About fifty yards ahead of them, Gretel froze, head erect and tail straight out behind her.
“Has she winded them, then?” Monty asked.
“Yeah.” Bucky didn’t dare whistle for her if they were close enough for her to catch scent of Zola’s train, or maybe it was Steve’s scent she’d winded. But she wasn’t coming back to him, either. “C’mon, baby girl, c’mon,” he said, as loudly as he could, but it wasn’t much better than a whisper. They couldn’t afford to move any closer along the train tracks, either, in case the Hydra guards spotted them, but this close to the railroad stop, there could be mines. This whole fucking area belonged to Schmidt and Hydra; they were deep inside enemy territory now and every town or village around here was potentially hostile.
Dernier blew out the big breath he’d been holding and hefted the mine detection gizmo Howard had rigged up for them, then shrugged eloquently in the way French people did. A while after Gretel had started coming out with them, Bucky’d run into a fella from the Quartermaster Corps who’d been talking about training dogs for mine detection: theoretically, he’d said, they were supposed to sit in front of a possible mine they’d found, or refuse to advance if there was a booby trap or loose wires or anything else the dog found it didn’t quite understand. The reality didn’t turn out quite as well as the theory, at least in North Africa—the dogs could be easily confused, he’d said, and Bucky hadn’t really wanted to risk Gretel just to test out what his own vastly superior dog was capable of. So Dernier had instead pushed Howard to make something a little more scientifically reliable; that was Jacques’s baby every bit as much as Gretel was Bucky’s.
The Howlies stayed low to the ground, paralleling the tracks, until they inched close enough that Gretel finally gave up her sentry position and circled back to Bucky. They melted into the treeline after Jacques gave the all-clear, and Bucky shrugged his ruck off and set his rifle down, crouching next to her. She was all stove-in, her sides bellowsing, tongue hanging out: they’d chased the train for close to twenty miles, the entire time Gretel running ahead to keep the scent, then doubling back to the Howlies to make sure they were still following. He checked her paws—they were a mess from running on the gravel and weathered, splintered railroad ties. Her right paw was the worst, it had a huge, sharp chunk of rock embedded in the footpad, bloody and dirty.
He dug into the kit he carried just for her, pulled out his jackknife with the tweezers. “Hold on to her, this is gonna hurt,” Bucky said to Jim Morita, and he pulled her to him as Gabe threaded an arm under her chin, waiting for the worst, but she stayed stock still except for the initial flinch at the tweezers on soft flesh, grudging only a low whimper. When Bucky was satisfied it was clean, he wrapped gauze around it as well as he could; she’d have it off in no time, but this would give it a little rest, anyhow. “That’s my girl,” Bucky soothed, “what a good girl you are, doll.” They didn’t have any time, but he stole some anyway, kissing the top of her head over and over and stroking her coat, scratching behind her ears.
“You never kiss me like that,” Monty commented.
“That’s because you never lick me like that,” Bucky said with a smirk, as Gretel did just that, licking his hand and his neck.
Monty shook his head, called him a tosser. In the time he’d been over here, Bucky had learned a lot of new obscene gestures, so he threw Monty the two-fingered “fuck off” salute and Monty threw his head back and laughed—he had a great laugh, Monty did, and they all felt a little looser now. Not any more hopeful, necessarily, though.
Apparently, Gretel was having none of this, and she snapped her teeth together in frustration. It was one of her peculiar quirks it had taken Bucky some time to decipher; the first time she’d done it he’d thought she was threatening to bite him, but he gradually realized she trying to tell him to shut up and quit dawdling. No one would ever accuse her of being a lazy dog.
“Okay, okay,” Bucky muttered, and stuffed everything back in his ruck. Dernier swung the mine detector in front of him again and they moved cautiously forward.
It wasn’t as mountainous here as many of the Hydra AOs, but that didn’t mean there weren’t some decent spots to surveil from. They crept up above the tracks a ways so they could find a vantage point, figure out some plan of attack. Right now they didn’t know if Steve was alive or dead inside Zola’s train; in a way both were true at this moment. Bucky didn’t think Zola would kill him, but not a lot of what they did made any sense.
