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Ho Ho Hydra

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24 DEC 1980 - 1635 HOURS - PITT ISLAND NZ

 

The target was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that, because the Soldier was very good at his job.

A heavyset older man, the target had been lounging on a secluded New Zealand beach in sunglasses, fake reindeer antlers, and offensively festive swim trunks.

It had taken five years of analysis by several specialists and three trips out of cryo for the Soldier, but all the hard work had finally paid off. This little island was the perfect place for an assassination. In, out, quick and easy, no witnesses, no police. Just the sun, the sand, and the tall figure in black robes and a red hat at the end of the-- 

What the hell

NOT AGAIN, said the black figure, who was carrying...a scythe? 

The protocol dictated that the Soldier was to stay in the shadows. No questions, no witnesses, no talking unless absolutely necessary.. 

Fuck protocol, the Soldier decided. 

“Not what again?” he asked. His voice sounded rusty; his current handler was not a man who appreciated conversation. 

The figure answered his question with another question. 

DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU’VE DONE, SERGEANT BARNES? 

The name was unfamiliar and the title was inaccurate.He shook his head. 

A heavy sigh erupted from the figure. 

YOU WORK FOR A SECRET ORGANIZATION NAMED HYDRA, DO YOU NOT? 

Again with the questions. 

“Confirm.” 

YOUR TARGETS ARE CHOSEN BASED ON THE LEVELS OF DISORDER AND DISBELIEF THAT WILL BE PRODUCED BY THEIR DEATHS. 

“Confirm.” 

LOGICALLY, YOU WOULD ASSUME THAT KILLING THIS ONE WOULD PRODUCE A LARGE AMOUNT OF CHAOS. 

The Soldier nodded. 

WELL, AREN’T YOU CURIOUS ABOUT WHO YOU KILLED? 

Of course the Soldier was curious. But asking questions never put him on his handler’s Nice List, so he had learned to avoid them. 

Wait, Nice List? 

He waited for another sigh from the figure, but it never came. Instead, it--he?--turned and began walking--drifting?--toward the target, who was lying prostrate on his oversized belly. The wound in his head continued to bleed, dying half his white hair a festive shade of red, and staining the sand. 

The Soldier was not about to let the figure get distracted before answering the question that hung in the air like, well. Death. 

He padded after the...creature, his footsteps noiseless on the sand. 

“Codename: The Fat Man.” 

The creature turned around but seemed unsurprised. 

This close, the Soldier could see a pair of blue lights, like eyes, inside the creature’s hood. He shrugged internally; he’d probably seen stranger things. 

“Travels around the world once every winter season to deliver explosives to small children.” 

The blue lights narrowed. Definitely eyes. 

IS THAT WHAT THEY TOLD YOU. 

“Threats must be eliminated,” the Soldier replied. 

THERE IS NO TIME TO EXPLAIN. The creature returned to the form of the Fat Man. I MUST ASSUME THE MANTLE BEFORE MORE DAMAGE IS DONE.

He reached toward the Fat Man. Specifically, the Fat Man’s swim trunks, which were covered in impossibly pink, spindly-legged birds wearing hats that looked like the one the figure was wearing.

What . He wasn’t going to--

Instead, the creature picked up the target’s red-and-green beach towel, which transformed into a bright red robe with fluffy trim. He (it?) draped the robe over his own dark cloak and turned back to the Soldier.

IF YOU ARE GOING TO TIE UP MY ENTIRE DAY, YOU HAD BETTER COME ALONG AND HELP. IT IS ONLY FAIR.

“Hell no,” the Soldier said as the creature unceremoniously dumped the red hat on his head.

The hat slipped over the Soldier’s eyes. It might have fit that spindly apparition over there, but then again, it was a pretty big spindly apparition.

The Soldier removed the hat and almost threw it on the beach, but then thought better of it.

He should get off the island. The handler would be waiting for him, but--

If the Soldier had made a mistake, it was up to him to make things right.

He lumbered after the creature, who was heading toward a stand of trees, where the Fat Man’s mode of transportation had been hidden.

The creature stared at the giant bird that was harnessed to the vehicle.

IT APPEARS TO BE A KIWI. ELSEWHERE IN THIS UNIVERSE, THERE ARE REINDEER.  LAST YEAR, IT WAS SWINE.

The Soldier wanted to say, “Exactly how often do you take over for fucking dead people, pal?”

Instead, as the one who had clearly spent more time researching the target, he simply said, “Reindeer.”

