After the helicarriers, the river, the man, the Winter Soldier doesn't linger in DC. He scouts out the Smithsonian, stares at grey-toned pictures and grainy newsreels, but the fresh-faced kid in the display photograph can't possibly have been him. That heroic stare into the distance, the shadow of pain in his eyes, like he knows from true hardship--it's embarrassing to look at, so he stops looking. Doesn't want to look at the captain either, not when he knows. He may have failed in his stated mission, but he's still doing Hydra's work, is the one reliable weakness Captain America has.
It doesn't sit right, not when he's decided--decided--to cut himself loose, but the best thing he can think to do is make himself scarce.
He gathers enough equipment to get the job done if Hydra comes looking for him, books it out of the city, but he doesn't go far.
New York fills his head like an exploded diagram, but when the layers fall on top of each other, they don't match up. Skyline after skyline reshapes itself in memory, growing taller and more jagged with every iteration. He looks for quiet streets that used to be fronted by sagging tenements and finds concrete and glass, looks for concrete walls graffitied with anti-war slogans amidst confusing whorls of color and finds artisan bakeries and an upscale pho place. Nothing is the way he remembers it, though he navigates the streets well enough, finding just enough familiarity in the grid to keep him under the radar.
Some of the places he wanders dredge up fuzzy memories from the bottommost layer of the stack, blurry and all but obliterated by everything written on top of them. I had 'em on the ropes. Aw, c'mon, it'll be fun. Those guys bothering you? Stevie, I swear to God.
Where are we going?
He remembers bright lights in a dark night, but the spotlit attractions are long gone, and security guards make the rounds instead of a vanished crowd. He leaves that ghost where it lies and makes his way back to streets he could probably navigate better blindfolded, without all the changes that confuse him. It's almost a relief to catch a whiff of the ocean and find it the same in any year, and he follows that scent until he starts spotting signs for Coney Island, some faded, some new.
The place is quiet in the hour before dawn, but in the back of his mind he hears the babble of a throng, buzzers and bells and the clang of metal from the rides. He smells the cloying salt-and-sweet of the concession stands, grimy machine oil and the clash of a dozen different perfumes and colognes. He's freezing, or he's baking, or it's the perfect end of a long afternoon with the breeze coming in cool off the water, and he's bumping a frail shoulder with his own, trying to cage a grin.
The memory's so strong, he lifts his right hand to his face, but the fingertips he presses to his mouth find no expression there at all.
A thrashing from the shore draws his attention, and he hangs back in the shadows, staring across the street and down the empty strip of sand to the dark swell of the ocean. He's not expecting swimmers--the sound is too loud, and surely no one's crazy enough to be swimming at this hour--but he's definitely not expecting what he does see.
What heaves itself out of the waves is massive, four-legged, its hairless black hide scaly in its thickness. Rows of short spikes travel from its broad, flat head down the brutish thrust of its neck and along heavy shoulders built for power. Its skull is as tall as he is, knives of bone thrusting down from its jowls, and the tip of its thick tail is lined with spikes. It moves like a battering ram as it bulls its way up onto the sand in a few determined bounds, clawed feet raking huge tracks in its wake.
Free of the water, it shakes itself all over like a dog, sneezes a gallon of seawater, and with a disgusted snuffle, wanders off with its nose to the ground, slinking away from the light.
Watching it lumber off with a frown, the soldier slides a finger meditatively along the grip of one of his guns but lets it go. It hadn't attacked the park, and gratuitous property damage is the single common theme of the creatures he's supposed to engage on sight if it won't affect the mission. He knows his memory has holes, but Hydra's shown him pictures of the things he's missed. Chitauri. Hulks. Other things he's forgotten until he sees them again. He doesn't think he's seen anything like this before, but he honestly has no way of knowing.
One thing he does know for certain: the future is weird.
He's crouched on the roof of an old factory closed for the weekend when he hears the galloping thump of something large approaching fast. It's neither of the two agents he's spotted skulking around; his mind insists on conjuring up images of stampeding elephants, tripping over the fact that it's three in the afternoon, sunny and calm. He knows real monsters don't actually wait for night to fall, but seeing that creature again in broad daylight is startling.
It's as big as he remembers, but while it moves with the floundering carelessness of a mutt in chase of a stick, it manages to miss the few parked cars that line the empty street as it careens around the corner. The soldier tracks it with his rifle anyway, finger caressing the trigger, but he doesn't pull. There's no one in pursuit of the thing, astonishingly enough, and the monster itself--
The startled flock of pigeons flying low ahead of it begins to gain altitude, fat bodies dragging as clumsy wings claw for the sky. The beast jumps, snapping at the hindmost, but it's too heavy to gain enough lift. Its comparatively small eyes follow the path of its--dinner?--with a whine of desperation.
