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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Avengers fic: With Your Shield (3/3)

December 24th, 2014 (06:18 am)
jealous

feeling: jealous

Part One
Part Two
Part Three



-o-

The dishes don’t take long, and after another sweep, he makes a nightly check in with SHIELD. This time, he doesn’t bother with calling Tony and calls one of Coulson’s underlings instead. It’s easier that way.

He finds himself in the attic, looking out the window to survey the land. It’s hard to see much with the darkness outside, but there’s no sign of movie. A car comes along the road now and again, but they don’t stop.

They just drive on by, like they don’t even know someone’s here. Which, they probably don’t. That’s the point of this, after all. To be anonymous.

Restless, he takes to the boxes again, pulling the lid off another. Dust billows, and Steve swats it away, setting the lid aside to start rummaging through. It seems presumptuous, he knows this, but he also knows Tony. He’s not going to be up here any time soon, if ever. History, most decidedly, is not Tony’s focus.

But some history deserves to be remembered.

There are more designs in this box, sketchpads and graph paper. Most of them seem like weapons, which is hardly surprising, but there’s surveillance equipment and other spy gear included. He rolls his eyes at a recorded in a cigarette.

He flips to the next page, looking at the outline of a handbag with a gun built in. It’s nothing special in particular, but then Steve sees the notation.

The cursive is neat and proper, penned tidily on the bottom.

He recognizes it immediately.

He’s seen it on official documents; he remembers it from his special training. It approved missions for the Howling Commandos, and it signed off on special requisitions when Steve needed it most.

Peggy.

The realization washes over him like ice, and he can’t feel his fingers anymore. His heart pounds in his ears, and his lungs seize up.

Peggy.

In everything, he’s never had the chance to grieve her because she’s not dead. He still visits her, sits with her when she’s lucid and holds her hand when she’s not. He’s not forgotten anything, and he’s still hoping for that dance like it was a promised he made yesterday.

But this.

This is Peggy, back as he knew her. Back when she was young and vibrant, when her ideas were fresh and her impact was palpable.

The note itself is nothing, small and short. The gun’s fine, but your handbag design leaves something to be desired. I have no place to wear such a thing, except possibly a funeral.

It’s practical advice, the kind that Howard would never think of. The kind that no one in Peggy’s generation would think of, because it’d been a world ruled by men making the same stupid decisions for the same stupid reasons.

But she knew how to see things differently. She knew how to get things done.

Howard Stark could conceal a gun in a handbag.

Peggy Carter would wear that handbag and save the world.

That’s his Peggy.

The woman he’s been in love with since all this started, so many years ago. He’s still in love with her; he’ll always be in love with her. And he know, despite all the good reasons why, that he’s the one who left her. That he’s the one who broke her heart. He has to live with that.

Peggy, she was the one who had to mourn him. She was the one who spent months, and years rebuilding a life without him. She was the one who threw herself into her work, who started SHIELD, who formed everything good that matters in this world.

She was the one who had to fall in love again. Who had to get married to a perfectly reasonable man and give birth to perfectly reasonable children. She was the one who had lived an entire life without him and was still lying in a home somewhere, waiting for him.

And here he is.

Hanging on the words of another woman.

How long had Peggy waited? When did she let herself feel again?

Longer than Steve, that much he is pretty sure of.

What right does he have, after all. Giving his dance card to another girl when that last dance was still pending?

Peggy’s waited a lifetime; she’s still waiting.

Steve owes her something.

He sighs, settling the papers back in the box. Carefully, he replaces the lid and sits back on his heels.

He owes her everything.

He just doesn’t know how to give it to her anymore.

-o-

When he comes down from the attic, Sif is still talking. He makes another sweep of the home, and then sits at the kitchen table, polishing his shield absently. He hears her when she’s done, hears her say goodbye and plan an early meeting in the morning, and he can easily make out the sound of her footsteps over the creaky floorboards as she comes into the kitchen.

He looks at her, and she stops in the doorway, looking back. After several long seconds, Steve manages a smile. “Get a lot done?”

“Yes,” she says. “It was very productive.”

“That’s good,” he says, nodding as he uses the dishcloth to polish at one of the nicks in the metal. “We’ll be out of here in no time.”

She doesn’t have a reply to that, and Steve doesn’t have anything to bridge the silence. He feels like he may be a little petty right now -- though, honestly, he’s not even sure what’s wrong. Nothing has changed because there was nothing to change. This has always been a short term mission. Steve has SHIELD and a life he never got to live. Sif has Asgard and a few hundred years to see him as he really is.

Finally, she sighs. “I fear I have offended you.”

He looks up at her. “What?”

She shrugs, as if she almost regrets what she is saying. “Your disposition,” she says. “It has become markedly diminished this evening, and I fear I am culpable in some manner.”

Now he feels more than petty. Now he just feels bad. He’d been a little sad, yes, but he hadn’t wanted her to feel guilty. This isn’t about her, anyway.

