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Season of the Lion and Wolf

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She hated waiting. Loathed it in fact, whenever it had to be done in silence. Specifically this kind, where the tension was so palpable she could almost physically see it.

The spy huffed unhappily, beginning to fidget in the uncomfortable metal chair she’d been left in for the past half hour. She unleashed some of her aggravation for being ignored so long on her sole companion in the grim-colored cell: a pathetic metal table, which bobbed with her every kick to the leg closest to her. When that did nothing to improve her mood, she resumed her first activity, which was to tug on the chain binding her cuffed hands together. That nearly bent the cheaply-made leg completely. She probably could have done so if she were actually motivated to free herself. But after the previous few days from Hell, she had simply lost too much of her energy.

So for now, she resorted to repeatedly yanking the chain binding her to that godforsaken table. Its obnoxious clanking proceeded to swallow the air around her, effectively driving the final nail into the proverbial coffin for her patience.

Apparently she wasn’t the only one at their wit’s end, either.

“Nat, that’s annoying.”

Natasha instantly stilled her actions, glaring up at her former partner through her lashes.

Clint was arguably the only person alive to be completely unnerved by the infamous, chilling glare of Black Widow. He merely closed the door behind him and rubbed a hand over his face, sighing tiredly as his free hand set the lock in place. Then he actually looked at her, instantly noticing she was handcuffed to the table, and his expression crumpled into pure exasperation. “Jesus, Nat—!”

She was too irritated to let him finish. “They said it’s just a precaution. Now can you get me out? You all know I’m not really compromised.”

The corner of Clint’s mouth twitched, his eyes ducking downward in discomfort with his own accusation. “Do I?”

Her head tilted slightly at that, giving off a cool facade that was of stark contrast to the indignation burning inside of her, like a hot flash of lightning. “Barton,” was her only warning.

“Nat,” he shifted his weight with an upset equal to what she was feeling internally. “You attacked a teammate. A teammate that wasn’t in good condition to fight back—”

 “I was aiming for something else,” she interrupted stubbornly.

“Oh, yeah,” Clint huffed in mock laughter. “That argument is sure to win them over.”

“No one actually got hurt—”

“Really? You want to tell that to the frozen peas pressed against Wanda’s face?”

Natasha rolled her eyes, sinking further in her seat and not giving a damn if she looked like a sulking child for it. Which of course, Barton didn’t take kindly to. “Tasha, why can’t you just tell me the truth? I really don’t want this to become the day I have to treat you like one of my kids.”

Natasha’s glare became fixed on the wall at her side. Suddenly the quiet seclusion of before didn’t seem so terrible.

Fortunately Clint was kind to her sanity, and didn’t proceed further until she faced him again. Which she only did after hearing his heavy sigh. He was leaning against the end of the table opposite her, staring at the flat surface between his hands while his thoughts took over for a moment. With them, some of his composure returned. “Look, if you don’t want to talk to me, that’s fine. You’ve got a new partner now, I get it. I can get the Cap—”

“No,” was her immediate response to that offer.

“Then what?” Clint pressed, looking up to meet her biting glare without a single flinch. “What’s going to get an explanation out of you? Because I’ll warn you now, if it ain’t me, then Rogers is going to head in here himself and find out.”

She hated how her body followed its instinct to tense up at the thought of seeing Steve at the moment. She especially loathed the idea of seeing him when everyone else was so cross with her, they felt the need to chain her up to a cheap table in a neglected interrogation room. A room meant for criminals that were low-priority, at that.

“Granted, he’s more likely to play the part of Good Cop,” Barton added, having a distaste for silence almost as strongly as she did.

“I don’t want Steve involved,” the former spy insisted, her words coming across hastier than she wanted.  

“You know he’ll find out whatever it is eventually,” Clint replied, his tone giving off more of a reminder than a warning. “He worries about everything as it is, and after what’s been going on these past few days, I can tell he’s not going to give you much distance.”

Natasha avoided his eye again, preferring to bite her tongue than admit Clint was right about that. She even rocked back and forth, tugging the chain of her cuffs against the table leg some more. A subtle indication of how desperately she wanted to escape the conversation. Or maybe even the entire compound.

Clint’s expression softened some to see her so anxious. No matter how upset they got with each other, they were always friends above anything else. “Natasha, I just think—”

“He’s going to get hurt,” she interrupted suddenly, her eyes lifeless as they stared at the wall past him.

Her vague sentiment only fed Barton’s frustration with the situation. “Who? Rogers? You do realize he can take care of himself just fine, right?”

“Not against this. I know—I’ve seen it before.” She spoke so firmly, he was almost convinced she was right without receiving any other elaboration. Almost.

“He’s a damn super-soldier! The only thing that’s ever brought him down was when he couldn’t fight—”

Natasha was silent, letting Clint find the answer himself. And she could easily see him doing so, watching as various emotions crossed his face in all of thirty seconds. The recollection, the confusion, the horror. All settling into a final surrender to the same solemn resolve as Natasha. “How?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Natasha answered, visibly baring her bitterness over how much was unknown. “All I know is that I clearly saw him intruding on the property, and I failed to detain him. You need to let me out of here so I can solve that.”

“What—all by yourself?”

“Well, yes! If enough of us go, the rest will get suspicious.”

“Nat, think!” Barton pleaded, his hands darting out to squeeze her shoulders. “This guy’s nearly cost you your life twice in the past. Do you think it’s smart—?”

“Three times.”

“What?” Clint's hands fell back to the table in his astonishment.

Natasha fidgeted, stalling her answer. Truth be told, she didn’t have enough solid proof for her speculation. But she had plenty of reason to believe it, and she trusted her instincts. She had to, in order to survive in her profession as long as she did. “Everything that’s happened these past few days, and now he shows up…I think it’s clear he was the one to lead Hydra here.”

“You think he’s with them again?” Clint inquired curiously, leaning back to gauge her feelings based on physical behavior alone. “Even after what Cap said? How he was the one to pull him out of the water.”

“I can’t explain what happened then,” Natasha confessed, shaking her head in aggravation over how much was unraveling before her. She missed the sense of control she had felt before all of this.

Or at least she’d thought there was control. As of recently, she’d come to terms that everything she’d thought she’d known about some of her teammates was virtually nonexistent. “All I know is the Barnes that Steve wants to find, and the Soldier that’s hunting us, are two entirely different people. Steve might not get that, but I do. That’s why I have to be the one to find the Soldier before he finishes what he started in DC.”

Clint’s next breath was loud, and heavy. Burdened with the sight of the determined Black Widow in front of him. “And what will you do when you find him? How do you plan to stop the Winter Soldier?”

Natasha looked at the floor, still hesitant to share so much of her plans, even if it was with Clint. It was such a risk…and if word somehow spread to Steve….

But on the other hand, she was an Avenger. She had an objective to keep her team from endangerment, and she would do whatever it took to accomplish that. She made sure to convey that to her former partner, meeting his gaze without giving a single indication she was willing to back down, no matter what he may think. “I’ll kill him.”

Clint merely stared at her. He left them in a silence, as if she hadn’t spoken at all. But she knew him too well, and could recognize him allowing her declaration to sink in. Finding the reasoning, the justification, for such a morbid plan. “You think that’ll help?” he questioned seriously, assessing her commitment to this idea.

“It would keep Hydra from tracking us any further. And put Barnes out of his misery.” She schooled herself to appear more stoic than she felt. She had to convince Clint this was what she had to do, even if she was anxious about how it would affect her teammates, who were being left in the dark about the decision. “A bullet to the head, and he won’t have to be in their control anymore. Mercy killing.”

Clint huffed at the last part. He straightened his stance, rubbing his hands against his face and holding them there for a good while. Natasha was growing nervous over how long he was leaving her in suspense. Would he reject it, and leave her there to be questioned further by Tony, or Rhodes? Or Steve?

Barton began making his way around the cheap interrogation table, coming to stand behind her. She waited without a word, but also knew better than to hold her breath when dealing with an experienced agent like Barton. 

Suddenly, she felt the cold touch of a lightweight metal slip into her lap. She could recognize it even without physically looking down to see for herself. Her literal keys to freedom. To begin her mission.

Neither agent faced the other. She knew the refusal to even look at her meant he hadn’t actually been fully convinced this was the best move. But he also trusted her judgement that much, and didn’t make any argument. “Wait ‘til it’s dark to leave. And keep it quick, alright?”

“I will,” Natasha promised in earnest, pretending to focus on the blank grey wall ahead of her. “Will you keep it quiet to the others?”

“I’ll try. Nothing’s guaranteed.”

Natasha took a heavy breath. She would have to accept that, no matter how it disturbed her. She knew his priority would be to avoid questions from Steve. What he wouldn’t think of was how the fallout of her plan would be just as bad, if not worse, if it were somehow revealed to another member of the team. The one who could bring the entire building (and more) down on their heads in less than a heartbeat, if a sufficient reason rose up. But Natasha couldn’t share that, because that same person had also become a favorite of Clint’s recently, and she doubted he would believe any disparagement against them. Especially with how it would sound coming from her, concerning they were also responsible for Natasha being thrown in here.

The Witch. 


Four months prior

It was growing apparent that Wanda had better chances of sleep if she remained out on the common room sofa. It was best labelled as an accidental discovery, given how she never intended to simply crash out in the middle of the day while the others were training just a few rooms away from her. There was just something about the type of comfort (or lack thereof, really) in the hard, leather cushions that was closer to the tough mattress she was accustomed to from her time living in a Hydra cell.

As of now, she had grown to regret everything about that time of her life. Sure, it had granted her abilities that were unparalleled to anyone else in the world. But ever since, they had also led to more heartache than the Maximoff sister could bear, and her homeland suffered from it also. So much that now, two weeks after the official Battle of Sokovia (as the rest of the world was describing it), she still hadn’t felt safe going back. As a matter of fact, it seemed to happen overnight, how recognizable she’d become. Especially in Sokovia, where people preferred to directly villainize her for joining the Avengers’ actions, rather than debate if she even belonged with them like everyone else did. Including herself. She knew it was only by an unbelievable amount of kindness and generosity that the Avengers agreed to bring her back with them, to start living in their new facility.

Well, ‘living’ wasn’t exactly it, was it? As of late, all Wanda really had been doing was listlessly existing in the Facility. She felt hollow in what little she did. She mostly wandered the Facility, exploring all it had to offer and committing to memory things she doubted she would re-visit anytime soon. She had felt this emptiness set inside of her during the battle in Sokovia, when the connection she had felt with her only remaining family was severed for good.

She heaved a shaky breath at the memory, which was more akin to a raw wound that still bothered her than something left strictly in the past. Come to think of it, it probably didn’t help that she dwelled on it as much as she did.

She pushed herself to sit up, deciding now to focus on the pain in her neck instead. There was usually a slight crick after nodding off on one of the couches in the Facility’s lounge, though that hadn’t been what roused her from her promising rest. No, that had been the fault of obnoxious squeaking coming from the nearest hallway, made louder because of the door she had left open when she’d foolishly believed she would only drop in here for a quick snack. Her appetite was such a fickle thing nowadays that she’d only sought something to eat in hopes it would subdue a growing headache. Nodding off on the couch seemed to have been a sufficient alternative.

As for the squeaking, she recognized the sound as impeccably polished floors being met with training shoes. Only members of the team ever wore them for…well, training. But it was too early for them to have finished, wasn’t it?

Wanda braced herself for a quick escape, not wanting to be trapped in another awkward interaction with someone she had been intent on completely destroying scarcely a month ago. But at the door, there was only the one she hadn’t met until she’d arrived to the Facility.

She wasn’t good with names (and ever since she came here, she’d tried to gain the habit of resisting the pull of everyone else’s thoughts. It was too much noise for her already busy mind in the wake of Pietro’s death and Sokovia’s destruction. Both at her doing, from said powers). She only knew him to herself as the Bird Man, because he relied on a set of metal wings while sparring. He was…an OK presence for her, seeing as there was less tension between them. After all, he hadn’t been involved with her actions a few weeks ago. He was tolerable enough that she hardly budged as he made his way in front of her, setting down an extra pair of training shoes on the table separating the two couches in the room. He took a single step backward, crossing his arms over his chest as she took in what he was presenting to her.

What she noticed right away was that the shoes were similar, but still smaller than the ones he was already wearing. And slightly different in shape. They were made for a woman. Were they meant for her? The team had never given any indication they wanted her with them in training before.

The Bird Man spoke as if he recognized her thought process. “We were all kind of thinking…you know, if you’re not doing anything else, maybe you’d, uh…like to join us? It looks like we’re going to need all the help we can get, and if you’re interested in filling in that spot, you might want some practice before jumping in.”

His tone was very nonchalant. Completely generous with the freedom to make the decision for herself. And she was fully aware his offer wasn’t just for a simple training session, either. To train with the Avengers meant being an Avenger, which she did promise Agent Barton she would be in Sokovia. But then again, that had been before she lost Pietro, and by extension, any and all motivation she might have had to be anything.

Now though, she had gotten a little more time to grieve, and the other members of the team had some time to warm up to her. It was a slow, yet steady process. Mostly slow, due to her own tendency to isolate herself when her emotions grew too strong. In the midst of battle, that had been an asset, but in her potentially new home, it was a dangerous risk. Because of that, she was still more surprised than she should have been that they would offer her a place in their training routine. She was so unbalanced, and her abilities were still unpredictable oftentimes, even to herself. She was a time-bomb.

How can something like me find a place among globally recognized heroes?

The Bird Man left her to make the decision herself, moving out into the hallway to wait. She studied the pair of shoes he’d left for only a moment more—these symbols of his offer. An offer to actually be something other than the hollow shell of one of Hydra’s former lab rats. Then, before she could re-think her decision, she grabbed the training shoes off the table to change into.

Might as well find out.

Chapter Text

Wanda didn’t have many of her own clothes, let alone something appropriate to train in. But seeing as this was her first time working out, let alone working out with the Avengers, she didn’t expect much for herself other than observing how the others usually did things. Thus, she settled for staying in one of her more comfortable dresses from Sokovia, coupled with a thin sweatshirt donated to her by Agent Romanoff.

The Bird Man they had sent for her was still waiting in the hall after she’d finished freshening up in her room. He didn’t react much to her lack of appropriate apparel, instead wasting no time in leading the way towards the training area. “It was getting kind of stuffy indoors, so Cap and Romanoff took things outside. Didn’t make much of a difference, if you ask me.”

