It had been well over three months and there was no more denying it. Steve was honestly starting to be very fond of Rachel. Now he had considered the fact that since he woke up he had interacted with relatively few individuals, but there was nothing false or feigned in the flare of affection he felt when she smiled.
He felt nothing but honest contentment when that look of satisfied appreciation crossed her face, whenever they conversed and found new areas to explore either in music, food, and even literature. Science-fiction had been a relatively small genre 70 years ago and since then had apparently exploded, as had television.
Steve had again taken to jogging in the early mornings, although not so early as before. The sights and sounds weren’t quite so new anymore. He even vaguely appreciated the way certain things had changed. Automobiles new sleek models were obviously more aerodynamic and efficient for travel, and he’d even come to appreciate the new and alien foods that had cropped up with various vendors on the surrounding streets of the New York headquarters.
Once it had stopped being so alien, even the clear and open set-up of the SHIELD canteen and lunch area had become more acceptable. One of the main reasons he’d allowed his jogging to begin later than usual was also so he could time his return to the building around the rough interval that Rachel usually showed up as well.
This morning she was wearing black pants instead of her usual skirt. She was also yawning and trying to tuck a stray stand of hair back behind her ear when she’d apparently missed pulling it into her usual ponytail. Some mornings she’d be glancing at her wrist-watch and hurrying up to her office, usually that meant she was running late for a meeting of some kind.
This morning however, she wasn’t in any hurry, and that yawn was very telling. She probably wouldn’t turn down something caffeinated at the canteen; so he called out to her.
She looked up, somewhat surprised before smiling in recognition. “Good morning,” she greeted back, “Have a good run?”
“It was nice out,” he agreed, the sun still hadn’t breached the tall buildings of the city but the hum of life and activity was ever-present. “Can I get you a coffee?”
The surprised look returned and her eyes narrowed as her grin stretched, giving a somewhat sardonic expression, “Don’t tell me you’ve found a blend you like?”
He shrugged, “Well… I’ll probably stick with chicory, actually.”
She laughed and nodded, “Coffee, sounds great,” she agreed, and the two of them headed toward the canteen. She always seemed more cheerful whenever he initiated their conversations; and Steve had become more accustomed to her questions and off-hand prying.
“So you finished with the files?”
“I did.” He confirmed.
“Seems, you’re okay with it,” she said studying his reaction, she was smiling pleasantly, “How do you feel about it now?”
“Honestly? Relieved.” He said after considering it. “It was good advice. Now I know.” Honestly he hadn’t known what to make of her prodding before, but now he got the idea that she had been trying to help him along, even if in the process it felt like she’d been ripping him open.
“Making any friends yet?” she wondered.
“Um… some.” He hesitated, still not quite sure how to take that. Sure he talked with people, and he knew the doorman at his building and the laundry lady up the street, but it wasn’t exactly someone you’d call a ‘friend’.
“Your teammates then?” she pressed, offering it as a suggestion. Steve sighed a little, wondering how to phrase his response.
His teammates for the past few missions Fury had sent him on… well Widow and Hawkeye weren’t the easiest people to get along with. He knew he still had a lot to prove to them, and in the meantime things weren’t exactly ‘friendly’.
Rachel seemed to key in to his mindset and backed off. “Yeah? Well, they can be… they’re… ‘reticent’, I suppose.” She seemed to agree. “But that’s just who they are. They’re both essentially good people.”
Steve nodded in agreement. Even if he knew nothing else about them, he understood that they were both part of SHIELD because it was something they believed in, that they had their own sense of right and wrong. He wasn’t sure if that really classified them as strictly ‘good’, but at the very least he could respect them, their abilities, and that during the past few missions they’d had his back.
Even if he’d had theirs they had yet to say anything further since the error he made on their first mission against Striker.
“They’ll come around.” Rachel told him, reassuring. Her phone alarm went off shortly after and she had to stop mid-drink to fish it out of her purse and check it. She smiled wryly and got to her feet, taking her things with her. “Well, I better get going. This was really nice though, thank you Steve. I’ll see you around lunch time maybe?”
