Gabe stared at the table in front of him, still feeling unreal. It had been well-planned. It should have gone well. It had gone well, in a way - they'd captured Schmidt's leading scientist. But the price...
"You're dismissed," said Phillips. They all stood and saluted, and Phillips returned it absently, shuffling the papers his aide gave him with their report.
"Colonel," Captain Rogers began. "Whatever is going to happen is going to happen soon. We need to interrogate Zola and--"
"And I will do that," said Phillips, making a notation on one of the pages. "You are off-duty as of right now." He glanced up at the Commandos. "Take him to a bar and get him drunk," he said curtly. Cap blinked. Phillips cleared his throat. "Captain Rogers," he said, looking back down at his report. "I am very sorry for your loss." His aide gaped at Phillips for a moment before he snapped his mouth shut and looked down at the table, lips set in a grim, disapproving line.
Cap's jaw clenched. "Thank you, sir," he said finally, his voice steady.
The men gathered around him as they left the building and he lapsed back into silence. He'd been in deep shock when they'd first lost Barnes, but recovered quickly and gone on with the mission, moving and working non-stop as they finished the mission, secured the train, were flown back to London to deliver Zola, and then went straight to give their report to Phillips. Time had been of the essence. There had been no time to mourn, to do anything but carry on. It was only now that they were all finally able to take stock, and from Cap's face, that was probably the last thing he wanted to do.
"Here's the place," Falsworth led them to a bombed out bar, the same one they'd first gathered in after Captain Rogers had brought them back from the POW camp.
Dernier went behind the bar, looking for bottles, and came back with several, as the rest of them found chairs and glasses. "Take this." He shoved a bottle of whiskey at Steve. "Tell him to drink the whole thing," he said to Gabe. Gabe poured a glass for the Captain and handed it to him, as Dernier took another bottle and poured for everyone else.
The Captain knocked the first glass back, poured himself another. Gabe took a sip of his own, not realizing until then that he'd had no idea what was in it. Gin, apparently.
The silence in the bombed-out bar was oppressive. It felt like they should be talking about Barnes, holding some sort of wake for him - it wasn't like they'd never expected to lose one of their band, after all. But what was there to say?
Cap put down his glass. Dernier filled it again. Cap looked up at him, clear-eyed still, his face expressionless.
"I'm sorry," said Falsworth. "He was a good man."
Cap nodded, taking a sip of his drink.
"How d'you feel?" asked Falsworth. "Anything?"
Cap shook his head.
"Not a great wake," Dugan commented.
"He'd hate it," said Cap, his voice dull. "Feels like Joe Bertin's funeral when we were in the orphanage. Nobody said a damn thing." He took another gulp of his whiskey. "I know he'd know what to say at my wake. Sure planned for it often enough."
"You were that sick?"
Cap nodded. "Given Last Rites twice," he said. "Once at the orphanage and once when we were living together. He told me he'd piss on my grave if I died on him when we owed two month's rent." He smiled slightly, then frowned, thinking. "Don't remember what he said the first time, at the orphanage. It was just a few weeks after we'd met."
"How old were you?"
"Ten. I was really small, kept getting beaten up by the bigger kids. He was always picking off bullies. Always protecting me. I wanted to stand up and fight my own fights but I was so tiny, and sick. He... he'd just wade in. Even when I didn't want him to."
"Sounds like Barnes, all right," said Morita.
Dernier passed him another bottle. Cap was dry-eyed, his voice hushed, no sign of the alcohol he'd drunk. Not slurring. Nothing.
"Remember when we were at the Hydra factory, how he kept doing extra work to protect the prisoners who were falling behind on their quotas?" asked Gabe.
"Drove the supervisors nuts," said Dugan. "They knew somebody was doing it... they just couldn't tell who."
"I started doing extra too, to cover for them," said Gabe. "We were all so fucking tired at the end of a shift, but if you fell behind they were so vicious..."
"Some of those guys were so sick," said Morita. "Barnes wouldn't let the guards see how sick they were. Sick prisoners disappeared."
