Bucky Barnes knew he was probably the last person in the world who should be taking care of children, but that didn't stop him from running toward Steve the moment he realized what that flash of light had done. Some kind of magic was at play here, which would have been difficult to believe if he hadn't been watching his best friend fight alongside a Norse god for the last few months. But just because he could accept the evidence in front of his eyes - a flash of light that, once it had dimmed, left behind 6 suddenly very small Avengers - didn't mean he had a contingency plan for it.
Technically, his contingency plan for this was the same as his contingency plan for everything, which was "jump in if I have to to protect Steve," but it seemed like a desperately inadequate plan now that he was actually putting it into action.
He'd kept carefully away from Steve when his old friend was searching for him, but once Steve had been pulled away, dragged back into the Avengers to save the world, Bucky had stopped avoiding his friend and started shadowing him. He'd been careful not to let anyone see him, and to leave only casualties that looked like they'd been Black Widow's kills when he had to do something to protect Steve's back. Mostly, he'd just watched, hidden in the shadows to keep Steve safe even though he wasn't ready to go back to him.
As he threw a knife into the sorcerer's chest to keep the man from casting any more spells on the now-vulnerable Avengers, he couldn't help thinking that this was pretty far from what he'd thought his contingency plan would look like when he finally used it.
Half of the sorcerer's companions vanished the moment they realized their leader was dead, pressing buttons at their wrists that teleported them away, but the other half hesitantly continued to move toward the Avengers. Bucky got there first, concerned to find that the Avengers, all of whom looked about six, weren't trying to fight back. The Steve he knew would fight back no matter what size his body was, as long as he thought it was the right thing to do. If he wasn't fighting, if none of them were fighting, it meant they didn't understand the situation yet. They weren't just small. They were small, and confused, and they might be actual children.
He wanted to curse, but didn't. He needed the breath to take out the last few minions surrounding the Avengers. It wasn't difficult, but he needed to do it quickly, because he didn't like Steve being vulnerable in the middle of the street. He needed to start dealing with the Avengers themselves as soon as possible.
Four men went down in just over a minute, and the others cut their losses and ran.
Bucky found himself alone with a crowd of 6-year-olds staring up at him.
Abruptly, the adrenaline from the fight drained out of him, leaving him feeling hollow and useless. He'd spent a lot of time feeling hollow and useless since he'd left HYDRA to become a person instead of a weapon. It was harder than it sounded. But he couldn't afford to think like that right now, because the kids didn't need a weapon. They needed a person. He needed to push through the empty feeling and be a person for them.
He took a deep breath and looked them over, trying to get his bearings and determine how much trouble they were actually in. The children's clothes hadn't shrunk with them, which was probably going to be a problem, but most of them had managed to adjust on their own, some more effectively than others.
Natalia didn't seem bothered by the fact that she'd had to abandon the one-piece suit that no longer fit her. She'd apparently also decided that grown-up Natalia's too-big underwear wasn't working for her in her new body, either, because she wasn't wearing it. She stood behind the others, completely naked, in what looked like a trained defensive stance, and there was a hardness in her eyes that suggested she had no intention of standing down. He wondered, briefly, how young she'd been when they'd started her training, because her SHIELD file hadn't listed much of her KGB history.
He would have to deal with the fact that she was standing in the middle of New York completely naked. He would also have to deal with the fact that she looked ready to run, and that he suspected she was behind the other kids so that he would go after them first if he turned out to be another enemy. But she wasn't his only worry, and if she hadn't run already, she would probably stay until she had a specific reason not to.
It would help that she was considerably less frightened of him than Bruce was. Bruce was trembling and wouldn't meet Bucky's eyes, but he at least kept himself covered, holding tightly to pants much too large for him and trying to keep them up around his chest. He was definitely human at the moment, which was better than the alternative, but he looked on edge, and they couldn't afford for him to stay that way for long if the Hulk was in there, too. Bucky hoped that after whatever had happened, the Hulk was gone. He didn't know how he would deal with a miniature Hulk.
Bruce was sitting beside an equally frightened-looking Clint, who was on his feet, but standing absolutely still - too still - with his head down and one arm wrapped behind his back. He kept his eyes firmly on the ground, not looking at Bucky either, but Bucky was sure that the boy knew he was being observed. It made the stillness a little bit worrying. But unlike Bruce, Clint hadn't been frozen like this from the start, so perhaps there was hope for the archer yet. Clint had abandoned his pants and stood there in just his shirt, which fell down to below his knees. It looked more like a dress than a shirt, particularly since it had no sleeves, but Bucky could leave the boy like that for now. Clint being clothed at all was a step up from Bruce and Natalia.
