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Cynics are Simply Thwarted Romantics

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So it turned out magic was a real thing.

Stark kept saying it wasn’t but Bucky heard the spell get cast on Steve, saw the bright sparkly flash of light and Romanoff seemed to be taking it very seriously. Honestly, Bucky would always follow Romanoff over Stark.

So. Magic was real.

And no one was really doing anything about it.

“His vitals are good and his brain activity is consistent with sleep,” Banner said. “But I’d feel more comfortable getting a second opinion.”

“Because there are a lot of people familiar with Cap’s physiology,” Stark muttered. “Bring up his baselines again?”

“I put some calls in.” Romanoff came back into the room, her gloves now tucked into her belt and her hair tied up in a tail. “So far, nothing.”

Barton made a face. “Do you know a lot of people who are gonna cop to knowing a witch? Or warlock? Was Harry Potter a witch or a warlock?”

“Wizard,” Bucky said, pulling out his whetstone to sharpen the knife he usually kept strapped to his thigh.

There was momentary silence as the rest of the team eyed him but then conversation resumed.

“I might know people. I put out feelers.” Romanoff made her way to Steve’s bedside, and put her hand on the center of his chest, right over the star. Her hand moved up and down with his slow steady breaths. “Hopefully, Thor comes back with something concrete.”

Banner shook his head and walked back around Steve’s bedside. “Thor said magic was his mother’s and Loki’s thing, which doesn’t leave him with a lot of options.”

Barton folded his arms and leaned against the lab table that Bucky was perched on. “He said he knew some enchantress though, right?”

“He didn’t sound too happy about it,” Bucky pointed out, testing the sharpness of his knife and frowning.

“Magic is just technology we don’t understand,” Stark repeated for the fourth or fifth time. (Bucky had actually lost count and was a little disappointed in himself). “And I refuse to believe some third-rate cosplayer has tech I can’t understand, this isn’t magic.”

Barton rolled his eyes and unfolded his arms so he could brace his elbows on the table. “Did anyone call Jane? She’s been to Asgard and she seems pretty up on the science magic thing.”

“Of course.” Romanoff stepped back from Steve to look at the medical stats flashing on the clear screen to the bed’s right. “I also called Sam. He’s headed to the airport up as soon as he grabs his wings from his place. We might need the extra hands.”

“I called Rhodey and Pepper,” Stark countered. No one asked, which Bucky felt was probably for the best.

“Maybe Fury would have an idea? Or Coulson?” Banner suggested, leaning against one of the lab tables. “I feel like we’re pretty out of our depth here.”

There were sighs all around and Bucky went back to sharpening his knife, trying not to lose his cool.

“Do we even know what the guy said?” Barton finally broke the silence. “He definitely wasn’t speaking English and my lip reading skills only go so far.”

Romanoff shook her head. “I didn’t hear him. I’m hoping Jarvis finds some bystander video soon.”

“It was the Sleeping Beauty curse,” Bucky offered.

All eyes turned to him. Bucky shrugged. Hydra had forced a lot of languages on Bucky and he’d managed to keep them all even with the jumble the rest of his brain was in.

“The what?” Stark asked, sounding like he knew he’d regret asking but was forging ahead anyway.

“Eternal sleep?” Bucky prompted. “Only broken by True Love’s Kiss?” Bucky spent a lot of time watching television during his recovery and he knew fairy tales were still popular.

“Huh,” Stark said.

Romanoff made a face. “Well. I guess we could take him down to Director Carter’s hospice?” She looked uncomfortable about the idea but no less determined.

Banner rubbed his face. “That’s just-- of all the people to get hit by that.”

“Fitting,” Stark agreed, slapping Banner’s shoulder. “He’s already got 70 years of sleep under his his belt and he hasn’t had a date since 1945. That’s --” He made crazy hand gestures, like the air was going to provide the right word for him.

“Fucked up,” Barton offered. “That’s pretty fucked up.”

There were nods of agreement all around. Romanoff seemed to make a decision at that point, her expression closing off. “Okay, I’ll call the hospice to let them know we’re coming. Stark, figure out transport. I’ll be back in ten.” She strode out of the room with fists clenched.

Stark let out a little sigh. “Jarvis?”

“Making arrangements, sir,” the computer responded immediately.

Banner tapped at the clear screen, altering some of the observation settings. “I’m going to grab a few things. We need to be prepared for if this doesn’t work.”

Stark nodded. “Good call, dear. I’ve got a suit to pack and a girlfriend to say goodbye to.”

“Can someone hang out here?” Banner winced awkwardly in Bucky’s general direction. Whenever it involved Steve, everyone always seemed to be apologizing in some way to Bucky. “Just in case. I’ll be back in a minute or two.”

“We got it.” Barton waved him off.

Banner headed out the door, quick on Stark’s heels.

Barton watched them go and frowned. He pushed off the table and walked over to Steve’s bed, squinting at the readings flashing on the screens around him.

“You should get more arrows,” Bucky suggested because the guy never had enough.

Barton shrugged consideringly. “Arrows might be better against a wizard than any of Stark’s whack-a-doodle designs.”

“Can’t hurt,” Bucky agreed.

Clint nodded. “You good for a few?”

As if Bucky didn’t spend most of his nights sharing an apartment with a sleeping Steve. Bucky tried for a smile, even knowing it would look mostly terrifying. “I’m good.”

Clint smiled nervously back and then jogged out of the lab.

Bucky set down his knife and hopped off the lab table he’d been perched on and approached Steve’s still form. He was breathing steadily, his chest rising and falling at an even, familiar pace. His hands were curled up at his sides, fingertips touching the edge of his sleeves. His uniform and face were dirty (which is what you got for fighting for five hours in the city streets, constantly diving and rolling and ducking) and his hair was a mess from the helmet. He had a small cut across his cheek, already healing.

Steve’s mouth was open (he’d always been a mouth breather in his sleep), his lips dark and slightly chapped. And if Bucky could ignore his strong jawline, the flush of healthy pink across his cheeks, he still looked like that scrappy kid Bucky had woken a hundred times.

But had never kissed.

There was something a little uncomfortable about kissing someone who wasn’t awake to say yes or no. But Bucky figured Steve would understand if he ever found out and Romanoff would probably get half the tri-state area to kiss Steve until something worked anyway. So Bucky was saving Steve from a lot of awkward conversations later.

Bucky put a hand on Steve’s cheek to keep him steady, and then bent down to kiss him. It wasn’t a kiss to write home about - how could it be with just the one participant?- but Steve’s lips were smooth and firm and he still tasted like the mint he’d bummed off of Bucky an hour ago. Bucky ran a hand down over Steve’s cheek, fingers resting a second longer on that jawline that was both so familiar and so foreign. And then Bucky stood up and opened his eyes and stepped back a few feet and tried to get his heartbeat under control. It wasn’t the best kiss but it was the only one Buckymight ever have with Steve, so it wasn’t so bad really.

He got two more steps closer to the lab table he’d claimed earlier when the machines started raising all kinds of hell, beeping and trilling and shrieking.

Banner just made it through the door when Steve groaned.

“Steve!” Banner shouted, sounded delighted and relieved. Bucky liked Banner, despite the Mr. Hyde problem.

“Bruce?” Steve mumbled, already pushing himself up (because he had no sense at all) and rubbing at his face. “I have a hell of a headache, what happened?”

“We, uh, don’t know exactly?” Banner glanced over at Bucky who shrugged and walked over to push Steve back down on the bed.

“You got a fairy tale curse, princess,” Bucky told him.

“Curse?” Steve’s face scrunched up in annoyed disbelief. “Oh, come on Buck.”

“That’s what it seemed like.” Banner backed Bucky up. He was already scanning Steve again, and making pleased sounds at the readings coming up on the screen. “We were a little worried, but apparently eternal sleep only lasts about 45 minutes now. No accounting for inflation, I guess.”

The doors to the lab opened again and in ran Stark, both Iron Man gauntlets on. “Problems--- Oh. Huh. You’re awake?” Stark looked confused and a little disappointed.

Bucky glared at him.

Stark ignored him and crowded in around Steve’s bed. “What year is it?”

“2014, Tony.” Steve rolled his eyes. “Don’t be a jerk.”

Tony beamed. “I don’t think we’re dealing with mind control.”

“We’re not,” Bucky replied.

Stark eyed him. “Well, Romanoff and Barton won’t take our word for it. Jarvis, did you alert them?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Good. Okay. So. What do the readings look like? Anything interesting from when his internal alarm clock went off?” Stark hovered over Banner’s shoulder. Banner moved a little to the right, letting Stark get closer to the display. They started conferring, tossing medical and technical jargon back and forth but Bucky stopped paying attention because Steve was absent-mindedly touching his bottom lip.

