The Sun Hasn't Died
Sink into the soil, watch the water boil.
They won’t see me run, who can blame them?
They never look to see me fly, so I never have to lie.”
+ + +
It started out small. Just a little drop of evil.
And it oozed. It slithered. It consumed me, vein by vein.
I was in hell, unable to awaken, unable to move, unable to scream.
+ + +
Captain America’s POV
“Who the hell is this?”
People had started to gather along the street, shivering slightly in the early evening air. I tried to shield Mother Eli from their view, by kneeling next to her and keeping my back resolutely toward the crowd.
There were some gasps of surprise as Iron Man descended from the Brooklyn skyline, but the gawkers had enough intuition not to clap or cheer (the usual public response to Tony’s dramatic entrances). I would have been self-conscious about my half-nakedness, but all I worried about was getting Mother Eli to the highest level medical assistance as soon as possible.
“Mother Eli,” I explained briskly as I craned my neck to look at the flashy red-and-gold metal suit hovering above us. “Now help me get her out of here.”
“What the hell happened?” for once, Tony obliged without argument and he landed relatively gently on the grass next to Eli’s thrown out hand.
His visor slid open and I was surprised to see something like concern on Tony’s typically impassive face. He glanced over at me and lifted an eyebrow.
“What sick bastard attacks a female priest?”
He seemed a lot less phased by the presence of the clerical collar than I had been when meeting Mother Eli for the first time. I just shook my head.
“We don’t have time to answer questions, Tony. She needs to go, now,” I glanced around suddenly for another familiar face. “Where’s Bruce?”
“Right here,” Dr. Banner’s voice was breathless, as if he’d just run all the way from Manhattan.
He practically materialized at my elbow and took a knee next to me as his dark eyes assessed Mother Eli’s wounds. He was already pulling open the leather bag that he had placed down next to his feet.
“Where’d you come from?” I stared at Bruce, nonplussed.
“You said she needed an airlift,” Tony answered, as Bruce was appropriately preoccupied with Mother Eli’s pulse. “I heard ‘airlift’ and assumed ‘spinal board’. I can’t move her safely on that, so I called in reinforcements,” he jerked his thumb up and over toward the top of one of the high-rises down the street.
My eyes followed to where he was pointing; I could just barely make out the rounded, black form of a helicopter, silhouetted against the lights of even taller high-rises. Now that I knew to listen for it, I could hear its blades bite against the wind. I suspected that either Clint or Natasha sat behind the controls, prepared to take our precious cargo back to Stark Tower as quickly as possible.
“Good thinking,” I rubbed a hand wearily over my eyes.
Stark was a narcissistic, overbearing, argumentative, overconfident pain-in-my-ass, but he had his moments. I could have hugged him.
“Speaking of a spinal board, help me get her on this thing,” Stark began to pull at something strapped to the back of his suit.
In the darkness and the worry, I hadn’t noticed that he’d come completely prepared. He flipped on the lights on the side of his mask and bent down to set the spinal board on the ground next to Mother Eli. The bright white lights - which Tony had once told me were something called LED - made my eyes water slightly, although I told myself it was from the clarity of their brightness and not from the starkly illuminated wounds that covered the top half of Mother Eli’s torso.
Her wounds were more extensive than I had first thought. Her arm was mangled, her shoulder torn, and the top left portion of her chest had been flayed open. Bruce was currently pressing quikclot sponges to the worst wounds, which were concentrated mostly around her shoulder. She had started to shake.
“Hurry it up, Banner,” Tony moved restlessly and glanced past my shoulder at the crowd gathered behind us. “She’s going into shock.”
“There’s something wrong,” Bruce muttered under his breath and I looked at him, alarmed.
“What do you mean?” I touched Mother Eli’s hand and wrapped my fingers around hers; her skin was clammy.
“She’s bleeding to death while you two overthink the matter, that’s what’s wrong,” Tony verbally slapped some sense into both of us.
Bruce pursed his lips in concentration and in mere moments finished staunching the worst of her blood. Without a word, all three of us positioned ourselves, with our hands pressed flat against the back of Mother Eli’s body, and prepared to move her.
