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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.

Chapter Text

25 DEC 1980 - 0437 HOURS - PARTIAL PHONE TRANSCRIPTION

"You sent the Asset to assassinate Santa Claus."

"Yes, sir."

"What in the name of all that is holy or unholy possessed you to dispatch one of our best assassins to eliminate a mythological figure?"

"Ah now, sir, if you'll recall our organization is founded on several key principles, one of which is that what lesser men call 'mythological' is usually true. Our illustrious Herr Schmidt--"

"Between you and me, Lieutenant, our illustrious Herr Schmidt was a charismatic madman with a streak of technical genius who invented or sponsored the invention of a highly advanced energy weapon and passed it off as the lightning of the Germanic gods. You , on the other hand, decided it was reasonable to kill a middle-aged civilian vacationing on an obscure New Zealand island.”

"He appears to value his vacation time, sir. And while it may seem like an odd choice of target, consider that this figure is highly valued in much of Western society, and that to eliminate such a figure would disrupt one of the key elements of their--"

"Where, exactly, is the Asset now."

"Ah."

"You've lost him."

"Ah...temporarily, sir. My agents are working on recovering--"

"It may interest you to know, Lieutenant, that our sources at NORAD, who are aware that Santa Claus is a fictional character , have received no word of any disruption in activities."

"Well of course, sir, they've got to cover for--"

" Lieutenant ."

"Sir?"

"Go and pack your skivvies. You're being transferred."

"Where?"

"To our New Zealand department, where you will remain. In the company of sheep. Until such time when the Asset is returned to storage, or until I can stand to look at you again. Whichever comes last."

 

5 JAN 1981 - 2257 HOURS - NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

When Death’s sleigh touched down in the alley, Barnes and the cat were waiting for them.

Wait. Them? The fuck?

Seated beside Death was a slender young woman with black-and-white hair, dressed completely in black.

Barnes would have approved of her wardrobe choices, but she was in his seat . Unacceptable.

She raised an eyebrow at him. Apparently she didn’t like what she saw, either.

Something else was different. Death had the red mantle in his lap and was wearing only the black robe that Barnes had first seen him in.

Great. The three of them looked like a goth band, which Barnes now understood thanks to spending the past two weeks in New York City.

Wearing black had served him well in the city. Looking like a world-class assassin kept most people from bothering him, but it didn’t scare off the Hydra agents that were clearly searching for him.

And so he beat Hydra at their own game: he hid in the shadows.

He wondered what had happened to his handler once Hydra found out he was missing.

He remembered punishment, specifically the punishment he’d received from the handler. He did not feel sorry about whatever had happened to the moron.

ARE YOU READY FOR ANOTHER RIDE, BARNES? Death asked.

After two weeks of wandering the streets, listening to other people’s chatter, it was pleasant to hear the familiar voice in his head again.

He nodded, aware that his face was cracking into something that could be interpreted as a smile.

Still, he hesitated. The sleigh looked full.

Death gestured at the seat. THERE IS ROOM NEXT TO SUSAN.

Barnes decided to take a chance. He clambered up and sat down next to the woman.

And who knew? There was space. F--um. Stupid magic sleigh.

The cat bit his hand, anxious to be let go. It clambered across Susan’s leg and began nuzzling her arm. Traitor cat.

She ignored the cat and Barnes. If she wasn’t going to pet the cat, she should give it back.

He scowled, hoping she’d get the hint.

She didn’t.

Death picked up the reigns, and with a flick of his wrist, the reindeer leapt into the air.

LET US SLEIGH THEM, he said as they went airborne.

Grandfather ,” Susan hissed, giving Death a murderous look that made Barnes look like a wimp.

He gave Death a side-eye of his own.

I BELIEVE THAT IS A PUNE, OR PLAY ON WORDS.

“Am I supposed to be laughing?” Barnes asked.

MOST PEOPLE SIMPLY GROAN OR ROLL THEIR EYES.

“Lucky for you, pal, I’ve had a lot of practice since this whole thing started.”

Susan shot him a look that Barnes could almost read as admiration. She turned to him and held out her hand.

“Hello,” she said. “My name is Susan Sto Helit, and I believe my grandfather has told me about you.”

He stared.

She stuck her hand out even more. Too close.

“You shake it,” she insisted with a weary sigh.