There was no way Romanoff wasn’t going to notice.

“Fairy tale curse?” Steve turned his head to look at Bucky. “Really?”

Bucky crossed his heart dutifully.

“What’s the point of that I wonder?” Steve murmured to himself.

“Haven’t you noticed that everyone in this century has a god-awful sense of humor?” Bucky raised his eyebrows.

Steve conceded this with a nod.

Barton and Romanoff came into the lab, Romanoff finishing up a phone call and Barton still adding new arrowheads to the bottom partition of his quiver. “It just wore off?” Romanoff asked, skeptical.

“The transition in his brain activity was almost immediate,” Banner offered. “But I wasn’t in the room when it happened.”

Romanoff frowned as she stalked over to Steve and put her hand on his forehead as if she was very aggressively checking his temperature. “Do you remember anything, Steve?”

“A guy in an ugly hat and a funny jumpsuit,” Steve replied.

“That’s our wizard, Harry.” Stark replied. “He must have had some sort of voice activated stun weapon. Which seems impractical but probably pretty fun.”

“I’d tell you ‘no’ but you’re going to try to build one anyway, aren’t you?” Steve sighed, closing his eyes.

“It’d be good for a rainy day,” Stark agreed cheerfully.

“So you remember the perp and then you just woke up here?” Barton cut in. “Do you remember us talking around you? They always say people in comas can hear you.”

“He wasn’t in a coma, Barton,” Stark pointed out.

“No,” Steve shook his head, but he was unconsciously fingering his lip again.

Romanoff’s eyes narrowed and she glanced Bucky’s way. Bucky, being ridiculously skilled at this, blinked guilelessly back at her.

“Okay,” Banner cut in. “I think we should get Steve fluids and food, because it seems like whatever this was, his body processed it at a high rate. So I’m going to hook him up to an IV and why don’t you guys give us a few minutes.”

“Done and done.” Stark saluted Steve (badly). “Captain.”

Barton sighed and hefted his quiver back over his shoulder. “Hope you feel better, Cap.”

“Thanks Clint,” Steve smiled.

Bucky hesitated, not really wanting to leave. Steve reached over and squeezed Bucky’s hand. “I’m good. Go sit down. You haven’t even changed out of your uniform.”

Bucky opened his mouth to object when Romanoff laid a hand on his right arm. Bucky looked at her. She nodded at Steve. “See you in a few, Cap.” She smiled at Bucky, with teeth. Bucky, valuing his remaining arm and knowing she was going to win this eventually, followed her without complaint into the elevator and then onto her floor of the tower.

“Spill it, Barnes,” she ordered.

“Fairy tale curse,” Bucky replied, just to be difficult.

Natasha frowned, probably reviewing Russian fairy tales and coming up with few appealing options. “Didn’t think true love’s kiss was meant for brothers,” she finally replied.

Bucky shrugged. “Who says true love has to be requited?” Because she already mostly knew and it wasn’t anything Bucky could really keep that good a lid on anymore. Steve was his whole life, Steve had always been his whole life really, he just used to be better at hiding it.

Romanoff considered this. “It might be requited,” she said eventually, but sounding none too sure.

“You ever meet Peggy Carter?” Bucky asked.

“No.” Romanoff shook her head. “But love isn’t monogamous, some relationships are. It’s not the same thing.”

“The way Steve looked at her?” Bucky shook his own head, chest aching with fondness at remembering Steve’s stupid, delighted smile whenever he took in those smart curves or her red lips, or the way she could verbally demolish anybody in her way. “Yeah, Steve never looked at anybody else like that. Certainly not me.”

Romanoff snorted. “Peggy Carter isn’t the one that made Steve--” she stopped herself.

Bucky knew instinctively what she meant. In the clarity of the present he could recognize the shock and horror on Steve’s face when he’d seen beneath the Winter Soldier’s mask, the way he’d just completely shut down “Not the same,” he replied.

“Maybe,” she allowed. “Maybe not. You ever thought of just asking?”

“No,” Bucky replied in complete honesty. “Not even once.”

“Barnes...” Pity sounded so awkward from Natasha but surprisingly sincere.

Bucky cut her off. “You got the answer you wanted. You good?”

“I’m not good with you being an idiot, Barnes.” But she waved Bucky out.

He almost took the elevator straight back to Steve. And then he almost took the elevator to his and Steve’s floor to wait out Steve’s physical. But the conversation with Natasha had put him on edge and his mind kept tripping over the fact that he’d kissed Steve, finally kissed him, but it didn’t mean a damn thing. He’d kissed Steve, so perfunctorily, so meaningless, and he wouldn’t ever kiss him again. He felt like he was crawling out of his own skin and the last thing he needed was to sit around the place he shared with Steve and wonder.

Because he didn’t know if it was worse to kiss Steve this once or to never have kissed him at all.

Avengers Tower was always a bustle of activity night and day, the staff of Stark Industries worked at odd hours to complete time-sensitive projects or finish up critical experiments. Bucky had hated it at first, felt overwhelmed by the chaos, but he’d gotten used it and started to enjoy the constant hustle and bustle and the never being really alone. He nodded at the security guards as he left, and once he stepped outside he felt like he could finally breathe again. Taking a walk through the city streets, he worked over the battle in his mind as a distraction, trying to narrow down any real clues about the wizard. Just because this curse was an easy out didn’t mean the next one would be. (And Stark’s insistence that it was technology he could replicate also merited some analysis. The man was not the safest roommate Steve could have picked, that was for sure.)

He stopped at one of the small coffee cart vendors to order a cup when his cell phone started to chirp the tune of “Star Spangled Man.” Bucky shoved a dollar in the tip jar and pulled the phone out from the inside pocket of his jacket. Sam’s picture was flashing on the screen and Bucky thumbed it on. “Barnes.”

“Hey, man.” Sam sounded breathless, speaking in an uncharacteristically fast tempo. “I’m just about to leave for the airport. Any update on Steve?”

“Um, he’s awake,” Bucky replied, tucking his face close to his chest and pulling his collar up. There was still something so awkward about having private conversations out on the street where anyone could overhear or read your lips.

“He’s awake?” Bucky could almost hear Sam come to hault. He probably was throwing his wings in his backseat and was now standing in the street gaping at his phone. Bucky smiled at the mental image.

“Yeah, so you don’t have to come.” Bucky grabbed his medium coffee from the end of the cart.

“Oh, hell with that,” Same muttered. “Natasha said there was a crazy wizard and that is not something I’m going to miss out on. Steve really get cursed?”

“Stark doesn’t think so, but Romanoff and I are both fairly sure.”

“You gotta start calling her by her first name, man. You know you’re friends right?” There was the chime of a bell, Sam must have put the keys in the ignition before closing the driver’s side door.

“Sure,” Bucky agreed. He thought friends was too strong a term, honestly, but they were teammates and he felt comfortable depending on her skills in the field. Sam and Steve were the only ones he’d actually call friends.

“Okay, okay,” Sam said - a mutter that was probably mostly to himself. “So tell me what happened. Natasha said he got cursed like Sleeping Beauty. She was planning on piling everyone into a minivan to get Steve to Ms. Carter’s hospice so I thought it was pretty serious.”

Bucky considered telling Sam the truth but the idea made his stomach churn. He’d been in love with Steve for as long he could remember - probably longer - but he'd never said it aloud before and he wasn't about to start today. “He woke up about an hour later. Banner shooed everyone out so he could check him out without the peanut gallery. But we don’t have leads on the perp yet. Or any real ideas on how to get leads.”

“What kind of curse only lasts an hour?” Sam asked. “That’s just not very effective.”

“An unconscious victim is an easy victim,” Bucky replied.

“You do have a point,” Sam agreed. “Okay, I’m headed for the airport. So I should be there in a few hours. Text me if anything happens and leave the lights on.”

“Our spare room is your spare room,” Bucky said because it’s what Steve always said.

“You’re damn right,” Sam agreed, his smile obvious from the tone of his voice.

Bucky found himself smiling back. “See you when you get here, Sam.”

“Later, man.” Sam hung up and Bucky tucked the phone back into his inner jacket pocket. The sun was slowly headed down and Bucky took one of the long ways back to tower, sipping his coffee and surveying the crowds.

New York didn’t look the same. (Stark had accurately pinned Times Square as a total mind fuck and Bucky would know.) But the feel of it was the same. Hundreds of people rushing past you along the street, people from everywhere looking like anything, all of them crossing the same sidewalks, calling the same cabs, complaining about the same subway fare. New York wasn’t the same but in the important ways it was.

When Bucky had first followed Steve home, he had trouble walking the streets. Every person he passed was a potential threat, every inanimate (and animate) object a potential weapon. He’d felt out of place in his own head. But now, walking the streets was satisfying, almost relaxing. The pandemonium outside was finally louder than inside.

