Music: Return To Pooh Corner, as performed by Kenny Loggins
Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
- A.A. Milne
First of all, Clint hates magic. Clint wants to make that absolutely clear. Secondly, a ‘spring horsie’ may be adorable when it is child sized and bolted to the ground at a park, but when it is the size of a bus, roaming freely down the street, and just one in a pack of similarly enlarged and animated spring loaded animals, it is terrifying. And also, weirdly sticky.
Clint is not at all ashamed to have been relieved that Steve had already handled the worst of the infestation by the time the rest of the team arrived. In the process of trying to corral all of the murderous plastic monstrosities, Steve had somehow gotten covered in a thick layer of goo, the origin of which no one could quite explain - which is a surprisingly frequent side effect of magic, and yet another example of why it is terrible. So, while the rest of the Avengers contained the enraged teenager who had somehow gotten her hands on a highly powerful magical artifact and cleaned up the remains of the park toys, Steve spent three hours in a decontamination shower.
With the whole affair over and Steve sacked out on the couch while Clint and Bucky enjoy the remains of post-battle pizza, Clint spends a whole twenty minutes making the mistake of finding the event, in retrospect, hilarious.
Clint is lounging in his chair, leaning back at what would, for most people, be a dangerous angle with his feet kicked over the edge of the table. Bucky, across the table from him, is in a similar state of tired repose, picking his teeth absently with his least favorite stiletto knife. Luckily, Steve, over on the couch is fast asleep and snoring too loudly to yell at them for it.
Clint is considering if it’s worth the effort to get up and go find a vertical surface to take a nap on when the whole Tower… shifts. It’s subtle, like the little lurch when an elevator starts moving - well, an elevator in a normal building, anyway, the elevators in the Tower only lurch is you’re unfortunate enough to have pissed off JARVIS. Honestly, Clint might not have noticed except for the way Bucky’s chair slams back down onto all four legs so hard that Clint’s a little worried about the floor’s structural integrity. Bucky’s face has gone very pale and he’s staring at something on the other side of the room. Clint tries to follow his gaze, but all he can see is the back of the couch Steve’s been napping on.
He can’t hear Steve snoring anymore. But there is a low, cut off wail, followed by a carpet-muffled thump.
Clint glances at Bucky again, but he hasn’t so much as twitched and it’s entirely possible that Bucky isn’t even breathing. The good news is, Bucky never freezes in the face of a fight, so Clint’s pretty sure he won’t be needing his bow; the bad news is, anything that’s freaking out Bucky this badly can’t be good.
When scowling at Bucky doesn’t produce any results, Clint pushes himself to his feet and moves around the couch so that he can see whatever Bucky’s staring at. The couch still has a Steve-shaped dent in it, but the blanket Steve had been using is half trailing on the floor. So are Steve’s pants.
There’s a soft scuffling sound that Clint’s hearing aids almost don’t pick up, and the coffee table jostles. Through the glass top, Clint can see an unruly shock of blond hair and Steve’s t-shirt curled up into a very small lump. Clint squats down enough to see a thin, pointy face poking out of the shirt, two very tiny hands clamped tight over his mouth and blue eyes the size of teacups. Blue eyes that are full of tears.
“Hey Barnes,” Clint calls, barely resisting the urge to backpedal very quickly. “I think this is your area of expertise.” Because Clint is absolutely not equipped to deal with a miniature Steve Rogers crying under the coffee table. Clint’s seen a picture of Steve from when he was this small the first time - Bucky’s grand-niece managed to find it in an old family photo album and sent it to them - so he knows what he’s looking at. He probably shouldn’t be feeling this calm about it, but to be completely honest, it’s probably not the weirdest magical complication they’ve ever had to deal with; at least Steve’s still human.
Bucky doesn’t answer. He’s clinging to the back of the couch hard enough that they’re probably going to have replace it - again - and his metal arm is making a low, whirring sound that usually preempts violence. He still looks very pale, and when Clint gestures at him pointedly he just shakes his head, his lips pressed together so thin that they’ve almost disappeared. Then he turns on his heel and runs for the elevator.
“What the fu-” Clint starts, instinctively lurching to his feet to rush after Bucky. Except that the wheezing coming from under the coffee table is gaining in volume and his brain abruptly loses track of everything except scared kid, help the scared kid! He is not qualified to deal with miniature Steve Rogers, but scared kids he can handle; he’s spend enough time doing civilian evacuation, and before that at the circus there were always kids getting overstimulated and hiding under the bleachers. Nonetheless, he mutters, “JARVIS, get me back up,” before turning back to the disaster at hand.
He grimaces as he sits back down on the carpet, ducking his head so that he can look at little Steve, who has both hands clamped over his mouth and looks like he’s trying very, very hard to cry silently. Clint’s heart clenches but he forces a relaxed, friendly smile. “Hey there. My name’s Clint. How ya doing?”
Hastily, Steve scrubs a hand over his eyes, sniffing hard enough that it shakes his whole body. Clint’s not good at guessing kid’s ages, so he isn’t going to try, but fuck Steve is small; it’s kind of terrifying. He blinks at Clint and the confused lack of recognition tells him all he needs to know.
“Hey, uh, you think you can help me with something?” Clint asks. He fishes awkwardly in his pocket and makes a low sound to triumph when he finds what he’s looking for. “You see this coin here?” He holds up the quarter, sparing half a second to panic over oh god, modern coin, it’s a modern coin, he’s going to-, but Steve’s eyes are already locked on the coin and his tears have slowed significantly. “Right, see it? Do you think you could blow on it for me?”
The line between Steve’s eyebrows is hilariously familiar, even on his thin young face and he looks distinctly unimpressed, but at least he’s stopped crying.
Clint holds out the coin to him. “Please? Just a little blow. It’s dirty, see, and I don’t want to get an infection. Your mom’s a nurse, you know about infections, right?”
Steve lowers his hands and his mouth is turned down into a full on scowl. “‘S not how cleaning works,” he mumbles, his voice still thick and hoarse from the tears but oh so serious.
Clint huffs. “Come on, kid, humor me,” he complains. “This’ll be really cool.”
Steve looks unconvinced, but he leans forward enough to give a little puff in the direction of the coin.
Clint grins. “Much obliged,” he says, trying to mimic the accent that comes out when Steve and Bucky are really tired. “Now watch the coin close for me, okay? We don’t want to lose it.”
Steve just scrubs his eyes again and blinks at him blearily.
It’s a simple trick - like most coin tricks - but Clint dresses it up with a little pageantry. He waves his hands around, rambling to keep Steve from actually focusing too hard on the coin. He taps the coin against the back of his hand several times, then with an extra flourish he slips the coin out of sight behind his fingers and drops the second coin he’d kept hidden beneath his palm, creating the illusion of the apparent singular coin passing through his hand.
Steve does not look impressed. He reaches out and plucks both coins from Clint’s hands, holding them up pointedly.
“Okay, so not as cool as I promised.” Clint shrug, giving him a chagrined smile. Mission accomplished though, at least miniature Steve is no longer crying. “You wanna come out from under the table now?” Clint asks, scooting back enough to give him room. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice table and our carpet is pretty comfortable, but the couch is better.”
Steve looks wary, his eyes darting uncertainly around the room, but he shuffles forward enough to stand up. The t-shirt, which had been on a very narrow edge toward too small on his serum enhanced grown up body, is now long enough to cover him almost down to the knees, though the neck is so wide it threatens to slip off of his narrow shoulders. He clasps his hands in front of him, fingers worrying at the fabric of the t-shirt anxiously. “I-I gotta go,” he mumbles. He keeps looking at Clint and away again, and his lip is starting to look swollen from being chewed on. “My Ma’ll be worried.”
A volley of oh shits start going off in Clint’s head; he did not think this through beyond ‘get the kid to stop crying’. He rocks back on his heels, trying not to feel incredibly weird about the fact that even kneeling he’s a little taller than Steve at the moment.
Luckily, Clint isn’t in this alone. Unluckily, Tony is the first one out of the elevator.
“What the fuck is that?” Tony demands. “I did not order that. This is supposed to be a grown up place, for grown ups only.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” Sam rolls his eyes, pushing his way past Tony. “I thought you’d promised Peter Pan you’d never grow up.”
“Children, simmer down.” Natasha chides, and the knot of stress in Clint’s chest starts to unwind a little, because while Natasha isn’t great with kids she is at least capable of making sure he doesn’t somehow get Steve killed before they can find a way to get him re-American-icon-ified.
“No one has answered my question,” Tony complains. He heads for the bar on the other side of the room, but Natasha is magically there to turn him away and herd him toward the couches.
“You answered your own question,” she tells him calmly. “More importantly, Clint, what is going on here?”
Clint glances from Steve - who is looking wary again, but it looks like the anxiety is starting to settle into a stubborn anger - to the others and shrugs helplessly. “Uh, Steve, these are some friends of mine-” he starts, giving the others a pointed look. “Well, most of them. Don’t listen to anything Tony says, he just likes to hear himself talk.”
“Steve,” Sam repeats, like that’s a full sentence in and of itself. “Steve Rogers.”
Steve looks up at him, though he has to crane his head back so far that he nearly tips over with the effort. “Do you know my Ma?” he asks. “I gotta find her. She’s gonna be worried about me.”
Every adult shares a collective, wide eyed look of Uhhh?, which Clint feels somewhat vindicated about. But no one else volunteers a response and Steve is staring at Clint again but shifting from foot to foot like he might take off running at any moment. So, right, lying, Clint is good at that. Sometimes.
