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Push Back the Dark

Chapter Text

Sam was having a bad day. He could handle it. Right?

As it turned out, the answer to that was a big, resounding, slap-in-the-face hell no.

But the thing was... it hasn’t started out as a bad day.

Somehow that made it worse.


“Hey,” he said, smiling at the young barista at the Starbucks he always stopped at before running with Steve.

“Hi,” Carly grinned. “The usual?”

He blew out a puff of air and looked at the menu he’d memorized long before today. “No,” he decided. "I’m in the mood for sweet today.”

“So what’re you thinking,” she tried, “more of a macchiato or more of a frappuccino?”

He hummed and narrowed his eyes at her before grinning. “Surprise me.”

She grinned back and turned to make his drink, and he turned to look out the window, to people-watch.

He smiled at the mom and her daughter, seemingly explaining to the child that no, they couldn’t go in the toy store, Mommy had something else she needed to do. He shook his head and chuckled at the business man on his phone who almost walked into a phone pole. He cringed with the person trying to get into their car who kept dropping their keys, or their water bottle, or their briefcase, or—a particularly big cringe—their phone.

He took a step for the door, moving before he’d halfway decided to help the unwitting juggler, when someone sped past on a bike, turned, and stopped in front of the person. They shook hands, and the biker gestured to the person’s belongings, then the car, as they swung off their bike.

Their red bike.

Riley’s favorite color was red.

Riley.

The biker took off their helmet to reveal dirty blond hair and oh, this just wasn’t fair. Wasn’t right.

Because the cyclist... they looked like Riley, too.

Sam took another aborted step forward, and was reaching for the door when a dog barked. He flinched and looked around for the animal and saw a golden retriever laying in a vest by its owner’s feet. Sam’s eyes traveled up the pants to the shirt to the face and blinked at the vet. He could tell by the way the kid held himself, the way his eyes looked.

“I’m sorry,” the kid was saying. “I swear he’s real well-trained. He’s my service dog, supposed to help with a buncha crap, y’know?”

Sam blinked again and managed a smile as he moved toward them. “Not an issue. Less than, in fact, your dog here helped me. Brought me out of a flashback. Where’d you serve?”

“Ah, nowhere special. Wherever they needed me. I’ve been back for just over fifteen months now.” He let out a wry chuckle, “Decided to sit in Starbucks today instead of my house. Glad I did.” He stood, moving slightly stiffly, and extended a hand. “Tommy Gallagher.”

“Sam Wilson,” he nodded, shaking the proffered hand. “Pararescue. Wherever they needed me and then some.”

“Yeah? How long you been back, Sam?”

“Lost track, at this point. Years. Doesn’t mean my mind’s always back, y’know? It takes time, like anything else.” He let out a sigh. “You got a therapist, Tommy?”

The redhead shrugged, “Had one for a while. I’m in between now. Looking for group more than anything, something low-key.”

“What a coincidence,” Sam grinned. “I lead a group therapy. I’d be happy if you came, even if just to check us out. Could I give you a card?”

“I’d love one,” Tommy said happily. “Thank you.”

“Course,” Sam grinned, the expression coming easier now.

“Sam!” Carly called, and he flashed a smile behind him.

“That’s mine,” he said to Tommy. “I’m meeting a friend, but I hate to drop this and run. All the information is on the card, and if you have any questions, my number’s always available to call.”

“Thanks,” Tommy said, pocketing the card. “I get it. You go, run and meet your friend. I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, man,” Sam said, smiled, and left before it got more awkward. He picked up his drink from the counter with a grin to Carly, looked at the time, and almost cursed. He’d have to run to meet Steve on time now. Instead, he set the coffee down and sent a text.

Running late. Be there 15ish? Don’t wait for me.

He received a reply from Steve—a thumbs up emoji, and why had Natasha ever taught him about those—and pocketed his phone before picking up his coffee again and walking to the park, sipping his coffee as he went. He arrived and found Steve halfway through one of his laps. The blond saw him, grinned, waved, and almost ran into a bench. Sam snorted.

“Hey,” Steve grinned as he came up. “You good?”

“Great,” Sam promised him. He was such a liar. “How long‘ve you been here?”

“About ten minutes. You ready, or you wanna finish your coffee first?”

Sam shrugged and shifted the cup in his hand, stirring it. “I dunno. Not much left, you wanna finish it off?”

“What is it?” Steve asked, even as he drank.

“You know,” Sam started, and sighed. “I don’t actually know.”

Steve snorted as he crushed the now-empty cup and tossed it towards a wastebasket. It hit the edge and fell out. “Dammit,” he muttered.

“Karma,” Sam laughed. “C’mon, you ready?”

“I’m not the one who showed up fifteen minutes late with Starbucks. What, am I less important than coffee now?”

“Oh my god, I’m the meme,” Sam mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Steve, my friend,” Sam said, deflecting, “Coffee is the lifeblood of my humanity.” He clasped the blond’s shoulders, “You don’t fuck with my coffee.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Steve laughed, holding his hands up.

“C’mon. You ready?”

“Whenever you are,” the blond promised, and they set off.

Sam almost grinned, finally running, finally not having anything in his mind except the pounding of soles on concrete, the wind rushing by, the pounding of his heart and the heaving of his lungs.

It was only after that he realized Steve had kept pace with him.

“Why?” He managed eventually.

“Why what?”

“Why’d you stay with me this time? I know how you run.”

“Yeah.” He shrugged, “I got out a lot of it before you got here.”

“Bull.” Sam crosses his arms. “You never keep pace with me. What’s going on?”

Steve’s face did something complicated before he smiled tightly. “Bucky’s coming over later.”

Sam blinked. “Okay. Is he doing alright?”

Another strange expression paired with a tight smile. “Keep your phone on.”

“I always do,” Sam said, and knowing he wasn’t going to get anything else, waved at the blond and left.

Chapter Text

He got home and rinsed off, losing time in the water until the ding of his phone brought him back to the surface. “Shit,” he whispered, wrenching the faucet to the off position and grabbing his towel. He grabbed his phone a few second later to make sure it wasn’t Bucky, but his luck was never that good.

Just knocked a couple times and no answer... everything OK?

Then, a few second later.

Sam?

He quickly typed out a response.

Fine, sorry, just got out of the shower, give me 2mins

With that, he stepped out and grabbed the first pair of clean shorts he saw, then the first clean shirt he saw, and walked to the door as he struggled with his shirt. He finally got it on and opened the door. “Hey, sorry,” he said, slightly out of breath. “I didn’t expect you to be here so soon.”

Bucky chuckled slightly. “I left the house after Steve got back. I even got Starbucks on the way. You doin’ okay, Sam?”

“People keep asking me that,” Sam murmured, shaking his head. “I’m fine.” You’re such a liar, Wilson, his brain hissed viciously, so much so that he almost winced.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, but it sounded more like a question. “Hey, c’mon, let's go sit on the couch. Can I see your phone?”

Sam blinked and dug his phone out of his pocket, watching as Bucky unlocked it and called someone. “Megan?” A pause, “Yeah, great, thanks.” Another pause, and he hummed. “Not so great.” A slight chuckle, “Yeah, not today. I’ll shoot you a text when... yeah. Yeah, exactly. Thanks, Megan. You’re a doll.” He hung up and placed the phone on the coffee table, leaning back and regarding Sam.

Sam sat back and looked at Bucky. He dropped his gaze after a few minutes. “Am I correct in assuming the Megan you just called is the VA secretary on duty right now? And I’m not going in later?”

Bucky just smiled at him.

“Yeah, okay. Why?”

“Why’d you assume that’s what it was?”

Sam blinked at him. “Because... because I heard your half of the conversation?”

Bucky pointed at him. “Exactly. My half. Not her half. What part of my half of the conversation led you to believe I was calling in for you?”

Sam sighed and shook his head, looking past Bucky out the window. “I’m guessing you’re gonna tell me.”

“It’s because you know what’s going on right now. You know why I called in for you. You know you’re not okay. You just don’t want to admit it.” He said it softly, but Sam still tensed up.

“Yeah? You know everything about me now, is that it?”

Bucky regarded him coolly before standing up. “I’m gonna make lunch. What’re you in the mood for?”

Sam just blinked at him, thrown by the change in conversation, and Bucky nodded. “I’ll be back soon.”

Idiot! His brain hissed. He’s onto you!

No fucking kidding, he hissed back. And who’s fucking fault is that?

Arguing with himself. New low, he realized, but he couldn’t help it. Or didn’t want to help it, he didn’t know at this point.

Boy, Riley’d say, you’ve got issues. He’d let out a little laugh. But, y’know, I do too. Figures the least we can do is look out for each other, huh?

And you failed at that, his brain hissed viciously. He ducked his head.

Sam missed Riley most on days like these. Days where his brain won’t shut up, days when he’s not okay, days when he can hear Riley the most.

It kind of really sucked.

He turned sideways onto the couch and curled himself into a ball, not that it was a conscious decision. He could see Riley, too, thanks to the cyclist today. Could see his curly brown hair, the freckles dotted across his nose and cheeks, even the little gap between his front teeth he’d said came from his sister. Could see the way he moved, too, quickly until he approached someone, then his movements became liquid, fluid, easy so as not to spook whoever he approached. Could see the way he laughed, eyes crinkling, shoulders shaking.

Could see the way his lips shaped Sam’s name as he fell.

“Sam.” It sounded different now, not something he could put his finger on, but... Riley.

“Sam.” A hand on his shoulder, and he jerked, because he was alone, watching Riley fall. “Look at me, Sam.”

Oh. Bucky. That made sense, he thought, brain filtering back towards the present.

What didn’t make sense was why he was shaking. “Hey, there you are,” Bucky said calmly, giving him a small smile. “You back with me?”

Sam just blinked at him, and something landed on his cheek. He brought up a hand to feel tears.

No, his brain hissed again. Be okay.

But sometimes that’s not an option. He tried to hold them back, but Bucky knew first-hand, and laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Hey,” he said, still gentle. “You’re shaking. I know you know it, you tell me often enough, don’t repress. It doesn’t do you any favors.”

“It’s... it’s different,” Sam tried. “It’s been years. I should be okay.”

Bucky fixed him with a look. “You and I both know that’s a load of bull. Look, Sam, I get that you’re trying to be okay because you have no reason to not be okay. But... but answer this: what reason do you have to actually be okay right now?”

“I... everything? I mean, I have a great life. I’m happy. I’ve got friends, and a job, and-”

“And you miss him,” Bucky said quietly. “No one expects any less from you.”

Sam could feel himself breaking. He buried his head in his arms, resting on his knees, and tried to breathe through it, but he sobbed instead of breathing, and suddenly he couldn’t anymore.

He just couldn’t.

Bucky, though... Bucky understood. He laid a comforting hand on his back, just barely sweeping it up and down, and Sam broke more.

He didn’t want to. God knows he didn’t want to. He also didn’t have a choice; he was breaking faster than he could piece himself together.

“S-sorry,” he tried, and he knew without looking that Bucky was shaking his head.

“No need to apologize,” Bucky murmured. “I don’t know what to do, though. I’m not as good at this as you are.”

Sam let out a rough approximation of a laugh, a sharp sound that hurt his throat more than anything. “You think I ever know what to do?”

“Yes,” Bucky said steadily. “Because you do. I know what your brain’s doing right now, man. You’re allowed to have a bad day. Doesn’t mean you’re not better.”

“Feels like it,” Sam muttered, but he wasn’t shaking anymore, and though tears were still falling, it was at a reduced rate. He raised his head slightly and looked to the side, laying it back down, so his arms were supporting the side of his head. He smirked at Bucky. “Would you believe me if I told you I forgot how much this sucked?”

Bucky let out a little laugh and drummed his fingers on Sam’s back. “You ready for food?” He said by way of answer.

“You gonna force me if I say no?” Sam returned with a sigh, and Bucky copied the breath.

“Considering you’re not enhanced, and can skip a meal without anything major happening, no. I am gonna remind you, though, that there’s a very good chance you’ll feel better if you eat.”

“Yeah,” Sam sighed. “Still not hungry.”

“I don’t expect you to be,” Bucky said. “But I do expect you to be honest with yourself and with me.”

“Not goin’ easy on me, huh?” He tried for a joke, but it fell flat, even on his own tired ears.

“Nope,” Bucky said, smiling at him. “That’s one thing you never are on me. You know what I need. Trust me to know what you need.”

Sam stared at him for a couple minutes before nodding, trying to decide if either joke in his brain would have worked. He decided on the safe option, neither, and shut his eyes, blowing out hard. He was still tense.

“I’m going on a run,” he decided. Then, when Bucky made to get up, he added, “alone.”

Bucky nodded and stood, offering a hand to help Sam up. “I’ll be here when you get back,” he said, projecting calm, but Sam could feel his eyes on him until he turned the corner.

Chapter Text

“Hi,” she said, no minced words. She knew the person on the other end, and they knew her. They didn’t need minced words.

“It’s Sam.” Well, that was unusual.

“Unless you’re changing your name, I’m pretty sure you’re still Bucky,” she said, trying to lighten the mood, but already moving to grab her shoes.

It worked, sort of; he snorted, and based on the shift of the phone, he shook his head, too. “Knew calling you was the right decision. I meant Sam’s not okay.”

She hummed, “I gathered as much. Where’m I going, what’m I doing?”

“He’s out on a run, so I’d think his normal route. Nat, it’s... it’s not good. I don’t know what to do.”

“What you need to do is breathe,” she said matter-of-factly. “In our unnaturally long lives together, have I ever let you down?”

