Skye had been sneaking through the old industrial building's dimly-lit corridors for hours, desperate to complete her mission before losing the cover of darkness. She glanced down at the heart rate monitor on her wrist -- 65. Not bad.
But she needed to hurry.
And she needed to keep her head clear.
If she got caught now, it was game over. Weeks of planning out the window. The element of surprise completely lost. She couldn't blow this opportunity -- not when she was this close to pulling off what she considered one of the single most important missions of her short tenure as a SHIELD agent.
She could practically hear May's voice in her ear, repeating the advice she'd been drilling into her for months. Stick close to the walls. Stay on the balls of your feet. Clear your corners as soon as you're through the door. Her knees bent hard and her center of gravity low, she crept through the open doorway, package securely tucked under her arm, when suddenly --
Skye froze in place and winced as the kitchen lights clicked on, revealing Lance Hunter at the switch, standing there in an old pair of plaid pajama pants and a grey tank top.
“Mind explaining what you're doing creepin' about at 6 am on a Sunday morning?”
She sighed and stood up straight, setting her cardboard box down on the breakfast bar and pulling the black beanie off her head. “Well, now that you've ruined the surprise,” she said with a pout, “I guess not. Here, see for yourself.”
He came up beside her and took a swig from the liter bottle of orange juice in his hand, looking down at the tattered old cardboard box as she opened its flaps, soft and rumpled with age. He peered inside and groaned.
“Are those --”
“Bloody hell, you can't be serious.”
“Oh, I am.”
“It's not right. You should put those back where they belong.”
“Where they belong,” she said as she pulled two glass bulb Christmas ornaments from the box, “is in the kitchen. 'Tis the season, Hunter. Get used to it.”
“It's not even December. It's not even December! I swear, you Americans and Christmas. Can't even wait 'til the Halloween candy runs out before you're shoving a dying evergreen in the corner of the living room, can you? I swear, one year, Bobbi --”
“No no no no no. First of all,” she said with a finger point, “it is officially December tomorrow. So excuse me for being what, 18 hours ahead of the game? Second of all, don't even pretend that they don't start celebrating early where you're from, too. Holiday cheer is the universal language, and it demands to be spoken early and often.”
“They absolutely do not,” he said with a condescending laugh, “Not where I'm from, anyway.”
“Oh, and where is that, exactly?” she asked, taking a step toward him with her hands on her hips. “A cave, in the mountain overlooking Whoville? And besides, what are you doing up, raiding the fridge in the wee hours of the morning, huh? Mister OJ? I bet you're going to put that back after drinking straight from it. Yeeeeah, you think nobody knows you've been doing that, well guess what --”
Skye and Hunter turned together to see Phil Coulson standing arms akimbo in the door frame in a pair of red, white, and blue boxers and a faded Stark Expo '10 t-shirt. “Much as I enjoy being woken up early by the squabbling of children,” he said, “there's a reason I never had any. And frankly, I'm not convinced either of you has a good reason for making such a ruckus before the sun even comes up.”
“A ruckus? Sir?” asked Skye, cocking her head and hiding the ornaments behind her back.
“That's not an old person word. People say that word. I've heard Simmons say it.”
“Simmons is our resident authority on contemporary street slang...”
“And you aren't helping yourself. Skye, what are you doing in my kitchen at 6 am? You haven't been up this early on your day off since the Wade Wilson Pancake Incident.”
“Um,” she said, rolling her shoulders and standing up straight, “well, it's the Lord's day. Sir.”
Hunter scoffed. Coulson's humorless expression didn't change.
“You're dressed like a cartoon ninja, Skye. Unless you're attending mass with Shinobi, I have a sneaking suspicion that your reasons for interrupting my beauty sleep have nothing to do with preparing a pre-worship breakfast.” He held out an open palm and nodded toward the hands held behind her back. “Please don't make me ask again.”
Skye sighed and plopped an ornament into his hand. He looked down at it, and back up at her.
“Ho ho...ho?” she added with a guilty smile.
Coulson sighed. “Hunter, I assume you're helping with this?”
He took a hasty swallow of orange juice. “Oh no, no sir. Couldn't sleep, is all. My room shares a wall with Mac's, see, and he's got Fitz in there for one of their slumber parties, and --”
“That's quite enough, thank you,” said Coulson, holding up a hand to silence him.
“Right, well anyway, I was trying to tell Skye here that it's just too early in the season for the Christmas décor. Yeah?” He quickly gathered from Coulson's expressionless face that he wasn't going to get the enthusiastic agreement he'd anticipated. “I mean, it's not even December...”
“Hunter, need I remind you that as director, I reserve the right to reassign anyone's room at any time for any reason, including petty retribution.”
“I don't dislike you,” he said with a grin, “which is more than some of our other senior agents can say. But you wake me up this early on a Sunday again, especially because you're inciting arguments over something as ridiculous as the seasonal appropriateness of yuletide paraphernalia, I'll see to it that you, Mac, and Fitz share a room, not a wall. Is that understood?”
Hunter huffed and nodded.
“I thought so. Besides,” he added, looking down at the bulb in his hand, “I hardly see how a few ornaments in the kitchen are worth bickering over. I had thought we might even get a little tree for the TV room, just to liven things up. Something understated. Festive, but tasteful.”
Skye sheepishly raised her hand. “Uh, sir? About that, actually --”
“Oh, my GOD,” called out a voice from the hangar. “Who DID this?”
“That sounded like Bobbi,” said Hunter, scurrying down the hall after Coulson with Skye lagging behind. As they descended the ramp into the bay, they immediately saw what Skye had been working on while the rest of the team slept.
Christmas lights of varying shapes and sizes strung all around the room -- thousands of feet of colored and clear twinkling bulbs, all illuminating a 20-foot pine tree draped in silver garlands, construction paper chains, and strings of popcorn. Stockings hanging from the bannister, emblazoned with every team member's name. Dozens of paper snowflakes dangling from the ceiling on fishing line. Wreathes and sprigs of holly fastened to the walls, vases of poinsettias resting on almost every flat surface.
“My god,” said Coulson, mouth agape.
“Like you said, sir,” replied Skye, “festive, but tasteful.”
Bobbi poked her head out from behind the tree wearing a SHIELD Academy - Sciences Division t-shirt and idly twirling an oversized plastic candy cane in each hand. “This was you, huh? Gotta hand it to you, Skye, you turned this place into a real winter wonderland.”
“That's one word for it,” grumbled Hunter.
“Oh please, Scrooge, the last thing we need is your bad attitude,” she said with a judgmental look.
“Why thank you, Bobbi,” said Skye. “Come on, Hunter, you've gotta admit, the tree really spruces up the place.”
He winced back at her.
“Christmas tree? Spruce? Come on, that was good...”
