The Mortician's Son
The bodies passed through your doors,
year after year.
Your father wrapped them in silk
and lowered them to the ground while your mother
held the hands of the grieving.
Did you wish for a life more lively?
It isn’t for us to know.
The history books say you were born on
Christmas but they remember you in
speeches given for
the Fourth of July.
That Easter of 1945, did your family
wait, almost expectant,
even knowing you were only a man?
When the war came and took you,
it never sent your body
They gave your sisters a flag
and they gave your brother a medal
and they gave you an empty grave,
in a state you’d never visited.
- “The Mortician’s Son,” by N.A. Khan, rejected submission to the 1994 Howling Commandos Memorial Commission's open poetry contest. Later published in Ode to Emma Lazarus and Other Poems for America.
Here is an irony that laudatory history has tried to ignore - Death was already the Barnes family business.
He may not know much else about himself, but the man who was once James Buchanan Barnes remembers that.
Bucky’s dad always says what they do is important.
“We give people the dignity they deserved in life,” he says, seriously.
Uncle Danny laughs at that. “Jimmy-kid,” he says, “your old man has got some real trumped up notions of what it is we do. Death ain’t beautiful. We just help create the illusion that it can be.”
Bucky really doesn’t like being called Jimmy but Uncle Danny has a way of talking that means Bucky listens anyway.
“Cynicism,” his dad shakes his head. “Not pretty.”
“It’s a business,” Uncle Danny shrugs. “Just more steady than the usual kind.”
“A business, yeah, but it’s a business that helps people say good bye.”
Uncle Danny replies, “We ain’t angels. We’re getting paid.”
And they are.
Uncle Danny’s right - Death is steady business, even now when people will leave their dead in mass graves for lack of money.
Bucky and Becca go to Catholic school and when they’re old enough, the twins will, too. Their uniforms are always fraying and everyone knows they live above the funeral parlor but Uncle Danny’s sons are there too and and they’re older and they’re fighters, so no one really bothers little Bucky and Becca Barnes.
Steve Rogers is a shrimp - some little kid with a parish scholarship and way too much bravado for someone his size - but he’s a fighter, too.
Bucky meets Steve when they’re both seven. They’re in Sister Teresa’s class and they’re seated on opposite sides of the classroom but Steve’s a real good artist and Bucky’s a real little charmer, isn’t he, but even little kids are afraid of death, so he doesn’t have a whole lot of friends.
It’s the kind of instant friendship only children can form when they learned they’re both holiday babies.
“I use to think the fireworks were for me,” Steve admits, scratching his nose.
Bucky nods, knowingly. “I used to think I was Jesus,” he says. “Since we got the same birthday and all.”
Steve’s mouth drops open and he stares. He’s aghast. (Bucky’s ma taught him that word two days ago.)
“No, you didn’t,” he says, half-accusatory, half-forceful, like he can make it true by believing.
Bucky shrugs and grins. “Naw, ‘course I didn’t. But it’d be nice to have a birthday to myself, y’know?”
Steve shrugs. “Not that bad, really. Least it means your mom and dad always got the day off, right? Anyway, you better not let Sister Teresa hear you talk like that.”
(This is maybe the only time in their entire friendship it is Steve encouraging Bucky to back down from a fight.
Unlike Steve, Bucky listens.)
Becca doesn’t realize dead bodies are so spooky to people until she starts school.
Bucky and her walk to school hand in hand. Mama would come but the twins are teething and it sure is awful.
“Listen, Becca, you gotta not talk about the bodies, okay? The ones downstairs, I mean. And you really can’t say we play down there.”
Becca blinks. “Why?”
“Cause people think it’s weird.”
Bucky frowns at her. “They just do.”
Becca kicks at the tattered piece of newspaper. She hates it when Bucky doesn’t give her good answers. But Mama says both of them could out-stubborn a mule and if Bucky isn’t answering, he isn’t answering.
So she moves onto the next topic.
“Are you gonna leave me?”
Bucky looks down at her and frowns. “Becca, you know I gotta to my class and you gotta go to yours, right?”
Becca chews on her lip. At home, Bucky and Becca aren’t ever separate and it’s so boring when Bucky’s at school and Becca’s at home and the babies aren’t even old enough to play with yet. But she isn’t gonna cry because Mama says she’s a big girl now and a big sister and that means she’s gotta be tough.
Bucky tugs on her left braid and says, “Aww, jeez, Becca, school ain’t so bad as all that.”
“I don’t wanna,” she says, pulling her hand away from Bucky’s.
Bucky leans down and says, “Listen, I’m gonna be just down the hall and I’ll come see you during lunch, alright? Promise.”
Becca considers this. Bucky keeps his promises, except for the ones Daddy says are obviously tall tales, so she nods.
“And remember what I told you, okay?”
Becca shrugs at him.
“Don’t talk about -”
“The bodies,” she finishes.
She does, though. Bucky’s right - people think it’s weird.
Bucky peeks his head in at lunch and waves and holds a finger up against his mouth so Becca keeps quiet and waves back and pretends like everything’s just fine.
Sister Josephine sends her home with a note telling her mother and father that Becca’s alarming the other children, talking about death. Bucky reads it slowly on the way home, pointing out letters to Becca (he acts like he can just will her into reading) and shaking his head.
“I told you not to,” he says. “Don’t you ever listen?”
Becca sticks her tongue out and stomps ahead of him.
Still, Bucky tries to hide the letter. Mama finds it, of course, because when Bucky lies, he always lies too big, Daddy says.
“Ah, ah, ah, young man. What do we have here?” she asks. “James, tell me you didn’t get in trouble on the first day!”
Bucky slumps into the couch and glowers. Becca looks at her shoes.
“Fine, then,” Mama says, crossing her arms. “If you won’t tell me your side of the story, we’ll just wait until Daddy gets home and then we’ll read the letter all together.”
Daddy comes up to the apartment when the sun’s setting outside, still in his work suit. He’s the handsomest man Becca knows, even more than Uncle Danny.
Mama saves the letter until after dinner because she doesn’t believe in unpleasantness souring perfectly good food and also because her patience is a tool, gnawing at her children, a prolonged siege against their shared fortress of childhood. This time, for whatever reason, Bucky shows no signs of breaking so Becca doesn’t either and besides the babies are being extra bad today so Mama doesn’t really have time to give Becca and Bucky her disappointed eyes.
So after dinner, Daddy opens the letter and says, “It appears that we have a second child who’s intent on putting the true fear of God into her classmates.” He is smiling. He does that sometimes, even when he is meant to be punishing them. (When he does not smile first, they know they’ve been Really Bad.)
Mama sighs and reaches out for the letter. She scans it, a hand to her cheek.
“You’d think nuns would jump at the chance to get a little extra theology into the minds of frightened children,” Daddy says.
Becca looks at Bucky to see if he understands. Bucky shrugs.
Mama frowns and says, mildly though, “George, really. You shouldn’t talk like that in front of the children.”
In the end, all that happens is that Mama says, “Becca, most people are scared of bodies, like the ones downstairs, do you understand? You have to be gentle with the other children.”
Becca nods, even though she doesn’t understand.
Daddy ruffles Bucky’s hair and kisses the top of Becca’s head and smiles at Mama, but he doesn’t quite look happy.
Anyway, starting school’s not so bad because sometimes Sister Josephine reads them stories and Bucky’s friend Steve is there, too. Steve doesn’t think their family business is so bad, when he sees their Mama rubbing Mrs. Delmonte’s back.
“Guess it’s not so different than what my ma does,” he says.
Becca doesn’t have a lot of friend except for Rachel Berkowitz across the street and Rachel doesn’t go to school with them ‘cause her daddy’s a rabbi and Bucky and Becca’s school is run by nuns, so Becca follows Bucky and Steve around whenever Rachel’s gotta be at school or synagogue and Becca can’t come.
“Aww, Becca,” Bucky’ll whine sometimes, “don’t you wanna stay home this time? Help Mama with the babies?”
And Becca shakes her head vigorously. “No! You’re not helpin’ Mama neither.”
“Either, Becca, you’re not helping Mama, either,” Mama corrects absently, not looking up from her knitting.
“Maaaa,” Bucky says.
“James,” she sing-songs back. “You can either take your sister along or sit down here and help me roll yarn or read aloud to me and your sister. I’ve been thinking we ought to start on the histories. Maybe Henry IV. I’m sure Steve’s polite enough not to mind either way.”
Steve smiles and looks at his feet.
Bucky looks at him, sighs, and says, “Fine, c’mon, Becca, let’s go play baseball.”
As they troop down the stairs, Bucky asks, “Jeez, Stevie, why d’you always gotta be so nice, huh?”
“Well, one of us has to be,” Steve grins. “Sure isn’t gonna be you.”
Bucky rolls his eyes and turns back to Becca saying, “Well, you’ll have to be on my team. Just stick close to me.” He frowns and adds, “And you can’t just hit someone just ‘cause you think he’s being mean.” He throws a disgruntled look at Steve and continues, “You, too.”