He huffed out a puff of air. “Okay, I needed that. Um...” she could hear the same shift as before and she knew he was gathering his thoughts. “It’s... you know Riley.”

“I know of him, yes.”

“The anniversary’s coming up, but I don’t think Sam realizes it. Something set him off today, I don’t know what, but he’s not okay. He had a panic attack, and that was just when I was there. Something neither of us is going to tell him is the fact that I was standing outside of his house for half an hour while the shower ran. You know him, Nat, you know when something’s wrong. It’s all these little things.”

She hummed. “I get it. Send me his route and when he left, and I’ll make sure to accidentally bump into him.”

“Natalia, I could kiss you. You’re the best.”

“Hey, no cheating on the boyfriend,” she admonished him jokingly, and they both chuckled before she hung up. “Okay,” she said to the empty house, staring at her phone. “How many superheroes does it take to track down one in the middle of a mental breakdown?”

Her phone dinged with a text, and fingers flew across the screen, checking the map and the time. “Perfect,” she said, almost happily.  He would be passing almost right outside her door in a couple minutes. She looked around once more, nodded, grabbed her keys, and slipped outside. On second thought, she slipped back in and grabbed her card before re-locking the door. She hopped down the stairs, two at a time, and took the last five all at once, giving a tiny fist pump when she didn’t stumble. She checked the route once more, shot Bucky a text, and set off.

First things first, she thought with a smile as she admired the gold card in her hand.

“Sam!” She called as she walked out of the Starbucks, drink in hand, other hand waving at him.

She could tell he didn’t want to stop, but for better or worse, he was her friend. “Nat,” He said, friendly, but definitely not normal. Bucky was more right than he knew, and she’d have to send him a gift basket or something to thank him for getting her involved. “What’s up?”

She shrugged and sipped her frappe. “Just out for a bit. How about you?”

“Just going on a run,” he said, but she saw his eyes track her drink, and she handed it over with a slight smile. She pretended to be busy on her phone while she gave him a few seconds to drink.

If all she did was reply to Maria and Pepper’s Snapchat, no one would ever know. (And if her favorite filter was the puppy one, no one would ever know that, either.)

She took her drink back after a minute and smiled at him. “Mind if I tag along?”

She knew he wanted to say no. “Sure,” He shrugged, and she grinned.

“Wanna walk for a second? I’ve missed my friend,” she said, teasing, and damn was that the wrong thing to say.

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Me too.” He sighed and mentally shook himself. “How’ve you been, Nat?”

“I’ve been good. Busy with work, but it’s mostly the paperwork from other work, if you know what I mean.”

“I understand,” he nodded, and grinned. She was surprised to find herself wanting to believe him. “Those forms are a bitch and a half.”

She laughed in genuine surprise and nodded. “That they are. If I have to cross one more t before the end of today, I’m not responsible for what happens.”

“Definitely not,” he assured her, and this was good. She could tell the tension was trying to come off his shoulders.

She smiled and put her phone in her pocket, finished off the frappe with a loud slurp, and tossed it into a nearby trash can before turning back to Sam and laying a hand on his shoulder. She looked at him seriously. “Tag!” She grinned, and sprinted off.

He spluttered before laughing and raced after her, and she grinned, knowing she was helping.

She led him to a conveniently-placed shop just outside the square and stopped just inside, stepping to the side both to allow him in and to give her the chance to grab him from behind. “Nat,” he laughed, clutching her arms, “What the hell was that?”

She pecked his cheek before letting go and stepping around to his front. “You can’t tell me you don’t feel better.”

He stopped, then, and stared at her. “Natasha, what is this about?”

She smiled sadly at him, and hoping to buy more time, said, “C’mon. Let’s get some lunch.”

“This isn’t over,” he warned her, and she grinned at him cheekily.

“What isn’t over, our game of tag?” He fixed her with a look, and she sighed. “Look, just sit down, alright? I’ll go order for us.”

He hesitated. “Bucky made lunch... I should go, make sure he hasn’t burned the house down.” He smirked.

“Nah, I’ll text him. Go sit down.” She pushed him towards a chair and pulled out her phone as she got in line. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Bucky said, and he sounded surprised. “Done so soon?”

“It’s why you called me, isn’t it?” She grinned. “No, not yet. We’re getting lunch. I promised him I’d let you know where he was. It’s the only reason he agreed.”

“Hmm,” Bucky said, then stilled. “Holy shit,” he breathed. “Uh, do you know what Riley looks like?”

“I do, why?”

“There’s a guy in this picture...” he described Riley perfectly, and she nodded.

“Yeah, that’s him. Why?”

“Natasha,” he breathed. “Holy shit. Natasha, I think... I think he’s still alive.”

Chapter Text

Natasha prided herself on a lot of things, not least of all her ability to keep her composure when it mattered. The only one who could surprise her then had been her Yasha, her teacher, the man who taught her love.

It did not surprise her that this man was still capable of such.

“Come again?” She said, and he laughed breathlessly.

“Two years ago I was on a mission in Belarus. I was paired with another agent. Either they have someone who looks scarily like Riley, or... they actually have Riley.”

“Holy shit,” she said, and he laughed again, then abruptly sobered.

“You can’t tell anyone, okay? Not a word. If it’s not him, or if it is him and he’s been... decommissioned-

“It would ruin Sam,” Natasha agreed. “I won’t. You get a partner and scout out. As soon as Sam’s okay, I’ll look up everything I can.”

“You’re the best,” he told her, and she chuckled.

“I know. I’ll see you later, Bucky.”

“See ya, Tasha. Want me to send Clint over to distract Sam? I could have Tony call you in on a mission,” he offered, and she thought about it.

“The faster we do this, the better. Let’s do it.”

“I’ll make the call now. See you soon.”

“Yup.”

They disconnected, and Natasha ordered, sitting down with the food just before Clint burst in the door. “Hi guys!” He dropped breathlessly into the booth next to Natasha and grabbed a fry. “What’s up?”

“Hey, Clint,” Sam chuckled. “Just lunch. What’re you doing?”

“Eh, just in the neighborhood.” He grabbed another fry, “Got hungry, decided to stop here for lunch, saw you guys.” Another fry, this one dipped in ketchup, and he dropped it in his lap. “Aw, fry, no...” he picked it up, “aw, ketchup, no!”

Sam snorted, and Natasha rolled her eyes. Her phone rang, and she glanced at them apologetically before answering. “Romanoff.”

“Hey, Spice Girl. Tall, Dark and Metal Arm asked me to call you?”

“Yep,” she confirmed.

“You in a place you need out of? Need a suit?”

“Yes and no.”

Tony paused, but he was a genius. “Okay, so if I say I’ll see you in a couple minutes...”

“I’ll be there,” she confirmed.

“But you won’t actually be.”

“ETA four minutes,” she said, checking her watch and standing up, pushing Clint out of the booth so she could slide out after him.

“Okay, cool, that’s my good deed for-”

She ended the call and looked at the men apologetically. “Duty calls,” she said by way of explanation. “I’m sorry.”

“Aw, man,” Clint said, then brightened. “Hey, could I have your sandwich?”

“Knock yourself out,” she chuckled. “I’ll see you two later.”

She walked out, then once she was out of range, brought her phone out and began typing furiously, looking up everything she could on Sam’s lost partner. She stopped suddenly enough that people bumped into her. “Holy shit,” she said, and sprinted to Sam’s house, calling Bucky as she did. “Hey. You still at Sam’s?”

“Yeah, trying to find anything to help us. Why?”

“I’m less than a minute out. Unlock the door. There’s something you need to know.”

“Okay.” She heard movement. “The door’s unlocked. What do I need to know?”

“It’s about Riley. I see the house, I’ll see you in a minute.” She disconnected the call and twenty seconds later was bounding up the front steps.

“Y’know,” Bucky said first thing, “I kinda gathered it was about Riley.” He handed her a bottle of water and ushered her over to the couch. “C’mon, sit. I’ve got food, want some?”

“Smells great,” she promised. “Later?”

“Okay. So what’s the news on Riley?”

“You remember that coup four months ago in Europe that I was sent to stop?”

“Yeah. Fury was pissed. I think that's the first time I've ever seen you fail anything, too.”

“That was Riley.”

Bucky blinked, realization hitting him. “He’s enhanced.” He sat down and put his head in his hands. “Shit. Poor Sam, man, he can’t catch a break, huh?” He laughed, just this side of hysterical, and she laid a hand on his arm.

“I know. We need to focus, Bucky. C’mon. Have you found anything?”

“Nothing worth a second look.” He shrugged, “What about you? Anything besides Belarus?”

She grinned and pulled out her phone. “Belarus is just the tip of the iceberg. Give me five minutes and I can tell you where he’s being held.”

“And you’ll only need three to do it,” he chuckled, and pressed a kiss to her hairline. “I’ll get you some lunch.” She smiled at him gratefully, albeit distractedly, and he chuckled before walking to the kitchen. “Should I call Steve in?”

“Might as well,” she mused. “Just remember, this was him and you just a couple of years ago.”

“Yeah, and look at us today,” he chuckled, grabbing his phone. “He’ll be okay.”

She made a face, but didn’t try to stop him from calling the blond. “Steve? How fast can you make it down to Sam’s house?” He paused, listening, then nodded. “Okay. We’ll wait here.” Another pause, and a slight smile. “Yeah, fine. Just get down here, okay? See you soon.”

He put down the phone and looked at Natasha. “Five minutes,” he promised. “In the meantime, anything else we need to know?”

Natasha shrugged. “Anything else you can remember about him? Do you remember him being enhanced?”

“No, but I didn’t recognize myself as being enhanced then, either. It was day in and day out of do what they tell me and don’t think about it.” He shook his head, “I quickly learned thinking about it just brought me pain. But you knew that, I guess, huh?” She sent him a wry smile, and he returned it. “So no, I don’t remember him being enhanced. But in retrospect, unless I’m just remembering what I want to, he was just as capable as I am.”

“Any shiny new toys we should know about?” She asked, gesturing to his left arm.

He blew out a breath in thought. “Nothing noticeable. I remember there was something, though...” he trailed off and stood up, beginning to pace. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there were definitely... adjustments.” He shook his head, “It’ll come to me, I know it will, it’s just a matter of when.” Another puff of air, “Okay, okay, lemme think.” He muttered to himself and suddenly turned to her, excitement in his eyes and voice. “His spine! His spine was strengthened with titanium. And if I’m remembering correctly, it extends up to his skull, as well.” He crossed over to her and took her neck in his hand. “Up to here.” He slid his hand up into her hair and finally stopped in the back at around ear level. “It’s not pure titanium; this is decades after my arm, so the technology may as well be light-years ahead. It’s his skull and spine, but they’re laced with titanium.” He began to pace again. “HYDRA worked closely with Khalid Khandil for a couple years. They’re still friendly, as far as I know, but not as much as they were. Do you know anything about that?”

“Not much,” she admitted, “but give me three minutes.”

A knock on the door, and it carefully opened to reveal Steve. “Hey,” he smiled at them. “What’s going on?”

Bucky held up a hand to stop him. “Only if you promise not to freak out.”

Steve blinked at him, then Natasha, then back at him. “I promise to try.”

“Come sit down first,” Natasha suggested.

They quickly told him all they knew, his eyes growing wider with each word—until they told him not to tell Sam.

Chapter Text

“Why not?” He demanded, looking between the two of them. While Bucky looked down, Natasha looked him in the eyes, challenging him.

“Because this was exactly you two a couple years ago. If I had the chance to do it over again, I would sit you out. I would make it so you never knew he was alive. Not until he was brought into custody. You can’t deny that you were compromised, Steve. Severely.”

Steve stood and faced her. “Sure, but you think I ever would’ve forgiven you if I’d found out later that you’d gone without me to get my best friend back? You’re delusional.”

“Alright,” Bucky said, standing up quickly and putting himself between Steve and Natasha. He faced the blond, “You. Outside. Around the block twice. Go.”

“I don’t need to-”

“It wasn’t a question. Run.”

Steve blinked at him and slowly shook his head, but turned around regardless. Bucky turned to face Natasha and as soon as Steve was out of range, he spoke. “You can’t do that with him. He’s not gonna see reason. All he’s gonna see is feelings, emotions.”

“But you can see reason.” It was a statement, but her eyes asked the question. Can’t you?

“I can see it from both sides,” he admitted. “I see where you’re coming from and where Steve is coming from. And as much as I hate to say it, Nat, I think he’s right.” He shook his head and started to pace. “It’ll take a lot for Sam to forgive us if we do this without him, and as much as I think you’re right, we need the team more than we need to keep Sam out of this.”

She sighed. “And as much as I hate to admit it, you’re probably right.” She gave a slight laugh, “That being said, thanks for getting Steve to take a breather. Something tells me he’ll be calmer once he’s back inside.”

Bucky laughed, “That’s an old trick. I used to use that back in Brooklyn. I found if you stand your ground he’ll back down as often as not.”

“That’s only with you, though. If I tried, he would’ve stood his ground more than I would’ve stood mine.”

Bucky laughed, and at that moment Steve walked back in and sat on the couch. “I hate you,” he told Bucky, who laughed.

“You feelin’ better now?”

“Shuddup.”

“He’s feeling better,” he promised Natasha with a grin, then turned back to Steve. “I think you’ll be happy to know we came to an agreement without calling each other insane.” He raised a brow at Steve, who sighed.

“That was out of line,” he admitted. “I am sorry, Nat.”

