"That's interesting," Steve said, "Bucky's chrysalis was doing that too."
"Hm?" Tony blinked up from his Starktab and glanced at the cocoon next to him on the end table of the couch.
(It was, in fact, a cocoon. 'Chrysalis' was the metamorphosis—supposedly—going on inside the cocoon, but 'chrysalis' sounded prettier than 'cocoon', so everyone used it. It did give a sense of something actually happening in there, though, which Tony appreciated.)
The cocoon was about the size of Tony's hand from wrist to fingertips, and the sad gray color of old trees. Tony had recently replaced the padded pickle jar with a lighter, less breakable plastic container, but otherwise it looked exactly the same as it had for the last 44 years. "What's it supposed to be doing?"
"That. Look," Steve said completely unhelpfully, pointing. His Tsum lifted zirself onto zir back legs, waving zir tiny forepaws like Tony needed encouragement. "Can't you see that?"
"See what?" Tony said, getting a bit annoyed. He put his tablet aside and leaned closer, finally just taking off the translucent lid. The cocoon lay on the neatly-folded baby blanket that had once been Tony's and probably hadn't been washed since his mom gave it to him. Blue blanket, dull gray cocoon and nothing else, as always.
Or not. "Wait…is it…." Was that a spec of white? Tony gasped, then looked over his shoulder at Steve, close to panic. "Do you see white? Is it petrifying?" He whipped his gaze back to the container before Steve could answer, lifting it closer to his eyes. Oh, God, that was white. It was too late. His Tsum had died, and—
"Hey, no! Tony, it's all right. Zie's not dead! Zie's not dead, okay?" Steve got out of the armchair and came over to him. "Zie's alive. Zie's still alive. I wanted you to see that zie's moving." He pointed again, this time with his large finger hovering right over the whitish spot. "Look."
"Zie is?" Tony leaned so close his nose nearly touched the cocoon, his eyes fixed on the white spot. There was almost…maybe….
Yes. That was definitely something: a tiny little lump forming and smoothing out again.
"Oh, that." Tony let out a deep breath of relief, then carefully put the container down again. He dragged his trembling fingertips along the cocoon's skin, smiling wistfully at the familiar smoothness. It was room temperature, just like always. "Zie does that sometimes. Never means anything." He shrugged. "'Haven't seen it in at least 20 years, though, so that part's kind of neat." It had been a couple days before his parents died, like some kind of awful prophecy. "But, yeah. Once in a while zie moves like zie's going to come out, but nothing happens."
"Oh," Steve said, crestfallen. "I'm sorry."
His Tsum made a soft little 'meep' from zir perch on Steve's shoulder. Zir barely-existent little face looked sad.
"Eh. It is what it is." Tony shrugged again; he'd become an expert at feigning a nonchalance about it he didn't actually feel. (He'd tried. God knew he'd tried to stop caring. It never stuck.) He gave the cocoon a last, soft pat, then put the lid back on. He sat, picked up his tablet, put his ankle on his knee and then gave Steve a big smile that wasn't entirely fake. "I'm used to it. It's been that way my whole life. I stopped crying over my agoraphobic Tsum decades ago."
"It appeared like that?" Steve asked, dumbfounded. He sat down on the couch near Tony, instead of reclaiming his chair. His eyes were huge, like Tony had just confessed to something inconceivably awful. Well, maybe it was if you weren't used to it. "You mean, it's always been in a chrysalis? You never…."
Saw it? Petted it? Played with it? Loved it? Tony shook his head, nothing real in his smile now at all. "Nope." And boy, was he sick and tired of getting the same reaction all the time. He was extremely aware of what freaks he and his Tsum were, thanks.
He patted the container's lid, thinking suddenly it'd been a bad idea to swap out the jar. The rectangle was too much like a coffin. "Good old Dad always said it proved something was wrong with me, if I couldn't even make a 'magic, fuzzy space worm work right'."
"He really said that?" Steve looked even more shocked, which was nice of him. "But, the Tsums…unless you hurt them…how could he think this was your fault?"
Tony leaned back and stretched his arms along the top of the couch, leaving his tablet in his lap. Steve's Tsum was on his shoulder, so it was easy to reach out and scratch the top of zir head. He quirked something nearly like a grin when zie chirped happily and headbutted his finger. At least when it came to his dad he'd perfected pretending he didn't care.
"Well, I guess since he pretty much figured everything was my fault, no sense in not adding this to the list, right?" Tony winced internally at how bitter he sounded, then did his best to make his voice light, even added a chuckle for verisimilitude. "Makes sense though, right? I mean, who the hell would want me as their Soulmate anyway?"
Steve let out a breath, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I swear, sometimes I really wish I could go back in time and punch your dad in the kisser. He was a different man, then. I don't think I would've liked who he became."
Tony snorted. "Yeah, well. Join the club."
"I'm sorry," Steve said.
"Thanks," Tony said, his attention was on Steve's Tsum, though, as zie made the laborious journey from Steve's shoulder to the couch.
Zie nearly got to Steve's elbow before zir legs got tangled in his shirt and zie tumbled the rest of the way to the cushions. Zie rolled upright, gave a quick shake, then waddled the rest of the way to Tony. Zie lifted up on zir hind legs and began climbing Tony's jeans.
Tony scooped the Tsum gently into his lap, then obligingly petted zir belly when zie rolled over. Zie was still mostly white, though parts of zir downy fur were slowly changing into a mix of gray, black and red. There were two tiny gray and red bumps on zir back that Tony joked were an extra set of arms. Steve was sure they were wings.
Tony enjoyed teasing Steve about his Soulmate being an airplane, but given their line of work, it was likely Steve's Soulmate was some kind of winged vigilante. Certainly the Tsum's normally adorably featureless dot eyes now looked kind of like they were wearing adorable goggles.
Steve smiled fondly at the little creature while Tony petted zir. There was a saying: Don't trust anyone your Tsum doesn't like. It was good advice in general, but it wasn't quite accurate. Yes, Tsums were friendly to pretty much everyone—and if they shunned someone you should run like hell—but that didn't mean they liked everyone. Tony knew what an honor it was, that Steve's Tsum had asked to be held the first time they'd met.
Hell, Tony knew what an honor it was that he'd been the first one Steve brought his newly-hatched Tsum to, after zie had finally come out of zir cocoon.
