Missus Thomas who lives on the floor below and keeps white geraniums in a big green pot on the fire escape, she calls them Shakers because of the sounds their wings make when they walk.
“A shh-shush-shh,” she demonstrates, and smacks her gums like she’s chewing up the sound and tasting it. “Mmhmm, but ain’t it such a beautiful sound, them feathers.”
“Yes’m,” says Samuel Wilson, who today is four years old and four days.
“Law, law, law, they’s been Shakers in Harlem since I was little, back when booze came smuggled in crates all the way from Canada. Did I tell you about that?”
To Sam, booze only exists in grown-up stories and grown-up hands, so it’s as mythical as dragons, except a lot less interesting. Missus Thomas is very old, and Sam has no concept of history yet, so to him, booze came from Canada same time Jesus did, and maybe the dinosaurs.
“Mmhmm. Law, but I was just a girl-thing when I saw one of you folk for the first time. I was twelve years old if the Lord gave me a day, and her name was Maya and mmm, but she was an ugly thing, bless her soul. Big nose, big feet. Came from the most beautiful family -- they’s from the Trinidad, came in on a ship in 1924, and they lived next door. Law, they were blessed with beauty, all of ‘em except Maya, but the Lord didn’t give them the sense he gave a gnat, because they kept knocking and saying, ‘please, Missus, please, Mistuh, can you take so-and-so till they’s done inspectin’? They’s don’t know we got another baby, please, they’ll charge us more.’ Law, law, it seems every year we tuckin’ more kids under the bed.”
She suckles at her own toothless mouth again.
She looks at him, and Sam stops picking at the stuffing coming out of the hole right underneath his thumb and sits up straight. Her armchair’s very big -- his feet don’t reach the floor, and he’s got a long way to lean back before he reaches the chair back, so he doesn’t.
He is four years old -- “old enough to know how to sit tall and proper, you hear? You hear me through all that nappy hair, Sam my man? Mm, look at this mess!” his momma had said to him, tilting his head back and forth like she was hunting for his ears as he laughed and laughed, before she gave him a smacking kiss -- and he got a Shaquille O’Neal lunchbox for his birthday, and he has to wait twenty-two more days for preschool to start again so he can show everyone.
He can sit proper, just watch.
“I was twelve years old and Maya was thirteen when they’s pulled her outta school, two weeks before summer. Didn’t see her, didn’t see her, not even in the bathroom, and law, in those days you saw everyone in the bathroom, couldn’t keep nothing secret, and then one day there was a white van on the street outside, and men in white overalls, and they broke down them door and they pulled Maya out and she’d gone and grown these wings. Mmhmm, she was an ugly girl sticking out of a beautiful family, but she had the shiniest green feathers. Like a grackle, you hear?”
Sam considers this. “Missus Thomas, what’s a grackle?”
“It’s a mean old bird, but glossy, all over, like oil in a puddle. That’s how Maya looked when they’s took her away. Glossy. And oh, law, she was kickin’ and flappin’. Never did see any of ‘em after that. That’s how it was. If you was a Shaker, they took you away.”
He nods. This, too, is a part of history he doesn’t have a good grasp of yet: sometime, Before, it was Bad to have wings. Still is, maybe, in some places, like it’s still Bad to be black or still Bad to be a girl.
But right now, Sam isn’t thinking about history. He’s thinking about how much he’s hoping Missus Thomas don’t know that last week, Sam’s sister was hogging the bathroom so he went out onto the fire escape and peed off the side, right down into Missus Thomas’s white geraniums.
(He’s still kind of proud of his aim, though.)
He gets the statistics later, sometime between sixth and seventh grade, which is when the Region 9 schools first start doing their diversity education curriculum. It’s stupidly late, because most of them already know they’re different, but it’s another thing to have teachers finally tell you it’s you that’s different, and different from what, and how to behave about it.
30.3% of children in NYC public schools are African American. Black is different, Sam learns.
1 in 10 individuals is gay. Gay is different, Sam learns.
44 million children between the ages of 5 and 15 were reported as disabled in the last census. Disabled is different, Sam learns.
2 or 3 children per 2000 born will grow wings at the onset of puberty. Shakers are different, Sam learns.
The numbers are about the same as those born deaf or hard of hearing, and he thinks about that as he fills out the in-class worksheet the teacher handed out. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if there are 286 million people in the United States, then that means tens of thousands of them carry the gene for wings. Maybe even a hundred thousand.
“There’s more than that living around here, though, isn’t there?” he asks at the table that afternoon, after checking the bag of Snickers in the cabinet, stealing the last one, and putting the bag back to frustrate the hell out of the sister that finds it later.
His father looks thoughtful. “Have you adjusted for population density?” he inquires.
Sam has one older sister, and one younger sister, and their father speaks to all of them with careful dignity, like he thinks there might be a test later. It makes them want to be serious with him, too, to be responsible with the attention he gives them.
“Like will congregate around like,” Mr. Wilson continues. In the other room, they can hear Sam’s mom hop-hop-hopping around some task, her wings shushing and flapping. “Your mother and I stay in this neighborhood so that she can be around other winged people, and I imagine the same is true for many other families here. So you’ll get concentrated pockets of an affected population within the greater whole.”
“Got it,” says Sam, fitting this alongside the other facts and stuffing the rest of the Snickers into his mouth.
His father is big, broad, and as careful with his appearance as he is with his words, and wings don’t run in his family. He married Sam’s mother at some point -- Sam’s sense of history is still developing, so while he has a better grasp of a timeline of important events, the marriage of his parents doesn’t appear on it; to him, they’ve always been married, just like there’s always been sun in the sky and shitty traffic in Midtown -- and she has the wings of an oriole, with flight feathers the same black as her hair, their covers white, big patches of bright orange sitting by her shoulders.
She always wears orange beads in her ears and orange sneakers on her feet and before she goes to bed she twists up her hair with bright orange bands, because, “you gotta work with what God gives you, Sam my man, and God wants me to make orange fashionable.”
So here’s what Sam knows:
For those that carry the gene, wings come in at the start of puberty, the same way grown-up teeth will come in for children. It’s genetic, although whether it runs dominant or recessive or more prevalent among people of a certain ancestry, no one can say, because no one’s been studying it long enough. It’s only just become acceptable to be even acknowledge it -- Sam’s mother remembers a time when people would laugh and say they didn’t exist, because they were never seen.
People may have been growing wings since before some ancient king got squint-eyed and said yeah, this place looks good for some pyramids, but history made those people disappear.
History has always been good at making inconvenient people disappear -- white vans, white uniforms, like those that took away Missus Thomas’s next-door neighbor, all those decades ago.
