Your life is so simple you don't know it could be any different, that's how it starts.
You're at work - new job, freshly qualified vet nurse, you've been here three months and you love it - when the doorbell rings in the front of the practice. You duck in from out back, and it's a couple of guys, young but not too young. Maybe your age? They're both wearing baseball caps like that'll hide how gorgeous they are, god.
“Hey, anything I can help you with?” you ask, smiling easily. The chocolate lab puppy you're holding wiggles like he wants to get down, to run around and explore, and you shift his weight, lean down to put him in the playpen in the corner. You glance back at them, and they're watching you, or maybe the puppy. “You here to adopt? This little guy's available, he'd love a new home.” The taller guy, white with a beard that makes him look like a terrifically beautiful lumberjack, makes a face.
“I can't,” he chokes, “Sam, I can't-” and turns on his heel, leaves real abruptly. Slams the door behind him like he doesn't realize how hard he's pulling it closed.
“Sorry,” the black guy apologizes, “he's, uh, he lost his best friend pretty recently. I thought maybe getting a dog would help, but I guess not. Maybe coming in so soon was a mistake.”
“Oh,” you say, a little shocked, “oh, god, I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, “yeah, it- yeah,” and makes a face like it's more complex than he's letting on. “I better go see how he's doing. Sorry to waste your time.”
“Hey,” you say. Wipe your palms on your scrubs, and yeah, you're a little nervous, because this guy is gorgeous even if he does already maybe have an equally beautiful boyfriend. “It's Sam, right?”
“Yeah,” he agrees, “yeah, that- how come?”
“Well, even if it's too soon to adopt,” you say, carefully casual, “you know you can come by any time to visit these guys, right? They always need walking, too, we foster for the local shelter.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” Sam smiles, hesitates a little before he holds out a hand. “Nice to meet you, man.”
“James,” you say, returning the handshake and the smile. “It's James.”
“Well,” he says, looking a little like he doesn't want to leave, “I better… Maybe I'll see you again soon.”
“I hope so,” you say, watching as he leaves, and you wonder a little if luring him in with puppies is an abuse of your job responsibilities. Whatever. He seems nice. Kind. The kind of guy who'd be gentle to shelter animals.
“Who was that?” Dr Winslow asks, coming in from his back office, and you shrug.
“Just a customer,” you say. Lean your hip up against the counter. “You ever meet anyone who looks at you like they know you, but you got no idea from where?”
“Oh, did Daisy come by again?” Dr Winslow asks, excited, like that's an answer that makes sense to your question, and you shake your head.
“Not for a while,” you tell him. “But I'm sure she'll be back, right?” You like Daisy too, even though she wears too much eyeliner and the kind of clothes you haven't seen since you were in high school. She reminds you of a kid sister, maybe, except you’re an only child, you've never had a kid sister. But she reminds you of one regardless, especially when she comes by with ice cream sandwiches. She didn't expect you, the first time, made a face like you weren't supposed to be there, but after that she's never forgotten you like chocolate better than vanilla. “How do you know her, anyway?” you add, fiddling with a pen and glancing at the appointment book. “She have a cat we never hear about, or something?”
“Oh, she's not a customer,” Dr Winslow says. “Just a friend.”
“Right, okay,” you agree, a little absently. You're thinking about Sam again. The way he smiled, hesitant and surprised. You liked it. You want to see it again. You want it, like, a lot.
It's a couple of weeks before Sam comes by again. Honestly, when he shows up, you'd kind of convinced yourself you weren't going to see him again. You'd tried not to be disappointed. Failed. And then he's right there in the reception of the practice, hands in his pockets like he's trying to be casual, and you feel yourself blush, traitorous.
“Hey,” you say, “hey, Sam. Came back after all?” He's alone this time, and you try not to think about what that might mean.
“I don't think I've got the right house for a pet,” he says very seriously. “But I was kind of hoping I could walk them, like you said?”
“That'll cost you,” you tease, and he frowns a little.
“Yeah? How much?”
“A cup of coffee?” you say, dragging your bottom lip in under your teeth, and Sam stares at you for a minute before laughing.
“Did you just ask me out?” he asks like he's in disbelief, and you shrug like it's no big deal. (It is. It is a big deal. This is the first guy you've hit on since Mark in tech school, unless you count that guy who works at your favorite bar, and you don't. Staring wistfully at someone's beautiful face doesn't count even when you're trying to convince yourself it does.)
“I mean, unless that guy's your boyfriend…” you mutter, and Sam's eyes go wide.
“Who, Steve? Oh god, no. We're just friends.”
“Good friends,” you say, grin at him the way you know makes girls blush sometimes, and he laughs a little.
“Yeah, okay, good friends. He's my roommate, actually. Well, I, uh. I guess we could get a coffee. Like, now?”
“One second,” you say, and go into the back room, look at Dr Winslow hopefully. “So, we've got no appointments until 4, I was hoping I could take my lunch break early?”
“Sure,” he agrees. He's very nice, Dr Winslow. You're lucky to work in a sole practice like this, he doesn't even really need a full-time nurse. A favor, he'd called it, although you don't really know to who.
“Yeah,” you tell Sam, “yeah, now is, now is good. You mind waiting for me to change?”
“I dunno, I kind of like them,” Sam says. Glances down at the rubber shoes you wear when you're at work, twists up his mouth in what you recognize as teasing. You roll your eyes, go out back again. Kick off the shoes, pull off the scrubs and replace them with tight skinny jeans, motorcycle boots. Thank god you brought a nice sweater this morning. When you reappear, Sam's face does a thing that you feel smug about. Yeah, you think, still got it.
“So, who's coming on a walk with us?” you ask, and Sam picks out one of the puppies, lifts her up hopefully. “Yeah, sure, why not. That’s Dolly, she's a sweetheart. Come on, baby, we're going on a walk with this nice guy Sam.” When you look up from getting the leash clipped on, Sam's staring at you again like you're somehow not what he expects, and you blush, can't help it. “Hey,” you say, “don’t judge me, you try talking to a puppy without baby-talking a little, okay,” and Sam blinks, shakes his head.
“Dolly, huh,” he says, puts her down so she can lead the way.
You walk to your favorite coffee shop, the one you get lunch at sometimes. Get coffee to take away, a grilled cheese in a paper bag so you can share it as you walk, and then you take Sam to the park like it's normal, like this is just what you do with impossibly beautiful people while you're on your lunch break. He's easy to talk to, though, and you cover the movie you saw last, what you do for fun. You saw Ghostbusters last weekend and liked it, and you play the piano, although you haven’t in a while. He hasn't seen a movie in months, is into long-distance running and birding, and you tease him about being a nerd. Before you realize it you've shifted topics like it's simple, and you're telling him about why you trained as a vet tech, how you moved here from New Jersey after your dad died, the accident.