"And then when he got beat up by the Commander..." Gabe shook his head, remembering their impotent anger in seeing Barnes at the hands of that Hydra thug.
"He told me what you all did for him," said the Captain. "You coulda gotten yourselves killed, standing up for him."
"We knew he would've done the same for us," said Falsworth.
Cap nodded. "He would've. It's what he's done all his life. He saved my life, over and over, when we were kids - not with the bullies, but after we moved out of the orphanage. Worked himself to the bone getting my medicines whenever I got sick." He paused. "It's funny, we both made fun of the PR stuff about 'Captain America and his loyal sidekick' because it wasn't like that before. I was his loyal sidekick. He - he was popular, he was strong and good-looking and he could've done so much on his own, but... the papers got the 'loyal' part right, at least."
Dernier poured another glass for himself, glanced around the empty bar.
"It had nothing to do with what the papers thought, looking up to the uniform or the symbol. He wasn't my follower; I was his. He didn't even want me out here; kept trying to make me feel better about not being able to get into the army 'cause I was so sick."
"He did follow you into this unit," said Falsworth.
"You know, when I asked him if he wanted to follow Captain America, he said Hell no." Cap smiled, his eyes shadowed.
Gabe blinked. "Really?"
"Yeah. Then he said, That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to run away from a fight; I'm following him."
"That sounds like Barnes, all right," Gabe chuckled.
"Actually, I asked if he was willing to follow me into the jaws of death," said Cap, and shivered. "I shouldn't have asked. He probably could've gotten transferred somewhere safe, after being a prisoner of war. All of you could've. I shouldn't have asked any of you."
"D'you really think he would've left you to face Hydra alone, even if you'd asked him to?" asked Falsworth.
Cap sighed and stared into his empty glass. Dugan filled it again, and topped off everyone else's while he was at it.
"When did you..." Morita paused, suddenly awkward. "When..."
"When did you start sleeping together?" Falsworth asked, and Gabe blinked at his bluntness, but Cap didn't react.
"We were fifteen when it all started," said Cap quietly. "We didn't sleep together, at first. Bucky was - he went after all these girls, and he was good with them, had a lot of dates. And then one day one of their older brothers beat him up. He wasn't even fucking her." Gabe started; Cap usually only swore when a mission went badly wrong or one of the men was bleeding out.
"He was." Cap swallowed again. "He was bleeding pretty bad, he'd snuck out and then come back in and I gave him some booze Jimmy Dentremont had smuggled into the orphanage. I asked him how come he kept chasing skirts all the time and he said, 'Cause I can't chase you.' I almost hit him. I thought he was being a jerk. Then he kissed me." His eyes clenched shut and his brow furrowed, and Gabe could feel the pain passing through him. "I was so scared. I thought somebody was gonna come into the washroom and see us, even though everyone was asleep. I'd been - I thought I was the only one - I thought I was sick, I thought if he knew he'd try to kill me or think I was disgusting or tell everyone. Instead--" Cap bit his lip and covered his face with his hands.
"Fifteen?" asked Falsworth.
Cap nodded, his body tense. "We left the orphanage the next year and moved in together, but he still went with lotsa girls. I always told him we needed to find other people. Dames. We both tried. He tried to set me up with every girl in Brooklyn. Broke up with so many of them when their friends were rude to me."
"And you weren't..."
"We didn't sleep together till two years later. We fooled around a buncha times, but I didn't want - I thought he could be normal, at least. I didn't want to. To make him wrong. Like me. I loved him. I wanted him to be happy," his voice broke on the last word.
"Jesus," Dugan muttered under his breath. "And I told Barnes that he should... damn it."
"I know what you told him," said Cap. "We tried. We tried, so many times. Every few years, we'd - I'd feel bad about holding him back, and try... I got a really good job right before he signed up, we could both afford to pay rent on our own, so I sent him away so he could have a normal life. By the time he shipped out, we'd been apart for months. And his last night Stateside, he tried to get me a date, again, but..."
