When the quinjets set down lightly on the ground with fresh, uninjured forces, they didn't expect to find any one of them still alive.
They were desperate - they had fought too hard, too long this time. The team was covered in blood, both their own and their enemies'. It wasn't enough that they'd been ambushed, drugged and trapped. No, it wasn't enough that Clint had been shot twice and Steve had been stabbed in the throat. It wasn't enough to kill him - they'd missed vital arteries and veins, but it was enough to make him near useless for an escape.
Clint was the one that got them to halt. He dropped to one knee, breathing heavily, and try as she might, Natasha couldn't get him back onto his feet.
"Go!" she ordered cooly, yanking him up. She could see Steve, looking deathly pale and still in Thor's arms, shift in response. The Hulk roared from somewhere behind her, and she knew that they needed to get to the quinjet before Banner regained control. Her voice was loud and clear, echoing through the forest as she ordered them on. "Get to the quinjet, don't look back!"
Tony, only half his suit remaining, looked back at them. His eyes were desperate, his look wild as he met Natasha's gaze. The Hulk roared again.
Thor ducked as a bullet came his way, even as he tried to avoid dropping Steve, Maria Hill on his other side. SHIELD agents surrounded him, all of them injured, some of them unconscious, but all still clinging to life.
"Go!" Natasha snarled again, helping Clint back to his feet in a laboriously slow process. "Back to the quinjets!"
Hill nodded, her eyes both cool and impassioned as she stared at Natasha for just a moment, her head tilted slightly to one side. They'd both know it would come to this, they'd both spoken of how the escape would go on.
But it wasn't meant to be like this, it was never meant to be like this.
Dragging Clint forward, Natasha kicked another piece of broken suit to the side and helped another agent to his feet, pushing him forward. Hill continued urging the ragtag group on further, but Clint's deadweight pulled Natasha to a stop.
The archer slid to the ground and looked up at her, blood running from his mouth. They could hear the distant sounds of the quinjets roaring to life in the cleaning they'd been camouflaged in.
"Go, Nat," he said softly. "You don't owe me anything, anymore."
Natasha bared her teeth at him and crouched on the ground beside him, her eyes fixed on him. "Not leaving you," she promised. "Not this time."
Natasha looked up, saw Stark fall to his feet and not get back up. A SHIELD agent dragged him back up, ignoring his whimper of pain from his broken ribs. Hill was limping, her sprained ankle stopping her from bolting. Natasha stood up and fired into the bushes, hearing a cry of pain from their enemy.
"Stop wasting time!" she roared as she saw Thor glance back at her. The agent hauling Tony had been shot - the billionaire was lying on the ground, not moving a muscle. Without a word, Natasha pressed a gun into Clint's hand and went for him.
A ball of fire burst on the grass not even a foot in front of her and she dodged, racing to Tony's form.
There was the sound of something exploding - probably a quinjet, then the roar of an engine as another one hummed to life.
The Hulk roared, and then something slammed into it as it emerged from the trees. The creature snarled, tried to fight it off, but a dart buried itself into its body then it was down.
Green flowed into tan, and Doctor Banner lay limply on the ground. Natasha gave up on getting to Tony's side and hurried to Banner's. Quickly she hauled him to his feet and dragged him the last fifty feet into the clearing, where Hill was waiting.
"Get him to safety," she told Hill softly. "I'll take care of Stark and Barton."
Hill looked at her, really looked at her, and nodded. They both knew Natasha would never leave Clint to get captured by the enemy, and that she would protect both the men with her last breath.
In a few moments, there would be no avenue of safety, no way to get the last quinjet in the air and flying. There was no time to retrieve Clint and Tony for the quinjet.
The door slid closed, and then it was rolling over the ground, taking off with a burst of speed.
Maria Hill's words echoed in Natasha's mind - "We'll be back."
She knew that. They always were.
Natasha hurried to Clint, grabbed his arm, and hauled him over to Tony, never stopping firing for a heartbeat.
