It was the oddest thing. He’d barely known her a month, but somehow she’d manage to barge her way into his life; Rachel Schmidt. Steve shook his head trying to clear it. The cardboard boxes and plain manila files were nondescript enough, but they were still terribly formidable looking.
She wasn’t here right now, but he could imagine what she’d say if she were. He’d finally admitted that he hadn’t checked any of the files yet. She’d been interestingly understanding about it but also incredulous and demanded that before the weekend was over he had to read through all of them.
His skin prickled uncomfortably. It was a task he’d been avoiding, but there was a kind of pressure that seemed to be driving him to it. Steve nearly checked over his shoulder. But she wasn’t there, if she were and saw him hesitating this much she’d just give him that vaguely disappointed and stern look. He knew what she’d do if she found out he hadn’t checked. He wouldn’t put it past her to invite herself over if she felt he needed that extra push.
No matter how much he could accept the strangely familiar way people treated each other, especially among friends, he didn’t want her in his apartment. That was just a little too close. He still didn’t really know what to make of her. But she had convinced him to leave the basement for hours at a time and try different foods and even listen to what in this age apparently passed for music.
She laughed, far too amused by his initial reaction to “R&B” and “Hip Hop”. At least Jazz was still around. It had changed but at least it was familiar enough he could still appreciate the newer selections. This was different. This was closer to the strange void that he still felt.
But he had made his decision. He had meant to read them at some point, what was the difference between now and later? Steve took a deep breath, steeling himself as he took the first manila file and flipped it open.
The first few were relatively harmless. Dum Dum Dugan, one of his veteran buddies, had apparently gotten married after the war and had a healthy number of kids before he died of a heart attack. At the very least he’d lived to see his daughter married and all four of his sons off to college, three had even graduated.
Gabe Jones had remained in the army for years and had actually joined SHIELD for his remaining years. He died earlier than the others, still fighting in the line of duty. Jim Morita, James Falsworth, and Dernier all had files too. They were all gone, most of them had gone on to lead their lives as accomplished citizens and war vets after the Hydra business ended.
Peggy Carter and Howard Stark also had files. There was actually a third file with both their names on it. It didn’t hurt as much as he thought it might. There was the pain and loss, that hadn’t changed. But the sharp pain and the aching loneliness was gone. It made it easier as he read about the lives of his friends and how they had ended. Where their children were now and if they had gone on to make something of themselves.
It took him a little while to piece together what had happened to the two of them after the war. Peggy and Howard had gotten married, they even had a son if the report was credible. Steve had to sit back a moment after he’d read their common file.
Peggy and Howard? It made an odd kind of sense. He was happy for them. How could he not be? His two best friends… honestly how could he not approve? They were both great people and he’d cared about them both. If he was gone, then… it was almost natural, wasn’t it?
Steve reviewed the file again, picking out the smaller details he’d missed on his first run through. They had gotten married several years after they defeated Hydra, Stark’s business had really taken off ever since. The old photos the file contained showed them together several times. They looked happy together.
He’d had it in the back of his mind that Peggy had moved on without him, that she’d gotten married had a kid or maybe two. He’d even entertained an idea that perhaps she was an old woman now, still living. That had warped into an angry old woman who had never married and blamed him for never returning.
He’d known that was a silly thought. Peggy wasn’t like that, of course she’d moved on. He’d thought it would hurt worse. But her husband was Howard, and Steve had always liked him, he was brave and smart and unafraid of risks or failure. That dynamism had propelled him and his business far beyond expectations.
Without him, Stark Industries still flourished; one of the top companies for technological advancement that there was. Peggy and Howard had a son, Tony, he ran the company now. Howard and his wife had died in a car wreck nearly a decade ago. Again Steve looked back to the image of Peggy and Howard together. They really did look happy.
Rachel’s words came back to him, and she was right. He had to accept things as they were, and for some reason it wasn’t as difficult as he imagined it would be. Everyone in these files had lived full lives, most of them had children that outlived them, and by all accounts they had been happy with those lives. Steve couldn’t have asked for a better future for them. His only regret was that he had not had the chance to do the same.