Wanda liked how he spoke with her. His nonchalance wasn’t as feigned or awkward as the others, and she felt horrible that he was also the only one she had never learned the name of. “And how would I address you, if I did ask?”

He gave her a look of surprise when she spoke. It was most likely because he hadn’t expected her to be so responsive so soon, but she didn’t have much longer to ponder it, for the expression was gone almost as quickly as it had come. “Sam.”

It took a few more steps before he seemed to muster the courage to press her further. “Is it cool if I call you Wanda?”

She smiled at him to be polite, but worried it wasn’t very convincing. Not that it mattered; he seemed focused on their path ahead. “That’s fine.”

“Cool. Thanks, kid.”

Now her small grin had a touch of sincerity. For as much as she tried to avoid the other Avengers, she still heard them around the Facility. She would overhear herself come up in their conversations sometimes, and she had learned they often referred to her as ‘the kid’. In another life, it probably would’ve bothered her that she could hear them talk about her so often, but all things considered, she was just grateful they didn’t call her worse things. Nevertheless, it felt nice to finally be referred to by a nickname when she was in the room to hear it.

Of course, her delight didn’t last very long. Just before reaching the training area, there was a lab where Mr. Stark often worked. And he was working there right now, too. Something with scrap metal and welding that she didn’t catch much of, since she ducked her gaze to the floor so quickly.

The tension she felt around Stark was probably the strongest out of any on the team. It wasn’t that she necessarily disliked him. She was just uncomfortable accepting his hospitality so soon after she did nothing but absolutely loathe him before. And worst of all, that animosity she had carried for him so long had been rooted in the destruction of her homeland in the wake of weapons he created. Then suddenly she became known as the one who brought destruction. She had willingly planted the seed in Stark’s mind that would become Ultron, making the robotic monstrosity partly her creation. And she had felt the animosity of other Sokovians in the wake of what she started. She now knew how it felt to be Tony Stark. And it was unpleasant, to say the least, to have to make a home for herself in a Facility built (or at least funded to be) by him. This human reminder of her mistakes—of why she went to the lengths she had, only for her efforts to end in destruction and heartbreak for so many.  

So no, she didn’t bother being discreet about avoiding Mr. Stark.

But she was traveling with Sam at the moment, and she brought herself to a stop to wait for him. He of course stopped right in front of the window when Mr. Stark acknowledged him, but Wanda wandered to the very edge so she wouldn’t have to face the inventor as she waited. She only intended to listen, anyways.

“You all heading outside with Cap and Widow?”

“Yeah. You coming with?”

“Maybe when I’m done here. Unless you want me to start prepping the orange slices? Lord knows none of you guys are going to remember to get something for yourselves after beating the hell out of each other.”

Stark sounded serious, but Sam only chuckled at his offer. “Nah, we’re good for now. I’ll see ‘ya.”

“Bye,” Mr. Stark hummed, sounding distracted by whatever he was working on.

Wanda was glad to be moving again, falling easily into step beside Sam when he passed by. And he resumed their casual conversation almost right away, which she appreciated. “If you’re ever feeling worn out after work, I really would recommend those shakes he makes. I know they look a little suspect at first, but once Natasha makes you try them, they’re the best.”

“I’ll remember that,” she replied, sounding stiffer than she intended to. She really had underestimated how long it’d been since she’d had such a laidback conversation with someone else. She tried to amend it with a soft, “Thank you.”

Sam, fortunately, seemed genuinely undeterred by how constrained she was. She had noticed he usually knew how to handle the others when they were acting “off”, and she thought Rogers had mentioned something about his counseling experience to her before, when she wasn’t paying much attention. Now, she made the mental promise to herself that she would ask more about it later. Probably when they knew each other better. “It’s no problem,” Sam was saying dismissively amidst her thoughts. “Really.”

They had reached the usual training area by now, and were crossing over to the opposite end where there was a door to the outdoor rear of the compound. The closer they drew to their destination, Wanda found herself tugging on the edges of her sweatshirt sleeves more and more. It was something of an anxious tic she had acquired during her time in Hydra, where hiding her hands had been the only way she knew of to control the red wisps that constantly sought to escape her. She didn’t know why she was so anxious. She only meant to watch the others for now.

Sam went outside first, then promptly held the door open for her. As soon as she crossed the threshold, she felt overwhelmed by the rush of fresh air. Even before she had begun shutting herself inside the Facility, she had only ever been inside a Hydra base or the war-torn streets of Sokovia, where the air was rarely this clear. Or this bright. Sokovia was usually sunny at this time, yes, but the skyline was also busied with buildings and smog from a never-ending hail of warfare. Here, the compound was made up of only a slight array of buildings, which were protected by an impressive surrounding of backwoods. Wanda had admired the immense greenness when she first arrived, and still did now.

However, the rich scenery was somewhat distorted when set behind two Avengers already in the midst of vigorous combat with each other. At the given moment, Romanoff was charging at Captain Rogers like a demon fresh from Hell. Then in the split second before they collided, her knee came up to his chest, effectively knocking him back. Given his strength from the super-serum, he only stumbled an inch or so, but it was a sufficient distraction for Romanoff, seeing as she wasted no time with her next blow to his stomach. He instinctively hunched over, which the spy apparently took as an invitation to hop aboard his shoulders, both thighs entrapping his throat. Before Wanda’s mind had fully processed the sight, Romanoff was swinging them both to the ground with herself all but sitting on his chest (and looking fairly satisfied for it).

“Damn,” Sam barked at the harsh sound of the Captain’s back hitting the earth.

Romanoff’s attention went to Sam at the sound of his voice, looking up as though the fact that she was sitting on the Captain’s chest was just as commonplace as the sun in the sky. When she rose up, even the Captain brushed off the assault like it hadn’t happened at all, and dutifully followed after Romanoff as she greeted the two fresh arrivals. Sam got a typical, laidback address, but Wanda noticed the spy’s shoulders subtly tense up as she directed the focus to her. Or maybe Wanda was imagining the physical tension. Though it was hard to deny there was some discomfort from Romanoff when Wanda’s powers just naturally latched onto her busy mind. The witch could feel a slight buzzing in her own head from the activity of Romanoff’s thoughts, but didn’t focus on them enough to actually hear them. That was intrusive, and probably not the best way to get into someone’s good graces. Hell, her ability to do so was most likely why the intensely reserved woman didn’t trust Wanda as easily as the others seemed to.

“And you, Little Witch,” the former spy breathed, still somewhat winded from her sparring with Captain Rogers. “You looking to get whipped into shape with Wilson, here?”

Sam shifted the weight on his feet, gesturing to both Rogers and Romanoff almost nervously. “Hey, um…you’re not going to teach her that whole…death-by-thighs thing, are you?”

“Not yet.” Romanoff regarded him with the same glint of dark humor Wanda often found with her. “Why, Sam? Afraid to have another person around the Facility capable of taking you down despite being half your size?”

“Um,” Sam looked to Wanda at his side, as if for support (or maybe sizing her up). When she had nothing to offer, he answered Natasha with an honest, “Yeah.”

Romanoff chuckled, completely at his expense. “Well, no worries to the both of you. We’ll have to start with the basics first, then maybe see how all those supernatural abilities fit their way in there. Then we can start developing her own overall style. That all sound good to you?”

It took Wanda longer than it should’ve to realize Romanoff was talking to her, and not both her and Sam. Why would she? Sam had always carried a comfortable familiarity with the Captain and Agent Romanoff since he arrived at the Facility. Wanda was the only true newcomer to the Avengers. So she had to speak for herself.

However, she still felt rather misplaced standing amongst the team, so her words weren’t exactly coming to her. She simply settled for a lame nod in response to Romanoff’s proposition, hoping to appear more certain than she truly felt.

“Alright. Good.” Agent Romanoff nodded in turn. Then she addressed Sam once more, this time with a light smack just above his elbow. “Come with me. You need a warm-up too,” she declared before leading him back to the center of the plain, between the rear of the building and a particularly thick cluster of trees.  

Rogers remained at Wanda’s side for the moment. “S’cuse me,” he mumbled sheepishly as he pulled a ratty rag out from his pants’ pocket. While he patted down the parts of his face that had become damp with sweat, Wanda was surprised to realize how little Romanoff’s face had in comparison. With a super-serum in the Captain’s veins, she was sure such physical exertion would wear down more on Agent Romanoff before it did him. But the spy looked in no way deterred from her previous brawl with the super-soldier, moving almost leisurely with her every blow against Sam’s forearms. She was obviously less aggressive with Sam than she was with the Captain, which was either attested to his lack of a serum protecting him, or the fact that she had referred to this sort of brawl as merely a warm-up. The latter of which intimidated the young witch, because if this wasn’t the full extent of Romanoff’s onset, she couldn’t imagine how harsh the unhindered version was. Am I going to have to learn to fight like that?

She was so intent on figuring out how the spy functioned so effortlessly, she didn’t even realize when the question slipped off her tongue. “How does she do it?”

Rogers answered her. He wasn’t quite as easygoing as Sam when he spoke to her, but he still treated her as though their history together was much better than it was. His tone was stiff, but only in the way a well-intentioned teacher uses with well-behaved students. “It’s simple, really. Or at least, easier than say, Tony and Sam will lead you to believe. And even if you don’t catch on, that’s alright too. Powers like yours should put you at an automatic advantage.”

He wadded up the rag to put back in his pocket, staring at the pair in front of them instead of her. Something Wanda liked about Captain Rogers was that he had never come across as intimidating to her (at least, not after coming to the Facility). He was a very open presence, and during her first days at the Facility, he was the only one to try inviting her to do things with them. She had never gone through with his offers, and now felt awful about it, seeing him now so hesitant to invite her again.

From the way his eyes darted between her and the plain before them, she had a feeling of what he wanted to offer without reading his mind. The buzz around it was not as active as Romanoff’s, but still rather loud. So she saved him the trouble, and moved closer without making him ask if she wanted to. As he followed, she was internally pleased to see that brief expression of caution dissolve. She knew his wariness wasn’t from fear of her, but it was still something she didn’t want to be associated with.

“Nat likes to use her whole body. She has the most experience moving it that way,” Rogers explained to her as they came up for a closer view of the sparring Avengers. “She also keeps her thumb inside her fists when she throws a punch. That’s so she doesn’t accidentally break it when she hits flesh and bone. But you’ll probably be able to worry about that less, since your hands are most likely going to be used to channel that…weird stuff you have.”

He was nervous again when he glanced at her after that comment, like he was worried referring to her abilities with incorrect terminology would somehow offend her. She assured him that it didn’t with a small smile, which was actually pretty genuine. Some of her powers she still didn’t understand herself, and the fact that he at least tried to describe them was fairly amusing.

However, it seemed that acknowledging her abilities made them more prominent. Suddenly the buzzing she felt when her powers latched onto another mind grew noisy again, demanding she hone in and listen. She tried to avoid it by stepping away from the others under a guise of trying to see the fight from another angle, so Captain Rogers wouldn’t believe she was uncomfortable because of something he was doing. Every now and then she looked back at him, as though she were listening whenever he made a new comment.

As she worked her way around the other two Avengers, she could still feel her powers stubbornly reaching out to someone else’s mind. At first she assumed it to be Agent Romanoff’s mind. But ironically, the spy’s mind was always quietest when she was fighting. Probably because it required so much focus to move as smoothly and efficiently as she did, skilled in this sort of dance that was equally violent and self-protective. Wanda couldn’t fathom how she’d ever learn to make her body push and twist as naturally as the spy’s did.

As fascinating as it was to ponder how she could replicate such a fervent rhythm, it was in all likeliness pointless. If she ever needed to defend herself the way Romanoff or Sam did, her powers would prevent anyone from coming close enough to make the attack. It was something she couldn’t control, or at least didn’t know how to yet. The reddish energy that lurked under her skin was a separate entity, capable of acting out on its own accord. Hence why the droning hum of other people’s minds was such a consistent annoyance that she had to push back.

She hated her powers for being such a bother. For setting her apart from everyone else she encountered, and making her question herself as much as she did as of recently. She hated how everything she had endured to get them, and why, had been in vain considering where she was now. And she hated them for how much they’d cost her. Even the simple humming she picked up from Sam and Agent Romanoff’s focused minds was suddenly too much to handle and she found herself searching for an escape from her first real interaction with other people since the Battle of Sokovia.

She didn’t realize she had wandered closer to the rim of the backwoods until the Captain called out to her, asking if she was alright. She almost hadn’t heard him due to that incessant buzzing in her brain suddenly growing with a vengeance. The once mild humming morphed into a mad crackling in her ears, like the embers snapping in a bonfire.

The Avengers had loud minds, but never this loud.

What have you found, Maximoff?

She finally gave her attention to so much noise, pulling it deeper into her own thoughts so she could hear properly. Only to be taken aback to discover there really wasn’t anything to hear. The thoughts were visual memories; a mess of images bleeding into each other. The lush green she had been admiring before was now patchy, and dark with death. Not just to the vegetation, but with the stains of someone’s gory end. What little grass there was had become crushed under bloody footprints. Then the blood stains speckled across the grass and dirt began to bleed anew, seeping into another background of grey-colored stone. Crimson stains standing out vibrantly against earth that was now covered in the asphalt of an empty street. Cars were parked all around, abandoned and empty as their owners ran screaming as one terrified mass.

She could hear the Captain asking her again, “Wanda? Is everything OK?”

No, it’s not! She was too in-tuned with reading the newcomer that she couldn’t muster a verbal explanation that she had found someone, somewhere in the woods around them. Someone who was scared, if this intense jumble of thoughts was any indication.

She tried to distance herself from the newcomer’s mind—to pull herself back to reality enough to alert the others that someone nearby might need their help. But it was a challenge, since she also didn’t want to sever the connection. She didn’t know how her powers had found this newcomer, and she didn’t want to risk losing them in the event she couldn’t find them again.

She knew she was worrying the others, and she needed to convey something for them to understand what was happening. She sought to find Captain Rogers, despite her vision swimming madly between the stranger’s thoughts and her own. In one heartbeat, she was standing on a glass panel hovering higher and higher above water. Then in the next, she was back in the sunny clearing with the Avengers Facility behind her.

Finally, her sight did find Rogers. Or at least, she thought it had. She only had a split second to recognize him before she noticed the vivid scarlet spilling from the corner of his mouth. Then above his left eye. Then his right eye burst with an angry reddish color as well, puffing up until it had nearly swelled shut.

