Ladies and Gentlemen, with lacking bravado and aching wrists and a fatigued long-suffering cough, I present to you Chapter … wait for it… SEVENTEEN. *cue the last thirty seconds of Sweeney Todd's My Friends* Ahem. Anywho… I am delighted to say that I FINALLY THANK JESUS finished chapter sixteen of Athena. Lawdy, I thought that beast would never die. It just sort of sat their growling and biting at me every time I moused over it. By the time I finally got 'round to hiring some poachers to tranquilize it, that puppy was so rabid it was outta style. But… I did manage to finally subdue its ravenous jaws and put a tight leash and muzzle on it. Now, one must let bygones be bygones and move on to the next stage of Wilhelmina's Hofstadter's little adventure. Can I get a hallelujah?

All that weirdness aside, let us continue. Of course, thank you to my wonderful readers and reviwers, Zabuzasgirl, Musicwolf7, Blackbird71, and anyone else who read, reviewed, favorited, or followed this fic. Truly, I would be nothing without your continuous support, inspiration, and feedback. Thank you so much.

And a special exclusive thanks to Musicwolf7, for putting up with my near-constant private messaging – you have given me so much advice and inspiration! Thank you so much!

Anywho… let's get this show on the road.

Regards,

J.B.

If anyone cares, this chapter was inspired by a few musical pieces… Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, Symphony of the Night by Leaves' Eyes, Funeral March and Darkling by Sirenia , several Mozart and Chopin works (all mentioned in different chapters), and of course, the entire Captain America Soundtrack.

As a small side-note, which I urge you to pay attention to, an OC will be introduced in this chapter, albeit briefly – Mina's father, Wolfgang Hofstadter, and an adversary of Johann…

Enjoy!

Berlin, Germany

1943

Three months had passed. Three long and listless months. Winter melted into spring, her sixteen years progressing into seventeen, the war moving along at a sluggish but no less decimating pace. Day in and day out, a detail of HYDRA guards, clad in black leather, patrolled every inch of her uncle's lavish residence, inside and out. Day in and day out she slogged through every Chopin composition, every Norse epic, every long list of algorithms. Velvet and Tulle dresses, tiny boxes of pearls and lacey gloves and other superficial trinkets sent from Paris as gifts; reassuring and cheery letters from Johann, showering her with praise and stern reminders that she practice and progress. She worked alone, took her meals alone, spoke to no one. The cook and the scullery maid offered bits and pieces of small-talk, but were often shooed away by the HYDRA guards, ordered to strictly monitor any and all conversation and activity. All for the fear that she would be discovered by the Americans – or anyone, for that matter. She was a prisoner in her own home, the home that she spent much of her later childhood in.

She wasn't allowed to leave – she couldn't go to the market or to the park – not even the library. She couldn't speak to anyone, friends or strangers – though truly, she had no friends. If it was absolutely necessary that she leave, she was accompanied by unmarked guards, so as not to bring attention to herself. Air raids peppered the city, and in the middle of the night, she was dragged from her restless dozing out into the cool air, thrown haphazardly into the bomb shelter, stared down by six masked guards, silent and lifeless. She endured daily drills, flexing her powers, working them, so as not to "forget" how to use them.

It made her sick. When his letters came, she tossed them into the fire, watching them burn down to glowing embers. His words meant nothing to her. She was a prisoner – just as the Red Skull had wanted her. Johann made everything seem so superficial and fake and lovely. He paid no mind to her forced isolation – life was just a goddamned picnic and she shouldn't be so forlorn and cynical. She should have been seizing the day, happy and content to be locked in a large and empty house, drowning in the pains of piano-induced carpal tunnel, her brain swimming in calculus as she cheerfully embroidered napkins with the HYDRA insignia.

The life she had lived several months ago had seemingly dissolved into this false reality, what Johann perceived to be a blissful little holiday for her, a lovely little vacation from all the work and labor.

But it was more hellish than anything else. Immediately after Johann and the Red Skull felt that it was safe enough for her to come out of hiding from the Americans' tirelessness, she would be dragged back into the depths of HYDRA, destroying villages and massacring innocents – all to create their idealistic vision of the world. No doubt it would be stained with blood and reek of burnt flesh.

When she wasn't being dragged from her bed to the bomb shelter, her sleep was fitful – riddled with nightmares, vivid images of that gnarled, crimson face. That hungry grin with teeth like razors, lustful for flesh. Johann's letters were of no consolation for the dreams that charged her restless mind. Her heart ached with emotions she couldn't place – a part of her longed for the earlier months, when she had been ignorant, innocent, normal. But even then, her simple, idyllic life would have come crashing to a halt within several months' time. If anything, her interruption of HYDRA's endeavors had been a blessing. Had she never boarded that train in the middle of the night, had she never barged into her uncle's laboratory – HYDRA's destructive rampage would have continued unscathed and in the end, Johann and the Red Skull would have had their way.

What would she have done then, when her uncle, beaming with a wicked delight, welcomed her into an engineered apocalypse?

At least now she had some semblance of an idea of what they planned to do. But when would they strike? When would their revolution begin? Would they be transporting troops to every continent? Even the Red Skull could not have such hubris as to think that he had the man-power to take on the world. Armies would rise – the Americans, the British, the Soviets.

But as often as she tried to push the image of the wicked skull face from her mind, his words still rang in her ears.

"Regardless of who you choose to side with in the end, Wilhelmina, I want you to know. I will not stop carrying out my mission. I will take on this ravaged world and put an end to our never-ending grief and greed and destruction – or myself and my successors will die trying."

As she lay in bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, eyes glassy and throbbing with fatigue, his voice was there, like a haunting melody, a breeze funneling through a cemetery, cold and bleak and consuming – a never-ending vortex – she could drown in it.

"And when you have fought your battle, cemented your allegiances, lived your life – when you think that all of your worries, all of your foes, have disappeared – HYDRA will still be here."

Who was she to think that she could stop HYDRA?

Who would she ally herself with? Who would believe her story? That Star-spangled man, Captain America?

And how would she get to him? He was in America, or some American base. She was a mere child, with no money or resources. She could escape her guards – but if she ran, where would she go? How? She could afford a train ticket, but then what, and to where? Switzerland – neutral territory?

