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Ghosts of Christmas Memory

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The Ghost of Christmas Past:

“Six handlers in six months.”

Nick Fury didn't even look up from his report. “Mmmm,” he hummed, one cheek braced on his broad fist, his single dark eye narrowed in concentration. “Closer to five months, if you wanna be technical about it, but I'm guessing you don't, huh, Phil?”

Phil Coulson resisted the urge to fling the folders in his hand at his boss' head. It wouldn't end well, and Fury would just laugh at him. Then throw him in the brig. With a faint, sustained breath, Coulson set the files on the desk. “Six handlers in six months,” he repeated.

“Yeah, we've established that. Kind of a lousy track record, even for your pet project.”

“He's not my pet project,” Phil said, dropping into the guest chair when Nick waved a hand in its general direction. He rubbed his aching forehead with stiff fingers.

“I keep forgetting that. Maybe because every time one of his handlers bites the big one, your ass is down here, riding me about it.” Fury slapped the file shut and leaned back in his chair. “Do I look like HR, Coulson? Do I share any resemblance to Pat from General Assignments? 'Cause I'm not seeing it. For one thing, I couldn't pull off those fingernails.”

“Sir-”

Nick stabbed a finger in his direction. “Your boy has issues. Nothing that can't be worked around, but let's be flat honest here, Coulson, let's cut the bullshit. Your boy has issues.”

Phil gritted his teeth to stop from saying anything unfortunate. “He's not 'my boy,'” he said, his voice calm and reasonable. “He is an incredible asset.”

“That we haven't got a clue how to properly utilize,” Fury said, slashing the air with one hand. “And therein lies our problem, Phil. We've got an agent who's head and shoulders above most of our staff, fast and smart and skilled in a way that you don't get without some God-given talent. He can do things that I honestly did not think was possible with a bow and arrows, which is why I allow him to continue to carry a goddamn bow and arrows. I mean, really? I don't know when I lost control of this situation, but it's clear that I'm running a goddamn middle school here.”

Phil sighed. “He needs a handler.”

“So find him one.”

“I'm not from HR either,” Phil pointed out. “I can look through the available handlers, but that's all-”

Fury waved him off. “You do that, Phil. And when you find a handler with nerves of steel, a firm grasp on their temper, flexibility to rival a Circ de Soleil acrobat and a hell of a sense of humor, you let me know.”

“I'll start going through the personnel files when I get back from vacation,” Phil said, and he just might do that. Hell, at this point, he couldn't do any worse than what HR had already accomplished.

“Yeah, that's right, you're heading home for the holidays.” Fury's teeth flashed in a sharp-edged grin. “Good luck with that.”

“Thank you, sir.” Gathering his files, Phil headed for the door. Lost in thought, he was halfway back to his office before a familiar song, and a familiar voice, caught his attention.

Clint Barton was ambling up the hall, his gait loose and controlled, his weapon case over his shoulder. He was singing low and soft, the words barely audible, and it took Phil a moment to place the tune. In his defense, “Good King Wenceslas” was not exactly the most common Christmas song. Clint grinned at him as their paths crossed. “Hey, sir,” he said, flipping off a quick, two-finger salute. “What's the good word?”

“Paperwork,” Phil said, holding up the files, and Clint laughed. Phil couldn't quite keep the smile off of his face. “You have a mission?”

“Shipping out today.” Clint shifted his weight, his heavy boots braced wide on the floor. “You heading home for Christmas?”

“First time in six years,” Phil said. “My parents made it clear that if I don't show up, I'm out of the will.”

“Big loss in terms of inheritance?” Clint asked, his lips twitching. His eyes were warm and bright.

“Yeah, I'd miss not getting my fair share of Mom's collection of cat statues and my father's library of biographies of European heads of state.” Phil took a sip from his coffee cup. “I can't risk it.”

Laughing, Clint shifted his weapons case, adjusting his stance. “I gotta run. I'm due in the hanger in like, three minutes. Merry Christmas, Agent Coulson!” With a wave, he took off at a light jog down the hall.

Phil watched him go, his lithe grace enough to draw Phil's eye every time. He tried not to think about it, he tried not to let himself dwell on it, but now, in the empty hall, with no one around and no one to see, he let his eyes linger on the sleek lines of Clint Barton's shoulders, back and legs.

“Merry Christmas, Agent Barton,” he said, and he didn't raise his voice, he didn't call after the other man, but still, Clint's hand came up in a wave of acknowledgment before he disappeared down the hall.

Phil stood there, with his file folders in one hand and his cooling coffee in the other, long after the sound of Clint's feet on the carpet had faded. With a mental shake, he headed up the hall, going for his own office. He had work to do, and a lot of things to wrap up, before he could close up shop for the holidays.

*

He considered ignoring his phone. He was that damn tired.

But a glance at the screen showed Fury's private line, and with a sigh, Phil connected the call. “I am at the boarding gate, sir,” he said, without preamble. “I am getting on this plane in exactly six minutes, so whatever it is that you've got-”

“Barton's missed two check ins.”

Phil froze. “What happened?” Cursing his own stupidity, he reached for his bag.

“We don't know,” Fury said, and that gave him a second's pause, that honestly stopped him in the act of booting his laptop up. Even when Fury didn't have a clue what was happening, he usually did a better job of covering it up. “Should've been a simple info exchange, we just sent a couple agents for backup-”

“And to keep them out of trouble.” Phil pulled up his browser and watched the files stream. “Northern Canada.”

“Yeah, SHIELD outpost out that way had some info that the locals needed. Rumors were flying, and we wanted a little extra buffer between what was being handed off and the recipients, just for safety.”

Phil stared at the photos that were scrolling across his computer screen. “Didn't go according to plan.”

“No. Unknown attackers, concentrated and fast. We're doing a trace down on that now, but how they got in or what they were after, we don't know yet. Minor casualties on both sides, we lost a couple of good people. So did the RCMP that were part of the pickup squad. The information was intact, handed off fine, but...”

Phil leaned back in his seat, a hand over his mouth. “Barton?”

“Disappeared in the aftermath. No confirmed sightings or contact. No one's sure why.”

The local reports were in front of him now, and Phil scowled at them. They were implying that the timing of Barton's disappearance was suspicious. “They think he was in on it.”

“They think he masterminded it. Want him found, and fast.”

Phil paused. “Orders?”

“Figure out what the fuck he's playing at, and get him out of there.”

“Sir-”

“You've got your orders, Agent Coulson. Move your ass.”

“I'm en route,” Phil said, slapping his laptop shut.

“Skip the commercial flights, we have clearance to land a pick-up for you.”

Phil opened his mouth, and before he could manage so much as a single word, a courtesy cart came beeping through the crowd. “Foregone conclusion, was it, sir?” he asked, grabbing his bag. He held up his credentials for the guards driving the cart and swung onto the back. They took off at a rate he wouldn't consider safe in a crowded airport, but he knew all to well how persuasive Fury could be.

“Sorry. But you brought him in once, Phil.” Fury sounded tired. “If he has gone rogue-”

“He hasn't,” Phil said.

“Yeah, I agree with you, and that means he's dug in for some reason. And if that's the case? Then you're the one with the best chance to bring him back in, and you know it. Temperatures up North? He's not going to last much longer, and unless he's got someone he trusts to talk him down, he's not going survive this.”