“Captain,” she whimpered in sympathy for this esteemed soldier brought to such a damaged state.

“You know me.”

Whether he was saying that to her right now, or in this person’s memory, she didn’t know. It didn’t matter, for the droning sound she always picked up when feeling the surface of someone else’s thoughts returned. She was scared she was being pulled from the newcomer’s thoughts until she noticed it wasn’t just a senseless hum. It was a new memory. The whine of some sort of machine this stranger was remembering.

“I don’t know him. I can’t—I know I can’t—”   

Multiple memories were bleeding together again. The worn-down blue of Rogers’ uniform became the metallic blue in his shield, held tightly in her arms.

No…it was digging into her left arm. Captain Rogers swarmed her vision from behind, now without his uniform or injuries. He resembled any other civilian, aside from his signature shield in hand. The shield that he was pressing unusually deep into the back of her arm, evoking waves of pain from every nerve of her left limb.

Captain, what are you doing? You’re going to rip it off!

She was shocked this aggressive fighting was from the same man that had been so nervous to merely speak wrongly around her just three minutes ago. Why would he be so needlessly brutal? No one could match his strength. And the assault wasn’t over, either. The shield slammed into her face, and before she could recover, his free hand gripped her jaw and threw her against the harsh pavement of the street beneath them. The impact was somewhat numbed by the muzzy beginnings of a new memory breaking through.

The smoky-grey color of the road suddenly faded into a darker color, sinking into the jet black of shabby leather. The worn leather of a chair, in fact. Surrounding it were various machines and monitors, the former of which she blamed for the return of the high-pitched whining from just before. As the irritating droning grew louder, the metal arms of the machine hovering overhead loomed closer and closer to her face.

She was so intent on figuring out what these machines were for, she didn’t recognize the sudden rush of cold in her veins as pure terror. Then she became so bent on determining why she—or the newcomer, really—would feel so afraid, that she was in no way prepared for when the warning whines of the machinery abruptly stopped. In their place came the distinct crack of electricity, shortly followed by a vision of unbearable white, conceived between heat and agony. An ugly marriage that struck so heavily against her head that she couldn’t stop herself from crying out loud. Not just in the memory, but she could feel the scream pulled from her lungs in reality as well.

“Wanda! Wanda!”

She didn’t know if it was the shouting in her ear, or the sudden impact of earth against her knees, but somehow she was abruptly yanked from the memory. The sudden return of sunlight and fresh air momentarily overwhelmed her again before recognition sluggishly started to set in.

The clear sky. Healthy trees blanketing the skyline. A clearing separating them from an array of short buildings. Three bodies crowding around her as she knelt in the dirt.

Then she felt a hand land on her back, and she yelped at the unexpected contact. Its suddenness was all too reminiscent of the white fire she had just felt against her temples. A part of her still felt the pain from it, even though it was from a memory that never really belonged to her. She even whimpered in her mother tongue how much it hurt, between her gasps for enough air to force herself to breathe through it.

Like a good little pet. You have to just breathe through it, Maximoff.

Those words, she knew, were a habit developed from memories all her own.

Chto bolit? Chto sluchilos’?”

That wasn’t the voice of one of the other experiments. Or even their handlers. It was too gentle, too compassionate.

The last of her recognition finally settled into place. Agent Romanoff. The Avengers (three of them, anyways), and their headquarters, which served as her current home. This was meant to be a safe place for her.  

Chto bolit?” Romanoff asked again.

“Breathe through your nose,” the Bird Man—Sam, added with a slight urgency, his hand moving higher on her back. “Deep breaths.”

She furiously shook her head, first to scatter the remnants of someone else’s memories in her head, then a second time in refusal to be coddled like a child. But she ended up listening to Sam regardless, for the memories still pressed a faint burn to her head that made it difficult to focus on putting air through her lungs. Calmly. Evenly.

“That’s it,” Sam encouraged. “Breathe in. Hold it for a few seconds. Now out.”

Following his lead helped ease her breathing pattern, but did little to soothe her heart pumping wildly in her ears. Those memories hadn’t just been painful, they’d been horrifying to watch. A relentless display of violence and bloodshed. Even the Captain had been fiercer than she’d ever seen him, holding none of his strength back as he fought. Although what was strangest of all was how the chilling rush of fear didn’t appear until she’d reached the memory of that one machine and chair. Why? What was that machine usually meant for?

Either way, she insisted for the others’ sake, “I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m over it.”

“You OK?” Rogers pressed worriedly, collecting her hair and pushing it aside so she could feel Agent Romanoff’s hand fanning her neck.

 “I’m fine, it’s fine.” Wanda tried to wriggle away from their concern. But she was severely distracted with her thoughts sporadically swimming between listening to their fretful queries, keeping her breaths steady, and trying to make sense of what she’d seen. “It’s just…I felt—”

Another shake of her head, this time in an attempt to focus. “I heard someone. They’re there—out there,” she insisted, trying to look over her shoulder, but the Captain’s broad shoulder blocked most of her view. 

Romanoff seemed to understand what she meant. “In the backwoods?”

They all waited for her to gather her response before pressing further. “Yes, I…I could read them.”

“And what exactly did you see?” Captain Rogers asked. Patient, but urgent.

A mess, is what she wanted to say. “It was a blur of memories. They…there was a road, and then there was a bridge—and a ship over water. There was fighting, and blood, and then the road again, and then—”

She shuddered to think of the last memory. Recalling it out loud somehow made her voice smaller. Meeker. “There was a machine. That’s what hurt me.”

“Do you remember who they were fighting?” Romanoff questioned. “If it was one of our agents, they’d have—”

“It was Captain Rogers.” The witch almost gripped said Captain’s sleeve, but thought different of it when the fresh memory of him fighting her through the stranger’s eyes arose. Now he intimidated her. “They were fighting him, in the road,” she finished softly.

“A road?” Romanoff’s hard stare went to Rogers beside her. “A Hydra agent, you think? From DC?”

“Sounds like it,” Rogers replied, though he sounded distracted as he did. His gaze didn’t even meet his friend’s face. Rather, he had begun to stare miles away from all of them. When his focus switched back to Wanda, there was an added sense of urgency to both his eyes and his tone. “You said there was a machine that hurt your head? What happened after you saw it? Or before?”

She squirmed a bit as he drew closer to her face, recalling all too vividly how the last time she had seen him do so, his shield was not far behind. “I…I don’t—”

“Did you see anybody else? Did you recognize them?” he pressed further when she didn’t reply quickly enough, his eyes wild with impatience for answers.

“Give her room to breathe,” Romanoff demanded, gently patting on his arm when he got too eager, nearly smothering the disheveled witch.  

He obediently stepped back, giving Wanda some more space. As he did, the sense of imminence with him lessened some, but was still clear as he switched his attention back to Romanoff. “Natasha, what if it was him? We’re not far from where he was last seen.”

“Three hundred odd miles, on foot, is ‘not far’?” Sam threw in doubtfully.

“For who?”

None of the witch’s peers gave any indication they’d heard her. Agent Romanoff only regarded both of the boys with nothing but exasperation. “Steve, you fought a lot of Hydra agents in DC.” Her tone made the words sound more like a warning than a reminder. “The odds aren’t good for the first one that comes around here to be—”

“But what if it is? That’s how they kept him there.”

He seemed adamant he knew who this newcomer was, but Wanda was still at a complete loss. “Who?”

The others still didn’t answer her. Captain Rogers looked over her head to search Sam’s face for support in convincing Romanoff. Something which Sam looked very torn about. Wanda had grown to associate him with a healthy bout of self-confidence and an openness even more prominent than that of the Captain. For him to be so uncertain of things only knocked her further for a loop. After a few heartbeats, he gave in with a sigh. “Well, it was in his file. Brainwashing and electro-shock therapy. It’s how they got him to stay for so long.”

“Who?”

Again, Wanda’s questioning went overlooked. Again, for Sam, as he backed up Romanoff’s doubt this time. “But I got to admit, I don’t think Barnes would’ve turned back into your buddy overnight, let alone know to come looking for you here. We spent over a year looking for something even related to his whereabouts, and still turned up nothing. Sorry, Cap, but I think it could be any of those other agents. Hydra did all kinds of sick shit to their agents.”

Wanda wanted to scream in demand they tell her who they talking about. If they suspected someone with Hydra, wouldn’t she know best? Even if it wasn’t, she wanted desperately to know whose mind she had been in, if only to make more sense of what she’d seen as a result.

However, seeing the change in Captain Rogers’ face quelled most of her ire. He looked positively crushed that whatever Sam had described was plausible, shrinking in on himself somewhat in shame of getting his own hopes up so high. As intimidating as she found him just a few moments ago, she also remembered he was still the wary soldier that had been the first to disregard her history and treat her as one of their own. So seeing him so dispirited was surprisingly disheartening for her.

Fortunately, Agent Romanoff was able to act out on his distress, rubbing his shoulder with a sort of familial comfort they had established long before Wanda arrived at the Facility. It was something only they shared, and was most likely preferable over whatever condolence Wanda could offer. “Easy, Cap. We just don’t want you getting your hopes up too much, then ruined again,” she told him, with every hint of her previous exasperation completely gone.

She waited until he nodded in acknowledgement of her words before stepping back towards the compound buildings, reassuming her cool, unfeeling visage in a single flutter of eyelashes. “Whoever it is, I’m sure Tony has a bot or something that can find them. I’ll let him know what happened and see what he can do before they get too far.”  

With a turn on her heel, she was on her way to do just that. Sam took a moment to watch her go before announcing he was going to follow. “You did quite a number on yourself when you went down,” he told Wanda in particular. He directed her gaze down to her knees, which had each been scraped up roughly when she’d collapsed. She just then noticed that her palms had gotten skinned as well, when she’d tried to stop herself. Bits of dirt and minerals had gotten wedged between the thin tears in her flesh, and each one stung as she tried to wipe them clean. “Let me get you something for that,” Sam offered when he saw her wince. “You got her, Cap?”

The faraway stare of wistfulness was so strong with the Captain that looked like he had forgotten she was there altogether. At the sound of his name, his eyes widened slightly to remember a colleague was still left hunched over in the dirt. With an extremely gentle grip, he pulled Wanda’s arm until she managed to regain her footing. Normally she didn’t care for being aided like she was some sort of invalid, or hell, to be touched at all by someone she wasn’t at all close with. But for now, she was still light-headed from all the excitement, and let herself hold onto the Captain’s arm until her brain felt less muzzy.

At her other side, Sam was beginning to leave already, but not without some last words to Rogers. “And hey, don’t start beating yourself up about Barnes again, alright? You did the best you could for him, alright?”

Rogers didn’t even meet his eye when he gave his half-hearted reply. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Sam didn’t press further, and went ahead of them back inside the Facility. The Captain lightly tugged on the young witch’s arm to guide her into step with him, though at a slower pace than Sam. It felt like a defeated pace.

She didn’t intend to bring it up without Sam there, like it was some sort of secret. He just so happened to be out of earshot when she gathered the nerve to ask the Captain about this mystery person once more. “Who’s Barnes?”

Rogers’ first reaction was to look at her in surprise. Then, as if he had just remembered she had such a short history with them, chuckled softly at himself. “He’s, uh…no one you should be worried about, Wanda.”

She intended to argue, standing firm in her belief that she had a right to know whose mind she had found. Although, before she could verbally muster any protest, the Captain went on. “He’s just a…well, the ghost, really, of someone I used to know. A close friend, actually.”

“Close?” she echoed curiously. She knew enough about Captain America to know he was considered the man out of time. Outside of the friends he had made with the Avengers team, most of his close colleagues were decided to be long gone. How could her powers have found a dead man?

Rogers took a long pause before continuing. “Closer than close,” he said with the shadows of a fond smile on his face. “I considered him my brother.”

For a moment, Wanda thought he had hesitated because of the mention of a pseudo-sibling. Everyone around the Facility did what they could to avoid the topic of brothers, or anything else that would remind Wanda of her own. And what hurt about that was that it wasn’t out of empathy for her feelings, but rather fear of what she would do as a result. Even though she could understand why; in Sokovia, her grief had been so strong that she’d been able to obliterate part of Ultron’s army without even thinking about it. Who knew what else could make her lose control like that?

But then the Captain explained further, and she realized what he was really afraid to bring up around her. “Then Hydra got ahold of him. They had him for a long while. Made him someone completely different, someone unrecognizable. The Winter Soldier?”

He looked at her again, this time with his bright blue eyes alight with hope. She didn’t understand it at first, but was quick to realize he was prompting her. Searching for a connection between her and his friend that went deeper than sharing the title of ‘Hydra experiment’. But she found none, and was loath to tell him as much. She knew it would be nothing but another disappointment for him. “I…I’m sorry. I don’t remember him. I don’t think I even heard the name before.”

The disappointment she had been anticipating was clearly there, but he tried to hide it behind a bitter smile. “It’s fine, Wanda. You shouldn’t worry about him. Sam and I tried to find him, so we could get him help, but that was before…”

He never finished the thought, but from how his gaze flitted over her she knew what he meant just the same.

Before you came along. Before you made a bigger problem.

She wanted to be angry that he was implying she was at fault for him having to discontinue the search for this friend he was so painfully devoted to. But if anything, she could only feel upset with herself. She knew her participation in Ultron’s mess ultimately cost her own brother. It only made sense that she learn of the other brothers (even if not by blood) that were lost because of her.

But the Captain’s brother wasn’t completely lost, was he? Not irrevocably, like Pietro. He was only missing—hiding probably, like she was, seeing as he was a former Hydra asset too. He was most likely waiting for a form of refuge to find him, like the Avengers had her. He just needed to be found.

That last notion in particular plagued her for the rest of the afternoon. She scarcely moved, let alone spoke from the spot on the sofa she had reclaimed as Sam worked on her cuts, cleaning them out with a first-aid kit he’d found under the sink. He had moved on to dressing them by the time Mr. Stark found them in the common room. Rogers and Agent Romanoff were there too, talking quietly around the kitchenette area. From how stiff Romanoff was acting, and how often they both hung their heads, one could only presume they weren’t agreeing on very much, despite trying very hard to do so. Wanda didn’t dare listen in on the exchange, and was pretty absorbed with her personal musings over what she had found anyways.

Stark interrupted them each of them as he dumped a large, scrappy chunk of metal on the kitchenette island. It had one red eye in its center that stared uselessly at the ceiling between him and the former SHIELD agents as they talked. “Well, whoever it was, they were long gone by the time I got out there. All he found,” he dipped his head in reference to the triangular scrap on the counter in front of him, “were some bold squirrels, and a couple of junior agents hiding out for some, um…extracurricular activities.”

