The crash was so loud it almost completely drowned out the sound of his teammates’ curses. Steve cringed, almost ripping the small com unit from his ear in his effort to get the source away from his enhanced hearing. One by one, Dernier, Jones, Falsworth, Dugan and Morita checked in, shortly followed by Bucky, his voice followed by a shot.
Steve waited. “Toni?” He asked after a while.
There was no response, other than more crashing, this time interspersed with grunts and dull thuds, like someone was hitting something. Or someone.
“Toni?” he repeated.
No reply but a grunt, quickly followed by a gasp of pain. Steve swore between gritted teeth and forced himself to move faster. There had been a lot of HYDRA soldiers, but they’d been battling them for about half an hour now, and the fight was coming to a close. Between Steve’s super strength, Bucky’s coverage, Dernier’s initial explosion and the rest of the Commandos’ general firepower, the foot soldiers, as heavily armed as they were, hardly stood a chance.
Toni had disappeared at some point during the fight, and they hadn’t heard from her since. Toni had proven a long time ago, when she’d first joined the Commandos, that she wouldn’t take any coddling from anyone and could take care of herself, so they hadn’t thought twice about her going off on her own, but the soundtrack currently playing in the background was concerning.
They were halfway through the battlefield and towards the inside of the warehouse they’d been attacking when she reappeared, slamming through one of the large, dirty windows and onto the ground in a shower of glass. She rolled immediately, mindless of the shards, flipped to her feet, fingers already tightly woven around the handle of a red-bladed knife.
The blonde woman hurtling toward her didn’t twist fast enough to avoid an unforgiving slash to the ribs, her hair glistening in the sunlight as she rolled and attacked, blades clashing and limbs moving almost too fast for the eye to follow.
Steve raised a head to his ear. “Bucky?”
“No window.” His best friend and second’s voice was even, but Steve knew him inside out, and the edge of tension was clear to him. This was his dame fighting, ducking and twirling in a deadly dance. Steve had never seen anyone fight like that, and by the others’ quiet curses as they joined him, neither had they. Toni was fast and lethal, her features hard and focused, her every move, calculated and precise, filled with killing intent.
The knives locked, twisted, fell, and then suddenly they were on each other again, this time fighting hand to hand with more ferocity than any of them had ever seen, be it in Toni herself or in any fight they’d ever witnessed. As good as they were, the Commandos were more of a strike team than anything else, raiding bases and camps and shooting until the enemy was gone and its supplies annihilated. This was very different.
It was a new kind of fighting entirely, fit, perhaps, for this kind of agent, someone trained to kill, and Steve knew if Toni hadn’t been there and trained to withstand this kind of assault, they would probably have lost people to this woman today.
Toni, whose thighs were now wrapped around the other woman’s neck, a silvery garrote digging into the delicate skin of her throat as she bent backwards, pulling with all her might. The woman threw herself to the ground and bucked desperately, writhing on debris and shards of glass, her skin turning purple as blood started trickling down her neck. One hand came up to bat uselessly at her throat, at the garrote, at Toni’s fingers, clawing at her arms in the convulsive desperation of the dying. Steve realized, too late, that Toni had no intention of letting her go.
The woman slumped and went still, but Toni didn’t immediately let go. Instead, she kept up the pressure for a moment longer, then released the woman and pressed two fingers to her throat. Her head dropped, chest heaving with exertion, and she wiped a shaky hand across her mouth, painting her lips and chin red. Ignoring the Commandos, she bent forward, hands running over the corpse like she was looking for something, and it was only when the dead woman’s possessions started falling in a small pile on the ground that Steve understood. He was on her in a two strides, heaving her up by her arm, forcing her to drop whatever it was she was holding. A small notebook, stained with blood.
“What are you doing?”
“Searching her, obviously.” She jerked her arm, but he wouldn’t let her go.
“Toni, you—you just killed her.”
Hazy eyes looked at him, and it struck Steve just how much darker they were compared to that day at the train station, when she’d looked up at him with a sad smile and hugged him, murmured promises of a greater future in his ear. “So what? She might have valuable information.”
“Which we could have asked her about. If you hadn’t suddenly decided to kill her.”
She blinked at him. Slowly, almost drowsily. Confused. She didn’t understand, he realized. Didn’t understand what was wrong with what had just happened. Still, she said nothing, just watching him, and then, her eyes cleared, so fast he almost reared back. Toni had always been intense, and having her full focus on him had always felt somewhat…overwhelming. There was too much going on behind those hazel orbs, a mind too sharp for him to keep up with, but as she ripped her arm from his grip and stepped away from him, Steve felt his heart sink at the thought that there was far more going on with her than he’d ever realized.
Her mouth twisted into that caustic not-smile that had always been her default setting when he’d first met her, and he was suddenly back in time, all those months ago when she was only his silent shadow, and he a circus monkey performing for the crowds and fake-punching Hitler.
“What, Rogers, six months on the front line and you still can’t kill the enemy?”
“This is different. She was at your mercy!”
“People like her never are. It’s better to kill them when you have a chance rather than be stabbed in the back.”
“She could have had information!”
Toni shook her head. “She’d never have surrendered it.”
“You don’t know that.”
She rubbed at her forehead, squinting slightly at the body. “Maybe under torture.”
Steve took a step back. It felt like a punch to the gut. Her tone had been perfectly detached, and she didn’t yield any hints of discomfort as he examined her. As if torturing another human being were normal, routine. Something she was intimately familiar with.
“Who are you?”
She turned her head at that, brows crinkling in confusion. “Got a sudden case of amnesia, Cap? Should I be worried?”
“You’re talking about torturing a woman like it’s—We don’t do that, Toni!”
She shook her head again. “Sometimes, I wish I were as naive as you, Rogers.” She grabbed the notebook, turned back to him. Her eyes skittered to the sides of him before coming back to his face, and he realized the Commandos were fanned out around them, listening intently. Bucky was probably making his way towards them from his perch, listening to the conversation through the coms. Steve hoped he could talk some sense into Toni. Two months of common missions, and she was still just as unpredictable as she’d been in America, going against orders or choosing a different route entirely if it suited her plans. Try as he might, Steve just couldn’t understand what was going on in her head.
And that, he was only now starting to understand, made her dangerous. Because there was no telling what she might do next, and no planning accordingly.
“I’m not naive, I have morals!”
She smiled at that, tiny and barely there, a shadow of a real smile, then cupped his cheek. He flinched at the contact. Her glove was slick with warm blood.
“And that’s what makes you such an inspiring figure to the people, Steve. But there are times when there is no use for talking. So let me do my job. I’m not telling you how to do yours.”
With that, she dropped her hand and went back to her search. A strong grip on his shoulder cut off Steve’s protest, and he turned to Bucky, who glanced at him, eyes dark, and shook his head minutely. Just a second, and he was already moving toward Toni, crouching beside her, fingers fluttering at her nape. She didn’t turn to him, but her head tilted toward him ever so slightly, proof that she was listening to whatever he was murmuring to her.
“She’s something else. That dame.”
Steve followed Morita’s gaze over to Toni, who was sitting at the kitchen table with Bucky, a single candle’s light dancing over the planes of their faces. Outside, a thunderstorm was raging, and they congratulated themselves once more on their choice to get an actual shelter for the night instead of camping outside.
“Dangerous,” Falsworth muttered. “She’s a wild card.”
“She saved your ass at least three times since joining the team,” Dernier pointed out.
“She’s wild,” Dugan said.
Steve waited for him to elaborate. “So?” he pushed when the man remained silent. Dugan had experience on the field, had been a soldier longer than most of them. Bucky was his second in command and they all knew it, but it was Dugan they all deferred to when it came down to advice. He was the third-in-command, Steve’s left hand where Bucky was his right.
“So I think you should hold onto her and hold her tight. This dame, she could be our key to victory.”
“She’s not a weapon,” Steve protested quietly, stomach churning.
“Maybe not,” Dugan acquiesced. “But she’s a damn good killing machine. And that’s precisely what we need to win this war.”
In the kitchen, the shadows danced across Toni’s face, her hands. Steve shivered.
“Don’t let it get to you.”
