Smile in Sorrow

Chapter 5

Steve had actually picked a very nice place for their date. Rachel hadn’t been here before though she’d seen it from the street and her friends sometimes mentioned it in relation to a dinner they’d had. If she remembered correctly the food had a decent, if not stellar, reputation. It was French, and considered very avant-garde.

Oddly enough her greater concern had been what to wear. She spent most of the day working on her various cases, without much progress to her preoccupied thoughts, and had initially thought she’d just slip into her little black dress for the dinner date.

When she put it on she realized it showed quite a bit of leg. Maybe too much… also she had to reign herself back to remember that even if it was a ‘date’, and she’d rather foolishly agreed to it, she had to keep a correct perspective. Steve was technically one of her case subjects.

In the end she’d decided on one of her more dressy work skirts and a nice blouse. No matter how much she talked the ‘date’ down, she still spent an hour perfecting her hair and make-up. Rather than pick her up as he’d originally suggested, he agreed to her compromise where they would meet at the city square for a short walk to the restaurant.

Rachel had seen Steve in sweaty t-shirts and sweatpants as well as his SHIELD gear that had been retrofitted to be reminiscent of his original colors. Steve in a suit was… well, she couldn’t quite take her eyes off him. Regardless of his wholesome image, the man could be rather dashing.

He seemed to notice. “I never did do well in a penguin suit, I always manage to look foolish,” he shrugged looking down at himself. His sheepish grin was adorable. “You look lovely though.”

“Don’t sell yourself short like that,” Rachel told him, smiling as she shook her head. “You look fantastic. No man looks foolish in a suit.”

He didn’t contradict her and she didn’t miss the way his face reddened slightly as he bowed his head at the complement. Like a gentleman he offered her his arm, which she took, and they walked toward the restaurant.

“I’ve never been here before, but I’ve heard it’s very good.” Steve said after a few moments, his voice somehow fizzled with nervous energy. “I’ve over ever seen it from the street but I asked around a little. The girl at the canteen, Melanie, she says it’s beautiful at night, the way they do the lights and everything. I guess it’s-”

“I’ve also never been, but have heard good things too,” she confirmed breaking his hurried jumbling of words, “Guess we’ll find out? But I’m sure it’ll be great. The company is after all.”

She saw Steve redden a little again, but his lips curled in a wide grin. She could tell he still had a lot of that nervous energy, once they were inside she’d have to turn the conversation to something to make him feel more at ease.

It was a slightly more difficult task than she’d anticipated. She’d never actually been in the restaurant and hadn’t realized from the street side how fancy it was. The lights were high and bright and through all the crystals decorating them managed to give the room a kind of comfortable and cozy glow. There were candles on the tables with white pristine tablecloths and napkins folded into pyramid shapes.

Since they had a reservation they were seated quickly with two tall book-like menus. There were several pages of gourmet dishes, and most of the items were listed in French. “I didn’t realize New York had so many people fluent in French these days,” Steve said after a moment of what Rachel had assumed was a comfortable silence while they perused the menu.

“I wonder about that,” she mused, trying to sound equally confused, “Oh wait, look, in the description, the second line tells you what it is in English.” She pointed out.

“Oh, I see,” Steve grinned in relief. His brow furrowed slightly as he squinted at the pages. “They use pretty tiny print for it, don’t they?”

Rachel just smiled. Having lived in New York for a few years now, she knew there were actually a few places that used food names that weren’t terribly descriptive. The first italic underline was more French but there was almost always a bottom line that accommodated the largely English-speaking New York populace.

Unless you went to Chinatown, that was an entirely different story.

A short while later the waiter came, clearing his throat a bit loudly as he greeted them, stating that he would be their server this evening. “May I take your orderz?” he asked, his accent stretching the ‘I’ into an ‘ai-ee’ sound.

“Yes, I think we’ll start with the Tomato Basil Baguette,” they both thought they’d try it, “I’ll have the Beef bourguignon, and the lady will have the Chicken Plate.”

The man sniffed a little, “You mean the Tomate Bazil Baguette to ztart, the Boeuf Bourguignonne and the Poulet Plaque?”

Steve gave him a long look. “Yes.”

The waiter gave a half-sneer, “Oui mizzer, your food will be out momentarily,” he took their menus and whisked off. Fortunately the policy seemed to be to disturb the guests as little as possible, so when he delivered their drinks he was very quick and further interaction was limited.

Steve sighed a little, “Well, I knew I’d butcher it worse if I tried to read it from the menu.”

“Don’t worry about him,” Rachel told him, and brushed it off, “The way he had to repeat everything ‘in French’ makes me wonder if he’s compensating for something.” Even if New Yorkers could be rude, the service industry still tended to maintain a certain level of friendliness, if he was that rude regardless… “For example, think he might be faking his accent?”

