Birdcage (23670 words) by Sholio
Fandom: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (TV)
Warnings: Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Relationships: James "Bucky" Barnes/Sam Wilson, James "Bucky" Barnes/Sam Wilson/Helmut Zemo
Characters: James "Bucky" Barnes, Sam Wilson (Marvel), Helmut Zemo, John Walker (Marvel), T'Challa (Marvel)
Additional Tags: Wingfic, Alternate Universe - Wings, Getting Together, Hurt/Comfort, Torture, Mutilation
Summary: The wings of the old Sokovian royalty folded down smooth and gray, streamlined against their backs. Beneath clothing tailored to hide them—loose cloaks, long coats—they vanished so completely that they were thought by some to be a legend.
This is not just one of the longest, but one of the iddiest, hurt/comfortiest, funnest things I've written in a while. Below the cut, I ramble about this fic for a while! Spoilers are throughout, so if you'd like to read unspoiled, or without the author's thoughts in mind, you may wish to return to these notes later.
• Wings, and who has them.
So obviously the plot of this fic is at least 80% doing horrible, horrible things to Zemo's wings. In this AU, the major point of plot divergence is that Walker's breakdown involves not killing a guy, but cutting off one of Zemo's wings. And all the rest is fallout from there.
A lot of this fic was just playing with the idea of wings in society - who gets them (Sokovians, or more accurately a small handful of Sokovians, are the only people who are born with them; everyone else who has them, the handful of people who do, acquired them one way or another), how people relate to that, etc. In this world, supersoldiers gain wings - does that mean the serum is at least partly Sokovian-derived? Probably! Zemo obviously hates this. And what does it mean for a Sokovian to lose their wings?
But this opened a lot of other interesting worldbuilding considerations, like how to hide wings, or what to do when you can't hide wings (Isaiah has a lot of trouble with this; it's even more difficult to hide in plain sight as a not-supersoldier in this world than in the canon universe - and obviously it's entirely obvious at first glance when Walker has taken the serum). Sam has a certain amount of wing envy while also probably being able to fly better and faster with his mechanical wings than most of the winged people he pals around with can fly with theirs. (Ironically in the other Sam wingfic I wrote years ago, Sam is the only person in the story who has wings, as opposed to conspicuously not having them here.) And why is Bucky the only person who got the serum who doesn't have wings? (The answer obviously involves Hydra being their usual horrible selves.)
And then of course there are the winged Dora Milaje, which was too gorgeous an idea to let go. It did mean going back through the fic and checking that there's no point Sam or Bucky explicitly says they don't know other, non-supersoldier winged people, since they both hung around in Wakanda long enough to have spent time around the Dora. I also have a blink-and-you-miss-it bit from Sam thinking about taking Zemo to Wakanda to treat his wings and then deciding it wouldn't work, but the word Wakanda is never used. Also, anything Sam says or thinks about winged people can just as plausibly refer to Steve or Isaiah instead of the Dora, prior to that reveal. I hope.
• Pairings, and how to write them.
I sort of took a stab at writing this pairing or something similar to it as a 300-word treat in the last round of Multifandom Drabble, but this is the first time I've seriously tried to write it and I eventually ran into something that's never really been a problem for me before - it turns out (I had never realized this) that nearly every OT3/OT4 I've written before included either one canonical couple in the pairing, or else characters who were close and weird and insular in a particular way that made the leap to an actual relationship not all that hard. Or sometimes both.
As it turns out, writing a new-to-me pairing which also consists of trying to build up 3 different sub-pairings, none of whom are together in canon and all of whom distrust each other to one degree or another at this point in canon and don't really know each other yet, while keeping them all as close to their canonical characterization as possible, was really, really hard! I kicked around the idea at various points of keeping it gen, but I figured that ship had sailed when wings started getting petted. If this fic ended up gen, it was probably going to be way over my personal smarm line, but the relationship throughline was something I struggled with until suddenly it fell into place in the following configuration: put Sam and Bucky together first, with the Zemo situation as a catalyst for it, and then fit Zemo into this dynamic relationship-wise after they're already together.
But it was just ... interesting! I think usually I don't try writing pairings until I've already done some mental processing to figure out how I think they would go together. In this case, I had the idea that it would work and I really wanted to write it; I just had to try shuffling around the puzzle pieces until I could get them to click together in a way that felt plausible to me.
• Other random bits and pieces.
Walker, it turns out, is a challenging character to write because there is an extremely fine line of canonical characterization in between the dual abysses of character bashing or writing him nicer/more heroic than he is in canon. I wondered if I was going over the bashing line having him chop off Zemo's wing, because on the one hand, what he does in the show in the equivalent moment is worse, but at that point he's been driven over the edge by Lemar's death and fueled by the serum, and in this case, neither of those things are true. So I had to push him hard enough to get him to have a mini-breakdown like that, without going through any of what he went through canonically to get there.
(Lemar at least gets a better ending in this AU than in canon! The nice thing about AUs is that you can rescue characters if you want to.)
I also gave myself an ongoing headache having Sam grab the shield, which then had to be concealed during their escape - especially since I was writing the fic out of order and had already written a bunch of later scenes that I had to go back through and add the shield to. But I needed him to! That was completely off the cuff; I originally had him grab it and throw it back, but that left the shield in the hands of Walker and Lemar, and it also left Sam without getting a real moment of catharsis/triumph in the fic. I felt he deserved the Captain America handoff, even if there's a lot that still needs to happen, given where they end up in the fic and also not really having given him space within the fic itself to work through his conflicted feelings about the shield.
The final version of the fight scene in the Riga house - in which Sam gets the shield, and Zemo may or may not have killed Walker - was written chronologically much later than its place in the fic, after a lot of what came after had already been written. I knew roughly what happened there, but not how. In fact, when I originally wrote a quick placeholder version to hold me 'til I got the final one down, Zemo wasn't involved. It wasn't until I went back through that scene that I realized he needed to be, had to be, because there is no way Walker, the guy who cut his wing off, would be right there and Zemo wouldn't try to do something about it. Which is how I ended up with the iddily glorious scene of Zemo shooting himself up on military-grade amphetamines in order to be able to stand up through the shock and blood loss to take out Walker. (And not really planning to survive it, or at least not thinking beyond that moment. He's not suicidal exactly, he just really doesn't care.)
Walker is a definite case of "the body was never found."
One thing I would have loved to do in this fic was include a scene with Isaiah, but there just was no place for it. Gotta leave something for sequels ...
Anyway, I loved writing this, A+, would happily play in this sandbox again.
Feel free to talk to me in the comments! This entry is also posted at https://sholio.dreamwidth.org/1400737.html with comments.