Chapter 1: Steve Rogers Learns To Fly
Brooklyn, 1917. Steve Rogers and James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes are inseparable, or so Steve thinks until Bucky enlists with the U.S. Army Aviation Section. While Bucky gets shipped off to France to fight on the Western Front, Steve is repeatedly rejected by the Army on medical grounds, although that doesn't stop him trying. But a chance encounter with a rich industrialist, an eccentric scientist and a enigmatic photographer may lead to a way for Steve to contribute to the war effort after all...
The air was thick with soot and smuts and the perpetual smell of cordite; coal and bitumen scoured the lungs of those uniformed men and women milling around in friendly groups on the railway platform at Calais.
The reverberation of heavy gunfire shuddered beneath the booted feet of the waiting troops, a reminder that the Western Front of this Great War ground wearily on not forty miles to the west beyond Ypres towards Passchendaele. The thundering echoes of artillery were heard even across the British Channel and the distant chalk hills of the South Downs and in the ports of Newhaven and Eastbourne — from whence most of the waiting crowds had recently disembarked and now awaited their transports to the Front.
Established acquaintances talked amongst themselves and avoided the lone, slight figure racked with asthmatic coughs at the end of the platform. Their standoffishness was mostly justified by the fact that he had also kept to himself on the boat — although since many had watched him being thoroughly seasick for the whole journey, he was hardly to blame for that. Casual observers could see the fellow was swamped by his kit, even in the fitted uniform of the U.S. Army Aviation Section, and now he was hunched, rasping out rattling coughs and shivering with bowed shoulders.
The young man’s face was pale and his eyes were bright and blue, watering in the stinging air. Long, damp, girlish lashes fanned outwards above sharp cheekbones, although these effeminate features were tempered by the stubborn cast to his chin and his determined frown.
For all that this miserable figure portrayed a mulish and perhaps understandably long-suffering mien, there was a boyish note of hope behind his eyes and an excitement, perhaps to see real action, that was shared amongst the gathered throng of young soldiers. His newly minted pilot’s wings shone brightly against his tunic, pinned above his left breast pocket.
Had the curious chanced a look at his papers they’d have noted his citizenships: Irish/American, his name: Steven Grant Rogers, his rank: Second Lieutenant, and his age: nineteen. They might have thought he was young, although many currently sharing the platform in their squeaky new Sam Browne belts and spotless uniforms were far younger, no matter what the frequently suspect birth dates recorded on their own papers might claim.
Those of the old hands that did glance Rogers’ way felt — for the most part, and if their war had been kind enough to leave them the ability to feel anything at all — a brief measure of pity for this tired, poor, huddled American. He was perpetually wheezing, yet yearning to breathe free; a wretched scrap of refuse from another teeming shore, certain to have just lately fetched up in France, and bound for the Western Front for causes he kept to himself.
Occasionally some generous soul, back from leave and stocked up on cigarettes, would wander over to offer the chap a smoke and a light and be somewhat defensively but politely rebuffed with an apologetic cough. Then the offerer would wander affably back to his own buddies or mates or frérots and relate that the fellow was probably an odd one, but then who’d met a pilot that wasn’t? Odd or not, he seemed to be wrapped up in his own concerns.
This was hardly surprising to anyone. He should be worried, after all. Whatever his reasons in life for getting this far, they were unlikely to take him much further.
For most of the new pilots arriving in France in the spring of 1917, this would be the end of the line.
Steve Rogers did indeed have several reasons for making the choices that led to him to stand wheezing in the caustic air of wartime France: he was proudly patriotic in the manner of most second-generation Americans; he most assuredly disliked the dirty tactics of German naval warfare and the price paid by innocent citizens in lives and loves lost; and he’d go a long way to see off a bully if he could. But first and foremost, the engine that had propelled 95 pounds of sinew, chronic illness and stubbornness across the Atlantic had arrived in France some weeks previous, and his name was James Buchanan Barnes.
Steve knew him as Bucky, and everyone back in Brooklyn knew them to be as good as inseparable. “Where you see the one, you’ll find the other not far behind,” they would say, and that’s how it was.
So here was Steve Rogers, waiting for a train to follow Bucky Barnes all the way to the Western Front.
It had been like this.
Rumours of U.S. involvement had come to Brooklyn as early as the spring of 1915. It hadn’t happened. While Europe had gone to war months since, President Wilson had pledged neutrality and the average American nodded sagely along with him.
Young Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes paid the war no mind beyond the sneaking tendrils of community anxiety, and did what they always did: plan their futures and avoid their chores.
Then Germany blockaded the Atlantic — setting mines, sinking merchant ships — and Wall Street began to get itchy and restless like Steve and Bucky in their woollen Sunday suits. By this time, the two of them were working men, Bucky doing heavy lifting at the docks and Steve setting type in a local printers. Their leisure time was spent sneaking Bucky cigarettes on their breaks and sharing a beer at the end of the day.
Soon after, the German Navy sank a private American vessel and declared open warfare on ships of all kinds. Folks across the country began to lose people — and worse, business — and the idea of neutrality lost its firm foundational priority in the minds of the American public.
In Brooklyn itself, the Irish communities were hardest hit. Irish Americans and their families had been sunk and drowned off the coast of their ancestral home by German U-Boats. By the time spring had come around in 1917, Steve was setting type for more and more war-bond and recruitment posters and pretty much all of Brooklyn had accepted that the time was right for America to join the Great Conflict of Nations. Steve and Bucky had considered their positions and agreed they would enlist together.
Brooklyn’s recruitment office had Bucky on their books faster than you could say, ‘Every bond is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun.’
Sickly Steve had been turned away with a fond laugh and a slap on the back.
Steve had nearly incinerated in shame and frustration, and had vowed to change their minds. Bucky, on the face of it, encouraged Steve’s efforts to enlist. It would be a lark, and a good show and they could see Europe for themselves.
Of course, not everyone had seen it that way.
“Why’d you have to go fighting someone else’s war halfway around the world?” wheedled Bucky’s not-so-little sister Rebecca, one braid higher than the other and her ribbons drooping. “Why can’t you stay here?”
Bucky had tweaked one plaited pigtail fondly, while Becca pouted and sat scrunched up against the railings with her arms folded over her drawn-up knees. Steve had been sprawled out on the rusted iron fire-escape beside them, sketching idly in the notebook he’d stitched up himself out of pilfered scraps from the printers. It was mostly filled with surreptitious sketches of Bucky, Zeppelins and political cartoons.
Bucky was explaining.
“The German Kaiser wants to rule the world, Becca, and kill innocent folks to do it. I can’t let him do that, not when I can help do something. It’s not right, so I’m going to go over there and we’re gonna stop them. Someone’s got to. They’re bullies, and they won’t stop unless someone makes them.”
“So it’s because you don’t like bullies. Like Steve?” Becca could have sounded a little less dismissive of the notion, Steve thought. Bucky had taken it at entirely face value.
“Yeah, kiddo. Like Steve. How many times have you found Steve stepping in for the little guy?”
“Steve is a little guy,” Becca pointed out, while Steve thumbed his nose.
“So who’s going to haul Steve out of trouble if you’re gone?” continued Becca, switching tactics by appealing to a time-tested way to influence her elder brother. “Who’s going to go looking for him till they find him with a fat lip, clutching a trash can lid in an alley and then kick whatever stubborn brute he’s picked a fight with this time back to the street he came from if you’re not there?”
“I can handle myself,” Steve said, looking up from his pencil, though it wasn’t true, and despite his every effort no amount of wishing or bullheadedness had yet made it so.
From the look on her face, Becca hadn’t been convinced.
Then Mrs Barnes had called up from the kitchen, and the boys had taken their chance and run for it. Steve and Bucky raced up the fire escape and clambered over the gutters to the roof.
Laid out on the hot felted surface in the afternoon sun, Steve felt the days where he’d have this slip away. Bucky was going somewhere he couldn’t follow.
“She’s right, you know. Not like you can’t find injustice to battle right here in Brooklyn,” Bucky had told him, poking him in the shoulder. Steve had huffed.
“Then why are you so set on going?” he’d rejoined. Bucky had turned on his side, one hand tucked under his cheek, gazing quietly at Steve, his expression solemn.
“Ma and Pa want to take retirement, go on a cruise one day — think I’m going to let Jerry go around sinking ships full of honest folk who just want to see the world? No, sir.” He had beamed then; his sky-wide smile outshining the sun. “They fly aeroplanes in wars now, Stevie. I’m a good shot. I think I’ll make a gunner, even if I can’t get the trick of the flying.”
He’d stretched out both arms and laced his fingers behind his head, staring up at the sky he was so keen to soar around in.
“It’s just flying now, but maybe soon we’ll be on our way to the moon, or the past. Or to Mars, like John Carter. Imagine that — you and me, up in space.”
Steve snorted. He had shaken his head at the look in Bucky’s eyes. They were shining with the lure of the future, of flight, of something new, his head probably full of the H.G. Wells and Burroughs pulp novels he stacked under his bed.
Buck had turned his head to look at him, wide-eyed.
“One way or another, I’m going to fly, Steve,” he said.
Steve looked back at Bucky, who was already airbound in his fantasies, and felt his own spirits sink like lead.
Steve wasn’t too keen on the notion of flying. He was in enough trouble down on the ground.
In the days after Bucky joined up, Becca spent her time bargaining for a miracle. “If I do these chores,” she’d say — if it’s raining when I get up; if there are an odd number of flowers on the tree growing out of the chimney; if I throw this jack or that marble and catch all of them three times in a row — “then he won’t go.”
Becca didn’t let up, trying over and over to persuade the universe to keep her brother with them in Brooklyn. But it had none of it worked, and in a few weeks that had seemed like minutes to Steve and probably to Becca, Bucky had gone.
Steve and Bucky said their farewells on the platform, next to the train that would take Bucky upstate to be trained as a soldier before he shipped out to France. Steve attempted to be stoic.
“You look after my sister,” Bucky had ordered. Steve had smiled.
“Pssshh, she spends her days beating eggs and her forearms are twice as wide as my thighs - she could throw Big Paddy McGann across the lot, tear him up and bury the pieces, but sure, I’ll look after her.”
Bucky had scrunched up his nose.
“Burying them feels wasteful,” he said. “Our ma didn’t bring us up to waste. She’d bake him into a pie, feed it back to Paddy’s gang of fellas, and they’d eat it up and be none the wiser.”
Steve had laughed so hard he coughed himself into doubling over and almost didn’t hear the whistle of the train.
“Gotta go,” Bucky had said, one hand squeezing Steve’s shoulder, giving him a one-sided and wistful smile. He paused then, his hand still resting warm on Steve’s lapel and Steve’s breath had come shorter and sharper even than usual. The air around them seemed heavy somehow and Steve felt Bucky tense as though he were about to move or speak or do something to break the silence.
The moment passed, though, and Bucky’s eyes clouded as his smile turned wry. He looked down at his boots and then back up, blue eyes blinking at Steve as if nothing had happened, a cocky grin replacing whatever had been showing in his face. Bucky gave Steve’s shoulder one last clap and turned to join his fellow recruits aboard the train.
“Bye, Stevie!” he yelled from the window.
“I’ll follow you, you jerk!” yelled Steve back, past the lump in his throat. “Don’t win the war without me!”
Bucky just waved as the locomotive groaned and whistled and chugged its way out of the station, taking Bucky out of Steve’s life.
Steve reapplied himself to the task of hoodwinking recruitment offices with renewed vigour. No one inside of Brooklyn would let little Stevie Rogers and his entourage of infirmities anywhere near the armed services, so he took himself further afield, riding the subway to neighbouring boroughs in hope of luck, poor judgement, or both on behalf of the officials.
Steve avidly read and re-read Bucky’s letters from Basic Training as he travelled. He kept trying, crossing off names after every rejection, increasingly motivated as time began to run out.
It was a month before Bucky was off to France, exhorting Steve not to worry in his letters, not knowing when he could next write. Steve was near breaking point already, though he didn’t know it at the time, when he was sorting through bins for useable scrap paper. Then he caught a phrase — “death toll” — and his lungs nearly crawled out his oesophagus.
Putting it mildly, life as an aviator at war was not without risks. Steve knew that. Bucky had known that — and hopefully still did, and would for a long time to come. This, though, was the first time he’d seen pictures of an air crash, read the details, seen statistics for God’s sake. His heart, never particularly reliable except as a noble metaphor, thumped irregularly in his chest. He sat down. He didn’t get up for some time.
Suddenly, Steve Rogers needed to know everything about aviation. The problem was, no one seemed to know anything like near enough. He read everything he could get his hands on, but that was precious little and restricted to newspapers and his local library or in the unsold magazines strewn through the break room.
In the end, it was an advertisement he set with his own hands that was the key.
Steve held the proof up to the light and read:
SEE the miraculous machines our men and women fly in COMBAT!
FEEL the thrills as they swoop and soar!
WOW to the very latest in aerial machines designed by:
MASTER AVIATOR AND AERONAUTICAL ENGINEER
Sunday 3rd June 1917
Long Island Flying Club
Where better to get the answers he craved in lieu of proximity to Bucky? It was fate. It was providence. It was divine intervention.
Whatever it was, Steve would take it.
On the day of the exhibition Steve took a leaf out of Becca’s book and crossed every finger, every toe and said a dozen Hail Marys as he pulled his savings from the tin under the bed and counted out the entrance fee and the train fare across Long Island. He cadged bread from Mrs Barnes who was always happy to feed up the poor skinny Rogers boy since Steve’s ma had passed three years ago. He bought a couple of pickles and a slice of ham and wrapped up his lunch in paper. He slicked back his hair and took his best hat.
He was ready as he’d ever be.
By the time he made it up Long Island as far as Hempstead and the Hazelhurst Field aerodrome, he’d bitten his nails down to the quick. But he was cheered by the sight of an Army Aviation Section recruitment booth; here was another chance to join Bucky in France.
The booth was a temporary hut attached to a canvas marquee with space for doctors and nurses to do their business and, as usual, summarily reject Steve on legitimate medical grounds: asthma, flat feet, scoliosis, general frailty. His sight and his hearing were good, his reflexes — the doctor informed him with surprise — almost unparallelled. He relayed the latter with a solicitous tone that seemed to imply Steve should take this as consolation, some physical oddity he could actually be proud of, despite the miserable condition of the rest of him. It was cold comfort, thought Steve, guts churning with suppressed rage at his body, at his weakness, at his inability to serve his country alongside his best friend, his ally, his Bucky . Bucky who was in France, doing God knows what without him.
Steve smiled frostily at the medic through gritted teeth and dressed as if haste would restore his dignity. He didn’t notice the grizzled, bearded man in huge round spectacles perched in the corner with a notebook and clipboard until he nearly bowled him off his stool on the way out. The man windmilled his arms, colliding with the canvas flap serving as a door, and Steve clutched at the fellow’s sleeve, tugging him upright and stammering apologies.
“Not at all, not at all,” the man replied mildly, with an unmistakably German accent, batting Steve off before collecting his clipboard from the floor. “It is an emotional time for us all. Go, enjoy the spectacle of our Mr. Stark and his machines. You are here also for the aerobatics, yes? Not just to dupe your armed forces for the...” here he consulted his clipboard, “seventh time in the past four weeks?” He eyed Steve pointedly over the tortoiseshell rims of his glasses.
Steve felt his own eyes widen. In the fuss, he hadn’t noticed that the medic had made a discreet exit. He was alone with his entirely justified accuser. The man was only smiling, though, expression gentle.
“Yes, sir,” said Steve, whose ma had brought him up to be polite to people he’d steamrollered in his various quests for justice and righteousness, even in the grip of panic. Someone must have noticed his repeated applications and flagged his description. Now he was looking, he could see the clipboard held a whole sheaf of forms filled out in his own handwriting. He stood to attention, stiffened against whatever consequences awaited him.
“Pshh, no ‘sir’. It is Doctor. Doctor Abraham Erskine,” said the man, extending his hand.
“Rogers, Steve Rogers,” replied Steve, doing likewise. They shook. On the inside, Steve was shaking too. Erskine, however, seemed sanguine enough.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Rogers, if somewhat battered in the process,” he told Steve with a wry smile. “So it is the miracle of aviation brings you here? And to Queens, and Staten Island, and Manhattan and… You get the idea. Or is it a hope to do your part for the glory of war? You want to go to France, drop some bombs, kill some Boche? Hmm?” Erskine waggled his generous eyebrows.
Steve was appalled at the callous insinuation, particularly delivered in such gentle and deliberate tones. Erskine spoke with particular care, as if handling each word with needle-nosed tongs before placing them exactly as he needed them. So far, every part of this conversation had Steve entirely off balance.
“No!” he told Erskine, as firmly as he could. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. The thought of bombs makes me sick. I don’t like the idea of innocent people suffering, and I don’t like the idea of war either. But I can’t see how we’re going to stop the Ger.. uh, the Central Powers from doing the former without us helping the Allies win the latter.”
Erskine seemed to consider this. Steve held his breath and stiffened his spine. He didn’t quite know what was going on, but he sensed it was of great import if only he had the patience to wait for it.
“One last thing,” said Erskine, eventually. “Have you ever considered commercial piloting?”
Steve frowned at this. The thought had never crossed his mind, it was hardly what he was here for.
“Not me. I like my feet firmly on the ground, Doctor,” he told Erskine.
Erskine nodded genially, though his formidable eyebrows were pinched together in what was, perhaps, mild disappointment.
“Ah, a pity. Ho hum. Very well, Mr. Rogers,” he told Steve. “Don’t let me impede your enjoyment of the rest of the afternoon.” He gestured to the tent flap, a clear dismissal.
Steve left, feeling faintly hollow. He had the strange notion he’d missed out on something important.
The airshow took Steve’s breath away, not that he usually had much to spare. A Brooklyn boy from birth, he had never seen so much open space. It was unnerving.
Enormous canvas hangars fronted onto a tarmac apron, facing the aerodrome itself — a wide grassy field serving as a network of runways. Crowds of people in hats and fine clothes clustered around exhibits and chattered excitedly. Steve made his way among them with wide eyes.
There were prototype engines, posters explaining the mechanics of flight, mannequins clothed in thick leathers allegedly once worn by famous aviation pioneers, a tall frame draped in parachute silk and helpful Stark Industries engineers on hand to answer any questions. Steve quizzed them assiduously.
Around him, the place bustled with activity. The patrons were businessmen in suits, families with children, smart society men and women, scruffy scientists with notebooks, and regular people like Steve, come to gawk and investigate. Artists sat with sketchbooks and chalks, and Steve felt his fingers itch for a pencil.
Most popular of all, there were full-scale mockups of Stark’s new plane designs — not destined for flight themselves but constructed to allow the crowds to get up close and coo. Children begged their parents to let them climb into the pilot’s seats, and Stark’s liveried photographers were on hand at every turn - “Oh yes, ma’am, of course you may pose, rest your hand on the fuselage, don’t be shy. Make for wonderful mementoes, or perhaps a Christmas gift for your old granny, what marvellous things they’re doing with science nowadays…”
Steve noticed one of the photographers — a woman in a blue coat with sharp, dark eyes glittering under her scarlet hat — taking pictures of the crowd, ducking in and out from behind a tripod mounted on little wheels. Steve supposed she was on Stark’s books for Publicity. She caught Steve staring and raised one imperious eyebrow, before Steve hurriedly looked away, feeling his cheeks burn at the challenge.
He forgot his shame when Howard Stark himself strode onto a podium dressed in an improbably tailored set of mechanic’s all-in-ones and carrying a bull-horn. He was an elegant man in his late forties, famous for his inventions, his business acumen and his long standing feud with his equally intelligent son, who Steve recalled was not much older than he and Bucky. Stark wore moustaches and air of superiority as he announced the main event — himself, of course — but also the human conquest of the air. He beckoned, and a procession of pilots made their way from the hangars to the real machines waiting on the tarmac. The crowds cheered.
The business of flying was astonishing.
Steve had never seen anything take flight that wasn’t hatched from an egg with its own God-given feathers. The whole arrangement looked, frankly, as if it ought not work at all. Contraptions of canvas, wood and wire that appeared to Steve as fragile as butterflies and inelegant as land-stranded harbor seals were tended by cohorts of men and women in overalls before being trundled onto the field. Like the harbor seals, once the unwieldy beasts were in their own element, they transformed. Propellers were spun, instructions bellowed over the roar of American internal combustion engines and the mechanics scattered for safety. The planes lumbered along the cropped turf of the airfield and rose almost ponderously into the air. Into the air, thought Steve.
Soon the blue skies were filled with honest-to-goodness aircraft. They circled at speeds Steve felt sure were too slow to keep them airborne, until occasionally one would loop-the-loop or dive towards the ground and then he could barely believe these winged boxes of wood and wire held together at all.
Stark swaggered around with his bull-horn, pointing out various manoeuvres named for the intrepid aces that pioneered their use. He declared how dangerous the tendency to spin when diving, how brave the pilots, as machine after machine plummeted towards the ground at the dizzying top-speed of nearly two-hundred miles per hour, only to soar upwards again to the gasps of the crowd.
Steve scowled through much of Howard’s spiel. This wasn’t bravery. This was stupidity. Recklessness to no purpose. And yet it stirred his blood, how could it not? This was the pinnacle of humanity’s achievement, in defiance of gravity. This was what Bucky had chosen to do, all the way across the Atlantic, away at war.
Steve stood with his head craned upwards and watched the planes swoop and roar overhead until his neck ached. He reached back to knead at the tight muscles under his collar and noticed the photographer he’d embarrassed himself in front of earlier was poised on the edge of the crowds, capturing their reactions for posterity. He was staring, he supposed, which was why his first inkling that something was wrong was the bloom of horror on her face and the speed at which she stowed her camera in its satchel, even as her eyes remained fixed on the sky.
Steve turned just in time to see the tragedy unfold. Two of the aeroplanes, one painted bright green and one a pale, ocean blue had spun too close, far too close, and were turning to avoid each other. Steve had only a moment, but he could tell they could never have succeeded even as everything within him desperately willed it to be otherwise. In a fraction of a second, a leaf-green wing clipped a blue, painted wheel and the aircraft folded around each other mid-air.
The rending, tearing noise was gut-wrenching. Struts shattered, wires snapped under forces they were never meant to withstand, canvas parted and tore like week-old newspaper and the two machines spiralled like a — yes, Steve thought bitterly — like a plane seed until they crashed into the ground.
Steve had thought the noise of the original collision had been devastating. This was worse. Bile rose in his throat and his head swam.
He was peripherally aware of other spectators running for the hangars or frozen with their hands over their mouths. Stark, standing among them, looked grim, but not panicked.
The remains of the aircraft were aflame, by then. An ambulance tore past them onto the field, rolling to a halt far too far away to have even a chance of intervening. One of the medics climbed out of the cab and made an attempt to move closer, only to retreat with his arm over his face. The heat was palpable even from where Steve stood watching. He moved, then, dashing closer, but if the ambulance drivers and emergency crew couldn’t manage it, Steve certainly couldn’t.
He coughed and spluttered as he pushed his way to the edge of the grass, but he could see it was no use. It wasn’t in him to do nothing, but there was nothing he could do.
He bent over, clutching his knees, winded. Beside him, a rustle of tweed skirts and a creak of leather made him look up. The photographer had moved to his side and was watching the tragedy.
“It happens, you know,” she remarked, offhandedly, and Steve realised she was British. The words were callous, but the tone was not. “I wish it didn’t, but there it is.”
“You’ve seen this before?” asked Steve, appalled.
“Many times, Mr…”
“Rogers,” said Steve, introducing himself for the second time that day.
“Peggy Carter,” said the photographer, shaking his hand. Steve noticed she had foregone gloves, presumably to better operate her photographic instruments. “Flying is dangerous,” she continued, gently, over the crackling roar of the flames. “Even with the best of intentions, pilots make mistakes. Aeroplanes malfunction. Stark is the best in the business this side of the Atlantic — don’t tell him I said so — but even he can’t escape the fact that what he’s trying to achieve must overcome every inexorable force of creation.”
Steve couldn’t tear his eyes away from the conflagration on the field. Fire engines had arrived on the scene and hoses were deployed to douse the flames. Too late for the pilots, thought Steve.
“Come on, come away,” urged Ms. Carter, drawing him back with a hand on the sleeve of his coat.
“Shouldn’t you…?” Steve trailed off, gesturing to her camera and tripod. He didn’t know what he meant, he only felt that this moment should be recorded, that it had all happened so suddenly, and that it should be fixed in history, in case if later someone were to ask, “Did that really happen?” they could hold paper proof in their hands and know that, yes, death really did visit so swiftly and so irrevocably.
“That’s not my role here,” she told him. “Others have that in hand.” She gestured to another group several yards back from their position, clicking shutters and setting up angles.
Steve bowed to the inexorable force of nature that was Peggy Carter, and followed her back to the hangars.
Ms. Carter took him to a cordoned-off mess tent behind the scenes and pushed him towards a folding chair. There was a stove and a kettle set up in one corner where she set about making drinks. Steve watched, dazed.
Task completed, she pushed a steaming mug into his hands. He took a sip and gagged. It was tea.
“Um, thank you,” he said. “It’s very…” Peggy spotted his problem and saved him from making more of a fool of himself than he already had.
“Oh, sorry. That’s mine,” she said, swapping their mugs. “Coffee for you, tea for me. Milk and sugar over there, should you be so inclined.”
Steve drank his coffee black and so merely inhaled the steam and waited for it to cool as Peggy lit a cigarette. She blew smoke to the ceiling, which was considerate, but by then the whole aerodrome was pervaded by the stink of smoke and burning from outside and it made little difference.
Peggy was still eyeing Steve as he sat meekly in the chair with his beverage when the tent flap clapped open and Steve’s least favourite person that day strode in.
“Carter,” greeted Stark with a nod. “Any sign of our friends?”
Peggy responded to this cryptic question with a shake of her head. Steve frowned. Howard seemed to notice Steve where he sat and flung his arms wide.
“Ah, it’s our very favourite recruitment fraudster!” he cried, circling Steve’s chair and stroking his moustache as he bent to stare Steve in the face. Steve stared back, appalled. Stark continued to stalk around the tent as if needing to view Steve from several angles to make a proper engineering judgment.
“Now, now Mr. Stark, you’ll frighten him off,” said a familiar accented voice and sure enough, Erskine ducked into the tent. “Hello, Mr. Rogers. I’m sorry your first experience of aviation was so unfortunate. I did so wish for you to have a good time.”
That did it for Steve. He was confused, shaken, the centre of attention and, since he came to think of it, absolutely thrumming with anger.
“Unfortunate! Dr. Erskine, two people are dead!” he snapped.
“Yes,” said Erskine, nodding.
“Well, what goes up…” said Howard, shrugging. He was still watching Steve like he was a fascinating new science experiment or a rat in a lab. His eyes were trained on Steve’s face.
“Pardon?” asked Steve.
“What goes up must come down?” replied Howard, as if to an imbecile. Steve was starting to get the impression this was how Stark approached most, if not all, of the rest of the human race.
Steve turned to Peggy Carter, who held up her bare hands.
“Don’t look at me. I’m not involved,” she told him, illogically.
Steve appealed to Erskine.
“How can you listen to this?” he demanded. “You’re a doctor! Aren’t you supposed to do no harm? How can you stand by and see people destroy themselves and not care?”
“What?” Erskine looked momentarily baffled. “Oh,” he said after a pause, the confusion on his face clearing. “I’m not a medical doctor, Mr. Rogers. I am a physicist. A student of aerodynamics and the potential of flight. A hypocrite, yes, perhaps, but not a Hippocrate. Hmm?”
Steve looked blank.
“Pay me no mind. I am upset,” said Erskine, fluttering his hands and accepting another proferred mug from Peggy. He placed it on a wooden trestle table and fumbled at his belt, unhooked a hip flask and dumped a liberal amount of the contents into the mug before taking a gulp. “A good man and a good woman died today, for no reason except the dangers presented by their desire to pursue progress. Of course I grieve this,” he said with a shake of his head and a twitch of one open palm as if to chide both Steve and himself.
“But you were in my medical…” Steve reasoned, puzzled.
“I was… adjacent to your medical,” admitted Erskine. “Really my interest is in your lawless insistence on attempting to, as they say, join up. I work for the American government. I wished to assess your motivation. But you are not interested in learning to fly.”
“Even less so now that I’ve seen what it can get you,” returned Steve, grimly. God, Bucky, he thought in the privacy of his head. Thousands of miles away his best friend was trusting his life to precarious experimental machines liable at any moment to fall apart, or collide, or explode, or burst into spontaneous flame for all he knew, and there was nothing, nothing, he could do, nothing he could...
“Is that right?” challenged Stark, interrupting Steve’s spiralling internal monologue. Steve needed a few moments to rifle back through his thoughts until he reached the last thing he’d said out loud. Howard Stark barrelled on regardless. “No interest at all in helping me make it better?”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Steve, affronted despite his own belligerence.
Howard tapped the ash off his cigarette into his empty mug. Peggy made a disgusted noise. “Again, nothing to do with me,” she said, when Steve glanced over.
“My aeroplanes,” began Howard, “are destined for the Front. We are engaged in an arms race. And yet!” He held up a single didactic finger. “Innovation means risk, means danger, means accidents. Better here than over there, where the stakes aren’t just the lives of the pilots but the intelligence they gather, things that could turn the tide of war. By far the most dangerous part of the design process is the testing stage. I do a lot of that myself, but frankly my brain and my skills are far too precious to be wasted on the risks that you see are quite evident. We’re always looking for test pilots. You certainly fit the specs for the seat, skinny kid like you. How about it? Want a job?”
“You… want me. For a test pilot?”
“Now you’re getting it,” said Stark, shooting him finger guns. “You clearly don’t value your life, otherwise you’d take the sensible advice of — What was it? Seven Army doctors? — and quit while you’re still breathing. Me and Erskine, we’re making heroes. Join us, serve the cause, help us make our machines the safest they can be for our pilots overseas and win yourself a reputation with the good people out here on the home front while you’re at it.”
“I don’t care for heroics,” declared Steve, still righteous in his anger. “I don’t even care to be a soldier. My reputation has nothing to do with it. And those pilots out there are dead.”
The three other occupants of the tent shared a look. Peggy was inscrutable. Erskine’s eyebrows gave a twitch that seemed to say “I told you so.”
Steve felt bewildered. His confidence was guttering like a prayer candle in a drafty cloister at midnight and he was starting to sense the shape of something else going on here beyond the ebb and flare of his confusion.
“Okay, Rogers. You’re not trying to win a name for yourself. We get it. So why try so hard?” asked Stark.
“I… I need to go to France,” said Steve, helplessly, still clutching his rapidly cooling coffee mug.
“Sure, pal. But why join up?” asked Stark, gesturing dismissively with his cigarette. “If all you care for is a holiday to Europe, take a steamer. Better still, wait for the end of the war. Now the Americans are involved, it’s only a matter of time.” Behind him, Peggy Carter rolled her eyes. Erskine snorted. Howard seemed to be gripped by a new thought. “Hold on, you hate the idea of flying so much, why are you here? ”
Steve looked at the industrialist and inventor, with his arrogance and his apparent entitlement to everyone else’s personal business, and thought, Fuck this.
“My best friend,” he said, shortly. “He’s in France. And I have no idea what he’s facing out there, and no one else in Brooklyn does either. This seemed likely to be the only place a fellow might find some facts about aeroplanes. I wanted to see how it all works. Now, of course, I see that it frequently doesn’t. That enough for you?”
Howard took a deep drag from his cigarette. Peggy was smirking into her tea.
“My son’s out there too, you know, on the front,” Howard said, airily, wafting a hand at Steve. “Oh, he’s safe enough, more or less. He’s a mechanic with one of the French squadrons — mon pardon, ‘Escadrilles.’ Thinks he can get one over on his old pa. I make ‘em, he maintains them. Stitches them up and tells me he can make them better. Good luck to him, I say. God knows they need it out there. As a matter of personal pride, though, I like to send him the best challenge I possibly can. Call it patriotism, call it a desire for world peace, call it what you like. I need pilots. We could use a man like you.”
Steve - skinny, fragile, brittle, enraged - looked up at Howard Stark through his eyelashes. “Yeah? What does that mean precisely?”
“Smart,” said Howard.
“Driven,” said Peggy, from across the tent.
“Compassionate,” said Dr. Erskine, poking his index finger into Steve’s xylophone rib cage to punctuate each word. “A good man.”
Howard cocked his head and spread his hands. “How else are you going to serve?”
Steve blinked. The man had a point. This could help. This could help Bucky, however indirectly. This, though a poor substitute for armed service, was more than nothing. Steve blinked again. Then he stood and extended a hand, not quite believing what he was about to agree to. “Sure,” he said, dazed. Howard beamed.
They shook on it.
“Excellent,” said Howard. “Peg, I need to speak with you, alone.” He flapped his hand impatiently at the tent door. “Erskine, show Rogers around, get him a berth somewhere. Welcome to the future, Steve. Glad you could join us.”
The last thing Steve saw before he was guided firmly from the room by the good Doctor was Peggy Carter sketching him a small and sarcastic salute.
Chapter 2: Hail Who?
Steve begins his training as a test pilot for Stark Industries under the tutelage of Howard Stark. He makes friends with the German physicist Dr. Abraham Erskine and also with Peggy Carter, who is attempting to advance the U.S. and Allied capabilities in aerial photography. But a sinister presence is waiting in the wings, ready to rear the first of its many heads...
In the summer of 1917, Steve Rogers handed in his notice at the printers, said farewell to a predictably distraught family of Barneses, joined Stark Industries and started working for The Man. For their part, The Man — as personified by Howard Stark, Abraham Erskine and a small horde of cowed mechanics — taught Steve to fly. First, just trips in the gunner’s seat of a two-seater; then taking his turn at the controls; and then, a week into his piloting career, a lone flight around the aerodrome and back again. For Steve, who was used to tenements and cramped, shared spaces, flight was a revelation. The world looked utterly alien from the sky. Wide, open and — for the duration of his solo flights — Steve’s alone.
Steve enjoyed it, which surprised him. Howard was competitive and Erskine was encouraging and between them and the skies, working for Stark Industries brought out a childish joy in Steve that hadn’t seen the light of day since Bucky Barnes had departed for France.
Steve hadn’t received any more correspondence from Bucky, but that was to be anticipated, and while Steve worried more or less constantly, he wasn’t any more worried by the lack of words. He wrote to Bucky, with no expectation that his letters would arrive in any kind of timely manner, and told him of the Stark factories and the practice aerodrome and the plans to take the Stark Expo to the road someday soon. Steve would be travelling with the crew of test-pilots, Howard, and Dr. Erskine; they were to tour the country with some of Stark’s new models to boost sales of war bonds and drum up political support for the development of military aviation.
By the time Howard was satisfied that Steve had the basics of flight down, he’d been flying for two weeks. Howard sent his fleet of able test-pilots to chase Steve around the atmosphere of upstate New York and Steve learned to loop-the-loop and barrel roll and to change direction on a spinning dime, with a flick of the wrist at the top of a loop in the not-yet-bettered Immelmann Turn.
The mechanics lined up empty wooden butter barrels at the end of the runway and the pilots took turns shooting at them with machine guns mounted over the cockpit, then circling around do it all over again, until they could reduce the whole row to matchsticks without missing a single one. Then they’d repeat the exercise, but doubled up in two-seaters with one in the rear seat playing the part of gunner and the other piloting, sending their plane zooming low over the fields. The weather was fine and there were no more collisions. Howard and Erskine had counselled everyone on the staff to stay well back from each other even when competing to be the first to blow a new set of barrels to hell.
This, Steve supposed, was the rhythm the Stark Industries aviation programme had followed prior to his recruitment. He found the routine somewhat restful. It was gruelling, but for the first time in his life he hadn’t cause to worry about money or where his next meal was coming from. He was contributing to the war effort, if not exactly in the way he would have chosen, and everyone here was working together for a common purpose.
Howard Stark was everywhere at once, watching Steve and the other pilots put the new Stark machines through their paces as fast as he could churn them out, striding all over the little factory aerodrome covered in burned engine oil and grease, happy as a puppy with two tails.
Erskine would run his hands over the machines, muttering to himself in German, and stay up late into the night with calculations, slide rule and cartographic equipment. Some evenings Steve would sit with him and learn technical drafting. Sometimes he just drew: pictures of Bucky, of his own mother, of Brooklyn and of Becca and, increasingly, of aeroplanes.
Every week or so Peggy Carter would arrive laden with photographic equipment in a Model-T chauffeured by one of Stark’s drivers, and she and Howard would barricade themselves in a laboratory for a couple of days before emerging looking faintly triumphant. Steve didn’t let his thoughts linger too much there. Howard always seemed hugely smug, but since he did that all day, every day, there was hardly anything to be read into in that regard.
After a few weeks of this, Peggy began to badger Steve and the other pilots for flight time in the two seaters, and they’d circle, testing lenses at different altitudes and angles, Peggy directing them with taps to the shoulder and prearranged signals. As far as Steve could tell during his turns as Peggy’s aerial chauffeur, she was capturing the same images over and over again.
“Different lenses,” she explained, when he asked, as they unpacked equipment out of the machine and into the cavernous hangar. “It takes months to grind a lens, sometimes years, but it’s photography, particularly photography from above, that will win us the war. And the Germans are good with this. We must be better. Your General Pershing and the other brass-hats over there calling the shots shan’t wait around for us to make the equipment to order, so we’re collecting them from private owners all over the United States.”
“That’s what you do when you’re not here?” asked Steve.
“Yes. Of course, many of them are thoroughly useless for our purposes,” she told him, blithely. “But we send the useful ones to the Front, for the reconnaissance squadrons and their photographers.”
“Seems like all the useful things are out at the Front,” muttered Steve who, it must be said, still had his bitter moments.
“Why, Steve Rogers,” said Peggy, archly, “I’m so terribly flattered.”
“Uh, no I meant me, I meant…” said Steve, stuttering, who did at least realise he’d — in Peggy’s later recounting of this story — ‘dropped a frightful brick.’ He decided prudently to stop with just the one. “Sorry, Peggy.”
“I know you’d rather be out there with him,” Peggy agreed, with a sympathetic air. “But who would collect the lenses we need? And who would fly countless laps of this benighted aerodrome to allow me to test them?”
“Come and see how we judge the results,” Peggy invited. She crooked a finger, and Steve followed.
In a well lit corner of one of the hangar workshops, Peggy unclipped yesterday’s photographs from where they were strung on wires and showed him how two adjacent images that were nearly, but not quite, of the same fields could be overlapped and viewed through eyepieces.
“This one’s a good one,” she told him. Steve bent his head to the wooden frame with the odd-looking goggles, and gazed down. The pictures — appearing to Steve as a single image — leapt up in sharp relief as if he were hanging suspended above the rolling paddocks and fences themselves. He felt he could have sketched every detail.
“It’s called a stereoscope,” said Peggy and Steve had nodded, because he knew what a stereoscope was (he’d used them at the library, to view cards with landscapes on, they popped out of the page just the same) but he’d never thought to see them used like a miniature map of fields he’d flown — flown! — over himself just yesterday.
Bucky had been right. Truly, they were living in the future.
