Disclaimer: The Avengers are not mine, but Marvel/Disney's. Any operations medical or military may have been written using research and some artistic license. If there are inaccuracies, no offense is intended.
Oh, and Brother-in-law Phil belongs to Bochco.
Stark Tower, mid-December…
"Hello Steve," Pepper greeted, smiling as she entered the kitchen area. She set her purse down on the table. "I was wondering if you have a few minutes?"
He returned the smile, looking up from his sketchpad. "Always. What's up?"
"I'm trying to finish preparations for the Stark Industries Gala, and I had a thought," she said cheerfully, peeking over his shoulder at the sketch. Her eyes widened in appreciation. "Wow, Steve – that's incredible! You've caught every detail!"
"Thanks," Steve replied shyly, fidgeting with his pencil. "It's not finished yet, but I think I'm happy with how it's turning out."
"Is this an assignment for that class you're taking?"
The super-soldier nodded. "We're covering realism, so the instructor assigned us a still life drawing. Our choice, thankfully. I thought this…assortment…would work. Sort of a, uh, fantasy within realism thing."
He gestured towards the small collection of superhero action figures that had mysteriously appeared on the kitchen counter one day. They were stacked in a cluster much like he had seen on some of the posters plastered on store windows around the city, each in a different heroic pose.
"Well, Batman looks very dashing, and Superman is looking particularly handsome," she commented, giving him a warm smile. "I think your instructor is going to be very pleased."
Steve grinned, spinning the pencil again. "So, you said you had a thought about the Gala?"
Pepper nodded. "I got to thinking about it, and that led to thinking about celebrations in general. I was wondering – do you know if everyone else has plans for the holidays? I know we all had Thanksgiving together, though Clint sort of vanished for that one, but I kind of thought it might be nice to spend it together on Christmas. You know – all of us?"
"I think it's a swell idea," Steve replied, tapping the pencil eraser against his chin. Who needed those new-fangled mechanical ones anyway? At least the leads didn't break as easily on a good, old-fashioned number two. "Christmas is special – it's meant to be spent among family."
"And since most of the team doesn't seem to have family, I hate to admit it," she added with a slight grimace, "I thought maybe we could all spend it together."
He seemed to ponder the idea before smiling. "You know, we didn't have much, but we had each other back before the War. We'd scrounge up what we could, trade for enough stuff to slap together a good, hearty dinner…the neighbors in my building who didn't travel tended to all get together and share what we had. Everyone left with a full belly and a warm heart."
"Well, enough people here cook that I don't think the full belly part will be much of a problem," she said, leaning back in her chair. Her face fell. "It's the other part that I'm worried about."
"Worry about what?" Tony's voice cut in as he entered the room, a container in hand. Bruce trailed behind him, studying a tablet. "Hey, Bruce - should we be worried?"
Bruce merely mumbled to himself and continued walking into the kitchen. The inventor slipped past him, making his way to the refrigerator. He pulled out another plastic container, setting it on top of the counter next to the half empty jug of pink liquid he had brought with him.
Pepper frowned. "I thought we agreed no experiments in the common area, Tony."
"It's not – it's recycling. I need to analyze what's in it," he countered as he poured himself a glass of milk. "So, what are we worried about?"
"We are not worried about anything," she replied with an arched eyebrow. "Steve and I were talking about Christmas, and possibly doing some sort of team get-together on Christmas morning."
Tony shrugged. "Eh, fine by me. Knock yourselves out – just let me know where I need to be. Jarvis?"
"Clear my schedule for whatever time Pepper and Cap decide." He turned back to Pepper, giving her a questioning look.
She smiled at him and nodded. He turned back to the counter, putting the jug away and pitching a balled up napkin at Bruce. "Hey, Brucie!"
"Uh, wha –" the physicist muttered, blinking as the small bit of paper pegged him in the forehead. He watched it fall to the floor. "Right. Christmas."
"You game for it, Doc?" Steve asked amiably. "If not Christmas morning, maybe something on Christmas Eve. Do you have any particular holiday traditions you'd like to share?"
Bruce's eyes fell to his feet as he shifted uncomfortably. He put his tablet down and took his glasses off, rubbing them with a handkerchief. "You could, uh, say that."
"Go on," Tony urged, giving the others a sour look. "It can't be any more awkward than my lovely Christmas mornings. Mom and Dad usually went off to Bermuda. Most kids go running into their parents room to tell them that Santa came, but that would entail them being told that Santa existed. I figured it out when I was three."
"Howard left you alone? On Christmas?" Steve asked, his tone filled with disbelief.
Tony scoffed. "I wasn't alone. I had Jarvis. Poor old guy practically raised me."
Steve sighed. Pepper gave him a sympathetic look; she knew he had been fond of Howard Stark, and had taken a while to get used to the fact that the man he knew and the man who had fathered Tony were apparently two totally different people. He had gotten much better about holding his tongue when talking about him, fortunately – it had led to fewer arguments between Steve and Tony.
"Well…Christmas was kind of…nice," Bruce began, setting his glasses back on his face. "My dad usually left us alone on the holidays, if you know what I mean. Mainly, because he'd spend all of his time at the lab since a bunch of the other staff weren't there. He liked the peace and quiet."
They quieted, watching him with widened eyes. Bruce's history had been documented in his SHIELD profile, though they rarely spoke of it. Brian Banner's abuse had been one of the cornerstones in the formation of the Hulk. Clint and Bruce talked with each other about their pasts, on occasion, due to sharing a history of abusive fathers. It had allowed them to find some common ground.
Pepper cleared her throat. "That's…good, Bruce."