It was only a day before the pair of quinjets set back down into the clearing. It was a miracle that they'd been able to return as quickly, with as few causalities as they'd had in the first place. Thor led the way outside of the jet, his eyes scanning the ground without pause as he tried to decipher what had happened here.
They'd all felt growing hate and guilt in themselves over the past twenty-four hours, and Fury had driven them harder, faster than ever before in an effort to get a rescue team mobilized. It was with more than a little shock that they stared at the ground littered in enemy bodies.
Steve, still wounded, but far too stubborn to wait for word on his team after the retrieval, shared a look with Hill and Banner as they stepped onto the bloody grass. Here and there there were deep craters in the ground, as though explosion had taken place. Tracks from someone being dragged across the ground were clear, and Steve winced as he stumbled over a shattered piece of Tony's amour.
They stood, looking at the desolation and destruction and wondered what was left of the other half of their team.
Natasha crouched down again by Clint's side and tapped him on the shoulder. The archer looked up at her, eyes foggy with pain and probably only still conscious due to the adrenaline surging through his system. Gently she placed a different gun in his hand, taking the pistol back for herself.
He grinned up at her. "Now this was more like Budapest," he croaked, and she gave him a small grin in return.
"Watch over him," she said, jerking her head to Tony. Clint nodded solemnly, and Natasha knew he would go down fighting if he couldn't protect the billionaire from their enemies.
It pained her, twisted something inside of her, but it was what she needed. While Tony was in danger, Clint wouldn't let himself die.
Natasha wished that Clint had his bow, but there was no use in crying over split milk. Calmly, attempting to ignore the fact she was trying not to cry, she handed him a grenade.
"Last resort," she said softly.
He nodded. "Don't get caught, Nat," he whispered.
"I won't," she promised, not sure if it was a lie, and then she took off through the trees.
While never as good as Sif, Thor had always been a decent tracker, never relying on magic but instead of honed skills. He looked for signs, looked for the small clues that would have been left by his allies, fearing the unknown as he did so.
He paused as he saw the shell casings, pointing to the ground. "They put up a worthy fight," he rumbled.
There was a growl from Banner and the man's hands clenched. "Don't say it like that," he snapped, then brushed by Thor, following the shallow footprints in the mud before they lost them at a tree with a smear of blood on it.
"The Widow," Thor told Steve softly, before they called over the SHIELD agents with a grimace.
Natasha's breath was coming in ragged gasps that threatened to betray her position. Quietly she hauled herself up in the tree and took off as silently as possible.
After just a moment she saw a patrol. She fired off a quick shot at the obvious leader as she dropped from the tree's and crashed into the center of the group. Spinning, kicking, flying through her honed moves, she sent them crashing to the ground one by one as her fists flew.
Clint's gun was a constant background noise, and she took comfort in it. She would only worry when the sound of it faltered. They weren't going to be taken again, they could never let themselves be taken again.
They weren't just going to sit back and let themselves be overwhelmed. They would fight until their last breaths.
"The Widow ambushed a group here," Thor rumbled as he noticed the snapped off branch, noticing the small streaks of blood on the ground. He followed it, and pushed through the bushes, pointing to the three men with snapped necks. A trail of blood lead away from it, small drops littering the leaves as though Natasha had forgotten to cover her trail as she went on the attack.
Thor cocked his head to the side, looking back the way the trail he'd followed had lead. There - there was the slight glimmer of more shell casings. He pointed. "The Hawk must have been over there, probably with Stark. Then..." he trailed off, trying to look for the next patch of marks.
Clint's faint voice started her midswing, and she faltered. A knife cut through her defenses and scraped on her hip bone.
Her teammate's firing stuttered to a halt, then there was the sound of a massive explosion.
Natasha picked up her pace, her hands flying to crush throats and snap necks. After just a moment, the next patrol was down and she stopped, panting heavily before taking off at a sprint.
Her heart pounded in her chest as she hurled through the undergrowth, disregarding stealth in favor of reaching Clint's side.
The archer, face desperately pale from bloodloss, was struggling with two men. One of them would lash out with him while the other tried to duck around to reach Tony. Clint was barely standing, courtesy of a new bullet hole in his leg.