"I thought your Tsum was in chrysalis because of what happened in Afghanistan," Steve said quietly. "After you'd been tortured, and what happened to your heart." He lifted his head, giving Tony the full earnestness of his stare. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed."
"Don't worry about it." Tony rubbed his chest with his free hand, absently feeling out the scars where the reactor had been. It still hurt sometimes when he breathed deeply, but he'd take that over the constant worry and pain. Steve's Tsum was still on zir back, nibbling on his finger; it felt like a minnow kissing him. "Almost everyone assumes that. A Tsum going into chrysalis because of their human's trauma makes a hell of a lot more sense than a Tsum appearing in a cocoon but never emerging or petrifying." He rubbed the Tsum's belly and zie chirped again, stretching zir legs like a tiny, stubby cat. "I used to hope it meant I'd really get a Soulmate someday." He grimaced. "That's probably selfish, worrying about me when it's my Tsum who never got to hatch."
Steve's hand landed warm and solid on Tony's shoulder. "It's not selfish to want that, Tony. We all want to find our Soulmate. I know what it's like to grow up thinking there was no one in the world for you."
"Yeah." Tony swallowed, then forced himself to look up. "Howard told me how you and Bucky's Tsums were still undifferentiated when he met you."
Steve nodded. "That's right, they were." He smirked a little at his Tsum, reaching out to pet zir belly too. "And after 26 years of my Tsum being plain white, I'd just assumed I didn't have a Soulmate. I mean, nobody else I'd ever met still had a white Tsum after that many years. Most of them had gone into chrysalis in high school."
"Smaller world, back then," Tony said. "These days it's more common to be in your 20s or older."
"I guess. Maybe the War made a difference too. I don't know. But, the only other person I'd ever met with an undifferentiated Tsum was Bucky." Steve grinned, chucking his Tsum under zir chin. Zie wrapped zir arms around his finger like zie was trying to give him a hug. "Our Tsums adored each other, right from the beginning. Hell, the whole reason we met was 'cause Bucky's Tsum jumped out of his belt pouch to get to mine. A couple bigger boys had grabbed zir, and thought it was funny to hold zir out of my reach. Bucky kicked their asses and gave zir back to me. Then we spent the next hour trying to go home without our Tsums screaming blue murder about it." His laugh was layered with old pain. "They loved each of us, too. My Tsum treated Bucky the way zie treated Ma: like we were all family."
"That must've been nice," Tony said. He couldn't remember ever seeing his parents' Tsums together, though he didn't think they'd fought. Then again, his parents weren't Soulmates. Howard had sneered at anyone who 'let their love life be governed by barely-sentient sausages dumped here by aliens', which meant he sneered at pretty much everyone.
Howard's Tsum had been in a tiny corporal's SSR uniform, with a pale face and plain brown hair. Tony had always figured it wasn't Howard railing against destiny so much as wanting somebody prettier.
Maria's Soulmate had died in the war before she could meet him. Her Tsum had a smart gray suit and glasses, with a tiny yellow star on zir chest. Tony never saw zir much. Tony thought zie would have liked him, but his mother wouldn't let him touch zir. It took decades for Tony to realize she didn't really think he'd hurt zir; just that she couldn't bear the risk of losing her only link to a man she could have loved.
"It was nice," Steve said. He didn't mention how sad it was for Tony that he'd never experienced it, which was kind of him. Steve watched as his Tsum crawled onto his palm. "Maybe it was stupid, but it'd been…comforting, knowing my best friend was in the same boat as me. We'd joked about growing old and Soulmate-less together. How we'd be buried next to each other, with our Tsums' petrified cocoons."
Tony cleared his throat. "I'm sorry," he said, meaning it. Tony had flown into the desert with Yinsens' wailing Tsum down the front of his shirt, because that was the only place he could keep zir while wearing the armor. Zie had been a sweet-looking thing, with dark brown hair and a dress with bright patterns. Zie was in chrysalis by the time he crashed, and had turned to stone by the time Rhodey found him. It wasn't that he'd imagined him and Yinsen growing old together or anything, but….
Yeah. Tony could understand.
(He kept Yinsen's Tsum next to his parents'. Their Tsums' petrified cocoons had been in the ashes of the car.)
"Thanks," Steve said softly. His Tsum mewled a little and nuzzled his palm. "Bucky never took his Tsum on missions, unless he had no choice about it. He couldn't stand the idea of zir getting hurt. He asked Jim Morita to take care of zir before we ziplined onto Zola's train. His Tsum had always been a reckless little thing, getting into everything and breaking stuff. Zie liked riding around on Bucky's shoulder, and was always peeking out of his belt pouch to see what was going on. Bucky was really worried zie would get out of his belt pouch and be blown away in the wind. Later I always wondered if he knew…." Steve swallowed. "If he knew he wouldn't be coming home from the war. Maybe he figured somehow that if his Tsum wasn't with him when…when it happened, zie'd be all right." Steve sniffed, swallowed a couple more times. It was painfully obvious how hard he was trying not to lose it. "Zie…zie was in chrysalis the next time I saw zir, after. I spent two days just staring at it, barely daring to breathe in case I missed it turning to stone. But it never did."
"I know," Tony said, then had to clear his throat. He put his hand on Steve's shoulder, then slid it around to the back of Steve's neck. "Dad, ah, hypothesized it must have been because the body would've frozen fairly quickly. Which doesn't really make any sense," he added, because it felt ghoulish and insensitive to be talking about Bucky's corpse at all.
"Yeah. Howard told me that too. I almost hit him." Steve's smirk had no mirth in it. "Peggy thought that maybe his Tsum didn't want to leave mine alone, so zie stayed, in the only way zie could."
"That's…." Tony floundered for something hopeful. "Really sweet." It was also really, really sad, but Tony would rather bite his tongue off than say it.
Steve nodded. "At the time I was grateful that I had…anything left of him at all, even if his Tsum was still mostly gone. I kept the chrysalis in the same pouch with my Tsum, because zie refused to be away from zir. Not even for a minute." Steve gently patted the breast pocket of his polo shirt, where the cloth bulged from holding the cocoon. "Zie would likely be wrapped around it right now, if you weren't here." He gave Tony another of those miserably humorless smirks. "The agents who found me had no idea which of the two frozen chrysalises was actually mine. But my Tsum never hatched, even after I was awake." He petted his Tsum, running three fingers along zir back, over and over again. "After that, I started wondering if it had something to do with us. Me and Bucky, I mean. Like, the same kind of quirk that had ended up with our Tsums never differentiating also meant they stayed in chrysalis forever."