Sometimes Steve’s foolhardy bravery made Bucky want to shoot himself in the head. Most of the time he was fine with it, loved it, even, maybe just a bit; they were two peas in a pod when it came to fighting, anyway—and wiping Hydra off the map by any means necessary, even the suicidally dangerous ones. But today had been...too much like those times Steve had taken on something too big for even his little lionhearted self to handle. Steve had rushed in blindly when they’d zeroed Zola’s train because they’d been chasing the damn thing for weeks now, and they hadn’t taken the time to do a full recon. If they had, they’d have realized that it wasn’t a town at all the train was stopped in but a Nazi resupply depot. They’d have seen they were walking into a perfectly baited Captain America-sized trap—someone had scouted them, and waited for them to blithely walk right in. “Look over here,” it had said like a fat wriggly worm, “come and get Schmidt and Dr. Zola’s train, it’s just sitting here, being serviced, perfectly benign.”
And next thing they’d known, Steve had a booby-trap around his neck and four pistols pressed against his skull, being dragged inside the last car. The train had started chugging away as the famous Howling Commandos stood like idiots in front of a dozen or so Hydra goons.
Their only advantage was that no one in Hydra had known about Gretel, and her excellent stealth attack had provided a distraction: while she was busy ripping a squid Nazi’s face off, the Howlies had overtaken the rest of them. But less than a mile from the depot the tracks had veered off in three different directions; Gretel’d raced down one, abruptly turned herself around, caught the scent, and raced down another. And they were no closer to getting Steve back.
They situated themselves below an outcropping south of the small town that sat just at the base of an imposing Hydra fortress. If Steve hadn’t been a hostage—or worse—they could have cheerfully radioed in the coordinates for mortar fire and wiped out the whole kit and kaboodle. Oh sure, they’d be in for some reprimanding—the objective, after all, was to capture Schmidt’s top people alive—but it’d be worth it to watch that bespectacled little prick and his private train and all his weapons and personnel go boom. Accidents happened in the field all the time, and Bucky was really good at coming up with rationales for anything you could dream up.
All of them watched through their own scopes for a while, as Gabe tuned their purloined Hydra radio in, trying to catch one of the Hydra frequencies, see if he could get a bead on what they could be doing with Steve, assuming he was alive.
No, Bucky was pretty certain he was, even if the other fellas weren’t so confident. Plenty of Schmidt’s henchmen had tried to take Steve out already, and the boys sometimes treated it like a Loony Tunes cartoon. And maybe it was good for a laugh. But...none of the fellas had been inside Zola’s lab like Bucky had. They didn’t know what that sweaty little doughball was like, how desperate he was to make a supersoldier, how he cringed in the face of Schmidt’s wrathful disappointment that there wasn’t already an army full of little Red Skulls to wipe out the Allies. There was absolutely nothing funny about it to Bucky.
The only sign of movement below the Howlies now was the sentries; there weren’t many windows on that train, it was mostly freight—the blue-beam weapons—outside of the first two cars, and one of those was the engine. That was hard-won intelligence: two agents had died getting information about those private Hydra trains and their cargo.
Beside Bucky, Gretel had taken up pacing back and forth, and it was grating on his nerves. “C’mon, sweetheart, settle down.” He put a hand on Gretel’s haunch to still her but she wasn’t having any of it. The rest of the fellas she liked well enough, but him and Steve she loved—which made sense, they were the two who’d pulled her from an exploding factory, they were Mom and Pop to her forever after.
It seemed odd that the Hydra vehicles and the trains weren’t running on those blue energy nuggets they used for the weapons...and the thing they’d put on his head when he was in Zola’s lab. But there was coal smoke coming from the engine, and maybe that’s why they were stopped—they hadn’t been refueling back at that depot, only laying in wait.
“Are you quite all right?” Monty’s gentle voice filtered through Bucky’s thoughts and Bucky blinked. The right side of his binoculars was dented, he’d been squeezing it harder and harder for a while now without realizing. The other fellas didn’t seem aware, so he looked at Monty, flustered, and then down at Gretel, whose eyebrows were knitted together in doggie concern.