Antonia looked up from the table, and the small crack in the wood she’d been repeatedly tracing with her finger. James’ eyes were dark, the stubble on his face, like his hair, burning russet in the candlelight. She summoned a smile, her old press smirk, one corner of her lips tilted cheekily and her eyes cold, a façade they had never bothered to look beyond, not even Rhodey and Pepper. Toni Stark.
Calloused fingers settled over her hand, trapping her fingers against the cool wood. It was pouring outside, torrents of water pounding against the roof and the fogged up windows. The glass panes rattled as thunder roared over their heads. The others had retired about half an hour ago, and their own conversation had dwindled into a comfortable silence as they just sat in the kitchen, too tired to move to the better seats by the fireplace.
She sighed, long and deep, a slow exhalation that seemed to carry the weight of the entire world in its wake. “It’s fine.”
“It’s bothering you.”
She paused at that, finger fluttering even in his grip. He squeezed her hand, gently, and her gaze cleared. This time, when she smiled, it was genuine, although a pale memory of the bright grin she’d used to throw him back in Brooklyn.
“You get it, don’t you?”
He watched as she waited for his response, could almost feel the tension accumulating in her shoulders, in the hand balling into a fist under his fingers, the tightness around her eyes, her mouth. His fingers shifted, wrapped around hers. She didn’t resist as he brought her hand up to his mouth, pressed his lips to the smooth skin of her knuckles, gaze never straying from hers.
“Back when you were still undercover, I think it might have been in February, we had this mission. A HYDRA garrison to eliminate, gather as much information from them as possible. We prepared the raid like we always do, but this time, they were a bit smarter than usual. While the others were barging in, the base commander used the chaos to his advantage, dressed as a foot soldier and escaped.” He trailed off, remembering how cold it had been, the snow seeping through the thick material of his gloves, jacket and pants. Being a sniper was all about patience and being still, and he hadn’t had a fight to warm himself up like the others had. It had felt like his extremities would fall off, and shooting had gotten difficult when his fingers had grown so stiff he could barely move them. There had been frost on his cheeks and nose.
“I noticed him, of course.” She quirked a grin at that. “And I went after him. I told Steve I had him, who he was. They were still busy inside, so he said I should get the information. I think he only intended for me to ask politely.” Antonia snorted at that, sharp and humorless. But her shoulders were a little straighter now, her muscles a little less tense now that she understood where he was going.
“But you know. HYDRA, they’re…they’re fanatics. They know what they’re doing, they have a vision. And they’re not giving it up without a fight.” He swallowed hard, eyes fluttering shut. “I had to…be persuasive. He…he screamed, a lot. Profanities. Then he begged. Cried, even. I almost gave up. I almost stopped, but he saw me hesitate, and there was something in his eyes… Condescension. He despised me because I was too weak to t—torture him. To do what needed to be done.” Antonia’s fingers shifted until she was the one holding his hand, her thumb tracing soothing circles on his wrist. His eyes absently followed the movement.
“So I kept... But he didn’t say anything. He died there in the snow, and the only thing I could think of was that at least now my fingers and toes weren’t freezing anymore.” Tear-filled ice blue met hazel, a sharp orange flame reflected in their depths. “His blood was warm.”
He took in a shaky breath, squeezing back when she tightened her grip on his hands. There was nothing but understanding on her face, and he felt his throat close up at the sight of her, watching him like she saw, not Bucky—not like Steve and, to a lesser extent, the Commandos, who expected the witty, charming ladies’ man who had grown up with Steve on the streets of Brooklyn—but James.
The man who’d been dragged into a war he didn’t want to fight, the man who’d felt his entire world collapse when the dreaded letter had arrived, and again when his pig-headed best friend had proudly announced that he’d found a way to get himself killed before he even made it to the battlefield. The man who had been tortured for weeks in an obscure HYDRA base, and who had come out changed, and ready to do anything if it meant stopping the monsters who’d almost killed him from inflicting what he’d gone through to anyone else.
“I get it,” he choked out at last, only for the sobs to truly come out when she stood, walking around the table to pull his head against her body, arms wrapping around him in a protective cocoon. He buried his face into her stomach, fingers tangling into the rough fabric of her black jacket desperately, his sobs barely muffled even as careful fingers ran through his tangled hair.
“There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover,” she whispered, “tomorrow, just you wait and see…There’ll be love and laughter, and peace ever after. Tomorrow, when the world is free." Her voice vibrated with emotion that Vera Lynn as she went through the verses, singing the hope and promise of a better tomorrow that James so desperately needed.
She didn’t let go even as the song ended and she fell silent, let him seek whatever comfort she could offer. She knew, more than anyone, the consequences of war. Although she’d never been a true soldier—We are not soldiers!, her time undercover had taught her to do what needed to be done. Before that, even, Iron Man had had enemies, and sure, she’d never had to torture anyone for information, but she hadn’t hesitated to kill them either, because when it came down to it, it was the people she cared for against the person who was threatening them, and there was nothing she wouldn’t do to keep her loved ones safe. Even if they didn’t care back in the same way.
Why didn’t you do more?
She’d tried, God, she’d tried so hard. But it had backfired in the end. It seemed there was no end to this, to her efforts killing instead of protecting. Cursed, with the gift to spread death wherever she went, when all she wanted was to heal and shelter. Inviting the Avengers into the tower had been a way of doing that.
Yet they’d left, headed out as soon as there’d been another facility on the table, as soon as there’d been an opportunity to get out and away from her and her screw-ups, and, well…she couldn’t blame them for taking it. Not after all the shit she’d pulled, not with her abrasive nature and her tendency to stay in the workshop for days on end, forget team bonding exercises and meetings, and to ignore orders whenever she found a better solution.
Not that Steve knew that. Not that he cared to look, either. None of them did, not even Bruce, who stayed on the sidelines when he could get away with it. She was Toni Stark, why look any further? Obviously, it was because she was a reckless, selfish egotist and didn’t care about anyone’s safety but her own. No way she had actually run the numbers like she always did, or noticed a new threat, or a civilian in dire need of rescue. They never asked, and she never offered. And in the end, there was Ultron, and it was too much.
She’d never got around to trusting them with her secrets, the real person underneath the mask. Had never trusted them enough. Volatile and unworthy of being an Avenger with only a suit of armor, what would they think were they to learn she was also highly trained and dangerous without? She didn’t want to end up in a cell or under surveillance.
James, though, he’d seen. He’d seen her since the very beginning, Antonia. The girl behind the billionaire, the soul behind the face. And he was still here. Fuck the future, she thought ferociously, looking down at his slowly relaxing shoulders, his disheveled brown hair. She would stop him from falling if it killed her.
“We’ll get through this,” she whispered, both to herself and to him, a reassurance, a promise. “Together.”
Two days later, when they stopped to set up camp, Toni dragged him away from camp under the amused catcalls of their teammates and Steve’s inquisitive if not concerned gaze. She never bothered to clarify what they were doing. But James got faster and stronger, and when, one day, he swiftly broke a HYDRA soldier’s arm before he could shoot Steve in the back, well… no one even thought that Antonia might have been training him.
“I miss you.”
Seated at the base of a tree with a thick leather notebook on her knees, Antonia squinted up at Steve’s towering form, then returned to her writing. “I’m right here,” she said simply.
Steve hesitated, then lowered himself to the dry floor. It had been a little over a week since the mission in Luxembourg, since he’d seen Toni kill that woman, and she’d stayed clear of him ever since. At least, that was the impression he’d got, but maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe he’d been the one doing the avoiding, and not the other way around.
“What you did the other day…”
The pen paused on the page. With a sigh, she capped it, then slipped it between the pages and closed the notebook. “It was necessary, Steve.”
She looked at him, opened her mouth, closed it. “Why ask now?”
And that was the thing, wasn’t it? He’d judged her right off the bat, hadn’t stopped to consider her reasons for killing the enemy agent. Hadn’t even thought there might be a reason, even though he knew Toni enough to be certain that she wasn’t some blood-thirsty killer.
“I should have asked earlier.”
