They walked the short distance in silence, both dwelling on thoughts.
Hearing the frozen grass crunch under his shoes, Billy thought about Kate's words. She was afraid that things would not be the same as before the mission. He thought back to his deployments and to the operations with the Expendables and how they'd affected his life afterwards. As far as it concerned him, the mission to Albania had been the worst by far. But regardless whether he hadn't survived or not, there would have been nobody to leave behind. The longer he thought about it, the more evident it became to him what Kate must have meant.
Their trip to Serbia had been the first where somebody he really cared about had been in harm's way. He had been worried about his team mates when being in the Army and frankly he didn't worry much about the Expendables; all had proven their skills countless times. But it was a different kind of anxiety when it came to Kate.
He thought back to their time in Afghanistan and silently smirked when he recalled the event where she'd gotten into a fight with his squad leader. She was unquestionably a strong woman, but her selflessness kept dragging her into dangerous sometimes reckless situations. It had been the very reason why she'd been injured. She must have known that it was within the possible that she would die while fighting Silva's men, but without hesitation she'd taken up the gauntlet. Now, her uncharacteristically quiet and contemplative manner after they'd been back in the States showed him that she had realized how close she'd come to die and, Billy couldn't help but think, to lose somebody she cared about.
They had reached the edge of the forest and just before they entered the first row of trees, Billy stopped.
"How do you want to do this?" he asked as he squinted into the dim light between the shrubs and trees.
Kate followed his gaze. Her whole life she hadn't been scared of the woods, the contrary was the case. It had been her safe haven when everything became too much for her. She would not let Silva take that precious good from her, she thought fiercely. And suddenly, it felt ridiculous and she was abashed that she'd been scared about something so familiar to her. A blush crept on her cheeks and for a second she hoped Billy would not read her the way he usually did and just think that the color came just from the short walk.
She didn't look at him as she took a deep breath and squared her shoulder, feeling the metal of the gun pushing against her spine as she stretched.
"I am going in alone." she said, but still much less confident than she'd intended to sound.
Billy looked at her for a second, mentally debating whether he should grant her request or not. The memories of his breakdown were still sketchy but he didn't want the same thing happening to her. But before he could answer her, Kate had taken off for the woods.
"I see you at the house." she called over her shoulder while she shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket.
Billy gazed after her as she disappeared between the trees. Her head was directed to the ground, he could it see from the position of her jacket's hood she'd pulled over her head while talking to him. He tried to read her stance, but it was not giving away much. Her steps were focused, her shoulders relaxed, but he couldn't help but worry about her.
Sighing, he made a decision he was not sure whether she would approve or not. But the longer he stood there, gazing into the grey of the forests very much like the ones where they'd been forced to spend the last days, the more he demurred at leaving her alone. The odds of a threat in these woods were relatively small, but in light of the most recent events he wasn't going to take any chances.
He followed her, keeping his distance even though he didn't think she would detect him. Her hood shielded her view sideways and she didn't turn around once. His steps didn't make a sound as he walked through the leaves and twigs. Blindly, he knew where to step to avoid any noise.
She had been walking slightly uphill for half an hour, before she stopped for the first time. She turned around just to find the woods empty of any signs of life. A smile emerged on Kate's lips. He would never see it coming. Ever since she'd left the forest's edge, she knew that Billy would follow her. He might be able to conceal the sound of his steps, but he obviously had forgotten what she'd told him back in Serbia: Animals tend to leave the area when men are around.
She could not hear bird song, nor had she seen any game. It was an unmistakable sign that somebody was following her. And even though she felt a slight unease about it, she calmed herself by repeating that she was at home and safe and nobody would ambush her here. While she continued her walk, she decided to turn the tables. She knew it would be hard to fool a person like Billy, but now that she had regained her faith in this environment she could not resist.
She changed the direction to a part of the forests where more shrubs and fewer trees covered the grounds. There she would be able to escape from his line of sight. While she focused on her plan, her doubts about the forests were blown from her mind. They practically didn't exist anymore. She was so absorbed in her task; she didn't hesitate for a second. She knew it was not without risk to sneak up to him, he was still carrying his weapon and contrary to her he was still thinking that he was the hunter and not the hunted. With that in mind, she reached the area she'd chosen to vanish from his field of vision. She passed a group of bushes dense enough to shield her completely; then she turned right and started her diversion. Sliding her shoes over the leave-covered ground she disturbed the layer and broke some twigs of the nearby bushes.
She was done quickly and took a few steps back, giving her work a brief once-over. Billy would undoubtedly search for her and find those clues. But they would lead him nowhere. She'd played this game countless times with her grandfather and it had been a useful tool in the service, she rarely ever failed to confuse her opponent.
She continued her way in the other direction, bringing some space between herself and Billy then she hid behind a tree. She watched the sniper appear behind one of the shrubs, clearly irritated about her sudden disappearance. Cautiously, he made his way over to the group of bushes and seconds later he discovered her fake clue. From her line of sight, she saw the smirk on his face.
He wasn't buying it, Kate realized as he put down the rocks; shaking his head, still grinning. Instead scanned his surroundings and took off in the opposite direction. Kate silently cursed as she watched him walk away. From her position she would not be able to follow him immediately. A noise when she had to pass the shrubs between her and Billy would be inevitable. Condemned to watch him disappear in between the trees, Kate remained in her stash as she waited for him to be out of earshot. When she was sure that he wouldn't hear her, she hastily got up and followed him. But when she'd passed the shrubs, he'd vanished from her line of sight.
Cursing, she stood there for a moment, indecisive what to do next. This was ridiculous. Two adults playing hide and seek in the midst of the forest. But her ambition had been awoken by Billy's silent challenge and she would accept it. It was a thing she'd become so used to ever since she'd joined the military. No matter how marginal, she would take the challenge and prove the guys that she was as capable as they were.