Phil was reviewing the mission details in his head, even as the cart screeched around a corner, nearly hitting a pleasant looking family in matching sweaters. “Who's his target?”

“Limited choices. But either he's gone rogue, or someone else on the team has, and he knows it.” There was a beat of a pause. “I don't have to tell you what to do here, do I, Agent?”

“No, sir.” SHIELD protected their own. And reserved a special level of hell for those who took advantage of that fact.

“Good. Check in as soon as you get the lay of the land.” Fury sighed, the sound audible over the line. “Get him back on the reservation, Coulson, I haven't got time for this shit.”

“Understood, sir.” Phil tucked his phone away in an inner pocket as they crossed into the secured areas of the airport terminal. He held on tight as they made a series of completely unsafe turns before coming to a screeching halt in a small access hallway. He wasn't surprised to find a SHIELD agent there with a sealed weapons case and his luggage.

He hopped off the cart. “The big bag has my Christmas presents, hold that here. The small one I'm taking,” he said, his voice clipped. “And I'll need one more thing.”

A few minutes later, he was striding across the tarmac towards the jet, his phone at his ear. “Hello, mom? Sorry, I know, I know, third year in a row, but there's a problem at work. Yes. Canada. I do have my passport, as a matter of fact. Yes, I know, I know, if I wasn't so prepared, I wouldn't get stuck with these jobs.” He couldn't help but smile as he ran up the ramp. “I know. Out of the will,” he said, before she could. “But this time? It's a matter of life and death. Save me a piece of pie. I'll be there as soon as I can.”

*

It was snowing in Churchill.

Phil stepped out of the transport, and immediately pulled his scarf up to cover the lower half of his face. His eyes watered and his skin seemed to frost over in a matter of seconds. He blinked against the wind, giving himself a second to adjust to the cold.

It didn't really work, but a momentary pause usually allowed him to control his urge to swear and crawl back into the warm interior.

“Agent Coulson?”

“Agent Telerico,” Phil said, without even turning his head in the man's direction. “This was quite a clusterfuck, wasn't it?”

“Yes, sir,” Frank said, not even bothering to say otherwise. “We got blindsided hard.”

“What's the current count?” He didn't want to know, but he had to know. Had to know if anything had changed since the last update had come through official channels.

“Nine dead, sixteen injured, three MIA.”

“Who's missed check-in?”

“Farrow, Harper and Barton.” There was a pause. “We're hitting eight hours at this point, not much time before we call all three. Life expectancy in this mess isn't near that long.”

Phil tipped his head back and stared at the blank gray sky. He was right, and Phil knew it. Farrow was a support staffer, she wouldn't have had the gear for this mess. Harper, there was a slim possibility. But Barton...

“We don't call anything until we recover the bodies,” Phil said out loud. “You know procedure, Frank.”

“And you know reality, Phil,” Frank snapped back. “Bodies are all well and good in New York, but up here? If one of 'em ended up in a snowbank, they're already covered and we won't locate anything until Spring thaw. And that's if the animals don't drag the remains off before then.” He paused, huddled into the weight of his jacket. “What aren't you telling me?”

Phil tipped a glance in his direction. “Quite a bit, actually. Are you referring to anything specific?”

“He's dead,” Frank said, his eyes barely visible in a narrow gap between the edge of his hat and the collar of his coat. A black scarf was wrapped around his throat and trailed down the front of his jacket. The ends moved with each shift of the wind. “You came all this way for nothing.”

Phil didn't even glance in his direction, his eyes scanning the landscape. It was a mess. The fires had long since been put out, only the charred remains of buildings and the sharp spikes of trees dotted the landscape, already disappearing beneath the wash of white snow. He made a non-committal sound under his breath as he did a quick check on his supplies. “We'll see,” he said.

“I don't get it,” Frank said. “What the hell are you doing out here, Coulson? This is way below your paygrade, this is a damn tag 'em and bag 'em operation at this point. Why the hell does Fury care? Why do you? How many dead agents do you go out to recover?”

Phil turned his head, just a bit, weighing his response. “Every year, I hope it's none. It hasn't worked out in my favor yet, but Christmas means we're on the cusp of a new year. Maybe this one will be the one where I don't have to dig the bodies of my colleagues out of the permafrost.

“In any case, I don't question my orders,” he said with a faint smile. “You shouldn't, either.” He tugged his gloves higher on his wrists, tightening the straps and flexing his fingers. “We have a job to do. The sooner we do it, the sooner we get to get out of here, and I'm looking forward to getting out of here, Agent Telerico.”

If Frank had anything else to say, Phil didn't hear it. The wind howled in his ears as he headed off through the remains of the compound. Here and there, an agent or support personnel was shifting a burden, dead bodies and the remains of tech. Flood lights had been set up to combat the darkness, lean-tos and shelters against the cold and the wind and the snow were here and there.

But mostly, it was body bags and silence and the ghostly echoes of SHIELD agents making their way through the winter landscape.

Phil knew where he was going, and a hundred feet away, hidden by the snow and the darkness, he pulled a red apple from his pocket. Taking a slow, even breath, he began whistling, the sound cutting through the cold night air. Though there were no words, he couldn't help but sing along in his head. “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen, though the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even...”

Pausing, even though stillness hurt when the cold sank into his still form, he tossed the apple in the air, a flash of red through the dark night.

An arrow pierced it before it could fall back into his palm.

The sense of relief was overwhelming. Phil took a deep breath and released it as a cloud of mist. Tucking the apple under his arm, he stripped off his right glove and held his bare palm up. The black phone number that he'd written there stood out in stark relief against his pale skin, and his fingers started to hurt almost immediately. Gritting his teeth against the burn of the cold, he rotated, hand above his head. “C'mon,” he muttered under his breath. “C'mon, Barton, one more time. Trust me. One more time.”

The burner cell phone in his pocket vibrated, and he released a breath he hadn't known he was holding. He jerked his glove back on with his teeth as he grabbed the phone with his other hand. “Where are you?” Phil asked, stepping out of the light and into the shelter of a jagged tree trunk.”

“Shouldn't you be somewhere coveting your eventual haul of cat statuettes?” Clint's voice was soft, uneven, but the words made Phil's shoulders relax.

He shifted mental gears, following Clint's lead. “Coveting and drowning my family related stress in high octane eggnog,” Phil agreed. “That was on the schedule. Schedules have a way of changing around SHIELD. And Director Fury.”

“He sent you after me?” A faint, rough chuckle. “You going to put me down, Coulson? Like the rabid dog that I am?”

“He sent me to bring you back.” The wind kicked up, and it hurt, it hurt as the air slipped into every seam and crack in his clothing, finding skin. He tried not to think about how long Barton had been in hiding, exposed to this. “I am here to give you safe passage.”

There was only silence. Only the wind.

“You went off grid because something happened,” Phil said, calm and rational. “You figured something out that no one else saw, no one else realized, and now you're stuck. With a secret that you don't think anyone will believe.”

He shifted his weight, spreading his free hand out to the side. “I will believe you, Agent Barton. I need to know what happened here. I need you to come out, and I will protect you. Whatever went wrong here, I will fix it. But I need you to come out.”