Steve blinks at him, all wide-eyed. “But, Buck, what if one of us hits them with the ball? You know, by accident?”
Bucky makes a shrieking sound and windmills his arms as he throws open the front door and stomps outside.
Becca just has to laugh. Steve winks.
They only get through the first two innings before Steve starts wheezing and they call it quits in favor of finding Rachel Berkowitz and her big brother Abe - like the president - to play jacks on street corner in front of their tenement.
Y.T.: . . . and, of course, Sergeant Barnes’ family were invaluable. You know, most of the day to day stuff we have of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes - the childhood photos, the war letters, Captain Rogers’ sketchbooks, that kind of stuff - is thanks to them. When Captain Rogers crashed that plane, James Barnes was still listed as his next of kin, so all of his stuff - the stuff that wasn’t classified and kept by the SSR, anyway - and I suspect there’s still a lot that we’re not privy to - anyway, all that non-classified stuff went to the Barnes siblings. And they gave it to the public. The Brooklyn College Captain America archives are the kind of thing historians dream about.
T.G.: So why now? What made you decide the world needed another Captain America biography?
Y.T.: [laughs] Well, not another Captain America biography. I guess I thought the world needed a Steve Rogers biography.
- Excerpt, Interview with Professor Yolanda Thomas, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 21, 2003.
Steve’s best friend in the whole world is Bucky Barnes. So, it’s not actually in Nazi Germany that Steve, Steven Grant Rogers, only child of Sarah Rogers, the future Captain America, first learns all the skills necessary to steal a car. Some he picked up earlier.
It’s the fall they’re both twelve and have started getting up extra early to sell papers on the street before school (Steve and his ma need the extra money; Bucky and his family could use it - the twins, Pat and Penny, just started school and the extra fees, Bucky’s confessed, aren’t as easy to pay as his Dad pretends they are).
Bucky’s cousin Jack comes skulking into the schoolyard as if hunching his shoulders will make Sister Martha not notice him. (She’d never liked him even before he’d left school last year, at fifteen, to drive the hearse and pick up all the odd jobs that needed to be handled after Victor, the guy they’d used to hire to do all that got into a construction accident in Manhattan and died.)
“Bucky, c’mon, let’s go,” Jack says.
Bucky frowns and sighs and gets up. He always asks the questions everyone’s wondering (and some they’re not) to Father Francis during Scripture study but he never questions his cousins. It bothers Steve.
“What’re you doing? Your dad’ll have your head if you skip school,” Steve says. Bucky’s a lot of things, but despite the bluffing, he doesn’t actually hate school. He loves being the one reading Shakespeare aloud in class.
Jack snorts, derisive. Steve doesn’t like Jack all that much. “It’s his dad who needs him,” he says.
Bucky sighs. “Hearse broke down again,” he says, more a statement than a question.
Steve winces. Greenwood Cemetary’s not too far from Bucky’s place but you can’t have a funeral if you’ve got no way of moving the body.
“Uncle George needs those little hands of yours to mess with the wires so we can get it back to the mechanic’s, at least,” Jack says.
“You’re hot wiring it?” Steve asks skeptically. Bucky’s told him that he’s done it before but Steve’s never believed him until now.
“No, we’re going to magically fly it to the mechanic’s,” Jack mutters. If he weren’t Bucky’s cousin, Steve would definitely have kicked him in the shins years ago.
Bucky just shrugs and says, “Yup, wanna come?”
Steve weighs Sister Martha’s disapproval and his mother’s anger against the adventure. “Yeah, okay,” he says.
Jack looks at him in disbelief. “Yeah and what’s he gonna do?” he asks Bucky. “No offense, but you ain’t exactly gonna be much help pushing a hearse,” he tells Steve.
Steve bristles. (His Ma tells him there’s nothing he resembles quite like a porcupine but Steve’s really, really sure she’s never seen a porcupine in real life, so.)
Bucky’s faster than him, as always, and he punches Jack in the arm (not hard enough to hurt - Jack’s a boxer) and says, “Steve can drive, so Dad can get out and help push this time.”
Steve can’t drive (they are only twelve and it’s Brooklyn, for God’s sake), hasn’t even had much reason in his life to be in a car at all, much less in the driver’s seat, but he just nods, decisive and determined.
Jack just sighs, all exasperated, and says, “Fine, c’mon then, Rogers.”
When they show up, Mr. Barnes sees Steve, shakes his head and says, “Well, I guess if I’ve already made my own son into a delinquent, might as well start on someone else’s.”
“Winnie’s not gonna let you hear the end of this for days anyway,” Bucky’s Uncle Danny laughs. “Pullin’ her precious son out of school.”
“And now roping Sarah Rogers’ boy in, too,” Mr. Barnes sighs.
“I just wanna help,” Steve says.
Mr. Barnes smiles and ruffles his hair. (Steve likes to think that if his dad had made it through the war, he’d have been a dad like Mr. Barnes. Sometimes Steve’s not sure Bucky realizes how lucky he is.)
“Sure thing, kid,” Mr. Barnes says. “Grab that flashlight and hop into the hearse.”
Mr. Barnes calls out instructions to them, reminding them just about every other sentence, “And make you don’t get hurt, you hear?”
When they get the engine going again, Bucky grins like they just won big at the racetracks.
Steve’s ma yells at him for a whole half-hour straight and she and Mrs. Barnes won’t let Bucky and he see each other outside of school for a whole week but it’s kind of worth it anyway.
When she’s thirteen and the twins are eight and Bucky’s fifteen, Dad teaches Bucky to drive in the hearse.
The first time they come back from trying, Bucky’s silent and their dad looks like he needs a drink.
“How did it go?” Ma asks.
Dad looks over at Bucky, who’s as sullen as a winter’s day, and says, “Well, we’ll work on it.”
The hearse isn’t hurt, though, just Bucky’s pride, because Steve laughs at him for days, saying between this and his fear of heights, his tough guy act is just falling to pieces.
That’s also the year Dad starts letting Bucky work on the bodies with him and Uncle Danny, instead of just sitting and watching while he talks through the process, like he still makes Becca do, even though she’s only two years younger than Bucky and she just knows she could do the make-up better.
Becca can admit, though, that Bucky’s got a real talent for prettying up the dead.
“Wow,” Steve says, looking both impressed and kind of troubled, “she really does look like she’s just sleeping. Kinda uncanny, actually.”
Bucky shrugs, like it’s no big deal but ducks his head when Dad squeezes his shoulder.
“D’you think you’re gonna take over for Dad when you’re older?” Becca asks Bucky one day.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” he says. “I think I’d be pretty good at it.”
Becca nods thoughtfully. He would be, probably. He’s too cocky by half and no matter what he says, it’s not just Steve getting them into bruising fights, but she sees his face when he’s with the bodies and it’s serious and concentrating. Father Francis always says they have to go out and do God’s work. Becca doesn’t really know what that means, because she’s no Joan of Arc and far as she knows God hasn’t given her and hers any kind of mission, but maybe this is Bucky’s.
But all she says is, “Well, guess you’d be pretty good long as you don’t crash the hearse.”
Uncle Al dies when Pat and Penny are eleven. (Later, Pat will think of this as the actual beginning of what well-meaning Father Francis called their ‘time of trial.’) Uncle Al isn’t a Barnes, he just married in, but he was Pat and Penny’s godfather, the one who’d given Penny her first name, Ruth, which is saved for special occasions, like a party dress (not that Penny or Becca have party dresses, just funeral dresses).
He dies in the city, in Manhattan, before anyone can reach Aunt Siobhan to tell her he fell (he shouldn’t even have been anywhere he could fall from - he was an architect, not a construction worker).
It’s the first funeral Pat’s seen where it’s his family that’s crying.
It’s also the first time Pat really thinks about death, even though that sounds silly, seeing as he’s grown up around it.
“Do you think he was afraid?” Pat asks Bucky, the day after the funeral. Becca and Bucky are making breakfast, even though Penny’s still asleep, exhausted from crying. Ma’s out in Queens with Aunt Siobhan, making sure she eats. He thinks Dad and Uncle Danny are probably drunk somewhere, because they’re sure not here. “When he was falling?”
Bucky drops two pieces of toast onto Pat’s plate. “I don’t know, pal,” he says, sitting down and looking Pat straight in the eye, the way he does when it’s something really, honestly important. “I don’t know if he had time to be afraid.”
Becca frowns and adds some scrambled eggs to Pat’s plate. “And Uncle Al was a real brave man, Pat.”
(Later, when Pat thinks back to this day, he will remember how, at the time, Bucky and Becca seemed so old and so authoritative to Pat, when really they were still impossibly young, still half children at eighteen and sixteen, acting older to keep the ship afloat.)
“Right,” Bucky says, “he was real brave.”
Steve Rogers’ ma dies a year later.
She’d worked in a TB ward and Pat’s ma always said that about the most courageous thing a person could do, work with the unwell, day after day, harder even than the stuff that comes after, the stuff Pat’s family does.
Pat had liked her. He and Penny got through the measles okay because of her.
