1: New York
Natasha doesn’t actually believe Barton – not that he’s prone to lying, he just has an interesting relationship with the truth – until she actually walks into the briefing room.
The stark, utilitarian space most often devoted to pre-mission meetings has been transformed: the rows of hard plastic chairs are stacked in one corner to make room for folding tables covered in cookies, pies, slabs of fudge and bricks of brownies, while strands of multicolored lights wind around the casement of each shuttered window. On the floor-to-ceiling projection screen normally used to display maps, mug-shots and weapons specs, a silly stop-motion reindeer with a light-bulb nose capers alongside a blond midget with pointy ears.
The guests – the agents – aren’t dressed to impress; they get enough of that during the work day, Natasha supposes. Street clothes are the norm instead, and they are as incongruous in this strictly-business space as the tinsel-bedecked plastic tree, the red and white paper chains dripping from the ceiling, and the blanket of fake snow piled up around the speaker’s podium.
So maybe the décor isn’t all that impressive. Natasha finds that she doesn’t care. She has been to lavish celebrations, luxuriant displays of wealth for the sake of displaying wealth, where the hors d'oeuvres cost more than her parents had earned in their entire lives, where all that glittered was indeed gold – and platinum, and diamonds – and where cruelty, in all its myriad forms, was served up more often than cake.
Surprised, Natasha turns. “Oh,” she says by way of greeting. “Barton.”
It wasn’t that he had actually sneaked up on her; it was more that she hadn’t really been paying attention, too distracted by Jingle Bell Rock playing over the speakers and the buzz of cheerful voices to hear Clint Barton walking in behind her. He’s holding a large, badly-frosted, slightly uneven layer cake, and he must see her looking askance at it because the next words out of his mouth are, “What, you didn’t bring anything?”
“I asked Agent Coulson,” she says defensively, shoving her empty hands into her jacket pockets. “He said it was optional. I’m… not much of a cook.”
He doesn’t make the obvious reply: that she could have just picked something up at the store (which is probably what anyone who tastes Barton’s cake will wish he had done). He just shrugs and moves past her, wedging the layered monstrosity onto a corner of the nearest table. “We’ll just say it’s from both of us.”
Great, thinks Natasha. Like the people in this room need another reason to think I’m secretly planning to kill all of them.
“I didn’t believe you,” she admits, when it seems like he’s just going to stand there next to her, looking around at the flimsy decorations like he’s a tourist in Rome, simply soaking in the sights. “Just the idea of SHIELD throwing a Christmas party...”
“Oh, it’s not a Christmas party,” says Coulson, appearing on Barton’s other side as though conjured. “We could never get it past HR if we said it was a Christmas party.”
“Right,” agrees Barton. “If anyone asks, it’s a holiday party. See? That’s a holiday tree. Those are holiday lights. And that,” he points to the projection screen, “is a holiday man with a beard in a red suit.”
“I never liked Santa much in this movie,” confides Coulson, wrinkling his brow.
“Also, holiday cookies,” Barton continues, eyeing the tray in Coulson’s hands with obvious interest. “What’d you make this year?”
Coulson gives a pleased smile. “Sesame lemon crisps, spiced lebkuchen, whole wheat ginger snaps, cranberry pistachio biscotti, and peanut surprise cookies.”
“Ooh, what’s the surprise? Is the surprise chocolate?”
Natasha shakes her head at the both of them, bemused, turning to glance back at her escape route – really, she’d only come because she was pretty sure Barton was full of crap and she got a perverse enjoyment from calling him out – where something catches her eye. “And I suppose that’s the traditional holiday parasitic plant.”
Coulson is busy finding a place on the table for his culinary offerings; Barton just laughs. “It’s mistletoe, Romanoff.”
“I know it’s mistletoe,” she mutters, stung. She’d been trying to make a joke, although she guesses it’s not his fault he didn’t realize. It’s not exactly like she’s a laugh a minute to work with. “I didn’t grow up under a rock.”