The soldier's face twitches, but his hands are steady. A breath, a slight correction, and he fires twice, grateful for the silencer though he'll have to move now anyway.
The beast skids to a stop, whipping around with its head slung low, prepared for a fight. The soldier stills as well, certain he won't be noticed, but as the creature's nostrils flare, it looks up and finds him instantly. That's...not good; he hadn't been intending to fight the thing, much less get chased through the streets. If he aims for the eyes--
With a low, warning growl, the creature catches up the first of the birds the soldier picked off and bolts it down in a single bite, snatching up the second before bounding away. It leaves a trail of car alarms in its wake, but there's no accompanying sound of shattering glass or crunching metal; it's just that big, shaking the ground as it charges past.
Breathing out slow, the soldier disassembles his rifle and makes his way quickly down to street level. It was stupid of him to take that chance anyway. Who knows what that thing's been eating besides birds? And what does he care if a monster goes hungry? It's not his problem.
It bothers him, though. Big, ugly thing like that--it doesn't belong here, and whatever it's finding to eat can't be what it's used to. Knowing what he does about the makers of monsters, he'd just about bet someone turned it loose and forgot about it, left it to fend for itself. Ordinarily that'd mean a whole lot of trouble for a whole lot of people, but the only way a thing that big is still roaming free is if it's steering clear of humans.
The soldier knows a little something about that too.
Sometimes he swears the creature is stalking him, but that's crazy. The damn thing is bigger than a Sherman tank; it's not like it can sneak up on him.
He keeps telling himself that until he finds himself pinned in a deserted auto salvage yard, the security guard dead or fled. Darting between the hulks of half-stripped vehicles, he starts to aim at the Hydra agent nipping at his heels and has to squeeze off the shot in a hurry as two more pop up right in front of him. He knows he missed the kill shot, hit a shoulder instead, probably a through-and-through, and if he doesn't hurry the fuck up and get himself out of the line of fire--
The guy behind him lets out a breathless sound like an indrawn scream just as the two in front draw up in a stumbling slide that would be funny as hell if they weren't trying to kill or capture him. They're not staring at him, though--they're staring over him, and even as he's dropping them right where they stand, he knows he's not going to like what he sees when he turns around.
His beast is right there behind him, so big up close it blots out the glow of the security lights at its back. It's just dark enough that he can't get a good look at what it's doing, but the grisly snap of bone and the lack of a bullet in the soldier's back tells its own story. Stomach hitching uneasily, the soldier considers backing away, because had he thought humans were off the menu? Where had he gotten a boneheaded idea like that? It's just....
"Aw, jeez," he mutters, jamming his SIG back into its holster. The beast hunches its shoulders at him and slinks back a pace but doesn't stop eating. From the shifting glitter of its eyes, he knows it's peering up at him from under its heavy brow ridge. "Not everything I shoot is dinner," he tells it firmly.
The beast whines deep in its throat and nudges something in his direction. It's a shoe.
Clapping a hand over his mouth, the soldier bites back a bark of half-hysterical laughter, wondering when this became his life.
"I don't blame you, buddy," the soldier tells it sympathetically, "believe me."
A few days later, he hotwires a truck and drives around to a slaughterhouse whose address he finds in a rain-soaked phone book in someone's recycling bin. It's sort of ironic that dinner's on Hydra, considering, but he figures that's the least they owe him.
"Just throw it in the bed," he tells the guys around back when they ask how many containers he brought. Two sides of beef won't last more than a day, but it's not like he has anywhere to keep it on ice.
"Uh...are you sure?" the foreman asks, eyeing the dusty old Mazda he brought in. "I mean, we can part it out right here."
"It's for my dog," he says with a shrug. They don't ask any more questions, but he makes a mental note to rotate his suppliers, not come back for a week. A week is plausible, right?
His beast is waiting under the overpass he picked out early that morning, and it sits on its haunches and stares, licking its chops and shuffling its front paws as he hauls the carcasses out onto the ground.
"Well?" he says, stepping back when all it does is whine at him. "Go on, big guy. Chow time."
It's a lot easier listening to it crunch and gnash its way through dinner when he doesn't have to worry about dinner's next-of-kin, but he can do without the slobbery, coppery thanks it tries to give him afterwards.
Monster kisses. Fuck his life.
