Category Archives: Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction Story for Transformers: Robots in Disguise

Merry Christmas, everyone! Waaaay back in January 2016, a friend requested that I write a fan fiction story for Transformers: Robots in Disguise.  At the time I was not prepared to write such a story, though I did promise to do it at some point.  I had meant to do it that month, but the project never got past the promise stage.

I remembered that promise to my friend a little while ago, and I knew it was well past time to deliver.  And so, without further ado, here is the story I promised my friend all those months back.  I hope you all enjoy it as much as my compadre does!

Let’s rev up and snowball out!

The Mithril Guardian

Image result for transformers robots in disguise

Snowball Fight!

Disclaimer: I do not own these characters.

It started harmlessly enough, from what Drift said later.  Russell, Slipstream, and Jetstorm had been showing the newly returned Weaponizer Mini-Cons how to build a snowman.  Thankfully, they had received Optimus’ warning in time and returned to Earth safely to rejoin Bumblebee and his team – just in time for the first snow of the season.

With Sideswipe and Drift sparring nearby, and Denny out with Bumblebee to pick up more energon, Drift had been content to let his students have some fun.  He had not put it in those words, but Optimus was fairly sure that was what he meant.

Things had become more raucous when Grimlock, his arms behind his back, had told Russell that he had forgotten something to show the Mini-Cons.  Russell looked up at him in utter bewilderment.  “What’s that, Grim?” he had asked.

Grinning widely, Grimlock had brought both arms forward and thrown two giant snowballs at Sideswipe and Drift.

Neither of the combatants had noticed the projectiles coming until they were hit.  There had been enough force in Grimlock’s throw to send the two flying sideways.  And from there, things had spiraled completely out of control.

At least, that was the way Bumblebee seemed to see it.

“Guys, I thought we agreed – ”  He had to stop talking as a snowball flew at his head.   Optimus reached up and plucked it from the air before it could hit him.  Bee ducked reflexively anyway.

Flicking a glance at Optimus, he muttered, “Thanks,” before turning again to try and interrupt the snowball battle.

Optimus hid a smile as he let his arm fall to his side, keeping a careful hold on the snowball.  Ever since he had briefed his former scout on the preliminaries of the situation on Cybertron, Bee had been on edge.  It was only natural that Bumblebee wanted his team to be prepared for the coming threats.

But according to Sideswipe, since their discussion Bumblebee had kept his team on a strict regimen of training exercises and patrols.  While Sideswipe was doubtless exaggerating the severity of Bee’s change in attitude, even Optimus could tell that the young commander had his servos in a knot lately.  He barely allowed himself or the team time to really relax.

Optimus felt something small and light settle on his left shoulder.  He knew it was Aerobolt before he turned to look at him.

The leader of the Weaponizer Mini-Cons turned to him, cocking his head like a true Earth bird.  “I do not understand this form of training,” he said.  “It seems to serve no real purpose.  Sideswipe and Drift could train by throwing objects of various weights at an inanimate target just as well as they throw these balls of snow at each other.  Grimlock could do the same.”

Optimus turned at a human shout from the battlefield.  He was just in time to see Russell pelting Grimlock’s leg with snowballs.

The big Dinobot raised his arms over his head in the manner of surrender and shouted, “Ah!!  No, noooo!!  Stop!  Arrgh!”  With a theatrical groan, he toppled onto his side.  “Ahhh!!!  I’m dead!”  Grimlock shut his eyes and went limp, letting his jaw hang open for extra effect.  Russell laughed so hard at the sight that he sat down in the snow.

Grimlock opened one eye and smiled.  Opening the other, he sat up.  “Was it that good?”

“Yes!” Russell gasped.  “You’re a great actor, Grim!”

“Hmm,” the Dinobot replied.  “I guess I am.”  Taking a handful of snow, he sprinkled it over Russell’s head.  The boy stood up and, quieting his laughter, stuck out his tongue in an attempt to catch the flakes.

Meanwhile, Sideswipe had decided to dump a large container of snow over Drift’s head.  “Something in your eyes, Drift?” he asked, laughing as the former bounty hunter scraped the snow from his face.  “Guess you’ll be having a – ”

His gloating cost him, leaving him totally unprepared for Drift’s lunge.  Grabbing his arm, Drift pulled it behind the younger ‘Bot’s back and thrust his head into a nearby snowdrift.  “I believe that your Christmas will be whiter, Sideswipe.”  The former bounty hunter smiled wickedly as Sideswipe’s free arm flailed, his voice muffled by the snow.

Standing up, Grimlock whipped snow up into the air with his tail, dowsing Russell with it.  Using his arms to keep the snow from his eyes, Russell did not notice his father sneaking up behind him.  Denny darted forward and grabbed hold of his son’s midsection.  Lifting him high over his head, Denny spun the boy around fast enough to startle a shout from him.  The two toppled into the snow, where they started wrestling and laughing.  Above them, Grimlock smiled.

“This is not a form of training,” Optimus explained to Aerobolt slowly.  “It is a form of human entertainment called a snowball fight.”

Aerobolt cocked his head.  His whole posture radiated confusion.  “Humans find it entertaining to be attacked with hard balls of snow?” he asked.

“The humans I have had contact with prefer to keep the snowballs soft enough that they do no permanent harm.”  Sideswipe had gotten free of Drift at last.  The two were rolling around in the snow now, just like Denny and Russell.

Slipstream and Jetstorm began throwing snowballs at Grimlock.  Optimus noticed for the first time that the rest of the Weaponizers were watching the fight from some distance away.  Tricerashot watched the fun, a scowl on his face.  But he was usually scowling.  The other Mini-Cons looked as confused as Aerobolt.  Only Sawtooth was watching the scene with bright eyes.  He was quivering with suppressed emotion – excitement, if Optimus had to guess.

“Humans find the winters dull without some form of entertainment, much as Sideswipe finds a daily routine stifling.”  Optimus hoped the comparison would suffice.  It was difficult enough to explain human behavior, especially when he still did not understand some of it himself.  “If the routine or the weather does not provide a change, they will find a way to make the change themselves.”

Aerobolt nodded, understanding dawning in his eyes.  “Ah.  With a lack of useful occupations, such as farming, humans are left only with caring for their basic needs during Earth’s winter.  I can see how that could be considered…drudgery.”

“Indeed.”  Optimus nodded to indicate the happy chaos before them.  “It seems Bumblebee’s team has come to the same conclusion regarding their newest routine.”  Bumblebee himself had given up trying to be heard over the shouting and laughter.  He turned to leave, only to be confronted by Strongarm, who had just returned from her patrol.  The two began talking quietly, but Optimus noticed how the young cadet’s eyes strayed to the fight every few seconds.  She wanted to join in the fun.

It surprised him when the Mini-Con gave an almost imperceptible sigh.  “I had not thought to see him so tense.”

He was referring to Bumblebee.  “I believe it is the situation on Cybertron which worries him most.  He, Strongarm, and Sideswipe left without official permission, and he already knows that the High Council is unhappy with that.”  Optimus paused.  “My subsequent return and involvement with him and the others here has angered them further.”

“You have not stated just why they are displeased with him.”  Aerobolt eyed him closely.  “If it were simply because he traveled to Earth without official authorization, then that should be easily rectified.”

“That is indeed a part of it.”  Optimus did not want to tell anyone just what the situation on Cybertron was until the others had arrived.  The situation may have changed since he returned to Earth.

But Aerobolt deserved to know at least the preliminaries, if not the details, before that happened.  They were partners, after all, and to hide anything from the Mini-Con could destroy the trust necessary to form the Power Surge Link they had forged in their last battle with Starscream.  They might need that bond in the future, if things did not change – and that was extremely unlikely.  “I cannot say more here,” he told him at last.  “And some of the details are still unclear.  I will tell you what I know so far later on, but there are many things which may change when our reinforcements arrive.”

“You speak as one expecting a battle,” Aerobolt said, his wings fluttering in a wary manner.  “We did not wish to become involved in a war.”

“Nor did I wish to involve you, since you have suffered so much during the previous war,” Optimus agreed, stifling a sigh.  “If you were discovered on your own, however…”  He let the sentence hang in the air.  The Mini-Cons believed they could take care of themselves, and against opponents such as the Decepticon Scavengers, he did not doubt that they could.

But if what he suspected was true, they would not be able to stand against what was coming alone.  Neither would he, Bumblebee, or his team.

Aerobolt was watching him.  “Is it Megatron?” he asked evenly, his tone very quiet.  That was not easy to manage, considering what the Decepticon leader had put him and the others through.

Optimus sighed.  “Perhaps.  We have no way of knowing for certain at the moment.  As I said, what I know now may change when the others arrive.”

Slowly, Aerobolt nodded.  “Yet what you know has obviously made Bumblebee anxious,” he observed.  “I do not think mere political machinations would upset him so.”

“Unless the intrigues were more than simple games,” Optimus told him calmly, adding a little edge to his tone.  If it really was as bad as Jazz had said, they were facing a great crisis, possibly another war.  It was not a thought Optimus relished.

The Mini-Con caught the edge in his tone and looked at him sharply.  Optimus stared back.  Finally, Aerobolt nodded.  “Indeed.  I see now the reason for Bumblebee’s distress.”

Optimus could not stop his instinctive glance in Bumblebee’s direction.  The younger ‘Bot was deep in conversation with Strongarm.  He felt his spark ache with empathy as he watched his former Scout.  He had been in Bumblebee’s place many times in the past.

Not long ago, he reflected, Bee would have joined in the snowball fight wholeheartedly.  But watching him now, Optimus was reminded of the more embittered or uptight ‘Bots whom he had commanded during the Great War.  With so many lost lives and lost battles, it was inevitable that some would come to see any form of amusement as a frivolous waste of time.

He was fairly sure that Bumblebee had not fallen that far in such a short amount of time.  The younger Autobot’s personality was too buoyant for that.  Even the loss of his voice box had not marred his spirit permanently.

It was a commander’s duty, Optimus reflected, to stay apart from the games his subordinates enjoyed on most occasions.  Arcee had once told Jack, Miko, and Rafael that “Primes don’t party.”  In part, it was because it was not expected of them.  A Prime was to comport himself at all times with as much dignity as possible, according to the records Optimus had read in his youth.  Besides, he had found that he enjoyed watching those under his command while they “partied” more than if he had joined in their games.

He looked at Bumblebee again and caught him glancing toward the fight as Drift kicked Sideswipe off of him and into a snow bank, sending a plume of powder into the sky.  Primes may indeed have to excuse themselves from such high-spirited play, but Bumblebee was not a Prime.

Optimus found himself fingering the snowball he had caught before it could hit Bumblebee.  An idea began to form in his mind.

Just then, Grimlock gave a mighty roar and dove at Slipstream and Jetstorm.  The maneuver lacked his usual speed and force, giving the two Mini-Cons time to move aside.  They did, and Grimlock’s head disappeared into the snowdrift behind them.  Denny and Russell, having their own snowball fight some little distance away, stopped at the sight.

Grimlock brought his head up and out of the snow bank.   He moved so quickly that he showered Denny and Russell with a light film of snow, making them shout and laugh.  Slipstream and Jetstorm avoided the cloud of powder, flipping out of range to land one atop the other next to Grimlock’s leg.  It protected them from the backwash of snow.

What they did not realize was that Grimlock’s charge had been a feint to allow him a chance to fill his mouth with snow.  Bringing his head up, Grimlock twisted his neck so that his closed jaws hung over the two.  Then he opened his mouth and allowed the snow to cascade onto them.  The two shouted in surprise.

Their dual shout, though, was drowned out by Strongarm’s sudden shriek.  Optimus looked over and smiled as he watched Sawtooth pick up a snowball with his tail.  He had a pile of them near that appendage.  With everyone concentrating on the others, he had been free to slip away and make his own snowballs.  He flipped this new snowball at Strongarm, who managed to block this projectile.

Sawtooth paused as a thought seemed to strike him.  “Did I hit too hard?” he asked, concerned.

“No,” Strongarm replied.  “You just hit me when I wasn’t expecting it.”

“Oh.  My apologies.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, waving one hand.  Reaching out with her other hand at the same time, she clutched some snow from one of the racks holding Denny’s car collection and threw it at him.

Sawtooth never saw it coming.  It hit him in the chest and sent him skidding backward along the ground.  He shook his head, then turned to stare at her.  A slow smile spread across his face.

Strongarm smiled back.  In an instant, the two were going at it nuts and bolts, throwing, diving, and catching snowballs.  They looked less like warriors and more like human children.

Optimus glanced at Aerobolt to see his reaction.  The Mini-Con shrugged his wings, looking caught between anger and confusion.  He thought, however, that he detected a gleam of delight in the other’s eye.  “I had not thought Sawtooth would be interested in such a game.”

“It is in times such as this that commanders learn the most about their subordinates,” Optimus replied softly.  “I have found it informative and pleasant, watching my Autobots at their pastimes.”

“Have you?” asked Aerobolt.  “It does not strike you as…undignified?”

Optimus smiled.  “Dignity at times may be put aside by most.  In times such as this, it relieves the stress that would otherwise threaten to divide a strong unit.  Also, it has sometimes provided an Autobot with the perspective necessary to win a battle.”