Steve stood with her, acting quickly as Rachel gathered her things and started moving toward the double glass doors.
“Rachel,” he said seriously, and she turned back to him, “I want to be up-front with you about this, and it’s something I’ve wanted to say for a while now and I hope you don’t think I’m too forward. I think you’re really great.”
“I think you’re really great too.” She returned easily, still smiling brightly. “Thanks for the coffee, I’ll see you later, yeah?” and before he could collect himself enough to go on she’d already thanked him and turned toward the elevators.
It wasn’t quite how he’d seen this meeting end. But then she probably had a meeting to get to. He’d see her again later today, if not then tomorrow. His own cell chirped a message from Fury in a few more hours. It was another mission, a Striker training base.
Within a few hours Steve, Widow, and Hawkeye were en route to the location. Again their mission consisted of break-in along with an entourage of SHIELD agents to neutralize base operations and training and recover as much intelligence on the Striker operations as possible.
SHIELD had intercepted information that Striker was aware of the super-human base of agents they were putting together. In response Striker had started working on something to counteract super-human capabilities. They still weren’t sure what it was. There were at least two personnel targeted as having relevant information. Again they were to capture these men for questioning.
Steve briefly lamented that he’d miss lunch with Rachel, but she’d understand, and he’d have another chance. Now, he cleared his mind; this time he wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
Michael Cowyn had been a trainee for over six months. The physical conditioning had been easy compared to the indoctrination. When he’d first joined his own beliefs, while similar to the Striker cause, had been weak and flimsy. Now he understood his purpose. Now he was ready to do what had to be done to rid the world of the evil that was SHIELD.
They called themselves protectors, when they were the poisonous cancer that infected everything. Litigation and peaceful demonstration were too weak, too slow, to change anything. There was nothing for it. SHIELD had to be destroyed, along with the super-human army they were forming.
“Michael,” he stood at attention before his superior training office, this was his final initiation, “The time has come. You have proven yourself to be one of us, it is time you join our ranks.”
It was an honor to be chosen from the ranks to join Striker and do their work. He was looking forward to finally being of use to this great cause. More so since he would be working directly under his commanding officer; they would be reviewing the creation of the new serum to help combat the super-human threat that SHIELD was creating.
There was a rite of passage, and he swore again to uphold the ideals and doctrine of Striker, to protect against the evils of SHIELD and work to hasten their demise. When he stood again, he was one of them. His superior, his teacher, his commanding officer, clapped him on the shoulder with a grin.
“Consider yourself promoted,” the man told him heartily, and Michael grinned back at him.
The long days of labor and training were finally at an end. It was a dream that came true. A moment later the nightmare started.
The alarms suddenly went off and the lights shifted to emergency mode. Communications went haywire as news of assault and enemy invasion breached through. The base was under attack. Reports of SHIELD agents were on the air-waves; they’d even brought one of those super-human monsters with them!
“Go, Michael! I’m right behind you!”
The group of them ran for it, but his commander kept prodding Michael further ahead. The reports came faster, they could hear gunfire a few corridors over. SHIELD was closing in. They had to get out of the basement and back to ground level. If they’d thought building most of the base underground would protect them from discovery, they were wrong.
The gunfire stopped as suddenly as it started and the metal floors banged with activity, the gunfire started again as the entourage just behind Michael began firing on their assailant. A sudden streak of metal sailed through the air. It nearly took off Michael’s head before he managed to duck.
Looking back, he knew the super-human in question. Captain America. Apparently SHIELD was even preying on people’s love for the old ‘hero’ as they had him outfitted in a newer version of the same colors he wore years before. “Run!” his superior urged him as the super-human bore down.
Michael made it to the door. As he tore out into the safety of the world beyond he looked back in time to see the super-human strike the cyanide capsule out of his superior’s hands and hoist him to his feet. SHIELD agents were behind him in the corridor.
The place was overrun. The base was lost, his commanding officer was lost. Michael grit his teeth in rage and fled. He vowed the super-human monster would pay. This was not the end of Striker… it was only the beginning.
