“It's five days before Christmas!”
Maria Hill let out a breath that was almost a sigh. Almost. “This may shock you, Agent Barton, but I am aware of the date.” She was studying the pre-flight checklist on her clipboard. “I have a calendar, and unlike you, I actually check it.” Her eyes cut in Clint's direction. “It is December 20th, and that does, in fact, make it five days before Christmas. Do you have a reason for sharing this information?”
“I don't know,” Clint said, from between clenched teeth. “Maybe because I had plans for the coming week?”
“And I'm sure they were fascinating plans. Knowing you, they were very important plans, possibly involving video games and alcohol.” Hill shook her head in his general direction. “I regret to inform you that there's been a change to them.”
“There were things other than video games and alcohol,” Clint said, and Hill turned her head, not quite fast enough to hide a smile. He counted that as a point for him, because hell knows, he didn't score many off of Hill. “I haven't wrapped my Christmas gifts. Also, I haven't BOUGHT my Christmas gifts.”
“That's what internet two day shipping is for,” Hill said, even as she continued checking over the small Cessna that had delivered them to this backwater regional airport at the ass end of nowhere.
“Does Amazon ship to SHIELD safehouses?” Clint asked, letting his head fall back with a thump. “I didn't even see ROADS on the flight in.”
“Try it and I'll break your legs.”
“Wouldn't it be easier just to block my internet connection?”
“Yes, but not nearly as much fun.” She glanced in his direction, and there was something close to sympathy on her face. “As soon as we get things sorted out, we'll bring you back in. Whatever it is that you're carrying-” She slanted him a stern look. “We need you safely out of reach until we figure out a way to extract it. And you know it.”
“Doesn't mean I like it,” he grumbled, shifting his weight. His bag shifted with him, and he tugged it higher on his shoulder. His smallest bow case was leaning against his leg, a comforting weight that he'd refused to be without. Everyone, from Phil to Steve to Fury himself, had assured him that he wouldn't need it, that they were getting him out of town more for expediency than any sort of danger, but Clint had put his foot down. He didn't have a choice about being bundled out of New York under the cover of darkness, but he was not going to go without his bow.
That was asking far too much of him, and they knew it.
“You're a SHIELD agent, highly trained, highly decorated and, oddly enough, very highly regarded,” Hill said, her lips quirking up in a half smile. “You should be used to not liking your orders.”
“I'm used to it, ma'am, doesn't mean I take 'em without a fight.”
Hill paused, her fingers coming up to the comm unit in her ear. “We have incoming extraction vehicle,” she said, her voice crisp. “Open doors, keep the perimeter.” Her hand dropped to her side. “The safehouse team has arrived. Ready?”
He resisted the urge to say something distinctly rude and probably obscene. As good as it might feel in the moment, he'd regret it later. “As ready as I'll ever be,” he said instead.
The door to the hanger opened, and Clint pushed himself upright, looking up in time to see a recent model minivan come rolling through the gap. As it toddled in their direction, the most innocuous pick-up vehicle Clint had ever seen, he waited, and seethed. His arms crossed over his chest, his head down, he tried not to resent the whole situation. He hated this. He hated it so much. He hated not knowing where he was, or having any control over his own life, and more than that, he hated the fact that his team was somewhere, fighting without him.
Mostly, he hated the very real suspicion that they didn't need him, that they'd get along just as well even if he wasn't there.
“You owe us one,” Hill said, just as the minivan rolled up next to them. Clint's head snapped in her direction, confused, but she just smiled, and went back to her clipboard.
The passenger side window came down, and Shirley Coulson leaned out, removing her sunglasses as she did. “Sorry we're late,” she said, her voice breezy. “We hit rush hour traffic on the interstate.” Beyond her, in the driver's seat, Jason waved, a cheerful smile on his face.
Clint stared. “What?” he asked at last.
“Isn't a problem,” Hill said to Shirley. “Sorry about the early arrival.”
“What can you do,” Shirley said, smiling as Jason put the minivan into park. She stepped out of the van, offering Hill a hand. “Airline schedules. Nothing's convenient, even when you're setting the schedule.” She turned Clint, and her smile stretched, warm and bright. “It's so good to see you, Clint.”
He realized his mouth was hanging open and considered doing something about that, but before he could, he was getting hugged. “You're looking wonderful, Phil said that you took a bit of a tumble last month, I assume that you've healed up fine.” She leaned back, her hands solid on Clint's shoulders. “How're you doing?”
“Uh,” Clint said.
“Hey, there, son, here, let me get your bags,” Jason said, wrestling Clint's bag off of his shoulder and scooping up his weapons kit. “Traveling light I see, probably for the best, don't you worry, if you've forgotten something we can swing by the mall, grab whatever you need.”
“I am not going to the mall five days before Christmas,” Shirley said.
“Oh, that is so much worse than the mall, absolutely not.”
“What is happening here?” Clint asked no one in particular.
“You're being shanghaied,” Shirley said. She turned back to the car, coming up a moment later with a red tin covered in white snowflakes. “For the Director.” Hill took it without a blink. “The usual shipment.”
“Your country thanks you for your service,” Hill said, and she managed to say it with a straight face, which was impressive, even for Hill. Considering that Clint was about ninety percent certain that she'd traded him for a tin of cookies.
