Disclaimer: The Avengers are not mine, but Marvel/Disney's. If there are inaccuracies, no offense is intended.
Stark Tower, late December…
Steve gave a double-take as he entered the common area, noticing a discrepancy in the floor's decor. "Hey - who took down the decorations?"
"I'm not sure," Bruce replied with a shrug. "Jarvis refuses to tell us since he wants to stay out of it."
"Can Tony look up the footage?" the super-soldier asked. "We spent a lot of time putting them up."
"The recordings don't show anything useful," the physicist explained sourly. "It's been driving Tony nuts. One second they're there, and then they're gone."
Steve pouted. He admitted he may have gone to some excess, but he hadn't thought it was that bad. The tree was a freshly cut Douglas Fir, decked with bright lights that flashed in tune to pre-loaded Christmas songs, ornaments from nearly every branch. Garlands and other decorations had been strung from nearly every surface. It was festive.
Okay, he might have gone a little crazy with the tinsel and mistletoe.
There was an amused huff as Natasha walked in behind him, carrying her own mission bag. "Huh. I warned you not to go overboard."
"What is that supposed to mean? Someone's trying to mess with Christmas - not to mention, they got in here undetected. Don't you see that as some twisted sort of threat?"
"You were warned," Natasha admonished. "Check the closet - it'll all be there. Or it'll be ash, depending on how many times you've been Grinched."
"It's from a children's book, Cap," Bruce called as he opened the door to the large storage closet. "Oh. Here we go."
"You've seen this happen before, Natasha," Steve commented crossly as he joined the physicist in staring at the neatly packed boxes. At least the tree itself had been left in place.
"We need to get to Headquarters anyway to debrief," she told him calmly. "I just need to drop off my things and we'll head over. You'll see when we get there."
SHIELD Headquarters, later that day...
There was a small group of junior agents stringing Christmas lights throughout the lobby when Steve and Natasha made their way through the front door. Sitwell monitored them from nearby, constantly glancing at a thick checklist. Two more were setting up a moderate-sized tree with a tote of ornaments and garlands at their feet.
"Crap - they got the musical ones again," Sitwell commented, followed by a sigh. "That's not going to go over well."
Steve noticed an exasperated look on his face. The bald agent marched over to the agents working on the tree and spoke quietly. They nodded nervously and immediately began sorting through the container.
"What in the world was that all about?" the super-soldier asked, giving the field officer a confused look.
"Musical ornaments are in violation of the Tinsel Treaty," the agent explained. "The junior agents are welcome to take them home, but we can't use them here."
"The what? Jasper, it's just some Christmas lights and decorations."
"I know that, Captain," Sitwell replied curtly. "That doesn't change the fact that they're not allowed, along with several other items. Particularly any singing chipmunk contraband - those are cause for immediate retaliation."
"Is this some kind of joke?"
Jasper sighed. "I wish it was. Believe me - I've got better things to do than supervise the Christmas set-up, but since two of my team decided it was a good idea to booby-trap the hallway leading to the Director's office...again…I get the unenviable task of babysitting the Kringles."
"Agent Sitwell? What were the guidelines on reindeer?" a harried looking agent asked quickly. "We've got a sleigh that Charlene from R and D brought in."
"Did you read the decoration guidelines?"
"Why don't you do that. A copy was emailed to everyone last week. Or did your spam forwarding rules send it to your Deleted Items folder?"
The agent shifted uncomfortably. "I'll have someone resend it to me."
"See that you do." Jasper consulted his clipboard. "Keep it smaller than life-sized - the last time it was, it was pretty traumatic. Are there any special effects?"
"Rudolph's nose and a couple of spots on the back of the sleigh glow - I think they're supposed to be brake lights, sir."
"Eh. You should be fine."
Steve blinked in confusion at the exchange before turning back to Sitwell. "What was that all about? Kringles? Grinches - Natasha mentioned that earlier. What's wrong with a little Christmas spirit?"
Jasper tapped the clipboard with his pen. "They haven't told you about the Kringle-Grinch War of two-thousand-eight, have they?"
The super-soldier shook his head.
