Hello all, so I realize my first attempt at posting this was a miserable fail, everything got garbled somehow. So here's take two, hopefully it's much easier to read.
This is a historical WW2 AU drama. I just want to warn you that while I'm not writing a depressing or dark story at all, this will be historically accurate in depictions of the atrocities that took place during the war. That's just how it was. But this is not a story about that. This is a love story that has taken some liberties with the original characters and reworked them into France circa fall 1940-45. I do hope you enjoy it and will join me on this journey.
There was no place quite like Paris in the summer. It would came alive in a way only Paris can; it resonated deep in your bones, a collective high shared by the city's inhabitants. There was one particular summer's day, many years ago, that was memorable for many reasons. It was one of the first real days where the sun seemed to speak to the whole city, inviting its inhabitants to throw their worries aside and escape outdoors with its soft golden hue cast on a clear sky and salty breeze from the west that tasted of the sea. Work was put on hold, errands postponed, and dour moods dispersed as the collective Parisian spirit drew everyone to the famous Jardins speckled among the sprawling French metropolis.
The Jardin des Tuileries was Bucky's favorite because on days like today it really came alive. The pathways that crisscrossed the park filled with entertainments for the public; acrobats, puppet theatres, fresh juice stands, donkey rides, and markets filled with toys, fruits, and handmade crafts. Parents popped champagne atop checkered blankets underneath the shade of tall trees while their children ran free among the attractions, legs kicking up dirt and laughter.
Today, fresh squeezed lemonade in hand, Bucky visited his favorite spot: the large octagonal basin. The wind was just right to power the small sails of the painstakingly crafted toy boats atop glimmering waters, sun beating against the white cloth and varnished wood. Although young Bucky had yet to ever set foot on a real sailboat, he dreamed of the day when he would sail away to places unknown. The America's, the wild jungles of Africa, the turquoise blue waters of French Polynesia; it didn't matter so long as the sun was at his back, wind lifting his sails and ocean spray tickling his face. He craved a journey, to be like the explorers of old who discovered worlds unseen; to feel alive.
The world seemed so small, dangerously so now, in Europe. Paris was unwieldy large; people encroaching from every corner, the cacophony of city life as horns honked, carriages clattered, the gush of voices spilling out of open windows and packed markets overwhelmed. It seemed inconceivable that such a beautiful place could host so much ugly noise.
Today it wasn't much quieter in the park, but still Bucky soaked in the chirp of birds and the merry rustle of leaves twisted by wind as he ran along the edge of the basin, racing the nearest sail boat. He sped past a group of rowdy boys playing rugby. Ahead of him a small child tentatively dipped his hand in the waters edge, completely unseen as Bucky's undivided attention remained on the sail boat. In fact he didn't notice the boy until their legs tangled. Bucky hit the pavement with flash of pain as the boy tipped forward and plopped in.
"Mon Dieu!" Bucky gasped, twisting upright and lunging forward to pluck the boy from the green water. "Je ne t'ai pas vu! Je suis désolé!"
The boy was remarkably small for his age, arms as thin as the new branches sprouting on saplings around the Jardins. Bucky felt as if he could have tossed him in the air and he might have floated away on the soft breeze's back. Instead he set him down on the hot asphalt and studied the startled look situated on his face. He had dark circles under his eyes and shaggy blonde bangs that tickled long lashes, under which startlingly blue eyes stared back with an explosion of mirth. It bubbled up his throat and out in a joyous laughter so infectious Bucky couldn't help but join in.
Eventually the hysteria subsided enough for Bucky to realize this impossibly frail boy wasn't French.
"Tu es Américain? Incroyable!" Bucky gasped. He knew all about the American's. His father was one after all, a proud fact he loved to share with any and all he could. "So's mon Papa!"
The American nodded and stood, knees a little wobbly, but sturdy nonetheless. He stuck out a wet hand very formally for a handshake, but the wide smile on his face was nothing but inviting. "Thank you for pulling me out. It's a pleasure to meet you, I'm—"
A leathery orange rugby ball flew into their midst and almost knocked the small boy over again, suspending their conversation. The group of boys cried out for it to be tossed back and so the American reached down to pick up the ball and throw it back. His right arm geared backwards and then launched the ball straight into the pavement. The other kids all looked at each other in dismay for a moment before laughing riotously at the ineptitude of the boy. Then came a cascade of taunts in French the likes of which caused Bucky's ears to tint red with rage. Couldn't they see he wasn't well?
