24 DEC 2012 - 2339 HOURS - WASHINGTON, D.C.
Bucky hadn’t come home yet.
Damn it. Tonight was Christmas Eve, a night that should have been spent listening for sleigh bells and reindeer hooves sleeping, but all Steve could think about was that this could be his second Christmas in the 21st century without his best friend.
After last Christmas, sometime in mid-January, Bucky had shown up at Steve’s apartment in Washington, looking a little worse for wear but otherwise in good shape for a 94-year-old assassin who hadn’t spent 70-some years trapped in ice.
Stark had used some of his dad’s old notes to show how not aging could be a side effect of the serum, but other things remained mysteries, and Bucky wasn’t talking much these days. He told Steve about his time as a Hydra assassin and explained that he’d spent the past 30 years single-handedly attacking Hydra from the shadows. He helped Steve identify enemy agents within S.H.I.E.L.D., and that spring they worked together to expose them and take them down.
So much of Bucky’s history was still a blank, and Steve got frustrated when he wouldn’t answer his questions.
After an argument that had almost ended with punching (they both remembered fights in Brooklyn alleys before it was too late), Bucky disappeared for the first time. He missed the Battle of New York.
That was when he started leaving. He could be gone for a day or two, maybe as long as a few weeks. As the year lengthened, so did his absences. It was like living with a cat--you never knew if he would be around or not.
With help from his new friend Sam, who he’d met while out on a run to work out his worry and anger during Bucky’s second absence, Steve had started discovering a pattern.
The media hype around the Battle of New York had overshadowed world events that might have gotten more press otherwise. A major Hydra base in North Africa had been destroyed. The assassination of a Hydra-backed dictator was followed by a democratic election.
For a while, Steve and Sam had been convinced that Bucky was disappearing to continue taking down Hydra on his own, but in late summer, the pattern started changing and it got harder to trace his disappearances to anything significant.
Once, after a two-day absence, Steve had asked Bucky where he’d been and got a smartass comment about picking up the mail. That time, he’d reappeared with blintzes from Russia for Natasha, as an apology for damaging some of her tac gear during a sparring session.
While all the Avengers eventually accepted Bucky as one of their own (despite a few snark-off sessions with Stark), Natasha was the only one who wasn’t surprised to see him.
“Most of the intelligence community didn’t believe he existed. Those of us who did called him the Winter Soldier. I always knew better,” she had said, showing Steve a scar she’d gotten when the Winter Soldier showed up during a mission gone wrong and almost succeeded in shoving her out of the line of fire. The slug that went through her stomach could have gone through her chest instead.
“Of course,” she had said, “I always believed in ghost stories and fairy tales. I’ve met Ded Moroz. He gave me throwing knives when I was six.”
“Who?” Steve had asked.
“He’s like your Santa Claus, but much better. He has a goddaughter who has a flaming sword.”
Steve had raised his eyebrows. He was beginning to understand what made her...well, Natasha. “ Santa gave you throwing knives?”
“Not Santa. Try to keep up, old man. And yeah, they were very educational.” She didn’t have the knives anymore. When she made the split with the Red Room and began working with S.H.I.E.L.D., she went back and found her old handler and buried them in his chest.
Steve had asked if she knew where Bucky could be, but she just shrugged. “He’s a ghost. How would I know?”
Now it was Christmas Eve, and Bucky had been gone since early December.
Steve fidgeted in his armchair, tried drawing a little, then set his sketchpad down.
Christmas just couldn’t happen without Bucky.
Steve didn’t believe in--
Steve secretly still believed in Santa Claus, but--
Huh. He was so tired, he couldn’t make sense of his own thoughts. Might as well stay up another half hour, just in case, and then try to get some sleep.
He hadn’t realized he was dozing until the sketchbook slipped off his leg and fell to the floor. With a groan, he settled deeper in the chair but kept his eyes closed in hopes of falling asleep again.
No such luck. He should at least go to bed, but it was warm here.
Just before he opened his eyes, the sound of quiet but heavy footsteps made his heart stop.
“Bucky? That you?” he murmured.
He looked up to see the back of a red-robed figure stowing a package under the mini tree Steve had set up on a table in front of the window.
It couldn’t be...could it?
“Well shit, Stevie,” said the figure, turning around. “You aren’t supposed to see me.”
They stared at each other. Steve was openmouthed, and he got the impression that Bucky was a little smug at leaving him speechless.
“Buck,” he said at last, “you deliver gifts to children with that mouth?”
He had so many questions, but Bucky just kept saying he was on a schedule and didn’t have time for this.
“What could you possibly have to do at this hour on Christmas Eve?” Steve demanded, still mostly convinced that he was just looking at his best friend in a red suit.
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe delivering gifts to all the children in in the world.”
Steve suddenly felt like an overprotective parent, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Well, when you finish, you get right back here. I think we have some catching up to do.”
Despite rolling his eyes, Bucky agreed.
Before Steve could say another word, he whisked up the chimney (Chimney? Steve didn’t think his building even had a chimney.) and was gone.
