“Tell us! What do you know about SHIELD?!”
The man was rough and burly and his knuckles caught at her jaw, bone grating on bone as he struck and her face flew to the side. Her whole body rocked and her skull shook. The blow nearly knocked her, and the chair she was bound against, to the floor.
A cough, and sputtered, as she shuddered waiting for the next blow sure to come, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Rachel gasped, choking against the blood in her mouth.
She still wasn’t entirely sure how she got here; to this dark metallic-sounding room. She’d been just outside her home; it felt like only hours ago. There were three of them and she couldn’t fight them off. She’d screamed, but it had happened too quickly. She tried to fight back, but she wasn’t a warrior; her struggle hadn’t lasted long. Pain came and it was all she could do to curl on herself and hope it ended soon.
Now she was here, with a strange man she didn’t know asking her about SHIELD. She knew there were certain risks to her job, working with SHIELD and military, but this was outside her scope of capability. The blows came again, a hand striking hard knocking her head back the other direction.
Her neck twisted and her head throbbed in pain as the bones ground together; distantly she wondered if he’d dislocated her jaw. “You lie!! We know all about you! We know you work for them! What do you know about SHIELD?!”
She shook and sputtered as new blood dripped down from her nose; maybe that was broken too. This was awful… Fury hadn’t really thought things through when he gave her a level 4 security clearance… she had to hold on… as long as possible. But everything hurt, so much. “I, I swear, I have no idea what you’re talking-!”
“Enough of your lies SHIELD dog!!”
Rachel recoiled, bracing for the next blow.
A short, curt, commanding tone interrupted as the heavy metal door creaked open and fell shut again. “Commander, Cowyn, sir!”
“It’s true. She doesn’t know anything; that’s not why she’s here.”
This wasn’t about the level 4 security clearance? Relief flooded through her and she bit back a sob; more than grateful that the beating had apparently stopped.
She heard measured footsteps as the new man walked to the brute; Ievans, it sounded like a last name. “Why don’t you go clean up? The field officer will explain more if you prefer.”
“Yes, sir,” The brute made a kind of grunting noise before Rachel heard the metal door swinging again as he left. The other one was still with her and she waited quietly, unsure of what to expect.
The tang of blood in her mouth made her feel sick. Her head still throbbed with pain and she tried to gently work her jaw to assess the damage. She wasn’t sure if it was dislocated, but it hurt to move, stinging sharply if she tried to stretch it too wide. Her eyes could still focus on things like shape and color, her head was slowly clearing and the light illuminated the man’s shoes and the edge of his dark pants from where she was looking at the floor. No brain damage, probably, that was good.
She ran her tongue over her teeth, none of them appeared broken or chipped; small mercies. Slowly she straightened against the chair to look at the new man who had relieved her tormentor. He was relatively unremarkable in appearance, fair-skinned, dark-hair, and cold eyes; very cold.
There were no more questions and she considered what other reasons she might have been brought here; kidnapped by enemies of SHIELD. It was fortunate they didn’t know about her security clearance; if they had known and if that beating had continued she had no idea how she was supposed to hold on. She had no training in this sort of thing, she wasn’t an agent; but she wasn’t about to give up entirely.
“Thank you,” the told the man softly after a moment. His expression didn’t change, and she correctly guessed her initial attempts at ingratiation hadn’t worked. It wasn’t a tactic that was easy to work with; but generally when feeling threatened if they could ask for help or thank or otherwise positively engage the threatening individual, sometimes hostilities could be mitigated.
“Why am I here? You know I don’t have anything of value to you.” She asked, voice still soft and quiet, not accusing or angry; the two surest things that would guarantee she’d never learn anything.
“It’s not what you know,” He told her simply, “It’s who knows you.”
Well that didn’t give her very much, she let her confusion show and she tried again, “SHIELD doesn’t negotiate for contractors, you know,” he didn’t respond, “Please, just let me go? You don’t want to hurt me for no reason, you know what you’re doing is wrong. You may think this is the only way to get what you want, but even if the goal is noble the methods used to get there matter just as much.”