The creature considered, then nodded. He hopped into the vehicle and beckoned to the Soldier.

COME ALONG, THEN. WE DO NOT HAVE ALL DAY. OR RATHER, WE HAVE EXACTLY ALL DAY BUT IT WOULD BE BEST TO GET A MOVE ON IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING.

The Soldier glowered. What. The hell.

“You want me to ride. With you. In a fucking sleigh.”

IT IS INANIMATE, AND THEREFORE INCAPABLE OF SEXUAL INTERCOURSE. GET IN THE SLEIGH, YOUNG MAN.

For the first time, the Soldier realized that the creature’s voice was not so much spoken aloud as it was inside his head. This didn’t really matter to him, except when he was told to get in the sleigh, he found himself propelled toward the vehicle, and then climbing inside.

Before grabbing the reigns, the creature reached over and planted the stupid red hat back on the Soldier’s head.

Great. Here he was, stuck in an open-air vehicle (that was supposed to fly, no less), next to a faceless...person...with a terrible sense of humor, and wearing an awful hat that had a. A bell. A bell that jingled.

Hell no. He was a world-class assassin. He should not have to put up with this.

Bony fingers closed around his fist when he tried to take the hat off.

IT ADDS TO THE ATMOSPHERE.

The Soldier rolled his eyes. But he kept the hat.

As the inanimate sleigh took off from the tiny island, the Soldier reached for the sack that bulged behind the padded bench. If the sack was filled with explosives for the small children of the world, there was a chance he could use one to blow the sleigh out of the sky.

At this height, he would likely survive. The creature would not. Might not.

The creature slapped his hand away from the sack with bony fingers.

Ouch. The Soldier sucked on his flesh hand to slow the dull pain. What even was this person?

He opened his mouth to ask, but—

I WOULD INTRODUCE MYSELF, BUT TIME IS GETTING AWAY FROM US, AS THEY SAY. ONCE WE HAVE DELIVERED GIFTS TO THE CHILDREN OF NEW ZEALAND WE CAN GET TO KNOW ONE ANOTHER.

This seemed reasonable to the Soldier. It also seemed reasonable that he had a short amount of time to get away from the creature and this f— this sleigh so he could get back to his handler.

The rifle he had used on the Fat Man was the obvious choice, but he still had that slung around his shoulder, and it was wedged between his shoulder and the back of the seat.

He reached for the closest available knife instead. As he did so, the creature’s gaze seemed to bore holes in the back of his head.

When he turned around, the piercing blue lights didn’t look angry or threatening or afraid. This was not the usual reaction he got when targets realized he was going to kill them.

I CAN SEE IF CHILDREN HAVE BEEN GOOD OR BAD. I CAN CERTAINLY SEE IF YOU ARE TRYING TO KILL ME, SERGEANT BARNES.

There was that name again. The Soldier’s brow furrowed, out of frustration as much as confusion.

I CAN TELL YOU YOUR ATTEMPTS WILL BE UNSUCCESSFUL. IT WOULD BE BETTER FOR EVERYONE IF YOU LEAVE YOUR WEAPONS IN YOUR POCKETS AND COOPERATE WITH ME FOR ONE NIGHT.

The Soldier couldn’t say what it was, but he accepted that he couldn’t kill the creature. It wasn’t that he believed in immortal beings; he just knew when he was out of his league.

*

Despite the height, the bony physique, and the general lack of cheer, the biggest difference between the Fat Man and the creature was that the creature believed in making appearances while the Fat Man had done his best to stay hidden, in spite of the festive images of him that the Soldier had seen all over the world.

The Soldier assumed they had given toys to all the children of New Zealand. It certainly felt like it by the time they had finished.

They took special care to visit the Maori children first, and they made sure they were seen by them more often. (THEY WERE HERE FIRST, the creature insisted. IT IS ONLY FAIR. The Soldier was not completely sure what he meant, but it sounded reasonable.)

They also visited a Christmas parade, which almost overwhelmed the Soldier with so many lights, colors, and people. He discovered that he could handle crowds when he had a mission to complete, but when his purpose was unclear, the sights and sounds bombarded his senses worse than any battlefield.

Fortunately, he had a task to do. He retrieved items from the sack and gave them to the creature, who gave them to the children.

These gifts followed a pattern. The creature either checked a letter from the child and left the requested gift in the child’s stocking, or simply asked each child what he or she wanted for Christmas. Whatever was asked for came out of the sack.

