Clint was the one who saw it first, though he kept his mouth shut, and so everyone believed that it was Banner who’d been paying attention to the signs. Bruce noticed it a week into December, gathered the team into one of Tony’s ostentatious great rooms so that he could worry aloud that Captain America seemed . . . sad.
Nat snorted, and scuffed her boots across the white leather couch. They’d been in the Tower since mid-November, because Stark had insisted that Thanksgiving in his skyscraper would be a good team bonding activity.
They had all turned him down. Well, Bruce hadn’t, because he was already living there, and Potts had simply hummed and patted Stark’s arm the way she always did when he interrupted her at work, but the rest of them had rolled their eyes at Tony’s insistent holographs and continued on their ways. Or at least, they had tried.
Clint had given in by Tony’s fifteenth call, because in fifteen messages Stark had never once said the word “family” when he spoke about the holidays, and Clint had lived his own life long enough to know what that meant. Natasha gave in when Clint called her. Steve hadn’t surrendered to the inevitable until Thor dropped onto his motorcycle and nearly crashed it, booming excitedly about the feast Tony was holding in his honor, killing a bird to celebrate Thor’s-day, parades and games dedicated to the god of thunder and wasn’t Steven son of Joseph going to come?
Steve might have been able to delete Tony’s messages, but apparently he couldn’t say no to an enthusiastic Norse god.
“Steve is always sad,” Nat reminded them, tugging the knife from her ankle holster and stabbing at a hunk of Gouda. She kept her face tilted toward Clint, because she knew the hearing aids worked fine, but it was less of a struggle to parse words when he could see the speaker’s lips. “Was he also wearing pleated trousers? Putting too much Vaseline on his hair? Doing any of the other things that he does every day?”
But Clint knew what Bruce meant. Captain America had rolled in the day before Thanksgiving, dust on his clothes, skin darker than his sun-bleached hair and several days of uneven stubble on his chin. He had clapped Thor on the back when the god lifted him off the ground in a hug, rubbed his patchy beard on Nat’s cheek when she’d mocked it, and even managed to smile at Stark. The others hadn’t been looking for anything more than that; a half-smile from a man they barely knew.
SHIELD had found Schmidt’s plane in May. Uncovered it in June, and spent two months debating how to thaw out a supersoldier before they woke Steve. He’d been kept in SHIELD facilities for months after that, and none of them had really seen him until April, when Loki came swaggering through their door and into Clint’s brain.
Steve had been quiet, in April. Adjusting, the SHIELD therapists would have said, but Clint recognized shock on a victim’s face. Steve was figuring out how to wake up in the morning without newspaper boys shouting in the street, how to brew coffee and microwave breakfast and stand in the new world outside his door. He was also saving the world from Clint, but Barton figured that part was probably old hat for Steve. Saving the world, at least, Captain America had done before.
Steve hadn’t been happy, in April, but he hadn’t been sad—he was papering over his losses, Clint assumed, walking forward because it hurt too much to look back. Clint knew what it was to lose friends; he’d heard Phil go on about Captain America for decades, waxing poetic about his great romance with Agent Peggy Carter and his devotion to his team of commandos.
“Maybe it’s the holidays?” Pepper suggested, offering Nat a cracker to go with her impaled cheese. “He was still in SHIELD custody last December, wasn’t he?” She slapped Tony’s hand away when he reached across Banner to steal her grapes. “So this is his first real Christmas in our century.”
Thor raised his hand, looking like an overgrown kid at school. “This is an important day in your world, is it not? The midwinter feast? Perhaps Steven misses his comrades in arms, or his family.” Thor lowered his hand slowly, rubbed it over his eyes and no one else noticed that his fingers came away damp. Thor didn’t look at Clint—he never looked at Clint when he thought about Loki, and by December Clint could tell exactly how many times a day Thor’s mind turned to his brother, could count every instance Thor wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Eventually, after a few hours in the gym and a fifth of vodka, maybe, Clint was going to have to tell Thor a story about two orphaned boys who joined the circus. He would have to bring another bottle of vodka, if he wanted to make it past their childhood and into the years that Clint’s invincible older brother had lived to cause him pain. Hell, maybe he’d just call Barney and get him to talk to Thor: Clint wasn’t the only Barton whose brother had shot him in the chest.
“So we’ll have Christmas here,” Tony declared magnanimously, as though he hadn’t planned that all along. Three days ago Clint and Nat had talked about going to the islands for Christmas, and Stark had hidden all of Clint’s clothes. “Hire decorators, buy whatever tree the Rockefellers didn’t use.”
Bruce groaned, then undermined it by smiling fondly at Tony’s gesticulating hands. “I’m sure that’s the kind of Christmas they had in the field during the war,” he concurred, sarcasm intact. “What about his old team? Are any of them still alive? We could fly him out to see them.”
Natasha shook her head. “Only Carter,” she said, shrugging one shoulder. Natasha never approached people until she had gleaned everything she could from their files, starting with what weapon they would reach for in a fight and ending with which ice cream they would order from the rickety stand on the beach. “And she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago. She’s at a SHIELD facility, but even our doctors can’t cure memory loss.”
“Great,” Stark muttered into his beer. Natasha signed the word where her hand rested on her thigh, because even Clint’s magical SHIELD hearing aids couldn’t pick up the secrets whispered between Tony and his drinks. “That ought to cheer him right up. Hey pal, all your friends are dead, but your ex-girlfriend may or may not remember you, depending on what year she thinks it is.”
“He might still like to visit her,” Pepper chastised, pursing her lips. “I’ll talk to Nick about setting something up.”
“I will speak to the Captain about his traditions,” Thor announced, his voice reverberating off the polished granite floors. Clint could have heard Thor if he were still stone deaf.
“I’ll buy the Christmas presents,” Tony volunteered. “What?” he cried, when everyone turned to stare.
“Tony.” Pepper bit the corner of her mouth, air puffing through her nose in short bursts as she struggled not to laugh. “The only present you’ve ever gotten anyone would have sent me into anaphylactic shock.”
“I’ll have you know that –”
“We’ll figure it out,” Bruce promised, interrupting before Tony could gather a head of indignant steam. Stark glanced at Banner, grinning like he had for a second after Clint had grudgingly agreed to come to Thanksgiving, startled and genuine and gone before you could blink. Bruce met Pepper’s eyes and they exchanged soft smiles; Pepper brushed her hand briefly over the fabric of Banner’s sleeve.
Then they all swung around to ogle the end of the sofa, where Natasha had curled into the corner and Clint was sitting on the armrest, hands clasped between his knees.
“What?” Nat said, when Clint nudged her with his boot. “Is this a Capra film? Am I supposed to keep Rogers from jumping off a bridge?” Of course Steve’s sad, she didn’t say, but Clint had never needed sign language to hear Natasha speak. He’s lost everything. They had all lost people, but only Steve Rogers had lost an entire world.
“We’ll make the fruitcake,” Clint chipped in, because he couldn’t offer to raise the dead. And, even after the Avengers toasted their own brilliance and changed the subject to Zemo’s latest protégé, Clint still wasn’t convinced that Christmas cheer could cure the shadows in Captain America’s blue eyes.
