"Hey Tony?" Steve yells. "Have you seen my shield?"
Next to him, Natasha and Phil are checking and double-checking their pistols and the ammo; Clint is helping Bruce load his backpack with water and dried food; Loki is crowded close to Thor, talking to him in low tones; and Logan is chewing on the end of his unlit cigar. Down the hall, Tony pokes his scruffy head out of their room.
"Under the coffee table, dear," Tony replies cheekily as he trots over to Steve. His fireman's axe is slung over the meat of his left shoulder, the handle worn and easy in his palm, while his right hand is already wrapped in dirty boxing tape and sporting an old pair of brass knuckles. Steve has only seen Tony use his knuckle dusters once in a fight—they are more adept at breaking glass and small locks than killing walkers—and only out of desperation. He had been pinned by a walker, his neck inches away from its snapping jaws; he managed to free one of his arms and take off the walker's jaw with a sharp hook, moments before Thor hauled it aside and put his sledgehammer in its brains as it writhed on the ground.
After a quick kiss, Steve retrieves his shield from underneath the low table. The white star Bucky had jokingly painted in the middle is starting to flake and the sudden memory of Bucky's roguish smile assaults Steve. Swallowing the grief that rises like a flood in his throat, Steve makes a mental note to repaint it when they return from the raid.
"Alright," Steve says when he gets back to the kitchen. All of the others—Tony, Bruce, and Pepper, Phil, Natasha, and Clint, Hank and Jan, Thor and Loki, and Logan—are standing around the granite top island, looking at him with blank faces. Other than Logan, who was in the same platoon as Steve when they were in the Marines, Steve has only known everyone for about ten weeks.
It feels more like ten years.
"I know we've gone over this three times already," Steve begins with a wry smile, "but we all know how slow on the uptake I am. Bruce, if you would?"
"Okay," Bruce says, rubbing a dirty hand across his mouth. He had spent all of last night working on the generator with Tony and the oil still hasn't come off his fingers. "We're going to head southeast down 7th towards the subway…"
Bruce outlines the path they intend to take on the raid. All of the supermarkets, convenience stores, and restaurants are devoid of food—those places were the first to be scoured in the chaotic aftermath—so now they pillage vending machines and residential homes and apartment complexes. They're covered a lot of area around Midtown and have recently started pushing further south to what used to be Downtown. Each raid is getting longer and longer. It makes Steve nervous, as he can tell it makes Logan and Phil and Natasha nervous. They all know that this lifestyle is not sustainable, in the long run.
"Hey, cowboy," Tony says quietly once Bruce is done. He touches his rough fingers to Steve's wrist and steps into the space created by Steve's slumped shoulders. "This ain't our first rodeo, and it won't be our last."
If someone had told Steve three months ago that it would take a zombie apocalypse for him to meet the love of his life, Steve would have laughed in their face. Now that the world has ended, he finds himself beyond grateful that he and Tony found one another in the chaos. Some days, Tony is the only thing that makes life bearable.
"Yeah," Steve breathes and, for a moment, allows himself the comfort of Tony's touch. It grounds him. Then he pulls away and turns back to his team.
"Ready, Captain?" Logan says, his smile sharp around his cigar.
"As I'll ever be."
Before the electric grid went down, the news channels covered nothing but the Virus.
It began in China. How or why, no one knew. Some pathologists said it was a super-virus that had been bred in the contaminated water; others claimed the Virus had been produced as a biological weapon; and some religious fanatics roared about the wrath of a righteous god. When China was quarantined, world trade ground to a halt. Economies began to falter and governments had to deal with the decline. Inevitably, footage from China surfaced on the Internet, of diseased people cannibalizing those unaffected, of the mauled rising from the dead. Panic rose.
Despite the quarantine, the Virus made its way across the sea. It began in San Francisco. Chicago was next, followed by Dallas, Seattle, and Minneapolis. New York City had been next. The federal government had been ineffective in stopping the rapid spread; already wounded by the fall in the economy, the political parties had squabbled about the best plan of action until it was too late.
When the Virus hit, Steve was twenty-eight years old. He had been a Marine for six years before he retired; he used the money from the G.I. Bill to enroll at NYU as an undergrad with a major in studio art. On November 3rd, Steve was at the MET when he got a text from Bucky that read simply, Chrysler Building.
The power went out a minute later and Steve's expensive phone was little more than a small bit of ineffectual plastic.