The Soldier realized it was a contract. Children promised to be good; in return, they got what they wanted.

Even though he was still suspicious of the creature (he had been borderline kidnapped, after all), he admired the way he kept the contract in spite of complaints from parents. What was wrong with giving children real knives or animals, anyway? They were educational, as the creature kept saying.

After one child whispered a request into the creature’s hood at the Christmas parade, the Soldier pulled a large, lizard-like creature from the sack. They stared at each other with unblinking eyes.

As the child’s mother and several other people in the area screamed, the startled lizard scrambled up the metal arm and tried to dig its claws in. The Soldier hastily removed the lizard and handed it to the delighted child, but he guessed the mother would need some time to get used to the new family pet.

It was the lizard that made the Soldier suspect that the children’s gifts weren’t really explosives. No technology was that good--not yet, anyway.

He had tried to wrestle a box labeled “Microscope” from the first child he’d given a gift to, a small brown-skinned boy who tugged the box back with impressive energy for his size, but he felt the blue lights boring into his skull and promptly let the child have the gift.

The Soldier didn’t have to hear NO FUNNY BUSINESS to know that he’d better cooperate.

Still, he was curious about the gifts. When they got in the sleigh to leave the country, he fished a stuffed bear out of the sack and examined it.

It squished appropriately, but he thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a closer look. Using the sharp edge on one of his metal finger plates, he picked apart the stitches and began rummaging around in the stuffing.

When most of the fluff had fallen overboard, the creature turned to look at him. ARE YOU QUITE FINISHED?

The Soldier shrugged. It seemed the only explosive here was the grenade hidden in his…

IT IS FASCINATING THAT EVEN THOUGH HYDRA SEEMS TO HAVE COMPLETE CONTROL OVER YOUR ACTIONS, THEY STILL FELT THE NEED TO LIE TO MOTIVATE YOU.

What are you saying, pal.

THEY TOLD YOU THE CHILDREN WERE BEING GIVEN EXPLOSIVES. SURELY IF THEY KNEW YOU WOULD...COMPLY WITHOUT QUESTION, THEY WOULD NOT NEED TO DO THAT.

So far, the Soldier had not been creeped out by the creature. Being intimidating was part of his own job description. There wasn’t much he was afraid of anymore. But the creature had answered a question he hadn’t even asked out loud, and that was what did it.

“Who the hell are you?”

The creature sighed and looked him full in the face. Beneath the hood, the Soldier saw beyond the blue lights to the bony cheekbones, the hole where a nose should be, the protruding teeth, the grinning jaw.

Suddenly, the Soldier realized he had known who it was the whole time and had only been pretending not to recognize him.

He felt like the breath had been knocked out of his lungs. No, it was more than that. He was falling, falling, and screaming the whole way down. Cold air bit his face and hands. He had the feeling that he had fallen from something important, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

I HAVE BEEN FOLLOWING YOUR CAREER WITH INTEREST FOR SOME TIME, YOUNG MAN, Death said.

The Soldier was back on the f-- the sleigh, clutching the empty bear skin. It suddenly seemed very important.

WE HAVE MET MANY TIMES BEFORE. ONCE IN A LABORATORY. ONCE IN A SNOWY VALLEY. AND AT OTHER TIMES, WHEN I HAVE COME FOR YOUR TARGETS. IN SHORT, YOU ARE A MENACE, SERGEANT BARNES. YOU CHEAT ME AND THEN YOU MAKE MORE WORK FOR ME.

The Soldier felt like saying, “Fuck you too, buddy,” but he thought better of it.

Instead, he asked, “Why do you keep calling me that?”

LIKE ME, YOU HAVE MANY NAMES. THIS IS SIMPLY THE LAST NAME YOU HAD.

“My handlers call me ‘Soldat.’ Or ‘the Asset.’”

THOSE ARE NOT NAMES, Death said simply.

The Soldier did not like it. It didn’t seem right.

He turned to the deflated bear in his hand and wondered whose gift he had destroyed. Cautiously, he lifted the lid of the letter box and peered at the first page.

The paper was yellowed and the letter rambled in scrawling pencil that had been pressed hard into the paper. It began “Deer Santa, I want…” followed by an itemized list and signed by a child named Bucky.

Something was wrong.

He flipped through the rest of the letters, all of them aging but with increasingly better handwriting and spelling, and all ending with “Bucky.” Most of the letters finished with “...and a set of toy soldiers [or new shoes or a box of drawing pencils] for Stevie.”

