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Tea

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Two weeks.  Two weeks ago her new neighbour had moved in upstairs.  And for two weeks she had been woken up every night by the banging coming from above her.  It was almost religious. 4am. She had come to expect it. But the screaming. The screaming was new.  She had never heard something so guttural. Almost feral. He’d been doing it for almost 20 minutes. It had started small.  Just a few grunts but then the sound had grown and grown. It was getting too much for her to bear. She couldn’t just lie there listening to him.  So she heaved a sigh and pulled herself out of bed, threw on a jacket and dragged herself up the stairs. He was still going when she got to his door.  She knocked lightly, scared of annoying the other neighbours, but he still continued, banging and screaming. So she knocked harder. Pounded even. And he stopped.  She waited a few moments and heard nothing. No screaming. No banging. But no sounds of movement either. So she knocked again. A few more moments of silence. Then she heard the shuffling of someone coming to the door.  A clicking of what was probably just a few too many locks and then the handle being pulled. The door swung open and her breath caught in her throat when she saw him. She wasn’t really sure how she had pictured him, but she was certain it wasn’t like this.  He had been sleeping in jogging pants and no shirt, but an open jacket somewhat covered him up. Not enough to hide his incredibly muscular chest though. If she had seen just his body she would have pegged him as someone who cared greatly about himself, but everything else contradicted that.  He was a mess. Dark shaggy hair that was tangled and uncared for fell across his face, which was covered in stubble that was clearly not intentional. His forehead was crinkled with permanent worry and the bags under his eyes told tales of years of sleepless nights. And his eyes. His eyes were piercing.  They saw right through her. She’d never felt more exposed. It was like he knew everything about her, every secret she’d ever had, in just one glance. Except he wasn’t just glancing. He was staring. Waiting for her to speak.

“Are… are you okay?”  She finally managed to stammer out.  He didn’t say anything. Didn’t so much as grunt in return.  Just stared. “See I live downstairs and I...I just… You… you were screaming.”  She elaborated. Still nothing from him. “Loud.” She emphasised, willing him to answer her.  He didn’t. “Sorry.” She suddenly looked to her feet and shook her head. “Sorry to bother.” She didn’t raise her head again, just headed straight to the stairs, back to her own apartment, muttering curses to herself.  What an idiot. Worrying about her mystery neighbour. He probably wasn’t even sleeping. Probably having sex with a beautiful woman and she just pounded on the door and interrupted them. She sighed to herself as she locked the door of her apartment and shuffled back to the bedroom.  At least the noise had stopped and she could go back to sleep. She had just settled down beneath the covers, just a few minutes after being upstairs, when there was a knock at her door. She grumbled a little, betting that it was one of her neighbours coming to complain that they had heard her voice at 4 in the morning.  So when she opened her door and saw him there she could only stare with her mouth slightly agape, like a fish.  He still didn’t say anything. Just stared her down. She didn’t know what to say.  She wondered if he had maybe come down to apologise but she gave him plenty of space and still no words came from his mouth.  So she said the only thing she could think of. “Would you like some tea?” She wasn’t sure why it had come to mind. Tea always helped her feel better when she’d had a nightmare, and she presumed that was why he was screaming.  Unless he’d just abandoned a beautiful woman in his apartment. Seemed unlikely. He still didn’t say anything. But he nodded curtly, accepting her offer. She took a step to the side, silently inviting him into her space. She almost instantly regretted it.  This is how murder stories start. Stupid young woman invites handsome mystery man into her home. She could see the headlines now. But it was too late. He squeezed himself past her, trying to keep as much space between them as possible. Probably trying not to touch her, didn’t want to give her any ideas that he might be interested.  She shut the door and trailed behind him. He stopped dead at the end of the hallway and she almost crashed into his back. “Take a seat.” She offered, indicating the sofa, but he went straight to the dining table. Right. She thought. Didn’t want to give her any ideas. She boiled the kettle and brewed the tea all in complete silence.  Just the clinking of the teaspoons. Definitely the start of a murder story. She chanced a look at him over her shoulder. He was just staring at the wall. His hand clenching and unclenching rhythmically. Probably still thinking about his nightmare. She decided it was best not to ask him about it. The light thud of the mug on the table brought his attention away from the wall.  He looked up to her and his lips curved in a small, polite smile. His way of saying ‘thank you’. She noted that it didn’t reach anywhere near his eyes. She settled in the chair across from him and brought her legs up underneath her. She took the mug in both her hands and let the warmth run though her body. Soon his eyes were back on the wall and his fist clenching again. But the longer they sat there the more his features relaxed.  They only sounds were the occasional slurping of her sipping the tea. He drank without a sound. They sat there in silence for almost twenty minutes. Her watching him and him watching the wall. So engrossed in his own thoughts that he didn’t notice her drinking in every detail of him. Or at least if he did notice her didn’t stop her. His face was familiar. But then maybe he just had one of those handsome faces that look familiar. He still only wore a jacket and she let her eyes roam over his torso.  She had never seen anyone with so many muscles. Maybe he screamed in his sleep because he was having nightmares about how hard he worked in the gym. She caught a few scars peaking out around his left shoulder and wondered what sort of accident could leave marks like that. Her eyes trailed down that arm, to the hand that held the mug of tea, and she instantly had to take a sip of tea to stop herself from gasping. There was only a dim lamp on but she was not mistaken. This guy had a metal hand. Probably a whole metal arm if she had to guess.  She was definitely dead. She tried her best to savour what was probably her last cup of tea and did her best to look anywhere but at him. When she had finished she set the mug back on the table and leaned back with a sigh. Seconds after she had done so he swept the mug away from her and set it on the counter next to the sink, turned to her and gave a curt nod, and then marched out the door. Well. She wasn’t going to get any more sleep after that. At least she was alive. His face though. She was sure she knew it. But the guy had a freakin’ metal arm .  She would definitely remember if she had met him before.  She pulled her phone from her jacket pocket and put in a quick search. ‘Guy with metal arm.’ It was simplistic but it certainly got her results.  Thousands of reports on the Winter Soldier. Jesus Christ.  She pulled up one that detailed the attacks in Washington and the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D, which had only been a few months ago.  There were no real photos of him, just quick snaps from civilian camera phones, but enough to identify him. Jesus Christ. She had just served tea to a genetically altered assassin.  And the bastard hadn’t even bothered to wash up.


