Times Square reminds Natasha of her last mission in Skopje: monotonous and bloody. The only difference is that here, collateral won't even have to be written off as such — there isn't anyone left to write anything off. With a bit of creative thinking, her three last remaining bullets manage to take out seven infected and she decapitates the final one with a well-aimed kick. Blood and brain matter spray everywhere, and she wipes her boot on the corpse's torn coat. The few-months-old ones make the easiest targets, decayed just enough to not pose much of a threat unless they attack en masse. It's the fresh ones that are dangerous.
There's a pack of twenty to thirty of them, far down on 7th Avenue. They turn to her, one lets out a low howl, and they all break into a frenzied run. Natasha swears. So much for shambling partly-decayed ghouls. She takes the distance to SHIELD HQ at a sprint and throws herself through the glass door, landing in a mess, but she's too tired for theatrics.
The reception is empty and silent, glass crunching under her feet as she stands up. The sound echoes, grating. She finds the lockdown panel right where it should be, tucked in behind the door to one of the fake stairwells. Natasha punches in the combination and her confirmation codes, then takes in a deep breath. If she locks herself in, it will be her against the entirety of the building; god knows what could lurk inside. But it's this or take her chances outside, and she hasn't slept in nearly eighty hours. It's only a matter of time before she starts getting sloppy. She also needs medical equipment, or at least some painkillers; trying to get away from Stark Tower got her a dislocated shoulder, and she isn't sure she set it right.
Damn it. She leans in to scan her retina for final confirmation. The steel doors slide down just as the infected outside make it into her line of vision, and then everything goes pitch black. Natasha spends ten seconds holding her breath, not moving a muscle, until the red emergency lights start slowly blinking on.
'Vstavay,' she tells herself, and gets off the floor, feeling like half the bones in her body creak in protest.
HQ is deserted. Natasha makes her way through the empty hallways, as silent as she can be on the ridiculously shiny floor, but nothing and no one jumps out to try and eat her. No one shambles or runs along the corridors, on two, three or four limbs. Good. Natasha watched a pair of infected dogs tear off a cheerleader's leg; then that same cheerleader lurched after her, leaving behind a trail of blood, femoral bone scraping along the pavement. Even by Natasha's standards, it was gruesome.
She reaches medical without incident. It's surprising, and not a little worrying, that the supplies look untouched: it means the staff had to leave in a hurry...or that the infection spread too fast for anyone to get out. It's pointless to dwell on the misfortune of others, though, so Natasha doesn't waste any time. She re-sets her shoulder and pops a handful of painkillers, and is in the middle of packing some antibiotics and bandages into a backpack when she hears it: footsteps, barely audible, followed by the safety on a gun being cocked. A Beretta, by the sound of it; standard SHIELD issue. Natasha raises her hands over her head, moving slowly and carefully. It should be safe; the infected don't have the manual dexterity to hold a gun, and anyone else she can take down.
She doesn't know who she expects, exactly. A small, naive part of her hopes for Clint or Maria, but the rest of her knows the real world doesn't work that way, not when it's so much funnier to say screw you, here's Darcy Lewis. Darcy Lewis isn't high on Natasha's list of people she'd like to meet at the end of the world.
'Okay, Agent Romanoff,' says Darcy. Her hands on the gun don't shake, but Natasha doesn't make any sudden moves anyway. 'Are you a zombie? Be honest.'
Natasha rolls her eyes. 'Do I look dead to you?'
'Actually?' Darcy gives her an honest once-over. 'Yeah. You do.'
'Touché,' Natasha concedes. 'But in your experience, do the infected engage in witty banter?'
'You...may have a point.' Darcy holsters her gun. 'If you're secretly bitten, though, I swear I'll take your head off.'
It makes Natasha bark out a surprised laugh. 'You could try,' she says, smirking to hide the honest edge of her smile.
Darcy gives her the stink eye. 'Very funny.' She looks around the empty medical wing, then back at Natasha. She swallows. 'Where's — you're on your own?'
The easy atmosphere falls flat. Natasha doesn't look away, fists her hands at her sides. 'Everybody's dead, Darcy,' she says, keeping her voice steady and calm, like she's not talking about her team, the people she could call friends. 'Stark and Rhodes went down fighting in LA, Bruce and Director Fury were at the DC headquarters with command. They didn't stand a chance. Clint is missing, but I don't...it's not likely he's alive. As soon as we got word about the virus, Cap flew Thor to the Helicarrier; we couldn't risk the resident alien demigod getting infected.'