“We’re friends of your Ma’s,” he says, sincerely hoping it doesn’t sound as much like a question as it feels. “She, uh, had to work some extra shifts, so she asked us to look after you for a bit.”
Steve looks sort of crestfallen, but he nods.
“Hey Steve, are you hungry?” Sam offers. He seems to have recovered from his shock and crouches down so that Steve doesn’t have to work quite so hard to look at him. Luckily, Sam’s biggest fans are his nieces and nephews, and he’s got the convincing smile down to a science.
Clint rolls to his feet - ignoring the way his knees creak - while he watches Sam cajole Steve into the kitchen and start fixing him a sandwich. Clint doesn’t even bother to jump when Natasha leans against his shoulder and looks at him sideways with a raised eyebrow. “I didn’t do it!” he mutters, on reflex. That only makes Natasha’s eyebrow arch higher. “Look, he was napping and then poof he was tiny. Barnes freaked out and ran off, and I got stuck on babysitting duty. You know as much as I do about this situation.”
“So, we’re all thinking magic, right?” Tony says, inserting himself into the conference. He’s apparently given up on making it to the bar and is clutching a coffee mug to his chest instead, but he at least has the sense to keep his voice lowered while they all watch Sam doing his best to charm Steve on the other side of the room.
“Yes?” Clint says, glancing sidelong at Natasha for confirmation. “I mean, earlier we had an angry teenager trying to recapture her childhood, and how often is it really a coincidence where we’re concerned?”
“Steve was the only one who got covered in that goop,” Natasha muses.
“I call dibs on not being the one to deal with this,” Tony mutters, taking a long drink from his mug.
“Thor is probably still with Dr. Strange securing the teenager’s amulet,” Natasha says, pulling out her phone.
“Super, I’m out.” Tony waves flippantly over his shoulder as he heads for the elevator. “I don’t deal with Dr. Weirdo, and I don’t babysit. But if you need anything soldered, let me know.”
“Probably for the best.” Natasha shrugs. “I’ll check in with Thor and Strange, see what they have to say about this.”
“Uh, if I do that, will you got hunt down Bucky?” Clint asks. “He looked pretty freaked out when he ran out of here and you are best at dealing with his weird Russian mood swings.”
Natasha purses her lips. “He isn’t actually Russian, and babysitting him isn’t part of my job description, you know,” she retorts, but Clint knows she doesn’t really mean it.
“Would you rather say here and help babysit Steve?” Clint suggests with an repentant grin that usually gets him smacked.
But Natasha just rolls her eyes. “I’ll deal with Barnes,” she says firmly. “You wrangle the magic experts, and don’t let Sam adopt Steve.”
“I’d be more worried about Thor adopting him,” Clint points out.
She grimaces. “He and Thor can discuss that once we get Steve grown up again.”
Natasha is neither mean nor stupid enough to actually leave Clint to deal with gods and magic users alone. Once she’d made sure that Barnes was in the gym and that JARVIS would let her know if he tried to leave, she settles in to supervise.
Between them, Clint and Sam are apparently successful at keeping Steve calm and feeding him a sandwich; though Steve remains withdrawn and mostly silent, his face permanently pulled into a tight, pinched frown. By silent agreement, they’re all sticking with Clint’s friends-of-Steve’s-mom story, but Natasha doesn’t think he’s actually buying it.
When Thor and Dr. Strange arrive - via glowing portal, which luckily Steve is too engrossed in his sandwich to notice - Thor fulfills Clint’s prediction by being immediately entranced by Steve’s new stature. He may very well have tried to scoop Steve up and throw him in the air like he frequently does with the children they meet on press tours had Sam not intercepted him. Natasha tries not to show her impatience while Strange does his hand waving and muttering, and loses the battle somewhere in the middle of his long winded lecture on metaphysics. Luckily, before she can snap, Pepper arrives with an arm full of shopping bags and Bruce in tow. Compliantly Steve changes into the clothes Pepper brought him and consents to letting Bruce give him a physical - Steve has, no doubt, had plenty of experience with doctors, even at such a young age, and Steve’s keeping himself to tightly restrained, his false calm so firmly in place that Bruce actually looks more nervous and uncomfortable than Steve does.
Meanwhile, Natasha stands by and lets Pepper take over talking to Strange. It’s inspiring, really, Pepper’s ability to take men with egos bigger than their heads and twist them around her little finger; if she wasn’t so vital to keeping at least a quarter of the world’s economy stable, SHIELD probably would have made her lead interrogator years ago.
Strange’s diagnosis turns out to be that Steve is “suffering from side effects of excessive exposure to uncontained magic.” The prognosis, thankfully, is that he should return to normal on his own, anywhere from a few hours from now, to a few months from now. It isn’t ideal, but it releases a significant amount of pressure from the crisis barometer. So when her phone chimes with a polite text from JARVIS, she quietly slips out of the room - the others all have Steve well in hand, and she has her own job to do.
The text isn’t - as she had expected - the warning she’d requested that Bucky is trying to leave the gym; it’s a clip from one of JARVIS’ cameras. When she’d first checked in, Bucky was on Steve’s usual treadmill, but in the video he’s at one of the super-soldier-weight heavy bags, his clothes and hair are completely drenched in sweat, the seams of the punching bag are visibly straining, and the tape wrapped around his flesh hand is looking a little pink.
A few seconds into the video, Bucky stops punching. He stops the swing of the bag and crowds in close, his hands braced against the lumpy fabric and his head bent until his forehead almost is too. Natasha watches the muscles in his back flex under his t-shirt as he breathes, nearly hugging the bag for support for several seconds. Then his head abruptly jerks up and there’s a note of panic in his voice as he says, “JARVIS? They know about his asthma, right? I mean, they probably do. But there’s medicine for that now, right? Probably not the old cigarettes we used to give him, but something. And his heart, you gotta watch out for that. And he’s color blind, it shouldn’t be much of a problem but he’s kind of touchy about it. And he’s mostly deaf in the left ear, so you gotta be careful and talk mostly from his right.” Bucky’s barely stopping for breath as he rambles. It’s been a while since Natasha has seen Bucky ramble like this; he only does it when he’s scared about something that can’t be solved through combat, and - perhaps perversely - Natasha can’t help but to find it a little bit adorable. “He’ll eat just about anything you put in front of him,” Bucky goes on, “but dairy sometimes makes him sick, and red meat isn’t always so good either. And you gotta watch him, he got pneumonia three times when he was six before, so his immune system was pretty shot-”
The video cuts off, but there’s a second text from JARVIS reporting that Sergeant Barnes has not directly asked about the situation upstairs but has gone on several such tirades offering details about Steve’s childhood health. Then a third text with a neat, itemized list of every concern Bucky’s voiced.
Natasha sighs, but pulls up Steve’s file. Most of the things Bucky mentioned are already in it, but she adds a few notes just to be thorough. When she enters the gym a few minutes later, Bucky is back to working the heavy bag, the sounds of his fists echoing in the large room despite the muffling effect of the thick bag. She crosses her arms, standing just out of range, and watches without comment. It isn’t quite his usual graceful lethality; he isn’t training, there’s no finesse in the way he throws his punches and he isn’t moving around the bag in the light footed dance that he’s so good at. Instead he’s planted himself squarely in front of the bag, his whole body square but tightly drawn in, and he’s hitting hard and straight from close range like a boxer. It’s a straightforward pummeling, meant for nothing more than a release of pent up energy and tension, but it makes him look less like the Winter Soldier for the moment, and more like the kid from Brooklyn that he used to be.
“So, he’s six,” Natasha says when there’s a pause in Bucky’s rhythm. She doesn’t quite make it a question, but it’s an opening.
Bucky doesn’t startle, but his shoulders go even tighter and draw up to his ears for just a moment before he responds. “Broke his nose for the first time when he was seven,” he says, by way of answer.
She nods, drifting a little closer and sitting down on one of the nearby weight benches. “And you think we have to worry about his asthma? That the serum isn’t still in there?”
His head jerks around to look at her, his eyes a little wide. “Is it?”
She shrugs. “Not according to the tests Bruce did. But it’s magic; you shouldn’t assume.”
Bucky scowls at her, but he steps away from the bag and starts unwrapping his right hand slowly. “Is he, um-” he starts, but doesn’t finish the question. The tape is half wrapped around his knuckles still and from the way he’s staring at it he’s either forgotten how to finish removing it, or has determined to just glare it into falling off on its own.
“He’s unimpressed by Clint’s coin tricks, so at least we know his intelligence isn’t just a byproduct of the serum,” she says.
Bucky almost smiles. “He never had much patience for bullshit,” he mutters. He finishes removing the tape so sharply that he rips it and then just tosses the pieces aside.
“He’s quiet,” Natasha says. She moves over enough to allow Bucky to sit on the weight bench beside her.
“Minding his p’s and q’s?” Bucky asks.
“When he talks at all,” Natasha says, handing over the towel she’d picked up on her way in so that Bucky can wipe himself down.
Bucky nods. “He’s scared shitless.”
“Yes.” Natasha lets the silence hang for a few minutes, watching Bucky sideways. “You should be with him.”
Bucky makes a sound that’s almost a growl and lurches back to his feet, though he doesn’t go anywhere, just stands there swaying slightly. “What for?” he grumbles, just the edge of a snarl in his voice. “Not like he knows me - this me -” for a moment his voice is hoarse and acidic, “any more than the rest of you.”
