Steve typically doesn't travel all day anymore. He's learned how important it is to settle down before it starts to get dark. Just because he can see better at night than most people doesn't mean he can see well enough to make sure the area is clear.
But today he's already walked hours through the rain and the sky has been a turbulent palette of grays from the moment he opened his eyes. Today the roads are slick and the farther Steve walks, the more he thinks he can pick up the roar of thunder in the distance. He keeps squinting, trying to spot the distant flash of lightning, but the day is too dark for him to have a hope of making out anything like that. Even though he's on the plains where everything is flat and he can see for miles.
Yeah, he definitely needs a place to hole up -- and fast. But the only shelter he sees is miles off. A long barn that might have held horses. A narrow two-story house that might be blue or might be gray. It's too hard to tell any more from here.
Steve cracks his neck and picks up his pace. "Hopefully it won't take too long to clean out," he says to himself. He's been saying a lot to himself lately.
He'd thought the endless roar of background noise in this day and age would be something he'd never get accustomed to. But compared to the silence post-plague, he'd live inside an airport if he could get those sounds back.
Natasha is jogging across the rotted wheat fields with a bulging backpack slung across her shoulders. She left at first light (which was pretty dim) and managed to find three other farmhouses to raid.
The backpack is stuffed full of wires and cans of food. Stuff they need, but that's not what has her bolting back to the house.
Packed into her pockets are tubes of over the counter antibiotic creams and a half-full bottle of amoxicillin. There's no way she's going to risk losing any of it. She's pretty sure, from the amoxicillin's location next to bags of food, that it was originally intended for someone's dog.
And she'll pin Clint to the floor and force it down his throat if she has to. If he thinks he's dying from a fucking chest cold after they both survived the plague the man is out of his mind.
The house is finally close enough for her to see the light is on in Clint's room. Natasha fixes her eyes on the window to see that the glass of water she put there earlier is still in the same place. It is, and she picks up her pace. Her boots stamp into fallen wheat, ignored by any harvesters still living after the plague hit. There's so much of it left in the fields that her boots don't leave any noticeable tracks behind.
Not that they need to hide their tracks as much as they did before the escaped the urban choke of the coastline. Except that Natasha only has so many bullets left and has only been able to make so many, especially since Clint caught this cold. After fighting off scavengers with makeshift weapons, Natasha's second-biggest dream at the moment is to find some hunter's hidden armory in the woods. Even though there are hardly any scavengers left this far out.
Still, it doesn't hurt to be careful. The longer they can stay put the better.
She's at the front door of the farmhouse when she hears the a man's voice coming up the path. And either he's got a silent partner with him, or he's talking to himself.
Natasha stashes the backpack under the front stairs and runs for the nearest high point.
"Maybe there will be a clean bed here." There was only so much you could do to salvage a bed someone had died in. Especially if there hadn't been anyone around to take out the body.
Steve rubs his hands together and breathes against his fingers. He'd had to strip off his gloves after the first downpour of the morning, and now his knuckles are getting stiff. "Or a fireplace," he adds, trying to scan the roof of the house for a chimney. "Make it easier not to burn the house down."
It would be so much better to sit in a chair by the fire than it would be to huddle over a pile of wood in the barn, trying to make sure there was no hay to spark anywhere nearby.
He's rounding the corner to the front of the house when a rock clips his cheek.
For half a second he thinks it was hail, though it isn't nearly cold enough or even raining. Then his cheek starts to burn and he realizes he's bleeding. Bleeding.
-- a kid, just a kid, all the other kids backing away from him when the blood started dripping from his nose, and the wail when he realized what it was and running to his door and not even his mom would open it and Steve had to go in and carry him away--
He ducks just in time to avoid a second rock slamming directly into his forehead.
The area in front of the house is so empty that as he runs for cover he realizes it must be deliberate. The only option is to run as fast as he can back down the road he came from and hope whoever is slinging rocks at him doesn't follow, or to try to bolt into a barn.
As soon as he turns on his heel a rock lands between his shoulders. It doesn't feel that large but it packs a punch, and forces a breath out of his lungs, drives a fiery pain into his spine. Steve sets his jaw and runs for the barn. The windows are busted and patched with only duct tape and cardboard. He's betting that means no one is staying in there, not with the house in good repair.
One step two three steps fourfivesixseven and he's nearly there and it's just now occurring to him that the doors on the barn might be locked and he'll have to kick them open. He twists his hips sharply to avoid another rock hitting him and wonders how many rocks this person has and where they might be, are they following him with a bag over their shoulder or sitting in an open window he didn't notice? To get ready to force the door if need be he has to plant one foot against the ground and reach out his hand.