“You’re a psychologist, correct?” he asked, and she frowned slightly, “I know you’re trying to convince me, but it won’t work. Sometimes extreme methods are needed, and the goal is noble.”
“Ever heard that ‘the ends doesn’t justify the means’?”
“I’ve heard it,” he nodded, eyes still cold and unmoving, “I also know there are times when the opposite is true as well. You have a point. But so does Striker.”
Rachel flinched slightly. She knew that name; many of their top members were on the FBI most wanted list. As far as extremely domestic hostile attacks went Striker was considered one of the worst.
“Do you agree with SHIELD?” he asked her, “What they’re doing.”
“They’re protecting the American people,” she repeated from wrote memory, “Just like a ‘shield’ should.”
His mouth twitched in a nasty sort of sneer. “Protection… is that what you call invasive surveillance of the people they’re sworn to protect? In restricting the freedoms we once had, they keep us safe. It’s wrong; they take away our freedom, they’re jailing us, everything that America should stand for is destroyed by SHIELD and all that they stand for.”
“You’re right.” She agreed, totally sincere. He seemed taken aback, ready to start arguing, her acceptance set him off balance. “Of course, the fact that you’re right is completely overshadowed by the fact that as ‘freedom-fighters’ you’re using violence and intimidation to get what you want.”
She couldn’t help herself; the man was a hypocrite, and she lost her opened as the cold glare returned. “There are peaceful ways to do things.” She pointed out, cursing herself for letting her own anger at this man’s hypocrisy get to her.
“Yes, ways that take too slow,” he sneered, “People can get up in arms enough to change things, I’ll grant you that it can happen. But the people also lose interest it before they can actually change anything. The process of changing laws and policy is slow; and people are too comfortable as sheep.”
Rachel glared back at him. “Then perhaps they deserve to lose their freedom.” She told him, “In sacrificing that they are neither safe nor free.”
For a moment he seemed taken aback, meeting her gaze evenly, assessing. There was a loud banging knock on the metal door and he turned to address the intrusion, dismissing her without a second glance. “Sir, sorry to interrupt.”
“You aren’t,” the man assured his subordinate. Rachel lowered her head to listen, “What news?”
“We have a working prototype of the serum,” the man reported eagerly, “We’ve run trial runs, it should significantly weaken SHIELD’s super-human agents. There is however one caveat, we’ll need-”
“Let’s take this into the hallway.”
The two of them stepped outside and the metal door swung shut behind them. Rachel frowned as the clang resounded and silence was all she heard. A serum to weaken the super-humans of SHIELD? Too bad she didn’t know about the required component they needed.
She tested the cuffs chaining her hands to the chair, again she found no weakness, she tried to hop the chair closer to the door, but realized how little that would help since she still couldn’t hear through it. There was nothing she could do; not even listen in on Striker’s projects. She wondered if Fury was already aware of what Striker was working on.
It was okay that Rachel hadn’t called, it was even okay that she hadn’t been down to the basement. But Steve hadn’t seen her all day so far; there was no word at all, she wasn’t in the canteen at mealtimes and she wasn’t in her office either.
The sinking thought occurred to him that she was avoiding him. But then according to the front desk and security, she hadn’t even checked in today. Was she out sick? Or maybe on holiday? Why hadn’t she said anything to anyone?
Steve even checked with Maria Hill who seemed… reticent about it. Evasive even before she suggested that he ask Fury about it. Nick Fury of course was more difficult to get ahold of, if only because he kept moving around. The man was hardly ever in his office except the few times that he was.
He’d been forced to check with each division on his schedule, and Fury hadn’t been going to them in order, or even in order of how close they were to each other. First he’d gone to weapons development on the third floor and down to the basement to check with the professor on the tesseract and then back up to the fourth floor to see about a minor security breach. Steve eventually caught up to him in the hallway, his only advantage being superior speed to trace Fury’s haphazard path through SHIELD’s connected buildings.
“Director Fury, sir!”