The first stop on the Expo Tour was scheduled for an aerodrome near LeHigh, New Jersey, of all places. Steve was hopeful that at the very least he’d acquit himself with dignity in his first public appearance, if probably not actual glory. He consoled himself with the thought that if he made a blunder he could blame it on the general improbability of anything good happening in New Jersey.
They’d been in residence for two days or so while crews set up and the pilots made brief sorties to acquaint themselves with the territory and note landmarks to orient themselves. The woods and fields looked like moss from above, and the light sparkled off ponds and streams.
The night before the show, Erskine arrived at Steve’s assigned quarters with a bottle in his hand and found him pale and shaking. Erskine recommended Dutch courage before changing his mind and snatching the liquor back, citing the need for a pilot to have a clear head in the morning. Erskine himself ended up drinking a good portion of the bottle.
“I don’t need a clear head,” said the doctor, letting the glass mouth of the whisky bottle clatter on his tumbler. “I’m on the ground, watching the results of my hard work. It’s you who will be,” — he twirled a finger — “up there. I will wave from the tarmac, you keep both those hands on that control column and all will be well, you will see. You’re a good man, Steve Rogers, and a reasonable pilot. You’ll be quite alright.” He poked his index finger into Steve’s sternum again, and eventually made his wobbly way back to his own room, leaving Steve’s stinking of whisky and tobacco. Steve watched him weave down the corridor and allowed himself a fond smile.
“Takes one to know one, Doc!” he called after him, and went to bed.
Stark was up at the crack of sparrow’s farts and clapped Steve on the back at the communal breakfast table. He then made the rounds of all the pilots, checking machines, brushing off invisible lint and tutting over oil stains on thick flight suits that were unlikely to ever be as pristine as they were in that moment. Aero engines were messy; everyone was going to be covered in burnt lubricant by the end of the day. Still, Howard was Howard. There would be Senators here, and businessmen, and People of Note from Washington DC. Howard had contracts to score and showmanship was in his blood. Steve eminently preferred it be Howard on that stage than himself. He inhaled the steam from his coffee and sent grateful thanks up to the cloudless blue skies that all he had to do was fly the aeroplane, do some stunts, take Peggy and her camera for a spin and try not to have an asthma attack mid-air.
The first flight, Steve was a ball of nerves. As he circled, he thought of Bucky and gave himself a stern talking to. Here he was, worrying over a performance, while across the oceans Bucky and those like him were doing this day in, day out, and being shot at, besides. He sharpened his focus, distracted briefly by a glint coming from the nearby woods as if from a reflective surface. It was only a moment, and when he glanced back it was gone. It was probably a pond, or some kind of agriculture — arboriculture? — marker.
Steve had stunts to deliver. He put the brief flash from his mind, breathed deep as he could and applied himself to his task.
No-one saw as the man in the woods stowed his binoculars in a smart stachel and stepped back into the deeper cover of the trees.
By lunchtime, Steve had only one more flight on his program and he was feeling rather accomplished. He’d shot up a whole row of barrels and executed a spin perfectly, zooming up from the ground early enough to keep himself safe, but late enough to knock the hats off a couple of politicians with the backdraft. Steve felt very proud. Howard had hit him afterwards — but on the shoulder, so probably a good sign, he thought.
Peggy had been photographing the crowd again — Steve still didn’t have a handle on why she was doing so — but Steve’s final flight of the day would be with her, circling high enough to photograph the aerodrome and the milling crowds before they came back into land. Then Peggy could dash off and speedily develop photographs to bring out and show to key figures at the evening cabaret Howard had programmed for later. Steve had planned his route during their set up the day before, knew the right elevation for the lens Peggy planned to deploy, and pinned a note to the wooden instrument housing next to his altimeter to remind him.
When it came to it, it all went without a hitch. Steve executed a perfect landing and let the machine run to a halt, engine still idling, while the field crew ran to place the wooden chocks between the wheels. Various civilians wandered over to have a closer look and Steve noticed a man in a grey suit and dark hat scrutinising the scene with his hands in his pockets. Steve sank down a little in the cockpit hoping not to have to mingle and knowing he was doomed anyway. He heard Peggy snort her derision at his blatant tactics as she clambered out of the gunner’s seat on the far side of the aircraft so as not to shock the hoi polloi with a flash of leg. She stayed to handle the mechanics who converged on the machine. Steve left them extracting the camera and plates under her exacting supervision and hopped out, landing on the tarmac and stripping off the warmer layers of his outfit and slinging them over the rim of the cockpit surround.
He watched for a while while he stretched his cramped muscles before making his reluctant way over to Howard and his Very Important Demonstration Table, where Senators, journalists, Navy and Army representatives were clustered around the stereoscope taking turns to view the previous day’s printed aerial photographs. A number of vehicles Steve didn’t recognise were parked behind them, several sporting American flags and smart servicemen drivers standing at parade rest. Dr. Erskine was giving encouraging instructions to those keen to learn, and Howard was preening under the attention from the Guests of Note while taking sideways glances as one senior officer wearing silver oak leaves and a tight skirt bent to see the landscape for the third time. The grey-suited man Steve had noted earlier was strolling over with a bored look on his face. A couple of journalists turned to give him a brief nod before turning back to Howard’s animated monologue.
Steve assumed the pop of the gun had been one of the other aerobatic demonstrations at first.
He was maybe twenty paces away from the knot of people when he realised what he was hearing was gunfire, and by then Howard and Erskine were both on the ground and everyone was scattering in chaos.
The man in the grey suit was already running, hurling himself into the driver’s seat of a waiting car and frantically struggling to start the engine. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Peggy race from behind their aeroplane towards the parked vehicles, skirts flapping. Steve himself ran to Erskine and Howard.
Howard was fine; sitting up and swearing, clutching his side and inching his way towards Dr. Erskine while trying to keep low to the ground.
Steve felt gravel embed itself in his knees as he threw himself down beside Erskine, who wasn’t moving. Blood bubbled from Erskine’s lips and caught in his beard and Steve smelt it sharp and metallic in his nostrils even over the stench of oil and aviation fuel.
Steve’s throat closed up as Erskine grabbed one hand, and with the other extended his index finger to point towards Steve’s heart. He smiled, blood still leaking from the corner of his mouth and the grip on Steve’s fingers relaxed gently to nothing at all.
Steve was left holding the limp remains of the first person to give him a chance since seven-year-old James Barnes had hauled him by the collar out of the gutter and handed him a peppermint. He dimly felt his fingers clutch at Erskine’s sleeves, and thought, nonsensically, Come back! It was the first time he would watch a man die in his arms.
Steve was jerked back into the moment by the sound of more shots being fired. He looked up to see Peggy Carter planted in the path of the shooter’s automobile between the gate that led to the road and his bid for freedom. Peggy had drawn a handgun — why did Peggy carry a handgun? — and was coolly firing bullets into the car even as it trundled over the aerodrome towards her.
Steve was certain he was about to watch Peggy let herself get run down as she groped in the front pockets of her coat for more ammunition, but apparently self-sacrifice wasn’t in her game plan, because she lunged to the side at the last second, out from under the path of the getaway car’s wheels.
The Model-T disappeared out of the gate. Peggy stumbled to her feet and staggered after it, only to change her mind, grip her skirt in two fists and run back towards the confused tangle of people around Steve and Erskine — Erskine’s body, he thought with horror — and Howard on the ground. Her boots threw up clods of damp earth as she ran.
In the chaos, Army and Navy staff were bundling their senior charges into cars, as members of the public huddled together in the shelter of the hangars and streamed into the Aero Club lounge.
Peggy dropped to her knees beside Steve and Erskine; Howard was still groaning loudly.
“Get going,” he ground out. “I’ll manage this.”
Steve made a mental farewell to Dr. Erskine, and followed Peggy at a swift, but measured jog. Wouldn’t help anyone to overexert himself and ground them with a coughing fit at this point. Ahead of him, Peggy hiked up her skirts and tumbled into the rear cockpit.
By the time she’d settled herself in the seat and reloaded what Steve now noted was a British Forces standard issue Webley revolver, Steve had grabbed one of the more level-headed mechanics to swing the propellor and remove the chocks. The mechanic, a red-headed girl probably even younger than Steve, grabbed the blade with both hands and hauled it around before stepping swiftly backwards.
“Contact!” she yelled.
“Contact,” returned Steve, and he gunned the engine.
He pointed them upwind and the machine raced over the grass, pressing them back in their seats as the wheels left the ground. With a shallow bank of the plane’s wings, Steve nudged them higher in flat, wide circles, reaching for altitude and straining to see through the windshield and catch sight of the murderer’s car.
Perhaps ten minutes had passed between Peggy’s last-ditch attempt in front of the gates and their search from the sky, when Peggy shook Steve’s shoulder and pointed. Steve was getting numb — the air, rushing past them at seventy miles an hour, was icy and neither of them had taken the time to dress in their over-clothes for flight. Peggy was pointing at the road, where a tiny Model-T — looking like a model indeed — was racing back towards New York.
Steve felt something heavy and cold settle in his stomach, and fumbled for the trigger on his guns. He tested them, feeling grim satisfaction in the smooth chatter of the mechanism, and pointed his nose in the direction the car was taking. No other vehicles were around. No carts, no horses, only Steve, his grief, his rage and his gun-sights, focussed on the man who’d just brought death to their door.
Come on then, you bastard, he thought.
Barrels were one thing. A moving target, Steve found, was quite another, particularly when it was moving relatively slowly compared to an aeroplane. Steve was liable to overshoot, and did, circling again to bring them round.
Peggy leaned out over the fuselage with her revolver, but at this distance and velocity the shot was impossible to gauge and her aim went wide by yards.
Steve zoomed low enough to make the driver of the car swerve, and bared his teeth in satisfaction. He executed a loop, letting himself gain a bit of height so as not to drive them straight into the ground on the down-swing, and — having reached the apex — dived to bear down on the car nearly vertically, fingers cramping around the trigger.
He pulled up well before the danger point and by the time he’d flattened out and swung around for another try, he saw the car on its side in the road, back axle spinning off by itself yards away, chassis mangled and torn.
He circled again. There was no sign of movement from the cab.
Steve felt bile rise up in his throat. He’d done that. And he wasn’t sorry. Not at all.
After some circling and squinting at the nearest trees to check the wind direction was favourable, Steve used the road as a runway and executed the neatest landing he’d managed in his short career. He peeled up to the crash as close as he dared without risking sparks jumping to their aircraft from the car-wreck, in case it was doused in petrol and waiting to set itself aflame.
He sprang from the pilot’s seat and raced down the road, arriving at the crash moments ahead of Peggy, who he heard come to a halt in a rustle of cloth behind him, before stepping up cautiously with her gun drawn. The driver was crumpled in the wreckage, legs twisted beyond hope, chest heaving and eyelids drooping. He had enough presence of mind remaining for his face to be scrunched up in a snarl.
“Who do you work for?” asked Peggy, calmly, “and where can we find them?”
“Hail Hydra,” he spat, staining his collar with spackles of bloody saliva and staring up the barrel of Peggy’s Webley with disgust.
“Hardly,” said Peggy, and her tone was brittle as ice. “Whatever you think you have started, we will end it. We have ended you.”
“Cut off one head, two more will grow in its place,” croaked the man, his legs still caught in the wreckage as he shifted his weight and drew his hand to his mouth.
“Stop him!” yelped Peggy, reaching for the killer’s arm, but she was too late. The man struck his palm to his lips and bit down, convulsing and foaming from the mouth. He gagged on his tongue and thrashed for only seconds before falling still.
“Damn him to hell,” said Peggy and kicked the forward wheel of the Model-T before turning away and cursing a blue streak. Steve caught the word ‘cyanide’ in her tirade. Poison! he thought. That made sense.
Steve, lightheaded from the sight and the smell of blood and seeping waste, staggered back to the aeroplane. He propped his hand on the wing and let his stomach empty itself onto the road.
Behind them, in the distance, they could hear the sound of sirens approaching.
Howard sent another pilot to pick up the machine, which was sensible since for all Steve’s stubbornness he wasn’t going to be flying anything else that evening. He could barely see straight and he was shaking with nerves.
Steve and Peggy were driven to the nearby Army Camp LeHigh in an ambulance and seen to by base doctors while Howard and a gaggle of senior officers and Senators spoke gravely in corners. The journalists had been left on the aerodrome, no doubt to draft their copy for the morning papers. Erskine’s body had already been removed and sent to a funeral home on Howard’s dime. Steve still felt sick.
“Why aren’t you dead?” demanded Peggy, of Howard. She and Steve were both confined to infirmary beds overnight and neither were happy about it. The room smelled of antiseptic and the soap the nurses used. Howard was sitting on a stool fiddling with various medical geegaws, his legs sprawled untidily in the aisle.
“It was a wrench!” growled Howard, “a fucking wrench, an inch-wide strip of cheap steel I shoved in my pocket and forgot about. So instead of a lead slug tearing through my ribcage,” — Steve felt the nausea swell in his gut — “I’ve got two cracked ribs and a bruise the size of Rhode Island. Sorry Rogers, you look a bit green there,” he finished, looking a little guilty but mostly still full of rage.
Steve couldn’t really hold it against him, and waved the apology away. Abraham Erskine had been Howard’s business partner, the kindest and the best of people. Steve had known him only a few weeks. It didn’t seem to ease the pain all that much.
“I hate to imply there’s something good that can come out of this, Rogers, but it seems like you’re going to get your wish after all,” continued Howard, tangling his fingers in a roll of gauze.
Steve snapped his head up and regretted it, muscles complaining and stomach seconding the disapproval. “What?” he said.
“Senator Whittle, General Johnson and Lieutenant Colonel What-A-Tight-Skirt — who, credit where it’s due, were the only members of our esteemed Forces to keep a calm head on earlier — what?” he said, stopping as Peggy threw a pillow at him.
“Stark, you’re a pig,” she growled.
“Old news, sweetheart,” he returned, but neither of them seemed to be putting much vigour into it.
“My wish?” prompted Steve, impatient with Howard’s nonsense.
“Right,” said Howard. “The witnesses to your swift response to today’s… To the… Fuck, to today. They were impressed with you, Rogers. ‘Smart flying, quick thinking, that kid should be at the front.’ ‘Send him off, toot sweet, we need more like that one,’ etc, etc. Two weeks’ orientation in the Army training camp up the road — that’s this one — and then, ha-wheet ,” Howard made a zooming gesture with his left hand to complement the ridiculous noise, “Out to France.”
Steve reeled internally. He was going to France? With the Army? Like Buck?
“Really?” he asked, round-eyed.
Howard stood and hurled his gauze into the wastebasket across the room.
“Yep,” he said. “You got what you wanted Rogers. I wish to goddamn it hadn’t been at Abraham’s expense, but hey — life’s funny like that.” He smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile at all.
“Howard, pack it in,” snapped Peggy. “You aren’t the only one upset, here. Steve. I’m sure you get a choice. This is still important work.”
Steve looked up, bewildered.
“I wanna go, Peg. This is my choice. You know I wanna go.”
The three of them sat, mostly quiet, Howard blowing smoke rings moodily, Peggy ordering tea and sandwiches from the nurses. They munched steadily until Steve thought to ask something he hadn’t even considered till now.
“Who or what is Hydra?” he asked.
“No idea,” said Howard.
“Peg?” asked Steve.
“No clue,” she said, seemingly engrossed in inspecting a bread crust. “But if I have anything to say about it, I shall find out.” She turned and looked then, and her smile was more terrifying than Howard’s ever had been. “And then, Steve,” she said, “I assure you, they will burn.”
Steve watched her, his cheek resting on the scratchy hospital pillow, a thousand questions still crowding behind his tongue, things he’d been meaning to ask, like why she carried a service revolver, and who she worked for really, and where she’d learned what it looked like when someone swallowed cyanide. But he was tired. And so instead he let his eyes close and fell fast asleep.
In the morning, Peggy was gone.
Howard dropped in to say swift goodbyes and thank Steve for his time and good work. He seemed distracted, but Steve was fairly impressed he’d warranted Howard’s effort at all and so took it as it was meant.
The two weeks in Basic training at Camp LeHigh passed like a kind of purgatory for Steve. He felt pulled from pillar to post, directed this way and that, and he went obediently. He was assigned a uniform and inducted swiftly into the way of the military, with only the slightest quarter for his physical infirmities. Finally, he was handed a packet of papers that confirmed his new employment and rank. Newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Steve Rogers was transported to New York, where he boarded the ship that would take him to France via the docks at Calais, and from there to the station, where he stood waiting on the platform for his train to St Omer, coughing and attempting to banish the memories of recent mal-de-mer.
The wait dragged. The platform continued to fill up with service members wearing the uniforms of all Allied nations.
Steve counted railway carriages to pass the time and thought of Becca Barnes, throwing jacks and bargaining with the universe for her brother Bucky’s safety. She’ll be playing the same game for me now, he thought. And he hoped her little games would pay off. For her sake as much as for his, and her brother’s.
In war there was no such thing as fair, only luck. And they’d need that, where he was going.
It was a weary journey. Steve felt as if it had lasted forever. He suffered his mourning for Erskine like a wound, and he missed Peggy and even Howard. He hoped beyond hope that in a few hours he’d be reunited with Bucky, and even let himself imagine it. He knew how he wanted it to play out. While he’d probably not get away with throwing himself into Bucky’s arms and never letting go — his success rate in not doing so was so far one hundred percent, a streak he’d like to perpetuate — they could embrace. Steve could breathe him in, if only for a moment. Bucky would shake him like a ragdoll, they’d have drinks to celebrate. And then he’d be home again.
Steve’s transport discharged him at a forlorn set of barracks attached to an aerodrome near the town of Marianique. Several two-seaters — a British R.E.8, a handful of Stark’s earlier efforts and an ancient looking F.E.2B — were parked on the tarmac and being poked and prodded by a subdued gang of mechanics.
The overall sense was one of listless resignation. It felt like the place where hope and patriotism had come to erode into despair and resentment. Steve didn’t hold much store by the ebullience of the esprit de corps portrayed in the recruitment posters he had until recently helped produce, but he did rather expect a little more purpose from the staff of a squadron at war.
He couldn’t imagine why everything felt so empty.
One of the mechanics, an older woman with dark hair and eyes, gave him a tired once over and only just refrained from curling her lip.
“New man, eh? Expecting you, sir. Phillips is over by the C.O.’s office,” she said and flapped a grease stained hand in the direction of some low huts beyond the hangars.
Steve opened his mouth to ask after Bucky, but she’d already turned back to her flying machine and was removing a section of fraying canvas from the fuselage.
“Thank you, Private,” said Steve, primly, to the back of her head, and went off in the direction indicated. None of this looked good.
Steve reported to an open tent in front of the Squadron offices, where he was surprised to see a full Colonel of the U.S. Army gesturing over a trestle table spread with maps and photographs. He was busy arguing with a small group of officers and civilians, stabbing impatiently at several sets of greyscale exposures showing fields and scattered buildings. To Steve’s untutored eyes, the photographs could have been taken anywhere in France.
“Second Lieutenant Steve Rogers, reporting for duty,” said Steve, with a salute.
The little group of officers looked up, and Steve nearly squeaked out loud when he saw one of them was Peggy Carter, of all people. Peggy didn’t look surprised. Nor did she greet him.
“This all we got?” asked the Colonel, apparently to the universe rather than to Steve. “They’re sending runts over now, are they?” Someone sniggered.
“Yes, sir,” said Steve, face expressionless, boiling on the inside.
“Well, shit. I hate to pour kerosene on the bonfire of morale, kid, but we lost a whole Flight of our best men this week and I asked for replacements, a whole Flight’s worth, and what I’ve got is you.”
Steve forgot the insults to his person. He swallowed.
“Who, sir? Who did you lose?”
The Colonel blinked. “We lose a lot of men, Lieutenant. I know you’re new, but this is war. I couldn’t give you every name, not even from the last month.”
Steve was praying inside. “I only need one name. James Buchanan Barnes, Lieutenant.”
The Colonel clucked his tongue and shook his head, his gruff demeanour softening despite himself. He dropped his eyes to the table, shuffled some photographs around, before meeting Steve’s eyes.
“Barnes, you say? Yes, he was one of ours. Fine gunner. I’m sorry.”
Behind the Colonel, Peggy Carter sighed but all Steve heard was a sudden ringing in his ears. He moistened his lips to little effect and croaked out, “Was, sir?”
“Barnes went down over Douai with the rest of D Flight three days ago, Lieutenant. No reports since then. If it was a controlled landing, he may well have walked away, been taken as a POW, but there’s been no word. I sent the telegram to his family this morning. For what it’s worth, son, I am sorry.”
For a while, nothing happened. Not a single siren, nor the guttural thrum of an engine, nor even the cry of a lark stirred the silence of the aerodrome. The dark clouds still hung pregnant with rain, the still air full of the odour of cordite, castor oil and gasoline.
Steve felt the blood drain out of his face, and his limbs felt suddenly heavy. The Colonel, the office, the tarmac and the rest of the world retreated like his most devout wishes for the German Army, leaving him alone in a dark cloud all of his own before he fainted dead away.
Chapter 3: Not Without You
Arriving at U.S. Aero Squadron 107, Steve discovers Bucky and several others have been lost in action and are presumed dead. At the instigation of Peggy Carter and with the support of Howard Stark, Steve and Howard fly behind enemy lines in an unsanctioned midnight operation to conduct a search for the missing airmen. Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes is suffering at the hands of his captors. Will help arrive in time to save him?
Torture a person, and they’ll probably scream, at least at first. Keep them from sleep, drive needles under their fingernails, screw the dog-end of a cigarette into tender flesh and sooner or later there will be weeping and screeching.
After a while, some go silent. Disappear inside themselves, keep it all locked up in the quiet. Go a long, long way away, while their bodies bleed and bend and break. A few will remain that way until the end; lost in their heads, mute to the last.
Usually though, continue long enough and such treatment will break most anyone — they will give up any words they are asked for in exchange for water, for sleep, for an end to pain.
Torture is a process.
For First Lieutenant James Buchanan Barnes of U.S. Aero Squadron No. 107 — currently cuffed to a chair and being questioned by two enthusiastic captors — three days of this process was not enough for the foremost stage to be over. He was hollering when they took him and he was damn well still hollering. Bucky Barnes, he’d decided, was a screamer. He was resigned to this, mostly because he’d also decided there was no way in hell he would give up anything other than his name, rank, and serial number — and the fifteen recipes for cabbage he learned from his Ma.
He’d heard the Germans liked cabbage, and thought maybe they’d appreciate it. From the beatings he’d received in response, he’d been mistaken.
When he’d tired of listing ways to over-boil cabbage, he’d modified his former resolve and started on his personal top ten list of E.R. Burroughs characters. He’d howled them out in descending order of how good he imagined them looking naked because if a man was going to be screaming shamelessly, he might as well be shameless about the things he chose to scream.
It is possible that after three days with limited sleep, short rations and so many pointy objects he’d lost count, that he was finally boarding the wagon train to la-la land. He was determined to be difficult. Bucky being difficult meant less capacity for anyone else to transfer their attention to the remaining captive members of D Flight — Gabe, Jim, Dum Dum and Dernier, and their new acquaintance in captivity, Montgomery Falsworth from British R.F.C. Squadron 89. Bucky had accepted his fate, but at least he could spend some time saving them from the hands of his tormentors before he left this vale of tears for good.
That was another thing.
Bucky was genuinely surprised to be alive. It had been a disastrous joint patrol over territory they were scouting out. It had been a quiet day, until they drifted over this little encampment and then all at once the sky had seemed to rain Fokkers like ticker tape from nowhere, and the 107th and their British counterparts had scrambled to respond. They’d taken out a few of the brightly painted machines, but the triplanes just seemed to multiply and eventually the melee ended with Allied machines either fleeing or smoking on the ground and D Flight — plus one surviving Brit — in enemy hands.
Bucky had been dragged from the wreckage of the machine, followed by the unconscious body of his pilot, Captain Hodge, found lying mangled in the crumpled front section. Bucky had been marched to an armoured vehicle.
He’d watched as two further crippled two-seater Stark Mark.2As were hounded down to the ground and captured, delivering the rest of his Flight: pilots Gabe Jones and Jim Morita, and their gunners Jacques Dernier and Timothy ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan.
Lt. Montgomery Falsworth of the RFC had actually landed in his single-seater Sopwith Pup, his propellor shot to pieces, before successfully setting fire to his own machine to prevent it being taken into enemy hands. It had earned him a black eye and a ride next to Bucky in the transport as they were bundled in by black-clad troops.
Once he’d got over the shock of survival, Bucky had expected to be taken prisoner. He had expected to be questioned. He had reckoned on the possibility of brutal treatment because war was war, and while there were rules and codes of honour, there were also a lot of sore heads and desires for revenge. He didn’t mind getting kicked about a bit — he’d pulled Steve out of enough ill-advised knock-down fights to know how to roll with the punches.
He hadn’t expected to be driven to what looked like an abandoned factory, only for Captain Hodge to be prodded to consciousness in front of them and then to die as ‘an example,’ scrabbling and screaming for mercy. Hodge had begged for a clean end to his suffering. He’d not found it.
Bucky hadn’t expected to be tied to a table and scratched and prodded by scientists, then beaten and cut by soldiers. He hadn’t expected to be held down and hurt, just for fun.
He hadn’t expected this. He had expected Germans: the Imperial Army or some special forces. He hadn’t expected these people — this HYDRA outfit.
That was more information Bucky was tucking away in the unlikely event of his survival. He was not a prisoner of war. Whoever was holding them were less military and more… experimental.
HYDRA, Bucky surmised, were mostly Germans, but were not The Germans. They wore German uniforms after a fashion, but cut from cloth as black as axle grease with a tentacled skull insignia that set them apart from any unit Bucky had ever heard of. Everything else he’d gleaned since was from experience.
HYDRA were brutal. HYDRA were bastards. HYDRA didn’t stop coming. HYDRA employed people calling themselves scientists — under the gleeful supervision of a portly gremlin named Dr. Armin Zola — whose jobs required them to draw blood and test Bucky’s reactions to ‘external stimuli’. External stimuli seemed mostly to be pain, in various guises. Today seemed mostly to be about electrodes.
This was all Bucky had gleaned in three days. Despite the little it was, Bucky was still filing it all away.
One of Zola’s minions punched a button and connected an alligator clip to a new power source.
Who was he kidding. He was never getting out of here — he knew that. Steve would never know what happened to his best pal.
Dr. Zola entered the room and greeted him politely.
Bucky braced himself for further external stimuli and thought of Brooklyn, and Steve, and Becca, and home and Steve.
Steve came around with the acrid stench of smelling salts flooding his sinuses. He coughed and batted the bottle away, realising belatedly that it was being held by Peggy Carter, who was crouched over him. Beyond her, the Colonel — Phillips, he later learned — had turned back to his business, and the bustle of the tarmac carried on, as if somehow the world hadn’t ended and Bucky wasn’t gone. The thrum and murmur of voices seemed to chant it somehow: He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead and you never told him, never…
Steve put the kybosh on that thought right away.
“Miss Carter,” he said, taking a shuddering breath. “I… I’m so sorry…”
He got his hands under him, making to stand.
“Agent,” Peggy said, brusquely, steadying Steve as he made his way to his feet in increments. His heart stuttered with a palpable and irregular rhythm. In his gut a deep, bottomless hole was opening up and it threatened to swallow him whole. He was balanced on the edge and he could not look, not and keep his nerve. And God, he was at war. He needed his nerves.
“I beg your pardon?” asked Steve, through the fog of his shock.
“Agent Carter,” she said, crisp and clear, before dropping her voice and muttering, “Now, listen. I need to finish up here, with Phillips — you go, meet me in the map room, oh-one-hundred tonight. Understand?”
“Yeah,” mumbled Steve through numb lips, not understanding at all. He committed it to memory all the same. Everything around him felt very bright. A couple of friendly pilots were hovering by his elbow, offering murmured sympathies. Peggy strode back to the group and Steve let himself be steered by the men, apparently under Phillips’ orders, to the infirmary.
He’s gone, said Steve’s brain, and he stumbled. One of the pilots clucked her tongue as she steadied his arm.
This infirmary smelled mainly of bleach, almost but not quite covering the underlying smell of blood, and was presided over by a tired-looking Korean doctor who pronounced Steve well enough to find his quarters and dismissed him from her domain with instructions to report to the C.O. for further orders in the morning. Steve wandered away in a daze. Peggy Carter was nowhere to be found. He was alone.
Ten minutes later, all unpacked in the barracks, Steve balked at an evening in the mess introducing himself to the remaining members of the squadron, and had taken himself to bed instead. His mind was chasing itself over and over — Bucky dead? And so recently? It wasn’t real, it wasn’t true, and according to Phillips’ indication of first-hand accounts by the surviving pilots, not even confirmed.
Steve wasn’t going to accept Bucky as KIA until he’d seen evidence, even if he had to fly behind the lines to check by himself. Bucky’s name, and the names of the rest of his Flight, did not appear on the lists of the prisoners taken by the Germans. But that wasn’t conclusive. Was it? Could it be, ever?
And then there was Peggy — Agent Carter, that explained a lot — who was she working for? British Intelligence? Maybe? And she wanted to see Steve? About what? Bucky, dear God let it be about Bucky, Steve thought.
The uncertainty was torture. It was insomnia that drove him out of his bed in search of the map room just after thirty minutes past midnight; how the hell was he supposed to sleep when Bucky could be dead? Or was dead? Or might not be?
The aerodrome was dark and Steve made his way to the administrative buildings, checked the blackout shutters were secure before flicking the switch that illuminated the walls full of maps of France and the Western Front pinned to boards. The maps were surrounded by aerial photographs and string, hand annotated with dates and times. Douai was firmly in Central Powers territory. Steve found a note, dated three days previous, listing names and status: MIA - unconfirmed. Dernier, Dugan, Hodge, Jones, Morita and Barnes.
Steve stared up at the confusion of maps and pictures. Somewhere out there was Bucky — Steve wasn’t going to think of the possibility of his death, not yet — and there was no way for Steve to get from here to there. He could fly, insomuch as he had the ability to pilot a plane, but a single man couldn’t prepare a machine for flight from a cold start, he couldn’t even start the engine without someone to swing the propellor. It wasn’t like stealing a bicycle. He could feel the rage and impotence building and his fists clenched. His teeth ground together.
The tragedy of it was, it was all laid out in front of him. He could see how he would do it, if he were to fly over on reconnaissance, if he were to land and scout out the territory where they’d noted so matter-of-factly where Bucky had last been seen. There were fields he could use as impromptu landing sites depending on the wind direction. There were hedges, clear on the photographs, where he could conceal his machine from the air. There were several nearby buildings which could conceivably be a base or a factory, several places where prisoners could be held if prisoners indeed there were. Plenty of places to search, if search he was able.
Orders aside, even if Steve had been instructed to do so, between here and there were the Lines: trenches and barricades separated by the 200-odd yards of churned mud and shell craters, bodies and barbed wire known as No Man’s Land. Steve couldn’t have made his way there, let alone cross No Man’s Land, even if he’d wanted to. Setting aside the small matter of the German Army, what was he going to do? Hijack a car, a truck, and ambulance, a tank? Steve could fly an aeroplane; no one had taught him to drive a car. Howard had let him have a go on a motorcycle once, back in Long Island — his feet hadn’t reached the floor, he’d toppled over in a heap of limbs and greasy wheels and Howard had laughed so hard he’d given himself a stitch.
In the present, behind the ticking and calculating tactical clockwork in his head, all he could hear was a constant background refrain of he can’t be gone, he can’t be gone, he can’t be gone...
Steve stood and stared, grief threatening to swamp him.
He was interrupted, and his sanity saved, by the electric bulb overhead flicking off, then back on, then off and on again with a repeated clicking from behind him.
He turned to see Howard-goddamn-Stark toying with the lightswitch and lounging against the door frame in a mechanic’s overalls. Peggy — Agent — Carter stood just inside the room, wearing fatigues, face unreadable.
“Hello, Steve,” greeted Peggy, cooly.
Steve blinked. “Uh,” he said.
“They shoot people for desertion, Rogers, if that’s what you’re planning,” drawled Howard, striding into the room when no further words were forthcoming. He clapped a hand to Steve’s back in greeting. “Your boy wouldn’t want that, particularly if he really is still around to find out about it.”
Steve continued to blink mutely.
“What’s wrong?” asked Howard, smugly. “Cat got your tongue? Overwhelmed by my sparkling charisma?”
“The fuck, Stark?” asked Steve.
“Keep it down, kid,” said Howard, smirking. “We’re not meeting up in the small hours for the dramatic ambience. This is subterfuge. Indoor voices.”
Something snapped inside Steve’s brain. He drew a deep breath. He was ready to hit something, and Howard’s face seemed a reasonable option under the circumstances. He was exhausted and terrified and confused and Stark presented a viable target. Complex thought was not required. He lunged.
He got in a lucky blow to Howard’s solar plexus and Stark’s breath left him with a whoof. He staggered backwards into a map table. Steve followed up by grasping Howard’s shirt at the neck and drew back his fist—
“We think they’re still alive, Steve,” interrupted Peggy.
Steve froze, one hand still clutching Howard’s starched collar. Howard himself was braced with his hands behind him, propped on a table covered in rolled plans and charts. Several bounced on the floor, where they continued to roll.
“What?” Steve asked, hands falling to his sides.
Howard straightened up and adjusted his tie. He opened his mouth to speak and Peggy shot him a look that would have melted one of her own camera lenses. Howard closed his mouth. Then he started picking up the fallen rolls of paper.
Peggy sighed through her nose and brought her attention back to Steve, who was staring at her, trying hard not to hope.
“I mean it,” she said, gently. “Their capture has not been declared by formal sources, their machines have been removed from the crash sites, no wreckage has been left visible, and we think they’re being kept in some buildings nearby. We don’t know why, or by which branch of the German forces. Howard and I flew over two days ago and I have reasonable photographs of an industrial complex that seems to be being used for something… strange. It’s not an army facility, according to information received. But we’re hearing some decidedly odd stories coming out of that part of the world. It’s to the benefit of the War Effort that we discern what, exactly, is going on in that factory.”
“Yes,” said Steve, breathlessly. “I want to go with you. I’ll do anything you need. Just let me help.”
“Who said anything about going anywhere?” asked Howard and Peggy’s look shot daggers at him. He shut up.
“Unfortunately,” Peggy continued, “your orders are those befitting a green pilot in their first week: stay behind your own Lines, do what you’re told by your Flight Commander and stick to the back of your formation. As the 107th finds itself in restricted circumstances, some joint patrols may be on the cards — there are any number of British and French squadrons around to make up the numbers. I hear Escadrille 616 is top of the list — good fellows.” Howard snorted. Peggy glared. “Ignore him, he’s prejudiced, his son’s the chief mechanic. The CEO’s an old friend: Captain Danvers. You’d be in good hands. She’s by no means a poor star to hitch your wagon to.”
“I don’t care,” said Steve, “you’re planning something else, or we wouldn’t be here.”
“You should care, Carol’s the best,” said Peggy. “Anyway, you’re not wrong. This would all be very nice, or at least your best chance of surviving the next month as a newcomer in a combat zone, but happens to be irrelevant for the purposes of this meeting. Fortunately, given your apparent priorities, I have authorisation to co-opt people on my own recognizance if I see the need. Steve Rogers, I am recruiting you to help me scout out the unknown facility identified on these plans here.”
Peggy rolled out some more plans and photographs and tapped one tapered nail to the page and continued.
“You should be back by morning with enough information to inform Command, who will decide how to proceed. Your name ought never need come up. There’s something to be said for the military, but some actions are best not put to committee.”
Steve nodded. “Understood.”
“Good. It’s a full moon tonight, seems like the best opportunity you’ll get to fly over: enough light to land by if the clouds keep off, not enough light for the chaps on Archie duty to get a good shot in.”
“Archie?” asked Steve. Peggy rolled her eyes. Howard snickered.
“Oh Lord,” swore Peggy, “you are green. Anti-aircraft artillery, don’t they teach you fellows anything before they ship you over these days? Anyway, full moon tonight — terribly fraught, practically haunted. Be a pity if we had engine trouble, had to land. If I were you I should bring a mechanic just in case.”
“Rather more than a mechanic, Carter,” pouted Stark, leaning over their shoulders.
All three of them pored over the photographs Peggy had laid in front of them. Fences, roofs, broad canvas and, just possibly, the hint of shadow that could have been the tails of a row of stationary aircraft.
“I think between us, we could make a plan,” said Peggy, with satisfaction.
Bucky was damn near passed out from the pain when he gleaned the first useful bit of information that was not ‘HYDRA are bastards and like to hurt people.’ Bucky’s German was passable, although his French wasn’t great. He’d been so eager to get here, he’d done all he could to prepare. What an idiot, Bucky thought of his former self. Steve hadn’t bothered. Steve knew what was up. He was safe in Brooklyn, not playing guinea pig for mad scientists. Clever Steve.
Bucky Barnes was not, it had to be said, particularly lucid at this point. Zola had him strapped to a table and was around forty minutes into the application of chemical irritants on various parts of exposed skin on Bucky’s abdomen and he was holding up manfully, but really this would have tried anyone’s stamina and resistance to pain. His torso felt like it was on fire.
Mild respite was to be had when Zola was interrupted mid-swab by a young lieutenant entering, knocking sheepishly on the door frame. His black boots were polished to a shine, his face radiated uncertainty.
Bucky lolled. Zola sighed. The man hovered. What a mook, thought Bucky.
“Hauptmann Schmidt is asking for you, Herr Doctor,” asked the mook, all nerves. Bucky had personally been punched in the kidneys by this guy till he pissed blood down his longjohns; ‘naturally reticent’ wasn’t the impression he’d gotten at the time. This Schmidt fellow must be something, Bucky figured.
He reconsidered when he saw Zola flinch. Hauptmann Schmidt must be really fucking something.
“Ah,” said Zola, casting his eyes from side to side as if subconsciously considering an escape, his fingers fluttering. “Do forgive me, Mr. Barnes. I must attend to this. We will resume later. Dietrich, take care of this.”
Zola left like someone had lit a fire under his tubby ass.
The doctor’s departure seemed to energise the mook, whose face gradually lost its tension and grinned, as both he and Bucky realised ‘take care of this’ was an open-ended order with plenty of room for interpretation.
Dietrich cracked his knuckles.
Bucky closed his eyes and waited for it to be over.
One inexperienced Allied pilot, a genius military engineer, and a photographer of ambiguous employment — Steve still wasn’t sure what Peggy was an Agent of — made their way to the furthest hangar, where several two-seater machines were housed. Steve ran a practiced eye over them — they were the R.E.8 he’d seen earlier and three Stark Mk.2As. Stark himself made a bee-line for the nearest of his own, crooning.
“Baby, baby, what have they done to you? Who stitched these repairs, a raccoon?” he asked, of the machine, running his hands over the canvas before peering into the engine cowling. “Oh sweetheart, you’ve missed daddy. Haven’t you missed daddy?”
“That’s deeply unsettling,” Peggy said, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Steve, her eyebrows drawn together.