"And then zie came out," Tony said.
"Yeah." Steve smiled, and it finally looked real again. "I couldn't believe it. I honestly thought I was dreaming, or it was a prank. Or someone accidentally switched the chrysalis at the hospital."
"Any idea when you're going to meet them?" Tony petted the top of Steve's Tsum's head. He couldn't not; it was like trying to ignore a kitten. He didn't bother admonishing himself for the small flare of jealousy, that Steve's Tsum had differentiated and Tony's never would. Tony felt jealous of everyone for that, but he'd never begrudged them their happiness. "Normally they emerge differentiated about a month before you meet your Soulmate, but I don't think you count as 'normal'." He grinned, making sure Steve could tell he was just ribbing him, trying to lighten the mood.
Steve chuckled. "Fair enough. All I can tell you is that my Tsum's been in chrysalis for nearly three years. This guy had better be spectacular."
"Well, you're probably going to meet him in Washington," Tony said philosophically, "you might want to lower the bar a bit."
Steve laughed and shook his head. "I visit you all the time, Tony. He could easily be a New Yorker."
Tony's grin spread to wicked. "Better make that bar real low, then. Especially if he's from Brooklyn."
"Asshole," Steve said fondly, still laughing, but then his expression slipped back into something serious and sad. "This is the first time that Bucky's Tsum moved in zir cocoon. I don't know what it means." He hooked his thumb under his chin with his fingers splayed over his mouth, staring at Tony's plastic-boxed chrysalis as if it could lend him insight via serendipity. But whatever it might have told him just made Steve wince and drop his hand. "I'm worried," he admitted. "What if zie comes out differentiated? What do I do then? Or…Oh, my God." Steve jerked upright, as if something horrible had just occurred to him. "What if Bucky's Tsum comes out looking for him? What if it's because Bucky has a Soulmate somewhere? He's dead! He can't…." Steve swallowed, and his bright blue eyes went red-rimmed and liquid. "Oh, God. What if it's because he has a Soulmate? What do I do?"
"Hey, hey, it's all right. It's all right, Cap. It's gonna be fine." Tony moved closer so he could pull Steve into a sort of sideways hug, making sure not to squish the chrysalis in his pocket, or tumble the Tsum off Steve's thigh. "First of all, zie's probably not going to even come out, okay? I mean, mine's done that before, right? Like, at least a dozen times. It's never meant anything. And if…if it does, then…I'll take zir. Zie can live with me. I'll look after zir." he said, ignoring how badly the impulsive offer made his heart clench. Steve had just told him how his and Bucky's Tsums were BFFs, back in the day; why would Bucky's newly-hatched magic space worm want Tony instead? Hell, why would Steve even trust Tony enough to look after Bucky's Tsum, when he'd never looked after his own?
"Actually, never mind. That was stupid," Tony said quickly, feeling like an idiot. "Forget everything I said after 'it's going to be fine'. I know you wouldn't want me to look after Bucky's Tsum." He tried to laugh and hit somewhere around a rattled squeak. "I mean, my own Tsum didn't even want me, so—"
"Tony," Steve said, and Tony shut up so fast his teeth clicked. Steve pulled back so they could see each other's face. "Bucky's Tsum and mine were family, just like Bucky and me. And that chrysalis is all I have left of him. I couldn't bear—" He swallowed again, wiped his eyes. "I can't give zir to anyone else. I'm sorry. But if it wasn't…." He took a breath, then managed a smile that was only a little wet. "If it wasn't for that…I've seen you with my Tsum. I know how well you'd look after Bucky's."
"Oh," Tony said softly, blinking. "Well, thank you."
"You're welcome. It's true," Steve said.
As if to prove to Tony that Steve meant it, Steve's Tsum rolled zirself off Steve's thigh back onto the couch, then climbed Tony's jeans until Tony picked zir up again. Zie headbutted his fingers, then leaned expressively towards the chrysalis inside it's plastic box.
"You want to say 'hello', Goggles?" Tony asked zir. His voice was a little thick now as well. He obligingly put the Tsum on the end table and opened the plastic container, then helped zir climb inside. Zir chirped happily and wrapped zirself around the chrysalis.
Tony's Tsum moved beneath the soft armor of zir cocoon, like zie was trying to hug zir back.
The Asset called the creatures 'Soft Pills', because he had to take pills often enough that he recognized the shape. He knew there was another name for them, something like 'Sum', but no one ever told him. Or maybe they had and he just couldn't remember.
He liked the soft pills. They were warm and nice to touch and made pleasant noises. He didn't have one of his own, but that was reasonable. He didn't have a soul, so how could he have a Soulmate? The little creatures appeared for humans; not weapons. But sometimes, if he'd done very, very well on a mission, one of his Handlers would let him hold their pill for a little while. Not too long, because the Asset was erratic and unpredictable and might hurt it, but for a minute or two, sometimes. Once he'd had the soft pill cupped against his chest for five whole minutes. It had fallen asleep in his metal palm and the Asset hadn't dared to move.
The soft pill had mewled in distress and clung to the Asset's fingers when his Handler had tried to take it away. The Asset was terrified that he'd hurt it somehow, despite how hard he'd tried to be gentle. The Handler had been very angry, even though he'd never said what the Asset had done wrong.
But his Handler had kept the soft pill away from him after that, so the Asset must have hurt it. He hadn't meant to, but that was the only thing weapons did.
He wanted his own soft pill very badly. He thought he would be less lonely, if he had a warm little oval in a belt pouch or a special pocket, like all the people he sometimes went on missions with did.
He'd heard them talking about them: how sometimes it was better to leave the…Sums?...at home, to keep them safe, but most of them didn't have anyone to leave their pills with. The Asset couldn't remember very much, but he was almost sure he'd never heard anyone with Hydra talk about their Soulmate, or even say if they'd met them.
Hydra didn't encourage attachments. Shaping the century was much more important.
It was vital work he was doing, he knew that. Right now he was leading his team (Russian mercenaries: sloppy, and undisciplined, but useful misdirection) on a mission to intercept the Target and her allies, and neutralize her and Agent Sitwell. Neutralizing all four of them was unnecessary but encouraged. He needed to go over the plan in his head again, to make sure there would be no mistakes.