“But you know him,” she points out reasonably. She stays seated while Bucky begins to pace, watching him with an outward calm.
His jaw is clenching so tightly that the muscle is twitching, and his metal arm is whirring quietly, recalibrating as he moves. After a few minutes he stops, staring down at his metal fist while he clenches and releases it compulsively. “I could hurt him,” he says, his voice very quiet.
Natasha doesn’t roll her eyes, because she gets it, but she does let her voice be a little bit flippant when she points out, “you haven’t so much as broken a tea cup that you didn’t mean to with that in over a year.” Bucky has come a long way in putting HYDRA behind him, accepting the part of himself that will always be the Winter Soldier, reclaiming the things that were taken from him, and making new pieces of himself to fill in the ones that are too far gone. Natasha is proud of him for that. But she knows, better than anyone, that no matter how far he comes some things will always trip him up.
“Then he’ll be scared of me!” Bucky yells, whirling on her, though he doesn’t do anything more than glower impotently. “Or pissed off, or ashamed, or- Fuck!” He scrubs both hands roughly over his face.
Natasha sighs, put pushes herself to her feet. She closes the short distance between them and rests a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “I understand,” she says. “But the others won’t.”
Bucky makes a low, dry sound that isn’t anything like a laugh, but he doesn’t shrug off her touch.
“Strange says he should go back to normal once the magic runs its course, but the timeline is uncertain.” She squeezes his shoulder, just a little, just enough to silently offer the things that neither of them are good at asking for or receiving.
“Don’t suppose SHIELD could hook me and my guns up with a tropical vacation?” Bucky sighs.
She knows he isn’t serious, but she answers anyway. “With Steve out of commission, we need you on hand. You know, in case we need somewhere to temporarily hang his shield.”
“Not a chance, sister,” Bucky grumbles. “That shit’s too heavy.”
She rolls her eyes and gives him a light shove. “I’ll keep you updated,” she tells him, a kind gesture despite how flat and dry her voice is. She knows he’ll understand.
He nods, turning back to the heavy bag without bothering to rewrap his hand. “He really likes peaches,” he mumbles. “It’d be real swell if you could find him a fresh one.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she promises.
“Tony,” Pepper says, with what she thinks is an overly generous amount of patience. “Do you remember the conversation we had about making promises and not keeping them?”
“Uh, Jay, do we have that one in the memory banks?” Tony asks, not looking up from whatever pile of metal pieces he’s bent over.
“There are several variations on the theme, Sir,” JARVIS responds curtly.
“I asked you, not JARVIS,” Pepper points out. She carefully, but pointedly, pushes aside the mess of miscellanea covering the nearest workbench so that she can set down the bags of take out she’s carrying.
“JARVIS and I have a system. It’s a good system, finely honed through long years of careful negotiations.” Tony abandons whatever he’d been working on while he rambles, distractingly nudging U out of the way and drifting over to one of his computer terminals to start typing rapidly instead. “He does the boring stuff, like remembering things, and I do everything that requires opposable thumbs. It works.”
“Except for the things you don’t want to do, in which case JARVIS does them by piloting one of your suits. I am aware.” Pepper sighs, but she also can’t resist a small smile which she hides in the nearest takeout bag as she starts sorting through the little white boxes. It’s hardly the first time they’ve had this conversation, it certainly won’t be the last, and as aggravating as it can be sometimes she’s pretty sure that the bickering is somehow what makes their relationship work. “But, since JARVIS doesn’t have a stomach, you’ll have to come and eat dinner yourself.”
It’s a relief to toe off her shoes and curl her toes around the cool metal stretcher of the lab stool. It’s been a long week; she’d gotten back from several days dealing with entitled assholes in D.C. early that morning, and she’d still been getting caught up when JARVIS put out the alarm about Steve’s shrinking problem. To be honest, she’d really been hoping for a quiet, romantic date night to celebrate her return from D.C., but she knows Tony has just as much work to do as she does, and he’s probably now ignoring all of it in favor of trying to figure out a way to put some sort of anti-magic shielding into Steve’s suit; but that doesn’t mean she’s going to let Tony get away with skipping date night entirely. She doesn’t press the issue for the moment, however; she’s learned, through endlessly frustrating trial and error that given enough time he’ll switch tracks and come over on his own.
Pepper unwraps her chopsticks and digs into a carton of lo mein; a process which is significantly hampered by Dum-E trying to crane his camera arm around her to peer into her carton. He’s pressed his chassis in close enough behind her that she can lean back against him, which is kind of nice though she does shoo his arm away from her food. In the beginning, Pepper hadn’t liked the bots; she’d found them strangely unsettling, and it served as a good excuse to avoid Tony’s lab as much as possible. Of course, the bots had still been more or less babies when she’d first started working for Stark Industries, and in the years since they’ve grown and she’s gotten to know them better. A few years ago a six foot tall semi-intelligent metal arm on wheels poking at her with a literal claw would have been terrifying, now it’s just par for the course. It’s a lot like having several overgrown puppies, she thinks, except this way she doesn’t have to worry about taking them on walks or scooping their poop.
“What promise?” Tony asks, eventually. It’s casual and distracted - mostly - his attention still alternating between typing at his terminal and poking at some sort of metallic mesh with a small propane torch. Dum-E perks up at the sight of the torch and immediately whizzes off - presumably to find the fire extinguisher.
She makes a distracted, “mm?” sound around her noodles, raising an eyebrow at Tony’s back. No matter what else is going on, she does love to watch him work. He’s wrapped up in one of his hoodies at the moment, but the fabric is worn thin and she can just barely see the outline of the muscles in his back working as he leans over to reach for another tool.
“The promise, the one JARVIS forgot to remind me not to break?” He gives up on the terminal, pacing a few steps closer and waving his propane torch in a way that their lawyers would strongly disapprove of. He doesn’t make it all the way over to her, though, pausing instead in front of another bench that’s holding the disassembled components of what looks like one of Natasha’s stingers. Dum-E returns and takes up his post just behind Tony’s shoulder, whirring in a way that definitely reminds Pepper of a dog looking for a treat. “Don’t you come near me with that thing,” Tony grumbles distractedly, pointing a threatening finger into the nozzle of the fire extinguisher in Dum-E’s grasp.
“The promise,” Pepper repeats, setting the lo mein aside and digging around through the boxes for the Mongolian beef, “the promise that you are, right now, at this moment breaking? That promise?”
Tony pauses and blinks at her, as though he is for the first time actually processing her presence - which, he probably is. His hair is all standing on end and there is - inexplicably - a smear of grease on his left cheekbone; he is incredibly lucky that he’s adorable, not that Pepper will ever tell him that. He opens his mouth to say something, but before the words come out Dum-E pokes his claw into the gap between Tony’s arm and side, nudging Tony hard enough to make him stumble a step, and spraying foam all over both Tony and the bench in front of them.
Tony lurches back hastily, swearing and trying to wipe the foam off of his shirt. “Dum-E, that’s it! Pack your bags! I gave you one job - scratch that, I didn’t even give you a job! You’re supposed to be charging right now, but nooo,” Tony draws out the ‘o’ for much longer than necessary. A fleck of foam has now joined the grease on his cheek and he lurches forward, trying to snatch the fire extinguisher out of Dum-E’s grasp. “Dum-E, I swear to god, you hand that over and get your things! I am done with you. Maybe your new roommates at the community college will find a use for you.”
Pepper’s seen the show so many times before she practically has it memorized, but it’s still hard not to laugh as she watches Tony start chasing Dum-E around the lab. Dum-E is holding the fire extinguisher as high up in the air as his claw will go and making a high pitched ‘eeeeeeee’ sound as he whizzes past her, wheels clattering over the cement floor.
Pepper just manages to snag the tail of Tony’s shirt as he goes running past after Dum-E. Despite her best efforts she’s grinning hard enough that her cheeks hurt, and she’s about to admonish Tony to leave poor Dum-E alone and come eat, when someone else beats her to it.
“Cut that out!” yells a surprisingly high pitched, but very serious voice.
The mood is effectively broken when Pepper realizes that it’s Steve; Steve, who is still tiny, whose hair is a tousled mess and whose eyes are half the size of his face. He’s wearing a pair of old fashioned flannel pajamas that are a little too big despite JARVIS’ measurements, and a pair of sneakers with the laces untied and trailing on the ground behind him. His hands are clenched tight into fists and his whole face is clenched into frowning stubbornness.
Dum-E, apparently recognizing an ally, switches directions and comes to a stop in the doorway behind Steve, curling his claw-arm in as though he’s trying to hunker down enough to hide behind Steve, despite the fact that Dum-E is easily twice a tall as Steve is at the moment.
“You leave him alone,” Steve insists, glowering at them both. His feet are planted in a wide stance in front of Dum-E, and his jaw is clenched so hard his lower lip is trembling a little.
Tony, who had half fallen into Pepper’s lap when she caught him, had gone very still and a little rigid at Steve’s first shout. Now, he slowly pushes himself back upright, his movements stiff and careful like someone who’s just been confronted by a wild bear. “Look, pipsqueak, this is between me and him, okay? Dum-E, stop trying to hide behind the child. It isn’t working, I can still see you.”
“Stop it!” Steve yells again, this time punctuating his words by stamping his foot.