“One, two...three,” I took a deep breath, my hands as steady as I could make them beneath the backs of her calves.
Tony had his hands below the small of her back; Bruce cradled her head and shoulders. We moved her with practiced efficiency; as one, we all grabbed the straps and secured her to the board.
“It’s a short distance to the chopper. I can move her safely enough between here and there,” Tony stood up and held out his arms in silent expectation; his mask slid back into place and I was left gazing up at an impassive metal visage.
“It kinda’ has to be you,” Bruce turned his head and glanced up toward the flat-topped high-rise where Mother Eli’s salvation awaited. “You’re the only one that can fly.”
“You get her to Stark Tower,” I grabbed one end of Mother Eli’s spinal board, as Bruce grabbed the other. “Don’t wait for us to catch up.”
We both lifted her up and slid her across Tony’s outstretched, armor-encased arms. His limbs were long enough that he could hooks his fingers into two of the handles on the side and safely anchor her against his chest.
“Got it,” Tony immediately pushed himself off of the ground and, with a roar like a rocket, shot swiftly upward at a slight angle, toward the waiting helicopter.
“Is she going to make it, Bruce?” I eyed the police officer that was now making his way through the crowd toward us.
“If she’s going to, I might want to be back at Stark Tower as quickly as I can,” Bruce replied quietly as he watched a second officer join the first.
I nodded in understanding and stepped forward. I’d stay and answer the authorities; Bruce would make a run for it.
The ground shook underneath my bare feet and I turned, just briefly, to see the Hulk take over Dr. Banner’s place. For a moment, his huge green body blocked the light of the church’s floodlights and he smiled grimly at me. Since the Battle of New York, Bruce had gained more control over his green alter ego, and as long as no one pissed him off between now and Manhattan, he could make it to Stark Tower faster as the Hulk.
“Captain America...sir?” the first officer had finally reached me and his voice was hesitant.
I lingered just a moment to watch the Hulk barrel through the crowd and then turned toward the questions that I had no answers for.
It didn’t spread quickly. Evil never does. It took its time, sinking into my bone and marrow with an almost sensual persistence. It corrupted me leisurely, inch by inch, and I shivered fearfully in the wake of its merciless advance.
I didn’t know what would happen when it reached my heart. But, in an instinctive flash of insight, I knew that I was just a few agonizing hours away from turning into the very thing that had attacked me.
My body turned cold. I no longer register the excruciating pain of my torn and mangled flesh. I quivered helplessly in the knowledge that I could not be saved.
Captain America's POV
“How are her vitals?”
“Her blood pressure is low,” Jane finally stepped away from her microscope and joined the rest of us gathered around the bed. “Her temperature is low and her pulse is erratic.”
“And well, you know,” Bruce waved a hand vaguely at Mother Eli, his face contorted into a mixture of confusion and concern. “She’s starting to look like a corpse.”
It was an unusually insensitive thing for Dr. Banner to say, but it seemed that the time for niceties had passed. Mother Eli did look as if she were dead; the only way any of us could tell that she was still alive, was by the steady rise and fall of her chest and the rhythmic bleating of the heart monitor.
“Have you taken samples from her wounds?” Fury kept the questions coming; his briskness helped to keep some of the emotions in the room (namely my own) at bay.
“Yes,” Jane nodded and her long hair bobbed softly around her chin. “Whatever…bit her…” her soulful brown eyes glanced over toward me with concern, before flickering back to Fury and then down at Mother Eli. “Infected her with…well…something I’ve never seen before.”
“None of us have ever seen it before,” Bruce added and Tony nodded his head as if to confirm the words of the two actual scientists in the room.
“It mutates fast, whatever it is. It’s destroying all of the healthy red and white blood cells in its wake and its taking over her fast,” Jane stared hard down at Eli and even nibbled the inside of her lip – she did that when she was worried.
“Can it be stopped?” Fury asked the one question that mattered the most in that moment.
There was a very long pause, in which I thought I could hear my own heart beat. Finally, Banner answered, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Not without taking it out of her, sir, and I don’t think any of us know how to do that.”
Translation: No. No, it could not be stopped.
