6: Haunted

Steve moved from the back of the cottage to his sofa, lowering himself into its comfortable cushions. He leaned forward to set a small container on the coffee table in front of him. Well, perhaps small was not quite right, it was about the size of a small plumber's box.

Last night while patrolling the warehouse he was charged with keeping safe, he slipped on a freshly mopped floor. That would not have been a big deal if his momentum hadn't carried him over the balcony rail overlooking the factory floor.

Luckily, no one was about to see his graceless act. Talk about having to answer awkward questions. He just hoped no one decided they were bored enough to look through security footage for the evening.

Despite being flipped over the side by his momentum, he still managed to catch the rail. Try as he might, however, he couldn't pull himself back up the railing and had to drop the fifteen feet to the lower level. While he managed to land on his feet, the jarring impact several of the plates around left foot and ankle loose. Additionally, it had exacerbated a bolt that was already backed out some in his knee – one he'd been dealing with for a week already.

Now he had no excuse to ignore it – couldn't ignore as a matter of fact. The loose plates caught on each other and often jammed in the joint. The slipping sensation was making walking nearly impossible. Each step it felt as if the lower leg would just come away from the upper and leave him on his face. While the pistons were keeping it with him, he knew he couldn't keep at it without doing some permanent damage to the joint.

He was NOT going to purposely subject himself to another limb replacement just for pride and stubbornness.

He had to fix it.

Used to be, even small processes such as these required that Steve visit Dr. Turner and his team of cybernetic specialists. That was never free. Turner would charge exorbitant prices for even the smallest of diagnostic and repairs – garner his wages directly. When Tom had brought him back to the states, he'd insisted that Steve have more control of his body, even the mechanical parts. To that end, he'd given Steve a kit full of the custom tools needed to do upkeep on his prosthesis.

That didn't mean Steve was comfortable with the idea of maintaining his own cybernetics. Self-conciously he feared he would mess things up even trying basic things. He was never that mechanically inclined. Tinkering with six million credits worth of cybernetics would be daunting even to an expert and Steve was no such thing. Not to mention how odd it felt pulling parts off his own body in an effort to fix things.

He was forced to the process at first because Tom ignored several pleas early on to do it for him. He would only step in for Steve if something was wrong with internal structures or hydraulics. Those items Steve had no access to, because they were tooled differently than the external structures and unique from any tool that could be found in the hardware stores – which was for the better. That meant he couldn't get in so deep he'd be crippled waiting for Tom to save him from himself. Only in recent months had he reached some sort of comfort level with working on the mechanical monstrosities.

Steve opened the box, pulling out what was necessary to tighten and reset the parts of his leg that had come free. He set to work, picking the popped plates on his left ankle to fix first. Resetting the plate on his foot, he ensured it was secure and wouldn't bind when he moved.

In the middle of this process, his net phone rang.

Careful to replace the tool in its slot in the box, Steve reached for the device, still spilling chords of Mephisto through the air. Caller ID told him it was Tom.

Though he was unsure what his brother might be calling him about, he flipped the front of his phone open and put it to his ear. "Hey Tom, what's up?"

Steve listened for a few moments, his expression growing more horrified. "What? No!"

As his gut twisted into knots, he remained silent and allowed Tom to tell him the story. "I'm sorry to hear that, 'lil bro. I hope she's all right. Yeah, keep me informed, okay?"

Steve wasn't sure how long he sat there, leaning into the cushions, his head wreathed in hands that shook any time they were removed. Shock and guilt pinned him there like a butterfly in a display.

The sound of the front door opening and shutting somehow penetrated his tail-chasing. Even when he heard his fiancée come in, his hands remained, hiding his face from her view. Only when she actually addressed him, did he lower them into his lap.

"Were you wading through something I don't know about?" Maribel's stab at a joke missed the funny bone by a mile.

Shaking his head slightly, Steve remained mute and his gaze unfocused.

There was a hesitation. "I… thought you were going over arrangements."

Steve recalled vaguely that he was supposed to be deciding on a tuxedo and looking into caterers for their wedding. He had volunteered for the assignment, while Maribel was taking care of wedding invitations and making any needed arrangements for housing guests from far flung corners of the world.

After his fall last night, the last thing he felt was cordial enough to talk to simpering salespeople. He had hoped to get his leg fixed, get a quick nap, and take care of it when the sting to his pride wasn't quite so fresh. Add insult to injury, Tom's phone call poured misery over an already fresh wound.

Straightening and shaking his head, Steve still couldn't bring himself to speak.

