A woman with a young face who clearly didn’t give two shits that Steve was actually Captain America dabbed at his face with something small and spongy. A man with a clipboard and a headset stood on her left, glaring at the dabs of makeup when he bothered to glance up from the clipboard.
“Bucky’s,” said Steve automatically and then added, “and dinosaur, not dragon.”
“Bucky’s whatever is going to have to do something,” the man continued, not looking up from his clipboard. “And then she’s going to have to be completely still and silent for the rest of the interview. We don’t want a repeat of that time with the echidna.”
The woman with the makeup snorted. It was unclear whether this was a sign of agreement or amusement.
“OK,” said Steve because he while he did actually know what an echidna was thanks to late night marathons of nature documentaries, he didn’t know what “that time” with the echidna meant. When he didn’t understand something these days, though, he tended to wait until it got critical before asking.
“Does she do tricks?” the man asked, ticking something off on the clipboard.
“She eats houseplants?” Steve suggested. The man looked unimpressed and annoyed to have to pause for Steve to be funny. “It’s actually really cute,” said Steve earnestly.
In the corner of the room--well away from the people wandering around with makeup brushes--Muffy took a lettuce leaf from Bucky’s outstretched hand and made pleased humming sounds as she ate it.
The man with the clipboard rolled his eyes.
“Tricks, though,” he said. “Can she do tricks?”
Muffy yawned and then stretched her neck to check if Bucky was hiding anymore lettuce. When she didn’t find any, she made a sad cooing noise and snuggled into the crook of his arm.
“Mostly she sleeps,” said Steve. “And eats the houseplants.”
“I just fed her,” said Bucky, the first time he’d spoken since they’d arrived three hours before. Muffy shifted and opened her eyes at the sound of his voice but didn’t bother to move.
“So she’ll be docile during the interview?” said the guy with the clipboard, scribbling another note.
“She’ll be whatever she wants to be,” said Bucky, glaring in a way that clearly encompassed the whole room and beyond.
“She’ll be fine,” promised Steve.
He should have known better.
When they finally got out to the set where the newscasters were waiting on a scratchy red sofa, Bucky handed Muffy over to Steve gently. She made the sad cooing noise again and then made it louder when Bucky took a step back, behind the line of cameras.
“Hey, Muffy,” said Steve quietly. She looked up at him with her big sad eyes and he had the strongest sense of allegiance to her he’d had yet because, yeah, he’d felt like that when missing Bucky sometimes too. “Hey, my pretty girl,” he said and she quieted a bit. He kept murmuring things like that and scratching the spot behind her jaw that she liked so much. They took their place on the end of the scratchy sofa.
Suddenly there was a flurry of motion and the guy with the clipboard waved a finger in a circle over his head--which meant very little to Steve--and gave him a pointed look that he assumed was supposed to be the sign that it was all starting. Bright lights suddenly blocked everything out and it made Steve blink. Muffy started to shiver and whine.
“Welcome back, everyone,” one of the newscasters said into the camera. “Today we have Captain America with his best friend’s new best friend.”
A camera facing Steve started blinking red and Steve turned towards it. Muffy whimpered and started to make the sad cooing sound louder.
“As you may have heard, Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier, recently rescued a tiny part-robot dinosaur during the Avengers’ battle with Dr. Doom in Antarctica,” the other newscaster explained. “Pictures of Barnes and the dinosaur were posted on twitter by fellow Avenger, Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, and immediately made Barnes’s new pet America’s sweetheart.”
“Her name’s Muffy,” said Steve.
Muffy looked up at him when he said her name and then tried to duck further into his arm to get away from the bright lights. Her sad noise was no longer really a coo, it was more a keening sort of long note in the back of her throat.
“Is she alright?” the other newscaster asked worriedly.
“I think she’s just--hey, Muffy,” said Steve as she started to wail louder. “Muffy, hey, my girl, shhh.”
