DISCLAIMER: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers are the properties of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.
RATING: M (for language, violence, adult situations)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Welcome, one and all! So here we begin the second story of Heart of the Storm. You don't need to have had read "Heat Wave" to understand this tale. There are no major spoilers for The Winter Soldier in this, though those of you who have seen the movie will recognize a few familiar (and possibly unwelcome) faces. Clint will also make an appearance (because seriously – what was he doing during The Winter Soldier? I think I would have died of happiness (well, more happiness) if he had made a cameo).
Warnings for the usual: injuries, angst, general darkness. :-) This is strong Steve/Natasha, with hints of past Clint/Natasha and Steve/Peggy here and there. Parts of the plot are canon with the comics, parts are canon with MCU, and parts I'm flat-out making up. Enough rambling. Enjoy!
Through the haze of sleep, Clint heard something buzzing. He tried to ignore it, but it was annoyingly persistent. Groaning, his threw one arm over his eyes and the other toward the table beside his bunk. "Damn it," he grumbled. He glanced blearily at the clock, blinking when the blue numbers refused to focus. 0400. He'd been back for a whopping two hours, and already the brass was bothering him. He tried to go back to sleep; he was too bone-weary and bruised for this crap. To hell with their debriefing. But he couldn't ignore the irritating sound of his phone rattling against the nightstand. He clumsily fumbled for it, muttering and cursing and wincing and really not wanting to deal with Fury's disappointment over his failed, wild goose chase of a mission. Finally he got it and thumbed the screen and pulled it to his ear. "What?" he croaked.
It was Hill. "Barton, the STRIKE Team is coming in. They're reporting heavy casualties."
Her tense words sliced through the fog in his aching head like a sword, and he sat up quickly, jolted by sharp worry. "What? When?"
"No details yet. ETA: three minutes."
There were things she wasn't telling him. He knew it immediately. "What happened?" The worst case raced through his muddled mind, and his heart sped in sudden anxiety. "Is Romanoff–"
"Just get to medical," Hill coldly ordered, and the line went dead.
Clint slowly lowered his phone. The screen dimmed, and his world was plunged into shadow again. But that didn't stop him. He rolled out of his bunk, stuffing his feet into his combat boots and lacing and tying them. Thankfully he hadn't bothered undressing before collapsing in his bed. He was up a breath later, grabbing his SHIELD issue jacket from the back of his chair and his sidearm. He strapped the holster onto his thigh and ran out the door.
Despite the late hour, the helicarrier was alive. Obviously news of the STRIKE Team's imminent arrival had spread through it like wildfire, and the narrow corridors were filled with agents and soldiers rushing to their stations. Over the PA system came orders from the bridge, summoning all medical personnel from sleep to report to the infirmary. Clint's boots thudded against the deck plating loudly as he ran through the maze-like interior of the massive vessel, side-stepping people in his way, not bothering to excuse himself when he couldn't avoid them. He reached the lift. "Medical bay," he barked.
"Medical bay confirmed," the soft, feminine voice of the computer responded. Clint could hardly keep still as the lift began its ascent. His mind was racing. He hadn't seen Natasha for nearly a month since he'd been deployed to Europe on the trail of a pair of 084s. This wasn't the first time they'd been separated; in fact, since the Battle of New York they had rarely worked together. Natasha had spent most of her time working with the STRIKE Team. She had effectively become Fury's go-to asset for missions of the utmost importance. On the other hand, Clint had been saddled with missions that generally kept him out of action, menial and tedious tasks that were well beneath his expertise as a spy and marksman. He was beginning to think he was being punished for things that had been beyond his control, for being Loki's puppet back during the Chitauri incident, for having his mind enslaved and his will conquered. He didn't like to consider himself as a victim, but ever since New York, he got the impression that people pitied him. He was beginning to suspect he'd been permanently compromised in the eyes of SHIELD's high level agents, never mind having long passed the psychological and medical assessments that got him back on active duty. And he got the feeling that Director Fury and the World Security Council didn't trust him.
Hell, he knew for a fact that the World Security Council had written him off as too serious a liability ever since he'd defied their orders and spared Natasha's life when he'd been dispatched to assassinate her. It didn't matter that Black Widow had become an indispensable agent of SHIELD, a tool capable of espionage, manipulation, and murder like nothing and no one else. She was a risk, and so was he.
The lift deposited him on the second level below the flight deck where the medical bay was located. It was housed here as a precaution; on the interior of the carrier, it was not easily accessible to an attacking force or enemy fire yet it was still close to the deck itself where wounded would be brought. He reached the glass doors, and the retinal scanner immediately identified him and opened the way. Clint raced inside.