“I don't want to hurt you, sir. But if you come after me, I will.”

Phil's eyes narrowed. Why. Why was he here, why was he making threats? Then again, why had he made the call when Phil gave him the opening? Phil never would've found him, never would've had the proof. He was testing the waters. Cautious. Too cautious. Why? What was he missing?

“I'm not coming out, so if that's what you've come for-”

Something clicked. “You don't have a choice,” he said, and he smiled. He smiled, and it felt right, even though his teeth ached from the cold. “She's dying, isn't she?”

Silence. Phil ignored the silence, ignored the sense of maybe having made the wrong decision, the wrong judgment, the wrong call. “If it was just you, you would've rabbited by now. Gotten out, or gotten loose. You could make it to the nearest road, even if you were injured. But I don't think you are. You're still here, you're still hiding, because you're not alone. Alone, you could make it.

“But you burdened yourself with someone, didn't you, Agent?”

He paused. “Three missing agents. You, and two others. One makes sense. Field agent, fast on the draw, last two reviews indicated a reckless streak and a lack of judgment under fire. But the third... Agent Roberta Farrow. Support Staff. The thing is? There weren't any other members of the support staff on the dead or injured lists. Just her. The one. Back office staff. Paper pusher. A good one, methodical, precise, dedicated, very good at her job.”

Phil glanced at the sky. “One missing support staffer and a field agent who won't come in from the cold. The connection is rather obvious.”

“Are you here to put me down, sir?”

“I am here to bring you in, both of you,” Phil said, slow and precise. “What did she find? What is she carrying?”

“If SHIELD wanted to drop me,” Clint mused, “They'd send you.”

“If SHIELD wanted you dead,” Phil said, “they'd wait another 24 hours.”

That won him a rough chuckle. “I'm harder to kill than that, sir.”

“But she's not.” Phil counted the seconds as they ticked by, measured in heartbeats and breath. “You've done this much to keep her alive. You're not going to get out of this without help. Trust me.”

“All due respect? Why the fuck should I do that?”

“I'm your new handler.” He hadn't known the words were there, were even a possiblity, until he heard them hanging in the air. Phil closed his eyes, knowing that he should regret them, should curse the dumb, selfish, NEEDY part of himself that wanted to make sure that if nothing else? There was one agent that he wouldn't have to put in a body bag.

He couldn't save them all. He couldn't even save himself, intellectually, he knew that. But maybe he could save just one. Just this one.

The silence was a beat, then another, and then a breathless burst of laughter. “You're a lousy liar,” Barton said at last. “Fury wouldn't waste you on the fucking nonsense he's been sending me out for.”

“First of all? I think you overestimate my importance. Director Fury has few loyalties that don't boil down to 'what have you done for me lately?' And second? Your missions have been low level because you haven't had a handler that you could actually work with. The way you've been operating? You didn't have the clearance to do anything else, and we couldn't risk giving you that clearance.”

He sucked in a breath. “That changes now. Here. I am your handler, and I always bring my people back.”

“Are they always alive?”

Phil's eyes shut. “No,” he said. “But you are. You will be. Trust me, Agent. I am here to bring you home, because you are my responsibility. Even if you don't trust me, trust that.”

“Why?” There was a stillness there.

“Because I'm allowing you to use me as bait.” Phil smiled. “Take the shot, Agent.”

The arrow cut so close to the side of his face that he could swear that the felt the air part in its wake. He refused to raise his hand to his cheek to check for blood. There was a strangled sound of pain from behind him. “I will always,” he said, his voice very careful, “always bring you back home, Agent.”

“Good enough for me.” Clint sounded tired, the words brittle on the edges. “What's your opinion of spending Christmas day in medical, sir?”

“Hear their eggnog is the best in the organization, for legal reasons.” Phil turned, stared down at the writhing body of Frank Telerico. “The cleanup crew should have the rest of the compound under control. Bring her down, Agent.”

*

Phil dropped the file on Fury's desk.

“Did we figure things out, Phil?” Nick asked, his pen scratching fast across the papers. He reached out with his free hand, dragging the file close without even looking at it or Phil. He flicked the cover open and put his signature on the waiting line. “Taking on an agent, I see.”

“Yes, sir. As it turns out, there aren't many on SHIELD's payroll that met your requirements,” he said, collecting the files. “I'll turn these in at HR.”

“You do that, Coulson.” Fury steepled his fingers in front of his face. “You know this can backfire on you, don't you?”

“I'm aware of the risks.” Phil paused, head cocked to the side. “If you're not in favor of the idea, then why would you-”

Fury held up a hand. “Didn't say I wasn't in favor. Just pointing out the calculated risks.” His lips twitched up. “Let's just call it a Christmas gift, shall we?”

“My Christmas gift is an obstinate agent with a bow and arrow and a chip on his shoulder?” Phil asked.

“Shouldn't have put in for the office Secret Santa, Phil, you always end up with some gag gift that you don't want and don't know what to do with.” Fury was grinning full out now, and that never worked out well for anyone else.

“Yeah, that was my mistake, sir.” Phil gave him a lopsided half-smile. “Does this mean you don't want the Scotch I got you?”

“Oh, hell, no. Bring that shit around, we can have a drink.” He chuckled as he leaned back in his chair. “Merry Christmas, Phil.”

“Merry Christmas, Nick.”

The Ghost of Christmas Present:

The safe house was an old, battered building. It was rough and it was drafty, the heavy dark drapes perpetually closed to hold back the worst of the winter winds. The heat was inadequate, the water pipes knocked with brutal force, and the corners were dusty and the wallpapers horrific beneath their faded colors.

Phil had no idea who thought it was a good idea to put the Christmas tree up in the living room, but it had been there when they arrived, a real pine, green and lush and slightly lopsided in the way that only real trees were. There weren't many ornaments dotting the branches, but there were a few; blown glass birds with long, curled tail feathers, crocheted snowflakes, glitter dusted balls. Clint had found a string of lights in the hall closet, in a box marked simply decorations, and had wrapped the tree while both Phil and Natasha had ignored his attempts. But when he was done and searching for a broom to pick up some odd needles, Natasha had found a faded blanket to wrap around the stand, and Phil had folded a simple star from tin foil and wired it to the top.

Clint hadn't said anything about either addition, but he had spent the majority of the mission's down time sitting in the comfortably shabby living room with a cup of coffee in one hand and a fire in the soot covered fireplace. Phil did paperwork, and Natasha read, but Clint would just sit and relax, occasionally singing a soft, comforting run of Christmas carols.

And the three of them had waited for their cue, waited for their orders to change. Waited for the other shoe to drop.

In the meantime, Clint had baked and slipped through the nearby woods, coming back with firewood and the odd bit of food most times, and Natasha had made soup and carved bits of wood, her legs curled under her as she sat before the fire as the fire burnished her curls with light. Phil, less noticeable than either of his visually striking agents, prowled the nearby village, passing himself off as a skier out for a holiday, harried by his family and seeking a respite in the nearby pubs. He listened, he watched, and he brought home local delicacies, wrapped in paper and twine and the occasional ribbon.

And if there were two small boxes, in simple red paper, tucked in his luggage, that was his business. Too much time spent in charming markets, he told himself. And too much time spent with the two agents in his care.