* * *
“You must tell me of your Christ mass rituals!”
They had all spoken with Thor about decibel levels and structural stability in a tottering skyscraper, but Thor only tended to remember those conversations after something shattered, whether it was Pepper’s antique vase or Tony’s patience.
Steve didn’t even flinch at the sudden wall of sound. He was huddled over his coffee at the breakfast table, peering out the window into the weak winter sun. Steve had sat there since five o’clock in the morning, hours before dawn. Clint had been watching him since the man had stumbled into the dark room, tucked above the top shelf of Stark’s DVD collection where he could get a better view.
“Mmm?” Steve hummed, glancing up at Thor when the god dropped beside him on the bench. “It’s a long way down, isn’t it?” he added, looking back out the window at the ground sixty stories below.
Clint’s brow furrowed. He rubbed his fingers together, wishing for an arrow between them, and chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip.
“Indeed it is,” Thor agreed, nodding, because Thor handled abrupt subject changes better than any of them. “Though not as far to the ground as when we first met, I believe, nor as far as I fell from the helicarrier.”
Steve’s hand tightened around his mug. “That’s true,” he said, and dipped his head as though he were awarding Thor a point for honesty.
“But that is not what I wish to discuss.” Thor announced this with much less fanfare than he had strode in with, resting a hand gently on Steve’s shoulder. Thor was no stranger to moods that changed like quicksilver, Clint knew, because Clint had spent far too long with Loki in his head.
“Of course it’s not,” Steve said, shaking his head and focusing on the god at his side. “What was it that you wanted?” he asked, because somehow Rogers hadn’t heard Thor the first time.
“Midwinter is coming,” Thor responded, face brightening. “I wish to hear tales of your Christ mass celebrations. Bruce son of Robert says that you feasted with your fellow warriors.”
Steve’s eyebrows lifted in surprise—possibly because like Clint, he’d had no idea what Bruce’s father was named—and then he huffed out a faint laugh. Steve’s face was a pale reflection of Thor’s, the same blond hair and perfect features, but without any of the god’s unquenchable joy.
“We didn’t really do much,” he said, shrugging and gazing into his mug. The shirt stretched taut across Steve’s shoulders; Clint could see each tensed muscle outlined under the skin. “I rescued – um, we started the team in October. We were supposed to have Christmas in London.” He lifted his head and found Thor peering intently at him, chuckled self-consciously and looked away. “I would have gone to mass, yeah. Ma and I always did that on Christmas Eve.
“Peggy had it all planned,” Steve continued, rubbing hard at his chest. “She’d found a ham somewhere, I don’t know how, and Dugan was going to do something indigestible to yams. Jones broke into Phillips’ office, used his phone to call the Macon, Georgia general store and send the whole town searching for the secret to his grandmother’s chess pie, and Dernier swore he could cook crepes for breakfast. We’d even wrapped presents, stuck them under a tree I chalked onto the wall. Fresno hung mistletoe up everywhere he could, until Phillips ended up in the doorway next to Stark.” Steve laughed, and Clint nearly toppled off the shelf, startled by the unfamiliar sound. “Howard tried to dip him for a proper kiss, and the Colonel made us take all the mistletoe down.”
“This sounds like a good tradition,” Thor said reassuringly when Steve fell silent. “Mistletoe is very powerful, and your Peggy brought a fatted pig.”
Steve’s eyes brightened, flaring with something fragile, set in sepia tones. “Yeah,” he murmured. “It probably would have been a great Christmas, except we got waylaid in Czechoslovakia and it took us an extra week to find the Hydra plant. Then the radio was broken, and by the time we got in contact with Howard it was Christmas Eve and snowing too hard for him to pick us up.”
“Jane loves snow,” Thor stated, heart in his eyes, and for a moment color rushed back into Steve’s face, gazing at Thor with open affection, pleasure at his friend’s happiness flickering briefly through his blue eyes. Clint blinked and it was gone, though Steve patted Thor’s hand and offered him a weak smile.
“Bucky hated snow,” he whispered, and even SHIELD’s supersonic hearing aids could barely catch the words. “Hated working with frostbitten feet and wet socks, or shuffling home through the slush. He’d bitch about it all through dinner, made his sisters knit him extra mittens to wear over his gloves. He never liked the cold.”
Thor froze with his mouth already open, jaw hanging on an uncertain pause. Clint had told Thor what he could remember of Steve’s past, fingers white around the neck of his beer and hearing the stories in Phil’s voice, the action cards kept safe under glass. He had explained that Bucky was Steve’s friend—pleased to remember the name, since he’d normally dozed through Phil’s lessons on Captain America—but Steve never mentioned the friends he’d had before the ice.
“He must have been displeased,” Thor finally said, and pride rose in Clint’s chest when Thor didn’t hesitate or trip over his words. “At the snow.”
Steve laughed, but it rang out like the clatter of a poorly cast bell, discordant and jarring. “You could say that,” he agreed. “We were all pretty displeased by then, snowed into an abandoned farmhouse with nothing but our rations and dirty laundry on Christmas Eve.
“Dernier found an old axe in the barn, and he and Falsworth went looking for firewood while Fresno and Jones went through the kitchen to see if maybe the family had left some jam.”
“Why was this family not at home?” Thor queried, settling with his back against the thick edge of the table. “Darcy says she will not visit because Christmas is a time for family. And murder, she says, but Jane tells me that she is joking.”
Steve pressed his fingers into the bridge of his nose, shifted them out to put pressure on his closed eyes. “There were a lot of empty houses,” he informed Thor woodenly, exhaling slowly and hunching his shoulders. “Bucky found the menorah on top of the china cabinet, dug the candles out of the drawer and lit all nine, nevermind that it was only the fourth night.”
“This is another ritual?” Thor asked, lips carefully forming the word “menorah” under his beard. “These candles?”
“Yeah,” Steve confirmed, the right side of his mouth pulling up in a truncated smile. “A little less Christ mass and a little more Jehovah, but there were menorahs all over our neighborhood growing up.”
Thor nodded solemnly, no doubt etching this new information into his mind. “And did you find jam?”
Steve grinned, more animated than he’d been since his arrival. “Better,” he said. “Jam, flour, everything Jackie said he needed to make crepes. And Dum Dum practically tripped over a couple of chickens on his way out of the barn. Bucky said all we needed was the mistletoe.” The smile pitched off Steve’s face. “It was good,” he whispered, digging his knuckles into his chest hard enough to bruise.
“It snowed through the night,” Steve went on, sitting stiffly and leaning away from Thor’s attempt to drag him into an embrace. “But there were plenty of blankets in the house. The next morning Jim dragged us outside to build snowmen, and Monty started World War III from behind his snowman fort. Jackie burned the crepes, and Jones spent half an hour squawking at the hens before he figured out how to kill them.”
“Did you draw a tree?” Thor prompted, when Steve seemed to run out of words.