“Is that how…” he asks, and you nod.
“Yeah,” you say, glance down at your hand. “Yeah, it is. You know, with the new prosthetic, some people don't even notice.”
“I used to work for the VA,” Sam tells you like that explains it. It kind of does, to be honest. You're not surprised he can pick it.
“I got funded by some specialists,” you say. Wiggle your fingers and watch how realistic they look. “Trying a new neural interfacing thing. It's pretty great, honestly.”
“It still hurt?”
“All the time,” you admit, and Sam nods. “I don't even… I mean, I notice it, but I don't, you know?”
“I feel you,” Sam says, and you tilt your head.
“You serve?” You know some folks who have. Friends from high school, although you haven’t seen any of them in a while. Not since you moved here, anyway. Sam’s got the look, and working at the VA is a pretty big giveaway too.
“Yeah,” he murmurs. “Been out for a while, but.” And then he tells you about his friend who didn't make it, kind of like he maybe didn’t mean to, and then before you realize it you’ve walked around the park four times and it’s been a good hour, maybe longer.
“Oh, shit,” you say, “I gotta- fuck, I better get back to work.” Sam’s face falls before he can smooth it over, and you smile, can’t help it, lean your shoulder in so it bumps against his. “This was fun,” you tell him, “I’d really- can we hang out again sometime?” Sam’s expression goes very complicated all of a sudden.
“I…” he starts. “I’m not really… I probably shouldn’t be dating anyone, right now,” and you can’t help but feel the sting of disappointment. “It’d be good to hang out again, though,” he adds. “I mean, if that’s okay. I don’t really have any friends in town, aside from Steve. Just moved here.”
“Yeah,” you agree, “okay, yeah,” and pull out your phone, hand it to him so he can type in his number in. When he’s done, you text him. Hey Sam, it’s James Cohen. Dolly thinks it’s nice to meet you. He looks up from his phone, smiles very bright. There's a gap between his front teeth, and you feel attraction hit you like a physical thing. You thought, before now, that something taking your breath away was just an expression. Holy fuck, you want to see that smile again.
You think about texting him on and off the whole next week, and the week after that. Hold back like you’re waiting for him to make the next move. But there’s nothing, and nothing, and you’re beginning to think you imagined it, the way he smiled and the way he let you down easy. You try to tell yourself it's fine. He wanted to be friends, except he obviously doesn't want to be friends. It's fine. And then you're just in the grocery store after work, for shits sake, your rattiest sweatshirt over your scrubs, hood pulled up like it'll hide how bad your hair needs washing, and there he is in the frozens aisle, talking on the phone.
“I'll be fine,” you hear him say, “Steve, it'll be-” and he looks up, sees you. His face changes a little. “Look, I gotta go, I- yeah. Call me when you're done, okay. Say hi to Nat for me.”
“You running surveillance on me?” you joke, and Sam frowns.
“Relax,” you tell him, “I was joking,” and you see his shoulders drop, the breath he takes. The way he smiles, like he's realizing it's funny.
“You caught me,” he says, “how's it going? Hey, sorry I haven't texted, I've been caught up in a thing.”
“No big,” you shrug. He doesn't owe you anything, after all. You hardly even know each other. “It's going okay. Roommate out of town?”
“How'd you guess?” Sam asks ruefully. Looks down at his basket full of frozen meals. “I swear, I am a better cook than this makes me out to be. Just…”
“Kind of not worth it when it's just you, right? I feel you.” There are more than a couple frozen microwave dinners in your own basket. Lean Cuisine, god, it's depressing. “Hey, if you've got nothing else to do, you could come over for dinner. I mean, nothing special, but, y’know. I make okay pasta.” You bite your lip as soon as you've said it. Stupid, it was stupid, it's coming on too strong, but the thought of hanging out with someone, having company, it was nice, is all. But Sam's eyes light up like he actually likes the idea, and then you're regretting it for a different reason entirely. You look like a mess, and it's been a long day at work, oh god. You can't remember the last time you cleaned your apartment.
“That sounds good,” Sam says, a note in his voice like maybe he knows he shouldn't be saying it and wants to anyway. I shouldn't be dating anyone, you think. If you're not reading him wrong, this is someone who's into you and conflicted about it. You're not really sure how to feel about that. “Yeah,” he says again, firmer, “that sounds good, man. I should probably-”
“Get your groceries, yeah. Me too. Meet you out front in what, twenty minutes?”
“Okay,” Sam agrees, “okay, yeah, cool.”
Twenty minutes gives you enough time to grab the rest of what you can remember you need, and maybe some other stuff too. The nice ice cream, a six-pack of local beer just in case. Oh god, oh god, Sam’s coming to your house for dinner. Why. Why. At least you know how to make good spaghetti. When you get out with your bags, Sam’s already waiting, grocery bags in one hand and phone in the other. He finishes up sending a text, tucks his phone into his pocket, pulls out his car keys. Grins at you, very bright.
“Oh,” you say, “right, yeah, okay.” Your place is walking distance, but you get into the car anyway. Can’t help tensing up a little when he starts the engine.
“You okay?” he asks, turning sideways, and you nod, fidget a little. Twist the fingers of your right hand into the cotton of your sweatshirt.
“Yeah, I just… I don’t drive a lot, anymore. After, uh-”
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” Sam says immediately, “I didn’t even think about it. Is there anything I can do?”
“Let me drive?” you ask, “it’s just, it’s easier if I’m in the driver’s seat.” Sam nods, slides out of the car. Leaves the keys in the ignition for you. It is easier when you drive. You can ignore the thrumming of your heart that way, focus on the road. Sam glances at your hands on the wheel, smiles occasionally like he’s remembering something.
Your apartment, thank god, is not actually too embarrassing. Your bed’s not made, but it’s tucked kind of behind a bookshelf, and you put your groceries on the kitchen counter, grab the abandoned sweater off your couch and dump it on the top of your dresser, take the opportunity to yank your comforter up and smooth it out a little. Sam’s looking around politely, glances over at you and smiles again.
“Hey,” he says, “do you mind if I put my stuff in your freezer while I’m here?”
“Yeah, of course, go ahead,” you tell him. Grimace down at your scrubs. “I’m just- gimme a minute to change? Grab a beer if you want, they’re on the counter.” You hope he’s not looking while you change into jeans, a clean t-shirt. If he is, you hope he’s at least enjoying the view. You come out of the bedroom nook, pulling on a slightly less terrible sweatshirt, and he’s standing on the other side of the bookshelf, beer in hand, studying the books you’ve got stacked up with little thought as to organization. You blush hot all over, for basically no reason except that Sam is here in your fucking apartment, only a few steps away from your bed, and oh, he’s got such long eyelashes. You’re noticing them all over again.
“Not what I expected,” he says. Touches his fingers to the spine of an Octavia Butler novel, tucked in between your old school textbooks. You shrug.