Steve nearly coughed his drink and then seemed to seriously consider it, “Well,” he deliberated, “I’ve never seen another person who manages to turn every ‘s’ into a ‘z’.”

Rachel laughed, and grinned in agreement. “So how are things progressing with your teammates?” she asked, referring to the domestic missions he’d had on assignment.

“It’s… progressing,” Steve hedged, “As you said, they’re both a little cautious, I can respect that.”

“What about you?” Rachel wondered, “Does it affect the team dynamic? Make things more difficult? Or do you just go after separate objectives?”

She’d already read the reports. Most of the time Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye all went after different targets in a forked approach to the Striker bases.

Steve frowned, “Of course it affects things, and yes as long as we go after separate objectives it’s not as difficult but…”

But Captain America had once worked with a cohesive team that had worked together and played off each other to their respective strengths. Working in SHIELD so far was different. “Think of anything that might make it easier?” she wondered, “Do you ever have a chance to talk to them?”

“Maybe, they’re not really the ‘friends’ type from what I’ve gotten so far,” Steve pointed out, “What about you? You mainly work by yourself with SHIELD, right?”

“As a contractor, yes, primarily,” she agreed, “Have you been to the training room with them? It’s just a thought, but if you work with your teammates off mission-time too, it could help.”

“I might,” he considered it, “If I work out, I’ll mainly stick to the basement gym, it’s kind of my stomping grounds at this point,” he shrugged, looking back to her; the fact he was still smiling she took to mean he was more comfortable with her questions than when she’d initially been assessing him and his reactions. “What about you? You have friends in SHIELD? People you work with? People outside of SHIELD?”

“You need to get out of the basement more,” Rachel told him, “Other agents use the facility gym, have you been in there yet?”

“Ah-ah,” Steve shook his head, giving her a half-glare. Rachel gave him a quizzical look, confused. “This has to go both ways, if you’re asking questions, I’m asking mine too and you didn’t answer.”

“What? I have friends,” Rachel told him simply, laughing a little at this impromptu ultimatum, “I’m just curious how much you’ve really started branching out.”

“And I’m curious about you,” Steve countered, “So tell me: friends? Hobbies? What?”

Rachel leaned back considering. She didn’t often have to give information about herself. Most people were happy to talk about themselves, and even when they weren’t interested in talking about sensitive topics they never turned it around on her. But he wasn’t asking for anything awful; in fact she felt a little flattered that he might be interested in knowing more about her.

“I have friends and acquaintances, in SHIELD I count Maria Hill as one of my friends, she knows how I like my coffee and sometimes if she’s gone to get something for Fury she’ll bring me something back too from the bagel shop,” Rachel explained, “Outside of SHIELD I keep in touch with two friends I’ve known since high school. One of them is an accountant, she works on Wall Street, and the other is an outlet manager; she took over her family business and their main store she works out of is in upstate.”

“That’s great, you still see them if they’re both in New York,” Steve grinned a little, “What about family? Did you grow up in the city?”

“Ah-ah. My turn.” Rachel shook her head at him, “So what else have you branched out into? If not the gym, where else? In SHIELD? Outside SHIELD? Or why haven’t you gone to the facility gym? Scared of something?” she suggested.

Steve scoffed a little before responding with the typical denial phrased in a ‘macho’ manner. Honestly the more she prodded it was less purposeful isolation, he and his team mates, at least to date, had relatively little in common. As long as the missions went well, group dynamics could wait. At least the Captain was suited to a team environment; Fury’s focus on that lately was a bit distracting.

Then somehow he got her talking about college. When she turned the question back on him, even he had amusing anecdotes from nearly 70 years ago. They spent the better part of an hour finding differences between the two time periods course-work in regards to American History. She didn’t really notice when she’d segued into asking simpler personal questions instead of ones with a measurable goal in mind.

The arrival of their respective meals only slowed the conversation, and did not halt it. Toward the end of their meal they both decided it would be a good idea to have a drink of champagne. The bottle was delivered with a curt “mademozelle” and “mizzer”, Rachel had been under the impression the waiter would open the bottle for their glasses but instead he quickly strode away.

Rachel frowned. “Could have sworn pouring the booze was part of service.”

“Apparently not.” With a shrug Steve reached for the bubbly and began to work the stopper loose.

There was little warning when the bottle opened with a loud pop, bubbles frothing up and overflowing. The top flew out of Steve’s hand onto the plate of a nearby table. He gave a sharp inhale as he quickly held the bottle out from his body, where the bubbles continued to froth and pop out of the opened bottle.