“Give it a rest, you two,” says Coulson, stepping back as a flurry of agents – almost unrecognizable in their polo shirts and denim and baseball caps– make note of his presence and vie to be the first to sample the sesame-spiced-ginger-cranberry-surprise-w
hatever. Barton’s cake goes untouched in the melee. “After some of these agents have had a few cups of punch,” Coulson continues, “that little traditional holiday parasitic plant becomes the main attraction.”
Natasha frowns. “You think someone’s spiked the punch?”
“I think there might be a regulation that someone has to spike the punch,” says Barton, straight-faced.
“There’s definitely one about the mistletoe,” says Coulson, equally deadpan, as though this is a routine they’ve been practicing for years.
And, in fact, as afternoon wears into evening, both men spend their fair share of time in the doorway. Naturally it’s rather difficult, in a room full of secret agents, spies and ex-military to ‘catch’ someone beneath the mistletoe who doesn’t want to be there – even after a few glasses of punch, which has definitely been spiked, probably by a couple different people – but no one gets shy or unduly flustered… least of all Barton.
It’s all very professional, of course, brotherly pecks on the cheek to Agent Morse, Agent Daniels, Agent Bai, Agent Hill (even though that one rolls her eyes like she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into), and others whose names Natasha hasn’t bothered to learn. In fact, the only woman who gets any lip action is Agent Doreen Lynch, and she’s seventy-three years old, an ‘honorary’ agent who runs the cafeteria on the third floor (chief disguise: hairnet. Special skills: meatloaf. Dangerous weapons: meatloaf).
“Wow,” says Barton afterwards, as Coulson passes him a peanut surprise cookie and a napkin. “That was… um.”
“The surprise is chocolate and caramel. And you’ve still got some lipstick right… there.”
Natasha stays because she’s afraid the moment she walks through that doorway, Barton’s going to appear in the threshold next to her, either through accident or intent, and the thought of his lips on any part of her anatomy give her a fluttery, slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach, as though she’s had too many cups of punch.
She stays far away from the punch.
By the end of the night, some of the tinsel has been repurposed for an impromptu knot-tying lesson by Agent Snell, all of Coulson’s treats have been consumed – and, Natasha suspects, the tray thoroughly licked – and a few agents, including Barton, are wearing floppy red and white ‘Santa hats’ festooned with jingle bells: prizes for winning a holiday trivia contest.
“You look ridiculous,” she tells him as he retrieves his cake (untouched, the plastic wrap still on).
He shrugs. Jingle, jingle, jingle. “It’s Christmas,” he says, as if that’s a worthy explanation
“It’s Christmas Eve,” she says pettishly.
They cross the room side by side, and then Natasha remembers and tries to hang back a half-step, except maybe Barton does the same because they cross the threshold at the same time.
No one calls out for them to stop and kiss lest they murder the Christmas – holiday – spirit, and Barton doesn’t say anything, so neither does Natasha.
Away from the people and the laughter and the aggressively festive atmosphere, Natasha relaxes.
They go to Barton’s apartment, which is on the way to hers; he takes two forks out of the drawer and hands one to her, with the air of a man presenting a mortal challenge, and Natasha wonders if she’s prepared to risk food poisoning to cement this whole partnership thing.
They eat the cake.
It’s actually pretty good.
The problem wasn’t bad planning, Clint decides, pausing to knock clumps of muddy snow from the soles of his boots. It was just bad timing, and uncooperative weather.
Two weeks ago, before the storm that had been so instrumental in delaying them, the trees would still have had most of their leaves, shielding them from sight. One week ago the leaves would have been gone, replaced by a heavy load of fresh snowfall, which would have had the same effect. Unfortunately, an unseasonable warm spell – warm being a very relative concept in this part of the Alps – has melted most of the snow, leaving the branches almost completely bare.
Clint looks up through the brown and gray latticework, watching the stony ridge to the north – and the steep, snow-covered mountainside rising behind it – for any signs of movement. Everything is still except for the plume of his breath in the air. Everything is flat and cold and lifeless and…
A spark of color overhead catches his eye and he smiles despite himself. “Heads up,” he murmurs.
In front of him, Romanoff drops to the ground, and Clint suffers a moment of near-panic before he realizes they’re fine, they’re not under attack; she was just reacting to his ill-considered words.
A long moment passes in silence. She looks over her shoulder at him, baffled and annoyed.
