It starts with a clear blue sky, and ugly faces snarling, and bared claws and teeth, and Bucky at his back.
It starts with the rattle of too-close gunfire and a cacophony of voices in his ears, calling out patterns and warnings and sharp-edged compliments, and then a bright spear of power, lightning forking and forking again until it’s a huge fan shattering the cloudless sky.
“Oh, shit,” several voices say, and between profanities Iron Man is telling Hawkeye that if he finds Thor first he has to fill Thor in, and Hawkeye is shouting his location to War Machine, and War Machine is answering in rapid-fire affirmatives, and there’s the sound of footsteps running, and Steve has to explain all of this to Bucky, let him know what’s going on.
More lightning, and thunder cracking more or less continuously, and out of the corner of his eye Steve spots movement and Bucky’s already yelling at him, words that sound like his name and Get the fuck down!, and Steve sees a muzzle and a bright ominous light and he only has time for two more movements: grab Bucky, put up the shield -
“Doctor,” Tony mutters to himself, “we need a doctor, but is there a doctor who can actually tell us what the fuck happened to those two?”
Pepper strides straight to him, heels clicking down the stairs and then over the floor, and he falls right into her offered arms. He’s tired. He’s deep into adrenaline crash. He’s not okay. He’s looking at two six-year-old boys slumped in a heap of clothes and armor. Blue and black and a shield that is now more than big enough for both of them to hide behind.
One of the boys has long black hair and a perfectly miniaturized bionic arm, gleaming silver and dangerous. The other has short blond hair and is skinny, skinny like he needs several days’ worth of meals in him and a couple of cows’ worth of milk or maybe cheese besides. Pizza, Tony thinks, when he was a kid his favorite meal was pizza. Now he prefers burgers, the greasier the better. Maybe kids today still like pizza.
He feels Pepper press a kiss into his hair - still flattened from the helmet - before she pulls away, and the worry and the determination on her face makes him want to hold her hand, so he does, and he counts it as a victory when she squeezes his fingers with hers.
Her voice is full of authority: “Why don’t we talk about how this happened, first,” she says. “Start from the top.”
“From the top as in alien uglies attacked, or from the top as in an Asgardian showed up?”
Tony nods, and narrows his eyes as Dummy carefully rolls up to the little boys. He and Pepper are standing outside the workshop. The only clear and possibly safe space for the children is the corner next to the ’bots.
Children. On a table. In his workshop.
Children who happen to be, as far as he knows, Captain America and the Winter Soldier.
He takes a deep breath, mostly of relief, when Dummy leaves the boys alone, and begins. “What I remember is Thor and his light show. He was trying to fry the cannon that the bad guys were aiming at those two. But the cannon went off anyway - ”
“Sir,” JARVIS offers. “The playback from my sensors shows that the lightning struck the cannon just before it fired.”
“Yeah. Must have whacked around with the cannon but good. Keep analyzing, we still don’t know much.” He turns back to Pepper. “So all we saw was Cap putting the shield up, and him and tall dark ’n’ deadly getting hit.”
“And you found them like this,” Pepper says.
Tony nods once, twitching. “I thought for sure they’d get singed at the very least. Not a scratch on them, though. Just - little boys.”
“We could get in touch with Stephen Strange. He does seem to have a knack for - things that are not easily explained.”
“Him too. I need to talk to Thor. Asgardian. Magic and science. He needs to explain things to us.”
He lets Pepper’s hand go, gives her a little lopsided smile, and he takes a step away -
“Pep,” he says, because she sounds serious, and he makes a point out of looking at her when she sounds serious. He looks at her now. There is something soft in her eyes. “What?”
“You do need to talk to people. And we need to hear explanations. But first we have to talk to them.”
She doesn’t answer. Instead, she takes off her shoes, and she pushes into the workshop, and Tony, bemused, follows suit.
When he catches up to her, she is sitting on the nearer end of his workbench, just out of arm’s reach of the boys.
Steve shivers and sits up, and Tony watches his mouth fall open, torn between wonder and fear and -
“Bucky,” Steve says, and he looks around him. Tony’s not sure he’s imagining the pure relief on Steve’s face when he sees the boy sleeping next to him. “Why do you have a metal arm?” At the same time he puts his thin arms around Bucky’s shoulders.
Bucky lets out an unexpectedly loud snore in response.
Steve grins and shakes his head and doesn’t let him go. Skinny fingers threading through long hair.
That’s when Pepper clears her throat, quietly, and says, “Hello, Steve.”
“Hello ma’am,” is the automatic response. Steve looks up, looks at her, cocks his head curiously. “Do I know you?”
“Yes. I’m Pepper.”
Steve smiles. “Hi.”
“How do you feel?”
Tony watches Steve frown, and look at himself, and gape briefly at the shield next to him. “Tired.”
Steve shakes his head.
“Listen to me,” Pepper says, and Tony can’t help but lean in towards the unflappable strength of her. Powerful gentleness. Steve must feel the same way, because he’s staring at her, and doesn’t seem to have blinked at all, since waking up. “You’re in a safe place, Steve, you and Bucky both, and if you need anything you just have to let us know, okay?”
That makes Steve blink. “Um, okay.” A pause, and then, “Are we in a hospital?”
“Not a hospital,” Tony tells him. “A workshop. My workshop.”
