Her body was lax in his hold and he was terrified, utterly terrified, by that fact. She was never a dead weight. Never. Hell, even unconscious, she had an underlying poise and balance that made carrying her a breeze.
He nearly tripped on a root and almost banged her head against a tree.
She would never forgive him.
She would never forgive herself.
She would claim she had grown too complacent, too comfortable with her surroundings and those who accounted for them. She would try to distance herself, try to push everyone away under the guise of reevaluating her current position.
She would try to leave.
No, he was no longer thinking about the damned tree.
Natasha leaving. He wouldn't let that happen. He couldn't let that happen. He had no fucking idea how to stop it but needed to try. Part of his mind obsessed about that while the majority focused on just how he was going to save her.
Because he would save her. He would do everything in his power to make sure she survived. She would be pissed at him, call him foolish, tell him he was making unnecessary sacrifices when there were more important concerns at hand.
Nothing was more important.
The job, the team, the purpose. Yes, he cared about those. But he cared about her more. She had saved him. She claimed it was the other way around, but he knew the truth. He had been at his wits end, tired of following orders and simply being a cog in the machine when he found her. He made a different call because he had nothing else to lose. At least this way he had tried to help someone, tried to do the right thing, even if it meant his own downfall.
It had created the greatest partnership he had ever known. She pushed him and he pushed back. She risked her life for him and he gladly gave her his in return. She had never let him down, and like hell was he about to do that to her now.
The Quinjet was in sight. A push of a button, a scan of a fingerprint with the resulting biometric analysis, and the ramp lowered for him. For them.
He laid her down across the seats, did a half-assed job of locking her into place with a couple of belts, and ran for the controls. The seat next to him was empty and it felt so wrong. The headset was askew, just laying there empty and abandoned and mocking. He found himself glancing backwards to verify she was still there even as he began the takeoff sequence. He flipped on the cloak and fired up the engines and got the hell out of there as fast as he could. He had no idea if they were being followed anymore, if he had gotten them all or if any survived, but had to assume the worst because, really, his life had proven that was the norm.
They were in the air and safely away yet he didn't dare to lower the cloak. He wasn't going to risk it. Wasn't going to risk her. If they saw him, if they shot him down now, he would have failed her and that was worse than death itself.
Ten klicks. Fifteen. Twenty-five.
He finally keyed the radio after one more glance to make sure she was still breathing.
"This is Hawkeye, requesting emergency landing on the port deck. ETA of sixteen minutes," he announced, and briefly wondered if they could hear the fear he felt well up at even that.
"Confirmation code," a bland, careless voice requested.
"Alpha-six-two-niner, sub four-six-two-oh-seven," he rattled off. One was a general request, another damn near a call to arms.
A new voice sounded, harsh and familiar. "Verified. What is your status?"
He swallowed, knew he couldn't screw this up. "Nat's been hit, sir. Same crap they used on the prisoners in Halifax. We will be forty-five minutes into the one hour window when we land. Full stasis team needed on deck, pod prepped and ready."
There was a pause, and he could almost hear the flood of profanity that didn't make it across the comm. "We don't have an antidote yet, Barton," the voice sighed, almost apologetic. "We need a pure sample and none of the survivors' bodies lasted long enough before necrosis set in to even attempt to obtain one."
He patted the small pocket on his belt and felt the ampule inside it, tried not to think of what he had done to obtain it. "I have a sample, pure and unaltered," he verified.
There was another pause, and a not so small part of him wanted to believe it was hopeful.
"Bring her home, Clint," the voice said. "We'll do what we can."
"Understood, sir," he responded. He cut the connection and dared to look back again, dared to verify the shaky rise and fall of her chest, dared to watch the blue of her lips contract against the utter paleness of her skin.
The alarm sounded to let him know the Helicarrier was within range and he finally switched off the cloak to give them a more visual warning of his imminent arrival. He had done everything he could. He only hoped it was enough.
The automated controls took over and he released his harness to get her up and ready for transport. The back hatch lowered and he could see the medical team gather in preparation. They were the best the world had to offer, and yet his hands still shook when he handed over his lifeline to them.
"We'll do what we can," one of the doctors promised, but he concentrated on the hiss and click as the stasis pod slid into place.
Soon enough, the team raced away and he was left standing alone on the deck, wind ripping at his skin and helping to cover the way he staggered over to the edge of the jet to brace himself. The door closed and the deck crew went about their merry way and he knew, just knew, that it wasn't going to end this way.
She would make it.
She had to.