It was nearly five years after Captain America disappeared (again) that the Captain America balloon debuted in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. There'd been a lot of lead-up to it, stories in the press: there was always excitement over a new balloon. But by then, Natasha noted with some dismay, Captain America had become a character, rather than a person: someone with a reality somewhere between Saint Nicholas and Pikachu. Steve Rogers had really and truly left the building.
Still, she thought that if anything was going to bring the old guy out, it was this. Natasha studied the parade route, which was lined with apartments (all those rooftops) on one side of Central Park West, and the turn at Columbus Circle onto Sixth, which was maybe even worse: buildings on both sides, now, a canyon of windows, each a potential viewpoint. Needle, she thought; of course this was why they had stayed in New York. Haystack, but she felt she had to try, anyway. She rested her chin on her fist and frowned down at the map. There was no point trying to think like Steve; she felt like she'd never quite understood Steve. But she could think like Barnes.
The park then. Central Park was full of vantage points - hills and rocks - where you could see the parade, and you weren't penned by barricades and crowds like you were along the parade route itself. You could escape in any direction across the park. The trees and ground were blanketed in fall colors - orange and brown and gold, a carpet of mulch. The park was already dotted with people in scarves and hats all along the stone wall that ran down Central Park West - there were couples holding hands, fathers with small children seated high on their shoulders, smaller children in prams, bigger kids whizzing by on scooters. The brass and drums of the marching bands cut across the cold November air, and helicopters buzzed by overhead. Natasha found herself walking through the park with a spring in her step, moving in time to the snare drums, scanning the crowd and only occasionally looking over at the balloons or the waving celebrities on the floats. Snoopy. There was Spiderman. Oh, hey, Harry Styles. It was a pleasant walk anyway, she told herself, hiking under the brilliant orange canopy of trees, even if she didn't spot--
It was Barnes, and she couldn't for a moment have said how she knew it. There was no way to know it - he looked like any other New Yorker, bundled up in a leather coat, scarf, and gloves, a black newsboy's cap and sunglasses, but she was sure it was him. She slowed, trying to seem like she was watching the parade rather than the guy in front of it. Barnes was standing by the slatted wooden fence the Parks Department had put up to keep people off the grass, beating his gloved hands together and watching a passing group of baton twirlers, and she didn't recognize the man who turned out to be Steve Rogers at all until he pulled up next to Barnes and handed him a lidded paper cup. She still might not have been sure it was Steve if she hadn't seen the way Barnes smiled at him. He was wearing a plaid lumberjack coat, a red ski hat, and mirrored aviator sunglasses; he also had a scruff of reddish-brown beard on his face. He sidled up to Barnes, sipping his own coffee, and turned his head up to look at the balloon overhead: Sponge Bob, it turned out. Natasha drifted closer, keeping her eyes on the parade like everyone else.
"I don't get it," Steve was saying.
"Don't look at me," Barnes replied.
"I mean, it seems like a joke taken too far, doesn't it? I mean, I get it--at least, I think I get it? It's a sponge, it's an ironic statement about animation, right?" Steve said.
"You're still looking at me like I'm supposed to explain this fucking thing to you," Barnes said.
"If a mouse and a cat and a rabbit, why not a sponge? Fine. It's conceptual. Absurdist, even," Steve said. "But how does it get to the point of being in the Thanksgiving parade?"
"Look, the last time I saw this parade it was 1940, and there was--what? Superman? Mickey Mouse?"
"Felix the Cat," Steve added.
Barnes's eyebrows shot up. "Jesus, I forgot Felix the Cat. Anyway, I can't explain that. That thing's an abomination, what can I tell you?"
"I really can't argue with you," Steve said.
"Well, thank G--oh, look, here you come," and then they were both leaning forward and peering through the trees up Central Park West to where a huge blue and white balloon was just beginning to come into view. The marching band in front of it was playing a rickety squeezebox version of "The Star Spangled Man" and Steve and Barnes both burst out laughing fit to bust.
"What's the-- what's." Barnes yanked his sunglasses off, there were tears in his eyes he was laughing so hard. "The first time as tragedy, the second time as--"
"It was pretty much farce the first time, too," Steve said, wheezing and clutching his chest.
Barnes was struggling for breath. "Look, it if it makes you feel any better, your ass does not look anywhere near that big in real life," he told Steve.
"Forget my ass, look at the rest of me!" Steve said. "I'm mammoth!" and then he shoved Barnes hard, nearly knocking him off his feet, because Barnes was standing up straight and saluting. Barnes stumbled, slipping, in the wet leaves and nearly fell, then rounded on Steve with a savage grin.
"You want to know the best part?" Barnes asked. "You just know that somewhere - wherever he is - your buddy Stark is so pissed."
"Yeah," Steve said, grinning wide. "Tony's always been kind of a balloon waiting to happen," and Natasha had to make the decision then, to reveal herself or not, because she was going to laugh and the decision would be taken out of her hands. Abruptly, she turned, ducking her face into the collar of her coat: she'd wanted to see them, but she didn't want to frighten them, to ruin this day - or any day - for them.
She'd announce herself to them differently, later - with a bottle of champagne perhaps.