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'tis the season

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'tis the season

*

To Harley, Christmas had only ever been a series of disappointments.

It was hard for him to remember any Christmases before his Dad left. His whole childhood was split into two categories: a section of Before his Dad left, and then all of the After. He had vague memories of a tree in their living room, a real tree, one that smelled like pine and left needles on the floor that Harley had to be cautious of. Occasionally there were flashes of Abbie crawling on the floor in a bright pink onesie, delighted by all of the commotion Harley had caused by opening his presents.

Those were some of the good ones.

When Harley was 7, and Abbie was 4, they had to take the Greyhound by themselves. Their Dad had left the beginning of the year. They hadn’t seen him since that day in February when he had up and left. Harley hadn’t gotten his hopes up, but when their Dad had arranged tickets for them to ride the bus up to his new place in Ohio, Harley let himself wonder what it would be like to have the back and forth. To have elusive summers at their Dad’s, instead of staying where they were.

That was the last time Harley fooled himself into believing that their Dad cared.

Their Mom hadn’t wanted them to go, especially alone, but she couldn’t miss a shift at the diner, and so it went. Harley and Abbie were both loaded up with backpacks of their own, filled with snacks and drinks, and a couple of dollars tucked into the zipper pocket at the front of Harley’s bag. Harley had held Abbie’s hand in a vice grip nearly the entire time, not wanting to lose her for an instant, even if they were sitting next to each other on the bus.

The 6-hour ride on the bus was uneventful. Abbie was mostly entertained by her LeapFrog, until it died a few hours in. After that, she had fallen asleep with her thumb in her mouth, and her head resting on Harley’s shoulder. The bus eventually rolled to a stop once they got to their station. Abbie was tired and groggy, so Harley had carried her the best he could manage with his tiny arms. He stepped into the station and they waited.

Two hours in, Harley got a sinking feeling.

It was the night of Christmas Eve, and it was only getting later, and closer to Christmas morning. Their Dad was supposed to have met them there and picked them up at the station. By the time three hours had passed, and Abbie had blinked herself into a more alert state, Harley knew that their Dad wasn’t coming.

“Come with me. Hold my hand.” Harley had instructed, tugging Abbie close. Abbie had nodded dutifully, and held out her hand for Harley to take in a bone-crushing grip. She followed him as he went up to a lady at the ticket counter. He pulled out a crumpled dollar bill from his bag and held it out to her.

When he asked if she had a phone he could use, she pointed him in the direction of the payphone outside. She gave him change for his dollar and told him to come back inside and ask for help if he needed it. Harley had said, “Yes ma’am, thank you, ma’am,” which made her smile.

The payphone was a little ways away from the station and in the parking lot. It was cold; cold enough that Harley shivered in his coat. Abbie was bundled in a giant puffer jacket that threatened to consume her whole. Harley still frowned, and ushered her in close, shielding her from the wind, while he dialed the number he had memorized ever since he went into Kindergarten. His teeth chattered as he waited for it to connect.

Their Mom picked up after a few rings. There hadn’t been a point up until that moment that Harley had wanted to cry. But, when he told his Mom over the phone that their Dad hadn’t showed, he had to bite his lip to keep it from wobbling. His Mom was nearly hysterical almost immediately, and Harley and Abbie were going to have to wait for her to drive up to get them, which meant six more hours, at least, at the station. It would be well into Christmas morning by the time their Mom would get there.

That set the tone, really.

Once Harley had put the payphone back onto its hinge, he had trudged back into the station, with Abbie in tow, mostly tucked under his arm. The lady at the front desk immediately took pity, and made sure to supply them with water and snacks. She even at one point in the night/morning procured a deck of cards, and taught Harley how to play War, while Abbie watched on with glee. After they had gotten their fill of that game, the lady at the desk taught them how to play Blackjack and Poker, the latter Abbie took to like a sponge, even if she didn’t grasp everything completely. It was fun, but-

It still didn’t alleviate the burn of knowing that their father had abandoned them, again.

As the night waned on into morning, Abbie and Harley both fell asleep, by a bench in the corner, half on top of each other, using their backpacks as makeshift pillows. Harley had woken up a bit later and saw his Mom, frenzied and talking to the lady at the desk in hushed voices.

“Mama?” Harley had called out, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. The action caused Abbie to stir next to him. Almost as soon as she processed that their Mom was there she started to cry. Their Mom rushed over to her, and scooped her up into her arms, while Harley held onto her one outstretched hand.