Barnes looked at the hand. He definitely knew what handshakes were, but this woman’s stare could make him forget his own name, which, come to think of it, wasn’t difficult to do right now. Voluntarily touching someone wasn’t a thing he did these days, either.

He reached out and grasped her fingers as lightly as he could with the metal hand and wiggled them gently.

Susan made a disappointed noise. “That’s enough.”

She withdrew the hand and used it to scoop the cat off her lap. It landed on the floor of the sleigh with a yowl.

Barnes glared and returned the cat to his own lap, where it curled up and began licking its fur. Then he remembered he was trying to be polite.

“He told you about me?” he prompted.

“Oh, yes. He’s been telling me stories about the superhero and the Bloody Idiot Who Keeps Cheating Death since I was a girl. It wasn’t until this Hogswatch that I found out Bloody Idiot is named Barnes.”

He shot Death a betrayed glance. “You got it wrong, pal. Bloody Idiot is named Steve. Barnes is the real hero here.”

Death made a rumbling noise like laughter.

Susan sighed. “So did my grandfather kidnap you, too?”

“No. I, ah. Well.

HE VOLUNTEERED TO MAKE THINGS RIGHT. IN FACT, HE SUGGESTED THIS TRIP.

Thanks, buddy. Wait.

“Too? Did he kidnap you ?”

Susan looked over at Death, who gave her the tiniest glance before returning his focused stare to the reindeer.

SPEAK FOR YOURSELF. DID I? He seemed to be telling her, but Barnes couldn’t hear anything.

As she hesitated, the cat put a cautious paw on her leg and she reached for it.

Hell no, she didn’t. Barnes pulled the cat back. It gave him a startled “Rrrr?”

“He...ah. He kind of convinced me to kidnap myself. It happens,” she added with a defensive look.

He wasn’t about to question her on that. Come to think of it, that’s how their first trip had happened.

The cat squirmed in Barnes’s tightened grip. It scratched him, then leapt over Susan to settle on Death’s lap. A bony finger reached out and skritched the cat between its ears. Barnes could hear it purring all the way on the other side of the sleigh.

Before they reached the mainland, the reindeer changed into three stocky Russian horses, just like the kiwi bird had changed when they left New Zealand on Christmas Eve.

Barnes approved of the horses. They would be more efficient than reindeer. Still, they’d miss Rudolph’s red light when they hit bad weather.

Could he help change belief by teaching the children he met tonight to sing “Rudolph the red-nosed troika horse”? Death could help him make alternative lyrics…

He looked over at Death, who was mangling another Christmas carol.

DECK THE HALLS WITH FIREARMS, sang Death, with a quick glance to make sure Barnes still had his sniper rifle. FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA.

(Barnes definitely still had the rifle. What kind of idiot did Death think he was?)

DEATH AND SUSAN, CAT AND BARNES

FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA

Asking Death for songwriting help was a terrible idea.

*

They landed in the snow just outside a log cabin by the edge of a dense forest. The horses snuffled loudly, hoping to be fed, and Death produced a handful of carrots from...somewhere.

Barnes left the sleigh uneasily. Death hadn’t touched the box of letters on the seat, and the sack was staying in the sleigh. What were they doing here?

Death threw the red mantle at him. It wasn’t a great throw, and the heavy fabric floundered in the air.

Luckily, even without a cybernetic arm, Barnes had always been a good catch. He remembered that now: makeshift ball games in alleys, listening to games on the radio and yelling at the players when he thought he could have done better.

He had memories of catching Steve, the boy who needed boots and drawing pencils, more than a few times when the small boy stumbled backwards from a punch, before launching into the fight himself. Dumb fragile idiot couldn’t afford to break a few bones on the pavement.

The last two weeks, he’d been trying to find Steve as much as he’d been trying to collect his own memories. He tracked down his old address, haunted familiar alleys, bought a notebook and wrote about how they taught each other how to cheat at cards, how they lied about cuts and bruises they’d gotten after school, how he’d tried to keep Steve warm in the winters when his ma worked nights.

In New York, he found out that Steve was called something else now, something that involved a shit-load of red white and blue and the stupidest mask Barnes had ever seen.

He searched his brain for memories of Captain America but didn’t find much there. Memories of trekking across Europe, but that was nothing new, except for campfires with raucous laughter, shared chocolate rations, the feeling of fighting back-to-back with family.

And a phrase (not his): “Are you ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?”

Hell no. Steve was enough of a little shit without having his stupid hero complex validated with a costume and newsreels.

