Sam thought that Steve, the jerk, could have warned him what he was getting himself into when he told Tony Stark -- playboy, philanthropist, genius, and all-around pain in the neck -- that, yes, Tony could build him a new set of wings. He knew he was signing up to be a guinea pig for experimental technology as soon as Tony started muttering about improvements to the original wings. What he hadn't realized was that he'd also signed up to field calls from Stark Industries at all hours of the day and night, wanting him to come in for another measurement or answer technical questions about tweaks to the original wings' specs that he was in no way qualified to answer. Or sometimes, it seemed, just to chat.
"So am I his test pilot, his guinea pig, his technical consultant, his buddy ... what?" he asked Steve over coffee.
Steve grinned. "For him, I don't think there's much of a distinction. If you let Stark into your life, you have to just take whatever he wants to throw at you. There's no other way to deal with it."
Sam grumbled about that in a token kind of way, and swung the conversation around to other topics. He didn't want to waste a rare, casual moment of downtime with Steve talking about Tony Stark.
They didn't see as much of each other as they'd both like, these days. The round-the-world "find Barnes" tour had gone belly up, because the world post-SHIELD was still the same dysfunctional mess it had ever been, with no less need for heroes than it had ever had. Sam knew Steve was still pushing himself hard, looking for Barnes in between running ops that were, now, without the backing of either SHIELD or the U.S. government, no one but a ragtag and disorganized team of superheroes to watch his back.
And Sam too, but without the wings, he wasn't as much help as he'd like to be. He could fight just fine, but he couldn't fight on the level of Steve or most of Steve's other friends, and he knew he wasn't a match for a lot of the enemies they went up against; people didn't call in the Avengers if things weren't beyond the capability of normal law enforcement or the regular military to deal with. He hated feeling like a liability.
"You know you'd be welcome to come out with us full-time," Steve had told him, the one time he'd openly brought up the topic of Sam making the Avengers thing official.
"Don't take this wrong, because it's great you're doing what you do, man, and I like helping. But I got out of that gig for a reason."
Still, it felt good to get back in, just a little bit. And that first afternoon when he test-flew Tony's experimental rocket pack off the top of the Avengers tower was a moment of breathtaking glory that he knew would stick with him to his dying day. God, he'd missed this: the blue sky and the wind in his teeth, the HUD goggles throwing a cascade of telemetry at him, almost (but not quite) too fast to catch. He circled and circled, went up as high as he could go before the goggles started giving him a low-oxygen warning, and then stooped like an eagle and dived back toward the waiting, too-familiar ground. He didn't ever want to come down.
"I see they work," Stark said lazily through the radio. He'd gone up with Sam in the suit, in case things went wrong, but kept his distance -- sensing, it seemed, in one of those odd moments of insight he was prone to, that Sam wanted to do this alone. He was nothing but a distant red dot, glinting in the sunshine.
"Understatement of the year." Sam did a barrel roll, felt the g-forces tug at him.
"Be careful with the fancy maneuvers. This is the test version, remember? Don't want you to rip off a wing at ten thousand feet."
"Isn't that why you're here?" He turned on a dime, a neat 180 that the old wings could never have managed. The new set was lighter and faster, an improvement over the clunky last-decade technology in every way. "Race you back to the tower."
"I'd like to point out there's no way I can lose," Tony said, keeping pace with him in the distance. "Because I am in a suit and insulated from wind pressure, I can do speeds in this thing that'd rip off your skin. If you want a suit, by the way --"
"I like the wings." Like was an understatement, too -- maybe the biggest of all. "I like feeling the wind."
"No accounting for taste. It might take you awhile to get the same feel for the new wings that you had for the old ones," Tony said, flipping the switch from frivolous to serious. "They're going to behave differently than the EXO-7 did. Don't go pancaking yourself on any tall buildings. I don't want Cap doing the shield-dance on my neck for letting you go up unprepared."
It would be easy to laugh off the warnings, but he knew Tony was right. He could feel the difference and kept catching himself in rookie mistakes -- things like overcorrecting on small maneuvers, or cutting some of his turns so fine he almost blacked out from the g-force. It was like driving a high-powered sports car after years of toodling around in granddad's Oldsmobile.
"It'll just take practice. I got time."
"Yeah, well, 'til you get the hang of it and make sure nothing's liable to explode, not that it would since I built it and I am a certified genius, but just to be on the safe side -- try not to do too much flying without someone to catch you if you fall, okay? I don't need that kind of thing on my conscience."