Johann was not a fool. If she was as indispensable as he made her sound, it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to believe that he had spies posted in every country in the world. There was no place for her to run, no one she could alert – no one would believe her. The Gestapo was no better than HYDRA and they had long since written them off as a bunch of fanatical madmen with childish fetishes for magic.

And if by some miracle she did manage to escape, to forge an alliance with someone, anyone – it would mean betraying the man who had taken it upon himself to raise her, to educate her.

She thought of her mother – had Angelica known of her brother's sick fascination with purifying a tainted race, a filthy world? Had she known of his ghoulish master? And if she did, would she advocate Mina's actions? Would she abandon him – give up on him?

A part of her – albeit, a small one – wondered if HYDRA really posed a threat, if they truly were as evil as she made them out to be. Was she simply better off bending to their will? After all, their goals seemed to be in the favor of humanity.

But the rest of her knew that the idealistic vision that the Red Skull had crafted for his followers was a falsehood. Advocates of continued life, of peace and equality, did not massacre whole villages simply because they needed the space to build a factory upon.

To thoughtlessly kill so many for such a trivial matter – HYDRA was a force to be reckoned with, a force to be recognized.

And though she longed to convince herself that it was not her place and not her battle to fight, she knew that such a hope was lost.

She had been given a destiny by the gods of Asgard. She could not simply stand aside and allow HYDRA to be victorious – she could not let her fear and her conscience stop her from completing that destiny. She remembered the Red Skull's lilting words – the gods of Asgard did not hand out their gifts to just anyone. She had been given a purpose; she would fulfill it, or her gifts would be relinquished.

Without that opposing power – HYDRA would be unstoppable.

She had no other choice. She had to flee before Johann returned; or else, she would be under the Red Skull's thumb until he achieved his goals.

And by that time it would be too late.

XXX

She sifted through her uncle's journals, his large desk littered with the contents of every drawer and shelf. Any hope of an escape was futile if she did not have the monetary means to procure a passage out of Germany. Money for a train-ticket, perhaps air fare, food and information. Johann was a product of the depression – before his lavish position in the Gestapo, he had only meager funds; he and Angelica had worked two or three menial positions at a time to survive. Storing one's savings in a bank was entirely out of the question; no bank teller could be trusted with his livelihood. She reasoned that the bulk of his monetary funds had been transferred across a network of HYDRA bases – there were at least six in Germany alone.

When he had worked for the Gestapo, the Führer had showered him with expensive commodities – most likely, Johann had demanded them. Trivial as material goods often were to him, it would be fitting of him to desire only the most lavish of salaries for his superior service. She recalled her mother angrily sputtering over Johann's bolstered greed; as the head of espionage, he destroyed whole villages in Poland, ransacking them of their wealth and taking it for himself as spoils of war. He had amassed a vast fortune and the decorations of a seasoned officer all before his twenty-fifth birthday. Never the less, he was a creature of habit.

He could afford security details beyond measure but he still took to hiding small sums of money in odd little crevices around the sprawling home. Her fingers stroked the soft leather cover of a book that seemed very out of place among vast encyclopedias of Norse myth and military strategy.

A bible. Small and weathered, between its crumpled and yellowed pages lay several bills – each worth one hundred Reichsmarks. She let a small smile crinkle the corners of her lips, before glancing up at the soldier posted outside of the study. He stood straight-backed, facing the corridor as he had been since she had entered.

She scowled before looking back down at the little book in her hands, a mixture of anger and mournful despair welling up from the pit of her stomach. A part of her twisted and writhed with guilt and sorrow, hesitant and afraid to betray Johann. She had often attempted to cleanse her mind of the guilt that plagued it, trying and trying to convince herself that what she was doing was necessary and right. Yet…

Sullenly, she let her eyes travel across the large study, the shelves lined with dusty but weathered books, the walls adorned with tapestries and intricate maps painted upon animal hides. On one wall, a small oil painting depicted a young, scrawny girl in a blue satin dress, a book held open in her hands, a small smile playing at her lips. But her eyes were glassy with fatigue and her cheeks, painted rosy, had been more of a greyish hue. The portrait had been painted when she had just turned eleven. That year had been a hellish one, her frail body wracked by severe bouts of whooping cough, her pale skin covered in the tiny red bumps of Measles. And through every illness that plagued her, Johann had been there, halting his work for weeks at a time to care for her, hiring the most esteemed doctors in the country to examine her. A shiver ran up her spine as the Red Skull's voice once again rang true in her ears.

"When you were but eleven years old, Johann came to me, requesting my advice. You were on the cusp of death…"

Johann had sought to save her from the slow death she might have had to endure. A vial filled with some experimental formula had saved her life – a vial filled with something no normal doctor possessed. Would a villain truly go to such measures to save one child? Would a villain go to such measures to save anyone?

She glanced back up at the soldier posted at the door. Every time she left a room, a guard silently followed her, taking up his post at whatever door she entered. A kindhearted benefactor would not have her under house-arrest, controlling and watching her every movement, their heavy rifles slung across their chests, sending a blatant message: they would not kill her, but they would wound her if it was necessary. And no matter how fervently Johann assured her that the soldiers were in place to protect her, not harm her, the truth was obvious. She was a tool – a weapon. HYDRA needed her to succeed – without her, they only had their weapons and those who manned them could still be killed.

A villain would go to such extreme measures to preserve a pivotal asset.

She felt hot tears prick her eyes and she shook her head vigorously, blinking hard. Johann no longer viewed her as his niece, the orphaned girl he had taken in, cared for. She was a business arrangement, and he was no more connected to her than to a contract paper, signed with his name.

The deal was sealed; he'd signed her over, no strings attached. She was the Red Skull's plaything now. She imagined the wicked smirk that would grace his lips as he ordered her to kill whoever stood in his way. He would enjoy her like a fine Schnapps – savor her until every last drop had been spent and she was no more than a withered carcass.

She glanced up again, ensuring that the guard was still facing away from her before she tucked the bills away in a pocket. She flipped through the yellowed pages, sighing heavily – she feigned fatigue, her body feeling as if it had not slept in months, but her heart ached just as her limbs did. She could pretend to be bored, to be nonplussed at her entire predicament, but deep within, she knew that she was only masking the sorrow and lonesomeness and fear that welled within her like a spring.

