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The Wolves

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Steve talks as he drives the truck south, away from the place that made him, back toward the city that wants him dead.

Natasha is still unconscious in the passenger seat, but he keeps up the steady stream of plans and reassurances just the same, refusing to consider the possibility that he might lose her too as the minutes and the miles slip by.

“They didn’t see us leave,” he tells the dark horizon, though he really isn’t sure whether that’s true, is no longer certain of anything that seemed solid or real a few hours ago. “They probably won’t expect us to head back to DC, right? So that’s what we’ll do. Find a place to lay low for a while, regroup.”

It will take at least two more hours to get back, he thinks, though he’s having a hard time gauging time and distance having lost both their phones to the force of the explosion. Natasha would probably tell him it’s better that way, he thinks. More difficult for S.H.I.E.L.D. to track their whereabouts. He wonders for a moment whether he ought to be making a detour, finding a way to get her to the nearest hospital. That could get them both killed, though, and there’s more riding on this than either of their lives. He’s pretty sure taking that risk is not an option.

“We need more information,” he continues, trying to keep his breathing measured, to shake off the strange claustrophobia of being alone with his doubts and his guilt in the darkness. “About Hydra. And Project Insight. You’re going to need to help me with that, you know.”

“Pushy.”

Natasha’s voice from the passenger seat nearly makes him drive off the road, and suddenly Steve is very glad there are no other cars around as he glances over at her. She looks shockingly young and vulnerable, her face all shadows and lines of pain. He’s begun to see her as invincible over the past two years, as something more than human, an anchor of sorts, though he hasn’t always been able to give her his faith.

“Welcome back,” he says finally, deciding to pull onto the road shoulder for a few minutes, that it’s worth at least that much of a risk to be sure she’s all right.

She opens her mouth to say something, possibly in protest, but starts to cough instead. Steve twists open one of the bottles of water she insisted they buy for the first half of this trip and hands it to her, watching her drink deeply from it.

“Should I take you to a hospital?” he asks after a moment, deciding she should have the choice now that she’s awake to make it.

Natasha shakes her head, wincing a little at the movement. “No. We need to keep moving.”

“You remember what happened?” he asks, suddenly realizing that there’s a protocol for handling partners with likely head injuries, and he probably ought to be following it even if he’s questioning all his other orders from the past two years.

She makes a face. “We lost the game with the super computer and now S.H.I.E.L.D.’s trying to kill us. Or I guess I should say Hydra. Who’ve been using us all along. Do I pass?”

Steve sighs and nods. “Unfortunately accurate.”

“We need to keep moving,” she repeats, running a hand through her hair and clearing her throat. “They’ll be right behind us, especially in this car. Too distinctive. Next populated area we pass, we should stop and switch vehicles. Maybe do that two or three times to keep them off our trail.”

“I need to be sure you’re okay first,” he insists, his stomach still twisting with uncertainty, with remembered dread at finding her unresponsive in the rubble, her body still pressed against his like a reminder of her mortality.

Okay is not a word I’d use for either of us right now,” she says bitterly. “But I don’t go down that easily.” It’s bravado, though, he can tell, and she pauses after a moment, searching his face in the shadows. “It must have slowed you down, hauling me out of there as dead weight. Why’d you do it?”

“I need you,” says Steve, without hesitation. “You’re all I’ve got right now.”

Her brow furrows at that, and she’s quiet for a moment. “That’s sweet. But I very much doubt it’s true. Think a little harder about who you can trust, because we’re going to need them on this too.”

“You advocating trust?” he asks, half trying for humor and hearing it fall flat. “Should I be concerned about your head after all?”

She rolls her eyes. “Something this big, you need more than what I can give you. Now start thinking and drive, Rogers.”

“Yes ma’am,” he retorts, starting the engine and stepping on the gas.

“Steve?” she asks, almost as an afterthought. “How long was I out?”

He glances at the clock on the dash, only now realizing it must be off by several hours. “I don’t know.”

She nods once, then offers him a weak smile. “Well. It was still a hell of a lot less than seventy years.”

He’s so relieved to hear her familiar teasing that he actually laughs in spite of everything.