Steve isn't sure how he made it two miles armed with little more than determination and a club improvised from a wooden chair, but he did. In the chaos, he, Bucky, and about a hundred others had holed themselves up in bank to wait out the worst. It was crowded, the stench of fear was nearly unbearable, and he and Bucky were covered in blood that was not their own. Thirst set in during the night and hunger followed swiftly, but walkers had the area surrounded. Steve and Bucky had been able to escape only when the National Guard rolled down Lexington, distracting the walkers long enough for them to slip out into an alleyway.
Steve and Bucky met Pepper and Tony that day, in an alleyway fending off three walkers. Tony's suit had been ripped and Pepper had been barefoot—the heel of one of her Louboutin's was buried in an unmoving walker's eye socket—and Tony had been using his tie to garrote another. Steve had been unable to just walk away.
Bruce had come next, with his Louisville Slugger autographed by Derek Jeter. ("I picked it off a guy in Harlem," he said when Bucky and Steve had given him twin looks of horror.) Thor and Loki found them three days later, diving into a small fray with a strange and vicious blood-thirst; Hank and Jan had been in the lobby of Stark Tower, hoping against hope that Tony had a helicopter that could take them to safety (he didn't); Logan had dropped into an abandoned tank and driven it down East 41st Street, squishing walkers like bugs before he ran it into the office building they had been raiding; and Clint, Phil, and Natasha had met them on November 11th, the day Bucky died.
Bucky didn't live from more than eight days after the world ended.
It had made Steve wonder how long he would last.
It takes the raiding party an hour to get where they want to be. After nearly three months, the sheer numbers of walkers have dwindled; they killed so many in the first few weeks that there hadn't been enough "food" to sustain the enormous hoard. Their corpses are decomposing everywhere: the sidewalks, the roads, inside random buildings. Steve has almost gotten used to the smell, putrid even in the numbing January air.
The first brownstone they find offers a case of bottled water and little more. The second, third, and fourth have food rotting in the fridge and freezer, but the fifth is the home of a doctor and provides an array of medical supplies. "Yahtzee!" Steve hears Bruce cry from the second floor.
Tony picks up a bright red sherpa hat and matching mittens from the eighth house, to replace the crusty ones he had been wearing; Clint takes the entire Harry Potter series, leather bound collector's edition, from the ninth; in the thirteenth, Natasha and Phil break open a display case and steal a collection of throwing knives and Japanese shuriken; Steve finds charcoal and drawing paper in the seventeenth; somewhere in the twenties, Thor finds a pair of jeans that actually fit him and Logan uncovers a box of Cubans. They don't find as much food as Steve would like—they'll have to go out again, in another five or six days—but their backpacks and the shopping cart are full.
"Besides," Natasha says when Clint discovers a cache of board games in the last home. He takes the Catch Phrase disk out of the box and tries to get Bruce to say 'cheddar cheese'. "We need these things just as much as food and water. They're normal things. They keep us sane."
It's just past noon by the time they're done. Steve hates the short winter days. The daylight limits the amount of time they can spend raiding, because Steve will be damned if they stay out past dusk. He has Thor push the laden cart—they're incredibly lucky that it hasn't snowed heavily yet, because it would be hard to push even though Tony has motorized it—and positions everyone else around it. He takes the front with Bruce and Logan, puts Tony and Clint on either side, and has Natasha and Phil take up the rear. They haven't seen a walker all day and it puts them all on edge, as though Murphy's Law were lying in wait around every corner, muscles coiled and teeth bared.
Of course, the foreboding is warranted; they're about two blocks away from Stark Tower when they hear the gunshots. Each shot echoes through the quiet city, a beacon to any walker within hearing distance. Guns may pack a punch, but they're only used in a final and desperate situation. Whoever is fending off the walkers must be in more danger than usual.
"Motherfucker!" Logan spits, nearly biting through his cigar. He unsheathes the machete attached to his hip just as Steve pulls his shield off his back.
"Tony, Bruce, Phil," Steve barks, coming to a swift decision. There are too few humans left to abandon any, especially not when he has the best of his team backing him. "Get the cart back to the tower. Everyone else, with me."
"Steve—" Tony starts, putting a hand on Steve's bicep. Steve can barely feel it through his thick leather jacket and the fleece hoodie he's wearing, but he stops and turns to Ton, regardless.
"Tony," Steve replies, sharp. There is no time. "Not now. Not so close to the tower."
