“You’ve got to be kidding me, doc.” Colonel Phillips looked downright stony as Dr. Erskine laid down his list and straightened his tie. The rest of the scientific team, including Stark, had strangely conflicting expression on their faces; unwilling to contradict the genius who was giving the Strategic Science Reserve their super-soldier program, but not quite sure if they believed his pitch for the choice of subject. Agent Carter was on high alert, chin up as she regarded Colonel Phillips’ skepticism.
“No, Colonel. I always knew Schmidt’s choice to inject the formula before it was ready caused his… condition, but there were far more fundamental problems to perfect the process than simply its newness. The formula itself will only work fully on these subjects,” Dr. Erskine said calmly.
“I believe the doctor’s theory is worth trying,” Agent Carter said. “If everything works out, you will end up doubling your fighting force.”
“We’re not putting women on the front lines. God Almighty, can you even imagine what kind of trouble that would cause?”
“Well, you’re going to have to put them somewhere,” Agent Carter said frostily. “As soon as your country starts sending over more boys, the women are going to have to be the ones making the planes and assembling tanks. Didn’t I see a plan for that propaganda campaign in the works?”
“That’s beside the point,” Colonel Phillips said. “Even if you can make everyone conveniently forget America has never had women in combat before, the effect on discipline, on the army as a whole… We’d have to keep separate units, and we already have the Negro soldiers in their own division-.”
“So you already have a template on how to keep everyone separated,” Agent Carter said.
“Like that really matters right now?” Stark broke in. “Schmidt’s gotten his hand on something we know is going to be bad news, and Carter’s right; I don’t care if whoever Dr. Erskine picks is a man, a woman, or any color of the rainbow, as long as they’re willing to help. Any dame willing to fight-,” Stark looked over at Carter and winked, “-is going to be a hell of a surprise to the Nazis.”
Colonel Phillips shook his head like a grumpy bear, but met Agent Carter’s eyes squarely as she ignored Stark’s flirtations. “I’m bringing up what everyone else is going to. Senator Brandt is stonewalling us enough as it is. I have no idea how I’m supposed to sell him on our first test subject being a woman.”
“Colonel Phillips, it is exactly why we must go with one of these girls,” Dr. Erskine said, tapping his list. “Because no one else will work, and the project will stop now. You know Agent Carter; there are many women who are eager to stop this war, and amongst these here is surely one who would not abuse the power given to her.”
“Why these girls, Doc? Out of everyone, why these girls?” Colonel Phillips asked, finally grabbing the list and scanning the names.
“All of them tried to enlist,” Dr. Erskine said simply. Colonel Phillips’ lips quirked in what might have been a smile, before settling back in his usual grumpy scowl.
“Smith, Johnson, Howards, Adams… Romanov?”
“An immigrant. Her family came over from Russia when she was seven.”
Colonel Phillips sighed, unsurprised. “She’s your choice, isn’t she?”
“I spoke with her. Like me, she will do everything she can to keep her freedom, and this country that has given her this opportunity, alive. She has a very strong heart, is very loyal, and cares very deeply about stopping those she cares about from being harmed.”
“We don’t need bleeding hearts, Doc-.”
“You keep saying we need strength. Yet the serum would give them strength. Who you need is who I am also seeking, a person who is good here,” Dr. Erskine thumped his chest, “so they will not break, not crack, so they can use their strength to stop this war. Isn’t that what we’re truly doing here?”
Colonel Phillips was silent for a long moment and turned to Agent Carter. “Put them all through basic. Pick from whoever makes it.”
Dr. Erskine stopped himself from smiling at Agent Carter until Colonel Phillips had left the room.
Natasha Romanov was twenty years old, her accent trained away by years of self-imposed lessons in speech (listening to radio shows religiously), and carried with her the scars of her family’s flight from Russia even thirteen years after the fact. Tiny and lithe, at first glance she seemed more a girl you might see dancing on a stage than someone you could imagine picking up a gun.
Of course, much the same could have been said about Agent Peggy Carter. No one ever did say that to her to her face anymore, not after she’d decked the last three soldiers who’d tried to make her fit into their typical worldview. And she never said it to the women at the SSR’s training camp either. Colonel Phillips had somehow managed to find a few drill sergeants who didn’t think they were entirely daft for wanting to train women, or if they did, were at least capable of keeping their opinions to themselves and whipping the women into shape with the same ruthlessness as they had any men under their command.
Peggy had expected there to be a dropout rate, and there was, but she was fiercely proud when no more than two ladies walked away the endless rounds of running, exercises, and weapons’ drill. Smaller than virtually any other man that had used the obstacle course, the women found ways to run it anyway, by teamwork, by encouragement, and most of it without a word of intervention. And behind them, always pushing them to be better, was the tireless Natasha Romanov. She was no faster or stronger than any of the others, but despite being tumbled into the dirt on a daily basis, Peggy could always expect that head of copper-red hair to be there without fail. Above all of them, Natasha had never complained. She pushed through the worst exhaustion without fail.