But instead he was stiff with tension in the back of the truck, trying to keep himself from snatching Yegorovich's soft pill right out of his hands.
Yegorovich was holding it to his face and cooing to it, making little kissy noises and petting it under its chin. That was fine. But the asshole was keeping it in his goddamn pants' pocket when he was about to go into battle. And what the fuck did he think would happen to it if he got shot in the leg? What kinda' fucking meathead would put his Tsum in danger like that? At the very least the critter needed to be behind Kevlar, or better yet left in the fucking vehicle where zie'd be safe.
They couldn't be killed, but they could be hurt, even if the wounds disappeared almost instantly. And they could sure as hell be scared outta their minds. Which was why he'd given his to Morita before the mission, 'cause he sure as fuck didn't want zir to have to be near Zola again—
The Asset sucked in a breath, hand automatically going to one of his belt pouches. It held ammunition; that was all. But…but there should have been something…something else….
Soft and warm and his, with a smooth white body and two little black dot eyes and a thin pencil-line smile—
"Hey. Winter Soldier. You on the moon?" Timurovich said in Russian, snapping his fingers in front of the Asset's face.
The Asset grabbed his wrist with his metal hand, squeezed just enough to make Timurovich grunt in pain. "Don't touch me." He tightened his fingers just a bit before he let go.
Timurovich snatched his hand back, then cradled his wrist to his chest. His comrades laughed at him. "I just wanted to tell you that we're almost there. Sir," he said, with an appropriate amount of deference and no little fear.
"Good." The Asset stood up smoothly and stalked to the back. His plan would be to ride on the outside of the truck and then jump to the roof of the target's car.
He kept surreptitiously checking that one ammunition pouch. He had no idea why.
Steve woke up in an overturned bus to the metallic sizzle of gunfire and Tsums screaming.
There was no time to check on them. He had to get out of the bus before he got shot, protect Natasha from the metal-armed juggernaut on the bridge. Steve just hoped Sam would be all right.
Sam was his Soulmate. Steve would have gladly died, as long as Sam made it out of this okay.
Steve had kept both his and Bucky's Tsum with him, each in a reinforced inside pocket of his jacket. Bucky would've had a fit about that—You're puttin' 'em on your chest? Seriously? Why don't you just paint a target on your ridiculous, barn-sized fucking torso and call it a day?—but he'd left most of his gear at his apartment when he'd had to clear out fast after Fury's assassination.
And, well, he had his shield.
It still put him at a disadvantage. Steve had his Tsum and Bucky's chrysalis to protect, and the Winter Soldier had no such problem. Either his Tsum was in a belt pouch or he'd done the bright thing and left zir behind. Steve had to fight defensively after he lost his shield, reduced to blocking and deflecting rather than straight-up attack. And it really didn't help that the Tsums wouldn't stop moving. He could feel them squirming against his chest like newborn kittens, trying to undo the zipper from the inside, or chew through the cloth. It was like they wanted to be in danger. Steve couldn't understand it, but it was distracting as hell.
Bucky's Tsum was even worse than Steve's own: thrashing around like a tiny, fuzzy tornado and wailing—
Oh. Oh no.
Bucky's Tsum was hatching. No, zie was already out and flailing in Steve's pocket. Steve had no idea when it had happened: While he was unconscious? In the car? Earlier than that? But there was no elation or relief here. Just shock, horrified confusion, and bone-deep terror.
Bucky was dead. His poor Tsum should have petrified decades ago. Why had zie hatched now?
Steve didn't have time to think about it. He certainly had no time to sooth either of the little creatures. He barely had time to breathe.
And then the cloth of his right pocket ripped while he was lying on the pavement, sucking wind after the Soldier grabbed his throat and threw him over a car. Steve barely heard the noise over his ragged breathing, didn't know what it meant until he rolled out of the way of the Soldier's fist and Bucky's Tsum tumbled onto the pavement.
Steve was already on his feet, whirling to face the next attack when he saw zir: a pale pink and ivory-yellow Tsum with chick-wet fur. The gray, membrane-like remains of a cocoon were scattered behind zir. One piece was still stuck to zir back foot.
The Tsum screamed zir tiny head off and lurched towards the Winter Soldier, like zie was going to fight him on Steve's behalf.
"No!" Steve dove for zir, but the Soldier was faster.
The Soldier snatched up the Tsum and shot to his feet, backpedaling with zir clutched against his chest. His eyes above that horrendous mask were no longer dark with indifferent hatred. They were wild and frightened, though Steve had no idea why or of what.
"Please," Steve said. He risked a step forward, palms raised. "Please, don't hurt zir. Give zir back. I won't fight you. Just, give zir back." Steve's Tsum was ripping at his pocket now too, as desperate as Steve felt.
The Soldier shook his head. He took another step back. Steve had the abrupt image of a very young child with a favorite toy.
It was absurd, except…the Soldier didn't seem anything like the legendary assassin now, or even the man Steve had fought just moments earlier. He was holding the pale yellow and pink Tsum in his right hand, his left cupped over zir like armor. The Tsum's head was poking out.
Steve expected zir to be struggling and crying, trying to throw zirself to the concrete or bite the Soldier's fingers. But zie wasn't. Zie was chirping contentedly and nuzzling the Soldier's chest. Like zie was with zir human. Home.
But, zir human was Bucky. And Bucky was…Bucky was….
"Bucky?" Steve said.
"Who the hell is Bucky?" It was though the mask, but Steve knew that voice. He knew that voice as well as his own. Bucky's scream still reverberated through his nightmares.
It was impossible. But that was Bucky. Bucky was right there, masked and wild-eyed and working with Hydra, and clutching his Tsum like a terrified child. And he didn't know his name. He didn't recognize Steve and he didn't know his own name.
"Bucky. Oh, my God." Steve took another step forward, forcing himself to move slowly when all he wanted to do was pull Bucky into his arms. He put his hand over his Tsum, keeping the screaming creature in his pocket. "I thought you were dead! How…. What have they done to you?"
"I know you," Bucky said. He looked down at the Tsum in his hands, then back at Steve. "Is this…is this mine?"
"Yes. Yes zie is." Steve nodded. "That's your Tsum, Buck. Mine's in my pocket. Zie's kind of going nuts trying to see you. My name is Steve Rogers," he went on in a rush, terribly afraid Bucky would run before he got the words out. "We're friends. You've known me your whole life. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes, but you prefer Bucky."