Bucky snatched up the rugby ball and punted it with all the force his young leg could muster. He may only have been six years old, but he was big for his age, closer in size to the ten year olds that played rugby than the frail American. The ball soared through the air and smashed into the unsuspecting face of the largest laughing bully.
"You wanna say those words to my face, you dumb beast!" Bucky shouted back fearlessly, chest swelled. His left hand slashed out furiously, spraying in a wide arc fresh lemonade everywhere. "Didn't your mother ever tell…" Bucky trailed off when a small damp hand rested tentatively on his shoulder, delicately turning him away from the bullies. His eyes implored him to let it go. Bucky wasn't very good at such things. His temper was a brush fire, quick to spread and hard to reign in, but he swallowed it down and took the American's hand in his.
"Come with me!"
They ran away from the angry French boys before they got their wits about themselves to retaliate, and disappeared deeper into the jardin. They ran past a puppet show during the climactic battle of a dragon slaying, on through a field of flowers, chasing butterflies and sending pigeons into flight, laughing all the while. They didn't stop until they stumbled upon a troupe of musicians playing violins. A group of veterans of the Great War, recognizable by their many missing limbs and scars, watched from the benches.
"Those boys are goons," Bucky said, the anger having long subsided on their dash through the park. But the American didn't seem phased in the lightest, only winded by their run.
"It's okay. Besides, I don't know French so I'll imagine they were complimenting my spiffy shoes." He clicked his heels together.
"So, your pops from the States?"
Bucky studied the American. His blue star spangled suspenders, khaki shorts and white collared shirt gave the air of wealth, but he wore it uncomfortably, like it didn't quite fit him despite the tailored look.
"Yeah he came over during the war, fell in love with Maman, and stayed when it was all over. He's from Brooklyn."
"Wowza, really?" The American gasped. "I'm from Brooklyn!"
There was that smile again, spread wide across his face, all white teeth and the hint of a tongue pressed against them. Bucky wondered where such confidence came from for such a small boy. He was utterly fascinated. Now that they had spoken more he could hear the similarity in accent to the one Papa still carried.
"How old are you?"
"Today is my birthday if you'd believe it, I'm ten." The American held up both hands, his shoulders swaying to the pluck of violin strings joyfully.
"Non!" Bucky couldn't believe he was so much older. Bucky was almost a head taller than the boy. He wondered what ailed the kid. He had heard of such diseases as polio and meningitis, diseases that swept through small towns making many of the very young and old ill. But despite his frail looks his spirit was defiantly optimistic. Bucky felt himself drawn to the magnetic confidence of this little American, his earnestness, and the kindness clearly cradled in his heart.
"Bon anniversaire, mon amie!" Bucky enthused, gripping the American's bony shoulders and pulling him into the crowd to dance before the violinists. "You've been given a true Parisian day to celebrate. I'm jealous, it's never this nice out for my birthday."
The American clearly had never been given a dance lesson in his life, but he moved with such pure joy in his jerky movements Bucky was enthralled. They bounced on the balls of their feet invigorated by the hooting veteran's and the upward turn in tempo as the violinists responded to the children's infectious delight. Bucky could have danced the afternoon away with this boy. There was something in the back of his head, a voice that told him not to let him go. Hold tight. He didn't understand what it meant, and he wouldn't, not until many years later when he would look back on this glossy memory and realize what it all meant. How this memory stood out above the others, a golden hue to it that attracted the mind's eye over all the others.
Unfortunately the moment was forced to an early close when the American's mother appeared in the crowd, a frantic look of motherly terror laced in the red veins of her eyes as she finally found her son.
"I've been looking everywhere, you gave me such a terror!" She admonished as she took her son's small wrist and dragged him away. The veteran's tutted at the abrupt end to the show and Bucky tried to apologize. It was his fault he stole the boy away. But she was having none of it. "He's very delicate and recovering. You shouldn't be getting him all worked up like that!"
Bucky frowned defiantly at the woman, but fell back as she snatched the object of his fascination from him. The American stole a final look back at Bucky as he was steered through the crowd. There was a longing in his soft blue eyes that pricked at Bucky's heart and was mirrored by his own crestfallen face. Then he was gone; the violinists brought their show to an end, the crowd dispersed, and Bucky was alone. He never even got the boy's name.
