When they were young, before much of anything had ever happened, everybody always joked that Steve Rogers and James Barnes were going to have symbiotic daemons.
It was just a schoolyard fact, the way these things are: when he settled, Ingrid Bogtrotter’s daemon was going to be a slimy-mouthed, lumbering brute of a lizard, because so was she; Malcolm Young, the school scapegoat, buzzed around like a gnat or a fly, something you want to squash; and Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes were going to have daemons that depended on each other, because that's just how things were.
Bucky leapt on it. “Like water buffalos and the oxpeckers! Yours will be the buffalo, of course, because you’ve got the thick head to match —”
"And yours will be the noisy little bird always fluttering around and picking at me?" Steve replied, with that note of wisdom that always sounded peculiar in an eight-year-old voice, and Bucky retaliated, slinging his arm around Steve’s neck and hauling him into his armpit, his daemon weasel-shaped and diving under the desks to chase Steve’s around, the two of them chittering and laughing.
"Some kind of ox" was always Bucky’s prediction when asked what he thought Steve’s daemon would settle as. Her name was Chondra, and she was the only one most likely to instill any kind of common sense in Steve, which wasn't saying much.
"A bullfrog," was Steve’s dry response about Bucky’s. "Likes to sit around, full of hot air."
"Clever," said Bucky, in the tone people use when they mean the exact opposite.
Still, Adelaide had to try them out: different fat frog shapes, ranging from sticky-footed with enormous puffed-out cheeks to the big and bumpy toads. This usually meant that Bucky had to carry her everywhere, because she couldn't keep up on her own, and in the hot, ashy Brooklyn summer, she dried out quickly. He took one of the spritzer bottle they used to clean the storefront windows around with him to keep her damp, telling her it was pointless.
She stuck with it, though, in case Steve was right.
(Bucky's parents had always wanted to travel, which was why their daemons gave Bucky and his siblings' daemons the names of far-off cities, like they thought it could bring them closer; Adelaide, Havana, Asuncion, Bombay, Sarajevo -- although, paradoxically, he tended to just go by Sara, as most references to the Great War tended to leave a bad taste in people's mouths.)
Chondra settled first, of course, to nobody’s surprise: Steve Rogers had been settled long before his voice broke and he stopped breaking out in pimples with every nervous sweat, and it was just a matter of his daemon finding something to match. They waited a few days to make the announcement, so that she was sure. His mother kissed his forehead proudly, and they made his favorite meal together. They ate in silence, while under the table, her daemon put one paw on Chondra's back and washed her cheeks and head with his tongue, affectionate.
Bucky just frowned, taking in the sight of them.
Chondra stood on the table at Steve's elbow, upright, small and narrow and skinny, with big, watchful eyes. Her fur was the same color as Steve’s hair.
"I thought she’d be bigger," was all he said, and he didn’t know what his voice sounded like, but they both grinned at him, one small and joyful with relief, the other very pointy.
This, at least, he was certain of: he’d always expected Steve Roger’s daemon to be larger than him. Some people just have big souls like that, and if there was anybody who was going to back Steve up, it was going to be Chondra or Bucky Barnes.
But Bucky wasn't always going to be there, and Chondra was only a foot tall. How was that going to help?
"Don't underestimate them," Adelaide told him, curling around his neck, snake-shaped and using her tail to flip his cap off his head.
It took a few more years for her to settle, although you could tell she was thinking about it. Towards the end she would pick a shape and stick with it for months: a kangaroo with powerful kicking feet, a charging boar, and, especially during the time when the news was nothing but war planes buzzing over Europe, a fierce-eyed hunting falcon. Steve liked that one best, the gyrfalcon: he thought between the two of them, meerkat and bird of prey, there wasn’t an alley in Brooklyn they couldn’t watch.
It was Mrs. Roger’s death that did it, in the end. At some point while Bucky was brushing off his cleanest dress shirt, it occurred to him: he couldn’t afford to be changeable anymore.
Struck with it, he looked at his daemon. She looked back, then said, “Yeah, okay,” and that was that.
When they told Steve, he said, “what, really?” and looked at them in surprise, scrutinizing her then Bucky then her again.
Bobcats weren’t an uncommon choice, especially not among the young American men who looked at maps of Europe and wanted to go hunting. Steve saw a lot of bobcats around the recruitment offices, in the streets, hanging around girls with canary daemons and smiling sharply.