Frowning, he shut the box and looked at the bear again. After some thought, he threw the bear skin and the rest of the stuffing overboard, into the ocean.

“Call me Barnes,” he said.

Death nodded.

*

Somewhere over the water, the giant kiwi vanished and was replaced with the reindeer that Barnes recognized from his research on the Fat Man.

What he didn’t expect to see was the red light that appeared in front of the reindeer when they drove through a layer of clouds.

When Barnes expressed his confusion, Death actually laughed--a low, raspy noise.

THAT IS A RECENT DEVELOPMENT SINCE YOU WERE A CHILD.

Before Barnes could search his foggy memory for clues about childhood and lights and reindeer, Death started singing about a reindeer who was bullied because of his unusual nose.

Barnes shrugged when he finished. It was a silly song, but it was nice to know that Rudolph was useful in the end.

Death immediately launched into another song that he seemed to be making up as he went along.

HE SEES YOU WHEN YOU’RE SLEEPING
HE KNOWS WHEN  YOU’RE AWAKE
HE KNOWS YOU ARE CURRENTLY CARRYING EIGHT KNIVES ON YOUR PERSON
AND HE IS OBLIGED TO REMIND YOU THAT THEY WILL NOT WORK ON HIM
...ER. DEATH IS COMING TO TOWN?

Barnes was unsure whether to be more annoyed with the fact that Death knew how many knives he had, or the fact that he was singing . It was as raspy as his laugh, deep and tuneless and frustratingly catchy.

“Shut the hell up,” he groaned.

TAKING SOULS TO HELL IS SOMETIMES CONSIDERED MY JOB DESCRIPTION, BARNES. I CANNOT DO MY JOB PROPERLY IF HELL IS SHUT.

Barnes rolled his eyes.

IT’S FOGGY TONIGHT
WE’RE SARCASTIC TONIGHT
FLYING OVER A WATERY WONDERLAND…

“Please stop.”

*

Their deliveries took them to countries Barnes had not visited before, although Death knew the way well enough. Barnes figured Death had him beat in the traveling department as much as in the not-dying department.

Although the sleigh changed form from time to time, and Death said the mantle appeared differently to different people (even if it looked like the same red-and-white robe to Barnes), their routine remained basically the same. They delivered gifts to children in houses of all shapes and sizes, and they visited parades and department stores.

No one, not even Barnes himself, would have thought people would be comfortable having an assassin in black with a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder around at Christmas. But children don’t care what kind of weapons gift-givers might carry, and parents just made comments about the extra security that seemed to be around at this time of year.

Occasionally, they did Good Things that did not involve children or gifts.

In China, they helped a man whose truck full of melons had broken down by the side of the road.  In the Netherlands, they stopped to rescue a cat that had been attacked by an animal and was making pitiful noises in a ditch.

When they picked up the cat, Death pulled what looked like an old-fashioned hourglass from the sack. He tilted it, and it filled with sand again. He tried to send the cat on its way, but it seemed to prefer the sled.

As the cat settled in Barnes’ lap, he thought that this was Death’s favorite part about the job. Not the gifts or the children or the godawful HO. HO. HO. noise he kept making. It was helping people--or cats--that he liked. Making things...right.

Barnes had liked the smile of the man when he drove away with his truck full of melons, and he liked the warmth of the cat and the strange rumbling it made when he rubbed its ears. But he had to admit that his favorite part was the food.

When they first came across a tall glass of beer in Australia, he had pointed it out to Death, who merely said, I HAVE NO NEED OF THAT.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Barnes had replied.

He liked the beer in Australia and in Ireland. It was the mincemeat pie that he couldn’t decide if he actually liked or not, but it wasn’t bad. The alcohol didn’t affect him much, but it made him feel warm and comfortable, like the cat.

“So, do you do this often?” he asked Death as they flew across the Atlantic.

ONLY ONCE BEFORE.

“You tryin’ to tell me a different assassin offed the Fat Man before me? Death. That’s hurtful.”

NOT...THIS ONE. A DIFFERENT ONE.

Barnes scratched the cat’s head and waited for more information.

YOU NOTICED THERE WERE COUNTRIES WE FLEW OVER AND DID NOT VISIT?

Barnes nodded. He had wanted to ask before, but he’d forgotten when Death had made him check the List twice again.

DIFFERENT REGIONS MAY HAVE DIFFERENT GIFT-BRINGERS, OR THE...FAT MAN MAY BRING THEIR GIFTS AT A DIFFERENT TIME. IT ALL DEPENDS ON REGIONAL BELIEFS.