"A few years ago," the bald agent continued, "we had this agent who volunteered to head up Christmas Set-up. It was supposed to be a morale booster. It's a pretty universal holiday - a lot of cultures and countries celebrate Christmas, so we figured it couldn't hurt to give her freedom to do what she wanted. Big mistake."
"I don't think I get it. You're saying she got a bit enthusiastic?"
"That's an understatement." Jasper rubbed a brow in irritation as he continued. "It was a damn nightmare. Tinsel, garlands, snowmen statues, posters full of holiday messages of peace and goodwill towards men...I love Christmas as much as the next guy, but even I thought it was a getting on the garish side."
"So that lead to a complaint or something?"
Sitwell shuddered. "Not just a complaint, Cap. It led to the formation of the Grinches."
SHIELD Headquarters, several years ago...
Clint froze as he stood in the East Lobby, gaping at the scene in front of him.
Christmas was...everywhere. The lobby walls were plastered with posters of Santa and his reindeer, bells, and other assorted holiday effigies. Fuzzy garlands were strewn about the area, along with little clusters of mistletoe and holly. An over-sized conifer stood proudly, covered with garish decorations and ornaments.
It was as if Santa had gone on a blitz of holiday cheer and...tinsel.
His already tentative sense of control was beginning to crumble. With a gentle tug, Natasha pulled him along, glancing around the area in concern. Agent Sitwell, who had assisted them on the mission, followed the pair, glancing around the area with interest.
"So much red and green," Sitwell muttered quietly. "It is as if Santa exploded all over everything. It was not this colorful last year."
Clint let out an annoyed snort as he limped past the security desk. A uniformed guard nodded at them as they passed, recognizing the two members of Strike Team Delta. They headed further towards the main building, where Dr. Osterhouse was waiting to give them their required post-mission check-ups.
A junior agent spotted Clint's grim expression and nearly dived out of the way, a stack of binders clutched to his chest. Other agents watched their procession with interest; it wasn't uncommon to see a strike team return from a mission, but the other teams didn't have the same infamous reputation that Delta had.
"Merry Christmas!" a brave - or foolish - young woman chirped, bouncing up to the quartet. "Welcome back, agents! You're just in time for…"
Clint passed her silently, cutting her off with a glare. She paled, darting back into one of the offices. He shook his head in annoyance and continued limping along.
"And here I thought the Director asked you to try not to scare the newer agents," Sitwell chided gently. "She was just trying to spread some holiday cheer."
"I don't need some holiday fucking cheer," Clint snarled. "What I need is to get this shit with Medical done so I can go home and get some fucking sleep in one room that doesn't look like Frosty puked tinsel all over it. Is that too much to ask for?"
Sitwell rolled his eyes. "Suit yourself, Scrooge. But don't blame me if you get bedeviled by elves trying to make you join in the festivities. You know that some of these people are nothing if not persistent."
Several days later...
As it turned out, the festive agents were persistent.
"She has no fear," Natasha complained, picking tinsel off of her shoulder. "Her little helpers from R and D have set some sort of confetti or tinsel sprayers all over the buildings. Half of Ops is a paranoid mess. I'm going to kill her."
"I know a good place to dump a body," Clint growled, "or three."
He continued pulling at the green and red garland that had been woven in a complicated pattern around the leg of his crutch. The archer had taken his eyes off of it for less than five minutes - long enough to rinse off after a physical therapy session. When he returned to his locker, he had found his crutch wrapped up like a Christmas tree. It had taken half an hour to remove the lights alone.
"Fucking ninja elf bastards," he grumbled as the garland resisted another attempt to pull it off. "What the hell is this shit? Titanium cording?"
The sound of caroling drifted in from the hall outside of the Ops lounge, which was one of the only rooms so far to escape the Christmas explosion. It had become a refuge for those who were tired of the constant barrage of holiday cheer. Agents from every department had gathered, trying to escape Agent Kringle, as they had started calling the overly cheerful Christmas organizer.
"Don't they have something better to do?" another agent complained, glaring at the festive hallway. "This is a damn espionage agency, not an office party."
