“Hawkeye, you’ve got incoming.”
“You wanna be a little more specific?” Clint dropped out of his tree perch and landed directly on top of an AIM scientist sprinting for the parking lot. An elbow to the jaw made sure the scientist stayed down and let Clint hop back up to his feet to face the lab doors. Tony was inside busting up the lab itself, since the Iron Man armor was essentially a bulletproof hazmat suit and thus especially suited to mad scientist lairs.
All Clint had done so far was guard the perimeter and run down escapees. This AIM cell was so small that Clint had only called in Tony to help with the raid, and even that was turning out to be overkill. This was practically a vacation.
“The electronic locks on the lab cages disengaged when some idiot tried to run the lab’s self-destruct sequence. I don’t know what was in there, but I make five heat signatures running in your direction, ETA six seconds.”
Clint looked down at the unconscious AIM scientist, shrugged, and scrambled back up into his tree. He didn’t have enough time to drag an unconscious body up with him, and it was a good diversion. Besides, if the guy got eaten by his own lab rats, that was just poetic justice.
There was an eerie chorus of howling echoing out the open stairwell door. As the bogies got closer, Clint could hear a scrabbling noise, like claws on tile. Clint nocked a tranquilizer arrow.
Out of the stairwell burst five dogs, all of them running at top speed. They hit the perimeter fence and cornered sharply, racing in a circle around the lab, constrained by the fence but too spooked to stop. None of them seemed to notice the scientist, except as an obstacle to jump.
“Was that a good ‘huh’ or a wow-that’s-a-lot-of-teeth ‘huh’?”
“Just a ‘huh’ huh. They’re dogs. No huge teeth, just...dogs.” Clint let the tension go out of his shoulders. The dogs were already contained by the fence, and he wasn’t sure how much tranquilizer was safe to use on dogs. The biggest was a huge husky or wolfhound mix that could probably take a human dose, but the smallest one looked more like a terrier. It couldn’t have weighed more than forty pounds.
Tony paused. “Huh. Gimme a sec, I’ll hack their research files and see what we’re dealing with.”
“Cool.” Clint dangled his legs over the side of the tree branch and watched the dogs slowly calm down. They kept moving, but their pace became less frantic, and they started to dart off into new corners to explore.
Most of the lab perimeter was surrounded by pavement, but there was a strip of grass right by the fence that the dogs congregated on, sniffing intently. They were all different sizes and breeds, and looked more like mutts than purebreds to Clint’s untrained eye. All of them looked healthy.
The shaggy gray husky wandered back over to the unconscious scientist. It sniffed the prone man and growled, backing up a step. Clint touched one of his tranquilizer arrows, poised to grab it in a hurry.
The dog circled to the scientist’s feet, cocked its leg, and pissed all over the scientist’s shoes. Clint was surprised into laughing and the dog looked up at the sound, staring into the tree.
“Good for you,” Clint told the dog. “A little passive-aggressive, but that’s better than plain ol’ aggressive. It’s healthy to express your feelings.”
The dog tossed its head, gave the scientist one last disdainful sniff, and trotted back to the grass.
“Okay, so, I have some good news and some bad news.” Tony flipped his faceplate up and stared at the dogs staring back at him. They were standing in a wary cluster by the back corner of the fence, spooked by the the Iron Man armor. Clint slithered out of his tree perch and dropped down to stand beside Tony. “Good news is these are, in fact, dogs. AIM picked them up at the pound a few months back. Bad news is that they were trying to recreate the supersoldier serum.”
“I know, right? Some people have no imagination. Remember the AIM facility raid we all did last September? One of the grunts managed to snag a piece of rebar covered in Captain America’s blood, and their scientists went nuts over it. I’ve told Steve to stop bleeding all willy-nilly, but does he listen?” Tony flung his arms out dramatically. The dogs tracked the movement, apparently fascinated by the glow of his repulsors. “Anyway, they used his blood to synthesize a version of the serum. The very good news is that they didn’t make it to human trials this time, just lower-order mammals. These are the surviving canine test subjects.”
Clint perked up. “They’re superdogs?”
“That’s one way of putting it. Another is that they’re genetically modified lab animals with unknown abilities and temperaments. If they go full Cujo, they could be the Red Skull in canine form.”
The smallest dog, the maybe-mostly-terrier, was creeping forward, eyes darting between Clint and Tony. Tony took a protective half-step in front of Clint, but the dog stopped before it got within biting range. Its tail wagged tentatively.