He shakes his head. “You’ve done nothing wrong,” he says. “You’re here as a favor to the people of Earth--”

It’s her turn to shake her head. “I do not seek gratitude or praise--”

“And yet you deserve both,” he says.

“Service should always be without accolades,” she says. “If you fight for your own glory, then it is a battle you have already lost. Somehow, I think you agree.”

He almost laughs at that, a short, bitter noise as he looks at his shield again. “You know, you really do remind me of someone.”

“Someone good, I hope,” Sif quips.

Steve can’t bring himself to look up. If he doesn’t look, then it’s easy to think of Peggy standing there with curls around her face and a neat pencil skirt around her knees. “Someone I cared about,” he says.

He can’t hide the inflection in his voice, and it’s no surprise that Sif catches the full implication. “Someone you lost,” she assumes.

The assumption almost works, because Steve lives his life like a man in mourning. But that’s not really how it is. He’s the one who went away; he’s the one who laid down his life and left the world behind. That was his choice, and no one else’s. It’d be easy to think of himself as the victim, but he can’t deny that with all the good he’s done, he’s left a trail of broken people in his wake.

“More like she lost me,” he finally says, his voice hollow in the still air.

“So there was another, then,” Sif says. “When you fell into the ice, you were involved with someone.”

They’ve made nothing off limits between them, and Steve’s been the one asking the questions. He’s been the one sharing stories. He can’t blame her for asking.

And he’s not sure why -- maybe it’s because she’s older than she looks, maybe it’s because she’s from another planet and doesn’t quite fit in, maybe it’s because Steve can see something he recognizes in her eyes -- but he wants to trust her.

Not just in battle -- Steve has many brothers and sisters in arms, and he has friends who will buy a pizza and drink a beer with him.

But he wants to trust her with the fears he won’t admit, the failures he can’t proclaim. With her, he doesn’t want to be Captain America.

He wants to be Steve Rogers, and all the vulnerability that comes with it. Steve’s never been afraid to take a stand in life, but he’s always been afraid to let people in. If Bucky hadn’t grown up with him, he’s not sure they would have been friends. And Peggy -- it took him long enough to ask her to dance that he ran out of time all together.

Sighing, he looks at her. “She was a lot like you,” he says. “Strong, independent, smart. She did things that women just didn’t do, and she did them better than most men. And I made a promise. A promise I never kept.” He looks at the shield, blinking hard. “And she had to live with that broken promise for the rest of her life. Me? I just got to sleep.”

In the doorway, Sif stands uncertainty. Her gaze diverts, and a silence looms.

Steve forces a laugh. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t--”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Sif says quickly.

He looks up at her again, suddenly feeling futile. “It’s like you say,” he says. “You see enough change, at a certain point, you just have to live with it. I’ll get there.”

“But not all things change,” Sif says.

Steve tilts his head, taken aback.

She wets her lips, shrugging one shoulder almost hopefully. “When you see so much change, you learn to appreciate what is constant.”

Steve knows this, if only by necessity. It’s why he loves to go to art museums and see pieces he remembers from his day of study. It’s why he downloads his favorite songs from iTunes, which are fortunately more affordable than most because they’re so old.

It’s why he still finds comfort in the uniform, ease in the battlefield.

Because there are some things he still knows.

“Your shield,” Sif says, taking a step inside the kitchen now. “You had it when you fell into the ice?”

Steve looks at the shield again, glistening in the artificial lights. “Yeah,” he says, tracing his eyes over the familiar curvature. “People think it’s the serum that made me who I am, but I never feel myself until I’m holding it.”

She crosses the floor, sitting down across from him. Her fingers brush over the metal in careful consideration. “It is not a metal I’m familiar with,” she comments.

“It’s not one anyone is familiar with,” Steve says. “Pretty much one of a kind.”

She glances at him, gesturing to the shield. “May I?”

Steve nods. “Be my guest.”

With permission, she picks it up, mounting it on her arm. She holds it out, as if measuring its weight and dimensions. She nods. “This is a most superior weapon,” she says. “It must protect you well.”

“Saved my life,” Steve says. “More than once.”

She moves it from hand to hand, looking duly impressed. “I imagine so,” she says. She moves it again before settling it back on the table. “Somehow, though, I do not think it is the most impressive armor that you carry.”

Steve makes a face. “What do you mean?”

She smiles gently. “For as much as you carry this shield in battle, you have armor around your heart that is ever more impenetrable.”

It’s a strange assessment, but it’s not wrong. In fact, it’s so right, that Steve doesn’t even know what to say. “I wish it were that easy,” he says finally.

“To the contrary, there is nothing easy about it,” Sif says. She pushes the chair back and gets to her feet. “Nonetheless, I believe it is a skill honed with time.”

“You talk like you know,” Steve says.

She smiles. “I have had hundreds of year to practice, after all,” she says. “I believe, like any skills, it gets easier with time.”

