On the average, six foot high chain link fence, the posts are spaced eight feet apart.
The fences they put up are nine feet high, and so, the posts are spaced closer together to support the extra weight. Probably six feet, maybe a little less. If the fences are to surround the entire perimeter of the compound, and the compound is almost exactly the size of fourteen blocks, with the perimeter of the average city block in Manhattan coming in at two hundred sixty-four feet by nine hundred feet, then there are approximately one thousand two hundred and sixteen posts in the fence they built. Not bad at all, for a fence that basically went up overnight and had kept out everything that's wanted to get in so far.
Oh, but that number doesn't account for the streets. Not that there are any streets out there in the woods. Just trees, and bushes, and something that Clint claims is a coyote howling outside the perimeter every night, but some people worry that it might be a wolf. But supposing there are streets, just for the sake of the math...
If, on average, a nine foot high chain link fence has posts spaced six feet apart, and the fence goes around the entire perimeter of the compound, and the compound is approximately --
He snaps out of his haze of neat, orderly numbers, raising his gun before he realizes it's Tony. "Ready," he says, dropping the barrel quickly.
"Good," Tony says, giving him a sideways look. "Did you find everything on your list?"
"Most of it. I couldn't find any coffee, but I found extra flour, so I grabbed it all. And one of those restaurants in the third block had a nice set of knives. I figured we could always use more knives." He shifts his grip on his rifle uneasily. He wishes they could just get going already -- being on the streets, out in the open, is making him more nervous than usual.
Tony grins. "Excellent. I can't believe those weren't already gone."
"No kidding. What about you?" Bruce watches Tony carefully as he answers. Something's been going on with him. He looks pale these days. He's been quieter, too, which is out of character on such a grand scale that even Maria Hill, who normally would be grateful for a moment without Tony's constant word-vomit, has come to Bruce with concerns.
Tony seems fine today; his usual, chatty self. Bruce deems the abnormalities a result of stress, (because which one of them isn't feeling mountains of that right now?) and makes note to keep an eye out.
"I found a little gas, not much, but enough maybe. Let's get in, I don't like the look of that smoke. Looks like it's getting closer." Hefting the gas can, Tony motions to the stream of smoke rising to the west, over the broken roofs of the financial district. They both know what that means, and it's nothing good.
Bruce gives a short, sharp whistle, and doesn't bother to hide his smile. "Still can't believe you can't whistle."
Tony mumbles some curse word or another, but smiling faintly himself. "I can whistle a tune, it's just that calling a dog thing I can't do."
They start picking their way back through a cluttered alley, climbing over debris and garbage as they make their way back to the truck they hid uptown. Careful and delicate, but as fast as they can go. Clint joins them halfway down, sort of materializing at Bruce's side. He's gotten better and better at disappearing into the background wherever he is, all watchful eyes and quiet, measured sounds. Tony can't tell if this is some kind of defense mechanism, or if Clint is just creepily good at living through the apocalypse. He would find neither answer that surprising.
"I'm not a dog," Clint says, nudging Tony with the end of his bow.
"You come when he whistles," Tony says with a shrug. "So it's kind of the same thing."
"You're an ass."
"Tell me something I don't know, Rover."
"How was it?" Bruce asks Clint, interrupting the kind of sniping he knows will go on all day if not nipped in the bud (and they still have to survive the three hour drive back to camp with each other).
"Not great. Lots of fires west of us."
"We saw," Tony says. It comes out short and sharp, more out of fear and the prickly memory of the SHIELD helicarrier crashing down and killing hundreds. It had crushed Stark Tower and the surrounding buildings, shutting down JARVIS and all Tony's research. He constantly thanks whatever higher power there was that Pepper hadn't been inside at the time, but all the same, it's not a pleasant thing to recall.
"Lot of movement too. I think we're in for a tense drive back, and probably a long night." Clint continues as if Tony hadn't spoken.
"They're all long now," Tony says, pushing the remains of a broken wooden pallet out of the way so they can pass in front of him. Even if he doesn't meet their eyes, he can feel the weight of their concern.
Clint's frown deepens as Bruce shrugs at him, a silent 'well, what do you think we should say to him?' "Well, you're not wrong about that," Clint says finally.
"Time check?" Bruce asks.
Clint looks up at the sky at the same time Tony glances at his watch.
"One fifty-six," Tony says.
"Thirteen fifty-six," Clint says, at the same time.
"You can't possibly know that just from looking up, I call bullshit," Tony says with an exasperated grumble. "The sun's not even out, it's been overcast for weeks."
"But I was right, wasn't I?" The silent, implied 'suck it, Stark,' hangs between them.
Bruce nudges them both. "We're going to be late."
That gets them moving. They walk the rest of the way in silence, stopping briefly to get out of the street when it sounds like someone is close by. Either it's fellow looters, or it's some Unfriendlies; either way, it's no one they want to meet. They get back to the truck without any major catastrophes, which is both good and bad news.
Good, obviously, because fighting their way back out of the city is scary and dangerous and always has a decent chance to get them killed. Bad, because they all expected to have to fight, and now they're on edge.
Clint and Tony bicker for a few seconds over who's going to take the front seat. Clint wins out, claiming he's got better eyes for seeing danger ahead and should therefore get (permanent) navigator status. Tony tells him to fuck off, but grumbles something about catching a nap in the back and lets him take it.
"How did it go?" Pepper asks over the radio once Tony reports that they're safely on the road. There's a hitch in her voice, like she's holding her breath until she hears all three of them.
"We're all here," Clint says gently. He hears it too, and he knows what it means. It's happened before. Far too often, they've come back fewer than they left. But to be fair, they've also found more survivors in the city and brought them back. The numbers in the compound stay relatively constant.
"Good." They hear her sigh, finally breathing again. She starts to ask another question, but there's a shuffling noise and it's Steve's voice is coming out of the radio.
"You're late checking in," he says. He sounds angry, accusing, and fucking relieved, all at once.
Tony scoffs. "By what, three minutes? You need to take a chill pill, Cap."
"I found some of those, actually," Clint says with a wicked smile, leaning between his seat and Bruce in the driver's seat to drop a cloth bundle of rattling pill bottles into Tony's lap. "Found a couple decent medicine cabinets, actually."
Tony takes a second to imagine Steve's look of disapproval. Despite everything that they've seen in the last few months, he still frowns and sighs like the practice of taking things from people's private residences really bugs him. Steve says he doesn't mind if they take what they need from businesses, but what if people come back home for their things, only to find them ransacked? He had been fairly adamant in the beginning, up until Pepper weighed in.
"We can't have survived this much, only to starve to death now, Steve," in her I'm-the-most-effortlessly-capable-person-in-this-room voice; the one that no one left alive on earth could argue with. Steve hasn't said another word about where or how they find the supplies they need since that, but he still gets that disapproving national hero look sometimes. He wouldn't be Cap without it.
"A few minutes is still late enough to make us all worry, Tony."
"Sorry, Boss, we'll check in early next time to make up for it."
"Hurry up and get home," Pepper says. Tony feels a strange pang -- not that Pepper and Steve are worrying about them, because that's definitely a good feeling -- but that if they're both talking into the little radio at the same time, they've got to be basically on top of each other. That's a mental image that gives Tony forty reasons to pause. Things are so different now, he doesn't even know where to start.
"Over and out," he says shortly, dropping the radio on the seat next to him. He pours his attention into studying the pill bottles Clint found, but none of the labels catch his eye. Tony sighs disgustedly and pushes them aside. He doesn't look up to meet Bruce's knowing look in the rearview mirror even though he knows it's there. Stupid Bruce's stupid face.
Clint rolls down the window and calls out the password when they get close, and Steve unbars the gate to let them in. If not for the fences topped in barbed wire, the heavy padlocks on the gate, and the armed guards keeping watch, this could be a little slice of paradise for a lot of people, Bruce reflects. It was a little hunting camp, with room enough for forty or so people (well, they've got just under forty now, and there's talk of building another cabin for expanded living quarters before winter so they have room to spread out a bit more -- Bruce is getting sick of waking up with Tony and Steve in his bed with him), all cocooned in by tall trees and years of overgrowth.
As far as anyone knows, the camp had been abandoned since the nineteen-eighties. They'd had to clear so much dirt, gnarly tree branches, overgrown ferns, and dead mice out of the cabins when they first arrived that Clint seriously raised the idea of just torching the place, but everyone now agrees the three solid days of manual labour had been worth it.
In the sort of world they're living in now, it's practically heaven.
Bruce used to come up here every now and then to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, which is how they found out it was here to begin with. He thinks maybe not so much has changed about it, even with the addition of twenty-some-odd extra people.
"You're all okay?" Steve asks, looking them up and down as they get out of the car, checking them over to ensure they're all whole and unmolested. Tony nods on everyone's behalf while they unload their new batch of supplies from the trunk and backseat.
Pepper kisses Bruce and Clint on the cheek, unable to keep any of the deep relief she feels to have them back off her face. She throws her arms around Tony, who is smiling a little dopily. He picks her up and swings her around like in the movies, before he half carries her inside the big cabin, both of them murmuring softly to each other.
There are other people around, poking heads out of little outbuildings or coming up from the back part of the compound smiling and welcoming them back. Every time someone comes back with all their limbs attached and the majority of their blood on the inside of their bodies, it's a huge victory for everyone.
They head inside the main building, a long, low, wooden cabin as solid and unshakable as any stone fortress, where the so-called Avengers have set up the camp's base of operations. They have a little cabin to themselves just behind, and sure, it's on the cramped side of cozy, but it works for them. There's no such thing as personal space now that the apocalypse has arrived.
Clint pulls a scrap of fabric from his pocket, something he must have been hiding. It's got a little pattern of smiling ghosts on it. He steps up on the edge of the stone fireplace and ties it in a quick knot around the neck of the large deer head mounted there, like a bandana.
"It's almost Hallowe'en," he says when he turns back around and sees the amused expressions. "Come on, that's fucking festive."
"Clint. She's been asking for you," Steve says quietly, touching Clint's arm. Bruce wouldn't have heard if he hadn't been listening for it.
There's no indication that Clint hears him, other than the fact that he takes off for their cabin at a run.
"How is she?" Bruce asks, almost positive he doesn't really want to know the answer. He starts spreading the dry goods he's brought on the low wooden table while word circulates that they're back and everyone trucks in to see the day's catch. Tony is refilling the little generator that keeps their lights on for ninety minutes a day with the gasoline he's managed to scrounge up. He is studiously not looking at Pepper or Steve and if he thinks he's not completely obvious, well, he's wrong.
"About the same. You were only gone for a few hours. The fever hasn't broken yet."
"A lot can change in a few hours," Bruce says bitterly.
"How do you feel?" Steve asks. Bruce knows he'd probably rather be asking about Tony, but Tony's hearing is pretty good and he'll absolutely snap if he catches people worrying about him.
Bruce shrugs. "The same. Alone."
He never thought he would miss the other guy, or that he would feel so damn lost without the constant edge of worry, the fear that he's about to lose control. It's been seven weeks since the whole world went to hell, seven weeks since the other guy stirred at all, even after Bruce started calling for him.
It's not all bad. Natasha emphatically reminds them of this at almost every turn, which always sounds ridiculous to Tony, given that she's gotten the shit kicked out of her more times lately since this thing started than the rest of them combined.
"I am super Russian, and therefore I know the meaning of true suffering, beyond the likes that any of you could comprehend. Except maybe Steve, because he grew up before internet porn, the poor dear."
"That's a terrible impression of Natasha," Steve says, without looking up from re-lacing his boots with an old telephone cord. "And she won't be amused if she hears you."
Tony tips his chair back on two legs and balances pretty well. "Yeah, well. She's so gung ho about keeping morale up, but a lot of her arguments don't make sense. And I'd feel a lot more comforted if she didn't look so pale-undead-ringwraith-girl all the time."
"Her main argument is 'we're not dead.' That makes perfect sense to me. And she would never call me a 'poor dear.'"
"You're right." Tony sighs. He sighs a lot when Steve is right. "She'd say something extra Russian, something about praying to God, but rowing to shore."
"I like that one," Steve mutters. He stuffs his broken bootlace in his pocket and stands up. There's no sense in throwing it away just because it can't hold his boots on anymore. There might still be a use for it, and it's always a good idea to have some string on hand. "Come on, show me what you found on your trip out this morning."
Bruce is showing off their haul on the table in the next room. It's a ritual they have, every time they return from a successful looting trip. 'Successful', of course, being defined as any trip they come back from at all. Everyone gathers around the table to look at the new stuff, hoping there'll be something useful or maybe delicious.
Clint slings an arm around Natasha and helps her over to the table. She grumbles, but she can still barely stand on her broken leg so she needs the help. "No coffee?" she says, looking up at Tony with an alarmed look in her eyes. "Isn't that the main reason you went out?"
Tony shrugs. "Sorry, I guess that's still the number one commodity everyone's looking for in post-apocalyptic monster land."
"We're going to need coffee if we don't want a full scale civil war on our hands," Natasha says. She pokes half-heartedly at a box of herbal tea Bruce brought back. "Seriously?"
"Hey, I tried," Bruce says.
Tony sees the little crinkle at the corner of Steve's eye that means he's marginally less depressed than he normally is (which Tony counts as 'happy' these days) as they check out the things they've brought back. "This is a nice knife." Steve picks up a well-cared for bowie knife up and testing the weight in his hands. "I'm going to hang onto this."