Tony, Steve, and Thor were dressed the same way, pantless and in shirts that half drowned them. Like Clint, Thor had no sleeves, though his armor was obviously heavy and might cause some problems. Tony had managed to roll the thin fabric of his undershirt up to free his hands, in spite of the length of his sleeves. Both would be mobile, if he could get them moving, though getting Tony away from the Iron Man armor, which had crashed when he shrunk, but which he had apparently made it out of on his own, might be just as hard as convincing the other three not to be afraid of him. But he didn't seem afraid of Bucky, ignoring him to poke at the armor's innards, and that was workable. Or it could be.
Steve was less mobile, the stiff fabric and broad shoulders of his uniform puffing out around him and getting in his way. His sleeves dangled down from a point that didn't even look like the jacket's elbow, and the ends of them dragged on the ground, making him look like some kind of spider-legged monster as he spread his arms out to protect the others. He couldn't cover them, but he was trying anyway, and Bucky was struck with a wave of emotion he couldn't completely comprehend. He glanced away, aware that he was going to have to deal with whatever these feelings were, but not ready to do it yet.
Thor was also standing between Bucky and the others, clearly trying to protect them. His legs wobbled under the weight of his armor and of holding Mjolnir, which was half propped against his stomach because his arms couldn't quite keep it up on their own. The fact that he'd lifted it at all was impressive, and Bucky briefly regretted not having met the man before. It was perfectly clear that even this child Thor believed himself to be a warrior. Bucky suspected that Steve had already been forced to assert his considerable stubbornness in order to stand beside the larger boy instead of behind him.
He also knew Steve had succeeded, which meant that, as usual, Bucky needed Steve's leadership skills. His best friend's breathing wheezed a little, probably from the dust in the air, but the boy stood firm, eyes narrowed warily at him. Bucky wasn't fooled by the wheezing. Steve wasn't the weak link here. This was the real Steve. The original Steve. This was Steve the way he'd always been, and if Bucky could get Steve on his side, the other kids would follow. Both his swiss-cheese memory and the place Steve had already made for himself in the group told him that Steve could get the other kids to listen to him.
But knowing he needed Steve and knowing what to say to Steve were two different things. Bucky looked at the pint-sized blond boy again, trying to find the words that would convince Steve that he could trust him.
Tony Stark spoke instead, all heads turning toward him as he declared, "I like your hand."
Bucky had been standing here long enough for the boy's surprisingly piercing brown eyes to turn from the Iron Man suit to him. That meant he had been standing here for too long, and a brief, familiar wave of shame washed over him at the thought that he was failing at this. He didn't know what to say to Tony any more than he knew what to say to Steve, but he knew he had to say something if he was going to turn this around.
His arm was hidden when he kept his hand tucked in the pocket of his hoodie, but the kids had seen it when he was fighting, so there was no point in hiding it now. And Tony hadn't been afraid of Bucky's arm. He'd complimented him on it. After two panicked heartbeats, Bucky managed a "Thank you."
It was enough, apparently. The ice was broken, and Steve stepped forward, Thor mirroring him with a step labored enough to prove that the armor was definitely too heavy for him.
"Where are we?" Steve asked, voice steady enough that Bucky almost believed his bravado was genuine fearlessness. "And who are you?"
Bucky's mind raced. Neither question had an easy answer, and the words didn't seem to want to come to him.
Tony answered for him, rolling his eyes with an intensity that was impressive in a boy so young. "We're in New York City, dummy."
Steve frowned. "No, we're not."
"Are too!" Tony protested. "I know 'cause I live here."
Steve turned halfway around to face Tony while still keeping an eye on Bucky, "And I know we're not because I live in New York City, and this ain't it."
Steve had never jumped into an argument without a good reason - he had a hair trigger if he thought people were being hurt or insulted or disrespected, but he never fought without a reason. Bucky had no idea if the same was true of Stark, and he could hear Steve ramping up for a fight in case the bigger boy pushed him too hard. He had to cut that off at the pass.
"It uh-" he began. Bucky wasn't used to talking his way out of awkward situations. He hadn't had to do it for a long time. But they'd been standing here too long, even with most of the civilians in the area still cowering inside as if they weren't sure the mysterious sorcerers were gone, and if Steve got into a fight, they'd be here even longer. He cleared his throat to keep their attention and buy himself one more split second of time.
"He's right, Steve," he finally explained, "It is New York City. It's just not our New York City. This is - this is the future. It's 2014."
Bruce, Clint, and Tony all made surprised noises, and Thor spoke for the first time, asking "What is the meaning of that number?" but Bucky couldn't focus on any of them with Steve suddenly glaring at him so intensely that it felt like a punch to the gut.
