It's dark outside.
In fact, there might not be an outside at all, just pitch black stretching off into infinity in all directions. But inside (if there can be an inside when the fact of an outside is matter for debate) is warm and snug and quiet, and smells like wood smoke and the faint traces of food eaten earlier. The fire is bright.
There aren't any other patrons at the little round tables dotted across the floor. Just the three of them in the corner, where the wood of the walls is scratched from moments long ago. It's like a diary, in a way, and Steph tilts her head and wonders at what stories those marks tell.
There's a woman behind the bar, with curly light brown hair and a kind smile. She's humming to herself as she wipes the bench clean, and the firelight catches her skin and makes it glow. One of the boys sitting at the table with Steph, the one with brown hair and the hint of a dimple at one corner of his mouth, is looking at her thoughtfully.
"I don't think she's real," the other one - black hair and hard blue eyes - comments. "She's a character from a story."
Steph smiles. She's a character from a story too, now. She's proud of that. She's part of a legend.
So she'd rather be alive, so what? She didn't get a choice in the matter. It's better to be a character than nothing at all.
The first boy nods. "Yeah, you're right. I betcha I know what story, too. It's one everyone's heard a thousand times where I'm from. The childhood sweetheart. What We're Fighting For. All that sorta thing."
Steph smirks. "Shouldn't she be at home knitting socks and pining?"
He grins and shakes his head. The other boy is rocking his chair back onto the rear legs, resting his shoulders against the wall behind him.
"She's doing her bit to help out on the home front. Like Rosie the Riveter. There's more than one way to tell the childhood sweetheart story." He raises his voice to call to the woman at the bar. "Hey, Rosie, can we get some drinks?"
She pulls three old-fashioned glass bottles of cola out from underneath the countertop and brings them over.
"You can just keep your voice down, James Buchanan," she says with a brusque smile. "It's not often I consent to having my place so empty, especially not on Christmas eve, so I'll be obliged if you'll let me take what peace I can from the rare quiet."
"Is it Christmas?" the boy with the black hair asks. Steph thinks about how she used to feel when she was a kid and it was the holidays and thinks yeah, this is Christmas. This place feels like daydreams she used to have of what the perfect place to spend Christmas would be.
The barmaid gives them another quick smile and goes back to her work on the other side of the wide and empty room.
"Your name's James?" Steph asks. He shakes his head.
"Nah. Nobody calls me that. I'm Bucky."
The other boy stops tipping his chair. "Jason," he says, sitting normally at the table now. They pick up the bottles of soda and click the necks together as greeting. "Nice to meet you."
The cola's very bubbly and a little thicker than what Steph's used to. Sweeter, too.
"Christmas, eh?" Bucky scratches his chin. "I know a Christmas story.
"I was visiting an infirmary. Some of the guys were pretty beat up, and everyone knew they wouldn't last to get home but nobody ever said it. It was just around this time of year and all the patients were missing their families, so they were telling stories to pass the time and distract each other. I guess it might seem weird, a bunch of soldiers who were all good as dead sitting around talking, but it was just one of those things. Like death would leave 'em alone so long as they kept going.
"It went on for a while. Some of the stories were dumb, and some were corny, and some were filthy. People were laughing and crying, and not always when you'd expect them to do one or the other.
"After a while, the stories start being all about the other war, the old war. The one people called the Great War, though what's so great about any war I don't know. Stories about how the firing stopped and there were carols in the air over No Man's Land.
"And this one guy tells a story about his aunt. Her name was Bethany, and she was a nurse up in Canada, and she went over to the field hospitals for a while but when her fiance was killed they sent her home. It hit her pretty hard to lose him like that.
"Bethany keeps working, because that's all she has left, but her heart's broken. Then a guy she went to school with turns up back home. His name's Walt, and he joined up same time as her fiance, so she goes to see him. He's lost an arm and an eye, but he never says a word of complaint about that. He just smiles, and hugs her with the arm he's got left, and says he's glad to see her. He's been thinking about her a lot.
"Bethany's fiance wrote her a letter a couple of days before he died, and turns out that Walt has it to give to her. She reads it, and it's beautiful. It's all about when they first met. At a dance down near the harbor, where the light on the water looked like it was dancing too. The air was cold and he gave her the coat he was wearing because her shoulders were shivering. The last lines of the letter are about how he loved her in that moment and has ever since and always will.
"Her and Walt start spending time together. Talking about the weather, shy stuff like that, and after a year - on Christmas day, which is why I said this was a Christmas story - he proposed to her, and she said yes."
"And then they lived happily ever after, right?" Jason asks. The words are sarcastic, but Steph thinks the question probably isn't. There's a note of pleading in it that makes her think that he maybe really wants Bucky to say 'yeah'.