Toni blinked. It was an apology; she was sure of that. The first Captain America had ever directed to her. His attitude had changed after New York, sure. It was difficult to keep calling her a selfish bitch after seeing her take a nuke straight into outer space with almost no chance of return, but he’d never apologized for his words on the helicarrier, and neither had she. Their dynamics had changed after that, though, and with all the battles they’d had to fight together, they’d grown closer. Not just the two of them, either, but Bruce, Clint, Thor and Natasha, too.
Then, Ultron had happened, and it had been like nothing had ever happened. Back to the beginning. Sometimes, my teammates don’t tell me things. In hindsight, the words never failed to make her blood boil with impotent rage. Captain Hypocrite, Lord of Self-Righteous Betrayal. To think the man had already known about her parents for months when he’d given her hell for keeping secrets from him.
He’d never asked, none of them had. Why she’d done it. And that had been fine, in a way. Because she’d messed up, and really, she’d deserved their anger.
Yet, when the Accords had come, he’d refused any and all openings, every compromise she’d offered. God knew she’d tried, but he hadn’t listened. Then, Bucky had come into the picture, and everything had gone to hell.
And what was it about fate, huh? Why was it that she liked, cared for the man who would kill her parents? Who’d caused her friends to turn on her, to try to kill her? Her hand came up to her chest, and she rubbed at the spot between her breasts where the arc reactor had once been, fingers twitching with anxiety as she fought against the memories.
Rogers knew barely anything about Antonia Galante, a nobody, an OSS agent fighting with the Commandos, and yet he asked. He was prepared to listen. To try and understand.
He never would.
What is it about me that stopped you from ever looking? She wondered, throat suddenly clogged with emotion. Why didn’t you ask? Why didn’t you give me a chance, why did you never listen? Why, when it came to me, did you have to dig your heels in right away?
“Yes, you should have,” she agreed out loud, and he nodded sheepishly. She wondered what his expression would be like if he knew what exactly she was talking about. But her presence here wasn’t chronicled anywhere. So maybe, maybe there was a chance…
“I’m pretty sure you won’t understand, but I’ll try to explain it to you,” she started again. “I was born to a certain status. My father owned a very successful company. He was a smart man, a business man. An innovator. He wanted an heir. Except he imagined his child a little more…male.”
Rogers nodded, then plopped down onto the ground and crossed his legs, before turning the whole brunt of his focus on her. Blazing blue eyes, the exact same color as his, but burning with hatred and killing intent, flashed in her memory, and she shuddered, looked away. Cocked her head ever so slightly to the side, finding comfort in the gentle rustling of leaves, the softest scrape of leather against wood above her head. James was here. She could do this.
Mindless of the rest of the team drawing closer, she picked up the story, suddenly eager to get it off her chest, to try and make them understand, make Rogers understand just why she was the way she was, even if only partially. Maybe, just maybe, things would change…
She shook her head. Better not get her hopes up.
“So, my father wasn’t happy. But the fact of the matter was that I was his only child, whether he liked it or not. And that was, theoretically, a weakness for people to exploit.” Steve was opening his mouth, looking perplexed. “Kidnappers. First time I was taken, I was four. My parents paid the amount until I was six. Then, the company announced that they had a no-ransom policy. I’d been getting myself out by five, but dear old dad’s newest rule didn’t change a thing, and I had to learn how to take care of myself. I’m sure I don’t have to explain just how tempting a prize I could be, to any kind of predator.”
She sucked in a breath, remembering golden blond hair and a crooked smile, Ty’s vicious expression when he’d tried to force her in a dark alleyway in Cambridge, only to get thoroughly beaten up when she’d had enough. She hadn’t even broken anything, been very careful to ensure he wouldn’t be able to sue. It had been before she’d met Rhodey, before he’d appointed himself as her bodyguard. The ensuing media storm had been…jarring.
“So I learned. And the thing is, Steve…morals are all well and good, but sometimes you reach a point when they will just get you killed. I don’t…kill my enemies when I can avoid it, but there are times when there’s no other choice, because the alternative, leaving them alive, is just far too risky. I’m trained to identify and deal with these situations, Steve. I killed this woman because she was too dangerous, and I will do it again if necessary. I don’t expect you to understand, because you’re Captain America, and this is just not what you do. It’s my job for a reason, and I’ll keep doing it until I’m no longer needed.”
She quirked a smile at him, but he didn’t smile back. Instead, he watched her carefully, intently. The others were, too, and the silence was so thick she jumped when Morita spoke up.
“You’ve been tortured before.”
She pursed her lips. “I have.”
It must have settled something for all of them, because they all nodded and turned away.
“Thank you for telling me this,” Rogers said as he stood.
And in the face of his understanding, or at least his efforts to understand, all that she could feel was bitterness, dark and twisting in her gut. Where were you? She thought, where were you when I needed you most? Where were you when I trusted you?
James wrapped her up in his arms that night, and didn’t let go until dawn had come and it was time to get up. She didn’t cry, hadn’t shed a tear in years, not since Howard had broken everything there had been left of their relationship. But she held on tightly to him, and soaked up his warmth, the solid presence of his body. Comfort, freely given and willingly offered. A luxury she had rarely been allowed to partake in.
She looked at his sleeping features, young and unmarked by the years of atrocities HYDRA had forced the Winter Soldier to commit. The war had taken its toll on him, she’d seen it the very second they had reunited, but it was nothing compared to what he’d looked like when they’d come face to face in Siberia, or even before that, in Berlin. Haunted, then empty.
Her fingers hovered over the rough stubble covering his cheeks, his cheekbone. She’d save him, somehow. She wasn’t going back, anyway. She wouldn’t lose yet another loved one.
July 4 th, 1944
“Do I have to?”
Steve glanced at where Toni was frowning at her reflection as she adjusted her cap, and did a double-take as he noticed the golden oak leaf on her chest.
“You're a Major?”
The rest of the team paused at that, turning to look at them. Dernier swore loudly.
“Yeah,” Toni drawled uninterestedly.
“What—you...” Morita stuttered, glancing over at Steve, and then back at Toni, who was now examining them in the mirror, her head cocked to the side, and Steve had the brief impression of a small bird, confused and raven-feathered.
“I can't believe you outrank us all,” Jones groaned.
She shrugged. “They just gave it to me as thanks, or something. It doesn't really matter.”
“Doesn't really—” Falsworth mouthed, before throwing his hands up. “Never mind. I give up.”
Bucky was smirking in the corner, arms crossed over his chest. The Commandos would be the only unit not to be wearing the dress uniform. They'd tried to force Toni to wear it and ride with most of them in the back of the truck, but she'd refused to take any of their bullshit and put her foot down. While his intervention hadn't been sorely needed, Steve had interfered anyway, claiming her to be a full-fledged member of his team, his ace, and her being a woman didn't change anything. She would ride with them, or none of them would show up. The matter had been solved very quickly after that.
Toni was therefore wearing her regular all-black clothing, the jacket a black bastardized version of the male uniform jacket, and her rank insignia perfectly aligned on her left breast.
“If I have to, then so do you,” Steve deadpanned in answer to her earlier question. She grimaced at him but said nothing, adjusting her cap on her head.
“Et moi qui pensais enfin visiter New York,” Dernier muttered. And here I thought I'd finally get to visit New York.
Toni snorted at that. “Vous êtes conscient que Washington est notre capitale et pas New York, n'est-ce pas ?” You are aware that Washington D.C. is our capital and not New York City, yes?
Morita snorted. “Never mind the frenchie, Toni. He's suffering from baguette withdrawal.”
The comment earned him a hat to the head, but a member of the staff poked his head through the door before the fight could degenerate. “You're up in five minutes, Captain.”
Steve sighed and adjusted his shield once more, turned his head as a hand landed on his shoulder.
“You okay, punk?” Bucky asked. He'd shaved and combed his hair, looked much more put together than he usually did. All of them did.
The change was jarring. After so many months running around fighting HYDRA, Steve barely recognized them all. Had barely recognized himself.
Bucky was still eying him in concern, his hand warm on his shoulder. Steve opened his mouth, closed it. He didn't know how to describe it. He glanced over at Toni, at the team gathered loosely around her, laughing at something she'd just said. To think, only a few months ago, she'd been undercover with HYDRA, had almost...
Bucky squeezed his shoulder and let go, moved forward. “C'mon, guys. Let's do this.”