It is absolutely the most hilarious thing Pepper has ever seen, and she’s just about to give up entirely on trying not to laugh when she notices how bright and wet Steve’s eyes are. It stops being funny very quickly. “Tony, be quiet,” she warns, standing and nudging Tony out of the way. She doesn’t bother to put her shoes back on as she crosses over to the doorway where Steve is starting to shift from foot to foot. She crouches down so that she’s closer to eye level with him and tries to give him a reassuring smile. It feels awkward and strange on her face; she’s far more used to telling off assholes and lying to shareholders. “You shouldn’t listen to Tony, Steve,” she says. “He’s full of steam.”
Steve bites his lip, but his chin lowers just a little and his hands, though still in fists, come up to hug around his thin chest. “He’s bein’ mean,” Steve says, his voice somewhere between petulance and a whine.
She wrinkles her nose. “He doesn’t mean it,” she tries to assure Steve. It’s harder than it should be to resist the urge to touch him; Pepper typically enjoys the idea of kids, from a distance, but she’s never considered herself to be naturally nurturing. Maybe it’s because he’s undeniably adorable, or maybe it’s because he’s Steve, but it’s hard not to pull him into a hug. “And Dum-E doesn’t really mind. I know it looks strange, but that’s really just how they show affection.”
“Don’t call him that!” Steve snaps, his whole body going stiff and angry all over again. “Just ‘cause he made a mistake is no reason to say mean things about him and call him names.”
“It’s not an insult,” Tony butts in. He’s staying back, not quite hovering a few feet behind where Pepper is crouched. “It’s his name.” Steve scowls at Tony, then glances dubiously back at Dum-E. Tony rolls his eyes and comes forward, grabbing Dum-E’s support strut before the bot can try to roll away. “See, look, it’s printed right here.” Tony points, showing Steve the neat letters emblazoned into Dum-E’s chassis. “It’s not the most clever name I’ve ever come up with, granted. But it’s his, and he’s fine with it.” Dum-E makes a chirping sound as though in confirmation and bounces a little on his wheels, then he rolls out from behind Steve and over to where Tony’s newest robot - a small one only two feet tall named SnackTime - is, for some reason, moving piles of tires around.
Pepper doesn’t think that Steve is entirely convinced, but he un-balls his fists and he doesn’t start yelling at Tony again, so Pepper will consider that a win and time to nudge the conversation in a different direction. “Steve, what are you doing down here?” she asks gently. “You should be in bed.”
Steve opens his mouth, but then snaps it closed again and bites his lip. “‘M sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I, uh, I just got a little lost,” he says, and his voice is clear and steady but he’s talking to the floor. He glances over his shoulder and starts furtively edging toward the door. “I’ll go back to bed right away,” he adds, a little too quickly. Pepper may not be good with kids, but she is good at recognizing a lie.
“You didn’t interrupt anything,” she tells him. “But you shouldn’t be wandering around the Tower alone.” She hesitates, considering asking JARVIS to call Clint or Sam, who’ve been doing most of the looking after Steve since his shrinking incident, to come pick him up and take him to bed. But they’ve already taken the brunt of the responsibility that none of them expected or were prepared for, so Pepper figures the least she can do is tuck Steve back into bed. She pushes herself back to her feet - ignoring the twinge in her thighs from staying in a crouch for so long - and offers her hand out to Steve. “How about a glass of milk and then I’ll walk back upstairs with you?” she suggests with the warmest smile she can manage.
Steve doesn’t answer, but he does take her hand. There’s a small lounge set in between Tony’s lab and Bruce’s taking up the other half of the floor. It has a kitchenette, a few overstuffed couches, and plenty of blankets for when Tony or Bruce can’t be bothered to go to bed properly. She leads Steve to one of the couches and then heads to the kitchenette. She pauses with her head in the fridge, remembering Bucky’s warning passed via JARVIS and Natasha about lactose, but luckily there’s a carton of almond milk. She pours two glasses, then notices Tony hovering in the doorway and gets out a third. She warms the milk, then adds some vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, smiling at the sweet scent of the familiar recipe.
By the time she brings the mugs over, Tony has come in far enough to perch on the arm of the couch adjacent to the one Steve is sitting on and Steve is sitting as straight as his scoliosis will allow with his hands folded tightly in his lap and his eyes on his knees. Pepper sits on the couch with Steve, placing herself in between him and Tony. She holds Tony’s mug out for him to take and sets her own carefully on the floor so that she can hold Steve’s steady for him. “Careful,” she warns, “It’s hot. It’s a different milk than you’re used to, it’s called almond milk. But I like it better than cow milk, I think it’s sweeter and it doesn’t make my stomach hurt.”
Steve eyes the mug dubiously, but he takes it carefully in his small hands. There are a few minutes of silence while they each blow on and sip their drinks. Steve keeps his eyes lowered, like he’s concentrating very hard on not dropping his mug, and his shoulders hunch in around the warmth of it.
“So, what was the plan, kid?” Tony asks, and Pepper appreciates that by Tony’s usually standards his voice is almost gentle. “Were you just going to walk back to Brooklyn?”
Steve shifts, his feet kicking a little and his untied shoelaces dangling. “I just wanna go home,” he mumbles. He fidgets again, then asks a question in a very small voice. “My Ma’s sick, isn’t she? That’s why you’re makin’ me stay here.”
Pepper’s heart twists, and she doesn’t know what to say. In all the confusion earlier, none of them had really come up with a plan for what to do if - when, inevitably - Steve started asking questions. “It’s… well, it’s complicated,” Pepper says, uselessly, because nothing else comes to mind. She glances up at Tony for help, but he looks just as out of his depth as she feels.
“If-If I can’t go home, do I really gotta stay here?” Pepper hates how small and lost Steve sounds, and it’s almost unbelievable how big and endearing those blue eyes can get. “I mean, I’m grateful and all, but my pal Bucky, his folks are real swell. They let me stay over all the time if Ma’s gotta work late. I don’t want to be a bother to you folks, and they won’t mind, I swear.”
Before Pepper can come up with something meaningless and reassuring, Tony butts in with his usual brand of attempting to defuse an uncomfortable situation with bluster. “I am try not to be insulted here,” Tony says. “I built this place, you know, filled it up with all the coolest toys and gadgets this c-” Tony just barely catches himself and he course corrects poorly, “this city has to offer. Are you saying my Tower isn’t good enough for you?”
“Tony,” Pepper cuts in firmly. She knows that Tony is all bluff and insincerity, but she somehow doubts that Steve is going to pick up on the distinction. In profile, Pepper can see Steve’s jaw clenching and for a second she thinks he’s going to start yelling at Tony again. But it’s worse - Steve starts crying instead. It’s quiet, his teeth sunk into his lower lip in a futile effort to keep it from quivering and big, fat tears start slipping down his cheeks with no sound other than a hitch in his breathing.
Tony reels back, nearly falling off of his perch on the couch. “Back up,” he mutters, eyes wide, “JARVIS, we need back up.”
“Oh, Steve,” Pepper catches herself saying. Instinct kicks in and she pulls Steve into a careful hug. She half expects him to shove her away - after all, she is essentially a stranger to him now - but his fists end up clutching her blouse and his whole body shakes in her arms as he sobs silently. Pepper doesn’t know what to do, so she just keeps her arms around him, rubbing his back in what she hopes are slow, soothing circles and mumbling reassuring nonsense at him.
Pepper’s world narrows down entirely to the frail body shaking in her arms, and she isn’t sure how much time has past but her shoulder is completely soaked through and Steve’s sniffling is becoming increasingly audible and congested. Tony has abandoned the couch and his mug to pace uncomfortably by the door, like he wants to leave but isn’t quiet enough of a coward to abandon Pepper to deal with the situation alone.
Then Bucky comes lurching in.
He looks like he hasn’t left the gym all day, wisps of hair escaping from his hair tie to stand up in all directions and his clothes soaked through with sweat. He’s got a gun in his left hand and he clearly looks ready for action, but he stops dead in the doorway, staring wide eyed at Pepper and Steve on the couch.
“Barnes, thank god,” Tony says, motioning as though to usher Bucky into the room but Bucky doesn’t move.
There’s a sort of inhuman stillness that Bucky can take on when he’s faced with a social situation he doesn’t know how to deal with; Pepper had seen it a lot over Bucky’s first year living at the Tower, when the terrible things HYDRA had done to him were still just around the corner and he - in his own words - didn’t remember how to be a person yet. He doesn’t do it very often anymore, but he apparently hasn’t lost his touch; it’s almost as if he’s turned into marble in the doorway. He’s still half braced in a fighting stance, but he’s angled the left side of his body away from the couch as though to hide both the gun and his metal arm from view. “JARVIS said-” Bucky starts, after a tense, prolonged silence, his voice little more than a low rasp “Is he hurt?”
Steve has gone mostly limp in Pepper’s arms, apparently having cried himself into exhaustion, and he doesn’t seem to hear Bucky’s question. Pepper shakes her head - Steve’s shaking has died down, and while his breath is hitching and sniffly there’s no tell-tale wheezing of an asthma attack. “Just tired and scared, I think,” she answers quietly.
But Steve isn’t asleep after all, and he shifts, pulling back enough to rub irritably at his running nose.
“Could you get us some tissues?” Pepper asks the room at large, but Tony jumps to it.
“Got it. I am on supplies. You two can handle the bodily fluids,” he says, a little too quickly, and hurries from the room.