The rage built up in her chest as she flew over the grass, feet only touching the ground long enough to push her off again. Her fist slammed into one of the enemy's spines, and she whirled him around to use as a shield as the other man managed to pull a gun out.
She threw her now-dead shield at the other, grabbed the staggering enemy, and shocked him with the bracelets Tony had managed to hide for her before they were captured.
He made a mewling noise, then fell to the ground.
"We need to move," Clint gasped, dropping his bullet-less gun to the ground.
Natasha nodded as she noticed he had the grenade in his hand.
"Deeper into the trees," she agreed. "More cover that way."
"Romanov rejoined Barton," Thor said, looking like he was trying to remain emotionally detached from the situation. "He was out of... bullets."
Steve's gaze was so desperate, so weary that it made it difficult for the god to continue.
"They moved toward the treeline, under fire. At this point, the orders must have switched from 'capture' to kill," Thor murmured, peering at the bullets still embedded into the ground. He felt proud of the Midgards - they'd proven a heavy nuisance for their foes.
The soft ground - from blood or rain, he wasn't sure - made it easy to see the tracks. The rain must have continued until after the fight, because someone of the impressions were full of water and smeared.
Natasha was out of bullets as well by the time they managed to duck further into the treeline. They stumbled over the grass, Tony a deadweight in their arms as they tried to get further away. Clint was proving more hinder than help, so Natasha eventually seized the Iron Man's body from Clint and let the archer focus on his own gait.
The sharpshooter stopped suddenly, and jerked his head to the left. "That way," he gasped, looking like he was about to sink to the ground. "I see a cave."
Natasha nodded, smiling slightly before she heard the dogs begin to bark from behind her.
"Animals... dogs, you call them?" Thor asked, then saw Steve's expression harden as he leaned over the tracks. The American nodded, a short, jerky movement that told Thor more than he wanted to hear. "They attacked our allies."
Thor blew out a breath, tried to ignore Banner's tense face, and continued. "Someone was injured - bleeding when they hit the ground. It appears to be a head wound."
One moment they were breaking for the cave, and the next Natasha found herself plummeting to the ground, holding her head as she dropped Tony.
The rock that had struck her bounced to the ground, and then the dogs were upon her. She didn't even feel herself roll over, looking into the mutt's slavering jaws. She stared up at it, head ringing, and held her breath as she waited for the end.
She just regretted that she hadn't gotten the others out of here before she died.
She didn't die, not then at least. The two dogs above her found themselves pummeled by Clint as the archer jumped at them. He was weaponless, almost defenseless, but it didn't stop him. The dogs yelped as he snapped one neck effortlessly and the other lunged at him.
It sank its jaws on his arm, and he stabbed it in the throat with a piece of wood he had in his free hand.
"Thanks," she said as he pulled her to her feet. He looked on the verge of passing out, and Natasha knew they wouldn't be able to continue to much longer.
"Pleasure," he said with a lopsided smile. She caught him as soon as his knees began to buckle. "How's Stark?'
Thor walked a few more paces, and paused. After a moment his pace picked up and he glanced behind the tree to see the bodies of the dead dogs, their faces still bearing traces of the snarls they must have worn when they attacked the team.
Hill looked at Thor, and he pointed to the clear trail. "They didn't stop to fight, but kept moving. Only one of them was walking easily - by the light traces, I'd say Natasha. Barton was dragging Stark, probably so she was clear to fire if she had to. An explosive was thrown over there-"
"Grenade," Steve murmured, eyes on the thrown earth.
Thor nodded, and continued, "They were probably almost out of weapons. They split up here."
Tony came up fighting. They were racing for the shelter when he jerked awake, fists flying to hit Clint right in his damaged side. The archer dropped him and nearly fell himself.
Tony met Clint's gaze, looking confused.
"What's going on?" he slurred.
Natasha loomed over them both, yanking them back to their feet one by one. "We're running like hell," she informed his with a glower. "You two, help each other. I'm going to double back."