Gabe nodded. And suddenly wondered if Cap had ever said any of this to anybody else at all. Or if, like Barnes, he'd never talked to anybody but an unsympathetic priest.
What a hell of a time to finally be able to open up about the love of his life.
"I realized after he was missing, that I couldn't..." He bowed his head, covered his face. "I shouldn't have," he said, his voice muffled. "But... but I loved him, so damn much. We decided we'd just put off thinking about the future until the War was over." He lowered his hands, and stared at the tabletop blankly. "It's funny, it's always been me sending him away, 'cause he'd had girlfriends, he could get a woman, and I - I felt guilty. Wasn't till the War that he started doing the same thing to me, telling me that maybe me and Peggy should - but then..." He swallowed. "Then everything happened with all of you finding out and he started to talk about... about maybe not doing that any more. After the War was over, maybe just staying together, the hell with what other people thought." He took a long, shaking breath. "I put him off. I wanted it, more than anything, but I didn't wanna be selfish - fuck, I should've said yes, I should've..."
Gabe felt his eyes fill with tears.
"Cap... I'm sorry," said Dugan.
Dernier put a hand on his shoulder.
Cap hugged his arms around himself. "He can't be gone. I don't feel him gone." He took a deep breath. "When I heard his unit had all been captured. When I thought the building had come down on him. I thought." He shivered. "It felt like there was this weight. Like I could feel it, here." He touched his chest. "Like something was missing, like I couldn't feel alive again until I knew he was safe or knew he was dead. Like nothing was really real except Bucky was missing."
Gabe met Dugan's eyes. And yet he'd walked around like everything was fine after that building collapse.
"And now. Now I know he's gone. And there's nothing."
"Maybe the alcohol's hit you," said Dum Dum. Cap shook his head. "Maybe you're in shock."
"I can't go into shock," said Cap, his voice dull. "Nearly bled out after Montbeliard and kept walking, remember?"
He put up a hand to his eyes and took a deep breath. "He's been everything. Since we were kids. We've followed each other everywhere - out of the orphanage, into the War, everywhere. He's been everything. What." He swallowed. "What am I gonna do now?"
Falsworth pressed another glass into his hand, and Cap gently pushed it away.
"All our lives, he protected me. I always knew he'd pay for it someday. And he did."
"All our lives, he's been there. I thought he always would be. Not - I mean, we always thought someday we'd be - you know, living apart. Married, with kids - for him, at least." Cap's eyes suddenly filled with tears. "He kept telling me I could be too, that some day some girl would--" a tear spilled over and ran down his cheek, unheeded, as Cap stared sightlessly at the table. "We knew, we knew it was impossible for us to--" he wiped his cheek. "But I always thought he'd at least be there. No matter who he married, how many girls he slept with. No matter how much it hurt when he was with someone else."
"What did he think when you were with someone else?" asked Morita curiously.
"I've never," said Cap softly.
Gabe was struck speechless. Captain America, the guy all the girls on the base swooned over, had never been with a dame. Never done anything but what he did with Barnes.
"There was only him. There's only ever been him." The tears were running down his face now, his eyes blank and haunted. "Only ever him, 'cept now he's gone. Because of me. Oh my God," Cap put a hand to his face and a sob escaped his throat.
Morita put a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Cap," he said, his voice low. Cap nodded silently, holding himself still.
"He was a soldier," said Dugan. "And a damn good one. He knew the risks. And you knew the risks when you took command, and when you accepted him into your unit, didn't you?"
"I thought I did," whispered Cap.
Dugan hesitated. "I don't think you did," he finally said gently.
"No," said Cap, his face in his hands. He took a deep, shaking breath, and Gabe could feel the struggle to keep it together, the sobs threatening to break through. "No, I didn't," he whispered, and his voice broke and he let go, his shoulders shaking as he finally surrendered to his grief.
Gabe drew closer, and all five of them came together, hands on their leader as he put his head down on the dirty table and wept, and that, thought Gabe, that was what a heart shattering to pieces sounded like.
