He felt dead inside.
He should have known. At the time, maybe he’d wanted her to deny it, but he knew. Her guilty expression was plain enough. He’d seen that look before, and dismissed it so easily; he only saw what he wanted to see, he should have known.
There were several times when he should have caught on. Meeting Peggy and Howard’s son, he’d learned her profession, he’d ignored her stiffened posture and guilty face then. He should have seen it, should have recognized it.
Even just days ago, she looked guilty again. She was trying to convince him not to choose her so easily. He ignored her. She was basically telling him she couldn’t. He didn’t understand why. Now he did. He had been completely blind.
Had Fury given her the ‘okay’? Was that why she suddenly broke down and accepted him? He knew now it was the reason she’d started talking to him. Concern or friendliness? Those easy smile and probing questions. He should have guessed. Now he knew. It was all fake.
Knowing didn’t make it any easier.
Another sandbag burst apart under a rain of quick precision strikes. He was hardly thinking about practice. The movement was supposed to distract him. It didn’t, but it did seem to help dull his senses. The basement was empty today, except for him as usual. Those metal doors wouldn’t open. Even if they did, would it admit a slight brunette with a round face? Would she be smiling? If she was, he couldn’t accept that. Even if she did come, he couldn’t accept it either.
She’d been digging at him from the start. Only now did he realize that rather than helping to heal old wounds, she’d dug in the knife, let it heal around, and then ripped it right back out. He retrieved another sandbag from the stockpile in the storage area. The metal clanged loudly in the relative quiet, and he started the motions again.
He was tired, and raw; but at least the movement helped with something. His thoughts dulled to a quiet hum, over and over again; he should have known. Eventually the stinging burn and ache would fade as well.
“What in the hell were you thinking?!”
Widow scowled and resisted the urge to scoff or sigh or roll her eyes. Fury had his reasons to be upset, she supposed. She just didn’t understand how that was really her fault. The doctor should have come clean a long time ago if they expected anything to come from this ‘patch up the captain’ or ‘let’s be in lovey-dove-love’ stupidity.
“Do you have any idea the kind of set-back this is?!” Fury demanded, “The Cap is back in the basement now! He hasn’t surfaced in days! I didn’t even bother asking him up for the mission two days ago! This isn’t some ‘funk’, and it’s not that easy to heal ‘mental issues’!”
So now he had mental issues? Well, yes, they all knew that.
“It’s part of the reason I didn’t yank the Doc when Cap started developing his emotional crap!”
Widow nearly did roll her eyes. If it wasn’t her, it would have been some other inanely stupid thing that happened between those two. So how much worse would it have been if it happened after those two had been dating for months? The Captain might have even gone back into a coma if that happened. For some reason that thought amused her.
“Do you think this is funny?!” Fury demanded, apparently catching the amused glint to her eyes, regardless of her, well actually she hadn’t been trying that hard to hold it back. At least she’d kept herself from laughing. After a moment of pointed silence as Fury fumed, she realized he expected a response.
“No, sir,” She replied easily.
“Well you must find something about this amusing!” Fury accused, not letting her off so easily, “Is it my blood pressure? Is it the fact that after potentially gaining an important asset for this organization you’ve sent him back to square one?!”
Square one would mean putting him back on ice for another 70 years. This time she didn’t stay silent. “Maybe it is.” She admitted, meeting his eye evenly.
That stopped him mid-shout, “Excuse you?”
“So what if the Captain’s relapsed into his ‘loner thing’?” she asked pointedly, part of her irritation showing, “He got attached to the doctor. Their association wasn’t going to be broken by either party, and certainly not you. She’s not good at hiding things.”
“She’s done well enough so far!”
“And there have been times when the captain has been too blind to notice her slip-ups.” Widow accused, ready to point out instances of observation if Fury decided to contradict her. His mouth worked but he didn’t refute her statement; he knew. “He wouldn’t have kept being blind, and she would have gotten increasingly careless. He would have found out eventually, and by then it would have been even worse.”
Fury scowled. “And it didn’t even cross your mind to try and consult with me on this? Or make the transition easier for him?”
Widow did roll her eyes this time. “Yes, because the captain and his fragile mind are just so delicate.” She scoffed. “He’ll get over it. Everyone does eventually.”
“It’s that ‘eventually’ part that upsets me,” Fury glowered. Obviously he’d been planning to utilize the Captain more before having to leave him out of commission as the situation currently stood. Moreover any further psych evaluation would have to be done through outside observation instead of direct interaction; a difficult task for any of their contractors, never mind that Schmidt was the best in that regard.