“Skye, do I even want to know where you got all this,” asked Coulson, staring up at the face of a 9-foot inflatable teddy bear dressed as Santa.
“Oh my god, isn't he beautiful? Got him online. I wasn't sure what to name him, but now I'm thinking we should call him Lance.”
Hunter shot her a fake smile. “Well, I am irresistibly cute and cuddly.”
“I think she meant you're full of hot air,” said Bobbi, prodding him in the chest with one of her candy canes. “Although Skye, I'm not sure I get the big red ball strapped to the front of the Bus.”
She bounded over and framed it with her hands like a game show host displaying a prize. “Rudolph's nose! It's not really to scale, 'cause they only make them for the fronts of cars, and not so much for top secret military aircraft. But, now the Bus can fly even on the foggiest of Christmas Eves...”
“Think it has radar for that, mate,” said Hunter.
Coulson sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Well, you obviously went to a lot of trouble, so I won't ask you to take any of it down. Just promise that you'll keep the more...elaborate displays of holiday cheer to a minimum around the rest of HQ, alright?”
Skye took a deep breath and gave him a pleading expression. “Well, about that...”
So Coulson hadn't expected the hangar to be so festive.
Or the TV room.
Or the engineering lab.
Or the rooftop...
No matter - he'd get over it. And frankly, Skye figured, after the year the team had been having, they all deserved a little extra holiday cheer, herself included.
Hell, herself especially.
The Grant Ward fiasco, the parental drama, Fitz's prolonged recovery, all the stressing about Simmons while she was away, not to mention how many times she had to Spackle over Coulson's secret wall of crazy while that was a thing...man, life had been so much simpler when they were just running from cyborgs and tracking down long-lost Asgardian artifacts.
Which was really saying something, come to think of it.
But no matter. Maybe things had all gotten more than a little bit weird since the team moved into The Playground, but this was going to be their first Christmas there, and she was determined to make it feel a little more like a real home (and a little less like...well, the old warehouse they all lived in together).
It was probably going to take more than a few decorations, though.
Hunter kept cutting sections of popcorn strings from the trees and eating them. Lance the blow-up bear, god rest his soul, exploded into a thousand scraps of synthetic fabric after Fitz and Mac's little experiment with adding extra torque to his inflation fan. And nobody was wearing the Santa caps Skye had given out, which sort of hurt, considering how many hours she'd spent monogramming them all with glitter glue.
This crew, it seemed, was going to need a little extra push to get into the holiday spirit -- and she knew just the way to give it to them.
“You're probably wondering why I asked you all here today,” said Skye. Nearly the entire team was gathered in the TV room -- Mac and Fitz sitting cross-legged on the floor, fixated on their Halo match, Jemma and Bobbi sprawled out from opposite ends of the couch, painting each other's toenails, Trip and Coulson geeking out over some ancient-looking gadgets they'd dug out of storage, and Hunter observing everyone from his chair with a beer and pout.
“Wait, did you ask us here?” asked Hunter.
“Did I -- come on, guys, does no one read my emails?”
“Sorry,” said Jemma with an apologetic smile, “it's just, you send a lot of cat videos...”
“Okay, well, that's because they are hilarious, so, you're welcome.” May came in through the door behind her and took a seat on an open stool. “May! Did you get my email?”
May looked at her stone-faced. “I did. You said you had, quote, something of supreme urgency and importance to discuss with the team?”
“Please don't be pregnant,” said Fitz, his eyes still transfixed by the game. Mac chuckled and gave him a playful shove.
“What? No, Fitz, I am not preg-- okay, you know what, game time's over for five minutes.” She reached over and turned off the TV, to Fitz and Mac's immediate (and shockingly profane) protests. “Five minutes you guys, that's it! Yeesh!”
“Everybody calm down,” said Coulson, standing up from the cocktail table where he and Trip sat. “Skye, what's this all about? There's something you need to discuss with the team?”
“There is. Ahem.” She walked over to the stereo system and dropped the needle on a record, which softly played “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
“Now,” she said pacing the front of the room, her hands behind her back like General Patton, “as you may be aware, Christmas -- the most sacred and awesome of all holidays -- is mere weeks away.”
“Really,” said Hunter, “I wasn't aware at all. If only someone had decorated literally every square inch of the building, we might have gotten the idea.”
Skye briefly narrowed her eyes at him before proceeding. “Anyway, with the Christmas season upon us, I've taken the liberty of organizing a special holiday event to get us all in the spirit.”
“Ski trip?” asked Bobbi.
“Ice fishing!” said Trip.
“Even better,” said Skye, reaching behind the TV to produce a giant plastic mixing bowl. “Secret Santa.”
“Ohhhhhh, my god,” groaned Hunter, rubbing his eyes.
“Consider your opinions on holiday cheer duly noted, Hunter,” Coulson added with a stern look. “Skye, please go on.”
“As I was saying,” she continued, “I've put everyone's name on a scrap of paper in this bowl. Everybody take one and keep it a secret, and that is the person for whom you are a secret Santa. You get that person a gift, whoever chose your name gets YOU a gift, and we all exchange at our Secret Santa party on Christmas Eve, at which point you can choose either to reveal yourself as your Santee's gift-giver or to retain your sacred anonymity.”
“This sounds a bit stressful,” said Fitz.
“It sounds like a good bit of fun,” countered Jemma. “I want to draw a name!”
“And what if we don't wish to, uh, participate in this event?” asked Hunter.
“Then you'll suffer in silence,” said Coulson, “lest Santa decide to bring you a whole hell of a lot more inventory assignments in the new year.”
Skye set the bowl down on the coffee table while everyone crowded around to draw a slip and see who they'd chosen. Jemma's face lit up when she checked hers. Mac grinned and nodded, carefully guarding his paper from anyone's prying eyes. Hunter gave his a glance and quickly pocketed it, expressionless.
“Alright,” said Skye, taking the last slip from the bowl after everyone else had drawn, “everyone has a name? Everyone knows the rules? You're on your own, now, and we'll all exchange at this year's Christmas party. And may the odds be ever in your favor!”
“When's the party, again?” asked Trip, raising his hand.
“For god's sake,” she huffed, slumping her shoulders. “Check your emails, people!”
Skye couldn't say for sure where she'd been last Christmas -- the way The Bus had been crisscrossing the globe all year, nobody had really had time to think about that sort of thing. 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, probably.
The year before that, though? That was easy: huddled under the covers in the back of her van, taser in hand, listening to a pair of junkies in the alley outside trying to jimmy the door open.
Or the year before, riding the Metro back and forth all day to stay out of the rain, watching people come and go with armfuls of presents and food. That had been fun.
So all things considered, rallying a little extra Christmas cheer in her teammates wasn't the toughest yuletide challenge she'd faced. Hell, Charlie Brown had done it, and all he had was that stupid little tree. She had a few tricks up her sleeve that were way better than that -- and today, she was bringing out the big guns.
