A punch. A kick. A fired gunshot, and a weave and dodge. The bullet hit the wall. Another Striker operative hit the floor as Captain America pressed on down the halls of the bunker base. The alarm had already sounded and Steve caught the last of the latest attack wave, still conscious, for questioning.
“Where is she? The woman you took, I know she’s here so where?!”
But this one, like the others, refused to answer. Still struggling and lashing out; reaching for another weapon. Steve shook the man, halting his movements with the sharp action slamming him back against the wall. “Where is she?!” he repeated, growing more desperate. He trusted the information he’d received; if SHIELD said Rachel was here, then she probably was. But he hadn’t found her yet.
The next wave of soldiers had arrived, only four of them this time. Bullets fired overhead, Steve released the man and dodged to the side, using his shield for cover. The other Striker operative had barely reached his feet; he was gunned down by friendly fire.
The Captain threw himself back against his adversaries. Knocking the weapons away and sending the men spiraling to the ground; catching the final fourth one to repeat his questions. Eventually he did get an answer.
“End of the hall! The interrogation room!”
He knew he had to move quickly. This time he had no back up. He’d spent too much time, just trying to find her; but now he knew where.
There were less attacks from this direction; and for a moment he thought he might reach the end of the hall without incident. He could retrieve Rachel and escape within the hour. He stopped as he reached the halfway point. He could see the locked metal door at the end of the hall; but someone was blocking his way.
He was a normal looking man of average height, nothing terribly unusual though his features were more stern and sharp-looking than most.
“Captain America,” the man greeted coolly, apparently having expected him, “I see you got our message.”
The soldier frowned, uncomprehending. “I didn’t get any message. I came for the civilian you took.”
Stern solid features creased in slight confusion before smoothing again. “SHIELD didn’t pass it along… strange that they sent you anyway, knowing you were the one we wanted.”
“No one sent me,” the captain corrected him.
The man considered that then nodded. “No matter; you were our intended target, in any case. The girl was only bait.”
“Then let her go.”
A laugh; “That would be inconvenient at the moment.”
“What do you want with me?” the captain questioned instead; strangely the man was very collected and appeared to hold some position of authority in Striker, or at least this base. But he didn’t recognize this man from SHIELD’s list of noted leaders. “Who are you?”
“I am Michael Cowyn,” the man introduced himself, his hands turning palms up, as though an act of surrender, “And you can’t hope to stop us.”
Something sharp, and metal, bit into his neck. The Captain cried out in shock. Something had punctured beneath the hood of his suit into the flesh. His hand flew to the wound, and his body turned. The metal weapon; a needle he realizes as he turned, had already been withdrawn and the Striker operative who had struck him backed away quickly with a look of triumph.
“We did it!” came the new man’s shocked cry. There was the stain of red blood on the glinting needle and syringe the operative carried. The Captain scowled as he faced the new wave of Striker soldiers lined up on the hall behind him. Turning back to Michael the man only smirked at the captain with cold steely eyes.
If they drugged him with something it didn’t work; he didn’t feel weak or woozy at all. A cry came from the back of the group of soldiers; something from behind them was working toward the front. “Sir?!” the man with the needle cried at Michael, uncertain.
“We have what we want; get out!”
There was a side door to the hallway that the man called Michael vanished down. The soldiers covered the man with the needle too as a group of them accompanied them through the doors. As the attack squad thinned, the captain could see the two people fighting through from the other side.
“Widow? Hawkeye?” he questioned, hardly believing his own eyes; his teammates surely hadn’t received any mission about this base that he didn’t know about. “What are you doing here?”
“I can tell you what we’re not doing,” Widow frowned, dropping the last of the line who had not disappeared down the side paths, “Saving you out of a sense of comradery.”
Hawkeye was checking out the door most of the group had fled down. Apparently he decided they weren’t coming back to cause issue, and that he wasn’t going to pursue. He turned back to the captain with a simple question, “Have you located the doctor, yet?”