“Oh. That’s okay then.” Steve grins, then yawns, and Tony watches him push at Bucky’s shoulder. “Hey. Move.”
Bucky cracks one eye open and glares balefully at Steve. Tony is not actually surprised. That look of impending doom seems to be Bucky’s default reaction to anything happening near him, and it’s still got more or less the same effect coming from the six-year-old version.
Still, Bucky is putty in Steve’s hands, and Tony witnesses it first hand, as Steve gets himself and Bucky situated. They don’t seem to be bothered by the steel they’re lying on, nor by their costumes draped haphazardly around them and on them. Steve is the little spoon, and Bucky hangs on to him, and within moments they’re both asleep.
Pepper nods, and walks over to the table on which the boys are now snoring, and she passes her hand over first Bucky’s head and then Steve’s. There is a strange small smile on her mouth, but it’s only there for a moment, which Tony kind of regrets. He will have to ask her about it later.
Not now, though, because she says, “Let’s find some experts and talk to them. Dr. Foster - oh, damn it, we can’t talk to her right now, I just remembered she had that conference to go to. Who else can we call in for a consult,” and he’s happy to follow her because Pepper in action is amazing.
Still, he finds himself looking back at the two boys huddled together in his workshop, and doesn’t know why he says, “JARVIS.”
“I will watch over them, sir,” is the response.
Thor clasps his hands together behind his back. “While I cannot tell you how this reaction came to be, I do know that it is but temporary. It should not take more than a few days for the effects to wear off. Soon we shall have our comrades back.”
“I’d love to know how you know that,” Tony Stark says.
“Quiet, Tony,” is Pepper Potts’s rapid rejoinder.
Now they are speaking quietly to each other behind his back. He can hear every word they say.
But he is more focused on the figures on the other side of the door.
At his insistence, the children - Steve Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes - have been transferred to a different room within the confines of Avengers Tower. This room is more furnished to Midgardian standards, with a large bed and a small suite of table and chairs.
He watches the boys as they bend over their work with intense, childish industry. Steve’s hands are marked with colorful crayon smudges. James is by turns building a tower out of tiny toy bricks, and taking it apart.
They are each focused on their own tasks, and yet they are still facing each other.
They make him think of two other children, fair-haired and dark, playing together.
He wishes Jane were here. She is giving a lecture in the state of California, and she is speaking to her peers, and she will be back in New York City within the next three days, or so she has assured him, and to him her word is a sure and certain bond.
He leaves the others behind, and walks into the room.
Two sets of eyes regard him. Wary, but perhaps willing to listen to reasonable words. Perhaps that is an easy thing to understand.
He has learned a little about the children that Steve Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes used to be - he has listened, gravely, to stories shared by Samuel Wilson. Stories of struggling to survive, and of one fretting over the other.
He steps carefully towards them, sits some distance away, and does not miss that Steve has moved toward James, nor that James is now trying to put Steve behind him.
He has seen those gestures before.
He allows himself a smile. “Well met,” he says to them.
James narrows his eyes.
“Hello,” Steve says. “You’re - Thor, right?”
Thor nods, pleased. “You know who I am.”
“Man in the ceiling,” James says. “He told us about the people who live here.”
“Is it really okay for us to be staying here?” Steve asks.
“This is your home,” Thor tells him.
“I speak the truth.”
He watches them confer with each other. Sometimes there are quiet words. Steve is trying to reassure James. James is talking about being careful.
But mostly he watches them as they make faces at each other.
After a moment, James bares his teeth at Steve.
Steve strikes him lightly on the top of his head, with an open hand.
Begrudgingly, James nods at last.
Steve smiles, and gets to his feet, and approaches, hand held out.
Thor lets his smile grow, a little, and when Steve is near enough he takes that small hand in his. “Would you like to sit on my shoulders?” he offers.
Steve blinks, and looks back at James, and then says, “Yeah.”
“Hold on tightly,” Thor advises him, and he crouches down a little more, so Steve can clamber on. He weighs so little, and James looks at him as though he were quite fragile, but Thor thinks he would rather compare this child Steve to Darcy, who does weigh almost nothing, whose natural cunning has done so much to protect Jane and Erik. He knows the warrior Steve, honorable and quick-witted and battle-weary. Strong. “Are you ready?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Steve nod.
Thor gets up to one knee at first, and then on both feet, and Steve giggles and says, “You’re tall.”
“Aye, I am, and you will be,” he tells Steve, supporting him with one hand.
He takes a turn around the room, and stops at a set of bookshelves so Steve can squint at the titles of the topmost books, and then he looks down when there’s a tug on the sleeve of his free arm.
“Hi, Bucky,” Steve says, and he’s waving down at his friend.
James might still have his eyebrows knit into a boy’s scowl, but he is also now holding his hands out to be picked up, and Thor nods. “Do not let go, Steve,” he says.
And he bends down and picks James up in his arms, and the first thing the two boys do is link hands over his shoulders, and smile. Such open trust in their faces. Such a need for each other they have.
They tire long before he does, and Thor carries them over to the bed, depositing them one after the other onto the pillows.
“Thank you,” James whispers. He looks much less angry, after two turns of the room and a mostly one-sided conversation with Steve. He is the only one of the two still awake.
Thor watches him pull the blankets up to a sleeping Steve’s chin. “Call me again, if you should have need of me.”
