Taking the Fifth
Author's Note: Welcome to your annual 4 Minute Window Thanksgiving story! If you're new to this series--don't start here! If you're not new, welcome back and buckle up for the Advent Calendar! Normally all the holiday stuff I write is unbetaed - written and posted more or less on the day - but amazingly, Alby and Monicawoe were both available for last minute beta duty. Also Alby is an actualfax magician who somehow had art ready for this within minutes of me finishing it. I am so thankful to them and to all of you - Happy Thanksgiving!
"Look, she meant well," Steve said later, when the black cloud around Bucky's head still hadn't lifted. Bucky was deep in the Studebaker's engine, wrench in hand and muttering to himself about goddamned 21st century gasoline; he'd been experiencing boiloffs and so was trying to raise the carburetor with insulating gaskets. "Personally, I think it was nice of them to ask you."
Bucky didn't respond; he was grimacing, trying to loosen a nut without stripping it.
Steve thought for a moment and then tried again. "Bernie's just looking out for you," he said, and then added, "for us: both of us. She's been making our life here possible: keeping the press off our tail, threatening anyone who might talk. I mean, she's been practically a gangster."
Bucky grunted the truth of this, or maybe just grunted with effort. Something clanged, and he muttered, "Shit," and yanked his hand back to suck briefly at the edge of his dirty thumb.
"And I can see why she'd want you to do it. I've learned—I learned back in the forties, Buck—to throw the press a bone now and then so they'll leave you alone. Give them a nice, dull story: just so they know where to slot you. Those guys need copy to keep the presses rolling, or the internet or whatever it is now. They don't even care what it says. I was guest of honor at a paper drive in Ypsilanti; I gave the prize for Best Beans at the Jefferson Cannery. Two inches in the the paper each time, but after that, Hedda refused to cover me: she said I was the dullest man alive."
Well, you are, Bucky didn't say, and boy, he was low if he could resist an opening like that.
"Even Tony does it," Steve pointed out. "Why do you think he hosts all those charity things? He stands there and lets them take his picture, to manage their access," though of course, Tony might also give them the finger or get drunk or fall down three flights of stairs at the Metropolitan, or maybe cure cancer, so he was rarely out of the spotlight. "Just," Steve said, going back to his argument, "I can see the point of it, all right? It's not a crazy idea—"
Now Bucky did look up, something terrible in his expression. "It is a crazy idea."
"No, it's not," Steve said and when Bucky straightened up angrily, wrench in hand, Steve grabbed hold of the other end. Bucky's arm jerked but he didn't let go, and the wrench quivered between them. They glared at each other, and for a second, Steve thought Bucky was maybe going to drop it to take a swing at him, which—good luck with that; he wouldn't have stood for that even when he was 90 pounds soaking wet. Steve squared his shoulders and set his jaw.
"Look, people know, Buck. They know you were the guy who saved Grand Central, they know it was you who fought that whacko at the Garden, and the Harlem sniper, and the bat-guy on the bridge— There are pictures, okay? You: in the uniform, carrying the shield. That cat's out of the bag. People know you've been serving as Captain America for the last couple years while I've been—" Steve let go of the wrench suddenly and Bucky lurched backward. "—you know: reinvigorating American painting with my particular brand of abstract neorealism. Okay," Steve said, spreading his palms as Bucky glowered at him, "maybe they don't know about that."
"You should be shot," Bucky said darkly.
Steve ignored this. "You did the hard part already," he said instead, almost pleading. "The hard part's being slammed around and thrown off buildings. This is the easy part, pal—"
"I won't do it," Bucky said flatly.
"—the standing around and making yourself seem harmless part. You wave at people, smile at the kids and let them take your picture. Believe me," Steve said, bracing his hands against the Studebaker's bulbous front fender, "I know it's boring and kind of humiliating, but if you keep the helmet on nobody even sees your face hardly. You make yourself into a thing that isn't you and then you can be you the rest of the time. I know you think the outfit's stupid but I'm grateful for it: it means I can walk the streets like a regular person because nobody recognizes me out of stars and stripes. And you could use a little of that, is all I'm saying. You don't have to do the Thanksgiving Parade if you don't want to but you should do something like it, next chance you get. Let them tell a nice, boring story about you for a change: Look, it's Captain America—"
"I said no," Bucky said tightly. "I'm not doing it," and honest-to-god, Steve could have clocked him. Instead he blew out a long breath and stepped away, idly rubbing at his bearded chin.
