Sam’s sitting in a chair by Steve’s hospital bed, nodding along to Trouble Man when his phone rings. He presses pause on the remote to stop the iPod and checks the caller ID. “Larry, how the hell are you?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Larry says with more than his usual amount of chaos. “Nearly crapped my pants, but I’m fine. How are you?”
“Nothing to worry about,” Sam says, which is the truth.
“That’s good to hear. Hydra, Sam, who saw this coming?”
Sam looks over at Steve, still unconscious. “I sure as hell didn’t. What’s up, Larry?”
“We’re in crisis mode, Sam.” Larry huffs out a laugh. “With all of the high-tech debris falling from the sky, the government’s cleared out the bank across from the Island. Do you know how many of our guys sleep by the Potomac? We don’t have nearly enough beds to take them all in.”
Sam runs a hand over his hair. “How soon will they be allowed back?”
“Tomorrow, probably? Not that it will actually be clean, you know, just free from classified shit.” Larry sighs over the line. “This isn’t Katrina Superdome level, but these guys deserve a place to sleep tonight that won’t get them arrested for espionage.”
Sam nods to himself. “Alright. I’ve got an idea. Let me make a phone call and see what I’ve got, alright?”
“Thanks, Sam. This is huge.”
“Take care.” Sam hangs up and dials a number.
A cheerful woman’s voice answers. “Bueno, Iglesia San José.”
Sam grins. “Manuela, my love!”
Her rich laughter carries over the phone. “Sam, ¿cómo estás?"
“Perfect, now that I am talking to you. How are you doing?”
“You know, it’s scary, with all the Hydra out there in the street. But we’re okay, we’re okay.”
“That’s good, Manuela. I’m calling to ask a favor of you. You know Safe Haven, the homeless shelter? Their boss called me, he’s got a bunch of guys who normally sleep by the river but got kicked out because of the firefight. He needs a place for them to sleep tonight.”
“And you want to know if they can sleep at the church.”
“Please. Just for one night.”
There’s a small pause. “I think we can make this work. We have a room they can sleep in, we can fit maybe fifteen, twenty. We can cook them breakfast from the food pantry. Safe Haven needs to have their own people here all night, though.”
“Oh, Manuela, thank you. His name is Larry Washington, I’ll give him your number, yeah?”
“You’re a good boy, Sam.”
“You spoil me.”
They hang up, and Sam texts Larry the details. Larry texts back with three purple hearts and the church emoji, which shows Sam the man has not gotten nearly enough sleep. Sam presses play on the remote and closes his eyes as Marvin tells him how he “come up hard, babe, but that’s okay…”
“We could really use you, you know,” Steve says earnestly over drinks one night.
Sam snorts into his beer. “Jesus, man.”
“What?” Steve’s so casual about it, you could almost forget he is a giant asshole. “It’s true.”
Sam shakes his head. “How many Hydra bases have you guys taken out by now?”
Steve makes a show of counting on his fingers. “Nine. It’s fun, you should try it.”
“Nine.” Sam takes a swig. “And what’s your planning process?”
“Well, usually Natasha or Hill finds the base, then we call everybody up. I plan out the strategy, then we get together and trash my plan for something entirely different, Natasha convinces Banner a Code Green is necessary, and then we move out.”
Sam takes another swig. “Sounds complicated.”
“Mmm. Have you ever, during that entire ordeal, have you ever stopped and said, ‘Nope. We can’t do this. There’s no one to strap on a giant winged jetpack. Can’t happen.’ You ever said that?”
Steve pauses. “That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be—”
“Yeah, nope. Tomorrow’s Sunday. Sunday is my day off, which means I don’t have anything scheduled until noon, when I’ve got to meet Akina to discuss how we’re gonna fund our neighborhood carnival idea. Then I’ve got to see one of our new counselors, Julia, over coffee, because she’s been having a rough time coping lately with all the shit we see at work. After that I have to mock up flyers asking for more vets to volunteer at the soup kitchen. And then I have to go home and read that new article about PTSD in The Atlantic to see if I need to get angry about how inaccurate it is. And that is my day off.” Sam shakes his head. “I love flying, man. I wish I could do it every day. And flying with the Avengers? Yeah, that does sound really fucking fun. But if I don’t go with you, then Hydra still gets taken down. If I don’t do my job here, then nobody else does it.”