Rachel could still taste the fading metallic tang of blood in her mouth. The man from before hadn’t come back, and neither had anyone else. She knew she was dehydrated, and too tired to hardly think. She hadn’t been able to sleep, tied upright. Every time she sagged the metal cuffs dug deeper into her skin, exacerbating the bruises she’d given herself earlier.
Thinking about it she supposed this was a kind of method of torture; or breaking someone. She couldn’t even figure out what that siren-sounding had been a while ago. For the most part this room was thickly padded and she could hardly hear anything going on outside.
Even if a small bomb went off outside the heavy door she didn’t know if she’d hear so much as a dull bang. Things had been deathly silent for a while now, except for her breathing and the scuff of her shoes against the concrete floor, trying to keep her legs from falling asleep.
Then she heard the locking mechanism turn over. The door clanged heavily as it was wrenched open. She wasn’t sure who to expect this time, if anyone could be expected. The dim room was flooded with light. She couldn’t see anything.
She knew that voice. “Steve?”
Never had she been so relieved, or happy, to see him. Though the light framed three figures in the doorway, all she saw was Steve as he rushed inside the room, toward her. When color began to return, the planes of his face, the soft gold and brown of his hair, and the sharp blue of his eyes were all she saw. “Hang on, we’re getting you out.”
Relief flooded through her like a warm balm at his words. His hands tore through the metal cuffs around her wrists, snapping them as though they were no more than brittle plastic. “Can you stand?” his hand moved to her arm to steady her as she made to stand for the first time in several hours.
Rachel stood upright and then the room turned and toppled around her as her muscles failed her. Apparently she hadn’t been doing such a good job of keeping her legs from falling asleep. “Rachel!” Steve caught her. The last thing on her mind should have been how warm and strong he felt or how safe she felt with his arms around her.
“They hurt you.” The pained look on his face as he realized this in the dim light of the holding cell cut her like a knife. She shook her head quickly.
“Are you dizzy?” Hawkeye asked stepping toward them; Rachel had almost forgotten he and Widow were behind Steve; “Did they dose you with something?”
“No, not dizzy, just a light case of paresthesia,” she explained quickly, clinically; there was no reason to worry over something small like this.
“Para-what?” Steve sounded confused. She nearly laughed at his puzzled expression and settled for a sheepish smile.
“My legs are asleep.”
Widow made a sharp sound of disinterest, “We need to move,” she told them curtly, “Just because they backed out for now doesn’t mean they won’t double back.”
“Agreed.” Steve hadn’t released her yet. Even if her legs were feeling less like pins and needles Rachel was still rather reluctant to leave the warm safety of his embrace. Apparently he had no intention of letting her walk out of there, regardless.
In a quick movement, Steve cradled her body backwards, sweeping her legs out from under her. To her credit Rachel managed not to squeak or squeal at her sudden lift. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d been carried bridal style. Then the three of them were moving.
Hawkeye and Widow moved ahead at the front to make sure of a clear path to the exit. There were a few stragglers, Striker gunmen, in the outer hallways. The two SHIELD agents made quick work of any opponents and they surged ahead. The group made it to the outside within minutes.
“I’ll drive,” Hawkeye said, snatching the van keys from Widow as they shot through the wooded area toward their vehicle. She redheaded woman shot him an unimpressed look.
“Fine.” She agreed, opening the back for Steve and Rachel before taking up the communications console once they reached the SHIELD van. The moment that all doors swung shut, Hawkeye was already tearing off down the road.
They hadn’t seen any Striker operatives since they left the base, but Hawkeye habitually checked rear mirror and the installed back-cameras to make sure. They didn’t have overhead detection; which could be an oversight if they knew Striker had any aircraft in the area. Widow confirmed from her previous recon that they didn’t.
Still he was uneasy. To make him feel better, she stuck her head out the window to check overhead anyway. There was nothing, and she gave him a knowing smirk that he’d learned to ignore over the years. She brushed back her red hair to refit the communications ear-link.
“Hill, this is Widow, objective accomplished,” she reported, succinct as usual. “The captain and the doctor are on board; we are on route for HQ.”