“Not the first time I've heard that,” Shirley said, sounding amused. “Let's go, Clint. You can explain the situation on the way.”
“Merry Christmas,” Hill said. When Clint shot her a shell-shocked look, she smiled. “Enjoy the holidays with your in-laws.”
“Load it up,” Jason said, slamming the trunk. “And let's go.”
And seeing no other option, Clint went.
“So that mess in Queens a couple of weeks ago, it wasn't a gas main explosion, which is the stupidest goddamn cover story, everyone knows that's code for 'government coverup,' whatever mid-level bureaucrat that splattered that all over the media, Fury's gonna throw the guy off of the helicarrier without a parachute. Seriously, he's at that point.
“But it wasn't a gas leak slash explosion, it was an alien craft crashing into a 7-11 in Queens, and I'd like to say, when did we become a rest stop on some extraterrestrial interstate? I mean, we go a couple of million years without any alien species interacting with us in any real way, and then, all of a sudden, they're wandering through half a dozen a year? Why? Was there some sort of detour that put us right in the middle of main street, milky way?
“Anyway, there was an alien crash, and I was the first one on the scene, because I'd been grabbing lunch nearby. It sucks, because this is going to really mess with my ability to grab a burger at that diner, but that's life, I guess. But I was eating a cheeseburger when an alien craft crashed about a mile away, and I was the first idiot to get there and the only one who got in while the pilot was still alive.
“He didn't live long, just long enough to grab my arm, and drag me down for a kiss. Which was weird, but apparently, that's what their guardian warriors do when they want to pass on their duty and their mantle as intergalactic cops. They make out.”
Clint took a huge bite of his doughnut. “And that,” he mumbled, his mouth full, “is how I ended up being the vessel for an immortal alien energy force. 'Cause a dying alien kissed the first guy who came in range, and it happened to be me.”
Shirley was leaning to the side, staring at him over the top of her seat. “Well,” she said at last, eyebrows arching. “Is that all?”
“Don't that beat all,” Jason mused, sipping his coffee, one hand on the steering wheel. His eyes flicked up to meet Clint's in the rear view mirror. “How's that- I mean, what's that like?”
Clint shrugged. “No different than any other Tuesday,” he said. “Other than spending two days in SHIELD medical and quarantine lockdown while everyone in the tri-state area with a medical degree or a passing interest in space got to poke me with science.”
He reached for another doughnut. “What they finally decided was that while I was, in fact, carrying a massive amount of alien energy, I was just, literally, a vessel for it. I can't use it, it doesn't bother me, it's just kind of there, like a tacky Christmas sweater that you're obligated to wear for a few days and then get rid of as quickly as possible.”
“Also, it's itchy as hell.” Clint resisted the urge to just lie face down on the bench seat and pretend none of this was happening. Instead, he took a vicious bite from the doughnut, sending powdered sugar in all directions. “But they say I'm not a threat to myself or anyone else, really. They gave me this.” He held up his arm, showing off the heavy silver watch that was clamped around his left wrist. “It's a monitoring bracelet, keeps track of my vitals, makes sure there's no change in my status, gives me warning if I start going nova or something, and it's a semi-accurate watch.” He tugged his jacket back down to cover it. “SHIELD quality.”
“Uh-huh,” Shirley said. She sipped her coffee. “And that resulted in you ending up with us, how?”
“Well, the dying guy's people showed up a few hours after he dumped this on me,” Clint said. “Turns out they want his energy signature back.”
“And you don't want it, so why-”
“'Cause them getting it back involves killing me, and I objected to that a little,” Clint said. He shrugged. “I mean, yeah. Not real interested in a second kiss of death in less than a month, especially when I'm the one doing the dying.”
Shirley hid a smile behind her cup. “I think I would object to that, too.”
“Right?” Clint grinned. “So there was a lot of yelling, and Thor dented a couple of ships and Stark dented a couple of foreheads and people were throwing words like 'intergalactic war' around and Agent Brand decided that if we wanted to negotiate, I needed to not be around. Get the hell out of Dodge, as they say.”
He slumped lower in his seat. “So my team's heading to a highly fortified SHIELD base, and I am not, and things are mostly under control, the alien race has been very calmly negotiating for the return of their 'genetic property,'” he said, making finger quotes as he said it, “but for my safety and SHIELD's peace of mind, they said that I was going to a safe house.”
Clint paused. “How did I end up in the back of your minivan?”
“Well,” Shirley mused, her index finger tapping against her coffee cup, “Phil called and said that you needed a place to lay low for a few days, that it wouldn't result in any danger to us or you, but he'd consider it a personal favor if you could just crash in his old room for a few days until he got a few things straightened out.” She took a sip of her coffee. “Since we'd been nagging him for coming home for Christmas for the last few months, only to be told that there was no way he could manage it this year, we thought that keeping you as a hostage might work out in our favor.”
“Also, we're very happy to have you as a guest,” Jason said, his voice cheerfully.
“Also, that,” Shirley said, a puckish smile on her face. “It's absolutely lovely to have you. The children will be so excited that you've come for a visit.”
“Oh, the boys'll be over the moon,” Jason agreed.