"Sure," Sam said absently. Already he was thinking about being able to fly rescue missions with the wings again. Thinking about that mission last month, and the way he could've swooped in and pulled Natasha out of trouble, rather than being stuck on the ground covering their exit.
"Nobody ever listens to me," Tony said.
"I said 'sure', Stark."
"Yeah, but you said it in the same way the itty bitty spider says 'I'll be careful' right before she shoots something with a grappling hook that was never meant to be hooked to, or Cap right before he tests some new piece of body armor by jumping off a twenty-story building. I've heard that kind of reassurance before, is what I'm saying."
"For God's sake, I'm not going to get myself killed flying around with your wings."
"If you do, I'll kick your ass personally."
It was probably not a coincidence that, two days later, Colonel Rhodes called him up and asked if he wanted to go flying. Colonel James fucking "call me Rhodey" Rhodes.
"Stark put you up to this?" Sam asked, after they'd worked off some of their energy and were lazily doing loop-de-loops over the Chesapeake wetlands.
"Hell no. You think I have a whole list of people to go flying with? Nope, it's just that asshole in the red suit, and he keeps blowing me off. Rhodey, I've got a meeting this afternoon in Wakanda; Rhodey, the president of a small Middle Eastern country is on the other line, can you hold; Rhodey, I just got back from another planet and I'm bushed ..."
"Sounds like a real pain," Sam said, laughing. He knew it was a joke, but it was also the kind of joke with a hard kernel of truth embedded in it. He'd never really thought about it, but being Tony Stark's best friend had to have a lot in common with being Captain America's. Steve was a great guy, but then there were those times when he'd let something slip, apologize for being late for coffee and mumble something about a meet-and-greet at the White House running long, that kind of thing.
Sam had never really met anybody who got it before. There were few enough people he could talk to about any of this, and even with the handful of people at the VA who knew he was buddies with Captain America, it seemed like the height of ego to complain about it. Hanging out with Steve meant being in Steve's shadow; there was just no way around it. And Sam didn't mind, on the whole. Steve cast that shadow not just because of who he was, but because of the things he'd done, the shit he'd lived through. If anybody had earned his fame, it was Steve Rogers. But then there were those times when "I do what he does, just slower" felt like a prophesy that kept biting him in the ass -- that he was always going to be three steps behind, he was always going to be the guy playing catch-up while Captain America was off saving the day just down the road.
It wasn't something he held against Steve, or something that even bothered him most of the time. But it was odd to see that aspect of his relationship with Steve reflected in Colonel Rhodes, especially given that the man was a living legend himself.
Sam remained unconvinced that there wasn't collusion going on between Steve, Stark, and Rhodes, and for all he knew the Avengers en masse -- an entire "let's stop Wilson from accidentally making sky pizza of himself" alliance. But Rhodes was good company, and an endless source of ideas on new strategic uses for the wings that Sam had never thought of. Rhodes was also presently in DC on an indefinite basis as a White House liaison during the cleanup and post-SHIELD chaos, and seemed to be delighted to blow off steam by flying with Sam on evenings and weekends, practicing maneuvers as they threw ideas back and forth. It was a source of no little delight to Sam that he was able to teach Colonel Rhodes a few new tricks too.
So this was his life now. Flying with a guy who was almost as famous as Tony Stark, and considerably more respected in military circles; going on increasingly regular missions with the Avengers; having coffee with Captain America whenever Steve happened to be in town. And the VA, of course -- the VA, which had been his entire world, his reason for being, when he got out; which was now only a minor part of a life that had turned out to be infinitely wider than he'd ever expected.
He still wasn't quite sure if he wanted to get back in full-time. He liked having one foot in the regular civilian world, even if he couldn't seem to keep his other foot out of the world of missions and covert ops. But ... it was all right. Flying with Rhodey wasn't like flying with Riley, but it wasn't worse; it was just its own thing. And he'd managed to work out reasonable accommodations with his co-facilitator at the VA, covering for each other on an as-needed basis. It was possible that he didn't even have to choose. He could do both. He could do all of it, if he was willing to work hard.
And Sam had always been a hard worker.
The next time Steve tentatively broached the idea that the Avengers might be looking for some new members on a semi-permanent, semi-official basis, instead of changing the subject, he said, "I'll think about it."