It’s just, he was used to thinking of bobcats as loners, and if there’s one thing Bucky Barnes had never been, it was alone.
He thought for a moment, trying to find a way to put this into words, when Adelaide nudged at Chondra and smiled at her, baring teeth as long as her arm. The pattern of fur around her mouth made her look like she was always laughing. On the landing outside his apartment, the sunlight filtering through his mother’s white linens strung up on clothelines, Steve jolted, realizing for the first time that they stood here as predator and prey.
"She’s not going to eat her, is she?" blurted out of him.
Shock winged flitting and fast across the darks of Bucky’s eyes. “Never,” he said immediately.
So Bucky went to war, and Steve was eventually picked for Erskine’s project.
The people who had to sell him after that point weren’t very pleased with him. Where before his daemon had reflected his physical stature, now she just looked comical, a small shape lying belly-flat along Steve’s shoulder at rest times, sunning herself with her eyes lidded. It didn't matter that she stood at attention as smartly as Steve. She could even assemble a gun, provided that it was a small one.
"It’s just not very American," said the men whose job it was to do this; to condense a man’s worth into a single, efficient statement. "Captain America can’t have a rat daemon."
"She’s not a rat," Steve said stiffly. "She’s a meerkat."
"Whatever. Rodents aren’t inspiring."
So in the comics, they drew him with an eagle daemon. That lasted until they overturned a stone in Germany and found an enemy with that exact daemon, and that stopped being “inspiring,” too. For the cartoons, they trained up a bear to be his companion, his costar. She was an enormous brown grizzly with bleak eyes and shoulders as wide across as a country. When frustrated, she bellowed and swiped at Steve, who was the only one who could physically subdue her. There were some pretty great circulars of the two of them, locked up in a fearsome embrace.
They created a pouch specifically for Chondra to be zippered into while he was on camera. Steve rankled with insult.
"I don’t mind," she assured him, sharpening his pencils and his charcoals with her teeth before handing them over. He drew portrait after portrait of bears on bicycles.
She didn’t need to be big or inspiring. Steve, it turned out, had the power to be both of those things on his own. She was there to watch his back.
There was nothing meerkats did better.
With Peggy’s help, they kept overturning stones, sending cockroaches scuttling in every direction across bomb-tilled European soil, and finally, under one of them, Bucky Barnes clasped his elbows and looked at him in confusion.
"Did she get smaller?" he asked, looking from his daemon to him and back again. "Or did you get bigger?"
Bucky's daemon came back from that stint in captivity different; paler, almost, smudged at the edges like perhaps she didn’t know her own shape. Steve remembered soldiers from the Great War sitting in soup lines and in pews at church, with daemons as translucent as smoke, like a strong shaft of sunlight would break them completely and send them scattering into Dust, and thought that was just what war did to men. He told Chondra to keep an eye on her, to never let her out of her sight.
Under the tracks, after, Bucky heard the crunch of boots on snow and begged her, Hide.
I can’t, she wailed back. He could feel her among the rocks nearby, far enough away to hurt.
He couldn’t get to her. She couldn’t get to him.
You have to.
He felt it: a pull, a rearranging, a drop of pain lost in a maelstrom, his arm, his heart, all of it ripping and aching, and when they pull him out of the snow, he was beyond the fear of it. There was the shape of her in his mind — no longer a bobcat, but a frog.
Bucky thought two things, then, the last two things he would ever think as Bucky Barnes: one, Steve saying, “she's going to be a bullfrog, full of hot air,” and two, of a soldier from Alaska, telling people in camp about a species of frog that can freeze completely and then thaw at spring, organs completely intact.
Seventy-five years later, by the vending machines, Natasha Romanova looked at Steve Rogers and said, “I know who killed Fury.”
His arm eased off her throat. “How?”
His daemon still had her jaws poised over her black cobra’s skull, her claws on his belly. Steve wasn’t used to being predator to anybody; it unsettled him.
She said, “I recognized his daemon.”
"What is it?"
The corner of her mouth pulled, like someone attached to the end of a very long fishing line had just given it a tug. “A black widow spider.”
In movies, assassins almost always had spider daemons; trapdoor spiders, tarantulas, small poisonous brown house-spiders, so that the audience could see the character and know, killer. He lifted his eyebrows. What kind of assassin would wear that identity on his sleeve?
Natasha smiled back, wry, and her daemon shifted, oriole-shaped and winging himself out of Chondra's grasp.