“I know Steve’s alive. They’ve got him on a table, either unconscious or immobilized somehow. I know what Zola does. He’s gonna dissect Steve, he’ll take every drop of blood until he figures out a formula.”
“I should think so, yes.”
“I’m not sure I know what to do here,” Bucky said, voice pitched low and soft. Monty was pretty unflappable, really they all were most times, but they looked at Bucky and Steve like they had all the answers, all the time. Still, Monty gave the appearance of nerves, and for the first time since Steve had been little back in Brooklyn, Bucky was an utterly useless failure.
Gretel wandered off, pulling herself over a ledge, probably to go pee since Bucky’d given her most of his water back in the woods. He was used to it; bringing extra food for her wasn’t often feasible and the first time they’d gone out into the field he’d fretted something fierce over her having enough to eat, but she’d just sloped off into the woods while they made camp and proudly returned half an hour later with a rabbit in her mouth. Bucky’d always admired a gal who could fend for herself.
“What is it Colonel Phillips always says? You’d better figure it out PDQ.” Monty tapped his watch.
“I know, I know.” It was just...how did he explain it? What it was like to be strapped to that operating table, to see Zola’s piggy little eyes light up when he spotted Bucky alive and standing across from him on that gangway. What it was like to know there were physical changes slowly taking root inside him, growing and growing till someday something monstrous would burst out from what had once been his skin.
Bucky’d barely even been able to talk to Steve about any of it, in the beginning, until he’d spent so many sleep-starved nights sitting up in the dark, smoking like a chimney and obsessively pushing his fingers into the soft undercoat of Gretel’s chest, that Steve had finally snapped one night, turned on the light, and threatened to cuddle him into submission and take Gretel away from him until he confessed what was going on in his overworked brain.
“It’s just too exposed where it sits now.” It was very clever—they’d stopped the train just before the platform, so no buildings or shrubs could obscure the guards’ view. Bucky pulled his bins up to scan the area again, hoping against hope an idea would jump out at him.
“Son of a bitch!” Jim shouted and Bucky whipped his head around to see Jim pointing a stubby finger in the train’s direction. “She’s—she’s—”
Oh hell. He scoped out the train again—yeah, there Gretel was, slinking along the side of the platform, just out of view of the guard on the near front. What the hell was she thinking in her walnut-sized brain? There was dedication to her masters and then there was doggie insanity. “She’s gonna get herself killed, is what.” He could hardly choke the words out. All this time she’d been coming out on missions with them whenever possible—she couldn’t accompany them in deep snow or icy, rocky terrain, so in winter she’d stayed in camp more often than not—yet he’d never been afraid for her. She was a clever dog, tuned in to Bucky and Steve like a radio, and sensible. She’d never been out of control, not like this, running off to...she must be thinking she was going to rescue Steve.
And they were helpless to do anything for her.
“What could she thinking?” Gabe said, voice strangled.
“She’s a dog, she doesn’t think,” Dugan snapped. From the beginning he’d acted as though he couldn’t stand Gretel, constantly disparaged her Hydra origins and insisted she’d turn on them eventually, but Bucky had repeatedly caught him saving his rations to give her scraps or sneaking her food from the mess, once even using her as a pillow for a nap next to the wheel of a truck while they’d waited for the engineers to blow a blocked pass.
Bucky sucked in a breath as he watched her creep toward the train, her only shield the early evening shadows from the engine slanting in a wedge. It wouldn’t be sunset till after eight tonight, still more than forty-five minutes away. She waited, nervously looking back and forth and licking her mouth, till one of the guards made a turn to head back along the train. Like a bullet she darted beneath the second car—she would be able to pad across that gravel silently, whereas even the Howlies’ lightest steps would give away their presence if they tried that.
They should have had dogs. If Hydra’d been smart enough to have dogs of their own on that train, she’d never have gotten that far. Hell, they wouldn’t even be standing here, the Commandos would have been clocked long ago. That was something Steve had noticed a while back—the Germans used them as sentries, but they never took them out in the field to use as scouts or messengers.