 

4am.  Like clockwork.  The screaming came again tonight.  She let him scream for five minutes before her feet were carrying her out of the apartment.  Her brain was willing them to stop. To go back to bed. To not seek out the Winter Soldier. But her feet didn’t listen.  She pounded first time this time and the screaming stopped straight away. There was a shuffling straight away. And the locks clicking straight away.  Almost like he had been waiting for her to come to him. He took one look at her then turned to walk back into his apartment. He left the door open though.  She took that as an invitation to follow him. She stopped dead at the end of the hallway. There was nothing here. No sofa. No TV. Not even any boxes that he hadn’t unpacked.  But then she supposed a man on the run couldn’t pack his life up into boxes. She wondered if he even had a life at all. In this place he had nothing. Just a mattress in the middle of the room and a table with two chairs.  Convenient. She pulled up one of the seats as he brewed the tea this time. He was dressed the same as yesterday, but he had been more careless with the jacket, not covering himself up as much. He placed her mug down with his metal hand and she knew he caught her staring at it.  He didn’t say anything though. Though she supposed it would have shocked her more if he had spoken. Again they drank in complete silence. Well almost complete silence. After ten minutes she piped up. “It’s nice… to not be on your own after a nightmare.” He grunted in response.  In agreement. She smirked a little to herself. She had broken him. Gotten a response. Not something she should be proud of though. A response from the silent killer was probably a bad sign. Another ten minutes and they had both finished. This time she took his mug from him and made a point of washing up.  She turned to face him and offered a tight lipped smile. One which he returned. It still didn’t reach his eyes though.


