“…ah hey doc? I don’t suppose this is the dimension for best friends coming back from the dead huh?”
It had been a routine mission, cleaning up aliens in New York as the Avengers do on a regular basis, Sam wondering why on earth anyone would want to live in this godforsaken city. Seriously. Why couldn’t the aliens attack a nice part of the world, preferably a long way from where he lived and where it didn’t fucking snow.
But seriously. Aliens. There was absolutely no reason why he should have come face to face with a ghost, and truth be told, he hadn’t thought Riley had been real at first. There had been plenty of times in the past where Sam had thought he’d seen his former wingman in his periphery, the line of broad shoulders and light brown hair darting just out of his line of sight, that had turned out to be nothing or a complete stranger who thought he was crazy and maybe he had been, but it had been years. He hadn’t thought he was seeing his dead best friend in crowds in ages, he’d thought he was past this. And yet there he was right in front of him, on the edge of a crowd rushing to get inside to the basements where it was safe. And Sam couldn’t help but drop to the ground and follow, reaching out in shock as his friend his very much supposed to be dead friend still just out of reach turned and faced him in the middle of a busy New York street raining snow and rubble.
He’d been there when Steve had seen Bucky for the first time after he’d “died”. He’d talked to Maria about Carol, had bonded over air force stories and cover-ups, best-friends-who-were-slightly-more-than-just-best-friends being shot out of the sky, about grief. But they’d been lucky, he’d always thought, cause even though Carol and Bucky hadn’t remembered at first, they’d come back, different, fractured and slightly warped, but still.
He’d never thought Riley would come back too.
And now, Now Sam understood. Steve’s desperation, tears shed and hidden, grieving for the friend who had died, because Bucky hadn’t come back the same, as if he ever could have. Maria’s nostalgia for before, for the “simpler times”, just her and Carol against the world, stolen kisses in the dark, before she went missing, before she left again over and over, even if she always came back. But now he understands because it was always more than they ever thought they’d get back. It’s enough, it’s enough, it will always be enough. And now Sam isn’t sure if he should be thrilled, or crying, or screaming or what, and fuck, he should know what to do, he was there when Steve went through this, but this wasn’t something he’d ever thought he’d have to prepare for and no amount of psychological training is gonna help.
Riley is sitting in an interview room with a former S.H.E.I.L.D agent or something, and Sam supposes he must be getting a psych eval or a medical exam along with a handful of other civilians who’d been closest to the attack, but he can’t hear what’s going on, everything is a dull roar compounded by a throb building up at the base of his skull, his pulse has gone thready and his breathing is picking up and he knows what this is, he was a therapist for years okay he knows how to deal with anxiety and shock or whatever the fuck but it’s another thing entirely when it’s someone else, and his best friend was dead, he’d watched him fall out of the sky, he’d been blown out of the sky, he’d watched him hit the ground and unlike Steve and Maria, he’d seen the body, right after he’d landed next to him, pulse undetectable with only his fingers, unconscious and bleeding out, but he’d been a medic and a soldier, and looking back as he was led away, he knew, he knew what a dead person looked like. And Riley had been dead.
Riley’s face was slightly older than Sam remembered, which made sense since it had been like… god, had it really been that long? Riley fidgeted with the hem of his shirt, eyes roaming across the room, and Sam followed them calculating exits, potential weapons, the strength of the man in the room with him and fuck he wants to touch him, make sure he’s real, what if he isn’t real, what if, what if, what if.
“Hey” Maria reached out and squeezed his hand before passing him a cup of something warm “you look like you could use something sweet, but honey, you need to breathe”
Sam gave her a weak smile and took a deep breath before taking a sip of the drink. He turned around a second later at the sound of the door opening, revealing Steve and Natasha, the latter of which strode forward quickly and drew him into a fierce hug, which he gratefully returned.
“You holding up okay?” Steve murmured with a worried smile.
“I… I ah… I don’t know. Probably not man” then, quieter “How is this possible?”
