“Leave it to Barnes to make friends with the goddamn guard dogs.” Dugan huffed and shook his head as Bucky withdrew his hand from the bars, back inside their cage. The dog gave him the most hopeful eyes, but he couldn’t let her have any more of his meager rations, not if he wanted to stay on his feet. “His charm works on dames around the world, on officers, on killer canines...”
With a shrug, Bucky stuffed the last of the—whatever it was he’d been eating, there might have been some gristle in it at one point, but it had long since cooked down to slime—and the remainder of the bread he hadn’t given to the dog into his mouth. The guards would be coming by for the empty bowls soon, so he had to shoo the dog away or she’d get kicked again, maybe even worse; the Krauts were no kinder to the animals than they were to the Allied soldiers.
“It’s his animal magnetism,” Jones said, dry as a desert, and Bucky threw him a middle-finger salute.
“Nah,” Bucky responded, “she’s just a good dog and she doesn’t want to be here any more than we do.” He pointed toward the back of the room where the other dogs were watching them, waiting for their own chance—they were too well behaved, too good at their jobs, to approach the prisoners except when commanded, and on the attack. “Go on, back!” he said to her and waved her away, but of course, all the commands she’d learned were in German and she just stared at him, tongue lolling out, like they were playing a game. They most likely fed the dogs better than the prisoners, but that didn’t stop her from wishing for more of his slop. “Raus!” he said firmly in the only German word he knew that wasn’t for food, careful not to raise his voice too much and alert the guards on the second level. She didn’t budge, merely gave him that dog smile.
Jones laughed at Bucky and let loose a string of sharp, guttural German words and the dog whined, but Bucky could see she knew her commands. Jones snapped his fingers and pointed, and this time she obeyed and slunk over to the wall, sitting apart from the other dogs and if dogs could pout, well. It reminded him a little of Steve, the thought of whom made him feel kind of queasy and sad; he was pretty sure they weren’t gonna make it out of here alive, most of them, and he’d never see Steve again.
“She needs a name,” Bucky said. “What’s a good German name for a good German shepherd?” None of the fellas in the cage with him seemed interested in his desire to name the dog or anything else to do with her; they’d all watched dogs tearing apart the prisoners who’d disobeyed or tried to run away, watched them patrolling around the cells with their Nazi handlers, snarling and growling and baring their scary teeth, the guards laughing at the fear they instilled. Except, somehow this girl, who didn’t seem to want any of that.
Bucky’d first noticed her a couple weeks ago—she had a distinctive M marking on her forehead—when they’d sicced some dogs on Smithson from Baker Company after he’d collapsed, too weak from lack of food and the flu that had been spreading through the cells like wildfire. She had held back, a low whine rising up from her throat, and her guard had kicked her across the room for failing to attack despite his repeated commands. It had taken everything in him not to suicidally attack the guard for that; he’d spent a lifetime sticking up for Steve, after all, and nothing pissed him off more than someone picking on a smaller or weaker being. They stuck her in front of the doors in here, sometimes on patrol with one of the Hydra grunts, and somewhere along the line she’d got it in her head that maybe the humans in the cages could be her new best friends. When she’d first approached Bucky’s cell and he’d coaxed her to him by offering his food, he’d been scared she would bite, anxious about her own anxiousness, the way her skin seemed to ripple and she panted heavily. It took them a while to come to the understanding that neither of them intended to harm the other, and when they did, he found he really liked her: it was peaceful to pet her for a few moments before the guard’s rounds brought him back this way, to feel the thick coat under his fingertips.
“Gretel? Maybe I could call her Gretel, that’d be a good name, right?” It seemed better than Marlene, anyway, since he thought Dietrich was a hot dish and probably shouldn’t have a dog named after her.
Dugan shook his head. “Yeah, you can call her that when she rips your throat out next time you’re on the factory floor.” But he knew she wouldn’t do that, she was a good dog. He really hoped that fact didn’t end up getting her killed, though.
~ ~ ~
“We do not have war dogs in this unit,” Col. Phillips said, not even looking Bucky in the eyes, just signing paperwork as if Bucky wasn’t even there. He really was a crusty old sonofabitch, just like Steve had described him on the march back to Italy. “Find someone else to take him.”
“Her. It’s a she. Sir.”
Phillips flicked his eyes up to Bucky then—oh, he knew that look for sure, only an officer, a career military one, could look at you like that, could cut you down that far with the merest movement. “I don’t remember mentioning that I care.” He stamped something on his desk with more force than was probably necessary. “We have neither the need nor the desire for any military animals in this unit, Sergeant.” Well, Bucky had expected that sneering disdain; Phillips probably hadn’t directly conversed with a noncom since the last war, outside of his aides. “Find another one that wants a Hydra-trained war dog, if there’s one out there stupid enough to take it.”