Bucky still hasn’t moved, as far as Pepper can tell, though if she cranes her neck over far enough she can see that his left hand is empty - the gun, no doubt, tucked away at some point when Pepper wasn’t looking. “You’re welcome to join us,” Pepper says, a little pointedly, with a raised eyebrow at Bucky.
Bucky swallows so hard that she can see it from across the room, and she notices that his right hand is shaking ever so slightly. But, he takes a breath and half a step forward-
Before Bucky can move any more, Tony comes back in with three boxes of Kleenex. “Never say I don’t take my job seriously,” Tony declares, dumping all three boxes on the couch beside Pepper’s hip.
“Tony, you’ve never been serious a day in your life, on the job or otherwise,” Pepper chides distractedly, a reflex as she tries to wrestle the nearest box open with her arms still wrapped around Steve. “And if you’re not going to be helpful, stop talking.” Pepper manages to get the box open and carefully wipes Steve’s puffy cheeks. She holds a second tissue up to his nose and instructs him to blow, which he does obediently. His eyes are red and swollen nearly closed, his ridiculously long eyelashes all clumped together. She can feel him drooping in her arms and after she’s done the best she can to clean up his face he drops it back onto her shoulder, his thin arms curling loosely around her neck.
“I want my Ma,” Steve mumbles, his voice so thick the words are barely distinguishable. But his eyes are already slipping closed and after a couple more sniffles his whole body goes limp and his breath evens out in sleep.
Bucky looks absolutely stricken, and Pepper has a sneaking suspicion that he’s about to need the Kleenex too - not that she can blame him, she’s feeling a little teary eyed herself. She meets Bucky’s eyes with a tiny, forced smile that she hopes he understands for the sympathy that it is. “I think he’s out for the night now,” she says, though she keeps her voice at a whisper. “Would you mind taking him back up to bed?”
Bucky hesitates, and she’s certain he’s going to refuse. But then slowly, stiffly, he retrieves the gun from the back of his waist band where he’d stashed it, deliberately empties out all of the bullets and sets both gun and clip on the nearby counter. Then slowly, haltingly he approaches the couch. Pepper can’t help but to notice the deliberate way that Bucky picks Steve up with only his right hand, all the while watching Steve’s face with an expression akin to terror. But Steve just snuffles and lets out a tiny, high pitched snore before looping his arms around Bucky’s neck instead and burying his still damp face into Bucky’s shirt.
Pepper can’t even read all of the emotions flashing over Bucky’s face as he straightens up with Steve cradled carefully in his arm, but the sight both saddens and warms her heart. She pushes herself to her feet as soon as Bucky has moved back enough to give her room; she’s exhausted, suddenly, even more exhausted than she’d been before and it is definitely time to find her own bed. Impulsively, she leans down to press a light kiss to the top of Steve’s head, and then one to Bucky’s stubbly cheek. “You should get some rest too,” she tells Bucky, before moving around him to collect Tony and tow him off to bed.
Sam has absolutely earned his World’s Best Uncle mug, if he does say so himself. He has two sisters and five niblings now; he’s given horsey rides, braided pigtails, helped with homework, and even changed a few diapers. So, despite the weirdness of it, he’s perfectly happy to pitch in and help look after his temporarily child sized best friend - though he will never stop being grateful that his diaper changing skills won’t be necessary for this particular mission.
Sam is not particularly surprised to find Bucky lurking in the hallway outside of Steve’s room in the morning. Sam is, unfortunately, equally unsurprised to not find Bucky anywhere after he’s finished getting Steve up and ready for breakfast.
Steve is red-eyed and bleary, yawning and rubbing his eyes with both fists like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell Christmas special. It’s ridiculously adorable, and once everything is back to normal Sam is definitely going to utilize the pictures he subtly snaps to their full teasing potential.
Steve stays quiet through breakfast. He pokes at his eggs unenthusiastically, though he does eventually eat them all. When he’s done, Steve gets up without asking and starts trying to wash his plate, even though he’s barely tall enough to reach the sink. Sam can’t help but grin and finds a step stool in the closet for him. They stand side-by-side at the sink while they wash the dishes, Steve’s face pinched in tight as he scrubs a little too hard at the dishes.
As adorable as it is, it’s also getting worrisome. Of all the things Sam’s trained in, child psychology isn’t high on the list, but this calm, quiet thing is going to have to snap eventually and Sam isn’t sure he wants to see what’s lurking underneath. He’s tempted to ask, anyway; Steve can’t possibly have missed picking up on exactly how strange everything around him is, and he’s taking it all with a suspicious amount of stride. Maybe it’s a side effect of the magic, some subconscious part of Steve’s brain adapting to the things he can’t consciously remember. The stories Sam’s heard from Steve and Bucky’s first childhood certainly didn’t lead him to expect the calm, level headed kid Steve’s currently pretending to be.
They’ve just finished the dishes when Clint slumps in. He grabs a coffee carafe without bothering with a mug, an entire box of chocolate rice crispies, and shuffles over to flop onto the couch. Sam, having seen the morning-zombie-show plenty of times before, barely pays Clint any attention. Steve, on the other hand, tracks Clint’s every move. And when Clint starts playing some cartoons on the TV, Steve’s eyes become as big as saucers and he nearly climbs into the counter in fascination.
Sam grins and nudges Steve gently down from the stool. “Go join him,” Sam says, gesturing toward the couch. “Just make sure he gives you a turn picking what to watch.”
Steve is cautious in approaching Clint’s couch, like he’s not actually certain he’s allowed, but Clint grins and offers him a handful of cocoa dusted krispies.
“Barton, if he gets hyped up on that sugar, I am officially resigning babysitting duty,” Sam warns, wiping his hands off and stretching absently.
Steve scowls down at his hand as he carefully eats the krispies one puff at a time. “‘M not a baby,” he mutters, quietly enough that Sam barely hears it.
“You tell him, kid,” Clint snorts and refills Steve’s hand.
Sam rolls his eyes but leaves them to it. It’s a relief, to be honest; they’d been more or less in triage mode the day before, and by the time they’d finished consulting with Strange and making sure they didn’t have an other complications to worry about, it’d been late enough to more or less just put Steve to bed. Now, according to Strange, they’ve most likely got at least a couple of days to worth of kid-duty to fill and it’s not like the Tower is full of child appropriate activities, especially if they’re trying to avoid putting Steve through too much culture shock.
Luckily, Clint has plenty of experience keeping a juvenile attention span entertained, and having someone else to play with might actually do him some good. Sam leaves them to it, settling in at the kitchen table to catch up on his neglected paperwork and supervise from a distance. Somewhere around mid-morning Sam’s pen runs out of ink, and in his search for a replacement he digs up a box of crayons; just in time too, it looks like Steve is starting to get bored with the cartoons. Steve takes the crayons and stack of paper Sam hands him with a polite, reserved thanks, but within ten minutes he’s belly-down on the floor surrounded by pieces of paper and scribbling enthusiastically.
Sam finishes his paperwork just in time to break up a squabble between Steve and Clint about whether or not it’s stupid to put a face on the sun - Steve is firmly against it, and Clint, of course, retaliates by covering several sheets of paper in suns with the most garish faces possible. Bruce meanders while Sam is debating what to fix for lunch, with Thor and Natasha not far behind him. It’s not very often that their schedules align enough for them to eat group meals, but Sam has a sneaking suspicion that the present situation has everyone making a point of sticking close and checking in. Sam’s not about to complain; Bruce is one of the best cooks Sam has ever had the pleasure of knowing, and he deigns to make them all some kind of pasta dish with vegetables in a pot big enough to even satisfy Thor for lunch.
After lunch, Thor is even more full of boisterous energy than usual, and insists that it’s his turn to “entertain their young guest.” Of course, Thor’s idea of entertainment is skewed towards activities that are good for neither the furniture nor Steve’s asthma. Still, Steve gets so excited by the idea of playing catch, and he’s immediately fascinated by the glowing Asgardian ball that Thor presents him with - it’s the most emotion Sam’s see him display since the initial shock of his shrinking had worn off, and after all, Sam prefers the title of World’s Best Uncle over Mother Hen. Thor, despite his bluster, isn’t stupid, and Sam’s got an inhaler in his pocket and ready to go just in case, plus JARVIS is thoroughly monitoring the situation.
So Sam joins Natasha and Bruce at the kitchen island, while Thor and Steve entertain themselves by playing Keep Away with Clint.
“How do you think he’s doing, really?” Bruce asks when Sam settles in beside him. He doesn’t quite look up from the tablet he’s leaning over, but it’s evident that his attention is, in fact, on the game in front of them.
Sam grimaces and shrugs. “Impossible to say, really. I’m not an expert-”
“I don’t think there are any experts for people reliving their childhood via magic,” Natasha says mildly, wrapping a piece of foil over a plate of leftover pasta.
Sam rolls his eyes at her. Their conversation is being held in low voices, but he leans against the counter so that his back is to the shenanigans going on in the livingroom. “I’m not an expert,” he reiterates, “but if he was just an orphan, or a displaced refugee that we were temporarily responsible for, I’d say, yeah, there will be some trauma and at some point it’s going to come out in a pretty big mess, but that kids are resilient. Problem is, he’s not just some orphan or refugee. He’s Steve, and I can’t seem to look past that. I can’t be objective.”
“Is our, uh, resident Steve-expert still MIA?” Bruce asks, his voice carefully neutral.