With a rueful nod, Steve lets himself deflate a little. “You think so?”

Sif shrugs. “I hope so, anyway,” she says, starting toward the door again. She pauses, looking back, hand on the doorframe. “Goodnight.”

He almost asks her to stay, but he can’t find the words. He doesn’t know if it’s his place; he doesn’t know if he wants it after all. This is easier, at any rate.

“Goodnight,” he replies.

With that, she turns, her footfalls diminishing down the hallway. Steve listens until they’re quieter, listens until they’re gone, listens until there’s just nothing left to hear except the lonely sound of his own heartbeat.

-o-

That night, he tries to sleep. He stares vacantly at the ceiling, feeling exhausted but unable to just let go. That’s how it’s been for him, ever since waking up in the wrong century. He’s been listless and empty, looking for something that’s just not his anymore. If he could let go, things might be okay, but that loss control scares him.

Because there’s no shield in the world that can protect against what might come next.

-o-

He makes another perimeter check, more for something to do than anything else. Back in the house, he makes a pot of coffee, looking through an old book as he sips coffee quietly at the table. It’s dark and bleak outside when a shuffling sounds down the hall. At first, he wonders if Sif is going to the bathroom, but when she appears in the kitchen, somehow he’s not surprised.

“I know you said you wanted an early start, but this may be a little over the top,” Steve jokes.

The humor seems to be lost in translation. “I was having difficulty sleeping.”

Steve holds up his cup of coffee. “Join the club.”

Sif doesn’t seem to totally understand his turn of phrase, but she fixes herself a cup anyway. She hesitates then, leaned against the counter, taking a sip from the steaming mug. She positioned just in Steve’s field of vision. They’re facing toward each other but not quite looking at each other.

Neither of them know what to say.

Which is stupid, really. Nothing has changed. Yet there’s something twisted between them, a tension they can’t place but Steve knows, even without looking at her, she feels it too.

“You know,” Sif says finally. “When I look at you, I can’t help but see someone who understands.”

Steve looks at her now, questioningly.

“Everyone on this planet, they seem so young,” she says. “You are an impetuous people, driven by passing emotions and fleeting ideas.”

“Well, not all of us have the benefit of a thousand years,” he tells her wryly.

She is earnest in reply. “And that is the point,” she says. “Ever since I saw you on the battlefield, you have been different. You look like your comrades, but you are not like them. When I’m with you, there is someone different on the inside. Your experience belies your youth.”

He watches her, uncertain. She’s talking about him and she’s talking to him, but none of it exactly warrants a conversation. Honestly, he’s not sure if this is a compliment or a complaint, and at this point, he’s too weary to figure it out.

“Part of the job, I guess,” he says finally. “It’s not the years that age you, it’s the loss.”

“The people you served with in the past,” she says. “They are all gone?”

Steve shrugs stiffly. “Some are still around, but they’re not the people I remember,” he says. “It’s been decades for them, and it feels like yesterday for me. That makes things complicated.”

Complicated, of course, is an understatement.

“And the one you spoke of earlier,” Sif says. “You still have feelings for her?”

Steve looks down at his coffee cup. “She’s sick,” he says. “Barely remembers her own name half the time, much less mine.”

Sif looks apologetic. “That must be even worse than loss,” she says. “To be close to someone you care about and not have them realize. When the desires of the heart are so far removed from the reality at hand.”

She’s describing it perfectly, only it’s not just Steve and Peggy. No, Steve’s put together enough to know it’s more than that.

And he’s too tired. He’s too worn, and his hope is too spent. He’s been reasonable and polite and restrained. He’s always done the right thing because someone has to.

But not this time.

He levels his gaze at her. “So you never told Thor, then?”

She blinks at him, taken aback.

Steve shrugs. “He doesn’t know how you feel?”

She swallows hard, adjusting her stance and taking a drink. Though uncomfortable, she doesn’t deny it. “And am I then to assume that you have also confessed your feeling?” she asked pointedly. “Or perhaps you have moved on and no longer burden yourself with feelings you know cannot be reciprocated? Because one might assume from such a question that you no longer cling to what might have been.”


It’s a harsh comeback, but fair.

But if that’s how this is.

Then that’s how this is.

“I have my issues,” Steve says. “But they’re different--”

“Are they?” Sif asks.

“The people in my life -- they lived a life without me. They can’t be the people I remember any more than I can be someone who lived a life with them,” Steve says.

“And Thor has made his choices, and they do not include me,” Sif says. “He’s living his life the way he sees fit, and if I believe him worthy of respect, then I need to start by respecting him to make that choice, no matter how it feels. Sometimes the choice to let go is not ours to make. Sometimes our most virulent assailants can be time. Perhaps they are fate. Whatever they may be, they cannot be changed. Sometimes, no matter how hard we fight, surrender is truly the only noble option.”

“Not surrender,” Steve says softly. “Just self preservation.”