“I understand,” she said, patting his arm as she sat by him. “Bucky explained where you were coming from, and I think you’re right. We do need the team more than we need to keep Sam out of this, as Bucky said. I was thinking about you, about how it looked just seeing you chase after him and lose hope so many times. I don’t want that to happen to Sam.”

“And it won’t,” Steve promised her. “We won’t let it happen. We’ll get him back once and we’ll keep him back. There’s gotta be some sort of programming, and if Bucky could break through, Riley can, too.”

“We’ll have to be careful, though,” Bucky added. “The technology they used on me was so much older than anything they would’ve used on Riley. I know how resilient the brain is, but there comes a time where fried is fried. His saving grace is gonna be the fact that he’s enhanced too.”

“Regardless,” Steve said, “we’re getting him back once and we’re keeping him safe. I can promise you whatever you saw me go through was ten times less than what actually happened.” He turned to the brunet, “On the bridge. Who the hell is Bucky. I was...” he sighed, shrugged. “I was done. If Nat hadn’t interrupted, you would’ve killed me, and I would’ve let you. Because I had no plan. I didn’t know what to do. But we’ll have plans a through z. We won’t let Sam lose hope like that.”

“That being said,” Natasha put in, “when are we planning on telling Sam?”

“Speak of the devil,” Bucky chuckled, and the door opened to reveal a surprised Sam Wilson.

“Not that I don’t love y'all,” he started, “but why are you in my house?”

Natasha walked up and pulled him into a hug, which he belatedly returned. “Come sit down,” she said. “We’ll tell you all about what’s going on. Bucky, you wanna grab the picture?”

He nodded and disappeared into the hallway, and Natasha began her story. “We all know you’re not doing so great right now. It started with Steve, when he met you this morning for your run.”

“I’m not as oblivious as you like to think,” Steve grinned.

“He called Bucky after and told him to meet you here. When you left for another run, Bucky called me. I met you for lunch. In line to order, I called him. He was organizing things, walking around, I don’t know. He saw this.” She grabbed the picture frame from Bucky and pointed to Riley. “You want to know what he said?”

“What’s that?”

“I think he’s alive,” Bucky said quietly, and Sam shot up, shaking.

He took a breath before speaking. “Whatever joke you’re playing on me, it’s not funny.”

“We’re not trying to be,” Bucky said. “He and I worked together when HYDRA and Khalid Khandil were in collaboration.”

Sam sat down. “Holy shit,” he breathed.

“I said that, too,” Bucky said wryly. “We went back and forth a lot, before you got back. Natasha didn’t want to tell you because she saw how Steve was when given the slightest hope that I was still alive. We don’t want that to happen with you. If you can keep it together, you’ll come with us. But if you’re compromised, you’re grounded. Understood?”

Sam took a few deep breaths. “I dunno who put you in charge, but I’m okay. As much as I can be, at least.”

“In that case,” Steve grinned, “I think it’s time to visit our favorite billionaire.”

“Oh, we’re going to see Trump?” Sam asked innocently, and Bucky burst out laughing at the face Steve made.

“Never mind. You’re grounded just for that joke.”

Sam laughed and stood up, pulling Steve into a hug. “Thanks for believing in me,” he murmured. “I won’t let you down.”

“I’m not the one you have to prove that to,” Steve said once they pulled back. “The hardest person to prove it to is gonna be yourself.”

“As Steve said,” Natasha interrupted. “It’s time to pay a visit to our favorite billionaire playboy genius philanthropist. Let’s go see Stark.”

Chapter Text

“My friends!” Tony said with his characteristic swagger, arms outstretched. “What brings you to my humble abode?”

“Okay, Casanova, chill on the humble abode crap,” Sam laughed. “We were hoping you could help us.”

“Anything you need!” He said, then considered. “Well. Except for you,” he said, pointing at Bucky, who smirked and flipped him the bird with his metal hand. Tony just laughed and turned back to Sam. “What’s up? Need new wings? Wanna talk upgrades?”

“Depending on how he feels about it, maybe new wings, but I can’t even begin to think about that right now.” Sam shook his head, “Did I ever tell you about Riley?”

“Riley?” Tony asked. “Who is this Riley? An old flame? Did she burn your house down? Want me to track her down?”

“An old—Christ, Tony, no. Riley had the other EXO-7 wings. He was my partner on the field. And if I had my way-” he stopped suddenly and began to pace. “Jesus Christ, I can’t do this. How’d you do this?” He asked Steve, then continued before the blond could respond. “If I had my way, we’d have been more than just partners on the field.” He stared out the window and said quietly, “The only women who have ever been in my life have been Mama Wilson, Grandma Wilson, and my sister. And you,” he added, turning to give Natasha a half-smile.

Tony gaped at him. “You just- he just-” he grinned, “You just came out to me!”

Sam fixed him with a look. “That’s really what you got from that?”

“Right, sorry, Riley. Continue.”

Sam sighed and turned back to the window, shaking his head. “No, I’m sorry, you’re right. It’s a big deal.” He turned to face Tony again. “The bigger deal is Bucky thinks Riley’s still alive.”

“As of two years ago, he was,” Bucky said firmly. “We worked together.”

“Oh man, this would make a great story,” Tony laughed, then sobered at the looks sent his way. “Right, serious, sorry. Continue.”

Sam sighed once more and shrugged. “We need your help getting him back.” He straightened, “He fell over Afghanistan while we were running a mission on Khalid Khandil.”

“When we worked together, they had him completely broken in. We each spoke what we knew as our native tongues, but we understood each other,” Bucky continued. “Meaning he knows at least Spanish and Russian.”

“He knows French and Italian, too,” Sam cut in.

“He’s trained in classic combat maneuvers, both hand-to-hand and as a pilot, which makes sense. His spine is enhanced with titanium up to about the middle of his skull,” Bucky continued the oral game of hacky-sack. “Knows his way around all sorts of guns and knives. I was the better sniper, but he was the better soldier. Didn’t question orders, better with a handgun, able to see more at once.” He stepped forward and brought up two projections. “The difference between snipers and soldiers are subtle, but they’re there. Snipers focus on one thing at a time, but they can change focus very quickly. Soldiers focus on more than one thing at once; they have to watch their sixes on the field, as well as what’s in front of them, and their fellow soldiers’ sixes. There’s just more that needs attention. I was never very good at that. Riley was amazing, if I’m being honest. I can remember being impressed, and that didn’t happen easily.” He shook his head, “Enhanced reaction time, speed, metabolism, and healing rate means he got a version of the serum too, and I’m willing to bet if it’s not the same version I got, it’s a slightly better version. HYDRA grabbed onto the serum with both hands and was anal about perfecting it. They never did, but they got close enough to make many people nervous.”

“So essentially, we’re looking for a third supersoldier,” Tony summarized. “This one also with brain things to worry about.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Steve said wryly. “Got any ideas?”

“First things first,” he said, and turned to Sam. “Are you okay to be on this op? We all know how compromised Steve was.”

“Steve is right here,” grumbled the blond, and Bucky absentmindedly patted his arm.

“Hush, dear, everyone knows anyways.”

“Shuddup, jerk.”

“Punk.”

“Boys?” Natasha asked pointedly, and they snapped to attention.

“Sorry,” they said simultaneously.

Sam took a deep breath and sent them a shaky smile. “I’m as okay as I’m gonna be.” He focused on the scenery outside the window and continued. “It’s a really big thing, and I don’t want to distance myself from it, but I can if I need to.” He focused back on Tony, “I’ll do whatever you want me to in order to prove I’m mentally capable of being on this op.” He shrugged, “You know my day job. I could be useful, even if he doesn’t recognize me.”

“Will you be able to handle it if he doesn’t recognize you, though?” Tony asked, crossing his arms. “You know how Steve reacted.”

“I’m not Steve,” he said quietly. “I know the situation is similar, but if you think for one second I haven’t been mentally preparing myself for the worst this whole time, then you don’t know me nearly as well as you think you do. There are differences, such as the fact that I’m not going in blind. I know Riley’s alive,” he started ticking off on his fingers. “I know he won’t remember me. I know he’s enhanced. I know he’s probably going to try to kill me.” He threw his hands up, “I know this sounds hopeless and insane! But you didn’t give up on Bucky. Don’t give up on Riley. Not without trying first.”

Tony looked at him steadily. “You sure you’re not him?” He asked, pointing at Steve. “Because that was a Cap-worthy speech. And hey, we know you’re not actually him. We know there’s all these differences. We also know there are a lot of similarities.”

“I see the similarities too,” Sam said. “Regardless, it’s different. So will you help us?”

Tony swiped away the projections Bucky had brought up before speaking. “Jarvis, bring up everything you can find on Riley.”

Chapter Text

Sam could’ve wept as Jarvis obeyed Tony’s orders. “Riley Thompson,” Jarvis intoned. “Presumed dead as of August 12th, 2010. If Sergeant Barnes’s intel is correct, he has been a POW for nine years.”

“Jesus,” Tony said, and Sam couldn’t help but agree.

“I was able to find where he’s being held,” Natasha said, looking at the team. “It won’t be easy. First of all, it’s a country that hates the U.S.-”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Tony scoffed.

“And he’s in the middle of the desert. There’s no way we can do this stealthily.”

“I beg to differ,” Tony started, but Natasha held up a hand.

“I’m not finished. I know what your jets are capable of. I also know what they are not capable of, thanks to the very device they have that knocked me out of the sky last time. And yes, I was camouflaged.”

“Huh,” Tony said, nonplussed. “And there’s not time for me to mess with the camo tech?”

“Not if we want to get him,” she shook her head. “They’re planning on moving him within the week. I don’t know where they’re going, but I can almost promise you it’ll be harder to get him from the new place. This is our chance.” She tapped on her phone and looked up at the men. “All I’m seeing is ‘New Location’.” Bucky’s breath caught, and she nodded. “Yeah. That’s my guess, too.”

“Wanna share with the class, Miss Romanoff?” Tony asked.

“New Location is a different place every time, but what’s the same is the doctors. And not the nice kind, either,” Bucky said grimly. “The kind that cut you open without anesthetics.”

“If we’re right, they’re moving him to do something to the titanium in his spine. Which means he’ll be out of commission, unable to move, for at least a week.”

“And then—what? Back out in the field?” Sam asked, and Bucky shook his head.

“HYDRA might be full of creeps, but they’re careful creeps. With an operation this size, he probably will be somewhat sedated. He’ll be secured to the operating table for a week to let it heal, then PT until he’s back up to snuff.”

“So this really is our one chance,” Tony thought out loud. “If we don’t now, he’ll be too fragile to move.”

“Exactly,” Natasha nodded.

“So what’s our plan?” Sam asked, trying to get everyone to focus.

“We could try infiltration, but that’s usually a long con,” Bucky suggested. “Longer than we have. What we need, ideally, is to get in fast, hit hard, and get out fast. But that’s an entire base, and we’re us. We’re not enough.”

“We could be,” Steve said. “If we can get in as fast as you say, and get out as fast as we need to with Riley, then we could put Tony on distraction duty.”

“Translation: I get to fuck shit up,” Tony grinned, and Sam snorted.

“That’s one way to put it,” he said wryly. “Steve, you really think it’ll work?”

“I think it could,” the blond responded hopefully. “If we have an exact location of the room Riley’s in, then why not blast a hole in the roof?”

“Steve,” Natasha said, and sighed around a chuckle. “It’s underground.”

Steve blinked. “Oh.”

“There’s nothing I hate more than having to say this right now,” she continued, voice soft, and Sam knew what she was going to say. “It might be better if we wait until after he’s operated on. With the way it’s looking right now...” she sighed again and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Sam.”

Sam took a breath and began to pace. “If there’s no way to do it before,” he started, trying to keep his voice even, “Then I agree. But if there’s even a chance...” he stopped suddenly and turned to look at his teammates. “If there’s a chance, I’m willing to take it.”

“You didn’t do any less for me,” Bucky said soberly. “I’m in.”

“I had the same happen to me,” Natasha said, stepping forward. “I’m in.”

“There’s no way I’m sitting this one out,” Steve said. “You’re my friend. I’m in.”

Sam turned to Tony, and the billionaire blinked. “Oh, it’s not obvious? Sorry, I thought it was a given. I’m in.”

“Alright,” Natasha said, stepping forward more and pulling up the schematics for the building Riley was being held in. With an interested hum, she zoomed in on a section. “Steve, your idea of blowing a hole in the roof might actually work. Look at this. There’s less than fifteen feet of dirt on top of the roof right here. That’ll be easy to move with the right explosives. This room is right next to where Riley is most likely being held. If we could get closer,” she added with a flick of her eyes towards Tony, “I could possibly trace down the tracker they invariably have on him and find out exactly where he’s gonna be.”

“Alright, Red Menace, I feel you,” Tony chuckled. “Everyone else hitching a ride too?”

“Let’s get suited up,” Steve directed. “Wheels up in fifteen.”

“You heard the captain,” Natasha said with a private smile. “Everyone out.”


Fifteen minutes and a change of clothes later, they were on their way to the south of Africa. “What a white man is doing in the middle of Africa, I don’t know,” Natasha remarked, and Sam snorted.

“You and me both. Guess we’ll finally see how y’all feel out of place.”

“Oh, honey,” Natasha returned gently, “you’re right there with us. You think you’ll fit in? You lived in Harlem.”

Sam raised an eyebrow and responded in Xhosa. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Not bad,” Natasha responded in the same language, and Sam snorted again, continuing in English.

“You’re speaking learned Xhosa, not native Xhosa. I’m a first-generation American. My mother and grandmother taught me Xhosa before America taught me English.”