The Second spoke, and they trickled out of the room and toward the garage. Steve smiled and followed at a sedate pace.
As the bike's familiar roar filled his ears, he turned to glance behind him. His second and his ace were right behind him, waiting for the signal to move out, the rest of the team riding in the back of a military truck, ready to wave at the crowds.
They rode out of the garage and into open light, the crowd's cheers a sudden explosion of sound and color.
July 4th. He could do this.
Howard would be rolling in his grave, Toni thought as she watched the raging fans on either side of the large avenue, waving flags and portraits of whoever they liked best in the Commandos—usually Steve, often James. She blinked when she saw her own face on a large wooden board, then again and again, her name printed in big black characters, waving large pictures of her—portraits, full-size photographs of her sparring with James, aiming a gun at something in the distance, laughing with the team—in the air.
Women fight, too.
Women for America.
She had fans, too. Most of them women and young girls, true. She could see braids and young faces, but also strict buns and elegant wavy locks, gloves and lipstick and knobbly knees and expensive jewelry. But there were some men, too, most of them young, hats tilted back so as to leave their faces and eyes clear.
Why couldn't you be born a boy? Why do you have to be such a disgrace?
She choked back a bitter, triumphant laugh.
Howard would die all over again if he saw her now.
She sneaked a glance to the side, met crinkled blue eyes, smiled in return. Somehow, Howard's opinion didn't mean anything to her now.
Dum-Dum glanced at Barnes and shook his head.
He looked at Cap, dancing with Agent Carter with his eyes almost riveted on the door, and drowned a groan in his beer.
The team had headed to change in their respective rooms after the parade, except for Toni, who'd apparently had a meeting at the OSS, and had promised to join them later. But they'd been here for over an hour already, and she had yet to appear, which explained why Barnes was currently slouching at the table barely paying attention to the women who flocked over to him, and, to a lesser extent, why Cap kept glancing at the door like an eager puppy.
The first was understandable and very much expected. The second, however, made Dum-Dum's gut clench with dread. Because Cap and Barnes' friendship was legendary. It was, after all, what had led to Cap becoming who he was in the first place, but the man was obviously pining after Barnes' dame, and Barnes... Well, for all that he loved his best friend to death, there was no way he would take well to Cap eying his best girl. Maybe, if she were someone else, and if... The thing was, he looked at her like she hung the moon and stars, and she looked back. There was something between the two of them that Dum-Dum had never seen before, had maybe read about in some novel or another. A quiet sort of understanding, deep and silent and unmovable.
Cap's little...infatuation couldn't compare. Proof of that was that he was currently dancing with Carter and for all that he denied it, had something going on with her. Barnes, on the other hand, didn't even look at anyone else. Sure, he would answer when talked to, but he was clearly not interested, and there was no hint of flirting in his demeanor. The charm was there, yes. But there was nothing to it. He hadn't even moved from his seat since they'd arrived, absently sipping at his beer as he waited. As if the evening wouldn't start for him until Toni got there.
They were the pillars of the team, the three of them. Oh, Dum-Dum was third in command, sure. In theory. The truth was that on the field, Toni was third in command, or maybe a second, too, equal to Barnes. She'd proven on several occasions just how sharp her mind was, how quick she could adapt to any given situation, how nimble her fingers were when given the proper material. They came to Dum-Dum when they needed advice, experience. Not for orders and unexpected changes of plan.
Arsenal indeed. Even disarmed, Toni always had something up her sleeve. Sometimes it was a trick. Sometimes, a hidden weapon. Most of the time, it was some kind of gadget she'd absently pulled together by the light of the campfire, talking and laughing with them all the while. She'd already improved all of their com units, from range to shock resistance. Had boosted up their weapons, their binoculars.
A genius in her own right. He suspected she might be Howard Stark's equal, if not his better, although he'd never asked: it was obvious she didn't like the man for some reason, and he would rather not push on what might be a painful issue.
But the point was that the three of them were the foundation of the team, and that, one day, this thing between them would come to a head, and it wouldn't be pretty. Selfishly, Dum-Dum hoped it wouldn't happen before the end of the war, because if it did...
If it did, it wouldn't bode well for the team as a whole.
Barnes straightened in his chair, staring at the door like a hound finally catching a scent. Dum-Dum twisted in his seat, followed his gaze, and raised his eyebrows.
Well. He had to hand it to her, Toni cleaned up well.
She was standing in the doorway, clad in a dark green, off-the-shoulder dress with a wide strip of black hugging her waist. Amber earrings glinted on either side of her face, a matching teardrop at her throat, framed in silver. She had put on some makeup, a subtle shade of lipstick and a line of kohl on the upper lid, dark lashes shading hazel eyes as she scanned the room, pausing briefly to nod at Cap, who had frozen in place, before resuming her search.
Dum-Dum knew she'd found Barnes right away. Her shoulders loosened, even as she straightened, and her lips stretched into a small, private smile, the kind she never offered anyone but him. Slowly, she started making her way over to him, but he was already halfway over to her, cap cheekily perched over neatly combed hair, uniform dark and perfectly pressed.
He brushed his lips over the back of her hand and she smiled up at him, genuine and open, let him tuck her arm into the crook of his elbow as they headed to the bar.
Cap was dancing again, but Carter's eyes kept darting over to the bar, and to the short-haired woman currently ordering a drink with a handsome young man by her side. Were it not for his uniform and the Captain America Wants You posters on the walls, they could have been any ordinary couple out for a nice evening of fun.
Steve was…distracted. She hadn’t really had plans for tonight, mostly thought she’d go out with Angie for a night on the city, enjoy being stateside for a while, but Steve had invited her to the Commandos’ outing, and Peggy had said yes before she could think about it. But now that she was there, in his arms, she wondered if it hadn’t been a mistake. Because while he was a sweet, honest man, brave to a fault and a hero to the people, she wasn’t sure he knew what he was doing.
Not when it came to whatever was between them, anyway. He glanced at the door once again, and she pursed her lips. She was attracted to him, who wouldn’t be? Even before he’d turned into the tall, muscular Adonis absently holding her this very moment, he’d possessed an honesty, a strength of will and mind, and a respect that she’d never before encountered in another man. His deference when it came to her, especially, was something that had touched her. It felt good to be respected and admired, especially after years of being treated like a glorified secretary and not the qualified, strong agent she really was.
Sure, Colonel Phillips respected her, but that didn’t mean he would ever send her on missions like he dispatched his men. Steve, though, always deferred to her and listened to what she had to say, and the admiration overflowing from his eyes was a soothing balm to her wounded pride and frustrated ego. It had seemed like they could have something. Like, maybe, this man would be the one she could entrust her heart to without fear of being made to stay home and be a boring housewife. Peggy didn’t do boring. She needed action, needed to move and expend her energy, to be useful, and she was determined to make the military see, one way or another, just how much better it would be for everyone involved to have her on the field and take advantage of her numerous skills.
She’d thought the shortage of men brought about by the war would help her reach that goal. Hoped they would realize they needed all hands on deck and make use of her abilities. When she’d been assigned to Colonel Phillips, her heart had swelled with pride, convinced that, on the frontlines, she would finally, finally! have the opportunity to prove herself.
But nothing had happened. She was his secretary, although he did let her train the recruits, which was a step up from anything she would have gotten anywhere else. Her being in charge of the men’s training was a tremendous step forward in and of itself, but it still wasn’t enough. Yet, after a while, she’d resigned herself to her fate, half-convinced that maybe she was too early for her time. Her budding relationship with Steve somewhat distracted her, gave her something new to focus on. The man was often gone, but he never failed to seek her out whenever he was back on base, and she’d found she enjoyed his company, as well as that of the rest of his team’s. Barnes’ good looks and charm were an unexpected bonus, and the entire unit had seemed to accept her well enough, to the point that sometimes, sitting around a campfire with her shoulder brushing against Steve’s as they told missions stories, she felt almost like one of them.
