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)
The quinjet streaked across the night sky over the Sea the Azov. The night was clear, the moon big and bright and the inky dome overhead dotted with thousands and thousands of twinkling stars. The water was black and tranquil, the waves shining and gleaming like rippling, liquid crystal. It was so dark that it was difficult to see anything. The two pilots of the jet were aided by night vision goggles as they guided the aircraft low over the ocean. Steve grimaced when a bout of turbulence rattled the jet and traded his weight to his right leg to steady himself. "Approaching the canal, Cap," one of the pilots called back. The jet cut through a few wisps off lower-lying clouds, and when it broke through the lights of the Russian coast were ahead, sparkling gold and yellow on a field of black.
Rumlow was standing further back from the cockpit, his rifle slung over his shoulder and his eyes intense as he looked over the maps on the wide, glowing touch screen fastened to the bulkhead before him. "We've ID'ed two more of the ships," he declared as Steve turned to him. "But there's nothing on the other three so far." Steve looked at the map of the harbor and the canal where now only three dots were blinking red. Two were already deep into the canal, having passed through numerous locks into the waterway. One was just outside, waiting in a long line that was dozens of vessels long. The canal was extremely busy with a backlog of traffic due to the unrest in Ukraine clogging the shipping route's limited space. This was not the ideal location to conduct a military assault. Steve prayed they could stop Brushov's ships without threatening innocent lives. The thought of putting people at risk to catch this man made him uneasy, but his choices were running thin. He could only pray Brushov's ships were those that were further in the canal and away from its bustling entrance.
"Keep us low," Rumlow ordered through the communications line to the pilots. "The best we are going to do is a visual. Pray we get one before the Russians notice we're violating their airspace."
Rollins shook his head. "And what's the plan if we find these ships?"
Steve returned his gaze to the wide windshield of the cockpit as the blurry golden lights of the coastline grew sharper and more distinct. "Find Romanoff and get her out. Arrest Brushov."
That sounded overly simplistic, and it was. There was no contingency for what to do if they met resistance. They certainly had the firepower to take on Brushov's soldiers, but they couldn't face much more than that. If the Russian military interceded, an international crisis would be the least of their worries. "We're coming up on the ships," one of the pilots called.
The quinjet dipped down to maybe five hundred feet above the glassy surface of the water. The world was flying past in a streak of black and pale light and gold, and it was difficult to discern the dark hulls of ships from the waves. Steve narrowed his eyes, glancing from the map to the opening of the canal and quickly matching the blinking red dot to the massive outline of a tanker. "No," he said.
"How can you be sure?" Rumlow said.
Steve's sight was much more advanced than a normal man's. In the brief second while the jet flew over the ship, he could see sailors moving about the deck, older men calmly watching from the rails, chatting and smoking and laughing. Young men excited about an adventure. Good-natured ribbing and camaraderie. He could see the captain on the bridge drinking coffee from a chipped cup, bearded and weathered but friendly. These weren't Brushov's men. He supposed the soldiers could have been hidden below, but there was only time enough for a quick determination, so he made it. "That's not them."
Rumlow didn't question further. "Keep going," he said to the pilots. The quinjet zoomed past the first lock, and the lights started to fade away as they entered the Russia. Steve gritted his teeth as the jet rocked again. Pain crawled up his back and he gripped the support bars overhead tighter, fighting to keep himself upright even as his body ached to collapse. He tried to keep his weakness hidden, schooling his face and breathing as slowly and levelly as he could. He needed to concentrate now. He didn't know what sort of nightmare they'd find aboard Brushov's ship. He'd been trying not to imagine, to keep Natasha and her lies out of his head, but she'd sunk herself so deep into his heart that it was impossible. She was part of him now, no matter how uncertain he was about whether or not he meant anything to her. She was in his thoughts and he couldn't get her out because she was too fiery and fierce and passionate. The closer he came to this foolhardy and ill-advised attack, the more he knew that he couldn't let her go. There was too much truth in what she had done, in the pain and fear in her eyes as she'd told about her past, in the way she'd clung to him, open and vulnerable and desperate.
He didn't know if she would be there aboard this ship or what Brushov could have done to her… And the thought of her assaulted or tortured or worse was almost unbearable. Find Natasha. Get her out. He had to do this. No matter what she'd done or hadn't done, no matter how she'd hurt him, she didn't deserve to suffer at the hands of her tormentor. That promise came back to him, the one he'd made on their very first mission together. Maybe he should never have made it, but he had. Maybe she wasn't what he thought she was, what she seemed to be. But he owed her this. "If it's ever the other way around, and it's down to me to stand between you and your past, you can trust me to do it."
He had to get to her, protect her. Save her.