But when the orders had come, they had all moved without a second's pause.

Three days after that order had come, Phil was crouched in front of his luggage, staring down at those two little packages, his phone clasped between his palms. When he stood, his legs pulling straight, he was dizzy for a moment, his head swimming, and he wondered how long he'd been there, like a penitent at prayer before a particularly engrossing altar.

Twenty-seven hours since the last check-in, and he was at the end of his rope.

He didn't even know how many times he'd walked the rooms of the house, but once more couldn't hurt. At the razor's edge of exhaustion, it kept him active and alert. The rooms were dark, the drapes pulled tight, but he'd learned the layout early on in their stay; by now, he didn't need the lights. He counted off the steps on the stairwell, the steps between different windows, between the doorways of bedrooms and the black emptiness of the windowless bathrooms.

Up, and around, and back down again. To the warm living room, hidden in the center of the house, the fire banked low and the blankets folded on the overstuffed couch. Phil sank down, in the spot that had rapidly become Clint's seat. Close to the fire, where he could put his feet on the coffee table and rest a cup on the end table, Clint had found a comfortable place and had claimed it as his own.

Phil folded his hands around the planes of his phone, and stared, unseeing, at the dim lights of the Christmas tree.

The whistled strains of “Good King Wenceslas” were so faint that at first he thought he was imagining it. When he allowed himself to believe, he was already halfway to the back door, his gun out and in his hand, moving with speed and caution, doing an inadequate job at both. But he knew the sound of Clint's signals, and the was one that couldn't be mistaken and couldn't been faked.

He spared an instant to check that they were alone, and cursed himself for the delay. Through the swirling snowflakes, under the light of the waning moon, he could see them. And the red trail of blood they'd left behind in the stark white snow. He wrenched the door open.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” Clint said, looking up. There was blood on his face, on his neck, across his jacket, across his shirt. Natasha was half sprawled across his chest, her head down, her arms hanging around his neck without anything that approached a grip. “I got you a damaged field agent.”

Phil reached for Natasha, taking her weight away from Clint before Clint could lose her, or his own footing. “I already have one of those, Agent Barton, and you're more then enough for me, thank you.” Not bothering with subtlety, he swung the slim woman into his arms and headed inside. She was breathing, he could feel that in the short, hard bursts of air against his shoulder, hear it in the faint, rattling gasps. She was in pain, but she was awake, and she was alive. “How damaged?”

“Too damaged to return, sorry, sir. I didn't get a gift receipt.” Clint made it through the door and collapsed back against the wooden panel as soon as it was closed. He fumbled behind him, setting the deadlock. “Sorry, sir.”

“Stay with me, Barton, you pass out now, and I am writing you up.” Phil got Natasha to the couch, not bothering or caring about the damage to the fabric as he lowered her down. “Agent Romanov, I know you're with me, can you open your eyes?”

One eye opened in a slit, and she hissed something vile at him in Russian.

“I'm glad to hear it. I'll be right back.” Rolling back to his feet, he crossed the room in three strides, getting his arms around Barton before the man could collapse to the floor. “Agent?” Barton's head lolled against his shoulder, but his breath was steady against Phil's neck, his hands clawing for purchase on Phil's formerly pristine sweater. “Barton?”

Not waiting any longer for a reply, because he wasn't sure any reply was on offer, he got an arm around Clint's back, and another under his knees and lifted him bodily off the floor. Clint wasn't a large man, by any means, but he was surprisingly heavy, heavier than Phil had anticipated. He stumbled, just a small thing, but he cursed himself for it, even as he lifted Clint into his arms.

Clint was giggling, high and sharp and uneven, when Phil finally lowered him down onto the love seat. His eyes were open, cloudy and unfocused, but open. “What'd you get me?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” Phil's hands came away wet and red, and cursing under his breath, he began fighting with the straps of Clint's vest.

Clint was staring at the tree, his eyes unfocused. “What'd you get me for Christmas?” he asked, and then his eyes slid shut.

“Agent? Clint?” Cursing out loud now, Phil took the knife from Clint's hip sheath, and went at the fabric of his clothes. He found a sealed plastic packet between Clint's vest and his skin, and set it aside, knowing that it was the information they'd come for, the packet now streaked with Clint Barton's blood. “Agent Romanov, are you still-”

“I'm-” She was struggling, a quick glance in her direction made it clear that she was fighting every inch of the way, but she was awake, her eyes trying to focus. “Got hit with something. Gas. Knock out gas. Just have to shake it.”

“How long ago?” Phil found the source of the blood, and it wasn't nearly as bad as he'd been fearing. A long, rather deep slice on the side of Clint's ribs, something sharp and heavy must've gone in at just the right angle to slice the webbing of Clint's vest and the heavy layers underneath it. Not life threatening, but it was still oozing blood. Phil rolled to his feet, running for the kitchen and the hidden medical bag that was wedged behind the door of an easily overlooked cabinet.

When he re-entered the room, Natasha was sitting up, her hands braced on the couch at her sides. “I'm fine,” she said, when he paused in front of her, checking her pupils and her breathing.

“How long?” he snapped, not willing to deal with this now.

“Half an hour, or a bit more,” she admitted. “I'm still-” She shook her head. “Hard to concentrate.”

“Keep talking to me, please.” Phil set the medical bag down next to Clint, and flipped it open. The syringe was where he expected it to be; just enough of an injection to keep Clint quiet and out of pain for Phil to get through some simple treatment. He took a deep, steadying breath. “Report. What the hell happened, Natasha?”

The words came slowly at first. But with each passing second, they grew more assured, and when she stopped slipping into other languages, when she stopped restarting sentences without appearing to know that she was doing it, he felt himself relaxed. Coherence was slow, but when it came, it came with a permanence, and her report was what he needed it to be, concise and correct.

Phil asked questions, to keep her on track, to test her, and he listened carefully for any flaws in her words, in her reasoning. Even as he did, he went through the motions of cleaning Clint's wound and the surrounding skin, sanitizing everything and stitching him up. He hated doing it, he hated the push of needle through flesh, but he'd done it before, and he'd do it again. Clint didn't even stir.

“How is he?” she asked.

“Alive.” Phil glanced in her direction with a faint smile. “He did his job, he got both of you out with what you were dispatched to pick up. I hit the panic button, we'll have a pickup within twelve hours.” The stitches were ugly, but they would hold. His fingers gentle, Phil began checking Clint over, shifting him forward and to the side, peeling away the remainder of his vest and his shirt. SHIELD needed better gear for him, and Phil made a mental note to rattle some cages down in R&D until he got what he wanted.

It took too long, but when he settled Clint back against the cushions, he was clean and dry, skin glowing in the firelight, face relaxed. Phil covered him with a blanket and Clint twisted, settling down with a faint sound.

“You should put him to bed.”

Phil looked up, stripping off his bloodstained gloves. “Agent Romanov?”

She was looking at him, eyes steady, face expressionless. “I kept waiting for him to tell me, but it appears that he's waiting for you to do it, and you'll never do it.” Her good shoulder rose and fell in a slight, barely there shrug. “You should put him to bed.” She paused. “I'm fine, I can take first watch. Bring him upstairs.”

