every damn one creaks, every step an exercise in holding their breath in muscle-aching silence, waiting to see if they're caught. It takes forever, it takes six years, to get up the fucking staircase, and then it takes another geologic era to progress down the hallway. Stephanie keeps stopping and starting, eyes closed to focus all her attention to hearing in the near dark.
The guards are still wandering in a tight, disorderly circle, still somewhere clear across the factory. If she was a betting woman, she'd say that's where the coffee is, that's where the food might be. There're probably sofas nearby, maybe blue magazines to help wile away the lonely cold nights.
They duck into an antechamber, tuck away behind a heavy fall of industrial cotton batting — a half-dozen sewing tables caked in dust here — and Peggy asks, low and barely audible, "Still no one?"
"There's at least two people I can hear, probably guards," Stephanie tells her. "But they don't actually seem to be patrolling, and I don't think there are any prisoners here."
Peggy nods. "Security's too lax for it," she agrees, her gaze hardening. "The guards are probably in the office area — we may need to confront them. Are you all right with that?"
Stephanie is an uncomplicated person, and her confession to Dr. Erskine so long ago is as true now as it ever was: she doesn't want to kill anyone — she just doesn't like bullies. But that's not the only truth, not anymore. Stephanie thinks that if she were to find herself back in that recruitment room, staring into Dr. Erskine's eyes, she'd burst into tears and tell him all sorts of things. She still doesn't want to kill anyone, but maybe she has already, and worse, maybe she could do it again. Stephanie feels sick at the thought of taking a life, but she's not walking away, and that's everything isn't it — that's enough.
"No," she tells Peggy, too truthfully the way she's always too truthful, just the same way she's such hard work. Stephanie doesn't know how to be anything but herself. She pulls out the gun anyway, disengages the security just like Bucky drilled her, made her practice hundreds of times. She meets Peggy's gaze. "But I'm ready if we need to."
Peggy's answering smile is tight, commiserating, gone in a flash.
"Good enough for me," she says.
The two guards, when Stephanie and Peggy come upon them, are playing chess in the main office. Black is winning, and White is swearing at him with the a fluid irritation that can exist only between old friends. They look up; they reach for their guns.
Peggy double-taps one square in the chest and when the other one drops to the table, it takes Stephanie a long time to connect the dots between her finger on the trigger and blood on across the pawns. She's immediately, violently cold, and it's only Peggy's, "Stephanie, keep it together," that gets her moving — that gets her looking away from the bodies to the desks.
Stephanie collects notebooks and folders by rote, jamming them into her rucksack and rolling up blueprints, grabbing maps. It's not the delicate work her fingers are used to — giving stitches, embroidering a handkerchief — and she finds she can still do it when her hands are shaking so hard it radiates up the length of her arm. She ignores the way Peggy's searching the bodies. She swallows down the acid-sour sick in her throat, and she grits her teeth against the pulse of hurt down her Vagus nerve as Peggy radios to say, "Team — intel acquired, we're on our way out — can you meet us with the truck, over?"
"Wilco," Jones's voice scratches over the line. "Everyone okay in there?"
"Stephanie and I are fine," Peggy tells him, all weightless tease. "Bringing back lots of gifts for all the good boys and girls, over."
Stephanie can smell gunpowder on her fingers. She wonders if it'll ever wash off of her skin, if that guard had realized he was in check, if someone will tell his family, if he had a wife, a lover, any children, friends — all suddenly more alone in the world. Stephanie thinks of the guttering candles at her childhood church, the dark maw of the confessional and of Father O'Donnell telling her that lustful thoughts about Bucky were two Our Father's, that to have malice for a schoolmate was three Hail Mary's, that to be disobedient to her mother could be forgiven, if repentance was truly in Stephanie's heart. Stephanie wonders what hell is like, what it will feel like to be given to the flames, because she's committed a mortal sin and she regrets but she does not repent.
But then there's no time to contemplate damnation, because Peggy's pressing a hand to Stephanie's shoulder, saying, "Come on, let's go," and they finish clearing out the office, between them pick it clean like locusts. It's easier to stay busy, and Stephanie nods and follows and takes what Peggy tells her to take and leaves what Peggy tells her to leave. When they travel back down to the factory floor, and Peggy asks, "Do you think….?" Stephanie says, "Worth a try," and goes to pick up the crate, because at least then her hands won't be idle and her attention is split.
Jones has kept his word, meets them at the rusted back door with a truck, and there's a lot of exclamation and to-do about the way Stephanie carries and loads the glowing blue crate onto the truck, barely breaking a sweat.
"Merde," is Dernier's contribution; Falsworth looks too intrigued.
Peggy looks delighted.
Bucky does not. Bucky only takes Stephanie's gun and shield and rucksack away and draws her into the cabin of the truck, to wrap her into his arms, and it's not until he's built the framework around her that Stephanie realizes she's still shaking — harder than ever without the grounding of everything that needs doing, without the weight of the container, hard enough she can't tell if the constant rattle she feels is the truck taking off now, going down long pitted dirt roads, or her bones coming apart.
