Tony wasn’t sure what he was seeing.
All he knew was that the woman walked into the clearing just as the HYDRA twins tried to speed away, swung a metal pole, and then, with a sickening crack, the two of them went flying. Pietro screamed as he went down and Wanda went flying in a blur of colour. She hit a tree with yet another sickening crack. She dropped to the forest floor and didn’t move.
Pietro tried to push himself up but cried out in pain.
‘I wouldn’t try movin’, bub.’ A man with greying hair walked out of the woods, carrying a bald elder man on his back. ‘Your kneecap’s shattered.’ He lowered the man to a particularly large rock.
Tony looked over at the woman in question. She had streaks of grey in her brown hair and hazel eyes. With a displeased twist to her lips. ‘I saw that coming, but I’m still disappointed.’ She turned. ‘All right. Who can tell me what he did wrong?’ There was a pause. ‘Rebecca?’
‘He didn’t try to jump over it?’
The voice sounded like it belonged to a child. Tony moved, away from the team and soon saw an uncomfortably large number of children, slowly moving forward.
‘That was mistake number one.’ The woman tossed the rod over her head to the younger-looking of the two men. ‘What was the mistake that got his sister killed?’
The kids were slowly moving into the clearing now and Tony felt the Hulk move around, watching them curiously. Tony counted nineteen children walk over to the woman. They looked around nervously, but quickly drew their eyes back to the woman. Tony glanced over at the Avengers. Most of them looked surprised and, really, only Clint looked concerned at the presence of the children. Natasha, on the other hand, had a shrewd look on her face.
Tony didn’t like it.
Then the answer came back from where the two men were. ‘The way he was carrying her.’
The woman smiled, looked over and clicked at the twentieth child. ‘Very good, Laura. The way he was carrying her.’
Tony looked back over and saw an 11-year old in jeans, a denim jacket and wearing unicorn shades had come up next to the younger-looking man and was holding onto his hand. He had moved over to Pietro, kicked him onto his back and was using the pole to hold him in place. There were enough physical similarities between the two of them – despite him being Caucasian and her being Latino – that Tony would feel comfortable assuming they were father and daughter.
The woman went on to explain. ‘Despite popular romantic notions, carrying a woman bridal-style,’ she flicked a finger and the smallest child wandered forward, and she then lifted him up in that way, ‘is the most dangerous way to carry or rescue someone – especially in super-speed. It’s much safer,’ she then shifted him, ‘to carry someone either against your chest or fire-man style.’ She then demonstrated. ‘As this keeps them securely to you, minimises the damage they could potentially take and dramatically lowers the likelihood of them flying out of your arms.’ She then put the child down again. ‘Thank you, Jonah.’
The kid grinned and stepped back.
‘The mistake was hitting him in the knee,’ Cap said, shooting the woman his cultivated “Captain America is disappointed in you” look.
The woman paused and then turned and looked at him like he was crazy. The man with the kid cocked an eyebrow. The older man, who was evidently paralysed from the waist down, scrutinised him. The woman then turned and inclined her head. ‘I was rather under the impression that they were trying to kill you.’
‘They were just misguided kids,’ Steve said. ‘They—’
The woman and the father both scoffed, almost in unison, cutting Steve off. The woman gestured to the pre-teens. ‘No, no. These are kids.’ She then used her forefingers to point at the HYDRA twins. ‘Those two are in their twenties, you condescending piece of shit.’
The paralysed man suddenly spoke up. ‘It seems his best friend has been brainwashed for 70 years. He thought he could get Miss Maximoff to erase the damage from his mind.’
‘That’s stupid,’ one of the boys said. ‘She was trying to kill you. Why would she help you?’
Steve pretended the kid hadn’t said anything. Instead, he looked at the paralysed man. ‘How did you know that?’
‘Uh, uh, uh!’ The woman stepped forward, moving directly between Steve and the other man. ‘You were asked first! You don’t get to avoid a question just because you don’t have an answer.’
Another voice joined them as someone else walked into the clearing, this one was Russian accented. ‘Because, according to Ethne, he’s too lazy to engage in either critical thinking or self-reflection.’
Everyone turned and looked. A dark-haired middle-aged man in a dark suit was leading others dressed similarly into the clearing. The subordinates immediately moved over to the HYDRA twins. The leader walked over to Lennie, pulling something out of his pocket and handing it over. ‘You must be Lennie Alice.’
‘I am,’ she said. ‘And you are?’
‘Kolya Zima, Russian intelligence.’
It didn’t escape Tony’s notice how Natasha backed up from the men. Nor that Logan stepped back from Pietro and just let the men work.
‘Uh huh. So, I guess these two had bounties on their heads,’ Lennie held up the envelope she’d been handed, ‘and this is it?’
‘That’s about it.’
‘Okay.’ Lennie folded what was clearly a cheque up and pocketed it. She looked over to where Pietro was being handcuffed as his knee was tended to, and Wanda was just wrapped up in a body bag and carried away. ‘Now, I can see you know how we ended up here.’
Well, this was getting interesting.
‘I do. I was told.’
‘Why you?’ Lennie asked, inclining her head.