At the sound of her decidedly loud exhalation, the soldier turned on his heel in a single polished maneuver, his masked face staring her down. A loud click cut through the silence of the study as he cocked his rifle. Mina looked up at him, not bothering to stifle a roll of her eyes.

"What?" she spat, taking care to make her tone haughty and flippant. If Johann was not the type to award gold stars for good behavior, she doubted his beloved master would be. "Are you going to shoot me for reading the good book?" She held up the bible with a flourish. From the looks of the brittle pages and the crumpled bills within them, she had little to fear if the guard decided to tattle on her. The bills were Reichsmarks, thankfully still valid, but Johann hadn't attended a church service in at least three years. If he couldn't be bothered to worship in the lord's house, he certainly wouldn't take the time out of his hectic agenda to study up on scripture. The bills and their location were most likely long forgotten.

The soldier did not move a muscle; his reply was an almost inhuman silence. She scowled bitterly.

"You should try it sometime." She grumbled. "The wonders a little faith can do."

The soldier remained silent. Mina opened her mouth to offer a retort, but instead sighed and abandoned the effort. The soldiers never answered her questions and never acknowledged her spoken musings. They did not even speak to each other – they communicated in silent nods and gestures.

It was ridiculous. Did they think that she would derive some confidential information from a man asking his fellow comrade for a cigarette?

"You can turn back around, if you'd like." She finally said, eyeing the soldier levelly. "I promise I'll alert you if I attempt to harm myself."

The soldier was motionless. She shrugged. "Fine. Suit yourself."

She refocused her gaze on the bible in her hands, the book open to a page in the book of Proverbs, where the bills had once been tucked away.

Her stomach lurched as her eyes moved down the page.

"Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom?"

She swallowed hard, her fingers tracing the tiny letters.

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm the fool?" she whispered, this time, not even eliciting a movement from the soldier.

It was as if the Red Skull was laughing at her from afar, a harbinger of the certain failure to come.

She had no wisdom – no knowledge of who her captors were, and only limited knowledge of the power they possessed. They may not kill her, but they could torture her – cause her endless suffering and pain.

And yet, there she was, planning an escape that would no doubt be fruitless.

She closed the book with a loud thud, her throat tight and her eyes burning.

It was as if he knew her every move – a part of her conscience, her working mind.

It was as if he had planned it all, lusting for her to attempt it – to attempt to escape his grasp.

If nothing else than to cackle in the face of her courage.

XXX

The American Barracks

London, England – 1943

2030 Hours

Colonel Chester Phillips lifted his flask to his lips, closing his eyes in anticipation of the warm burn of Kentucky Bourbon.

And, to his most decided chagrin, there was none to be had. He tipped the flask upside down, hoping for at least the barest trickle of whiskey – not a drop. He muttered a fairly impressive string of expletives.

"Sir,"

Captain Steven Rogers' chipper tone, ever optimistic, cut through the hazy fog of the colonel's mind.

"Rogers," Phillips drawled in a slightly drunken yet clearly vexed tone, "Tell me again why I'm wasting a twenty man recon team on some Nazi girl-scout?"

Rogers bristled at his words, and Phillips offered him a cold grin.

"With all due respect, sir, this girl is not some nameless German – she's clearly being used by HYDRA – for god knows what. I don't know how low Schmidt is willing to stoop – I'd rather not think about it."

"And with all due respect, Rogers, your lack of thought has had a tendency to get you and some of my best men mixed up with the wrong bunch of Nazis. Now listen up, Rogers. I am not about to send the whole of my battalion to weed out some HYDRA whore – "

"Sir!"

"I said listen up, Rogers." Phillips barked, rising from his chair. With the plodding step of a lion he stalked towards the good captain. "Now, you have no idea who this girl is. For all you know, she's Schmidt's plaything – or she could be a well-informed member of HYDRA."

Rogers eyed the colonel with a cold anger. "Then if you don't think she deserves to be rescued, wouldn't she make a fine prisoner?"

Phillips returned his stare with one of solid stubbornness. "A fine prisoner, indeed. If we can catch her. But if we can't, Rogers, the consequences for both of us will be more than slightly detrimental to our initiatives. For one thing, HYDRA's liable to completely shut down and fall off the map if we do happen to screw up and not catch this kid. And if that happens, you and I are out of a job and the U.S. of A is under a new and improved dictatorship when Schmidt casually walks in a month or so from now. And, if she turns out to be a Nazi girl-scout that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, my boss is going to have my ass under a bus. And I will have your ass under a bus for wasting my time and resources on some civilian caught in the crossfire."

"But sir, if she is some civilian caught in the crossfire, don't you think saving her is the right thing to do?"

With a sudden jolt, Phillips slammed his fist down onto his desk, the action giving off a metallic clang.

"Goddamn it, of course it's the right thing to do, Rogers! It's the right thing to do to save the hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews that die each day in Nazi gas chambers. But guess what, we aren't savin' them, are we? We don't just send in men by the truckload and skewer the Gestapo's ugly asses, do we? No, we sure as hell don't. You know why, Rogers? Because we don't have the time, the resources, the money, the men, the weapons. As the United States Armed Forces, we aren't pinpointin' every helpless little child in every occupied nation. We are looking at the goddamned big picture. We cannot afford to waste time searching out and rescuing every innocent that's caught in this war. That's the whole definition of war, Rogers! It's hell. People die. And you, the goddamned Star-Spangled-Man, cannot save every innocent person. You can't, Captain, plain and simple. Believe me, if I could, I would. But I can't. And neither can you. It's time you start accepting that."

With a huff, Phillips sat back down in his chair, taking a fruitless swig of his flask. He scowled bitterly – a look that could have ten corporals dead on the floor, blood pouring from their wide eyes. He lit up a cigarette, eyes pointed away from the young Captain's unforgiving grimace.

"Sir, I know what you're thinking. I know you think that this girl is just some nameless nobody – but sir, I swear – I saw what she did in that factory. I saw the power radiating from her like – like water. It had to have been the tesseract – Schmidt can vaporize men in seconds; to have that power in a human being – he'd be unstoppable."