"Anyone know about whether or not Thor or the deadly duo would go for it?" Tony asked as he returned the carton to the refrigerator.
"Well, Thor mentioned that they have some sort of winter festival back home," Bruce said, scratching his eyebrow. "I'm not sure if he knows what Christmas is, but Jane might have told him about it. Those guys love to party, though, so he'll probably be all for giving it a shot."
"What about Clint and Natasha?" Steve asked.
Pepper's brow furrowed. "I'm not sure, to be honest. We'll have to ask them about it. Oh, and Tony? Don't forget to put up the milk when you're done with it."
Later that night…
Clint groaned as he entered the kitchen, having spent the last twelve hours in a debriefing session with some of the analysts from the Intelligence section. As he looked up at the clock on the wall, he winced, and turned to the refrigerator. Natasha was going to be upset – he had forgotten to eat again.
"Jarvis?" he asked quietly. "Do we have any leftovers?"
There was no answer. Clint sighed, and tapped on the counter, pulling up Jarvis's manual input interface to check his status. Sure enough, the AI was offline: Scheduled Diagnostic Mode Engaged.
He paused, smirking at the sketch of an assortment of action figures clipped to the refrigerator door by a magnet. Opening the door, he looked down to investigate the contents. There was little left in his own fridge upstairs in his apartment, so hopefully there was something he could snack on before he went to bed.
A container caught his eye. It was a small, one liter milk jug which looked approximately half full. Looking at it curiously, he pulled out the container of thick liquid and removed the lid, smelling the contents.
Clint smiled. There was only one good thing about Christmas, and that was egg nog. Not the overly spiced or rum-spiked version; it was one of the few things he found himself having a hard time resisting. A good, off-the-shelf brand from a local supermarket was generally good enough, but he did have plenty of memories of the home-made variety that his mother used to make.
At least, until his father would douse it with rum, whiskey, or whatever else he could get his hands on.
It was too good a temptation to pass up. The community kitchen rule was that if it didn't have a name, it was fair game. Thankfully, there was more than enough left for other people, so they wouldn't miss it if he took a sample of the contents.
Just a little bit.
The next morning…
Steve greeted the others as he entered the kitchen. Natasha had already eaten and sat reading a magazine while Pepper was explaining something, most likely their Christmas idea. Tony was cursing quietly at the toaster, until he finally banged it with a spatula. Muttering to himself, he unplugged it and carried it over to the table, pulling out a screwdriver.
Bruce shook his head and turned back to his book. A complicated array of mathematical formulas was scattered in front of him, written on various sheets of binder paper, a tablet, and scribbled into the book margins. Thor soon trailed in behind him, no doubt drawn by the smell of coffee.
"Steve – I was just telling Natasha about the Christmas idea," Pepper reported, straightening in her chair.
Natasha shrugged, taking a sip of what appeared to be fruit juice. "I don't usually worry too much about the holidays."
"But they're holidays!" Steve replied with a chuckle. "They're supposed to be spent among family and friends."
"You're forgetting that I had neither in my formative years," she replied calmly. "I don't see the point."
"Surely Clint or Coulson don't let you spend it alone," Pepper admonished, pouting at the redhead. "And what about Easter? I know you were working with Stark Industries early enough for the annual Employee Easter party. Well, undercover, anyway."
"It was an assignment," Natasha replied dryly.
Bruce looked up from his books. "Would you be willing to give it a shot? It would mean a lot to Pepper."
She glanced over to Pepper's hopeful expression, and sighed. "Alright – as long as I'm not on assignment."
Thor meandered over to the refrigerator to prepare his own breakfast while Steve looked around. An untouched coffee pot sat on the custom, three-pot coffee maker, still full, while another began to fill with the Asgardian's favorite blend. Something was out of place.
"Say, where's Clint? Isn't he usually up by now?" the super-soldier asked.
Tony looked up from his tinkering. "You know, you're right. Where is Legolas?"
Natasha shrugged again. "He finished a full day of debriefing yesterday, and got home late as far as I know. He may still be asleep."
"He always walks Arrow in the early morning, though," Bruce commented. "I don't think he could sleep in even if he wanted to - Arrow wouldn't let him. I should know, since he woke me up at about five the last time I dog-sat."
They looked at Pepper, who shook her head. "One of the security guards walks him since I don't always have time – one of the newer dog handlers we hired for the guard dog program. Clint checked his background personally."
"Thor – what are you doing?" Tony sputtered, dropping the screwdriver he had been holding, and watching the large warrior with wide eyes. "You can't drink that!"
The Asgardian paused, having finished his glass, wiping a pink residue off of his mustache. He looked back at Tony with a confused expression. "I thought if there was no name, it was for anyone to consume."
"It is…just not that," the inventor chided, pointing at the now empty carton on the counter. "Where did that come from? It was supposed to be disposed of yesterday!"
"'Twas in the ice box," Thor replied, frowning at the container. "Was this not meant to be shared? It smells like our bloddrikke from home, though without the blood – more like the egg drink that my fair Jane introduced me to last week."
"Egg nog?" Natasha asked, her voice taking on a sharp tone as she stood up from her chair. "Please tell me it doesn't smell like egg nog."
Tony's eyes became panicked. "It's not egg nog, big guy – that's a smoothie that Dummy experimented with last week. At least, I think it was supposed to be a smoothie. He was trying to hide it under the sink in my lab, so for all I know, it could be moonshine. I was taking it to Bruce's lab to analyze it before I threw it out, but I guess I got side-tracked when we talked about the Christmas plans."