James nods, yawns - and then he smiles, close-mouthed to be sure, but there are lines in his face that look bright and sweet, and Thor eagerly takes his hand when it is offered, and shakes it firmly and carefully.
“Are you telling me you haven’t been feeding them good things like ice cream and, I don’t know, mac and cheese out of those damn blue boxes?” Rhodey demands. He’s halfway into the War Machine suit. He folds his arms over his chest and glares at the image of Tony in his helmet. “They’re kids, man, they’re not you.”
“Ha ha fucking ha,” Tony says, tinny and - that might actually be his real grin. Or that might be the lo-res camera, Rhodey’s not sure. The armor’s a little overdue for a check-in.
He chooses to ignore the one-fingered salute Tony flips his way.
“Since when were you an advocate for kids eating junk food anyway?”
“Since I was a kid in line at the Good Humor truck, Tony.”
“Pfft, you’re always gonna be such an amateur,” Tony says, but he’s grinning, and Rhodey thinks he might actually look envious, so he laughs and hangs up on Tony and goes in search of some ice cream - six large boxes of it, to be exact, because there’re some seriously big eaters over at Avengers Tower, and Rhodey himself may or may not be one of those.
Just as he catches sight of the landing pad something pings in his HUD and he blinks when JARVIS says, “Please hold your position, Colonel. I am coordinating another landing.”
That makes Rhodey blink. “I’m not exactly seeing a Quinjet over there, JARVIS, unless Tony’s finally cracked and made them, I don’t know, the size of paper airplanes or something.”
“Samuel Wilson has just returned from a test flight of his new wings,” JARVIS says. “You may now proceed to the landing pad.”
“Sam’s here, huh? Tell him to wait there for me, I’m kind of carrying a lot of things here.”
He comes in for a landing in a brisk breeze, and before JARVIS has finished helping him out of his suit there’re hands moving in his direction, careful and telegraphed movements. “Got any strawberry shortcake bars?”
Rhodey lets JARVIS’s machines take his helmet as well, and grins at the man with the goggles slung carelessly around his neck. “Figures you have a sweet tooth, Wilson. I mean, you and all the others. What else is new?”
“Hey, I need to keep my energy up. Flying takes a hell of a lot out of you,” is the flippant reply.
Rhodey snorts, and lets him take half of the ice-cream boxes, and starts quizzing him on his wings the moment they get on the elevator. “I hope you demanded armor, and if Tony didn’t give you any I’ll go and sit on him till he cries Uncle. You should at least be wearing more than those goggles. Head protection’s important, you know.”
Sam laughs easily. “Oh, boy, do I ever. But we, by which I mostly mean Tony, are still trying to figure out how much armor I should be carrying. I’m up in the sky and highly maneuverable, but I’ve also been kicked off a helicarrier, like with an actual boot, so yeah, protection is something that is very much on my mind.”
Rhodey grins at him. “Like I said. I’ll go sit on Tony for you, you just let me know, all right? It’ll actually be my pleasure.”
Next Rhodey looks at the control panel for the elevator. “JARVIS, where are the kids?”
“Here,” is the answer, and the doors ping open on one of the residential floors.
“Coming?” Rhodey asks as he retrieves his cargo from Sam.
“I’ll come back up in a moment,” Sam says, “I gotta turn my shit in. Don’t eat all the ice cream.”
“There are kids in this tower, so hurry back up,” Rhodey laughs, and he walks off, carrying - he checks - he has boxes of Neapolitan sandwiches, sundae cones, and snack pops.
Only one of the rooms on this floor is in use, and he knows exactly which one it is, because he can hear two off-key voices singing at the tops of their voices.
Well, perhaps it’s less singing and more pretending to be trumpets and drums - and when he opens the door, the kids who are actually Steve and Bucky are bouncing energetically on their bed, laughing and red-faced.
Steve tries to turn a somersault and fails rather miserably. He face-plants into his pillows, and comes up screaming with laughter.
Next thing Rhodey knows, Bucky has bounced right off the bed and onto the floor, running forward into most of a front aerial, and to the sound of Steve hollering and clapping in appreciation he steps in and says, “I am gonna regret giving you two more sugar, aren’t I?”
Bucky eyes him suspiciously, and then stares at the boxes in his arms, and says, “Is that for us?”
“Yep,” Rhodey says, cheerfully, as he grabs one of the adult-sized chairs and turns it back to front so he can sit down. “Lots of ice cream for you guys to eat. I’m treating you because Tony’s too mean and too jealous and too old. But you gotta share with me.”
“What’ve you got?” Steve says as he extricates himself from the bed. He’s on his way over when he trips over a blanket, and even as he goes down he’s already saying, “I’m okay, Bucky.”
“Are you really,” Rhodey asks, and it’s an impertinent question and he knows it as soon as Steve glares at him. There is something painfully earnest in that expression, as well as something that should have been world-weary, but the fact that all of this is on a six-year-old’s face makes Rhodey snort and look away and try very hard for the usual poker face that he wears around Tony’s regular shenanigans.
He graciously lets go of the ice cream boxes when Bucky holds out his hands for them, and he watches the boys get down on the floor and paw around for their favorites, cold mist hovering around little hands.
