The conference room at the Strategic Scientific Reserve, or SSR, was full to the brim. Surprisingly enough, half of the attendees seemed to be civilians, bereft of the military uniforms worn to perfection by the other half. Colonel Chester Phillips sat at the head of the table, going over a folder, with his trusted second agent Carter on his right. The appearance of a woman in such an important position had raised more than one eyebrow, but no one had dared protest under the colonel’s glare.
A small man with thinning gray hair and round glasses sat with a pile of folders in front of him, looking nervous, while his neighbor, a young man in his twenties with black hair and a moustache, the perfect picture of confidence, leaned back in his chair while negligently flipping through schematics.
“What are we waiting for?” Another civilian asked impatiently. “I have things to do.”
“Last minute additions,” Phillips replied without looking up.
“We all have things to do, senator,” Howard Stark grinned at Brandt, who glared right back.
“What are those last minute additions, exactly?” The senator asked, deciding to ignore the arrogant genius. Stark had a way to get on his nerves and today certainly wasn’t the day to snap at him in a room full of military men and scientists.
The answer came in the form of a couple walking through the door. The man was none other than Aaron Bank, much to the confusion of the civilians. He was followed by…
“This is a top secret meeting, Colonel, your secretary can’t attend,” the senator snapped after the usual greetings. The woman scoffed and took a seat, leaning back in a position that mirrored Howard Stark’s perfectly. “I see no secretaries in here.”
The colonel shook his head but sat on her left. “This is Agent Galante. She will be our observer.”
Brandt snorted. “What, another one? Since when do we give jobs to our mistresses?”
Two knives slammed into the table between his hands. He stared at them uncomprehendingly, then jerked back with a loud shriek.
“I’ve found it particularly stupid to insult someone who could kill you in a dozen different ways,” Toni simpered at the senator, smirking at Carter, who’d thrown the second knife in a rare fit of impatience, prompting a raised eyebrow from Phillips. The man reminded Toni of that scumbag Stern, and Howard Stark’s presence made her so tense it was a miracle she wasn’t vibrating in place.
“Are you mad? I am a senator of the United States of America, and I will not tolerate—”
“That’s enough,” Bank snapped. “Galante, stop maiming everyone who disrespects you for being a woman.” And that subtle threat right there, that was why she accepted this man as her CO. “Senator, Agent Galante is extremely capable and I see no reason to waste her potential by virtue of her gender.” His next statement was addressed to the room at large. “The Colonel and I have talked this over already. Agent Galante will join Project Rebirth as an observer for the OSS and that is final. She needs to be updated on the current status of the program.”
“What does the OSS have to do with this exactly?” Howard Stark asked. His tone wasn’t judgmental or protesting, just curious, but the woman stiffened anyway.
“It’s our job to be informed,” Bank replied. “This is a matter of national security involving far more volatile components than we feel comfortable mixing together. Thus Agent Galante’s presence.”
“Very well,” Phillips interrupted. “The project is under way. We have selected twenty candidates and sent them to Camp Lehigh for some training. The situation on the front is getting worse by the hour, so we’ve shrunk boot camp from two months to one so we can get the program underway and have much-needed reinforcements faster.”
“How long have they been there?”
“Two weeks. You will be notified about the time and location for the experiment. For now, Agent Carter is in charge of their training.”
Toni nodded, meeting Carter’s brown eyes determinedly, pleased that she didn’t show any sign of recognition.
“Any likely candidates?”
“The Colonel and I disagree on this point. I want more than physical ability. The serum enhances things that are already there. It will make the good better, and the bad, worse. We need someone with a pure heart and a strong moral compass.” Doctor Erskine said. “As such, my choice for now lays with Steve Rogers.”
“That could change,” Phillips interjected gruffly, prompting an indulgent smile from Erskine.
“It is possible,” he agreed graciously.
“What do you have to say about the candidates, Agent Carter?”
If she was surprised to be asked her opinion, Carter didn’t show it. “Most of them are more interested in getting power than anything else. They’re arrogant and ignorant. And cowards.”
Galante arched an eyebrow. “Most of them?” She pushed.
“Rogers has proven to be a good strategist, mentally strong and ready to sacrifice his own life to protect his peers.”
Galante hummed. “I see. Two more weeks to make the choice, then, Doctor?”
The man nodded, the secret smile twitching on his lips telling her everything she needed to know. He’d already made his decision.
“Well then if that’s all, all of you will receive further information once we have a specific time and location for the program launch. Until then…” Phillips rose from his chair, immediately followed by the rest of the room. Everyone slowly filtered out of the room under the curious glances of the SSR agents working nearby, the senator in the lead. Howard Stark followed with a jaunty wave, followed by Erskine.
“Bank, Galante, my office if you please.”
They followed, taking chairs at the Colonel’s invitation. Carter was here as well, obviously wondering what was going on.
“I want Agent Carter in the loop,” Phillips said. “She’s an excellent element and her loyalty is assured.”
Bank looked doubtful for a moment, but acquiesced in the end. “As you wish, Colonel.”
“What is this about?” Carter asked, looking between the three of them.
“Agent Galante is here by order of HYDRA,” Phillips said. “It seems the organization has caught wind of the project and wants more information about it.”
“Galante has been infiltrating HYDRA for a couple months now. They’ve finally assigned her first mission, which is to keep an eye on Project Rebirth and report about it.”
There was a moment of silence. “Why are you telling me this?” Carter asked at last.
“I think we all know how difficult it is for you as women to make yourself a place in this world, especially in a field dominated by men. From what Colonel Bank here told me, the both of you are very similar, you should get along just fine. And it’s always good to have an ally where nobody expects it.”
“Are you pairing us up to beat up some misogynistic ass?” Toni blurted incredulously.
Bank smirked. “I never said anything of the sort. I was just pairing up my agent with another from a different service for maximum cooperation.” Both Phillips and Toni snorted at that, much to Carter’s amusement.
“Well then,” Toni said, standing up with her hand outstretched. “Judging by your skill with a knife, I think we’ll have a very fun time kicking some ass.”
Carter smiled, a bit bemused at Toni’s crass language, but shook her hand willingly enough. “It’s nice to meet you, Agent Galante.”
“Peggy then. I look forward to...working with you.”
“Agent Galante’s primary mission is the infiltration of HYDRA,” Bank said. “Your mission, Agent Carter, will be to provide her with everything she needs to ensure the success of that operation. You can also contact her handler, Agent Chiassino, at this number,” he handed her a card.
“I don’t need a babysitter, much less two,” Toni grumbled as she sat back.
Bank rolled his eyes. “Yes, you do.”
“I really don’t, but fine. At least it’s not that moron Goldizen.” Both males shared a look of shared suffering.
“Well then if that’s all, I have a sabotage operation to be tending to,” Bank said. “Colonel. Agent Carter. Galante.”
Toni waved while Carter saluted, ignoring Phillips’ gauging stare. “Both of you out of my office,” he said, “I have work.”
As soon as the door had closed, the two women looked at each other awkwardly. Toni waited anxiously for Carter to mention their first meeting, but the woman merely looked at her and nodded.
“I will see you in two weeks, then, Agent Galante.”
“Toni. It’s Toni. See you in two weeks.” She waltzed out the door with badly hidden relief, inhaling long and deep once she was on the sidewalk. Two weeks since James’ departure, and the only men she’d seen apart from Bank and Chiassino had been a band of jerks she wanted to slap some sense and respect into. It mostly wasn’t a possibility, unfortunately, and so she had endured, hands fisted at her side when all she could think about was ramming her fist into their stupid teeth to shut them up.