The big, tasty, fattening guns.
She really had to hand it to herself -- over the past year or two, her culinary skills had advanced way beyond heating canned ravioli on the hot plate in the back of her van. And since the team had stopped living out of The Bus and actually moved into a proper home base -- with a real kitchen and everything -- she'd even learned a trick or two beyond cooking frozen pizzas and microwaving popcorn.
Her budding talents in the kitchen notwithstanding, though, there was no doubt in her mind where she'd gone wrong this Saturday afternoon:
She'd made entirely too much gingerbread.
It wasn't totally her fault -- it was supposed to be enough for about 10 more people to all make houses with her -- but still, sitting alone in the kitchen surrounded by bowls of icing, gumdrops, candy cane pieces, and 40-some sheets of gingerbread, she couldn't help feeling a little as though the universe was mocking her in some way.
“So this is why half the building smells like a Yankee Candle store,” said Hunter as he wandered in, took a jug of milk from the fridge, and poured an inch or two into a glass. “Sure you got enough construction materials, there, or are you planning on rebuilding the Triskelion Hansel and Gretel-style?”
“Well, it was supposed to be a team activity, so I wanted to have enough, but then at the last minute, pretty much everyone got called away on some kind of secret...spy sort of...thing, I'm not sure, but they all left in a hurry,” she said with a dismissive hand wave. “But I am not going to let all of this go to waste. If I have to eat it all myself, by god, I will make that my burden. For the team, of course.”
“Of course,” he said, sitting down across from her and taking a bite out of a gingerbread sheet big enough to hold with two hands. “For the team.”
“Oh, come on, man. That might've been the foundation of a gingerbread animal shelter or something! What, you needed the world's biggest cookie to go with the world's teeniest glass of milk, you weirdo?”
“First of all,” he said with a giant swallow, "I believe it was you who instituted the always use a glass policy. As for the cookie, you said it yourself -- can't let it go to waste.”
“Yeah, well.” She sullenly picked up a sheet of her own and took a giant bite out of the corner. “Gueth you got a point.”
“Of course I've got a point. Why do you think not everyone shares your unbridled enthusiasm for the holidays? After a certain level of disappointment, it sort of loses its appeal.”
“Is that what happened?”
He shot her a skeptical look. “What happened?”
“Well, something had to happen to make you dislike Christmas. So what's your big tragic backstory? I kinda figured you got, like, bitten by a reindeer as a child, or shot by a renegade Santa or something. It's like, in that live action Grinch movie, he -- ”
Hunter rolled his eyes, popping a gumdrop into his mouth. “Yeah, you would think that, wouldn't you? Guy can't have an opinion 'bout something without some kind of dramatic psychological motivation that just explains everything all tidy, yeah? What, you think Frosty the Snowman murdered my parents, or something?”
“Snowmen are a superstitious and cowardly lot...”
“Well, sorry to disappoint, but no, nothing happened. No tragic backstory,” he added, waving one hand dramatically before taking a drink with the other. “I swear, you and Bobbi are cut from the same cloth. Like being interrogated 24 hours a day. Remind me why I hang around with a bunch of spies and ne'er-do-wells, again?”
“Um, because you ne'er do well, probably? Now are you gonna quit eating our construction supplies and help me build something, or what?”
He thought on it for a moment. “Oh, bloody hell, why not. It's either this or video games with the cuddle twins, and between you and me? I don't think they play fair.” He picked up a piece of gingerbread and started icing the edges.
“Tsk tsk,” she said, “sounds like they could end up on the Naughty List this year.”
“Just you try bunking next door to them for a week or two.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a murmur. “You'll find out that they frequently go to great lengths to retain that dubious honor.”
“Okay, thank you,” she added, gently beaning him with a gumdrop. “This is officially a bedroom-discussion-free zone. Capiche?”
“You're the boss,” he said, pressing the edge of another gingerbread piece into the one he'd just iced and looking up for approval. She gave him a thumbs up, and he started adding more icing over the seam. “So what, is this a thing you do every year, then? Another one of Skye's big Christmas traditions?”
She kept her eyes on the iced rooftop she was shingling with gumdrops. “Actually, I've never made one of these before. Which you can probably tell from my high quality construction skills. I don't exactly have Christmas traditions...not yet, anyway.”
“You sure? Because there's a Hulk-sized conifer in the hangar that I think begs to differ.”
“Welllll, when you spend your childhood getting shuffled in and out of foster homes, you tend not to get too invested in this sort of thing. Most people...well, they like to give you back before the holidays if they don't plan on keeping you, so...” She gave a nonchalant shrug. “It's fine, really. It's in the past, it's whatever. Just one of those things, you know?” She said it with the kind of matter-of-fact resignation that comes only from years of practice.
“So what about all of the...this?” Hunter asked, pointing with his knife at the construction paper snowflakes and red-and-green streamers draped all around the kitchen.
“This,” she replied, raising her eyebrows, “is making up for lost time. If I learned anything last year, it's...well, it's to not have crushes on potential murderous two-timing sociopaths. But if I learned two things last year? It's that, and to not take the time you have with people for granted. Because you never know if it's all gonna end unexpectedly...” She paused. “You never know if they're gonna decide to give you back one of these days.”
Hunter didn't respond -- just kept assembling the four walls of his gingerbread house. The rest of the team returned that night to find them both asleep in their chairs, Skye's face planted in a pile of gumdrops, Hunter's fingers still lazily curled around an icing knife, and half a dozen completed gingerbread houses on the table between them.
“Skye,” called out Coulson from inside his office, “a word?”
She stopped in mid-stride out in the hallway, spinning around on one heel and passing through the door. “Yeah, boss?”
“We need to talk about the holiday decorations.”
“No way,” she said stepping closer with an accusatory point, “you said they can stay up! You can't --”
He held up a hand to stop her. “I know, and I stand by that. Except for one. And I have to put my foot down on this.”
“Is it the Avengers-themed nativity display? I know it's not officially-licensed merch, but the little Captain America baby is so cute...”
“That he is. No, the Avengers nativity can stay. It's the mistletoe, Skye. That thing's gotta go.”
She gave him a skeptical glance. “The mistletoe? Really?”
He walked around behind his desk and opened a file folder. “I've received numerous complaints courtesy of the HR department alleging that the mistletoe hanging in the kitchen doorway has become a workplace distraction. I think it's in everyone's best interest if we just take it down.”
“Numerous complaints? I only put it up, like, yesterday! This is sacrilege!”
“If you want to be technical about it, the nativity display is actual, literal sacrilege. This is a parasitic plant that people kiss under, and apparently, one day in that door frame is one day too many.”
“What's your point?”