"Second target," called the pilot, and Steve opened eyes that had slipped shut and kicked himself for his lapse and looked back out the cockpit. The canal was only about sixty miles long and the quinjet would cover it in a matter of minutes. "Ten o'clock."
Steve knew before anyone else that the second unknown ship was not one of Brushov's either. It was a small fishing vessel, rusty and decrepit. The boat was entirely unsuitable to transport anything of the scale Brushov had been moving from that warehouse. Rumlow realized it was wrong before Steve could alert them. "Shit," he muttered. "It's a goddamn fishing boat! What the hell? How did this get on the list?"
The young computer tech looked embarrassed and irate and flustered. Techs didn't normally accompany the STRIKE Team on their missions since they weren't cleared for combat, but these circumstances were exigent and not well planned. They needed an analyst down to the last minute to try and identify these ships. "With all due respect, sir, I'm doing the best I can here. You try hacking the Russian intelligence network! The Russians aren't exactly the most open and outgoing of societies in the world, so information is a little hard to come by."
"If this ship's not one of Brushov's, then at least one of them is through the canal," Rumlow said, staring sternly at Steve. Steve had come to the same conclusion. That would mean one of the ships had escaped. They would have to find some other means to track it down. Worry twisted his insides tighter and tighter. The more difficult and complicated this attack became, the more likely it was that they would need to involve SHIELD.
One thing at a time. Rumlow's glare hardened. "Keep looking," he snapped at the tech. The kid wisely kept his mouth shut and returned to his laptop.
Again Steve looked ahead through the cockpit as the next distant and faint blob of lights grew more distinct. The shadowy lines of the ship hardened into a rusty gray and green hull, sharp and angular. "That's it," he announced. "Guns fore and aft."
"Move it!" Rumlow shouted to the STRIKE Team. They were a dozen in all, which would be bleak odds for most other units, but not for these agents. The team quickly went through collecting their gear, rifles and handguns and grenades. "Get us low enough for a drop." The pilots nodded, bringing the quinjet just fifty feet off the smooth and calm waters of the Don River. Steve grabbed his helmet and slid it over his head before snapping it in place. Then he lifted his shield and slid it on his back with as much poise and control as he could manage. The quinjet suddenly swerved to the left. They grabbed for anything to steady themselves as an anti-aircraft missile shot by them, just barely missing. Rumlow gritted his teeth, balling his fist in Steve's uniform to keep the soldier upright as his battered body nearly toppled him. "Guess that answers the question of whether or not we can sneak up on them."
The pilots banked sharply left again, avoiding another missile screaming toward them. The distinctive whir of the jet's minigun resounded as the copilot thumbed the trigger, the other pilot frantically flipping switches and adjusting the flight controls to kill the main engines and switch to the rotors for close combat. "Coming about!" the pilot shouted, and the quinjet turned abruptly. The sound of rushing air and bullets slamming into metal was loud as the pilot positioned them over the ship deck. The copilot laid down a heavy rain of suppressing fire as Rumlow moved to the rear of the jet and slammed his fist to the controls by door. It came open with a hydraulic hiss, the ramp extending downward. Lights flashed red. The deck was a mere ten feet below them now, the rotors of the jet kicking up wind and water as it hovered. "Go! Go! Go!"
The STRIKE Team deployed, jumping down to the ship with guns held at the ready. Steve swallowed thickly, prayed that he could actually do this, and hopped down as well. The minute his boots hit the metal deck of the ship, agony shot up his left leg, newly healed bone bending and grinding with the pressure. His back flared as well, and he nearly cried out, struggling with every ounce of his will and sheer determination to stay standing and conscious. The STRIKE Team surrounded him, protecting him behind of wall of black-clad soldiers and guns; he wasn't sure if it was purposeful or not, but he was damn glad for it nonetheless. One deep breath and one second later, he found that calm place where he was strong and brave and sure of himself, where the pain couldn't – wouldn't – reach him, and he was running.
The deck was full of enemy soldiers. They manned two gun turrets that had obviously been installed recently, shooting at the quinjet that was still hovering at the fore deck of battle cruiser. The quinjet shot back, and one of the turrets exploded. Steve pulled his shield and ducked behind it as fiery wreckage descended upon him. His back locked into a vicious spasm again, and his arm just wouldn't extend the way he wanted to, so he twisted and turned more before throwing his shield and hitting the soldier behind the other turret. Soldiers were pouring out of the tower at the aft of the ship, guns blazing and eyes wild with violence. Steve's shield was back in his hands, and he slid under a pipe that stretched the width of the deck. He launched his shield again, and it flew into the chest of one thug with enough force to send him spiraling back into his buddies. Steve rose and landed a powerful kick into the midriff of another man, dropping him forcefully, and whirled to deliver a punch at a third.