“Even if we do not win the fight, we will survive it,” Sif agrees.

Steve laughs. “I guess that’s why we both carry shields then, huh?”

Her smile is small and tight. She puts her mug down. “And as I have said,” she says. “You are quite skilled.”

His mouth quirks up into a half smile of his own. “You would know,” he says. “Being an expert and all.”

“Yes,” she says, moving toward the entryway of the kitchen. “I do believe I would.”

-o-

Sif goes back to bed. Steve finishes his coffee. He decides not to bother with sleep.

It’s just one more day, after all.

Then it’s back to life as normal.

Like none of this had ever happened.

-o-

In the morning, Steve makes a light breakfast, just eggs and sausage.

Sif eats her plate in front of the computer.

That doesn’t surprise him.

Then again, nothing that hurt surprises him much anymore.

-o-

It’s a struggle to keep busy during, honestly. Suddenly the treasure trove in the attic feels like a song he’s listened to one too many times on the radio. He checks the grounds and watches cars between the trees as they speed right on by.

He makes sandwiches for lunch and opens a bag of chips to go with them. Sif eats at the table at least, apparently trying to manage the bread without appearing cumbersome.

“Do they not have sandwiches on Asgard?” Steve asks lightly.

“It is a strange delicacy, to be sure,” Sif says.

“It’s hardly a delicacy,” Steve says.

“Then,” Sif says. “It is merely strange.”

“It’s a meal of convenience,” Steve says. “The bread on both sides makes it so you can eat as you go.”

“Practical,” Sif says, though she doesn’t sound convinced.

Steve has no reply to that, so he pours a few chips on his plate.

“It is just as well,” Sif says. “My work here is almost done. We can depart before dinner.”

“Oh,” Steve says. He looks at his sandwich, suddenly feeling stupid. If he’d known this would be their last meal together, he might have put more effort into it. After full course meals, chips and sandwiches seems like a bad note to end things on. “I could still make something--”

She shakes her head. “It is not necessary--”

“It’s no trouble--”

“Truly,” she says. “I see no need to strain your kindness more than I have. We both have jobs to do.”

Something clenches in Steve’s chest, and he makes himself smile. “It always comes back to duty.”

She chews for a moment, then takes a drink. “Steve--”

He shakes his head. “I mean it,” he tells her. “It really does come back to duty.”

“Sometimes it’s all we have,” Sif says.

He swallows the last of his sandwich, chewing for a moment before swallowing. “If only it was all we needed.”

-o-

Sif gets back to work, and Steve cleans up. He’s not sure what to do with the extra food in the fridge. He hates the idea of it going to waste, but he certainly can’t figure out a good way to eat it himself. Then he reminds himself that there’s probably a million dollars worth of equipment on the property, so someone is going to be back.

Knowing SHIELD, the entire place will be cleaned and swept within hours of their departure.

He just hopes they like meat and vegetables.

At the bedrooms, he contemplates doing a load of laundry -- it feels wrong to leave dirty sheets behind -- but he’s not sure if the washing machine still works. Besides, he thinks it’d probably be a little noisy, and Sif needs the quiet to finish her work.

This isn’t a personal venture, Steve reminds himself as he shuts the bedroom door again.

This is entirely professional.

-o-

He can tell by listening that Sif is wrapping up her work. He starts to gather their things, lining up their sparse bags by the door. Out of habit, he goes through the house, checking the windows and turning off the lights. He checks the time on his phone, considering making one last check in with SHIELD before they get on the road.

Putting his phone in his pocket, he decides they’ll find out soon enough.

This is almost over, after all.

He looks to the living room, watching as Sif talks.

Everything ends eventually.

One way or another.

-o-

Sif powers down the computers. Steve checks the lock on the back door. He has the car loaded, and he’s organized what’s left in the fridge as best he can. It’s late afternoon when he steps into the living room, looking to see if Sif is ready.

The last thing he grabs is the most important. He picks up his shield.

He’s ready to go, he decides.

Ready for anything.

Except the massive explosion that rocks the house, sending him flying back. He sees Sif flung to the ground, hitting like a ragdoll before he slams into something hard and everything goes dark.

-o-

This time, at least, he wakes to fire.

The smoke burns at his nostrils, and the crackling heat is louder than he expects. He inhales raggedly, choking on it. For a second, the cloying darkness disorients him, and he struggles to right himself, sitting up with difficulty.

Then, he sees a hand.

Squinting up, he sees Sif.

She’s standing above him, face covered in soot and her hair in disarray. There’s a small cut across her forehead and her expression is set like stone. In one hand, she’s holding her shield.

“Steve Rogers,” she says, hand still extended. “Are you well?”

Steve grunts, taking her hand as she pulls him to his feet. “That’s debatable.”

“Are you able to fight?” she asks.

It hurts to move, and it hurts to breathe a little. But he’s still standing.

More than that, he’s got his shield.

