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Sunshine of a Friendly Face

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Their first Christmas together, they spent in a squalid hut in Laos waiting for a pick-up. Most of their food had spoiled, there were injuries, and after three days of that none of them really cared if it was a holiday. Phil found a tin of stale cookies from his sister on his desk when they finally returned to base; he shared them with Clint and Natasha while they mainlined coffee and tried to figure out just how to write up that mission in a way that didn’t get them all suspended, arrested, or summarily thrown in jail.

They did not speak of it again.

Their second Christmas, Romanoff was under deep cover in Russia, Barton was on top of a building in Ankara watching both exits of his mark’s home, and Coulson was at base coordinating four ops at once.

They didn’t talk about it because, well, what was there to discuss?

Their third Christmas, Phil took off and went to his sister’s, his first vacation in almost two years. He came back about five pounds heavier and with a bag of cookies he promptly handed to Barton. “Share with Romanoff; I’m not responsible for the consequences if you fail to do so,” he calls after him as Barton takes off with the bag.

It isn’t until he sits down this evening, with his own little bag of leftover cookies, baked and carefully packed up by his sister and her daughters, that it occurs to him to wonder if Barton has ever even properly baked a Christmas cookie. He knows for damn sure Romanoff hasn’t. It’s a sad thought, so he tucks it away in the back of his head, and forgets about it for eleven months.

Christmas, the fourth since Romanoff and Barton have started working as a team, and Phil as their handler, sneaks up on them all that year, after a long two-month op in Mali that has left all three of them burnt and sick of sun and sand. New York is in full holiday mode when they return: lights everywhere, vendors selling chestnuts around Rockefeller Center and every store pushing sales and free gift wrapping. It’s snowing when they deplane. Phil feels better already.

“We’ve got a week of leave,” he informs his team as they finish their debriefing paperwork. “Holiday plans?”

Romanoff and Barton look at each other. Barton shrugs; Romanoff inclines her head. “The range, probably,” Barton answers for both of them, and Phil shakes his head.

“Incorrect. Christmas Eve is tomorrow. I’ll expect to see you around 3 pm,” he tells them, and leaves them both in the debrief room looking confused.

They showed up, of course; he knew they would. Clint was holding a bottle of scotch, Natasha a bottle of Vodka. Phil pointed to the where the rest of his liquor lived. “Put those down, wash your hands, and come help.”

Natasha was eyeing the flour-smudged jeans and teeshirt Phil was wearing. “Help with what?”

“Cookies, of course,” Phil says, and tosses a bottle of decorating sugar at her. “I already made the dough but they have to be decorated before they’re baked. Leave your jacket on the couch.”

She makes a face at him, but they ditch their coats and follow him into the kitchen, jockeying for space in the tiny room, and Phil teaches them how to shake the cookie cutters when they’re pressed in the rolled dough to separate cutouts and carefully slide them onto cookie sheets, and watches them decorate. Natasha goes for realism, with carefully sprinkled sugars and sprinkles lined up in rows. Clint is more of a post-modern cookie decorator, with odd colors splashed across his cookies. He ignores Natasha when she starts complaining. “It looks cheerful, right? Holidays are cheerful? It works. Nobody’s grading me.” When she turns to ask Phil if he has any more green sugar he dumps a handful of multicolored sprinkles over one cookie and backs away, cackling.

The handful of cookie dough lands squarely in his hair. Phil thanks her for sparing the rest of his kitchen, and then takes it back when Clint scrubs his hands through his hair, sending bits of dough everywhere.

They end up with six dozen cookies, but a dozen or two are sacrificed while they cool. Clint burns his tongue on hot sugar, and Phil and Natasha laugh themselves off their chairs at the look on his face.

“Is this what you do on Christmas?” she asks Phil, once they’ve calmed down. Her voice is soft. He wouldn’t call it wistful, exactly, but there’s something longing about it.

“Pretty much,” he says, shrugging. “Spend time with family, eat too many cookies, watch fifty-year-old tv specials. Now that my sister has little kids, once they go to sleep we play Santa Claus and get all the presents under the tree for them for the morning.”

“It sounds nice,” Natasha says, poking at a wreath-shaped cookie.

“You’re like the Cleavers,” Clint says, and Phil rolls his eyes.

“We’re really not. So it’s almost dinnertime? Chinese? That’s a New York tradition but I like it, and I already cleaned this kitchen once today and I’m not doing it again.”

Natasha shrugs, and Clint makes grabby motions when he pulls out his menu collection. They end up ordering a feast: chicken cashew and beef broccoli and egg foo young and General Tso’s and three different kinds of dumplings. Phil tips the delivery guy an extra 20 and they gorget themselves on the couch, eating off each other’s plates like little kids.

The Christmas Story marathon starts at 8.

“I think I’ve seen this,” Clint says from the far end of the couch. He’s kicked off his boots and has his stocking feet up on Phil’s clean coffee table. Natasha kicks his legs off and tucks her feet back underneath her. “Hey, quit that. Is this the fa-ra-ra-ra-ra one?”