Clint tried to stop her, but she already vanished into the undergrowth. Natasha watched as he gritted his teeth, and continued dragging Tony on. She followed them, waiting on the side of the forest for an ambush she was sure would come soon.
They were attacked from the other side, but Clint handled it easily. As soon as they were fired upon, he threw his grenade and continued on as if hellhounds were on their tail.
They were, to be honest. Natasha had already killed one more dog since she'd fallen back to cover their flank.
Branches all around them were breaking. The enemy didn't want their prey to get away. Too bad for them - Natasha grinned, her smile bloodthirsty. Her head pounded with every step she took, but she gritted her teeth as she kept up with the others. Clint was getting slower and slower, and Tony's influence was the only thing stopping him from stopping completely.
They needed reinforcements, as quickly as possible. Without it, they were screwed.
They finally reached the cave, but it didn't seem as if it made a difference. They had a stretch of clearing to run through, and they ran as fast as possible.
Natasha knew that Stark wouldn't leave Clint behind if it came to it. That was the problem - they were bound too tightly to think of themselves.
Somehow they made it to shelter without being blown to bits, although it was a close thing. Natasha could hear Tony muttering constantly to Clint, even though she couldn't make out the words.
Clint and Natasha had been through this before. After she raced behind them into the cave, they split up. Natasha rummaged through her suit and pouches, looking for more weapons but coming up short.
With a growl, she yanked off her right bracelet and clapped it over Clint's wrist. He glanced at it, eyes widening.
"Nat-" he began, but she cut him off as she pulled out the rest of her stash.
"Pick a weapon," she ordered, and jerked her head at Stark. "That includes you too."
They slipped into the cave. It was obvious the group had chosen well for their last stand - it was easily defensible, and they even had a small pool of water in the back, though that was now stained with diluted blood.
Natasha wasn't aware there was a grenade in the cave until Tony yelled. By the time she whirled around, Clint had thrown himself on it, and she'd snarled with frustration.
She moved in a blur, kicking it away from Clint just in time for it to blow up. She dived down beside Clint as it blew, and the man covered her body with his. His form pressed against her, and she gulped as she felt an impact through flesh.
The Black Widow struggled free of his grasp, growling as she glared at him. He looked at her, not even remotely repentant.
She slapped him in a harsh, heavy blow. He didn't look surprised. "Don't you dare do that again!" she ordered, and he grinned at her as she examined him for injures.
Nothing except tender flesh met her probing fingers. He'd gotten lucky.
Tony was busy firing his gun into the patrol trying to sneak up on him. The lessons Fury had forced him through paid off - his aim, while not even close to being on par with Clint's, was decent enough to take out two. Then he ran up empty, and tossed the gun to the ground.
"We're screwed," he announced.
Natasha snarled at him, "Never say that." she ordered, kicking away another grenade as it tried to enter the cave. "We need to get deeper in case there's another entrance.
They followed the tracks through the cave, trying to ignore the long smears of blood left on the ground and the pieces of rock strewn on one side of it. There was a smear of smoke and ash, as if something had detonated.
To their surprise, there were no bodies. They'd been expecting bodies since the very beginning, when they came back twenty-four hours late for a group composed of two individuals who just couldn't stay out of trouble. There were more dead dogs, but after a while the body concentration began to veer toward human.
It was amazing how much the three had taken out. But if they'd been overwhelmed, if they'd run out of ammunition for just a moment -
Thor could see the thought coming to the minds of his companions and he sighed, clenching his hand around the familiar weight of his hammer as he passed another crater.
Hope was fast to flee.
Natasha was thrown to the ground when Tony hurled himself upon her. She nearly reacted out of instinct, nearly slammed the heel of her hand into his nose to send it crunching into his brain, but recognized the scent of finely-pressed clothes covered in ash just in time to avoid killing her teammate. There was the sound of something's snarl turning into a whine, then all was silent for a few moments.
Clint stood over them both, his borrowed bracelet crackling with energy. Natasha, about to issue an angry retort, glanced up to see Stark's face clenched in pain as the archer pulled a hound away from his body.