“I like science fiction, what can I say. Always been a sucker for it.”
“Yeah, that’s what Steve-” he starts, and catches himself for some reason. Stops short, frowns a little. “That’s what, uh, Steve’s into, too,” he says, and sips his beer, tilts his head towards your tiny kitchen. “So, you need any help with dinner?”
“Nah, I’m good,” you tell him honestly. “Just sit there and keep me company, yeah?” The kitchen is really not big enough for more than one person, anyway, and you know where everything is. Sam winds up sitting at the counter, drinking his beer and watching you cook. Conversation flowing like it’s easy, again. You try not to think about it - you try real hard not to think about it - but you do anyway, about how nice this is. It’s been so long since you were able to spend time with someone like this and have it be so fucking easy. It’s like you’ve known each other for longer than you have.
“Hey, this is really good,” he says when he eats the first bite, and it’s clearly genuine from the tone of his voice, the way he smiles. You swallow your mouthful, smile back. Sip your own beer, fiddle with the paper label.
“It’s no big deal,” you shrug. “Just nice to have someone over. You and your roommate don’t cook?”
“Oh my god, Steve,” Sam sighs, “he boils everything, I swear. I mean, I do what I can, but it’s real nice to eat something that I didn’t cook that’s not frozen or takeout, you know?” That makes you laugh and laugh. Too many roommates like that in your own history, for sure. You bite your lip before you can say something truly embarrassing, like I’d cook for you every day, just say the word. Friends, that’s what Sam wants. That’s just fine.
When you’re done with dinner, Sam helps you rinse the plates and load them into the dishwasher, and then you lean your hip up against the counter, tilt your head at him.
“So, this is the part where I’d usually suggest we watch a movie and eat ice cream out of the carton,” you say, very casual, and Sam looks back at you, his expression considering.
“Sounds good to me,” he says, so you shift to the couch without really thinking about it. Hand him a spoon, the tub of ice cream. You put on something, some dumb superhero film. Batman or something, you don’t even really know. Sam digs out a couple bites of ice cream, passes it back to you. Takes a deep breath, and looks over at the upright piano you’ve got in the corner. You don’t really have the space for it - your studio is not exactly huge - but you couldn’t put it in storage the way you did with the other things from your parents’ house. You learned to play on it, after all. Can track your growth by the scratches on the side.
“I’m not gonna, like, put on a show for you,” you tell him, teasing, and the way he ducks his head, you think maybe that’s what he was thinking. “God, I haven’t played in months.”
“Come on, just one?” he asks, sweetly, and the thing is. The thing is. You’re totally gone for him despite the way you try to keep reminding yourself just friends. A crush that started when he walked in, that kept burning while you drank coffee and he asked you about your life like he was interested, and the way he’s asking so nice, you’re not exactly gonna say no.
“Fine,” you say, faux-reluctant. “Just one, okay.” You pause the movie, settle on the stool and consider your fingers on the keys for a moment. Nothing too romantic, that’s- that’s a bad idea, you know that for sure. But you’re a sucker for Chopin, and you know the nocturnes and études by heart even now, so you adjust your fingering, slide into the piece. Op.10 No.1, technically difficult even without a state-of-the-art prosthetic, and yeah, maybe you’re showing off a little. Fingers light and precise, notes cascading, your head sliding into the hyperfocus you’d forgotten was so good. Even Sam watching you stops mattering when you’re this deep in concentration.
You blink out of it, when you’re done. Stay sitting there a minute or two. Sam looks, honestly, stunned, shocked in a way that you don’t understand. You’re good, yeah, but not that good. You grin at him, and he snaps out of it, shakes his head a little.
“That-” he says. Laughs softly. “That was. Yeah, okay.” And then he’s jumping up, looking at his phone, making a face. “Hey, I’d better- I gotta go, okay. I didn’t realize- I gotta go.” He pulls on his jacket, grabs his keys off the counter. “Thanks for dinner, man, I’ll see you around, okay?” and he’s leaving while you’re still trying to catch up with the abrupt change of tone.
He left his groceries in your freezer, you realize the next day, getting out of your place so quickly it’s like you’d scared him, and you can’t help but wonder what you did. You take a photo of them, stacked up neatly, and text it to Sam with a question mark. He doesn’t text back. You leave them there anyway.
Daisy shows up again, the week after that. Like she’s checking in on Dr Winslow, maybe, but her face lightens when she sees you’re there. She hangs out with the puppies for a bit, sits down in their playpen and lets them climb all over her, and then gets to her feet, dusts herself off.
“Hey, you on lunch? Wanna go get frappes?” she asks, and you nod, take your feet off the desk and grab your wallet. “You know, I’m glad you’re working here,” she tells you as you walk to the coffee shop, “he- I mean, it’s not really my business, but he kind of seemed lonely when it was just him, you know?”
“He’s a real nice boss,” you tell her, “I really love working here, so. And hey, sure it is. He said you’re a friend, you know.”
“He did?” Daisy asks, her face happy and surprised and maybe a little wistful under, and you bump her shoulder playfully. Resist the urge to ruffle her hair. Your best friend from high school had a little sister like Daisy, that must be it. Katie-Kate, yeah. God, you haven’t thought about her in years. Daisy smiles at you, leans in like maybe she had a big brother too, once. Someone she misses.
You’re almost at the store when the woman ahead of you loses control of her shopping cart, knocks it off the curb, and you hear her swear in Russian.
“Hey, ma’am,” you say, “let me help you with that.” Right the cart, gather up her fallen groceries. She smiles up at you.
“Спасибо,” she says. “Вы очень добры,” and you blush. It’s nothing, just the right thing to do.
“I didn't know you spoke Russian,” Daisy says when you fall back into step with her, and that brings you up short.
“I-” you start, and think about it a little. You did. The words sliding out of your mouth without even thinking about it. Fuck, you didn’t- you forgot, too.
“My grandmother,” you say, and pause again, like maybe that’s not right. It must be right. Your grandmother, that’s it, your mom’s mom. You’d forgotten you know, is all. You were only a kid when she died.
“Huh,” Daisy says, light. Looks at you for a moment. “So you’re not a secret Russian spy?”
“As if,” you scoff. “I’m hurt you’d even consider it.” But you buy her a coffee anyway, and she grins like she knows you’re a soft touch.
“I'm thinking of taking a vacation,” she says on the way back. Carefully, like she's trying to be light-hearted. You get the impression something is always going on under the surface, with Daisy. You kind of figure you know what it is. You've seen the speeches about these new kinds of people. The news. You saw her do it once, when she didn't know you were looking. Quake. Her secret is safe with you.
“Oh yeah? Feeling overworked?”
“It's been an intense couple years,” she agrees. “Thought, maybe, I'd see what Tahiti is like.”