Hawkeye was waiting for her on the side hall outside Fury’s office. He’d been rechecking his projectiles when he saw her and hopped down from his seat in the alcove, falling into step next to her. Since the Captain was not on active duty, it was just then tracking down the remaining Striker cells in the New York area.
She waited, expecting him to have something to say to her. She’d seen his disapproval when she’d returned with the Captain’s file. He knew what she’d done, and he’d had something to say then. Apparently he’d shared Fury’s idea that they hadn’t needed to drop it on them right then.
This time he was oddly quiet. She glanced over at him, and sensing her he looked back. That look said everything between them. He wasn’t going to say anything. She’d heard it all from Fury anyway; even if she still didn’t think she’d done anything wrong, he wasn’t going to say anything more. She smiled slightly. In a way he was supporting her like this, he didn’t have to say it would be alright; she knew it would be. She could appreciate that.
It had been days by now. Rachel knew the longer she left things, the worse they would be. It was harder to be on the receiving end as well this time. Usually dealing with someone’s pain meant sympathizing, showing empathy but not directly feeling the acute hurt left by betrayal.
This was her fault. She had to fix it. She never expected it to hurt this much. It was cowardly, but she’d left things too long already. She wasn’t brave. Just like yesterday she was waiting for the elevator; timing it against the clock. If it took more than three minutes to get here; she wasn’t going to the basement. She was going home. She’d watch a funny movie, eat ice cream, and try to go to sleep without crying.
It was pathetic. He’d been avoiding her; she hadn’t even had to change her schedule. Apparently he didn’t go jogging in the morning anymore. Melanie, at the canteen, had actually asked her if he’d gotten sick or something. Apparently he’d made it a point to talk with her and some of the other staff on a regular basis. He really was kind; he hadn’t done that because she’d asked, that was something he’d done on his own. Branching out, but also just keeping aware and considerate of everyone.
Considerate. So he confined himself to the basement boxing ring again; avoiding others, and the few times he’d been spotted the words ‘morose’ and occasionally ‘dangerous’ had come to mind. She’d seen the taped though. Leave it to Fury to have cameras everywhere including the basement. Steve... the Captain was more in danger of hurting himself than anyone else.
She wanted to tell him it wasn’t his fault; all the blame was on her. He needed to stop beating himself up over this, there were other women… she didn’t want to think about that. She couldn’t effectively say anything to comfort anyone; not even herself. She couldn’t give any advice he’d listen to.
Effectively, she’d managed to talk herself out of even attempting to meet him for the entire time since then. It had cut her, when she’d seen him like that; she’d wanted to explain.
Is it true?
There wasn’t any other answer she could give him. It was the truth, and he’d turned from her. Maybe she should have gone after him; or maybe it would have made things worse. But the ‘cooling off’ period hadn’t helped. It had been long enough.
They needed to talk. She didn’t want to talk. She wanted to go hide under a rock and stay there until she’d forgotten everything about this. At the same time she didn’t want to forget him. She wanted to remember the blue of his eyes, the easy way he’d smiled at her once, and all the times he’d said her name; she’d hardly ever thought about it at the time, but she really liked it when he said it.
Just a few more seconds and cowardice would win out. The elevator hadn’t arrived yet. A few more seconds and she would try to ignore this again until tomorrow. The doors made a dinging sound as they opened. Two minutes and fifty seconds.
She could always round up?
Sighing she stepped inside and looked at the panel. Cowardice nearly won out; she pressed the floor for the basement. There was always the smallest chance she wouldn’t find him there. She tried to think about what she needed to say. She’d probably have to convince him to hear her out first, and then… then she didn’t know.
Tell him to stop punishing himself, when this was her fault? That she really was glad that he’d managed to get out of his shell for a while there, and he needed to get back into that to get over her too? No, an apology should probably come first. Then… an explanation?
There was a delay on the middle floors, some people got on the elevator, and got off at the ground floor. Rachel stayed on alone as the elevator descended to the basement. Her stomach clenched uncomfortably. She felt sweaty and anxious. Maybe she could delay this another day; until she felt more comfortable being here.
She’d never feel comfortable with this. She just had to do it.
The elevator doors opened and her breath caught. He was already standing there. Apparently he’d been ready to get on the elevator to head upstairs; heading home too. He looked momentarily shocked before his expression shuttered. She wasn’t prepared to face him this soon.
She swallowed around the lump that inexplicably rose up her throat, but before she could even open her mouth, he’d turned and started walking away. “Um…” she stepped out of the elevator after him, confused. He headed toward the shower room. She stopped short, confused.