For all that spies tended to be a popular kind of thing (and wasn’t that a modern invention, one Steve is still trying to adjust to,) very few people actually have what it takes to be one — you can never be truly comfortable with yourself, with your daemon. It can never have a settled shape. Steve remembered Natasha saying once that your daemon has to be your country, or whatever organization is paying you the most; that has to be the only settled thing about you.
She slid easily from his grip, saying, “Come on, I’ll tell you, but we have to go.”
The first time Steve Rogers laid eyes on the Winter Soldier in broad daylight, he spotted his daemon instantly. She was a spot of red against his metal arm, the mark on her back like a drop of blood. His throat worked, Chondra clung to his wrist behind his shield, and he couldn’t look away: who wears their daemon like a target mark?
The spell broke with Sam Wilson’s daemon dive-bombing from above, a rattling cry tearing free from her throat. Sparks flew where her talons scraped across the Winter Soldier’s arm, and they spun sideways in a thunderclap of feathers, off the bridge.
Sam crouched beside him, using an abandoned SUV as cover.
"I thought you said she was a falcon," Steve said stupidly.
And Sam grinned with all his teeth, and pulled him up. “I never said falcon.”
To her everlasting credit, it was Steve’s daemon who recognized the assassin first, under his armor and his venomous daemon.
She arched her back, spitting, her gums pulled all the way up. “Steve! It’s Bucky! They got Bucky!”
She was, of course, right, and even with the man’s face exposed, Steve wouldn’t have recognized him without her help. A person is more than just their face, after all; a person is his stature, his voice, the shape of his daemon. Any one of those things would have identified Bucky to him before the Winter Soldier ever lost his mask. And all those other things were wrong.
If you get your hands on a child, you can make a spy with a shapeshifter daemon. But the list of things that can change a daemon’s shape after it’s settled is very, very short.
In the end, pinned underneath the beam, Bucky said nothing and as Steve approached, just leveled him with a look.
Chondra had his daemon trapped between her paws, a small, red-dotted shape, completely immobilized. Adelaide, Adelaide, she was saying, barking it, hoarse with pain.
Steve stopped. He crouched.
Around them, everything was fire, and a fall.
"Well." The word was grit in Bucky’s throat. "Well. Isn’t she going to eat her?”
Steve looked at his daemon, the small meerkat with the even smaller spider in her hands. Predator. Prey.
He said, “Never.”
Kill a man and his daemon turns to Dust — kill a daemon and all you do is hollow out the man and return him to clay.
Every time they wiped the Winter Soldier, she died. He remembered that, vaguely; his current daemon was only as old as his last reprogram date.
A new daemon, born to him alongside his armor and his assignment. She didn't have a name: he didn't even know people gave them names. Did that also mean people gave their cars names, or their phones or their guns?
Why would you name things you could lose?
Afterwards, they sentenced him to prison for pretty much as long as he could shit and walk, because there’d been a lot of killing and maiming and destruction of property, and he was responsible for a lot of it. Apparently. (He was going to have to take everybody's word for it on that one, though.)
America, he learned, was really fond of incarcerating people.
He could probably break out if someone gave him a good reason, but so far no one had.
Steve came by every Sunday after brunch for a regimented and heavily-monitored forty-five minutes. He had appointments with a lot of faces these days, most of whom just seemed really interested in asking him things -- and at cross-purposes, too. There were the doctors who talked to him like he was a victim they wanted to help, and the doctors that asked him about secrets; other people's, mostly, which was useless. If he couldn't remember his first daemon, or Steve Rogers, who everybody said had once been very important to him, then how was he supposed to remember his missions? He hadn't cared about those at all.
Out of all these faces, he liked Steve’s best: Steve and Chondra weren’t afraid of him. They didn't look at the space beside him, like they were hoping his daemon would appear, the way others did. He had to keep reminding the doctors that the spider drowned. In the Potomac. And yes, he was fine. Why wouldn't he be?
They'd even spoken in his defense at his trial.
(He hadn't been allowed to attend, though, so that was another thing he was just going to have to trust people about.)
He came in and they sat on the other side of the glass; Steve with his iPod in hand, Chondra with one whole earbud in her paws, pressed against the side of her head. Her fur was the same color as Steve's hair, he noted, and then tapped the glass to get their attention.
In his mind, he turned it over. He stepped on it, ground it around, but it was a rock in his boot. It didn't belong. It was a joke. It was -- a frog?
“I remember something,” he said. And, “She’s in the ice in the Swiss Alps.”