“It didn’t really happen that often,” Steve says thoughtfully, stretching his calves out on the lawn. “People getting taken away, I mean. Or if it did, you didn’t really hear about it, and nobody talked about it anyway, so I guess it could have been happening everywhere and we wouldn’t know. It’s not like now, where you can demand collective attention -- hey!”
“Sorry,” says Sam, stepping to the side and giving his wings another aggressive shake, shedding water droplets everywhere.
His own stretch had been interrupted by the untimely activation of the lawn sprinklers. Steve, who’d been standing out of range, did not have the decency to refrain from laughing at a man’s undignified launch off the grass.
“It’s all right. In my day, anyway, people were pretty good at taking care of it themselves.”
Sam looks up sharply. “You’re talking about cutwings.”
Steve pauses, and nods. “I am.”
He lets his wings settle. He’s got feathers sticking out at crooked angles that he can feel like hangnails, but he ignores them and crouches down to Steve’s level. “You seen a cutwing before, man?”
Another nod, but Steve doesn’t elaborate on it. “You?”
“One or two.” His grandma, for one, and Tammy Hendrix, and there had to be a whole number of them in his old neighborhood in Harlem, but those scars just aren’t the kind of thing you show around. “I’m happy to tell you it’s illegal now. Children have the bodily autonomy to decide whether or not they want their extra appendages removed, and that right is protected by law.”
As he speaks, the sprinklers in the neighboring patch of green shut off.
He tilts his head, and hears it: the rumbling of piping under his feet.
“Oh, no,” he says, and flings himself out of range just as the sprinklers start hissing their way to the surface.
Laughing, Steve pushes himself to his feet and jogs after him, unperturbed by the water coming down. He tags Sam’s shoulder, then bolts away at a full sprint.
There are still some people who choose to have their wings surgically removed: for health reasons, for career reasons, whatever. One of the Women’s Swim Team members going to Rio for the Summer Olympics is a cutwing, Sam's heard: when asked how difficult that decision had been, she pressed her lips together and said, “Not very.”
The point is that Sam grew up in an era where that kind of procedure was safe and voluntary. It hadn’t always been that way.
Sam’s older sister Jael (“pronounced ‘Yale’, you sack of shit, like the school of which I am going to be alma-fucking-mater. Say it -- Jael, like the motherfuckin’ Biblical force of wrath, I am some goddamn Old fucking Testament right here, so yeah, go on, holla again!”) didn’t inherit the wing gene, and survived puberty by putting their parents through only three major transformations and one knock-down drag-out fight that made Sam scared to go home.
They’re living in a duplex by the river then, four blocks east of the apartment building where Sam Wilson once peed in Missus Thomas’s white geraniums, and Sam’s wings and Sparrow’s come in at the same time.
Sam’s sixteen and Sparrow’s twelve -- she still goes by Rebecca at this point, but before she starts high school, she lies to the lady who did Jael’s cartilage piercings, says she’s eighteen, and gets a ring through her lower lip (somewhere, on some cosmic level, that woman is still feeling Grandma Wilsons’s slipper against her behind for going near an underage girl with a needle, because ho, boy, was Grandma mad) dyes lightning bolts into her hair, and tells them to call her Sparrow.
“Fine,” says Jael.
“Okay,” Sam shovels a spoonful of Cheerios into his face agreeably.
“Are you sure?” their father’s voice is mild.
Their mother frowns, straddling her chair, which is the only one that faces the table backward. “Baby doll, what kind of oil you think you’re gonna be puttin’ in your hair?”
And that’s that.
It starts with Sam first: his back starts itching on the way home from school one day, and doesn’t stop. It’s at that spot that’s just impossible to reach, high up on his back, and Sam strains himself silly trying to crane his arm back around to get to them.
He checks it out in the mirror and finds he’s sporting these scabby patches, flaky and raw-looking.
“Dawg,” Sam complains, because this is 2003 and Sam’s not immune to using slang that, in time, will be ironically appropriated by white people. “What.”
Since it doesn’t look venereal, he goes to his mom.
Sam’s mother takes one look at his back and sets to hollering for his father.
It takes two and a half weeks of horrible itching before his wings push through the scabrous flesh, fledgling and naked and so teeny-tiny, clinging to his back like hands.
“That’s really gross,” is Jael’s professional opinion, watching Sam screw his eyes shut in concentration, trying to get them to move. They spasm, and he pretends he did it on purpose.
But when their mother grabs them all and takes them to Thrift World, Jael’s more than happy to help pick out a bunch of shirts that they can cut up for him, their mother bumping and shaking and hopping in a familiar way at their sides, wings flapping so much her toes barely skim the ground. There are a couple places in town to get clothes specifically tailored for those with wings, but it's a lot faster and a lot more fun to make your own.
After his sisters get to their purchases with pairs of scissors, Sam gets more than one artful creation he only ever wears around the house, and some more practical things he can wear to school.
Over the next two years, as his wings grow to their full length and molt through various stages of juvenile plumage, he shoots up six inches. He gains a bunch of muscle weight -- heaviest in the abdomen and shoulders where all his flight muscles are -- and then drops it again as his bones hollow out.
“That’s so your wings can lift you,” his mother tells him, bending down next to his head.
“Eurgh,” Sam replies.
“Birds have hollow bones so they can lift their own body weight in flight,” she explains. “It’s not as weak as it sounds, see, because even though you’re basically becoming Swiss cheese, it’ll be in a honeycomb pattern, and according to math, that’s pretty tough.”
“It hurts,” whines its way out of Sam, muffled by his pillow.
“Well … yes, Sam my man. Sorry about that,” and when she strokes his head, he’s not so far removed from childhood that he doesn’t lean into it a little bit.
So for awhile, Sam goes around aching as literally every part of his body grows and changes around.
Puberty is a motherfucking bitch if you’re growing wings, he wants this down on record.
“Shut the hell up, you nappy-headed bastard, at least you don’t have to deal with periods at the same time,” Sparrow yells at him, out on the porch, as they take turns gripping the duplex’s door handle so they can practice their flapping. It sends last autumn’s crippled leaves furiously swirling up around the porch light until they collapse, exhausted, sides heaving and feet feeling strange and flat on the ground.
“What did you do to hide the weight changes, in your day?”
Steve glances up from his phone. Sam didn’t actually have money on it, but given a chance, he absolutely would have bet that Steve Rogers was one of those people who had every Word-a-Day, Quote-a-Day, Trivia-a-Day app known to man on his phone to cycle through during the boring hurry-up-and-wait part of missions. He’s right. He’ll read them off to them sometimes, too, and Sam won’t ever get over the hilarity that is himself and several heavily-armed agents sitting still and listening to Steve Rogers tell them a did-you-know about dog noses.
Steve thumbs the phone off and tucks it out of sight. “What do you mean?”
The doctor takes advantage of the distraction that is the full brunt of Captain America’s attention to adjust the splint, and Sam flinches full-body, too late. “Sorry,” she murmurs.
