Sam timed it yesterday, calculating exactly how long it takes to get to Phillips Hall from his apartment, but he still shows up to his first college class so early that the previous class is still in the room, going over their syllabi.
He tries waiting out in the hall, but his legs are jittery and he can’t stand still. The walk to the bathroom doesn’t take nearly long enough, and he washes his hands twice. He does a lap around the floor, crossing his arms over his chest to keep from wringing his hands, and he doesn’t dare wander any further for fear of going too far away and ending up late.
By the time he gets back from his third lap around the floor, the classroom is finally empty. Sam glances around in the hall, trying to keep from looking like he’s got no idea what he’s doing, and wonders if he’s allowed to just go in. Or if it’s still too early. If there’s some sort of college protocol that he missed out on.
This was not covered at orientation.
It’s an embarrassment, is what it is. Sam’s one of a handful of guys in the whole fucking world who can fly with wings strapped to his back. He carried out over seventy successful rescue missions in his career, many under heavy fire. He survived losing his best friend and shattering his knee and an exhausting year of extensive therapy - physical and otherwise - and there is no way he’s going to let something as common as college get to him.
He spends another three minutes dilly dallying in the hall like an asshole before he takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and pushes through the classroom door.
It’s a decent sized room. Nothing like the enormous lecture hall where he’ll have his intro bio class this afternoon (he scoped that out yesterday too, on his timed walking tour to all his classes) but there’s enough seats that Sam’s confident he’ll be able to blend into the crowd without getting lost in it. The classroom is curved, with three tiers of seats forming a half circle around the raised dais with a lectern in the middle that backs up to a whiteboard. There are big windows in the back, flooding the whole space with bright, mid-morning light.
Sam startles a little when he realizes that he’s not actually the first one here. A scruffy looking white guy sitting at the end second tier, apparently deep asleep with his head on his desk, somehow managed to beat him to it.
Sam takes the seat nearly opposite him, on the other side of the curve, and glances around.
Sitting in the nearly empty classroom and it just sort of hits him all at once; this is college.
It’s like something out of a teen movie, with the desks and the whiteboards and kids with backpacks chattering in the hallway, and it’s finally becoming real for Sam. Walking around GW’s campus, his acceptance letter, and his GI Bill coming through did nothing to make Sam feel like it was really happening. But he sits nearly alone in this classroom - still way too early - and he gets it.
Sam’s in college. This is why his mama’s so proud.
More people trickle in, everyone quiet until the room fills up and the kids start chatting with the people in desks near them. It’s the already familiar freshmen questions that Sam heard plenty of at orientation - where are you from, what’s your major, what dorm are you in - but no one asks Sam anything. He didn’t expect them too. He is far from your average college kid.
The guy that managed to beat Sam into the classroom raises his head to glare at the trio of kids sitting near him, shrieking with laughter at an unreasonable pitch for this early in the morning.
Now that Sam’s getting a good look at the guy, he sees that the dude is old. In a sea of chubby cheeked, bushy tailed, eager as hell youths - and fuck, did Sam really look that young when he enlisted at eighteen? - is this gruff motherfucker. Hunched down in his seat and scowling, he looks like he’s Sam’s age, well into his twenties and a fully grown man, unlike the grangly kids roaming around campus. This guy might be even older. It’s difficult to tell exactly what’s going on under the mop of brown hair, the five o’clock shadow, and the bad attitude.
Sam’s sees something familiar in his eyes, though. They’re kinda haunted and kinda paranoid, permanently a little freaked out, wide and blue. They’re shell shocked soldier eyes.
Sam’s seen eyes like that often enough, looking back at him in a mirror, even a year after his discharge, especially on nights when he wakes up dreaming of Riley and only starts to feel like he’s no longer in a damn desert after he splashes cool water on his face. Sam sees them on other soldiers at the VA, during group or wandering around waiting for an appointment.
If Sam hadn’t already had this dude pegged as a vet based on his age and his eyes, the fancy prosthetic would seal the deal. It takes Sam almost too long to notice it, even with this guy brandishing it like a weapon, showing it off with a tank top instead of covering up with a long sleeve shirt like Sam’s come to expect from a lot of the guys missing limbs who are regulars at the VA.
