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Out of the Cave

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The moment she discovered the first of the listening devices in the air vent of her asylum cell Whitney started to feel better. She wasn't forgotten, a nobody, a failure. She was merely a force in retreat, and her enemies still feared her.

Despite the suspicions of the SSR, she hadn't been faking her breakdown – she would never have wanted the world to see her as a helpless wretch – but that reminder of who she was and what she had done put steel in her spine. She was allowed out of her restraints and out of her room by now, since she no longer scratched at her face hard enough to cause permanent damage. It didn't take her long to gather the parts to assemble a basic EMF meter using wire from a floral arrangement and the magnet from the ridiculous palm tree ornament someone had stuck up to the metal grille on the nurses' station. With a cheap compass that someone had left in the ridiculous Activity Box, she was set.

The SSR, for surely they were the culprits, had planted listening devices in her cell, by the nurses' station, in the day room and, worst of all, in the psychiatrist's office. The psychiatrist was a dumpy old woman with a strong accent and though Whitney had been starting to warm to her patience and respect, Whitney certainly wouldn't say a word now. Not with some lackey of Peggy Carter's taking down everything she said, searching for a way to prosecute her.

The staff took Whitney's renewed interest in her appearance, covering her self-inflicted scars with make-up, as a positive sign: some of the inmates were here for being unrepentant butches and had to be coerced into wearing skirts, let alone lipstick. So it wasn't too hard, during a noisy cosmetics therapy session, to quickly lean forward and push a distracted attendant's dangling key into her cake of pressed powder, leaving a perfect impression. She didn't dare actually steal a key, as she'd seen them being carefully counted in and out, but a few hours with a piece of metal stripping pulled off the underside of an armchair from the day room, and Whitney had an entirely usable key of her own.

That night, Whitney waited until the second bed-check, then quickly dressed and crept out of her room and down the hall. She wished she had some stockings and actual shoes, but stockings were suicide hazards and all the shoes were soft slippers. The creaking of the first door made her shudder, but it must have seemed louder than it really was, because no alarms rang and no-one arrived to drag her inside. Closing it carefully behind her, she unlocked the second, wincing again at the shriek of the hinges, then she was out into the warm night air, her slippers silent on the concrete path.

The garden around the asylum was brightly lit, but the shadows were equally deep, and Whitney knew all about shadows. She approached the high metal gate and inserted her key, but it wouldn't turn. Trying again and again, she hit her hands against the lock in frustration. She had been sure this key would be the right one! The attendants only carried two, and one was for the nurses' station. Maybe she hadn't shaped it quite right, or there was rust in the lock. She jammed the key in harder and it snapped in half.

"Dammit!" she whispered and hurled the broken pieces to the ground. So close, and this shoddy gate was her undoing! She wouldn't give up. Maybe there was a loose railing, or something to help her up.

"Why, hello there! I've been waiting for you for ages," came a woman's voice from the other side of the gate.

Whitney pressed herself against a hydrangea bush in the shadows. The voice sounded familiar and she immediately assumed it was one of the nurses or attendants, but after a moment, she realised that it wasn't the case. That particular voice came from somewhere else entirely.

"Miss Underwood," Whitney said, calmly, with a bright smile as she stepped forward, forcing all thoughts of her messy hair and ridiculous slippers away. "What a surprise to see you."

"Oh, call me Dottie, please. Once you've tortured someone, you really shouldn't stand on protocol."

"I can't disagree." Whitney looked Dottie up and down. She looked as fresh as a daisy, not like a woman on the run from federal prison.

Dottie fiddled with the lock and the gate swung open. "Would you care to accompany me? I have a car."

Whitney walked through the gate, her head held high. "I'm sure you have a destination in mind."

"I surely do."

The destination, it turned out, was a brightly painted suburban bungalow.

"The wonderful thing about these new suburbs," Dottie said brightly, "Is how nobody knows the slightest thing about their neighbours. The family who lives here, for example, are visiting an adult son in San Francisco, but not one person has come over to see why there's a car in the garage or the lights are on at night, even though I've seen the twitching curtains and I know they're dying to find out."