“That's... Good,” Clint managed, and he didn't know if it was good or not, but he wasn't going to examine it too closely because he was going to have a screaming breakdown if he did. He did not want to think about the fact that he was in the backseat of a minivan with Phil's parents and a really bad cover story. Clint reached for another doughnut. “Does this qualify as a safe house?”
“We have clearance,” Shirley said. “Don't worry. You'll be perfectly safe.”
Clint stopped, cinnamon dribbling down his sleeve. “Wait, Phil's room?”
“They put me in your room.”
“Oh, good. I had the best view.”
Clint stood in the middle of the room, his bag leaning against his leg. “That's all you have to say? 'Good, I had the best view?'”
“Not sure what else you're expecting, Barton, but yes. That's all I have to say.” Phil paused. “Are you mad about the room or being there?”
Clint took a cautious step towards the window. “Mostly the first one, but I think I could be pissed about both and really be reasonable, don't you think?”
“Maybe,” Phil admitted.
“You dumped me on your family.” Clint considered the view from the windows. It really was nice, a clear look over the rolling hills and forests that surrounded the old farmhouse. Snow covered everything at this point, swirling as the wind swept over the quiet landscape. A crow rose above the treetops, black wings sharp against the snow and sky. Clint leaned against the wall, his free hand tucked into his pocket, his shoulders up. “They might be pissed, too.”
Phil choked on a laugh. “Please. My mother has been dropping not-so-veiled hints about me bringing you home for the holidays since about six minutes after she met you. Christmas is big in the Coulson family, and she's been glaring at me and the proverbial empty seat next to me for years. Before she met you years. Since we started dating years.”
Clint shifted his weight, forward and back, the muscles of his back and shoulders tight. “Doesn't mean she wants me here without you.”
“Clint, my mother does not give a damn that I'm not there. Right now, she is somewhere, chortling over a tray of fresh baked cookies, plotting about just how she's going to turn this to her advantage.”
He realized his fingers were twitching against his leg, his hand flicking there. He sucked in a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said, shoving his hand through his hair, if for no other reason than to still his fingers. “This isn't going to work out well for me, is it?”
There was silence on the other end of the line, and then a faint sigh. “I'm sorry,” Phil said at last. “I shouldn't have- Do you want me to arrange a different-”
“No, it's fine-”
“Because I can tell mom that we've discovered something about your condition, and we don't want to-”
“Phil, it's FINE,” Clint said, his eyes rolling up towards the ceiling. Phil fell silent, and Clint caught himself smiling. “It's fine,” he repeated.
The silence stretched, and in his mind's eye, Clint could see Phil's expression as he weighed that, as he turned it over in his head, testing it for truthfulness.
“It's fine, why don't you trust me when I say it's fine?” Clint asked, resisting another eye roll. If he got started, he was never going to stop.
“Because sometimes you lie about your own health and well-being,” Phil said. Clint could hear him shuffling papers in the background. “And you know it.”
“Only sometimes,” Clint said, grinning. “Every once in a while.”
“That does not make me feel better,” Phil said. He paused. “I didn't want you to be in some sterile safe house, Clint. Not right now.”
Clint shrugged. “Seen one sterile safe house, seen a thousand of them,” he said. Cautiously, he sank down onto the edge of the narrow bed, still staring out the window. He could see the colony of crows now, black shadows among the tree tops, dotting the snow covered ground. Glossy black wings flicked, fast as a blink, and the crows lifted off, one after another. “It's fine.”
“It's just that you get a little weird around Christmas, Clint.”
Clint frowned. “Hey, fuck you, I'm great at Christmas.”
“You are, you're-” Phil sighed. “It's just, sometimes, it's like you're trying too hard.”
Clint stilled. His fingers twitched against his leg. “What the hell does that mean?”
Phil sighed. “I didn't-”
His face felt tight, and when Clint swallowed, it hurt. “You know what, actually, I don't want to get into this, really, it's been a pretty fucking lousy couple of days, and now I have to go be the odd man out in your family's holiday celebrations, which I'm sure will be just as great, because you decided to pull this shit on me with no warning, so you know what? Yeah. I am pissed.” His voice climbed with every word, frustration and a sudden, searing anger twisting through him.
“Let me know if there's any change to the situation, until then, I've got a whole lot of nothing to do, so I gotta get on that,” Clint managed, and he cut the connection without saying good-bye. Which was childish, but then again, so was he. Childish enough to mute his phone and throw the damn thing straight at his bag.
He braced a hand on the window frame, watching the crows take off, and trying not to think.
There was a light tap on the door, and he pushed himself away from the wall. “Come in.”
Shirley poked her head into the room. “How are you settling in?” she asked.
Clint gave her a smile that felt wrong on his face. “Fine. Thank you.”
Shirley paused, her shoulder braced against the doorframe, her arms crossed over her chest. “Would you prefer a different room, I know this is a little odd, but-”
“No, it's fine.” Clint shoved his hands in his pockets. It was fine, really. It wasn't like the room was a shrine to Phil or anything. It was just a pleasant, slightly masculine guest room, all heavy wood and dark paint, full of light and warmth.
It was a very nice room to have grown up in.
Clint shifted his weight, his feet rocking on the wooden floor. “It's just for a couple of days,” he said, his shoulders twitching up in a shrug. “It's not like I'm moving in.”
“The commute to work would be hell,” Shirley agreed. She straightened up with a faint exhale. “Are you hungry, Clint? There's soup and sandwich fixings in the fridge.”