Steve stays with them for a while, after that. Ma always tries to get him to eat more and Steve sometimes draws castles for Penny, on days when he actually smiles.
Bucky’s always looking at Steve like he’s afraid Steve will freeze in the cold or melt in the heat.
Pat always wants to find his ma and give her a hug when he see that.
(He regrets that he didn’t actually do it every time.)
He remembers how James Buchanan Barnes’ parents died. Or rather, he remembers being informed of their deaths.
There was a fire. He was twenty.
He finds an old newspaper article about it - “Six Dead in Brooklyn Tenement Fire” - that proves his mind, so jumbled and impossible to trust, is correct about this. The article does not say this, but George and Winifred Barnes did not live in the tenement that burned. They did not live in a tenement at all. They had been visiting someone, someone whose husband they had just buried and who had yet to pay them for their services.
The man remembers that his mother liked Shakespeare. She was intelligent, his mother.
He also remembers, or he thinks he remembers, that he tried to read a sonnet at their funeral but could not finish.
He remembers his parents, in bits and pieces.
He remembers, too, how he has murdered many parents of children, eliminated the targets with prejudice.
He remembers coming back in after an assignment, to give a report, thinking for a split second that the cyro chamber looked like a coffin and that this was familiar, somehow, even though he was not familiar with the concept of familiarity.
He should have died decades ago. He should have been buried.]
“I can take care of them,” Bucky says. “Please, just tell Aunt Siobhan she doesn’t need to take ‘em. They can stay with me.”
Uncle Danny shakes his head. “And how’re you gonna manage that, Jimmy-kid? I know for a fact you ain’t getting paid enough to support three kids. In case you forgot, I’m one who pays you.”
“Then I’ll get extra work,” Bucky says. Suddenly there are tears in his eyes that he’s got no control over and he hates it. “l’ll get a shift down at the docks. It won’t get in the way of everything here. I can do it. Please, you gotta help me out.”
Uncle Danny sighs. “James, Siobhan’s family. This is us helping you out. With the kids out in Queens, you can sell the apartment and you’ll have rent money for a smaller place for yourself and you can keep paying the kids’ school bills. Becca could even take a couple of those college classes she keeps harping on about.”
“Who the hell’s gonna want to live above our damn funeral parlor?”
Uncle Danny looks down.
“Oh,” Bucky says, the answer suddenly clear. “Tommy? Or maybe Jack?” It makes him sick, somehow, to imagine his cousins here, raising new families, when his mother’s presence still lingers.
“Jimmy,” Uncle Danny begins. “You know Tommy needs more room with the new baby coming. Just makes sense.”
“I mean, sure, gotta keep it in the family, right? Gotta look out for each other,” Bucky spits.
“James,” Uncle Danny says, and for a second he sounds like Dad, when Dad was about to say something that he needed Bucky to hear, really hear. It hits Bucky in the chest and around his voicebox and he’s going to start crying again. “James, you just lost your parents and I just lost my big brother, so I’m damn sorry I’m going to sound so harsh right now, but someone’s gotta do it. You can’t take of them by yourself. You ain’t got the money or the time and Siobhan’s got both. She’s the twins’ godmother - this isn’t just family obligation, she made a promise to your parents and to God. Let her keep her end of the bargain.”
And the thing is, he’s right. Bucky knows it. He can’t do it - can’t be their older brother and their father and their mother and Steve’s best friend who keeps them out of (and gets them into) trouble and the nephew everyone knows is going to take over the business when Uncle Danny gets too old to stare death in the face every day. Can’t be all that and still have enough of himself to keep walking and he -
“I can’t breathe,” he hears himself say. “I feel like I can’t even breathe.”
“I know,” Uncle Danny says.
Bucky can’t see him because he’s got his eyes shut too tight.
“You holding up okay, kid?” Bucky asks, settling down next to Penny on the building stoop. She’s hunched in on herself. She hasn’t talked much since the funeral and it’s scaring him. He can’t lose her, his precious little sister with the curls she got from their ma.
“I don’t want to go,” she says defiantly. “I don’t want to go live with Aunt Siobhan.”
“C’mon, Penny, you used to love stayin’ over there. She’s got a whole yard and everything.”
“I’m not five anymore,” she spits. “I don’t care about her yard.”
“Ruth Penelope, that’s enough.”
“You’re not my father. You’re not even taking care of us,” she spits.
Bucky sits up, all proper posture like their mother used to have. He’s twenty and Penny’s only thirteen - the age gap’s big enough that they’ve never really fought over anything in serious, so it hurts more than it should.
“Penny, I am taking care of you,” he says, willing himself to believe it. “You gotta understand, if there was any way I could keep you all with me, I would. But this is the best thing, okay? Aunt Siobhan’s got the room and you know how lonely she’s been since Uncle Al died.”
Penny shrugs. Back to not speaking then, Bucky thinks.
“I love you,” he says. “You know that?”
“I don’t want you to leave,” she says, crumpling into him, grabbing his shirt sleeve and holding on tight.
Bucky swallows and smooths down her hair. “Kid, I’m not going anywhere, okay?” he says, resting his chin on top of her head. “I’m always gonna be around if you need me and you know I keep my promises.”
[Bucky Barnes should have known better than to make promises involving words like ‘always’, the man who was the Winter Soldier thinks. A man already so well-acquainted with death should have known better.]
Essie likes Steve Rogers. He lives down the street from the Berkowitzes, with Bucky Barnes, now that his ma and Mr. and Mrs. Barnes are gone and Pat and Penny and Becca live all the way out in Queens. Steve Rogers is a good neighbor. He helps Mama carry the groceries up the stairs sometimes, even though he’s only a little guy himself.
Bucky and Becca Barnes always say that Steve’s going to be a proper artist and everyone better snatch up his stuff now, because it’s going to be awfully valuable some day. Mama always sort of shakes her head at this, but she never says anything when Papa buys a painting off Steve to pretty up their walls.
“Do you think Steve’s lonely?” Essie asks her Papa one day.
“Why do you ask that, little one?”
Essie is the youngest of four brothers and sisters - there’s Abe, Rachel, David and last of all her - and she can’t imagine having no family like Steve.
“Cause his ma’s gone,” Essie says.
Papa nods thoughtfully, like he does when someone from the synagogue comes to him for help. “I’m sure that’s very difficult for him. To lose someone you love is always hard, Esther,” he says. “But I would not say he is alone. He has some very good friends, no?”
Essie thinks about it. Sometimes Steve walks around with patchy bruises on his arm or a black eye, or he coughs a lot, and on those days, she always sees Bucky or Becca, if she’s staying the night in apartment, running down to get the ingredients for chicken soup.
“Guess so,” she says.
She’s around about eleven the night Bucky comes and pounds on their door. (She tells Pat this story, years later, after the war - he says it must have been the winter Bucky turned twenty-one, that it had been a particularly bad winter for Steve.)
“Rabbi? Rabbi Berkowitz?” Bucky calls. “Please, please open up.”
It wakes Essie up, so she slips out of the bed she shares with Rachel to see what’s happening.
Mama comes out, wrapped in a robe, and opens the door, asking, “James Barnes, what are you yelling for at this hour?”
“Mrs. Berkowitz, god, please, I’m sorry for waking you but it’s Steve. Is Rabbi -”
“I am right here, James,” Papa has, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “And what is it you need?”
“It’s Steve,” Bucky says, stumbling over his words. Essie has never seen him like this. He is always smiling and handsome. “He’s really bad. I got the doctor, but he said we just had to wait and see, that - that there wasn’t anything else to do and the fever’s really bad. He thought he was talking to his ma for a second and I didn’t know what to do. I went ‘round to find Father Francis but he’s out and,” Bucky starts breathing heavy, almost panting, reaching a hand out to lean on the doorframe. “I’m - I think this might be it. Please come.”
Papa nods, face serious. “Of course. Let me get my coat. And Esther,” he says, turning towards her, “perhaps you can get some of Mama’s salve and your own jacket as well?”
Essie nods rapidly. She understands that this is not just Papa indulging her. She can do things he cannot, since she is only a girl.
She puts on her coat, clutches Mama’s salve in one hand and slips her other hand into Bucky’s. He squeezes back and does not let go.
She and Papa and Bucky sit there by Steve’s bed all through the night. Essie falls asleep a few times, though she doesn’t mean to do it.
In her half-sleep, she can hear the talking.
Her father, soft and melodic, praying.
“Steven Grant Rogers, don’t you dare die. I buried a lot of people but I’m not burying you.”
“You know, my ma always used to say it was like we couldn’t ever do anything important unless both of us were there? And we got so much left to do, Stevie. We ain’t even ever gone as far as Philadelphia. So you’re gonna make it through tonight. And tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and you’re gonna get better. You have to.”
The fever breaks around dawn, with the pale, early morning light filtering in through the windows.
It’s not the first time Essie has seen a grown man cry (she is her father’s child and this is not the first time and it will not be the last time she holds someone’s hand while waiting on God’s verdict) but it is her most vivid memory of James Buchanan Barnes.
