Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Be:
“Have you ever thought about getting married?”
Phil paused in the act of wrapping pine garland around the bannister. He glanced at Steve Rogers, who was doing the same, but with an expression of extreme concentration. “Well,” Phil said, carefully, “I have, but it’s been a while. And while I’m flattered, I’m going to have to decline.”
Steve stopped, his brow wrinkling, and then he started to laugh. “Okay,” he said, shaking his head. “That was kind of out of the blue there, wasn’t it?”
“A tiny bit.” Phil grinned back at him. He tied a bow around the garland, using the red ribbon to secure the swags. “Was it a serious question?”
Steve’s shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “Yes. It is.” He paused, glancing down the half level to the floor of the living room, where the rest of the team was hard at work. There was an expression of longing on his face as he watched Tony stalk around the room, trailing tools and equipment in his wake. “I just- I hope you don’t mind my asking. It’s, well, it’s old-fashioned. I know it is. But I always figured that was something I could have. That even if it wasn’t perfect, I could-” He sighed. “Is it so wrong?”
“Nothing wrong with the concept,” Phil said. “Except for the fact that you’re considering proposing to a man who is, in fact, testing a ‘tinsel cannon.’ Some people would question your judgment for that alone.”
“Only people with no sense of holiday cheer or an objection to weaponizing Christmas decorating,” Steve said, grinning.
“I can’t imagine anyone having an objection to either of those,” Phil agreed. He folded his arms on the bannister and stared down at the living room floor, where Tony was tinkering with a very impressive looking piece of machinery. Bruce was trying to talk him out of it, but trying to talk sense into Tony Stark was a losing battle that he fought regularly. And lost regularly. Clint was adjusting trajectory and stuffing tinsel into the thing, laughing in a manner that could only be described as maniacal. At the bar, Thor was mixing punch with Darcy’s able help, while Natasha taught Jane how to braid strands of tinsel into his hair.
Phil resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands and either laugh hysterically or weep. “Someone’s going to lose an eye down there.”
“It works fine,” Steve said, leaning against the bannister next to Phil. He was wearing a fuzzy red Santa Hat and a blue sweater covered in snowflakes. “He’s been testing it all week.” He paused, his lips twitching. “Dummy got a hold of it.”
“How’d that go?”
Steve gave him a look. “It was Dummy. With a machine that shoots wads of tinsel that, on impact, explode in all directions and stick to everything in the general vicinity. How do you think it went?”
The thought was too horrible to even contemplate. “There’s tinsel on every square inch of the workshop?”
“When I got down there, Tony looked like a disco version of Hank McCoy,” Steve agreed. “And the fabrication units are still fussing about strands of tinsel in their joints.”
“So that’s why I didn’t see a single one of the Roombas for most of last week,” Phil said, chuckling.
“They have been in tiny robot vacuum cleaner paradise, otherwise known as the main workshop. Moving down there is like waiting for a break in traffic.” Phil glanced at him, and Steve’s head tipped to the side. “What?”
“Steve, do you ever listen to the words coming out of your mouth and think, ‘where the hell did my life go wrong?’”
Steve thought about that, his lips pursed, his eyes narrowed. “Not as often as I probably should,” he admitted. “Most of the time, I don’t even notice how odd things are until someone points them out. I think I’ve acclimatized to, well, this.” He waved a hand at the living room. “It just seems normal at this point.”
A Roomba whirred past, swirling around the bannister and picking up loose needles from the garland. It stopped, and did a slight detour to swoop over Steve’s hat. “Thank you,” Steve said, dipping his head forward so it could get at the back and remove any lint he’d picked up.
“Steeeeeeeeeeeeve,” the Roomba said, bumping lightly against his forehead before it went back to hunting pine needles.
“Did that seem normal?” Phil asked Steve.
“Sadly, it did.” He glanced after the Roomba. “The little elf hat on the suction cup and spring, that’s new.”
“That’s Clint’s contribution to the holiday festivities,” Phil said. His lips twitched. “The suction tip arrows had to be… Modified so he could outfit them all.”
The Roomba whirred back past, elf hat bouncing along above it, and Phil couldn’t hold back a snort of laughter. “That’s not funny,” he said, immediately.
“Oh, yes it is,” Steve said, reaching for the basket of garland. He was laughing, his shoulders shaking from it. “Hawkeye is stalking Roombas.”
“Which is dirty no matter how you try to interpret that sentence,” Phil said. “But it doesn’t bother you?”
Steve blinked at him, faint crinkles showing beside his eyes as he puzzled that. “No. Should it?”