All he'd done this morning was sit in the back of a car and eat doughnuts. The absolute last thing he needed right now was more food. But the walls felt like they were closing in already, the room too familiar and too foreign all at once and he had no idea how he was going to do this.
His phone vibrated, bouncing to the floor, and he gave Shirley a tight smile. “Yeah, actually. I am.” He strode towards the door, letting the weight of his footfalls cover the faint buzz of his phone. “Let's go.”
“Exactly how many cookies are you making?” Clint asked, casting a wary eye around the table. There were cookie sheets and cooling racks everywhere, and the fridge was stuffed full of bowls of dough. There were sacks of sugar and flour on the counter, and cartons of eggs on the table.
“Let's just start making cookies,” Shirley said, serene, “and I'll tell you when you can stop.”
“That's not comforting,” Clint said. “At all.”
“It wasn't meant to be.” Shirley bent over her mixer, tossing in chopped nuts with an easy hand. There was the echo of a car horn from outside, and her head came up. “That'll be Mary Margaret,” she said, dusting her hands off on her apron. “She comes over after school some times, and she was supposed to help me with the decorations for the tree yesterday. So here she is, a day late and a dollar short.” She folded her arms, an amused smile sweeping over her face. “That girl.”
Clint's eyebrows arched. “She isn't driving, is she?”
“She's twelve, Clint,” Shirley said, picking up her mug.
“That means absolutely nothing.”
“She can't drive.” She paused, her head tipping to the side. “Actually, knowing that child, I bet she can drive. However, for legal reasons, she should not.” She reached for the coffee pot. “She gets a carpool from school, she must've sweet talked Emily's mother into dropping her off here rather than at home. It happens with all the kids, from time to time.”
The front door slammed. “Hi, Gramma!”
“We're back here, honey,” Shirley called back as the oven timer went off. She reached for a mitt. “Don't track up my house with those muddy boots of yours.”
“Like I needed to be told to take off my shoes.” Mary Margaret bounced across the kitchen floor, her hair pulled back from her face with a headband covered in Christmas trees and a pair of oversized earrings shaped like ornaments swinging around her face with each step. “Oh, good, you're here, Uncle Clint,” she said, skidding to a stop just long enough to sneak a cookie from the tray. Shirley swiped at her hand with the spatula, but it was a warning shot. “You can help me thread popcorn.” She stuffed the cookie into her mouth. “Gonna go change,” she said, her mouth full. “This skirt is a pain.”
“Very ladylike,” Shirley said, her lips twitching as she plated cookies.
“Luckily, I don't wanna be a lady, it's boring. I wanna be like my gramma.” Mary Margaret bounced up on her toes, brushing a powdered sugar kiss against Shirley's cheek.
“Excuse me, I am a lady,” Shirley said, giving her a stern look.
“Ehhhhhhhh,” Mary Margaret said, see-sawing her hand in the air. “Kinda? In the important ways, but not in all the other-”
“You are on thin ice, young miss, and Santa has plenty of time to return every one of your gifts and replace them with a gift certificate that you will not enjoy.”
“That is impossible, I love all gift certificates. They are like money, but with narrow stipulations so I get to be creative.” Mary Margaret draped herself over the counter, grinning. “I like being creative.”
“Are you aware that the local hardware store sells gift certificates?”
“They also sell paint and I've been wanting a bright orange room. But still. You are regal and elegant and the most ladylike lady since Princess Di,” Mary Margaret said, her freckled nose wrinkling as she grinned across the counter at her grandmother. She folded her arms on the counter, leaning forward to look at Shirley over the tops of her glasses. There was some sort of sparkly sticker next to her eye, which Clint hadn't noticed under her frames. “I love you, Gramma.”
“You are a brat,” Shirley said, and smacked at the hand that was sneaking towards the cookie plate. “Don't even.”
Mary Margaret tucked her head on top of her arms and tried a particularly pathetic look. Shirley just arched an eyebrow and pointed at the stairs. “Go,” she said. “There's no time for popcorn garlands today. You have homework.”
“I can do it tonight.”
“You can do it now.”
“Tonight,” Mary Margaret wheedled. “Plenty of time tonight, and I need Uncle Clint to help me with the stupid popcorn garlands.” Shirley stared her down. Mary Margaret gave her a huge grin. “Pleeeeeease?”
Shirley went back to her cookie dough. “Go get changed out of your uniform before you end up ruining it. The way you have the last three.”
“On it!” Mary Margaret shot upright. “Uncle Clint. You. Me. Popcorn.”
Clint flicked her a salute, his face still buried in his coffee cup. “Ready for service, Commander.”
“Excellent!” she crowed, heading for the stairs. Clint gave a low whistle, and when she glanced in his direction, he flicked a cookie in her direction. She snagged it out of mid-air. “Thanks, Uncle Clint!”
“I saw that,” Shirley said, never glancing up from her bowl of dough.
“Yeah, but you're going to ignore it,” Clint said hopefully.
“How optimistic of you, Mr. Barton.” She dropped the bowl in front of him with a thud, and stabbed a spoon into the depths. “Make yourself useful.”
He considered the massive bowl of dough. “How much of this can I eat?”
“None until its baked.”