“I can’t argue with that,” agreed Steve. “Stark! We know where we’re going. Peggy’s got maps, I’ve got ammunition, we’ve all got flares and a stick of explosive, I’ve even got a clock; you’ve got five minutes to choose how we’re getting there.”
“Oh, this one’ll do us just fine,” said Howard, fondly, still stroking the fuselage. “Now, the sooner you grab me that wrench, the sooner we get out of here.”
It didn’t take Howard long, with clumsy assistance from Steve, to decide he was as happy he was going to get with the engine. They fueled up from jerry cans dragged in from the stores while Peggy hauled open the hangar doors.
“Who’s authorised this?” Steve asked Howard, while they took turns to pour and watched golden liquid glisten in the dim light. It reeked, but Steve was so used to the smell it barely registered.
“Oh, Carter’s keeping that under her hat,” said Stark, brightly. “Far be it from me to spill her secrets. But she’s got all the high-ups twisted around her little finger. I hear when you arrived and did your fainting princess act...” — Steve smacked his arm — “...Phillips was telling anyone who’d listen that it wasn’t worth sending good money after bad, so, one: I wouldn’t keep your hopes up, and two: Our Peg has some clout somewhere.”
They pushed the machine onto the tarmac, as far away from the barracks as they could, lit only by the lamp left by the hangars, while Peggy brought the chocks. This was when Steve’s addled brain totalled the people involved and the number of seats. He made this point to Howard.
Howard snorted, “Sadly, I don’t have the time to develop a three-seater ‘plane just for you, Rogers. I’m not willing to risk abandoning one of the greatest Allied recon assets — yes, it’s you Carter, don’t blush — in case we don’t come back. Peggy’s far too valuable to risk on a jaunt like this. We’ll just have to rely on the fact you’re a twiglet of a man and if we find your friend, you can sit on his lap while yours truly flies us home.”
“Why are you flying the plane?” demanded Steve.
Howard scoffed. “You’ve never flown on this continent before, and I’m pretty sure you don’t know which direction the runway points, and if you hadn’t noticed, it’s dark. I’m the pilot, she’s the brains and you’re the sacrificial little lamb. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Steve, after a moment of internal review of their assets in which he measured up poorly. “I’m disposable anyway, that’s the point,” said Steve. “I was never supposed to be here, and if Bucky’s dead, I don’t much wanna be particular about how long I’m on the earth breathing. This is the best chance I’ve got.”
Peggy huffed, and shook her head.
“Such drama! Take heart, Steve,” she told him, watching as he swung up into the rear seat of the 2A and Howard took the pilot’s seat. Then she stepped briskly forward to swing the propellor. “Tally ho, chaps,” she cried. “Onwards!”
It was hours later and pitch dark outside; Bucky saw nothing through the gaps in the shutters. Zola had not returned and Dietrich had tired of his fun some time ago, leaving Bucky bleeding and lightheaded from a toss up between blood loss, hunger, thirst and head trauma. He’d pissed himself at some point, so that was one thing he no longer had to worry about.
The factory was quiet, the only sound the occasional tread of a guard past the window. Bucky would have loved to be planning an escape, except he was still strapped to a table. He would just have to think of something else.
Zola must have forgotten him. They usually took him back to a solitary cell for nights. Now he was immobilized and cold and still oozing from more than one place, and it was going to feel like hell in the morning. More like hell. A new circle of hell? Something out of Dante’s imagination, anyway.
His rambling mind turned to memories of Steve, in Brooklyn, and Sunday afternoons spent reading on the roof. Much better to think of nice things while he could. Becca would still be playing her games with the universe — ‘I’ll skip to the gate and back holding my breath, and Bucky will be okay!’ — or whichever new strategy had her attention this week. He imagined her running to the post box. He wondered if they’d sent out a telegram already. This was the third night he’d spent here. No one was coming for them.
He wavered in an out of consciousness for a while. He listened to the hoot of an occasional owl from the hedgerows outside. It was so countrified here. It was weird.
He hoped the other airmen were okay; that Dum Dum wasn’t putting his stupid foot in his stupid mouth, that Gabe wasn’t doing anything heroic, that Dernier wasn’t picking fights with that British guy, that Jim wasn’t trying too obviously to escape, that goddam Zola thought one American at a time was enough for whatever this was.
He hoped, too, that Steve was okay, over in Brooklyn. He wondered what he was doing. Was he writing Bucky letters he’d never get to read? Was he still working at the printers, doing some art and advertisements on the side? Maybe he’d hit the big time, get a few commissions, be the next Leyendecker, or whatever that fancy fashion fella’s name was. Have his pictures put up in magazines and galleries for swish and fancy folk to look at. Bucky hoped so. He wouldn’t be around to see it, but he hoped for good things for Steve.
He closed his eyes to another wave of nausea and shivering, and hoped he’d pass out for a while.
They were all bundled up against the cold: sheepskin overalls, layers of gloves and scarves, flying helmets and goggles. Steve felt close to spherical. Howard had got them in the air and over the lines without incident — and no-one from the aerodrome had come running with guns when they started the engine, so Steve assumed they’d got away clear. Either that, or Peggy had arranged things beforehand and Phillips was somewhere in his quarters stopping up his own ears for the sake of plausible deniability.
Steve took the time to breathe. He had been in France less than forty-eight hours and so far his life had been turned upside-down and inside out and now he was slumped low as he could in his seat, travelling at seventy miles an hour in a stolen flying machine, in the dark, at 15,000 feet. It was lunacy.
He looked around.
The moon was bright, the landscape like one of Peg’s black and white photographs with the exposure left just a little too long. Steve’s breath crystallised before it was whipped away in the breeze and he buried his face in his scarf. His eyes behind his goggles he kept wide open, for what it was worth, in case of threats. It wasn’t necessary. They were the only things in the sky except, far above, thin quills of cloud too faint to concern them and too wispy to dim the wash of light over the rolling hills.
Howard hadn’t shared how they were supposed to be landing, but as it turned out, he’d cut the engine so they could glide over the countryside without the noise giving them away. He could pick out the rivers and ponds below as the fields drifted ever closer, until dark oblong patches Steve recognised as the facility they were aiming for came into view.
Howard chose an open, grassy space about a mile from these buildings to chance a landing, sailing silently over trees and hedges, hitting the dirt with a bounce and a thump that rattled Steve’s teeth. He was grateful — they hadn't been sure they'd even be able to try a landing and frankly, the odds of surviving such a literal fly-by-night attempt were small. Howard had pulled off a miracle. Still, thought Steve, no need to give Howard more fodder for his ego.
“Smooth,” hissed Steve, after they’d rolled to a halt, awkwardly tumbling out of the fuselage and onto a wing. Howard’s eyes were dark in the grey light and he smirked; Stark knew he was good and he knew they were lucky.
They pulled flashlights from pockets and consulted their photographs and maps. Steve took a stick of waxy chalk to mark up his map, mindful that he’d need to find his way back. They made plans and shook on them, knowing it was a long shot at best that Steve would find anything, or even return.
“Get out of here, Rogers,” Howard said, voice low. “You’ve got two hours. That takes us to just before dawn, and I want to be up and away before it really gets light. I’ll be leaving in two hours, with or without you. You got that?”
Steve did. He even had a portable travel clock shoved in one pocket. Might as well try not to die, if he could. In the silence of the fields, its tick was audible.
Howard stayed with the machine. Steve stripped out of his flight suit and helmet, leaving himself with several layers of his warmest clothes but enough mobility to move his limbs.
He set out over the fields.
Bucky drifted somewhere in his own mind. In his dream, he was with Steve on the roof of his Ma’s tenement, and Bucky was telling him things he’d never dared say, and Steve was telling him things right back, stuff he’d hardly thought to imagine, and Bucky felt ever so warm.
He was dimly aware he was not actually warm and this was probably a bad sign. Still, it felt nice. If he had to go, he was gonna go thinking nice thoughts. Say bye to his ma, pretend he could hug little Becca, dream he could lounge with Steve at his leisure and kiss him and tell him and hold him like he never had, never would, because this was the end of the line, and James Barnes was dying on a cold table in occupied France, a long, long way from Brooklyn, a long, long way from Steve.
Steve was not a long, long way away at all, having made it the mile or so over fields and ditches with minimal stumbling and squelching of boots. Perhaps this was what they meant by a country mile, he thought, already exhausted. It felt much longer than a regular New York one.
Long Island had been Steve’s first introduction to the countryside, but that had mostly been from aloft. This was all very earthy. He wasn’t used to the smell, or the sucking noises his feet made as he pulled them free of damp soil. Well, probably it was damp soil. He was certain mud in the city had never smelled quite like this. And for a place so full of silence, without the round-the-clock industry of Brooklyn, it sure was loud. There was clicking, and low moaning, and chittering, and a deep huffing sound coming from hedges and trees and the grass fields themselves, which all seemed to be alive. In one field, which he skirted around, there were things — very large things — moving around. He’d originally put it down to the machinations of the Germans, bult he now suspected they were cows. Even though he’d never accounted for cows being so large. Or smelly. Or noisy.
It was probably all for the best, then, when he fetched up against a low barbed wire fence and saw the flat blankness of hangars and structures looming beyond in the moon-glow. There were guards, but not many. Steve didn’t hear dogs.
He considered his next move. If he were in one of Bucky’s novels, he’d bash a guard on the head and steal his uniform, but Steve was a little short for a member of the Imperial Army, and besides, it sounded quite difficult to do. He had Peggy’s Webley in the pocket of his jacket, but he hoped to God he didn’t have to use it. The retort would give the game away, anyway.
Steve snooped along the fence for a while until he saw some doors that appeared to lead into the complex, unguarded and wide enough to admit vehicles, or possibly aeroplanes. He sacrificed his outermost flying leathers to the heathen gods of the barbed wire and rolled over the fence unskewered.
He picked his way over, through scrub and grass, to the wide doors and, checking the coast was clear, slipped inside.
Bucky could no longer feel the places where the restraints pinned him to the table. The sensations in his limbs had graduated from pins and needles to something like sabres and bayonets some time ago. He was too stubborn to want to die at this point, but Lord Almighty, it’d feel better than this.
Several corridors later, Steve was lost.
There was no moon to light his way inside the complex, and he didn’t dare fumble for a light switch. He fumbled instead along walls and down corridors. He might have spent his remaining allotted time traipsing around in the dark had he not heard off-key singing from a room to his right. Steve cocked an ear and frowned.
The voices were singing — if such it could be called — to the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Steve’s heart swelled and his cheeks burned in the dark. There were Americans here, the first indication he’d had so far that his mission might actually meet with success.
As he got closer, he made out the words — slurred and sleepy, but recognisably the national anthem, cut through with other tunes, one of which he recognised as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and another he didn’t recognise at all.
Steve nearly swallowed his tongue and had to fight to breathe slowly when two guards slammed open the door right in front of him and headed off down the corridor bickering in a language Steve would have bet was — but could not have sworn to be — German. They didn’t look back. Steve clung to the wall behind the door while he let all his nerves settle back down to where they were supposed to be. Shit, that was close.
Steve waited until the guards had disappeared out of sight, then slipped through the door and warily scouted the room beyond.
It was bigger than he’d expected. A wide factory floor housed equipment, packing cases and, in the centre of the room, a tall cage containing five men looking the worse for wear, slumped against the bars and still singing. They all wore a semblance of flight kit. One was wearing the uniform of the British RFC. The others wore American gear.
None of them were Bucky.
Steve felt his guts clench as he hustled over. Gradually, the singing ground to a halt. They were all staring at him.
“D Flight? 107th?” asked Steve, urgently.
“Yeah,” said a First Lieutenant, absent of nonsense. “Who’s asking?”
“Barnes,” he husked softly. “James Barnes?”
The five men shared looks. The Brit looked nonplussed. The other four turned grave eyes on Steve.
“You ain’t James Barnes,” said a thickset man with brilliant blue eyes and a moustache that appeared to be escaping his face. “We know James Barnes. You looking for him?”
“I am,” said Steve. “He’s my friend. Please God, tell me he’s here.”
“I’m sorry kid,” said the mustached man, face pale and sad in the low light. “He sure was alive when they took him, but it’s been three days. We’re pretty sure he ain’t coming back.”
The faces of the men before him grew, if possible, more solemn.
Steve wasn’t surprised. He was surprised that he wasn’t surprised, though. He’d thought he’d feel sick. He did not. He grit his teeth. He took a deep breath.
“Yeah, funny thing,” he said to Big Moustache. “People keep telling me that and it hasn’t stopped me yet, so how about you tell me where they took him, and I’ll be going in that direction.”
“And what, we stay here while you piss off?” said the man with the RFC uniform and English consonants. “Let us out, there’s a good chap, or we’ll probably be next. Rather die on the outside of this damn place than in, if it’s all the same with you.”
Steve was brought abruptly back to his surroundings. He shook his head.
“Shit, yeah,” he said, fumbling in his pockets. “Uh, look give me a minute. I assume the guards will be back at some point, but I’ve got a file in here somewhere, some tools, let me see what I can do…”
Having extracted the file — borrowed from Howard — he bent to the task, so he missed the significant exchange of looks between the five men he sought to free.
“Who the fuck are you, kid?” asked Moustache.
“Steve Rogers, Second Lieutenant, newly of the 107th,” said Steve, considering the lock and the bars for the most likely weak point. He grinned to himself in the low light. “Who the fuck are you?”
The no-nonsense lieutenant snorted. Moustache looked affronted. The others laughed. “I’m Timothy-fucking-Dugan,” said Moustache. “This is First Lieutenant Gabe Jones, this funny-looking fella here’s Jim Morita…”
“Screw you, Dum Dum,” snapped said the one introduced as Morita. “I’m as American as you are, you dumb fuck.”
“Never said you weren’t, just that you look funny,” countered Dugan, as Steve worked the lock. Jones reached over and slapped Dugan upside the head.
“Dum Dum just lost speaking rights,” said the airman introduced as Jones. “Jim Morita and I are pilots, Dum Dum and Dernier,” — here he indicated a faintly bewildered looking dark-haired Lieutenant — “are gunners. Dernier’s English is for shit, but I speak French, so if you need something shot at or blown up, let me know and I’ll pass it along.”
There was a discreet, pointed cough.
“Oh, yeah. This is our new friend, Montgomery Falsworth of the RFC.”
“Charmed,” said Falsworth.
“Wish we’d met under better circumstances,” wheezed Steve, working the file. His fingers buzzed.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” said Dugan, without malice. An enormous hand like a leg of pork eased through the bars and closed around Steve’s own comparatively tiny one. “Give me this,” he said, wiggling the file free.
Things went better after that, as Steve watched out for the return of the guards and the big man sawed through the lock like it was balsa wood. Dugan stepped aside to let the rest of D Flight pass, then gripped the sawn-off bar and tugged, twisting it free. He held the bar and swished it experimentally, before smacking it pat into his other palm and grinning.
Morita rolled his eyes. “You’ve got a plan to get out of here, right?” he asked Steve.
“Not without Bucky,” said Steve, automatically. “What do you know?”
“I know we haven’t seen him in three days and that we have no idea where he is,” said the Lieutenant, gently. Steve considered this. Then he pulled his maps and notes from his jacket.
“Then I’ll find him,” he told them, firmly. “You all get going. Go out through the hangar that way, watch out for the guards. Take this photograph, go here, here, here, here, here and there’s where my pilot’s waiting. It’s only a two-seater, so he can’t take all of you, but he might know where you can hide out till we can bring you back to home territory.”
Morita took the paper and blinked. “Well, I can see it’s the best chance we have, but if you’re going after Barnes, it’s your funeral,” was all he said. “You got weapons?”
Steve wasn’t giving away Peggy’s revolver, but he wordlessly extracted a stick of dynamite from his hip pocket and passed it to Morita, who passed it as if automatically to Dernier, the little Frenchman. Dernier’s face lit up like the midway at Coney Island. He gesticulated widely and flung his arms around Steve’s neck, still holding the dynamite. Steve leaned back.
“Don’t mind him,” said Jones. “We’re all just happy to have a shot at getting outta here.”
“Also, he loves blowing things up,” said Dugan.
“Let’s keep the shooting and explosions to a minimum,” advised Steve. “Tell Howard I’ll see him in… Well, I’ll see him when I see him.”
“Good luck, kid,” said Jones.
Steve left them to their own luck and hurried down corridors and hallways, seeking the one thing he’d come here to find.
Bucky was past dreaming and into full-blown hallucination territory, because he could see Steve, standing in the doorway with his mouth open, staring, just as Bucky remembered him, except sadder and if possible angrier. Also, he was in uniform. Perhaps Bucky was asleep, just dreaming after all. He would have pinched himself to check, but no, his hands were still tied down.
He blinked to see if that would wake him up instead, but now Steve was next to him, looming over him, talking and crying and Bucky wasn’t having that.
“Don’t cry,” he said, perfectly sensibly, he thought.
Steve, or possibly not-Steve, thumbed away his own tears and told Bucky to shut up, while he wrenched at the leather straps and buckles.
Well, it certainly sounded like Steve.
The brief but vicious pinch of the straps as maybe-Steve tugged on the buckle and slipped the notched leather free made Bucky squeal; Steve recoiled and his face got even wetter. Damn, Stevie, no need for the waterworks. Huh. Evidence that this was really happening, though.
“I thought you were dead,” said Steve, as he worked on the restraints at Bucky’s ankles.
“I thought you were in Brooklyn,” said Bucky, dazed.
“Lucky for you, I decided you’d be lonely without me,” said pseudo-Steve, and that was one item in the hallucination column, because Bucky’d had that fantasy before. His hands now free, and making their opinion of their poor treatment very clear, Bucky chanced a wobbly grab towards Steve, just to check.
Steve caught his hand.
“Whoa there, Buck,” he said, worrying the strap by Bucky’s right ankle with his free hand. “Just a minute.” He set Bucky's hand back down on the table, withdrawing his fingers slowly as if loath to break contact, then finished extricating the leather tongue from the final prong and buckle. As the straps fell away, Bucky felt a chilled hand laid overtop his own, and re-opened bleary eyes he hadn’t remembered closing.
“Ready to sit up?” asked this vision of Steve.
“Yeah,” said Bucky, reaching for what he hoped really was Steve’s shoulder with his other hand. It sure felt more solid than anything he ever remembered dreaming before, he thought, as he gave it a squeeze for good measure.
Steve rolled him onto his side and he convulsed with the pain. He made himself breathe through it, and by the time he realized he was sitting upright, Steve had already slipped an arm around Bucky’s waist.
“Come on,” Steve hissed, as he pulled Bucky off the table and settled him on his own two feet.
Steve stepped close, tucking himself under Bucky’s arm for support, the scratchy wool of his uniform catching where Bucky’s torn tunic exposed his bare skin. Steve smelled of aircraft fuel and castor oil and also faintly of something organic Bucky only recognised from the zoo.
“You’re really here,” he said, amazed.
“Yeah, Buck,” said Really-Steve, and smiled.
They were still grinning at each other when the blast of an explosion shook the warehouse and knocked them both to the ground.
The blast roused the facility like boiling water on an anthill. Steve could only imagine that it was his dynamite being used to create this chaos, and he cursed Bucky’s comrades.
“That’d be Dernier,” said Buck, blearily. “He does love to see things explode.”
“They were supposed to go find my pilot!” hissed Steve, ducking them into a doorway to avoid a shouting group of half-dressed men. After they blundered by, he peered out to check the coast was clear.
Steve was a whole cauldron of emotions and doing his damndest not to let that stop him from getting them out of this facility. Whoever’d had Bucky had made him bleed and beaten him till he was purple. One eye was squeezed shut and he was missing far more skin that Steve could contemplate without wanting to immediately find and gut the person responsible. But he was alive. Bucky was alive. And to stay that way, they needed to find Howard. Steve hoped the rest of the 107th had made their way to Stark’s rendezvous point by now.
Steve was already mentally retracing the route across the fields to the aeroplane and considering whether having to drag a half-conscious James Barnes necessitated a re-evaluation of his planned course, when they rounded a corner and ran into two guards — fully dressed, fully armed — escorting a somewhat muddy man between them.
All five men brought themselves up short. No one moved; the guards frozen as the two fugitives.
Then Steve realised the prisoner was Howard, and he panicked.
Steve was propping Bucky up, so neither of his hands were free to reach for his gun, but the guards had guns too, and sooner or later one of them would draw on him and this was it, there was no way out. So close… he thought.
Then he felt something heavy scrape his thigh and a powerful noise exploded in his ear, followed by another, and while his ears were still ringing, the guards fell to the floor. Steve gaped.
Bucky was holding Peggy’s revolver in his left hand. Howard raised his own hands in surrender.
“Hey, uh, friend, right? We okay, pal?” Howard asked, uncertainly, wide dark eyes on Bucky. Steve was stock still.
Bucky groaned, leaning further into Steve’s shoulder. “Now I know I’m dreaming,” he said. “Stevie. You never mentioned your pilot was Howard Fucking Stark.”
Howard visibly preened, still wide-eyed and dishevelled, and apparently took Bucky’s words as permission to straighten up and dust himself off, stepping away from the bodies as the guards slumped in a heap on the ground.
“Yes, well done, very efficient,” he said, in a very poor imitation of calm and in control. “I see why he likes you. Rogers? You with us?”
Steve snapped back his attention, Bucky warm by his side, trembling and holding a gun that he’d just used to shoot two men.
War, he supposed, came with that sort of thing. He just wasn’t expecting to have to see it close up. It was very different from blowing up barrels. Or watching an assassin crash a car. Or seeing Erskine die in his arms.
Steve was just about fed up of the ways death could surprise him. He had been in France less than forty-eight hours. If they survived this, what else was he going to have to witness?
He shook himself.
“Stark. Please tell me we have a ride out of this hell hole.”
They did have a ride: a whole flock of Albatross C.VI N.I night bombers painted in deep colours.
Howard had hustled Steve and Bucky to a row of hangars. A corresponding row of guards were gagged and trussed and being supervised by the remaining members of D Flight. Dum Dum Dugan was attempting to take the opportunity to put the boot in, while Gabe Jones was halfheartedly holding him off, clutching a purloined rifle and keeping watch all at once. Morita and Dernier were fuelling up the machines; Falsworth the Brit was looking over a tan machine with red, white and blue roundels and British markings — presumably a captured prize belonging to some other unfortunate, long-gone pilot. Bucky was collapsed, head between his knees, on an upturned wooden chock.
Stark was being obstructive — or sensible, depending on the point of view. Steve was gazing covetously at an Albatross in deep navy blue with red and white detailing. He dearly wanted to fly it.
“Bullshit, Rogers,” snapped Howard. “You’re dead on your feet. I’m flying her. You get your skinny ass in the observer’s seat right fucking now, share with your friend Barnes here. Good job you’re close; it’ll be a squeeze.” He turned to marshall his mini-circus. “You four Americans: pair off, take that one and that one, assuming there’s two pilots among you? Yes? Good. Finally, you fellow, Limey! I know you’re in love over there, but can you even fly a Camel?”
“I should say so,” snorted Falsworth, snottily. “British engineering, can’t be bettered.”
Howard, astonishing Steve, didn’t rise to this.
“Your funeral, pal,” said Stark, palms out. “Don’t blame me if you can’t handle the torque, and if you haven’t done this before, try not to get into a spin you can’t get out of, and remember they pull to the right like a motherfucker. Now, can we all take off before we die in a massive conflagration?”
“You’re the one still talking,” observed Bucky, weakly, and Steve could’ve hugged him for it. In fact he did, right there on the tarmac, before hopping to the front of the machine to swing the prop, get the hell out of the way and dive back into the seat, jammed up against Bucky, tired, wrung out, and the happiest man who had ever seen the wrong side of his own lines on the Western Front.
Bucky had been hustled into the rear seat of a stolen German aeroplane under dim moonlight, the four surviving members of his Flight in two others, escorted by Falsworth in a rogue British Camel. Bucky found himself firing rounds from Steve’s revolver at the massing HYDRA personnel who’d finally caught on they had a prison break on their hands, and not just arson. It was about as effective as he’d expected and it was dicey for a few minutes, until Falsworth swung his taxi-ing machine around and showed them all how well his Lewis guns were functioning.
Three Albatrosses and a Camel lifted off into the night. James Barnes closed his eyes. He was going home.
It was a tight fit, crammed into a space designed for only one, even if Steve wasn’t the beefiest man in town. Bucky’s cheek was slumped into Steve’s shoulder blades, he was swaddled in the scarf Steve had taken from his own neck.
Steve burrowed lower, embarrassed with how pleased he was to be there, giddy with the idea that if the dawn held off just a while longer, they’d be back at the aerodrome, the place that Bucky had lately known — even temporarily — as home. He clutched the handles of the gun as much for balance as for anything, and put his faith in Stark’s navigation skills.
Howard was true to his word, and other than some halfhearted shots in the dark from anti-aircraft operators on both sides of the lines, they got home clear. The whole aerodrome must have heard them coming too, because a crowd was waiting for them on the tarmac, squinting into the early morning sun as the stolen machines taxied to a halt, one after another. When D Flight made their shaky first steps down onto the field, they were mobbed.
There were hugs from the mechanics and the other pilots, greetings and back slaps and squeals of joy. Peggy Carter stood to one side, a faint hint of a smirk curling at one side of her mouth. Colonel Phllips loomed, looking grim, his craggy face unreadable.
Steve approached him and saluted.
“Second Lieutenant Steven Rogers, presenting myself for disciplinary action, Sir,” he said, at attention.
There was silence among the crowd. For a moment, a bolt dropping to the ground would have sounded like a falling girder. Even Howard didn’t speak up.
Colonel Phillips sighed theatrically, raising his eyes to heaven and speaking, world-weary, as if to the sky.
“Yes, Carter, you called it, I owe you a bottle of gin.” Behind him Peggy grinned from ear to ear. Nervous laughter broke out in slow ripples. Phillips’s gaze snapped to Steve.
“At ease,” he ordered gruffly. “Someone get these men to the infirmary before they fall down. And Rogers?”
“Welcome to the 107th.”
The cheer from the crowd on the aerodrome followed them all the way there.
Chapter 4: On Your Left
Bucky is stuck in a Parisian hospital while he recovers from his treatment at the hands of HYDRA. Meanwhile, at the Front, Steve gains a reputation and strikes up a friendly rivalry with a pilot from French Escadrille 616. When HYDRA unveils a new superweapon that begins to decimate Allied aircraft, Steve and his new friends compete to bring it down.
Several weeks into his first posting, Steve Rogers was doing quite well at war. He didn’t really know how he felt about that. The small measure of success and more camaraderie than he’d had in his life were a peculiar trade-off to the ugliness of it all. He hadn’t been lying to Dr. Erskine, those handful of months ago; he didn’t want to kill. But he believed in the cause, and seeing Bucky recover in increments from the abuse that had been meted out to him by the very organisation that had murdered Erskine helped balance Steve’s natural sense of empathy with rage.
Bucky Barnes was at that time recovering in the American Hospital in Paris. The brass had given him the option of an honourable discharge and a boat back to Brooklyn, and he had told them to go hang. He’d also gotten them to send an urgent message to his family, confirming he was alive and very much kicking.
He was currently chafing — and kicking — at his metaphorical bonds which, though kinder, were as firm as those of HYDRA. Colonel Phillips had agreed that upon Bucky’s full recovery he could resume his post at the 107th, but until then he was on enforced leave.
Steve did what he could and wrote letters to which Bucky replied, informing Steve that whatever he’d said had been mangled into gibberish by the censors. So Steve switched to sketches and cartoons, which Bucky confirmed as arriving more or less intact. Bucky’s responses to the sketches had tended towards the sarcastic, but Steve assumed he’d just rather be shooting at the enemy planes than looking at pictures of them and needed to blow off a little steam.
Meanwhile, Steve was making up for lost time in both experience and victories. He’d gathered a growing reputation as a smart tactician and something of a fighting bantam, which he’d been annoyed to discover was a sort of small chicken. He’d been promoted to First Lieutenant too, and while Phillips was still nominally Acting-CO he was making gruff noises to the effect that Steve was being primed for further promotion and a captaincy so as to free Phillips up for more Colonel-appropriate duties.
In the skies, Steve was becoming confident in the practice of aerial warfare. He’d even picked up a friendly rival of sorts, one of the pilots from French Escadrille 616, though he had yet to meet the man in person. Steve didn’t even know his name, but so far he and machine number DX732 had gone after the same Hun three times during recent combats, and each time Steve had been the one to deliver the victory blow. It was getting to be a habit. He suspected the French pilot was starting to take it personally.
The first time, he’d been out alone, cruising at 14,000 feet and scouting the atmosphere for Germans, when he’d caught the flash of sunlight on banking wings far below him. He’d swung around and dived closer only to see a grey French Nieuport 17 C1 in one-on-one combat with a tri-planed Fokker. The machines themselves were more or less equally capable, so neither had mechanical superiority; the pilot of the French machine was executing some truly inspired manoeuvres but the Fokker wasn’t giving any quarter at all. The fight looked evenly matched.
Steve was all for fairness, but dogfights had always been life or death for one party or the other and Steve saw no issue in tipping the scales for his own side. The Fokker hadn’t stood a chance once Steve stepped in to join his Allied compatriot; he tipped the stick forward and tore down on the enemy machine from above, unleashing a volley of phosphorescent tracer gunfire that sent it down in flames.
Flattening out from his dive, he’d drawn level and flown alongside the Nieuport for a few moments, looking over at the pilot whose continued life he’d ensured. A gap-toothed smile was visible under his cap and goggles as he gave Steve a thumbs up in thanks. Up close, the machine had red highlights over the grey body, and the word ‘Falcon’ written on the fuselage. Steve gave the Falcon a cheery wave right back, before turning for home.
The second time had been a little more combative.
It had been a dismal grey afternoon and Steve was sort of hoping for a distraction.
He was in the rear of the 107th’s formation, flying solo in a single-seater as the whole squadron flew escort duty for a British reconnaissance mission made up of lumbering old two-seater B.E.s. Nothing like the nippy Stark Mk.IIs. He was bored.
It helped that he’d had experience in what the B.E.s were doing as they pottered up and down, but even though he made sure to mentally thank Peggy and the war effort for those miraculous lenses they were using to photograph the German Lines, there was nothing that would make circling around and around for hours on end interesting. The best he could hope for was running off any predatory German ‘planes, and though his squadron been hounded by anti-aircraft fire, they’d not yet gotten a whiff of a Hun in the sky. So Steve had trundled over the same few miles of territory all afternoon, following the slow pattern of the recon flight, and let his mind wander.
The previous evening, Peggy had dropped into their Mess on a whistle-stop visit for a tumbler of whisky and a gossip. She’d confided that Captain Danvers had been encouraging her pilots to step their game up a notch in response to the implicit challenge of the 107th’s current lethal reputation, which was apparently being touted as the standard for aspiring squadrons to beat. Steve had grinned, thinking of the Falcon, and had opined that their success was simply down to superior flying from the American airmen of the 107th and their advantage in flying Stark fighters over those French Nieuport has-beens. He’d told her to pass it on. Peggy had drained her glass before returning it to the bar with a thunk and telling Steve, “Alright, it’s your funeral.”
A sudden wobble of turbulence reminded Steve that if he didn’t stay sharp it really would be his funeral. He shook himself awake with a curse to find he was lagging behind the rest of the 107th, easy pickings for any sharp-eyed German that might be in the vicinity.
After a swift and guilty look around, he ducked the nose of his aircraft to build up speed and catch up to Gabe and the others. As he did, his field of view opened up to encompass a wider vista below, and Steve caught sight of exactly what he’d been worried about — except it was happening to someone else. A lone grey Nieuport with Allied markings was happily plotting a straight course westwards, presumably back to wherever it came from, while a yellow Albatross wearing the Maltese crosses of the German Jagdstaffels gained on it from behind. The Allied pilot hadn’t seen it, reasoned Steve, or they would be performing evasive maneuvers and trying to make itself a harder target for the German, who had the advantage of both speed and height. Right now, the Nieuport was about as hard to hit as a sitting duck.
With a prayer that he wasn’t already too late, Steve nudged the control column forward, urging gravity and his engine to hurry up and go faster.
He dived between the other two aircraft, cutting past the Nieuport on its left, Steve hauled on the stick until it dug into his stomach, sending his two-seater in a neat loop up behind it. The Allied pilot — yes, it was his old feathered friend DX732 from before, Steve noted — suddenly perceived his predicament and careened sideways in a tactic Steve recognised from his own arsenal of tricks as ‘hitting all the controls at once and hoping not to die.’
Once the predatory Albatross lost the advantage Steve half-expected it to peel off and head for home, but it pressed the attack as though nothing had changed. The German rolled to follow the French ‘plane, forgoing any kind of defensive tactics in favor of closing quickly.
Steve’s mouth firmed into a line of mirthless satisfaction as he completed his loop and the tail of the Albatross filled his gunsights. He gauged the distance, paused until he could aim slightly ahead of the enemy machine, and squeezed the trigger.
Aerial combat, fought as it was by two or more airborne vehicles as they hurtled through three bullet-riddled dimensions at speed, was not a precision art. Steve could therefore not have intended what happened next.
What he’d actually planned on happening was, of course, disturbing, had he thought about it: in choosing to fire, he was choosing someone’s life over another’s. That was his decision; that was the consequence of war. It was an ugly trade-off, but every single soldier, sailor and aviator had signed up for it. They all knew that to lose a fight in mid-air was likely to die, whether by flame or gunfire or impact. So when Steve realized he’d only tagged the fuselage of the Albatross without hitting the pilot, he’d circled around for another shot, wary of retaliation all the while.
No retaliation was forthcoming.
The Albatross, now circled by a Nieuport and a Stark Fighter, and well into Allied territory, seemed unusually placid. It had found an even keel.
Steve was curious and held his fire, as did the pilot of the Falcon. By unspoken agreement, they eased closer to the Albatross, throttling back until they drew level, bracketing the yellow machine. The German pilot continued in their apparently new policy of non-aggression as all three aeroplanes gently cruised westwards, side by side. They were close enough to see each other’s faces across the void, and the German pilot pulled off her cap and goggles, revealing smooth brown hair and a pale face screwed up in intense frustration. The pilot waved and pointed, and Steve realised what was wrong: he must have hit the engine, or possibly the fuel tank. The Albatross was dead in the air.
There was some small advantage in having aeroplanes made mostly of wood and glue and cloth: if a machine lost its engine mid-flight, it would quite happily glide along more or less indefinitely, gradually sinking lower and lower until it alighted on the ground. With a bit of luck and so long as it met no obstruction, a person could safely land like that. Steve recalled that Howard had done so, cutting the engine to prevent anyone hearing their approach as they descended on the facility holding Bucky.
Steve laughed. He didn’t enjoy the macabre aspects of his role in the so-called Great War, and if this pilot didn’t make a desperate mistake or select death over capture, no one — French, German, or American — needed to perish in today’s conflict. He punched the air and whooped. The sound wouldn’t carry at this speed, but the gesture spoke for itself.
Steve ignored the scowling German pilot and, pulling off one glove, held out his right hand as he caught the Falcon’s eye. With an emphatic flourish, Steve held up his index finger, then added a second in a wide V. “That’s two!” he yelled, fruitlessly.
The Falcon threw his gloved hands up as if to say, “Oh, come on.” Then he made a dismissive gesture that seemed intended to convey the sentiment You break it, you buy it, and opened up his throttle, peeling off, presumably for his own aerodrome.
Steve grinned. He headed for home, escorting one subdued pilot and the wounded Albatross, feeling as if he’d achieved something.
After that, Steve got a day’s leave to visit Bucky in Paris. They spent the morning kicking around the hospital convalescent yard, Bucky griping all the while that he was perfectly well now and could they please let him get back to the war, thank you? They could not, of course, but eventually a charge nurse came over and told them to stop wearing out the grass and get some food.
"If you can keep that one," she’d said to Steve, jerking her thumb toward Bucky, "from running off to the front lines, you can go out for something worth eating. He turns into a pumpkin at dusk, mind."
Steve had nodded as solemnly as he was able, and had taken Bucky to a cafe where they ate croissants and drank coffee and marvelled at their lives. Steve had told Bucky about his adventures with the Falcon, his sulky prisoner of war — long since passed over to the proper authorities — and her captured machine. Bucky had laughed and called him competitive.
The two of them had caught a matinee and, as the evening drew in, they’d set up outside a cafe. Bucky had sat quietly with a beer — “What the nurses don’t know ain’t gonna hurt them, Steve, and if you don’t tell ‘em, it won’t hurt me either,” — while Steve sketched the ducks on the Seine.
By the time they had returned to the hospital, Bucky looked drawn and had developed a tendency to hobble. "Walk it off, Buck," Steve had advised, with a clap on the back, having correctly decided pity would be poorly received. Bucky had winced, but hugged back, then Steve had delivered Bucky back into the hands of his minders and departed.
It had been a good day. Steve felt the separation even more keenly on the train back to Marianique, but that sort of maudlin thinking didn’t bring anyone anything but misery.
He had taken himself back to the war and gotten on with it.
The third time, it was Steve in trouble.
He’d led a patrol made up of Falsworth in his Camel — lately seconded to the 107th — and Morita in another single seat Stark Fighter. All three of them had somehow missed the five black dots that appeared out of their blindspot in the sun until they had resolved themselves into Fokker D-V biplanes, turning the air around Steve’s patrol to showering hot lead. Steve had cursed himself for his complacency and had circled for altitude, Morita and Falsworth turning to follow, but the Fokkers had the advantage of height and surprise and the Americans had to scatter to survive. Steve felt several bullets hit his wings, and dodged desperately for an opportunity to break away and run for it but the German patrol cut off his every move.
Steve was starting to think that this was where his war ended, when a Nieuport shot past him and Steve had about enough time to register that it was, firstly, not the Falcon — the fuselage was blue and red — and secondly that the word ‘Avenger’ was picked out in white below the cockpit. He caught a glimpse of a brilliant smile, before the pilot looped beautifully, hung her machine vertically on its propellor and fired tracer straight up into the belly of the Fokker that had been hounding Steve, before completing the loop and diving back down in search of another target. The manoeuvre was a marvel, daringly executed and Steve felt distinctly outclassed. He also felt very pleased to be alive.
He looked around and saw with horror his first proper dogfight. There were aeroplanes all over the sky and fear clutched his gut at the memory of that air show in Hempstead, a lifetime ago, when he’d seen two machines collide. That had been when they weren’t being shot at. Now he found himself in a melee of bullets and aeroplanes, gripping hold of his controls for dear life and just trying to stay out of the way.
He saw Jim Morita’s machine break for the Lines, strips of canvas trailing from one wing, and Steve hoped to high heaven he’d make it back. A German machine tried to follow Jim’s, but was intercepted by a bright green Nieuport whose tactics were so bullish Steve was afraid they would outright ram the German and destroy themselves in their endeavour. In the face of this display of rage, though, the pilot of the Fokker apparently decided discretion was the better part of valour and hared back into the fray, leaving Morita free to head over the lines and towards home.