It made sense. He was picking up on the trend that in the Fat Man’s world, belief made things happen. If the children of the world believed that the lead reindeer’s nose was red and glowy, then it was.

WELL, OTHER WORLDS HAVE DIFFERENT GIFT-BRINGERS, TOO. LAST YEAR I TOOK OVER FOR THE HOGFATHER DURING AN...INCIDENT. HE IS FINE NOW. BELIEF IS HARDIER IN THAT WORLD.

“Hogf--oh. You said the sleigh was pulled by swine earlier.”

INDEED. ONE WORLD EVEN HAS A CHRISTMAS TIGER.

Barnes traced tiger stripes across the cat’s shoulders. “Really?”

NICE CHILDREN GET PRESENTS. NAUGHTY CHILDREN GET EATEN.

Well, that was probably less embarrassing than waking up to find coal in one’s stocking when all the other children got presents.

SHE’S MAKING A LIST, SHE’S CHECKING IT TWICE…

Barnes risked removing his hand from the cat’s back to cover his ears.

*

Snow was beginning to fall evenly over the city when the sleigh arrived in New York. Suspended in mid-air, billions of powdery snowflakes reflected the streetlights in miniature, illuminating even the dimmest alleys with an eerie glow. A stiff wind sent the thin layer of fallen snow swirling down streets and sidewalks that weren’t already filled with people bustling to and from holiday parties or looking for stupidly last-minute gifts.

It was always snowing in New York City on Christmas Eve. Barnes had seen enough Hydra propaganda to know that.

He’d been here before on missions, of course, even if he didn’t remember the details. There was only so much they could erase by wiping his memory; it would take a lot to completely delete a place with this much significance.

But tonight, something seemed different about the city. There was an extra layer of familiarity that Barnes did not think about.

Instead, he threw himself into helping Death distribute gifts. They even caused a stir at Macy’s--Barnes had no idea that so many people would be out shopping tonight, or that mall security would object to an unfamiliar Santa Claus and a Santa’s helper with a sniper rifle.

Death paused unexpectedly outside an apartment building before they went in to deliver the gifts.

Barnes looked up at the building. It was pretty rickety. A rusted, spidery fire escape scaled the length of the brown brick walls that looked like they could fall over in the next good breeze.

But--there was something more.

His eyes searched for Death’s face under the red hood but couldn’t find it. “I used to live here, didn’t I.”

Death was already drifting toward the door. SHALL WE GO INSIDE?

At first hesitant to walk through the doorway, Barnes took the stairs two at a time with a gait that was no longer familiar to him but that used to be. What was that term? Muscle memory.

He was remembering things now. Rushing down these same stairs to get to school on time, walking back up with shining report cards held proudly. Fights and games of catch in the alley outside. On rainy days, chasing children through the hallways of the building until neighbors opened their doors and yelled.

A slight figure at the top of the stairs seemed to holler, “STEVIE! Ma says to come on inside before you catch your death of cold!”

When Barnes reached the landing, there was nothing there.

Death tried to call after him. THIS IS NOT THE PROPER ORDER, BARNES. JOHNNY ANDERSON IN #109 WILL BE EXPECTING HIS GIFT.

Ignoring Death was what Barnes did best.

He reached the door and hesitated. This was it. He could almost remember things that happened here. He thought he could hear his sisters giggling, smell his Ma’s Sunday roast.

When he opened the door, there was nothing but beer cans. Well, beer cans littering a ratty couch that had been thrown against walls with stains that even Barnes didn’t want to think about.

He moved through the apartment like a ghost, examining the kitchen with its empty cupboards and very full sink, looking out the windows (the landscape had changed, but it was definitely the same view he’d grown up with), and drifting past the bedrooms.

There seemed to be no one here. Except--

The child was sleeping in his bedroom. His. Bucky’s.

Now there was a name Barnes hadn’t heard for a long time. It was almost enough to distract him from the twinge of jealousy that erupted inside him when he saw the child curled up on the bed.

He stood over him and examined him, from the nubby brown hair to the ratty pajamas covered in images of trucks, before storming out.

Death was standing near the couch, waiting for him. They looked at each other for a long moment.

“What does he want for Christmas?” Barnes demanded.

Death drew a letter from the box and scanned it. HOT WHEELS AND A SET OF MARKERS.

Toy soldiers. Drawing pencils.

Barnes considered. “And what is he getting?”