Then, Antonia Galante had resurfaced, and dashed everything she thought she knew. Clad in black and armed to the teeth, she’d strolled into camp like she owned the place, hair a disheveled mess of short locks and eyes darting all over the place, dark bags under them and skin sallow with exhaustion. Yet, she kept her shoulders straight and her gait even, greeting Chiassino like an equal and bantering with Steve like an old friend. It was Barnes who had caught Peggy’s attention in that moment, though. The man had lost his cheerful, charming attitude, eyes following the newcomer’s slim back like she was water in the desert, or like he was afraid she would disappear. It hadn’t taken very long to realize that those two were a couple, had been for some time already, according to the team. Steve’s voice had held a strange inflexion when he’d told her about it, but she’d dismissed it in favor of watching Galante’s fingers play over Barnes’ bare wrist as they relaxed in the sun.
Peggy had wondered what would happen to the strong-headed agent once the Commandos’ leave would be over. The woman’s cover was blown, and even if it hadn’t been, she didn’t think anyone would have sent her back after seeing her haunted eyes. She’d seen things on her assignment, things none of them could even imagine, and which she relived every night when she tried to sleep. She was obviously compromised, and Peggy had found herself anticipating the company when the team left for the front line. Surely, they wouldn’t send her away after all she’d done, so the only possible solution was that they’d assign her as someone’s secretary. Maybe even as a trainer, if she managed to get the men to respect her like Peggy had.
They would get to know each other, bond over their shared hatred of misogyny, and maybe change the world together. Peggy had thought it would be less lonely once she had an ally, especially one as strong as Antonia Galante, who had succeeded where everyone else had failed. Except the time had come, and Galante had geared up with the men. Antonia Galante had been inducted into the Howling Commandos in a matter of days, when Peggy herself, who’d been their handler for months, had never even been considered. She’d watched them go, too stunned to say anything, Galante’s slim shoulders flanked by Barnes and Steve’s powerful frames, the rest of the team fanning out around them.
Pillars, even then.
Over and over again, she had seen it when they came back. It wasn’t Steve and Bucky anymore, but Steve, Bucky, and Toni. Galante’s standing was equal to Barnes’ by the time they returned from their second mission, the team clearly trusting her to have their backs and deferring to her whenever the situation called for it. At first, she’d told herself that she was just accompanying them for logistics. There was no way Steve, chivalrous as he was, or even Barnes, who was completely obsessed with Galante, would ever let her anywhere near the fighting.
But then, there had been a comment about Galante rescuing Dugan. She’d passed it off as a fluke, something that maybe had to do with communications. But then it had happened again. This time, it was her dragging Morita out of a blazing, crumbling warehouse. Shooting an enemy soldier before he killed Jones. Triggering charges at the perfect time to bring down a building on top of an inconvenient patrol. It wasn’t until she heard the rumors about her single-handedly destroying an enemy agent in hand-to-hand combat that she’d fully understood, though. Galante wasn’t there as support or logistics. She was a full-fledged Howling Commando, a fighter, and Steve’s third if not his second. Equal to Barnes.
Peggy could have lived with that. The jealousy had been overwhelming at first, of course. Why did Galante get to do what she had always dreamed of after only a few days when she’d been a part of the Commandos’ life for so much longer? But she could have lived with that. She could have, except that Steve had been more distant, lately. When she joined the Commandos at night for their traditional storytelling, he would always sit between her and Galante, and she would often find him watching her and Barnes when he thought nobody was looking. Peggy had dismissed it as coincidence, at first. It already stung to see how the team rallied around Galante, welcomed her into their fold in a way they never had included Peggy, but Steve surely wouldn’t do the same. Steve, whose eyes had always been so filled with honest admiration and riveted interest whenever she spoke or did something, and whose body now angled towards Galante, head tilting toward her when she laughed, eyes tracking her every movement.
And here she was tonight, swaying gently with him as he glanced at the door over her shoulder, over and over again, and she knew the exact moment when Galante arrived. Steve stiffened, lips parting, color rising to his cheeks. He fumbled, just a second, but enough for her to notice. Peggy was a lot of things, but she was not a fool. And Galante did look beautiful, standing there in a beautiful green dress that complimented her skin tone and showed off the delicate curve of her shoulders. If only, she thought in a fit of savage resentment, if only she’d been ugly under all that fighting gear and manly demeanor. If only she hadn’t had the beauty to go with that intelligence and charisma.
But Galante was beautiful, and Peggy was honest enough not to deny it. Graceful and beautiful, and so in love with Barnes it was almost painful to watch. Even more so because the very man who was now dancing with her was vibrating to hold her in his arms instead of Peggy. As she turned back to Steve, she met Dugan’s eyes, narrowed and sharp, with something resembling worry on his face. Not for her, she realized as his gaze slid past her and over to Steve, then back to the couple now leaning into each other’s space like two planets in orbit. No, Dugan was worried about the team.
She could see why.
Peggy pursed her lips and tightened her grip on Steve’s shoulder, dragging his attention back to her. Galante might have everything, but she didn’t want Steve’s affections. There was only Barnes, just like she was the only one he’d looked at all night, and that was enough to comfort Peggy in the certainty that there was a reason to fight. Because Steve wouldn’t get Galante. Ever. And if he persisted, the consequences wouldn’t be pretty.
“I’ve missed this.”
The music had slowed from energetic swing to a nostalgic waltz, and James had taken the opportunity to gather Antonia close, her dark curls brushing against his chin as she rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes. He hummed in question.
He ducked his head to press a kiss to her hair. “We’ve come a long way,” he agreed quietly. “But it’s not all bad.” He paused. “Is it?”
Her fingers tightened briefly on his. “No,” she said at last. “Probably not. I just wish you hadn’t had to go through this.”
James’ lips tugged down as he remembered the cold, the pain, the green lighting and the constant muttering of the scientists poking and prodding at him, the burning agony spreading through his veins as they injected him with yet another unidentified liquid.
“But we found each other again,” he murmured, “and that’s…”
He trailed off, but she nodded anyway. She knew, they both did, had known since that day in the forest, when they’d reunited. They weren’t the same people who’d met that day on the sidewalk, him a lost draftee faced with the very real possibility of imminent death, and her, eyes dull and mouth twisted in a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, the hazel orbs pools of unending grief.
But they’d met again, and again. Despite everything that could have gone wrong, despite war and torture and secrets and danger, they’d found their way to each other again. And that was more than could be said for most of the couples involved in this war. He could have come back after the war, a jaded, traumatized veteran and not been able to connect with her anymore. He could not have come back at all. She could have died on her mission. He remembered how she’d looked, sprawled on the forest ground under him, her sides heaving with the effort to keep breathing, eyes glazed with her concussion and hair greasy and messy with crackling leaves. Remembered the cold steel of her blade on his neck, the snarl that had ripped through the silence as she turned the tables and immobilized him in a matter of seconds.
So many things that could have gone wrong, and yet…
“Here we are,” she articulated, slowly, as if tasting the words on her tongue.
He tightened his grip on her waist. She was looking up at him, and he brushed their lips together, just once. I’m here. Her hand slipped from his shoulder and up his neck to cradle his cheek. He leaned into the touch, eyes slipping half-shut and let her come to him, tasting the distinctive flavor of her lipstick as she kissed him, followed by the sharp tang of metal and sunlight that was typically her. He stopped moving, standing in the middle of the dance floor to better savor the kiss, closing his eyes all the way. Someone might have been cat-calling, but he couldn’t be sure.
There was only Antonia, and the unspoken promise in her touch.
The song tapered off and they stood immobile in the middle of the dance floor, couples waltzing around them despite the lack of music. Antonia reached out for his hand and wrapped his fingers around something cool and rectangular. When he looked, the engraved letters shone up at him.
ANTONIA M. GALANTE
2533659 T43 A+
“I want you to have them.” Her voice was barely audible over the music and the chatter going on in the background. A group of sailors were celebrating their leave with boisterous enthusiasm, cheering two of their own into a drinking contest, even as the Commandos seemed to take it upon themselves to rise to the challenge and have Dernier drink Dugan under the table.
His throat worked once, twice. But the words wouldn’t come, so he nodded. Reaching up, he slipped her tags around his neck and, in the same movement, slipped his off and over her head. His fingers brushed against her nape as he gently tugged the dark curls free from the beaded chain, and she leaned forward as if drawn by a magnet.