“Roger that,” Hill’s voice estimated their time of arrival and the docking zone for the SHIELD vehicle and debriefing. Silence was more common that speaking when Widow went on missions with Hawkeye. It was something that was comfortable between them. This ride, however, was not as quiet as she would have liked.
“It’s not just your legs, they did hurt you.”
His mournful voice was annoying.
“No, really, I’m fine. Considering everything, I’m doing just great, really.”
Her carefully upbeat assurances were also annoying.
“We need to get you looked at, your nose could be broken.”
Widow felt a muscle in her forehead twitch. At least she could do something to make them shut up; she reached for the first-aid kit under the dash and tossed it over her shoulder. “Use that,” Widow instructed, “She can get checked by medical staff after debrief.”
The sooner they stopped whining at each other the better!
“Thank you,” Steve quietly thanked Widow, her annoyance apparent in her tone of voice. Still, at least he hadn’t asked how or why she and Hawkeye had showed up to help. He could guess, since she was just reporting to Maria Hill, that she’d been worried and sent them after him just in case; or something similar. Maybe it had been an inconvenience to them; well he wasn’t going to be sorry about that, not since they’d managed to save Rachel.
Rachel… with blood crusted under her nose and a dark bruise purpling under her jaw, with eyes still bright and giving reassurances, to him; when it was his fault this happened. “Stay still, okay?” it came out as a question instead of an instruction when he moved the antiseptic swab to the path of blood. Still she stayed still, tilting her head back slightly so he could see better.
He could clean up the blood, but the bruises and the tender skin when she flinched away weren’t anything he could help heal. “This is all my fault.”
“No,” Rachel told him sharply, as though the statement was completely absurd, “This is not your fault. Striker did this; you are not responsible for the actions of a group of fanatical extremists.”
It was almost cute how she seemed to believe that absolutely. But she was wrong, and he just felt guiltier about it. Fury had said they’d captured her; he had no idea they were going to torture her; and they’d had her hours, nearly an entire day before he even learned about it.
There were the bruises on her face, and even her wrists. As fierce as she could sound and as strong a conviction as she had, she was still terribly fragile. He had to tell her the truth. “They targeted you because they saw us together,” he admitted.
“Oh,” her brow creased a little considering, her bright eyes flicking away from his. He looked down as well. He wanted to say more, but there wasn’t anything he could. Their target was me, so they took you, and they hurt you. I’m sorry. This is my fault, and I don’t know how to make it right.
“When I took this job, as a contractor for SHIELD, I knew there were certain risks,” she started slowly. He frowned. No, she shouldn’t have to rationalize something like this; not when the blame was so clearly his. “If it wasn’t you they saw me with, maybe it would be director Fury, or someone else; it’s a risk I was already aware of. It happens. It’s not your fault.”
“No, not this time,” Steve sighed heavily. “If you hadn’t been targeted before now, then you probably wouldn’t be. It was because I had to take you somewhere public; and I’m recognized, I don’t have a ‘secret identity’. They wouldn’t have targeted you if not for me.”
“That’s why I’m telling you its fine,” she said, voice harder now in response to his exasperation, “This is not your-!”
“No, it’s not fine!” Steve insisted, cutting her off, “It can never be fine, because I love you! I want to be with you and I can’t let you get hurt because of that!”
Any retaliating argument that Rachel had been considering left her head in an instant as her face suddenly caught fire, a red flush spreading over her face with an expression of embarrassment and something not unlike giddiness.
A moment later it seemed to dawn on him that he had just admitted something he probably hadn’t intended and the same hot flush began to scrawl over his face and neck as he leaned back and looked away quickly.
She’d been marshalling her arguments for why Steve couldn’t blame himself for something like this when… he effectively found a way to make her shut her mouth. Her whole body felt warm, not just her face which was now unbearable hot as she stared back at him.
He cleared his throat, still avoiding eye contact. “Th-that didn’t quite come out like I…” he shook his head and risked looking back at her. “You don’t…” He didn’t finish the question and his eyes lowered again, his posture shifting uneasily, as though unsure how he fit into the space before now.
