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Memento

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Memento:

Latin, imperative verb: Remember.

Modern English, noun: An object kept as a reminder of a person or event.

 


 

Steve awoke slowly, his awareness returning to him gradually, his mind and body floating back to reality as if from far away.

The first thing he became aware of was the ache. It was not pain, as such, but a more generalised aching of his muscles, and in his head; dull and all-pervasive. His eyelids were heavy, blanketing him in darkness. He concentrated, gathering from his reserves of strength to open them, blinking and squinting against the light that came in from a window to his right. He hissed against the stabbing pain in his head that the sudden brightness elicited, lying perfectly still as he allowed himself to adjust to the sensation. Slowly, the pain in his head subsided, his mind sharpening as he finally clawed his way back to full consciousness.

Now that his head had at last stopped spinning and his perception of light had returned to something approximating normal, he could see that he was lying in what appeared to be a hospital setting. A tube attached to a drip was stuck in his arm. Various machines, softly beeping, were attached to his body via electrodes, measuring his heartbeat and brain activity. He sat up slowly, suppressing a wince as he pulled the tube out of his arm, before peeling off the electrodes that were stuck to his chest and head.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and slowly stood up, a feeling of dizziness passing over him briefly, before thankfully fading away. Once he felt steady enough on his feet, he looked around uncertainly. He was not sure exactly where he was, or why. The room he was in was obviously part of a hospital, but it was built for one, and he was alone. He made his way unsteadily towards the door, but stopped after several nauseating paces, straining his ears instead. He could not hear any sounds from beyond the door, neither the bustle of medical staff nor the sounds of any fellow patients. Turning back, he shuffled across the room towards the window instead, hoping to gain more insight into his situation through the glass.

He rested an arm against the window, catching his breath, before gazing at the scene outside, an uncertain frown furrowing his forehead. He could not make sense of what he was seeing. He felt confused, disturbed, his heart rate speeding up a little as he gazed helplessly at the world beyond his window.

His window, several storeys high, overlooked the perimeter of the medical facility. A 3-metre wall surrounded the compound, topped with barbed wire and with lookout posts at regular intervals. He could see machine guns pointing out from the towers, presumably controlled remotely, since they were unmanned. Most disturbing of all, though, was what lay on the other side of the perimeter wall.

In the distance, he could see what appeared to be the outskirts of a town. Plant life had grown rampant, the once perfectly-manicured gardens now wild and overgrown. In the streets, he could see abandoned cars, several of them torched, reduced to nothing but blackened, burnt-out husks. The most unsettling thing, though, was the visible lack of life. Based on the position of the sun, he estimated it was around midday, yet he could see no one: no cars trundling down the street, no people going out for a lunchtime walk, no children playing in the overgrown gardens. It looked as though at some point in the vaguely-defined past, everyone had simply upped and gone, abandoning their town on some collective whim.

Steve stared out at the desolation, baffled and uncomprehending. He did not have any time to unravel the mystery of what the fuck was the going on, however, as at that moment, the door to his room suddenly burst open, a man wearing a white lab coat running inside, brandishing a gun and shouting at him frantically.

"Don't attack!" shouted the man. "Don't even move!"

Steve, who had been half-way through putting his hands up in the universal look-I'm-unarmed-please-don't-kill-me gesture, froze, obeying the man's command instantly. The man looked to be in his forties or fifties, with curly, greying brown hair, tanned skin, and large brown eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses. If it were not for the gun he was currently pointing at Steve's head, he would look like a typical scientist, a friendly nerdy type, a family doctor, perhaps.

"Do you want to attack me?" demanded the man. "Do you want to kill me?"

Steve shook his head slowly, not wanting to spook the other man, trying desperately to think what to say that would maximise his chances of staying alive. Clearly, the other man was afraid of him, although why that would be, Steve had no idea. It was simply another thing that did not make sense, like where he was, why he was there, or what on earth had happened to the town beyond the perimeter fence.

"No, I don't want to kill you," said Steve, as calmly and clearly as possible. "Why would I want to kill you? I just woke up. I don't want to hurt anyone."

The other man stared at him for a long moment, the gun in his hands shaking, before exhaling hard, lowering his weapon as he breathed deeply, his muscles visibly relaxing, looking almost exhausted as he holstered his weapon and ran a hand through his curly hair.

"Oh, thank God," muttered the man.

Steve was shocked to see that he looked close to tears, his brown eyes shimmering behind his thick spectacles. Steve could not make head nor tail of it, and, once he was sure that the man was not going to have a change of heart and draw his gun once more, the questions burst from his lips, his words almost tripping over one another in their haste.

"Who are you? Where am I? What's happening?"

The other man had the decency to look apologetic at Steve's questions and obvious confusion. He closed the door behind him, presumably to give them the impression of privacy, although Steve did not particularly see the point, as it was clear that there were no other patients or doctors in the immediate vicinity of this part of the hospital.

"My name is Dr Bruce Banner," he said. "I've been taking care of you and the others here. This is a US Army medical base. Camp Lehigh, New Jersey."

Steve waited for him to continue, cocking his head to the side in confusion when he did not. Sensing that there was more that Bruce was holding back, Steve urged him to continue, not beating about the bush.

"What else?" said Steve.

Bruce's gaze shifted from Steve's face to the window behind him, gazing out at the eerie, deserted landscape. A strange expression crossed his face, somewhere between sadness, pity and caution. Steve did not know if the expression was caused by the scene outside or the news that he was about to deliver. He could sense that Bruce was hesitating, perhaps struggling to find the right words, unsure how to break the news gently. In the end, he went for the straight-to-the-point approach, perhaps realising that there was no way to sugar-coat it.

"You've been asleep," said Bruce, "for four months."

Steve stared at him, numb with shock, his heartbeat pulsing in his ears, feeling dizzy with confusion. Had he heard the doctor correctly? He had been unconscious, for four months? It did not seem possible. He spun around, turning his back to Bruce, to give himself some semblance of privacy, giving himself a moment to try to absorb the shocking news.

With a feeling of mounting dread, Steve slowly walked back to the window, pressing his palms against the cool glass when he reached it, staring out at the town in the distance. Much though he did not want to believe it, Bruce's explanation made sense. The desolation that he saw outside did not happen overnight. Plants did not grow that fast. Entire populations did not disappear over the course of a day. It took time – four months’ time, apparently.

"What the hell happened here?" said Steve, not moving from his position in front of the window.

"Not just here," said Bruce. "Everywhere. What's happening here is happening across the whole world."

Steve turned back around to see Bruce gazing at him glumly, his expression truly miserable, his large brown eyes filled with four months' worth of pain.

"I don't understand," said Steve.

Bruce pulled up a chair from the edge of the room and sat down on it, gesturing for Steve to do the same. Steve ignored the second chair and remained standing where he was. He did not want to be mollycoddled. He wanted the truth. Seeing that Steve was not going to sit, Bruce sighed, and at last began to talk, his tone low, finally getting to the point.

"For the last four months, you've been in a medically-induced coma," said Bruce. "You've been recovering from the infection."

"Infection?" echoed Steve.

It did not escape his notice that Bruce had referred to it as the infection. The, not a. For some reason, it sent a shiver down his spine. What infection could be so bad that it required no further clarification, no name?

"Around four or five months ago, a virus swept across the world," said Bruce. "It was highly contagious; it reached all populations across the globe in little over a month. It infected everybody. And it kills almost everybody who it infects. It works by attacking the brain. The lucky ones, maybe 90%, die quickly. The unlucky ones die more slowly. In the unlucky 10%, we see two main sets of symptoms. We see behavioural changes: very high levels of aggression, possibly caused by a heightened fight-or-flight response, highly elevated levels of blood pressure. We also see problems with long-term memory recall, probably caused by disruption to the function of the neocortex. It's the high blood pressure that kills them in the end, though: massive strokes or heart attacks, they're the immediate cause of death. We also see memory loss in the survivors."

Steve listened, dazed, transfixed by horror as Bruce explained what terrible events had unfolded during his four months spent unconscious. It seemed too awful to be true, and yet the look on Bruce's face showed that this was no sick joke, that this was real, that this was the brutal and frightening reality he had awoken to. He latched onto the last thing Bruce had said, desperately clinging onto that one piece of good news, that one tiny sliver of hope.

"Survivors?" said Steve. "So, there are survivors?"

Bruce nodded cautiously.

"A few," he said.

His tone, however, was not happy.

Steve braced himself, forcing himself to ask the question. "How many?"

Bruce did not answer straight away. Instead, he averted his eyes from Steve's gaze, choosing to look down at the floor, as if he might find the answers to all of life's questions down there. Steve found himself growing anxious. In the very short amount of time he had got to know Dr Bruce Banner, he had learnt that it was not a good sign when the other man appeared unwilling to divulge information. It was usually followed by a catastrophic bombshell.

"When the virus first broke out, the US government sent some of its best soldiers and agents to this medical facility," Bruce said finally. "These select few were to be infused with a serum that the government hoped would make the individuals immune to the virus. The goal was to have a team of the most capable soldiers and agents who would be able to lead and look after survivors of the outbreak. You were one of those specially-selected soldiers, Steve."

"So, it worked," said Steve. "I'm alive and healthy."

Bruce looked at him strangely – a cautious cock of the head, a slight raising of his eyebrows – but did not reply. Without acknowledging what Steve had said, he carried on speaking, as if Steve had not interrupted.

"The serum was in the very early stages of development," said Bruce. "It was unsafe, untested. We told the government this, but people were dying at such a terrible rate that they insisted we start using the serum immediately regardless." He took a deep breath, visibly upset as he struggled to compose himself. "Most of the recipients of the serum died upon injection. Their bodies reacted badly to it, or just weren't strong enough to survive its effects. 90% didn't survive the first week. And then, the virus got into the facility, infecting everybody who was left. Half of the survivors from the serum were killed by it. There were over one hundred people at this base at the beginning; the best of the best, the strongest, most capable people who the government thought had what it took to lead the country and look after what remained of the population. Now, there are only four of us – including you and me."

Steve felt physically sick. He staggered to the chair that he had turned down earlier, collapsing into it heavily, stunned, as he tried to take in what Bruce was saying. He could barely imagine it. Over one hundred fit, healthy people, 90% killed by the serum that had been meant to save them, and half of the remaining 10% killed by the virus that had managed to get into the base. He imagined the panic of the doctors, the horror and the guilt they must have felt as patient after patient passed away, the majority from the serum that they themselves had administered. It must have been unbearable. He forced himself not to think about it, quelling his rising nausea as he forced himself to gather the facts. He still did not feel as if he had the full picture.

"And outside of the base?" said Steve. "Are there any survivors in the general population?"

Bruce hesitated, twisting his hands together in his lap.

"As a scientist, I believe that there must be a small percentage of the population with innate immunity to the virus," said Bruce. "There must be people who are immune, survivors, there just has to be." His eyes flicked over to meet Steve's, sad and desperate at the same time. "But... at the moment, to the best of my very limited knowledge, there are no people out there who I'd class as survivors in the true sense of the word. There are people out there who are technically alive, but they're infected. They're slowly dying of the virus. Their brains become more damaged every day, and they become more and more aggressive. These people – the infected – they're the walking dead. The virus will kill them, eventually. They are not true survivors."

"Can't we help them?" Steve asked desperately. "Can't we inject them with the serum too? Even if only 10% survive the serum infusion, it's better than just letting all of them die, isn't it?"

Bruce shook his head.

"The serum can only save you if you're injected with it prior to infection," he explained. "If you're already infected, it's too late; the serum can't help. The brains of the infected are already too damaged to be saved."

Steve closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he buried his head in his hands. It was too much to take in. Less than an hour ago, he had been slowly waking up, his eyelids heavy, unknowing to all of this. How was it possible that so much horror had occurred in the four months that he had been unconscious? It felt ridiculous to try to find a silver lining in such a dire situation, yet still he latched onto the one good piece of information that he could glean, looking up at Bruce with equal parts hope and desperation.

"But we're OK?" said Steve. "You, me and the other two people who survived the serum and the virus – we're alright?"

Bruce lowered his gaze, refusing to meet Steve's eyes.

"Me, personally, I'm a little different," he said quietly. "About a decade ago, I was involved in an accident that resulted in my being exposed to high levels of gamma radiation. It changed my cells; caused certain, uh, side effects. One of those side effects is that I'm immune to all viruses. I wasn't affected by the outbreak at all." He took a deep breath, forcing himself to meet Steve's eyes once more. "As for you and the other two individuals on this base, it seems that you all survived the virus with no lasting changes to your blood pressure. You show no signs of aggressive behaviour, nor are you at any increased risk of stroke or heart attack. There do appear to be impairments of memory, though."

Steve did not understand. His confusion must have been visible on his face, as Bruce went on to clarify his meaning.

"There are three main types of memory," said Bruce. "Implicit memory, semantic memory, and episodic memory. Implicit memory is unaffected by the virus – that's memory for skills that you've learnt, like knowing how to ride a bike, how to eat, how to speak your native language. Semantic memory is unaffected too – that's knowledge for facts, like knowing that Washington DC is the capital of the US, that football is a sport, or knowing what your name is. What the virus does seem to have damaged is episodic memory – that's memories of events, memories of things that happened in your past. In you and the two other survivors, episodic memory seems to be almost entirely missing."

Steve blinked at him. He had followed everything that Bruce had been saying, right up until the last sentence.

"But I'm fine," said Steve, confused. "My memory is fine."

Bruce hesitated once more, his tone gentling when he spoke next, which for some reason made Steve feel more afraid than when he had broken the news of the outbreak. What could be worse than that, such that Bruce felt the need to gentle his voice, to soften the blow?

"The first thing you asked me was who I was," said Bruce.

Steve wiped his sweaty hands on his hospital gown, trying to ignore his racing heart.

"Because I wanted to know who the fuck was the man pointing a gun at me," he replied, more angrily than he had intended.

"Steve..." said Bruce sadly. "We've been friends and colleagues for the last six years."

Steve shook his head slowly, searching Bruce's face for any sign of deceit or ill-timed humour. Panic began to rise in his chest when he failed to find either, his hands starting to shake, because it could not be true; he had never seen Dr Bruce Banner before in his life, he was sure of it.

"Five years ago, you moved in with me for a couple of months when your landlord evicted you with hardly any prior warning," said Bruce. "Last year, you came to my wedding. We've met up for board games and drinks more times than I can count."

Steve shook his head, harder this time, horrified by what Bruce was saying, not wanting to accept it.

"No," he said forcefully. "It's not true. I remember everything: my name is Steve Rogers; I'm a soldier with the US Army, the 107th–"

Bruce cut him off with a wave of his hand.

"That's semantic memory," he said. "Memory of facts, unaffected by the virus. Try to remember an event. Tell me, what do you remember of your life, before you woke up in the facility today?"

Steve opened his mouth, a thousand memories on the tip of his tongue, fully intending to prove Bruce wrong and show him just how much of life he remembered. The seconds trickled by, fear blossoming in his gut as his mind stayed stubbornly blank, quickly escalating into terror as he tried desperately to remember – something, anything. He could feel that he was starting to hyperventilate, but could do nothing to stop it, the panic a runaway train now, as the magnitude of his amnesia cruelly dawned on him.

Where he should have been able to remember his life, there was just a void. There was only semantic memory, as Bruce would say; vague facts about himself. He knew that he was from New York City, but he could not remember ever being there, nor could he recall what it looked like. He knew he was a soldier, but he could not remember ever going through military training, nor ever fighting a battle. He knew that he liked his coffee black, but he could not remember ever drinking a cup of coffee in his life.

Where there should have been memories, there was nothing. Where there should have been images, there was blackness. Where there should have been sounds, there was silence. He had no memories. He had only semantic knowledge of himself, but it was detached, impersonal; as if the facts were about someone else, and he were simply reading it in a book.

Steve could not remember a single thing before waking up in that hospital room, and it was the shock of that, perhaps coupled with the strain on his body of being up and about after four months in a coma, that caused him to keel off the chair and collapse to the floor.

Chapter Text

When Steve came to, Bruce assured him that fainting was nothing to be worried about. He explained it was simply his body being unused to being upright after so long lying down. He predicted that the feelings of dizziness would wear off quickly as Steve got used to being active again – especially now that he was infused with the serum which made him, for lack of a better word, superhuman.

Once Bruce was sure that Steve was well enough to walk, he took him on a tour of the base. Bruce walked slowly, obviously mindful of not wanting to trigger another faint, for which Steve was thankful.

Camp Lehigh was a large, sprawling base, surrounded on all sides by the tall, barbed wire-topped wall that Steve had spotted earlier out of his window. Security was obviously a top priority, which Steve found comforting, given what Bruce had said of the aggressive nature of the infected. The base had a functional, no-nonsense aura – not exactly homely, but reassuringly safe. The base itself was one large building, split up into modules that could be easily isolated in case of an emergency. Bruce showed him around the communal living area, storage (where there was an impressive array of military and survival equipment), the shooting range, the gym, and finally the canteen.

The canteen had a slightly eerie ambience. Perhaps it was the fact that it had obviously been built to house hundreds, row after row of empty seats reminding Steve just how devastating the virus had been to the population. Their footsteps echoed around the silent, high-ceilinged room, causing the two figures currently sat playing cards at a table to turn around and watch as Steve and Bruce approached. These must be the other two survivors of the serum and subsequent viral infection that Bruce had mentioned earlier.

As they drew level, Steve was at last able to see them clearly. They were a man and a woman, both dressed in military fatigues – probably the only clothes that had been available at the base, aside from the clothes they had arrived in. The man appeared to be in his thirties; the woman in her mid to late twenties.

"Steve, these are our fellow survivors, Bucky Barnes and Natasha Romanoff," said Bruce. "Bucky, Natasha, this is Steve Rogers."