It was early evening when Bucky got back to the tower. The lobby was still bustling with activity but when Bucky got to the communal floor to look for Steve it was empty. He took the elevator up another three floors and found the lights for his and Steve’s floor were on and so was the tv.

Steve was sitting on the couch, bundled within an inch of his life, scowling at the television.

Bucky took in the pajamas, the pile of blankets, the hot chocolate, the soup. He said, “They mean well.”

“I know,” Steve replied, still with that expression. He never had handled coddling well, not even from Bucky.

Bucky sat down on the couch and took a sip of the hot chocolate. He hummed happily. “Banner?”

Steve nodded.

Bucky forced the cup to Steve’s lips and Steve obligingly took a sip. The change in expression was infinitesimal but yeah, even Steve loved it when Banner made hot chocolate from scratch.

“Banner made the soup too,” Steve said after a moment.

Bucky grabbed the spoon from the coffee table. “Split it with you?”

Steve fought the smile but after a few seconds he gave in, grinning at Bucky. “Yeah, okay.”

“They let you pick your own movie or was it It’s a Wonderful Life again?”

Steve leaned over and rested his head against Bucky’s metal shoulder. “Sleeping Beauty. The animated one.”

Bucky closed his eyes for a moment, loving the warmth and weight pressed along his side. “Classy,” he snorted.

He could feel Steve shrug. “It was pretty good. The animation was great. And she doesn’t sleep for a hundred years so, you know, it wasn’t that insensitive.”

“Sure,” Bucky replied, frankly not at all sure. He looked down at Steve. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Steve took the soup from Bucky and ate a few spoonfuls. “Like nothing ever happened.”

“Good,” Bucky picked the hot chocolate back up along with the remote.

“They’re working on recon on the wizard.” Steve took the hot chocolate and forced the soup back into Bucky’s hand. “Natasha is hoping to get a lead. If his first try with the stun gun knocked me out for an hour, who knows what his second try could do to someone else.”

Bucky didn’t bother to correct the stun gun assumption, and he supported the recon. Not everyone had someone who loved them like Steve did. Natasha and Tony might be okay, but what about Sam? Banner?

“Might not try the same trick twice,” Bucky said. “So avoid spinning wheels and glass slippers, okay?”

Steve snorted. “Yeah, okay.”

Bucky twirled the remote the way he used to twirl knives. “It’s a Wonderful Life?”

Steve made a face and grabbed for the remote with his free hand. “Give me that. Right now.”

Bucky grinned and handed the remote over. “Okay, okay. But give me the hot chocolate.”

“Bruce made it for me,” Steve said but he held it out as he scrolled through the near-infinite movie options. “Princess Bride again?”

“Yeah,” Bucky nodded. “Finish your soup.”

Steve punched him in the arm but didn’t argue.

Sam limped in a few hours later, with a duffle and the backpack that held his wings. He also brought a few pizzas because he understood the proper care and feeding of two super soldiers.

Steve got up to give him a fierce hug and Bucky took the pizzas to the kitchen to give them a moment.

“You fell asleep on the job!” Bucky heard Sam tease enthusiastically. “Now that’s just embarrassing.”

“Stark does it all the time,” Steve shot back and Bucky could imagine the expression on his face. Bucky grabbed plates and got three beers from the fridge and set them down on the counter.

“You better hope he doesn’t because Miss Potts does not seem like the sort of woman who has time for that shit,” Sam countered. “And man aren’t you glad you woke up on your own. D’you know what Natasha was planning?”

Steve huffed. “Yeah we already had a talk about that.” Steve hustled Sam through the hall into the kitchen.

Bucky shifted awkwardly. “I was just going to bring the drinks,” he said. There was something about being caught giving them privacy that always made Bucky feel uneasy. Steve seemed to operate on the “anything of mine is also Bucky’s” rule of thumb but that wasn’t true of everyone else Steve knew and Bucky was conscious of the fact that even though Sam liked him, the guy had to want Steve to himself occasionally.

“No hug?” Sam made an exaggerated sad face at Bucky. “Pizza and beer are more important than me? Where are your priorities, Barnes?”

Bucky jerked a thumb at Steve. “You’ve met him and his appetite. I have good priorities.”

Sam laughed, loud and pleased, mouth open wide. “You’re not wrong,” he said as he reached out and pulled Bucky into a hug which Bucky returned gladly.

“The flight okay?” Bucky asked as he handed a plate over.

Sam took the plate and three slices of extra pepperoni. “Yeah. It was cool,” he shrugged as he grabbed the bottle opener and popped the cap off a beer. “I got a couple of kids come up to me for my autograph which was pretty great. But then I started thinking, you know, if a five year old in Cars pjs knows my face then a lot of adults on the plane do too. And then I started getting paranoid because, well.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said feelingly.

Steve hummed in agreement. “At least I wear a helmet when I’m out in the field. It helps, I think.”

Sam made an incredulous face. “Does he know he’s on the cover of Men’s Fitness this month? Everyone in the world knows his face.”

Bucky snickered - the magazine cover was a sore spot for Steve and a bright shining moment in the life of Bucky Barnes. He had a dozen copies in his room.

“Oh, they think they’re funny,” Steve muttered. He pulled out a slice of veggie and ate it leaning over the counter.

Bucky slid a plate across the counter so that it came to rest under Steve. Steve made a face at him.

Sam pulled himself up to sit on the counter, settling his plate on his knee. “Do we have any leads yet?”

“Nothing.” Bucky shook his head, certain he would have been called back sooner if anyone had figured anything out.

“The video feed we’ve been able to locate is too distorted for Tony to do much with so we’re hoping someone comes forward with something better. Natasha’s doing some prelim work but there wasn’t much to go on before he threw sparkles in my face and there’s not much more now.”

Sam paused, his beer almost to his mouth. “He threw glitter on you?”

“A little.” Steve shrugged.

Sam shook his head and took a long drag from his bottle. “I might have to rethink relocating to New York. I miss the best stuff, I swear.”

“Well, you know you’re welcome,” Steve replied. He grabbed a piece of the extra cheese, put it on the plate and then pointedly slid it back across the counter to Bucky.

Bucky popped the caps of the remaining two beers with his thumb and handed one over to Steve. “How long are you staying?” he asked Sam.

“I’m off work until Tuesday. But if shit goes down I can take more time.” Sam tipped his beer in Bucky’s direction, a cheeky salute.

“Hopefully that’s not the case.” Steve shook his head. “It’d be nice if just once your visit didn’t end with a city-leveling battle.”

Sam shrugged, going in for more pizza. “I don’t know, I think our first few weeks as friends set a precedent. What’s hanging out with Captain America and Bucky without a few explosions, am I right?”

“You’re weird,” Bucky told him flatly. He grabbed a second and third slice of extra cheese. “Why are all your 21st century friends so weird, Steve?”

Steve snorted. “My 21st century friends? Sam’s a lot less weird than Dum Dum, Buck.”

Bucky shook his head and said to Sam in an exaggeratedly fake whisper, “That’s a terrible comparison. He asked people to call him Dum Dum.”

Sam shook his head at the two of them, grinning. “Regular comedians, aren’t you two?”

“Vaudeville stars.” Steve bumped Bucky’s shoulder. “That’s us.”

“He was so good they even let him star in talkies,” Bucky deadpanned.

The elevator chimed a new arrival and Steve pushed away from the counter to see who had smelled the pizza despite the state-of-the-art ventilation system.

Sam grabbed a few napkins from the behind the pizza boxes and moved closer to Bucky. “You okay?” he asked, voice pitched low so as not to be overheard. “You seem a little…”

“Yeah,” Bucky shrugged. Sam was a little too good at reading people sometimes. “It’s nothing to worry about. Just a long day, you know?”

“A long day with Steve getting hurt,” Sam said knowingly.

“That too,” Bucky allowed. “It’s Steve.”

Sam nodded like he understood the things Bucky wasn’t saying and he probably did. “You still good here, though, right?” Sam had voiced some concerns early on that moving into the tower and getting involved with the Avengers might set back Bucky’s progress. That had been when Bucky understood that Sam had actually given a damn about Bucky and not just “Cap’s friend”.

Bucky shoved more pizza in Sam’s direction. “It’s nice. It’s like living in one of your meetings. Everyone in this place has issues almost as big as mine.”

“Hey, now, we talked about comparing baggage.” Sam shook his finger.

Bucky smirked. “Size matters, Wilson.”