Bucky's eyes went distant. Steve wished more than anything he could see his face, but he thought he could hear Bucky repeating, "James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky," to himself, over and over again. He lifted his head, staring at Steve with eyes full of uncertainty and fear. "But, I don't have a name. I don't have a soul. I'm a weapon. I—"
Sam swooped in and kicked Bucky in the head before Steve could even yell a warning. Bucky was thrown to the pavement. The Tsum shrieked as zie flew out of Bucky's hands.
"Bucky!" But he sprang to his feet before Steve could run to him, swaying for a moment before he bent to scoop his Tsum of the ground. He clutched zir protectively to his chest, looking in panic between Sam and Steve.
Natasha's rocket barely missed a direct hit, but Bucky staggered with the impact when the car behind him exploded. He bolted, disappearing into the smoke still holding his Tsum.
Steve tried to go after him, but the S.T.R.I.K.E. team showed up first.
Steve called Tony from Washington, about a week after his visit to Avengers Tower, while he was on his way to some kind of hush-hush, top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. mission with Natasha. He had tears in his voice, and his usual eloquence had abandoned him so completely that for a couple minutes Tony thought something terrible had happened.
It was Natasha who finally grabbed the phone and explained that Steve had met his Soulmate, while Steve laughed tearfully in the background. Steve was able to calm down enough to describe how his Tsum had climbed screaming out of his pants pocket, then nearly chewed a hole in his shirt before Steve figured out he was supposed to stop running and let the handsome, gasping man chasing him catch up.
Sam Wilson's Tsum was a fuzzy, oval-shaped Captain America, replete with a cute little shield on zir back. And it turned out Sam really did have wings. He'd been a Pararescue airman, only he didn't jump out of planes, he took off from them. Cool.
Steve told Tony about Sam and how awesome Sam was and how much Steve loved Sam already and how he'd never thought he'd ever get this and how happy he was all the way to the Triskelon. And right before he hung up he thanked Tony for being such a good friend, and hoped that someday he'd find his Soulmate too.
Tony was happy for Steve. He was. Tony loved Steve. He was one of Tony's best friends, and Tony could count all the friends he had in the world on one hand. Maybe two, if he included the Avengers. But they mostly only got together for emergencies.
So of course Tony was happy for his friend. But he couldn't help the envy that felt like a fathomless black pit in his soul. Steve had been born with a Tsum he got to pet and hold and love and keep in his pocket. And now he had a Soulmate, too. And Tony had a gray chrysalis that moved sometimes but had never, ever, turned into anything.
He could never begrudge Steve his happiness. But yeah, he was envious. And it hurt. It really, fucking hurt.
Unlike Steve, Tony had never carried his Tsum's cocoon around with him. Most of the time it stayed in its container on his bedside table, like a really depressing good luck charm. Sometimes he took it with him around the tower when he felt lonely. He'd talk to it, as if the Tsum inside could actually hear him.
Tony didn't feel much like talking now, but he went to his bedroom to get the cocoon anyway. He couldn't even say why. Loneliness? Well, he was definitely lonely as hell right now. Optimism? Nope, hadn't felt that about his Tsum in a long time. Hope? See optimism. Sadness? Disappointment? Resignation? Check, check, check.
He was a little surprised that the plastic box wasn't where he left it. Because he definitely hadn't left it on the floor.
Tony blinked at it, then blinked again, then walked over to the container, wondering how it got there. Maybe he'd put it too close to the edge so it tipped over or something. Or he'd had another nightmare and accidentally knocked it off the table and never noticed.
He put the container on the bed and opened it. The cocoons were soft, but tough, and as impervious to permanent harm as the Tsums themselves. Hopefully a fall like that hadn't hurt the chrysalis—
It was moving. The cocoon was moving. Not just the tiny, sad little twitches like Tony had seen every so often for his entire life, but violent rocking from side to side. And his Tsum was making effortful peeping noises, like a chick trying to hatch from a shell.
Hatching. His Tsum was hatching. After nearly 44 fucking years his Tsum was coming out.
Tony didn't know how he ended up kneeling on the floor, leaning over the plastic container still on his rumpled sheets. He didn't know he'd started crying until the first thick sob shocked him when it burst out of his throat.
Tony didn't help—you weren't supposed to help—so he knelt there weeping, his tears soaking into the neatly-folded baby blanket. He watched the cocoon rock back and forth as the Tsum tore zir way out.
It took about two hours. Every so often Tony would stroke the cocoon, murmuring encouragement. He stopped crying eventually, wiped his face messily with his hands so he wouldn't miss anything. The Tsum's little left front leg punched out first. It was silver, with a red star reasonably close to where a shoulder would be.
The head came next: pale, pale pink face and light beige hair, with some kind of light gray mask-thing over its nose and mouth. Then a medium gray upper body and darker gray, fuzzy rear. Zie hadn't finished differentiating yet, but even then zie didn't look like anyone Tony had ever met. It was obvious this Tsum would be like Steve's, though: whoever's Tony's soulmate was, zie would be somebody like Tony.
Someone like me, he thought. A Soulmate. He had a Tsum and a Soulmate, after thinking—after being certain—he'd never get either of them. Ever. That he wasn't worthy of it; he hadn't been born right.
But…maybe he was.
Maybe he was.
Tony gently picked up the Tsum, cradling zir in his hands. Zie was wet and tufty, with zir pale brown hair sticking up in all directions. Tony held zir against his chest, to keep zir warm. "Welcome, little one," he croaked. "I'm really glad to meet you." His laugh sounded more like a sob, but he didn't care. He was so happy.
He didn't call Rhodey or Pepper. He wanted to, but…this was too new. It felt precarious, like something out of a fairytale where if you told the secret the magic would disappear. He'd never bothered buying a belt pouch he wouldn't use, so he carried his Tsum around on his shoulder, one hand holding zir in place. The Tsum seemed to enjoy it; zie held on to his collar and cooed. Tony couldn't stop touching zir. A big part of him was terrified that this wasn't real, and as soon as he put zir down he'd suddenly have nothing, not even a cocoon.
But he wanted to tell Steve. He was pretty sure Steve would understand.
Unfortunately, he couldn't tell Steve, because he couldn't get a hold of him. The young, bored-sounding agent he spoke to could at least confirm Steve and Natasha were back from the mission, but Steve's phone kept ringing to voicemail.