It had been several days since Rachel had last seen Steve Rogers. She was actually down in the reference library rechecking notes on Bruce Banner against recent accounts. Fury had asked for a report on his recent activity, the green man had been sighted several times, so it was reasonable to see if some assessment of his current mindset could be gleaned from that.
Again her thoughts turned back to Steve. It was wonderful that he seemed less repulsed by the world around him; his manner and apparent ease when she’d last seen him made her think he was finally coming to terms with his place in the current time period and in SHIELD. She’d been right to ask Fury to include him in active missions; it seemed to have galvanized his recovery. He wasn’t nearly so morose, he even participated in gym activities more than the basement boxing ring.
She sighed in frustration. She was supposed to be working on a different case right now, but again she kept thinking back to Steve! She rubbed her temples trying to clear them, as though her current one-track mind was just a headache she could recover from.
The more she tried to deny it the more she realized that man and his boyish grin and straight-forward gaze were etched too deeply into her mind. She knew he was safe; Fury had reported that much. He, Widow, and Hawkeye had been working on a couple different cases to do with Striker, a domestic counter-intelligence and militarized group.
Honestly, their ideas weren’t the problem; it was their method of unsanctioned militarized force that created issues. Their cause would better be served in rousing public awareness to their cause and forcing a vote at the senate or congressional level. That was what their country was about; if they could sway the will of the people then getting their way wouldn’t be something they had to spill blood over.
She reached for her coffee cup and discovered it was nearly empty now. Steve already knew how much she liked the hazelnut blends. She smiled in some fondness when she remembered the few times he’d managed to catch her in the morning. Maybe it was a little unprofessional, but he really looked great after his morning jog.
The way his sweaty t-shirt clung to him, accentuated his muscles just the right way. The way his sweat always seemed to roll off drawing attention to the best curve of his jaw or bicep. The way his grin creased the corners of his eyes and made everything turn into a fuzzy kind of tunnel vision.
Rachel sighed again. She wasn’t getting any work done at all like this. If she kept thinking about him she was half sure he’d pop into existence just to prove she’d gone completely insane. That was when she noticed Steve Rogers standing in front of the commons desk she’d been working at.
“Hi Rachel,” he grinned, and somewhere she got lost in their pearly gleam and the bright blue eyes focused on her. “Fancy seeing you here.”
For a moment she could think of no coherent response and fought to keep the telling flush from creeping into her cheeks. “Steve! Welcome back!” she finally exclaimed, hoping to explain the way she flushed simply to be from surprise, and not decidedly wicked thoughts about said golden boy. “I heard you had another mission; did you just get back?”
She stood as she said this, pulling her papers together in a feign of putting things to rights, when in fact she was hoping to cover the pertinent articles on bi-polar and split personality disorder as well as mood affectations.
“Yeah, just a few hours ago,” he confirmed, “And good thing too, I actually have an appointment here.”
“An appointment?” now she was curious. She knew Steve was finally starting to do outside research into subjects other than ‘history’, partly spawned by his involvement in the Striker missions but also to do with various topics she’d been trying to draw him into, successfully. She of course encouraged any behavior that meant he was forming new attachments and relationships. But she couldn’t think of any reason there would be an appointment in the reference library unless he was looking something up.
“Not with the staff,” he clarified, “I just know they have plenty of quiet spaces. I actually found Howard’s son in the system. Tony Stark, he agreed to meet me here to talk. I guess he’s meeting with Fury close to this time too, so he didn’t mind dropping by the library for a bit.”
Anthony Stark? Rachel considered her options. She could always make an excuse to run away; if she took the reference materials with her she could work on the Banner case in her office instead of the library.
It wasn’t that she was running away. But Tony knew exactly who she was, and the man had a great big mouth that hardly ever shut up. Most of the time he was talking about a great big hunk of nothing, a kind of defense mechanism she’d deduced early on, which was fine in this scenario, but if he latched onto something else… that may not end well.
