Alastrina settles when she and Steve are twelve. There’s no fanfare to it, no particular incident that makes it happen, not really.
Some people settle when they have their first kiss, when there’s a tragedy or something wonderful, sometimes they settle because their religion says they’re adult. Like Liam from school whose daemon suddenly became a horse in the church on confirmation day, or Eli who lives five apartments down; his daemon apparently settled as a barn owl in the middle of his bar mitzvah. Bucky’s Arlinna settled as an eastern coyote the day his dad died, Steve knows because he was there when it happened.
He’s sick again, is what happens. Sick in the way that he hates most, because he’s not so sick he does nothing but sleep curled up with Rina, always shaped as something big and warm to keep him comfortable, but too sick to do anything but stay buried in blankets. When he’s sick like this, he’s just well enough to be desperately bored, and he hates it. Bucky helps, he goes to the library with a wagon and comes back with a whole pile of books for Steve and Rina to read, but still.
It’s fall, when the weather is still warm enough that he’s less likely to catch a chill, but without as bad allergies as he has in spring or the summer humidity that makes it hard to breathe. It’s the best time to be outside, and he can’t be.
Sometimes he wonders if it’s worth it, when his life can be put to a halt at any moment because he’s sick again, and today is one of those times. He’s too young to think like this, maybe, except he’s not too young to have almost died more than once, is he?
Rina nips at his arm. “Stop that. We’re going to get better, and one day we’re going to get well.”
“Really?” Steve scoffs at her. “And tell me how we’re gonna do that?”
“I don’t know, but we will.” She’s a wolf right now, growling low and staring right into Steve’s face. Steve believes her, and hides his face in her ruff.
“I’m sorry, Rina, I just… don’t want it to be like this forever.”
It takes a day or so before Steve realizes Rina hasn’t shifted. “Are you settled, Rina?”
Rina shifts on her feet, stretches out her neck and wriggles briefly, as if testing the feel of her body. “I think so, yes.”
Steve spends the rest of the day drawing her with the stubs of pencil Ma brings him. He wonders what color she’d be, if he could see colors right - he sees some, but he knows from Bucky that what he thinks things are aren’t their real colors. Still, his Rina is fierce and lovely, and she’s a wolf, she’s strong enough to survive in the wild and defend her pack.
People with wolf daemons are fighters, or so a book on daemon forms tells Steve, when he’s up and about again and can pick books for himself. (Bucky likes adventures, likes speculative fiction and fantasy, and Steve likes them too but it’s not all he likes.) So he might be sick and weak, but anyone who looks at Rina should know there’s more to them than that.
They should. But as proud as Steve is of his Rina, most people don’t see it.
That’s the color of Rina’s fur, Steve has always been told. He knows the smell and taste of cinnamon - he’s only had it a few times but it’s one of his favorite flavors - but he doesn’t quite understand how that can be a color.
Or he doesn’t until he stumbles out of Dr. Erskine’s machine, dizzy with the aftermath of pain, with the first full breaths he’s ever taken in his life. The world is a riot of color - bright, astonishing color - but there’s familiar rough-silk fur under his fingers and Steve looks down. Alastrina’s coat is a rich warm shade - a rich warm red , he knows, and this is red, this is one kind of red - but her fur feels the same, it smells the same when he drops down and buries his face in it, relearning how to breathe.
Or, no. It smells the same but stronger, as if his nose is better, and he thinks it must be. She is smaller against him than she’s ever been, but her form is still solid, familiar, the only thing that can never, ever leave him, whatever might happen.
But within minutes, everything turns to chaos, and Steve is watching Dr. Erskine die, watching his spotted nutcracker daemon flutter her wings once and then fade away with him, and gold dust clings to Rina’s fur as they chase after the killer.
Later, he doesn’t remember much of it. But he remembers the feel of the car door in his hands, and he remembers the way the killer’s eyes had been a startling blue even in death, how his shrike daemon had shrieked before vanishing. Just pieces, but they linger.
Most of all, he remembers Rina leaning against his side, his anchor as always.
On the USO tour, no one seems to quite know what to make of Rina. “At least she’s a red color, that’ll go with the theme,” mutters the director. Still, he knows they’d prefer if she was something more obviously patriotic, like a bald eagle.
The comics give his fictional self a bald eagle anyway. Steve grits his teeth at the sight and Rina growls low, but there’s nothing they can do about it, really. Just like there’s nothing they can do about how Rina’s to stay in amongst the dancing girls’ daemons, and a trained eagle has a perch on the side of the stage, but when Steve lifts his arm just so it flies to him.
Steve wonders if it really fools anyone, but he guesses that no one really cares, as long as it looks right.
(Later, with the field movies, there’s nothing they can do about Rina being a wolf, and the comics start to claim his daemon can shift between an eagle and a wolf, one to show loyal patriotism and one to help him track Nazis. Steve doesn’t like this much either, but again, what can he do?)
All he and Rina can do is be themselves, when they’re finally sent overseas. Yes, it’s as part of the damned dancing monkey show, and Steve doesn’t blame the real soldiers who boo him off the stage, not for a minute. Peggy finds him there, sketching dancing monkeys down the side of his sketchpad page, and even here in this dreary rainy place, his fingers itch to draw her instead.
He wants oil pastels or colored pencils, something to capture the rich shades of brown in her hair and her dark eyes, the precise shadings of the makeup she wears. He wants to capture the black against orange of her tiger daemon’s fur, the yellow-amber-gold of his eyes.