Death compared the letter with the List. NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

“Why? Has he been bad?”

OF COURSE NOT.

He knew the answer. They’d been to the homes of poor children before. He’d seen the reluctance in Death’s movements when they left behind simple gifts of fruit, homemade toys, and other small goodies that wouldn’t be enough to answer a child’s question of why Santa Claus didn’t bring them their present, when their friends had enough gifts to spare.

He just didn’t understand the unfairness until now. He’d spent the whole night trying to make up for his actions, only to discover that he hadn’t done anything right at all.

LIFE IS NOT FAIR. THIS IS A LESSON I LEARNED LAST YEAR, AND IT IS A LESSON YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TOO.

“Like YOU know shit about life, pal!”

He remembered the last letter he’d seen in the box--the last of his own letters.

Dear Santa, I want an Erector set and a new pair of boots for Stevie, he needs them really bad please.

He sat on the couch in the middle of all the cans and buried his head in his hands to muffle the sudden flood of memories.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there before he felt something small and warm attach itself to his knee.

“Holy sh--” he began. When he looked up, it was a smaller child, a girl, who was touching him. “Ho. Ho. Ho?”

The child peered up at him. “Santa?”

“Uh.” Death was nowhere to be found. What would he do if Barnes said yes--kill him? Fat chance. “Sure? Yes. Definitely. I brought your present, too.”

Fuck life not being fair. He’d find a way to make this work.

“Come on, doll. Let’s get you back to bed.”

He stood up and stared down at her. He’d been planning to carry her, but no way was he prepared for that. She was just too small.

As he hesitated, she reached for his hand. They walked down the hallway hand-in-hand, and when she crawled into her bed, he covered her with the too-thin blanket.

“You get to sleep, now,” he said, smoothing her fuzzy hair. “Christmas morning comes awful early, and if you don’t get to sleep, you won’t get any presents.”

It felt right saying that, as if he’d said it before.

Death was back in the living room when he returned, and he looked thoughtful.

I BELIEVE I HAVE FOUND A WAY TO GIVE THE CHILDREN THEIR GIFTS WITHOUT NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES.

*

When the children’s mother got back to the apartment early Christmas morning, she found a fruit basket on the kitchen counter along with two wrapped gifts. (One was a set of markers; the other was a doll. “Good,” Barnes had said when he pulled the doll out of the sack. “Kids need someone to look after. Oh. Did I say someone? I meant something.”)

Along with the gifts was a Christmas card from Social Services.

The mother stepped back, puzzled. Nothing like this had happened before, but she was not about to question fresh fruit and presents for her children at Christmas.

*

THIS IS THE LAST NAME ON THE LIST.

Of course there would be an end to the List. Logically, Barnes knew that, but part of him wanted that List and the night of giving presents and riding through the night with a sarcastic skeleton, a purring cat, and several flying reindeer to keep going.

He glowered.

Death ignored him. I CAN RETURN YOU TO YOUR HANDLER IN NEW ZEALAND BEFORE I GO ON MY WAY. NOT MUCH TIME HAS PASSED SINCE WE LEFT. YOU WILL NOT BE PUNISHED...MUCH.

Barnes flinched. He wasn’t going back. He couldn’t.

Instead, he said, “If you think we’re finished, you got another think coming, pal.”

WHAT DO YOU MEAN, asked Death in a voice that sounded a little more innocent than he intended.

“You said the Fat Man comes at different times for different places. 

He wasn’t Russian, but his handlers were, and some of them had children. He remembered them talking about the presents their kids expected from Ded Moroz.

As he explained all this, Death listened intently.

“Ded Moroz brings gifts on January 6. So I think you can see why it’s worth sticking around til then. Right? For belief?”

Death sighed. I MUST RETURN TO MY DUTIES UNTIL THEN. I CANNOT PROMISE YOU PROTECTION FROM HYDRA IN THE MEANTIME.

Almost offended, Barnes secured the strap of his rifle and patted the pockets that held knives.

“Think I got that covered.”

...DID YOU SAY THIS GIFT-BRINGER HAS A GRANDDAUGHTER?

“Snegurochka, yep. It means--”

SNOW MAIDEN, I KNOW.

After a pause, Death lifted his head to the sky, then began to get back in the sleigh.

I HAVE AN IDEA. SHE WON’T LIKE IT, BUT IT WILL WORK.

Barnes realized he was too tired to ask what he meant. Maybe it would make more sense in two weeks. Until then, he had a hideout to find.