Darcy winces at the thought. Natasha doesn't blame her. She and Steve were tripping all over themselves in their hurry to get Thor as far away from the virus as possible; they'd lock him up in a nuclear submarine if they could.
'If they made it to the Helicarrier, they might be okay,' Natasha says. 'There's no way of knowing. We lost contact when communications went offline. How did you keep safe?'
Darcy's wince turns into an outright grimace. She leans back against one of the steel cabinets and crosses her arms over her chest; the gesture looks oddly vulnerable. 'Popculture savvy?' she tries.
'I don't understand.'
'It's basic stuff,' Darcy says, wrapping her arms tighter around herself. 'Destroy the brain, don't trust anyone, don't touch anything, don't get blood on yourself, and definitely don't listen to any radio transmissions about a safe place somewhere. Oh, and the military is evil.'
For a moment, Natasha wonders how many of these Darcy had first-hand experience with before she could confirm that Hollywood has in fact lied to her. It's a moot point, though. In the past three weeks, every survivor has done things they're not proud of, things that will haunt them for as long as they manage to stay alive. Natasha is no different. Despite that, she feels obligated to point out: 'This is not a movie, Darcy. This is real.'
'Yeah,' says Darcy unhappily. 'And I'm still alive.'
They spend the night on the roof of HQ, clinging together with maybe more desperation that is strictly professional. It's a cold night, and New York is quiet. No cars, no trains, no screaming cabbies. No people. Every once in a while, something howls in the distance; human, undead or animal, Natasha doesn't know and doesn't care. The roof entrance is barricaded shut, but still she and Darcy huddle as far from it as possible.
It starts raining soon after midnight, so she makes a short trip to the armoury, trying to find anything to ward off the chill. She finds hazmat suits. This part of the building has been about half cleared out: weapons are missing, ammo is sparse. Natasha goes back to the roof and wraps herself around Darcy, to better conserve body heat, and then wraps them in the hazmat suit. She doesn't mind the discomfort, not when there is a warm body pressed to hers — warm and alive. Their breath mists in the air, and something aches in Natasha, something small and painful she thought was long dead. She can't recall the last time she touched another human being without intending to kill them, and lets herself feel helpless and scared for three minutes, then gets a grip and starts making plans.
They sleep late into the afternoon, and by the time they're ready to leave HQ for good it's night again. They don't talk about it, about Darcy joining her or maybe her joining Darcy, about leaving this place; they just start packing. Every instinct in Natasha screams that she's making a huge mistake. Darcy isn't trained for this, and it's difficult to imagine her being anything but dead weight — but then, no one could ever be trained for this, could they? Not even Natasha. The fact that her skills are applicable in this situation is just a happy accident.
She knows, even against logic and all rational thought, that she can't leave Darcy. If she stays alive by renouncing her humanity again, she's no better than the shambling masses of the undead.
Antibiotics, first-aid, bandages, water, petrol. Spare uniforms, oxygen masks, MREs, all the ammo they can find. It all goes into the back of a humvee, and then there's nothing left to do but take off. Natasha takes the wheel, and Darcy doesn't ask questions when she takes them through the deserted streets to the Bronx. She does raise her eyebrows when Natasha parks the car outside a derelict brownstone with boarded-up windows, but follows Natasha up the fire escape into the fourth-floor apartment.
Natasha doesn't have a lot of safehouses left; the habit is leftover from her old line of work, but even now she wouldn't feel completely safe without at least a few places where she could regroup. The place is cramped, paint peeling off the walls, but comfort isn't what Natasha needs it for.
'Holy shit,' Darcy says, looking over all the guns, rifles, knives, grenades and everything inbetween, everything a spy could conceivably need in a crisis. Natasha does a quick inventory, and starts disassembling the weapons she decides will be most useful. She doesn't want to spend any more time in New York than is necessary, and there's the beginnings of a plan forming at the back of her mind. 'Holy shit, you're Batman.'
Natasha puts down an Uzi to squint up at Darcy. 'Excuse me?'
Darcy puts her hands on her hips and fixes Natasha with a pointed look. 'Do you have secret plans on how to take down every member of your team?'
Natasha looks away, shifty.
'You are Batman,' Darcy says.