“It's a magical place,” you tell her, and she blinks up at you, face very still all of a sudden like she's listening hard.
“Specialist treatment,” you say. Tilt your head down at your left arm. “God, I don't even want to think how much it cost. Private jet, clinic in Tahiti, scientists so smart I could only understand one in ten words coming outta their mouths. Nice, though. I got to see the beach, in between sessions.”
“Lucky for some, huh,” she says. “How'd you score that?”
“I dunno,” you frown. “Guess I am just lucky.”
“Yeah,” she murmurs. “Guess so. So, James, when are you gonna tell me about the guy you’re pining for?”
“I’m not-” you start, and she grins again, sly. “Okay, I am. Fine, you caught me.”
“I knew it,” she crows, and pokes you in the ribs. “Come on, give me the details.”
“I dunno what there is to tell,” you say honestly. “He came into the practice a couple months back. We had coffee. I cooked him dinner. Nothing happened, okay. He’s not looking for anything.” She gives you a pointed look, and you sigh. “I dunno,” you say again. “It feels… I don’t know, like there’s something he’s holding back. Like he likes me and doesn’t think he should, or something. It’s stupid.”
“No,” Daisy says, “it’s not,” and she looks very thoughtful.
You don't text Sam again, figure it’s in his court. A month goes by and you hear nothing, and then you’re out of food one night and too tired to go to the store. You stare into your freezer for a long moment before you give in. Eat his fucking microwave dinner. You don’t understand, is the thing. Sam is sweet and thoughtful and funny, he looks at you like he wants to know what’s going on inside your head, you want him here on your couch and leaning against your countertop and meeting you for lunch in the park every goddamn day. You don’t get why he’s doing this, this hot and cold thing. Like he doesn’t think he should, you think again, and it stings hard. Hard enough that you throw the half-eaten container in the trash, pull on your jacket and grab your wallet and keys, take the stairs two at a time down to the street. Smoke a couple of cigarettes while you’re walking. You’ve been trying to quit, successful until now. Get to your favorite bar, order a shot of Jack and then another. It goes down burning, and you keep drinking and keep drinking.
When Sam shows up, you think you’re imagining it at first. Just blink up at him, and he frowns at you. You touch his arm, experimental. Not imagining it, then.
“Why are you here,” you ask, and his frown gets bigger.
“You texted me,” he says, and that makes you frown. Squint at your phone.
“No, I-” you start. Sam briefly slides into two. You’re really very drunk, you think fuzzily. You don’t remember getting so drunk. Close one eye like that’ll help you focus. “You never text me back.”
“I shouldn’t,” Sam sighs. “You don’t know, James.” He takes the shot out of your hand before you can lift it to your mouth. “Come on, I think you’re drunk enough, don’t you?”
“You have it, then,” you tell him, “have a drink with me, Sam.” He looks at you for a while, with an expression you can’t place. A little amused, maybe.
“Okay,” he agrees. “If you drink some water, I’ll have a drink with you.”
He stays for longer than you maybe expect. An hour later, you’re a little more sober, and Sam’s maybe a little more drunk. Meeting in the middle, you think, and touch your fingertips to the inside of his wrist.
“Did you know,” you tell him. Still a little tongue-tied from the liquor, maybe. Maybe just from Sam. “Did you know. You’re just. You’re confusing.” Sam is very still, looking at you, his eyes dark and wide, and you trace your fingers up further, watch him shiver.
“Why,” he says, soft, and you lean in just a little.
“I can’t figure you out,” you say, “I can’t- you look at me like you’re looking at me, and then you disappear. You never text me back. You don’t want to date anyone, or maybe me, except you’re looking at me like this, Sam, and I don’t, I don’t get it.”
“I-” Sam starts, and you lean in the rest of the way, press your palm against his cheek, seal your mouth over his. Kiss him like you’re daring him to kiss back. For one long, slow moment, he does. Touches his hand to your elbow so he can pull you in closer, licks into your mouth. Kisses you like he wants to. And then he’s pulling back, closing his eyes and biting his lip, looking conflicted and upset. “Sorry,” he says. “Sorry. I. You’re drunk. I- James, fuck, I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Why?” you ask, and he doesn’t answer. Just touches your elbow again, shakes his head.
“I should go,” he says, “I should- you should go home. Do you need me to walk you there?”
“I’m not that drunk,” you snap, except when you get off your bar stool, you are, shaky on your feet. When Sam catches you you’re angry and hopeful all at once. Not saying anything to him, even as your arm is slung around his shoulder for balance. He unlocks your door, steers you in. You don’t try to kiss him again. Embarrassed, now, your cheeks burning with it, and you let him leave without saying a word.
When you wake up the next morning, you’re so hungover you want to die. And then you check your phone, and see you have unread texts. Open them up. From Sam, for once, except, oh fuck.
Why dont you like me, you’d texted him, and then, ten minutes later, whats wrong wiht me, and you’d obviously been too drunk to read the replies. What do you mean. Where are you? What’s going on?
You close your eyes. Want to die even worse. You remember everything, you remember how you kissed him. How good it was, fuck, and how Sam had kissed back, until he hadn’t.
I’m sorry, you type out, and delete, and type out again. Hit send before you can overthink it more than you already have. There’s no reply. There was never gonna be a reply.
Weeks go by. Months. You never hear from him again. Like he never existed, only you wish you could believe that.
When it happens, it unfolds so quick you don't see it coming.
You're picking up a coffee before work, that's all. Not in your scrubs; you're kind of thinking of going out to the bar tonight. Finding someone to kiss the memory of Sam out of your mouth. The weather's finally hit cold, and you've got your coat collar turned up, chin tucked down into it. When you place an order, the new girl behind the counter gives you a look, up and down. Considers your face for a long moment. You grin, secretly. Check your phone while you're waiting for your order. There are no texts. You'd never expected there to be any.
“Hazelnut latte for James?” the barista calls. “James? Bucky lookalike?”
“Who the hell is Bucky?” you ask as you get to the counter, and she blushes.
“Sorry, I- Bucky Barnes? That guy from World War Two? You slept through history class, huh.” You duck your head, embarrassed. Your hand tries to tuck hair behind your ears, but it's too short. You keep doing that, like maybe it used to be longer, but you haven't had long hair since high school.
“You got me,” you admit, “history was never my best subject.”
“Right,” she says, “yeah, well, I- I always had a crush on him, back in high school. He was so dreamy. Everyone liked Cap better, but for me it was Bucky all the way. Anyway, you could still go to the exhibit, that one touring from the Smithsonian. Last weekend before it closes, I heard.”
You think about asking her if she'd like to go. The way she's smiling, still blushing a little, you think she'd say yes. But she passes you your coffee, and you thank her and leave without saying anything else. Think about the exhibit. Whatever, you think, maybe you'll go at lunchtime.