Sam snickered. “Does it now?” Sam made a complicated gesture in Steve’s general direction that Bucky inferred was a little lewd. Bucky felt himself flush a little. Stark was always questioning the nature of his and Steve’s relationship because Stark was a shit-starter when he was bored, but Sam had only made a few very rare comments and only when he and Bucky were alone. Bucky was pretty sure it was Sam’s way of creating a safe space for Bucky to come out in and probably some day he’d take Sam up on that. But not today. Or probably any time soon. Sam didn’t pity Bucky and Bucky wanted it to stay that way as long as it could.

Steve came back from the hall with Romanoff, Banner and Barton, who all greeted Sam with enthusiasm. Sam’d been offered a spot on the team now too many times to count and was as popular with the Avengers as Bucky used to be with most of Brooklyn. Barton immediately launched into a dramatic retelling of Steve’s day with “man, you should have been there” thrown in a few times for good measure.

Romanoff - Natasha, Sam may or may not be right about her being a friend, but he could call her Natasha - and Banner - Bruce - helped themselves to pizza while Steve grabbed more beer.

“Should we get Tony?” Steve asked.

Banner Bruce waved Steve off. “I already had Jarvis let him and Pepper know. They should be here in a few minutes.”

“And this,” Sam announced, “Is why I always bring enough pizza for an army.” For his troubles Sam received mocking applause.

 

The impromptu pizza party lasted late into the evening but Steve was still up at quarter to six for his run. Which meant so was Bucky. Their lives with the Avengers were tumultuous, generally, so the run had been Steve's suggestion to give Bucky structure from day to day - which Bucky had needed - and to make sure they got time alone from the fray - which Bucky needed even more.

Bucky was pulling on his sweatshirt, watching as Steve bent down to grab waters from the bottom door shelf of the fridge when Sam came stumbling out of his room.

"Never a day off, huh?" he asked with a bit of a whine.

"No rest for the weary," Steve replied cheerfully. Steve was a morning person in the worst way.

"Yeah, yeah," Sam sighed. "Grab me one of those waters. Don't want to die from dehydration before the first lap's over."

"Do you need to borrow running shoes?" Bucky kicked his own running shoe against Sam's well-worn and well-loved lace up boots. Bucky had long since decided that Sam was the only other person allowed on The Run.

"I'm gonna take it easy." Sam shook his head. "Anyway, I wear these out in the field enough that a little jogging practice in them isn't a bad plan."

Bucky was pretty certain that Sam had once been pretty practiced at running in those boots, but it wasn't a conversation he'd wanted to start.

There wasn’t a set trail they took at Central Park - Bucky had objections whenever any of their daily lives became too predictable - but Steve almost always led, selecting the first turn at random and going from there. The pace he set was less punishing than normal - typical for when Sam joined them- and the trail he picked was one of the shorter ones. Sam, true to his word, was taking it slow, waving them off right at the beginning. They lapped him twice before settling into a slow jog at Sam’s side.

“Slowing down for the common folk, huh?” Sam asked, feigning hurt pride.

“I’m a man of the people,” Steve replied, feigning smugness.

Bucky rolled his eyes at the both of them. Once they got started on a riff there was little stopping them. Bucky considered jogging ahead.

But then something caught his eyes.

It was the tiniest flash of light. A sliver of pink shimmer peeking through the dense trees off the trail. Possibly the only reason Bucky had even noticed was that he’d been so thoroughly conditioned to respond to any perceived threat that even now he couldn’t help but notice.

Bucky latched on to Steve and Sam’s shirts and bodily hauled them off the trail mere seconds before the fireworks show of a spell hit the ground they’d been standing on.

Sam cursed and scrambled toward the trees, Steve and Bucky quick on his heels.

“Guess it wasn’t a fluke!” Sam shouted over the thunderous noise of small rainbow explosions and a man chanting out rhymes in an unnaturally loud voice.

Bucky unstrapped the knives from his calves and the one at his back. He handed one over to Sam, was going to hand the second to Steve but the man was already feet away, heading for the damn trash cans and park bench.

“Steve, damn it!” Bucky shouted, and then had to duck down, covering Sam as a tree exploded over their heads.

“I am not paying the fines for this,” Sam muttered. “Let’s get this asshole.”

Bucky made a note to rethink leaving his back holster at home and dodged through the trees after Sam. The wizard seemed better prepared than he had the first time they’d met. He’d cast one spell and then teleported immediately. This time he didn’t seem as concerned with escape. This time he looked like he was angry.

Angry guys with weapons were easier to distract but they tended to lead to a hell of a lot more casualties. Which was exactly what they didn’t need.

“I don’t have my phone!” Bucky shouted at Steve and Sam.

“Good to know,” Sam shouted back, sounded a dozen kinds of annoyed. He was using the dense trees to his advantage, running from tree to tree as he got closer to the target, throwing rocks at the man as he went.

“We need to call back up!” Bucky snapped back as he ducked behind a small group of rocks where he could a longer view of the target and anticipate his moves. The wizard clearly wasn’t a trained fighter. His glowing hands were able to deflect most of Sam’s rocks but there were a few that were getting through and making him curse in pain.

Steve was throwing slightly larger objects, trash it looked like, and he had something metal in his hands that Bucky didn’t have time to get a good look at. Sam and Steve were good distractions and Bucky was going to use that to his best advantage. He took one steady breath, watching the scene - the wizard the center of chaos, Steve and Sam whirlwinds on the sides, moving in closer to bring the fight to the man. Bucky took another breath, let his fingers relax the barest bit against the knife tip between them.

And then he threw.

His knife went straight into the wizard’s upper thigh.

He made an inhuman howl, the glow around him pulsating and going red. Bucky was already in a flat out run, hands fisted, ready for a killing blow. Steve was coming from the other side, like a mirror image.

And then the wizard’s magic went off like a bomb, the glow erupting around him and energy pulsing off enough to throw everyone to the ground.

The wizard struggled to get up, fireworks shooting from his hands.

Steve had managed to scrabble up a trash can lid for a shield but he didn’t need it because the wizard wasn’t aiming at him.

Sam went stumbling back when the fireworks hit his feet. And then kept stumbling, his feet moving in jerky uncoordinated swings, far faster than they should be. Sam shouted something indignant but Bucky didn’t catch it. He was too busy evading the fireworks and glitter aimed his way. The wizard was trying to get rid of the spares so he could have Steve to himself.

Steve shouted Bucky’s name - out of the corner of his eye Bucky could see Steve moving in. “Check on Sam!” Bucky shouted, because dealing with the man would be a hell of a lot easier if he wasn’t worrying about Steve too.

A blast caught Bucky in the metal arm, throwing him back several feet, narrowly missing a grouping of rocks. Steve was at his side almost instantly, covering him with the makeshift shield.

“You have your phone or your comm card?” Bucky flexed the plates on his arm and wound the whole thing up twice, then three times, making sure there weren’t any kinks he was missing.

“Yeah.” Steve peered over the shield at their opponent, who was chanting loudly and making messy hand motions. “Back up’s on the way.”

“What about Sam?” Bucky took the chance of looking away from the wizard. Sam was a ways off, still almost dancing about, feet moving too fast and arms windmilling to steady himself. “We gotta get him back to the tower.”

“You go,” Steve said. “I’ll get this guy.”

“Like hell,” Bucky snapped. “He’s not after me, he’s after you. And you run faster. Let me deal with Harry Potter, you get Sam to help.”

“I’m not arguing about this, Buck,” Steve put on his Captain voice, the one that cowed whole squads of men into following one guy in a funny suit. Never did have much effect on Bucky.

“Me either, Steven.” Except, of course, they were. Arguing.

Lighting flashed in the sky but it was not Thor. The lightning, an odd brilliant pink color, pooled around the wizard, coiled up his legs and torso to his arms and then shot out, striking Steve’s trashcan lid head-on. The trashcan lid wasn’t vibranium and it didn’t absorb vibration worth a damn. Steve went flying.

The wizard limped forward, intent on finishing what he started and not seeming to realize that he still had one opponent unaccounted for.

Bucky jumped from the rock, metal arm outstretched and something of a wrecking ball with the momentum of the fall behind it. The wizard’s expression was one of abject horror right before the air shimmered and he seemed to evaporate. Bucky cracked the cement where the man’s shoulder used to be.

Bucky jumped to his feet and scanned the area but the wizard was nowhere in sight and Steve was yards away, picking himself up and stumbling over to a now convulsing Wilson. Bucky ran over.

Sam was awake, shouting in alarm and confusion as his legs flailed about. Steve was having no problem keeping Sam’s torso still but his feet were kicking with force. Bucky thought back to the shout he’d heard, something about ‘red’, and understood. “It’s the shoes!” Bucky shouted.

“I don’t have anything to cut them with,” Steve replied. “Do you have another knife on you, Buck?”