Phillips sighed heavily, staring down at the stack of paperwork on his desk. "If he'd be unstoppable, why didn't he figure out how to channel the power into himself instead of some kid?"

"No idea, sir. But Colonel – I understand your doubts about this girl but – I just – I can just feel it, sir. That girl saved my life – we both would've been killed by HYDRA's flamethrowers and she just threw up a blaze of light like some sort of force-field – not even a snap of the fingers. I looked into her eyes –there was fear there, indescribable fear. She told me she was Skull's prisoner, sir. I mean – what would HYDRA do with power like that? To vaporize a whole factory's worth of men in seconds – the power was pouring off of her like sheets of rain."

"If she's that powerful than maybe she could save herself."

Rogers shook his head. "No sir, Schmidt's no fool. Power like that – he'd never let her out of his sight. He's learned his lesson since the Howlers' came in, sir. He's getting more discreet with each move. He's planning something – the only reason I can come up with as to why this girl's disappeared off of the map is because Schmidt knows we're on to him."

Phillips snorted. "Then Schmidt must not be as good as we think – we've got next to nothing on this kid." He shook his head. "I should have expected it – the minute we put out a radio transmission, HYDRA's first move would be to clam up. I'm still not even sure if we should be wasting our time anymore – I have no doubt that HYDRA would jump at the chance to use a super-power like that of what you've just described. But at the same time, we'll have a whole mess on our hands if this girl turns out to be a well-informed HYDRA member with no desire to be rescued. For all we know, she's eating off a silver platter in a nice chalet in the Alps. We don't even know how old she is – she could be Schmidt's lady-friend… or something disgustin' like that."

"She didn't look older than sixteen, sir. But I suppose she could be older… she just – she just looked like a child – a deer in head-lights. Besides," he laughed quietly to himself, "I don't think Schmidt bothers all too much with women."

"Even someone as self-worshipping as Schmidt has time to dabble in some form of debauchery, Captain. He may not believe it, but he is human. And as it is, it's been a hard slog of a war. We all need a few indulgences here and there."

As he finished, a young corporal stuck his head into the doorway.

"Sir, we've got information on the whereabouts of the subject Athena,"

Rogers cast the colonel a curious glance. Philips waved a hand at him dismissively, rising from his chair. "I'll explain it on the way."

As he started out of the room, Rogers close at his heel, he paused a moment.

"What color hair did this girl have?"

The Captain lifted a brow. "Light brown. Sir?"

Phillips shook his head, dismissing the subject. "She isn't a – mistress of Schmidt's then. I figure he's got a thing for redheads."

"What makes you say that?"

"Just a hunch."

Colonel Phillips started at a brisk pace into the narrow stone corridor, Rogers, right behind him, the cramped space not permitting his broad shoulders next to Phillips'.

"You're calling her Athena, sir?"

"Well, we needed a better code-name than 'that Nazi girl'." He offered the captain a grim smile. "Schmidt has a thing for Norse mythology. And judging from your descriptions of what she can do, this girl's the next closest thing to being a god. Suffice to say, we thought it would be rather clever to give her a mythological name, directly contrasting to Schmidt's preferences. I like to think it would get his goat."

Rogers shrugged. "Sounds good to me."

They proceeded in silence as the young corporal led them into an opening alcove, the brick walls curving outward and broadening the room. A hub of radios and machinery dominated every inch of the room, the steady and rhythmic click-clacking of Morse coders filling the sound void. Far above them, the sound of a routine air-raid alarm test echoed faintly.

They were led to a large, sprawling map – the brightly colored canvas stretching along the back wall of the alcove.

"Sir," the corporal sought the colonel's gaze, silently asking permission to begin. Phillips offered him a single nod.

"We've managed to narrow down a specific location along the outskirts of Berlin – a remote residential community where Schmidt's city residence is located. We gleaned as much information as we could out of a Gestapo leak –"

"Gestapo?"

"We shot him after the fact, sir."

Phillips nodded tentatively. "Alright. That's better."

"We've pin-pointed it to a single street – Dietrichstraße – it's lined with higher-up's mansions. We've had five recon men scouting out the surroundings. From the most recent reports, the outside of the house is crawling with civilian soldiers – rounding the plot continuously. One of our boys got in close enough to pick out a HYDRA insignia. It absolutely has to be where Schmidt's keeping her."

"Or it could be a trap." Phillips stated bluntly.

Rogers glanced over at him. "Sir," his tone was quietly admonishing. "This is our best shot."

Phillips sighed and shook his head. "Schmidt isn't that stupid. It's only been three months and we've picked them out that fast? If this girl's as powerful as you say, you'd think he'd go to greater lengths to hide her."

Rogers nodded. "But maybe he doesn't have to."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, quite simply, if she can conjure up the power that I witnessed at that factory, there would be no need for Schmidt to worry about her safety. She can easily defend herself – and on top of that, the place is supposedly crawling with HYDRA personnel. I don't think he's getting lazy with his security – I think it's more of a matter of he's got bigger fish to fry."

"Alright, that makes sense. So we have a location – but I think that, for the moment, it would be in our best interest to bide our time. As powerful as she is, I don't want to risk losing her to HYDRA. I trust you and the Howlers to hold Schmidt at bay, but if he pulls this girl back into the equation when we're not looking, we won't stand a chance. But at the same time – she could be an informant. If we jump to conclusions and go in now, she could easily have contacts – hell, Schmidt could be expecting her to blow us to pieces if we get our hands on her. Exactly why I think this whole thing could also be a trap. So, I say we let things sit for a while more – I want the place observed day and night. If we witness her or any other HYDRA personnel, we watch 'em and tail em' if they leave. Let's see how she behaves. I'm not averse to taking a prisoner if it means helping out our cause – but I want to make sure that our asses are covered when we do."

He glanced at Rogers. The young captain shrugged.

"Sounds good to me."

Phillips nodded to the corporal. "I want a recon team on that place and the surrounding streets 24/7. Get a move on it, stat."

"Yes, sir."

Phillips turned to head for his office, his heart skipping at the idea of a perspective leg-up on HYDRA.

"You sure he's got a thing for red-heads, sir?"

