HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MEL!

My only other note is to recommend "A Snowflake Fell (and It Felt Like a Kiss)" by Glasvegas.


Some optimistic soul had hung a sprig of mistletoe in the tower. It was quickly removed by a spy in a bad mood, but it reappeared soon after, albeit in a slightly different location. After that it mysteriously migrated around the common areas, never staying in one place for long.

"I know this plant," Thor mused when he noticed it, frowning up at the bunch of leaves and white berries just above his head.

"Then why the face?" Jane asked. "You're usually happier when you recognize something here."

He was silent for a moment as he regarded the plant, too many emotions for her to track playing across his face. Finally he said, "Mistilteinn is no longer auspicious in Asgard," and left it at that.

While there was definitely a place for emotional trauma during the holiday season, this wasn't it. No one had had a tantrum over the right way to make yams yet, or gotten into a fistfight about whose room Grandma was going to sleep in. December had just barely started, and Jane wasn't about to let anybody, least of all her boyfriend, Grinch things up. "It's a little different here. If you get caught under the mistletoe with someone, you have to kiss them."

This caught his attention. "And it matters not who?"

"Nope." She contemplated telling him that it wasn't necessarily a romantic thing, but demurred; either he'd work it out on his own or someone else would help him figure it out. Jane thought about her mountain of paperwork in order to keep a straight face.

"And this is a tradition?"

"It's a classic element of the Yuletide season."

"Very well. As a guest on Midgard, I will abide by your traditions," he said stoically, though there was a glint in his eye that said he wouldn't especially mind.

Jane nodded formally. "You do us great honor by sharing in our celebrations." It was funny how she didn't feel silly saying things like that anymore. Well, as silly as she'd felt at first.

Thor bent at the waist and placed a chaste kiss on Jane's lips. As he pulled away, Jane threw her arms around his neck and kissed him thoroughly.

When she finally released him, Thor's hair was mussed and his eyes were slightly unfocused. "I believe I will enjoy this tradition," he said.


Tony wandered into the lab looking dazed. "Hey, you alright?" Bruce asked, worried at his friend's unusual preoccupation.

"I think," Tony said slowly, "Thor just slipped me some tongue."

Bruce wasn't sure if he should laugh, cry, or start a full medical workup.


Jane and Maria both had their hands full with boxes loaded with take-out, but that didn't stop Jane from stretching up and giving the other woman a peck on the cheek without breaking her stride. Maria glanced down sharply.

"JARVIS literally sounds an alarm if we don't 'respect the mistletoe,'" she explained with a shrug. "Just so you know."

It was always something with this crew. Maria looked up; sure enough, the plant was hung in the doorway. "Thanks for the warning." She paused, and then, unable to contain her curiosity, asked, "So who's the best kisser?"

Jane's laugh was both delighted and devious. "You're about to find out."


It was half dark when he wandered into the kitchen and put the kettle on. After too many hours of squinting into a microscope, he needed a cup of tea and maybe a snack. Bruce slid his glasses to the top of his head and rubbed his eyes, leaning elbows against the countertop; he heard the footsteps approach and the refrigerator open and then shut. When the footsteps didn't leave he looked up, vision blurry and eyebrows quirked expectantly. The slight figure pointed up mutely. Bruce sighed and shook his head and internally cursed Tony or Clint or whoever'd taped the mistletoe to the cabinet since he'd last left the lab.

He looked back at his companion. If they didn't honor the tradition, the alarm would wake people up, and no one needed that at 2:37 in the morning. He didn't like being coerced into it, though. "I—You—" he faltered, before giving up. She was smart; from those two words alone she'd work out what he meant. Hell, she'd probably known what he would try to say before he even started.

Natasha quieted him with a patient smile. He gave one last sigh and then stood, hands clasped in front of him, waiting for her to make the first move. It seemed like the safest course.