Romanoff’s eyebrows went up. “Good lord. Lucky she didn’t catch that in her head.”

“But no tracks? Footprints?” Rogers asked, sounding less like the hopeful kid Wanda had seen outside, and more like the calculative, experienced Captain she was used to. “Wanda very vividly felt something coming from out there.”

“The ground wasn’t damp enough to leave any imprints. But I was planning to take a few more rounds in the area to see if they come back, or if there’s anything I missed this time ‘round. Preferably after this little guy gets the upgrades he needs.”

“Well, let us know when you do, so we can help,” Captain Rogers ordered. “We can’t afford to have Hydra agents of any kind lurking too close and finding this Facility.”

“Yeah, it kind of defeats the whole ‘Secret Headquarters’ thing we were going for,” Sam put in from his place in front of Wanda, where he was presently stuffing the materials to the first-aid kit back into their rightful box. His voice had its usual nonchalance, but his movements screamed with tension. Worry of their cover out here failing them, and exposing them to an enemy agency.

Wanda had forgotten the Bird Man had been in his fair share of fights too.

As he spoke, Wanda also noticed Romanoff’s hand return to the Captain’s shoulder, gently massaging the place where it met his collarbone. She uttered something to him that was too low for the witch to pick up from across the room, but Rogers seem to listen attentively. His response was also quiet, though was significantly less discreet than Romanoff. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Besides, we’ve got a new team to kick around.”

Wanda supposed they were supposed to hear that, since Sam called over his shoulder with heavy sarcasm, “Hey, thanks Cap! Definitely what we wanted to hear.”

The Captain gave a short laugh at that. It was contrived, the witch knew. Even as he proceeded to interact with the others as if everything was normal, Wanda kept her eye on him, especially the surface of his thoughts. They were humming wildly in what she knew was his internal battle against his own sense of hope. You learn to recognize that battle when you become the only experiment to survive.

The others still hadn’t shaken off their tension, either, which was a sufficient clue as to why Captain Rogers was so divided on resuming a search for his old friend. They wouldn’t approve. He felt he couldn’t go retrieve an entire person without at least one of his friends here standing with him on the decision.

But she didn’t need their support. Wanda had grown accustomed to being set apart from the team, from functioning alone. And a surprisingly warm ball of energy rolled around in her chest at the realization that maybe she wouldn’t be so outcast if she managed this kindness to the leader of the Avengers team. Maybe then she could actually feel like one of them.

I can’t help my brother anymore. But I can help you with yours, Captain.

He just needs to be found.

Chapter Text

Wanda knew that looking for a globally-recognized, former master assassin would be nowhere near easy. She just hadn’t been banking on it being quite this difficult straight from the get-go. She knew the odds of finding even a clue didn’t look well because, at first, she wasn’t the only one looking.

True to his word, Mr. Stark repeatedly scouted the backwoods in the few days that followed Wanda’s vision, with either Rogers or Romanoff accompanying him each time. Wanda always hung around the outskirts of the Facility’s main building, not wanting to raise suspicions that she had an ulterior motive for investigating her finding on her own.

By the fifth day after the original discovery, the team had reduced its patrols to merely twice a day. That was also the day Wanda felt bold enough to move closer, planting herself in almost the exact spot where she’d first latched onto the stranger’s memories, and patiently waited to find something at least similar to it again. Which sometimes became merely discovering just how far her telepathy could reach. Though, she ultimately wasn’t able to find anything related to who she was looking for.

She was so intent on finding any source of noise in the otherwise silent backwoods that she was completely caught off-guard when Stark and Romanoff suddenly returned. They made the way through the first line of trees just as Romanoff was finishing some jest about how “we can’t all come and go by flying soda can.”

Stark responded with a very forced laugh. “That’s a good one, Red. Almost loved it as much when Sam said it.”

She shoved him pretty roughly, but the lightness in their expressions indicated it was all in good fun. Stark then wandered back towards the Facility, but Romanoff lingered in her place. After a few uncertain heartbeats, she made her way to sit next to Wanda in the grass. The young witch wasn’t sure what was more unexpected; seeing the all-knowing Black Widow hesitate to do something, or for that something to be sitting with her, of all people.

“You’re alright,” the spy assured when Wanda tried to shift to the side to make more room for her. It had actually been intended more for her comfort rather than Agent Romanoff’s. She didn’t know what the redhead wanted, but she knew it was serious due to how close Romanoff pressed herself beside the young witch. Though otherwise, the spy appeared wholly nonchalant, simply leaning back on her hands and stretching out her legs in the lush green beneath them.

Wanda was a stark contrast, hugging her legs tightly to her chest until she was practically a ball of unease. None of the Avengers ever pried into her private life, but ever since she’d gotten the idea to find the Winter Soldier on her own, she’d become profoundly paranoid the others would catch on and express their disapproval. However, a quieter part of her knew it wasn’t entirely rational at the moment. The most they’d seen her do so far was drift around the meadow behind the Facility. How could they know she was waiting to randomly pick up on a particular someone’s thoughts?

“You waiting on us for lunch, or just meditating?” Romanoff asked with the same lively spirit she’d had with Stark.

Wanda shifted again, somehow managing to pull her knees even tighter to her chest. “Just, um….thinking. Not exactly meditating, just…” she threw in as an attempt to match the light-hearted atmosphere Romanoff was going for, only to falter awkwardly when she couldn’t find a way to finish the sentiment. “Pondering.”

Romanoff hummed, eyeing the cluster of trees at their feet. The longer she stared into the shadows and still plant life, the more Wanda noticed the teasing glint in her eyes slip away. The spy forced something reminiscent of it into her smirk when she looked back to the Maximoff sister. “Steve tell you not to worry about it?”

“Yes.”

Romanoff nodded. “He’s a hypocrite that way. But he is right, I guess,” she said, feigning a begrudging attitude. “At least, in regards to you.”

She fell quiet for a moment, and it was only until Wanda finally looked her in the eye did she continue. “The Winter Soldier’s not exactly someone you should lose sleep over. He’s really damaged, as I’m sure you saw.”

She paused, letting the implication behind that last statement sink in.

“He can also do a lot of damage. Last anyone saw of him, he nearly succeeded in killing Nick Fury, and then Steve. Cap thinks he was beginning to remember himself, and even if that’s true, then it means he’s probably just now coming to terms with seventy years’ worth of stuff like that on his hands. And take it from someone who had to do the same with only a fraction of that amount: that’s not exactly the type of person who wants to be found. At least, not yet. When he’s ready, we’ll know it.”

Wanda stayed quiet, unsure what to do with that. She agreed with a soft, “Right,” just to indicate she was listening.

Agent Romanoff’s smile became softer. Maybe even a little sad. “We’re trying to make a new team. Maybe it’ll help Steve move on from his failed search. But you? You know you don’t need that added baggage to sort through. You already have a lot of your own, right? No offense.”

Wanda was quick to assure no offense was taken, wanting desperately to keep the subject off of herself. Her grief and issues of the past were usually so consuming that she preferred not to pay them any attention whenever she could help it. “I was just curious, is all. Didn’t exactly anticipate finding something so mysterious out here.”

That was true enough. After developing powers like hers, it was hard to be taken by surprise anymore.

Agent Romanoff hummed again, some of her previous mirth finally reappearing in the corners of her smile. “Well,” she huffed, swinging up to her feet. “That’s what we get for thinking things were getting boring around here, isn’t it?”

“I suppose,” Wanda replied, only giving a weak attempt to sound amused.

Agent Romanoff gave her one last pat on the shoulder, not unlike the kind she and the Captain often exchanged, before heading back towards the main building. Presumably to leave Wanda staring into the woods a while longer, reflecting on the spy’s words of caution against learning any more about the Winter Soldier.


Natasha Romanoff would be beyond displeased to know her words of caution only made Wanda more intrigued. She didn’t know why; maybe it was the mystery from what little she knew so far, or the urge to compensate the team’s negligence to put any real effort in the search when there were such strong ties to the Captain.

She soon decided it was a little bit of both.

The strangest part of the search, she thought, was how much she liked it. It was the first thing in a long while that effectively kept her busy, thus stifling the usual emptiness she’d been carrying since her arrival. Suddenly, there was a viable reason to get up in the morning—go outside, even. She had to roam the meadow, searching for any other traces of his thoughts. Now, she had something to do when she couldn’t sleep at night. She had to research the Soldier’s history, and contemplate what it could indicate about where he would go now. She would read and read until she finally crashed out from exhaustion.

The research was the most frustrating part. Scouting in the meadow she could easily brush off as enjoying the greenery. The reading would be significantly harder to explain if the Avengers noticed a correlation in the files she was stealing from various offices around the building. At one point, her paranoia of being discovered was so great, she refrained from searching on the Internet for information, out of fear someone was monitoring the browser activity.

However, it was only food for her irritation to find nearly all of the physical files kept on the Winter Soldier were older than she was. And every single one did little other than rehash the same information: a member of the American army until captured by Hydra. Experimented on, and brainwashed there. Held captive, and frequently frozen until the heads of Hydra needed him. Mostly for assassinations and some abductions. The only variation between articles was in specifically how he performed some of the former.

Eventually, she reached a point of true desperation. She needed a new, direct source to give her more. So, she went to the Avengers.

At the time, she hadn’t planned it. It was half past one in the morning, and she couldn’t sleep anyways. She could hear the team, still up and active down the hall, which wasn’t at all unusual. She often heard them up at the same strange hours as her, though had never questioned what kept them up. She’d seen inside their minds before, and could think of some pretty feasible reasons why they’d each prefer to distract themselves from their own thoughts and memories.

Wanda wandered out strictly on an impulse, finding them all in the kitchenette area of the common room. Sam and Romanoff sat at the island while Stark and Rogers shuffled through the cupboards. She timidly lingered in the entryway, unsure how to join them, considering her visit was so spontaneous. She merely watched over them for a while, absentmindedly waiting to be noticed amidst a passionate story from Sam.

“—so now, he’s flipping out on me! And because I’m the only one there, it’s all up to me to convince him, ‘dude, it’s not internally bleeding if you can see the blood externally’. That’s not how it works!”

“Did we wake you?”

The good-natured air around them suddenly shifted at the Captain’s concerned question. She fidgeted uncomfortably when all their eyes turned to her, her fingers moving quickly to tug at the sleeves of her cardigan.

Mr. Stark somewhat saved her by airily adding, “Sorry. Blame Romanoff—she’s the one who got the midnight munchies.”

“Hey!” Agent Romanoff glared at him with pure indignation. “You try babysitting a couple of restless soldiers all day. I’ll bet you forget dinner a few times, too.”

“Yeah, everything’s our faults,” Sam remarked, his sardonic tone welcoming back the easygoing atmosphere. “At least I eat less than twice my bodyweight every day.”

Captain Rogers was the only one that didn’t pick up on the humor, still looking worried over disturbing Wanda. She finally gathered the nerve to shuffle closer in order to reassure him, taking a seat directly beside Sam. “I’m fine. Had trouble sleeping anyways.”

“Well, here,” Mr. Stark shoved whatever he’d been holding close to her. It turned out to be a plateful of cheeses and crackers. “Help yourself, before Natasha kills it all off.”

“You want some tea?” Rogers offered, already reaching for a cup sitting on the counter behind him.

“I’m OK,” Wanda declined gently. She also ignored the plate of snacks in front of her, choosing rather to keep quiet so Mr. Stark would resume their previous conversation.

“Well, Wilson, we’ve all had to deal with some junior agents at one point or another. When it all comes down to it, you know what I always say?”

He got Rogers’ attention with that, the soldier’s eyebrows quirking up with some levity now. “When can we punch Steve in the face?”

Stark met his eye evenly, pretending to think that idea over. “No, but that is a good one.”

“No, it’s not!” Romanoff objected while leaning across the island surface to snatch a cube of cheese. “I can’t have you picking fights with super-soldiers. I promised Pepper I would bring you back in one piece.”

“You say that like I’m a borrowed pencil sharpener. Although, I am glad you mentioned that.” Stark checked the green numbers on the microwave screen behind him. “Pep’s probably just now getting up where she is. I’ll be right back.”

And with that, he was making his way back into the dark expanse of the unlit hallway. Wanda watched him go until she noticed an odd silence was falling over the remaining Avengers. She seized the opportunity to speak up before she could lose her nerve. “Who’s Pepper?”

While the other two looked at her in surprise (most likely because she had been the one to pick up the conversation again), Captain Rogers answered, “She’s the head of Stark’s business. A real nice lady.”

His attention promptly switched to Romanoff. “How’s she doing, by the way?”

“She’s fine,” was the spy’s slightly offhanded response, her attention closer to the cheese she was picking at. “Decided to stay in Vienna a few days, since Stark’s going to be here, and she’s going to have be in London for business soon anyways.”

“She gonna be OK there?” Sam asked.

With such a serious tone, Romanoff eyed him in bemusement. “Well…it’s Italy. Not the Titanic.”

Wanda’s restless fingers went to the carnelian she always wore (her favorite of several trinkets Pietro had stolen for her when they were younger). Her nerves were getting a rise on her again as she internally wondered how she would work the conversation to her original questions.

“So, you are close? How did you meet?” she asked the spy. Only after the words left her mouth did she realize how random they were when the others had moved on to a debate over which ghost stories of Italy were true.

Thankfully, no one commented on the suddenness. “Who, Pepper?” Agent Romanoff wondered. “I met her on the job. I was sent to work undercover at Stark Industries. And trust me, after dealing with what she does day-in and day-out, you’d understand the need to check in on her some more after that.”

Wanda nodded, though in her mind, was already readying her next query. “And the rest of you? How did you come together?”

Sam immediately gestured to the other two with his thumb. “Those two made a bunch of shit go down, and then dragged me into it.”

Romanoff lightly smacked his shoulder before giving her own answer. “It was for the job. Again. Fury decided I could use Cap as a new partner, given how well we worked together after the invasion of New York, and how my current partner was focused on having another kid.”

“Yeah,” the Captain gave a slight huff of amusement. “Can’t imagine why Fury felt like you could use someone to actually keep you focused on a mission.”

“Hey, I’m a great multitasker!” Romanoff insisted. Again, all righteous indignation. “And you should be grateful for it, too. You, and whatever blue-blooded, all-American university graduate that you deserve to be with, will be thrilled when my abundant match-making efforts land you a wedding date someday.”