Now, as she cautiously followed Billy, she thought about his next move. He would try to go round her so that he could follow her again. She went through the mental map of the forest and her experiences when hunting here. It went unspoken that they could read each other quite well, so she hadn't even considered the obvious but started to think outside the box. And after a few seconds she was pretty sure she knew his plan. She kept following him until she discovered what she wanted to see and smirked.
She picked up the stone, turned it over. The dirt sticking to it was still wet and glistening as she weighted the mineral in her hands. It was far too heavy to be tripped over by someone just walking by.
You have to do better than that, she thought still smirking as she turned to her left. Another group of shrubs was displayed there and as she reached it, she found what she'd been looking for. Careful to avoid any sound, she bent down and picked it up before continuing her way. After a while, she saw the familiar frame of the Expendables' sniper about one hundred feet away. He was not moving, but obviously searching something on the ground. She sneaked closer.
This is impossible, Billy thought as he scanned his surroundings for the umpteenth time. He'd intended to trick on her and now he was about to be played. He'd underestimated her, he realized now. Ever since she'd taken off for the woods, she knew that she had been followed, but he hadn't come to that realization until she'd vanished in those shrubs. How on earth did she manage to disappear right in front of his eyes? He'd thought that he would give her the run-around by setting her on the false track, but it hadn't worked. She'd foiled him.
"So much for stealth."
He whirled around just to find Kate standing right behind him, only feet away. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest, a smug smile on her lips. Her cheeks were a little flushed, hunting fever, Billy guessed amusedly as he saw the cocky sparkle in her eyes.
"How'd you…" he trailed off as she rolled her eyes, still smirking.
"Did you really think I would fall for that trick with the rock?" she asked as she stepped closer to him. He gazed at her, the look in his eyes a combination of incredulousness and admiration as he realized how close she'd sneaked up to him without tipping him off.
How the hell did she do that, he wondered just to get his unspoken question answered by Kate.
"You can turn over a rock, but you better be more careful when going through those shrubs. You broke so many twigs, it was almost too easy. I didn't expect you to make such a rookie mistake." she explained as she held up a bunch of small branches he hadn't noticed yet.
He shrugged with a sheepish smile as he reached for her free hand and pulled her close.
"Kate Evans, you never cease to amaze me."
She chuckled softly against his chest as she gazed up into his eyes.
He had to admit that he'd lost that game. But he wasn't sad about it. As soon as he'd seen the look in her eyes, he knew that she was her old self. Courageous, decisive, sly and prepared to take any challenge. Seeing the lightness and her playful manner, he knew that she was alright. She'd put herself through this experience and mastered the test with such ease, it still mesmerized him. She had faced her fears and it would undoubtedly make her a stronger person. And with that realization, Billy slipped his hand around her waist and together they made their way back to the farmhouse.
When they arrived at Barney's place, he and the other Expendables had returned from their trip. There was quite a bustle in the kitchen, so when Kate and Billy entered the room they weren't even noticed at first.
"There you are." he said Lee with a smile as he spotted the pair.
Like the rest of the group, he looked more relaxed and less tired since they'd returned from Europe. The tension seemed to be gone and for a second Kate even found it hard to believe, that she was looking at a skilled mercenary.
"We picked up some fast food. I hope you don't mind." the Brit said and now Kate smelled the irresistible odor of burger and fries.
"Perfect. I am starving." she all but moaned, as she took the bag Hale handed her.
Billy chuckled at her demeanor.
"What?" she asked defensively as she squinted at him. "It was you who made me walk through those goddamn woods so don't put me off my well-earned lunch."
"I wouldn't dare." Billy smirked as Hale handed him his food.
"What happened?" Gunnar asked curiously, having already started to eat.
Billy exchanged a quick look with Kate, who gave him an imperceptible nod. He didn't want to tell the group without her permission.
"She was unsure whether she would be able to go in the forest again so we went for a walk. She wanted to go in alone but I followed her. She tried to trick me but in the end I got suckered." he ended his brief explanation with a shrug.
"You should've known better." Kate muttered and took a sip of her coke.
The others just laughed. Together they sat down at the table and ate their meals. Kate was perfectly fine with one burger and her medium sized portion of fries, but the guys at ordered an amount of food she could not help but wonder where they put all that stuff.
While she played with the straw of her coke, she observed Billy askance. His black eye was clearly visible as were the cuts on his hairline and lip. She remembered seeing her own reflection in the mirror this morning for the first time and thought that when it came to bruises, she could easily keep up with the sniper. And even though she'd rather preferred him to be unharmed, she caught herself thinking that he'd never looked more attractive. This rough and somewhat dangerous look sat well on him. But the pleasant thoughts were wiped from her mind, as Barney set down his drink and announced that they would have a visitor.
"Church called, saying that he would be here sometime around afternoon." the Expendables' leader said and his pairs of eyes turned to Kate.
The young woman took in a deep breath and squared her shoulders as she lowered her coke.
"So what's the plan?" she asked Barney, slightly becoming aware of the fact that this was their second civil conversation since she'd joined the team.
"He doesn't get the software until you're cleared from all charges. It's as simple as that." Barney replied and for the first time, Kate truly felt that she was about to become a part of this team. A real part, not some unwanted attachment. She nodded with a small smile at his loyalty, but doubted that this plan would work.
"You really think it's that simple?" she asked. She hadn't thought about the thumb drive and its value since she'd handed it to Billy and assumed that he must have given it to Barney when they'd been back with the team.
"Watch me." Barney simply stated and rose.
Kate exchanged a look with Billy, but the sniper merely smirked. She would love nothing more than to know what Barney had in his hands to threaten Church in the way he intended to. But she didn't get an answer from her friend nor from any of the team.