Steve didn’t have time for relief, he was still trying to stay intact. He side-slipped to avoid a French machine — emblazoned with the word ‘Photon’ — glued to the tail of a Fokker, and realised his own plane was being targeted by two enemy aircraft. Caught between two deadly streams of bullets, Steve sent his machine into a spin in the hope of shaking them off. He levelled out after seven full rotations to find both still behind him, and zoomed to compensate for his lost height.
A familiar grey Nieuport darted in, distracting the two German pilots. Steve crowed in relief — even odds! — and turned on the closest Fokker, head on. The Fokker swerved, afraid they’d be rammed, and dived away. “Chicken!” yelled Steve, suddenly high on a surge of adrenaline, and followed.
There was a lot of twisting and turning and dodging other machines and they lost each other eventually. Steve was diverted by the sight of the grey Nieuport flying in a tight circle nose-to-tail with another Fokker. The Falcon was just out of range of the German’s guns, both of them orbiting around and around a centre point as if tied together, trying to gain ground enough to get a decent shot in. Steve circled warily and thought the French airman was getting the upper hand, only to watch as the Falcon shot out of the circle to no reason at all Steve could tell. The German took the opportunity he was given and followed; Steve saw the tail of the Nieuport start to perforate under the onslaught of bullets and he wondered what the hell the Falcon was playing at. The only thing he could imagine was that his guns had jammed and without the opportunity for further attack had decided to make a run for it. From his vantage point, Steve didn’t think he was going to make it. He kicked the rudder and let his machine curl around in a swift arc. He watched as the nose of the Fokker drifted into his gunsights. One long burst of ammunition and the Fokker’s engine erupted in pieces, propellor shattered. It jerked upwards, seemed to stop in mid-air, then fell like a stone.
Steve exhaled and the grey French aeroplane, and its apparently grateful pilot, swung up to fall in line with Steve’s own machine.
They flew alongside each other for a moment, a little calm in the swirling storm. The other pilot slammed his fists onto the rim of his cockpit as if in anger and made disgusted gestures at his guns, which seemed to confirm Steve’s theory.
Both sides of the fight seemed to agree they’d all had enough more or less at the same time and it ended as suddenly as it began. The leader of the German squadron fired a white signal light into the air and their remaining compatriots circled up and beat swift retreat eastwards. The blue and red ‘Avenger’, with yellow streamers fluttering from the struts of her bi-plane indicating seniority, followed suit with a yellow light and the squadron of Nieuports followed her into formation. Steve gave a salute to the leader, which was acknowledged with a lazy two fingers to her forehead. Falsworth’s Camel had survived — for which Steve was grateful — and he circled nearby, sliding into position at Steve’s left. To the right, Steve found himself flying in formation with the grey Nieuport. Steve grinned.
The Falcon made a rude gesture and rocked his wings from side to side — which was usually a warning or a pre-arranged signal, but which in this case Steve took to convey simple frustration. “The early bird catches the worm,” Steve howled into the wind, to no other end than it amused him, before he waved farewell and the Falcon rejoined his own squadron. Steve laughed all the way home.
After this, Steve wrote to Bucky and gave him a blow-by-blow account of the whole thing, with sketched diagrams, censors be damned. He drew the other members of the 107th and their notable victories, he even drew the formation of Escadrille 616 led by Captain ‘Avenger’ Danvers — Peggy’s friend Carol — lighting up the sky with a glow befitting her brilliance in the air. He sketched what he’d seen of the Falcon’s face, neat facial hair, dark eyes behind cap and goggles, gappy front teeth in a wide grin. He’d made a whole production of their unspoken competition, emphasising his rival’s skills in the air and Steve’s corresponding excellence, hoping to give Bucky something to amuse himself with while he recovered.
The next time Steve saw Bucky, some two weeks later, he seemed a little subdued, but Steve supposed he was chafing at his forced vacation which was due to finally end in a weeks time. “Soon, soon,” Steve had soothed him, and Buck had shaken himself and produced a somewhat forced smile and they’d played cards till Steve had to catch the train back to the Front.
Steve had taken the opportunity to get his uniform cleaned while he was in Paris, so he’d lounged around in mufti at the hospital with Bucky and picked up his formal togs on the way back to the train station. He’d changed in the men’s room at the laundry and the last time he looked this spick and span, he’d been newly off the boat for his first time in France. It seemed an age ago — it had been barely two months. Now it was half an hour since Steve had bid Bucky goodbye and he was sitting on his pack at the station sketching halfheartedly, feeling bereft, moping and waiting for his train.
He was interrupted from his thoughts by a shadow falling over his sketchbook and looked up into the face of a man in the uniform of the French Air Service, wearing a neat goatee that looked decidedly familiar.
“Got a light?” the man asked, identifying himself by his accent as one of Steve’s countrymen despite the uniform.
“No, asthma, can’t stomach the stuff,” said Steve, standing and tugging his jacket straight. “Gum, though?” he offered, digging in his pockets. He had the liquorice flavour from Blackjacks; the airman in the French uniform wrinkled his nose, waved him off and sighed.
“Looks like I’ll just have to suffer. Thanks though. Sam Wilson, Escadrille 616.” He stretched out his hand, and Steve took it.
“Steve Rogers,” he told Wilson, giving him a wary handshake. He was certain he recognised that chin. Wilson seemed to take his hesitation for shyness and gave a warm smile.
“You a pilot? First time at the Front?” he asked Steve, casually. Steve blinked, then looked down at his freshly laundered uniform. He supposed he did look all new. He felt a surge of defensiveness, but it was quickly overtaken by the sparkling potential of opportunity.
“Uh,” Steve said. His suspicion about that goatee was all but confirmed when Wilson smiled revealing neat front teeth with a prominent gap in the middle.
“It’s okay,” said The Falcon, “we all have to start somewhere.”
Steve kept his face carefully neutral, or tried to, snickering to himself on the inside.
“Say, you don’t have any advice, do you, for a new pilot?” Steve asked, turning to a new page in his sketchbook and holding his pencil as if eager to start.
“Sure,” said Wilson. “Smart call. Let’s see: don’t cross the Lines under 10,000 feet; stick with your formation, don’t go off on your own; get home at the end of the day — that’s victory enough for most of us. And don’t pick fights you don’t have to.”
Steve suppressed another snicker.
“But what if you really, really have to?” asked Steve, innocently, with a winning smile.
Wilson frowned. “Then hope someone up there is looking out for you and saves your ass,” he said. “And get your affairs in order, ‘cause it’ll be your funeral.”
“Sure,” said Steve, scribbling. “So what would you do if you, for example, saw some other poor fellow was in trouble. Maybe he’d met a Fokker he couldn’t handle, or didn’t notice when an Albatross was about to drop on top of his head, or his guns jammed…?” Steve let his voice trail off, looking up with wide eyes, all innocence, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
Wilson looked suspiciously at Steve, who grinned back like the Cheshire Cat.
“Hang on…” said Wilson.
Steve watched Sam Wilson’s face as his expressions ran through a zoetrope picture show of wary, to confused, to annoyed, to a dawning and wide-eyed recognition, bringing with it the impression that he’d happily kick himself, and then possibly Steve.
“Oh you are shitting me!” he yelped. “You are having my thick ass on, I thought you were just some wet-behind-the-ears goddamned cheeky son-of-a-gun, but no it’s you isn’t it? You’re the actual gold-plated, lucky-charmed bastard who’s been stealing my Huns!”
“No, seriously,” continued Steve, mock serious, “what’s the etiquette here, do you go to the rescue, keep the poor bastard flying? I mean, if you call that flying…”
Wilson crossed his arms and shook his head, apparently amused despite himself. “Oh, that’s how it is?” he asked.
“That’s how it is,” affirmed Steve, with a tip of his head and what Bucky would have called his smug little punk face.
“Well fuck you very much Captain Hun-Thief, whatever your actual rank is,” Wilson said, with a rueful smile.
“First Lieutenant, 107th Aero Squadron, U.S. Army Air Service,” volunteered Steve.
“Yeah, I figured that last bit out. You’ve made a bit of a name for yourself, when you’re not prop-blocking me.”
Steve snorted. “What can I say, I see some poor sucker getting bested by every Hun in the sky, I gotta even the odds,” he said. “You, me, one Hun, that’s what? One and a half pilots to one?”
“I’d say don’t sell yourself short Rogers, but look at you. If I’d known you were so tiny, I wouldn’t have been so pissed. I guess I should say thanks.”
“No thanks necessary,” assured Steve. “And also: hey.”
“If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out. And you kinda set it up for me there. You going back to the 107th? You should swing by our mess sometime, get a drink, meet the… what was it? ‘Pilots of inferior skill and technology’? Something like that.”
“I just call it how I see it, Wilson,” said Steve, and grinned. Sam Wilson just shook his head again, sucked his teeth and rolled his eyes.
They sat together on the train, swapping tragedies and victories. No one could spend two months — or nine months, in Wilson’s case — in such a dangerous field of warfare without loss. Wilson had witnessed the death, mid combat, of his closest friend Riley some two months prior. Steve and the 107th had mourned a handful of pilots and gunners since the rescue mission to the factory, though none from D-Flight. They’d lost four to combat and one to a road accident. Of course, there had also been the murder of Captain Hodge for the others to contend with. He’d not been much liked, but he’d certainly deserved better than what he’d got. Wilson dug out a bottle of bourbon from his pack, and together they toasted the fallen until their ease was such that Steve was Steve, and The Falcon was Sam.
“Fuck war,” said Sam, with feeling, passing the bottle.
“Fuck HYDRA,” said Steve, taking a swig.
His companion looked askance. “Funny you should mention this HYDRA,” he said. “Been hearing that name crop up lately. Have you and your lying ass flown over Cambrai recently?”
Steve thought about it, scratching absently behind his ear.
“Three, four days ago? I’ve been on leave since yesterday morning, visiting my friend — he’s got about a week before they sign him out of hospital as fit for duty. It’ll have been eight weeks, he’s chewing his own arm off.”
“Poor fucker,” commented Wilson, raising the bottle as if in salute. “So last time you were over that way you saw nothing unusual, right?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty quiet, or it was,” agreed Steve. “Why do I think you’re telling me something has turned up to liven things up?”
“The last two evenings there’s been a spate of casualties — fellows go out on patrol, fly over some innocent looking piece of woodland or a farmyard or something and poof! Blue light, shockwave and they’re gone — nothing but pieces. Not even enough to count as a wreck when they hit the ground. Just debris. Our C.O. only heard about it through this friend of hers, some shadowy British lady with connections, told her to tell us to watch out. No one’s flown away from it unscathed so far, the nearest anyone’s come to verifying what happens is from a couple of miles away, from the ground. Not enough to find a location yet — which seems to change, by the way, so they’re telling us that monster’s goddamn mobile.”
Steve was amused at Sam’s description of, presumably, Peggy as shadowy. Peggy was luminous, no shadows there. The news of a new artillery weapon such as he’d described, however, was not funny at all.
“So it’s a big gun that shoots blue fire?” he asked. “On wheels?”
“Sound about as likely as any other theory,” shrugged Wilson. “Anyways, the brass want it taken out, you can imagine. If the Germans have a new superweapon… Yeah, that’s bad.”
“And if it’s HYDRA…” Steve mused, aloud, catching Sam’s eye.
“From what you tell me, that sounds worse.”
“Sounds like a thing a person should do something about,” said Steve.
“Well, last night Captain Danvers has offered a crate of whisky, the real, actual, Scottish McCoy, for the team that can bring it down. Half our lot have been planning the weeks patrols around attempts to smoke it out.”
“Seems dangerous,” said Steve. Sam looked thoughtful.
“You know what?” he said, leaning back and throwing one arm over the back of the seat.
“What?” asked Steve.
“You reckon your star spangled squadron’s the best of the best, Hail to The Chief, Land of the Free and all that. How’d you care to make it interesting?”
Steve squinted. “I’m listening.”
“Let’s extend that bet to the 107th. Your fellows find the thing and take it down, you get a crate of whisky courtesy of Escadrille 616…”
“And if one of your people get it, we stand you a crate… You understand I don’t make the calls?”
“You’ll figure it out,” said Sam.
“I will,” agreed Steve. He was sure between Phillips and Peggy Carter one of them would stump up for it. Competition among squadrons was good for morale, and God knows they needed a regular supply of that.
“You, sir,” said Steve, extending his hand to seal the deal, “are on.”
Wilson shook heartily and they spent the rest of the journey trading lazy jeers and insults, until they disembarked and caught their respective Army transports for home.
Phillips agreed to Steve and Sam’s terms with an eye-roll and a, “Whatever gets you all out of bed in the morning, Rogers,” before getting back to his reports.
Steve couldn’t relate the details to Bucky without the risk of exposing their strategy, such as it was, so instead he wrote that he and the Falcon had a bet and that Steve was excited to fulfil it for the honour of the 107th. He drew a picture of Sam, without the helmet and goggles, and told Bucky all about their meeting at the station and the prank Steve had pulled. He hoped all the while that it would entertain Bucky in this last week, before he was back with Steve at the aerodrome for good, or as long as their luck lasted. He patted the envelope before dropping it into the post bag, swiftly glancing over his shoulder in case anyone caught him doing something so patently idiotic and sentimental. The only person in the room was Gabe Jones, submitting his patrol paperwork and as Steve blushed helplessly Gabe just snorted and went back to his forms.
“One week, Rogers!” yelled Gabe, as Steve left through the open door.
Steve flipped him off as he went.
Peggy arrived a few short days later.
“It’s HYDRA, alright,” she told Steve, Phillips and the rest of the squadron as they all lined up for a briefing, Phillips lurking in the background like a put-upon grizzly bear. “Bet or no bet, we need this thing gone. It’s brought down more planes in five days than every German anti-aircraft battery put together has in the last two months. We don’t know much. We know it must be mobile, and we know it’s deadly. I have here marked up photographs of its last locations, triangulated based on eye-witnesses from the ground. I’m circulating these to all the local squadrons, yes, Dugan, that includes the Avengers.”
“We’re calling them the Avengers now?” asked Phillips with a huff.
“You prefer ‘Danver’s Darlings’?” she asked, with a raised eyebrow.
“Carry on,” he said with a dismissive hand flap.
“Escadrille 616, ‘The Avengers’, will also have this information. Intelligence is key in the pursuit of victory. This is a war, not a girls’ school cricket tournament. Yes, Lt. Morita.”
“Don’t we get a cool name?” he asked.
“Good point, well made,” interjected Dugan, “I vote for Super Squadron X.”
“Nah, that’s shit,” said Jones, “I say, Freedom Fighters.”
“The Stars and Stripes!”
“Oh my god,” snapped Phillips. “You might as well call yourselves ‘The Howling Commandos’ at this rate. Shut up. Carter, this is your briefing, control your troops.”
“You heard him, Commandos. It’s in your interest and the interest of the Allied war effort to scrutinise the information we have and take this thing out however you can. Best of luck. Don’t let us down.” She swept out of the room, with a pat to Steve’s shoulder as she went.
There was a chorus of ‘No, ma’am!’s and cat-calls at Steve, and Steve resigned himself to a night of looking for patterns in the photographs to glean something, anything, about whatever HYDRA had cooked up.
He didn’t find anything.
On the Friday, they had a run in with the blue menace itself.
The area around Cambrai had been crawling with Allied planes for the better part of a week, and all that had happened was the German jagdstaffels had started showing up and picking off the slower machines like seals at a fish feeding frenzy. That led to orders from above telling them to knock it off unless they wanted to be targets, so everybody had reassessed.
Steve was flying a two-seater with Dernier in the gunner’s seat alongside Jim and Dum Dum in a second machine. They, along with other double duos from the 107th, had taken various quadrants of the local map to patrol in the hope — for want of a better word — of encountering this new HYDRA threat. It had cropped up a few miles to the south west the day before, taking down two competent pilots and their gunners from a British two-seater squadron and motivation was strong.
They weren’t the only ones out that afternoon — two R.E.8s and an escort of Sopwith Pups were somewhere in the mid-distance to Steve’s ten-o-clock when Dernier tapped him on the shoulder and shook him, pointing. As Steve watched, a glowing cloud of blue smoke and flame belched from the ground below the little group of British machines and one of the R.E.8s disappeared in its embrace. The edge of the cloud caught one of the Pups and Steve couldn’t believe what he saw.
The roiling mass only clipped a wing-tip of the unfortunate Pup, but the effect was spectacular. A blue flame spread from the tip, across the top plane, and engulfed the whole machine. It didn’t explode, or shatter, or lose integrity, it merely burned in the air like tissue paper, leaving bare struts and wires. As Steve and Dernier flew closer, Steve’s hands on the stick and foot on the rudder drifting unbidden and helplessly, the skeleton of the Pup splintered apart, the body of the pilot dropping over and over through the air.
The other machines had wheeled away, and flew in zig-zags either to evade the weapon or in genuine confusion as to what had just happened. There was no further fire. Eventually one pilot mustered the courage to investigate; Steve watched one of the Pups zoom low, returning whole shortly afterwards to its formation.
Steve went and looked closer himself, beetling along just above the treetops and indicating to Dernier to make notes. There were woods, a pond, a couple of derelict barns, and nothing else visible from the air. He decided to go before a German pilot caught him flying so low on the wrong side of the Lines.
Steve marked the location in his mind and, jaw clenched and expression grim, flew back to the aerodrome, cold with rage.
Not only was it mobile and more horrifying than he could imagine, it was apparently invisible too.
The competition felt less a competition after that, and the mood of D Flight and the rest of the 107th was subdued for the whole weekend.
That Monday, Bucky arrived. Steve was so relieved he could have overflowed with it, and hugged Bucky and tugged him by the sleeve this way and that around the aerodrome until Bucky had yelled, “I know those are the hangars, I was here before you, you insufferable punk!” and they’d gone off to get a drink and calm Steve the fuck down. The entire squadron retired to their respective quarters that night extremely inebriated.
On the Tuesday, Sam Wilson dropped in for a social call.
He landed his Nieuport with professional ease and taxied up to the mechanics, handing the machine over for inspection. Steve met him on the tarmac, Bucky in tow, and introduced his two friends to each other with enthusiasm. Sam was all smiles; Bucky managed a tight grimace and a rough handshake.
Steve was confused. In his experience, Bucky was the personable one. Steve had always been too small, too angry and too busy to make friends. He’d had Bucky, and by extension Bucky’s family, and that had been basically it. Now he had a friend he could share with Bucky, and Bucky seemed distant at best and cold at worst.
This continued throughout the evening over beers, as Dugan quizzed Sam incessantly as to the possibility of willing and available single women in the Avengers’ roster and Gabe and Jim roundly chastised him for being a pig. Sam let Dum Dum down gently, explaining he was only warning him off for the sake of everyone’s health. Bucky glowered in the corner. Steve spent the evening shooting him glances, and getting increasingly frustrated.
At about 21:30 Bucky drained his glass, stood up and stretched.
“I’m tired,” he declared. “I’m gonna turn in. Later, fellas. It’s a fucking relief to be back, but all of you are exhausting. Steve. Wilson.”
Then he left.
There were boos and shouts of ‘shame’ to follow him out, and Sam lifted a glass in salute which Bucky ignored. Steve snapped. This was a poor show, and also utterly out of character. He told the room he’d be back and followed Bucky down the corridor. He collared him outside the kitchens, on the way to the barracks and stopped him with a hand on his sleeve.
“Why’re you being such a jerk, Buck?” he asked, with almost a snarl.
“I’m not being a jerk, Steve, I’m just tired.”
“Yeah, try again. I know you tired, and this isn’t it. This is you being a jerk. What gives?”
“Leave it, Steve,” Bucky advised, darkly.
“No! My best friend in the world is finally here with me and he’s sulking and blowing off his own friends, and mine besides! I thought you’d be happy to meet Sam, I wrote enough about him.”
“Yeah, I got that, thanks,” sneered Bucky and Steve recoiled from the venom in his tone.
“You have a problem with Sam?” he asked, in disbelief.
“No! I mean, yes. I, I mean, who is this guy? I disappear for a few weeks and all of a sudden it’s Sam this, Sam that. Do you even know him?”
“He’s a pilot!” argued Steve. “I thought you’d find it entertaining!”
“Oh, he’s a pilot is he? He must be scintillating. I’m not good enough, am I? Just a gunner?”
“The hell, Buck?” Steve snapped. “Where did that come from?”
“Stevie…” Bucky sighed and pushed his fingers through his hair. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m drunk and tired and I’m going to bed. I didn’t mean it. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yeah, Buck. Whatever you say,” said Steve bitterly, and turned back down the corridor and away. Behind him he heard a thunk as, unseen, Bucky let his head slam against the doorframe before heading to the barracks and to bed.
Steve returned to the mess, after a detour to the men’s room where he kicked a wall to calm down and then regretted it when it hurt. Dernier was attempting a popular tune on the piano, and Steve took a seat and shook his head, apologising to Sam for Bucky’s sour mood.
“S’aright man,” assured Sam, waving him off. “War does strange things to people. He was a POW, and then he was an invalid and now he’s back where he left off, only everything’s moved on without him. Stands to reason he’d be out of sorts.”
Steve, who’d not thought of anything in more than two months but staying alive, winning combat victories and improving his skills in the air, all while desperately waiting for Bucky to join him, blinked. He’d not considered it might not be as easy as that for Bucky.
“Damn,” he swore softly.
“He’ll get over it,” said Sam. “Here, watch me sing ‘Modern Major General’, I know all the words and Dernier reckons he knows the notes.”
The rest of the evening was spent in poor renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. Eventually, Steve waved Sam off to a spare bunk before returning to his own.
“Buck?” he asked, sticking his head into the shared barracks room where D-Flight’s bunks were laid out in a row.
The lump that was Bucky didn’t move. Steve considered waking him, but decided that would be counterproductive, and instead dressed for bed. He lay between his own sheets, relief and anxiety doing an awkward waltz in his brain as he drifted off to sleep.
Steve dreamed. He remembered the glinting sun on the water at Hempstead, the reflection of the moon over the rivers and lakes on his night flight to rescue Bucky.
He awoke in the dark, eyes staring at the ceiling with a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away.
Steve got up, careful not to wake the other occupants of the room, shoved his flight suit on over his pyjamas, slid into his sheepskin lined flying boots and made his way to the map room.
The photographs of the locations were pinned on the board. He made sure the shutters were shut tight and turned on the lights. Then he made a thorough examination of each picture, pulled from the walls and pored over with a hand lens, from the first sighting of the blue and deadly ballistic, to the last that he’d witnessed himself.
Satisfied, he returned to his bed, the foundations of a plan in place.
Wednesday dawned bright with clear skies, and mid-morning found a suspiciously large number of Allied planes in the skies over German occupied France in the area around Cambrai. Those few regular German patrols and sorties that ran afoul of the winged multitude mostly saw sense, and seemed to decide that there were other areas of the country that demanded their attention. The Allied machines, on the other hand, seemed in no hurry nor to have any particular agenda, being as they were peculiarly evenly spaced across the landscape. They were not even observation craft, mostly single seaters and twin-seater fighters. If the German observers thought anything of it, no one could tell, but certainly no-one seemed to be spoiling for a fight in the face of this show of force.
Steve — in the forward cockpit of a two-seater, with Bucky behind him — kept the control column gripped tight between his knees and clapped his gloved hands together. He didn’t want to lose circulation, and even at little under 8,000 feet it was still cold. He squeezed his fingers together, then took the stick back and cricked his neck.
Bucky was on look-out, undoubtedly comparing the landscape to the photograph that had been neatly scored with a grid of squares. It was only the second time he’d been back in the air since everything, and that was only because Morita had taken pity on him and taken him up the previous day for a joyride behind their own lines. Steve thought he’d looked a little happier after that.
Bucky had apologised to Steve in the morning, after Steve had waved Sam off in his Nieuport, and Steve had accepted Bucky’s slightly stilted words with more grace than he felt like extending. He didn’t know how Bucky could possibly have considered a few weeks acquaintance with Sam could have supplanted a lifetime’s friendship, and he’d said so. Even the slightly more solid camaraderie Steve had built over two months with the Howlies (the name had stuck) didn’t add up to the time Bucky had spent with them prior to Steve’s arrival in France. Besides, it wasn’t as if there wasn’t enough of Dum Dum’s personality to go around.
“For fuck’s sake, Bucky,” Steve had offered, forcing his voice to stay light as they’d made their way to the sheds, “you’re my best friend, my only family, we live together. I like you the most, okay?”
“I get it, Steve,” Bucky had muttered, looking muleish, his ego still visibly bruised.
“When this patrol’s over, I’ll braid your hair and everything,” promised Steve.
“Steve …” groaned Bucky.
“Because apparently we’re not soldiers, we’re little girls,” Steve had continued, aiming for levity and wincing slightly as he heard his own frustration bleed through.
“Steve, I said I get it,” said Bucky, shortly. “I said I’m sorry. Give me some time, okay, pal?”
Steve had sighed, held his peace and let it lie.
Sam was right, Steve had reckoned. Thinking back, Bucky had always hated being left behind. After all, he’d so rarely needed to be. He was free and easy with his generosity when it came to Steve’s perpetual sickness but during the rare times Bucky got ill or troubled, he had a tendency to want to get everything straight in his own head before he invited anyone else in to share.
Steve didn’t understand, but he could still see the cigarette burns on Bucky’s chest where he’d let his tunic hang loose at the neck. It was a chilling reminder. Steve had channelled his anger towards the bastards who’d taken his easy-going friend and forged this subdued and apparently embittered facsimile.
Early morning telephone calls had resulted in approval of Steve’s plan from the upper echelons of command, obtained via a less than usually sarcastic Phillips. High in the air, gunners and observers were even now clutching hastily developed photographs and poring over them and the landscape below, as pilots were flying traverses of their assigned patch of square miles and every aeroplane had half a dozen bombs in racks strapped to their fuselage. Several Allied squadrons had been released for the morning duty, including the 107th, Escadrille 616, Squadron 103 — a group of Americans led by Colonel Rhodes, who Howard reckoned was his son’s only good influence — and the British folks at 89 who’d lent them Falsworth.
It was possible, theoretically, to mount artillery on the back of a vehicle. After some discussion with Howard — who’d flown in from his current workshop complex near Paris in a new prototype single seater — they’d concluded that it wouldn’t be feasible to fire it while in transit, or even while still on the vehicle itself. The best they could assume, it was wheeled and towed, or assembled in situ from easily separated parts. What Steve had realised during the small hours was that the gun, if such it was, could not be invisible but it could be camouflaged. All Steve had seen of the little corner of France which had belched blue fire was fields, trees, fences, and ponds. No structures large enough to hide a gun emplacement, no telltale gaps in the trees or scorched branches. Nothing that looked as if it had been tainted by the substance that had engulfed an aeroplane in flames after barely a brush with the canvas.
That left lakes and ponds, which seemed ridiculous, but Steve hadn’t been able to get it out of his head, so he’d checked, and in every instance of reconnaissance photography that had been taken within an hour or so of a known casualty, there was an irregular, isolated pond. It was the only thing he could think of. He’d pulled up the stereoscope and the magnifying glass and had looked for, but not found, traces of vehicle tracks in each photograph. It was suggestive, but hardly proof. But he’d spoken to Phillips, who’d taken to the telephone, and then presumably Peggy and her ilk had worked miracles and now here they were, carving up the landscape with orders to stay alert and scarper like mad if they saw so much as an odd-shaped puddle. Each observer carried pistol flares: a red flare meant a sighting of something that had not appeared on the regular recon photographs, something that might be new and hiding sinister depths.
They’d had a few false alarms. One had been too far away for Steve and Bucky to scramble towards, but they’d seen a red pinprick and a circling knot of machines from afar. They’d eventually dispersed, and a second flare — white for a cry of wolf — had let them know it was nothing. Once they’d seen a bomb explode on the carpet, but apparently to no purpose — Steve hoped desperately it wasn’t anywhere close to their actual target and hadn’t warned them off.
It was afternoon when, eyelids nearly drooping with fatigue, Steve was snapped to attention by Bucky’s gloved hands gripping his shoulders and Steve glanced ahead. They were cruising over cultivated land crazed with hedges and country roads, broken by patches of woodland, much as they had since arriving in their allotted territory. A small pond alongside a narrow track was glinting in the sun; if Bucky’s bruising grip was any indication, it hadn’t appeared on photographs previously.
Steve considered several options and, with little time to ponder, decided to bank sharply and gain both distance and height. This might tip off anyone watching from the ground that Steve’s machine and its occupants had seen something, but on the other hand might also take them beyond the range of whatever was below. It still looked for all the world like an innocuous patch of water.
Steve’s caution was revealed to be the wiser option. Steve, peering downwards through his tilted planes and between the struts and wire, saw the pool peel back like the lid of a tin of anchovies. It retracted entirely, revealing a glimpse of trench and the open maw of a fat, grey gun barrel.
He heeled around as swiftly as he could. The air erupted with blue light. Steve’s puttering heart damn near stopped as he was all but blinded as he opened the throttle as far as he could and prayed, hard. At least he, in the pilot’s seat, had some illusion of control; behind him, Bucky was presumably just gripping his seat and doing whatever he did to beg the universe to save them.
Whatever they’d done, it had worked. Steve, after enough time had passed for him to believe they weren’t about to die in a sheet of blue fire, circled for height and craned his neck over the edge of the cockpit. Smoke and sparks were dissipating even as he watched. Below them, the anchovy can unfurled itself and the pond reappeared.
Steve turned and caught Bucky’s eyes through his goggles, wide and wild. Bucky drew the flare gun and slotted in a cartridge.
A single red light arced high over the landscape. Steve hoped someone was watching.
The destruction of the weapon was always going to be risky. No one knew how quickly it could be reloaded, or even what it was packing. Conversations between Howard and the best of the Allied scientists apparently hadn’t been conclusive. Phosphorus was widely used in both tracer and the anti-aircraft ‘flaming onions’ and copper burned blue; some noxious combination of the two had been mooted.
At any rate, as Steve dived low over the impressively realistic and shimmering camouflage he held his breath. Others had responded to the flare, and Gabe’s machine and a khaki coloured British Bristol F2 circled warily. Steve waited as long as he dared to thumb his bomb-toggle, pulling out of his dive what felt like inches above the fields but must have been at least 500 feet. Yet again, he and his machine failed to dissolve in deadly flame and he thought he heard Bucky yell in triumph as he zoomed upwards, propellor thrashing as he climbed as steeply as he could, pushing the plane to its limits, before flattening out and banking to come around.
Bucky was pounding him on the shoulders again and he panicked briefly, before Steve turned to catch his expression and broad grin. Steve felt himself beam in return before his eyes were drawn to the mess on the ground below him.
What he saw made his jaw drop.
The fields were, or had been, growing some sort of furry grass — Wheat? Barley, maybe? — that had been nearing a yellow-white ripeness that Steve assumed meant impending harvest. That would never happen now: the entire field was burning. Towards the edges the flames were the orange and black belching smoke of a natural fire. The location of the sinister pond was concealed entirely by white, roiling clouds. Sparks of blue burned like fireworks, exploding like fireworks on the 4th of July.
Jones and Dernier were swooping low to lay their own incendiary eggs and impact-fused ‘daisy cutters’, but Steve could see it would hardly be necessary. There was no way whatever was under that inferno would be causing anyone trouble anytime soon, except possibly the unfortunate farmer whose land had been trespassed upon by HYDRA.
Steve waited for Gabe, and also waved cheerily at the British pilot and his observer who waved back. The Brit pulled off a glove and extended two fingers in the sign of victory. All three aircraft circled warily until they were sure nothing on the ground was moving and then eventually turned to make their way home.
Celebrations at the 107th that evening were fuelled by free whisky and the heady passions of victory. The Mess again played host to Sam Wilson, to whom Steve presented a single bottle from the enormous crate that had been delivered by courier shortly after supper. It was, Steve said, only fair since the whole business had been his idea in the first place.
Peggy arrived while the party was in full flow, to share photographs with Phillips, and then with the officers and enlisted troops who demanded to see. The whole squadron, along with Sam, clustered around a table to inspect Steve and Bucky’s handiwork. The conflagration had spread to four fields and had only burned out at the banks of a small river that had thankfully contained the blaze. What was left of the trench and the emplacement were barely a smudge in the centre, the only visible evidence of the deadly mechanism a blackened cylinder, several cracked axles and burned tyres. There were no identifiable human remains; the heat of the fire must have only left cinders.
Peggy must have decided the moment for sobriety — in both senses — was over, because she climbed atop one of the rickety folding chairs, raised her glass and cried, “People of the 107th! To victory!” Her words were met with a roar. Falsworth whooped; Dum Dum pounded the table. Morita and Dernier danced a small jig. Steve applauded. He saw Bucky turn to Sam with a rueful smile, raise his glass and let Sam clink their glasses together.
“That’s us,” said Bucky. “Not you.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Not only are we fighting a war, we have to keep up with your hyper-competitive nonsense. Great.”
Steve, sitting on the other side at Bucky’s elbow, leaned over his best friend’s lap towards Sam, already drunk on the two glasses of whisky he’d had so far.
“Try,” he told Sam, a little incoherently. “You have to try to keep up. But you’re not going to. Because we’re the best. Right, Buck?” He patted Bucky’s knee rather too hard. It was fine, he was making a point. Over his head, Bucky snorted.
“Sure, pal,” he said, fondly. “Just as soon as you sober up. This feathered fellow can’t hold a candle to us.”
“Oh God, there’s two of you,” lamented Sam, to the ceiling.
“Sounds like the kind of thing that’d drive you to drink,” said Bucky, draining his glass. “Too bad, huh?”
Still slumped over Bucky’s legs, Steve propped his elbow and one knee and his chin in his hand. “Hmm,” he said, articulately.
“It’s okay,” said Sam. “Shuri and Tony — that’s the Princess of Wakanda and Stark Junior to you, Barnes — have a still in Hangar Three. If you don’t value your eyesight or your higher faculties you’re welcome to partake sometime. Just don’t tell Tony you’re a friend of Howard.”
“Thanks,” said Bucky, mostly not begrudgingly.
“Get me another?” asked Sam, waggling his glass in the air.
“Get it yourself,” said Bucky, and, displacing Steve back into his own seat, swung out of his chair and strode off to the bar, smirking.
Steve watched him go, his numb limbs all of a heap.
“It’s like that, is it?” asked Sam, apropos of absolutely nothing. Steve whipped his head round to stare right back. The world revolved, just slightly.
“Like what?” he asked, a little higher than he’d have liked to pitch it.
“No, no, I get it now,” said Sam, palms up in a placating gesture. “He’ll hear nothing of it from me.”
“Hear what, Wilson?”
“I’m slow, Rogers, I’m not stupid.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Steve, with dignified asperity, gesturing with a glass. His hand was suddenly damp. He sucked whisky off his fingers, carefully — he was sure his fingers weren’t normally so difficult to find — and squinted at Sam.
“Sure, friend,” said Sam. “You should have another whisky. You earned it, after all.”
“I did!” said Steve, and went off, somewhat unsteadily, to find some.
The following morning, Steven Grant Rogers was notified via dispatches that his tactical acumen and initiative had earned himself a captaincy.
The man himself was in a poor state to appreciate it, curled up as he was in the infirmary with a tin bucket and the brusque ministrations a very unsympathetic Dr. Cho.
Sam Wilson laughed the whole way home to his own aerodrome.
Chapter 5: Agent Carter
On leave in Paris, Bucky and Steve interrupt an exchange between Peggy and a smartly dressed stranger. They get much more than they bargained for.
As the fraught and fantastical night-flight from HYDRA neared its end, a watery sun dawned over the little group of canvas hangars, storage sheds and low-roofed barracks on the outskirts of Marianique. Three stolen German bombers and a liberated Sopwith Camel touched down on the turf, one after the other, to a growing crowd of staff and officers.
Thus was Lt. James Barnes returned to his home aerodrome: nauseated, aching and barely conscious.
He’d clutched Steve tight as they’d huddled together in the observers’s seat of a stolen German bomber flown by Howard-Fucking-Stark over occupied France. He spent the whole flight surrounded by the stink of his own fear, the acrid scent of fuel and oil, and the fruity tang of whatever agricultural effluent Steve or Howard had apparently stepped in, because apparently their mad efforts had met with hazards that included heifers as well as HYDRA.
After a small eternity and a thankfully textbook landing, he’d been manhandled onto the tarmac in the light of a new morning, slung between Steve and a helpful mechanic.
Bucky and the others had only been prisoners for four days, give or take. It had felt longer. Once he’d accepted the reality his senses were telling him and knew he was home, he had expected his nightmares to be over.
That, in the light of hindsight, had been somewhat naive.
Bucky had watched Steve deliver himself into the custody of some brass hat sent to replace Hodge — Phillips, he’d later been informed — then accept his place in the Squadron with a single, serious nod, amid the cheers breaking out around them. Bucky had been reeling. The collision of his two worlds was surreal.
“He’s still skinny,” he heard Phillips growl of Steve, to the smartly dressed and inarguably beautiful woman standing with them. He watched the Colonel stalk off.
The woman — Carter, Phillips had called her — coughed to cover her laugh, then strode forward to embrace Steve, of all people, who hugged right back with understandable enthusiasm and also familiarity, which was less expected. Bucky had no idea what to do with that.
He’d not had time to process anything before nurses and medics in starched white uniforms had converged on the little group, bringing stretchers. Bucky recognised himself as the prime target. Not a chance, he’d thought. Granted, he was swaying at that point but he was fully prepared to strongarm his body into marching to the infirmary under his own steam. He was making ready to take his first step for the sake of what little of his dignity remained, when someone gripped his arm and swept his feet from under him with one hook of an ankle. He fell, and was caught neatly by two medics with the stretcher.
He stared up, betrayed, into the twinkling eyes of Steve’s girl, Carter. Wonderful.
“Not so fast, Lt. Barnes,” she admonished. “Infirmary. Now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered under his breath.
“Less backchat, if you please, you’re in no fit state,” she said to him, before softening slightly. Deep, brown eyes searched his own. “I’m so glad we have you back, Lieutenant. I can’t imagine what it would have done to Steve if he hadn’t found you.”
Found you alive, the implication ran. Boy, would he be talking to Steve later about all this. Especially about how he’d somehow picked up a girl — that was new.
Steve tried with women, he did, but more often than not they tended to ignore him, seeing his stature and missing his stubborn, firecracker, genius self. Apparently, Steve had finally found someone who’d taken the time to pay attention. How about that? thought Bucky, not bitter at all.
As Bucky stared at the sky, and the medics straightened up to bear him away, Steve stepped up to his side and laid a hand on his arm. Steve’s worried, glassy eyes looked full of more emotion than Bucky felt comfortable trying to parse.
Steve’s hand tightened on his sleeve, apparently unconsciously. “I’ll find you later, Buck,” said Steve, after an uncertain moment, and Bucky let himself be carried away.
The medical exam had been predictably awful. He’d submitted to it as best his fidgety self could manage. Later, after they’d all had a few hours’ sleep to recover, Steve had sat by his bedside and told him all about the insane lengths he’d gone to to get this far. Bucky had been impressed as hell and also wanted to shake him for his reckless idiocy. This wasn’t actually a new feeling when it came to Steve, so at least he’d experience dealing with it.