Had she not immediately diverted her attention to tugging the snack plate closer to herself, Romanoff might not have missed the almost forlorn sentiment painted over the Captain after she spoke so surely about this future she sought for him. “Thrilled, huh?” he questioned, sounding distracted. For a moment, even his eyes seemed to grow distant from the present. Wanda wondered with a pang of guilt if he was thinking of the vision she had given him at Ultron’s command, of a return to the pleasant, normal life he’d wanted after the war of his time.

If Romanoff noticed any difference, she didn’t act on it. “Mh-hmm,” she affirmed his query with a confident nod.

Rogers breathed a laugh that was obviously contrived. “Sure,” he said, now sounding more earnest. “Just no more with lip-piercings, OK?”

Now Agent Romanoff looked up at him, wide-eyed with incredulity. “What was wrong with Lillian? She was cute.”

“She was a bit of a know-it-all, too.”

“Hey, man, she was trying to impress you!” Sam threw in. “I mean, you know that you’re Captain America, right?”

“Yeah. I got that.” Rogers’ voice sounded smaller as he acknowledged the reminder. It made something in Wanda’s chest harden with shame that she’d come out here with the intention of pestering him about his past, which she’d already learned was a constant ghost for him. This mantle that he bore had been what cost him so much of that dream life.

But if I can restore part of it, then this’ll be worth it, she reasoned with herself before taking the plunge into what she truly wanted to know. “What about Barnes?”

The shift in the atmosphere was instant. And painfully obvious. Sam and Romanoff grew physically tense, the latter freezing mid-chew. Rogers stared at her, his eyes giving away nothing but surprise at the topic. Yet, there grew a buzzing at the surface of his thoughts that gave off a different feeling.

“What about him?” The Captain’s tone came off so uncharacteristically cold and defensive, the witch found herself fighting against an urge to curl in on herself and hide.

“Just…how you came to know each other. Before he was the assassin. Just curious, is all.”

She could tell from the glare she received that Romanoff wasn’t going to buy that excuse a second time.

Rogers went on, completely ignorant of the wordless exchange as he turned his back to prepare some of the tea he mentioned before. “He was Bucky, when I knew him. Just a kid—a good one, who always stuck with me despite all the trouble I got us into.”

Now Wanda was ignoring Sam and Romanoff. Deliberately so, in order to avoid thinking about their inquisitive stares. “How was he found by Hydra? Maybe I saw him, and didn’t know…” she added abruptly, in an attempt to upkeep her guise of casual curiosity.

“That’s doubtful,” Rogers stated, sounding more cynical than Wanda thought he was capable of. “It was almost seventy years ago, and ever since, Zola kept him with either the German or Russian precincts.”

Wanda heard the activity around Romanoff’s thoughts grow significantly louder, which drew her attention to the spy’s shaky exhale.

“I don’t know how they got him the first time, but…there was a second time he fell, that I was there for. And I didn’t—”

“Steve,” Romanoff broke in. Her voice was hard as stone, and her eyes harder as they bore into the back of her colleague. “It wasn’t your fault.”

The thoughts in Rogers’ mind grew louder this time, like he wanted to argue. Like he wanted to fight just to say he did fight for something in his friend’s honor. Yet on the surface, all he offered was silence. His movements were tense, and sluggish as he entertained the concept of preparing tea.

Wanda’s previous determination to learn more about the Winter Soldier completely deserted her, allowing room to recognize she was walking into something unwelcoming. She hadn’t learned anything new or helpful to her search, but she figured pressing further just wasn’t worth it. Not with the muscles in the Captain’s arms and back pulled tighter than piano wire, like she was provoking him with her simple questions about the past. Like the loss of what could’ve been was something she would use against him…

Well. 

This wasn’t a good idea.

Izvinite,” she mumbled, not even realizing how she’d excused herself in her rush to get up and out of there before her fear of exposure fully set in. The whole while, her heart began to beat frantically under the pressure of the Black Widow’s glare. A glare she could almost physically feel following her. The pressing glare of a spy that was undoubtedly suspicious of her intentions. And her credibility probably wasn’t getting any better the faster she fled.

Very bad idea.


She didn’t see any of the Avengers the next morning. She surprised herself by how little she was concerned about that. No, as she planted herself at the edge of the backwoods again, her thoughts wandered down an entirely different path.

The Avengers didn’t want to find Barnes because of Rogers. They were afraid for him. His old friend was a beyond sensitive subject, capable of bringing him down to a defensive, angry kid at the mere mention of the name. There was no telling what he would do if he was actually with Barnes again, regardless if the assassin was trapped in the mindset of man or machine. And if the latter, who was to say what the Captain would do as his friend went off? Who would he fight to protect that friend?  

The Winter Soldier wasn’t just a formidable adversary to battle. He was something that had the power to divide them.

Now, as she was staring into the backwoods from where she’d first found his mind, Wanda figured that was the true reason Agent Romanoff had warned her against finding him again. Not only was he a physical danger, but also a threat to this new family Romanoff had taken in.

That same unusual family was willing to accept Wanda among them as well, so long as she stuck to the best interests of the overall team. Which included dismissing the Winter Soldier as just a lost cause.

Pietro, what should I do?

With a heavy sigh, the Maximoff sister leaned back on her palms, letting her fingertips sink into the thick earth and tossing her head back to lose herself in the sky above. It was cloudy, but of the fluffy white type of a warm summer day. Insultingly warm, compared to her bittered mood as of late.

She knew what her brother would want if he were there. He would want her to do what was best for her own wellbeing. To mind her own business for as long as it kept herself safe. He wouldn’t even think this long about the effect on the others, let alone a strange master assassin. Though, he never had the chance to really know the team on the same level Wanda had in the past few weeks. And he was never able to understand how painful it was to lose a close friend and sibling, like she had. Like Captain Rogers had. 

I know what I have to do, Pietro.

She got off her ass. Her feet carried her with more confidence than she felt in her detached heart straight through that first line of trees, deep into the domain of earth and shadows. She didn’t even pay full attention to where she was headed. She just moved, letting her feet carry her without a single thought to it. All she was aware of was how much her lungs burned in protest the further, and faster, she pushed herself past blurs of dim greens and rich browns. The trees overhead seemed to knot together, blocking off a clear view of the sky and overall closing in on top of her.

However, diving further into the earthy domain only made her feel freer. More like a dome protecting her from all of the noise and pressure of other people’s thoughts, instead of entrapment. It felt good to be this alone—physically alone in such a quiet, untouched environment. A peaceful softness, only disturbed by the cries of animals in the distance, and her own shoes crunching fallen leaves below.

And running water.

Wanda finally stumbled to a stop when the ground gave way, dropping her in water. It was only a short fall, maybe a few inches off the edge of the riverbank. The sudden appearance of a thin, red shield was her only savior from completely falling to the rocks of the river’s floor. Her shoes were beyond salvation though, as the frigid touch of water embraced her from the ankles down, easily seeping through the thin material of her ballet flats.

The icy embrace also brought her back to reality, allowing her to realize how far she had travelled. The Facility was no longer visible behind her, and the thoughts of those there were long gone. She had no way to know how far she was, given how she’d been so lost in the rush of her escape that she wasn’t keeping any track of time. Admittedly not her wisest decision, but she was certain she had at least a rough idea of how she would get back. Given the sole direction she had travelled, it was reasonable to assume a straight path backward should at least bring her close to where she started. If she chose to go any further, she would only need to remember this spot at the river. If she went further.

Of course I am. She hadn’t meant to come out here for an escape from the Facility, and all the thoughts and emotions that were constantly bearing down on her there. This was about her search, her chance at repaying the Captain for being so generous to her despite their history. Remember your plan. Your purpose.

Looking around, she didn’t find anything notable to mark this place at the river. Looking a second time didn’t seem any more promising. Except for…was that a path?

Wanda stepped out from the river’s grasp, bringing herself back to land. Sure enough, only a few paces to the left of where she’d stumbled, was a better view of a gravel path on the other side of the river. She came to another stop on her side right where the river’s still water became running water, prompted by a line of powdery white boulders lined up across the width of the river. The boulders, she quickly noticed, were just large enough to hold human weight.

The stones were pressed close together, and most were smooth enough for her to set foot on the top side. Only the last was somewhat slanted on its side, but with a step against just the right corner, it was an easy jump to the opposite riverbank. From there, it was an undisturbed trek to the gravel path. One end of the path opened widely into all directions, and the other stretched on into the distance. Uncertainty gnawed at the wandering witch for a heartbeat before she obeyed her instinct to follow the second direction.

Her pace became brisk, and more confident now that she had a predetermined path to follow. Though it didn’t escape her thoughts that a path like this had to have been made by people. Which meant someone lived out here, and either wanted to have frequent access to the woods, or they did.

The journey along the gravel road lasted for a long while. The path was too long for a loner on the run to have made, with or without an enhanced arm. As she traveled further to the path’s source, Wanda let her powers roam free, branching out and ready to latch onto any mind they found in the hopes it would lead her to civilization. Preferably one that had seen something akin to the Winter Soldier.

The closer she drew to the end of the path, the more she began to detect the presence of others. Not just one, about at least a handful of collective thoughts and images started to swarm her mind. She hadn’t realized how long it had been since she’d loosened the reach of her telepathy to this extent. It was almost too overwhelming, and she longed to push against that pull again. But she knew she couldn’t. What if one of them was the wandering soldier?

Finally, the curtain of trees gave way to a wide expanse of lush green that almost rivaled that which surrounded the Avengers Facility. Though the buildings here were much more compact, and spaced apart in disunion.

Houses. Simple, modest homes of a neighborhood unlike any Wanda had seen back in Sokovia. Not just because each house actually had its own space, but because the people around seemed so friendly and cheery as they visited with each other from the comfort of their lawns, all taking advantage of the warm summer weather. And as she began to hone in on their individual thoughts, she found even more domesticity. Everything ranged from how to remove stains from furniture, to which new book series was the best, to counting down the days until the grandkids went back with their parents. Nothing remotely similar to the horrific memories she’d found coming from the backwoods before.

Keep going. Remember your purpose.

Before she could quite realize it, she left the gravel path and was nearing the street that ran through these lines of homes. The activity in her mind from so many thoughts intensified with every step she took deeper into the clean, suburban community. It was a difficult balance, sifting through each and every voice in her reach, trying to find one to focus on, and then having to move on when it was hardly any different from the last. It was so much noise to keep up with, her vision began to spin with the inability to match every face to its mental voice.

At some point, vocal thoughts overlapped with images, which abruptly stole her vision away from reality altogether. One moment she was daydreaming with someone about their wedding, the next remembering a baseball game with the kids, then hazily recalling a dimly lit party full of slurred laughter and red plastic cups. She could smell chlorine in the brief second there was before plunging into beautifully treated water, which gave way to the scent of burnt popcorn as she stared at a small screen of passionately speaking Spanish actors. Emotions that were not her own swirled in her stomach. Thoughts that were not her own weaved through her ears.

—too hot to be wearing this much.

If I never have to write another—

—he’s so boring. Why not just marry a toaster oven?

—este pereza escribir!

How dare he remind me—!

The only sister that can actually act is—

Haven’t called Mom in days—

—the store open today?

—who’s going to come with?

It was dizzying. So much to absorb. Too much to take in. Every emotion, thought, and memory closing in like a wave in the ocean, crashing into her with the weight of a wall until her own thoughts were drowning into nothing. Her own memories were drowning, including where she was and why. It made her feel sick. Vulnerable, and exposed in front of so many strangers….

Wanda received a mixed blessing as pain rolled around in her foot. With a gasp, she found herself back in her own mind, jumping back as two large, thin wheels skidded to a stop just a few inches away from her. The bike rider, a very roundish little girl with wild, ebony curls dancing around her face briefly looked at her with a rushed, “Sorry, lady,” before continuing on her way. Wanda’s eyes followed her for as far as the driveway she turned into, then gazed further in the direction where the houses began to grow further apart as the street traveled upward, presumably disappearing atop of the hill to make room for the rest of the community.

All of the sudden, the witch couldn’t stand to go any further. Not if it meant this much noise everywhere. Or even worse, more. So much overload that would, in turn cause her to lose herself. She couldn’t handle that. Not when people were already staring at her as it was (granted, it was mainly the bike rider’s family, reprimanding the little girl for running over a stranger). Her hands trembled under the burn of their eyes, and her heart hammered harshly against her chest in alarm. Wanda didn’t want their attention. She didn’t like it. What if they recognized her?

They know who I am—what I’ve done. What I’m doing.

Her feet moved on their own accord again, stumbling wearily back towards the gravel path from where she had come. It was quiet there. No noise. No people. No storm of emotions to swallow her whole. Only one thought, and one that was her own.

Get out. Get out. Get out!

The sky suddenly closed up, covered by a thick tangle of tree branches overhead. But it wasn’t far enough. Not if she could still feel a mild buzzing in her brain. She kept going, nearly running by now, and didn’t stop again until she stumbled off the other end of the gravel path, catching herself on the nearest tree. She braced herself against the biting wood, forcing herself to breathe like Sam had once shown her.

In, then out, Maximoff. In, out. In—out. In—out, in—in—in!

That wasn’t working well enough. She wanted to cry, for reasons sitting between frustration and embarrassment. Though that wasn’t likely to help her breathing, so she shifted her focus on the tree bark’s rough texture, nipping at the flesh of her fingers. It had little strength to actually hurt her. That made her focus on the overall plant, forcing her to breathe deeply for the sake of absorbing its earthy scent.

She was being ridiculous. No one was actually watching her. Those families were too busy enjoying themselves, wrapped up in their own lives. And even if they did notice her, how would they know what she was looking for just from her thoughts about it? Only she had that power, and this was all a rude reminder as to why she didn’t use it in public spaces. She could go back. She should. This personal mission was supposed to be her repayment for the Avengers’ generosity, and she was blowing it.

But the noise…those looks….

The witch’s thoughts went back to her brother, and what he would do, and it was all it took to make her completely break. He would see how upset she was. He would remind her how to breathe properly. Tell her to stop worrying and go home until her mind was settled. Maybe even carry her there himself to ensure she did just that. And she wanted that. She wanted him.

But he wasn’t coming. And all because of a mess she had made.

I can’t do this. Not if I can barely function around normal people.