And it wasn't any different from how Alice would cry over him, if she got that telegram from the army. It wasn't any different than how Gabe himself would feel, if she was suddenly gone. Never to see her smile again, never to hold her or look forward to her dark eyes laughing with him.
Never to hold in his arms the one person who meant everything to him. Like a jagged wound, an emptiness that couldn't be filled.
He blinked, wiping a hand across his face, and drew his chair closer as their little group huddled around their weeping leader, their shared sorrow sharp and bitter, and wondered how the hell Cap could keep going after this. And what would happen to the rest of them if he broke.
"No. But he wants to be alone now," said Falsworth. "We can give him that, at least."
"Boys?" Agent Carter's voice broke through their silence. Gabe turned, startled. She was striding towards them, her face set and her voice subdued. "Do you know where Captain Rogers is?"
"Uh... ma'am... I think he just wants to be alone right now," said Morita.
"I understand," she nodded. "I'd like to just give him my condolences and then let him be. Unfortunately he needs to know there's going to be a mission tomorrow. We've got some information from Zola."
"He's at The Lark," said Dugan. "It's bombed out, but there's still booze there."
Agent Carter nodded her thanks and made her way down the street.
"Ma'am," Dugan called out. Agent Carter turned around. "He - uh, he's not feeling real good about what happened to Barnes. May need someone to stay with him a bit."
Agent Carter nodded, and continued on to the bar.
Dugan turned back to the others, looking around at their dubious expressions.
"Er, Dugan, I really don't think..." Falsworth began.
"Barnes ain't around any more," said Dugan evenly.
Gabe shook his head. "I dunno if you're trying to... match-make here, Dum Dum, but..."
Dugan rolled his eyes. "I'm not saying he's gonna hop into bed with some dame while Barnes's body's not even cold yet," he said. "Although... this could be a blessing in disguise, in the long term."
"Don't say that to him," said Gabe, feeling a flicker of anger.
"I'm not an idiot," said Dugan impatiently. "But she's a friend, and she liked Barnes too. Even if... she's not some stranger to just turn away. He likes her. She might be able to give him something we can't right now."
Gabe frowned. Cap admired her, probably even found her attractive. He maybe even had a chance with her, now that Barnes was gone. But not right now. Maybe, in a few months, he might be able to look at her, but--
"Did he just send Agent Carter to distract the Captain?" asked Dernier, and Gabe nodded. Dernier gave Dugan a skeptical look. "Does he really think that--"
"I just don't think Cap oughta be alone right now," said Dugan.
"What?" said Morita.
Dugan looked uncomfortable. "Look, he... he just lost everything. You go through something like that, and... all sortsa things sound reasonable when they wouldn't otherwise. All kindsa dumb choices." He shrugged. "I don't think he should be alone. Not right now. It's the last thing he needs."
"He did it," said Morita dully. "He won, he got Schmidt, he stopped the plane, the East Coast is safe. But he's - he's gone. He put the plane down in the water, somewhere in the Arctic."
"Jones?" asked Dernier. "The Captain's gone?"
"Yeah," said Gabe numbly. "He – he put the plane down in the water."
"He said it was the only way," Morita said, and Gabe translated for Dernier, knowing Dernier could probably follow well enough without translating but taking comfort in the mindless task. "He said it was heading for New York, that he had to make sure it didn't land anywhere where people could get hurt. We - the last blip was far away from anything, there's no way he--"
"Fuck," said Falsworth.
"He could’ve jumped," said Gabe, staring at Morita, willing him to agree. "He could survive—"
"I was right outside, listening," said Morita, shaking his head. "He was talking to Agent Carter the whole way down. She told him they'd find a safe spot for him to land but he said it was too risky." He cleared his throat. "The radio went off right at the end."
"Damn it," said Dernier, and got up. He left the room, his face gray.