Time to move forward.
It wasn’t that Steve was unused to people calling him by his title “Captain America”, but most of the SHIELD personnel took to calling him Steve. Fury still insisted on calling him some variation of “Captain” every chance he got. It wasn’t that often, mostly Nick Fury was busy with SHIELD business but he did check in on him from time to time.
Now as the bald man approached, Steve could see him waving a file at him. Big bold letters were stamped over the head “CLASSIFIED”.
“Sir,” Steve greeted him, stopping in the hallway as Fury approached, “Can I help you?”
Fury walked right by him, waving him forward, “I have something to discuss with you, something that could maybe use your super-soldier finesse.”
Steve caught up as Fury let them into his office, and waved at Maria for something. Whatever it was she understood him and took off down the hall. Steve followed Fury to his desk, the door fell shut behind them.
“Well go on,” Fury gestured to the file, “Or would you rather I just give you the highlights?”
He glanced at the file and frowned. A thought occurred to him. It had been well over a month since Steve had woken up, and Fury was asking him about a mission now? Why now?
“The short version then,” Fury decided for him, “It's actually a fairly low-priority. There's this group of domestic counter-intelligence guys who've been giving us some grief in the past year or so. You know, the anti-SHIELD stuff, abusing our powers and all that. They call themselves 'Striker'; as if their efforts weren't infantile enough, that's the name they picked for themselves.”
Fury gave a derogatory laugh as he flipped the file open and turned to the relevant page of targeted persons. “We've identified a base of theirs just across state lines, and since it's so close to home I'm sending you, Widow, and Hawkeye to take care of their top brass,” he gestured to the photos, “These guys. Striker has been a pain in our ass since they started up, they're a threat to national security and the peace of the people,” he gave Steve a pointed look, “Think you can handle it?”
Steve considered it, Fury hadn't been kidding about the 'brief' part. “Yes, sir, I can,” he told him. Despite any misgivings about Fury's reasons for doing this now, for some reason he was looking forward to getting to work. Infiltration was something he and his team had done before after all. The delay wasn't long, he hadn't lost his edge yet.
“Well, you heard him,” Fury said straightening, “Guess you three can move out.”
Steve turned in surprise to see two figures standing against the far wall. He hadn't seen them when he'd first come in. Both dressed in black and melding in with the shadows. He recognized them vaguely from the last time he'd been introduced.
The man with a permanent scowl and short army cut was Hawkeye, in addition to standard issue firearms he carried a bow and quiver of multipurpose projectile arrows. The woman with short red hair and a sour look on perfect features was Black Widow, both were seasoned SHIELD veterans.
“Really?” Black Widow looked Steve over skeptical, registering his surprise her eyes narrowed. Clearly he should have been more observant. If they had been enemies he'd have had little recourse to deal with the pair of them. She sneered before glancing away, dismissive. “Whatever.”
Hawkeye said nothing as the pair stood and went for the door. Fury gestured for Steve to follow, and the three of them geared up to head to the Striker base. While Hawkeye didn't share the obvious disdain of Widow, Steve still got the impression he shared her incredulity.
Steve sighed and prepared himself. Well, he'd just have to prove to them he was worthy of their respect. It wasn't so long ago he was the new guy on the block, he could handle this.
Breaking in to the Striker base wasn't an issue. Even the guys inside didn't pose an issue to either the two black-ops or the super-soldier. It was a great feeling to recapture the adrenaline and drive behind a single-minded goal. These men had to be stopped. He had a reason to be here; here he was in his element.
He knew how to handle himself in a fight. He knew how to disengage a hostile as quickly and painlessly as possible. This he knew, and this he could handle.
The Striker operatives seemed to largely sense that this base was lost. Most, rather than engage in combat, seemed inclined to run away to fight another day. There were three of the top brass that were supposedly on premises.
