The future was great, between the food (there was so much of it! Not a scratch of it boiled!) and the technology. On the other hand, Steve wasn’t sure how he felt about the future including actual, honest to god, magic. He could deal with the aliens, and Thor was almost as much an alien as he was a god, so those were easy. But people stepping off into mid-air and shooting light from their fingers that turned people into goo… well. It was different.
Once in awhile the cloaked man they were fighting would make grand sweeping gestures and improperly aerodynamic winged creatures would appear. Iron Man flew around in circles, keeping them corralled. Something about the creatures threw off FRIDAY’s auto-targeting system, much to Tony’s very vocal dismay. Steve threw his shield at the mass of creatures; they exploded on contact like greasy bubbles. The stuff clung to the shield like soap or oil, leaving rainbow smears where it caught the light. He jumped up, using a mostly battered dumpster as a step ladder, intending on catching the shield higher when he saw it. The repulsion blast from Tony’s gauntlet bounced off the shield, making it ricochet over the invulnerable barrier that surrounded the sorcerer and mingling with the bright green light Strange seemed to be fond of. On the plus side, it seemed to distort the barrier, making Clint whoop in cheer and stick an arrow in the man’s side. The combined energies pulsed and combined, churning and sputtering like angry lava. Then it seemed to decide it was a physical object and fell, straight down, over Bucky’s head. Bucky was unaware, shooting some of the imp creatures to cover Nat’s back as she shepherded the civilians away. Everyone else was still focused on taking down the threat.
Steve twisted in mid-air, vaulting across the alley, willing himself to go just a bit further. The energy ball hit him squarely between the shoulder blades, washing over him in pain and electric bursts before dissipating. Steve hit the ground hard, needing a few moments before getting up. He knew he was in trouble right away. The main hint was that he was staring at Bucky’s chest, eye level somewhere beneath his collar bone. The second was that he couldn’t breathe, like he was underwater, cold and shivering even though he was dry. His clothes hung from him, loose and impractical. He coughed and the following breath came out with a wheezing whine.
“Oh no,” he said before darkness claimed him.
Bucky wasn’t sure how he felt about working with the Avengers. They were competent and had all the cool toys and he was almost sure none of them would flay the skin off his back. Well, unless they wanted to go through Steve. It was just that he had grown used to solo missions, and the team was loud. Tony apparently never shut up because his suit was doing the hard work for him, so he never ran out of breath. Clint and Sam had no such excuse. The Howlies had never been quiet, but this was a whole different level.
At least the Widow was operating as expected: silent and deadly. He took out the two pursuing imps, clearing her quadrant, and took a sliding step to the left. From the last ricochet of Steve’s shield he should be able to catch him in action and not look like he was gawking. This, at least, had not changed much from the war. Steve would charge first and try to win the fight by himself and forget to cover his back. Bucky took out the three creatures that were diving for Steve. The imp-things popped when the bullets hit. He had been on the lookout for stray ammo, but the creatures seemed to absorb them. Then he stopped moving, battle forgotten. New York could be burning for all he cared.
“Anyone got eyes on Cap? I saw him jump but I can’t track him with these things everywhere.” Tony’s voice was crystal clear in the earpiece.
“Negative, but I’m having a lot more traffic up here than usual,” Sam answered.
Steve was on the ground, immobile. His shield had bounced off a wall and was currently embedded into a fire escape across the alley. Bucky noted the location and then dismissed it. Steve wasn’t getting up. He wasn’t getting up and something was very wrong. Bucky clenched the metal hand, servo-motors whining as the plates re-adjusted. He was going to rip this so-called sorcerer’s throat out. Then possibly the spleen of every single one of his associates, for good measure. Bucky gasped when Steve got up. He holstered his pistol out of muscle memory, throwing a knife at a swooping imp in annoyance. Steve was shivering, his breath was coming in too short and fast with a high whistling sound. The uniform hung off him, loose like a bad Halloween costume or stolen clothes, swallowing him whole. Most alarming, he was missing almost a foot and most of his bulk.
“Oh no,” Steve said, eyes turning and passing out. Bucky caught him, leaning his unconscious form against his chest. Had Stevie always been this small?
“Hum, guys? We have a problem here,” Widow said.
“What? More creatures? Because let me tell you, I really could go for something I can hit, or target, really,” said Tony.
“Cap’s down for the count,” she answered. “Falcon, can you check on him?”
Sam dove for the alley, mechanical wings folding with the grace and precision of the peregrine whose name he borrowed. “What the hell?” he asked as he took in Steve, still propped against Bucky’s chest. Bucky grunted and lifted Steve up in a bridal carry. The fingers of his flesh hand sought the artery under Steve’s arm, the irregular beat of his pulse like a song half-forgotten.
“I got this. Deal with the target. Widow’s in charge.”
He turned his back on the very confused veteran. He didn’t want to explain, there was no time or no words, not really. Somewhere overhead he heard Clint’s (thankfully) muffled hysterical laughter.
Steve could feel something on his face, plastic and tight, that smelled sweet in an obviously artificial way. It covered his nose and mouth and made Steve think of hospitals and Hydra labs in equal measures. He pawed at it, trying to take it off. His coordination was shot, and his arms were too small.
“Another 5 minutes Stevie. Let the nebulizer do its job.” Bucky’s voice was coming from outside the room, close but not right next to him.