Phil shook his head. “It's warmer here. And I want us ready to evac. He doesn't need a bed, he needs to stay still right now.”

“Take him to bed, Coulson,” she said, and for an instant, he didn't understand.

Phil's heart stuttered to a stop, a skipped beat that sent a sizzle of panic through his limbs. He ignored it. “I believe you have a mistaken impression about our relationship, Agent Romanov.”

“I believe you have a mistaken impression about my gullibility.” Her lips quirked, and there was blood on her jaw, on her neck. Without thinking, he reached for the washcloth, dipping it into the still steaming water and wringing it out. He held it out to her, careful as always of her boundaries. She took it. “I won't tell anyone. If that's the reason why you're doing this, I'm annoyed. The two of you can-”

“Agent.” He met her eyes with a faint, calm smile. “I am Agent Barton's handler, and his superior. That is our relationship. Our only relationship. I do not approve of men, or women, who take advantage of the trust extended to them by their field agents.”

Her eyes widened, just a fraction, just a flicker of her eyelashes, but it was so out of the ordinary for her that his smile stretched, just a bit more. “Does that surprise you, Agent Romanov?”

She mopped at her face, hissing in shock as the hot cloth pressed against sore skin. “No.” She paused, dabbing at the corner of her eye. “Yes,” she said at last. “A bit.” Her eyes met his. “I don't remember anything in the SHIELD manual about a relationship being forbidden.”

“Oh, so you did read it.” He extended his hand and took the cloth back from her. Dipped it in the basin and wrung it out, ignoring the way his hands ached when he dragged them through the too hot water.

“I was bored,” she said. “Don't read too much into it.”

Phil handed over the cloth. “I won't. It isn't a SHIELD rule. It's a personal one.”

She scrubbed at her face, her chin, tipping her head back so he could smooth the washcloth over the line of her throat. Phil stood, heading to the kitchen. Leaving the light off, he filled the teapot a second time and set it on the burner. Keeping his movements as careful and efficient as possible in the darkness. As the water heated, he sliced bread and cheese, apples and the dense, rum soaked fruit cake from the tin on the counter.

Setting everything on a tray, he added coffee cups and sugar, spoons and a teapot, rinsed in hot water and set beneath a towel. The tea leaves were old and crumbling, leftover from some previous op, but still fragrant, spicy and fruity and familiar. He turned the kettle off just as the water began to steam, catching it before it could whistle.

Natasha didn't look up as he walked in, carrying the tray. In the firelight, she was staring at Clint, her fingers twisting the last drops of water, and warmth, from the washcloth. Phil took it from her fingers, returning it to the basin of water. “Eat something,” he said, the order gentle, but still there.

She didn't look at him. “Do you have any rules about the agents you supervise from carrying on a consenting sexual relationship?”

His fingers stilled in the water, and it hurt, it ached down to the joints, down to the bone, and he stared down at his skin, beneath the surface of the water, going red with blood. He let them stay there for a long moment, letting the ache overwhelm everything else. He pulled his hands out and wrung the cloth out, letting the water sluice over his fingers. “Provided it doesn't interfere with the agent's performance in the field, then it's really not any of my business.”

Natasha didn't move. Didn't smile. Her eyes were on Clint, the soft rise and fall of his chest. Phil allowed himself to follow her gaze. To appreciate the play of firelight over Clint's jawline and cheekbone, the way his eyelashes cast spiky shadows across his skin. The pink of his lips, the way they parted as he breathed, the red line of a crack there, where he'd taken a blow. The dark roots of his hair and the way the tips seemed burnished by the golden light.

His hand was tucked against his neck, against the underside of his jaw, fingers curled in, battered and raw and bruised, the hands of a man, of a soldier, of a killer, and the gesture of a child.

“That wasn't what I asked.”

Phil's head jerked around, meeting her eyes, and there was something that looked like sympathy in hers. “Excuse me?” he asked, and pulled himself together, cursing his lack of control. The slips that were happening more and more and he didn't know what was wrong with him. He grabbed the teapot and poured a cup. The spout rattled against the cup, just for a second, and he had to grit his teeth to keep himself from flinging it against the wall.

Instead, with complete control, he set the cup in front of her on the coffee table, well within reach.

“I didn't ask if it was your business. I asked if you had any rules about the agents under your command engaging in a-”

“No,” he said, cutting her off. He poured himself a cup of tea, not because he wanted it, not even because he thought he could force it down with his throat as tight as it was. But because he needed something to do with his hands, something to do to that would give him an excuse to avoid her eyes.

There was a faint scrape, something she had to have done deliberately, because she was grace and delicacy and ease personified. She didn't make noise, unless she wanted to make noise, but her cup scraped against the table as she lifted it. “No?” she asked, and it was cautious. Careful.

Phil's eyes slid shut. “No,” he repeated. He steeled himself for it, for the ache, the sickening sensation of loss that felt like ice in the pit of his stomach. It wasn't loss. He couldn't lose what he'd never had. This was never his, it was never going to be his.

It shouldn't be possible to miss something he'd never had. He shouldn't be forced to mourn something he'd never had a chance at having.

He looked at Natasha, and he smiled, a real smile, because Clint was happy around her. Around someone who wasn't wary of him, wasn't afraid. Who trusted him and liked him and treated him with affection. “I don't have any rules against that,” he said, with a faint smile. “Do you have any other questions about my personal code of ethics, Agent Romanov?”

“Do you have any about mine?” she asked.

Phil sat back. “Do you love him?”

“I want him,” she said, without hesitation, without any attempt at prevarication. Her eyelashes swept down, dark and curled against her pink cheeks. “Don't you?”

With a breath of a chuckle, he stood. “Provided it doesn't interfere with my performance in the field, then that's really not any of your business. Is it?”

She studied him with shadowed eyes. “I don't understand you,” she said, and as if that was the end of the conversation, she turned her attention to her tea.

“Wait until you have a higher clearance,” he said, and that won him a faint smile. “Eat something, Agent Romanov, then get some rest. I'll take the first watch.”

She nodded. “I'll watch him, sir,” she said.

Phil headed for the front of the house, wanting to do one last check before things settled down. And to pull himself together away from prying eyes. If their lives were at stake, perhaps he could stop focusing on the way his chest ached. “I appreciate that, Agent.”

*

“You're humming.”

Phil glanced over. Clint's eyes were still closed, his hair dark against the white of his pillowcase. But he was smiling, a lopsided little smirk. “Is that so?” Phil asked, moving away from the door. He paused next to the love seat, looking down at the familiar lines of Clint's face. Clint's eyes opened, clear and bright in a handful of blinks.

“Yeah.” A grin bloomed on his face. “'Good King Wenceslas.'”

“For some reason, it's been on my mind.” Phil leaned down. “How are you-”

Clint's eyes widened. “Fuck. Nat-”

“She's fine. You brought her back.” Phil kept his voice even and reassuring. “She's asleep in your spot. She's stolen your seat.”

Clint pushed himself up on his elbows, ignoring the way that Phil tried to catch his shoulder and pin him down. He stared across the room at Natasha, who was curled in a small corner of the couch, right where Clint usually sat, where it was warm in front of the fire, where her cup of tea was within reach, where the blanket was tucked around her legs. Clint's face relaxed. “It seems unfair,” he said, struggling upright. “She takes up so little room, and she's got the big couch. And I've got my legs hanging off the end here.”