‘I’m one of the Transcendent Souls,’ Zima said. ‘We were trialled for transcendence and, as such transcend death. You kill us, we just reincarnate.’
‘For what purpose?’ the paralysed man asked.
‘To keep the Infinity Stones from falling into a single person’s hand.’
Thor made his opinion known. ‘Heh.’ There was a mocking curl to his lip.
Zima then smirked at Thor for a second. ‘Asgard. Haven’t moved an inch socially, technologically, or economically. Still think they’re the most superior race in the universe.’
The father snorted. ‘Cute.’
The grin fell away from Thor’s face as he realised they were mocking him.
‘So what’s an Infinity Stone?’ the father asked.
Thor went to open his mouth, no doubt to either make some remark about how they wouldn’t understand or explain it in a way that’d leave them none the wiser. Zima lifted his hand and in the next instant something came whizzing through the woods and into his hand. It moved so fast that Tony didn’t see what it was until it stopped in his hand and he lifted it, holding it between his thumb and forefinger.
It was the Mind Stone.
‘This.’ As soon as Zima had it in his grip, his eyes had started glowing orange.
‘You could do that the whole time?’ Tony asked curiously.
‘Only when the Stone is outside its casing,’ Zima said. He walked over to the stretcher where Pietro was stretched out on and took a grip on his jaw. Pietro’s eyes bugged and he made a few choked sounds but, when Zima let him go, he slumped.
‘What...?’ Pietro began to ask.
‘I took your powers away,’ Zima said before turning back to Tony and letting his men carry the Sokovian away. ‘The casings are designed to hide the stones but, unfortunately, they also make it impossible for us to just summon the stones into our hands if someone finds and begins using one. That’s why, in our last lifetimes, we couldn’t just repossess the Tesseract from the Red Skull despite the fact that three of us were German and one of us was Austrian.’
‘They were the enemy!’ Steve insisted.
Tony rolled his eyes. ‘Have you done any research on what happened directly after the war?’ Obviously he hadn’t, or he’d realise just how many people were unaware of the true extent of what Hitler and his Nazis were doing.
Steve glared at him. Tony frowned, guilt beginning to gnaw at him.
But it was suddenly cut through.
You needn’t feel guilty, Tony. That is a legitimate question.
Tony looked over and saw that the paralysed man was looking right at him with a compassionate expression.
Tony tried it. You’re telepathic?
I am. My name is Charles Xavier. The truth about Mr. Rogers is that your father was looking at him through rose-coloured glasses. The man is very loud with his thoughts. I had no intention to read his mind, but I heard it from miles away. That is how we knew you were here. I can also assure you that he did not know your father all that well. The most prominent memories he has of the man are when he gave him things. I imagine your father knew him just as well.
Oh, so Steve screamed his thoughts out.
So what? He’s always having a go at me because I give him the impression he didn’t know dad as well as he thought he did?
We might wish so, but no. From what I’ve picked up, he dislikes you because you embody all of the changes of this century that he is uncomfortable with: social, economic, and technological. Added to the fact that you are similar to Howard Stark, but you are not Howard. All of his efforts thus far have been in an attempt to make you behave less like your father, and thus make interacting with you easier for him.
That was weird. As far as Tony knew, he’d never behaved like Howard. Then again, Steve had known Howard before D-Day...before he’d grown disillusioned and angry at the world...before he turned to alcohol for a coping mechanism. According to the details he’d found in the Data Dump, there had been a period like that. Howard started turning into the man Tony knew in the fifties.
You went that deep?
By his surface thoughts, I judged him to be a threat to the children, so I went that deep, yes. Lennie and Logan are both aware of it.
Tony looked back at Steve, who was back to giving him the “Captain America is disappointed in you” look. There was something in his thoughts that made an aged telepath consider him a threat to children? If this was fiction, he’d call that a plot twist. As it was, it was something he’d have to put some serious thought into. Maybe Cap had been on a pedestal for far too long.
Cap then said in a completely level voice, ‘At least I’ve never lied to my teammates, Tony.’
At that moment, the little girl next to Logan made a disgusted sound.
‘Yup,’ Logan said. ‘You’re gonna get awful used to that stink, Laura. When someone makes a decision to lie, their brain releases a chemical. Our mutation means that we can smell it.’
Zima then slapped his hands over his heart in exaggerated shock. ‘The Paragon of Virtue, lying?! Oh, say it ain’t so!’
Laura looked up at her father. She spoke in Spanish. Tony was surprised to hear her asking if lying was a bad thing to be doing. The other children all looked just as curious and wandered over to Logan to hear the answer. Logan looked thoughtful before answering. ‘Some lies are bad. Some lies are necessary. And some of them are just necessary in the moment.’
‘Like Eden?’ one of the children asked.
‘Like Eden. The nurses told you that lie to get you to leave a place that was dangerous to you. When Charles ran the school, he lied about what kind of people attended and worked there, because that kept all of us safe inside the walls. What this is about is an unacceptable lie.’
And that, Charles said into Tony’s mind, is the other reason he treats you as he does. He’s been lying to you, and he doesn’t want you to learn the truth.