The Department of Special Collections
Author's Note: This story was inspired by the Happy Steve Bingo challenge organized on Dreamwidth. Rather than doing a bunch of short stories /distinct art pieces, we really wanted to collaborate and knit our bingo prompts into one large illustrated story. Prompts this story uses: from Ces's card: cooking, Tolkien, cartoons, soulmates, Valentine's day (bingo!), and from Alby's card: sketching, It's Too Early for Christmas Carols, Serenade, First Kiss, and Wild Card: Love Notes In Odd Places (bingo!) We know that technically this story doesn't satisfy the rules of the challenge, which requests each square have a distinct beginning middle and end, but we offer it to the comm anyway in the spirit of more happy fanworks about Steve. Hope you enjoy!
Special thanks to lim and to monicawoe for the beta, and to cobaltmoony for amazing Photoshop assist ♥
Jill Henderson liked to take her coffee break just outside the door on the west side of the library, overlooking the grove of cherry trees on the side of the quad. There was a bench not far away, but mostly she was happy to stand and stretch, to let her eyes go unfocused and cup the warm coffee between her hands. Coffee wasn't allowed anywhere inside the Department of Special Collections, nothing at all was allowed at her workstation: not even pens or paper clips. Her lab table was fabric-lined, and mostly she wore gloves; Colonel Phillips's personal papers had reached them in less-than ideal condition, having been tossed into a footlocker and dragged all across the European theatre before being shipped back stateside, first to New York and then to New England, where they were stored in the attic of his son until he died. The footlocker was then found and donated to Harvard by his granddaughter, Victoria Phillips-Cohen, who had said, quite apologetically, that she had no idea whether anything within it was historically significant, but given the interest in her grandfather's life, she'd thought it was better to check.
In fact many of the things in the trunk were interesting, and all the more interesting for not being particularly important. SHIELD had, years ago, laid claim to any documents that had to do with the founding of the S.S.R., so these were just miscellaneous papers: personal field journals and letters, drafts of memoranda, copies of paperwork. There were also some material items: the Colonel's kits were all complete, and there were also some lovely things he'd brought to Europe from his family home in Massachusetts: an engraved pewter cup from the family's set, a leather-bound edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a small, silver-framed picture of his mother. Together, they gave a real picture of Phillips' day-to-day life during the war, and based on what she'd already found, Jill had pitched some ideas for an exhibition at the library's weekly staff meeting: The Burden of Command, maybe, or In Charge. Phillips was an alumnus as well as a local boy, which was a bonus: she was already imagining the layout of glass cases.
Jill finished her coffee and binned the cup, then carefully rolled her head and shoulders: she loved her job, but sitting all day bent over the workbench hurt her neck. Still, she was eager to get back to it: there were still items in the old trunk to investigate.
Her next job was to tackle the bundle of documents she'd left on the cloth of her workspace. It was a messy thing of leather and papers and rope. It looked like Phillips had carelessly thrown a bunch of documents onto an old piece of black leather and then rolled the whole thing up and tied it. Bits of yellowing paper stuck out from the roll, and the rope had been knotted about seven times. She'd needed another cup of coffee to tackle it, but now she gave one final stretch and slid onto her stool.
She'd already decided to cut the rope rather than try to unpick the time-swollen knots, having finally concluded that the rope itself could be of no historical interest. Still, she photographed the worn leather roll from various angles before cutting, just to preserve it for the record. Then she carefully unwound the twine, prying it from where it had cut deep grooves in the leather. She had the tingly feeling of excitement she often had when interacting with historical objects. She could almost see Colonel Phillips hastily encircling the bundle, pulling the cord tight enough to make these grooves—and now here she was in the future, unwinding what he had wound.
When the cord was free, she began, carefully. The whole thing had been curled up for so long and tied so tightly that it kept its shape, the pages all stuck together. Among her tools were nylon and plastic styluses to pry things apart, and smooth, small weights to hold things flat. These she used now, just trying to coax the thick roll back into a flat pile. Even as she slid weights onto the corners of the leather covering, she saw that the bundle contained more than she'd first thought. The papers inside were all different sizes, everything out of order and haphazardly stacked, like someone had been in a hurry and just grabbed it all.
The top sheet of the bundle was a small rectangle of paper, the second page of a letter written on the thin paper that servicemen had been obliged to use. She didn't recognize the handwriting. It began in mid sentence. She pulled over her pad and pencil to take notes.