“He’s not missing,” Natasha corrects, “just inactive. He’s been alternating between breaking the gym and lurking in the hallway all day.” She boosts herself up to sit on the counter, her legs swinging absently.
Sam doesn’t know what Bucky’s problem is - though he could take a few guesses; the guy’s got a boatload of problems and most of them run along the same theme. But Bucky has an actual therapist for that, and Bucky isn’t the one that Sam’s let himself be made responsible for right now. “Maybe we should tell him,” Sam says. He can’t resist the urge to look over his shoulder into the living room; Thor has Steve engaged in balancing random objects on top of the glowing Asgardian ball while Clint flicks paper balls at Thor’s head to try and break his concentration.
“That he’s being an ass? Absolutely,” Natasha agrees, “I’ll go grab his shiny metal arm and drag him in here.”
Sam narrows his eyes at her. “I meant Steve. About, you know… where he really is.”
“Why do you think that would be a good idea?” Bruce asks, bypassing Sam and Natasha’s sniping at each other and looking genuinely curious.
“I don’t know. It probably isn’t, really,” Sam admits. “It’s not like we’re actually doing a good job of lying to him-” he makes a pointed gesture toward where Steve is currently balancing on the shoulders of a Norse god and playing with an alien toy while Looney Tunes still plays in the background “-there’s no way he hasn’t noticed what’s up, and us trying to deny it could be making things worse.”
Bruce inclines his head, considering. “It’s possible. But according to Dr. Strange, in a couple of days Steve will likely go back to normal. He may not even remember any of it. As long as he’s calm with the way things are, why risk upsetting him about it?”
Sam sighs and barely resists the urge to thump his head against the counter. “Yeah, probably. You’re right. I just wish I had a better idea of what’s going on inside that cute little head.”
“Well, in the meantime, some of us still have to go to work,” Natasha says briskly, wiping off her hands. She then raises her voice enough to call over to the living room, “Clint, time to put on your grown up pants.”
“Aw, mom,” Clint groans, but he rolls to his feet and stretches. He ruffles Steve’s hair on his way toward the door. “Sorry, kid. We’ll have to play some more later.”
Steve looks like he’s about to complain, scowling at Clint’s back, but he’s cut off by a yawn wide enough to show his back molars.
“Looks like it’s nap time,” Natasha comments, smirking and patting Sam’s shoulder as she heads after Clint. “Have fun.”
“Right.” Sam pushes himself away from the counter. “Thor, maybe it’s time to downshift to a quieter activity.” Absently, Sam starts picking up crayons, paper, and other objects that had inevitably ended up all over the floor.
Thor lifts Steve down from his shoulders, holding Steve in close to his face and squinted him exaggeratedly for a moment before nodding gravely. “Agreed,” he says. Steve squirms in Thor’s grasp, wrinkling his nose. “Perhaps a story,” Thor suggests.
“Only if it’s child appropriate,” Sam warns. Thor is a remarkable storyteller, something about his voice capable of pulling a person straight to a cozy fireside in some dark ancient woods, but he can get a little overzealous with the glories of battle.
Thor gives Sam a distinctly disdainful look as he settles on the couch and pulls Steve into his lap. “I have seen the ‘fairy tales’ you Midgardians consider appropriate for children,” he points out dryly. “But you are welcome to join us, should you feel the need to chaperon.”
Sam rolls his eyes but settles into the armchair next to Thor’s couch. Bruce meanders over too - to Sam’s surprise - pausing along the way to dig in one of the bags Pepper had brought in the day before and had gotten left in the corner of the room. He comes up with a small, old fashioned looking teddy bear. Steve, who’s tucked himself in between the arm of the couch and Thor’s side, watches Bruce’s movements carefully.
“Maybe Teddy here would like to listen to the story too,” Bruce suggests, holding the bear out to Steve with a gentle smile.
Steve takes the bear slowly, turning it over in his small hands a couple of times. He blinks at the bear, blinks a few too many times, then abruptly throws the bear halfway across the room. “I’m not a baby,” he declares, jarringly loud and with enough vehemence that his voice cracks on the last word.
All three of the adults startle and exchange frowns. But Bruce recovers first; calmly he picks the bear up and sits down on Thor’s side opposite from Steve. Bruce turns sideways, crossing his legs and settling the bear primly in his lap with his arms looped loosely around it. “That’s alright,” Bruce says. “Teddy can sit with me to listen.”
Sam can’t help but wonder what sort of manners-magic Sarah Rogers had wielded to keep Steve from saying anything out loud about how incredibly weird they all are, even if it is written all over his face. But Steve doesn’t deign to comment, he just crosses his arms over his chest - hugs himself, really, Sam knows self soothing when he sees it - and slumps deeper into the couch cushions.
Thor waits for everyone to get settled with a show of exaggerated patience, then embarks on a story that sounds vaguely like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, except instead of bears he calls them something he pronounces like gal-tee-meer-deer and they sound more like a cross between some kind of a boar and the Thing From The Black Lagoon than any bear Sam’s ever seen in the zoo.
If he’s honest, Sam doesn’t pay much attention. He’s too busy watching Steve, who half nods off several times before jerking back awake; Thor doesn’t seem to notice the wavering attention of his audience, but his second story is distinctly quieter and Sam has a sneaking suspicion that Thor will manage to put all three of them to sleep before he runs out of Asgardian fairy tales. It’s Bruce that ends up dozing off first - Sam isn’t exactly surprised, he’s learned that Bruce is even worse about regular sleeping patterns than anyone else in the Tower, Tony’s infamous inventing benders included. Bruce ends up slumped sideways, the bear falling from his grasp onto its side on the couch cushion.
Sam can’t stop staring at the bear. Every time he looks away from Steve that’s where his gaze goes. Unfortunately, he can’t help but notice that Steve keeps shooting the toy furtive glances too. Sam wonders, a little grimly, if Steve really had given up comfort objects by this age. Six years old is far from ‘too old’, but Steve always puts so much pressure on himself to be bigger, better, more, it’s possible that pressure extends far enough back to have pushed him through developmental stages too quickly.
Thor is on his fourth story with Bucky comes in; he’s doing a combination between his usual stalk and a sort of creep, and he’s clearly giving the couches a wide berth. Sam had been just about sure that Steve was really asleep, but his eyes open blearily and he shifts himself up enough to peer at Bucky over the low back of the couch. Bucky freezes when he realizes that Sam, Thor, and Steve are all watching him, his eyes darting to Steve and away again repeatedly, but he doesn’t say anything. Neither does Steve, though he keeps staring at Bucky. Sam can’t see Steve’s face well enough from this angle to even make a guess at what he might be thinking.
“Friend Bucky,” Thor says, in that way he has that Sam can never figure out if it’s a joke or not, though he keeps his volume well below his usual bellow in deference to to the sleepy atmosphere of the room. “We have been enjoying story time, should you care to join us.”
Bucky looks uncomfortably caught out and surprised - almost guilty - but he mutters something incomprehensible, snatches the foil wrapped plate of pasta that Natasha had left out, and beats a hasty retreat without looking back.
Thor watches Bucky go, then shoots Sam a grim look and shakes his head. Sam doesn’t know what to say, so he just shrugs - while technically they could force Bucky hang out with Steve, it probably wouldn’t actually do anyone any good.
Steve, who until now hadn’t shown any particularly strong reactions to the comings and goings of the adults in the Tower, stares in the direction Bucky went long after he’s out of sight. Then Steve abruptly shifts, snatches the teddy bear from Bruce’s side, and rolls over so that his face is mashed in between Thor’s side and the back of the couch. Steve curls his whole body into an impossibly small ball around the teddy bear, and doesn’t make a sound. He resists Thor’s attempts at gently coaxing him out of the cushions, and Thor shoots Sam a helpless look that Sam can only return in kind.
With no other suggestions on the table, Thor shrugs and picks up his story where he left off.
It’s quiet in the kitchen. Clint went to put Steve to bed almost two hours ago, and Bucky isn’t sure where any of the others are - he’s been more than happy to avoid them as much as he can. He hates pretty much everything about this situation, and he doesn’t have the patience for any more disapproving frowns or not so subtle suggestions right now.
He misses Steve. And he can’t tell anyone that, because they’ll just look at him like he’s an idiot, or more likely flat out tell him he’s an idiot; just go be with him they’ll say, he’s right there and yeah, it’s not the same, but he’s still Steve. But that’s not the point, and Bucky can’t just go be with him. The others are so focused on taking care of Steve - yes, Bucky feels a little guilty about that, but honestly, between Clint, Sam, and Thor, they’re doing a better job than most people would - Bucky is left with solitude as his only option. Granted, there was a time when he would have claimed he prefers it that way, maybe there was a time when he actually did prefer it that way, but he’s not used to being alone so much any more and it sucks.
It’s still early by their usual standards, and even if he was inclined toward trying, Bucky knows he wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. He hasn’t slept since Steve… regressed. There’s an inexplicable and inescapable knot of terror in the pit of Bucky’s stomach, and every time he’s tried to close his eyes he’s been met with an incoherent mix of screaming, blood, and Steve’s tiny face.
It’s been about an hour and twenty minutes since Bucky broke out the vodka. It won’t do anything but give him a faint buzz, except that he’s tired enough that it almost feels like it’s working. He’s slumped down on the table, letting his eyes unfocus as he stares vaguely at the dull glint of his metal fingers.