The STRIKE Team rushed the deck, expertly contending with the wave of men. There were more turrets spitting bullets at the quinjet, but the aircraft was agile, dodging the spray while returning fire. Something closer to the back of the ship exploded. The men operating the turrets were shot dead. Steve sidestepped a thug, driving his boot down on his foot before grabbing him by the vest and tossing him clear off the ship. The soldier screamed before tumbling to the inky waters below.
Another group of soldiers emerged from the front of the ship. Steve brought his shield in front of him to block a barrage of gunfire before rolling to take cover behind some equipment secured on the deck. The clang of bullets slamming into metal was loud and thunderous. Steve waited until the gunfire lulled before propelling himself over the metal canisters. He grabbed the wrist of the closest man and twisted it, snapping bones and throwing him back. Another round of gunfire forced him to kneel behind his shield, his left leg positively refusing to bend the way he needed it to. A bullet clipped his arm because of it, and he grimaced. But Rumlow and Rollins were behind him, unloading their rifles into the slew of soldiers. They all went down, dead or disabled.
Steve stood, unable to keep the wince from his face. "Thanks."
Rumlow brushed it aside. "What are your orders?"
"Get down below and cut the engines. I'll find Romanoff." If she's here.
Rumlow nodded. "Rollins. Perry. Sircio. Ramirez. With me."
Bullets slammed into the deck at their feet. Steve charged forward, leaving the rest of the team. Ahead there was a cargo area and a helicopter, which a few soldiers were rapidly attempting to prep for take-off. The hold was open, and men were lifting cases from below and placing them in the aircraft. Steve gritted his teeth and sent his shield sailing toward the men loading the chopper, hitting two and dropping them to the deck. Steve leapt over the open hold in a smooth somersault, catching his shield as he landed and making short work of the remaining men surrounding the chopper. Behind him something exploded and he ripped around, finding a significant section of the deck burning near the bow and the STRIKE Team heavily engaged with another company of Brushov's men. The quinjet was firing on the remaining gun turrets, shifting about the smoke billowing into the sky like a bird of prey. Ahead a round of men was approaching, yelling in fury and firing at him haphazardly even as their shots clanged and drove into their own helicopter. Steve took cover behind the black fuselage. Standing as tall as he could while keeping his body behind the safety of the chopper, he glanced up to the bridge. There were men there, garbed in black with rifles held at the ready. He couldn't see if any of them were Brushov or Natasha. Regardless, going toward it across the deck didn't seem to be an option. Steve drew a short breath and jumped down into the hold.
It wasn't much of a drop, and normally it wouldn't have even begun to faze him. But he hit the deck hard and his left knee gave out. Steve ground his teeth together as he staggered, trying his damnedest not to fall even as agony licked up and down his body. And the second he spent trying to gather his composure and get the pain under control proved costly.
He heard the sound of guns being cocked and lifted and aimed. In the dim light of the cargo hold a dozen red targeting lasers were dancing on the silver star over his chest. He tensed in frustration, looking around to find himself surrounded by tall rows of boxes and crates and Brushov's men. And Brushov himself was standing with them. If the Russian general was at all surprised to see the man he'd left behind to die, it wasn't obvious. His face was etched and calm, but his eyes were filled with fury. "You are a difficult man to kill, Captain," he said tersely.
"You don't know the half of it. Where's Natasha?" Steve demanded. Brushov remained calm, uncaring. For someone who loved breeding chaos and insanity like a pyromaniac played with fire, Brushov seemed to have an endless reserve of patience and composure. Steve's frustration and concern got the better of him. "Where is she?"
Brushov's thick lips actually twisted into a bit of a smile. Steve's heart nearly stopped in his chest in dread. "So that is why you have come," he said. His eyes twinkled in malicious pleasure. "I can see you are in pain. You shake and your body is bent. My Red Guardian struck you down, and yet here you are, again trying to protect Natalia. Do you care so much for her that you would risk your life to save her?"
"She's my friend," Steve sharply answered. "Now let her go."
"You are a fool," Brushov taunted. "A fool who has blinded himself to the poison that lies in the thorns of a pretty flower. You know the poison is there, yet you touch that flower all the same."
Steve stiffened. "Where is she?"
"Natalia, idi syuda." The shadows behind him shifted and parted as a figure moved among them. She emerged from the blackness. She slid forward, walking with swaying hips and long legs. She glided, every step languid and graceful and purposeful. Her eyes were teeming with rage. There was no sign of Natasha in them. They were devoid of light, of compassion, of recognition. There was nothing of her. Like the Red Guardian, there was only a hunger for pain. For power and death.
Steve felt something inside him throb in merciless fear. He shook his head numbly. He had worried that she would be turned to Brushov's side, that he'd dig his claws into her heart and force her back into his service. But he hadn't expected this. He'd been a fool not to, but he hadn't. It was more than obvious what had happened.
Brushov had given her the serum.
