By a general rule, in this line of work, things almost never go according plan. They should, since a lot of people who are a lot smarter than him spend a lot of time thinking them up, but in reality, someone ends up winging it nine times out of ten. Field work is unpredictable, too many moving parts, and most of the time Clint likes it that way. Would be boring otherwise, right?
Except right now he's wandering the halls of a hospital full of goddamn zombies, and developing a whole new appreciation for nice, smooth, well-laid plans. The one plan in a million that does work out, instead of going violently south.
When they were alerted by SHIELD, there were three infected guys. Covert op. In, out, try not to be seen. When they arrived, there were a handful. And if this thing doesn't start going their way anytime soon, they could be dealing with a whole town of them within a matter of hours.
He hears a wet groan to his right, spins around, takes the shot, watches as the thing collapses in a stinking heap. These fuckers are gross. He thinks about retrieving the arrow, weighing his instinct to save limited ammo against his disgust at the thought of digging around in a pile of zombie entrails. In the end, he reaches for a nearby stack of towels, tears the arrow out of the thing's body, making a face at the resulting squelch, and puts it right back into the bow after wiping it down generously. Then he grabs another towel and stuffs it into his belt.
Above him, a luminescent tube flickers, and it only adds to the cheap horror movie atmosphere this gig's had since the beginning. Maybe they can all sit down later, have a laugh at how much of a cliché this mission was. Then again... Why wait?
”Hey,” he says, as he reaches up to tab the tube, try to make it stop flickering. “How many Avengers does it take to change a light bulb in a hospital swarming with fucking zombies?”
“Clint, shut up,” Nat groans, and it's good to hear she's still got the resources to be annoyed with him. It's not as if he wouldn't have heard over the comm if she'd run into trouble, but it still feels good to be sure.
The swing doors in front of him slide open as someone slumps through them, and the sound of dragged feet shuffling over the floor immediately squashes his hope of having found a survivor. Not one living soul in this building so far, apart from their team. He buries the arrow in another stinking creature, scrunches his nose, and retrieves it again. Wonders if Tony's suit saves him from the smell, filtering it out or something. Clint bets it does. Asshole.
As if on cue, the comm crackles and he's got Stark's voice in his ear, although he's not talking to him. “Bruce? Talk to me, you getting anything?”
“You got visual on this?” Bruce replies, from the safety of his lab. If it weren't for the fact that he's gonna be the one to spend days, maybe weeks, with the remains of the stinkers, Clint would wish to switch places.
“JARVIS is hacking here, there and everywhere as we speak.”
That's the thing about small-town hospitals: they may have surveillance, but it's decades old and the camera feeds provide jittery, pixelated pictures in low-contrast black and white. Every smartphone would make better videos, and Clint guesses that's what Tony's betting on.
He leaves the big brains to talk amongst themselves, zoning out of the conversation as he reaches the swing doors. Bow taut and ready, he inches through them, trying to have his eyes everywhere at once. He runs towards and up the staircase, curses under his breath when he opens the door and sees there's a splash of blood on the wall opposite of him. So much for hoping this was contained to the first floor, then.
“Guys, there's blood on the door frame and all over the wall, they've probably taken the second floor too.”
Bruce squints at the screen in front of him. He hates this. He hates all of this. Sure, he may be a scientist and, out of the five of them, the one most qualified to analyze this situation and cook up theories, but... Zombies. There's got to be a specialist with SHIELD who's better equipped to figure out zombies. Who's currently working on it too, probably, most likely rendering what Bruce is doing here a complete waste of time.
But the thing is that Tony just barely tolerates SHIELD and Steve still thinks they're somewhat skeevy, and, okay, sure, given the choice Bruce himself would rather run away from them than towards, but that's not the point. The point is that he's not the zombie kind of scientist. But, well. One of the many things they don't know about these creatures yet is whether or not they're able to infect beings that aren't strictly human. Telling the Other Guy to stay away and take care not to get bitten would've had little to no effect, so he gets why he's here and not there. Really. The only thing worse than a Hulk on the loose would be a zombified Hulk on the loose.
So he listens to the rest of the team – his team, his friends – risk their lives while he's holed up in the Avengers tower, staring at beeping monitors and the various feeds Tony keeps pinging his way. He's got no real idea what he's doing. Even smashing things would be more useful than this.