"Does anyone?" Bucky asks. That should sound depressing, Steph thinks. It doesn't.
She takes another sip of her drink. "My mom was a nurse."
"Mine was a doctor," Jason puts in, and sighs a little, spinning his bottle back and forth between his palms. "I got a story. I gotta warn you, it's kinda weird. It's about a couple of costumed heroes. A guy and a sidekick. Stupid, right?"
"Nah," Bucky says before Steph can answer. She just shakes her head.
"Well, okay then," Jason says. "The sidekick, he's a bit of an idiot. He never got much of an education. When he was a kid, he'd get Christmas and Halloween mixed up in his head. Like, if you don't leave milk and cookies out for Santa then he'll egg your house and leave you coal, you know? His Dad thinks that's funny, so he never tells the kid that he's mixed everything up. On Christmas morning every year, he shakes the kid awake and tells him 'Santa came, and thanks you for the milk and cookies, but he wasn't hungry so he says you can eat them for him'. Which makes the kid happy. It's not that they're ever really hungry, it's just that there's not all that many times when he gets a big glass of milk and a plate of cookies all to himself.
"Even when the kid's way too old to think Santa's real, he still leaves the milk and cookies out. It's mostly an excuse for him to have a great breakfast waiting for him in the morning, but it's not only that. It feels like it'd be dumb to stop it.
"Then things go kinda bad, and the Dad dies, and the kid has a Christmas where there aren't any cookies or milk. There's not even a lump of coal or eggs in the morning as a punishment from a pissed-off Santa, and the kid wouldn't have minded getting some of that stuff, even.
"Next year after that, he's been a sidekick for a little while and he never has to worry about having enough to eat, so he takes a flask of milk and a box of cookies back to where he used to live and finds a kid who doesn't have anything to eat and gives it to him.
"The guy that the kid sidekicks for asks him why he did that, and the kid says that it's one of those symbolic things that costumed heroes are supposed to be all about. Then he explains about Christmas and Halloween and how he got mixed up when he was a kid.
"The main hero guy smiles, like he thinks it's funny just like the kid's Dad used to, and then starts talking about this collection his own father had of calacas. They're little figurines for the Day of the Dead, which is at the same time of year as Halloween but not scary. It's about celebrating life by remembering the dead. Calacas are like little dolls doing ordinary stuff, only they've got skulls for heads and-"
"Stop." Steph puts her bottle down on the table. "I'm sorry, I liked your story, it's just... no skulls for heads, okay?"
"I'm seconding that," Bucky puts in. He's looking pale.
Jason gives a single sharp nod. "Right." His smile is as hard and pretty as his eyes, but less guarded.
"Keep going, though," Steph encourages.
"Isn't much else to tell. Next couple of years, the sidekick makes sure that the kids in his old neighborhood always have something on Christmas morning. And then, when he can't anymore... the hero does instead. Still does, far as I know."
"That's swell." Bucky's grin makes his dimple even more obvious. "I wish my story had happy kids in it, 'stead of a bunch of grizzled guys griping about being in hospital."
"I've got a story. It's got a kid in it, but I don't know if I'd call it happy," says Steph. "It hasn't happened yet.
"There's a woman. She's lost a lot. She had a family, once. A husband and a little girl. But they both died. The girl wasn't little anymore when she died, but she wasn't really grown-up yet either. That was all a long time ago, and now the woman's been alone so long she almost doesn't remember any other way of being. She lives in a tiny apartment that's always cold and creaky. It's December 24th and she calls out for pizza, and then swears and wishes she hadn't when she realizes that she'll have to tip real well because of the date.
"About twenty minutes later the doorbell rings and she expects that it's the pizza.
"It's a girl, and as soon as the woman sees her she knows who she is. Her hair's brown and a little curly, and her eyes are green instead of blue, but the girl still looks like the woman's daughter who died. The daughter had a baby once, and gave it up. She would've made a terrible mother, y'see. It was the hardest thing she ever did. It was harder than dying. Dying's easy.
"The girl's wearing glasses, and the woman thinks that's probably what gets to her the most and makes her eyes tear up. The daughter was supposed to wear glasses, but she never did because she felt stupid in them. It made her squint a bit, and people always used to think she was glaring and a total bitch.
"The girl says 'hi, I'm Anna. I guess you know who I am'. The woman notices that her clothes are worn and torn and there's a backpack slung over one shoulder. Anna's voice is kinda rough, like she's trying not to cry too. The woman nods and beckons her inside.