"Come to think of it," the Asgardian said softly before letting out a belch. He gave the jug a suspicious look. "I do feel a slight tingle in my innards."
"Tony – why was it in the refrigerator?" Pepper cried as the other redhead moved closer and picked up the jug, wrinkling her nose at the smell.
"But Pepper –" Tony argued.
She cut him off with a glare, and then pinched the bridge of her nose. "This is why there are no experiments allowed in the kitchen! Now you've poisoned Thor –"
"Technically, it wasn't me, it was Dummy," the inventor argued, giving her a guilty look. "I can't help it when the bots decide to try new recipes!"
"No, you just somehow forgot to take it with you back to the lab and put it in the refrigerator instead – the one that we eat and drink out of."
"Bruce distracted me while we were talking about the Christmas thing," Tony argued, ignoring Bruce's annoyed look. "I forgot! It's an honest mistake –"
"Uh, bootlegging bots aside, don't you think we need to check for anyone else who may have tried Dummy's 'special brew'?" Bruce asked, forming air quotes.
"Clint," Natasha muttered, rushing past them and to the elevator.
Natasha grimaced as she entered Clint's apartment, hearing the retching sound coming from the bathroom. Arrow met her at the doorway, whining, with his tail tucked between his legs. She let him out onto the patio, where Tony had had an "emergency tree" installed.
"Jarvis must still be in diagnostic mode," Steve commented from the doorway, with Bruce following behind him. "Is it safe to come in?"
She nodded, moving quietly to the master suite. Steve had never had a reason to enter Clint's apartment, as they usually hung out in the common area or kitchen. The only other suites he had entered were Thor and Bruce's rooms after he had been invited over while the others were on missions. There had never been a reason to invade anyone else's space before, and Steve could appreciate the need for privacy.
A large, bulky printer sat on top of the counter near a stack of antique maps. Books were neatly shelved throughout the room, the overflow tomes stacked in orderly piles on the top of the bookshelves or nearby table and counter tops. The walls were painted a soothing lavender, with tasteful accent colors and pieces of landscape artwork that he recognized as Pepper's personal touch.
He followed Natasha quickly, looking around out of habit as he moved. The only things out of place in the otherwise picture-perfect décor were a worn trio of plush dolls and a black metal box sitting on the end table next to the couch. Even the chew toys seemed to be stacked neatly in a bin next to a large dog bed.
Shortly, he made his way through the rooms until he found himself looking at Clint's bathroom. The archer himself was hugging the toilet, moaning pitifully. Natasha hovered nearby, holding her phone to her ear and biting her lip.
"Now that can't be sanitary," Steve commented.
"Of all the things, why did it have to be egg nog?" Clint moaned as he dry-heaved again. "Who the fuck poisoned the egg nog?"
"It wasn't egg nog," Natasha corrected as Bruce tried to pat his back in a comforting gesture. "It was a week old smoothie. Or something like that."
"But it smelled like egg nog…"
She rolled her eyes. "It was pink, Clint. Egg nog is yellow, not Pepto-bismol pink."
"I'm fucking color-blind, Tasha – everything yellow looks pink!"
Steve blinked in surprise as he waited quietly from the doorway. He had read the note in Barton's file about the strange eye condition, but he hadn't expected it to be of any importance. He made a mental note to read more about it once he had a chance.
Bruce pulled out a small blood test meter, taking a quick sample. "We're just gonna take a quick sample to try to figure out what was in it, Clint. There we go…Cap, we're going to need a sample from Thor too, since he drank the same substance. I don't think it's going to do more to an Asgardian than give him a case of heartburn, but you can't be too careful. I'm curious about how the tests would compare."
"Shouldn't we take him to a doctor?" the super-soldier asked, wincing as the archer groaned. "That sounds really bad."
"Take this," Natasha ordered as she nudged the empty trash can over to her partner. "We're taking you to Medical, and I don't want your mystery vomit on my upholstery."
"I've had worse," Clint mumbled, clutching the bin to his chest. He pulled the bag out, holding on for dear life. "I think."
Natasha motioned Steve inside the room as she finished up her conversation on the phone. "Cap, we'll need you to carry him. Dr. Osterhouse wants him to come in."
"I can freakin' walk!"
"Shut up and hold your doggie bag," she snapped, pulling a bottle of pills down from the medicine cabinet. "And take these. The doc says it should help with the nausea until he can get a chance to examine you."
"You wouldn't have to take them if you didn't drink things you're not supposed to."
"But it was in the fridge! No name, fair game!" the archer whined pitifully. "It was egg nog!"
"Pink, Clint. You should have asked Jarvis, like you're supposed to!"
"Jarvis was off duty, damn it! Even computer programs need a night off sometimes. Urk –"
Natasha sighed. "Cap, help me get him up please?"
"You got it." He ducked down, pulling Clint's arm up over his shoulder. "Up we go."
"I'm not goin' alone," the archer whined. "Thor's going with me! You said he drank it, so he gets to get poked and prodded too! It's only fair."
"You know, it might not be a bad idea," the redhead agreed, looking at Bruce. "Better safe than sorry?"
The physicist sighed in resignation. "Yeah…but one of you two get to be the one to hold his hand and offer him the lollipop."
SHIELD Medical, later that day…
"Food poisoning?" Natasha asked, blinking in surprise.
Her partner's symptoms had subsided slightly, long enough to wrestle him into the car and travel to Medical. He had been surprisingly cooperative; Thor, on the other hand, had proven to be more difficult, glaring at the medic who had come to take the blood sample and eyeing the personnel in scrubs nervously. Thankfully, Steve had joined them at Medical, and had been able to keep him calm.