"Okay, Rambo," Tony says cheerfully, knowing Steve won't get the reference, and it'll give him a couple easy hours of thinly veiled verbal contempt to pass the time. Heckling Steve is one of the few hobbies he has left these days. Maybe later he'll go find Maria Hill and tell her all the reasons he wants to sleep with her. She always gets so... colourful when he does that. Good times.
Steve just glares, because one of his last remaining joys in life apparently being making sure Tony has no fun, ever. "There's no such thing as being over-prepared."
"Of course not," Tony says good-naturedly, reaching to take the knife from Steve's hand.
If anyone else in the room notices the way their hands touch a little too long, well then, it's not the first time they've noticed.
"See anything... interesting?" The tiniest pause before 'interesting' makes Tony wonder what Pepper was about to say. Clint perks up though, before Tony can give it more thought.
"You would not believe what I saw, actually --"
There's a huge crash at the door, and then a second one right after it, like someone throwing themselves bodily against the wood to get in.
The door burst inwards, broken clear off the hinges, and two men leap in the room. Their faces are bloody, their hair matted and tangled, their eyes wild and angry.
These days, they're called Unfriendlies, and that's a really understated way of putting it.
Steve snatches the knife out of Tony's hand, throwing it forcefully towards the intruders. It catches one in the face and he howls in pain. Steve reaches for something else he can use as a weapon, but Natasha is faster, taking Bruce's rifle off the end of the table and turning smoothly, swinging the barrel up and firing twice before anyone else can move. She may not be able to stand for long periods of time or get out of bed without a little help (which no one ever acknowledges, of course), but once she's up, it doesn't slow her down at all.
After a few stunned seconds, everyone starts moving again. They drag the bodies out, and find what's left of the guys who were on guard at the gate. They look like they were taken down before they even knew what was there. That means Maria's going to be in a frenzy of training, retraining, and shouting at everyone about staying alert. She's like fucking Mad Eye Moody when she gets going, but maybe they need a little of that now. The fence isn't too damaged, thank gods, nothing they can't fix in a few hours. Bruce and Steve stay outside to get it done.
"They're moving further and further out of the city," Clint says darkly, combing his fingers through Natasha's hair. She grumbles something about Clint being a large ape, but she leans into his hands and Pepper imagines she can hear a little bit of purring. "Or they followed us back."
Pepper braids her own hair, the only way to really deal with it now that they have a terminal shortage of shampoo and flat irons (well, besides cutting it, which she refuses to do on the grounds that 'seriously, stop suggesting it Clint, I will make you sorry'). Tony's asleep with his head in her lap and she's trying not to jostle him. He's been sleeping so badly lately, fitfully and infrequently, that she wants him to get whatever he can. She's worried about him, above and beyond her usual Tony-related worry.
They're quiet for a bit while Natasha helps Pepper tie off the end of the thick French braid with a piece of a bootlace Steve had handed over, since all elastic hair ties have been commandeered for the survival effort. Noise from outside filters in through the windows, voices talking, probaby arguing, and the general sounds of fence repair.
"It won't be long before we're not safe here. If we ever even were," Clint says.
"Oh hush," Natasha says, and then something in softly in Russian that makes Clint sigh and give her a one-armed hug.
"Yes, I know," he says. "Come on, wake him up, let's get to proper bed."
Pepper doesn't want to wake him, not when he looks like he's sleeping soundly for the first time in ages. She helps Natasha out to their little cabin while Clint slings Tony over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.
"I'm awake, you ass," Tony says after a second. "Put me down."
"Nah, you're keeping my neck warm."
"How's the fence?" Tony calls to Bruce, Steve, and Maria standing in a circle of lantern light near the fence.
"How does it look?" Bruce calls back.
They laugh, even if it's stupid, because just for a little bit, it's okay to laugh.
Seven weeks ago, something had been detonated above New York City, a bomb with a biological or chemical component. No one had known then what it was, and now, several weeks later, they still didn't have a clue; they only knew it was bad. Rough estimates put the original death toll around seventy percent of the total population, but Bruce heard reports stating it had been as high as ninety-five. Once the green-grey fog settled over the city and people started breathing it in, they died. It filled the lungs, not allowing any oxygen in, and people choked to death without realizing what was happening to them. No one knows what it is about the survivors that kept them safe, why the fog hadn't affected them.
The Avengers had been in Sacramento when it happened, but they flew back the moment the reports started coming in about strange deaths. Tony had found Pepper holed up in her office in the top floor of the Stark Industries office building, the dead body of her assistant lying a few feet away.
"What the hell is happening here?" Tony snarled into his phone. Nick Fury, presumably on the other end of the line, had no acceptable answer for him. Tony jabbed the off button on the phone so hard it slipped from his hand.
Steve had been a gentleman, helping Pepper up from under her desk and promising her that everything was going to be okay, that they would get to the bottom of it, make it better. Tony hadn't believed a word of it, but Steve had sounded so absolutely sure-- and Pepper was nodding along, pressing her face against the side of Tony's neck. He didn't say anything to the contrary.
"First order of business, rendezvous with the rest of the team, and find a safe place to figure this out. Once we know what we're dealing with, we can work out a way to handle it." Steve was bossy as hell, but not without merit. Tony had him clear the rest of the floor, looking for survivors, while he downloaded everything that looked important from the Stark Industries mainframe. He didn't know what the hell was going on, but if it was something catastrophic, he'd rather have extra back-ups than lose everything. Pepper had sat quietly on the edge of the desk, eyes fixed on Tony to avoid looking at the corpse on the floor.
Steve came back a few minutes later, with a single, clearly traumatized man. "It's clear," he said. "If there was anyone else, they're gone now. Just Dan here."
"Oh, Miss Potts," said Dan, rushing to her side. "Are you -- oh god." He caught sight of the dead assistant and stopped short.
"I'm fine, Dan. Dan? Look at me." Pepper, despite her own tears a few moments earlier, comforted the guy better than Tony thought anyone else could have.
"I'm not getting cell phone reception," Steve said slowly, staring accusingly at the phone in his hand. "How come yours works?"
"Towers are probably overloaded, or maybe the signal's being jammed. I'll have JARVIS re-route your calls through one of my satellites," Tony said, finishing the download and standing up. "Natasha. Where are you? Okay. Okay. Got it, see you soon. Out through the basement. Apparently Midtown is just a mess." Tony carefully didn't mention the fires Natasha had warned him about, or the hundreds of thousands of corpses.
Not that the building they were in was devoid of either of those things.
They took the stairs, even though it was twenty-one flights, because the first two elevators they came to opened to reveal bodies. At least on the stairs, they could edge around them, or avert their eyes and pretend they didn't see them.
On the way down, they had run into a young girl, an intern, cowering next to the door to the third floor landing, crying and stroking the hair of the dead girl next to her. Steve had to carry her out.
Three survivors, Tony thought. In the whole building, we've found three survivors. Those are not good odds for anyone.
They'd found Happy's body on the second underground floor of the parking garage.
Pepper threw up and Tony had to fight to keep himself under control, images of a dead Yinsen surfacing, almost taunting him with their clarity. He'd slung his arm around Pepper, leading her away; half dragging, half supporting her. Once they'd gone far enough out of earshot, Steve had ordered them all to stay put and jogged back, returning with a grim expression and remaining absolutely tight lipped about what it was that he'd needed to do.
Natasha and Clint met them at the far end of the parking garage with five other people. Tony recognized one as an out of uniform SHIELD agent, but the rest just looked like civilians they'd picked up. Natasha dug her fingers into Tony's arm and pulled him ahead of the rest. "It's like something from a nightmare," she had said, her voice low. "You can't breathe out there for the dead bodies."
"It's just as bad in there," Tony said. "How far does this go on for?"
"From what 'm hearing, the entire Eastern seaboard, maybe more. They say it's the apocalypse. Millions of people dead. The government's in a panic. No one's sure who the president is, or if there's a single living person even in DC right now."
Tony frowned, wondered who their Laura Roslin would end up being, if that person would be half the leader that she was or if what was left of humanity was straight up doomed. "Any word from SHIELD?"
Natasha sighed. "Not as such. Fury says he's doing all he can, but he's away on a mission right now. He said Hill's still in the city, that we should find her and report for duty."
"'We'? Who all is we?" Tony didn't like 'we'. He didn't want anyone split up any more than they needed to be until they found out what the hell was happening. Never split the party, he'd thought, remembering the old rule half-hysterically.
"The Avengers. If this is an attack on the city, or the country, everyone's going to feel better having the Avengers on it."
"Except me," Tony quipped.
Natasha had just smiled sadly at him.
If that had been all of it, Steve thinks, if it had just been nearly everyone dying, that would have been one thing. One horrible, terrible, gut-wrenching thing. But only one gut-wrenching thing, instead of a million.
They had to deal with one horrible catastrophe after another. They'd found Hill in the burned-out shell of one of the SHIELD safehouses uptown. Steve wasn't sure if the fire was the result of a mob of looters breaking in, or SHIELD trying to deal with the rooms packed full of bodies. Fires were burning everywhere, the sparse radio reports said, day and night, for the last two weeks, a desperate attempt to clear out the overwhelming mass of bodies. Everywhere they went, they could smell it -- burning, rotting meat. Most of them had spent the first few days throwing up.
Steve hadn't. He'd seen worse.
He didn't tell anyone that, though. He's not cruel, and he doesn't want to think about it anyway. There's enough weighing on his mind.
Then, the helicarrier went down. The skeleton crew on board had been able to keep her in the air for a few days -- setting her down apparently required more trained staff then they had at the time. But it went down suddenly, without warning, taking out countless buildings, people, and most importantly to them, Stark Tower.
Tony had nearly died when his suit shut off while he was mid-flight. Not a hundred feet up, thank god, but high enough scouting for survivors in the streets. He landed on a parked car and was knocked unconscious. They managed to bring him around and peel the useless metal off him, but he was shaken and angry. JARVIS didn't respond no matter what Tony tried, and when they finally got to the wreckage... Well. There was no way they were getting in there.
He spent a full day locked in a room in SHIELD safehouse basement. There was a lot of noise and the odd curse, but he didn't let anyone in, not even Natasha when she lied and said she have coffee and expensive strippers. When Tony emerged, he had got a semi-working suit and a glower that could almost melt walls. "I'm going to get JARVIS working again if I have to kill one of you to do it," he muttered. "Not you, Pep."
Hill put Steve in charge of the Avengers (as if they'd needed her to tell them that) and put the Avengers in charge of security.
Two days later, Steve was walking with Clint and Dan, the former Stark Industries accountant they'd pulled out of the building along with Pepper. They were walking the perimeter of the section they'd been given. Just to maintain a presence, Hill said.
Steve had his shield and Clint had his bow, Dan was there for extra support and a little on-the-job training (everyone who wasn't a total asshole was a SHIELD agent now, Hill said). It wasn't supposed to be hard. Not like Natasha, Tony, and Bruce's assignment, to take the Hulk uptown and sort out some riots that had left three people dead, according to the recon reports.
They'd been rounding a corner, Clint recounting some racy story about his days in Bangalore, when Dan stopped dead in the middle of the road.
"Dan? Dude, what are you looking at?" Clint asked, turning back and approaching him. Clint held out a hand, offering assistance or maybe comfort, and Dan leapt at him. They both tumbled to the ground, Dan snarling like a wild animal and trying to tear Clint's throat out with his fingernails. Clint was able to get a knee into Dan's crotch, breaking the hold when Dan moved to cover his vitals. Steve clocked him with his shield and knocked him flying.
"What the fuck!" Clint shouted, pulling himself off the ground and feeling his neck and face for blood. "What the fucking fuck."
Steve was at a loss. "I guess we take him back to SHIELD headquarters?" SHIELD had become the de facto leader at this point, absorbing the few police and firefighters still alive. There were some people National Guard, a couple retired military veterans and the like, none of them willing to leave the city until they knew everything was under control. They all reported to whatever was left of SHIELD. They were the only ones with any clue what was going on in the city now.
Clint grumbled about wasting it, but jabbed Dan with the paralytic arrow tip he had on him so they could drag him back to Deputy Director Hill's makeshift SHIELD base. Steve recounted the story to Hill while Clint talked to a different agent, then Steve was left to sit alone for a very long time while Hill went to question Dan. She finally came back and thanked him, telling him to go meet his new team at the front doors to continuing patrolling.
"What about Clint and Dan?"
Hill narrowed her eyes. "Clint's seeing the doctor, the one doctor SHIELD has left."
"And Dan? What was his side of the story?"
Hill sighed. "Don't pick at it, Rogers."
"Tell me." He stood, drawing himself to his full height and looking down at her. "He was one of my men. I don't want things happening to my men without my knowledge."
"He's dead," she said shortly. "Go meet your new team."
Steve balked. "He died? He was fine a second before it happened, how could he just drop dead like that?"
"I shot him."
Steve's stomach did a flip flop. "You shot... And where's Clint?" he asked sharply.
"Agent Barton is in quarantine until we can figure out what the hell really happened. His wounds are superficial, but skin was broken, he's at a definite increased risk..."
"And then you'll shoot him?" Steve slammed his hand down on the desk, hearing the wood splintering and not caring.
Hill was unfazed. "If I have to, yes."
"This is..." Steve leaned across the desk, getting right into her face. He was done playing nice with her when she was clearly overstepping. "You just better be careful with all this. And if anything happens to Barton..."
"I am being careful. Sometimes being careful means making tough calls. If that doesn't sit well with you, Rogers, then I can make sure you're not called upon to make any decisions."