He breathes out, relaxing his wing back into her grip, and focuses on Steve.
“After you cut a person’s wings off, I assume those body modifications didn’t just reverse themselves. So how did you hide the fact that you weighed a lot less than other people in your percentile, or that you had muscle in places most people don’t really need it?”
“Oh,” says Steve. “That’s easy. We’d put rocks in our drawers before going to the doctor’s. You never needed to fake it for long, fortunately, and if someone had to lift you for some reason and found you light as a feather, well -- misdirection comes easy with practice. It was hardest at the recruitment office, where they had you stripped to your skivvies. Not a lot of places to hide weights there. We sewed lead into our waistbands, if you can believe it,” he grins, mouth all pulled up on one side. “Whatever it took to give you that extra ten, twenty pounds to tip you into really lightweight, but humanly acceptable.”
Sam feels his brows hunch together at the inclusive note in Steve’s voice, because surely -- well, he wouldn’t know, would he, not if Erskine’s formula reversed the changes and erased the scars.
“You’re not a cutwing, are you, Cap?” he asks flatly.
“No,” Steve answers, immediate and firm. “The wing gene doesn’t run in my family.”
“Ah,” says Sam, and changes the subject. “Dr. Sanghvi, how long do you think I got until I can fly again?”
“It’s hard to say, Major,” she demurs, professional tone firmly lodged in her throat. “But give it another three weeks in the splint and then we’ll give your mobility a test, how does that sound?”
“Alleluia, I hate being on the ground with you suckers, ya’ll are slow,” Sam lifts his eyes heavenward, and both Steve and the doctor laugh.
His senior pictures are an absolute mess: he’s molting the last of his fledgling down, so he’s covered in bits of white fuzz all the time.
He’s got these big old bald patches, too, where his pinions aren’t coming in yet, and his mother’s beautician gives them this butter cream stuff with keratin to try to slick his remaining feathers down -- this is the same lady that keeps trying to get Jael to try a relaxer, saying, “Imagine how cute you’d look with a bob haircut and that gorgeous-as-hell smile you’ve got, girl! You’d look like a flapper, don’t you like the sound of that?” and Jael responds, dry as dirt, “The only flappers I want around are these monstrosities that are related to me,” just to make Sam and Sparrow whoop and holler at her.
But in his pictures, he just winds up looking greasy, and of course these are the pictures his mother wants to send out to all their relatives to farm for graduation money.
“You’re lucky you’re going to be a bombshell by the time you’ve got to worry about senior pictures,” he mutters to Sparrow, who grins and tosses her head.
“That’s what you boys get for starting so late. Click, click, oops -- here’s your immaturity, forever immortalized!”
“I’ll immature you,” and the conversation dissolves into a semi-aerial chase around the house. Their father sighs, moving an abstract statuette their aunt got them years ago to anchor down the stack of mail he’s going through.
Paperweights are the most priceless commodity in a Shaker’s household.
With his right wing in a splint and still bound close to his body, Sam joins Steve’s guerrilla team on foot, accompanying them on a raid on a bunker that’s out in the flat part of Pennsylvania nobody cares about.
It’s him, Steve, a sniper named Barton who’s giving them long-range cover, a tactician named Thirteen who’s here to be objective where Captain Rogers can’t be relied to be (she and Sam agree that they should wear badges that say, in case of Winter Soldier, please report to us,) and four other team members that Steve might as well have plucked from the Potomac himself, given their unswerving loyalty to the man in red, white, and blue.
They startle the security on property -- not Hydra, Sam realizes as soon as they coming rushing out, but hired out, private firm. The one on the watchtower is winged, and he launches himself skyward, swooping down on strike.
Sam recognizes the formation, has done it himself a hundred and one times.
He steadies his handgun, aiming for the fleshy part where wing meets shoulder, but Steve gets there first:
He does that thing no man without wings should be able to do, leaping fifteen feet in the air and grabbing the man out of the sky by the boot. Gravity carries them both back down to earth, and Steve wrestles him into a headlock immediately. He squeezes his neck into some joint in his body, cutting off his airway to make him lose consciousness.
“Oh, here,” he says to Sam conversationally. “This is what I was telling you about.”
Sam comes over. “What is it?”
“This,” he pulls the security guard’s wing back, showing Sam the underside of it. “This, right here.”
Sam checks sightlines, then looks closer.
“When your wings first emerge, they aren’t fully formed, right?” Steve says in that voice he uses when he says, you go this way, you go that way. “Your bones sort of knit together as they grow. It takes about a month after they come out before they form the last joint down here,” he touches the base of the man’s wing, right around where Sam had aimed. “And that’s usually when a cutting would happen.”
He jerks back, and Steve says “sorry” at the expression that must be all over his face.
And again: “Sorry, you asked.”
“Steve, I think he’s good.”
The man is sagging in Steve’s hold, completely limp.
“Oh.” Embarrassed, Steve lets him slide to the ground, wings puddling unceremoniously around him. “You asked how a cutting would work.”
“I did,” Sam acknowledges, kicking the man’s taser away and following Steve into the dark at a clip. “So, a month after first emergence?”
“Yeah, you did everything in your power to hide it for that long -- wear baggy clothes, don’t get changed in public gyms, avoid hugs like the plague. If you tried to cut them off before then, you’d still be growing even as you’d scar, and that’d have to be cleaned up with another cutting. And no one wants to do a second cutting.”
“No,” he says faintly. “Wouldn’t think so.”
“It runs in families, though, so it was usually done by families, within the family, and families have a good grasp on what to do to minimize the suffering. Well,” again, Sam’s face must be an open book. “At least, make it less brutal.”
More shooting happens at that point, from actual Hydra agents using creepy Hydra weaponry, so Steve pirouettes, flinging the shield like a discus, and Sam, one wing half-flapping to compensate for the splinted one, gets low and takes aim.
It isn’t until later that he gets to ask:
“How many cutwings did you make back in the 30’s, Rogers?”
“Just two,” Steve replies, disengaging the USB. “And I wasn’t much help. I wasn't even supposed to find out, but once I did, it was hard to get rid of me. Mostly I just … well, I got the brandy and made them drink until they went numb and passed out, and then I did my best to keep the amputation sites clean, afterward.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. I’m not defending it, it’s just what we had to do, back then, to give anyone a chance.” He glances over, watching Sam absently straighten out his flight pinions, and his voice softens. “I wish it hadn’t taken so long for things to change.”
Sam flies for the first time in Basic, on a breathlessly hot San Antonio day with a sky so solidly blue he feels like he could walk on it.
There’s a platform above a foam pit like the kind Sam hasn’t seen since he took gymnastics with his sisters as a kid, and they’re supposed to leap off and glide to the other end, where the landing mats were. The goal is not to need the pit. The pit is lava, Sam thinks.
