Her wounds were healing, but that didn’t mean Steve didn’t feel a sharp pang of guilt every time he saw them. It was his fault. All he’d meant to say was how important she was to him, and that he didn’t want to be the one causing her to get hurt.
Instead he’d ending up admitting something… probably too forward. It was something he shouldn’t have said, even if it was how he felt. Ideally they should have gone on a lot more dates. He should have brought her back to meet his folks; not that they were around anymore, but he could have been invited on a weekend to meet her family, she’d only ever talked about them in passing.
But in a way it almost felt like they’d been on more than just the one date. They’d been meeting up and talking at length for months now; he felt like he knew her, and he knew his feelings well enough. Still that hadn’t been the best time to say anything. He knew he couldn’t realistically expect a response in the back of that van. They’d still been fleeing a place where shortly before there had been bodies and gunfire.
He still felt awful about that. Oddly enough, he was still hopeful. Even according to the doctors Rachel’s wounds had been largely superficial; she looked a lot better. There was still a light violet tinge to the skin near her jaw where the last of her bruises was recovering. The real reason Steve was hopeful was that Rachel hadn’t said ‘no’.
She said she didn’t know. Steve knew she liked him well enough, they were certainly friends if nothing else; and she had agreed to the date. It was a paradox that he wanted her safe, but he also wanted to be with her, which would make her a target for anyone coming after him. It wasn’t an easy decision, or maybe it was, but he couldn’t give up without trying.
If she didn’t want to, if she wanted to stay safe then she probably shouldn’t choose him. But if she did, then he was willing to keep going after her, to keep her safe, and to stay with her. The only thing that dashed at that hope, was the smile followed by an uneasy expression whenever she saw him these days.
She couldn’t answer him. It wasn’t even a matter of ‘yet’ anymore. She couldn’t, in good conscience, answer him.
“How was your break?”
Oh good. So that wasn’t what he was asking about.
“You look better.”
His smile was heartbreaking. She wanted to return it so badly; but she had no idea how to proceed. Not really.
“It was good,” she managed a small grin, “I’m feeling better too. Obviously my legs are working fine.” She laughed and hoped it didn’t sound forced.
She already knew suggesting they ‘see other people’ right off at the start would be the wrong tactic. She had to ease into things somehow. “About before… what you said…”
His expression shuddered, withdrawn, waiting. “You don’t have to answer now,” he told her carefully, “If you still need time-”
She had to start with the truth.
“The thing is I’m kinda of uncomfortable since, it feels like I’d be taking advantage of you.” She at least managed part of the truth. Given Fury’s little revelation about things, she knew it would be the case if she did something so unethical as accepting his confession.
His bark of laughter startled her. “You, taking advantage of me?” he repeated, grinning unabashed now into his hand; as though she was being completely silly.
Rachel startled and looked around quickly. A few people looked up but then dismissed it. Seeing Steve and Rachel talking together in the canteen was a common sight these days, and the quiet hum of activity as others ate their lunches was enough to drown out most things.
“How did that even cross your mind?” Steve asked, somehow amused as he looked at her; taking undue entertainment at her discomfiture.
“I hadn’t really thought about it before but, haven’t you noticed I’m the only woman you’ve interacted with since you got back?” Rachel hissed back at him, willing him to take this issue seriously. How was it both Fury and her realized the gravity of this but Steve hadn’t even bothered to consider it?!
“I’ve interacted with other women,” Steve insisted, scoffing at her statement, “I talk with Maria, Natasha, Melanie-!”
“I don’t mean people you work with, I meant-!” Rachel started exasperated before one of those names didn’t register. Maria Hill, Natasha Romanov, and… “Wait, who’s Melanie?”
Steve just laughed at her, grinning an absurd amount as he leaned forward as though about to impart some great secret. “Melanie works at the canteen,” he turned to look back and wave at the coffee bar, there was a cute brunette filling a latte. When she saw Steve she waved back with a quick grin before going back to her work. “She’s actually the one who suggested that restaurant we went to.”
“Oh.” Rachel said; a little less distressed. Although why she would be distressed if Steve did find someone else… no she knew why; it was just terribly unprofessional of her.
For starters the whole basis of this ‘relationship’, even if it were merely friendship, was lies. She had a job to do, and apparently she’d managed to screw that up somehow. She’d always thought her job was the one thing she always did best of anything, but she didn’t even have that anymore.
“I just don’t think you should rush into anything when you’ve basically just started to become accustomed to being here and now,” she told him, still not quite able to meet his eyes and unwilling to be persuaded to her baser feelings when there was a lead weight called guilt sitting in her gut.
Steve sighed, obviously exasperated; but apparently they’d reached in impasse. “If it’ll convince you, I’ll get out more and talk to more people.” It was a kind of concession. There was an unspoken ‘but’ hanging there, though he said no more. Rachel tried to smile.
“That would be good.” She nodded. If he had more time, it was probably just like Fury said; he’d move on to someone else. He’d ground himself with new friends and relationships; any crutch she had been to him would no longer be necessary. Any false feelings of attachment would disappear as well.