I hung my head in shame.
+ + +
I continued to sit at Eli’s side long after Fury had left. He took Tony, Bruce, and Jane with him, I assumed so they could discuss the nature of Eli’s injuries and possible ways to combat what was happening to her. I stayed behind, to watch over Eli; it just didn’t seem right to leave her on her own and there was nothing that I could honestly contribute to a discussion about how to save her.
The clock slowly ticked closer and closer to midnight; I debated whether or not to slip out and meet Priest for our rendezvous. I was still shirtless, still barefoot – my half-dressed condition made me think briefly of the last time that I had run to the rescue in less than decent attire. Had just emerged as a newly-mined super soldier and I had been chasing the Hydra spy who killed Dr. Erskine down to the New York Harbor. That day had ended in something less than satisfaction as well, when the spy had killed himself with a cyanide pill hidden in his molars; I couldn’t help but muse wryly now that maybe I shouldn’t save the day half-naked. It never played out very well.
I leaned forward in my chair and touched Mother Eli’s hand tentatively with the very tips of my fingers. Her skin was cold – a coldness I knew only too well from my time in the service. She was dying and there wasn’t a damn thing that I could do about it. I knew that sense of hopelessness intimately as well; it made something hot boil up into my chest. It took me a moment to recognizeit as anger.
Instead of giving into the anger like I wanted (in a style that would have probably put Bruce Banner to shame), I slipped my right hand beneath her palm and covered the tops of her fingers with my left. I knew that I was being irrational, but maybe if I could just warm some part of her up… Her skin remained cold and clammy against mine; something moved against my palm and it took me a second to realize that whatever was in her veins was making them roil. Something was alive inside of her – something evil, something alien. I wanted to rip it out.
I couldn’t, though. I couldn’t save her. I couldn’t change what happened. I could only wallow in the knowledge of my own failings and to hold her hand while she died.
“You shouldn’t beat yourself up, you know,” Natasha startled me with her sudden appearance.
“Where did you come from?” I asked stupidly on reflex; she stepped out of the doorway and closer toward the foot of Mother Eli’s bed.
The expression on Natasha’s face was one that I had never see nebfore – gentle, compassionate, knowing. I had never looked into her eyes and not seen her cynicism shining through, but this time – just this once – I saw an understanding there that far surpassed her wordly defenses.
“I just slipped out of the meeting Fury’s holding in the main conference room,” Natasha stopped at Eli’s feet and calmly wrapped her hands around the top of the bedrail. “Thought maybe I’d find you here, since you weren’t up there planning and plotting.”
“Nothing really to plan or plot,” I shrugged and averted my gaze; I didn’t want Natasha to see my rising sense of hopelessness.
She saw it anyway.
“There’s always collateral damage, Natasha’s faint Rusian accent tried to sooth the ragged edges of my emotions. “We can’t protect everyone.”
“Like hell we can’t,” I knew I startled her by swearing, but I wasn’t ready to give up on beating myself over Eli’s attack.
I squeezed her cold hand and held onto it like a man who was falling from a tall, tall height. I couldn’t lose her – the world couldn’t lose her. She was goodness, pure goodness, in a world that had little of that to spare. She gave a grieving man plucked out of his own time a sanctuary; she shepherded her geriatric flock with patience and kindess; she always kept her church doors open, to shelter the poor, the homeless, and the dispossessed. She didn’t deserve to die – not this way.
“I should have told Fury about the…the Things,” my voice sounded thick to my own ears and I realized that the corners of my eyes were turning hot and prickly.
I was not about to cry, damn it.
“Okay. So you should have told Fury. That just means that we would have known about them sooner. Doesn’t mean that Mother Eli still wouldn’t have been attacked,” if Natasha saw my tears starting to gather, she graciously ignored them. “What happened to her was random, Steve. As random as a mugging, as a heart attack, as a drive-by shooting. The media might want to call us super-heroes, but we can’t plan for random.”
I knew Natasha was right – the former Russian operative didn’t waste her time on words that weren’t either true, or that serve a purpose. Right now, I could tell that they were both. I wiped the back of my arm roughly across my eyes and struggled to reign in my emotions.