There, obviously, was no answer to that. Riley had never been experimented on, not before he’d “died” as Bucky had, and while the falcon wings were technically experimental, it wasn’t like it had been fancy alien tech or whatever the fuck Carol and Mar-Vell had been messing around with.
He’d been in the sky with him.
And then he hadn’t.
Movement in the interview room drew Sam’s attention as Riley moved to get up, knocking over files and his chair, shoulders hunched, eyes still roaming. The agent reached out to shake his hand and Riley hesitates a second too long before clasping it. Sam’s eyes get caught on the stubble of his jaw, the line of his cheekbones, the fluorescent lights reflecting off his eyes, and he aches. He missed Riley so much, and he thought he’d gotten past this, it had been so long but its all come back at once, and yeah, he probably should have expected that part he thinks, side-eyeing Steve. As Riley reaches for the door in his room, Sam comes back to himself and detangles himself from Natasha and rushes out after him without thinking, which would be odd considering he’s supposed to be the most level headed of his friends, although admittedly, Steve sets the bar pretty low, but his dead best friend, his partner, is walking into the corridor and he needs to speak to him, touch him, make sure he’s real.
Thankfully Steve and Maria know better than to stop him.
Entering the corridor and seeing Riley’s back, without a wall of glass between them momentarily winds him again and he stumbles. Without looking back Riley picks up the pace and rounds the corner.
“Wait… Wait! Riley?”
He looks back at Sam now, pausing mid-stride, eyes wide. “I-I don’t- Who are-?” and Sam panics because oh god he doesn’t remember either, I can’t face this, I can’t, I can’t do thi- “Sam?”
All the air leaves Sam’s lungs at once and he sways on his feet. His cheeks are wet with tears he doesn’t notice, as he stares at his best friend, his partner, his wingman, Riley hunched and scared but there, right there, in front of him with the faintest glimmer of hope in his brown eyes, and everything Sam ever wanted and he’s perfect.
He doesn’t think, he just closes the distance and buries his face in the crook of Riley’s neck and holds on, the only sound Sam makes is a sob when Riley returns the hug with matching desperation. “Where’ve you been man?” Sam all but whimpers into his chest, but Riley just shrugs, so Sam leans back and punches lightly him in the chest.
“You were dead. They told us you were dead. There was a fucking funeral, I had to help lower your casket, your fucking casket into your fucking grave. I watched you fall. I saw you die. Where the fuck have you been?!”
There’s tears and snot, and once he would have cared about Riley seeing him like this, but right now he needs him to understand how bad he’s hurting. Its been well over a decade, and it still hurts so bad, a dull ache that had become so normal he hadn’t realised it was still there until Riley showed up out of nowhere and started poking it.
“I’m sorry. Sam, I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean for it to be this long, but- fuck- I woke up in the hospital and I- I just… I couldn’t remember anything properly and they were pumping me full of all sorts of shit and apparently it had been months. I was in an induced coma or some shit. And when they discharged me I just… I couldn’t sleep, and everything felt so loud, like, the noise made my skin feel like it was crawling, and I just- I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t remember what happened, or why I was there, and- fuck, I couldn’t remember you, or any of the guys, just… flashes and feelings, but I couldn’t remember the context, ya know? And I just… wait… wait, did you say there was a funeral?”
And Sam can feel his heart breaking a little with everything Riley says, and of-fucking-course he lost his memory temporarily too, Jesus Christ. He sniffs and wipes his face with the sleeve of his sweater, “…Yeah Riles, there was a funeral.”
Any other words he would have added stick to the back of his throat, so he goes to change the subject slightly, when Riley mutters “But why…? The Air Force knew I wasn’t dead, they gave me a medical discharge…?”
And Sam thinks of late-night conversations with Maria, going through old military records, whispers about redacted, redacted, redacted.
“…a mission so secret that when it went wrong, they pretended it never happened.”
“I suppose that’s what you get when you screw up fancy experimental tech, huh?”