The five of them watched with mounting dread as Gretel crept low to the ground underneath the train, slowly, slowly. By the time she reached the second to last car, she froze and raised her head, staring up at the carriage. She would have no way of knowing he was watching her through binoculars, but he knew what it meant: wherever you are, human, get your ass over here.
“We gotta get down there,” Jim said.
“Gee, do you think?” Bucky snapped.
Jim gave him a withering stare. “Look, she’s telling us she smells him, she doesn’t know where we are. So the four of us, we get down there, as close as we can. You stay here and pick off the guards on this side of the train—your first shot is our signal to go. We hit Cap’s car first, once we got him we can take out the rest of them. This train ain’t exactly dripping with goons, you know, they don’t put that many people on ’em. We only need those first couple seconds.”
It was as good a plan as any. They had to reward Gretel’s effort, so Bucky nodded and the fellas began threading their way downhill, their only advantage right now the low-angled light. Bucky waited till they were in position to the left of the train and Jim showed him the hand signal for “ready on your mark.” Swinging his rifle into place, he outlined the shot: the guard at the end was closest to where Steve was being held, closest to Gretel, so he’d take him out first; all hell would break loose and the guard at the far end would most likely start shooting before he even knew what was going on. Those fucking Hydra helmets restricted their vision like crazy; Bucky’d been curious, that first train they took down, and he’d put one on so he could get an idea of how best to sneak up on them. He’d nearly puked, and it had taken him days to stop shuddering every time the thought of it crept unwanted into his head.
His hands hadn’t shaken like this in a long time, but then, Steve hadn’t been a hostage before and Gretel hadn’t been in the line of fire. He breathed in a couple times, lined it up; he couldn’t miss either of those guards, couldn’t let Zola do to Steve what he’d done to Bucky or risk anything happening to his girl. Normally he’d make a head shot, but those helmets were incredibly strong, so he squeezed the trigger and saw the goon’s chest explode out his back, swung his rifle quickly and located the other guard through the scope, firing again. His first shot only hit the guard on the shoulder, spun him around, so Bucky breathed again and fired—it looked like he’d got him through the base of the throat.
Chaos erupted, the rest of the guards poured out of the train like the rats they were, and the ones on the other side of the train awkwardly tried to hop over the couplings; Bucky picked them off as fast as he could till the boys could get there and finish it off. In the shooting and the running, he’d lost sight of Gretel so he swung his scope wildly hoping to get a bead on her—there, there she was, struggling up the coupling and then the steps into the car where she launched herself at a Hydra goon. When she had him down, attempting to rip his arm off, it looked like, another one headed her direction, pulling his sidearm out, but Bucky dropped him with his last bullet. As he reloaded, she went after another guard; in their struggle the asshole fell, took her with him backwards into the carriage.
Heart hammering, Bucky grabbed ammo and launched himself down the slope toward the fight; the boys could hold their own but Gretel was just a dog, she needed him. The fellas were doing all right at their own fight, so he made straight for the car Gretel had disappeared into, hauling himself up the railing, rifle in front.
Bucky needn’t have worried too much, apparently: there were only two guards, but neither of them were getting up from the floor anytime soon, though she stood above them, giving her best warning growl like she hadn’t torn them to pieces. Gretel had been right—Steve was here, strapped to a table, the booby trap still around his neck. Bucky put a bullet in each of the guards for good measure and went to Steve, tracing the lines of the wires to a grenade down near his shoulder.
“Well, this is a pickle,” Bucky said, and Steve grinned at up him. They must have already tried drugging him; he was lucid but a little bit loopy, like the tail-end of a Brooklyn bender. “Do it myself, or wait for Frenchie?”
“Is that them outside? Tell them I’m gonna complain to the super about that loud party they’re having. It’s a school night, for Christ’s sake.”
“Kids these days. All right, I’m gonna—” and before he could finish the Howlies rushed in; Gretel practically spun around with joy. She was still such a puppy sometimes; the army vet Bucky’d taken her to estimated she was around three, but her new life seemed to bring out the kid in her. “Go find Zola—he’s gotta be on this train or they wouldn’t have taken Cap. Dernier, you stay here and get this thing off of him.”
