Central Park was in chaos, thick plumes of smoke rising from winter-bare trees now leafed in tongues of flame. Dark brown craters scarred the earth like the killing fields of the war the Winter Soldier — Bucky — remembered only at the edges of his mind. The quinjet’s engines kicked up a storm of mud and broken branches as it landed fifty meters away from the man at the center of the chaos.
One man. Not Steve.
The overcast sky worked in Bucky’s favor, diffusing the midday light, allowing him to slip from shadow to shadow unseen, not that anyone was looking in his direction. Most of the civilians had long since run; the rest scattered like cockroaches when lightning slammed into the earth beside the quinjet, resolving itself into the shape of a huge man ripped right from the covers of a Viking romance novel.
“Loki! Cease these foolish games at once!” he shouted, which confirmed his identity. HYDRA’s files on Thor had been sketchy at best; they had no agents in Asgard. Just in case, Bucky put another twenty meters between himself and the God of Thunder before he went back to his actual mission: finding Steve.
This whole damn mess was proof that Steve had learned nothing since he’d been a child, belligerently taking any excuse to pick a fight. Those memories had come back to Bucky in force, once HYDRA’s programming had started to degrade. Someone would say something stupid, Steve would pick a fight, and Bucky would rush to the rescue before Steve could get his ass kicked.
Only this time, it looked like Bucky had failed.
He’d been two minutes behind Steve. Two minutes. He’d gone to the window of his safehouse outside Avengers Tower just in time to see Steve’s motorcycle disappear, weaving through traffic, heading north. Bucky had rushed after him, but only the rising smoke from burning trees had hinted at Steve’s location in Central Park.
Hinted. Not pinpointed.
Finally, over the shouts and bangs of the Avengers’ combat with Loki, Bucky risked calling, “Steve!”
Bushes rustled, nowhere near the combat. Was it Steve or a scared civilian, trying to hide? Steve wouldn’t hide. He had absolutely zero self-preservation instinct, and there was no tactical advantage to be gained here, so far from the battle.
Bucky’s heart lurched in his chest. Was Steve injured? Thanks to the serum, there was no injury that Steve couldn’t eventually heal, but he could still be in pain.
The battle was still going strong. Why weren’t the other Avengers looking for Steve? They had to know that he’d run off ahead of them.
Jaw clenched, Bucky looked back toward the bushes. He hadn’t yet made contact with Steve. He wasn’t ready. And despite how much time Steve and his friend spent hunting him, Steve wasn’t ready.
But if Steve was hurt, and no one was coming to help him...
Bucky had no choice. He threw one last glance toward the battle, making sure everyone was occupied. Then, bracing himself, he bolted for the underbrush.
Steve hadn’t ached like this for years — decades, by the calendar, though he still had trouble wrapping his mind around the shift in centuries, especially right now. With a huff of effort, he rolled onto his back, only to flop back over onto his side, off-balance.
He dragged in a breath that tasted of fire and earth, of acrid chemicals and pollution thickly disguising a faint hint of grass. But the grass was a crunchy, dead yellow, as were the leaves clinging to the bushes that surrounded him.
Chemical attack? He tried again to get up, only to have his hands and feet slap the ground, because they were off to one side instead of where they were supposed to be. And when he tried to stretch his legs out, his hips ached in protest.
What the hell had happened to him? Spinal damage? Could the serum repair that sort of thing? Even modern medicine, with all of its miraculous cures, couldn’t always fix the spine. What if he couldn’t walk?
He gasped in a breath full of dust, making him cough and choke. Grit coated his tongue, which was hanging out of his mouth. Shit. What was wrong with him?
Panic seized him. He lifted his head and thrashed, but now nothing in his body was working right. When he finally got onto his stomach, his legs were tucked under himself, and his arms were —
— were —
They weren’t arms.