“Maybe so,” she allowed, “but you don’t look native anymore.”

He tilted his head at her. “You don’t know much about African culture, do you? It doesn’t matter how many times you’re removed. You’re still African. Sure there’ll be assholes, but that’s true of anywhere you visit.” He pointed at Steve, “He could go to Berlin right now, speaking perfect German, and there will still be assholes.”

Natasha just smiled. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

Sam shrugged. “They’re my family, my brothers and sisters. Yeah, I’m pretty serious,” he said, giving her a small smile.

“Well then,” she said, returning the smile. “Let’s go meet your family,” she teased, and laughed all the way up to the cockpit.

Chapter Text

“You know,” he started conversationally, “if there is anyone there that I’m related to, I’m not sure I want to know.” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, knowing Steve was listening. “To know that someone I’m related to could be doing something like that...” He shook his head. “This might turn into more than just a rescue mission, is all I’m saying.”

“I know,” Steve said, and Sam knew that was true. Knew he did know. “Regardless of how this turns out, you know we’re not leaving you.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, and that was that. He drifted off then, and woke up to Natasha’s hand on his shoulder.

“Suit up.”

As he got dressed, he got more and more stressed, and nothing he tried helped. Eventually he knew he needed help. “Barnes,” He said, motioning with his head. Bucky walked over, a question on his face, and Sam let out a breath and quietly confided, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Bucky looked at him then sat, motioning for him to do the same. “Obviously, I wish what happened had never happened,” he started. “It was easily the worst time of my life. But Steve and I are dating now, which is something that never would’ve happened otherwise. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. So believe me when I tell you if it means I get this ending, I’d do it all over again. And here’s the deal; we’re on our way to Africa. Someplace I never thought I’d go, let alone twice. At the end of this plane ride, you’ve got someone waiting for you, even if he doesn’t know it yet. We’re gonna go in there regardless, but it’s a no-brainer win for us if you’re in. One thing you always do is give me the option, right? So here I am, giving you the option. You can sit this one out if you need to. Or you could come with us and save him yourself. It’s your choice, but I’d like to have my best friend by my side, and I know looking back, you’re gonna wish you did it. If not for us, then for Riley. He’ll need you the second we get in there. He might not know it, but he does remember you.”

“I’m scared, man,” he admitted, looking down. “I don’t know how to do this.”

“You mean compared to me, who obviously knows everything there is to know about everything?” Bucky raised a brow at him. “We’re all lost. That’s a constant. We’re slightly less lost because we’ve been through something like this before, but until we come across a villain that resets our day over and over again, we’re never gonna know what to do.”

“You’re not making me feel better.”

Bucky laughed, stood, and clapped him on the shoulder, then held the position and looked at him. “Listen, man, none of us know what we’re doing. But we do it with confidence and we fool ourselves. You know I’m right. So if you can work up the confidence to prove to yourself that you can do it, then go ahead. If you can’t, I’m benching you.”

Sam let out a shaky breath, nodded, and stood, squaring his shoulders. “I’m good. Let’s do this.”


“What’s the plan?” Tony asked as they stood watching the back hatch lower. “Do we have a plan?”

“Good question,” Natasha said mildly. “I have a plan. Steve, you have a plan?”

“I’ve got a plan.”

“Barnes?”

“You know my name, Natalia.”

“Sam?”

He chuckled, “I gotcha.”

Tony huffed, “Okay, thank you for that point, I get it, we have a plan, I... momentarily forgot.”

“Momentary bout of forgetfulness over?” Natasha checked, and he sighed, but nodded. “Good. Then let’s go.”

“Sam,” Bucky called, motioning him over. He grabbed the back of his neck with his left hand. “This isn’t gonna break you,” He said roughly, shaking Sam slightly with the hand on his neck. “You flying pain in my ass, you’re gonna make it through this, you got me?”

“Please,” Sam said, “you love me,” but grabbed Bucky’s arm and squeezed slightly, thanking him.

Bucky laughed and turned to Steve. “And you,” he said, pulling him in. “You’re an idiot and I love you, and we’re gonna be okay.”

Steve just chuckled. “I’m only an idiot where you’re concerned, Buck,” he said smoothly, but leaned in for a kiss.

“I’m in every part of your life, punk, and I always have been. You’re just an idiot. But you’re a smart idiot who’s gonna make it through this. It’s not us. You got me?”

Steve grabbed his shoulders and kissed his forehead. “I gotcha,” he said quietly. “You gotta remember that too, though. It’s not us. We’re fine. You’re here with us, not with them.”

Bucky smiled. “Baby, you know Shuri took those words out of my head. You know it’s the only reason I agreed to it in the first place.”

Natasha, who knew everything everyone ever said, froze. “Wait,” she said, loud enough that everyone stopped and looked at her. “What words?”

Bucky exchanged a glance with Steve before turning to face her fully. “The trigger words. You know the ones.”

“Nothing else?”

“What else is there to take out?” He asked, getting nervous.

“Shit,” she said, instead of answering. “Shit, shit, shit!” She paced and ran her hands through her hair, then stopped to face Bucky again. “If any of them know anything about you, anything other than those words, then we’re in deep shit.”

“Natasha,” he said, trying to keep his cool, “what else is there to know?”

“Stark, close the hatch and bring us up to ten thousand. Now.”

“On it,” He said, hatch already closing and plane already rising.

She turned back to Bucky, then looked behind him at Steve. “Get ready to catch him,” she said, causing both men to raise a brow.

She turned to Bucky and swallowed hard. “Sputnik.”

His legs collapsed and his eyes fluttered. “The hell?” He asked weakly, before actually passing out.

“Shit,” Natasha said, looking at him. “Shuri only got out the ten words he knew about. Of course he wouldn’t know about the others. None of you would. I should’ve been there.” She started to pace again, arrested by a small voice speaking Russian.

I don’t blame you,” Bucky said, looking at her. “There was no way for you to even know what Shuri was doing. This isn’t your fault, Natalia.”

“Maybe you should,” she responded in English.

He smiled at her and said in the same language, “Maybe. But I don’t. Accept it.” He squeezed Steve’s hand and stood up, walking over to Natasha and pulling her into a hug. “We’ll find a way around this,” he murmured. “I don’t care if I have to sit up here while you guys go in. Call Clint in, or something. I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet there’s a way to beat this.”

“Actually, I might have something,” Tony spoke up. “They were meant for Riley, but it’s a good thing I’m extra and made two pairs.”

“What is it?” Steve asked, standing.

“Noise-cancelling comms. Completely silent.”

Chapter Text

“Let’s see them,” Steve said, walking closer. “No sound whatsoever?”

“That is what I said,” Tony replied mildly, pulling a case out of his pocket. “They’re small enough they won’t get noticed, but big enough they won’t fall out or let any sound in.”

“Tony,” Bucky said seriously, striding forward to take the case. “You are a genius.” He turned to the rest of the team with a grin. “Someone kiss this man so I don’t have to!” He laughed as Natasha winked on her way to Tony, who got a peck on his cheek for his efforts.

“There, a kiss,” she grinned, and Bucky laughed as he unzipped the case. “What about noise from other comms? If we’re in the same place and someone tries to trigger me and someone else’s comms catch it, will I hear it?”

“No,” Tony said, “mainly because you won’t hear noise from anyone else’s comms. It works off the vibrations in your jaw. No vibrations, no sound. So as long as none of us say it, you’ll be fine.”

Bucky grinned and put them in, then turned to Natasha. “C’mon, say it again.”

She did—he knew she did, because he read her lips—and he grinned widely as no sound passed through. “They work perfectly,” he told her. “I can’t hear you at all.”

She grinned and put her own comms back in. “Perfect.” She looked around the jet with a smile. “Alright, everyone, comms in. Let’s get this show on the road. Tony, drop us back down, please.”

“Your wish is my command,” he bowed, and Bucky groaned.

“Who let him see Aladdin?”

“Fuck off,” Tony said lightly, and he snorted.

“Let us know when we’re at altitude,” Natasha interrupted. “Should we go through the plan one more time?”

“Everyone except Tony drops down together,” Steve says. “He blows up the dirt and roof where we need to get in, then concentrates fire on the other side of the compound while we slip in.”

“We have almost exactly four minutes to get in, get him, and get out,” Natasha continued. “You and I will keep the rest of the fire concentrated on us while Bucky and Sam go find him.”

“How long will it take if everything goes perfectly?” Tony asked.

“About three minutes. We have one minute’s worth of mess-ups. We have to be on our A-game for this one. Everyone ready?”

“Ready.”

“Ready.”

“Ready.”

“Already out,” Tony replied, and he was, hitting the ground where they needed to infiltrate with a small missile, then flying away, towards the other side of the bunker. “Give me half a minute to draw the fire.”

“You’ve got thirty seconds, but no longer,” Natasha promised him. “We’ll move out in fifteen.”

Fifteen seconds passed and they dropped, hitting the ground and rolling, before cautiously standing, making sure no one was onto them. “Stark, anyone know it’s you?” Steve asked, and they all waited with bated breath for the answer.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “I’m hitting fast and hard, then getting out of range. If they do know, they’ve got tech I don’t know about.”

“Keep on them,” Natasha instructed. “In a few seconds, it won’t matter if they know it’s you or not. Let’s go.”

With that, they crept toward the crater in the ground, quickly and quietly. Natasha was the first to drop in, silencing a soldier as he ran towards her with her Widow’s Bites. “Everyone in,” she quietly said through the comms.

They all dropped in, one after the other, with Sam last. Natasha turned to face them, gesturing so they wouldn’t draw attention with their voices. She dropped a kiss on Bucky and Sam’s foreheads before letting them leave, then turned to Steve and kept signing.

Bucky and Steve crept down the hall, Bucky first to take any fire, both with guns drawn.

They made it to the door Natasha had said Riley was behind, and decided to keep going for a while, making sure there was no one who could sneak up on them.

They made it to the end of the hallway before Sam tapped Bucky’s shoulder and motioned to his wrist, eyes wide. They had two minutes left.

Bucky’s eyes widened too, and he motioned back down the hall. They bolted as fast as they could without being heard and made it inside the room, shutting the door only to come face-to-face with five soldiers inside the room with Riley.

Bucky could see the moment each of them realized they were in the room with the Winter Soldier. The eyes widened and their grips on their guns got tighter. “Hi,” he grinned. “Now, listen. I’m sure you’re nice guys. So we can do this the easy way, or the hard way. What do you think?”

Thanks to Tony’s earbuds, he couldn’t hear what they said, but he could tell by the expressions they weren’t being going for the easy option. “Sam,” he said, sounding disappointed, “I don’t think they’re gonna play nice.”

“I think you’re right,” Sam said, catching his eye and giving a nod.

Bucky grinned and stepped forward, drawing everyone’s attention. Behind him, Sam raised his guns. One, two, three bullets, one, two, three men down. The fourth was able to raise his gun, but Sam had plenty of warning and ducked in time.

The fifth man was still, staring at Bucky. “What language do you speak?” He asked. “English? Russian? Spanish?” He tried, and when the man’s eyes widened in his native tongue, Bucky chuckled and continued. “Get out of here,” he said with a sharp tilt of his head. “Live a better life. Be better.

The man’s eyes widened even more, and he moved toward the door. Before he could leave, though, Guy Number Four shouted something that was probably along the lines of “Traitor!” and shot Guy Number Five in the back.

Bucky cursed under his breath. “See, I didn’t wanna hurt you,” he said, sounding disappointed, then raised his gun.

After Guy Number Four was dealt with, they both turned their attention to Riley, who was strapped to a table, but lucid, if his eyes tracking their movements was any indication.

Bucky tried Russian first and was pleased when Riley seemed to understand. “Remember me?” He gave a half-smile. “I can’t hear right now, but I’ve got things to tell you, alright? This guy, right here,” he started, pointing at Sam, “is on our side. Understood? Everyone else in this room was not.

Riley nodded, and Bucky breathed out a sigh of relief and turned to Sam. “See over on the control panel, there should be only one button labeled. That’ll release the bonds.” He stood between Riley and Sam, and let out another sigh when all Riley did was stand up and stretch. “Let’s go,” Bucky said, and gestured as he spoke. “Sam, you first. He’ll follow you.” He turned to Riley, who was already in position. He could have face-palmed. “Right, you speak English too. Sorry. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Sam turned halfway around to address Riley. “What do they call you?” When Riley contemplated it, he added, “You won’t be punished for answering.”

That seemed to convince him. “They don’t call me anything. I’m a number, forty-two.”

“Forty-two?” Sam repeated. “What are you the forty-second of? And how many more are there?”

Riley shrugged with an expression Sam remembered perfectly, and his breath caught as he turned to face forward again. Riley continued speaking. “You’re not like the other handlers.”

“No? How so?”

“Well for starters, the other ones don’t usually kill the handlers they’re relieving.”

Again, with the Riley-like answers, and Sam wanted to swear, to scream, just so he could get some of the confusing emotions out. He managed to chuckle instead. “Well, you’re no stranger to sides. We’re just on opposite sides is all.”

“Yeah,” Bucky chuckled. “And we’re better’n ‘em.”

Riley turned and looked at him curiously. He said something and Bucky blinked at him. “Sam? What’d he say?”

Sam chuckled. “You told him earlier you couldn’t hear, remember? He doesn’t understand how you can hear me.”

Bucky’s mouth made an o-shape. “Right. I’ve got comms in that block out sound. I’ve still got some  trigger words in my head, and if they know any, I’d be on their side. It’s safer this way. These comms block out all noise, and the only reason I can hear him is because he’s got comms, too.”

