"We need to talk to you, Captain," said Morita, and Gabe felt his gut tightening up as he glanced at the grim faces of his fellow Commandos. Finally, after a day filled tension and odd silences - not that the Captain or Barnes had noticed much, as the day had been devoted to hard travel through enemy territory - they were going to do this. Two minutes after arriving at base, barely reported in and not even showered and fed. Damn it.
"What about?" asked Cap, glancing around at them. "Can it wait until I've given my report?"
"It's waited all day," said Falsworth. "Phillips probably won't debrief you until tomorrow, and this should be cleared now."
"All right, fine," said Cap, his brow furrowed slightly. He motioned to the rest of them to sit, remaining standing himself.
"What's this about?" asked Cap.
There was a brief silence.
"Last night," Gabe blurted, desperate to get on with this. "We were in the shed."
"Next to the house. We heard you."
Cap blinked, puzzled, then his face suddenly drained of colour. He swallowed, and sat down hard.
"What?" Barnes was still frowning.
Cap cleared his throat. "It's - it's my fault," he said, and for the first time since Gabe had met him, his voice was unsteady. "I take full responsibility. I'm the superior officer, I abused my position of authority--" and Gabe could see when the penny suddenly dropped for Barnes.
Cap was speaking more rapidly now, his ashen face set as he met each man's eyes. "He's just a Sergeant; I'm the one in authority here. I didn't give him a choice. I'll sign a confession if you want, tell Phillips what I did, just - please." He swallowed again. "Leave his name out of it."
Barnes was on his feet now. "Wait, what--" he glanced around at the men, back to their Captain. "Steve!"
"Sergeant," Cap said firmly. "Stand down. I'm taking--"
"You're - they're - you're trying to take the fall--"
"Captain," said Gabe. "I know what I heard. 'Bucky, we shouldn't,' and 'I won't risk you' isn't you pressuring. If anything, he pressured you."
Cap shook his head vehemently. "Barnes could never get me to do anything I didn't want to do."
Barnes gave a short humorless laugh. "You're a terrible liar." He looked around at the men. "It's my fault. You all know it. I'm the discipline case here. Besides, if Cap says it's his fault, this unit is done."
"This unit is done anyway," said Dugan. "Soon as Phillips finds out. You know that."
Morita started. "Dugan. We never said--"
"He's the best leader we've fought with," Falsworth pointed out. "We're not confronting them as a warning before going to Phillips. We just needed to let you know that we know," he said to Cap and Barnes. "We haven't decided whether to go to Phillips or not."
"We have to," said Dugan. "I'm not gonna serve with a couple of perverts."
Cap flinched and Barnes made a small noise in his throat.
"Dum Dum... think," said Gabe slowly. "Think about everything this unit's done."
Cap was looking away, shoulders hunched miserably.
"I'm not gonna serve with--" Dugan began again, stubbornly.
"Dernier doesn't want to go to Phillips either," said Gabe, and Dernier nodded. In fact Dernier had said that he personally wouldn't go, but he wasn't standing in anybody's way if they really wanted to. Which apparently Dugan really did.
"Nobody has to go to Phillips," said Cap, standing up. "I'll go to him myself, and resign my commission."
"Like hell," said Dugan, standing too. "You just wanna do that to protect Barnes."
"Which you're not gonna do, Steve," said Barnes, his voice steely.
"I'm going to Phillips," said Dugan. "It was both of you they overheard. Barnes ain't gonna sit this one out."
"They're gonna get cashiered out," Morita pointed out.
"They should've thought of that before signing up."
"Dugan," said Falsworth. "You're talking about the best commander and the best sniper in the service."
"And a couple of perverts."
"This particular pervert saved your life," said Falsworth, pointing at Cap. "He's saved all of our lives."
"And I'm grateful to him, but that doesn't mean I'm going to put up with this kind of..." Dugan trailed off, glaring at them all, and left the barracks.
"Bloody hell," muttered Falsworth.
"I'm sorry," said Cap, swallowing hard.
"It wasn't your fault," said Barnes. "Steve - fuck, I--"
"Pretty sure it was two of you there," said Morita dryly. "From what I heard, anyway."