"Sorry, 'tasha," Stark muttered as he tried and failed to get to his feet. It took a few moments to get the swaying man upright, and then Clint reached over to pull out a dart in the man's shoulder. Stark was getting more pale by the minute, causing the tension and fear plaguing Natasha to grow to greater levels.
Clint gave the substance left in the dart a small sniff, and wrinkled his nose.
"Sedatives, I think," he said. "Meant for you-" his jerked head was aimed at Natasha, and the Widow blinked, feeling a little smug that they'd aimed for her. "Feeling woozy yet, Tony?'
The billionaire gave an unsteady nod, and Natasha rolled her eyes. Clint was in no condition to help Tony along, which left her with little choice but to undo her other bracer and slip it over Clint's wrist. Quickly, moving as fast as she was able, she ducked under Stark's arm and pulled her gun.
No more close fighting for her.
Clint gave the bracelets a bemused stare, as though he wasn't quite sure why he'd suddenly gained another weapon. After a moment, he shook his head and nodded to the deeper end of the cave, ignoring the bodies behind them.
"Let's go," he said softly, stance weary but ready for the fight.
Thor's hand clenched around the dart when he picked it up, and he tossed it to Hill.
"I'll analyze the components," she promised. The god nodded, and turned his eyes back to the deep impressions left on the ground. The original trio of footprints had been covered by what looked like a score of both paws and human.
Natasha smiled as she watched Clint fight like a man possessed. He'd learned well from Steve over the past few months - his previously honed moves had gotten even more skilled, his speed had increased to a degree that impressed even her, and as he slammed one man into the wall, she realized that the already deadly fighting machine had grown even more so. She wondered if she'd be able to beat him in a serious fight again.
The smell of sulfur was prevalent in the air as Clint threw himself at another man and grabbed his throat. The bracelets lit up, and there was a brief cracking noise before the enemy fell still.
It was a good thing she'd tuned them to Clint a few months after she'd first received them.
Suddenly the archer's smooth motions faltered, and Natasha realized that his surge of adrenaline wouldn't keep them moving much longer. They needed shelter, and they needed it quickly.
She reached back to grab Clint's shirt, ignored the fact that he nearly punched her in the face, and hauled him backward behind her, refusing to let him engage with anyone else.
"Grenade?" he asked her. Natasha sighed - she didn't have a free hand due to her support of both Barton and Stark. Quickly she released him and fished out the small explosive.
"Just flash and hornet's nest," she said as she tossed it to him.
He gave her a grin, one that she hadn't see for a while. It wasn't his normal, adrenaline high smile, but more of his 'we're so screwed' smirk. The Widow rolled her eyes in reply, even as he said, "Close your eyes."
"That's a hellva lot of blood," Fury rumbled, making the group flinch. Even Hill startled, her hand flying for her gun. Fury gave them a look that showed he was not at all amused.
The look was clear - he wasn't prepared to stay in the quinjet while the retrieval went down.
It didn't stop Hill from trying to protest. "Sir, it's not-"
"Safe?" he asked dangerously, eyebrows raised. "Of course it's not safe. That's why this clusterfuck happened to begin with. Now, Thor, report."
The five seconds was enough for them to dart forward, swerve around the bend, and fall off the small ledge that waited for them. They hit the ground in a pile - Tony at the bottom, Clint at the top.
There was a wheezing sound, and the other two quickly scrambled off Tony, mindful of the injured ribs he had been sporting.
"Ow," he muttered, still sounding groggy but also more alert because of the pain. "Let's... not do that again."
It was Natasha who stood first. "Come on, get on your feet," she urged the two of them, body tense as she tried to get them both up. Clint's wounds were bleeding more heavily now, his leg shook with exertion and exhaustion as he tried to focus on Natasha.
"Jus' a sec," he asked, looking remarkably queasy. "Gimme... a moment to rest."
Hissing with frustration, she alternatively cursed and encouraged them, trying to tug them to their feet. There was a clamor as the sound of boots slamming against the ground drew closer.
"Tony needs help," she tried, and Clint looked up at her through tired, wan eyes.