“That seems unreasonable.” Still, he dug the spoon into the dough and started dropping it onto the parchment paper covered baking sheets. When Shirley turned to put the first tray in the oven, Clint shoved the spoon in his mouth.
Another spoon landed in the dough in front of him. “Don't put that back in the cookies.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he mumbled around a mouthful of cookie dough. He swallowed. “Really, we're making popcorn garlands?”
“No, we are not.” Shirley smiled at him. “You and Mary Margaret are. We're getting the Christmas tree tomorrow, and we always put up popcorn garland. Would you like some cocoa?”
“Does it have alcohol in it?”
“It can.” She braced one hand on the counter and the other on her hip. “If you really think you can keep up with a hyperactive twelve year old with booze in your system. I would not suggest you try that.”
Clint nodded. “Point taken, ma'am.” He went back to the cookies. “Question. Did she know I was going to be here?”
“No, she did not.” Shirley opened a cabinet, reaching for a tin canister on an upper shelf. “But she's not thrown by much.” The kettle was set on the stove with a solid clunk. “She might look like her mother, but she's as unflappable as her uncle Phil.”
Shirley pulled a chair away from the table, and settled down next to Clint. “Push that over here,” she said. “We've got a few minutes before we need to start the popcorn.”
“How much popcorn are we talking about here?” Clint asked. “I think I deserve a little warning.”
“There are some things that you're better off not being warned about,” she said, smiling.
“I changed my mind about the booze.”
“It's in the cabinet to the left of the fridge.”
“So, how long are you going to ignore Phil's calls?”
“Forever,” Clint said, his phone tucked between his cheek and his shoulder. He squinted down at the needle, his tongue sticking out from between his lips as he tried to aim the thread at the hole.
“I'm giving you twelve hours.”
“Fuck you, Nat.”
She chuckled, low and amused, and Clint stabbed himself in the finger. He bit out a curse, and she laughed again. “Really, Barton?” she said, amusement running through her words.
“I'm not talking to him,” he mumbled around the finger he'd shoved in his mouth. He fumbled the needle around and managed to stab himself in the thumb. “I'm pissed at him.”
“I got that.”
"What if it was important?"
Clint's eyes rolled upwards. "If it was important, he'd call the Avengers' line, and that rings through even if my phone is off, let alone if it's on ignore," he said. "And he'd do it from a priority SHIELD number. He's using his personal phone to call my personal numer so that I can ignore him." In the silence that followed that, he gave diasterous pile of popcorn and thread on his knee a tight smile. "Which means he's letting me be pissed."
Nat made a slight humming noise under her breath. "Sometimes," she said, "you're smarter than you look, Clint."
"Well, it would be hard to be dumber than I look," he said, a real grin splitting his face.
"It would," she said, and she was struggling against a laugh, he could hear it in her voice. He relaxed back against the pillows, his eyes closing. "How long are you planning on being pissed?"
"When can I come back to New York?" he shot back, his voice lazy.
"When fewer people want to kill you."
He scoffed. "Nat, that's... That's a constant. People always want to kill me. You want to kill me. If I have to wait until people don't want to kill me-"
"Fewer, Barton. I'm not saying none, I'm saying fewer." He heard her shift, boot soles soft on metal flooring. "Also, it's rare that I want to kill you. Only on very rare occasions do you annoy me to the point where I get the urge to put you out of my misery."
"Is now one of these times?"
"We're getting there." But he could hear the smile in her voice. "How long are you going to be ignoring Phil's calls, Clint?"
"Forever," he repeated, in a high, drawn out sing-song. He gave up before he ended up bleeding on the popcorn strings, shifting the whole mess into the bowl next to him on the couch. "Do I try to hard?” he asked her without any buildup.
“All the time,” she said.
“Thanks,” he gritted out.
“It's part of your charm, Clint. You don't do things by half measure, even if you're trying to do them by half measure. You try far too hard at everything, and it's exhausting, but it's you,” she said, blunt about it. “Why do you think I keep you around?”
“I always figured it was because of my skills at oral sex,” he said, about an instant before his brain reminded him where he was. He turned in his seat, half expecting to find Phil's mom right there, but the evening was quiet and the first floor was still. He turned back to the fireplace, relief flooding him.
“That was a selling point when we were dating,” she agreed. “Afterwards, not so much.”
“I figured I was an emergency back up plan.”
“Usually, but not in this instance. Talk to Phil.”
“Go to Hell.”
“Seriously, I give you like ten hours before you let this go and talk to him. Just put do it now. He's getting on everyone's nerves, and while it's funny when he bitches Stark out, Hill's going to have him shipped to Antartica for the foreseeable future.”
“Never talking to him again.”
“Glad we had this chat. You're getting coal for Christmas.”
He considered that. “Better than expected.”
“Your expectations are pathetically low, Barton.”
“Yeah, and still occasionally disappointed.”
There was a beat of silence. “I need you to stay safe until we can come get you,” she said at last. “And Barton? We will come and get you.”
He smiled, lopsided and uneven. “That's what you say now.”
“When have I ever left you behind?”
He let out a chuckle. “I know.” He paused. “Thanks, Nat. I love you.”
The line was dead, and he stared at his phone. “My own personal Han Solo,” he said, and pulled up his web browser. Maybe he'd better get on that Christmas shopping thing.