Clint looked around, crouched down, and picked up a pinecone. He threw it in a gentle arc just over the dog’s head. The dog lunged up to catch the pinecone neatly in its jaws. It skipped forward a few steps, deposited the pinecone several feet from Clint’s shoes, then darted back, tail wagging much faster. Clint threw the pinecone harder, and this time the whole pack of dogs chased after it, barking happily and dancing around each other. The pitbull got to it first and threw the pinecone high with a toss of its head. The other dogs scrambled to catch it.
“So,” Tony said. He retracted a gauntlet and rubbed a hand over his beard. “What was SHIELD protocol for dealing with potentially volatile animal test subjects discovered in hostile facilities?”
The pinecone flew high in the air and disappeared into the knot of delighted dogs. Clint was impressed that none of them had crushed it yet. "SHIELD protocol was to euthanize them and turn the remains over for study."
Tony grimaced. "That seems...harsh. But we don't exactly have a safe place to put them. And who knows what the serum's going to do over time."
They both watched the dogs. They were running in circles and tossing the pinecone back and forth, bounding joyfully through the small patch of grass like it was the first time they'd been outside in months. Which it might have been. AIM scientists were such assholes.
"I can't do it," Clint blurted. "These are Captain America dogs. No way I can shoot a Captain America dog."
Tony raised his outspread hands to chest height. "This is why I'm not a biologist! I don't do mercy kills, okay, I didn't sign up for this!"
"We don't really have to kill them, right? AIM will assume we did, and nobody else knows about ‘em."
The terrier broke away from the pack and trotted back up to them. This time neither of them stepped back. It set a paw delicately against Clint’s knee, then rolled onto its back and gave him a hopeful doggy grin.
Clint reached out slowly, hoping he wasn't about to lose a hand, and started to rub the dog's belly. She wiggled her whole body in delight.
"Yeah, no, I'm not the actual monster who could resist that face," Tony told the dog. "You win, mutt. Stay of execution granted."
“Good girl,” Clint crooned. The dog twisted her head down to lick his fingers, then rolled back onto her feet and trotted off to rejoin the others. "We just need to figure out where to put them."
"You still have a farm, right? Farms have animals," Tony said, with the easy confidence of someone born and raised in Manhattan.
"They'll go after the chickens. And if I take them home the kids'll get attached, and then if the dogs go supervillain and we have to put them down the kids will cry for months. Laura would kill me."
"Point. Friday, go through my private real estate holdings and see if there's somewhere we can stick five superdogs. Find something isolated with enough acreage for them to run around in. And put in a supply order for whatever dogs need."
The pinecone flew onto the laboratory roof. One of the dogs, a giant German shepherd, launched itself into a twelve-foot vertical jump. It landed on the awning above the facility's front door and barked until two more dogs jumped up to join it. The terrier circled the awning, whining, then started determinedly biting and clawing her way up one of the wooden support pillars.
"Friday," Tony sighed, "take the space and food requirements for five normal dogs and triple them."
"Yes, sir. The Glenville property in western New York seems suitable."
“Set it up,” Tony ordered. He turned to Clint. "We can't leave them unsupervised out there. They’ll break out and wreak havoc and terrify the villagers, and pitchfork-wielding mobs are bad for my insurance premiums."
Clint watched the terrier finally scrabble onto the roof and let out a triumphant howl. "Don’t worry. I know someone who’s great at dogs."
"Katie-Kate," Clint sang into his phone, "how would you like to spend your summer on one of Tony Stark's country estates babysitting five superdogs?"
Kate hummed consideringly. "Superdogs?"
"Yeah, they got shot up with a modified version of the supersoldier serum. No signs of them going evil so far, they just run around and bark a lot."
"Did you say Tony Stark's estate?"
"Palatial estate," Tony corrected, trying to grab Clint’s phone.
Clint wrestled it back. "Yep. It has a mansion and everything, all expenses paid."
"Can America come?"
"Absolutely," Tony said. He looked at Clint and mouthed who's America? Clint mouthed girlfriend back.
"Hang on. Babe! What are you doing this summer? Want to guard a bunch of mutant dogs and stay in a fancy house? ...I dunno, probably. I’ll ask. Does it have a jacuzzi?"
"Yes," Clint said confidently. If it didn't have one already, it would by the time they got there. Tony was already muttering instructions to Friday.
"Yeah. ...Okay, cool. We're in."
"Awesome,” Clint said, and hung up.