“I love you,” he breathed, the emotion in the words so powerful and all-encompassing they were almost mute, but she heard him anyway, and something lit up in her eyes, shy and fragile, yet full of heartbreaking hope. The tips of his fingers fluttered against her cheekbone. She shuddered, lids at half-mast and lips parted, lost in the sensation. His hand sneaked around her waist, resting at the dip of her back, and they drew into each other, inhaling long and deep as their lips came to rest together.
“Stay with me.” Her eyes burned with emotion as she murmured it, her brow resting against his. A soft sheen rested over the hazel depths, and he brushed his lips over her cheeks once, twice, before pressing them to her forehead.
Antonia tugged at the straps then took a step back. James let his eyes rove over her body, taking in the thick but comfortable black jacket, the military fatigues and combat boots, the easy way she held herself despite the weight of the weapons strapped to her legs and back, or maybe because of it. She looked perfectly at ease, his Antonia, with her hair pinned to her skull and so many holsters all over her person she was almost more machine than woman. How she managed to move so quietly with that gear he’d never know, but he admired her all the more for it.
The many secrets of Antonia, he’d called it. She’d laughed when he’d told her as they watched the stars on the porch of their hideout in Czechoslovakia. He’d flicked his cigarette at her in mock threat as she’d kept laughing, her smile bright in its dim orange light, only for her to steal it from his fingers and take a long drag herself. A long time since she’d had one of those, she’d confessed as she slowly exhaled, smoke drifting lazily around them.
Bad habit, he’d agreed, unrepentantly snatching it back. She’d grinned.
She was darker today, a crease of worry between slender eyebrows and lips pursed tight. Outside, dawn was barely breaking out, the sky lightening up at the edge of the horizon, birds chirping. It reminded him of the couple of doves nesting by his window, back in Brooklyn, back home, and usually, he took comfort from it, but not today. Not when Antonia was so clearly distressed, and not when he himself felt so uneasy. Maybe it was only a reaction to her own discomfort, they were so attuned to each other’s emotions, but he doubted it.
“I don’t like this plan,” he admitted softly. Antonia, who’d been staring blindly at his blue-clad chest, looked up at him. For a split second, they communed, a moment of perfect understanding. Then, she sighed, crossing her arms.
“He won’t listen.”
“This is madness.”
She shook her head, rubbed at her forehead. There were bags under her eyes, and her skin was sallow, cheeks hollowed out by hunger and worry. The months following the fourth of July had been utter madness, missions following missions as the Reich grew more desperate and HYDRA in turn increased their efforts to take over both Allied and Axis territories. Steve had thrown himself into action with all the vigor of his age and beliefs, but he tended to forget that the rest of the team were only human, and didn’t have his constitution. She’d finally told Steve off the night before, walking up to him as he was starting the briefing for this mission and firmly telling him that he needed to back off. Needless to say, the man hadn’t taken it well, especially when none of the others had supported him, and both his second and fourth in command had agreed with the ace.
The men were exhausted, and that kind of bone-deep weariness chipped away at morale little by little until a mistake was made and people died. Antonia refused to let that happen, had made it clear to Steve that if he didn’t stop and let them have at least a week of rest, she’d take everyone willing to and disappear until such time she judged it reasonable to pick up the fight again.
And god, James loved Steve, he did. He’d stuck by him through thick and thin for well over fifteen years, but he also knew how stubborn the kid could be, and Steve had shown just that, digging his heels in when Antonia had confronted him. She’d managed to get a compromise at least, one more mission and then they’d have a week, but then he’d pulled the stubbornness right back out over the mission plan, and this time, nothing they had said had been able to get him off it. They would do it his way or not at all, and god help them all, but both James and Antonia knew he would go by himself if they all refused to do it, and for all that he was being stupid, there was no way they were letting him get himself killed.
Exhaustion showed in different ways in different people.
James just hoped this lapse in judgment wouldn’t be haunting Steve for the rest of his life.
“I tried, James.” He sighed, wrapped her up in his arms, fingers tangling in the hair at the nape of her neck. She went willingly, buried her nose in the crook of his shoulder.
“I know,” he whispered in her hair, pressed a kiss to the black curls. “I know you did. He’s just—Steve.”
Her arms wrapped around his waist, and she pressed herself close, ear now flat over his chest. Listening to his heartbeat, James knew. She did that often, lying sprawled over him at night, embracing him after a mission, slipping her fingers around his wrist, pads resting over his pulse point as they sat together during a brief moment of respite, the thundering of canons firing in the distance rumbling beneath them.
“Stay with me,” she said.
The Commandos’ heavy boots pounded around the house, the hallway, voices calling out to each other. Then Steve’s, louder and firm with command, calling for order. They were leaving. James and Antonia parted with a heavy heart, eyes lingering before finally, she turned to the door as it opened to let Steve’s helmeted head through. Something flickered over his face as he beheld their position, but his tone was even as he asked if they were ready. Without a word, the couple exited the room and followed him out.
The whine of a HYDRA weapon filled the air, closer than it had any business to be. Acting on instinct, James threw himself forward and behind a rock. He cursed as he ripped the empty magazine from its socket and slammed a replacement in, barely waiting for the click to start firing again. The HYDRA man fell, and he started to make his way forward again, watching for the others. Steve’s foolhardy plan had been for Antonia to sneak in and disable the alarms and sentinels so they could storm the place, and while everything had seemed to go well at first, the situation had quickly become unbearable once they’d charged in and found themselves faced with twice as many men as they’d expected.
He’d seen a glimpse of black earlier and fought to get to her, but Antonia moved with merciless speed, tearing through her opponents with ease and a violence James knew was born from her acute awareness of the danger they were in. One mistake and everything would be over. They were in over their heads, Steve himself swarmed with enemies. Dernier was an honorable fighter, but he was an explosive expert, not a hand-to-hand combatant, and it was only Dugan and Jones’ combined efforts that were keeping him from being killed. The Commandos were exceptional, all handpicked by Steve because of their skills and guts, but the fact was that they had neither Steve’s super strength nor Antonia’s high precision training, and they’d been pushing themselves for too long. Sleep-deprived and hungry, they were tiring fast, while it seemed two HYDRA goons popped up every time one got killed.
James himself was holding on through sheer force of will only, and the compelling urge to find Antonia and fight at her side. To watch her back.
She appeared at his side like an avenging angel, crimson splattered all over her face, mingling with dirt. Her hair was a mess of dirt and grease, and she was panting hard, a sharp combat knife clenched tight in one hand and a gun in the other. Her jacket was torn at the shoulder and arms and on the right side, and her left pant leg bore a tear, but she appeared unhindered as she moved, so he ignored it, aware that she’d been surveying him as well.
“We can’t hold,” she screamed over a detonation, seamlessly breaking a neck even as she aimed and fired in another direction. Conserving her energy. This was going from bad to worse fast.
James nodded, grunting as a bullet buried itself into his left arm. “James!”
“I’m fine. We can’t keep this up.”
“Start retreating. Get the others. I’ll get Steve.” She was already making her way through the fight. He pressed a hand to his ear, ever so grateful for her upgrades to their gear.
“Barnes to all units, do you copy?”
Waiting for the breathy acknowledgments, he continued. “Retreat. I repeat, retreat. We can’t hold against them.”
“Bucky, what are you doing?” came Steve’s outraged shout.
“We need to leave, Steve, or we’ll all get killed!” he ducked under a knife, blindly fired his machine gun.
“We’re almost there!”
“Cut the crap, asshole!” Antonia’s voice echoed over the line. “We’re all exhausted, and they’re not getting any fewer in numbers! I told you this was a bad idea but we tried anyway, so back off, now!”
Her exhaustion was obvious even through the radio. Maybe that was what made Steve stop and actually listen, for his next words were a grudging agreement, and his powerful form started to make its way through the crowd of black towards the exit.
“They’re pursuing,” Morita shouted from the outside. He’d been on the outer part of the fighting, and had reached the exit first.
Steve had stopped, but jolted back in motion as she screamed at him to “move, dammit, Rogers, move, move, move!” She was a blur of black, darting back and forth within the enemy, leaving sprays of blood and broken necks in her wake, bodies falling wherever she struck. “Run!” she screamed into the coms, before falling utterly silent as she concentrated on her task, systematically striking down any enemy who got too close, and for a few precious seconds, it seemed like everything would be alright.