Steve jammed his fist against his sternum and shook his head, inhaling a shaky breath and lifting his tepid coffee to his mouth. “We made presents, though. Dum Dum gave Monty a boat he’d made out of our shell casings to make up for the yacht Monty’s dad had sold after the Crash. Jackie had some Nazi –” Steve paused and looked hard at Thor. “Teeth,” he finally said, drawing out the word and waiting for Thor’s flinch. When it didn’t come, Steve went on. “Dum Dum had been after them for ages. Jackie turned them into dice, because Dum Dum always lost at craps.
“Gabe whittled a cluster of grapes for Jack, to start his vineyard. Dum Dum called them a handful of balls.” Steve was staring out the window again, and missed the baffled expression on Thor’s face. “Monty gave me his grandfather’s compass, the one he’d carried through Afghanistan in the war. He glued a picture of Peggy in it—and I don’t want to know why he had one handy.” Steve wrinkled his nose, but he flattened out the hand pressed to his chest. “He said it was to remind me that North was always North and Carter was always right, so I should close my goddamn yap and salute.”
Thor tilted his head, and Clint worried that Steve would find shell casings and a handful of balls in his stocking come December 25th.
“I sketched Jim’s house, the one his grandparents had built in Fresno.” The line between Steve’s eyebrows deepened and a muscle tightened in his jaw. “He talked about it so much, we all knew it by heart. Swore the first thing he’d do after the war was to get it back, then build a new one down the street for his girl.
“Bucky embroidered French curses over the patches he put on Gabe’s favorite jacket.” This time Steve caught Thor’s frown and explained. “Sewing. He fixed up Jones’s jacket. Got bored later that day and sewed wings onto anything he could find, marking us out as part of Captain America’s team.
“Fresno gave Bucky a knife.” Steve rubbed his thumb against the groove in his collarbone, swallowed hard around his words. “He’d taken it from one of their prison guards back in October. He engraved the handle.” Steve bared his teeth, mistaking Thor’s frown for something else. “That was normal,” he swore, defensive, as though Thor would be bothered by the theft of a knife when he wasn’t bothered by the teeth. “That was—that was the sort of thing we did.”
“Of course,” Thor acquiesced, though he’d never once claimed anything that the Avengers did was strange. “What blessing did he put upon the blade?”
Steve exhaled harshly, and his voice sounded like he’d caught gravel in his throat. “‘I can’t see heaven,’” he breathed, watching the window as if he’d find the words scratched into the glass. “‘But I can make hell.’”
Before either Thor or Steve could consider their next words, Tony’s voice echoed over the Tower speakers. “Everybody get their asses to the lab!” he demanded, sounding much less refined than JARVIS always did. “Bruce and I made eggnog!”
“And it’s flammable,” Banner added drily, before presumably being shoved away from the microphone, if the thud was any indication.
“Come!” Thor told Steve, wrapping one thick arm around Steve’s shoulders and steering him to his feet. The Norse god seemed almost relieved that Stark had cut their conversation short. “We will go drink this nog that they have made.” He nodded encouragingly at Steve. Eggnog was part of the Christmas ritual, Tony had said. The proper rituals would cheer Steve.
“Any chance to set our stomachs on fire,” Steve replied, but he allowed Thor to manhandle him toward the elevators, even if he didn’t smile.
The doors dinged shut behind them, but Clint stayed where he was, peering out the window and calculating how long it would take to hit the ground.
* * *
The next day—seventeen days before Christmas, apparently—Clint stumbled into the kitchen hoping for coffee and found himself surrounded with advent calendars. There were two up on the refrigerator: one whose little doors revealed a terrible Christmas joke a day, and one with all its little slots emptied of the chocolate Tony was cramming into his mouth. Several more adorned the cabinet doors and the walls, but Clint buried his head in the coffee pot and tried not to look.
“What the hell is this?” he finally demanded, after twenty-four cardboard angels stood between him and his box of cereal.
“Advent calendars!” Tony retorted, as though Clint had been raised in a circus in Outer Mongolia and had no idea that normal people liked to count the days until December 25th. “JARVIS said Steve had them, back in the day.”
Steve was standing at the window, attempting to peel a life-sized Ironman calendar off of the glass. “Um,” he told Tony’s doppelganger. “No I didn’t?”
“But – but JARVIS said –”
Tony’s stuttering pulled Steve’s attention from the window, and Rogers turned around and stretched out a consoling hand. “I’m sure someone in Brooklyn had an advent calendar,” he said politely, gazing at the ceiling where JARVIS seemed to live. “But we didn’t.”
Tony scraped his hand over the surface of his tablet, communicating with JARVIS in short, sharp gestures that reminded Clint of Bobbi’s sign language in the months before they’d filed for divorce.
“You, sir, inquired as to holiday traditions in New York in 1940,” JARVIS declared, probably tired of Tony’s angry swiping. Clint flinched: JARVIS had routed itself directly into his hearing aids, a burst of cultivated sound. “I created a list of popular rituals. I am unable to say with any certainty what decorations went up in the Rogers household specifically.”
“The Barnes household,” Steve corrected, his back to them as he tugged the Ironman Christmas decal off their kitchen window.
“What?” Tony frowned, casting a frantic glance at Clint, who shrugged. “You spent 1940 in a barn?”
Clint had once had the misfortune of meeting Howard Stark, and there was no way his only son had made it to adulthood without knowing anything about Bucky Barnes. He raised a skeptical eyebrow at Stark, and Tony stuck out his tongue.
“Ma died that September,” Steve told them, dropping to his knees to pull the other stickers Tony had put up off the window. “Bucky moved in right after—said he couldn’t stand the smell of Lizzie’s perfume -” And even the hum of the refrigerator couldn’t hide the cracks in Steve’s voice. “But we celebrated Christmas at his folks’ place that year.”
“Um. Oh.” Tony flapped his hands at Clint, looking like an elephant coming face to face with a mouse. “Do something!” he signed, because Tony was less well-equipped than Thor to handle a conversation with Steve.
“And no advent calendars?” Clint asked, smirking as he carried a fresh cup of coffee over to Steve, standing close enough for Steve’s shoulder to bump his knee when Rogers leaned back and took the mug with a wordless look of thanks.
“Certainly nothing with Ironman,” Steve replied, mouth twisted in a smile. “We did have candles, though.”
The next day, Clint wandered into the kitchen and found Steve sitting at the table, staring in bemusement at the pile of Pumpkin Spice, Vanilla, and Christmas Cheer candles stacked on the counters and rolling off onto the floor.
Clint bent down to pick one up, sniffed and wrinkled his nose at the scent of waxy evergreen.
“I meant advent candles,” Steve whispered, inhaling through his mouth and looking a little ill.
Then Thor walked in, holding two menorahs in each hand, and Steve’s face wobbled for just a moment before he plastered on a smile.
* * *
It was early the next morning—it was the middle of night, Clint admitted, but that didn’t change the fact that he was waiting in front of the coffee pot, watching Captain America stand alone in the dark.
Steve was pressed against the chilled glass of Stark’s floor-to-ceiling window, his palms flat against it, his breath fogging up the pane. Manhattan stretched out below them, sparkling with ice and Christmas cheer.
“You told Thor about Christmas 1943,” Clint whispered, his voice sinking into the plush carpet and absorbed into the dark. Steve flinched. “What about the next year? What about Christmas 1944?”