He never thought it would hit so close to home, but Sam figures he can get angry about it later. After he’s had a conversation with Rhodey maybe.
So, he tries again, “But where have you been?”
“Um, well... ah, Manhattan… I ah, bought a place with my pension and the military gave me a big compensation, I think they did it to keep me quiet though actually, cause um, I guess the point of the EXO-7 was to avoid getting hit by RPGs huh, but um, yeah… Manhattan.”
“…Manhattan” Sam deadpans, and fuck, are you serious, he’d really been that close the whole time? The universe really was cruel.
“Yeah umm, yeah. Look, Sam, I really need to get out of here, I can’t-“ He draws a deep breath to centre himself “I can’t stay in here, this place driving me nuts”
It was then that Sam realised that he still had his hands fisted in Riley’s shirt, reluctant to let go. He couldn’t just leave again. Not yet.
Riley’s eyes were darting everywhere again, but he did seem to notice Sam’s inner panic, because he pulled him close again, before letting go and digging around his pocket for a pen and a scrap of paper.
“This is my address,” He said, scribbling on what looked like a napkin “-and my number. Um, maybe come by tomorrow…? If you want that is.” His shoulders were hunched again, and Sam couldn’t help but find it endearing, despite everything.
Sam offered a weak smile and staunchly ignore the quiet butterflies erupting in his stomach. “I’d like that.”
Riley’s face breaks out in a smile, and he looks so much like before that it takes Sam’s breath away. “Okay!... okay. Okay.” He fiddles with the hem of his shirt for a second before ducking and pressing a soft kiss to the corner of Sam’s mouth.
“Tomorrow then.” He awkwardly nods and turns around to walk away. He’s out of sight before Sam has figured out of to breathe again.
When Sam enters the common room sometime later, Steve is curled up possessively around Bucky, pressing sleepy kisses to his shoulder, and Carol sitting on Maria’s lap, face tucked into her shoulder. Bucky glances up briefly with a sympathetic look before turning back to Steve, and Sam can’t help the tiny pang of jealousy, while at the same time so so grateful that Riley didn’t go through anything like the others. That doesn’t mean Sam isn’t slightly bitter that, for personal reasons Riley pretended to be dead for 15 years, post-traumatic amnesia or no.
“You all right birdman?” Tony asks as he steps out of the kitchen. Sam shrugs and slides onto the floor where a four-year-old Morgan is using her Iron Man action figure to beat up her Captain America plushie, and Sam kinda wants to smirk at the irony. Instead, he pulls out his phone and updates Riley’s old contact details.
“Okay but seriously, what are the chance of this happening for the third time? Did he have memory problems too?” asked Tony.
“Ahhh, yeah… but I think that’s all fine now. Probably caused by concussion and brain damage from the, um, impact, rather than, ah, other interference.” Sam says, causing Bucky to snort.
“Seriously? Three for three? Next thing we know, he’s gonna be a super soldier too!”
“Yeah well, I don’t think-“
“Where is he now?” Steve murmured, looking up.
“He ah, he went home. Manhattan”
Steve raised an eyebrow “That close huh? You seeing him again?”
Carol smirks at him from where she’s draped over her girlfriend. “Have fun pal”
Sam paced restlessly outside Riley’s apartment building for a grand total of 20 minutes, before thinking fuck it, and pressing the buzzer. He’d run laps with Steve this morning at four-fucking-AM because he couldn’t sleep, despite swearing he was never going running with him ever again. To say he was nervous was an understatement.
Having friends who’d been in a similar situation was not helping him at all. What if Riley had packed his bags and fucked off to Romania for two years, only appearing when some asshole decided to frame him for murder? What if he’d decided to go to space for the next twenty years, give or take, to fight fascist alien warlords? Seriously, there were so many worst-case scenarios going through his head because of Carol and Bucky’s theatrics that instances like having the wrong address or Riley deciding he didn’t actually want to see him seemed not only very realistic, but also an almost complete non-issue.