Steve stood in the middle of the living room for a while, as if he’d just walked into the room and couldn’t remember why.
He could have been dreaming, but there was soot tracked all over the carpet. Curious, he wandered over to the mantle and looked up inside. There was a drywall ceiling inside--definitely no chimney here.
After scrubbing the carpet clean, he decided to try drawing again.
A thought smacked him in the forehead as soon as he picked up his pencil.
He had never really stopped believing in Santa Claus. Long after other children had started listening for their parents instead of reindeer, Steve kept writing letters--but he knew damn well who had left a new pad of drawing paper in his stocking when he was twelve.
Bucky must’ve saved for weeks to get him that. It hadn’t been what he’d written in the letter, but new boots were impossible to come by in the Great Depression, even for old St. Nick.
Bucky. In one way or another, Bucky had always been his Santa Claus.
Good things seemed to follow him wherever he went. Because of Bucky, Steve became Captain America, fought with the Howlies, saved the world from Hydra. And now they were saving it again. Because of Bucky’s absences this year, he’d been free from Hydra-hunting missions at S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight the Battle of New York and join the Avengers. He’d found a new friend in Sam Wilson while searching for his old friend.
The thought took flight and became an idea in mid-air. The idea rushed through his mind with the sound of sleigh bells.
Steve gripped his pencil with determination and began to draw.
25 DEC 2012 - 0327 HOURS - WASHINGTON, D.C.
“Open your fucking gift already,” Barnes growled, kicking one foot in the direction of Steve’s mini Christmas tree.
“But Bucky,” Steve protested. “It’s 3 am!”
Barnes glared. Was Steve out of his damn mind?
“The hours between 3 and 5:30 am are optimal for opening presents.” He took an informative tone. “It’s when the waking up of responsible adults and the rattling of paper and the noisemaking produce the most rage.”
Barnes was lounging on the couch while Steve sat in his armchair like an old man, both of them nursing cups of hot cocoa whipped cream with a thin layer of hot cocoa.
He’d gotten back to the apartment as soon as he finished delivering gifts. He knew he’d been making Steve worry all year, but when he got the Christmas letter, he realized he owed an explanation.
Steve gave him a look he couldn’t argue with. “Story first. Then presents.”
Starting with his first Christmas, the assassination of the Fat Man, and getting semi-kidnapped by Death, Bucky told him the whole damn thing. He managed to leave out Death’s stupid songs and some of his memories at the old apartment, because he didn’t want to give Steve any dumb ideas, but he didn’t want to make him sad either.
He wrapped up by explaining how he’d balanced his gift-bringing responsibilities with his Hydra-hunting hobby for thirty years.
Susan still helped him as Snegurochka, although he couldn’t figure out if she wasn’t aging because she was manipulating time somehow, or if time worked differently on the Discworld. Either way, he had a feeling she’d be there as long as she was needed--not by Barnes, but by Russian and Eastern European children. Sometimes presents were enough to make life easier. Other times required a sword-wielding Snow Maiden.
Death still showed up with cheerfully disturbing renditions of Christmas carols, although not as often. He operated on his own schedule, after all. Whatever he might have said, Barnes was always glad to see him.
The cat’s descendants kept Headquarters free of mice, but they were always friendly with Death of Rats. Barnes liked to take one or two of them with him in the sleigh each year.
Last Christmas, Steve hadn’t sent a letter, so Barnes didn’t know he was back until he came across an email with some old news reports one of his...ah, smaller colleagues had forwarded. 2011 had been a busy year, with too many requests to fill and too many Hydra agents to keep track of.
When he finished, he readjusted himself on the couch so he could gauge Steve’s reaction.
Steve inspected his cup of cocoa whipped cream. He believed the whole thing. Something inside Barnes that had been tense for the past three decades loosened, and he allowed himself to smile.
“One more question.”
Fucking hell, Steve.
He looked up from his mug with a smirk that reminded Barnes of a certain tiny, sickly troublemaker. “So does this mean you have...uh. Little helpers?”
“Yeah,” Barnes retorted. “Fucking Keebler Elves, Steve.”
He laughed, then looked earnest again.
“No, really. I need to know. For science,” he added, copying a phrase that Stark liked to use.
Barnes had a network of helpers who helped him with both of his jobs, although not all of them were little. Many were former Hydra who had been brainwashed like Barnes and needed to disappear for a while. Some were children in bad situations who wrote Santa Claus letters asking for help. He didn’t have any qualms about helping them. Unlike the Fat Man, the more Barnes did this job, the more he tried to fix things whenever he could.
“And now,” Barnes said, standing up and getting Steve’s gift, “time to open your present.”
He dumped it in Steve’s lap.
“But Bucky.” Oh no. He looked suspicious. “If you really got my letter, you’d know I already got what I wanted.”
“This one’s from me, pal. Personally.”
Steve took for-fucking-ever to open the gift. He slit each piece of tape, one at a time and unfolded the wrapping paper carefully.
“GAH,” Barnes complained, flopping back onto the couch.
Finally, the gift lay in Steve’s lap, the neatly folded wrapping paper slipping off his knee as he stared at it.