(The years will pass and the war will come. And it will make heroes of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes and the nation will take their names and make them into legends. But Essie will always think of them as the man who almost died that winter, when Essie was about eleven, and the man who sat at his bedside, talking death away.)
Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation, delivered December 8, 1941, Washington D.C.
Pat is at school when the attack happens, thousands of miles away. When the news gets to them, late in the afternoon, it doesn’t seem real.
Bucky shows up in Queens that night, still in the suit he wears for work, the one he wears to clasp the hands of the grieving. Steve comes, too, apologizing profusely to Aunt Siobhan for showing up out of nowhere like this and having to be put up for the night.
They all listen to the President’s address on the radio the next day, seated around the dining room table.
“That’s it, then. We’re joining the war for sure now,” Steve says. He gets this look on his face, like he’s in one of those Renaissance paintings he’s always talking up - something classically heroic. Steve shakes his head. “All those people. It’s awful.”
Bucky’s clenching his left hand into a fist on the dining room table and Aunt Siobhan is crying. (Uncle Al and Dad and Uncle Danny had all been in the Great War, but they’d all made it home, home where death found two out of the three of them anyway.)
Becca’s holding her hand over her mouth. (She’s been dating a boy at college, Ben, who comes around for dinner almost every week and is always talking about socialism and saying it’s a damn shame that the U.S. isn’t doing more against the fascists. Becca looks at him like she adores him and is afraid of what the world will do to him.)
Penny holds Pat’s hand under the table, even though they’re too old for that now. She’s gripping awfully tight but he doesn’t let go.
Pat tries to picture it. He doesn’t know much about Hawaii. He doesn’t know much about mass death. He tries to take his familiarity with individual corpses and multiply, multiply, multiply, but his mind can’t comprehend it.
He catches Bucky alone, before he and Steve leave.
“Are you going to enlist?” Pat asks. He has to ask and he has to ask when Steve’s not around because otherwise Bucky might lie. Bucky lies kind of a lot for someone who’s always telling Pat he’s gotta be honest and smart and follow the rules.
“What’re you talking about, kid?” Bucky asks, too quizzical to be true.
“If Steve’s right and it’s like the president said, that we’re going to war, are you going to enlist?” Pat repeats. (He’s the least close to Bucky - sometimes it seems like Bucky already found his brother in Steve, when Pat was too young to compete - but they’re family and that means something.)
Bucky looks at the ground, hints of a frown between his eyebrows.
Then he looks up, looks Pat dead-on in the face and says, “I don’t know, pal. I hadn’t thought that far yet.”
“I bet Ben will,” Pat says. “Enlist, I mean.”
“Ben? Ben Proctor, Becca’s guy?” Bucky asks.
Pat nods stiffly. He doesn’t even know what answer he wants to hear but he needs to hear something.
“Well, I’m not Ben,” Bucky says. “I’m not just going to leave, okay?”
Pat nods again. Swallows against the tightness of his throat. “Bet you Steve’s gonna try enlisting, too,” he says, for lack of anything better.
Bucky sighs, deeply. “You know, I’m sure he will, kid,” he says, looping his arm around Pat’s shoulders (Pat’s as tall as him now, even though Bucky pretends it isn’t true). “At least we know they won’t take him, huh?”
That Christmas of 1941, their cousins Tommy and Jack announce at family dinner that they’re both planning to enlist come the new year.
Tommy’s wife looks away, dabbing away mashed potatoes from the mouth of little Grace, their second child.
Uncle Danny puts down his fork and Aunt Ida knocks over her glass of water. Aunt Siobhan’s the one who moves to clean it up.
“What?” Bucky asks.
“That’s very brave,” Steve says.
“Both of you?” Pat asks.
If Penny were a man, she’d sign up, she thinks. But she’s not and she’s not Bucky, the eldest child of four, and she’s not her twin, Pat, Patrick who used to want to save all the stray cats on their street even though Becca told him he’d just get bit for his efforts.
“Both of us,” Jack says. Uncle Danny stands up, drops his napkin on the table.
Things don’t go so well at dinner after that.
“Some birthday,” Bucky says, wryly, coat wrapped around himself against the cold. Penny has just found him on the stairs.
Penny drops her head onto his shoulders. She has nothing to say, really.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“You got nothing to apologize for,” Bucky says.
“You two oughta come back inside,” Steve says from the doorway. “Too cold out there.”
The first time Steve tries to enlist is three weeks later.
Ben proposes to Becca in the spring, two weeks before they’re both supposed to graduate Queens College, and she says yes.
“So when’re you going to get married, then?” Bucky asks, after an overly firm handshake.
Ben swallows, smiles in that pained way that isn’t a smile at all and says, “When I get back from the war.”
Becca looks terrified and proud.
Bucky nods slowly. “I see,” he says.
“I’m leaving for training the week after graduation,” Ben explains.
“And you don’t want to get married before?” Penny asks. There’s a lot of that happening. Penny’s been to a bunch of weddings and she’s only seventeen.
Becca shakes her head, carefully. She’s thought about this. “It wouldn’t be fair to Ben’s family and to all of you. We never rushed anything, the two of us, so we won’t rush this,” she says.
Bucky’s frowning like a thunder storm.
“The war’s not gonna be any easier on either of you just ‘cause you’re not married,” he says.
“We know that, Bucky,” Becca shoots back. “I want to do this properly. It’s my life. I won’t tell my children we got married because there was a war and we were frightened. I want them to know it was a choice I would have made any time, anywhere.”
Bucky swallows and nods.
“I’m not -” Ben starts, stumbles and begins again. “I know I could die, Bucky, I’m not stupid. But I’m planning to do everything I can to get home.”
Ben looks all determined and noble and - and scared. Penny’s never felt more affection for him than he does now. If Becca has to marry anyone, Penny’s glad it’s him.
1942 is a bad year, Becca decides, and there are still four months of it left.
The waiting is worst.
The waiting and watching. For letters from Ben, for news from the front.
Bucky looks at the new soldiers in their uniforms and there’s an unreadable expression on his face.
Steve’s already tried to enlist a second time.
Frank Harris, who went to school with Bucky and Steve and now works out in Manhattan, gets drafted.
There’s only so long her brother can, will hold out, Becca knows. It’s pride partly - the inability to counter the questioning, the dirty looks - and it’s partly that, deep down, Bucky knows (and so do Becca and Penny and Pat and Steve) that he’d be a better soldier than half the boys headed over. Bucky’s not the kind to pick fights with bullies like Steve but imbalance mortally offends him. There’s always been something of a fighter in him and he knows what death looks like. Those are better preparation than most of the boys have.
He tells them morning after Thanksgiving. To avoid ruining a holiday meal like Tommy and Jack did, Becca thinks. As a gesture, it’s not very effective.
“I’m going,” Bucky says.
As if it’s news. As if everyone hadn’t already guessed.
The problem with Becca having a key to the apartment is that sometimes Bucky walks in and there are people there. People who are not him or Steve, the ones who actually live there.
“Rachel Berkowitz,” Bucky says, giving her his best smile. “Don’t you look just lovely tonight.”
Rachel looks over at him from his own table like she’s seen it all before. “Becca’s taking out your trash.”
“And you are?” Bucky prompts.
“Waiting for her to get back,” Rachel grins, tipping her little heart-shaped face to the side. “Heard you’re reporting in next week.”
“That I am,” he agrees. “Are you gonna write me?”
Rachel laughs. Bucky thinks idly, that he’s always liked her. She’s brash like a horn solo but she always kisses her grandmother good bye. She and Becca will be able to support each just fine, even with him and Abe and Ben Proctor gone.
“I’m sure you got yourself half a dozen girls promising to write you already, Bucky Barnes. What d’you need me for?”
“Only half a dozen?” Bucky asks. “And here I thought you held my talents in high esteem.”
Rachel shakes her head. “And you talk to my father with that smirk?”
“Aww, Rach, you know I don’t joke about your father,” Bucky says, feeling his humor fading. He sits down at the table, wondering whether old Mrs. O’Hanlon has accosted Becca on the stairs, whether Steve’s just late back from class because of art or if he’s gotten himself beat up in a back alley again.
Rachel pats his hand, gently (the daughter of a holy man knows how to comfort the skittish even better than the son of an undertaker). “That was unfair, James. I know how much you respect my father.”
“If you’re serious about me writing, I’d be happy to do it,” she says.
“Well, don’t make it sounds like such a chore,” Bucky says.
Rachel smirks a little.
“You’re Becca’s best friend,” Bucky says. He’s leaving in a week and after this, his life belongs to the army. “I’d like it if you wrote.”
Rachel nods, serious like her ma now. “Then I’ll write,” she says.
“You’ll look after each other, you and Becca,” Bucky says, looking at the table. It’s half way between a demand and a request.
“We will,” Rachel responds. “I bet my mother’ll even check up on your boy Steve. Make sure he’s eating enough.”
Bucky nods, feeling more shaky than he wants to let on. “And hey, if he gets back before me, you remind Ben Proctor that I plan on making him regret it if he doesn’t make good on his promise to marry Becca, okay?”