"M' trying. Just... give me a minute," then the words must have registered because he started struggling to get up, the urgency clear in his face. "Get him out of here. I'll be right behind you."
"Not without you," she snapped, and as Clint managed to drag himself upright, she smiled. "That's it, come on."
"Go. Get out of here," Clint tried as he clung to the wall. Natasha knew they weren't going to get much further with them in this condition. Quickly she yanked out the two sting grenades she had left and tossed them quickly. There was the sound of cursing and she fumbled to see if she had any ammunition left.
Clint snatched the gun she'd given Tony and pushed it at her. She quickly ducked around the corner so she could fire, giving them time to get to their feet.
A ricochet hit her and she attempted to ignore it. Pain, she could push away. As long as she wasn't dead, she'd keep moving for as long as she was able.
She could hear Clint yelling at Tony - something along the lines of getting his ass in motion, and she fired off another bullet. There was silence - the ground before her was strewn with bodies. Some of them had been killed by the dogs, who must have clearly gone berserk, and some of them were dead by friendly fire. Others were clearly killed by Clint and his borrowed weapons, and some were bleeding to death from Natasha's gun.
She dropped the empty weapon to the ground with a satisfied smile and went back to search for weapons.
They searched through the bodies when they rounded the corner, pulling them aside to check for any sign of their teammates. The stench of death was prevalent in the air, and more than one SHIELD agent had to leave the cave. What was left of the Avengers pressed on, their goal clear in their mind.
They didn't need Thor's tracking, not anymore. The scuff marks from a body being dragged were clear, and one of Natasha's bracelets was on the ground. Discarded weapons out of ammunition lay on the ground, signs of the team's constant retreat.
There was a snap as Clint's wrist broke and he yelped. The man he was struggling with tugged one of the bracelets free and dropped it on the ground, throwing it aside as he went for the other one. Clint lashed out, digging his fingers into his eyes, and proceeded to let the electricity crackle from his finger tips.
Natasha watched the archer look up at her, a pained smile on his face. "I could get used to this," he said weakly. It was getting harder and harder to keep him on his feet as more time went by. The enemy was getting more cautious of their gunfire now, something that was both a blessing and a curse. Eventually they were going to get lost or run out of places to hide.
The last man was dead, but there were more on their way. Natasha looked at Tony and Clint, her eyes saying what her mouth would never dare to verbalize because of loyalty, love, and stubbornness.
She didn't think Clint and Tony could make it much further.
"Go on," she urged solemnly. "I'll be right behind you."
Her eyes were on Tony when she spoke, and it was obvious Clint recognized the hidden meaning. Keep the civilian safe. His eyes were full of pain, full of unsaid words, but he nodded.
Natasha sat in the dirt and waited patiently for their foes.
"Someone stopped here," Thor said unnecessarily. "Probably Natasha, because Barton was already injured."
It was obvious neither of the missing agents would have let Tony try for a last stand. The ground was trampled here, the signs of a fight. A body had been dragged away - no, two bodies, two different directions. They just had to hope that it was not Natasha.
Fury jerked his head at one track mark, "Hill, take Thor and a team. Rogers, take the rest."
Tony moved like an old man, relying heavily on Clint's shoulder. Natasha could hear their pace pause every few seconds as Clint stopped to look at her.
They would fight their way free of this mess, or die trying. That much was evident.
Natasha knew Clint would carefully watch to make sure Tony didn't collapse, and that the Iron Man would do the same. She turned her head back to meet Clint's sad, solemn smile. They knew their way of life allowed for very few luxuries, one of which was good-bye.
She nodded to him. Duty above all else. It had been Clint who had taught her that, somewhere in their long months of working together. It had been Clint who taught her sacrifice.
She meant to repay him in full.
She turned her gun over in her hands. The footsteps were getting louder, closer now. There was no more barking of dogs, no more sound of paws pattering toward them. One less enemy for them to worry about. Good.
No, there would be no 'or' that she had thought about earlier. They were going to die trying, that much was evident.
Suddenly, there was the sound of someone dropping down beside her. She looked up and met Clint's dark eyes.