“Hmmm,” Aerobolt murmured thoughtfully.

Strongarm and Sawtooth’s snowball fight seemed to give Grimlock an idea.  Leaning down, he picked up some snow and began packing it into a ball.  Slipstream and Jetstorm, excavating themselves from the snow he had dumped on them, looked up at him.

“Do-de-do,” Grimlock hummed.  “Da-da-da.”  He looked down at the two, then over at the Weaponizers, who were watching Sawtooth and Strongarm in confusion.

The Mini-Cons understood him.  Reaching down, they began packing their own snowballs.  “Hey, Tricerashot!” Grimlock called.

“What?” the Dino Mini-Con growled.  His growl morphed into a gasp as he saw the snowball arcing through the air toward him.  Before he had time to move, it hit him in the head.  “Arrgh!” he shouted.

The other Weaponizers started and stared at him in shock.  Slipstream and Jetstorm’s battle cries therefore caught them unawares.  Before any of the other Mini-Cons had time to move, Drift’s students began bombarding them heavily with snowballs. They turned the remains of the pile Grimlock had dropped on them into a fort to defend against returning snowballs.

Denny and Russell shared a look.  Then they ran over to join Slipstream and Jetstorm.  In a few seconds, both sets of Mini-Cons and the humans were trading snowballs at a furious rate.

But Tricerashot, having cleared his eyes of the snow, had a bigger target in mind.  As Grimlock watched his handy work in action, the Dino Mini rolled a large ball of snow with his horns.  Carefully picking it up on his snout, he lobbed it a Grimlock’s shin.

The Dinobot grunted with the impact, then turned to look at Tricerashot.  “Fair is fair!” he called smugly.  “You wanted a snowball fight – well, you’ve got one!”

Grinning widely, Grimlock picked up some more snow and packed it into a ball.  Tricerashot rolled another ball, picked it up on his horns, and threw it at Grimlock…

…Just as the bigger ‘Bot lobbed his own snowball at the Mini.

The results were comical.  Tricerashot’s projectile hit Grimlock in his snout, obscuring his vision, while the Dinobot’s snowball covered Tricerashot completely.  It took them a few minutes to burrow out of the snow.  They looked at each other and started laughing.

Aerobolt cocked his head.  Optimus caught the smile which flitted across his face.  “I’d no idea Tricerashot could laugh,” he muttered.

Optimus smiled a little himself.  “As I said, a commander often learns more about his subordinates at play than in battle.”  He looked back at the battlefield and saw a snowball coming toward him.  Shifting to the left, he let it pass.  “Well aimed, Sideswipe,” he complemented.

“Daw – you weren’t supposed to move!” the younger ‘Bot lamented.  He grunted as Drift hit him in the back with a larger snowball.  “Hey, Bee!  Give a ‘Bot a hand?!”

“We’re supposed to be studying battle tactics, not playing,” Bumblebee retorted.

“Come on.  Snowball fights are all about battle tactics!”  To prove his point, Sideswipe feinted left.  Drift blocked his real punch from his right, but Sideswipe used his still-moving left hand to snatch a handful of snow and shove it onto the samurai’s head.  Sputtering, Drift backed up, allowing Sideswipe to knock him over with a well-placed kick.  “See?” he said.

Drift’s response was to kick his legs out from under him from his position on the ground, and Sideswipe landed with a loud “Ooomf!” in the torn-up snow.  Strongarm and Sawtooth laughed as he scrambled to his feet and lunged at the other Autobot.

But Drift was ready for him.  Throwing loose powder in Sideswipe’s eyes, he ducked behind him and kicked him into a snow pile.  “He is indeed correct, Bumblebee.  I am now engaged in lecturing Sideswipe to avoid gloating over his opponents before they are unconscious.”

“I’ll show you unconscious!” Sideswipe growled playfully as he pulled himself free of the snow, one hand clutched tightly on a white something.  Pivoting on his right foot, he threw a malformed snowball into Drift’s chest.  There was enough force behind the throw to send the other ‘Bot skidding backward.

Bumblebee sighed as the two continued to spar.  “He has a point, Bumblebee,” Optimus remonstrated gently.  “The surrounding territory can be an advantage in a battle, and it is unlikely our opponents will have had experience with snow or snowball fights.”

The former Scout closed the distance between them.  “Optimus, if you’re right, snowballs aren’t going to help us.”  He glanced at the laughing, happy scene, and Optimus recognized the fear in his eyes.  Bumblebee was wondering if he would lose any of his teammates in the coming conflict.

He had faced that same fear and lived through it many times over the years himself.  Often the Autobots he had watched having fun moments before lay dead within the opening phase of a battle.  Some of them had been friends of his and others had been friends of Bumblebee’s.  Neither of them wanted to see his team suffer the same fate as so many units of Autobots had in the War.

Optimus hoped fervently that they could in fact survive this situation without casualties or another war.  He had seen enough death and destruction over the eons; he did not wish to see more.  And these young Autobots, who did not know what it was to truly lose a compatriot, would hopefully never have to learn the grief that came with the loss.  Sideswipe’s near-miss in the battle against Starscream was the closest they had come to true injury and death.  He desperately wanted that to be as close as they came to actually losing someone.

Shaking the phantoms of fear away, Optimus turned his head slightly to avoid another snowball.  This one had been a stray; Sideswipe had his hands full with Drift and was in no position to think of throwing snowballs at anyone but him.  “Excessive stress from too much training is not helpful either, Bumblebee,” Optimus chided gently.  “I learned that in the War.”

The other sighed.  “You’re right, of course.  It’s just…”

“It is never easy waiting for a battle.”  Optimus put his free hand on Bumblebee’s shoulder.  The younger ‘Bot looked up at him, and for a moment, Optimus saw the eager, trusting young Scout he had commanded for so long staring back at him.  Bumblebee had grown and strengthened during his absence.  But a part of him was still that hopeful, never-give-up young ‘Bot who had dared to face down Megatron at the price of his voice box.

But the rest was the grown Autobot who had saved Optimus’ life by running Megatron through with the Star Saber, whose sense of righteousness and commitment to what was good and true in the universe mirrored his own.  Optimus knew he could have asked for no better successor than Bumblebee.  Nor could he ask for a better subordinate.  “You, Bulkhead, and the others needed rest and relaxation during the War from time to time as well.  Do not begrudge your own team the freedom to enjoy themselves while they can.”

Bumblebee’s eyes turned to regard the fight still raging in the midst of the scrap yard.  He sighed, and as his shoulders slumped Optimus felt the tension leave him.  “You’re right.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Smiling slightly, Optimus hefted the snowball he had caught earlier and held it out to Bumblebee.  “Perhaps it is best to think only of the present moment.  I believe this belongs to Sideswipe, does it not?”

The younger ‘Bot looked at the snowball for a long minute.  Slowly, a smile spread across his face and he took it from Optimus’ grasp.  “I do believe it does.”  Switching the projectile to his other hand, Bumblebee cocked his arm and threw the snowball.

It splattered on Sideswipe’s head, startling a yell from him.  Shooting Optimus a playful grin, Bumblebee transformed, raced forward a short distance, and then swung to a stop.  The maneuver threw snow over Grimlock, the Weaponizers, Denny, Russell, Slipstream, and Jetstorm.  Strongarm and Sawtooth both ended up with a face full of snow courtesy of the slide as well.  Sideswipe was too busy brushing snow from the top of his head to notice some had landed on his feet.  Drift was far enough away that the snow Bumblebee kicked up did not touch him.

“You guys gonna sit there all day?” Bumblebee asked.  “Or are we going to go show Fixit how to have a snowball fight?”

The others shared a look.  Grimlock grinned, to be answered by similar smiles from Strongarm and Sideswipe.  Drift did not grin, but Optimus could see the corners of his mouth turning up in a smile.

“Then let’s rev up and roll out!” Bumblebee shouted, peeling out of the yard.  Grimlock chased after him as Strongarm and Sideswipe transformed to follow, Strongarm pausing only long enough for Sawtooth to climb onto her roof.  Drift transformed and drove over to Denny and Russell, who hopped in as soon as his door was open.  Slipstream and Jetstorm jumped onto his roof and he raced toward the Command Center.

The Weaponizers shared a look.  As one, they turned to Aerobolt.

Flicking a glance at Optimus, he nodded once to them.  The band took off after the other Autobots.  All of them were smiling, even Tricerashot.

As the roars and shouts began in the Command Center, Optimus’ partner turned to look at him.  “Shall we watch the festivities?” he asked.

“I believe we shall,” Optimus answered.  Transforming to vehicle mode, he let Aerobolt fly ahead of him.  Smiling privately to himself, Optimus drove toward the Command Center.  The threats they faced were as dangerous as any they had known in the Great War.  But this was a new era, with new soldiers who had already proved that they were worthy warriors and true friends.  Though the road ahead would be dangerous and dark, with Autobots such as these at his side, Optimus knew in his spark that they would succeed.

But for now, they were going to have a little fun.

THE END

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More Fan Fiction: Star Wars Rebels

Hey, readers! Yes, this is another fan fiction story by yours truly. This one, however, is set in the Star Wars universe. Specifically, it is supposed to take place in the timeline of the animated TV series Star Wars Rebels.

I know not everyone likes the series, but the thing is that it has managed to catch and hold my interest for roughly two years. One of the things about the previous season which I liked was the daughter/father relationship exhibited by Sabine Wren and Kanan Jarrus in the episode “The Protector of Concord Dawn.”

It was so interesting and fun that I am hoping the writers give us another episode (or more) showing their relationship and strengthening it. But with Kanan getting blinded at the end of season two, I began thinking of what Sabine’s reaction to his injury would be. This little story is the result.

It is highly unlikely that this story will quite fit into the series’ line-up. But since when did fan fiction have to actually fit the narrative?

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little jaunt into the Star Wars galaxy, readers!

The Force will be with you, always!

The Mithril Guardian

Sight in the Dark

Disclaimer: I do not own these characters.

“Kanan!”

With a gasp, Kanan Jarrus sat bolt upright in his bed, shivering. Ahsoka’s horrified shout, ringing through his dream into his waking consciousness, faded and died as he blinked to chase the nightmare away.

Or tried to blink. Ever since Maul had blinded him, even closing his eyes could be a bothersome movement. On the rare occasions his nightmares did not feature Malachor, Maul, or the Empire’s Inquisitors, they showed the last thing he had ever seen – a red haze, the blazing red of Maul’s lightsaber as it filled his vision and wiped it away. It had been the only thing he could ‘see’ for the first few days after the battle.

Now, all he ‘saw’ was darkness.

Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, Kanan sat up and tried to get the shudders under control. It’s lucky I don’t have much furniture, he thought, now I can’t trip on my way out of the cabin. It was also fortunate that Hera had decided they should begin living on the Ghost again, if only for a little while. Even without his sight, Kanan knew the ship so well he hardly needed help getting around. On Atollan, he would have needed a guide to navigate the Rebel base. Especially since it was still being built.

Rebel… The word bounced around in his mind. Did he even qualify as a Rebel fighter anymore? Despite his Jedi senses, a blind Rebel could never lead a mission into enemy territory.

Could he?

He couldn’t see. Although he could rely on the Force to get around, and to fight, didn’t Kanan need his eyes to assess a situation and make a plan? Thanks to Maul, he would never be able to do that again.

Without consciously thinking about it, Kanan drew his knees up to his chest and hugged them, trying to chase away the chill which suddenly assaulted him. How could he lead Ezra, Zeb, Sabine, and Hera on missions for the Rebels now? What use was he? He could barely copilot the Ghost these days.

Would he ever be able to pilot a ship on his own again?

They were the questions which plagued him day and night, making it hard for him to focus: on the Force, on learning to get around by touch and hearing, on his friends.

The principles of relying on the Force which Master Yoda had taught him and the other younglings years ago in the Temple – adding helmets with the blast shields down as an extra challenge – only carried him so far. Master Yoda had never taught them how to eat or plan a battle without being able to use their eyes.

Those REALLY should have been part of the curriculum, he thought sourly. It would have saved him so much trouble now.

With a sigh, Kanan realized he was giving into his fears. Again. Slowly, he fought to release the pain, fear, and self-pity frothing in his chest, threatening to swallow him up. He was beginning to notice a cycle in this: nightmares, then fears crowding in on his mind, followed by paralytic indecision as those worries overwhelmed him. As if I don’t have enough on my plate already, he growled to himself. Now he was trying to add to his troubles by chasing his worries in circles every day.

It was in that moment when a voice, gentle and serene, came into his mind out of the past: A Jedi acts when he is calm, at peace.

The familiar reminder from Master Yoda rose in his memory unbidden, but more than welcome. Kanan felt his negative emotions begin to subside, giving way to quiet and calm. “Thank you, Master,” he said softly. Despite being separated as they were by light years, the Empire, and ever present danger, the Ancient Jedi master still managed to have a word of comfort him.

Yes, his questions were valid concerns. But worrying needlessly about them would not solve them. If anything, his anxiety was bound to make things worse. What he needed to do was figure out how to deal with being blind. It was a limiting factor, certainly.

But Kanan had an asset others in his position rarely possessed. He had the Force.

He shivered again. The cabin still felt a little too cold. Maybe now’s a good time for an exercise, he thought suddenly.