Steve took in their appearances, uncomfortably aware that the only known survivors of the virus – not counting the infected who were on the slow but inevitable road to death – were all in that single room.

"Bucky was a soldier," said Bruce. "He was in the same unit as you, Steve, actually, the 107th. You guys were extremely close; inseparable, in fact."

Bucky was watching him carefully, a small frown creasing his forehead. He had mid-length light brown hair and blue eyes. He was well-built, which made sense, considering he was apparently a soldier. Steve stared at him, waiting for the sight of his face to stir something in his memory – then trying to hide his disquiet and disappointment when no such sense of familiarity was triggered.

"Natasha was an agent of SHIELD," continued Bruce. "One of the best, in fact. You fought alongside her on multiple occasions, when the Army and SHIELD teamed up."

Natasha was pale and slim, with curly red hair tied back in a plait to keep it out of the way of her face. Her green eyes were bright and intelligent, sweeping over Steve in a way that made him feel as though he were being X-rayed. Natasha's expression was carefully neutral. Steve got the impression she was the type of individual who kept her cards close to her chest; cool and private.

Steve sat down at the table, feeling slightly awkward as Bucky and Natasha's eyes followed his every movement, which still felt slightly laboured, his body not yet quite used to being up and about.

"I'll get started with dinner," said Bruce, before hurrying from the canteen towards the kitchen that he had shown Steve earlier, leaving the three of them alone at their table.

For several excruciating moments, they sat in silence, the tension and awkwardness building until Steve blurted out the first thing that came to mind, if only to break the silence, realising that none of them had actually said anything to the others thus far.

"So, uh, what's SHIELD?" he asked Natasha, giving her a smile, which dimmed slightly when she did not return it.

"It stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division," said Natasha. When Steve simply looked at her blankly, a small smile quirked her lips. "It means I'm a spy," she said.

"Oh," said Steve.

At least that explained her excellent poker face.

"According to Bruce, we all knew one another. I wish he'd tell us about our lives, about what happened in our pasts," Natasha continued. "Bruce was unaffected by the virus, so he remembers everything, but he refuses to tell us anything. He doesn't want to introduce false memories or some bullshit like that. He says that we should be able to remember things naturally, in our own time; that's the theory. Apparently, remembering things by ourselves is psychologically healthier than being told about it."

It was clear from Natasha's tone of voice that she disagreed. She sounded bitter – angry, almost.

"You don't think so," said Steve, more a statement than a question.

Natasha shook her head, before sighing, looking Steve dead in the eye, a slightly wistful expression on her face.

"Do you remember anything?" she said. "Anything at all?"

Steve stared at them, the soldier and the spy, who apparently he knew, once upon a time. The soldier, Bucky, who had yet to speak, was even supposed to have been his best friend. Inseparable, Bruce had called them. His eyes roved over their faces, desperate to remember them, to feel some jolt, some sense of understanding. He concentrated hard, staring at each of their features, their postures, everything.

Steve was overwhelmed by a rush of guilt. He could remember nothing. And yet, even as he thought those very words, he felt a stirring in his gut – implicit memory, Bruce might call it – some instinct, that drew him to these two people. For some reason, he found that he trusted them. He was drawn, particularly, to Bucky. They were best friends, apparently; comrades. Bucky made him feel something, although he was not entirely sure what. He drew Steve's eye, like magnetism. He gazed at Bucky's face, a strange pang going through his gut, and willed himself to remember. Nothing. Blackness. He drew a blank.

"I don't remember you," said Steve, finally. "Either of you. I'm sorry."

Natasha sighed, visibly disappointed, her eyes downcast, her shoulders drooping sadly.

"It's OK," she said.

"How long have you guys been awake?" asked Steve. "How long since you recovered from the virus?"

They both seemed to be in better shape than he was, physically, which made him deduce that they had woken before him. Perhaps they had already been awake for a couple of days – a week, maybe – rattling around the deserted base with nothing but Bruce, one another, and their thoughts to keep them company.

"We both woke up one month ago," said Natasha.

Steve blinked, horror rising in his chest, aghast, his mouth agape. He shook his head, struggling to believe it, hope viciously quashed in his chest under the weight of Natasha's words.

"A month?" said Steve. "You've not remembered anything, in a whole month?"

"No," said Natasha softly.

"Yes," said Bucky.

It was the first time he had spoken during the entire conversation, causing both pairs of eyes to jump to him. Steve inhaled sharply at the sound of Bucky's voice. It was almost like a physical blow. His voice jolted something in Steve, some sense of familiarity; of longing, almost. He could not place it. He did not understand what it meant. Before he had any further opportunity to scrutinise its significance, Natasha spoke, the strange feeling of familiarity in Steve's gut dissipating, slipping like gas through his fingers.

"What?" said Natasha. "What?"

Bucky was glaring at Steve, looking furious, although Steve had no idea what he could have done to offend or upset the other man.

"I've not been able to remember anything all month," said Bucky, his eyes fixed on Steve. "But when you walked in, I recognised your face. I knew your name before Bruce introduced you."

He sprang to his feet, visibly disturbed, agitated. He pointed a shaking finger at Steve's face, almost accusingly, his expression dark with anger.

"I know you, but I don't know you," said Bucky. "I recognise you, but I know nothing about you."

Without another word, he turned on his heel and walked away, barging across the canteen towards the direction of the living area. His face was white and taut, his hands balled into fists by his sides. Concerned, Steve half-rose from his chair to follow him, but a small hand wrapped around his wrist, pulling him gently but firmly back down.

"Let him calm down first," advised Natasha.

Chapter Text

That evening, the four of them ate together in the canteen.

Bruce had cooked a beef and vegetable broth, which was surprisingly tasty considering the ingredients had come out of US Army ration packs. The banter at the table was lively, with Bruce, Bucky and Natasha all seemingly in high spirits. Steve sat silently amongst them, sneaking surreptitious glances at the others – strangers who were supposedly old friends. It was strange to think that they all knew one another in their past lives; that, in actual fact, he once had a relationship with the three strangers sat with him around the table.

He spilt some of his broth and lowered his gaze to concentrate on eating. His body was slowly getting its coordination back. It was still an effort to walk around the base, but already he could feel his muscles strengthening after their four months without use in his coma. He spooned in another mouthful of beef and vegetable broth and paused, a pang of vague unease twinging in his stomach as he stared down at the food. They were military rations, designed to last a long time, but nevertheless perishable and finite in number. He wondered what they were going to do once the food ran out.

To avoid thinking about it, he shifted his attention to the conversation going on around him. They were talking about some group board game that they seemed to have been sporadically playing since their return to consciousness. Bucky had calmed down from his outburst earlier and was animatedly taking part in the conversation. Steve listened silently, amazed that they were able to hold anything resembling a normal conversation.

Perhaps it was because they had had a month to get used to the situation outside the perimeter walls – whereas Steve had only learnt the truth of everything that morning – but all Steve could think about was the fact that they were possibly going to be the last four humans left alive, that they would be witness to the end of humanity, once all the slowly-dying infected eventually succumbed to their violent deaths. He tried and failed to quash his hysteria, finding himself unable to follow the others' conversation. Instead, he stared intently at their faces, desperate to remember them, to trigger some kind of recollection, some memory, something from the past that they once shared.

Like before, when they had first met, he was drawn to Bucky. He could not describe what he was feeling, but whenever Bucky spoke, Steve found himself hanging onto the sound of his voice. Whenever he moved, his spoon moving from bowl to mouth, or his jaw jumping as he chewed, his throat constricting as he swallowed, Steve found himself staring, following his movements, as if it were instinct. He was watching Bucky lick his spoon when the other man happened to glance in his direction and caught him staring. Bucky's eyebrows rose in surprise. Steve blushed furiously and immediately lowered his gaze, feeling stupid for having been caught, stupid for staring in the first place.

Several minutes later, once the conversation had moved onto another topic, Steve felt brave enough to look up once more, very consciously looking at Bruce, who was talking, and staunchly ignoring Bucky in his peripheral vision. He did not need the other man thinking he was a creep or a weirdo. Bruce had a tendency to mumble, so Steve found himself having to concentrate to follow his words, something that at that moment he felt strangely grateful for.

"I put a booster on the radio signal," Bruce was saying. "Now it should be strong enough to cover the whole of the US. It's beaming out 24/7 on almost all frequencies, telling any survivors to get in touch using a designated radio frequency that I've deliberately left quiet."

There was a short silence, during which Steve exchanged uncomfortable looks with Bucky and Natasha. It was Natasha who eventually broke the silence, voicing the question that they were all privately thinking.

"You really think there are survivors?" she said.

Bruce nodded earnestly.

"There must be members of the population with innate immunity," he said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Not many, but a small percentage of the gene pool. With innate immunity, these people will have survived without being affected by the virus at all."

Natasha looked doubtful, but Steve found himself clinging to the hope that Bruce was right. To think that the sole survivors of the outbreak might be occupying the four chairs around their table was a terrifyingly claustrophobic prospect. He was desperate for there to be others. It was then that he remembered when he had first awoken from his coma, Bruce mentioning that he himself had been unaffected by the virus. His curiosity stirred.

"How did you manage to avoid infection?" asked Steve. "How come you didn't end up like the rest of us?"

Bruce eyed him cautiously, his lips pursing together, visibly closing off, his gaze dropping down to examine the table.

"I told you," Bruce said dismissively. "I was involved in an accident when I was working as a physicist some years back. I was exposed to high doses of gamma radiation. It altered my DNA. My cell structure is different enough from most humans that the virus was unable to infect me."

Despite the apparent thoroughness of his answer, Steve could not shake the feeling that Bruce was being decidedly evasive; shady, even. He pressed harder, determined to understand. Bruce's explanation did not add up.

"You were exposed to high levels of gamma radiation and you were just, what, fine?" said Steve.

He did not bother to hide his scepticism. He knew that gamma radiation, any radiation, in large enough a dose was not a good thing. It was semantic memory, memory of facts, left intact by the virus – even though he could not remember a single science lesson.

"I wouldn't say I was fine, no," Bruce said quietly. "Like I said, there were side effects – some of them very nasty."

"Like what?" asked Steve.

Bruce did not reply, staring down at the remains of his soup, before scraping it up carefully with his spoon and eating it. This continued for several long minutes, before Natasha sighed, shaking her head tiredly.

"He won't say," she said to Steve.

There followed an awkward silence, during which time Steve felt his cheeks reddening, only just realising how invasive and personal his line of questioning had been. He had simply wanted to further understand the virus and its mechanics, but he had crossed a line and ended up prying into the private life of a man who had apparently once been a friend; a man who had treated him with nothing but kindness – looking after him during his coma, bringing him up to speed with the devastating events of the last five months, giving him a tour of the base, and even cooking his dinner. Steve sat miserably in his seat, feeling rude and ungrateful. He had not meant to upset Bruce. He wished he had not spoken.

Perhaps to break the increasingly awkward silence, Bucky cleared his throat, tactfully changing the subject. He turned towards Bruce.

"Have you given Steve his memento yet?" asked Bucky.

Bruce jerked out of his reverie, as if Bucky had reminded him of something he had forgotten, and shook his head. He wordlessly reached over to pick up a cardboard box from the seat next to him, which Steve had not noticed thus far. The cardboard box, approximately the size of a shoe box, was taped shut. On it were written two words: Steve Rogers. Bruce placed the box in front of Steve, who looked down at it, knowing, somehow, that the handwriting was his own. He stared at it for several seconds, the mystery box, not understanding.

"What's this?" Steve said finally.

"A memento," said Bucky.

When Steve visibly did not understand, Bruce took over the explanation.

"When you all arrived here at Camp Lehigh, before you were injected with the serum, before the virus broke in and infected everyone, you were all required to put something of great emotional importance into a box," said Bruce. "A memento. Something powerful enough that it might trigger your memories, should you be unlucky enough to be infected and suffer from amnesia."

Steve nodded slowly. It was beginning to make sense, in a roundabout sort of way.

"What am I supposed to do with it?" said Steve.

"Open it," Bruce said simply. "See if it triggers your memories."

Steve swallowed, suddenly nervous. He felt as though he were taking a test that everyone was desperate for him to pass. Yet, in his heart, he knew that he remembered nothing, that he would fail the test, that he would prove to be just as much an amnesiac as the rest of them. To delay the inevitable, he stalled for time, turning towards Bucky and Natasha, who were watching him expectantly.

"What were your mementos?" said Steve.

Natasha fiddled with the sleeves of her shirt.

"A music box with a ballerina inside," she said. "It twirls around and plays music when you turn the handle."

Steve blinked in surprise. Natasha did not strike him as the type of woman who would be particularly interested in music boxes or ballet.

"What does it mean?" he said.

Natasha laughed.

"Not a clue," she said. "It didn't make me remember anything."

Slightly put out, Steve turned to Bucky instead.

"And you?" he asked. "What was in your box?"

"My box just contained a bunch of seashells," said Bucky. "I've got no idea what it means, either."

Steve nodded, taking a deep breath and looking down at his box. He stared at his name, which was written in his handwriting on the top of the box, and tried to remember writing it. He could not remember. His finger worried along the seam of the tape which sealed it shut. He must have done that as well, although the memory of that event, too, eluded him. He wondered what could be inside the box. It was an object, apparently, that he had thought held such emotional significance that it would be powerful enough to restore his memories, should they be lost. His heart was hammering inside his chest, his hands damp with sweat. He exhaled shakily, gripping the end of the sticky tape firmly and ripping it off with one hard, clean tug.

The silence in the canteen was absolute. All four of them collectively leant forwards in their seats as Steve gripped the top flap of the box in trembling hands, his breath coming in shallow gasps as he held the weight of his past, his memories, in his hands.

He opened the box.

It was seashells, a mixture of greys, blues and whites, some still peppered with sand and sea salt.

He stared at them, uncomprehending, desperately trying to discern their meaning, what significance they could possibly hold, what cryptic message they encoded. His past self must have thought that they were significant enough to have the power to bring back his memories, but, staring at them, he remembered nothing. He had no idea what the seashells could mean, what specific memory they were supposed to trigger, what hidden meaning they represented, their symbolism.

"They're the same as mine," said Bucky.

Steve looked up, startled. He had forgotten that the others were there, so hard had he been concentrating on the seashells. Bucky's meaning sank in slowly. They both had seashells as mementos. The same kind of seashells, apparently, which only seemed to deepen their significance. What did that mean? Did it mean that their mementos were both referring to the same event, the same memory? And what did that mean, in terms of Steve and Bucky?

He did not know. The failure beat the inside of his skull like a military tattoo, going around in circles, helplessness layered upon helplessness:

I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

Chapter Text

One month passed, and Steve, Bucky and Natasha had still seen no improvements regarding their amnesia.

One morning, in an attempt to help trigger their memories, Bruce gathered them all together after breakfast and took them down to storage room 47. They watched as he brought down several cases from the shelves, unlocking them carefully and pulling out their contents. Steve stared at the costumes – he could not bring himself to call them "uniforms", as Bruce insisted they were – and felt a laugh bubble up in his gut.

"This one," said Bruce, pointing to the stupidest looking of all of them, "used to be yours, Steve."

Steve stared at it, incredulous, unable to believe that he had once worn such a ridiculous outfit during actual battles. It was a patriotic-looking number – red, white and blue – with a grey star in the centre of his chest. It was stupid, providing no camouflage whatsoever – although it was apparently lined with lightweight, bulletproof material.

Bucky's outfit looked substantially less silly than Steve's – it was not so brightly-coloured, in any case – although it, too, was far from traditional combat wear. It was a black leather ensemble, with straps crossing over his chest. It gave him a biker or rock band aesthetic, vaguely menacing. It was not particularly military, but it was at least better in terms of camouflage. It, too, was lined with the same bulletproof material as Steve's.

Natasha's outfit was similar to Bucky's in design. It was a black, one-piece catsuit, with plenty of hooks and fastenings for a variety of weapons. On the right bicep was an insignia that Steve could only assume belonged to SHIELD.

"We were part of an elite military group called the Avengers," said Bruce. "These were our uniforms on such missions. They were designed for use in large-scale battles in heavily populated civilian areas. They allowed civilians to recognise us. It gave them hope and gave us authority. It might look like some cheap marketing gimmick, but it worked."

Steve could not imagine their outfits ever giving them an air of authority, but he did not say so, keeping his opinion to himself.

"As Avengers, we fought together several times," said Bruce. "We conquered major threats together. Once, we even successfully stopped an alien invasion over the skies of New York."

Steve laughed, certain that Bruce was joking, before catching sight of the other man's expression. He was not laughing, nor did he appear to be attempting a deadpan expression for humorous effect. He was being serious. Steve's laugh tapered out into nothingness, shock and horror washing over him in equal measure. Aliens, in New York? What the fuck was his life?

"Steve," said Bruce, opening up another case. "This also belonged to you."

Bruce pulled out a circular metallic shield. It had a curious pattern, similar to Steve's outfit: a white star on a blue background, surrounded by concentric circles of alternating red and white. Bruce held out the shield to Steve, offering it to him. Steve hesitated, feeling slightly foolish as he reached out for the strangely-patterned object.

Swallowing back his sense of silliness, he took the shield by the straps that ran along the back – only to be taken by a powerful, instantaneous feeling of knowing. It was not remembrance, as such, but more an innate sense of knowledge. He knew the weight of the shield. He knew the balance of it. He knew how to hold it, how to use it to defend himself. He knew how to throw it to use it as a weapon. He knew all of this, the moment he held it in his hands, even though he could not remember ever handling the shield before. It was implicit memory – memory of skills.

Later, in the privacy of his bedroom, he tried on his outfit as an experiment. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, looking like a walking American flag in his red, white and blue, and experienced a fleeting moment of familiarity.

But, before it could solidify into anything more tangible, it was gone.

Chapter Text

It was about a week later that Bruce called a team meeting.