“No knives!” Sam shouted. “Hell no!”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed. “He’s moving too much. Liable to cut him pretty bad.”

Steve gave Bucky an exasperated look. “I’m open to suggestions. Getting back to the tower isn’t really going to work.”

“Hold him as still as you can,” Bucky ordered.

“Working on it,” Steve snapped back. He shifted his weight, wrapping his hands around Sam’s ankles and bracing himself on them to keep them as still as possible.

“Sorry about the shoes, Sam.” Bucky said. He grabbed the left boot with his flesh and blood hand and tucked his metal fingers into the laces. He yanked, hard. Sam shouted as the laces snapped and Bucky shucked the boot off awkwardly, throwing it to the side. He did the same to the right boot, and then stumbled back with the force of the kicking boot.

Sam went still the minute the boots were off and Steve splayed awkwardly forward at the sudden lack of resistance. Bucky shook his hand until his fingers came untangled from the kicking boot and then he pulled himself to his feet, watching the boots hop about the trail, empty.

Sam sat up, bracing himself on his elbows and watched the boots jig about. “What. The. Actual. Fuck.”

Steve pushed himself up and exchanged a look with Bucky. “Definitely magic.”

“Definitely,” Bucky agreed.

Steve rubbed the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “I think i might need to start bringing my shield on our jog.”

“Or at least think of a better back up,” Bucky agreed, pointed to the sad remains of the trash can lid.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “I’m definitely getting fined for that.”

 

Clean-up at the park took a while. Bystanders had called the cops and Barton - Clint - and Natasha - it was getting less weird - were there before Steve could cancel the call for back up. They agreed to help the police comb the scene and collect witness statements and sent Steve, Sam, and Bucky back to the tower to clean up and get checked out.

Sam had a mild calf strain from the wild movements of the shoes and some bruising around both his ankles from Bucky’s fingers, but he was more concerned about the boots that had survived war but not a walk in the park.

“They were broken in perfectly,” he grumbled, following Bruce into the kitchen for ice packs from the freezer.

“You’d miss your feet more,” Bucky called out, waving his metal hand.

Sam stared at him for a moment, expression grim, and then he coughed a laugh into his hand and disappeared through the kitchen doorway.

“No one appreciates my humor,” Bucky lamented.

Steve clapped him on the back. “They do, they just don’t always know if you’re joking.”

Bucky accepted that because these were the same people that never seemed to notice how damn sarcastic Steve was.

They made their way to the large conference table where Tony was already standing, talking over data with Jarvis and fiddling with some machine that did god-only-knows-what.

“We’ve gone through all the footage from bystanders already.” Tony tapped his screwdriver against the small contraption he was building. “No dice. He’s got something that obscures his face in any footage.”

Steve sighed and dropped down into one of the chairs. “Why am I not surprised?”

Steve and Tony immediately jumped into a debate about the wizard guy’s tactics and technology and Bucky shook his head. He left the room for a few minutes, stopping off at their floor before returning. Bucky set down a water bottle, a sketch pad, and pack of fancy pencils in front of Steve. Steve looked up at him questioningly.

Bucky raised an eyebrow. "Well, you got a good look at him, didn't you?"

Steve grinned at Bucky. “Yeah, you know, I think I did.” Steve broke open the pack of pencils and flipped the sketch pad to a clean sheet. Bucky sat down beside him, kicking his feet up onto the table. Steve always had a gift for portraits. He did well with cityscapes and the like but people and sometimes animals were where his gifts really lay. Bucky was pretty sure that the only reason he can remember Sarah Rogers’s face is because Steve had drawn such clear renderings of it.

“Was his jaw line a little wider?” Steve asked, mostly to himself.

Bucky leaned over to look, had to press up against Steve to do so because of the angle of the book. “Yeah, and there was a bigger space between his upper lip and his nose.” Bucky never used to be one for faces but that was before.

Tony wandered back around from his small side workshop. “What are we working on, Picasso?”

Steve held up the sketch for Tony to see. It was still just a rough outline but the features were all marked out on the page. “You saw him too. Good start?”

“Huh.” Tony perched himself half on the table. “Did I know you could draw? I must have known.”

“Must have known what?” Bruce asked as he and Sam came back from the kitchen.

“About Cap’s artistic skills.” Tony took Steve’s sketchbook and held it aloft.

“You didn’t know?” Sam looked deeply offended. Bruce shrugged and shook his head no.

Sam sighed the sigh of the painfully aggrieved. “Man, were none of you Cap fanboys growing up?”

“Bucky fanboy, personally,” Tony offered.

Bucky looked up at Tony, not bothering to hide his confusion. He could feel Steve’s eyes on him and when he risked a glance, Steve had the best smile on his face. He used to tease Bucky something fierce when Bucky received a small bag of fan mail at the same time Steve did. And the Bucky Bear had been a non-stop source of amusement among the commandos the minute they heard about it. Bucky rubbed the back of his head, feeling awkward and sheepish.

Tony shrugged. “Dear old dad had a whole room dedicated to Rogers, so I decided you were more my guy. Don’t take it to heart, Terminator.”

“A Bucky fan right from the start?” Sam asked and then shook his head like he was not at all surprised. “I knew you were the type to blossom early.”

“How d’you mean?” Steve asked as he got the sketchbook back from Tony and started fleshing out the details.

“It’s like Star Wars,” Tony says, turning back to his array of screens. “Young girls think Luke Skywalker is ‘dreamy’ but when they get older it’s Han Solo all the way. Bucky, once the 80s cartoon came out where he wasn’t a kid sidekick? Was the Han Solo of the Captain America story. You dug Cap because he was a good guy but Bucky was the charming rogue.”

Steve elbowed Bucky, looking so damn pleased about life.

“Shut up,” Bucky muttered fondly.

Steve finished his sketch by the time Natasha and Clint returned with little intel and a lot of take out. Thai this time. Bucky liked the meat skewers and the noodles but avoided the eggplant dishes, of which there were many.

It took a while but Jarvis did manage to get a hit from Steve’s sketch. The facial recognition software had gotten them a name but whereabouts and any associates were unknown. The guy wasn't a ghost, he just seemed to have a really crappy life.

"And no engineering skills to speak of," Stark said bitterly.

“Lee Turner,” Clint read aloud, scrolling through the feed. “Took a few community college classes but only went for a few semesters. Took low paying jobs in the service industry for a few years. Huh. Okay, that’s funny.”

“What?” Tony got up in Clint’s personal space, reading along with him. “A magician in Vegas. Are you serious?”

“I have not altered any of the data I have received,” Jarvis said and Bucky could hear the mockery there.

“A few months at the Tropicana before the remodel, then an off-the-strip casino, and now he’s part-timing it in Reno.” Clint whistled. “Cap got taken out by a failed professional magician.”

“Failed professional magician, maybe,” Steve said. “But what he did to Sam’s shoes? To me? He has some talent or access to something powerful.”

"It could be alien technology," Natasha offered, folding her arms over her chest. "Something he stumbled on. They're still finding things from the Chitauri so it's not impossible. But the simplest answer is the most likely."

"How is magic the simplest answer?" Stark asked.

Bucky personally wondered how alien technology had gotten to be a simple answer and what that said about their lives. He poured himself water and took one of the stools from the side table, positioning it near Steve before sitting down.

"Barnes heard Turner say a spell. Twice now." Barton waved his spoon in the air. "Which isn't hard evidence but the guy hasn't tried to declare himself sorcerer supreme or whatever--"

"Sorcerer supreme?" Tony rolled his eyes.

Barton lobbed a crispy chip thing at Stark and it bounced off his nose and into his smoothie. Stark looked deeply offended.

"What I mean is, if it's tech he's pretending is magic to boost his failed Vegas career then why hasn't he made a YouTube video or some shit?"

"He didn't mean to hit Captain America?" Barnes offered. "And now he's terrified." Bucky took the plate Steve handed him and added pad thai and a few spring rolls to it. He grabbed an apple from the bowl at the center of the table for after. He liked to end meals with something sweet, which was a new habit, but one Steve had encouraged constantly.

Natasha snickered.

"If he's smart, yeah," Sam agreed. "Attacking Cap is the dumbest move you can make. Look what happened to Hydra."

"Look what Barnes did to that robot the other week," Barton countered.

Bucky saluted Barton with a spring roll.

“Not that it stopped him from attacking again,” Steve replied dryly.

Natasha’s phone made a discreet beep and she checked it immediately. “Huh,” she said.

“Good or bad?” Clint sat up straight.

“Fury might have a lead on someone who can help us,” she replied, pushing her chair back from the table. “But he needs help bringing the guy in.”

“Do we have a name?” Steve asked warily.

Natasha quirked her mouth in a small, amused smile. “Dr. Strange.”