“Steve, you seen these before?” Natasha asks, and yes, Bruce remembers how Steve mentioned something like that in the briefing. In passing. Didn't seem like he was too keen on sharing more about it than he absolutely had to.
“Yeah. A Hydra experiment to reanimate dead troops. Tested it on civilians as well.”
That makes a shocking amount of sense for Hydra. Of course they'd be the ones to look at dead people and think, hey, maybe it's a good idea to make them be alive again so they can keep fighting. He tries to remember what he knows about zombies, wonders if this is a chicken-and-egg situation: what existed first, zombie legends to inspire Hydra's experiments, or Hydra's experiments to inspire the zombie legend?
No. Stop. Not important right now, Banner.
Once more it's Natasha who asks the questions no one else really wants answered. “So technically they're civilians?”
Because, yeah. That's bad. Of course, it'd be bad too if they were soldiers, and either way, by now it's spreading and a whole lot of patients and hospital staff got turned so the distinction has been rendered moot. But at least soldiers would have had signed up for this.
“Technically that one just tried to gnaw on my leg,” Clint points out, and Bruce hears the telltale swish of an arrow being shot in the vicinity of the earpiece. “Like hell they're civilians, or even people, look at their eyes. If we start discussing dead people’s rights right now the whole fucking town will be gnawing at each other’s legs in a few hours, and in a matter of days it'll be the whole state of New York.”
“Shouldn't we try to round 'em up until we find a cure?” Tony asks, and he sounds uncomfortable. They’ve had many a conversation about that, up here in the tower, how Tony's inventions used to be about killing people, and how he can try to make them about saving people instead.
That's when Steve cuts in again. “There is no cure.”
The third floor is the intensive care unit. Or, it was. Now it's as abandoned as the rest of the building, no one with a pulse around in the nurse's station or in the hallways. The only difference is that there are still patients in some of the beds. They're alive, though probably not recognized as such by the creatures, which is what saved them from being bitten. But their monitors are still online, beeping and printing out data. Natasha wants to wheel them all out of here, one by one, to the roof and the helicopters and safety, but given the state they're in that would probably mean killing them. She doesn't know. Picks up the chart of one of them, but can't make sense of the medical gibberish. Figures she could ask Bruce, but he's got more pressing matters to deal with right now.
It's a rather cruel joke. There's a very real chance that they'll have to bomb the whole building if they can't pick off all the creatures in combat, and in the face of a zombie epidemic, they can't put that off just because of a few people who are already half-dead anyway.
She decides not to bring it up, in case they have to resort to such desperate measures. The others don't need to know.
Natasha puts the chart back where she found it, avoids looking at the woman in the bed again. She checks her gun – five bullets left, and another two clips in her belt – and goes back into the hallway, gun raised and at the ready. But there's nothing here, not anymore. The creatures have moved on, spread further. They're losing their handle on the situation.
“It would be great if you got a blood sample,” Bruce says from the lab. He sounds frustrated, stressed, out of sorts. She would be too, if she had to watch this from the outside; in here it's much easier for her to stay focused and calm.
“Way ahead of you,” Tony says. “Got a brain sample too. Yuck.”
“Okay, good,” Bruce replies. Something beeps in the background, much like the machines in the room she just left, and Natasha flinches. “How's the fourth floor?”
“Blasted two creepers, haven’t seen others. If Pepper’s not home tonight, then Bruce, I’m sleeping in your bed.” Tony sounds like he's trying to laugh this off, a joke, ha ha, nothing to see, but she's spent too much time profiling him to miss the wavering in his voice. She also knows that he's built himself an army of new suits, that he's not sleeping well as it is, and that Pepper's talked to the one of the psychologists SHIELD has on staff. Strictly confidential, of course.
Bruce doesn't miss a beat. “So much of a ‘yuck’, eh?”
“Get a room, you two,” Clint cuts in, and Natasha has the intense desire to smack him upside the head. But given Clint's complete inability to pick up on social cues, that's a regular occurrence.
Tony actually laughs, though, so maybe it's not been quite so out of place. “That’s what we’re working on, Barton. I think it’s somewhat scientifically proven that cuddling prevents nightmares. Tasha, is Clint a cuddler?”