Rhodey doesn’t know which one of the kids throws the first pillow, he really doesn’t, but by the time Sam walks in his face is starting to hurt from all the laughing, because Steve is sitting on top of Bucky and beating him around the head with a wadded-up blanket, and Bucky is screaming but not for help, and they’ve got chocolate and crispy rice smeared across their mouths.
Natasha wakes up from a dream of pointe shoes and pistols, and tries to dispel the last image from her mind. An icon stained with blood. That was a very serious form of sacrilege. She can remember that at the very least.
The rest of the details she’d rather forget.
The bed is cold and she’s alone, and not even the fact that she’s wearing bulky socks can stop the shivering.
She puts her jacket on and walks around her rooms, and the voices in her head are still screaming.
“Is anyone awake, JARVIS?” she asks, after a long moment of standing in a corner and seeing only the imprints of her nightmares.
“...Yes,” is the reply. “Master Rogers is still awake.”
“So old-fashioned,” she makes herself tease the AI. “Are you trying to make up for someone’s shortcomings?”
“Yes,” is the curt and amused answer.
“All right,” Natasha says, and she gets on the elevator. “Master Rogers and Master Barnes, please.”
There is only one lamp lit in the room that the boys are sharing, and by the light of it she can see that Bucky is little more than a lump in the covers. Soft sounds of snoring.
“Hello,” Steve whispers, rubbing his hands on his pajamas and then swiping at his eyes. The light from the bathroom spills out around his feet. His hair is spiked up a little in the back.
As Natasha draws closer Steve yawns, and she can’t help but yawn back, and that makes him smile and close the distance between them. “Bucky hates it when I do that and make him yawn,” he whispers, sweet and confiding. “I didn’t think it could happen to adults too.”
Natasha thinks of Clint and his bad habit of falling asleep in most places he can and many he shouldn’t, and laughs very quietly. “Sometimes we can fight it, sometimes we can’t.”
Steve looks, frankly, skeptical. The expression is so familiar and so strange at the same time; she’s seen him look like this over and over again, only this particular expression is on his six-year-old face.
“Watch me and Clint sometime,” Natasha says.
“Okay.” Steve still doesn’t look convinced.
The lump in the bed stirs. Bucky groans, and his arm flails out, and he mumbles several sounds, only some of which sound like Steve’s name.
Natasha thinks she hasn’t stopped smiling since she went to check in on the boys.
What surprises her, then, is not Steve scratching the back of his head with one hand; it’s his other hand, which latches on to her wrist and won’t let go - such surprising strength for such a scrawny six-year-old - not until he’s clambering back into position behind Bucky. “You can stay if you like. Sometimes sleeping’s better when you’re not by yourself.”
She blinks, and waits for him to get settled before she sits down on the bed next to him. “How did you know that I couldn’t sleep?”
“Sometimes Bucky looks like that,” and he waves at her face. “Sometimes I do.”
“What makes you sad?”
Steve thinks about it, and pats Bucky’s hand when it comes searching for him again. She watches him hold that hand - that metal hand - to his cheek. A gentle gesture, of the almost thoughtless type.
And Natasha thinks that that’s exactly what makes it work, because he doesn’t pause to think about what he’s doing. He already knows what he’s doing, and what it means. He knows who’s looking for him, who’s looking out for him. Doesn’t matter what with, doesn’t matter how, as long as it’s Bucky.
And she thinks of Steve trusting her, in the not-so-distant past, as thoughtless and compelling as this gesture has been.
So she trusts him. “Where I grew up, I was always surrounded by nightmares.”
Steve’s face falls.
She takes his free hand. “It’s all right. I’m fine. You’re helping me.”
He looks dubious, next, and that makes her give him a lopsided smile.
Bucky grumbles, and sits up to glare, but before she can do anything he’s looking at her hand, which is still wrapped around Steve’s.
She expects Bucky to reclaim Steve’s hands and Steve’s affection; she wouldn’t blame him in the slightest if that had happened. They’re both just a few months away from their real reunion - not the part where Steve spent a year haring off after the rumors and the dark whispers of the Winter Soldier on the hunt, and not the part where the Winter Soldier voluntarily turned himself in, still covered with soot and ashes from blowing up a succession of HYDRA holdout cells.
She was there when the man faced Steve through a pane of reinforced glass and said, “Took you long enough. You got me out. You came back for me. Thanks, punk.”
“I’ll always come back for you, jerk, like you’ll always come back for me,” Steve had replied, and then he’d asked for the door that was separating them to be opened.
That reunion took place just a few months ago.
Now this happens.
In the here and now, Bucky nods, once, and then he takes the pillow he was sleeping on and comes around, stumbling a little as the mattress gives way beneath his feet. He plops his pillow in her lap, curls up trustingly. In a matter of moments he’s snoring again.
She’s expecting Steve to protest, or to poke Bucky awake into an argument.
He does neither. Instead he wraps a blanket around his shoulders and tucks himself into her side. He yawns, more widely than the last time, and then - suddenly - he’s asleep.
She’s surrounded by snoring boys, and together they’re loud enough to drown out most of her nightmares.
Natasha doesn’t sleep, but she does hold on to the two of them, and there’s nothing tiring about that at all.
“None of this makes sense,” Bruce mutters, and he takes off his glasses and scrubs at his face, and his hand comes away slightly reddened, a little bit roughed up. Right. Five o’clock shadow, and probably much worse. He’s kind of lost track of the time again. It seems to be a regular occurrence around here.