He looked at what should have been his hands, but they were short paws, with black nails and soft gold fur, paws attached to long, skinny legs with all the wrong joints. And the next time he gasped, his tongue fell out of his mouth — his muzzle — to loll down into the grass before he jerked his head up in horror.
He was a dog.
How the hell was he a —
“Midgard’s pet lap dog,” Loki had said with a sneer, and then something had happened, and now...
His ears, even more sensitive than they’d been after the serum, picked up the sound of approaching footsteps. Adrenaline (or its canine equivalent) spiked through him, and his lips curled back from what he hoped like hell were long, vicious fangs. The last thing he needed was to be one of those toy poodles shoppers carried around on Fifth Avenue like living purses.
No, the last thing he needed was to be a fucking dog, no matter the breed.
Anger gave him the strength to surge upright, onto four feet instead of two, but that only lasted about half a second before he collapsed again. Too many legs, not enough thumbs, and — fucking hell — he had a tail stuck to his ass, and he had no idea what to do with it.
And then, as if the day hadn’t turned strange enough, a familiar, even welcome man rushed into view.
Bucky cut off, stumbling to a stop before he could run down a dog lying in the grass beside a familiar red, white, and blue shield. Warm tan and cream fur, floppy ears, big brown eyes... A pretty dog, actually. Not an attack dog, so it took Bucky’s combat-oriented memory a few seconds to identify it as a golden retriever.
“Hey,” Bucky said warily, glancing at the shield. Wherever Steve was, he’d want — need — that shield. “Good dog.”
The dog stood, or tried to, and Bucky frowned. Was it injured? It wasn’t whimpering, but it was struggling, feet kicking and flailing.
“Easy, easy,” Bucky said, crouching down to put his flesh-and-blood hand on the dog’s body. Its ribs were heaving, heart pounding so hard that Bucky could feel the thump-thump-thump through its fur. He stroked down to the dog’s haunches, then did it again when the dog seemed to calm. Its fur was softer than he’d anticipated, and he curled his fingers, scratching lightly.
When was the last time he’d touched a living creature for pleasure? In combat, yes. To administer emergency first aid for soldiers he’d now willingly, even happily kill. But for pleasure? Flashes of memory: throwing an arm around Steve’s shoulders, dancing with pretty girls, laying his hand on Steve’s arm. Nowhere in his memory did he have any recollection of even touching a dog.
“Shh. Let me see if you’re hurt,” he said quietly, sitting down on the grass. He was still listening for any hint of where Steve might be, but for now, the shield and the dog were his only clues.
The dog couldn’t stand, but it could crawl. As Bucky petted one-handed, searching with his fingertips for any wounds or bones out of place, the dog slithered clumsily up against his legs, then into his lap.
No fear. No hesitation. Bucky — the Winter Soldier, HYDRA’s primary asset — had taken so many lives, had caused so much pain and suffering, but this dog didn’t care. This dog saw his presence as a kindness, a gentle touch, a caring person to help ease its fear.
Bucky’s exhale was shaky, and he tentatively, carefully touched the dog with both hands, braced against how it would surely recoil from the feel of inhuman metal fingers. But it pressed into his touch, crawling further into his lap, and he bent low so he could whisper, “Easy. No one’s going to hurt you. You’re okay now.”
The dog’s tail twitched — not quite a wag, but maybe the dog was too injured? Cradling the dog with his metal arm, he ran his other hand down the dog’s spine, probing carefully, listening for any whimper or hitched breath. But the dog just panted and tucked its muzzle between Bucky’s arm and his body.
“It’s okay, pal. It’s okay,” Bucky said, a little surprised at how soothing his voice had become. “But listen, I have to find my pal. You seen Steve anywhere?”
This time, the tail movement was much more wag-like. The dog extracted its muzzle and looked up at Bucky with the biggest, saddest eyes Bucky had ever seen.