“You’re acting like we’re never going to see you again,” Rachel says lightly. “There’s this thing called leave.”
“Rachel,” Bucky says.
“Sure, fine,” Rachel says, “if Ben Proctor gets back before you do, I’ll pass on your brotherly threatening. But, listen, if he ever dropped her, I’d smack him myself. Only you know I’d have to wait for Becca to be done first.”
Bucky smiles at that, almost involuntarily.
He gets shipped south for training. Out the train window, he sees honest to God farms, larger than any vegetable garden or yard with an annoying ass goat that he’s ever seen.
He’s no more than a hundred miles away from New York, but it’s already the furthest away from home he’s ever been.
He is really good with a gun. This is even more of a surprise to him than it is to everyone else.
“What’s the look for, Barnes?” asks Abbott. “Surprised you actually hit the target?”
“Better than you’re doing,” jeers Davis.
“And you said you’ve never handled guns before this,” the drill sergeant says, raising an eyebrow.
“Uh. Yeah, I haven’t until now,” Bucky says. “Sir.”
“Interesting,” the drill sergeant says and walks on.
When they give him a sniper rifle for the first time, it feels right in his hands.
He did not grow up around this, like he did with corpses, but he is as good as handling guns as he is at making the dead beautiful again.
They bump him up to Corporal and then to Sergeant.
He spends his last evening with Steve because if this ends up being the last evening he spends in New York, he wants it to be with his best friend in the whole damn world, imagining what the future’s going to be like. And then he goes dancing with two pretty girls because he’s not passing up hearing jazz one last time.
His last night and his last morning, though, are for Becca and Pat and Penny.
They drag some cushions into the girls’ room at Aunt Siobhan’s place and he and Pat sleep on the floor. It’s the first time since they were only children that they have all slept in the same room. Bucky wonders if Pat and Penny even remember.
They wake early, early in the morning. Aunt Siobhan puts a big breakfast on the table - toast with butter, eggs over easy, the way Bucky prefers them, even sausage, though Bucky can’t imagine how they got that.
The 107th cast off from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the waving crowd growing smaller in the distance.
Even with New York still in his sight line, Bucky aches for home.
With everything that’s going on, it takes a week for them to even realize Steve’s not just sad and avoiding them - he’s actually disappeared.
“I’m sorry, what do you mean he left?” Becca asks.
Bucky’s old landlady shrugs. “I mean he left. He was paid up through the end of the month but he said to go ahead and rent it out because he was going away for a while. Figured with your brother shipped out he was looking for some place new.” The landlady frowns at them speculatively. “Guessin’ that’s not quite the case.”
“Jesus,” Becca says.
Penny thinks her sister has something of a talent for understatement. “Well,” Penny says. “It’s only that he didn’t say anything to us.”
The landlady shrugs. “It’s wartime. Men are doin’ a lot of strange things.”
“No kidding,” Penny agrees.
A week later, the electricity goes out for a whole block in Brooklyn and a man armed with only a taxi door catches a German spy down by the piers.
And Penny’s family gets their first visit from the SSR.
“I’m sure you can all appreciate the need for discretion here,” the unsmiling military man says.
“Can we see him?” Penny asks.
“You can write,” the man allows.
“Can we tell our brother?” Becca asks. “He’s Steve’s best friend.”
The man grimaces. “We would prefer if you wouldn’t,” he says, just barely masking his command as a request.
After everything, Penny needs purpose.
So, a month after Bucky ships out and Steve Rogers disappears, only to magically reappear, literally a new man, Penny gets herself a job at a munitions factory up north of the city.
“Becca’s not gonna like this,” Pat says, when she comes back, her paperwork ready. “She’ll say you oughta get some secretarial work or something, if you wanna be part of the war effort so bad.”
“Don’t care,” Penny says defiantly. “It’s my life, not hers, and I’m not going to work in an office like a nice little girl.”
Pat looks over at her and says mildly, “I don’t think anyone but Dad ever called Becca a nice little girl.”
Penny has to admit this is an argument that Pat’s winning. It’s not the impropriety that scares Becca, it’s the danger and the distance. Bucky and Ben are overseas and Steve Rogers has traded in art school for USO girls and everything Pat and Penny’s big brother and sister ever did to shield them from the world has come to very little indeed.
“So, she’ll be a little bit proud, despite herself,” Penny says.
“Maybe,” Pat says. “But she’s definitely going to yell at you first.”
They don’t talk about how they’re old enough now that Pat could join up and he might just do it. How they’re old enough that his draft number might come up before he can make the decision himself.
. . . Have you heard of this Captain America guy over there? He’s this massive all-singing, all-dancing dream soldier type. He sells bonds. I’m only mentioning him because from the photos, he looks just like your friend Steve, if Steve were six feet tall and built like a tank. When I first mentioned it to Becca, after he first got in the newspapers about two months back, she agreed with me. Now she’s saying the whole thing was silly and of course it’s not Steve. Funny thing is? We haven’t seen Steve around for just about two months! The mysteries continue, huh? But never fear, Detective Rachel Berkowitz is on the case!
Well, I bet you’d know better than me. I’m sure you hear from Becca and Steve all the time. I know she writes you regularly. And if you’re not getting them, blame the mail! Abe’s letters always get here late and in bulk, so I can only imagine it takes even longer on your end . . . .
- Excerpt, letter dated April 17th, 1943, from Rachel Berkowitz to Sergeant James Barnes, 107th Infantry. Confiscated by the Strategic Scientific Reserve censors and retained until rediscovered and returned to sender by SHIELD archivist, Agent Diana Lorraine, in August 1947. Now in the New York Historical Society’s archives.
He’s good at it, being a soldier, even on the battlefield. Some of them don’t transition so well, but Bucky does okay.
They send him out as a scout sometimes, because they trained him to be quiet and still when they gave him that sniper rifle and because while he’s no medic, he can estimate pretty well how long someone’s been dead, which turns out to have more use than just as a morbid parlor trick.
“Creepy,” comments the Captain, “but sometimes helpful.”
(The heat here, in North African spring, means pretty much anyone can tell if a dead body’s close by but Bucky doesn’t say that.)
Lieutenant Irving, Bucky’s commanding officer, looks sort of proud but also sort of offended on Bucky’s behalf. He’s a good guy, Irving.
He likes strays and the Captain’s just game enough to look the other way, when they pick them up, guys separated from their units.
Irving puts Gabe Jones, who went AWOL from the hospital but couldn’t catch up with his own unit, on Bucky’s squad and nods when Bucky says, “Alright, we need a new radio guy, anyway.”
Every time they see action, Bucky feels the metal of his dogtags against his chest and thinks, just this time, please, just this time let me get through this and let Irving and Jones and Dugan and Larsen get through this.
It’s not quite praying, but it’s not quite not.
He isn’t afraid, at first, when HYDRA comes, because he doesn’t know enough to be afraid. (Command never tells them enough; infantry’s literally foot soldiers and foot soldiers march and follow orders and sometimes they die and sometimes they don’t and that is war.)
Someone’s taking out some of the enemy and some of 107th at the same time with flashes of blue lights and Bucky’s more curious than anything else. (The enemy of your enemy is your friend and besides Bucky’s spent his entire life staring at the great unknown.)
He stands up.
(Hide, he screams to himself later, on an operating table, in bombed out London, sleeping in the cold fields of France and Austria. Run away and hide.)
He stands up.
And finds himself staring at a tank.
They surrender, after that.
There’s not a whole lot a bunch of underprepared, underarmed men can do against weapons that make people flat out disappear, like the hand of God come to Earth again.
(Some of them escaped, hisses Lieutenant Irving, eyes all dark and serious, trying to sell the lie that this somehow makes their capture worth it. He tries, Bucky thinks, not without compassion, awfully hard. He’d be a good salesman if his product were better.)
“D’you think they died?” mutters Gagliardi. “The guys who got shot. Or do you think they just -” He trails off.
Quinn shakes his head and crosses himself. Bucky half-heartedly does the same because New York Catholic boys fighting Italian Catholic boys ought to stick together or something and Quinn and Gags’ Sergeant died yesterday, collapsed from a wound, so they’re Bucky’s to deal with now.
(HYDRA left the bodies of those that died where they were, prostrate on the ground, and Bucky doesn’t know whether he can believe in a God who would sit by and let this war happen, but he sure believes there’s a special circle in Hell for men who won’t let the dead get their last rites. He believed it in the face of pauper’s graves in New York and he believes it now.)
“Reckon you can’t live without a body,” Dum Dum says. “Sure they found their way to the next life well as anyone.”
“Listen closely, kids,” Bucky says. “Dum Dum’s talkin’ sense for the first time ever.”
Jones nods at him, Quinn squints into the distance (fog, more ground, the Alps - they’re headed north into the heart of the enemy), and Gags shivers.
The Lieutenant slaps Gags on the shoulder and keeps walking forward.
They’re supposed to take the officers first. There are supposed to be rules.
And it works, at first, because they take the Captain first. He doesn’t come back.
But the new prisoners keep coming. From all over - there’s British, there’s Polish, there’s even French Maquis.