Rogers exhaled slowly, white condensation on the window hiding his face. His hands had curled into fists—it was always harder to hide your tells in the dark, Clint knew. He had reasons of his own for brewing coffee hours before dawn.
“Steve?” he asked, when the silence had settled on them like frost, broken only by the burbling of the coffee machine.
Steve pushed away from the window, padding over to the kitchen where Clint was already holding out his mug. “Don’t,” Rogers told him, in the voice that Captain America used over their comms. He lifted the mug to his lips—a Smurf with a Christmas tree; Tony had swapped all the plates and cups for ones with holiday themes—and took a long sip, even though the coffee was still hot enough to burn. “Just—just don’t.”
They were both still awake hours later, when Natasha stepped out of the elevator holding several large shopping bags, followed by two scientists barely visible under stacks of boxes, and a pagan deity carrying an enormous pine tree.
“What are you two doing?” she wondered, setting down her bags and peering hard at the edges of Clint’s face, under his eyes where she knew the sleeplessness set in.
Clint turned his head to look at Rogers, who wrapped his hands around his cold cup of coffee and stared steadily back.
“We were watching the sunrise,” Captain America told her, his blue eyes guileless and his face clear. The ideal man didn’t offer Natasha any evidence of a night awake, no bloodshot eyes or unfocused gaze. Clint didn’t say anything: they had watched the sun rise, on their third pot of coffee. On their fourth hour of silence, keeping vigil with their ghosts.
“Do we use this tree to roast the fatted pig?” Thor queried from behind the Christmas tree, and Natasha had to give up her interrogation to prevent Thor from turning the fir into kindling.
Clint didn’t say thank you. He shifted slowly to his feet—he wasn’t superhuman, and he wasn’t getting any younger—and made his way to the living room to help Banner untangle Stark from the string of lights.
He didn’t look back. Every man deserved time alone with his ghosts.
* * *
“So.” Pepper took a sip of wine, left the curve of her lip in coral pink along the rim. “Nick says Peggy Carter is more lucid this week, if Steve wanted to drop by.”
They were having what Tony called a “team spirit rally,” and Natasha more accurately called “damage control.” Tony had made eggnog and Natasha had grudgingly decorated a tree, there had been advent calendars and candles and Bruce had drawn their names on stockings with glitter glue—but it was the eighth night of Hanukkah and Steve didn’t show any signs of embracing the deluge of holiday cheer.
“What good would it do?” Tony lamented, pouring his grievances into his whiskey. “Clearly Rogers is actually the Grinch, or maybe Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“Steven son of Joseph has many names,” Thor agreed, a pint glass of mead dwarfed by his giant hands.
“Tony means that Steve doesn’t seem any happier,” Bruce explained, breathing in the steam curling off his tea. “He didn’t like the calendars, and he didn’t want to decorate the tree. He threw his stocking in the fireplace.”
“He expressed great interest in the menorah,” Thor countered, frowning at Bruce.
“You set the curtains on fire,” Clint pointed out, popping the cap off a fresh beer. “He expressed great interest in locating the fire extinguisher.”
“Also, does anyone else realize that Steve isn’t Jewish?” Natasha said, curled onto the couch like a cat and rolling her eyes.
The rest of them shrugged. At this point, Clint supposed they’d break out the dreidel and sing if it got Steve in the holiday mood.
“He drank the eggnog,” Pepper offered, speaking to Tony with a consoling hand on his knee.
“He has the metabolism of a black hole,” Tony replied. “He also ate three of Barton’s fruitcakes, and I’ve burned things in the lab that tasted better than those.”
Natasha scowled—it had been her recipe, tucked away in some unexplored corner of her mind, but Clint had caught her spitting her mouthful into a napkin when she thought no one could see. Rocket fuel tasted better than that fruitcake.
“Maybe seeing Peggy will help,” Pepper suggested, and Nat scoffed in disbelief.
“He took down the advent calendars,” Natasha said, ticking the event off on her pointer finger. “He hid the candles in a spare bedroom. He barely told Thor one Christmas story, and now he avoids anyone who asks. He claims not to have any family recipes or traditional Christmas dinners, and yet he also says they spent the holiday with the Barneses, so clearly they did something out of their normal routine. He didn’t want to decorate his stocking. He left the room when Bruce put Bing Crosby on. He doesn’t want to go caroling. He doesn’t want to listen to carolers. He doesn’t want to go to Rockefeller and see the tree.
“If none of this is helping, then why would it be a good idea to show him that the woman he loved is ninety and fading away?”
Natasha tucked everything important next to her skin, folded it like love notes then spread it out over the table like a royal flush, like the autopsy photos of an eviscerated man. It was what made her an unparalleled spy. It was what drove kind people away. No one wanted their organs dissected and tossed carelessly onto the floor.
None of them were easy to befriend. Tony sliced through people like a laser cutting steel; Thor found them intruding on the space he’d put aside for his brother and snapped; Pepper smiled and smiled for hours and never faltered, never showed any evidence of a woman behind the mask; Bruce left his mask off, ducked his head and deferred until his evasions or his despair could push them away. Sharing space with Steve was like walking on the moon, surrounded by the desolate landscape and airless night. Clint –
“Well.” Clint took a long pull from his beer and refused to hang his head like the others, or to look away from Natasha’s piercing gaze. “When you put it like that, why wouldn’t it? It’s not like his Christmas could get any worse.”
Apparently no one had told Steve about Peggy, all those months he’d spent recovering at headquarters.
They’d said that she was alive, of course, gave him her redacted file the same as they’d handed over the files on each of the Commandos, all prefaced with death’s official stamp. They’d included information on her husband and children, nieces and grandchildren roaming the globe with far too much of their grandmother’s intelligence, secrets taught at her knee, the way to curl their fingers and deliver a show-stopping left hook.
Steve hadn’t asked to see her.
Pepper—who had been nominated to propose a visit, since it was her idea—sputtered to a stop. Her plan had been to gently inform Steve that Peggy was alive and wait for his effusive response, only to have Steve glance up from his sketchbook, lift an eyebrow, and say, “I know.”
“She’s at a SHIELD hospital,” Clint added, and had the satisfaction of getting Steve’s full attention, both eyebrows raised. Rogers hadn’t known that. “Her husband died last year, and SHIELD has the best facilities to deal with her dementia.”
“Dementia?” Steve echoed, his hand tightening on his pencil, smearing the graphite image of Manhattan seen from the Tower, the lines of the windows crossing through it like bars.
“She’s not always certain what time she’s in,” Pepper said, pitching her voice to soothe without considering her words.
The pencil snapped into pieces.
“She’s not the only one,” Steve replied after a minute where no one exhaled, pulling the left side of his mouth into an approximation of a smirk and aiming it at Pepper’s blanched face.
“We thought it might be nice for her, if you visited,” Pepper said bluntly. Working for Tony had obviously taught her that some conversations were beyond repair.
“All right.” Steve lifted his shoulder and dropped it, sounding as if he’d just agreed to hold the beakers for an experiment in Stark’s lab. He stared at the smudges of gray on his palms, through them to the sketchbook and the table below. “Just let me wash my hands.”