A harsh sob escaped her at the thought of how quickly things had spiraled. This was the first thing in weeks to make her feel useful, and she couldn’t finish it. Her powers made everything too overwhelming—these powers which she had asked for, and now ruined everything.

She was drowning again. This time with the emptiness and guilt that had been growing in her chest ever since the Battle of Sokovia. They re-emerged from beneath this mission she had busied herself with these past few days. Then numbness settled in its tracks, draining her energy and drying the tears in her eyes.

She waited there, nearly collapsed against the trunk of a random tree, until her breathing felt a little more even. When it did, she promised herself a new search for the way back to the Avengers Facility. Hopefully there, holed up in her bedroom, she could hide from her defeat.


She wandered far from her bed, all but tip-toeing against the frigid tile floors into the new room. It smelled just as sterile as hers, but didn’t appear nearly as dirty and unkempt. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Pietro was just behind her, hissing warnings at her from the doorway. “Sestra! Go back to bed!”

Wanda didn’t listen to him. She only crept closer to the examination table in the center of the room, eyeing the young woman strapped helplessly there. Even without restraints, she seemed frozen in place after the horrors she’d been subjected to. Wanda’s heart went out to her, as did one hand to her milky cheek in consolation. Most of her pretty, dark complexion was gone, and her long dark hair had streaks beginning to show silver, like Pietro’s had.

She ignored her brother’s next anxious warning, too determined to console their fellow experiment. She didn’t even know her name. The tag pinned to her chest reduced her to ‘Number 21’. But she couldn’t bear to listen to another one scream. She couldn’t stand to hear that ugly song of agony in her voice, and despair in her thoughts.

Sestra!

“It gets better,” she insisted, not caring that the other girl’s dark eyes didn’t focus on her. “I know it hurts now, and feels endless, but that doesn’t last! After this, it gets better. You get stronger, I promise.”

Pietro’s warning sounded further away. “Wanda, you have to go! Now!”

She refused to go. Not until this one got better. They couldn’t be the only survivors. They just couldn’t!

“You can get better. Just be strong for now, and the rest—”

She was interrupted by her own yelp as a thick line of leather abruptly struck her left ear, leaving it burning under her skin. Baron von Strucker loomed over her, the coiled belt in hand poised to lash out again. “Leave her be, koldun’ya. Her health is not your concern.”

Wanda whimpered, torn between fleeing back to her own room like she knew he wanted, and reaching out to the fading soul on the table. Before she could really think, she was lunging forward for the latter choice. “You can get better!” she cried, knowing how hysterical she sounded.

Strucker didn’t hit her again as she clung to the edges of the table, desperately insisting Number 21 would pull through. He didn’t need to as one of his lackeys arrived, visible to her only by the shadow swallowing her own beneath the pitiful lighting. The hands of this faceless agent wrenched her away by her wrist, stronger than any she could remember. Even if she wanted to fight back, Strucker seized her other hand before she was able to. Together, they dragged her out of the lab, kicking and crying out for this stranger still. Her arms were twisted painfully in the process, but no one cared how much they were damaged. They probably preferred it. Her hands were the only way she knew to channel her powers. If she couldn’t feel her hands, they had all the power.

The longer they traveled, the thinner Strucker’s patience ran with all the commotion. “Hush, koldun’ya!

He raised the leather belt again, just as they passed another agent hauling Pietro down the same path by the back of his collar. His scream drowned out hers at the sight of the leather speedily coming for her ear again. “Wanda!

She jolted upright, gasping for air as the echo of her brother’s cry made her heart stall in its tracks. Her organ thundered against her chest, seemingly useless, as she was left floundering in an entirely new, plushy bed. The dingy, boxed-in halls of the Hydra base were gone, replaced by the smooth grey walls of a much more spacious room. Her handlers and Pietro were missing too. She couldn’t see very well in the dim lighting of an indigo sky outside small windows, but as her hands scoured the surface of the comforter, she could very well feel that she was alone. Her heart pounded even harder at the absence of her brother until the rest of her memories began to clear.

“Damn it,” she huffed, dropping her head against her knee until she could feel her heartbeat start to slow. She’d been rattled by her nightmares before, but not so intensely since she started using the better part of her nights to research the Winter Soldier. She’d been so stupid to think she could still beat the particularly bad ones if she started going without that busywork. The fresh memory of her panic attack the day before probably didn’t help any, either.

Once she collected her thoughts some, she gave in to the notion that falling back asleep was most likely futile. She pulled herself from bed, going to start getting dressed for the day. With her hands still trembling, she knew it would take longer than usual to gather herself. She managed to get into one of her dark, floral dresses from Sokovia and the ruined flats from the previous day, before resuming her newly acquired habit of listlessly wandering around the building.

Seeing how it wasn’t even six in the morning yet, the Facility was at its quietest. The silence let her mind find some peace and clarity for the first time in days. She managed to grow so detached, her memory retained nothing that her eyes saw. She was truly aimless, too dazed from the exhaustion of so many sleepless nights and anxieties to realize she was traveling outside of her usual route. Instead of laps around the lesser used rooms, where there were nothing but desks, chairs, and rows of file cabinets, she carried herself down the hall the led towards the common room. Alhough, she didn’t stop there (even when a sharp pang went through her stomach at her negligence to her appetite). She wandered further, past Mr. Stark’s lab, and then further, until the only place left to go was the training room at the end of the hall. She pushed her way past the door there, causing a high-pitched squeak from the hinges as she did.

She liked it in the training room. Specifically when it was empty, like this. Without the clanking of metal weights and thuds of sparring bodies, it was easier to pay attention to the massive windows proudly showing off the woods around the building. The sight of it now was enough to slow her pace enough to admire the vegetation anew.

The witch had never wandered to this part of the building at this hour, thus never allowing herself to see the trees that fascinated her so while they were outlined by the light of a sunrise. Come to think of it, she had never seen a real sunrise through the smog and towering buildings back in Sokovia. The skies there were always so grey and unsaturated during the day that the dawns of rosy pinks, lavenders, and yellows were something only seen in the paintings hung in buildings too nice for a rugged orphan to see inside. Now, she was still a damaged orphan, but she had changed enough since then to be here, where the promise of new light could be seen in person. Which made the view even better. That made some of her suffering in the process worth something, didn’t it?

“More trouble sleeping?”

The sudden voice made Wanda’s heart jump, a crackling emitting from the scarlet sparks that spontaneously appeared between her fingers. She willed them away when she spotted the gentleman on the other side of the room, forcing her alarm to dissipate as well. “Captain! I’m sorry—I didn’t see you there.”

“You don’t gotta apologize. It wasn’t your fault,” Rogers insisted. He turned away from her to steady the bag hanging in front of him, which was swaying only slightly after he had paused his punches at the sound of the door.

“Right,” Wanda muttered, fighting another apology for her own awkwardness. With sleeves only reaching her elbows, her hands went to her favorite carnelian to fiddle with as she fidgeted uncertainly, mentally debating whether she should leave the Captain to himself, or keep him company. Although she couldn’t fathom why he would want the latter after the way she had provoked him the night before last.

The thought of that night finally prompted her to close some of the distance between them. “I, um…I am sorry about the other night, though. I didn’t mean any harm by pestering you, Captain.”

He didn’t even look up from his hands, now in the process of unwrapping the boxing gauze from around them. “You know, you can call me Steve,” he said with a small chuckle. “It’s only fair, given that we all call you Wanda.”

Wanda only hummed in response, her fingers gradually wrapping around the chain of her necklace again.

“And don’t worry about that night,” he spoke, turning at last so she could see he was being earnest. “It was on me. Peggy always said I could get pretty dramatic.”

Wanda didn’t know any Peggy around the compound, but she liked the warmth in his voice at the mention of her.

“It’s just…I just hear the name, and I think of the playful punk that helped me get through so much when I was just a scrawny kid. How much I owe him…but it’s nothing worth making you uncomfortable with, Wanda.”

She was quick to protest. “No, I—I understand. Really, I do.”

He nodded, the corners of his mouth twitching upward in the semblance of a smile meant for comfort. Though, all she felt was sadness from the low droning in his mind. She didn’t look past the surface, but she knew he was recalling how they’d both had brothers.

The Maximoff sister shifted the weight on her feet, gauging whether or not she should go now that she had gotten her apology out of the way. However, just as she the first tentative steps back towards the exit, Rogers’ voice stopped her. “It was in Brooklyn.”

She turned around to find him leaning against the edge of the boxing ring, with his arms in the midst of being folded against his broad chest.

“I’m sorry?”

He was quiet for a few heartbeats, his eyes stolen by that faraway stare again. Although this time, the nostalgia there seemed lighter. Fonder. “When I met him. We were kids, back in Brooklyn. Our parents were immigrants, and back then, all those families tended to stick to the same area. I actually ran into one of his little sisters, first, behind their apartment building. This set of bigger kids were getting rough with her, and of course, I couldn’t just leave her to that. He came around just in time to save my ass from them, and that’s how a whole pattern started.” Another breathy chuckle escaped him. “I think he asked what a scrawny kid like me was doing, going up against bigger guys that way, every single time I did.”

The affection radiating off of him was contagious. Wanda’s fingers went to her carnelian again, though not out of anxiousness. This time, she squeezed the rounded charm with the fondness of her own memories. He sounds like Pietro.

She didn’t realize she had mused aloud until Rogers continued. “Yeah, Becca—his sister…she was a little like you. I mean, we always insisted she was a pest when she tried to tag along wherever we went. But we were always jumping to defend her from everyone else, like your brother did for you.”

They both smiled warmly at that. Then Rogers’ expression fractured a bit. “She must be nearing a hundred years old by now. So am I, for that matter.”

“You don’t look it,” she told him. As if that made any difference.

To her surprise, it did seem to hearten him. His eyes came up to meet hers with a trace of mirth showing. “Thanks, kid.”

Wanda only offered a curt nod in turn, her mind growing curious if she should go now, and let him reminisce alone, while his spirits were somewhat lifted.

Just like before, he stopped her from going. “You are…comfortable here, right?”

When all he received was a blank stare, he went on, “I mean…you wouldn’t rather…you don’t think about going back? Too often, at least?”

Oh. She wasn’t sure if he was referring to her time in Hydra or Sokovia, but either way, she knew the gist of what he would like to hear. And fortunately for her, it wasn’t entirely a lie. Sokovia was her home. For all its faults, it always would be, because that’s where she came from. She’d had an entire life there. Her parents were there. “I miss Sokovia. But I wouldn’t go back. Not right now, or tomorrow, at any rate. And here, everything is much more different. Not badly, but more…welcoming. I really appreciate that, Captain.”

Even though her words were truthful, they still left an odd taste in her mouth. She stared senselessly past the soldier for a few moments to ponder why. This was the most she had talked with any member of the Avengers so far. It should’ve been considered progress that she was interacting properly and so sincerely with one of them. Finally moving towards being a part of the group. So, why did she feel so off in the moment?

As she traced her thoughts back to how she ended up here, running in to Rogers after wandering aimlessly away from the throes of her own nightmare, she began to realize her answer. Her mind went to something Strucker had ingrained in her during the days when those nightmares were her reality. The idea that she would only receive favors or any sign of human compassion if the other person owed it to her. That the world worked by debts and mutual gain. Right now, she was indebted to the Avengers for the comfort of a place to live when her former home rejected her. And even though she expressed her appreciation to one of them here, that wasn’t much of a repayment in the long run.

That’s why she was supposed to find the Winter Soldier. If he was an asset to Hydra for so long, he was sure to be one for the Avengers as well. Especially with the added sentiment of the Captain’s connection to him. A sentiment she understood a little more now. They’d been together since they were kids. Were only ever with each other since then, like her and Pietro.

If only she hadn’t failed so miserably, trying to retrieve the Soldier on her own.

She pulled away from her thoughts when she realized Rogers was speaking to her again. “I think sleep wanted to escape us all today. I mean, I haven’t needed it that much since this,” he remarked with a glance at his arms, which were so thick with muscle, they nearly burst from the sleeves of his shirt. “But Natasha…well, I ran into her earlier. Apparently, she decided on a whim to go into town and get some food from this diner we tried when we were scoping the area for privacy. D’you want me to ask her to bring you something? I went there with her, and I’d genuinely recommend it.”

She didn’t even entertain the notion of food. Instead, Wanda’s thoughts went to Agent Romanoff, sneaking around town by herself. Surely, it was the community on the other side of the woods; that was closest. If Wanda was right to believe the Winter Soldier was staying somewhere around there, close to where her telepathy had found him, maybe Romanoff would pass by him at some point.

But why would the spy care? Who’s to say she would even notice? She wasn’t looking for him, and she had made it clear she didn’t want to. In addition, the Winter Soldier wasn’t likely to be easily noticeable, even for a master spy like her. He had been playing at her game much longer than she had.

At that moment, the icy fingers of another realization stroked Wanda’s blood. The realization, prompted by Rogers’ heartfelt nostalgia and memories, that her search wasn’t meant for someone who was just a spy, or assassin, or whatever. She should have been searching for Steve’s Bucky. During the search, her anticipation had always been for a confrontation with a powerful, highly-trained assassin, which had subconsciously left her intimidated from the start. Left her anxious and on-guard for a dangerous weapon.

But that wasn’t all he was. He was also an old friend of the Captain’s. A confused brother, not unlike her own during their time under experimentation. Someone who needed a guide back to who they were. Pietro had her. Hell, she was willing to be there for Strucker’s other experiments. But Barnes had no one.

Those icy fingers beneath the skin sank deeper, becoming sharp claws of alarm. No one’s looking for him. No one wants to help him. That’s not fair!

“Wanda?”

She had become so lost in her furious thoughts of injustice to this stranger—this asset that was hardly different from her, or Pietro and the other Sokovian experiments, that Rogers was looking at her in concern.

“I’m sorry,” she sputtered, still reeling from her thoughts. A new storm of them began to brew the longer she stood with him, each one demanding she tell him something. That it was his friend she had heard in the backwoods. That the others weren’t making any real effort to find out why he was there, or where he went. That she was willing to do just that, especially now that she understood the story beneath the infamous weapon a little better.

Not a weapon. Only a failed experiment, like you, Maximoff.

Yet nothing along those lines found its way to her tongue. The hole she had been harboring inside of her made itself known again, filling her chest with jittery apprehension. She knew how much it would mean to Rogers to find Barnes. Could she really get his hopes up? She wasn’t certain, at all, if Barnes really was in that town on the other side of the woods. Even if he had been, what if he had run off after all their activity there? Romanoff had said so herself, he didn’t exactly want to be found.