“Friday dispatched a quinjet, it should be here in twenty minutes.” Tony looked up at the lab roof, where three of the dogs were still climbing around and dislodging shingles. The other two had leapt back down to the ground and were chasing each other in an infinite loop, taking tiny chips out of the cheap concrete when their claws dug in. “Then we’ll just have to get the dogs into the quinjet.”
Clint watched a few more shingles flutter down from the roof. “Dibs not.”
“You’re just jealous you didn’t say it first.”
It took ninety minutes, two superheroes, and seven pounds of raw bacon to get all five dogs into the quinjet at the same time and keep them there long enough to close the doors. The superdogs didn’t like flying any more than regular dogs did, and expressed their displeasure by howling like demons competing in a Most Pitiful Noises contest. Clint turned his hearing aids off before they even reached cruising altitude.
The moment they touched down and opened the quinjet doors, the dogs raced down the ramp and tore across the lawn. The estate was surrounded by thirty acres of forest and meadow, more than enough space for dogs with enhanced speed and stamina to run around in, and that wasn’t even counting the mansion grounds.
Tony tossed the last of the bacon into a pile on the lawn so the dogs would cluster around it instead of tearing off into the woods. Clint wasn’t too worried about them running off. All the bacon had done wonders to build trust, and all of the dogs now firmly associated the humans with food and chin scratches.
When they looked at the section of quinjet where the dogs had huddled during the flight, they discovered that the supersoldier serum did not make dogs immune to travel sickness.
“Ugh, gross.” Tony gave the floor a revolted look. “I guess the next step is cleaning the quinjet.”
"Dibs n--fuck. I am never helping you raid an AIM base ever again."
“Worth it,” Clint said, and danced away before Tony could elbow him in the ribs.
An hour later, the dogs had formed a puppy pile on the front lawn, dozing in the late afternoon sun. Clint and Tony had flopped onto their backs nearby, just as exhausted as the dogs.
"Okay.” Tony sat up with a groan. “The quinjet is no longer a biohazard, the supply delivery truck will be here within the hour, your protege and her special lady friend are on their way, and I hate you. I wash my hands of this, let us never speak of this again. Good luck with your mutant dogs."
"Cool. Thanks, man." Clint held up his hand for a fist-bump. Tony just glared at him, so Clint rapped his knuckles against the Iron Man helmet instead.
"Never helping you again," Tony repeated. The faceplate slammed down and he launched himself into the sky.
“Go team!” Clint called after him.
"Settling in okay?" Clint asked Kate a few days later. He wedged the phone receiver between his shoulder and ear, picked up a half-empty pizza box, and stacked an empty bowl and a full mug of coffee on top of it. Lucky was walking in figure eights around his ankles, waiting eagerly for his own breakfast.
"Yeah, it's nice here. The dogs haven't eaten anyone yet, but they did figure out how to break through the childproof locks on the cabinets. Crafty little shits,” Kate said affectionately. “America taught them how to sit with pieces of cheese."
"This jacuzzi is awesome," America yelled in the background.
"Cool." Clint shuffled carefully towards the table, nudging Lucky out of the way with every step. He put the coffee and pizza on the table and poured kibble into the bowl. Lucky dove for the bowl as soon as Clint set it on the floor.
Clint sipped the coffee and made a face. Was this coffee from yesterday? Whatever, enough sugar and milk and he wouldn’t know the difference.
Did he have any milk that wasn’t expired? He ambled back towards the fridge.
"Tony keeps sending us delivery drones with new dog stuff,” Kate said. “Is Stark Industries going into pet manufacturing or something? He’s sent, like, thirty different prototypes of extra durable chew toys."
Clint smirked as he stirred his coffee. "Yeah, he mentioned something about that."
“Hey, no! No dogs in the jacuzzi, stay there, stay--” There was a shriek and a series of splashes.
“Whoops, gotta go.” Kate disconnected abruptly. Clint put the phone back in its cradle.
“See, that’s why you’re the best dog,” Clint told Lucky. “You have manners.”
Lucky wagged his tail and shoved his nose into Clint’s crotch. There was tomato sauce on his muzzle. With a sinking feeling, Clint looked at the now empty pizza box.
“Aw, breakfast,” he said sadly.
Clint meant to go out to the mansion that weekend and check in, but then there was a whole thing with the Russian mafia, and then a different thing with the Italian mafia, and then the Avengers got called out to Switzerland to deal with a ring of junior-league super villains who were planning some kind of complicated global financial sabotage (Clint hated white collar super villainy, he hardly ever got to shoot anything fun on those jobs), and then Clint just forgot, and between one thing and another it was a few months before he actually made his way upstate.