“She saved our lives, sir. I think she could be a benefit to the squad that Captain Rogers is forming.” Steve had thought Bucky was nuts when he’d searched for her after they’d found a way out of the burning factory, but he’d changed his mind when they were on the road. Once, on the march back to Italy, she’d whined at Bucky for a good quarter mile until he’d crouched down next to her, trying to figure out if she was injured. Gretel had put her paw on his arm and then hared off into the brush; when he’d followed her he’d caught sight of a small patrol farther along, possibly looking for them, who knew, but she’d either heard them or scented them. They were able to pull everyone off the road and hide long enough to take them out; he’d felt strangely proud of her, and no one gave him shit for bringing her along after that.
The colonel’s eyes narrowed, he stared coolly at Bucky. “Captain Rogers put you up to this, didn’t he?”
“No, sir, not at all. It was my request, just got bounced up the chain.” It was a bald-faced lie and the colonel knew it. “St—the captain didn’t want to make any decisions without your input, us being so new and all.”
That made Phillips snort. “Request denied. Find...her an outfit that uses military dogs.”
“Understood, sir. While I’m here, then, I’ll just let you know I won’t be joining Captain Rogers’s squad. I’ll be going back to Division for a new assignment, unless they decide to send me home.”
The colonel closed his eyes, a muscle in his jaw twitching. Steve hadn’t told him the complete story of the SSR project yet, but the highlights he’d given him involving Col. Phillips had been pretty fucking entertaining. While Bucky didn’t generally have a lot of love for the brass, this guy had never even stood a chance: the hopeless face staring back at Bucky right now was the face of someone who knew all too well the curse of dealing with one Steven Grant Rogers. Bucky’d almost feel sorry for the ornery old bastard if he weren’t so steamed right now.
“Which course of action would have absolutely no influence on Captain Rogers’s intentions to stay with this unit and fight Hydra.” You didn’t get to be a full bird colonel by being a dummy.
“I wouldn’t have any idea about that. Sir.” Bucky stared down at his hat, afraid if he caught Phillips’s eye he’d burst out laughing.
“Of course you wouldn’t. Butter doesn’t melt in your goddamn mouths, either of you, does it?”
“Probably not, sir.”
With a deep, world-weary sigh, the colonel glared at him and said, “All right. Fine. Keep your damn pet. But if it does anything that costs me my super soldier, you’ll be strung up, drawn and quartered, turned into ground round, and then fed to her, is that clear?”
“As a bell, sir.” Bucky fled before Phillips changed his mind. When he got back to the main floor of the war rooms, Steve was hunched over a map, planning strategy with Agent Carter. Bucky gave him a thumbs-up and Steve grinned at him, clenching his fist, completely unaware that Bucky had just leveraged his big hero reputation for a dog.
Bucky rolled over in bed and threw his arm across Steve—except he only got air and sheets, because there was no Steve when he opened his eyes. It was Christmas morning and there was no Steve in the bedroom, or the bathroom, living room, kitchen, or any other room in the apartment. Every place they liked to go for coffee was closed for the holiday, so Bucky couldn’t imagine where he’d gone—neither could he find a note anywhere.
He wasn’t panicked—well, not completely—but not only was it not like Steve to leave without lengthy, overly detailed and slightly patronizing briefings about what he was doing and where he was going, Bucky couldn’t imagine Steve not wanting to wake up together on Christmas. Now that they were together again, now that he was here with Steve and they were trying to rebuild their life together.
But Steve had plugged in the tree lights before he left, not to mention made coffee, so Bucky decided to wait to worry and poured himself a cup. He was considering sending Sam a text just to check when he heard the door handle. Steve poked his head partway through the half-open door, spying Bucky and lighting up like their tree. “Hey, you’re up!” Steve was absolutely the worst at surprises.
“Yeah.” He threw Steve a narrow look, hands out in a “what?” gesture. There were dozens of presents from Steve waiting under the tree for Bucky, but whatever he was up to now, it was clearly the showstopper.
“Um, go over and sit on the sofa,” Steve said, his face pinking up. Christ, he was so bad at this; he always thought he was being stealthy and clever. But he was so fucking earnest it was hard to be annoyed.
Rolling his eyes, Bucky did as he was told and Steve’s head disappeared for a minute; there was some commotion behind the door before it opened all the way and Steve stepped into the room holding a leash with a large, fluffy dog on the end of it.
“I was keeping her at the Bais in 6C since yesterday, I wasn’t sure if she’d want to leave!” Steve’s Christmas gift to him was a...dog. Not what he’d expected at all. “It’s kind of a—she’s kind of a gift for both of us, to be honest. Sam’s said for a while that getting a pet might be a really good idea, even if it wasn’t a service animal. That it can just be a positive experience, especially for soldiers, to have the structure of caring for an animal, having that bond with someone.”