At least he’s not sitting in the epicenter of broken things this time.
Virtual screens hover around him, full of numbers and figures and graphs, and everything is spinning and he has to take a deep breath and relax.
A voice, murmuring, just outside his rooms. From the accent, it’s JARVIS.
Curiosity wars with the need to keep working.
Bruce picks up his empty mug and puts his shoes on, and the sounds of laughing children warn him not to open the door too suddenly.
In Avengers Tower?
He sets the mug aside. High possibility of broken things, if those high-pitched voices are anything to go by. Safer to go without.
He follows the sound of JARVIS’s directions, the pitter-patter of tiny feet in what sound like kid-sized boots.
There’s a crash, and a bang, and a voice yelling: “Bucky!”
Bruce is already halfway into a more rapid stride when he parses the name, and the voice that had called out.
Since when did Steve sound like he was six years old?
He emerges into the common room, where there are two boys engaged in what looks like a ferocious game of tag: the one with the blond hair is jumping over every chair in sight, and the one with the dark hair crawls and bobs and weaves as he tries to chase and then be chased.
Bruce blinks, and opens his mouth, and JARVIS beats him to the draw: “Ten minutes. Time is up, Master Steve, Master James. You agreed to stop after your extension. It is time for you to take your baths.”
Steve giggles, frozen in an attitude of climbing over the arm of Natasha’s chair, and then he topples back into the seat. “Okay, JARVIS, fair’s fair. Time-out, Bucky,” he says, directing the words at the boy who’s tiptoeing in his direction.
Bruce catches a single glimpse of feral grin before Bucky pounces, leaping onto the chair and mercilessly tickling Steve’s ribs.
“Uncle uncle uncle,” Steve hollers, gasping for breath on the last repetition.
Bucky immediately stops and helps Steve sit up, pounding his back two or three times. “Sorry,” he mumbles.
“I’m okay, Buck, I promise. Just - we’ve been running. I’m not having an attack.”
“Promise,” Steve says. “Come on, time for baths. I’ll help you wash your hair if you like.”
Bruce is still staring when they walk past him, hand in hand. “Excuse me,” Steve says, polite as usual.
“Steve and Bucky?” Bruce asks.
“Hi,” Bucky says over his shoulder.
When they’re gone, Bruce looks up at the ceiling and asks, “What did I miss?”
“Sir asked me to prepare a short summary for you,” is the quick reply from JARVIS. “Very briefly, Captain America and the Winter Soldier have been returned to their six-year-old minds and bodies. Thor has assured the others that the transformation will be temporary, but he and sir are nevertheless monitoring their progress. Current projections predict that they will be reverting to their actual selves in a few more days.”
“And in the meantime you’re - babysitting?”
“I am quite enjoying the experience,” is the reply. “They are invigorating to be around.”
Bruce chuckles, and concedes the point. He’s only been around the boys for a few minutes and he doesn’t feel tired any more. “Tell them to come to the kitchen when they’re done showering,” he tells JARVIS.
Only then does Bruce retrieve his mug.
The kitchen is empty of people, but well-stocked as usual, and he sets three places at the table. He normally eats at the breakfast nook with its marble-topped island, but today is a little bit different, not the least because of who he’ll be eating with. Glasses of milk and a sliced orange. He helps himself to a banana, and then to a bar of chocolate, before hitting the switch on the nearest electric kettle.
He smells soap and hot water about five seconds before Bucky leads Steve in. “You wanted to see us.”
“Yes. Hungry?” Bruce asks, scrambling eggs with cheese and onions and keeping an eye on the bread in the toaster.
“Yes, thank you,” Steve says, and he’s rather quiet about it, so Bruce glances over his shoulder.
“Better feed him soon,” Bucky says, hooking his thumb in Steve’s direction. “He fell asleep in the bath.”
He’s still not moving quickly enough, because when he brings the plates full of food to the table Steve has put his face down on his arms. Shoulders rising and falling. Slow, even breathing.
He glances at Bucky and catches a hint of a smile on his mouth, which is momentarily not busy between wolfing down his toast and then Steve’s.
Bruce has a smartphone, and most of the time the only thing he uses on it is its main camera, with which he captures images that he wants to remember. Images to make him feel better. A perfectly brewed cup of masala chai, before and after drinking. A streak of meteor against the star-studded skies of Tromsø. Rain hammering on an anonymous windowsill somewhere in the Midwest, the individual drops reduced by the strength of the storm to faint blurs and shadows. A basket of cherries, so darkly red that they’re almost shading towards black.
Now, Bruce takes a photograph of Bucky’s hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve shifts into that touch. He snores, once, very quietly, and doesn’t actually wake up.
Bucky eats the rest of his eggs awkwardly, one-handed.
“Is it okay,” he asks, after a moment, “for Steve to sleep like that?”
Bucky makes a face at him. “I don’t understand.”
“He might be uncomfortable when he wakes up.”
“He’ll be fine,” Bucky says. “We’ll be fine.”
Bruce says, “Okay,” and he picks up the empty plates, stacks them in the sink for later.
He tiptoes out of the kitchen, and hears the door click behind him.
For good measure, he retrieves one of the tablets from his laboratory, leaves a message on its home screen, and props it up on a table next to the kitchen door.