“Well, don’t everybody break the bars climbing up at once!” roars the sergeant, when they all hesitate.
Meyer goes, then Brigsby, then Hussein, who arguably does best because the women have all had their wings a lot longer than the boys have and can control them better.
Then Sam hauls himself up the ladder, rung after rung until the sound of the other recruits falls away, becomes less audible to him than the sound of his breathing, the drag of his feathers. He goes over the top, braces a boot, and runs for the edge.
He’s not sure what he’s expecting: to tip sideways like a paper plane, the way Brigsby did, or to just plummet the way humans have always done when they throw themselves out into open air.
His wings catch, his flight muscles lock, his feathers adjust, his body lifts, and Sam Wilson is gliding through the hot Texas air like a goddamn falcon.
Gill comes after him, and she lands on her feet, hopping a few steps to kill her momentum, and Sam says, “Nice,” because even he had to somersault and make it look like he meant to do it.
“Thanks,” she says, “you too! You’ve got style, Wilson.”
“I know,” Sam says modestly, and she shows teeth.
She folds her wings up at parade rest, but not before he gets a glimpse of the dye on them. The night before Gill came to Lackland, her friends dyed her secondaries red, white, and blue while she was asleep, just to say good-bye. Dyed feathers is very much against protocol, but since you can’t cut necessary flight feathers off, everybody just has to deal with it until they molt.
They turn to watch Gill’s twin, who goes next.
The Lesser Gill, everybody will call him. Sam will call him Riley.
There are fifty of them in the specialized training squadron, tucked in amongst the regular Air Force recruits. Most of them are eighteen, but there are older folk here, too: people his mom’s age, even.
“I still had little ole baby wings when they slammed the Winged Persons Protection Act through the courts,” says one, a fellow named Lennox with a receding hairline and candy-colored feathers like a parrot.
“Was anybody violent to you?” Sam asks.
“I still check myself regularly to make sure nobody’s stared holes right through me,” he chuckled. “Sure did feel like it. Remember, most folk didn't even think we existed and then suddenly, here we were.”
Sam came here with some other recruits from Harlem, and he’s glad, because there are some other ducklings who’ve clearly never been in the presence of so many winged people before. Sam at least knows the Shakers he’s here with, has grown up complaining about molting and mites with them, so he isn’t overwhelmed by things like heavy-duty brushes and transports with the seatbacks taken out (if there’s one thing there is far, far too much of in the world, it’s chairs, and Sam has yet to find one he can sit in comfortably without turning it around.)
“It’s a good thing you got rid of all your baby feathers before you showed up,” Sparrow jokes when he calls.
“Don’t smack talk me,” he retorts. “I’m handsome, thank you.”
Sam’s adult plumage came in all gunmetal grey, his primaries trimmed neatly in black. His covers are a softer grey than the rest, like a rock dove’s, and he stands in front of a storefront window on Lexington Ave and spreads his wings to their full length, looking at them, really looking at them. Tip-to-tip, they stretch six and a half feet, and Samuel Wilson looks at his reflection and feels the kind of centered calm most people only get in the middle of a deep mission.
The Air Force didn’t have to work hard for a sales pitch. It pretty much went: “So you’ve got wings now and you’re allowed to keep them. Want to do something useful with them?”
For Sam, it wasn’t a hard decision. With Jael at … well, Yale, and Sparrow just starting high school, looking at many years of spending their parents’ money ahead of her, making the military pay for an expensive education seemed like a great way to do his parents a solid, and Sam Wilson never wants to live in a world where he can’t fly. So, Air Force it was.
“For us, it was either this or jail,” says Carolina Gill, mashing all her food together into one square on her tray and shoving the whole concoction into her mouth.
Sam watches with horrified fascination, then says, “Wait, really?”
“No,” she and Riley say in unison.
Their shit-eating grins are as identical as the rest of them.
“Pops was Navy,” Riley explains. Unlike his twin, he’s not performing sacrilege upon his food in order to get it into his face faster. “Obviously, the Navy doesn’t have much call for featherbrains, so we made our forefathers roll in their graves and came here instead.”
“Is your dad still on active duty?”
“Depends on your definition of active duty. He spends a lot of time as a liaison to Hammer Industries, and I’d qualify that as a warzone.”
Sam doesn’t know what Hammer Industries is yet, but he’ll learn: Hammer will give them a couple demo versions of wing armor, none of which will survive the testing phase. “Really?”
“Yeah,” they say, and, clearly imitating somebody else, they snort and say together, “The war on stupidity.”
Carolina and Riley Gill are eighteen years old. They’ve got brown freckled wings and brown freckled faces and a way of smiling like they’ve got to show all their teeth at once, and the gene has run in their family for generations.
“What was that you called yourselves?” Riley asks, after Sam lets Danisha Maroney read part of Jael’s e-mail over his shoulder.
As kids, Jael and Danisha used to go to the same sleepovers and had the same Skydancer dolls, until Danisha got her wings and Jael didn’t. She’s got them stretched out now, flapping absently to work out the sore spots, and it’s making her bounce as she walks away, high up on her tiptoes like she’s going into a fight, or a dance.
“Shakers?” Sam checks.
Riley nods. “Is it ‘cuz of how you move?”
“Nobody’s got rhythm like we do, man. Nobody shakes like us, nobody without wings can even compete. I dunno,” he thinks of old Missus Thomas, who watched everybody around her disappear. “I think it’s a Harlem thing.”
“Ai’right, fair enough,” Riley holds up his hands. “I’m not stepping on your hood thing.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Sam mutters, and shoves his chair back into Riley’s gut.
In the squadron, everybody’s got different strengths: for the Gills and Sam, it’s that they’re nimble flyers. Unlike Lang, who has the barrel chest and broad wings of a Canadian goose, built for sustained marathon flight, they can’t carry more than their own body weight for long periods of time. Their wings are too narrow and trim, designed more for energy conservation and maneuvering.
Their agility in aerial combat is what will get them tapped, much later, for the 58th Pararescue.
When Sam passes the open bathroom door, Cap’s friend the sports car-driving redhead -- her name’s Natasha, apparently -- is sitting on the toilet lid, applying antiseptic and wrapping up a wound. And by wrapping it up, he means she has the roll of Ace bandages suspended between her toes, nimbly lifted almost at eye level, so that she can have both hands free to get a clean wrap started. The other leg’s folded under her.
“Need help?” Sam offers, though she obviously doesn’t.
He has six appendages, which is two more than most people, and he could never use any of them the way Natasha is right now.
“No,” she says easily. Her hair’s wet and her clothes are damply clinging to her in places, but she’s surprisingly clear-eyed for someone who was recently KO’d by getting a bunker dropped on her. “Although I have a question.”
She refolds her legs and leans over, opening the cabinet under the sink.
