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i do not own any of the characters contained within this story. they belong to Marvel and whoever the hell else owns them. i'm just playing for my own amusement. this means i make no money off the writing of this story. unless someone gives me a nice comment or something. otherwise, i get squat.

seriously. i'm getting squat here folks.
Chapter 1 of 1
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"We didn't have money for real decorations. Just a few shining glass bulbs that my mother had managed to keep safe over the years. Most of what we did have was home made. Paper and sticks and strings," Steve told them, his gaze lost to the distant past. One hand toyed absently with the hem of his sweater, the other curled loosely around a cup of apple cider. The pungent scent of cinnamon rose up from it, a single stick of the aromatic sticking up out of the steaming mug. "I always wanted to string popcorn and cranberries to use as garlands, but we could never afford it. So we always made paper chains."

"We can get all the popcorn and cranberries you want, Steve," Pepper said with a smile. She was already making notes, pen flying with precision across the top sheet on her pad of legal paper. Clint watched her covertly from behind his own mug of cider, taking note of how much younger she seemed without a million and one things resting on her shoulders. This was the most relaxed he'd ever seen her, denim clad legs tucked up under her on the sofa. Her hair was long and loose around her face, and a faint smile played at the corners of her mouth.

"Have fun stringing popcorn and cranberry garlands," Tony commented absently. Pepper shot him a look, the nearest elbow jabbing him efficiently in the side hard enough to draw forth a grunt of pain. Stark grumbled something that didn't seem to make any sense but he fell silent.

"We'll all be happy to help you, Steve," she returned with a smile, then turned to face Tony wearing that look that she seemed to reserve for only him. "Won't we, Tony?" The last was said with a hint of force.

Tony's eyes slid from Steve's face to Pepper's for a second or two, then back to Steve. He forced a smile, the kind of smile that came when he knew he was beaten and didn't really like the knowledge. "Of course we will. I wouldn't miss this for the world."

Pepper gave Tony an indulgent smile before turning her attention toward Bruce. For his part, Banner held his untouched cider in one hand while the fingers on the other tapped out an irregular rhythm on the arm of his chair. "What about you, Bruce? What do you want to see included in this new Christmas tradition we're starting?" she asked him.

"Oh..." he began, his voice trailing off before it gained any strength. "I don't know. Its been a long time since I was in one place long enough to think about Christmas, much less traditions."

"Well, isn't there something you've always thought would be fun to do at Christmas?" Pepper persisted. Clint held on to his sigh and carefully set his cider down on the table before him. There was a decidedly hollow feeling, faint though it was, building up somewhere in the vicinity of his heart. All this talk of Christmas and traditions. It bothered him more than he wanted to let on. It might not have had Pepper not insisted that they were a family now and they should have holiday traditions like any other family. But she'd so casually dropped family in there, as if it was no big deal that each of them save Thor had had pretty shitty childhoods. And now Clint's mind was rife with memories of Christmases past.

A glance around the living area showed him that everyone was busy watching Pepper question Bruce about what he wanted to do for the holidays. It was apparently how they were going to spend the evening after a day out on the slopes. Only two days ago, Tony had proclaimed that they needed a vacation and had more or less bought out a ski lodge in Aspen. There had been a freak snowstorm only days before that had made it seem a perfect get away. They'd spent the day skiing. Or pretending they could ski. And naturally, because someone had already transformed the lodge into a full-on holiday display, the conversation had turned to Christmas.

Movements slow and careful, Clint slipped away from the gathered group and headed toward the hallway leading into the chalet. A quick stop saw him shrugging into his coat, then he quietly let himself out of the cozy heat of the chalet and into the brittle cold air of the night.

Freshly fallen snow crunched under his feet as they carried him away from the cheerfully lit house. Each indrawn breath was a knife of ice to the chest, but it was clear and clean and so different from the thick air that clung to the cluttered mess that was New York City. He could taste the freshness on it, could taste the iciness of the thick white flakes drifting lazily to the ground. He swore he could taste the rich darkness of the sky, chocolate thick and heavy on his tongue, and the twinkling diamonds that were the stars, freezing cold and cutting like glass. It was pure and untouched here. And it reminded him of home.