After a moment or two she heard one of the shower heads pop on. She had no idea what to make of this. Had he forgotten to shower?
That was impossible; the clean smell of soap had been coming off him in waves just a moment ago. She heard one of the back doors to the stairwell open and swing shut. She ran around the hallway to the door, opening it and looking up. She could hear thundering footsteps disappearing out of the lobby door upstairs.
He ran. He had tucked his tail and ran. With a sharp bark of deprecating laughter she turned back, letting the door swing shut. Marching into the shower room confirmed an empty stall he’d switched on to distract her from the sound as he ran out the back. She switched the faucet off and grit her teeth together.
Apparently she wasn’t the only one dreading this meeting. She wanted to laugh at it. It was so silly that he’d run away from her. She should laugh; but she felt a little too much like crying. If it had been her, she’d have been running too. It hurt. She should have expected it, but the sharp twisting sting was a little too acute and vivid for her to dismiss as a normal reaction.
They still needed to talk. She deserved a little pain after what she did to him. She wasn’t going to let him get away. She headed back to the elevator and took out her cell phone, dialing Maria Hill. The woman picked up after six rings, “I need Steve’s address.”
Rachel was absurdly proud at how level and even her request sounded, and how her voice managed not to crack on his name. “Why? Are you stalking him now?” Maria sounded vaguely amused for some reason.
“What?” she asked baffled, “No. I need to talk to him. Do you have it on hand or not?”
“Never mind,” Maria sighed, as though her superior wit were wasted on those people of such little understanding; “I’ll send it to you.”
“Thanks.” Rachel received the message shortly, and she hailed a cab. One way or another they had to move forward; and this was the first step. They needed to talk; even if she had to resort to slipping tiny notes under his door to make sure he got them.
He felt increasingly absurd. Running away wasn’t something he did very often. He knew there were probably much better ways to have handled that. But he hadn’t been expecting her. He hadn’t expected the sight of her to make everything fall away in a crumbling roar of painful shapes and shadows.
The smell of exhaust and the sounds of various cars and vehicles and street vendors shouting up and down the busy New York street went completely ignored. It was like tunnel vision. Just the thought of her had blotted out the color and spectacle of the worlds around him.
It was ridiculous, and he reprimanded himself for every too-hurried step he took, fleeing that place. He’d been half expecting her to show up for days now. But when she finally did, all the pain he’d been forcing down and ignoring suddenly flared back to life, a slow burn and constricting squeeze that threatened to force the life out of him. It hurt, and the only reason it still hurt was that he still cared.
He shouldn’t have run away. But she was too early; everything was still too raw and open, nothing had healed, nothing had changed. It hurt to see her. He didn’t want to hear her voice or look at her face. Paradoxically as much as he didn’t want to see her, he had; and when he did he ran.
It was so silly; he could have laughed if he wasn’t so full of empty agony. That just confirmed it though. The director was probably right, now and months ago; apparently he did need a shrink. Running away like that, clearly he was out of his mind.
But even if he was losing his mind, or cracking, or breaking, whatever it was called; he’d get through this, just like he did everything else. He didn’t need to talk about it. He didn’t need help. He hadn’t needed it before now and he wouldn’t need it after.
Except she had helped.
It was an odd way to think about it in retrospect. She had clawed open his wounds, every day they had spoken almost she’d managed to twist her knife into his old bloody lesions. At the time he’d felt new pain regularly; but by the time they were done he didn’t know what to make of it.
Eventually those wounds stopped bleeding. The void that losing his friend, his teammates, his entire world, had left had slowly been filled. The pain of that loss had healed.
She had helped with that. But it seemed he’d exchanged those old wounds for fresh ones; so what a wonderful job they had done with that.
Perhaps the strangest part was that he wasn’t angry. Not really. It was a betrayal, he knew that; and he felt the pain of it. He might have been able to get over it easier, and just let the anger take its course; but then at that time she’d looked just as distressed as him.
He shouldn’t have run away. His steps slowed as he reached his apartment building. The world was coming back in bits and pieces now, the red brick of the building, the off-white linoleum floor and white-wash walls, and the teenage clerk the owner hired at the desk, flipping through a magazine.
He pressed the button for the elevator. He could hear someone honking on the streets outside, the usual bustle of the busy city. He knew he shouldn’t have run, because he actually wanted to know what she had to say; if anything. He’d only really gotten a glimpse of her when he saw her in the basement. He tried to remember, she’d looked a bit paler than usual. There were shadows under her eyes, just a little, like she’d had difficulty sleeping lately. He couldn’t remember her expression, she’d been surprised right?