“Sorry,” he says lamely, nodding to the patch of green high above them: a crop of a certain traditional holiday parasitic plant growing in the boughs of an especially large sycamore maple.
Romanoff’s expression changes to one of disgust as she climbs to her feet, her parka now covered with half-melted snow and half-frozen mud. “If Krassnig’s men catch up with us, remind me to let them shoot you,” she says sharply, although her voice is pitched low. In this land of rock and snow and deceptive echoes, sounds can travel a long way.
The words are barely out of her mouth when she launches herself at him, rams into him, drives him down, and he thinks wow, she’s really pissed but then the tree trunk right where he had been standing explodes into woody shrapnel. Almost as an afterthought comes the sound of automatic gunfire, plonking into the half-thawed soil, pinging off boulders, chattering off the canyon walls…
They wriggle on their bellies, snake-like, until they reach the southern side of the large, mistletoe-bearing sycamore. The trunk is broad enough for them to both put their backs to, and they sit there for a few seconds, catching their breath, enjoying still being alive.
“Had a change of heart?” Clint asks Romanoff, raising his voice to be heard above the racket.
“Maybe I want to shoot you myself,” she says, but she looks as relieved as he feels. “Still got the detonator?”
He passes it to her. “I think you should do the honors.”
She hesitates before taking the little box. “If I didn’t set the charges right…”
“That’s why I want you to do it. If we die, you get to do the explaining to Saint Peter.”
She makes a face and hits the button.
The very earth seems to shake; the gunfire fades away, replaced by a dull rumble, and from his shielded position behind the tree Clint can’t see anything but he can imagine it: the mountain rising above the ridgeline, the snowpack suddenly calving away from its flank, rolling down on top of the hapless mass-murderers, an avalanche of sweet, sweet retribution…
The rumble continues, continues as though it might go on forever, as though Romanoff’s charges brought down the whole mountain, as though the snow and rock is spilling over the ridge, filling up their canyon, rushing down to smother them and bury them and entomb them…
And then, very abruptly, there is only the quiet, and they are unsmothered, unburied, and unentombed.
When he looks at Romanoff, her eyes are closed. Flakes of snow shaken loose by the explosion have settled on her knit cap, her eyebrows, and along her lashes.
Even at a time like this, even spattered with mud, she’s gorgeous. It really isn’t fair.
Wordless, she passes the detonator back to him. Clint tucks it into a jacket pocket, stands, and helps her to her feet.
They continue eastward down the canyon, towards the extraction point.
Most of the time Natasha enjoys deep-cover jobs. There is a freedom that comes with immersing yourself in a role, really becoming someone else. For a while – sometimes as long as five minutes – she can make herself forget who and what she really is.
This is not one of those times.
It’s been an incredibly wet and dismal winter, trapping her indoors, reducing her chances to ‘run into’ her primary targets and limiting her options to meet face-to-face with her team. She’s bored with playing the insipid American socialite. She’s heartily tired of eating couscous with every meal. In general, she’s looking forward to getting the hell out of here.
Coulson, however, insists that she make her exit with her cover intact, in case they ever need to use this identity again, which means not just landing a Quinjet on the roof of Hassan’s mansion. It also means not throwing Hassan’s son, Ilyas, out a window the next time he puts a hand on her ass. It means having to pass the access card to one of her teammates, instead of bringing it to Marrakesh herself, which maybe bothers her more than it should.
It means going to Wilson’s Christmas party.
Of course, being that Morocco is nearly ninety-nine percent Muslim, with strict laws against conversion to any other religion, it is not an overtly Christian affair. Bernard Wilson, a former British ambassador who’s made millions thanks to his close ties with the king, is too canny a diplomat to include carols and manger scenes. But the atmosphere is festive for all that – a string quartet, food to tempt the most finicky gourmet, free-flowing wine – although the ostentatious finery makes Natasha unexpectedly nostalgic for the cheap, campy, quaint little ‘holiday’ party she’d attended that first Christmas with SHIELD.
“What’s the plan?” she murmurs, lips against the rim of her wineglass, smiling blandly at an older man in a heavily-embroidered kaftan. “Send in Adil?”
