Before the serum, Steve wondered whether his wings were a cruel trick of fate. He was barely 5’4” and 95 pounds soaking wet, and his wingspan was the size of a man over twice his weight. He couldn’t fly with them due to his asthma, and his scoliosis made one massive wing drag on the ground significantly more than the other. It was uncomfortable and awkward. It didn’t help that his wings were a shining blue-black that Steve couldn’t really identify with his colorblindness.
Meeting Bucky was as awkward as it was invigorating. Steve had gotten into a fight, and one boy had grabbed his dragging wing and used it to fling him to the ground. Bucky dropped the bully with a single punch, then helped him to his feet and offered to help him preen the mud and alley muck from his feathers. He didn’t comment on the weird discrepancy between Steve’s wings and his…everything else.
Bucky was the only one who could convince Steve to accept help preening. Otherwise, Steve did his best to hide his wings, make them appear smaller.
“Your wings show who you are, Stevie,” Bucky argued for the millionth time.
“A mess?” Steve groused for the millionth time, trying to preen the dragging wing after a long, wet day. “Buck, I know you’re tryin’ to help, but these wings aren’t good for anything, and you know it as well as I do.”
“Stevie,” Bucky tried, and Steve cut him off.
“It’s fine, Buck,” his smile was sharp and fake. “I’m just going to preen and hit the sack. You can head on home.”
Bucky sighed. When Steve was like this, there was no arguing with him. “You’re still coming to the Stark Expo with me and the gals, right, Stevie?”
Steve sighed. He knew it was Bucky’s last night in town, and he knew there was no getting out of it anyway. “Yeah, Buck. I’m still goin’ the Expo.”
“Great, see you tomorrow, Steve,” Bucky slouched off, his own large brown wings gracefully laid against his broad shoulders. Bucky never flew away from Steve’s apartment, and Steve never knew if it was solidarity or sympathy.
Steve sighed again, then returned to the seemingly endless task of preening his own useless wings.
The following night, he met Erskine, who took one look at his wings and his record and forced him through into the program. Bootcamp was a hellscape for him and his ailments and his stupidly large wings, but he made it through. He dove on the fake grenade, his wings flaring out to cover his body and create as much of a seal over the theoretical bomb as possible.
After the serum, he wondered whether his wings were still a cruel trick of fate. They did nothing to save Erskine, to save Bucky, to get him back to Peggy. They finally matched his body, but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. He went down, and his wings didn’t save him.
Steve woke up in a new century with wings he was used to downplaying as much as possible. Wings he never let anyone besides Bucky preen. Wings S.H.I.E.L.D. agents didn’t hesitate to touch. Social grooming had always made Steve uncomfortable, and seventy years in the ice hadn’t changed that.
After the initial shock, he was recruited by Fury, with his hawk-like wings, to join the Avengers Initiative. He met the rest of the team early, knew the state of their wings, but Tony Stark was a shock. Steve shouldn’t have been surprised that Howard’s son was so vibrant, but surprised he was.
Barton’s wings were gray and built for speed and height. Natasha, with her owl wings, was silent and deadly. Banner had no wings, and Steve had yet to meet the Hulk. The Asgardians didn’t have wings to begin with.
The first surprise was Tony’s lack of wings. No, not lack. He had wings. Large, metal wings, in red and gold. His scapulars, marginal coverts, primary coverts, and alula were all a stunning red. His primaries, secondaries, and secondary coverts were all gold. The feathers were individually crafted, and it was all very gorgeous. Steve’s fingers itched for his art supplies. Then Tony had opened his mouth, and it was all over.
“Everything special about you came out of a bottle,” Tony sniped, and Steve froze for a moment. Tony pressed on, “Heard even your wings were useless before my father’s work.”
Steve's wings fluffed up, and he didn’t even notice that he’d stopped downplaying them. “Do you know what my wings looked like before the serum, Stark?” he asked. “Well, do you?” With that, Steve’s wings flared out, sending Fury and Hill diving out of the way. He hadn’t flown since coming out of the ice, and had barely preened. But Steve knew his wings were the same gorgeous blue-black they had always been.
Tony Stark wouldn’t stop, though, and their fight nearly grew physical before Barton crashed the party. It was a miracle Natasha, with her owl wings, even caught him. Stark and Steve rebooted the engines, and Banner plummeted to the ground, flightless even as the Hulk.
By the end of the Battle of New York, the Avengers were a team. Steve noticed Stark left early, as Barton and Natasha began preening each other, and went to find him in his labs, to try to put their fight behind them.
He was shocked when he entered the lab to see Tony without any shirt at all. His back was a mess of scar tissue, clearly the result of wings being carved away. Steve couldn’t speak for a moment, and instead watched his new teammate.