"Yes, good old food poisoning," Dr. Osterhouse clarified. "Salmonella, to be exact. We're still waiting on the full results from the toxicology screen, since there were several unknown substances involved. I'd like to keep you here for observation until we can identify everything."
Clint's head fell back against the pillow of the hospital bed as another cramp hit. They had given him some medication previously to take the edge off, but it wasn't enough to make it completely vanish. He scowled at Thor, who showed no sign of discomfort other than the occasional twitch or belch.
"Isn't that a bit extreme for food poisoning?" Steve asked, arching an eyebrow. "Doesn't it usually clear up over time?"
"It does, but considering he drank the equivalent of R and D's latest 'mystery goo,'" the doctor replied, giving Clint a pointed look, "I'd rather not take chances. I might be talked into releasing him tomorrow if he promises to take it easy, but he's not going anywhere today, and I'm standing firm on that."
"Promise, Doc." The archer raised a hand and gave him a Boy Scout salute. "Scout's honor."
The physician arched an eyebrow. "You were never a boy scout, Agent Barton."
"Close enough! I can use a bow, light fires, tie knots and everything."
Dr. Osterhouse shook his head. He beckoned Natasha and Thor outside. "A word, Agent Romanoff?"
She nodded, signaling for Thor and Steve to follow. They joined the doctor outside of the room, where he finished making notations on Clint's file. He looked at them with a serious expression.
"You will release him on the morrow, correct?" Thor asked with concern. "He has given his word that he will behave."
"I'm sure he will," the doctor replied with a chuckle. "If it gets him out of here faster, he'll follow instructions and won't give the nurses too much trouble. He tends to be a bit cranky when he's around Medical – I try not to keep him here any longer than needed, since too much distress can be damaging to a patient's recovery. I trust you all can keep him in line."
They nodded in agreement. Natasha crossed her arms over her chest. "Did you have another concern, Doctor?"
He nodded, grimacing as he pulled up another file. "I'm filing a request for limited duty after three to five days of bed rest, based on how fast the symptoms clear. I believe it'll be received better if you break the bad news. I'd rather keep my spleen intact."
She smirked. "You know he wouldn't do that. He's not that stupid – you're one of the only ones he can stand here."
"I'm charmed," the doctor drawled. "You won't be so sure once I add the range restriction."
Natasha frowned. "Range restriction?"
"Yes – range restriction. Frankly, Agent Barton needs to rest, and he's not going to do so willingly. I would suggest his range access at the Tower be limited as well. He's showing signs of strain in his drawing arm, and he's going to tear his rotator cuff again if he's not careful. "
"I'll talk to him about it, Doctor. But," she gave him a tense look. "I think you know how this time of year affects him."
"Barton's overworking himself again. Yes, I noticed," the doctor commented with a sigh. "I've warned him for the last three years- he can't keep doing this to himself, especially now that he's assigned to a response team. The man's over forty now – he's not getting any younger."
Steve frowned. "He hasn't mentioned any problems."
"It's Barton," the doctor scoffed. "Of course he wouldn't mention it. That's why I had them run a full tissue scan along with the tox screen. I'm fairly sure his knees are aching due to the weather change, along with the inflamed brachial plexus nerve he didn't report either."
"He did say something about a sore shoulder last week," Natasha mentioned. "He seemed fine a few days later."
"It's not an uncommon injury for archers, so he's most likely used to treating it at home," Dr. Osterhouse replied with a shrug. "The man's pain threshold is incredible, but then again, Special Forces training often teaches soldiers to ignore pain and keep moving on."
"Ignoring pain is natural for any true warrior." Thor gave Natasha a confused look. "I do not understand how one can get younger. Is this another of your colloquialisms?"
"Yes, it means that you can't turn the clock back on your body," she replied dryly. "Human – or, Midgardians – don't live as long as your people, Thor. Forty is considered middle age, and for those in the harder, tougher roles in field operations like Clint, it's considered almost ancient."
"I understand." The prince turned back to the doctor. "What must be done, Healer?"
The doctor gave an amused snort at the title. "He needs to stop pushing himself so hard. All of you have your Asgardian abilities, super serums or youth behind you – Hawkeye doesn't. He's training constantly when he's not on missions, and for a younger man, that might be fine. But for a middle-aged field operative who already keeps himself at peak performance, he's treading a dangerous line."
Thor nodded, his face taking on a contemplative expression. He was likely thinking of his father, or any number of "old soldiers" from his homeland. Even Asgardians eventually aged and passed on, though it took millennia in their case.
Natasha smiled inwardly. Maybe with Thor's help, she might be able to enforce some limits when Clint decided to overdo it this year. He had thrown himself into his work every year around Christmas since Laura and the kids were murdered; her partner had already had a poor opinion of the holiday due to his history, but losing the one thing that made it enjoyable for him – aside from egg nog, apparently – had made it truly unbearable. Even the most festive agents learned to stay out of his way for the last three months of the year.
Hopefully the reunion with his in-laws would help. The one flaw in Pepper's plan was that she hadn't mentioned Clint's disappearance on Thanksgiving, or whether or not she planned to account for the likely repeat for Christmas. She would have to have Pepper discuss it with him later; while she was aware that Clint was trying to reconnect with his family, Natasha knew that Pepper had her heart set on a team gathering of some sort.
"We shall have words with our shield-brother," the Asgardian said solemnly.
Natasha nodded in agreement.
"Thank you for telling us, Doc," Steve added.
Dr. Osterhouse smiled amiably. "No trouble at all, young man."
As the doctor left, the remaining Avengers looked at each other.