Then there was the crack of a machine gun unloading, and an almost soundless gasp in his ear. Standing at the edge of the trees, James whipped around, even as both Steve and Falsworth, the last of the group except for Antonia, reached him and turned, too. She was still fighting, but her movements were strained with something beyond fatigue, and he knew what had happened instantly. His body was moving before he even realized it, but then, she looked up. In spite of the distance and the enemies, in spite of her constant movement, impossibly, their eyes locked.
“No,” she mouthed, or maybe she said it out loud, but all he knew was the overwhelming love in the hazel orbs burning into his, the devotion and resignation and determination. His body felt cold all over, drowning in premonition, in the chilling perception of something yet to happen, a life-altering event he would never get back up from.
“No,” his lips mirrored hers, tingling still from her kiss this morning, the remembered warmth of her breath mingling with his. “No. No, no, no!”
“I love you,” he heard, faint and distant over the screaming ripping out of his throat, but no less filled with emotion.
He threw himself forward, only to be jerked back by unforgiving arms on his ribs, his shoulders, his arms. Her name was a twisted parody of its usual lilted tones as he broke his throat over it, as, with another crack, her body suddenly came to a jerking halt and her knees buckled. Another detonation and she jolted once more, legs failing until her body hit the ground. James wished his sharp sniper eyes were blind so he could never have witnessed the bullet crashing straight into her chest, her back arch and the hesitant stumble of her ever so steady feet.
Like the ravenous monster they were named after, HYDRA swept over her like a tidal wave, but all he could see was the dark hair sprayed around her head like a halo, face buried under a mess of dirty curls, the limp arms, the lips moving to form words he couldn’t distinguish. His arms hurt, eyes and throat burning, and there was a shrill ringing, a broken shriek tearing through his eardrums over and over again. The world had faded into a hell around him, the only thing his eyes could see, that his ears could hear, that his brain could remember, Antonia’s crumpling form, the life draining from her passionate eyes, the imagined, dull thump of her delicate body hitting the ground. Until, with a sharp pain at the back of his neck, blessed darkness filled his vision and he could feel no more.
Peggy knew something was wrong as soon as she saw them. When usually their arrival would have been announced with laughter and loud, boisterous voices, the promise of a few days of sleep enough to energize them through the bone-deep exhaustion of months and months of fighting, today they were silent, trudging through camp like they were carrying the world on their shoulders. Barnes was almost a ghost, hovering almost transparent at the edge, Steve’s frequent glances going entirely unnoticed by the usually alert sniper.
Peggy took a step forward and stopped as she realized what was wrong with that picture. The space on Barnes’ left, a step behind and to Steve’s right, was empty. Her blood turned to ice in her veins, and her fingers started tingling unpleasantly.
“Steve,” she forced herself to greet, and almost stumbled back when he turned haunted eyes on her, darker than she’d ever seen them. Almost two years after he’d taken up the mantle of Captain America, she knew that he, like any soldier, had gone through and seen horrible things. And while he’d matured, grown more serious and sometimes quiet, he’d retained that hope and optimism that made him who he was, the symbol of hope the masses relied on to be their beacon of light and guide them toward victory in this horrible war.
The eyes that were now looking through her seemed like a pale imitation of the clear blue orbs, bright like the summer sky, that she’d grown to love.
“Where’s—” She couldn’t say it, averted her eyes, only to regret it instantly. Because behind Steve was Barnes, and he could have been dead for all she knew. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot and underlined in purple, his hair disheveled and greasy, his face unevenly shaven, like he’d tried and given up halfway through, patches of skin showing through where he’d managed to trim his beard a little. His skin was so pale it was almost transparent, and his hands were trembling so hard she thought he was going to erupt into a full-fledged seizure. But he didn’t, and as she looked more closely, she noticed that his fist was clenched tightly around something, a small object she had no hope to identify.
Steve’s raspy tones turned her attention back to him. There was a dark stain smeared on his cheek and neck, now flaking and covered in dirt. He, too, looked exhausted, dark bags under his eyes and his skin pale and dirty, although he was otherwise put together.
“I—I need to report. To…Colonel Phillips.”
She did a double-take at that. “Are you sure? Steve, you…”
He nodded his head, a quick glance at his team the only explanation. But she got it. The rest of the team, while they looked nowhere near as bad-off as Barnes was, didn’t look good either, their faces grim with grief and sorrow. There were deep lines etched in their foreheads that hadn’t been there when they had left, she thought. Now engraving the loss of a beloved comrade forever on their faces. A token of memory.
Peggy took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “Very well, then. Follow me.”
Steve nodded again, lips pressing tighter as he turned to the Commandos. His voice, as he ordered them to clean up and get some rest, was softer than she’d ever heard it, quiet in a way that spoke almost of…Peggy frowned. Insecurity? The empty space gaping between Steve and Barnes took on an entirely new meaning, and she swallowed hard against the foreboding feeling clogging her throat.
The team slowly dispersed under Steve’s expectant eyes, but Barnes didn’t move an inch, staring blankly at the ground. Peggy’s eyes burned at the sorry sight he made, and she had to blink hard to contain the tears of sympathy that threatened to ruin her composure. She knew what it meant to lose someone dear, knew the pain of looking up, words on her lips, only to stare at empty space and be reminded that the person would never be coming back, would never again listen and laugh and be. It hadn’t been her lover, but Michael had been everything to her. Her brother-in-arms, her partner in crime, her confidant and her anchor. His absence was like a gaping wound in her heart, and while she’d learned to live with it, seeing Barnes’ agony tore open the fragile stitches she’d managed to put on his absence to pull herself together.
Barnes took a step back. The foreboding feeling exploded in Peggy’s gut. Steve was frozen, hand half-raised in an aborted attempt to touch, comfort his friend. But Barnes’ entire body spoke of his reluctance, shoulders drawn back and knees flexed, as if ready to run.
“C’mon, Barnes,” Dugan’s gravelly tones intervened before the situation could escalate. He lay a hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and guided him away gently. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Barnes obeyed, feet dragging through the mud, head down.
Debrief was…tough. Steve spoke in a monotone, detailing the mission and how it had gone wrong without a single inflexion in his voice, eyes lost on something none of them could see. Worse than his lack of emotion and blank face, worse than the glassy gaze, were the slumped shoulders and the absolute conviction that he’d messed up. And he had, Peggy couldn’t deny it. No one could, really. But it wasn’t all solely his fault, either. She hoped Phillips would tell him that. She certainly would if he didn’t.
“I should have listened,” Steve murmured as his story winded to a close. “Both Toni and Bucky told me to wait, told me there had to be more to it than what we could see. I knew the men were exhausted, that we should rest before doing anything. Dum-Dum didn’t say much, but I knew he was leaning in their favor. But I couldn’t, could I?” He laughed, short and bitter. “No, I had to listen to my ego only and go in anyway. I—It’s my fault she’s…gone. It’s my fault.”
Silence fell over the tent, and Peggy thought of the shell of a man who had returned in place of James Barnes. Thought of Steve’s tall shape hunched forward and frozen to the spot with shame and guilt. She’d known he was getting a bit too sure of himself. Given Phillips’ expression, they all had. And they’d been waiting for something to put him in his place, because what could they say as long as his methods worked? And to be honest, they’d all been counting on Barnes’ good sense and Galante’s blazing will to knock him down a few pegs and keep him in line whenever necessary. Now he had indeed been put back in his place and reminded that his team weren’t invincible or immortal. Peggy only regretted that it had cost the life of a good agent, if not a good person, for that to happen. And maybe, she thought, maybe more than one.
Looking at Steve’s bowed head, she wondered if this incident would irreparably damage his confidence as a leader, too, and if the Commandos would even entrust him with their lives ever again.
“Losses happen in war, son,” Phillips said at long last. “Get some rest. We’ll talk again in the morning.”
Peggy followed Steve out of the tent and all the way to the edge of camp. Surprised that he wasn’t heading to the barracks, she kept her silence as they walked. Steve’s face was dark, contemplative, his eyes unfocused. They’d reached the woods when he stopped, so abruptly she walked a few paces more before realizing he wasn’t with her anymore and turning to glance back at him, but he was staring at something over her shoulder, and she followed his gaze, only to find Barnes sitting with his back against the coarse bark of a thick oak tree, a pile of letters on the forest floor next to him, and several sheets of slightly yellowed paper clutched in shaking fingers.