Steve flashes him a small smile. “Okay. I get it, Sam.”
Sam toasts him and drains his beer. “Great,” he says, “now buy me another.”
Sam’s in the office when his phone goes off, so he switches it on while juggling a pile of papers. “Hey, Steve, you’re on speaker.”
“Hi Cap!” Tanya yells from her intern corner, not stopping her furious stapling.
“Hey, Tanya,” Steve’s voice comes through the tinny speaker. “Listen, Sam, Stark is throwing a party at the Tower tomorrow night. You have to come. It’s just not a party without you.”
Sam barks out a laugh. “Damn right it’s not.”
“Swearing in front of a lady, Wilson?” Steve tries to sound disapproving, but he’s full of shit, because Sam has seen the outtakes from the WWII Captain America propaganda reels, and that grainy sepia footage holds some pretty blue language, to use Cap’s term.
“Please, Cap,” Tanya calls from her stapler fortress, “like I don’t hear worse on campus every day of my life.”
Sam shakes his head. “Steve, New York? Really? How exactly am I supposed to get there?”
“Stark’s private jet,” Steve says matter-of-factly.
Tanya chokes. “Jesus Christ, boss, Tony Stark’s private jet. That’s rich white people money, Sam, you gotta take that. Sugarscape said Stark’s toilet is solid gold.”
Sam’s mouth twitches. “Shouldn’t you be fetching my coffee like a good intern?”
Tanya gestures at the expanse of papers on her desk. “Give me five minutes to catch my breath, and I will.”
Steve laughs over the phone. “You really should pay her more, Sam.”
“Actually,” Tanya grins, “I’m getting college credit for this, so technically I’m paying for the privilege of working here.”
Sam shakes his head and digs out his wallet. “Here, kid, get us a couple coffees and leave me in peace.”
Tanya winks and takes his ten dollar bill. When she leaves, Sam slumps at his desk and takes the call off speakerphone. “Listen, Steve, I’d love to, but our annual evaluation was last week. That means that this week we’re swamped with all the work we put off to make sure our ducks were in a row for inspection. I just can’t throw away my Saturday like that.”
“Sam, it sounds like you absolutely need to throw away your Saturday like that. You just went through your evaluation, don’t you deserve to celebrate?”
Sam sighs. It’s three o’clock on a Friday, and all he really wants is a beer. “Alright, Steve. Tell Stark to send his rich white people plane.”
Sam leaves the party in plenty of time to fly back to DC. Barton heckles him about it, but Sam makes his exit before one of Stark’s crazy inventions turns homicidal and takes everyone to crazytown, so Sam believes he comes out on top on this one.
There’s a knock on Sam’s back door, and he tenses immediately. One of the benefits of this whole packing-the-Avengers-under-Stark-Industries thing, supposedly, is that Natasha and Steve have enough backup they no longer have to barge into his home during breakfast looking for help. Sam walks to the door and flicks the curtain back to peer out.
Tony Stark is standing on his back step, in an expensive suit and designer sunglasses, holding a leather portfolio under his arm. Sam sighs and opens the door.
“Good morning,” Stark says with his plastic grin. “May I come in?”
Smart people would close the door and run away. Sam holds it open. “Sure, man. Want some breakfast?”
Stark takes his sunglasses off. “Do you have gluten free waffles?”
“No,” Sam says, and hopes he doesn’t have to keep them in stock now that Tony Stark thinks it’s acceptable to show up at random hours of the morning. They stand around Sam’s kitchen table, and Sam braces for whatever is about to happen.
“So,” Stark says, setting his portfolio down on the table, “Cap tells me you won’t accept our offer of joining the Avengers.”