Tony stood in a machine which was removing damaged metal feathers and replacing them efficiently, if not with the most care. Tony looked uncomfortable, and Steve realized he had walked in on something personal, something he should never have seen. He coughed, alerting Tony to his presence.
Tony scrambled for a shirt, cursing violently when his machine got in his way. “Jesus, Capsicle, don’t you old folks know how to knock?”
“Sorry, the door was open,” Steve shuffled, looking away. “I just came down to say I wanted to start over, Stark. We got off on the wrong foot, and I don’t want that to stop us from working together.”
“Relax, Cap, I won’t hold the helicarrier against you. We both said some things, then we saved the world. Water under the bridge,” Tony still sounded uncomfortable, and Steve kept his wings pressed tightly against his back.
Tony looked like he was debating something, then he opened his mouth. “Why do you keep your wings hidden like that?” he blurted. He looked vaguely surprised at his own gall, then shrugged and continued speaking. “You’re Captain America, shouldn’t your wings sit comfortably against your back?”
“Call me Tony,” Stark interrupted.
“Fine, Tony,” Steve tried again. “I was born with these wings. The serum didn’t grow them. I grew up a 95-pound, 5’4” asthmatic with scoliosis and a pair of wings that didn’t match that aesthetic. I learned to downplay them as much as possible. Then, there was the serum, and I just…never really grew out of the habit.”
Tony hummed interestedly. “Well, I guess I owe you an explanation, don’t I?” he asked, sounding blithe, but looking terrified.
“You don’t owe me anything, Tony.” Steve insisted.
Tony smiled, “Fine, then I think I want you to know the story of my wings, Cap”—
“Steve,” Steve interrupted. “Call me Steve, Tony.”
“Well, Steve, I want you to know what happened. If you want to know, anyway,” Tony looked oddly subdued. Steve nodded encouragingly, and Tony began speaking in earnest.
“I was taken by a terrorist group a few years ago. They did a lot of awful things, but the first really awful thing they did was this,” at that, Tony gestured to his back. “They took my wings. Just carved them away, then tossed them in the trash. I came back, and everyone just…they all gave me these looks, and I couldn’t take it, Steve. So, I built my own wings. Then I built the Iron Man suit, and then I became a hero. All because I hated people looking at me with pity.”
“They’re beautiful,” Steve blurted. Tony laughed like it had been surprised out of him.
“They’re robotic, Steve.”
“And they’re beautiful. I want to draw them, paint them…I want to immortalize them somehow,” Steve admitted.
“Cap, you’ll make a man blush,” Tony teased.
“Can I…” Steve trailed off.
“What?” Tony asked, sounding uncertain.
“Can I preen them?” Steve managed. “I know they’re not biologically yours”—
“Actually, they are,” Tony admitted. “I wired them into my nervous system. I can feel them same as any other winged person. Nobody’s ever…nobody’s ever wanted to preen them, though. Nobody has preened me in so long, I don’t really know what it feels like anymore.”
“Tony,” Steve breathed. Tony couldn’t meet Steve’s eye. “Please, could I?”
“If you really want”—
Tony cut off with a yelp as Steve buried his hands in feathers. He carefully began settling them into their proper places along the wings. He focused so intently that he didn’t even remember to keep his own wings pressed tightly to his back. They relaxed out into a natural position.
After what felt like hours, Steve came out of his preening haze. Tony’s wings looked gorgeous, every feather settled properly. He smiled at his own handiwork before noticing that Tony had tears streaming down his face.
“Jesus, Tony, are you alright?” he asked. “Did I hurt you? Why didn’t you tell me to stop? I’m so”—
“Don’t you dare say you’re sorry,” Tony hissed. “It’s been so long… I forgot how good someone’s hands can feel. I forgot.” He trailed off, and Steve realized that these weren’t tears of pain, but of bittersweet happiness.
“Oh,” Steve breathed. “Well, I’m glad I could help,” he sounded awkward even to his own ears.
Tony barked out a laugh. “Alright, Cap, your turn,” he clapped his hands together once, gesturing for Steve to turn around.
“Um…nobody besides me and Bucky has ever touched my wings,” Steve admitted quietly.
“May I?” Tony asked, uncharacteristically soft-sounding.
Steve nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat. He turned his back to Tony, and sighed when gently hands began sorting through battle-torn feathers and plucking out bits of glass and rubble. Tony worked slowly, like he was uncertain whether Steve would let him continue. Steve sighed and relaxed, and slowly, so did Tony.
And if the team came down to the labs later to find the pair asleep, Tony’s hands still buried firmly in Steve’s coverts, that was nobody’s business but theirs. Even if Natasha snapped a few pictures for later use.