Get takeout. Kitchen takeover in progress.
The elevator opens, and Clint steps in and says, “Come on, ain’t got all day.”
Lucky is on the other side of the open elevator doors, and his ears are laid back against his head and he’s looking - well, he’s looking hangdog. Afraid.
Clint sighs, and says, “I can carry you if you want. Just get on the damn elevator.” He gets on one knee, and holds out his arms, and braces himself.
Lucky leaps in, leaps at him, and the only reason why Clint doesn’t grunt and stagger is because he regularly draws at least half again Lucky’s damn weight.
Still, he’s halfway to tired by the time they spill out onto one of the residential floors, and Lucky doesn’t look any better - he shakes and whines and drops into a curl of misery, paws over his face, tail flat to the floor.
“Hi, doggy,” says a voice from nearby.
Clint blinks, caught off-guard, when a door opens and out walks -
A kid with a metal arm.
Okay, that was a little bit surprising. He remembers getting looped into a text-message conversation with Natasha and Sam and Rhodey, estimates of when they’d be able to get their friends back, as well as odd little pictures that Bruce had apparently emailed to Nat. There was a photograph of six-year-old Bucky doing a handstand, and one of pencil-stained thin hands that had to be Steve’s. The two boys eyeing a stack of pancakes slathered in syrup and butter like they were waiting for someone to count them in: “3, 2, 1, EAT!”
Each of the photographs is disclaimered with the following words: Eyes only on pain of Hulk smash.
Now he’s looking at the kid who has got to be Bucky, who’s both scratching his ear and staring at the dog, and Clint has the wild and crazy urge to pick him up by the ankles, hold him upside-down, and shake him very gently, just to make him laugh, just to hear what he’d wind up screaming.
Likely death threats, Clint thinks. This kid’s no more than six years old, but this kid is also Bucky Barnes, and then he’s the Winter Soldier too.
“Can I touch him?” Bucky says, now, standing carefully just out of arm’s reach of both Clint and Lucky.
Lucky, who is looking speculatively at Bucky, head tilted to the side in the way that Clint keeps thinking the dog must have picked up from Kate. He knows what she’s trying to say when she uses that gesture. Usually. What it means to the dog he has no idea.
“Sure, kid,” Clint says, after a moment.
“Thank you,” Bucky says.
Clint yawns, and slouches back against the nearest wall, and watches as Bucky holds out his right hand out for Lucky to sniff.
Slowly at first, Lucky’s tail starts wagging - then he picks up speed, and after a moment Clint can see and hear that tail thumping out an enthusiastic beat on the floor.
Bucky grins, and says, “Up,” and Lucky lurches to his feet.
Clint turns away, coughing to cover up his laugh.
He’d forgotten to take Lucky’s size into account, and now he’s seeing it first-hand: if Lucky jumps at the kid, the kid’s going down.
Clint has to hand it to the kid, though - he just keeps grinning at the big dog, and even leans forward to touch his nose to Lucky’s, and that was apparently what Lucky was waiting for.
One moment Bucky is grinning and on his feet and letting Lucky wash his face - and then Bucky’s on his back, giggling helplessly, and Lucky is sniffing him noisily, nosing up and down his neck and then right into his armpit.
There’s a sneeze from the room that Bucky had come out of, and Clint stares as Bucky goes pale and leaps to his feet. He says, “Sorry.”
“What’s wrong?” Clint asks.
“Steve. ’S not good for him to be around dogs. Allergies.” Bucky doesn’t quite pronounce the last word correctly, but Clint picks up what he’s trying to say, and he perfectly understands why both the boy and the dog look so chagrined.
He also feels, unaccountably, like he’s kicked the boys around too. “I didn’t think about that,” he says. “I just thought - kids like dogs, you know?” He spreads his hands, helpless.
“We like dogs,” Bucky says. “I like playing with them, and Steve thinks they’re fun to draw. It’s just - he can’t get close to them.”
“I should go and take Lucky home.”
The sneezing gets louder, more frequent, and behind Bucky, the door into the other room creaks open.
Clint watches Bucky bound for the door, watches him lunge for the doorknob and yank the door closed, and hold it closed. “Don’t come out, Steve,” he yells, looking frantic. “Dog’s still here. You’ll have another attack. Don’t want you to get sick.”
He goes to retrieve Lucky, patting him on his head and scratching him behind his ears. “Sorry, buddy,” he says, trying to be reassuring, leaning in so Lucky can whine at him and lick apologetically at his face. “I thought we’d have some fun with the kiddies. Not your fault Steve’s got an allergy. Not his fault either. But it would’ve been nice, huh?”
“Bucky - ” says the voice on the other side of the door, and Clint looks up, because unless he’s hearing things Steve sounds a little fond and amused and not angry or wheezing his face off or anything.
“Steve, no, please,” Bucky pleads.
“I’m not gonna get sick. Let me out. I wanna see the dog.”
“The dog makes you sneeze!”
“And I’ll apologize to the dog, I’ve got a towel and everything, let me out.”
Bucky looks over his shoulder at Clint.
Who shrugs, and keeps scritching Lucky, and says, “Maybe you should do as he says, ’cuz I’m more scared of an angry Steve than I am of an angry dog.”
“Angry dogs bite,” Bucky says, looking not at all reassured.