Then there's a rock slamming into the back of his knee and Steve is strong but joints are still joints. His knee lands in the dirt and he drives his strength into his other leg to lurch forward and grab hold of the barn's door handle. If he can't kick, he'll have to pull.
"I am not infected!" he screams. If there was anything around them for miles but rotting fields and sky, his voice might've echoed. Despite not having seen a skyscraper in weeks he still screams like he's in the city and needs to be heard over the noise of people and machines and buildings everywhere.
There's a very brief pause. Steve's able to take a single breath.
"And I'm supposed to believe that?" It's a woman's voice, nearby but not at hand.
Without speaking again, she launches another rock at him. It hits his shoulder. Steve yanks on the barn door until there's a metallic grinding sound and the doors pop open.
He pushes himself inside and tugs the door closed behind him. But it's obvious he's broken the lock and the door doesn't click shut. It hangs open and lets a sliver of gray sunlight behind him.
The place has four empty horse stalls and smells of hay and rot. He presses his hand to his nose for a second and shuffles himself over to the wall, keeping his head down so he can't be seen through one of the dirty windows. When he reaches a hand up he's able to unlatch the window and push it open without becoming visible. Then he has to do the same to the other windows and pick a random spot to rest in without being too obvious.
There's no patter of rocks against the barn wall or footsteps heading toward the door. Whoever was shooting at him is staying put -- or at least thinking of something else to do. Steve has to use the moment before it's gone.
"Ma'am, I don't think we're going to get anywhere with this," he calls out. "I can prove I'm not infected."
There's no answer. He wonders how long this stalemate will hold. He's met vicious people before. People who don't trust enough to extend anything but violence to a stranger, now that anyone who's still surviving may be just a moment away from a plague death. After the first few times he learned that it was better to just leave when it was clear he wasn't welcome.
But he's tired.
And he needs somewhere to rest before it storms again.
And he's tired of being alone.
"If you promise not to shoot, I'll come out and show you. And if you're still not happy, well, I'll leave."
He's expecting silence, at least for a while, so the immediate response jars him. "Come out with both hands in the air."
"Yes ma'am," Steve says, under his breath.
Natasha climbs down from the roof before the stranger comes out of the barn. She tucks the slingshot into her belt and draws her gun. Even if he is, somehow, clean, she's not letting someone stay here. It's too much of a risk.
She'll have to move Clint somewhere as soon as she finishes with the stranger.
The barn door shifts and he steps back out. Natasha narrows her eyes. He looks like a man pulled out of a sportswear catalog. If catalogs ever showed their products getting dirty. Natasha looks for holes in his jacket, or blood on his boots, or the bulge of weapons anywhere on him.
None of that is there. Instead there's just a bulging backpack. "Put that on the ground," she orders.
The man nods and slowly pulls it off his back, setting it at his feet. Then he tilts his head and gives it a kick that sends it skidding across the yard toward her, dust coming up around it.
"I thought you might want to take a look at it," the man says. "My name is Steve Rogers."
Natasha frowns and doesn't respond in kind. "You said you could prove you don't have the plague," she says. "I've seen my fair share of plague deaths. So, if you can: prove it."
"I don't suppose you want to get close enough to look up my nose," Steve says. Natasha raises an eyebrow. He sighs. "No, I didn't think you would."
"Plague scars or polyps, either way, I risk getting infected," Natasha says. "You'll have to think of something better than that."
There is nothing better than that, of course. Which means he'll be leaving in a minute. She debates the wisdom of marching him to the edge of the farm and watching until he's out of eyesight. Except she'd need Clint to get himself ready while she was gone, and if she can, it's better to keep this guy from knowing Clint even exists. Let him think she's just a woman on her own.
Steve nods once. His hair flops onto his forehead. It looks like it hasn't been washed in a while. "There's a pocketknife in my bag. I could use it to cut my arm."
"Like I'm going to hand you a weapon."
"Ma'am, I'm not sure what else I can do here."
Something about his voice is getting under Natasha's skin. Ma'am. Really. She tightens her grip on her gun for a moment and forces herself to go still. A single wanderer isn't the threat of a mob. And somebody still carrying around the trappings of the world before the plague won't be enough to knock Natasha off her guard.
She'll have to walk him out and come back for Clint after. It's the best way to--
"I don't have nosebleeds, or polyps, or scars," Steve says.