It’s like the guy’s using his arm to get the infants they’re attending classes with to keep away. Between that and the scowl, it does an effective job. There’s no one sitting in the radius of seats around him, and Sam’s jealous.
Sam might be old, but apparently he isn’t scary because there are a couple of frat bro types sitting next to him, bragging about all the girls they’ve fucked since moving into their dorms a week ago.
In a different life - before Riley was blown out of the sky while Sam watched - Sam would’ve gotten up and taken one of those seats next to Fancy Metal Arm, introduced himself, and made a joke about the old guys sticking together surrounded by all these damn kids.
Sam had been accepted at GW on his first round applying to college at age eighteen, when he was top of the senior class at his high school. If he’d enrolled then instead of enlisting, he’d probably have already made ten new friends before his first class started. That was the kind of loquacious overachiever he was back then.
Now he huddles lower in his seat and pulls a notebook out of his backpack just to give his shaking hands something to do.
The kids all around him have laptops.
Across the room, Fancy Metal Arm catches Sam’s eye as he pulls a notebook of his own out of a backpack. He blinks, studying Sam intently for a minute before lifting his chin in a jerky nod of acknowledgement.
Sam gives him a nod back, and he imagines walking over there and saying hello and asking if twenty-six is supposed to feel this goddamn ancient. Maybe Fancy Metal Arm is imagining what he would’ve done in this situation before he went through whatever he went through to get that prosthetic. Maybe he is imagining making that walk himself.
Instead he just the nods at Sam and Sam nods back, a silent, hey, you’re old and I’m old and how about these damn kids, huh?
Then the professor comes in and starts passing out the syllabus, and Sam focuses on Intro to Global History: Revolts Against British Colonialism, instead of some random old guy in his class.
Homework is a relief.
After months of rehab on his knee and therapy for his PTSD and soul searching to figuring out just what the hell he wants to do with his life post-pararescue, it’s a joy to have some purpose outside just getting himself okay again. He reads a couple hundred pages of dense historical journals a week and he doesn’t think about Riley for whole minutes at a time and it’s good .
(Of course, when he’s done reading he feels immediately guilty for not thinking about Riley for whole minutes at a time, and then gets angry for feeling guilty because he knows it wasn’t his fault. He knows he deserves a life. And then he thinks about how Riley deserves a life too, but he won’t get it because he’s fucking dead, and then he’s back to the guilt.
It’s a stupid fucking cycle, but he’s working on it.)
And after the reading is done, there’s always a paper to write or more reading to do or some research to get a head start on. He makes careful note cards to help him memorize a metric fuck ton of works for his art history class. He tries to give a shit about his basic math requirement, like this level of geometry isn’t laughably easy after all the angles and curves he calculated on the fly - sometimes while literally flying - as pararescue. He throws himself wholeheartedly into his Revolts class and decides to major in history, much to his mother’s delight.
Sam lives in the library, finding a couple spots in Gelmen for studying, one deep in the bowels of the stacks for when he wants silence and another near the computers when he needs the ambient noise of students laughing and chatting and bumbling their way through group projects.
In his shitty apartment he makes dinner for one when he’s got the energy for it - steadily working his way through his ma’s recipes, the ones she wrote out on note cards to take with him when he got into GW - and he does not make any friends or really talk to anyone outside the group of regulars he sees at the VA for group twice a week.
But that’s okay because college is good. Homework is good. Slowly but surely, he’s relearning how to have purpose as a civilian.
Once or twice a month, he gets on a bus for Charlottesville to go stay at his ma’s place. He brings his laundry like any good college kid in a blue mesh bag, but Ma laughs when she sees it slung over his shoulder and tells him do his laundry himself, like that wasn’t his plan all along. The laundry room in his building costs an obscene amount of money on each load. A dollar-fifty to wash and a dollar-fifty to dry, then usually another dollar because the first go around never seems to get everything actually dry. Doing the wash at her place is much better. Since Ma got tenure at UVA, she’s started splurging on the nice detergent.