Natasha was gone, burned away by the hellish fires of insanity, and only Black Widow remained.
"Nat," he whispered in horror. He could hardly hear over the thunder of his pounding heart, over the ringing in his ears. "Natasha!" She said nothing. Her eyes never left his, filled with anticipation. With hunger. Steve could hardly contain his own rage. He turned his glare to Brushov. "You son of a bitch!"
"You should have accepted defeat," Brushov reprimanded emotionlessly. "And you should have known better than to try and take her from me. It's futile." Steve bristled, fuming and fighting to stay in control. Brushov smiled again in satisfaction. "But I suppose you can serve another purpose. A proof of her loyalty." He turned to Natasha, his large hand sweeping up the black leather of her combat suit, caressing possessively before settling on her shoulder. He leaned close to her ear, intimately, and softly ordered, "Kill him and come home."
Natasha made no move and said nothing to acknowledge that she'd heard or understood. But her lips turned in the smallest hint of a smile. Brushov shouted to his men, and they quickly left the hold, disappearing into the shadows. Above them on the deck the battle raged, and the STRIKE Team was shouting in his ear, but the world had closed in on Steve and Natasha and the few feet between them and the darkness swirling around them. She stared at him, her stature loose, her hands limply at her sides. Everything about her was twisted. Any hint of friendship, of affection, was gone from her gaze. She was eyeing him like a predator did her prey. She was eyeing him like he was her mark, her target. Her mission. Her victim.
Steve stepped back. "Natasha," he said softly, trying to keep his voice level despite the turmoil twisting his gut and pounding in his heart. Maybe his calm could become hers. Maybe his strength would become hers. "Come on. Snap out of it." She didn't blink, didn't respond, glaring at him with those hard eyes and that sick little smile. Steve tried not to be daunted. He had to get through to her. He had to reach her through the effects of the serum, through whatever hell she was experiencing in her head. He had to get her back. "It's Steve, Natasha. You know me."
In one smooth, quick motion, she pulled her handgun from the holster on her hip. She pointed it at him without hesitation. "I know you," she agreed. Her voice would be a low, seductive purr if not for the hatred glimmering in her eyes. "You're mine."
Oh, no… "Natasha, please don't do this," he begged. "Please don't fight me. I know you're stronger than him. You're stronger than this. He doesn't own you." She didn't move, didn't falter, staring at him. The gun was unwavering in her hand. "You know me," Steve insisted. "You know I wouldn't hurt you. You know I would never lie to you. I'm your friend, your partner, your…" His voice failed him, but he gathered up his strength. "I promised to help you stop him, remember?" He held open a hand to her, his fingers extended in a show of trust. "Please put the gun down. You don't have to do this. Whatever he's done to you, we can fix it. I swear to you that we can fix it. Come with me. I'll protect you."
She snarled at that, her expression shattering from its placid state into an enraged glower as she yanked on the trigger. Steve pulled his shield up rapidly, and the bullets slammed uselessly into the vibranium. Still the impacts slowed him, and when he looked again, she was gone. Damn it. "Natasha!" He whirled, falling into a defensive stance, his eyes frantically scanning the shadows surrounding him. Tall columns of cases and crates that were swathed in blackness enclosed him like a barricade. The ship rocked beneath his feet as something exploded on the deck above them, and the lights went out. Emergency lights flickered, dousing the hold in ruby red that barely combatted the utter pitch. Steve couldn't quite believe it had come to this, his addled mind racing in panic to try to come up with some way to avoid fighting Natasha. He was much stronger than her, and he could endure much more, but she was a master assassin slipping among the shadows around him, working efficiently and ruthlessly in an environment that suited the way she fought and the way she killed. He was injured and they both knew it. He couldn't hurt her and they both knew it.
She had every advantage.
Steve gripped his shield tighter, breathing slowly and forcing himself to stay calm. He stepped on light feet as he silently moved in the darkness. He gritted his teeth, scanning the heavy shadows that blanketed everything. The red lights flashing created ghosts and phantoms that skulked through the hold. More than once he thought he saw her, but he was too slow to be certain. He turned and looked about him, at the stacks of crates that loomed over him like giants. He felt the air shift behind him. He spun, ducking and avoiding the swipe of a knife. The blade glinted wickedly in the flashing light, slashing toward his neck. Steve blocked the blow, batting aside the hand that held the knife with his shield and grabbing for her, but she was already too far away. They moved in a rapid and deadly dance, kicks deflected and punches side-stepped and the knife swinging in a silver arc between them. Steve stayed defensive, struggling to keep up with Natasha's quick strikes while searching for a way to disarm her. She wasn't pulling her punches. She was wielding that knife at him with the intent to kill him, and one slip could mean his death.