"You ain't kidding," another agent, a bomb tech named Alexander, grumbled. "It's bad enough the rest of the city goes crazy every year - some stores were setting up the tree displays before Memorial Day. This shit's ridiculous. I mean, look at this!"
She held up a Santa mug. "This thing is so..."
"Cheery?" Natasha offered.
The woman nodded, setting the mug down with a disgusted look. "Has anyone talked to Personnel about this? I can't get half my work done since every time I turn around, someone is trying to bug me to help decorate something." She paled. "They asked me to bake cookies! Everybody knows what happens when I try to bake."
They all shuddered in unison.
"We tried," Agent Chow said with a scowl. "Some of us even tried to pull the religion card, but they told us that since they were putting up Hanukah, Kwanzaa and Advent stuff too, they weren't technically breaking any rules."
Agent Alexander sighed, pouring herself a mug of coffee. She frowned, took a sip, and spit it back out with a growl. "This isn't coffee...those bastards. They put mulled cider in the coffee pot. The Ops coffee pot!"
Several voices began to murmur unhappily. If there was one thing every agent knew not to mess with, it was the Ops coffee pot. There were too many highly-trained caffeine addicts who didn't like it when someone tinkered with the only thing keeping them going after a long watch or post-mission debriefing.
"Nothing in the rules about removing them," Clint commented as he finally managed to unweave the last of the garland. "Maybe if asking them to tone it down doesn't work, we might need to give them a subtle hint."
A feral gleam appeared in the other agents' eyes. They gathered around the archer, grinning. Chow pulled out a notebook, ready to assist in planning. "What do you have in mind, Barton?"
Later that day...
"We're not asking you to take it all down," Clint told the young agent, who pouted at him. "Just...take it easy on the amount. Don't you think a life-sized Rudolph replica is a bit much?"
"Agent Barclay -"
"Whatever. Do you know who I am?" She ignored the incredulous looks of several nearby agents as she held up her ID badge. "I happen to be the assistant to the Director of Personnel, and she has given me a mission to personally see to it that we have an uplift in morale this year. If that means I have to go a little above and beyond this year, I'm going to do so. And I will not let some ape from Field Operations tell me how to do things! If you don't like it, then keep it to yourself and don't ruin it for people who want to be happy."
"Now listen here, you snot-nosed little brat," he snapped, taking a step forward. "I don't give a rat's ass who you think you are. You have no idea who you're dealing with - there're a lot of agents who are getting pissed off about how far you're taking this. Enough is enough."
Agent Stewart sniffed haughtily. "I don't see what you could possibly do to stop me."
He leaned in closer. "Trust me, princess. This is your only warning. We're asking nicely this time. We won't ask again."
"Request denied," she snapped, and then smiled at him cheerfully. "Have a Merry Christmas!"
The next morning...
"What happened to my display?" a shrill voice wailed. "It was a perfect replica of the tree in Times Square!"
"Uh, we're missing the displays in the other lobbies too, Agent Stewart."
"Get me the security footage!" she ordered. "I want to know who did this."
"Yes ma'am!" The junior agents assisting her quickly scattered.
A short time later, she found herself in front of the Internal Security desk, staring down a stone-faced agent in charge of the security archives. The man seemed unimpressed by her badge, and had refused any demand to turn over the footage of who had purloined the decorations. Luckily, they had been discovered in a nearby supply closet, but she still wanted to know who had had the gall to mess with her mission.
"I'm sorry, Agent Stewart, but I can't give you the recordings without authorization," Agent Marx replied politely. "You'll have to file an access request just like everyone else."
"What do you mean an access request?"
"Well, Agent Stewart, you work in Personnel. You're not cleared for access," he explained with a calm smile. "I'll be happy to process the clearance request form, but it'll take at least a week to process. It is the holidays, you know."
"This isn't over," she huffed.
Marx smirked as she stalked away, typing a short text and hitting "Send."
A week later…
The stubborn battle between the two newly formed factions continued. Decorations were put up, only to vanish each time they turned their backs. More garlands and ornaments were added, as if to make up for their disappearances. Stewart was at her wit's end trying to keep up.