Darlene Wilson moved to Charlottesville only a year after Sam joined the Air Force. Despite the extended family and her best friends all living within the same eight block radius in Harlem, Ma said it didn’t feel like home with Sam on base across the country and Sarah living with her new husband, David, in Virginia. She left her long time job at City College, left the only home Sam ever had, the place they all lived together before his dad died, bought a house down the block from Sarah and a ten minute walk to campus. She even brought her damn boyfriend with her and when she told Sam about it, a solid month after making the move, she did so in a damn letter.
Eight years later and he’s mostly adjusted. Mostly.
Malcolm’s a decent guy. They got married while Sam was in Afghanistan, just the two of them at the courthouse with strangers as witnesses, and Sam’s mostly adjusted to that, too.
Malcolm’s a kindergarten teacher and never tried to be Sam’s father when he started taking Sam’s ma out to nice dinners and walks in the park during Sam’s senior year of high school. And sure, maybe eighteen-year-old Sam was so freaked out by his mother moving on with someone a mere nine years after his father died - and so enraptured by the recruiter whispering in his ear - that his tentative fantasy of following his father into the Air Force instead of going to college became a full on plan, but none of that was Malcolm’s fault.
Now he’s just glad that his ma found someone to love her the way she deserves.
Last summer, at an ice cream social for the elementary school, one of Malcolm’s students even told Sam that he looked just like Malcolm and Sam just smiled and nodded instead of yelling, “ he’s not my fucking father ” at a five year old.
Sam might still get cranky over the fact that his ma has a new home now, in a new city with a new husband, but he still only applied to colleges within driving distance when he finally decided he wanted to go back to school.
After his last midterm before Thanksgiving Break, Sam gets on a bus with a blue mesh bag full of laundry and his backpack stuffed with all the books he’ll need to study over break. Ma picks him up at the bus stop, trying to carry the laundry for him and then rolling her eyes when he won’t let it go. Once he gets everything stowed in the trunk, she takes his face in both her hands and tugs him down to kiss both his cheeks, just like she did when he flew home to her with a shattered knee and a broken heart and a haunted head. When she smiles at him this time, she doesn’t cry.
“Get in the car,” she says. “Malcolm’s making burgers.”
It’s nice enough to sit outside on the back deck. And it ain’t Harlem, but Sam begrudgingly admits that having a big back yard is nice, the fall colors out in full force and enough leaves left on the big trees to make it shady on an unseasonably hot afternoon.
He and Ma read outside for a solid hour, enjoying the quiet, before Sarah and her girls arrive. Sam can hear them shrieking and giggling in the driveway before they burst through the side gate, a whirlwind of energy, everyone talking all at once.
The girls make a beeline for the back shed, emerging a second later with gloves and a ball. Sarah stands behind Sam on the deck, squeezes his shoulder, and yells, “Come say hello to your grandma! And your uncle!”
Jamie looks to the sky and groans, like her life is very hard and her mother is very unreasonable, but Jody is a total charmer at five and she zips right over, flinging herself into her grandma’s lap.
“Hi!” she squeals before giving a rapid-fire summary of her day, from what she ate for breakfast to what happened at school and this thing that a mean boy said to her friend. Sam maybe gets every third word, but his ma nods along, listening intently.
Jody turns to him next. She gets shy, shuffling her feet and swinging her hands behind her back. She bites her lip and Sam sees she’s missing both front teeth. That’s new since the last time he was here.
“Hi, Uncle Sam,” she says.
“Hi,” he replies.
She runs off after that, going to retrieve her glove from where she dumped it in the grass. Sam doesn’t blame her for getting shy around him. They barely know each other.
Sam was away for most of the girls’ lives and when he was here last year, he was hardly fit for company. As much as he wants to be Uncle Sam to them instead of just some random dude their mother makes them say hi to, he has no idea how to do that yet. He doesn’t know what to say to them. He barely knows what to say to his own mother and is just now getting comfortable speaking up in his Revolts class. And Sarah would be all for her girls learning about the Mau Mau Rebellion against British rule in Kenya, she probably doesn’t want Sam getting into the gorey details.
Jamie shuffles over, says hi, tells them how desperately she needs to practice catching pop flies, and then jogs back out to the grass, where Jody is trying to heave a softball as high in the air as she can with her tiny little arms to accommodate said pop fly practice.