As he thought about all this, Barnes realized he was staring at the mantle like an idiot.

“What’s this for?”

YOU PUT IT ON.

Death. Come on, buddy. The literalism isn’t cool this time. “Fuck no.”

IT IS YOUR TURN TO WEAR THE MANTLE. IT IS ONLY FAIR. SUSAN AND I HAVE OUR OWN GARB WAITING IN THE CABIN.

After Susan had disappeared into the tiny house, Death turned back to Barnes, who was still staring at the red and white cloth.

DO REMEMBER TO WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE, BARNES. SOME ADULTS HAVE INTERESTING BELIEFS ABOUT WHAT CHILDREN SHOULD HEAR. MOST CHILDREN, OF COURSE, DON’T MIND.

Barnes was left alone in the snow, with the mantle. Arguing with Death was like arguing with Steve. No matter what you said or did, you ended up going along with him anyway.

What the hell. He draped the mantle over his shoulders.

The heavy cloth unfurled around his body and brushed against the snow. When Barnes looked down, he saw white fur swirling up the length of the cloak in shapes of stars and crosses. He was holding a fur cap, which he set firmly on his head.

Death and Susan emerged from the cabin, each in warm, swirling robes of their own. Death’s was blue, with the same intricate white fur patterns as Barnes’s. Susan’s was silver-blue and sparkling. Her hair was busy rearranging itself into a braided snowflake.

The moving hair was new, but Barnes had seen some weird shit. He gestured for them to get back in the sleigh.

Death reached for the reigns, but he shook his head and held them tighter. “Sorry, pal. Always wanted to drive a troika.”

*

This trip was almost the same as the last one, except Barnes took the role of the gift-bringer, Death helped, and Susan was there to look amazing. The children gravitated toward her more than they did to Barnes, which was okay by him. They touched her hair and admired the sword with the flashing blue blade that hung by her side.

Snegurochka was a positive monster story, a Cinderella, that Russian mothers told their children to get them to behave. “Be good, like the Snow Maiden,” they said. “Be kind and gentle and respectful, and you will be rewarded.”

Barnes figured that Susan Sto Helit didn’t quite fit the bill. She was the kind of princess who either fought back or asked the monsters, “What are you doing here?”

The children noticed, and they loved it.

Ded Moroz wanted to know what they wanted for New Year’s and whether they’d been good this year. Snegurochka asked what they were learning in school and if they knew their times tables yet, corrected their grammar and told them they knew better, and they rose to the challenge.

She reminded Barnes of a teacher he’d had in high school. Both scared the hell out of you and made you want to slay dragons, cut off their heads, and lay them at their feet.

Barnes seriously doubted Susan would appreciate a dragon head. He made a mental note to brush up on his math skills in case he ever met her again.

He was grateful the children paid more attention to Susan. He was beginning to understand why the Fat Man’s appearances had been rare, because showing up and talking to people didn’t come easily to him either.

It was nice to watch a child’s eyes widen and hear the almost soundless gasp when they found him depositing a gift by the New Year's tree, but his last...er...job had hinged on either being unseen or creating fear in the hearts of adults.

He wasn’t used to being noticed.

*

As they flew over the steppes, Death gave Susan a crash course on the history of the USSR, and Barnes listened intently. He’d lived through most of this, but he still had no idea what had been going on.

“So all of this is meant to be for the people’s benefit,” Susan said, “and yet the people are poorer than ever?”

I AM SIMPLY TELLING IT AS IT IS. I HAVE SPENT MUCH TIME IN RUSSIA LATELY.

“And Russia and America have been building weapons and trying outdo each other on space exploration without actually going to battle?”

YES.

“And this Hydra has been running Russia and basically the rest of the world through fear tactics?”’

YES.

“This is ridiculous. Why don’t we do everyone in this world a favor and take down Hydra while we’re here? I mean, we are Death, a world-class assassin, and a governess--who has excellent aim with a poker, let alone a sword, I might add.”

Thank you, Susan.

WE HAVE A MISSION, AND ONE NIGHT IN WHICH TO ACCOMPLISH IT.

But Death. Hydra.

Barnes tightened his grip on the reigns. “We may have to deal with Hydra tonight.”

“What do you mean?” Susan focused her steely gaze on him, and he almost regretted opening his mouth.

“I identified multiple Hydra operatives in New York who knew my location. Hydra is active in NORAD, which was helpful in initial tracking of the Fat Man. They definitely know where we are tonight.”