“No,” says Coulson’s voice in her ear. “We needed him in Marrakesh. Sahere demanded a meeting tonight.”
“You’re going to meet with him before you have the data?” The access card, stolen from Hassan’s ‘unbreakable’ safe, is still snug in her handbag.
“We’ll scan the card and transmit the data to Adil. He’ll be able to encode a blank card on his end before he meets with Sahere.”
Natasha shakes her head minutely. Even after more than two years, sometimes she forgets the sheer scope of the resources SHIELD has at its disposal. “Fine,” she says, plucking a stuffed date from the tray of a passing server. “How do we do this without Adil?” The local agent is the only other person on the team whose cover identity is known to Hassan and Wilson; she wonders if Coulson will be able to forge himself an invitation in the next few minutes.
“That’s already been taken care of. Head towards the library. East wing.”
Wilson has thrown the house open to his guests, with only the family quarters in the west wing sealed off. The library, one of the outermost rooms, is bright with candles and chandeliers and filled with the hum of cheerful voices. As Natasha approaches the door she can hear the voice of Wilson’s loquacious wife, Diane, rattling on about something or other.
The sight of Clint Barton through the open door – dressed in a server’s uniform and holding a nearly empty tray – almost does her in. Suppressing a smile, she reaches into her bag, palming the data card. “What am I supposed to do, strike up a conversation about the canapés?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” says Coulson dryly.
Clint is heading out of the room so she makes her move towards it, because yes, hanging from the ornamental lintel between hall and library – placed there by Wilson or Diane or a decorator who figured it couldn’t be considered that offensive – is a little sprig of poisonous hemi-parasitic greenery.
Clint lowers his now empty-tray as they pass through the doorway simultaneously, lowering his eyes respectfully and putting on a big show of being shocked when she reaches out and snags the lapel of his uniform shirt. “Miss?” he asks, and if she didn’t know better she’d think he was genuinely nervous.
She decides that it isn’t a bad look on him.
“We’re under the mistletoe,” she tells him blithely, keeping a good grip on the lapel with her right hand, slipping the access card into his pocket with her left. “You know what that means, right?”
In her heels she’s not that much shorter than he is, and she’s aiming for his lips – thinking that it’s a good thing she’s already established her current persona as a bit of a lush – but he turns his head at the last minute and she only gets the corner of his mouth.
She tries not to feel too disappointed.
Clint promptly escapes her clutches with a very believable air of an employee terrified of being fired on the spot, and Natasha turns to see Diane Wilson wrinkling her nose reproachfully. At her side, Ilyan – he of the wandering hands – looks crestfallen.
Coulson’s voice in her ear says, “See? I told you you’d think of something.”
Six hours later, in the sky over the Mediterranean, she tells him, “You know, you could have just kissed me.”
He looks up from the issue of Skymall that has, apparently, fascinated him since takeoff. Natasha is more interested in going over Adil’s report from Marakesh, but that’s not the right kind of reading material for a crowded commercial flight.
“Really? You want to be kissed under the mistletoe?”
That’s not what she meant and he knows it; is it her imagination, or is he a little flustered?
“It’s a tradition, isn’t it?” she asks, opening the little foil packet of peanuts.
“I thought it might get back to Agent Doreen,” says Clint. “She might get jealous and try to poison your meatloaf.”
She flicks a peanut at his face.
Members of the local high school’s glee club have been going room to room, singing Christmas carols. Judging by the expressions of the nurses and the other patients, they aren’t great. But Clint wouldn’t mind listening to the world’s worst rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas if it meant he could hear something.
The doctors still aren’t sure if the hearing loss is temporary or the result of permanent damage caused in the explosion. The doctors tell him – by writing messy notes on the stupid little white board he was given when he woke up – that right now they’re more concerned with his broken leg, making sure the bones are all where they’re supposed to be, making sure infection doesn’t set in. The doctors are smug, self-satisfied bastards and he hates all of them.
Clint’s roommate is watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on the room television, and Clint admits to himself that he’s feeling very decidedly in sympathy with Old Man Potter at the moment.