At first, they try to keep track of how long it’s been. It’s too difficult though, too disorienting, with the lack of light, the lack of any easy markers.
There are only the hours they are forced to labor and the hours they are shut in cages.
“They’re coming for us, right? I mean, the Army’s gotta be coming for us,” Gagliardi whispers.
“Course they are,” Bucky says.
“Certainly,” says the posh British officer whose name Bucky hasn’t bothered to learn.
They both know they’re lying. If the Allies were coming, they would have already been here.
Quinn’s got a fever and is breathing heavily through his mouth, sweating from where he’s leant up against Gabe Jones.
Lieutenant Irving pushes back Quinn’s hair to feel his forehead and Dum Dum pats him too roughly on the shoulder, saying, “You’re alright, kid. You’re just fine.”
Quinn’s fever breaks some hours later. Just as the haze of relief is dissipating, the guards come for the Lieutenant.
“Well, gentlemen,” Lieutenant Irving says, as the guards take his arms, “it’s been an honor.” It’d be like a movie except for how he’s trembling.
When the guards come back again, Bucky’s just angry enough, just despairing enough (Irving had a wife, a daughter he’ll never meet now), to hiss, “Take me.” He repeats it, in German. “You take me next, you bastards.”
There’s a doctor, but he’s not interested in healing.
They do things to him, things he cannot name.
Name. Rank. Serial number.
Name. Rank. Serial number.
He realizes, now, that he never really understood pain before.
Name. Rank. Serial number.
Even death, which he has seen in so many different forms, is not this cruel.
Name . . . Rank . . . Serial number.
He thinks he’s hallucinating, when Steve shows up, suddenly huge.
He doesn’t quite believe any of it’s real - the man who can take his face off, Steve’s new body, the whole daring escape - until hours later, trudging through the forest.
“Oh my god,” Quinn whispers that first night. “Oh my god. Oh my fucking god.”
“Shut up, Quinn,” Bucky says. “And you better eat something, Gags. That’s a fucking order. Can’t afford to have you collapsing now.”
Gagliardi nods and looks at the ground.
In the medical tent, Bucky flinches every time he sees a needle. The doctors frown.
“I need to run some tests,” one says, low and quiet. He’s slight and blond and sounds like just like New York. He seems out of place in a military camp, not that Steve’s one to talk (well not any more maybe - it’s odd, he forgets sometimes, that this new body is his).
Bucky nods. Steve watches him.
“Do you remember me?” asks the doctor.
Bucky rolls his eyes. “Memory loss is ‘bout the only thing you don’t need to test me for, Doc. Your name’s Zach Stein. You’ve been with the 107th for months and you’re from the Lower East Side. You cheat at poker and your sister’s the one who sends the rugelach.”
Steve knows it shouldn’t, but it trips him up, the ease with which Bucky reels off this personal information about someone who’s a stranger to Steve. Not so long ago, it was rarer than diamonds that one of them knew someone the other didn’t.
Stein grins. “Well, she tries anyway. They’re usually decimated by the time they get here. You remember that, too?”
“Course I do,” Bucky scoffs. “It’s a fucking tragedy every single time.”
“You got no idea. I have nightmares where I open package after package of crumbs and mold,” Stein grins. “Okay, we’re gonna start with an eye exam, nice and easy.”
Bucky nods again. “Whatever they did to me, I’m sure it didn’t make my eyesight worse,” he says.
Stein glances at Steve, looks back to Bucky and says, “Would you like some privacy for this, Sergeant?”
Steve sets his jaw. “I’m not leaving him,” he grits out. Being apart has clearly not worked out well for them, considering how Bucky got captured by crazy Nazi scientists and experimented on.
Bucky doesn’t smile, but he gives kind of a faint impression of maybe wanting to.
“It’s fine, Doc. Steve can stay.”
Stein nods, look at his clipboard and then back at Bucky. He asks, “You said whatever happened didn’t make your eyesight worse. Do you think it’s possible it made your eyesight better?”
Bucky starts, looks over at Steve with that expression like he’s not sure any of this is real, looks away again, at the doctor.
“I don’t know,” he says, eyebrows furrowing, taking in the possibility. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
As far as the doctors can tell, there’s nothing quantifiably different about him, apart from possibly improved long-distance eyesight and a lack of appetite. Whatever HYDRA did, they didn’t produce another super soldier.
“We’ll keep an eye on both,” Doc Stein says, “but my money’s on the latter sorting itself out within a few days. Sergeant Barnes has been through an ordeal. His body is trying to process that.”
There’s one other thing that’s different - his German has improved distinctly. He knew some, basic stuff and curses, things the Army handbooks taught or that could be picked up from other guys. Jones had helped with what he knew. But Bucky basically couldn’t read it before, he’s almost sure. He can now. He steals a stack of the the leaflets the translators keep in their bags, for when they pass through villages - stuff printed in Italian and German. He knows what they say now, and not just through extrapolation.
But language acquisition isn’t something the doctors thought to test for. Or, Bucky thinks, considering the concerned looks Doc Stein had shot him when he thought Bucky wasn’t looking, it’s something they perhaps deliberately didn’t investigate.
When they get back to London, Steve gets pulled into all sorts of meetings.
Bucky does, too, but not meetings of the same kind.
“And what is it you did before the war?” Colonel Phillips asks. Suspiciously, because Colonel Phillips is making no effort to hide how suspicious he is about the stability of Bucky’s mental state.
“Worked for the family business, sir,” Bucky says, hands behind his back, at parade rest, all the trappings of respect for a man he’s finding hard to care for.
“And the family business is?”
“Running a funeral parlor, sir.”
“Jesus,” Phillips says and shakes his head.
Bucky offers him the tiniest hint of a smirk, because that’s all he can manage.
“And you’re a sniper,” Phillips states. He seems to do that. State things. Bucky’s not sure whether he’s expecting a response or not. This is why Bucky doesn’t care for high ranking officers.
“I am,” he says.
Phillips nods. “I’ve heard you’re good.”
“I am,” Bucky repeats. It’s the truth.
“How did you survive Zola’s experiments?” Phillips asks.
“Already answered that, sir,” Bucky says. “It’s my reports. Which I see are right here on your desk.”
Phillips just looks at him.
Bucky thinks that if this is the best interrogator Steve’s SSR has, it’s not going very far. But he’s a soldier in an army and Steve is so goddamn earnest, even now that he’s got muscles like he’s a Michelangelo painting.
So Bucky says, “It was just a matter of timing. I probably would have died if it weren’t for Steve - sorry, Captain Rogers, showing up when he did.”
“Well, everyone Zola took before you definitely died.”
Bucky grits his teeth. “I’m aware, sir. Lieutenant Irving was the commanding officer of my platoon.”
“Do you want to go home, son?” Phillips asks. “Because we can do that.”
Bucky doesn’t feel like he’s in his own body. More like his eyes are a scope and he’s looking through them - his body is a vessel, his soul is somewhere floating above it, maybe, using his head to peer through at the world.
“Of course I want to go home, sir,” Bucky says. “But I have a brother, sir. He’s seven years younger than me, so he’s nineteen right now. In the Marines. Not the youngest we’ve got but you know, when it’s your brother, that stops mattering so much. Turns out they’re sending him to the Pacific. He couldn’t say where, obviously, but the Pacific. They made him a medic, but Colonel, I think you and I both know that doesn’t mean he’s any safer than the rest of us.”
“You aren’t proud of him?” Phillips asks.
“Never said that, sir. I’m always proud of him,” Bucky returns. “Doesn’t mean I’m not still going to do my damnedest to make sure this war is as short as possible, so we can both go home.”
Phillips nods, slowly, considering. “I see,” he says. “So, you want on Captain Rogers’ team, then, I suppose?”
This, Bucky knows, is the moment. He could leave, turn his back on a war that could at any moment turn its back on him. He could go home.
But it’s Steve and Bucky’s never left him alone if he didn’t have to, not since they were seven years old.
“I would, sir.”
P.B.: Honestly, it was kind of weird - I think for all us - when the Howling Commandos started getting famous. I was in the Pacific then. It was good for morale, hearing about them taking HYDRA bases and all that, even if they were on the other side of the world. But no one believed me at first, when I kept saying ‘that’s my brother!’ Or they’d ask if I was a sharp shooter like Bucky. Which I was not. Never fired a shot. Not that I was ever supposed to, as a medic.
R.P.: It was strange for us, too, at home. The priest at the church we used to go to in Brooklyn, when we were kids, he started praying for them. Specifically the Howling Commandos as a unit, not just as a general ‘protect our boys’ prayer. Which I thought was rather funny, even at the time. Bucky used to antagonize him, when we were at school. Always asking too many questions.
R.B.: Yeah, I forgot about that.
P.B.: Father Francis was a good guy. None of us were ever particularly good Catholics but he tried. Always felt like he had a soft spot for Steve, though. Except for when he was starting fights.
R.P.: Which was a lot, actually. The propaganda never said that.
R.B.: Seeing them in the newsreels was surreal. Steve in that whole get up and Bucky off to the side. Always got the feeling Bucky didn’t really like being filmed.