“No.” Phil rolled ribbon around his hand. “I think about marriage a lot. And I’m lucky. I’ve never had any qualms about who I am, or what that means. I work for a company that only cares that my partner is of age, consenting and passes basic clearance checks. The gender doesn’t matter a bit, I’m allowed to list Clint as my medical proxy, cover him under my insurance if he leaves SHIELD, and put him as the beneficiary for my pension. I can talk about him and not be afraid for my job or my standing in my community. If something happened, SHIELD legal would move heaven and earth to make sure that I, as his partner, would have access to him, to protect him. I am far luckier than a lot of people, who have to hide who they are, who have to live in fear, have to weigh their words and their actions. I could say I don’t have to get married.
“But I’m also lucky enough to live in a state that provides legal status for my relationship. I can do that. I have the choice.” Phil smiled. “Which makes things harder. If I didn’t have the choice, I could blame someone else, and accept my lot. Resent it, but accept it. But now, I have the choice, and that makes things harder.” He glanced at Steve. “Doesn’t it?”
“I want it,” Steve said, his voice very soft. “I-” He shook his head. “It’s selfish. To want that.”
“To want the rest of the world to acknowledge that he’s yours and your his and you hold a place no one else does?” Phil watched as Pepper lead Happy Hogan through the door, both of them over loaded with brightly wrapped boxes. Phil headed for the stairs. “You love him, he loves you.”
“He won’t say yes,” Steve said.
“I think you’d be surprised.” Phil paused at the bottom of the stairs. “And you have to decide if it’s worth the risk. Because, really, Steve? While I would not ordinarally encourage anyone to attempt marriage with Tony Stark, you might be the only person on Earth who could survive the experience with your sanity, your morals, and your limbs intact.”
“It’s not that-”
There was a boom that rattled the windows, and a wave of tinsel caught them from the side. “Well, that was unexpected,” Tony said.
“There is tinsel in my NOSE,” Clint said.
Phil sighed. “Good luck with him,” he said, laughing as he pulled gobs of tinsel off of his shirt. “Please. As your handler? Please put a ring on that man, because I prefer talking to you than to him.”
“So if I get him to marry me, I’m going to end up being his PA?” Steve said, pushing tinsel out of his face.
“You’re going to end up being that as long as you’re team leader. At least this way, you know, you get to sleep with him.”
“As fringe benefits go, I do enjoy that one.”
“Try and ‘fix’ my wrapping job, and I will stab you in the hand with a pair of scissors,” Clint said, without looking up from his effort with the ribbon. It wasn’t going well; Phil was pretty sure he’d invented a new and interesting form of bondage. Still, Phil changed direction, acting like he’d been reaching for the empty coffee cup on the table and not the lopsided box. Clint gave a snort under his breath. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Sticking his tongue out, he squinted at his work. “That’s a bow, right?” he said, shaking his hand to get the edge of the ribbon off of his wrist.
“In the most technical sense,” Phil agreed, handing him the phone. “Here, mom wants to grill you for information.” He held up the coffee cup. “Want some more?”
“I know you’re just using this as an excuse to slip me some decaf, and I don’t even care; yes, please.” Clint pinned the phone between his shoulder and his ear. “Hey, Mom, Merry Christmas. Didja get the box I sent? Yeah, I know, but Tony handles the shipping, and we’re trying to discourage him from starting a delivery service. It won’t end well, and the world isn’t ready for ‘StarkShip.’” The box got away from him and he bit out a curse. “Sorry, sorry. Trying to wrap. Yeah, nothing but ties for your son.” He raised his voice. “Nothing but ties, Phil!”
“Excellent,” Phil called back as he headed for their small kitchen. “You’ve ruined enough of them this year.”
“Not my fault the fieldwork involved acid-spitting pigeons and sentient lava this year,” Clint yelled back. “Also, it’s not my fault that Sidney likes your ties and it’s easier to placate him than-” He broke off. “No, no. Sidney is the giant squid. Yeah. Six fights later, we realize the guy just wants to look classy. Give him a tie and he’s right back in the harbor, happy as a clam. Or a giant, semi-intelligent squid, as the case would be. No, I didn’t name him, Namor said that’s his name, but he’s kind of a dick, so that might’ve been his idea of a joke.”
Phil leaned over his shoulder to put the coffee cup down on the table, safely away from the tape dispensers. “I wasn’t,” he whispered in the ear that wasn’t occupied with the phone call, “talking about the ones that got ruined in the field.”
Clint leaned his head back and grinned at Phil. “No, it’s fine, your oldest child is just flirting with me. Well, your other children would likely be flirting with me if they were here.”
“They would, the brats,” Phil said, ruffling Clint’s hair. There was tape behind his ear, and Phil didn’t even ask, he just pried it free.
“Your mom is flirting with me,” Clint told him, batting his hand away.