Someday, when Sam trusts himself with them a little more and his knee hurts a little less, he’s going to get in on that pop fly practice.
“I swear I spend my whole life in the car.” Sarah groans and collapses into the chair across from Sam, closing her eyes and leaning back. “Were we into so many things when we were kids? Jamie is all baseball, baseball, baseball, and Jody’s been bouncing around between art classes, piano lessons, and ballet. None of these things are anywhere near each other. All I do is zigzag my ass around this damn city.”
“They’re bright little girls with a lot of interests,” Ma says, pouring Sarah a glass of wine from the bottle sitting on the table. “It’s your job to encourage that.”
Sarah groans some more and takes a huge gulp her drink. “You didn’t even own a car when we were kids. You’d just stick us on the subway and call it a day.”
Ma scoffs. “Jody is five. You think I was sticking you on the subway alone at five?”
“Yeah,” Sam says and both his mother and his sister turn to look at him like they are surprised to hear him willingly put his two cents in a conversation without being prompted with a thousand direct questions. Sam’s a little surprised, too. Speaking in class has been good for him. “You were at least twelve, Sarah. Carting around five year old me.”
“See?” says Ma. “No five year olds alone on the subway. You should’ve spaced out the girls a little better. Waited to have your second until your first was old enough to help out more. I wouldn’t put a seven year old on the subway alone either.”
“Jamie is actually seven and a half,” Sam says, using the same prim, put out tone Jamie does when she corrects all the adults in her life who dare to say she is only seven.
Ma and Sarah laugh harder than they should. Sam thinks it’s half out of relief. They are so damn delighted to see that Sam’s starting to get back something like a personality again.
Malcolm comes out with a plate full of burgers and David shows up, still in his work clothes. He kisses Sarah and then joins the elaborate game of catch the girls are playing. With so many voices, Sam gets quiet but it’s still nice. After so long away, Sam is finally starting to feel like part of this family again.
Settled around the table for dinner, Sarah and David trying to wrangle their girls into eating something with vitamins, Ma leans close to Sam and asks, “Have you made any friends?”
And Sam chokes a little on his burger and can’t exactly say, no I can’t talk to any of the infants in my classes without feeling like I’m a million years old. So instead he says, “Yeah, one. This vet. We’re the only old guys in that Revolts class.”
“Really?” Ma beams at him.
Sam’s such a fucking loser, that a dumb joke and a half lie about a friend are enough to have his Ma looking as proud as she did when he graduated valedictorian with a full ride to anywhere.
(She definitely did not look like that after she announced that he’s enlisted instead.)
“Really,” Sam mutters. He and Fancy Metal Arm have been sitting together for the last month, since the guy was absent for two classes in a row, and introduced actual words into their relationship previously defined by head nods, asking to borrow Sam’s notes from the lectures he missed.
Sam gets the feeling that sitting next to each other three mornings a week is as close as Fancy Metal Arm gets to making friends at GW, too.
“What’s his name?” Ma asks.
Sam grimaces. “You know, I never actually caught it. But we talk before and after class.”
Ma sighs, but doesn’t look terribly disappointed. She’s been so patient through his recovery, even when he was living here with her, so angry he couldn’t speak one second and then so fucking sad he couldn’t get out of bed the next.
Once, when he’d only been home a handful of weeks, he’d yelled at her for putting the wrong kind of mustard on a sandwich she’d made him. Of course he wasn’t angry about fucking mustard or even angry at her. He was just miserable and hurting and furious at the universe. He kept expecting her to say, “ I told you so. It wouldn’t be like this if you’d gone to college like you were supposed to .” He was feeling way too much and he had no idea where to put it all, until it just came pouring out at her, over mustard of all things.
He would’ve totally understood if she yelled right back or kicked him out for speaking to her like that in her own home because he was horrible. He was awful . He couldn’t even stand to be around himself, and saw no reason why anyone else would want to be anywhere near him, either.
Instead Ma just looked at him, calm as anything, and said, “You can make your own lunch in that case.” Then she took an absolutely massive bite out of the sandwich, and said, “Mmmm spicy mustard,” with her mouth stuffed full, a shred of lettuce landing on the collar of her shirt. The sight was so strange and so absurd that Sam laughed harder than he’d laughed in years.