Their order number came up on the line. Steve excused himself to go pick it up. Most of the canteen staff was female. Rachel hadn’t really noticed how many of them were newer, younger, pretty girls with easy smiles and striking features.
Steve was smiling back when he went to get the order. They were just talking, exchanging pleasantries. It was normal. It was perfectly normal if he were pick up a normal pretty girl. She at least had no ulterior motive. Rachel frowned and looked back at the tabletop with a sharp sigh. He wasn’t flirting, she reminded herself. Probably the girl at the counter wasn’t either.
This was necessary. So how come everything since that moment, when she’d been so stupidly happy, just made her feel worse and worse?
“This is just painful to watch.”
Hawkeye didn’t say anything in response, but Widow hadn’t expected him to say anything either. “Someone should just tell him the truth.” She was talking about the Captain. “She should be the one to tell him.” She was talking about the doctor.
“She won’t.” Hawkeye finally spoke. The redhead glanced back at him. The two of them were waiting on prep vehicles for a reconnaissance; stopping to grab some food had been Hawkeye’s idea. People-watching had been Widow’s; she hadn’t realized the bad soap opera was still in progress.
She didn’t understand what was so difficult about it. “It’s completely ridiculous.” At least Hawkeye seemed to agree with her on that.
It was stupid. Something was going to give, at some point. Maybe that stupid balancing act needed a good shove to tip over.
It had been weeks.
“Have we met the deadline yet?”
He’d been patient, he’d been outgoing; and it had hurt. She’d wondered at different times when she’d seen him, if he’d found someone new. If they thought he was just as charming and wonderful as she did. If he thought they were pretty and kind and he liked them better.
She had worried about it. And she had also worried about it, if he hadn’t found someone. It was paradoxical, and it made her head and heart ache with it.
But somehow, apparently nothing had changed. “We didn’t really set a deadline did we?” Rachel wondered, dodging the question. He just had to ambush her in her office. She was currently making a show of shuffling papers around, like she was getting ready to go somewhere.
She had to hide Steve’s file too when he came in unannounced; she had been awfully remiss in documenting their past conversations, and while she understood her reluctance it meant she was doing a bad job of keeping her notes in order.
“So when is enough, enough?” he asked pointedly, “You need a list of the women I’ve talked to in the past couple weeks? There are at least four I know outside of SHIELD now-”
“No, that’s fine,” she meant to sound friendly and off-hand, but it came out clipped; slightly annoyed. She didn’t want to hear about the women he met, or why he was still so concerned with her; in a way it also made her feel special and wanted; and she had to quash that horribly selfish feeling.
She shooed him out of her office and shut the door behind her as she started walking, if nothing else she could lose him at Fury’s office. “I get that you’re scared,” he fell into step beside her, “What I don’t get is why you’re not scared of my enemies, my age, or my lack of knowledge, but rather that I might not feel the same later on.”
She was cracking. “How can you know?” she asked, stopping short to face him, this time she could look him in the eye; she didn’t take to being called a coward; but that was what it felt like. It had been this long… maybe Fury was wrong… maybe she was wrong too. “How can you be sure you’ll feel the same way another month from now? What about a year from now?”
“I don’t know.”
Not the assurance she was looking for.
“But I think I will,” he went on, “I want to build on this, and that’s what a relationship is. You take a chance. You see where it goes.”
She sighed and her shoulders slumped. She wanted that too. She could take a chance, see where things went. Even if she got hurt; it wouldn’t be the first time she got dumped. He’d taken their time-out period with remarkably good grace; if she considered his relations and relative reluctance toward interaction he’d improved since they first started talking by leaps and bounds.
So what was holding her back? Guilt. This was based on a lie. But it wasn’t really, not anymore; she did like him. Maybe she even lov-… no she’d consider that later. She was happy when she was with him, right? So what… she couldn’t tell him, and she couldn’t keep doing her job like this.
Maybe she could just ‘stop’. Fury didn’t seem to care that her notes were largely incomplete, and she could still report… as a ‘friend’ would. Maybe she could do this. Maybe everything that started this could just be swept neatly under the rug and forgotten until it turned to meaningless ash and dust.
She had to take a chance. She was willing to do that.
“Now who’s scared of the world and taking risks?” he was smiling, and she was grasping at straws. The irony wasn’t lost on her either.
“You don’t even really know me,” it was barely an arguing point.
“Sure I do,” he told her, “I know you prefer coffee over any other caffeinated drink including orange soda which is the only one you’ll drink over other cola products. I know you work late nights and sometimes start from early morning, and half of your work usually means research or reading case files compared with talking to your patients; though you generally prefer the latter. And your favorite color is aqua green.”
Aqua-!! She had nothing to say to that. Was it a lucky guess? Most people’s favorite color was blue, if it wasn’t black or red. “How did you know that?”
She shrugged, still grinning; he seemed way too satisfied about her stunned reaction. “It’s the color you wear most often.” He pointed out. She hadn’t really considered it but glancing down, her blouse today was also a pale minty aqua-green. Was something so small really so obvious?
“Again, that’s what a relationship is, right?” he shrugged it off, “People like one another, so it’s normal to learn more about each other.”
