The Fourth Fool Me
Author's Note: Directly following The Tradeoff, this is a bleaker Thanksgiving than normal in the 4 minute window-verse, though I myself am personally very grateful for everything I have, which is really a lot, not the least of which is fandom and all of you.
Unbetaed by the normal superstars, this is a lead-in to the coming Advent Calendar, which will also be written more or less on the fly as a treat to myself during the stresses of the holiday season.
Natasha all but moved in to Coney Island Design and Construction during those first, traumatic days after the tradeoff, because Barnes was down and everyone else could go to hell as far as Rogers was concerned, which meant that nobody was thinking worth a damn and somebody in the building needed to be. That said, she understood Steve's point of view: Barnes had collapsed pretty much the first moment he could, holding it together in the van for the drive to Brooklyn and managing to stay conscious even as Steve and Clint hauled him up the narrow flight of stairs to their apartment. But Barnes had only made it a couple of steps into the living room before his knees were buckling. "Dizzy," Barnes managed, and then Steve muttered "Christ. I got you," and carried Bucky the final few feet into the bedroom while Clint and Natasha stood there and looked at each other, helpless.
That was when they first heard the vomiting; that was when the vomiting started, and the terrible groaning, and Steve's constant, somewhat desperate whispers of reassurance.
The good news, Natasha learned during that endless, terrible night, was that Barnes's skull fracture was the best kind to have and would heal on its own in weeks or perhaps even days—but super serum or not, brain swelling was brain swelling, and it was now stimulating the lateral reticular formation of the medulla, the vomit trigger of the brain—or so Banner told her after Steve shoved his phone at her and went to hold Bucky while he threw up again. It was going to be okay, Banner said, a little uncertainly. The vomiting was to be expected: Barnes was lucid, his speech wasn't slurred, and his pupils were normally sized. It was really almost certainly going to be okay.
"Okay," Natasha said; she'd seen miracles of super healing before. But she sent Clint home and curled up in the corner of the sofa with a blanket, unobtrusive but present, and ready to act if necessary. She had a view of the door and a gun.
She slept lightly, or perhaps she didn't sleep at all, so she knew when Barnes finally settled into some kind of rest. She waited, warily, in the darkness, and after a while the door to the bedroom opened and a dark shape stumbled out and crossed to the bathroom. A white rectangle of light blazed: he hadn't shut the door, he'd forgotten she was there, he—Natasha pushed the blanket aside and got up silently.
He was shaking, she saw; actually quivering: his back tensed, his hands clenched. He was one step from punching his fist through the wall, on the verge of ripping the white pedestal sink out of the floor. He was going to do it. Natasha grabbed hold of his massive arm and said, with all the command she could muster, "Steve, don't."
Steve turned to her, panting savagely, his face wrinkled into something ugly, teeth gritted like he wanted to bite. He yanked his arm out of her grip, stepped away, and then began stripping off his shirt, his undershirt, undoing his belt with rough jerks and tugging it out of the loops. She stepped back, reading his distress in his lack of decorum, in the defiant and hostile refusal to admit that she was even in the bathroom, and when he reached for his fly she went out into the dark living room and pressed her back against the wall outside the door. She heard a rustling and clink, and then the rattling of the metal rings of the shower curtain, and then the water began to hiss full force, loud enough to drown out everything, or nearly everything; nearly loud to drown out Steve's soft, hiccoughing sobs.
She woke up the next morning because her pocket was buzzing, the phone in her pocket, a surprising text from Tony Stark: IT'S ME COME DOWNSTAIRS. She scrubbed at her face and carded her fingers through her hair as she sat up. COMING, and then she went to the bedroom door and glanced in: asleep, both of them, with the curtains drawn, though Steve was dressed and lying on top of the blankets like—Christ, the dogs. Natasha slipped down the wooden steps and unbolted the door to the backyard. George and Gracie stuck their noses into the gap as soon as she pushed it open, leaping to paw at her happily and wag their tails. But she wasn't Steve or Barnes, and so after sniffing and greeting her they went back to eating out of some kind of feeder-trough outside their doghouses, which was one less thing to worry about. She should have realized they would have rigged up something for the dogs.
She went back inside and through the garage to the other door, the small person-sized door besides the massive metal rolling door that led onto the street. Tony Stark was standing outside, looking irritated; he was wearing sunglasses and a black wool coat with the collar turned up. He'd parked a black sports car lengthwise on the sidewalk in front of the garage, blocking the entire CIDC driveway.
"You can't park in here," Natasha told him, and that was true; the garage was full between the white work van and the Studebaker. "There's no room."
Tony pushed his sunglasses down his nose and looked at her. "I don't want to park in there," he said. "But can I come in, or should we strike a pose for the CIA van across the street?" and Natasha groaned and tugged him inside, because he was right, or if he wasn't, he would be soon; surveillance was the natural next step. But as a commercial building, Coney Island Design and Construction was forbidding and inaccessible from the outside: all brick walls and metal doors, almost no windows. That was something anyway.
"I'm leaving the car here," Tony said, yanking his sunglasses off and tearing his coat off his shoulders. His eyes darted from place to place, taking everything in: the scarred wooden counter with its metal stool and invoice book, the towering shelves of supplies, the white van with its ladder, the cavernous workroom in the back: racks and racks of tools. The lights in the workroom had been left on all night: some project Steve had been working on lay abandoned there on a pair of sawhorses.