Eventually he moved faster and snatched her wrist, squeezing hard enough to pain her. It hardly slowed her and she didn't drop the knife, but her eyes exploded in rage. She twisted into him, landing her elbow in his midriff and knocking the air from his chest. She hit a particularly sore spot, and he saw stars for a moment. He managed to keep his grip, trapping her against him and sacrificing his shield to wrap his arm around her. Agile fingers twirled the knife, and the blade dug into his shoulder.
Steve grunted, crushing her fingers in his hand. She tried to pull away, but he didn't let her. "Don't do this," he hissed in her ear. "Snap out of it!"
She screamed in frustration, trying with all her might to wriggle free of his iron grip. She bared her teeth, red hair flying in his face, fighting and clawing and kicking with wild abandon. It was completely purposeful that she slammed her boot into his left leg. Steve cried out, agony flaring up and down the suddenly useless limb. She yanked the knife out of his shoulder and pivoted, spinning it expertly and stabbing at him again. He deflected the blow and punched her, trying to restrain his strength so as not to hurt her but his own control was wearing away. "Stop it!" he ordered harshly. "Natasha, listen to me! Stop!"
She didn't stop. She came at him again and again, merciless and deadly accurate. She charged him, driving him back until he was cornered against one of the towers of crates. Steve winced, whirling and delivering a return of his own, but she was too fast and his fist slammed into the crate instead. The metal and plastic crumpled under the blow, and vials of red liquid fell out and smashed to the floor. She used his momentum against him, pinning him to the wall of cargo and trying to drive the knife up into his belly. He got both of his hands around hers, pushing back, but he was weakening. Her knee wedged up between his legs, and he howled, squirming in pain but refusing to let go. She'd gut him if he did. The knife shook as she dragged it up higher along his abdomen. Steve swallowed against the blackness encroaching on his vision, his left leg buckling and his back tightening so ferociously he could hardly make himself breathe. Even though he was good six inches taller than her, she bore down on him, violent and vicious. And even though he was so much stronger than her, the pain from his injuries was ripping the power away from his muscles. His arms shook and slowly gave up ground. As he crumpled beneath her, she leaned toward him and kissed him hard.
This was nothing like before, like the night they'd made love. This was violent and dominating, cruel and lustful, fueled by rage and madness rather than passion. There was no respect, no love. A mockery of who she was and what they'd shared and how much he cared for her. He groaned into her hungry lips, feeling her tongue dive into his mouth and the knife bite into his stomach. She roughly bit his lip as he tried to pull away and didn't allow his escape, hotly claiming his mouth again. He forced himself to remember that this wasn't her, that she wasn't this demon. That everything inside her was scorched and tortured and confused, emotions and memories and nightmares melting together. It was hard to still his disgust and fear, and it was even harder to stay calm. "Stop," he said against her. "This isn't you. This isn't you! Stop!"
She said nothing. This was nothing to her. Natasha was gone, strangled and suffocated by the seductress and the murderer. She dragged her lips and teeth down the side of his face and throat, and her knee pushed harder against him and that knife sliced deeper. He wasn't going to let her do this to him. He was stronger than her. He would stop her. "Get the hell off of me," he coldly demanded. "Get off!"
In a blink Natasha's eyes filled with tears, and he saw her. He didn't waste a moment in surprise. He was finally able to force his muscles to goddamn work and pushed her back. She skittered away, reeling now, and he came after her, landing a kick to her side that sent her sprawling across the hold. Steve wiped the blood from his lip and stood to his full height. His chest was heaving. "Look at me," he ordered. She didn't, quivering and fighting for air and sobbing on the floor. Everything inside him throbbed in anguish to see her reduced to this. His fingers fumbled for the clasp of his helmet and he took it off and tossed it aside. He forced his voice to soften and his panic to dissipate. "Nat, please. Look at me."
She did. The war in her eyes was brutal. Shame. Guilt. Fear. Fury and desire. So much confusion. Steve's eyes stung. His voice was rough with emotion. "Think. You know me. You know me, Natasha." His heart was pounding and he couldn't quite catch his breath, but the words were out of his mouth before he even realized it. "And you know I love you."
He hadn't meant to say that, but once he did, he knew it was true. And he prayed she would know that as well. That hearing how much he cared about her would empower her, that it could reach her under the serum and under all of the damage. "I love you, Nat. And I'm with you no matter what. Please come back to me. Please."