"Anna's had it pretty hard. Things were okay when she was really young, and she lived with her adoptive family, but then they split up. All the usual garbage with a shitty stepfather and a lousy school and stuff happened, and she ran away, and it all got worse after that. But she tracked down the woman's name by bribing some government records guys. That's one thing Anna's never had to worry about; somehow it's never been hard for her to get money when she needs it. There's always well-paid, easy work wherever she's been looking, or sometimes people giving her bills just because she looked like she needed it.
"The pizza arrives, and the woman asks if Anna wants some, and Anna says she's vegan. That makes the woman laugh, and she says 'your mother couldn't have been. She loved her burgers, that one'. Which makes them both a bit sad for a minute, because it's like they've conjured her memory up. Anna never even knew her feels like she misses her.
"Anna orders some weird noodle thing with chopped up peas and beans and corn in it from a take-out place down the street, and tries to teach the woman how to eat with chopsticks. The woman tells stories about her daughter who died, Anna's mom, and they're all happy stories. The daughter was a bit of a screw-up, sometimes, but these are things she did that went properly. She saved a kid and a mother in a blizzard, once. Helped stop bad guys from getting away a bunch of times.
"Anna and her grandmother don't really remember how to have a proper Christmas. They stay up all night talking and listen to the church bells at midnight. They watch 'It's a wonderful life' on tv, and walk to the park and feed some pigeons. Sometimes they talk, and sometimes they're quiet.
"In the evening, Anna looks nervous. Her grandmother makes them hot chocolate, and they sit around, and Anna fiddles with the bracelets she wears up her arm.
"'Guess I should be going,' she says.
"'Going?' the woman asks, confused, and Anna looks up with something almost like hope in her eyes. And after that, neither of them are alone anymore."
The two boys are quiet for a long time.
"Why'd you say you didn't know if it was happy?" Jason asks. "Sounds happy to me."
"Yeah," Bucky echoes.
Steph shrugs. "A happy ending doesn't make a happy story. Same as how a sad ending doesn't make the rest of what happened sad."
"Wise words," the barmaid says, and all three of them at the table jump a little in surprise. They were too caught up in their conversation to hear that she'd come near. "More drinks?"
"How do we pay?" Jason asks. "I don't know about these two, but I've been kinda strapped for cash lately."
"Arrangements have been made," she answers in a voice which makes it clear she knows just how arch and annoying she's being. Steph wonders how old she is; it's hard to tell in the firelight. "But if you'd feel better after giving, you can pay me by listening to a story of my own. There's nothing so welcome as an audience."
"I'd love to hear your yarn," Bucky answers, pulling the fourth chair at the table out for the barmaid. "Long time since I talked to anyone who wasn't a soldier."
"Those folk left at home are soldiers too, in their way," she replies. "But that's not the scene I'm spinning tonight. This is a story about winter nights and holidays.
"There was once a girl who knew a boy who lived on the top of a hill. One winter she was told by her mother to take bread and jam and milk up the hill to the house there, because it was only the boy and his uncle who lived in it and everybody knows that menfolk can't muddle along without at least a little help and prodding.
"The uncle had gone to visit friends, and there was just the boy there. He was tracing shapes in the mist on the windowpanes with his long fingers and watching the snow outside. He told the girl a story about his mother and father, and how they would take him out for walks at night when the moonlight made the bare black trees look like spills of ink against the sky.
"She gave him the bread and jam and milk and a bit of her heart as well, that day, though I doubt he ever knew that last gift was even up for giving. Everyone knew, even then when she was barely fourteen - which was younger for those folk than any of you three could possibly imagine, fourteen being as it was for you - that she would marry the gardener's boy with his slow, careful way of thinking and his hands all stained with dark living earth.
"There was a war, of course. This was later, when the girl was a little more grown. She was left to winter and bare branches and snow with no boy on the hill or boy with methodical ideas. She traced patterns on the windows with her own blunt fingertips and wished and hoped that they'd come back to her.
"This being the sort of story that it is, and the war being the sort of war that it was, things did not end as her young heart had wished. The boy on the hill came back, but all those who met him knew it would not be a long stay. He'd loved his home more than he'd loved his place in it, and by saving one he'd lost the other.
"He was dying slowly. And dying may be easy, as has been said tonight already, but leaving isn't. The heart clings even when it's worn tired and ragged.
"And so the girl and the gardener's boy married, and the trees blossomed and bore fruit and the land was happy. The war was over, for all but the boy on the hill.
"When he was gone, finally gone, it felt unkind to wish for him back. The girl thought herself selfish because his peace was not so important to her as her want for him to still be near. She was angry, and sad, and cried sometimes without knowing quite why. For years, thinking of him hurt her like a knife in the belly. Thinking of his smile, or his laugh, or his voice... they all ached in her.