Sam watches her dig, leaning against the doorframe and wearing one of Jael’s artistically cut-up shirts around his wings (he hadn’t been expecting company, okay.)
He blinks when she surfaces with a flat iron still in its box, torn only at the seal.
“Yours?” drips out of Natasha.
“Can you tell?” Sam rubs at his head, then offers her his biggest grin. Can’t even call you nappy anymore, Mrs. Wilson had said, when he returned to civilian life but didn’t let his hair grow out again. So what’s your excuse for not listening to your momma now you’ve got clear ears? “Does it suit me?”
She smirks. “Looks professional.”
“Thanks,” He waves it off. “Nah, man, my older sister got into using a relaxer in college and the rest of us learned our lesson about being prepared for when she visits.”
She pops off the tape at the end of the box and lets the flat iron and its cord spill onto the bathroom counter. As she fishes for the outlet, she says, “I knew a girl once who used a straightener on her feathers if she was going out on the town.”
He blinks again, unconsciously drawing a wing in front of him to study it. He can’t imagine.
“How’d it look?”
“Pretty unnatural, with her feathers all standing out like that, but that was probably the point. Counterculture and all that.”
“I think I’ll stick to my locs, thanks.”
That smirk again. “You do that.”
Around the same time that Tony Stark gets kidnapped somewhere in Afghanistan by ambitious locals with a lot of scary guns and a hard-on for Western weaponry, the AFPC put Sam and Carolina and Riley down for their first tour outside of Falluja.
The Ten Rings is active enough in these parts that they’re briefed about them, but never run into them personally: most of a pararescue’s work in the area is done following regular skirmishes between people who aren’t a hundred percent sure what’s going on or why they’re fighting who they’re fighting.
During the day, they fly drills and do scouting runs into the desert and the outlying towns.
Sometimes, they’re deployed. Those days are usually better or worse than any other day.
During their downtime, there’s a lot of rec with the other soldiers, who all ask the usual questions -- yes, it’s very difficult to take flight from a flat, standing position, that’s why the pararescuemen all have repulsers to aid them in liftoff, yes, the repulsers are also necessary when you’re airlifting someone out, no, wings don’t get in the way when you’re getting jiggy, why, Martinsberg, you want to find out, yeah, yeah, yeah, thought not, you couldn’t handle this.
They get medical journals published out of New England three months out of date, but they study them and quiz each other to keep themselves informed. Most of it has very little to do with the field nature of their work, but the updated lists of medication that mix poorly with penicillin that come in the back are always handy to have.
Sam’s got some things to say about the heat, but if the twins get homesick, you couldn’t tell looking at ‘em.
“Hey-o, check this out!” Riley hollers.
He slams his helmet down over his head and darts up into the rocks, where he lays down, tucks his arms under himself, shuffles his boots around, and drapes his wings down.
Then he doesn’t move.
“What are you doing?” Carolina finally calls up to him.
“Practicing my camouflage!” comes back, muffled.
Sam throws his head back and laughs, because yeah, between Riley’s fatigues and his sandy, speckled wings, he absolutely blends into the landscape.
“Sure,” the Greater Gill taunts her brother. “Next time we’re in a firefight, you go ahead and just lie down, no big deal.”
As she’s talking, Sam starts sneaking up close to where Riley’s lying out. Just as he twitches, sensing Sam’s approach, Sam flings himself down on top of him.
Riley groans emphatically, but Sam just stretches out, luxuriating in it.
“Oh, man, Carolina, they need to move camp up here, this is a cozy spot,” he announces. “Get over here, pull up a motherfuckin’ rock.”
“Well, if you insist,” and Riley groans again as a second body lands on top of him.
Sam and Carolina contort themselves every which way, talking loudly about various comfortable points of this excellent rock, casually putting elbows in kidneys and ruffling feathers while Riley writhes underneath them, too crushed even to laugh.
Then somebody clears their throat from below.
Sam registers the face of a black man first, because of course he does, then the dark fatigues, which mark him as Not from This Base, and only then does he make out the ranking of Lieutenant Colonel.
Carolina, Sam, and Riley all backwing to their feet at once, accidentally banging wingtips in their haste to stand at attention.
“… are you from the 58th?” the man asks, with the not-expression of the career military.
Sam darts a look at the Gills in his peripheral. Their faces are doing something interesting, like they’re trying to flush and drain of color at the same time.
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“Hmm,” says the man. “Airmen, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, and as of right now, you are being reacquisitioned.”
So Sam and Riley, along with Carolina and her wingman and two other pararescue pairs from the 58th, are sent to relieve those already hunting the mountains in Afghanistan for Tony Stark. They’re joined by choppers and Rhodes, but it’s the winged soldiers who can go where aircraft cannot.
In Harlem, they called Sam “Snap” because of a peculiar noise he could make with his right shoulder and right wing when he shrugged them, prompting shouts of, “Yo, Snap, Crackle, and Pop, do that freaky thing again!”
But it’s in the Middle East that earns Sam the name “Falcon” for his hunting eyes.
Looking back on it, he probably figures it out on the deck of the helicarrier, when the Winter Soldier snatches him out of midair, hauls him in, and with a single blow breaks his right wing in three places.
It’s the kind of thing you do with extreme prejudice. Sam will be in casts and splints for six months, and in PT even longer than that, but he’ll report to Cap’s side all the same, because dude, if Nick Fury could take two of the Winter Soldier’s scary-illegal Russian bullets and then dress himself to the nines and stroll in to deliver the smack-down on Pierce’s ass, then Sam Wilson can handle a few measly broken bones, like, whatever, we’re good.
Still, you’ll forgive him for being a little preoccupied with the screaming, the dragging himself and his now-unresponsive wing about-face, and trying to shoot that motherfucker in the face.
It doesn’t work, but goddamn, does Sam give it his best shot.
The Winter Soldier lowers his arm (who blocks bullets with his arm? Like, dude,) and stares at him, just stands there and stares. It’s unsettling.
And then he’s gone, like he should have been, and only then does Sam become aware of the panicked yelling in his ear: Steve and Hill.
“I’m grounded, Cap, I’m out,” he grits out, ducking behind the shelter of a tower of crates, grateful for a strange beat that the Winter Soldier seems to be removing players indiscriminately: there aren’t SHIELD or Hydra agents around.
He sucks down more air to steady himself, misses Riley fiercely, and then goes about shedding the armor on that side and binding his wing the way they did it in the 58th.
Inside him, the knowledge settles, and as he gains pieces of information later, he'll fit them into place around it.
As a child, Steven Rogers participated in the grim creation of two cutwings.
It’s one thing to know, but it’s another thing entirely to come down later to where they’ve got the Winter Soldier locked up in one of the Hulk’s containment rooms, obviously going through some mad crazy detox, and see the scars.