"I'm gonna take the dogs for a walk," Steve said finally; he was practically gnawing at his lips so as not to say something he might regret. "For a nice, long walk." He crossed the garage to the metal door that led out to the doghouses and pulled the heavy metal bar aside: George and Gracie darted in and turned quickly, paws sliding out from under them, to leap at him, licking.
"Come on, you guys," Steve said absently, and reached up on the hook for the leashes. Bucky'd turned back to the engine, his head bent and his back bowed, working—but something in the lines of him suggested misery. Steve stopped then; it was hard to stay mad, but he wasn't sure what else to do either. "You'd've bombed in vaudeville," Steve said, as an offering.
Bucky's head lifted, a little. "Tell me something I don't know," he shot back, so that was all right.
The dogs were barking excitedly now, straining for the door. "I'll be back in a bit," Steve said, and yanked it open. A blast of November air hit him, and he pulled his coat closed at the throat, grasping the dogs' leads with his other hand. They were halfway to Prospect Park when the idea hit him, and he pulled out his phone. He could think of someone more reluctant than Bucky to take part in the superhero circus they'd all been sold into; he owed Bucky that much anyway.
Natasha pulled into the CIDC driveway and honked the horn until Barnes came out, coatless and scowling. She whirred down the passenger side window, and Barnes bent in. "He's not here."
She sat back wordlessly, pursing her mouth, and he leaned back, satisfied. "What do you want with me, then?"
"Get your coat, get in the car," she said, and he stared at her for a moment but then complied, going inside and returning a moment later in a plaid wool jacket. He locked the door and got into the car. "Buckle up," she said, and turned south on Coney Island Avenue, heading for Brighton Beach. The place she had in mind was a hole in the wall under the El, but they had the best pelmeni outside of Siberia and they understood privacy, directing them to an alcove and putting a fifth of vodka on the table without being asked. After a while food arrived, unordered: pelmeni and potato varenki and blintzes, veal liver with fried onions, and Barnes, who'd slipped seamlessly back into Russian, licked his lips and flagged down a waiter with the flick of a finger to order two bowls of Sherpa soup and a plate of herring, also. They tucked in.
"So tell me," Natasha said, once they'd refilled their vodka glasses twice.
"I got nothing to tell you," Barnes replied, so she shrugged and forked another varenki off the serving plate and into her mouth. The dumpling was delicious: chewy, with crispy bits of onion on top, and the cream. But then Barnes said, almost offhandedly, "You gonna come with us to the parade tomorrow?" and then, before she could say anything, "They asked me to be in it, to ride a float with the balloon," which was the story Steve had given her on the phone, and she would have burst out laughing except Steve was upset. But what the hell was he thinking? She could imagine Steve joining the parade out of a sense of civic duty, because it was the sort of boring, family-friendly thing he thought Captain America should do, and Tony would do it as as send-up of Steve, camping it up, striking rock-star poses. But Barnes? Barnes wasn't a guy to—
"I can't do that," Barnes said, his throat tight, and then, "How could I do that? Me being what I am," and she felt a flash of anger at her own stupidity, because it wasn't that Barnes didn't want to do it—that was her idea. James Barnes thought he wasn't worthy of it. "Standing up there, knowing what I did…" He reached out for his glass, drained the rest of his vodka in one go.
Natasha put her fork down. "You're Captain America. You've been Cap for years—"
"Yeah, and I needed it," Barnes said in a voice suddenly strangled and wet, "I really needed to do it, and now I can't because people know and—Christ, I won't pretend. It was one thing to step in as Steve's backup, keep my head down and save lives, but I won't pretend to hold a candle to him. I'm gonna be Captain America, wave to the kids—when I'm a fucking multiple murderer? There's hubris and there's hubris, and I ain't got that kind. But what am I gonna do now?"