Barely controlled chaos dominated the scene before him. His eyes rapidly scanned the pandemonium. The STRIKE Team was unmistakable, clad completely in black combat gear with yellow patches emblazoned with the SHIELD logo on the shoulders of their uniforms. They were the best soldiers SHIELD had to offer, the best in the world in fact, highly skilled professionals in black and covert ops. They didn't fail. They never fell short. This was SHIELD's assault team, the first responders against the deranged and violent, the force that was sent in to stop terrorists and take down madmen and control the worst evil the world had to offer. When the Council wanted something done quickly and efficiently, the STRIKE Team was what they sent to do it. Clint had served with them multiple times in the past. They were no-nonsense and silent killers, deadly in even the most difficult and dangerous situations, so the fact that quite a few of them were laying on gurneys, broken and burned and bleeding, was pretty disturbing.
Not so disturbing as what he saw next, though.
The main doors of the medical bay slammed open, and a gurney burst through them. It was flanked by a half a dozen doctors and nurses, and it seemed like they were all shouting. "Clear the way! Clear the way!"
"How bad is it?"
"Really bad," answered one of the doctors, a young guy with wire-rimmed glasses who looked about ready to pass out. "BP's in the tank. Hypovolemic shock. Multiple major wounds to the chest. Rigid abdomen. Collapsed left lung and reduced breath sounds on the right. Blunt force trauma to the head. Patient is unresponsive."
"Somebody get better pressure on his leg!"
"Damn it, he's bleeding out! If we don't get this under control…"
"Have them send up as much blood as they can!"
Another of the doctors shouted, "We need the OR now!"
Clint observed in horror as the gurney was rapidly pushed by him. "Jesus," he whispered when he caught sight of who lay on it. Steve Rogers was unconscious and covered in grime and blood from head to toe. His blue uniform was stained a gruesome purple. Over his chest it had been cut open and pulled aside, revealing lacerated flesh and deep contusions and red welts and an ocean of crimson that was spilling down the planes of his stomach and flooding the stretcher. He wasn't breathing on his own, a tube shoved down his throat that was connected to a bag that a horrified nurse was rhythmically squeezing. His face was a mess of bruises, blood weeping from a gash along his forehead and temple and matting in his hair. A few other nurses were desperately trying to get some pressure on what looked like a gunshot wound to his left thigh. His right hand was a filthy mess of red. The worst of it, however, was a bullet hole in his chest right over his heart that was letting blood loose in a torrent. It dripped to the floor like rain.
He looked dead.
That wasn't possible. Something inside Clint throbbed in anguish at the horrific sight. Captain America didn't get hurt, at least not like this. Captain America was the best soldier there ever was, a true leader and symbol of integrity and valor. Captain America was stronger and faster than anyone. Captain America never fell.
"Oh, my God," Hill whispered. Clint hadn't noticed her approach, but now she stood beside him, ashen and wide-eyed. Not much served to faze her; she was endlessly calm and endlessly stoic. But she looked shocked and lost.
"Where were they?" Clint demanded. "What the hell were they–"
"They called in for support, but I had no idea…"
The doors were shoved roughly open again, and Brock Rumlow staggered through them. Another of the STRIKE Team stumbled beside him, his arm draped over Rumlow's shoulders. Rumlow winced, limping himself, depositing his injured comrade on an empty hospital bed. The man fell back, moaning. Rumlow was breathing heavily, holding an obvious gunshot wound in his side. "We need help here!" he yelled, his tough face etched in pain and anger and glistening in sweat.
A few nurses immediately moved to tend to the newly arriving wounded. Hill recovered from her alarm quickly enough, stepping closer to Rumlow where he leaned tiredly against one of the beds. His hand was covered in blood, but it was obvious that was wound wasn't overly serious. "Agent Rumlow, report," she ordered.
Rumlow couldn't seem to catch his breath. Clint didn't know him very well. The man was humorless and something of a prick, rough and harsh with everyone. Still, he was damn good at his job and he knew it. Everyone knew it. "Everything went to hell," he hoarsely answered.
"Besides the obvious," Hill tersely said. "What happened to Rogers?"
Rumlow regarded Hill with irritated, angry eyes. His tone was laden with spite. "He took out the Red Guardian. Mission accomplished, right, Hill? Isn't that what you wanted?"
Clint narrowed his eyes. He wasn't sure what the mission had been – who the hell is the Red Guardian? – but whatever had happened, it was blatantly obvious that wasn't the whole story. Hill looked as confused as he was, which was even more of an indication that whatever the STRIKE Team had been sent to do hadn't gone as planned. He didn't have the patience for Rumlow's acidic and cryptic answers. A lot of the STRIKE Team was inside the medical bay now, but Natasha was still nowhere in sight. If Rogers was here, she would be as well; Fury had been partnering the two of them almost constantly in the last year or so. Clint's heart thudded rapidly in worry (and fear if he could admit that to himself, which he'd found a lot easier to do since New York). "Where's Romanoff?"