“My point,” he said before dropping his voice to a murmur, “my point is that one of our...that some of our team members are spending a little too much time hanging around it, and it's freaking people out.”
Her eyes went wide. “Oh god. Jemma did just oust me as mayor of the kitchen on Foursquare.”
Coulson frowned. “Tell me you're not geotagging the base on social media, Skye.”
“Well, it's a secure copycat platform I designed. Nobody but us can access it.”
“Uh-huh. Well, concerned as I am about the state of your mayorhood, right now, the more pressing issue is Simmons. She's not even kissing anyone -- just hanging around the door, looking up and down the hallway and acting...weird. It's not a good look, Skye. It's making people nervous. We've gotta put a stop to it.”
“Ohhh, little science lady. Okay, I'll go talk to her and see what's up, and...I'll take the mistletoe down.”
“Good work,” he said, waving her off with the folder in his hand, “now off you go.”
Down the hall and around the corner, just like she'd been warned, there was Jemma -- coming and going through the kitchen door, fidgeting with her fingertips and practicing saying something to herself over and over.
“Hey, lady -- whatcha up to?”
Jemma seemed caught off guard. “Skye! Hello...nothing really, just...you know me, hanging around in my favorite place! Did you know, according to many polls, the kitchen is the most popular room in the house? Isn't that interesting?”
“Yeah...sure is. Say, can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” she replied with a nervous smile.
“Jemma, why are you waiting under the mistletoe?”
She looked up at the bundle of leaves and berries hanging from the door frame. “Mistle--oh goodness me, look at that! I didn't even realize that was there! Oh dear, and just think, if I'd been caught unawares standing here by...someone, why, I would have had no choice but to...and not because I wanted to, but because tradition dictates, of course, and I mean, really, who am I to argue with tradition, I simply would have had to do it, and then...”
“Well,” said Skye, jumping up and ripping it down from where it had been taped in place, “not gonna be your problem anymore. Apparently it's not workplace appropriate, so you're free to hang around the kitchen without the looming threat of...you know.”
Jemma looked devastated. “Well...thank goodness for that.”
“Right. And I mean, even if someone came along that you wanted to kiss under the mistletoe, you wouldn't want your first time to be a matter of...tradition. Much better to show them how you feel on your own, and let it happen, you know, naturally.”
“So you could, say...”
“Get them a Christmas gift that perhaps subtly hints at the feelings you so diligently repress on a daily basis?”
“Spoken like a true poet.”
Jemma thought for a moment. “I think we need to take a shopping trip.”
Skye clapped her on the shoulder with a smile and started down the hall, desperate to escape. “That's a great idea! Tell you what. I'm gonna go requisition us the van for this weekend, and we'll all take a little trip out for some last minute shopping. I'll text you the details! Okay gotta run see ya later!”
She rounded the corner at the end of the hall before Jemma could respond, stopping with a sigh to look at the mistletoe still in her hand.
The things Charlie Brown hadn't had to deal with.
“I can't believe we're doing this,” said Jemma from the way back of the van, unable to disguise the excitement in her voice. “I've never been to an American mall at Christmastime!”
Skye turned around in the front seat. “It's basically amazing -- if you can find a place to park, and considering that this is the last Saturday before Christmas, it's not likely. So let's all take a second to thank May for dropping us off, alright!”
“Thaaanks, Maaaay,” said everyone piled into the van in unison. May's permanent scowl didn't waver.
Skye and Jemma's shopping trip idea had proved more popular than either expected, so there they were, May fighting traffic in the mall parking lot with Mac and Fitz taking up the middle row and Jemma, Bobbi, and Hunter squeezed into the way back.
“Now remember, everybody,” asked Skye, “how much time do we have before May comes back to pick us up?”
“Two hours,” said Fitz.
“That's right! And what happens if we're not back here at the entrance and ready to go in two hours?”
“We're walking back to HQ,” groaned Hunter, face pressed against the window with a look like he was headed for the gallows.
“That's right,” said May. “Now everybody out. I'll either see you here in two hours or see you back at base in about five hours.”
“And remember,” said Skye as she and the others climbed out onto the curb, “we're using the buddy system so nobody gets left behind! Fitz and Mac, you stick together. Hunter, you're with me. ScienceBird, keep an eye on each other.”
“Skye, please,” pleaded Jemma, “we've talked about the portmanteau...”
“What,” said Bobbi, elbowing her gently, “you don't like it?”
Jemma blushed. “Well, I mean, it's not that...that is to say, I...well, really,” was all she could get out before tumbling into a fit of nervous giggles, much to Bobbi's apparent delight.
“Right, well,” said Hunter, “let's all get this show on the road before we bloody well freeze to death out here, alright?”
“And remember to give your shopping buddy space when they need it,” shouted Skye as the group dispersed and headed for the mall doors. “Doesn't matter who you're shopping for, let's keep the secret in Secret Santa, people!”
“Just so you know,” said Hunter, holding the door open for her, “you don't have to worry about my privacy here. I already got my shopping done.”
“What? Well, then why did you bother coming?”
“Had a bit of cabin fever, that's all. Thought it might be nice to actually see the sun for a few minutes today? Two hours in a mall is a pretty small price to pay for a precious bit of ultraviolet...”
Skye rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, pal. I'm actually halfway done, myself, so I just need to pick up one thing real quick and then...oh, holy night.”
She and Hunter grimaced at the scene in front of them. The mall was packed with shoulder-to-shoulder shoppers, all loaded up with enormous bags of last-minute gifts. The Christmas music playing on the overhead speakers was almost entirely drowned out by the sounds of screaming children and their harried parents' pleas for order. The line to sit on Santa's lap extended down one corridor and up another, far past a sign that warned, “Three hour wait from this point.”
“Hope you weren't planning on meeting the big guy today, mate,” said Hunter.
“Yeah, well, I spent 10 years asking him for the same thing every Christmas, and the fat bastard never delivered. Only reason I'd want face time with him now would be to get the chance to give him a kick in the jingle bells.”
Hunter gave her a sad look.
“Funny! It's supposed to be funny, you sourpuss. Come on,” she said, taking his arm in hers, “it's Christmas. Let's fatten ourselves up a little.”
Skye plopped down on the ground next to Hunter and leaned back against the wall, nestling her shopping bag between her crossed legs. “Couldn't find a table in the food court, huh, shopping buddy?”
“You'd be very proud, actually -- I came quite close to offering that pregnant lady over there $50 for her seat.”
“Why would I be proud of that, exactly?”
“Because I didn't,” he said, shoveling a forkful of cinnamon roll into his mouth. Three empty Cinnabon containers littered the ground around his legs.
“You're a real testament to the spirit of the season, Hunter. But good lord, how many of these have you had?”
“Ith my day off,” he said with his cheeks full before swallowing. “So they don't count. Besides, you were gone nearly 90 minutes. I need some way to occupy my time while you're off who knows where buying who knows what for you know who.”