She put one hand on his two and leaned forward. Bruce closed his eyes and all but held his breath. Her lips pressed at the corner of his mouth, soft and slightly cool and just light enough to make him wonder if he'd imagined it.

"S Rozhdestvom," she said, still close enough that he felt her breath on his cheek.

She was gone when he opened his eyes. He couldn't be sure that it wasn't a dream or a sleep-deprivation hallucination, but the tingling where she'd touched his hands and face remained.


Darcy wondered why she'd never let Natasha make her a drink before. Instead of hot chocolate with a splash of Bailey's, she was sipping something closer to a 50/50 mixture of the two. It was delicious and perfect with a soft snow coming down outside. She and Nat were curled up on opposite ends of the sofa, reading, a shared blanket covering their feet.

The door to the balcony opened, cold air blowing in. Natasha didn't move but Darcy looked up to see Thor coming in, shaking flurries off his hair. She snuggled deeper into the couch as he divested himself of boots and went off to change clothes.

When he returned it was in a pair of sweatpants and a flannel shirt. "May I join you?" he asked politely. Darcy glanced at Natasha, who nodded, pulling her feet back, along with the blanket. Thor took the space between them, settling back into the cushions. Darcy offered her mug of cocoa and he lowered his lips to it; she tilted it up, letting him drink, even as she muttered, "Lazy." His expression showed that he was absolutely not sorry. Once she'd replaced the mug on the coffee table Darcy curled into Thor's side, all warm and masculine-smelling. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders as she opened her book again. The three of them enjoyed a rare moment of quiet together, the women reading and Thor content to be there.

The moment could not go uninterrupted. A movement caught Natasha's eye and she looked up from her book. "Really?" she asked, monotone. "It floats now?" The pseudo-siblings raised their heads in sync to see the sprig of mistletoe hovering above Thor, held aloft by a small helicopter-type craft.

"That is just not fair," Darcy groused. "It's bad enough he's got JARVIS recording it all the time…"

Thor's hand tightening on her shoulder quieted her. She turned her head to look up at him; he pressed his lips to her temple. Darcy all but melted at the gesture. They exchanged warm smiles before she tucked her head back against his chest.

Then he turned to Natasha. Carefully, gently, like he was approaching a wild animal, Thor reached out and took her hand from where it rested atop her book. He lifted her hand, delicately raised it to his lips, and kissed it lightly. Still holding her hand, he watched for her reaction.

The fingers in his flexed slightly, and then the rest of her moved. In one fluid motion she shifted her weight forward, rising onto her knees, her eyes locked on his. Then she smiled infinitesimally and settled next to him, not touching but close, draping the hand she still held over the back of the couch. Natasha opened her book again as Thor smiled contentedly and quiet again reigned.


"Pepper, I need you."

"No, you don't."

Pepper had her hands full and was in no mood to be needed. She had contracts to review before the conference call in the morning, and the prospect of reading legalese always made her grouchy. And on top of her actual job she had to deal with the man-child who would not leave her alone until she paid attention to him for a while.

"Yes, I do. On the roof. Come on." The line clicked off, leaving her rebuttal unheard.

"Of course he's on the roof," she grumbled to the empty room. "It's December in New York. Why wouldn't he want me to come up to the roof? It makes perfect sense."

She took the stack of files with her in the dim hope that he'd see them and realize she had things to do. Pepper wrestled a coat on and got in the elevator, tapping her toe impatiently as it climbed to the roof.

She was already calling for Tony as she pushed open the door. The cold took her breath away for a moment and she closed her eyes.

When she opened them again she saw a little tent covered in fabric in the middle of the roof. Light leaked out between the folds. Pepper sighed wearily, trying to quell the curiosity rising within. She squared her shoulders, marched over to the tent and pushed inside.

It was surprisingly warm and cozy, lit with strings of lights and candles. There were rugs on the floor—rooftop—and a small table and a pair of chairs; two mugs, a Thermos and a plate of cookies nearly covered the tabletop. He'd obviously put a lot of effort into whatever this was, and Pepper felt her resolve cracking. Tony stood from one of the chairs as she looked around.