Natasha shakes her head, trying not to smile. 'Do you know how to use firearms?'
'Yeah, I have basic training. I do real work for SHIELD, you know, they don't just keep me around for my sparkling wit.'
'Good,' says Natasha, and doesn't say that Darcy's commentary is actually very comforting. She hands Darcy one of her favourite sniper rifles, then a semi-auto and a few guns. 'Take this, and this and this. Can you use knives?'
Darcy pulls a face. 'Not to disembowel people, no.'
'You'll learn.' Natasha helps her pull the rifle strap across her chest, making sure her touch is nothing but impersonal. It would be too easy to give in to desperation, and really, she needs to stop thinking about this. Big guns always bring out her soft side. 'Conserve ammo. Only take a shot when you're sure you can make it. If you have a chance, using melee weapons is better; they don't run out of bullets. Here.' She puts a long hunting knife in Darcy's hand, closes her fingers around it and shows her a basic sweep. Darcy repeats it on her own, pretty well for a beginner.
'I'm kind of surprised you don't have, you know, katanas or something,' Darcy says, running her thumb over the knife's edge before holstering it.
Natasha frowns at her in confusion. 'Why would I use a Japanese sword? I'm Russian. If anything, I should be using a shashka or a szabla, or both at the same time.' She pauses, wondering. The idea is somewhat ridiculous, but Natasha can see the appeal. It would definitely feel nice to fight with style. She smiles. 'Maybe if we pass an antique store.'
Darcy snorts, and lifts two of the four bags full of weapons and ammo. 'You're on.'
Not a sentimental person on a good day, Natasha doesn't think much of it when she locks the door behind herself. The apartment is just a prop, to be discarded when it isn't useful any more. People are not like that. Well, they are, but they shouldn't be. If she's to travel with Darcy, she needs to find a middle ground to operate: somewhere between what the Red Room made her and what the Avengers wanted from her. Somewhere efficient but still human; she doesn't want to lose all the years she worked for SHIELD, to come back to the place she ran away from, even if that place has been inside her all along.
By the time she climbs down the fire escape, Darcy is already behind the wheel.
They make it out of the city just as the sky is turning a dull grey. They have to take the long way out; there's a large pack haunting the interstate, which they find out only when there's a blood-curdling scream from behind an overturned eighteen-wheeler and some forty-odd infected throw themselves at the humvee, drenching it in blood and entrails. Darcy shows some interesting driving skills, shaking off their unwanted guests and hightailing it off the interstate without worrying much about staying on the road.
At sunrise, Darcy stops. They're in the middle of a field of poppies, a red sea opening before them on all sides. The landscape is flat and boring, and comforting to Natasha in a way she couldn't have described before the outbreak. She used to feel exposed in open spaces; now she can only be grateful for the 360 degree field of view.
Darcy gets out of the car and leans against the hood. Natasha joins her, keeping close enough to offer reassurance if Darcy needs it, hopefully without coming off as softhearted. It wouldn't do to ruin her reputation like that.
'So where to now?' Darcy asks eventually, keeping her eyes on the far horizon. 'Find the Helicarrier?'
'We don't have the tech to locate it.' Natasha bites her lip, not really sure if she's ready to talk about her plan — but she has to. If she wants to keep them alive, secrecy is not a good place to start. 'But there's an underground Red Room facility off the coast of northern Siberia, near Severnaya Zemlya. If there's a place on Earth that might have some useful intel or equipment to help us find the Helicarrier, it's there.'
'We're not going to make it to Siberia in a humvee,' Darcy says bluntly. It's not a question.
'Probably not,' Natasha admits. She doesn't know what Darcy takes away from that: we'll have to switch transport or we'll be killed long before.
She waits. Darcy watches the sunrise for a long while, unmoving, all the misery and hopelessness of their situation radiating off her in waves. She doesn't cry, though, which is good; Natasha never knows what to do when people cry. On an impulse she'd rather not examine too closely, she takes Darcy's hand; startled, Darcy whips her head around to stare at her. Natasha has no way of knowing what her face betrays, so she lets herself be as open as she's ever been. It's too late for games and lies. She's not a secret spy and assassin any more, no one is who they were three weeks ago, and all she wants is to keep going if she can, or die with dignity if she can't.
Finally Darcy nods. She pulls Natasha back towards the car and only lets go of her hand when she climbs into the driver's seat.
'Let's get the hell out of here.'