Reaching out with the Force, Kanan searched for and found the barometer for his cabin. He located the switch easily thereafter and, counting quietly under his breath, turned the temperature up three degrees. It should warm him up without making him – or the cabin – uncomfortable.

As the temperature rose, the chill abated and faded away. Kanan released his hold on his legs and even let one dangle over the side of his bed, though he didn’t put his foot down on the floor. He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip, pondering his options. If Hera was willing, and if they could find an asteroid belt where the Empire wasn’t likely to discover them, maybe he could get in some target practice on the gun turrets….

It would be tricky. The asteroids weren’t going to shoot back. Still, Kanan had no intention of becoming a passenger aboard the Ghost. He couldn’t afford to do that. The others still needed him; the Rebellion needed him. And to give up now would be to grant Maul victory.

Kanan’s hand balled into a fist without his conscious will. Maul had intended to kill him on Malachor, but Ahsoka had stopped him. Failing that initial attempt, the former Sith Lord would be quite happy to see Kanan a broken and defeated man.

Which meant that Kanan had to keep himself in one piece. So he was blind. That was just battle damage. “Okay, it’s rather significant battle damage,” he admitted aloud. And it was going to make fighting for the Rebellion hard. But if he gave up now, he would never be able to pull himself back together. If that happened, then Maul could waltz in at his leisure and finish him off, leaving Ezra in even worse straits.

Ezra.

He swallowed, his mouth having suddenly gone dry. Kanan had no idea why Maul had chosen Ezra as his Dark Side apprentice. The fact that the boy was convenient at the time was a deciding factor, of course. None of them knew how long Maul had been on Malachor, but it seemed that until landing on the desolate planet, the former Sith had not realized he needed – or wanted – an apprentice.

That wasn’t the case anymore.

There had been a darkness hovering over Ezra ever since they had left the dead world. Part of it was the fact that they had lost Ahsoka. Kanan wasn’t as sure now as he had been that she was dead. She wasn’t a Jedi anymore, but neither was she of the Dark Side. He wasn’t certain that her light had gone out, exactly…. But if she was alive, Kanan knew she had her reasons for staying away from the Rebellion. From all accounts, Vader wanted her captured pretty badly. If the Inquisitors had been able to track him and Ezra, Vader might have had a similar method that allowed him to follow Ahsoka. Of course, she might also be staying away to pull Vader’s attention from the two of them.

He brought his fist up and pressed it against his forehead, trying to think against the ache which was building behind his eyes. Whether Ahsoka was alive or dead, Ezra had been treading perilously close to the Dark Side since they returned to Atollan. Although he did his best to keep the boy from noticing his recurring nightmares, Kanan knew the youth should still have been able to pick up on them at least vaguely. If he had, he hadn’t mentioned it. Not to Kanan, anyway.

This was what worried Kanan most, along with his apprentice’s renewed, almost single-minded dedication to his training in the Force.  It had been bleeding over into his desire to fight on behalf of the Rebellion, too, and that was becoming cause for concern.

Ezra had lost his lightsaber on Malachor and was currently building a new one. But aside from the few lessons he had been able to squeeze into their time together, Ezra had been working on his Force abilities alone. And when Kanan did manage to get a session in with him, he could sense anger in his apprentice. Anger the youth was doing little to hide – or to control.

Kanan figured that was due to a combination of things: Maul’s influence, his own blindness, and Ahsoka’s apparent death. Unlike Kanan, Ezra was convinced that Ahsoka was dead. Though he had not yet managed to corral the teenager long enough to quiz him, Kanan was beginning to wonder if the former street thief would listen to any questions he asked – whether they were for directions, or simply to make him think about his position.

Try to fight, and you will die, the vision Sentinel in the Lothal Temple had said. The Rebellion will fail, and your apprentice will become a servant of evil.

I will not let that happen. Kanan frowned at the memory, transferring his fist from his forehead to the top of his knee. He had admitted that he couldn’t protect Ezra from everything during that vision, including his own folly or choices. But he had fought on Malachor, hadn’t he? And he had lost at least his eyes. What if he had also lost the Rebellion – and Ezra?

He had tried meditating on the matter. So far, he had had no luck in finding an answer. Probably because the very thought was more frightening than the idea of being useless to the Rebellion. It was too hard to meditate while swimming in his own fear.

Kanan hit his mattress with his other hand. He had lost so much already!! His master, the Jedi Order, the Republic – and now, his eyes… He might yet be able to survive being blind, but if he lost Ezra to the Dark Side, he would break. Down in the deepest recesses of his being, Kanan knew that was true.

I can’t lose him. I can’t! The thought had been a constant refrain since he had come to understand the full implications of Ezra’s danger. It never banished the fear, only heightened it. If he fought to protect Ezra and keep him as his apprentice, he might just lose him – and the Rebellion as well.

Before meeting Ezra, he had been a shadow. He had known it, but only in a vague way. It was during his time training him that Kanan had learned just how much he had been denying about himself. He was a Rebel, a space ranger, and Hera’s… copilot. That was true.

But he was, primarily, a Jedi. And up until Ezra had dropped into his lap on Lothal, he had been rejecting that fact out of fear. Without Ezra, he would still be living less than a half-life, because he would not have been living the truth. He would have been living a fear-filled lie.

Shaking his head, Kanan realized he had just torn down his Jedi calm for the second time since waking up. With a heavy sigh, he began the process of releasing his fears again.

He had just managed that feat when he sensed her headed down the hall. She was being quiet. Since the others were all supposed to be asleep, that made sense. Letting his feet fall quietly to the floor, he reached out to the door controls with the Force. He already had this technique down pat. It had been one of the first things he had practiced. And at this hour, it was better that he let her in without making her ask permission to enter.

As soon as she was in front of the door, he opened it. “Kanan?” Sabine whispered tentatively.

He gestured slightly and she stepped inside. “You’re up late,” he admonished mildly, shutting the door as he spoke.

“I was finishing up a project,” she said softly as she sat in the chair across from his bed.

Without thinking, Kanan raised one eyebrow. It pulled the skin above his eyes, which was uncomfortable. He could sense that was part of why Sabine was here – and whatever the project was, it had something to do with him. Otherwise, she would have countered with the obvious fact that, despite the late hour, he was also awake.

But there was something else in the back of her mind, too. An uneasiness she didn’t want to share with anyone else. Or which she felt she couldn’t share with anyone else. “What’s so important you couldn’t do it in the morning?” he asked quietly. “Did you paint your armor again?”

The giggle and the flash of mirth happened at the same time, and he nearly missed the first for the force of the latter. Kanan allowed a small smile to show itself. Getting a giggle out of Sabine was always a triumph, especially since they had returned from Malachor. She hadn’t quite been avoiding him, but she had been keeping him at arm’s length. Kanan supposed it was because she was absolutely determined not to pity or patronize him. If they were alone together for too long these days, she started to get nervous and ran out of things to say in minutes.

That was the case now. “I’m going to repaint it soon,” she answered. She paused awkwardly for a few seconds. “And my hair. I haven’t decided on a color yet.”

“As long as it’s not Imperial gray, I think we’ll survive the change.”

That got another giggle out of her. Then she again fell silent.

Kanan waited. Sabine would tell him what she had come for when she was ready. That was the way she always did things like this.

After a few moments’ silence, there was the slightest rustle of movement. She was too well trained to let her armor make contact with itself and raise a clatter. “I made you these,” she said.

Without thinking, Kanan put his hands out. Some sort of material landed in his outstretched hands and he fingered it. It didn’t take him long to figure out what it was. “Gloves?” he asked, frowning. There was something different about these; they weren’t smooth, but seemed to have some sort of raised material attached to the palms and the underside of the fingers.

“Here.” Sabine took them back and carefully put them over each of his hands. Kanan flexed one hand, then the other.   There was a tingle along his palms and fingers as he moved.

“I didn’t want to interfere with your Jedi senses, or…retraining,” Sabine began. He could tell she had prepared this speech in her head for a bit, and that she was trying not to rush through it.

Mandalorians, he thought, stifling an exasperated sigh. They placed high esteem on strength, courage, and honor, which was admirable. But they weren’t that comfortable with open displays of kindness or charity in circumstances like his. To them, it seemed too much like pity. And to the warriors of Mandalore, pity was a weakness.

“But I added some sensors in the palms and fingers of the gloves,” she continued. “And I covered them with a thicker material that would help you grip things. Like you lightsaber, or a drinking glass, or even the controls for the gun turrets. Once you’re used to – to how you have to do things now,” he felt mild embarrassment emanate from her, “you can take them off, because they’ll have helped you build up muscle memory you can use instead.”

Kanan smiled. “They’re great, Sabine. Thanks. You know, I was just thinking about asking Hera to find us a nice, quiet asteroid field where I could get in some target practice.”

“Why do that? I can reprogram some remotes, let them out of the Ghost, and give you a more realistic workout that way.”

“That’s an idea,” he conceded. It was good to hear the excitement in her voice. “Still, if we end up in an asteroid field someday, I may be needed on the turbolasers. So both practices would be useful. How soon can you have the remotes ready – tomorrow?” he added. Sabine was already up late. He didn’t need her awake for the rest of the night.

She caught the warning, and the command, in his tone. “If we’re not too busy, I should have them done before lunch,” she replied.

“That’d be great.” He cocked his head at her. Between the position of her voice and her sense, he didn’t need sight to make sure that his face was to her. And according to Hera, he could still level an imposing, daunting gaze, even with a bandage over what was left of his eyes. “So what else is bothering you?”

He had to wait longer for her to respond to that question. “I’m worried about the kid,” she muttered.

Ezra? He thought. “Why?”

“He hasn’t been the same since you came back,” she said slowly. “It’s like – I don’t know, he won’t let us get close anymore. I think he was more friendly when we first picked him on Lothal than he is now, in some ways.”

“And then there’s Maul.”

Kanan frowned. He had had to tell Hera, Sabine, and Zeb what had occurred on Malachor after Ezra had refused to do so. He hadn’t wanted to tell Sabine about Maul at first, considering the former Sith’s involvement with Mandalore’s past. The last thing they needed was a repeat of Sabine’s performance on Concord Dawn. She had proven her capabilities in that fracas, but Maul was far more powerful than she would ever be.

And Sabine knew it. Despite the anger he could sense in her, Kanan also sensed fear, caution borne of what she knew Maul was powerful enough to do. “I don’t see how we can fight him, Kanan. I don’t think he’ll just let us go.”

“Not likely,” Kanan agreed. “We’ll be seeing him again, sooner or later.”

“I wish I could just…shoot him,” she growled.

He couldn’t suppress a smile. “Maul’s survived too much for a blaster bolt to take care of him, I’m afraid.”

“He still has to pay,” she replied fiercely. “For Mandalore, for Ahsoka, for Ezra, and – ”

She cut herself off, deep shame coloring her sense. Kanan guessed she was blushing. It felt like the kind of embarrassment that would make someone blush. Either way, it was definitely a rare emotion for Sabine Wren, daughter of a Death Watch warrior from Mandalore, to exhibit so deeply – under any circumstances.

“Nice to know I make the top four.” Unconsciously, Kanan leaned back and crossed his arms. “Maul will die one way or another, Sabine. Even if Ezra or I don’t best him, he’s not likely to last long.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Vader,” he replied quietly. “Maul’s stronger in the Dark Side than any of the Inquisitors ever were. He’s stronger, at least at the moment, than Ezra or I. Only Ahsoka was able to hold him at bay in a duel.”

“You beat him.”

Kanan shrugged. “Not soon enough. The thing is that Maul had an Inquisitor hunting him, too. As long as Maul’s alive, he’s a direct threat to Vader’s position. While you can have a thousand Jedi and more Padawans than they know what to do with, you can only have two Sith.”

“Why?”

“Because those who use the Dark Side are always vying with each other for more power,” he explained. “Jedi don’t seek power for itself. The Force is our ally, not our servant. The Sith desire to be all-powerful. That’s why there can only be two Sith at a time; one master, one apprentice. Eventually, the apprentice kills the master and takes his place. Maul doesn’t fit into that equation. Not anymore, anyway.”

Sabine muttered something under her breath in Mandalorian. Kanan wasn’t sure if it was a prayer or a curse. Considering the tone it was uttered in, it could have been the former. But that didn’t guarantee it. “Sounds like a very strict type of politics.”

“It does, now that you mention it.”

They were silent again. “Is that why Ezra won’t talk about him?”

“I don’t know,” Kanan admitted. “I hope so.”

He felt apprehension touch her emotions. “You hope so?”

Kanan sighed. “Ezra’s going through a rough time right now.”

“So are you.”

He huffed out something like a chuckle. “It’s not the same, Sabine. Not for the most part. My training was more thorough than Ezra’s ever will be, even if he were to be trained by a Master. And the temptation to join the Dark Side is something we all have to face, Jedi and non-Jedi alike.” He sighed. “Ezra has to find his own way through this. I can guide him, and stay close … But he has to make his own choice.”

“About joining Maul?”

“About choosing to be a Jedi,” Kanan replied softly, “Or choosing the Dark Side. At this point, Maul hasn’t got much to do with it. Unless as the catalyst for Ezra’s journey into the light… or fall into the Dark.”