Steve and the others sat down around one of the tables in the canteen, facing Bruce, who was standing. He looked stressed, his dark curly hair sticking up in all directions as he surveyed the three pale faces looking up at him. As the only one with his memories intact, and given that he seemed to know the most about the situation outside the perimeter walls, Bruce had become the de facto leader of their little group. He felt a sense of responsibility for them, Steve could tell, and had become a fatherly figure in their lives.

Bruce did not bother with any preamble, getting straight to the point.

"I've spent the last few days taking inventory," said Bruce. "I estimate we have about one month of food left – two, if we ration. We need to move."

A heavy silence settled over the group. To be reminded of their very human need for food brought their vulnerability into sharp focus. If they did not have food, they would die. There was something both pure and frightening about it; that reminder that every day was a fight for survival. Steve remembered the first meal he had eaten at the base – beef and vegetable broth – and how he had briefly wondered what they were going to do when the ration packs ran out. He had not wanted to think about it, then. Now, they had to.

"Where are we going to go?" asked Bucky.

Bruce sat down, as if delivering the bad news had taken a physical toll on him. Perhaps it had. Steve did not envy him; Bruce, the de facto leader, responsible for their collective lives. What a weight that must be, to carry on his shoulders.

"In the long-term, we need to find somewhere where we can settle down and live sustainably. Somewhere where we can grow our own food, generate our own power. That's the endgame," said Bruce. "In the short-term, though..." He exhaled heavily, suddenly looking exhausted. "In the short-term, we need to live day by day. We need to acquire supplies – however, whenever and wherever we can. We should travel across the country, see if we can find any survivors with innate immunity. They'll be at risk from attacks from the infected. We have a responsibility to protect them."

Steve did not want to be the bastard who destroyed Bruce's optimism, but at the same time, his survival instinct was warning him of the dangers of wasting energy and resources going on some wild goose chase, seeking survivors who might not even exist.

"You really think there are immune survivors out there?" said Steve, as evenly as possible. "Has anyone replied to your radio broadcasts?"

Bruce's face fell, but only for a moment, his determined expression quickly returning, if anything, more resolutely than ever.

"No replies yet, but there must be survivors," said Bruce. "Maybe they just don't have the equipment with which to reply. Or maybe their signals are just too weak to reach us here; we might be out of range."

Steve nodded slowly. In his heart, he was not sure that he believed that there were any survivors, but if there were even a chance that Bruce was right (and he wanted, more than anything, for Bruce to be right), then he accepted that they had a responsibility to find and protect such people. They had been chosen to be injected with the serum for that very purpose – to lead the survivors of humanity, to protect and take care of them, to be the heroes that they needed. It was their duty. They owed it to everyone not in that room, to try.

"If there are any survivors, we'll find them, and we'll save them," said Steve, as much to strengthen his own resolve than in reply to Bruce.

Bucky and Natasha nodded their agreement. Bruce let out a small sigh of relief, shooting Steve a grateful smile. He had obviously been worried that they might have tried to overrule that part of his plan.

"We'll need to think about our security," Bruce continued. "The infected will pose a major threat. Every day, as the virus attacks their brains, they're getting more and more aggressive. We'll have to operate on the assumption that anyone who tries to attack us will be trying to kill us."

Beside him, Bucky gave a slightly hysterical giggle, which quickly escalated into a full-blown laughing fit. They all turned to stare at him. Bucky's eyes were wide, his hands clasped together tightly on the table in front of him, as his body shook with guffaws of sharply-edged, high-pitched laughter. He was visibly overwhelmed, which Steve thought was understandable, given the situation. If anything, he, Bruce and Natasha were the strange ones, for not joining him, for not sharing his panic attack as they faced the prospect of leaving, for the first time, the safety of the base.

"Great!" said Bucky. "Let's re-cap! We're living in a post-apocalyptic world. Most of humanity is dead – and the people who're still alive are basically zombies whose brains are slowly turning into liquid gunk that makes them so aggressive that they'll try to kill anything that moves. But that's fine – because apparently, we're the Avengers! We're a team of supersoldiers. Just a damn shame that we can't remember a single day of training!"

They all stared in mute shock as Bucky's outburst came to an end. He lapsed into silence, before belatedly clamping a hand over his mouth, visibly horrified by his lapse in fortitude. Steve was taken by a sudden instinct to take the other man's hand in comfort, but aborted the movement before it even began, forcing himself not to act so inappropriately. He did not know where the impulse had even come from.

Bruce gave Bucky a long, careful look before replying. When he spoke, his tone was even but firm.

"When the time comes, you'll know how to fight," said Bruce. "Fighting – that's implicit memory; muscle memory. You'll know what to do."

Chapter Text

Once the decision to leave Camp Lehigh was made, things progressed very quickly.

There was a renewed sense of urgency to their actions, a renewed sense of vigour, driven by their instinctual urge to survive. Under Bruce's direction, they loaded up four large armoured trucks with survival kits, cooking equipment, medical packs, sleeping bags, warm clothes, weapons and what was left of their dwindling food supplies.

They spent several days working almost non-stop, loading up the trucks with everything they would need in order to survive in this strange new world. By the time they were done, Steve's muscles were pleasantly sore, and he felt slightly more assured of their prospects of survival. At least he knew that if they were to die, it would not be from lack of supplies.

Presently, they were gathered with their trucks in the loading bay, the four of them huddled together for warmth. They had switched off the power in the base earlier that morning; no need to power the building when they would so soon be leaving. They were wearing their outfits – or uniforms, as Bruce called them: Steve in his patriotic red, white and blue; Bucky in his leather ensemble; Natasha in her SHIELD catsuit. Steve also held his shield, for comfort as much as for defence. Bruce alone was wearing his military fatigues.

Bruce was explaining the mission brief for that day. They were to acquire food and fuel. They would be driving one truck each. This would maximise the supplies that they were able to collectively carry, and give them back-up options in case, for any reason, one or more of the trucks became irreparably damaged. Steve was comforted by Bruce's forward thinking. The trucks were fitted with radio communicators so they would be able to speak to one another whilst they were driving. Bruce would be leading the convoy, followed by Natasha, then Bucky, with Steve bringing up the rear.

Bruce had just finished explaining all this when he suddenly seemed to remember something, quickly hopping up into the cab of his truck to grab and come back with what appeared to be four sets of advanced-looking goggles. He passed them around so that they had one pair of goggles each. Steve examined his pair curiously, taking in their slightly bulky appearance. They had thick grey rims, and the lenses had a slightly iridescent quality to them. There were several buttons on the rims, presumably to activate different settings.

"I made these in the lab," said Bruce. "Special goggles, fitted with night-vision and heat-sensitive modes. I thought they'd be useful for night-time, as well as for when we have to enter unsecured buildings that could contain the infected."

Steve tried on the goggles, pressing the buttons experimentally to see how they worked. The first button did not seem to have much effect in the well-lit space – it was the night-vision setting, presumably. When he pressed the second button, the world jumped from normal vision to a more psychedelic-looking alternative; exposed skin was transformed to hot reds and oranges, their bodies beneath their clothes became a mass of cooler yellows and greens, and inanimate objects became cold blues and purples. Heat-sensitive mode. Steve hummed with approval, impressed by Bruce's level of skill. These goggles would definitely come in handy. They all murmured their thanks, before disbanding upon Bruce's signal to each go to their individual truck.

Steve clambered into the driver's seat, buckling his seat belt and starting the engine. Even though he could not remember a single driving lesson, Bruce had nevertheless assured him that he would remember how to drive. It was implicit memory and, as Steve wrapped his fingers around the steering wheel, settling his feet on the pedals, he found that he did indeed know exactly what to do.

They drove slowly out of the loading bay, in convoy. Steve, at the back, was glad not to have to lead, since he could not remember any of the geography of the area that surrounded Camp Lehigh. They trundled down the road that led to the perimeter fence, Bruce briefly hopping out to unlock and open the tall, wire-topped, reinforced gates.

As the gates slowly opened, Steve was able to see his first proper glimpse of the world beyond the perimeter. Tall grass lined the road. In the distance, stood the deserted town that was to be their first stop in their search for supplies.

The gates now open, Bruce got back into his truck and led the convoy out of Camp Lehigh. The others followed, and as they put more and more space between themselves and the bubble that had been their base, Steve was finally able to get a proper grasp of the devastation that the virus had left in its wake.

It was obvious, now, that something truly horrible had happened in the preceding five months. It was not simply the fact that there was five months of vegetation growing wild and untamed. There were other signs, too. Rubbish was blowing in the breeze. In the distance, Steve spotted a pack of stray dogs; probably family pets, once upon a time. Up ahead, he could see several dogs eating something by the roadside. Their backs were to the approaching convoy. They seemed unbothered as first Bruce rumbled past, followed by Natasha, Bucky and, finally, Steve. As he went past, Steve caught a glimpse of what the dogs were gnawing on. He did a double-take, horror and nausea rising in him as he clearly recognised a human arm; flung out, bloody, like some final plea for help.

As they drew closer to the town, they passed several more bodies at various stages of decomposition. Steve stared at them, unable to look away, horrified and transfixed as they rotted out in the open. His wheel clipped the side of the road, jolting him back to reality, reminding him of the importance of concentrating whilst driving. He could not afford to be complacent, least of all now. He reminded himself of the mission brief: get fuel, get food, try not to get killed by the infected.

Up ahead, Bruce was slowing down, bringing the convoy to a halt outside a petrol station at the edge of the town.

"Natasha and I will get the fuel," said Bruce, his voice crackling over the radio. "Steve, Bucky, you're on guard duty."

The four of them got out of their trucks. They all were on high alert. Steve and Bucky clutched fully-loaded machine guns. They spread out to cover Bruce and Natasha from in front and behind, as the other two got to work, working together efficiently as a team.

One by one, Bruce rolled around ten empty barrels from the back of his truck onto the petrol forecourt. Natasha was carefully filling them to maximum capacity, before Bruce proceeded to roll each barrel back to the trucks. They functioned like a conveyor belt, quickly and expertly, as if they had worked together dozens of times before. They had, Steve reminded himself; he just could not remember it. Keeping watch was uneventful, for which Steve was thankful, considering it was his first time. In what felt like no time at all, the final barrel was filled with fuel and rolled onto the back of Bruce's truck.

They returned to their vehicles, locking the doors and starting up their engines once more. Their next stop was a grocery store. During the short trip from the petrol station to the store, they passed several more bodies in the streets. Steve found himself growing increasingly jumpy. Every movement of the foliage, caused by the wind, had his heart racing; his mind conjuring up images of the infected horde surging towards him. His hands, wrapped around the steering wheel, were clammy with sweat. By the time they arrived at the store, Steve was almost glad, if only to exercise some of his nervous energy. He got out of his truck, tucking a small handgun into his holster this time, leaving his machine gun on the passenger seat.

He and Bucky entered the store, with Bruce and Natasha providing them with cover, their fingers wrapped around their machine guns, ready to fire. The automatic doors pinged cheerfully as they slid open, a strange reminder of a bygone era of normality. Steve could easily imagine families bustling through the aisles, piling their weekly groceries into their shopping trolleys as they bantered about the latest episode of their favourite TV show, or squabbled about whose turn it was to do the washing up. He longed for such ordinary scenes. He longed for the pre-virus world, when everything had been so beautifully mundane. They had taken it for granted.

Presently, as Steve and Bucky stepped into the store, the contrast between now and then was stark. The store was eerily deserted; the aisles, devoid of life, had items scattered on the floor, evidence of panic buying or perhaps even looting, from when the virus had first emerged. Bucky grabbed two shopping trolleys, pushing one over to Steve, and nodded in the direction of the food aisles.

"Let's grab what we can and get out of here," he said. "This place gives me the creeps."

Steve nodded in agreement, heading towards an area where he could see canned goods on the shelves. They grabbed whatever they could, thanking whoever had invented tinned food and trying to ignore the overpowering smell of decay coming from the now-rancid fresh meat section. They piled their trolleys high with cans of baked beans, chickpeas, soups, sauces, ready-made pastas, chopped fruits and even fish. Steve considered the fact he was stealing and felt guilty for not feeling guilty about it. He forced himself not to dwell on it. These were different times. The morality of the past did not translate to this post-apocalyptic world.

The sound of them throwing cans into their shopping trolleys was interspersed by brief snippets of conversation when they called out to one another as they found new shelves containing canned food. They worked quickly and as a team. It was bizarre, to do something as ordinary as grocery shopping – but with no intention of paying, and whilst constantly on their guard for any movements in the shadows that could indicate the infected. Steve was painfully aware of how juxtaposed the scene was to normal life – so near, and yet so far.

Their trolleys became fuller and fuller as they made their way around the store. There seemed to be no infected in this part of town, as they were uninterrupted as they plundered the shelves. Presently, Bucky was passing him tin after tin of pineapple, and Steve was struck by a strange sense of familiarity. Going grocery shopping with Bucky. Had they done this before? Maybe, if they really had been best friends, as Bruce claimed. He could not remember.

He wondered if Bucky felt it too – that familiarity, that connection, that way of working together that felt so effortless, so natural, so right.

Chapter Text

They took it in shifts to sleep.

Every night, two people would remain awake to protect the trucks and their sleeping occupants from attacks from the infected. They would split the shift between them, one acting as guard from evening to midnight, and the other taking over from midnight to morning. None of them particularly liked being on nightshift, although they had to admit the job was made a hell of a lot easier with the specially-adapted goggles that Bruce had created for them. So far, they had not encountered any of the infected, something that Steve was not sure was a good or a bad sign. Nevertheless, they all understood the importance of having a lookout. The last thing they wanted was to wake up to find that the infected had damaged their trucks overnight – or worse.

It was about a week after they had left Camp Lehigh, curled up beneath a warm Army-issue blanket in the cab of his truck, that Steve first dreamt about Bucky.

The dream was a strange one. Usually, his dreams followed some kind of storyline, often adventurous, even action-packed – but in this one, there was no such rush, no such action, no sense of any real direction, nor of the slippage of time. He and Bucky were together in a dark room. It was a bedroom, he realised, and they were lying together, nude, on the bed.

They did not speak, but there was a sense of familiarity. It was relaxed, intimate, without any awkwardness between them. Bucky was cupping Steve's cheek, smiling at him, and Steve was smiling back. He liked it. It felt right. He leant forward and kissed Bucky's lips, closing his eyes as he lost himself in the taste of it. Bucky kissed him back, his warm hands wrapping around Steve's back and drawing him closer. Now, they were cuddling, warm flesh pressed against warm flesh. Steve's hands wandered over Bucky's body, caressing his muscles, following the swells and dips as if tracing them on a map, committing them to memory. It was sensual, but not sexual; the overwhelming feeling was one of love, not lust. He buried his face in Bucky's neck and lapped at the sensitive skin there, feeling a rush of satisfaction when Bucky shivered at the stimulation.

"You're beautiful," murmured Steve. "So beautiful."

The dream shifted. Things became hotter. Steve was sweating, as was Bucky, but rather than separating in order to cool down, they were embracing one another even more tightly. They were kissing passionately, tongues in one another's mouths, on one another's faces, bodies. Bucky's hand wrapped around Steve's length and squeezed, drawing a moan from his lips at the pleasurable sensation. His hand reached down between Bucky's legs and lovingly took hold of Bucky's cock. Their hands began to slide up and down one another's cocks, jerking one another off, their movements eased by their pre-come, which was leaking copiously from both of them.

Steve lost himself in the pleasure, his whole world narrowing down to that one room, that one bed, both of them hot and panting in the dark as they worked one another towards orgasm, hands moving fast over slick, feverish, rock-hard flesh. He was so close to coming. He whispered a warning to Bucky, his hips thrusting up into the gorgeous heat of Bucky's hand–

Steve woke with a start.

He stared up at the ceiling of his truck's cab, his heart hammering in his chest as the sounds of the night drifted in from outside. Somewhere nearby an owl was hooting. Steve could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the trees that surrounded them. Natasha, who was on nightshift and must be stood right next to Steve's cab, was humming softly to herself as she stood guard over the convoy. The sounds grounded him in reality as the dream slowly began to fade. He exhaled long and hard. His skin was hot and damp with sweat. To his shame, his cock was fully erect, pre-come leaking from the tip as a result of his dream.

The sound of Natasha's humming moved away as she changed her position. Steve closed his eyes, shame and guilt washing over him as memories of the dream lingered in his mind's eye. He had no idea where the dream had come from. He did not know Bucky particularly well. The other man liked to keep himself to himself. He should not be having dreams like that, about his friend or colleague or whatever the hell Bucky was. And yet... Steve's cock was still hard. He waited several minutes for it to go down, but when it did not, he sighed and wrapped a hand around himself, a quiet gasp escaping his lips at how good it felt.

Quietly, so as not to alert Natasha to his activities as she circled the trucks, he began to jerk himself off. He was already close, his hand quickly becoming covered in pre-come as he worked himself expertly. His cock was hot and engorged, angry at having been denied orgasm in his dream and determined to reclaim that right in the waking world. Steve bit his lip, muffling a moan as he reached down with his other hand. Now, one hand was jerking his shaft, whilst the other stimulated his cock head, where the pleasure was greatest, where he was most sensitive.

His orgasm built steadily over several minutes, before finally exploding out of him, filling his hand as wave after wave of ecstasy rolled over him. As he came, a vivid image expanded to fill his mind: he and Bucky, wrapped in a passionate embrace in that darkened bedroom, jerking one another off as they sought pleasure together. The mental image strengthened Steve's real-life orgasm, causing him to grunt rather louder than he had intended as he spurted into his waiting hand.

Slowly, as the last of his spasms faded into satiation, he came down from his high. Several sticky minutes later, he groped for a tissue and wiped his hands and cock clean, before throwing the ruined tissue aside and collapsing back against his pillow. He stared up at the ceiling, finally satisfied, but disturbed and confused as to why he had come so violently whilst thinking about Bucky.