Of course, that laughing turned to sobbing pretty quick and he ended up with his head in her lap, weeping like a baby as she murmured soothing words and ran her thumb along his hairline.
That night, he’d cooked her dinner for the first time. And he started going to therapy regularly a few days later.
Now she smiles at him like chatting with a stranger before one of his classes is an accomplishment, pats his arm, and says, “Eat your burger.”
Sam’s knee is fucked. The blast that got Riley sent shrapnel his way, and his right knee took the brunt of it. His rough landing - knee first, something he doesn’t even remember, he doesn’t remember much after Riley fell - did not help matters.
He’s able to run a couple miles a week now, his preferred path taking him around the Jefferson Memorial. He likes the water even if he does not like the memorial - because fuck Thomas Jefferson - but his route around The Mall and past the monument is pretty.
Saturday mornings are the best. There are less people willing to get up this early on a weekend but it's not like Sam’s been able to break the military habit of waking at 0500 every damn morning.
It’s nice. It’s meditative. It’s slow going with his knee and it’s a little harder now that the cold weather has his joints stiff, but Sam likes the jog most mornings. He lets his brain coast for awhile, listening to his sneakers on the concrete path. His gait sounds different than it used to, the slight limp from his right knee barely noticeable when he walks is a little more pronounced when he runs.
Overall, its his happy place.
Until some asshole starts intruding on his peace.
It’s this scrawny blond slip of a white dude, all lanky limbs and awkward elbows even under the layers of his running gear. The dude hauls ass, lapping Sam with a perfectly pleasant, “On your left.”
Sam glowers and watches him speed off after being lapped twice on the first Saturday. And Sam could handle that except then it happens a second Saturday, and then a third.
At this point, the little shit definitely recognizes him, a laugh in his voice when he says, “On your left.”
On the fourth Saturday, Sam pushes himself too hard and he never manages to catch up, but when the guy only passes him once it feels like progress, even if Sam’s got to collapse in the grass near the Air and Space Museum to catch his breath and rub at his knee at the end of his run.
Sam’s got his eyes closed, trying not to die and wondering if the five minute miles he ran once upon a time were just something he dreamed up, when someone clears their throat in Sam’s general vicinity.
Before Sam even manages to crack his eyes open, he’s got a pretty good idea who’s trying to get his attention and it's not a surprise at all when he sees the skinny blond speed demon, standing there on the sidewalk with hands on his hips, shuffling his feet and looking guilty.
Like a true asshole, he hasn’t even broken a sweat.
“Can I help you?” Sam asks, pleased that he doesn’t sound as out of breath as he feels. His heartbeat pulsing in his knee, a dull throb that will probably be a full blown ache by tonight. He should take a cab back to his apartment instead of walking.
“Uh,” he says, running a hand through his hair. “Are you okay?”
“Peachy,” Sam replies, rolling his eyes.
“Do you need a medic?”
Sam laughs, begrudgingly impressed. This little dude is fast, and with a big attitude. “I need a new set of lungs.”
The guy grins, his smile all lopsided and wonky. He nods at the insignia on Sam’s sweatshirt. “What unit you with?”
“58th pararescue.” Sam’s progress has felt so painfully slow, but his heart doesn’t even hurt when he says it this time, not like it would’ve even six months ago. “Now I’m a student. Sam.” He introduces himself and sticks a hand out for the little dude to shake.
“Steve,” he says, shaking Sam’s hand and then pulling him up to his feet. Steve might be tiny, but he’s got a ridiculous set of legs and enough hidden strength to get Sam up.
Completely forgetting how he’s pushed his knee to its absolute limit for the day, Sam puts his full weight on it as he stands and winces, nearly toppling over in his shock.
“Whoa, whoa,” Steve says, catching his elbow. “I was kidding about the medic. You okay?”
“War wound,” Sam says and that’s easy to say now, too. “Did a little too much for this old knee today.”
Steve grimaces. “Wow, I feel like a real jerk for all that on your left stuff. Sorry I pushed you to keep up.”
“Not your fault, I’m too competitive for my own good.”
“Yeah, but I run actual marathons, you know? I don’t need to rub it in.”