Sabine was very quiet for the next few minutes. In that hush, Kanan realized that for the moment, he was at peace. He wasn’t going to try to fight Ezra or Maul to prevent his apprentice’s fall to the Dark Side. But that didn’t mean he had to abandon the boy, either. He was never going to do that.

“Have you told Hera?” Sabine asked at last.

“We’ve talked about it, off and on.” Kanan sighed. “But you know how many supply runs we’ve had to do this week. We haven’t had time to really sit down and think it through together.”

“Hmm.”

Stillness descended on them again. Then Sabine stood up. “Is there anything I can do?”

Kanan thought about it. “Just stay his friend,” he said at last. Then, with a small smile, he added, “And if you’re up to it, how ‘bout we try out these gloves, see how well they work on the gun controls?”

Sabine laughed lightly. “Mind stopping at the galley on the way? I could use a drink.”

“Works for me,” Kanan answered, standing up and using the Force to open the cabin door. They left the cabin together. Just to see if he could, Kanan reached out and slapped at the barometer’s controls on the way out. If he had done it right, then the temperature should drop back to its previous level while he was gone.

Sabine had noticed his movement and watched him slap the controls. He sensed surprise from her as the door closed behind him. “You hit it right on the mark,” she said, sounding impressed. “How..?”

“Jedi hunch,” Kanan replied with a mock-serious shrug.

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, I did hit it. Somehow.”

She giggled. “I guess it’s as good an answer as any!”

Kanan chuckled, putting his arm over her shoulders and giving her a half hug. “Galley, gun turret, then sleep.”

“Deal,” she replied.

THE END

More Marvel Fan Fiction: An Avengers’ Easter

Happy Easter, readers!!!  As you may recall, last year I put up a small fan fiction story set in the time before Avengers: Age of Ultron.  It was a Christmas story (or very nearly), and it was set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  When asked if I would do anymore, I said I would think about it.

Well, after thinking about it, this fan fiction piece is the result.  This story takes place on Easter Sunday and is the lead-in to Captain America: Civil War.  As a result, characters who were present in Age of Ultron  are mentioned or present herein.  This story may not fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe; however, I wanted to tell a story set before Captain America: Civil War, and I wanted it to be on Easter Sunday.  

Unfortunately, I had no time to work Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier into this story.  There may be more fan fiction stories in the future, or not.  We will wait and see what happens.

I hope you enjoy the story, readers.  And, most importantly – HAPPY EASTER!!!!

The Mithril Guardian

An Avengers’ Easter

by The Mithril Guardian

Disclaimer: I do not own these characters.

Steve Rogers tried to keep a straight face as Lila Barton crept through the bushes near the Barton house. She was barely a foot away from a brightly colored egg that the Easter Bunny had hidden. Since he was not part of the hunt, Steve could not tip his hand and let her know how close she was.

Fortunately, Lila had an Easter egg-hunting partner. With a discrete flick of her fingers, Wanda Maximoff used her powers to send the egg rolling forward a little. It made a slight noise as it hit a fallen branch, catching Lila’s attention. Her hand shot out and grasped the egg. She stood up, holding her prize high so Wanda and the others could see it. “That’s thirteen!” she shouted excitedly.

“The boys only have ten!” Wanda laughed.

A few feet away, Sam Wilson and Cooper Barton shared a look. “We’d better pick up the pace, Hawk-kid,” Steve’s friend said.

“We haven’t checked the barn yet!” Cooper dashed off. “The clue in our egg – it sounded like the next one was hidden in the tractor!”

Sam followed the boy as Wanda and Lila put their heads together over their egg. It was plastic and contained a clue, either a hand-drawn picture or a riddle of some kind. Lila and Cooper were supposed to interpret the clue and use it to find the next egg. Whichever Barton sibling found their basket of Easter goodies first won the game.

Steve saw the little girl’s hands shaking with excitement as she puzzled over the note, a hand-drawn picture. Wanda had to turn the paper right side up. Once she did, Clint’s daughter shrieked wordlessly, then whispered, “It’s the squeaky fencepost! Come on!”

The two raced off, Wanda doing her best not to outrun the little girl. Steve allowed the smile he had been hiding to finally spread across his face.

It was good to see Wanda enjoying herself, he reflected. He and Natasha did their best to make sure she was included as much as possible in the new team’s pastimes. For the most part, it seemed to work. Wanda was fairly happy, all things considered. But every once in a while Steve, Natasha, or one of the others found Wanda alone, staring at nothing. When it did not seem like a bad time, they broke in on these moments of reverie and brought her to join the others. It really was not good for her to be on her own so much. If Pietro had survived the battle in Novi Grad, she would not have been alone.

Except he had died in that conflict protecting Cooper and Lila’s father: Clint Barton. Wanda had been alone ever since.

Steve knew no amount of friendship with him or the other Avengers, past or present, would ever fill the void in Wanda’s heart where Pietro had once resided. Nothing they did would make her forget her brother.

And Steve did not want her to forget him. He only wanted to make sure she was all right.

Light steps coming up behind him on the porch made Steve cock his head. A moment later, Clint was standing next to him. “She cleans up nice,” he said.

“And she fights like a cornered mountain lion,” Steve added. With Wanda’s help, Lila had managed to find the other egg hidden near the bottom of a fence post. They were looking at the clue together.

It seemed the two were having trouble with this note. They turned the paper around four more times before another squeal from Lila alerted the men to the fact that the girl had figured out the clue.

Clint offered him a can of soda as the two girls headed for the tree next to the house. Steve took it and popped the tab as both girls began prowling around the tree, trying to spot the next egg. “I’m glad Natasha twisted my arm into inviting you guys over for Easter,” Clint murmured.

“Yeah. Twisting’s the word for it.” Steve took a sip. He had not been aware of the matter for the first few weeks of the argument, but Natasha had almost physically dragged him into the debate which had raged for three weeks afterward. Clint had balked at the idea of inviting any of the New Avengers to his house for Easter, mostly because he was not sure how many of the “newbies” on the team he could truly trust.

He had finally caved when Vision and James “Rhodey” Rhodes had decided to decline the anonymous invitation to the equally anonymous Easter party. HYDRA was getting more and more active, and they did not want to leave their posts on Easter Sunday for fear of what HYDRA would do in their absence.

Truth be told, Steve had not wanted to leave, either. The only reason he had come to Clint’s party was because Natasha had volunteered to stay at the base with the rest of the team in his place. She had all but shoved Steve out the door early this morning with some teasing comments, making sure that he, Sam, and Wanda would all attend the party together.

Steve was brought out of his thoughts by the other man’s chuckle. “Force of habit, Cap.” He watched out of the corner of his eye as Clint took a swig of his own soda. “We almost never have anyone over casually, let alone for the holidays.”

“Sounds a little lonely.”

“Not as much as you might think. We’re company enough, most of the time. The only one we ever missed was Nat.”

“Sorry about…,” Steve began but Clint waved him off good-naturedly. “Don’t. We all know how busy you’ve been lately. I may live on a farm, but that doesn’t mean I don’t keep up with the news.”

They watched as Wanda suddenly beckoned Lila to her. The child ran to her at once. Wanda pointed up into the tree and Lila’s face fell. Both girls were wearing dresses, and neither of them could climb the tree to retrieve the egg in such attire. Not without getting into trouble, anyway.

Wanda leaned down and whispered something in the little girl’s ear which made Lila turn and look at her, eyes wide. Steve and Clint were too far away to hear her quiet, tremulous question, but Wanda’s reassuring smile told them she was sure of what she planned.

A little time was taken up with Wanda positioning Clint’s daughter beneath the tree. Then, using her telekinetic and energy manipulation abilities, Wanda carefully lifted Lila up to the branch where the egg was hidden. Once she was in position, Lila reached out cautiously and grabbed the egg. Then she held it up over her head for Wanda to see.

With a smile, the older girl gently brought Lila to earth again. As soon as she landed, the little girl leaned forward and hugged Wanda. Whether she did so out of relief or gratitude it was hard to tell, but Steve suspected the gesture was a mixture of the two emotions.

Wanda twitched, startled by the hug. Then she smiled and returned the embrace.

The two stayed that way for a moment. When Wanda leaned back, Lila looked down at the egg in her hand, as if she had only just remembered it. She opened the egg so fast that Wanda had to use her powers to catch the two halves of the plastic egg before they hit the ground. Lila unfolded the paper, her fingers trembling with anticipation.

As they tried to solve the clue, there was the sound of a door being thrown open. Steve turned to see Cooper come tearing out of the barn, Sam following him closely. It took a moment for him to realize they were heading toward the empty pasture on that side of the farm.

Clint had turned to watch them, too. Then a sudden shout from Lila made both men swing in the opposite direction. They were just in time to see the child take off toward the rear of the house, Wanda following her. Clint smiled.

“How’s the party going so far?” Steve asked, grinning himself.

“Honestly, I think I may have to start inviting you guys over every weekend for supper,” the other laughed. “Lila’s taken to Wanda like the big sister she never had, and every time I turn around, Cooper’s pestering you or Sam with a thousand questions.”

“Then you may want to avoid having us over every week,” Steve teased. He watched as Cooper came up with another egg. The boy was so excited he could not open it. Sam had to do it for him. “You’ve got a real good place here, Clint,” he added. He sighed inwardly. He had wanted something like this so badly….

But that was another life, he reminded himself sternly. He could not be a father now. Peggy had lived her life. He had to live the life he had left while he still could. Pining for the past would not change anything.

And deep down, Steve suspected that he had survived that crash seventy years ago for a reason. So far he had had several reasons shown to him: Loki’s attempted invasion, HYDRA hiding within SHIELD, Ultron’s birth and subsequent attempt to destroy the world. How much of a difference he had made in some of these events he was not sure. But the fact was that HYDRA might be running the U.S. now if he had not been alive to draw their ire. Again.

There were more reasons to suggest why he had survived, he suspected. What they were, though, he had no idea.

“Yeah. I guess I do.”

Something in Clint’s tone brought Steve out of his reverie and made him look at the younger man sharply. Clint was watching his son and Sam run to the next hidden egg, a shadow in his eyes. “Something wrong?” Steve asked.

“You been paying attention to the news lately?” the other countered, his eyes never leaving the open field.

Steve racked his brain, trying to recall the snippets of news he had heard lately. Nothing popped out at him, so he asked, “What news specifically?”

“This.” Clint turned away from the railing and walked toward the door to the house. Set next to the door were two chairs and a table. They had been put out on the porch expressly for the party. Steve followed him and watched as Clint picked up a red folder from the nearer of the two chairs. He had not seen the file there before. Laura, Clint’s wife, must have put it out when his back was turned. Or Clint had left it there before joining him at the railing.

Opening the file, Clint handed it to Steve. Setting his drink on the table, Steve took the file and began flipping through the papers in it. Most of them looked like they had been printed off of different news websites. They were all about the current Secretary of State, a man named Ross.

Ross… The name rang a bell, but it took Steve a minute to remember where he had seen it before: four years ago in Coulson’s file on Banner and the Hulk. “Ross is the new Secretary of State?” he asked, looking at Clint.

“I didn’t think you were that out of the loop,” Clint replied, frowning. “But you might have been on a mission when he was sworn in.”

“When was that?”

“Late last year. Just before New Year’s Day, actually.”

“We had to take down a massive HYDRA facility around that time,” Steve said, memory taking him back. “Sam took a serious hit in that battle. We were worried for a while that he would lose his spleen.”

Clint nodded. “Yeah. Not much time to look at the news with that hanging over your head.”

Steve looked back at the file and began scanning through the different pages, flipping them over as he went. He frowned at what he read. “He’s pressing for us to get registered? I thought we had settled that.”

“That was the pre-HYDRA uprising gang who agreed to let us alone,” Clint said sourly. “And they only did that because Fury wouldn’t give them the intel he had on us. He said he couldn’t find it.” Steve snorted. “Yeah, they knew he was lying. But they still couldn’t get anything out of him. Fury is good at that kind of stuff.”

“I’m beginning to regret letting him go after those HYDRA leads with his own strike team.” Truthfully, Fury had basically said he was going after some HYDRA leads, taking a special strike team of his own with him. Steve had not given him permission, and Fury had not asked for it. Still, this was a time when Fury’s political expertise would have been very valuable. “It doesn’t sound like he’s making much headway with this registration argument,” Steve added as he studied one of the papers more closely.

“Not at the moment, no,” Clint agreed. “But – how much do you know about this guy?”

“He was tracking Bruce for a while after he became the Hulk,” Steve said, recalling the file Coulson had shown him.

The other made a derisive noise. Steve looked up in time to see him cross his arms. “That’s the polite way of putting it. Bruce and the big guy were the white whale to Ross’ Captain Ahab.”

Instinctively, Steve slapped the folder shut. He had not known it was that bad. “Why?”

“The reason Ross went after Bruce was because the Gamma/super soldier project was under his direction. He rode Bruce hard to get it done yesterday, but Banner was too cautious for his liking. Ross is the reason Banner is the Hulk. Plus,” Clint added, “Banner and Betty Ross, the general’s daughter, were an item there for a while. It was a well known fact that ol’ Thunderbolt didn’t approve of his daughter’s affection for Bruce.”