"I'm here," Bucky promises, his forearm a metal bar along her shoulder blade; Stephanie hopes it's enough to keep all her pieces contained; she didn't think she'd feel this way. "It's okay — I've got you."
Stephanie digs her fingers into his back, presses her forehead into his shoulder, gasps long, greedy breaths of the smell of his sweat and clothes and the faint, wooden green from sitting in the tree.
"He was bad," Bucky tells her, says into the shell of her ear, the hot skin at her neck, into the sweaty hair pulled away from her face. His voice is the whisper that slips in over the sound of the road, over the noise of the truck. "He was a bad person, and you only did it because you had to, because if you didn't, he would hurt other people, okay?"
Stephanie nods because she knows Bucky is right, and she believes him. But her words are jammed in her throat because it doesn't matter that he's right, or that she believes him, because her hand still feels the jarring motion of the kickback, there's still a mark from the hammer of the gun in the web of skin between her thumb and forefinger. There's still a moment before she'd pulled the trigger and the ever-after afterwards.
And worse than all of that is the nauseating, sudden crush of understanding that this is probably what Bucky tells himself every day when he wakes up, thinks last before he falls asleep. All that time she'd been terrified he'd die on her he'd been shooting guns and feeling that same percussive jerk backward, that same gunpowder burn. It makes her hold on more tightly, to press open-mouthed kisses to any part of him she can each. It makes her crazy, and it makes her say, "Bucky, I'm sorry — I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," he tells her, over and over, and it's not until he pulls away to touch her face that Stephanie realizes her cheeks are wet, that Bucky's gorgeous, crooked smile is blurry. She closes her eyes so she can focus on the rough skin of his fingertips, thumbing across her cheekbone, but the quiet dark there only lasts a second, until she hears Dum Dum shouting, "Fire in the hole."
The pressure and heat come in a wave, maybe a beat earlier or later than the noise, but once its upon her it's impossible to think of anything else, to feel or hear anything else — it's all Stephanie can do to hold on, to watch the truck eat up miles of road and watch the smoke billowing from behind them.
I know you did better in school than me, but I can read between the lines better than anybody when it comes to you, so I'm writing it down as clear as possible, so you can never dispute it, or wrack yourself with guilt over it, so you can fold it up into a pocket and keep it close and know I'm saying it to you now and I'll say it to you forever:
I don't care what you've done, or what you will do. I don't care what you have to do to get back to me. As long as you get back to me, I forgive you. I forgive you everything and anything and all of it.
I love you. I forgive you. I'll always make a home for you — anytime, anywhere. I'd run away with you, to the ends of the Earth if we had to. I'd find a way to make it work. So don't worry about the rest of it, Bucky, just worry about coming back to me.
All my love,
— Barnes, Stephanie. Till Death: Marriage and Loss in Wartime. 1 Feb-1 Oct 2011, National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.
Nobody insults her by asking if she's changed her mind or if she wants to go home now, but for the next three days, Stephanie's never alone.
She falls asleep with Bucky drooling on her shoulder and sometime after breakfast Peggy magically appears to fetch her for some collection of necessaries which occupy them until lunch, at which point Howard absconds with her for an afternoon of scientifically questionable experiments. Dinner's always spent in the riotous warm company of the newly anointed Howling Commandoes, because Falsworth shouldn't be allowed to name things and Stephanie was outvoted by one with Peggy turning traitor.
"Are you supporting this to mess with Liberty or do you genuinely think this this name is good?" Morita demands, looking profoundly confused and angry about it. Morita is a handsome man of discerning taste, and Stephanie likes him.
Peggy affects her We Are Not Amused expression, which would be considerably more effective if she wasn't huddled at a table eating chipped beef off of someone else's plate after pretending she was too good for it at the mess hall line. Jones doesn't seem nearly as upset as he should be, as his crush has now traversed the distance from "sudden interest" to "embarrassing."
"I think the Howling Commandos is a perfectly appropriate name," Peggy says.
"Hear hear," Falsworth adds, as if that means something
"Unbelievable," Stephanie declares. She turns to Bucky, who's leaning heavily against her side and smirking insufferably. "Isn't this unbelievable?"
"Remember how, in the third grade," Bucky starts.
Stephanie puts her face in her hands. "Oh my God."
"Lady Liberty here," Bucky presses onward, "gets into a fight with Samantha Zeller, from three streets over, and some of the boys in the class come get me to say Sam's clawing your eyes out — "
"To be clear, I was winning," Stephanie feels compelled to clarify for the rapt Howlies.
" — and when I showed up to try and pull your hands out of her hair and her nails out of your face, you both turned on me and told me to mind my own business," Bucky says with the flourish of a circus ringmaster to his captive audience. "And that, gentlemen, is how Lady Liberty taught me an important lesson: never try to cut into an honest fight between two women — your life ain't worth it."
Dum Dum is the first to burst into laughter but Morita's the loudest; Stephanie takes back every nice thing she's ever thought about him. Peggy says, "Oh, Stephanie," and over all of it, Stephanie hears herself yelling, "I'll have you know I was saving you from a childhood of playing house with that witch, you ungrateful bastard!"
