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Three Nights

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Steve's heard reports – since he was deployed it feels like he's done nothing but listen to reports – though nothing could have prepared him for this. The scene hasn't changed – he's seen this exact picture behind him in the war zone he's just left, but this? This is America, his country. This is what he's been fighting to save, while it burned just like the rest of the world.

It appears that the events here have been over for some time: there's a thick layer of dust over everything, and the fires he'd seen from the distance a few days ago are now nothing more than ash. The neat rows of houses he remembers from his youth are gone – any which are still standing are inaccessible – and there's no one here. He hasn't seen anyone in several days of travelling, but now, in the city, this is more evident.

As he walks – with no real direction, but he has to do something- the path begins to clear a little. There are fewer houses here, but they're all in a similar state to the houses he's just left: it seems even the wealth of a neighbourhood like this couldn't protect it from what's happened.

There's a rumble in the distance, and Steve can't help how much that makes his spirits sink. It's long past time to find shelter, as he's been travelling for days without pause (Four days? Five? He can't remember.) He's seen no sign of shelter so far though, and the thought of another days' travel in the rain is unpleasant, to say the least.

Steve racks his brains trying to remember somewhere, anywhere on his path which could have been enough: he remembers doorways full of debris, caved-in walls and empty cars still burning: Nothing. Steve kicks dejectedly at a crumbling wall blocking his path out of frustration.
The wall collapses in a shower of grey-brown dust, and Steve, still unused to the full extent of his strength, looks up in surprise. Behind the wall there's another road, which appears to have been private. It's set aside from the main road, and lined by bushes trimmed into elaborate shapes. Neglect has left the bushes hideously deformed, and allowed moss to seep out from the cracks in the ornate paving, but this is the closest to normality Steve has been in weeks.

The house at the end of this road is similarly ostentatious, and in the same state of disrepair. It's intact though, appears almost untouched actually, and Steve ducks inside gratefully, as the rain starts to fall. Only to find himself face-to-face with the business end of a shotgun, held by a short, familiar-looking man with impossibly complicated facial hair. Steve holds up his hands, palms open, but the man doesn't back down.

"Wait right there, soldier. Where the hell did you come from?"

Steve thinks for a little, tries to get his bearings in the city, now barely recognisable amongst the rubble, "uh, Midtown. I think."

There's a cough from somewhere above Steve's head, and he looks up to see another man crouched at the top of a set of stairs, with a crossbow trained on him.

The man with the shotgun narrows his eyes, "so you just strolled right through a hot zone to get here?"

"No," Steve says, "there's no hot zone, there's no one left. All I saw was dust and rubble."

The man's fingers tighten on the trigger, and Steve's stomach drops – he's been shot at before, but at this close range it would be fatal, no question. "How do we know you're not infected?"

Steve thinks back to when it began, tries to make something out of the confusion: "Uh, you'd see signs, I guess. Symptoms."

When that elicits no response from the man in front of him, Steve throws up his hands in surrender, and takes a step back. "Okay, I get it. Sorry to have bothered you."

He's about to leave when a female voice behind him says, "Stark."

Steve whirls around to see a slender, red-headed woman stood in front of the doorway. She raises one eyebrow at him, then holds out her hand. "Natasha Romanov"

 

"Nice to meet you Natasha," Steve says, "but excuse me, I must be going now."

"Don't be stupid, where will you go?"

Steve glances back at the man she'd called Stark. He's still holding the shotgun, still pointing it in Steve's direction. "No offence ma'am," he says, "but I'll go somewhere they don't point guns at me."

There's a click then, of a gun being unloaded, and when Steve next looks he can see Stark stuffing shotgun shells into the pocket of an obviously expensive suit. It's a quick motion: fluid and just a little flamboyant. This is a man who knows his weapons, Steve realises, not just a civilian protecting himself, and the pieces begin to slot into place: The house, the weapons, the name. The same name which has been on the side of every weapon Steve's ever fired, and a good many of the ones fired at him too: "You're-"

"Tony Stark," he says, with an exaggerated bow, "the one and only. I see the Army is still recruiting its officers based on their powers of observation."

"Stark" Natasha repeats, sharper this time. There's a thud then, and the man from the staircase lands next to him, crossbow still in hand, but thankfully no longer trained on Steve. He offers his other hand to Steve; "Clint Barton."

"Captain Steve Rogers," Steve replies, "US Army."

"He could be useful, Stark," Clint says at that.

"He could be infected, Barton."

"I'll go." Steve doesn't want to make the situation here any tenser for these people, he'll be fine on his own. "If you could just point me to somewhere I can shelter for the night, I'll leave you."

"There isn't anywhere. My house is the only house still standing within walking distance."

That's ...disheartening. "Well then I've got a long walk. Thank you, Mr Stark."

There's a pause, then: "Wait."
Steve waits.
"I have an outhouse," Tony Stark tells him, "Well, actually I have several, but that's not the point. Barton was right: you could be useful."
At this Barton makes an exaggerated gesture of shock, before Natasha silences him with a glare.
"The infection has a two-day gestation period – if nothing shows in three days, you're clear. If you can prove to us that you're clear we can give you food, and shelter. In return I want help getting to the other side of the city. There's ...something important there."

"How do I prove I'm clean?"

"Spend three nights in the outhouse."

"It's better than you're going to get anywhere else, Captain." Natasha points out.