"Christ. What a bloody mess," said Falsworth in disgust.
"Yeah." Cap locked eyes with Barnes, and straightened. "All right. I'm going to see Phillips."
"I can't let you--"
"I told you what could happen," said Cap, and his voice held no anger or recrimination, just dread and fear. "Please, God, let me at least try to minimize the damage."
Barnes's eyes suddenly filled with tears. "Jesus Christ," he whispered. "What the fuck have I done?"
Cap shook his head, his mouth pressed in a line. "Wasn't just you." His hand made an abortive movement towards Barnes, then he took a deep breath and seemed to deliberately force himself to complete the motion, touching Bucky's arm gently, a gesture Gabe had seen him make a thousand times before with Barnes and had never thought of as anything but brotherly. Barnes brought a hand up and covered Cap's with his, and the brief contact seemed to give them both strength. "Bucky. I'm going. You can't stop me."
He turned and followed Dugan in the direction of Phillips's office. Barnes glanced around at the rest of them, his eyes haunted and huge, and followed the Captain.
Though to be honest, he wasn't surprised that Cap himself was OK. Gabe hadn't really expected him to be hustled off in disgrace; Captain America was just too big to fall. But the fact that Barnes was still here, and still allowed to serve - let alone keep serving in the same unit - was nothing short of incredible.
It had been a long, long day that he never, ever wanted to think about again, after Phillips had taken over a tactics tent, got together with his aide and some Major none of them had ever heard of, and called the Commandos together. He'd spoken one-on-one to each man in turn in the corner of the tent several times, while the rest of them waited silently in a group, sequestered from the rest of the base. Occasionally he'd huddle with his aide and the Major, or get on the phone and talk to only God knew who. Cap had been white-faced and almost silent, Barnes uncharacteristically subdued and guilt-ridden - and after what he'd overheard, Gabe couldn't blame him. Cap might be willing to take full responsibility, but he never would have done anything last night if not for Barnes.
Phillips had been by turns incredulous, livid, disgusted, and unbearably weary. His poor temper had lashed out at all of them, including his hapless aide, who'd taken the initiative to have had both Cap and Barnes handcuffed at one point early on while Phillips was out. Cap and Barnes hadn't protested, sitting side by side and staring at the floor while the other Commandos looked anywhere but at them, but Phillips had stopped short upon entering the tent and given his aide a look that would've caused Gabe to wet his shorts had it been directed at him.
"Lieutenant, I don't know what you're using for brain right now but I don't think I need to tell you that if anyone sees this we're all in serious shit," he'd said. "Uncuff them, you idiot. Did anyone but the Commandos see this?"
"I - an MP brought the cuffs, but I didn't say why--"
Phillips swore colorfully. "Well call him back here right now, find some way to tell him these two were cuffed because we thought they were planning an unsanctioned Hydra base raid and it's all been cleared up. Hopefully he hasn't talked to anyone."
Gabe didn't know - and didn't want to know - what had happened in the two hours that Cap had spent alone with Phillips near the end of the ordeal, looking more scared and upset than he'd ever seen their Captain, even when he was wounded. The dressing-down of a lifetime was happening, he figured that, but even that was odd because at some points Cap seemed to be stubbornly arguing and Gabe couldn't wrap his mind around that. Cap was lucky he wasn't being court-martialled. Somehow putting up a fight over anything seemed incredible.
But now it was over. The cuffs hadn't come back, and Phillips's aide looked like he wanted Cap and Barnes drawn and quartered, and was steeling himself for disappointment. And although the men hadn't talked amongst themselves, if any of their last one-on-ones with Phillips had been like Gabe's, it really looked like they were going to get away with it. And Gabe had no idea how to feel about that.
"Dugan, thank you for coming to me before anyone else," Phillips began briskly. "If there's one thing that's gonna destroy morale, it's for this kind of thing to get out to the general population. Never mind the press." He looked around at them. "Now, you've all agreed to keep this whole sorry business within the unit and keep serving with Captain Rogers, who has agreed to not allow anything like this to happen again. If any of you have a problem with that and you haven't done so before, now's the perfect time to bring it up because I will not thank you for coming in and making me think about any of this again, at any time for the rest of this war or the rest of my life. Speak now or forever hold your peace applies here, men."