Kate greeted him with a cup of coffee and assured him the dogs were as non-murderous as ever, if alarmingly smart. “We’ve stopped locking up the food. There’s no point, they can break into anything. So they’re on the honor system now.”
“Whenever they eat people food, we give them really disappointed looks until they slink away in shame.” America held a hand up and wiggled it side-to-side. “It works, like, half the time.”
“They really are Captain America dogs,” Clint marveled.
Kate had, however, forgotten to mention one important detail. When Clint wandered into the kitchen for a refill, he took one look out the kitchen window and promptly dropped his mug.
All five of the dogs were in the backyard, bounding enthusiastically through an obstacle course assembled from the kind of junk that accumulated in rich people’s attics. There were platforms made of legless chairs, tents of old tablecloths to run through, and a pile of sofa cushions the dogs took great delight in plowing into. They were being directed by a one-armed man with long brown hair and a serious case of resting murderface.
“What the fuck,” Clint blurted. He knew who that man was. Steve and Sam had been doing nothing but look for this guy for months. What Clint didn’t know was what the hell he was doing in the backyard, whistling commands to the dogs.
“What?” Kate strolled into the kitchen and peered out the window, America close on her heels. “Oh, that’s just James. He showed up a couple months ago. I keep trying to get him to move into the house but he always winds up sleeping in the barn with the dogs.”
"You guys," Clint hissed. "That's the Winter Soldier."
"Oh, word?" America said. She looked idly at her nails.
Kate rolled her eyes. "Of course we knew. How many one-armed amnesiacs do you think are running around these days? It's fine, I shot at him a little when he first turned up to make sure he wouldn't go berserk."
"He was real polite about it," America said. "Didn't return fire or anything."
"The dogs like him," Kate concluded, like that settled the argument.
It kind of did. The dogs clearly loved him. And if you couldn't trust the judgment of Captain America superdogs, who could you trust?
The man once known as James Buchanan Barnes knelt on the grass to give the pitbull mix a kiss on its nose. The dog licked his face energetically. Aw, heart.
With a sense of inevitability, Clint grabbed two new mugs. “How’s he take his coffee?”
Clint walked out to the backyard with no attempt at stealth. The former Winter Soldier was calm as he watched Clint approach; Kate and America must have told him Clint was coming to visit today. If he’d wanted to run, he could have done it. Instead he sat cross-legged on the grass, petting the husky that stuck its nose into his armpit as soon as he sat down.
“So, should I call you James?” Clint handed him one of the coffee mugs and sat down across from him.
“It’s as good a name as any.” James’ voice was soft and gravely. He probably didn’t talk much.
Clint nodded at his empty sleeve. “You take that off yourself?”
“It had trackers. And.” James licked his lips, looked to the side. “I didn’t want to fight anymore.”
They drank coffee in silence for a while. Every few minutes another dog would come up for pets or to touch noses with the husky, who stayed firmly planted by James’ side.
“You’ll tell Steve I’m here,” James said finally. It wasn’t a question.
“I’d like to, because lying to Steve makes me feel like shit, but I don’t have to.” Clint shrugged at James’ yeah, right look. “I mean it. You’re not doing any harm here, as far as I can see. And if you did, Kate and America would be here to stop you, or at least call in the Avengers. You’re practically on parole.”
James snorted. He ran his hand over the long grass, letting the soft strands brush against his palm. The husky sighed gustily and laid its head across James’ thigh. “Still. Might as well tell him.”
Fuck, yes. Clint kept his face as neutral as possible while mentally fist-pumping. Nobody deserved to get good news more than Steve, and hearing that Barnes was alive and well and not murdering anyone would definitely qualify. “He’ll want to see you. You don’t have to let him, I can tell him not to come and he won’t, but it’s the first thing he’ll ask when I tell him.”
James chewed on his lip for a couple minutes. The black lab wandered over and stood on Clint’s foot until Clint rubbed its ears.
"Okay," James said finally. "Tell him he can bring the guy with the wings, too. I owe him an apology."
“Yeah.” Clint knew all about making amends. “Just so you know, the whole brainwashed assassin thing? I get it.”
“Yeah, I heard that.” James looked up and made eye contact for a whole three seconds before bending back over the husky in his lap.
That was probably enough emotionally fraught conversation for one day. Clint stood up and brushed the dirt off his pants. “Nice job on the obstacle course, man. Wanna show me what you’ve taught the dogs?”