Although Howard had been a product of his generation and had been abundantly clear in his wish for a male heir instead of the female he got saddled with, Toni had been quick to prove to the entire world just how not inferior she was to any male scientist or engineer on the planet, her face splattered on every scientific journal at one point or another. She was smart and resourceful and frightfully imaginative, and from her hands had come the most powerful designs of her time. Her workshop was decades ahead of her time’s technology and science, and yes, she’d been proud of it, still was. Her mind was something no one could take from her, and it had always been her very best weapon.
James hadn’t known, but he’d suspected, and he hadn’t treated her any differently for it. And now, she was going to use all of her smarts for a greater purpose. Just like she had, once upon a time, lain down her weapons to step inside an armored suit in defense of those weaker than her and cleanse her sins, she would use her unparalleled intelligence to contribute to a greater cause.
A cause which, ironically enough, would have Captain America as its figurehead in a matter of months. Being assigned to Project Rebirth had been a very unpleasant surprise. She’d chosen to remain in the forties partly to escape everyone’s expectations and make her own life, and here she was, stuck with Rogers once again. While it would only be a few hours and he probably wouldn’t kick up a fuss in public if he recognized her, she still felt uneasy. She knew something had gone wrong with the program at the time it had been launched, but she’d never bothered looking it up, too busy tearing her Captain America memorabilia to shreds after yet another roared tirade from Howard.
Howard, who’d been sitting in the conference room with her, so close and yet so far from the man she’d known. Young and cocky, nothing like the alcoholic shell who’d spent years beating her up and stealing her designs. He didn’t know her, but while her mind knew she was safe, her heart couldn’t forget.
Then again, she was an adult right now, and an OSS agent at that. She could take measures if he ever raised a hand against her. Not that she planned on giving him the opportunity. If everything went to plan, then she wouldn’t have to suffer his presence more than a few hours, and even then he would be busy, so he wouldn’t pay her any attention.
Toni had to admit, Rogers was a fine specimen. Sure, she didn’t like him, but she couldn’t deny that had he been anyone else, she probably would have gone for him. Or flirted a good deal at the very least. Carter, however, seemed to have staked her claim already, if her proximity to Rogers’ hulking body was any indication. Toni smirked. The body was fine, but the person underneath definitely wasn’t her type. The man had been glaring at her ever since he caught sight of her in the observatory, the coffin closing over a deepening scowl as Toni smirked cockily back. Let him hate her. She didn’t give a shit about Captain Perfect.
The man was tugging on a shirt when movement at the edge of her vision caught Toni’s attention. He looked nondescript enough, dark hair, square glasses and a sharp gray suit, but there was something… Then his attitude morphed all of a sudden, like he was shedding a liquid disguise, and when he started moving again, it was with the loping prowl of a predator, hand digging into his pocket…
She was already leaping forward when something exploded upstairs. Screams filled the basement as debris rained upon the assistance. The blast sent Toni sprawling to the floor, wincing as she caught herself on something sharp and hot, but she pushed herself to her feet, shaking her head to clear her blurring vision.
“Down!” She screamed. “Everybody down, down, down!”
Kruger had already fired, once, twice, three times. Erskine collapsed. Kruger made his escape with a tube of serum, Carter in pursuit. Rogers followed. Toni turned in the ensuing silence, watching as the survivors straightened up from their crouched positions. Phillips took a step towards her, mouth already open to say something, and that’s when she heard it. A familiar click, that of a safety being turned off. It took only a second to pinpoint the would-be shooter, his gun aimed at Phillips’ back. Toni lunged. The colonel made to dodge, but she adjusted her trajectory and plowed into him, wrapping one arm around his head to protect it as they fell. She felt the air shift above her as a bullet whizzed past and rolled, surging to her feet like a canon to catch the man under the chin with one hand, slamming the other onto his wrist. The gun clattered to the floor, and she knocked the man out with a single kick to the temple. He collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.
Thirty minutes later, Toni was stuck in a room with Agent Carter, Howard Stark, and Colonel Phillips, none of which were pleased with her to say the least.
“Why didn’t you tell us there would be another agent?” Phillips asked. You’d think the man would be grateful she’d saved her life, but no, he really wasn’t. He looked tired, wrinkles much deeper than they had looked that morning. It was like Erskine’s assassination had aged him ten years.
“Because I didn’t know he would be there,” Toni replied calmly.
“You were in contact with them, didn’t they say you were in charge of this operation? Why bother sending two agents instead of just one?”
“Why are both Carter and I here?” She retorted.
“Carter was supposed to be there from the start. You, however, weren’t.”
“There you have it. Kruger was the original plan. I was just the addition.”
“And how would you know that exactly?” Stark leaned forward. “Or did they tell you and you didn’t bother informing us?”
Toni narrowed her eyes, her voice taking on a dangerous edge. “Are you implying I’m a traitor?”
“You’re a double agent, Miss Galante. What’s to say your true loyalty isn’t to HYDRA?” Silence fell on the room.
“That’s cute, Stark. Do you have anything to prove your allegations?”
“Doctor Erskine is dead, and a multimillion dollar program went to hell because you failed to prove up to the task, Galante,” Phillips spoke up. “This is a matter of national security, I can’t let it go.”
Toni pinched the bridge of her nose, then stood.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve had enough of this.”
She gathered her coat, jammed her beret on her head and made for the door, ignoring Carter’s following footsteps.
“I haven’t dismissed you,” Phillips said calmly, as the SSR agent’s deceivingly delicate hand fell on her shoulder.
“I dismissed myself.”
“Stand down, Agent Galante,” Carter said, but her calm tones only exacerbated Toni’s frustration and anger further. Stick together against males, huh? What a fucking joke. But for all that Toni had gleefully looked forward to having a partner-in-crime, she was used to disappointment, and had known not to get her hopes up. Carter may have helped her during a panic attack, but that didn’t make them friends or anything of the like. Toni had never expected privileges due to her gender, and that certainly wouldn’t start now.
“I don’t answer to you. Any of you. This is a farce, and I’ve got no time to waste on your bullshit. Now I’ll be going, and whoever tries to stop me will regret it.”
It was raining cats and dogs when she exited the building, water pattering heavily on the sidewalk. Passersby huddled under store awnings and umbrellas, ran for cover, ignoring the still steaming debris of an exploded car a few meters away. Toni pulled up the collar of her coat—a pathetic protection against the elements, but it would have to do until she could hail a cab—and was about to step onto the sidewalk when a man emerged from the car parked in front of the building. The black umbrella obscured his features, but she recognized his gait and headed for him, gratefully taking cover with him.
“So, this was a giant clusterfuck,” she concluded once she’d told him what had happened. The memory made her seethe silently, but Chiassino’s calming demeanor, as well as the way his hands tightened on the wheel when she got to the interrogation, soothed some of her anger away.
“Sounds like it,” Doug replied, completely unfazed by her language. In other circumstances, Toni would probably have smirked in triumph, but she was far too pissed and exhausted to feel anything other than weariness.
“I’m not working with the SSR anymore.”
He turned on his blinker, the regular click the only sound apart from the wipers and the thunderous pounding of the rain on the windshield and roof. “From what I understand, Bank was trying to secure an alliance between our services,” he explained after a while. “I don’t know if he’ll let you walk away.”
“He can’t force me.”
Doug didn’t answer. Toni looked raw and tired, her hands twisting convulsively in her lap, eyes wide and flickering in all directions as if expecting an attack. A gash on her forehead trailed half-dried crimson down her face, and her hair was in disarray. The past month had been difficult on her, and while he knew for sure she would hate it if he asked, he wondered—suspected, really—if it wasn’t because of that soldier she’d looked so happy to see again, and whom she’d never mentioned. Off to war.
The stage was set, the war was won. Hitler collapsed under Captain America’s fist.
