Actions

Work Header

Pour Back The Ocean

Work Text:

When Wanda’s parents died, the grief that squatted in her belly was a living thing. Its tendrils coiled their way around her heart, wormed into her lungs, exploited every crack in her brittle and aching bones -- then hardened, growing thick and inflexible, until her body learned to function around its new second skeleton.

If a good fairy waved a wand and removed it now, she fancies she would collapse, bleeding internally from the thousands of holes it burrowed and then filled.

She waits for the first budding tendrils of Pietro’s death to crawl out of her shock and into her lungs. They will follow the tunnels carved by her parents’ deaths and dig new ones too, until there is nothing left of her but a thin coating of flesh, held up entirely by calcified grief.

But where she expects to feel a living thing, a twisting burrowing living pain to crush her heart and steal her breath, instead there is something cold and dark and entirely dead.

She is a coffin. She contains only death now, only stillness. The corpse of her family sits inside her, a wizened, mummified shell, teeth bared in a parody of a smile as its dead flesh shrinks and pulls away from its mouth.

#

She has been given a suite in a secure facility. The bed is soft and there are no windows. She reaches out with a strand of her aether to feel for the hidden cameras, of which there are many, and the hidden microphones, of which there are none. There are other kinds of sensors -- some familiar to her from Strucker’s lab, others entirely new to her. Perhaps some of those function also as microphones; it seems unlikely that they are not monitoring her in every way they are able.

There is a knock on the door.

“Wanda?” Barton calls through.

She remains seated on the bed, opens the door with her aether. It’s a stupid waste of energy, but there’s something seductive about exhaustion, and, of course, there’s no one here to scold her.

“Wanda, hi,” Barton says. He enters the room like the soldiers used to, as if soft eyes and an open body could somehow make them non-threatening. Wanda feels the gap where her contempt should be.

“I brought you these,” he says, holding out his hands in front of him.

There is a passport -- her passport, her real passport, still in the lurid blue and yellow holder Pietro bought for her in Stockholm airport at three minutes to the midnight of their nineteenth birthday -- and a sheaf of papers. The top one is in English.

“We wanted you to have a choice,” Barton says. “I know it was all -- what it was, but you’re here legally, and you can stay here, or go home, or go wherever you want. Whatever it is, we’ve got you covered.”

Perhaps she is supposed to be grateful. Perhaps she is supposed to be angry.

“What we’d like is for you to stay here and be part of the Avengers Initiative,” Barton continues.

She thinks, abruptly, that this is the man Pietro died to protect. The thought is a spark, looking to land on the dry tinder of her pain. But there is no oxygen inside this coffin, and so it flickers only briefly before going out.

Barton does not try to catch her eye, or engage her, or make her confide her terrible grief. She recognises that in him, but cannot muster a response.

“I’ll leave these here,” he says. “And Wanda?”

She doesn’t meet his eye.

“The Avengers would be lucky to have you.”

The passport cover she bought for Pietro at two minutes to midnight was pastel pink. She supposes she could ask Barton where that is, but what good would it do her? The grief inside her is not the kind that needs to be fed.

#

Fury comes to see her. He knocks, then waits until it’s clear she won’t open the door.

“Ms Maximoff,” he says. “I’m coming in.”

She is still on the bed. The bed is still soft. Pietro is still dead.

“Please accept my condolences,” he says in perfectly enunciated Sokovian, then sits at her table, waiting.

When they were pulled out from the rubble, Tony Stark’s name burned on the insides of their eyelids, they made a choice. English was the language of power. They would not be clumsy with it, they would not trip over its ugly ‘th’s and ‘uh’s, they would learn it and they would use it to get what they needed. They stopped speaking Sokovian to each other. English was the language of power; English would be the language they used. It would be a weapon they held on their tongues.

In other words, grieving ten year olds make a lot of fucking stupid decisions.

But ten became fifteen became twenty, and English remained the language they used with each other, its ugly ‘th’s and ‘uh’s becoming just another way to say I love you and we’re in this together.

So her brother’s last words to her were in English, and these, the first condolences she has received, are in Sokovian.

She takes her time, letting herself get lost in the memories of Mrs Vadić’s English lessons and Jack and Jill on the smudge-marked pages of the much-abused textbook. When she puts the memories away, Fury is still sitting there, waiting. He is resting his empty hands on the table.

“Thank you,” she says, finally, in English. She could get off the bed and sit opposite him, have this conversation one adult to another. Even the thought of it drains her.

“Barton brought you the papers,” he says, nodding minutely to the sheaf of documents Barton left on the table yesterday. Was it yesterday? Perhaps the day before. She hasn’t looked at them yet.

This is it. This is the moment where she has to decide. Is she in or is she out?

Out, whispers the bomb that killed her parents.

Out, Ultron crows, his eyes glowing bright in her memory.

Out, her aether sings. Out and away and free.

The corpse that lives in her chest is silent.

“I’m in.” The words barely stick in her throat at all.

#

The Avengers’ training regime will start soon; today is for her to relearn the world.

New York City’s road signs look like they do in the movies, the same colours and lettering she has seen on TV screens all her life. In Manhattan the roads are long and straight, crossing each other at right angles. If the Sokovian capital were built on such a grid, its streets assigned numbers instead of names, the West would call it an example of brutal Communist-era city planning.

She stands on the sidewalk and lets people rush past her. The wind is cold. The sky is clear. There are more dogs than she expected, and fewer bicycles. A puff of cherry-scented fake cigarette smoke hits her and she breathes it in, letting it and the traffic noises and the windchill ground her in the here and now. She is in New York City. These are her people. She will learn them.

The menu in the Starbucks is entirely in English. It shouldn’t surprise her, but it does -- they haven’t branched out to Sokovia yet, but she and Pietro spent a year in Bucharest, and it’s strange beyond the reckoning of it to walk into this store whose muted browns and inoffensive pop music could have been lifted straight from Băneasa Mall and see that same familiar font spelling out to her you are in America now, get used to it. She forces her face into neutrality and stands in line.

“Wanda, hey!”

Wilson is at her elbow, wearing a grey sweatshirt and an apologetic smile. There are still six people between her and coffee.

“Hello,” she says. “Did you follow me here?”

“Me?” He cranks his smile up another notch, like they’re sharing a joke. “Look, I know you’re not looking for an escort, but I just wanted to say hi, let you know I’m on your detail today.”

It’s not a surprise that there’s a detail; it is that they’re letting her know. “How many?”

“Five.” His eyes flick deliberately to the woman two in front of them. “But we’ll stay out of your way.”

She should ask him to sit with her. She’s not going to.

“What can I get you, honey?” the woman behind the register asks. She is dark skinned, with close-cropped hair and a chain joining two piercings at the top and bottom of one ear. Vulnerable in a fight, but pretty; maybe Wanda will get one for special occasions.