She sighed. “Forget it. Besides, I'll have you know that I only put off my shopping because I wanted to make sure I picked the perfect thing. Not everyone's content to just pick something up at the drug store checkout aisle for the sake of getting it out of the way, you know.”
Hunter turned toward her with a grim look. “You don't think I take this seriously.”
“Oh, I know you don't take this seriously. From the moment I started putting up decorations, all you've done is complain. You didn't want to do this in the first place, so really, nobody's gonna be surprised if you wanted to just phone it in. You're off the hook.”
He cast his eyes to the floor in front of him. “You might have a bit of a point, I'll give you that. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't try, you know. It doesn't mean I don't care.”
Grouchiness, Skye was used to. But she wasn't sure she'd ever seen him look genuinely hurt before.
Maybe she'd been a little harsh.
“Hey, I'm sure that you put a lot of thought into --”
“No, don't bother. I get it. I know you all think I'm just some joke. Bobbi's loser ex-husband, doesn't take anything seriously, only cares about himself. What, you think it's easy? Being the new guy? The one nobody trusts, the one people always expect the worst of?”
“Actually,” she said, glancing away, “yeah, I sorta do. I know that May's been whipping me into a little Romanoff Junior these past few months, but there were some times last year when the team and I had some definite trust issues. They had this little techno-bracelet I had to wear? And...anyway, not important. Point is, I really do know where you're coming from.”
“Well then, maybe you'd think about cutting me a bit of slack?”
“It wasn't that long ago that you literally shot me, Hunter.”
“Oh, my god. You know, I apologized for that,” he said, exasperated, “so perhaps we could stop bringin' it up every 20 minutes. It's stuff like this, you know, that makes someone a bit antsy around the holidays.”
“Stuff like what?”
“Like making me feel like I'm not good enough! Like everything has to be so perfect. Have to find the perfect gift. Have to be the perfect guy, have to be so perfectly happy...it's not easy, you know.” He took a deep breath. “You think you're the only one been alone on Christmas a lot? Ever consider what the holidays are like for a professional mercenary? Not a lot of caroling, I'll tell you that much. And Bobbi...god knows I tried with her, but do you have any idea how hard it is to shop for that woman? What it's like to be in...to be romantically involved with someone whose entire livelihood depends on their own duplicity and secretiveness?”
She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows.
“Alright, bad example. Look, all I'm saying is, you may think the holidays are all just reindeer games and gingerbread houses, but for some people, it's more than a bit stressful. Just another great big opportunity to cock everything up." He idly rubbed the back of his neck. “Like always."
Skye wasn't sure how to respond. It hadn't quite occurred to her that behind everything she'd come to know about Hunter -- the smart comments, the reluctance to sit still, the endlessly tiring ex-wife stories -- he was just as worried as her about not being good enough. That when he complained about year after year of holiday disappointments, he wasn't talking about Christmas -- he was talking about himself. And maybe he had a strange way of showing it, but sitting there on the edge of the food court, surrounded by happy couples and families with excited children, and all the glittery, technicolor trappings of a Hallmark holiday, the guy who usually seemed to delight in being a thorn in everyone's side looked lonely in a way she was certain only she fully understood.
She opened her mouth to say something -- anything -- but was interrupted before she could eke out a syllable.
“Anyway, come on, then,” said Hunter, climbing to his feet and extending his hand for her. “We'd better shake a leg if we don't want May to leave us behind.”
Skye grabbed her shopping bag in one hand, and with the other, pushed herself up to her feet on her own.
“So,” Skye asked, turning around from the front seat, “everyone get what they were looking for?”
“Well, no,” said Fitz. “But I...I, ahhh, I figured out what to give. They just, they didn't have it at the...at the mall.”
“I actually ordered my thing a few weeks ago,” said Bobbi from the way back.
“I got thum thinnamon rolls,” added Hunter, his cheeks stuffed like a chipmunk's.
“For pete's sake,” huffed Jemma through a smile, “are Skye and I the only two who actually bought Christmas presents today? Mac?”
Mac looked down and shook his head with a look of shame. “Ordered online. I just wanted to get out of the house with Turbo here.”
“Kids these days,” Skye said, turning back around in her seat. “Am I right, May? No love for the grand tradition of shopping at the last minute. Did I tell you about the granny who threatened to -- and I quote -- whoop my scrawny keister at the Hallmark Store? She was --”
“I'm not particularly concerned about that at the moment, Skye,” she replied, her eyes quickly darting back and forth between the road and the rearview mirror.
“I'm sorry, it's just, it was kind of a funny story, that's all...”
“Skye, right now, I'm much more interested in these motorcyclists that have been following us for the past 20 minutes.”
She turned around to look out the back window, where just like May said, she saw two black-and-red-clad motorcyclists on sport bikes riding side by side, conspicuously close behind them.
“Turn around and buckle up.”
Skye did what she said just in time to see the traffic light ahead of them turn red. May gunned the engine, speeding through the intersection while cars on either side of them slammed their brakes and blared their horns.
“Bloody hell, May,” cried Hunter from the back, “what are you doing? You'll lose your license for that, you know!”
“Yeah, Hunter can actually tell you all about that,” said Bobbi with a laugh.
Skye looked back and saw the two motorcycles run the light, weaving between the cars that had squealed to a stop in the middle of the intersection. “We got company, May!”
“And now they know they've been made. Hold on tight.”
The two motorcyclists picked up speed and pulled up along either side of the van, drawing UZIs and taking aim.
“Hit the deck!” cried Hunter as a hail of bullets pummeled either side of the van, shattering the windows and pounding dozens of deep indents into the body. Everyone in the back row ducked and covered their heads while Mac leapt to his side and wrapped his massive frame around Fitz. Outside, the motorcyclists tossed aside their emptied weapons and reached for backups tucked into their jackets.
“Shouldn't those be shooting right through,” asked Jemma, yelling over the loud rush of cold air coming through the broken windows.
“Armored siding,” said Mac. “Got bored a few weeks ago. And you're welcome, but I gotta say, we can't take much more of that!”
“Not gonna have to,” said May, jerking the wheel to her left and broadsiding one of the bikes, sending its rider tumbling into the pavement at 70 mph. She jerked the wheel right to do the same to his partner, who hit the brakes to fall back behind the van and took aim dead ahead.
Bobbi, seated between Hunter and Jemma, threw an arm around each and pulled them down below the seat just in time for gunfire to shatter the back window. In the row ahead, Mac lay on top of Fitz, shielding him from the shards of glass flying through the air.
“Who are these guys,” yelled Mac.
“Is that really a question we need to ask at this point,” answered Skye, who was curled up into a ball in the front seat. “Let's just go with Hydra! Now can one of you guys in the back please go ahead and shoot him or something?”