The crowd roared with laughter.
Perched on a wooden box in a corner backstage, Toni sighed. After the Project Rebirth fiasco, Rogers had been coerced by Senator Brandt into becoming a dancing monkey to boost up morale when he could have been doing a lot of good over on the front. But there had never really been a choice for him, as his only other option was to be a lab experiment, and he had enough self-preservation to refuse that. Not that he’d told Toni. He’d barely spoken a word to her since the start of this ludicrous mascarade, still furious at her for some reason.
He strode past her without a glance on his way to his dressing room. It wasn’t like she was super happy about her assignment either, but you didn’t see her throwing a tantrum and taking it out on the people around her. Damn HYDRA for wanting her to shadow the one and only successful superserum experiment. She reclined on her uncomfortable seat, head connecting against the wood at her back with a dull thunk. Not for the first time, she wondered where James might be, if he was alright, what kind of mission he was up to. Which front had he been assigned to?
But there was no way to know, except maybe to ask Rogers, and she wasn’t prepared to breach that topic with him. Especially not since she’d left that day knowing she had to cut all ties and protect herself. Because James was dead or would be soon enough, hadn't remembered her when they'd come face to face in the future, and she couldn’t afford to inflict that upon her already damaged heart.
Grabbing her hand bag, she slid the strap over her shoulder and walked down the stairs, heels clicking loudly on the creaking steps. Hundreds of children were exiting the theater in a steady, giggling flow, as she emerged in the poorly lit street, their parents smiling widely at their lively recount of the show.
Tomorrow, they would be on set for Rogers’ fifth movie. She couldn’t wait to be out of this place.
“Where are you going?”
Rogers had exited the building as well, a hat pulled low over his features and a raincoat draped over his large shoulders. “Where do you think?” She snapped, turning her back to him.
The sound of footsteps behind her had her grimacing in annoyance. “No signing for your devoted fans tonight, then?”
“I think I’ve done enough of that for my entire life.”
“Golly, is Captain America shirking his patriotic duties?”
He was gigantic, she grumbled inwardly as he caught up to her, long strides keeping up effortlessly with her own rapid pace. They walked in silence for a moment.
“Look, I’m sorry.”
They were almost at the hotel now, its brightly-lit facade beckoning them closer from across the street. Toni quickened her pace, hoping that ignoring him would be enough to make him go away.
She hadn’t accounted for Rogers’ natural stubbornness. A large hand wrapped around her forearm, forcing her to stop, and she whirled on him, already furious.
“I said I’m sorry.”
“Good for you—” she made to jerk her arm free, but his grip tightened, and she couldn’t help a wince as it got bruising. He loosened his fingers instantly, looking apologetic and ashamed.
“Please hear me out.”
“Why? It’s not like you even talked to me before deciding you hated me.”
“I don’t—” he trailed off abruptly, jerkily ran his free hand through his hair. “Can we talk? Please.”
“Are you going to keep clinging to me if I say no?”
He looked stricken at that, recoiling as if she’d slapped him. “Of course not! I would never—”
“Then let me go.”
Rogers hesitated, then obeyed. Toni shook her arm and tucked it close to her body, noting with grim satisfaction how he looked even more ashamed at that. But while part of it was indeed for theatrics, the rest was genuine: the man hadn’t had the time to really get acquainted with his super strength yet given how isolated he was, and he didn’t know to measure it. It was weird, seeing him so young, so uncontrolled. The Rogers she’d come to know had been perfectly at ease in his own body, walking with the confidence of someone who knew exactly what they were capable of and what dose of strength to put in every gesture. Silent and powerful, a wild cat ready to pounce at any given moment.
This one, though… Toni looked at him, and there was none of this hard-earned grace in his bearing. He stood slightly hunched over, unused to towering over everyone else, and his eyes were openly pleading as he looked down at her.
“What do you want?” She snapped, because she’d always been a sucker for stray animals, and Rogers had the kicked puppy eyes down pat.
He looked around, then pointedly at the hotel, but Toni didn’t move. Finally, he sighed, the hat toppling off his head when he tried to run his hand through his hair. He picked it up, sheepishly brushing it off with his sleeve, glancing at her all the while from under his lashes. It took her a while to realize he was expecting to be mocked, but there was really nothing funny about it.
“Look, I’m sorry about the way I treated you. I just—I have no excuse.”
Toni squinted suspiciously up at him. “Are you apologizing because I’m a girl, or because you actually mean it?”
There was a healthy dose of annoyance in the following sigh, and she felt satisfaction edge steadily over the unease.
“Are you always so difficult? How does Bucky handle you?”
“No one handles me,” Toni snapped. “I’m not an object. I’m a living, breathing being, thank you very much.”
Rogers’ eyes widened in alarm. “That’s not—”
“Goodnight then, Captain.”
And with that she whirled on her heels and marched up to her room, leaving him planted across the street, staring after her retreating form and then at the doors long after she’d gone.
The following day, she was back to her role as a silent shadow, but when it came time for the intermission, she went up to him with a coffee cup in hand.
“I didn’t poison it,” she snarked as she handed it to him.
The idea hadn’t even crossed Steve’s mind, and he smiled as he took the peace offering. They sat together for a while, silently sipping the steaming liquid. It was one of the advantages of the super serum, Steve thought bitterly: even if he burned his tongue, it would heal in a matter of hours if not minutes. Toni, however, didn’t have that going for her, and drank much more cautiously.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he said at last. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
The intermission was almost over, the noise level in the theater skyrocketing as the kids found their way back to their seats.
“Sure,” she replied. Her tone was nowhere near friendly, but he was starting to think that may be her default setting. Not for the first time, he wondered what could have happened for Bucky to connect with her on such a level that he would work himself into a frenzy over her disappearance. Over by the curtain, an attendant was gesturing for the captain.
“Better get back to your adoring fans, Captain Monkey.”
He smiled at her, tossing his cup in the closest trash can.
“Thanks for the coffee.”
She shrugged, not even looking at him, and then he was back on stage. For the first time since this whole farce had started, though, he felt like a weight had been taken off his shoulders, and, maybe, he wasn’t entirely alone anymore.
Maybe he’d never been, and he’d just been too stupid to notice.
She was there to walk with him that night, and the night after that. Every break, she would be sitting on a wooden crate backstage with a steaming cup of coffee by her side.
Three days into the shooting of his new movie, Steve knocked at Agent Galante’s door, script in hand, the pages wrinkled and coffee stained. She was clad only in a bathrobe when she opened the door, hair loose and curling over her shoulders, face devoid of makeup. He heart lurched up in his throat when he realized how young she really was, large brown eyes staring up at him from a delicately tan face, long lashes dark even without eyeliner to enhance their natural color.
“Yes, I, um—” he blushed, stammering as he realized he’d been staring at her face like some deranged pervert. “I’m sorry, I can—come back later if this is a bad time.”
He was already turning around, tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away, when she scoffed. “Don’t be stupid. Come in.”
“Um, no, really, it’s—”
She opened the door wider and went back in, bare feet sinking into the plush carpet, leaving Steve to stare in disbelief. Didn’t she care that anyone could walk by and see her like this? Quickly, he stepped up to the doorway, blocking the view as a couple of guests appeared down the hallway.
“Close the door.”
She didn’t look up when he did, too busy pouring herself a drink of Bourbon, nodding at the other tumbler sitting on the small table. Steve gingerly accepted it, before settling into a comfortable chair when she jerked her chin at it. The script crinkled in his hand, but he would rather crumple that rather than crush the expensive-looking glass. Agent Galante sat herself at the end of the bed, and Steve couldn’t help sneaking a glance at her bare legs, the small feet tucked into comfortable hotel slippers. God, she was tiny.