Susan shivered. Her movement shook something loose from the sleeve of her silvery robe. A small, hooded figure scampered down her skirt and across the floor of the troika.

The cat sat up in Death’s lap with an inquisitive yowl.

Just as the cat reached out to swat the tiny figure off Susan’s knee, Death scooped the cat away and placed it on Barnes’ lap, where he could hold it back with the arm.

SQUEAK, said Death of Rats as it covered its eyes with bony paws. It uncovered one eye to find that it was safe.

Death and Death of Rats were face to face. They nodded, one professional to another, and Death of Rats scampered for cover in Susan’s robe again.

She shrugged apologetically. “Stubborn little bugger. He couldn’t stand to be left behind.”’

Barnes was impressed. New York City had always been full of rats. Also, as far as he could trust his memory, full of women who were afraid of rats.

This one was fearless of both rats and Hydra, and while he knew she wasn’t on the Fat Man’s List, she still counted as Nice.

Or, not Nice exactly, but something close. (“Nice is different than good,” Susan would have told him if he’d asked. But he didn’t ask, and wouldn’t have understood that he was well on the way to good-but-not-nice, too.)

*

Whenever Death asked to stop the troika, Barnes reined in the horses.

It was usually to help someone, like they did on Christmas Eve. They comforted a lost child in Lipetsk. They helped a widow in Belgorod find her missing cat (even their own cat joined in and worked alongside Death of Rats).

Barnes didn’t mind. It slowed them down, but it was better than giving gifts to the brats of Hydra officials who had not been good this year but who still had presents come out of the sack, no matter how many times Death reached in, searching for coal.

So when Death asked to stop at the orphanage in Odessa, Barnes pulled the sleigh over and began rifling through the box for the orphans’ letters.

They might have left Russia, but they were still in the domain of Ded Moroz...and Hydra.

People everywhere didn’t have enough to eat, but it was especially clear at the orphanage.

Susan saw the pale, pinched faces almost as bony as Death’s and said, “Right. Grandfather, let’s set up a proper meal.”

Together, the two of them produced a large cauldron of soup and several loaves of thickly sliced bread and began serving food to the children.

Barnes realized that he’d been watching them but had no idea where the food had come from. It hadn’t come out of the sack. Maybe it was some kind of Death-and-Susan magic.

He sat back and enjoyed the smell of soup, which was busy transforming the cramped, dingy building with a homey glow. It took a while for the children to even notice he was there, but eventually they began tugging at his robe, clamoring for presents.

Susan made them line up one at a time, reminding them to say “please” and “thank you,” but she and Death were still busy serving soup to the orphanage staff.

Barnes was on his own.

These children had been taught not to expect much for New Year’s. It was easier not to feel guilty about what came out of the sack for them when all they asked for were simple toys or a handful of sweets. But there were always one or two who wanted the impossible.

The Fat Man had been older when he became the gift-bringer; he had been an adult for a long time and was used to injustice, so it was easier for him to give poor children lousy gifts and to make sure rich children got expensive ones even if they didn’t deserve them.

Barnes hadn’t had much time to be an adult before Hydra--no, before the war. Sure, he’d grown up looking after Steve and his kid sisters, but all he remembered were round faces shining with hope for gifts Santa Claus wouldn’t bring poor kids during the Depression. Even then, he couldn’t say no, only try to find extra work somehow and hope he’d have enough left over from the girls’ presents to make sure Stevie got new drawing paper.

When the small boy asked for a mother for New Year’s, Barnes still couldn’t say no.

Instead, he tried: “She wouldn’t have fit in the sack, pal. How about asking for something smaller?”

He couldn’t stand to send the little fella away looking that miserable, even with his tiny hands bulging with oranges and candy. But then again, all these children needed families. Not all of them were going to get them.

Fuck it. He’d seen Death give children the impossible--lizards and ponies and job offers for unemployed parents. The mantle was his now. He could afford to try some magic, too.

He pulled the kid close and whispered so the other children couldn’t hear. “She couldn’t make it tonight, but she’ll be here soon. This time next year, I’ll have to visit you at your new house.”

He believed it with all his heart, and so he knew it would come true.

The last child was way too small for her age, and she had the brightest red hair he’d ever seen. In spite of her efforts to fight back tooth and claw (literally), the older, bigger children had pushed and kicked her until she ended up at the end of the line.