Steve left, seething. He was going to go and find Hawkeye and get them both out of here. It was time for the Avengers to reconvene and have a serious talk about what was going on in the city, and with SHIELD's potential involvement. He'd made it halfway down the hall when four people with a gurney went speeding past him, running in the opposite direction and turning sharply down a side hall. After a split second of indecision, Steve followed. Hill could threaten all she liked, but there were so few people left alive that he was determined to be as involved as he could in protecting them.
"Oh, fuck," he muttered when he came skidding to a stop in the room at the end of the hall. It looked like it had at one point been a receiving dock, concrete walls and floors, a thick metal door that rolls up into the ceiling at the far end. He'd taken that all in only as a secondary observation, eyes only flicking away from Tony's bloodied face for a second. His helmet was nowhere to be seen, and from what Steve could tell, there were pieces of his armour missing.
"I'm fine, I'm fine!" Tony was grumbling, trying to wave the single concerned agent away. There was a cluster of people behind a makeshift wall made from a poorly-erected tarp, and Steve could hear the low murmur of concerned voices. "Goddammit, I said I was fine!"
"What the hell happened to you?" Steve asked, taking the cloth from the agent and wiping at Tony's face himself. The agent scurried off to her colleagues behind the tarp and Tony settled down enough for Steve to clean him up, although he was still shooting daggers with his eyes.
"One of the agents we went uptown with, I don't know, went psychotic or something. Major mental break. Hey, watch it, buddy, that hurts. Anyway, the guy snapped, restarted the riot, jumped on some kid and basically ripped his face off before we realized what was happening. Killed three people before Natasha shot him. Bruce tried to Hulk out, but... Nothing. Some of the rioters jumped on him and Nat waded right in to pull him out. The big guy is terrifying, right, but Bruce, not so much. He's got a broken arm, probably could use some stitches too, but I think he's going to be fine."
Steve whistled low. "You say the agent just lost it..."
Tony nodded, then winced and tried to sit really still. "Yeah, and he wasn't the only one. A bunch more followed. But Natasha... She's hurt really bad."
"How bad?" He froze up, wondering if Hill would want to relieve them of dead weight, or if that's maybe what Natasha would want. Steve had always been of the mind that you never leave a man behind, but he would not hesitate to instruct his men to leave him if he thought it was necessary.
Tony pointed to the flurry of activity behind the tarp. "Bad-bad. They're doing what they can for her, but..." He took the cloth from Steve's unresisting hand and motioned for him to take a seat on the bench. They watched for a few minutes, not hearing anything that could give them a hint to what's going on.
"So," Tony said finally, not wanting to think about it any more than Steve did. "Our day was horrible, how was walking the beat?"
"Dan's dead. Same thing. He just snapped and tried to kill Clint. Hill shot him."
"Hill was there?"
Steve relayed the facts of the story.
"Ah." Tony could tell there was something Steve wasn't saying, probably his thoughts on the subject, but until Tony developed the ability to read those, he'd have to settle for pestering Steve until he spilled the beans. Not right then though. "After-effect of the gas maybe?"
"That's my thinking."
They lapsed back into silence until Bruce sauntered in, looking pretty battered. He sat on Steve's other side and watched the tarp with interest. "How is she?" he asked finally.
"Not sure," Tony said. Steve nodded slowly. He was running through what-ifs in his head so fast that Tony could almost see his eyeballs spinning.
Tony opened his mouth to say something, anything, that might reassure them that this really wasn't Armageddon like people had been saying, but there was a loud commotion from behind the tarp, and then four gunshots rang out. Steve and Tony were on their feet before the last echo even faded, Steve a few steps closer to the ruckus than Tony, and Bruce in a half-crouch in front of the bench, looking terrified, cornered, and sheepish.
A harassed-looking agent appeared from behind the makeshift wall. "Can one of you go get Hill?" he demanded, looking at them as if they were idiots.
"What the fuck was that?" Tony fired back. "How's Natasha?"
"Agent Romanov's condition is need-to-know. Director Hill needs to get down here."
"Fine," Tony said, smiling suddenly. "I'll go get Deputy Director Hill, and you can tell Doctor Banner all about Natasha's condition. I think he needs to know. You know Doctor Banner, right?"
Bruce straightened up, picking an imaginary piece of lint off his shoulder while the agent abruptly paled. Despite everything that had happened, Steve was forced to hide his smile. His team worked well together, even under pressure.
The harassed looking woman look markedly more harassed. "We won't know anything until she wakes up. If she wakes up." Tony nodded, satisfied that he'd at least been answered, if not very thrilled with the content of said answer. He went to get Maria Hill.
Steve pushed past the man to check on Natasha. There was a shaken looking agent leaning heavily on the edge of the gurney, bleeding from what looks like a bite mark on her cheek, and three dead agents on the floor around Natasha's bed. The last agent had his gun still drawn, just staring at the bodies in shock.
Natasha was unconscious, bruised and bloodied on the metal gurney, and looking far too pale under the harsh lights. They had her hooked up to IV fluids as well as a little machine above her head with a steady little green line which Steve took to mean that her heart was working fine. He hoped, anyway.
Bruce muttered something under his breath that Steve couldn't quite catch.
"I said, she should have left me there."
Steve didn't comment because while he doesn't believe that for a second, he knows that Bruce will dismiss anything he says to the contrary. He only ever accepted that kind of reassurance from Natasha, or sometimes Tony.
Tony returned back with Hill, who surveyed the scene calmly, without looking at Natasha even once.
"Simmons, take Raleigh to the quarantine unit," she ordered. The mouthy agent who hadn't wanted to tell them Natasha's condition left, injured agent in tow. "Tyrell, take Grant to the researchers. And holster your gun, this is the infirmary, not the firing range."
"Doctor Banner," she said, after they watched the agent holster his gun and heave one of the corpses over his shoulder. "Perhaps you'd like to take a look at the samples the research team have taken from the affected bodies? I know you're a physicist, not a physician, but you might have a different outlook on things."
Bruce glanced nervously between Steve and Tony. "Sure, I can uh... Take a look."
"In the north wing. You'll find them."
"I'll follow the guy carrying the body," Bruce said with an edgy smile.
"So. Anyone have any idea what's going on?" Tony asked.
Hill crouched next to the first of the remaining bodies and didn't answer him.
Steve had watched her with such an intense look, Tony half expected her to catch fire. She'd stood after a moment, a strange look on her face for all of a second before she frowned. "Would you help me with these?"
Steve frowned back. "What's your plan this time?"
Hill sighed. "I'm not your enemy here, Rogers. I plan to keep us all alive long enough to see the end of whatever this is, just like you. Something is getting inside these people -- my colleagues, people I've known for years -- and turning them into psychotic murderers, and I'm just as invested in finding out how to stop it or fix it as you are. But I can't do that if I'm dead, just like you can't do anything you're dead. So it's us or them. I made my choice, you need to make yours."
"Yeah," Steve says finally. "Yeah. So what do we do with bodies?"
"Incinerator in the basement."
"I'm not leaving Natasha alone."
"I'll stay," Tony said. "You can probably lift more than I can anyway, Cap. I've been skipping the gym since the world went to shit."
Hill crouched again, closing the eyes of the dead agent closest to her before reaching for the hand sanitizer. "We still don't know how this is spread," she explained with a shrug when Steve shot her a look.
She carried one body and Steve carried the other, leaving Tony alone with the unconscious Russian spy in the makeshift sick room in an old loading dock. No shipments coming in now, and the hospital wing was still full of the dead people that had suffocated on fog or lost their minds four days later. Great set up to a mystery novel if it wasn't real life, he thought.
Darcy and Jane were grabbing coffee at a Starbucks when the fog first settled. The barista had coughed, spluttered for a moment, and then fell over as she was pulling Darcy's espresso.
Jane and another guy waiting for his drink managed to pull the girl out from behind the counter and start CPR, while Darcy slid behind the counter and finished the drinks for her and Jane (and the other guy, just to be a friend). She hadn't worked at a Starbucks in years, but apparently it wasn't something you could forget easily.
"I called for an ambulance, but no one picked up!"
Jane wasn't sure who was shouting, but she didn't like what they're saying. She and the off-duty paramedic quietly continued administering CPR, but after a few minutes, one of the other patrons fell over too, gasping and grabbing at her throat. And then another.
After a few minutes, Jane grabbed Darcy and ran . It was too much to handle, and the scene was the same on the street. Total freakin' chaos.
"What the hell is going on?" Darcy asked, her voice tinged with panic.
"I don't know," Jane said. She held on tighter to Darcy's hand. "I don't know, Darce."
Natasha began to wake up after an hour or so of Steve and Tony milling around her bedside and not saying much. She muttered things in Russian that they didn't understand, and once she grabbed Steve's wrist in a grip so tight that Tony could see bruises when she finally let him go. She tossed and turned, semi-conscious, murmuring, but not lucid.
She didn't answer when they ask how she's feeling, but Tony didn't think he wanted to know anyway.
"She's running a fever," Steve said. "That's not good."
"No," Tony agreed, though he had no idea what either of them could do about it. Agent Tyrell came back eventually, pushing a syringe of something into her IV line. He fled before they had a chance to really question him about it. Coward. Natasha started to quiet after that, her feverish mumblings fading to something more peaceful, so they agreed it was probably a sedative.
Bruce came back with a few bottles of water, passing one to Tony and one to Steve before downing his own. "So?" Tony asked after a few moments and a sip of water. He didn't feel like waiting around for Bruce to come out with it on his own.
Bruce sighed. "We have a few ideas, but nothing we can prove with the equipment we have now. We think there's a connection between the people who snapped and a recessive gene, but obviously that's not an easy thing to prove when the most sophisticated thing we can run is a microwave..."
"I'll take a crack at it later," Tony said, as effortlessly arrogant as always.
"How is she?"
Tony nodded to Steve, who was perched gingerly at the foot of Natasha's makeshift hospital bed. Steve didn't acknowledge Tony's gesture, but Tony prodded Bruce out of the alcove and into the main room without waiting for a response.
"I have no idea," Tony admitted, once they were out of Steve's earshot.
He's pretty sure Steve is taking the current situation particularly hard. Not just Natasha's injury, but everything that had happened in the last six days. For a guy who'd lived through the Depression and been privy to some of the more horrific parts of the Holocaust, Steve had remained annoyingly bright-eyed and optimistic, and all this darkness was wearing him thin, Tony could tell. "Everything just seems so fucking bleak. She woke up for a bit, right after you left. I don't speak Russian, but I think I got the gist from her tone and..." He scrubbed his hands over his eyes and let out a short, bitter bark of laughter.
Bruce leaned heavily against the wall, more tired now than he could ever remember being before. "It's my fault."
"It's not," Tony said sharply. "It's that fog... Can you think of any other reason you wouldn't have been able to hulk out? I mean, this is the first time you've ever wanted to and not been able to, right?"
Bruce nodded. "It's always been the other way around. This wasn't an accident. This was carefully calculated by someone who knows us and wanted us out of the picture."
"Right, my thoughts exactly. So what's this building towards, and what can we do about it?"
There was an array of meters and gauges on the dash in front of him, and even if he did not know what each one meant individually, he was smart enough to know that to see so many indicating their measurements in the red range was foreboding.
The air around him trembled with... he could not tell what, but it made his skin crawl and his bones ache uncomfortably.
Thor looked around, but the room was littered with bodies and nothing else. He set Mjolnir down in order to examine the instruments more closely. He thought, fleetingly, of all the people he knew who might perhaps have been better equipped to handle this catastrophe -- Bruce, Tony, Jane... He wondered where they were. He decided, then and there, that he shall make it his task to find them after he is done here. Now, this was the more important task.
He had a lot of work ahead of him.
So really, what can they do? They get the fuck outta Dodge.
Steve doesn't want what was left of The Avengers to leave what was left of New York -- presumably for the same reason he hadn't wanted them taking supplies from people's homes. Everything might go back to normal, they might this, that, and the other thing, and life will be perfect again. As if it was even possible to go back to living life normally when hundreds of millions of people were dead.
"We need some kind of advantage, Rogers, and we're not going to find it in the city. We need somewhere we can defend easily, somewhere out of the way where we're not going to get found."
"Out of the way? What if someone --"
Clint surges out of his half-sitting, half-leaning pose against the wall. "Don't say 'comes to save us,' I can't deal with any more of your fucking pig headed optimism today."
Steve's mouth snaps closed.
"Okay," Bruce says, sauntering forward to stand next to Clint. He presses a hand gently into the small of Clint's back, as if to steady them both. "Why don't we sleep on it for tonight? It's not like we can pick up and leave right this minute..."
Natasha is sleeping fitfully inside the remains of a SHIELD warehouse ten feet from where they're standing. She's out of the woods, everyone keeps saying, but they still can't move her without a lot of forethought and care.
"Right," Steve says, the fight draining out of him. His eyes are still flashing, but his shoulders sag heavily, and he rubs the back of his neck, the way he always does when he's embarrassed or stressed.
Steve takes the first watch, silencing Tony with a sharp glare when Tony offers to take it instead. Tony relieves him a few hours later. Hours after that, Steve is still wide awake, lying in his bunk and able to hear when Pepper and Tony trade places. He was repeating the conversation again and again in his head. Clint's right, Steve realizes, after the initial irritation has worn off. They need a safe place if they wanted to survive. A place where they can weather the storm, away from the looting, the vandalism, and the near-constant rioting in the city. It's just... the thought of leaving the city he loves, right in her hour of need, is like a stab in the gut.
But it's the hour of need for everyone, everywhere. Themselves included.
There's a soft, deliberate noise next to him. Steve rolls over very slowly, gripping the handle of his busted pocket knife tightly under his pillow. It's Clint, sitting cross-legged on the hard floor next to the messy bundle of blankets that was currently understudying in the role of Steve's bed.