Chapter One - The Fall
The headline read: Enemies From All Sides: Italy Declares War Against France. Despite being left behind in Paris while the world morphed into something darker, deadlier all around him, this was the one small blessing Bucky could find in his life. Delivering the morning paper to the stands around town gave him the chance to stay abreast of the developments on the front and whom had died in combat. Each morning he would frantically flip to the list printed on page ten of those who perished, searching fearfully for a name he might recognize, and feeling a sense of relief wash over his tensed bones as he realized Papa was still alive.
And then he would fill with a youthful rage at the abandonment he felt all over again. It smoldered in him all the time, a well tended bed of coals easily stoked into flames. He was capable, he was strong headed, and more than ready to fight. But at sixteen he was just too young to enlist and he had a younger sister to care for now that Papa was at the front and mother taken from them long ago. It didn't seem fair. Why should he be left to look after her? What of his Aunt in Marseilles? Maman's sister had visited them once since Maman's death and while Bucky was never sure of the real reason for her absence he knew it had to do something with Maman's marriage to an American Protestant.
Paris was on edge. It was palpable in the air as Bucky made his way to his favorite cafe in Le Marais where they lived; the bombings last week that took almost three hundred lives were fresh on everyone's mind. It felt like taking life in your own hands every moment you were exposed on the streets. But this was a bi-weekly tradition to meet with his best friend Wanda before he had to fetch his sister from school. They saw so little of each other anymore as the daily duties of life began to pile up the older they grew. It was the one tradition they held steadfast to so as not to lose touch. War had changed things.
"Salut! Over here!" Wanda's bright voice cut through the stale air tainted with vehicle exhaust.
Bucky found her already seated in their spot on the corner of the building, two café au laits on the green wrought iron table. He joined her and took a greedy mouthful of the coffee.
"Did you see the news today?" Wanda asked, big brown eyes dissecting Bucky's face. She could quickly read his moods by the set of his brows and turn of his lip, or so she said.
"Of course I did, I deliver papers. Must we talk about the war?"
"So you're in one of those moods, lovely." She pulled her long black locks over her shoulder and began braiding them. "How about we talk about Pierre Clement's shot gun wedding with Stephanie Dubois?"
"Ha, that imbécile, he was always doomed to settle early." Bucky laughed, spirits lifted by the shift towards tawdry gossip. Wanda kept up with their classes, while Bucky had dropped out to try and join the war, only to be denied so he picked up a job to support his sister.
There was a deep rumble that seemed to resonate from the earth below, rising up the legs of the table and clattering the cups in their saucers. Bucky craned his neck to look down the bend of the street for the men at the last newsstand he made his delivery to that day had whispered conspiratorially with others about government officials fleeing south. He had ignored it as baseless gossip, but now he wondered as military trucks turned the corner and blazed down the street, soldiers seated stoically in the truck beds.
Most of them were too old by Bucky's standards to be infantry men, but that was how it was, a new generation of boys still too young to pick up the mantle of war and so many of the last generation wiped out in the previous war it was a wonder they had any soldiers at all to defend them.
Bucky twisted in his seat to watch as the parade of military vehicles spit black soot on the cobblestone as they past. The anger welled up inside him again, the coals stoked until large flames wicked up inside him and burned out his retinas. His smoldering stare followed the infantry men on the back of the trucks and one of them, a lean mustached man in his late thirties tipped his cap at him and winked. Bucky swung back around to face Wanda, disgruntled.
"Still peeved off about being rejected?" She smiled into her cup and took a sip, hair braids forgotten.
"I wasn't rejected, just not old enough to enlist." And yes he was peeved off.
"Well, you're needed here. By your sister and by me, so how about you suck it up, quit the brooding over things you can't change and start living your life here, oui?"
His glower only increased. Wanda rolled her eyes and tossed back her hair, leaning forward with a serious look.
"You don't date, you don't have any friends other than me—ah-ah," Bucky was about to protest when she held up a hand. "I know everyone, you know this. There is no one else you spend time with. You isolate yourself and I don't like it. Let me set you up with Marguerite, I know she still pines for you even after you stood her up at the Fair."
"Wanda, my dear, you exhaust me."
"And you love it."
"Maybe so, but now I must leave to fetch the only other person I know apparently." Bucky finished his coffee and left a franc on the table.
"Don't be dramatic," Wanda batted her eyelashes at him as he rose. "I only want you to be happy, mon amie. S'il vous-plaît, don't be so quick to write it off. So you can't join the army, is that so bad? Maybe you find yourself love and make the world a little better for it? We've too much strife in this godforsaken place already."
She was right, but he would never admit it, least of all to her.