All eyes in the restaurant had turned toward them, at least briefly; some people were already wincing slightly and returning to their meals hoping to quickly ignore it. A few others were snickering into their plates and to their dinner companions. The staff however was oddly slow to respond.

“My most closely guarded secret, you can’t take me anywhere; now you know.” Steve managed a deprecating grin as he reach for his table napkin to try to start sopping up the mess. Rachel grabbed her own and stood up to help.

“No, just the fancy places,” Rachel amended for him, “The canteen or a simple burger join with a jukebox wouldn’t have been nearly such a disaster.” She shot him a toothy grin to let him know she was just teasing, as they managed to set the bottle, no longer overflowing, back on the table without incident. “No, seriously, mistakes happen. Sometimes they’re unavoidable.”

“I appreciate that,” Steve said after they at least managed to get the excess bubbles off his shoes, pants, and chair. The waiter somehow managed to return just as they were managing to pour themselves a glass, and with a slight sneer made a curt apology for the mess and offered to get them another bottle to compensate.

They decided against that.

“I wonder though, did I ruin the entire evening?” Steve asked as they were getting ready to leave.

Rachel rolled her eyes and shook her head, offering a smile as she took his arm again, “Not at all.” She assured him. “But if you still feel that way, you could always just make it up to me next time.”

“Next time?” he repeated, “You want there to be a next time?”

“I didn’t say that, did I?” Rachel mused, noncommittal.

They had left the restaurant by now, and for the moment a short walk on the city street seemed like a good idea. How they’d part or go home hadn’t really been arranged, and while having Steve walk her home might have sounded like a good idea, she knew her feet would thank her for taking a cab from the next block over.

“You implied, but… actually, I would,” Steve started, “I mean; if it wasn’t horrible, then it might be nice, right?”

“Maybe,” she not-really agreed.

He sighed a little, “I’m saying, that if you- um, that is,” he fumbled, searching for the right way he was trying to phrase it. A cool kind of smile curved at Rachel’s lips and she glanced over at him; blue eyes bright, the light from the sidewalk lamp threw his profile into relief, a perfect aquiline nose and pronounced chin.

She grinned at him as he still considered his words, half-realizing that he was babbling if the slight red tint to his cheek was any indication. “Well, I guess it’s really just that I’d like to-”

“Steve,” she interrupted him. Disengaging herself from his arm she stepped around in front of him. He stood at attention, and she almost wished he hadn’t straightened like that. He was a good bit taller than her and she couldn’t reach that for.

So she put her hand around the back of his head, pulling him back down. He seemed surprised enough that he didn’t try to stop her, and fortunately he didn’t pull away when her face closed in on his. Her head tilted slightly as she pressed her lips up against his.

It was brief and chaste and she pulled away a moment later, offering his stunned expression a quick smirk, “We will definitely do this again sometime.” She assured him, her voice pitched to a husky whisper she barely recognized as her own voice.

Then she walked away, turning quickly before he could see the hot flush that crept up over her face. Fortunately he didn’t follow her; she vaguely she hoped she didn’t stun the man into non-response. She flushed harder as she realized how forward that really was.

After the fact she wasn’t entirely sure why she did it. She picked up her pace a little, still walking hurriedly down the street. She probably should have considered how, really, that was a mistake; but she was a little caught up in the fact that his lips had been warm and a little chapped.

His expression of attention and then wide blue eyes in something like shock, the vague red tinge to his face, one that she’d hoped was from her; these were all the things her mind had room for at the moment. That and the way the street lamps lit on his skin and how good he honestly looked wearing a suit.

She giggled a little to herself and her cheeks felt hot all over again. It was childish maybe, but she was honestly giddy about it. And, by the way he was stumbling over his words toward the end there, he actually wanted to see her again. In a moment of honesty with herself, she sincerely hoped for the same.

Then her cell phone rang. She jumped slightly, still smiling to herself, and flushed again feeling her own foolishness before fishing the phone out of her purse and opening it.

“Hello?” she asked, genial, still overflowing with an unreasonable amount of happiness.

“Hey Doc, you sound mighty happy about something.”

Her high deflated immediately as she heard the man on the other end. “Director Fury,” she greeted, schooling both her voice and features to her professional mien once more, silently kicking herself for not checking the caller ID before she picked up. “How can I help you, sir?”

“Well, I wanted to check in on how our boy in red-white-and-blue is doing.” For some reason it sounded as though he was mocking her. Somehow Rachel wouldn’t put it past Fury to know exactly where she had been and who she had been with just a short while before he called.

“He’s doing fine, better than I could have anticipated, though there is still room for improvement,” she highlighted quickly, “The important thing is that domestic missions are progressing smoothly; he still has reservations about being the first to approach his teammates to engage in friendly relation, though this is primarily due to perceived antipathies from Black Widow and Hawkeye. If you want me to pursue negotiations in regards to the relations of those three I think it would be beneficial for me to speak with the two of them as well.”