When she told him what she wanted, he threw a desperate glance at Death, who was still busy with Susan. He hadn’t hesitated to give out gifts like this on Christmas, but a child this small? What was he supposed to do?

He leaned closer. “You know how to use something like that?”

“I have been good this year.” Her eyes dared him to break the contract.

Like that was going to happen. He’d already caused enough trouble, murdering the Fat Man. He wasn’t about to get himself kicked out of a job for refusing to give a little girl the gift he knew was waiting for her in the sack.

“Yeah, I bet you have.” He sighed and reached inside the sack. “Guess I’ll just have to show you how to use ‘em myself.”

And that’s how, while Susan and Death discussed orphanage business with the staff over bowls of still-steaming soup and the other children fought over their New Year's toys, Barnes taught little Natalia how to throw knives.

By the time she had managed to sink all three knives into the wall, Death and Susan arrived to remind Barnes that they were on a schedule.

EDUCATIONAL, said Death, eying the knives approvingly.

“Hm,” said Susan, unconsciously brushing the hilt of her sword. Barnes wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d had similar gifts as a child.

When they left, he had to fight the urge to pick Natalia up and take her with them. Hydra recruited children with her skillset and unusual interests. He had memories of training the Red Room girls, not much older than this kid.

He knew she could take care of herself, though, and that was better than any gift he could give her. Except maybe throwing knives.

*

When they left the orphanage, Barnes knew something was wrong.

The horses stomped and snorted nervously as they approached the sleigh, and the cat leaped down from the seat and stalked toward him, every muscle tense.

He had just enough time to unsling his rifle and cock it, yelling “Look ou--”

Hydra agents emerged from behind the sleigh and the building behind them, encircling them with drawn weapons.

The Soldier began firing into their ranks before they finished forming. He could get through, make a break for the sleigh, take off into the night.

No .

Even his mind, broken and bruised and full of memory gaps as it was, pulled him back.

He felt Death’s cold, steadying presence, saw Susan draw her sword as if she’d been doing this since she was a girl, heard startled screams echo inside the orphanage after the first gunshots.

Gunshots that came from his rifle, his aim as true as the Soldier’s had been.

The scent of the fallen Hydra agent’s blood hit his nostrils with a wave of adrenaline.

It had been 35 years since fighting against Hydra instead of for them. Fucking payback time.

And, like before, he had a team of friends to fight with. To fight for.

What he needed now was a...a shield. Wait, what?

He stood his ground in the chaos  and fired again into the Hydra ranks, avoiding the building and the sleigh. There was little enough cover as it was, and too much of that cover sheltered animals and children. Head-on would have to do. Susan followed suit and began taking out the agents near the sleigh.

Instincts kicked in as he scanned the scene.

Hydra had a guard at the door of the orphanage, so they weren’t after the kids. Likely one of the adults inside had told Hydra they were there. This was the longest they’d been in one place tonight, so there had been enough time for a phone call and for Odessa’s Hydra outpost to send a team.

Mid-shot, Barnes realized there had only been one agent guarding the side of the building and that that might make a good opening to get out of the crossfire. He risked a glance just in time to watch three knives embed themselves in the guard’s chest.

Three small throwing knives. Hell no.

The guard slumped over, and a flash of red darted toward him to retrieve the knives.

“Susan, get her!” Barnes stabbed a finger at the little girl before aiming at another agent. He had to hold off Hydra from closing in on either side, but if Susan could get through, it was worth a risk.

She spoke to her robe: “Hold them off.”

A tiny hooded figure darted from her sleeve and was joined from the cat, who had made a run for the sleigh as soon as the gunshots started. Together, they bit and clawed Hydra agents to keep them distracted until Barnes could take them down.

He never did figure out how Susan made it to the opposite end of the ambush. Maybe it was magic.

The guard was still alive when she got there. Acting fast, she ran him through before hauling a screaming Natalia away from the fighting. She pushed her back through the open window and shut it so hard the panes rattled.

As the little girl started pounding on the glass, Susan gave her a steely glare. GET DOWN AND STAY INSIDE.

The red hair disappeared immediately. Later, the girl would dream of becoming as scary as Snegurochka when she grew up.

*

The Soldier had been focused, aiming for a target and reaching it no matter what. Tonight, Barnes was aware of everything, his enhanced senses still taking in the smell of gunpowder as the Hydra agents fired, the rush of blood on wet snow when he hit one in the shoulder, the glint of cold steel blades in the starlight. So when he finished punching one agent who’d gotten a little too close for comfort, he was surprised to find no one else shooting at him.