That was…a little weird. Normally Steve called Tony as soon as he got back from running S.H.I.E.L.D. errands. He usually spent a few days at the tower and he always called first, to confirm he'd be welcome. Steve didn't feel comfortable just showing up, no matter how often Tony said it'd be fine.
Steve didn't really do weird. He also didn't just flake on people. That was more Tony's thing.
Natasha's phone was just about untraceable—Tony had designed it that way—but Steve had a regular StarkPhone that J.A.R.V.I.S. could track. The A.I. found it at the Triskelon, which would've been less…curious…if it wasn't still there two hours later, and then stopped broadcasting a signal entirely. Then Tony had J.A.R.V.I.S. trace the tracker in Steve's suit, and it was at the Triskelon too.
Steve didn't leave his stuff there. And sure, maybe he was at a meeting. A very long meeting. But, fine. Yes, Tony was worried. Something was wrong, he was sure of it.
He had J.A.R.V.I.S. hack S.H.I.E.L.D., and found out that 'Wrong' reached hilarious levels of understatement. Fury was dead, Hill was missing, and Steve and Nat were goddamn fugitives and what the actual fuck?
He was about to suit up when J.A.R.V.I.S. strongly suggested he check out the live newsfeed out of Washington. And then things got worse.
Tony watched it in his workshop, with his hand over his Tsum like a parent protecting their kid from inappropriate programming. It was mostly crappy cellphone footage: grainy and in and out of focus, with the camera shimmying like it'd been filmed by an inebriated drone pilot.
But it was still clear enough to see the brown-haired guy fighting Steve, with the black mask and the leather. And the arm.
The instant Steve's nemesis appeared, Tony's Tsum shrieked in his ear and bounced so excitedly zie tumbled off Tony's shoulder. Tony caught zir as zie was sliding down his chest, then had to cage zir in his hands while zie wriggled and wailed and tried to throw zirself through the screen.
"Stop it, stop it! I'm trying to see!" Naturally the frantic Tsum ignored him. "J.A.R.V.I.S., can you zoom in, please? Something's happening."
Something was happening other than his Soulmate trying to kill Captain America, he meant. His Soulmate had just tossed Steve over a car, and they were both on the pavement. Steve managed to roll away before that terrible hand staved in his skull, but he left a small, pale squirming oval behind.
"Oh, no," Tony breathed. That was a Tsum. Steve had somehow managed to drop his Tsum right next to the guy trying to kill him. Only the sickest of fucks would ever hurt a Tsum, no matter how fast they healed. But Steve's would-be assassin didn't look like morality was a big concern.
J.A.R.V.I.S. had enhanced the audio so Tony could hear when Steve shouted 'No!' and lost the scramble for the Tsum, which ended up in the assassin's hands. Tony's Tsum bounced and warbled while Tony clutched zir to his heart and held his breath, waiting for something terrible to happen.
But nothing did. The assassin just stood there, holding the Tsum like…like Tony was holding his. Like he knew exactly how precious and vulnerable zie was. Like the Tsum was the assassin's own.
And then Steve said, Bucky? his voice full of shock and amazement. Tony's Tsum went berserk, shrieking and bouncing, slapping and nibbling at Tony's fingers in zir excitement.
The other man said Who the hell is Bucky? and Tony's Tsum wailed, but the assassin—Bucky. That was Bucky. What the hell?—looked so scared. Tony could see the fear in every rigid line of his body as Bucky backed away from Steve, still clutching his Tsum. He asked if zie was his, like he didn't remember.
He didn't recognize Steve. He didn't recognize his own Tsum or his name. And all Tony could do was hold his inconsolable Tsum and watch as Sam and Natasha unknowingly attacked his Soulmate, when it was so obvious Bucky needed to be saved, not stopped.
Tony cried out at the kick, cried out again when the explosion nearly knocked Bucky back off his feet. He desperately had J.A.R.V.I.S. switch from feed to feed to feed when Bucky ran, but then all the cameras were focused on Steve, Natasha and Sam as they were arrested by S.H.I.E.L.D.
But that couldn't have been S.H.I.E.L.D.. S.H.I.E.L.D. were a bunch of self-righteous, officious assholes, but even Fury wouldn't condone anything Tony had just seen. Then he remembered how Fury and Hill weren't calling the shots anymore. So who was? What the hell was going on?
"J.A.R.V.I.S." Tony had to clear his throat; his voice was shaking. His Tsum was howling desolately in Tony's trembling hands. "Drop everything. Your priorities are finding Team Steve and…and Bucky Barnes. And helping me figure out what the fuck is going on."
"Of course, Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. "I presume you'd like me to continue my flagging of all suspicious S.H.I.E.L.D. files?"
"Yeah." Tony nodded distantly, automatically petting his miserable Tsum. "It's okay. It's okay. We're going to find them, all right? We'll find all of them. It's going to be fine."
His Tsum curled into a little ball, still wailing like zie didn't believe it. Tony couldn't blame zir a bit.
They couldn't find them. It was like Steve, Sam and Natasha had dropped off the face of the planet. For a while Tony even wondered if they were dead, buried in three shallow graves somewhere, with the petrified cocoons of their Tsums.
It was a terrible thought, but not even as terrible as what else J.A.R.V.I.S. found, namely that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been a great Hydra cover story since about 1947. And how ever since they'd been working towards their master plan to murder 20 million people in the name of truth, justice and freedom. Tony wasn't surprised he was on the list, along with all the other Avengers. He guessed Fury had been a preemptive strike. Maybe Hill had been too.
He'd redesigned the engines for those helicarriers. That really chapped his ass.
The anger was a great motivation and an even better way to ignore the churning anxiety that he'd never see his friends again. He had J.A.R.V.I.S. divert most of his attention from information gathering to disabling the fucking helicarrier's controls. They needed a more permanent solution—herding them all off the roof of a very tall building didn't seem unreasonable—but he was just one person, and Tony had learned the very, very, extremely hard way that lone-wolfing it led to a lot of angst and injuries. And he didn't think even the Iron Man suit would offer much protection against one of the helicarriers' guns.
He did his best not to think about his Soulmate at all: where was he? What was happening to him? How did he survive and why didn't he look any older than Steve?
Tony put a call out to the remaining Avengers. If Steve, Natasha and Sam were dead, at least they'd sure as fuck be avenged.
"Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. Something in his perfectly-modulated tone made Tony's already churning guts ice over completely. "I believe I may have found files pertaining to Sergeant James Barnes."
Tony glanced at his Tsum. Zie had finally snuffled zirself to sleep after keening in misery for most of the afternoon and well into the night. Tony had made zir a nest in a bundle of clean rags and zie was currently dead to the world, with zir little paws twitching languidly like zie was dreaming about climbing. Tony swallowed, then nodded. "Good work, J. Bring it."
Oh, God, he regretted saying that.
He finally forced himself to stop watching the digitized film reels after the third time he'd run to the bathroom to puke. He hadn't been able to contain his horror enough to avoid waking up his Tsum, either. And now zie was freaking the hell out.
So instead of torturing himself by learning exactly what Hydra had done to turn his Soulmate from a strong, brave, fundamentally decent man to a terrified, obedient wreck of an assassin, Tony sat on his couch and held his Tsum. And he wept for a man he'd never met, and for the life that had been stolen from both of them.
"How do I fix this?" he whispered. He didn't know if he was asking J.A.R.V.I.S. or his Tsum. "How do I bring him back from that? How do I save him?"
"J.A.R.V.I.S.?" Tony asked a moment later, because the A.I. hadn't responded. "J?" He stood, heartbeat careening from despair to concern. "J.A.R.V.I.S., what's going on?"
"Forgive me, Sir. But I believe the Tower has been infiltrated," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. His voice was too slow, like an old tape. "There is a virus infecting my systems. Initiating quarantine."
"Oh, fuck," Tony whispered. He hadn't designed the arrows Clint had used to take out the helicarrier during the Avengers' first mission, but he'd designed the new firewalls to protect from them. Firewalls Hydra could have reverse-engineered, that were similar enough to what J.A.R.V.I.S. used to make him vulnerable. His A.I. could overcome it, but it'd take a few minutes.
Minutes Tony obviously didn't have. Looked like Project Insight was starting early.
He was about to summon his suit when he realized there was no place in it to safely keep a Tsum; zie'd be squished against Tony's body like a grape. So he was standing there trying to decide what to do when the power went out, trapping the suit in the basement. A second later the emergency power kicked in and there was Bucky Barnes.
Tony's Tsum went wild again, just like zie had watching the news. Tony's was still holding zir, and he had to wrap his fingers around zir to keep zir from launching zirself across the room at him.
Bucky looked at zir, then his eyes widened. He took a step closer, as if he couldn't help himself, then seemed to realize he was moving and went still.
"It's okay, Bucky," Tony said. "I know you won't hurt me."
Bucky didn't say anything. He didn't look like he knew he wouldn't hurt Tony either. He backed up again, though he couldn't keep his gaze from jumping between Tony and Tony's Tsum. He didn't look nearly as imposing up close as he had in the lousy video. His brown hair was limp and dirty, framing a pale face with a scruffy beard and deep, haunted shadows under his eyes. He wore a nondescript baseball cap, and a long-sleeved jacket and gloves. He'd replaced the gray pants with worn jeans, though he still had the same boots and belt. Everything else looked like he'd stolen it out of a dumpster or a donation bin.
He was…Beautiful was the wrong word. Sergeant Barnes had been beautiful, in the pictures Tony had seen. A tragic, brutal contrast to what Hydra had done to him. This Bucky looked too grim for that; too scared and uncertain and appallingly young. But he was undeniably handsome, and he might be beautiful again one day, if he could ever feel happiness again.
He didn't look like he was capable of hurting anyone.
"My name's Tony," Tony said, keeping his voice gentle and calm, in direct contrast to the juddering of his heart. "I'm your Soulmate, that's why my Tsum looks like you. I'm glad you came here. I really wanted to meet you."
Bucky didn't answer that either, but he put his right hand on one of his belt pouches. He moved purposely slowly, trying not to frighten. He unbuckled it and lifted the cover, and a Tsum immediately scrambled out and fell into his hand. Zie was a light pastel, fuzzy-sausage version of Iron Man.
Tony gasped. "No, it's okay," he said quickly, because Bucky had frozen at the noise. "I just…." Tony swallowed again. "That's me. Your Tsum, I mean. Zie looks like me in the suit."
Bucky held the tiny creature in his right hand, holding his left underneath zir like he was cupping water. His left arm moved a little strangely, Tony thought. He wondered if it was damaged. Bucky didn't come closer, but he held up his Tsum. Zie warbled and strained towards Tony like a baby wanting to be held. "This is you?" Bucky's voice didn't sound like he used it much.
"Yeah," Tony rasped, swallowing. He had to keep careful hold of his Tsum so zie wouldn't fall in zir eagerness to get to the extra-large human version of zirself. Tony nodded. "Yeah. That's me. I'm Iron Man."
Bucky's eyes went distant, like he was figuring something out. "Stark. Tony E. Only child of Howard and Maria Stark. Former CEO of Stark Industries. A.K.A. Iron Man. Avenger. Project Insight termination list, highest priority." He blinked, like he wasn't sure how he'd known all that. "I'm not going to hurt you." He stepped closer, moving hesitantly. He was still cupping his Tsum in his hands, and zie was still calling and reaching for Tony. Tony's Tsum was thrashing like a teeny shark. "I'm not going to hurt you," Bucky repeated quietly. He glanced at his Tsum. "Steve Rogers said this was mine. Weapons don't have souls, but…he said this was mine."
Tony blinked at him, then again a moment later because that still made no sense. "Yeah. That's 'cause they're weapons. Living things have souls. Not weapons. So that's why…." He stopped, chest constricting as he realized what Bucky meant. "You're talking about yourself, aren't you?"
"Yes," Bucky said. "I didn't have a soft pill, before Steve Rogers gave one to me. I don't have a soul."
'Soft pill' obviously meant the Tsum, which was cute and tragic and horrific, because Tony had seen pills being shoved down Bucky's throat. "You do have a soul. You didn't have a Tsum because…because Steve kept zir for you. You were captured before he could give zir back." That wasn't the truth, but it was near enough when Tony wasn't sure Bucky would remember Morita or being part of the Commandos. He came closer, aching to touch his Soulmate, offer what comfort he could. "All living things have souls. Humans are just lucky enough to get Soulmates too. Look. My Tsum looks like you…well, you in your gear, though you don't have to wear that anymore. But, zie looks like you. Because you're my Soulmate. Because you have a soul." He held his Tsum close enough that zie and Bucky's could touch.