"How do you know my name?" Steve asked, anger simmering in his voice, "And why are you lying to us?" Bucky's stomach flipped irrationally at the thought of Steve being angry with him. It hadn't happened often in their friendship, but it always made him feel this way, nauseous and unsettled until Steve came back around again. The memory didn't make him feel any less unsettled. The longer he'd shadowed Steve, the more he'd remembered, but it was still disorienting to find a new memory.
He found himself kneeling in front of the little boy before his brain could really catch up with his body. He needed to look him in the eye, so that Steve would know he meant what he was saying. But meeting Steve's eyes again, closer together than they'd been since the helicarrier was crashing around them, triggered a wave of half-broken memories so intense that he had to put his metal hand down to keep himself from toppling over, unbalanced by the sudden rushing in his ears that accompanied the memories.
He realized that at this distance, all six of the children had probably seen his momentary wobble, and a flash of fear ran through him. He had been weak. He wasn't supposed to be weak. It wasn't allowed. And he had been seen.
He flinched when Steve's hand suddenly moved toward him, and it was only when Steve pulled his hand back again that he realized it hadn't been an attack.
The boy's brow suddenly furrowed, "Are you ok, Mister?"
Something tight in Bucky's chest loosened again, just for a moment, and he found himself smiling weakly. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm ok. And... it's Bucky." He looked down, terrified that Steve wouldn't recognize him. He wasn't sure he could take it if Steve thought he was lying. Steve's faith in him had been the only thing he had to hold onto since before his reliable memories began. He'd never been a coward, but he wasn't brave enough to look Steve in the eye when he knew that faith might be gone.
"I- The future's been rough for me, Stevie," he admitted, knowing he had to say it. Steve - at any age - would want to know. He'd want to know what had happened to his best friend. "We got separated, and it didn't turn out so good for me." An understatement, but Bucky couldn't bring himself to be more specific. "But now you're here, so I'm ok."
Steve was suspiciously silent, and he stayed that way until Bucky's stomach was twisted up too tightly for him to stand it. "It's really me, Steve," he whispered, glancing back up into the little boy's blue eyes, "It really is."
"Ok," Steve said tentatively, as if he wanted to believe Bucky but wasn't sure he should, "Do you remember how we met?" Steve's voice was quiet when he spoke, but something in his eyes was soft now. Whether he believed Bucky or not, he wasn't angry anymore, and Bucky took a deep breath to steady himself. He didn't remember. But he could. He had to. Just like he'd had to remember Steve on the helicarrier. Steve had needed him to remember. He'd needed him to remember and to decide not to kill him. Now he needed him to remember so that Steve could remember him in return. And he could remember. He could. He'd been remembering more and more, now that he was out here on his own.
Bucky forced himself to look Steve in the eye, hoping the answers would be there. "We were young," he said quietly. It wasn't enough. It wasn't proof.
Steve nodded. "Five. An' I'm only six now. So I remember real good, and you can't just make something up and lie to me."
It came back in a flash, like a miracle, and Bucky's heart soared in his chest. "That kid you got in a fight with was seven!" he exclaimed. Details started filling themselves in, and he let them flow out of his mouth as they came back. "A second grader. And it was our first day of kindergarten, and you saw him picking on Colin O'Brien, and you told him to cut it out, even though they were both bigger than you."
Steve was grinning, now, a thousand-watt smile Bucky recognized even though he hadn't remembered it until now. "Yeah, but Colin was a lot smaller than that other kid."
Bucky's breath came easier, "Still a bonehead move, Rogers."
"I don't like bullies," Steve answered, casually.
"I know," Bucky answered, "And when you grow up, you even beat up a few yourself, instead of me havin' to do it."
Steve shoved him in the shoulder, and Bucky tensed, but didn't lash out, in spite of the part of him that wanted to. "Hey, I had 'im on the ropes without you."
Another flash of memory hit Bucky, the same words spoken in an alley in the 40s, and it was all too much. But he couldn't let Steve know it. He stood up abruptly, trying to keep his face calm. "'Course you did," he said, not quite meeting Steve's eye.
"Bucky-" Steve said, half protest and half admonishment, but whatever he wanted to say, he left it at that.
Bucky didn't know what to do with Steve's half-protest, so he focused on the other kids, visible now that he was on his feet again. Thor had lowered his hammer, though he still looked ready to leap between Bucky and the others, and however the other kids had explained years to him, he seemed not to be waiting for an answer to that question. Tony had come closer, probably to listen in, and Bucky managed to meet both Bruce and Clint's eyes for a moment before the boys looked away again.
Natalia had stepped closer, too, so that she stood beside Bruce and Clint, but he doubted she had understood any of what had been happening. If she was staying here, it was only because she didn't know what else to do, and part of him could sympathize.