Tony's face hardens. Steve knows he hates being treated as though he couldn't hold himself in a fight—which is so far from the truth that it hurts Steve's chest to think about—but he doesn't have extensive military training like Steve, Logan, and Thor do, or practical experience, like Phil, Natasha, and Clint. All he has are a few boxing lessons taught to him by a dead bodyguard. Even Bucky had been more highly trained, and he—
"Please," Steve whispers, voice raw. He reaches up to run his thumb over Tony's beard, the hairs coarse under his thumb. "Please Tony, don't argue. I can't lose you too."
The stony expression on Tony's face softens instantly. He had been the one that dared to be with Steve the night Bucky died; he had seen all the pieces Steve had broken into; he was the one who was still trying to put Steve back together. "Okay," Tony murmurs, his syllables punched out of him. "Okay, but only on one condition."
"You come back home."
Even though time is precious, Steve can't help but lean forward to slot his mouth across Tony's. His lips are dry, his facial hair scratches against Steve's own stubble, and neither of them has brushed their teeth for days to conserve their dwindling water supply. None of it matters, really, because Tony is warm and accepting beneath his touch, so perfect in a moment that is anything but, that Steve knows he would move heaven and earth to come back to Tony.
"Oi!" Logan shouts. "Lovebirds, get yer asses movin'!"
Tony plants one last peck on his lips, before joining Bruce and Phil. Steve fits the straps of his shield over one forearm and doesn't look back as he jogs west down East 39th. He trusts everyone else to follow him and follow they do, their footsteps thudding purposefully against the pavement.
There's a group of a dozen walkers in the intersection. All of them are pooled around the bottom of the yellow pole, rotting hands clambering at the cold metal; a person has somehow climbed up high enough to be out of reach and is firing into the mass below him. The bullets run out quickly; Steve is too far away to hear the empty click as the stranger futilely squeezes the trigger, but he is close enough to hear the loud, shrill, "Fuck it!" as he whips the gun into a walker's head.
No one else is in the intersection, which means the stranger is alone or his companions have been taken. Quickly, Steve makes a plan, barking, "Surround them!" Twelve walkers isn't overwhelming, so Steve dives right in and trusts his team to back him up.
Steve takes the head of a walker off with a swipe of his shield. It's a heavy, circular, and made of steel; he had picked it up from the rubble of the street the day the National Guard retreated. No one really knew where Steve's shield came from, in the rubble. Tony and Hank theorizes that it was the hatch door of a tank, even though it's too thin and doesn't have the scorch marks from a grenade blowing it from the vehicle; Natasha speculates that it might be an old police riot shield, before they were replaced by polycarbon and curved, rectangular shapes; and Logan calls it an over-sized trash can lid. But like everything else, it doesn't matter what the shield was in the time before the Virus; all that matters is what it can do now.
Next to Steve, Logan plunges his machete into the throat of another walker, twists, and pulls the short blade back with a sick squelch. Tendons and muscles rip and the walker gurgles as blood erupts from its broken larynx. Logan repeats the process as Steve brings his shield down again. On the other side, Thor lets out a guttural war cry and smashes his sledgehammer in a deadly arch, bits of brain and bone and old blood exploding into the cold air.
Clint and Natasha take out the other seven with seven precise bullets, pressing the lip of their guns to walker foreheads. Stealth isn't the priority right now; speed is. The fight—if it can be called that—is over in ten seconds and Steve pants, a quick, "Well done everyone."
"Yeah, good job guys," the stranger on the stop light pole interjects. One of his skinny arms jerks up and extends a finger to point down the avenue. "That was really cool, and thanks for the save, but I need to burst this bubble. We've got company."
Steve whips around and sees a swarm of walkers headed straight for them. It's the largest group he's seen in a month, all gray flesh and ruined clothes and wet entrails, the stench of them and the sound of their lows moans rising with every step closer. They aren't moving too quickly, probably half-starved, but they're fast enough. Steve swears, loudly, and pulls his pistol out of the holster around his thigh.
"Can you get down?" Steve asks the stranger.
"Yeah, just give me a sec—"
He's back on the street in a heart-stopping moment, having let go of his grip on the pole and slipping down with surprising dexterity. Only when his feet are planted on the cement, white chucks gray with dust and splattered dark brown with organic debris, does Steve realize the kid can't be older than sixteen. His body too thin underneath the multiple layers of his dirty clothes and, even with a ratty keffiyeh around the lower half of his face and a knitted hat pulled low over his ears, Steve can see the ghost of hunger and anguish in his features.