“She knows what she wants, and she's not shy about going after it.” Phil gave up on keeping him in place and instead helped him sit up. “How are you feeling?

“My side's on fire.” Clint leaned back in the seat with a sigh. The blankets pooled around his waist, leaving his chest bare in the firelight. “Other than that... Just tired, sir.”

Phil checked his eyes, his respiration, and reached for his wrist. “There's some water there.” He nodded at the glass. “I'm going to get you something to eat, so drink that.”

When he returned with a plate of food and a mug of hot broth, Clint was staring at the tree. Phil set the plate down in front of him, and Clint took a chunk of the rough peasant bread, ripping it free and sticking it in his mouth. He ate quickly, manners taking a back seat to hunger. “Is it Christmas?” he said, between the last few bites.

Phil checked his phone. “It is,” he said, with a faint smile. “Two hours into it.”

Clint smiled back, laughter in his eyes. “We're going to be spending Christmas in medical again, aren't we?”

“And who's fault is that?” Phil asked. He pushed the mug of broth closer to the edge of the table. “Drink this, please.”

Clint's nose wrinkled, but he did as he was told. “Sorry we missed check-in,” he said, his hands wrapped tight around the mug.

“We'll discuss that later.” Phil tipped his head to the side. “Raise your arm.”

Clint shifted, his hand braced on the back of his neck. “How bad is it?” he asked, twisting to see.

“Six stitches and a couple of butterfly bandages to clean up the edges,” Phil said. He leaned in, his fingers light on the skin. Clint jerked, and Phil pulled his hand back. “Does it hurt?” he asked, concerned. He snagged the medical bag with one hand, swinging it in close.

Clint shook his head, his eyes locked on the wall above Phil's head. He was breathing a little harder now, his face strained. “No,” he said. “I've had worse.”

“Not comforting,” Phil said. He snagged a couple of painkillers from the bag and handed them over. “Finish your broth, and take these.”

He was expecting a fight; Clint usually balked at any kind of drugs. The fact that he swallowed them without a word only had Phil more concerned. He leaned back. “Anything other problems?”

“I'm fine.” Clint put his arm back down and dragged the blanket around his shoulders. “Thank you, sir.”

Phil studied him in the firelight. “Just a couple of hours before the evac team arrives. You should get some more rest while you have the chance. ”

“Yeah.” Clint grinned at him. “What did you get me for Christmas, sir?”

“You asked that when you first stumbled home tonight,” Phil said, shaking his head. “It's almost as if you've forgotten that we don't have that sort of relationship.”

Clint made a face, but he was still laughing under that. “Fine. I'll take a raincheck. Because of the mission.” He yawned, his head dipping forward. A combination of painkillers, a full stomach, and a warm room was enough to make him give in to his exhaustion. “You owe me a present, sir.”

It didn't take long. When Clint finally nodded off, Phil reached out and took the mug from his fingers before Clint could drop it. “I've given you the best one I can,” he said softly, as Clint's breathing evened out. “Merry Christmas, Clint.”

When the evac showed up, Phil loaded his bags. And left one red wrapped package behind in a SHIELD safe house for the next occupant.

*

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be:

“Have you ever thought about getting married?”

Phil paused in the act of wrapping pine garland around the bannister. He glanced at Steve Rogers, who was doing the same, but with an expression of extreme concentration. “Well,” Phil said, carefully, “I have, but it's been a while. And while I'm flattered, I'm going to have to decline.”

Steve stopped, his brow wrinkling, and then he started to laugh. “Okay,” he said, shaking his head. “That was kind of out of the blue there, wasn't it?”

“A tiny bit.” Phil grinned back at him. He tied a bow around the garland, using the red ribbon to secure the swags. “Was it a serious question?”

Steve's shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “Yes. It is.” He paused, glancing down the half level to the floor of the living room, where the rest of the team was hard at work. There was an expression of longing on his face as he watched Tony stalk around the room, trailing tools and equipment in his wake. “I just- I hope you don't mind my asking. It's, well, it's old-fashioned. I know it is. But I always figured that was something I could have. That even if it wasn't perfect, I could-” He sighed. “Is it so wrong?”

“Nothing wrong with the concept,” Phil said. “Except for the fact that you're considering proposing to a man who is, in fact, testing a 'tinsel cannon.' Some people would question your judgment for that alone.”

“Only people with no sense of holiday cheer or an objection to weaponizing Christmas decorating,” Steve said, grinning.

“I can't imagine anyone having an objection to either of those,” Phil agreed. He folded his arms on the bannister and stared down at the living room floor, where Tony was tinkering with a very impressive looking piece of machinery. Bruce was trying to talk him out of it, but trying to talk sense into Tony Stark was a losing battle that he fought regularly. And lost regularly. Clint was adjusting trajectory and stuffing tinsel into the thing, laughing in a manner that could only be described as maniacal. At the bar, Thor was mixing punch with Darcy's able help, while Natasha taught Jane how to braid strands of tinsel into his hair.

Phil resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands and either laugh hysterically or weep. “Someone's going to lose an eye down there.”

“It works fine,” Steve said, leaning against the bannister next to Phil. He was wearing a fuzzy red Santa Hat and a blue sweater covered in snowflakes. “He's been testing it all week.” He paused, his lips twitching. “Dummy got a hold of it.”

“How'd that go?”

Steve gave him a look. “It was Dummy. With a machine that shoots wads of tinsel that, on impact, explode in all directions and stick to everything in the general vicinity. How do you think it went?”

The thought was too horrible to even contemplate. “There's tinsel on every square inch of the workshop?”

“When I got down there, Tony looked like a disco version of Hank McCoy,” Steve agreed. “And the fabrication units are still fussing about strands of tinsel in their joints.”

“So that's why I didn't see a single one of the Roombas for most of last week,” Phil said, chuckling.

“They have been in tiny robot vacuum cleaner paradise, otherwise known as the main workshop. Moving down there is like waiting for a break in traffic.” Phil glanced at him, and Steve's head tipped to the side. “What?”

“Steve, do you ever listen to the words coming out of your mouth and think, 'where the hell did my life go wrong?'”

Steve thought about that, his lips pursed, his eyes narrowed. “Not as often as I probably should,” he admitted. “Most of the time, I don't even notice how odd things are until someone points them out. I think I've acclimatized to, well, this.” He waved a hand at the living room. “It just seems normal at this point.”

A Roomba whirred past, swirling around the bannister and picking up loose needles from the garland. It stopped, and did a slight detour to swoop over Steve's hat. “Thank you,” Steve said, dipping his head forward so it could get at the back and remove any lint he'd picked up.

“Steeeeeeeeeeeeve,” the Roomba said, bumping lightly against his forehead before it went back to hunting pine needles.

“Did that seem normal?” Phil asked Steve.

“Sadly, it did.” He glanced after the Roomba. “The little elf hat on the suction cup and spring, that's new.”

“That's Clint's contribution to the holiday festivities,” Phil said. His lips twitched. “The suction tip arrows had to be... Modified so he could outfit them all.”

The Roomba whirred back past, elf hat bouncing along above it, and Phil couldn't hold back a snort of laughter. “That's not funny,” he said, immediately.