"What the fuck?" he said.

Chapter Text

After that night, something shifted inside Steve. He found that his curiosity regarding Bucky was well and truly awakened. He remembered Bruce's comment that they had been close friends – inseparable, he had said – and found that he wanted to rekindle that friendship once more. He wanted to get to know Bucky again. He wanted them to be friends – not colleagues or acquaintances, or whatever the hell they were. He was drawn to Bucky, like magnetism, and he yearned for them to regain that connection that they had apparently once shared.

Part of him worried about the dream. He wondered what it meant. Had he had a crush on Bucky, before the virus obliterated his memories? He supposed it was possible. Bucky was certainly an attractive man. Steve would be lying if he said that he had never caught himself staring at him, admiring his face and physique. Steve was undoubtedly drawn to him, but the attraction was not simply sexual; Bucky elicited in Steve a sense of connection, of fierce loyalty, of unwavering trust. These were echoes of their past. Instinct. Emotion. Implicit memory.

It was several days after the dream that Steve finally found himself alone with Bucky. They were trekking down to the bottom of a ravine, carrying with them large empty barrels attached to one of the trucks above with a stupendously long piece of rope. Their job was to fill the barrels with water from the stream that ran along the bottom of the valley. They needed it for drinking, cooking, and washing. Bruce and Natasha were keeping watch from above, using their high vantage point to keep an eye out for any of the infected and ensure Steve and Bucky's safety.

Climbing down the steep sides of the ravine was tiring work that required both physical strength and mental concentration, so it was only once they got to the bottom and began the slow, tedious task of filling the barrels, that Steve and Bucky were finally able to talk. Steve held onto one of the barrels as it bobbed on the surface of the stream, slowly filling with water and growing heavier and heavier. He cast a sidelong glance towards Bucky, who was doing the same with the other barrel. A frown was creasing Bucky's forehead. Steve cleared his throat, trying to think of a topic to break the silence and restart their friendship.

"It's a nice day today," he said cheerfully.

Fuck... Why had he said that? He could not have picked a more boring or mundane topic if he had tried. The weather was not even that good. It was drizzly and cloudy, for fuck's sake. Bucky squinted up towards the dull, grey skies, nodding noncommittally.

"I guess," he said.

Steve mentally facepalmed himself. Now it was awkward. Great. Bucky was looking at him strangely. Probably because he was acting like a total weirdo, Steve told himself. Gathering up the remains of his shredded dignity, he took a deep breath and tried again.

"Are you sleeping well?"

Jesus Christ on a motherfucking bike. His brain officially hated him. His brain was doing whatever the friendship version of cock-blocking was. Dying of embarrassment inside, Steve watched as Bucky did not even bother to look in his direction, simply shrugging his shoulders in reply.

"I guess," Bucky repeated coolly.

The stand-offish tone of his response made Steve pause. It was then that Steve properly began to examine Bucky's demeanour. Bucky was not usually talkative, but today he seemed unusually quiet, even for him. His shoulders were hunched. His expression was brooding and closed-off, as if he were mentally turning something over in his mind. He seemed introspective, distracted and preoccupied.

"What's wrong?" said Steve.

At last, Bucky looked at him. He stared at him for several long moments, as if mentally debating whether or not to share with Steve what was on his mind. Finally, he sighed, his shoulders sagging. Steve found himself shuffling closer towards him, finding that it felt important for him to be there, to listen, to comfort him if necessary.

"This morning... I remembered something," said Bucky.

Steve's eyes widened in shock. Whatever he had been expecting, it had not been that. The revelation warmed him. He beamed at Bucky, overjoyed at his extraordinary news.

"That's great!" said Steve. "What did you remember?"

Bucky looked directly at Steve, his blue eyes piercing Steve's own, his expression unreadable. Steve tried to ignore the sudden butterflies that Bucky's gaze elicited, eager to hear what the other man had remembered of his past life.

"It happened when we were eating porridge this morning," said Bucky. "I remembered, one time, the two of us eating porridge together for breakfast. I made you laugh so hard that porridge came out of your nose."

Bucky's stoic mask of indifference slipped, and he began to laugh at the memory, obviously amused by the recollection. Steve watched him, a maelstrom of emotions going through him. He was happy for Bucky for having recalled the memory, of course. Yet, at the same time, his heart ached. He wished that he too could remember it. He wondered what Bucky had said that had been so funny as to cause him to spew porridge from his nostrils. He yearned to remember. It hurt like a physical pain, that his own past was unknown to him.

And then, as easily as he had begun to laugh, Bucky turned away and began to sob. His barrel of water, now full, was yanked unceremoniously from the stream and sealed shut. He yanked on the rope that was attached to the barrel – the signal for the others to winch it back up to the top of the ravine. The barrel rose up on its rope, Bruce's automated winch taking it up above their heads. Bucky began to trudge away, heading back towards the path that they had followed on the way down. Steve called out to him, pulling his own barrel out of the stream now that it too was full, and fumbling with the lid. By the time he had sealed it shut and yanked on the rope to signal he was done, Bucky had already put a good deal of distance between them.

Steve chased after him, catching up with him about a minute later, panting and out of breath. He grabbed Bucky by the arm, swinging him around to face him. Bucky's face was streaked with tears and grime. Steve was taken by the strong urge to wipe the tears away, before stopping himself, not wanting to invade the other man's personal space or make him feel belittled.

"Bucky," he said softly. "What's wrong? You remembered something. That's good, right?"

Bucky wiped his tears roughly, obviously ashamed at having cried in front of Steve. He shook his head, looking anguished, lashing out with his boot, kicking at a stone. They both watched as it tumbled off the precipice down to the bottom of the ravine, splashing in the stream when it reached its inevitable destination. Bucky was silent for a moment, both composing himself and gathering his thoughts.

"Only remembering snippets of random memories… I don't know if that's better or worse than not remembering anything at all," said Bucky. "Because there's no context. Nothing makes sense. I feel lost, not knowing my past. I don't know who I am. I don't know what sort of man I'm supposed to be. Fuck – sometimes I wish I'd never woken up in this hellhole of a world."

Steve tried, and failed, to hide his shock. He had never seen Bucky cry like this, open up like this before. Bucky had always hidden behind a tough, unflappable facade, but now Steve saw it for what it was – simply that, a facade. Underneath it all, he was just as lost and frightened as the rest of them – struggling with his sense of identity, and struggling to come to terms with his new reality; this sinister, lonely post-virus world. It was difficult for all of them, and as much as Bucky might want to play the part of the supersoldier who never felt an ounce of fear, it was an act. All of them were afraid. It was what kept them alive: that constant vigilance, honed by millions of years of evolution; that fear of death.

"You say you don't know what kind of man you're supposed to be," said Steve. "Well, I know what kind of man you are. A good man. That's you."

Bucky gazed at him, both hopeful and desperate at the same time. His eyes, sky blue, once again glistened with tears.

"But how do you know?" he whispered. "You don't remember any more than I do."

Steve hesitated. How could he explain it, that instinct, that feeling, that sense of knowing? It was unquantifiable, unexplainable, illogical.

"I just know," he said, meeting Bucky's eyes firmly. "I know it."

Chapter Text

Bucky's admission to Steve about the memory of the porridge-coming-out-of-his-nose incident marked a watershed moment in their friendship. He became more open with Steve, friendlier, as if opening up to him had made him realise that he trusted him, that there was a bond there, between them. They began to talk together over the radio comms in the trucks on those long days spent driving, and in the evenings, whenever they had any free time. Steve learnt that Bucky had a sharp mind, a great sense of humour, and a gentle kindness to him. They were rediscovering their friendship, and Steve found that they had a wonderful camaraderie.

It was several weeks after the porridge memory that the group had their first encounter with the infected.

They were in yet another town, raiding yet another grocery store to stock up on supplies. Steve and Bucky were working together, plundering the shelves for food whilst Bruce and Natasha kept guard outside. They were throwing tins of soup and sardines into a shopping trolley, and it was the noise of the tins clattering loudly that masked the sound of footsteps shuffling rapidly in their direction from the dark depths of the shop.

The only warning they got was a rasping screech as two infected males hurled themselves towards Bucky, who was closest. Bucky went down with a surprised yell, bowled over by the combined weight of them and the momentum they had gained running towards him. Steve, who was several aisles over, immediately dropped the tins he had been holding, sprinting in Bucky's direction, horror exploding in his chest as he watched the scene unfolding in front of him.

The infected were filthy – their hair matted, their skin grimy, their clothes dirty and smeared with what looked horrifyingly like blood. Their eyes were blood-shot and wide, deranged. They were attacking Bucky with such fury that Steve felt genuine fear for the first time. They were pummelling him, scratching at him, screaming as they did so, completely out of control. They were human, but the virus had robbed them of their humanity. They were acting on pure instinct, totally at the mercy of the virus which made them so aggressive, so wild, so animal. Bruce was right. The serum could not help these individuals. The infected could not be saved.

Without hesitation, Steve drew his gun from its holster and pointed it in the direction of the nearest infected, who had just noticed that Steve was approaching. The man rose to his feet, lurching towards Steve, grunting as he did so, spittle dribbling down his chin. Bracing himself, Steve pointed the gun in the direction of the man's head and pulled the trigger. Nothing... No! Swallowing back his panic, Steve tried again, and again. The gun was jammed. The infected man had grabbed a bottle of wine and smashed it, creating a crude but terrifyingly effective knife. Steve was frozen with fear, watching as the man sprinted towards him, uncontrollable rage in his blood-shot eyes, certain that he was watching the grotesque prelude to his own imminent demise.

Bang!

The man's head exploded, his body dropping instantly to the floor with a sickening thud. From her position just inside the store's front door, Natasha calmly took aim at the second man, who was still attacking Bucky, and dispatched him with an equally well-aimed shot to the head. The silence that followed the second gunshot was shell-shocked and absolute. Steve stared at the bodies of the men – people who, just moments ago, had come so close to killing both Steve and Bucky. He could see bits of brain and skull spattered on the floor. He felt bile rise in his throat and ducked behind a shelf, vomiting up his breakfast onto his shoes.

When he was finished, he came out to discover Bucky wheeling their stolen food out of the store, heading towards the trucks. Bruce was still keeping watch outside. He walked up to Natasha, who was waiting for him patiently, pulling her into a hug as soon as he was close enough to do so.

"Thank you," he said. "You saved our lives."

"We need to hone your combat skills," said Natasha, when they pulled apart. "That was too close."

"My gun jammed," said Steve.

Natasha hummed, glancing down at his gun and holding her hand out, offering to look at it. Steve handed it over. He glanced at the nearest body, which had a bullet hole right in the middle of its forehead. It was a perfect bullseye. Despite its horribleness, it was impressive.

"I didn't know you could do that," said Steve, gazing at the corpse.

Natasha stared at it for a long moment, before looking away, turning to leave.

"Neither did I," she said.

 


 

Later that evening, as they sat around the campfire eating dinner, Steve gazed around at his ragtag group of friends.

They were finishing off their food and an air of peaceful relaxation had taken over. Bucky was scraping food from the bottom of his bowl, Natasha was staring into the fire, and Bruce, as usual, was tinkering with his radio. If it were not for the guns that they each had, fully loaded and within easy reach, it might have been an ordinary scene from the pre-virus world. For a moment, he allowed himself a moment to enjoy the fantasy. He imagined that they were on holiday. He imagined that next week they would be returning home, to their jobs and their houses and their ordinary lives. He imagined the past – in all its vague, mundane, undefined glory – and yearned for it.

Static crackled from Bruce's radio. As always, Bruce listened to it diligently. He did that constantly, waiting to hear from any immune survivors who might be trying to get in touch in response to Bruce's radio message, which was broadcasting on a loop across the entire country. So far, no survivors had made contact. In private, Steve, Bucky and Natasha had discussed it and come to the same conclusion: that there were no survivors; that the reason no one had replied was not because their broadcasting equipment was out of range or not powerful enough to reach them, but because there simply were no survivors left alive to reply to Bruce's broadcast. None of them had had the heart to tell Bruce their suspicions, however. They could not bring themselves to extinguish his bright spark of hope.

Natasha suddenly groaned, burying her head in her hands, drawing all eyes towards her. Steve looked over at her in concern. Natasha was a very private individual, not one to indulge in public displays of emotion or indeed speak much about herself at all. For most people, burying their head in their hands would not be of significance. Natasha, however, was not most people. That she was demonstrating her vulnerability in front of them, even in such a minor way, was meaningful.

"What's wrong?" said Bruce, as always, the parental figure of the group.

Natasha straightened up, gathering her thoughts as she gazed into the fire. Steve could practically see her mind whirring, her emotions whirling, just beneath the surface, and longed to help. Natasha should not suffer alone. They were all in this together. Suddenly looking exhausted, Natasha ran a hand through her hair, the red curls bouncing around her face as they immediately sprung back into place. Her gaze flicked towards Steve, her green eyes meeting his blue ones, and in them Steve saw layers of pain.

"I shot those guys in the store with perfect aim," she said, her voice shaking. "Fucking bullseyes, right in the middle of their heads. And do you know what the disgusting thing is? I didn't feel a thing. What kind of person am I? What kind of person kills other people and doesn't even have an emotional reaction?"

"You did what had to be done," said Steve. "It was us or them. Maybe you didn't have an emotional response because it all happened so quickly."

"But I don't know who I am," choked out Natasha.

"Living without our memories is hard–" began Bucky.

Natasha cut him off with a wave of her hand, shaking her head.

"It's not just that," she said. "It's not just that my episodic memory is missing. It's that my semantic memory doesn't make any sense either. I know all these facts about myself – but they contradict one another, they can't all be real."

Steve looked at her curiously, struggling to understand. Whilst his episodic memory (memories of events) was missing, he had experienced no problems with his semantic memory (memories of facts). He wondered if perhaps Natasha had been affected by the virus worse than the rest of them. He hoped it was not the case.

"What do you mean?" he asked, seeking clarification.

Natasha jabbed her thumb into a hole in her sleeve, fiddling with it restlessly.

"I remember having lots of names," she said slowly. "I am Natasha Romanoff – but I'm also Natalie Rushman, Nadia Russell, Naomi Raab. Natasha Romanoff was a SHIELD agent, but Natalie Rushman was a secretary, Nadia Russell was a linguist, Naomi Raab worked in an embassy. I remember all these names, all these cover stories – but I don't know who the real me is. I know that I was a spy. I know that Natalie, Nadia and Naomi are the so-called 'fake' ones, but I feel like all those women were a part of me. Their personalities were based on me. But I don't know what was real and what was made up. I don't know who I am."

Steve stared at her. He could not imagine how she must feel – to remember all these old cover stories, all these fabrications, and not know what was real and what was fiction. He was amazed that she had lasted this long before cracking. Presently, tears were beginning to leak down her cheeks and he moved to sit next to her, putting a comforting arm around her and letting her lean against his side.

"I have these terrible dreams," whispered Natasha. "That I went to a boarding school for orphan girls. In the dreams, the school taught me how to kill people, how to torture people. They taught me how to lie and steal and pick locks." She lapsed into silence, gazing down at her hands, which were trembling lightly. "I wonder, after today at the store, if they're not just dreams. Maybe they're memories from my childhood. Maybe that's why I can shoot so straight, because I was taught how to as a little girl. Maybe that's why I didn't feel anything when I killed them. Perhaps, I'm just a monster. I don't know."

At this point, Bruce spoke up, his voice gentle as he looked at her, calmly, over the crackling fire.

"You're not a monster," he said. "I don't know if these dreams are real or not, but honestly, I don't think it matters. You're the person you choose to be. Your actions, your choices – that's what defines who you are."

"That's easy for you to say," Natasha blurted out angrily. "You remember everything." She looked momentarily shocked at herself, touching her lips and shaking her head apologetically. "I'm... I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."

"You have a point," said Bruce, after a short pause. "I may not be able to understand you the way Steve and Bucky can."

Natasha raised her head, looking up at Steve and Bucky miserably.

"I just feel like I'm drifting... Aimless," she said. "I don't know my past, so I don't know how to frame my present or my future. I constantly feel confused. I feel lonely. I miss myself; does that even make sense?"

"It makes sense," Bucky said quietly. "I know exactly how you feel. I think Steve does, too."

Steve nodded, giving her a squeeze as two fat tears rolled down her cheeks. Natasha bit her lip, her hands reaching out and taking Steve's and Bucky's tentatively.

"You're not alone," said Steve. "We're all feeling like that. Honestly, it's fucking terrifying. But we'll get through it. Even if we never remember our old lives, we'll get through it."

"How?" said Natasha, her voice cracking on the single syllable.

For a moment, there was silence, the magnitude of Natasha's question weighing down on them oppressively. Steve was the one to break it.

"Together," he said.

Natasha looked up at him, her green eyes, raw and vulnerable, blinking back tears.

Bucky and Bruce nodded in agreement – a promise, a vow.

"Together."

Chapter Text

Steve had another dream about Bucky.

This one was very different from the last. They were not alone in a bedroom in the throes of sensual bliss, but simply walking together through Central Park in New York City. Steve knew the park. In his dream state, remembering was easy, and he guided them along some of his favourite footpaths, enjoying the beautiful greenery around them. They enjoyed a leisurely stroll, no destination in mind, simply going where their feet carried them. Steve was happy, a smile on his face as he listened to Bucky talk, warm sunshine caressing his skin.

"It was so embarrassing, though, I swear," Bucky was saying. "I'd locked myself out of the house, so I'd tried to wriggle in through an open window, but then I'd got stuck with my ass and legs sticking out!"

Steve could not stop laughing as he imagined the sight of Bucky wedged in such a ridiculous situation. Bucky was becoming more and more irate as he recalled the story, his cheeks tinged red with embarrassment that had not been able to fade even with the passage of time.