“A tall vanilla latte, please. And for you?” she asks Wilson, to cover her own surprise at her order. That was Pietro’s usual, not hers. She finds it too sweet.

Wilson is all smiles for the woman as he orders a filter coffee, then turns to Wanda to give her a smaller, more private smile of her own. “Thanks.”

“You’ll need it,” she says. “We have a busy day ahead of us.”

After Wilson gets his drink, they nod their goodbyes, and Wanda and her five shadows go to Central Park. She picks up a map at the Visitors’ Centre to complement the one she downloaded last night, but all she really wants to do is drink her too-sweet coffee and watch the world carry on turning.

A white woman in a red and blue tracksuit is pulled along by six large dogs on leashes. Her voice is all laughing sympathy as she talks to them -- she tells them she knows, buddy, leashes suck, but later they’ll go to the dog park, it’s going to be awesome, they can sniff all the butts they want.

Pietro was always more of a dog person than her, but she likes them well enough. Perhaps she will find a dog park later and watch them for him.

#

Week 1, Day 1
Skill: Offensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Vision / Wilson+Rhodes / Romanoff+Rogers
Training mechanism: Drones

Wanda is in a room with three American soldiers, Natasha fucking Romanoff, and a robot. The robot is by far the least troubling. She tunes into his mind occasionally, comforted by its quiet, steady certainty -- she is reminded of nothing more than the gentle hum of servers. She thinks he may have noticed this about her.

The drones are amassed in an open field half a kilometre to the east, a starting horde of a hundred or so, each the size of her fist, each sleek and blue-grey and deadly.

“I will contain them,” she says to Vision. “You destroy them.”

He considers this. “And if they target you?”

“You destroy them.”

“Understood.”

This would have been Pietro’s job, before. She would have stood in the middle, crushing the machines with her aether, while Pietro ran circles around them, herding them faster than the human eye could see. But instead she readies her aether to spread out around her, to surround, to contain, to control. She will be the cage for this destruction.

Vision can’t read her mind, and she isn’t reading his, but nonetheless, they turn to each other as one and say: “Ready?”

The drones don’t stand a chance.

Week 1, Day 2
Skill: Tactics
Pairs: Maximoff+Romanoff / Rhodes+Rogers / Vision+Wilson
Training mechanism: Zombies (slow)

Romanoff is waiting for Wanda to speak first. Absently, Wanda considers waiting her out, but if she’d wanted to sulk and suffer, she could have taken her passport and left -- she’s here to be here, and so when Romanoff waits for her to speak first, she speaks first.

“Those two,” she says, pointing at two warehouses on square C5 of the map projected between them. “Barricade the lower levels, and set up links between the tenth floor windows for transfer of supplies. The --” She can’t quite bring herself to say it. “-- enemy can’t jump that far, if they breach one side.”

Romanoff nods. “I liked this cluster for a base,” she says, a sweeping gesturing highlighting four buildings over on square E1. “Always into a good vantage point.”

It’s better than Wanda’s choice, much less vulnerable to a surprise attack, but: “The sewage system,” Wanda says, stabbing at the projection until a second map is overlaid. “I think we can do better.”

She’s not an idiot: if she could spot it, Romanoff could spot it. But she’s here to be here, and what that means for her today is staring hard at the maps in front of her and ignoring anything that isn’t the oncoming zombie hordes.

Week 1, Day 3
Skill: Retrieval
Pairs: Maximoff+Rhodes / Rogers+Wilson / Romanoff+Vision
Training mechanism: Abandoned hospital

“Hey,” Colonel Rhodes says to her. He watches her as if she’s a traumatised child, and when it comes to him, she’s not entirely sure he’s wrong. This is a man who calls himself War Machine, who chooses to wear Tony Stark’s bomb casings, whose mind is so full of patriotism and determination that it hurts to look at directly.

“Hey,” she says to Colonel Rhodes. He’s her team member now. If she could still feel fear, perhaps it would be okay to be afraid of him, but she cannot, and so what reason does she have left not to work with him? “Abandoned hospital today? Creepy.”

He laughs, more gratitude than amusement. “You know this was literally Wilson’s job? They should make him do it blindfolded, even it up for the rest of us.”

She is hit with the sudden, implacable certainty that Pietro would have liked him. They could have been overly competitive assholes together, all laughter and arm wrestling and self-assured machismo.

She thinks about what Pietro would have said.

“We’ll kick their asses, Colonel Rhodes.”

Two hours later, Tony Stark’s bomb casing around Colonel Rhodes’ arm is the only thing between her skull and an exploding hospital generator. She thinks her life was never in any real danger, but perhaps it’s better not to test that.

Week 1, Day 4
Skill: Defensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Rogers / Rhodes+Vision / Romanoff+Wilson
Training mechanism: Birds

Rogers flings his red, white and blue shield in a wide circle. Punctuating the caws and the wing beats and the harshness of her own breath, Wanda can hear the quick-fire sequence of thuds as it cuts down raven after raven, their corpses not even hitting the ground before the next rank takes their place. She reaches deep inside herself and pushes, hurls the aether as far and fast as she can, just hoping Rogers has his shield back before it reaches him, and she can feel, right deep clear inside herself, the moment the ravens’ mechanisms fail.

“Neat trick,” Rogers says between deep gulps of air. “Will it work on real birds?”

The aether retracts smoothly into Wanda’s skin until the only traces of raw, red power left outside her are those clinging to the broken toys that flew so exactly like living things. She pants in exhaustion before answering: “Yes.”

Week 1, Day 5
Skill: Evacuation
Pairs: Maximoff+Wilson / Rhodes+Romanoff / Rogers+Vision
Training mechanism: Asteroid(s)

“You take the valley, I’ll take the hills,” Wilson half-asks, half-orders, and he’s off and running the second she nods her acknowledgement -- but, she notices, not before.

Wilson and his wings have more ground to cover, but she has more people to save. Each hologram is programmed with a half dozen reactions, ranging from eager compliance to stubborn denial -- the first time one of them refuses to leave the house, she tries to grab it bodily and pull, only for her hand to pass right through its stupid fucking arm. She contemplates explaining this to Romanoff in the debrief, and that alone is enough for her to fix it with her most commanding gaze and say, “Now.” It works -- it turns out the denial holograms only have to be argued with for an extra minute before they leave, and in return they’re twice as efficient at retrieving the stray children that this godforsaken training program has decided cannot stay in one place.

She corrals and cajoles, she shouts and she whispers, and suddenly an hour has passed and her valley is empty of holographic morons who can’t just listen to a public evacuation notice like everyone else.

“Goddamn,” Wilson says as he lands next to her. “I was half tempted to leave them there.”

Wilson has never helped a genocidal robot nearly wipe out the human race, so he’s allowed to make that joke.

#

If she wants to live in this world, she will have to start having feelings again. She knows this disconnect isn’t good for her -- not for her life, and not for her fighting, and not for the team she has chosen to serve -- but the gulf between knowing and doing is too wide for her to contemplate.