She couldn’t bear Captain Rogers’ disappointment again. Not until she was sure Barnes would come back to see him.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, her voice subdued by her own unease. Then she realized he was still waiting on her request for Agent Romanoff. “And, I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, just….” She struggled to muster a sufficient excuse to escape. It was a challenge given how her mind was swimming. And not just in her own apprehension for the Captain, and concern for Barnes. She also felt anger. Anger that there was another scared Hydra experiment that no one was willing to help, in an effort to preserve the way things currently were. And she was angry at herself, for being so willing to give up her own attempt to help after one setback. How could she have so easily surrendered something that finally gave her purpose?

“My mind feels a bit restless today,” she eventually told Rogers. “I think I’ll take a walk through the woods. Find some peace and quiet. If you’ll excuse me, Captain.”

“Steve,” he reminded not unkindly. “And not at all. Whatever helps clear your head, go right ahead.”

Wanda thanked him softly, then began making her way to the rear exit. Back towards the woods, and the river, and the gravel path. She would have to brave the neighborhood of people again, but she could make herself push through the noise and potential confusion if she kept in mind why she was there. A human being needed her help, not just a machine that was to be feared and retrieved.

I can do it. I can help him.

“Just be careful out there, kid. Let us know if you find anything interesting.”

Wanda was right in the entryway of the door when he spoke, his voice causing her to pause and shoot a smile at him over her shoulder. “Oh, I will. Thank you, Steve.”

Chapter Text

Her immersion into the town was a slow, but steady process. At such an early hour, it was a little easier to pace herself when jumping between minds, given how most non-enhanced individuals didn’t feel a need to be up right at sunrise. By the time the residents were starting to get up and active, she was nearing the town itself.

The town was surprisingly quieter than she anticipated. She probably owed that to the given hour on a Sunday morning, when most civilians were only leisurely going about the humble array of boutiques and restaurants that the small town had to offer. They were all relaxed, and so the activity in their thoughts were calm, thus making it easier to sift through until she detected abnormalities. Although so far, the only exceptions to the easygoing atmosphere were children in a hurry to get to their softball game, and one (rather obnoxious, in her opinion) lovers’ quarrel. It was not an unwelcome shift from what she had been expecting, and made it far easier for her to pace herself as more and more thoughts appeared. At the slightest hint that she was growing too lost in all the mental noise around her, she forced herself to pull away and sit at one of the numerous benches or outdoor cafes she found in order to re-gather herself. It slowed her down, but she knew it was what she needed to avoid another panic.

She had no way to stay entirely certain of time, but from what she could gather after eavesdropping on several passersby, she had been at it for some six or so hours. The witch presumed she was at least near the heart of the town as the buzzing of mental activity suddenly grew a large amount. She tried not to shy away from it completely; she was still unreasonably embarrassed at how quickly she had been overwhelmed before, and didn’t want to be so easily spooked again. Of course it’s loud, she reasoned. This is a busy place.

Across the street from her was a large supermarket, dominated by little old couples, and the occasional batch of grandchildren, as they bustled to and from their cars, some with metal carts and others with plastic bags teeming with groceries.

Most of this town, she had noticed, predominantly featured older citizens, and only sometimes younger relatives. It was pleasant, observing such uncomplicated lives. Refreshing, really. She hadn’t been around such simplicity even before her experimentation, given the state of her homeland since she was a child.

However, she was well aware that physically watching mundane lives was the exact opposite of what she had come out here to do. Granted, it was good to know she was surrounded by such unsuspecting persons, who definitely wouldn’t notice, let alone care, who she was. Though that wasn’t to say she was confident enough to go about directly asking if they had seen anyone resembling Barnes. Hell, directly behind her was an inn full of non-residential travelers, who were probably younger and more likely to remember the role she and or the Winter Soldier had played in recent news.  

Travelers….

She turned sharply to take in the sight of the building again. It was tall, but not as tall as most big-city buildings. It stood no more than three stories high, supported by chipped white-painted wooden beams between every window, every floor wrapped with a matching wooden terrace, and overall protected by the navy-colored shingles of the roof. It was leaking in old world charm, made all the more cozy by the flower bed hugging the perimeter, speckled with the bell-like flowers she presumed gave the place its name: Flo’s Bluebell Inn.

Somehow, none of her reading on the Winter Soldier’s past helped her decide if the Bucky Barnes of today would deem a place like this safe to hide. It was logical to her, because it was near where she had first found his thoughts, and also a place to stay that only required the bare minimum of interaction with other people. But it was also housing so many people at the moment. Would the hidden soldier risk so many civilians if he were discovered? Or worse, if the machine beneath was reactivated?

Up to you to find out, Maximoff.

With no clue as to exactly how many persons were currently at the inn, Wanda wanted to find an inconspicuous excuse for being there if she was going to sit around long enough to sift through every mind there. According to the sign hanging just beside her, there was an adjacent café within the inn. Her chest tightened at the uncertainty of whether she could entertain a place for herself there, when she didn’t have a cent to offer the employees.

Pietro, how would you do this?

Her brother had always been better equipped at sneaking in somewhere, gathering what was needed, and then fleeing before he was noticed. Even if she could retain some memory of how he was able to do so as effectively as he did, stealing an entire person (which she supposed was what she was hoping to do, in a sense) was bound to throw in some complications.

The more anxious she grew at the thought of botching up again, the hotter she could feel her blood run beneath the skin. Most likely from her powers trying to seek out whatever was distressing their host. The witch was borderline desperate to tug her sleeves down over her hands, as if that made any real difference on capping the scarlet wisps that lived within her.

Get a damn grip! For all they know, you’re just another traveler looking to rest.

Wanda mentally guided herself through another deep breath before finally approaching the white wooden porch. When no one paid her any attention, she pushed all the way past the double doors, bringing herself to the simply-decorated lobby. It was clean and homely, and not at all as extravagant as she’d imagined American businesses to be. The entrance to the café was to the immediate right, and from what she could see, it was very busy. A stark contrast to the lobby, which was completely devoid of life. Even the reception desk was deserted. With such solitude, she eagerly came further into that room, pretending to look for the desk clerk on the off-chance someone was watching her. Since no one appeared, she settled on the only seat available there, a beige couch, in which she could comfortably succumb to the sea of noise beyond the opposite wall.

Wading through the thoughts in the café was hell. Not only were there so many of them, but nearly all were loud and passionate as they prepared stories to share with their companions. And with so many minds gathered in a small space, it was more than intimidating trying to sort through them without drowning again.

Well, actually, she wants to get married before June—

—had too much at dinner last night!

—team lost because that one idiot didn’t bunt—

For all I care, he can go eat—

She laughs like a chipmunk—

Well, the comic was better than the movie—

—so gorgeous I want to cry!

—won’t eat it if I can’t even pronounce the name—

What kind of a person would say that to someone whose—?

Wanda pulled back. She took a few deep breaths, making sure she felt steadied. Anchored. Then she reached out again, pacing herself better by only honing in when a mind’s activity was particularly loud.

—looking forward to going home to my cat.

They just don’t make the good cookies anymore—

It’ll take forever if we take the main road to Queens—

No, Nana, you’re not supposed to know who Rey’s parents are—

—thought they opened at six, but they don’t. We thought they did—

—ordered half an hour ago. Our food should be here by now—

—about to see a fight over pancakes! Can’t believe her temper—!

Wait, so all this time Carter Baizen was played by—?

—don’t let her know I left the keys in our room!

—can’t die in your sleep if you only take naps. You never hear someone died—

Camptown races sing your song—

Wanda pulled back again. This time each of her calculated breaths only filled her with a sense of frustration or exhaustion instead of their intended relief. The weight of several hours at this tedious process was beginning to bear down on her. This was getting her practically nowhere, randomly reading every stranger she saw, breathing deeply to pace herself, and then proceeding to read again (sometimes re-reading minds to be certain she hadn’t missed anything). She knew Steve and Sam had taken over a year to get as much as a trace of the Winter Soldier’s whereabouts. The mere thought of proceeding like this for that long was enough to drain her of all her energy right there. It drained some of her hope as well. If two skilled American soldiers couldn’t do this, how could a poor, Sokovian lab rat be expected to?

The witch jumped at the shrill wailing of the phone at the desk. An older woman appeared from a nearby room to attend to it, not even noticing the newcomer waiting across the room as she did so. Wanda relaxed against the hard cushions beneath her, taking a moment to let her heart calm from the abrupt interruption.

If Pietro was here, he would be mocking you so much. When it had just been the two of them on the streets, her brother would often tease her as if it were his professional job. Mostly over trivial things, like how easy it was to startle her. Or how, in his eyes, she overthought things too much. Which, she could admit, she had been doing just before the desk phone interrupted. Don’t think so much, Maximoff. Just act.

One thing she knew for certain was that reading the café patrons was bound to be pointless. It wasn’t likely for Barnes to be there, when so many people were around. As a fellow experiment, she knew such a tight room with that many strangers could provoke some…troubling memories. If he was here, he would probably be secluded in his own space, like she often was at the Avengers Facility.

She rose to her feet before she even figured how she would explain why she was wandering the halls of an inn she wasn’t staying with. She pushed herself up before she could really think of anything at all, aside from the fact that her powers could pick up certain thoughts better if she were closer to the person in question. For the moment, she remained at the base of the sole bridge between the different levels of the building: a narrow, wooden staircase. One of her hands wrapped around the newel post at the end of the railing as a sort of anchor before she allowed herself to float through the mess of other people’s minds once more, this time aiming her telepathic scope to the area above.

The floor directly overhead was blissfully tamer than the noise of the café. Most of the thoughts there were calmed by Sunday laziness, or the pressure of weekend hangovers. What little actual noise there was, she felt perfectly at ease honing in on. They were mostly lone visitors, either musing to themselves or reminiscing on what was back home. Some of the latter memories were distractingly sweet, practically showing off the homes and families of those who lived in a pleasant world outside of soldiers, monsters, and spies.

As she delved further, she began to find some distinct variations. One person was longing to return home so badly, she could feel her own heart sinking as she heard their stream of frustrated thoughts, each one finding a new name to blame for an impending divorce. Then she moved on to another, who was conversely anticipating a meeting with their significant other, and pondering how badly they each wanted….

Oh, how filthy!

Wanda was blushing now as she sought a new mind to read. After mentally wading through some more senseless droning, she eventually settled on what turned out to be a gentleman in the midst of some sort of business call. His thoughts were constantly fading between his personal opinions and self-reminders to listen to whatever “Mr. Kirby” was squabbling at him. She lost interest in such pettiness quickly and moved on, sifting through some simple sleeping or planning for the day, before finding something new. This time, she was dragged into another visual memory.

The edges of the vision were slightly blurred, but from what she could decipher, it was a little boy wandering the streets of a rather grimy town. It wasn’t nearly as unkempt as Sokovia had been, but an air of neglect was there just the same. Behind them was a small companion, whose head ducked low as he uttered what sounded like a complaint. It was difficult to be sure with both of their voices slightly muffled, as if this memory was being witnessed from underwater.

“…come on, I think your sister’s pretty cute.”

“Well, you don’t have to live with her.”

Wanda lingered in this memory, intrigued by its appearance alone. The surface imagery was like something of a water-color painting, where the colors in some places had run together and smeared. Some of the others visions she had seen had colors that appeared a touch unsaturated due to the person’s fading memory of them. But never had one been so…clouded.

What was wrong with this person’s memory?

The skinnier kid looked up with a slight smirk as he pointed out, “You know your ma’s gonna kill us when Becca tells her we ditched her.”

Wanda knew that name. She thought she knew the face speaking it, too.

Oh, God…it was Steve!

He was thin, and definitely a smaller size than she, but she knew his face. It was the clearest part of the memory.

The weight of what this meant hit her with the same shocking effect as a bucket of ice water pouring over her head.  

Bozhe moi…it’s him! This is him!

The witch’s rings scraped the wood of the newel post as her arm tightened around it. The sound was only a dull hum in her ears, buried beneath the rush of her powers retreating into her own mind and the frenzied flow of blood at the command of her heart. The organ in her chest was pounding so furiously from disbelief and awe, she could feel her head growing dizzy.

She had done it. She found him.

She had found the Winter Soldier.

And he’s remembering Steve! Not just from battle, but from their childhood!

“Have you been helped?”

The sudden question yanked Wanda from her revelation, bringing her back to her present place in the lobby. Behind the desk was the same wiry lady that had answered the phone, her pale face tediously painted to mask some of her age, and her doe-like eyes narrowed in scrutiny of the stranger. They were dark in color, but not dark enough to hide a subtle trace of displeasure.

Don’t panic, Wanda told herself once she realized another chill was rolling through her, ironically prompting the power in her veins to stir hotly in defense. The absolute last thing she had wanted was to draw anyone’s attention, from fear of both being recognized and having the purpose of her search discovered. Although in regards to the former, what else could she expect as a stranger entering an unfamiliar establishment, seemingly to just stare blankly at the staircase?

That thought prompted Wanda to finally consider her outward appearance. Really consider it. Bearing only a thin, black dress from Sokovia, a grey hoodie that belonged to Natasha, and ruined ballet flats still damp from river water, she must’ve looked homeless. At least, by this place’s standards. Her pride may have worried over that if it weren’t so far buried beneath her relief for that being the only reason she was being appraised with such disdain.

She belatedly realized she still hadn’t answered the other woman, and stumbled over the words, “Um, no…no, not yet.”

The woman behind the desk regarded her a few moments more before gathering a rather condescending prompt. “Are you looking for a room?”

Wanda fought her first instinct to stammer again. She wasn’t a spy! She was barely even a thief (that had always been Pietro). She wasn’t in any way adept at sneaking in to get what she needed. Especially when she had already drawn some attention to herself. What would Pietro do? What would Natasha do?

Put on a show. Act like she belongs until the objective was completed.

The witch recalled as much as she could about the master spy’s signature, cool mask and tried to recreate it herself. Planting a polite smile on her face, she approached the desk with a forced bounce to her step, and for good measure, an American accent. “Um…sort of. I was supposed to meet someone here. You may have seen him!”

The only physical description she had to go off of was from outdated files that rarely showed him below the shoulder. Even then, there was no telling how much he’d changed in the past year since anyone had seen him. A lot of her details would have to rely on how she thought a Hydra runaway would hide. “He said the room was on the first floor. Tall, quiet gentleman. Long brown hair. Maybe favors his right side more?”