His thoughts on Steve’s newly expanded social circle were less expected. He found he was mostly approving: a Steve Rogers without Bucky Barnes was, given the opportunity and motivation, apparently pretty competent with people. Steve had explained his friendships with Carter and Stark, and the death of the poor scientist who was responsible for Steve’s surprising new circumstances — and at the hands of HYDRA, no less. The goddamn murdering bastards, thought Bucky, aching down to his bones, as he watched Steve’s grief-stricken face.
Then he’d been shipped off to Paris like damaged equipment for refitting, and they’d barely seen each other since.
That had been two months ago.
In that time, Bucky had borne the indignity of medical leave and an excruciating recovery, the worst of which had been the clucking tongues of the nurses and staff who mopped up his wounds and charted his physical progress. They dealt daily with soldiers who suffered far more devastating injuries, but something about Bucky’s circumstances seemed to inspire even the strictest and most jaded medics to soften. He seethed at their pity.
It was probably the torture thing. Bombarding a trench with long-range artillery shells inflicted far more damage to soft bodies than fists, or knives, or caustic chemicals applied carefully with a swab, but it lacked the personal touch, which Bucky supposed made the difference.
The debriefs with various interested parties — medical, military and political alike — had been nearly as humiliating. He helped where he could. Truly, he’d very little to share — which only added to his shame.
On top of all that, he’d had Steve’s correspondence.
Bucky had taken to opening his mail out on the grassy quadrangle intended for leisure during the soldiers’ convalescences. It was open to the changeable French skies, but enclosed on all sides by the fancy buildings of the hospital. The sounds of Paris were muted in the sanctuary of the neatly manicured plaza. And even though the Seine was practically a stone’s throw away, the scent of flowing water and summer breezes was, ridden roughshod over by the hospital’s pervasive stench of bleach and antiseptic. Still, Bucky felt less stir-crazy out there, lounging on benches with other injured soldiers in various states of recovery, making the most of what passed for fresh air. He would stretch out in the sun, carefully extract Steve’s flimsy sheets of paper from their envelopes (already slit, franked and resealed by various grubby-fingered intermediaries), and settle down to see what had made it past the exacting censors this time.
Steve’s letters read like a cheery rendition of some Boy’s Own propaganda series, the sort which Bucky had personally abandoned in favour of mildly risqué speculative fiction some time around his twelfth birthday.
The way Steve told it, D Flight of the 107th were a motley crew of airborne daredevils, heroically defending the skies in a series of heavily-edited exploits shorn of sensitive details. Steve’s illustrations were cartoonish but skillful, every playful detail lovingly rendered. This was all well and good: Steve’s silly drawings were a goddamn delight, making Bucky chuckle at the depiction of Dum Dum’s awful facial fungus; Dernier’s enthusiastic demolition of a German bridge over a safely anonymous pinch-point; and Colonel Phillips’ craggy, disgruntled glower when Morita managed to taxi into a water trough while taking a ‘short-cut’ back to the hangar and crack up the undercarriage of a perfectly good aeroplane.
Then, one day The Falcon made an appearance, and the letters took on a new tone entirely.
Steve seemed overly-enamoured with this unknown pilot, and his puppy-dog enthusiasm only seemed to snowball after each encounter. He sounded awfully pleased over having a worthy opponent — or, well, not opponent, but certainly competition.
Then Steve had his serendipitous encounter with the man himself on the platform of the Gare de l’Est, and he’d not only written to Bucky about it, but he’d drawn Wilson’s face, not cartoonish at all, but carefully shaded and presumably true-to-life.
Bucky cursed Wilson for a handsome devil and sulked for a week.
Steve had seemed mostly confused about Bucky’s lacklustre response to his stories the next time they met, damn him, as if Bucky wanted to hear about Steve’s wartime heroics. Steve was either supposed to be back home staying safe or doing all these things with him , Bucky Barnes, lifelong best friend and partner in crime and if not exactly forsaking all others — Mrs Barnes didn’t raise an idiot — at least forsaking handsome pilots.
Then he’d met Sam Wilson, and not only was he truly that good looking, he was also a decent person — which put the tin lid on it all. Honestly, no person ought to be that perfect. It was annoying. By the time they’d shared their hard-won whisky, Bucky couldn’t even hate him, though he was giving it a damn good try for the sake of form.
Then there was Peggy Carter, the British photographer.
Carter was different. She had been part of Bucky’s debrief, in her consulting role — Bucky surmised — analysing information resulting from aerial reconnaissance. Her detached professionalism had made her the favourite out of the many otherwise interchangeable civil servants he had to talk to. She had never treated him as a helpless victim, or a hero, or an idiot and that made her okay in his books — although, sadly, it also made her unique.
Steve could keep her, he supposed. Or she could keep Steve. Either.
In the days after his first formal interviews, Peggy had returned repeatedly to Bucky’s hospital ward, as much to keep him company as to extract what little intelligence he had to discuss. They talked a little about Steve — he got to hear about Steve’s time with Stark’s test program — and she clearly saw Steve for who he was, just like Bucky had thought. That was alright.
Mostly, though, they talked about HYDRA.
The majority of Bucky’s interrogators seemed interested in what they referred to as the ‘scientific’ aspects of his captivity, which offended him more than a little. He’d read a lot of science fiction and, despite what H.G. Wells thought made for a good thriller, Bucky was sure real science didn’t involve a huge amount of hot objects applied to goose-pimpled skin. Or tying prisoners-of-war to tables. Or repeated chemical burns. Or the actions of that simple sadist, Dietrich.
Peggy regretfully informed him that in this, Bucky was mistaken — unfortunately, although such methods produces poor conclusions, scratching the respectable veneer of science history reveals their distressing persistence — but that his idealism was admirable. Then she’d moved on to her main interest, which seemed to be discerning the goals of the unseen Hauptmann Schmidt and Arnim-Fucking-Zola.
“Johann Schmidt is, we think, the twisted brains behind HYDRA,” she told him, perched on a stool by Bucky’s bedside. “He holds a legitimate, if relatively low, rank of Hauptmann — Captain — in the Imperial Army. This is assumed to be intentionally deceptive; he leads a circus of veteran pilots who’ve stuck close to him for much of the War. We think his designs for power reach beyond the military, though. He fancies himself a leader at any cost, whether as a symbol of unity for the nations or a figure of fear controlling from the shadows. His followers call him the Red Skull — I hear he wears a red leather flying cap and goggles, so let no-one accuse the man of a lack of showmanship — and he is dangerous.”
“I thought he must be,” agreed Bucky. He was propped up with a pillow against the flimsy steel bedhead, legs outstretched. “Never saw Zola look more like a jellyfish the entire time I was there. It was like someone had punctured a barrage balloon, all the air went right out of him. Why are you telling me this?”
Peggy Carter smiled, warm but close-mouthed, bright painted lips pressed together. Around them, the bustle of the hospital continued.
“I thought you might be bored. In pain. Need your mind occupied by something other than wishing yourself elsewhere.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that,” he admitted. “Thank you. So, how’s Schmidt dangerous? He rattled the scariest man I ever met; he must be something special.”
Peggy considered this, chewing a neatly manicured nail before realising her error and folding her hands together. Smoking was prohibited in the facility Bucky was confined to, and Bucky thought she looked twitchy. Bucky himself wasn’t tempted. He’d not only had four days of enforced cold-turkey while held by HYDRA, he also didn’t think he’d ever be able to shake the association of the smell of tobacco with the equally pungent stench of scorched hair and flesh, and the sound of his own screams. Cigarette burns fucking hurt.
Peggy sounded thoughtful as she answered his question, tapping her fingers on her knuckles. “He’s a pilot and the commander of pilots, so, in the air, in the perfectly usual way,” she said. “The less obvious threat is posed by his charisma. You recall what I said the operative who murdered Abraham told us? ‘Cut off one head, two more grow in its place …’ The words of a fanatic. Not just growth, but exponential growth, at the expense of those who fall behind. It’s not a philosophy I care to see spread around Europe. Unrestricted growth has far too much in common with microbial infection.”
“Limitless,” muttered Bucky.
“I beg your pardon?” inquired Peggy.
“Something Zola said. ‘What we attempt to accomplish is nothing less than to access limitless power, Mr. Barnes.’ ”
Peggy’s eyes narrowed. “What he was doing to you was biological — chemical, yes?”
“As far as I could tell. That was before he stuck another swab of acid on my chest. He was a real piece of work, if I haven’t made that clear,” said Bucky, drily, shrugging. The movement aggravated several unpleasant wounds; he hissed and Peggy winced in sympathy. “Though how the hell I’m supposed to know…” he trailed off.
Peggy waited until it became clear he wasn’t going to continue, and cleared her throat. “Limitless power sounds…”
“Terrifying?” finished Bucky. “Bad? Unlikely? Vague?”
“Political,” she said. “How can one have limitless chemical or biological power, after all?”
“I never want to find out,” he said, thinking of Zola. He was getting tired. Peggy seemed to notice and made movements as if to leave.
“Shall I pass your regards onto Steve?” she asked as she stood.
“Please,” sighed Bucky. Peggy snorted.
“If I don’t, he’ll pull the sad, moping face and none of us need more of that,” she assured him.
“I hear he’s doing fine without me,” Bucky muttered.
“Of course he is,” said Peggy, as she hovered at the door, casting her eyes to heaven. “If you asked him, that’s exactly what he’d say.”
Which, from where Bucky was sitting, was just rude.
Bucky’s provisional return to active duty at the 107th was immediately followed by a pair of eventful weeks.
In the aftermath of the destruction of what Dugan was still calling the “Sub-Marine Gun,” despite calls to cease and desist, the newly-promoted Captain Rogers was granted a weekend’s leave. Bucky’s continued active status was conditional on a final assessment by his Parisian medical assessors, so the two of them caught the train to Paris to combine regrettable personal business with pleasure.
Bucky was frankly fed up with Paris, and he’d said so. Just visiting the city came with its own risks: long-range German guns and Zeppelin raids left buildings in ruins and citizens dead and wounded; the Gotha night-bombers were genuinely terrifying and fires from incendiary bombs burned for days. There was no respite from the sounds, smells and horrors of war. But you could get a decent cup of coffee and, with a room to themselves, they didn’t have to listen to Dernier snore. It wasn’t exactly a hardship to wander the historic streets with his best pal. All in all, there were worse things in life than a weekend spent with Steve.
Paris was common enough a destination for Allied personnel on leave, and the Gare de L’Est was heaving with people. They’d been certain they’d caught sight of Peggy Carter on the far side of the platforms as they arrived, but they soon lost her — or her doppelganger — in the crowd.
Steve accompanied Bucky as he reported to the Army medical office. There, starched and astringent-scented doctors prodded Bucky for a good hour, hitting him with little hammers, and flashing lights in his eyes until they eventually released him with a rubber-stamped form, their best wishes, and a raging headache.
After that, all the two airmen wanted was a decent meal. Steve bought them bacon and eggs at a café and they sat at a table by the front window as elderly men smoked skinny cigarettes and argued at their own tables outside.
Bucky picked at his eggs, idly discussing the mechanics of flight with Steve and watching the world go by. In the cobbled street, the daily business of life continued, apparently indifferent to the reality of war. Parents and children shopped for groceries and bickered with friends; dishevelled young people hustled to and fro on errands; the occasional uniformed soldier strolled past, taking their own rationed respite from the war: regular people doing regular city things.
On several occasions the appearance of a nun or two, usually in pairs, made Bucky unconsciously straighten up in his seat. He caught Steve doing it too, as that universal spasm of guilt stiffened their spines, and each time both of them bubbled over with laughter at the reflex common to lapsed Catholic school-children everywhere. Catholicism was out of vogue in Europe and subject to deep suspicion, but Brooklyn’s Irish community cared little of this and both Bucky’s conscience and knuckles had been conditioned by the sharp edge of a nun’s ruler. He wouldn’t besmirch the memory of their teacher, Sister Bernadette, by suggesting Zola could have taken lessons — he had some perspective — but nevertheless, the thought was there. He quashed his blasphemy and shuddered theatrically. Bucky watched Steve snort into his French coffee and grinned.
They had cleaned their plates and the most recent cadre of nuns had made their way up the hill and out of sight, when Bucky caught a familiar flash of a blue woolen coat and red hat through the window of the bookshop across the street.
Gesturing for Steve’s benefit but not waiting for a response, he crumpled his napkin with his free hand, shoved his chair back from the cafe table and sauntered out onto the pavement. He dodged bicycles and loose cobbles as he crossed the road, propping himself against the frame of the open door to the shop.
“Carter!” he greeted.
Peggy Carter whipped her head around, brown curls bouncing where they swung free underneath the brim of her hat. Bucky watched her eyes widen, then swiftly narrow in annoyance. Her companion, some smart, pale guy in a sharp grey suit, looked immediately suspicious. He gave Bucky — who was, along with Steve, still wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army — a wary once-over.
“What’s this?” demanded the man, of Peggy, in French. Bucky’s basic French comprehension covered that, at least.
“I’m sure I’ve no idea,” replied Peggy, in the same language, tossing her head and turning her back on the door.
“He called you Carter,” said the man, insistent. “Did you trick me into coming here?”
Peggy denied it, and caught the man’s sleeve as if to draw him away and deeper into the shop. The man shook her off, taking a couple of steps to back himself against a dusty bookshelf.
At this, the conversation proceeded too quickly for Bucky to follow, conducted with increasing volume in a swift and aggressive French. The other occupants of the shop were peering around shelves to watch, or edging out of the door, embarrassed. Peggy maintained her presence between the man and the door.
At some point, Steve had appeared at Bucky’s elbow; he glanced down to see Steve’s brow wrinkled and jaw tensed in an expression recognisable from many a terrible childhood decision as righteous outrage. Bucky put out a palm to keep Steve back should he decide the situation needed unilateral intervention. He thought that would be enough to make the hint to Steve clear, but he was too late; he’d misjudged his timing and Steve eeled past.
Bucky stepped after him, cursing internally, as Steve proceeded to interrupt in passable, if basic, French. They made a loose triad: the man with his back to a case of books, Peggy on his right, Steve reaching out to the man’s left as if to placate him. Bucky couldn’t imagine this going anywhere great, particularly when Steve addressed Peggy by her name.
This would still likely have been fine, notwithstanding Peggy’s obvious frustration, except the man drew a pistol from his pocket.
Bucky watched the whole thing unfold in slow motion, horrified.
Steve brought up his arm to shield his face with admirable speed, but no purpose, since it was hardly going to deflect a bullet. Bucky himself reached out to try and tug Steve away, but he could see even then he’d be too late if the man decided to pull the trigger.
He watched the hand holding the gun drift towards Steve’s upraised elbow. Bucky felt his lungs fill as he prepared to yell, as if screaming “NO!” would somehow change the nature of reality, or the path of a slug of lead.
The man was too slow.
Peggy Carter’s fingers gripped the hairy wrist holding the pistol before the guy’s arm was even halfway extended, and squeezed.
Bucky watched polished nails pierce skin. The man dropped the gun with a surprised yelp.
Bucky gripped Steve under his armpits and took a swift step backwards, dragging him out of the way by his heels. Steve, apparently seeing the wisdom of staying clear of a fight for the first time in his life, let him. Bucky stared over Steve’s head, resettling his hands on Steve’s shoulders, both of them frozen as they watched.
Peggy kicked the gun across the shop floor, but it rebounded from another bookshelf and spun back towards her and the item’s former owner. He bent forward to lunge for it, pushing Peggy away with an extended palm to the side of her face, eliciting a yelp and a curse. The lunge was ill-judged, since it made an inviting target of the man’s Adam’s apple, and Peggy took advantage with a vicious upward jab. The man staggered back with a choking noise, clutching his throat with one hand and groping seemingly blindly with the other. In what looked like one smooth movement, Peggy crouched, picked up the gun and brought it down on the back of the man’s head.
He collapsed to the floor on his face, making contact with a sickening crack that suggested that under the threadbare carpet, the bookshop’s floors were solid stone.
If Peggy had intended to knock him unconscious, the move was effective. He didn’t move from his ugly sprawl at their feet.
Bucky’s stomach heaved, and he lifted a hand from where it still rested on Steve’s shoulder to rub his own chest, suppressing nervous gas. He swallowed.
Peggy pocketed the firearm, shook out her wrist and winced.
“Ow,” she said.
Under Bucky’s remaining hand, Steve unfroze. “Peggy!” he said, sounding more angry than shocked.
“You, uh, alright there Carter?” asked Bucky, with a poorly-disguised hiccup.
Peggy wiped her bloodied lip with the back of her hand.
“Oh, yes. I can do this all day,” she said, distractedly, staring down at the crumpled body on the floor.
Whatever discomfort Bucky had experienced when the man’s jaw had hit the carpet was multiplied ten-fold when Peggy stepped forward with confusing urgency, turned the man on his back, gripped his jaw to expose his open mouth and, after a brief examination, pulled out one of his teeth.
“Holy fuck, what are you doing?” Bucky demanded, horrified and gagging, swallowing back bile.
“That was unnecessary; he was unconscious,” said Steve, with less surprise and more annoyance than Bucky would have anticipated given the provocation.
“Well, surely better to do so now while he’s not awake to feel it,” shrugged Peggy, in response.
Bucky’s head swivelled, splitting his attention between two people, at least one of whom he had, up until this very moment, thought he knew pretty well. He could feel the expression of distaste on his own face.
“Have you both lost your goddamn minds?” he asked.
As it turned out, Bucky had to wait for his answer.
Peggy bent to examine the prone form of the man she’d knocked out, instructing both airmen to clear the shop and find the owner.
The bookshop owner, a neat French woman who’d been out of the way in the back room during all the excitement, seemed not at all bothered to find her shop empty save for two U.S. Servicemen, an unconscious body and a suspiciously efficient British civil servant.
Peggy herself had located and set aside a briefcase belonging to her captive and was in the process of ransacking the pockets of his jacket and trousers, withdrawing papers, a fountain pen, a handkerchief and loose change along with a small key.
Peggy straightened from where she was kneeling and drew the shop owner away from the scene on the floor, presumably to apologise. This was done with an exchange of impenetrable French and crinkled purple bills, which was more Francs than Bucky had seen in the whole time he’d been on the Continent.
The owner disappeared up a spiral staircase in a hurry.
Peggy made a hand-dusting gesture and turned to Steve.
“I need to handle this,” she told him. “Make sure no-one else comes in, and get Barnes to restrain Mr. Beauchamp down there in case he wakes up while I’m gone.”
Bucky didn’t wait for Steve to give him orders. He just sat astride the buttocks of the unconscious man — Beauchamp, apparently — and crossed his arms. “I gotta have an explanation for this Peggy, I swear on my sister’s pigtails.”
“Oh, believe me, Barnes, you’re not getting away without one after this,” she said, which sounded an awful lot like a threat to Bucky, though he still didn’t know what he’d done to deserve it. She left, and Steve manned the door while Bucky perched on his unfortunate cushion, checking occasionally to make sure he was still breathing.
“I thought she took photographs,” said Bucky, helplessly, from the floor.
“I may have underplayed her role a little,” admitted Steve, guiltily.
“Well. That was exciting,” said Peggy, when she returned.
She’d emerged from the cab of an ambulance which then discharged two sturdy orderlies, who’d proceeded to bundle the now gagged and squirming Beauchamp through the back doors and away. Blood from his pulled tooth was seeping through the gag.
“It sure was,” said Bucky, faintly, as he dusted himself off, his knees cramping. It was a good forty-five minutes since they’d nearly gotten themselves shot — a long time to hold down a protesting man in the peak of health.
Steve was still frowning.
“That man thought you were a spy,” said Steve.
“Well, people who have something to hide are often sensitive to the point of paranoia,” said Peggy, somewhat pointedly. Bucky had uncomfortable thoughts about that, and Steve looked shifty in the extreme. “Although I do have to question what you thought the role of ‘Agent’ meant, Steve,” Peggy continued, and Bucky glared at his best friend.
“Agent? Her title is Agent?!” Bucky hadn’t known that. Steve had? He was shackled to an idiot. “Steve, did you never read a single one of those spy novels I lent you? Sherlock Holmes? The goddamned Scarlet Pimpernel? I know you thought ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ was too weird — you were wrong, by the way — but... Oh my God, Peggy, are you Sunday?”
Peggy laughed out loud at that, denying it, and took advantage of Steve’s spluttering objections and their resulting shoving match to sort through the purloined contents of Beauchamp’s pockets. Bucky proceeded to show Steve — with his fists — exactly what he thought of the gaping holes in his so-called tactical aptitude, and the importance of sharing pertinent intelligence. Peggy, meanwhile, opened the briefcase. Whatever was inside apparently brought disappointment.
“Shit,” she swore, slapping one hand on the counter.
Bucky paused, half way through applying a noogie to a squirming Steve. They both straightened up to pay attention.
“Can I,” asked Peggy, apparently of the air, “have one damn day when I don’t have to deal with something new? I’ve got HYDRA — you saw they’re using cyanide pills embedded in teeth now? — I’ve got the technological superiority of the Allies’ aerial photography to maintain, and now I’ve got this. Goddamn it.”
“Peggy?” asked Steve, “What is ‘this’?”
Peggy eyed them both speculatively, then sighed.
“Very well. Beauchamp’s mother is an astronomer, from the south of France. The observatory she maintains was robbed two weeks ago. A lens was stolen, a very powerful one.
We suspected the son, who we knew had spent time in Germany before the war as a photographer. He specialises in fashion and haute couture for magazines like La Mode. We believed him to be smuggling information to the Central Powers, and it’s easy to believe he was willing to smuggle contraband as well. I hadn’t suspected him to be HYDRA, though he likely is — confirmed by the cyanide tooth, as you saw. I was expecting the lens to still be in his possession, but it’s not here. That means I have to find it.”
“How do we help?” asked Bucky. Peggy looked thoughtful.
“Beauchamp and I were supposed to meet up and travel together to meet his contact at the magazine, who we suspect is the one who will transport whatever they’re smuggling into German-occupied territory — or into the hands of HYDRA. Now that’s not possible, and I suspect he brought that meeting forward, we need to find the lens. We need an excuse to search those offices.”
“Reconnaissance is one thing, but you’re talking about espionage,” said Steve. Bucky was surprised at the tone of disapproval.
“Yes, Steve,” said Peggy, leaning her chin on her furled knuckles, propping her elbow on the countertop. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a war on.”
“You want to fight a war, you’ve gotta wear a uniform,” said Steve, firmly, and there was no room for equivocation in set of his jaw and the tone of his voice. “Otherwise, there’s a word for that. And consequences too. Dammit, Peg. A man — or a dame, or whoever — could find themselves propped up against a brick wall, handed a cigarette for decency’s sake and ten shots, that’s all she wrote.”
“Oh, my good man,” said Peggy, with a brittle smile that belied her light tone. “So beautiful and so naive. What shall we do?”
“She’s right, Steve,” said Bucky, while Steve glowered, ignoring the ‘beautiful’ part but allowing it. “I don’t know what HYDRA has up its many sleeves, but I do know I don’t want to find out the hard way when it’s melting my face. I’d want a heads-up. And dames, they see all sorts of shit,” he said, a little apologetically because, really, Carter was a professional, whatever profession she was actually engaged in.
“Just a smidgeon, I would say,” remarked Peggy, drily.
“Yeah, Buck, it’s usually you dishing it out to them,” volleyed Steve, halfheartedly. Bucky poked him in the bicep.
“My point is, there’s still plenty of places where women go underestimated and unremarked — sorry, Peggy — and that’s useful. Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you gotta do to get it done. You don’t have to like it, Stevie…”
“Damn right, I don’t.”
“…but it’s happening. Jerry’s doing it too, so we’ve got to hold our own against the Hun as well as HYDRA. And if Agent Carter here has what it takes, why shouldn’t she fight for King and Country just like we fight for ours?”
Steve was redder than a boiled lobster and there was still a dent between his eyebrows that promised that this wasn’t over, but he nodded.
“Thank you, Lt. Barnes, your opinion is noted,” declared Peggy, rolling her eyes. “I take it I’m free to continue with my business?”
“Jolly good, ma’am, top-hole,” said Bucky, deadpan.
Peggy’s look cut him dead.
“You may consider yourself a wit, Lt. Barnes, but you’ve buggered this up, so you and Rogers here have the privilege of helping me rescue a decent outcome from all this. For the rest of this afternoon, or for as long as it takes to recover that lens, consider yourselves co-opted under my orders.”
Bucky felt a fizz of excitement and brightened considerably.
“Do I get a fancy outfit?”
Bucky had been joking, even if in a slightly wistful way. He could hardly believe his luck when Peggy dragged the both of them into a tailor’s that was externally indistinguishable from any other of the many in Paris. It smelled of moth-balls and beeswax polish, and contained clothes Bucky could only dream of owning.
As they discovered once they’d been waved past by the sharp-eyed French madame watching the floor, this shop had a basement containing a busy office of civil and military personnel, a couple of senior offices and — ridiculously — Howard Stark. He and Steve shared a hearty handshake.
“Is there anywhere you don’t turn up?” asked Bucky, of Stark.
“I was about to ask you the same question, pal,” said Howard. “Didn’t I fly your sorry ass out of occupied France last week or something? Did ya miss me?”
“So much,” said Bucky. “I engineered this whole situation just to see you again.”
“Lord preserve us,” said Peggy. “Howard, I need to borrow one of your legitimate employees from upstairs. I am supposed to meet with the photography department at La Mode in an hour. They were expecting me and my contact, Beauchamp. I was interrupted—” here she shot a glare at Bucky and Steve “—so instead of arriving with a smart, slick Frenchman, I need someone who can pass for a smart, slick Frenchman as long as he doesn’t try to talk.”
“So you want to play dress-up with Barnes, here?” asked Stark, rubbing his hands together.
“I only need someone about the same height and build as Beauchamp, who can wear a suit and keep his mouth shut,” said Peggy. “ Obviously, Steve did not qualify.”
“Hey!” said Steve. Bucky suppressed a guffaw.
“Obviously,” said Howard.
Bucky found himself hustled into a semi-private changing room, the privacy of which was ruined by the presence of Howard, as well as the tailor — who was a beefy Frenchman Bucky would have assumed more suited to butchery than fine needlework. His prejudices proved groundless; Bucky had no real basis for comparison, but the man’s work was swift and professional.
Howard was, of course, there to be nosy and interfere. He thrust various suits at Bucky and offered critical opinions as the tailor made alterations. Bucky did as he was bid, shifting and stretching until he was decked out in a three-piece-something he couldn’t have afforded if he’d been promoted to Lieutenant-General and stayed in the Forces for a decade.
Bucky stepped out into the hallway wriggling his shoulders uncomfortably. Money apparently prickled. The shoes pinched after the relative comfort of his uniform boots.
Steve was speaking to Peggy and sipping from a mug, his back to the door.
“It itches,” Bucky complained, tugging at his collar. “And my toes hurt.”
Steve turned, caught sight of Bucky and immediately aspirated his drink.
“Pal, I think even I see it,” said Howard to Steve, nonsensically, ignoring Bucky’s complaints.
Peggy passed Steve a handkerchief to mop himself up.
Howard busied himself with brushing off invisible lint from Bucky’s shoulders and tugging the jacket straight. He slapped Bucky’s hands away from where he was still fiddling with his tie. “Stop it. I thought you were made of sterner stuff, soldier.”
“He’s right, Barnes, that’ll do,” said Peggy. She glanced down at Steve, who was still goggling at Bucky. “Still think you need a uniform to fight a war, Steve?”
Steve seemed to recollect himself and flushed.
Steve was uncharacteristically close-mouthed as they followed Peggy out of the basement. Bucky supposed he was still sulking over something. Espionage, probably.
“What’s up with you, Rogers?” Bucky hissed over his shoulder, as they made their way single-file up the stairs behind Peggy.
“I don’t even get to stand watch,” said Steve, and Bucky could practically hear the pout.
“At least you’re comfortable,” said Bucky, fidgeting. The collar chafed with his movements.
There was a marked silence from behind him, broken by the squeak of their leather soles on the polished wood of the treads.
“Comfortable is not the word I would have used,” Steve muttered, eventually, as they stepped from the spiral staircase to the shop floor and back out into the city.
Outside the marbled magazine offices, with Steve abandoned a street away just in case, Peggy tugged Bucky over to one side by the elbow.
“Barnes, if you call me ma’am one more time as ourselves I shall give you a clip around the ear. Do we understand each other?”
“Yes, ma’... uh. Sure thing, Carter.”
“That said, it seems the most appropriate term of address while we’re undercover.”
Bucky got a shiver of anticipation. Undercover!
“Onward, soldier,” said Peggy, as she pushed against the brass handle of the revolving door.
In the end, it wasn’t the hardship Bucky had envisaged, prickling woolens aside.
Peggy and Bucky were escorted to their meeting by an oblivious receptionist whom Bucky distracted while Peggy excused herself to ‘find the facilities.’ In an effort to give Peggy as much time to search the floor as he could, Bucky did his best to flirt without using his words, which was at least a challenge. He gazed into the receptionist’s eyes over the rim of his teacup as he sipped a lemon tisane; he let his fingers brush hers when she handed him a napkin; raised an eyebrow as he dabbed his lips; and gave her a bashful smile as he set aside the empty teacup and saucer. He had resorted to taking a step closer and slipping his index finger through one of the receptionist’s blonde pin-curls when Peggy finally emerged with a smudge on her cheek, her hat knocked off and a wooden box in her hands. She placed it by her feet, flung open one of the big sash windows and whistled, two fingers between her teeth.
In response to the signal, uniformed French troops flooded the building and took charge. They were followed by Steve, who’d tagged along. No one even had to throw a punch. Well, Peggy, possibly. The man in whose possession she’d found the box had apparently resisted.
The French guards escorted the spitting-mad photographer smuggler from the room Peggy had vacated. He, at least, was not HYDRA, or at least wasn’t able or willing to induce his own death with a snap of his gums. He was cursing a blue streak all the way out to the street, though.
That left the three of them standing amongst upturned furniture.
Steve cleared his throat and Bucky remembered what they’d come for. Steve bent down, emerging with the cheap wooden case Peggy had sequestered under a chair, and carefully lifted the lid.
“Gotcha,” said Peggy, and her voice was full of awe as she lifted out a block of glass perhaps six inches across. “This, I believe, is what you Americans call the jack-pot.”
“That’s what this was all about?” Bucky asked, as he and Steve crowded around to peer at the thing.
“How far can you see, Barnes?” asked Peggy, distracted, gazing into the smooth, convex glass, tilting it to examine it dreamily from every angle. “With this, the Parisian artillery may be able to pinpoint the location of the guns that shell us every night. Perhaps a few more citizens will keep their homes, their loved ones, their livelihoods. And while it’s serving us, it won’t be serving the Central Powers.”
Peggy placed the lens reverently in a case held by a waiting French adjutant and let them carry it away. She smiled up at Bucky and winked. “Eyes to see, ears to hear, and with luck we’ll make it to the end of the war.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Bucky.
“This op is over, James Barnes,” she said, but she was still smiling as she said it.
“You’ll have to give the outfit back eventually, you know,” said Steve, after the two of them had detached themselves from the proceedings and made their way back to their cramped hotel. It was late evening by then. Their room was lit by a single electric light, and the heavy brocade drapes were the faded colour of surgical rubber. There was a lot of cheap fringe on everything. It was, despite (or possibly because) of this, rather cosy.
They’d obtained a cheap bottle of French red en route and were passing it between them as they sat crammed onto the padded bench at the foot of one of the beds.
At some point, Bucky had loosened his tie and removed his jacket, which was now hanging carefully in the closet. He had a new ambition: survive the war and persuade Howard to employ him on a salary that allowed him to buy as many custom-tailored suits as he wanted.
“Hush,” said Bucky, slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulder and looking down at the top of his head. “Allow me to appreciate the moment.”
“We’re really here,” Steve said, looking up into Bucky’s face. “We made it.”
“We really did,” said Bucky, wonderingly, feeling warm and fuzzy. “For as long as our luck holds.”
Perhaps it was the alcohol, and perhaps it was the outfit, and perhaps it was the company of his favourite person in the world, but Bucky felt like a whole person for the first time since he’d crawled out of the wreckage of his aircraft and into the arms of HYDRA.
“Well, I’m with you. To the end of the line,” said Steve, with the earnestness of the very drunk, toasting the pair of them and knocking back a swig from the bottle. His honest blue eyes stared up at Bucky, enormous in the dim light.
“Till the end of the line,” echoed Bucky, and he felt his throat tighten.
It was a promise.
Chapter 6: Affaire de Chassis
Otherwise known as There Was Only One Barn.
Steve and Bucky are on solo patrol when an altercation with a German pilot leads to an emergency landing. Accepting hospitality at a local farm seems like a good idea at the time.
Contains smut, you have been warned!
Sixteen thousand feet above the French landscape, in the shimmering void between sky above and sun-baked soil below, Captain Steve Rogers exhaled humid frustration into the folds of his scarf and rubbed his nose into the damp fabric. He was cranky and bored, his skin itched with the changeable weather and their solo patrol had borne no fruit to distract him from his fractious mood.
They’d had the sky practically to themselves all afternoon — just Steve, Bucky, their new Stark Mk.2B and the heaped banks of developing clouds that had promised thunderstorms, but never delivered. In sharp contrast with the climate at ground level, the air at this altitude was chilly and Steve was somehow managing to feel simultaneously both too hot and too cold. Steve tipped his head back and groaned, joints aching from two hours and change spent immobile in the cockpit.
Who’d have thought that the miracle of flight could turn into a chore?
Behind him, he could hear Bucky tapping out a cheery tattoo on the three-hundred-and-sixty degree gun-mount surrounding his gunner’s seat, no doubt to some beer-hall ditty he’d picked up from Dum Dum’s habit of banging out shitty tunes on the mess room piano. Every so often he’d reach forward to thump Steve on the shoulder in warning and swing his gun downwards to release a stream of tracer bullets into nothingness and Steve was grateful, both that Bucky was mindful to keep his guns warm — rather than have them jam from the cold when they needed them — and also for the heads-up. Weary and irritated as he was, Steve much preferred to save his nerves for a genuine emergency.
He decided it was about time to turn and head for home. Their fuel reserves weren’t going to last forever, and the skies had shown neither hide nor hair of a German or HYDRA machine; if anyone back on the ground challenged them for the lack of action, he’d be all too pleased to argue they’d given it a fair shot. His calves were stiff and his shoulders were tight and he tensed before stretching his legs out as far as they would go in the confined space. Unbidden, one leg spasmed with cramp and Steve, like a thrice-damned amateur, kicked the rudder. He heard Bucky yell and felt the impact of his body against the side of the cockpit as they abruptly peeled to the left.
Heart hammering in his throat, Steve got control of his machine with a practiced roll and straightened them out only to feel a further jerk to the plane’s tenuous equilibrium as Bucky’s Lewis machine gun thundered out a staccato rhythm behind him.
He craned his head around to glare at Bucky in annoyance for the lack of warning, assuming it to be Bucky’s idea of payback for the unplanned aerobatics, only to see the wheels of another aircraft sweep overhead, just missing their top-plane. Steve swore.
The hell was he doing missing that?
“Serves me right if I get us shot,” he ground out through his teeth, and jerked the control column into his stomach. They zoomed upwards and he toggled the trigger for his Vickers gun, synchronised ammunition pumping between the blades of his propellor and sketching stippled lines in the air between him and the other aircraft sweeping through his sights.
A flash and it was gone; any bullets that found their mark did so with more luck than judgement, and the aircraft had dodged away and out of sight.
Steve swung hard after it.
Why the blazing hell, thought Steve, mid-roll, are the Germans so fond of decorating their kites with such goddamn ugly colours?
The Albatross D.III single-seater, which was by then fully in view and determinedly gluing itself to their tail, was painted maroon with sickly green irregular spots that put Steve in mind of an infected tonsil. At least, thought Steve, he assumed that it was the paint-job that was blotchy. He was banking so sharply to keep out of the enemy’s gun sights that the spots could well have been behind his own eyes.
Steve thanked his lucky stars-and-stripes that he was blessed with the best gunner a man could possibly want, as Bucky’s tracer ammo cut bright swathes through the sky and their machine shuddered with the percussive chatter of his gun’s recoil. Steve’s initial burst of bullets seemed to have struck something important in the German’s controls, as the other machine’s handling looked increasingly erratic and he could see the enemy pilot slam both fists on the instrument panel in frustration before gripping the stick and diving, presumably in an attempt to escape for home territory.
Steve was inclined to leave the other pilot to it — he was hardly going to pursue an unfair advantage against a crippled combatant whose only desire was to get away — but the pilot of the Albatross changed his mind and swooped up in a steep and sudden loop-the-loop only to dive straight back towards them from above.
Afterwards, Steve never knew if it had been a feint, and the German pilot had always meant to dip the propellor of his aircraft just to gain speed for the loop, or if he’d genuinely changed his mind and decided if he was going to go he’d rather go out guns blazing and take an American or two with him. Either way, his motivation was moot.
While Steve had time only to roll his wings and swing their craft away from the stream of bullets pinging from the fuselage all around him, Bucky was standing up in his seat with both hands gripping the Lewis gun, his aim straight and sure.
Bucky’s onslaught of lead hit home — nearly inevitable at this short range — and they both saw the moment the engine of the Albatross caught fire, orange flickers licking at the cockpit, sparks and flames spiralling away from the stuttering propellor. As the other craft shot past them Steve caught the wild and panicked eyes of the pilot for just a moment, before the coruscating phosphorous from the tracer ammunition caught the canvas in earnest and the aircraft went up in a comet of flame.
They watched as it broke apart, falling away, struts and wires tangled amid the blazing pieces.
Steve wheezed a shaky breath and squeezed his eyes closed before exhaling and taking a moment to steady their flight and just breathe.
After a moment, he felt the heavy touch of Bucky’s gloved hand resting on his shoulder.
Below them, the remains of the German scout twirled and burned all the way to the ground.
Bucky sat quiet in the rear seat and kept his eyes firmly on the skies, wary of the next threat, until he judged that Steve’s shredded nerves had settled down. It had been too close.
The Albatross — now smoking in a blackened heap on the ground — had swung out of a cloud bank nearly on top of them. The German pilot had likely been as surprised as they had; despite Bucky’s quick reactions and Steve’s fearless flying it was only luck that had Steve and Bucky winging their way home awash with adrenaline and the German pilot and his Albatross flaming out like a taper all the way down to the carpet.
It was getting late. The sun was sinking like a barrage balloon being winched back down to the horizon, ready to spend the night tethered to the ground after a busy day broiling the French countryside to a sizzle. It lit the sky like a soft summer peach, while by contrast the looming storm clouds grew a steadily deeper and more dramatic purple that gave Bucky a kind of dual nostalgia, since they reminded him both of grape soda and Steve’s cloudy mood — staples of Bucky’s life since at least 1904.
They’d been in the air for well over two and a half hours. They were good for up to three, thanks to Howard Stark’s engineering and an otherwise relatively sedate and therefore fuel-efficient patrol, but Bucky was anxious not to hang around. The real albatross was traditionally a solitary bird, but the German variant tended to hunt in packs and he really didn’t need another go-around with Jerry this evening. Besides, Bucky thought it likely Steve was pretty shaken by the sudden encounter.