He starts picking up the newspapers, and damned if the Avengers don't wind up on the front page the very next day. While he's been playing hide and seek with Hydra, some tiny European country nearly ended the game for everyone, courtesy of some runaway creation of Tony--
"Jesus fucking Christ," he breathes, staggering to sit on an empty crate in the abandoned warehouse he'd found. "Is that Howard's kid?"
His beast ambles over to snuffle at his hair as he sits staring at the paper, curling up on the floor around him when he bats it gently away.
Howard's kid. Christ. And Howard's kid is already old.
He laughs at that, too high and too sharp, because the Stark kid--Christ--isn't that old, not really. Only Howard had been half a year younger than the soldier, hadn't he? He...remembers that.
The soldier's not old enough to have a kid in his forties, and at the same time, he's old enough to have a grandkid Tony's age. It doesn't make sense, it can't, and he wishes like hell it didn't, but--Hydra. So much of the crazy in his life can be laid squarely at their doorstep, and it seems like he's going to be spending the rest of his life finding new evidence of that.
Just as the bleakness of that thought threatens to suck him under, he's distracted by a low, rumbling whine. His beast is watching him, massive head resting on its paws, and its spiked tail thumps, dislodging chips of concrete from the age-cracked floor when he looks over at it.
"It's fine," he says gruffly, folding the paper back up with hands that tremble only a little. "I'm good. You hungry, boy?"
It's a dumb question. His beast is always hungry. He's almost grateful for it; it gives him something else to think about than a world he doesn't feel like he fits in anymore.
The soldier hates to admit that those jokers have a point, but still, those jokers really do have a point.
"Can you believe this guy?" the soldier groans, gesturing angrily at the laptop set up on a battered folding table. The babble of a mob of reporters sounds like a kicked hornet's nest over the tinny speakers, and standing in the midst of it probably feels about the same.
Red eyes peer at the laptop, then at him. His beast huffs obligingly, watching him as he paces the warehouse floor. The place is looking a little more lived-in these days, but there's literally nothing inside that he can't leave at a moment's notice that isn't capable of following under its own power.
"Not at all," Captain America says firmly into a microphone. "The helicarrier originally commissioned for SHIELD had nothing to do with Project Insight and was never decommissioned--"
"Damn it, Rogers, will you shut the hell up and get off their radar!" the soldier fumes. On every damn channel and every damn website, he's been seeing the same face, and it's getting ridiculous. Rogers didn't even start this fight, so why is he setting himself up to take the brunt of it? Or is that a stupid question? He feels like that's a stupid question.
His beast whines.
"Well don't look at me," the soldier protests with a grimace. "Damn punk never did know how to pick--"
--had 'im on the ropes--
--I could do this all--
And there's a little guy, skinny, skin and bones, bones broken in stupid stunts and so many bones breaking under Barnes' fists if that's what it takes, and what's it going to take for Steve to realize he can't just go up against every bully--he just doesn't like 'em--doesn't like seeing blood on Steve's face, blood on his knuckles from finishing Steve's fights, from finishing off this soldier and that, and this soldier, this soldier--
A blunt muzzle bumps him gently and nearly sends him staggering to the floor. Warm breath with the meaty-sweet stench of carnivore wraps around him as he grabs his beast's snout, riding it out as it tries to nudge him again. "Down, boy," he says vaguely, both hands pressing light but firm on his beast's face. "Down."
His beast gets the idea after a moment and settles onto its belly, whining at him softly.
"Good boy," he croaks as fragmentary memories slowly begin to settle. The tough hide under his human hand is cool as he smooths his palm over the heavy brow ridge, grounding himself in the present.
That clean-cut kid from the museum pictures--that hadn't felt like him. The worry and fear and the stinging of split knuckles, the smell of blood and cordite and the neat, clean kills in his captain's name--that's familiar. He's been so certain he's never going to find even a hint of Barnes in the soldier, but he's never once asked if there was ever a hint of the soldier in Barnes. Clearly that was his first mistake.
Or maybe his second. His first was probably assuming Rogers had any concept of self-preservation to begin with, even with the soldier taking all the stupid with him.
Right now they're working on 'fetch'.
"Who's a growly boy, then?" the soldier teases, pulling two-handed on the medicine ball he nicked from a gym where it was just gathering dust. His beast tugs back but not very hard, teeth set delicately in the thick leather, growling playfully. "Yeah, that's you. Give it up, boy, c'mon. Give!"
His beast lets go, spiked tail lashing the air as it crouches, eyes fixed on the ball.