Riley turned to Sam then and said something, and Sam laughed before replying, “Man, I dunno. That stuff’s way too technical for me. What’d Tony say, Bucky?” Sam asked. “About the comms, how they work?”

“It’s based on the vibrations in your jaw,” Bucky answered, tapping his own jaw in demonstration. “You can hear anyone with comms in, and they can hear you, but not people you’re talking to who don’t have comms. With the special comms I have, I can’t hear anything besides other people with comms.”

Riley seemed to be about to answer when he stopped and cocked his head at the ceiling.

“Shit,” Sam said, and Bucky took a breath.

“Lemme guess, alarm?”

“Yup.”

“Awesome. Want me to take point?”

“You, who can’t hear anything? No thanks. I’ve at least got a chance at hearing them coming.”

“I could always take the comms out.”

“If you did that, we run the risk of you switching, and I happen to like life. I don’t want Steve or Nat to kill me.”

“I still think there’s a better chance of-”

“Why don’t I lead?” Riley signed as he spoke, causing both men to stop and look at him. He turned to Sam. “Look, I don’t necessarily trust you, but I don’t not trust you either, and right now I trust the guys that had me before even less than I trust you.”

They looked at each other for a minute before Sam turned to Bucky, just barely holding it together. “He’s willing to be on point. He trusts us more than anyone else right now.” He swallowed, and Bucky saw everything Sam wasn’t saying. I need help. I’m too close and I know it.

“It seems like our best option right now,” Bucky said carefully. “Where are the comms Tony brought for him?”

Sam could have face palmed. “Those would’ve been useful before now,” he said wryly as he dug them out of his pocket and turned back to Riley. “Here, put these in.”

“Much better,” Riley said, and grinned at them.

“Oh, is that Riley?” Tony said. “Hi Riley!”

“Not now, Tony,” Steve cut in. “You three okay?” He grunted, and Bucky chuckled.

“Better’n you are right now. Watch your own six.”

Steve chuckled, but fell silent, so Bucky turned to Sam and Riley. “Ready?”

Sam checked his gun and cocked it. “Ready.”

Riley watched Sam with a sort of smile, then shrugged. “Ready.”

“In that case,” Bucky smiled at Riley, “we’re following you.”

In turn, Riley inclined his head, an unspoken thanks for trusting me, and led them onward. “Where’d you come in?”

“Not too far from here, actually,” Bucky chuckled. “Besides, it’s kinda hard to miss a giant hole in the ceiling.”

Riley chuckled. “Really not going for subtle, huh?”

“Not in the slightest,” Sam agreed. “It might’a screwed us over this time, though.”

“Nah,” Bucky said, and only half his bravado was fake. “We’ve got this.”

They rounded the corner and Riley chose that moment to turn and grin at Bucky. “Ri-!” Sam started, pushing in front of him and shooting a soldier who was in the middle of raising his gun. He seemed to be the only person there, just as surprised as they were, so Sam turned to Riley. “You can’t turn around.” He gave him a small smile, “Who’re we gonna count on if you get shot?” He blinked at the look on Riley’s face. “Uh, you okay?” He glanced at Bucky, who really looked at Riley and suddenly turned back to Sam, eyes wide.

“Dammit,” Bucky said. “We’ve lost him for at least a minute.” He let out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “He’s remembering something.”

Sam blinked at him and held his voice as steady as he could. “Okay, so, what do we do? How do we get him with us?”

“I dunno, man, whaddya usually do with me?”

Sam shrugged helplessly. “We usually leave you alone! This usually isn’t an issue!”

“Great,” Bucky said, and ran a hand through his hair again. “Nat, how much time we got?”

“You don’t.” Her voice sounded tight, and she blew out a breath. “I can give you half a minute longer. Need an out?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky said, at the same time Riley spoke.

“No. Sorry.” He took a shuddering breath and nodded at Sam and Bucky. “I’m alright. Let’s go. Half a minute, right?”

“Right,” Bucky said, since Sam was currently floundering. “Let’s go, double time.” The familiar military jargon snapped Sam out of it, and he clenched his jaw, nodding.

“Twenty seconds, boys, let’s move it,” Natasha said, and they sprinted towards the hole.

“Five seconds till we’re exposed. Where’s the jet?”

“Waiting for you. We’ve got cover for you, just get up here.”

“On it,” Bucky said, stopping beneath the hole. “Sam, you first, then him. Pull me up after.” He crouched and linked his hands together as a step.

Sam and Riley got out without a problem. Bucky didn’t hear anything, thanks to the earbuds, but suddenly felt a tight pressure in his bicep that he knew all too well.

“Was that a gunshot?” Sam yelled.

Chapter Text

“Yup,” Bucky said, glancing at his arm. “Two guys. Give me a sec.” He grabbed his gun with his left hand, took aim, and shot, the second guy’s shot going wild. He stood there for a second, making sure no one else was coming, and holstered the gun again. “Comin’ up, you guys ready?”

Sam’s head and left arm appeared in lieu of an answer. “He’s anchoring me. Can you reach?”

Bucky stretched and touched the tips of his fingers. “If I jump.”

“Gimme a couple more inches,” Sam called behind him, and shuffled forward a little bit until Bucky could reach.

“Perfect.” He grabbed Sam’s hand, “Pull me up.”

Riley appeared once Sam was secure on the ground and reached for Bucky’s right arm. He reached for Riley and cursed when it moved the wound. With one last pull, they got him on the ground, and they were up and running toward the quinjet.

“Everyone else on?” Sam yelled into the comms, and was met with affirmative answers from the rest of the team.

“Start the engines, Stark,” Bucky grunted, holding his right arm close to his body and trying not to jostle it as he ran. “And someone get out the medkit.”

“Out,” Natasha said. “Where’s the wound?”

They made it into the jet then, quickly getting further into the plane to avoid getting caught in the closing door. They took a couple seconds to breathe, then Bucky stood and walked over to Natasha. “Bicep. Looks like a clean hit, no bone or major arteries.”

“Small mercies.” She smiled crookedly at him and started cleaning it. “You’re okay, though?”

“Other than that, yeah. Stark’s earbuds worked perfectly.” He snorted, “Didn’t even hear the gun.”

“Hey, Buck,” Steve smiled as he walked up, giving the brunet a side hug to not jostle Natasha’s work. “You doin’ alright?”

“More’n fine, punk, ‘s not the first time and it won’t be the last.”

“I know, just don’t like seein’ you hurt, is all.”

“You know what I dislike even more?”

“What’s that?”

“You comin’ over here and not givin’ me a kiss first.”

Steve laughed out loud and bent over, kissing Bucky square on the lips, then pulling back ever so slightly to murmur, “Forgive me?”

Bucky hummed and leaned his head back to look at the blond. “Maybe,” he allowed. “If you do that again.”

“Oh, izzat so?” Steve grinned, already leaning in again.

“Move me,” Natasha said disinterestedly, “and I will end both of you.”

They both laughed as they pulled apart this time, looking at Natasha, who quirked the corner of her mouth upward and glanced at them in return.

“Uh-oh, babe,” Bucky laughed, “That’s her Don’t-Fuck-With-Me face.” He smiled softly up at the blond, “I’ll talk to you later, okay? Go check on Sam.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, stroking Bucky’s hair back and placing one last kiss to his forehead before walking towards the other side of the ship. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

As he got closer, Steve heard Riley talking to Sam. “Back in the base,” he was saying. “You started to call me... something. And the man, Tony, he called me Riley. That feels... not right, but... not wrong, either. Like I used to hear it from different people.” He turned his head and regarded Sam, “And my head wants to recognize your voice. Especially when you started to say... whatever you did. When you started to say my name.” He was silent for a second, watching Sam, then said, “You know my name. What is it? Is it Riley?”

“Sam,” Steve called, interrupting the conversation. He smiled as he approached. “Hey, man,” he said, accepting the hug. “You good?”

“I’m good,” Sam said, breathlessly. “You?”

“Fine. We ran into, like, two guys, and Nat had way too much fun.” He chuckled and turned to Riley, extending his hand to shake. “Hi. Steve.”

“Hello,” Riley said politely, and shook, “I’m sure you already know the situation, but I, uh, don’t know my name.” He shrugged, and Steve smiled.

“Yeah, we’re hoping to help with that. Can I borrow this guy for a minute?” He asked, pointing at Sam, and received a shrug.

“Go ahead. I’ll be here.”

“Good to know,” Steve chuckled, and walked Sam around the corner, where he promptly sank down onto a box and covered his face with his hands, letting out a shuddering breath.

“Oh my god,” he mumbled. “Steve, man, I dunno what the hell I’m doing.”

“You think I did?” Steve chuckled, then placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder and knelt in front of him. “Hey, look at me. You’re alright. We got him, Sam.”

“We did,” Sam replied. “But he doesn’t know who he is, who I am... and now he’s asking me about how Tony called him Riley, how I almost called him Riley, and I was being careful not to ‘cause I dunno what’ll happen when I do, and I dunno what I’m doing, Steve, I’ve got no clue.” He could hear his words getting faster and faster, and didn’t understand why he couldn’t slow down.

Steve took his hand and placed it over his own chest. “Okay, breathe with me, okay? In, out. In, out. Good. Keep going. In, out.”

After a couple minutes, Sam sighed. “Thanks for that.” He ran both hands over his head and sat up, “I needed that.”

Steve just looked at him sympathetically. “I think you should talk to Bucky, too. He knows some of what did and didn’t help for him.”

“This is true,” Bucky chuckled as he walked up. “Straight from the horse’s mouth. Well, deadly brainwashed assassin, in this case, but same difference.” He smirked as Steve rolled his eyes. “Anything specific you wanna know? Or just generally feeling overwhelmed?”

“Yes,” Sam answered, then chuckled and shook his head. “Man, I dunno. He’s asking about his name, and I dunno what that’s gonna unlock, based on what happened in the base when I said the first syllable.”

“It could actually be less confusing for him if you tell him,” Bucky said. “He’s already remembering, right? But you’re only giving him part of the information. He’s having to puzzle out the rest of it. Tell him his name, Sam, that’s part of what his identity’s tied to. And if he’s asking questions, answer them. Let him have that little bit of autonomy that they never did.”

“Okay,” Sam said, and blew out a breath as he stood. “I’m scared as hell, but okay. I can do this.”

Steve looked at him, concerned, then drew him in for another hug. “You’ve got this,” he confirmed. “You’ll be okay. And we’re right here if you need us.”

“Thanks, man,” Sam spoke into his shoulder before moving away.

Steve stepped back to give Bucky his turn, but he grabbed Steve’s hand instead and squeezed slightly. “One minute?” Steve nodded and walked off, and Bucky turned back to Sam. “You look at me,” he said roughly, bringing his left hand up to the back of Sam’s neck. “You’re here for a reason, you stubborn asshole, and you’re not leaving ‘till you get what you came for, y’hear me? And you care for him. And I know I’ve only got one fully functioning arm at the moment, but you’d better believe me when I say if you give up on him, I’ll end you.” He pulled Sam in for a one-armed hug and whispered fiercely, “Now you get out there, you son of a bitch, and you show him what it’s like to be human again, because he damn well needs to know, and he damn well needs to know from you, you got me?”

“I got you,” Sam said, and held the hug for a beat longer. “Thanks.”

Bucky grinned at him. “Go get ‘im, man. We’re right here.”

Chapter Text

Sam took a breath and started back over to where Riley was patiently sitting. “Sorry about that,” he said, and got a shrug in reply.

Riley shifted then, and faced him more. “The Soldier and... and Steve. They were- is fraternizing allowed? Will they be punished?”

“The Soldier and- oh,” Sam laughed. “No, no, it’s totally fine. One hundred percent allowed. And his name’s Bucky.”

Riley frowned. “But he said his name was Steve.”

Sam smiled. “No, his name is Steve, but the Soldier’s name is Bucky.”

“Bucky.” Riley tried it out and shrugged once more. “Alright. Bucky and Steve, then. That is allowed?”

“Yeah, it’s allowed. They’ve been together for months. Tony, the one who’s currently piloting the ship, will flirt with anything that moves, and Natasha—the redhead—had a thing going on with another teammate for a while, but as far as I know they’re just friends now.”

“Oh,” Riley said, then turned to face Sam more fully. “And you? Are you with anyone?”

Sam isn’t sure how he managed the chuckle. “Nah, no one for me at the moment, but I’m available, you know?”

“I think so,” Riley nodded. “And if I could ask the same question as earlier, what’s my name?”

“Your name,” Sam said, and sighed, “is Riley.” He carefully watched his expression, and was able to breathe again once Riley nodded.

“That sounds... most right. Out of everything so far.” He turned to Sam, then, and asked, “Do you know me?”

Sam took a breath, swallowed, and nodded. “I do. Or—I did. It’s a long story.”

“How long is the flight?” Riley asked, with a hint of humor in his voice, and Sam chuckled.

“Yeah, alright, fine. Start from the beginning, I guess?”

“A very good place to start,” Riley agreed, and they both froze. “I- I don’t- I don’t know why I, uh, said that,” he admitted, voice low and definitely not looking up.

“That, uh,” Sam said, and chuckled, and cleared his throat. “That was a joke we had. Based on a movie. But that’s not important, sorry.”

“A joke,” Riley repeated slowly, and just as slowly looked back up at Sam. “Tell me, please. About us.”