Maybe most wouldn’t have understood why, but Peggy did. And so did Dr. Erskine, well above and beyond all of them; because he knew what it was like to have your own country turn against you, and the relief of having a second start in a new, welcoming world made you want to give your all. And all is what they needed to make Project Rebirth work.
After watching Natasha Romanov quietly lead her squad from the middle of the pack, using encouraging words to make sure someone won, even if it wasn’t her, of pushing the others past their fear and their limits to make them stronger, even Colonel Phillips was willing to give her a reluctant nod.
And that was all they needed.
Dr. Erskine never lived to see the full results of Rebirth. He got one look at Natasha Romanov, a little taller than she had been, strong and agile as a mountain lion, before Hydra made sure no one would ever be able to benefit from his expertise again.
Senator Brandt, furious at being deceived over the project, had to save face by putting SSR’s “very expensive failure” to some kind of use.
“Get the women involved in the war effort. Factory work, victory gardens, buying bonds, any supportive actions they can,” he’d said through gritted teeth.
“Smile, look pretty, don’t you dare pick up a gun,” Natasha had said in exasperation to Peggy, tugging her skirt self-consciously before she was set to go onstage. “I’m sure he’d want me to sing if I could carry a tune. Just put me up there with the rest of the chorus girls.”
“You’ll get your chance,” Peggy said. “Sooner than you think.”
Natasha just shook her head and practiced her smile until you’d almost have to believe it. Before Brandt would even allow her the consolation prize of the USO, he’d had her sent to charm school.
And Natasha Romanov would have fought him as she’d fought the Hydra spy who’d killed Dr. Erskine, if she thought it would do the slightest bit of good. But it wouldn’t. Brandt held the purse strings and Phillips held her entry into the army, and neither of them was inclined to open what they had to her. A woman, even a strong woman, did not belong on the front lines of the war. No matter how much Natasha had learned on her own, no matter how many shows she did to promote women’s roles in the war effort, no matter how many people she had begged fighting lessons off of, they would never let her near real combat.
So she learned how to be ingratiating and charming, learning useless American social polish she hadn’t needed in her neighborhood, and how to worm her way into conversations she wasn’t supposed to hear, which she had. If people wouldn’t keep her updated on the war effort on their own, she would figure it out herself. Agent Carter found her the appropriate uniforms and she snuck into meetings with the shield of a notebook and the weapon of a pencil.
Howard Stark believed in her, because he believed in science, and he believed in Dr. Erskine, but she couldn’t afford Howard’s open patronage. No matter if he treated her with a respect that went directly counter to his playboy image, the minute anyone found out he was backing her, everyone would assume she’d earned it on her back. And he, bless his waxed moustache, was all too aware of the double-edged sword his reputation presented to someone in her precarious position.
But that wouldn’t stop him from pulling some very subtle strings in the name of a scientist they’d both respected, and it wouldn’t stop Peggy Carter from helping smooth the way for the “Lady America” tour to start its first European shows.
They wouldn’t let the USO women mingle with the troops. That was an ironclad rule, enforced by the matronly chaperones in an attempt to keep everyone’s minds on their jobs.
But Natasha was strong enough to bend iron, with a will to match. The same tricks that had kept her updated on the war in America worked even better here, where the soldiers were just in the next tent over and not concerned with keeping their voices down.
Particularly when a lot of them had just been captured by the enemy too far behind the lines to affect a rescue, and none of the exhausted boys were going to be allowed to head into a suicide mission. The army was going to write off those captured (by HYDRA; she’d recognized the significance of one of their distinctive patches ripped off an enemy’s uniform by one of the boys) without trying.
They weren’t going to do anything. A small army couldn’t have gotten them out.
But maybe a single person could. A single strong person could survive where all the overt power in the world would fall. She had fled Russia as a child because she had seen what could happen when you were passive, thinking that either those in power could protect you, or that there was nothing you could do. Sitting and waiting for the end… no. Not while she could do something. That’s all she’d ever wanted to do. This could kill her, but if she did nothing, the brave boys who’d volunteered would die, or worse. If she didn’t try, then the stage was all she deserved, and Dr. Erskine’s sacrifice had been wasted.
Natasha clenched her hands, her hidden muscle swelling as she stole into the costume tent and raided the chest where they kept the men’s costumes. She filched a leather bomber jacket one of the stagehands had left behind, a helmet someone had left under a seat, and found, with a fierce, tight smile, a set of brass knuckles someone had stashed in the pocket of the jacket. Not exactly honorable, but no one had let her near a gun since basic. Natasha might be throwing herself into a stupid amount of danger, but she was going to shade every bit of the odds her way.