“No shit?” Sam says. Maybe he wouldn’t have been able to keep up with Steve, even in his prime.
“Really, I was a jerk,” Steve says. And it’s hard to believe that the same cocky little shit who said on your left a billion times is now standing here looking so wide eyed and guilty. “I’m headed to this diner, just down the street. Can I buy you a coffee?”
Sam blinks at him, trying to figure out if this is supposed to be a date.
It’s been years since Sam went on a date, and that was never with a dude. Growing up, he dated girls and messed around with boys on the down low, mostly because two guys walking down the street holding hands in his neighborhood was just not going to happen.
And that trend continued when he enlisted for obvious don’t ask don’t tell reasons. And then there was his painful crush on Riley. And then Riley died. And Sam kinda didn’t feel like a person for awhile there. And he just hasn’t given dating much thought since.
Steve seems like a good guy. Sam’s certainly been able to talk to him with more ease than he’s managed to do anything in the last year, but the idea of saying yes and going on a date is a lot.
Just imagining it is making his palms sweat. Sam swallows down the lump in his throat.
All this must be pretty clearly written on his face, because Steve’s eyes go wide and he takes a big step back from Sam.
“No! I mean, yeah, I will totally buy you sorry-for-being-a-jerk coffee, but I’m, uh, actually meeting my husband?” He lifts his left hand and wiggles the finger with a thin silver band. “Right now, at the diner? So. This is a strictly platonic coffee. If you’re interested. If not, I’ll just try not to be such an ass when I lap you next time.”
Sam scoffs. “Who says there’s gonna be a next time? Maybe it’ll be me lapping you.”
Steve actually rolls his eyes at that. “The diner’s real close. Maybe after breakfast your knee will be a little better? If you rest it?”
Sam goes with him.
Steve asks what Sam’s studying (history) and Sam asks what Steve does for a living (exhibit design with the Smithsonian). They’ve both been in DC since last summer. They’re both from and prefer New York (Harlem and Brooklyn, respectively) but agree that all the free museums in DC are awesome. Sam asks Steve about the whole marathon thing (Steve runs them for fun because he’s a superhuman or something. He got really into cross country in high school, after he outgrew his childhood asthma but was still too scrawny to attempt a contact sport.)
Sam is pretty damn impressed with his newfound ability to hold a conversation like a normal person. His mother will definitely be hearing about this when he calls her later.
The small talk gets them all the way to the diner. Steve waves at the nearest waitress like he knows her and then turns right without waiting to be seated. He heads towards a booth in the corner, where a grumpy looking white dude with a mop of brown hair is reading a book and drinking coffee. He’s got a fancy metal arm.
Sam thinks he’s seeing things - it’s happened before - and he blinks rapidly, but the image before him remains the same. He’s still looking at the only other old guy in his history class and Steve’s still headed right towards him.
Sam takes a moment to grin ruefully and shake his head before following.
Steve slides in to the booth, and Fancy Metal Arm doesn’t look up from his book but he does lean close to his husband, tilting his cheek towards Steve just as Steve moves to kiss him.
“Hey, babe,” Steve says. “We’ve got company. Remember that guy I was telling you about who jogs on Saturday mornings? Well, I owe him a coffee.”
Steve’s husband looks up from his book, scowl already in place, but his eyes go wide when he sees Sam standing by the booth, arms crossed over his chest and grinning. He lets out a startled laugh and says, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Hey, Fancy Metal Arm,” Sam says in greeting.
“Cheekbones,” Bucky replies, nodding.
Sam laughs, glad that Cheekbones is as at least as ridiculous a nickname to give someone as Fancy Metal Arm. He takes a seat on the other side of the booth as Steve looks back and forth between them.
“Wait, isn’t Cheekbones what you call that guy in your history class who you refuse to introduce yourself to?” Steve asks.
Sam does some more laughing - which has got to be a record amount of laughing all at once since he got home - and reaches out across the table. “My friends call me Sam.”
Fancy Metal Arm shakes Sam’s hand with his non fancy metal arm. “Bucky Barnes,” he says.
Steve huffs. “Now was that so hard?”
“I want pancakes,” Sam decides.