Rogers met him with a mischievous grin. Phillips rolled his eyes.

"Count on it, Rogers. I've observed it firsthand."

"I didn't think you'd dealt with Schmidt before."

"Not personally – it was a recon mission back in the twenties' – I was just an organizer, not actually out on the field. Hell, I didn't even know his name. And he wasn't exactly the whack job he is today."

"Were you a red-head sir, before you went gray?"

"I oughta beat the shit out of you, boy."

Rogers laughed out loud. "Yes, sir." He offered a staunch salute.

XXX

Berlin, Germany

1943

She stared through the diamond panes of her window, the dusky evening light casting distorted shadows across the floor. She'd sat there for at least a half an hour now, yet her breaths continued to quicken and her heartbeat labored, attempting to keep time with her fluttering nerves. She held her leather satchel close to her heart, the meager weight of the Reichsmarks suddenly heavy as stones. She closed her eyes, muttering a short prayer. She cleared her throat and with a steady tone, she summoned the soldier standing guard outside the room.

The young man's darkened figure was a shadow across the doorframe – not a sound followed as he was engulfed in a scorch of blue flame.

Not even the slightest tinge of ash marred the wooden floor. She eyed the area where the soldier had stood briefly, her throat tight. For a moment, she wondered if she were any better than the Red Skull then, killing to find escape – refuge. She shook her head, ridding it of the thought. There was no other way – she had to get out. There was no time for kindness or consideration anymore – not for these men. Johann and the Red Skull could chase her forever if they wanted, but she would continue to run no matter the cost.

This night would begin a long string of attempted escapes – of dismal failures – of small successes. She knew she would be captured this time – she could feel it within her bones. But if anything, it would be a small symbol of her rebellion – her determination to never abide to the Red Skull.

To think of him rage over her insolence towards HYDRA. For the time-being, that was victory enough.

XXX

HYDRA Base

The Alps – 1943

"How many are dead?"

He stood facing the broad panes of the panoramic window, his slender fingers lightly gripping the stem of a glass, half-filled with Schnapps. His tone was placidly cold.

"Seven, sir, out of the twenty."

The lilting strains of a violin solo pierced the dead silence of the laboratory, the distinctly arabesque melody of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade filling the empty void with its majesty.

He scoffed. "How charming. So eager for blood, so eager for death – yet she fiercely proclaims that she loathes the sight of evil or cunning. So angelic as the eyes take in her innocence – the grip of the fist so desperate to crush it."

The glass shattered within his gloved hand, shards of ornate crystal spiraling through the air.

The Red Skull continued on, nonplussed, the pinnacle of sophisticated nonchalance, practiced at the art of maintaining one's composure.

"You are dismissed, Corporal. Notify Dr. Zola that he is to report to me immediately."

The clack of jackboots connecting in a staunch salute sounded behind him. "Jawohl, mein Herr."

"And Corporal,"

"Herr Schmidt,"

"Whipping would be too cruel – it would scar her lovely flesh. Have her run some – sixteen kilometers or so, with a rifle held upright – four and a half kilograms in weight. Keep her under close observation, of course – and have her do so on a particularly ghastly day. Torrential downpours, such would be perfectly suited to our means. If she is so eager to run, then let her. Let us see if she will comply to us then."

"Jawohl, mein Herr."

Patiently, he waited as the hollow steps of the soldier faded away to silence, the heavy doors of the laboratory clicking shut behind him.

He cast a cursory glance at the pool of clear liquid spreading across the metal tiles, giving off a crystalline sheen against the shards of shattered glass. He imagined the porcelain complexion of his niece's face, her washed-out grey eyes, somber and sorrowful.

Shattered like the face of a china doll, slick with the spilt liquor, he envisioned it reflecting in the pieces of broken crystal.

Her beautiful face, broken, smashed, a fine powder, not but dust.

Rage blurred his vision, a crimson haze of bloodlust and animosity.

With a deep inhalation, he slowed his accelerating heartbeat, his chest heaving at the effort. He closed his eyes, the lids like lead.

His rage had largely subsided some hours ago, after the first notification of Wilhelmina's attempted escape had been delivered to him. He vowed to remain collected before his men – and even himself.

In truth, he was disgusted – not with his niece's actions, but by his own reaction to them.

He had been so blinded with rage – a deep animosity had surged through his veins like an infection, every fiber of his being lusting for bloodshed and chaos. He could almost feel her fragile frame splintering, shattering in his iron grip, her limbs snapping like twigs under his thumb. The anger he had experienced – it was more real and more tantalizing than he any emotion he'd ever felt – for a moment he longed to…

Whip her until she bled, until her skin was ripped and torn. To see the scabs and scars forever writhing up her spine.

Beat her until every rib had snapped in two, until her lungs collapsed, until she lay contorted on the ground, bleeding, weeping.

To strike her over and over and over and over and over and over again.

He had fallen to his knees, tears streaming down his crimson cheekbones, his broad frame quaking and convulsing like a small child's. A terror so profound had worked its way to his core – his conscience laughed at him, mocked him – scorned him.

You are weak! You useless wretch – you pity them! All of them! Every single damned soul that ever denied you victory – that ever denied you brilliance and perfection! You have the strength to crush them under your heel, to reduce them to ash – and yet you cannot. You could not kill them. What makes you think you can kill her? She is no different from the rest of them – she will ruin you!

He couldn't remember how long he had knelt there, how long he had mentally berated himself – how long he had thought of every soul that had wronged him. It was like watching a film reel – his entire life's events playing out before him, vivid and colorized – hideous.

Tears had cascaded across his skin, hot and salty.

He could never hurt her. He loved her, like his own child – she was the only thing he had left in the world.

And yet, every single day, she was a constant, painful reminder of his greatest weakness.

One that had plagued him since he was a child, and had rewarded him with failure after failure after failure.

XXX

Regensburg, Germany – 1908

Christmas Day

Today was his fifth birthday. The day the Christ child had been born, so his sister told him. He'd never paid very much attention to the bible. He'd never been to a church, though his sister had been baptized. The only god his father worshipped was liquor and the Christ child was the poker chip.

And according to Hermann Schmidt, his son was the Devil incarnate. He had been the reason his mother had died. Her death had been exchanged for his life. He was a murderer – a demon. And Hermann Schmidt made good on reminding his son daily of the great sin he had committed on the day of his birth.