“You’re getting better,” Agent Galante said after a while, closing her eyes to better savor the flavor of the alcohol going down her throat. She looked tired, papers scattered on the desk and a small suitcase open on the floor by the bathroom. Steve flushed again when he spotted the lingerie among her clothes, ears burning when he looked away quickly only to be met with a smirk. He cleared his throat.
She gestured vaguely in his direction. “You know. At the whole super strength thing.”
Steve didn’t know what to think of the fact that Agent Galante, of all people, had noticed how much trouble he’d been having dealing with his new body. Then again, he guessed it would make sense, given that she’d been his constant companion since Senator Brandt had sent him on this ridiculous mission.
“Oh. Yes, I—huh, I guess.”
“What do you need?”
Steve set his tumbler down, Bourbon swishing up as he did, before handing her the script. “Can you help me memorize it? I can’t concentrate.”
She made no move to take it, eyes drilling into him for the longest moment. But then, just as he was about to retract his hand, she tipped her head to the bed. “Put it on the bed.”
Steve’s gaze darted down to the script in his hand, then back up at hers. Was this some kind of joke? Was she upset? Trying to tease him?
“Why can’t you just—”
“I don’t like to be handed things,” she interrupted. “Either put it on the bed or leave.”
Steve hesitated, but there was no amusement whatsoever in her eyes, and she stared steadily back at him over her glass. Her free hand lay in her lap, fingers utterly lax, but her spine was rigid. This was no laughing matter.
He shuffled forward and put the script on the bed next to her before returning to his seat. Agent Galante grabbed it a few seconds later, leafing through it quickly.
“Pages thirty-nine to sixty,” Steve obligingly indicated, to which she nodded. She read through it quickly, eyebrows rising higher and higher, until she just looked up and at him, incredulity obvious in every line of her face.
“I didn’t write it,” Steve found himself blurting out defensively, only to flush when she snickered at that.
“God I hope so.” She got up to set her glass on the table, then moved back over to the bed, only to snort once more when she caught sight of the title.
“Eagles Rising? Really?”
“Got to motivate the masses somehow.” She barked a laugh, sudden but genuine. Steve reeled back, shocked. The sound seemed alien coming from her throat, old and jaded beyond her apparent age. It was a jarring contrast, and yet the first genuine emotion he’d seen her display since they’d started travelling together.
“Let’s get to it, then.” She peered down at the script, eyes flicking from side to side as she read, then stood up and took an exaggerated villainous pose. “The Reich has already won!” She declared in a caricatural German accent. “Abandon all hope and join us, Captain!”
Repressing his laughter was a hard fight but Steve did it, forcing himself into character as he tried to remember his line. “Freedom never gives up, General! And—”
It became a habit, to come find Agent Galante after a day of work. She made a surprisingly good partner, changing her voice, accent and manners depending on the character she was impersonating. Steve liked to think she would have made a fantastic actress, but her laugh when he’d mentioned it had been so bitter he’d never breached the topic again, especially when it had seemed to send her spiraling into a terrible mood for the rest of the day. He’d tried to make amends by inviting her to lunch, although he wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for.
But when, that evening, she scooted over enough for him to sit with her on the wooden crate of the day, he figured he’d been forgiven. He thought he saw the faintest dusting of pink on her cheeks, but he couldn’t have sworn it in the darkness. She was a dame of few words, he’d realized early on, and when she did speak, it was to toss around increasingly half-hearted barbs, so he thought he might as well talk for two. He certainly had material.
“Why are you always talking about him?” She asked one day. Steve’s head shot up, torn from his memories.
“Why do you never?”
She stared at the bottom of her cup silently, swishing around what little coffee remained. “What do you want from me, Rogers?”
“It’s Steve,” he said for what felt like the thousandth time. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“You’ve been talking about James non-stop.”
“He’s my best friend and your fella, isn’t he?”
She stiffened at that, but didn’t say anything. Steve couldn’t see her face very well from where he was, but what little he could see had his insides going cold.
“Isn’t he?” He repeated. Toni closed her eyes, exhaling slowly. He watched her intently, waiting for a hint, but the director was waving at him from a couple feet away, the screenwriter and producer standing beside him, and he stood.
He was a fair distance away when she replied, but he heard it nonetheless.
“I don’t know.”
The shrill ringing of the phone slowly dragged Steve from his sleep. He made to roll over groaning, only to find himself stuck in place by an unexpected obstacle. There was a rustling of sheets, then the ringing stopped as a soft, sleep-slurred voice murmured something in the quiet of the room. Steve dimly thought there was something wrong with this scenario, but his mind was far too fuzzy to put a name to it right away.
The voice was talking quietly again, something about information and Europe. It was a soft, feminine tone, still raspy. Steve straightened a little in his chair. Why was he in a chair? For that matter why was there someone else in his...room?
His eyes flew open, darting from side to side as he took in his surroundings. This wasn’t his room. In fact, he was pretty sure it was Toni’s. What was he doing here?
He glanced down at himself, relieved to find that he was still fully clothed, and in one of the comfortable armchairs Toni’s room was populated with. A glance at the bed had him blushing. Toni was propped up against her pillows, the strap of her nightgown slipping down her shoulder to reveal an expanse of tan skin, her hair a mess of cascading curls and her eyes still dazed with leftover sleep. She was absolutely gorgeous, that single bare shoulder curving into a delicate arm pressed against the side of her chest, emphasizing the valley between her breasts, their curve barely visible above the nightgown. Steve snapped his eyes back up.
She wasn’t paying attention, fortunately, but Steve still felt horrible for looking at her like that without her consent. She was a swell dame, he’d had enough time in her company to realize that. Whatever had happened that day at the apartment, she hadn’t done it to hurt Bucky. She wasn’t that kind of person. Why, otherwise, would she have helped him rehearse yesterday until literally falling asleep on the spot?
His cheeks flushed hot when he remembered taking off the bathrobe she’d been wrapped in to tuck her into bed. She’d been so light in his arms, far too much, maybe. The nightgown was outrageously short, and her skin had been smooth under his palms as he arranged her legs under the covers. He raised a hand to his cheeks. Yesterday, it had felt like his face was lighting up the entire room and he would remain stuck like that. It felt the same now.
But Toni wasn’t looking. She was frowning at her lap, attention visibly focused on the phone and what the person on the other end was saying. Finally, she nodded and, with a clipped “Understood,” hung up the phone.
There was a short moment of silence during which she just sat there, staring at nothing in particular, then she seemed to physically shake herself out of it. She turned to him, her face the picture of seriousness.
“Is everything okay?” Steve asked tentatively.
“I have to go.”
Steve’s heart stuttered to a halt.
“Go? What do you mean?”
She slid off the bed. This time, though, Steve’s eyes remained glued to her face, ignoring the smooth expanse of skin as she padded over to the suitcase abandoned by the closet. She crouched, fishing out some clothes.
“Where to?” But the question never made it past his lips and he could only watch the bathroom door close behind her, the click of the lock falling into place the most final sound he’d ever heard.
It took her a short twenty minutes to pack. Steve stayed seated, trying to get over his shock, watching her in dumb astonishment. He’d wished this day would come, that he’d be rid of her and able to live his life without her eyes watching his every move. But that had been before, when they hadn’t known each other, spent countless nights going over scripts and just talking about nothing and everything, more often than not with a glass of something in hand. He’d never thought, after they’d become friends, that she might leave one day like Bucky had left.
The trip to the station was silent.