Maribel was quick to pick up on his distress. "What's wrong, Steve?"

His mouth thinned and he purposely grabbed up a wrench and a driver, attacking his knee joint with angry fervor. For a moment the clicking as the ratchet reset was the only sound in the room. Steve knew he was making this worse by being silent, but his brain hadn't yet processed how to approach this with his girl.

Maribel lowered herself down next to him. "Steve?"

He paused, wrenched one more time at his knee, and grunted, "Got a phone call – from Tom."

She remained silent, giving him time and the opportunity to continue. He wasn't prompt in complying. Maribel shifted closer to him, laying a warm hand on his bare arm.

He made an effort not to throw the tool in his hand, instead setting it where it belonged. "Someone dumped Mira at the hospital last night."

He didn't have to look at her to see the dismay that statement elicited in her. "Is she okay?"

"No. She was clinically dead when they found her." Steve leveled an angry glare at Maribel, even when that's not where his anger lay. "Tom and his team resuscitated her. They had to perform extensive surgery – which may end up being a moot effort – because she's barely hanging on."

"What happened to her?"

"Just what I thought would happen – the bastards botched it." Steve dragged fingers over his face. Sometimes he hated that he was so intuitive about things. "I hate being right. I didn't want to be right about this one."

"Tom said her injuries resulted from this mystery guy's procedure?"

"I didn't need details to figure it out, Maribel! The guy admitted it was a new process – the first time using it on a human test subject? How hard is it to figure out? I mean it's horror movie fodder. They worked her over with some grand scheme about replicated tissue, and when they got in too deep, they got frightened. These bozos get a little twinge of conscience and dump her at the nearest hospital to absolve themselves of guilt. It's a familiar scenario, Maribel… one I'm all too acquainted with."

"You're upset about this."

He blinked, staring at his girlfriend and trying to figure out just what she meant by the statement. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"You and Mira… I mean you never got along."

Steve leaned forward and slammed his toolbox shut. He glowered at her, disbelieving that she could think him as callous as not to feel about this. "So, because she hates me, I should just be numb about this? Is that what you're saying?"

Maribel averted her gaze. "That wasn't quite what I was thinking, no."

"I feel guilty as hell about it," he added, slamming his shoulders back into the padding of the couch.

"Guilty? Steve you didn't do it to her. She volunteered to go there."

Steve fell silent, realizing, to her, it wouldn't make any sense for him to feel guilty. In a flash of insight, he remembered that he'd never informed Maribel of that small facet of his illicit work for Turner. He flexed his leg testing the adjustments for a moment, realizing he'd gotten one too tight. Then he moved the other satisfied with the fix. He set the leg down with a thump. "You remember the jobs I was doing when you and I met?"

She nodded, looking dubious. "Gun for hire."

"Right." Steve drew a breath and let it out slowly before going on. "Mira… Mira was one of the contracts I was assigned."

He met her gaze steadily, even though it was painful for him to do that.

"It was just after I had," his hand went to his throat, "been repaired again. Turner recalled me to the states to do a 'high priority job.' Mira was it."

"And what exactly was that job?"

"Turner had me case her house, lay in wait… kidnap her from her home."

Her face was pinched in a rather disgusted fashion. "Did he give you the 'why'?"

Steve didn't want to, but he nodded. "Because she was 'property' and he needed her back to finish some work."

"And… you did it anyway?"

This nod was even more minute than the last. "I was angry about being called back so close to getting Takahira. I wanted to get back to KL as soon as possible. If getting her and giving her to Turner got me back there faster, I was going to do it. My attitude affected how I treated Mira – transference of frustrations onto an innocent. I did what I was told, like a good little soldier." Steve rubbed a hand over his face. "God… I acted like some arrogant ass on that job!"

Maribel only blinked at him, and he forced himself to continue.

"I wasn't… nice. I… broke into her place – I mean literally kicked her door in. I chased her until she was cornered. I assaulted her, Maribel, stripped her of everything that made her feel human, and told her she was a coward for not being proud of what had been done to her. I transported her to Turner hog tied!"

"How… could… you?"

He regarded Maribel for long moments. Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. "I wasn't right, back then, Maribel. My head wasn't on straight. You know how dark a time that was for me."

Averting her gaze once more, his fiancée's face puckered. It was an ugly emotion on her normally beautiful face. "I can't… You had no right."

"No. No I didn't."

Unable to keep looking at him, Maribel averted her gaze. His stomach twisted. Plans or no – love or no – he may have just broken the camel's back. The black hole that always seemed to accompany him started grabbing for more real estate in his gut.