Rachel’s head swam, every previous thought and considering blown from her mind. Steve liked her. No, he said he ‘loved’ her. But he was… Captain America, and her patient, and so very cute, and adorable, and handsome, and muscly, and he saved her, and he was sweet and kind and wonderful, and she felt so very very happy!!
For some reason guilt was the only thing that stopped a gleeful smile from spreading over her face. To be honest, reeling back feelings of high-school-girl-giddiness, she had to consider this seriously. She probably felt the same. But he was also her patient. She’d been lying to him about why they had even started their tentative ‘friendship’.
As time dragged on she realized her silence was contributing to the painful crease of his brow. She reached out to him quickly, or she meant to, somehow her hand very tentatively reached forward, and her eyes dropped to where her fingers curled over the back of his palm. He didn’t move away and she squeezed his hand gently.
“I-I don’t know.”
She didn’t have an answer. Not yet. She needed to think. Very badly, and preferably when her hand was less crowded with a ton of pink cotton candy that just screamed I-like-you-too-Steve over and over.
In the front seat, Hawkeyes was doing a remarkable job of not snickering or bursting into laughter. The Russian woman only saw it in the shallow exhale of breath and the tug at the corner of his mouth. Widow wondering if the two in the back even realized their conversation wasn’t really private. It was like listening to a badly scripted soap opera.
Widow just rolled her eyes and directed a dark look at the road in front of them. They couldn’t reach SHIELD headquarters fast enough in her opinion.
“I can’t continue this case.”
Fury gave her a quizzical look over the debrief table. “Excuse me?”
“The case regarding Steve Rogers, Captain America,” Rachel clarified, sullen, “I can’t in good conscience continue to assess his case.”
“And why is that?” Fury discarded the Striker notes he’d been working from.
The debrief room was similar to some of the others SHIELD used, it was clean and bright, the walls were painted a beige white and the floors were clean pristine tile; probably waxed the day before. Everything about SHIELD was clean, proficient, clinical and effective. She needed to be the same in her work capacity.
“The level of professional and personal conduct has blurred,” she informed the director, “Given a certain level of intimacy I do not think I am best qualified to continue his assessment.”
“Intimacy?” Fury repeated, scoffing at the word, “This is SHIELD. We’re your other family, basically. Lines are always blurred.”
Rachel smiled tightly, she couldn’t really do more than that or the cut on her lip might start bleeding again. She really needed this debrief to be over so she could go take a shower as soon as possible. “No, this is different, it-”
“It just means you really haven’t done your job properly,” Fury told her, interrupting here with a raised voice and severe look.
“Hasn’t it occurred to you?” Fury asked her, baiting with his condescension, “You’re basically the only girl he’s been interacting with.”
Oh, so Widow or Hawkeye, or both of them, had already told him… wait.
Rachel’s eyes widened as she considered his words. The only girl Steve had been… any of the remaining giddiness and excitement still singing through her blood turned to ice. It made sense. It was so obvious. If she’d been able to think about it clearly it made perfect sense.
She’d been so blinded by her own feelings she hadn’t even stopped to consider… “This is why I am emotionally compromised,” Rachel said slowly, her voice cracking oddly, “I cannot continue his assessment.”
“Oh, get over yourself, Doc,” Fury told her, rolling his eyes, impatient. “He doesn’t actually like you. You probably don’t actually like him; he did save you, you were under duress, it’s a normal thing to-”
“Don’t presume to tell me how I feel.” Rachel told him, perhaps more sharply than should have been warranted to use on her superior.
“Fine,” Fury amended, “Still, it would be detrimental to switch users on him now. I think your next objective is clear though. You need to socialize him, and then any of this ‘emotional compromise’ business should just ‘go away’.”
It was absurd to think that less than a few hours ago she’d been so elated. She really hadn’t been doing her job. But she was back on task now. That was a good thing.
So why did it feel like the earth had shattered under her feet?