"Fetch!" the soldier commands, heaving the heavy ball across the parking lot with his metal arm. He has to duck the tail as his beast whips around, but he's expecting it. It's worth it to see a gigantic monster go tearing around like the family dog, all flailing paws and slobbery enthusiasm. Well, all right: the slobber's a bit much, but he's dealt with worse.
The scream he hears from the darkest end of the parking lot tells him he's about to be dealing with worse again, and soon.
"Aw, shit," he mutters, because he can't just assume it's Hydra--what if he's wrong? "Hey! Beastie!" Christ, he needs to give the mutt a name. "C'mere!"
All the practice with the medicine ball seems to have paid off. His beast comes charging back with the lower half of a man dangling from its mouth, but the upper half is still attached and struggling just as wildly. The soldier doesn't blame the guy; he knows exactly how bad beast breath smells up close and personal.
He'd be a little more worried, except the black tactical gear is a pretty good indication of where this bastard sprang from, and it's not anywhere the soldier wants to go back to.
His beast growls, startling another shriek out of the asshole in its jaws. It's all but vibrating with hopeful excitement, and the soldier honestly can't tell whether it's looking for praise or for permission to eat this unexpected treat. "Good boy," he says, deciding to wing it, patting his beast on the snout. "Now, give!"
It spits the man out instantly, foregoing their usual game of tug-of-war. The soldier is only a little regretful for missed opportunities.
He doesn't recognize the agent, which he hopes is a coincidence of deployment and not an indicator that Hydra is currently recruiting. (He knows they are; he just doesn't want to have to look at proof.) Nondescript in the way a lot of mercenaries are, the agent is dark-haired, fit, has the rough face and hands of someone who's lived harder than their years. His torso is soaked with slobber from collar to belt; his pants are soaked for another reason entirely.
Hydra trains them tough, the soldier will give them that much. The instant the agent hits the asphalt, he tries his damnedest to get to his feet, turning to face the soldier and not the beast. The soldier gives him a love-tap with his metal fist when he's halfway there and watches dispassionately as he lands on his ass.
"Winter Soldier," the agent blurts out fast, "handler authorization alpha foxtrot--"
The soldier snaps his fingers. "Fetch," he says, pointing at the agent. The guy stares, mouth dropping open, too stunned to flee as the beast leans over and takes his entire upper half into its mouth once more, lifting him right off his feet. The soldier waits until his beast has a good grip on the bastard before crooning, "Who's my growly boy, hmm? Is it you?"
As loud as the agent's terrified screaming is, his beast's low, rough growl just about drowns it out.
"Good boy," the soldier says with a grin. "Good boy, Growler. Okay, give!"
This time the agent sits right where he lands, eyes wide, face waxy-pale. "S-soldier--"
"You know," the soldier drawls pleasantly, crouching down in front of the agent and resting his forearms on his knees, "I think it's time for a change."
"You--" The agent coughs, rubbing frantically at his mouth. The soldier makes a face. Monster spit. Gross.
"Yeah, I don't think I'm going to go by that name anymore. Why don't you call me Sergeant Barnes instead?"
"Fuck," the agent breathes.
Barnes tilts his head thoughtfully then gives a quick headshake. "Nope, I don't think that sounds quite right. Growler?" He snaps his fingers.
"Barnes!" the agent squeaks, flinching away from the beast at his back and then away from Barnes himself, leaning far to the right before freezing at Growler's warning rumble. "Sergeant Barnes! Understood!"
Barnes grins. "Fantastic. Now that we've got that straightened out...why don't you tell me whose orders you're following? Because I'd be real interested to know who Hydra's new head is and why he's so interested in me."
"Bucky?" Rogers calls as he eases through the unlocked eastern door of the warehouse, approaching from the fenced-in parking lot. "Hey, Buck?"
If pressed, Barnes will maybe admit that he has a slight addiction to Wikipedia and had been too busy poking idly through articles on his phone to notice Rogers before, but the same can't be said of his backrest. At the first sign of an intruder, Growler heaves himself up with a snarl, leaving Barnes sprawling.
"Holy shit!" Rogers yelps, and Barnes doesn't think, just lunges upright to snatch Rogers' shield out of the air before it can hit.
"Growler!" he barks as he curls his wrist in. "Fetch!"
Duck the tail, he reminds himself as he sends Captain America's shield spinning off like a Frisbee, his beast charging instantly in chase of it, distracted from his prey.
Rogers stands gaping, head slowly turning to track the beast and then back to Barnes.
Barnes grimaces. "Jeez, Rogers," he bitches as Growler leaps, snaps, and whirls back around, bounding back to his side with Rogers' shield in his mouth. "Lay off my dog, will you?"