Sam shakes his head. “Nope,” he says, feeling a twinge of disappointment. He really thought Steve was going to respect Sam’s wishes this time.
“Just confirming the story here. You want to be an Avenger, you can’t because you will leave a hole in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s your rock-and-hard-place situation.”
“Uh, more or less.” Sam frowns.
“Cool. See, here’s the thing.” Stark grins. “Cap’s kind of a masochist. Like, when confronted with a choice, he picks the hard way about 99% of the time. Cap sacrifices. It’s in his blood, and personally I wonder if he gets off on it.”
Sam blinks. “You put an arc reactor in your chest.”
Stark throws up his hands. “Exactly! Because I refused to make a choice between dying nobly and becoming a traitor. Identifying almost-impossible futures and making them realities--that’s what I do. I look for the third option when the world only gives me two. Our dear Captain, if we’re honest with ourselves, would choose to self-immolate before he takes the time to think of a way out. That is why I believe he accepts your decision, and why I made sure not to tell him why I’m here.”
“And...why, exactly, is that?” Sam says, crossing his arms.
“To give you your third option, Lieutenant Wilson.” Stark opens the portfolio with a dramatic flourish and gestures to the pages tucked into the left-hand side. “Resumes for thirteen stunning applicants to your position. All licensed professional mental health counselors, all veterans with exemplary service records.”
Sam rubs his head. “I can’t look at those, you know. We’re civil service employees, it has to go through the government channels first.”
Stark shrugs. “I thought you probably wouldn’t compromise your morals, but I printed them up anyways. Still, all thirteen told our head-hunter consulting firm that they would accept a hypothetical job in D.C. But that’s not really your problem, is it?” Stark spreads his hands wide. “Your problem is that you do the work of two people. You have your ‘job,’ the employment contract as a counselor you are expected to fulfill, but then you spend the majority of your time throwing yourself into whatever community action project needs a hand at the moment. And because you’ve never done anything half-assed in your life, you’ve built a network of grassroots organizations across the city with your VA Center as the nexus, and you’re afraid it will all fall to pieces without you to keep it together.”
“Stark…” Sam says, trailing off. Stark raises and eyebrow and waits, but Sam doesn’t really know what he was going to say.
“Ah-hem.” Stark pulls out the papers from the right side of the portfolio and lays them in front of Sam. “This is a proposal by the Maria Stark Foundation to completely fund an Office of Community Partnerships at the center, complete with salaries for a Program Director and an Administrative Assistant, as well as an office budget. The purpose of the office is to connect the community you serve--the veterans who live in D.C.--with their community, their city and their neighbors. This is a pilot program, and if it is successful the Foundation will consider launching it at other VA centers across the nation. Applicants to the Program Director position must have graduated from a D.C. high school, have an associate’s degree or equivalent, and served in the military. Am I missing anything?”
Sam’s throat is dry. “It could use a few tweaks,” he says hoarsely. He reaches a hand out to thumb the proposal. “Steve doesn’t know about this?”
“Rogers told me to respect your decision.” Sam snorts, and Stark looks--relieved, almost. “Look,” he says quickly, “Steve didn’t tell us everything, because he’s fucking Captain America and he’s a good person like that, but I get it. You want to take care of your people. And you want to fly.” Tony points to the portfolio. “Here you can do both.”
Sam closes his eyes. The project Stark is offering is huge, and Sam instinctively knows he would never want the job. The program head should be someone who wants to retire in the position, spend ten or twenty years building a community from the ground up. Sam loves his life, loves Manuela at San José and sitting with the vets over at the nursing home, but that's his family, not his job. When Sam imagines what he wants to do in five years or twenty--he's flying.
The goodbyes are going to be really hard, he knows. He imagines there will be a long transition period, where he’s fielding questions from the new hires and answering phone calls at midnight. Tanya still needs a letter of recommendation. But--Lord help him--Sam thinks Stark is right. This is possible.
“This portfolio also contains designs for your new wings.”
Sam opens his eyes. “New wings?” He grins. He deserves new wings. He’s a fucking Avenger now.