"You're from a small town, then?" Whitney alighted from the car and wrinkled her nose at the smell of oil that permeated the small garage.

"Very astute, Whitney. I'm not, as it happens, but the Soviet Union is very much like a small town. Everyone's noses in everyone's business."

Inside the house, everything looked as though the suburban family had simply stepped out for a few moments. Dottie had left no evidence of herself in the place.

Whitney went straight for the liquor cabinet and poured them each a glass of whiskey. She didn't miss Dottie's tiny flinch as Whitney reached towards her, though Dottie nearly managed to hide it.

"Cheers," she told Dottie, and drank the glass down. "I've been waiting for that since I was arrested."

Dottie threw hers back, too, her hand steady again. "Nice breakdown, by the way. Very convincing. They should have given you another Oscar on the spot."

"I was only nominated. I never won." Whitney avoided Dottie's praise, uncomfortable. She had the feeling that this tall, dangerous woman had never had a day's doubt in her life, let alone a face-clawing mental collapse.

Whitney put her glass down with a solid thump. "Now, I presume you want me to make something for you. You haven't killed me for torturing you, and you know my powers are gone, so that's the only useful thing I have left."

"Oh, I could always stake you out as bait for the new and reformed Council. You're right, by the way. I need you to make me something. I want to kidnap Howard Stark."

"That blowhard? Is he still shooting his movies in Starkvision? That's a crime against actresses, but I don't think you'd care about that."

Dottie laughed. "If he was in Russia, he'd never be allowed to distract himself from his real work by messing about with cameras. What a waste of talent. My problem is that whenever I get close to him, he's got some gadget to protect himself. I need to shut those down."

"A nuclear explosion would do it." Whitney threw out the idea casually, but her mind was already starting to run through more realistic possibilities. It was like waking up after a long and dreary hangover.

"It's so tricky to get the nuclear materials, isn't it?" Dottie tilted her head to the side, watching Whitney closely. "And after I tried a power line surge, I found out that his most vital equipment is shielded anyway."

Whitney nodded, thoroughly absorbed in thought now. "Nice try. That's where I would have gone next. Give me some paper and a pencil. I need to work."

"You don't want to know my plans? Assurances that I'm not going to kill you, maybe? Some kind of deal?"

Whitney raised an eyebrow. "Where else would I go?"

 

No matter how closely Dottie had watched the house, she had been unable to pin Howard Stark down to anything as mundane as a timetable. That's why Whitney and Dottie had spent the last two days camped out on a hill on a neighbour's property that conveniently overlooked Howard's swimming pool and surrounding area. They'd once had to scramble away when the neighbour's teenage son and his friends had shown up to spy on the endless parade of hard-working starlets in bathing suits, but otherwise it was an excellent vantage point.

"No sign of Peggy, at least," Dottie muttered as she peered through her binoculars.

"Who, Peggy Carter? From the SSR? Why would she be here?"

"Yes, dear old Pegs. She and Stark are old war buddies, always in each others pockets."

"You know my machine will only work on one person at a time. If you expect resistance you'll to have to wait while I build more." To be honest, Whitney wouldn't have minded a little longer to work. The power fluctuations were a little concerning, but Dottie had insisted that they go ahead as soon as possible. She might have thought that Dottie was uncomfortable being around her, but apart from that initial, almost non-existent, flinch, Dottie had shown no sign of remembered terror.

Dottie waved a languid hand. "I don't need to kidnap her. She's only relevant if she gets in my way."

Now that she thought about it, Carter had precipitated Whitney's great failure, so it would certainly be satisfying if Dottie did happen to shoot her. At the beginning, Whitney hadn't been terrifically invested in the success of Dottie's plan, except in that Dottie was keeping her safe from the SSR. The more she worked on her device, the more determined she had become to actually use it. All that time in the hospital had done nothing but dull her mind and crush her genius. Unfortunately, the other alternative, if she appeared fully recovered, would be jail, and Whitney was sure that would be just as numbing. Joseph Manfredi could probably hide her away, but the thought of succumbing to his cloying attentiveness made her shudder. She scratched idly at the left side of her face, already covered in thin lines of scabbing. She had no real alternative but for Dottie's plans to succeed.