"And then, one winter's day like any other, one of her little girls - for the girl had girls of her own by this stage, and little boys as well - was sitting by the window and tracing patterns in the mist with her fingers and watching the snow outside. And the girl-who-was-a-mother-now saw the movement and her heart smiled before she even realized. She remembered the boy, and the fondness in the memory was stronger than the hurt. She missed him, but even more than that she loved him."
"So what we're all saying, really, is that life goes on. Right?" Steph asks. The barmaid nods as she stands up.
"You've got to the heart of the matter, I'd say." Retreating back to her bar on the other side of the room, the faint sounds of her singing drift back to them.
"Except for the ones who're dead," Jason points out in the quiet. "Doesn't go on for them, does it?"
"Stories," says Bucky. "It's about stories, not life. Stories go on. People tell them to each other, and the stories live longer than the ones who started them. They're like kids. They're the stuff you leave behind when you run out of luck. I - well, I used to be a mascot. That's not a real thing to be. It's a symbol. A story."
"A legend," Steph says. Jason just shrugs, like he thinks they're both full of it. "Hey, you're the one who brought up the symbols in your story. I know you buy it," she says sharply.
"Whatever," he snaps. "I never said I didn't believe it. Just because I know it's true doesn't mean I have to like it, okay? It sucks being a symbol, it sucks being a cautionary tale and it sucks to be dead. I'd rather be alive than be a legend."
"I'll drink to that," Bucky answers, and raises his near-empty bottle. Steph nods, and does the same.
"To being what we wanted, and what we didn't want," she says. They all swallow in silence.
"Sounds like a setup for a bad joke. 'Three dead kids walk into a bar -'."
Steph and Bucky both chuckle at Jason's remark, and the mood lightens a little.
"We didn't walk here, though, did we?" says Bucky. "We just... arrived."
"I guess the real question is, where do we go next?" Steph puts in. "I wonder if we get a choice."
"To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream," Jason mutters, mouth in a thin line as if he's daring them to tease him for knowing the quote. "It was one of the only books I had when I was on my own. I read it a bunch of times."
"I never did well at English," Steph admits. Jason grins.
"Yeah, me neither. Just knowing some lines doesn't mean I could, like, say what they were supposed to mean or anything."
"I have a dream sometimes," says Bucky. "Heck, I don't even know if it is a dream. If we dream like regular people or what. I guess that poet guy you were quoting didn't know either.
"In my dream, I'm a photographer. It feels like it's a kind of power to have, same as shooting a gun or flying a plane or carrying information to officers. I'm the one deciding what's in the picture. What gets held inside the frame. It's -" he shrugs, and tips his bottle end-up so that the last droplets of drink slide down the inside curve of the glass to his mouth. "It's good."
Steph taps her fingernail against the side of her own empty bottle. It makes a muted pinging chime, a high little noise rising from the narrow neck. "I had a dream like that, too."
"Not me." Jason shakes his head, and makes a rapid and uneven tattoo on the tabletop with his fingertips. "My dreams are always the same, more or less. Some stuff changes, and some never does. I think I'm supposed to be exactly what I am, and that's all."
She knows it's kinda harsh to snort, but she can't help doing it anyway. "Whatever. It'll happen. Maybe you just haven't noticed yet. That's the point of legends, right? They change for every era and for every generation. They're old stories that keep getting told, over and over, in new ways. They'd just be ordinary dry ink on dry paper if they didn't keep -" She bites her lip and goes quiet, suddenly aware that her voice was raised and her cheekbones are flushed with high color. "I mean, don't worry about it."
"Thanks," he says, and it doesn't sound like he's being sarcastic.
The clock hanging on the wall behind the bar begins to chime twelve o'clock.
"Christmas day," the barmaid says, and pulls a cloak around her shoulders. "I'd best be off home, to leave presents out for my little ones before they're woken with the dawn. And you lot should be off too. Find a party, have a laugh and a kiss under the mistletoe with a pretty girl or boy. Be young, as you never had a turn at being when you were living.
"That's what Christmas stories are about, and who are we to argue with the stuff of legend?"
She grins, and holds the door open for them while they stand and walk towards it. The cold air snakes in and curls around them, making Steph shiver and wrap her arms around herself.
"It's snowing," Bucky says in surprise. Jason holds a palm out to catch some of the falling flakes.
"Thanks for the -" Steph starts, then stops as she turns around. The barmaid's gone, the inn behind them dark and shut up.
They're on a street, bright with moonlight. There are the sounds of noisy, cheerful carols from somewhere down the street, and the golden spill of light through windows is painting the pavement at the corner.
The three of them look at each other.
"Race you," Steph says, and then they're off.