Sam blew out a breath and nodded. “We were both in the army, but didn’t meet until we were chosen for a special program. We had EXO-7 suits, basically wings that extended from a backpack, and we went out on missions together. We were partners.” Sam cleared his throat. “Nine years ago, your pack was hit  and you went down like I stone. I couldn’t find you. I thought you’d died when you hit the ground, but, uh.” He gestured at Riley, “Obviously not. It turns out you were found by Khalid Khandil, who was working in close collaboration with Hydra at that point. They used the same technology and serum on you as they did on Bucky.”

Riley’s eyes had gotten wider. “No- no, that can’t be possible. I’ve only been with them for three years.”

“They wiped your memories,” Sam said quietly, heartbroken. “And- and I don’t know how to prove it to you, since you don’t remember, but you have been. I have- well, I guess once we get back you’ll see, but I have pictures. There’s pictures of you and me ten years ago, I know where your mom lives, I know your favorite bagel place. I know you’re from the South and can’t find any good sweet tea up here so you make your own.”

“Stop,” Riley muttered, holding his head. “Please. Just- I can’t. Not right now.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam said, helpless.

“No. It’s... because it feels right.” He looked up, and his eyes were bright. “It feels right. I can’t explain it, and I don’t know why, but everything you’re saying fits. I believe you, but it’s all too much right now.” He shook his head and looked down again. “What I wouldn’t give for-” his eyes widened, and he looked up at Sam at the same moment Sam looked at him.

“-a song?” Sam finished quietly, and Riley swallowed, nodded, scrubbed hands over his face.

“I don’t remember. I don’t know who I am, let alone who you are. I don’t trust anyone yet. But I know these things, and you know them, too, and they must be right, but I don’t know how.”

“One more thing?” Sam asked, and Riley blew out a breath, but nodded. “Your nickname. Er, nicknames. Everyone called you Lee, but only two people ever called you Ri. Your mom, and-”

“-you,” Riley interrupted, looking up at Sam, and Sam could’ve cried. “I know... I still don’t know you. But I know your voice, and I know that name, and I know the way you say it.”

He sat back, clenched his jaw, swallowed, then relaxed. “So. Nine years.”

“Just about,” Sam nodded. He furrowed his brow. “You okay? You’re not looking too great. Need something?”

“I-” He had to stop again, to swallow, and Sam’s eyes widened in understanding.

“I gotcha. Gimme a sec.” He found a wastebasket somewhere—thank God for small miracles—and gave it to Riley before moving to talk to Bucky. “Hey, remember when you first came back? Bruce gave you those pills?”

“Yeah?” Grey eyes widened. “Oh, shit. Is he okay?”

“Man, I dunno. We were talking, and he’s remembering, and now this is happening, and I don’t know.”

Bucky blew out a breath and stood up. “Okay, first things first, take a deep breath. Sit down, talk to Steve, he can help you. He knows why I needed the pills better’n anyone. I’m gonna call Bruce, then go sit with Riley and talk him through it. Okay?”

Sam sat in the abandoned seat and threw his hands up. “Sounds great.” He leaned back, his his face in his hands, and let out a breath in tandem with scrubbing his hands down his face.

Bucky stood a little bit away, watching them as he spoke to Bruce. On the tail end of the conversation, he walked over to where Riley was. “Hey,” he said with a soft smile. “You doin’ alright?”

“I’m fine,” Riley said roughly, and Bucky made a face.

“Yeah, I thought the same thing. Thought I got too excited, somethin’ like that. Then it happened every time I remembered somethin’.” He tapped at his head, “They don’t just mess with your head, man, it’s your body, too. You’ll be okay this once, but you don’t want to go through it every time, I can promise you that. I called one of our friends, though, he’s a doctor, he got me some pills to neutralize whatever they did. We still don’t fully know, but the pills work.” He shrugged, “Anyways, just thought you’d want to know. We’re getting some for you. We take care of our own, y’know?”

Riley didn’t respond, just sat back and regarded Bucky. “How’d you get from the Winter Soldier to Bucky?”

He raised his brows, “Well, I’m not gonna lie and say it was easy or fun. But I am gonna say it’s worth it.”

Chapter Text

“What they did to me is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. They captured me, believe it or not, in 1945.” He smiled at the dubious look Riley gave him. “Look, believe me or don’t, all I’m sayin’ is the Winter Soldier was a ghost story for well over fifty years, and look at me.” He spread his arms, metal on full display, before the pain reminded him of the gunshot wound. “Ow, shit.” He smirked at Riley, “Sorry. Anyways, yeah, 1945. Dead of winter, and I fell. Must’ve been two hundred feet. Right off a cliff, and I nailed my left arm pretty good,” he said, lifting the metal to illustrate his point. “They put this on because I was better off dead than one-armed to ‘em.”

He shifted, “Anyways, they pumped me full of what felt like four hundred different drug cocktails, and ran a buncha different tests, and then put me in this chair and zapped me, so hard I forgot everything. I didn’t know nothin’, not who I was, not my ma’s name, not what I ate for breakfast that morning. Everything, just—zzzt!—gone.” Riley managed a half-smile at his interjection, and Bucky smiled back.

“So I’m there, and I dunno nothin’. And they say, you work for us. And I say, okay. They told me who to shoot, I shot ‘em, I went back to base. When I started to remember, they shocked me. When they didn’t need me, they put me in cryo. They ever put you in cryo?”

Riley managed to shake his head, and Bucky chuckled. “Figures. They need you for more now than they needed me for back then. So that’s my life, not that I remember most of it, from ‘45 to... twenty-fourteen I think? Hang on.” He turned away and yelled, “Steve, twenty-fourteen?”

“September,” was Steve’s response, and Bucky snorted.

“Nerd!”

“Geek!”

“Children,” Natasha called from her copilot’s seat, and Bucky chuckled.

“We’re all a bit scared of her, even me, and I trained her. You ever hear about the Black Widow? The Red Room program?”

“It sounds familiar,” Riley admitted softly. “I may have... rumors, maybe?”

“It’s more’n possible,” Bucky nodded. “So, anyways, twenty-fourteen rolled around, and I got sent on this mission, right? Kill Captain America.” He shook his head, “Whole thing was a fuckin’ suicide run. I get on this bridge in D.C. and confront them, and that blond back there, Steve, he’s Captain America. And he gets my mask off, gets my goggles off, and he goes, Bucky? And you know what I say?”

Riley shook his head again, intrigued by the story, and Bucky chuckled. “I said, who the hell is Bucky? and raised a grenade launcher. I swear, I dunno how I got that whole ghost story nonsense, I’ve never known how to be subtle. So I raise it, but you know how it is, when someone you know calls you by your name, it rocks you to your foundation, right? And Natasha shoots somethin’ at me, and at this point I dunno what’s goin’ on. All I know is I ain’t never heard somethin’ more right’n that before in my life. And I end up back at base, and I keep saying, but I know him, but I know him. So they wipe me again, and then I get my orders, and it’s suicide run number two, against him again. ‘Cept this time it’s on a helicarrier, kinda like this but roughly ten times the size, and this punk tried to get me with the sappiest lines he coulda possibly remembered, and y’know what?” He laughed, incredulous, and threw his hands up. “It goddamn worked. I remembered enough that when he sank like a stone to the bottom of the Hudson, I knew enough to save his stupid ass, and I went on the run, tryin’a figure out who I was.” He shook his head, “the rest of it’s nothin’ important, really, it’s all been smoothed over, but the moral, if there ever was one to begin with, is basically you’re gonna be okay, and I know how it is.”

“One thing I’m assuming you don’t know is how comforting it is to hear that,” Riley said quietly. “Thank you. I don’t remember anything, not really, but what you said, about the sappiest thing... that’s kinda already happened twice.” He gave a lopsided grin, “I’ve got the feeling we had a lot of inside jokes.”

Bucky grinned at him and stood. “I’m glad for you. I really am, you deserve someone like Sam in your corner. He’s a real good guy, one of my best friends, even if we do give each other shit all the time.”

“And one more thing,” Riley added, and Bucky sat again. “I saw, earlier, you and... and Steve.”

“Yeah,” Bucky grinned. “We’re together and couldn’t be happier about it. That big lug’s the damn best thing to ever happen to me.”

“It’s worth it, you said?”

“Every second. I’d do it all again if I knew I’d get the same outcome.”

“Then I hope my end is half as happy as yours. It’ll be plenty enough for me.”

Bucky just smiled at him. “I’m gonna go check on our progress. We’re on the fastest jet this side of the Rockies, but you can only go so fast, and we were just in Africa. We’re goin’ back to New York.”

Riley smiled at him. “That’s where you’re from, isn’t it? I hear the accent when you’re speaking about something emotional.”

“I guess I do,” Bucky said, and chuckled. “Yeah, Brooklyn’s always been my home. You gonna be okay if I go check on our progress home?”

“I’ll be alright,” Riley nodded. “Thank you.”

“One word of advice?” Bucky said, pausing just before he left. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Despite what they told you, perfection is never achievable. Sometimes the best you can do is nothing, and that’s okay.”

Riley looked away, visibly thinking the words over, and Bucky walked off toward the front of the plane.

Natasha turned around as he approached, because she always knew everything, and took off her headphones. “Hi,” she grinned, studying him, then said, “You look better.”

“Is that so?” Bucky asked, wholly amused, and she nodded. “Definitely. I think he’s gonna be good for you, too.”

Bucky grinned. “Does that scare you?”

She laughed, “No more than does the fact that you and I are good for each other.”

He laughed, then, and gathered her into a hug, kissing the top of her head. “I actually came up here to find out our ETA.”

“Oh, I see,” she said, winding her arms around his torso. “You only want me for my information.”

“You caught me,” Bucky said gravely, and they both chuckled.

“I’m thinking probably another hour,” she said apologetically. “Everyone holding up okay?”

“It could be better,” Bucky admitted. “But it could definitely be worse, too. I think we’re handling, so far.”

“That’s really all you can do, at this point,” Natasha pointed out, and Bucky smiled at her before resting his cheek on the top of her head.

“Exactly.”

Chapter Text

Sam couldn’t believe it, but Riley actually managed to fall asleep on the way. It made sense, though, if he thought about it; that day had been a rather emotionally taxing one. Sam was about ready to drop, too, and would have if it hadn’t been for nerves. He couldn’t stop remembering what it had been like when Bucky first got back.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve had said, smiling, when Bucky came out of his room. Sam had smiled, too, and even beckoned him over to join them in the kitchen.

The brunet had simply blinked and furrowed his brows at them. “Who’s Bucky?”

Steve had made a pained sound as Sam had shut his eyes and cursed quietly. “You are,” he’d said softly. “It’s okay. What do you remember?”

Bucky had just given Sam a little helpless look before replying, “You two... look familiar. But I don’t- I don’t know-”

“That’s alright,” Steve had soothed, though Sam was sure he’d rather be screaming instead.

In the present, Sam was hoping fate didn’t have as fucked up a sense of humor as people normally portrayed it to have. He sat next to Riley, far enough to not raise any suspicions, but close enough that if there was any turbulence and Riley tipped over, he’d tip over onto Sam’s shoulder and, hopefully, keep sleeping.

There was turbulence.

Riley tipped over.

He tipped over onto the opposite side, slowly sliding down for a couple of seconds, then catching on the wall, then sliding again.

Sam wasn’t sure what happened, but all of a sudden Riley had flipped over, gotten his legs beneath him, and was staring at Sam. “Hey,” he said, trying to keep calm. “It’s alright. You’re okay. You fell asleep on the quinjet, we’re almost home and hit some turbulence. It’s alright, I promise.”

Riley’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you?” It came out almost a bark, and shit, if that didn’t hurt Sam.

“My name’s Sam Wilson,” he continued, irregardless. “Your name is Riley. Riley Thompson. Khalid Khandil’s men had captured you, and we freed you.” He turned to yell into the plane before turning back to Riley. “Barnes! A little help?” He smiled at the man still in front of him. “We’re alright, I’m getting someone who hopefully you recognize.” Riley just watched him with narrowed eyes.

“What’s up?” Bucky asked, coming around the corner, and Riley’s eyes shifted from Sam to Bucky. “Hey, you’re up!” He said happily. “How’re you feeling?”

Riley’s jaw tightened. “Where are we?”

“Stand down,” Bucky said softly, immediately recognizing the situation for what it was. “No one wants to fight. I get that you’re confused, but trust me, you don’t want to start this fight. Let’s sit down and work through it, alright?”

Riley didn’t sit, but his expression loosened, and his body relaxed somewhat. “Where are we?”

Bucky hummed and craned his neck, trying to see out the cockpit window. “I’d say somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, but I’m guessing that’s not really your question either, is it?” He took a seat across from Riley and motioned at the chair. This time, Riley did sit. “Debrief. What do you know?”

“You,” he answered immediately. “We’re on a mission? The Red Scare won’t be happy.”

“Why won’t the Red Scare be happy?” Bucky asked, brow furrowing.

Riley leaned back into the chair, less like he was relaxing and more like he was trying to get as far away as possible. “I’ve forgotten. I don’t know what the mission is.”

Bucky just smiled at him. “We’re not on a mission. Nine years ago, you were captured by Khalid Khandil’s men. I’m assuming they’re known as the Red Scare?” He checked, and continued when Riley nodded. “You’re a prisoner of war. They tortured you, drugged you, and made you think you work for them when in reality, you’re against them.” Bucky spread his hands, “it’s the same thing that happened to me with Hydra. They captured me and brainwashed me into working for them. It’s a long story, one I can tell if you want, but basically, I got free and found my family again. We heard about you from him,” he inclined his head towards Sam, “and I remembered working with you, and we decided we were gonna free you, too. And I know this seems crazy, and you don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but I wish you would, and I can show you some things that make it make more sense.”