Sam’s flying again, with two weeks left on his PT, and he stands at the observation window and watches the man shake in his skin.
The place where the left scar would be is obliterated by a metal plate, but the one on the right is visible, a puckered white ridge of flesh. Underneath, the amputated joint shifts against his skin, like it remembers something that’s supposed to be there, but isn’t.
“Mrs. Gill, would you mind if I ask you something?”
“Lord, boy, don’t call me that,” Riley’s mother replies, coming upright in her adirondack chair in order to give him her attention, crossing her legs at the knee. “I’m Tammy Hendrix, I never married that sucker.”
Nearby, on the porch with a sweating glass of iced tea in his hand, Mr. Gill looks over with the expression of a man whose ears are burning. He’s got the look that career military everywhere do, and he drives a Hummer for security like they do too. Sam nods deeply in his direction, and Tammy waves, her bangles clanging. His eyes narrow suspiciously.
“What can I do for you, Major?” she asks, turning back to him. “What embarrassing secrets do you need to know about my children?”
“Nothing, ma’am, they do a pretty good job of handing me those on their own.”
The Gills live on a vast acreage that contains a gully and a farmhouse where they do the best fireworks show in the county on the 4th of July. There are over forty-five Gills living on property, spanning four generations, and they all vaguely resemble each other, even the married-in ones: freckled faces and long limbs, messy hair and speckled brown wings. They’ve got a zip line running from the balcony of the house to the farmhouse that the winged members of the household use to gain liftoff.
Sam kind of loves it. Officially, the Gills run a Christmas tree farm. They do hale bay mazes in the fall. Carolina and Riley’s mom braids the crusts on her apple pie. None of these children will ever have to grow their wings alone.
Carolina and Riley brought him in and introduced him as “our Sam,” and they had nieces and nephews who took the “Uncle Sam” joke waiting in the wings and ran with it, saluting him every time he goes by.
“Ma’am,” he says again. Tammy has her children’s freckles, though the ones on her arms are bigger and worryingly darker, and she’s got wrinkles around her armpits. “Before the Protection Act, you’d cut a person’s wings off to give them a chance at a better life. What kind of options were there for an amputee?”
“Oh, plenty,” says Tammy immediately. “Before, if you wanted to keep your wings, you had to live somewhere like this,” she gestures. “For your entire life, and never speak to or be seen by anyone except immediate family.”
“But there were people who did it.”
“Of course,” she says, quiet. “You understand, don’t you?”
The first time he went home after Lackland, Sam took his mom to the YMCA and they flew the obstacle course together, the two of them. If Sam had to conjure a Patronus tomorrow, that’s the memory he would pick.
“For the rest of us, we had to find our own ways to fly. We became circus acrobats and horse jockeys -- do you want to guess how many winners of the Belmont Stakes have been ridden by cutwings? -- and we climbed telephone poles as technicians and a lot of us, of course, became pilots.”
“I had a neighbor, once, a very old woman named Missus Thomas, and she said this country was built on the backs of angels and nobody knew a thing.”
Tammy closes her eyes, savoring it. “Oh, I like the sound of that. Did ‘Lina or Riley ever tell you how old I was when I bought a Greyhound ticket to DC to sit outside the White House steps, waiting for them to decide my rights?”
“I was fifteen. A late bloomer. I was still wearing bandages. There’s a picture of my back somewhere, I think, in the archives, because I had to show them what was happening to children, what people were doing to their children because of the fear of other people. We didn’t have Twitter or Facebook in the 80’s, but we still knew how to use the media as a weapon.”
She pulls her hair to the side and turns around, showing him her back. She’s in a halter top, which no cutwing Sam knows would ever do, and her scars are old, pulling downward with her flesh.
They look carved out of her back.
“I like to hope that the reason the Protection Act passed so fast is because people, for once, had the decency to acknowledge that it didn’t matter whether or not the world was ready to see people with wings, it didn’t matter what kind of imbalance it would create within society to have winged and non-winged people walking around together -- what mattered is that our children were getting hurt. They were getting hurt now. What mattered most is that we needed the kind of world where no family had to harm and mutilate their child out of fear.”
Turning back around, Tammy adds softly, “We must never visit upon our children the sins that were visited upon us, Major. That’s why you’ve always got to fight for exposure, not erasure.
“I want a world where no child has to go through what I did, where nobody like us ever has to go up high and find themselves falling where they should have flown.”
Her words are the only thing going through Sam’s head when he stands at Steve’s right shoulder, watching from the other side of the glass as someone very, very neutral, dressed in neutral clothes with a neutral expression, says neutrally, “How are you feeling?” and Bucky says, “Like I’m falling,” even though he’s sitting perfectly still.
If it had been him, Sam would have never sent James B. Barnes and his hollow bird bones zip-lining to meet a moving train.
He’ll never say it, of course, because a) that’s the kind of shit you keep to yourself and b) he suspects that the reality had been a hell of a lot different than history makes it. It always is.
In 2011, five weeks before Christmas, Riley’s butchering “Santa Baby” in the belly of a plane, and he slaps Sam on the back and shouts, “Come on, brother! Let’s whatever!”
“I don’t think you take your oath very seriously!” Sam yells, waiting for the signal. “Come on, what did we swear to do as pararescuemen?”
“To save lives and aid the injured,” his wingman replies dutifully. “So you better have my back, Sam my man, because I might be a little sick in the head!”
These are the last words Riley Gill will ever say to him.
With a whoop, he throws himself out into the air, wings slamming open.
The sunlight today is so bright it looks crystalline, like Sam can hurl himself into it and hit it like glass. The desert is endless below, cragged and pockmarked, and the sky is alive with war, people trying to escape where he and Riley are trying to get in.
Twenty minutes later, he watches Riley get shot down.
Strangely, in that moment, the only thing that goes through his head is the thought of that arcade game, the Duck Hunter one; one shot, a spray of bullets, and a tiny winged figure folds and plummets, trailing feathers, just like that.
He sits in a rental car with Carolina later, the both of them with the doors open so they can have their legs tossed out on the asphalt. Snow shivers onto their dress uniforms.
They’d given Riley’s flag to his father, so she doesn’t even have that.
Carolina declined a second tour, choosing to stay on base in Nevada instead, and during last summer’s wildfire season, she rescued firefighters and the National Guard who’d gotten stuck behind fire lines. It was the longest the twins had ever been separated, and when Sam made that call, she screamed, “I knew it, I shouldn’t have --“ before the rest of it was lost into a howl that Sam felt driven into his chest, a chasm opening so cracked and deep and wide he could drop a pin in it and never hear it reach bottom.
She leans forward, stretching a wing out and folding it around him.
Sam says, “I’m getting out.”
She says, in a voice like a firefight’s gone through it, “Good.”