His breath plumed white and frosty on the air when he sighed. Home. Was Iowa still home anymore? He hadn't been back in so long. All of his energies had been devoted to putting his childhood out of his thoughts, so it was odd to have long forgotten memories just randomly slap him in the face. Hell, they weren't even memories anymore. They were the ghosts of Christmases past. Because they were all filled with people he hadn't seen in decades. His dead parents. The brother that had abandoned him.

He'd been excited for Christmas once. Long ago. When he'd been young and his thoughts hadn't been so cluttered with the way the world worked. Back then, there'd been real trees to fill the house with the smell of pine. There had been cheap but bright decorations. There had been old, mismatched socks waiting for Santa's arrival. There'd been a young, tender, silly sense of hope that things would be better.

Better had never come. Because after those cheap, gaudy Christmases, there'd been holidays at the orphanage. And holidays with the circus. Life with S.H.I.E.L.D. A lonely life that hadn't begged for fancy wrappings. He hadn't worried about Christmas or traditions when he'd been alone.

Then had come Phil. They'd never done anything spectacular for the holidays. They'd celebrated privately. Between missions. At hospital bedsides. When they'd had time. There had never been a chance to start any traditions together. But that had been okay, because all he'd really needed was Phil.

But now. Now he had a family. Granted, it was an odd, terribly dysfunctional family. But it was a family. After a fashion. Pepper considered them family. Even Tony, who wasn't the most demonstrative person in the world, considered them some kind of weird family. Now there was a tall pine tree, full and lush and unbelievably green, and it was decorated with glittering glass bulbs in red, gold, blue, white, purple, green, and black. There were twinkling lights. There were tinsel garlands in alternating bands of white and silver. There was a giant star on top, lights blinking merrily to some silent rhythm.

There were pine garlands and candles and nutcrackers as tall as he was. There were wreaths with wrapped gifts on them. There were pine cones and floral arrangements and so much extravagance. There were poinsettias in red and pink and a yellow-white. There were bright, vivid colors everywhere and a fire crackling in the hearth and lights edging the eaves on the outside of the chalet. It was the Christmas Clint had always secretly dreamed of having.

So why did he feel out of place?

And it was just that. He felt out of place. Someone might mistake his silent departure as something more emotional, might suggest that he was being moody. He was prone to moods. They all were. But this was nothing to do with mood. He wasn't in any way depressed. The people inside of that grand chalet were closer than his own blood in some ways, good family and even better friends. That made him incredibly lucky because someone had thought he deserved a second chance at the life that had been taken from him with his parents' deaths. So no. If anyone asked, he wasn't depressed. He just didn't feel as if he belonged in there with everyone else. And he couldn't really put a finger on a cause. It was just there.

Clint pushed the odd sensation away and allowed his feet to take him where they would. It had been a long damn time since he'd been able to simply appreciate his surroundings. He'd missed winters and snow, missed the way things had always looked fresh and clean and new after a thick layer of white flakes had dusted the ground. There was a rush of that same sensation he used to get when he'd been a little kid and the snow had started falling. There were memories of snowball fights with Barney. And snow forts. Staying outside until his fingers were damn near frozen. Bright red cheeks and hot chocolate and spiced, warmed apple cider. They were good memories, happy memories. For once, they didn't bring a flash of pain.

The silence was heavy, a thick woolen cloak wrapping around him in a loving embrace. The snow was falling faster, the flakes drifting down big and heavy and wet. Perfect snowball weather. Perfect holiday weather. Just perfect.

He wandered aimlessly, feet plunging through the thin crust of ice that had formed over the top layer of snow. The temperature had dropped, making him give consideration to returning to the house. Some part of him was loathe to give the peace and solitude up just yet, though. There was something magical about his surroundings, something that begged him to remain just a little longer. Something that kept his feet walking away from the chalet instead of toward it. It was his own winter wonderland.

Time became distant and unnecessary as he meandered around the large yard that came with the chalet. Tall evergreens stood sentry around the place, dark and looming despite the way the moon shone bright and white in the night sky. He could taste wood smoke at the back of his throat, mingled with the crisp night air, and the cold did its best to eat through the thick layers of his coat.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't realize he was being watched until it was too late.