There was momentary silence and then Tony threw his hands up and said, “I’m done. I’m so done.” Clint burst out laughing.

Steve grimaced. “Sitwell mentioned him, I think. As a target for the Insight program. Stephen Strange.”

Natasha tilted her head to the side in something like a shrug. “If Nick thinks it’s worth checking out and Hydra thought he was a threat then I’m more than willing to see what I can find.”

“I’ll come with you,” Clint offered. Natasha arched an eyebrow at him and Clint made a face. “What if you need someone to pull off your possessed shoes, huh?”

“He’d be dead before he touched my shoes.”

Sam sighed sadly.

“Humor me?” Clint asked.

Steve tapped the table. “Sticking in groups is a good plan, Natasha. We’ve seen what the guy is capable of. A one-pronged approach might be more of a drawback than a benefit, no matter how subtle you are.”

Natasha’s mouth fell into a thin, flat line, but she acquiesced with a nod to Clint. “We’ll report in every 24 hours. Keep us in the loop.” It was not a request.

Clint hopped up from the table, dashed off a half-assed salute in Steve’s direction, and followed Natasha out.

“I feel less safe,” Tony observed after a moment. “We’re just not as intimidating when she’s off-site.”

“Speak for yourself,” Bruce replied mildly.

Steve smiled at Bruce. “Okay, I think I’m going to change out of my running clothes. Stark, let me know if Jarvis finds anything else?”

“Keep the search going, J,” Tony ordered gamely.

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis replied.

Bruce and Tony stayed behind, debating the mechanics of Turner’s magic while Steve, Bucky, and Sam took the elevator to Steve’s floor. Steve headed straight for the shower and Sam headed straight for the couch. Bucky grabbed Sam a water from the kitchen and the tv remote. Sam propped his legs up on the couch cushions and tossed Bucky the used ice packs. Bucky stuffed those in their freezer and then went to his room to get a change of clothes. He got in the shower as soon as Steve got out, squeaking by him in the hallway and ignoring the bare expanse of skin beyond the towel wrapped around his waist.

And he ignored that the bathroom was already steaming, that Steve had just been in here, and instead focused on the dirt and debris in his hair from rolling on the ground. He was thankful his hair was shorter than it used to be.

When he got back to the living room, Steve was sitting in one of the plush chairs off the side, scrolling down through a list on the television labeled “Children’s movies”. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid etc.

Sam was settled on the couch still, making a verbal list “Turn you into a beast. Give you fins and steal your voice--”

“Don’t you mean turn you into sea foam?” Steve asked.

“Depends on if this guy’s better versed than Disney and who is these days? Nobody.”

Bucky took a seat in the chair next to Steve’s. “Cartoon recon?”

Steve winked. “Movie recon. The Red Shoe thing was some sort of musical? Sam insisted we cover all our bases.”

“Dancing shoes that could have ripped my feet off or something,” Sam pointed out. “Better safe than sorry, you know.”

“Sure, sure,” Bucky said, purposefully sounding like a jerk.

Sam huffed and shifted on his side so he could look at them. “So what I don’t get is why he’s after any of you. You do anything to get the guy’s attention or?”

“Steve’s on the cover of a magazine this month.” It was a struggle to keep his voice innocent sounding and he couldn’t stop a laugh from escaping when Steve shot him a nasty look.

Steve shook his head, attempting to look disappointed and mostly failing. “It’s been a quiet month.”

“Maybe you’re too pretty. He’s jealous.” Sam hugged a pillow to his chest and yawned.

“Wrong princess,” Bucky pointed out. He raised his eyebrows at Steve.

Steve nodded. “Okay, Sam, I think you need a nap.”

“I’m not in preschool, Cap.” But Sam pushed himself up. “But if you insist.”

“He does.” Bucky got an arm under Sam’s and helped Sam up. Sam hissed as he stood, the ankle bruising and calf strain finally besting the adrenaline he’d probably been running on for a while now. Steve got on Sam’s other side and together they walked him down the hall to the spare room. Steve grabbed more pillows from the hall while Bucky helped Sam pull the covers back. “I’m not that messed up, you know,” Sam commented.

“You had your feet dancing out from under you at near inhuman speed and then got your shoes ripped off with a lot of force,” Bucky replied. “You’re going to be sore.”

Sam scoffed but didn’t protest too hard when Steve brought the pillows in to prop Sam’s feet up and keep the swelling to a minimum.

“You need the hall light on?” Bucky asked, because he understood that Sam preferred feigned mockery to overt sympathy when the problem wasn’t substantial.

Sam threw a pillow at him.

Steve handed Sam back the pillow and hustled Bucky out the door.

They tried to be quiet for a while after that, not wanting to disturb Sam. They sat together on the couch, Steve looking up potential fairy tale threats on his laptop, and Bucky taking up the bulk of the coffee table with cleaning supplies and the dismantled parts of his three favorite guns. Turner didn’t seem to be going away and Bucky refused to be unprepared.

After an hour or so, Steve put the laptop down with a heavy sigh. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together. “I thought Tony was right. About it being technology.”

“You need to listen to me more.” Bucky kicked Steve’s ankle. “And Natasha.”

“Yeah,” Steve nodded. His eyes were downcast and his shoulders hunched that little bit. “I guess it's a good thing the curse wore off on its own with me. I, uh, I don’t think Natasha's plan would've worked out too well.”

Bucky gave up the teasing immediately, reading all too well the misery written out all over Steve’s body. He set down the piece he’d been cleaning and wiped his hands on a rag. “Hey, Steve, pal. She loved you. I don't think it would matter if she could remember or not, she still loved you."

Steve laughed, but it was an awful, wet, sad laugh and he didn’t look at Bucky. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands.

Bucky wondered if it would be worse or better to tell Steve the truth. Steve didn’t need to worry but Bucky had no intention of putting his feelings on Steve. The guy already carried enough weight on his shoulders, he didn’t need to go worrying about how not to break Bucky’s heart too.

“Pardon me, sirs,” Jarvis’s voice rang out through the room.

Steve wiped at his eyes and sat up straight. “Tony has something?”

“Indeed. He requests your presence in the main conference room.”

Steve got up, running his hands through his hair. “Be right there.”

“I’ll check on Sam,” Bucky said. “Meet you up there.”

“Thanks.” Steve grabbed shoes from by the door and got into the elevator.

Sam was half awake when Bucky checked on him and refused to be left in bed like a kid. So by the time he and Bucky got into the conference room, Bruce, Tony, Steve, and Maria Hill were already knee-deep in debate.

Bucky and Sam took seats on either side of Steve. “What’d we miss?” Sam asked.

“Jarvis hacked Turner’s medical records,” Steve whispered. “Turns out he’s dying.”

“... okay.” Sam leaned back in his seat. “Does that explain anything?”

“We think so,” Tony replied above the heated discussion between Bruce and Hill. “If magic is real, and if he is targeting the good Captain, then we think we might know why.”

“Why?” Sam humored Tony.

“The serum.” Bucky rapped his knuckles on the table. “It has to be.”

Tony offered Bucky a blueberry.

Bucky hesitantly took one after Bruce gave him an encouraging smile.

“Magic isn’t exactly our specialty,” Bruce said, “But with the recent media focus on Cap being the pinnacle of human physique, it seems highly likely that Turner is trying to use magic to capitalize on that somehow.”

“That shit never ends well for the wizards in fairy tales, so why the hell does he think it’ll end well for him?” Sam asked. “Especially since he’s been using those fairy tales as a spell guide for dummies.”

Sam got offered blueberries, too.

“That, we don’t know,” Tony acknowledged. “But it’s what we do know that’s important.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “What do we know?”

“He’s part of a medical trial at a small lab near Union Square,” Tony said proudly. “And his next appointment is tomorrow morning.”

 

The plan was simple enough: surprise, disarm, arrest. There were strategies involved, of course, and back up plans. But all of that went to shit pretty quickly.

There was a farmer’s market in Union Square Park on Mondays.

Bucky knew that because Turner caught sight of Iron Man and did a runner. Led them straight into a crowd of shoppers and pallets of produce and just generally chaos. “On your toes, people!” Steve had shouted over the comm.

“No shit,” Bucky muttered as he ran past a gaggle of phone-happy bystanders. “Get inside!” he yelled. Apparently he still had some ability to elicit terror because the group rushed to obey him, scrambling like rats, racing the other way down the street or into small shops.

And it was a good thing, too, because moments later Turner started throwing handfuls of glitter dust with the random sputtering arc of a laser and shouts in a few languages that were other spells.

“Oh, hell,” Tony said over the comm.

“Focus!” Steve ordered. “Hulk, go around and block the other side. Falcon, get as many civilians away as you can. Iron Man, distract from up top. Give Bucky and me room to move.”