Steve grimaced. That explained why Bruce had disliked being brought to the Helicarrier to help deal with Loki, as well as his distrust of government organizations and militaries in general. Not to mention his reluctance to go steady with Natasha. He had already run from one girlfriend; running from a second was an idea he probably did not relish. “Thunderbolt?” he asked.

“Ross’ nickname; they called him General Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross.” Abruptly, Clint turned his head. Steve followed his gaze and was in time to see Cooper and Sam heading back toward the house. They went to the woodpile and started scanning the chopped logs. Clint dropped his voice to a whisper so they would not be overheard. “The thing is, Steve, it won’t take much for Ross to get registration passed.”

When Steve frowned the younger man continued urgently, his voice still low. “Think about it. Maybe you didn’t see the news reports after New York –”

“I saw some of them,” Steve interjected quietly.

“They want us on leashes,” Clint continued fiercely, his voice hushed. “They have since New York. All it will take for them to win over the more reluctant politicians and the public is one mistake. One battle where things don’t go as planned, where too many innocent people get hurt – or killed. Then they will start knocking on our door ‘asking’ us to sign up and be their puppets. They thought they had us when the Hulk rampaged through Johannesburg. But with him off the radar, they lost their ammunition against the Avengers.” He looked back at Cooper and Sam as the other man, who had discovered their latest prize, tossed an egg to Clint’s son. The boy opened it at once. “Wonder if that’s one of the reasons he skipped out on us.”

Steve said nothing. As much as he disliked Clint’s assessment of the situation, the younger man was right about one thing. One day they might battle HYDRA or some other band of terrorists and be unable to prevent a lot of civilian casualties.

Theirs was not a clean-cut war. HYDRA chose the battle ground more often than Steve would have liked. Even with Wanda and Vision’s powers backing them up, the Avengers had trouble keeping their fights out of population centers. If HYDRA got off even one lucky shot, the Avengers would be called to account for it.

A thought struck him. “You keep including yourself in the team,” he said, looking at Clint. He did not raise his voice. “You figuring on coming out of retirement if this passes?”

“Never retired,” Clint answered in the same low tone, looking rather offended. “I’ve just been on leave.”

“You didn’t exactly make that clear when you left.”

“I didn’t want to get hauled off to attack a HYDRA compound once a week. I do have an infant son to help look after, you know.”

Steve smiled at him, and the younger man must have realized he was being teased, because he smiled back. “Not bad, old man.”

“This old man dropped you like a sack of potatoes more than once after you joined the Avengers, kid. Don’t get cocky.”

“Ooh, someone’s brushed up on his popular culture. Nice Star Wars reference, Han Solo.”

“So far, I think the originals are the best,” Steve confessed. Clint’s response was a genuine laugh, which sounded a little loud after their quiet conversation. Cooper and Sam glanced at him, and Steve saw the boy smile in response to his father’s amusement.

The two went back to their clue. With a shout, Cooper went tearing off toward the field opposite the house. At the same time, Wanda and Lila came running from behind the house. They were racing toward the barn.

Steve and Clint watched them for a minute before resuming their conversation. Clint’s expression had tightened again, more noticeably this time. “The thing is, even if I had retired, they would want a record of me,” he explained. “Where I could be found, what to use to press me back into the service again if I was needed – or if they just wanted me in the field.” He paused. “I can’t drop off the radar, Steve. Even if SHIELD still existed, they’d be after me like sharks after blood.”

Steve stifled a sigh. Clint was right, of course. He also realized why the younger man was so worried about registration. Whatever governing body was assigned to oversee the Avengers, according to Ross’ statements, would also be required to monitor them somehow. Ross had not suggested exactly how it would be done, but Steve suspected that whatever system was worked out, it would be a very invasive and controlling one. Ross’ statements were vague enough to allow any system to be put in place.

If Clint were to be registered, getting back home for even the weekend meant that the government would want to know exactly where he lived – which meant they would eventually find out where his family lived. And Clint had made it abundantly clear that he did not want his family to be public knowledge.

Steve could understand that. In their line of work, one could not help making enemies. And HYDRA was not above wounding or killing children, even those as young as Nathaniel Barton. If the existence of his family became public knowledge, Clint’s old enemies would have to work fast to beat HYDRA to the Barton farm. “Have you talked to Nat about this yet?” he asked.

Clint’s eyes shaded again, this time with pain. To Steve’s shock, the younger man broke eye contact with him and turned to stare at the porch.

Not once in all the time he had known Clint Barton had Steve ever seen him turn away from someone like that. And he had definitely never broken eye contact with Steve before. Not even when he had previously avoided questions about his personal life. “Are you two fighting?” he asked quietly.

“Not exactly,” Clint said at once. “But we haven’t been agreeing when this subject comes up,” he added reluctantly.

Steve swallowed. If Clint and Natasha were starting to come apart over this… they were almost as close as he and Bucky had been. Almost.

A vague feeling of foreboding settled in the pit of his stomach. This divergence of opinions did not bode well for the rest of them. If Clint and Natasha could become divided over registration, then so could the rest of the Avengers.

Clint had apparently come to the same conclusion, as evidenced by the distress Steve read in his redirected gaze. “Do you have any idea why she would favor this?” Steve moved the hand holding the file a little.

“Protection,” Clint said flatly. “She has a lot of red in her ledger, Cap. Bad, bad stuff.”

“She’s not like that anymore.”

“No,” Clint agreed. “But she hasn’t forgiven herself for it, either. And it’s the one thing Ross or anyone else in the government could use against her. Even with her record public knowledge…” He stopped and shook his head. “It’s the one place she’s vulnerable, Steve. More so than the rest of us. People will forgive you anything. I worked real hard not to turn into the monsters I was fighting. I’m not proud of everything I did, but I’m not as susceptible in that regard as Nat is. Hell, neither are Stark and Banner.”

Steve looked at the file again, trying to think past the rising anger and fear roiling in his mind. “How likely do you think it is that registration will get passed?”

“Too likely,” Clint answered immediately. “While you’re busy keeping the planet from turning into a nuclear waste dump or something like that, Ross makes the rounds on the Sunday morning news shows, and has a press conference after every battle you participate in. Every time he does this, he calls for our registration. Just because he doesn’t have much support now doesn’t mean he can’t get it.”

“If we’re careful, we might be able to avoid it, or at least stall him…”

“Cap,” something in the other man’s voice made Steve look at him again. The haunting pain had grown more obvious. “A man like Ross, dedicated to hating someone, will hate whoever helps him. He and his daughter still aren’t on speaking terms. They don’t even live in the same country anymore. He may not hate her, but he definitely isn’t happy with her.”

“Are you saying he hates us?”

“After New York, the public saw the good the Hulk could do.” Clint drew a deep breath and let it out as a heavy sigh. “Ross could still have gone after Bruce, except that Stark invited him to the Tower. Then the Avengers became a permanent club after SHIELD went down…”

“And Bruce became untouchable –”

“Because he was with us.” Clint nodded.

“And you think Ross hates us now, just because we’re friends of Bruce?”

“I’d bet that’s a big part of it. But I think he’s also going after us as a tactical strike. Take control of the Avengers –”

“And he can control who our members are.”

“Among other things, yeah.”

Happy, childish squeals rang out. Clint bit his lower lip in response. “Steve, we are in for it. No doubt. If circumstances don’t give him the ammunition to take us down, Ross might manufacture the bullets himself.”

“How?”

“You remember Senator Stern?”

“The senator HYDRA had?”

“He wasn’t the only one. There were others, as well as politicians overseas who were found to be in HYDRA.”

“Fury said a lot of rats didn’t go down with the ship,” Steve replied, casting his mind back to that discussion. “You think Ross is HYDRA?”

Clint looked him in the eye, his face taking on the determined, deadly expression it usually had when they were in a fire fight. “I think he hates us enough to make a deal with the devil,” he replied.

Steve grimaced. HYDRA qualified as servants of the devil. If Clint’s theory was right, then Ross might be willing to do HYDRA’s political dirty work. Even if the former general was not a HYDRA stooge, as Clint suspected he was, Steve did not doubt the man would still seize any opportunity to register them that came his way. Clint’s judgment of character was too good for Steve to start doubting him now.

Glancing toward the children and their adult helpers, Steve saw that the kids had found their goody baskets somewhere near the barn and were picking through their prizes. He and Clint were going to be swamped in a few minutes. They had to wrap this up, fast.

Steve held the file out to Clint. “You should move,” he said. “Find a place to hide.”

Taking the file, the other man shook his head. “We’ll be finishing up moving in the next few days… but I can’t hide. If I cut and run, they’ll be after me. And they will find me if I stay with Laura and the kids, sooner or later. No matter what happens, I’ll be in the coming storm.” His expression tightened. “I need to know I’ve got someone who will watch my back when this hits the fan.” He motioned slightly with the file.

So that was what this was about. Steve had known this was more than just a warning to watch his back. Clint had already begun preparing against the potential for registration, moving his family to a new location without telling the rest of the Avengers. Considering that Clint had admitted they were arguing, it appeared that even Natasha did not know he was moving his family – unless she had deduced his next move, which was certainly possible. She knew him best, after all.

Barring that, though, the one Avenger who knew for certain was Steve. And that begged the question: where would he be when Ross got the support he needed to pass registration? Would Clint be able to count on him for help, or would he have to go it alone?

Steve made eye contact with the younger man again. “If this ‘hits the fan,’ I won’t be able to get in contact with you. You’ll have to find me.”

“Man in a star-spangled outfit, carrying a vibranium shield. Somehow, I don’t think it’ll be that hard.” Clint smirked. But Steve also saw him relax a little. He had been nervous about this, then. Given his argument with Natasha, it was understandable. Steve wondered briefly if Natasha had volunteered to stay behind at Avengers HQ because of her ongoing argument with Clint. “Might be harder than you think, Hawkeye,” Steve wrinkled his nose at him pointedly.

The smirk became a genuine smile. Clint tapped the file with one finger. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone we were moving.”

“This conversation never happened.” Steve smiled. “I always wanted to say that to Fury’s face.”

“I know the feeling.” Clint ducked into the house. Steve picked up his drink, watching as Cooper and Lila packed up their baskets. Clint returned to the porch as they turned and ran toward the house. “Incoming,” Steve said, moving away from Clint to give the children room.

The two children thundered up the steps a few seconds later and mobbed their father at once, eager to show him what the Easter Bunny had left them. Mixed in with the chocolates and candy for Lila was a doll, while Cooper had received his very own “real-live” bow with his basket of Easter treats.

“I wish the Easter Bunny had left me one, too,” Lila said sadly.

“You’ll probably get yours next year,” Cooper said, trying to cheer her up. “Right, Dad?”

“Once she’s big enough to handle an actual bow, the Easter Bunny might bring her one. Now, remember, the candy has to last a few days. Not only do you two need room for dinner, I can’t keep up with you if you’re rocketing off the walls on a sugar rush.”

“Dad!” Cooper laughed. “You can always keep up with us!” Lila giggled.

“Not when you’re on a sugar rush, I can’t,” Clint teased, ruffling his son’s hair and leaning down to kiss his daughter on the forehead. “How about you go show mom what you got, huh?”

The two bolted into the house at once. When they were out of hearing range, Sam collapsed into one of the chairs with a sigh. “Man, and I thought you were hard to keep up with!” he said to Steve.

Steve shrugged and made a mock-serious face. “Well, Cooper’s much younger than I am. It stands to reason he’d be faster,” he said as seriously as he could.

Sam laughed. “How’s the spleen?” Clint asked, smiling and leaning against the door jamb.

“Oh, it’s fine. Nothing’s wrong with me except the usual.” Sam waved a hand airily.

“What’s that?” asked Wanda.

“Being mortal.”

“Hey, don’t go stealing my position on the team!” Clint growled in faux irritation.

“You kidding? You’ve been around since Medieval England. Bein’ a superhero’s easy for you, Robin Hood! For a guy like me, it’s harder than it looks!”

“Then settle for being a regular one!”

“Okay, kids, let’s not let this get out of hand,” Steve interjected playfully, sipping his soda. It had lost some of its fizz while he was talking to Clint, he noticed.

“What, I can’t have a conversation with this gentleman?” Clint asked innocently. Sam’s eyes, though, had locked onto Steve’s drink. “Where do you hide the sodas?” he asked. “I could use a drink.”

“I can go get one for you…” Clint began slyly.

Sam was out of his chair in an instant. “Forget it. If they’re not in the fridge, your wife will know where they are.”

“Third shelf, at the back.” Clint laughed, moving away from the door to let Sam in. As the other man disappeared inside, Wanda looked at Clint. “You have a very nice family, Mr. Barton,” she said timidly.

“Thanks. But we’re both Avengers, Wanda. It’s Clint.”

She smiled awkwardly and looked at the porch floor. “I…I wanted to say… ” She stopped and bit her lip. Sensing Wanda had something important on her mind but was nervous about mentioning it, Steve started to head for the door.

Her hand shot out and touched his arm lightly. “No, Captain. You can stay.” He stepped back, curious. What was Wanda up to?

Taking a deep breath, she looked at Clint. “Natasha told me before we left about what you did. That you named your second son after her, and after Pietro.”