"Cap?" he whispers.
Steve pushes himself up onto his elbows, ready to jump up if they need to run for it. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Can I just... Hey, move." Clint nudges Steve over so he can pull the blanket over his own knees. It was mid-September, and even with the concrete walls blocking most of the wind, the seeping cold still worms its way through crevices, providing a constant chill.
"I don't cuddle," Steve warns him, deadpan.
Clint snorts back a laugh. "Yeah, sure you don't. Look, I just wanted to say..."
"Yeah," Steve sigha, picking up when Clint trails off. "You're probably right. We can make a game plan tomorrow."
"Yeah. But I didn't mean to be a prick about it."
"You sort of did."
Clint chuckles softly. "Okay, maybe I thought you'd respond better if I acted like Tony."
Steve looks at Clint sideways in the gloom, taking up way more room on Steve's shitty, makeshift bed than he had any right to, and glared at him through the murky light filtering in through the ceiling. "Good night, Barton."
The next morning, over a breakfast of watered down coffee and a few boxes of Corn Flakes they'd liberated from a 7/11, everyone gets right back to fighting.
It might be funny from a distance, but when viewed close up, it's downright tragic. The five of them huddled together in the lee of one of the broken walls, keeping out of the wind and passing dry cereal back and forth like they are fifteen and it's their first joint. Natasha is sleeping in one of the only still-standing rooms inside the building where they've left her.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't try at all, I'm saying we have to be really careful," Pepper says, flicking a piece of cereal at Tony.
"How bad is going to be though, really? We can wait, if we have to." Clint grimaces at the bad coffee after every sip, but he doesn't stop drinking it.
"You were so gung-ho to leave last night," Tony says, glancing between Steve and Clint with an unreadable look.
"I'm with Clint," Steve says shortly. "We can't risk a screw up."
Bruce had taken the last watch, so he's yawning as he cuts in, "She'll be fine. She's a lot stronger than you think." He barely lifts his head off his arms, hunched over the shitty Formica table they had found lounging inexplicably in the gutter the other day.
Clint knows that, Clint knows that more than anyone else did, but there's still that little part of him that will always see her as a terrified sixteen year old girl with a knife to his throat that he had been sent to kill, especially now that she was basically unconscious most of the day.
"She's awake," Pepper says suddenly. "Why don't we ask her?"
"Ask her what?"
"Natasha, Jesus Christ," Clint said, jumping to his feet and holding a hand out to her.
"You know my middle name is Alianovna," Natasha says, shooting him a Look. On death's doorstep she might have been, but she is not dead yet, and everyone acting as if she's a newborn kitten is going to give her hives. She's used up the last of her strength standing up and walking into the other room to glare at Clint. When he holds out his arm, she glares harder, but she takes it. "What are we talking about?"
"We need to get out of the city," Clint says, helping her to sit down in what he hopes will seem like he doesn't really care. She always gets weird when she thinks he's trying to be chivalrous.
Natasha sighs and sits next to Pepper, smiling gratefully but declining when Pepper offers her the rest of the coffee in the bottom of a chipped Tweety Bird mug. She isn't sure she'd be able to hold it without dropping it, let alone lift it to her mouth. "We don't know how far all of this extends though. There may not be a safe place left."
"Thank you for that uplifting insight," Tony comments, dryly. "Next, you'll remind us all that there is no Santa Claus."
Natasha doesn't have the energy to smack him, despite how much she wants to. Luckily, Pepper picks up on it and gives him a thwack on the arm.
"Even if there isn't, we should get away from the crowds," Clint says. There's a note of finality to it, like he's made up everyone's mind for them and he will not be swayed. A tone that really brooks no argument.
"And the corpses," Steve adds. "What?" he says, when he notices the strange looks. "We're still using a public water supply, and with so much... decomposition, it's only a matter of time before the water is contaminated."
"Right," Natasha agrees. "So what's the argument against moving then?"
"Mostly... that we should wait until you're stronger to go anywhere?" Clint says making it sound like a question. The only argument he'll accept at this point is one from Nat.
"I know I'd be pretty useless right now in a fight, but I am not bedridden," Natasha says. She's trying to sound haughty, but it comes out sounding exhausted. "Are we walking?"
"God no, that would be suicide." Tony chuckles and Steve winces. "We'll have to find a vehicle of some kind."
"Better to split up," Clint says, and the arguing begins anew.
"You never, ever split the party, Clint, come on, that's basic shit. We do things together, we do this together. Who knows what the hell else is out there? We need each other now more than ever."
"Trust me, Stark, it'll be easier to --"
"I think you're both missing the point here --"
"Steve, this is straight up survival, you can't use rely completely on battle tactics, you need to account for --"
"I know what to account for, I've been surviving a lot longer --"
"Shut up, shut up!" Pepper snaps. "One at a time, you're giving me a migraine."
"Smaller vehicles will draw less attention," Clint points out. "Plus, we'll have more parts to cannibalize after if we need them."
"Please don't use the C word," Bruce says with a visible shudder. "That's not even a word that should be in our vocabulary right now."
There's momentary halt to the bickering for a dark chuckle and solemn contemplation.
"But if we split up and some of us are attacked..."
"Good point," Tony nodded at Steve. "So we'll need a way to communicate. Walkie-talkies or something. I might be able to whip something up. Give me a few minutes to think about it."
In the end, they decide that separate, smaller vehicles are the way to go. Tony and Bruce spend hours hunched over a bed sheet spread out and covered with little circuits and bits of machines they've salvaged.
Natasha dozes on a wooden pallet covered in blankets, and Steve stands watch over everyone. Not that he could have sat down and focused on anything specific if he tried.
Clint and Pepper go out to scout for vehicles and come back breathlessly excited a few hours later to report an abandoned parking garage that looks to be untouched and unvisited.
"It'll take us about an hour to walk up there, but it's worth it -- it doesn't seem like anyone's taken the gas from any of the tanks. We can snag a few cars and be on our way." Clint is beaming like the sun.
"Can you and Pepper go get one and come back? Then we can go in teams, and load up our stuff and," Tony drops his voice into a whisper, "and find the best way to load up Nat."
Clint nods. "What do you think, Pepper? It sounds good to me."
"We can do that. how are the radios coming along?"
"Nearly done," Bruce says. "I think we've got it, it's just a matter of finishing them."
Clint is checking all the weapons hidden on or about his person. "I'd feel better going back up there with a comm, especially if we're going to be driving back."
"I thought you said it was an uneventful trip." Tony is highly suspicious of anything that might get Pepper into danger. Yes, she's tough as nails, and can handle herself in any normally dangerous situation -- a fire, a high speed car chase, her beloved boss getting kidnapped and tortured on the other side of the world, hell, she can probably even kill a werewolf if she has to (teenaged or regular), but he can't help feel that this new post-apocalyptic survival kind of danger is a different breed altogether.
"We didn't run into any problems," Clint says. "But that's not the same as 'and we won't run into any this time.' We know there's people out there, and we know not all of them are friendlies. In fact, some of them are goddamned unfriendly."
"Give us an hour then," Bruce says firmly, cutting off any more discussion about the atrocities going on elsewhere in the city.
Tony begins to talk, on and on, at length, about the need for clever code names while Bruce finished their walkie talkies.
"Pepper and I can be Unit One, you guys can be Home Base," Clint says with a sigh.
"But that's so basic, can we at least try a grain of creativity? A crumb, maybe?" Tony bounces forward on his toes, turning the nearly-completed device over in his hands. Bruce stands up, dusting his hands on the knees of his ripped jeans before he takes the thing out of Tony's hands.
"Okay Tony, you can be... Alpha Columbo, Steve can be Bos Primigenius, and Pepper can be The Jackal." Bruce unfolds a paperclip and jimmies at the inside workings of the walkie-talkie until it crackles.
"I could live with being The Jackal," Pepper saysslowly, turning the name over in her mind.
"What does mine even mean?" Steve asks, clearly suspicious.
"Ummm," Bruce says, not looking up from the circuits. “I don't remember," he lies.
"Give it here," Tony says, holding his hand out.
"No, I've almost got it."
"With a fucking paperclip? Give it to me, Bruce, before someone gets hurt."
There's a burst of static from the walkie-talkie. Tony shoots Bruce with a glare. Bruce just smiles calmly back at him. "Science, bitches," he says smugly, before pressing it into Tony's hand and walking away.
"No one say a word," Tony warns the circle of smirking faces.
Jane and Darcy have spent the first few nights after the fog's descent in Jane's apartment, but they've quickly become increasingly aware of the number of bodies rotting in the building. It makes both of them uncomfortable.
The NYPD are setting up temporary shelters for the people still living in the city, so they head there. Everyone around them is walking around as if they're in some sort of trance. More than anything else, it's really fucking depressing . Everyone looks lost, terrified all the time, and no matter how often they ask, there wasn't anyone who could give them a clue about had happened.
Less than two days after they arrived at the shelter ('the survivor camp,' people are calling it), Darcy pulls Jane aside from where she'd been helping some old guy sew a button back on a shirt.
"We've got to get out of here, these people are making me crazy," Darcy says quietly, leaning in so no one can overhear.
"Where are we going to go, Darcy? No one's cell phones work anymore, the landlines are down most of the time, there's a shortage of gas for vehicles, we don't know anybody else in the city who is any better off than we are..."
"I just... I have a really bad feeling," Darcy says, giving Jane her most serious expression. "I'm not kidding here. We need to get out of this big crowd."
Darcy has gone along with enough of Jane's hunches in the past, including ending up in the middle that delightful little Asgardian blood feud in New Mexico last year and all the fun that has dragged down on them (Darcy has yet to see reparations paid for all the music she lost that time). She doesn't want to point this out exactly, she doesn't want to use it as leverage in a time like this -- now seemed so much more serious than a little spat between gods from outer space -- but she just really needs Jane to trust her.
Jane nods, after a few moments and a long, hard stare. "Let's go. Grab anything we need and let's find ourselves a hideout."
So they leave, to see what else was still out there for them.
Nothing out of the ordinary happens on the way back to the parking garage. Nothing out of the ordinary for their current circumstance, that is. Clint and Pepper walk side-by-side through the city streets, empty of any other living people. It seems like every apocalypse movie Pepper has ever seen, except there was very little sexual tension and they're all dirty and exhausted, as opposed to artfully tousled to look attractive as well as dirty and exhausted.
"Where do you think we'll go?" she asks.
"Don't know," Clint says. He isn't nearly as chatty these days as he used to be, Pepper notices. He's still as sarcastic as always, but it comes out sharp and unfiltered, with no warmth or humour to soften it. He's worried about his partner in crime, Tony had told her, whispering it in the dark. Give him a few days, a week, and when Natasha starts to come around, he'll lighten up.
"How long do you think..." Pepper trails off. She isn't sure what it was she wants to ask, really. Maybe how long he thinks this will last before serious help arrives, or until their lives can return to normal. Maybe how long before they're all dead.
"Don't know," he says again, in answer to all of her unspoken questions. "Oh! Look."
Pepper's afraid to look. She can't imagine anything she really wants to see in this strange new world. But Clint doesn't sound horrified, so she risks a peek. It's a rare sight she's greeted with -- a storefront that doesn't have a smashed in window. As they peer in, they can see that the interior looks just as untouched as the window.
'Franklin's Sporting Goods,' the sign above the door reads.
"If that isn't divine intervention..." Clint says. He smiles, an honest smile, and slings his arm around her shoulders. "Let's stop by on our way back and grab what we can."
They're only a few blocks from the parking garage when Tony buzzes them on the walkie-talkie. "How's it going? Over."
"Fine," Clint says.
"....Pardon? I think the line cut out. I heard 'fine' but I didn't catch anything else. Over."
"I only said fine."
"....Wait, I got up until 'fine' again and missed everything else you said. Over."
Clint frowns for a moment, a frown Pepper recognized as the first symptom of a rapid-onset, Stark-brand migraine. "I'm not doing a bit with you, asshole."
"Unit One, I'm having a lot of trouble hearing the end of your sentences. Over."
"Fuck you, Alpha Columbo." Clint hands the walkie-talkie to Pepper with a disgusted sigh.
"We're going to need radio silence, Alpha Columbo. Over," she says into the receiver, even as Clint's frown deepens.
"Bruce's nicknames suck. I want to be The Platinum Condor. Over."
"Why do you indulge him?" Clint's fiddling with an arrow, looking grumpy.
"I don't always. But... Sometimes, because it feels like old times."
He grunts, but doesn't say anything. Evidently, he has thoughts that he's not willing to share. That's just fine, a quiet walk suits Pepper all right. The first few days after the gas... The noise had been almost unbearable. Nearly constant screaming, crying, breaking glass, and all the shouting. New York had never been this quiet, she thinks briefly. It's overwhelming to think about it any longer than that.
Clint picks out a small, dark blue pickup truck. "Big enough for some stuff, not too big to attract a lot of attention." He's really, really good at stripping down the wires and twisting the right ones together. He wraps something around something else with a little piece of tape that Pepper doesn't remember him picking up.
"I didn't even think of how we were going to start the damn thing," she says, watching with interest.
Clint looks up and smiles a crooked little smile. "I'm a fountain of eclectic skills," he says. "Wanna learn how?"
"Learn how eclectically skilled you are? Maybe later, without the threat of Tony interrupting us via the radio."
Clint gapes at her for a second before he laughs softly and turns back to the wires in his hand. "Wow, Miss Potts. We're seeing such fascinating sides of each other these days."
Pepper can feel a little flush in her cheeks. It feels so good to smile.