You get weird deja vu as soon as you get in there. Your face - your face - is on the wall, but that's not what's wigging you out. You've been here before, you think, here but not here. Not this building but these pictures, this gallery, but maybe like you were somebody else. Baseball cap pulled down low over your eyes. Who the hell is Bucky, you think again, and something prickles bad in the back of your head. Then you see the pictures of Captain America - how could you have missed them, you think, except that you were focused on that weird feeling - and now you maybe gotta sit down, because that sad guy who lost his friend, Sam's roommate, the one who you never saw after the first time and who Sam didn’t really volunteer much about, his face is real familiar all of a sudden.
You should have known, you think. You slept through history class, except that this isn't just high school history. You get home and you look it up, captain america 2016, curled up on your bed with the laptop you bought halfway through vet school. Read through article after article. Steve Rogers refusing to sign the Sokovia Accords. A mess in Vienna, another mess in Germany. Around the time you were getting that specialist treatment, but even so, you should know this. The articles keep mentioning the Winter Soldier, and it leaves a suspiciously hollow space in your head like there should be knowledge and isn't. Even if you were a shit history student, you'd know this. You read the paper at least every couple days. You follow news sites on twitter. Huffington Post would have been all over this nonsense about the Registration Act when it happened. So why don't you know about it?
Winter soldier, you type into the search bar, and the results flood in. Grainy photos, conspiracy theories. A shaky cell-phone camera video, a man with a metal arm stalking down a street in DC like there's murder in the way he walks. You look down at your left arm. You can still remember the accident. The PT. The first prosthetic you had, shitty, and the second one, slightly less shitty, and the third, the prototype of what you've got now. How excited the specialists were when you flexed your fingers for the first time. The first time you played the piano again.
The Winter Soldier, also known as Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, you read, and you stop breathing for a moment. Bucky, you think. A thought that's yours and not yours all at once. My name is Bucky.
Who the goddamn shitting hell is Bucky.
There's one person you think will know for sure. Steve. Captain fucking America. He lost his friend, you think again, and he did, it's true, except maybe his friend is you. Used to be you. Or you're him, somehow, you don't know, nothing makes sense, but you think Steve will know, alright. You think maybe he already does. And it's not like you can just call him up, you have no idea where he lives, except that you fell for his best friend, once upon a time. You've still got Sam's number. Thought about deleting it, especially when you were drunk and maudlin. He kissed you back and disappeared and you wonder whether he'll even reply, except you think you know how to phrase it to make it count.
Do you know who I am, you type. Your fingers only shake a little. I've got some memories that can't be right.
It only takes Sam twenty minutes to show up. He's very serious, when he appears at the door of your studio. More serious than you've ever seen on his face.
“You need to come with me,” he says, and you nod, gather up your wallet and keys, pull on your jacket. Follow Sam mutely out to the car. This time, he doesn’t offer to let you drive.
“I missed you,” you whisper as he's driving, and watch how the muscle in his jaw twitches. He doesn't look at you. You blink, drop your head. Consider your hands in your lap.
“If I said желание to you, what would that mean?” Sam asks. He says it like he doesn't really want to know the answer.
“Longing,” you say. “Except I don't know how I know. Didn't know you spoke Russian.”
“I don't,” he says, and doesn't explain. “It doesn't… mean anything else to you?”
“No,” you say, confused. “Should it?”
He doesn't answer.
The house Sam and Steve live in is so ordinary it feels weird. Captain America is living in this anonymous little house with the vinyl siding and front door that’s peeling paint. It makes you frown, and then frown harder.
“You just moved here,” you say to Sam as he unlocks the front door. “You just- you moved here when you found me, didn’t you.”
“Yes,” he agrees, and looks you in the eye. “Yeah, we did.” And then you’re inside, and Steve is looking at you like someone he knows. You are someone he knows. You fell off a train, and he watched you fall. You attacked him, in DC. If you are, impossibly, who you think you might be, you did all these things, separated by seventy years of history, and you can’t remember a second of it.
“He didn't recognize the first trigger word,” Sam tells Steve, and you frown. Was that the Russian? What the fuck were they trying to trigger?
“Who am I,” you say. “Who the fuck am I.”
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes,” Steve says, and laughs like it hurts.
“No,” you say. “No. James Buchanan Barnes was in the army, he was born in 1917, he's like a hundred years old, no.”
“You and me both, pal,” Steve tells you. You shake your head.
“I was born in New Jersey,” you insist. As if that'll make it true. “I was born in New Jersey. Fifth of October 1982. My mom died when I was nine.” You can still remember the funeral, the casket. The piece you played for her, the one you'd been practicing. Perfect, finally, too late for her to hear. It took a year before you went back to piano after that. “I, fuck, I played soccer, I got all the way to state championships, I snapped my ankle on the field and I've still got the scar from surgery. I was studying to be an architect until the. The accident.” You're crying like you don't want to lose all this. Steve closes his eyes.
“You were born in Brooklyn,” he says, quiet. “You broke your ankle tripping on a cobblestone and had to stay in bed all summer while it healed. I came over every day to keep you company, you were bored out of your mind. Your ma nearly throttled you before the end. The scar was later. In the war. Buck, please, I-”
“My name is James,” you snap, and he laughs again, punched out of him.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Yeah, it is.”
“Everything you think you know,” Sam says quietly, “it's been constructed for you. An identity built from the ground up,” and you hold back a sob.
“Why would you do this,” you ask, breathing hard, and Steve makes a painful noise.
“We didn't,” he says, “we- you did this to yourself. You chose this.”
“We got home,” Sam says, “and you'd left us this.” He opens the laptop, finds something and turns it to face you. A video. You hit play. It's your face. It's not your face. He makes expressions you recognize in the mirror, his eyes are yours, his mouth. Long hair, and terribly tired. The kind of bone-tiredness you didn't know you'd ever been.
I gotta do this, he-you says. I figured out- they're gonna make me into a new person. I can move on. You can move on. This is the best thing for all of us. Tucks his hair behind his ears, a gesture that makes as much sense on him as it doesn't on you. Don't try to follow me. You should know by now you're better off without me, okay. I'm gonna get by okay on my own. Sorry I can't- sorry I can't be with you to the end of the line this time, pal.
Oh. Oh Jesus god. You're in a tenement in Brooklyn and Steve is tinier than he's ever been, face sharp and drawn with carefully hidden grief. You're in something high up that's all sparks and metal wreckage and your shoulder hurts so much you feel sick with it. Steve, Steve, Steve. He's there. He's always been there, reaching for you as you fall, and you forgot, you let yourself forget, you let them paper over the cracks, but you can't. You can't forget this.
You look up. Steve's face is doing something terrible.
“Stevie?” you say, your voice very small, and you see the moment he starts crying.