“Oh, yes it is,” Steve said, reaching for the basket of garland. He was laughing, his shoulders shaking from it. “Hawkeye is stalking Roombas.”

“Which is dirty no matter how you try to interpret that sentence,” Phil said. “But it doesn't bother you?”

Steve blinked at him, faint crinkles showing beside his eyes as he puzzled that. “No. Should it?”

“No.” Phil rolled ribbon around his hand. “I think about marriage a lot. And I'm lucky. I've never had any qualms about who I am, or what that means. I work for a company that only cares that my partner is of age, consenting and passes basic clearance checks. The gender doesn't matter a bit, I'm allowed to list Clint as my medical proxy, cover him under my insurance if he leaves SHIELD, and put him as the beneficiary for my pension. I can talk about him and not be afraid for my job or my standing in my community. If something happened, SHIELD legal would move heaven and earth to make sure that I, as his partner, would have access to him, to protect him. I am far luckier than a lot of people, who have to hide who they are, who have to live in fear, have to weigh their words and their actions. I could say I don't have to get married.

“But I'm also lucky enough to live in a state that provides legal status for my relationship. I can do that. I have the choice.” Phil smiled. “Which makes things harder. If I didn't have the choice, I could blame someone else, and accept my lot. Resent it, but accept it. But now, I have the choice, and that makes things harder.” He glanced at Steve. “Doesn't it?”

“I want it,” Steve said, his voice very soft. “I-” He shook his head. “It's selfish. To want that.”

“To want the rest of the world to acknowledge that he's yours and your his and you hold a place no one else does?” Phil watched as Pepper lead Happy Hogan through the door, both of them over loaded with brightly wrapped boxes. Phil headed for the stairs. “You love him, he loves you.”

“He won't say yes,” Steve said.

“I think you'd be surprised.” Phil paused at the bottom of the stairs. “And you have to decide if it's worth the risk. Because, really, Steve? While I would not ordinarally encourage anyone to attempt marriage with Tony Stark, you might be the only person on Earth who could survive the experience with your sanity, your morals, and your limbs intact.”

“It's not that-”

There was a boom that rattled the windows, and a wave of tinsel caught them from the side. “Well, that was unexpected,” Tony said.

“There is tinsel in my NOSE,” Clint said.

Phil sighed. “Good luck with him,” he said, laughing as he pulled gobs of tinsel off of his shirt. “Please. As your handler? Please put a ring on that man, because I prefer talking to you than to him.”

“So if I get him to marry me, I'm going to end up being his PA?” Steve said, pushing tinsel out of his face.

“You're going to end up being that as long as you're team leader. At least this way, you know, you get to sleep with him.”

“As fringe benefits go, I do enjoy that one.”

*

“Try and 'fix' my wrapping job, and I will stab you in the hand with a pair of scissors,” Clint said, without looking up from his effort with the ribbon. It wasn't going well; Phil was pretty sure he'd invented a new and interesting form of bondage. Still, Phil changed direction, acting like he'd been reaching for the empty coffee cup on the table and not the lopsided box. Clint gave a snort under his breath. “Yeah, that's what I thought.” Sticking his tongue out, he squinted at his work. “That's a bow, right?” he said, shaking his hand to get the edge of the ribbon off of his wrist.

“In the most technical sense,” Phil agreed, handing him the phone. “Here, mom wants to grill you for information.” He held up the coffee cup. “Want some more?”

“I know you're just using this as an excuse to slip me some decaf, and I don't even care; yes, please.” Clint pinned the phone between his shoulder and his ear. “Hey, Mom, Merry Christmas. Didja get the box I sent? Yeah, I know, but Tony handles the shipping, and we're trying to discourage him from starting a delivery service. It won't end well, and the world isn't ready for 'StarkShip.'” The box got away from him and he bit out a curse. “Sorry, sorry. Trying to wrap. Yeah, nothing but ties for your son.” He raised his voice. “Nothing but ties, Phil!”

“Excellent,” Phil called back as he headed for their small kitchen. “You've ruined enough of them this year.”

“Not my fault the fieldwork involved acid-spitting pigeons and sentient lava this year,” Clint yelled back. “Also, it's not my fault that Sidney likes your ties and it's easier to placate him than-” He broke off. “No, no. Sidney is the giant squid. Yeah. Six fights later, we realize the guy just wants to look classy. Give him a tie and he's right back in the harbor, happy as a clam. Or a giant, semi-intelligent squid, as the case would be. No, I didn't name him, Namor said that's his name, but he's kind of a dick, so that might've been his idea of a joke.”

Phil leaned over his shoulder to put the coffee cup down on the table, safely away from the tape dispensers. “I wasn't,” he whispered in the ear that wasn't occupied with the phone call, “talking about the ones that got ruined in the field.”

Clint leaned his head back and grinned at Phil. “No, it's fine, your oldest child is just flirting with me. Well, your other children would likely be flirting with me if they were here.”

“They would, the brats,” Phil said, ruffling Clint's hair. There was tape behind his ear, and Phil didn't even ask, he just pried it free.

“Your mom is flirting with me,” Clint told him, batting his hand away.

Phil took the phone back over Clint's objections. “That's unacceptable, Mom.”

“Don't worry, he's resisting me.”

“Imagine my relief.” Phil leaned against the back of Clint's chair, watching with amusement as he sliced through a sheet of wrapping paper with a bowie knife. “Don't scar the table,” Phil told him. “And don't flirt with him, Mom, he's susceptible to flattery from pretty women.”

“True!” Clint said, slapping the wrapping paper in place.

“I'm going to blame the eggnog, honey,” his mother said, laughing. “Your aunt Patrice made it.”

“And you're the one foolish enough to drink it,” Phil pointed out.

“You come from a long line of risk takers,” his mother said.

“There's acceptable risk, and there's suicidal tendencies, and I know very well which one Aunt Patrice's eggnog falls under.” With a sigh, he took the tape away from Clint. “I have to go, Mom, Clint is stabbing a tea pot with a bowie knife.”

“Accidentally!” Clint yelled. “It was an accident!”

“Sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” Shirley said, and Phil rolled his eyes.

“She's always on your side,” he told Clint.

“That's because I'm adorable and loveable and you're a pain in the ass,” Clint told him. “Fuck! Goddamn tape dispenser!” He stuck his thumb in his mouth. “Cut myself on a fucking tape dispenser, why the hell is this so difficult?” He threw up his hands. “I am stuffing things in gift bags, then putting the gift bags in other gift bags and lobbing them at people.”

“Things have reached a critical holiday cheer level in the Barton/Coulson apartment, Mom. Merry Christmas, I'll talk to you tomorrow.”

“You'd better. Your nieces and nephews have expectations.” With a pleasant good-bye, she cut the connection, and Phil put the phone aside.

“How many rolls of wrapping paper died for this abomination?” Phil asked, glancing around the room. There was tissue paper and bits of wrapping paper everywhere, tape and bows and ribbon stuck to every possible surface.

“Shut up, this shit is hard.” Clint reached back over his shoulder, snagged Phil's tie, and dragged him in for a kiss. It was hot and sweet, in more ways than one.

Phil pulled back, licking his lips. “How many candy canes did you eat?”

