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Where They'll Never Find Me

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Tony’s daemon changed its shape often when he was young, as was only expected. It was a butterfly or a goat or an octopus or a songbird or a tiger or any of dozens of other animals.

Unlike most, however, Duani didn’t settle as Tony reached adolescence. She continued to cycle through shapes according to whatever rules daemons lived by. Polar bear, falcon, bobcat, python... The longest she ever held a shape was twenty-three days.

“It just proves that he’s a complex soul,” Maria said loyally.

“It proves he’s broken,” Howard muttered.

Tony was nineteen when his parents were killed in a car accident, and Duani changed her shape almost hourly in the weeks that followed, almost always something small that could crawl under Tony’s collar to remain in contact with him constantly -- a chipmunk, a ladybug, a garter snake, a hummingbird.

And then she changed into a two-headed turtle.

And stayed that way.

Maria would have said, It’s because you’re twice as smart as anyone else. But Maria was gone.

“Damned unsettling,” was what Obie said, his fox darting behind him to avoid Duani’s slow advance. He took a step back. “Why’s she keep trying to touch me?”

“I think she only lives in one of the heads,” Tony said. He couldn’t blame Obie for being unnerved; daemons almost never touched anyone beyond their bonded. “The other head wants someone, too, and it’s trying to find them. Sort of.” It wasn't quite that simple, but Duani’s explanation hadn't really made any sense. 

“That’s even worse,” Obie grumbled. “You need to keep her out of sight when the press is around. Or anyone else.”

Tony had known his friendship with Rhodey was for life when Rhodey had willingly petted the soft skin of Duani’s necks when she insisted, and his huge raven had let Duani’s left head -- the one that seemed to be searching for someone -- nip curiously at her feathers and returned it with a gentle tap of her beak on Duani’s shell.

Years later, Tony would wish Duani had ever managed to touch Obie, or even Obie’s daemon -- then she might have been able to warn him about Obie’s duplicity. As it was, all he could do was be grateful that she had been with him in the caves. He wasn’t sure he’d have survived that ordeal without her steady presence. And while she had investigated Yinsen with his elegant snake, she'd stayed far away from the Ten Rings and their daemons. Some things, it seemed, were self-evident. It was just as well; Raza and his bunch had been unnerved by the way Duani kept watch, never closing both sets of eyes at the same time, so they were never able to surprise Tony while he was asleep.

The Avengers, too, were a bit disturbed by Duani, though they managed to suppress their reactions, mostly, to pat her gingerly on the shell when she seemed especially needy.

And then Bucky came back.

He spent his first days with the Avengers hiding in his room, emerging only when everyone else was asleep to forage for food. He wouldn’t talk, even to Steve, and he flinched away from even the most casual contact.

Tony woke late one night to the realization that Duani wasn’t in the bed, nestled on the pillow next to his head or at his side with his hand curled protectively over her shell.

He could still feel her, content and warm, though, so he didn’t panic. He threw off his blankets and followed the thread of their connection to--

--the common kitchen, where Bucky was sitting on the floor, wedged into a narrow space between the table and the wall. Duani was on his lap, and he was carefully petting her heads and her shell.

He looked up warily as Tony came into the room, and went still when Tony circled the table to look at them directly. Duani lifted a head to bite Bucky’s finger, chiding him for stopping.

“It’s okay,” Tony said. “She likes it.”

Bucky looked back down at Duani, who looked more than pleased with herself. If she’d been a cat, she would be purring, Tony was certain. Bucky... didn’t quite smile, but his expression relaxed a little, his mouth loosening as if he was thinking about a smile, anyway.

It was progress.

It became a pattern -- Duani would disappear, and Tony would find her with Bucky. Tony started to stick around after a while, and because it was Tony, he’d talk. He didn’t expect any answers -- Bucky seemed content enough to just listen and pet Duani.

Once in a while, Tony would manage to tease out an actual smile.

Occasionally, he’d say something -- he never knew what -- that flipped a switch, and Bucky would disappear so suddenly it was like watching a ghost fade. But a few days later the cycle would start again.

Tony had managed both a smile and a soundless little quake of a chuckle, so it was a particularly good night, when Bucky suddenly spoke. “Mine was a turtle, too,” he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper, hoarse from disuse.

