Natasha enjoys Christmas. It's not something she remembers from her time in the Red Room, beyond the yearly ritual of dancing The Nutcracker (she knows it didn't happen, but she still remembers it as if it had, could still dance the Sugar Plum Fairy today if she had to). Her first year out from under their thumb, she'd gone to see it in Paris, the year after that, Prague. Her first year with SHIELD, she'd seen it in New York, with Clint, at Lincoln Center. Other than that, she doesn't have much in the way of traditions.
Last year, they'd all done their own thing at Christmas--she'd been in Tallinn, Thor had been in Asgard, Steve had been with former Director Carter in England, and Tony'd been getting his house blown up on live television. This year, Clint bows out--he won't be back from Tripoli in time--so she asks Pepper instead.
Pepper has never been exactly comfortable with her after the whole Natalie Rushman thing, and Natasha can't blame her for that (she's never had to interact long-term with any of her marks after they've discovered her identity), but she unbends a little over a glass of wine during intermission, and by the time they're waiting for Happy to bring the car around in front of Lincoln Center, they're chatting easily.
"Do you have plans for Christmas Eve?" she asks as they settle into the backseat of the car.
Natasha shrugs a shoulder. "Clint should be back by then. He likes to drink eggnog and make me watch It's a Wonderful Life as payback for the ballet."
Pepper cocks her head thoughtfully. "Has Steve seen that, do you think?"
"Didn't it come out during the war?"
Pepper shakes her head. "Not until after."
"I doubt anyone else knows that, so no, it probably wasn't included in his introduction to modern pop culture."
"We should fix that."
Natasha nods, though she herself finds the movie overly sentimental. "I'll tell Clint."
"Great. Rhodey's on assignment at Camp David, but I think everyone else is around. We'll take care of inviting Thor and Jane, and of course, Steve and Bucky."
Natasha pretends not to hear the hesitation before Pepper says James's name, and agrees to show up on Christmas Eve for a special holiday team movie night.
Clint bitches and moans for a little bit about having to go to a work party, but then Tony tells him Thor is bringing Asgardian mead and they're going to try to get Steve drunk, and the next time Natasha sees Clint, he's elbow deep in cookie dough. "Thor's bringing mead," he says when Natasha raises an eyebrow. "It seems like the polite thing to do."
"I thought no one was supposed to know about this side of you," she says, gesturing at the cookie trays.
"Oh, we're totally telling them the cookies came from a bakery," he says. "You wanna help me decorate them?"
"No, thank you."
She does steal a couple of tricolor flag cookies from the tray before he boxes them up, though. Clint's are much better than the ones from the grocery store.
Pepper looks a little surprised when Clint hands her a tower of white boxes tied together with blue and white string (he's nothing if not committed to the little details when it comes to keeping a secret), but she hands them off to Darcy, who takes them into the kitchen to be plated by the catering staff.
"We're so glad you could come."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Clint says.
"Asgardian mead," Tony says excitedly.
"I mean, I've gotten drunk on some of the finest alcohol available on this planet, but this will be the first time I've gotten drunk on alcohol from another planet."
"I know." Clint sounds almost as excited as Tony.
"And we'll finally get to see the old Capsicle loosen up."
Steve rolls his eyes, and Natasha exchanges an amused glance with Pepper, who shrugs. "We have plenty of spare bedrooms. Nobody has to go home tonight."
"We will toast the return of the Captain's boon companion with many toasts," Thor says as he enters the room. He trails melting snow from the elevator to the bar, and then lowers a large keg from his shoulder. He's carrying a couple of shopping bags from Lord & Taylor in his other hand, full of brightly wrapped packages, and Natasha vaguely recalls hearing a theory that Santa Claus was originally based on Odin. Maybe there's some truth to it.
Whatever smart remark Tony is going to make in response to Thor's pronouncement is short-circuited when Thor unzips his jacket to reveal a red sweater emblazoned with Santa Claus and his sleigh. "What are you wearing?" he says instead.
Thor holds out his arms and turns slowly, modeling his sweater. "Darcy assured me it was the height of Yule fashion on Midgard." He presses one of the snowflakes on his chest and a tinkly version of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" plays while Rudolph's red nose lights up in time. "Is it not spectacular?"
"Oh my god," Clint says, slightly slack-jawed in amazement. "I haven't seen anything that tacky since the circus."
"That's fantastic, Thor," Steve says, grinning and clapping him on the shoulder.
"You would think so," James murmurs.
"We're not making your uniform musical," Tony tells him.
"And no flashing lights," James adds. "You're already wearing a huge target on your chest."
Steve laughs and ducks his head. Natasha catches James's eye and tilts her head towards the mistletoe dangling at irregular intervals from the ceiling, and he quirks his eyebrows in response. She supposes it's possible Steve is deliberately avoiding getting caught under the mistletoe with James, but she doesn't believe it. He's probably not as clueless about it as he seems, either. He's usually not.
"The one I purchased for you is not quite as festive, Steven," Thor says, "but I think it shall suit you admirably." He reaches into one of his shopping bags and thrusts a neatly wrapped box at Steve, who takes it with a happy smile. Thor hands the rest of his gifts out, and soon everyone in the room is holding an ugly Christmas sweater. "Are they not magnificent?"
"Yeah," Tony says and then trails off, speechless in the face of his red and gold sweater, liberally decorated with dancing gingerbread men. Just for that, Natasha resolves to wear hers every year with glee.
"I love mine," she says, tugging it on and then going up on tippy-toe to press a thank-you kiss to Thor's cheek. Her sweater is red with white snowflakes along the shoulders and a scene of penguins in Santa hats skating around a Christmas tree on the front.