It was the first time Steve could recall seeing Clint shocked and at a loss for words. He was glad of his own surprise; it meant he could not disturb Wanda as she went on with what she had to say. “Please, don’t be angry with her. She did not want you to have to tell me. She thought it would save you trouble if she told me instead.”

“I just –” Wanda paused again, swallowed, and then went on, clearly trying not to rush through her prepared speech. “I just wanted to thank you. For naming your son after my brother.”

For a minute, silence reigned. Steve held his breath as Clint stared at Wanda, who had dropped her gaze to the porch floor again. Then, very quietly, Clint said, “I never wanted your brother to die, Wanda. I never wanted to kill him. I thought about shooting him a couple of times, but… I never wanted his death.”

Wanda nodded. “I know.”

Clint sighed. “I am sorry – ”

Without warning, Wanda lunged forward and hugged him. Hard. Clint returned her embrace full force. “It is not your fault,” she murmured thickly. “I miss Pietro every day, sometimes so much that I feel as though I am being torn apart from the inside. But I am proud that he died to save another, and I am doubly proud now that I see he saved a man who honors and respects him, and who has preserved some memory of him… That he died to save a man who has a family.”

“I would not wish our childhood on anyone, Hawkeye, and I do not wish it for your children. Not now, not in the future. Never.”

They said nothing for a long time.

Steve remained frozen, reluctant to destroy the little scene. Whether or not this meant that Wanda would assimilate to their new team better, this was progress for her.

He also took the opportunity to sound out Nathaniel’s full name in his mind. Clint had never mentioned it. No wonder Natasha had broken the news to Wanda. Clint would not have told her, for the simple reason that he was not the type to parade such things about.

But the fact remained that Wanda deserved to know. And Natasha had saved Clint the responsibility of telling her. The two might be arguing, but so far it had not damaged their friendship seriously.

At that moment, Steve saw Laura glance through the doorway from down the hall. She took in the scene, then met Steve’s gaze briefly. With a quick nod, Laura turned and disappeared from view inside the house. No one inside would disturb them for a while yet, Steve suspected.

He was glad that Laura understood Wanda needed to deal with her grief. Maybe Clint needed to deal with it, too. Pietro had died saving him, after all. Perhaps that was why she was willing to let them be. Whatever her reasons, Laura knew they were connected by Pietro Maximoff’s death and needed some time to themselves.

Apparently, though, Wanda did not feel Steve needed to be excluded from the following discussion. He remained quiet unless asked a question as Clint and Wanda began to converse, sitting down in the chairs set out specifically for the party. Once or twice he added a mild comment. Mostly, he just stood by and listened, trying to figure out why Wanda did not want him dismissed from the proceedings.

With her hypnotic abilities, Wanda might want him present as a witness, able to tell the others – or even Clint – that she had not invaded the other man’s mind during this period of conversation.

That theory was weak, however. Wanda could hypnotize an entire block of civilians. She had done it in Novi Grad, Sokovia. And she had brought every Avenger but Clint to their knees before that. She would have no trouble manipulating both him and Steve if she wanted to do so.

It was when she asked for the specifics of Pietro’s death that Steve understood why she wanted him to stay. He and Clint were the only remaining Avengers who knew the details. Thor had been there as well, but he had left not long before Steve and Natasha had begun training their new recruits. They were the only ones who could tell her what she wanted to know.

“I sensed him die. I know Ultron killed him. I…saw him afterward. But I don’t know… ”

“How it all came together,” Clint finished for her. Wanda nodded silently.

Clint paused, then explained that one of the women aboard the boat he had planned to ride to the Helicarrier had been calling for a boy. He gave the child’s name and Wanda looked up. “I know her. The child was her brother. Pietro – ” Her lips quirked in a small smile. “Pietro liked to flirt with her.”

Clint chuckled, then sobered as he went on with the story. “I saw him easily enough. I don’t know how he ended up where he was – he was stuck at the top of a basement stairwell. Maybe the thin air got to him. He was barely conscious when I picked him up.” Clint paused for a long moment. “That was when Ultron made his strafing run.”

Steve grimaced. He and Thor had both been caught off guard by the robot’s barrage and sent to the ground. Neither of them had been hurt, but they were also unable to get up and help anyone in a hurry. Even if they had, they were not fast enough to have reached Clint and the boy in time.

Pietro had been. “I was the one who brought him onboard,” Steve remembered.

Clint took a pull of his soda. “Yeah. I brought the boy to his sister, and found that one of Ultron’s bullets had nicked me. I woke up later in the infirmary. Don’t even remember the ride to the carrier.”

Wanda looked away from them. After a while she spoke again. Her voice was soft, shaking with leftover grief. And remaining rage. “When I felt Pietro die, I forgot about the key. I was…consumed with anger. I went and found Ultron’s main body. He had been thrown from a great height into a train car, I think. He was heavily damaged. I got close to him…” She took a deep breath. “And then I ripped out his power core.”

Steve stared at her in shock. Ultron’s main body had been plated with vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth. If Wanda could reach in and rip out his power core through that, then she had been more powerful than they had suspected. And her powers were still growing.

“I made sure it hurt,” she added fiercely. “It was after that that the city began to fall. I almost welcomed death, but Vision found me and brought me to the Helicarrier…” Her voice lost the rage. Grief swallowed it and she stopped speaking at once.

Steve knew why. Wanda had spent her time on the Helicarrier beside her brother’s body. She had been utterly inconsolable, great sobs tearing through her for several hours afterward. It had been a long time before any of them had felt comfortable approaching her.

Clint put his hand on her shoulder. Swallowing what was doubtless a fresh set of tears, Wanda looked at him. She smiled wanly. “Thank you, for telling me what happened.”

Clint’s only response was a nod.

Another woman’s throat cleared and the three of them turned toward the door. Laura Barton was standing there, her expression grave. “I’m really sorry to intrude, but the turkey’s about done, and I need another set of hands in the kitchen,” she explained.

“Be right there,” Clint promised, standing up. Laura nodded once and vanished inside the house to give them privacy. Clint looked at Wanda, who met his gaze squarely. “I can’t bring him back, but if you ever need someone to talk to, the way you talked to him… ask Nat for my number. Okay?”

Wanda nodded. Clint gave her a slight smile in return. Then he turned and went into the house.

Wanda sat back in the chair as Steve pushed away from the porch railing. “We’d better go in, too, and get ready for dinner – ”

“What were you speaking about?”

Steve stopped and looked at her. “During the egg hunt,” Wanda elaborated. “I didn’t hear what you said, but I sensed his fear.” She nodded into the house. “For his family. For the Avengers. You felt fear as well. I know.”

He had wondered about that. Sighing, Steve walked over and took the chair that Clint had vacated. He thought for a few minutes before replying. “It sounds like there are people in the government who want to register us. Registering for certain things is fine,” he added. He wanted Wanda to understand exactly what was wrong with this form of registration, and what made it different from registering for a driver’s license or some such thing. “But this registration might hobble us; make it hard for us to fight HYDRA and other terrorists.”

“Why?”

“Because if politicians decide when we fight, where we fight, and who we should or shouldn’t use our powers to fight, they will own us.”

“You mean they want to make us slaves.”

Steve nodded slowly. “Essentially. They are right to be afraid of our powers. We should be afraid of them, too.” He looked at her. “If we abuse our powers, we’re no better than HYDRA or any of the others we’ve been dealing with for the last few months. We have to be careful.”

“Yes. But –” She frowned, trying to think of how to voice her distaste for this form of registration. Wanda really was still a child, in so many ways, he reflected. “But we’re not tools, we’re people. They shouldn’t have control of us, not as slaves,” Steve supplied.

Wanda nodded, her expression easing with the explanation. Then she frowned. “But why does he fear for his family?”

Steve glanced at his soda can, noticing that it was almost empty. He would have to be careful as he explained this. “I know Strucker and some of the other HYDRA agents were…kind to you and Pietro, Wanda –”

“After a fashion.” The girl shrugged.

“Clint has been their enemy. He’s fought against them, and against others. He’s made enemies as Hawkeye and as an Avenger. Those enemies want to kill him – or worse, break him.” Steve looked at her. “Strucker might not have come after Clint’s family, Wanda, but would the rest of HYDRA leave them alone?”

She paled. “But they don’t know –”

“No,” Steve agreed calmly. “But if we’re all registered – if Clint is registered – and he is still an Avenger… Then they will want to know where he goes when he leaves for R&R every chance he gets. Sooner or later, they will find his family and make them part of the record.”

“And if they do that, HYDRA or one of Clint’s other enemies could find those records.”

He did not need to say anymore. Wanda understood. She swallowed. “We can’t let that happen,” she said. Steve was pleased to note that her voice did not tremble, though the amount of ice in it was somewhat worrisome. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to avoid this,” he said.

“What if they try to force us to register?”

Steve sighed. Wanda was quick to recognize why. “We’ll have to fight,” she said softly, answering her own question.

Steve nodded. “Somehow. Otherwise, if his family is to stay alive…”

“He’ll have to leave them,” she said quietly. “Go into exile, possibly for the rest of his life.”

Again, all Steve could do was nod. Clint’s rationale had led him to the same cold conclusion. Somehow, they were going to have to find a way to beat this registration scheme. Not only to protect their own freedom, but for the safety and sake of the Barton family as well. Maybe even for other families down the road.

Steve finished his drink. He looked back at the Maximoff girl, who was frowning in no little fear at the porch flooring. “These are just shadows, Wanda,” he said softly. “We’ll worry about them tomorrow. Okay? Right now is a time for celebrating.”

“What exactly are we celebrating?” Wanda asked, sounding agitated. She was obviously still thinking about the problem of registration. “I know the religious importance of this feast day, but with all this – this danger – ”

She did not know the religious significance of Easter as well as she thought she did if she was speaking about it like that. “The world was in danger two thousand years ago, too, Wanda,” he interrupted gently. “Easter – the Resurrection of the Son of God – reminds us not to give up hope. That somewhere, somehow, in some impossible way, all the bad in our lives will be ‘turned into joy.’ That’s why we’re celebrating. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

Wanda searched his eyes and face. Whatever she saw, it made her relax. The color came back to her cheeks. “If you can hope for a better tomorrow, Captain, then so can I,” she said softly.

Steve smiled.

At that moment Lila, her voice clear and high, began to sing from somewhere in the house:


“Spent today in a conversation

In the mirror face to face with

somebody less than perfect…


I wouldn’t choose me first if

I was looking for a champion,

In fact I’d understand if

You picked everyone before me,

But that’s just not my story!

 

True to who You are

You saw my heart

and made

Something out of nothing – ”



Steve was not familiar with the song, but Lila’s parents knew it. Clint and Laura joined her after a few lines, while Cooper began playing the tune with whatever utensils or items he had to hand. They followed her until she reached the end of the song:


“He knows my name!

I’m not living for applause –

I’m already so adored!

It’s all His stage

He knows my name!

He knows my name!”

 

Standing up, he offered Wanda his hand. She took it and he pulled her to her feet. “It’s Steve,” he said quietly, giving her his arm. “Happy Easter, Wanda.”

She did not respond immediately. Then… “Happy Easter…Steve,” she replied, her voice hushed,

They went into the house together. “HAPPY EASTER!” the two Barton children shouted when they saw them. Clint and Laura echoed them. Beside Steve, Wanda called out “Happy Easter!” Sam and Steve managed to repeat the shout a moment later. Sam had been drinking and not been able to speak. Steve had been enjoying the scene too much to shout at once.

They settled in the chairs assigned them as Laura and Clint began to set out dinner. Lila sat next to Wanda while Cooper squirmed into the seat between Steve’s chair and the chair where his father would sit. Nathaniel was in his high chair next to Laura’s seat, watching the activity with a baby’s interest.

Steve wondered briefly if, had he and Peggy married, their Easter dinners would have been as warm and happy. Another life, Steve, he reminded himself firmly. This life he had to live for the Avengers – Wanda, Sam, Clint, Natasha, and the others, those actively serving and those who had temporarily retired. It also included Laura, Cooper, Lila, and Nathaniel Barton, in a roundabout way. They needed him. They all needed him.

I won’t let them down, Steve promised silently.

THE END

Marvel Fan Fiction: An Avengers’ Snow Day

I have been contemplating writing fan fiction for a long time, readers.  Until recently, I was reluctant to put any sort of creative writing up on my blog.  But masterleiaofasgard’s first foray into fan fiction inspired me to try my hand at it.  The result is this story about the Avengers, which takes place a little while before Christmas.

Set in the MCU – or Marvel Cinematic Universe – it takes place before Avengers: Age of Ultron.  For this reason, the Maximoff twins and Vision are not in the story.  There are also a few winks and nods in my story to masterleia’s first fan fiction piece, which you can find and read here: https://superherofactsandtrivia.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/yes-my-first-fan-fic/.

If you enjoy my story and would like to copy it to your computer for yourself, then I would ask that you request permission of me first.  Masterleiaofasgard gets first dibs on it, if she wants it, since it was her story that got this ball rolling in the first place. 😉

Enjoy, readers – and Merry Christmas!

The Mithril Guardian

10869325_591589580977275_2778898650041679518_o

An Avengers’ Snow Day

by The Mithril Guardian

Disclaimer: I do not own these characters.

Natasha Romanoff poured herself a cup of coffee. “So, what are your plans for Christmas, Steve?” she asked.