Natasha nearly dropped her helmet as Peggy Carter appeared behind her.
“Were you going to walk?”
“If I had to.”
Peggy smiled while shaking her head. “No need, if you trust Howard’s flying.”
“I’ll take him for anything I can get.”
“Please never repeat that in his presence. Hurry up; Colonel Phillips just realized you were in camp.”
Natasha didn’t have time to think again, between her dodging Phillips and then Howard dodging shells, until she was parachuting out over a HYDRA factory deep behind German lines.
But she’d made her decision a long time agao.
There was a saying that there were no atheists in foxholes. When rescuing soldiers who, days before had cheered and saluted her with only a small amount of irony as she danced around onstage, she discovered there were also no misogynists, at least when their lives were on the line and they’d just watched her shoot a half-dozen men dead with their own deadly weapons and fight off the rest with nothing more than a jail cell door and brass knuckles. And all with no back-up, and no reason to be there other than to try to help the people everyone else had given up on.
That’s when they started calling her “Captain America” without a blush.
“You changed the world, Captain,” Maria Hill said, putting a file folder on the table between them.
Captain Romanov shook her head slightly, her red hair dimming the color of her costume. “I barely got a chance to notice. There was too much to do.” She made a tiny smile of both amusement and pain. “There was a war on.”
Hill took several papers from a bag at her side and turned them over. “The reason we have women in combat is thanks to you. You accelerated women’s rights all over the board, equal opportunity, pay, everything.”
“I wasn’t trying…” Romanov paused. “I didn’t want to be powerless. I didn’t want anyone to be powerless. I just wanted to do something.”
Hill smiled, an odd expression on her calm and sober face. “And that’s why everything changed, even after you crashed.”
Romanov put the publicity papers aside, scarcely glancing at them. “I know you’re trying to ease me back into things,” Romanov said. “But since I apparently managed to start a revolution even after I was frozen, I think I can handle meeting some of your other agents. If they can meet me, I can meet them.” She hesitated just a moment and added softly, “Don’t tell me your people pulled me out of the ice to put me on a pedestal. I told you, I want to do things.”
Hill nodded in sharp agreement, and looked very satisfied.
“You’ve heard of Agent Rogers?” she asked.
“Only by reputation. The Black Widow, right?”
Hill laughed softly. “Yeah. He took that nickname and ran with it. Startled the hell out of more than one person when they were expecting some delicate-looking lady and got, well, him.” She turned over a picture and watched Captain Romanov’s eyes widen.
“Don’t let him fool you, either. He’s made himself strong, but he can play up the guileless blue eyes angle until you’d believe his head was completely empty. He can speak seven languages, act well enough to fool some incredibly paranoid and suspicious characters, and can take out an entire squad on his own with minimal weaponry.”
Romanov looked thoughtful. “You said he ‘made himself strong.’”
Hill smirked; Captain Romanov might have been a walking target in that red, white, and blue uniform, but she was smart and observant behind that cowl. “This is a picture of him seven years ago.”
While still tall, this Agent Rogers was skinny and pale, dressed in a suit with a pocket protector peeking out from behind his lapel.
“He was an analyst, one of our best. Photographic memory, excellent tactician, any ops he planned were as tight as they could be, given the nature of our work. Except we could never send him in the field. He had enough health problems to keep a dozen doctors busy for years, but wouldn’t go see them beyond the minimum.”
“He had his reasons,” Romanov said, her eyes scanning his file. “His parents?”
Hill nodded. “His father was a soldier, and died in a field hospital before the doctors could save him. His mother went in for treatment for a routine infection, got incompetent care, and didn’t pull through. He didn’t trust doctors any more than he could throw them, and he couldn’t do that without wheezing.”
Natasha looked between the two pictures, the skinny, bookish fellow and the strong, athletic one, and felt a kinship with anyone who’d been willing to change themselves that much.
“What changed?” she asked.
Hill opened another file. “His best friend was one of our best field agents. James Buchannan Barnes; he called himself Bucky.”
“It’s a bad job, Bucky,” Steve said, pointing at page a hundred and twenty-two of the report he prepared. “Look, you know how well I research this stuff, and I’m telling you, it’s a bad job.”
“Hey, any undercover work is tough, but that’s why I have you, string bean,” Bucky said, carefully thumping Steve on the back just light enough to avoid bruising him. “You got all my angles covered. Do you honestly think I’d take a long-term undercover assignment unless you were covering all my bases?”
Steve was a little mollified, but shook his head. “Bucky…”
“I read your report. Every word. Even the boring ones,” Bucky said seriously. “Look, Solokov is ruthless, but you have his number. I have everything I need to keep myself in one piece, thanks to you. I can worm my way into his inner circle, trace the arms shipments, and be out in less than a year. I got this Steve.”