"You really thought I was going to leave you?" he asked, ignoring her scowl.
There was silence, now, as the teams moved through the caves, following the dragging tracks. Steve followed the long trail and found himself coughing as he ran across a foul gas that still faintly lingered in the air.
"They tried to flush them out," he said, remembering the days of the war when the screams of the dying would be overlaid with the choking of the living. Lungs would seize, oxygen would turn against the struggler - no, it wouldn't be like this. It couldn't be like this, not now.
"I don't get it," Banner said quietly, suddenly. "How were they able to overcome so few?"
Steve closed his eyes and remembered the agony, the fighting, and Bucky. He remembered the plane going down, burying in ice and the darkness that followed.
"It's simple when you think you're already dead," he said softly, following the blood splashed on the ground.
"Captain Rogers! Over here!"
Clint wasn't moving anymore except to breathe shallow breaths that threatened to stop any moment. He'd taken a mouthful of the gas canister before Natasha had thrown it back the way it came, and his coughs had sapped away the little energy he had left. Natasha stood above him, teeth bared in a bloody grimace as she continued to fight. She wasn't going to be able to reach the discarded bracer, not now.
She continued to fight, mindful of the body that lay beneath her as she struggled. Her movements were slower, sloppier now. She needed a break, a lull in the fighting...
A lull like right now.
She seized Clint's wrist, ignoring her pain from the motion and his answering scream of agony. The broke bone grated beneath her fingers as she dragged him over rock, leaving a bloody smear behind him. His skin was cold to the touch, his eyes refused to open.
She wasn't aware that she was begging him to stay with her, that she was pleading for him to not give up.
Clint was never still, not ever. Natasha never stopped firing, never stopped looking at the face as she wondered what would happen to Tony.
A bullet impacted her shoulder and she staggered. She wasn't giving up, not now. It was all or none.
Steve hurried to the marks - someone laying down, someone falling. Someone being dragged, and then an explosion of blood. A few shards of bone were on the ground, and Doctor Banner ran a scanner over it.
"Natasha," the doctor confirmed. Steve flinched as if he was the one who had been shot. Precious seconds were running out, precious seconds were ticking away.
Natasha was on the ground suddenly, limbs failing her as one of their last enemies stood over her body. She gave him a smile, a cold smile that betrayed her readiness to die. She was out of energy, out of motion. Clint was still behind her and she wasn't even aware if he was still breathing.
It didn't matter, not any more. She was out of weapons and out of bullets, and she had nothing left to give. What was it Clint had told her in Budapest?
Some days, the fight still kicks your ass. But that doesn't mean you give up on it.
But she should have known her teammates better than that, should have never expected to let something like bullets and broken ribs and impending death to stop her. One minute she was being treated to her enemy's lecherous smile and the next Tony was between the two of them, and she didn't even know how he'd gotten there without her noticing.
He stabbed the man, the wood going through his stomach to prod out the foe's back. Natasha felt hot droplets of blood spray across her face, and she chuckled as she realized the irony of this. They'd done all they could to protect Tony, and he'd saved them anyway.
She closed her eyes. There was no fight left now, there was only the battle time was going to put them through.
But then there was a grunt, and the thud of a second body hitting the ground that made her sit up. Her teammate, her friend hit the ground, just as spent, just as worn down as she was. His eyes were glassy, exhausted.
"Nice of you to join us," she said, tilting her head back and ignoring the blood dripping down her collar.
"Least I could do," he said, still looking dazed and beaten. Natasha kept her macabre grin on her face. She didn't think it would disappear if she wanted it to.
"Yeah..." she said, trailing off. Darkness was clawing at the edges of her vision. The battle was done - without the fight left, the pain was pulling at her attention, tearing away at her concentration.
Tony was saying something, but she wasn't sure what.
There was a shout, a plea for attention and a medical team that caused hope to roar to life. Medical teams were for the living, not the dead.
Steve moved as fast as he could, leaving the team assigned to him behind as he moved as speeds he'd never tried to reach before. He skidded to a stop, looked at the bloodbath and felt hope stutter to a stop.