"If anyone could survive, it’s the Captain," said Falsworth. "He could - he could probably stand the pressure and cold, if he could get out of the plane, swim to the surface--"
Morita shook his head. "Stark is heading out, they’re mobilizing to try to find the plane. But he was with it when it went down. And they’re not sure exactly where it went, the radar died—"
"Why didn't he jump out?" asked Falsworth.
"Because he didn't want to," said Dugan heavily.
"Because he didn't want to risk the plane righting itself after he jumped, I think," said Morita. "He wanted to make sure it went down and stayed down."
"Still, he could - we've all seen what he can survive," said Falsworth. "Freezing and a crash, if anyone could live through that, he could."
"If he wanted to," said Dugan. "He didn't."
"How do you know?"
"Because of what I said. You think he wanted to go on, by himself?" He shook his head. "Look, I..." he cleared his throat. "When I was sixteen, my parents and my sister were killed in a house fire. If it hadn't been for my aunt and uncle taking me in--" he paused. "I saw what Cap looked like, after Barnes was gone. I saw that same look on my own face after I lost my family. He didn't have anything left to live for except revenge, and that's not enough. Given time he would've been able to go on, but right then?" He shook his head again. "I'm not saying he's not a hero, for stopping that plane. But as for living through it... he didn't want to. He just wanted to follow Barnes one last time."
"Dugan--" Morita protested.
"He's dead and gone," said Dugan. "They're never gonna find him. Captain America's gone."
He walked into the bar and moved to the end table without hesitation. When victory's declared, we're all gonna meet here and drink a toast, they'd promised each other, as the unit had disbanded and they'd been sent their separate ways. And if we're posted all over Europe it'll take a little longer, but we'll do it.
They were all still in London, in fact. Posted to different units but with the winding-down of the War and the massive amounts of work they'd all had to do to tell all they knew about Hydra and the Commando's ops, going through Hydra intelligence and Hydra weapons, they were all still right here.
He made his way to the table. Nobody was even stopping to look at him today. The occasional sideways glances he usually got were nonexistent. Even racists had something better to do today. He wondered if Morita was experiencing the same thing. That had been one slight change in leaving the Commandos; being on his own meant having to deal with slightly more officious idiots who thought they could talk down to him until they found out who he was.
He made his way to the table and sat down, he and Falsworth the last two to make it in. Falsworth and Dugan were still in uniform, Gabe noticed, but he and Morita and Dernier were in civvies. Already getting used to what would be their very near future.
"Jones, long time no see," said Dugan, giving him a smile. Gabe had stayed in touch with Dernier and Falsworth a bit as the three of them worked over Hydra weapons, but Morita and Dugan had been working with the SSR over the communications transcripts they'd gotten from Hydra and he hadn't seen as much of them.
"How've you been?" asked Dugan, handing him and Falsworth beers that appeared to have been waiting for their arrival.
"Good, good," he said, taking a gulp. "Looking forward to going home." He glanced at Dernier. "Dernier is too."
"To France, where I can speak a real language and eat real food," said Dernier, and the others laughed as Gabe translated.
"I can't wait to return to Devon," said Falsworth.
"You're not gonna believe this but I'm staying for a while," said Dugan. "Agent Carter's been talking to me about SSR changing after the War's over, turning into something else. They're gonna need people to help with the transition." He shook his head. "My girl's not gonna be happy."
"She'll get over it," said Morita. "I'm sure whatever SSR turns into, you'll be able to get a transfer back home soon enough." He sipped his beer. "I'm going home as soon as I can. My folks aren't getting any younger, and my dad wants me to help him out in the family firm as soon as we're allowed back on the West Coast. We're gonna have a lot of work, I think."
"Still can't really picture you as a lawyer," said Dugan.
"Legal assistant, till I get my license. If I even have time to go to law school. My dad says we're gonna have a hell of a time helping all our friends get back their stuff, get back to their homes. It's gonna take years."
Gabe nodded. "My folks are just glad I'm getting home. Can't wait to see Alice."
They all drank, looking around at the cheering crowds. It was a celebration. It was. And he was happy. It just...
"Wish it was all of us here," said Gabe.