“Good idea,” shouted Hunter. “Bobbi, shoot this guy!”
“Me? I'm not packing! You shoot him!”
“Why would I have a gun? We were only going to the mall!”
“Oh, so that's a good enough reason for you, but I'm expected to carry at all times? You know, this is so typical --”
“Hey,” shouted Skye, “maybe we could put the bickering on hold for like, two seconds? Priorities, you guys, come on!”
Shots rang out one by one, pummeling the back of the van -- their tail was down to a semi-automatic. It didn't buy them much more time between shots, but it would have to do.
“Ohhhhh, bugger,” grumbled Hunter. “Everybody hold on, and May! Hit the brakes in exactly five seconds!” He sat up and peeked out over the back of the seat just long enough to catch a bullet in his left shoulder, knocking him back. “Gahh! Bloody hell does that never get any easier...May, start over! Five seconds from now!”
He grabbed a cinnamon roll from the box at his feet, took aim amidst a steady stream of gunfire, and lobbed it out the open rear window. It splattered on the motorcyclist's visor in an explosion of cream cheese frosting, just in time for May to crank the emergency brake and send the blinded cyclist crashing into the back of the van at full speed.
“He alive?” asked May as the engine hissed and smoke from the tires poured in through the broken windows.
Bobbi leaned out the rear window to check the body crumpled in a heap on the road behind them. “Looks that way.”
“Then tie his ass up and throw him in the backseat, before highway patrol shows up. And Hunter?” Right hand pressed to his bleeding shoulder, he looked forward and met her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Nicely done.”
“I have to admit, I didn't really expect to have to debrief you guys after your shopping trip,” said Coulson. “I mean, really? We can't even go to the mall without getting shot at? That's a thing now?”
“Well,” said Skye, “it is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. People go pret-ty crazy...”
“That may be true, Skye, but this is kind of serious. You all could have been killed.”
“All due respect, sir, it might be easier to remember the gravity of the situation if you weren't wearing...that.”
Coulson looked down at his red-and-green sweater, adorned with dancing reindeer and the words Ho Ho Ho. “Like I said. I wasn't expecting any official meetings today.” Skye reached across the table and poked the sweater, which played a tinny version of “Jingle Bells.” Coulson poked it again to make the music stop. “Thank you, Skye, moving on.”
She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. Fitz sat across the table from her, staring down at his lap while Mac kept his arm reassuringly draped across the back of his chair. Hunter was next to them, lazily sipping a beer while a doctor from Medical finished stitching up and bandaging his shoulder. Jemma and Bobbi sat next to Skye -- Bobbi looking as cool and disaffected as ever, and Jemma trying her hardest to look the same -- while May stood at the back of the room by the door.
“As I'm sure you all guessed,” Coulson said, tossing a manila folder onto the table, “your friends on the motorcycles? Hydra. Both of them. Lower-level, but clearly trained and authorized to cross off a handful of SHIELD agents in broad daylight. The one you brought home with you is actually going to make a lovely Christmas gift for Major Talbot, which is a relief, because I had no idea what to get him.”
“Any word on how they found us,” asked Bobbi, taking the folder from the table and thumbing through the papers inside.
“Not yet. You wanna go a few rounds in interrogation, though, be my guest. What we do know is that if May hadn't spotted them, they probably would have just kept their distance and followed you all the way back here, which believe it or not, could have been plenty worse than what actually happened.”
“Bit of an understatement, that,” said Hunter.
“And Hunter,” added Coulson.
“Right, sorry, shutting my trap now...”
“It's a damn good thing you were out there. I hear you showed some pretty quick thinking.” He took a candy cane from his pocket and tossed it to him. “Keep it up and you just might make the Nice List this year after all. As for everyone else, until we know more about this incident, I think it wouldn't be a bad idea if we kept a slightly lower profile for the next few weeks. Mac, let's take that time to get the van patched up. Skye, FitzSimmons, take the rest of the day to clear your heads. May, Morse, you come with me. I wanna get our new friend talking before he becomes official property of the U.S. government.”
Bobbi gathered up the papers in the file and followed Coulson and May while Mac headed for the garage, leaving Fitz, Simmons, Skye, and Hunter sitting quietly around the table.
“Just so you know, Jemma,” said Skye after a few moments, “going to an American mall at Christmastime is usually a little less intense than all that.”
“Right,” she responded. “Well...it was a lovely afternoon, until...that...”
The group sat silently for a few moments, staring down the table between them.
“So,” said Hunter, candy cane hanging out of his mouth, “anyone want to watch Rudolph and eat a gingerbread house, or something? We've got, like, four of those things left...”
Everyone nodded and murmured in agreement, shuffling out the door and down the hall to the TV room, where they'd all fall asleep in an undignified pile before Burl Ives could finish his first song.
The last few days before Christmas went considerably quieter -- Coulson had granted a week's furlough to anyone who wanted it, leaving only the main team and a few stragglers left behind. Even Koenig had caught a last-minute flight and headed off to spend the holiday with his brothers (though he didn't specify exactly how many, leaving several ongoing bets within the team unresolved).
Skye was grateful for the peace and quiet -- she had plenty of party prep to finish before the big day. (Though the sudden exodus of team members meant that she may have overprepared a bit. But how was she supposed to know that she didn't need so much eggnog back when she placed the order for 12 dozen eggs? Really, if anyone was to blame, it was Coulson, the big softie.)
Still, she was determined not to let a slim turnout make the party any less of a hit. In just a few days, she'd curated the perfect iTunes playlist (all the Christmas classics, from Wham! to Run DMC), baked the cookies (using the Avengers cookie cutters Coulson thought nobody knew he had, of course), developed and arranged a homey-but-modern lighting concept for the TV room, and even wrapped her Secret Santa present, which was sitting on the bed next to her when Hunter came knocking on her door Christmas Eve.
“Bit of company?” he asked.
“The more, the merrier,” she said, a bit glumly. He unbuttoned his suit jacket one-handed -- his left arm still in a sling -- and sat down on the bed.
“You're late, you know. According to your last several emails, the Christmas party started about...half an hour ago.”
She sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
“So what's the hold up, chum? Shooting for a fashionably late entrance?”
“Not exactly.” She paused.
“Well, why the sudden lack of enthusiasm? You've been planning this thing all month, and right now, you're the only person not down there actually enjoying it.”
She sighed. “Remember when you said that the holidays can be stressful? Because...there's so much pressure not to disappoint anyone?”