Clint turned, some inner sense or perhaps a faint crunch of snow under foot drawing his attention to the open expanse behind him. But it wasn't in time. He was midway through his turn when chilling cold slapped into his face and stole his breath from his lungs. There was a faint huff of smug snickering to let him know where his target stood and he knew the owner wouldn't move while he cleared the cold snow from his face.

Phil was several feet away, bundled into a thick winter jacket. Underneath was Clint's favorite sweater, a soft thing in blue that darkened Phil's eyes. His jeans were black and Clint knew that there was nothing under them beyond boxer briefs. He was smirking at Clint, though it was one of those expressions that only a select few could actually read. A gust of wind blew just then, ruffling the hair on Phil's uncovered head and forcing him to huddle into his jacket. The smile drifted away with the wind and it left the other man staring at him with a shrewd, knowing expression on his face.

Clint cocked a brow, a silent challenge. Phil had never been a coward.

"Is there a particular reason you're hiding out here? Its warm and toasty inside and everyone else has noticed that you slipped away," Phil explained patiently.

"Meaning Natasha pointed it out because Stark and Pepper were busy arguing about something silly and inane," Clint replied. One corner of Phil's mouth twitched in amusement, but the serious look remained. Clint held on to a sigh and shook his head, glancing around so that his gaze took in the snowy plateau laid out before them. "I'm not hiding out here. I'm just... thinking."

Phil gave him several minutes to explain himself, then lifted a single brow when he said nothing more on the subject. "About what?"

"About how weird this all feels," Clint said, already trying to put his thoughts together. Phil was nice enough to remain silent while Clint searched for the right words. One hand motioned toward the chalet to indicate part of what it was that felt weird. "Its been a long damn time since I actually had a real Christmas. I don't really know how I'm supposed to act or what I'm supposed to say or anything like that."

"Ah," Phil nodded. "I see."

The tone of his voice suggested he did. But Clint wasn't really sure he did. He felt an obligation to explain further. Which was probably what Phil had intended from the start. The man was amazingly capable of getting Clint to talk about his feelings without actually telling him to talk about his feelings. "Its just kind of weird to have a family again. And I know there was you and then Tasha. But this is still different. After my parents died, I never thought I'd have anything normal again in my life. Not that things were ever really all the great when they were alive, but still. It was something I had that was normal and it happened every year. Then the accident happened and they were gone and Barney was all I had left."

Phil said nothing, but Clint knew that he was listening. Phil was a damned good listener. And he often times heard the things no one actually said. "There was a Christmas at the orphanage, but it wasn't ever typical or the same. There was a sad little tree. There were sad little presents. There wasn't anything like normal. There were no traditions. It was just a day. You know?"

"They made an effort," Phil said with a nod of his head.

"There was no Christmas in the circus. Not really. I mean, we did the gift thing, but it was even smaller and sadder than the orphanage. So I stopped thinking about Christmas and family and traditions," Clint explained, eyes focused on some star in the sky. It looked as if he was staring at Phil, but they both knew he wasn't. They both knew he was staring into the past. "Christmas stopped existing after Barney split. Until you. And Tasha. But our schedules were still insane. So it was still never normal. And the only tradition we've ever had was an exchange of gifts. Which may or may not have happened on the correct date. So I pushed all of that stuff away. Locked it up in the darkest corners of my mind."

"And now Pepper is asking you to bring it all forward once more. And you don't know what to do," Phil finished. Clint nodded. Sometimes it was down right frightening just how well the other man knew him.

"I don't know what its like to have a family anymore, Phil." When the other man lifted a brow at that, Clint pushed on. "You know what I mean. You and I are family, but its different. The team is... " Clint paused and chuffed out a laugh. He was sure he knew what Phil's impressions of the team were. He was the one who most often got stuck with them. But Clint wasn't sure Phil understood how he saw them. "You know how long its been since I last saw Barney. And how long its been since I had parents. Getting tossed together with these guys brought out things I haven't thought about in a long, long time."

Phil said nothing, simply waited as if he knew that Clint had more to say. They'd been together long enough, it was probably a safe bet. Clint let his attention slide toward the chalet with its mellow golden windows and twinkling lights edging the eaves. The giant Douglas fir that had been brought in and decorated for the holidays was visible in the broad expanse of glass that made up the front window. He let his gaze focus on the lights, let everything else blur and fade away. He gestured again to the grand house and shook his head. "Those people in there. They're a family. They're my family. And that scares the bejesus out of me. And every one of them fills an empty spot inside of me that I wasn't even aware had been there."