"Because—" Tony paused and went still, his highly intelligent face focused and curious, and then it was like someone had pressed play and he jerked back to life and finished his thought, "—it really isn't a car. Well, I mean, it is a car, it's also a car, but mostly it's a surveillance system, a computer on wheels. Staffed by JARVIS—hey there, JARVIS!" and Natasha heard the muffled but cheerful reply before Tony pulled a handheld out of his pocket and flung a 3-D screen into the air beside the workbench. It looked like utter science fiction next to the black rotary telephone that hung on the wall.
Tony's screen showed a greenish map of the building and the surrounding area: the garage, the car parked outside, a life-signs detector registering every warm body in range, all suspicious targets tinted red. Tony fiddled with the handheld and a dotted blue line began to blip blip blip its way around the perimeter of the building, stopping when it encountered two shapes roving around in the yard.
"What are they?" Tony asked, pointing at them. "In or out?"
"Guard dogs—they're with us," Natasha said, and the perimeter blip-blipped its way around them.
Tony considered her for a moment, then handed her the device, which she took gratefully. "I thought the guard dog was you," he said, and then, equal parts kind and abrasive: "What, I don't even rate a call? We're not going to have a meeting, work out a strategy?"
"You and I can have a meeting," Natasha said, feeling suddenly exhausted. "Clint and Bruce. But they're not ready for a meeting. It's a ward up there," and she'd been thinking about Barnes's head, but then she remembered the muffled sounds coming out of the shower. "Maybe psychiatric, I don't know," and Tony blew out a long breath.
"Yeah, okay. All right," Tony said. "So we—what. Close ranks? Work up options?"
"Yeah," Natasha said, and then she tore a ragged slab of cardboard off a box and picked up a marker. CLOSED FOR THANKSGIVING WEEK, she wrote in big block letters, and that was reasonable, she thought, with the holiday coming up. She considered for a moment and then added an "!" at the end. That might buy time.
Tony drifted after her, looking incredulous, as she picked up a packing tape dispenser and went to attach the sign to the door. "Wait," Tony said, as she affixed the sign to the door with long strips of clear tape. "I bring you a high tech surveillance system and your big idea is to hang up a sign? Gone fishing?"
"Sign's the right thing," she said, eyeing it critically before closing the door. "It's normal, unobtrusive; it's a thing people do, travel on the holidays, close up shop."
Tony looked at her, hard, and she knew what he was going to say before he said it, and braced herself. "The story's out," he said. "It broke immediately—it's all over fucking Twitter, Romanov: camera photos from every possible angle of Steve Rogers dragging a wounded James Barnes through the lobby of SHIELD in front of four hundred fucking witnesses--oh, and by the way he's also Captain America. I mean, seriously, it's an entire fucking newspaper's worth of news: James Buchanan Barnes is alive! Who else is alive? Are the other Howling Commandos alive? Is George fucking Washington alive? And it looks like Barnes is Captain America! How the hell does that work? Are there two? Do they share it? How many super soldiers did we make anyway? In short: what the fucking fucking fuck is the question that all of America is asking itself today, and to be honest I can't blame them."
"Yeah," Natasha said, and rubbed her forehead.
"The only part of this that hasn't broken is that Captain America and his boyfriend, whichever way that goes, are currently living in this fucking shithole on the wrong side of Prospect Park. But any minute now, somebody is going to look at one of the million goddamned pictures and say, hey, you know, I think one of these guys remodeled my kitchen. "
"Yeah, because that's totally the next logical thought," Natasha shot back.
To her surprise, Tony stopped and seemed to consider the idea. "Well, yeah, there is that," he said in a surprisingly conciliatory tone. "Most people don't see what they don't expect to see, and this is not a thing that any sane person would expect to see."
"Right. So we put up a cardboard sign. We call our customers, we act normal around here."
"Cardboard sign's not going to fool the CIA," Tony warned.
"I'm not trying to fool the CIA," Natasha said. "That's a whole other problem."
The good thing was that, since nobody seemed to know what to do, nobody was talking—not to the media anyway, though there were undoubtedly frantic meetings going on behind closed doors. But the higher-ups had been caught with their pants down where James Barnes was concerned, and if Steve had made anything clear over at SHIELD HQ, it was that a wrong move where Barnes was concerned would result in total war with the most stubborn man on the face of the earth. No doubt SHIELD was gathering its own information and working up its own set of options, but it was hard to make the case about Barnes actually being a deadly assassin when the whole world was watching him half-bleed to death in a Captain America suit on YouTube. And there were four million videos of Harry Perkins, bless him, begging Steve Rogers to take the shield, and Steve Rogers taking it. Hard to repudiate him now, if that's what they wanted - if that's what they even wanted.
But it was all anybody talked about, and on Thanksgiving morning, talk about Barnes and Rogers dominated the Macy's parade from first to last. The Captain America balloon still maintained pride of place—after Iron Man and before Santa Claus—and now, in the crowd, some people were holding up pictures of Barnes's face. The handsome Bucky Barnes had always been a popular historical figure, the John Lennon of the Howling Commandos, subject of endless admiring book reports and schoolgirl crushes. And now, somehow--impossibly, inexplicably--he was back. Natasha made coffee, and then sat on the plaid sofa and watched a couple of talk show hosts bundled in hats and gloves excitedly mulling the possibilities while a brass band marched behind them: 'Can you believe that James Barnes has been alive all this time! How incredible to think that his friendship with Cap has survived all these years. If you could transport 90 years into the future, Kathy, and take only one person with you, who would it be?' 'Oh my God, Al, don't ask me that, I think I'd have to say my husband, Mike—Mike, I love you...'
"Turn that goddamned thing off," Steve Rogers said.