“It’s okay,” he repeated inanely. Dogs understood commands, not conversation, but... well, maybe the dog could understand his tone of voice. The dog wasn’t running loose or acting wild, so it seemed nicely domesticated. Trained. Could his luck hold enough for the dog to know how to track Steve by scent?
A wet, cold touch on the throat made him flinch in surprise. The dog huffed warm breath over Bucky’s jaw, then shoved its head onto his shoulder, muzzle buried in Bucky’s hair.
It was like a hug, and Bucky couldn’t resist the offered affection. He buried his face against the dog’s furry neck and looked at the shield that lay upside-down on the grass. There was no blood on the straps, which was a small comfort. But where was he?
Time to get back on mission. Bucky gave the dog a gentle shove, saying, “Okay, pal. Down. I’ve got to find Steve.”
Instead of backing away, the dog made a strangled noise like a bark that wasn’t quite successful. Any other time, Bucky would’ve laughed, but all he could think was that Steve might be in danger.
This time, his shove was less gentle. “Come on, pal. Get down.”
The dog staggered — not from Bucky’s shove, but because it didn’t seem to have full control over its legs. Was it a puppy or whatever came between puppy and adult for dogs? Juvenile, maybe. Bucky had no idea how to tell a juvenile dog from an adult.
He shook his head, distracted, and got reluctantly to his feet. He was covered with pale gold fur, more than he could brush off with his hands, not that he cared. Steve.
As if the dog shared his focus, it went right over to the shield. Hope blossomed warm in Bucky’s chest, and he asked, “Can you track? Track him, pal. Find Steve.”
The dog turned to look Bucky’s way — even that little motion made the dog stagger. Moving more carefully, it looked back down at the shield, then stepped on the edge. The shield rocked.
Bucky’s warning came too late. The dog stepped on the shield again, this time hard enough that it came up off the grass and smacked the dog right in the muzzle.
“I got this,” Steve shouted over the sound of the HYDRA artillery guns the Howling Commandos had been tasked with eliminating. He stomped on the shield so hard it flipped up, straps flying, and smashed into his face, leaving the guys — and Bucky — laughing too hard to even think about the fight ahead.
The dog snorted and sneezed, and the way it barked sounded almost like a string of curses that would’ve gotten Steve’s mouth washed out with soap, back in the hazy days when his mom had still been alive.
Hell, it sounded exactly like that.
And just as Steve had done seventy-plus years ago, the dog kicked at the shield, sending it skittering over nearby tree roots. Then it jerked up its foot, wobbling on three legs, and doggie-swore some more, tucking its hurt paw close to its chest.
This isn’t possible, Bucky thought, staring at the dog. A dog had no business kicking a shield — or anything, considering how its feet were jointed — but this... this was no dog.
Feeling like an idiot, Steve turned back to Bucky and nodded even though it made his ears flop in a way that was distressing, to say the least. His nose hurt as if he’d broken it, but there was nothing he could do about it. He’d actually licked it before he stopped himself — something he wasn’t going to do again, because ew.
Bucky dropped to his knees next to Steve, head ducked so they were eye-to-eye. He looked sallow, even a little unhealthy, but his eyes were still the same brilliant, beautiful blue. Steve leaned forward, only to overbalance and crash against him.
Strong arms came up, circling Steve’s unfamiliar body. A thousand scents engulfed Steve’s overactive nose, and he closed his eyes to better concentrate on having Bucky here with him. Bucky was safe and alive and here.
Being a dog was a small price to pay. Hell, Steve would stay a dog if it meant he could keep Bucky at his side.
“What the hell, Steve?” Bucky asked, keeping Steve steady.
Steve sighed. As if he could answer in any way Bucky would understand? He couldn’t even hold a pen in his paw — assuming he hadn’t broken anything when he’d kicked the damn shield. Just thinking about his paw made the ache ten times worse, and a quiet whimper escaped, despite his effort to be stoic about the whole fur-thing.