He paused for a moment.
"All right. This unit will remain intact. If I could find a replacement for your sniper, believe me, I would. I have spent a great deal of time I do not have trying to discreetly find reassign another sniper, and trying to figure out how to get rid of Barnes. Without having the press try to find out why Bucky Barnes of the Howling Commandos, Captain America's loyal sidekick, is suddenly on assignment to Morocco - or on his way home." He blew out his breath. "I can't. So we're left with business as usual. Bunking assignments will be different when you are out in the field; when there's no separate quarters for officers, Captain Rogers will be assigned quarters with Falsworth and Sergeant Barnes will be with Morita, and let me tell you having to take over bunking assignments like a damned clerk is doing nothing for my digestion."
He glared at Captain Rogers and Barnes. "There is only one reason you two are not being drummed out as you should be, and it is that at this juncture the war effort cannot afford to lose the idea of Captain America and this unit, and what it means to the people back home. But believe me, if I hear one more word of this, Captain America or no, I will have you out of this man's army so fast your spangly outfit will disappear in a puff of red, white, and blue smoke and a blue ticket. No second chances. You two will keep it in your pants, or face consequences. Am I very painfully clear?"
Cap nodded grimly, holding Phillips's gaze steadily, and Barnes murmured, "Yes sir, clear, sir," his eyes on the floor.
Phillips turned back to the Commandos. "You men are expected to continue to show Captain Rogers the obedience and respect you give to any other officer. You are also expected to treat Sergeant Barnes the same as before. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, absolutely nothing of any importance has happened here, and your behavior will reflect that. You've all indicated you can do that, no matter what your personal feelings may be. If you realize you can't, you will be transferred. Honorably and without any negative reflection on your record." He paused and glared at them all. "However, if any of you lets a single word of this get out, I will make you very very sorry."
Phillips turned to the officers beside him. "Lieutenant Ramerson, Major Edwin, none of what has happened in this room leaves this room. I don't need to tell you what a party the Nazis would have if they found out our star soldier's a god-damned invert." The aide gave Cap and Barnes a look of disgusted loathing; the Major simply pressed his lips together and looked highly uncomfortable.
They all stood and filed out.
What now? Were they simply supposed to go back to life as usual? How could they?
Cap cleared his throat as they approached their small barracks building, and Gabe noted that they all stiffened to attention automatically.
Cap checked to make sure the grounds around their building were empty. "I just wanted to say that I appreciate what you're all doing," he began, his voice quiet and low, glancing around at them briefly. "I asked to resign several times to spare you having to... cover up anything." He paused, clearing his throat again. "My lack of judgment put you all in this position. There's no excuse. If there was any way I could make it up to you, I would. I'm sorry." He paused again, meeting each man's eyes seriously. "Now, Colonel Phillips said that this is over and done, but that's not good enough." He took a deep breath. "Does anybody have anything to say?"
There was an agonizing silence, and one by one the men shook their heads. What on earth could they possibly say?
Cap nodded, his mouth pressed into a grim line. "Very well. You're dismissed." He walked off in the direction of the officer's quarters.
Gabe nodded numbly, and went into the barracks building, followed by the rest of the men. He put his pack down on his cot and glanced at Barnes, who was putting his own pack down and quickly picking up his shaving kit and towel.
"I, uh... I won't be staying here much," Barnes said to the rest of them, pulling out clean clothes and adding them to the pile, not facing them. "I still have to sleep here, Phillips said. But you won't see me otherwise." He paused. "I'm... sorry," he said awkwardly, and left without another word.
Gabe sat down on his bed.
"This is a fucking mess," said Dernier, sitting down and putting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
"What did he say?" asked Morita.
"What we're all thinking," Gabe said. "Can we really do this?"