He wets his lips. “With your shield,” he says.

Sif adjusts her own, giving him a solid nod. “Or on it,” she concludes. “Shall we?”

It’s not a question that needs to be asked, because they both know the answer. They both know what it’s like to fight until the last man is standing. It’s what they do; it’s who they are.

Still, Steve has to admit, it feels good to know he’s not going out there alone.

He nods at her, ever resolute. “We shall.”

-o-

The fact is, Steve’s tired and he’s hurt. He doesn’t want to get up; he doesn’t want to fight. He’s too young for this, but he’s also too old, but this is the job he has to do, and he’ll do it until the end.

Really, Steve’s been more tired and he’s been more hurt. He’s got up for less. There’s never a right time or a right person.

Wars are won by the people willing to stand and fight.

One man can make a difference.

One soldier can turn the tide.

Two?

Well, that’s when it starts to get interesting.

-o-

Against the backdrop of the burning house, it’s not hard to see what sort of arsenal Hydra has brought to the party. True, Steve can’t be sure it’s Hydra, but given how well armed they are, it seems like a pretty safe bet. He also can’t be sure how they managed to stage a surprise assault without tripping any of the defense systems, but he’s leaning toward an air-based assault.

That’s pretty brazen, even for Hydra. But Steve’s seen too much war to think that there are rules that can’t be broken.

Besides, Hydra clearly needs all the help they can get. To some, a full on assault on a civilian property with two operatives may seem like overkill. But Hydra knows Steve, and he’s pretty sure they’ve probably got enough intel on Sif to realize that it’s going to take quite a bit to make this a fair fight.

Even so, it’s not enough.

Without speaking, Steve and Sif charge out together, fanning out to opposite sides. Steve takes out a few men by throwing his shield. As he follows up to retrieve it, he ducks a spray of bullets and takes on another four hand to hand. He ducks low, using his shield to stop the next onslaught of gunfire, before ramming forward and taking another row of attackers clean off their feet.

He turns, just long enough to see Sif having similar luck. There are nearly ten Hydra agents sprawled on the ground, and she manages to disarm another, turning the gun against the next wave until there’s a momentary lull.

“This is what they call a fight?” Sif asks.

Steve laughs. “That was just round one.”

Sif looks out into the wooded lot. “That implies a round two?”

Steve hears the rumbling in the trees just as an armored vehicle cuts through the line. “Right now,” he says, tensing himself as he backs up toward Sif unconsciously. She leans in toward him until they’re almost back to back. “You ready for this.”

Sif’s body is taut, her shoulders wound and her face fixed. “Shall we?” she asks as another armored vehicle crashes through.

Gesturing forward, Steve nods. “After you.”

It’s the only invitation Sif needs. She lets out a roar, charging the first vehicle as gunfire erupts again.

-o-

Steve’s fought with a lot of good men and women. Finding his place among the Howling Commandos had been one of the defining moments of his life. Taking charge of the Avengers at the Battle of New York had almost been enough to make him feel like his life had a purpose again. There were people he’s been honored to fight beside -- Peggy and Bucky and Natasha and Sam -- but this is different.

This is more than battle.

This is almost choreography.

Because war -- it’s a horrible, chaotic sort of thing. It’s fraught with missteps and desperation. It’s driven by fear and necessity.

This, on the other hand, is perfect synchronization. Sif moves alongside him seamlessly, and though they have never discussed fighting styles, they seem to complement each other perfectly. Somehow, she knows what he’s going to do, and he can read her tells better than his own. He knows when she’ll attack; he’ll know when she’ll draw back.

It’s spectacular, Steve thinks.

It’s also effective.

For all the force Hydra sent to take them down, Steve and Sif repel them easily. Grenades are thrown back. Enemies are left in piles, more unconscious than dead. They quickly clear the area. Within ten minutes of the initial assault, Hydra’s team is contained.

Steve looks to Sif. “Not bad,” he says, unable to contain his grin.

She wipes at the sweat, which has congeal with the blood on her brow. “Your skills still impress me.”

“For a mortal?” Steve asks.

“For anyone,” is her reply.

Standing together on the battlefield, they’re still holding their shields. Facing each other, the adrenaline only starts to build toward something better, something inevitable--

Something in the sky.

Sif hears it first, but Steve looks up not a second after her. It’s the approaching sound of a helicopter, military-grade, but not friendly.

It darkens the sky above them, and Steve hears the distant sound of an explosive not yet detonated.

“Round three,” he murmurs.

He thinks to move, he thinks to fight, he thinks to take up his shield.

He thinks of the things he should have said, the things he should have done.

He thinks maybe this could have been more.

He thinks maybe it should have been.

He thinks he’ll never get the chance.

And the, the world explodes, and he stops thinking at all.

-o-

There’s ringing in his ears and pounding in his chest. Steve tries to swallow, but his throat feels thick and his stomach is unsettled. Sleep calls to him, but he’s never been one for that.