Steve took stock of his surroundings, feeling groggy and sore. He hadn’t felt either of those in a long time, not since the serum and the vita-rays took it all away. He was lying on a bed, the cotton sheets a pale beige color. There were no duvet or heavy blanket. Also, all of him fit in the twin bed, a model on the small size to boot. Over the bubbling and spitting of the nebulizer, he could hear cars outside and music from another apartment. It was a comforting mix.
“Alright, let’s get this thing off you.” Bucky was standing next to him. Steve frowned, he hadn’t heard him walk over. He shook his head, trying to dislodge some of the cotton wool that surrounded him. “Can’t leave it on too long, the doc said. Come on, off with it,” Bucky said, reaching and untying the elastic strap from behind Steve’s head. “See if you can stand up?”
He could stand up, as it turned out, but he felt off-balance and leaned to one side. His feet ached in a weird way. Steve realized he was wearing soft grey pants and a t-shirt. Definitely not his uniform. After a moment he realized Bucky had been wearing an orange sweater and jeans under a flour speckled apron. No boots, which was why he hadn’t heard him. No weapons either, which was almost weirder.
He followed Bucky into the kitchen, a tiny thing with a breakfast bar and no table. The cupboards and countertop were pale wood. There had been a small bathroom along the way, dwarfed by a claw-footed tub. Everything looked neat and clean, but not lived in. Steve sat down across from the counter, watching Bucky cook. He was making pancakes, dropping batter into a pan, sizzling with butter. There was a narrow window past the stove. Steve felt his breath catch again, not asthma but something like a sucker punch.
“Yeah. It’s not exactly our old place, that building got blown up and swallowed into something modern and ugly. But it’s as close as Stark money could buy.” Bucky was licking batter from his fingers when Steve turned his eyes back to him. He winked. “I’m told as far as money goes, Stark money is the best grade.”
“Uh yeah. Tony knows what you’re doing with it?”
“Probably, on some level. He mostly shoved the credit card my way and maybe-sorta-almost apologized for trying to rip my head off. I apologized for his parents. I think we’re good now.”
He reached into the fridge and pulled out a round plate of cut up fruits, putting it in front of Steve. “Got you those to go with the pancakes.”
Steve smiled and ripped open the plastic wrap. Fresh fruit in all seasons was probably his favorite thing, not that any of the others on the team seemed to notice. They always loaded up his plate with meat and carbs and more proteins, with a side of whey shake. He ate a few of the pineapples and watermelons cubes, before pushing the plate back to Bucky.
“I already ate mine. That one is yours.”
“Oh yeah? Like you used to say you already had dinner and would try to feed me the last piece of toast?”
“Well, to be fair,” Bucky answered as he flipped the pancakes, “most of those times I’d been out on ‘dates’. I’d show the gals a good time, they’d shove me out with half a sandwich or something before their parents got home.”
“I didn’t know,” said Steve,
“I didn’t want you to.”
“Oh.” He grabbed for the fruits to mask the silence. There was nothing else to add, was there?
Bucky slid two pancakes in a plate and placed it in front of Steve, loading the rest of them unto his plate and starting new ones. “I made a few calls while you were out. This --” he gestured at Steve with his fork, bit of pancake dangling. “-- should last a day, two at the most. What do you want to do in the meantime?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… for the next day, you’re just Steve again. Anonymous. Not Captain America, the man with a plan.” He let that sink in. “No camera crew, no paparazzi, no fangirls. Just you.”
“And you. You’re still pretty recognisable.”
“Spy training, Stevie. I can blend in.” He shoveled the pancakes into his mouth, barely chewing before swallowing, and loaded the new batch unto his plate.
“Alright… I want to go to the MET.”
Bucky smiled and gave him a thumbs up. Steve ate in the comfort of the small kitchen tucked away in Brooklyn and wondered if there was a way to make the… whatever, last. This was nice. Buck stole the last piece from his plate.
Walking the New York streets like this was more fun than Steve had had in what felt like eons. He could crane his neck to look at the buildings and the changed skyline. No one was looking twice at him. If anything, Bucky was getting all the double takes, covered a grey windbreaker, with the hood over his head. He kept his hands in the pocket at the front, a gym bag hanging from his shoulder. Just a normal guy, going to the gym or coming back. They were no one’s messiahs or nightmares on the streets that day. Steve had a brief pang of guilt as they waited at a red light to cross. He was the team leader, he should check in and let his team know where he was and his status. The light changed, and he let it go. The team could survive this one day without him.
The museum wasn’t busy when they reached it. Steve sketched the Rodin statues as Bucky stood and looked over his shoulder. He was smiling softly, looking more like his old self than he usually did back at the tower. The rooftop exhibit was a strange surrealist display, objects coated in matt paint, like ghosts of the thing you’d see from the corner or your eye. It left them both uneasy, and they left early.
Bucky could have walked all day without a complaint, but Steve was tired. He embraced the feeling with glee. He hadn’t realized how much he missed the little things. Maybe he could try getting drunk again, just for the sake of it. He made them stop for food, mostly to rest his feet and aching legs. Steve drank coffee and nibbled on a roast beef sandwich, asking for the second half to be wrapped as take-away. He gave the fries to Buck, stealing a sip from his milkshake. Buck pretended to be offended, but there was laughter in his eyes.
Back at the apartment they stretched out on the carpet, letting the television play mindless daytime movies, colors and noise more than substance. There was a large reclining chair in the corner, but even small as Steve was it would not seat two. Steve woke up first, muting the television so it would leave only the quiet behind. Bucky was sleeping beside him, breaths deep and even. His hair had fallen over his face. Steve pushed it back, hooking it behind his ears. And smiling, as quietly as he could, he started sketching again.