He thought for a foolish moment that she might. That he'd gotten through to her, rescued her from the hellish prison inside her. But the insanity was too strong, sweeping up and consuming her again. The rage came back in an instant, her pain fueling it, and she was on her feet with a ragged cry. Her teary eyes were wild as she slashed and stabbed and kicked at him until he was struggling to keep up. She threw all of her talent and training at him, and the fight resumed, brutal and lightning-fast. Steve scrambled to defend himself. Quickly his counters became sluggish and his steps were heavy and sloppy. He was already so injured that it didn't take much more for her to wear him down. And she was an expert at using his strength against him. He rolled away, barely able to twist given the stiff and miserable state of his back, and grabbed his shield. She'd drawn the gun again. The blam blam blam of the weapon firing echoed in the hold, louder than his pounding heart and the battle on the deck above him, and the bullets drove into his shield and knocked him back. Her roundhouse kick slammed into him next, forcing him to retreat even further. And when she swept his legs out from under him, he tumbled down and landed heavily on his back.
Steve howled in complete misery, the rough impact jostling newly healing bones and battered and strained muscles. He choked on his breath, unable to make his lungs function for an endless eternity of suffering. Instinctively he rolled as best he could to his side, vainly trying to protect himself, but his body refused to cooperate. The pain effectively restrained him for her, and she looked down, uncaring and cold, as he squirmed and battled to make himself move. He gasped, shaking, tears filling his eyes. Helplessly he looked up at her. She loomed over him, pointing the gun at his quivering body, those furious eyes boring into his. She kicked his shield from his arm and drove her boot and her weight onto his throat. Steve grimaced, blood slipping down his chin from his lip, getting his right hand under her heel and pushing up but it didn't matter much. His left hand she crushed under her other foot. And the gun came down, pointing at his forehead.
The instinct to keep struggling was almost overwhelming. But he couldn't. He couldn't win this fight like this. He couldn't seriously hurt her or kill her. He didn't have it in himself. He couldn't. "You won't!" he gasped. She retaliated in cruelty, stepping harder across his throat. "Natasha…" His voice was a strangled whimper. "I know you won't shoot me. I know you."
That angered her, and she screamed in frustration. A second later she was straddling him, holding him completely at her mercy, putting all her weight across his chest and thus his damaged back. She kept the gun under his chin, her finger poised on the trigger. Her other held his left wrist above his head. Steve fought to stay limp. This was his only chance to save them both. "You won't hurt me. You can't." He saw the insanity waver in its grip upon her, her eyes slightly softening and filling again with tears. Hope soared within him, and he took a chance at raising his free hand and pressing it tenderly to her bruised face. He swept his thumb over her cheek. He held her gaze, firm and powerful and true. "I trust you."
She let out a strangled sob, her face contorting in a grimace of grief and anger and frustration. The gun shifted from his neck as she let go of his hand and grabbed both sides of his face and kissed him again, frantic and fearful. The madness was pouring from her in desperate, wild waves. He could feel the hot barrel of the gun digging into his cheek. She sobbed into his mouth, trembling so much that she shook them both, and her free hand carded through his hair and then pulled tight. She pushed his head into the muzzle of the gun and wept. And hesitated.
He balled his free hand into a fist and rammed it into her temple as fast and hard as he could.
Natasha yelped, thrown off of him by the force of the unexpected blow. The gun went off, the bullet blowing into one of the crates behind them and covering them both in shards of plastic and glass and the serum. Steve summoned the last bit of his strength and rolled, taking her with him and pinning her to the floor. She bucked wildly, screaming hysterically, but he had the upper hand now and he was too large and strong for her to escape. He slammed her hand down until the gun was loosed from it, and then he winced. "Sorry," he whispered. The next blow to her head knocked her out cold.
Steve fought to catch his breath. He leaned back from Natasha's unconscious form, pressing his fingers to the pulse point under her jaw. Her heartbeat was fast and uneven. He watched her worriedly for a second, struggling to gather his wits and honestly a tad fearful she was going to abruptly awaken and launch herself at him again. But she didn't. He struggled to get to his feet.
Suddenly the ship lurched beneath him, reminding him of where he was and what was going on, and everything that had disappeared in the frenzy of their fight returned with a vengeance. The STRIKE Team's hurried conversation blared in his ear. He held his right glove to his face. "Rumlow," he gasped. "Rumlow! What's your status?"
"Ship's dead in the water," came a harried answer. "Everything is secure, and the team is clear."
"Brushov's gone," Steve returned, limping over to his discarded shield. He grabbed it and slid it onto his back. The deck beneath him rattled and rumbled. He didn't like the sound of it. "We need to stop that chopper. Copy?" Rumlow's response came back, but it was garbled. Steve winced, hurrying back to Natasha. "I have Romanoff, but we are not clear. Do you copy?" Nothing. "Rumlow!"
Suddenly something in the hold exploded – oh God, that's not good – and water slammed into him. Steve cried out, swept off his feet like a ragdoll and thrown into the crates. For a seeming eternity he was trapped against them by the onslaught of the wave, the pain excruciating and robbing him of any capacity to move. Memories came at him, and they were threatening to drown him as much as the water was. But he rose above everything, yelling in frustration as he pushed back. He saw Natasha, the water covering her completely, and fell to his knees beside her. He scooped her limp body into his arms. His muscles vigorously protested any further movement, and when he tried to push himself to his feet his back utterly refused and he could only lean up about halfway. He gave a determined howl, jabbing his teeth into his lower lip until the warm tang of blood filled his mouth and he made himself stand.