Clint tugs her by the arm until she's standing right in front of him. "See, these two red ones are the main power for the ignition, and the electrical grid of the car. You connect them and then tape 'em, because the whole thing will die if they come apart while you're driving. It happens and it fucking sucks." He shows her how he twisted them together, and she's definitely taking it all in, but Clint feels very warm standing so close to her, and she spares a thought or two for that.
"Then you find the ignition wire, it's usually brown, and touch it to the red wires, and.... Perfect."
The truck jumps to life with a little spark from the wires. Clint leans past her to rev the engine a few times before it dies. "Now we just have to break the steering lock and we can go. You want to drive, or should I?"
"By all means," she motions for him to take the driver's side. "I've always hated driving in New York."
"Traffic probably won't be that bad today," he says. It's meant as a joke, but it left a bitter taste in his mouth. "Let's go, before they start to worry. We still want to hit up that store..."
The streets are still deserted. No one came running out of any abandoned buildings, survivors like themselves, or survivors gone mad. The whole city is like a ghost town. Driving is slow going, a lot of debris in the streets, but when they arrive back at Franklin's, it looks just as pristine and untouched as before.
Clint uses the same screwdriver he'd used to break the steering wheel casing open to jimmy the front lock. Neither of them thought that breaking the glass was a good idea.
"It's like fucking wonderland," Clint mutters, once they were inside, his eyes going wide.
Pepper chuckles. Seeing him so enthused about this-- it's a great thing to be excited for, but she doesn't even know where to start. "Tell me what I'm looking for."
"Okay. Okay, um. First, large bags to carry stuff in. Backpacking gear or a hockey bag would probably be best. Then, blankets or sleeping bags, first aid kits, portable stoves, duct tape, water filters, water bottles or canteens. If you see a hatchet, grab it. Knives, hunting gear, fishing gear or lures, mosquito nets or repellent. Anything that might be useful in the woods. Oh, and propane. Sometimes they have that kind of thing in camping stores."
"Everything looks useful though," Pepper sighs. "I guess we take whatever we can now."
Clint has already stopped listening. He's found a long rack of bow-hunting gear, and he zones completely in on it.
Pepper leaves him to it -- obviously, he would knows more about that than she does -- and tried to find the other things he mentioned.
She's shoving a down-filled sleeping bag into a bigger canvas duffle when Clint says, very carefully, in a sort of urgent stage whisper, "Pepper?"
"What is -- oh." When she looks toward the front of the store where Clint is crouching next to the bows, she can see three figures outside, inspecting their truck closely. She ducks down below the shelf, peeking around the edge of it to keep an eye on the situation.
"Unfriendlies?" she whispers back.
Clint nods, and then motioned to his mouth.
Pepper is confused, until one of the Unfriendlies turns to one side. His face and chest are covered in blood, mostly around his mouth and dripping down over his shirt. He says something to his friend, and then they both laugh. Shuddering, Pepper tries to make herself smaller, squeezing her eyes shut. Maybe if she and Clint stay completely quiet and don't move at all, the things outside -- she couldn't think of them as people, not after what she'd seen them do -- will leave on their own.
There's a strangled noise and Pepper risks a quick glance around the corner of the shelving. One of the things is pointing to the door to the shop, which they left standing open a fraction of an inch.
It lurches toward the door, its friends following him. "I smell something pretty," comes a rumbling, twisted voice. Pepper tries not to gag.
"You go, you can make it back to the others," Clint says, pulling an arrow off the rack above him and fitting to the bow in his hands. "As soon as they get in here, I'll distract them, you run around the far side and get in the truck. Drive like mad and don't stop."
"Not a chance in hell," she hisses, digging with one hand in the bag she'd been packing. Her hand closes around the handle of the shiny metal hatchet.
"Pepper, I --"
There's the sound of shattering glass, followed by a little zipping sound and a gurgled shout. Pepper dropped the bag at her feet and stood, hatchet at the ready. One of the things is already on the floor, an arrow sticking out of it's throat. It's grasping at it, but blood was gushing from the wound, and it is already starting to slow down.
One of its friends jumps down and started to chew at the wound, making obscene noises that will definitely replay in Pepper's mind in the quiet of night when she can't avoid it. Clint takes another shot, nailing the hungry one through the eye before the last of the Unfriendlies tackles him to the floor and sends the bow flying.
Pepper charges forward, trying her best to pretend she had no fear.
She isn't anywhere near fearless, but she can't imagine losing any more friends, not now, especially not when she has a chance to intervene. Clint's struggling, but whatever has made the Unfriendlies so aggressive also made them strong. She recognizes the Chicago Bears logo printed on the tee shirt it's wearing, and she is struck with split second of incredulity -- these things really were human at some point. Regular, walking, talking, breathing, smiling humans -- and she isn't sure what she can do, if she can really hit this thing that was a man in the back of the head with a hatchet.
But the thing is struggling to get a knife free from its belt, probably intent on skinning Clint alive before eating him. Pepper squeezes her eyes shut and swung with all her might. There's a wet noise, like a Hallowe'en jack-o'-lantern hitting the pavement on November twenty-third, and then the hatchet is yanked out of her hand as the guy slumps forward over Clint. The blade is still firmly embedded in its skull. Blood and grey matter spill out in little rivers.
Turning away a moment too late, Pepper manages to throw up on Clint's socks and boots instead of a clear space on the floor.
"Augh," Clint groans, heaving the thing off of him. He stands quickly, reaching forward to recover his bow. There were no sounds in the room, only the steady drip-drip of blood on the laminate floor and Pepper's laboured breathing. "Good," he said, surveying the shop and shaking off his feet. "Now let's get the fuck out of here."
"I'm sorry about your shoes," Pepper says, feeling small and awful and still tasting it in the back of her throat.
"Well, next time I save you from being eaten alive by a monster man, I'll puke on you right back, okay? Then we'll be even."
They stuff the last few things they want into their bags and hurry for the truck. Pepper tosses her bag into the truck bed, swinging up into the passenger's seat while Clint takes a quick peek down the street.
"Clear," he says, sliding behind the wheel. "And I think --"
Whatever his thoughts are, they're cut off by two gunshots, practically on top of each other. Pepper shrinks back in her seat instinctively.
Clint doesn't feel like waiting around to find out what the hell is going on this time. He guns the engine, and they take off down the road. Just before they round the corner that will take them onto the road back to base, a figure steps out of an alley. For a second, Clint considers just hitting it before it can attack or shoot them or follow them back to their friends... Then he realizes it's Maria Hill.
Hitting her with a truck will probably only make her mad.
She's wiping her hands on her knees and giving him an annoyed look when he glances back in the rearview mirror.
Clint sighs and slows the truck. She doesn't run to catch up with them, of course, even though Clint's sure she can tell how keyed up they are.
"Hey," she says, opening the door on Pepper's side and poking her until she slid over. "Oh. You've got red on you."
Clint slams the truck forward with another sigh. What a great addition to the day. Eight flavours of apocalypse, each more painful than the last.
Miles away, a god is on his knees, praying, begging, pleading for death. Blood drips onto the asphalt in front of him, thin and watery, and he thinks for one blessed second that this might finally be the end, but his heart is still thudding loudly in his chest.
He doesn't die, because the world is not a kind place any more. Distracted by his blood, and the wrenching, twisting feeling in his gut, he doesn't even hear the soft footsteps approaching behind him.
Doctor Banner says he knows a place that will fit their needs perfectly, so he and Rogers take the blue truck and lead the convoy out two days later, just after dawn. Darkness provides as much cover for the Unfriendlies as it does for them.
All nine of the vehicles in their little lineup have been loaded down with supplies and survivors. There's a good mix of civilians and surviving SHIELD agents. She hadn't force them to come, and a lot of them hadn't. Maybe they figured someplace Maria Hill wasn't was the safest place to be. She doesn't blame them.
It's strange to think of this ragtag little band of survivors as such. Contrary to everything the popular blockbuster apocalypse movies would have a person believe, these people banded together at the end of world. They're working together to stay alive and safe. It provides a sense of community that Maria hasn't felt in years.
She isn't sure she trusted it.
But everyone is very carefully not asking for her opinion as Rogers divides them into groups and vehicles, and assigns them supplies to look after. She would much prefer the few people in the group who have actually proven themselves competent to be put in charge of the vital supplies (and everything is vital now), but she is outvoted. Typical.
"Since when is this a democracy?" she asks, pulling Rogers and Stark aside. They seem to be the ringleaders.
"Since always. This is America," Rogers says, as if he's been viscerally insulted. "And these people have just as much of a say in what goes on as you do. As any of us do."
"Democracy was invented in ancient Greece," she says. "And in times of great danger, they'd appoint one supreme ruler to command all the decisions and save the day."
"Paiderastia was also invented in Ancient Greece, so unless you're also suggesting Steve go out and find himself a pal..." Stark says. He smiles widely when Maria and Rogers both turn to stare at him. "Sorry, I thought we were playing Kind of Creepy Irrelevant Historical Facts from Greece."
"This is an American democracy," Rogers says. "No tyrants."
"I think you could pull off a lot of those nude wrestling poses, Steve," Tony adds with that patented Stark-brand faux-angelic smile.
Maria glares at them both, but if she wants out of the city, she has to play nice. Luckily, Rogers is nice enough for both of them, and doesn't stick her with the family and the minivan when it comes time to assign her to a car. No, Banner somehow pulls that brilliant appointment, and Maria is left to follow up at the end of the line, riding shotgun with two university grad students and a hunting rifle across her lap.
The two guys in the car are chatting amicably away for the majority of the ride. Maria doesn't have much to add, so she listens. The one driving, Andy, is from Harlem. He and his friend in the back seat met in an introductory biology course years ago and had been best friends since. The friend, Hieu, is in the United States studying on a school visa from Vietnam. They were both biology grad students. They both like playing soccer.
Maria doesn't think any of this is even remotely important, given their current circumstances, but the young men are happy to tell her. She doesn't offer any personal details of her own.
The sun starts to set before the scenery finally begins to change from empty, haunted-looking suburbs to woods and thick underbrush.
"Maria, look sharp, this is the part we were worried about," Rogers says over the rinky-dink MacGyver'd radio he'd given her.
"I don't know about you, but I've been looking sharp for the last fifteen years, Rogers."
Andy gives her a sly, sideways smile. "You give him a lot of hell."
"Maybe I do. What about it?"
He shrugs. "Nothing, I just think it's funny." He's still smirking.
"I will end you," she says. She isn't sure exactly what he's smirking about, but the fact that he's smirking is enough for a reminder. There's a scoff and an aborted chuckle from the backseat. "Both of you."
But neither Andy nor Hieu take her seriously for some reason and soon they're trying to outdo each other with terrible puns and bad knock-knock jokes. Maybe they're maladjusted, or maybe she is, but she has been deeply suspicious of their laissez-faire attitude given their current circumstances.
Maria looks out the window and watches the scenery slide past. It's going to be a long apocalypse.
Darcy rolls her eyes. "She's barely a doctor, guys," she says for what feels like the ninetieth time.
Jane shushes her and holds her arms open for the little bundle of energy running towards them. If she'd been told a few months ago she'd be looking at children and feeling anything besides mild fear and disdain, she would have laughed. And here she is, holding the little boy while he cries into her shoulder, snotting and sliming all over the place.
Darcy scoffs again, mostly because it was always her dream to be queen of the ragamuffin orphans in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but they all kept deferring to Jane because 'she's a doctor.' Darcy can't catch a break, even now.
"Tell me what happened, Simon," Jane says, rubbing little circles on his back
"Me and Charlee were out by the river looking for good rocks, like we were s'posed to and we found a dead guy and I know you said not to touch them but Charlee dared me and I poked the dead guy and he wasn't dead!"
"What? Simon, why would you even think that was a good idea? Wait... Where's Charlee?" Darcy is on her feet within seconds of realizing the other kid is missing.
"The dead guy wasn't dead and he jumped up and we got scared 'cause of all those stories about all the monsters and then Charlee tripped and fell in the river!"
"Oh fu -- fudge," Darcy says, pacing back and forth. "Okay Simon, go inside with the others. Tell Jake and Maggie they're in charge until we get back. Jane, we've gotta --"
"Darce," Jane says quietly as Simon scampers back into their secret headquarters -- an old two-screen movie theatre that's been run down and abandoned since long before the rioting and looting started. "There's nothing we can do. Neither of us are strong enough swimmers even if we did get there in time, plus we don't know what else is out there..."
There's been rumours about a sea monster in the river for weeks now, whispered among the kids when they're supposed to be sleeping. It's a silly idea, of course, but just try and persuade the kids that. Darcy shakes her head and rounds on Jane again. "But --"
"He's already dead, Darce," she says. There's a hard glint to her eyes that turns Darcy's stomach a bit, but she doesn't know how to say it.
"Okay," she says after a long moment. She sits heavily next to Jane and sags against her shoulder. "This sucks."
"It mega sucks," Jane agrees. "I thought if I ever had kids, it wouldn't be like this."
"Or that I wouldn't have like, sixteen of them."
"Doctor Jane?" Simon is standing at the doorway looking even more sad and sheepish than before.
"What is it, Simon?"
He holds out two pieces of hammered metal, shining dully in the fading grey light. "I... We... I took this from the not dead guy. They were lying near him. I dunno what they are."
"Well, let me see." As Jane reaches for the things he's holding, they tumble from his hands and clatter on the pavement.
"Uh oh," Darcy says. She knows them almost immediately, and knows exactly where they came from. Who else in New York City would be wearing those things? Vambraces, she remembers him calling them. Plus it only takes a moment to recognize the pattern on them. Very distinctive...