"Thor is that awkward uncle from the side of the family that no one usually likes. He's the only one who doesn't make you want to rage because he's just so likeable and nice. Banner is the meek cousin that always sits in the corner and tries not to be seen. Natasha is my best friend and my sister all rolled up into one. But she's no ordinary sister. She's the kind of sister who can kick my ass without breaking a sweat and she knows I know it. She holds that shit over my head all the damn time. Which is okay because I know she means it with affection. Stark is the crazy brother no one wants to encourage. The one that annoys everyone. The one that does shitty things to everyone. And yet, he's also the best brother anyone could want or have because he just gets you and he knows. Then there's Pepper, who is the indulgent but firm aunt. The one who can be as nice as nice can be with everyone. Until you piss her off. Then she turns into a stone wall that you can't get past and she will make your life hell. She's awesome and terrifying all at the same time."

No one crossed Pepper and went unscathed. She made everyone's life a living hell if she felt it was necessary. Apparently all those years as Stark's right hand had taught her how to be very evil. He supposed that was only fair, given the way Tony acted any given moment. Phil smiled, huffing out a soft laugh, because he knew exactly what Clint was thinking.

"And let's not forget Steve. Steve is the kindly older brother that always expects the best of you and can make you feel like horseshit when you do something bad or embarrassing or just plain stupid. No one likes disappointing Steve. No one." Clint had been on the receiving end of Steve's disappointment one time. He'd done his best to keep it from happening again. If he never had to see that look on Steve's face again, to never have it pointed at him, he'd die a happy man.

The sad thing was that his assessment didn't even include Happy or Rhodey, who were supposed to be joining everyone at the chalet later in the week. That was just those who were currently present. Ever since he and Phil had made Stark Tower their home, Clint had come to understand that Tony had built himself a family. One that filled every single empty slot he'd ever had in his life. And he'd done a damn fine job of making sure that this new family fit together in ways that blood families just didn't. Sure Tony was abrasive to the point of rudeness, but it was his way of keeping himself safe. That abrasiveness did nothing to keep him from doing everything he could for those he had adopted into his family. The fact that Clint and Phil seemed to be part of it was something Clint was having a hard time comprehending.

"Pepper wants traditions. And I don't have any to share with her. I don't have anything other than you and Nat and the team. Family is still an abstract concept for me," Clint explained, realizing belatedly that he could have avoided spilling that much of himself by going straight to this statement. "I just need some time to get used to all of this. Right now it feels really strange. Almost like it doesn't fit right but could be stretched and made to fit with a little work."

Phil stared at him for a few moments, a thoughtful look on his face. The chill air was doing its best to cut through Clint's coat, but he ignored it. He wasn't kidding. He needed a little time. Just a little. Just enough to clear the muddle that was his brain and find his place in all of this. Clint shot the other man a look he hoped was easily deciphered, hoped that Phil would allow him the peace and silence of the snowy night. For just a little while longer.

"I'll tell Pepper that you needed to catch some air," Phil finally said. He smiled at Clint to let him know he understood, then turned for the door. It wasn't a very long walk so there wasn't much time and Clint couldn't be sure what drove him, but he was forming the snowball before he even thought about it. The snow was perfect for it, wet and heavy so that it stuck together. And Clint's snowball was perfectly rounded.

"Hey, Phil!" he called out at the same moment that he let the snowball go. He saw the way it happened as if in slow motion, the way the ball arced toward Phil even as the other man turned to look at him again. The slight shift of the drifting flakes as the wind shifted minutely. The expression on Phil's face and how his mouth opened to speak. And then time sped up once again, the ball slapping into Phil's face with a wet whump. The ball broke apart, bits of it sticking to Phil's face while other parts slid to the ground. Phil gaped at him and earned himself another snowball to the face for his effort.

"You're in trouble now," Phil warned, bringing a loud bark of laughter up Clint's throat. He darted to the side and made another snowball in the time it took Phil to clear the snow from his face and make his own. Phil's ball went wide when he launched it because Clint managed to land another well-packed missile of frozen precipitation dead center of Phil's face just before the other man threw.

