Tag Archives: MCU

Wind River – A Review

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For the most part, there is a general rule I have about films: I watch them (or their trailers) before I buy them. The last thing I want is to spend money on a film only to find out it is not worth the powder to dispose of it. Sometimes, however, I end up breaking my own rule. It is usually pretty bad when I do not like said film myself, but when I buy it as a present for someone else and we both have problems with it – oh, the mortification!

To be fair, Wind River is a good movie. It’s just not great. I will take on the plot deficits first to get the negativity out of the way before I get to the positive, because there IS a positive here. It just does not make my overeager mistake any less embarassing.

With few exceptions, modern Westerns do not excite or interest me. This is because it has been obvious for years now that Hollywood no longer respects or loves the Western; they mock the genre in general. Nevertheless, whenever I hear about a new “Western” coming out, my ears prick up and I pay attention. It does not usually take more than one viewing of the film’s trailer for me to decide whether or not the “Western” in question is a movie I want to watch.

This also explains why Wind River slipped past my defenses; I never really saw the trailers for the film. I read the description for it months after it came out (took that long for someone to actually write a proper report about it), and it sounded interesting, almost like an extended episode of Longmire. That is an impressive series which I can no longer watch and so, with this in mind, I got the film for a friend as a Christmas gift.

For the most part, I would say we were impressed with it. But there were problems with the story. If you do not want any spoilers for the movie, sorry, you are getting them. Here we go:

The premise for Wind River is that an Arapaho Indian girl is found raped and frozen to death out on the Wind River Reservation by a Fish and Wildlife hunter (Jeremy Renner). This brings up bad memories for him, since his own daughter died similarly three years ago. Plus, the current dead girl was his daughter’s best friend. So we have a one-two gut punch here, and a pretty compelling one at that; so far, so good.

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He alerts the Reservation police to his discovery and they call in the FBI. In their typically abstract, disinterested fashion, the Feds send in a young inexperienced agent from their Nevada office (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate the girl’s death. Having recently transferred there from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Olsen’s character is far from prepared to deal with the Wyoming spring. They take her out and show her the body after getting her warm clothes. Once at the scene Renner’s character, Cory Lambert, positively identifies the dead girl (again).

Now we come to the disappointing parts of the film. One recurring difficulty in the movie was that the actors and actresses tended to speak Soto Voce. It meant we had to dial the sound up way too high for comfort to hear them, and even then they were hard to understand. Then we have the villains, identified as “oil field trash,” who are guarding a couple of nearby rigs which have been shut down.

This was a big, BIG sticking point for me and my friend. I knew of the plot point going in, and though it stuck in my craw, I was willing to watch the film anyway. My friend is more accustomed to the demonization of oil field workers than I am, so that was not mi compadre’s main difficulty with that part of the film (though it was still irritating). No, what got my amigo here was something else entirely.

During an after-film discussion, my friend explained that once oil rigs are started, they do not shut down until the rig strikes oil or gas. Only after this is it shut down and then dismantled to be moved to a different site or stored inactive for use at a future time and place. Drilling rigs are generally owned by third parties, who rent or lease them to a company or other corporate entity for the obvious purpose of drilling for and finding oil or natural gas. From the time the rigs are under contract, they cost everyone involved in running them constantly. This is whether they are moved from storage to active site, active site to active site, or from active site to storage. Lease or rent is due and payable, active or idle, by whatever entity is using the rig. Thus these rigs would not be set up, ready to go, and standing idle.

Yet in Wind River, this is exactly what is going on. There is no reason given for the rigs’ deactivation and there should be. Real rigs are run through rain, sleet, snow, or shine, in Wyoming and elsewhere. To have these two turned off on an active site for as long as the story implies is assinine because it would never happen in real life. Two idle rigs standing so close together anywhere in the world today is yet another affront to reality.

The next hitch with the story was the fact that none of the culprits scarpered after killing the dead girl’s boyfriend (guess why she was running away that night). They also all come back from town drunk on their snowmobiles. Uh, what? None of them have cars or trucks? None of them, after awakening from their drunken stupor, realize, “Oh bleep, we just killed a guy” and run for the border?

Yeah, right. One or two might have been stupid enough or mean enough to stick around and try to cover up the murder and the rape, but not the whole crew. Most people scram when they realize they have murdered someone, unintentionally or not. That did not happen in this story, and it should have.

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Next we have the O.K. Corral style standoff at the oil rigs. I can actually buy Olsen’s character getting everyone killed. It is (a) a typical, by-the-book rookie/junior mistake and (b), the Feds are all about throwing their weight around. In this case, they had Olsen’s character at least being sincere, so I can forgive her character a little for this fisaco.

What is unforgiveable is that the writers did not let the Wyoming deputies (whom they showed were obviously aware of immanent danger) protect themselves. This could have been done by placing one or two of the deputies in trailing or flanking positions for the rest of the law enforcement guys in case a problem arose. These might be jaded, cynical cops who are too accustomed to “getting no help” on the Res from the Feds, but that does NOT make them stupid or unwilling to preserve their lives. This was just typical, annoying Hollywood disdain here.

Another drawback for the film was that there was not enough for the main characters to do. This story takes place over the course of two or three days, and in that timeframe barely anything happens. Even as I watched the movie all I could think was, “Yes, I get that you want to convey Lambert’s grief, and you’re doing it really well. But come on – add a little extra dialogue, some banter, or some movement, a little action – SOMETHING to help carry this scene forward instead of letting it drag like this…”

The other big catch with the movie was the rape scene. Placed as it was in the film, it was utterly superfluous to the story. If it was truly necessary, the place to use it was at the earliest possible point in the film for the purpose of emotional impact. Its location before the gunfight wastes the opportunity. It would also have been much simpler and better if the writer(s) had skipped this and used Lambert’s forced confession from the bad guy at the climax of the movie to tell us what happened. We would have gotten the gist of the rape scene just fine with that; there was no need to show us what happened.