Rumlow flashed furious eyes at him. "That all you care about, Barton?" he seethed. "We got our asses handed to us out there. Rogers nearly died on the way here. And that's all you care about?"
Hill sensed the situation degrading. She darted icy eyes between the two men. "Easy, Rumlow. We need level heads while we get a handle on the situation. Fury wants a debriefing immediately."
But Clint wouldn't be dissuaded. Everything felt pulled tight within him, and the more Rumlow glared at him, the more his impatient concern was amplified. He was so tired, and horrible images flashed through his mind. Natasha dead. Natasha as badly hurt as Rogers. Behind them alarms suddenly wailed. Clint turned, breaking his glare, and watched the hell unfolding. The doctors were screaming orders, panicked and desperate, fumbling for bandages and syringes filled with atropine and a goddamn defibrillator. Rogers' heart wasn't beating.
The rear doors of the bay swished open, and Nick Fury walked in, dark and intimidating. His good eye was narrowed in barely controlled rage. When his sharp gaze fell upon the slew of doctors fighting to save Rogers' life, his face slackened in alarm. It was a momentary expression of weakness. Clint could count the number of times on one hand he'd ever seen Fury afraid or disturbed. That brief look was gone in a blink, replaced with a stony, stoic set of his jaw and a narrowing of his eye.
A slew of frantic commands filled the bay from the corner where the doctors struggled. "No pulse."
The whine of a machine charging. "Hurry with the atropine!"
One of the doctors was compressing Rogers' chest with all the force and calm she could muster. "Come on, Captain Rogers, don't do this…"
Fury looked to his agents, but his gaze kept drifting back to the horror playing out in front of them. "What the hell happened?"
Rumlow's confrontational expression loosened out of respect for his commanding officer and maybe even concern that Rogers was dying right in front of them. One of the doctors was crouched before the soldier with a pile of bandages and another nurse unzipped his combat vest and helped him remove it. He winced when it came away from the wound. "We completed the mission objectives, Director."
"The mission objectives did not involve a military operation of this magnitude, especially not on Russian soil!" Fury returned coldly. It was obvious he was less than pleased. "The Council did not authorize action. You were supposed to offer support to Rogers and Romanoff and extraction if necessary. You were supposed to wait for my go-ahead. Was anything about that unclear?"
Rumlow didn't react to the insult. "No, sir."
"I don't recall giving an assault order!"
"You put Captain Rogers in charge," Rumlow argued. He grunted as the doctor pressed a sterile pad to the gunshot wound. "He authorized it. Said we couldn't let those what those ships were carrying reach Russian territory, so we stopped them. Seeing what those bastards were up to… Sir, he was right."
Fury looked to be at a loss. That was another thing that he rarely ever was. But before he could say anything, the doors in the rear of the bay opened again. There was a glint of red. Clint's eyes shot to the figures stumbling inside. "Natasha," he whispered.
She staggered inside. He knew immediately that something was seriously wrong. Her auburn hair was mussed and tangled. Her face was bruised but extremely white around the marks. Her lip was split. She wouldn't look at anyone, watery, red eyes focused on the floor. Clint's heart thudded wildly in his chest. Her hands were bound, zip tied in front of her. And two members of the STRIKE Team flanked her, their guns trained on her like she was a prisoner.
"What the hell…" he whispered. He was across the bay in a breath, running with long, fervent strides. "Natasha? Natasha!"
Jack Rollins whipped his gun up and pointed it at Clint. "Back the fuck off, Barton!" he warned. His eyes glinted dangerously, and his finger was poised on the trigger. Clint gritted his teeth, his hand reaching for his own gun in its holster on his thigh. Rollins' eyes flashed. "I said back off!"
The roar cut through the chaos of the infirmary. For a second, everything was completely still, even the pulse of frantic action behind them. But it couldn't last. "Clear! Damn it, move out the way!" There was a heavy thud of a body being shocked and jolting upward unnaturally before settling lifelessly down again. "Recharge higher!"
"Get your gun off of her," Clint hissed. "Now."
The other STRIKE agent shoved Natasha to the deck plating. She didn't struggle, bowing her head and closing her eyes as she struck the floor hard on her knees. Clint saw other things then. Blood on her clothes. Blood in her hair. Blood on her hands. So much red.
The tension was palpable, the air electrified with terror. Rollins didn't budge or blink. Neither did Clint. "What's matter with you? She's a senior agent! Get your goddamn gun off of her!" he yelled.