Steve Rogers leaned back in his chair, tossing the latest issue of the Daily Bugle onto the table as he moved. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Maybe some research.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. When Steve said “research,” he was referring to his hunt for his old friend, Bucky Barnes, otherwise known as the Winter Soldier, once one of the deadliest assassins of all time.

Natasha suppressed a shudder. The man was aptly named; the only person she had ever seen that cold and unfeeling had been herself. And even she had had some fears when she worked for the KGB, some insecurities.

The Winter Soldier had none of that.

Still, he had saved Steve’s life. Maybe there was something of his old self buried under those years of HYDRA programming after all. She knew that Steve certainly believed there was. Even while working for the Avengers, he made as much time as he could to search for Barnes. Sam had been helping him, running down leads or talking to sources when Steve was engaged elsewhere.

Lately, they had been very busy elsewhere. HYDRA was more active than ever. The Avengers had tackled five different bases in the last two weeks, all within days of each other. Today was one of their first real chances to relax and get some down time.

Steve shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“Did I hear someone say Christmas?” Tony Stark asked as he entered the room.

Natasha hid a wry smile. Tony had been holed up in the lab with Bruce for the past few hours, working on some project the two had dubbed “Veronica.” It figured that he would show up right in the middle of what she had been hoping would be a private, productive conversation with Steve. “Because I am throwing a Christmas party in a couple of days, Pepper will be here, and you’re all – naturally – invited.”

“I won’t mind coming.” Steve looked at her. “What about you, Nat?”

“It’s free food. Who could turn that down?” she asked, sipping her coffee. She would have to pay a visit to her nephew and niece before the party, or after it. Clint would help her work something out. “Where’s Bruce?”

“Still in the lab,” Tony replied. He grabbed a mug and headed for the coffee maker. Natasha moved a little so that he could get to the machine. She took another sip as he went on, pouring his coffee. “He wants to double check some of Veronica’s systems.” Tony looked around. “Where are Barton and Thor?”

“Landing pad.” Natasha took another sip. “They were having some kind of a discussion – ”

She stopped when she saw Steve and Tony share a look. “I’ll go check on them,” Steve said, standing up. As he left the room, Natasha gave Tony one of her most irritated frowns.

He ignored it, as usual. “He’s not stupid, you know,” she said, “Clint’s not going to get Thor angry just for the heck of it.”

“He’s Barton. He can get someone angry just by looking at them,” Tony retorted.

Natasha shook her head, rolling her eyes. “Have you invited Jane Foster to the party?”

“No, because she invited Thor to her latest research lab for Christmas.” Tony glowered as he drank his coffee. “He’s skipping the event. Think Clint will stay?”

Natasha shrugged. The answer was no, Clint was going home to his wife and children for Christmas. But she was the only Avenger who knew about his family. He had agreed to work for SHIELD only as long as Fury kept his family out of the agency’s files and never told anyone that they existed. Laura and the kids had subsequently been erased from reality – digitally and on paper – and no one, not even Hill or Coulson, had ever known that Clint was not a bachelor.

Clint and Natasha had both been grateful for that after HYDRA was revealed to be within SHIELD’s ranks. Clint had had three assassin teams chasing him down while Natasha and Cap were working to stop Project Insight. “It’s extremely flattering that they decided you were so threatening they needed to send three teams to kill you,” she had teased him.

“You’re the only one who would think three teams, composed of fifteen assassins each, hunting you for a week, was a compliment,” he had shot back, holding an ice pack to his twisted knee. One of the HYDRA assassins had managed to throw him before Clint had taken him down. Natasha and Steve had arrived just as he put an arrow through the last standing assassin. “What kept you?” he had asked as they had approached, rolling onto his back with a tired huff.

Natasha hated to think of what would have happened if Clint’s family had been on SHIELD’s files. Some agents who hadn’t taken Clint’s precautions had lost their families in HYDRA’s uprising.

She knew Clint disliked keeping his family a secret from everyone on the team; but at the same time, telling them was a risk. Steve could keep that kind of a secret – Natasha knew that risking lives, especially the lives of children, was one of the last things he would do. Bruce could probably keep from mentioning them, too.

Thor… Well, if he were to know, he would do his best not to let the secret out. But Thor could not be guaranteed to keep a secret. He tried, but Earth wasn’t his home. He had given away a couple of other secrets when asking questions meant to clarify something he didn’t understand, to Tony’s and Natasha’s embarrassment. Tony made himself feel better about the no-longer secret drawer full of his kiddie toys – thanks to Thor – by picking on Natasha’s craving for yogurt with pistachios, which Thor had also accidentally revealed.

A bout in the training room two weeks later had made Tony shut up about her culinary preference.

Of them all, Tony was the worst at keeping secrets. Unless they were his secrets – like his secret drawer full of childhood mementos, or the fact that his first arc reactor design had been killing him. The only reason any of the Avengers knew about Veronica (whatever it was) was because Bruce had told them about it. It was supposed to be some kind of a countermeasure if he should lose control of the Hulk. So far, though, they still didn’t know whether Veronica was a program or a cage.

“So,” Natasha asked. “What’s Veronica?”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Tony said from behind his mug. He finished his coffee and set the mug on the counter. “All will be revealed at the Christmas Party, grasshopper! Don’t get your stingers in a knot, Natasha!”

“If you don’t at least give me a hint, I might tangle them in you,” she retorted in a tone of mock injury. Tony was being his usual annoying self, she could see. Veronica was something he desperately wanted to keep under wraps, and he had either convinced Bruce to keep his mouth shut about the project or coerced him into silence. Natasha would not put either tactic past him.

“All right, one hint,” he said. “It’s red.”

That’s helpful,” she sniffed.

“Exactly.”

Suddenly, a loud crash sounded from the direction of the landing pad. Natasha shot Tony a look, meeting his own worried glance as she did. Then they were both running in the direction the sound had come from.

Natasha heard the laughter first. Or at least, upon hearing it, she was the first to slow down. Tony kept running. So when a snowball flew through the broken window and hit him in the chest, he went flying back toward her.

Dropping to the floor, Natasha rolled forward and came up on one knee as Tony crash landed behind her. She heard him gasp as he hit the floor, grunted, and then rolled over.

Out on the landing pad, which was covered with snow, Steve and Clint were both in battle positions, each with a snowball in one hand. Clint was dressed warmly – he was even wearing gloves – while Steve was still in his short sleeved shirt and jeans. Clint’s clothes were dusted with snow but Steve’s were soaking wet.

Some distance ahead and facing them was Thor, his hammer raised. Steve and Clint were looking over their shoulders and into the Tower. All three men were staring past Natasha into the room behind her, where Tony was getting to his feet, wearing the expressions of naughty children who had just been caught pilfering cookies from the cookie jar. Actually, she thought, Steve just looked surprised. Clint and Thor both had faces that said uh-oh.

Clint spoke first, pointing at Thor with his free hand. “It was his fault!”

“You threw the ball of snow!” the Asgardian retorted.

“You’re the one who broke the window! And sent the next snowball through it!”

“This game was your idea!”

“Yeah – “

Natasha heard the distinctive sound of repulsors powering up somewhere behind her and threw herself to the floor, ignoring the bits of broken glass that lay under her. At the same time, Steve dropped his snowball and leapt over to push Clint out of the line of fire. He fell into the snow with a yelp, Steve jumping past him, as Tony’s repulsor blasts took Thor in the chest and sent him flying to land in the snow halfway down the landing pad.

Iron Man flew out onto the landing pad. He descended, leaned over, and picked up some snow, packing it into a ball. “Why don’t you guys invite me to these parties?” he asked testily.

Thor stood up and wiped some snow out of his beard. He grinned the smile Natasha had privately dubbed his battle smirk, which he only put on when he was getting ready to enjoy a coming fight. Then he let Mjolnir’s handle drop from his hand, so he could swing it by its unbreakable thong. Tony threw his snowball at him, but Thor hit it with the hammer and sent it flying back to the armored Avenger, post haste.

The self-described genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist obliterated the snowball with a single repulsor blast. But Thor’s next snowball, drummed up by his hammer, caught Tony in the helmet.

“Consider yourself cordially invited to our battle of snow!” Thor shouted.

Tony shook his head, clearing most of the snowball residue from his mask. Then he took off and flew at Thor, who sent a number of other snowballs at his teammate from the hammer wind-milling in his hand.

Now that she wasn’t dodging snowballs and irked Avengers, Natasha could see that the snow on the landing pad, which had been as clean and unmarred as new paper this morning, was a slushy mess. Thor, Steve, and Clint’s antics had clearly ranged over the half of the landing pad closest to the Tower. Understandably, the snow on the overhang of the landing pad was relatively untouched. Since Steve and Clint couldn’t fly, it made sense that they would keep the Tower to their back and not court fate by going too close to the edge.

“You okay?” Steve asked. Natasha looked up to see him watching her, concern in his expression. Clint hauled himself out of the snow and began dusting his coat off with his free right hand. He still had a snowball in his left.

“Fine,” she said, sitting up cautiously. “What started all this?”

Steve looked at Clint, who shot them a glance that was just too innocent. “I asked Thor what they do in Asgard this time of year, and that led to him asking what we do for fun here on Earth in the winter.”

“And you suggested a snowball fight?”

“Well, I knew he wouldn’t be interested in snowmen or snow angels,” Clint replied somewhat defensively. “And I don’t think we could get him on a ski slope without risking an avalanche. All I said was ‘fight,’ and he asked what I meant. It was all perfectly calm until Cap showed up.”

“Ha,” Steve replied. “Thor was getting fed up with Clint hitting him all the time and dodging every third snowball thrown at him.”

“Hey, he can kill someone with one of those things, at the velocity he throws ‘em!” the archer retorted.

“So I got in on the action,” Steve went on, unperturbed. “And one of our snowballs ended up through the window.” He gestured to the now-empty window frame. “I told Tony it was a bad idea to have so many windows in this place.”

“It was already built by then,” Clint said. His eyes went to Tony and Thor. Tony was taking a lot of hits, but he occasionally managed to catch one of Thor’s snowballs and throw it back at him. “Shell Head’s getting the worst of it, Cap.”

“He shouldn’t have shot Thor. Reminds him too much of that fight they had in the woods when we were bringing Loki back to the Helicarrier.”

“One of the few things I wish I had been able to see during those three mind-controlled days,” the archer growled. “Anyway, do you think we should even things up a little?”

Natasha fully expected Steve to say no. To her surprise, though, Steve cocked his head and asked, “Who do you want?”

“Stark,” Clint said at once. “Thor’s mad at me, remember?”

“And having Tony angry at you is better?”

“Well, at the worst, he’ll have me sing Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Her teammates had only recently discovered that Clint could sing. Tony liked to push him into games where he was forced to do whatever anyone asked him, and Tony’s particular joy was tormenting Clint by having him sing any number of songs. Some Clint liked (though he never told Tony which ones those were), others he hated. “Thor might sit on me – or throw me out a window as a way of getting some exercise. He won’t do that to you.”

“All right.” Steve bent down, scooped up a handful of snow, and packed it into a ball. “One, two – “

“Three!” Clint let his snowball fly as he spoke. It hit Tony in the side of his helmet as Steve’s snowball, a few seconds behind the archer’s, splattered on Thor’s shoulder.

Both turned toward Clint and Steve, who were already packing new snowballs together as they ran in separate directions.

Natasha watched the two snowball teams start an all-out snowball war, her mouth hanging open. Earth’s mightiest heroes, they were called, and here they were acting like schoolboys!

She closed her mouth and shook her head. She couldn’t pretend to understand that. Her childhood, such as it was, didn’t include snowball fights, snowmen, or snow angels. She had done all of those things since she had become Cooper and Lila’s “aunt,” but doing them with other adults… Something about it made her feel self-conscious. She despised that feeling.

“It looks like they’re having fun.”

Natasha turned when she heard Bruce, surprised. He met her gaze and smiled a little. “I’d join them, but I think they’d just get scared.” He held his hand out to her. “Need some help?”

She didn’t. She could get up on her own. But for some reason she took his proffered hand and let him help her up. “You wouldn’t turn green?” she asked, dusting glass powder from her clothes.

He shrugged. “Maybe if I fell over the side, or if someone did something mean, like sit on me –” He flashed another smile at the reference to Clint’s last statement. “But I think I could handle a little snowball fight.”

He looked back out at the landing pad. Natasha followed his gaze and was just in time to see Clint pull Tony out of the sky by his boots. Whatever dignity Iron Man had left went out the window as he somersaulted in midair and landed on his head in a pile of snow. Clint grinned at his handiwork, then had to duck as a snowball Steve had thrown at Thor was deflected over his head. He kicked the Prince of Thunder’s legs out from under him and Steve seized the opportunity to shove snow onto the Thunderer’s chest. “They work together better than Thor and Tony do.”

“Yeah.”

“No, not just in this snowball fight,” Bruce said. He paused as they watched Tony pull himself out of the snow pile, grab Clint by the shoulders, and throw him into a different drift of the white stuff. “And not just Steve and Clint. I mean, Thor and Steve work together better in a battle than Tony and Thor do. Clint can work with any of us – I think.”