The bicycle factory had been a low level insofar as intel goes for exactly the same reason it was selected as a suitable test run for the Howling Commandoes strike force: relatively low stakes target, isolated location, no evidence of high value operations or people. But from the trove of scattershot administrative errata, maps, and records Stephanie had brought home, there were still at least a half-dozen meaningful additions for shared Allied intelligence, and a new Hydra thread to pull.
Philips, in an interaction that's starting to take the shape of all their previous meetings, alludes to unrelieved shock that they weren't slaughtered, wholesale, and produces a bland series of noises that could be interpreted any number of ways when asked if they have his leave to continue. Where Stephanie leaves the meeting flushed with mild anger and lack of direction, Peggy departs in ecstasies, saying, "He didn't explicitly shut down the initiative, which is as good as fulsome support," which is how Stephanie learns that the "better to ask forgiveness than permission" principle is as vital to military operations as it is to premarital sex in the context of her Irish Catholic upbringing.
There's a huge strangeness to everything, as if Stephanie is watching the war and her own small part in it from a ghost form, tethered to her still-strange body and watching with keen interest. She hears herself fighting with Howard about how he's painted her perfectly subtle and serviceable shield in the most conspicuously, loudly American way possible.
"Howard, I know I'm new at all this spy business, but I'm given to understand stealth is involved on some level," Stephanie says to him, because her shield is now spangled with a white star and red and blue stripes, just in case the Nazis aren't sure they see her coming from 8 miles away.
Howard looks earnestly hurt. "But now this matches with your uniform."
"Uniform?" Stephanie asks.
Evidently, Howard had taken it upon himself to (a) design and create a uniform specifically for Lady Liberty, an imaginary person, and (b) to reinforce it with the most promising results of his recent flirtation with material science. Stephanie's knee jerk horror turns out to be (mostly) unfounded, as despite Howard's evident constant desire to be slapped by women, he'd managed to tilt his design more toward tactical than titillating. The uniform's a mix of reinforced, sealed canvas and meticulously stitched leather — "This section here," Howard had exclaimed, "it's dozens of layers of material, I borrowed the technique from ancient Chinese paper armor!" — in blockwork red and blue around the torso. Because subtlety remains a mystery to Howard, there's also a massive star across the bust.
Stephanie's too old to be having a fight with a mad scientist about whether or not she's going to go out on the Western front dressed as a flag, but then Bucky and Peggy come in stage left and the whole thing spirals entirely out of control.
"There's vibranium woven into the fabric," Peggy points out. "If you insist on continuously putting yourself in a position where you'll be shot at, this seems like a potentially important addition to your kit."
"Just wear it," Bucky says. "It'll help me keep track of you when you run off, anyway."
"You're both traitors," Stephanie swears at them.
But they're both also right, is the real pain in the ass, because the next mission Philips doesn't explicitly forbid them to undertake leverages both of those characteristics of Howard's godforsaken creation to maximum effect. They're after a small Hydra outpost somewhere in France. On the one hand, they're part of the Nazi's occult corps attempting (unsuccessfully) to leverage actual witchcraft instead of the cold blue burn from the repurposed factory where they'd been holding the 107. On the other hand, they have a lot more guns. Stephanie ends up getting shot in the back while looting their communications office, which is upsetting and unsettling, but turns out to only leave a baseball-sized bruise thanks to Howard's stupid showgirl costume. They find the locations of three more Hydra hide sites and Bucky and Howard become friends for her trouble. It's truly being punished for good work.
"I don't like this new development," Stephanie complains that night, when they're back safe in London and Bucky's helping to peel her out of her button-up shirt bc it hurts to move her arms. "I liked it better when you two were circling each other like alley dogs."
"Stark's a stand-up guy with a good head on his shoulders," Bucky informs her, and he hisses at whatever he sees on her back.
Stephanie can guess where the bruise is, from how her skin and muscle ache and pull. It's a deep, nauseating hurt, but already growing dimmer than yesterday, when she'd heard the click of a trigger and then had just long enough to think, Bucky, I'm so sorry, before the impact of it had knocked her breathless and slumped over heaving on a metal desk. She couldn't say it, then, she'd been too busy trying to drag in any oxygen she could and then Dum Dumb had come through the door and tackled the guy, but she can say it now — it's all she feels like she can say sometimes these days.
She twists around a little, and from this angle Bucky's face is half in shadow. Stephanie looks at his chin and she mumbles, "Sorry."
He closes his eyes, reflexive, like a flinch, and squeezes her shoulder — a little too hard. Stephanie doesn't let herself think too much about how her Brooklyn Boy, the one who knows her body inside out, doesn't know his own strength anymore. That she can lift motorcycles and make death defying leaps and survive close range gunshots, but that the Bucky she'd brought out of the fire can bruise her, still.
"Just — can you stop apologizing?" he says finally, his voice the scratch of a record.