He rose early, leaving Johann and his sister alone in the rickety house. He worked in a factory, breathing in chemical fumes, listlessly toiling at a work bench, his fingers stained with tobacco as he hand-rolled his cigarettes. His wages were meager, and the farthest they traveled was to a poker table in a musty bar, never to be seen again. His children starved, yet he didn't care.

He would arrive home often on a Saturday or Sunday, having slept on the streets, kicked out of bars in a drunken stupor in the wee hours of the morning. Johann lay in his bed shivering, rigid with fear. Saturday was what his father liked to refer to as "Tag des Gerichts". Judgment Day. Johann mumbled to himself meekly, desperately wondering if there really was a god, if there was some blessed deity that could save him from the suffering that awaited him. Desperately he wondered if God would intervene.

He never did.

Hermann would drag him from his bed, laughing, his breath rancid with liquor. He would beat him – punch him, kick him, whip him until he bled.

He laughed at his son's anguished cries, the sobs that racked his frame.

But as Johann's weeping bubbled up into an unstoppable fit of hysteria, Hermann grew enraged.

"Does the Devil cry so easily, you little bastard? What a disgusting excuse of a man, you are!" He would sneer, the grin on his face sending chills through Johann's fragile body. "You are weak! You insolent snip – you deserved to die! How humiliated the Devil must be, that he gave you life – for surely Christ did not. No, no, Christ gives life to warriors, to real men. Not insignificant little girls – we should have your sister sew you a dress – how pretty you'd be, playing with your little dolls, feeding the little birds!"

But today, today would be the worst. He could feel it in his heart.

Hermann Schmidt apparently had had the good heart to buy Christmas gifts for his children.

Johann smiled delightedly, his heart skipping a beat as hope flooded through him. He watched as his father presented his sister a little china doll, dressed in the traditional Bavarian Dirndlgewand.

Angelika was thrilled, hugging her new toy tightly to her chest. Hermann smiled, but there was something in the expression that made Johann flinch. A coldness, a fury, masked with a saccharine sweetness. He beckoned his son to him, putting his arm around Johann's frail shoulders.

"My son, Weinachtsmann has brought you a gift, a nice little present for your birthday. A present fitting for the Christ child." He chuckled.

Wool socks, of olive green and brown yarn.

Johann received them silently, his smile melting into a dejected frown. He looked up at his father.

"Thank you, Papa. But… but… did Weinachtsmann bring me… something else? Angelika got a nice dolly… do you think maybe Weinachtsmann brought me a toy, too?"

"Why, my son, do you not like your present?"

Johann nodded vigorously. "Oh yes, yes I do like my present, Papa! Very much! But I… I had just… I thought maybe Weinachtsmann had brought me toy soldiers, like the ones in the shop windows…"

At this, Hermann Schmidt had flown into a rage.

Johann was kicked, punched, whipped, and thrown out into the snow, his bloody and blackened face sinking into the cold white powder, his tears freezing to his cheeks.

And his father had laughed at him, cackled hysterically as his son wept into the snow, trying again and again to rise from the snow, only to have Hermann's boot kick him back down.

"Some man you are! You little rat – I hope you freeze to death!"

Shortly after, Hermann Schmidt, in a state of drunken delirium, shot himself.

XXX

Berlin, Germany – 1926

Exactly one year after the formation of the German Schutztaffel

"Johann, you must not allow Zemo to get to you – his entire goal is to unravel your confidence. You must not let him succeed."

"How can he not succeed? He speaks nothing but the truth about me." He answered bitterly.

Behind him, the Baron Wolfgang von Strucker gave the practiced sigh of the long suffering. With a flourish, he adjusted his monocle, his free gloved hand running across the bald flesh of his head.

"Who you are or where you come from do not matter in this game, Johann, at least not to you. I wish you would let me worry about your origin. It is proving to be a relentless distraction to you, and it will not win you any favors as we progress."

Johann scowled at his mentor bitterly, gritting his teeth. "My origin has everything to do with this. Wolfgang Hofstadter has trained for this moment his entire life – I, on the other hand, had neither the time nor the money to waste on such luxuries. I can hardly pick up a sword, much less wield one."

"You could hardly pick up a sword several months ago – look at you now."

"I've graduated to picking up a sabre with one hand instead of two? How utterly exciting! Just wait – tomorrow I'll be engaging in duals with Odin and Thor!"

Strucker rolled his eyes, the scar along his cheek puckering with the movement. "So you aren't a gifted swordsman – you are a gifted marksman and a strategist – you possess the culture and intellect of someone born into nobility. And, less fortunately, the arrogance."

"And here I'd always thought that that was my most charming feature."

"Do not play the martyr, Johann." Strucker bristled at his student's inherent smugness. "You were chosen for a reason. Herr Hitler desires only the finest soldiers for his regime when the office of chancellor is in his grasp. You struck him as the epitome of that soldier. You possess the passive cruelty, the detached demeanor, the vast intelligence of someone capable of seamlessly killing and defeating. Do not let your past best you in this competition. Herr Hitler wishes to create militaristic specimens from the most extreme sectors of the population – the aristocracy and the –"

"Scum of humanity? The common street urchin? The darling little bellhop, waiting on the socialites of the future, hand and foot? Yes of course, a fine soldier he makes."

"Your attitude towards those socialites is what has fueled Herr Hitler's great aspirations for you. Wolfgang Hofstadter may possess brawn, but you possess brains. And I promise you, it is much more beneficial to have a brain on the frontlines than to have a senseless bulk of muscle."

"I would not call Hofstadter senseless, Herr Baron. He has played me from the very beginning."

