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The Good, the Bad and the Fluffy

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In hindsight, maybe Clint shouldn’t have been surprised. Probably this was a normal hazard of accepting a multimillion-dollar temporary residence from Tony Stark, or of just being friends with him in general. Sometimes you can’t get into the nearest kitchen because the microwave blew a hole through three consecutive rooms. Sometimes you wake up with a continental hangover and have to be briefed by the officious AI on your last 18 hours. Sometimes the elevator opens and you’re alone except for a one-armed, dead-eyed ex-Hydra assassin and a llama.

Barnes just stares at him. Clint doesn’t take a step back, not a big one, anyway. The artist formerly known as the Winter Soldier has been with them a month and he still hasn’t cut his hair. Steve, Sam and Natasha all have a variety of opinions on this, both about Barnes’ grooming standard and his presence at Avengers Tower.

The llama is wearing a little bandolero hat and a garland of plastic flowers. It shakes its freakishly long neck. Clint hears Ennio Morricone in his head.

The doors start to slip shut. Just when Clint thinks he’s dodged that particular bullet, the Arm That Made the Cold War Go swipes between the doors, and the elevator slides back open.

Barnes’ face barely moves. “You going to make me wait for nothing?”

“No,” says Clint, who holds up both palms. “Nooooooo.”

He steps onboard, right between Barnes and his llama, before he can decide whether that’s a bigger mistake than taking the stairs. Clint wonders if he should turn his back, signaling that he considers Barnes a human being worthy of trust and normal elevator manners, or if he should just stay where he is, because the Winter Soldier could definitely kill him about twelve different ways with just his flesh pinkie.

“What floor?” says Barnes.

“What?”

“What floor.”

“Uh.”

The truth is, he’s kind of forgotten, between the man who came closest of anyone in the world to killing Captain America and the tall, fluffy alien thing with the jaunty hat. It’s jarring. He’s jarred.

Barnes waits. The elevator climbs. Clint does the stupid thing and turns to check out the buttons.

He feels something at his ear, something velvety-soft and delicate. He doesn’t move. The llama sniffs his hair. Clint can tell Barnes is watching him just by the tension in the air. They haven’t really talked since Steve brought him in. Not that that makes him special, it’s just that Barnes seems to know he unnerves people, and he’s got his own shit to deal with. Clint can respect that. Self-preservation instincts go in all kinds of directions.

“So,” Clint says, because his self-preservation instincts are kind of dumb sometimes when there’s a chance he could be helpful. “Llama yours?”

No answer.

“I like dogs myself, but, you know, I’m pretty open-minded. I grew up in the circus, so I know about elephants and horses and things. Hey, buddy.” He twists to study the llama, who jerks back to avoid smacking Clint in the face.

“She’s my service animal,” Barnes says. “Her name is Quinoa.”

“Huh,” says Clint, because what else do you say to that? “That’s new.”

He nods, or dips his head or something. “Since yesterday.”

“Not a dog person, huh?”

Barnes’ hand slips into his pocket. Clint freezes. Oh god, Pepper is going to find his deboned corpse after the security cameras come back on, and then Natasha will kill him again for good measure, and—

Barnes opens a small plastic baggie full of baby carrots. Quinoa’s ears snap to attention on either side of the bandolero. “No,” Barnes says flatly. “I like dogs.” Quinoa shuffles forward and noses the metal arm, nudging under the elbow. She chews the proffered carrot quietly, but grunts when she’s finished.

“Llamas seem nice too, though,” Clint begins.

The elevator beeps. The doors slide open. Barnes takes up Quinoa’s reins and tugs her forward without a backward glance. The llama’s stubby tail flutters.

The doors shut. It takes a minute of not moving for Clint to realize he’s still forgotten to punch in his floor.

*

“Everyone calm down. I’ve done a lot of research on this.”

It’s Bruce who shakes his head and says, “Of course.”

Tony raises his hands to placate the dining area. “Listen, I’ve spent a lot of time on YouTube—”

“As have I,” Thor says, frowning.