Before you were you, you were Bucky, and before that, the Winter Soldier, and before that again, like layers of paint and old varnish over the surface of memory, you were James Barnes, impossibly young and beautiful in black-and-white photos. You think about it for a long time. You still remember, is the thing. Your mom's face when she lit the Shabbat candles and the house you grew up in, the smell of your high school auditorium. The car accident. Your kid sister's laugh, except you don't have a kid sister, except you do. You did.
“Bucky,” Steve says, his voice wrecked and hopeful in equal measures, and you can't, you can't. You don't know him at all, and you love him, and it hurts your chest and your head to hold those two things equal in your mind.
“Stop,” you say, “I need- fuck, I need out, okay.”
“You can't leave,” Sam tells you, and you nod. You know why. You might be dangerous. You are dangerous. You were and could be again. The Winter goddamn Soldier. You're just a kid from New Jersey who likes border collie puppies and hazelnut lattes and Chopin études.
“I just need some air, okay.”
“Yeah,” he says, “sure,” and tilts his head toward the back door. You're pretty sure one of them will come with you. You're the Winter Soldier. You used to be. You can't be left alone.
“Sam,” you whisper, “will you-” You know him better than Steve, after all. Steve's a stranger to you right now even as he's not, and you can't handle how you feel the layers of memory pushing for recognition. Like if you look at him much longer it'll rise up.
“Okay,” Sam agrees, and you step outside, take your cigarettes out of your pocket. Light one with shaking hands.
“So when you said you and Steve weren't dating,” you start, deliberately light, and Sam huffs a laugh, leans in until his shoulder is brushing yours, takes the cigarette from you and pulls in a long drag.
“We're not,” he tells you. “Come on, man, we're roommates. Just like I said. Ugh, these are terrible. You know they're bad for you, right.”
“I'm guessing I don't have to worry about that,” you say, dry, and Sam snorts a little.
“Guess not,” he agrees, and then both of you are silent while you smoke the rest, stub out the butt under the heel of your boot.
“You knew who I was,” you say, and Sam doesn't deny it. “You knew.”
“That's why,” he says. “Come on, that's why, you know that's why I couldn't- I should never have said yes to you in the first place. I should never have come back. Steve wanted me to check you were okay, it just-”
“You were monitoring me,” you say, and he meets your eyes and nods, real measured.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “I was.” You should be mad, you suppose. He knew this about you, knew things you didn't know. He let you cook him dinner and touch his arm and tilt your head, all the motions you go through when you're falling for someone. Let you kiss him. Kissed you back and then didn’t. Disappeared. Breach of observation protocol, someone within you says, and it's someone you know and don't know at all. The same way you know Russian, maybe.
“What was your assessment?” you ask, and your voice only shakes a little.
“You're not-” Sam starts, “you're. Not dangerous. We needed to know what you know. What parameters you were operating under. Once I knew, I told Steve we should leave you alone. I wasn't gonna see you again. Got your number just in case of emergencies.”
“So when you said yes to dinner,” you say, and Sam looks away. When I kissed you, you want to say. Did you want to kiss back? Was that just part of your mission? You saw the expression on his face. You know it wasn't. It isn't. You compromised the mission, and Sam.
“You disappeared,” you say, “you kept disappearing, I thought I'd fucked it up,” and he looks upset. Grabs your hand like he’s not thinking about it.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “fuck, I am. I couldn’t risk it. I shouldn’t have.”
“But you did,” you murmur, “you did, and then we…”
“Yeah,” he sighs. “Yeah, I know.”
“Did we…” you say, and look at how your fingers are entwined with Sam's. “Were we…”
“No,” Sam says. “No. I didn't like you very much.” It stings, even though you don't know why it should. That you wasn't this you, but you can't imagine not wanting Sam to like you. You wonder if it stung then too. If you tried to get him to smile the way you know he smiles now.
“You didn't?” you ask, quiet and maybe a little hurt, and Sam sighs. Rubs his thumb over the inside of your wrist.
“Well it's just, you threw me off a helicarrier,” he says, and you blink and blink at the thought of it.
You still have the details of the specialists. Not a clinic in Tahiti, probably. You don’t call - Steve calls - and within hours they’re there. Steve and Sam’s house feels too small for everyone inside it, the way everyone is so tense it’s radiating in a wide perimeter around you.
“Agent Coulson,” Steve says. His jaw twitches. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“Are you really surprised?” Coulson asks, and Steve glares at him for a minute before he sighs. Shakes his head.
“You set this up,” he says. “You- with Bucky-” and there’s the glare again, the jaw clench harder than before. You feel wary of Steve’s anger. You don’t know him at all, except suddenly you also know bone-deep, somehow, that this is familiar. Steve’s anger is a constant you’re so used to you’d hardly even blink, once.
“Stevie,” you mutter, “ease up,” and Steve’s attention is abruptly focused on you. It’s smothering. You close your eyes, open them, look away. Coulson looks like he’s seeing it all.
“Sergeant Barnes came to us,” he tells Steve, his tone mild. “We did warn him. He was insistent.”
“Sounds like something I’d do,” you agree. “You make me sign consent forms, or something?” Coulson laughs a little.
“We talked about it for a long time,” he says. “I tried to talk you out of it. It’s painful. Doesn’t always stick. I thought it might not.”
“Painful,” Steve says, “how do you-”
“I did die,” Coulson says conversationally. Says it like it’s easy, fuck. “In New York, I did die. They brought me back. This was supposed to hide what I remembered of the process.”
“They gave you new memories,” Steve says, questioning, and Coulson nods.
“TAHITI. It’s a-”
“Magical place,” you say, in unison, and suddenly you can’t help but remember Daisy’s face, the incremental widening of her eyes. She was the one who mentioned Tahiti, first. Testing you, maybe. She’s heard this, you’re willing to bet. She knows exactly what it means.
“Who,” Sam asks, then, and it’s the first time he’s said anything in a while. Coulson glances over at him.
“Me,” he says. Simple. “They gave me my own memories. Not real, but me.”
“Was I real?” you ask, and it's been playing on you since you learned. “Am I- was I a real person?”
“Are you a copy?” Coulson says like he understands. “No. You're- nobody's ever been James Cohen except you. You're not stealing anyone. We made his life for you.” You don't know if that's better or worse, but you want to be him. You want to be him so bad.
“You didn’t erase Bucky,” Steve says, and oh fuck, that hurts, the hope in his voice. If you choose this, if you choose yourself, you’re not sure how Steve will live with it. This is why I left, you think, and you know it’s true.
“No,” Coulson agrees. “That’s not how it works. We stripped out as much of the Winter Soldier programming as we could. TAHITI neurotherapy. You remember the beach?”
You do. You remember the beach. A false memory, covering something worse. You don’t remember what the Winter Soldier programming was, but the way Steve and Sam look, it can’t have been good.