"I'm in trouble? Bring it on, Phil. Hit me if you can," Clint challenged. His words brought a determined look to Phil's face. A look that two more snowballs failed to remove. A thrill ran through Clint, one that hadn't been there since before his parents' deaths. He and Barney had done this, had built snow forts to hide behind before launching dozens of snowballs at one another. Even then, Clint's aim had been uncanny.

He was forced away from his thoughts when a snowball thumped into his chest. He opened his mouth to protest or comment, only to have his words locked in his throat when a second snowball hit him dead on in the mouth. It broke apart and forced his eyes closed as chunks of snow flew in every direction. He had just managed to bring his hands up to clear the frozen mess away when something much more solid than a snowball slammed into his chest and drove him backward. Clint landed in the snow on his back, Phil's body a solid weight against his that pinned him down.

Clint looked up to find Phil grinning down at him, his hands pressed to Clint's chest. A slow smile tugged at his mouth and pulled the corners up. He recognized the look on Phil's face, had seen it plenty of times since they'd decided they wanted to be a couple. "You really wanna do it here in the snow? Don't you think that the cold will make that problematic?"

"I'm game if you are," Phil quipped dryly. "We can use snow as lube."

Just thinking of it made Clint's ass clench tight. He might have made some kind of smart assed remark about frostbite and tender bits, but Phil cut him off. The other man shifted his hands and leaned forward so that he could press his lips to Clint's. The bite of the cold wind blowing across them disappeared under the heat of Phil's kiss. The chilled dampness at Clint's back was gone, too. Everything was barely restrained heat and building promise. Clint's brain shorted out when Phil's tongue dipped into his mouth to slide against his own.

They kissed until they were breathless and were forced to break apart so they could pull air into their lungs. Then they kissed some more. Each graze of Phil's lips and each touch of his tongue sent heat rushing through Clint's body until the snow beneath him was a distant memory and the only thing that he knew was the subtly spicy scent of Phil, the press of Phil, the taste of Phil. And when Phil pulled away for the last time, it was just far enough to press his forehead's to Clint. Their breath fogged the air and mingled together as they gasped softly. Even this close to him, Clint could see that Phil was at his most relaxed. He let his smile become something more intimate and trailed a hand up Phil's back to test the tension in his shoulders. Other than what was required to keep him from squashing Clint, there was none. "Laid back looks good on you,"

"I can do laid back, Barton. You've just never had the opportunity to see me do laid back before now. Every other time we've been together, we've been working. This is the first time in years I've actually had a vacation," Phil informed him, a hint of something lurking in his words. "I can do laid back. But if you tell anyone about this, I'll bury you in paperwork for the rest of your life."

"Yes, boss," Clint retorted before dragging Phil down to give him one last thoroughly proper kiss. They were going to have to go in soon because Clint's ass was turning into an icicle.

"Holy shit! You two will have sex anywhere, won't you? Get a room already! No one wants to see that!" Stark's voice cut across the silent night, a hint of terror hidden in his words. Clint pulled away and grinned up at Phil.

"Too late. I think the cat's out of the bag."

"I'm going to have to properly terrorize Stark again. Damn it," Phil muttered as he climbed to his feet. He offered a hand to Clint, and Clint took it. He stood and made a show of dusting the snow off his backside even as he caught a glimpse of the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist over Phil's shoulder. The man looked like he'd just seen the worst thing in his life. Clint snorted out a laugh.

"I think you've already managed that, Phil," Clint told him quietly. Phil turned a contemplative look toward the door. Tony was still standing there, several other faces peering out at them from behind him. While the others looked mildly amused, Stark looked positively horrified. Phil returned his attention to Clint and gave him a wicked smile.

"Well, I guess I know how I'm going to terrorize him now," Phil commented. "If you're game, that is."

Clint's smile was brilliant and blinding. They started back toward the chalet, their arms touching as they walked. "Of course, Phil. Anything to help."

"Good. Let's go get started on that right now. There's nothing quite so fun as terrorizing that one annoying member of your family. Is there?"

Clint could hear the mischief in Phil's voice. He let his gaze slide toward Stark. Seeing that man's feathers ruffled was going to be so awesome. Especially since it meant he got to spend more time kissing Phil. "Nope. And there is nothing more that I'd rather be doing. Nothing at all."

Chapter 1 of 1
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