"And then," continued Bucky, "my sister Becca got home and tried to pull me out of the window, but she just ended up pulling my fucking pants off! And then, she refused to pull them back up! She said it was gross, and I was just hollering at her to help me while all the neighbourhood kids just came to laugh at me with my ass and bare legs hanging out of the goddamn window."

Steve could not stop himself roaring with laughter. There were so many hilarious stories about Bucky and Becca's childhood that it felt as though he would never run out of new ones to hear. Bucky had a strong relationship with his sister, and Steve had met her on multiple occasions. He liked her. She was funny and smart, with a gossipy side to her that her brother lacked, always probing Steve whenever they met for any juicy stories that he might have heard on the grapevine.

Presently, Bucky was smirking, finding at least some humour in his story in amongst all the residual mortification. Steve sniggered, still unable to shake the mental image of Bucky bellowing with anger as he wiggled his ass with only his boxers to preserve his modesty, trying to dislodge himself from the window frame. Bucky elbowed him in the ribs and pointed to a patch of grass beside a pond. They diverted their path to walk over to it and sat down, taking off their backpacks and pulling out various picnic items: blanket, sandwiches, strawberries, muffins and lemonade.

As they began their picnic, Steve was taken by a sense of bliss. The sun was shining, he was sitting eating a delicious picnic lunch with his favourite person in the whole world, and everything was wonderfully, uncomplicatedly good. He and Bucky continued swapping childhood anecdotes until the sandwiches were devoured, the final strawberry was eaten, the muffins were polished off, and the final drop of lemonade had been drunk. Pleasantly full, they lay down on the lush grass, listening to the sounds of the park around them. The sound of gurgling water was audible from the pond. Children screeched with delight as they played and enjoyed the sunshine with their families. The background hum of voices all around them drifted over on the fresh summer breeze.

Suddenly, warm fingers wrapped around his own. Steve closed his eyes, a smile curving his lips as his heart sang with joy, savouring the feeling of Bucky's hand holding his own. This, he decided, was perfection. This was his perfect summer's day. How lucky he was to have such a blessed life, such that he could enjoy the simple pleasure of lying down in the grass and holding hands with the man whom he lo–

Steve woke with a start.

The warm summer's day evaporated around him, to be replaced by the cool night beyond the windows of his truck cab. He shivered at the sudden change in his reality. His heart was hammering inside his chest. His hand, which just moments before had been holding Bucky's in Central Park, closed around empty air. He lifted his hand and stared at it in the dark, the silhouette of it just visible if he raised it and positioned it against the window of his cab. The dream lingered in his mind, refusing to dissipate completely. He imagined Bucky's hand in his own. He yearned for it. He did not understand. The dream felt significant.

About quarter of an hour later, during which time Steve tried and failed to slow his racing thoughts and soothe his agitated mind, he sighed and sat up. He pressed his fingertips against his temples, massaging them lightly. It was useless; he could not sleep. The dream had well and truly got him riled up in a way that he could not make sense of.

Following his instincts, Steve pulled a jumper over his head for warmth and wriggled into some jogging bottoms, before toeing on some shoes. Grabbing his keys, he unlocked his truck and walked the short distance between his and Bucky's trucks.

He encountered Bruce, who was on guard duty that night, but ignored his quizzical look and continued on to Bucky's cab. He knocked on the cab's window. Suddenly, he felt anxious. What was he doing? He did not know what he intended to say. He did not know what had possessed him to make his impromptu midnight visit. The dream, he reminded himself. The dream that would not let go of him. It needled him with a sense of lost significance.

Bucky opened the cab door. He was bleary-eyed, his hair sticking up in all directions. He had obviously been sleeping. He squinted out to see Steve standing at his door, his confusion visible even in the negligible light.

"What?" he said.

His voice was raspy. Steve decided that he liked Bucky's voice when it was raspy. Wait, where had that thought come from? He cursed his wandering mind and, noticing that Bucky was still waiting for an answer, forced himself to speak.

"I need to talk to you," said Steve.

For a moment, he feared that Bucky might say no, but Bucky simply nodded and opened the door wider for Steve to climb up. Steve clambered into the cab and scooted out of the way as Bucky closed and locked the door behind him. Bucky crawled back into bed, lying down and shifting over to the side to make room for Steve to sit with him. Steve awkwardly clambered up into Bucky's bed, sitting cross-legged next to him and looking at him in the darkness. His eyes slid along the long shape of Bucky's body tucked up under his blanket and he was struck by a strong sense of familiarity. He had watched Bucky lying in bed before. He did not remember it, but he knew it.

He did not know what to say. He did not know how to verbalise the reason for his midnight visit. In the stark reality of waking life, the significance of his dream seemed to fade. It sounded silly and frivolous, now, to admit to coming to his truck on the basis of some random dream. Still, he could not lie to Bucky, and so for a long time they simply sat in silence. Bucky did not make any attempt to hurry Steve, nor did he express any irritation at having been woken. Steve wondered if perhaps he had fallen asleep, but when he looked at Bucky's face, he could see the other man's eyes watching him in the darkness.

"I dreamt about you," Steve said finally.

For the longest time, there was silence, and this time Steve really did convince himself that Bucky had fallen asleep, but just as he was wondering how he could go back to his own truck without disturbing Bucky, he spoke.

"I dream about you, too," said Bucky. "I don't know if they're dreams or memories."

Steve sat in silence, struggling to control his racing heart as Bucky's admission washed over him. Bucky dreamt about him, too. It seemed that, subconsciously, they were both significant to one another. In their dreams, their memories burst forth, telling them that the other formed some important part of their pasts. Steve felt a rush of relief. He was thankful that his unexplainable pull towards Bucky did not seem to be one-sided. He could sense relief in Bucky's voice, as well, as if he too had been worrying about it.

"What did you dream about?" said Bucky.

Steve felt a soft smile settle on his face as the memory of the dream settled over him. He could practically feel the warm summer sun, almost hear the sounds of dogs barking and children playing, as families enjoyed a day out in the park. He explained the dream from the beginning, describing Central Park, and relaying the story dream-Bucky had told him about the getting-stuck-in-the-window incident. When he reached the part about his sister Becca – trying to help, but actually just making things worse by accidentally pulling Bucky's trousers down, then refusing to pull them back up – Bucky let out a strange noise.

Steve paused in his story, listening intently in the darkness as the noise continued. It took him about half a minute to realise the sound was of Bucky simultaneously laughing and crying softly. After a moment's hesitation, he reached out cautiously in the dark, finding Bucky's arm and rubbing it awkwardly. Bucky rolled over towards Steve's touch, so it seemed that he found his strokes comforting rather than creepy. Steve continued until the sound of Bucky's half-laughs, half-sobs faded into nothing. There was a rustling sound as Bucky reached for a tissue and blew his nose, before he finally spoke, his voice raw and tight.

"I remember," said Bucky. "I remember getting stuck in the window. I remember Becca. Your dream was real. I had a sister."

The word had, past tense, hung between them horribly. They both knew that Becca was most likely dead. Steve could not even imagine what Bucky must be feeling: elation at having remembered his sister, grief at knowing she was probably gone, and that thrill of having recovered some small part of his memory, his past, his identity. Steve did not envy him. Perhaps it was a good thing that it was so dark, so that Bucky could have at least some privacy as he dealt with the sudden onslaught of emotions that the memory must undoubtedly have triggered.

To break the highly charged silence, Steve blurted out the first thing that came to mind, the words tumbling out of him even as he realised, horrified, what he was saying, and tried belatedly to stop himself.

"We held hands, in the dream," said Steve.

For a long while, there was silence – and then, because apparently Steve's mouth just did not know when to shut up:

"I've had sexual dreams about us, too."

Steve snapped his jaw shut. Horror rushed through him, along with hot, burning mortification, as he realised what he had just said. He waited for Bucky to punch him, or to spit at him in disgust to get out of his cab, his head spinning with shame and guilt and fuck, why the hell had he said that? He braced himself for Bucky's inevitable rage, trying and failing to think of any way to rectify the situation. He had blown it. Their friendship was irrevocably ruined.

"You too, huh?" Bucky said finally.

Steve's thoughts, which had been contemplating whether it would be believable if he claimed he were suffering some kind of mental breakdown (fuck, maybe it was even true), skidded to a halt. His mouth fell open, agog, and he stared at the dark shape of Bucky curled up under his blanket, stunned by what he had just heard.

"What?" he said, unsure if he had heard him correctly.

"In my dreams," said Bucky slowly, "we're together. Like... a couple."

Steve's heart pounded, his blood roaring in his ears as his mind worked furiously to process this new information. Bucky was having the same kind of dreams. Steve was not just some mad pervert – or, perhaps, they both were. But, no, that did not feel right. For Bucky to be having similar dreams felt significant, like validation, like some kind of proof of something that Steve did not fully understand.

"Do you think the dreams are real?" said Bucky. He sounded uncertain. "Are they memories?"

Steve paused, considering the question. In all honesty, he did not know. The dream about Central Park had certainly turned out to be a memory, but Steve could not be sure that his other, more intimate dream about Bucky fell into the same category. Perhaps, it was a memory. Or, perhaps, it was simply a lustful fantasy. Steve's heart panged. To his shock, he found that he was yearning for the dream to be real, a memory.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe?"

Again, there was a long silence. Steve wished that he could see Bucky's face, if only to discern his expression and deduce his emotional state. Did Bucky want the dreams to be real? Did he fear the dreams, or was he curious about them, like Steve was? He wished he had the bravery to simply ask him outright, but Steve sensed that that would be one step too far, at least at the present juncture.

"We should go back to sleep," Bucky said finally. "We've got a lot of ground to cover tomorrow, if Bruce wants to sweep the next town for survivors."

Steve nodded, unable to hide his disappointment as he turned towards the cab door to go. Just as he was about to shuffle off Bucky's bed and into the seats at the front of the cab, warm fingers closed around his wrist, stopping him in his tracks and drawing a quiet, involuntary gasp from his lips. Bucky's voice came quietly through the darkness, small and hesitant.

"You can stay here, if you want?" said Bucky.

It took Steve a moment to understand Bucky's meaning, but when he did, his eyes widened with surprise. Slowly, in order to give Bucky plenty of time to object, in case Steve had misunderstood him, he scooted back onto Bucky's bed and lay down beside him, pulling the blanket over himself when Bucky offered it to him. They lay side by side, not touching, inches apart. Steve was acutely aware of the warmth of Bucky's body. He lay there, his muscles rigid, his thoughts racing as he stared up at the ceiling of Bucky's cab.

Lying next to Bucky felt awkward, yet natural; new, yet achingly familiar. There was a rustling sound as the blanket shifted, and then Bucky's hand tentatively found Steve's in the dark. Steve's mouth went dry. He was hyper-aware of Bucky's fingers brushing against his own. Following his instincts, he slowly closed his hand around Bucky's, holding it experimentally. His pulse was racing, but as soon as their fingers closed around one another, it felt right.

Blissfully, Steve lay there in the dark, holding hands with Bucky.

For the first time since he awoke from his coma, he fell asleep happy.

Chapter Text

Both Bruce and Natasha saw Steve and Bucky emerging from Bucky's truck the following morning, but thankfully, neither of them commented on it.

It was not that Steve was ashamed; he simply did not want a fuss. It was further complicated by the fact he was not entirely sure how to define the relationship he now shared with Bucky. They were more than friends, but less than partners. They had dreams of being a couple, but no concrete memories to back them up. They had fallen asleep holding hands and woken up happier and more refreshed than either of them could ever remember – but the question of why remained unanswered, lost in the past. It was a confusing change, but one that they had decided to roll with. They would continue to do whatever felt right. They would not allow it to interfere with their mission or distract them from the dangers of the post-virus world.

The four of them were sat together eating breakfast, when those dangers were suddenly thrust into sharp focus. Steve had just scooped up a mouthful of porridge and was bringing his spoon up to his mouth, when a woman burst from a nearby bush and hurled herself at him. Steve did not have any time to experience shock, as immediately he was forced into fighting mode. The woman was punching and kicking every square inch of him that she could reach. Her blue eyes looked completely feral – stretched wide, the whites haemorrhaged and stained red. Her breath was rancid. Her skin had a sickly grey pallor. She was in the advanced stages of the virus, close to death.

Steve pushed her away, reluctant to fight her. She was not evil; she was sick. She was not acting of her own free will. The virus had robbed that from her, attacking her brain, pumping her full of so much adrenaline that it must only be a matter of days before her heart burst or she suffered a massive stroke. Steve could see a vein throbbing in the woman's forehead. Her pulse was abnormally fast. She screamed as she attacked him, unfeeling to the hard shoves that Steve had to continually dole out as she lunged at him again and again. She bared her rotting teeth, attempting to bite Steve's hand as he placed it on her shoulder and pushed her away. He was forced to kick her away, the woman falling to the ground with a grunt as he caught her shin bone.

The woman quickly got back up to her feet, the adrenaline stopping her feeling the pain for more than a moment. She shook her head before suddenly turning sharply to the right and hurling herself at Natasha. Steve's stomach plummeted sickeningly as he realised his mistake. He should have killed the woman. Not wanting to hurt her to save his own conscience had been selfish. Now, the others were in danger. He rushed forwards, intent on dragging her away from Natasha and putting the infected woman out of her misery.

Natasha got there first. She reacted reflexively, smashing her fist into the woman's throat. Steve watched, horrified, as the woman's neck immediately turned purple with massive bruises. The woman collapsed to the ground with a sickening gurgle, blood pouring from her mouth as the arteries in her throat ruptured, her sky-high blood pressure forcing the blood out of her in powerful bursts. The four of them watched in horrified unison as the woman convulsed on the ground, blood pouring from her mouth for ten sickening seconds, before the river of red finally stopped, the woman's body becoming still and limp, her blue eyes staring up at the sky, unseeing and dead.

They stared in mute shock at the stomach-churning sight of the woman's corpse, an individual who, just moments before, had been so full of life – even if she had been trying to kill them. Steve dug his fingernails into his palms, forcing himself not to throw up. Despite the total lack of humour in the situation, a hysterical laugh began to bubble up in Steve's gut. Without particularly thinking, Steve looked from the woman's corpse to Natasha's fist, which was still clenched and outstretched, where she had punched her.

"What the fuck are your fists made of?" he said. "Marble?"

When asked, later, about his choice of words, Steve could not say why he chose the word marble. He could have said anything – iron, Kevlar, diamond – but for some reason – perhaps fate, perhaps chance – marble was the word that passed his lips.

The effect on Natasha was instantaneous. Her hand dropped to her side, her eyes glazing over as she became stock-still, staring into empty space. Steve, Bucky and Bruce immediately rushed over to her, all three of them anxious and disturbed at Natasha's sudden immobility. Close up, they could see that Natasha's eyes were jittering, as if she were seeing something that the others could not. Her lips were working furiously, muttering in a language that sounded like Russian. Steve was about to take hold of her shoulders to shake her, when Bruce suddenly stepped between them, shaking his head as he gazed at Natasha.

"Nobody touch her," whispered Bruce. "Nobody do anything to distract her."

Steve stared at Natasha curiously, at a loss to understand what was happening. Natasha's body was locked into place, her eyes wide and still jittering. As Steve watched, he was shocked as tears began to stream down her face. She was whispering rapidly in Russian, before suddenly switching to English, ranting incoherently, apparently oblivious to the others crowded around her.

"You'll break them. Only the breakable ones. You are made of marble. I am made of marble. I am made of marble. I am made of marble."

Her eyes slid closed. She repeated the phrase over and over again, her conviction and confidence growing every time. She said it like a mantra, almost religiously, although Steve could not work out what on earth it could mean. She managed to break out of the loop after several long minutes, but continued to speak, non-stop, random snippets that did not make sense. Steve watched her silently, understanding beginning to dawn. She was not speaking to them. What they were listening to was simply a verbalisation of her inner stream of consciousness. They were witnessing the return of her memories, her past life flooding back to her, returning, restoring her, making her complete. They watched, awestruck, as Natasha remembered, growing increasingly empowered as her knowledge returned to her in a cascade, unstoppable, like a dam that had been breached, allowing her memories to flow back into place.

"Madame B. The Red Room Academy. KGB. Odessa. SHIELD. Sao Paulo. Clint. Coulson. Fury. I am made of marble. I am made of marble. I am made of marble. I am made–"

She gasped, mid-flow, her eyes flying open, staggering slightly. They caught her before she could fall, supporting her as she rubbed a shaking hand through her hair, her cheeks flushed and damp with tears and sweat.

"I remember," she said. "I remember..."

Before any of them could reply, she pushed her way through them, running over to her truck and jumping up into the cab. They followed her, as one, in equal parts concerned and curious. She emerged several moments later from the cab of her truck, clutching her memento. Steve stared at the music box, with the porcelain ballerina standing on perpetual tiptoe. He watched as Natasha wound up the music box, before letting it spin, music tinkling softly from its mechanical interior. Natasha touched the spinning ballerina gently, her eyes glistening with tears as she gazed down at it, understanding its meaning at last.

"When I was seventeen years old, I was a student at the Red Room Academy," she said softly. "They made us perform ballet for twenty-four hours straight. It was a test of mental strength and physical endurance, to prepare us for torture or extreme stress. I managed it by dissociating myself. I imagined I was made of marble. I imagined I was a ballerina on top of a music box – unfeeling, mechanical, immune to pain, immune to suffering."

She lapsed into silence. They listened as beautiful music poured out of the music box. Natasha touched the ballerina – strong, pristine, unaware of pain.

"I understand," she said. "I remember."

Chapter Text

One month later, they drove past a sign welcoming them to Yosemite National Park.

They almost missed it. The sign was overgrown, with vines winding and wrapping themselves around the rectangular metal. In the pre-virus world, rangers would have maintained the sign. Now, it was simply another reminder of how much things had changed. Steve caught a glimpse of the sign as he rumbled past, complete with a cheerful drawing of the famous Yosemite Valley, with rocky peaks rising up on either side to cradle the tree-covered valley floor.