“Hey, Cap,” Fury greeted somewhat dismissively, as though Steve wasn’t racing to catch the elevator he was disappearing into. “Fancy seeing you here. I didn’t think you had any business in the computations tower.”
“I don’t,” Steve admitted, catching the elevator doors that Fury had been disinclined to stop so as to continue the conversation. He got in and the doors closed again, taking them back to ground floor, “I’ve been trying to find you, sir.”
“Well congratulations, your superior sleuthing has paid off, you found me,” Fury started walking the moment the elevator doors dinged open. Fortunately the man was human and Steve didn’t have to jog to keep up with his long strides. “What do you want?”
“It’s about Rachel Schmidt.”
“What about the doctor?”
“Well, she’s not in for one thing,” Steve frowned; if even Maria seemed to know something how come Fury didn’t seem aware?
“Is that so unusual?” Fury gave him a side-long look as if questioning his intelligence.
“By itself, no,” Steve confirmed, “But it’s not just that she hasn’t come in for work. She’s not answering her phone, her pager, and according to her apartment building she was seen last night but not this morning and there’s no answer at her apartment. It’s empty inside.”
“You went that far to check up on her?!” Fury asked incredulous, “You know, that’s called breaking and entering! There’s a fine line between a concerned boyfriend and a crazy stalker!”
Steve flushed. “I knocked on the door and looked through the mail slot. I didn’t do anything illegal.” He insisted, well aware that without further evidence there was no reason to really be alarmed, but still something felt wrong to him. “She’s not there and no one can contact her.”
“Well it’s hardly been 24 hours yet,” Fury shrugged, “I doubt you can file a missing persons report with just that.”
Steve frowned, catching the nervous jump of a twitching muscle in Fury’s neck. “Are you implying that I’d need to, sir?”
“Well if you’re that concerned about it-”
“I think you know where she is, sir.”
Fury stopped in the hallway and turned to fix Steve with a tired glare. He met that gaze evenly, not backing down. “Don’t you?” Steve said, and it was a less a question and more a statement.
“What makes you think I know anything about-”
“She’s a SHIELD contractor,” Steve explained easily enough, “More than that, she has some of the highest security clearance of any contractor in the organization; you even have her assessing the movements of Bruce Banner, a high security and top priority case. Is that where she is? Why no one’s heard anything?”
Fury’s mouth twisted. The man wanted to lie, but for whatever reason decided against it. “No,” he told Steve plainly, “And yes, I do know where she is.”
“Then what?” Steve shook his head, confused, all but demanding an explanation.
“Rachel Schmidt was kidnapped late last night from outside her home,” Fury reported simply, “We believe Striker is responsible.”
“What?!” Steve’s blood ran cold, how was this even… “But they haven’t taken contractors since…?”
“Well something changed for them, didn’t it?” Fury snorted, shaking his head. He was walking again; this time towards his office.
“But how did they single her out? Why?” Steve asked, unable to wrap his head around what had changed; Striker wanted to bring down SHIELD sure, but they hadn’t been taking contractors for years now according to the files on the organization. “What changed? What purpose could they have?”
“I wonder,” Fury sniffed as he fished a file out of one of his cabinets before slapping it open on the desk, facing Steve Rogers. The pale man stared blankly at the images. It was of his date the night before, with Rachel. He could guess that Fury would know about it but what did that have to do with Striker-?
His expression changed to one of horror. “Now you get it.” Fury noted, “One of their operatives saw you off-duty; they know who you are, their focus is on SHIELD’s super-human threats, right. What do you suppose that looks like, to them?”
Steve sank into one of the chairs opposite Fury’s desk. This was his fault. They would never have known about her, never would have even cared; except that he…
“We have to rescue her.”
Fury gave him a blank look. “Excuse me?”
“This is my fault,” Steve said plainly, deciding on the necessary course of action; there was no question of it, simply something that had to be done. “They would never have taken her if not for me, we have to rescue her.”
“We?” Fury repeated giving the Captain a very bland and unamused look, “No. ‘We’ don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
Steve looked back at the man incredulous, “You can’t be serious. We can’t leave her ther-!”