R.P.: He was always sort of in the corner of the shot, if he was there at all.
P.B.: I don’t know. I think the teddy bears were the weirdest. Do you remember the teddy bears? Someone came out and took a picture of me with one those bears with Bucky’s uniform. But I don’t know, it was good, in a way. The mail was so unreliable but the Howling Commandos got so well known it didn’t matter if our letters kept missing each other - I still knew what was happening with him. More or less.
R.B.: I think for me, that was the hardest part - the thought that I might learn about Bucky dying in a newspaper before the Army even had time to get someone over to tell us. I had this idea in my head that I would get told by someone on the factory floor, because someone had read it.
R.P.: Though that’s not what ended up happening.
- Transcript, September 17, 1961 session with Patrick Barnes, Rebecca Barnes Proctor, and Ruth Barnes. Recorded by Professor Allen Brown, The New School for Social Research.
Three and a half weeks into 1945, a letter comes from the War Department, informing Penny and Becca that Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes was killed in action and that they had not been able to recover the body.
Eleven days later, Steve Rogers crashes a plane into the ocean.
Their parents named the boys for saints and the girls for women of the Old Testament, women who knew endurance.
Penny thinks about this a lot, after.
Their parents named their girls for women who faced trial and came out the other side. Their boys had names that recalled the old country, now torn up and bleeding.
Every time the phone rings in the apartment she shares with the other girls, she is sure this time Becca will be telling her Pat is dead, too.
Penny is twenty-one and still goes by Penny the day the war ends.
V.J. Day. She’s in Time Square with the men throwing their hats in the air and the women whooping and she’s crying and she doesn’t know whether they’re happy tears or not.
Pat’s still in the Pacific but it’s done, it’s finally over. Her twin is coming home.
(Her big brother never will.)
Aunt Siobhan’s house is bigger than the old apartment in Brooklyn and the only dead bodies in it are the ghosts of his brother and the men Patrick couldn't save, men who died bloody and far from home because nothing Patrick could do, nothing he had, was quite enough.
It ought to be enough room, but it’s not.
Aunt Siobhan needs looking after now, and it’s full circle, all in the family, she took care of them and now they’re taking care of her.
The first month Pat’s home, he can’t get the sounds of the Pacific out of his head and he goes outside and lies down in the dying grass, with his arm over his eyes to block the sun.
Uncle Danny comes to see Pat, four and a half weeks after he gets back to New York.
“We could use you at the old business, kid,” Uncle Danny says. He leaves it at that, doesn’t say that with Tommy and Bucky gone and Jack missing fingers, it’s hard to see how Granddad’s legacy is going to stay afloat. Becca’s doing her best but she can’t do everyone’s job.
“I’ll think about it,” Pat says.
He brings it up at dinner - it’s him and Penny and Becca and Ben. Aunt Siobhan’s in bed, her breathe rattling.
“Uncle Danny wants me to join the business,” he says, pushing potatoes around on his plate.
Becca folds her hands together (she knew the offer was coming, then - of course she did). Penny frowns. Ben, though, looks contemplative. He’s transitioned back into the civilian world, the non-war torn world, way better than Pat has, though he says it’s just because he’s had longer to do it.
“You don’t have to say yes,” Becca says, steel in her voice.
Pat shrugs. “Not like I’m doing much right now.”
“You should go to school,” Penny says decisively. She’s been making decisions for the both of them since the day they were born until the day Marines took him. “Go to college. Government’s paying for that.”
“And study what?”
“Science,” Becca says. “You used to like science.”
Pat pokes some peas with his fork.
“You still have time to think about it,” Ben says. “About all of it. If you want to go to school, if you want to work for your uncle. And those aren’t your only options.”
“What d’you think Bucky would’ve done, if he’d come home?” Pat asks.
They’re all silent for too long. Pat know he shouldn’t have asked, but Bucky is always just a little bit there, between them all, anyway.
“In his letters, he used to tell me that after the war, he was gonna buy us the nicest house, something designed by some fancy architect, and Steve would do up some proper paintings for the walls. And that one day, when it was rebuilt, he’d take me back to Europe and we’d eat croissants in Paris and watch Twelfth Night in London,” Penny says. She smiles, eyes on the middle distance. “I think sometimes he forgot I wasn’t a kid anymore.”
Pat doesn’t remember Bucky ever having much interest in architecture, though sometimes in the spring, he’d come get Pat and they’d go to Manhattan, just the two of them, to look at the skyscrapers going up. When Penny’d ask what they’d done all day, Bucky’d say something like, “Oh, got into a sword fight in Chelsea, y’know. Brotherly bonding.”
“I didn’t get that many letters from him - I think it was the mail, it was so irregular,” Pat recalls, “but the last one I got, it came after I already knew he was gone. He said when the war was over, we oughta all pack up and move somewhere warm. Open a diner out West.”
Pat and Penny look at Becca, Becca who looks so much like Bucky that she could have been his twin as easily Pat is Penny’s.
But Becca just shakes her head and says, “All he ever told me was about all the food he was going to eat when he came back. Talked about cherry pie from Ma’s recipe a lot.”
Penny laughs, a little watery. Ben gives one of those grimace-smiles, like he can just imagine it, lying in the dark fields of Europe, dreaming of hot food.
“Kinda funny, cause he was better at making it than you are,” Pat says.
Becca pinches his bicep, hard. Pat winces theatrically and Penny’s snort of laughter makes it worth it.
“Shut up, kid,” Becca says.
The thing is, Pat knows what Bucky would’ve done, no matter what his letters said, because Bucky had found what he was good at when they were kids.
Bucky was good at making death look beautiful and he was good at watching Steve Rogers’ back. Coming home would have changed neither of those things.
But Pat’s not Bucky.
Penny sticks with her name until the day Pat finally starts college - City College, nothing real fancy but the GI Bill’s paying.
He comes back from his first day dazed. But not dazed like he’s going to go lie down in the yard and not hear anyone yelling.
He looks around absently for a minute and says, “Well, you won’t believe who’s in my chemistry class.”
“Who?” Penny asks, because that’s her job.
“Essie Berkowitz,” Pat says, looking almost amused.
“Rachel’s baby sister?” asks Becca, with a grin. “Imagine that! She did used to want to be a doctor, I think. Good for her.”
“She was just a kid when I left, wasn’t she?” Pat reflects. “Guess she’s not anymore.”
And even though she can’t predict what’ll happen, Penny knows her twin doesn’t need her to be his other side anymore, that he’ll be able to be one whole person soon, so she won’t have to be one and a half.
She starts calling herself Ruth the next week, when she gets herself a new job in Manhattan, copy editing for a lady’s magazine.
About a year after Pat gets back to New York, they get a visit from Agent Margaret Carter.
She shows at their door, bold as brass, on a Saturday afternoon in March, when Becca and Ben are out on a walk with Aunt Siobhan.
It’s a strange quirk of chance that it’s Patrick who gets the door. He’s only in Queens for the weekend, since he’s moved out to Harlem to be closer to school. He’s never met Agent Carter, so he doesn’t recognize the woman standing there, with her well cut clothes and neat curls.
She smiles, pleasantly, like it’s going to hide that she’s a shark.
“Can I help you?” Pat asks.
“Oh, you must be Patrick,” she says. “How lovely to meet you. I’m Peggy Carter.”
For a minute, that means absolutely nothing to Pat. She just continues to look at him expectantly. Then it dawns on him.
“Oh. As in Agent Carter,” Pat says, heart suddenly thumping. There’s a moment when he thinks - just a moment when he thinks maybe they’ve found Bucky, or maybe Steve - but then he looks at her face, her calm, blandly pleasant expression, and remembers that this not how the world works. Then, because his Ma would’ve wanted him to, Pat invites her inside for a cup of coffee.
“I’d like that very much,” she says.
“Hey, Penny, come out,” he calls into the house (the family are the only ones who still call her that - special permission). “That Agent Carter Bucky worked with came for a visit.”
“What?” Penny nigh-on screeches. (Bucky wrote about Peggy Carter the most in his letters to Penny - Pat’s seen some of them. Giving Penny proof of a woman with her head held high and the war at her heels.)
“That’s my sister Ruth,” Pat says. “Becca - my older sister - and her husband are out with our Aunt Siobhan,” Pat continues, going into the kitchen to get started on the coffee. “But I’m sure they’ll be back soon.”
“Oh, it’s no matter. I ought to have called ahead,” Agent Carter replies from the living room.
“Don’t apologize. It’s really a pleasure,” Pat hears Penny say.
Surprise aside, Penny’s always been the charming one, so Pat lets her handle this intrusion of the war onto their soil again while he gets mugs out.
“I understand you were your unit’s medic,” Carter says, when he come back out, mugs on a tray.
Pat raises his eyebrows.
“Sergeant Barnes talked about you,” Agent Carter says simply. “He talked about all of you.” She looks speculative for a moment and says, “I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job?”