C.A. Phillips, Bundle 16, tied leather roll. Item 1: letter fragment on V-mail sheet
must be more careful about what you write to me, never mind that you have never been careful about any god damned thing ever. I am wasting my breath. I can hear you already saying that you don't care what anybody thinks — the Army censors or General Eisenhower even. You are incorre— incorreageable— You are a pain in the ass. But at the same time, maybe part of me even agrees with you, because it is no walk in the park out here, and some days your letters...the crazy things you say... Well they remind me that I have something to come home to. From where I stand, or sit—I am writing this on my knee with my back to the wall and my ass on a frozen patch of ground somewhere I can't say—it gives me such pleasure to remember sitting with you at our little table by the stove, with the cheery red oilcloth that my ma gave us, and eating whatever we could scrounge up for cooking. That life now seems sweeter to me than I can say. I am thinking of you now, my dearest, and
Jill read the page twice, then added to her notes — love letter from ? to ? — before setting it aside. Hopefully she would find the rest of it, or something else in the same handwriting.
Beneath the letter was a bigger, thicker piece of paper that had clearly been used to wrap something, but someone had taken advantage of its size and rough surface to use it as drawing paper. The sketch was unfinished, but vivid nonetheless: a group of women. They evoked the three graces at first glance—they were symmetrically, almost classically, posed, half-dressed and arms upraised—except a second look revealed them to be thoroughly modern women of the 1940s: sitting around in their underthings and drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and pinning up their Victory rolls. The woman at the forefront of the sketch was smirking directly at the viewer like a good-humored Olympia; the artist had caught her between one drag and the next, one long leg stretched out in front of her. It was an interesting sketch, and one quite unlike the familiar pin-ups of the era: these women weren't posing, they were just sitting around, relaxing and getting dressed.
The sketch was unsigned, but she could hardly imagine Colonel Phillips looking at it, let alone being the artist; moreover, it was quite unlike the art he collected during his life (much of which featured dogs, cocker spaniels in particular; Colonel Phillips had quite an affection for cocker spaniels, and owned three over the course of his life.) But this glimpse into the private world of ladies...this had been drawn by someone else. The recipient of the letter, maybe. She studied the sketch for another moment and then added it to her inventory:
C.A. Phillips, Bundle 16, tied leather roll. Item 2: sketch of three women, c. 1942
Beneath the sketch she found another letter, in a different handwriting, but this one— geez, what a find!— was clearly addressed. To Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th. And of course, Phillips had assumed command of the 107th after the Battle of Azzano: the battle in which James Buchanan Barnes had been captured, and thought killed. As his commanding officer, Phillips might well have taken possession of Barnes' papers at that point, especially if there was anything that—well, that a guy might not have wanted his mother to see.
C.A. Phillips, Bundle 16, tied leather roll. Item 3: letter to James Buchanan Barnes
To: Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes, #32557038, 107th Inf. ℅ AP0 668, New York City
I have packed up Gold Street and put the boxes in your ma's basement. They are stacked in the little room next to the boiler except for some things which are you know where. I burned some things in the furnace but there are some things I can't bear to burn, especially
in the current— especially considering that there is a chance— I can't bear to burn anything that reminds me of you. So if you get back before I do you know where to go and what to look for. I am taking your CS Lewis and your copy of The New Adam with me because they remind me of you, and also your copy of The Hobbit because I need to read an adventure story where the hero comes back again. I hope you don't mind. I love you like toast with butter and a hot cup of coffee. — S.
Jill stared at the scrawled initial. "S" couldn't possibly be Steve Rogers—or could it? That would be too much to hope for. But she had a vague memory and opened her laptop to confirm it. There were any number of biographies of Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos. She picked the most scholarly looking of them, plugged "Gold Street" into the full text search, and was only mildly surprised when it popped right up. Page 36: "For her part, Alice Barnes later remembered the apartment on Gold Street that her brother had shared with Steve Rogers as 'a tenement,' reachable only by a rickety wooden staircase that covered the back of the building."
All right. She should call somebody. She should call the Head of Special Collections, and maybe the Provost and PR, because this was a major historical find: a 1943 letter from Steve Rogers to Bucky Barnes. It occurred to her that Rogers might have drawn the sketch, too: other sketches he'd made had survived, probably these could be compared and authenticated. But she wasn't ready to tell anyone yet. For the moment this was a marvelous secret, her own private discovery, and she wanted to see what was here. Was there more?
There was more.
The next batch of letters were in the same handwriting as the first letter, the love letter—but these had all been signed at the bottom by James Barnes, who'd signed as Your son, Bucky, or Your favorite brother, Bucky. These letters to the Barnes family, which were dated from late 1943 through 1945, had been written but not sent—and Jill seemed to remember that communication between the Howling Commandos and the rest of the world had been tightly restricted once the Howlies had embarked on their now-famous top-top-top-secret missions. This was confirmed as Jill paged through the letters, many of which began, "I write knowing you won't receive this for a while," or "Someday you will read this letter and," or "By the time this reaches you, I might already be home and in the kitchen!" But not being allowed to send letters didn't seem to have stopped Barnes from writing them; it seemed important to him to be in touch with his family, especially his mother and his youngest sister, Alice.