Fuck magic. Fuck the future. HYDRA doesn’t actually have anything to do with this particular shitfest, but fuck them too.
Bucky doesn’t realize he muttered the word aloud until a high pitched voice chides, “you’re not supposed to say that word.”
Bucky snorts. “Like that has literally ever stopped me.” It takes several more seconds for his brain to catch up with him, and then he jerks upright sharply and squints at Steve. “‘The hell is Clint?” Bucky demands. Fuck, Clint is supposed to be on mini-Steve watching duty tonight, not letting him just wonder all over the Tower; he could get hurt, Bucky could hurt him-
“He fell asleep.” There’s an oh so familiar mulish jut to Steve’s jaw, scowling at Bucky with that little puckered line between his eyebrows, and now that Bucky’s seen the grown up version it’s absurdly hilarious to look at. Bucky doesn’t feel like laughing though; he feels like running. It’s pathetic, he knows - he spent nearly seventy years as the villain of a horror story, but three-foot-nothing Steve Rogers makes him want to hide under his own bed.
“Well, you should be asleep,” Bucky says lamely.
“I don’t want to sleep,” Steve retorts. Despite his words, his hair is standing a odd angles in a tell-tale fashion, and he rubs distractedly at his eyes with one hand. The other hand, Bucky notices distantly, is clutching a teddy bear by the ear. Also, someone - Clint, probably - apparently thought it was funny to put Steve to bed in a pair of footie pajamas with little American flags printed on them. Bucky kind of wants to laugh, except that terrible, hollow knot filling his stomach is threatening to move upward into his throat and the corners of his eyes are starting to feel uncomfortably warm.
“Too bad,” Bucky says, forcing himself to turn away from the sight of Steve, though that just means he ends up staring at the stupid, half empty bottle of vodka. “JARVIS, wake up-”
“Stop lying!” The shout is loud enough to make Bucky startle, cutting off the rest of his sentence. He looks back and Steve has his tiny hands balled up into fists, his whole face flushed red with eyes too wide and too bright. “You’re just like all the other stupid grown ups around here and I’m sick of it!” Steve stamps his foot to punctuate his outburst and Bucky has a sneaking suspicion that if sitting on the stool didn’t make him too high to reach, Steve would have tried to take a swing at him.
“I-” Bucky falters; he’d been working so hard to avoid Steve and been so grumpy about missing him, he doesn’t know what to do with Steve standing there yelling at him. “Steve, we’re not-” except that they are, he knows the others have been avoiding telling Steve the truth about where he is, and when he is. Just because Bucky hasn’t directly contributed to it doesn’t mean he’s not culpable.
A couple of tears slip down Steve’s flushed cheeks and he scrubs them away like the situation is somehow their fault. “I don’t know what I did wrong,” he mumbles, his voice now softer and choked up with tears, though his eyes are still rage-hot.
“You didn’t-” Bucky’s legs push him off of the stool before he can process that he’s moving, but Steve takes a defensive step back, his hands coming up in fists again.
“You’re supposed to be my best friend!” Steve’s shouting again, but he’s still crying and his whole body is starting to shake. “You promised we’d be friends forever! But now you’re all grown up and stupid and everything’s weird and I hate you!”
Bucky has about half a second to think he recognizes me. How the hell does he recognize me? Then the full brunt of the situation slams into him like a sack of bricks.
And, oh God, Bucky’s been so stupid. He forgets about HYDRA, about his metal arm and the invisible but irredeemable blood on his hands. In an instant he’s on his knees and pulling Steve’s tiny, shaking body into his arms. Steve resists at first, trying to shove Bucky away and pounding on his chest with wild, flailing fists as his words dissolve into incoherent shouts. But Bucky doesn’t let go and in seconds Steve is sagging limply in his arms, sobbing with his whole body into Bucky’s metal shoulder.
“Fuck, Stevie, I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry,” Bucky mutters, over and over again as he helplessly tries to both hold Steve tight and rub his back soothingly. “I’ve been real stupid, but we are still friends. Best friends forever, I swear.”
Eventually Steve’s tears peter off and he pulls back enough to look at Bucky properly. With Bucky kneeling on the tile and Steve standing in front of him they’re almost evenly eye to eye and Steve squints at Bucky in a way that makes him feel horribly exposed. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling - over the years Steve only ever got better at looking through Bucky - but it’s different, strangely more intense now, when Bucky feels so big and awkward in the face of Steve’s childhood innocence.
Steve has one hand still fisted in the front of Bucky’s shirt, but his other hand finds the hem of Bucky’s left sleeve, poking at it just enough to brush against the metal underneath. Bucky’s breath catches in his throat, part of him irrationally wanting to recoil, to tell Steve not to touch that, that is isn’t safe. But the words won’t come out and Steve gets a little more bold, one index finger tracing the line where two plates join. “Does it hurt?” he asks, his eyes locked on the dull shine of the metal in the low light.
Bucky has to swallow hard before he can answer. “Not any more,” he says, more or less truthfully. Carefully he moves his hand, catching Steve’s small fingers with it. Steve’s hand looks so fragile and pale against the metal of Bucky’s palm, too small, and Bucky has to shove away the horrifying, intrusive thought that if he closed his fist too tight he could pulverize all of the bones in Steve’s delicate hand.
But there’s no fear in Steve, none of the hesitance or disgust that Bucky had expected. More than anything, he seems fascinated. He keeps staring at Bucky’s hand, fingers carefully tracing each line and joint in the palm and then up the fingers. Steve’s barely touching, just a slight brush of fingertips too light for the sensors to feel and Bucky can’t look away, can’t stop staring at the jarring contrast.
Steve is chewing on his lower lip, the depth of his thoughts evidently matching the crease between his eyebrows. “Someone hurt you,” Steve says, and it’s not a question. The kid’s too smart for his own good, and it’s a sobering reminder that Steve never actually got to be all that innocent. He meets Bucky’s eyes with an expression that is too serious to fit on such a small face. “Did you get ‘em back?” he asks.
Bucky can’t help it, he huffs a small laugh and shakes his head. “Some of them,” he admits. “You got the rest for me.”
Steve perks up a bit. “Really?”
Bucky’s smile grows involuntarily at Steve’s excitement. “You sure did, slugger. Really gave them what for.”
“Good.” Steve says with a vicious grin. His nose is still red and runny, but he’s looking calmer and distinctly satisfied. Bucky rocks back on his heels enough to fish a hanky out of his pocket and Steve makes a face, trying to wiggle away when Bucky cleans under his nose.
“You really oughta get to bed, Stevie,” Bucky says, but he makes no effort to actually move or put any intent behind it.
In an instant the calm is gone and Steve is back to clinging to Bucky’s shirt with both hands. “No,” he says, and it’s saved from being a whine only by the vehemence of it.
“Easy,” Bucky huffs, unable to resist pulling Steve into another hug. “I didn’t say you have to go alone.”
Steve lets himself be held and sniffles a little against Bucky’s neck. “Are you gonna go back to avoiding me tomorrow?” he asks, voice getting soft and mumbly as he curls into Bucky’s chest.
Bucky hesitates and swallows hard. “That, uh, that didn’t have anything to do with you, not really. I need you to know that. It was me being dumb, just like you said.” I don’t know what I did wrong, Steve had said earlier, and boy does Bucky feel like shit.
“Promise you’re not mad at me?” Steve insists, craning his neck back so that he can look at Bucky without lifting his head.
“Promise,” Bucky agrees. His chest still feels too tight, and there’s a slow churning still in the pit of his stomach, but Steve is so soft and trusting nestled up against his chest that Bucky can’t resist pressing a light kiss to the top of his head. “Come on,” he says as he scoops Steve up and pushes himself to his feet. “Bedtime for bonzo.” Bucky’s knees creak and pop as he stands and he groans a little, shaking his head. “I hate to break it to you, Stevie, but getting old ain’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he mutters, heading for the nearest couch. He’s too tired all of a sudden to bother making it all the way to a bed.
Steve giggles a little, soft and snuffle-y, his arms linked securely around Bucky’s neck and he doesn’t let go even when Bucky drops down onto the cushions. Bucky flops over and stretches out, squishing a throw pillow behind his head. Steve settles himself on Bucky’s chest, apparently deciding that the couch cushions aren’t good enough for him. It’s nice, in a way, Steve’s small body fitting on Bucky’s broad chest perfectly with his head tucked under Bucky’s chin.
Bucky settles in, rubbing Steve’s back absently. It’s a comfortable silence, and Bucky’s half convinced that Steve had fallen asleep when suddenly Steve speaks up. “What am I like as a grown up?” he asks, voice quiet and sleepy.
“Same as you are now - a pain in my butt,” Bucky retorts automatically. But the question settles heavy in the pit of his stomach, gnawing at him uncomfortably. “Hey Steve? How did you, uh, you know- figure out that-” It’s stupid, how awkward Bucky feels trying to say it, it’s not like he’d ever technically agreed to the story the others decided to - half assedly, apparently - feed Steve, but he can’t help stumbling over the words anyway.
“I’m not dumb,” Steve sniffs haughtily, wiggling in a way that is probably making himself more comfortable but gets Bucky kneed in the liver.
“Yeah, we have already established that,” Bucky agrees, carefully trying to shift Steve’s legs away from his soft squishy parts.
“Grown ups always seem to think just ‘cause they aren’t talking to me I can’t hear them,” Steve says, shrugging his bony shoulders. “Besides, your stupid face isn’t all that different.”