When Sam goes for a jog up Constitution Ave -- easy, at first, with his wings folded up close the way they learned in Basic, almost like a normal person -- he passes a memorial at the west end of the Mall, around the other side of the Lincoln Memorial, close to where the tourists stop to take pictures of the sunrise coming up to touch the Reflecting Pool.
He’d been four when it was commissioned, but he saw it for himself when he and Riley came to D.C. to be medaled -- and not for the last time, as it turned out.
They ate their lunch seated on the notice that said “Please Do Not Climb on Statue”.
Its name is Seraphim, for the six wings that support the figure, but Riley calls it the Shaker Memorial and now Sam can’t think of it as anything else.
What looks like one man, arms and wings outstretched and poised for flight, is in fact three, as there are two people crouched behind the third, their wings unfurled as well, their faces hidden like they can’t stand the sight of it. The information plaque says this symbolizes history’s systematic erasure of winged contribution to society, the culture of fear that birthed them.
That day, still in dress uniform with their medals shiny and new, Sam and Riley ate their sandwiches and argued about whether or not the main figure’s nose was flat -- if it looked like a black man’s.
Sam, of course, insisted that it did, and Riley played the devil’s advocate because he had the luxury of it not mattering to him as much.
They got their picture taken with it, of course, and when the VA asks if he’d like to put it up on the memorial wall, after, Sam says, yes, of course.
“This your wingman?” Steve asks, his voice both big and gentle.
“That’s Riley,” Sam confirms. The boys in the picture have all their teeth on display, wings flung around each other.
Sharpie in hand, Sam calculates how much space he’ll need on the page to write out “Please Take One,” then leans down and starts drawing up bubble letters. A stack of books sit at his elbow; the VA hospital in Baltimore had a book drive recently, and they sent up some extra.
Sam thinks maybe there’ll be some people who are interested.
He takes the sign (the “e” at the end of “please” is only a little cramped; he’s proud, he doesn’t think he’s done bubble letters since the last time he helped Sparrow with a poster board,) and turns around, looking for tape, when there’s a knock.
He looks up, already smiling.
It’s a stranger who lowers her knuckles from the doorframe. She’s old, her hair so thinly white there isn’t a lot of it left to pull back beneath the clip she has it under. She’s got on white orthopedic shoes and a high-waisted khaki skirt and the kind of old-timey silk blouse that shows the outline of her brassiere underneath; Sam can’t even call it a bra, between their combined ages they demand too much respect.
“Major Wilson?” she asks.
“Sam, please, ma’am. How can I help you?”
You need either a military ID or confirmed visitor tags to access this part of the building, and since she’s not wearing visible tags, Sam assumes she’s a veteran. When she minces her way into the room, he amends the thought: she’s old enough to be Steve’s kind of veteran.
“Would you like me to grab you a chair?”
“No, thank you,” she answers, calling off the instinctive search he’d started. “I have some unfinished business that’s been … unfinished for quite a long time, that I was hoping you could help me with.”
“Of course.” Sam sits against the corner of the table, resettling his wings. “What can I do for you?”
She takes a deep breath and folds her hands. When she speaks, her words come out of her slow, like they’ve been practiced.
“My name is Rebecca Barnes,” and Sam’s sense of balance does something very strange. “One night when I was thirteen years old, I crept out of the girls’ dormitory and went to my brother’s apartment. Our mother had helped him in his time, but she was dead, and he’d promised that when the time came, he’d help us. So I went, and he and Steve Rogers put me in the bathtub and cut off my wings.”
“… did you have other siblings?” Sam asks, knowing the answer.
“Two other brothers,” she confirms. “One older, one younger, but I was the first after Bucky to grow my wings. Girls are lucky like that,” a dryness touches her tone.
It’d bothered him during the war, Steve told him once, the idea that he wasn’t going to be there to protect the younger Barnes brothers from what was going to happen to them, not even being able to ask in letters. One of the nicest things about waking up in the 21st century was being able to Google it: the accomplishments of their wingless lives, laid out for him in keynotes.
“By the time we needed to amputate again, my brother and Steve were already overseas, so we did it ourselves,” Rebecca Barnes continues. “We knew how, by that point.”
Sam nods slowly, watching the distance in her eyes grow, the familiarity of it keen after years of talking to vets.
Her shoulders draw up a little, and he cannot help but think about the scars that must be under that thin material, carved into her back.
He runs his hand over his goatee, thoughtful, and he says, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but while I’ve got you here I gotta ask -- when you were a kid, could you pick up Steve Rogers? Please tell me that little girl Barnes could pick up Captain America.”
It’s so out of nowhere that it startles a laugh out of her, and a sense of accomplishment pings inside Sam’s chest.
“Yes,” she confirms, and he punches the air, victorious. “He let us hug him and lift him off his feet as many times as we wanted, because we were children, I think, and it was important to him to let children feel strong. Why do you ask?”
“Nothin’. I just wanted that mental image the next time I’m looking down and realizing that man’s running faster than I can fly. It’d go a long way to making me feel better about it.”
It seems to shake something loose in her, because she lowers her voice like she’s embarrassed.
“Major,” she asks. “I never got to see him in person, after. Is he really as handsome as he looks on television?”
Sam reaches out for her, and she puts her knotted, pockmarked hand in his.
He covers it with his other one and confides, as solemnly as possible, “Ma’am, I hate to break it to you -- but he really, really is.”
She grins, and says, “Good,” with so much childlike affection that it almost makes Sam homesick, thinking all at once of Jael and Sparrow and two freckled Gills, “I always said, it was about time the rest of the world saw him the way we did.”
He knows a little bit of what that’s like, to love someone with so much joy it feels almost like they’ve coated your insides like murder, like someone could come along and dust your heart for fingerprints and say, aha! Here they are. Gotcha!
Rebecca Barnes pulls her hand away, saying, “I know it’s not right of me to come to you in order to speak to him. I’m sorry, sir, but I thought of anyone, you’d understand --“
“Ma’am,” Sam interrupts gently. “He’s in the next room, if you want me to get him.”
“I --“ For the first time, she looks wrong-footed. She touches her thinning hair.
Her eyes are watery and blue, sunk deep into her skull with age, and Sam, abruptly, thinks she would have had the wings of a jaybird, her feathers all black and grey and the same blue as a fathomless, flawless sky, the kind you can spread your wings and fall, fall, fall into.
“Yes, please,” she says strongly. “Tell him I’d love to talk to him again, if he’s … he’s not too busy. That -- ” and she smiles with victory. “Tell him I’ve got fifteen grandchildren, and they’re … they’re all winged.”
Miss Rebecca, Sam wants to say. I’m pretty sure he’s got some news for you, too.
The familiarity of standing by a grill on a summer-lit lawn surrounded by generations of winged people singes the insides of his chest, like he’s brought his heart and lungs too close to a stove.