Steve ruffled her floofy neck, scratched under her chin, and she seemed to still, sitting on the floor between them as Steve plopped down on the couch. “She’s lovely,” Bucky said, for want of anything more coherent. Steve had found him a dog. There was nothing on this earth that could contradict his life as the Winter Soldier more than having an animal to care for, here in this apartment with Steve.
“She was in training to become a guide dog as a puppy, but she washed out, which I guess happens all the time—the percentage of animals who succeed is actually fairly small, the standards are really tough. I can sympathize.” Steve smiled shyly and Bucky shook his head—what was he doing, acting like an ungrateful sonofabitch. He squeezed Steve’s hand in his metal one, reached out tentatively to pet the side of the dog’s neck. “So they were going to train her to be a PTSD service dog, but the person who had her became ill, and then she bounced around in different foster homes this past year for various reasons. None of them her fault, but...when Sam and I met her I just knew. She reminded me of Gretel, not the way she looks, but she has a quality.”
One of the first things Bucky’d asked Steve about when he came here to live was what happened to Gretel after he’d died; she hadn’t gone with them to Austria, thank god, and he’d hated thinking of her missing him, and then Steve disappearing too. She’d gone on to serve for the remainder of the war with a different unit and lived out the rest of her days with one of the soldiers in a nice home in Ohio. “What is she? It looks like German shepherd and something floofy.”
“Standard poodle. Two of the smartest dogs around, but mostly German shepherd. I guess her main problem is that she’s sometimes too timid. But see how fast she warms up to people?” Her stiffness was melting a little, he could see that; just in this conversation she’d begun to relax. They’d know for sure when she wagged her tail, though. “The rescue group that’s had her, they normally wouldn’t do this, let someone take a dog after just filling out an application—they go through home checks, have you spend time with the dog, before they’ll allow an adoption through. But—”
“Let me guess—for Captain America, they made an exception.” Well, never let it be said Bucky wasn’t above leveraging Steve’s status for something he wanted, and his chest felt tight, his eyes a little sharp.
Steve blushed. “Kinda. Also, Sam knows the people who run it, so. But they said they’d do it as a foster to adopt scenario, so if it doesn’t work out she can stay here till they find a forever home that’s a perfect fit, and we can try again.”
Bucky already knew that wasn’t gonna happen. He was pretty sure that by breakfast he would be one hundred percent in love; he was at least fifty percent of the way there now. “What should we call her? And don’t suggest Gretel Junior or some dumb thing like that.” Steve was the sort of imagination-challenged goof who’d name a cat Fluffy or a dog Rover if you let him.
“That’s the best part! This group names animals after actors or musicians or characters while they’re in their system. Her name’s Rita, we wouldn’t even have to rename her.” Bucky laughed, the first honest to god real laugh since he’d come here to live with Steve. “Not exactly as gorgeous as your Rita Hayworth pin-up, but pretty cute.”
“Shut your mouth, she’s a bombshell. I’d carry her picture around with me.” The Commandos had been evenly divided between Hayworth and Betty Grable, just like pretty much the rest of the military; Steve had even met her at the Hollywood Canteen, which Bucky had never stopped being envious of. He dropped to the floor and sat next to Rita, sinking his fingers into her thick, soft coat. She leaned into him, as if she knew that supporting him was already her job, and licked his cheek. Okay, now it was true love.
When Steve joined them on the floor, she put a tentative paw on top of Bucky’s arm, just like Gretel used to, like she was saying, look, bub, I think we belong together. “Oh wow,” Steve breathed. “That’s amazing.” She wouldn’t care that he and Steve were a couple of messed-up old war dogs themselves; all she knew, in her dog way, was that they were in this together. “So anyway, Merry Christmas. There are other presents, but this one kind of had to be given first.”
“Though this kind of makes that flight of artisanal craft-brew mustards in a charmingly rustic gift box I got you look pretty sad.”
“The fun is in the unwrapping.” Steve grinned and leaned over Rita’s head to kiss him. He supposed she’d have to get used to that sort of thing pretty quickly—might as well start now.
Steve thought he was giving Bucky a gift of a dog to help him through the rough times, a constant companion, maybe not even realizing he was giving Bucky back some of that guy he’d lost so long ago. He skritched Rita’s ears and pressed his cheek to the top of her head. “We gotta get her all kinds of stuff, food and dishes and treats, but everything’s closed.”
“What did you think all those wrapped gifts under the tree were, dumbass?”
“I don’t know—self-help audiobooks? Recurring Traumatic Brain Injury and You? Breaking Hydra Brainwashing for Dummies?”
Steve smiled, soft and fond. “Let’s unwrap the rest of these things and then take Rita out for a walk.”
Their hands met as they petted Rita’s head, and Bucky twined his fingers through Steve’s. “Happy Christmas, Steve. You realize you can’t ever top this, though? Anything else is downhill from here.”
“Yeah, but think of the fun I'm gonna have trying.”