--- Night one---

Natasha shows him to the outhouse. It's less ostentatious than Tony's house, but marginally so: it's a long, narrow building, with a single story, single room, but Steve thinks that the entirety of his barracks could have fit inside quite comfortably.

He's still staring, holding the few belongings he's been carrying for days in his hands, when he hears the bolt slide home on the other side of the door.

"Sorry."
Natasha sounds genuinely repentant, and any ire Steve might have felt at this confinement dissolves. She's protecting them all, Steve knows.

"How is it that you've made it this far unhurt?" he asks her instead.
There's a hint of a smile in her voice when she next speaks, which is the only clue Steve needs to realise that she's figured out just how desperate he is to talk, and hear a response.

"We almost didn't," she says. On the other side of the door Steve can hear her settling into a comfortable position.
"There were more of us: friends, comrades. In the end only Clint and I survived. No one else lasted longer than three days."

As night falls Steve undresses briskly, and folds his clothes, laying them neatly beside his makeshift pillow. He's not tired, hasn't been tired really since the serum, but a routine, even such a pale imitation of what passed for his routine out in the field, helps just a little.

Steve thinks of Tony's fingers, tight around the trigger of the shotgun he's holding, and wonders: perhaps he's not the only one who is holding tight to familiar things as the world around him burns.

---Night two---

It's cold and wet in the outhouse Tony has given him, but there's food and blankets, and a candle for light. It's closer to shelter than he's had for a while, and it's comforting to know that there are people close by.
It's Clint the second night, who hands him a bottle of beer and then climbs onto the roof of the outhouse to talk. Steve decides against telling him that alcohol is another of the things to which he's recently become immune.
"Don't mind Stark," Clint tells him, "He's not good with people on a long-term basis."

"He doesn't seem like the type to play well with others at all."

"He doesn't," Clint concedes, "he's difficult, even on a good day. He's smart though, and he's saved our asses a couple of times. You should give him a bit of a break."

"What's his story?"

Clint sighs from the roof: "okay, don't tell Stark I told you this. Well, you know he's an inventor, right?"

"Yeah," Steve know this, has seen the damage Stark's inventions do. "He makes weapons."

"He used to make weapons, my friend. Stopped, about three years ago, when he realised there was no way of stopping them from falling into the wrong hands."

"They're still in the wrong hands," Steve retorts, "he didn't do too well with that one."

"It takes more than one person to run a company," Clint replies, "someone betrayed him."

"Someone betrayed him?" Steve echoes. He's dealt with betrayal before, but it's always been distant, impersonal. He can't imagine how much this must have stung for Tony.

"He won't tell us who: doesn't much matter now I guess, but there was someone in the company allowing the weapons to fall into the wrong hands, for a price. When people started getting infected this someone saw their chance, I guess, and left Stark to the mercy of the zombies."

Clint leaves after that. Even Steve's makeshift routine doesn't help him sleep much that night.

---Night three---

The third night it's Tony who enters the outhouse. Steve hasn't been expecting that: Tony's avoided him for the better part of two days, leaving him completely in the care of Natasha or Clint. Tonight, though he doesn't bolt the door, he steps inside, and sits next to Steve on his makeshift bed. "So there really was no-one in Midtown?"

"No-one."

" I guess we are the last then."

"No," Steve says: he won't allow himself to believe that. "We can't be. Maybe we just have to look further."

Tony doesn't reply to this, and Steve thinks he's about to leave. He's used to the nights spent alone, but human company, even Tony at his most sarcastic, is addictive. He's trying to think of something, anything to hold Tony's interest for just a little longer when Tony asks,
"So, how'd you make it this far?"

"Luck, I guess," Steve lies, "just like the rest of you."

"Bullshit. I lost my best friend, and my ...assistant. Clint and Natasha only survived because they were with people who were easier prey. There's no way you got here through luck."

What was done to him is Top Secret, and naturally Steve hasn't told a soul; not his squad, not his CO, not even his best friend. Though something tells him now isn't the time for keeping secrets and Tony isn't the right person to be keeping secrets from.

"You've got military ties, right?"

"Haven't used them in a while," Tony replies, "but yeah."
Steve can't help but wince at that, knowing how quick he's been to misjudge Tony, and remembering Clint's description of just how personal Tony's betrayal had been.
"Barton told you about that, huh? I thought he might."

It's not something Steve wants to dwell on, he'd have no idea what to say. Instead he carries on with this own story: "You remember the Super Soldier Project?"
"Of course," Tony replies, then, because of course, he's figured it out already. "Holy shit! They never shut it down did they? I financed that! They told me it was unsuccessful."

"I'm immune to pretty much anything," Steve tells him, "and I'm hundreds of times stronger than I used to be. It was shut down after I went through the procedure, because they don't even know the full extent of what I can do yet."
"So we made you suffer for nothing?"
Steve shrugs, "I could have told you three days ago."
It's not exactly an apology, or an acceptance, but it clears the air enough for them.

It feels good to have finally told someone his secret, and consequently Steve sleeps well that night. When he wakes up Tony's asleep next to him on the mattress, completely relaxed for once. The rain has stopped, finally, and the sun is shining through small cracks in the panelling of the door. Tony groans, and shifts in his sleep, and Steve's attention is drawn back to him. In the morning light Steve notices something that he'd missed the night before: Tony isn't carrying his shotgun.