Riley’s voice coming over the speaker causes him to jump, and yeah, maybe he really had convinced himself that yesterday was a dream, but now the door is clicking open, and he’s going up the stairs and now here he is, outside the door of Riley’s apartment, and Sam’s pretty sure he’s forgotten how to breathe again.
When Riley opens the door part way a handful of seconds later, his shoulders are hunched, but he’s smiling wide with relief, and air finally rushes back into Sam’s lungs as he relaxes.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come”
“I wasn’t sure you’d be here”
Riley lets out a slightly breathless laugh and opens the door further to allow Sam inside. In doing so Sam notices the set of crutches Riley’s leaning on, and at first, he’s confused until his eyes travel down, and he notices the knot tied in Riley’s jeans where his knee should have been and his breath stutters. Seriously can he just breathe like a normal person, please?
“That wasn’t missing yesterday was it?” Sam asks weakly as he passes over the threshold, cause yeah might have been a tiny bit distracted, but he’s pretty sure he would have noticed a missing leg.
Riley laughs nervously and leans against the wall so he can fiddle with his shirt, slightly defensive when he says “Ah, um yeah, I was wearing the prosthetic yesterday” gesturing toward the plastic and metal leg lying over by the coffee table, “I was gonna put it on before you got here, but um, the… um, the stump’s playing up today, so” he makes a general gesture to himself “…crutches. Yeah.”
Sam can only nod and mentally kick himself for the tactless question as they move away from the door.
“I’d offer you food, but I never did get to the supermarket yesterday” Riley teases in an attempt to diffuse the awkward tension that’s settled between them. “I have coffee though…?”
“Coffee would be great. Thanks” Sam gratefully sinks into the couch.
“You still take it the same way? Milk no sugar?”
“…You remember that?” and yeah that came out just the right side of breathless, but god.
“I ah,” he laughs quietly “I never could understand how you could stomach that shit in the Air Force without sugar. Guess it just stuck.” They make eye contact over the kitchen counter, the winter sun hitting Riley just so, making his eyes look like molten caramel, and Sam wants to drown in them. Get it together Wilson, Jesus.
“Says you who liked a bit of coffee with your sugar” Sam threw back with a grin.
“Just for the colour” Riley winked, and Sam was grateful that his darker complexion hid the blush he felt heating his cheeks, but ducked his head none the less, something that Riley didn’t fail to miss.
“How’ve you been Sam?” Riley asked quietly as he joined him on the couch.
“I… Good, yeah. Pretty good. Was pretty rough at first but, ya know, therapy and that. Got my degree, was working at the VA for a while.”
“And the avenging stuff?”
“Totally awesome. I’m a certified badass now man.” He smirked, reaching for his coffee and resting his leg against Riley’s, making sure he was still there, that this was still real.
“That’s pretty wild you know. How’d that even happen?”
“Captain America thought it would be funny to run laps around me on my morning run?”
“Yeah. Steve’s a real dick like that.” He smiled.
“…fucking crazy man.”
They talk for hours, and slowly but surely relearning each other to the point where Riley hasn’t said “um” or hunched over himself in over three hours, which Sam is counting as a personal win. Sam talks a bit about some his is past missions with the Avengers, but mostly he just listens as Riley explains bits and pieces about his life, and Sam gets the feeling that his friend is desperately, desperately lonely. He rarely leaves his apartment except to buy food or therapy, and even then, he prefers delivery and online sessions. He hasn’t spoken to his family since he fell, and gets somewhat distressed at the thought that they think he’s dead and buried in some cemetery in DC. And apparently a cat he found in the garbage decided to adopt him.
“His name is Trashbag.” He says as the cat in question tries to take a drink out of Sam’s empty coffee mug.
Riley had curled into him at some point, Sam’s arm draped over his shoulders like they used to in the Force. He thinks back to when they first met, 18 years old and fresh out of high school, gangly and easy going, with an unconscious and unwavering belief in their own immortality. He misses that naivety.