SHIELD had outfitted him with a kind of communications device. It was more compact than the ones Stark had been developing, and the signal clearer. Both Widow and Hawkeye at opposite ends of the base had taken out their target. Steve was en route to the third target of the base assault.
Security thickened as he moved onward. The target had apparently moved from his initial location, already attempting escape. Steve hurried the pace to catch up to them. Even in this time period, the vibranium shield still deflected most bullets and he used it as a weapon and battering ram as he tore through the men surrounding the fleeing target.
Steve may be the last one to get his target, but he wasn't about to botch this mission.
“I got this.” he informed them.
“-we're on our way-”
Widow's voice came back over the comm, as though Steve hadn't said a word at all. No matter, he'd be done with this by the time they got here. As he closed in the target, a middle-aged man of portly stature, had stopped trying to run; he must have known it would do no good. Now he busied himself with a bottle and some other item, with his back to the approaching soldier.
The order was to catch them alive if possible, he'd heard over the comm that both Hawkeye and Widow managed to secure theirs without issue. SHIELD was already closing in to finish the job that they'd started here at the Striker base.
Steve reached him at the last, reaching for the shorter man. “You are under arrest for the-”
He was unable to finish as the man whipped around and a large knife, one Steve hadn't seen him with earlier, whipped around toward him. Steve immediately moved back to avoid the strike, but he couldn't withdraw his arm fact enough. The metal edge caught through the SHIELD armor and pad, catching the skin in a rough horizontal gash.
A thin stripe of red sluiced through the air as Steve withdrew the limb. The shorter man seemed as shocked as Steve that the attack had connected as it had. The Striker agent fell back against the wall and slid down. Steve turned back. The wound was minimal damage and would heal quickly. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a wound that stung this badly though.
The man barked a short laugh. “The indestructible super-soldier,” he breathed, smiling slightly, “So it works...”
Steve heard footsteps pounding on the metal behind him. Hawkeye and Widow were already here. Good, and he'd secure the operative. He had nowhere to run. He smiled slightly as he turned toward them. As he did a look of horror and rage crossed Widow's face as she sped her approach, Hawkeye did the same.
“No! Stop him!” she shrieked as she came forward.
Steve turned back to the Striker man on the ground, and realized he was swallowing something. He dropped to him, a powerful fist thudding on his chest, an attempt to get him to cough the pill back up. It didn't work. The man flinched with the force of the blow but the pill stayed down. He gave a last withering sneering grin before foam slowly bubbled up from his throat. His eyes rolled back in head.
Widow and Hawkeye reached them and Steve stood back as the redheaded woman forced her way through. “Don't you dare, you damn-!!”
Like Steve, she tried to get him to cough it up, but the cyanide had already taken effect and she stood back with a seething glare at Steve. “Why didn't you secure him?! We knew there was a chance they'd commit suicide if captured!!”
It had all happened too fast. The man had been talking about the knife, just a moment ago; Steve had no reason to think he'd been about to kill himself. He vaguely noted a small bottle nearby, it had recently been emptied of some kind of green liquid; it had been there before though. The man had the cyanide pills on him. Steve hadn't paid close enough attention.
“I have no excuse.” He swallowed tightly.
Widow looked like she was ready to start cursing, but instead paced back to the man and then after taking a steadying breath, turned back to Steve with dagger-like eyes. “He was the top ranking officer here. We may have the other two, but he was the one with the most information.”
She didn't have to continue. Steve knew what they'd lost. He knew it, this was his fault. He had no excuse for this. He'd been briefed just like they had, and he'd been the one who made a mistake. It wasn't something a simple apology would fix.
He could see it in their eyes, hers and Hawkeye's. He'd failed this mission. Just like they'd suspected he would.
It shouldn't have had the effect it did. So he'd made a mistake. Didn't mean everything was over. He could correct it. But this was his first mission. Who knew if Fury would bother giving him another.