Turns out a firm "No" and a stern look works just as effectively on Asgardian princes as it does on Jotun ice-beasts.
"So what do they eat?" Barnes asks, scratching two-handed along his beast's scaly neck as the beast leans into it, head lolling.
"In my experience?" Thor shrugs, watching them with a bewildered half-smile. "Anything they can catch."
Growler rumbles happily, plopping down on his haunches to kick one hind foot in the air.
Barnes grins. "Well, that's a relief. I've been feeding him beef, but he sure seems to like birds." And Hydra agents, but he doesn't say that. It'd been his own fault for not making the boundaries clearer, and he likes to think he's got a better handle on Growler's training these days. "I mean, it's not like I can call a vet out to take a look at him, you know?"
Growler can't really roll over onto his back, not with those spikes in the way and not on the concrete floor, but the rafters shake as he flops over on his side, exposing his belly with a pleading look.
"Yeah, who's a big baby?" Barnes teases fondly.
"Whoa," says a newcomer from the door. "Somebody is definitely not getting their pet deposit back. And by the way, leash laws?"
He's not sure why he's surprised to see the Stark kid, though he's not at all surprised to see Rogers' friend with the wings stumbling to a halt at Stark's back, eyes huge. It's not like Howard had ever been able to resist poking his nose into every little thing, and like father like son, right?
"Yeah," he says at last, realizing belatedly that he probably should have made that a question. Sam probably wants to talk. But it's Bucky.
Who has...apparently found enough nylon shipping straps in an abandoned office to rig his beast a collar and leash?
Sam's quiet chuckle is patient too.
"So," Sam says, half-turning to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Steve, the better to watch as Bucky methodically untangles his makeshift leash. "He seems to be doing better, right?"
"Growler, no," Bucky says absently as the beast ducks its enormous head, snuffling at the age-worn straps around its neck and trying to work its muzzle under the trailing line Bucky's trying to sort out.
"Yeah," Steve says with a grin he can't contain. He'd been determined to find Bucky, had been prepared for another fight if it came to it, but this.
"No, Growler," Bucky says a little more firmly as the beast manages to flip the leash over its nose then lifts its head, pulling--wow, a lot of slack out of Bucky's hands. God, that thing is huge. Bucky doesn't get mad, though, tugging lightly at the buckled-together straps as if the rage Steve remembers from the helicarrier has completely vanished. "C'mon, boy. Eyes on me. You know the drill."
"Yup," Sam drawls, schooling his face to seriousness. "Except for the part where he's apparently using an alien ice monster for a therapy dog. I mean...you think he even notices?"
"Bucky always wanted a dog," Steve says helplessly, because yes, he actually can see there's a problem here. It's just--
"Grow-ler," Bucky groans as the beast gets its teeth in the leash, which is still hooked over its nose. Steve can hear Bucky's eyes rolling from where he stands, well out of the way. "Come on, would you give me--hey!"
Steve sputters a laugh as the beast fakes Bucky out, dipping its head just enough to let him grab a higher section of leash before rising back to its full height, lifting Bucky off his feet entirely. Bucky glances Steve's way as the beast goes prancing off with Bucky dangling like an ornament, and Steve can't resist. "I thought you were supposed to be taking him for a walk, Buck!"
"We're working on it!" Bucky shoots back without ire. He sounds...calm. Happy. Steve desperately does not want to fuck that up.
Sam snorts. "You know, you're right. A regular dog wouldn't be able to keep up with that guy."
Steve really wishes it was that simple.
He doesn't protest that Growler seems plenty happy to him, because that's not the point. He guesses he's happy enough himself, or close enough for government work, but there's no denying he'd give anything to be back in Brooklyn before the war, safe in his skin and feeling like he has a right to the name Steve keeps coaxing him to reclaim. Making a home for yourself is nothing like actually being home.
"Well, who were you planning on giving him to?" he asks Thor grudgingly, figuring he must have someone in mind. "Do I get to meet these people or what?"
Thor casts an uncertain look at Steve, eyes troubled. "I...don't believe even the Jotuns treat these beasts as pets. I've seen them kept as door wardens, frozen until they needed to be unleashed, but--"
Bucky feels his face go cold, ice spreading through him from his stomach outward. "Frozen," he echoes, voice dead. Steve goes pale and Stark takes an uneasy step back; Thor and Wilson grimace in near-identical sympathy. "You want me to send him off to be frozen."
Thor shakes his head. "That's not what I--there must be somewhere it can be set free in safety," he says, voice gentle.