“Angry Steve looks disappointed at you all the time, and I can’t take that.” Clint demonstrates, frowning and pouting, and gets the satisfaction of Bucky’s eyes widening in recognition. “You want him to look at you like that, kid, your funeral.”
“This is gonna suck,” Bucky mutters, and he lets go of the doorknob. He steps away from the doorknob, walking backward until he’s with Lucky, which is when he gets down on his knees and hugs the dog and hides his face in dark fur.
Another series of sneezes, and then a loud inhale, and then Steve comes out, grinning, and he still looks happy despite the white knuckles around the towel in his hand. “Come on, both of you,” he says.
Bucky looks at Lucky, and then glances over his shoulder at Clint.
Clint shrugs at him, and makes shooing motions with both hands.
Bucky walks over, head bowed, and Lucky soon follows, tail hanging between his legs, and Clint thinks that Steve’s reaction is just Steve all over, because he hugs the dog and scratches between his ears, and then he jump-hugs Bucky, trusting Bucky to hold him up.
Not even the sneezing can stop Steve from hanging on.
Lucky whines, and sits down on Bucky’s feet, tail wagging.
“Yes, soon,” Natasha says. “Thor thinks it might be anywhere in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”
“Are you gonna think I’m an idiot,” Sam says very carefully, “if I tell you I kind of wish they’d stay that way a little bit longer?”
“No.” A small smile, wistful and full of secrets, and that’s about as much emotion as he’s seen from her, aside from when she’s being a super badass non-super-powered fighter, anyway. “I think it’s safe to assume you wouldn’t be the only one.”
Sam nods his head, and doesn’t press the issue. Several times in the past few days he’s seen her emerge from the room the boys have been staying in, always early in the morning, always sleepy-slow and wide awake at the same time, with dark depths in her eyes.
He knows something about the weight on his own shoulders. Not just Riley. Whispers in the dark. Steve’s fears, and Bucky’s - and eventually Natasha’s. He carries his fears, and they carry theirs, and sometimes it shows.
The boys are still Steve and Bucky, fearful of losing each other and careful with each other, only now they’re not tiptoeing around each other, and that’s a start, and he knows a little of why Natasha appreciates their presence so much.
Because with them around, sharing the last of the ice cream from Rhodey’s stash, he feels a little lighter, a little more hopeful.
No one talks about what’s going to happen after the boys revert, and it should be funny but it really isn’t, because they’re actually ninetysomethings who’ve lived through good times and terrible times. Not to mention more than one war.
“Do you think they’ll remember?” he asks Natasha.
She puts a mug of coffee into his hand, and the fragrant steam has a sharp edge to it, and he takes a sip, nodding in appreciation.
“Not enough vodka,” she mutters after the first gulp.
After a moment, she adds, “If they don’t, then we do, and there’s evidence.”
“Right, right, Bruce’s photographs. I told him he was pretty good at the thing.”
“Which one do you like best?”
Sam grins. He knows the answer to this one. “Blanket burrito Steve.”
Leave it to Bucky to ask JARVIS to show them some movies, and leave it to Bucky to ask for ones with ghosts and slashers and hapless victims running for their lives. He’d loved Ringu more than the American remake. At least the kid had taste.
But that also meant Steve waking up from nightmares for three days running, and sleeping in a makeshift cocoon of blankets, and flinching away from anyone dressed in white, including Sam himself, who normally wore white when he was out jogging in the summer.
Now Natasha cracks a smile. “If he remembers that, he’ll never forgive us for letting Bucky watch Sadako and Samara as they terrorize people.”
“Worth it, though.”
She nods, and the smile becomes a laugh.
He lets her ride that spasm of mirth, and lets himself look at the bright flush in her cheeks, almost enough to rival her blazing hair. “And you? Come on, spill.”
Instead of saying anything, Natasha produces her phone from her pocket, and offers it to him.
“Not one of Bruce’s? I didn’t know you were taking pictures, too.” He scrolls to the gallery application, is met with a bunch of folders named with strings of letters and numbers. “Um, which one?”
She says, “The latest one.”
There is only one photograph in that folder, and Sam has to squint at it a little. Dark shapes, dark shadows, and only one out-of-focus light source.
But in the pool of that shaky light is both of Bucky’s hands wrapped around one of Steve’s. Reflections from Bucky’s left hand illuminate the pencil streaks on Steve’s wrist.
Sam’s breath catches. He can’t really find his words.
“That’s them,” Natasha says, and when he looks up she’s looking into the depths of her mug. He wonders what he sees in her coffee, or in the dregs of it, mixed with the vodka.
“Yeah, that’s them,” he says.
Creak of a door behind them. Natasha doesn’t move, so he looks over his shoulder, and his heart jumps into his throat and grows three sizes bigger, simultaneously.
This week they’ve seen Bucky look after Steve, and Steve lean on Bucky. The boys have been utterly, utterly unself-conscious about who they are to each other. Clinging unabashedly. Sam can count the occasions when the two boys have willingly been apart on the fingers of one hand.
Now, however, he’s looking at something completely different.
“Bucky, it’s gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay.”
“Hurts, Steve. Don’t know why it hurts.”
Sam watches as Bucky climbs heavily into an armchair, and then almost immediately puts his hands back to the sides of his head. Curling in on himself, eyes tightly closed and mouth clenched.