“It’s my fault,” he said, so soft she almost didn’t catch it. “He’ll never forgive me.”
Peggy wished she could reassure him, say Barnes would, because they were friends and had been for years, but looking at him now, she couldn’t say he would. She knew if it were Michael that had died and herself now reading his letters to her, she certainly wouldn’t. Instead, she turned to the other part of the problem, Steve. Heartless as it may be, Peggy was a pragmatist. They couldn’t afford Captain America suddenly losing faith in himself and his leadership abilities now. The Howling Commandos had been the hope and spearhead of the Allied Forces since their formation, and having them fold in on themselves when finally the Reich was being pushed back would be a devastating blow to morale.
It would have been Barnes’ job to comfort Steve, but since the man himself was part of the problem and Galante was…unavailable, it now fell to Peggy to provide him with the reassurance he needed, and she wasn’t sure she would be up to the task, especially when the problem was a disaster of such magnitude.
“Steve,” she said gently, laying a hand on his arm. She almost gasped in shock when he shook it off. Then, without a word, he turned on his heels and walked away, leaving her alone with a broken man sobbing over a stack of letters.
James closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, shakily. His hands trembled, the bottle of cheap jack he’d procured from a local smuggler lying empty at his side. But the memories were still there, and the gaping hole in his chest wasn’t getting any smaller. He missed her like he would have missed a limb, an organ. He missed her every second of every day, every breath he took and she didn’t, every wretched beat of his heart that she wasn’t there to listen to.
Alcohol hadn’t helped. He doubted anything would. The nights were cold and endless without her by his side, the warmth of her body slotting perfectly against his, or the certainty that she was nearby, fingers dancing agilely over some crazy, futuristic project of hers as she laughed with the others. His food tasted even blander than usual now that she wasn’t there to spin jokes about the ingredients and the fabrication process. It wasn’t like he could keep it down anyway. All he could see was her body falling, over and over again, jerking, folding onto itself, a twisted parody of her usual predatory grace.
Tak. Tak. Tak.
Three shots. Shoulder—a soft gasp in his ear, chest—jerk, chest—jerk, thud.
Over, and over again.
“Dammit, Barnes!” Hands wrapped around his arms, and he thrashed vaguely, more out of habit than anything, then went still when his pathetic attempts didn’t even jostle the annoyance. Someone was grumbling in his ear, but their hands were gentle as they moved him around—he didn’t care enough to try and determine what it was they were doing with him. Dimly, he heard a familiar voice saying his name, not the real one, no, the nickname, the one they all used, but only one with those inflections, only one, the one who—
“’s your faul’,” he slurred over the nausea. “ssh’tol’ ya. Tol’ ya not-t-to go. Sshe tol’ ya. Didn’ listen an’ now ssshe’s dead. Never comin’ ba’. Never comin’ ba’. Never com—”
The nausea won and he threw up blindly, then let himself sink into unconsciousness.
Steve stood frozen in place as he looked at his friend, his almost-brother’s passed out form. Dugan had laid him down on his cot after he’d vomited, cursing and grumbling at the mess, but his hands had remained gentle and his tone fond, his eyes, soft. The others wouldn’t look at him, he was vaguely aware of that. They knew it was his fault, too. Toni had been a full-fledged member of the team, had pulled her weight and lightened the atmosphere and contributed in everyday life in many different ways. She’d been the glue that kept the triumvirate, as Dernier had taken to calling them, together. But without her, Bucky was collapsing, drained of his will to live, and Steve wasn’t sure he could do anything about it.
Knew he couldn’t, because this was his fault. The team was falling apart, Bucky was falling apart because he hadn’t listened to his second and third’s advice, because he’d become too blinded by his pride and confidence to get over himself and realize that the team was too exhausted and unprepared to go in. Toni, beautiful, fiery Toni had paid the ultimate price, and Bucky might as well have died with her for all that he looked like a wraith.
The men are exhausted, Steve. We’ve been low on food and rationing ourselves for too long, this is no way of carrying out a mission, especially one this dangerous.
Her eyes had been so serious. How had he not seen the dark bags under them, the way her skin was pulled taut over her cheekbones, leeched of color? He remembered, now, the slump of her shoulders as she’d turned from him after he’d refused, the way her hand had come up to rub at her forehead, how the others had all been looking up at her as she walked back to them and had averted their eyes when she’d reached the group. She’d been their representative. They’d all relied on her in one way or another, and now she was gone.
The words were out before he realized, but the silence that followed was absolute. Sprawled unconscious on the bed, Bucky didn’t move, eyes darting back and forth under closed lids. His expression was tormented even in sleep, the corners of his mouth, so prompt to tug up in a grin, now curling down in agony.
Steve’s lips moved again. He didn’t know what he said or who he directed it to. To Bucky, broken on the cot; to the team, standing grim and silent around him; to Toni, whose absence gaped like a bleeding wound, her laughter a faded echo around the barracks. Dugan’s mustache trembled as he looked at him, but the man said nothing. Instead, it was Dernier who spoke up.
“We know, Cap. But it’s not enough. Not this time.”
The Howling Commandos went back to the fighting. Just as fierce, in appearance, as they used to be, or maybe even more so. History would remember that they pulled themselves together after the crippling loss of one of their own and then avenged her ten times over, but those closest to them knew the truth. The Commandos were shattered. They still followed Captain America on the field, but Barnes’ transparent complexion was a constant reminder of their absent friend. The man barely talked, and where he’d before been bright and lively as the midday sun, he faded into the background, content to hover in Captain America’s shadow.
“Tu n’es plus là où tu étais,” Dernier murmured one night, looking at Barnes’ still figure, staring emptily out the window as he played with the dog tags on his chest, “mais tu es partout là où je suis.” —You are not where you were, but you are everywhere I am.
He thought Barnes was haunted by Toni’s ghost. Dugan simply called it heartbreak.
The cliff stood high above the land, granting them an incredible view of the sunrise. A biting breeze pushed and pulled at his hair, but Bucky remained silent and still, his broad-shouldered frame towering over the edge like he was standing in mid-air. Steve thought he would have a heart attack if he didn’t move back in the next thirty seconds. He didn’t want to startle him, though, just in case. The pale rays of the morning sun shimmered off something, and he looked down, and at the tags dangling from his best friend’s loose grip.
“She’s not coming back, is she?”
Steve jerked. His throat worked and his mouth opened once, twice, but he couldn’t say it. Saying it, out loud, would only make it more real, and he couldn’t do that. Two months since it had happened, and it still hadn’t fully sunk in that Toni was…gone. He kept glancing to his left, expecting mischievous hazel eyes to stare back and a rapid-fire quip to fuse, but there was nothing. Only awkward silence and gaping emptiness where once she’d stood. And on his right, still there for no reason he could fathom, the shell of a man who’d once shone so bright and talked so smooth, screaming at night and rasping few words during the day.
“Why couldn’t you listen?” Bucky whispered, and Steve’s heart twisted in his chest, over and over again until it seemed it would rip to shreds. “Why didn’t you listen?”
Slowly, he lowered himself into a crouch. Steve’s blood turned to ice in his veins.
A single, lifeless eye glanced back at him over a slanted shoulder. “Scared, Stevie?”
Yes, yes, he was. Steve had never felt so scared before. Even as a small kid, he’d never been afraid of the bullies hanging around the neighborhood. He’d confronted every single one of them with his head high, and charged in for more every time they’d knocked him to the ground. Even when Bucky had been captured by HYDRA, he’d believed in his friend’s resourcefulness and strength, but that force of will, that stark desire to live had vanished with Toni, drained by her absence.
And there was nothing—nothing!—Steve could do to help.
Bucky faced forward again, head lowered and hair fluttering. There was the slightest hint of a sound on the wind, words. It was only Steve’s super soldier hearing that allowed him to hear what he was saying. Singing.
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again
Some sunny day.
Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes fell to his death on a cold afternoon of January, 1945. On his face, there was only peace.