Clint scowls at his sweater, which is green and covered in a host of wide-winged angels with golden horns and harps, but he pulls it on when Natasha shoots him a look. Pepper's is the least awful of the bunch, pine green and trimmed in actual gold tree garland and tiny, dangly red ornaments. She pulls it on with a goofy grin and makes Tony put his on as well.
Bruce's is brown and covered in rows of cream-colored reindeer, snowflakes, and Christmas trees. He laughs softly and puts it on without prompting. "Thanks," he says.
Thor beams at him. "You are most welcome, my friend!"
"Aren't they great?" Darcy asks as she and Jane return from the kitchen. She pulls out her phone and starts snapping pictures. "This is totally going on Facebook." Darcy's sweater is blue and covered with snowflakes and dreidls, and Jane's has a picture of Santa and Mrs. Claus kissing beneath the mistletoe. Thor wraps his arms around them both and presses a smiling kiss to the top of Jane's head.
Steve's sweater is also blue, very close to the color of his uniform, with snowmen in top hats frolicking across it, while James's is green and brown and covered in dancing teddy bears. He eyes it skeptically but pulls it on when Steve gives him a look.
"I think it's time to tap that keg," Tony says. Clint and James follow him eagerly to the bar.
"I think these are swell," Steve tells Thor. "Very Christmassy." He glances at Darcy. "Holiday-y."
"I agree," Natasha says, tugging him beneath the mistletoe so she can kiss him before the drinking starts. She enjoys making him blush (and making James scowl) more than she probably should. "Very charming."
The Asgardian mead is everything Thor promised and Tony hoped for. Natasha's feeling pleasantly buzzed and even Steve looks a little tipsy when James finally tugs him beneath a sprig of mistletoe and gives him a thorough kissing, much to the delight of everyone present.
There's a brief tense moment shortly after that when Tony and Thor end up in the spot beneath the mistletoe currently unoccupied by Steve and James. Thor looks up and frowns. "What is this? I don't find this jape amusing, Tony."
"You thought it was funny enough when it was Clint and Natasha underneath," Tony answers. "And you cheered at Cap and Bucky with the rest of us, so I don't think it's a no homo thing. Is it me?"
"It's the facial hair," Clint says, rubbing his chin.
"I'll have you know my facial hair is silky as...silk," Tony answers indignantly.
"What?" Thor says, looking thoroughly confused. "Loki once used mistletoe to poison our half-brother, Balder. It has been an accursed plant in Asgard since then."
"Oh!" Pepper says, intervening. "I obviously didn't do enough research. My apologies, Thor."
Thor takes her hand and kisses it gently. "My dear lady Pepper, it is no fault of yours. I am often too quick to take offense lately at reminders of Loki." Then he turns to Tony and says, "I shall kiss you posthaste, my friend, if that is what you desire."
Tony huffs a soft laugh and shakes his head. "No, no, not if you don't want to. I'm good, big guy."
"He just wants to make sure you think he's pretty," Darcy says.
"You are an attractive man, Tony Stark," Thor says, and then sweeps him into a kiss, to much loud hooting and laughter.
"Okay," Tony says drunkenly when Thor lets him go. "If we weren't both involved with other people, I would so totally do you on the bar right now."
"And I would so totally watch," Jane murmurs. Natasha and Darcy clink glasses with her in solidarity.
Thor slaps his back, making him stumble slightly, and laughs. "And I, you, my friend. Now come, let us drink a toast to our fair ladies."
After another round of mead, Tony slings an arm over Bruce's shoulders and stuns them all with an off-key rendition of "Frosty the Snowman." Halfway through the chorus, Bruce takes over and suddenly they're all singing sincerely, or at least as sincerely as some of them ever do. Thor, who doesn't know the words, conducts them with his beer stein, and Natasha is immensely impressed that he doesn't spill a drop of mead.
"I am no novice at feasting, my good friends. I learned this technique at Volstagg's knee!" he answers when she tells him so.
"Speaking of feasting," Pepper says, "Jarvis, where's the next round of hors d'oeurves?" The cater waiters pass around trays of potstickers and bacon-wrapped dates and mushroom crostini, and then they roll out the buffet table, which includes lasagna, a spiral ham, Thai shrimp curry, and scalloped potatoes. There are also several trays of macaroni and cheese, because, Pepper confides to Natasha, Tony, Thor, Bruce, Clint, and Steve all separately asked if there would be any at the party. She smiles fondly at them and says, "Boys," in a familiar tone that makes Natasha laugh.
"And for dessert," Tony says, "in addition to Clint's cookies--"
"That came from a bakery," Clint insists.
"That came from a bakery in Clint's kitchen," Tony continues without missing a beat, "we're having chocolate fondue." He elbows Steve in the ribs. "My parents always had a fondue pot at their weird parties when I was a kid. I think it was just the seventies, but Dad said it was in honor of you."
"My lady Jane and I enjoy fondue," Thor says with a wide grin and both Steve and James dissolve into giggles.
"You're not the only ones," James says as Steve buries his face in James's shoulder.
Natasha makes a note to investigate later, but if she doesn't get to the mac and cheese before Thor and Steve, there won't be any left.
They never do get around to watching It's a Wonderful Life. Steve and James end up making out on the couch (Natasha confiscates Darcy's phone before she can post pictures to Facebook), and then stumbling into one of the guest bedrooms, so wrapped up in each other that they forget to say goodnight. Natasha motions to Pepper, who tells Jarvis to turn off all recording in the room.
Soon afterward, the party breaks up, and Natasha tumbles into bed beside Clint, who's drunk and amorous, and can't stop making terrible Christmas puns while they have sex. Because she's not exactly sober herself, she laughs against his mouth and thanks him for her present.
Just before she falls asleep, she swears she hears Thor call out, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"