Steve walked out of the room, and Pepper bent her head, bringing her hands up to press manicured fingers into her temples.
“Did that go well?” she asked Clint, gesturing widely at the room where Steve’s quiet answer had already faded into the floor. “I can’t tell.”
Clint buried the desire to suit up before they headed out the door, the skin on his back prickling without the weight of his quiver and bow. “Better than hanging the stockings,” he answered honestly, and went to get his coat.
Peggy had the same iron gray hair and spine to match that Clint remembered from his earliest days working for the good guys, though he’d only reported to her through Phil. He curled his fingers so that the nails bit into his palm and didn’t look to his left, because it wouldn’t be a man in a suit standing there, brusque and professional and yet somehow the same man who had a Superman poster in his bedroom, who had spent hours showing Clint all his collectible superhero cards.
Pepper had offered to come, but relief had washed across her face when Clint shrugged and said he didn’t mind. “He likes you best anyway,” she told him, and Clint didn’t say anything to disabuse her of that belief. After all, it was Clint’s silence that Steve liked best.
“Hey Peggy,” Steve murmured, dropping into a seat next to Peggy’s wheelchair. They were parked at the edge of a common room, a large, fake tree in a corner with colorful lights and “Merry Christmas” strung in cardboard across the sterile white walls.
“Steve!” She turned her head and smiled widely, her eyes as bright as a young girl with her first crush. “You’ve come to take me dancing.”
Steve swallowed and gave a jerky nod, but didn’t look surprised to find Peggy in the wrong time. “Of course I did,” he said, reaching out to tuck a strand of gray hair behind her ear. “I promised I would.” His eyes gleamed, and he blinked hard a few times without looking away, his smile filled with something genuine that tightened Clint’s throat.
“You’re rather late,” Peggy pointed out, tipping her head up to peer down her nose at him, her cheeks rosy, the wrinkles radiating from the corners of her eyes, creasing skin that had lived a full lifetime in the world. “You’ve kept me waiting, Captain Rogers.”
“I couldn’t find my dancing shoes,” Steve told her, his shoulders tensed and his head bowed. “And you know I have two left feet.”
Peggy chuckled, the laugh rasping from her throat. “James told me,” she admitted, her eyesight not sharp enough to catch Steve’s flinch. “He said I’d better wear my Army boots to the club. That when he taught you to jitterbug he limped for a month.”
Even for Peggy, Steve couldn’t manage more than the faintest outline of a grin. “Yeah,” he breathed. “I kept kicking him in the shins.”
“I’ve got a granddaughter who dances like that,” Peggy declared, and both Clint and Steve nodded then froze at the sudden change. “Oh, Steve,” she whispered, lifting one thin hand to cup his cheek, every inch the generous matriarch she had become since 1945. “They told me about the ice. I’m so sorry.”
Clint frowned. Was she sorry that it had taken so long to find him, or that he’d gone into the ice at all?
Steve pressed his cheek into Peggy’s hand and pressed his own hand to his chest, digging the knuckles in under his collarbone. “It’s good to see you,” he told her, and held her gaze. “Merry Christmas,” he added sharply when she didn’t look away, and ducked his head.
“Oh.” Peggy’s face fell. She glanced around the room, caught sight of the glittering tree. “It’s Christmas. Steve, you have to know that . . .” Apparently Peggy had more experience with Steve’s face than the Avengers, because she stopped talking as soon as his jaw clenched and the empathy in his blue eyes hardened to stone. “We still have it, you know,” she redirected seamlessly, as if she had meant to go there all along. “I think Howard put it in storage, somewhere. Phillips wouldn’t let him unwrap it.”
Clint couldn’t follow her rambling, but apparently Steve could, so it probably wasn’t the dementia that had him confused.
“We should get going.” Steve nodded over to the nurse holding Peggy’s lunch a few feet away, his voice steady and perfectly reasonable for a man running from a frail grandmother talking about the past. “But I’ll come back soon, Peggy.” Steve hesitated, half out of his chair. “If that’s all right?”
He bent down to kiss her forehead, and when Peggy lifted her head to see them her eyes flickered from Clint to Steve and away.
“Steve?” she said, after too long a pause. “Did you take Zola alive, like Phillips wanted? Where’s James?”
Steve rocked backwards onto his heels, knocked into Clint as he backed away. “We have to go,” he said again, his hands curled into fists to stop their trembling as he made for the door.
“Well?” Tony demanded, unbearably loud after hours of the world’s quietest helicopter ride. Steve had taken off as soon as they hit the landing pad—probably would have taken off before they reached solid ground, except that the rest of the Avengers had been waiting on the roof, devoting too much attention to Steve's face.
Clint scrubbed a hand over his face, blocking everyone’s expectant faces from view. Even with his hearing aids, people tended to dissolve into a wash of sound when they all spoke at once, and he could ignore it if he couldn’t see their lips.
Nat tugged his hand away and tucked herself under his arm. She hummed a question of her own, and Clint could feel it thrum under her skin.
He sighed. “Worse than the stockings,” he told them, then took a leaf from Steve’s book and fled.
* * *
“What do I buy Dudley Do-Right?” Tony asked, shoving Clint over on the couch and nearly upending his mug.
Clint managed to save the coffee, which in turn probably saved Stark from an arrow to his oversized head.
“Aren’t you cutting it a little close?” Clint grumbled, blinking gummy eyes, his voice still rough from sleep. “It’s two days before Christmas.” He woke up before dawn to avoid situations like these, where someone had the gall to speak to him before he’d savored his second cup of Stark’s admittedly addictive dark roast. “And why are you awake?”
“Bruce wakes up early to meditate.” Stark rolled his eyes and made flapping ‘ohm’ circles with his hands. “And Pepper decided to go into work. So here I am, gracing you with my presence.”
Clint snorted, then drained his steaming cup. It scorched the roof of his mouth, but at least it shocked him awake. He pulled away from the arm Tony had clamped around his shoulders and shifted onto his feet, shuffling into the kitchen to pour a fresh cup.
Tony followed him, of course, opening the cabinet and pulling out his Ironman Christmas mug.
“What are you buying everyone else?” Clint asked, dropping into one of the kitchen chairs. “Steve’s got to be easier to shop for than a Norse god.”
“Are you kidding?” Tony stared at Clint, incredulous. “Thor spent hours yesterday with silly putty. I could buy him a slinky and some Play-Doh and he’d be happy for days.”
That was probably true, Clint conceded. “You have gifts for everyone else?” he wondered, surprised. Last Christmas he and Nat had worked a job in Beirut. He had given Phil a mint edition Agent Carter figurine and a bottle of scotch. For Natasha, he had paid their tab, when they sat down at the bar before sunset and stayed past closing, matching each other shot for shot.
“Santa has never been so good to you,” Tony insisted, puffing out his chest. “I have enough presents to put that jolly old man out of a job.”
“But none for Steve?” Clint leaned toward his coffee and breathed in, the steam curling up against his face, the smell reminding him of early mornings packing down the circus and rolling away. “Can’t be that hard, can it? Get him some socks, or some plaid shirts.”