Dugan blew out his breath. "Wonder how Phillips would feel about bunking next to some fairy who's probably peeking at his ass every time he--"
"I doubt that, Dum Dum," said Falsworth. "Besides, he won't be here much."
Morita shook his head. "We're just gonna have to... look, just..." he trailed off. "Don't think about it. Just pretend we didn't hear anything. Like we all told Phillips we were going to."
"I'm going out into the town," said Dernier suddenly, standing up. "We don't have tactics practice until tomorrow. I'm going to get nice and drunk between now and then."
"Good luck," said Gabe.
Dernier walked out the door without another word and that was fucking wrong, thought Gabe suddenly. They should all be going out together, damn it. It was their tradition after a mission: end up at some bar, Dernier picking up French girls more to speak his native language than anything else, Dugan and Barnes chatting up dames despite their own lack of French - although now that Gabe thought about it, what the hell did Barnes do with those girls? - and Gabe and Morita and Cap staying behind playing pool. Gabe and Morita because they didn't want to get lynched by less open-minded members of the forces if they were seen with white French girls (not that Gabe would cheat on his Alice anyway, but the option wasn't there) and Cap because... well they'd all thought it was the officer thing, hadn't they? That and having some sort of thing going with Agent Carter, and being kind of old-fashioned and too highly moral to go after French floozies.
So much for that.
Their unit wasn't ever going to be the same. Forget what the outside world saw; they were all uncomfortable, feeling various shades of resentment and confusion, and not a little betrayal.
Betrayal, he realized. That was a big part of what he felt. Cap and Barnes were the center of their amazing unit: brothers, best friends, comrades in arms who knew everything about each other and gave the whole unit a sense of stability and belonging. Barnes's wild stories, his flashing smile, his easy banter with Cap making their somewhat intimidating CO seem somehow more human - one of them, despite the difference in rank and ability.
And it was all based on... Gabe felt his stomach churn.
The door opened and they all scrambled to their feet, startled.
"At ease, men," said Agent Carter, amused. "Have any of you seen Captain Rogers? We're hours past the debrief for your last mission."
There was a dead silence and then Gabe gulped and gave her what he hoped was a casual smile.
"Think he's gone to his quarters, ma'am," he said.
"Thank you, Jones," she said, and walked off, a slight bounce to her step.
All right, that didn't feel good. It was bad enough that they had to keep up the lie to the outside world; lying to Agent Carter just wasn't right. She had a thing for Captain Rogers, and everyone knew it. Only they'd all assumed it was mutual.
"Wonder if she has any idea about him," said Morita, shaking his head.
"Doubt it," said Gabe.
"Doesn't seem right," Dugan muttered. "Knowing he's... the way he is. Good-looking dame wasting herself waiting for..." he trailed off and made an eloquent sound of disgust. "If she wasn't an officer I'd be tempted to let her know, just to see if I have a chance now..."
Falsworth blew out his breath and nodded, and Gabe met Morita's eyes and wondered if he was thinking the same thing. Because whether they felt the same way or not, there was no way either of them could join into any kind of talk about a white lady. The rest of the Commandos might be remarkably open-minded about the race-mixing thing when it came to working together and bunking together, but there was a line to be drawn and openly admiring a white woman probably sailed right over it.
For the first time Gabe wondered dimly what it would be like to be back serving in a colored regiment. No more dealing with the occasional blockheads who made trouble about him and Morita at the base, no more feeling slightly alienated from his own comrades by that difference they almost never acknowledged--
No more pride in being part of one of the most elite and decorated units in the service.
What fucking pride? It was built on a lie, and now a cover-up.
Although at least that was one thing their Captain had never done: he'd never treated him and Morita any different from any of the other men. And if their unit was disbanded, it was doubtful he or Morita would ever get that kind of respect again.
Gabe glanced at Barnes's empty cot and picked up his own shaving kit and towel. Barnes had surely finished showering by now.
"I'm going to clean up," he said numbly. "Morita, after that, you wanna find some wine? Maybe we can try to forget this whole thing happened."
Morita nodded glumly, and they headed off. Their unit was all gone to shit. It didn't matter what they showed the outside world. It had all gone to shit.