All of the cider had been replaced with straight coffee or herbal tea. The cookies had vanished from the cafeteria and all of the small platters around the area, with granola bars and fruit left in their place. Her music files that had been carefully choreographed to play softly over the intercom system were mysteriously deleted during server maintenance.
The Christmas lights were sabotaged. The tinsel shooters were found disabled. Her teams of "elf helpers" were found bound and gagged in various places, with no memory of how they had gotten there. It was as if someone was running a covert counter-operation.
Any attempts to report the disappearances were met with resistance from the chain of command as well as Internal Security.
"I'm sorry, Agent Stewart, but the decorations haven't been stolen. They're located in the storage closet. Have you checked with Facilities? The cleaning staff may be trying to keep the hallways clear."
Personnel was not being any help either. "There's no regulation stating that the decorations can't be removed, Agent Stewart. You're welcome to request an addition to the SHIELD regs, but it will be considered low priority at best."
She was determined not to let the Deputy Director down. Pulling a parcel out of a shopping bag, she smiled. It was time to step things up a notch.
Later that day…
Clint frowned as his knee twinged. It hadn't yet recovered from the recent mission, so his physician had ordered him onto light duty. He knew it was the older man's excuse to keep him from overworking himself, however. The Doc was nothing if not predictable when it came to his agents' health.
"And I want a hu-u-u-la ho-o-op…" a high-pitched voice crooned over the intercom speakers.
The archer's eyes narrowed. Christmas carols were bad enough, played twenty-four seven, but Alvin and the Chipmunks was going too far. He pulled out his phone and began to dial as he watched several other agents making sour faces and muttering about the choice of music.
Agent Kringle's little crew had been busy. The decorations were back in full force, with candy canes and other holiday treats scattered around. Each of the doors had been adorned with a set of jingle bells, which tinkled as they were opened and closed. He had already had to chase off several "Kringle helpers" who tried to offer him a festive Santa hat or stocking.
"It's me," he said, once the call had connected. "Phase three didn't work. Now they're using psychological warfare. Yes - chipmunks. You're damn right, we're gonna retaliate."
The next day…
A high pitched shriek filled the lobby as a crowd gathered around the Christmas display. The Christmas decorations hadn't disappeared this time, but there were many who wished that they had. As Sitwell approached, he groaned in dismay.
The Santa display, complete with animatronic reindeer and a waving figure of Jolly Saint Nick had been…customized. An eye-patch had been added, as well as a cigar and a leather trench coat. The reindeer had been replaced by large trophy deer heads, hung above the sleigh. Each chipmunk ornament had been added to a large cauldron along with the tinsel, garland and ornaments, as if to represent a stew.
And that was the tamest of the "improvised" displays.
Sitwell sighed, finding a distraught Agent Stewart speaking with the Deputy Director of Personnel, Agent Hammond. The woman was patting Stewart on the shoulder, trying to console her. Several other "Kringles" lingered nearby, wringing their hands and investigating. The reason he had been called down to the lobby was now apparent.
He cleared his throat, trying to get their attention. "What happened?"
"I…I don't know who keeps doing this, but…but…" Stewart wailed. "I can't make them stop! This…this is horrible!"
"Do you have any idea why this might have happened?" Jasper asked calmly.
"We're not sure. The other displays are increasingly…disturbing." Deputy Director Hammond shook her head. "Stewart remembered having an argument with a field agent over the decorations, but they weren't anywhere near escalated enough for something like this."
"Do you remember which agent?" Sitwell asked, pulling out his tablet.
"It was Barclay, or Berton, or something like that," Stewart sobbed.
Hammond frowned. "Wait a minute – was it Barton? Molly, please tell me it wasn't Barton."
Stewart nodded numbly.
The Deputy Director groaned. "Molly, how many times have I warned you not to start fights with the field agents? You will not win, especially with a senior field operative. He'll run rings around you without even trying. I also warned you to be careful about going overboard with the Christmas stuff."
"Ma'am, I was just trying to raise morale, like you ordered! Nobody seemed upset about it – I would have heard about it."