The sign was there and gone in a flash, but it lingered in Steve's mind's eye, the colours becoming sharper and brighter until suddenly it dominated his entire field of vision, replacing his view of the road. He slammed on the brakes, his knuckles white as he clung to the steering wheel. The flashback swept over him, the memory immersing him in another time, the sounds and sights of the present day being replaced by those of the past.

Suddenly, he was no longer sitting in the driver's seat of his truck. He was holding onto two strong, reliable hands, letting them take his weight as he giggled and swung between them. They were on holiday in Yosemite National Park. It was gloriously sunny weather, and the flowers were out in full bloom as they meandered down one of the walking trails. Steve was enjoying the fresh air, so different from New York City's perpetual pollution, and the riot of colours and plant life and interesting rock formations.

He looked up at his parents and tugged on their hands, begging them to swing him again. They looked down at his wide, pleading eyes and obliged with a smile, lifting him up by his hands and taking his weight as he swung between them, squealing with delight. He closed his eyes and lifted his face up to the sun, savouring its warm caress, trusting his parents completely to guide him, to not let him trip over as he toddled along with his eyes closed.

"Look at that view, Stevie," said his mother. "Look at how beautiful it is."

He opened his eyes to find that they were at a viewing platform, allowing him to see the whole Yosemite Valley: towering mountains, the sweeping green carpet of treetops along the valley floor, a waterfall tumbling serenely in the distance.

He clapped his hands happily, holding out his arms to be picked up to get an even better view. His mother picked him up. He snuggled against her soft blonde hair, his arms wrapping around her shoulders and holding on tightly. He sighed contentedly, enjoying the warmth and strength of her arms holding him. His father wrapped an arm around them both, planting a kiss on Steve's forehead as he enjoyed the stunning view with his family.

Steve's heart hummed with joy, basking in the sunshine, the love of his parents, that gorgeous view. He had never been happier, and could not imagine ever being happier in the future. He wanted to stay four years old forever, so that his entire life could remain that single, blissful moment.

His world tipped sideways.

He stared, uncomprehending, not understanding why everything was suddenly lying on its side. Panic started to eat in at the corners of his vision, obscuring the waterfall and the valley and the blonde waves of his mother's hair. His vision was fading, warping and then finally re-sharpening, allowing him to see the cab of his truck, revealing that it was not the world that had tipped sideways, but Steve himself, who was presently sprawled across the steering wheel. Thankfully, he had braked before the flashback had fully taken him.

He blinked, slowly sitting up and finding that he was shaking. There was something banging on the side of his cab. Heart pounding, reaching for his gun, he looked outside, half-fearing that it was the infected, but it was Bucky, his face pale with concern as he banged his fist on Steve's driver's side door, craning his neck to see into the cab. Steve unlocked the door and shuffled over to the passenger seat to let Bucky climb in. Bucky clambered up next to him and stared at him for a long moment.

Steve stared back, too shocked and emotionally hyped-up from his flashback to be able to speak, before suddenly, humiliatingly, bursting into tears. He did not know whether he leant into Bucky's arms, or if Bucky leant towards him, but he found himself wrapped in Bucky's warm embrace, his face buried in Bucky's shoulder as he wept.

His heart ached as the faces of his parents filled his mind's eye. He remembered his mother's soft blonde hair, the same shade as his own. He remembered his father's warm smile and tanned arms. He remembered the strength of their hands as they swung him between them, the complete trust he had in them to ensure his safety. He loved them, and he grieved for them, because they, like Bucky's sister Becca, must now, in all likelihood, be dead. He had gained and lost them in the space of mere minutes, and he raged at the injustice of it.

He was not sure how long he wept for, but after a while the flow of tears began to ebb, and the raw hurt in his heart dulled to a more tolerable ache. Bruce and Natasha walked over to his cab, and they collectively decided to break for an early lunch. They crammed together into Steve's cab and ate boiled eggs – courtesy of a chicken that Bruce had decided to kidnap several weeks earlier – whilst Natasha and Bruce squabbled about the route they were taking towards Sacramento. Steve did not join in the conversation. He was emotionally drained, totally exhausted by his flashback. He thought obsessively about the memory. He could think of nothing else. He closed his eyes and remembered the faces of his parents and longed to remember them.

Around the time when Bruce and Natasha finally stopped arguing, he reached for the box that he kept at the foot of his bed and opened it. He stared at his memento, determined to figure out its meaning. The seashells just sat there, silent and mysterious and no closer to giving up their secrets. He could not remember why they were significant. It was difficult to concentrate. He could feel something stirring inside of them, his subconscious bursting with knowledge that was just out of reach. The flashback had exhausted him, making thinking impossible. The sound of the others talking did not help either, nor did the faint, tinny voice coming over the radio. He screwed his eyes shut, trying to block out all the distracting noise and decipher the meaning behind the seashells, before his eyes flew open, completely floored with shock as he listened, properly listened, the sound now loud as a bell, deafening in its conspicuousness.

"Guys..." he said.

The others ignored him, too wrapped up in their conversation. They had not heard it. He vaulted over Bucky and turned up the volume on the radio, straining his ears.

"Guys!" he repeated. "Shut up for a moment!"

At last, they fell into silence. Steve fiddled with the radio, tuning in to the right frequency, cranking up the volume as loud as it would go. There! A voice; faint and heavily distorted with static, but a voice, nonetheless. A woman, or a girl. It was the same message playing over and over again, in a loop.

"Dr Banner, if you're still alive, this is a reply to your radio broadcast. We didn't get sick. We're alive. Please save us." The message ended with the woman giving her address, before looping back to the beginning to repeat.

They listened in absolute silence, letting the weight of the words properly sink in. Steve's heart was hammering, his hands clammy with sweat as shock, incredulity, and overwhelming, giddy relief all vied within him for dominance. Someone had replied to Bruce's radio broadcast. Someone, out there, was alive. Not only that, but the fact she kept referring to "we" and "us" seemed to suggest she was not alone.

"Is that...?" said Bucky.

"Yes," whispered Natasha.

Bruce let out a small sob as he stared at the radio, all his theories, all his hopes finally validated. The relief was radiating off him in waves, disbelief and joy and deliverance all mixed into one incredible, powerful emotion.

"Survivors," he said.

Chapter Text

The discovery of survivors spawned a fresh sense of urgency. Their activities became laser-focused; they were no longer wandering aimlessly, but were intent on zeroing in on the woman's address. First, though, they dissected the message to glean as much information from it as possible. The excitement of survivors had to be tempered by pragmatism and realistic expectations.

"Is there any way to tell when the message began broadcasting?" asked Natasha.

Bruce shook his head reluctantly.

"No," he admitted. "It could be an old message. They could be dead by now, if they don't know how to source their own food, or if they've been attacked by the infected. Or they could have given up on being rescued and moved on."

"That's something I've been thinking about," said Bucky slowly, frowning.

"What?" said Bruce.

"Food..." said Bucky. "What are the infected eating? We know that their brains are degenerating. They can't be cooking meals at home in between going out and trying to kill people, can they?"

"I don't know," said Bruce, after a moment of quiet contemplation.

Steve cleared his throat. He did not want the conversation to go off on a tangent. Steering back towards the original topic, he spoke as decisively as possible.

"It doesn't matter if the message is an old one," he said. "We go to the woman's address. If she's still alive, she's most likely there, waiting for us, along with who knows how many others."

"I agree with Steve," said Bucky. "It doesn't matter how old the message is."

Natasha and Bruce nodded their agreement, and Steve found himself breathing out a small sigh of relief.

"How far away is the woman's address from our current location?" asked Natasha.

Bruce rummaged around in his backpack and pulled out a map, smoothing it out on Steve's bed and examining it closely. He muttered to himself as he did his calculations, his finger tapping on various points on the map as he estimated how far they could drive each day.

"About one week's drive," he said eventually. "As we get closer, we should hopefully get within range so that we can communicate with them directly by radio. If we manage to make contact, we'll reassure them that we're coming. Hopefully, it'll boost their morale."

With everything agreed, they set off towards their destination. Every day, they drove and slept, drove and slept. Driving had a renewed sense of purpose to it. They were racing towards a frightened woman who had witnessed her community become infected and die, whilst she, innately immune, had survived to suffer the horror of the aftermath. They were rushing to save her, bound by a shared sense of humanity, desperate to reach her and share with her the joyous news that she was not alone.

At night, Steve had strange dreams.

He dreamt of aliens pouring out of a hole in the sky over New York City.

He dreamt of a huge green monster dressed only in torn purple shorts.

He dreamt about the sea, and the sound of waves, and the texture of sand on seashells – but he did not understand what it meant.

Chapter Text

It was six days later, and at last they were just one day's drive from their destination.

The roads were long and straight, stretching on endlessly to the horizon, making the hours bleed together as they drove and drove. The rumble of wheels on tarmac became white noise. The touch of the steering wheel in his hands became so natural that Steve felt that he and the truck had become one. The convoy moved on at its ever-steady pace, and Steve found his thoughts drifting, meandering, but always circling back, inevitably, to Bucky.

Most nights, now, Steve and Bucky slept together in the same bed. It was not sexual, nor romantic – despite what the others must inevitably think. No; they had gone no further than holding hands as they lay together in the dark. There was a silent, mutual understanding between them that the purpose of their nights together was two-fold. Firstly, for some reason, it gave them a sense comfort and calmness. It soothed them, to fall asleep next to one another, and they both found that they always felt most rested when they had slept together. Secondly, they hoped that spending their nights together might help to trigger their memories. They wanted to remember what they had once shared between them. They both sensed it – the past – weighty and significant and mysterious as it floated all around them, hazy and undefined. They did not remember it, and yet it shaped their every action – instinct propelling them onwards towards some unknown point. They wanted to remember. They wanted to understand.

For Steve, at least, he felt like the method might be working. Recently, he had been having more and more recollections of Bucky. He hesitated to call them memories. They were hazier, less well-formed, than that. They were more like fragments – the flash of an image, the sensation of touch, the ghost of happiness, of love, of held hands, of a life together with the other man. And, too, there were the dreams: the beach, the sound of waves, the seashells, whose significance Steve still did not understand. It all felt significant. Dreams. Dreams that might be memories. Everything always circled back to Bucky, and Steve's subconscious screamed at him to understand.

Steve picked up his radio and pressed the button that connected him to Bucky's private channel.

"Hey," he said. "Can we talk?"

There was a brief burst of static, followed by Bucky's voice over the radio.

"Hey," he said. "Sure."

Steve paused. He did not know what to say. Where could he begin, when he had nothing concrete, no solid memory on which to base his words? All he had were feelings, instincts, hazy senses of familiarity, and implicit memories. The sum of those parts was not enough to justify what he wanted to say, and yet, he knew it to be true. He knew it, in the same way that he knew how to breathe and how to speak English and how to drive that truck. In the end, the words simply tumbled from his lips, unfiltered and raw and honest.

"I think we loved one another, before," he said. "I think we had a life together. Not just dating, but properly together, long-term. I think… I think I loved you."

He mentally kicked himself the moment the words were out, fear and regret immediately hitting him like a sledgehammer. What had he done? Had he gone too far? Had he said too much? The last thing he wanted to do was freak Bucky out and destroy whatever fragile, undefined relationship they had forged between them. Steve held his breath, his pulse thundering and his stomach sick with nerves as he waited for Bucky to speak. When the other man's voice finally did come from the radio, it was soft and gentle.

"I think so, too," said Bucky. "I keep experiencing these weird... flashes of memories. Nothing that makes a whole lot of sense, but you're in them, and we're happy. I wish I could remember properly. I want to remember you."

Steve could not quite repress his quiet gasp. He bit his lip, taken by surprise by the lump in his throat that Bucky's words elicited. He took a moment to compose himself and blink away the dewiness in his eyes, before replying, the lump in his throat finally subsiding enough to allow him to speak.

"I keep dreaming about seashells," admitted Steve. "I wish I understood what they mean, but I don't. I think... I think they have something to do with you, though. I think they're something to do with us."

"I think so, too," said Bucky. "Why else would our mementos be the same? The most significant memories of our lives – that's what Bruce said we created mementos about. We both chose seashells. That has to mean something."

Steve nodded, that stupid lump returning to his throat.

"Yeah," he croaked out.

There was a short pause. They continued driving, the road and the miles and the minutes slipping by in silence as they sped onwards towards their destination. After about ten minutes, Bucky finally spoke, falteringly, with that tone of cautiousness that always came with saying something significant.

"I feel... a strong connection with you," said Bucky. "I don't know why, but I know I'd do anything to protect you. I feel like I know you, more than I've ever known anyone. I felt it the moment we met, when I recognised your face and knew your name before Bruce introduced us. I think I knew, then, that you were special to me. I think–"

"Say that again?" Bruce interrupted suddenly. "Hello?"

Steve stared at the radio, confused, his cheeks colouring with embarrassment. He had thought that he and Bucky had been communicating via their own private channel. Had they accidentally been broadcasting to everyone the entire time? If so, why had neither Bruce nor Natasha said anything whilst they had spilt their innermost feelings? He frowned, low-key annoyed at them for eavesdropping. It was only when Bruce spoke for a second time that Steve realised that they had indeed been communicating privately, but that it was Bruce's message that was being broadcast to all of them, overriding Steve and Bucky's private channel.

"Hello?" repeated Bruce. "Can you try that again? I heard you for a second."

There was only one person who Bruce could be trying to speak to. Steve immediately switched to the main channel and listened intently as hazy static crackled through the speakers. His hands were sweaty on his steering wheel as he listened to the static crackle louder, coming out in indistinct bursts, before a faint female voice finally rose above the static to become audible.

"Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Are you Dr Banner?"

It was the same voice that they had heard playing over and over again in a loop in response to Bruce's radio broadcast. She sounded tearful, and younger, now that the radio signal was stronger, her voice clearer.

"Yes, I'm Dr Banner," replied Bruce. "You can call me Bruce. I've got three other survivors with me: Steve, Bucky and Natasha."

Over the radio, the woman gave a quiet sob.

"Oh my god," she said. "We thought you were never going to come."

Her fear and relief were audible.

"We're coming," said Bruce gently. "What's your name? Who's we? Who else is with you?"

"I'm Wanda," said the woman. "I'm with my brother Pietro."

Suddenly, Pietro spoke – Steve's eyes widening when he heard that the boy's voice had not yet broken.

"How long will you be?" said Pietro. "Are you sick? Everyone here got sick and started dying. Then people started trying to attack us. We've had to barricade the house."

"None of us are sick," Bruce reassured the siblings. "Are you both OK? How old are you?"

"We're both OK," said Wanda, sounding sniffly. "Neither of us got sick. We're fourteen. We're twins."

"Innate genetic immunity," murmured Bruce. "I knew it."

"When will you get here?" asked Pietro. He sounded desperate, his voice raw, as if he had recently been crying. "Please say soon."

"We're about one day's drive away," said Bruce. "Try not to panic. We're coming."

"One day?" said Pietro, sounding relieved. "Oh, thank god."

"Dr Bruce? There's a situation you should know about," said Wanda, after a short pause.

Something in her tone of voice caused Steve's skin to prickle. He wondered if the others sensed it too, that sense of foreboding in Wanda's words. A situation, in their post-virus world, could not be good.

"What situation?" said Bruce, his voice not betraying any sense of fear.

"We're surrounded by the infected," said Wanda. "To reach us, you'll have to fight your way through them."

There was fear in her voice, as if she were afraid that Bruce and the others would not want to face the infected, that they might give up on saving her and her brother and abandon them to their fate. Who could blame her, for having that fear? It sounded as though the only family she had left was her twin. To Wanda and Pietro's fourteen-year-old eyes, they had been abandoned and left alone by the adults in their lives who had been meant to keep them safe. No wonder the girl's sense of trust had been so terribly eroded.

Bruce seemed to have come to the same conclusion, because when he spoke next, his voice was as firm as it was kind.

"I understand," said Bruce. "We're coming."

Chapter Text

That night, there was a restless energy amongst the group. They were in equal parts excited to finally meet their fellow survivors, and anxious to rescue them from their barricaded home. Bruce and Natasha were sharing the night shift, and Steve and Bucky were curled up together in Bucky's cab, holding hands, tracing the shape of one another's fingers in the dark. Neither of them could sleep; they were too wound up, deeply affected at having spoken to someone new after so many months alone as a foursome. Their conversation from earlier, just before Wanda and Pietro had come within range, played on their minds too. They were trapped in a kind of romantic limbo: knowing they had once had a relationship, yet unsure what to do with that information. Bucky was the one to finally break the long silence.

"I really like you, Steve," he said. "In the past, I loved you, and I want to remember you. I want to remember everything. I want to love you again."

He said it tenderly, like a promise, and it struck Steve more powerfully than he expected, leaving him momentarily lost for words as pressure rose in his chest; love and hope and forgotten memories all surging within him, begging for his attention and understanding. Steve lay there, closing his fingers around Bucky's hand and cherishing the weight of it. He knew this hand, intimately; he knew every bump and swell, every protrusion of hard bone and the layout of his warm skin, he knew the strength and texture of it; he could sculpt it, if he were asked, or draw it and create a perfect replica. He knew how dexterous it was, even though he could not remember it doing many of the things he knew it was capable of. He wondered at which point he had started to fall in love with Bucky, to the extent that he could think so erotically about his hand. Perhaps it was in the months since they had awoken from their comas – or perhaps it had been in the years before that, in their past life. There was no way to tell. Perhaps it did not even matter.