"Oh god. Oh my god."
"Doctor Jane? Are you mad at me?"
When Jane doesn't answer because she's still processing what's going on, Darcy takes Simon by the hand and pats him gently. "She's not mad, she's just... Thinking. Go back inside, it's almost dark."
"Are you going to... Is Charlee coming back?"
"I don't think so, kiddo."
Simon gives Darcy an extra-tight hug and runs back inside. They've set up a pretty decent camp in the smaller of the two movie theatres, cozy and easy to barricade themselves in if they ever had to. They haven't yet, thank fuck, because the day they do is the day they're all going to die.
"God," Jane whispers, holding one in of Thor's vambraces in her hands and turning it over. "Oh god."
Darcy yelps and jumps up. "Thor!"
To say he looks like hell warmed up would absolutely be an insult to lukewarm hell. He looks an inch from dying, with bruised and waxy skin, and a stoop to his shoulders that looks so foreign on him. He's dripping murky water onto the pavement and holding a soaking wet child on his hip with one arm. Jane stands a little shakily and puts one hand on his shoulder, half like she's bracing him, and half like she's steadying herself.
"Hello," he says again, holding out Charlee for Darcy to take. She pulls off her sweater and wraps him in it, holding the little boy on one hip. Once his parcel is delivered, he collapses onto the pavement, head on Jane's shoe. "I've missed you," they hear him whisper, and then they can't wake him up.
Bruce wakes with a jolt, a particularly unpleasant feeling these days. Pepper and Steve are both standing over him. Pepper looks on the verge of tears, and Steve's features are drawn, his lips tight. Anger or worry, then. Bruce puts on his glasses, more out of habit than an actual need to see. "What's wrong?"
"It's Tony. We can't wake him up."
It takes Steve and Clint holding him up, Pepper splashing cold water from the rain barrel in his face, and Natasha pinching his thigh hard enough to raise a welt to wake him up. Tony is dazed and barely coherent when he asks what they're doing.
"Tony, look at me," Steve demands, forcing Tony to look up with two fingers under his chin.
Bruce notices the bruising straight away. Tony's skin is so pale these days, it's not hard to see. "Tony, does this hurt?" He runs his fingertips over the dark smudges gently. His skin is hot to the touch. "Clint, go get some more water, please."
"Yes, ow," Tony says, trying to pull away. He settles for wriggling back on the bed and letting Steve hold him up entirely. "What's happening?" Tony asks. He sounds baffled.
"You've not been feeling great, have you? Hey, look over here." Bruce takes the little bowl of water Clint hands him and dips the edge of his tee shirt in to wipe the sweat off Tony's face.
It's a tense night. Steve's supposed to go out for a turn at watch, but Clint takes it for him because it's obvious Steve is reluctant to go. Natasha falls asleep at the end of the bed -- barely healed herself and the stress of the day had obviously gotten to her -- but Bruce, Steve, and Pepper sit up all night with him, taking turns to give him water and to wrap him tighter in the blankets when he starts to shiver.
"What do you think it is?" Pepper asks Bruce in a whisper.
Bruce wants to remind everyone that his PhD is in nuclear physics and not actual medicine, but at this stage in the game it seems pointless. It brings them a weird sense of encouragement, he supposes, to think they have a doctor around. One of the other guys they brought out with them, Evan, is a paramedic. He should be their go-to guy for things like this, but even he defers to Bruce.
"As near as I can tell," Bruce says, because he prefaces everything he says with that phrase now, resisting putting his stamp on anything, "It's something like graft-versus-host disease? He's got a big piece of metal in his chest, so I expect there's necessary ongoing care. Which he's not getting. Because we live in the woods." He's trying not to laugh because he's know it will sound a little hysterical, but this is the moment Bruce has been dreading since they first showed up here. Someday, someone was going to get really sick, or really injured, and the Magic Doctor Banner wasn't going to be able to save them. He was sick with fear the entire time Agent Hill, Steve, and one of the soccer playing biologists had been cutting wood. Four days of them prepping cord after cord of firewood, and Bruce felt ready to pass out the entire time.
Steve says it went well, that he and Maria really bonded over it, and no one got so much as a splinter, but the day they finished with the wood was one of the happier days in Bruce's recent memory.
And now, here it is, and it's Tony. Of course it's Tony, because it seems like it's always Tony who gets him into these ridiculous situations he's not equipped to deal with.
"What were you taking and how long have you been off it?" he asks, noticing Tony's awake and watching. Pepper is asleep in Steve's arm, both of them leaning awkwardly against the wooden cabin wall. Natasha's face is mashed up against Pepper's thigh, one arm thrown across the mis-matched jumble of legs, and there's Tony in the middle of it all, swaddled like a baby.
"Um. Solu-Medrol. And maybe few weeks." Tony's voice cracks as he talks. "I feel bad."
"I know," Bruce says. "Okay. So you need more meds. Clint found some yesterday, and --"
"Nothing. I checked." Tony grimaces suddenly, and squirms, accidentally kicking Steve's leg. He wakes with a start, which wakes Pepper and Natasha too.
"Tony needs more medication," Bruce says.
"I stole a bunch yesterday," Clint says as he walks in and kicks off his boots. They thump on the floor and dried mud flies everywhere, because Clint can't keep room tidy for more than six seconds at a time. He slides onto the bed, worming between Pepper and Steve like a slippery cat trying to find the best spot.
"Not the right ones, unfortunately," Bruce says with a sigh.
"Is he gonna die without them? I don't really feel like going back into the city right away. Need to psych myself up again," Clint says into Pepper's arm.
"I'm not going to die. I just need some fucking coffee or something."
"How about some herbal tea?" Natasha asks, rolling on her back and stretching her bad leg.
Bruce huffs a little laugh. "I apologized for that already."
"So we're going back in?" Clint asks, muffled against Pepper's neck.
"No," Tony snaps.
"Looks like," Steve says at the same time.
Bruce slips out before he gets sucked into the bickering. Steve and Pepper will change Tony's mind soon enough, they always do, and Bruce could use an hour or two of not-arguing before they have to mount another trip into the city. Even if they don't run into any Unfriendlies -- and given the repairs the fence had needed and the graves Maria and a few people were on the far edge of the compound digging for their fallen guards from last night, that seems unlikely -- just the possible threat of running into any is enough stress. He needs some wind down time.
He asks around to see if anyone else has drugs that Tony can use, but it's too long of a shot. "We have to go back in," he tells Maria. He offers to take her shovel, but she waves him off.
"How bad is he?" she asks.
"Bad enough to warrant another supply run today."
"What if you can't find any of these drugs?" She stops digging and looks up from the bottom of the hole, shielding her eyes from the sun.
"I... don't know. Nothing good."
"Well, find it then," she says simply.
Bruce nods. "And how about I find you a pair of sunglasses?"
She smirks at him. "That'd be great, mine broke weeks ago."
"And see if you can find us a soccer ball, eh, Doc?" asks Hieu with an easy grin. He takes the shovel out of Maria's unresisting hand and takes a turn at digging the grave like it's a common place chore. The things people can adapt to...
"Right at the top of my list," Bruce promises. He turns back to Maria and offers her a hand to get out of the hole. Surprisingly, she takes it. "We'll sort out who's going and I'll let you know."
"Stay safe," she says, patting his shoulder.
An hour and a half later, Steve and Clint are prepping the biggest truck they have. It's one of the big SHIELD Jeeps and Steve picked it because it's heaviest, most armoured vehicle they have. He thinks they might need it.
Bruce takes a little of the paper they'd been saving up and prints a list of possible immunosuppressants that they're looking for a few times so everyone can have a copy. As much as it's creepy and nerve-wracking and stressful to split up when they get back to New York, it's proven to be the only way to cover enough ground to find what they need. Everything's been pretty picked over.
"Ready?" Steve asks him. "We have to go now if we want enough light to get home in."
To hear him call it home, especially after he was so resistant to leave the city in her hour of need, is interesting. Bruce makes note to be interested later, when they're not on a very strict clock.
Natasha's riding shotgun with a shotgun when he gets out to the truck. Clint looks beyond pissed, but Steve gives Bruce a clear 'we're not making a deal out of this' look.
"Clint, hold down the fort while we're gone. Pepper, you call us on the comms if there's anything at all, okay?" Steve gives her a tight hug and whispers something Bruce doesn't catch, probably about looking after Tony. He slaps Clint on the shoulder in that hearty, manly way that Steve has that makes everyone else snicker and roll their eyes.
"You're driving or am I?" Bruce asks. He likes driving, but he's sort of itching for a nap in the backseat if he can swing it.
"I'll drive," Maria says, flicking her fingers at Steve in dismissive way. "If that's okay." She says it in a way that indicates it damn well better be okay.
"Um. Sure," Steve says, climbing into the back seat behind Natasha. "Okay Clint, Hill's with us. That puts you doubly in charge."
"Don't let the power overwhelm you," Maria says dryly.
They leave without any more ado, mostly because if they draw it out, it's going to get way more emotional than anyone is equipped to deal with.
"I made up a list of drugs we need to be on the lookout for. Pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, ambulances, anywhere we can think to look," Bruce says, handing Natasha and Steve each a list.
Natasha reads it aloud. "And any of these will help Tony?"
"Theoretically, yeah. The best at the top, the longer shots at the bottom."
She nods. "All right. We can deal with this."
"I think we should grab whatever first aid shit we find," Maria says. "Winter's coming up fast, and we won't be able to make as many runs into the city then."
"Exactly right," Steve says. "I put some of the better packs in the back. Everyone fill up with anything that looks useful. After we find the medication, that is."
Bruce falls asleep with his face against the window and wakes with a jolt when Maria pulls the Jeep to halt a few hours later. "Wakey wakey, Banner," she calls. He rubs his eyes and tousles his hair.
"Completely uneventful drive," Steve confirms.
They get out of the Jeep and locked it up tight. Steve hands out the bags and Bruce goes over the list of drugs one more time.
"We've got it," Maria says. "You guys go north, Romanov and I will go south. One on the east side of the street, one on the west. Check in every fifteen minutes."
Natasha looks between Maria and Steve and their apparent attempt to one-up each other on the bossy scale every time either of them turns around. She smiles, even though she knows she'll catch hell from either or both of them if they catch on. Natasha smiles because she can, and she wants to, and because she's finally, officially done doing anything she's 'supposed to' if she doesn't feel like doing it.
Out of fucks to give, Clint calls it. It's vulgar, but true. She very nearly almost died, and not in the way like she's almost died before, but in a way that seemed a lot more real. So Natasha's not wasting any more of her time doing anything unless it's something she really wants to do. And right now, she wants to find medicine for Tony, and maybe make a little mischief in the meantime.
"Actually Maria, I'll go north with Bruce," she says, walking away and tugging Bruce by the arm after her before anyone can protest (even if they are protesting, and not exactly quietly, as she walks away with a smile).
"I wonder if they get mad enough at each other, will they just explode?" she asks Bruce when they're safely out of earshot. He chuckles.
"Probably. Or maybe..."
"Rage-fuck? That's where my money is. Well, I bet Clint a week of chores on it, anyway." Natasha peers in the closest building, but something about it gives her a weird feeling, so she waves Bruce past it.
"He doesn't think they will?"
"He thinks any large scale argument between them will end with Steve getting shot, yeah," she says. "Here. You take that one, I'll go in here. Out in ten minutes or less."
Natasha hums the score to Petrushka as she walks the aisles in the Rite-Aid with her shotgun slung over her shoulder. It helps her keep her balance and her pace, and keep track of time, plus music chases a lot of the shadowy thoughts away. A lot of things are already gone off the shelves, or smashed, or scattered across the floor, but she finds a few rolls of gauze bandage and a bottle of Nyquil, like a red, doxylamine-laced gift from God.
When she gets to the pharmacy, she's surprised to see there are still bars over it. The shelves that are closest to the bars have been picked over, where people were able to reach between them. Natasha jimmies the lock open without any real trouble and starts helping herself to anything and everything that looks good.
There's a safe near the back and she figures it might have narcotics, so she takes the time to open it. She knows she only has about three minutes left, so when the door finally swings open, she just sweeps all the bottles into her bag. One final check of the back wall reveals two full bottles of one of the drugs on Bruce's little list. It's not the top choice, but she hopes it's enough to tide Tony over until they find something better.
"I found jack. How'd you do?" Bruce asks when they meet on the street again. "Took you longer than I expected."
"Leg," she says simply, holding open her bag for him to inspect.
"Shit, good," he says with a smile. "Let's go back in and get the rest."
It seems a little anti-climatic, Natasha thinks, but she's not going to argue. There are very few types of climaxes that she enjoys -- nearly all of them are overrated.
"We should be careful with the narcotics," Natasha says as they picked their way back through the store.
Bruce is reading the label on a bottle of vitamins he picked up off the floor. After a moment, he deems them acceptable and drops them in his bag. "You think we have an addict among us?"
"You've met Tony, haven't you?" Natasha nudges a box of insulin syringes with the butt of her gun. "Anyone in camp diabetic?"
"Don't think so."
She shoves them aside. "I'm not saying I've got a list of potential drug addicts and I'm watching their every move. Just saying we should be careful."
"Sure. I agree. Yeah." Bruce finds the section of the pharmacy devoted to anti-biotics. A little bit of that pressing weight he's been feeling lightens and he smiles. He starts taking bottles off the shelves and stuffing them in the bag. "You watch everyone's every move though," he reminds her.
Natasha smiles softly to herself and dumps another bottle in her bag.
