I will be the first to admit that I know exactly nothing about the armed forces, or how one goes about signing up for it. That being said, please feel free to correct me on any of the information contained herein. OTL

I hope I don't offend anyone. Basically, I was trapped in a cabin on July 4th, and since lights-out was a few minutes before the fireworks across the lake started, I had nowhere else to vent my happiness for Alfred's birthday. Lo and behold, this is what was born. So it appears that not only chipmunks, but also plot bunnies, were nesting in my cabin. Oh, dear.

Sam is first. The others watch as he makes his way confidently to the front of the line, takes the paperwork from the clerk. A blond man, standing casually beside the counter, offers a pen—when Sam reaches out to take it, he pulls his hand back a little, until the pen is just out of reach.

"What the hell, man?" Sam complains bitterly, his eyebrows furrowing. "I don't have time for this!"

The blonde raises an eyebrow, blue eyes sharp from behind square glasses. "You can't pause to spare a few minutes for a conversation with a stranger? Are you really in such a hurry to sign your life away?" He jerks his head at the papers. "Or are you afraid you're going to lose your nerve?"

Sam's mouth falls open and he sputters, speechless at the stranger's bold words. "You—I don't have to answer to you!" He snatches the pen from the other man's lax grip.

"No." The man shakes his head, a serious expression on his face. "But you do need to answer to yourself. Are you absolutely sure that this is what you want?" He leans closer, eyes piercing. "Are you willing to dedicate yourself completely to the protection of your people, to the protection of your country? Will you be able to push yourself beyond your limits, to work until you bleed, and then keep going?"

Stephen and Grant, watching from the middle of the line, see Sam's hands clench into fists. "Get outta my face, bastard," he growls, printing his first and last name. His letters are badly formed and almost illegible, his hand shakes so much.

"Is this really what you want?" The man watches him with a knowing look, but it's not exactly smug. It's more like… Grant racks his mind for a good analogy. It's the look a parent gives his recalcitrant child, knowing that someday he won't have a say in the child's life, but also knowing that until then, he'll do his best.

Sam closes his eyes, drops the pen, and crumples the forms up into a wad of paper. "No," he says finally. "It's not."

The stranger holds out a hand, accepting the pen from the dejected man. "You'll find your place," he says confidently, so full of conviction that even Stephen and Grant, at whom the words are not aimed, believe him.

"I guess so," Sam sighs. Suddenly, he turns and strides slowly out of the office.

He doesn't offer any explanation, but from the way the stranger is smiling, he doesn't need to.

Stephen is next. The man with the pen takes one look at him and shakes his head. "You know what you should be doing."

Stephen's eyebrows draw together. "Oh?" and his voice drips disdain.

The stranger is unaffected. He points quietly to the bag in Stephen's hand. "You don't really want to return that music. Your choir needs you."

Stephen gives up the pretense; his shoulder slump. "My brothers will be ashamed," he argues, but Grant can tell from his word choice that he has already given up. Perhaps it's a good thing that Stephen won't be joining the army.

One of the blonde's eyebrows wings up. "Do your brothers tell you when to breathe? Do you ask them for permission before you move your limbs?"

Stephen chuckles self-deprecatingly. "I've never been good for much besides music," he mumbles, and his voice is so melancholy that even the men and women at the back of the line stop grumbling and listen. "I thought I'd make them proud. The choir will find someone else."

"There are other ways to earn respect," the stranger states surely. "I took my family to watch your choir perform once—it was just a small-town concert, but you made us all cry. Isn't that enough?"

And Grant can see the effect his words are having on Stephen; his back straightens and he stands tall. But still he hesitates, just the slightest bit.

"It should be enough…" He pauses.

The stranger presses, "How will you feel when you lay in bed at night, singing to yourself in your head because you don't have your choir to sing for you? Regret is a dangerous thing in the field."

Grant wants to clasp the man's hand in gratitude when he sees Stephen exit, walking slowly at first, and then speeding up progressively, as if he's just remembered he has somewhere to be. This stranger has single-handedly steered his two best friends away from the worst mistakes of their lives.

And now it's his turn. The stranger's eyes catch and hold his, searching intently for something. Unnerved, Grant almost takes a step back—then, furious at himself for this show of weakness, he steels his spine and instead takes a step forward.

The stranger's lips crease upward. "Thattaboy," he says seriously, eyes twinkling. "That's a great attitude to have. Maybe not the smartest attitude, but it sure is a great one. So what are you here for?"

Grant tilts his head, considering the seemingly pointless question. Anyone with eyes in his head can tell that he's here to sign up for the army. But he catches the stranger's challenging tone, and the answer he gives is one he's never voiced before, not to anyone.

He says, "I want to be a hero." And he doesn't know where those words come from, but they're absolutely true—he feels them in his body, in his bones, in his heart. "I want to protect my country, make sure my people are safe. Even if it takes everything I have, and more."

The stranger—whose sky blue eyes and corn-silk hair seem so familiar—gives him one last, level gaze before holding out the pen. "Are you absolutely sure that this is what you want to do?"

"Yes," Grant says firmly, accepting the writing implement. "This is what I was born to do."

The man smiles sadly, eyes far away. "No one was born to fight," he replies quietly. "But you'll do your best." He looks up, places a heavy hand on Grant's shoulder as the pen touches paper. "Do what you can, Grant Withers. It'll be enough."

Not quite sure who this man is, but realizing that he is important, Grant straightens his back and snaps into a salute. His form is not perfect, but it is full of spirit.

The other man chuckles softly, reaching out to take the pen from where it has fallen on the counter. "There's no need for that," he says, something lighter than sorrow threaded through his words.

Grant relaxes. "Thank you, sir." Thank you for what, he isn't quite sure; but the words feel right in his mouth.

Alfred F. Jones watches as the newest recruit of the United States Armed Forces is led into another room. His smile is full of remembrance and regret and pride.

"No," he whispers. "Thank you."


And, of course, while everyone was grumbling about missing July 4th celebrations, nobody mentioned Matthew's birthday at all. (Actually, I didn't remember it either until I checked here... /shot) But I guess it's only to be expected, as nobody in my cabin was Canadian...?

Please tell me what you think!