Realising that Bucky was probably waiting for some kind of answer, he forced his wandering mind to concentrate, and turned his attention from Bucky's hand to within himself, introspective. How did he feel about Bucky? There was a strong fondness, an unwavering sense of loyalty, a yearning, a bond that could, possibly, be love. Certainly, he had loved Bucky, before. But now, presently, in the post-virus world? He was not sure. He did not feel that they had had enough time alone for that. They had not had the opportunity to forge a proper relationship, when their day-to-day concerns involved not being killed by the infected, or wondering how long their food would last, or how many water purification tablets they had left. The ravaged, dangerous, post-apocalyptic world had not been the right environment for love to blossom. Circumstances had conspired against them. They had not had the time, space or opportunity to fall in love.

And yet... There they were, two old lovers who had forgotten one another, but had nonetheless found one another again, and were now lying curled up together in bed, gently tracing the shape of one another's hands. It felt like fate. It felt like this was the way things were always meant to be. Steve and Bucky were living an amnesic existence in a terrifying new world, but that bond had endured. Even without their memories, they had been drawn to one another, and found themselves fascinated by one another's minds, seeking comfort in one another's beds. Perhaps, that was love. Steve wished he could remember. He wished he could love Bucky again, the way he knew he once had. The world would be a lot more bearable, a lot brighter, with that kind of love in it.

"Maybe..." said Bucky, before trailing off uncertainly.

Steve squeezed his hand, rolling over so that he was facing him in the dark. He was taken by the instinct to cup Bucky's face, and so did so, slowly and tentatively, giving the other man plenty of time to move away. He felt Bucky snuggle closer with a sigh, his warm breath ghosting softly across Steve's hand, and found himself smiling in response. He could cup Bucky's face forever. He wondered what it would be like to lean forwards those final few inches and kiss him, but stopped himself. They were not at that stage yet. Steve was not sure what stage they were at, at all. He hummed softly, encouraging Bucky to continue his aborted thought, and waited patiently for him to speak.

When Bucky did finally say something, several minutes later, it was quiet and hesitant, as if he were worried how Steve might react. Steve gave Bucky's hand an encouraging squeeze, letting him know that there was no judgement from Steve, no expectation, nothing he could say that would make Steve think any less of him.

"I was thinking," said Bucky. "Even if we never remember the past... Maybe we could build something new? We could start all over again – you and me – if you wanted..."

Steve lay in silence, thunderstruck, absorbing Bucky's words. Waves of emotion rolled over him: shock, elation, love and, above all, hope. He struggled to verbalise what he was feeling. He thought about it – the two of them starting afresh – and found that his heart yearned for it. He lay there in the dark, his hand cupping Bucky's face, and it felt like home.

"Yes," he finally managed to say. "I'd like that."

Steve heard Bucky's relieved exhale of breath, and then, tentatively, there were lips pressing gently against his fingers, kissing them chastely. Steve stomach flipped. He closed his eyes, committing to memory that first kiss. The simple touch of Bucky's lips against his fingertips was perfection. The sensation was new and yet, somehow, achingly familiar. Words tumbled instinctively from his lips, unplanned and unbidden. He was not sure what they meant, or what made he say them, but as soon as they were out, they felt right.

"I'm with you 'til the end of the line."

He heard Bucky's breath hitch, as if the words were significant, somehow, and it was as if in the depths of their minds, something was shifting, like a tide tugging at their shared subconscious, old knowledge desperate to be unleashed.

The moment passed, and neither of them could remember what the phrase meant, although they were both haunted by that eerie, confusing sense of déjà vu that they had both learnt to live with since awakening from their comas. They lay together in silence, warm bodies curled together under the blankets, holding hands, both trying to puzzle out the meaning behind what Steve had just said. Finally, Bucky spoke, his voice scratchy with sleep as he briefly stroked Steve's hair.

"We should sleep," said Bucky. "We've got a big day tomorrow. G'night."

"Night," echoed Steve.

Bucky was always the quickest to fall asleep. Steve listened as the other man's breathing became slower and deeper, his body relaxing beside Steve's as he slid down into the world of dreams.

Steve imagined them lying together, in their life before, full of love for one another. He immersed himself in imagining such a night. Perhaps, they would have cooked dinner together. Perhaps they would have made love. Perhaps they would have kissed one another gently goodnight, not too dissimilar to the way they just had, in real life.

Steve mourned for it, this old life that he could not remember. He felt the loss of it, as tangibly as the loss of a limb. The lack of memories made him feel just as empty. But, alongside it, there was hope. Because maybe they could regain what they had lost. Even if they never remembered their previous lives, perhaps they could rebuild something just as good, just as real. Perhaps they could fall in love all over again.

When Steve finally fell asleep, he found himself washed up on the shore of his own subconscious. He was standing on a beach. Bucky stood in front of him, speaking. Bucky touched his face, before pushing something into his hand. Steve tried to listen, tried to understand what Bucky had given him, but the words were too muffled, and the visual was too blurry to see clearly.

Chapter Text

The next day dawned cloudy and humid.

As the four of them ate breakfast and made their final preparations, there was an atmosphere of utmost seriousness amongst the group. Today, they would attempt to rescue Wanda and Pietro from their home – which apparently was surrounded by the infected. They did not know exactly how many infected individuals to expect, nor did they know the exact layout of the geography of the location. These unknowns brought with them a sense of trepidation, the unpredictability of the variables causing each team member to assume the very worst-case scenario. There was nothing they could do but prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It was not much of a strategy, but until they could get closer and do a proper recon of the area, there was no real alternative. They ate their breakfasts quietly, each lost in their own thoughts as they contemplated what they were about to attempt. The thrill of meeting fellow survivors was tempered by knowledge that their extraction would not be easy. Nothing, it seemed, in the post-virus world was easy.

They finished their breakfasts, prepped their weapons, and on Natasha's advice, topped up the fuel in their trucks. The last thing they wanted, she pointed out, was to rescue the children and then run out of fuel and find themselves overwhelmed by the infected. Their preparations finally complete, they locked their cab doors, buckled their seat belts and began the last stretch of their journey. Steve could not recall a more stressful dozen or so miles of driving. He was on high alert for the infected, his back muscles tense and his shoulders hunched as his eyes skittered to zoom in on any roadside trees or shrubs that could hide them. A shadow could hide a killer intent on attacking them, or ripping them to shreds, or bashing their heads in. The closer they got to their destination, the higher the tension climbed. The stakes had never been higher. Two frightened teenaged survivors were depending on them for their rescue. They could not let them down, not now, not after so long, when they were finally so close.

Bruce, who was leading the convoy, suddenly slowed, finally coming to a stop behind a thick clump of trees. The others applied their brakes, sliding in quietly beside him before coming to a stop. Steve glanced sideways into Bruce's cab, to see him gesturing for the others to join him. Steve unbuckled his seat belt, grabbed his weapons, and slid out of his truck to join the others in Bruce's cab. They huddled together closely, deadly serious, and Steve wondered if they had done this in their lives before, when they had been the Avengers. Once all four were present, Bruce launched straight into the mission brief, not bothering with any preamble or pep talk. Steve found it strangely reassuring; perhaps it was his soldier's desire for conciseness.

"According to the map, Wanda and Pietro's address is a farmhouse on the other side of these trees, over a small bridge and about one hundred metres across a field," said Bruce. "The bridge won't be strong enough to hold the weight of our trucks, so from here on out, we're on foot. Wanda warned us that the house is surrounded by the infected, so we need to be prepared for high levels of aggression from perhaps several dozen or so infected individuals."

Steve nodded, trying to hide his anxiety. By that time, they had had dozens of encounters with the infected, but those encounters had always involved just one or two individuals. They had never had to go up against a larger group before. Steve wondered what they would be battling. Had the infected organised themselves? Did they even have enough cognitive function left for that? They did not know. Yet another unknown variable.

"We'll need to kill the horde before we enter the house," said Bruce. "If we're going to get the twins out safely, we can't risk letting any of the infected live and potentially have them attack us on the way out. It'll be hard enough fighting the horde; we can't do it whilst also escorting untrained minors."

Steve felt his stomach shift uncomfortably. It did not sit well with him, to have to kill the horde. They were innocent. Despite what they had become, they were still people. They were blameless for their actions. They were human beings, who had once been shop assistants, schoolteachers, chefs, parents, lovers, and friends. They had had ambitions, fears, hopes, secrets, regrets, and memories. They had experienced love, joy, sadness, and peace. They had been all that, and more, before the virus had attacked their brains and stripped them of their identities. Beneath all the violence, all the blind anger, all the uncontrollable rage, these people were still human.

"Do we have to kill them?" asked Steve. "These people aren't evil; they're ill."

Bruce's expression softened, he sighed, regretfully, and nodded sadly.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't like it any better than you do. But now isn't the time for wishful thinking. We have to take the world as it is, not the way we want it to be. If we could save them, we would, but we can't. If there was some way we could incapacitate them without killing them, we would take it, but that's not an option. We don't have any sedatives or tranquillisers. It's kill or be killed."

"Try to think of it as a kindness," said Natasha. "We'll be putting them out of their misery."

Bucky placed a hand on Steve's arm, gentle and understanding. Steve looked at him, a feeling of déjà vu stirring in his gut as he gazed into the other man's blue eyes.

"In this job, we try to save as many people as we can," said Bucky. "Sometimes, that doesn't mean everybody. It's too late to save the infected; they're dying, they're too far gone. But Wanda and Pietro, they're alive, and they're relying on us to save them. We can't let them die just because we don't want to kill the infected. We have to do it, for them."

Steve relented and bowed his head, nodding. He recognised that Wanda and Pietro's needs must come before those of the horde. He recognised the necessity of killing the infected civilians. He did not like it, but he accepted it. He had simply wanted to know if there were any alternative, any other plan of action, that could have avoided the bloodshed. As it was, there was not.

"I understand," said Steve.

Bruce nodded, his brown eyes filled with a mixture of sadness and acceptance.

"We shoot to kill," continued Bruce. "We make sure that no stray bullets hit the farmhouse. Once we've killed the horde, we save Wanda and Pietro. That's our mission."

The group nodded, solemn and quiet as they faced up to the challenge. That sense of nervous energy was back, but it was more focused, this time. Each Avenger was prepared for the battle to come; they were, at last, ready to step up and fulfil the roles that Bruce had explained they had once held in their past lives. They had been heroes, and they were to become heroes once more. They would fight together, again, just as Bruce had told them they used to. They had come full circle.

It was like re-birth, and as Steve felt the ghost of that old part of his identity slide into place, he experienced a flash of an image: carnage in New York, standing side-by-side with his fellow Avengers – Bucky, Natasha, a man with a bow and arrow, a man in a red cape, someone encased in a red and gold metal suit, and Bruce riding up on a tatty old motorcycle, his hair dishevelled and his clothes torn and dusty.

The image faded as quickly as it had come, and Steve shook his head discreetly, steadying himself, willing away the fog that always clouded his mind after one of his recollections. For the first time, he found himself not wanting to remember. Now was not the time. He needed his full concentration and mental faculties if he were to fight the horde and save Wanda and Pietro. For once, he willed himself to forget. His subconscious pushed back, rising upwards, unused to being ignored, demanding his attention, but Steve firmly concentrated on the present, on the sound of Bruce's voice, who was instructing them to do a final weapons check.

Steve checked his guns. He thought briefly of mentioning the flashback, but decided against it. Wanda and Pietro had waited long enough. Steve did not want to cause any additional delays. Hopefully, further recollections would not intrude upon his consciousness during the battle. He assumed they would not – no significant or prolonged memories had come to him before, at least during waking life. His memories tended to leak through in his dreams.

Their weapons checked, Bruce nodded and swung open the door of his cab. The others followed quietly, creeping forwards towards the treeline that obscured their vision of the path to the twins' home. Steve breathed deeply, his senses sharp and alert, his hands on his machine gun, ready. They walked quietly through the trees, spreading out as they made their way through the dense thicket. They emerged at the same time, coming to a collective halt as they absorbed the scene in front of them. Steve's heart rate shot up, his mouth dry, and his hands suddenly sweaty.

In front of them was a narrow bridge over a stream, and on the other side, a dusty track and a field that led to Wanda and Pietro's farmhouse. It could almost look idyllic, if it were not for the heaving mass of bodies, both living and dead, that covered the field and the ditch down by the stream. The infected were filthy, the stench of them wafting over on the wind and filling Steve's nostrils, making him gag. Many of them were asleep, sprawled out on the ground, only distinguishable from the dead by the occasional stirring of their limbs. Their clothes were tatty and had become a uniformly brownish colour after months of becoming caked with mud, excrement, and what looked sickeningly like blood. It was a vision of Hell, and Steve could not stop himself from gawping, appalled, at the sight in front of him.

Worst of all, though, was the sheer number of them. They had come expecting several dozen infected individuals, tops. The reality was far worse. Steve estimated the horde numbered about three hundred. There could be even more, if there were any hiding in the trees that ran along the edge of the field. Steve shivered with fear. For the first time, he found himself questioning the feasibility of the mission. Even with their weapons, they could find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Bruce signalled for them to edge forwards, towards the bridge, where they would have a better vantage point from which to see the horde. Their boots made no sound on the dusty ground as they crept forwards, and as they reached the bridge, Steve was able to see down into the ditch carved out by the stream.

The ditch was littered with bodies, mostly dead, in varying degrees of decomposition. Two of the infected were awake, and were bent over one of the dead, their backs to Steve. As he drew closer, Steve heard a strange, wet noise coming from the pair before realising, one horrifying second later, that they were eating the dead woman's arms. Their lips and chins were red with blood as they feasted on her flesh. Her eyes were still open, wide and blank and staring up at the sky, unaware of the horrors being inflicted on her body. The infected were so focused on their meal that they did not turn around as the group approached, even when Bruce involuntarily gasped at the sight of them. Slowly, Bruce brought up his gun, aiming at the individual eating the woman's right arm. The barrel of his weapon was shaking, his expression somewhere between horror and disgust, although whether that was directed at the infected or at Bruce himself, Steve could not be sure. Bruce was pale, his skin taking on a slightly green tinge, and Steve suddenly wondered if the scientist was up to the job. Steve ardently hoped that Bruce would not vomit or pass out.

Suddenly, one of the infected turned around, blood dripping from his lips as he stared wild-eyed at the newcomers. He lurched towards them, dragging himself up the side of the ditch towards them with a gargling rasp, which grew into a shout of rage when he slipped back down. The shout awakened several nearby infected, who groaned as they roused from their slumber, looking around to find out who had disturbed their rest. Steve watched, horrified, as the infected got to their feet. There was a moment of stunned silence, the calm before the storm, in which the two sides stared at one another. The moment stretched out for several long seconds, before one of the infected let out a deafening scream, racing towards them with rage in her bloodshot eyes.

Her scream woke all the others, and Steve watched, transfixed, as the horde staggered to their feet as one, hundreds upon hundreds of them rising up together like in a nightmare. The woman was almost upon them. Natasha raised her gun and shot her in the head, the loud bang ricocheting around the field. The action broke the spell. Any stunned immobility was banished as chaos erupted around them. The horde sprinted towards them from all directions. Up from the ditch, from the field in front of them, and from the sides, where the trees ran parallel to the edge of the farmland – the infected poured towards them, every one of them intent on reaching Steve and the others and tearing them to pieces.

The four of them immediately bunched together, covering one another's backs as they began to shoot at the horde, bodies dropping all around them as bullets sliced through flesh. Several of the infected burst up from the side of the ditch, racing towards Steve as they screamed. They were children. Steve froze momentarily, unable to shoot them as they ran towards him, barely ten years old and barefoot. They were not so different in age from Wanda and Pietro. They were young and innocent and in no way to blame for anything. They were going to kill him. He could see large bruises under their skin, where their blood vessels were already starting to rupture, and he raised his gun, hating himself as he squeezed the trigger, putting them out of their misery.

They kept on coming. Steve's initial estimate of three hundred was woefully inadequate. In reality, the infected numbered well over 1,000. They raced towards them, wave after wave, scrambling over the corpses of their fellow infected, intent on attacking the newcomers who had dared to disturb their sleep. Steve fired a continuous stream of bullets, swinging his machine gun from left to right, mowing down one long line of the horde, and again, and again, only for them to be replaced by the next line, and the next, seemingly never-ending in number.

Panic began to build in his gut as a fresh wave of the horde poured over the field towards them, some of them bloody, having recently fed, some of them naked, having no further need of clothes now that their humanity had so diminished. Steve aimed for their heads, killing as many as he could as he swung his gun in that even, left-to-right motion. The scene was a frenzy. The infected seemed to have no care for their fallen comrades, focused solely on reaching and attempting to kill Steve and the others. The sound of gunfire from the Avengers' weapons, combined with the screams and groans of the infected, was an assault on their eardrums.

Bullet casings clattered down around their feet as they discharged their weapons, the horde so thick and numerous that each bullet could barely miss a target. The minutes dragged on. Steve's heart hammered as he mowed down line after line of infected individuals, sweat pouring down his sides. The others were doing the same, but their efforts did not seem to even be putting a dent in the infected's numbers. Fear lanced through Steve. For the first time, he considered the possibility of their failure. They would be ripped to shreds by the screaming horde, and Wanda and Pietro would either die from starvation or be killed when the infected managed to break into their barricaded home. Wanda and Pietro... The twins were relying on them. Steve was energised by a fresh bout of determination. They had promised the twins they would save them. They would not break that promise. Gritting his teeth, he aimed another stream of bullets into the crowd surging towards him. He killed them without mercy, brutal and efficient as he aimed at head height and swung his gun back and forth. It worked – until it did not.

His machine gun clicked uselessly. Fear lanced through him. He had run out of bullets. For a moment, he clutched stupidly at his useless weapon, before coming to his senses, dropping it and grabbing his shield instead, gripping it tightly, ready for hand-to-hand combat. Behind him, Natasha let out a shout as she too ran out of bullets, shortly followed by Bucky, and finally Bruce. The four of them braced themselves, having only a couple of seconds’ time to catch their breath, before the horde was upon them, kicking and punching and scratching at them from all directions.