“—and therapy llamas are totally a thing,” Tony finishes sternly. “Seriously, check out Rojo, he’s this superstar in Oregon—”

“You just gave him a llama?” says Bruce.

Tony shrugs. “Some kids get gerbils. Hey, it seemed like the right thing to do. And his minder isn’t upset!”

“I’m not his minder,” says Steve, who asked for none of this.

“I never got a llama,” Clint mutters. Natasha snorts.

Quinoa, who’s tied to Barnes’ chair, is wearing a headband with two cartoonish yellow flowers bouncing on bumblebee-striped springs. Barnes, who seems happy to ignore everybody, keeps digging into a tub-sized spinach, beet and goat cheese salad.

“Well, okay,” Bruce concedes. “Don’t let me get in the way of his recovery. But maybe the llama could, I don’t know, wait somewhere else while we’re eating?”

“She’s my service animal.” Barnes doesn’t look away from his salad, but somehow every Avenger at the table feels like he’s staring right at them. “Her name is Quinoa.”

The metal hand curls tighter around his fork.

“Can’t argue with that.” Tony smirks, though he has no clear reason to be proud of himself. “Anyway, the important thing is, we’re glad to have you here eating with us, Bucky—which, listen, is it okay if I call you that? Because I’m never actually coming up with something better to call a grown-ass cyborg killing machine than ‘Bucky.’”

“Knock yourself out,” Barnes says, and Steve, very surreptitiously, does not choke on his spaghetti Bolognese.

Quinoa’s protective animal instincts kick in. After Steve squirms away from the llama’s inquiring lips on the back of his neck, she snakes in between him and Barnes to sample Steve’s untouched side salad.

“Oh,” says Bruce. “Yeah, this is totally necessary.”

*

Pepper chooses her words carefully. “It’s… not the worst thing Tony’s ever given to someone.”

“I remember the bunny,” Maria intones.

She sighs. “I’m told the theory here is like with cheetahs.”

“Cheetahs.”

“Apparently they’re very nervous, so often they’re paired up with dogs to help them relax. Otherwise they won’t breed.”

“Is that why we wanted the Winter Soldier.”

Pepper’s face is a warning, except for the small quirk at the corner of her mouth. “Apparently if the cheetah sees that the dog doesn’t sense any danger, then it believes it’s not in any danger.”

“So Tony gave Bucky Barnes a llama.” Maria sips her G&T. “God bless the private sector.”

“Lateral thinking is what makes us great,” says Pepper with a small toast of her martini.

“I guess capitalism isn’t so bad.” Maria snorts at herself. “You want me to keep going? I could.”

But Pepper’s face has drained. “Oh my god, what’s that?”

Barnes keeps close to the glass walls dividing Pepper’s lounge from the corridor. He moves like a nightmare, too smooth and too inevitable to run from. Maria sees spikes near his hands (how did he get all those knives?) and is already drawing her gun.

“JARVIS, what is he—?”

“No cause for alarm, Miss Potts,” says JARVIS smoothly. “Sgt. Barnes has availed himself to some grooming supplies.”

“For himself?”

“Oh my god.” Maria lowers her gun.

They’re paddles. They’re paddles strapped to his hands. Bristling with teeth.

“For brushing the llama,” she says, incredulous.

“Oh,” says Pepper, who watches until Barnes has stalked out of sight. Then: “Do you need another drink?”

Maria sets her gun back on the side table. “Probably.”

*

Maybe Sam wouldn’t have recognized him without the llama. Barnes looks basically normal otherwise, with that denim jacket and generic hipster hat. He’s even shed the murder strut, strolling, if carefully, through the private lobby of the tower.

“Hey, man!” says Sam, with his most inviting smile. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Barnes pauses, one hand wrapped in the llama’s reins, the other burrowed deep into his pocket.

“You remember me, right?”

Barnes scoffs. “Give me a little credit.” Sam has to laugh, which he thinks levers a small smile out of Barnes.

“You, uh.” He nods at Quinoa. “You going somewhere?”

“Shopping” is all Barnes offers. Sam decides to take it in stride.

“Want some company?”