He tucks his face into Riley’s neck so he doesn’t have to look at him when he says “I missed you so fucking much.”
Riley just hums in agreement and tightens his grip, so Sam continues, still not looking at him.
“After you, you got hit, I followed you down, and I, I tried, but I couldn’t find a pulse, and I couldn’t tell if you were breathing, and- fuck that thing had ripped you apart… how…? How did you survive that?”
“I don’t know man, I don’t remember. I just woke up in the hospital, and everything hurt and everything was loud and stunk of bleach. And my leg was missing from the mid-thigh. Got a lotta scar tissue too, up my right side. I didn’t remember the mission at all for like… years. And even then, I don’t really remember what… what happened or even what we were meant to be doing, except for what I read in the files and even then, most of it was- “
“Yeah…” Riley shifts his position and starts fiddling with the hem of Sam’s shirt. ”I’m sorry Sam.” He murmurs against his temple and Sam tries to suppress a shiver.
“Why didn’t you try and find me? It's not like you wouldn’t have seen me in the news and stuff.” And god, Sam wishes he didn’t need to ask, and he almost doesn’t want to know, because what reason could there be that won’t make him feel completely awful.
Riley’s breathing picks up almost immediately, Sam can feel his pulse jumping from where he’s gripped his wrist, and Sam wishes he could take the question back, but fuck he needs to know, rip the band-aid off, whatever but Riley’s breathing isn’t slowing down and is quickly becoming shallower, so Sam rolls from his position so that he’s in front of his best-friend-basically-past-boyfriend-but-never-defined-because-military-is-homophobic-as-fuck, straddling his waist and grips his face gently between both hands.
“Riley, Riley, its okay hun, just breathe for me okay? It's okay, it's safe, you don’t have to answer the question okay? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it's okay alright? Just breathe for me? Just breathe. Breathe with me.”
Riley gradually gets his breathing under control and leans his face into Sam’s chest and quietly cries himself out as Sam wraps one arm around him and uses the other to comb through Riley’s hair as they lapse into silence.
After a few minutes though, Riley lifts his face from Sam’s chests and whispers “I don’t know why I didn’t, I just, I just felt like I couldn’t, ya know?” he looks away from Sam’s face as he continues “I, I didn’t even recognise you the first few times Sammy, and then I dunno, it just felt too late or too hard, and- fuck, most days I can’t even leave the apartment, it’s just… fuck I’m such an asshole- it just felt too hard.” He looked back at Sam and murmured “I’m sorry.”
And maybe Sam’s crying now too, but it’s not like he hadn’t seen this sort of thing when he worked at the VA, so what can he say? “I understand, I do, I just…” he takes a deeps breath, I grieved for you, I visited your grave, you were dead, you were gone “I just missed you.”
“I missed you too.” Riley whispers, reaching out to cup his face and drawing him in.
Weeks passed, and Sam finally feels like he’s on familiar territory with Riley, re-establishing their past relationship, with maybe just a few extra bonuses that come with not being in the military anymore.
“How was your date?” Steve asks as Sam slides onto the couch beside where the larger man is watching Natasha and Bucky bickering in Russian in the kitchen.
Sam couldn’t suppress the dopey grin that breaks out across his face as he replies.
“It was great man. We had a bit of trouble coming back on the subway - crowds and stuff – but yeah… it was really great.”
“that’s great pal.” Steve smirked, “So when do we get to meet him?”
“Steve no. Not yet.”
They lapse into silence, Steve getting distracted again by Bucky, seriously Rogers, you complete and utter sap, but Sam gets it now, so the usual ribbing goes unsaid.
After a minute though, Steve breaks the silence with “Is he like before or…” he gestures at in Bucky’s general direction “…or different.”
“Bit of both? I know he’s not the same, but I’m not either. It’s enough you know?”
Steve sneaks a glance over to Bucky, unable to help the small smile on his lips as he replies,
“Yeah… it’s enough.”