Steve fought back, using his shield to club his attackers, twisting his torso to try to dislodge a man who had launched himself onto Steve's back. He dispatched the first set of attackers with well-placed blows to the head, only for them to be replaced by another set, trampling over the bodies of the newly deceased to get to him. He kicked and lashed out at them, sweating and panting as he fought them off, ignoring the pain from their attacks as they battered him, unskilled and uncoordinated but still potentially deadly in their numbers. He finished off the second wave of attackers, only to find himself being attacked by a third, and had a feeling of despair in his gut as he saw the rest of the horde clambering towards him, the wall of bodies dozens thick as they surged towards him, determined to kill him.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Bruce go down with a shout, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the crowd attacking him. Panic exploded in Steve's gut. He tried to fight his way through the horde to where he had seen Bruce go down, but there were too many of the infected in his way. It was a frenzy of flailing limbs, incoherent screaming and unrestrained, virus-induced violence. Two of the infected managed to latch onto Steve's arms, impeding his movements and allowing the others to pummel him. The wind was knocked out of him by one particularly well-timed blow to the abdomen, and Steve doubled over, immediately struggling under the weight of the horde as they piled on top of him.

This is how I die.

The thought filled his mind, startlingly clear as death rushed to meet him. He looked around desperately, wanting to see Bucky one final time before it happened. The others were nowhere to be seen. He looked around, in vain, crushed under the weight of the horde and the weight of his disappointment that he had never got to say goodbye to Bucky. They had never kissed. They had never got to remember their past lives. They had never had the opportunity to try to make their relationship work in the post-virus world. He swallowed back his disappointment and sent a silent apology to the twins, that they had not been strong enough to fight the horde, that they had not been able to reach them, that they had let them down, just like all the other adults in their lives. He choked on a sob, praying for the end to be quick. Feet kicked at his shins. Fists pounded against his back. He tried to fight, but it was impossible. He was being slowly crushed to death. He could not move. The infected were all around him; pressing in on all sides and piling on top of him.

To his right, there was some kind of commotion. Infected individuals were tumbling backwards like dominoes, thrown by some great force that seemed to be coming from underneath them. Steve watched, gasping under the weight of the bodies pressing down on top of him, as suddenly something emerged from under the horde, letting out an ear-splitting roar as it drew to its full height. It was a man, Steve realised, huge and green and carving a path through the horde towards him. The man swatted at the infected piled on top of Steve, dispatching them with one violent swipe of his massive hand. Steve was suddenly able to stand again, no longer crushed, his mind scrambling to keep up with events as the green giant delved deep into another pile of writhing bodies and withdrew Natasha.

Hulk.

The word came to him without thinking, followed immediately by a second: Bruce. Knowledge exploded in Steve's mind. This was the consequence of Bruce's exposure to gamma radiation. This was the change in his DNA that had made him immune to the virus. Steve remembered the strange dream of aliens pouring through a hole in the skies above New York City, of Hulk leaping from building to building, fighting the alien invasion, and was bowled over by the sudden, overwhelming, irrefutable knowledge that it was true. It had not simply been a dream; it had been a memory. It had happened. It was real.

Presently, Hulk was rampaging through the horde, killing a dozen at a time as he picked them up and flung them to the ground. They died instantly. Bucky and Natasha were back on their feet, battling with those infected closest to them, and Steve suddenly found himself going toe-to-toe with an infected man with blood in his beard. He slammed his shield into the man's head, before turning and repeating the motion on an assailant who had attempted to attack him from behind.

There was a flash of light, and suddenly Steve was no longer fighting the horde, but fighting the Chitauri – yes, that was what they were called, he remembered now – preventing the aliens from entering a cafe where terrified New Yorkers had been hiding.

Another flash, and he was back in the field. He took another swing, taking out two infected individuals at once, and caught sight of Bucky and Natasha working together to kill those around them as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A splitting headache was building in Steve, and suddenly, he was in two places at once, perceiving both simultaneously, the visuals and sounds from both events layered on top of each other. He was in the field, fighting the infected horde. He was in New York City, battling with his fellow Avengers against the Chitauri. The man in the iron suit: Tony. The man in the red cape: Thor. The man with the bow and arrow: Clint. Steve remembered them, memories rushing through his mind, information flooding back to him, overwhelming and yet slotting into place so naturally that Steve could hardly believe he could have forgotten any of it in the first place.

The horde was thinning, a feat that was largely thanks to Hulk, who was bounding across the field, killing the infected as he went, occasionally doubling back to make sure that Steve, Bucky and Natasha were managing OK without him. There were perhaps fifty of the infected left. Steve turned around, smashing his shield into the head of an old man who had been attempting to sneak up behind him. He saw Tony grab the nuke and guide it up towards the wormhole. He kicked an infected woman away from him and dispatched her with one clean punch to the head. He heard Natasha in his earpiece, informing him that she could close Loki's portal, and ordered her to do it. The battle of New York exploded inside him with razor-sharp clarity, the colours overwhelming him, the pain in his head intensifying as the memory saturated his awareness. He could feel more memories, desperate to burst free from his subconscious. They were just out of reach, out of focus, but he could feel them there, pressure building behind a dam that felt as though it were about to burst.

Another flash. Back in the field. He was on his hands and knees; the horde almost defeated. Only ten of the infected were left. Hulk, Bucky and Natasha were dealing with them swiftly. He was sweating and shaking, only partly due to the heat of the day and the exertion. His headache mounted, spiralling upwards like a crescendo into agonising pain, causing him to cry out as it became too much, blinding him, causing him to collapse face-first onto the dusty ground.

Whoosh...

Whoosh...

Steve was lying face-down on cool, wet sand. The sound of waves lapping against the shoreline filled his mind, his ears. He could smell salty seaside air. He opened his eyes. He was no longer in a field, surrounded by the corpses of the infected. He was on a beach; the same beach that he saw in his dreams; the same beach from which he was sure his memento, the seashells, originated. He slowly got to his feet, taking a moment to properly look around him. The sea breeze ruffled his hair. It was a long, pebbly beach, covered in little stones made smooth by the waves, and seashells washed up by the sea. Inland, there were grassy dunes, and just beyond that, a little fishing town. It was a simple place, not particularly picturesque, yet Steve found it beautiful, because this was the place where his life had changed forever.

Footsteps sounded behind him, wet stones and shells crunching underfoot. He turned around to see Bucky wearing a blue and white striped t-shirt and navy shorts. He was smiling. Steve could not help but smile back. Bucky bent down and scooped up a handful of seashells, before straightening up, giving half of the seashells to Steve. He stepped in close and cupped Steve's cheek with his free hand, gazing at him adoringly.

"Happy wedding anniversary," said Bucky.

They kissed, tongues stroking together languidly as they savoured the moment, entwined together, caressed by the ocean breeze. The seashells in Steve's hand were cool and damp, covered in grit and sand. After a while, the two of them broke apart, before holding hands and beginning to walk down the beach, parallel to the grass-covered dunes.

"Do you remember the first time we met, here, five years ago?" asked Bucky.

"How could I forget?" said Steve, unable to suppress his smirk. "There I was, lying down peacefully, reading a book, when you tripped and landed on top of me. You almost crushed me to death."

"That was me falling in love with you," said Bucky smoothly, not missing a beat.

Steve laughed, giving Bucky's hand a squeeze and then pressing a kiss to his cheek, unable to resist. It was Bucky's fault, really; he was simply too tempting not to kiss.

"Soppy bastard," said Steve, without malice.

"Shut up," pouted Bucky. "I'm trying to be romantic."

They laughed, pausing momentarily to kiss once more, before resting their foreheads together. It was a soothing, intimate gesture, one that they had shared many times before.

"I love you," Bucky said softly. "I'll love you forever. Even when we're old men, I'll always remember this beach; the day our lives changed – the day we met. I'm so lucky to be with you. I love you and I'm with you 'til the end of the line."

Steve smiled. He remembered the first words they had ever spoken to one another. Astonished at having been suddenly squashed under the weight of the other man, he had looked up from his book and, seeing how gorgeous Bucky was, had suddenly been lost for words, blurting out the first dumb thing that had come to mind: "You made me lose my page."

He repeated the words out loud, his heart leaping when Bucky immediately grinned as he too remembered their first meeting, before he replied, tenderly, with the same words he had said all those years before on that first meeting.

"Then let's write our own story."

Steve stared at him, no longer immersed in the scene, but frozen in place as the words triggered something in his brain. Images and memories flooded back to him, like a chemical reaction, a cascade, each memory triggering others, like a domino effect, rippling outwards from the centre at a dizzying pace. He remembered the first time he and Bucky met, he remembered his and Bucky's wedding day, he remembered his mother's funeral, he remembered, just a few weeks before the beach scene, he and Bucky first seriously discussing the subject of adopting a child. He remembered his childhood. He remembered his life in the Army. He remembered everything. His life returned to him, everything slotting perfectly into place. His life suddenly made sense. He understood. He knew. He remembered. The dam in his mind broke, his memories flooding back and returning, victorious, to their rightful place.

Steve came back to awareness slowly. When he did so, he did not return to the beach, but to the field, to the stench of bodies around him, to find the others crouched beside him, worried. Bruce was now significantly less green and enormous compared to the last time Steve had seen him. Natasha's pale face peered over his shoulder. Bucky was kneeling next to him, anxious, holding his hand, smoothing his hair away from his sweaty forehead.

Steve looked up at him, his husband, and smiled.

"You made me lose my page," said Steve.

Bucky replied, instinctively, reflexively, "Then let's write our own story."

And then, Bucky's eyes widened and became unfocused and jittering, as he, too, remembered.

Chapter Text

To have one's memories restored was, apparently, exhausting.

Steve slept for an entire day, lost to the world as his brain re-established those old connections, restoring his mind and memory to what it had been before the virus struck. When he finally awoke, twenty-six hours later, he felt reinvigorated, a million times fresher and more clear-minded than he could remember being since awaking from his coma in Camp Lehigh all those months previously.

He lay awake for several long minutes, not moving, not even opening his eyes, simply savouring the giddy high that came with remembering everything. What a privilege it was to know his past. All his life, he had taken it for granted. Now, he cherished it, that knowledge of who he was, those memories that had forged and shaped his personality. He lay there, his mind gloriously complete, celebrating the sense of completeness that came with taking back possession of his memories, his sense of identity, his sense of being Steve Rogers.

Steve rolled over, finally opening his eyes, to find Bucky lying on a twin bed just like his own on the opposite side of the room, already awake and watching him with a smile on his face.

"Good morning, husband," said Bucky.

Steve grinned, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed and padding over the room to join Bucky on his bed. Steve was bowled over by how much he loved him. It filled up his chest and tightened his throat. He was overflowing with love. He felt it with every fibre of his being. It had been simmering below the surface the entire time they had been without their memories, waiting patiently for him to remember – and now, at long last, it was unleashed.

He sat down beside Bucky, who had by now propped himself up on his pillows, and pulled him into a tight hug. They held one another for a long while, re-familiarising themselves with simply touching one another, being together, in love. Steve remembered all those nights they had spent together, sharing a truck cab, holding hands, and marvelled at the mind's ability to remember, even when faced with the impossible task of piecing together a life without memories. Against all the odds, implicit memory had remembered their love and expressed it through instinct. The bond between them had endured. It made Steve feel proud, in a strange way, that their love had managed to survive even in such extreme circumstances.

Bucky's hand found his and held it gently. Finally, they pulled apart, before pressing their lips together, their hearts skipping as their tongues met and brushed together softly. Several long minutes of languid kissing later, Bucky gave a happy sigh and pulled away.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you, too," said Steve.

They took a moment to savour the words as they hung in the air, the syllables sending shivers down both their spines. Steve made a silent promise to say it more often, so that Bucky would always know how much he meant to him. He felt he had to make up for all those amnesic days when he had not said it, when he had not remembered, when he had not understood what his confusing feelings of attraction actually meant.

Outside, there was birdsong, and the sound pulled Steve from his thoughts and forced him to concentrate on the present. Even with his memories restored, he was still living in the post-virus world. He needed to have his wits about him at all times.

"Where are we?" asked Steve.

"Inside Wanda and Pietro's home," said Bucky. "Bruce and Natasha dragged our unconscious asses inside while we had our epic nap."

"What about the horde?" said Steve.

"They're all gone," Bucky said softly.

Steve nodded, swallowing back the faint feeling of nausea that the information triggered. He knew that gone was a euphemism for dead. Despite everything that had happened the previous day, Steve nevertheless found himself saddened by their passing. They had not been in control of their actions. They had not deserved to die the way they had. The loss of human life, however diseased, was still a loss.

"The others are downstairs, if you feel up to some breakfast," said Bucky.

Steve nodded, suddenly realising he was ravenous, and brushed his hands through his hair in an attempt to make it a little more socially acceptable. They got up from the bed and made their way down a narrow corridor, before descending down a rickety wooden flight of stairs. They emerged directly in the kitchen, the chatter from the four people sat around the kitchen table immediately dying down as they turned to look at Steve and Bucky.

Bruce and Natasha were sharing some food with two teenagers who must be Wanda and Pietro. Wanda was rocking a gothic aesthetic, with dark eyeliner, black skinny jeans and a scarlet and black blouse with corset-style lacing decorating the front. With brown hair and brown eyes, she was the darker of the twins. In contrast, Pietro was blond haired and blue eyed, dressed in more casual attire in pale and navy-blue sports clothes. Both looked thin and tired, but nevertheless, they smiled when Steve and Bucky sat down with them at the table, visibly glad to see them.

"Do you both remember?" said Natasha.

Steve nodded, unable to stop the broad grin that spread across his face.

"Yeah," he said. "Everything."

He paused, his throat swelling shut with emotion, suddenly unable to continue. He could not describe how he felt. So many different feelings were bombarding him all at once: relief at having regained his memories, joy at Wanda and Pietro's survival, and a newfound sense of camaraderie now that he could remember the full extent of his friendship with Natasha and Bruce. It was like re-birth, and it was only after several moments that he realised that there was another emotion hidden in there, mixed up amongst all the rest, that he had not felt for months: hope.

"Wanda and Pietro were just telling us that they've been in touch with other survivors over the radio," said Bruce. "Small pockets of the population in this area were unaffected by the virus; people with innate immunity, like the twins here. We figure they must all be distant relatives with the same genetic mutation, and there must be other families out there too, just waiting to be saved."

Incredulous, Steve felt his heart swell at the news. Just a few weeks ago, they had not known of any survivors. Now, they were discovering that not only were there the twins, but others, too. It was incredible. They were no longer alone. Steve almost wanted to cry with happiness.

"That's brilliant," said Bucky.

"How many survivors have you managed to contact?" asked Steve.

"About a dozen," said Wanda. "We've been keeping each other's spirits up and sharing recipes over the radio. We're all growing our own food. One woman taught us how to use spices to make stuff taste better. She's cool."

"There's probably more people who're out of range of the radio," piped up Pietro. "Or who don't know how to use a radio to broadcast. We only knew how to do it because I'm good at engineering. Wanda wouldn't have had a clue."

Wanda huffed and folded her arms, turning her back on her brother. Steve had to suppress his smirk when Pietro sweetly laid his head on his sister's shoulder, using her like a pillow and nuzzling his head against the side of her face until she giggled and relented, ruffling his fluffy hair as she abandoned her sulk.

"A dozen, that's incredible," said Steve.

"How far away are they?" asked Natasha.

"Umm..." said Pietro, looking at Wanda uncertainly, who simply shrugged. "Maybe a day or two's drive? The people we know about, anyway. And then there's probably others, further away."

The adults nodded, the sense of relief palpable in the small kitchen. They were not alone. There were survivors. They would not have to bear witness to the end of humanity. For the first time in a long time, Steve found himself looking forwards to the future not with despair, but hope.

"What are you going to do now?" asked Wanda, suddenly sounding shy as she fiddled anxiously with the hem of her blouse. "Please will you take us with you?"

Steve's heart broke for the twins. Upon the outbreak of the virus, their world had been totally thrown into disarray. Their parents had died, leaving them alone to fend for themselves. Wanda and Pietro had had to learn how to be adults, how to look after themselves, how to survive, basically overnight. They had done so well, learnt how to be self-sufficient to such an admirable degree that it was easy to forget that they were still children – but children they were.

"Of course," said Natasha firmly, and Steve wondered if she was thinking about her own stolen childhood, brought up at the Red Room Academy to be the KGB's perfect killer. "We're going to look after both of you."

The twins looked visibly relieved, the tension leaving their muscles as they relaxed.

"First, we should re-stock on supplies as much as we can," said Steve. "Then we can help the twins pack their clothes and their most important belongings. Wanda, Pietro… you may want to wear hoodies that can cover your eyes when we go outside. There's a lot of bodies out there that you might not want to see."

The others nodded in agreement. There was a moment of silence, as they collectively contemplated the human loss that had occurred the day before.

"And then," Steve continued, shooting a small smile at the twins. "We'll go looking for the other survivors. See if we can learn first-hand some more recipes from your spice-loving radio friend."

Wanda beamed excitedly, causing the others to smile too, her smile infectious. Steve gazed around the table, at his gang of fellow survivors and misfits, and felt another surge of hope. At last, he had regained a sense of purpose and direction in his life. It felt good to have a plan of action, and even better to have a wonderful, tight-knit, hodgepodge of a family by his side.

The future was no longer bleak and empty, but bright and hopeful and full of possibility. There were immune survivors, at least a dozen, and most likely many more, just as Bruce had always predicted. Suddenly, the path forwards was clear.

They would find the other survivors. They would rescue them. They would not bear witness to the end of days, but instead claw their way back from the brink and rebuild from the devastation. Humanity would be victorious. This was just the beginning of their story.