Anything but sleep.

He fights against the pull, but when he surfaces toward consciousness, he’s aware that something is wrong.

Not just the pain, of course.

No, he’s moving.

He’s being carried.

His eyes crack open, just enough to see the blur of the ground in front of him.

Below him, he corrects, trying to get his bearings.

Because he’s not just being carried; he’s being slung around like a sack of potatoes.

Disconcerted, he grunts, not that it does much good. All he can do is focus on breathing until the pace slows and he’s leaned forward. A hand catches him behind the head as he’s tipped downward, flipped over onto his back until he’s lying half sprawled on the concrete.

He has to blink a few times to clear his fragmented vision, and at first all he can see is the sun behind a blinding silhouette.

The face comes into focus, though. Behind the long strands of tousled brown hair, she looks at him with concern. “Steve,” she says. “Can you hear me?”

He furrows his brow, because he can hear her fine but he’s not sure he can reply. More than that, he’s not even sure what to say.

“I have taken you phone and contacted your SHIELD agency,” she says. “They have promised immediately extraction.”

That’s good, Steve thinks absently.

That’s good.

She’s perched awkwardly on her knees. “I am unfamiliar with human anatomy,” she says. “I do not know how to treat your wounds.”

He hasn’t thought about that. In fact, he’s still not thinking about that. He’s probably bleeding to death, and all he can think is that she saved his life.

He tries to speak, but finds it hard. He works some saliva into his mouth and tries again. “Hydra?”

Her expression darkens. “Our assailants are no more.”

Steve turns his head back toward the trees. “The helicopter--”

Sif doesn’t flinch. “Is also no more?”

That’s something to think about. That Sif not only downed the rest of Hydra’s operatives, but took down a helicopter.

An actual helicopter.

But that’s not the point, though.

The point is that she’s here, and he’s here, and she’s saved his life.

He frowns, studying her again. “You carried me?” he manages.

“You were unable to walk--”

He shakes his head. “But…,” he says, eyes searching. “Your shield…”

Realization settles on her face.

Steve’s breathing catches. “You left yourself--” he says, stuttering to breathe. “--defenseless.”

She draws her mouth together, tightening her jaw. “Some risks are ones you have to take.”

He struggles for air, feeling his chest start to constrict. The pain builds, and he’s starting to hyperventilate. He’s losing control, faster than he wants to admit, because he’s not ready.

He’s just not ready.

He wants to tell her how grateful he is, not just for saving his life but for being here with him at all. He wants to tell her how much he enjoyed talking to her, how much he wanted to get to know her better.

He wants to ask her to stay and talk, to stay and spend some time. He wants to ask her for just one dance.

The words don’t come, though, not as the weight of his injuries overcome him. He’s slipping, faltering with an unsettling sense of dejavu.

He’s been here before.

Standing against the brink, between living and dying, dreams and sleep.

She reaches down, palm against his cheek. Her mouth moves, but he can’t hear her now. The rushing in his ears has become a roar, and he’s sinking now, hard and fast.

He’s jostled, but his vision blurs, and he can feel her fingers fisting in his shirt as something wet falls against his face. As his eyes slide shut, he realizes she’s not the only one without her shield.

He has no idea where his is.

There’s no time to worry about that, though.

Not when he loses the battle with sleep once again.

-o-

The thing with sleep is this:

Steve dreads it. He hates it, and he’s scared of it. He avoids it when possible, and he always finds it unsettling after he wakes up.

The other thing with sleep is this:

It’s the one enemy you can fight but never beat. It’s the one thing no shield can defend against.

The last thing with sleep is this:

It’s inevitable.

Every. Single. Time.

-o-

Then, Steve wakes up.

It’s a disorienting sensation. For several interminable moments, he’s not sure where he is or how much time has passed. It could have been several hours, several days or several years.

Given Steve’s experience, several decades may not be out of the question.

For a second, he hopes it’s still World War 2, and Peggy’s standing there waiting for a dance.

He hopes, even more briefly, that it’s 2014 and Sif is at his bedside, ready to tease him about his apparently mortality.

It’s a bit of a letdown then, when it’s Tony Stark.

“Hey, Cap!” he says. “About time you came to.”

Steve frowns, shifting as he tries to sit up. It doesn’t go so well, so he settles for swallowing and squinting up at Tony again. “What happened?” he asks, voice no more than a croak.

“You mean the part where you blew up my father’s house?” Tony asks. “Or maybe the part where you and Super Girl went on a rampage that downed an entire squadron of Hydra’s best.”

“Um,” Steve says, taking another tentative breath. “All of it.”

Tony glance surreptitiously at the banks of monitors by the bed before squeeze Steve gently on the shoulder. “I’m not sure you’re ready for that,” he says, as honestly as Tony Stark is capable of. “You just woke up.”

The notion sends a pang of urgency through. “I know--” he starts, but pain flares again and a monitor pings.