"Well, that answers our question about Christmas," Steve said with a sigh.
Natasha tilted her head slightly. "What question?"
"We were wondering about whether or not Clint would be up for the Christmas thing that Pepper was planning," the super-soldier replied regretfully. "From the sound of it, he's not really into the holidays. Or am I wrong?"
She shook her head. "He has trouble with Christmas. Too many bad childhood memories."
"How can one not enjoy a holiday? Particularly one as celebrated as this one," Thor asked, looking at her incredulously. "They are meant for celebration and sharing with those close to you."
"That's the problem," Natasha replied. "He wasn't given much reason to celebrate when he was younger, so he grew up hating it. There's only so much of Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman that people can stand. The holiday time is full of Christmas songs, decorations, and the like – it's truly everywhere. Some of it is fairly cheesy, garish, and overdone."
"Is that not the point?"
Steve winced, turning to the prince. "Ever hear the old saying about having too much of a good thing?"
Thor nodded slowly in realization. "Ah."
Manhattan, a week later…
Pepper smiled as she entered the kitchen, still dressed in the business suit she had worn on the flight back from London. It was always good to come home to a quiet household after a long trip, in her opinion; the only problem was trying to recover from jet lag. She turned to find Clint sitting at the counter, staring forlornly at a glass of what looked like egg nog.
"Good morning, I guess!" she told him cheerfully. "Late night?"
He nodded. "You just get in?"
"I came straight from LaGuardia," Pepper informed him, knowing he would ask. "Woody dropped me off."
She smiled. After he had finalized the paperwork to sign on as a consultant for Stark Industries, he had run a background check on the employees, particularly those who had close contact with herself, Tony, or any of the other senior executives. Woody was Tony's long-time pilot, who had passed Clint's scrutiny with flying colors.
"I've got some resumes that were sent while I was in London," Pepper continued. "Henry approved the top twenty with a list of five favorites, but I wanted your opinion on them before he starts sending out offer letters. We have several high-security positions opening, so I'd rather make sure we don't miss anything."
He took the tablet she had pulled out of her purse, opening the file and browsing the documents. A short list was highlighted at the top. "Happy's still taking those security courses, right?"
She nodded. "He's pretty excited about it. Henry is retiring within a year or two, and Tony was looking at giving Happy a chance at the job – for this building, at least. Henry's letting him shadow when he's not going anywhere with Tony."
"Running building security and personal security can be very different," the archer muttered. He tapped several times on the screen. "Number five – take him off your list."
She looked at him curiously. "May I ask why? He seemed very qualified – Jarvis played the interview recording, and I think he'd be a good fit."
"His background check has a high debt to income ratio," Clint explained. "The DOD looks for the same thing. No matter how qualified the guy is, having money problems can make you susceptible to bribery or coercion. It's too much of a risk. If you really want to hire the guy, put him in a low-or-no security area, refer him to a financial planner, and let him work his way up when he's in a better position."
"I'll let Henry know," she replied. "I'm surprised he didn't pick up on it."
"He might know the guy," the archer explained with a shrug. "Nepotism can blind some people. The thing to keep in mind is that you guys do enough government contracting that your staff needs to be able to pass the same clearance checks the government does."
She rubbed an eyebrow. "And of course I should know that. It could cause staffing issues – we can't provide enough cleared personnel, we don't get the contract."
He nodded in agreement
"Is everything alright, Clint?" she asked, pulling down a glass to get a drink for herself.
Clint didn't move, instead letting out a tired breath. "I can't bring myself to drink it."
She gave him a look of sympathy, moving to the chair next to him and taking a seat. "Because of the food poisoning?"
He nodded slowly. "The one thing I actually like about this time of year, and I can't even enjoy that."
Pepper watched as he slowly traced the rim of the glass with a finger. The expression in his eyes, however, told her that the sadness wasn't due to egg nog. "I take it you couldn't sleep?"
"Bad dreams," he murmured. "Memories, mostly."
"Is this about Laura and the kids?" she asked quietly. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Clint shrugged. "She…asked me to take a desk job, you know? Deputy Director Franklin was bugging me right after I got my degree – he said he wanted someone in the labs with field experience to help the other R and D guys understand what the agents went through. Laura…she said I should think about taking the transfer."
"But you wanted to stay out in the field," Pepper added, her voice full of understanding.
Clint looked up at her, nodding. "I thought…I just thought, that maybe I could do more good out there than stuck in a lab. I mean, I'm not like Tony and Bruce – I can talk about tech stuff, but I can't live it, you know? I'd probably spend a week in a lab before I went nuts."
The redhead nodded. "That's a good way to describe the guys."
"We had a fight about it – I told her I would think about it again." He shifted in his seat slightly, his voice hesitating. "Next thing I knew, Laura and the kids…they were gone. The one thing that mattered to me, more than anything...just…"
Pepper put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Is that what upsets you about Christmas?"
He shrugged. "Maybe, but I never really liked it even before I met Laura and her family. My old man…he used to get into the holiday spirit a little too much. We didn't have much money, and what we had, he spent on booze or paying off anyone who'd report us to the authorities. Any time he had to shell out because he screwed something up, he took out on us."
"I'm so sorry," she said, her eyes tearing up slightly. "I can't imagine growing up like that."
"My ma…she used to make us things, if she could, but she didn't have much," Clint continued. "Barney and I – my brother, that is – we'd go to school and hear about the awesome stuff that Billy or Sherry got from Santa, or whoever the other kids were. We didn't even know there was supposed to be a Santa, not after Dad went on a drunken rant about Santa being a bunch of stupid bullshit. Besides – Santa only brought stuff for the good kids."