“I just… got a bad feeling, that’s all,” Steve said finally, shoulders slumping. “We should be doing this together.”
Bucky hesitated slightly, but kept his mouth shut. The arguments between them had already been said a dozen times, as jokes, slurred over beer, talked out at two a.m., and shouted in the locker room. Steve wasn’t ready to go to the doctors and get himself well enough to pass his field trials, and Bucky couldn’t push him into it. They didn’t need to be retreaded.
“Next time, maybe,” Bucky said.
“Maybe,” Steve said, and pulled Bucky into a hug. “Stay frosty out there, got it?”
“Hey, I can do this all day,” Bucky said with a smile.
“That was the last we heard of Agent Barnes for over a year, barring coded drop messages. Four months into the op, Agent Rogers started a discreet search. Six months into it, he tried to get the op canceled and Barnes pulled out. But the coded messages indicated everything was still on schedule, and no one was willing to waste that much work on Rogers’ hunch, no matter how good he was.”
“So he took matters into his own hands,” Captain Romanov said positively.
Steve was shaking as he sat back on the table, his knuckles white, but didn’t move as the doctor injected him. He tried not to flinch as his eyes flicked over to the near-dozen syringes on the tray, treatments for all his problems, everything he’d told himself he could handle on his own, thank you very much, for most of his life. Except it wasn’t his life he was worried about anymore. It was Bucky’s.
There were two possibilities he could see from his extrapolation of the op data. Either Bucky was already dead (and his heart clenched at that) and someone needed to find out for sure, or Bucky was in too deep to send back any real info. Every coded message he’d sent back should have had a little something for Steve, just a short phrase, enough to let Steve know how the op was going for real. And that wasn’t there, hadn’t been for months. Maybe it was just because he was too short on time to risk it, but Steve didn’t believe that. Couldn’t believe that.
Bucky needed help, and S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t going to risk sending anyone in after him without knowing the lay of the land.
It was past time for Steve to suck up the fear he’d lived with most of his life and make something of himself, literally. No one knew this op better than him, and no one was better suited to go in and get Bucky out – if Steve hadn’t been the kind of guy to get winded just walking up a flight of stairs, and nearly have his throat swell shut doing light jogging. There were ways around his damned fragile health, drugs and steroids and symptom-suppressors and all, if only Steve hadn’t been seeing death behind every syringe and doctor’s name.
But none of that meant a damn if Bucky went down without Steve even trying to fight.
It would take a long time, but Bucky was strong. If he was still alive now, he could survive long enough for Steve to get himself strong enough to find him.
Hang on, Bucky. I’m coming.
“Steve Rogers put himself through the most brutal, accelerated conditioning I’ve ever seen anyone attempt. He learned how to inject himself with all the drugs he needed, and even had corrective surgery on his heart and bounced right back into strengthening himself the second the doctors released him. He was literally held together with duct tape and chewing gum, but damn if he didn’t pass the field agent tests eighteen months after he made his decision. By that time S.H.I.E.L.D. believed him about Agent Barnes, and we’d sent other agents after him. No luck.”
“No luck for me either.”
Hill didn’t even flinch, but Natasha started as she looked over her shoulder to see the tall, blond, muscular Agent Rogers standing in the doorway. Dressed in a black jumpsuit with an armored vest bearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. crest over it, he looked nothing like the guileless analyst Natasha had seen in his file photo. He looked absolutely deadly, all the purpose and drive he had now manifest in his flesh as well as his mind, and not hidden behind a façade for the sake of a mission.
“By the time I broke into Solokov’s compound, Bucky’s cover had been blown. I managed to get him about halfway out, but a stray bullet took him just as we were clearing the fence. He was dead before he hit the ground,” he recited, his voice very tight and even.
“And Solokov?” Natasha asked.
“I ripped his organization apart from the ground up and never looked back. I made sure he and his people couldn’t hurt anyone else every again,” Rogers said.
“Good,” Natasha said, and extended her hand. Rogers took it, raising an eyebrow. “I’m looking forward to working with you.”
“Likewise, Captain. I’ve heard good things about you, and not just from the old files either.”
“I hope I can do better than just rumors,” she said, standing up and meeting his cool blue eyes squarely. Rogers gave her an ironic little smile and turned to Hill.
“You have something for us, Director?”
Hill raised an eyebrow at the two of them. “I think we do. Do you know anything about Tony Stark?”
“Howard’s son?” Natasha asked, sitting up straight with renewed interest.
“The same. I think it’s time you met him. And his new… houseguest. They’re a little unusual.”
“Director Hill, I think I can handle a little unusual,” Natasha said. “Believe me.”
Hill handed her the file without a word. She was counting on that.