The guy with the clipboard was having a very gesture-driven whispered argument with Bucky just beyond the line of cameras. Bucky shoved him out of the way and ducked between the wires.
“Hey, my love,” he cooed and pulled Muffy out of Steve’s arms. “Hey, there.”
The long sad wail immediately turned into a flute of notes up and down the scale, a pretty little song something like a bird. She turned her head up towards Bucky’s face and happily rubbed their cheeks together, still singing.
Steve shrugged at the newscasters. “She really likes him best,” he said.
The guy newscaster--the good looking guy with the silver hair--looked like he had completely lost the plot and was just staring at Bucky and Muffy with his jaw a little ajar.
“Oh my god,” said the woman next to him in quiet awe.
Steve glanced back at Bucky and Muffy and...yeah. It took a while to be able to handle a conversation with that much cuteness happening nearby. There was something about the angle of Bucky’s shoulders, how they curled around the dinosaur in his lap, and the pure unadulterated joy in the way Muffy let her long neck curl up towards the line of Bucky’s neck, head resting just behind his ear. It was pretty irresistible.
After a moment, Bucky seemed to register the silence and he glanced up to glare at everyone.
“You scared her,” he said. It was unclear whether it was offered as explanation or accusation.
“Sorry,” the two newscasters said in perfect unison.
* * *
Tony showed up in a t-shirt with a cartoon version of Muffy on it for the next general Avengers meeting.
“The funny thing is that I didn’t even have to make it,” he explained to Clint. “They’re selling it on the street.”
Clint looked thrilled.
By the end of the week, they all had Muffy t-shirts. Steve’s had the meme that had started of Bucky holding Muffy and glaring at people in different candids with the caption “You’re scaring her” in big block letters.
* * *
When he tried a dog’s squeaky toy, she gave him such a cool huff of dismissal that he went quiet for a full five minutes. Bucky thought Muffy had killed the impulse in him that day, but no. He showed up the next day with another try, this time a cat’s mouse toy.
It was also categorically refused.
Sometimes she’d take what Tony offered her with a sort of ungrateful grace, deigning to be gifted whatever small toy he had for her. She took his salad happily--but still ungratefully--when he tried to join them for lunch.
Then came the day when he brought her a Bucky Bear.
The line of Bucky Bears had been started up again when Winter Soldier was officially disclosed to the public, but people had not been very into the idea of a tainted nostalgia stuffed animal version of a Soviet killer. Bucky had predicted it, even if it had made Steve look disappointed in the future.
But since Muffy showed up, the sales had been creeping steadily up. Then the marketers had updated the bear and re-released it, completely with shiny (and removable) arm. Then the bear had been an absolute sell-out.
So Tony dropped by in the afternoon with the new Bucky Bear as a joke, mostly intended to tempt another glower out of Bucky (because Tony had never been able to distinguish between positive and negative attention).
“Here you go, squirt,” Tony told Muffy and pulled the plush bear out of the FAO Schwarz bag.
Muffy hopped up on her hind legs in front of him and jumped excitedly from one foot to the other. Tony was so shocked he almost dropped the toy.
She made happy clicking sounds and stretched towards the bear. Tony handed it to her and she took it gently with her blunt teeth and trotted away towards Bucky’s bedroom with it.
“She likes it,” said Bucky. He still always spoke in the same monotone, the one suited more for sentences like, “I’ll take the three on your six” or “Do you wanna make something of it, punk” than for sentences like, “Muffy prefers iceberg lettuce or fronds.”
“Yeah,” said Tony, still stunned. His face slowly split into a grin as he retreated to the elevators.
* * *
Once Bucky moved into his own floor, he stayed there. Steve dropped by a couple of times a day to try to coax him out for a jog or a meal. Sometimes he phrased it too much like a command-- “Come on, Buck” or “Let’s grab a bite”--and Bucky’s face would shutter closed and he’d get to his feet like a puppet on strings. Steve would feel the bottom fall out of his gut and a swoop of horrible guilt and he’d backtrack as fast as he could, but the damage was done. Bucky always followed Steve’s orders.