"I'm sure you were a good kid, Clint. He didn't know what he was talking about."
"Good kid. Right," he snorted. "You know what I told the cops when I was eight, and they had just told us that our parents were dead?"
Pepper shook her head slightly. She knew his parents had been killed when his father had driven drunk one too many times. It had led to a life of more hardships for the Barton boys.
Clint looked at her intensely. "I told them, 'Good.' What kind of good kid says that about their mom and dad?"
She sighed sadly as he got up from his seat and left. There was going to be a lot of work to do.
Christmas Eve, Stark Tower…
A shrill voice cried out in joy as a small figure darted across the television screen. Nicole laughed in joy as she picked up a brightly wrapped present, while her brothers joined her gleefully. The camera shook slightly; Laura had laughed so hard, she had been unable to hold it steady.
"Look, Daddy! Santa came – he ate alla da cookies!" Lewis announced on the screen, holding up a cookie with a large bite taken out of it. "He got da milk too…"
"Hey Mom, I got a chemistry set!"
"No, honey – open it from this side." Clint watched himself holding a package up, assisting his daughter with opening the package as she wobbled precariously. She had barely learned to walk when they recorded the video. "There you go."
"Daddy, Santa brought me a Lego set! Cool!"
"Clint, honey – hold the camera. I want a shot of the kids holding up their presents."
"Daddy, watch me!"
"Mommy! I got a GI Joe!"
"Look what Grandma gave me…"
He continued to watch the video, as he had every year since he had lost them. A tear gathered at the corner of his eye as he sat on the couch, Arrow curled up beside him. A flame flickered to the side from the gas fireplace to one side of the room – the only light in the room aside from the television.
Arrow let out a low growl, his head perking up. Clint looked over to find a bottle being held over the back of the couch. Amber liquid sloshed inside.
He took the bottle wordlessly, holding it as Nick shooed the dog off of the couch. The spymaster sat with him, sighing as he held up a pair of tumblers from Clint's kitchen. The archer poured a small amount into each one.
They watched in silence for a while. Clint had never been much of a drinker, but Christmas Eve was one of the only times he made an exception. He preferred the dullness that the bourbon brought, although the smell tended to bring back unpleasant memories from his childhood.
When Nick had found him during that first Christmas Eve after Laura and the kids were murdered, he had spent the entire night sitting next to him, making sure he didn't get drunk enough to try something stupid. After that, he had joined Clint each year. He had promised that if Clint was going to get himself sloshed, he wouldn't have to do it alone.
Watching the videos, getting drunk, and wallowing in his own misery was cliché, of course, but he couldn't help but think he deserved the pain.
"They wouldn't want you to punish yourself like this," Nick finally said, putting the empty bottle down on the coffee table. "I think there's another place you should be."
Clint shrugged, feeling slightly rubbery. He nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, there is."
Brooklyn, the next morning…
Phil Roussakoff woke suddenly, a small hand shaking him on the arm. "Uh – wha…"
"There's someone on the couch!" Sean's voice whispered nervously.
The detective was instantly alert, sitting up and patting his oldest son's shoulder. "Go check on the little ones."
Sean nodded as Phil reached for his sidearm. Whispering quietly to Kathleen, he stood and cautiously made his way out of the master bedroom. He held his gun ready as he made his way down the hall.
Reaching the top of the stairs, he looked around the corner, spotting the figure lying on the couch. He let out a relieved sigh as he spotted the large German Shepherd dozing nearby. The dog looked up, his tail wagging.
"You gotta be kidding me," Phil grumbled, thumbing the safety back on. He returned to the bedroom, locking the pistol away before heading back to the living room. "Clint? What are you doing on my couch?"
"Uh…I was sleeping."
"Uncle Clint!" Several voices called as the kids darted by, hearing their uncle's voice. Phil shook his head with a chuckle.
"Hey, kids – ow, my head!" Clint winced, wobbling slightly as he stood up. "Hope you don't mind that I, uh, borrowed your couch. Kinda thought I'd surprise you guys. Sort of."
"Anytime," Phil told him, pulling him into a hug. "Anytime."
Stark Tower, later that day…
"I'm telling you, the stuffing goes in the turkey, not under it – hey, Thor! Put it down," Steve ordered, trying to wrangle the mess that was now the kitchen. "Bruce, are you sure you want to go with the curry? I don't think that's supposed to be at a Christmas dinner."
"Depends on what part of the world you're from, Cap," Bruce replied with a chuckle. "I happen to like curry."
"Look out!" another panicked voice cried as a knife flew across the room. "Natasha – put the can down."
"Doesn't cranberry sauce go into the stuffing?" Natasha asked, giving them an arched eyebrow.
"With the stuffing, not in the stuffing," Steve replied, slightly exasperated. An alarm began to sound in the kitchen. "Oh, no – the bread."
"Can we not stop this infernal noise?" Thor bellowed, hands covering his ears. "It pains my ears!"
Pepper ran a hand over her face as she watched the fiasco that was Christmas dinner. She had hoped for a nice, quiet meal, catered by some of the finest chefs who hadn't taken the day off, as well as a calm, simple gift exchange. Steve and the others, however, had decided to change things up a little by insisting on cooking themselves.
The elevator pinged, opening its doors to allow Agent Phil Coulson to enter the floor. She smiled, waving him over. He joined her, dressed in simple jeans and a polo shirt, a leather jacket hanging over his arm.
Pepper looked him up and down. "That's a good look for you, Phil."
"Well," he replied, returning her grin as he ducked a flying pot lid. "You did say this was an informal get-together."