Stark wrinkled his nose. “Don’t buy me anything, Barton. I have plenty of socks.” Tony also had a weakness for hot chocolate, and Clint had a recipe—payment from an abuela in Mexico for saving her granddaughter’s life—that would make Stark swoon. That was one present he could check off his list. Maybe he could buy Thor a yo-yo.
“C’mon, Katniss,” Tony whined. “You’re the one Rogers talks to.” Clearly Stark had no idea what went on in his own tower, if he thought that Clint and Steve talked. “I just need something that he can unwrap.”
Clint cocked his head and frowned, replaying the curve of Tony’s mouth over the word. Unwrap. He had seen that word recently, heard it in a fainter voice. I think Howard put it in storage, somewhere. Phillips wouldn’t let him unwrap it. Director Carter, spouting what Clint had thought was nonsense, but it had made Steve lift out of his chair and back away.
“Did your dad have any storage lockers?” Clint asked, ignoring the tic in Tony’s jaw at the mention of his old man. “Or units? Somewhere he might have kept Steve’s personal effects?”
Tony waved his hand, dismissive, then paused and gave a thoughtful hum. “He wouldn’t have thrown anything away, not if it belonged to the great and wonderful Captain America. You think that stuff would give us some ideas?”
“I think there might be something there,” Clint said, and didn’t suggest that they might find more than just ideas to fit under the tree.
Howard Stark had one hundred and six known storage units, and another twelve that JARVIS found the locations for in heavily encrypted files, bunkers hidden underground and meant to survive a nuclear war. The known storage units had all come with manifests, and none of the itemized lists had included “everything Steve Rogers left in the world,” which meant it had to be in one of the twelve buried sites.
“Your father was a paranoid bastard,” Clint declared, after digging his way to a door, covered in dirt and rubbing at the welts on his arms from the hornets nesting in bunker six.
“My father wanted to drop the first bomb. He assumed the other guys felt the same way,” Tony responded, and took a crowbar to the rusted door.
Thankfully, all of Captain Steven Grant Rogers’s personal effects were in bunker seven, a few chests of uniforms and sketchbooks, a well-kept pile of handguns wrapped carefully in cloth, a standard-issue GI helmet and a sniper rifle that seemed out of place.
A package wrapped in newsprint and tied with wire, the newspaper yellowed, torn at the corners to reveal a second layer of paper underneath. Whoever wrapped this gift had been prepared to stymie a Stark’s insatiable curiosity.
“What’s that?” Tony inquired, snatching it out of Clint’s hands and flipping it over, searching for clues. “Is it a present?”
“I think so,” Clint answered, digging through the chest and finding mothballs but no card. “Carter said something about keeping it for Steve.”
“You think it’s from her?” Stark asked, but he snorted and shook his head before Clint could form words to ask if Tony thought that former Director Carter had ever in her life taped something into an awkwardly folded pile of newspaper and finished it off with a spool of wire. “Yeah, obviously not from her. But from who? And why didn’t Steve open it?” Tony held the package to his ear and shook it, but from the expression on his face there wasn’t anything to hear. “Did he die on Christmas or something?” Tony’s jaw dropped. “Wait, do you think he died on Christmas? Is that why he’s acting like Scrooge?”
Clint had no idea. Phil would have known. JARVIS knew. “Captain Rogers died on January 19th, 1945, sir,” it informed them, reverberating straight from Clint’s hearing aids into his ears.
“Close enough,” Tony decided. “That explains why he’s been such a mess. Seeing Peggy probably didn’t help, if he’s already thinking about all those years he lost.”
Clint took back the package, rubbing his finger against print too smeared and faded to read. Something didn’t fit right, in Tony’s story, but Clint didn’t have enough of the pieces to figure out what was wrong.
“He might like some art supplies,” Clint suggested, pushing his doubts aside, pushing the sniper rifle out of the way to reveal a pile of uniforms and some navy tights. “Maybe you could polish up one of his old guns.”
Tony clapped a hand hard on Clint’s shoulder, pulled him into a sidelong embrace and gave him a shake. “I knew you’d come through, Turtledove,” he announced, then went to fetch the portable winch from the car.
Clint twisted the package between his hands once more, then shook his head and tucked the box into his coat.
* * *
“It’s tradition!” Tony cried jovially, an edge to his voice that everyone could hear, his jaw a quarter turn too tight where he stood across from Steve. “C’mon Rogers. You must have gone to mass on Christmas Eve.”
Steve inhaled deeply, watching Tony and exhaling slowly through his mouth. Clint wondered if the SHIELD therapists had also told him to count to ten before he screamed.
“I did,” he finally confessed, folding his arms across the breadth of his chest, pressing his thumbs hard into biceps carved from serums and dreams. “But that’s not your tradition. Wasn’t Howard Jewish?”
“Not if he could help it.” Tony huffed the words, eyeing Steve with something between suspicion and respect. “Didn’t think anyone knew.” He stared hard at Steve for another moment, then shook his head. “Anyway, Mom was Catholic. We own a pew at St. Patrick’s, might as well use it.”
“Can you buy pews?” Bruce inquired, scratching his head.
“You can buy anything if you name the right price,” Tony recited, the way Steve had no doubt learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer and his amens.
“I’m sure it’s incredible, Tony.” Steve spoke lightly, drawing their attention back to him before staging a yawn. “But I’m going to call it a night.”
Thor stepped forward, because the last, desperate stage of Tony’s plan to cheer Steve up by Christmas involved the whole mismatched group attaching themselves to Rogers’s side for the day, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas and drinking more eggnog and eating the apparently traditional Christmas Eve Chinese takeout next to a roaring fake fire.
“This is the ceremony where you celebrate the birth of a god, is it not?” Thor shaped something with his hands that was either a swaddled child or its voluptuous mother, Clint couldn’t tell. “I would like to see this mass,” the god pleaded, wearing away at Steve’s distant mien. “I would enjoy it more if you joined us, as you are the only one among us who can explain the ritual.”
“I bet you were an altar boy,” Pepper cut in with a small grin, because Steve’s shoulders had slumped and the CEO of Stark Industries could tell when her team had won.
Steve didn’t smile back—hadn’t smiled since Peggy, had grown quieter and stayed in bed later with each day—but his face softened, and he inclined his head in a nod. “I was,” he agreed. “Until I caught one of the other boys skimming from the offering plate and socked him, then soaked my robes when he tried to drown me in the baptismal font.”
“Kinky.” Tony winked. “So you’ll come, Capsicle? Midnight mass, all the trimmings?”
“All right.” Steve sighed. “I suppose there’s a suit hanging in the closet for me to wear?”
“Nothing but the best for our captain,” Tony confirmed. “I embroidered the stars and stripes on myself.”
Thankfully, there was also a suit in Clint’s closet—he’d planned to wear his flannel-lined cargo pants and a sweatshirt, had assumed that midnight mass was like a pajama party in a church—and it was plain black, as were Steve and Bruce and Thor’s. Tony’s was dark green with strange velvet patterns on it that hurt Clint’s eyes.
“Wait!” Pepper cried, as everyone moved toward the elevator, Thor plaiting his hair into a style that Clint assumed the gods wore to holiday rites. “It’s Christmas Eve. Everyone gets to open one present.”