Wilson too-casually mentions his support group to her. She considers it, even thinks it might sound nice, having someone to talk to -- until she remembers that it will be a room full of American soldiers. She can’t bring herself to say that to Wilson, but when she finds the words to say thank you, but no, she thinks he might know anyway. He smiles at her. He’s always smiling.

Abruptly, she wonders if it was brave of him to tell her about the group. On TV, the Americans all have therapists; they sit in comfortable chairs and emote at stern-faced women with glasses and tightly pulled back hair.

“In Sokovia,” she says, trying not to feel like she’s betraying something, “it would be very hard for someone -- a man, especially -- to share this with a colleague.”

Sam looks at her curiously for a moment. “Yeah, in America, too. You know, the average time from discharge to seeking treatment for PTSD is thirteen years?”

Thirteen years is half of Wanda’s life to date. That’s a long time not to talk to anyone about the corpse inside her chest.

“What would you do,” Wilson asks, “in Sokovia? Who do people talk to?”

Their family, Wanda doesn’t say. Wilson is trying to help her, and she is trying to be helped.

Wilson opens his mouth to speak again, and she holds her hand up. “I’m thinking.”

It’s the kind of rudeness the Avengers all seem to enjoy, the kind Pietro was always better at than her.

She pulls out her phone and googles sokovian synagogue new york city.

Then she closes the tab. She’s in America now. She’s an Avenger now, or trying to become one. She will live in this world, and when best to start than while she’s still numb to the terror of it? She doesn’t look up to see if Wilson is watching her, but nor does she hide her screen. Tony Stark and every SHIELD operative who cares can probably see her browsing history at the touch of a button, anyway.

And then she googles liberal synagogue new york city.

A list of ten pop up.

gay synagogue new york city

She takes on board the terminology. Adapts, readjusts, tries again.

lgbtq synagogue new york city

atheist synagogue new york city

jewish humanist new york city

lgbtq jewish humanist congregation new york city

Any other day, her heart would be pounding straight out of her chest. But the fear isn’t there -- or the anticipation, or the longing, or the thrill, or the hope -- and the people in the pictures on the website may not look Jewish to her, but they do look happy.

“Thank you,” she says to Wilson. If he saw her screen, his face shows no sign of it. “I think I need to talk to a rabbi.”

#

In the end, she picks the closest liberal synagogue with a female rabbi. It’s enough to know the others are there, for when she’s ready. She emails ahead to set up a meeting -- she doesn’t want the chance to back out.

Rabbi Tollmann has an open face and smile lines carved deep into ruddy pink cheeks. She meets Wanda at the doors with a handclasp and a warm, booming greeting: “Welcome, welcome. I’m Rabbi Jessica Tollmann, everyone calls me Tolly. You must be Wanda?”

Wanda’s hand feels brittle inside the rabbi’s grasp. “Pleased to meet you,” she says.

“Come in, come in,” Rabbi Tollmann booms. “Do you want a coke, a juice, some coffee, I think I even have some tea somewhere if that’s more your thing?”

“Water, please,” Wanda says. “Thank you.”

Rabbi Tollmann bustles her into a room and bustles out again, coming back moments later with two cold, unopened bottles. “One for you,” she says as she hands one to Wanda. “And one for me. It’s hot out today, no?”

Wanda hadn’t noticed.

“Your email said you were new to the area,” Rabbi Tollmann continues. “What do you think of the place so far?”

“I’ve never met a female rabbi before,” Wanda says. “So it’s already doing something right.”

Rabbi Tollmann’s face creases in delight. Her laugh is like the rest of her, broad and genuine, as if she was put on this earth to bring light into darkness.

Wanda doesn’t know if Pietro would have liked her. She decides she does, though.

“I like to start by asking people some questions -- just get-to-know-you chat, nothing too personal, and if I hit a sore spot, we can move on. I just want to get a feel for what you need from me, you don’t have to unburden your whole life story -- unless you want to.”

Wanda nods her consent.

“What brings you to New York?”

“Work.” Then, because Wanda is trying, she adds, “I’ve been given a second chance.”

“In work?” Rabbi Tollmann prompts.

“And life.” Wanda toys with her water bottle for a moment, not sure if she wants Rabbi Tollmann to interrupt her or not. “I made some bad choices. My brother died. I want to be better than what I was before.”

Rabbi Tollmann leans forward, not close enough to touch but close enough that if Wanda leaned forward, too, she could take her hand. Wanda appreciates the gesture and its limit. The rabbi’s voice is without its boom when she says, “I’ve always found that’s a good place to start.”

#

Week 2, Day 1
Skill: Evacuation
Pairs: Maximoff+Vision / Wilson+Rhodes / Romanoff+Rogers
Training mechanism: Volcano

“The floor is lava,” Wilson says, and Rhodes gives a short, sharp laugh. The two of them are paired again today, as are Wanda and Vision. His is still the only comforting mind in this team of soldiers and spies, but she finds that already she needs it less, even when the Americans are sharing their jokes.

SHIELD has not taken them to train on top of an active volcano, but the simulation is impressive. It took three hours in a jet to get to this large and isolated hilltop expanse with its lava flows projected out in glowing orange. This time they are rescuing grey basketballs -- each has a smily face drawn on in black marker. Someone at SHIELD clearly enjoys their job.

Wanda and Vision rescue the fewest. He lands to her left, his cape fluttering, as they ready themselves for the debrief.

“If they’d been alive,” he says to her, “our powers would have let us find more.”

He’s right. She would have sensed their minds; he would have seen their electromagnetic signatures.

If they’d been alive, she thinks but does not say, then thanks to Wanda and Vision they would now be dead. The basketballs smile back at her. Next time, she will save more.

Week 2, Day 2
Skill: Offensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Romanoff / Rhodes+Rogers / Vision+Wilson
Training mechanism: Giant spiders

The first time after everything that another Avenger touches her, it’s Romanoff with a two handed push that sends her spinning out of the way of a thick, green glob of venom. She lands in a crouch, knees shooting a sharp warning pain, and flings herself straight up into the air again to punch her attacker right in the maw. Her aether-shrouded fist hits home with a satisfying crack of shattering exoskeleton, and she twists and pushes, reaching right inside to destroy its mechanised brain.

She’s able to return the favour only moments later, when two of the waist-high spiders target Romanoff at once. Wanda’s aether boosts Romanoff into the air, gun in each hand, allowing her clear shots straight down into each join between head and thorax. She isn’t watching as Romanoff makes the shots, but the next time their eyes meet, Romanoff gives her a quick, curt nod.

Week 2, Day 3
Skill: Tactics
Pairs: Maximoff+Rhodes / Rogers+Wilson / Romanoff+Vision
Training mechanism: Sea monsters

“Should we make you do this blindfolded?” Wanda asks Rhodes. If any of them have an unfair advantage here, it must be the highest ranking military officer.

Rhodes laughs back at her, still grateful, maybe also a little amused. They’re less awkward around each other this week -- she can see the man within the bomb casings, he can see the woman who grew from that scared little girl -- but it’s nowhere near easy, and she tries her best to meet him on his terms.

“Yeah, this one’s kind of a relief after the spiders,” he says. “You want to take the lead, I’ll try not to be too much of an asshole?”

She looks at the computer screens in front of them, reams and reams of data on these giant lizard-like deep-sea beasts, maps and charts and graphs and labelled diagrams. “Thank you,” she says, meaning it. “I’d like to learn from you.”

If he’s startled at her words, he hides it well.

Week 2, Day 4
Skill: Retrieval
Pairs: Maximoff+Rogers / Rhodes+Vision / Romanoff+Wilson
Training mechanism: Robots with lasers

Rogers’ shield is slowly heating up as he keeps it between their crouched bodies and the lasers. They’re pressed against against each other, his body another line of defence, and she’s trying to use her aether to scope out the parts of the warehouse they can’t see, but the lasers keep interfering and the wrongness of it hurts, a pain underneath her skin that builds with the rising heat and Rogers’ deliberate, even breathing.

The lasers don’t sever her aether, but they weaken it, and dimly she thinks that this is going to be one hell of a debrief, but now, right now, she has to focus on getting that box back. She spreads herself out more thinly, hoping that the less the lasers touch, the less they’ll hurt, and she reaches, searching and searching until she’s sure the entire warehouse is filled with the dim red mist of her mind.

She tightens the focus now, bringing it in on the box, the box that is -- there. Yes. One floor up, directly above them, inside a crate. She reels her attention back into her body, and oh, that’s strange, she’s shaking, her nerves tingling with something that might be pain.

“One floor up,” she grits out. “There’s a crate. Half a meter east of our current position.”

Rogers braces himself to move, then stops, mutters low but clear, “You want to tap out? We can. You’re too valuable to waste on a training exercise.”

“I want to retrieve the asset,” Wanda answers.

Rogers takes her at her word. “Then on my mark...”

Week 2, Day 5
Skill: Defensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Wilson / Rhodes+Romanoff / Rogers+Vision
Training mechanism: Dinosaurs

Wanda does have to tap out the next day. It turns out yesterday’s lasers interfered with her aether at a subatomic level -- a group of SHIELD scientists who talk very fast in incomplete sentences are excited about this, but all it means for her is that instead of fighting dinosaurs with Wilson, she’s sitting in a lab surrounded by whirring, bleeping sensors.

Wilson swings by to say hi. “You really left me hanging there, Maximoff,” he says. He’s smiling his I-am-joking smile, which morphs into his are-you-okay? smile when she doesn’t immediately respond.

“I wish I could have fought today,” she says truthfully. “When we were five we were obsessed with dinosaurs. I loved the -- I don’t know the English. I loved the parasaurolophus best.” She uses the Sokovian word. “Pietro’s favourite was the pterodactyl. The flying one.”

Wilson silently mouths her words. “Oh, right, pterodactyl,” he says. The word is unsurprisingly close given they must both come from the Latin -- it sounds almost like someone trying to speak Sokovian with a broad American accent. “What was the other one?”

Parasaurolophus,” she repeats. “It has a large --” She doesn’t know the English word for this, either, and feels a sudden, sharp spike of frustration. In Sokovian, she could distract herself with this for hours. “-- thing,” she finishes, trying to illustrate its elongated crest with her hands.

“We could google it?” Wilson offers, taking out his phone.

She takes out her own and thinks of Pietro. “Race you.”

#

Friday night, Wanda sits alone in her room and lights a single candle. She’s not celebrating Shabbat tonight, nor does she want to -- she just needs a moment to come back to herself, to remember who she is and why she’s here. A focal point in all this chaos.

She’s not sure if the corpse in her chest is smaller or if it’s simply that her chest is larger now, grown to contain the last half-month of living. Two weeks ago, she drank coffee in Central Park and didn’t choke on it. A week and a half ago, she deliberately chose to fight alongside a weapon made by Tony Stark. A week ago, she met Rabbi Tollman. A few days ago, Natasha Romanoff touched her and she didn’t shatter. Today, she learned the English for parasaurolophus.

It’s a lot to fit in just one chest, especially when you’re used to having two to share the load.

But her room is still her room, and the bed is still soft, and she is still here and still trying. The candle is a thick white pillar candle, the kind that doesn’t need a holder, and the melted wax pools in its centre without -- yet -- spilling over the sides.

Wanda picks the candle up from her bedside table and holds in both hands, brings it up to her face. She watches the flame dance and tries to focus -- shutting out the room and the soft bed, keeping only herself and the light.

Pietro.

She misses him so fiercely and so suddenly that she jerks from the hit. He’s never going to laugh at her again. He’s never going to hold her again. She never going to fight alongside him again. They’re never going to argue again. She can never, ever tell him about the last two weeks of her life -- she can never find out what he thinks of Rabbi Tollman, she can never see him cheat Rhodes at cards. If she needs advice, it will never come from him. If she needs a hug, it will never come from him. If she needs someone to be deeply, utterly proud of her for somehow carving small pieces of life out of this terrible new world, she can never turn to him.

It’s not right, that she should continue on after him for more than a handful of weeks. She’s trying to be glad that she has lived to mourn him, even if every selfish bone in her body wishes it had been the other way round, but what happens after the mourning? Is she supposed to live ten more years without him? Twenty? What happens when she is in her fifties, and the day comes that she has lived more of her life without him than with him? It doesn’t make sense. How can she be Wanda without Pietro? Save for the twelve minutes she made him wait before joining him in birth, he never had to learn to live without her -- it’s not fair that this, the hardest thing she’ll ever have to do, she has to do without him.

Every memory from the last two weeks is tainted by this. The phantom pressure of Romanoff’s hands pushing her to safety burns her side, but instead of a mark of progress it feels like a bruise, like another thing Pietro will never know.

A teardrop splashes onto her wrist.

Fuck him for not being here. Fuck him. Selfish motherfucking asshole cunt, he knew what he was doing when he chose to be a hero -- when he chose not to live with the consequences of what they’d done. Fuck him. Fuck him. He doesn’t get to do this to her, to leave her like this, to abandon her like this -- that’s not what they promised each other. It wasn’t his choice to make.

She hates him so much she’s shaking with it. He left her. He’s dead and Tony mothershitfucking Stark is alive -- and, to add to the injury, she has to learn to live in a world where she’s the genocidal villain and Tony Stark is the hero.

She breathes, slow steady breaths at odds with her heart rate. There is a pounding tension behind her eyes and she can’t tell if this is grief or her aether or both or something else entirely. The candle. She focusses on the candle, letting it draw in her attention until there’s nothing in her mind but a single, determined flame. She’s aware, in a distant, tired way, of tear tracks down her cheeks and a raw pain in her throat, but instead she chooses to feel the solid weight of the candle in her hand and watch the minute flickers of the flame before her. She is here. She is here in this room. She is here on this bed. She is here.

Pietro isn’t, but that’s on him, not her.

#

Wanda meets Rabbi Tollman on Sunday afternoon in a tiny coffee shop near Grand Central Station. The coffee shop’s walls are painted with swirling blues and silvers, and bits of bicycle wheels protrude from the ceiling. She doesn’t know who’s on her detail today, and she tries to push it out of her mind -- privacy is not a luxury she will ever have again.

Wanda has arrived twenty minutes early; she is now the kind of person who allows extra time in case a stray thought causes her joints to seize, wholly incapacitating her with grief. Today, she allowed an hour.

She uses the twenty minutes to replay this morning’s sparring session. Her aether puts her on a level with the others, or near enough, but she’s far behind them in terms of skill. She’s starting to hold her own when they fight at half speed, strikes and blocks telegraphed, but today was not a half-speed day. Rogers caught her off-guard with a lightning quick kick that seemed more Romanoff’s style -- and Wanda crumpled like tissue paper.

She plays it over in her mind, trying to work out when she should have seen it, how she should have blocked it. She tests and rejects various moves, her body shifting minutely as she thinks through each feint and thrust.

Down and sharply to the right; out of his way and letting his own momentum unbalance him? But that only works if she’s in position to take advantage -- and she won’t be.

Her shoulders are twisting slightly in parody of a dodge when Rabbi Tollman sits down opposite her and says:

“Wanda, hello, hi, delighted you got back in touch.”

Wanda’s twisting shoulder tense and then force themselves to relax. The Rabbi has not caught her out -- she’s just being nice. Wanda needs all the nice she can get.

“Thanks for meeting me,” Wanda says politely. “Can I get you a drink?’

“No, no, let me get you something -- have you been waiting long? I love this place -- the flat white is to die for. Do you do milk?”

There are more words as the Rabbi establishes that yes, Wanda will have a flat white, whatever that is -- what Wanda takes from them is that the Rabbi has a range of favourite coffee shops the length and breadth of Manhattan, but this is the most European, doesn’t she think?

Rabbi Tollman bustles to the counter and bustles back with their coffees. It turns out a flat white is what Wanda knows as an Australian latte -- so now she’s learned two new things today, and only one of them bruised her ribs.

“So,” Rabbi Tollman says, “am I here as a potential friend or a potential rabbi?” She leaves Wanda enough space to respond, but before the silence can turn awkward, continues, “Sometimes people worry that if they don’t want to do the whole G-d thing, or they don’t want to do it my way, I’ll write them off. But all I need to know is that when you needed someone, you reached out to me -- the G-d I serve doesn’t care past that, so neither do I.”

Wanda draws breath and is startled to hear herself sob. There are tears filling her vision and she doesn’t know why. That was good news, surely? Wasn’t that what she’d wanted to hear?

“Oh,” Rabbi Tollman says, soft and full of warmth. “Sweetheart.”

She hands Wanda a pack of tissues -- “Never leave home without them” -- and keeps up a steady stream of non-judgemental friendliness while Wanda cries herself out.

“I’m sorry,” Wanda manages, halfway through Rabbi Tollman’s thoughts on driving in Flushing.

“No, no, not at all. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have sprung that on you like that. But I’ve been there, thinking I have to earn my place -- and you don’t, not from me.”

To earn it and keep earning it, Wanda realises. Rogers’ protection, Wilson’s friendliness, Romanoff’s glimmers of approval, Rhodes’ insights, Vision’s reassuring calm -- she won’t get to keep them if she fails at this, if she gets scared, if she gets tired, if her limbs lock with grief not on the subway but in the training ground, if she gives up, if she fucks up, if, if, if.

“Hey,” Rabbi Tollman says. “Hey, don’t get lost in there. We’re going to drink our exceptionally good flat whites and we’re going to talk about easy things, and if you need to cry then you cry, but try and do it here with me, not alone in there, okay?”

Wanda thinks maybe this is what having a mother is like.

“Okay,” she says quietly, and starts to cry again.

#

Week 3, Day 1
Skill: Defensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Vision / Rhodes+Wilson / Rogers+Romanoff
Training mechanism: Vampires

Wanda and Vision are watching Rogers boost Romanoff on his shield when she has an idea.

“Do you think--”

At the same moment, Vision says, “Perhaps we might--”

They both stop. There is an awkward exchange of you firsts and no no I insists that Vision and his Queen’s English win easily.

“Do you think you could manipulate my aether?”

Vision’s face goes blank. In another, Wanda would see that as a trained and careful defence -- in Vision, she’s suspects it means he’s forgotten to have an expression.

“I was just about to suggest the same thing,” he says. His voice emotes even when his face doesn’t; she thinks he sounds pleased.

By the time it’s their turn to face the robot vampires, he can wield a fragment of her aether like a stake without more than the barest hint of intent from her. She’s not sure how she feels about it, but she bets the vampires are feeling pretty dead.

Week 3, Day 2
Skill: Evacuation
Pairs: Maximoff+Romanoff / Rhodes+Rogers / Wilson+Vision
Training mechanism: Demonically possessed children

Romanoff takes one look at the mission on her screen and says, “No.”

She passes her tablet to Rogers, who reads it more closely before nodding. “No.”

Rogers passes it to Wilson -- “Nope” -- who passes it to Rhodes -- a quick look at Wanda, then: “Hell no” -- who passes it to Vision -- “I understand” -- who passes it to her.

The mission brief is characteristically to the point: They are to evacuate children, 10% of whom are demonically possessed and must be terminated before they can infect the others. It gives a set of coordinates and timings. The children will be computer generated.

She hadn’t known they could refuse a training exercise.

She looks up. Rhodes and Vision are waiting for her response, Romanoff is on her phone, Rogers and Wilson are having a hushed and angry conversation.

“I didn’t join the Avengers Initiative to kill children,” she says, “even for pretend.”

Vision meets her eyes. “Quite.”

Rogers and Wilson conclude their discussion just as Romanoff is finished on the phone.

“Sparring practice,” Romanoff says.

“But first,” Rogers, says, “ice cream.”

Week 3, Day 3
Skill: Offensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Rhodes / Rogers+Wilson / Romanoff+Vision
Training mechanism: An actual hydra

“Fucking,” Rhodes spits out as he twists and flies backwards, firing his hand blasters straight into the neck Wanda’s holding immobile and extended. “Nu-SHIELD’s.” She drops the head the moment it’s severed, flinging her aether sideways to block a head’s open-jawed attack on Rhodes’ legs. “Idea.” One hand burning the neck to a stump, he uses the other to shoot directly over her shoulder, and she doesn’t look round, but feels the splatter of pseudo-blood on her back and head. “Of.” She gets the next neck immobilised before Rhodes reaches it, and has to let go to fly out of the way of two heads rounding on her at once. “A.” The two heads miss her, and she binds them together, pulling so Rhodes can strike them both at once, if he can only get into position. “Fucking.” He holds his arms out straight and dives, hitting their necks with his blasters and the full weight of his body all at once. “Joke.”

“Not,” she agrees, using all her strength and power to keep the necks from thrashing out of Rhodes’ reach before he can neutralise them. “Fucking.” She keeps hold of one, but the other gets free, shit, but Rhodes is on it, kicking out his feet behind him to hit the neck with his blasters until she can recapture it. “Funny.”

Week 3, Day 4
Skill: Tactics
Pairs: Maximoff+Rogers / Rhodes+Vision / Romanoff+Wilson
Training mechanism: Yeti(s)

Perhaps the only Avenger who scares her now is Rogers. Vision is too powerful to fear, and by the time there was room for it in her chest, the others had become more than their symbols. Wilson’s google history now contains a selection of dinosaurs; Rhodes treats every joke or curse out of her mouth as a personal victory; and when she looks at Romanoff, she sees someone she might one day impress.

She could try to think of it as a good sign. It means she has some sense of preservation, of self, no longer clouded by the desperation of before or the numbness of after. But all it really means is that when Thursday morning dawns, she’s barely slept. The dread has pooled vast and terrible in her belly, and she briefly considers telling SHIELD’s scientists her aether needs more tinkering.

Even reminding herself that she is choosing to be here, she is choosing to live, she is choosing to be better -- even that doesn’t help. Today is tactics, and that means she has to be alone in a room with Captain America. No one will take her word over his, whatever he does.

She’s nothing but exhaustion and adrenaline by the time she makes it to the practice rooms.

“Maximoff,” Romanoff greets her. “You’re with me today. Wilson and Rogers have a lead on a missing person’s case.”

Wanda feels relief flood through her like a blow to the spine.

Romanoff jerks her chin. “Rogers was the one who got the lead,” she says. “He sends his apologies.”

Week 3, Day 5
Skill: Retrieval
Pairs: Maximoff+Wilson / Rhodes+Romanoff / Rogers+Vision
Training mechanism: Werewolves

Wilson soars into the air, the dummy held in his arms as closely and carefully as if it were a real person. Wanda is still standing on the rubble, her aether extended to detect any movement before it can reach them. She counts to ten in her head, slowly, the way they did in school -- ... five barrels, six barrels ... -- and watches his wings cut their graceful path away from her. Wilson’s wings are so much a part of him that sometimes it takes her a second to adjust when he removes them, like the lights have suddenly dimmed.

Rhodes was right -- they should make him go in blindfolded. But he’s a good teacher, and she has learned a lot today.

Ten barrels, and it’s time for her to leave. At the edge of her aether, she can feel something encroaching -- but that’s not the mission, and it’s not her call. Instead, she gathers the aether in, faster than breathing, and draws it up to boost her into the air. She can’t fly long distances, but she can get away before the creatures reach her, and that’s all she needs to do.

#

“Steve Rogers: American Hero wants to go vandalise a museum,” Wilson says as he hands her a vanilla latte. “Want to come?”

“What?”

“Steve Rogers: American Hero heard the Sutter Museum has a new exhibit on about Peggy Carter, so Steve Rogers: American Hero is going to correct all the plaques.”

“Why?”

Wilson gives her a look like she’s just belched in his face. She can draw him the blueprints to Stark Tower from memory, or walk him through over twenty weaknesses she and Pietro found in the original Avengers’ fighting style from studying public footage of the New York Invasion, but she always left the minutiae of their private lives alone. If she needed it, she could always reach into their minds to get it.

“What?” she says, deciding to treat it as yet another gap in her American pop culture. “I always preferred Batman.”

Wilson laughs. “Ten bucks to say that to his face.” But he’s got her back, because the next thing he says is, “Nah, she was a Brit, key player in Project Rebirth, founder of Original Flavour SHIELD and all round hero -- or, would have been if she was a guy. She and Steve had a thing, and he gets pissy as hell when anyone tries to sell her short. He’s going to change all the ‘involved with’s to ‘crucial to’s and add a couple of zeroes to any estimates of lives she saved.”

“And this is fun?” she asks.

It really is. Steve Rogers: American Hero has a pocketful of black Sharpies and a filthy mouth.

“Motherfucker,” he spits when he reads one display. “That ratbastard couldn’t shit in a barrel without five good men to aim him, and they’re saying he cracked Poseidon ‘with Carter’s able help’? Cover me.”

Wilson and Wanda form a human shield between Roger’s flagrant property damage and the curator.

Wanda is here because Wilson asked her. She’s also here a little bit because Rogers gave her a reprieve two days ago, and she owes him. But even with all that, she nearly balked when they got to the museum and she realised that whatever damage Rogers did, some poor soul would lose their job over -- until Wilson mentioned, off-hand, like he just happened to think of it, that at the end Rogers would tell the curator who he was and what he’d done, and the exhibition would triple in popularity.

If Wanda were a museum curator, that might create exactly the wrong kind of incentive for accuracy.

“Yes,” Rogers had said from surely too far ahead to have heard her mutter as much to Wilson, “but exactly the right kind of incentive for having the exhibition in the first place.”

On the way out, she buys a postcard photo of Peggy Carter to give to Rabbi Tollman at dinner.

#

On Sunday, Romanoff shows up at her door at 7:25am. Logic suggests that if there were a real emergency, it wouldn’t announce itself like this. Logic, however, sleeps in on weekends, so there’s a shock of adrenaline spiking through Wanda’s heart as she listens to Romanoff explain her Sunday pilgrimages to Harlem.

There’s a small educational and vocational foundation set up for children affected by an industrial accident a few years ago. The teachers and trainers are all paid decent wages -- hired from within the neighbourhood where possible, or from nearby if not -- but there’s still room for volunteers to help out. Romanoff gives the kids who are learning languages some one-on-one conversation time and supervises the boxing when there aren’t quite enough coaches to go round.

Wanda may not have known the details of Rogers’ past romantic life, but they did their research on recent Avengers activity -- this must be the aftermath of Banner’s mess. She and Pietro had seen it as emblematic of the worst of the Avengers’ excesses. So much destruction, so much arrogance and brute force, and all the consequences falling on others.

She’s no longer in a position to judge anyone else for their murderous rampages. Pietro’s no longer in a position to judge anyone for anything.

Romanoff is still waiting in her doorway for an answer.

“Thank you,” Wanda says, “but I.” She stops. How to put into words that she doesn’t deserve it? It would cheapen the good work of the foundation if she took it on just to assuage her own guilt. These children are not simply the backdrop for her own emotional indulgence.

Romanoff looks at her. “May I come in?”

Wanda ushers her in, and coffee is made, and they are sitting opposite each other at the kitchenette table, and the pipes that run through to Wanda’s shower are clanging gently to themselves, and no one has said a word.

“No one will care why you’re there,” Romanoff says at last. “The younger children don’t think about it, and the older ones, they see middle-class white women volunteering in Harlem, they know you’re working off your guilt -- it doesn’t matter to them what your guilt is, or mine.”

The politics of race in America are very different from those in Sokovia. Everyone here -- Romanoff included, though she must know better -- acts like Wanda will automatically know what everything means; they don’t even know the depths of what they don’t know about ethnicity in Sokovia. And that’s without touching the powder keg of what ‘middle-class’ is supposed to cover.

But even if the details of Romanoff’s explanation evade her, Wanda gets enough to get the point. Outside of her own head, the only thing that matters is what Wanda can bring to the table -- no one cares about the whys.

“What do they need?” she asks.

The approval in Romanoff’s eyes is subtle and fleeting, but it’s there. “How’s your Russian?”

Better than your Sokovian,” Wanda says in Russian.

I wouldn’t be so sure,” Romanoff says in Sovokian.

Oh, it’s on.

On the subway ride to Harlem, Romanoff stays in Sovokian and Wanda stays in Russian. It’s tricky, but she’s damned if she’ll blink first on this, of all things.

Wanda is deliberately colloquial, channeling the hours upon hours of Russian soaps she and Pietro watched over the month they were stuck hiding out in a small motel just south of Helsinki. Romanoff, in turn, is idiomatic to a fault.

After some small talk about the children they’ll be meeting, Wanda switches the subject to their training. There’s no way Romanoff knows the Sokovian for ‘tactical briefing’.

Romanoff knows the Sokovian for ‘tactical briefing’.

“I’m a little worried about the sparring,” Wanda says. In Russian, it doesn’t seem like an admission, just another linguistic thrust for Romanoff to parry. “I’m too dependent on my powers, but without them, I’m no match for anyone. Do you think I should seek outside training?”

“You’ve got natural talent,” Romanoff says, “but you’re right, you need more non-enhanced practice against people on your level.”

Both of them are avoiding the word ‘aether’. Joke’s on Romanoff, because the Sokovian for it is an English loan word. Come to think of, she thinks the Russian might be, too -- but she’s not sure enough to risk it, not when Romanoff’s attention is getting keener with each sentence they exchange.

“Can you recommend anywhere? You know New York much better than I do, and it would be good to take advantage of your local knowledge before you go off on your next mission.”

Their Russian teacher at school had made up a song for the week they did tourism -- “What is there in Moscow / That is worth sightseeing? / Do you have a lake? / Or perhaps a castle to visit?” -- that comes straight to the front of Wanda’s mind. She’s surprised her words don’t take on a singsong tone, mimicking the tune. She and Pietro used to sing it to each other at each new city. “What is there in Stockholm? / That is worth sightseeing? / Do you have a training camp? / Or a nuclear base to visit?”

“Sam mentioned you’d already done some looking around,” Romanoff answers. “There are a few good open sparring nights around the place. I could take you along to one?”

“That would be very kind of you.”

With a jolt, she realises this will soon be the longest conversation she’s had with anyone apart from Rabbi Tollman since Pietro died. Romanoff is very, very good at her job. And perhaps, also, very, very kind.

#

Week 4, Day 1
Skill: Retrieval
Pairs: Maximoff+Vision / Rhodes+Wilson / Rogers+Romanoff
Training mechanism: Piranhas

“These are valuable living assets,” a stern woman in a black jumpsuit tells them. “I’ve counted them out, and I’ll count them in again. They are not to be harmed.”

Rhodes and Wilson exchange a look.

“You told them the same thing about us?” Rhodes asks. “Those things can strip a cow to the bone in 60 seconds.”

The woman smiles. It’s not a friendly smile. “Those things would have to be half-starved and in a much larger school to work so quickly. They could take as long as forty minutes on you.”

Wanda thinks they look kind of cute. Vision, standing next to her, is gazing at them, his eyes moving faster than she can see -- she thinks he’s tracking individual movements in the school.

“They can’t hurt you, can they?” she checks with him.

For a moment, she thinks he hasn’t heard her. Then he smiles at her, full and brilliant. “They’re delightful.”

She pats him on the shoulder, a gently teasing friendliness. “I’m happy for you.”

Week 4, Day 2
Skill: Defensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Romanoff / Rhodes+Rogers / Wilson+Vision
Training mechanism: Minotaur

It turns out the Russian for aether is pretty similar to the Sokovian (and English) -- they all come from the Latin, which in turn comes from the Greek. Good to know.

“Real piranhas yesterday,” Romanoff remarks. Of course she looked up the Sokovian for piranha. That is, if she didn’t know it already.

“There’s nothing with a heartbeat in here,” Wanda says, “apart from you, me and some rodents.” She pulls her aether in close. “You want me to keep scanning?”

“With your aether?” Romanoff asks, a hint of a smile in the word.

“With my aether,” Wanda confirms. Then, an afterthought, coming so much easier in Russian than it would in a language that means something to her: “Was it you who taught Fury how to pay his condolences?”

“Barton, actually,” Romanoff says. “We used to play this game all the time, back when he brought me in. My Spanish against his Chuvash; his Russian Sign Language against my American Sign Language. His Sokovian’s about on a level with my Mandarin.”

They’re in a dark maze in some SHIELD basement somewhere about to be attacked by a mechanical minotaur. Wanda’s every move is being scrutinised by, undoubtedly, the legion of SHIELD operatives who sit in judgement on whether she’s earning her shot at redemption. And Wanda grins, fierce and proud, because she’s got Romanoff here.

“How was his Russian signing?” she signs in the shaky RSL she can remember from that one soap opera with the deaf couple in.

“Better than yours,” Romanoff signs back in perfect Sokovian Sign Language.

Damn it.

Week 4, Day 3
Skill: Evacuation
Pairs: Maximoff+Rhodes / Rogers+Wilson / Romanoff+Vision
Training mechanism: Zombies (fast)

“Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shiiiiiiiiit.”

They have real volunteers today, real humans for Wanda to boost up with her aether and trust that Rhodes will be able to catch. From the looks on the volunteers’ faces, this is both terrifying and amazing, in proportions that vary depending on how long it takes Rhodes to pluck them out of the air.

“Agreed,” she says in into her throat mike. “But enough on your flying skills.”

“I liked you better when you were mute and terrified,” Rhodes says, doing a backwards flip to stretch one arm out and paintball the (real, human, don’t kill, don’t hurt) zombie coming up on her nine. She can’t use her aether against them for fear of hurting them, so it’s Rhodes’ adapted weaponry only, and fifty fragile human lives for the two of them not to fuck of up for the sake of their training.

“I liked you better when-- No, I’ve never liked you.”

“Ow, Maximoff, I’m wounded!”

Six (real, human, don’t kill, don’t hurt) zombies converge on her at once, and it takes all her strength and concentration not to fight back.

Week 4, Day 4
Skill: Offensive combat
Pairs: Maximoff+Rogers / Rhodes+Vision / Romanoff+Wilson
Training mechanism: Supervillain lab

“It looks like something out of one of your comic books,” Wanda says. Her body may not yet have caught up with Rogers’ efforts at bridge building, but she’s stronger than her adrenal glands. She’ll banter with him if it kills her.

The lab is all glass beakers of green liquid and tubing joined with valves and things that bubble more than perhaps they should.

“I thought you preferred Batman?” Rogers says with a smile in his voice. The two of them are back to back, scanning the room visually as well as aetherially.

What would Pietro say? She breathes in deep, keeps the thought of him whole and comforting in her heart. “Better sense of humour.”

That startles a laugh out of Rogers. She feels -- not proud, exactly, but satisfied, accomplished. She touched Vision; she was honest with Romanoff; she insulted Rhodes; and now she’s made Rogers laugh. If she doesn’t get to stay on the team, if she fails, if they send her away, no one will be able to say it was because she didn’t try.

Week 4, Day 5
Skill: Tactics
Pairs: Maximoff+Wilson / Rhodes+Romanoff / Rogers+Vision
Training mechanism: Toxic slime

The instructions begin the same as always, stating the skill and training mechanism. Then they read, “Go to the assigned warehouse entrance. Enter. Commence in-field tactical assessment.” They end with an assigned warehouse entrance for each pair.

“Toxic slime,” Rogers says to Vision. “I battled Nazis for this?”

“I was incarnated from one of the six most powerful objects in the galaxy,” Vision agrees as they walk off together.

Wanda attempts a quick scan of the inside of the warehouse before they enter, but it’s shielded from her somehow, shit.

“Toxic slime,” Wilson says.

“Toxic slime.”

Their entrance has double doors. They take a door each, exchanging a nod before they open them together.

Inside are four confused team members, Agent Hill, Director Fury, no toxic slime, and six puppies sitting together on one large grey cushion. The puppies are chocolate brown, with huge dark eyes and soft wet noses. Wanda could bury her face in their fur and never need anything else.

“Toxic slime?” Fury says drily, as if after a month that’s contained zombies (fast and slow), spiders, yetis, drones and dinosaurs, toxic slime would have been ridiculous.

“Puppies?” Romanoff replies, as if after a month that’s contained zombies, spiders, etc, she’s considering taking one of those puppies and shoving it somewhere Fury might have some difficulty removing it again.

“Puppies,” Fury confirms. “My neighbour’s dog weaned them two weeks ago. I got her to put off rehoming them. I thought you kids deserved a treat.”

Wanda does a quick scan of her team’s expressions. Romanoff: amused, wary, considering. Wilson: studying Fury’s face intently; Rogers: suppressing laughter; Rhodes: like her, doing a quick scan of the others’ reactions; Vision: blank, possibly wishing they were piranhas instead? Everyone is safe, everyone is okay, no one needs her. If it’s a test, then frankly, she doesn’t care. Those puppies need to be cuddled, and she’s the woman to do it.

She approaches them slowly, keeping in their line of sight, with one hand extended for them to sniff if they want to.

“Who’s a beautiful bribe?” she asks them in baby-voiced Sokovian. Behind her, Romanoff lets out a small, choked laugh. “Who’s a strange and confusing test?”

The puppies don’t appreciate her careful and measured attempt to respect their puppy boundaries -- once she’s within a metre of them, they all spring off the cushion together, ignoring her outstretched hand in favour of flocking round her crouched legs and jumping up on her. She laughs and sits down, letting them all pile into her lap at once.

They’re so perfectly soft and warm and squirmy. One of them starts to chew lovingly on her fingers, and another nuzzles itself against her hip, its tail wagging in delight. A third puts its gorgeously wet nose against the inside of her wrist, and oh, she just wants to bury her face in them, so she does, because Rabbi Tollman would want her to, and so would Pietro.

“Who’s a poorly trained disgrace to shield’s impeccable discipline?” She uses the word for an actual shield to keep the joke private. “Oh yes you are, oh yes you are.”

“What’s she saying?” Wilson asks Romanoff.

There’s amusement in Romanoff’s voice when she answers, and maybe also fondness. Wanda isn’t naive enough to believe Romanoff doesn’t control exactly when she laughs and what emotion she shows, but she’s going to choose to believe it’s real, because the alternative is no way to be, not for either of them. “She’s saying she’s glad you boys are too macho to play with the puppies,” Romanoff says.

“I was giving her space,” Wilson protests, but then he comes and squats down next to her. She lifts her face from the dogs’ fur just enough to see him extending one hand the way she did, in case any of the puppies want a formal introduction.

One of the puppies is licking her face. When Wilson softly murmurs, “Hey buddy,” it yips and bounds towards him, tail going and going.

“Hey, hey,” Wilson says, and that seems to be everyone’s cue. Rogers, Romanoff and Rhodes all come forward to pet the puppies, and Vision comes to stand behind Wanda. She can’t see him looking down on them, but she can hear the curiosity in his voice when, a few minutes later, he says, “May I?”

She only has the one puppy on her lap now -- Wilson and Rogers have three between the two of them, all five running around yipping and laughing in a game of chase; Romanoff has one she’s taken over to Hill, the two of them scritching it behind its ears and under its belly all at once as it flops in puppy bliss; and Rhodes has one he’s lifted up to his face so it can lick his nose.

She stands and turns, the puppy held to her chest. “Hold out your hand,” she says. They may not be wary of humans, but she has no idea how Vision smells to them. She thinks if he were going to set off some deeply buried canine defensive instinct, he’d have done it already, but better safe than sorry.

She holds up the puppy and he holds out his hand. The puppy sniffs it, then licks it, then starts to gnaw very gently on one of his fingers.

“I think it likes you,” she says to Vision.

“I think I like it,” he replies.

The puppy squirms in her hands just enough to turn round and give the side of her wrist a big lick, then turns back to its serious gnawing duties.

Pietro was always more of a dog person than Wanda, but for the first time, the thought is happier than it is sad. He would have loved today, but also she thinks, maybe -- no, that’s not true: also she knows, definitely, that he would have loved that she’s getting to have it now.

She dips her head to drop a kiss on the puppy’s soft, dark fur. Whether or not SHIELD and the other Avengers decide she can join them, she will stay in New York if she can. Tonight she will take up Rabbi Tollman’s offer of Shabbat dinner, and she will sit with strangers and break bread, and if a nice Jewish girl smiles at her, she will smile back. She will live in this world, one day at a time.

Wanda feels something growing deep within her chest. She thinks it might be herself.