Natasha laughs and the sound is so unfamiliar that she thinks it must be an animal.
Steve keeps his hands in the air. "I've never been infected. You won't find any black threads in my blood. I just wish you'd let me prove it. I've walked a long way and I sure would like to take a rest."
"If you haven't died or survived the virus then you're a carrier," Natasha says. "Turn around. We're going to keep walking."
The edges of Steve's face sag. He sighs. "I can show myself out."
"I like to double-check my work." Natasha gestures with the gun. "Start walking."
They've made just enough steps for her to scoop up the backpack in one hand when she hears the door open behind her. She bites down on her tongue so hard it stings. Clint.
Steve walks halfway across the yard before he realizes the woman isn't following him anymore. He stills and keeps his hands in the air. Rocks might not have finished him -- not easily, at least -- but a gunshot in the middle of the plains wouldn't be good.
The only thing in front of him are the fields he'd just dragged himself through. The tall grasses twist and bend and in the distance, the edge of the sky is darker than it is above. The air is cold and Steve doesn't have to hear thunder to know it's coming. He waits for some kind of sound behind him to explain why the woman stopped walking with him.
"Get back inside," she says. Steve dearly wishes he was back in the city. They'd be surrounded by buildings, by reflective windows he could look in instead of risking turning his head to see who she's talking to. "I've got a handle on this."
"Yeah, I'm sure." Footsteps, but heavier ones than the woman's. And uneven. Steve strains to see behind him from the corner of his eye. "I was waiting for so long I figured I'd get up and check things out. Didn't expect you to come back with a new friend."
"Not a friend," the woman says.
"What's your name?"
Steve blinks. "Uh, Steve Rogers."
There's coughing instead of an answer. Steve hesitates, then glances over his shoulder. The gun is still pointed at him, but the woman has her other arm around a new man (and Steve's backpack on her back), holding him up while he hacks into his hands. Steve reflexively looks at the man's face: no blood around his nose. His hair is shaggy, a darker color than Steve's own. It's clearly a short cut grown out in the absence of razors. Steve wonders if that's what he looks like too.
The woman notices him staring and scowls. Her red curls shift as she raises her chin. "Don't move."
"Aw, Natasha," the man says. He coughs again and wheezes as he breathes. "Shouldn't we give the guy a chance?"
"If you're sick, I know first aid," Steve ventures, carefully.
Natasha glares at him. "So do we."
"It's just a cold," the man says. "Knowing my luck, probably whooping cough or something." He eyes Steve. "If you're not sick--"
"He thinks he's immune." Irritation just drips from Natasha's voice.
A tense look flickers over the man's face and Steve feels his heart drop. There has to be one person left who will believe him without running a thousand tests on him. It's not like he carries the test results with him, anyway. He had to burn the whole lab down. There were too many bodies to bury at the end.
But no -- nobody believes Steve until he's the last one standing. Until he's digging the graves or gathering kindling.
"I thought Fury said something about a guy like that," the man says, instead.
"Nick Fury?" Steve blurts.
The corner of the man's mouth turns up while Natasha's whole body seems to -- shift. Steve has no idea what that means. "Looks like we might have something to talk about after all," the man says. He nudges his friend, who all but rolls her eyes. And then he wheezes again. "I'm Clint. And I'm cold. Can we do this inside?"
"Nick Fury is dead," Steve says.
Now Natasha does roll her eyes. Whatever she thought of him before, apparently it's changed, because she lowers her gun, too. "Are you sure about this?"
Clint nods once. Steve doesn't know how, but that convinces Natasha to put her gun away entirely. The two of them turn around and start heading back to the house, Natasha still carrying Steve's things.
He feels nearly dizzy as he follows them. What the hell just happened?
"Fury isn't dead," Clint says, opening the door to the front of the house. "The Ice Man! That's your code name, right?"
"But I saw -- I saw the transmission," Steve says, ignoring the name that would've made him fidget before the plague broke out. Neither of them say anything more about it though. He takes a few steps toward the house, still not sure they aren't about to shoot him. "I saw him bleeding when it cut out. I was in a lab in New York, they were testing me, because I--"
"You have a lot to catch up on," Natasha says. She lets his backpack slide down her arms. "Anything good in here?"
She doesn't wait for an answer but unzips it as she heads into the house. Steve can hear Clint coughing and asking if she found anything while she was out. He stares, and looks back over his shoulder once more.
Gray sky dimming black in the distance, and the distant roll of thunder.
Steve heads inside before the cold storm wind can reach him. Apparently there are still things that can surprise him after all.