3.50.  She hadn’t been awoken by screaming.  Or banging. She’d been awoken by a knock on her door.  She barely even had her eyes open when she pulled back the door and instinctively walked into the kitchen.  He followed her in. Wordlessly as always. As she set the kettle to boil he reached up to the cupboard and pulled down two mugs.  It stunned her a little. “Thank you.” She muttered out as she took them from him and brewed up. He had a little more modesty today, wearing a tshirt, but he hadn’t bothered to cover his arm.  Just a week and they had already reached that point. She held back a joke about feeling honoured. They settled at the table and she sat in the exact same way as always. He wasn’t staring at the wall though now.  He was staring at her. Well she at least deserved to ask a question in return. “So…” She stared. “Metal arm, huh?” She asked as if it was the most nonchalant thing in the world. “That’s rough.” She sipped her tea.

“You get used to it.”  He smirked at her a little and she cracked a genuine smile.  She had broken him. No more silence. Thank god. “You know about me?  Why do you still let me in?” He asked. She was taken aback a little by the light Eastern European accent.  Not what she had expected.

She didn't have to think before she answered.  “I know about the Winter Soldier.  I don’t think that’s you.” She offered.  She genuinely believed it too. She had read up a lot more since their first meeting.  News reports, history papers, conspiracy theories. This person in front of her was clearly not under Hydra’s control anymore.  Hydra agents don’t sit around with their neighbours drinking tea in the middle of the night. He smiled a little. She noticed it did reach his eyes.  But then a sadness took over them and he looked away. She didn’t say anything else. Scared she had pushed him too far. But then he spoke again. So quiet she almost didn’t hear him.  “Why do you do this?”

She thought about it for a moment.  Why did she do this? It was truly mad.  She didn’t know him at all. All she really knew about him is that he could kill her like she was little more than an annoying bug.  And yet she trusted him not to. Trusted that he would drink his tea, relax and then leave. Because he was in pain. She heard him scream and she couldn’t stand by and do nothing.  He needed someone to help him through. And she was stupid enough to let him in. “If you heard the screams that I hear, you couldn’t not help.” She reached across the table and took his hand in hers.  He flinched a little but didn’t pull away. “Even if it is just tea.” She sent him a small but genuine smile.

His eyes bore into hers and the sincerity in them almost made her well up.  This was a man who had not known kindness for many years. Who had been used as a weapon and nothing more.  Who’s screams had gone ignored for decades. And here he had someone who just wanted to make the pain go away.  “Thank you.” He whispered as he squeezed her hand gently.


 

It hadn’t taken long for the screaming to return.  The first time she had heard him again she didn’t even hesitate.  Jumped out of her own bed and ran up the stairs. She hadn’t stopped pounding on the door until he opened it.  He looked down at her and the pain in his eyes almost broke her heart. “Bad dream?” She asked. It was a stupid question, she knew he always had bad dreams.  But still he nodded his head and turned into his apartment. She followed him immediately and gently closed the door behind her. When she came into the main room she faltered a little when she saw him sat on the mattress instead of at the table.  He was staring at the wall again, wringing his hands together. She made some tea as quickly as she could and set his mug in front of him on the floor. She sank down on the mattress to his left and blew gently on her tea, waiting for him to speak.  He didn’t. He just stared and stared until tears began to prick in his eyes. She quickly set her mug down by his and reached out a hand to squeeze his shoulder. He visibly relaxed at her touch but the tears did not stop. As they spilled over she wrapped her arm around him a tugged a little.  It did not take much encouragement for him to lean down and rest his head on her shoulder. She rubbed his arm gently and ran a hand through his hair as he sobbed silently. She held back her own tears as she shushed him much like a mother soothes a child. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. It was just a dream.  They’re all just dreams.” He gripped her shirt in his fist as the tears soaked her shoulder. “It’s alright. You’re alright. I’m here now. You’re alright.” By the time he had stopped crying the tea had long gone cold. She lay him down and stayed by his side on the mattress, stroking his hair softly and occasionally whispering words of reassurance.  When she was certain he had fallen asleep she took the mugs and threw the cold tea down the drain, washed them silently and set them back where they belonged. She took one last glance at him on her way out and smiled sadly to herself, glad at least that he would get a few hours of peaceful sleep.