“You supervising me?”

Sam is about to reassure him, but one more look at Barnes’ face tells him that he’s definitely more wry than resentful. Quinoa brays, which is not a noise Sam really expected up close. Barnes tugs on the reins and everybody follows, out the side door and into Midtown Manhattan.

If Barnes knows who he is, Sam figures they don’t need any more “Sorry I threw you off a helicarrier” heart-to-hearts, so he just starts a companionable ramble, as much for himself as for Barnes. Most of it is about the meeting he just came out of with Tony, and that he’s on a first-name basis with Iron Man still boggles him, if we’re being real about it. Barnes keeps his eyes straight ahead, which may be why New Yorkers are parting around them on the sidewalk, llama aside.

Quinoa takes the whole thing the best of everybody. Llama’s having a great time. Sam thinks there’s a real swing in her step. Then again, llamas are way wider than he’d ever really considered. They’re sure-footed, but you definitely know they’re there.

“So he’s like, ‘I can have ‘em for you by Sunday, but gimme another day or two and I’ll really blow your mind.’ And I’m thinking, dude, those things were in development for like, six years first—hey, what… are we shopping for?”

Because Barnes has taken a sharp left on the sidewalk, and the bell is already ringing over the door of a Halloween and costume shop.

Sam hurries after, just in time to see Barnes and the cashier exchange knowing nods. The inside of the store bristles with future junk: cheap feather boas and plastic masks of presidents and enough neon spray-on hair color to paint a herd of elephants. Barnes and Quinoa jostle past a whole display of cheap Avengers costumes, equally split between kids’ and adults’ versions. Sam dodges, then replaces a large plastic Mjolnir someone left on the floor.

When he catches up with Barnes and Quinoa, he nods. “I get it, I get it now.” The accessories aisle is a cornucopia of disco ball necklaces and Elvis spangles and Mardi Gras beads. Barnes’ hand hovers over a shark fin headband before he plucks a fascinator shaped like a cupcake from its shelf.

Quinoa snuffles hopefully at his left pocket. She turns to look at Sam, and flicks her ears. Sam holds up both hands. “Hey, he’s your sugar daddy, not me.”

“I like to take care of my girls.” Barnes flips a switch on the cupcake, which flickers with dancing LED lights.

Sam considers it. “I think it suits you both.”

“We keep coming back to this one,” says Barnes. He holds it up against Quinoa’s forehead. “I think today’s the day.”

*

Thor seems the least perturbed of anyone in the tower to see Quinoa parked outside the sparring gym.

“She left a gift for you on the floor,” he advises, as Barnes and Natasha pick themselves up from the mat.

“You’re sure it was her?” Barnes says flatly, and Natasha, who’s panting and flushed, barks a laugh.

Clint, freshly showered, who’d passed Thor on his way out, can be heard from the hallway: “Aw, llama, no!”

*

Come watch movies with us, Tony types, and hits the enter key.

“No,” says Bruce in his earpiece. “How many times have you seen The Rock anyway?”

“It’s not for me,” Tony replies. “It’s for Bucky Barnes. He needs culture.”

Bruce, on his monitor, is totally ignoring his chat camera in favor of something science-y that’s too much biology for Tony. “And what does he think of it so far?”

“He’s asleep on the floor.” Tony catches himself. “On the llama, I should say. Also on the floor.”

It’s true; maybe the shouts and explosions are more relaxing than the quiet. (An uncharitable thought, sure, but come on, who falls asleep during action movie night?)

“The llama’s awake, though,” he adds, because Quinoa is indeed alert, peering over the back of the couch. Tony holds out his StarkPhone for a Quinoa-Tony selfie and sends it off to Bruce.

Bruce opens the photo and sighs. “You leave that poor llama alone.”

“I know what I’m doing. Guy who sold it to me gave me a brochure and stuff.”

“Plus all your YouTube research.”

Quinoa disappears behind the couch again.

“Yeah, plus all that.”

Bruce moves mostly off-screen to look into a microscope. “You know they can get possessive, right?”

“I think you’re making that up.”

“No, llamas are mean.”