“Let’s get breakfast before you go,” Steve blurted as they neared the gate. “The trip will be long and you need—”
“No, Steve,” she said, and for all that he was towering over her, in that instant, Steve felt very, very small. Her eyes were soft as she looked up at him, craning her neck as she always did (“you’re much too tall for a human being, Rogers, I think I preferred you as a shrimp”), a stray lock of hair dangling over her forehead and into her eyes. She blew it out of the way, shook her head for good measure when it didn’t move as she wanted.
She was beautiful. So beautiful, inside and outside, and he wanted to draw her close, hold her tight and beg her to stay with him, wanted to drag his fingers through her hair and cup the back of her head in his palm. He wanted to feel the warmth of her body against his, her curves fitting against his harder planes, and to murmur sweet nothings in her ear.
His fingers ached to caress her cheek, the soft skin of her face, to hold her hand. But her head jerked suddenly, short and quick, yet enough for him to snap back to reality. He snapped his hand back, curling it into a fist.
“Do you really need to go?” He asked instead, voice sounding small to his own ears.
Something flickered in the depths of her hazel eyes, so fast he barely saw it. But she blinked and it was gone, hidden away with the infinite layers of her secrets.
“They need me,” was all she said, but it was enough.
Bitterness surged through his entire being.
“Even you are being dispatched before me.”
Her smile was entirely too understanding, with an undertone of something knowing that made his hackles rise. He hated the thought that Bucky had gone to war, that Toni was going too, and that now that he, too, had the health and physical constitution necessary to fight, he was stranded here playing dancing monkey instead of contributing to the war like he’d striven to for years. It was so unfair, and there was nothing he could do about it, but watch the handful of people he cared about leave one after the other.
“The time will come, Steve. It may not be today, or tomorrow, or the day after that, but it will come.” She moved closer to him, her suitcase hitting the ground with a dull thud. The lacy black glove felt warm against his cheek, and he leaned into the touch, eyes slipping shut for a split second. “Your time will come.” She grinned, punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Don’t give up, soldier. It’s unbecoming of your patriotic spirit.”
He snorted in spite of himself. She’d poked fun at his nickname from the start, aiming for where it hurt with deadly accuracy, but he’d always known she didn’t mean anything by it. Rather, now he could see it for what it was: a distraction. And it worked. Every single time.
“Will I see you again?”
The grin faded into a parody of a smile, jaded and bitter and infinitely cold.
“One day,” she said with absolute certainty. “But you might not recognize me.”
Steve opened his mouth to ask, but the train whistled loudly at the same time. Toni stepped back, grabbed her suitcase and started walking away.
“Do me proud!” she called over her shoulder. “Be good to the kids!”
He chortled at the weird looks that got them. Although she wasn’t wearing her uniform, it did look like a twisted parody of the usual soldier departing for war scenario.
“Come back in one piece and we’ll see!” he hollered back right as she hopped aboard, the train’s massive frame rumbling as it started moving. Hanging precariously from the handle by the door, standing on one foot with the other dangling in the air, she twisted around and mock-saluted, a cheeky grin plastered to her face. The train jerked as it sped up, and she held on tighter, settling properly on the step. Behind her, a man touched the brim of his hat before pointing at her suitcase. She smiled, nodding, and then, with one last wave and a quick smile in Steve’s direction, vanished inside.
Long after the train had disappeared around the curving tracks, Steve thought of Toni’s touch, the warmth of her body through her glove, and that new gentleness in her eyes as she looked up to him, and he pondered over the bitterness in her smile when she’d said they’d meet again one day.
But then he remembered the certainty in her voice when she’d told him his turn would come, and he couldn’t help but believe her, waiting impatiently for the call that would change everything and finally dispatch him to the front.
“Are you trying to kill yourself or your teammates, Morrison? Hold that gun the right way before you shoot someone!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
James ran a hand down his face as the rookie went back to his exercise.
“You okay, Barnes?” A heavy-set man with a bowler hat and a thick red mustache asked, laughter barely concealed.
“Fuck you, Dugan.”
Jones, who’d been chortling quietly to himself, gasped exaggeratedly. “Language, Barnes! What would your girl think if she heard you?”
James’ lips quirked up at the thought.
“Follow suit, probably.”
The smile slid off his face as he remembered Antonia’s heartbroken eyes as she backed away from him, the dull thud of her elbow hitting the doorframe, the shaking in her hands as she grabbed her things. His last glimpse of her had been of tear-filled eyes and dark hair whipping out the door. When he’d shaken himself out of his shock and rushed after her, she’d already been gone. And there had been no time to try her apartment before his train was scheduled to leave.
He’d sent her a letter, once. Then another. She’d never replied. He didn’t even know if she’d received them, but surely she would have, unless she’d moved. He’d tried Steve, too, and never gotten an answer either. He’d expected his friend to move out and into a smaller, cheaper apartment after his departure, but he’d thought he would write him his new address so they could stay in contact.
Instead, there’d only been silence, and sometimes, lying on his cot in the darkest of the night, James thought of what could have happened to them. A sudden asthma attack leaving Steve dead on the sidewalk. Some freak accident reducing Antonia’s soulful hazel eyes to glazed shards of tainted glass. Those scenes had seeped into his dreams sometimes, and he found himself waking up breathless and shivering more than once, like he imagined Steve did on occasion—although it was probably worse for him, until he could only long for Antonia’s warm tones, her dry wit and gentle touch. So soft and yet hard at the same time. Sharp edges, protecting a brittle interior.
“Hey, Barnes.” A hand on his shoulder snapped him back to the present, and Dugan’s concerned face hovering in front of him. “You okay?”
James blinked slowly. “Fine.” He ran a hand down his face. “I’m good.”
“You sure?” Jones piped up from his spot some mere feet away. “You look like someone died.”
James felt the blood drain from his face, Antonia’s lifeless eyes flashing in his mind. Dum-Dum growled, snapped something at Jones, but he didn’t even hear it.
“Barnes?” God, he was so… there was no word for it. Weak, maybe. “You sure you’re okay?” Dugan’s hand on his shoulder got heavier as he asked, too heavy. The only touch he wanted at the moment was Antonia’s, a mere caress of her fingers against his arm, the soft brushing on her hair against his chin as he embraced her. He missed her fiercely, with an intensity that made his heart ache. How could he yearn for her like that when they’d known each other for so little time?
He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. It was what it was, what they had, and he wouldn’t try to put a label on it, just like he wouldn’t put one on Antonia. Sweet, wild Antonia, who cared in spite of everything and had gone out of her way to cheer up a perfect stranger standing motionless on the street.
So he stepped away from Dum-Dum, straightened his back and lifted his chin. Whatever it was that had made Antonia run like she had, he would live to find out. They would meet again for sure, if only once the war was over, and then they would talk.
Neither Jones nor Dum-Dum stepped away. They weren’t friends per se, but they were significantly closer to each other than to any of the others in the 107th, and James had to admit he was relieved for it. Going off to war had never been his choice and his friendship with Steve, combined with the need to make enough money to keep a roof over their heads and put food in their mouths, had ensured that he didn’t have that much time for socializing. Until Antonia had barged her way into his life, his only friend had been Steve. He wasn’t even sure Antonia counted as a friend. There was an attraction there, as irresistible as gravity itself, but that didn’t make them friends. Gosh, they barely knew each other.
But that could change.
That would change.
And as he watched the recruits fire once more, Morrison’s bullet for once hitting the actual wooden target instead of a nearby tree, the first words of yet another letter started unfolding on paper in his head.
I am currently watching trainees miss targets. It would be entertaining were I not aware of the fate that awaits them should they fail to improve. This war has already made so many victims, I want to make sure the people under my responsibility have the best chances of going back home alive, if not in one piece.