The next two buildings are a waste of their time -- a picked over coffee shop and an office suite with nothing to offer. Natasha meets up with Bruce on the sidewalk just as the radio buzzes for their attention.
"How are you making out?" Steve asks.
"Not bad," Bruce reports. "Pretty good, actually."
"Find the medicine?"
"We have something that should work."
"Good," Maria cuts in. "Because we've got fuck all down here."
"Really, I think I had that under control," Steve says, sounding far away and super annoyed.
"Just expediting things, Rogers, relax." There are distinct scuffling sounds, and then there's Steve's voice again, loud and clear.
"Okay, another half hour and then rendezvous at the Jeep. Over and out."
Natasha makes a vulgar hand gesture with one hand and smirks. Bruce smiles too, because it's good to see Natasha up and around and being sarcastic and smiling so much.
She heads across the street and Bruce takes the next shop on his side, a bookstore littered with tipped shelves and broken glass from the front windows. He finds a couple promising titles in the outdoor hobby section -- one on edible plants and one about winter survival. Looking around the bookstore kind of depresses him if he thinks about it too hard.
In the initial days after the detonation, people went a little batshit. There was a huge wave of rioting and looting, people stealing food and supplies left right and centre. But a book shop? Here he is, taking a few books that seemed relevant, but what would most people in those first few days of chaos need with a bunch of paperbacks?
Some people just like destruction for its own sake, he supposes.
Bruce suddenly misses the other guy with a weird sense of loss that he wouldn't have been able to fathom a few months ago. He shakes it off and meets Natasha outside.
"Find anything good in... The yoga studio?"
"Rotting yoga instructor in plow position," Natasha says. "But besides that, I found mats. Like, big, fluffy, comfy mats."
Bruce can tell she's thinking about cramming five or six of them on a little camp cot, and how someone often goes to sleep sitting up, or in Clint's case, leaning against a wall with his hand on the butt of a rifle. Big, fluffy, comfy, mats seem like a really great idea.
"We might have room," he says carefully. "I'll buzz Steve and --"
Natasha tackles him to the ground, her shotgun and their bags spinning everywhere, which is surprising and a little bit painful.
"I thought I saw someone moving," she says, by way of apology once she gets off him. Not that Natasha ever sounds very apologetic about anything.
He gets up and holds a hand out to her, just in case she remembers she's not supposed to be stressing her broken leg out any more than it already is. She gets up on her own, but grips his shoulder once she's standing and has retrieved her gun and shows no intention of letting go. Bruce doesn't mind.
They go into the next place together, a bar. There's broken glasses everywhere, and barely any light filtering through the little windows. Creepy horror movie stuff, Bruce thinks. Natasha's fingers dig into his shoulder once or twice, and through Bruce doesn't pick up on anything out of the ordinary, he trusts Natasha's senses ten times more than his own.
So when she hurls him to the floor again, he's mostly okay with it. Natasha shouts something in Russian that sounds angry and aggressive (but could have possibly been a greeting, Bruce finds it hard to tell with Russian) and there's a scuffling sound like someone trying to get away very quickly. When Bruce turns his head to try and get a look, broken glass digs painfully into his scalp. He just stays still and quiet and listens to Natasha's breathing as she crouches above him, ready to pounce.
"Nat?" he says finally.
"Didn't look like an Unfriendly," she says. She puts a hand in the centre of his chest and uses him as leverage to push herself up. Bruce feels a shard of glass pushing very carefully through his denim jacket and the shirt underneath and winces.
"You're fine," she says, catching the wince and rolling her eyes (he assumes, he can't really see in the low light, but it wouldn't be out of character).
"What did it look like?" Bruce asks, making a little broken glass angel for want of snow and a place to put his hands without cutting them to ribbons. He stands up carefully and get the glass off his clothes with a little shake and wiggle.
"A kid," Natasha says, still frowning at the shadows. "Let's see if there's anything worth drinking in here and get back to the Jeep."
They find an eclectic array of unbroken bottles, nothing that really looks to be worth drinking and nothing that would have been worth paying the prices printed on the sign over the bar, but it's here, it's free and it's the first alcohol they've seen in almost two months, so they go in the bag.
They walk back outside into the sunshine without further incident. Bruce's bag rattles with pills and Natasha's clinks gently with carefully stowed liquor bottles. Not a bad accompaniment to the feeling of a job well done. The walk back to the Jeep is shaping up to be pleasant indeed.
"I'm not going to jump on you," Natasha says quietly.
"I don't really mind if you do. I mean, a little warning is nice, but not really even mandatory."
She laughs, a little huff of sound that makes Bruce want to beam. "We're being followed," she says after a moment.
"I ain't gonna hurt you," says a little voice behind them. Natasha turns slowly.
There's a kid standing half a block back, looking sheepish and tear-streaked. "I didn't mean to scare you before."
"What did you mean, then?" Natasha demands. If Natasha is engaging and not immediately trying to murder, Bruce deems it safe enough to turn around himself. The kid definitely doesn't inspire fear, which is a nice change.
Bruce pats Natasha on the arm, sort of as a calming signal so she doesn't rip the head off the child (metaphorically or literally).
"I just wanted to know what you were doing," the kids says, sniffling heavily like she was about to start crying again. "You didn't have to put a curse on me."
Natasha stares at the kid, eyes narrowing slightly. Her grip on the shotgun shifts ever so slightly to a less threatening position.
"You said something in Russian," Bruce reminds her. "I don't blame her for thinking it was a curse."
"Don't cry," Natasha says. It sounds less like comfort and more like an order. The girl obeys immediately. "Where did you come from? Are you alone?"
"Pinch is up top," she says, motioning upwards.
Bruce instinctively glances up, expecting to see a pint-sized Hawkeye-type watching them, but of course he sees nothing.
"What's your name?"
"Sonia, get your friend, and show us where you've been living. Are there adults with you?" Natasha takes the radio from Bruce and starts walking towards the girl, who watches them uncertainly. "Steve, it's Nat. We found some kids that might need help."
"What's your twenty?" Maria asks.
"Four blocks up from the Jeep, headed north."
"We'll meet you in ten. Be careful, Romanov."
"Be careful!" Pepper chimes in. Natasha feel momentarily guilty, thinking of everyone back at camp worrying about them while they take a side trip. And Tony. At least they found medicine that would fix him. He's waited this long, he can wait another half hour for them to find out of these kids need help.
"Are you going to help?" Sonia asks, still looking tense and nervous. "There's a man who's sick. Everyone's really worried."
Bruce looks at Natasha. "Can we help?" he asks. It definitely wasn't in the plans, but how could they say no to a scared-looking kid who was flat out asking for help?
"You're the doctor," she says. "Can we?"
Bruce nods. "Take us there," he says to the girl.
The girl starts to walk and soon they're joined by a boy who looks younger and more wide-eyed than Sonia does. Bruce and Natasha follow at a respectful distance. Bruce looks at Natasha a few times, trying his best to shoot her darkly significant looks. She shrugs and keeps walking. These kids don't strike her as any sort of threat, and Natasha is the most knowledgeable about this kind of thing.
"Seven blocks up now, headed east," Natasha reports into the walkie-talkie.
"Yeah, yeah. Ran into a bit of a trouble. Nothing to worry about. Be there soon," Maria says. She sounds a little... strained, maybe? Bruce frowns at Natasha, who shrugs again. If Maria says it's nothing to worry about, well then that's basically an order, isn't it?
Sonia stops in front of an alley a few minutes later. She whispers something to the little boy she called Pinch and he scampers off.
"So you live around here?" Bruce asks. Sonia looks a lot less nervous now and a lot more apprehensive.
"Yes," she says.
"Just the two of you?"
She's not very forthcoming with answers now that she's calmed down. There's a little smile playing at the edges of Natasha's mouth, and Bruce can only imagine why.
Pinch comes back and looks somehow different. It takes Bruce a second to realize it's because the kid's face is cleaner and the sleeves on his far-too-big-for-him shirt have been rolled up so his hands are actually visible now. There's someone nearby looking after these kids, someone he's obviously gone to report to.
"What's your name?" Pinch asks, looking up at him. He frowns like he's trying to remember his lines in the school play. "What kind of doctor are you? And where did you come from? And who's your friend?"
"My name's Bruce and I'm only kind of a doctor, but I have some medicine and I've helped sick people before. We live around here and my friend was in the army before all the scary stuff started happening." He tells a few lies, but it's easier than trying to explain the reality.
Pinch runs off down the alley again and Bruce becomes aware of a few other kids lurking around down near the other end. No one looks over the age of fourteen or so. It's like a horror movie version of Oliver Twist or something. He's suddenly a little nervous to meet whoever passes for Fagin around here.
Or... maybe he's not. She's obviously seen better days (because who hasn't?), but she smiles gratefully when she comes down the alley and sees them. She's not covered in blood or trying to kill them, so he quickly guesses she's not an Unfriendly, which just makes her a nice woman who's been taking care of all these freshly-orphaned kids. "Hey there," she says.
"Hi," Bruce says and against all logic and sense of timing, he feels himself blushing just a little.
"Which one of you is kind of a doctor and which one of you is the army dude?" She eyes Natasha's gun.
Nat fixes her with a blank look. "Army dude?"
"'Dude' is a gender-neutral pronoun where I'm from," she says with a shrug. "Look, we have a pretty weird case going on over here, so if you want to help, then we need help. If you think we're going to be easy targets to rob or whatever, well. We don't have much, and we fight like hell. Right guys?" A little cheer and chorus of agreement go up among the kids hanging around.
"We can help," Bruce says, holding up his hands in a peace gesture. "Maybe. What do you mean by weird case?"
"Brother, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. I'm Darcy, by the way."
"Bruce," Bruce says. "And this is Natasha."
They follow Darcy through the alley and around the corner, stopping in front of a metal door with multiple dings in the brown paint. She bangs on it a few times.
A voice choked with laughter calls from inside, "Password?"
"Andy, dammit! Open the door, you just saw me walk out of it."
"Close enough." The door swings open and there's two more boys inside, chuckling to each other. They stop immediately when they see Natasha. "Hello miss," one of them says with a smile Bruce would only describe as lecherous. Natasha looks him up and down very carefully, then scoffs and follows Darcy further into the building.
"Tough break," Bruce says, shrugging. The door snaps closed behind him and the crowd of kids starts to dissipate quickly.
From the looks of it, this place used to be a movie theatre, but it looks more run down and shabby than most places around here do, even with all the rioting and looting that went on. Bruce is reminded of even more scenes from horror movies.
Darcy pauses in front of the door leading to one of the auditoriums. "Okay so. We think he's got radiation poisoning. Jane thinks so, anyway. I don't have a clue. He woke up a few minutes ago and drank some water and didn't throw it up. Jane says that's good. But he's not very with it, you know? Not that he's ever very with it..."
"Radiation poisoning?" That's definitely something Bruce will recognize if he sees it and of course, of course it's starting to get to people. Unchecked, unmanaged nuclear power stations everywhere are going to start overloading and melting down, wherever there was a big enough loss in manpower that they're being neglected. Full-out nuclear winter is on the horizon, he realizes suddenly, with a sickening twist in his stomach.
"Jane? Jane Foster?"
The sharpness in Natasha's voice draws him out of his panicked tailspin for a moment.
"And you're Darcy Lewis?"
Kids start appearing out of the woodwork with bats and crowbars and a breathtaking array of improvised weapons. Darcy draws herself up a bit taller and tilts her chin defiantly. "Who the fuck are you?" she asks. It's a testament to the sudden gravity of the situation that no one giggles or titters at the use of a swear word.
"I think we have mutual friends," Natasha says. She's choosing her words carefully. Slowly, she leans down and puts her shotgun on the stained carpet. "We're here to help," she says as a reminder. "Nothing else."
"Who are you talking about?"
"You know Erik Selvig?" Natasha says.
"Oh, Jane Foster," Bruce says, suddenly putting three and three together. "PhD candidate at Culver, of course. She was working with Doctor Selvig when I... Yeah, I remember her."
Darcy scowls and points at them. "Stay," she orders. She open the door to the theatre and sticks her head in, still pointing at them. "Jane. Come here."
"We don't have time for this," Natasha says, pushing past Darcy and into the next room. One of the boys with a golf club takes a menacing step towards her, but she bares her teeth and growls at him and he skitters away.
"Hey!" Natasha calls loudly, marching down the aisle. Bruce follows closely, and shrugs an apology at Darcy and the upset guards.
A dark-haired woman, Jane Foster, stands up in front of the movie screen. There's a wide ledge, almost a little stage, littered with blankets and things; clearly this is their base of operations.
"You. Wake up, hey, pay attention," Natasha calls again, levering herself up onto the platform with the end of her shotgun, like it's walking stick and not a deadly weapon. Bruce gets close enough to the shivering lump of presumably-radiation-exposed person lying curled up under a fleecy Harry Potter blanket.
"What the hell?" Jane says, putting herself between Natasha and the person. Bruce feels his respect for the woman grow exponentially.
Natasha whistles the way someone would whistle to call a dog -- the way Tony can't whistle -- and the person under the blanket shifts a little. The corner of the blanket falls away and Bruce recognizes him.
There's a rumble and a murmur, but no real words or acknowledgement from him.
"What happened?" he asks, going to Thor's side and peeling the sweat-soaked blanket away. He starts checking vital signs straight away, frowning in concentration. Thor doesn't even open his eyes.
"Who the hell are you people?" Jane asks again.
"That's what I'd like to know." Darcy has caught up with them now, crossing the platform to stand with Jane. "Our doctor friend there says he knows you from school?"
"You were in my intro to physics and applied mathematics class about a hundred years ago," he says without looking up.