"You have let him play you. You have let him and Zemo gain control of your emotions – you let them use your past against you. You mustn't let your anger cloud your judgement, Johann. I promise you, your emotional capacity can be a very useful tool, once you finesse your utilization of it. Your primary focus is to kill Wolfgang Hofstadter. Then – then you will have proved to Herr Hitler, to Baron Zemo, and to the entirety of the Nazi party that a first-class soldier can be created from even the lowest depths of society – "

"But I cannot kill him!" Johann snapped, his fists clenched and shaking with rage. "I have had chance after chance to kill him and yet I do not! How can I prove to Herr Hitler that I am the finest specimen of a soldier he can create, when I epitomize everything he fights against? His struggle against 'lies, stupidity, and cowardice'! I am a coward! I have suffered so many failures and rejections – I have been forced to commit crimes and deeds so humiliating and deprecating – I have stooped so low simply for a crust of bread, a single coin – all to survive in a life not worth living! And yet, when I am poised over his body, when I can laugh in his arrogant face, when I can put a bullet in his head, when I can make him suffer as I once did, I cannot!"

He was on his knees now, trembling with a rage that blurred his vision, that beckoned tears to well in his eyes.

Strucker heaved yet another sigh, not one of annoyance but, sadness and pity.

"I am sorry, Johann. The hand that you were dealt has been a losing one, but this is your chance to put things right again, to be on the winning side. Zemo only wishes to instigate you, to get the best of you – he has trained his own student to do the same. It is not fair, but there are no defined rules to this competition. But you have something, Johann, that Wolfgang Hofstadter or even Zemo will never possess. Both of them – they have been spoon-fed their entire lives, living in the lap of luxury. You have experienced hardships that only criminals and lowlifes deserve. But your anger, your emotion – you are not a coward, Johann. Cowardice is not the reason why you cannot kill Wolfgang Hofstadter. You pity him; you pity his existence, his narrow-mindedness, his lack of compassion. You are full of compassion, of emotion – and that is not weakness. That is power. Your anger will be your greatest weapon – your emotional capacity will allow you to twist and mutilate the emotions of others. And that – that will create the ultimate suffering, the ultimate torture for any of Herr Hitler's victims. Your empathy is your greatest weapon, Johann. It is not something to be ashamed of."

Johann stood, eyeing his mentor coldly. "Not something to be ashamed of? Perhaps my father told me the truth all those years ago. What kind of man am I, to flinch at even the slightest thought of danger? What kind of soldier would I make, when I cannot even shoot some self-centered son of a bourgeoisie bitch? No, Strucker. My so-called 'empathy' will lore over me like the plague, no matter how or where I progress in Hitler's society, when it is his. It's quite laughable, really. I dream of killing myself, and yet I fear I could not even do that."

XXX

HYDRA Base – the Alps

1943

It was all so vivid – so vibrant – so sorrowful. Reminders of his failures, beginning from the day he was born. His entire life – his entire existence – had been a failure, and his father and every human being to come upon him had reminded him of that.

This – his vision, his life's work – this would not fail because of some wretched, rebellious girl. He had spent so many years tirelessly toiling and laboring to work his way into Hitler's precious Reich – months and months spent training with weapons and tactics he had only read of and dreamt of in books. He remembered it as if it had been mere days before – the grueling fight he had endure to earn his place as one of the most powerful men in Germany – second only to the Führer.

He had been a bell-hop at some posh Berlin hotel – far from his birthplace in Regensburg. He'd done everything in his power to forget the place. He had been just nineteen years old when Adolf Hitler had recruited him to his cause – the charismatic leader of the Nazi party had a vision no less grand than his own, and Johann had hungrily drank in the man's attention.

He had served as Hitler's personal apprentice for two years before being assigned to the Baron Wolfgang von Strucker – an esteemed fencing expert and one of the most brilliant men in the party. Strucker was tasked with training Johann in the art of warfare, in order for him to successfully participate in Hitler's latest experiment.

It was all a game, really – one that, in theory, he should never have won. Hitler desired only the finest and most superior soldiers for his regime – soldiers that could be created from the aristocracy and the lowest of classes. Polar opposites, the most extreme castes of society.

He was the street urchin, the orphan, the son of a drunkard.

Wolfgang Hofstadter was the son of a wealthy party-member, and a member of an old, German noble family. He had been trained by the Baron Heinrich Zemo since he was but twelve years old, and he possessed a formal education from one of Germany's finest academies.

Yet, his opponent's obvious advantages no longer served as the reason for Johann's profound hatred for him.

Wolfgang Hofstadter had married Angelika Schmidt, and shortly before his untimely death, fathered her child.

It had taken years to push Wolfgang's image from his mind when he looked at his niece, his dear Mina. To look at her was to be reminded of his failures.

All those years ago, he had been directed to fight Wolfgang Hofstadter to the death – that was the only way to prove to Adolf Hitler that a soldier could be made from the filth of society. He had been taunted and beaten and bloodied by Hofstadter and Zemo, he had suffered the deepest physical and emotional abuse. So many times in training, the other boy, three years his senior, had stood over him, a blade driving into his chest, twisting into the flesh, drawing blood. At first, the boy's brawn had given him feeble hope – strength could easily be outwitted by smarts, and from the boy's haughty, self-centered demeanor, he hoped that he would lack his superior intelligence.

He had not been entirely wrong – the boy was by no means stupid, but he did not possess the intellectual cunning that Johann did. He only knew of one way to behave – smug and snobby – the boy was certain his bell-hop adversary would lose. To this end, Johan was able to use his confidence against him, but more often than not, he remained on the losing side.

Yet, when he finally had had the chance – when he stood over that bastard's body, the older boy paled to a ghostly shade of grey, his breathing labored, tears of fear and despair welling in his eyes – he could not kill him. But why? He hated him – loathed him with every fiber of his being. And yet the blatant fear of the boy – he had begged him to kill him, to free him from the humiliation, the wrath of his mentor, for failing.

He remembered his own words clear as day, ringing in his ears.

"You do not deserve to die. Not like this."

And in retrospect, he didn't. No one deserved to die for something as desperate, inefficient, and plainly stupid as that. To have a fight-to-the-death competition simply for the title of "soldier" was absolutely ridiculous to him now, but then, it had been his only chance.

Despite his failing to kill his opponent, and demonstrate to Herr Hitler that he was, indeed, the superior soldier, he was named second-in-command to the leader of the NSDAP. A stroke of luck, perhaps, for Hitler would create a reputation for bloodlust. Yet, he enjoyed Johann's empathetic abilities – his knack for twisting and manipulating his opponents. Johann succeeded in humiliating Wolfgang – his explanation for the lack of "death" in the competition was the other boy's cowardice and utter fear.