Tony actually hadn’t known that. That certainly put a new light on the way Steve had stared at Duani when he’d seen her the first time, more unsettled than most by -- Tony had thought -- the two heads.

And then Tony’s brain caught up to what he’d heard. “Was?

“They. Took her.” Bucky choked on it, closed his eyes against the pain, but he didn’t disappear.

Tony swallowed hard against nausea and a rising panic at even the thought of losing Duani. Even the Ten Rings, in all their ham-fisted cruelty, had never threatened that. There were lines that you did not cross. Not if you wanted to still be human. “Christ,” he breathed. “So all that time, you were... alone?”

Bucky stroked a finger down Duali’s left neck, and then her right. “Not the whole time. Not the Russians. Not until they transferred me here. To him.”

Pierce, Tony guessed, having gotten as much of the story as he could out of Steve and Natasha. “Fuck. I didn’t think you could... do that. Not and keep your own daemon.”

Bucky shook his head. “He didn’t do it. He made someone else do it. There was someone I was supposed to kill, and for some reason, I balked. Don’t remember why. So he ordered... I don’t. Don’t remember much of that. Just flashes. The other daemon. Trying to stop it, I think. And then pain, a lot of pain. And then nothing, really, until the next time I came out of the cold.”

Tony wasn’t surprised -- the very rare accounts of daemon-loss were all in agreement that the loss invariably resulted in some sort of madness, often violent and usually self-destructive. “I’m sorry.” The words were vastly inadequate. How did you sympathize with someone for losing part of their soul?

“She helps,” Bucky said, cupping his hand over Duani’s shell. “It feels less... empty.”

“Well, she doesn’t seem to mind sharing,” Tony said. He didn’t mind, he meant. Duani made her own choices, as she always had.

Bucky seemed to understand. His head bent, his eyes closing even as his lips curved, just a bit. “Thank you.”

When they met again on sleepless nights, Bucky’s fingers traced the patterns of Duani’s shell or smoothed the skin that stretched between her two necks, and he began to talk. Haltingly, at first, and then with more confidence. More life.

The first time Tony laid a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, unthinking, and only belatedly realized that Bucky hadn’t flinched from the contact, he looked up in surprise, only to find Bucky’s eyes had closed and tears were leaking from under those long lashes.

“Shit, are you--” Tony started to pull away, only to be stopped when Bucky’s hand curled lightly around his wrist, holding him in place.

“I’m fine,” Bucky said. “It’s good.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “It’s good. You feel like... Like her.” He opened his eyes again, but they were fastened on Duani.

“Okay,” Tony said, and he moved closer, letting his leg press against Bucky’s, hip to knee, a solid warmth. “Okay.”

The more they talked, the more Tony ached for Bucky’s pain and horror. The more sympathy he felt for Bucky’s moments of terror and rage. The more respect he had for Bucky’s strength, admiration for Bucky’s determination to root every last bit of Hydra out.

They were friends, and Tony wasn’t quite sure how it had happened, something that had bound them together as they sat, sides pressed against each other as Duani laid herself across their laps like she was sunning herself, despite the darkness.

Kissing Bucky hadn’t been Duani’s idea, but when Tony pulled away the first time, both of them breathing hard, she spoke, for the first time in Bucky’s hearing. “Well, finally.”

Tony was well used to his daemon’s somewhat acerbic attitude. What he wasn’t used to was the way the words echoed, because she’d spoken with both mouths.

The right head was looking at him, Duani’s golden eyes shining as always with her affection. But the left head, the seeker, was staring at Bucky.

And Bucky was staring back. “Potena?” He reached out with a shaking finger. She bit him sharply, enough to draw a few drops of blood. “I thought you were--”

The left head said something that Tony heard as the faintest hum. Duani blinked at Tony slowly. “It’s rude to try to listen in on someone else’s conversation,” she chided.

“Is that-- It’s really--”

“She wasn’t sure, until just now. When they tore her away, she was confused and hurt and broken. Like him. I offered a place to hide, to rest and recover. Much as you have been doing for him.” She wiggled smugly. “You won’t mind sharing, I think.”

Tony looked up to find Bucky looking at him again, eyes brimming with joy, and he couldn’t help a smile. “No,” he said, reaching for Bucky again. “No, I don’t think I’ll mind at all.”