His fist struck hard against the sandbag. Maybe too hard, the ceiling chain rattled with the strike. The next punch came and the next, and still his thoughts rode on, ribbing him and twisting in him.
Low-priority, that's what Fury had said. But every mission should be treated with the same attention and determination. He'd set out to do it all right. He'd been in his element. Obviously it wasn't enough!
The next strike sent the sandbag sailing through the air. The seam split up the side and with a heaving groan the bag spilled it's insides out all over the boxing ring floor.
It wasn't enough. His arm still throbbed where the knife sliced through. Odd, those things usually healed up by now. No matter, it would soon enough. He deserved the sting. It matched the feeling of defeat and loss that dug at him now. He couldn't get over it. He failed his mission. The very first one since...
The heavy metal doors creaked open snapping him from his reverie. He braced himself for Fury to walz through those doors asking “So... what the hell happened, Cap?!”
It was worse than that. It was Rachel. “Hey,” she greeted, friendly enough; maybe she hadn't heard yet. “I heard you got your first mission already. How did it go?”
Steve chose to ignore her and he unhooked the busted sandbag and went to put up a new one. “Fine.” he said, his voice sounded oddly hollow, even to himself.
The new bag clicked into place on the hanging chain. Rachel was frowning as she approached and stepped into the ring with him. “Just fine? Want to tell me about it?” she prodded.
“No.” he bit back. Rachel was worse than Fury in the sense that he felt even worse having to explain it to her, worse that she'd try to understanding. Fury at least knew he was at fault. So did Steve. He didn't need someone to understand that accidents happened; he needed...
He had no idea what he needed.
“Is that blood?!”
Her anxious shout drew him back as she suddenly came forward to examine his forarm.
“What happened?!” she demanded, “Why didn't you get this treated?!”
He pulled his arm away. “I'm fine,” he told her, meaning it this time, “Super-soldier; I heal quick.” he assured her. Her eyes narrowed and she made a scoffing noise as she shook her head and took his arm again, dragging him forcefully to the back stool and cabinets.
“Not quick enough, apparently,” she said pointedly as she gestured to a stool for him to sit on. She was checking the cabinets now. Steve sighed and took a seat. She probably wouldn't leave him alone until she got to do whatever it was.
She finally extracted a first-aid kit from the cabinet and Steve nodded his head understanding, honestly he should have suspected as much. “Let me see,” Rachel demanded as she sat down with the disinfecting supplies.
Somewhat reluctantly Steve huffed and bared his wounded forearm to her. She shouldn’t have to see him like this. She shouldn’t have to deal with him when he was this angry with himself. He started with a hiss as she applied the disinfectant.
“Sorry if it stings,” she said, smiling slightly; even if she was sorry it didn’t stop her from dabbing the alcohol swab all over the affected area. Steve grit his teeth and bore it with good grace. The pain eventually receded and she applied some kind of balm to help with the healing process before reaching for the bandages.
He didn’t really understand it before, but watching her now, with her single-minded focus on her task, Steve thought maybe he understood her a little better. Rachel was essentially a good person. If she reached out to him it was because she felt he needed it. He smiled a little to himself, in retrospect he had needed it.
She was looking for out for him when she didn’t need to. He’d tried to push her away but somehow she just kept burrowing in deeper. He hadn’t really considered it before when he’d been watching her, but she was actually very pretty.
“You know, it’s okay to make a mistake,” her soft voice startled him from his thoughts briefly. She looked up at him; she was nearly done with the bandages. “Even if you’re a hero, you’re human too. The important part, if things don’t go well, is that you keep trying to do your best regardless. If you gave your all and did your best, you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
More than her words, it was the sincerity in her eyes, her expression as she reached out to him. Where once he tried to block it out, now he listened. She looked back at his arm and finished with the bandage. “You’re going to be alright.” She told him, and he knew she was talking about more than just his arm.
He flexed his limb and nodded to himself, turning back to her. “Thanks.”
She was smiling again. He really liked the way her eyes lit up like that. She could tell he meant it too. “You’re welcome.”