They said goodbye to the front desk lady, and their Mom buckled them into her car, which was idled out front. It was old, and beat up, and in no condition to be doing a long drive, but she had made it there nonetheless. Their Mom was too tired to do the drive back, so they rented a nearby motel room to get some sleep. They all slept together in the same bed until it was close to evening on Christmas Day.

The drive home was mostly silent. Harley didn’t have any idea why their Dad hadn’t shown up for them, but he knew that he shouldn’t ask. Every once in a while on the drive their Mom would start crying. When she did, Harley would look out the window. He couldn’t stand seeing his Mom cry.

When they got home it was late, and they were all exhausted. Regardless, their Mom had insisted that they open presents under the tree. Abbie and Harley both opened their couple of presents, and did their best not to act glum. It wasn’t even Christmas anymore.

Harley spent most of the night thinking about Ohio, and what was so great there that their Dad didn’t want them anymore.

*

The following Christmas, it was like walking on eggshells. They never discussed the events of the previous year, but they still hung in the air. Their Dad leaving was fresh, even if it had been over a year since he had walked out the front door and never came back. But even when he had walked out the door that day in February and never looked back, Harley never felt abandoned until him and Abbie were sitting alone at that bus station.

*

The Christmas after that, Tony Stark of all people showed up. It gave Harley hope, for once. Maybe this Christmas wouldn’t be so bad. Then, Harley watched a girl burn alive, her skin turning into a molten orangey-glow that made him sick to his core. Tony was different from what Harley had seen on TV, and he looked tired, like his Mom after a long shift.

Harley had just started to give Christmas a chance - then Tony left, too. Just like everyone else.

*

All of the Christmases after that held nothing of note. By the time Abbie and Harley were teenagers, Christmas was barely a holiday in the Keener house. It wasn’t a thing, but rather an unspoken agreement. Christmas couldn’t become a disappointment if there were no expectations to begin with.

Everything, of course, changed when Harley met Peter.

*

Falling for Peter had kind of been like staring at the sun. When Harley focused on him for too long his retinas singed, but he couldn’t look away. Peter was kind, and smart, and funny, and so much all the time that Harley had to pinch himself whenever Peter trained all of his brightness onto him. He was beautiful. He was a nuclear fusion of hydrogen; a swirl of helium that took up so much more than every star Harley could ever make out in the sky. As far as Harley was concerned, Peter was the milky way, and he was sitting on the grass tracing constellations.

*

They had been dating for six months by the time Christmas season rolled around. What Harley hadn’t accounted for was how much Peter loved Christmas. He was bundled up in sweaters almost as soon as the calendar passed into December. His apartment had a tree, and was filled to the brim with decorations, and lights. He wanted to watch a slew of Christmas movies, and never failed to hum along with whatever Christmas song was playing in a store they were at, all while still always holding Harley’s hand.

Harley did his best to tune it out. He wasn’t a grinch, but, he was never going to have anywhere near the same level of enthusiasm that Peter did about the holiday. He wanted Peter to enjoy himself, and it was nice, seeing him so happy and excited. Harley couldn’t risk him losing the little gleam in his eyes that he had grown accustomed to.

But then, Christmas Day had came, along with the same loneliness that caught up with him like clockwork every year. He was invited over to May’s by Peter. He had initially planned on going, for Peter’s sake, but backed out last minute, much to Peter’s disappointment. He just didn’t think that he could bear it.

Somehow though, Harley had lucked out and managed to find the most perfect boyfriend in all of existence. When Peter wrapped up with Aunt May he came back to Harley’s apartment. It was late, late enough that Harley was already in bed and he was pretty sure it had passed into Boxing Day. Peter had shucked off his jacket and shoes noisily, then climbed right into bed with him, lining himself up along Harley’s back. Harley squawked at his frozen fingers and toes.

“Missed you,” Peter said into his neck, which made Harley snort. They had just seen each other that morning.

Harley kissed him, then pulled back, grimacing. “You taste like eggnog.”

Peter frowned, and Harley could see it even in the dark. Then he asked tentatively, his voice small, “Why don’t you like Christmas, Harls?”

Harley didn’t say anything at first, and let out a breath. He ran his fingers up Peter’s torso and counted each one of his ribs. “I don’t…” Harley trailed off, not sure of what to say, or where to even begin. “It’s okay.”

“I wanted you to have a good Christmas,” Peter said, and he sounded so morose, like it personally saddened him that Harley hadn’t had fun.