"Stand down!" Fury bellowed. He was there, pushing his way between the two of them. His glare was cutting, promising swift wrath and retribution if either of them caused the situation to escalate any further. "Both of you!"
Another long moment passed in which nobody moved or yielded. Clint glanced at Natasha, but she remained utterly unmoving, her bloody hands lying uselessly and limply in her lap. She still refused to meet his gaze. Confusion left Clint reeling, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that fighting wasn't the answer. Especially if Natasha wasn't going to defend herself.
Something horrible had happened.
"Clear!" Another thud of discharging electricity against flesh. A second stretched into forever.
"We got a pulse!"
"Thank God," someone breathed in weary relief. "Thank God. Okay, we need to move him. Hurry."
"The OR's prepped, Doctor!"
The yells from behind them and the flurry of frenzied motion to get Rogers out of triage and into surgery served to diffuse the situation. But there was no relief. Clint dropped his hand from his gun, glaring venomously at Rollins. The STRIKE agent finally lowered his weapon, but he didn't holster it. Fury turned back to Rollins, silently threatening, and then looked at Rumlow. "I want an explanation as to why Captain America is bleeding out all over my medical bay and why Romanoff looks like a zombie out of some goddamn horror movie. It had better be good."
To hell with answers. "She needs medical attention," Clint interrupted, itching to get closer to Natasha to see how badly hurt she truly was. She was obviously disoriented, catatonic almost, and the amount of blood covering her was staggering. He'd never seen her like this. All of her poise, her infallible shields and indomitable control over her body and mind and emotions… It was gone. "Right now! Get a doctor over here!"
"Agent Barton, you will keep your mouth shut until I tell you otherwise," Fury seethed.
Clint nearly lost his composure. Tensing every muscle in his body was all he could do to not lash out. "Sir, Agent Romanoff is bleeding badly. I don't know what they think she did, but she needs medical attention. We can sort the rest of this out–"
"What we think she did?" Rumlow said lowly. He was obviously disgusted with this entire situation but even angrier at Clint's reaction. "You weren't there. You didn't see it. That blood you're so concerned about? Not hers."
Clint's own blood turned to ice. "What?"
"Sir," Hill interjected as she approached. She was a tad breathless and putting forth an admirable effort at seeming stoic when it was very clear she was anything but. "They're taking Captain Rogers to surgery. They…" She uncharacteristically faltered. "There's a bullet in his heart. They don't know if they can get it out." Her pale face whitened even further, and her eyes betrayed her dismay. "They don't think he's going to live."
With that, the tense, miserable silence returned. Clint was shaken and reeling and so miserably confused. His skin itched and tingled to do something, anything, but he wasn't sure what. He wasn't sure of anything. His mind was racing, twisting and turning in a heated storm of unanswered questions and emotions struggling to run rampant. What had happened? What the hell had happened?
"She betrayed us, Director," Rumlow said.
Fury saw the connection that Clint couldn't make himself see. "Are you saying that she did this to Rogers?" he asked softly and slowly. It wasn't often Fury betrayed anything about what he was thinking, but he looked utterly shocked and horrified. And it was horrifying. Black Widow had gone straight. She was a deadly assassin and a ruthless killer, but she played for the right team now. Underneath all of the lies and seduction and manipulation, she was a good person, loyal and true to the cause. SHIELD's cause. Building a better, safer world. Clint had saved her and set her straight.
Rumlow's face hardened into a scowl. "After Rogers took out the Guardian, she took out Rogers." His baleful eyes shifted to Natasha's bound form at Rollins' feet. She did nothing, said nothing to dispute it or defend herself. She was shivering helplessly in shock. Rumlow's eyes glimmered in murderous rage. "Point blank."
It couldn't be possible. It wasn't possible. The urge to fight, to deny these lies, ripped through Clint's veins with every strained beat of his agonized heart. Rumlow was a bastard in the strictest sense; he was trying to take out an agent higher-up in the chain of command. He was trying to destroy a threat to his career. He was trying to discredit someone he perceived as competition. He was opportunistic and vindictive.
Clint looked at Natasha, praying for some confirmation of his desperate thoughts. She still stared at the floor, bent and crushed and defeated. No, it wasn't true. He knew it in his heart. It couldn't be true. "You're a fucking liar," Clint hissed at Rumlow. The tension returned, crackling with the threat of violence as this unimaginable nightmare went on. Hands went to guns again. Orders could be damned. He wasn't going to let them hurt Romanoff. He wasn't going to stand there and let them accuse her of something she would never do. He wasn't going to–
"No." Natasha's soft, broken voice seemed incredibly loud. She looked up finally. Her blue eyes were dead. "No, he's right."
Clint shook his head. "Nat–"
"I did it," she whispered. A tear slipped down her pale cheek, cutting through grime and blood. "I shot Steve."