He would knock Wolfgang Hofstadter down so far that the two would hardly ever meet in their separate careers.

Yet, the man would soon come to represent nearly every failure and humiliation that Johann would ever suffer.

His dear sister would be taken away from him, whisked away into the wealthy Hofstadter's arms, offering a life far more comfortable than the one she lived then.

That was only the beginning of his hatred, though.

Johann buried himself in his work, avenging his inability to kill his opponent then – as the head of espionage and sabotage, he slaughtered thousands, relishing the blood, reveling in the glories of war and death. He rose ever higher in the ranks, proving to the Führer that he was indeed superior, capable of killing and torturing without a thought, without a single drop of emotion or compassion. He receded deeper and deeper into the blackened crevices of his heart, avenging the failures and rejections he had suffered.

On the wings of his bloodlust and genius, HYDRA was born – factories and bases were built – an army of Hitler's finest scientists and soldiers, hand-selected by Johann's keen eye. Via his esteemed post in the Reich, he gained respect and wealth and was revered by even the laymen. The world would know his name.

It was the first time in his entire life that he had ever experienced pure, unadulterated success – only one man in the entire world stood in his way, yet even that slight obstacle did little to deter him.

He held each of his followers to a death oath – they swore unwavering loyalty to him and only to him. They did not serve the illustrious Führer – they served him and him alone.

Soon, the entirety of the Reich and the world would be under his thumb.

His dramatic increase in power with the creation of HYDRA pitted many against him – most especially, a certain Baron Heinrich Zemo, his humbled student close at his heels.

Zemo had been gravely humiliated after Johann's success under the Führer and Strucker's mentorship. His own student had been reduced to a Major in the SS (rather than having the illustrious title of Obergruppenführer bestowed upon him), confined to a desk-job, swimming in paperwork. Zemo's visions of grandiose glory, on the wings of his pupil, were dashed. He was now seen as little more than a raving lunatic scientist, spouting off dramatic plans that were doomed to fail, delving into chemicals and experiments that would only result in disaster.

Zemo would craftily exploit Johann's ambitions, playing into Hitler's extreme paranoia that anyone could be plotting his deposition from power.

Hitler took the bait, as could only be expected.

Johann was dishonorably discharged from his position as the head of espionage and sabotage – for plotting treason against the Führer, developing a power base and an army fit for a coup. He was publicly stripped of his rank and decorations, a room of high-ranking officers staring him down with cold, greedy eyes, like vultures – eager to pick at the remains of his post.

He would be remanded to his base in the Alps, sentenced to piece together weapons for the Reich for the rest of his days. According to his rivals, his many enemies in the SS and the Gestapo, HYDRA was merely a factory filled with tinkering, puttering laboratory technicians and he was their mad master, fallen from grace, an empty shell of what was once a glorious career.

Reward? Call it what it is: Exile.

His words rang like a haunting bell-toll in his ears, looming over his shoulder at every turn.

To the Reich and every damned son of a bitch within it, he was the laughingstock, the failure, the drunk's son that had considered himself worthy of the Führer's attention.

And – to add even further insult to injury – they replaced him.

His beloved post in the SS and all of the government frills that came with it – they would all be lavished upon the new Obergruppenführer, a certain Wolfgang Hofstadter, suggested and highly advocated by the illustrious Baron Zemo.

The final blow to his string of blood-stained failures, his endless grief and rage, his ever-growing stack of rejection letters, the envelope sealed with a crimson swastika, notifying him of his discharge.

A whole career, painstakingly pieced together, struggled for, tirelessly devoted to.

It was all gone.

Blinking rapidly, Johann shook himself from his daze, breathing heavily. He shook his head, clearing his mind, his vision – he leaned against his desk, his long fingers splayed across the cool metal surface.

This. This was his chance – his final opportunity for redemption, for glory, for victory. The gods had favored him – they had given him the power of Odin, unleashed from the innocent hands of a young girl. No one would suspect it – no one would know how to stop him, not even the Americans and their precious Star-Spangled man.

No one would stand in his way, not this time. Not even an insolent little snip of a girl.

He loved his niece dearly – he had worked tirelessly to secure her health, her happiness, her wellbeing.

But he would not drop everything that he had slaved over to please her – no. He intended to make good on his words. She would not represent yet another failure, another shortcoming.

She would be his greatest success – and if that meant crushing her feeble heart, then so be it. So she wanted to escape? He would tighten his grip around her, constrict her, force her to remain in solitude. He would not allow the Americans to steal away his greatest chance at domination, at control.

He would rule this world with an iron fist – crush humanity beneath his heel and create a superior race.

And Mina, whether she liked it or not, would be his queen, and she would be remembered in every history book, feared and revered by all. She would not fall as he had once. She would rise, she would rule. For eventually, he would tire of his post, and under his faithful guidance, she would succeed.

HYDRA would be his greatest legacy, his greatest feat. And he would take the greatest pleasure in slowly killing each and every soul that had ever denied him victory. This time, he would not cower from death – this time, he would revel in their sorrow, their dying screams and begging sobs the most beautiful melody to his ears.

Yes, he could almost taste it.

The tales that would be spun – of the tinkering visionary, the mad scientist, the son of a nameless drunkard with not a penny to his name – how that poor excuse for a man rose up and spat in the face of fate. The world would kneel before him and worship him like a god.

Would his niece hate him so then? When everything she had ever dreamt of was hers?

He smiled to himself. "Oh my dear, my little goddess. When you finally tire of running, when you finally accept your fate – we will have such fun together, my darling. The world will be ours for the taking. No one will hurt you – no one will deny you of your destiny. I pray you will accept it soon – I miss you my sweet, little one. You have grown so much – I cannot wait to see you blossom into a queen. How proud your dear, dead father will be, then."

He howled with laughter at the thought, his razor-sharp teeth grinning with a feral hunger.

With a flourish, he poured himself a glass of Schnapps, cackling icily as he caught sight of the shattered glass, still scattered about the floor. He grinned wickedly, lifting his glass to the portrait of himself, hanging on the opposite wall.

"Hail HYDRA. Long live that raving lunatic, that treasonous bastard, the Red Skull."