Yes, I am now a trainer. It happened quite suddenly, and now occupies most of my free time when I am not on the front myself. They are so young, Antonia. Younger than myself, than you even. I wonder how many volunteered and how many were drafted like me. That question has been on the tip of my tongue ever since I met them, but you are the only one I know it is safe to talk to about it, so I will hold my peace and watch them instead. Trying, like you would, to deduce from their behavior whether they are here of their own free will or not. The kind of small clues you would pick up on so easily with those clever eyes of yours, like you noticed me standing on the sidewalk that day.
It has been several weeks since we were last deployed, and the men are growing antsy. I think another assignment will come soon, although where to I have no clue. But there has been talk around camp of an enormous tank decimating our troops. The higher-ups will of course not address this rumor, but the men need something to do, and I am no exception to the rule. By the time you read this letter—if you do indeed receive it, I will probably be gone already, so do not be alarmed if you write back and there is no quick reply.
I hope you are well and to see you again soon,
All my love,
It wasn’t the guards’ shouts that woke him up, for once. Rather, Jones dug his elbow into his ribs, Dugan’s gruff tones rumbling encouragements in his ear. Hands clasped on his shoulders, his arms, helping him up. The hall was big, vast enough that the guards didn’t notice when the other prisoners hid him behind a particularly huge piece of machinery and picked up his share of the work. He’d tried, at first. To work, to ignore the pain and the increasing demands of his agonized body.
He’d stood up for a prisoner they were going to execute and gotten beaten into unconsciousness for it. That hadn’t stopped them from making him work with the others, though, no special treatment for anyone, and especially the idiot who thought it’d be smart to get in their faces and resist. In the end, the sheer exhaustion he’d already been suffering from, combined with his wounds and the hard labor they set the captives to do didn’t help any, and he was utterly incapable of doing anything on his own. Sometimes, he thought that if they didn’t kill him, then shame certainly would.
Yet he could hardly feel it anymore. The burn in his cheeks and ears had faded into all-encompassing cold and wracking shivers, his teeth chattering despite Dugan and Jones’ best attempts to warm him up. They had been stripped of most of their belongings upon capture, only left with their rough, long-sleeved undershirts and pants. It was a miracle they hadn’t taken their shoes, but then again, maybe they were smart enough to realize having the workers cut their feet open on tools and stray parts wasn’t that beneficial to whatever they wanted done.
The day was over, it seemed. The guards were leaving their positions, batons banging against metal pillars and steel tables in a hellish cacophony as they started rounding up the men. Loud, accented voices yelled at them to aufstehen, aufstehen, hoch mit dir!—get up, get up, on your feet!
“C’mon, Barnes,” Dugan grunted behind him. “Hey you, give me a hand.”
James did his best to help, he really did. He gathered his feet under him, but moving felt like hell, his body sluggish and awkward and so tired. Everything hurt. Was that how Steve felt all the time? Small and weak and helpless? Constantly forced to rely on James to look after him and protect him even though his spirit was still going strong? A soul too big for his body. How unfair was it when your body started failing you so thoroughly that even your mind slowly followed it into nothingness?
As they walked back to the cells, James sandwiched tightly between Dugan and Jones so he would keep up the charade of walking on his own, he palmed his chest, where the picture was safely hidden. His knees collapsed under him as soon as the cell door slammed shut, but he didn’t care, barely felt Dugan catching him at the last second before his face ate concrete.
The picture slipped from his fingers when he finally managed to extract it from the tiny pocket sewn on the inside of his undershirt. He’d made it himself especially for it, so he wouldn’t ever lose it. He struggled to grab it again, palming the ground around him blindly, ignoring the disgruntled mutters of his neighbors as he hit flesh and bone instead. Then, finally, it appeared right in front of his face, held by a guy he’d seen around before. French, if the accent was anything to go by.
“Here,” the man said, slipping the small frame into his palm and closing his fingers around it.
James blinked sluggishly at him, a low noise of gratefulness slipping through his lips. He turned to the picture. They were staring at each other, a mischievous smile tugging at the corner of Antonia’s lips, her eyes alit with life and warmth. He was looking right back at her, mouth stretched into the most smitten smile he’d ever seen in his life, cap tilted on his head. He could still remember the cacophony of people laughing around them, screaming on the rides. The gasps when Antonia had proven just how adept a shooter she was. Her laughter when he’d tripped on his own feet, too entranced by the way her hair fluttered in the breeze to watch where he was going.
“Is that your dame?”
The Frenchman had moved closer to their tiny group, unfazed by Jones’ and Dugan’s sharp gazes. “What’s her name?”
It was an effort to speak. “An-Antonia.” Her name rolled off his tongue so easily it hurt, and he blinked back the sting of tears. Dugan and Jones looked interested, so he turned the picture their way so they could see.
“Beautiful lass,” Jones commented. “Don’t know what she sees in you.”
“Eyes like that, though, you better come back to her,” Dugan said. “Don’t wanna make her cry.”
James closed his eyes, remembering hers when he’d last seen her. The sheer agony in the depths of hazel, the heartbreak. Remembered how small she’d felt, huddled in his arms at the Stark Exposition.
“She’d probably...resurrect me to kill me all over again.”
The Frenchman huffed a laugh. “A spitfire, huh?”
He didn’t fight the dopey grin on his face. “Yeah…” A beat. “She said...If they shoot, fire back. If they charge…”
Her voice joined his in his memories, soft and low and fierce. Determined.
...snipe them. If they catch you, survive and escape. If you die…walk it off.
“I’ll go back,” he breathed in the silence that followed. “I’ll be back. We’ll go dancing. It’ll be nice.”
He was carted off to the isolation clinic the next day.
“Welcome, Fräulein Galante.”
It took all of her extensive experience with the media to contain the shudder that slithered down Toni's spine when his lips brushed over the back of her hand, gloved as it was. Zola’s greeting was almost comical in comparison, his short stature barely making him bend as he grabbed her hand in turn.
“Doctor Zola, Herr Schmidt,” Toni replied, careful to keep her face neutral in the face of the man who’d almost succeeded in bombing dozens of American cities before a brave, foolish man put a stop to it by sacrificing his life and losing everything he ever held dear. She wiped her hand on her clothes when he released it, disguising it as an attempt to smooth out the wrinkles from the long journey from Berlin. It didn’t help in the slightest: even after months of wearing it, the dark fabric still made her skin crawl.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last,” the man said, leading the way into the base. “We were starting to wonder if General Müller was perhaps trying to kidnap you.”
She curled up her lip into a sneer. “Believe me, Herr Schmidt, there is no way I would let myself be kidnapped by this…man.”
He laughed, high and grating, and she gritted her teeth together at the sound. “I cannot say I do not understand his desire, Fräulein. The uniform does look very fetching on you indeed.”
“Well, it had the merit of helping me gather some interesting information, at the very least,” she conceded.
“Precious information indeed,” Zola stated, nervously pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he trotted along. “It has been increasingly tedious to keep an informant within the Schutzstaffel since Herr Schmidt ordered the secession from the Nazi party.”
“Is that so?” Toni already knew that, of course. While they hadn’t bothered informing her—this assignment, she was pretty sure, had been a way to test her loyalty and usefulness, Toni had quickly heard about the executions seamlessly carried out among personnel close to Nazi dignitaries. Treason, most often. Sometimes thievery. Spying. All in all, these people were caught doing things or handling things they had no business having, and that had led to their slow and painful demise.
Hitler might have been powerless to stop Schmidt from defecting, but that didn’t mean he would let himself be threatened from the inside as well as the outside. And wouldn’t try to make him pay either.
Up until her arrival in Berlin, HYDRA had been utterly blind regarding the Reich’s movements.
“Darling, that’s not how you do it.”