“What would I have done,” you whisper. Thinking of the videos you saw when you googled. A man with a mask and a gun. “You said, trigger words. What was it, желание. I didn’t react to them. That’s. That’s good, right?”
“It’s a good sign,” Coulson says, and he’s so gentle, so reassuring, you feel your shoulders begin to come down from around your ears. “Apart from the programming, we didn’t erase anything. Your old- who you used to be is still there.”
“So if stripping out the programming worked,” Steve says, voice low and tight, “why did you-”
“Bucky’s choice,” Coulson tells him. “He was adamant.”
“He remembered,” you say, suddenly knowing. Not knowing how you know. Rising up, again, a thing you understand without conscious thought. “I remembered. Everything he did. What I did. We- the Winter Soldier, the missions. He and me, we're the same. Just because the programming’s gone, you can’t get rid of those memories. What they made me do. I did it, Steve.”
“Bucky?” Steve asks, hearing something in your voice, and you look up at him.
“Yeah,” you say, “yeah, I-” You falter. Certainty bleeding away. Bucky giving way to James. Let me have this, you want to beg, let me be this, let me stay this, and don’t know how to begin.
You stay at the house for days. Call in sick to work. You’ve got a bug, you tell Dr Winslow, and he’s worried for you, tells you to rest up. You try, you do, but it’s hard. Fuck it’s hard. At first you avoid Sam and Steve both. Hide in their spare room. You don’t read their files, and then you do, and you don’t know what’s worse, not knowing who you used to be or knowing and not remembering. Your face, in the cryo chamber. The things Hydra did to you. The things Hydra made you do.
Cold, you think, and it’s a thought that’s not yours. Memory echoing through your bones. You were cold for so fucking long, you guess that sticks around.
The next day, you venture out. Sam’s familiar, at least, and he’s as easy to talk to as he’s ever been. You still feel the chemistry between the two of you, for fuck’s sake. Like maybe it’d have disappeared now that you know what Sam was there for, except it hasn’t at all. Maybe it’s clearer now. You both know what you’re up against.
Steve, though. Steve makes it difficult. You’re in the kitchen, and you make a joke, something dumb about your childhood. How you grew up a nineties kid. Sam laughs, eyes bright, but Steve just stares at you like he’s hurt bone-deep. You blink and falter again, smile at him, and he doesn’t smile back. Leaves the room, breathing hard. You look to Sam, and he looks back, expression sober.
“He doesn’t like me,” you say, and you know it’s stupid but your voice betrays how you’re hurt by it.
“It’s not that,” Sam tells you, but it is. Your childhood never happened, and Steve knows it. Can’t forget.
“I can’t be who he wants me to be,” you mutter, and Sam leans his hip against the counter, a gesture that’s familiar by now. Considers his words before he says them.
“You could… You know you could be him again. Bucky. If you wanted. It’s reversible, like Agent Coulson said. You’re getting some memory bleed-through, he’s still there.”
“I don't want to lose myself,” you admit. Laugh painfully. “I never really existed and I'm still afraid to die.” Sam touches you then, your chin, your jaw. His fingers very gentle.
“Of course you exist,” he says, soft, “James, god, of course you do. You’re right here.” I’m not real, you think, come on, you know I’m not real, but you feel real. Your entire life, spun into existence like cotton candy and just as easy to dissolve, but it feels so real, and you want this. Fuck, you want this.
“What do you think I should do,” you ask him. “You think I should…”
“Hey, I can’t make that decision for you,” Sam shrugs, “come on, man, you know that.” You do. You know that.
“Steve-” you say, and swallow, and swallow. “Steve would want me to.”
“It’s not up to Steve,” Sam says. “You want to be James? Be James. You’re allowed to choose who you are.”
“Every time he looks at me,” you whisper. “I can’t stay here. You know that. It’s driving me crazy, Sam.”
“Steve knew you,” Sam tells you. “I never did. Not like he did. It's… harder, I think. For him.”
“Keeps expecting me to be someone I'm not,” you agree. It still stings. “Wish he liked me, though. Kinda sucks that Captain America doesn't like me, you know?”
“He will,” Sam shrugs. “Give him time. You're easy to like.”
“Oh, I am?” you ask, teasing, and Sam leans in a little closer.
“Yeah,” he breathes. “Yeah, James, you are.”
“You like me?” He's so close now you can feel the heat of his mouth. If you moved just a fraction you'd be kissing.
“I do,” he murmurs, and then he closes the distance, or you do. It’s long and sweet and slow, Sam’s mouth moving against yours. It feels real. Against his mouth, you feel real enough.
The next day, you move home again. Not dangerous, Sam had said, and that’s still true. You’ve got no programming left in you to turn you into a weapon, after all, and you’re choosing your life. Taking it and holding on.
It’s good to be back at work, to feel the mundane realities of living. Sam texts you every day. More than every day. Meets you after work Friday night, lets you cook him dinner. Lets you kiss him on your couch until he’s in your lap and you’ve got his shirt off.
“Stay the night,” you suggest, and he smiles, very sweet.
“Okay,” he agrees, “yeah, okay,” and god, god, it’s everything you’ve been wanting. Sam’s body against yours, his hands in your hair, the warmth of him in your bed and the sound of his quiet breath as he falls asleep next to you, you want to set this moment in amber so you can hold onto it for longer. You roll over, and kiss the nape of his neck. Breathe him in.
In the morning, you discover Sam’s already awake, has slid out of bed to make coffee in your tiny kitchen. You watch him from bed, around the edge of the bookcase. He’s just in his boxers, the morning light beautiful on his skin, and you feel a surge of affection just on the edge of turning into something more. God, you’re lucky.
“Get back here,” you yawn, and he brings the coffee with him. Yours sweet and milky, his plain. You watch him over the rim of your mug, like maybe he’ll disappear on you if you stop looking. He doesn’t. Just lies back down, when he’s finished, and pulls you in.
“When I met you, you had long hair,” he tells you, stroking his fingers through the strands. He’s started giving you details like this, trusting that you’re okay with it.
“When I threw you off a helicarrier,” you murmur, frowning, and he laughs.
“Nah, I’m giving you a pass on that one. That was the other guy.”
“Yeah, the Soldier,” he agrees. Tightens his hand into a fist, drags you into a kiss. His beard tickles your face a little. “Ripped my steering wheel out of my goddamn car, too,” he adds, “and threw me into a wall,” and you laugh before you can help it.
“And you still fell for me, even though I’ve got his face. That’s fucked up, Sam Wilson.”
“What can I say,” he shrugs, “you’re just so damn pretty, is all. Must have been the hair.”
“You want me to grow it back out?” you ask, when Sam starts playing with it again, and he shakes his head.