He wanted to see her. But he knew it would hurt, and as much as he thought he wanted to hear what she had to say, he was afraid of that too. If the truth of the matter was that everything between them was really nothing then he knew he’d rather pretend that there wasn’t anything left to say. He could live with being uncertain.
The front doors to the complex opened again and the humming swell of the cars and pedestrians outside grew louder before the doors swung shut. He was still thinking.
He glanced up sharply, already knowing that voice. It was her. He wasn’t prepared for this. She looked troubled and anxious; a mirror of his own face probably. She took a few steps toward him before he turned. Guess he was taking the stairs again.
His legs were longer than hers, and he heard her break into a run behind him. But he was already in the stairwell. He took the steps at a light jog, and could hear her falling behind, “No fair using super speed!” she called after him, her voice and the breathless disquiet of it echoed off the walls.
It didn’t matter if it wasn’t fair. He didn’t want to deal with this right now. He couldn’t. It was impossible. It made his skin hot and crawling when she approached too close, and he knew it was that apprehension about what she had to say. He didn’t want to hear it; not yet anyway, and maybe never.
He reached his floor and bolted across the hall to his apartment. His home; the only place that was safe anymore. The door fell shut behind him and there was blissful quiet and emptiness. At least it was for a few moments.
Unfortunately she hadn’t given up when he lost her in the stairwell. She probably cheated and used the elevator. There was a knock on his door.
“Steve?” Rachel knocked on the door again, “I know you’re in there. Please, I just want to talk to you.”
She hated the desperate sound in her voice and tried to choke it out. For some reason the fact that he was avoiding her helped embolden her. She probably didn’t deserve forgiveness but she needed to apologize and she needed to explain. She wanted to be forgiven, and it was wishful thinking as this point but she wanted to start over and try again.
“We don’t have anything to talk about, do we?” his voice came through the door, finally answering her persistent banging. She hated the calm dismissive tone in his voice, even filtered through the wood. She also knew it was wrong, since if he really didn’t care at all he wouldn’t have bothered avoiding her.
“We have plenty in actuality,” she disagreed, still relieved he responded. “I owe you an apology and an explanation at the very least.”
“I have just one question: was any of it real or was it all lies?”
Rachel choked a little on the answer. “It wasn’t all lies,” she told him honestly, and though she couldn’t pinpoint exactly when her feelings had changed or when she stopped seeing him as just a case subject she knew it was true; she knew her own feelings if she knew nothing else. “Not for a long time; and not for me.”
She waited, half-wondering if she could profess something about undying love that wouldn’t sound completely fake and ridiculous. But her face burned. There was the door between and when she considered it, probably everyone on the hall could hear all this.
“I wish I could believe you, but you’ve lied to me already.”
His last hit her like a shard of ice, chilling blood and bone. There was that. If she lied once, why wouldn’t she lie again? Couldn’t he just look her in the eye and know?! It wouldn’t be that easy, it never was; trust was like that.
“I’m sorry,” these were the only words she had left, “I’m going to do whatever it takes…”
He never opened the door.
She knew he wouldn’t, and if everything she said was lies then she had to prove herself with her actions instead. For now there was nothing more she could say. She stepped away from the door and finally left. But Rachel resolved to do whatever it took, for however long it would take, to earn back his trust.
The Striker bases had finally managed their regroup. The serum was complete and more importantly they had retrieved a blood sample from the juggernaut monster that was SHIELD’s Captain America. Michael Cowyn was meeting with the remaining supervisors and commanders in a short while to report on this progress.
For now he considered the limitations with the doctor responsible. It was just a small vial of simple green liquid but the serum and the blood would pave the way to Striker’s victory.
“Is it enough?” he asked.
The doctor made a half-shrugging motion, “Would have been better if we had more blood,” he reported, “The serum’s effects are temporary and will only cause a brief period of weakness in the superhuman whose blood it’s attuned to. But it should be enough to bring down the super-soldier.”
Michael’s eyes narrowed, thoughtful as he considered the vial. “And to kill him?”
“That’s entirely at your discretion,” the doctor informed him coolly, “The serum will weaken him, and at that point a regular gunshot to the head would probably do the trick.”
He smiled, that was all he needed to know. The only problem of course was the small sample of blood and thus the small sample of serum that could successfully attack the man-made monster. But it was enough. It would have to be.
In only a few hours Striker would finally be able to counter-attack SHIELD. With any luck they would easily destroy any adversary set against them. They had only been waiting for this day. In hours Striker would seize upon its ultimate victory.