He'd lived in the city for so long that he'd forgotten the stillness of a winter night.
New York was never quiet, never still. In the midst of a blizzard or in the earliest morning, there was still life to New York, still activity, still noise. There was never a moment when the lights went out and the world went dark and the stars spread out across the sky. There was never a moment of silence so all encompassing that it was like he was alone in the world.
Here, he could believe it. Here, just at the edge of the old stone wall, just before the edge of the forest, where even the pale moonlight was swallowed by the shadows of the old evergreen trees, where the snow had been driven by the wind, Clint could believe that he was alone.
He'd been walking for what seemed like hours now, long enough to watch the waxing moon rise through the sky. He took a deep breath, through his mouth, and felt the cold air sear his throat. It hurt, it ached, and his lungs burned with a need to cough. Instead, he let his head fell back, and breathed in again, his lips cold, the skin of his face and throat tight, exposed to the icy cold.
The night air was so cold, so clear, that he could almost hear his own breathing echo in the darkness. If he was still, if he didn't disturb the snow around his feet, he could hear his heartbeat in his ears, hear the hiss of breath between his teeth.
It was cold, and still, and silent, and Clint savored the emptiness for another moment. He closed his eyes, blanking out the moonlight and the stars, what little he could see. He breathed, and he could feel the momentary warmth of it against his face as he exhaled. His feet were numb now, in the heavy boots and the thick socks, and his legs ached from the effort it took to walk through the heavy snow.
But when he opened his eyes again, he moved on, walking through the snow. Leaving a trail of footprints behind him, he continued on.
*Four Days Before Christmas*
“Your mother bought me pajamas.”
There was a long moment of silence. “Are we not fighting anymore?” Phil asked at last, his voice cautious.
“Do you want to be fighting?” Clint asked.
“Then maybe you should shut up and accept my sudden change of heart, okay?”
Another long silence, as Phil turned that over, looking for meaning in the meaningless. “Okay,” he said. “I'm sorry.”
“I know, I'm fine, drop it,” Clint said, because, okay, he was still a little pissed. But he preferred being pissed and talking to Phil to being pissed and not talking to Phil. He changed the subject with brutal efficiency. “Your mother bought me pajamas.”
“That was nice of her.”
Clint stared up at the ceiling. “Phil.”
“Clint?” Phil sounded amused in that way that only Phil managed, when he was doing paperwork or something else important and Clint was being annoying. It was a tone that Clint knew well. He liked it more than he probably should.
Clint turned his attention back to the folded pair of flannel pajamas. “Phil, why would your mother buy me pajamas?”
“So you could sleep in them?”
“I sleep in my shorts.”
“As much as I do enjoy you wandering around the place in boxers with holes in inappropriate places, Mom probably wanted to avoid that.”
“Hey, not all my shorts have holes in them.”
“Do the one you're currently wearing have-”
“Let's just move on,” Clint said, cutting him off. “I have, like sweatpants an' shit to wear around other people, I'm not going to walk around the house in my underwear.”
“Considerate of you.”
“Shut up,” Clint said, grinning. “So why did she-”
“Because it's a Coulson family tradition,” Phil said. “Everyone wears pajamas to open their gifts on Christmas morning.”
Clint leaned back against the wall. “Everyone.”
“Everyone. You want to put a foot over the threshold on Christmas morning, better bring your pjs.” Clint could hear the smile in Phil's voice. “It helps that most of the family spends the night. The adults have the spare bedrooms, and the kids sleep up in the attic. There's a play room up there, with a great big window. We always used to spend Christmas Eve night up there watching for Santa.”
“That sounds nice,” Clint said. He sipped his coffee. “Now the kids do?”
“Now the kids do,” Phil agreed. “Tradition.”
Clint nodded, then aloud he said, “Can I wear different pajamas?”
“How bad are they?”
“They're, uh, it's like a tuxedo t-shirt? Like that. Except pajamas. Fake tuxedo pajamas.” He paused. “They're pretty bad.”
“Ouch. No, I'm sorry, but you're stuck with them unless you want to hurt mom's feelings.”
“What did I ever do to your mother?” Clint asked. “That I deserve this?”
“You're sleeping with her son, it's a scandal,” Phil said, utterly deadpan about it.
“Listen, sir, I don't know why your mother would blame me for that. You seduced me,” Clint said, grinning into his cup. “And your mother has to know what a playboy her only son is.”
Phil choked on his coffee, coughing, and Clint waiting, pleased with himself as Phil got himself back under control. “I'm curious as to what hallucination you're basing this on,” Phil said at last, his voice raspy.
Clint shrugged, still grinning. “Our entire relationship.”
“That only feels like a hallucination,” Phil told him. When Clint finally stopped laughing, he said, “Are you all right?”
“I'm having fantasies of seducing the teenage version of you,” Clint said. “I blame the room.”
“Teenage me would've had his pants off before you finished making the request,” Phil said.
“Aw, did you have a lot of sex, Teen-Phil?”
That won him a snort. “I was an angry, closeted gay kid with bad hair and two nosy younger sisters. I did not have sex at all. But I seem to be particularly susceptible to you, Barton.”
“Fine, blame me,” Clint said, his eyes closing. “How are things going?”
“Nothing new to report, sorry.”