“You’re one to talk,” Bucky teases with a mock huff, tweaking Steve’s nose and making him laugh again. It’s almost like old times, the two of them snugged up together and talking shit, it makes the cold knot in the pit of Bucky’s stomach finally start to loosen and warm a little.
“I like your hair all long, though,” Steve says, his fingers toying idly with a strand near his face. “It makes you look like a pirate.” Bucky is caught strangely off guard, and he laughs so hard that Steve nearly rolls off of his chest and onto the floor. By the time they settle back down, Steve is heavy-lidded and the last of Bucky’s giggles are cut off by a wide yawn.
“Don’t forget you promised,” Steve mumbles, his eyes falling closed as he nuzzles his face into Bucky’s shoulder. He’s out like a light before Bucky can respond, snoring softly and one hand clutching at Bucky’s shirt.
“Promise,” Bucky confirms anyway, keeping his voice at a whisper just in case. He grabs a throw blanket from the back of the couch, tucking it securely around them both before settling down and closing his own eyes.
Steve wakes up with a strand of hair in his mouth, hard metal digging grooves into his cheek, and an unsettling breeze blowing over his ass.
As it turns out, he is naked, laying 80% on top of Bucky and 20% crammed up against the back of the couch. There are scraps of star spangled fabric scattered around them and the collar of what had been a pair of pajamas now uncomfortably tight around his neck.
Bucky is comfortably wrapped up in the throw blanket that had probably at some point more or less covered both of them, and his snores are a low rumble against Steve’s ear. It’s sort of nice, and Steve would be tempted to stay put except for the weirdness of being naked and on top of his best friend. Steve considers just waking Bucky up, but Bucky’s relationship with sleep is probably never really going to be comfortable and the dark circles under his eyes are more pronounced than ever. So, with some careful maneuvering, Steve manages to lever himself over the back of the couch and to his feet without jostling Bucky too much.
Unfortunately, he realizes somewhat belatedly, he is now standing completely naked in the middle of the common room. Not that he - or, to be honest, any of the Avengers - is all that shy about his body, but it has been a long established rule of general courtesy to keep the nudity in common areas to a minimum. He’s about to temporarily solve the situation by liberating the blanket from Bucky when he notices the neatly folded pair of sweatpants sitting innocuously on the coffee table; he isn’t sure whether to be grateful for the gift, or worry about which of the team is most likely to try blackmailing him the next time the opportunity arises. In the end, he decides to do neither in favor of putting the sweatpants on and ambling into the kitchen to get the coffee going.
It’s a quiet morning, peaceful and calm while - presumably - the rest of the Tower is still asleep. For half a second Steve has a strange sense of vertigo when he reaches for a mug off of the shelf and almost doesn’t expect to be tall enough to reach it. But he pushes the moment away and pours his coffee, then pours a second mug on the presumption that Bucky won’t be asleep for much longer - not with the strong scent of fresh coffee in the air.
He’s on his way back to the couch with the mugs when he stumbles over something soft in the middle of the kitchen floor.
It’s a teddy bear. A familiar teddy bear, that he vaguely remembers carrying with him into the kitchen the night before.
He pauses, setting the mugs back on the counter and bending over to pick the toy up. It feels almost ludicrously small in his hands, the fur soft and new still, just a generic toy bear. Nothing special. But he strokes his fingers slowly, almost unconsciously, over the little half circle ears and all of a sudden the past thirty-six hours comes crashing over him.
It’s uncomfortable to try and think too hard about his short lived second childhood, like trying to look at a picture through an out of focus lens. But he remembers it. He remembers being small, and lost, and confused. Remembers the return of poorly functioning lungs and an arrhythmic heart. He remembers being surrounded by strangers, who were friendly and kind, but not the people he wanted to see. Except for one.
He ends up taking both mugs and the bear back over to the couch. He perches on the edge of the coffee table - it looks like glass but it’s some kind of extra-strong something or other that Tony made to withstand the general shenanigans that tend to occur in the Tower. He would have woken Bucky up anyway, but Bucky is blinking blearily and reaching blindly for the coffee before Steve can even properly sit down. Steve hands over the second mug obligingly, but sets his own down by his hip and cups both hands around the toy bear while he waits for Bucky’s brain to finish coming back online.
It takes about a minute and forty seconds, then Bucky does a double take and nearly sloshes coffee all over himself. “Please tell me you had a pair of Bruce’s magically expanding pants on under those jammies,” Bucky says, coughing a little around his sip of coffee.
Steve snorts and shakes his head. “Don’t let Tony hear you call them magic,” he says, “I don’t have the patience to listen to his lecture about unrealistic physics again.”
Bucky grunts and makes the wise decision to swallow his coffee properly before trying to talk again. “So, you’re, uh, all… I mean, you’re okay, right?”
It’s tempting to try to pull some joke, pretend his memory is scrambled or something, but those kinds of jokes are hit and miss with Bucky at the best of times, and Steve can’t stop remembering the look on Bucky’s face when he’d dropped to his knees and hugged Steve the night before. “I’m fine,” he assures instead. They can joke about it later, but Steve thinks they have more pressing things to talk about now. “All grown up and back to normal.”
“Fuck, if you’re suddenly normal we’ve gotta get Strange over here ASAP,” Bucky mutters. He isn’t quite meeting Steve’s eyes, his attention shifting awkwardly from the coffee mug to the bear in Steve’s hands and back again; though, in fairness, Steve is mostly staring at the bear instead of looking at Bucky too. But after a beat of silence Bucky sombers and gets back to the conversation at hand. “So, you remember then? About-” he falters, gesturing vaguely and taking another sip of his drink.
“Mostly.” Steve shrugs, he isn’t sure he can actually explain it, and he remembers enough to answer the part of the question Bucky isn’t asking. “Want to tell me about why you kept avoiding me?” Steve asks the question gently, carefully, even though he doesn’t really think Bucky will storm out on him this time.
“Do I have to?” Bucky asks, and it is, in part, a put upon whine meant to deflect, but it’s also a real question, and a fair one - there are so many questions that neither one of them has needed to ask, because they already knew the answer.
“I wasn’t scared of you,” Steve tells him. He reaches out, on impulse, and rests a hand on Bucky’s metal forearm. He can see the way Bucky is still brittle around the edges; Bucky has come so far in his recovery, but they all know that some things are never going to completely go away. “Even before I figured it out. I thought you were kind of weird, but that’s not new,” he adds a crooked half smile to his teasing, couching his words in humor a reflex more than anything.
“How did you figure it out?” Bucky asks. He doesn’t quite pull away from Steve’s touch, but he fidgets under the pretext of adjusting his grip on his mug.
Steve has to actually think about that, has to poke at the blurred memories and jumbled feelings. “I think maybe part of me just knew,” he admits. “But it’s not like any of you were even remotely successful in keeping the secret. At least when I first came out of the ice SHIELD tried.”
“Yeah, and that turned out real well for them,” Bucky grunts; he’s heard the story plenty of times.
“I didn’t mean what I said last night,” Steve says, stubbornly dragging the conversation back on track.
“What, you really don’t like my hair?” Bucky smirks. “Too bad, pal, I’m still not cutting it.”
Steve huffs and rolls his eyes. “When I said I hated you,” he corrects.
“Aw, come on, Stevie, I know that,” Bucky says, but there’s the slightest edge of thickness undermining Bucky’s voice and he has to look away under the pretext of setting his coffee mug aside. “You were scared and mad at me, and you had good reason to be. I should’ve been there for you. I’m the one who should be apologising.”
Steve makes a considering noise and nods. “It was pretty irresponsible of you,” he says. “You left me alone with Clint.”
“Hey, at least it wasn’t Tony.” Bucky grins, stretching his legs out onto the coffee table so that he can nudge Steve teasingly.
“I am grateful for that,” Steve agrees somberly, nudging Bucky back. “Just promise me that next time you won’t run off and hide,” Steve persists after a moment to let the mood settle again. “You don’t have to talk to me, but you should talk to someone.”
“Please, for the love of god, there had better not be a next time on you getting magiced back to being six years old,” Bucky groans.
“Bucky,” Steve puts just a little bit of his command voice into the name. “Promise me.”
Bucky sighs, dropping his feet back to the floor and leaning in so that he can meet Steve’s gaze earnestly. “I promise, in the future, to whine about my insecurities until your ears fall off.”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Steve warns, but decides that it’s good enough for now. He pushes himself to his feet, offering a hand to pull Bucky up as well. “What do you say to some breakfast?”
Bucky accepts his hand, the joints in his spine and servos in his arm popping and whirring respectively as he rolls to his feet and stretches. “I say it’s your turn to cook.”
“I don’t know if I’m old enough to use the stove,” Steve jokes, slinging an arm around Bucky’s shoulders and propelling him toward the kitchen.
Ultimately, the entire team decides to find the whole affair hilarious, and Steve finds himself the butt of a seemingly endless supply of jokes for the next several weeks. He doesn’t really mind. Steve even manages to get a little bit of revenge by fueling what becomes a very heated debate between Sam and Clint about who was the best babysitter - it was not Thor, no matter what Thor claims; hurling a heavy, magic-infused, metal ball around the room does not win the Best Babysitter Award, though he is in the running for Best Naptime Stories.
And if a certain stuffed bear ends up taking up residence on Steve’s nightstand, no one dares to comment on it.