“Christmases have never been good,” Harley eventually settled on, keeping his tone neutral. “They just - haven’t.”

Peter tucked his face into Harley’s chest, then blinked up at him with those brown eyes of his, the ones that he knew were Harley’s weakness. “What happened?” He whispered, like if he asked too loud Harley might shut down and not tell him. He knew him well, well enough to wait him out.

It was a few minutes later, when Peter’s breath had evened out, that Harley found himself saying, “When Abbie and I were little, our Dad left us at a bus station on Christmas.”

It was quiet, only for a moment, long enough for Harley to wonder if Peter had heard him at all. But then, Peter said, his voice cracking, “Oh, Harley, that’s awful.”

Harley laughed, despite himself. He couldn’t help it. Peter sounded so heartbroken, he had to let it roll off. If he internalized it, and really let Peter in deep he didn’t know if he could ever tug him back out. “It happens,” he said, with a breeziness he didn’t really feel, and did an awkward half-shrug from under Peter’s weight. “But I like that you like Christmas,” He said, wanting to get to the important part, because that’s what mattered. It was okay that Harley would get down on Christmas, because Peter loved it enough for the both of them.

Or really, that’s the conclusion that Harley had come to.

So, cue his bafflement when another year passed with him and Peter still together. They moved in together over the summer, and it was easy. It was easy in a way that nothing else in Harley’s life ever had been. It was almost the middle of December when Harley realized that Peter hadn’t so much said a word about Christmas, which was-

Concerning.

Harley thought about it for nearly the entire time it took him to get home from work. When he did, Peter was still out. He looked over their apartment with a new eye and made note that not a single decoration had been put up. He hadn’t even seen Peter pull out a single one of his Christmas sweaters. A bad taste grew in Harley’s mouth as his brain provided him with a theory.

You ruined Christmas for him, the voice in the back of his head supplied.

And yeah, Peter hadn’t been as smiley lately, or as cheerful as Harley remembered him being the previous year. He had also been spending a lot of late nights out, ones that Harley never questioned, but now sat at the forefront of his mind.

He had confided in him about his worst Christmas. He had even told him about the lady who had played cards with them and gave them food while their Mom was on her way. He had told him all about it because he had asked, but now, it felt like a mistake.

He waited up for Peter to get home. He fucked around on Instagram, watching the door. Eventually, Peter came through it. He was swathed in layers from head to toe, his frame swallowed by a big puffy jacket, boots, a hat, and a scarf. His cheeks were bright red, and he gave Harley a delighted grin once he saw him. “Hey, babe,” he said cheerily, before swooping down for a kiss.

He went over to hang his jacket up when Harley prodded, “Where were you tonight?”

“Just hanging out with MJ,” Peter said casually, not looking at him.

That would have been fine, except, Harley had seen MJ’s most recent story posted about an hour ago, and she had most definitely not been hanging out with Peter.

Harley let it sit in the air for a few moments, enough to debate if he was going to call him on it. Though, he could never leave well enough alone. He sucked in a breath. “Where were you, really?”

He watched Peter freeze, and then look at him with wide eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I know you weren’t with MJ,” He said, and hated how the words sounded as they spilled out of his mouth.

“Harley, I-”

“I don’t care,” he said, feeling exasperated. “Just...where were you?”

Peter slumped, shifting his eyes guiltily, and sunk his shoulders until he deflated. “I was wrapping presents,” he muttered, low enough that Harley could just barely make it out.

“What?” He said, going numb.

“I was wrapping presents, with May,” Peter said a little louder, but looked just as guilty.

Harley was heartbroken.

“Jesus,” Harley breathed, and tugged his hands through his hair, turning away so he wasn’t facing him.

“Harley-”

Harley cut him off, his voice raised, “You never put up a tree!”

“What?” Peter said, his brows knitting together in confusion.

“You haven’t said anything about Christmas this year, and now you feel like you have to sneak away to wrap presents with Aunt May?”

Peter’s eyes widened, and he started wringing his hands together. “I don’t- I just-” he bit his lip. “I thought that maybe you couldn’t have a bad Christmas if we didn’t have Christmas.”

Harley closed his eyes. “That’s not what I want at all.” When he finally opened his eyes Peter was looking at him so dejectedly that Harley’s heart broke all over again. Harley motioned for Peter to come over to where he was on the couch. “C’mere, baby.”

Peter only hesitated for a moment before he melted against Harley, and let Harley manhandle him into his lap. “You were so sad last year,” Peter said quietly against his neck. “I didn’t want to make you sad.”