“This one’s nice.”

Bruce sighs. “I still can’t believe you dropped a therapy llama on this guy. Not to mention all the rest of us.”

“Oh, settle down, it was a great idea. Seriously, Ice-B’s sleeping like a baby right now.”

“You can’t see him,” says Bruce. “He’s behind the couch.”

Tony sits up. “Okay.”

“I didn’t mean—Tony!”

Bucky Barnes is, in fact, drooling against Quinoa’s furry shoulder. Tony crouches to frame the photo. Quinoa oinks at him.

“That doesn’t sound good,” says Bruce’s tinny voice in his ear.

She trills, more softly, but also shows her teeth. What a smiler.

“It’s fine,” Tony says, and his flash goes off.

Barnes really is down for the count, totally not moving or anything. Tony gets another great selfie that would go right on Instagram if Barnes wasn’t still a wanted terrorist in 18 jurisdictions.

“I don’t like you doing this unsupervised.”

“I’ve got JARVIS.”

Bruce sighs again. “JARVIS, you don’t have to get involved.”

“I’m afraid I’ve little choice, Dr. Banner.”

“Quiet, all of you.” Tony squats closer. Zoom with your feet, after all. Quinoa starts ticking. It’s fascinating, how it comes from nowhere logical in her body.

“I love pressure,” says Nicolas Cage onscreen. “I eat it for breakfast.”

What’s incredible, in hindsight, is that Tony even gets the image at all. Why it’s this particular shutter click sound effect that jolts Barnes and not the finest in either Stark-caliber banter or mid-‘90s summer blockbusters, no one can say. It’s a great photo, though. Take away the old Foot Clan mask and Barnes is a walking, sometimes-talking treasure trove of faces.

Though not so many have startled the Winter Soldier and lived to tell the tale, those who have might attach the image to the top of an all-Avengers memo alerting the team to the full range of a llama’s head-butting capabilities.

“Man,” says Clint to Barnes over breakfast cereal soon after. “Maybe you don’t need a dog.”

Maybe Barnes hides a smile in his coffee. “Yeah. She’s my service animal.”

*

Sometimes Steve takes the stairs. Nobody else ever does, so climbing can make for good time alone to think. The stairwells at Stark Tower are about the only part of it that isn’t sleek and high-tech. Plus they go on forever—probably your best bet for not running into company.

Unless, of course, that company is Bucky standing on the next landing up, both arms flung around Quinoa’s neck, with his face buried in her fur. All Steve can see are his eyes, which track him suspiciously as he comes closer. The rest of Bucky is utterly, blissfully relaxed. Quinoa shifts her weight under him. She’s wearing a plastic lei and a glitter-crusted pineapple hat, Carmen Miranda-style.

“Don’t say anything,” Bucky growls.

Steve chuckles. “Not a word.”

The corner of Bucky’s mouth quirks; he lifts his face enough so Steve can see it. “Hey, watch this.” He straightens.

Steve knits his brow. “When does you saying that ever end well?”

But Quinoa has seen Bucky’s hand dip into his pocket, and her ears flutter and her eyes roll expectantly. Steve watches as Bucky takes out his endlessly full baggie of baby carrots and, like a dare, clamps the end of one between his front teeth.

With great delicacy, Quinoa stretches her neck and nibbles the other end of the carrot until Bucky gives it up for her.

“Wow,” says Steve. “Your standards have really fallen.”

“More than you’re getting, pal.” Bucky ruffles the shaggy mess around Quinoa’s cheeks as she chews. “Don’t you listen to him, sweetheart, he doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it.”

He scoffs, softly. “Don’t you let the rest of them hear you talk like that. Think about your reputation.”

Quinoa whuffs, somehow, and bumps her nose against Bucky’s hip. He hides the carrots behind his back, but the edges of his lips curl in such an old, fond way. “What, Rogers, you gonna rat me out?”

A snort. “Not with your bruiser here on call.”

Bucky laughs at that. “Tony should be sorry he ever introduced us.”

“Nah.” Steve grins. “Pretty sure he’s not.”