Bucky had seen Steve’s daemon take a lot of shapes over the years. A weasel, many times, draped over Steve’s neck and shoulders in an effort to stop him coughing. A wolf, jumping into a fight, with all her fur bristling and yellow eyes open wide. A dolphin, once, when they’d gone swimming in the river, her snout one big grin.
But Thea was different, this time. Bucky felt that; Liana felt that too and crept into his pocket as a mouse, just her round eyes and quivering nose peeking out.
“What did you do,” Bucky said, grabbing Steve’s upper arm and pulling him closer. “You’re bleeding.”
“It’s no big deal,” Steve said, wiping his face with a dirty sleeve. “Got into an argument with a couple of guys.”
“With your face?” Bucky snorted. But he let Steve go, and watched Thea lick the rest of Steve’s face clean with a pink tongue. Once she was finished, she sat back on her haunches, a bit anxiously, and watched Steve make a face.
“Are you going to keep doing that now?” Steve complained, although his hand went to grasp the fur at Thea’s neck. “Can’t say I’m looking forward to it.”
“As long as you keep getting into fights.” Thea blew in Steve’s face, long whiskers quivering. “Maybe you should stop doing that.”
Bucky knew just as Thea cuffed Steve over the head with one paw. “You’ve settled,” he burst out. Steve and Thea both turned to look at him, and Bucky colored a little.
“I mean,” he aimed at Steve, “she’s settled, hasn’t she?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Steve said. He shoved his hand in his pocket and looked at her — nearly coming up to Steve’s shoulder, with fur the color of honey. “What do you think?”
Liana wriggled her way out of Bucky’s pocket then, fluttering over to Thea as a finch. “What did it feel like? Did it hurt? Do you like it?” She was circling Thea’s head, twittering loudly. Thea followed her with just her large eyes, the rest of her very still.
Bucky burst into laughter. “Give her some time to answer, Lia.” He looked Thea over himself, whistling at her teeth when she gave a large yawn. “She looks fantastic.”
“You think so?” Steve grinned, though his shoulders were still slumped a little.
“‘Course,” Bucky said. “It’s Thea. She’s always fantastic.”
And then Liana was zooming around Bucky, demanding he call her fantastic, too, and Bucky stroked her feathers and called her all sorts of names, while wondering what it meant that Steve wasn’t happy.
Bucky thought he might’ve figured it out, that night. “Steve,” Bucky said, quietly over Liana’s sleep-heavy breaths, “don’t you like how Thea’s settled?”
“No, I do, I do,” Steve said quickly, his arms going to wrap around Thea’s neck. “It’s just.” He stroked her head, his hand looking very delicate in between her rounded ears. “She’s so big,” he said finally, in a rush. “And I don’t know — I mean, I’m — well, it’s supposed to show what you’re like, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” Bucky said. “Don’t seem so wrong to me.”
Steve threw his pillow at him. “Don’t be a jerk.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Bucky said, frowning. He smoothed the pillow and handed it over, thinking. “Sure, you’re — you know, you on the outside—”
“Geez, thanks, Buck—”
“—but you’re kind of big on the inside, if you get my meaning.” Bucky finished, his hands wide to try to catch some of what he was trying to say. And it was true: there’d always been something about Steve that seemed bigger, truer than he looked. Thea had just caught up to him, that’s all.
“Oh,” Steve said, in a soft sort of voice. Bucky could almost hear him mulling that over. “Thanks,” he said again, but this time his fingers were buried in Thea’s ruff and his voice had less of a strain in it.
Bucky had nearly fallen asleep when he had the thought, and it was so horrible he clutched Liana to his chest at once. The thought had woken her up, too, because she didn’t even squeak in protest.
“So,” he said, trying to sound casual. “I guess you won’t really need me anymore, with Thea to get you out of trouble.”
There was a silence, and Bucky was half-hoping Steve was already asleep when Steve’s pillow came out of the darkness to hit him again. “You’re an idiot,” Steve said; he almost sounded as fierce as he did when he was about to get into a fight. “I like you for way more ‘n that, Buck.”
The pillow smelled strongly of Steve and Liana burrowed into it, wiggling with delight. Bucky grinned, and he found that it was very easy to settle under the covers and say, “I’m keeping this, now.”
Bucky’s grin only got bigger at the sound of Steve’s resigned sigh. And the last thing he remembered was Thea’s voice, saying calmly, “Besides, it’d take more than me to keep Steve out of trouble.”
Bucky didn’t sign up for the army, but he found he was good at it. All those years of following Steve, and fighting — he guessed that those were paying off, finally. It was easy for him to stay quiet and still, until he had to pull the trigger, and he rarely missed.
The army didn’t care that Liana was unsettled — in fact, they loved it. In training, they were always telling you, use your daemons. The guy with a porcupine daemon couldn’t do much — Liana was infinite, could perch on Bucky’s shoulder as a hawk and then spring away as a tiger.
They made him a sergeant.
Then they sent him off to Italy, and he managed to get himself captured.