“I mean, it’s up to you,” he tells you, and you think about your face in that video. Your hair was long, once. Not yours. Not how you’d recognize yourself. You could go crazy, thinking about identity for too long. You just gotta roll with what feels okay, maybe.
The next time you see Daisy, she looks you up and down, tilts her head like she’s assessing. Waits for you to get your shit together. Getting coffee on your lunch break, like you always do, except you can tell she’s got something to say.
“You know who you are,” she starts, and you frown and nod all at once.
“Yeah, I know who I am.”
“You know who you were,” she amends. “Who you used to be.” You do. You’re a combination, now. James and Bucky. None of the Soldier, not so far. We stripped that out, Coulson had said, and god, you hope he's right.
“Yeah,” you agree. “I do.”
“You understand,” she says, intense, “why I wouldn’t want you here with Dr Winslow, then.”
“I’m not going to hurt him,” you tell her, “I’m not going to hurt anyone.”
“I believe you,” she sighs. “Sometimes, you don’t get a choice about that. But if you do, James, if you hurt him or make him question one single thing about his life, I don’t care about who you are or who you used to be or who you know, I’ll find you.”
“His life,” you repeat. Aware of nuance, now. You stare at her, eyes wide. “Daisy, who did he used to be?” There’s so much she’s not saying. Her eyes, like she knows too much about hurting people against her will. The lines of her mouth like she’s used to losing people. She closes her eyes. Opens them again. Looks very far away.
“I wasn’t always an orphan,” she tells you. “Or, I was, and then I wasn’t, and now I am again.”
“Oh Jesus, sweetheart,” you whisper. Bucky sliding in like he can't help it. He had a sister he loves as much as you love Daisy. You know what it’s like, losing a father. You touch her arm, can’t help it, and she sighs again. Rests her head on your shoulder.
“It’s not safe,” she says, “it’s not- he did a lot of bad things. Not like you, he wasn’t… He chose to do them. He wasn’t a good person for a long time. This was the only option. Coulson did it for me. But god, James, I miss him. I spent so long looking, and now he’s here, and it’s not the same.” Her voice cracks at the end, and you pull her in, stroke her hair. She’s your little sister, except she’s not, except she is. She can be. This is as close to family as you’ve got, except in the echoes of a memory that’s not quite yours anymore.
Come over tonight, Sam texts you one morning, we’ll get Thai food, and you’ve got nothing but time so you show up after work, in jeans and the shirt of your scrubs work uniform, a long-sleeved top underneath. You grin at Steve when he opens the door. He’s getting better, slowly. Figuring out how to accept who you are, not what you meant for so long. Some days you wonder if it’s better this way. You know, with absolute surety, that Bucky struggled with it too, what he was to Steve. What Steve was to him. Too much, too heavy. This way, at least, you’re just his best friend’s boyfriend. It’s simpler like this, and more complicated, all at once.
The three of you order approximately enough food for ten. Makes more sense, now, why you’re hungry all the time. Supersoldier metabolism. Hollow legs, you hear your mom say, back when you were still a kid and she was still alive. She never said it. She did. It doesn’t matter, in the end. You remember it, and that’s enough.
When the food arrives, you spread it out on the living room floor as if you’re setting up a picnic. Steal a carton of pad thai off Sam in exchange for a kiss. Steve watches like he’s learning to be okay with this. You eat a few bites, pass him the container as if it’s normal for the two of you to share food. He takes it like it is. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it will be.
“Gimme the spring rolls,” Steve says after a minute or two, “come on, Sam, quit hogging them.”
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, Steve, it ain’t like there’s not enough to go around,” you say, automatic, and then blink a little. A Jewish kid from New Jersey and you're swearing like a Brooklyn Catholic. The words feel easy on your tongue, the cadence like you know it through and through. Rolling your eyes, slinging an arm around Steve's shoulder. Jesus Mary and Joseph, Stevie, gimme a goddamn break. Steve's eyes go wide.
“Bucky?” he asks, and you shrug. You guess that's you, right now. Not memories rising up but a sliding sideways in your head, and you roll your shoulders the way James doesn't. Sam's staring, you realize.
“My boyfriend still in there?” he says, easy. Eats another bite of his noodles. You grin at him, and at Steve, and let yourself react.
“Baby, I'm both,” you tell him, and he nods like he understands. Perhaps he does. I contain multitudes, you think, and can't help laughing.
You're more James and Bucky together every day after that. You wake up, a couple of times, with dreams that aren’t quite nightmares. Old memories battened down behind smoked glass, just enough to be unsettling. This is what Bucky was running from, you know. You are him, and he’s you, but your constructed life protects him, now. You got memories of Hydra, bad stuff locked away, but you’ve got thirty years of James Cohen in there too. High school prom and soccer practice and skiing trips with your dad in Colorado. The nineties, not the thirties. Layer upon layer, but this is here on the surface, comfortingly familiar. It blankets everything, softens it, and you don’t wake up screaming. Just anxious, a little. Breathless from something you don’t quite remember.
You call Coulson again, just to check. Worried, maybe, that the protocol isn’t working.
“I don't know,” he admits, “there's no… this isn’t peer-reviewed and researched, okay. I started remembering, but I- I had questions all along,” and then he puts the scientists on the line.
“It’s not dangerous,” they tell you, cautious, “it’s just, you might find your personality is a little fragmented.” You laugh.
“Pal, I been dealing with a fragmented fuckin’ personality since 1944, what's new?”
Bucky and you, you’re almost the same. Not quite. He winds Steve up mercilessly, chewing with his mouth open and lowering his eyes into a hooded gaze. You tell stories that leave Sam winded with laughter, wheezing, and Steve bright red all the way down his neck.
“What’s it like,” Sam asks when you’re lying in his bed one evening, forehead to forehead. “Having someone else take up space in your head, I mean.”
“It’s not-” you start, and try to explain it. “He’s me.” He’s not, really. Almost but not. At your core, there’s enough overlap to make it work. You wonder if Sam maybe fell a little for Bucky before you left. Before Bucky left. I hate you, you hear Sam sigh, but in the cadence of someone who doesn’t at all. Someone who’s just tired of the relentless shit that surrounds you, perhaps. Bucky’s you, and he’s not, but you don’t mind him there. You’re happy to share.
This is not your beautiful life, and it is. This is a life that’s been built for you from the ground up, a construction of memory that feels just as solid as the piano in your apartment even as you know it’s not real, the memories or the piano or the memories of the piano. It’s weird, of course it’s weird, but everything is weird. You were best friends with Steve Rogers long before he was ever Cap, and for seventy years you were a weapon with no sense of self at all, just a tool to be used, and then for thirty years layered over the top of that you were a kid from New Jersey. Your life is simple even with all of these things true at once. You’re here in a bed with Sam, his mouth tender against yours, and that’s enough no matter who it is that you are at any given moment. You and Bucky, you both love him, and that’s enough.