Steve climbs in next to him, puts his arms around Bucky’s broader shoulders, and holds Bucky to his chest. “Just listen to me, Bucky, listen to my heart, that’s all you gotta do - ”
“Stevie,” Bucky almost moans. A tiny voice, desperately unhappy. “Sorry sorry.”
“Shut up. Listen to me. You’re gonna be okay.”
Natasha’s already approaching the boys, careful and gentle as very few people see her. She puts a glass of water on the arm of the chair, and a small white bottle.
He watches Steve lift his eyebrows at her.
“Make him take two of those, that should help,” she explains softly, pointing to the bottle.
“Aren’t aspirins expensive?” Steve whispers.
Bucky’s hands are covering his ears, and Steve’s hands are covering Bucky’s.
She shakes her head. “Not at all.”
“Thank you,” Steve says, and it doesn’t take him a minute to crack the bottle open, and then Sam listens to him coax Bucky into taking the medicine. “Come on, these’ll make you feel better, or at least make you go to sleep. That’s gotta be better than being awake and hurting.”
Bucky sounds dubious: “If you say so, Stevie.”
Sam doesn’t know why he waits with bated breath - it’s a headache, nothing aspirin can’t handle, and yet he can’t stand looking at the naked pain on the boys’ faces, wants to do anything and everything he can to sweep Bucky’s tears and the worried lines around Steve’s eyes away.
He’s seen enough of both on their adult faces; seeing them on their six-year-old faces just hurts.
Natasha comes back to the couch he’s sitting on, and tucks herself between a raft of pillows and his arm. “They’ll be okay,” she says, and there’s a hitch in her words that he can’t understand, can’t parse.
So he does what he can, in the absence of needed information. “Yeah, and we’ve got experts in case we need ’em. We’re not exactly unarmed, you know?”
She nods, and her skin is warm against his, and he doesn’t move, except maybe to lean a little more in her direction.
He falls asleep and doesn’t notice it, because he’s too preoccupied by the warmth of Natasha’s skin against his, the faint sharp bite of gunpowder and the soft fleeting notes of spice and fragrant ash, and when he wakes up the world is wrapped in the deeps of New York City’s colorful and restless night, night without natural stars.
And there’s a blanket draped atop him that wasn’t there before.
Natasha stirs next to him, sits bolt upright.
He looks at her, and together they look over their shoulders.
The armchair that had contained two six-year-old boys is empty.
“Where are they,” he begins, and he struggles up from the couch.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sam sees something move - a tall and familiar shadow.
Steve Rogers holds his hands up, empty, large enough to punch and to throw a shield and to pick up the fallen and the injured. He looks weary, and he looks happy at the same time, and Sam can’t read him at all. “Easy, guys.”
“You’re back,” Sam says, inanely, and he can hear Natasha muttering to herself.
He thinks she sounds disappointed.
“Yeah, we’re back. Are you guys hungry? Bucky and I were just making burritos.”
“Sure,” Sam says, and he helps Natasha to her feet.
In the kitchen, Steve is standing next to Bucky, pouring coffee into mugs, and Bucky’s arm is slung lightly around Steve’s waist.
“Hi,” Bucky says around a mouthful of eggs and green peppers. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Natalia.”
Sam raises an eyebrow, and then looks at her.
Unexpectedly, Natasha smiles. “I did. But they were good ghosts.”
“For a change?” Bucky asks, and adds something in Russian.
“Yes. For a change. And I’m all right, and I’m glad you are.”
Bucky swallows and grins and offers his burrito to Steve.
Who puts his hand around Bucky’s and leans over to take a big bite, to Bucky’s quiet chuckling.
“Sam?” Bucky asks next.
“Fine, fine,” Sam tells him. He smiles. “Glad you’re okay. Both of you.”
Steve ducks his head, blushes very slightly, and drops a kiss on Bucky’s head. “Thanks.”
“List,” Bucky says, holding his hand out.
Steve nods, scribbles some more, and tears the sheet off, hands it over. “I think I got everything.”
Bucky narrows his eyes at Steve’s crabbed handwriting. “I sure wish the Commandos were still alive, because you caught your awful handwriting from one of them, and I wanna punch their lights out.”
“Sorry,” Steve says, and rolls his eyes. It’s a perfectly legible list. Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches for Rhodey and Sam, a box of dog treats for Lucky (and a box of junk food for Clint), flowers for Pepper, expensive tea for Bruce. A cozy throw for Natasha.
“Thor?” Bucky asks.
“He’s not exactly someone you can shop for,” Steve says, frowning a little. “Asgardian prince, remember.”
Bucky takes the pencil from Steve’s hand and taps it against his mouth. “He likes candy, though. What if we get him one of those boxes full of candy from when we were running around Brooklyn?”
Steve grins, and kisses Bucky’s temple. “Yeah, we can do that.”
Bucky doesn’t return the kiss, but he does take Steve’s face in his hands, and he does press his forehead to Steve’s.
When he pulls away, Steve kisses the tip of his nose.
That gets him a small, secret smile, the kind they’d shared as kids. On Bucky, now, it leaves Steve breathless. “Come on, let’s go shopping, and don’t think you’re gonna be writing those thank-you notes.”
Steve hums, and when Bucky reaches for his hand he holds on, gently, firmly.
Their hands are not little boys’ hands any more, but they still fit perfectly together.