Harley sighed. “I like that you like Christmas, okay? I do.”

Peter seemed dubious. “You really mean that?”

Harley nodded. “I like seeing you all excited, and happy. I hate that I ruined that.”

“You didn’t ruin anything!” Peter insisted, even though Harley didn’t believe him.

*

They talked it through, but Harley still felt like he had ruined Christmas. It lingered above them, unresolved. Peter had yet to fully relax and indulge, at least not to the full extent that he had the previous year, when he was completely unguarded. He would broach the topic of Christmas ever since their talk, but would always glance shiftily at Harley afterwards, like he was waiting for him to be put-off. Harley couldn’t stand it, but he also couldn’t figure out how to fix it either.

He resigned himself to calling Abbie. If there was one person on planet Earth who understood his fucked up feelings on Christmas - it was her.

And of course, like the little genius she was, her solution was simple:

“Why don’t you and Peter make a good memory together on Christmas?”

Which, huh. Harley had never given that a thought, but suddenly it made sense. All Peter had ever wanted was for Harley to have a good Christmas, but he had been too caught up in his own misery and angst to give that to him.

“Christmas isn’t all bad,” Abbie said, seeing right through Harley, like always. “I know it kind of sucked growing up, but I went to Jen’s house for Christmas last year and it was so nice. Why don’t you and Peter just do something together?”

“Fuck,” Harley said intelligently, and leaned back in his chair. He then gave Abbie his most charming smile over their video call. “Do you think you could make it up to New York this year?”

“To save your sorry ass, you bet,” She said, rolling her eyes, but gave Harley a smile at the end anyway.

Harley wrapped up the phone call pretty quickly after that. He had a plan that he had to see through.

*

Getting everything lined up and everyone on board was a lot easier than Harley had initially anticipated. He had called May first, who immediately insisted that if there was a holiday party of any kind that it should be held at the Tower, she also was sworn to secrecy from Peter. Next, Harley called Pepper. She was warm to the idea of having a slap-dash Avengers holiday party hosted at the Tower, and went into full cutthroat planning mode almost instantly, it was enough to make Harley sweat.

Things sort of just fell into place after that. Roping their makeshift crew and everyone adjacent into accepting invitations went smoothly, and nobody let it slip to Peter what was going on.

*

By the time Christmas Eve arrived, Harley was nervous.

Getting Peter dressed and into an Uber was a little more precarious. He had made a few inquiring confused faces when Harley said he wanted to go somewhere, but otherwise didn’t question him. During the ride Harley did his best to distract him so he wouldn’t pay attention to where they were headed. Harley had a few texts on his phone letting him know that the party was in full-swing. Abbie had even sent him a few excited selfies she had taken from inside the Tower.

When the car slowed to a stop only a few blocks from the Tower entrance Peter abruptly quieted his idle chatter and furrowed his brows, looking at Harley.

“Harley? What are we doing here?” Peter glanced back and forth between the car window and Harley, like he was trying to slot things together but they weren’t clicking just right, it was hopelessly endearing.

“C’mon,” Harley said, his palms sweaty. “We don’t want to be late.”

He dragged a dazed and confused Peter down the street, through the lobby, and eventually into the elevators in the Tower.

“What’s going on!” Peter demanded as soon as the elevator door closed, and Harley had to hold back a smile at Peter crowding into his space and being all faux-threatening. “If you don’t tell me what we’re doing here I swear I’m gonna-”

He was cut off by the doors parting on the top floor, and revealing a festive scene. Harley had to admit that Pepper had outdone herself. There were decorations and twinkle lights spread all around the room, casting everything in a warm glow. Various Avengers were scattered around, mingling, and laughing. And a giant, ostentatious Christmas tree sat in the corner, nearly reaching the ceiling, with mounds of presents piled underneath.

“You-” Peter started, his eyes wide, before he whirled around to look at him. “Oh my god!”

Harley ducked his head, smiling sheepishly. His hands itched to stuff them inside of his pocket. “Surprise,” He mumbled.

Peter’s eyes went shiny. “You did this for me?”

Harley shrugged, he was sure the tips of his ears were probably pink. Yeah, he wanted to say, of course I did this for you, everything I ever do is for you. “You love Christmas,” is what he settled on instead. “Abbie said we just needed some good memories...so…”

Peter softened, and Harley only had half a second to brace himself before Peter launched at him, and he got an armful of messy brown curls. “I love you,” Peter told him, his voice full of wonder before he tugged him in for a messy kiss. “I can’t believe you kept this from me!” Peter breathed out before giving Harley a giggle of pure delight.