At first he assumed he’d killed them all, but most had wounds from Susan’s sword, and on closer inspection many had vicious-looking cat scratches and bites from Death of Rats.

Good to know violence was a team effort this time.

Barnes’s confusion deepened when Susan approached the sleigh, her bedraggled hair already sweeping itself into another flawless snowflake. Should he thank her? Apologize?

Fortunately, she spoke first. “Educational, indeed. You couldn’t have given her something more destructive, could you? Maybe a bazooka?”

Barnes recovered quickly. “Hey, lady, who are you to question Grandfather Frost’s gifts?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe his granddaughter? Or goddaughter, depending on the legend. How old are you, anyway?”

He pretended to be shocked. “Snegurochka’s supposed to be polite and respectful!”

“Not this one,” she shot back.

“Good,” he said after a pause. “Brave is better than polite.”

He looked past her to where Death was doing...whatever Death did. Here and there, a thin figure rose up from the snow and vanished into the dark night.

“We should go,” Barnes called. “Reinforcements will come soon.”

SQUEAK, said Death of Rats as he looked up from scavenging. He scrambled into the sleigh and sat near the cat, who was already purring on Susan’s lap.

Death, as usual, took his own time. YOU WILL NEED TO LET THE CHILDREN KNOW THAT YOU ARE STILL ALIVE AND ON YOUR WAY TO THE NEXT TOWN. OTHERWISE THEY WILL HEAR THE GUNFIRE AND BELIEVE THAT WE ARE DEAD.

Right. For belief.

Barnes gripped the reins and urged the horses on, aiming for the orphanage. Just in time, the horses lifted the troika, and they were airborne.

“Happy New Year!” he shouted.

HO. HO. HO. Death added for good measure.

As they shot past the windows, they saw children press their faces against the glass, watched shocked faces erupt in smiles.

Death turned to Barnes and Susan. A JOB WELL DONE.

SQUEAK!

YES, YOU TOO.

*

When they left the last gift at the last house, Barnes grasped Death’s wrist as if he were going to disappear in the cold winter air without saying goodbye.

“Need you to tell me one thing, pal.”

JUST ONE THING?

“Shuddup.” Barnes breathed heavily, trying to collect his thoughts. “There was a guy...a friend. When I. Before.”

YOU WANT TO KNOW IF STEVEN ROGERS IS STILL ALIVE.

He nodded. “Wearing this mantle, it...well, I can tell you when someone wrote their last letter to me. To Santa Claus. But I don’t know much more than that.”

I HAVE NOT VISITED HIM.

Barnes sighed with relief. He wasn’t dead, but everything he’d read about him in New York had told him that he wasn’t exactly living, either.

For the past few decades, he’d known what that was like.

So he was lost out there, somewhere. Hydra probably had a hand in it somehow.

Good thing Barnes had developed a taste for taking down Hydra and had a job that took him all over the world at least once a--wait.

He had already taken off the mantle and was holding it out to Death.

“Death?” He hesitated. “I killed the Fat Man.”

YOU DID INDEED.

“Who’s going to do his job next year?”

Death shrugged. AS LONG AS THERE IS BELIEF, SOMEONE WILL BE THERE TO WEAR THE MANTLE. UNFORTUNATELY, HYDRA WILL BE WAITING FOR HIM, WHOEVER HE IS.

Barnes looked at the cloth in his hand. “Lucky the new gift-bringer knows how to deal with Hydra.”

LUCKY FOR THEM? HOW?

“No, buddy. Lucky for you, ‘cause every Christmas they come after the gift-bringer, you’ll have a hell of a lot of dead Hydra agents to take care of.”

Somehow, Death looked pleased. Susan gave him a satisfied nod.

Barnes climbed in the sleigh with the cat beside him, and took the reigns. As Death, Susan, and Death of Rats vanished below, he had a strong suspicion he’d see them again. After tonight, New Year’s in Russia wouldn’t be the same without a sword-wielding Snegurochka. He predicted he’d get some exciting drawings from the orphans in their letters for next year.

Once the sleigh was in the air, he let the horses take the lead as they headed north. After all, they knew the way home.

Home.

He couldn’t wait to find out what that was like.

Chapter Text

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.

Huh.

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.”

“WHAT.”

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.