“My family did that, too,” Bruce said, a smile quirking at the corners of his mouth, already changing direction and moving toward the mountain of professionally wrapped presents in front of the tree.
Natasha tilted her head to look at Clint, her hair falling away from her face in waves, her dress the color of the berries on mistletoe. They both shrugged and wandered back into the room, everyone’s faces washed with streaks of colored light from the multitude of Christmas lights Tony and Thor had wrestled onto the tree.
Steve stayed behind the couch, resting his forearms along its back and waiting patiently for Pepper to choose a gift for each of them. He was looking out the window again, where the city was covered in day old snow and ice, patches of white defiled by ugly brown slush. Steve didn’t like to look at the tree.
Thor opened a package of neon elastic hair ties from Bruce, and crushed Banner in a hug that left the scientist gasping for air. Pepper unwrapped a pair of ruby earring shaped like strawberries, from ‘Santa’, and St. Nick brought Nat a necklace that promised to deliver quite a shock.
“Oh, Steve, open this one.” Pepper tugged something out from the back of the pile, and Clint dropped the book on the physics of war that he’d only half-unwrapped. “It’s obviously been waiting for you!”
Steve rocked back, one hand stretched out to ward off whatever ghost had drained his face of color and left only the crystal blue of his eyes.
“Where’d you get that?” he croaked, flattening his left hand on his chest, pressing a finger against the knot on his tie so that it cut deeper into the pulse jumping under his skin.
Pepper started to retreat, eyes wide and searching for somewhere to stow the obviously unwelcome gift. Clint shook his head and held out his hand, taking hold of a feather-light bundle of newspaper and wire too small for the weight of the silence in the room.
“My dad had it,” Tony eventually said, folding his arms and glowering accusations at Clint. “I figured we might as well add it to the haul, if it’s been hanging around since 1945.”
“1944,” Steve corrected him, still staring at the package in Clint’s hands. “It was 1944.” He slid two fingers between the buttons on his shirt, dug his fingertips into his sternum, pressing into the bone.
“Tony!” Banner spoke too loudly, gesturing with his whole body at the pile of gifts until the Avengers turned to look. “Which present are you opening? And which one do I get, Pepper?”
Tony and Pepper joined the charade, voices bright and echoing through the room, incomprehensible bursts of sound to Clint, who was focused on Steve’s outstretched hand.
“Will it be any better,” he wondered, “if you wait another seventy years?”
Steve closed his eyes, bit his lip and swallowed hard, shaking his head with a stuttering jerk. “No,” he answered. “Three weeks or a thousand years, it won’t ever be better.” He blinked, bowed his head and peered at Clint, the calm of a man facing his firing squad. “If that’s true, guess I might as well open it, huh?” he decided, and tugged the present from Clint’s hands.
The wire was brittle, easily snapped with one serum-enhanced tug. The newspaper Steve peeled off carefully, the same way Barney had folded his clothes when they were growing up, trying to make them last long enough for Clint to wear. The box was made out of folders stamped ‘classified,’ and in it was a fluffy, snaking circle of something knitted and blue.
Clint huffed out the breath he’d been holding. For all the waiting, he had expected something far more momentous than a thick, azure scarf.
Steve wound it slowly out of the box, twining it around his wrists and dragging it over his face, though everything in the chests had smelled like mothballs and damp. The note fluttered out of the box on the tail end of the scarf, and Clint snatched it up before it could hit the floor.
Don’t think you’re too big to catch cold, punk, it warned him, innocuous letters in sloppy cursive on the torn corner of a requisition form, as though the author had hastily scribbled a few fond words, no more thought in them than there was glamor in the bundle of newsprint and wire.
He handed the note to Steve, who read it, paused, and looked at the ceiling for a long moment. Read it again, his eyes shifting from left to right, then bit down on the inside of his cheek. He read it the third time with the pads of his fingers, running them over each letter, tracing the rise and fall of the ‘D’, the swirl of the ‘o’, the small hills of the ‘n’.
“We should get going,” Pepper announced, herding them toward the door so that they could claim not to have been studying Steve’s reactions, the whole team still trying to find the secret of bringing Rogers some Christmas cheer. “Or we’ll be late for mass.”
Steve slipped the note into his jacket pocket, and hid his face in the scarf.
* * *
Clint had never been to mass; he had assumed that a man dressed like the pope came out and spoke some Latin, then they all knelt and confessed their sins and said amen.
Apparently mass hadn’t been in Latin for over half a century, but at least Steve was also surprised to find the priest speaking English. Mass was also longer than Clint had anticipated—though there was kneeling—and involved more than ritual chanting and some supplicating prayers.
“It’s a sermon,” Tony explained to Thor, and the rest of them tried to listen in, because astonishingly Stark was the only one of them with experience in a modern Catholic church. “The priest quotes a little from the sacred book, dispenses with a few aphorisms and some advice.”
Clint wasn’t sure if it was the cathedral or if his Christmas present had been a tune up on his hearing aids, but everyone sounded a little clearer in the majestic space. Everything seemed a little clearer, when Clint was folded for a moment of silence on his knees.
The scarf wasn’t from Director Carter, and Howard Stark had likely never remembered a holiday nor purchased a gift. As far as Clint knew from Phil’s underappreciated rhapsodies on Captain America, the only other people close to Steve in 1944 were the Howling Commandos. Following Tony’s theory, the gift would remind Steve that he’d died and missed out on the next seventy years.
Steve hadn’t died until January—why wouldn’t he have opened a gift in December, when he was alive and well and expected to survive the war? Why would Christmas make Peggy’s rheumy eyes fill with tears?
“‘Unto us a child is born,’” declared the priest, voice booming to the vaulted ceiling and off the marble floor. “‘Unto us a son is given.’ We gather here tonight to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We build our nativity scenes, we tell the harrowing story of a young couple, blessed by God, searching for shelter for the night.” The priest coughed, and it came through the microphone, vibrated into the riser under Clint’s knees.
“We talk about mangers and wise men, of miraculous conception and equally miraculous escapes from Herod’s wrath. But, during these festivities, let us not lose sight of what the birth of Christ truly meant for the world.”
Clint’s mind was still racing, resurrecting long-forgotten afternoons dozing through Phil’s lectures on the first Avenger and the birth of the SSR. Steve’s mother had died in 1940, but not near Christmas, and the package couldn’t have been shipped from overseas looking like that, which meant it wasn’t from the Barneses –
Only it was. Of course it was. Such a tragedy, Phil would say, and Clint had never listened when he should. Captain Rogers dying so close to the end of the war, and only a few weeks after his best friend.
Three weeks or a thousand years, it won’t ever be better.
“Isaiah says that this child of God will have the government on his shoulders. But John says it best: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish.’
“Tonight our Messiah was born, but he came into the world not to rule it; he came to save it. Jesus is a sacrifice, God’s most cherished possession sent to Earth—sent to the cross—that we might live.”
Clint hadn’t been paying attention to his pew—caught up in the sermon, as fascinated as Thor by this new world—but refocused quickly when Steve climbed across them and landed on the far side of the pew, his footsteps ringing through the cathedral as he ran for the door.