Stephanie wonders if he means, "because you're not actually sorry," or if he means, "because no matter how sorry you are, we're still here, and you're still doing this," but it all gets stoppered up in her throat. She guesses that the exact reasoning doesn't matter that much, if the outcomes are all the same. And Bucky doesn't look mad, just tired in a way that's new to him, new to them, and Stephanie thinks — wildly, a little dizzily — of the light in the church the morning they'd said their vows.
He lets go of her shoulder, runs his palm down the line of her arm now, until the whorl of his thumb is settled into the cradle of her elbow. His nails are a wreck and his fingerprints scrape, running little shivers through her; it's still such a tangible pleasure, the presence and imperfections of him.
And then she feels the weight of him pressing into her — his forehead against her shoulder blade, his hair soft against her — and Bucky says to her, into her spine and skin, "You always just do it, whatever it is, because you know it's right, and I have to sit there and watch you throw yourself into it — " and Bucky's voice is cracking apart, the noise of city streets giving up after years of blistering summers and brutal ice, fragmenting " — and Stephanie, I'm not brave like you. I can't pretend this doesn't scare the living shit out of me."
Stephanie wants to turn around, to close her arms around him, to press Bucky's face into her throat and to make him all kinds of promises she wishes she would keep. But it's all she can do to crush her hand over his, until the combined weight of their touch is a vice around her elbow. If Bucky doesn't want her apologies, hell, then the least and only thing she can do is listen.
"I'm trying so hard, Steph," he grinds out.
"I know," she says, and the "thank you," pours out of her, spills from her shaking mouth.
"I promised in front of God and everybody, in front of your ma," Bucky says to her, the chapped skin of his mouth brushing against the knob of her spine now, "I said I'd love you and I'd honor you — I said I'd keep you."
Stephanie closes her eyes; she swallows around the good hurt in her throat, feels her lips wobble into a smile. "You better," she says.
"So I might not be happy about this, but I ain't going anywhere, and you can knock it off with the apologies," Bucky says. He presses a kiss — open-mouthed — to the side of her neck, lingering, and hoarse, he says, "I signed up for a lifetime tour with you, all right?"
There's a tremble in Stephanie's laugh, but it's real. "You're a hell of a soldier, Barnes."
"Yeah, well, you should see my old lady," Bucky mutters, and orders her, "And stay still. I want to make sure you weren't hurt anywhere else."
Stephanie knows enough about the military hierarchy that you always listen to your sergeant, and she even mostly stays still until the heat of Bucky's breathing on her skin gets her shivery and hot.
"I wasn't done checking you over," Bucky complains, when she gets him on his back in their bed and starts undoing his belt.
"You're a real martyr, you know that?" Stephanie says, but Bucky just grins up at her with that sideways little smile, the one that gets her hook, line, and sinker every time.
She's 10 years old, sitting cross-legged on a cold garage floor watching Bucky fix up a car with his dad. She's 13 and she doesn't know if her chest hurts because the damp's gotten into her lungs again or because Bucky's so handsome it makes her want to fight anybody who looks at him. She's 14 and he's kissing her before confession, catching her in the sheltering darkness of the cathedral, his hands cupping her face. He's saying to her, "So you can go ahead and ask the man upstairs the punishment, 'cause I'm gonna be doing that a lot," and Stephanie remembers telling him, "I'm not apologizing for any of this," and dragging him back down to her by his Sunday best tie.
"You're my best girl — to the end of the line," he whispers to her. "You know that."
It feels like a rose growing out of the cavern of her heart: gorgeous and painful and supernatural — blooming too rapidly to be contained. Stephanie hurts in miraculous ways, with gratitude and cut open by thorns. This must be what it's like for a stigmatic to see a wound opening in their palm: otherworldly, overwhelming, blessed.
"I do," she promises him, and because she can, she says it again: "I do."
Mrs. Sarah Rogers
requests the pleasure of your company
at the marriage of her daughter
Stephanie Grant Rogers to James Buchanan Barnes
son of Winnifred and George Barnes
on August 8th, 1936
at two o’clock
St. Charles Borromeo Church
31 Sidney Place
— Rogers, Sarah. Wedding invitation. 4 June 1936. The Barnes Collection. 1919-1945. New-York Historical Society, New York.
The intel they find sometimes wings itself across the continent and beyond, and apparently, even operating a clandestine guerrilla strike force doesn't exempt the Howling Commandoes — the name sticks despite Stephanie's best efforts — from the drudgery of hurry up and wait. They attend briefings and debriefings. They execute on trio of smaller missions that lead them to, in order: an empty barn, a randy potato farmer, and a fallow field. There was no secret base beneath said fallow field, which Bucky was able to ascertain by using his God-given NCO powers to have Stephanie swindle some shovels from a pack of wall-eyed local youths and then bullying everybody to dig until Dernier started raving in French he regretted that his great nation had ever supported the filthy colonists in the American Revolution.
And in between covert missions and furniture-wrecking fights with the high level muckitymucks of the Western Theater, Stephanie finds herself — once again — cast as Lady Liberty. No matter what Peggy and Bucky say about coincidence, there's no way their direction of travel would line up with the progression of the USO so frequently on random chance, and Stephanie would be mad about it, but the first time they run into her old troupe again, she's too busy sweeping Clarissa into a hug. There's a new Lady Liberty now, a statuesque beach beauty named Frannie with buttery blond hair and bright green eyes. Her bustline puts Stephanie's to shame and she's liberal about hugs; Frannie is very excited to meet the Howling Commandoes.