Riley had somewhat relaxed while Bucky was talking, and shook his head. “No,” he said softly. “It’s okay. I- I believe you. But I would like to hear that story one day.”

“Whenever you want,” Bucky promised with a smile, and just then the quinjet landed with a familiar bump that made Bucky’s smile grow. “Maybe not now, though, since we just got home.”

“Shit,” Sam said, wide eyes turning to Bucky. “Jarvis and Friday.”

Bucky hummed and nodded, standing and walking over when the hatch began to open. “There’s two things you need to know about. One is Jarvis, and the other is Friday. Tony Stark, the guy who was piloting the plane, built these A.I.s, artificial intelligences, to help him out. Jarvis controls his home, and Friday controls his suits. His, uh-”

“His Iron Man suits,” Riley nodded. “Stark is a name very few are not familiar with.”

Bucky chuckled. “Don’t let him catch you saying that, he doesn’t need a bigger ego, but yeah. Those suits.” He turned to walk down the ramp and motioned for the two men to follow. “Friday shouldn’t ever speak directly to you, but you’ll probably hear Tony talking about her. Jarvis, though, can take some getting used to.” He chuckled, “It’s weird having someone talk to you from the ceiling.”

Riley just looked at him. “No odder than having your phone speak to you. Siri’s been around for years.”

Bucky chuckled. “Listen, I know I look like I’m thirty-something, but I’m actually almost a hundred. It’s part of the whole long story I’ll tell you one day. Back then, there was nothing like this.”

Riley looked at him with the ghost of a smile on his lips. “I kinda figured. There’s something off about you.”

“Oh?” Bucky chuckled. “How so?”

Riley shrugged, looking around at the skyline. “Your accent, the way you talk, the words you say. It’s not so much where as it is when.

Bucky just hummed as he directed Riley inside. “The world changed a lot in the eighty years I missed. Cars were a big surprise. We didn’t have many of those around when we were growin’ up. That was if you were rich. And there weren’t any laws about seatbelts, either.” He made a face. “I miss that, actually. I get that it’s safer now, but if I’m in an accident, it’s one I caused, and one I’m walking away from.” He snickered, “Y’know what else cars didn’t have, was turn signals. That came... I think it was ‘39, maybe? Anyways, a bunch’s changed, so I’m not too surprised you can tell somethin’s off.” He grinned at Riley, who was about to speak when Tony walked up.

“Hey, Murderbots—”

“Tony,” Bucky warned.

“—whaddya think about coming on down to the lab to run, like, two quick tests? And then maybe the other lab. Banner’s turf.”

Bucky shut his eyes, inhaled, exhaled, and opened them back on the goateed man. “Give us five minutes,” he requested. After Tony walked away, he smiled wanly at Riley. “He means well. It doesn’t always come off that way. Mind joining me downstairs?”

Chapter Text

About halfway there, Bucky noticed Riley seemed to have to think about each step. Once at the entrance of the elevator, he turned to the other man. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Bucky quietly promised him. “We can tell him another time, or we can just tell him to fuck off completely. It took me a long time to even sort of trust him enough to even breathe in the direction of this thing,” he confided, shaking his left hand in illustration.

Riley blew out a breath. “He- he won’t be angry?”

“Nah,” Bucky shrugged. “He’ll be a bit upset, but between you and me, he’ll spend five minutes down there and completely forget he called us in the first place.” He winked at the other man, reassured when it brought a small smile to his face. “C’mon, let’s try some food, yeah? I’m hungry, and I know there’s nothing in your stomach, either.” He turned and started for the kitchen, stopping when Riley didn’t follow. “Riley?”

He slowly lifted his gaze from the carpet. “Can I speak to Sam?”

Bucky blinked. “I mean, I guess if he’s not busy... J? What’s Sam up to?”

“He is currently in conversation with Captain Rogers. There is a forty-three percent chance he will not take kindly to interruption. Shall I tell him you are asking for him?”

Bucky looked at Riley, who just stared back, somewhat panicked. “It’s your choice,” Bucky said softly. “Whatever you want to do.”

Riley exhaled another hard breath and glanced at the ceiling. “Can you wait five minutes and tell me the percent then?”

“Without a problem,” Jarvis promised, and Bucky grinned at Riley, who shakily smiled back.

“I think I remember... I don’t remember much, but I’m starting to remember again from the plane ride, and I think I’m remembering something about his grilled cheese.”

Bucky chuckled. “I wouldn’t be the person to ask. I know you didn’t see much of it today, but our dynamic is very much that of siblings. We’re total jerks to each other, but the second someone picks on him, I’m on them, and vice versa.”

Riley looked at him strangely. “Who would pick on a superhero?”

“Another superhero.” Bucky grinned as he dropped onto the couch. “Natasha’s the worst, Clint and Tony are tied for second. Steve’s out of the question because he’s Sam’s best friend and my boyfriend, and Bruce prefers not to get in the middle of all this, but he will throw in some one-liners, usually aimed at Tony. Their relationship is pretty hilarious to watch, actually. Tony keeps trying to nickname them the Science Bros, but everyone else keeps vetoing, including Bruce.”

Riley looked around, settling on the bookshelf. “You’re a family.”

“We are,” Bucky agreed. “The best, craziest family I could imagine.”

Riley looked down. “I’m sorry to intrude.”

Bucky stared at him with an odd smile on his face. “Who saved who? Did you save us? I’m pretty sure we saved you and brought you back here with us. We’re always inviting new people.” He started to laugh. “There’s this kid, and I mean kid, like fifteen years old. Literal genius. Tony found him and basically adopted him. He’s living with his aunt, but he calls Tony and Pepper Dad and Mom, and the rest of us are Uncle and Aunt. And let me tell you, I love being called Uncle Bucky, and Auntie Nat is very proud of her title, too.” He spread his arms to encompass the Tower. “Long story short, Riley, we want you here. You’re not intruding. Not in the least.” He sat on the couch and continued. “I mean, you know my story, or some of it, at least. The important parts. They adopted me just like we’re adopting you now. It doesn’t matter what baggage you come with. Hell, I killed Tony’s parents! And sure, there are some days he hates me and wants nothing to do with me, but usually that’s because I put salt in his coffee. Family is family, and family loves each other, through the best and the worst. It’s a marriage you only partially get to choose.” He smirked somewhat, and Riley copied the expression.

“I can tell. How many people are in this makeshift family?”

Bucky blew out a breath as he thought. “Honestly, I don't know. There’s too many and we’re always adopting more. Thor, god of thunder, you heard of him? He adopted the friend of his girlfriend. Her name’s Darcy. She tased him when they met. Twice, if I’m not mistaken.”

Riley raised an impressed eyebrow. “I’d like to hear that story.”

“Gentlemen,” Jarvis interrupted. “Terribly sorry to intrude before the five-minute mark, but Captain Rogers and Mr. Wilson have finished their conversation. There is a four percent chance Mr. Wilson will not take kindly to interruption.”

“Can you tell him I want to talk to him?”

“You know what?” Bucky said. “Get Steve down here too. Let’s all have grilled cheese.” He grinned at the dirty blond, who smiled back, somewhat more subdued. “And you know what goes great with grilled cheese? Tomato soup. J, we got any of that?”

“Four cans in the pantry, sir.”

“Awesome,” Bucky said happily, grabbing them and placing them on the counter. “Now, where’s the...” he looked around at a loss and hummed, then caught Riley’s eye and shrugged. “My memory’s still not back to normal. I’ll forget small things sometimes. Usually I remember within a couple minutes, or someone walks in at the perfect time. I’m not convinced that’s not his doing, actually,” he mused, glaring at the ceiling.

“I will neither confirm nor deny any assistance I’ve given you,” Jarvis returned, and Bucky laughed.

“Okay, so it is you, I’m not crazy. Good to know.”

“Oh, no,” Sam said as he walked in. “I’m pretty sure you’re crazy.”

“Says the bird-man,” Bucky countered, smiling at Steve and motioning him over.

“Hi,” Steve said softly. “I was gone for five minutes.”

“I know,” Bucky replied, leaning in for a kiss. “Brain fart, help. What’m I forgetting?”

Steve looked at the cans. “For tomato soup? Uh, pot, can opener-”

“That one!” Bucky interrupted. “Dammit. Where’s the can opener?”

“Drawer behind you, babe. Is this all we’re doing for lunch?”

“Riley’s gonna convince Sam to make us grilled cheese.”

“Riley has convinced Sam to make y’all grilled cheese,” Sam said as he appeared next to them, looking for the griddle. “I hate you.”

Bucky just laughed. “You wish.”

Sam flipped him off in response and gestures towards the pantry. “Grab me the bread?” He turned around to face Riley. “You want tomato and ham, right? Or-”

“It’s fine,” Riley said quietly. “Whatever you think. All I remember is loving whatever you made me.”

Sam looked at him for a long moment, then turned back to the stove. “Yep, ham and tomato. Want to start slicing a tomato for me? Tomatoes are in the bottom drawer of the fridge, knives are in that block.” He tilted his head toward the chunk of wood next to the toaster.

“Cutting board?”

“Uh...” he turned around and pointed at the island. “Left cabinet. Green one.”

Riley nodded and started working, and for a moment there was a comfortable silence. Still, he couldn’t help it.

“Sam?” He asked quietly. “What was I like? Before?”

Chapter Text

Sam glanced at Bucky, alarm bells ringing in his head. “Don’t say that unless you’re ready to hear about all the ways you aren’t him anymore.” He touched Steve’s arm and let it linger for a second, a fill in for me, and turned to face Riley, taking a step towards the island he was working at.

“Why else would I ask?”

“Because it’s not something you think about. I’ve been through this before, remember. And that conversation was one of the hardest.”

Riley dropped the eye contact and nodded. “I do want to know,” he said finally. “But if it’s not a conversation we should have now...”

“Only you can decide that,” Bucky informed him. “It’s all up to how you’re feeling.”

“Maybe we could go slowly,” Riley said after a minute of thought. “Maybe something easy? What music did I like?”

Sam chuckled a bit. “What music didn’t you like would be a better question. You loved to annoy me with theater tunes, you jammed out to almost every song on the radio, but you had a soft spot for The Beatles and Sting.”

Riley was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “I remember a song... or part of it, at least.” He began to hum, shakily at first, then becoming more confident.

Sam grinned at him for a second before turning to flip a sandwich and sing along to Riley’s humming. “Remember to let her into your heart, then you can start to make it better.” He nodded as Riley stopped. “Yeah, that’s The Beatles. Called ‘Hey Jude’.”

“Why that one?”

“Why do you remember it?” He turned long enough to catch Riley’s nod. “I dunno. It was one of your favorites, one you’d usually listen to after a hard day.”

The next sound he heard was the knife clattering to the floor. He turned, fearing the worst, and seeing Riley staring blankly at the cutting board. “Memory,” Bucky assured him. “Give him a couple minutes to come out of it.”

Sam shared a look with Steve. “I don’t envy what you went through.”

“You have help,” Steve said in response. “That’s really what matters. And you helped plenty with him. Us.”

“Damn right it’s an us thing,” Bucky grumbled, hip-checking Steve. “You had almost as many problems as I did.”

Steve spread his hands as if speaking to an audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, Bucky Barnes. My boyfriend the realist.”

Bucky snorted and shook his head. “You’re dramatic.”

“Sam?” Came a small voice from the island, and Sam pulled Bucky to take over the sandwiches. “What’s up?”

“Can we... talk?”

“Of course,” Sam said, trying to keep calm. “What’s up?”

Riley led them to the living room. “That song. It’s more than just something I’d listen to, isn’t it?” He shook his head, “I remember laying in a tent with you, after a long day, and I could hear it, but it... it wasn’t playing, you were singing it. How many times did that happen?”

Sam hummed as he thought. “More often than not, if I’m being honest. It was hard to get a good radio station. Why? Is there a certain time you’re remembering?”

“I don’t know,” Riley said, and buried his face in his hands. “Just... give me a moment, please.”

After a long second, he finally looked up again. “Were we ever like... like them? Steve and Bucky?”

Sam blinked. “Like how?” He didn’t know if he wanted to be right or not.

“Were we ever together. A couple.”

Sam let out a quick breath. “No, we weren’t.” He couldn’t keep all of the sadness out of his voice, regardless of how hard he tried.

Riley caught it. “Did you want us to be?”

“I... can’t say I would’ve minded.” He gave Riley the smallest hint of a lopsided smile.

“I don't think I would’ve, either,” Riley said quietly, heartfelt. “But I don’t want it like this. I want to know who I am first.”

“I’ll wait for you,” Sam promised. “As long as it takes, I’ll wait for you.”

“What if it takes forever? I don’t want to be the reason you don’t live.”

“That right there is proof enough that it won’t take forever. And even if it did, so what? I’ve waited this long.”

Riley let out a shaky breath and hung his head. “I know what I’m feeling right now, but I can’t reconcile it with what’s in front of me. This is going to take some getting used to.”

“I think it all is,” Sam answered truthfully. “But you’ve got us to help you.”

Riley sighed and leaned back into the couch. “What I wouldn’t give for a song,” he said, looking directly at Sam, and he could tell Riley was testing him.

“Does it matter which song?”

“Does it ever?” He looked vaguely surprised at himself, but Sam just grinned, so Riley carefully returned the smile. “I don’t actually need a song,” he said quietly. “I mostly just... wanted to see.”

“Would a song help?”

Riley thought about it, then smiled. “No, but a grilled cheese would.”