Dugan jumped, cursing loudly as he dropped the file he’d been using to sabotage the tank on his toes. The thing was damn heavy. The Frenchman, Dernier, Jones and a British man named Falsworth looked up in alarm, then around for any incoming guards. One was already headed towards them, but then, he stopped dead in his tracks and slowly backed away.
The woman blinked back at Dum-Dum, the quirked smile tugging at her lips belying her innocent expression. “Where the hell did she come from?” Falsworth spluttered. Honestly, Dum-Dum was wondering the same thing. She was tiny, trim waist enhanced by a tight belt, feet clad in sturdy combat boots and a cap cheekily perched on a mane of short, curly locks. Only then did he notice the uniform. Sea green. And on her breast, the dreaded double lightning bolt. The blood drained from his face.
He’d heard of them, the SS. A bunch of crazy radicals, Hitler’s personal bloodhounds. They were all fanatics, devoted to his cause, ready to sell their very soul for the Reich. No doubt he’d be dead in a minute, but he wouldn’t go whining like a dog. She was still watching him, silent and still, nothing like the friendly face from before. How quickly she’d traded expressions had to be a testament to her true nature. A snake, like the rest of them. Vicious and deadly. But he’d enlisted willingly, knowing how unlikely it was that he would come back. This waif of a woman might be different from the end he’d pictured in his head, but that didn’t mean he would cower.
So Dugan raised his chin, squared his jaw and looked her straight in the eye, waiting for her to call the guards, for his inevitable execution.
The others had evidently come to the same conclusion, because the silence took on a whole new quality as they waited for her next move. She looked them all over one by one, slow and assessing, the smile long gone from her face. Then, she picked up the file between gloved fingers and put it aside.
“Now show me the blueprints.”
She waited expectantly, raised her eyebrows when no one moved. Finally, Jones snapped out of it and hesitantly handed her the blueprints.
“On the floor,” she demanded. Jones’ eyes were nothing short of wild as he obeyed, glancing around all the while, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
She nodded, grabbed the bunch of papers and plopped down onto the ground.
Toni followed Zola into the lab, heart beating wildly in her chest at the thought of what she would find in there. She’d already obtained the blueprints to the monstrous tanks HYDRA had been decimating their enemies with, but she knew it was imperative that she find out what they were up to in the labs, on the scientific end of things. She was so close, she could feel it. All those months undercover with the SS and now she was finally being brought into the fold, trusted with sensitive information.
“As you may be aware, the Americans have successfully completed an experiment that granted them the considerable strength of a super-soldier. While they have not been smart enough to utilize this tremendous asset in battle, that is a mistake HYDRA is not willing to make. We have been working on replicating the serum for quite some time, and have made great progress with our latest specimen.”
Specimen. Toni felt a cold shiver run down her spine. Somehow, she doubted it was an animal. Bile rose in her throat at the thought of witnessing more horrors, more experiments, more torture. The SS didn’t have a scientific division since Schmidt’s defection, but most of their prisoners ended up tortured at some point or another. As General Müller’s assistant, she hadn’t been expected to watch such sessions, but it had occasionally happened when the General got impatient. The man had been a pervert in all senses of the term, reveling in the fear and agony of his victims, and he never shied away from “some hands-on work,” as he called it.
He also liked to “comfort her” afterwards, convinced that what she’d seen must have upset her womanly sensibilities. It had been the performance of her life to keep him hooked without having to go any further. But she had managed, and she would hopefully never have to go back.
The “lab” was a large, rectangular concrete room. Lab equipment was scattered around, some connecting to the dissection table in the center where a man was strapped. Toni followed Zola as he went around the room, explaining what the equipment was. She forced herself to smile and nod in wide-eyed wonder, even though she had known what everything was within the second she’d stepped into the room. While HYDRA knew she was smart, they had no idea what exactly she was capable of. She’d told no one about her engineering capabilities in this time. Their visit at the Expo had been a dead giveaway for James, certainly, but no one else had been made aware and she intended to keep it that way.
There was no telling what HYDRA would have her do if they learned of her skill, or even the American government. Being somehow coerced into working side by side with Howard Stark until the end of the war was not her idea of a fun time. She’d had enough of that during her childhood.
“We’re ready for you, Doctor.”
“Ach, excellent,” Zola said, rubbing his hands together. “This dose is extremely promising,” he added for her benefit. “If you would stand right here, you might witness the success of months of research.”
“Is that so?” Toni asked politely.
“Yes, yes indeed. We thought this specimen would die, they usually only bring us the battered ones, but this one has proven exceptionally resistant to the effects of the serum.”
“Battered, you say?”
The man hummed distractedly as he put on a surgical robe. “Prisoners. We have so many of them, but Herr Schmidt will only let me use the ones that cannot work for my experiments. The healthy ones are required to work in the factory, you see. Now if you would please wait for me here.”
She nodded and stepped back, trying to look interested as she watched the short man approach the table. When she allowed herself to look at the man, her blood turned to ice.
Strapped down to the table like an animal, lips mouthing something over and over that she could barely hear through the sudden ringing in her ears. The world faded around her, spinning into nothingness, leaving her heart stuck in her throat. Something was drilling through her chest, pressing on her gut. Her skin tingled, every single hair on her body standing erect. She choked silently. She felt like she was back in Afghanistan, where the nights were bone-chilling and the water invaded her lungs and nose and mouth in icy, burning waves.
His skin was tinged green by the sickly light filtering through the rectangular windows of the room. Even without that, she could see how hollow his cheeks were, how dim his hair was, and greasy. His hands were shaking in spite of the restraints, the leather taut and chafing at his skin. Toni jerked forward when the scientists gathered around him and cut off her line of vision.
Get away from him!
She could grab him. She could kill them all, they wouldn’t even realize she’d turned before they were dead. There were only five of them. She could do it. She would deal with them, grab James, get him out. Save him.
The security around the base was tight. She could work her way around it if she was alone, but James was hurt and weakened from days, probably weeks of starvation and beatings. He would slow her down. Even if he didn’t, she wasn’t yet familiar enough with guard rotations and the general layout of the perimeter to get out undetected. Oh, how she wished for her tech, in that instant when Zola approached James with a disproportionate syringe full of a burning orange liquid! She hadn’t missed it that much ever since her impromptu landing in the past, but now, now she could only wish for a suit that was so far ahead of this time it made her want to cry.
The truth was that there was nothing she could do. If she blew her cover now and got caught, then James would be done for, and so would her mission. The OSS would never get all the intelligence she had amassed over the past few months. All of her work, all the lives she had been forced to watch be extinguished would be for naught.
She had to live, and trust that James would survive as well. He had, after all, been second in command of the Howling Commandos. She had just reached that conclusion when the needle pierced his skin. Two seconds went by. Five.
A terrible scream ripped through the scientists’ chatter. Toni jumped, her entire body lurching forward and then back as she fought with all her might not to knock them all out of the way and protect James no matter the consequences. He thrashed, his head snapping left and right and back against the metal, so hard she thought he would brain himself until they strapped his forehead as well so he could barely move.
The metal rattled under the sheer strength of his convulsions. Toni flinched violently when the inarticulate screams turned into words, mutilated as they were, even as James forced his shredded vocal cords to form the syllables in a constant staccato of letters and numbers, always the same, always in the same order.
A technique to resist torture, she knew. Every soldier was taught to use it, and she’d been friends with Rhodey since MIT. Although he’d never had to use it that she knew of, she’d resorted to it early on during her captivity in Afghanistan. Vocalizing it wasn’t the important part, although it helped to hear yourself say it.