Phil took the phone back over Clint’s objections. “That’s unacceptable, Mom.”
“Don’t worry, he’s resisting me.”
“Imagine my relief.” Phil leaned against the back of Clint’s chair, watching with amusement as he sliced through a sheet of wrapping paper with a bowie knife. “Don’t scar the table,” Phil told him. “And don’t flirt with him, Mom, he’s susceptible to flattery from pretty women.”
“True!” Clint said, slapping the wrapping paper in place.
“I’m going to blame the eggnog, honey,” his mother said, laughing. “Your aunt Patrice made it.”
“And you’re the one foolish enough to drink it,” Phil pointed out.
“You come from a long line of risk takers,” his mother said.
“There’s acceptable risk, and there’s suicidal tendencies, and I know very well which one Aunt Patrice’s eggnog falls under.” With a sigh, he took the tape away from Clint. “I have to go, Mom, Clint is stabbing a tea pot with a bowie knife.”
“Accidentally!” Clint yelled. “It was an accident!”
“Sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” Shirley said, and Phil rolled his eyes.
“She’s always on your side,” he told Clint.
“That’s because I’m adorable and loveable and you’re a pain in the ass,” Clint told him. He threw up his hands. “I am stuffing things in gift bags, then putting the gift bags in other gift bags and lobbing them at people.”
“Things have reached a critical holiday cheer level in the Barton/Coulson apartment, Mom. Merry Christmas, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“You’d better. Your nieces and nephews have expectations.” With a pleasant good-bye, she cut the connection, and Phil put the phone aside.
“How many rolls of wrapping paper died for this abomination?” Phil asked, glancing around the room. There was tissue paper and bits of wrapping paper everywhere, tape and bows and ribbon stuck to every possible surface.
“Shut up, this shit is hard.” Clint reached back over his shoulder, snagged Phil’s tie, and dragged him in for a kiss. It was hot and sweet, in more ways than one.
Phil pulled back, licking his lips. “How many candy canes did you eat?”
“How many did we have?”
“Three boxes,” Phil said.
“That many.” When Phil gave him a look, he just grinned, not the least bit ashamed. “I know you’ve got some more stashed somewhere.”
“What if I don’t? Hold still, there’s tinsel in your hair.”
“There’s tinsel EVERYWHERE, who would’ve thought the thing would malfunction like that?” Clint leaned back, grinning as Phil smoothed a hand through his hair, enjoying the contact. “I found your Christmas present for me.”
“No, you didn’t.” Phil leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Good try, though it is sad that I have to hide my Christmas presents for you as if you were a five year old child.”
Clint leaned the kitchen chair back, balancing it on two legs. “Oh, yes, I did,” he sing-songed. And with an overly dramatic gesture, he pulled a small red-wrapped box from the pocket of his sweatshirt.
Phil felt the blood drain out of his face. “Give that to me. Right now.”
Clint’s smile died, and he let the chair fall back into place with a rattle of legs. “Phil?”
Phil held out his hand. “Give it to me.”
An expression of hurt slid across his face, disappearing in an instant, wiped clear by an easy smile. “Geez, I never open them, don’t get your shorts in a knot,” he said, tossing the box with a light flick of his hand. Phil snagged it out of mid-air. Clint turned back to his wrapping. “When’s dinner?”
Phil’s fingers tightened on the box, knowing he’d screwed up and not sure how to fix it. “Tony’s ordering Chinese in about an hour. Clint-”
“Great, I’ve got time to finish this and take a quick shower, I’m not kidding, I’ve got tinsel in ever crevice of my body.” Clint hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Out, you, I’ve gotta wrap your stuff.”
“Clint-” It was a losing battle. He stared down at the box in his hand. “Okay. I’ll see you before dinner, all right?” The only response he received was a shrug.
And he knew how Pandora felt with a box in his hand, signaling his own failings.
Clint came out of the bathroom in a rush and a towel. “Give me a second,” he said, heading for the closet, still dripping wet. “I got- I need pants before-”
“Pants are generally the rule,” Phil agreed. He settled back on the pillows, enjoying the view. A hell of a view that it was, too, all that sleek, wet skin and flexing muscle. Clint glanced over his shoulder, his lips twitching.
“Taking a nap?” he asked, snagging jeans and running back to the bathroom. “Shit, shit-”
Phil grinned. “What did you forget?” he asked, used to this particular dance. When there was a mission or an op, Clint was always on time, prepared and fully outfitted. For any other time, it was a crap shoot if he’d get distracted or catch a nap or forget what he was supposed to be doing. It shouldn’t be endearing, but Phil’d long since realized that he had odd taste in men.