"Agent Sitwell," Hammond said, turning to Sitwell. "I know Agent Barton has problems with Christmas, but this is a bit extreme. I will need to bring this harassment up with Director Fury – it's upsetting the other agents."
"One moment, please, ma'am. We need to understand why this is happening – although I think I have some idea of what occurred, if Barton's involved. However, we both know he couldn't have done this by himself," Jasper commented as he began running through the security footage.
Shortly afterwards, their patience was rewarded. Stewart began to grow nervous as the field officer located the footage from the meeting between the assistant and Barton. Hammond took the tablet, frowning.
"I see," the older woman replied, pausing the footage. She snapped her fingers as Stewart tried to slink away. "You're not going anywhere, Agent Stewart."
"Ma'am," Jasper continued, "I've known Barton for a while, and he wouldn't mastermind something like this without provocation. But you know how the field operatives are – they're not going to tattle to Personnel if they can send a message another way. It's not their style."
"Indeed. I've had about enough of this little war," Hammond proclaimed. "Please send word to Agent Barton that we'd like to meet to negotiate. Based on his statement in the footage, there is a large enough group that does find the amount of decorations overboard, and I can't say I can find a reason to argue. After all, their request was reasonable. And you, Stewart, should have followed protocol."
"But Agent Hammond –"
"No buts, Molly," the older woman snapped. "You're very lucky that Agent Barton didn't put you on report – he's a Level Seven operative. Do you know what that means?"
Stewart paled. "He's that Agent Barton? I thought –"
"What, that he'd be taller? No, you didn't think. He outranks you significantly. A complaint like that could seriously affect your clearance or access levels, and you were extremely disrespectful. We're going to have to review your qualifications for your current position as well – I can't have an assistant who will casually disregard the rights of their fellow agents, especially in Personnel. That's not how we do things."
The younger agent nodded weakly, retreating quickly as the Deputy Director of Personnel dismissed her with her eyes focused on the floor.
Hammond turned back to Jasper with an apologetic look. "I'll apologize to Agent Barton and his…crew, Agent Sitwell. I think we can come to an understanding that will make everyone happy."
Back in the present…
"They met and came up with a set of pre-arranged parameters for holiday decorations," Sitwell continued, watching Steve's incredulous look. "There was a large staff meeting, votes were taken, and the result was what's been unofficially called the Tinsel Treaty. It outlines the limits on decorations and activities to make things tolerable for everyone. The Grinches even offered to help redo the decorations and displays."
"Wow." Steve blinked in surprise. "It's sort of…"
"Yeah. I didn't think anyone would try to regulate something like Christmas."
Sitwell shrugged. "The Grinches didn't want to stop it – they just wanted people to remember that not everyone gets as excited about holidays, and not to overdo it. Stewart should have known that insulting a bunch of espionage agents, some of whom are trained in psychological warfare tactics, is a very bad idea."
"I'll remember that," Steve replied with a gulp. "Whatever happened to Agent Krin- er, Stewart?"
"She's at the SHIELD office in Paris, I believe – she was sent back to Logistics, which better suited her skill set. I don't think she ever really recovered from the Tinsel War."
"And where was Director Fury during all of this?"
Sitwell gave him a look that held a slight hint of amusement. "Holed up in his office with the security footage, laughing his ass off. He said it was the best entertainment he'd had in years."
"Ah. Should I be worried? I think we were 'Grinched' at the house. I don't want to mess things up."
Jasper smiled. "Considering you're living with the Head Grinch, it's not surprising. I suggest having a sit down with Agent Barton. Honestly, he really doesn't have a high opinion of Christmas – he's got a lot of bad memories associated with it, and too much of it can be triggering."
Steve's face fell. "I didn't think it disturbed him that much, honestly. He didn't tell us it was that bad."
"He won't say much about it openly," the bald agent replied. "Barton knows you guys are planning to do the whole Christmas thing, and he'll probably stay quiet because he doesn't want to ruin it for you, but he's got limits on what he can stand. He'll hide if he can't get assigned to a mission, so don't get offended if you don't see him that much."
"Duly noted," the super-soldier said. "Um. Thanks."