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The Third Time's The Charm

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You got something going tomorrow?

Natasha read the text, then arched an eyebrow; it was an unlisted number, but the message had an interesting combination of correct punctuation and casual syntax.

Why? she texted back.

You know who would like to see you. And me, also.

She thought it over for a moment, then smiled and typed back:  Make me an offer.

Walk in the park. Food. Football. You know where to find us, and she made a face at the phone: God, what a bastard. So he'd spotted her at the parade that time, years ago.


It was a beautiful clear day, unseasonably warm for November, and the sky was bright blue. There were still a few orange leaves dotting the trees, though they were mostly ground-cover now, and Natasha crunched through them to the rat-a-tat, boom-bah of the drum corps and the occasional helicopter whup-whupping overhead. She'd lived in New York on and off for years, but she'd only been to the parade that one time: the year the Captain America balloon debuted. She'd been hoping to catch a glimpse of Steve, and so she had, though she'd hardly recognized him, he was so changed: so relaxed and happy.

She found them near where they were last time – and how could she have deluded herself that Barnes hadn't seen her? She rolled her eyes, absently rubbing the scar on her belly. Even now, he had eyes on her; he and Steve were sitting shoulder to shoulder atop of one of the huge gray rocks that jutted out from the ground, with a great view of the parade route. Steve, she saw, had regrown his thick, reddish-gold beard, and was conspicuously inconspicuous in his red plaid coat and wire glasses. Beside him, Barnes was hunched in an army jacket and black baseball cap; he was wearing aviator sunglasses and sipping coffee from a lidded cup. Natasha climbed up onto the rock beside them, and Steve surprised her with a kiss, soft beard brushing her cheek. Barnes glanced at her over his sunglasses: his eyes were wry and bright blue.

"I see you had no problem finding us," he said.

"Oh, shut up," she said, and shoved at his shoulder; Barnes smiled and let himself sway away from her. "What'd I miss?" she asked, and peered through the trees at Central Park West, where a huge white something floated by on strings.

"The hell I know." Barnes shook his head. "There was a cat. And a bird. And—"

"And Spongebob," Steve said, and they both suddenly cracked up, which made her smile: she'd never seen them really laugh before. "We love Spongebob," Steve added sincerely.

Barnes groaned. "We do not love—"

"No, we do—I do," Steve said, "he's my favorite balloon. Even more than me."

"You haven't missed a damn thing," Barnes growled. "All the good stuff's still to come," and then he pulled a thermos out of his backpack, refilled his cup, then waggled it. "Hot chocolate, you want some?"

"Sure." She sipped it—it was still hot, and spiked with something; delicious—and watched as the huge white thing (Hello Kitty? Pillsbury Dough Boy?) drifted away through the trees.

Another helicopter droned by overhead. A gingerbread house rolled by, followed by a squadron of marching wooden soldiers with bright red circles on their cheeks. The next balloon was yellow—she squinted—with floppy ears. "Pikachu," she said.

"Gesundheit," Bucky replied.

One marching band faded into another, and Natasha felt buoyed by their bold and brassy harmonies; the way the crowd cheered for each new float or balloon; the crisp fall air. She clapped and whistled, shouted cheers through her cupped and gloved hands.

Steve grinned and put his arm around her. "I love this holiday," he confided. "Better than Christmas, even, and this parade's more fun than Easter's—"

"Easter Parade's snooty," Barnes said; his eyes were fixed on the parade. "Always was."

"—even if it is kind of commercial," Steve finished, as the Aflac Insurance balloon sailed by.

"Spirit of America," Barnes said cynically.

"Yeah, maybe," Steve said. "On the other hand…" and Natasha recognized the shift of tone from earnest to too earnest; Steve's unique brand of deadpan fuckery, "that's a lot of red stars for an event that's so—"

Barnes choked on his hot chocolate. "It's Macy's, you—"

"—driven by capitalism," Steve said, straight-faced. "You must feel right at home."

"—jelly bean, not the goddamned Workers' Party!" Barnes shouted, and then he laughed and said, "Do you remember the—you know, about Macy's," and then he began a kind of sing-songy kid's chant, like a clapping game or a nursery rhyme: "I won't go to Macy's any more, more, more—"

Steve grinned and picked it up immediately. "—There's a big, fat policeman at the door, door, door. He'll grab you by the collar—"

Barnes took it back. "—and he'll make you pay a dollar," and Natasha smiled at the change in their voices when they revved each other up like this. Coll-ah. Doll-ah. "So I won't go to Macy's any more more m—oh, hey, here we go," Barnes said, clapping and pointing. "Capitalism ahoy," and they scrambled to their feet on the huge gray rock.

The crowd's happy hum turned into a rock stadium roar at the first glimpse of red and gold, and a marching band trumpeted out the first blaring notes of Black Sabbath. It was enormous, the Iron Man balloon, casting a huge shadow over the STARK INDUSTRIES float that rolled along beneath it, flanked by high-stepping gold-and-red spangled chorus girls; rumor had it that Stark had successfully raided the Rockettes. Natasha winced at the music; it wasn't the best choice for band: Bwahh! Whahh! Bwahh wahhh wahhh!

But Steve looked like he was about to piss himself laughing, and beside him, Barnes was cackling. "Jesus, that's a mite competitive," Barnes said to Steve.  "He really went for it."