And of course, there it comes again. What may or may not be going on between her and her partner is theirs, and no one else's business. But that doesn't keep Tony from asking, often and obnoxiously. Natasha sighs, makes a face at a pile of zombie-goo. “Go fuck yourself, Stark.”
So far, none of them have gotten out. Steve stayed behind in the foyer to make sure nothing could get through, the basement is locked up tight and the whole perimeter guarded by SHIELD agents .
An infection like this got out of control once before – sixty years ago, in Norway, though to him it feels like yesterday – and he's not going to let it happen again. He remembers soldiers that got one look at the creatures and settled for suicide as a pre-emptive measure, people shooting their neighbors in a panic regardless of whether they were actually infected. He remembers piles of dead bodies set on fire, the smell, the sight of flesh melting off bones. They took out the whole village, in the end, so many innocent people...
He shakes his head to get rid of the images and takes in a deep gulp of fresh air, inhaling the sharp scent of disinfectants and artificial cleaning agents. That's not all the air in here smells like anymore, there's also the underlying stink of decay coming from the creatures – several of them are lying at his feet, heads bashed in and gone for good – but it's better than the phantom smell of burning human bodies that he hasn't been able to shake all day. He recognizes one of the bodies around him from the photos SHIELD had shown them before they were sent in. As for the others... Most of them are wearing hospital scrubs or pajamas.
Around the corner that leads up to the stairway he can hear another one approaching, loudly munching on something and dragging its feet. They're slow, at least, and easy to kill; a bullet or an arrow or a few well-aimed knocks to the head with something heavy and blunt, and they're out. The trick is to not get bitten in the process. It could happen so fast, and they were prepared for a simple extraction – no special gear, no protection beyond the usual. He's not worried though. They all know what they're doing, it's why they're here, part of this team.
The comm has mostly gone silent. First there was complaining about the grossness and the smell and the goo, then they bantered, but now the only thing that crops up now and then is Stark and Banner talking science. It only adds to the eeriness, and makes it easier for Steve's brain to put him back to what happened in Europe. The fact that it was one of the last missions before the end, before they lost Bucky and Steve landed himself a long nap on ice and a trip to the future, doesn't help.
Tony finds a nest of them in the kitchen, crawling over each other to clean out the meat in the hospital's walk-in fridge. They're easy targets in the big room, slowed down by the cold, and he makes an effort not to look at any of their faces, keeps his attention on the controls instead. His scans can clearly discern between a healthy body temperature and these things, and he doesn't need the video feed to aim and shoot.
Aliens in New York, now zombies. He wonders what'll be next, then decides he doesn't want to know. The nightmares he already has are plenty enough, no need to conjure up new ones. “JARVIS, another scan of the whole floor. Anymore live signs? Or undead signs. You know, anything still moving.”
”Understood, sir. I don't detect either.”
He opens a comm line. “Guys, I think I'm done here. How's it looking for you?”
“Third floor seems empty,” Natasha replies. She sounds wrong somehow, like she's forcing herself to be detached and professional. Maybe it's the creatures – he knows she must have seen a lot, but the decaying undead aren't exactly regular spy business.
Before he can say anything, though, Clint cuts in. “Nat, you okay?”
“My whole suit is smeared with stinking goo,” she snaps, “and I think one of them managed to throw up on me when I shot it. We can start talking about okay after a shower and a clothes change. What's your status?”
Whether or not he's buying that, Clint doesn't elaborate. “I think I'm done here. Haven't seen anything for twenty minutes or so, on my way to the elevator.”
One of Maria Hill's responsibilities, being second in command, is to issue orders like this. Everyone around her is quiet when she gives the green lights for the air strike to take out the hospital. They had a long and extensive debrief, a drone sweep in the hospital afterwards that left them reasonably sure it was cleared out, but Steve Rogers himself requested the building be burned down anyway. Fury had agreed; better safe than sorry. If the infection managed to surface after again after decades, there was no such thing as too careful.
Once she's notified that the bombers are in place and ready, she doesn't hesitate. One word and it's done, the destruction shown on five of her monitors at once. But at least it's over – or that's what they all think.
Two weeks later, at four in the morning, she gets another call from Director Fury. A third call finds her over a bowl of wonton soup from her favorite Szechuan restaurant the same week. She's already on shift when report number four comes in the next day.
This time, they don't even call the Avengers first.