Clint took a deep breath. “Just tell me something, anything, Phil. Just-” He swallowed. “Tell me what's going on.”
He didn't pause this time, he didn't question it, he just started to talk. And Clint flopped out on the bed and listened, wondering if this was what being homesick was like.
"I can just stay here," Clint offered. No one listened to him.
"Maybe a pair of glasses," Shirley mused, her index finger pressed against pursed lips.
"Uh, actually, since I wear glasses as part of my uniform, I get recognized more with them on than off," Clint said, tucking his hands in his pockets. "I pretty much avoid it, if I'm going out."
"Sunglasses, perhaps," she said.
"Oh, you know what?" Jason asked, smiling. "I still have those glasses that Pam gave me."
"Gave you?" Shirley asked, eyebrows arching.
Jason ignored her. "Little brat replaced my reading glasses with ones with no prescription," he explained to Clint. He crossed the kitchen, yanking open a drawer and digging through the contents. "Pretty good prank, actually."
"Took him a week to figure out that they weren't his glasses," Shirley said, a faint smile hovering at the corners of her mouth. "Observant, he isn't."
"Don't know what you're grousing about," Jason said, coming up with a black glasses case. He handed it to his wife. "You'd been griping at me to get an eye appointment for months."
"And you only did it after squinting through plain plastic lenses for a solid week," she said. She flipped the case open and pulled out a pair of heavy horn rimmed glasses. "Here we go."
She slipped them onto Clint's nose. He blinked at them. Shirley's head tipped to the side. "Not your best look, dear," she said.
"You'd look better in a slim wire frame, I think," Jason mused.
"I don't actually need glasses," Clint pointed out. "So not worried about it."
"Needs a little something," Shirley mused. She snapped her fingers. "The hat that I told you never to wear again."
"You threw that out."
"I tried to throw that out, I'm well aware that you rescued it from the trash and it's currently hidden in the back of the woodshed."
"It gets cold out there, chopping wood," Jason pointed out. "And what you don't see doesn't hurt you."
"That hat causes me pain, just by existing."
"I don't want this hat," Clint said. No one listened to him. He was getting used to it. It was comforting in a way that he didn't really want to examine. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his coat. "I can just stay here," he repeated.
"It's a Christmas tree lot," Shirley said. "Poorly lit, and the kids will be more interested in the trees and the parents will be more interested in keeping tabs on their children. No one's going to look twice at you."
She patted him lightly on the arm. "Besides, the boys are expecting to see you there. You wouldn't want to disappoint them, would you?"
"Also, I'm too old to be luggin' a damn tree around, so you're very necessary here." Jason gave them a pleased smile. He clapped Clint on the back. “Let's go find you a hat.”
“How bad is this hat?” Clint asked, trailing behind him.
“Horrible,” Shirley called after them.
“It's nice and warm, and no one's gonna mistake you for a deer,” Jason said cheerfully.
“Are random hunters mistaking people for deer in a Christmas tree lot a big problem around here?” Clint asked. He wasn't sure he wanted an answer to that question.
“No, but we Coulsons like to be prepared.” Jason shuffled his way down the walk, heading for the woodshed behind the house. The path wasn't icy at this point, but neither of them rushed it. “Shirley's just being fussy, it's a perfectly good hat.”
“I'm getting that,” Clint said. He tucked his hands in his pocket, letting out a breath into the cool evening air.
“Didja get enough to eat for dinner?” Jason asked.
“Yeah,” Clint said, a faint smile on his face. “By the time I go home, they're going to have to roll me out of here.”
Jason patted his own well padded belly. “It happens,” he said, unconcerned. “Nice of you to put up with it, though.” He grinned. “We like feeding people around here, it's hard to resist.”
“I noticed.” Clint paused as Jason wrestled the door of the shed open. “How many cookies are there going to be in that house?”
“You haven't seen anything yet,” Jason said. He flicked on the light. “Now, where did I put that hat... I kept it out here for when I was chopping wood,” he explained. “Need to get a few logs for the fire tonight, it's gonna be a cold one.”
“I can get them,” Clint said.
“That's nice of you.” Jason straightened up. “Here we go!”
Clint caught a glimpse of the hat, a horrific orange and red plaid chunk of fabric with massive, fuzzy earflaps, before it landed on his head. A glimpse was enough. The hat settled low on his forehead, the earflaps dangling on either side of his face. “Thanks,” he managed.
“You can tie the ears under your chin,” Jason pointed out. “There's a cord there, if you want.”
“I'll keep that in mind.”
Jason patted him on the shoulder. “Trust me, son. No one's gonna be lookin' at your face.”
“True,” Clint said, because he couldn't think of anything else to say. “Let's go, then.”
Clint looked up. “Guys. This tree is like, fifteen feet high. As big as your grandparents' living room is, I don't think that this is going to fit. In fact, I know that this isn't going to fit at all, we'd have to cut this tree in half to make it fit.”
He glanced at the twins. They were staring up at the tree with identical expressions of wide eyed joy, their mouths hanging open, their round cheeks pink with the cold. Clint tucked his hands in his pockets, trying not to smile.
“It's not happening, guys. C'mon, let's find one that's a little less Rockefeller Center, okay?” He glanced around, looking for the rest of the Coulsons. Even this close to the holiday, there were plenty of trees left, and plenty of people milling through the aisles, checking out the trees and sipping free cups of hot mulled cider. Christmas carols were playing on the overhead speakers.