"Are you alone?" Steve asks. Logan looks up sharply, catching on instantly. They don't have a rule about strays, but there is an unspoken code that the team comes first. Picking up random people on the street could threaten the team's safety. "Or is there somebody else?"
"Cap," Logan growls warningly.
"He's a kid, Logan!" Steve snaps back.
"Steve, we don't have time!" Natasha interjects, slamming another clip into her handgun. The walkers are a couple blocks down, too close. Her eyes cut to the kid and she snarls, "Answer!"
"No!" he replies hastily, raising his palms in defense. "No, I'm—there's no one else! Not—not anymore."
Steve doesn't have time to empathize with the grief in the kid's eyes or think about how terribly he misses Bucky. Instead, Steve grabs the kid's elbow and tugs him back down to Park. "We have a safe house," he shouts as they begin to sprint down the pavement. "Move!"
It's treacherous, running so quickly in the middle of January. There's ice on the roads and one slip could mean the end. The air is icy and each inhale burns. At a dead sprint, even Steve's muscles begin to burn, but luckily, Stark Tower is only four blocks away. The kid lags a bit in the last stretch, so Steve gets behind him and all but pushes him into the lobby. A few walkers slam into the glass a moment later, too feral to use the rotating entrance.
"What are you guys waiting for?" Tony yells. He, Bruce, and Phil are waiting for them in the elevator; they probably got there only a minute or so beforehand. "An engraved invitation?"
"That would be nice," Clint pants.
The elevator was built to be spacious, but with the shopping cart, the kid, and seven adults wearing bulky backpacks, it is anything but. When they're all in, they're packed like a can of dirty, battered sardines.
"Okay?" Tony asks as the doors close. His hands run down from Steve's shoulders to his hips, where they rest. His eyes rove across the rest of Steve's body and, when he's satisfied, Tony allows himself to relax. He presses one of his cheeks against the thundering pulse in Steve's neck.
"Yeah," Steve pants, instinctively tucking his arms around Tony's waist. He feels a ridiculous smile bloom on his face as he pulls Tony tight to him and closes his eyes. The adrenaline in his blood slowly leaks out. "Yeah, we're all good."
There's a moment of blissful, peaceful silence, then:
"Are mom and dad always like this?" the kid asks, his voice high with humor and curiousness. Clint immediately starts laughing, so loud and hard it should be impossible after the run. Thor joins in with the same gusto and Bruce chuckles too, though he's much more subdued than the other two.
"Kid," Logan grunts, "this ain't the half of it."
Predictably, Jan is on the kid the instant he's out of the elevator.
"Here!" she says, all but shoving a packet of stale, blueberry PopTarts and a bottle of water into his hands. "Sit down and eat this before you keel over. When's the last time you've eaten?"
"Two days ago?" the kid answers as he inhales the first cheap pastry in four bites. "Maybe three?"
At this, Jan goes to the pantry to grab him the last can of Spam. He stares at it almost reverently when she pulls the top off and puts it in his hands. Like them, he knows how rare meat has become since the power went down.
"Are you sure?" he asks. His eyes remind Steve of Bucky's and of Tony's; they're big and brown and nearly impossible to say no to. "I don't want to impose or anything."
"You better eat it now," Hank says as he wraps one of his arms around Jan's waist. "My wife is very stubborn."
Once the PopTarts, water, and Spam are gone, and everyone has put their backpacks in the kitchen to be sorted out later, Steve ushers all of them into the living room. In a former lifetime—just three months ago—the top floor of the Stark Tower would have been the envy of anyone with eyes to see. The view included the top of the Chrysler Building and the skyline of New York City, stretched out until the horizon grayed and turned into the blue sky.
Now, Stark Tower is just another skyscraper. If it weren't for the generator Tony had in his personal lab two stories down, living on the top floor of the tower wouldn't have been feasible; as it is, the generator keeps the elevator working, the lights and the heat on, and allows the microwave and the oven to work. It's a luxury Steve knows few have, and he's beyond grateful for it even if the toilet doesn't flush.
"Wait a minute," the kid says once everyone is seat. He's in the middle of the deep leather couch, Loki and Thor on his right, and Clint and Bruce on his left. Steve tucks his shield under the coffee table a moment before Tony settles down next to him. He stares at Tony, squinting as though trying to peer past the wild of Tony's beard and his greasy hair, before he croaks, "You're Tony Stark."
It's unexpected, blunt, and Tony immediately throws back his head and laughs.