Tony winces. “Uh, yeah,” he says. “You’re doing better, but not that good just yet.”

Steve shakes his head, because he can let go of a lot -- he’s had to, more than he wants -- but he can’t let go of this. “What about Sif?”

Tony looks surprised. “Super Girl?” he asks. “Oh, she’s fine. She had a few scratches, but you’ve seen how those people heal. She debriefed and headed back to Asgard a few days ago.”

The news hits Steve like a punch to the gut.

She’s fine.

She’s fine, but she’s gone.

“She told me to tell you goodbye, though,” Tony says. “Oh, and she wanted to make sure you had your shield.”

Tony steps aside, revealing his freshly polished shield on the chair nearby.

“She seemed to think it was pretty important,” Tony continues, oblivious to everything. “And I think she was probably right about that. What’s Captain America without his shield, anyway?”

It’s not a question Steve hasn’t asked himself before.

He does wonder, though, if this time his answer might be different.

-o-

His recovery goes well.

This isn’t surprising. Steve’s super strength has always been, well, super. He’s faster and stronger, and though he’s not impervious to injury, his body has always rebounded quickly.

Even after sleeping in the ice for the better part of a lifetime, he’d bounced back with almost no effort at all.

The weakness passes quickly. In no time, he’s training again.

Within several months, he’s already back in the fight.

Carrying his shield wherever his duty takes him.

-o-

Steve pesters all his visitors until they tell him everything that happened. That’s when he learns how massive the attack on the safe house was. They still aren’t sure how Hydra knew, but that’s not really their biggest concern.

The good news is that Sif intelligence has put them ahead of the game. They’ve started intercepting transmissions, learning more about the intergalactic threats coming to their front door.

That’s the bad news, then.

“Sounds like we’re going to need you and the other Avengers now more than ever,” Coulson says.

Steve sighs, looking listlessly out the window. The sky is clear; it’s empty.

He forces a smile back to Coulson. “That’s just part of the job.”

-o-

Life goes back to normal in all the ways it should.

So Steve’s not sure why everything feels different.

He tries not to let it show, but the problem with being friends with superheroes is that not much get by them.

The Avengers express their concern in ways unique to them. There seems to be a silent agreement among them, that Steve’s supposed to be handled a little bit with care. They’re discreet about it at least. They offer him pizza dinners and nights at the movies, and it’s notable that he doesn’t spend a lot of Saturday nights alone.

When Natasha shows up on weekend with a six pack and a movie from Redbox, he finally calls her on it.

“What gives?” he asks.

Natasha raises her eyebrows, sliding past him without an invitation. “When I’m left alone on Saturday nights, I tend to get into trouble,” she says.

“What?” Steve quips. “You dye your hair and get bad tattoos?”

She shrugs easily, opening one of the beers for herself. “Or I track down spies and assassinate them without permission,” she says, sitting on Steve’s couch.

He’s followed her into his living room. “That’s not what we’re talking about, though.”

“Isn’t it?” she asks.

He sighs. “Why is it that everyone on the team seems to think I’m going to break down or something?”

“You were blown up,” Natasha reminds him. “You nearly bleed out from internal injuries, and at first the doctors thought you might be paralyzed. You were in a coma for a week.”

She has a point, and Steve has the decency to be chagrined.

“Besides,” she continues. “You woke up looking like that.

Steve frowns. “Like what?”

“That lost look on your face,” she says. “Like you’re looking for something.”

“What?” Steve asks, incredulous now. “That’s absurd--”

“Is it?” Natasha asks. “None of us can figure out what, but we all see it.”

“See what?” Steve asks, all but exasperated now.

“The Steve Rogers that was first thawed from the ice,” she says. “The one who woke up and realized that everything he cared about was gone. The one who did his duty and made the ultimate sacrifice and had to actually live with the aftermath.”

His stomach turns, and he shakes his head. “That’s ridiculous.”

“The Steve Rogers who never puts down his shield,” Natasha says, glancing toward the shield, which is currently occupying one of his chairs. “Not even among friends”

He swallows back his reply, because he knows she’s right.

“So,” Natasha says. “Either you can tell me what’s wrong or we can sit here, drink beer and watch a movie. Which do you prefer?”

Stiffly, Steve walks to the couch. He takes a beer and settles heavily next to her.

Natasha reaches for the remote. “That’s what I thought.”

-o-

Clint makes snide commentary; Tony plans dinner parties with too much food and too much alcohol. Bruce eats with him in silence, and even Coulson seems hesitant to send him in the field.

“I just want to be sure,” he says. “That everything’s okay.”

Steve can only laugh. “After everything I’ve been through, now is when you ask?”

Coulson is nonplussed. “Better late than never.”

Steve smiles, because really, what else is there? These people care about him; these people need him. That’s always been enough.

That has to be enough.

-o-

Natasha is the easiest, maybe. Thor, though. He’s the hardest.