“Everyone dies, Natasha,” I whispered; my voice broke and I couldn’t say anymore.
I couldn’t add, “but I don’t.”
But, she knew what I was trying to say.
“I know, Steve,” was her soft reply.
I collected myself after a long and tortured moment during which I struggled to hold back my tears and my thoughts of Bucky, Peggy, and my long-passed era. There had been many moments since reawakening in Manhattan, when I had wished that the Arctic waters had claimed my life. No previous moment had been as intense as the one I currently struggled against. I had finally started to make a friend outside of the Avengers – a normal friend, an average friend – and I had finally started to make some sense of my misdirected fate. But, it seemed like every time I made some progress, Death stepped into the way and took everyone I thought about getting close to – everyone except my own un-aging self.
I was nearly 90 years old, chronologically; Mother Eli was 30, if even that. I should be the one dying, with darkness slithering through my veins. Not her. Not in the prime of her life.
“I’m going to find the bastard that did this,” I finally gathered enough control of myself to stand up and clear my throat.
My face was hot and the corners of my eyes may or may not have been wet; Natasha made no indication that she either noticed or judged. She simply looked up at me and nodded grimly; action, vengeance, those were things that we both understood far better than tears.
I couldn’t tear the darkness out of Mother Eli, but I could tear the creature that attacked her limb from limb. I didn’t usually look at killing as a vehicle of revenge – it was an impartial action, the consequence of my status as a soldier. I shot and cut and bashed, but I didn’t torture, I didn’t prolong the pain on purpose. In this instance, however, I was more than willing to make an exception. That Thing was going to howl.
“You going in by yourself?” I could hear the offer of company in her voice.
“No,” I let go of Mother Eli’s hands and paused just long enough to reach up and hesitantly brush my knuckles against her cheek.
She was barely breathing.
“I have a meeting with Priest. We’ll take it down,” I realized, then, that it might have been a bit ungracious to turn Natasha’s unspoken offer down; I glanced over at her apologetically. “Would you mind –”
“Not at all,” she cut me off, but she wasn’t trying to be rude.
She simply wanted to help and spare me from having to ask the obvious.
“Would you stay with her, so she doesn’t die alone?”
I thanked her wordlessly, with a hand no her shoulder as I moved to brush past her. I hesitate for just a moment, though, and turned to look back down at Mother Eli’s inert form. I finally spoke what I had been thinking all along, an echo of what Bruce had hesitantly said so many hours earlier.
“I wish that there was a way to tear it out of her.”
“Witch is precisely why we’re here.”
For half a second, all I processed was a cultured British voice. But, then I realized that it wasn’t JARVIS, and Natasha and I both whirled around as one. A pair of black-cloaked priests stood in the doorway behind us, demure with their sable Bibles clutched in slender hands and silver crucifixes against their narrow chests.
“I do apologize for showing up announced – please let Mr. Stark know that Father Aaron will happily reconnect his AI as soon as we’re done here. There’s been no damage done, but we can’t risk any record of our presence here being recorded or challenged,” the taller of the two – a thin, cadaverous-looking black man – inclined his head toward me in a gesture that I guessed was supposed to be civil.
“What the hell?” Natasha hissed and immediately dropped her knees into a fighting stance; the priests just eyed her, unruffled.
“Who are you?” I figured if anyone was going to send in assassins, they wouldn’t start with the Vatican and tried to unravel the bizarre situation verbally before defaulting to my fists.
“Apologies for our rudeness. This is a profoundly unusual situation,” the same priest spoke again with an attempt at a wan smile. “I’m Monsignor Samedi and this is Father Aaron Blake. We were alerted the moment that Mother Eli came under attack, but you had moved her before we could arrive on the scene.”
“So, you tracked her here and disabled a defense AI, because you have fair and righteous intentions?” Natasha narrowed her eyes and I knew that they were both in for a world of hurt regardless of what they said.
As it turned out, neither one of us were prepared for the succinct response that Monsignor Samedi provided.
He folded his hands over his Bible and looked intently past us both, at Eli’s dying body.
“We’re here for the exorcism of Mother Elinor Palintol.”