"Jesus fucking Christ," Dum Dum mutters, sweating hard after their first, (em)bracing interaction. Morita looks dazed; Dernier looks in love.
"Don't worry, Steph," Bucky promises her later, in private, after she's snuffed out the lights and the cold creep of night presses against their cot. "I still like you best — she seems too straight laced to be the kind of gal who'd jerk anybody off behind a church."
Stephanie doesn't feel bad about punching him at all. "When we get home, I'm telling Father O'Donnell about all of this," she warns him.
"When we get home, I'm knocking you up immediately, and he'll be too overjoyed dandling our little bastards on one knee to kill me," he informs her, unrepentant.
And hadn't that been a great portrait in the museum of humiliations of her life, the morning she'd woken up and realized there was a sticky mess of period blood smeared between her legs and the sheets and all over Bucky's leg because he liked to sleep with one thigh tucked in between her own. Of course, asking around the bunker for supplies had led to gals asking her if she was taking precautions with that young man of hers. One thing led to another led to Bucky laughing like an asshole, telling her about the barely pubescent private who'd handed over a fistful of rubbers from medical, said, "Tell Lady Liberty I said 'hello,'" and then promptly gone ashen with horror.
They're in a tent in a muddy field in France right now, so the timing's not great, but there's no reason he can't snap on a condom and practice, is Bucky's reasoning, so he does and they do. Stephanie feels a significantly greater sense of charity with the world by morning, amplified when they turn up to the canteen and Peggy's there, drinking execrable coffee and holding court with all the army boys.
"Lady Liberty," Peggy teases, as Stephanie slips onto the bench next to her.
"Agent Carter," Stephanie returns, grinning so hard her grin could crack in two. She hasn't seen Peggy in almost a month between being dispatched hither and yon and Peggy being called away by Queen and Country for a hush hush meeting beyond even Stephanie's — admittedly — dubious security clearances.
Peggy winks at her and slants a look across the table, saying pointedly, "It's rude to stare, boys."
Most of the soldiers manage to shake off their expressions of starstruck awe around Lady Liberty after a day or two of extended exposure, but at this point, Stephanie's all too used to it. In the months since she and Peggy had marched what was left of the 107 back into camp, since that first tsunami of rumors had filtered through the massive grapevine of the Allied Forces, the legend has only deepened and grown more fantastical. All efforts to apply facts to this rapidly moving infection have proven useless, and Stephanie's halfway convinced at this point that Peggy's the one making shit up and spreading it around, since she's been no help in trying to stem the tide.
Worse, there's a seemingly endless parade of reporters and photographers that seem immune to all of the military's best efforts to prevent loose lips from sinking ships and find the Howlies wherever they happen to be. Stephanie's understanding of "clandestine" must be entirely out of date from the military usage, because they've been trotted out for newsreels and interviews and a staggering number of propaganda shorts — or at least until everybody realized as bad as Stephanie was in USO stage productions, she's worse by a factor of 10 on camera. It's probably disloyal of her, but they can make Dugan warn all the boys over here about the dangers of not putting it on before putting it in until the cows come home as long as they're not making her deliver any more canned lines with the grace of a seasoned drunk.
"Can't blame 'em, Agent Carter," comes suddenly from over their shoulders, and Stephanie watches Bucky sit down on Peggy's other side; he's got two tin mugs of coffee and slides one down the table toward her. "Lady Liberty's a hell of a looker."
Stephanie smiles into her coffee. "You're a married man, Sergeant Barnes."
"I left that all behind in Brooklyn," Bucky assures her, saucy. "What do you say — willing to give me a spin, ma'am?"
"You're both unbearable," Peggy tells them, with warmth at odds with her words.
Peggy has a kind of unassailable dignity that makes it more fun than it should be to try and tease her into a froth of temper. Stephanie's seen her plenty mad before, but Bucky's had to live on secondhand stories, so he attacks the prospect with focus and fortitude, and Stephanie admires the whole thing, because it's no small miracle to sit here and see two of the people she loves the most in the world trying desperately not to burst into laughter at one another's antics. She can't believe she's so lucky.
"Don't be sore at me, Agent Carter," Bucky croons. "She's Lady Liberty, I'm obligated to give it a shot — but you, you I mean it with."
One of the sweet baby army privates makes a noise of near total horror, and it's all Stephanie can do to keep from choking to death on her coffee.
"I'd rather spend the rest of my life handing things to Stark," Peggy says, tart, and glances to Stephanie. "First you, now me — his poor wife back home."
"I'm sure she's nothing but a nag and a shrew," Stephanie says; she feels incandescently happy all of a sudden, all of her insides fizzing like champagne.
From across the table, one of the soldiers says, "Lady Liberty," like he's just heard her swear in church, and it's too much, finally, for Stephanie to keep up the act, and the laughter pours out of her, bubbling through her breath.