Bucky’s own nerves hadn’t bothered him since the factory. In fact, if you’d asked him in his more vulnerable moments — which he tried to avoid on principle — he’d have said if anything, he was pretty numb to this war business. More and more it took the highs of combat and the rapidly dwindling stock of whisky in the Mess to get him to feel anything much at all .
He played it cheerfully enough, he thought. Honestly, it was fine. He was good at hiding; he’d had practice. Hiding his feelings from Steve, his proclivities from his neighbours. Yeah. Bucky had this dance down, and he’d dance it till the end of the war and whatever came after… or until he went west. And he’d like to avoid that, since anything that got the better of him would likely get Steve right along with him.
Bucky shook himself to clear his head of morbid thoughts, and gave Steve another whack on the shoulder. Time to go.
Indicating by hand signal that he’d recorded the location of the smoking wreck of the German Albatross, Bucky watched as Steve hauled on the controls and turned for home.
They’d been flying into the setting sun for perhaps a minute or so when, without warning, the plane’s engine gave a gurgle and a cough and puttered slowly to a stop.
The only sound was the wind in the wires and the creak of the struts.
Bucky stood up to lean over Steve’s shoulder. The petrol gauge told its own story — empty, and since they’d hardly had time to burn a whole tank, probably one of the German bullets had found its mark and drained it dry. He watched Steve flick the switch for the fuel tanks back and forth between the main tank and emergency feed. Nothing.
Bucky groaned to himself in the sudden silence. Howard — currently lending his services to the 107th to manage the transition to the Mk.2Bs — was sick to the back teeth of patching up the holes Steve’s ‘head first, brains later’ approach to dogfighting made of his kite. “I’m an aeronautical engineer, not a blasted seamstress, Rogers,” he’d sniped to Steve, all of three freaking days ago. “I’m this close to just handing you a needle and thread, giving your boy here a glue brush and a pot of dope, and leaving you to fix her yourselves.”
They were never going to hear the end of this.
Bucky looked around and took stock. He tapped his gloved hand on Steve’s shoulder and jerked his thumb downwards. They were just passing the German lines, high enough to avoid the Archie, so they were safe from anti-aircraft ordnance for now. They’d lost height during their battle with the German scout, but the wind was in their favour and at just over 10,000 feet they had enough altitude to glide past their own Lines back into friendly territory. The evening light was fading, though, and the aerodrome itself was a long way off. Bucky got a sinking feeling in his gut. They’d had one miraculous escape already and he hoped Steve didn’t want to chance a twilight glide home low over hedgerows that could send them tail-over-prop for no reason.
Better to pick a field and drop down somewhere, find a hospitable farmhouse and persuade the locals to let them bunk up. They could call it in and get picked up by an army transport first thing in the morning. Come on, Steve, he thought, Read me loud and clear on this one.
Happily, Steve seemed to be of the same mind. Twisting to give Bucky a thumbs-up and a rueful grimace, he turned their aeroplane’s nose towards the Allied lines and cast his gaze downwards, presumably on the lookout for a good field to land in. Behind him, Bucky watched the skies and Steve’s back.
Their evening glide was quiet and the air stayed clear and free of thunder, lightning, and Germans as Steve brought them safely over their own Lines and side-slipped closer and closer towards the ground.
Bucky held his breath as they touched down in a field close to a likely-looking cluster of buildings, praying they wouldn’t hit a sudden ditch or molehill.
Steve brought them in to as smooth a landing as he ever managed on their own tarmac, and it was all going beautifully until their luck evaporated with a vicious jerk and they were both flung forward in their seats.
Their propellor ploughed into the ground, their tail tipped up and Bucky was certain they’d roll right over until, with a shudder, a rip, and a crunch, the aeroplane settled back on its wheels.
Bucky blew out his cheeks and rested his chin on the smooth gun mount. In the forward seat, Steve had stripped off his flying cap, goggles, gloves and scarf and let his head fall back, eyelashes brushing flushed cheeks and leaning ever so slightly sideways against Bucky’s temple as they both took another moment to breathe.
They both groaned.
The sun was nudging the horizon and the skies deepening to blues and greys as Bucky stood up in the cockpit and orientated himself, looking for the farmstead they’d spotted from above.
He tried to focus on the moment and not on the fact that in an hour or so he’d be sharing a sleeping space with Steve for the first time since the previous winter. There had been a rough couple of weeks in November of 1916 when Steve had caught a terrible chill and Bucky had spent every night huddled up to Steve under blankets, keeping him warm, and feeding him cough syrup by the spoonful. Bucky had been more worried than he let on, but they got through it all right. And the proximity had been nice.
Of course, now Captain Rogers had a separate room at the end of the barracks, while Bucky was sharing with Dum Dum and Morita, and even though Bucky was grateful to the ends of the earth that Steve was here with him, he missed the easy closeness of home they could never replicate here at war. No in and out of each other’s bedrooms, no late nights lounging on the roof. Even if it had never been what Bucky wanted it to be, it was something. Now that Peggy was on the scene, those times were likely already over for good.
Besides, they were a long way from Brooklyn.
That was a safe enough alternative subject to dwell on, actually. As his eyes swept their earth-bound surroundings once more, Bucky pondered that he’d never get over the sheer greenery of the countryside; even the rough-cropped stubble of the field they’d landed in was being consumed by new growth beneath. All around them, buff-brown stalks were softened by fuzzy sprouting shoots. It sure as hell wasn’t New York City.
Bucky stripped off the thick outer layers of his flight suit before hopping down and reaching back to offer Steve a steadying hand. A quick once-over of the aircraft revealed bullet holes in both the main tank and the gravity tank as suspected, which at least suggested a straightforward fix. In the absence of a mechanic, though, this was not of immediate help and the more problematic damage was to the propellor — now hanging in jagged splinters. Hopefully Howard would be so pleased they were alive he’d cut them some slack, but Bucky wasn’t counting on it.
A short inspection of their somewhat truncated wheel-tracks revealed the culprit of their misfortune: a small, half-buried log. They both cursed and kicked at it, which relieved their feelings a bit, particularly when the cursing devolved into cathartic laughter.
“Time to brush off our bon français, Buck,” observed Steve, wincing.
“Oh, I think it’s gonna be your français, Stevie,” Bucky replied with a smirk. “Not sure my vocab suits the situation unless we’re planning on getting in someone’s knickers, and I dunno,” he scratched behind his ear, hamming it up, “it just doesn’t seem like the right tack to take.” The look Steve shot him was dark and priceless. Bucky raised his hands in mock surrender, and said, “But, hey, you’re the tactical mastermind, so if you think it’s best, just point me at ‘em, and I’ll follow your lead…”
He leapt aside, laughing as Steve flicked his sheepskin gloves at the back of Bucky’s head and called him a jerk. Bucky grinned, slung his arm around Steve’s shoulders and tried not to think — even in the privacy of his own imagination — about what Steve would look like in knickers, or how Bucky’d go about getting into them if he were.
The little group of farmhouses wasn’t far. Steve selected the most likely-looking hub of activity and girded his loins, praying he’d manage to communicate their predicament without making trouble.
Steve’s French vocabulary was gleaned mostly from Dernier and therefore in larger part either a) unfit for mixed company or b) about explosives. Nevertheless between his stuttered politesse and Bucky’s charming smile they made themselves understood to the household well enough.
A young boy was dispatched on his bicycle to the house of a local bigwig some miles away who was in possession of an actual telephone. He carried a message informing the 107th that, yes, Steve and Bucky lived to fly again, their catalogue of victories could be increased by the sum of one Albatross, and if Howard would send a spare propellor along with some mechanics to install it and patch their tanks, they could be home the following day in time for lunch.
Madame et Monsieur were sweet and gracious, handing them rolls and eggs and apologising for the poor fare, etc, etc. They seemed unfazed to have two American airmen in their kitchen and a broken Stark Fighter in their hayfield. There was no room in the inn, as it were, but they were assured that the barns were warm and well protected from vermin by an army of farm cats who were very much in evidence, slinking around corners, catching the last of the evening sun on a window sill and going about their own feline business.
Steve watched Bucky suck the crumbs from his fingers and smirk at the kitchen girls, and bit down on his bottom lip to suppress a sigh. Bucky’s cheeks were pink from the sun and wind, burned brown in the spaces exposed between his goggles and scarf, and he looked at home, picking over the remains of his dinner and exuding rakish Barnes charm.
It used to be torment, to spend his days so close to that charm and not know it for himself; Steve tamped down the ancient ache and finished his cold farmer’s tea, setting his mug down with purpose. He was facing a whole night spent bedded down in a barn with Bucky, after so long going without. He missed the nights they’d spent in Brooklyn sharing a room and talking nonsense into the small hours.
Steve was looking forward to it. He’d had some time to think since the events of Paris, and he was almost convinced he wasn’t alone in these feelings — that Bucky could maybe see him as he’d always seen Bucky. Steve had noticed the flare of jealousy get gotten from Bucky after Steve’s escapades with Sam, and the less-than-subtle jibes from Howard and Peggy. Maybe Steve, as Captain Rogers, could finally keep up with his brilliant best friend.
As the sun disappeared over the horizon, they were directed to a barn set some way back from the farmhouse. The air, which had been muggy and stifling during their meal, had turned cool and the first fat drops of rain were beginning to fall. Thunder rumbled in the distance and Steve hurried across the ripe farmyard to the building, Bucky behind him.
Brooklyn in summer — at any time of year, really — was hardly a rose garden but the concentrated farm stench was new to Steve, worse even than the night raid on the factory where he’d been sure he’d stepped in something. The smell was pervasive, and while he supposed it was a more honest and earthy one than that of the city’s sewers, it was also extremely immediate in his nostrils.
Steve was thankful for the lantern the farmer’s wife had pressed into his hands as he lit their way up a sturdy wooden ladder to the hayloft. The smell in the little space amongst the rafters was sweeter and less grim, the dry odour of fresh hay.
They settled in behind some bales, insulating themselves from the damp and the mild chill of night, snug in what amounted to a little room up in the loft. After playing a couple of hands of cards, they decided to turn in, rolling up their leathers for pillows and getting comfortable in the hay. They froze at the sound of smothered laughter and high-pitched voices speaking quietly in French coming from the barn below.
Steve had assumed the temporary American occupation of the hayloft would have been mentioned in dispatches around the farmhouse and little group of cottages, but presumably the message had been lost en route to at least two of the little farm’s inhabitants. Quickly dimming the lamp, Steve ducked down to peer through the bales to the barn below and saw that a young woman and young man had placed their own lantern on a shelf and were giggling and shushing each other as they fumbled with each other’s clothes.
Bucky crouched next to him, both of them on their knees, peering into the barn from behind their hay-bale parapet. Steve was pretty sure no one down there could see them way up in the darkened rafters now, and even if the flicker of their lantern had been visible earlier, the couple had obviously been too occupied with each other to notice.
As the giggling intensified and started to take on a breathy timbre that attested to something more urgent than humour, Steve adjusted his weight. This could get uncomfortable extremely quickly.
It wasn’t as if they weren’t familiar with the need to pretend things such as this didn’t happen. Steve and Bucky had grown up in tenements in Brooklyn, where privacy was a luxury mostly afforded by people in richer neighbourhoods — one they could only approximate by judicious application an attitude of “Noise? What noise?” in relation to the intimate relations of their neighbours.
The tableau below was rather more immediate than either of them were strictly prepared for. Ignoring it certainly wasn’t going to work.
From what Steve could hear of Bucky’s breathing beside him, he didn’t seem to be able to ignore it either.
Bucky pressed his forehead into the tangled hay, bit down on his knuckles and cursed his life.
He had been content, goddammit. He was still alive; he and the Howlies had come to some kind of equilibrium with Steve as their new CO; he was on first name terms with one of the greatest mechanical geniuses of their age; and he’d met the woman Steve was likely to marry and thought she was wonderful.
That was about as good as he’d ever expected it to get.
Now, when he’d been looking forward to a night spent in Steve’s company, a thing he hoarded now they were in rationed supply, he had an awkward erection to deal with. Apparently, his luck had run out for the day.
Bucky and Steve had shared a room in their Brooklyn tenement. Neither was exactly prudish. Still, it was one thing to surreptitiously take care of business under the covers of your own bed and entirely another to be confronted what amounted to their own personal peep show — What the Butler Saw, but with sound effects.
Oh, God, really, really distracting sound effects… Bucky groaned under his breath.
Bucky spun around, propping his back against the hay-bale and letting his head fall back. He closed his eyes. It only emphasised the noises, including Steve’s breathing, which was starting to sound a little laboured.
This was excruciating.
Bucky was hardly a virgin, and hadn’t been since sometime after his seventeenth birthday (Elsie McCall, two years his senior and more than willing to lend a hand). He’d had Rosa Lowenstein up against a stack of linens in the airing cupboard of her parent’s laundrette not three weeks before he’d shipped out, and both parties had had a thoroughly good time.
He was less sure about Steve’s experiences. Steve had always claimed he was waiting for the right partner and, yeah, it figured that Steve would be stubborn about it. He and Carter would make a hell of a partnership, if Steve could get over his squeamishness and Carter could accept Steve was never going to change his principles.
Bucky sighed, a little louder than was perhaps prudent. He was wary of letting himself have this when he supposed to be letting go. Accept it and move on, Barnes, he told himself. Just one compromise in a lifetime of compromises. He’s never noticed how much I want him so far, and it’s been years, he thought. Another moment to navigate carefully, that’s all.
“Sorry, Steve,” he gritted through his teeth, sotto voce. “Just, just… Forget I’m here, we’ve done it before. I’ll shut my eyes, and you just — uh…” Bucky waved a hand in Steve’s direction. He really didn’t want to finish that sentence.
“Oh,” said Steve, barely audibly. “Okay. I mean, it’s just. Well. No need for both of us to be uncomfortable, is there? If you’ve got your eyes shut.”
Well, that was more direct than they usually managed to be about these things, and it was a kind offer. Bucky grunted in assent. He was sprawled in the hay, his eyes still closed. He shuffled up a little, getting comfortable. Below, he could still hear the soundtrack of the young couple’s evening entertainment, and Steve was right there at his shoulder and yet still unreachable.
And then Steve made it worse.
“If you don’t want to look, that’s fine Buck,” he murmured. And then, tentatively, with a nervous laugh, Steve said, “I’ll narrate, shall I? Let you, uh, have your moment.”
Bucky’s eyes snapped open, revealing a dim, cobwebbed view of the pitched barn roof. He focussed on a couple of innocent spiders, oblivious to the imminent desecration of their place of residence. Steve was suggesting…
“If you like?” said Steve, lightly — too lightly. There was a tremor in Steve’s voice.
And that was, what? A request for permission? For Steve to talk dirty to him? To translate what was desperately transpiring below, while Bucky closed his eyes and, and, paid a visit to Mrs Palm and her five daughters? With Steve right there?
Bucky wasn’t really thinking. The blood usually running his brain was evidently occupied elsewhere. Permission fucking granted, he thought, still focussed on the ceiling. He mentally apologised to the spiders, closed his eyes and without a word, slid his hand into his pants.
Steve really didn’t know what he was doing.
Sometime between supper when he’d watched Bucky suck his fingers clean, and the moment they’d been interrupted by the warm, enthusiastic sounds of sex from below, he’d decided he would make a move, but he’d had no idea what he was going to do. How does a man say to his best friend, “I’ve been in love with you all my life, and I think you like me, so hey — how about it, pal?”
Steve had absolutely no clue.
So this was maybe a way to… get that started.
It was a God-send. Uh. Or something.
Bucky liked stories. Of all flavours. Steve knew that; it wasn’t just Conan Doyle and Mary Shelley gathering dust under his bed in their shared room back home. And Steve figured he could try out his nascent flair for oratory and command, make this work. He just had to start. How difficult could it be?
“Steve?” asked Bucky, and his eyes were still closed, unhurried fingers stroking himself, wrist shifting gently against the bunched cloth of his unbuttoned fly, but he sounded unsure. Steve couldn’t have that. Bucky was going to find out how he, Steve, felt about him and Steve was missing his window.
“Just, uh, give me a sec, Buck,” he hissed.
“What’re they doing now, Stevie,” said Bucky, barely a whisper, his hand resting over his crotch, unmoving now, paused, waiting for Steve.
“Well, uh, you know,” said Steve. “Kissing. He’s groping, trying to get his hands under those skirts.” Smooth, Rogers, he thought. Get a grip, ha ha ha.
Gift for oratory. Right.
Steve peered over into the barn below, making certain of his situation. He surveyed the scene. Ah. Right.
Steve quietly cleared his throat and warmed to his theme.
Steve’s voice. Sweet Jesus H. Christ on a fucking bicycle.
Bucky didn’t know what to do. Happily for him, there is such a thing as muscle memory, and it had taken over as he’d undone his flies and pushed his hand into his pants. His cock liked Steve’s voice. A lot.
Steve was talking.
“Oh, hey, look,” he said, low and deep and so quiet Bucky had to strain to hear it. “He’s got her skirt up round her waist, you see, and he’s squeezing his fingers round her hips; he’s running his thumbs up and over her belly. That’s all he’s doing, just stroking, but his thumbs are sliding lower and lower, you know?”
Bucky was listening. He stroked himself with his right hand and hitched his hips up a little to shuffle his pants down his thighs. He ran the fingers of his left hand through the hair under his navel, down and back, in slow accord with the lilt of Steve’s voice. He couldn’t hear the couple any more, he was listening to Steve.
Steve gulped, audibly. He was still talking, but he sounded a little more confident now, a little closer.
“He’s reaching real low, Buck. She’s moaning, she really wants him to touch her. She’s grabbed his hand, so impatient,” he whispered. Bucky could hear his smile. He smothered a whimper. “He’s got his fingers inside her now, Buck. You ever had your fingers inside someone? You ever had your fingers inside yourself?”
Bucky had, of course, in answer to both, but still Steve’s words still shocked him. He felt himself twitch under his hand.
The voice he’d known all his life, the one he’d imagined and then thought he was imagining while he’d believed himself dying on a table in occupied territory, the one that gave orders over morning briefings — that voice was asking him if he… if he…
He squeaked a little, then quickly bit down on his lip. They had to be quiet, dammit. Which at least meant the question was rhetorical. Probably.
“Bet it’s nice in there,” continued Steve, almost conversationally. “Soft and warm.”
Bucky bit down harder just to keep quiet as Steve kept talking.
“She seems to like it real good, Buck. Her head’s thrown back, he’s unbuttoning her blouse with his spare hand, she’s helping out — touching herself, I mean, not helping with the buttons. She’s clasped their fingers together and she’s rocking into their hands.”
Bucky was working himself in earnest at this point.
He heard dry stalks shift and rustle as Steve shuffled closer. Bucky could feel him now, the heat from his body, he must be within arm’s reach. Bucky’s fingers twitched as if to reach out with the hand that wasn’t on his dick.
Bucky instead bent his elbow up behind his head and gripped his own collar tight, lest he do something stupid and embarrassingly emotional. He got up onto his knees, his uniform pants crushed under his shins, and he thrust up, trying to chastise himself, clenching his fist.
Next to him, Steve whimpered and swallowed with a click. He must be really into what the two were doing downstairs, if just talking about it was doing that to him.
“He’s got one tit in his mouth, now, Buck,” said Steve, hoarsely. His voice sounded so close. “God, imagine how it feels on his tongue.”
Bucky could indeed imagine, and did, but in his mind’s eye he let the image drift and change. Steve could just keep talking, Bucky’s mind was full of only him — imagining his chest, yeah, narrow and skinny, but all Steve, and it would be all Bucky’s. He could just let his tongue flatten out, lean forward and lick…
“Yeah,” said Bucky, panting, still thrusting. “Yeah, imagine.”
Steve had put a lot of thought into what he’d want if anyone — if Bucky — ever reciprocated his feelings. He couldn’t believe Bucky trusted him to take the lead on this, Bucky who must have had dozens of experiences. He knew this was different; this was them. Steve would do anything for Bucky, he’d proved that. Bucky had spent more than half their life taking care of Steve. Steve desperately wanted to take care of this, right now. This was Steve’s job.
Before him, Bucky was propped on his knees, fucking his fist, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Steve wondered if he knew about the tears leaking from the crinkled corners of his eyes. They were beautiful.
Steve flipped the top button on his own trousers and slid three of his fingers into the top of his underwear, running his nails through wiry hair, teasing himself, stretching to reach the inner crease of his thigh.
He knew exactly where the action down in the barn was headed.
There was a pause. Steve’s breathing was shallow, but surprisingly even. That was fortunate, thought Bucky, what an inconvenient moment for an asthma attack this would be.
Bucky heard Steve shift position, felt him readjust on the hard wooden boards. He seemed to be leaning close. The words slid into Bucky’s ear on hot, hoarse breaths.
“She’s turned around, Buck, she’s begging him again. She’s got her palms flat on the wall, right where there’s this cross-beam. She’s bent right over, Buck,” Steve croaked.
Bucky’s brain was the wind in the washing lines hung out between the flats, the empty blue of the sky at 15,000 feet. He swallowed.
Steve inched closer and his mouth made delicate, unbearably intimate little sounds as he moistened his lips. Bucky shivered.
“Yeah,” whispered Steve, “her skirts are all rucked up, I can see her legs — she’s got great legs, Bucky — and he’s peeling down her bloomers, getting her ass out and she’s hanging onto that cross-beam for dear life. You wanna hear about that?”
“ Steve ,” Bucky began, not even sure there was an answer to that that didn’t incriminate himself more than he wanted, but Steve wasn’t waiting around for an answer.
“Yeah, well,” said Steve, close and private in Bucky’s ear. “He’s got one hand around her, you know, in front, down there. His other hand’s on her ass, he’s thumbing her cheeks open, and — oh look, he’s got oil or something, or maybe she’s just that wet. There goes his other thumb. Oh, she’s gonna leave fingernail marks in that beam, Bucky.” Steve’s lips were scant inches away, he could feel the heat, the dampness of his breath. “He looks desperate for it,” said Steve, low and broken, “but he’s not rushing. He’s taking it slow for his darling. What d’you think: one finger, two?”
“Start with one,” said Bucky, hardly knowing what he was saying. The sounds of his hand on his own dick shushing in the darkness, the only lights playing behind his eyes. Steve’s lips, almost, nearly, brushing his ear. Bucky was, oh God, so close.
Steve was still talking, his body hot up against Bucky’s side.
“Yeah, there he goes,” said Steve. “Think it feels good for dames, getting it like that?” As if Bucky could possibly have it in him to answer to an interrogation right now. All he could imagine was Steve’s fingers, himself bent over a bed, or a rail, or this damned hay-bale, and Steve working him open… Steve…
“Dunno,” managed Bucky, his own voice sounding harsh in the warm dark. Bucky squeezed, thrust up into his fist, shoulder blades still propped on the bale, rising up on his knees. Bucky could smell Steve beside him, soap and castor oil and engine grease and, under that, just plain old Steve Rogers, Bucky’s home.
“He’s so hard, Buck,” whispered Steve. “He’s dripping with it, it’s like, like wrought iron and she wants it so bad — but Buck, he wants it too. Oh, oh Buck, it feels so good. He wants… He wants…”
“Yeah?” gasped Bucky, nearly out of his mind.
If Bucky had even a single brain cell to spare, he should have realized that Steve couldn’t actually be watching this and have his lips practically in Bucky’s ear; that this was a fiction for Bucky’s benefit, and possibly — hopefully — Steve’s.
Still, he wasn’t thinking — or, rather, he was thinking only of Steve’s fingers deep in his ass as Bucky fucked into his own hand, desperate to come but not wanting Steve to stop talking — when his mouth bypassed his higher faculties and asked, like a traitor, “How d’you know that?”
There was silence.
Bucky didn’t open his eyes, didn’t stop, didn’t want to stop, and he was so close, he could feel the world starting to recede behind his eyelids…
“Bucky,” whispered Steve, “I want…” and the tip of Steve’s tongue ran gently over the rim of Bucky’s ear and Bucky came with a ragged sound that was probably heard in Berlin, let alone the barn downstairs.
Steve looked down into the eyes of his dearest friend and only love, feeling warm and proud.
Bucky had collapsed, panting, with his ass resting on the floor between his splayed heels, his trousers tangled under his socked feet, his hands fallen helplessly to the side, like a debauched puppet soldier with its strings cut. His shirt was spattered with his own mess. He looked crumpled and shattered and glorious.
I did that, thought Steve, and the realization lit him up from the inside. He beamed, he couldn’t stop himself.
“Steve,” said Bucky, and it sounded like a plea.
Steve put his arms gently around Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky craned backwards, almost as if to get away, but he didn’t try to move anything other than the curve of his spine.
“Steve,” he said. “You can’t have seen that.”
“I read,” said Steve, doing his best rendition of the cocky Barnes shrug. He was working up to the smirk.
“Steve?” repeated Bucky, and he looked almost horrified, his eyes enormous in the dim light, his gaze searching Steve’s face.
When Bucky first opened his eyes, after the orgasm of the decade, Steve was kneeling over him. Steve’s trousers were open and he was braced on the hay-bale with one hand next to Bucky’s shoulder, his eyes bright and wide. Bucky tried to ask what the hell this was, and Steve had been evasive, but kinda pleased with himself. Then Steve had actually embraced him, and Bucky had meant to back away, but couldn’t quite work up the coordination to do so.
As he eased back to let go of Bucky’s shoulders, Steve’s hand fell to his own lap. Bucky’s gaze was drawn inevitably downwards. This, he thought, is a mistake.
But Bucky couldn’t take his eyes off of Steve’s hand cradling his own fully erect dick, which shone bright and flushed and beading. A moment later, a drip reached some critical volume and angle and rolled slowly downwards. Bucky tracked the movement, felt his mouth awash with saliva. His lower lip wobbled.
His attention was broken by Steve’s hushed voice.
“They’re gone Buck, they left a while ago. It’s just you and me.”
“What?” Bucky felt his stomach drop through the floor. He snapped his head around and found himself looking up into blue, blue eyes. Steve’s voice was gentle.
“She just jacked him off and they left. It was over not long after you stopped looking.”
“What the hell?” asked Bucky, because it was a reasonable question.
“I’m good at extemporising,” said Steve, with a half-shrug and a smirk, and that wasn’t the question Bucky had been asking at all. Fuck me, thought Bucky, he really is smug.
He wasn’t wrong, though.
“Want me to extemporise a little more?” said Steve, as he raised an eyebrow in invitation.
“Jesus,” whispered Bucky. Who’d have thought Stevie Rogers could flirt?
Steve looked back and — God Almighty and little fishes — shamelessly pumped his cock.
This was perfect. No awkward declarations, no stuttered questions; they were here, together, of one accord.
Bucky always knew what Steve needed. Steve generally had a fair idea what Bucky needed, too, although it hasn’t been until recently — thanks to the needling from Sam and Peggy and Howard — he’d gotten the idea that what Bucky wanted was Steve.
And now Bucky knew how Steve felt.
Steve smiled at his best friend and waited for him to respond.
Bucky blinked, mouth dry with desire and despair.
So much for finding the right partner, then.
It was fine. It was fine. If Steve wanted this, a roll in the literal hay before he went off with Carter and they made little Carter babies then yeah, okay, sure. Bucky could do this. It wasn’t like any of them were guaranteed a tomorrow anyway. Any or all of them could be gone without warning — if the bullets earlier hadn’t hit the fuel tanks, but the engine, or either one of them, it would already have happened. The lesson here was take what you can, while you can, and be grateful.
Bucky could be grateful. It would hurt, afterwards, but he could.
He stared up into Steve’s unfathomable expression, and back down at Steve’s cock.
One chance? Okay. He wanted his mouth on Steve right fucking now.
Steve had barely blinked before Bucky knocked him to the ground. That was nice, if somewhat unexpected.
He grabbed what he could of Bucky’s hair and yanked. Bucky’s head jerked back with a gasp. Steve stared down his own body to Bucky’s wild eyes and open mouth.
“You’re not going to kiss a fellow, Barnes?” he teased. “You want me that badly?”
Bucky’s eyes grew round.
Bucky was honestly floored.
That Steve wanted a one-night fling was one thing. That he knew Bucky’s feelings on the subject, had grasped the extent of the desires Bucky thought he’d concealed completely effectively, yet could still ask this of him was nearly unthinkable.
Bucky knew Steve loved him, as a friend, as a brother. Undoubtedly. He hadn’t thought Steve was capable of this sort of casual cruelty.
But that was Steve sometimes. Throwing himself ahead and not thinking of the consequences, going after something single-mindedly no matter what, other considerations be damned.
And he loved that reckless, passionate Steve. Even if it was the height of callousness, even if Steve leaped first and counted the cost it brought others later, if ever — Bucky still loved him.
Hell, maybe Steve thought he was doing Bucky a favour. That was okay.
So, Steve wanted to kiss him? That was more than he’d ever expected. It was probably going to be harder than he’d expected, too. But okay. That was fine. What was kissing, after all? Bucky had kissed loads of people. He hadn’t been in love with any of them.
There’s the rub, thought Bucky and sighed.
When Bucky’s lips met his, Steve groaned. Bucky made a different, tighter noise high in his throat before he drew back, then seemed to collect himself and brought their lips together once more.
Bucky had been wrong.
It wasn’t fine.
It wasn’t anything in the vicinity of fine.
He closed his stinging eyes and kissed Steve again.
They kissed for a long time, the taste of Bucky’s tears salty on their lips. Steve was awed to the depths of himself. He was loved, he felt loved. He kissed Bucky with all his heart; Bucky kissed back like he was dying and Steve was the only thing that could save him. Steve’s fingers skimmed over Bucky’s chest, tracing raised scars all-too-recently healed. The combination of hurt and adoration he felt was devastating.
Steve hitched himself up into Bucky’s lap and they were face to face in the dim light, breath hot on each others faces.
“Whaddaya want, Bucky,” he asked, carding his fingers through Bucky’s slick hair. “Anything.”
Bucky sobbed, his chest heaving, before he gulped it down. He brushed the tears from his own cheeks with the heel of his hand, and met Steve’s eyes.
Bucky took another, desperate breath and swallowed.
“Anything?” he asked, and Steve nodded, smiling.
“Buck. Of course,” Steve promised. And he meant it; anything, anytime, always.
Bucky let go, and wriggled back in the hay. He looked at Steve like he’d never in his life seen anything he wanted more and Steve felt every bit of it.
“Buck?” Steve asked. Bucky sighed, and closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were shiny in the lamplight.
Bucky reached out and took Steve gently in his arms and laid him down in the hay. Steve felt like a virgin on his wedding night which, in truth, wasn’t an unfair comparison. Then Bucky kissed him, pushed away his shirt and undershirt, stripping Steve like he could spend the rest of his life doing nothing more and be grateful for it.
When Bucky took Steve into his mouth, Steve whispered a prayer.
Bucky took what he wanted.
It was as good as he’d imagined. He drew it out as long as he felt was decent. He felt the tears sliding down his cheeks and prayed he’d always, always, whatever happened, remember this.
Steve came with Bucky’s name on his lips, and Bucky’s heart cracked in two.
Later, they dressed before they slept, and Bucky said a silent goodbye to whatever this had been, even as he curled up next to Steve on their blanket in the hay.
In the morning, it would be over. Bucky wouldn’t make Steve spell out the boundaries for him.
He listened to Steve’s gentle snores for a long time before he fell asleep.
Bucky woke to the sound of a rooster, the uncomfortable prickle of dry wisps of grass, and the feeling of fingers carding through his hair. There was a warmth at his back that contrasted with the cool morning air.
He opened his eyes.
“Hey, Buck,” said Steve, smiling. He sounded soft and caring and agonisingly sincere.
“I love you,” said Steve.
Bucky blinked. He was abruptly very, very angry.
“You what?” he hissed, sitting up in a rush. He was so mad he could barely breathe. Letting Steve use him for one night was one thing. Trading endearments the following morning was a cruelty too far.
Steve just looked confused. Bucky could have punched him.
Steve’s oft-broken nose was saved from another brutal impact by a call from below and a creak of the barn door. Dawn light seeped in, barely there, blood-red and dim, promising foul weather later.
“Capitaine! Lieutenant!” cried the farmer’s boy who’d run their errands yesterday. He was a child of around ten, with fluffy hair barely restrained under a felted cap. “Breakfast is ready! And there is someone here to see you!”
Bucky swallowed his confusion and his rage, and scrambled for the rest of his clothes.
Steve rushed to followed suit, gathering the few things they’d brought in from the crash.
The kid waited for them to dress, helpfully pointed them in the direction of the privy, and generally hovered with an air of determined servility until they were decent enough and ready to follow.
Steve mourned the poor timing, but followed the kid across the yard and into the enormous kitchen through the back door, Bucky on his heels. The heat from the stove made Steve’s skin prickle and the smell of herbs and morning bread pleasantly overpowered the parfum-de-farmyard. Curtains fluttered in the windows. He and Bucky accepted mugs of hot milk from the farmer, thanking him in broken French for the food and shelter as they took seats at the broad, wooden table.
The farmer handed them hurriedly-prepared rounds of bread and cheese over the table, accepted Steve’s thanks and beat an inexplicably hasty retreat. Steve was watching Bucky frown at their host’s nervous departure, so he missed the arrival of a newcomer through a second door.
“Captain Rogers?” asked a dry voice, in American-accented English. Steve jerked to attention in his seat.
The voice belonged to an officer in the uniform of the French Army, standing at loose attention in the kitchen doorway. She was tall and narrow, in build and features, and she looked vaguely familiar, although Steve couldn’t place her.
“Yes, ma’am?” said Steve, aware he was still slightly dishevelled, unshaven, unwashed and somewhat non-regulation. Beside him, Bucky was shifting awkwardly as if he was having similar thoughts. The officer, if she noticed anything, breezed right past any reservations and went straight to business, opening with a salute.
“Commandant Maria Hill, adjutant — administrative deputy — to Colonel Fury, Escadrille 616. I hear you’ve had some trouble. I’ve got orders for you and Lieutenant Barnes to convene at the 616 ASAP.”
Steve and Bucky stood to immediate attention and returned the salute. Two chairs scraped hastily across the flagged floor.
Hill waved one hand dismissively, as if to brush away their belated formality.
“At ease, soldiers. We’ve got a situation and Fury’s on the warpath; the 107th will be joining us for an op this afternoon. Any chance you can make repairs, get in the air and over to our aerodrome the quick way?”
Steve hadn’t met Hill socially, but he’d seen her during the planning for the HYDRA gun op. She valued getting things done, as he recalled.
“We can’t, not without a mechanic and some parts,” said Steve, deciding that mirroring her informal approach was expedient under the circumstances. “We broke the propellor on the way down, and the tanks were holed during our altercation with the enemy.”
“Damn,” swore Hill. “Still, doesn’t matter, I drove here with a vehicle, I can drive you back and brief you on the way. Grab your kit and your cheese and come with me.”
She made a swift about-face and left. Steve and Bucky shoved their sandwiches in their pockets and followed.
The second kitchen door led to a smart, panelled hallway and a blue front door. The front of the house boasted cheery flowers in neat garden beds looking out over a rural vista that, in the early dawn, was nearly entirely obscured by an armoured truck with French Army markings.
Hill hopped up into the driver’s seat and gestured impatiently for them to join her.
“What’s happened?” asked Steve, as he slid onto the bench in the cab, letting Bucky squeeze in beside him and close the door.
“Schmidt,” answered the adjutant, shoving the truck into gear, her eyes forward, face grim.
Chapter 7: Cut Off One Head
HYDRA makes a grab for power and challenges the reigning German authorities, giving the Allies and Central Powers a common enemy. A gruelling mission schedule takes its toll on the members of the 107th and Escadrille 616; tempers flare and a raid on a critical HYDRA facility leads to irreparable consequences.
As the sun rose, the eerie red glow that lit the scraggly clouds faded to a washed-out blue. The air felt heavy, threatening the storms that had failed to materialise the day before, and Steve’s head ached.
“HYDRA has shown its hand,” explained Commandant Maria Hill to Steve and Bucky, as they drove over pot-holed roads through the French countryside on their way to 616’s aerodrome. “Hand? Hands? Tentacles? Arms, maybe,” she muttered, hauling on the steering wheel to avoid a particularly sinister-looking puddle.
“Anyway, they’ve shown it, and it’s got Schmidt’s grubby prints at the end of every finger,” said Hill, regaining confidence in her metaphor. “The Germans are running around like headless chickens; apparently their High Command had no clue they were hosting something so, uh…”
“Evil,” prompted Steve, with bitterness, thinking of the scars on Bucky’s chest he’d seen and touched last night. Beside him, he felt Bucky tense up, but he didn’t pass comment.
“Sure, evil, why not?” said Hill, briefly glancing sidelong at Bucky before fixing her eyes back on the road. “HYDRA are making a break from the command structure, they’ve made strongholds of a number of key German factories and road networks. It looks like they’re trying to seize power by taking over the places that make munitions, aircraft, that sort of thing. It’s caused a schism in the German command. Some think they should partner with HYDRA —”
“Quite,” agreed Hill, in response to what she rightly read as derision. “The majority seem to think that Schmidt is several cylinders short of a fully-functional engine, and we’re hoping that it stays that way. Bottom line: HYDRA has control of some key assets that Germany wants back.”
Steve grunted. It wasn’t good. Hill continued.
“This is bad, but it could be a win in the long-run. Not only will we be bombing the bejeezus out of them, they’ll have to contend with the German Army and whatever’s left of the German air forces once those loyal to Schmidt have defected to full HYDRA. We’re assuming he — that’s Schmidt — will have control of occupied German airspace for now. He’s got enormous clouds of Fokkers and Albatrosses massing over their new pet fortresses and he’s ruling the roost in his bright red tri-plane. Of course, he doesn’t appear to have any shame.” She paused, appearing to ruminate. “Or taste,” she concluded.
“What’s the plan, Commandant?” asked Steve. The truck hit a hummock in the road and the axles twitched, bouncing everyone in their seats. Bucky grunted beside him.
“Teamwork,” said Hill, raising her voice over the rumble of the engine and rubbing her hip where she’d been flung against the door. “Top brass are planning a concerted series of raids. We’ve no idea what the Germans will do, of course — at least not through formal channels. Intelligence may have some other way in. We’ll see. For now, it’s bombing raids and escort duty on rolling shifts, till we can smoke these bastards out. All hands on deck. 616 and the 107th have joint custody of a particularly nasty nest somewhere between here and Douai. We’ll be working together, what fun.”
She settled down to her driving, and Steve considered himself duly briefed.
Steve mulled this over in silence. Hill seemed content to throw the occasional acid commentary on the state of the roads and the vehicle’s non-existent cushioning without expecting a reply.
Bucky stared balefully out the far window and refused to respond in any way to the press of Steve’s knee. After the third time, Steve stopped trying. If Bucky wanted to dwell on his memories from the factory and Arnim Zola, that was up to him. It hurt, but Steve respected the choice to brood. He’d sulked through enough childhood maladies of his own to recognise a good solid coping strategy when he saw one.
Steve watched the road dead ahead and clung to the seat cushioning as best he could.