She paged through them in wonder, trying not to get too drawn in but getting drawn in nonetheless. Together, they were almost a diary; a lost glimpse of Barnes' war years, and a couple of them had illustrations, by Steve Rogers, she assumed: little sketches that had languished here all these years.
December 16, 1943: "Dearest Ma, you would think that I have already experienced enough miracles but I have another story to tell you. Steve and me and our unit were on a mission (I can't tell you where or they'll never let me send this even after they lift the embargo) but we did what we had to do and then we were hiding in the dark and waiting for extraction when Steve suddenly grabbed my arm and said, "Listen." And I did listen and I heard people singing somewhere nearby. Ma, believe me when I say that I have been turned around so many times that some days I don't even know what my name is, let alone what time of year—I thank God every day I have Steve with me to remind me of who I am. "It's too early for Christmas Carols, ain't it?" I asked Steve, but he reminded me it was December and so there was probably a church doing Mass down in the valley. And it felt like it was calling to me, Ma, just because the sound of it was so sweet and so familiar. Steve must have seen the longing on my face, because he said to me, "Come on, why don't we go?" which my friend Timothy Dugan said was stupid and a totally unnecessary risk. But Steve said that he'd been taking stupid risks his whole life which is true, and it has saved me more than once. So him and me and our friend Jacques, who is also a Catholic, slipped down the mountain. There was a tiny little church at the bottom, all lit up like a picture postcard. Outside there was a group holding candles and singing in the dark. We melted in with them, and before we knew it someone had handed us candles, and so we sang until the bells rang and we were called in for Mass—and that is the story, Ma, of how me and Steve Rogers went Christmas caroling in occupied Europe, which I would not have believed if it hadn't happened to me, like so many things. —Your devoted son, Bucky
~ ~ ~
March 10, 1944: Dear Alice, I am writing this very late with everyone else asleep—or what I really mean is passed out though don't you go telling Ma that! We are in London for three days but one of them happens to be today, my birthday, and so the fellows all took me out to the pub and tried to get me soused, which was very good natured of them. We all drank enormous quantities and the boys sang "Happy Birthday" to me and "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow," and then got very silly and serenaded me with "Sonny Boy" and then "You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me," by which time the entire pub was singing along and falling about laughing. It was a wonderful time. You will also be proud both as my sister and an Irishwoman to know that I have out-drunk everybody, since they are all laid out and snoring while I am at least sober enough to hold this pencil and write. To be honest I cannot quite believe that I have made it to 27 after what happened to me last year, but I am grateful for it — and also to you for sending me such a cheerful birthday card. Also thank you for the socks which are very warm and fit me perfectly. I hope they let me send you a letter soon, or better yet I hope the war ends and I can give you all my love and kisses in person, darling Alice. —Your very favorite brother (its alright I won't tell Andy or Jack) Bucky PS. I have maligned Steve! Steve is also awake and sober as a judge though I can't tell if that's due to him being Irish or him being Captain America. He asks me to send you his love and insists that I tell you that Dum Dum made me sit on his knee during "Sonny Boy," which is perfectly true I admit it. B.
She stopped, then, and put the letters aside, glassy eyed and hardly seeing them. In her job she was of course used to seeing personal material, but this...this felt different somehow. It wasn't the Barnes family who had made the donation. And yes, sure, these letters were significant finds—Bucky Barnes's notability as a historical subject was beyond question—but was it right to exhibit them? Barnes hadn't asked to have his private thoughts to his mother and his sister put in a glass case for people to read while eating canapes and drinking champagne. Steve Rogers hadn't made these illustrations for posterity: they'd been made for his best friend's family.
Troubled, now, she frowned and made the notation:
C.A. Phillips, Bundle 16, tied leather roll. Items 4 - 17: letters from James Buchanan Barnes, illustrated by Steve Rogers
The next item in the bundle made her smile, though: it was—had to be—Barnes's copy of The Hobbit. It was in decent shape, too; the dust jacket was gone, but the tan cloth cover wasn't damaged and the lettering on the cover was still bright blue. She flipped it open and looked at the copyright page; 1938, Houghton Mifflin. First American edition, then, and so worth quite a lot even before you considered that it had been owned by Bucky Barnes and last known to be in the possession of Captain America. Together with the letter referring to it, it would no doubt be worth many thousands of— Wait.