Bucky pulled Gretel close to his side as Dernier, with his steady hands and the characteristic aplomb of French people anywhere, carefully removed the device. As soon as Steve was sitting up and rubbing his neck, griping about Hydra getting the jump on him, Gretel leapt into his arms and covered him with slobbery kisses. “That’s my good girl, good girl,” Steve said, burying his somewhat battered face in her fur.
“No sign of Zola,” Gabe announced, stomping into the car in a rage. “There was a car, a ramp and he—anyway, we got one of the squids before he could use the cyanide.”
“It’s all right.” Steve’s voice was muffled by Gretel trying to climb up into his arms like she thought she was a cat. “We know Schmidt has at least one more dedicated train. We’ll get him. We’ll get him back.”
After a shower and shave, Bucky felt human again, the tension of the day finally ratcheted down to where he felt like he could breathe. Inside their tent Steve was sitting at the little table, whacking away on a typewriter; Bucky threw his kit down and leaned over, sliding his arms around Steve’s waist, dropping his head onto Steve’s shoulder, kissing the side of his neck.
“Field reports?” That had always been the thing Steve hated most about being a real captain; sometimes Bucky thought he stayed out in the field much longer than necessary just so he could avoid the paperwork.
If Agent Carter weren’t off doing some kind of spy stuff, Steve would no doubt be in her quarters by now. Bucky wasn’t jealous of that—well, not completely—he was glad that Steve had finally found someone who liked him for who he was, that people could see the man he’d always loved. Everyone ought to love Steve, he’d always firmly believed. But he was glad, after a day like today, that she was gone and he’d have Steve completely to himself tonight, relishing his presence and safety.
“Actually, I’m putting Gretel in for a bronze star. She deserves a few battle stars by now too, don’t you think?”
She had performed as well as if not better than any soldier Bucky knew as they’d made their way through France in the days after Overlord. And Bucky was so fucking proud of her—she wouldn’t give a crap about honors unless they came in the shape of treats, but Bucky would be a boastful papa. He wanted her to have them. Maybe he’d get her a little jacket to put them on. “They give those to dogs?”
“There’s precedent, yeah.”
He kissed the edge of Steve’s jaw and got up. “I like it. Where is Miss G, anyway?”
“Probably with you know who.” Steve huffed his quiet little laugh and went back to hunting and pecking his way through the typewriter keys.
As he turned to head off to the CP, Steve asked him with his eyes if he was coming to bed soon; Bucky flashed him a sly smile in response. It was a quiet night in camp, but Bucky wasn’t surprised to see the soft yellow glow of a lamp in Colonel Phillips’s tent. He was sitting at his desk, cup of something hot steaming beside his right hand, reading—reports or troop movements or love letters, who knew?—and his other hand was stroking Gretel’s shoulder as she lay curled up on a camp chair, head on paws.
Bucky smiled to himself and got out the small notebook he kept. He’d never been as good at drawing as Steve—wasn’t even close, Steve was a great artist—but they’d taken classes together, and Steve had always avidly encouraged Bucky’s drawing. It was peaceful, especially after a terrible day like today, to turn his mind off and let the pencil move across the page. Bucky penciled in the lines of the tent, the desk, and then her figure on the chair, maybe to color later. After a minute Colonel Phillips raised his droopy hound dog’s face up and caught sight of Bucky standing there; instead of dismissal Bucky received a shake of the head and a smirk. “You need her more than I do,” Phillips muttered, which Bucky could barely hear, and he sent her off with a tap on the rump. She trotted sleepily alongside him; Steve had carried her quite a ways toward the end of their hike so she could rest and tend to her injured paw.
“It’s late,” Bucky said when he finally found his way back to their tent, and Steve stretched dramatically as Bucky shoved their cots together. They stripped down to their skivvies and Gretel hopped up to her usual position next to Bucky, against the tent wall, and Steve reached over to turn off the kerosene lamp.
He threw a heavy arm across Bucky, hand on Gretel’s shoulder. “Thanks for saving my life today.” The two of them laughed softly—how many times had they said versions of that to each other by this point?—and Gretel thumped her tail against the wall of the tent, because there wasn’t anything she loved more than the sound of her favorite people, safe and warm and laughing together.