“Idiot.” Bucky’s exasperated sigh stripped away seventy-plus years, and Steve had to close his eyes before he found out the hard way whether or not dogs could cry. Gentle hands moved from his sides to his aching paw, pressing gently, feeling along the bones. A twinge of pain made Steve flinch, but apparently Project Rebirth’s effects were still active. If there was a bruise under that fur, it was healing.
Unable to express his gratitude through speech, Steve touched his nose to Bucky’s face. Bucky flinched, giving a nervous little laugh, and Steve remembered his nose was wet and cold.
He opened his mouth in a doggie-grin, then poked his nose against Bucky’s cheek again. Bucky’s laugh — real and genuine and just like the old days — was a better reward than anything Steve could imagine.
“Stop!” Bucky twisted a shoulder, playfully blocking. He rubbed at Steve’s paw for another second, then let go.
Steve laughed — or tried to, anyway. It came out like a series of short, huffed barks, but Bucky seemed to understand, judging by his grin. Steve nosed at Bucky’s face again, and some mad canine instinct made him lash out with his tongue, licking from Bucky’s jaw to his cheekbone.
That got him a hug in return, tight enough to choke off his breath, but he couldn’t pull away. He surged forward instead, climbing onto Bucky’s lap, getting his front paws over Bucky’s shoulders
Bucky. Steve had wanted this day for months — for years — and now Bucky was here with him, safe and alive and aware. Steve’s breath came in sharp little pants, and his back half was wobbly from how hard his tail was wagging, and all he could do was try to climb even further into Bucky’s strong, solid arms.
“Steve. You damn idiot,” Bucky whispered, fingers scratching against Steve’s skin. “This was that Asgardian, Loki, wasn’t it?”
Steve didn’t want to move his head off Bucky’s shoulder to nod. Instead, he sighed and twisted his bottom half sideways so he could sit. That didn’t stop his tail from wagging — it had a mind of its own — but it prevented the wagging from throwing him off-balance even more.
“You had to run in on your own, didn’t you? Couldn’t wait for your team?” The old, familiar exasperation was back in his voice.
In Steve’s timeline, it had only been a few years since Bucky had last yelled at him for doing something stupid in combat. All that was missing was the rest of the team laughing their asses off outside the tent while Bucky yelled at their supposed commanding officer — as if they weren’t all equally crazy.
Maybe this whole dog thing was a blessing. Steve didn’t have to come up with excuses that’d inevitably get feebler by the minute. No awkward explanations. No prying questions. He just had to sit there in Bucky’s lap and revel in having Bucky — his Bucky — back with him.
And Bucky wasn’t pushing him away or yelling at him. He sat there as if he’d be content to hold Steve on his lap forever. The way he petted Steve’s fur — and wasn’t that a weird thought? — was soothing, probably to them both. Steve’s sharp ears could hear the low thrum of Bucky’s heart, slow and steady.
But they couldn’t stay here forever — not with Loki still on the loose, even though Steve could hear the distant sound of familiar combat. Iron Man’s repulsors and Thor’s thunder-cracks were loud enough to carry through all of Central Park. Thankfully, Hawkeye, Widow, and Falcon were quieter, or the whole team would be a noise hazard.
As a dog, Steve wasn’t going to contribute a damned thing to the fight, and when he finally introduced Bucky to the Avengers, he wanted to be there to intervene if things went poorly. So he nosed affectionately at Bucky’s ear and stood up as best he could without stepping on Bucky’s... well, anything.
It seemed to take forever to get all his legs sorted out, and his tail — which wouldn’t stop wagging — kept making his back half wobble, but he finally got off Bucky’s lap. Automatically, he reached for the shield, only to hesitate when he saw a paw instead of a hand. Shit. How could he keep forgetting he was a damned dog?