“Let’s hope Bucky hasn’t burned them,” he told Riley, who chuckled.

“I’ll have you know I can cook,” Bucky responded, and damn, Sam really needed to remember his enhanced hearing.

“I hate when you do that.”

“I literally could not care less.” They smirked at each other, then Bucky handed Sam two plates, a grilled cheese on both. “Soup’s almost ready, assuming he hasn’t ruined it yet.”

“I’m standing right here,” Steve said, and Bucky waved his hand at him.

“Yeah, and we all know you’re a disaster in the kitchen. You know what, out. I’m kicking you out of the kitchen. I’m taking over.”

Steve stepped up behind Bucky and wrapped his arms around the brunet’s torso. “What if I promise not to cook? What if I promise to stay quiet? And what if...” he whispered into Bucky’s ear, something that had him looking definitively intrigued.

“They think we can’t see them,” Sam tells Riley. “They think we don’t know what they’re talking about. Riley, this kind of thing happens every day.”

“You’ll survive,” Bucky assured him drily.

Steve just laughed at Sam, winked at Riley, and kissed Bucky’s cheek. “Thanks for taking over for me,” he murmured, and Riley let them have their moment, turning to Sam.

“You want that.” It wasn’t what he’d meant to say, but it was clear as day in Sam’s face.

“I want a lot of things,” Sam returned. “I’ve found my peace.”

Riley looked down, messed with his crust, and tried to think of the right thing to say. “I’m sorry it’s taking me so long.”

Sam raised a brow at that. “It’s been a day.”

Riley just shrugged. “Not really. For you, it’s been... how many years did you say? How many since you last saw me?”

Sam swallowed dust. “Nine. Nine years.”

Riley glanced at the men in the kitchen, figured they were preoccupied, and sent his full attention Sam’s way. “There’s some things you should know,” he started, and Sam seemed to know how serious he was, giving him his full attention. “I don’t fully know you yet. But I know how I feel about you. And somehow, I know what you look like, what you act like, when you’re not okay. I know you best out of anyone, but I can get to know everyone else, too. If you need space, tell me. I know this isn’t easy for you, and it’s okay if you’re not okay with it. Just... don’t shut me out without warning, okay?”

“Okay,” Sam whispered, trying not to let on how affected he was by all of it.

He was pretty sure he’d failed pretty spectacularly.

Chapter Text

Sam left pretty soon after, giving Riley a knowing, thankful look, so Riley decided to stick with Bucky for the time being. He had meant what he’d said, about letting Sam have his time alone, and Bucky didn’t seem to mind.

Bucky didn’t seem to mind a lot, if Riley was being honest. Currently they were on the couch watching a TV show he wasn’t nearly invested enough in. He was having more fun watching Steve and Bucky.

Steve was leaned against the arm of the couch, legs thrown over Bucky’s lap, Bucky’s left arm pulled into his lap. He was drawing on the metal with what seemed to be different colored dry erase markers. Bucky, to his credit, was switching between calmly watching TV and offering Steve advice. Something Steve murmured had him snickering. “That’s an absolutely horrible idea,” he informed the blond. “Do it.”

Steve just grinned back and got back to work on his art. It was a rather domestic scene, and Riley felt somewhat out of place.

He knew he’d said he’d give Sam space. And he could even go down and see Tony Stark in his lab if he wanted to. He had ditched him earlier, after all.

But, if he was being honest with himself, a part of him didn’t like being away from Sam. He felt jumpy and fidgety, and finally escaped to the bathroom. “Jarvis?” He asked cautiously, remembering what Bucky had warned him about earlier, and how Bucky had interacted with the AI.

“Mr. Thompson.”

Riley blinked. “Who’s Mr. Thompson?”

“My apologies, sir. Your name is Riley Thompson. May I be of assistance?”

“I-” he paused to take a breath. “Uh, can you tell me what Sam’s doing?”

“Mr. Wilson is currently reading in his quarters. Would you like me to get his attention for you?”

“Could you ask if maybe I could join him?”

“Of course. Give me one moment.” A pause, then finally Jarvis said, “Please make your way to the elevator. I will deposit you at Mr. Wilson’s quarters.”

“Thanks, Jarvis.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Thompson.”

He grimaced, but held his tongue until he got to the elevator. “Jarvis? If I asked you to just call me Riley, would that somehow get worked into your code? How does your code work?”

“I’m a fully-functioning AI. I am constantly learning. I will call you Riley, if that was indeed an actual request.”

“Please.”

“Of course, Riley.” The elevator dinged and the doors opened onto another floor. “Mr. Wilson is currently in the living room.”

“Thank you, Jarvis. I appreciate it.”

“Of course, Riley.”

He smiled and walked to the living room, finding Sam laying on one couch. He flopped down on the other with a long sigh and sat there for a long moment with his eyes closed.

When he blinked them open again, he saw Sam looking at him. “You good?”

“Yeah, just...” he waved his hand around in lieu of an answer. “Bucky and Steve were getting sickeningly domestic. It was actually really cute. But I felt out of place. I can go somewhere else if you need space, though.”

Sam regarded him, then shut his book and sat up. “You know what you said? About being able to tell when I’m not okay?” Riley nodded, not liking where the conversation was headed. “Same to you, Ri. It might’ve been nine years but your mannerisms haven’t changed all that much. What’s up?”

He blew out another breath and let his eyes shut. “If I’m being completely honest, I don’t have any idea. I’m exhausted, which is probably part of it, and my head is way too loud. Not a headache, but I’ve got all these memories trying to resurface and there’s not room for them all. But most of all I know what was and what isn’t and it’s too different, you know? Like I get if this is our new normal but it’s gonna take some getting used to, because I remember our old normal, and I miss it.”

He cleared his throat and kept his eyes shut. He didn’t want to cry. It was mostly too late.

“Hey,” Sam said softly, and Riley chanced opening his eyes to look at him. “I know how it is. But new normal can be the same as old normal. You’ll just have to tell me, okay? Now c’mon, lay down and pretend to hate me while I sing all the words wrong.”

Somehow, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Not like I’d even remember the lyrics anyways,” he tried to joke, but couldn’t keep the tremble out of his voice, couldn’t keep the tears in, couldn't hide the shake of his hands.

God, he was so tired.

“Nuh-uh,” Sam said. “No having a breakdown until you’re over here with some part of you in my lap so I can keep you grounded. C’mon, get over here.” He offered a crooked smile. “I’ll even sing the words right this time. Just so you don’t have to think about it.”

He took a breath and sent Sam his own little smile. “Always knew you were lying about not knowing the words.” He contemplated Sam and the couch, finally deciding to grab a pillow to hug and stretched out, legs landing on Sam’s lap. His hands immediately found Riley’s knees. “Okay,” he said, and didn’t try to hide the tears, or the pain, or the exhaustion. There was no use, after all. “What’s first?”

Sam just smiled sadly at him and started stroking his knee with his thumb while he thought. “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better. Remember to let her into your heart, then you can start to make it better.”

He sang that one all the way through, immediately jumping into another one. Riley almost recognized it, and wanted to ask Sam about it, but by the time it ended, he’d fallen asleep.


Sam contemplated the man half on him as he sang. Sure, his life had always been weird, but only recently had it hit astronomically-high levels of weirdness. Who would’ve thought he’d be singing to his best friend, nine years after he died, while he slept on Sam’s couch? His future self could’ve told him, and Sam would’ve laughed straight in his face.

But he was there, Sam had his hands on his knees, grounding him, and he wasn’t sure how he was feeling exactly, but he knew one thing for sure.

He would fight hell and high water to keep Riley safe with him.

Chapter Text

Riley was comfortable and fed, which led him to believe it was a dream when he was nudged and opened his eyes to see Sam moving around. He hummed sleepily. “Sammy?”

“Sorry, Ri, just need to use the restroom real quick. I’ll be right back, okay?”

Riley mumbled back unintelligibly as his eyes slipped shut again and he curled into the pillow he was holding. This was an excellent dream; they never had this much clarity or detail. He flinched towards awareness when something landed on him, but his subconscious determined it was a blanket before he even woke up, so he just fell back asleep. He was content to drift in this odd dreamland for as long as his subconscious would let him.

When he finally awakened, the first thing he noticed was his face felt stiff. The second thing he noticed was he was on someone. Wait.

He opened his eyes and frowned at Sam, who was smiling at him. “What?”

“‘S this a dream?” He asked slowly, still tired.

Sam blinked, but shook his head. “This is reality. You okay? Have a weird dream?”

Riley managed a one-armed shrug. “Thought this was the dream.” Too tired to stay awake, he closed his eyes and mumbled, “Time’s it?”

Sam hummed. “I’m not sure. Jarvis?”

“It is currently four twenty six p.m., gentlemen.”

Well, that wasn’t right. Riley’s eyes shot open again and found Sam looking at him again. Sam looked worried. “You alright?”

Instead of answering, Riley looked around slowly, letting his heart rate slow when he realized where he was. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “Sorry, I... I forgot I was here.” He ran a hand through his hair and let out a breath. “Thought I was... I dunno. Back before.”

Sam hummed and nodded. “You okay now? Know where you are?”

“I’m good,” Riley promised. “Just surprised me.” He gave a small smile. “More’n good, actually, it’s another new memory.”

“Is it?”

He shrugged, “Of sorts. Not really one specific memory, it’s a bunch all mixed together. Old normal.” He offered a smirk, which Sam returned.

Sam hummed as he moved Riley’s legs back into his lap, then drummed his fingers on Riley’s calf. “We should probably talk about tonight. I don’t know that Tony’s given much thought to it yet. We each have our own floors, but some of them are hardly ever used. I know Tony’s got a kid of sorts, Peter, and he has his own floor but always sleeps on Tony’s. Same with Bucky, he stays with Steve. So you can borrow one of those floors until arrangements can be made for your own, or each floor has a guest bedroom. I know any of us would be happy to have you.”

Riley thought about it for a minute. “I think for tonight, the first night, it would be better to be with someone familiar, especially if I wake up and don’t know what’s happening or where I am. Do you think Bucky’d sleep on his own floor if I asked?”

“I think he’d do a lot of things for a lot less,” Sam answered truthfully. “He wants to help. We all do.”

“Y’know, I think I'm finally starting to believe that,” Riley teased, sitting up and facing Sam. “What’s dinner usually like around here?”

Sam shrugged, “It’s whatever we feel like. Most nights we try to get together and have something, which means we either have pasta, or Tony buys takeout, because that’s the only thing that’ll feed all of us.”

“Why Tony?”

Sam smirked and gestured at the room around him. “He’s the only billionaire we’ve got.” He let his hands fall back into his lap and didn’t think about how he wished Riley was laying down again. “What’re you thinking for dinner? The team’s nice, but dinner is when all hell breaks loose, especially if Pepper isn’t there. I’m pretty sure before I was invited, one time Tony started a food fight.”

Riley blinked at him, startled. “That sounds... interesting.”

Sam chuckled, “We’re not really supposed to talk about it, so I don’t know the full details, but we face the wrath of Pepper if something like that happens again.”

Riley smirked, “I’m guessing Pepper’s not someone you want to piss off?”

“She’s the only thing we’re all scared of, and we’ve all defied death multiple times.”

“She’s not someone you want to piss off.”

“Not in the least,” Sam agreed. “So? Dinner?”

Riley shifted in his seat as he thought. “If Pepper will be there, then maybe. Otherwise it might be better for me to eat separately. But you can eat with them if you want to.”

“Jarvis, is Pepper eating with us tonight?” Sam asked by way of answer.

“Ms. Potts should arrive back at the Tower at 7:43, with takeout for herself. I apologize, Riley.”

Sam smirked sadly at Riley, then frowned. “Wait, how’d you get him to call you Riley? I’ve been trying for months.”

“I asked him,” Riley chuckled. “Did you try that?”

“I tell him to call me Sam, he does, then the next day it’s back to being Mr. Wilson. And really?” He addressed the ceiling. “I don’t even get my title? I don’t even get Staff Sergeant Wilson?”

“My apologies, Sir,” Jarvis said, then was quiet.

Sam blinked at the ceiling, then at Riley, then threw his hands up with perhaps a bit more force than the whole situation needed.

“Jarvis? Why won’t you call him Sam?”

“I’m afraid Mr. Stark has the ‘Annoy the Birds’ protocol turned on. In this case, if it’s not connected to your well-being, I am to ignore any and all orders you give me.”

“I’m gonna strangle him,” Sam mumbled as Riley laughed.

“Okay, well, what if I tell you?” Riley asked the AI. “Would you do it if I told you to call him Sam? Or is that against the protocol?”

Jarvis was silent for longer than either of them were sure was normal, but then suddenly spoke. “Gentlemen, I believe you may have found a loophole.”

“Well hallelujah!” Sam threw his hands up again.

“Oh my god,” Riley said, and laughed, then just as suddenly sobered and stared at Sam with wide eyes. “Oh my god.”

Sam cautiously lowered his arms. “Ri? You okay?”

“I-” he swallowed, took a breath, then nodded. “Sorry. It just... reminded me of your mom. What you did just now. And... I remember her.”

“Oh,” Sam said quietly, and suddenly he was choked up, too.

They sat in silence for a minute until Sam suddenly turned to Riley. “Jeopardy!”

“I’m sorry?”

“Jeopardy! The game show! It’s-” he made a couple of frantic movements that ended with him waving them away. “Never mind. Just... hand me the remote.”

Riley blinked and did so, raising a brow when Sam grinned at him. “I can’t believe I get to reintroduce you to this.”