“Oh, forget all that, I was just --”
“No, I can see what you mean about it. I can now, anyway. It's just, I wanted this year to be perfect. My Big Perfect First Christmas. Funny, right?” She gave a weak laugh and turned away. “And now it's here, and all I can think is that I tried so hard to make things perfect, and none of it has gone right so far. All the problems with the decorations, and nobody liked their stupid hats, and nobody could make gingerbread houses, and we all got shot at by crazy motorcycle Hydra guys...and now I don't even want to go to this party, because if something goes wrong with it, too, I swear, I give up. I used to tell myself that Christmas wasn't for people without...for people like me. The ones everyone ends up giving back. And honestly, I'm starting to worry a little that I was actually right.”
“Alright, come here,” he said, scooching over and reaching his arm around her.
“Just made it weird, Hunter.”
“Yeah, that's a bit much.” He pulled his arm back and put his hand on his knee. “So look, maybe this year didn't go quite the way you planned, yeah? And maybe not everyone has been particularly available...or enthusiastic. But uh, hypothetically, if anyone had been a bigger prat than usual over the past few weeks? It would probably only be because they didn't want to be the reason anyone was let down this year. Including you. And they'd feel pretty awful knowing it was because of their own bad attitude that their friend was sitting alone in her room instead of enjoying herself.”
She looked over at him with a slight smile. “Hypothetically, huh?”
“Pure speculation, all of it. But honestly, you can't be sulking like this on Christmas Eve. According to at least one reputable holiday tune, that's an offense serious enough to land you a place on the Naughty List.”
“This is true.”
“Well then, that settles it,” he said, getting up from his seat and turning to face her. “Look, there's a room down the hall full of people who are having a great time. People who love you quite a bit, actually, all having the best bloody Christmas this sorry old building's ever seen, and it's all thanks to you, Skye -- what's your last name, exactly?”
“Right. Well, it's all thanks to you, Skye, and if you don't get up and get down there, I'll have literally no choice but to knock you out and drag your unconscious body down to the party myself.”
“You'll do it, too.”
“Damn right I'll do it. I've got a record, you know.” He held out his hand for her. “So on with it, alright?”
She grabbed him by the wrist, allowing him to lift her up to her feet. “To grandmother's house we go."
Hunter hadn't just been trying to make her feel better, apparently -- Skye could hear the bumping bass of the stereo blasting her holiday playlist from halfway down the hall, and as he guided her into the room ahead of him, the first thing she noticed was everyone wearing the personalized Santa hats she'd made weeks ago.
Everyone except Jemma, who was wearing Bobbi's, and who immediately threw a limp arm around Skye's shoulders as she came through the door.
“Skyyyye! This party is amazing. The music! The décor! These festive hats!"
She smiled back at her. "And here I thought you didn't like them!"
"Are you kidding? Everyone's wild about them. We all thought we were supposed to save them for tonight, but honestly, I'm concerned Coulson might never take his off." She took a healthy swig of the drink in her hand. "Oh my god. This eggnog, Skye. I haven't had it since I was just a little girl, and I have to say, this is so much better than I remember!”
“Jemma! That's great! But how many of those have you had?”
Jemma laughed and waved her paper cup around, sloshing and spilling her drink. “Oh, Skye! Don't worry, there's plenty to go around! You made so much, after all...”
“Jemma...Jemma, honey, look at me, you know this is grown-up eggnog, right?”
She stopped laughing. “Grown-up eggnog?”
“Yeah, sweetie? This is loaded with rum.”
Jemma went pale. “Oh...oh bother. Ohhhhh bollocks. Well, that explains a bit.”
Skye reached over and took Jemma's cup, handing it off to Hunter, who was trying his best not to laugh. “Alright, let's just take that, and I'm gonna help you sit down, okay? Come on, now, over to the couch.” Jemma's arm still around her, Skye gently walked her over to the sofa.
“Oh, this is a bit embarrassing,” she whispered loudly. “Skye, am I drunk? Nevermind. I am. Does anyone know? Skyyyye, does anyone know?”
“No, honey, nobody knows. You're fine.”
“Skye, the cookies you made are so good, and I think I should eat some of them right about now...”
“That's a great idea. I'm gonna get you some, okay?”
“Skye, Coulson's eating so many cookies. So many. You have to stop him. And he's only eating the Captain Americas and the Hawkeyes. Why is he only eating the Captain Americas and the Hawkeyes?”
“I don't know, J, but I'll find out for you, okay?” She waved to Bobbi across the room, who was wearing Jemma's Santa cap, and signaled her over. Bobbi took a seat next to Jemma, put a hand on her knee, and started quietly talking her down.
Hunter popped up behind Skye balancing two paper cups in his hand, offering one to her and gesturing for a toast. “Cheers to you, mate.”
“To you. Cheers.” They tapped rims and downed their drinks.
Her impaired judgment notwithstanding, Jemma had been right -- so far, the party seemed to be going even better than expected. Once again, Coulson was wearing his singing sweater (and May wore a matching one, though she seemed marginally less pleased about it). Trip stationed himself near the stereo and insisted that any and every passerby join him in singing along with whatever Christmas tune was playing at that moment (all that noise and funk stuff? Not just a euphemism, it turned out). For the first time in a long time, everyone was letting their guard down, laughing, and reminiscing about the memories they'd made together over the past year. It wasn't quite like old times with the old team, Skye thought, but in a lot of ways, it was even better.
“Skye!” shouted Fitz from across the room. “When are we doing presents?”
“Yeah, Skye!” shouted Coulson. “Presents!”
“Hey,” she called back with a finger point, “there will be no angry mobs! It is not the Christmas way! Besides,” she added, looking over her shoulders and around the room, “where are the presents?”
“HO, HO, HO,” boomed a voice from the doorway as Mac sauntered in, decked out in tight red velvet pants that stopped at his shins and a matching Santa jacket hanging open over his usual tank top. He carried an oversized burlap sack slung over his shoulder. “Mmmmmerry Christmas!”
The room erupted in applause and wolf whistles. Fitz cheered and pumped his fist in the air.
“Oh my god,” shouted Skye, “you look like a stripper Santa!”
“Hey,” he said, “only the man in red has the authority to pass judgment. Now everybody gather 'round -- Santa Mac has something special for all you good little girls and boys. And for Hunter, too, probably.”
The team squeezed around the center of the room, piling onto the couch, dragging over stools, and sitting on the arms of chairs.
“First up,” announced Mac, taking a present from the bag and reading the tag, “one for the head honcho himself!” He tossed the gift to Coulson, who caught it and gave it a tentative shake.
“This is such a nice wrapping job,” he said, “I almost hate to open it.”
“My mum always says stuff like that about presents,” said Fitz.
“Thanks for the input, Fitz. Really, always appreciated.” He indiscriminately shredded the paper as if to prove something, looked at what was inside, and held up the small box for everyone to see. “A World's Greatest Dad mug. Got that right. Thank you, whoever did this...”
Skye tentatively raised her hand. “Well, you have to...you have to open the box, 'cause it's not just the mug. Okay, surprise ruined, it was Skye, ha ha, but seriously, open it up!”