“Nothing, shut up.” When Clint came hopping back out, he was fastening his jeans, a towel over his shoulders. He dried his hair with one hand. “Sorry, you waiting for me?”
“We have time.” Phil nodded at Clint’s side of the bed. The faded red wrapped package was resting on Clint’s pillow. “Come open your present.”
Clint stilled, his face shadowed by the folds of the towel. “I’m not five, Phil, I can wait for Christmas morning. It’s fine.”
“This isn’t your Christmas present.” Phil took a deep breath. “It’s something-” He realized his arms were crossed over his chest, and he made the effort to uncross them. “It’s something that I’d almost forgotten about and I was just blindsided when you pulled it out.” He tipped his head towards the box. “Just- Open it. And I’ll explain.”
Clint frowned, but he moved forward, his motions careful, cautious. Phil sighed, hating that he’d caused it. When Clint leaned forward, Phil caught the ends of the towel and gave him a quick tug, tumbling him down onto the bed. Clint laughed, and rolled over until his damp head was in Phil’s lap. Phil didn’t object, just smoothed a hand over the spiky tips of Clint’s hair. With his free hand, he dropped the box onto the middle of Clint’s bare chest. “Open your gift. It’s… Been waiting for a while.”
His eyes narrowed, considering, Clint reached up and covered Phil’s hand with his own. But he pried the ribbon free, and the tape gave way almost immediately, yellowed and dried. He opened the box, and reached in. He held up his hand, from one finger hung a loop of red ribbon, and a delicate, hand carved figure of a man on a horse. “This is great,” he said, grinning at Phil.
Phil reached out and pushed at the carving with one finger. “It’s a reproduction of a statue in Prague. It’s King Wenceslas.”
Clint grinning, understanding blooming on his face. “No fuckin’ way. Where did you get this?
Phil took a deep breath. “Remember that mission in the Czech Republic?”
“That was years ago,” Clint said, cradling the carving between his palms. “You’ve had this for all that time?” He stared up at Phil, his eyebrows drawn in tight.
“I bought it in the market there. There’s this legend. That when things are the bleakest, when they face utter destruction, the statue will come to life, and call up an army of ghostly knights that slumber in a nearby mountain.” Phil stroked Clint’s hair. “I- It kept coming up. The song. I saw this, and thought of you.” His lips twitched. “I thought you’d like it, but Christmas night didn’t go the way I thought it might.”
“You’ve kept this for years,” Clint said, still stuck on that, because he was smart and he was quick to make connections, and he knew people. “Why didn’t you just give it to me?”
Phil sighed. “Because that was- I told myself that I-” He tried to find the words. “That mission, that was when I resigned myself to never having this. To never being with you the way I wanted to. And giving you this-”
“Wait. Wait.” Clint sat up. “Wait a fucking minute. Back then.” He set the ornament aside. “All the way back THEN?” He leaned in, looming over Phil. “You wanted me. Back then.”
“Before then,” Phil admitted, grinning up at him. “And it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to do anything about it.”
“Fuck. We could’ve- All that time?” Clint gaped at him. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Phil?”
Phil reached up, touching his cheek. “It wasn’t right. I couldn’t do it, it was too selfish and too needy and wrong. You know it wasn’t-”
“Fuck that. No, I don’t know any such thing.” Clint leaned forward and kissed him, sweet and hot and hard. When he finally pulled back, they were both breathing hard. “You are an idiot, you know that?” Clint said, grinning. “All you needed to do was give me the smallest opening, and I would’ve been all over you.”
“I was working on not giving you any openings. I couldn’t take the risk.” Phil pushed himself up, far enough to kiss Clint. “I told myself I’d give you that when I was able to let you go.” He touched Clint’s cheek. “I never managed it.”
“Thank god for the rare moment of sanity,” Clint said. He flopped down back on the bed. “Good King Wenceslas.”
“Yes.” Phil leaned against his shoulder. “You were singing it-”
“You know why?” Clint asked, interrupting him. “Because Saint Wenceslas is one of the patron saints of brewers. And I knew that mission was going to be a goddamn nightmare, and I wanted a beer so fucking bad.”
Phil glanced at him. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. Christmas carol that shows off my need for booze in a socially acceptable way.” Clint grinned as Phil started to laugh. “C’mon. Before Tony gives Thor our portion of dinner.”
Phil sat up. “Clint?”
“Yeah?” Clint managed to push himself up.
“Merry Christmas, Phil. I’m not wearing underwear.”
Phil arched an eyebrow. “Merry Christmas to me,” he agreed.
In reply, Clint just started whistling, and laughing, Phil got out of bed and followed him, snagging the ornament from the nightstand as he went. For now, for Christmas, there was no reason they couldn’t share it with everyone.