Water was rapidly spilling into the hold from somewhere; in the darkness, it was impossible to tell where the damage was. Steve tucked Natasha to his chest tightly and ran. The floor was quickly flooded, the water climbing to his knees and then to his thighs. He couldn't go back up, not with Natasha helpless and unconscious in his arms. He didn't think he could possibly climb anyway with his back the way it was. But he had to find a way. He had to get out. He had to get them out now.
"Rumlow!" he cried. Another explosion boomed over the hold, and the rush of water nearly swept him from his feet. He choked on a mouthful as he tripped, fighting to keep Natasha out of the rising water. "Stop firing! Can anybody copy? We need help down here!" There was no answer. Steve cursed, forcing his legs to push, to run, to move as fast as he could. The hold was thankfully not very big, and he found his way through the blackness to the wall on one side. He shifted Natasha to one arm, fumbling along the wall, squinting and trying to stay calm as he searched for a door. Panic turned his insides into a tight, painful coil, so tight in fact that he could barely breathe or think as he searched frantically. "Come on," he gasped. "Come on!"
Finally his fingers brushed against the handle of a door. He grabbed it and hauled himself closer, even as the flood rose to his waist and pulled him away. It was locked. "Damn it," he hissed. He didn't think he could kick it, not with Natasha in his arms and his back so messed up. So he ripped the handle right off the door and with a cry shouldered it open.
The hallway beyond was dimly lit and washed in red. Steve staggered through, banging his hurt shin against the lip of the doorway and gasping in misery. He didn't let that slow him, getting a better grip on Natasha's slight form as he charged onward. The water chased him, flooding behind his feet. The ship screamed, an awful whine of twisting and bending metal, and everything listed sharply to the right. Steve didn't let that slow him, thundering down the narrow corridor. He passed other doors, not pausing to check them. The floor tipped more, slanting at nearly a forty-five degree angle, and it was becoming impossible to run. Still he did, dragging his body through the water to the opposite end of the corridor. The Russian words in white text alongside the heavy door at the end thankfully proclaimed what lay beyond to be a stairwell, and he grabbed the handle of the hatch and shoved it open and barreled inside.
His momentum carried him too far, and his hip smashed painfully into the railing of the stairs. He held tighter to Natasha, jolting with the impact, before twisting and struggling up the stairs. The walls shuddered. Steve kept one hand on the railing, pulling himself up the tilted steps. The ship was obviously listing to the right, the stairs tipping and tilting beneath his boots, and he could barely keep his balance. Water was rushing up from below. "Oh, hell," he moaned. When his foot came down again, it was on the banisters of the railing. He didn't know if they would hold his weight as they creaked and whimpered under the strain. It was just a few more steps to the door on the next level up, and he took them in gigantic strides, summoning strength and courage and alacrity. The railing caved in, and he staggered but didn't fall.
Steve pushed shoulder first through the door, and it burst open. He paused and stupidly looked down. The water gurgled and bubbled and consumed everything behind him. Then he ran into another corridor. He found himself standing on the goddamn bulkhead because the ship was completely on its side, but he wasted not a moment digesting that horrifying fact before sprinting as fast as he could. The water rose up through the wall under his feet, and he splashed loudly as it climbed higher and higher. He jumped over the doorways, not trusting them to stay secure under him. He chanced looking down at Natasha to find her unconscious still, her head tucked to his shoulder. Even as his lungs burned and his muscles ached and his back protested every movement, he knew he couldn't stop. They would both drown if he did.
He reached the end of this corridor and found another stairway. How the hell could he get out of here? The ship groaned around him and continued turning, continued listing. Capsizing. Steve drew a deep breath and shook his head helplessly, terror twisting his heart. He couldn't go back down. And there was no way up with the stairs nearly inverted.
The water exploded on him. The pressure against his back numbed his limbs instantly, and he nearly let go of Natasha as the river swirled inside the metal cage the ship had become and overran them. He held Natasha tightly to him, tipping back her head and closing her nose. He sucked in a huge breath, as deep as he could manage, and exhaled into her mouth, praying it would be enough to last her. Then he drew another breath for himself that was mostly a mouthful of water. The lights faded and winked as the blackness took him, and he kicked subconsciously, diving down along the wall toward what had once been up. The waters quickly rose, and he was able to swim underwater to the top of the stairwell. He thanked his lucky stars the door was already open. His head nearly slammed into the platform that had been at the top of the stairs, but he wrenched his arm down and stopped the collision and moved around it. He pushed himself and Natasha through the doorway.