It turns out Peggy hasn't come only to drink terrible coffee and sass Bucky, and she eventually herds them into a room with a half-dozen bleary-eyed codebreakers, an Enigma machine, three women from the computing department and the rest of the Howlies. Philips is supervising, and he doesn't look happy about it.
"Colonel," Stephanie says, in what she hopes is a conciliatory way.
Colonel Philips does not appear mollified, although the way he answers her with, "I've had about enough of this occult hocus pocus clusterfuck," at least indicates he's — understandably — angry at Hydra versus at anybody in the immediate room.
"We've been exploding as much occult hocus pocus clusterfuck as we can, sir," Falsworth tells him earnestly.
Philips points at him. "And I appreciate your contributions," he allows, and swivels around to point at Peggy now, "But you, I sense you're about to tell me something that'll make me angry regarding our occult hocus pocus clusterfuck situation."
Stephanie thinks privately — or maybe not so privately from the way Jones catches her expression and immediately covers his mouth to hide his smile — that almost everything makes Colonel Philips angry: the occult hocus pocus clusterfuck, regulations, not following regulations, willful showgirls, soldiers who won't punch Lady Liberty in the face — his grievances are a laundry list of suffering.
Peggy's made of sterner stuff than, well, almost anybody, so she's utterly unmoved in the face of Philips' oppressive disapproval.
"We intercepted a number of transmissions over the past four weeks and — Beverly? — " Peggy holds out a hand and a short girl with a plain face hands her a sheaf of paper " — thank you — we believe we have a lead on Arnim Zola."
When Stephanie had seen Zola, the first and only time, she hadn't known his name, just the afterimage of him running away and the encompassing terror of being so close and so close still somehow to losing Bucky all over. It was later, in the relative safety of bunkers and field commands and through the medium of Peggy's voice and Howard's diagrams that she'd come to learn about Hydra's mad scientist. In the disordered rush of escape, in those documents Stephanie had tucked into her bomber jacket and then disgorged to the SSR, Zola had detailed the nature of his work: how many had died, what age, height, weight, build, race, temperament.
"Did he have a file on Bucky?" she'd croaked.
"It was probably lost in the fire," Peggy had lied, kind and almost convincing.
Stephanie hates the war, but it's hard to hate the individuals: it makes her think of the soldiers at that first Hydra site, talking about sandwiches as shift change approached. The most terrifying part of all of this is that they're all people, the same collection of bones and skin underneath their uniforms.
But Zola had put his hands on Bucky, cut him open with a knife and burned him, tied him to a table that had been stained with blood and piss and the sweat of dozens of men who hadn't survived. Stephanie hates Zola. She could look him in the eyes and drag a blade through him, slow, with savor.
"As your team has so diligently narrowed the field in terms of their fallback options — "
"Again: great work," Philips tells them, with the kind of sincerity Stephanie guesses that he's only able to muster when it comes to arson and amatol.
" — Zola's been more or less on the run for six consecutive months," Peggy continues, indulgent. "These latest dispatches indicate he's being recalled to a central command point, presumably for some sort of debrief and recalibration."
"You've identified an interception point," Bucky says with a sort of easy relish.
Peggy smiles back at him. "It'd be an enormous help to us if you and your band of merry men would go and fetch him, Sergeant Barnes," she tells him. "If you don't mind."
"Ma'am, it'd be my genuine pleasure," Bucky promises, smiling with a savage gleam to his white, white teeth.
MRS. STEPHANIE BARNES
177 WATER ST APT 2B
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR HUSBAND SERGEANT JAMES B BARNES WAS KILLED IN ACTION ON THIRD JANUARY LETTER FOLLOWS
JA ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL
Later, when Peggy asks her about it, Stephanie will remember most the breathtaking cold, the icy wind above the gorge and the gusts that kept sweeping snow from the high and low altitudes, whiting out their lines of sight. She'll still feel it from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, the painful ache of it a return to her past life, to the girl she'd been at 17 and 16 — turning slowly blue from cold underneath every blanket in her house, her mother wrapped skin to skin with her and murmuring comforting nothings. There will be a shiver in all of her sentences, a shake that chases the periods at the ends of her sentences, and no matter what she does, how many cups of black coffee Morita brings her, how many blankets Dum Dum puts around her shoulders, whatever warm rooms Jones leads her into, Stephanie still feels the same: frozen on that mountainside, staring down into the abyss, waiting for a train.
On the day, when they'd been perched there together, Stephanie doesn't remember feeling the cold at all. Falsworth had been huddled in close with their radio equipment, and Jones and Dernier had been locked into mutual admiration over a number of highly experimental explosives Stark had sent over to them, care of an Army private who'd gone as green as new cheese after they'd explained to him what he'd been carrying around so casually.
And Bucky had been so handsome in his blue coat with silver buttons, his hair whipping into his eyes, cheeks flushed from winter. He'd slept the night before curled around her, the lot of them piled together in a lean-to on the mountainside, halfway to their rendezvous point. He'd whispered, "Let's go dancing, after all of this, after we get Zola — just you and me," and she'd kissed him, lingering and tender, kissed all her yeses today and tomorrow and til death into the living warmth of him.