There was something between the pages; a piece of paper. Jill took it it out and unfolded it.
Another letter, unsigned and unfinished, but written in what she now thought she could recognize as Steve Rogers' handwriting. The writing was hurried and wild, though, practically a scrawl.
For the love of God you bastard why don't you answer me? I have a little sway in my current position which I try not to abuse, but I have enquired quite forcefully, even for me, and the brass have sworn all up and down that my mail is being forwarded to me here but how can I even check, as you are the only person in the whole wide world who would write to me or who even gives a hot goddamn about me at all? I am only half of myself without you. I cannot let myself think that you are not writing for some other reason. In fact I won't think it, and so instead I must assume you no longer love me, you shit, even though you are all I have in the whole world. Do you understand that you have brought me the only consistent joy I have ever experienced, that when I am low all I need...is to lie back and stare at the cracks in the ceiling and imagine that you are coming to me, that you are just across the room and
The letter ended there; just stopped. Jill just sat there for a few moments, heart pounding, and then she folded the letter and carefully slid it back into the pages of The Hobbit.
Then she got up and went to make a phone call to the only person she could think of who might possibly help: her friend Anna, who worked at the Library of Congress. Anna said she'd make a few calls, so Jill carefully locked up her workspace and went home. The next morning, as she was making coffee, Anna called back; Anna told her that one of her good friends worked for the NSF, but her friend's brother worked for the CIA and the friend's brother's wife used to work for SHIELD, which maybe went part of the way to explaining how, when Jill finally got to work, she found Steve Rogers sitting on the bench outside the Special Collections library.
It took a moment for her to realize who it was, because he was young—younger than she would have thought—and oddly nondescript in his jeans and leather jacket. He could easily have been one of the graduate students or a junior librarian, and if she hadn't been thinking about him she would have looked right past him. But now that she was looking, she saw he didn't look like a student at all. His shirt was pressed, his hair neatly combed, and he was wearing shoes, not sneakers. He had been staring into space, daydreaming inattentively while he waited, but his attention sharpened when he saw her watching him. "Miss Henderson?" he hazarded.
"Yes, that's me," Jill said, and Steve Rogers quickly got to his feet. He was a big man—bigger than he looked sitting down—and he awkwardly extended his hand to her. She shook it.
"I'm Steve Rogers," he said. "I hear...you have some things that belong to me?"
"Yes, sir," Jill said, and pulled out the key to her workspace. "Come with me," and normally she would have gone through all the protocols for dealing with rare historical documents, but in this case...these "rare historical documents" were just Steve Rogers' own stuff. "These things were found in Colonel Phillips's trunk..." Jill began, and then she stopped and helplessly waved her hand at it: have at. Rogers didn't have to be asked twice: he just went over to the pile and began rifling through the pages with the calm familiarity of a guy looking for something on his own desk. These weren't artifacts to him: these were his letters, his sketches, his—
"Oh wow," Rogers said softly; he was holding The Hobbit.
"First edition," Jill blurted. "First American edition. So it's worth a lot. Thousands."
"Oh, it's worth so much more than that to me," Rogers murmured, and then he was flipping through to the blank flyleaf at the back, which—Jill frowned and leaned in to look—huh, wasn't blank at all. There was a drawing on it. Rogers stared down at it. She stared down at it, too.
After a moment, Rogers wormed a phone out of his front jeans pocket and made a call. "Hey," he said, "you gotta come in here. No, really; I gotta show you something. Yeah. Okay," and then he hung up and picked up the book again. This time Rogers saw the unfinished letter tucked into it: For the love of God you bastard... He pulled it out, unfolded it, and winced a little, apparently recognizing it, then tossed it carelessly onto the table. It was hard, but Jill forced herself not to reach for it: she felt a compulsion to refold the letter and re-situate it within the—
There was a soft knock at the door. Rogers glanced up, but left her to go and answer it. The guy on the other side was wearing a leather jacket. His long, dark hair was pulled into a ponytail beneath a baseball cap. A pair of sunglasses was tucked into the collar of his t-shirt. She stared at him until her brain abruptly supplied the name: Bucky Barnes.
"Hey Buck, come here! Look at this," and Barnes side-eyed her and then slipped past her to go stand at Steve Rogers' side by the worktable. Rogers turned, still holding The Hobbit, and Barnes's face changed in some indefinable way. He looked...was it younger? Younger, maybe. Or less hard, somehow...like some tough protective layer had abruptly melted away. "You remember this?" Rogers was trying to make it sound like a casual question, but clearly it wasn't.