Bucky bares his teeth. Some part of him knows Thor is trying, but he can't hear this right now. "You're not dumping my dog," he snarls instead, turning on his heel and walking away from the others.
"It's not a dog!" Stark calls after him, frustrated. Bucky shoots him the bird without looking back. "He does know it's not a dog, right?"
Fuck, does Stark think he's crazy? He knows damn well Growler's not a dog; it's why he's been working so hard to keep him hidden. You don't just turn monsters loose on a city; it never ends well for either side, especially not the monsters. Keeping him under wraps has been working just fine.
Steve gives him a while to cool down and tracks him down to find Bucky playing a belligerent game of fetch with his alien mutt. Look at that big, dumb face, he wants to yell at Steve. How can anyone want to abandon that on some ice rock to be treated like a thing?
"You know," Steve says as Bucky pulls Growler's well-slobbered ball from sharp teeth, "Thor says this one might still be a pup. It's smaller than the last one he saw, so it might actually get bigger."
"Yes, I know he's dangerous, Steve," Bucky says flatly, not looking at his...friend? Former friend? Old captain? He's still working on figuring out who he is; he's not sure at all who Steve is to him, or vice versa. He does know that he wants what he remembers; it's why he doesn't lead with a punch.
"Wasn't the point I was making, but okay," Steve says calmly. "Thing is, someone's going to notice him eventually, and...well, there's been a lot of crazy things happening lately."
"Hulks," Bucky mutters unwillingly, knowing exactly what Steve's getting at. "Chitauri. I forget the rest."
"The rest?" Steve sounds surprised.
Bucky hunches a shoulder. "There was a slide show."
"Huh. Well...the point is, folks are going to be scared, and I don't know that it's going to be safe for him to stay. You know how people get when they're scared."
Yeah, he knows. Better than Steve, if it comes to that. He's killed a lot of scared people in his day. Some of them weren't even Hydra.
"Look. If Thor can find somewhere safe for him to go, will you think about it?"
"Yeah," he says. Of course he will. He'd be no better than the assholes who'd kept him on a leash if he doesn't.
But he's going to get in every game of fetch he can in the meantime, just in case the next one's his last.
He's not sure how he feels about finding out that Stark has bought the warehouse, or that he now has electricity, and cable, and internet, and that slaughterhouses will actually deliver by the truckload if someone places an order in advance. It sounds like borrowing trouble to him, but Growler prefers to stay inside during the day anyway, and so far the delivery guys are still in the dark.
It stays that way right up until the afternoon an urgent call comes in that sends Steve and Wilson hauling ass for the door.
"We'll be back!" Steve calls over his shoulder.
"Try being careful!" Bucky shouts after them, but he's not sure they heard him. He really doubts it'd matter either way.
He goes to turn on the giant flat screen TV that just appeared one day--Starks are weird--figuring that anything that's got the Avengers scrambling will probably have the networks in a tizzy as well. He's not expecting to see a robot army attacking Manhattan, much less a robot army with some highly familiar moves. Taking a stunned step back, he collapses onto the couch--since when does he have a couch?--staring at the screen in bewilderment.
Black and gunmetal grey, the robots are heavily armored, almost on par with the Iron Man suit, but there's no mistaking that there isn't a human inside. Their wrist joints and neck struts are too thin, and every once in a while one will drop out of its human-patterned fight programming and turn its top half completely around to engage a threat from behind.
It's the fight programming that gives him pause, because he knows every move each robot will make, can feel it in his bones with the familiarity of long practice. He guesses he knows now why Hydra's been willing to throw so many agents away in hope of recapturing him. They must have a thousand videos of him in action, training and sparring and on a mission, but having the real thing there to take readings off of would have made their programming even better.
The one consolation, he decides as Growler comes over and throws himself down behind the couch, wide tusks bracketing Bucky's shoulders as Growler snuffles at his head--the one consolation here is that the robots don't have his face. There's nothing but a smooth, two-part faceplate there, even if the lower half does resemble his old muzzle.
"Fucking Hydra," he mutters aloud, reaching up to push Growler's face away.
As the Winter Soldier, he's watched footage of other battles, his handlers pointing out with ruthless practicality where each costumed defender went wrong. It never used to bother him, but watching the Avengers fight an army with his own moves and twice his strength and stamina is like being back in the war, worrying constantly that a bullet would find Steve, or Dum Dum, or Monty. It pulls tight a sick knot in the center of his gut, but all he can do for now is wait.