"No, it's great." Steve was wheezing and clutching his chest. "I think it's great; I love it even more than Spongebob. Tony deserves it; he should totally be a balloon."

"Aw, you're just saying that cause he gave you a Kandinsky. You're easy, you are." Barnes peered down at the Stark Industries float. "He's not actually down on that thing, is he?"

Now Natasha barked out a laugh. "You think Tony Stark's going to stand there smiling and waving for three hours on a slow roll downtown? Not a chance." Another helicopter buzzed by, low enough to make the remaining leaves shake on the trees, and when she could hear again, the tone of the crowd had shifted.

The rock star thunder had subsided in favor of a warmer, happier energy, and then she heard Barnes singing along softly, in a surprisingly good voice: "Who vows to fight for what's right night and daaaay?"

"Hey, not me!" Steve declared, flushing and embarrassed, but pleased, too. "Not anymore!"

"Are you kidding? 'Course it's you," Barnes scoffed, as the blue and white Captain America balloon appeared on the parade route. "It sure ain't me they're singing for," and that was true, Natasha thought; Steve was still Captain America in the public imagination, and the public missed him, she thought: missed him personally. Oh, everyone knew that Cap still came out to fight when things got tough, but Steve Rogers was gone, and Steve, unlike Tony, would totally have ridden his float downtown, waving all the way.

"What's the word on the inside?" Barnes asked her, and Natasha shrugged; the intelligence community thought Steve a loose cannon, and they were irritated that they'd lost control of him. Every so often she had to endure a meeting where some blowhard called for a manhunt, because Rogers wasn't a goddamned independent agent - that shield was government property—hell, Rogers himself was government property—and they couldn't let him operate without oversight, without accountability—"Who the hell does he think he is?" - and then someone would point out that he was Captain Fucking America, that's who, and people would sigh and move on to the next point of business.

"He's dis-af-fect-ed," Natasha told Barnes, rolling the word out in their intonation; "he's gone rogue. Oh, he'll fight if he's needed, or if the cause meets his high and mighty standards, but he's unpredictable, won't be part of an organization, won't take orders—"

"Well, that's all God's honest truth," Steve muttered, crossing his arms.

"So they don't know," Barnes said grimly. "They haven't figured it."

"They don't know," Natasha agreed. "They haven't figured it," because nobody in the intelligence community had noticed that James Barnes was Captain America now; that it was Barnes and not Rogers who came out to fight. "But some of them—" She hesitated; she wasn't sure how Barnes would take this. "They think that he's gone underground because of you. Because we couldn't protect him from you." She sighed and said: "The think he's gone into hiding to stop you from killing him."

"Oh, that's charming," Barnes muttered, but then Steve dropped a hand on his shoulder and said, pointing at the parade, "Hey, look: there's Santa," and then, more seriously: "Who gives a damn, Buck? They're wrong, and I'm glad they're wrong: it means they're not looking for two of us: they don't know we're together."

Barnes licked his lips, nodded, blew out a long breath. "Right," he said, and then they all looked up as two more helicopters whup-whupped overhead, then slowed and hovered over the Great Lawn, low and loud. Barnes stared up at them defiantly. "Jesus, that can't still be the TV people."

"No," Natasha said; one or two, maybe, but not eight copters, not ten. "I don't think so."

Steve was looking up, too, shading his eyes with his hand. "Papers said they were putting on extra security after last week's terrorist attacks." He dropped his hand and sighed. "I guess there's always something."

"It ain't your problem, Steve," Barnes said. "Not anymore."

"It's gonna be your problem, though." Steve looked at Natasha. "And yours, too."

"Don't buy trouble," Barnes advised. The copters lurched off, rotors beating, and he added, muttering, "Goddamned surveillance state, that's my problem. Nothing says Happy Holidays like black helicopters over Central Park," and Steve barked out a laugh.

"You think the Keller would take a show of '30s-style protest art?" he asked.

"I think the Keller would hang your dirty laundry after the last show," Barnes replied. "Though I think you can thank Stark for that. The Times review was good and all, but the money put you over the top. He still can't follow your act, though," Barnes added, smirking, and when Steve looked quizzical, Barnes pointed away down the parade route, where the red balloon and the blue balloon were still visible, Santa's sled trailing behind. "Doesn't matter how big and shiny, they couldn't put him after you." Barnes beat his gloved hands together. "I've got some sympathy for him on that front: ain't nobody follows that act of yours."

Steve considered this. "Well, Santa," he said, and gestured toward the parade route.

"Right, yeah. Santa: me and Santa. Maybe he'll turn out to be real, too." Barnes hopped down off the rock, and Natasha and Steve followed after him, leaping down. Barnes turned to her and said, "You want to come to our place?" He jerked a thumb at Steve. "He's cooking."

"Uh, more like heating and boiling stuff," Steve said, raising his palms. "Nothing fancy."

"And then football," Barnes said.

"Or the dog show," Steve said, and Barnes turned to glare at him. "Hey, I like the dog show," Steve protested. "Nothing says Happy Holidays like three hours of dogs running around in a circle," and Natasha could have kept a straight face for longer, but Barnes looked so stricken that she laughed and gave the game away. "Geez, I'm kidding," Steve said. "You fell right down the hole there. We'll watch the game; of course, we'll watch the game—"

Barnes slung his backpack over his shoulder. "Just for that I'm gonna make you watch the goddamned dog show," he said, and they walked off, together, across the leaves.