Peggy will ask her, how did it all begin? Start from the mountain, go to the train. And Stephanie thinks she must know it somewhere, that she's helped to fill out a report and that the government will have three copies of a transcript made — but the retelling must have been an exorcism of reason, the departure of all her facts, and in the wake all Stephanie has left over is the moment of explosive agony from being shot, that suspended instant of vertiginous nausea, her body going too slowly into shock from being broken apart. Only this is not Dr. Erskine's lab; there are no kind-hearted soldiers to try and shield her; she will not open her eyes and find Peggy and Howard sitting sentry at her bed to ease her gently into waking. Stephanie is already awake.
The nightmare is everywhere — frictionlessly mapped over reality, unrelenting.
ARCHIVIST NOTE (5/1/1976) - AN NONREDACTED SUMMARY OF THIS REPORT HAS BEEN PREPARED FOR PUBLIC DISSEMINATION AND RECORD-KEEPING PURPOSES. PLEASE CONTACT SHIELD RECORDS WITH REFERENCE 6220.127.116.11A FOR ACCESS.
TRANSCRIPT: AFTER ACTION 4678.91 - JANUARY 5, 1945
INTERVIEWER: AGENT██████████, SSR
SUBJECT: CAPTAIN████████████, SRR
████:███████, ARE YOU READY?
████: ALL RIGHT. REMEMBER WE CAN PAUSE ANY TIME YOU NEED.
█████: I'M OKAY.
████: LET THE RECORD SHOW IT IS 8:15 A.M., JANUARY 5, 1945. THIS INTERVIEW IS BEING CONDUCTED IN LONDON AT SSR HEADQUARTERS ████████████. THIS IS CAPTAIN █████' INITIAL DEBRIEFING. ███████, CAN YOU DESCRIBE MISSION — FROM THE BEGINNING?
█████: WE — FROM ████████?
████: FROM THE ASSIGNMENT, PLEASE.
█████: OKAY. UM. LATE DECEMBER, YOU — AGENT ████ INFORMED US, THE — CAN I CALL US HOWLING COMMANDOES? IS THAT — ?
████: THAT'S FINE. NOTE FOR THE RECORD THAT CAPTAIN █████ IS REFERRING TO SSR SPECIAL OPERATIONS TEAM 4.
█████: IN LATE DECEMBER, WE WERE INFORMED THAT THE CODEBREAKERS AND COMMUNICATIONS TEAMS HAD BEEN SUCCESSFUL IN INTERCEPTING AND DECODING A SERIES OF MESSAGES THAT INDICATED THAT HYDRA WAS RECALLING ██████████ TO THEIR HEADQUARTERS. SHOULD I EXPLAIN ███?
████: NO, THAT'S FINE,███████. PLEASE CONTINUE.
█████: OKAY. THE COMMUNICATIONS REFERENCED A COURSE VIA THE ████. VIA A TRAIN ROUTE THAT CUT THROUGH ████████ AND TOWARD ████. IT WAS DECIDED THAT THE BEST POINT TO — THE BEST OPPORTUNITY TO CAPTURE ████ WAS IN A 5-MILE LONG EXPOSED STRETCH NEAR ████, WHEN THE TRAIN CARS WOULD BE OPEN-AIR. WE TRAVELED BY PLANE TO ████████, AND OVERLAND UNTIL WE REACHED ████████, AND WE UM. WE CLIMBED THE MOUNTAIN.
████: DO YOU WANT TO STOP?
█████: NO. I WANT TO FINISH.
█████: IT WAS A TWO DAY CLIMB. THERE WAS HEAVY SNOW ON THE FIRST DAY. WE CAMPED ONE NIGHT AND REACHED OUT MAP POINT EARLY THE SECOND AFTERNOON. WE COULD SEE FROM OUR VANTAGE POINT THAT THE RAILS WERE STILL SNOWED OVER, SO WE PROBABLY HADN'T MISSED THE INTERCEPTION, SO WE SET UP CAMP TO WAIT.
████: WHAT DAY DID THE TRAIN APPEAR?
█████:███████ WAS ON THE RADIO WITH OUR LOCAL SSR CONTACT, WHO WAS TALKING TO YOU, I THINK?
████: YES. THROUGHOUT.
█████: RIGHT. SO WE KNEW FROM THE COMMUNICATIONS A ROUGH TIME FRAME, BUT NOT A DATE, SO WE WERE PREPARED TO WAIT UP TO A WEEK IF WE NEEDED — BUT ON THE THIRD DAY, WE HEARD FROM THE GROUND TEAM THERE WERE SIGHTINGS OF A TRAIN IN EN ROUTE. SO WE — UM. WE GOT READY.
████: WHAT WAS THE PLAN TO ACCESS THE TRAIN?
█████: WELL. ████ SET UP A ZIP LINE USING A CROSSBOW.
████: OF COURSE ████ SET UP A ZIP LINE USING A CROSSBOW.
█████: [GARBLED] …THOUGHT GOING OVER TOP WOULD BE EASIER THAN TRYING TO CATCH A RIDE FROM THE SIDE.