The fact that the writer(s) wasted film on the rape scene means they were either trying to make a point about how evil oil workers are, or they wanted to make a statement about how bad it is for Indian girls on the Res. Thanks, but I did not need this scene to know it was bad. The dead body near the beginning was a pretty big clue (which even the FBI could not miss), that things are bad out there; the movie really did not need this scene.

Something else important which the writer(s) for the film neglected to mention is that Federal law ends at the borders of every Indian Reservation in the country. If an Indian commits a crime – any crime – and gets back to the Res before he is caught, then the Feds cannot go in to get him without securing the help of the Reservation police. Their assistance – real or otherwise – must be obtained before a Fed can set foot on a Reservation.They also cannot wander around the Res looking for the culprit alone.

Likewise, you can literally do anything on an Indian Reservation and get away with it. The Reservation police are the only law and order on the Res, and they are either spread too thin to cover all the territory or they look the other way, allowing people to get away with whatever they are doing – except in certain cases, I am sure.

Another flaw in Wind River is that Renner’s character, Lambert, is apparently the only Fish and Wildlife hunter for the Wind River Reservation and the territory surrounding Lander, Wyoming. It also appears that he goes to Pineville a lot while on the job, since he was there with his wife on the night his own daughter was raped and froze to death.

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How could this be a problem for the movie? I did not understand it, either, until my friend pulled out a map to show me that Pineville is far too out of the way for an overnight trip, which is what was implied in the film. Thermopolis or another town closer to Lander would have been a better choice because it could have been reached within the stated timeframe.

This leads to another snag in the story: who in their right mind would leave their sixteen year old daughter home alone to babysit her five year old brother for the night? These days, misbehavior on the part of minors is encouraged. It is rare for anyone to leave their children home alone like the Lamberts supposedly did in Wind River. It would have been more sensible for the writer(s) of Wind River to have the Lamberts’ daughter be out at a party which got out of hand and ended badly, or something along those lines, than what we were told in the film.

Finally, we come to the point of intensity for the film. The climax for the movie was satisfying, but not as much as it could have been. As my friend said, Wind River could have been an update of The Searchers, showing a longer search over time and giving us more of a look at Wyoming’s scenery. (My friend would really have liked to seen Wyoming shown in all her glory through the four seasons.) The bad guy Lambert eventually does in could have been responsible not only for this girl’s death, but for the death of Lambert’s daughter as well. Taking him out would thus have been far more fulfilling for everyone involved. None of this is to say that the climax was bad. It just could have been better, like the rest of the plot for the movie.

You can see now, readers, why I feel embarrassed for getting Wind River for mi compadre without watching it first. After sifting the story a little, we are not left with much more than a carapace, a shell of what could have been. I felt more than a bit mortified after the first three or four conversations we had discussing this movie.

Still, my friend insists Wind River is a good film, and I did enjoy it. We both would have liked it more if these glaring plot holes and virtue signals had been absent or mended, but on the whole we actually came to the consensus that the film deserves three stars. Why?

For one thing, the acting by every member of the cast is superb. I do not often say this about a movie – I really do not – but the acting here was just that good. I have seen both Renner and Olsen in and out of the Avengers’ franchise, although I admit that that is where I like them best.

I have seen Renner in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and in advertisements for other movies. Frankly, while I liked Ghost Protocol and thought he was good in it, his performance there did not equal his work in the MCU. In Wind River, I think he managed to up his game; if the plot had been better, I would have enjoyed his performance even more than I did.

Olsen – I saw a little of her in the Godzilla remake. Blech, I hated it – not her, the film. My revulsion for the last Godzilla movie colored my appreciation for Olsen’s acting there. Not so in Wind River. She did a very, very good job in this film. Wind River should put her on half a dozen casting call lists at least.

Graham Greene was great as the world-weary, quietly cynical, yet still friendly Reservation police chief. I hated watching him die; for a minute there, I thought he might have been spared and that the description of the film had mistakenly listed him among the dead. No such luck – dang. He was really good; too good to croak.

The rest of the cast did a great job, too, absolutely phenominal. It will not get most of them put down for casting calls, unfortunately, but the fact is they all performed well. So the acting alone lands this movie, in my opinion, two full stars. And although we did not get to see near enough of Wyoming, I liked what I did see. Chalk up another half star for that. I should probably add that the bad guy getting his just desserts gives extra weight to this half a star.

I think, personally, that the subject matter earns the second half of the third star, along with the palpable conveyance of grief and loss. Like Longmire, Wind River tackled the issues on the Res. It did not do so in the same fearless manner that the TV series did, but that is because the writer(s) for the film played by Hollywood’s rules.

Longmire did not do this, which is why it got booted to Netflix from A&E. That series stared the rampant problems on the Res in the face and made its viewers do so, too. Wind River fell short of this mark, which is sad. While it certainly showed that the Feds do not care about the Indians on the Reservations (until the next election, of course), it also made it look like the rest of the country does not care about the people on the Res, either, and that is wrong. But the fact that anyone in Hollywood was willing to come within a hair’s breadth of admitting the real troubles on the Reservations in a film is something. Maybe it will get more people to pay attention to the Res.

We can but hope. I certainly will.

So, readers, this is my opinion of Wind River. It is worth watching – but not necessarily worth buying. If you love it, flaws and all, then go ahead and buy it. I will just sit here in my corner of the Internet and continue to suffer occasional, intense bouts of buyer’s remorse.

‘Til next time. 😉

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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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