"Have a seat," he offered. When Pepper opened her mouth to protest, he cut her off. "I know you're busy with the call in the morning and you've got all those files to read, which is exactly why you deserve a break." He held out his hands, fingers wiggling, until she relinquished the folders. She tried not to roll her eyes when he almost immediately dropped them on the ground.

As Pepper sat, Tony opened the Thermos and filled the mugs with steaming hot chocolate. He handed one to her and then presented the plate of cookies with a flourish. She smiled and selected one, dunking it in her cocoa. The cookies were her favorite and the chocolate was thick and not too sweet. Tony took a swallow of his drink before moving behind Pepper and putting his hands on her shoulders, kneading the muscles there.

"This is not what I was expecting," she admitted. He chuckled, fully aware of her expectations. He knew just how needy and demanding he could be and how she bore the brunt of it.

"Better, right? I have my moments. And you need more of them."

Pepper craned her head back against his stomach and looked up into Tony's warm eyes, lips curved up gently. "Thank you."

He leaned down to kiss her forehead. "Right back at you."


"Fancy meeting you here," Darcy said archly.

"Yes, this is quite the unexpected turn of events."

"Unexpected despite the fact that you've been lurking around this particular doorway for half an hour?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Hey, I do not lurk. Spies are too sexy to lurk. Lurking is for trolls."

"If you weren't lurking, how would you describe what you were doing? Lying in wait? Laying a trap for an innocent victim?"

"I think you've got me confused with my better half. Spiders build webs to trap their prey; hawks swoop in before the prey even knows it's in danger. Like so."

Clint grabbed Darcy's waist and dipped her extravagantly. She stifled a squeal and clutched at him, struggling not to lose her balance; he chuckled.

"Well played, Barton," she said coolly, managing a blasé expression even as her fingers dug into his arm. "But is that all you got?"

He smirked and shook his head. "Oh, Lewis, you have no idea."

"Then give me one."

Clint kissed like a pro, and Darcy was no slouch either. Given the hotness of the parties involved, it could not possibly have been anything but movie-quality, he thought. But he also knew that the fact that he was thinking while they kissed spoke volumes.

He pulled Darcy up and onto her feet. "Not bad," she said, wiping her lipgloss from Clint's mouth.

He nodded in agreement. "Call me if you ever break up with Rogers."

They both knew it would never happen. Their combined coolness would only make everyone else totally jealous, and it would lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in not only the rest of the group but the world at large. They knew they could not unleash such a thing on an unsuspecting populace. There was only one thing left they could do; so both of them solemnly raised a hand and brought them together in a high-five before going their separate ways.


Darcy stamped the snow off her boots. It was insanely cold out; the snow had stopped falling but wind still howled down the canyons of skyscrapers. Beside her sweater and parka and leggings under her jeans, she had a scarf wrapped up almost to her nose and a hat pulled down low over her ears. Whoever had invited earbuds was a genius, because it meant that she could simultaneously save her ears from frostbite and listen to Christmas music.

She pulled the hat off, loosened the scarf, and knelt down to untie her boots. When she looked up through fogged glasses, Steve was there. He looked warm and snug and amazing as always.

"Hey, baby!"

"Want a hand?"

"Sure." His hand was warm and familiar, and he held her steady as she stepped out of the boots. "Thanks. You're a peach."

Darcy grinned up at him, her nose and cheeks shining red from cold, her hair tousled where her hat had been. He could feel the cold coming off of her and he wanted to shiver. Instead he stepped closer, still holding her hand. "What are you listening to?"

"Only the best Christmas mix ever. Here." She pulled an earbud out and handed it to him; it was cold when he put it in. Darcy looked down at her iPod, biting her lower lip.

She watched him with wide, bright eyes, an expectant smile on her face as they listened together. The song was one he'd heard before, since it seemed to be pretty popular this time of year.