Now it was ‘like’, not ‘love’? She had to smile at that. When did he become such an expert? According to his case file he had relatively few romantic experiences. Shocking considering how great he was. She should have guessed he had a romantic streak.
“I want to know more about you, and I want you to know more about me,” He stated, “I’m not really a cold fish who refuses to go out and try new things.”
She laughed, “I already knew that.” She told him. She hadn’t really thought too much one way or another about how narrow these hallways could be. There wasn’t much traffic at the moment, but they were blocking the hall, and facing each other meant they were standing awfully close.
If she reached out a little, her hand could brush against his. When she did, his hand turned towards hers and their palms slid together. His grip was warm, sure, and straightforward; just like him. Her face felt hot and she hoped she hadn’t gone too pink.
It was a risk. But it was one she wanted to take, more than anything.
“Alright, I think you’ve made your point.”
“So,” he prodded, “What does that mean?”
“It means, I’ll go out with you,” she said grinning up at him. His fingers tightened and she loved the way his eyes lit up; she might just have to change her favorite color to blue, his eyes were just like the sky, limitless and free. He had that uncanny way of making her feel that everything was alright.
She laughed a little, there was no way he’d been this certain before; but he really had come a long way. He was better at understanding things than she’d first realized. “When did you get all insightful and start doing my job for me?”
He laughed with her, his eyes dodging sideways, something like embarrassment creeping into his expression again. Everything seemed rosy; she hadn’t thought she’d been leaning towards him but their faces were awfully close. She almost felt she should give him a warning; she was definitely about to do something forward and awful.
Rachel leaned in when she tilted her head, and moved the short distance to reach him. The first time she’d done this, it had been short, chaste, but electric. This time, he met her halfway; and she moaned, happy and startled, when he moved against her, responding, eager and elated.
She didn’t know how much experience he had with this, but it crossed her mind he was very good at it, or maybe it was his enthusiasm. If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought he’d been asking for it.
“This is just sickening.”
It was like everywhere she went the bad soap opera was just progressing at its fantastically stupid snail pace of idiocy. Hawkeye shrugged; apparently it didn’t bother him as much as it did her. “I’ve had it.”
“What are you doing?” Hawkeye asked her as Widow stalked off toward the doctor’s office. He had a bad feeling about this. Maybe he should have stopped her.
“They’ll thank me later.”
The doctor had apparently been rummaging in here earlier, her notes were haphazard over the desk in varying piles. She found Captain America’s note file at the bottom of one-such hastily piled stack. She grabbed it and started back down the hall, headed right for the two idiots.
The pair of lovebirds were standing too close and whispering something like stupid sappy things to each other. “Excuse me.” Widow said loudly as she approached.
It was somewhat satisfying as the two of them shot away from each other, both backing toward the wall. Widow was sure to hold the file so the label faced their direction. There was no way they could miss it.
Rachel stared, the idiotic blush draining from her face as she went pale, staring at Widow and the file in her hand. Steve was looking too, apparently confused. “I’m taking this so Fury can read your latest update on the Captain’s progress.”
“Wait,” Steve called her back, and Widow turned unusually acquiescent, “She doesn’t have a file on me, Fury didn’t order a psychiatric evaluation. I hardly need one.”
“Really?” Widow dismissed as she checked the first page of the file in her hands, “Says here it was ordered to perform an assessment under covert conditions. You know what that means, right?” For some reason the two expressions she was faced with were oddly blank.
“Dr. Schmidt performs assessments regardless of if the subject is even located at headquarters often-times. Fury has her report on individuals and her interactions regardless of whether they give consent. It’s a necessary part of being cleared for duty. How else do you think you got on the Striker missions?”
The lack of reaction was oddly unsatisfying. Maybe they’d weather this more easily than she’d expected. They’d probably just proclaim how it didn’t matter in the face of their true-love. She could almost taste the vomit. With an irritated sigh she took off, continuing down the hall. Fury didn’t really need the file, but she could flip through it she supposed. Maybe the idiot doctor had been writing hearts next to his name. On second thought she didn’t need to see that.
It seemed the silly soap opera would just have to go on. Good for them, everything was just peaches and roses, wasn’t it?
She couldn’t know that those blank faces she’d seen were merely the masks set in place for a person whose mind has temporarily been shut down. The world had been turned and shattered and spontaneously slashed back together.
The result was jarring and dissonant, like the echo of some cacophonous sound still resonating in the silence. There were no more words between them, no smiles, no laughter. What could be said? Rachel stood completely frozen.
She didn’t know if she should face him. If she should say something… she could apologize, or explain, or … it was all over. In a few moments it seemed like everything had ended.
Any guilt she’d felt from before that had sat as a lead weight had suddenly expanded to consume her. Her whole body felt heavy, oddly pulverized and squashed. If she didn’t know her heart was still beating she’d have sworn it had stopped and shriveled and died.
How was Steve taking this. How did he feel? Could she still fix this? If she explained, would it just sound like excuses? If he hated her now… and how could he not? How could she fix this?
She felt dead inside. Or at least she wished she was when she saw the look on Steve’s face.