Watching Thor send sheets of lightning into the enemy's ranks, he's feeling cautiously optimistic about the Avengers' chances when a second wave arrives and everything goes to hell.
He almost doesn't answer his phone when it rings, because no one he knows has the time to make a phone call at the moment. He picks up anyway without tearing his eyes from the screen, half expecting it to be Hydra on the other end calling in to gloat. "Yeah?"
"Sergeant Barnes?" asks an unfamiliar woman with a mild Scottish accent, lilting but clear. "This is FRIDAY, Mr. Stark's AI."
"Uh...okay?" He gets that Stark's a little busy at the moment, but--
"Mr. Stark would like me to pass along the message that you're invited to haul your bum down here immediately, as it's time to call in the cavalry. I'm also instructed to grant you access to the armory if needed. Would you like me to send a car, Sergeant?"
Bucky hesitates, feeling the familiar ripple of nerves through the pit of his stomach and along his spine, something he hasn't felt in...God, decades. He's never shared the sheer joy in fighting Steve seems to have; it doesn't make him feel more alive or more anything, really, but furious or worried or scared. It's a chore to be gotten through, and part of him wouldn't mind leaving it behind...but as long as there's a Steve, there's going to be a fight, and it's always been Bucky's job to finish those.
"Nah," he says as he rises from the couch, eyes still fixed on the chaos some moron is filming live. "Got all that covered, thanks."
He hangs up before he can think better of it and goes to fetch his gear.
Growler watches with interest as he trades loose-fit jeans and a comfortable old Henley he suspects might be Steve's for his old body armor. Strapping on his guns and knives in their accustomed, unconcealed places is frighteningly like coming home, but he still feels like himself, Bucky Barnes, at the end of it. It's certainly not the Winter Soldier who snaps his fingers for Growler's attention, patting an enthusiastic snout as he's wuffled over curiously.
"Hey, boy," he says quietly, resting a hand on Growler's muzzle. "I hate to do this to you, but you know how it is. If we wanna stick around, us monsters gotta earn our keep. You ready to go save the others' bacon with me?"
Growler must sense that today is different, because he doesn't try to eat his new harness and saddle once.
They burst through the chain link fence at the edge of the parking lot without stopping, Growler running flat-out with a bounding stride that sets off fresh car alarms every time he lands. Bucky doesn't much care about either, because there's no way they're going to stay under the radar after this. It's a little crazy seeing the world from this high up, being on something alive that's moving this fast, but they've been practicing after Steve and the others go home, and they've just about got the hang of working together. Perched astride Growler's thick neck, the heavy padding of the saddle protecting him from the spikes, he can call out orders and give the occasional tug on the straps of the harness and be sure of being obeyed.
They have to take the Williamsburg Bridge to cross the river into Manhattan, but the traffic lanes are clogged with motorists desperate to get out of the city, and there isn't clearance for a beast Growler's size on the pedestrian side. "Up!" Bucky shouts instead, and Growler makes a prodigious leap for the top of the bridge, navigating the steel lattice that covers it sure-footed. Bucky spares a moment to be relieved the metal holds while blocking out the screams that follow them from below. Easier to ask forgiveness, he remembers hearing, though not where from.
Cars swerve around them as they drop back down onto the roadway, but Growler's better at navigating through moving targets after endless games of fetch with Thor and Steve. Weaving in and out of the snarl of stalled motorists, they dodge fleeing survivors that dart off unpredictably at the sight of them, sometimes running right out in front of them in their panic. Growler vaults the ones he can't avoid, and the only vehicle he crashes into is the overturned bus that's blocking three lanes of traffic before Growler shoulders it aside.
They make good time, heading straight for Midtown with Avengers' Tower as their landmark. Bucky halfway expects to run into outliers, scouts and random shit-starters deployed specifically to ignite terror, but the robots are clustered around the Avengers' turf with a businesslike attitude that frankly fills him with dread. Even he knows that when the villains start behaving sensibly, the heroes are in trouble. It's no wonder they called him in.
They're almost on top of the closest robots when Bucky realizes that he's taught Growler 'fetch' and 'sit' and 'oh hell no, do that outside,' but he's never taught him 'kill'. Not that it's never happened; he's just never gone out of his way to make it happen, much less felt the need to sit down and actively teach it to his beast.
He has the sudden, burning desire to share this with Wilson, because he knows--knows--he's getting Starbucks out of this.
Then Captain America comes skidding out into the street right in front of them, tossed by a robot bigger than the rest that's stalking right toward them.