“Hmm, things that bad between the three of them?” Fury seemed to muse to himself, “Well I suppose as long as the missions go alright, it’s fine then. Is that what I’m hearing?”

“If that’s adequate for you sir, we can address issues as they arise,” she agreed, “Are there any other problem areas you’d like me to address?”

“Not regarding those three,” Fury told her, “You said there’s still room to improve?”

“Steve has begun- the Captain, has been branching out to different areas, last week he appears to have come to terms with the friends and teammates he knew from 70 years ago,” she reviewed, “And while he had increased activity outside SHIELD and the basement facility I’m concerned that he hasn’t formed any strong attachments as yet.”

“Strong attachments, huh?” Fury considered, “Seems to me, he’s already got at least one ‘strong attachment’.”

“Sir?” she asked sharply, “I’m not sure I caught that, could you repeat it?”

The last of his statement was muttered almost as if he was speaking to someone else and hadn’t fully taken the phone away so she couldn’t hear it completely. She’d heard it, but the way he’d said it troubled her. He knew.

“Oh, nothing, just saying something to Maria is all,” Fury told her, dismissive, “Keep me posted on any changes or new information.”

“Yes, sir.”

He hung up. Rachel took the phone away and closed it up again. She was glaring now, but she wasn’t mad at Fury. She was mad at herself. Of course Fury would know about their little ‘date’, he probably knew all about her stupid… not very thought-out behavior.

In a moment the anger drained to be replaced by weariness. She sighed and put her phone away. Things had changed, they probably had even before tonight. Even if she could manage to do her job, she had to acknowledge that at this point her feelings for Steve Rogers were… well, suffice to say ‘decidedly unprofessional’.

She wasn’t sure what she was going to do about it, what she could do about it. If it were any other scenario she could refer him to another for assessment. If she were a better person she should have requested to Fury right there on the phone to assign someone else to the Captain’s case. But she hadn’t. She didn’t want to. It was probably wrong but… it wasn’t something she wanted to give up.

Michael Cowyn was now commander of his own Striker operative group. He still burned with rage for SHIELD and the day his own commanding officer was taken down by the super-human monsters used by that corrupted organization.

“Sir! Sir!!”

A field agent, one who patrolled the grounds near SHIELD headquarters looking for personnel that they could utilize. SHIELD agents were difficult to take down but occasionally there were contractors that did not have as high barriers to reach. They never had the security clearance needed to really use their information, but they were potential bargaining chips, at least until SHIELD decided it would no longer negotiate for prisoners.

“What is it, soldier?” Michael asked as the patroller stopped in front of him with a salute, “Report? You have news from the field?”

“Sir! I think I’ve found someone we can use against that monster! The one they thawed from ice!”

The patroller was already flipping through the log on his camera to bring up the right files to turn and show Michael. He frowned stiffly as he considered the field agent’s pictures. “Captain America,” he growled, recognizing the man in the evening suit. He didn’t know the woman, she wasn’t terribly remarkable. “A SHIELD Agent?”

“That’s the thing sir! We identified her earlier as a low-security-level contractor!” the field agent explained excitedly.

Suddenly Michael shared his enthusiasm. “This woman is important to him?”

He took the camera and moved through the pictures himself. “Yes, sir, I uh-it’s, here!” he brought up the file on the main frame drive. Michael glanced over at that too. The woman was previously identified as a contractor for SHIELD at an earlier date, however there hadn’t been any reason to go after her since she didn’t have anything of interest.

She was lowest-level security and wouldn’t know anything about SHIELD that wasn’t already widely publicized, and they hardly needed to ask her about individual agents state-of-mind; she wasn’t even the kind of ‘doctor’ that could prescribe medication so she wouldn’t know if there were any agents on psychological stimulants or depressants. That sort of information could be used; but this woman knew nothing useful, not to them.

Michael looked back at the pictures on the camera. The monster was smiling at the woman, and they both looked genuinely happy together. The corner of Michael’s mouth twitched a little. How horrible was it that a monster could look so ‘human’, and how dare it act like it should be so happy; as though it had a right to.

Again he looked at the woman. She was unremarkable, and she knew nothing useful about SHIELD, but if she was important to the super-human beast then she was now of interest to Striker.

“A man’s weakness is always woman, eh?”

“Yes,” Michael agreed, “Although, ‘that’ is not a man.”

The field agent nodded quickly, before reviewing the information they had available. “She’s a civilian of course, we never tracked down her address, but with her name… she’s listed in the phone book.”

“Send out a team tonight,” Michael ordered, “Then we set a trap for the animal, ‘Captain America’.”

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