But repeating it silently to herself, over and over again as her lungs burned for air and her entire body shook with the electricity snapping through the exposed wires of the battery in her chest had grounded her. Like a lullaby, something solid and known. Her name. Not the one they all knew her by, the one her persona wore like a glove, no. Rather, the one she called herself in the dark of night, the one Jarvis had used to call her.
She’d only had her name to recite. The long list of titles she would snap to the face of anyone who would dare defy her meant nothing to the real her, to Antonia. Mia stella, Bella Micia, Tesoro Mio, Antonia Mia, Amore della Mamma, Antonia.
Her fingers twitched in remembered agony, hands keeping her down even as she'd thrashed against the invasion of her chest, the maddening pain of a saw cutting through her bones, of human hands rummaging around her chest in a way they had no business doing. The helplessness, the sheer terror, magnified by the ignorance of what was going on, the vertigo of her body screaming that something was wrong, rebelling, and yet leaving her weaker than a kitten.
There had been no one to help her then. She’d had to rescue herself, the same way she’d had to get herself out of every kidnapping since she’d been old enough to understand what was going on.
In that other past where she hadn’t been part of the picture, James had had no one to come for him either, until Rogers had burst his way into the compound. This time, however, she was here. And maybe she couldn’t get him out right away. Maybe she couldn’t barge in, subdue the scientists, take the guards down and lead James to freedom.
But she could damn well make sure Rogers got the information he needed to successfully do so.
Falsworth gritted his teeth as the baton came down once more. He curled a little tighter, hands clutching protectively at his head. His entire body hurt. Barnes had been taken after something like this, too. They’d beaten him to an inch of death, and when he’d failed to prove efficient after that—as if anyone could recover from that kind of damage in a couple hours, they’d taken him to the isolation clinic and they’d never seen him again. He knew this was probably what awaited him as well, but it was well worth it in his opinion.
The word sliced through the air like a knife through butter. The blow never came. Falsworth tentatively peeked above his arms, only to start at the sight. The woman was standing over him, her body between him and the guard, so that he’d have to hit her if he ignored the order.
The guard hesitated, spat out a sentence in German. She retorted instantly, her words short and clipped. Angry, almost. Although why she would be, he had no idea. Going by Dugan, Dernier and Jones’ expressions, so did they. Whatever she said, though, the guard left soon after, walking stiffly away even as she waved mockingly at his back.
She turned around, glancing at the men sitting there, then turned back to Falsworth. Her tongue clicked in displeasure.
“Come on,” she said, slipping one hand under his elbow to help him sit on a wooden crate. “Sabotaging is all well and good, but you need to be subtle about it. Otherwise, this” she gestured at him “is what happens.”
Cool fingers pressed against his jaw, forcing him to turn his head this way and that as she examined him, hazel eyes flickering from side to side before she started prodding at his head.
“Stop squirming,” she growled as he tried to avoid the contact. “Concussions are no fun. You might have gotten lucky today, but you can’t expect me to be around every time. If you keep doing it, you’ll lose your life.”
He jerked his head out of her grip.
“I’d rather die trying to protect my country,” he enunciated slowly, clearly, looking her in the eye, “than live my life as a traitor.”
Her hands slipped down his face as if all strength had suddenly left them. She kept silent as she quickly checked him over for broken bones, her touch just as gentle as it had been before his jab. Then, she stood and left.
They kept him in a cage. Toni felt her insides twist in fury as she stepped up to it. James was sprawled in an uncomfortable position on the ground, shivering from the cold. Dead to the world. His teeth were chattering so loudly she could hear them from outside the cage. Glancing around, she pulled at the lock and ducked inside. He didn’t react when she knelt down beside him and rolled him onto his back, his skin moist with fever and pain. His features were twisted in agony, eyes rolling behind his eyelids.
Grabbing the small canteen of water she’d brought with her, she slipped a hand under his head and propped it up in the crook of her elbow before pouring a small stream of water between his lips. Some of it dribbled down his chin, but he swallowed, so she continued until he refused the water. Screwing the canteen shut, she ran her fingers through his hair, squeezing gently when he leaned into the touch.
“You’ll be fine,” she whispered. “Don’t let me down, James. You swore.”
She remained by his side as long as she dared. It was late in the night, and while she had access to the entire building, she really had no business being here, comforting the prisoner. She was SS. More than that, she was HYDRA. She wasn’t supposed to feel compassion for captives. So when her internal clock had calculated the passing of an hour, she gently laid James back to the ground and exited the cage.
Her fingers curled around the bars.
You’ll live through this, she silently vowed to him, to herself. You’ll live, and you’ll grow stronger.
New York NY Nov 1943
Verified information 107th captive Kreischberg Austria weapons facility closest to you coordinates below consider raid
Colonel Aaron Bank
“What’s up with her?”
That was pretty much what the entire regiment was thinking, to be honest. The woman had come back every day since that first time she’d caught Dugan, and kept inserting herself into work stations, more often than not snatching tools and getting to work herself under the prisoners’ disbelieving eyes. The thing was, she was actually good at this. She was quick and efficient, and whatever she touched took shape in record time. Which, of course, was definitely not what they wanted. They had been trying to stall the production of war machines ever since they’d started working here, but here she came, with her ridiculous army pants and predatory smirk, and she destroyed everything they’d been trying so hard to do with a few quick gestures full of expertise.
And that was the thing, wasn’t it? She obviously knew what they’d been doing. She’d said so when she’d stopped Falsworth’s beating. Yet, she hadn’t reported any of them. No one had disappeared, no guards had swooped in with batons high and guns raised. Every single one of them was fine. And whenever the guards got a bit too zealous in disciplining the prisoners, she was always there, swooping in with a few barked orders to stop them.
She was protecting them.
Today, she was back with them. For some reason, she seemed to have taken a shine to their little group, which, again, didn’t make any sense given that she’d just caught them sabotaging her boss’ pet project and had barely spoken three words to them since then. Dum-Dum jerked as the screwdriver she’d been using clattered into the toolbox. The woman sat back on her heels, then turned and leaned against the pillar, only to sit back up as her eyes zeroed in on something.
Dum-Dum’s heart dropped like a stone. Before he’d been taken, Barnes had managed to sneak him the picture, the one with his girl,made him swear to keep it safe, that he’d be back for it. He’d promised, knowing in his head, in his heart, that he’d have to live so he could bring it back to her, or pass it on to someone else in case he croaked as well. It must have slipped from his pocket as he was working earlier. He hadn’t noticed.
And now she had.
He lurched forward. Quick as the snake that she was, she snatched it up before him. He made to throw himself at her, but one look at her face stopped him cold. She was smirking, smug and self-assured, confident that he wouldn’t do anything. Because what was the point? There were dozens, maybe hundreds of guards here, and it would be pointless to get himself killed for a picture, one that didn’t even belong to him. Yet, he could remember the look on Barnes’ face as he looked at the picture—every night without fail, the small smile on his face, the way the light would come back in his eyes when he gazed longingly at Antonia’s face.
Jones and Dernier held him back as he made for it again.
“Don’t!” came Falsworth’s warning hiss. They all knew what she was holding, what it meant to their lost companion. Barnes had been taken away a week ago and they hadn’t heard a peep from him since. Nothing. So they watched with bated breath as she inspected the small rectangular frame, turned it over.
And went very still. She stared down at the small picture for what seemed like an eternity. Try as they might, they couldn’t see her eyes to try and get a read of her expression as her head remained bowed over it.
Her features were utterly blank when she handed it back. Dum-Dum slipped the picture into his breast pocket and curled a protective hand over it, but she didn’t say anything. And if her hammering felt distinctly more aggressive than usual that afternoon, well. No one would be foolish enough to point that out.
But Dum-Dum knew he wasn’t the only one to have noticed.
The picture had shaken between her fingers.