They took one look at Liana and sent him off to some laboratory, where they put him in one cage and Liana in another, at the far end of the room. Liana shifted, and shifted, and shifted, crying all the while, while Bucky shouted at them all until he went hoarse, but the scientist — a small, round man — only smiled coldly and went on making notes. His daemon flickered its tongue at Liana, curled around the man’s neck.
Liana was too far. They’d tested it as children, how far they could go — but in the end they’d always run back to each other, panting and grabbing for each other. This was harder, like a slow, long tear, and Bucky ached and ached in his chest while he saw Lia get duller and smaller in her cage, day after day.
“I’m so tired,” Lia said, one night when the scientist had locked up and gone. “It hurts to change, Buck, it’s like knives. Everything hurts.”
Bucky thrust his fingers through the gaps of the cage, forehead pressing into the bars. “Pick a shape,” he said. “One that hurts the least. And then you never have to change again, I promise.”
He saw the dark shape of Liana shiver, and he felt her change, painfully slow — and then she thumped to the floor and let out a piercing shriek, and he knew, this was it.
“That’s it, Lia,” he said. He made himself breathe through the pain. “Good girl.”
After that, things got a bit fuzzy. The scientist was angry in the morning, and they took Liana away.
Bucky could feel her struggling in the next room, but he couldn’t see her. He scrabbled uselessly against the bars of his cage and shouted, because maybe it would hurt less if she could hear his voice — he shouted, and twisted his fingers into the bars until they bled, and the only thing he knew was the cries that Lia was making through the brick wall.
Then she went silent, and Bucky wasn’t aware of anything at all, until Steve.
When Steve came, he was changed, tall and broad — but Thea was exactly as Bucky remembered her, and she was carrying something, feathers sticking out of her mouth. The thing was fluttering a little, and as Bucky tried to sit up Thea lay the thing very carefully on his chest.
“Lia,” he whispered, and sunk both of his hands into her feathers. He straightened her wings and stroked the crest of her head, his hands trembling. Liana clicked her beak weakly and gripped his chest with her talons, and Bucky didn’t even care that it hurt.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky whispered, “I’ll never let them take you again—I’ll fight them, I’ll kill them first—”
And Lia ran her beak down the side of Bucky’s cheek and she was talking, too — “I love you, I love you — never again, Buck, we’ll fight them together—”
When they finally looked up, Steve had taken off a glove and was stroking Thea’s back, and Thea was nearly wrapped around Steve, frantically licking at his ear.
“Ready to go?” Steve said, blinking fast.
“Yeah,” Bucky said, while Lia flapped up to perch on his shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
The man introduced himself as Senator Brandt, but Bucky had been watching Steve, and there was a slight edge to Steve’s smile and a shift in Thea’s posture that had Bucky disliking the man at once.
“Listen,” Brandt said, “this is a great opportunity, don’t you see? Captain America isn’t just a person, he’s a symbol.”
“Your symbol, you mean,” Bucky said. Liana’s wings were tucked to her side, but she was glaring at the senator’s feet, and he hid a vicious smile at the way the man’s rabbity daemon quivered. “So you can make up something and what, lie to the country?”
“Sergeant — Barnes,” Brandt said. “I’ve been in politics for longer than you’ve been alive. Men may win battles, but ideas win wars.”
“Bucky,” Steve said, and tugged at his sleeve. “It’s just a photo.”
Bucky ran his fingers through his hair. He wasn’t sure what bothered him so much about the idea. “What does Thea think?” he tried. “She okay with slinking off to the side, pretending you’re not hers while you and Lia pose for the cameras?”
There was a low rumble from Thea’s throat that made everyone freeze. “It’s not the best,” she admitted. Bucky realized, surprised, that she was speaking directly to him. “But — if it helps the war, we should do it.” She let out a sigh after she’d finished, making her whiskers tremble.
Bucky looked at Liana. “I guess we’re outnumbered,” he said, stroking her back. “What do you think, Lia? Can you be Captain America’s daemon?”
Lia fluttered off his shoulder, sending bits of down flying into the air. She settled on the table instead, and even though she was still so close to him, Bucky felt a little bereft. “I’m a good actor,” she said, puffing up her breast feathers. “It’s just for a little while, Buck. And it’s Steve.”
So Bucky said, “All right,” resignedly, because it was Steve. And maybe the senator was right: maybe this would help the war, and didn’t he owe it to everyone to try, at least?
He watched Liana hop slowly over, where Steve was offering a gloved fist. It didn’t feel any different when she grabbed onto the leather, but the sight of Steve straightening up, with Lia sitting proudly, sent something dark through his chest anyway.
“Great,” Brandt said, smiling. “I’ll tell the photographer right away.”
It wasn’t just a photo.
The first photo op went fine. Steve stood tall, head up and his uniform bright and shining, and Liana perched on his fist with her wings flared wide. Even Bucky could admit that it made an inspiring picture.
But the pictures kept happening, and later there were video cameras, too: machines being shoved in their faces while Steve was looking down at a map, trying to get ready for battle.