Natasha guessed he was referring to the battles where he turned into the Hulk. She could remember a few instances when Clint had worked with the Hulk, but sometimes Bruce’s memories of his time as Big Green were sketchy, so he wouldn’t remember everything he and the others did in a battle very well. “But Steve’s the only one who doesn’t seem to have trouble working with Tony.”

“Well, Stark’s a bit of a showboat,” Natasha explained. “He’s hard to work with because you’re never quite sure just what he’s going to do or say. Steve’s adaptable – more so than I once gave him credit for,” she admitted, “so whatever Tony does, he can roll with it. But there are times Stark does or says something that distracts the rest of us. It makes him hard to work with.”

Clint got his revenge on Tony by flinging snowballs at his helmet. One covered the facemask’s eyes and forced Tony to land. Clint used the moment it took Tony to clean the snow off his mask to run toward him, then fell into a sliding-skid, stopping behind him. He threw a snowball to Steve, who grabbed it and threw it at Tony.

Before the billionaire could react, the snowball hit him in the chest – and with Clint on his hands and knees behind him, Tony didn’t have a prayer of staying upright. He tumbled over Clint and landed on the floor with a loud clunk Natasha and Bruce could hear clearly from inside. “How did you know about the snowball fight?” Natasha asked.

“J.A.R.V.I.S. told me about it,” Bruce answered.

“He didn’t tell us.”

“The window broke before he could. Or so he said. Personally,” Bruce smiled at her again. “I think he was hoping you and Tony would get in on the fight.”

“Moi?” Natasha asked, faux haughtily. “Join in that?” Thor was whirling Mjolnir again, peppering Tony, Clint, and Steve with snowballs. Most of the snowballs, though, were aimed at Tony.

Bruce shrugged, still smiling. “So what’s Veronica?”

“Tony wants it to be a surprise. I can’t tell you.”

“Is it a cage?” For some reason, Natasha was really hoping it wasn’t. The idea of Bruce being locked up in a cage, even when he was the Hulk – once the image would have given her comfort. Now, it just frightened her.

“A cage would be kind of useless in the middle of a city, wouldn’t it?” he asked. His smile softened. “No, Natasha, it’s not a cage. But I really can’t tell you what it is just yet. I don’t want you to have to fake surprise when Tony unveils it.”

“I can fake surprise really well,” she told him.

“I know. But I’d rather you didn’t have to.”

Tony fired his repulsors again, but this time Thor leapt over the twin blasts and pointed Mjolnir at the billionaire genius. A huge glop of snow, conjured out of thin air by the weather warping hammer, landed on Iron Man’s head. He fell to the landing pad, completely covered in snow except for his boots. “Ding-dong, the Witch is dead!” Clint began to sing, raising his voice to imitate a Munchkin’s. Even Steve doubled over with laughter at the jibe.

“He just avenged himself on Tony,” Bruce chuckled. Natasha giggled. Tony had begun calling Clint ‘Katniss’ every now and again. Some bright spark on the Internet had started the trend and Tony, naturally, had picked up on it and begun using it on Clint. In response, Clint had given Tony the nickname ‘Shell Head,’ also gleaned from the Internet somewhere. Natasha wasn’t sure who got more of a kick out of which taunt.

Tony struggled out of the pile, growling and gasping. Thor dropped the hammer and hauled him the rest of the way out, then threw him back into the snow. “Yield!”

“Nope!” Tony replied, throwing snow at his face. Thor blocked most of the snow, but that left him open to Tony’s lunge. The armored Avenger caught the Prince of Asgard around the waist and knocked him to the landing pad. Steve and Clint discretely retreated to make more snowballs as Thor, taking two handfuls of snow, clapped both hands and their contents to the sides of Tony’s helmet. “Tony says it’s red.”

“Hmm?” Bruce asked.

“Veronica.”

“Ha. Yes, it is.” Steve and Clint began pelting their teammates, still struggling on the landing pad, with snowballs. “Think we should call the kids in?”

“Nah,” she said. “They’ll come in when they’re ready. Or when they’re cold enough.”

They watched as Thor summoned his hammer. Once it was in his hand a snowstorm, localized to the landing pad, erupted. Steve and Clint both cried out in surprise. “Okay, okay!” they heard Clint shout. “Uncle! Uncle! We give up!”

The miniature blizzard stopped. Steve and Clint were both covered with a fine layer of frost and snow while Tony, who had been at the epicenter of the small storm, was almost completely encrusted in ice. Thor had shoved him off him at some point and was now standing beside the prone Stark frosticle. “Do you yield now?

There was a muffled answer; the ice had shorted out Tony’s armor.

Natasha burst into giggles as Bruce smiled widely. Thor leaned down and broke the ice covering the lever that would open Tony’s flaps. He pulled the lever and the flaps opened. A minute later, the armor rebooted and Tony tottered to his feet. He pulled his helmet off, coughing and gasping. “Best two out of three?”

“If you’re ready for another bout,” Thor said, tossing and catching his hammer.

Tony nodded, then shook his head. “Hey, Nat, is there any coffee in there?” Clint called.

“There is!” she answered.

“Great!” he called as he jogged up to the broken window. He stepped in and began shrugging off his jacket. “’Cause I could use something warm to drink.”

“Come on, then, you big baby!” She took his wrist and began leading him toward the kitchen. You’d think that, since you were raised in Iowa, you would have a higher tolerance for the cold, she teased him mentally. In truth he did. That he should claim to be cold implied Thor’s localized snowstorm was colder than it had appeared.

Her suspicion was confirmed when Steve joined them in the kitchen, accepting the cup of Joe she handed him without a word. But then, maybe being in the snow had reminded him of his seventy year suspension in the ice in Greenland. “J.A.R.V.I.S., when can we get that window fixed?” she asked.

I am already working on it, Miss Romanoff,” the AI responded calmly. Tony clunked into the room, still in his armor, Bruce beside him. Thor was following them, brushing snow off his cloak.

A wicked notion entered Natasha’s mind. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” she looked at the ceiling. “Did you get any of that on film?” Tony looked up at her, utterly aghast.

The AI generally managed to maintain his butler-style professionalism with the Avengers, though he had demonstrated a sarcastic side a number of times. This time, Natasha detected a definite note of smugness in his response. “There are a large number of cameras that look out onto the landing pad, Miss Romanoff.

“Hmm.” Clint was watching her, his eyes lighting mischievously. Steve was looking into his coffee, but there was a definite upturn to the corners of his mouth as he drank. Bruce was grinning, too. Thor was the only one who seemed a little puzzled. He still wasn’t that at home with the Internet.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., don’t you dare!” Tony barked. He was pulling off his armor piece by piece. Natasha heard her phone ding and began fishing it out of her pocket. “If you put that on Youtube –“

I wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. responded very, very innocently as Natasha looked at her email.

She smiled as she worked on her phone. “But I would,” she said, turning the phone around. The boys were treated to a brief clip of their snowball fight, now free for viewing on the Youtube channel Tony maintained for the Avengers.

Tony spluttered with rage as the others burst out laughing. “Relax, Tony,” Steve managed through his chuckles. “It’s not exactly a bad image.”

“Yeah, it proves we’re human,” Clint agreed. He took another pull of his coffee, then set the mug on the counter. “Which reminds me, I have some stuff to take care of over Christmas. Need to check up on some old SHIELD contacts, make sure they’re still – “ He searched for a word that would express things gently, then shrugged and gave up. “You know, on our side.”

“Need any help with that?” Natasha asked immediately. Clint probably did want to see if any of their friends from SHIELD were still alive, but most of what he would be doing was spending Christmas with Laura and the kids. This was his way of letting her know what his plans were for getting home. And as it was, she could think of a few people she wanted to check on from SHIELD, too: her old friends Melinda May and Bobbi Morse, not to mention that kid, Tripp…

Clint shot her a furtive glance. “I may have to call you in,” he admitted slowly. “But I wouldn’t want to drag you away from the party.”

Natasha waved a hand airily. “So call me after. It’s no big deal.” Only Cooper and Lila would think it was a very big deal when she arrived on Christmas morning, specially delivered by Santa Claus. At least, last Christmas Lila had still believed in old St. Nick. Natasha wondered if that had changed yet.

Tony moaned. “Are you staying for Christmas?” he asked Bruce.

“Where would I go?” the other asked, spreading his hands. “It sounds like it’ll be a great party. And Natasha can always tell Clint about Veronica after she gets the details at the party.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Tony muttered.

“Oh, Bruce, I just remembered,” Clint sat up suddenly and began rummaging around in his jacket, which he had dropped in the chair beside him. “Since I won’t be staying, I thought I’d give you your Christmas gift early.” He pulled a package about the size of his hand from his jacket and tossed it to Bruce.

Bruce caught it and looked at it. “It has your name on it.”

“Yeah, I ordered it. It’s for you. Open it up.”

Bruce tore off the paper wrapping on the box and looked at it. “A survival kit?” he asked.

“In case you somehow get separated from us when we’re out on a job,” Clint explained. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small container, which he held up for Bruce to see. “Never go anywhere without one myself. I didn’t know what else you could use,” he admitted sheepishly.

“No, this is good,” Bruce took the rest of the wrapping off. “Comes with most of the stuff I’d need, too. Wait, it’s got bug spray? And a bandana?”

“If you ever find yourself in the middle of Afghanistan, that bandana will be a life saver,” Clint said immediately. He went on as he returned his own survival kit to his pocket. “And the bugs in Thailand are enough to kill you just by irritation. Seriously, I thought I was going to lose my mind when I went sloshing through the jungle out there. That spray should kill most anything – it even works on palmetto bugs.”

Natasha shuddered. “I didn’t think they could make anything strong enough to kill those overgrown roaches.”

“I thought I’d test it out, see how effective it was,” Clint explained. “I don’t know if it will work on tarantulas or scorpions, but it kills palmetto bugs. If it can do that, then it’s pretty damn potent stuff.”

“Oh, that reminds me!” Natasha ducked below the counter and came back up with a bottle of wine. “This is for you, Steve,” she handed it to him. “Made in Brooklyn, 1918.”

“Three years before the Prohibition Era,” he said, hefting the bottle. “Thanks, Nat. Anyone want a drink?”

“Perhaps later on,” Thor broke in. “Since I am not going to be able to attend your party and you are all giving gifts, I realize that it might now be a good time to give you mine.”

“Gold statues celebrating our greatness?” Tony asked hopefully as he stepped out of his armored boots, which promptly fell over due to ice build-up. Natasha sighed and Steve rubbed his eyes tiredly.

“A trip to Asgard?” Bruce asked excitedly. Clint groaned.

Thor chuckled. “No, not that, my friends. Come!” He gestured back the way they had come. “To the landing pad! We will need some room for this!”

Please tell me we’re not going to Asgard,” Clint said, getting out of his chair. Steve left Natasha’s gift on the counter and got out of his own chair. They all followed Thor down the hall back to the landing pad, Clint pulling on his jacket as they went. “No offense, but I’m still not sure Loki’s dead, and I’d rather not run into him on his home turf.”

“We will be going to Asgard only briefly,” Thor explained.

Natasha thought he sounded very patient and understanding. Clint had been suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Loki’s death, and Natasha had to admit that, since Thor had not brought his body back to Asgard for a funeral, she was inclined to agree with the archer. Never believe someone was dead unless you could confirm the dead body in front of you was theirs – that was what they believed. Clint had spent most of his adult life in SHIELD, and Natasha had been raised to be a spy. They both knew how easy it was for humans to fake their deaths. For a master of magic like Loki, feigning death would probably have been a walk in the park.

Despite the fact that Thor did not share Clint’s or her concerns, he had kept his anger in check. Maybe he figured it was better to leave them with their own suspicions than to start a feud with them. Or maybe he just thought it was better to humor them. Natasha could not decide which it was.

Thor continued, “But our true destination is Alfheim. I think you will enjoy it.” He smiled at Clint over his shoulder. Natasha guessed he had chosen Alfheim with Clint in mind. Wonder why? She thought. “The portion of Alfheim we will be visiting has mild winters. You may not need that coat where we are going, but should it prove otherwise, they can furnish warmer attire.”

“So what’s in Alfheim that we can’t live without seeing?” Tony asked.

“The Festival of Lights,” Thor said. “It is – well,” he stopped as he pushed open the door and stepped out on the landing pad. “If I were to describe it to you, we would not need to go. And it is something better seen than told!”

They walked out onto the landing pad and Thor got them bunched together as closely as possible. “Heimdall!” he shouted, looking up at the sky. “Open the Bifrost!”

The Rainbow Bridge, as it was known in Norse mythology, struck the landing pad briefly. Then it vanished, leaving an Asgardian symbol imprinted on the metal beneath it. It would be a few hours before the team returned, flushed with excitement (and a little Alfheim ale), ready to continue handing out gifts.

But for now, J.A.R.V.I.S. would keep Avengers’ Tower warm and safe until they returned. Just to amuse himself while they were gone, J.A.R.V.I.S. began flashing the words “Merry Christmas!” on the roll across under the giant A on the Tower’s face. Then he started playing music throughout the Tower. It was music performed by his favorite Christmas artist, Manheim Steamroller. With Tony on another world, he could not complain about the music and J.A.R.V.I.S. could have a little time to himself.

THE END

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