"Don't we all," said Falsworth.
"Well, if Barnes didn't make I'm not surprised Cap didn't either," said Dugan.
"He didn't have a choice," said Morita. "It wasn't because of Barnes."
"I've read over the transcripts and radar readings from that plane about a dozen times, and so have you," said Dugan quietly. "He had time. They could've maybe figured something out."
Morita shook his head.
"You saw what he wrote," said Dugan.
"Yeah, months earlier," said Morita stubbornly. "Not proof of how he felt that day."
Gabe looked away, remembering the note they'd found. Phillips had quietly asked the men to go through Cap and Barnes's private belongings before they were turned over to the army, to make sure there was nothing "incriminating" there. And there hadn't been, except for a short letter in Barnes's locker. It was unsigned and vague and printed in block letters so that it would look completely innocent if anybody found it - if anything, it could be from some girl back home who was worried about her man on the front lines. But they'd all known immediately who had written it, and when.
Nothing has changed how I feel, it said simply. Nothing ever could. If you've changed your mind, you know I'll accept it.
It isn't fair that you're the one who has to stay where you could get hurt, and I'd face this for you if I could. I'm praying for you, but then you know I've always done that.
You know where I'll be when the War's over.
Gabe hadn't known whether it hurt more to know that he and Morita had been directly responsible for that letter, or that Cap had been worried about Barnes's safety living among the rest of them in the barracks, or that even in their horrible situation he'd known that he couldn't write openly. Or that they'd both been willing to wait for each other, and had loved each other so much, but hadn't lived to see the end of the War.
"You know, Agent Carter's a nice lady," said Dugan thoughtfully. "She's still pretty broken up about what happened, but you know, British stiff upper lip and all that."
"You know Stark's still searching for him?" said Morita.
"Really?" asked Falsworth.
"Nobody could've survived that crash," said Gabe. "I know he was strong, but out in the water - even if he was able to swim, even if he was able to crawl to land, in the freezing Arctic, no food... he'd be as likely to survive that as Barnes was to survive his fall from the train."
"I'm pretty sure at this point Stark's just looking for his body."
"You know, I'm sorry. Now. I'm sorry I... what the hell." Dugan cleared his throat. "I wish we hadn't."
"Kept him and Barnes apart," said Dugan.
Morita turned and stared at him.
"Maybe there's worse things than what they were doing," said Dugan. "If I'd known they weren't gonna be around much longer..." he blew out his breath. "I didn't think it was right, letting 'em... but they didn't deserve to live their last months the way they did. And thank God for you three," he nodded at Gabe, Morita and Falsworth, "for making things better for them." He shook his head. "Ironic, isn't it? The two best men in this company... couple of fairies."
They were all silent for a minute, and Gabe reflected on that. And he realized how odd it was that he'd be able to tell his friends and family back home about a number of things he'd done in this war that he was proud of: surviving the Hydra prisoner of war camp; joining the Commandos; being treated as a respected equal by a number of higher-ups, in a way that he probably never would be again, back home; being a god-damned hero, over and over...
...but one of the things he was proudest of, he could never tell anyone about. Having been able to give a little peace to two men who deserved it, who had needed understanding and sympathy and not gotten it anywhere else in their lives. Two men who, even in death, could never have that part of their story told, because nobody wanted to hear that what was between them was anything but pure, platonic brotherly comradeship.
"Well," said Falsworth, standing up. "We said we'd come here and drink a toast." They all rose to their feet. "To the Captain," said Falsworth solemnly, and they all raised their glasses and drank, somehow apart from the jubilant crowd around them.
"To the Sergeant," said Dernier after a few moments, and they all drank again.
"To both of 'em together," said Gabe, and the others paused.
Dugan broke the silence with a wry chuckle. "Well, why not. Wherever they are, either they're not like that any more... or it doesn't matter." He tossed his drink back.
"To both of 'em, together," the others repeated, and they all downed their drinks. Then they put their glasses down and joined the cheering crowds, to celebrate the victory so hard-won.