████: AND WAS IT?
█████: I MOSTLY JUST DIDN'T WANT TO CLIMB BACK DOWN THE MOUNTAIN.
████: SO YOU TOOK THE ZIP LINE.
█████: WE TOOK THE ZIP LINE. IT WAS — █████, IT WAS SO COLD —
████: IT'S OKAY. HERE, IT'S OKAY.
█████: UM. WE — WE TOOK THE ZIP LINE. WE — WE ONLY HAD A 10 SECOND WINDOW. AND IT WAS ME AND — AND ████ FIRST, AND ████. AND ████ ANCHORED ONTO THE ROOF TO PROVIDE COVER, AND ████ AND I WENT DOWN, WE WENT INTO THE TRAIN CAR. [GARBLED]
████:██████, WE CAN PAUSE.
█████: CAN I JUST — MAY I HAVE SOME WATER?
████: YES, OF COURSE.
█████: THANK YOU. SORRY.
█████: I CAN KEEP GOING. I WANT TO FINISH.
████: OKAY. YOU AND SERGEANT ████ ENTERED THE TRAIN.
█████: IT WAS FREEZING. UNINSULATED. IT WAS ALL RACKS OF SUPPLY STORAGE, BUT NONE OF IT WAS LABELED AND WE COULDN'T TELL WHAT IT WAS. OUR 247 WASN'T REACTIVE, THOUGH.
████: NOTE FOR THE RECORD CAPTAIN ████ IS REFERRING TO THE VICTOREEN TEST MODEL 247. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, ██████?
█████: WE MOVED TOWARD THE HEAD OF THE TRAIN. BUT UM. AS WE CROSSED FROM ONE CAR TO THE NEXT, THE DOORS CLOSED. THEY SEPARATED US.
████: FROM WHAT ████ SAID IN INTERVIEWS SO FAR, THEY HAD CAMERAS SET UP TO MONITOR THE TRAIN CARS.
█████: RIGHT. AND THEN THE UM. THEN A HYDRA SOLDIER, I GUESS, CAME THROUGH THE DOOR. HE WAS IN SOME SORT OF ████, AND MY 247 UNIT WENT THROUGH THE ROOF.
████: THEY WERE ████████?
█████: ████████ — JUST THE SAME AS WE SAW IN THE OTHER HYDRA SITES, THAT WE FOUND IN THAT FACTORY.
████: IT WAS CLOSE QUARTERS.
█████: I — ████ WAS IN THE CAR BEHIND HIM, I COULD HEAR GUNFIRE, BUT I COULDN'T — FOCUS ON IT. THE HYDRA SOLDIER WAS BLASTING AWAY, BUT EITHER THAT ████ OF HIS WAS FAULTY OR HE'D FAILED BASIC, BECAUSE HIS AIM WAS NO GOOD.
████: HOW DID YOU TAKE HIM OUT?
█████: I HIT HIM — ████████, KNOCKED HIM OUT. AND THEN I USED ONE OF HIS ████████ AND BLEW OUT THE DOOR.
█████: YEAH. UM. I BLEW OUT THE DOOR, AND — ████, I SWEAR, HE WAS DOWN.
████: OF COURSE, ██████.
█████: I WOULDN'T HAVE —
████:████████, WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
█████:████ WAS UM — PINNED BEHIND SOME CRATES, BUT I CAUGHT HIS EYE AND HIT THE DOOR SWITCH, AND UM — TOGETHER WE GOT THE GUY. BUT THEN THE HYDRA SOLDIER WAS THERE, AND I PUT UP THE ████ BUT THE IMPACT KNOCKED ME OVER, AND [GARBLED]
████:██████ — [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
[AUDIO RECORDING PAUSES]
████: ARE YOU SURE? ████████ —
█████: HE PICKED UP THE ████ WHEN I WAS DOWN, AND HE PICKED UP HIS GUN, BUT THE HYDRA GUY SHOT AT US AND PUNCHED OUT THE FAR WALL OF THE TRAIN CAR AND — JESUS. OH GOD. OH, GOD, ████ HE FLEW OUT. I UH. UM. HE'D DROPPED THE ████, AND I THREW IT AGAIN, AT THE HYDRA SOLDIER, AND THEN I CLIMBED OUT OF THE TRAIN. IT WAS — IT WAS PEELED OPEN LIKE A TIN CAN, AND HE WAS STILL HOLDING ON.
████: IT'S OKAY,████████.
█████: HE WAS HOLDING ONTO A RAILING. WE WERE SO, SO HIGH, AND I COULDN'T LOOK DOWN, I JUST CLIMBED OUT AND HELD ON AND HELD OUT MY HAND.
█████: THE RAILING CAME OFF. HE DIDN'T — I COULDN'T EVEN SEE HIS FACE. I COULDN'T REACH HIM. AND HE — ████, I LISTENED TO HIM SCREAM THE WHOLE WAY DOWN.
████: I'M SO SORRY, ████████.
█████: I DON'T — I'M SORRY,████. I DON'T REMEMBER ANYTHING ELSE.