“I haven’t. No spoilers. What is it about?” She turns to Phil.

“It’s the story of a little boy, and the one thing he wants for Christmas more than anything else in the world –” He meets Clint’s eyes, and they chorus it together “A Red Rider BB Gun with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time!”

Natasha eyes them both like they’ve gone mad, reaches for the remote, and turns the volume up loud enough that they won’t bother her by reciting the entire film. (Phil could, very easily.) They settle in, and Phil is relaxed and happy so he lets himself get swept up in Ralphie’s story.

It’s not entirely like his childhood, but there’s a lot that rings true. He wouldn’t say it out loud, but that’s why he loves it. He starts giggling at the school scene – his elementary school really did look just like that one – and Natasha gives him a fond look, sliding a little closer. By the time poor Flick is flailing from the flagpole, she’s tucked against his side, head on his shoulder. He drapes an arm around her shoulders. It’s platonic, but maybe that’s what makes it so comfortable – last Christmas, his sister fell asleep on his shoulder watching this same movie. The parallel makes him smile, and he gives Natasha’s shoulders a little squeeze, like a hug.

At some point Clint swings his legs onto the couch, planting his feet in Natasha’s lap. She flicks a finger at his toes, but doesn’t make him move. They watch the rest of the movie like that.

“Why is it starting again?” Natasha asks, in a sleepy voice, when the opening credits start at 10 pm.

“Marathon!” Clint says happily. “They’re just gonna keep playing it all night. Don’t change it, Phil.” Phil has no intention of changing it.

“Don’t you get sick of it?” Natasha says, with that tone of voice that expresses her exact opinion of their (lack of) sanity.

“It’s only on once a year,” Phil says, with his I-am-totally-reasonable-so-you’ll-do-what-I-say tone. “You have to enjoy it while it lasts.”

She makes a face but settles down to watch it again, and Phil’s pretty sure he can hear her giggling over Scut Farkus – no, she’s humming, he realizes a moment later, humming along to the Wolf’s Theme. Peter and the Wolf, he realizes. It’s a ballet. Of course. He hugs her closer for a moment, and she smiles up at him, aware she’s been made and not caring one whit.

Clint is half asleep when the movie ends for the second time, so Phil leans forward and grabs the remote, flicking through channels. “What are you looking for?” Natasha asks, and Phil holds up a hand – flick, flick flick –

“That,” he says, putting the remote down: the PBS rebroadcast of City Center’s performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker. Natasha sits up a little straighter when the first notes start, and that jostles Clint, who opens his mouth to protest. Then he see’s Natasha’s face, and Phil watches the awareness cross his eyes. Without a word, Clint puts his feet back in Natasha’s lap and closes his eyes, relaxing into sleep. Natasha slowly settles back against Clint, but he can see her entire body reacting to the music, leaning into beats and breathing with the melody. It makes him smile to watch.

He falls asleep during the Polychine dance, aware of Clint’s slow snores from the other side of the sofa and the soft, sweet smile on Natasha’s face.

He wakes up to the sun coming through the window, and groans to himself – slept on the couch again, he’s going to be sore and uncomfortable all day, and that old bullet wound from Bratislava always bothers him more when he sleeps on the couch… Then he realizes that Clint is snoring on the other end of the couch, and there’s a plate of half-eaten cookies on the table between them.

He sniffs, and smells coffee, and -- pancakes? Phil hoists himself off the couch and stretches a little as he pads into the kitchen. Natasha is standing over the stove, hair pulled back, flipping small pancakes. “Coffee’s ready,” she says, and she turns and gives him a shy smile. “ Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” Phil echoes. “What’s this?”

“Breakfast,” she says pityingly. “I know Clint’s socks will damage anyone’s olfactory ability, but I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“No, no, just – unexpected,” Phil says quickly. “It smells good.”

“This is what I used to have as a child,” she says. “Or – what I remember having, as a child,” she corrects. “I had to go find a store open, you had no jam in this kitchen at all.”

“Finished the last jar the other day,” Phil says, defending himself, and Natasha rolls her eyes.

“I took care of it for you. Get plates.” She dishes out three plates of pancakes, dumping jam on top of them, and points Phil back towards the living room, plate in either hand. “Go wake that merzavec up, please.”

Clint grumbles, until Phil drops the plate of pancakes on his lap. Natasha appears a moment later with three mugs of coffee, and he smiles before falling upon his meal like a wolf. They eat without talking, and it’s the most delicious breakfast Phil has had in a long time. He finds a broadcast of a mass at St. Patrick’s, and they listen to the singing while they eat.

There’s no tree, no presents, no cries of “Santa came!” Phil’s kitchen is a mess, and his neck is knotted on one side from sleeping sitting up. But maybe, he thinks, taking a bite of pancake and jam, it’s still one of the nicest Christmases he’s ever had.

Clint gets up to get the coffee carafe for refills, and when he comes back in he’s singing along to a commercial. When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze, for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home… He’s terribly out of tune. Phil smiles, and leans back into the sunshine.