When they jogged together, nobody stopped them. When Steve jogged with Sam, they were stopped on the regular by fans (especially children). It was jarring to Steve, who remembered when he had been the often-sullen shadow behind Bucky while Bucky smoothed ruffled feathers and charmed strangers.
A child burst into tears once when Bucky came around the corner.
But then Muffy happened. The first time they went jogging after that, a kid who couldn’t have been more than four years old came running up to Bucky and gripped the knees of his sweatpants.
“Muffy’s not dead, right?” she asked in absolute panic.
Bucky knelt down next to her so that they were speaking on the same level.
“Muffy’s fine,” he said. “She’s asleep.”
The girl looked hugely relieved and spontaneously hugged Bucky around the neck.
“Oh, good!” she said into his neck. “Only I had a dog and this one day she didn’t come back when I called her and Daddy says she got out of the fence and I think she’s dead now.”
Bucky let his flesh hand rest ever-so-gently on the thick black braids on her head as she started to cry.
“Yeah, that happens,” he said quietly. “I’ll bring Muffy running tomorrow, will you be here to meet her?”
The girl pulled back, her eyes still wet with tears but now wide.
“Really?” she asked, breathless.
“Really,” Bucky confirmed.
The girl’s mother pulled Steve aside and explained about how the girl had been so sad about the dog getting away and had gotten confused between Muffy and her dog. Steve nodded but it didn’t really need explaining, he got it.
Steve circled them a couple of times, but Bucky hung back. He sat on the ground with the tiny girl for a good half hour while she told him about her dog and he told her about Muffy. And he was true to his word, he brought Muffy to the park the next day. Steve ran laps around the edge of Central Park and slowed every time he got back to the Great Lawn. A tiny mob of children had gathered slowly and nobody was crying.
Muffy chirped happily and raced between the children and back to Bucky before racing away again.
* * *
And of course Muffy loved the damn thing. She wore it all day and ducked out of Bucky’s hands when he tried to take it off her. When he finally got it off her the next morning, he folded it up and put it on his bookshelf.
A few hours later, he caught her pulling it off the shelf, trying to climb up closer to it. She tended to nap on it after that. She also carried around the Bucky Bear, pulling it out when new people visited Bucky’s floor.
She’d chewed on its ear until the fur was a soggy, matted mess.
“This is like your hair,” said Natasha, picking gingerly at the bear’s soggy ear.
“Shut up,” said Bucky. It was a little true. He didn’t like the blast of the water from the shower. It sparked some echo of a memory he didn’t want, something inhuman. He couldn’t actually hold on to the memory itself, but standing in the blast of water brought back the feeling of standing in an empty room, hosed down like a dog.
He snatched the bear away from Natasha and handed it to Muffy. Muffy circled the sofa with it in her mouth and then dropped it back on Natasha’s lap.
“When are you going to get a haircut?” Natasha asked. She handed the bear back to Muffy.
“I can have my hair any way I want it,” he said sulkily but aware how careful she was not to make her suggestions into orders. He was grateful. He could recognize the thing that happened to him when someone gave him an order by that point. He knew how orders worked and how he was supposed to be able to pick and choose the ones he liked, like a normal person. But it was still an intellectual knowledge, not the feeling that went down deep that made his feet move without his permission.
“Sure,” she said. “Some people like their hair clean.” Muffy circled the sofa again and climbed up next to Natasha with the bear still in her mouth. This time she dropped it next to Natasha and nudged it closer with her nose.
Bucky got up and plucked the bear up. Muffy jumped down off the sofa and hopped a couple of times happily at his feet. He tossed the bear across the room, towards the hallway. Muffy skittered down the floor and slid when she hit the hardwood surface of the hallway. She reappeared with the bear a few seconds later and dropped it on his lap this time.
“I think you have scissors,” said Natasha. “I distinctly remember making sure you had shears.”