 

After that he had given her a key.  There had been a few nights where he had come to her first.  He’d asked her a lot about her life, about this new world, about things he should know about.  She hadn’t asked him anything. Fearful that she would trigger memories, or even worse ask him about something that he just couldn’t remember.  The more he came down the more she was sure that he would never do anything to hurt her. “I don’t do that anymore.” He had said to her one night.  Then the next night she heard screams more gut wrenching than any of the rest. She ran up and let herself in, he hadn’t even woken at the noise. He was still screaming when she came to his side.  Tears streamed down his face but he was still in a deep sleep. Tea wasn’t going to cut it this time. Suddenly she remembered her childhood. How she had comforted her little sister when she would have nightmares.  Almost instinctively she lay down on the mattress behind him. As soon as she was settled the screaming stopped. She reached and arm around him and took his hand in her own. His body immediately tensed up. “It’s okay.”  She soothed him. “It’s me. I’ll keep you safe.” She was acting on impulse, doing all this naturally. She had to be. If she had been thinking she would have known this was mad. She was spooning a dangerous assassin. And yet she continued to sooth him.  Squeezed him tight when he pressed his body up against hers. Even placed a chaste kiss at the base of his neck. “It’s okay. Go back to sleep. I’m here.” She encouraged him as she rubbed her thumb across his hand rhythmically. When she felt him fully relax and she thought he had fallen asleep she started to slip her hand from his.  He quickly clamped down and pulled her arm back tight around himself. “Stay.” He whispered. “Please.” He pulled her hand up to his face and placed a light kiss on her knuckles.

“I’m not going anywhere.”  She reassured him and pressed herself tight against his back.  

After that she had given him her key.  She would always wake up when she heard him coming but she didn’t move.  He would just slip into her bed and rest his head on her chest. Still half asleep she would stroke his hair and kiss his forehead and they would fall back asleep together.  After a while she started to wonder why they didn’t just start the night like that. But then that wasn’t how this relationship worked.


1am.  It had been about a month since she had first knocked on his door.  She was just settling down for bed when she heard a knock at the door.  Odd. She wondered who could be knocking at this time. When she pulled the door back her breath caught in her throat.  It was him. But he hadn’t been having nightmares. He was fully dressed. Jeans, jacket, baseball cap and a backpack over his shoulders.  He looked sadder than she had ever seen him and that broke her heart. Something was up, she knew. “Hey.” It was all she could find to say.  

“Hey.”  He gave her one of his tight lipped smiles.  There was silence for a few seconds. “They know where I am.   I have to go.” She just nodded dumbly. She knew there were people after him and that he wasn’t going to be able to stay with her forever.  But she hadn’t prepared herself for it. It felt like a punch in the gut. He held up her key. “Here.”

“No you keep it.”  She pushed it back to him.  “You might need it someday.” She smiled softly.

He put it back in his pocket and smiled at her.  It reached his eyes tonight. He took a step forward and wrapped her up in a tight embrace.  She buried her head in his shoulder, trying her best to hold back the tears that threatened to spill.  “Thank you.” He whispered in her ear. He stepped back and looked deep into her eyes, gave her a curt nod and turned on his heel.

“Hey, wait!”  She stopped him and ran back into her apartment, quickly grabbing a pen and paper and scribbling down her phone number.  She came back out to the hallway, took his hand and pressed the scrap into his palm. “Those nightmares come back you call me straight away, y’hear?”  She squeezed his hand tight. “I’ll always be there.” He reached up a gentle hand and brushed some stray hair behind her ear. Before she had time to react he leaned down and captured her lips.  It was gentle, chaste, and all too short for her. She tried to pull him back for more but he only gave her one more peck before he stood to his full height. “In another life doll.” He smirked at her and she nodded in understanding.  He turned and headed down the stairs, looking over his shoulder to take one last look at her. Tears filled her eyes and she spoke her last words to him. “Be safe.” He just nodded and continued down to the front door. She leaned over the rail and watched him go down the stairs, her eyes never leaving him until he was out the door.  Gone into the night. And she let the tears spill over. She cried silently and turned to head back into her apartment. She made her way into the kitchen and did the only thing she could think of that might help. She made some tea.