However bad the Avengers were at listening to reason on movie night or about dinner orders, when it came to battle, every single one of them hunkered down and followed orders. Even Tony let Steve call the shots and only offered colorful commentary, not objections. He and Sam took to the skies and split up, Tony using his array of weaponry to move Turner off from the bulk of the bystanders while Sam worked on evac.

Steve was the fastest on foot, more agile than Bucky by a hair, and when he went tearing off after Turner, Bucky was a few steps behind.

Turner was casting spells at random, colorful lights bouncing all around him, sending vegetables flying and making store windows shatter. The magic seemed to be going farther, arcing out past where Bucky could see. Which really didn’t bode well.

“We need to shut him down now!” Steve shouted, turning in a sharp short circle and throwing the shield at the man like a discus. Turner threw his hands up in the air, screaming to wake the dead, and the magic he threw at the shield with sent him flying in one direction and the shield going the other way. The shield sliced through booths, sending tarps crashing down. Magic shattered light bulbs and most of the glass all along the street.

The newsracks in front of Bucky exploded in a shower of rainbow sparks and Bucky got a face full of dailys. He grabbed them, throwing them to the ground with only a quick glance. The headline of the day was “Bucky Barnes, Capt. America’s sidekick, saves the day!” with a picture from the Central Park fight. Seventy years as a brainwashed assassin and people were still calling him Steve’s sidekick.

Steve's shield hit the street hard, leaving long skidmarks behind it and clattered flat, abandoned and out of reach. Steve jumped over a broken cart but as he reached for the shield, a large set of bronze legs blocked the shield from view.

It was the statue of George Washington, including the horse.

“I’ve got Turner in my sights,” Tony reported.

“Good,” Steve replied as he leapt away from kicking bronze horse legs. “We’ll get there as soon as we can.”

The horse reared up onto its hind legs, neighing in a weirdly metallic tone, and then Washington squeezed his legs against the horse’s flanks and the horse went charging. Steve pointed at Bucky and then pointed past the horse and then he ran, leading the horse well away from where the shield was.

Bucky got to the shield without a problem. He threw the shield hard, watched as Steve flipped himself over statue and caught it in midair before landing. Bucky grinned.

Steve slammed the shield against the horse’s back legs, shattering them to small fragments and dust. He leapt up, using his weight and momentum to knock Washington off the horse and then landed, shield first, severing the head from the torso. Bucky was close enough to take on the front end of the horse while Steve finished the torso and legs of the first president.

A still-attached arm grabbed hold of Steve’s helmet, pulling Steve down against the ground. Steve used the shield to separate arm from torso and Bucky ripped the hand away from Steve’s head, taking the helmet with it.

“Thanks, Buck.” Steve wiped his face.

“I’ve been watching your back since the twenties,” Bucky held out his hand. “That’s never gonna change.”

Steve took Bucky’s outstretched hand and pulled himself up.

“Guys!” Tony cut in over the comm, sounding annoyed as all hell. “Still fighting off Rip Van Winkle, here.”

Tony had Turner cornered, but it was something of a zero sum game. Turner seemed to have cast some sort of shield spell, so Tony’s efforts were being deflected into the nearby produce. But Turner seemed to be focusing all of his energy on that spell and wasn’t attempting to run.

“Think it’s impervious to people or just to energy?” Bucky asked, clenching his fists. Knocking Turner’s face in seemed like a good way to end things.

“I don’t know.” Steve rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck from side to side.

“Steve--”

Steve grinned. “Let’s find out.”

Steve ran full tilt, weaving his way through deflected shots and exploding plums, to reach Turner’s location, Bucky hot on his heels

Or at least Bucky was hot on his heels until something grabbed him by the neck and yanked him back.

That something turned out to be a light pole, freed from the ground, spindly arm wrapped right around Bucky’s chest and constricting quickly. Bucky’s hand was made of a stronger material and he was able to pry the folded metal back just enough to slip down back onto the ground.

The light poles all down the street were shuddering and rocking back and forth, until the one nearest Bucky tilted enough to come free of the ground. Bucky scrambled back, internal threat assessment ratcheting up wildly as each of the light poles sprouted legs and arms.

“What the f--” Tony shouted, voice painfully loud over the comm.

“Did someone ask him ‘you and what army’? Sam snapped.

In the distance, the Hulk roared. And above the carts and kiosks, Bucky could see the subway pavillion dancing on spindly pole legs, deftly avoiding green fists.

The light poles were lumbering about, trying to get their feet, but all generally headed for Steve, who was apparently still number one of the wizard’s kill list.

And then magic splashed like a wave onto the tables of paintings.

Bucky decided straight off not to treat the painted people as people. Not even the one who appeared to be sliding backwards wherever he went.

The demented version of Mickey Mouse was the first down. It’s pulsing aura blinking out once Bucky got in a shot at the horrifying face. Then he was faced with a group of men with slim legged suits and funny haircuts. They had musical instruments (well, if drumsticks could be considered instruments without the drums attached) and could jump extraordinarily high.

“Don’t kill Paul!” Sam shouted.

“They’re paint Wilson!” Tony shouted back. “They’re not going to release a new album or go on SNL.”

“You don’t know that!” Sam argued. Bucky decided he didn’t need to know and the one who threw drumsticks at his face was the first to go.

In the distance, Steve was playing frisbee and trying his best to go straight into the heart of danger and face Turner straight on.

“Idiot,” Bucky hissed, vaulting himself over a half dozen painted icons and closer to Steve.

“How are you even awake?” Turner shrieked. “You should be asleep forever! What do I have to do?!?” He threw his hands forward, power sparking off his fingertips. Steve got the shield over him just in time, crouching like a turtle in the street, arms and legs and head all tucked behind the shell.

It gave Bucky the distraction he needed to get the jump on Turner from behind. “A hell of a lot more than that.”

Turner shrieked in rage, the magic rolling off him in uncontrolled waves. Around them, the street seemed to melt, the sidewalk was suddenly covered over in ice, the produce and the flowers strewn about flashed from decay to perfect ripeness over and over again.

Bucky locked his arms around Turner’s neck in a perfect sleeper hold but the magic pulsating around the man kept breaking Bucky’s hold, making him struggle to keep securing his arms.

Turner got a hold of one of Bucky’s arms, pulling it down just enough, apparently, to see Bucky’s metal fingers because he howled “You! Always you!” and seemed to lose whatever control he’d had left.

The magic eruption was like a small bomb, throwing Bucky a dozen yards away and clearing the street of everything but Steve and his shield, which seemed to have absorbed the impact with little trouble. The light poles tipped over prostrate on the ground, the painted people were sucked back onto their canvas. Every odd thing ceased to exist. And Turner was also gone, only a colorful circle on the ground where he’d been standing. Bucky had no doubt that the man had only vanished again, like the previous two fights.

Bucky picked himself up amid the produce, grunting as he slipped and slid in broken melon and citrus fruit. The bystanders were slowly coming out from the stores, phones held aloft for pictures and recordings. Bucky saw the girl who’d been manning the nearest produce stand start picking up fruit by the handful, trying to get it back in order on the pallets. The immediate danger was already gone and Steve was already rushing to assist the civilians he could, though surprisingly no one looked injured.

So Bucky took a few minutes and helped gather up wayward oranges and apples from the pavement. He put them on pallets by the armful, letting the girl sort and stack as he went. It only took a few minutes and when they were done, the girl thanked him profusely, gushing at how sweet he was and making Bucky intensely uncomfortable. He tried to hand her one last apple but she shook her head and tucked her hands behind her. “Keep it,” she said firmly. “It’s the least I can give you.”

There just wasn’t a really good way of refusing and Bucky liked apples well enough so he thanked her and made his way towards where the rest of the Avengers were starting to gather.

 

"We're still basically at square one," Bruce said once they got back to the tower. They’d gathered around the kitchen table after they’d cleaned themselves off and changed into comfortable clothes. Tony had ordered take out and he and Sam were already attacking the chow mein with vigor.

Tony shoved the plate of eggrolls at Bruce (Tony was weird about rewarding intelligent statements with gifts of food) and Bruce took one with a shrug. "We've been analyzing the energy signatures from each incident but getting access to the right satellite data to determine if there have been any similar incidents hasn't been easy."

Steve and Sam made faces. Exposing Hydra was a good move - Bucky was obviously a strong supporter - but it had made certain things more difficult.

"I’m working on a hack," Tony assured them. “But it takes time and finesse since we don’t want to cause any international incidents if we can avoid it.”

"Maybe Bucky and I should go back to the latest incident site,” Steve sighed. “Check out nearby streets, make sure nothing got missed."