From the corner of his eye he sees movement; he looks, expecting to see a nurse or maybe a cadre of depressingly young and disgustingly perky high-schoolers, but instead he sees Natasha. She’s dressed in rumpled sweats, her hair pulled back into a messy ponytail; the right side of her face is all scraped up and her right shoulder seems bandaged. When she walks into his room she’s limping a little, but she’s walking, which is more than can be said for him.
She doesn’t seem to be angry with him, but maybe she doesn’t know the details yet. Or maybe he just looks so pathetic that she can’t muster up a real good rage. Her lips move, but still, all he can hear is that shrill, white nothing-sound that seems to reverberate in his skull, and he shakes his head, pointing to one ear. Natasha looks stricken as he passes her the white board.
He shrugs, looking down at his lap. There’s no point in getting emotional about it, he’s already decided, but the look he glimpsed on her face almost changes that. He wants to tell her don’t feel sorry for me but to be perfectly honest he feels plenty sorry for himself.
She slips her hand into his and squeezes it. He squeezes back, but he can’t quite make himself meet her eyes again.
Movement; he looks up despite himself, sees three teenagers – a boy and two girls, one wearing a pink Santa hat, the other in a reindeer-antler headband – in the doorway. They’ve obviously been informed that in his case their holiday cheer will fall on deaf ears – ha, ha – because they’re looking at him with a mixture of avid curiosity and discomfort. So he gestures impatiently at his roommate, an older guy with two functioning eardrums, and the trio stands at the foot of his bed and launches into one song or another.
Judging by the look on Natasha’s face, they’re not exactly Broadway-bound.
The kids soon depart, eager for more sick and injured souls to torment, but the girl with the reindeer antlers goes to Natasha first, passing her something that he can’t quite make out. Clint squeezes Nat’s hand again to get her attention, making an exaggeratedly confused expression.
She hesitates for a moment before uncurling her fingers. It’s a tiny spray of mistletoe. Plastic, of course – no poisonous parasitic holiday plants allowed in this hospital – and badly painted at that.
Clint wonders what the reindeer-girl had said to Natasha.
He can’t bring himself to ask, not even via whiteboard.
The next morning – Christmas morning – the fake mistletoe is hanging from his IV stand when he wakes up. It’s not quite over his head, but close enough. Several of the nurses – including Nurse Rob – seem delighted with this very seasonal turn of events, but Clint manages to fend them off.
Natasha shows up a little after lunch, this time with Coulson, who has smuggled in a tin of butterscotch brownies, mocha cheesecake squares, cream cheese sugar cookies, and walnut-cherry thumbprints. Natasha gives Clint a perfunctory kiss on the unbruised side of his face. Coulson abstains.
That night, the shrill, white nothing-sound starts to fade.
The next morning he wakes to the sound of his roommate snoring. Loudly.
It’s a day-after-Christmas miracle.
5: New York
The recipe really isn’t that complex. Sugar, butter, eggs, flour, salt, and a few other ingredients. The first batch gets burnt on the bottom, but the second comes out okay.
Natasha knocks on Clint’s door. When he doesn’t answer, she lets herself in.
The apartment is dark, but rather than turn on a light she navigates by touch and by memory. The space is familiar enough to her; these days, no matter how far afield they go, they always seem to come back to New York. She pauses only twice: first, in the kitchen to put down the platter, and then in the living room, between the kitchen and the front door.
She finds him on the balcony, leaning against the railing with a beer in one hand, the setting sun casting twin reflections against the polarized lenses of his sunglasses. He doesn’t say anything, just passes her the bottle, and even though it’s not really her brand she takes a drink. “We could be getting buzzed for free at the party,” she points out.
He shrugs, his nonchalance too studied to be authentic. “Not sure I’m going. Forgot to make something.”
“I made cookies.”
That gets his attention. “You made cookies.”
“We can say they’re from both of us.”
He smiles faintly. “I guess that’s fair. What kind?”
The smile twists, turns melancholy. “What’s the surprise?” he asks, half to himself, and she’s starting to think that this is not his first beer of the evening.
The surprise is that I made them and they’re edible, she thinks. “Clint…”
She stops because she’s not sure how to finish that thought, isn’t even positive what the thought was, only it started with I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for me too.