“Even if we were to mount a rescue attempt,” Fury told him squarely, “You would not be on that team. You’re clearly too involved, not thinking clearly; you’d only be putting yourself in danger.”
“I assure you sir, I’m thinking very clearly,” Steve told him coolly, “More than I have in a long time.”
“Well isn’t that dandy,” Fury said, just as coldly, “There is no rescue. She’s not one of us, and she’s not an irreplaceable asset.”
Steve gave him a dark look, accusatory. “So that’s it then.”
“I have to do what’s right for SHILED, what’s right for the American public.” Fury protested, incredulous, “That does not include wasting resources to retrieve a single individual.”
“You’re right,” Steve responded, his jaw set, determined, “You have to do what you think is right. And so do I.”
He didn’t bother to see if Fury had any further defense or ready retort. Steve turned and left the director’s office already thinking of how to obtain the needed information. There was a task force dedicated to compiling information on Striker and intercepting possible communications; that could be a start. Or if Fury knew, chances are Maria Hill would also be aware.
Apparently since Fury returned to his office, Maria wasn’t far behind. He caught her in the hall. “Do we know where Striker has Rachel?” he asked without preamble.
She stopped at his question, considering if she should answer before giving a short nod. “We do, it’s a smaller bunker outside the city limits,” she told him simply, “I can send you the coordinates.”
Come to think of it, Maria was the reason he visited Fury at all. Apparently Steve wasn’t the only one whose opinion disagreed with SHIELD’s course of non-action against Striker abducting people. Steve received the coordinates shortly and appropriated a vehicle to take on Striker.
Maria sent two more short messages after directing Captain America to the bunker they’d located about an hour ago. Widow and Hawkeye would be mobilizing soon after. She got confirmed responses from both of them before she’d even made it into Fury’s office.
“So?” the man asked expectant, arching his single visible eyebrow at the brunette woman.
“Captain America is on his way to Striker now with the coordinates supplied,” Maria reported briefly, “I’ve received confirmation that Black Widow and Hawkeye are aware of the situation and will follow discreetly, providing enforcement as needed.”
“Good.” Fury quipped turning back to the other files in his hands. There were enough projects to keep anyone busy; and he hadn’t fully completed his usual rounds to the different departments. Maria frowned at his schedule as she considered the time constraints. This little ruse with the Captain had taken enough of the morning already.
“Sir,” Maria interrupted Fury’s perusal of the current file, “Since we had no intention of stopping the Captain, and we are in fact sending two of our agents after him anyway… why didn’t we just send him with the other two?”
“Because it’s his fault.”
“It’s the Cap’s fault the doc got taken,” Fury told her shortly, “They were careless, both of them were careless.”
Maria’s forehead creased a little; Fury had to know he hadn’t answered her question. “It’s their responsibility; and we’re not sending anyone after the doc – you know our policy about that.”
“But sir, we just-!”
“We sent Widow and Hawkeye after the Cap. Not the Doc.” Fury stated pointedly. “Big difference as far as our weapons budget and allowable-instances-of-potentially-wasteful-resource-management are concerned. Getting doc back is a bonus, since I’m not sure I like the Cap if no one’s holding his leash.”
Maria’s eyes widened slightly as she made the connection. Of course the doctor was important to Fury’s plans concerning Captain America and his improved mental health lately, so this was… a justification for their paperwork that would otherwise end of very smudgy near the end of the year.
As it was they had enough to argue about when they met the corporate leaders in another month. They already had major issues concerning the recruitment of Bruce Banner, “the Hulk”, and Tony’s joyride spending spree with the R&D department that was hardly justifiable… this would be one less item they’d have to bring up.
“I’m impressed, sir,” Maria told him simply, “I didn’t know you took such interest in the reports I have to append.”
“Oh it’s not for you,” Fury assured casually; “I don’t like talking to the powers-that-be any longer than I have to. I’m far too busy for that.”
Maria allowed a rare smile and moved on to the next item on the director’s agenda. While several miles away, Captain America was poised to begin an attack on the Striker hideout.