“How many did we have?”

“Three boxes,” Phil said.

“That many.” When Phil gave him a look, he just grinned, not the least bit ashamed. “I know you've got some more stashed somewhere.”

“What if I don't? Hold still, there's tinsel in your hair.”

“There's tinsel EVERYWHERE, who would've thought the thing would malfunction like that?” Clint leaned back, grinning as Phil smoothed a hand through his hair, enjoying the contact. “I found your Christmas present for me.”

“No, you didn't.” Phil leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Good try, though it is sad that I have to hide my Christmas presents for you as if you were a five year old child.”

Clint leaned the kitchen chair back, balancing it on two legs. “Oh, yes, I did,” he sing-songed. And with an overly dramatic gesture, he pulled a small red-wrapped box from the pocket of his sweatshirt.

Phil felt the blood drain out of his face. “Give that to me. Right now.”

Clint's smile died, and he let the chair fall back into place with a rattle of legs. “Phil?”

Phil held out his hand. “Give it to me.”

An expression of hurt slid across his face, disappearing in an instant, wiped clear by an easy smile. “Geez, I never open them, don't get your shorts in a knot,” he said, tossing the box with a light flick of his hand. Phil snagged it out of mid-air. Clint turned back to his wrapping. “When's dinner?”

Phil's fingers tightened on the box, knowing he'd screwed up and not sure how to fix it. “Tony's ordering Chinese in about an hour. Clint-”

“Great, I've got time to finish this and take a quick shower, I'm not kidding, I've got tinsel in ever crevice of my body.” Clint hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Out, you, I've gotta wrap your stuff.”

“Clint-” It was a losing battle. He stared down at the box in his hand. “Okay. I'll see you before dinner, all right?” The only response he received was a shrug.

And he knew how Pandora felt with a box in his hand, signaling his own failings.

*

Clint came out of the bathroom in a rush and a towel. “Give me a second,” he said, heading for the closet, still dripping wet. “I got- I need pants before-”

“Pants are generally the rule,” Phil agreed. He settled back on the pillows, enjoying the view. A hell of a view that it was, too, all that sleek, wet skin and flexing muscle. Clint glanced over his shoulder, his lips twitching.

“Taking a nap?” he asked, snagging jeans and running back to the bathroom. “Shit, shit-”

Phil grinned. “What did you forget?” he asked, used to this particular dance. When there was a mission or an op, Clint was always on time, prepared and fully outfitted. For any other time, it was a crap shoot if he'd get distracted or catch a nap or forget what he was supposed to be doing. It shouldn't be endearing, but Phil'd long since realized that he had odd taste in men.

“Nothing, shut up.” When Clint came hopping back out, he was fastening his jeans, a towel over his shoulders. He dried his hair with one hand. “Sorry, you waiting for me?”

“We have time.” Phil nodded at Clint's side of the bed. The faded red wrapped package was resting on Clint's pillow. “Come open your present.”

Clint stilled, his face shadowed by the folds of the towel. “I'm not five, Phil, I can wait for Christmas morning. It's fine.”

“This isn't your Christmas present.” Phil took a deep breath. “It's something-” He realized his arms were crossed over his chest, and he made the effort to uncross them. “It's something that I'd almost forgotten about and I was just blindsided when you pulled it out.” He tipped his head towards the box. “Just- Open it. And I'll explain.”

Clint frowned, but he moved forward, his motions careful, cautious. Phil sighed, hating that he'd caused it. When Clint leaned forward, Phil caught the ends of the towel and gave him a quick tug, tumbling him down onto the bed. Clint laughed, and rolled over until his damp head was in Phil's lap. Phil didn't object, just smoothed a hand over the spiky tips of Clint's hair. With his free hand, he dropped the box onto the middle of Clint's bare chest. “Open your gift. It's... Been waiting for a while.”

His eyes narrowed, considering, Clint reached up and covered Phil's hand with his own. But he pried the ribbon free, and the tape gave way almost immediately, yellowed and dried. He opened the box, and reached in. He held up his hand, from one finger hung a loop of red ribbon, and a delicate, hand carved figure of a man on a horse. “This is great,” he said, grinning at Phil.

Phil reached out and pushed at the carving with one finger. “It's a reproduction of a statue in Prague. It's King Wenceslas.”

Clint grinning, understanding blooming on his face. “No fuckin' way. Where did you get this?

Phil took a deep breath. “Remember that mission in the Czech Republic?”

“That was years ago,” Clint said, cradling the carving between his palms. “You've had this for all that time?” He stared up at Phil, his eyebrows drawn in tight.

“I bought it in the market there. There's this legend. That when things are the bleakest, when they face utter destruction, the statue will come to life, and call up an army of ghostly knights that slumber in a nearby mountain.” Phil stroked Clint's hair. “I- It kept coming up. The song. I saw this, and thought of you.” His lips twitched. “I thought you'd like it, but Christmas night didn't go the way I thought it might.”

“You've kept this for years,” Clint said, still stuck on that, because he was smart and he was quick to make connections, and he knew people. “Why didn't you just give it to me?”

Phil sighed. “Because that was- I told myself that I-” He tried to find the words. “That mission, that was when I resigned myself to never having this. To never being with you the way I wanted to. And giving you this-”

“Wait. Wait.” Clint sat up. “Wait a fucking minute. Back then.” He set the ornament aside. “All the way back THEN?” He leaned in, looming over Phil. “You wanted me. Back then.”

“Before then,” Phil admitted, grinning up at him. “And it didn't matter. I wasn't going to do anything about it.”

“Fuck. We could've- All that time?” Clint gaped at him. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Phil?”

Phil reached up, touching his cheek. “It wasn't right. I couldn't do it, it was too selfish and too needy and wrong. You know it wasn't-”

“Fuck that. No, I don't know any such thing.” Clint leaned forward and kissed him, sweet and hot and hard. When he finally pulled back, they were both breathing hard. “You are an idiot, you know that?” Clint said, grinning. “All you needed to do was give me the smallest opening, and I would've been all over you.”

“I was working on not giving you any openings. I couldn't take the risk.” Phil pushed himself up, far enough to kiss Clint. “I told myself I'd give you that when I was able to let you go.” He touched Clint's cheek. “I never managed it.”

“Thank god for the rare moment of sanity,” Clint said. He flopped down back on the bed. “Good King Wenceslas.”

“Yes.” Phil leaned against his shoulder. “You were singing it-”

“You know why?” Clint asked, interrupting him. “Because Saint Wenceslas is one of the patron saints of brewers. And I knew that mission was going to be a goddamn nightmare, and I wanted a beer so fucking bad.”

Phil glanced at him. “You're kidding.”

“Nope. Christmas carol that shows off my need for booze in a socially acceptable way.” Clint grinned as Phil started to laugh. “C'mon. Before Tony gives Thor our portion of dinner.”

Phil sat up. “Clint?”

“Yeah?” Clint managed to push himself up.

“Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Phil. I'm not wearing underwear.”

Phil arched an eyebrow. “Merry Christmas to me,” he agreed.

In reply, Clint just started whistling, and laughing, Phil got out of bed and followed him, snagging the ornament from the nightstand as he went. For now, for Christmas, there was no reason they couldn't share it with everyone.