Coulson opened the cardboard box and pulled out the mug, which had a stack of what looked like baseball cards sticking out of it. His mouth fell open as he took them out and thumbed through the stack.
“Oh my god...this is...this is the entire set of Captain America trading cards produced by the USO! Skye, they haven't made these in more than 70 years -- how in the hell did you find them all?”
She smiled, trying not to look too smug. “I've been tracking them down one by one over the past year. Only just barely finished the set in time for the holidays, too. I heard your last collection got a little ruined by your, uh, DNA.”
“Please tell me she's talking about blood,” whispered Hunter to Trip.
“Anyway, figured you could use a new set! Some have a little foxing around the edges, but...sir, are you crying?”
Coulson turned away and sniffled. “Nope! No, I just have a little something in both my eyes. Someone else's turn, okay? Meaning, stop looking over here? Right now?”
“Alright, alright,” said Mac, pulling another gift from the bag. “Looks like we got...two for Bobbi! Someone's showin' off,” he said, tossing them one after another to where she was seated on the couch.
Bobbi didn't waste any time, tearing through the wrapping on each in quick succession, revealing matching stuffed bears -- one dressed in a sweater vest and a lab coat, the other wearing all black and holding a baton in each paw.
“Oh sweet lord,” said Skye.
Simmons turned deep crimson. “Oh, would you look at that! It's a little teddy bear of you and...a friend! Someone must have gone to the Build-a-Bear Workshop and spent a lot of time making those, and my goodness, don't they just look so perfect side-by-side like that...”
“Well,” said Bobbi, looking down at the bear in each hand with a sweet smile, “whoever made these did a great job, and whoever they are, I hope they know how much I adore them.”
“You adore them?” asked Jemma.
“Of course I do.”
“The bears, you mean,” said Hunter, “right?”
Bobbi smiled at him and gave Jemma's knee a surreptitious squeeze. “Sure, Hunter. The bears.”
“Okay,” said Mac, pulling a small, flat box out of the bag, “moving right along, we got one for...oh look here, it's Lance Hunter!” He tossed the box to Hunter, who was standing and leaning against the wall.
“Too flat to be coal,” he said, turning the tiny box over in his hand and clumsily stripping off the paper. He popped it open and looked inside, pulling out a slip of paper the size of a business card and holding it up for the room to see while the empty box dropped to the ground. “It's a Get out of jail free card. From a Monopoly game, looks like.”
“I gotta explain that one,” said Trip with a smile, raising his hand. “See, I know May got you back for hittin' her with that ICER a few months ago, and I know I said I'd settle the score, too. But I figured it's Christmas, and everyone deserves a freebie. So as far as you and I go, you've got a clean slate.”
Hunter smiled and pocketed the card, smacking Trip in the chest with the back of his hand. “More generous than I probably deserve, mate. Hope you've got a few more of those stockpiled somewhere, just in case.”
Trip laughed. “Don't push your luck, pal.”
Mac reached into the bag with both hands and pulled out a box the size of a car battery, which he set down gently on the coffee table in front of Jemma. “Got one for you there, partner.”
Jemma leaned forward and tore off the paper, revealing a plain cardboard box. She opened it up and looked inside. “Oh my goodness,” she said, reaching into the box and pulling out a hunk of tangled metal with exposed gears, wires, LED lights, and springs. “I know what this is.”
“Lovely,” said Hunter, “and that is...what, exactly?”
“It's a little generator,” she replied, turning to Fitz, who was seated on the arm of the couch next to her. “Fitz, I didn't know you ever finished this!”
“Yeah, um, a bit after you left, actually.” Fitz looked up to address the room. “This is the first thing...the first thing I built in my recovery. I know it doesn't look like much, and these days I could make it in about five minutes, but back then it took about...about three weeks. And, ahhh, I never would have been here to make it if it weren't for you, Jemma. And now you'll never forget what you did for me. Or how grateful I am, every day.”
Jemma's bottom lip quivered while her eyes welled up with tears -- it was going to be an ugly cry. (She was maybe a bit tipsy, still.) She wrapped her arms around Fitz's waist, nearly pulling him down from his perch. “Leopold Fitz. Thank you so much. It's the most exquisite piece of mechanical engineering I've ever seen.”
Fitz looked pleadingly at Mac, who only laughed and shook his head. One after another, he handed off gifts around the room -- for Trip, an album of long-lost Howling Commandos newspaper clippings that Coulson couldn't help proudly admitting he had put together using files he found in one of the building's old SSR storage vaults. For Fitz, tickets to the zoo's “Capuchin Experience” exhibit that allows visitors to feed and play with the monkeys. For Mac, a video game console that wasn't going to be on the market for at least another six months. (“We're instituting a No Grand Larceny policy for next year's exchange,” insisted Coulson.)
Soon, the excitement of the party was winding down, everyone's unwrapped gifts in their laps and the indulgences of too much eggnog and too many sweets giving way to drowsiness, and only one present remained in the bag -- a flat, rectangular package that Mac handed to Skye, who held it in her hands and looked down at it with a reverent smile while the room watched.
“Huh. Never really...had one of these before,” she murmured. “So, uh, thank you. Whoever.”
She slowly tore through the wrapping, revealing a framed 8x10 photograph with a strip of paper taped to the front. She peeled the paper off the glass and stared down at the picture in her hands, taking quiet, shallow breaths and not saying a word.
“Show us what you got, girl,” said Trip.
She swallowed hard and turned the frame around, holding it tightly to her chest with both hands for everyone to see. Inside was a photograph of her -- her in the center with a giant grin, her arms around Coulson and May, and the rest of the team crowded around them, all smiling and laughing. Everyone was there. Everyone looked so happy. She couldn't even say for sure when it had been taken.
And underneath the photo, set into the frame, a tiny, engraved plaque:
For a moment, nobody said anything.
Coulson smiled. “It's true, you know.”
She turned the frame back around to look at the photo again and nodded.
“But what was the thing taped to the front?” asked Bobbi.
Skye inspected the strip of paper and smiled, blinking through her tears to read the message scrawled on it. “It's uh...it looks like a gift receipt.”
“Someone gave you a gift receipt for a photo?” asked Trip.
She sniffled. “It's not for the photo...it's for me. It's homemade, it's got my name on it. It's, um...a gift receipt for me.”
“I don't understand,” said Fitz.
Skye looked down at the photograph and took a slow, deep breath before reading the message on the scrap of paper. “This gift receipt, valid for one (1) Special Agent Skye, is hereby entrusted to her care so that...so that no one can ever give her back.”
She scanned the room, looking for any hints as to who might be responsible until her eyes finally landed on Hunter, who could only stand there with his hand in his pocket and his eyes on the ground, trying his best to suppress the slightest hint of a satisfied smile.