He kicked up and reached the surface.
It was the bridge.
The bridge that was flipped upside down.
And the bridge that was almost entirely under water.
Steve's eyes widened as frantically looked around. The blackness of the river surrounded the huge windows, held back by flimsy glass and some twist of good fortune. Water poured in behind him and leaked through bolts in a spray. The controls hissed and spat and sparked as the electrical systems failed. The few feet of air left in the room were rapidly disappearing. Steve pulled Natasha against him and fearfully wondered what the hell he was supposed to do now. Just as he was about to panic (panic more at any rate), the ship contorted again, an explosion from somewhere battering it, and suddenly everything was rising. The water drained from the room as fast as it had flooded it, and he found his feet on the ceiling. He stumbled as everything tilted beneath him, losing his footing and sliding roughly to the front of the bridge. He rolled as much as he could to protect Natasha, screaming as gravity shifted and his brutalized body crashed into the wheel and navigational equipment before landing against the ceiling that was now the floor and the windows that were barely still intact. Water rushed down, splashing into his mouth and nose and eyes, and the glass under him cracked. He gathered Natasha in his arms, unsure if she was breathing or even alive, as he lay terrified and still.
But then it stopped.
Steve was staring at the back of the bridge, droplets cascading languidly down on him, sodden papers and books and equipment falling from the shelves on the other side of the room. Dizzy and disoriented, he didn't make sense of what was happening for what felt like an eternity. Then everything moved as though pulled from the bow of the vessel. He rolled gingerly, looking blearily down through the slowly breaking windows. The river was below them. The stern of the ship was out of the river, bobbing upside down as the front flooded and started to sink.
The ship was sinking.
He was on his feet somehow, lifting Natasha into his shaking arms again and running. The glass cracked more and broke beneath him. He didn't dare stop; if they fell from here, they would be trapped under the ship. He had to get to the side. He had to get away. He tripped and scrambled, fighting for every inch, until he reached the left window. One punch shattered it.
Outside the river below was a swirling mess of debris and blackness. It was nearly fifty feet down. But there was no time to fear or hesitate. He took a deep breath and jumped.
They seemed to fall forever. A second or two later he struck the river, and pain grabbed him in its greedy, cruel hands and dragged him down and down and down into the black abyss. His chest constricted, his lungs seizing and failing, his heart stopping in its frantic pulse. He was so tired. Everything was falling away, noise and light and thought and life, and he almost let it go. Almost.
Some part of him didn't give up, never gave up. He kicked and kicked until he broke the surface. He gasped, drawing a precious, glorious breath into his body. Agony rushed over him, stealing his strength, but he wouldn't succumb. Not after all this. Not now.
The weight in his arms was reminding him to keep fighting.
Steve swam. It wasn't very easy, trying to keep Natasha's face above the water, trying to force muscles that were damn well spent to keep going. His movements were choppy and weak and uncoordinated, but it was the best he could manage. The water was warm, but he felt cold like there was ice in his abused body again, weighing him down, taking him back. All he knew was he needed to put some distance between them and the ship sinking behind them.
He didn't think he could. At least not fast enough.
The ship rocked as something inside it detonated. Heat and light washed over him as the force of the explosion blasted them, and a large, powerful wave nearly pushed him back under again. Steve choked in surprise, treading as best he could, hooking a hand under Natasha's chin and lifting her pale face out of the river even as water filled his mouth and lungs. He couldn't keep going. The pain finally paralyzed him.
He nearly died from relief when the communications link crackled in his ear. "Cap! Cap, can you hear me?"
"I see them!"
"Swing us low!"
A huge, black shadow slid over him with the roar of rotors. The quinjet was there, hovering just in front of them, the rear doors opened and the platform extended. The pilots brought the aircraft right down the surface of the river. At the very edge of the platform Rumlow and Rollins were there, flanked and steadied by the others of the STRIKE Team. "Cap!" Rumlow yelled. Bronzed and bloodied fingers reached toward him. "Give me your hand!"
Steve summoned the last vestiges of his strength and pushed himself out of the water and grabbed Rumlow's hand. The other man secured his grip around Steve's wrist and pulled. Rollins hooked his arms under Steve's, groaning in effort. Both Steve and Natasha were hauled from the river and onto the hard, secure, wonderfully firm floor of the jet. "Go!" Rumlow roared hoarsely, grabbing Steve and yanking him into his embrace and further inside to safety. "Get us the hell out of here!"
The quinjet streaked into the night. The river swallowed the ship, dragging it down into its deep, black embraces, and when it was over, everything was calm and beautiful and quiet again under the peaceful moon and stars. It was almost like nothing had ever happened at all.
Natalia, idi syuda. – Natalia, come here.