Truth be told, the statement is rather funny. All of them had lives before the Virus. Steve had been an art student; Logan had been a bartender; Jan was once the editor-in-chief of an elite fashion magazine; Hank had been a genetics professor at NYU; Loki had kept a scathing and infamous blog; Thor worked as a barbeque pit boss; Bruce had been an experimental physicist; Clint was a circus performer with an act called, The Amazing Hawkeye!; Phil was an NSA agent; Natasha was a homicide detective; Pepper had been a secretary; and Tony had been the owner of a multi-billion dollar company.
None of things matter, anymore. The professions each of them had strived for are dust and the careers they had built have crumbled. Only a handful of things that from the past—like Bruce's year at medical school and Jan's ability to darn clothes—served them in this strange new place.
"Sorry!" the kid squeaks, hiding his flaming face with his tattered blue and red scarf. The style is distinctly feminine and it makes Steve's heart hurt to wonder about whom the kid lost: was it a mother? an aunt? a sister? a girlfriend? "It's just, you know, we had to write a paper in school about the person we admired the most, and—this is so embarrassing—"
"You wrote a paper about Stark?" Loki comments, sly. "Oh, if I did not fear for the future of humanity already."
"Hey!" Tony interjects, a wide smile splitting his face. He leans into Steve as he gives Loki the finger. "I am totally hero material."
Clint coughs something into his fist that sounds an awful like 'narcissist'. Bruce smothers a tiny smile into the curve of Clint's shoulder, while Natasha and Phil have identical neutral expressions on their faces that mean they're secretly laughing hysterically on the inside. Pepper snorts a laugh as Tony crosses his arms and pouts.
"I love you, Tony," Steve says. Tony looks at him out of the corner of his eye. "But..."
"Traitor!" Tony shouts, but his fingers are tangled in Steve's dirty hoodie. He's close enough to kiss, so Steve gives him one, then two, then three. They're small and short and chaste and wonderful. Someone throws the wrapper from the PopTarts at them when they kiss a fourth time.
"We have an impressionable mind here!" Clint quips. Tony glares at him and opens his mouth to start another round of banter, but Steve puts a hand on his jean-clad thigh and squeezes.
"A new member," Steve says, solemn.
The light atmosphere doesn't disappear entirely but it gains a certain gravity. Their group is already large, especially by post-apocalypse standards. Most of the people they've seen travel in pockets of two to five people. It's easier to ignore a chain of command in smaller groups, easier to find enough food, and easier to maneuver. Also, it greatly reduces the friction that can appear in high stress situations.
At twelve members, their group nearly triples the average and, to be honest, the first week was unstable. Steve and Tony didn't along back then; Bucky always sided with Steve, Pepper always sided with Tony, and the remaining members were aggravated by the constant fighting, both against the walkers and against each other. They almost went their separate ways.
That changed after Bucky died. Steve hates to think that it was necessary for one of them to be taken—to be wrenched away by avaricious hands and torn apart by gluttonous teeth, while he screamed and screamed and screamed—but he knows, deep down, that it was Bucky's loss that brought them together and made them inseparable.
"Well," Clint says to break the heavy and contemplative silence. He leans back into the cushioning of the couch and slings a casual arm around Bruce's shoulder. "The Captain's opinion is the only one I really care about. If he thinks the kid is okay, I'm for it."
Steve and Clint catch each other's eye. Clint gives him a single nod.
"Welcome to our humble home!" Thor booms a moment after, and pats the kid on the back. Loki just rolls his eyes, but that's as good of an answer as Loki will ever give. Nearly everyone swiftly follows suit, until Logan is the only person who hasn't said anything.
"You know this ain't gonna end well, and you know it," Logan tells lowly Steve as he chews on one of his pilfered Cubans. Fifteen years in the service has made him cynical, yet he's known Steve since Afghanistan and is probably the most honest voice among them. "But I'm not gonna stand in your stubborn way, Cap. I know better."
Logan leaves the living room once he's said his peace, and heads out to the patio to smoke his cigar. Tony makes a face at Logan's retreating back before he whips around and holds out his hand.
"Welcome to the family, kiddo," he crows.
"It's Peter," the kid mumbles. He has a strange look of relief and awe on his face as he tentatively squeezes Tony's hand. "My name is Peter."
Steve feels his chest swell in a visceral and untamable happiness. It's something he never thought he would have when the world ended and Bucky died, but—surrounded by his new family and feeling the warm line of Tony at his side, always by his side—Steve knows that he'll never be without it, again.