Bucky did have shears. He’d found them in his bathroom one morning and had hidden them in the bathroom weapons cache.
“So what if I do,” he said and threw the bear again for Muffy.
“It’s an option,” Natasha said. “I’m just pointing out that it’s an option.”
Muffy brought the bear back to Natasha this time and she threw the bear much harder than Bucky had been. It hit the closed door of Bucky’s spare bedroom, the one Tony had put in probably as a joke about how few people were willing to spend time around Bucky.
“I’ll think about it,” he said and then went to check on Muffy after the skittering down the hallway ended in a loud thump.
* * *
The first night he’d had Muffy, he hadn’t known where to put her down. It wasn’t just the fact that he could see his floor as it would look to her--all big and unfamiliar--it was also really fresh in his memory how foreign and unfriendly it had looked to him when he first got there. But the parts that were soft and nice--things that he had carefully avoided, carefully kept himself well away from--those would be good for her. She could have the soft parts of the future, he could make that happen.
So he brought her to the bedroom and settled her gently into the soft, silky bed he had never touched. She circled twice and then settled down, with an incongruously inhuman head rested on a silk pillow. Her eyes fixed on him and then started to droop heavily.
He didn’t smile, but he could have almost, just for her.
He turned to walk away and when his left hand touched the metal doorknob--with a soft clink--she started to whine. He turned around again and, yes, her eyes were wide and fixed on him.
If there was one thing he could understand, it was the big, helpless, lonely fear in her eyes.
And so he spent his first night in a bed in seventy years curled around a tiny dinosaur.
They slept that way always. Her long neck would line up with the core of him, stomach to lungs to neck, and she would breathe hot breath against his ear.
And chew on his hair.
Natasha wasn’t wrong about the resemblance between his hair and the gnawed Bucky Bear.
* * *
Bucky watched them.
After about an hour, he went into the bathroom and retrieved the shears from his weapons cache. He went back into the main room and held the shears out to Steve, handle first.
“Give me a hand?” he asked.
Steve snorted--the pun had lost its actual humor value around the five hundredth time, but maybe Steve just was happy to hear Bucky try.
“I used to cut your hair back in the day,” said Steve, following Bucky into the bathroom.
“OK,” said Bucky noncommittally.
Muffy followed them and sat in the doorway of the bathroom to get a good view. She didn’t want to get closer to the bathtub because while she loved jumping in puddles and fountains, baths were no good very bad.
Steve bracketed Bucky’s knees where he sat on the rim of the bathrub and started to cut.
“Bit out of practice,” he said quietly, barely a whisper. Bucky was surprised by how close he was, even though he’d been watching him closely.
“Doesn’t matter,” he told Steve because it didn’t. Hair was just hair. What mattered was the sitting, the closeness, the fact he could have reached out and felt the fabric of Steve’s t-shirt if he wanted to.
Steve frowned, clearly not understanding.
To make it clearer, Bucky followed through on the impulse he’d had to reach out and run the fabric of Steve’s t-shirt through his fingers. He plucked up the edge of the fabric and rubbed it between his thumb and first finger. It seemed unusually soft, improbably clean.
Bucky looked back up at Steve and like always didn’t understand the emotions written on his face.
“The hair doesn’t matter,” Bucky clarified. “It’s just hair.”
* * *
As expected, Clint put the cartoons on twitter one by one, all with the tag “#aSteveRogersoriginal.”
Bucky liked that, that tag that was Steve’s name and not Captain America, that called him--them--original. One of a kind.
* * *
“You need a pet sitter,” Sam explained. “It’s like a babysitter for your pet.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, you’re the one with a pet dinosaur,” said Sam and distracted Muffy from his lunch by offering her one of the branches of the nearby house plants.
“Can you--” Bucky started to ask but Sam’s already shaking his head.
“Man, I got two full time jobs at the moment,” he said. “I’m a card-carrying superhero and I got a nine-to-five.”