It’s impossible not to see overlays of Riley’s family in the Barnes gathering: in the teenagers flung out on their stomachs in the shade of a shivering aspen tree with somebody’s iHome, wings lazily stretched out to get as much contact with the cool grass as possible; in the kids too young to have their wings yet who are pretending, strapping cardboard to their arms and chasing each other to the street and back; in the two women on the backless porch swing, beating their wings in tandem to keep the swing moving, focusing on making feather jewelry to sell on Etsy. It wouldn’t surprise him, he thinks, to look over and see Tammy Hendrix sitting in her adirondack chair with her scars and a slice of pie, or if Mr. Gill appeared at his elbow with a joke about how Justin Hammer’s “just in” prison.
But Rebecca Barnes’s suburban North Carolina home is miles away from the Gills’ farm, and Carolina Gill left him a message on his answering machine after D.C. that said, “If Captain America gets you killed, I’ll rip that motherfucker’s heart out,” and, genuinely touched, Sam called her back up and asked her when they were next going to be in the same state so they could do lunch.
Sam’s hamburger is a fat chunk of meat, backyard-style, and as he takes a dripping bite, he checks sightlines.
One of the kids has dragged out a plastic Cap shield, and is using it to defend himself against one of his cardboard-winged cousins. The sale of Captain America paraphernalia spikes around 4th of July, sold alongside bug spray and water coolers in the seasonal sections of grocery stores and by the check-out inside the firework tents set up in parking lots.
Growing up, Sam didn’t even notice; it was a fixture. Now he gets a kick out of it.
Steve himself is up on the deck, talking with some pair of Barnes brothers who are pretending to be nonchalant about it. Or maybe they really are immune to Captain America: after all, Steve missed seventy years of his own popularity, but the Barnes family didn’t have that luxury.
Bucky’s on the bottom step, adjusting the harness on a great-grand-niece so that her wings with the markered-on flight pinions fit over her arms properly, tugging on a strap hard enough to lift her clear off the ground.
She zooms off, streaking past Sam and making her own sound effects, “shh-shh-shhush”ing like a Shaker.
Her spot is quickly taken by another great-grand-niece; Sam was introduced to her earlier. Ezra is eleven, her wings only four months grown, fledgling-small and covered in down.
This is the first time her extended family’s seen her since her wings came in, and despite Steve and Bucky’s presence, Sam’s noticed that not a single person has neglected to stop and say something warm to Ezra about them. She’s floating around on her tiptoes, half from the attention and half because her wings are just barely big enough to give her a little lift if she flaps them.
She stands in front of Bucky and asks him, “Are you a cutwing?”
He looks up at her.
“Yes,” he says.
She reaches out and puts her hands on his shoulders, shoving experimentally. The back of her tunic has been cut into strips to make room for her wings; they’ll adjust the strips as she grows. She and Bucky have the same dark hair and the same perplexed furrow to their brows.
“You’re not very light,” she says dubiously.
“I was once. But they broke all my bones and injected them with a substance that transmitted --“
Fortunately, here he seems to pick up on a facial cue from Ezra before Sam has to quick swallow his last bite of hamburger and step in, because he switches tracks and finishes:
“-- they made me heavy again so I could punch things harder without hurting myself.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
She regards him another moment, then whirls around and plonks herself down next to him, wriggling a little to get comfortable on the wooden step. “I’m gonna ask you a question.”
“What color do you think my grown-up feathers are gonna be?”
“Yellow,” says Bucky Barnes without hesitation.
“Like a canary.”
By this point, Sam’s finished his hamburger and is standing there with an empty plate, so he locates the trash bin by the patio door, crossing out of the sunshine into the coolness underneath the deck. Feet sound out overhead; Ephraim Barnes’s wheelchair thunks against each wooden slat. Someone leaps over the patio railing, gliding down into the grass and sending the children squealing out across the lawn.
There’s someone fishing around in the cooler when he gets there who says, “Hey, man, whatcha drinkin’?”
“Coke, please,” Sam answers.
He’s handed this, along with an amused look. “You babysittin’?”
“Yes,” Sam says dryly. “Captain America requires endless looking after. Frequent naps, too. It’s horrible. Don’t ever get yourself one, okay, it’ll be work for the rest of your life.”
As this delivery continues, the boy’s grin spreads out so much Sam can see the lettuce in his bottom teeth. He looks young; he looks the same age Sam was when he looked at himself in the window on Lexington Ave and decided that if his life didn’t involve him using his wings every day, he wanted no part of it.
He’s got Eurasian features and handsome white-and-grey wings, sleek and trim like a gull’s.
“Jonah,” he introduces himself, extending a hand.
Sam shakes it. “Sam. I’m --“
“The Falcon, I know.”
Jonah grew up around here (“Old Becky over there’s my grandma, but don’t tell her that, we’re waiting to see how long it takes her to get us confused -- she’s really sharp for someone who’s like, a hundred thousand years old,”) but when he hears Sam’s from Harlem, his wings shiver with excitement. “No way,” he goes. “Like the video?”
“Yeah, man. Like the Shakers. There’s a whole, like, culture, that I came from. Nobody moves like us, you know.”
“Yeah,” Jonah echoes with a grin. "That's so cool, man."
Ten minutes later, operating on automatic, Sam checks the perimeter again: Steve’s by the grill, holding up one of the toddlers so they can see the hot dogs roasting; Bucky’s on the very edge of the property, holding hands with his sister by the irises. Rebecca makes a nest of his shoulder with her head, nestling in; her free hand gestures in fast tandem with whatever emphatic story she’s telling.
Sam still has fracture lines in his bones that ache when the weather changes, and some part of him just isn’t noble enough not to resent Bucky for that.
But good isn’t so much a thing that you are so much as it is a thing you do, and the first time Sam was alone with Bucky, after, he fished out his phone and pulled up a picture of Sparrow, who was flexing her muscles and laughing, her wings spread to their full length -- she has Sam’s black trim, and their mother’s bright orange accents -- and showed it to him, saying, This is my little sister. Her name’s Rebecca, too.
And Bucky had answered, They’re very annoying, little sisters, in a tone that was definitely affection.
For Sam, interacting with Bucky Barnes feels a lot like flying into a headwind; control a barely-maintained thing, attention required by a dozen factors. But pararescuemen swore an oath to go in where other people are trying to escape, and he once warned Steve that they might not be able to save the man inside the Soldier.
Man, does it ever feel good to be proved wrong.
Steve comes up behind him then, surveying the same scene; the cutwings by the flowers, the sun on their backs.
Wordlessly, he reaches out and puts a hand on Sam’s shoulder, there underneath the wing where his feathers are the softest, and grips hard.
And Samuel Wilson, in that moment, can’t help but feel so proud it lifts through him, like he’s already in flight.