Steve and Lia went along with it well. Steve kept his gloves on, and took to brushing at Lia’s tail feathers in a gesture Bucky could almost believe was absent-minded; Lia delicately pecked at stray strands of Steve’s hair, ducking her head to murmur in his ear. Steve’s face would smooth out in laughter then, as if they shared some private joke.
“Do you want to stop?” Liana always asked when she came back to him. “I don’t want to do it if you don’t like it.”
“Naw,” he said with a shrug. “It’s a good thing you’re doing. And, y’know. I guess you’re doing all right.”
“All right?” she puffed up, her head butting into his ear. “I’m fantastic, I’m the best. Say it, say it.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said, cracking a grin at last. He ran a hand over her wings, checking her flight feathers. “Can you imagine? There are probably little kids out there, right now, who want their daemons to be like you.”
Lia made a deeply contented sound in her throat, and settled down to roost. Bucky stayed awake a while longer, trying to convince himself that yeah, things were really okay.
Whenever Steve was playing Captain America, Thea would drift closer to Bucky, her tail swishing so wildly it nearly touched his knee. Bucky figured it was part of their cover — with Liana gone to Steve’s side, he’d look a bit conspicuous.
But then Thea started talking to him.
“He’s sorry, you know,” she said once. “He didn’t think it’d be like this.”
“What’s he sorry for?” Bucky said, more harshly than he’d meant to. “It’s just a dumb publicity thing, isn’t it? Lia’s thrilled about it, playing Captain America’s daemon — it’s fine, it’s great.”
Thea didn’t say anything for a moment, busily washing her face with a large paw. And then just as Bucky thought that conversation was over, she added, “I don’t like it, either.”
“You don’t?” Bucky said, startled. Bucky hadn’t known Thea to dislike anything — she was always calm and unruffled, at least in his eyes.
“I miss Steve,” she said a bit wistfully. “He used to be mine, all the time.”
“Mm,” Bucky nodded. Maybe that was behind the strange feeling Bucky kept getting whenever he saw Steve and Liana together. “Now he’s America’s, I guess.”
Steve must have finished whatever he’d been doing by then, because Bucky could see Liana swooping over. Thea bounded up, but she very deliberately brushed against Bucky’s legs as she went. He could feel the heat of her bleeding through fabric, and that made him a bit breathless.
“What?” Lia said as she landed on his shoulder. “You look surprised.”
“Nothing,” Bucky managed. “Good to have you back.”
Lia brushed her crest against his cheek affectionately, but Bucky was still thinking about Thea’s warmth against his skin.
“Grab my hand!” Steve said. His glove had been torn off at some point, and his fingers looked thin and very white in the cold.
Bucky reached for him—
—and the rail gave a creak—
Liana had been hovering by the tracks — she shrieked, and dived past Steve — a buzz went through Bucky’s body, even as he was falling, and he saw the shock on Steve’s face, the way he jerked back his hand like he’d been electrified—
And then there was nothing beneath his feet. Something sharp prickled at his shoulders as Liana grasped at him with her talons and flapped, desperately, but she was just one bird, whose body didn’t match the size of her heart.
“It’s okay,” he said, stroking one of her scaly feet, “it’s okay, we’ll go out together, at least—”
His voice couldn’t have carried above the wind, but he felt Lia’s beak stroking through his hair.
They weren’t dead.
Bucky moved, and his left shoulder exploded in sparks of pain. He bit his tongue so he wouldn’t scream and felt blood running over his tongue.
“Bucky.” There were feathers brushing at his face. “Bucky.”
“Lia,” he said, and opened his eyes. It sent pain lancing through his head but he breathed through it and blinked away the tears at the corner of his vision.
“You’re hurt — what do we do, Buck, oh no—”
“Steve,” he said muzzily. “You’ve gotta get to Steve.”
“But, but — it’s so far, and you’re — Bucky, we can’t.”
“Liana,” he said. He tried to struggle up but his arm wasn’t responding and shifting his head made him heave. He let his head fall back and swallowed another wince. “We’ve gotta do it, yeah? It’ll hurt—” he still remembered what it’d been like, to be experimented on like that— “but you’re a brave one, aren’t you? If anyone can do it, it’s you.”
Lia had been fluttering and shifting on her feet, but she straightened up and stood very still, now. “You think so?” she said, and her voice wavered.
“Yeah.” He tried for a reassuring grin. “You’re the best America’s got, aren’t you?”
He could see the bravado slipping back into her. “Okay,” she said, shaking out her wings. “I’ll do it, I can do it — just stay alive, Buck, do that for me—”
“Of course.” He gritted his teeth and raised a hand so he could stroke the soft feathers of her breast. She let out a last croon, and then she was flapping hard, climbing up, up—
A new pain sliced into his chest, something even deeper than the hurt in his arm. Above, he saw Lia slowing.
“You can’t stop,” he said. It came out in a whisper, but he saw her wings sweeping wide and hard again. “I’m sorry — I’m so sorry — but you’ve gotta—you’ve gotta get to Steve—”
He felt, rather than heard, Liana’s cries as she kept going, but she did, somehow — the distance between them increased, bit by bit, and Bucky curled himself around the ache that was digging itself into his chest, and waited.