In the late afternoon, it was Whitney's turn to play lookout while Dottie napped. Stark had been spotted several times, but always in the company of dozens, and Dottie had declared the situation unmanageable. Whitney had to agree.

Stark was having yet another evening pool party, thirty or so young women and a couple of young men lounging around while the butler and his wife tended to their whims. The wife seemed to have recovered from Whitney's attack, though Whitney was surprised that she was still associating with the people who had put her in harm's way in the first place. Perhaps she owed Stark for the hospital bill: he seemed the type, like Joseph, to keep track of debts.

As Whitney scanned the crowd, she noticed someone familiar under a patio umbrella, in the shade behind Stark.

"Wilkes!" she exclaimed, loud enough to wake Dottie.

"Handsome scientist Wilkes?" Dottie snatched the binoculars from Whitney's grasp. "Hmm, he's looking more substantial these days."

"With all the zero matter gone he'll normal again." Whitney tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but Dottie wasn't one to miss details like that, especially as Whitney was scratching her face again.

"Want me to kill him for you, hon?"

Whitney shook her head and wiped the blood from her fingernails on her pants. "He's a nobody. It's more – Stark gets all this, everything he wants, even my employees! But I'm hiding in the bushes with a Russian agent. No offence."

"None taken. Stark's killed more people than you or I ever will, but he's indispensible and we're…"

"Entirely disposable." Whitney glanced over at Dottie, whose usually bland and pleasant expression was set in hard lines. "That's why you want Stark, isn't it? So your country takes you back."

"Such a prize and they'll have no choice."

A few hours later, the opportunity finally presented itself: the party had broken up around midnight as a rare cool breeze swept through the festivities. Stark had wandered outside alone, whatever tryst he had planned either unsuccessful or already over. He stripped off and dove into the pool nude, swimming slowly beneath the bright patio lights.

"Let's go," Dottie hissed, and Whitney jumped to her feet. The two women climbed into a golf cart, a handy little electric vehicle that Whitney had suggested for their plan, having seen some of her husband's elderly business acquaintances use them. Dottie had never heard of such a thing, but still had no trouble acquiring one from one of Stark's neighbours. Whitney's device was installed in place of golf clubs and wired into the electric motor.

Dottie drove them quietly down the hill while Stark paid no attention whatsoever; Whitney flicked the switches in series and her device began to vibrate slightly. She smiled as she pulled the broad nozzle of the beam concentrator up and locked it into place, the electric hum vibrating warmly through her chest.

"Are we in range?" Dottie asked.

"Yes, but he's got to get out of the water, or we'll just fry him." For a moment, Whitney was tempted, but she didn't think crossing Dottie would be wise.

Fortunately, Stark took that moment to climb out of the pool, stretch and wrap himself in a towel. Whitney slid her finger onto the trigger and took a deep breath, holding it, holding it, holding it until water stopped running down his body. She waited so long that their little cart reached the edge of the brightly lit area around the pool.

"Do it!" Dottie ordered.

Stark turned around, his mouth opening in surprise, and Whitney fired.

Whitney's vision took a moment to clear from the intense light, and her shoulder radiated pain where the heat of the nozzle had burned her, but it had worked perfectly: Stark was frozen in place. The towel fell from his hips to puddle around his feet.

Dottie hopped out of the golf cart and looked Stark up and down, mostly down. "Well, there's something I didn't need to see close-up."

"Stop being ridiculous and load him on the cart," Whitney snapped. "The stasis effect will wear off soon."

"And that's all I needed to hear," came a cool, female voice.

Agent Carter stepped out of the house, pistol at the ready.

"Why, hello there, Peggy," Dottie purred, but Whitney could see her muscles tense, ready to spring. Whitney herself sidled a few steps to the right so that the immobile Stark was a shield between her and Carter's weapon.