Hill eventually turned in at the aerodrome gate and pulled up outside the offices of Escadrille 616, bringing the vehicle to a juddering halt. She stretched like a cat and groaned, then led Steve and Bucky into the administrative core of the complex.
In the Records Room, Hill glanced briefly at a cork board full of cryptic notes. Behind her, various NCOs bustled around shuffling paper and taking calls from the big telephone in the corner. The door to the CO’s office was closed. Steve and Bucky stood at parade rest.
“Your fellow aviators are out on the tarmac,” said Hill to the both of them. She glanced up at the clock. “Reconvene on the hour, get Wilson to show you somewhere to clean up.”
She made a shooing gesture with her hands and strode off to leave them to it.
Steve smiled up at his friend — his partner — hoping for at least some acknowledgement of the new facets to their relationship. Instead, Bucky looked grim and strangely distant, but it had been a long morning after a long night and a rough day. Now more than ever, Steve surmised the thought of HYDRA brought up some shitty memories for Bucky, so he shrugged off his own misgivings and led the way out to the hangars.
Bucky followed, hands in the pockets of his leather flight jacket, shoulders jammed up around his ears.
A fresh breeze was blowing across the airfield, bringing with it the ubiquitous smell of castor oil which itched in Steve’s throat. Sam was standing next to a Stark fighter, deep in conversation with a redheaded woman in a boiler suit stained black with burned oil. A blond, scruffy man in similar attire was perched above them on the rim of the gunner’s seat of the subtly modified two-seater. Steve couldn’t place the model.
“You look like you’ve been rolling in a haystack,” said the dishevelled man, peering down from his elevated vantage point. Steve felt himself blush. He didn’t dare look at Bucky.
Sam looked up as they approached and smiled wide. Sam’s companion brought her fist back without looking and smacked her colleague in the ankle where his legs dangled within reach.
“What?” he asked, defensive, from above. “They’ve got stalks in their hair!” He launched himself from his roost and slid down the side of the machine to the ground, landing neatly next to Sam.
“It was a hay-barn, actually,” said Bucky, feigning indifference, but apparently unable to help reflexively combing one hand through his hair. Steve felt fondness swell in his chest. His best guy.
“Made you look,” said the man, folding his arms and looking smug.
“Shut up, Barton,” said Sam, stepping forward to embrace Steve in a bear-hug.
Hug given and thus received, Sam drew back and opened his arms in invitation towards Bucky.
“Keep dreaming, Wilson,” Bucky growled.
Sam shrugged, grinning. “One day you’ll warm to my charms, Barnes,” he said. He gestured to his companions. “Meet Natasha Romanov, our very own Russian ally. Natasha, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.”
“Hello,” said Natasha, shortly, shaking their hands in turn.
The other member of the little group muscled in, offering his own hand. The breeze shifted slightly, giving a passing whiff of grease and hair pomade. “Clint Barton. I fly with Tasha here. Your reputation precedes you. It was fun, for a while there, Rogers, watching Sam turn purple every time he mentioned you.” He sniggered wickedly.
Sam took it in good spirits and Steve laughed.
“Pilot or gunner?” asked Steve, gesturing towards Natasha and Clint.
“We switch,” said Barton, cheerfully. “Why specialise when you can be good at everything?”
They were interrupted by a clanging noise and some muffled swearing.
“Oh, Barton. Making friends, I see,” said a dry American voice.
Steve watched as a man around their own age ducked under the fuselage of the aeroplane and picked his way past the under-carriage to straighten up next to them. He was briefly shocked to silence, confronted as he was with a younger facsimile of Howard Stark, face smeared with oil, overalls rolled down to his waist, undershirt grey and grimy as the rest of him. His black hair stuck up in clumps.
“Let me guess: Tony Stark?” asked Bucky, before Steve found his own voice.
“The very same,” said the younger Stark, looking both Steve and Bucky up and down. “And you would be…?”
“Our friends from the 107th,” explained Sam. Stark’s black eyes bugged out wide.
“Oh, so you’re the bosom pals I hear about from Howard,” said Tony, backing up, suddenly cautious. “Don’t start. I don’t need to hear any glowing praises.”
“He’s a friend,” said Steve, just as Bucky said, “He’s an ass.” Steve snorted.
“That, too,” agreed Steve. “Were his glowing praises of us, or just himself?”
That managed to make even Bucky laugh, and Stark Junior looked a little less spooked.
“No, hey, anyone giving dear old Dad a hard time gets no complaints from me,” he said, hands raised in surrender. “Welcome to my domain. In fact—”
“Stark!” demanded someone on the other side of the aeroplane. “What did you do to my engine?!”
“Er, okay — her domain,” corrected Tony, hurriedly, as he swivelled on his heels to face another mechanic, who emerged from behind the tail-unit in high dudgeon. “Your engine? My engine, Princess,” he objected, pointing at himself for emphasis.
The newcomer was even younger than Tony, hair plaited tight to her head and away from a scowl Steve had to concede was pretty regal.
“You’re like children playing with matches,” she lamented — a little hypocritically Steve thought, given she couldn’t be more than sixteen. “Get over here, colonizer, and show me what you did,” she ordered before stalking back around the machine and out of sight.
“Later, kiddos,” said Tony. “Gotta get these flying buckets back in the air so you can rip them all to pieces again. A mechanic’s work is never done.” He gave a wonky salute and traipsed after his critic, who was still grumbling.
“Princess Shuri, of Wakanda,” advised Barton. “Although no-one seems to know quite where that is, other than ‘someplace in Africa’. But wherever it is, it seems to be home to over-achievers. Her brother, Crown Prince T’Challa, is knocking around here somewhere. He heads up one of our Flights here at 616. Nicest man you’ll ever meet, just don’t end up on the wrong side of a war with him.”
Natasha snorted her agreement.
“Alright,” said Wilson, jerking his chin at Steve and fanning his hand in front of his face theatrically as if to dispel a stench. “You two need to quit gawking at the beautiful aircraft our technical geniuses keep in tip-top condition and go wash up. Seriously, you smell like a pasture, not a hayloft. We’ll walk you over to somewhere you can grab a sponge and a razor.”
Steve couldn’t really argue with that, so they headed on to the barracks, past the hangars and more brightly painted aircraft.
“What’s the deal with that one?” asked Bucky, as they passed the last row of fighters, pointing at a single-seater set back in one of the hangars. Its engine cowling lay next to it in the dust and the propellor was nowhere to be seen.
“We don’t talk about that one, Lieutenant,” hollered Shuri, as they walked off. “It’s Stark’s pet project. Best you don’t either! I’m not sure even I have the will to work miracles with that one.”
Bucky gave her a wave and a grin that nearly echoed his regular charm, before letting his face collapse into a frown.
He was really taking this HYDRA stuff hard, Steve mused.
Bucky sighed. The aftermath of his night with Steve was — beg his pardon — fucking difficult.
That afternoon, Bucky and Steve had sat with The Avengers of 616 and half of the 107th, who’d flown in specially for the joint briefing. All of D-Flight was there, and Bucky slotted himself in between Jones and Dernier, biting his cuticles and jiggling his leg nervously up and down. At the front of the room, Fury and Phillips postured over maps and took turns with the long wooden pointer.
It seemed it had been a day of poor luck for all concerned. The storm broke in the late morning, heavy summer raindrops coming down like stair-rods. No-one was about to try flying in that, but of course, somewhere out in the field of war, a bit of precipitation wouldn’t stop HYDRA from conducting ground manoeuvres. They spent the afternoon miserably in the Mess, fretting and chafing at the inaction that could well cost Allied lives and God knew what else, given what HYDRA was capable of.
All in all, Fury’s briefing was a welcome distraction. He opened by saying that HYDRA’s technological superiority was questionable, that the current threat mainly stemmed from Schmidt’s ruthlessness and disregard for common human dignity. Schmidt was styling himself a leader outside the German chain of command: the Red Skull, the head of a monster poised to spread its tendrils across Europe.
But Fury and Phillips had a strategy. The 107th and 616 would team up as a sort of aerial super-group, escorting Allied bombers through a series of coordinated raids that would outmatch the show of strength Schmidt was putting up from the air. Facilities would be shared, Flight groups broken up and reformed, with the goal of maximising time in the air for as long as daylight lasted. And they’d keep at it until the monster was dead — every tendril severed and that ugly Red Skull smashed.
The days that followed were gruelling. Extended flight hours meant new shifts of duty and unfamiliar teams, and a punishing schedule that left little time for anything but food and sleep.
Bucky thought in some ways, it made things easier. He had no trouble avoiding Steve, who slept in a different room and didn’t always share Bucky’s shifts. They were encouraged to switch things up, so Bucky flew several days with Sam — which he found, to his annoyance, he didn’t hate — and frequently with Natasha, who took him under her wing like he was a little lost Imperial duckling.
“I’m Russian,” she told him. “I love a woeful face. You fit right in, soldier.”
That told him how well he was hiding his feelings, at any rate.
He cursed his foolishness, and told himself it would blow over soon. Really, he only needed a few days to adapt. To practice forgetting the taste of Steve’s skin and the press of Steve’s lips; to convince himself that night in the hayloft was just one more thing to leave where it lay and move on. Then he’d be fine — charming, joking Bucky Barnes, best friend to Steve Rogers, and the best shot in the Allied forces.
The best shot in the Allied Forces bar Clint, apparently.
Clint Barton had grown up in the circus, so not only could he ride a horse standing on his hands — or so he claimed, Bucky had yet to see proof — but he could hit a target with anything he cared to throw at it. This included bullets.
Bucky found himself spending a lot of his down time with Clint, wasting ammo with borrowed rifles by shooting empty petrol cans at increasingly ridiculous distances. Bucky liked being good at things, and he was nearly a match for Clint, which Clint himself told him was something of a breath of fresh air.
And, of course, a challenge.
If their shooting matches ran late and overlapped with the times Steve wasn’t chalked up to fly or actually be in his room sleeping… Well, Bucky couldn’t find it in him to really mind.
It was almost starting to not hurt as much.
Steve Rogers scanned the ground below him, peering through the windscreen of his single-seater as he warmed his guns. He kept his eyes peeled for trouble. To his left, Morita was flying a green Nieuport he’d borrowed from Lt. Bruce Banner. Sam Wilson flew to his right, completing a formation of three.
Escort duty for bombing raids was a little more exciting than escort duty for aerial reconnaissance, if by exciting one meant — to quote Falsworth — blasted dangerous.
Steve was exhausted and annoyed. His mouth tasted of long-congealed mugs of coffee, he’d forgotten what a solid night’s sleep felt like, and Bucky was avoiding him. Probably. Possibly. Alternatively, Bucky’d just gotten really, really interested in improving his marksmanship.
He supposed that was plausible. Bucky was nothing if not competitive, although he usually reined it in around Steve unless they were teaming up together against someone else. Perhaps he was enjoying this new outlet for his skills that, somehow, also meant spending all the free hours God sent with Clint Barton. Who knew?
Certainly not Steve.
Perhaps Bucky had been spooked; Steve was, after all, technically Bucky’s commanding officer. Fraternisation was against the rules. Any relationship between the two of them would necessarily need to be clandestine, or at the very least moderately discreet.
Steve had never met a rule he didn’t weigh against his own moral code: considering each one carefully from every angle before either committing to it in its entirety or jettisoning it swiftly over the side as unnecessary ballast. He knew damn sure which kind this was.
Bucky, though. Bucky could be more straight-laced in his disposition. It was possible he was merely being over-cautious, mindful of their new colleagues and shared environment. Perhaps he was just trying to abide by the rules.
It would have helped if Steve knew one way or the other. But he didn’t. And he hadn’t managed to find an opportunity to ask because Bucky was never there.
Steve shook his head to clear it. There were likely HYDRA aircraft on the way. He needed to focus.
Lifting one gloved hand to the sun, he pinched his fingers together and peered through the gap between the rough and frayed leather seams. It filtered the glare a little, but so far, there were no HYDRA machines to be seen.
He circled a little, to see if the angle made a difference. Steve scanned the air, scanned the ground, and flew on.
HYDRA was fierce. The Allies were determined. It was, more or less, a stalemate.
In Germany, HYDRA was on the run. Intelligence was intermittent, but whatever contacts Peggy and her cohorts still had sent word indicating several factories and at least one port had been annexed by Germany proper.
Over the contested lands of Allied and Occupied France, however, the battle raged mainly in the air. Schmidt appeared in his red tri-plane, hovering over the dogfights like a spectre. He and his gruppe of black-and-white-marked machines stayed out of the real scrapping, instead picking off any stragglers who looked like they could be taken down without too much risk or anything that resembled a fair fight.
Blood boiled in everybody’s veins over that. Sam and Bucky had tried to take a pop at the self-styled Red Skull, but they’d been deflected by a storm of Fokkers. It had been like flying through a crowd of midges. Big, ugly, painted ones. With guns. They barely escaped with their lives.
In the meantime, the Great War raged on. Losses on both sides were grim and fallen comrades were mourned, but overall the casualties were fewer than — for example — the brutal death toll of 1915 when German technology had the edge over the British and the French. Now, nearing as they were the end of 1917, the battle was more evenly matched. For many of the patrols, survival was mostly a matter of keeping out of the way until everybody needed to refuel.
At Escadrille 616, Bucky watched Shuri, Tony Stark and their minions work every hour God sent to boost the fuel efficiency and maneuverability of their modified Stark Fighters. Elsewhere, according to Peggy, Howard worked in tandem — or in parallel, Bucky supposed — to make his own advancements. Stark Senior and Stark Junior were embroiled in their own family arms race, as well as the war, and Bucky thought it fortunate that the end goal of the two competitions was the same. If he lived to see the day those two picked opposing sides, he thought he’d follow Natasha and retire to deepest Russia. There, at least, he might be able to hide from the explosions.
Here on the Front, there was no hiding. Starks aside, the war and the raids were taking their toll on everyone. Tempers ran high and even Captain Carol Danvers — the habitually cheery senior Flight commander — had adopted a mutinous frown and a brittle attitude. Lt. Maria Rambeau was the only person who had dared challenge the Captain when she snapped at poor Clint three times in one briefing. Later and off duty, Carol and Maria faced off in a brief and bloody knock-down fight — which Maria won. Afterwards, Maria escorted her Flight commander to the infirmary where Carol was given an enforced 24 hours of leave by the medical staff.
The following day Captain Danvers returned to duty sporting a black eye, a puffed and pouting lower lip, and the demeanour of a chastened puppy. Things at command level were a little better after that, but the wear and tear was everywhere.
Bucky found that drink helped, a bit. Stark Junior and the Princess of Wonders could indeed distill a mean — seriously mean — liquor. Bucky could swear he’d seen them using it to de-grease engine parts once.
He’d started smoking again, too, surrounding himself with clouds of it to encourage the asthmatic Steve to stay away. Peggy Carter, who flitted by frequently but briefly to share intelligence, started giving him sly looks under her lashes as Bucky dragged on cigarette after cigarette, letting the smoke burn his lungs and his memories both.
Bucky couldn’t bear her concern, so he started avoiding her as well. He could visibly see her letting him do it, which was almost as bad as the concern itself. Hooray for Peggy for respecting a person’s choices, he thought, bleakly.
He hoped she respected Steve’s. Just because Bucky couldn’t stand to be around him right now, didn’t mean Steve didn’t deserve the best.
Bucky wondered sometimes what Peggy’s play would be, should she ever choose to reveal her hand. Then he’d see her sharing a joke with Steve, or a funny little smile and he’d shake himself. Of course he knew what she’d decide. What idiot could ever reject Steve?
Three weeks into the big HYDRA push, Fury summoned the two squadrons for another briefing. Bucky was sick of briefings. He just wanted to fly, shoot, sleep, and forget.
By this time, he was more or less permanently attached to either Sam or Natasha while on duty. He sat at the back of the briefing room with his boots flung over Nat’s lap, with Barton sitting on the upright back of the bench between them, his legs dangling in what little gap was left. Steve was at the front of the room, spine ram-rod straight.
Bucky thought uncharitable thoughts about the stick up Steve’s ass, and lit another cigarette.
Nat’s eyelashes flickered, her gaze taking Bucky in for the flash of a second before pointedly paying attention to Fury, who was currently waving a stick in an authoritative fashion over the map that they saw every damn day. Bucky knew where the HYDRA bases were. He’d bombed them. He’d watched other squadrons bomb them. He’d risked his life nearly every goddamn shift to wipe them out. He honestly didn’t know what else Fury could tell them that would make a difference.
At this point, it was a numbers game, a war of attrition, the aerial battles reflecting the slow grind of the trenches below them.
Bucky was tired. Barton twitched deliberately, and kneed him in the side of the head.
Blinking and drowsy, Bucky rubbed at his chest as if to soothe the ache under his sternum. Maybe he should cut back on the smoking, after all. With a little sigh, he focussed his wandering attention on Fury and his certain-to-be-important words.
Steve sat in his seat and tried to look attentive.
The brass had planned a late afternoon raid, designed to culminate just before sunset, to be carried out by three squadrons of bombers escorted by the 107th and 616.
Fury laboured his points, going over every detail of the timings, the squadrons, the formations — whatever tactics they could muster. The Allies were still basically trying to overwhelm HYDRA by sheer force of numbers, a strategy that had been pretty successful elsewhere. At this point, HYDRA was left with only a few strongholds, of which Douai was one. That particular nut had yet to crack, though Fury clearly thought it would, given enough ordnance.
Steve tried hard to ignore Bucky at the back of the room, sprawled as he was over Natasha and guarded by a watchful Clint Barton. He didn’t know what had happened that night in the barn between the time he’d gone to sleep in Bucky’s arms and the arrival of Commandant Hill, but he’d clearly missed something. There was no other logical explanation.
Had Bucky had second thoughts? Or was it that he was really being affected by the HYDRA threat? Bucky had started smoking again — Steve coughed with the mere thought of it, combined with the faint tang of smoke on the air drifting through the room. Bucky was drinking too — a lot — and not just beer or cider, but also that stuff the mechanics cooked up in the hangars. Whatever he could get his hands on, as far as Steve could tell, which wasn’t much because Bucky wasn’t fucking talking to him .
Language , said Steve to himself, and giggled out loud, a little hysterically. Sister Bernadette would have a fit.
Of course, the knowledge that he’d been fucking Bucky Barnes would probably have shocked her more.
This time the giggle came out as more of a snort.
Silence descended on the room.
“Something funny, Rogers?” asked Colonel Fury, his one eye bulging as he glowered at Steve from a mere handful of feet away.
“No, sir. Clearing my throat, sir,” said Steve, evasively. Fury glared at him, as if he could incinerate him on the spot, then seemingly banished Steve from his observable universe.
Steve sighed, this time internally.
Something had to give, somewhere.
In the end, it gave somewhere inside Steve.
Steve Rogers was a sneaky bastard, Bucky would give him that.
They were supposed to be preparing for the raid. Everywhere on the aerodrome, pilots were checking their gear and lending their untutored hands at the instruction of the mechanics. Fitters were loading ammo into the guns. Dernier was doing something best not looked at too closely. Fury and Danvers were taking terse telephone calls in case of last minute intelligence.
Bucky had been on his way to the barracks restrooms. No one wanted to be caught short in mid-air. Instead, he was caught by Steve, not exactly with his pants down, but everything but.
Bucky braced himself for a confrontation as he tucked his shirt back into the waistband of his uniform.
“Why’re you avoiding me, Buck?” asked Steve.
“I’m not avoiding you, Steve,” he lied. He really didn’t want to have this conversation next to a toilet.
“Bullshit,” said Steve. He looked like he was about to stamp his foot. “You are avoiding me, and I hate it, and don’t know what’s going through your thick head and I can’t know if you don’t talk to me.”
This was really not the time, thought Bucky. He made placating gestures with his outstretched palms, which seemed to have the opposite of the intended effect. Steve gave a bullish snort.
Bucky dropped his hands to his sides and sighed.
“Steve,” he said. “I have to get in an aeroplane and go kill some fanatics, and so do you. Can we please talk about this afterwards?” Bucky looked up into those angry blue eyes and begged, mentally, for Steve to just let it drop.
He almost got his wish.
“Afterwards,” said Steve. “You promise.” He was glaring.
Bucky took a deep, steadying breath. It nearly worked, but he still got a feeling like lead settling in his stomach, acid crawling up his throat. He honestly didn’t want to fight. He just wanted to be left alone to adjust to the new shape of his future. He didn’t think it was all that much to ask.
“I promise,” Bucky said to Steve, whose clenched jaw spoke of stubborn purpose and dead ends. “Afterwards.”
Then he pushed past Steve, and left him standing in the bathroom to take a piss, or shit, or do whatever the hell he wanted while Bucky got on with his life.
Steve watched Bucky go. Well, at least he’d get his answers soon enough.
He headed off to see if Tony needed him to do anything.
Predictably, at least according to Bucky, the raid was chaos. Unpredictably, it started well.
The weather was good, for one thing. Initial bombing was encouragingly successful. The twilight timing was unexpected, and as the sun was sinking in warm golden light, they caught HYDRA unawares.
The military complex that was their main target was half aflame by the time HYDRA’s airforce caught on and got their fighters aloft. Less fortunately, the initial sweeps had missed the aircraft hangars which had been craftily concealed to look like just another bit of woodland. Bucky noted that for later, if later was an option for him.
Bucky was currently in the gunner’s seat of one of the 107th’s machines while Sam piloted, soaring like the eponymous Falcon he flew when he was alone.
There was no shortage of targets, creepy tentacled skull markings and all. The damned things were everywhere — Fokkers and Albatrosses knocking about all over this contested patch of sky. Bucky counted at least one tri-plane among his victories, a regular black-and-white one. It broke up in mid-air; he didn’t stop to watch it fall.
The Howling Commandos were on fine form.
Bucky looked over at the Stark fighter next to them and grinned at the sight of Dernier gleefully hugging a bomb the size of a champagne magnum to his chest. Francois had been consulting with the bomber squadrons, and it looked like he’d taken that as permission to relieve his clients of what he probably thought of as expert’s perks. With a jerk, he heaved it over the side as Jones steered them into a steep dive. Bucky was really glad he was a gunner and didn’t have to do Jones’ job. He didn’t think he could control his nerves if he had to fly with God knew how many pounds of experimental explosives up his ass.
The bomb made a hell of a dent, he noted, as a fuel dump below erupted in a column of black smoke and flame.
Bucky turned his attention back to the skies above him. There were aeroplanes everywhere, circling and looping and chasing each other around.
Clint and Natasha, together in a two-seater machine for this raid, dropped past like a stone. Bucky caught a brief glimpse of Clint, guns blazing with tracer, standing in his seat, mouth open. Bucky reckoned he could see all the way down his throat; he didn’t know if Clint was screaming defiance or singing a dirty song. Either was plausible.
It was perhaps mid-way through the raid when Bucky saw Steve’s machine and realised his best friend was in trouble.
Steve was locked in a tight circle with a Fokker, their trajectory sinking slowly as both fought to claim those few inches of distance between them rather than maintaining height. Sam looped towards the combatants and Bucky warmed his guns in preparation for an intervention.
Hauling Steve Roger’s ass out of the fire was practically Bucky’s day job, at least it had been, back home, and he hadn’t really had an opportunity to flex those muscles since Steve had joined him in France. That was a good thing, of course. Bucky wouldn’t want Steve to be at a disadvantage in the theatre of war. It was just a little nostalgic, and Bucky felt a nasty kind of joy settle in his chest. Steve didn’t need him all the time, not like he used to, but maybe he needed him right now.
Bucky bent low over his gunsights — little polished lenses, carefully and lovingly shaped to help him aim for the kill. Goddammit, he couldn’t escape Carter if he tried, could he?
It was with these small and petty thoughts in his mind, that he saw the first hint of unfolding tragedy.
Close to the ground by then, far too close, Steve’s machine twitched, an almost imperceptible shudder. Perhaps Steve had tried to make a run for it, as one of the two planes would inevitably have needed to do eventually to avoid crashing into the ground. Perhaps he’d just lost focus, the centrifugal forces exerted by the protracted position becoming overwhelming, just for a second. Perhaps he’d coughed, or sneezed.
Either way, Bucky watched Steve’s single-seater jerk in the air.
The HYDRA pilot took their advantage where they found it. Their aim was perfect.
Steve’s engine erupted in flames.
The HYDRA machine looped in victory, swooping for height.
Bucky could see Steve, tiny in the cockpit, wrestling with the controls even as the engine burned. Steve clung on to the last, fighting to keep his wings straight, trying to bring his craft down at a low angle, but it wasn’t enough. It was never going to have been enough.
Bucky watched in horror as Steve’s machine collided with the ground, bounced once, and disintegrated. Settling in pieces, it exploded in a shower of burning canvas and hot oil. In seconds, all there was left was smoke.
For a moment, he couldn’t parse it.
Bucky felt nothing. He blinked, but it was still there: a column of bright flame and dark, billowing smoke. A funeral pyre. Nothing could have survived the heat. Anything within a hundred feet had to have been incinerated.
He blinked again. The wreck was still burning. Bucky could smell it, over the burnt castor oil of their own engine, and the smell of phosphor and fuel —burning wood, rubber, and canvas.
In the seat in front of him, Sam was screaming into the wind as he urged their craft closer to the crash site. Bucky just stared. He looked down at his boots, in the footwell. He looked up at the sky.
Sam circled as low as he could, Bucky forced himself to look again. Closer inspection only verified his first assessment.
Steve was dead.
Bucky was suddenly overwhelmed by vertigo. Around them, the bombing raid continued, the frantic dogfights carried on. He fought to keep bile down and his breath even.
As he stared blankly at the gunsight in front of him, Bucky was suddenly very, very sure he should be doing something.
Like murdering the son-of-a-bitch who’d killed Steve.
It was that thought that had him vomiting into the space between his knees. He thought Sam might have twisted around in his seat then, but he couldn’t have sworn to it.
Bucky crouched low and tried to hang on to his wits. His fingers crushed the fleecy inner lining of his gloves as he clung to his seat.
He heard Sam’s guns chattering, felt their machine circle for height, level out, and begin the long, slow descent for home.
It all seemed a very long way away.
Chapter 8: To the End of the Line
Steve is stuck on the wrong side of the Lines and saddled with an unwanted responsibility; Bucky, Sam and Peggy grieve the loss of their friend. The Allies prepare for a final push to defeat HYDRA and our story draws to an explosive conclusion!
Steve Rogers awoke in a shallow ditch, surrounded by the overhead fronds of some kind of reed, submerged up to his armpits in frigid, stagnant water. His mouth tasted of blood and his clammy skin crawled. He could hear the sounds of aerial battle going on above his murky bower, and a machine gun chattered somewhere nearby.
The yells and guttural screams of ground troops filtered into his green, peaty little world, muffled by the canopy of reeds, where the most immediate sound was the schlup, schlup, schlup of the water lapping at Steve’s chest and arms.
Steve decided the sensible thing would be to stay put. This fitted very nicely with the overwhelming votes for rest coming from his various muscles and ligaments, so he focussed on breathing and took careful notes on the agenda his body was delivering to his brain. None of the items seemed particularly urgent. As far as he could tell, he had no broken bones, a minor sprain in one elbow which hurt like a bastard but hadn’t stopped him flexing it, and a lot of bruises. He had thought briefly that he was losing vision in his left eye, but no, it was just blood dripping from a cut above his eyebrow.
He’d broken his nose again, too. He probed it gently until he had a general idea of the problem then, gritting his teeth, reset it best he could.
His heartbeat was fast and his breathing shallow, but both were steady.
Steve sucked fresh blood off his teeth and winced. He bet he looked a real picture. He was shaken, cold, and probably needed to get out of this ditch before the sun went down and he caught his death of cold. From what he remembered, he was probably the luckiest pilot — and here was the operative word — alive.
Steve had watched his own engine catch fire a mere foot or so in front of his face, and he’d wrestled with the controls all the way down to the ground, or almost. He didn’t remember the impact, but imagined it must have thrown him free of the wreckage or he’d have been dead and burnt to a cinder. By the look of it, he’d landed in this ditch.
As he lay and counted his blessings as well as his injuries, Steve was dimly aware that the sounds of battle were receding. It was getting dark.
Sooner or later, he really would need to move.
Bucky Barnes had taken on the qualities of an automaton by the time Sam landed them at the aerodrome belonging to Escadrille 616 and taxied up to the hangars.
It was Sam, tears in his eyes, who sat astride the fuselage and shook Bucky to something like consciousness; Sam who bellowed for the mechanics; Sam who directed a grim Tony Stark and some kid called Parker to sling Bucky between them and walk him gently to the officers’ quarters. It was Sam who pushed him down onto a narrow bed and brought him water, fetched a spare blanket and tucked it carefully around him.
Bucky, through the fog in his brain and the growing darkness of twilight, thought that was kind of Sam. Bucky hated the infirmary. He couldn’t have faced doctors while he was like this. He curled on his side in the bed and buried his face in a blanket that smelled of Steve.
That was when he realised that he was in Steve’s private quarters.
The thing that had been threatening to tear itself apart inside him since the moment he witnessed the unthinkable, opened its gaping mouth and swallowed him whole.
Sam gripped Bucky’s shoulder and sat with him, lending his steady presence while Bucky shook, and sobbed, and wailed. He thought maybe Sam cried too, but every one of Bucky’s limbs felt like lead, and he couldn’t muster the strength or the will to look, or to offer comfort of his own.
After all, what comfort was there?
Steve was dead.
Steve was wishing he was dead.
He was freezing. Everything smelled of rotten eggs — which he put down to the mud — and burning fuel.
Stene had decided that it was prudent to wait until night fell before he tried to take stock of his surroundings. He had made good use of the time available to muster his assets, which amounted to the clothes on his back and, miraculously, a 0.45 Smith and Wesson M1917 revolver which he’d taken to carrying in his jacket pocket. It was soaking wet, of course, so he didn’t think he could rely on it, but nobody else needed to know it might be useless. If he wiped it off, it looked functional enough.
Steve’s pack of matches was as damp as his powder, though they were likely less useful for threatening someone. The contents of the rest of his pockets included a washer, one of Peggy’s handkerchiefs, a ten-inch piece of string, a fruit knife he’d forgotten was there, and a small tin of petroleum jelly. Steve had, at one point, had detailed plans for that last item, before Bucky had gone so strangely distant on him. As it was, it would at least stop Steve’s lips getting chapped. And since it was also, in theory, flammable, he might find any number of additional uses for it before he got back home.
Speaking of flammable, he assumed — correctly, as it happened — that the fire burning merrily in the field beyond his little green ditch was the remains of his aeroplane. He would therefore not be making his way home by air, unless HYDRA was in the business of leaving spare aircraft unattended. Admittedly, they’d gotten away with that last time, but it seemed unlikely he’d be able to manage a repeat performance. Especially since he didn’t have Dum Dum and Gabe to hit guards with an iron bar.
He did mourn the loss of his Very pistol — a flare gun would probably come in useful, particularly if he needed to summon help to his position or, conceivably, create a distraction.
The gloom of twilight was making it hard for Steve to see much beyond his immediate environment. He wondered what he’d do without a light source when the sun finally set.
The mud had long since seeped into every crevice Steve could have wished it hadn’t. The thunder of heavy boots and the bark of orders had given way to the more subtle sounds of evening, the night calls of birds, the rustle and obscenely intrusive plops of small water-going animals. He gradually became aware that those background noises were being masked by the dragging, sucking sound of something large and ungainly moving along the ditch towards him from somewhere to his left.
Steve had all kinds of horrible thoughts about alligators before he recalled that they weren’t native to Europe.
There had to be large animals in the forests of France. Did any of them inhabit shallow ditches? He was sure he’d heard about ferocious wild boars roaming these parts. Whatever it was, going by the slurping noises and grunting, it could easily be the size of a pig.
As he peered into the noisy dark, he saw a light wobbling in the shadows.
Steve swiped the gun from his pocket, and scrambled backwards up the bank, fighting the reeds as he went. His good arm trembled as he leveled the gun, safety off, hammer cocked. There were six bullets in the cylinder, but Steve was horribly aware he couldn’t scare off an animal with a gun he couldn’t fire.
There was a larger splash, sphincter-tighteningly close. Steve steadied his aim with his left hand and tried to stop his wet hands slipping against the slick metal. He took a deep breath and slowly squeezed the trigger.
“Scheisse,” swore a — well, a reedy — tenor voice, in German. There was more splashing.
Steve quietly blew the air out of his lungs, swallowed and steadied his nerves. Here goes nothing , he thought.
“Hände hoch!” said Steve, as loudly as he dared. “Wer ist da?”
“Doktor Arnim Zola,” said the man, appearing through the reeds as he raised cautious hands, one of which held a flashlight. He drew himself upright with a surprising amount of dignity for a man covered in sludge. “Und Sie?”
That dignity was, naturally, wasted on Steve.
For months, Steve had indulged in daydreams starting with this unlikely meeting. He’d also woken from nightmares ending with this exact moment.
The reality was jarring. Standing in the muck, Zola looked nothing short of pathetic: small, balding, human, bedraggled. But here was the man who had strapped Bucky Barnes to a table, then cut him and burned him till he screamed.
Zola stared at Steve, the whites of his eyes almost glowing in the dim light, contrasting sharply with his mud-spattered face. For a moment, Steve could only stare back.
Then he raised his gun and fired.
At some point, Bucky must have slept. He opened his sticky eyes and peeled his face from Steve’s blanket. It felt like later. The scraps of sky visible outside the little shuttered window were dark.
Sam had moved from sitting on the edge of the bed to a stiff-backed wooden chair that he’d tilted backwards on two legs to lean against the wall. When Bucky shifted to grab the glass of water from the nightstand so he could rinse his dry and bitter mouth, Sam cracked an eyelid.
The front two legs of the chair thudded onto the floorboards. Sam leaned forward, propped his elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together. He stared at Bucky for a second, then let his head drop forward in defeat.
“I got nothing, Barnes, I’m sorry” he said, looking back up to meet Bucky’s bleary eyes. “I know you two were close. Close as it gets, maybe, I dunno. But I know he loved you, man.”
“What? No!” Bucky yelped, too defensive, for a man who’d just lost his oldest friend. Who he did love, had loved, would always love. And who, in many ways, had of course loved him too.
Sam crossed his arms, raised an eyebrow and made a skeptical noise that sounded like mmm-hmm?
After that and a few more spluttered denials, the whole sordid story of Bucky’s unrequited longings had come out. How Bucky had taken advantage, or let Steve take advantage, or how whatever had happened that night had happened. The way Bucky had withdrawn, hoping to get his head on straight. The way Steve hadn’t understood how much the whole thing had hurt or how much it had meant. How Bucky hadn’t been ready to face Steve and now he never would.
Explanations dissolved into more crying, which Bucky couldn’t be bothered to apologise for.
Pilots were said to only ever be one bad day away from shattering their nerves for good. No one said anything at all about gunners, but Bucky supposed the aphorism held. Just look at him.
Sam didn’t try to make conversation, just sat quietly in his chair with his own grief.
When Peggy Carter arrived a short while later, her pale face was streaked with tears. She and Sam embraced wordlessly. Bucky couldn’t muster up the energy to get to his feet, and Peggy seemed to understand, waving him back down when he tried to raise himself on the bed.
Peggy passed him a supply of handkerchiefs as she sat down beside him, then waited as Bucky wept.
“Come prepared,” she told them her mother had always said, “especially to funerals.” Peggy, sniffed and dabbed at her cheeks with her own soggy rag. “This whole war is a funeral,” she said.
Eventually, Bucky swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, dragging his hands over his stubbled face. “I’m just so angry and I can’t yell at him; I can’t even be properly mad at him, the goddamn jerk, because he’s dead, and I’m never going to see him again!” he choked into his third handkerchief.
“Oh, James,” said Peggy. “No. What happened? Did the two of you fall out?”
Bucky hiccuped, and looked to Sam.
Sam — briefly, awkwardly — told her.
As she listened, Bucky watched her. He saw her stiffen her spine, along with the upper lip the British were always going on about. A muscle twitched visibly in her jaw.
Peggy’s next words were pinched and cold. She took Bucky by the elbow and drew him to his feet. She looked deadly serious, as she stared up at him with red-rimmed eyes. “If he’d treated me like that, James, he’d be dead anyway because I’d have killed him,” she said. “Let’s find Fury’s stash of liquor, because I need a drink.”
“Peggy, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…” said Bucky, feeling as fucking guilty as hell on top of everything else. He couldn’t bring himself to regret what he and Steve had done, but it didn’t feel right sharing his history with Steve with Peggy, along with their grief.
Peggy looked grim. Bucky didn’t blame her.
“Drink first, Barnes,” Peggy ordered, herding them all out of the room.
Zola survived, but only thanks to mud and moisture.
Steve pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He didn’t let a little thing like that stop him, though. He hurled himself across the little watercourse, bearing Zola down by the waist, kicking, biting and bashing him with the butt of the soggy Smith and Wesson.
“The torch, the torch!” cried Zola, in passable English, splashing backwards with the force of Steve’s onslaught and waving the flashlight with one upraised hand. “I surrender, but please, the torch!”
Steve let himself give the torturing, murderous bastard one more jab to the gut. After hours in a ditch, no food and an exhausting day, it was probably like being punched by a wilting sunflower. The day had really taken it out of him. He was actually finding it somewhat difficult to catch his breath.
Steve inhaled deeply. His lungs rattled.
Oh, fuck, he thought.
Steve found himself in the middle of the first coughing fit he’d had since his first week in France. He slowly realised he was being patted on the back by one of the only men he’d happily murder in cold blood and sleep soundly every night for the rest of his life, assuming he ever got his wind back and had the opportunity to live the rest of his life.
“Breathe, yes, yes, that’s it, airman, don’t die,” soothed the murdering HYDRA scientist, rubbing Steve’s back. Steve’s skin crawled at the contact.
“You can fucking die,” snapped Steve, between asthmatic breaths and bouts of coughing. “And it’s Captain.”
“Much as I’d like to please you, of course, Captain, I would actually prefer the both of us to live,” replied Zola.
“Why?” asked Steve, eventually, as he began to catch his breath.
“HYDRA is on the run. Schmidt is psychotic. I wish to defect,” explained Zola, watching Steve with a look that seemed disturbingly calculating. “You may be of use to me in reaching the Allied Lines. As I may be of use to you, in crossing those of HYDRA and of Germany.”
“You can fuck off,” said Steve, which set off another round of hacking coughs.
“Ah, no, we can, how’s that? Fuck off,” said Zola, triumphantly. Steve collapsed on the bank of the ditch, mud squelching between his fingers, and the barrel of his handgun digging into his palm. It was fully pitch black by now; Zola’s flashlight was the only source of illumination.
“Alright,” admitted Steve, grudgingly. “You have a point. But the way today is going, we’ll probably die anyway. And if I do, and I manage to take you with me? I’m honestly not sure I’ll be sorry.”
Slipping and sliding, nerves strung taut, Steve Rogers and HYDRA’s most craven scientist crawled out of the mire and towards freedom.
“Steve Rogers is an idiot! A fool!” Peggy raged, as she strode the length of the CO’s deserted office and back. She held a tumbler of whisky in one hand and a cigarette to stab the air in the other.