The last piece, she worried, was a little too specific. However, it seemed to help the desk lady (Clarissa, according to the gold pin on her chest) recollect something. Wanda quickly peeked at the other woman’s thoughts to be certain it was the same person (although she quickly pulled away when she began seeing the clerk’s suspicions that she was a hired whore).

“Yes, we’ve had someone like that come through here. However, if you would like access to the room, we can only administer that with the other person present, or to family members. Do you have a photo ID to verify yourself?”

Shit. Wanda internally fought to keep up her collected visage, even as her vision flashed white with horror. She didn’t have anything on her, let alone a fake ID. A small part of her head insisted she relocate the soldier’s mind and force him to come down and let her through. Though given his history with mental manipulation, she knew using more on him wouldn’t be well received at all.

But this woman….

Wanda looked around to gauge just how barren this part of the inn was before leaning closer, folding her hands atop the surface of the desk. “Actually, you may not remember me, but we’ve already been admitted together. It was my fault my key was misplaced, but could you check the computer? I should still be there.”

“Sure. Name?”

Wanda didn’t answer that, instead paying attention to how Clarissa’s nails clicked against the keyboard, her brown doe-eyes trained on the screen. The moment she paused, clearly waiting for Wanda’s answer, the witch shot one last glance over her shoulder before subtly waving her fingers in the woman’s direction. A shaky tendril of red stretched out, and easily slipped into the desk worker’s temple. The focused orbs flashed a matching shade of scarlet as it did, allowing Wanda to see what she saw. Just as she was processing a single name and room number, Wanda’s fingers twitched more, this time manipulating the image with her own mind so that a random name appeared alongside the already present one. Clarissa’s confused mind took them to a memory after that, presumably when Barnes was first checking himself in. Wanda worked quickly to project an image of herself scurrying behind him, as if she had been in a hurry to reach their room.

Wanda promptly returned back to her own mind, just barely able to catch the sight of scarlet fading from the other woman’s irises as she did. With a blink, Clarissa’s eyes became their natural hickory color again. She stared at the computer screen a scarce few moments longer; just long enough for her expression to undergo a complete change. Wanda wondered if she was embarrassed to have so quickly assumed a guest at her inn (for all she knew) was a prostitute.

“Yes, here we are.” The woman’s eyes were now agleam with friendly welcome as she grinned at Wanda. She quickly ducked down and reached for something within the desk, straightening again once she had retrieved the necessary key to “replace” the ones Wanda had lost. “So sorry for the confusion, Mrs. Kaplan. Please, enjoy the rest of your stay.”

It was a struggle for Wanda’s hand not to shake as she accepted the small ring of metal. She stared at it for a senseless moment, simply allowing the warm giddiness from actually pulling off her lie to run its course. Attached to the thin silver ring was a single key and a laminated tag, filled with scribbled information about the room it was meant for. This is where he is. First floor. Room 214.

“Thank you,” she said quickly before leaving, hoping she was up the stairs and out of sight quickly enough for Clarissa to not notice the slip of a Sokovian accent.   


The warm bubble of joy in Wanda’s stomach evolved into a raging boil of apprehension as she drew nearer to the designated room for the Winter Soldier. It didn’t help that the hallway leading there was so stuffy. Each pastel blue door on either side of her was pressed close to its neighbor, resembling massive eyes on the walls that were boring into her, and further affirming the gravity of what she was about to do. Even the noise around her had somehow quieted, giving her the mental space to drown her in her own thoughts and insecurities.

He’s not the Asset anymore. This is fine. You’ll be fine. Just talk to him. You’ll be fine. This is fine.

Finally, she found the one door whose silver numbers matched those on the tag with her key. Said token she instinctively hid in the pocket of her jacket, her fingers swiftly tucking it in there out of fear the Soldier would notice it, and realize that someone had been searching for him (at the moment it was just her, but he wouldn’t know that). The last thing she wanted was to spook him so soon.

Despite knowing she’d already taken precautions for the Soldier’s comfort, she still found herself extremely hesitant to take that final step.

Stop thinking. Just act.

Wanda’s fingers rapped against the door, carrying a softness to their tone that reflected her lingering apprehension. She didn’t persist after, even when she was met with practically no response. If she focused hard enough, she could hear minute sounds of movement past the door. She didn’t dare listen to any more than that, though. She had already invaded his mind twice before, and she found herself wishing she hadn’t (even though it was what led her here), now that she knew precisely how many had done so against his will already.

She hated feeling alike to those monsters that so often stole and abused others’ lives.

Just when she was starting to worry he was going to ignore her, the solid barrier between them whined lowly in protest of being brought ajar. It didn’t go unnoticed by her how the person at the opposite side deliberately opened it just wide enough for her to see his face, but not either shoulder.

It was really him. She could see boundless similarities between him and the photos in his files.

The Winter Soldier.

Steve’s Barnes.

She meekly stared at him, only then realizing she had no clue of what to do past this point. The loss rendered her completely stunned in her place, and feeling smaller than she ever had since before volunteering for human experimentation. It didn’t help that he himself was huge, looking down at her with such suspicious eyes.

They’re blue, her brain randomly supplied. Not an artificial shade, like half the décor at the inn, but deeper. Better, because they resembled the clear, open sky she had been deprived of in Sokovia.

No. That implied he was open, and that wasn’t right. He wasn’t open at all. Rather, he was stiff and unnervingly vigilant as he assessed her in turn. The area around those foreboding eyes was dark (he has not been sleeping), as was the light layer of growth along a markedly commanding jawline.

Said jaw, she realized too late, was clenching impatiently at her lack of response. “Who are you?” he questioned gruffly.

She floundered for a moment, embarrassed to demonstrate just how far she was in over her head so soon into her visit. “I just, um…I had just noticed…”

Noticed what, stupid? His thoughts? That’s not normal!

“I thought I—I saw you the other day. You were, um…you were on my friend’s property.”

“She asked me to be there.”

Her brow furrowed at that. What? Who?

“I…may I come in for a moment?” she asked rather suddenly, eyeing the space around her to show her discomfort with being out in the open. She could already hear another door creaking open near the very end of the hall.

His already present scowl deepened, a silent cry of his distaste for the idea. Though for whatever reason (perhaps he shared a similar dislike for being noticed by strangers) he shuffled backwards, out of her view. The door was left slightly open in what she presumed—hoped—to be a wordless invitation.

As she crossed the threshold into the room, the stranger they were both so concerned about strolled past with a cheery hum. He was an older fellow, with carefully combed white hair and matching mustache. His eyes were weathered, but warm as they regarded her through thick, square glasses and a pleasant, “How do?”

Wanda nodded in return, giving a polite smile before shutting the door as he continued on his way. She remained close to the door even when she turned to face the Soldier, keeping her hands pinned between the solid wood and her back, just in case her anxiety got the better of her. If red wisps began to appear, she knew it would be more than alarming for an unsuspecting man-on-the-run.

The Soldier didn’t invite her in any further, keeping plenty of distance between them. The room itself was surprisingly spacious, compared to the confined feel of the hall and the front lobby. The entryway was wide, offering a bathroom and a coat rack on either wall. Barnes hovered in the area where the entryway opened up for a bed and desk, fussing with a collection of manila folders and journals gathered atop the latter. He haphazardly stacked them together to be hidden as best as possible under the bulky weight of a faded backpack. As he moved, she noticed how heavily he covered himself. Such a thick jacket and leather gloves were definitely not befitting the current weather. Although they did hide the metal limb pretty efficiently. The only reason she knew it was there at all was because of all the files she’d read.  

He probably wasn’t pleased with how much she was studying him. She knew, because when he did the same to her, she had to resist an urge to squirm under such an intense eye.

She suddenly didn’t have time to worry what he was thinking of her, for words were nervously spilling out of her before she could fully process them. “You—you said my friend knew you were there?”

“Yes. She asked me to watch the property while she visits family.”

What?

Wanda could feel her puzzlement showing on her face, eyebrows knitting together. “I…don’t think we’re talking about the same person.”

If it were possible, his shoulders grew stiffer, and there was another minute clench of his jaw. “What do you mean?”

She hesitated for a long while, and maybe that was too unsettling. She didn’t mean to come off as so mysterious; truly, it was only a matter of figuring out how much she should give away about the Avengers’ secretive base.

That intense gaze suddenly left her face, darting along the floor between them with such anxiety that Wanda could feel her own chest tightening. Whether it was actually her own, or just what her powers absorbed from such a close proximity, she didn’t know. Yet she didn’t bother hiding her uneasiness, letting her fingers tightly knot around her necklace again. She could only hope he would notice her just as distressed as he, and realize she was of no threat to him. “What were you doing in the woods a few days ago? Around this time?”

“Why?” he demanded, his voice rough and his tone impatient with her lack of answer for his own question.

“It…it’s for a friend. For their peace of mind.”

“Who?” he pressed, taking a heavy step towards her. She wanted to back away as he advanced closer, only to remember she was already pressed flat against the door. Before she knew it, he was looming directly over her, nearly standing on her toes. His right arm shot up to trap her between the adjacent wall and his powerful limb, giving off an audible smack as his hand slammed against the aged wood.

A small plea escaped her. It wasn’t necessarily a product of fear. If worst came to it, she could throw him across the room and barely lift a hand to do so. No, she only wanted to show him she was uncomfortable with the attempt to intimidate her, and risk allowing her powers to dramatically escalate the situation.

“What do you want?” His breath was hot against the side of her neck, but the harshness to his tone sent a chill down her spine.

“I just want to help,” she insisted, hating how small and timid her own voice sounded.

“Why? Who’re you working for?”

“No one, I…” She stumbled to complete that thought, completely unsure of the answer herself. She didn’t think she worked for the Avengers, really. She seldom felt as though she even belonged at their Facility, and only stayed there for lack of anywhere else to go. Although she was here to please their Captain, albeit for the sake of a personal debt to him.

She heard a whir of machinery, and saw something shift beneath his left sleeve. She would have missed it if she hadn’t thought to look there.

“Who do you work for?” the Soldier pressed again, emphasizing every word.

Now she did squirm. She was at a loss of what to tell him, and growing afraid because of it. Not of him, but for him. Her skin was crawling, and she knew it wouldn’t take much more for scarlet mist to start appearing. Tell him something, anything!

“I’m here for Steve.”

She had blurted it out without really meaning to, but from his reaction she knew. The arm by her head went slack, and his posture subtly shrank inward.

“You know him,” she whispered. It wasn’t a question.

“No.” He abruptly pulled away from her, stalking back to his original place near the desk.

She was taken aback by her own boldness, unconsciously following him until there was less than two feet of distance between them. “He says you pulled him out of a river. Why?”

“I don’t know.”

The witch faltered at the palpable tremble in his response. She retreated back a step, offering him the comfort of more space. “I think you do know,” she told him, making a point to keep her voice light and nonthreatening. “I think you remember him.”

“No, I don’t. I only…I read about him in a museum.”

She didn’t like the way he eyed the floor as he said that. It almost seemed like he was afraid to admit he was remembering an old friend. She was only certain he was because she had seen inside his head for herself. But she couldn’t tell him that. “I don’t think that’s all. It’s alright if you do—”

“Why do you care?” he growled, now resuming his defensive stance. The unspoken accusation in his words, and his glare, felt like a physical sting to her flesh. “What do you want from him?”

“No—nothing! I just…I’m just here for his peace of mind. He’s shown me much kindness, and I…I want to repay him. I feel it would mean a lot to him to see you again.”

He didn’t say anything to that, his gaze going back to the floor between them. The tension in his shoulders slowly subsided, sinking to match the miserable guilt embedded in the lines of his forehead.

“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Wanda added when the silence became too much for her. “This is purely my doing, and mine alone.”

He finally met her eye again, his own hooded with uncertainty and fear. “How did you find me?”

Wanda’s fingers toyed madly with her carnelian. Revealing her powers would bring him no closer to trusting her, and she needed that trust if she was going to convince him to come out of hiding to see Steve. But she couldn’t just tell him nothing for similar reasons. “You mentioned watching over someone’s home. Do you remember seeing anyone else in the woods nearby?”

His head cocked curiously. “Were you one of those kids necking out there?”

Wanda’s pride made a brief reappearance, making it a challenge to keep from rolling her eyes. Do I look like a whore?

“No, I wasn’t,” she informed stiffly. “But I was nearby. I heard, and I saw…something, and wanted to figure out what it was. I started looking from place-to-place around here ever since.”

That was close enough to the truth, she supposed. She didn’t want to outright lie to him, but the truth about her powers was something best explained at another time.

“How’d you know it was me?”

She shrugged, which was meant to distract from her pulling the ends of her sleeves over her fingers. The flesh there was crawling hotly from the threat of her powers, urging her to escape her discomfort born from talking about herself. “I just talked to Steve. Mentioned some of what I saw, and he said it sounded like you.”

She saw an opportunity there to change the subject, and she took it. “He really misses you.”

The Winter Soldier fidgeted. There was another, quieter whir of metal as his left fingers twitched.

He repeated his earlier query, this time in a voice that was smaller, and hoarse. Something more fitting of a prisoner in helpless surrender. “What do you want?”

Wanda was blindsided by an abrupt urge to reach out to him. Her fingers itched to reassure him with a light touch like she and Pietro used to share when the other was distressed.

He really was like them. Nervous, and scared of what he was. Of what he’d been turned into.

“Just talk to Steve. At least see him again, once.” She made sure her words sounded like a suggestion, not a command. I’m not one of your handlers. You can trust me.

“He’s ready to move on,” she added, if for the sole reason to lift some of that guilt from him. “But some closure—some real closure will do him good. Maybe even do some good for the both of you.”   

He didn’t look at her. This time she wasn’t sure if it was from fear, or guilt, or confusion. It was as if he’d completely shut down, staring blankly at the air between them. A pregnant silence passed by for an endless moment, one she didn’t like, but also didn’t know how to resolve.

Eventually, he did that for her. “OK.”

She didn’t react right away, lost in bewilderment over whether he had actually spoken, or if it had just been wishful thinking that made her hear it.

“I’ll do it,” he went on, still with a vacant stare. The gaze of a dead man. “I’ll go see him.”

She wanted to be happy to hear that. It was exactly what she’d wanted from her search, after all. But she was too distracted by the way he stood with shoulders hunched, as though he was being crushed by a physical weight. Defeated. Broken.

“Thank you,” she told him. Soft, but sincere.

This is Steve’s friend, