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Experiment in red

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The first time Wanda meets the Winter Soldier, she doesn't know his name.

"Hello," Wanda says.

"Hello," the man replies. He looks confused and his arm is made of metal. That is super cool and Wanda decides she likes him.

"Are you lost?" Wanda is often lost, so she knows how horrible it can feel.

"No," he says. He coughs. "Are you?" His voice sounds really rusty like he hasn't used it in ages.

"Nuh-huh. I'm in my room," Wanda says. Her room is next to Pietro's room, which is next to the end of the corridor and her room is also next to Lorna's room, but Lorna hasn't been in her room in a long time, because Lorna is special and the grown-ups made her better so Lorna has a new room now. Wanda misses her.

"This," he sounds so confused, like he is lost even though he said he wasn't, "is your room?" He gestures at the blank walls and the bare bed. He frowns and looks at the paper in his metal hand then at the door. "You're Item 1876?"

"I'm Wanda," she tells him. "Who are you?"

"I'm." He stops and the light goes out in his eyes. "Item 1876 is to be taken to the lab. Use force if necessary."

Wanda doesn't like the sound of that, so Wanda goes.

For years afterwards, she would wish that she hadn't.

*

The second time Wanda meets the Winter Soldier is the first time she learns his name.

By this point, she hates him.

He took her to the lab where they hollowed out her heart and poured starlight through her veins, leaving her to rebuild her broken shell into something new. When they didn't like what she was doing, they would do it all away all over again. It happened regularly, but it started with him.

"Hello," he says, his voice soft and smooth and nothing like the one from her nightmares, "you must be Item 1876."

"I'm Wanda and you're a jerk." There are worse words, but Mama would not approve and Wanda still clings to what little she remembers of her life before the labs.

"I am the Winder Soldier," he tells her, like something out of a fairy tale. Something who would think nothing of kidnapping someone and forcing them to spin straw into gold or forcing someone to dance to their death in red-hot shoes. Something that shouldn't get a happy ending.

Perhaps he is another of Baba Yaga’s riders and Wanda has been unwittingly cast as Vasilisa. Would that Wanda could escape too.

"What do you want with me?" She thinks she could hurt him. Maybe not much, but at least a little. His arm is metal. She is not good with metal, not like Lorna, but she could take it apart. She thinks she'll try anyway.

Nothing happens when she does, so she goes deeper inside the burning scarlet of her rage, pulling hard on years of pent-up anger, and still, nothing happens. She tries harder, vowing to do something to him if it kills her, if it kills Pietro, if it kills Lorna, if it kills all of them and so many more besides until the world runs red like sunset.

The star on his arm takes the colour of blood.

Wanda remembers nothing after this.

*

The second-and-a-half time she meets the Winter Soldier, she has never seen him before.

She remembers nothing, not even her name, not even how to speak. She remembers nothing except the red.

A hundred thousand million shades of red spinning inside her head, everything from crimson to scarlet, burgundy to carmine, magenta to vermillion to ruby and all them battling for control of her soul. She is shaking, insides torn apart by the maelstrom.

He wraps his arms around her and the star on the cold metal is scarlet like bright blood.

Scarlet wins inside her heart.

And Wanda remembers.

*

The third time Wanda meets the Winter Soldier, he shows her the star on his arm, scarlet like the inside of her soul, and says, "Thank you."

He sounds Russian, this time, and like he has never spoken Romanian before. The vowels are all wrong.

"What for?" He doesn't have papers. Does this mean he's not here to drag her away to the labs? She'll fight him, if he is. She'll lose, but she'll still fight.

His words are unsure, like he doesn't know the words, like he doesn't know there are words for what he's trying to say. "Gift." She frowns and he taps the star. "For me, yes?"

She nods.

"Gift." He nods back and his voice is sure. It is a gift. It doesn't matter that she tried to kill him. She doesn't think he even remembers that. He looks like no one ever gave him anything, except orders.

She feels a little sad for him. She reaches out to touch the star and he flinches away, then stills. The tips of her fingers brush polished steel and she can feel him trembling.

Use force if necessary.

She drops her hand. "Are you here to take me away?"

"No. My mission is done. I am going away now. I say thank you before I don't remember. Goodbye." This is the most words he's ever said to Wanda. It sounds like it's the most he's ever said to anyone.

"Bye," Wanda says. On instinct, she taps the star as fast and kind as she can.

He walks out.

*

The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth times Wanda meets the Winter Soldier all go like this: the Soldier comes to take Wanda away, taps the star on his arm just once, to let her know he remembers , Wanda goes with him, neither of them get hurt and they both remember each other the next time they meet.

Wanda's victories are small.

***

When he breaks free of HYDRA, he remembers the first and only time he met the woman in red.

She'd looked at him with eyes red like the fire at the end of the world and had said, "If you are as good as they say you are, prove it. Get me out of here.".

He doesn't know what to do. He is not Bucky Barnes and does not want to be.

He does not want to be the Winter Soldier either.

She'd said they were friends. She'd said they'd met twenty nine times before. She'd said it like she didn't expect him to remember, didn't expect him to do anything or be anyone. She just wanted him to know.

She didn't expect him to be anyone he didn't want to be and he thinks maybe he owes her for that.

And if he does not, it will give him something to do. Something that isn't something HYDRA or the Winter Soldier would do. Something he can do simply because he can and not because he was told to.

Whoever ‘he’ is.

He doesn't know where the HYDRA base the woman is in is, but he can figure it out. He remembers music and chill early on a June evening, the one time his target had been in that same town. He remembers the street his target's hotel had been on and the name of the place nearby, and that is enough.

He steals a HYDRA plane, then another and lands in the wilderness outside of the city. (And if that puts an ocean between himself and the man who knew him before he was the Winter Soldier then so much the better.)

The base is burning when he gets there. Ha! Serves them right.

The force of his feelings surprises him. It's not like they've hurt him. They made him hurt and kill others, but they never hurt him that he can remember.

The base is burning bright against the dark night and when the woman steps out of the fire, she is unburnt and wearing white. They're hospital scrubs, the only thing he's ever seen her wear, but they still look wrong on her. She should be wearing red, he thinks, blood enough to drown the world. Red like the star on his arm, the one he's tapping at, without knowing why, through his layers of clothes.

"You," she says, and if colours could speak scarlet might have sounded something like this, angry like a sun being born. "Why are you here?" Her eyes are nothing but endless, purest red.

No pupils, no whites.

Whatever they did to her to turn her into a monster, it worked. (He should know.)

He taps the star on his arm again and says, "Promise."

Her eyes turn human again, then there is a blur of white and green and he is alone with the fire.

*

The second time he meets the woman in red — as himself and not as the Winter Soldier —, it's entirely by accident.

He's in Johannesburg, trying on sunglasses and someone says, "I like those better than the goggles."

He spins and there she is, eyes dark brown, hair dyed black badly, black leather jacket, black pants, red top. He thinks the jacket's design looks familiar.

"Hello," he says, because he doesn't know what to say and that is supposed to be what you say when you meet someone again, isn't it?

"Hi." She's smiling. It looks new on her, but it suits her all the same.

"Wanda!" A man's voice says and she turns her head towards it.

"Listen," she says, clasping her hands together at chest level — this is also new and human and nothing like the monster hiding below her skin —, "I have to go, but thank you for trying to save me."

"You didn't need saving."

"Wanda!" The voice grows more insistent.

"I'm coming, Pietro!" She calls out over her shoulder. He thinks she's frowning. Doesn't suit her. She turns back to him and she's smiling again. "I appreciate it all the same. See you around, yeah?"

She's gone before he can answer.

*

The world almost ends the third time he meets the woman in red.

He's in Moscow, looking for a rumour of something called, possibly, the Red Room, when cars start to fly. Not in the "car of the future" way Steve used to draw sometimes in Brooklyn back before the war, but in the "violent tornado" way. It's only metal that’s affected, though.

His arm tugs inside its socket, but it was demagnetised after the failure of the 1978 SALT talks.

There is a girl with long green hair like Medusa in the centre of the maelstrom. Her irises are pits of endless green. Something about the cast of her face reminds him of the woman in red.

Whatever the girl in green is doing is starting to become stronger. He hooks his demagnetised fingers into the concrete when he feels himself leave the ground, dragged upwards by his watch, belt buckle, steel-toed boots.

Someone taps his arm, right in the middle of the star, with the ease of long practice. It's the woman in red, hair black with three inches of auburn roots. She smiles. It looks painful. She walks up to the edge of the storm and starts glowing red.

"Lorna!" He can't see her eyes, but they must be as red as her voice sounds.

"Wanda?" The woman in green's voice sounds a scared child.

Glowing red meets radiant green and the world goes white.

*

"Hey," she says.

"You're late," he tells her. That's safe. She is late and he is allowed to say so.

Isn't he?

"Sorry," she says. He is allowed. Good. "Pietro is a bit..." She makes a gesture with her hand around her head and he wonders where she learned it and what it means.

"I didn't think you were coming," he says. He hadn't known he would come himself, until he had found himself here. He still doesn't know if this is a good idea.

"I didn't think you'd remember," she says. She says it like she knows he only just remembered.

He drinks his coffee, dark and bitter in a small cup of thick porcelain while she orders an orange juice.

On the hour, the Eiffel starts sparkling.

"This is new," he says. The last time he was in Paris, Berlin still had a wall down the middle of it.

"Not really." She smiles at the waitress who brings her her orange juice. "I didn't think it actually did it, though. I mean, I've been thinking about the Eiffel Tower as being a symbol of, of," she struggles to find a word, "of outside for so long, I still can't believe I'm here."

"You're here," he says.

She drinks her orange juice and the smile on her face is like the sun coming out of the clouds.

He smiles back and remembers what she’d said a long time ago after he'd told her that there was a tower in Paris made of steel and air. 'I want to see it. That's what I want for my birthday.’ He remembers he told her he'd show her.

He taps at the star on his arm. "Happy birthday."

*

The next time they meet is in Tokyo and she's crying.

He sits down next to her on the sidewalk. "Hey."

"Hi." She sniffs. "Didn't expect you here."

"Pietro and Lorna are in Taiwan," he says. He just saw them in the background of a news report. They've dyed their hair a dirty shade of blond, but he's always been good at seeing through disguises.

"Yeah." She doesn't elaborate.

It starts raining and he hunches in on himself, keeping the water away from his arm. She undoes her jacket to hold it over their heads. She'll ruin the leather. She doesn't look like she cares. He grabs his corner of the jacket and oh, so that's why the design looked so familiar. It looks like his — no, the Winter Soldier's — jacket.

"This is a horrible jacket," he says. That was rude, wasn't it? Probably.

She blinks at him, raindrops on her eyelashes. "Hi. I'm Wanda. I have terrible taste."

"Hi," he says, "I'm James."

Wanda laughs and James joins her soon after.

***

The place is Rome and the time is Eurovision. They're having fior de latte gelato on the edge of the Trevi fountain.

"I like Britain the best," Wanda says. "I think I'll be British."

"Because Eurovision?" The gelato's melting on his hand, but it's his metal hand, so he doesn’t notice.

"Because why not. You're losing your gelato." She finishes hers off while he tries and fails to salvage his before throwing it away. "I was Romanian before." Deep breaths. "Before."

"You remember?" He wipes the gelato from his fingers.

She nods, then sneers. "I volunteered."

"You were a child the first time I met you. How could you volunteer for anything?" His voice is calm like winter, but she can almost see the fury coiled beneath.

"Very easily. HYDRA came and took Lorna and I said 'No, take me instead'." She doesn't say 'they killed Anya'. She doesn't say 'Victor shouted at them that they couldn't do it'. She doesn't say 'they took all the children'. She doesn't say 'I don't know if anyone is still alive'. She doesn't say 'Valeria bit one of them'. She doesn't say 'no one ever looked for us'. She doesn't say any of these things and her fingers are cold.

"What was your name?"

"Maximoff. Before HYDRA, my name was Wanda Maximoff." She gets to her feet.

"Before HYDRA, my name was Bucky Barnes." He follows her up.

There's a shop nearby selling jackets and she heads towards it as she asked. "Why James Buchanan then?"

She doesn't know if there's etiquette about asking someone about the name they chose for themselves. She finds she doesn't much care.

"James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes," he says.

She picks the only red jacket in the shop and buys it. She's not a big fan of the style and it looks too big for her, but she wants something red right now, something comforting to wrap around herself. She still has money left over from the Vegas casino. It's not cheating; it's aggressive applied probability.

*

"Stay still," Wanda tells Lorna. Pietro is far, far away. Being Pietro that doesn't mean he couldn't be here in seconds, but the knowledge still makes Wanda feel better. She does not feel like having this fight right now.

"I should just cut the stupid hair myself." Lorna grabs control of the scissors directly from Wanda's hand.

Wanda whacks her upside the head. "Stop that."

James hands the scissors back to Wanda.

Wanda takes the scissors. "Thank you. Have you got the IDs?"

"Yeah. You're Wanda Dane, she's Lorna Dane. You never gave me a last name, so I had to improvise." He tosses the IDs and they land securely on the edge of the sink. James' aim has never been anything less than extraordinary.

"Why'd you give me black hair?" Lorna is flipping through the passports.

"Easier to hide the green and yes, you are going to hide the green. You might as well be wearing a giant 'The Moscow Metalstrom is here!' sign on your head if you don't." James pulls a bottle of hair dye out of his bag. "Metalstrom is a terrible name, by the way."

"I like it," Wanda says at the same time Lorna says, "No, duh. I do have taste, you know."

"Wanda doesn't," Lorna adds.

"So what else is new? I wouldn't be friend with James' sorry ass if I did."

*

James is sitting with a woman with hair red enough to make Wanda jealous.

"Hello," the woman says. Wanda remembers her voice from TV, but not her name, save that she had many.

"Hi. James, who is she?" In her head, Wanda is calculating the probabilities that the woman be hit by falling space debris hard enough to kill her.

"I'm the Black Widow. You must be the Scarlet Witch." She smiles.

Wanda wants to tell her she's not afraid of her, but she would be lying.

"I shot her once, outside of Odessa," James says. His smile tells Wanda he knows he should not be saying this, but he does not care.

Black Widow pushes a brown envelope in Wanda's direction. "You should read this."

"What is it?" Wanda makes a decision and sits down, taking the envelope. She doesn't open it. It could be anything: Black Death, micro-explosives, a hungry cat, anything at all, probabilities spinning scarlet futures over her sight.

"Using the information James," Black Widow's smile turns secretive and almost mocking for a moment, "provided me I have found out what happened to your people."

Wanda's fingers shake as the envelope opens on its own (probability: 1/1 133 105 068 339 606). She takes the files and reads. It is not a happy read.

When she is done, she puts all the files back in the envelope. She closes the envelope. She puts the envelope in the inside pocket of her jacket — the only good thing about the design of this jacket. She breathes in. She breathes out.

"What about the others?" 'What about Victor?' and 'What about Valeria?' is left unspoken.

"I am sorry," Black Widow says, "but there was no one else. I checked."

"Thank you." If Black Widow couldn't find anything, then someone is — or someones are — alive and hiding their tracks perfectly.

Wanda feels like smiling. She feels like crying. She feels like singing.

She does none of these things as she walks away.

*

It's about to rain in London and Wanda is reading the papers. One of the title catches her eye when a good-looking guy in sunglasses — in this weather? — pushes down the paper. The probability that the paper cut doing this gave him will kill him is 1/35 209 812 297 711.

Good enough.

Wanda sets the newspaper on the table. "You're not James."

"Nah. I'm Sam Wilson," he says, like that should mean something to her. "The Falcon." That still means nothing to her. "Aw, man. I'm a friend of Steve's? Natasha's? I'd say James, but he doesn't exactly have friends —"

"He has me," Wanda says.

"I suppose he does. He's in the hospital right now." He holds up his hands. "Nothing to do with me! Some kid with an EMP shorted out his arm."

"I find that hard to believe," Wanda says very carefully.

"Tony gave the kid the EMP for his birthday, because Tony Stark is terrible with children." He smiles at her and it is not as reassuring as he clearly means it to be.

"No," she says, "I find it hard to believe an EMP would take out the Winter Soldier. He is far too resilient for that. "

She isn’t sure why he would bother telling her that James is incapacited, unless this is a trap. The air crackles around Wanda. She could kill him or take the sky away from him with no more effort than she took to fold her newspaper.

Wanda stops.

"Tell me true," she says, her power wrapped tight around his heart.

He digs into his ear — ew — and hands her an earpiece — double ew. She takes it — triple ew —, puts it in her ear and pulls a face.

"Wanda?" The voice on the other end is tiny and tinny.

"James? What was the first thing I ever said to you?" She is still holding the Falcon pinned in place and every camera and prying eye in the neighbourhood away from them.

"How are we counting?" That is good enough, Wanda decides.

She lets the Falcon go.

She hands him back the earpiece and sits down in her chair. She drinks tea while the Falcon settles back in his chair.

"You can go," she says. "Thanks for letting me know James couldn't make it, but tell him that calling me would work just as well next time."

"Yeah, well, he says to wish you a happy British citizenship anniversary. Whatever that means." He gets up.

She doesn't watch him leave and picks up the papers again. Yes. She was right. It is Victor who bought Bran Castle. She would know that face anywhere. He is alive and her people are free.

It is raining in London as Wanda reads the papers.

*

The world is burning.

"I didn't even do anything," Wanda protests. She thinks she would handle it better if she had.

"I know," James says. "Any idea what's happening?"

"Sadly not," Wanda says. "You?"

"Yeah, me neither. Punch the robots in the face, then?" He cracks his neck and shakes his arms lightly to relax them before dropping into a low guard.

"Sounds good to me." Wanda crouches down, putting her fingers on the ground, channelling her power through the local ley lines, weak though they may be.

She cackles like the witch she is and the machines shatter into a hundred thousand million pieces.

She is Wanda Dane, her brother is the fastest man alive and her sister can tear the planet apart.

She is Item 1876 and so can she.

She is Wanda Maximoff and she was a hero before she was a monster

She is the Scarlet Witch and she will not go gentle into the night.

She is Wanda and her victories are great.