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without a compass we cannot find our way home

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i.

A few lies:

The Winter Soldier does not have a daemon because the Winter Soldier does not exist

The Winter Soldier does not have a daemon because the Winter Soldier is not human.

The Winter Soldier does not have a daemon because the Winter Soldier is the perfect human.

A truth:

The Winter Soldier has a daemon and she is a monster.

ii.

A secret: daemons do not remember like humans do, and so they never forget.

She curls up at his feet, arranging her seven limbs neatly and fixing the scientists with eyes that are terrifyingly blue. Some of them flinch, and she and the Winter Soldier share an imperceptible huff of amusement.

The pod closes and the freezing process begins. She closes her eyes and prepares to dream the years away, because a soul can never truly sleep without dreaming. She passes the years in the memories of when she and her human were whole beings instead of shattered wrecks, when she hadn’t yet stolen the color of a man’s eyes for her own.

Cold smooth darkness takes them both at once, and she can hear Bucky laughing at Steve’s stories about the other art students, can feel Salvae grooming the fur of her ruff, can feel four feet and a tail and two pricked ears.

She loses herself and the creeping cold in the golden sunlight and the warmth of those days when she had a name and a form and a family.

iii.

He always asks, but it’s been a long time and they’re almost finished with the mission and he still hasn’t said anything. She worries that the scientists have finally managed to make him stop caring.

But they’re sitting in some tiny room, waiting for someone to come tell them who to kill when he runs his flesh fingers across her scars. His hand is hot against the thin, red skin, and she basks in it, in the uncharacteristic warmth.

“How did these happen?” he asks in Russian, and she growls at him, ignoring how the sound hurts. Everything hurts these days, and as broken as she is she will not have him forget where he comes from.

He repeats the question in English, his mouth fitting awkwardly around the words, his fingers still tracing the red marks amid her patches of grey feathers and scales. His eyes are lost, and she presses close to chest. He’s so terribly adrift, her human, and she’s no good as a navigator.

“I’ll tell you later,” she says, repeating herself for a man who doesn’t remember that ‘later’ never comes.

iv.

Their student is all of eight years old when she comes to them, and she’s young and lovely and her name is Natalia.

They like her, and she seems to like them, as terribly broken as they are, and the Red Room lets them keep her for eight years. They see her daemon settle into a snake longer than she is tall and as lethal as she is learning to be, and they laugh for ages.

They don’t laugh when Natalia and Severim are separated. They lock themselves away from their student and they shake and she flickers through forms as quickly as she can and her human winds his fingers in her thick fur and very carefully does not scream.

Natalia never holds it against them.

In exchange they teach her a valuable lesson in murder—that the violation of a daemon touching another human fades so easily when that human dies, terrified, in pain. She’s proud to have taught that lesson to their little spider, before she is taken from their guidance.

v.

She snarls at them when they force her human into the machine, bares her teeth and shifts larger and larger as they speak to him. The man with the fox daemon snaps out an order but she doesn’t hear, doesn’t care until there are hands on her and her skin twitches and ripples and she bites and she snarls and someone wraps sharp-spiked steel around her throat and pulls until spots dance before her eyes.

Her human screams and they break even more.

vi.

The man with the blue eyes like the dead man she borrowed her colors from falls and she shrieks because she has nightmares about this man falling and she doesn’t know his name but he matters and her human knocks away a blur of bright feathers and there are two important things falling.

Wings, now, because she fell once too, and her voice is rough and ruined when she says, “Please,” and she folds them close and dives after gold and trusts her human to save the other.

Her talons pierce flesh between golden wings, and carrying this burden is difficult, but her human has dragged the dead man from the water and she releases her burden, lays the eagle as gently as she can by the man, and settles to the earth on six mismatched paws.

They walk away and she wonders if they’re going to find their way home or only become more lost.