"Can't we keep pretending you're my lover, everyone already thinks it."
"Bah, please James! I have a hard enough time meeting a nice Jewish man as it is, I don't need you scaring them away with your wily Protestant morals."
Bucky's head fell back and a laugh bubbled out loud as an ill-timed belch. They were good at egging each other on. But he knew when to call it quits. He kissed her on each cheek and parted ways.
The walk from Peggy's school to their apartment took them along the Sienne River bespeckled with docked house boats, which always attracted a good deal of Bucky's attention. He would studiously stare at the boats, dreams of far flung destinations reflected in his irises. A home could be made at the end of the world with one of those. But the Notre Dame Cathedral always stole back his attention and reminded him of the wonders he lived among too. Paris truly was a gem surrounded by barbarians.
"Do you think he's homesick?" Peggy watched Bucky, her black pillbox hat askew, brown curls unwieldy beneath.
"I don't know," Bucky's tone was clipped. He didn't want to talk about this every walk, yet she never ceased to bring up Papa.
"I'm sure he must miss your cooking," She insisted. "I know I would."
"We all know you would be just fine, that hollow leg of yours never seems too picky about the food it chooses to inhale." Bucky knocked her shoulder, smile notched in the corner of his mouth. She had a voracious appetite that was shocking to behold.
"When you're always hungry anything does in a pinch, even Natasha's kholodet's."
Peggy laughed at Bucky's face, his lips instinctively curled in at the memory of the Russian's cold meat jelly dish. "Please don't ever bring such vile things into our home again Margaret."
Mercifully, Peggy was quiet for a few more blocks before she launched back into it. "Do you think Papa will be home before Bastille Day?"
Bucky released a sharp spurt of air through his nostrils and Peggy jammed her shoulder into his side.
"I do not know. I'm sure he misses us as much as we miss him, but he has done this before. I'm sure he is fine." Bucky hated thinking about it for long. A great battle of his own waged inside him, one side wishing to fulfill his familial duties, the other wanting nothing more than to run off to the front line and lay waste to as many of the enemy as he could. He didn't understand how everyone could just continue to go about their lives as if it couldn't all end tomorrow. Even the day after the bombings everyone continued on as if it were another normal Sunday. It seemed beyond cowardly to him.
They turned up the main boulevard into Le Marais that lead them home a few minutes later. The building was an elegant old neoclassical structure. One would think it would be filled with rich businessmen, but it was actually packed with an eclectic mix of artists, shopkeepers, trade unionists, and the occasional communist. Papa was shopkeep of his own popular bookstore. Reading had been one of his favorite pastimes and what got him through the first war, so when he moved to Paris to settle down with Maman he opened his own shop. Bucky had many fond memories of Papa reading to him and Peggy at night before bed. Life had seemed so blissful, they never knew the before. And then war came again and he sold the shop and left all the money to Bucky so they could keep their apartment and not starve while he was gone.
Just inside the giant carved oak doors was a small lobby currently occupied by the two biggest personalities in their five story apartment complex. Arnie Roth seemed to have cornered Natasha Romanov near the stairwell with her grocery bag of meats and baguettes. Bucky could tell she was exasperated by Arnie, but everything was always expertly contained underneath a constant pinched look of haughty disinterest.
"'Tasha!" Peggy shouted and darted from Bucky's side to greet her favorite tenant. Natasha turned to the newcomers and gave a crooked smile to the youngest among them. She had a soft spot for the youngest Barnes, if anything about Natasha could be considered soft. The Russian immigrant was an impossible nut to crack and an expert at control, never letting on her true intentions or feelings in any given situation.
"Oh my young thing, don't you look chic in that little hat!" Arnie gushed, sweeping his signature lavender shawl over his shoulders as he bent down to greet Peggy.
Natasha regarded her with a look of sincere relief, but it was wiped clean from her face as fast as it appeared. "Ma petit chérie," Her fingers, pale as snow, pinched Peggy's cheeks. "I apologize, but I must get these meats upstairs before they spoil."
She nodded at Bucky and then swept from the room, the smells of her powerful perfume and fresh baked bread trailing in her wake. Bucky wished she had stayed. He did not like to be alone with Arnie. They all knew what he was and none seemed to mind his flamboyance, but Bucky always worried he might look too closely and see something he shouldn't. So he lingered back as Peggy showed Arnie the watercolors she had painted that day in the style of Monet—Papa's favorite.