Jane frowns, Darcy frowns, Natasha frowns. No one looks happy, and they're all watching each other closely.
"Doctor Banner?" Jane hazards after a moment.
"Hi," he says, still distracted and not looking up.
"I didn't recognize you," she says. "You look... different."
Bruce lets out a humourless laugh. "Yeah. I probably do. How long has he been like this?"
"He showed up two days ago," Jane says, kneeling next to him. "Believe it or not, he's better than he was."
"It was a pain in the ass moving him inside, let me tell you," Darcy adds.
"Darcy, shut up," Jane says.
"He's better? How bad was he before?"
"Pretty bad. Bloody nose, some puking, bad fever." Jane's not wringing her hands, her voice isn't quivering, she's not pacing, none of the normal nervous habits a person might have, but she's throwing off so much nervous energy that Bruce makes her go stand six feet away before he does anything else.
"He's like, eighty-six tons of deadweight and beard hair," Darcy says, but quieter than before so Jane won't hear.
"He's not even a Ravenclaw, I don't think," Sonia adds, peering over the edge of the platform and watching Bruce's hands with interest. "But I gave him my blanket anyway."
There's the vaguest sounds of activity going on in other parts of the building, but for a few long moments, everyone in the immediate area is silent while Bruce finishes his exam. Natasha notices his hands shaking ever so slightly, but she doesn't say anything.
"Thor? Can you hear me?" Bruce says. He uses the corner of the blanket to wipe some of the sweat from Thor's face.
Thor mutters something and tries to turn over. He gets tangled in the blue and bronze blanket and thrashes, one hand catching Bruce across the chest and knocking him backwards on his ass.
Everyone startles; Natasha drops into a fighting stance, Jane rushes forward, Darcy starts to chuckle. "He's alive!"
Bruce coughs and looks up at Natasha. "Your bag?" he asks, voice breaking on the edges. She straightens out of her low position and nudges it over.
Thor opens one eye and tries to say something. It takes a few tries for him to get out, "Banner?"
"Hey, big guy. How are you feeling?" Thor sounds so disoriented and weak that Bruce can't even be mad about the bruises he can already feel forming on his chest.
"How did you get to Asgard?"
"We're in New York," Bruce says, rummaging through Natasha's bag for the right bottle of anti-biotics.
"Are we? Has something happened?"
Bruce smiles an unhappy smile. "Yeah, I think so. But we'll talk about it later. You're pretty sick. Radiation. Any of that sound familiar?"
"I shut down the nuclear facilities. All of them," Thor says. "Everyone was dead."
Bruce nods. "Thank you," he says. He sounds quiet and Natasha's willing to bet it's got nothing to do with just having the wind knocked out of him. Bruce always expects the worst of every situation, every person, every time. That's why she figures he's fitting in so well with this apocalyptic survival thing.
Even as she stands close by and listens to them talk in their low, urgent voices, Thor seems stronger. His voice is louder, he's using longer sentences, and his eyes seem to be focusing more. He tries to sit up -- succeeds with a little help from Bruce -- when he hears Jane's voice.
Natasha's not worried about him anymore, not in the least, but she's suddenly aware of how long it's been since they heard anyone over the radio...
"This is a stupid plan," Maria says. Her voice catches on 'plan' and turns into a yelp of pain. She punches Steve in the shoulder (because the only acceptable pain is shared pain) as he bandages her bleeding arm with a length of fabric from a ripped up bedsheet.
"Don't smack me," he says, glaring at her and giving the end of the bandage a little tug.
She punches him again, harder. "Then don't give me a reason, Captain."
"It's the only plan we can manage at the moment," he says, leaning back on his feet. "It'll work, just follow my lead."
Maria groans, but she stands when he stands and checks her sidearm when he checks his.
"What if we die?" she asks, hand on his arm.
"We're not going to die, Hill." Steve shakes off her hand and glances around the busted up restaurant they're hiding out in. He picks up half of a broken chair.
Maria looks at it dubiously.
"We're going to be fine," he says again. "Ready?"
She sighs and nods. "Lead on."
Steve kicks open the front door, probably because he's a fucking show off, and they run out into the street. Maria sees at least six Unfriendlies, plus the three dead ones, halfway up the block next to the Jeep. They're crazed bloodthirsty murderers, sure, but they have shit attention spans and they've wandered off (well, the dead ones haven't). Steve pushes her ahead of him and they sprint off down the road, away from the Unfriendlies (and the Jeep, goddamn).
Maria makes a mental note to kick the shit out of him for treating her like a damsel in distress yet again once they're out of the fire on this one. They turn the first right corner with the fastest Unfriendly right on their tails. Maria tries her best to speed up, but her lungs feel like they're on fire and it's only anger that's keeping her moving right now. She glances back, as stupid a choice as that is, to make sure Steve's keeping up just in time to see him trip over his own two feet and land face first on the pavement.
She skids to a halt and fires a shot at the Unfriendly before it jumps on Steve and eats his face off or something, but ends up blasting the broken chair because Steve chose that exact second to throw it up at the thing's face.
"Seriously?" she shouts, firing again and hitting it square in the neck.
Steve scrambles to his feet. "I had that, Hill."
"You mean you had a little tumble and I saved your ass."
They take the next right corner they come to and the next after that. The Jeep is at the end of this block and there's only one of the monster people near it. The rest of them were stupid enough to chase them when they ran and they've polished off a couple of them now. This one by the Jeep is probably the smart one.
Maria gets the driver's side door open and slams the door shut on the lady's hands when she reaches in. She screeches and pulls back, and Maria slams the door twice more for good measure. The thing howls in pain. She's only mostly sure Steve's in the Jeep with her when she peels away like Hell is on her trail (hey, it mostly is).
Steve is in though, which is good because she'd have caught so much shit from Stark if she had left him behind, and he laughs as they drive away. It's that mostly nervous, 'I can't believe we're not dead' laugh. Maria's a little shocked to hear it from him. He's usually so... Upright.
"I can't believe the 'run away like terrified children' plan actually worked," she says, after she gets sick of hearing him laughing.
"Well, I told you so," he said. Steve smiles and leans back against the seat. He looks bonelessly relaxed, grinning at her like an idiot. "We did good."
"We did okay," she says with a shrug. "We could have had a better plan, though. It was sloppy."
"We're alive," he reminds her.
She allows herself a tiny smile.
"Does someone want to update us please?" Barton's voice over the radio startles them both.
"Headed to rendezvous with Banner and Romanov," Maria says, recovering first. "We'll let you know when we find out what's going on with their kids."
"No kids," comes Stark's voice in the background. He doesn't sound great. "I hate kids."
"Well then, I'll bring extra," Maria says, even though she would rather bring back a handful of homicidal Unfriendlies to share her bunk with her. Bickering gives Stark more of a reason to not die before they get back, and yeah, maybe Maria was developing a -- not a fondness, but she'd maybe classify it as a limited tolerance -- for the man. "Over and out." she says before that train of thought can progress further.
"Did he sound..." Steve stops mid-sentence, clearly also struggling with a train he wasn't fond of.
"He's fine. You're fine. Everything is fine," Maria snaps. "This isn't feelings hour." She slows the Jeep down now that they're roughly level with where they'd last heard from Romanov.
"She said they were headed east, right?"
"Yeah, but..." She's made the mistake of glancing up to the rearview mirror. "Shit."
Steve turns and looks behind them. There are about ten Unfriendlies following behind the Jeep. They're about three hundred yards back, but following steadily. The screeching one with broken hands is in the lead, like she called all her friends in for a little revenge mauling.
"Nat? Nat, where are you?" Steve says into the radio. "Come on, we have to go."
There's no response.
Maria throws the Jeep into reverse to pick up speed, then forward again to take the turn as fast as possible. "Where the hell are they?" she says.
Steve peels himself off the window. "Don't know, she didn't give us any information."
"These things are crawling up our ass, Rogers, we need to get the fuck out of the city."
"I know that," he says. Glaring at her or even rolling his eyes would be a wasted effort right now.
"They said they were with some kids, right? If you were a kid, where would you hide out?"
"That's not really something I can answer," he says tersely. He checks the magazine on his gun and doesn't smile.
There's a flash of movement by a door, someone ducking away and out of sight. "There," Maria says, slamming on the brakes again. Steve pulls himself off the dashboard with a groan.
Maria unrolls her window and shouts, "Kid! Hey!"
A head presumably attached to the rest of a preteen appears around a chipped brown door a second or two later. "Yeah?"
"I'm looking for some people, it's important. Tallish guy in a jean jacket, redheaded lady with a big gun. Quick, we need to get going and you need to get yourself somewhere safe."
The face disappears for a second, then pops back out. "Are those monster guys on their way?"
"Very much so," Maria says. "Have you seen our friends or not?"
Maria is watching the rearview mirror like a hawk, so much so that she doesn't notice right away when the gangly kid comes out of the building with three younger kids in tow, opens the back door, and starts lifting them in.
"Hey, what no, not what I meant," Maria says, turning and scowling. The youngest kid looks barely five or six years old and sniffles loudly as Maria looks on, horrified and a little disgusted. Steve gets out of the Jeep and opens the back door to check on them. "Hi," he says. "Are you guys okay?"
One of the older looking girls nods. "We're okay. Are we all gonna fit in here?"
Steve glances at Maria, who looks like she's mentally running through the list of every swear word she knows. "How many of you are there?"
"A bunch," the girl says promptly. Maria sighs and lets her head hit the steering wheel.
"We're going to do our best," Steve says. He means it to be comforting -- he thinks it is, anyway -- so when the kids clutch at each other and look on the verge of tears, he's confused and uncomfortable. Steve's never been good with kids.
A brunette in a baggy sweater and a grimace comes out with two more kids. "Maria and Steve, right?" she asks, boosting them one at a time into the backseat with their friends. "Natasha says to tell you to shut up and load the kids in the truck."
Steve nods. "Of course she does. And you are?" One of the kids grabs his arm and uses him like a ladder to climb up into the backseat.
"Darcy. How much time do we have before...?"
"Not much," Steve says. "How many kids do you have?"
"Two more after these. Seven total. Then, what, five adults?" She high fives the last kid getting into the Jeep and then shuts the door. "There's not enough room, is there? How many were following you?"
"We'll make room," Steve says. "Come on, what's the hold up in there?"
"Thor is three and half blue whales worth of cuddly teddy bear dead weight. I assume they're sweating it out in there trying to move him. Andy, move your ass, bud!"
"I've got it," Steve says, as Maria steps down from the driver's side and hoists her gun. "Darcy, get in, try to... find space. Hill, be ready to pop the back hatch. It's going to be an interesting trip back."
The preteen who greeted them originally comes out of the building with one last kid as Steve squeezes past them. He meets up with Natasha, Bruce, and another peeved looking lady trying to half-carry, half-drag Thor to the door.
Thor's awake and smiling faintly, like he's not entirely aware of his surroundings. No one else is smiling. "Steve!"
"Hi," Steve says. Bruce steps back a bit and lets Steve take Thor's arm. "Am I ever glad to see you."
"That feeling is mutual," Thor says, wincing when they jostle him a step. "For all of you. I thought..."
"That we were all toast?" Bruce says with a sly smile.
"Oh come on, you know it's going to take more than a little killer fog to do us all in," Natasha says. She's smiling too, contrary to Steve's previous observations. Maybe it's having Thor back with them, like reassembling the team. It's good to have friends around, especially friends they thought were dead or missing forever. Steve allows himself a smile after a few seconds. Just a small one, because they're not out of the fire yet.
Gunshots sound outside. Natasha darts out from under Thor's other arm, leaving him to clutch onto Steve for balance, and heads for the door with Bruce and the other woman right behind her. Thor tries to stand on his own, takes a few shaky steps and manages not to fall down. He beams. Steve stays right next to him, just in case.
When Natasha shoulders open the door, they're greeted to the bewildering sight of three dead bodies on the ground with Maria and Darcy standing over them with their weapons of choice (a gun and a slightly bent golf club, respectively), wearing matching looks of blood-splattered satisfaction. The seven kids in the Jeep have looks ranging from tears to laughing to beaming with pride.
Steve glances between them and Darcy's bent golf club, and then the bag Natasha's carrying that's clinking like glass, and Bruce's world-weary smile and Thor's wobbling steps towards the Jeep holding the hand of the dark-haired lady Steve still hasn't gotten the name of. It's been a weird day, to say the least. And that's Steve's official opinion, as someone who has had an awful lot of weird days in the past.
The kids giggle and screech when they hit a bump on the road. Bruce groans, probably because he's covered in them and they're bouncing all over him. Maria doesn't envy him one bit, cramped as she herself is in the front seat with Steve, Natasha, and Darcy. Jane and Thor are crammed in the very back with at least one of the kids. Maria has no idea how they've all fit. Bruce makes some offhanded joke about a TARDIS Jeep. Darcy and Jane laugh, but Maria doesn'tjoin in because she didn't want any weird sense of camaraderie. Maybe she'll say something to Darcy later. She seems tolerable.
"Hey Pepper, tell everyone to stop worrying, we're headed back now." Maria hears Steve talking into the radio in a lull between talking, giggling child noise.
"What took you so long? It's almost two o'clock." Pepper sounds almost frantic. Probably just annoyed at having no buffer between her and Clint all day. Maria would be among the first in line to declare how grating that could be.
"We'll be home soon," Steve says. He sighs and smiles and rests his head against the window and doesn't seem the least bit bothered by the two people sitting on top of him.
Home. Yeah, I guess it is home, Maria thinks. It's going to be a damn long apocalypse.