"Who are you and what have you done with Agent?" Tony asked, holding out a glass for the agent to take.
Phil shook his head, as he chuckled. He took the offered glass. "Not joining in the festivities?"
"I know better than to get involved in that mess," Tony scoffed. "Besides, I can barely make an omelet. How about you?"
"I've been told I can burn water. Besides," Phil said, motioning with his glass towards the bickering superheroes, "I think getting into the middle of all that would be hazardous to my health. What in the world is going on in there?"
"Well, Captain Spangles there decided he wanted to have a family-style Christmas dinner, homemade, and with all the bells and whistles. Turkey, fruitcake, mashed potatoes, the works," the billionaire explained with an amused look. "Naturally, everyone else decided they wanted to add in something they thought totally belonged at a Christmas meal. Steve's going traditional, Bruce is going Indian or Mediterranean or something, and I still can't pronounce whatever it was that Thor's supposed to be making."
Pepper cringed as a sulfuric odor wafted in from the kitchen. "Natasha…she's just running around tinkering with everyone else's dishes."
"Ah," Phil replied, his eyes widening slightly. "Experimentation. You probably shouldn't let her do that."
"Don't worry," the CEO replied, looking down at her phone. "I already called in backup."
As she spoke, the elevator pinged again, revealing another man – Clint. The archer walked in, Arrow at his heels. The dog sniffed the air, yelped, and darted for a corner of the room, cowering. Looking over at the cacophony of arguing superheroes, Clint put two fingers to his lips and let out a shrill, loud whistle.
The kitchen occupants froze, utensils still held in their hands.
"What the hell are you doing to my kitchen?" Clint's voice rang out, causing their heads to turn towards him. "Thor – put the tenderizer down. Bruce? Your curry's on fire – Natasha, out. Steve, why are you putting that there? Tony? I need a hand…"
There was an unspoken understanding amongst the Tower residents that certain areas "belonged" to each of the Avengers. The labs and research areas were Tony's and Bruce's, the weight gym and indoor track belonged to Steve, the lounge was Thor's and Pepper's, and the acrobatics gym – and sometimes dance studio - belonged to Natasha.
The kitchen, however, belonged to Clint. As he was the one who used it the most, the archer kept it impeccably neat, shiny, and orderly. The others had discovered that failure to do the same meant that he would quietly return to his own kitchen, taking his cooking gear with him and leaving them to the mercy of Tony's questionable gadgets.
Natasha had warned them the first time, and watched in amusement as they had fumbled around with the designer gear. It was surprising how much one could learn to improvise while on the run from the authorities or camped out on a battleground. They had gotten spoiled by Clint's kitchen equipment, it turned out, and learned that his idea of clean and tidy and theirs could be very different.
The archer continued issuing orders to his teammates with a firm tone. Shortly, the kitchen was back in full swing, their processes now more organized. The sulfuric smell began to dissipate, giving way to a heartier, rich smell of baking ham and turkey.
"Where did he learn to do that?" Pepper asked incredulously. "I know he can cook, but to run a kitchen?"
"You know about Laura?" Phil asked, smiling gently at her nod. "When she became pregnant the first time, she had a lot of trouble with morning sickness. A lot of smells made her sick, especially when cooking, so he hired a chef to teach him for a week so that she didn't have to. Afterwards, they just sort of kept it up as a hobby."
"Chef Antonio," Natasha continued. "I met him once, when Clint and Laura took me out for my first anniversary of joining SHIELD. Antonio ruled his kitchen with an iron fist. I think Clint sort of channels him when he needs to, in cases like this."
"That's crazy – he learned in a week?" Pepper turned back to watch Clint show Tony how to stuff herbs under the turkey skin. "He doesn't cook like an amateur. I thought he had been trained for an undercover mission or something."
Phil shrugged. "It was more of an informal crash course. Clint said that that old man taught him more in the one week he took lessons than he learned anywhere else. He and Laura had teammates and family over for dinner a lot – they always said practice makes perfect."
Natasha joined them, picking up Tony's glass of wine and smelling the contents. "It's true. They loved to cook together. You should see his house sometime. Gourmet kitchen, custom cabinets and pantry, herb garden - the works."
"But he was living in that little apartment," Pepper commented sourly. Her eyes widened. "Oh. I suppose he wouldn't want to stay there at the house, after all that happened. Is that where he went last night?"
Phil shook his head. "Don't worry – he wasn't alone."
"That's a relief!" She looked over at the large, tinsel-covered Christmas tree. They had had a slight battle over it, as some members of the group were more enthusiastic about the holiday than others. "Are those from Clint?"
The SHIELD agents peered over at a small pile of unlabeled boxes that had joined the other brightly-wrapped packages. Natasha shrugged. "Probably. I'll warn you, though – his presents are a little…strange."
Pepper gave her a curious look. "In what way?"
"He won't give you something you want – he'll give you something he thinks you need." Natasha made a sour face. "There's a reason his wife did the Christmas shopping."
"Oh, it can't be that bad," the CEO replied with a laugh, which was shortly cut off by Phil's cringe.
"We tried a Secret Santa exchange at work," the field officer recounted with a shudder. "The person whose name Clint drew had a major problem with athlete's foot. He got the guy a foot care kit with an anti-fungal treatment and Odor-Eaters. We all knew Clint meant well, but it's not exactly what you would expect to open on Christmas."
Pepper gave him a chagrined look. "Well…I'm sure it'll go…fine."
Shortly afterwards, the kitchen crew ambled out of the kitchen, allowing their various dishes to finish baking or simmering. They gathered around the living room area, passing out the presents. Soon, the area was littered with wrapping paper and bows, each person smiling at their growing piles of gifts.