The Asgardian means well, and he is quite concerted in his efforts of friendship. They’ve always been good sparring partners, and Thor is excessively good natured, no matter who wins or loses.

And he takes Steve out for drinks. He buys him dinner. He tells stories and laughs at Steve’s jokes. They’re good friends, by all accounts. When Steve asks him of reports from Asgard, Thor shares willingly, and Steve tries not to look too anxious at any mention at Sif.

It’s easy to remember that Thor is his friend. That they share a camaraderie that Steve values, that there are few people on this planet he would rather have by his side.

But sometimes, when he looks at Thor, he sees the man Sif wanted. He sees the one she pined for, the one that hurt her without so much as a word of rejection.

Sometimes, he resents Thor for it.

Sometimes, though, when Steve’s honest with himself, he resents that Thor had the chance to walk away.

Because he knows now what it’s like, to be the one left behind. He knows what it’s like to wait for the one who may never come back. He knows what it’s like to regret the words he never said, the dances he never danced.

Next time, he’d take that chance.

For Peggy’s sake, and the life she lived without him.

For Sif’s sake, and the life she built in her own loss.

For his own.

-o-

Everyone knows something has changed for Steve, even if none of them can quite pinpoint what. They don’t ask.

Steve doesn’t tell.

Instead, he carries his shield into work each day.

It’s the safest thing.

At least, that’s what he tells himself.

-o-

The good news is that there’s no shortage of work to be done. SHIELD has built itself back up admirably under Coulson’s direction, which means their operations are vast and varied. More than that, there seem to more enemies than ever.

That’s the way it is, it seems.

The good is in sparse supply.

But the bad--

Well, there’s always a battle to fight.

No matter how many you lose.

-o-

Time goes by. When the weeks become months, Steve hardly notices. When almost a year has past, he’s accepted life as it is. He’s done what he can to cope. He trains harder; he takes more missions. He starts painting in his apartment, penciling doodles in a sketchbook that Sam gives him for Christmas.

There are some days he doesn’t think about it. He doesn’t think about Peggy, wasting away in a nursing home. He doesn’t think about Bucky, lost and confused out there. He doesn’t think about Sif in the heat of battle, clutching her shield as she smiles at him.

But sometimes, when he doesn’t want to sleep, he still looks up and hopes for the sun.

-o-

The next time he sees her, there’s no battle at all. He’s on his way home, and he’s almost to his car. He’s taken to carrying his shield with him, as often as he can, just because he can’t be too sure.

He sees the shadow first, and he clutches his shield, pulling it higher. But his posture eases when he sees her, standing with her back to the sunlight.

She’s not in armor this time, and she’s wearing human clothes as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Her smile is awkward, though.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi,” she replies.

“It’s been awhile,” he says.

She presses her lips together. “I forget sometimes,” she says. “How fast time moves here.”

“Well,” he says. “I’m used to waiting.”

She nods, looking at her feet. “I thought maybe--” she starts, but she doesn’t seem to know how to finish. She takes a breath and looks up at him again. “I thought maybe you would like to go for dinner.”

She’s standing there, like she’s been planning this for weeks, for months, for a full year. She’s not armed, and it takes him a moment longer to realize she doesn’t have her shield.

Steve unlocks his car door -- SHIELD doesn’t like him to be so exposed, they say, and the car is their latest request for his safety -- and he passes his shield from one hand to the other.

Then he puts it in the seat and closes the door. With a press of the button, it locks.

Looking up again, he smiles, striding toward her.

Her face brightens.

With both hands free, it seems natural to offer one to her.

It’s only natural when she takes one back.

Together, they turn toward the sun. He looks at her, and she looks at him. He squeezes her hand. When she squeezes back, they take a step, then another.

They keep walking toward the setting sun, hands clasped tight, neither one letting go.

Comments

Posted by: dreamshadows (obuletfury302)
Posted at: December 26th, 2014 03:46 am (UTC)

You know, it's funny. I haven't read a story of your's in years, but somehow I still manage to find myself not being able to look away.

You write Avengers fic now?! That's awesome! And your Steve whump was excellent my dear!

*smishes you*

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: January 23rd, 2015 02:53 am (UTC)
thor angsts

It is funny how people find each other in new fandoms. Sort of like great minds thinking alike, I suppose :)

And I write a lot of different things these days, but I'm widely enamored with the MCU on a whole.

Thank you!

Posted by: Lena7142 (lena7142)
Posted at: December 28th, 2014 04:12 am (UTC)

YOU ARE THE BEST AND I LOVE YOU.

This was such a delightful surprise. And so cute. And badass. Thank you for this!!!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: January 23rd, 2015 02:54 am (UTC)
thor hair

So I'm like a month late in doing my replies. Still.

I hope this fic wasn't a total disappointment. But the idea intrigued me and I wanted to see if I could pull it off :) And I didn't know what else to do for you!

Thanks :)

4 Read Comments