Bucky laughed — Steve would never get sick of hearing that sound — and said, “I’ll get that “ He took off his leather jacket, revealing a hooded sweatshirt underneath, and Steve couldn’t help but stare. Even after everything that had happened, in his mind, Bucky was still the sharp-dressed ladies’ man he’d always been. Now, though, he looked like he was either homeless or worked in a coffee shop. (Sadly, Steve couldn’t always tell the difference.)
After putting on a pair of leather gloves, Bucky wrapped the shield in his jacket and tucked it awkwardly under his left arm. He started north, away from the ongoing battle, but Steve threw himself in Bucky’s path to block him.
“What’s wrong?” Bucky asked, frowning down at Steve, who heaved out a sigh. How could he explain city leash laws without a proper mouth to speak? Not that either of them had a leash on hand to begin with.
But Bucky did have a belt, even though most people these days didn’t bother. Steve lifted a paw to point to it, but his body didn’t bend that way, so he ended up shoving his muzzle into Bucky’s waist. Laughing, Bucky shoved his head back and scratched behind his ears — a special sort of bliss that Steve wouldn’t mind exploring some other time, before Loki noticed them and turned Bucky into a pigeon or something. Carefully, Steve nipped at the belt, missed and hit the sweatshirt instead, tried again, and finally scored the leather belt with one fang.
It tasted good. Really good. Shoes would probably taste equally good.
Stop thinking like a dog! He shook his head, ears flapping, then nipped at the belt again. A good tug, and Bucky seemed to get the idea, asking, “Do you want this? I can’t rig something for you to carry your shield, Steve. And I’m not letting you go into a fight like that. You’re not even a fighting dog. You’re a damn golden retriever.”
Steve’s ears went flat in a doggie version of a wince. A golden retriever? Yeah, that was better than a cockapoo or something, but a golden retriever? He was a soldier. Why wasn’t he a German shepherd or rottweiler or something?
Bucky was still talking, the sort of rambling monologue people aimed at pets in need of comfort or amusement, which wasn’t helping Steve’s still-very-human ego. Frustrated, he tugged at the belt again.
“Okay, okay.” Bucky surrendered, setting the shield down so he could take off his belt. He doubled it and offered it to Steve, who had to fight the overwhelming smell of leather and Bucky. He kept his mouth clamped shut and nosed under the belt loop, trying to shove his head in.
Come on, Buck, he thought. Bucky had always been the smart one, better at math and science than Steve was at art. And more than just book-smart, he was clever.
Steve couldn’t help answering Bucky’s sudden grin with one of his own. “Right,” Bucky said, pulling the tongue of the belt through the buckle. He got the loop around Steve’s head and frowned. “If I hold onto this and you pull away...”
It’s fine. Steve couldn’t figure out how to say it, except to wag his tail, which was harder than it seemed, when he actually thought about doing it intentionally.
“Were you wearing a belt?” Bucky asked, holding onto the very tip of the belt to give Steve as much slack as possible. “Boot laces, maybe?”
Steve started to nod, but... Where were his clothes, anyway? He’d come to with the shield in paw’s reach, but his clothes were nowhere to be found. Had they been magically transformed with his body, or had they just been disintegrated? Hopefully they’d just been transformed. He’d just managed to break in those boots.
Bucky sighed and ruffled Steve’s fur again. It was probably wrong and improper and awkward, but Steve didn’t mind the affection. Not at all. It felt like the old days, walking arm-in-arm, laughing and roughhousing. Except now, Bucky was still the Winter Soldier, at least in part, and Steve was a dog.
He’s back. That was what mattered. Skin or fur, assassin or soldier or best friend, none of that mattered. Steve pawed at the shield, making it rock.
“Okay. Let’s get you out of here,” Bucky said. He picked up the shield, rearranged the jacket, and took a step, one eye on the makeshift leash. Steve got his feet moving, at first in the wrong order, but Bucky was patient and walked slowly enough for Steve to get the hang of a four-footed gait.
And by the time they reached one of the jogging paths, it felt almost like the old days, best friends walking side-by-side, bodies bumping together with every other step.