Clint hesitantly passed his out to each person, grinning sheepishly and running for the kitchen. He began checking each dish, stirring or basting in an effort to escape his friends' reactions. Arrow began hopping through the piles of paper, chewing on the remnants and yipping excitedly.
Natasha looked down at her box, smiling at the new capsules for her Widow's Bites. He had adapted some of his trick arrows to cartridges so that they could be added to her own arsenal, probably with Tony's help. She had mentioned her admiration for some of them, such as the acid and sonic arrows; it never hurt to have too many tricks up your sleeve.
Bruce was holding up a black jiu-jitsu gi, neatly folded above a set of pants. The others wondered at the choice of gift, thinking it a joke or prank, but the physicist held a look of surprise. She knew he was most likely able to figure out what the meaning behind it was – that it was most likely not just a workout uniform, but a sign of trust. Clint knew that Bruce's training in Brazil had helped him practice his self-control, and had thought the physicist should keep pursuing it.
Phil held up a fountain pen; its barrel was enameled and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The writing implement looked to be an antique, although a well-kept one. Coulson was known for his love of vintage collectibles, and Natasha knew he had wanted one of those fountain pens for years.
"What are these papers?" Thor asked in confusion, holding up a wallet and several documents. "This is not my name. I am Thor, Son of Odin, not this…Donald Blake."
Coulson let out a rare laugh. He held out a hand, taking the wallet and examining it. "It's much better than your last one."
"I do not understand."
Steve held up a similar set of documents. "Don't worry, Thor – I've got a set too. Uh, Natasha?"
"Congratulations, gentlemen," she replied with a sly smile. "You've got your first set of cover identity paperwork. You can use it when you don't want to be Thor or Captain America, but just the guys that look like them."
Realization sparked in their eyes. Steve grinned. "I had been thinking about going into art school, maybe, but I had some trouble with the paperwork. That, and it was pointed out that I might have a problem being able to focus if I was bothered by a bunch of, uh, fans. Maybe I can use this to stay kind of anonymous."
"I do not relish the idea of such deception," Thor admitted, giving them a sheepish look. "But, I shall admit this might have saved me much trouble in New Mexico."
"I think that was the point," Coulson replied with a chuckle. "We knew the ID was a fake, to be honest – it was done by an amateur. I wanted to see what you would do, and…the rest is history. Clint has a lot of discreet contacts, and it looks like he used one of them to acquire cover identities for you both. These should hold up under just about any scrutiny."
Pepper held up a small item, examining it as well. "This is lovely!"
The item was a watch. Its face was framed with a silver metal, possibly steel or titanium, each gear finely detailed. The band was made from fine leather; it was practical, yet refined and elegant. Natasha would know – she had picked out the watch herself.
"Allow me," Natasha told her, taking the item to demonstrate the features. She turned it on to its side, showing her the buttons. "This button fires a small but powerful dose of pepper spray. I think he called in a favor from R and D for one of their newer blends. The next button will display a light when you press it once, but press it three times quickly, and it will activate a distress beacon tied to Jarvis. Tony set that part up."
"It's beautiful," Pepper said admiringly. "I love this brand, too – thank you, Clint!"
Clint nodded in acknowledgement, wiping his hands on a towel as they turned to look at Tony. The inventor was staring at a document, uncharacteristically silent. Another stack of folded papers lay in the box on his lap. He stood, walking over to the counter and looked up at Clint.
"Tony?" Steve asked quietly. "Are you alright?"
Pepper moved to his side, looking over his shoulder at the paper. "It's a letter."
Tony picked up the letters, scanning through two more. "It's…all here. They're, um…letters. From my dad. They're uh…letters. My first science fair. My first invention…graduation. It's all here. Where did you get these?"
"Storage. They had more than just the trunks that Nick gave you, but a lot of it is still tied up in projects that he started while he was still with SHIELD," Clint explained with a shrug. "Since these didn't really have anything to do with any of those, I sort of…liberated them."
"All of this time, I thought he didn't even see me. Everything I did, when I was a kid – all I wanted was for him to notice." Tony glanced back down at the letters. "I guess he did after all."
"I admit I read some of them," the archer replied, giving Tony a serious look. "And I talked to Nick after I found the letters during a security inspection, since he knew the guy. I wasn't sure you'd want them since he sounded like he wasn't that good of a father. He made a lot of mistakes, but he loved you. He just didn't know how to say it, I guess. It looks like he tried to send them, but just…"
"Didn't. They all say kind of the same things – that he's proud of me, and stuff like that," the inventor finished, his eyes still full of surprise. He looked at Clint, his voice rough. "Thank you. I, uh…needed this. Thank you."
"Yeah – no problem." The archer gave him a shy smile as a timer beeped. He beckoned to the others. "Soup's on, everyone!"
There were several cheers as they filed into the kitchen, pulling dishes out to set the table. The turkey was pulled from the oven and carried to the large island for carving. The ham was placed next to it, still sizzling. Several more items were placed at the center of the table for all to reach.
Natasha sidled up to Clint, gently nudging him in the side as he sharpened the carving knife. She gave him a gentle smile. "I guess there's something to this Christmas thing after all. I could get used to this again."
She hadn't had much use for the holiday, having had no reason to until she had left the Red Room, but that hadn't stopped Clint from dragging her to the Barton home each year to spend it with his family. He hadn't wanted her to spend it alone.
"Maybe," Clint replied with a shrug. He grinned, spinning the blade with a practiced flourish. "Besides – I get to play with knives!"