“Well, that’s wonderful, I was just finishing up something here,” she said gathering her papers, “I’ll leave you to it, and I wish you luck!”
And her escape was ruined as the billionaire playboy waltzed in. Steve turned and seemed to nod at the resemblance to his father. By all rights they were nearly spitting images of each other, at least when Howard was younger; Rachel had seen the photos.
“And you must be the Captain.” Tony turned to Steve, giving him a quick once over, “Well, nice to finally meet you, I know my dad never shut up about you when he wasn’t going on about one of his projects.”
For a brief moment she hoped maybe he wouldn’t so much as glance at her again. But of course that would have been too easy. “And the shrink, you guys having a meeting? I’m not interrupting am I?”
“No.” Rachel insisted firmly. At least at this particular moment in time, that was completely true; she was not having a meeting with Steve with her professional motive of ‘shrink’ behind it.
“What are you talking about?” Steve asked, he was grinning, good-natured as always but clearly confused.
“Oh, well Rachel here’s a psychologist, you know a ‘head shrink’?” Tony clarified to Steve’s apparent surprise. Rachel steeled herself. It was going to come out eventually… she just wished it didn’t have to be so-! So completely flippant!
“Fury actually had her analyze me a while back, so I just figured she’d been asked to do the same to you,” Tony shrugged.
Why did it have to be Tony?! Why here?! Why now?!
“Anyway, I really only stopped by because Pepper went and replied for me, and then bribed me – imagine that – to stop by here before I talk to Fury,” Tony informed them just as flippantly as he checked his watch and started to turn to head out; “So no hard feelings, and I’ll be seeing ya!”
“Sure,” Steve nodded, apparently a bit numb, “I guess…”
Tony swept away from them and Rachel waited for Steve to turn back to her. She waited for the inevitable back lash. It was so obvious, and she had nothing to defend herself with. She could accept this. It was inevitable.
Her heart thudded uncomfortably fast, and she was aware that her breathing was already faster and uneven. The waiting was the worst part. After a moment she dared glance over at Steve. He hadn’t moved yet. Apparently still shocked, and processing things… her betrayal of trust for one…
“Huh, strange guy.”
Not the response she’d been expecting.
“I guess he wasn’t even the one who replied to my message,” Steve shrugged turning back with a still somewhat confused grin, shaking his head. “I guess at least I know what happened, right?”
“Right…” she agreed. Still waiting… although at this point she wasn’t sure if he’d even heard everything Tony had been saying now.
“So you’re a psychologist?”
The anvil fell.
“That’s right.” She admitted with a nod, “I’m sorry I never mentioned my job before, it just never came up.”
It was the only defense she really had.
“No, I was just wondering,” Steve said nodding, “I always thought you were kind of insightful, I guess it makes a little more sense now.”
“Anyway, you want to grab dinner?”
That was it? No shocked reaction, no declaration of betrayal or hurt or…?! He didn’t know. He hadn’t made the connection at all. He didn’t know?! Somehow the comment that Tony had made had gone right over his head and he hadn’t made the connection that she’d been secretly-!!
Oh thank goodness!!
Relief flooded through Rachel like a warm balm to calm her erratic thoughts. She actually sighed, relieved as she gathered herself together to consider his question and form a coherent response.
“Something wrong?” he asked, and she shook her head quickly.
“No, nothing,” she insisted, it seemed that things were actually still alright, perfectly fine; great even! “Although I don’t think the canteen is open this late. They don’t usually do dinner.”
“No, I meant,” Steve let out a short laugh as his breathtaking grin returned, and again blue eyes snared her completely, “I meant I want to take you out to dinner.”
Again her mind shut down for a moment, trying to process the request he was making. The way his eyes caught the light and seemed to sparkle, didn’t help her coherency.
“What’s the phrase,” he seemed to elaborate based on her confused expression, “ ‘It’s a date’?”
Rachel couldn’t keep the flush that flamed in her cheeks as she realized what this poor beautiful trusting man was asking her for. She nearly let loose an undignified exclamation of shock. Fortunately what came out was:
“I’d love to!”