"My dear you do have a great eye! Maybe I shall have you come by my apartment one day and paint the walls of my parlour, it would be magnifique, non?"
Peggy beamed like a puppy praised for being a good girl. Arnie's crinkled eyes flitted to Bucky, "And still you grow more, Monsieur Barnes, I swear to Saint Genevieve if you don't stop growing you'll outgrow this very building!"
"I know it's such a nuisance, he keeps outgrowing his shoes and clothing and there is only so much my patchwork can do!" Peggy exclaimed and Bucky just shook his head lightheartedly.
"I tell you there is no point in patching them when another week from now I'll have outgrown them even more."
"Sure and so you suggest we just go down to the department stores and buy you new clothes every week? We'll be broke before summer!"
"That won't do, I promised your Papa I'd keep an eye on you two," Arnie whispered conspiratorially between the two of them.
Bucky rolled his eyes and took Peggy's hand in his, tugging her towards the stairwell. "While we do appreciate the sentiment, Monsieur Roth, we are managing just fine on our own. Bon journée."
If Arnie seemed perturbed at the brush aside he didn't let it show. He just watched with a wide toothy grin as they ascended the stairs until out of view. Once in their spacious (by Parisian standards) apartment Bucky could breath again. He was just being paranoid, but he thought there was something knowing in Arnie's eyes and he didn't like to linger on what it might mean.
The sun sailed across the sky on its singleminded quest to greet the horizon, streaming unabated through the open windows on the fifth floor apartment. It was the perfect light to work in as Bucky moved about the kitchen preparing dinner. There was something soothing about cooking. It was his personal meditation. He didn't have to think about what ailed him in his life at the moment, his mind distracted in the task at hand. It was creation, making something delectable out of whatever raw ingredients they had on hand.
Yet he couldn't seem to shake what Wanda had said to him earlier. Why couldn't he seem to quit the "brooding," as she had called it, and just live his life. Plenty of people had it harder than him, he was sure of it. He just couldn't seem to stop himself from wallowing in an endless spring of his own self-pity. And there was really only one reason to be found for it. Love. Everyone around him was moving forward, building a life and future that so often involved falling in love. Something that seemed wholly unobtainable to Bucky. He knew what the world expected of him and he knew what he craved; secretly, deep down under the layers of skin, muscle, and bone where he kept the kernel of truth caged in his heart.
"I think a storm is coming," Peggy announced.
In her nightgown now, her favorite stuffed elephant tucked under one arm—a parting gift from Papa—and her stencil set under the other, Bucky hoped she might stay that way forever, carefree and innocent. She joined Bucky at the countertop and settled in for some sketching. Bucky's eyes flickered to the windows expecting to see dark clouds amassing in the distance. Instead he saw a sky glowering orange from the setting sun. Then he heard it, a distant rumble of thunder. It roiled on and on for a solid minute, almost disappearing among the sounds of the city that filtered up from the street below. It was an ominous thunder and struck a chord of fear in Bucky's chest.
"Let's close all the windows now, lest we forget tonight and wake up with a flooded house."
That night Bucky dreamt of soft blue eyes as vibrant as the waters of the Mediterranean. He dove into them like an olympic diver, purposeful and full of grace, knowing the waters as if they were the home where he belonged. There was no danger here. He was safe—
Bucky's eyes snapped open and his body sprang upright. It was not yet dawn, but the smolder of an early sunrise lit the room when there should be nothing but darkness.
BOOM. Another explosion rattled the room. The old chandelier in the living room tinkled like a wind chime. The window panes shook and a hail of paint chips dislodged from the ceiling. That was no thunder nor an encroaching storm. Bucky's ears strained to pick out other sounds. A sick sense of dread prickled at his brow among the sweat beaded there. Was it another bombing raid?
A scream pierced the air and sunk into Bucky's chest like a hot dagger. Racing to the window Bucky threw apart the curtains and laid eyes upon a city under siege. Great fires burned in the distance, lighting the early morning sky with a great angry red like the mouth of an active volcano. Gunfire cracked in the distance. The boom of artillery shelling some unknown location traveled across the city like angry firecrackers and, to the right, marching down the main boulevard in the direction of the Hôtel de Ville—the seat of local government— were row after row of tanks and Nazi soldiers, wrathful red banners marked with the swastika parading down French streets. The roar of engines like the scream of terrible war-faring giants erupted from the sky as German fighter jets blitzed the Parisian skyline.
France had fallen. The Maginot line did not hold like promised. The Germans were here.