That was mainly a rhetorical question, but in fact, she had an answer. She put her black-leather clad elbows on the table and said, seriously, "You can be the Winter Soldier," and Bucky Barnes's face dissolved into a mix of longing, disbelief, and desperation. "I mean it," Natasha said; "if you can't let yourself be Cap openly, then just be who you are: the Winter Soldier."
Barnes' face twisted in cruel skepticism. "The infamous assassin. The notorious killer."
Natasha leaned in and murmured, softly, "Black Widow isn't exactly warm and fuzzy," and that seemed to get Bucky's attention: he sat back, still clutching his vodka glass, and looked at her.
"Sometimes you have to own your debts before you can pay them," Natasha told him. "I've been paying for years – and years, and years. Anyway," she said, abruptly switching into English, "it's a good name, Winter Soldier. The summer soldier deserts when the going gets tough, but the Winter Soldier stays at his post: he endures." She smiled and added, "You've survived seventy Russian winters on top of everything, Barnes. You must be tough as nails by now—or are you?"
Barnes raised his eyebrows. "Natalia Romanova, are you trying to cheer me up?"
"I would never. To live is to suffer," she said, and refilled his glass again.
It was cold enough on Thanksgiving morning that Steve was grateful for his wool hat and his scarf and the thermos of warm coffee that Bucky had brought to the parade, though Bucky kept going pale and waving the cup away; he was hung over, badly, and sat behind dark glasses, cringing. The parade was the worst place in the world to be, what with the blare of the marching bands and the people cheering the new balloons. Steve didn't recognize any of them—there was a snowman and a green monster and a flying red dog—but he let out a cheer of residual affection for Spongebob, abomination though he was. Beside him, Bucky groaned.
"I told her to take you for a drink—a drink, meaning one," Steve said, wincing in sympathy. "I didn't tell her to get you completely soused. How much did you guys drink anyway?"
"I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me," Bucky muttered. "Also I'm a U.S. army veteran and I have rights."
"Was Natasha this bad?" Steve asked, but that question was answered when Natasha appeared, dressed in black from head to toe, a black fur hat pulled down over her hair and sporting enormous black sunglasses. They covered nearly her entire face; she looked like a fly.
"Я ненавижу тебя," she said, low and gravelly.
"Я ненавижу тебя ещё больше," Bucky growled back, and then added: "I should have let you kill me all those years ago: I wouldn't have this headache."
"I wish I had killed you," Natasha replied, and then she raised her arms to be hauled up beside them on the boulder, their regular spot on the parade route. "Happy Thanksgiving."
"Yeah, you too," Bucky said.
Natasha wasn't as hammered as Bucky was, because she accepted a cup of coffee and leaned into Steve's side to watch the parade. The red-and-gold clad marching band began playing the Iron Man theme song well before Tony's balloon finally bobbed into view.
Natasha said, vaguely: "I think I left the car on Brighton Beach Avenue somewhere."
"We had a car?" Bucky asked.
Steve jerked around to stare at him. "How did you even get home?"
"I refuse to answer on the grounds that--"
"Yeah, yeah," Steve said, and cut him off.
And then it was his turn: the music warmed, and grew golden, The Star Spangled Man With A Plan (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1943; the song had been written for him, though he'd never had a plan; not one.) Above them, through the trees, Steve could see the familiar bright blue of the uniform, flashes of white and red, all of it four stories high.
And then Bucky mumbled, "I can't be Cap anymore—I think I've got to be the Winter Soldier from now on," and Steve blinked in surprise and turned to look at him. Bucky didn't look back at him: he was staring up at the enormous, bobbling Captain America balloon, but Natasha caught his eye and jerked a nod. And so Steve said, "Okay, Buck; if that's what you want."
"Yeah. And it's not such a bad name," and Steve looked at Natasha and said, "No. No. It isn't."