"You don't know just how dark a time it was…" he whispered, balking as he realized what had pushed past his lips.

"What does that mean?" she asked shrilly.

His brain scrambled for a way to back out of what he'd said. It came up completely blank. "You're gonna think I'm crazy."

"Tell me?"

He looked up to the ceiling, a long heavy breath escaping, even that was tinged with the metallic afterglow of his artificial voice box. "Would you believe me if I told you I had been 'possessed' for a while?"

"P… possessed?" She leaned away from him, her expression incredulous.

"I don't know how else to explain it." He laced his fingers together, staring at the floor as a way to avoid whatever expressions this line of conversation was eliciting from his fiancé. "I told you what happened to Cheryl."

He braved meeting her gaze. She returned a small incredulous nod – as if wondering where he was going with this.

"With all the shit going on at the time… she… she stepped in to help get me back on course." Once more he measured her expression. His indrawn breath reverberated through the silence as he pushed forward. "She… she spoke to me."

"What, what do you mean?"

"Cheryl was the voice of my conscience for five years." He felt his expression pinch, regarding the floor with it rather than Maribel. He shook his head as he continued with, "I can't say to this day whether it was my own dementia, my guilt over her death, or her ghost had truly come back from the other side to aide me through that time. I've never considered myself a believer in that sort of thing."

There it was, the small quirk of a brow that gave away Maribel questioning his sanity.

"Cheryl and I 'fought' about the assignment. We'd disagreed before about the way my life had gone, but never like with Mira."

Sympathy moved across his fiancé's features.

"I felt guilty, even then, about that particular job. Between how I treated her during retrieval and what Turner had her scheduled for, she was scarred by the whole thing. Of all the stupid crap I got myself into during those years, her abduction was the one I wanted to take back. More so when I realized just who she was. It was a mistake – I know that, and I've been trying to find a way to make up for it ever since. Not that Mira ever let me. I can't even blame her. I deserve every bit of animosity she has for me."

He paused, rubbing his hands slowly back and forth across each other. "So, her getting hurt? Yeah that affects me. And yeah, it might be as simple as me worrying about never getting the opportunity to apologize for that stupidity." Steve shrugged, unsure how else to explain his reaction to the news about Mira on her deathbed. "So, I'm upset and angry that she's a thread away from death and not a damn thing I can do to fix things."

The room fell silent in the wake of that conversation, and after a few moments, Steve replaced all the tools in his kit and gently closed and latched the lid. He let the silence be, even when he wanted Maribel to say something. Some couples broke up over less. Steve could only consider she'd stuck with him after all the carnage he'd left in his wake over the years. Hopefully he was wrong about this being the last straw.

Steve glanced up at Maribel's indrawn breath. Her expression said she reconsidered whatever it was she was going to say. Her almond eyes met his, calculating something. Her face pinched. "Does… does Cheryl still…"

Shaking his head, Steve said, "She's released me to my own devices."

Maribel's head quirked, "Huh?"

A crooked, non-humored grin slipped briefly past his lips. "I've always had nightmares about how she went out… even when I never saw it. I've been haunted by Cheryl's suicide. In one of them she came to me and told me I was ready to move on. That I needed to start over – with you." He pursed his lips. "I haven't heard her since."

Maribel was staring at him, and he couldn't figure out just how she felt about that revelation.

"God," Steve sat forward, "I didn't mean to lay all this on you at once."

"It's okay," Maribel breathed. Even she sounded unsure of the sincerity of those words. "No secrets, right?"

"I wasn't trying to keep that from you."

He must have sounded defensive.

"Okay, I believe you."

She kissed his cheek as if to cement the statement. Steve's eyes slid shut and he leaned into that contact. Turning towards her, he cupped her cheek. "I still don't deserve you."

That brilliant, beautiful smile finally won through. "You're slowly earning it."

Steve blinked, wondering briefly if she was being serious. She defused his squirreling gut when she laughed, kissed him on the lips, and rose from the couch.

"You going to explain to me why you have your repair kit out now?"

Steve grinned and shook his head – so forgiving – something else he didn't deserve. Pushing himself up from the couch he replaced his kit and followed her into the kitchen, regaling her with his death-defying somersault off the factory terrace.

A/N: Sorry for the delay on getting this one out to you all... I had some major fixes to make to it and when I first looked at it I didn't have the energy to do what was required! My nervous energy this morning finally motivated me to get it knocked out! :)

Steve, oh Steve, you've really made some poor choices with your life...