Tony's Tsum shrieked and threw zirself onto Bucky's, hugging zir with all four of zir little arms. They chirruped and cooed at each other, nuzzling and nibbling and purring like happy kittens.
Tony smiled at them. "See? They already love each other. Because they're family."
Bucky looked down at the two joyous Tsums. His cap and hair hid his face. "I think…I think there was…another…?" He let out a breath.
"It's okay," Tony said softly. "You'll get it back. Hydra can't hurt you anymore. You'll remember." He risked putting his hand on Bucky's arm. The right one, in case the broken left hurt.
Bucky sucked in a breath and jerked his head up, but he didn't pull away from Tony's gentle touch. He looked at Tony's hand on his arm, then at Tony, like he didn't understand what the gesture meant.
"You're safe here, I promise," Tony said. He ran his palm up and down Bucky's arm. "I'm not going to hurt you. No one is going to hurt you anymore."
Bucky started trembling. The Tsums went from nuzzling each other to nuzzling at his hands instead. They gripped his fingers, cooing and warbling at him like they wanted to help.
Bucky's eyes welled with tears. "I don't want to be hurt anymore. I don't want to be a weapon. I want a soul. I don't…." He started crying, wracked with it. His tears dropped like rain onto the Tsums. Bucky's started climbing his jacket, chirping frantically. Tony's wrapped zir arms around Bucky's thumb. "I don't remember who I am."
Tony hugged Bucky too, being careful of the Tsums. "I promise, no one is going to hurt you, and you don't have to be a weapon anymore. And you have a soul, Bucky. You have a soul, and a Soulmate, and I swear I will keep you safe and help you get back every memory Hydra stole from you."
Bucky hugged Tony back, still holding Tony's Tsum in one hand. Bucky's Iron Man Tsum headbutted Bucky's neck. "What if I never remember?"
"Then you'll still be my Soulmate," Tony said. "And I'll love you no matter what."
Bucky lifted his head. "You love me?" He looked like he wasn't sure what that meant.
"I will," Tony said, absolutely sure of it. The Tsums chirped and warbled in agreement.
And that was when J.A.R.V.I.S. cut in, to happily report that he'd defeated the virus. He'd also found Steve, Natasha and Sam, because they'd just brought down Hydra and exposed all of Hydra's files on the web.
Hydra had tried to launch the helicarriers, but there'd been a glitch in the system. They'd never gotten off the ground.
All the Avengers' Tsums loved Bucky.
He had no idea why, not that he was complaining. He was remembering more and more stuff all the time, and he was almost sure he didn't used to be especially popular with other people's Tsums. All the Howlie's Tsums crawled on the guys or demanded pets and rides indiscriminately, and tussled and cuddled each other and slept in little piles like kittens. That kind of thing was normal among any group of friends, though. And Steve's and Bucky's Tsums loved each other so much that Steve and Bucky had been mistaken for Soulmates more than once.
But, nowadays it was like he couldn't be around any of the Avengers without their Tsums whooping and hollering and trying to get to him. Bucky would end up with an armful of the little things more often than not. Tony probably had hundreds of pictures of Bucky with an anxious smile, trying to keep five or six Tsums from falling out of his arms.
Tony's favorite picture came from a get-together during one of Thor's and Jane's visits, when Rhodey and Pepper were at the tower as well. Bucky fell asleep on the couch. In the picture he had his arms crossed over his chest, and 12 Tsums nestled all over his chest and abdomen.
So, yeah. The Tsums thought Bucky was pretty swell. Tony said it was just 'cause they knew how amazing he was, but Tony was always saying things like that. It was sweet, even though it wasn't true. Bucky was a recovering murderer; Tony was the amazing one, as far as Bucky was concerned.
Natasha was sure it was because Bucky was so good at being still, mute his presence to almost nothing. She said Tsums found that peaceful, so they wanted to be with him.
Bucky didn't want that to be the reason. He'd learned to be still like that when he was a sniper during the war, and then Hydra had honed it to an instinct. He didn't want the Tsums to like him for something he'd never asked for and couldn't always stop.
Sam said it was just 'cause he looked like a Tsum. Or that smelled like one, or was as excitable as one, or made the same ridiculous noises, depending on the day. Sam thought he was hilarious.
Sam was an asshole. No wonder he and Steve were crazy about each other.
Steve thought it was 'cause the Tsums recognized a good soul, so they felt happy around him. But that was stupid, 'cause if that were true the Tsums should've flocked to Steve or Tony. Or hell, any of the Avengers. And they didn't. And it was pretty much the same as what Tony had told Bucky anyway. Just in different words.
Clint figured the Tsums knew that Bucky hadn't had a Tsum for decades, so they were trying to make up for lost time. They were all kind of being his part-time Tsum at once.
That was even sort of reasonable. About as reasonable as Clint ever got.
Bruce's hypothesis was that Tsums were like cats, who purred at a frequency that helped heal injuries and mend bones. Cats seemed to know when humans needed healing, Bruce said. So maybe the Tsums knew Bucky needed healing too, and they all wanted to help.
That made the most sense. Except that Bucky had been feeling…not healed, or anything. Not yet. But, better. A lot better. Like, he'd never be the man he was, but he was getting to like the man he was becoming.
Tony was helping a lot with that. So were Steve and the Tsums. It was kind of hard to hate yourself when you were being deluged with love all the time. Not that Bucky didn't try to all the same, some days. Some days were still bad, and he still had nights where he woke up screaming. A lot fewer now than before, but it happened.
But he was better, and he kept getting better. And yet he couldn't walk into a room and not end up getting swamped by other people's Tsums.
"You know," Jane said, the same evening he woke up covered in snoring space worms, "maybe you're thinking about this the wrong way. Does it really matter why they all flock to you, if you're happy? They obviously want you to be happy, so…why not just be happy?"
Well, Bucky had his Soulmate, and his best friend, and a team he loved and a life and purpose he could be proud of. And a little sausage-shaped Iron Man who slept on his pillow and whooped when Bucky ran fast, and who loved getting into everything. He would never get back the time Hydra stole from him, but he had more than he'd ever dared hope for; even back before he'd forgotten what hope meant.
So, yeah. Bucky could be happy. He already was.