Pat looks at Penny and Penny looks at him. Neither Bucky nor the news had been able to disclose all that much information about what exactly the organization Peggy Carter worked for did, but they know enough to make some pretty good deductions.
“Due respect, ma’am,” Patrick says, “I already served my country and I’ve had just about enough of that.”
“Not the country,” Carter returns. “I think my presence is rather proof of that. I like to believe we’re protecting the world.”
Pat shakes his head. “I’m thinking about medical school. That’s about as much world-saving as I see happening in my life.”
“And what about you, Miss Barnes?” Carter asks Penny.
Penny raises her eyebrows.
“Speaking frankly, we could use some more women,” Agent Carter says. “So much male ineptitude can get rather exhausting, even when one is in charge.”
Penny laughs but then shakes her head. “Lady, I write fluff pieces about cooking for a living,” she says.
“But you’ve also helped assemble bombs and you are far more comfortable with corpses than the average individual,” Carter says. “Those are skills we could use.”
“That’s about the only time anyone’s ever told us that being comfortable with dead bodies was a good thing,” Penny comments.
Because Pat’s pretty sure his time in the Marines has stripped away whatever tact he might ever have had, this is when he asks, “Are you guys really still looking for Steve’s body?”
Carter looks down. “Howard Stark is still looking for Steve, yes.”
That’s not the way someone talks about a corpse.
“You mean Howard Stark thinks Steve’s still alive?” Pat asks, incredulous. “It’s been two years. He crashed that plane into the Arctic Ocean.”
Pat knows human bodies and what they are and are not able to endure and he knows no one survives drowning in freezing water.
“Howard believes that it’s theoretically possible that with the advancements the serum gave Steve, he could have survived the crash,” Carter says, sounding pained.
“And what about you?” Penny asks. “What do you think?”
Agent Carter smiles distantly. Pat can imagine that Steve Rogers would’ve been taken with her.
“I’m not Howard Stark,” she says. “I cannot afford to dwell in the past.”
That’s not the last time Pat and his family ever see Peggy Carter, but it’s the last time of note. And so that’s how Pat remembers her, not as Director Carter, not as a master spy, but as the slightly sad woman who once sat there in Aunt Siobhan’s living room, determination writ large on her face.
They lead good lives, the three of them.
They go to Washington D.C. and collect Bucky’s posthumous medal and let the army give them a flag and an empty grave (if there’d been a body, they’d have buried it in Greenwood with their parents, but there isn’t one and this grave is for everyone but them). They donate most of Steve and Bucky’s personal effects from the Howling Commandos days to the Smithsonian and the bulk of their papers and photos to Brooklyn College, because they figure Steve and Bucky would’ve liked that, it all staying in their hometown, giving people a reason to visit a public college, even if Bucky’d never gone to college and Steve never actually finished.
Sometimes Becca, Pat and Penny talk to the historians that Gabe Jones says are worth their while. They tell the historians about hearses and art school, and how Sarah Rogers made the best apple cake when she could get the ingredients, how their own ma used to get Steve to read aloud because she said he had the voice for it.
But mostly, they build their own lives.
Pat marries Essie Berkowitz on a Tuesday afternoon in June 1950, with Rabbi Berkowitz officiating. They’ve both just graduated City College with degrees in biology. Uncle Danny’s not happy that Pat’s kids aren’t going to be Catholic but Penny tells him it’s none of his damn business anyway and he shuts up pretty quick.
Pat and Essie go to medical school together, out in Philadelphia. It’s an uphill slog but they both make it through, fierce grins on their faces when they get their new white coats. Essie goes into family practice but Pat becomes a medical examiner.
“I guess you can take the boy out of the graveyard but you can’t take the graveyard out of the boy,” he says, with a wry grin.
They move out to Long Island and have two children, who they name Sebastian and Viola. Penny cries with joy over the phone both times.
Penny becomes Ruth P. Barnes, author of a set of surprisingly successful novels for adolescents, the kind that get added to summer reading lists in some places and banned in others. But first, she gets a job at a magazine in San Francisco. She leaves New York in 1949. She smokes cigarettes and meets Beat poets and writes Becca long, rambling letters about the meaning of life. She leaves San Francisco for Los Angeles, gets married and divorced, publishes one well-regarded but largely forgotten collection of short stories, a few screenplays that never get made into movies. At thirty-four, she returns to New York, two weeks after Explorer 1 is launched into orbit. She shows up at the house in Queens, plunks herself down with a martini and a typewriter and works.
Penny never gets married again, but she has some kind of drawn out on-again, off-again love affair with an editor at the New Yorker, which is when Pat and Becca both start joking that she’s gotten far too classy for likes of them. It’s only in the 1970s that Penny settles down, brings home a nice art history professor who taught at Smith and retired from that in favor of a part time place at the Met. The fact that she’s a woman gives Becca kind of a shock (though some of Penny’s San Francisco letters sure make more sense after that) but Pat just laughs and tells Abby that if she’s brave enough to put up with his twin, she’s more than welcome in the family.
As for Becca, well, things don’t turn out so bad for her either, if she does say so herself. There are some hard years, when their politics mean Ben’s afraid of being fired, of someone accusing him of being unfit to mold the minds of young America, and the tone of Penny’s books doesn’t help there. But they make it through alright.
When Uncle Danny decides he’s too old to keep going, the funeral parlor goes to Becca. Jack shrugs and says, “We both know I haven’t got what it takes to run this place, not like you. Dad’s making the right choice.”
Becca has two kids, a son and a daughter. Scott is born on New Year’s Day, 1949.
“A holiday baby,” Penny says.
When he’s older, Scott goes to medical school, not the Vietnam War. Becca would have smuggled him across the border to Canada herself if she’d had to, but Scott gets an exemption for medical school, and by the time he’s done, they’ve given up on the war, are ready to leave the jungles behind, mission not accomplished.
Kim, Becca’s daughter, doesn’t come on a holiday - she’s born on the first of July - but it’s clear, even when she’s young, that she’s the one Becca will pass the business onto, when Becca too has become too old to stare Death in the face and say, “And in this, too, I will give them their dignity.”
They lead good lives. They’re not world-changing, not even Penny’s, really. But they’re happy, mostly.
They leave the war behind them, in the past.
But every year, on Christmas morning, Becca goes to Greenwood Cemetery - some years Ben comes with her, and some years Pat or Penny are there, and some years the children escort her - and leaves a wreath in the space between her parents’ graves.
Bucky lets Steve find him in Prospect Park, in May, more than a year after the helicarriers fall. Steve had given up looking months ago, because they were working from almost nothing, and then the world had needed saving again.
Bucky, in that time, had become the ghost Natasha claimed he was.
But now, here he is, the back of his head, his slightly hunched shoulders, in front of Steve’s eyes.
He’s on a bench, people-watching. His hair looks clean, caught up in a ponytail. He’s wearing a green hoodie, with too long sleeves that hide three-quarters of his hands.
“Bucky?” Steve asks.
“That’s Patrick’s granddaughter,” Bucky says, without turning around. He nods towards a group of twenty-something hipsters sitting at a table across the park.
Steve swallows. “Which one?” he asks. He’s met Becca and Pat’s kids, but never the grandchildren.
“In the purple dress,” Bucky says. “She looks a little like Ma, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, got those curls. Like Penny, too,” Steve says. He can only see her profile. She’s laughing at something one of her friends has said.
“They never hurt them. My family. And they never made me hurt them, even when they were inconvenient,” Bucky says, staring straight out in front of himself. “I think they thought that was compassion. Or mercy.”
There’s no way to respond to that. It’s a confirmation that Bucky’s gotten back some of his memories but it’s so gutting Steve only has silence at his disposal.
Maybe Sam would be able to work something out, or Natasha (though hers would likely not be all that comforting).
Bucky turns and looks at Steve now, desperate. “They were happy?” he asks.
Steve nods, not needing any clarification. “Yeah, Buck. I think they were.” Slowly, carefully, Steve sits down by Bucky’s side. “Penny and Becca are still alive. Pat passed a couple years before I woke.”
“I didn’t - I didn’t come here looking for her. Pat’s granddaughter. I knew she lived nearby but I wasn’t looking for her. I was going to find you, today, but then she was here and - she looks like my mother,” Bucky say. His hands, both of them, are trembling slightly. “I wouldn’t hurt her. I wouldn’t hurt any of them.”
Steve’s not sure whether Bucky’s trying to convince himself or Steve.
“I know,” Steve says. “I know that, Bucky.”
“I just wanted to win the war and come home,” he says to his hands.
“You can come home now. If you want,” Steve says, trying and failing to control the hope that’s diffusing through his chest.
Bucky nods again, slow, hesitant.
“I’d like that,” he says.
For the Sergeant, On His Return
So the day has come again when
miracles are easily believed.
After the sky has opened up,
what is resurrection?
You say you have been our shadow,
a hand in the darkness.
No one can wash history clean.
But this I wish for you:
That, when, someday (some day
in the future),
Death comes to you,
you will be free to take his hand, knowing
who you are.
- “For the Sergeant, On His Return,” N.A. Khan, dated December 21, 2015, unpublished.