Barnes watched from behind the arm of the couch. He was lying flat on his stomach like one of the cats, trying to decide if it was ok to laugh, or if he should make a run for it.
Steve’s face turned varying shades of red. “You got me...running clothes?”
“Patriotic running clothes.” Barnes grinned. “The tank has your stupid shield on it.”
Folding the clothes neatly and setting them aside, Steve gave them a resigned grimace. Good old Stevie. His Depression-kid instincts to accept what was given to him and make do were fighting his urge to slam-dunk those running shorts in the trash can.
“Bucky. You little shit.”
Barnes tried to fight off a fit of giggles at the thought of Steve dutifully putting on the loud shorts and tank for a run, because he felt obligated to get some use out of them. Instead, what came out of his mouth was, “Ho ho ho…”
For the first time since his sick days, Steve laughed so hard he wheezed.
“I have something for you too, pal,” he said finally.
Bucky groaned. “Please tell me it isn’t more milk and cookies. Although I wouldn’t mind another Aussie beer right about now.”
Steve fumbled around a stack of magazines until he picked up a thin stack of loose papers.
“Wait. Children. Leave. You. Beer. And you didn’t bring me any?” He clutched the papers to his chest. “Fine, I’m keeping these.”
“No, give it!” Barnes dove off the couch, reaching wildly.
After a brief struggle, Barnes held the papers aloft with a triumphant yell. When he realized what they were, he set them down gently on the coffee table and gazed at Steve’s artwork.
The first one was a picture of the Howling Commandos around a campfire, sharing a chocolate bar. The old, pre-Hydra Barnes had his arm around Steve in a gesture that must have been familiar, but was a hell of a lot more difficult when you had to reach UP to get to the guy’s shoulders.
Barnes still had holes in his memories. He remembered the men, the awful taste of vitamin-enriched chocolate, the muscle memory of wrapping an arm around tiny Steve’s shoulders. He couldn’t remember the scene.
“That was our last Christmas together,” Steve filled in.
Barnes searched for whatever memory of that day he could find.
“That was Christmas Eve,” he said slowly. “You stole the chocolate wrapper from Morita and used it to write your letter to the Fat Man.”
“How do you know that? You were trying to cheat Dugan at poker while I wrote that letter.”
He gave him a look. “It’s not my memory. It’s the Fat Man’s.”
“Oh, really?” Steve’s jaw set. Clearly he wasn’t convinced. “What did I ask for?”
Barnes blushed. “ Stevie . You know you’re not supposed to ask for a person. Especially not a specific person who might not like being asked for for Christmas.”
“Well it’s not like I was best friends with Santa Claus back then. I didn’t know all the rules,” he shot back.
Barnes started to turn to the next drawing, but he paused. “In case you were wondering, she wrote a letter too.”
This shut Steve up long enough for Barnes to flip through the drawings at his own pace.
They were pictures of things that had happened over the past year, mostly while he’d been away fighting Hydra or collecting Christmas letters. There were scenes from the Battle of New York, a caricature of Stark teaching a puzzled Steve how to use his phone, a sketch of Sam running past the Capitol at dawn.
Some of the pictures were things that had happened while Barnes was around. There was one of him sparring with Natasha, a cartoon of him pestering Banner with science questions. He liked the drawing of Steve’s living room, where both of them sat reading, Steve all proper in his chair and Barnes hanging over the arm of the couch.
It was a good gift. Maybe the best gift.
Eventually, Steve recovered enough to explain some of the drawings. By the time they finished, Barnes was having trouble keeping his eyes open.
When Steve caught him yawning and called him an old man, he said, “Well, I did fly around the world in one night. Think I deserve a little respect.”
“Fine. You get some shuteye; I’m going for a run, see if I can find Sam.” Steve started carrying the mugs into the kitchen.
“Good,” Barnes called down the hallway. “You can wear your new running gear so you can blind Sam while you run laps around him.”
“You know what, Buck--”
“Hey. Hey, Steve. Ask Sam how he likes the pedometer I brought him.”
Barnes started slipping away.
“BUCKY. How come he gets a nice gift, and I got this ? Are you trying to help Sam get ahead on his running? Get back here young man,” he added as Barnes escaped to his room.
“MERRY CHRISTMAS, STEVIE,” Barnes hollered through the closed door.
Muffled grumpy noises from Steve. Finally: “Merry Christmas, Buck.”
As the apartment grew quiet again, Barnes stared out the window into the light-studded expanse of sky and city. On the sidewalk below, he could see a few people passing by the streetlight, but most were home, sleeping or being woken up by excited children.
One of the figures he saw wore a black hood, and for a minute he thought--no, maybe not.
Well, next year maybe he could bring Steve along and introduce him to his other friends. It wouldn’t hurt to help Natalia meet the Snow Maiden again, too.
Steve and Death, Natalia and Susan. They’d all get along. Barnes would make sure to bring a cat, so he’d have someone to talk to.
He stared at the hooded figure until it vanished around a corner.
“Merry Christmas, Death,” he whispered.
Until next year.