"So, if you and the flag kid were in kindergarten together, we really must be in the future," Tony said. "How come you've got that cool hand and I've got this cool suit and nobody else has any cool future stuff?"
Bucky didn't have a ready answer for that question, but he suddenly felt like he had the tools to think of one, which was new. But answering Tony didn't depend on his unreliable, fragmented memory, which was a relief, and an answer came quickly enough. "Who says they don't? This is just the stuff you guys had with you when the grown-up versions of you got replaced by these versions of you."
"And where are the adult versions of us?" Thor asked. "Are they in Asgard?"
Bucky shook his head. "I don't know the answer to that. I just know we've got to get you guys out of the street and someplace safe. I don't know how you got here, or where they went, and I think we should probably try to find out."
Tony and Thor nodded in agreement, but Clint looked up, panicked, and blurted out, "Does that mean you're gonna send us back when you find the grown up ones of us?"
Bucky knew fear when he saw it, and he knew that the answer had to be, "No. Or - I don't know. Maybe. Right now, I don't care if you go back or not. I just care if you're safe."
Clint nodded, but he wasn't the only one who seemed relieved. Bruce took a deep, shuddering breath, and wiped his eyes like he might be crying.
Bucky had no idea what to do about the tears, but Thor clearly did, putting the hammer completely down for the first time since Bucky came over to the small group of Avengers, and making his way to Bruce's side. Thor's oversized armor was so long that it prevented him from sitting or kneeling, but it didn't keep him from wrapping his arms around Bruce.
"Do not worry, my friend - I am sure we will find our way home again."
Bruce shook his head no, but latched onto Thor's front anyway. "I just wanna be safe. And he said we'd be safe and I - I'm sorry."
Thor's small eyebrows drew together, "What are you sorry for?"
Bruce sniffled, "Crying."
"Do not be sorry. My mother says even great warriors cry sometimes," Thor answered, patting Bruce on the back.
Bruce gave him a watery smile in return, and Bucky relaxed, convinced the Asgardian had the situation in hand.
Bruce's too-large pants fell farther away from his body as he clung onto Thor's armor instead of holding them up, and Bucky realized that even if he was useless with crying, he could do something about the clothing situation.
He unzipped his hoodie, planning to wrap Bruce in it, but when he stepped forward to approach the boy, Natalia took a step back, looking nervous. Right. She didn't speak English, so none of the things that had started to get the boys on his side were helping him here. He sighed, calling out to her in Russian. All he could think to say was, "It's ok. I'm here to help."
Natalia relaxed at the sound of a familiar language, though it was such a slight shift in her muscles that clothes would probably have masked it, if she were wearing any. She asked him a series of suspicious questions, and as he answered them, he stayed aware of the rest of the Avengers. Steve watched him talk to Natalia, while Clint drifted closer to Thor and Bruce. Tony had gone back to poking at the Iron Man armor as soon as their adult selves were mentioned, but Bucky could tell he was observing the other kids, too.
Thor continued to comfort Bruce, but also listened in to Bucky's conversation with Natalia, nodding whenever he told the girl something he'd already said to the rest of them. Interesting. Bucky supposed he shouldn't be surprised that the boy spoke both English and Russian, but he didn't have time to think about it under Natalia's surprisingly effective questioning.
Ultimately, though, she didn't have a choice but to trust him, and they both knew it. He didn't like thinking about why she recognized so quickly that she was trapped or why she handled it so well, but now there was a crowd forming, and he was just glad that the conversation was over with quickly.
Natalia was technically the first to agree to come with him, but when Steve agreed, too, the others fell in line. Bucky stripped off his hoodie, handing it to Bruce and letting Thor help the other boy into it. Natalia got his t-shirt. She swam in it, and for the first time, she stopped looking dangerous. Bucky decided it was a good sign, even if it was largely illusion. What had happened to him was bad enough, without adding other people's problems into the mix.
But now he was standing here in just his pants and an undershirt, and he didn't like the way his arm gleamed in the sunlight without a sleeve to cover it. He also didn't like the way the crowd around them was starting to grow, or they way they whispered among themselves.
"Come on, kids," he said, looking them over one more time, just to make sure he had them all, "Let's stash your grownup stuff in the park down the street, and we'll get out of here."
When he started walking, they followed, and when he told them to stay close as he glared and intimidated his way through the crowd, they did that too. He almost smiled at how completely his day had been turned around. If it weren't for the fact that he didn't know where he was going, it would have been funny. He'd started off his day following the Avengers so that he could make sure Steve was safe. Now, he was leading the Avengers so that he could make sure Steve was safe. And somehow, having met them just for a brief time and having barely spoken to most of them, he was leading the Avengers so that he could make sure all of them were safe.