Natasha felt something warm press up beside her and cracked open her eyes, feeling the dried blood split. She blinked several times, trying to register when she'd moved.
"Fury... here... soon," Tony promised, coughing. More blood hit Natasha's face. Not much, but enough to jolt her into awareness. The fight wasn't truly over, not yet.
"Run," she ordered, but her voice made it sound like more of a plea. Tony gave her a flat look that made it obvious what he thought of the word.
"There might be more coming," he said, resting his head against the wall. If there were more coming, it was obvious he wouldn't be able to do something about it. "... Can't leave... not now."
Tony was gasping for breath, still bleeding, still hurting. He was still alive, which was the only thing that mattered. Tony and Clint - as long as they were still alive, they could go home. They could return to Fury, and to the eternal wars, and fight until they didn't need to fight any more.
"Hold... on," Tony was saying, but he wasn't talking to Natasha this time. His eyes were on Clint, who was on Natasha's other side.
The Widow reached out, took both of their hands. She curled around Clint's body, curled around the coldness that used to be her teammate, and tried to ignore that they were sitting in dirt no longer, but in blood.
"Never give up, remember," she told the still Clint softly. "That's what you promised me."
They found the trio of tangled bodies. Natasha's hand was clenched around Tony's, and her still body was curled around Clint's.
None of them moved.
The entire cavern was still as the medics that had squeezed into the quinjets checked for a pulse, their faces not showing much hope at all. There was silence, as if to break it would be an insult to the fallen warriors and sign the death warrant.
"Alive," one of them medics suddenly said, his fingers clenched on Tony's pulse. The others reported the same on Clint and Natasha, and suddenly there was a flurry of movement bursting all around them, a frantic, controlled flurry that threatened to bubble over into panic as they fought for the lives of their teammates.
It clawed at Steve's chest, threatened to crush him into oblivion. It was the best emotion and the worst emotion he'd ever experienced.
Time passed in blurred flashes. She only dimly recalled opening her eyes to see Tony whimpering beside her. Clint hadn't moved, not that she could tell.
The smell of blood and death was all that still existed now.
She wondered if Tony was aware that he'd slipped sideways and hit the ground.
She wondered if it mattered.
The team rotated shifts, never leaving the trio alone in their beds in the helicarrier. Some days it would be all of them, and somedays just one, but they never left them alone.
Their situation lasted as critical long after they slipped from coma into sleep. The changes were small, sudden, and it was to no one's surprise that Natasha woke first.
Her eyes flew open and the heart monitor began to race as steady breathing turned into gasps. Her hand groped the bedside - for what, Steve wasn't sure.
He raced over and reached out to her, trying to get her attention. She relaxed when her hand fell on him, and she rolled her head to one side, fear obvious in her gaze.
"Tony... Clint..." she croaked softly, the words barely forming on her lips and almost inaudible.
Steve gave her a smile.
"Alive," he said. Safe.
She nodded and her eyes slipped shut.
Natasha woke gradually, rolling her head to one side as she sought out Clint. There was no mistaking the feel of a infirmary bed for anything else.
Clint. Tony. Clint. Tony. Clint. Tony. The names beat with the beep of her heart monitor. The need to see them, to know they were alive was an uncontrollable urge.
She rolled her head over and met Clint's gaze. He was silent, his chest barely moving as he breathed, but he was awake and alive.
Clint nodded past her, and she turned her head to the other side. Tony was still asleep, his body covered in stitches, bruises, gauze, and in some places all three, but he was alive.
"We did it," she whispered, her voice sounding hollow and hoarse.
Clint looked like he was trying not to smile - she didn't blame him for it. He had a set of stitches that started under his eye and went to his chin. She didn't remember him getting the wound.
He remained silent, never saying a word. Beside Tony's bed, there was a rustling sound and Natasha turned her head to see a sleepy Doctor Banner looking at her.
A smile spread across Bruce's face as he saw them both awake, and then he was out of the room, yelling for the rest of the team to assemble.
Natasha, amused, turned back to Clint. He gave her a small nod. Yeah, we did.