Two days later Clint drove out to the mansion with Sam Wilson in the passenger seat, playing the license plate game and mocking Clint’s choice of radio stations. Steve was riding behind them on his bike, both because the truck only had two seats and because this way Sam and Clint wouldn’t have to spend the whole drive pretending not to notice Steve vibrating out of his skin.
When they arrived, James was out on a walk. Sam and Clint exchanged a glance, both of them wondering whether James was coming back, or if he was spooked enough to disappear. Steve just squared up and clenched his jaw even tighter. He sat on the edge of his seat and stared at the front door like he was prepared to wait until doomsday for it to open and reveal Bucky on the other side.
As it turned out, they only had to wait for a few minutes before the dogs out front started barking. Steve was out of his chair and striding towards the door a fraction of a second later.
“Hold up.” Kate slid into his path, her arms stretched wide. “You can’t go out like this.”
“Excuse me?” Steve said, dangerously polite.
“You need to chill.” America reached up to put both hands on Steve’s huge dorito shoulders. “You’re freaking out, and you’re going to freak him out. Take a breath, find your center, whatever works for you, but calm the fuck down before you go out there.”
“I am calm,” Steve said. Everyone raised their eyebrows at him until he deflated. “Right, okay. Sam?”
Sam took him through some breathing exercises. After a few minutes, once Steve looked less like he was charging into combat, Kate and America deigned to allow him access to the porch.
James was standing very still on the front lawn, eyes wide and fixed on the front door as Steve stepped through. The husky that followed him around like a furry shadow was pressed against his left thigh. The little terrier and black lab were both investigating the truck and motorcycle, which were apparently much more exciting than the new people standing on the porch.
“Hey, Steve.” James voice was quiet and even. He looked ready to bolt, but he held his ground as Steve came down the porch steps and slowly eased forward.
"Bucky?" Steve breathed. He took a step closer, arms going up like he wanted to grab James’ shoulders.
James stiffened. The husky moved smoothly in between the two men, giving Steve a warning look. Steve ducked his head and backed up a foot.
"James isn't big on touching," America said.
"He has a bubble." Kate stepped forward authoritatively and poked Steve in the chest. "Respect the bubble."
"Steve, you don't have to call Katie-Kate ma'am," Clint said.
"Yes, he does,” Kate said.
"Okay, princess." America put her arm around Kate's shoulders. "I think they can take it from here."
America opened a portal and the two women vanished through it, but not before Kate narrowed her eyes at Steve and gave him the universal two-finger I’m-watching-you sign.
"Uh, what?" Sam said, staring at the patch of empty space they had disappeared into.
Clint scratched his head. "Yeah, she does that."
Steve didn't appear to have noticed; he only had eyes for James. "Sorry. It's just--it's good to see you."
"Yeah." James looked almost shy. “You, too.”
Sam spoke up before the silence could get too awkward. “I hear you made some new friends.” Sam clapped his hands against his legs and attracted the attention of the black lab, which trotted up, tail wagging. He crouched down to rub its head and neck. "What're their names?"
"That's Isabel,” James said, pointing at the black lab, “and this is Laika." He buried his right hand in the husky’s thick neck fur and she rubbed her face against his leg. "Rusty and Sprinkles are asleep under the porch. And that one's Steve Jr."
He pointed at the terrier, who was currently hanging by her jaws off of Steve's motorcycle handlebars.
Steve looked at her thoughtfully. "Steve Jr., huh?"
"Yeah." James looked up at Steve through his eyelashes and started to smile. "She's the smallest dog, and she's got the biggest mouth, so. Steve Jr."
Steve’s laugh was a little wet, but it was genuine. "Jerk."
"Punk," Barnes volleyed back, then looked startled. Steve knelt on the ground and rubbed Isabel's belly, hiding his face from view.
Sam clasped Steve’s shoulder, then made eye contact with Clint and jerked his chin back towards the house. Clint and Sam walked back up the porch steps, giving James and Steve some space.
“That went okay,” Sam said quietly. “Think we can give them some privacy for a few hours?”
"Yeah," Clint said. He couldn’t resist sneaking a glance over his shoulder before he went inside. Steve and James were walking side by side, Laika trotting along on James’ left. Steve was keeping his trajectory carefully straight, respecting James’ bubble. After a few steps James swayed to lightly bump his shoulder against Steve's. Steve's answering grin was bright enough to put the sun to shame. "Yeah, I think they'll be fine."