Rumlow had watched the Winter Soldier at his most lethal. He’d watched that beautiful, brutal, unstoppable force plow right the hell through unmoveable mountains. He’d seen Winter rain destruction down upon entire battalions and leave smoking craters in his wake. He’d seen him walk into a teeming crowd with a knife and leave a body in a shadowy corner, without making a ripple in the crowd - until someone found the body.
But he’d never been really afraid of Winter before. Not until Rumlow heard him laugh.
The dog had been following them for days. It wasn’t a puppy anymore, but not quite full grown, with legs too long and paws too big and body too skinny and clumsy. A black mutt, with a white stripe down his chest and squinty eyes. When they stopped, it stopped, fifty to a hundred yards away, and shook its head and scratched. Probably teeming with bugs, Rumlow thought - fleas and ticks and mites. He wanted to scratch just thinking about the mangy thing. It either had the worst judgment in the history of its species, and hoped to make friends, or it recognized big predators, and hoped to get scraps from whatever they left behind.
Never in a million years would he have thought it followed because Winter was feeding it.
He saw Winter drop a piece of MRE ham, over salted and dry. A red flag pinged. Winter never left food behind, and ate more than two men when given the chance. Rumlow was discreetly keeping an eye him, when Winter glanced over his shoulder. Just for a moment. Rumlow followed the look. The dog grabbed the ham and skittered away.
He watched for it, for confirmation. No sense worrying until it was unavoidable. He watched Winter leave food for the dog six times, even smiling once when he saw the dog eat. Shit. He didn’t know what to do with this. It was so far outside standard parameters there was no procedure, and there were many textbooks of procedures for handling the asset. They only had two days left, of sweeping through this godforsaken Russian countryside, taking out a network of … well Rumlow didn’t know exactly what they were. Informants, resistance, defectors. Whatever; they were targets. He didn’t ask too many questions.
Then the worst. He heard the Winter Soldier laugh. They’d stopped for the day, the scout checking ahead before they went to the safe house. Winter stared down the road behind them. He was watching the dog. A pair of Russian children had found the dog and were playing with it in the street. They had a ball and a piece of rope. The dog dashed for the ball, missed, and ran smack into a set of trash cans, making an enormous racket, but bounced straight up and came back for more. The children howled with laughter.
The Winter Soldier laughed.
It wasn’t the kind of laugh he’d have expected, from a mostly-human body that had not laughed in so long. Not a creepy giggle, or a bark of a laugh that was half surprised at itself, or a creaking choke from a long unused throat. It was a bright, lovely sound, and it turned Rumlow’s guts to ice.
He was happy. Oh, they were all so fucked, the Winter Soldier found something that made him happy. Rumlow’s first instinct was to shoot the dog and the children and hell, maybe himself, too. He had no delusions, even momentarily, about putting a bullet into Winter’s suddenly-capable-of-emotions skull. He’d seen it done once before, watching through security cameras. It was a perfect shot, right through the eye and out the back of his head. Winter got up a few minutes later and cleared the building of life in a fit of petulance, deeply offended by the notion that he could be put down with one bullet. Bitch please.
He sent everyone else on ahead. He took off his guns and tactical gear. He walked up to the kids and smiled. It felt strange on his face, and they shrank away from him, their own smiles wilting. Smart kids.
“Hey children,” he said in shaky Russian, “I’m glad you found my dog, he’s been missing.”
“Your dog?” they asked, and looked at the dog, who showed no hint of recognition.
“Yeah. But you see, I’m leaving, and I can’t take him with me. Do you think you could take care of him?”
“WE COULD,” the boy said, warming to this stranger and the prospect of keeping the dog. The girl was a little more world aware, and said, “We need to ask our mother.”
He took a folded note out of his pocket. It was probably more money than their family saw in a month. He handed it to the girl, then to the boy, when the girl wouldn’t take it. “That’s to help take care of the dog. Feed him and keep him inside until he knows he’s yours, ok?”
“Sasha no,” the girl tried to hiss at him, but her little brother hugged the dog around the neck and squealed, so Rumlow stood up and walked away. The girl ran to a house. He retreated to a hidden position and watched. A large woman came out with the girl, shrieked at the note in the boy’s hand. She looked up and down the street. Looked back at the money. She picked up both the boy and the dog and booked it back to the house.
Problem ten percent solved.
Except that Winter found a new emotion. He kept looking back for the dog. He kept leaving food for it. He looked so damn sad. Rumlow called for backup, abort abort, asset dangerously self aware, come get me you motherfuckers he’s going to kill us all if he starts THINKING for real.
Rumlow almost wept for joy when they radioed back, confirm abort, extraction eminent. They met the chopper in the ass end of nowhere. He’d never been so glad to see Winter lay back in that chair and get his mind ripped apart again.
A new note went into the procedures textbooks. No dogs. And Rumlow had unlikely new nightmare fuel: puppies.