After Loki, after the attack on New York, all she could think about was getting things back to normal, back to the way they’d been before. A laughable goal, maybe – because now she lives in a world where aliens are real, a world where superheroes and super-villains aren’t just characters in comic books, a world where some of the small number of people she’d actually trusted are dead and gone forever – but one that was heartfelt nonetheless.
That meant not returning Stark’s calls. That meant accepting every mission that came up, no matter where it sent her, no matter what the risk. That meant signing up to bring cookies to a party she hasn’t attended since her first Christmas with SHIELD.
What she hadn’t expected was that she’d be putting in most of this effort on her own. Clint hadn’t seemed depressed, exactly, just… unmotivated. Going through the motions. Achieving the bare minimum. Natasha had covered for him in her reports, but eventually Fury or one of his flunkies was bound to notice.
Given all that, perhaps it was a little unrealistic to expect him to be in a festive mood. To want to hang out with his coworkers and overindulge in sugar and punch and look around and notice all of the faces that aren’t there, that will never be there again.
“A lot of people are gone,” she says finally, as the last rays of the sun wink out over the rooftops. “But we’re still here.”
He looks at her. “That’s real deep, Romanoff.”
He doesn’t try to stop her when she reaches over and pulls off his shades. His face is tired, his expression melancholy, but his eyes are as sharp as ever.
She nods at the bottle in his hand. “You got any more of those?”
They spend the evening on his sofa, eating peanut surprise cookies and drinking beer and watching old Christmas movies on cable. (It’s actually the neighbor’s cable; sometimes Clint uses his powers for evil.)
'It’s a Wonderful Life.' 'A Christmas Carol.' These are the movies – the memories – of his childhood, not hers, but the somber introspection of the films, the darker tone, is as soothing as the shades of gray that they were filmed in.
Darkness falls. There are no strands of Christmas lights in Clint’s apartment, no lights on inside at all, just the multicolored hues of the city through the glass door to the balcony and the cool glow of the television screen. At some point between the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, she ends up leaning into his side. As Scrooge laments his wicked ways, Clint’s arm slips around her shoulder.
Maybe it’s just the beer talking, or the sugar rush from the cookies, but… it feels good.
As the credits roll, he seems to notice the lateness of the hour for the first time. “I guess we missed the party.”
“I’m sure Doreen was crushed when you didn’t show.”
His smile is a brief flash in the dark. “I think she’s into younger men these days.”
“Hmm, and you’re so old.”
She only meant it as a joke, of course, but he goes quiet; she can feel him shift, as though to pull away, so she grabs his hand where it rests against her shoulder and holds him there.
“Sometimes,” he says heavily. “Sometimes I feel so goddamn ancient, Nat.”
The television goes to commercial. With her free hand, Natasha mutes the sound and pushes herself off the sofa. “Stand up.”
She grabs him, hauls him to his feet, and pulls him a little to the left. The bunch of mistletoe – purchased from a street vendor outside her apartment – dangles from the chain of the ceiling fan.
Natasha only gives Clint a moment to notice and process its existence before she kisses him.
She could blame it on alcohol and sugar but that’s not it at all. It’s so many other things instead. The warmth of his arm around her. His unease after Morocco when she suggested he could have kissed her. The way he trusted her on that Austrian mountaintop. The way he saved her life last year in that warehouse outside Cleveland, shielding her with his body, taking the brunt of the explosion that had landed them both in the hospital.
Of all the Christmases they’ve spent together, she realizes, it was actually the first one that was the most conventional.
She kisses him, and he tastes of peanut butter and chocolate and caramel and beer, and his arms ago around her waist, and he kisses her back so eagerly, so thoroughly, that she’s left flushed and breathless.
“Ancient, my ass,” she tells him.
In the flickering light from the television, he looks a little embarrassed, a little surprised, and a lot pleased. Then he kisses her again.
When they break apart for a second time he still looks pleased, and as dizzy with desire as she is, but there’s something else in his eyes, something she doesn’t like. Doubt. “Is this okay?”
Is he asking her? The universe? She slides her arms around his neck, leaning her body into his. “It’s okay,” she assures him, smiling. “Merry Christmas, Clint.”