Bucky nodded. He liked to fight with Sam and Steve on his side. He liked it that Sam had a core of goodness like a vein of crystal in the solid earth. Everybody knew how good Steve was, how perfect he had to be. Sam’s goodness wasn’t shiny like that, it was hard won and soul deep.
Bucky liked the contrast. He felt like their shadow.
But mostly he liked Sam because of that time he told JARVIS to play a song by Nina Simone and danced Muffy around the sofa.
(Bucky tentatively asked JARVIS later to play more Nina Simone and some of it had broken his heart and some he wanted so much to smile about, even though his face didn’t really remember how.)
In the moment, though, he had a dinosaur who needed a “pet sitter.”
Sam and Steve were both going on the mission with Bucky, Clint and Natasha were still in Bogota, Bruce was at a conference, Rhodes barely had time to sleep, and Pepper was on a different side of the country. This left one unfortunate option.
“Sure, bring her to the penthouse,” said Tony when JARVIS patched Bucky through. “Does she drink soda? I can find some soda.”
“No,” said Bucky, eyeing the camera Tony was probably watching him through.
“Shit,” said Tony, realizing Bucky was looking straight at him. “You weren’t supposed to know that was there.”
Bucky said nothing, just glared.
“Whatever, just bring the sprout upstairs,” said Tony. “I’ll be there.”
* * *
The answer was: Bucky hadn’t considered that he had the option not to be watched. He didn’t tell Tony that.)
* * *
“Shit,” said Bucky, starting to feel a clenching in his chest. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Muffy was gone, that was it. She was gone, he’d been crazy to think he could keep anyone, why did he always--
A hand appeared at his side and squeezed his shoulder gently.
“JARVIS, where are Muffy and Tony?” asked Sam.
“They are currently in the basement workshop,” said JARVIS and Bucky breathed out heavily.
“Let’s go find your dinosaur,” said Sam and Bucky was so grateful that it was him and not Steve who had just seen him nearly unwind because he didn’t have the common sense he was born with.
Tony had taught Butterfingers and Dum-E how to throw the Bucky Bear across the room and race Muffy to retrieve it first. She skittered around the debris of machines that Tony left scattered over his floor, bits of jagged metal that made Bucky reach self-consciously for the seam between his left arm and the flesh shoulder.
She caught the bear in a graceless leap over a particularly big pile of variously sized screws. She caught sight of Bucky and brought it to him instead and pranced at his feet.
He took the offered bear and realized it had a small addition. It now had a tiny plush dinosaur attached to its shiny silver arm.
Tony didn’t look up in the sort of focused way that meant he knew Bucky was looking at the addition and was avoiding knowing whether its reception was positive or negative. He did that with Muffy too when he gave her things. He always pretended not to be looking--pretended not to care--until she finally liked something.
“Tony,” said Bucky to get him to look up. He did reluctantly. “Thanks.”
Tony swallowed and waved a hand, too jerky to be casual. “Whatever. She was a nuisance, I had to add fetch programming to the kids just to keep her occupied.”
“Thanks,” Bucky repeated.
* * *
“How did she end up with such an idiosyncratic name?” the female newscaster asked.
Bucky snorted, the first sound he’d made since he joined Steve and Muffy on the scratchy red sofa.
“This lug named her,” he said and Steve blinked in surprise. It was the touch of Brooklyn in his accent, the way the vowel in ‘lug’ was low and drawled.
“Yeah,” Bucky continued. “All the eggheads were trying to figure out why she was so small--”
“Turns out she’s got a steel spine that prevents growth,” Steve added for clarification.
“--but this jerk just leans over towards me and he says--”
“I said, ‘Hey, Buck, remember that cat we used to feed at the window?’”
“--and I didn’t remember the cat but I remembered that he called it Muffy and I said, ‘No way are we calling this dinosaur anything as stupid as that--’”
“But I said, ‘You bet your ass--” Steve froze and put his hand over his mouth. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have used that word.”
Bucky bit back a laugh.