Bradley let out a heavy sigh. Sam repeated it. But they both turned away, with only one or two backward, longing glances. Bradley reached for Clint's hand without looking up, and Clint fumbled his hand back out of his pocket to take it. “Do you go skating at Rockefeller Center?” he asked Clint, his mitten covered hand warm against Clint's palm. “We saw people skating, the last time they showed it on TV. I asked mom if we could go skating, and she said yes, but not in New York.” His freckled nose wrinkled up. “It looks more fun in New York.”
“Not really a 'skating' kind of guy,” Clint said, steering them towards a row of distinctly shorter trees. He wasn't sure where everyone had gone, but he figured that he could keep things under control for five minutes or so. He snagged Sam by the hood of his coat when the boy tried to dart down a row of trees that looked about twelve feet tall. “Still too big, good try though.”
Sam groaned, loud and long, and a woman passing in the other direction, a baby in her arms, gave Clint a sympathetic smile. Bradley leaned away, still gripping Clint's hand, his body tipped to the side. “Do you see the Rockettes?”
“We saw the Rockettes once,” Sam said. He stepped to the side to kick at a snowbank, working his toe into the snow. “It was cool.”
“Nope, sorry,” Clint said, waiting while Sam kicked a chunk of snow loose, then stomped on it.
“How 'bout the Nutcracker?” Bradley asked, his eyes narrowed now. “Or the widows at the stores? Or shopping or the museums?”
“That'd be no.” Clint found a row of trees that seemed to be about the right size, and headed down it, determined now.
“You waste living in New York,” Sam said.
“I really do,” Clint agreed, grinning.
“That's really rude,” Mary Margaret said, coming up behind them. “Oh, my God, Sam, you can't just say things like that.”
“Why not?” Sam asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “It's true.”
“It is true,” Clint said. “What about this one?” he asked Bradley.
Bradley's nose scrunched up as Clint pulled the tree away from the wooden frame where it was leaning. “It's more fat than tall,” he said.
“I don't care if it's true,” Mary Margaret said, “it's rude. And it's not true.” To Bradley, she said, “You want fat, not tall. The bigger it is around, the more presents fit underneath.”
“I don't think that works that way,” Clint said.
“With Grandpa, it totally works that way,” Mary Margaret said, grinning at him. Her glasses were crooked on her nose, and her earrings were huge enamel candy canes, and she was wearing what appeared to be three different scarves. “He just keeps saying how EMPTY it looks under the tree and then he gets more presents. Grandma tells him not to, but he slips extra ones under there when she's not looking.”
“So you get them the fattest tree you can find?”
“Yes. I've been telling my brothers this for years, but they still go for tall.” Mary Margaret crossed her arms over her chest. “Tall equals pretty, fat equals presents.”
“Okay, that's both sneaky and greedy,” Clint told her.
“Well, yes,” Mary Margaret said, blinking owlishly behind her glasses. “Duh.”
“What do you want for Christmas?” Bradley asked Clint, catching him off guard.
“I don't need anything,” Clint said, making a grab for the tree that Sam was wrestling with before the entire row could end up on the ground. He shoved it back into place. “Still too tall, Sam.” Sam made a face. “I know, life sucks, let's try over here.”
“Christmas isn't about what you need,” Bradley said. “It's nice to give people things they actually want.” He blinked up at Clint, his stocking hat sliding sideways over one eye. “Right?”
“Then I don't want anything,” Clint said. “Where are your parents?” he asked Mary Margaret.
“Mom's taking a phone call, and Dad's talking to the nursery owner about his dog. If you don't tell people what you want, you're still going to get presents,” she said. “And they're going to be terrible.”
“I'll take my chances,” Clint said. “Where are your grandparents?”
Mary Margaret shrugged. “Dunno,” she said. “Where's Sam?”
Clint's head snapped around. “Sam?” he called.
“I found it!” the voice came back, high and piping through the cold night air.
“Over here,” Mary Margaret said, stomping off down the row, her glittery pink boots shining with each step. Clint, still holding Bradley's hand, followed behind, all the way to the end of the row and down another, to an area half hidden behind a shed. A handful of trees were there, with visible damage or 'SOLD' tags on them, but Sam was standing by a single tree that had been left beside the fence.
It was too big, and too fat, but it was beautiful, with a heavy base and a good shape, solid branches and thick green needles dusted with snow. Clint reached out, rubbing the needles between his thumb and forefinger. They stayed put, a sign of a healthy tree that would last. It still had a price tag on it, and no sign that it had been claimed by anyone else. He looked at Bradley, who nodded.
“It's perfect,” Mary Margaret said. “Good job, Sam!” Sam grinned up at her, and Clint wondered what had happened to his hat. The boy's hair was sticking up now, in damp spikes around his head.
“We should ask your grandparents,” Clint said.
“Oooooor,” Mary Margaret said, “we can take advantage of the fact that you are a guest and we can't possibly say no to you, that would be rude.” Both of the twins turned to Clint, identical looks of naked longing on their faces and Clint decided that he didn't need this.
“Let's get it paid for and wrapped up before any adults catch onto what we're doing,” he said, heading for the main farm building.