Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
“You’re free now,” Steve said a lot. “You’re free, Buck.”
He didn’t feel free.
He stole it.
It’s hard to feel bad about it, considering. He’d been walking, marching really, through the streets for a couple hours. He thought it was a couple hours. He couldn’t—he still lost time. He thought he did. And he’d adjusted his stride, tilted his body, to avoid hitting the cart outside the bookstore. He’d tracked it, noted the shape of it, the weight of it, the approximate number of books on its shelves, whether its wheels were locked, whether it might roll and—
He didn’t recognize it at first, the book. Of the three editions— Christ, ‘editions’—he’d seen, none matched this one.
Bucky fucking Barnes. Staring right back up at him.
He tucked the old hardcover inside the zipper of his sweatshirt and held it there, against his body. The hard corner of its spine dug into the meat of his chest until it slid and caught on the unnatural ridges of the shoulder plate, and bunched up the cotton of his shirt. He clutched it so tightly to himself he almost imagined the edges of it, long and sharp, compressing his lungs, forcing his breathing shallow.
His feet kept marching though he didn’t know where to. They ate up the sidewalk, avoided the slushy puddles and ragged edges of crumbling curbs, sidestepped paused pedestrians, while his entire focus clung to the book cradled to his heart.
He hated it. He hated it and he had stolen it and he’d left without telling anyone—without telling Steve—he wasn’t supposed to—he’d left Ted— Teddy, he was supposed to call him Teddy — and Rebecca and— the other one—
He stopped short. There was no one around, no one— following him — it was late, though he didn’t know what time because he didn’t have the phone and he didn’t check when he’d left the building and — he didn’t remember leaving the building.
But first. The other one. The other one was— he’d been there, he had looked at him and said Uncle Bucky it’s wonderful to meet you I’m —
A sudden bloom of cold in his right shoulder. A wall. He was slumped against a wall, he’d ducked out of view— off the sidewalk, anyone could see—
Gotta breathe, pal, easy, in and out.
His words, now Steve’s, Steve wasn’t here but the words he remembered, he at least remembered those.
The book. The book. It was still digging into his side, his ribs, an uncanny smoothness, the odd musty smell of it he’d perceived through the chill in the air, which was a clean cold, almost ozone, it was supposed to snow—
They’re saying it might be up to a foot, gimme a break. We’re only two weeks into December, they always do this at the beginning of the season—
Christopher, he realized. Chris. That was the other one’s name. Rebecca’s grandson. A nephew. A great-nephew, with tattoos.
Heard you had some ink too, if you ever want any more I can—
He swallowed violently. There was nothing in his mouth. His body was shaking, either from cold or adrenaline. Maybe both. He was still leaning against the wall. It was brick and concrete. His feet hadn’t taken him anywhere. The book was still pressed to his ribs, the one he’d stolen.
This is for you, the old man— Ted— had said, and extended a feeble hand, one that he could see had been powerfully made once but now bore the signs of age: a freckling of small dark spots, a scabbed-over sore, a latticework of wrinkles and fine lines, and two discolored fingernails, one warped into an odd shape.
The hand held a small round package, a sphere of some kind, carefully wrapped in brown paper with precise little folds fanned out around the shape of it, tied with plain bakery string.
He accepted it. He could feel the low hum of discussion, the carefully maintained atmosphere of fellowship and festivity, as if all those people were there to see each other, and not him, as if his every move was not monitored and evaluated and—
There was a pregnant little pause, among the people that mattered: Steve, of course, and Rebecca, the old woman, his sister, and the heft of Ted’s— Teddy’s — hand as he relieved it of the weight of the parcel, the way the hand lingered in the space between them, before falling back to the old man’s side.
He didn’t know he didn’t know —
“Thank you,” he said. The words came out flat and awkward, overly rehearsed. He had forgotten to smile. He had forgotten to make eye contact also. He held the little package in his right hand, suspended in the air, it was too big to fit in a pocket, and was he supposed to open it now, for an audience, or was it some kind of memento, perhaps, that Ted just meant him to have—
He could feel it, the disappointment, the discomfort, the way a little lightness in Ted’s shoulders suddenly dragged down, heavy, and the faint tilt of his mouth and the deep lines in the corners of his eyes, the way Ted’s entire self abruptly sagged — he had done it again, he had missed something again —
Panic swept acidly into his gut, into his lungs, into his hand, which clenched the gift too tightly, so tightly the paper crumpled, and whatever was inside compressed. Absently, he noted: citrus, a bright flare of it, perfuming the air. An orange, meticulously wrapped in brown paper, one half of some kind of arcane recital for a piece everybody knew but him.
He could feel the pulse of his heart in a dry throat, in the tips of the fingers that dug into the wrapped fruit. Desperately, he tried again: “Thank you.” This time it came out even more lifeless, even more wrong, and he watched as Ted straightened, as he manufactured a smile—
“Oh, you’re welcome, Buck,” Ted said warmly, falsely. His hands, Ted’s old hands, they gripped the loose fabric of his corduroy pants, a painful looking flex of arthritic, swollen fingers, and the nostrils fluttered, and the face schooled itself into something pleasant, something that was meant to be pleasant.
The sight of it made his empty stomach clench and curdle. He hated this. He hated this. This was a wake, and he was the sealed casket. The body of James Barnes, he knew, had never been found.
Start from where you are, and walk yourself backwards.
Those were his instructions, for when he gets confused. If he forgets. Walk yourself backwards. It conjured up the impression of delicate hands, slim little fingers, a loop of string, dancing, plucking, snarling the string until it seemed all hope was lost and— there. A single finger, a clever pull, and it all came undone, as perfectly in order as it had been before.
Start from where you are.
It was dark. It had been dark when he’d left— and he had left, he had— gone away, and then he was in a staircase, a service staircase, booted feet rumbling down the steps, a mechanical rhythmic thump of his rubber soles at a counterpoint to his ragged breathing—
Start from where you are.
He had walked. He had walked and walked. He had pulled the sleeve of his sweatshirt down over his fist, pulled it again and again, twisted it around the metal fingers. No one could see. If they saw they would know, and—
He wasn’t sure where he was. It was dark. The road was— one-way. One lane. A cross-street. Couldn’t see a sign. Not enough people for it to be early in the evening. He must have been walking for hours. Until he stole the book.
He looked down. The book was invisible, hidden as it was inside his sweatshirt. But he knew it was there. Of course, everybody did.
He looked up. He could see— across the street, steps, and a neon sign; down the street, cars parked; to his left, two people walking, but away from him; above him, warm light from apartment windows; around him, the familiar reek of cigarette smoke, and the sourness of old beer, seeped into concrete.
The steps pulled at his attention. It was quiet here. The sounds lived inside the buildings, muffled and indistinct. On this street it was quiet. Here, everything felt far away.
His body had always moved with purpose, even if he had rarely grasped what that purpose was.
He strode across the street, to the sign, and drew out his stolen book.
The Wartime Diary of Bucky Barnes
The Night War
“Cap’s Right-Hand Man!”
With a New Foreword by President Dwight D. Eisenhower!