“I had some help,” Harley said, not wanting to take all of the credit. But Peter just gave him one of his small secret smiles, like he could see right through every word that came out of his mouth. It was intoxicating.

“Gross!” A voice that Harley would recognize anywhere piped up from only a few feet away. “I thought we banned mistletoe for a reason!”

“Abbs!” Harley grinned, and broke away from Peter to give his little sister a hug, almost swooping her feet off the ground in the process. He pulled away enough to grab onto her shoulders. “You givin’ Stark a hard time?”

“I’m on my worst behavior,” She declared with glee. “Tony won’t let me around Morgan, but I think it’s because he’s scared of the power we both possess.”

“Atta’girl,” Harley laughed, and watched her head over to where Pepper was.

Peter tsked. “You Keeners, nothing but trouble.”

Harley’s grin widened as he brought a hand to Peter’s hip. “Yeah, but I seem to remember you likin’ some trouble.”

Peter’s eyes glinted dangerously, like he was about to spout off at the mouth, but then his eyes trained on someone over Harley’s shoulder.

“May!” He yelled excitedly, and suddenly dragged Harley over to where she was.

They bantered with May for a while until Wanda and Vision entered with their new set of twins and stole the show. Abbie immediately cooed over them, which Harley observed fondly. The Tower was packed with Avengers, and friends alike. Natasha and May tucked themselves into a corner, both with glasses of wine, and seemed to be getting on like a house on fire.

Peter appeared to take in the scene with a mixture of admiration, and awe. He shot Harley these looks that said, “Can you believe this?” And a little part of Harley couldn’t. He was actually having fun. For the first time in his life he got it, he understood why Peter saw Christmas as something special. This time, Harley wasn’t just enduring Christmas.

A little later, once everyone was properly tipsy, Morgan had been ushered into bed, and Vision had fastened the sleeping babies into their carrier - the Poker game started.

It had been Tony’s idea, and Harley had to hold back his snicker. Tony was cocky, already trash-talking everyone at the table. Harley initially wasn’t going to play, but Peter had goaded him into it. He said, “Please, Harley?” in just the right way to have Harley sighing and saying, “Deal me in.”

“They don’t even know you’re going to win,” Peter whispered to him, and Harley decided not to tell him how wrong he was, he didn’t want to spoil the show he no doubt was going to get. It was cute. Harley was a damn good Poker player, and Peter knew it, too, but, he had also never had the joy of seeing Abbie Keener at full velocity.

Harley met eyes with Abbie from across the table, and he could tell just by their sparkle that they were all in for it.

It was safe to say that Abbie wiped the floor with Tony.

She kicked his ass so hard that Tony had crowed in complete outrage, demanding a rematch. Abbie’s grin was downright devious when she beat them all again, and scooped up her chips (which were m&ms), collecting her loot. At this point, the whole table was shaking with laughter. Peter had buried his face into Harley’s shoulder halfway through the second game, so Harley could feel it vibrate through his collarbone every time he laughed. Harley had his arm flung back along the back of Peter’s chair, and he couldn’t help his manic, joyful grin whenever Tony shouted.

“Where did you learn to play like that!” Tony interrogated, cutting through the teetering of the table.

Abbie shot Harley a secret glance. “A lady at a bus station taught me, and Harleen over there, of course.”

Harley could feel Peter going stock still next to him. But it was okay. It was good to joke about it, in a way. He was too busy laughing over the whole display to get down. “When are you gonna learn, old man, you never play Poker against the Keeners.” Harley teased. Peter’s choked snort from next to him was enough to coat him like a victory.

Harley felt good. He felt warm, and satisfied as he peered around at everyone at the table. He wondered if this is what Christmas felt like for everyone else - a celebration, and excuse for a showcase of love. He could see the appeal.

Then later, much later, when most of the activities for that night had been cleared away and it had officially crossed into actual Christmas, Harley sat on the couch in the center of the penthouse. Peter was curled up next to him, a pile of sleepy goo in his lap. Harley idly carded his fingers through Peter’s hair while he periodically purred in content.

Harley whispered, quiet enough that only Peter could hear, “Merry Christmas, baby.”

Peter hummed. “Merry Christmas, Harls,” he mumbled back.

As Harley looked at the Christmas tree in the corner, with Peter’s warm breath on his leg, he couldn’t help but think that maybe Christmas wasn’t so much of a perpetual disappointment after all.