(One thing about the downtime on the USO tours - now that Steve sees color, he’s devoted to learning color, and he drinks them in greedily, he wants to capture them all.)
He wants things he’s never really wanted before, even deep in his misery he looks at her and he -
But then, she tells him just who he was appearing before. She tells him the fate of the others. She tells him about Bucky .
Steve looks at Rina, and he knows that their days of being a dancing monkey are over.
Wolf daemons are a sign of a fighter, this is true. Warriors throughout history had them, but - and this is key - it was always the ones who were excellent leaders too. The ones who knew how to inspire loyalty, usually because they gave back what they received.
Wolves, in short, are pack animals.
Until now, Steve and Rina’s pack, as it were, was Bucky and Arlinna, and they quietly like to think of Peggy and Gawain as being part of it too. Now, though, now they have the Commandos. And Rina’s pack is as motley a crew as Steve’s team, but then, isn’t that the idea? He’s got people from different branches of the service, he’s got two people who aren’t even U.S. military, for God’s sake, and they’re a team because they fit.
The usual rules don’t apply, and Steve likes that. It seems fitting, somehow, and he tries not to question it too much.
And then comes the train.
There’s nothing right, when Arlinna is not at Rina’s side, smaller but no less fierce a fighter. Peggy’s words to Steve, the bulk of her Gawain curled around Rina in that bombed-out pub, these things help, a little. Just enough for Steve to get his focus back, just enough for him to know what he needs to do.
Deep down, he’s always understood that this was going to come down to him and Red Skull, to Rina and the nameless, rabid looking hellhound of a daemon that, so Erskine said, was once a wolf as beautiful as Rina, her fur sleek where now it’s ragged, matted and shaggy. Maybe Schmidt has always been a little bit right, that they are echoes of each other. They are what the other could have been, in another circumstance.
And in the end, the Cube Schmidt was so obsessed with destroys him, but in a way it destroys Steve too, because the only way to save New York from the missiles on the plane is to sink the plane into Arctic ice.
The world turns white and blue as the plane sinks into icy waves, all Steve knows is Peggy’s voice in his ear and Alastrina’s head in his lap -
And then there’s nothing at all.
The game on the radio is the first clue. But it takes Steve a minute to recognize the commentary as being from that particular game, even though it sounds immediately familiar. The second clue, the one that makes him sure of the first, is the way everything looks when he opens his eyes.
The hospital room is… faded, that’s the only word for it. Steve’s world, even in the dreariest places, has been vivid color since he stepped out of the pod, and this is wrong.
But nothing is so wrong as the fact that for a dizzying, horrifying moment, he doesn’t know where Rina is. He doesn’t care that the woman who comes in doesn’t look right any more than this room does, he doesn’t care about the game, he doesn’t even care that he should be dead because he should have been able to get drunk after Bucky died, should be doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
“Rina!” he calls, and she bursts out of something - did they put her in a box? - and leaps onto the bed where Steve can wrap his arms around her. She’s the same, same smell, same shape, same color…
But the tips of her ears and tail have turned gold, and her muzzle is dusted with the same color.
Steve knows what gold dust means, when it comes to daemons. Which is when it all comes rushing back in. The wrongness in the room, in the woman in front of him, her meerkat daemon looking suddenly nervous on her shoulder.
And a game he’d been to before going to war, playing on the radio like it’s live.
They run again, and it’s as natural as it was the day they chased after the man who killed Erskine, like they’re made to run like this. He’s dimly aware of the building he breaks out into, but most of it is a blur as he runs.
And then he’s outside, and then, and then -
Back before, when colors were muted dingy things and never quite what they should be, Steve had daydreamed about color. He’d wanted to know the exact shades of Rina’s fur, the colors of the sky, the right pencil to color in Peggy’s hair or Bucky’s eyes on a sketch. He’d never imagined there might be too much color, not when he wanted it so badly. And there never was, not even in the chaos of a fight, when everything else was too much, somehow color never was.
But now he stops dead in the middle of the street, eyes darting from one sign to another, some of them lit up, all of them rioting with color, and he can’t, he doesn’t know how -
Cars cut him off, black and blocky, windows colored too dark to see inside. And then there’s a man striding toward him, dark-skinned and solidly built, his head shaved and an eyepatch covering one eye. His black coat flares out behind him and soaring over his head is a large eagle, grey-black winged and and backed with white legs and belly, speckled with the same grey-black. He’s never seen an eagle quite so large.
“At ease, soldier,” the man says, and Steve can tell at once he’s a man like Phillips, a person used to command, a man who expects his orders to be followed. “Look, I'm sorry about that little show back there, but… We thought it best to break it to you slowly.”
“Break what?” But somehow, looking around, seeing license plates that say New York on them, seeing people with shirts that say I Love NYC - he knows. He doesn’t understand, but he knows . The woman hadn’t been lying about one thing, this is New York City. And that means...
“You've been asleep, Cap. For almost seventy years.”
He knows, but hearing it, hearing how very long it’s been - Seventy years. Almost everyone he knows will be dead. If this is New York City, it must be Manhattan, it, he’s pretty certain it’s Times Square. If Times Square looks like this, what’s happened to Brooklyn? To London, even, to -
“You gonna be okay?” the man’s voice breaks into his thoughts.
How is he supposed to answer that?
“Yeah. Yeah, just... I had a date.” His fingers curl in Alastrina’s ruff, and his daemon presses close against his legs. Now and always, she is the only solid thing in his world. Now, more than ever, she is the only familiar thing.