“Was,” said Bucky, numbly. “He’s dead.”
To say it out loud felt not just painful, but wrong, like standing at the crumbling edge of the Grand Canyon, if the Grand Canyon had been inside of him.
Bucky had sat down in a padded chair that threatened to subsume him in its threadbare folds. He slumped back, chin tucked, brows lowered, the fingers of both hands gripping the armrests tightly in lieu of choking something, or someone, else. The elderly seat cushion had deflated so much his elbows were almost level with his ears. He glowered at nothing. Wilson and Carter were talking; he was barely listening.
“That’s how that works,” Sam was saying. “One moment they’re there, next moment: gone. We’ve all gone through it. We’ve all lost people. We lost another one today; a good man. A good partner.”
Bucky must have sobbed, or said something. Even he wasn’t sure. He didn’t know what Wilson and Carter had heard. He raised his head, looked helplessly at Peggy. “I’m sorry,” he said, uselessly. “You… I don’t want to say I know how you’re feeling, Carter, but God, I do. I’m sorry, but I do.” Even to his own ears, he sounded soft and confused.
“No, James, don’t, I can’t imagine…” Peggy started to protest, but he cut her off.
“I don’t know what he’d said to you, or what you had planned,” Bucky told her. “I know he loved you, I… honestly, Peggy, what you’re going through, I can…” Bucky’s voice cracked, and he cursed.
“How I’m feeling? What who had planned?” Peggy asked, sounding strangled. She looked appalled, glancing over at Sam and back to Bucky. “Dear God, Barnes, what do you think is going on here?”
Bucky straightened briefly, before subsiding back into the chair. He tried to explain. “I think you lost someone you loved, Carter, someone you wanted a life with, who wanted a life with you. You must feel like you lost your whole future,” he said, earnestly, over the wrenching ache in his chest.
Peggy stopped pacing. She looked at Bucky, looked at Sam, looked at Bucky and then back to Sam again. It was Sam who broke what seemed to be a stunned silence.
“I tried to tell him,” said Sam, to the ceiling, hands in the air. “Both of them, for the record. I’m getting another drink.” He turned and strode towards the cabinet where Fury kept the good bourbon.
Peggy turned back to Bucky.
“I’ve been cursing Steve for a fool, but maybe I should be cursing you too, Barnes,” Peggy said, ever so gently.
She came to perch on the arm of Bucky’s chair. Bucky lifted one hand to make a space. Peggy put a tumbler in it and wrapped his fingers around the cut crystal, squeezing gently as she did so. She stared down at Bucky, who stared back.
“He doesn’t — he didn’t,” Peggy corrected herself, “— want a future with me, you idiot boy. And any interest I had in him beyond our friendship ended the moment I heard him talk about you. His face, James. It lit up every time. He only ever wanted you. Anyone could see that.” Peggy huffed, and reached down towards Bucky. “Or I thought they could,” she finished, softly. She telegraphed her movements, and he let her cup his face with her hand, smearing his tears with the swipe of her thumb.
Bucky looked up into her grieving eyes, pole-axed.
“He never said anything of the kind,” said Bucky. He shook his head to clear it and frowned. “That’s wrong. It has to be.”
Across the room, Sam Wilson gave a dismissive snort. Peering around Peggy’s shoulder, Bucky caught Sam rolling his puffy eyes.
“What’d he have to do, Barnes?” asked Sam, gesturing with the bottle of bourbon and choking back a laugh full of sorrow. “He crossed an ocean for you. He crossed the Lines for you. And, okay, apparently, between the two of you, he crossed a few signals while he was at it. But it was all for you.”
“You don’t know that,” whispered Bucky, dropping his gaze to his knees.
He heard Sam heave an exhausted sigh.
“Oh, James. We do,” said Peggy, and sieges could have been fought and won from the stronghold of her certainty.
He felt the gust of breath from her words stir in his hair, as she leaned down and pressed a kiss to his forehead like a benediction.
As it turned out, once Steve and Zola hauled themselves out of the ditch, crept along hedges and hiked a mile or so to another HYDRA outpost it was relatively plain sailing.
Zola, though repugnant, had his uses, even if only a working lightsource and a whole slew of current HYDRA passwords. They passed checkpoints Steve would have sworn were commanded by actual German authorities, but Zola seemed attuned to some secret sign, or sigil, or something, and with nods to the right people they were passed smoothly through.
On one occasion, Steve watched as Zola went up on his tip-toes to embrace one of the guards, his greasy lips mouthing a barely audible, “Hail HYDRA!” into the fellow’s ear.
That was how they commandeered a vehicle. A junior guard had led them to a truck and taken the wheel. Moments later they were underway, Zola directing from the passenger seat while the grey-eyed driver squinted into the dark, the headlights barely lighting up the few yards in front of the bumper.
The ride lasted what felt like hours. Steve wore a greatcoat borrowed from that terribly young-looking HYDRA soldier. The heavy woolen coat helped keep Steve’s own uniform hidden from unfriendly eyes. He huddled in the back seat, gripping his revolver in the voluminous depths of his sleeve and feeling like the worst spy of all time. Bucky would be much better at this, Steve thought to himself, miserably.
God, he missed Bucky. He wondered if Bucky had seen him be thrown clear of the crash. Did they all think he was dead? The thought made him sick.
If he got back home, Steve promised himself, and Bucky still held him at arm’s length, he’d respect Bucky’s wishes. Steve had pressed too hard, gone too fast, perhaps. Maybe Steve would need to keep his distance for a bit, to wait and be patient, but he wouldn’t give up. Whatever had happened, Steve was prepared to do whatever it took to repair it. Even if they could only ever be best friends, and Steve had to spend his life one step removed from everything he thought he’d already had, it would be worth it. They’d return to Brooklyn as war heroes, respectable men. They’d have a future.
He hoped they’d have a future.
Steve’s maudlin reverie was interrupted by a particularly brutal pothole. He nearly bit through his tongue, and his mouth filled with blood for what felt like the tenth time that day. He clutched the door and the edge of his seat, and peered through the window.
Ahead, the Lines were visible as well as audible: Archie bursting like fireworks against the night, clouds of dust and smoke glowing dull orange on the horizon, artillery booming , gunfire crackling. The Lines smelled, too, of burnt wood, sharp-scented chemicals, and cordite.
The nervous young driver bid them dismount at the end of the road, and deposited them beside the entrance to a bunker before turning around in a jerky three-point manoeuvre and speeding off.
Zola and his magic words got them to a narrow complex of HYDRA-controlled trenches, the entrance to which was a dark portal both he and Steve knew led to almost-certain death.
Steve thought of Bucky and the works of Dante, as Steve half looked for the carving that would bid them abandon all hope should they have the temerity to enter. Steve had already experienced one inferno today and didn’t really want another one.
They had hit the unavoidably foolhardy part of the plan. Soon, probably within yards, Steve and his slippery HYDRA charge would run out of German-occupied territory and have to face the horrors of No Man’s Land.
Neither he nor Zola spoke much as they surrendered to the dark, and made their way through a noisy labyrinth of mud, duck-boards, sandbags and soldiers.
Steve was trusting his life to the providence of God, but even if the Almighty failed him, he was flat-out refusing to die today.
He refused. He had places to be.
“You ever lost someone you loved?” asked Bucky, of Sam, when they’d found and opened a second bottle of bourbon. “I mean…” he stuttered, “I don’t mean Steve, I mean…” Bucky groaned and screwed the heel of his hands into his eye-sockets.
Sam took pity and patted Bucky on the knee. He was sprawled on the floor, back against Fury’s desk. Peggy was sitting in the severe desk chair, her chin in her hands. She shifted to watch Sam with one gleaming, heavy-lidded eye.
Sam took a deep breath.
“Riley,” he answered. “He was my gunner, when I first got out here.”
No one said anything. Bucky didn’t even feel bad about his silence. In the end, ‘sorry’ didn’t cut it, and there wasn’t a lot else a person could say.
“It was shrapnel,” continued Sam, “from Archie, if you can believe it. I didn’t even know until we landed, and by then he was already dead. Docs said it would have been quick. Could have happened to anyone. Could’ve been me, and then we’d both have been dead because he was a hell of a shot with a swivel mounted machine gun, but he couldn’t fly a ‘plane for shit.”
Sam snorted quietly to himself, turning his glass round and round in his hands.
“They had to strip the whole kite after that, replace the fittings,” he said, staring at something only he could see. “Blood everywhere, soaked into the seat pad, the canvas, everything.” Sam laughed, and it wasn’t funny at all but Bucky kinda saw the humour somehow. He fixed his eyes on Sam’s face.
Sam kept talking. “All I could think of,” he said, “was that Riley hated it when the seat got damp. Fucking ridiculous, right? But he did, he used to complain it made his pants all soggy and his ass-crack itch. He could never sit fucking still when we went through a cloud, or when it rained. He was a pain in the backside, I always could feel him hitching around back there from the seat all the way in front of him. Even noticed he wasn’t doing it, that last flight. Thought he’d finally learned to sit still.”
Sam’s voice petered out, and he gave a short sob. “Guess he had, at that,” he said, then fell silent once more.
Peggy slid forward, one hand reaching over the edge of the desk, and brushed her slim, uncoordinated palm against Sam’s wet face, cradling his cheek from above with her fingers.
Bucky bent forward and grasped Sam’s other shoulder. He gave it a shake, and they shared a sad look.
“Thanks, Barnes,” said Sam, wetly.
Bucky sighed. “Nah, Wilson,” he said. “Thank you.”
He felt the sentiment was kinda late coming.
Steve contemplated the ladder strung tight to the shuttered wall of the trench. Above his head, beyond the parapet, was No Man’s Land and almost guaranteed death by bullet, artillery shells, hidden mines, poison gas, razor wire or a dozen other means of severing a soul from the body.
If they did succeed in crossing what could amount to only one or two hundred impossible yards, Steve was sure that the moment they were in Allied territory, Zola would kill him and bolt, first chance he got. Steve almost hoped he tried. He still had his revolver clutched in his pocket and sooner or later the powder would dry.
He gestured with the firearm and directed Zola up the short ladder. Zola, understandably, hesitated with one foot on the lowest rung.
“No way around but through,” reminded Steve, gesturing with his free hand.
Zola visibly swallowed, swore softly under his breath in his native language, and ascended. Steve followed.
It was still the middle of the night, and while they’d kept the flashlight to light their feet, they’d swaddled it in cloth, making a kind of shade that narrowed the beam as far as possible. It wouldn’t do to be a bobbing light in the darkness, a target for every Allied sniper burdened with insomnia. Even so, Steve made Zola carry the thing.
No Man’s Land was not somewhere Steve wanted to go or think about ever again.
The ground was more mud than earth and more bodies than mud. Abandoned trenches had partially collapse and Steve had to pull Zola out when he got one leg stuck down a hole. A few minutes later, Zola had to return the favour.
Steve’s foot snagged on obstructions more times than he could count; he gave up looking down to check what his boots were caught in, just plodded forward. He was weary and on edge.
Zola chose that poorly judged moment to make conversation. “He was brave,” he said, apropos of nothing.
“What?” asked Steve.
“Your man, Barnes,” said Zola, with mathematical cruelty. “Oh, don’t look so surprised, Captain,” he continued, in his poisonous, ponderously measured way. “You are an American, you call me a torturer, you wish to hurt me. We of HYDRA recognise the aeroplanes of the 107th over our facility. You are their comrade-in-arms, yes? So you knew Barnes and his little friends.”
Steve stared. “Tread very, very carefully, asshole,” he said through gritted teeth.
“I thought so,” said Zola, self-satisfied, and Steve stepped close, ready to snap the scientist’s goddamn turkey neck.
This, apparently, was all part of Zola’s plan because as Steve loomed, Zola snatched for the gun. It was only luck and decent reflexes that had Steve jerk his hand away and scramble back.
“Oh, what’s the matter? It doesn’t even fire,” taunted Zola.
Steve growled. The weasel might be correct. To demonstrate otherwise would risk drawing attention, but perhaps among the sounds of war it would be lost in the background.
Steve aimed three feet to Zola’s left and pulled the trigger.
The retort echoed around the shallow depression, battering Steve’s ears. Zola looked like his lunch had departed wholesale through his ass.
“You just lost privileges, sunshine,” growled Steve as he bound Zola’s hands behind him with a strip of wire tugged from the mud. Zola protested, but as far as Steve was concerned, the son-of-a-gun was lucky Steve hadn’t chosen the barbed wire.
Gesturing with his revolver, Steve prodded Zola ahead of him, onwards through the fetid clay to freedom. Well, Steve’s anyway.
Steve hoped the authorities would drop Zola into the deepest, darkest oubliette and forget him.
Bucky had returned to his own bed after he, Wilson, and Carter shared their late night confidences. He hadn’t slept, unable to stop replaying his broken revelation and Peggy’s extraordinary response.
Steve had told Bucky he loved him. And Bucky — convinced that Steve had taken him for a fool, first toying with his affections, then extending a paltry consolation prize — had, from Steve’s point of view, rejected him out of hand. According to Wilson and Carter, Steve had meant it sincerely. Bucky would never get to respond in kind. Steve had gone to his death believing
Bucky made his way to the Mess before dawn. Most of the joint squadron were already there. Sam took one look at him as he arrived and said, “Well it’s a good thing I’m the one flying the plane.”
From the dark circles under his eyes, Bucky didn’t think Sam had actually slept any better, but at least he probably wasn’t still drunk. Bucky couldn’t have sworn to his own sobriety, so he grabbed coffee and a roll and sat. He chewed mechanically, while Sam took the space opposite. They had left Peggy to find spare quarters for herself last night; there was no sign of her this morning.
The room was filled with the subdued sounds of the squadrons. The men of D Flight joined Bucky at the table, taking turns to clap him on the back or fold him up in an awkward embrace. Even Dum Dum was uncharactistically silent. Of the Avengers, only Barton and Romanov paused on the way to their own seats. Clint made a fist and bopped Bucky on the shoulder. Natasha squeezed his arm.
They were all called into their morning briefing. No one tried to persuade James Barnes to sit this next operation out.
Fury and Phillips and the High Command had their orders ready. HYDRA was wounded. Their next raid would begin as soon as the sun was up.
Steve lay low in a shell-hole, contemplating all his possible futures. Zola, hands still tied behind his back, was lying on his side, collapsed with exhaustion and resting his eyes. It had been a long night, but now the glow in the eastern sky had the cool, blue-ish tinge of pre-dawn blending through the orange flicker of scattered fires.
Steve’s crash, not more than fourteen hours previous, felt like a decade ago. Shaking himself awake, he came to a decision. They were relatively sheltered where they were, but come dawn the lull of the early hours would be over. They needed to move.
Steve’s dilemma was this: how to proceed without getting hit by friendly fire. He thought it sort of fair if he died by a German bullet; dying from an Allied one would be needless.
They could try to surrender, though he had nothing to stand in for white flag. Both he and Zola were covered in several distinct veneers of mud from the ditch as well as from their furtive night-time stroll between the Lines. Steve could feel the pervasive grit and muck saturating every item of clothing on his person and assumed Zola was in the same boat.
The only other option Steve could come up with was yelling. At least if he were speaking English, his accent might peg him for an American and give the Allied troops pause.
The sky was getting distinctly brighter. Steve sighed. Do or die, he supposed.
“Hoy! You over there! You Americans?!” he yelled, pushing himself up on his hands before dropping swiftly back down and pressing his face in the fetid dirt. Next to him, Zola cursed but didn’t object. He was looking entirely dispirited.
There was silence for a moment.
“Not bloody likely,” piped a young British voice, cheerfully. “Are you?”
There was some scuffling, and muffled voices which sounded surprisingly close.
“Ignore Billy, he’s an idiot,” said another youthful voice with a superior sneer to it. “How do we know you’re not Germans?”
“I am Austrian,” said Zola. Steve stared at him. He could feel the judgement and disgust radiating from his own face.
“Do you want them to shoot us?” he hissed. More loudly, he addressed the troops in the nearby trench. “I’m Captain Rogers of U.S. Aero Squadron 107. I was shot down on the wrong side of the Lines. We’ve spent all night getting here, we’re unarmed, and we have intelligence critical to the defeat of the Central Powers,” Steve said, glossing over the complication of HYDRA.
That seemed to be met with some debate, until another voice, rougher and older, growled, “Get the fuck over here, you fools, before the Hun hears you.”
Steve scrambled up, keeping his head down and let Zola follow under his own steam. Hands grabbed his uniform and he yelped as he fell face-first into a trench. Fortunately, he was caught and turned right side up by a wiry sergeant with mutton chops and a cigar clamped between his twisted lips.
“Hold that man,” Steve gasped, as Zola rolled over into the trench, helped by enthusiastic young hands. The sergeant grunted, noted Zola’s bound wrists, and snapped his fingers at his young charges, who took hold of the filthy, ragged HYDRA scientist. One of them wrinkled his nose and wiped his hand on his fatigues.
Steve sagged, taking a deep breath for what felt like the first time since he’d climbed the ladder and hopped over the top of the German emplacement into hell.
“I need,” Steve said, “to get to Escadrille 616. Then I need a bath. And a shave. And a sandwich. But first, if you don’t mind,” he said, gesturing to the sergeant, indicating Zola.
The sergeant made a flourish and stepped back. Steve thought about it and even drew back his fist — making Zola flinch — but ultimately, he resisted the urge to get in one last punch.
“Zola, I hope you die screaming,” Steve told the scientist. To the sergeant, he said, “Deliver this man to the Strategic Scientific Reserve for the attention of Agent Carter. Now — I need to get to the aerodrome belonging to Escadrille 616. What’s the fastest way out of this hell hole?”
“Other than death?” deadpanned the sergeant. “Head that way, make your way out to the road, and there’s a row of motorbikes.”
Steve’s heart sank.
“I can’t ride a motorbike,” he admitted, feeling tired to core of his bones.
The sergeant, who hadn’t cracked a smile since Steve had met him, nevertheless exuded something like amusement around his sagging cigar.
“Well funny you should mention it,” he said, “some of our kids are just coming off duty. Anyone here feel like transporting this officer to his aerodrome?” asked the sergeant, to his men.
“I’ll do it,” offered a corporal, stepping up and looming over the both of them. He looked to have at least two feet on Steve’s height and probably weighed four times as much. Steve’s tunic wouldn’t have buttoned around even one of his thighs. Steve gulped.
“Get it done, Corporal. Now both of you get out of here,” said the Sergeant, dismissing them.
“Er, thanks, Corporal…?” Steve prompted.
“M’Baku,” said the giant.
“Lead the way,” said Steve, weakly.
Steve hadn’t felt this exhilarated even in flight. He clutched his arms around the corporal’s waist as best he could, tucked his legs out of the way, clung with his knees and tried not to fall off.
The bike ate up the landscape, skidding around potholes and accelerating around corners as it veered dangerously towards the grit of the roads. M’Baku’s riding was fearless. When they hit the humpback of a canal bridge, M’Baku leant forward over the handlebars, gunned the throttle and gained clear air. Steve didn’t bother containing his joyful whoop as, for a moment, they soared.
The sun was well over the horizon by the time the motorcycle roared up to the gates of Escadrille 616. Home, thought Steve. He could get a wash. Breakfast. And, finally, Bucky.
“Come in and fuel up, grab some bacon and toast from the Mess,” Steve invited, staggering a little as he tried to move his limbs. Steve ached in every muscle he hadn’t known he’d got.
M’Baku grunted. “I eat only vegetables,” he said.
“There’s eggs?” offered Steve, nonplussed.
The look M’Baku gave him was truly withering. He accepted Steve’s invitation, though and headed off to the Mess, presumably to look for dry toast.
The tarmac was nearly deserted, with just a handful of mechanics working on a few battered machines, so Steve headed to Fury’s office. There wasn’t a pilot or gunner to be seen, and Steve hoped wherever Bucky, Sam and the Howlies were, they were staying safe.
Administrative officers openly stared as Steve made his way through the Records office. With a barely-suppressed smirk, he put a finger to his lips — which elicited nervous nods from the administrative staff — and knocked at Fury’s door. Prompted by the Colonel’s bark of “Enter!” Steve eased open the door to the CO’s sanctuary.
He found Fury speaking to Peggy Carter. Steve thought he was about to see the Colonel’s remaining eye roll right out of his skull. Peggy clutched her chest and sat down suddenly.
“Captain Rogers, reporting for duty,” said Steve, aiming for dutiful, but unsurprised to hear himself bordering on smug.
“Steve,” whispered Peggy, voice cracking, chest heaving.
“Rogers?” said Fury, leaning back in his chair. “Goddamn. Welcome back. I’ve got to say, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Sorry I’m late, sir,” said Steve, in as jaunty a tone as he could muster. “Is the raid still on?”
The look Fury gave him was drier than a sandstorm in the Sahara at midsummer.
“Is the raid still on, he asks,” said Fury to the ceiling. “Carter, you have permission to leave your chair, you know,” he added.
Peggy, till then just watching with suspiciously shiny eyes, suddenly stood and flung herself at Steve. She smelled of wool and cigarettes, and Steve let himself lean in for a moment. It had been a trying day, after all.
Peggy stepped back and straightened her jacket, turning to the CO with a muttered, “Sorry,” and a self-conscious roll of her shoulders.
All Fury rolled was his eye. “Get out of here, Rogers,” he ordered. “Eat something, check in with Medical, then see if you can still stand before you decide — as I’m sure you’re about to insist — to take one of my aeroplanes and chase after the rest of my people.” He shifted his gaze to Peggy. “Carter, I assume we’re done here?”
“For now,” said Peggy. “I’ll come back shortly. I’ll bring coffee.” She smiled at Steve, then, wide and bright.
“See that you do,” said Fury, with a dismissive shoo of his hand.
Peggy swept Steve out of the office. As she dragged him to the infirmary, Steve gave her a truncated rundown of his movements since he’d been shot down. Peggy listened, sniffed a little, offered acid commentary.
Steve chafed as the doctors prodded and poked him, clucked over his abused nose, strapped up his elbow and thumbed his bruises — yes, damn it, those hurt, were they surprised? He wriggled impatiently through his examination.
Peggy waited outside the door, although when he finally emerged, he found she’d rustled up a shaving kit. Steve availed himself of the infirmary’s facilities, but didn’t let himself linger over his ablutions, no matter how good it felt to finally be clean again.
Stepping back out into the hallway, he found Peggy still waiting. He smiled, unable to help it. He was home! But he needed to get out on the tarmac and take to the air. He was hardly going to wait around for the rest of his squadron to return while they risked their lives.
He opened his mouth to share this with Peggy, but before he could speak, Peggy looked as if she’d remembered something and her posture took on an air of purpose.
“Steven Grant Rogers,” she said, sternly. “I’m so glad you’re alive, but now I know you’re not in need of immediate medical attention, there’s something I really must do.”
“Of course,” allowed Steve, confused. “I’m fine. Bruises only, give or take.”
Peggy’s shrewd eyes narrowed.
The next thing he knew was the impact of the flat of her hand on his cheek and, as his teeth rattled, an audible clap.
It was a bright and sunny morning, the air at 15,000 feet clear and cold.
Bucky felt Steve’s loss no less keenly than yesterday, but having a focus helped. HYDRA had beaten him, bled him, and now they’d finally taken everything from him. He was going to take from them in return, and then he could die if he had to — not happy, but as satisfied as he could be.
Sam, Bucky knew, was of similar mind.
Bucky thought about Schmidt. They’d never met, but he’d seen the blood-red Fokker prowling around the edges of yesterday’s dogfight, intimidating but never risking. HYDRA’s leader was charismatic but without character, all scarlet mask and empty ego, no love for persons or country, no substance.
If they could, he and Sam would take their due in kind — one flaming Fokker in exchange for the loss of the best man Bucky had ever known.
“What was that for?” yelped Steve, to Peggy, clutching his burning cheek.
“We thought you were dead! Barnes may have shared a few other things, as well,” growled Peggy.
Steve felt the blood drain from his face.
“Oh, stop it,” she said, with a roll of her eyes. “You’re not in trouble. Well, you are, but not for the reason you think. What were you doing? He thinks you’re leading him on by the nose while you plan some domestic future with the likes of me!”
Steve’s jaw dropped. “He what? ” he squawked.
“You heard me!” cried Peggy. “He thinks you fooled around with him for fun and then expected him to step back and forget about it. And now, you cad, he thinks you’re dead and he can’t even be angry about it. If you knew what he said to us…”
Peggy trailed off, as if lost for words. She made a throttling gesture with her hands.
“I thought he was upset about HYDRA,” muttered Steve, into the ground.
There was silence while both parties assimilated new information.
“Lord preserve us from the logic of men,” swore Peggy, pinching the bridge of her nose. She inhaled, then looked up. “Steve. My good friend. The love of your life is in love with you. He’s also, right now, along with Wilson and the rest of your comrades, somewhere on the way to blow seven kinds of hell out of the remnants of HYDRA and take down that bastard, Schmidt.”
“Right,” said Steve, weakly.
“What will you do now?” asked Peggy.
“I’m going after them,” said Steve.
Peggy’s lips twitched. “Shocker,” she said, drily, conceding the improbability of Steve waiting on the tarmac for his friends to return while he kicked his heels and sipped coffee. “Go, do what you have to, but consider this — you come back alive, or I’ll kill you. You fail to let him know how you feel, I’ll kill you. You let him suffer a single moment longer than he needs to… Well, you get the idea.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Steve, fervently, dizzy.
“Steve?” asked Peggy.
“Yes?” replied Steve, worried about whatever she had planned next. Needlessly, as it turned out; Steve found himself embraced again. The height disparity was awkward, but Steve leaned into it.
“Go get ‘em, Rogers,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, Steve stood with the young Stark and the even younger Wakandan Princess looking up at an aeroplane hidden in the shade of one of the hangars. It was the one Bucky had noticed those weeks ago.
“You said it was broken, it would never fly. I mean, it doesn’t even have all its wings on,” objected Steve, indicating Stark’s pet project with spread hands.
“That, Captain, is because I am a genius,” said Shuri, nonsensically.
“You’ve been spending far too much time with me,” Tony said to her, with admiration. He turned back to Steve. “Anyway, what the Princess here means is, it looks unfinished because it’s a new breed of bird. Our secret joint project. A mono-plane that can keep up with the best we’ve got in the air to date. It’s a prototype, one of a kind. We were waiting to patent it before unleashing it on the world, but Her Majesty here has reservations.”
“It will fly,” said Shuri, dismissively. “But I don’t know if I want to share,” she explained. “My brother will shout about it.”
Tony scoffed. It was apparently an old argument.
“Mono-planes have been used in this war before, you know?” said Tony. “The Fokker scourge of 1915. But our engineers put in the effort to beat them, and right now, the Germen Eindeckers are at a disadvantage. They’re too heavy, too slow compared to our bi-planes and tri-planes. But mono-planes are inherently more stable, more efficient; they just need bigger wings to do it. Which means more weight, which takes more horsepower, which needs a bigger engine. Problem is, bigger engines are…? Yes, that’s right. Bigger. Heavier. So how do we get around that? I’m sure you’d like to know,” he said, gearing up for a lecture Steve didn’t have time for.
“I’d prefer it if you’d stop telling me and start showing me,” said Steve, stalking around the aeroplane and peering into the cockpit. The controls looked familiar enough.
Shuri snapped her fingers and Parker and some of the other mechanics converged on the machine and started to drag it from the sheds. As the three of them followed, Shuri took over Tony’s explanation.
“We increased the power of the engine without increasing its size,” she told them. “Wakandan technology. Like I say, I shouldn’t really share, but…” She shrugged. “Stark here was being insufferable. It couldn’t stand without challenge.”
They trailed after the mechanics as the machine was pushed onto the tarmac. Shuri pointed as she spoke.
“Single wing, twin guns synchronised to fire through the propellor. She’s more power than you’re used to, so watch the controls, it might take some practice — which you don’t have time to have. She’ll handle very differently to your single-seater Stark Fighter. If you have to go, you can take her. But consider yourself warned, Captain.”
Steve was heartened by the gesture. He also wanted to get in the air an hour ago and he accepted Shuri and Stark’s offer with haste.
“Some would consider it foolhardy,” said Shuri, “but I grew up watching my elder brother, so I can’t say I’m truly surprised. Okay, Rogers. Step up.”
“What she said,” agreed Tony. “Good luck.”
Steve nodded. Then he climbed aboard his half-Wakandan mono-wing and got his head in the game.
Parker slung the propellor. Steve taxied across the tarmac and felt the acceleration press him back in his seat. It was nearly as exhilarating as the motorbike.
He felt his wheels clear the tarmac, and he climbed, pointing his nose to the east.
In the air, somewhere outside Douai, HYDRA aircraft gathered like mayflies. The cloud was visible as the Allied squadrons approached, British bombers flying low, the fighters of the 107th and E.616 in layered formations above.
In the mid-layer, Bucky and Sam watched as their targets grew closer. In the distance, a single, red Fokker circled lazily above the others like a vulture.
Bucky warmed his guns and thought murderous thoughts.
By the time Steve arrived over the HYDRA target, where just a few hours ago he’d ridden a burning aeroplane into the ground, the facility was billowing with fire and smoke, bombers making low traverses over the burning enclosure.
Above the bombers, but well below Steve, the battle raged. Steve watched the scene unfold, picking his targets, trying to identify the various combatants.
He eventually saw Sam’s two-seater aircraft. The pilot was hurtling around the sky with a dire lack of caution. He seemed to be trying to reach Schmidt, jinking and manoeuvring closer and closer, evading some enemy machines but ruthlessly destroying others on the way to his goal. Bucky, he knew, was in the gunner’s position and Steve looked on, appalled. They were flying as if they didn’t care about their survival and Steve fought back panic.
As he watched, Schmidt — in his red, triple-winged Fokker — finally took notice. The HYDRA commander rocked his wings, and his aggressive Albatross escorts cleared the air at the signal. They peeled off, drawing back, circling at a distance while around and below them the real battle continued.
Steve saw the hesitation as Sam presumably assessed what was an obvious invitation to glide right into a trap. He had to know Schmidt was taunting him with an offer of single combat under the guarantee of instant destruction if the fight looked to be going too far the wrong way.
The albatrosses circled. The trap was set.
Steve yelled curses as Sam and Bucky swung up and around into combat with the Red Skull.
He shoved his own control column forward and dived.
Tensing as Sam steered them into Schmidt’s orbit, Bucky crouched over his gun and seethed with rage.
Below them, everything was burning. Albatrosses stalked them as, ahead, the crimson bastard that embodied everything Bucky had lost moved in for the fight.
They were hopelessly positioned. It seemed likely to Bucky that this was where he got to be reunited with Steve.
That morbid thought was interrupted by a flash of tracer, and he looked up to see a bizarre aircraft hurtling from the sky like an avenging angel. It fired on Schmidt, who veered quickly away, before it plummeted beneath them. Bucky craned his neck over the rim of the cockpit.
The newcomer’s aircraft was navy blue, with the white star markings and blue-and-red roundel that identified it as an American machine, but someone had given the otherwise circular emblem a pair of Wakandan panther ears, flattened as if in defiance. It was a mono-plane, and it shot past so quickly that — to Bucky’s mind — it ought to have ripped its wings off.
It was fast, too fast for logic, and it banked at the bottom of its dive and soared back up to meet Schmidt’s Fokker, which was belatedly making evasive manoeuvres.
What the hell is that thing made of? thought Bucky. It was tiny for a mono-plane, unbelievably light-looking, deadly. Bucky thought, with a lump in his throat, that it looked like the spirit of Steve Rogers embodied in canvas and torque. The pilot was flinging it around the sky like a discus.
Whoever they were, the pilot appeared to be as single-minded as Bucky had been in his pursuit of the Red Skull. HYDRA’s leader was hopelessly outclassed. Bucky and Sam found themselves in combat with the waiting Albatrosses. Bucky took great pleasure in dispatching two of them before someone from 616 — Bucky thought it was Maria Rambeau — caught up and took care of the last one.
Schmidt and the Wakandan/American mono-plane were all over the sky, Schmidt fleeing in increasingly apparent desperation and the singular machine giving no quarter at all, stalking and pouncing like the predator it was.
As Bucky watched, the mono-plane executed a glorious loop, twisting at the top and dropping like a knife towards the exposed top-plane of the red Fokker.
Schmidt had no chance. The red aeroplane carrying the hopes of the HYDRA pretender disintegrated in a fireball; the head of the monster was severed and cauterised with flames, dead once and for all.
Bucky screamed his defiance, his grief, and his victory into the wind as he saw the far-off figure of the triumphant pilot punch the air.
After that, it wasn’t long before the skies cleared.
HYDRA’s forces mostly scattered, but the Allies mopped up any enemy fighters who stuck around. As Bucky scanned the sky, he found the mystery aircraft levelling out alongside them.
Wilson steadied their ‘plane, and Bucky watched Sam’s face as the pilot glanced to his left, then tore off his flying cap and shoved back his goggles in frank astonishment. Their plane even side-slipped a little, until Sam got himself and their aircraft under control.
Bucky furrowed his brow and turned to see what had gotten Sam in such a state.
The pilot of the new machine stared back across the few dozen yards separating them. He’d also removed his headgear and his blond hair streamed back in the wind. He was staring at Bucky.
Bucky clutched the side of the cockpit and stared right back.
It was Steve. It was Steve.
Landing at their home aerodrome was a less-than-usually ordered procedure as every member of the Avengers and the Howling Commandos attempted to be first onto the runways. In the chaos, Steve managed to be one of the earlier ones, taxi-ing up to the sheds and leaving Stark and Shuri’s aircraft, battered but victorious, in the loving care of its makers. It had done well. Howard would be aflame with equal parts pride and envy at the — admittedly collaborative — work of his son, and Steve looked forward to seeing that.
Steve made his way out to the tarmac to await the one person he absolutely had to see. In the meantime, he was mobbed by various Howlies and Avengers mussing his hair, squeezing his shoulders and pounding their fists into his biceps until he had to cry Uncle. He only just stopped Dum Dum and Morita hauling him up onto their shoulders for a tour around the aerodrome. They dropped him abruptly, and Steve straightened his uniform and brushed off the dust from his shoulders, cursing. He stopped mid-invective when Morita prodded his shoulder with one pokey finger and pointed to the end of the runway.
Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes were climbing over the fuselage of their aeroplane in a stiff scramble of limbs, then racing across the tarmac towards the waiting crowds.
Sam got there first, gripping Steve’s shoulders so hard Steve’s eyes stung and overflowed.
“Injured man, injured man,” cried Steve.
“You stole my victory again!” yelled Sam, into his face. “I had him on the ropes! You sneaky, indestructible, Hun-thieving, son-of-a-Fokker!”
Steve laughed, and wiped snot from his face. “Oh Sam, you were too slow,” he said. Sam glomped him then, picked him right up off of the tarmac and swung him around.
Where he dropped Steve right in front of Bucky Barnes. “You’ve got some explaining to do, Rogers,” warned Sam, before backing away.
Bucky looked dreadful. His blue eyes were smudged with tears and surrounded by grease, his hair was sticking up where his flying helmet — which he’d dropped on the ground — had crushed it in flight. He was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen, and Steve said so.
Bucky didn’t move. Steve took a tentative step closer, close enough so he could reach out with shaking hands to tug at Bucky’s sheepskin sleeves. Bucky just stared.
“It’s you and me, you dipshit. To the end of the line. You said,” said Steve, stepping into the circle of Bucky’s arms.
Bucky sobbed, crushing Steve to his chest. Steve let him drip tears into his hair and clung back just as hard.
It was a long time before Bucky stepped back and let him breathe. Steve went up on his tip-toes and gripped Bucky’s shoulders, reaching up, as Bucky reached down and wrapped his arms around Steve. Bucky hauled upwards, and Steve felt his feet leave the ground.
The kiss went on for a long time, and what started desperate and fierce ended up soft and rather soggy.
“Ow,” said Steve, eventually, when Bucky had let him down. He tentatively fingered his still tender and healing nose. Bucky wiped his eyes, sniffing.
“I think,” said Sam, diplomatically, appearing at their sides, “this whole squadron could use a nap before lunch.”
Steve couldn’t argue with that. He took Bucky by the hand and dragged him to bed to the sound of cheers and cat-calls.
They were both asleep before they’d even managed to pull up the blankets.
Exhausted though they naturally were, Bucky awoke three short hours later with his stomach gurgling. Steve — Steve! Alive! — was collapsed on his chest, his bruised nose pressed into the crook of Bucky’s armpit which probably wasn’t a recipe for long-term comfort. Bucky himself ached with the physical and emotional whiplash of the last twenty-four hours. He reckoned it would take a while to adjust.
Meanwhile, there were some things he needed to take care of.
Bucky shifted and Steve groaned.
“What do you want, Barnes? I was sleeping here,” Steve complained, sounding groggy, looking up into Bucky’s face.
“There’s only one thing I want,” whispered Bucky, looking deep into Steve’s blue eyes.
Steve blushed, but apparently saw through him. “Me too,” agreed Steve. “Bacon, right? So much bacon. And coffee. But first, a toothbrush.”
Bucky laughed, a bright and joyful bubble rising in his chest. His thoughts exactly.
“Race you,” Bucky offered. Steve pushed himself up, one hand on Bucky’s chest, pressing him into the sheets, but Bucky Barnes had a lifetime’s practice at this sort of thing. He grabbed Steve by the waist and heaved.
He dumped Steve out of bed onto the floor, dropped a blanket over him, and stepped over Steve’s wriggling body. Bucky strode confidently to the sink to the muffled sound of impotent rage.
There was coffee. There was bacon. There was talk of medals. There were fierce embraces and slaps on the back.
Shortly thereafter, there was alcohol. Celebrations continued into the afternoon and then into the night.
Peggy arrived late on, looking — as she put it — “tuckered out,” after a day of high-level briefings. She brought aerial shots of the destruction of HYDRA’s base, which she passed to Steve. The place had been razed to the ground.
They toasted to the memory of Abraham Erskine.
“I told you HYDRA would burn,” said Peggy, to Steve, with a glint in her eye and hidden razors folded into the smooth timbre of her satisfaction.
Steve perched on Bucky’s lap, his best friend’s hands laced together around his middle. The Mess was packed with people talking and drinking and smoking. Steve had opened the windows just so he could breathe. Bucky had stopped drinking after the first two toasts, but seemed drunk enough on relief. He occasionally leaned forward to sniff into Steve’s hair. Steve allowed it.
Peggy retreated to the bar and perched on a stool to watch Dum Dum and Sam, who were duetting at the 616’s piano. Carol Danvers was conducting with a bottle from her position on the floor, propped against Maria Rambeau’s shoulder. Dernier was dancing with Gabe, trying to replicate Natasha’s graceful twirling in the middle of the room, while Clint looked on and threw peanut shells into unwary officer’s drinks.
Steve’s heart felt fit to burst. He leaned back against Bucky’s shoulder and raised his glass to tap it against Bucky’s cup of lemonade.
“To victory,” he sighed, into Bucky’s ear. Bucky turned and dropped a kiss on Steve’s cheek.
“To victory,” whispered Bucky, in reply.