Everyone in the church goggled at them. Everyone on the Stark pew swiveled their heads to look expectantly at Clint. “I’m going, I’m going,” he hissed, and clambered over Pepper’s silk gown and Thor’s bulk to follow Captain America into the frosty night.
Rogers hadn’t made it off the front steps, hunched over and clutching at his scarf, his profile lit up by the flashing billboard a block north, blue eyes gazing sightlessly through the statue of Atlas holding up the world.
“It’s Barnes,” Clint said, the words curling like steam out of his mouth, because keeping his realizations to himself wouldn’t lessen Steve’s grief. He rubbed his hands together and wished that he had brought his coat. “He died on Christmas, didn’t he?”
“Bucky died on December 24th, 1944.” Steve spoke like a man reading the Barnes memorial aloud: beloved son, brave soldier, faithful friend. Steve’s words tore loose from his chest, bloodied and raw. “We were supposed to be back in London by midnight. After the last Christmas, we hadn’t planned anything—didn’t want to jinx it. But we’d already picked names, for presents, and Phillips had promised to trade one pig for another: we’d bring him Zola, and he’d bring us an entire, unrationed ham.
“We were getting so close,” Steve gasped out, forcing his voice away from the sob Clint could see convulsing his throat. “The plants were destroyed, and it was just Zola and Schmidt. Paris had been liberated for months, the Allied troops were everywhere and everyone knew we’d be home by Christmas next year.
“It was all the team talked about, on the march up the mountain. What Christmas would be like next year, back in their civilian lives. They all had families, aunts and cousins and grandparents. They all had people waiting for them to come home.”
Steve came to an abrupt stop, deflated as though he had run out of air, the tips of his ears red with cold. Clint’s hands had gone numb, and his jaw was set to prevent the shivering from rattling his teeth.
“All except you,” Clint concluded, watching the flickering shadows on Steve’s face, the knuckles digging into the skin above his heart. “Bucky had family, but you didn’t.”
“Bucky was there for me,” Steve whispered, his voice shaking. “He wasn’t there to save the world. Why kill him, when he only stayed to watch out for me?”
Clint shook his head and frowned at Atlas, but there was nothing to say. Tony had thought Steve hated Christmas because it reminded him of dying—he’d been right without knowing, Captain America three weeks out of his own grave and waking up every morning to the impossible weight of James Barnes’s death cracking open his chest.
Christmas was about sacrifice, and Steve Rogers had joined the war ready to give his all if it would save the world. Clint had been young once, had thought there was nothing worse than dying, nothing more courageous than dying for a cause—but it was easy, to sacrifice yourself. None of them learned until later that it was far harder to sacrifice what you loved most.
“He loved Christmas,” Steve said, the words no more than the curve of his lips and the crystalline puff of breath in the night air. “He loved me. And I killed him. I let him fall.”
The choir in St. Patrick’s began singing, a rush of sound that even Clint could hear. He could see the rest of the team out of the corner of his eye, hovering in the church doorway and waiting for a cue.
“He loved you,” Clint said, because it bore repeating. “He chose to stay.” Phil could have been anywhere but on that helicarrier, but he’d insisted, worried about a man who had lost control of his own mind. Barney could have chosen Clint instead of leaving him behind.
“Does it get better?” Steve asked, and Clint wondered what secrets Rogers had read on his face.
Clint shrugged. “Did it get better after your mom died?” he queried, picking up the arrow and firing it back across the field.
Steve bent his head, stared hard at the thumb he was rubbing into the fabric stretched over his knee. “She was sick for a long time,” he said softly, lifting his shoulders and dropping them, glancing up, skittering his gaze over Clint’s face before looking away. “In and out of the hospital for over a year. And I wasn’t – I had someone.” He’d had Bucky, until 1944, and then he hadn’t had anyone at all.
“It gets farther away,” Clint finally murmured, weaving his numb fingers together and pretending that he had gone hoarse from the cold. The others would have said ‘yes’, would have been kind to a man who needed forgiveness on Christmas Eve—this was why Clint always held his tongue. He’d never had the right words, to soothe someone’s tears or to convince them to stay.
“You wake up and go to work. You let a psychopath drag you to his house for the holidays.” Steve sniffled, his nose red and running, and tugged the side of his mouth up in a pale smile. “Sometimes you start thinking about the job, or about what the hell to get Banner for Christmas. Sometimes you think of new ways to piss off Nat.” He shrugged again. “And then it’s fifteen minutes farther away.”
The team must have taken his second shrug as a sign, because they all came stampeding toward the steps, thankfully ready to hand over Clint’s coat and gloves. Steve took his pea coat from Thor, disentangled his hands from his scarf and shrugged the jacket on while everyone studied them intently from the corners of their eyes.
“How was mass?” Clint inquired, because someone had to say something before the others fidgeted right out of their skins.
Bruce looked a little embarrassed—mortified at walking out during the mass, no doubt—and Tony wrinkled his nose. “I’ve seen better,” he told them, staring at Steve, cataloguing the red nose and damp eyes. “The car should be here soon.”
“Hey,” Pepper interjected, spinning the loose links of her watch around her wrist. “It’s almost one. You know what that means?”
“It’s December 25th,” Bruce announced, smiling, watching Steve sidelong just like all the others.
December 25th, the first day Steve had woken up alone.
“Does this mean that it is Christmas?” Thor questioned, rocking up onto his toes then peering at Steve, dropping back down and trying to rein in the excitement that had been bubbling for weeks.
“It does.” Nat smiled at Thor, brighter than Clint had seen for months. Shots later, she signed at Clint, and he gave her a firm nod. “Merry Christmas, Thor.”
“Merry Christmas,” Thor returned solemnly, with a slight bow. “I am honored to join you on this feast day.”
The rest of the team turned to wish each other a Merry Christmas, dancing around the step with Clint and Steve. Then Tony turned to face Steve, glancing at Clint with a question in his eyes, waiting for what Clint didn’t know.
“Merry Christmas, Rogers,” Tony said, lingering over each word as if it might be the one to make Steve run away. “Or happy Kwanza, if that’s more your style. Or we could celebrate a nice, generic holiday that doesn’t reference any religion, pagan or otherwise, and –”
Steve tilted his head, stared at Clint and swallowed, then pushed his shoulders back and stuck out his chin. His lips moved, and it could have been fifteen minutes, but it could have been anything, everyone’s lips numb in the dark and the bitter cold.
“Merry Christmas, Tony,” he finally replied, and Clint thought Tony might faint from the shock. “When we get back to the Tower, why don’t we have some eggnog and watch that film you like with the green Scrooge.”
They all bundled into the limousine, Tony expounding on the cinematic mastery of Seuss, Steve’s hands folded together in his lap, white around the knuckles and the nails. He kept his eyes on Tony, though, and nodded when Stark finally paused.
The others would fall asleep on the sofas, Clint was certain. They would sprawl across the living room like children waiting for Santa, faces young under the glow of Christmas lights. Then Clint would brew the first pot of coffee, and he and Steve would wait for the sun to rise.