"Stay away from Howard, please," Carter told Whitney, but kept her focus squarely on Dottie. "I thought seeing Jason would lure you out of hiding. It's just a pity that Howard can't obey curfew, even when it's for his own safety."

Whitney giggled. "Jason? Jason Wilkes? Why would I care about him?" She caught her hand before she started scratching her face again. "You think I'm here for Wilkes?"

"Oh, Peggy," Dottie smiled at her, bright as day under the harsh spotlights. "Whitney isn't here for anyone. She's simply helping me out, two girlfriends working together. Remember when we did that?"

With that, she dropped into a crouch. Carter took a swift step away, expecting an attack, but instead Dottie spun on her heel and kicked Stark in the back of the legs, toppling him into the pool. He sank straight to the bottom.

"Run!" Dottie shouted at Whitney, who was staring in surprise.

The butler came sprinting out of the house, with half-a-dozen other men and women in his wake, and Whitney ran up the hill. Carter made the obvious choice and leapt into the pool to save Stark, so the lanky butler was the only one close enough to catch up.

"Jarvis!" yelled an older woman in a floral dress, to no avail.

"Get back here!" the butler bellowed after Whitney, his voice filled with rage. Whitney clenched her fists in frustration, desperately wishing that she could dissolve him into that other dimension as she had so many other men. She concentrated so intently that she could almost feel the zero matter again, running icy through her veins. When she stumbled and he grabbed her arm from behind, she turned and slapped her hand onto his cheek, pressing her fingertips in to let the zero matter flow.

He staggered slightly, but his grip remained as strong and material as ever, and Whitney crumpled in disappointment at her failure. Dottie caught up with them in that moment and jabbed hard fingers into the man's shoulder joint, making him release Whitney. He raised his fists but Dottie kicked him in the kneecap and let him fall, then pulled Whitney with her up the hill. Behind them, Whitney could hear splashing as they tried to save Stark, and, once they were clear of the fallen butler, gunshots.

Dottie kept them low and now Whitney understood why Dottie had been so insistent on their wardrobe: their black pants and navy shirts rendered them all but invisible to the agents in the lower, spotlit, area of the lawn. Whitney was, for once, grateful that the asylum hadn't let her keep up her hair colour: her usual luminous bottle blonde was just asking for a shot to the head.

The two women scrambled under the fence and sprinted down to Stark's neighbour's garage without needing to exchange a single word. Whitney quickly hotwired the nearest car while Dottie threw open the garage doors and drove them away into the night, shots and shouts ringing out behind them.

"What were you doing, letting him catch you?" Dottie yelled, hauling on the wheel as they turned a sharp corner. "You don't have your special powers now!"

"You wouldn't want me to!" Whitney shouted back. "You think I'm a monster!"

Dottie laughed heartily, the wind whipping her hair around. "Whitney, we're all monsters. You, me, Stark, Peggy…"

"Stark and Peggy don't make you afraid!"

"Stark and Peggy didn't torture me!"

"I knew it! I knew you were afraid!" Whitney felt some kind of wild power screaming accusations at the only woman who could help her stay free.

"Tell me you weren't! Tell me you weren't afraid of what you could do, before you started to enjoy it!"

"I…" The thrill drained out of Whitney. "Of course I was afraid. How did you know that?"

Dottie was driving at a fast but manageable speed now, north out of the city. "The question is always which scares us more: being powerless, or being powerful. I like what you chose."

"You know Russia's never going to take you back," Whitney said, suddenly. "They're scared of you. Everyone's scared of you."

Dottie shook her head, but not with her usual conviction.

Whitney put her hand over Dottie's on the wheel. "You can't go home. No-one's coming to save you, and the people who would come and save me would smother me."

"What are you proposing?" Dottie asked, blinking hard, though Whitney could see no tears.

"Teamwork. Two monsters together. Lick our wounds and emerge from our cave stronger than ever."

Dottie nodded slowly. "You know, I think you're onto something. If the world doesn't want us how we are, we'll just have to change it."

Whitney leaned into the wide leather seat and smiled, lightly running her nails over her right cheekbone. Everything was going to be fine.