Barnes took it from him. "Sure." Barnes's voice was rusty; an out of tune rasp. He slid his thumb over the cover, the right one; he was wearing some kind of strange silver glove on his other hand. "Funny the way it keeps turning up. Like it's something I just can't lose."
"Right," Steve said, and his voice was thick. "That's exactly right, Buck. You remember what—"
"Course I do," Barnes interrupted, and then his thumb was ruffling the pages and opening the book, unerringly, to the back flyleaf. To the picture of young Bucky Barnes kissing Steve Rogers...before the serum, before the army, before the war.
"I remember the moment," Barnes murmured, "which was that first night we spent alone after your mother died, and we got drunk and you got handsy and you kissed me—" Rogers looked like he was maybe about to say something, then smiled and closed his mouth and didn't, "—and I remember when you gave me the picture, too. Valentine's Day, south of France, 1944." He cracked a smile. "Very romantic aside from those German U-boats we sabotaged, boom-boom exploding in the Mediterranean."
Steve Rogers said, earnestly, "I thought that just was the beat-beating of my heart," and then they were cracking up and Barnes said, "Asshole," and hit Steve Rogers with a book which was honest-to-god maybe worth hundreds of thousands of dollars by Jill's estimation.
But that didn't matter; the book wasn't hers, or Harvard's, or Captain Phillips' for that matter. "Look, I haven't catalogued any of this yet," Jill explained, "which means that it's not in the record and—well, it's your stuff." Rogers and Barnes exchanged glances, and she went on: "I don't think it's fair to make you put your whole life on display for—" She shrugged helplessly. "Posterity. Or the public. You're not dead and I don't see how you can live in a glass case."
Rogers suddenly looked tired. "Well, it's very difficult, Miss Henderson. Since I came back, they've done all these exhibitions and..." He sighed. "Well, I suppose they're meant to be inspiring. 'How Captain America overcame sickness and poverty, the Depression—'"
"Your own none-too-attractive personality," Barnes added helpfully. "And your general clumsiness. Literally, you have no sense of rhythm—"
But now Rogers was smiling again. "All of that, yeah," he agreed. "But it didn't feel like that, living it. We were happy. There were good days. I mean, look at this," and he picked up the cartoon of Bucky and Dum Dum at the pub. "Now obviously, you haven't got any artistic talent," he said, "but just as a memory..." and of course, James Barnes had gone to art school, too.
Barnes looked down at the picture and actually laughed out loud: a surprising sound, warm. "Hey, it's not so bad! Not for something I drew half-drunk in the middle of the night. God, that was some night, that night," he marveled. "What a great night. I forgot all about that."
"Well, that's just what I'm saying," Rogers said. "We tried to remember the good things, so we wrote things down and drew things. These pictures and letters: they're not for show. They're for us, to help us remember who we are. Okay, so some of it's a little personal—"
"Did you make naked pictures of me?" Barnes demanded, and Jill literally had to raise her hand to her mouth to stifle the laugh.
"No!" Rogers said indignantly, though after a moment, he added: "Wellll. I didn't make any pictures like that in Europe, and I didn't bring any, either. I left some in Brooklyn, though—in that cubby we had." He scratched at his cheek thoughtfully. "Probably still there, come to think."
"We should go up there and look for them," Barnes said.
"We should," Rogers agreed. "Some things...just have a way of turning up."
"Like The Hobbit," Bucky Barnes said softly. "There and back again."
"Yeah," Steve Rogers said. "Exactly. Just like that."
A couple of weeks later, Jill came back to her workstation—she was carefully mounting some of Colonel Phillips' pieces for the coming exhibition, now definitively titled: Chester Phillips: At The Center of History—to find that morning's mail. In addition to the usual catalogs and circulars, there was a cardboard tube, of the kind used to send art. She picked it up curiously and looked at the label. It was carefully addressed to MISS JILL HENDERSON, and so she knew who it was from before she even located the return address: ROGERS / BARNES.
She unwound the tape from the tube and carefully pulled the plastic cap off. There was a sketch curled around the inside of the tube, and also an envelope braced. She withdrew the letter and smiled. Steve Rogers' handwriting hadn't changed in all these years.
Dear Miss Henderson,
Thank you again for giving us our letters and drawings, and please do put us on the mailing list for the exhibition about Colonel Phillips. We would certainly like to come!
Please accept the enclosed as a token of our appreciation. It's a picture of a happy day.
Jill put the letter down and gently extracted the drawing from the tube. From old habit, she lay it out on the cloth and weighted the corners down with small stones. Then she looked at it.
It was signed, SR, and the caption read, "There and Back Again." Jill Henderson smiled.