Bucky was running out of clean uniforms and the broccoli beef smelled amazing, but he figured Steve was probably right. “Sounds good. When do you want to head out?"

"In five?" Steve asked, looking like he thought Bucky was going to be mad.

Bucky nodded and snagged the apple he’d been going to contribute to the fruit bowl. It would do for now. "I'll suit up. Meet you downstairs."

He got off the stool and pushed it back to against the side table. He flicked Wilson on the shoulder as he passed and was almost to the door when he took a bite of the apple.

It burned.

Bucky froze, his breath ratcheting up immediately, his heart pounding. He tried to open his mouth but nothing happened. It was as if his jaw was locked shut, his lips sealed together with glue. The center of his tongue ached with the burn from the apple, making his eyes tear up and his forehead break out into sweat.

"Bucky?" Steve asked and Bucky could hear the scrape of chairs being pushed away from the table.

Bucky tried to say something, anything, because Steve sounded alarmed and Bucky hated that tone in Steve's voice. Hated being the cause of it.

But he couldn't speak. And then he couldn't breathe. Bucky strained his muscles, tried to move, to breathe, anything. The most he managed was his metal hand loosening just enough to drop the apple on the ground.

"Jesus, Bucky!" Steve was at his side just as Bucky's legs stopped cooperating, going to jelly underneath him. Steve caught him as he fell, bracing him and then cradling him on the ground.

Steve looked stricken, horrified, and Bucky wished Steve wasn’t here to see this. But. Bucky knew what this was. Knew his chances and he was absurdly grateful that it was Steve's face his vision swam on and Steve's arms around him that were the last thing he could feel before the darkness took him.

Bucky had always had an excellent internal clock. Before the war he’d almost never overslept. He knew he had to be up by five and he was awake by five. During the war it was even more pronounced. No one ever needed to wake him for his watch shift, no matter when the shift, no matter how little sleep he’d had beforehand. After… he didn’t dream in cryosleep. He wasn’t properly aware enough to do that, or even to think or worry or plan or despair. But whenever he was brought out, he always had a general idea of how long he’d been asleep: weeks, months, years.

He couldn’t hear anyone talking, he didn’t feel people holding his hands or checking his vitals or anything like that. He didn’t dream. Like with cryosleep, he was instead in a vast, empty darkness and the only thing he was aware of was the slow, incremental passage of time.

It had been nearly a week.

The first thing he knew was that he was cold. The cold started at the center of his tongue and the roof of his mouth and spread down his throat and out his limbs until every inch of him felt the bite of frost. It wasn’t like cryosleep, or even a rough night in the dead of winter. It was something altogether different, the sort of cold that burned you, cocooned you and kept you silent and still. It was an unearthly cold.

The second thing he knew was that not all of him was cold. His lips had a blooming warmth to them, like when his father had rubbed Bucky’s chapped hands between his own. A fire that curled out across his face, over his eyelids, up to his hair, searing the frost from his skin.

He took a breath.

The warmth crept down his throat, bringing the muscle achingly back to life, sliding down into his chest. His heart beat, the only sound he could hear, thunder, silence, thunder again. The second breath did not sear as badly.

From his chest the warmth dripped down into his stomach and flowed out across his arms to his fingertips - both arms, which felt odd but he couldn’t, for a moment, understand why.

From his stomach to his groin to his thighs and calves and feet, which he could tell were encased in thick, soft socks he didn’t own.

The third breath was no hardship at all.

He blinked, muzzily at first, a half dozen quick flutters before he got his eyes half open and then another two before they opened all the way. The ceiling was white above him, brightly lit and hard to look at. He closed his eyes again.

He could hear the soft beep of machinery in time with the awkward pound of his heart. He could hear people far away, muffled conversations, a doctor paged over an intercom.

He could feel---

A hand, warm over his own.

Bucky stretched his fingers, clumsily folding them over the hand, so they were palm to palm.

“Buck?” A voice - loud to his ears but he knew it wasn’t loud at all.

Bucky turned his head as much as he could manage and there was Steve, sitting in the chair next to the bed. He was in uniform, his hair a spiked mess, his face smudged with dirt, his mouth and cheeks a healthy pink.

“You get Harry Potter?” Bucky asked. His voice was creaky from disuse, deeper and rougher than normal. Less like himself and more like the asset he used to be.

Steve smiled, a sweet closed-mouth smile that made the skin around his eyes crinkle. “Turns out that Fury's guy? Dr. Strange? Know all about this stuff.”

Bucky smiled back. “How mad is Stark?”

“Not that mad.” Steve shook his head. “Still arguing with Thor about the whole thing but visiting you in the hospital wasn’t his favorite pastime, so he’s not too mad.”

“Stark visited me?”

“We all visited you,” Steve said, making a face. “You almost - the curse paralyzed your throat… you couldn’t breathe. We had to rush you here to get you stabilized. We took turns, guarding you, sure, but mostly keeping you company.”

Bucky wasn’t sure what to say, but he didn’t fight the smile creeping onto his face. “Nice to know.”

Steve shook his head and let go of Bucky’s hand. He reached for something on the nightstand and then had a straw at Bucky’s mouth. “Drink. Your throat sounds awful.”

Bucky sipped, closing his eyes at the relief of the lukewarm water against his tongue and throat.

“It was a long week,” Steve said softly. “You kept flatlining and Dr. Strange - ”

Bucky snickered.

“-- yeah, I know. But he was concerned that if Turner’s magic was still at its peak, then breaking the curse wouldn’t be enough to save you.”

Bucky let go of the straw long enough to apologize before chancing another sip.

“Don’t be sorry,” Steve sighed. “You held on. That’s what matters.”

“Sure,” Bucky replied, chest aching again now that he knew the red in Steve’s eyes wasn’t just from lack of sleep.

“Do me a favor?” Steve asked, setting the cup down.

Bucky nodded, because it wasn’t as if there was anything Steve could ask of him that he wouldn’t do.

“If you could avoid spinning wheels - sewing machines too actually - and apples and glass shoes. All of that. It’d be much appreciated.”

Bucky snorted. “You too, pal. You got cursed first.”

“Yeah.” Steve squeezed Bucky’s hand, thumb brushing over Bucky’s knuckles. “I did, actually.”

Bucky felt wrong-footed suddenly, put off by Steve’s tone and the odd expression on his face.

“How’d you wake me, Buck?” Steve asked, leaning forward in his seat.

Bucky didn’t say anything.

Steve looked down and took Bucky’s hand in both of his, rubbing small circles into the base of Bucky’s palm between the thumb and forefinger. Tension Bucky didn’t know he had there was easing away at the careful touch. “See, you were the only one with me. So I know it was you.”

Bucky swallowed tightly, feeling flushed everywhere, embarrassed and a little sad but not regretful. Never that. He tried to work out what to say and found he couldn’t quite bring himself to speak. The answer was so obvious that Steve had to have figured it out, hadn’t he?

Bucky shrugged.

Steve looked up at him, mouth quirked into a half smile. “Yeah?” he said, challenging and fond at the same time. “That’s all you got?”

“You know how,” Bucky finally said, wanting to take his hand back but not able to work up the strength.

Steve nodded. He looked stupidly pleased, the way he always did when he’d backed Bucky into the corner he’d wanted. “I do know,” he agreed.

Bucky let out a little sigh, irritation building. He straightened his fingers in Steve’s hold and tugged.

Steve didn’t let go.

Bucky looked at him, opened his mouth to tell him off, but Steve gripped his hand like iron and bent over and kissed Bucky square on his open mouth. The touch of Steve’s lips zinged through Bucky, made his nerves tingle, his bones shiver. Bucky closed his mouth over Steve’s bottom lip and kissed back, tilting his head for a better angle, opening his mouth back up and letting Steve in.

Steve tasted like protein bars, coffee, and almost-forgotten Altoids. Like he’d come straight to Bucky’s bedside without thought, without hesitation. He tasted like anticipation crawling up Bucky’s spine, like the safety of their hands locked together, like home again and again.

Steve sighed into Bucky’s mouth and it was the sweetest sound Bucky could imagine, like all the cares that had worn them both had fallen off their shoulders like water, left behind in this one moment where every single thing, every breath, every beat, every touch was the best it would ever be.

It was like hope, bottled and kept safe in the sliver of space between them.

Bucky kissed Steve and kissed Steve and kissed him again until Steve was laughing into his mouth, shaking in his arms, wrapping those strong hands over Bucky’s face to keep them always together.

Steve pulled back, laughing and smiling the single best smile Bucky had ever seen in all his long years.

“Yeah,” Steve said, pressing soft kiss over soft kiss on Bucky’s face, hands, jaw, neck, shoulder, ear, eyelids. “Yeah, that’s how I woke you up too.”