Darcy laid one hand against his chest, over his heart. He covered it with his own. "Make my wish come true?"

"There's no mistletoe," he said, even as he leaned in closer.

"That's never stopped us before." And it didn't this time, either.


A voice from behind her said, "You can't slink around here avoiding all the mistletoe."

She stopped but didn't turn. "Can't I?"

"Nope." He stepped around her neatly, arms folded over his chest, easily confident.

"You sound sure about that."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure."

She knew he had a plan, though she hadn't yet figured out what it was. "You're going to cheat somehow, aren't you?"

"Me?" He pointed at himself, then spread his arms wide. "I am the picture of innocence. I do not plan or scheme or cheat."

Her face said differently.

"Okay, so maybe I've taken steps to sway the odds in my favor a little." Clint reached behind his back and produced a sprig of mistletoe, which he then held above her head.

"Clint…" she sighed.

"Tasha, you are the best partner in the world and I love you very much, but please, just shut up." She shut up and hoped against hope that he would not be wearing his serious face when she looked up.

He wasn't; his expression was fond and happy. Despite herself Natasha felt her lips twist up in a smile, which only made his smile bigger. Clint deliberately balanced the mistletoe on the crown of her head and she stifled a laugh as he wrapped his arms around her. "Happy holidays, Tash," he murmured, kissing her on the cheek.

She returned the kiss and relaxed into his embrace. "Happy holidays, Clinton."


Coulson swiped his card and pressed his thumb against the pad. He was running a little late; he was supposed to have gotten off early this afternoon, but a meeting that he couldn't sneak out of had gone long. The only thing he'd been able to do was send a furtive text under the table so that no one would worry. It was a strange idea, that he'd have anyone to check in with so they wouldn't worry about him. Sometimes he found it annoying. Mostly he liked it.

The overhead lights were dimmed, and a fire crackled in the fireplace. It was warm and smelled like cookies and pine branches and cinnamon. He heard voices and laughter and soft music playing behind it all, and Phil stopped. It was like an advertisement for a perfect holiday, and he felt sure that stepping into the scene would ruin it, dissolving it like smoke. He stood there quietly, basking in the atmosphere of something right.

He didn't miss the two women attempting to sneak up on him, one on each side, though they probably thought they were being terribly stealthy. Darcy tackled him from the right, pinning his arms against his sides; Pepper put her arm around his shoulder from his other side.

"Hello, ladies."

Darcy released him long enough to shove something on his head and then kiss his cheek. "Merry Christmas, Uncle Phil!" More gently, Pepper wished him happy holidays with a kiss. Darcy wound her arm through his.

With his free hand Coulson reached up. He felt a headband with some kind of wire protruding from the top. At the curved end of the wire was a small bunch of foliage: leaves and a few berries. He might have groaned a little when he realized that it wasn't holly.

"You can't take it off," Darcy said, poking him in the ribs and making the hand closing around the plastic headband pause. They knew him too well.

"Well, you can, but there will be unpleasant repercussions," Pepper added. "You can imagine."

He nodded grimly. Knowing this crew, it could be anything from a bucket of water over the head to a temporary tattoo in indelible ink proclaiming him a Grinch. Whatever the consequence, he didn't want to deal with it, so he stood up straight and set his shoulders, trying not to think about how ridiculous he must look with mistletoe bobbing over his head.

"Oh, come on." Darcy tugged him forward. "You know you want all up in this time-honored tradition." It was hard to disagree with the look on her face and the cheerful snowflake pattern on her sweater. Pepper beamed with goodwill and hot spiced wine, no doubt made with an old Asgardian recipe. The others were in the next room, eating and drinking and making merry. How could he say no?

So he wrested his arms from theirs, ignoring their cries, and kissed Pepper on the cheek and Darcy on the nose. As they laughed, Phil put his arms around them, and together they walked into the warmth and gaiety that waited.