Growler lumbers to a confused halt before Bucky has a chance to tug on the straps, leaning down to sniff at the brightly-colored projectile he stops with one careful paw. "Growler, no--" Bucky starts, but Growler takes another deep sniff that ends with a snort, removes his paw, and swivels his head to glare at the robot with a snarl.
They explode into motion, Growler tucking his head down and bunching his shoulders up, and they hit the robot like a freight train as Growler picks up speed. Whatever the robots are made of, they're no match for ten tons of furious ice beast who knows his favorite Frisbee partner when he smells him, no matter what ridiculous getup Steve's wearing. Ignoring the bullets pinging off his scaly hide, Growler wisely keeps his big maw closed, swinging his head to one side and ramming one of his bladelike tusks into the robot as he tosses his head like a bull. The robot goes flying, already shedding pieces as it parts way with one arm, and that's when Growler snaps it out of the air, massive jaws crushing the thing in a shower of sparks.
"Good boy!" Bucky yells as Growler drops his prey with a huff, pawing at his muzzle. "Maybe no biting next time, but good boy!"
"Bucky?" Steve asks as he picks himself up, hesitating to rejoin the fight as he stares at them incredulously. Growler perks up instantly at the sound of his voice, and damn, maybe they shouldn't have spent quite so much time tossing Steve's shield around like that. Then again, if Growler chases every time Steve tosses it, and Steve just happens to aim where they need Growler most....
"Hey, Stevie," Bucky says with a grin that starts small and just keeps growing as a wickedly good idea hits him square between the eyes. "Wanna help teach Growler to bowl for robots?"
Weirdly, there's this moment where Steve looks like he's going to cry tears of pure joy, and Bucky's got the feeling it has nothing to do with the fight. In the next Steve is all business, asking, "How's his control around civilians?"
Turns out it's pretty good, especially once Bucky realizes the most important thing about fighting robots, which is that they're robots. They all smell the same.
He hops down to the street once Growler figures out the new rules to the game and starts breaking robots for the fun of it. It's no trouble to keep one eye on his beast while keeping the other on Steve's back, because Growler's smart. He thinks tactically, which is a thing Bucky's noticed before, but it's never been so blatantly obvious as when he starts hunting robots by the pack, ignoring the easy kill in his direct line of sight in favor of circling around from the back or dropping down from above. His beastie is an apex fucking predator, and he decides then and there that Growler's next lesson is going to be the true meaning of bacon. His beast deserves it.
It's not long before he finds himself fighting back to back with Steve, and it's weird how weird that doesn't feel. Throwing punches in back alleys was nothing like what they did in the war, and this is more different still, but they fit. He's got a pretty good idea what Steve's going to do from years of watching over him, but Steve has a way of anticipating him that's just uncanny. Bucky doesn't move the same, doesn't fight the same, and Steve's only gone up against him twice, but Steve knows him. It ought to scare him, but he finds himself grinning through the fight instead.
Even Growler's flagging by the time the last robot is destroyed, and Bucky limps over to grab his big, broad head in both hands, grinning up at him proudly. "Who's a good boy?" he asks as Growler nudges him tiredly. "Yeah, that's you. That's my good, growly boy."
He sees a flash go off from the corner of his eye, but he's already marked the approaching camera crews, so he doesn't think much of it. Reporters, like Starks and the future itself, are weird.
He thinks a little more of it when he finds his face and Growler's plastered across the internet the very next day.
Stark did fix his fence, Bucky reminds himself. He tosses Growler's ball to Steve and not the guy in the ten thousand dollar suit.
The thing is, everybody knows. They know he's Bucky Barnes. They know he was the Winter Soldier. They know he's harboring an alien. He expects there to be a shitstorm. He doesn't expect the T-shirts.
There's a girl waiting at the bus stop wearing what he's reliably informed is a baby-doll tee, though the idea of some kid's doll dressing like that makes him vaguely uncomfortable. The shirt's slogan reads Beauty and the Beast, and it's got that picture of him patting Growler's face from the tail end of the battle.
A guy at the deli down the street is wearing one with line art of Growler tossing robots around like toys, metal arms and legs flying in an explosion of destruction. In big, block letters across the top, his shirt declares: IT'S BACON TIME.
There are dozens of them at first, hundreds within days, sold in chain stores and internet outlets, in limited artisan batches from small press shops and through Avengers fanart sites. Steve actually brings him one, and he's never going to admit it out loud, but it ends up being his favorite. It's more line art, strangely familiar, this time of him perched on Growler's shoulders. It says Brooklyn Boys Ride That Into Battle.
They play Frisbee in the park with Steve every weekend.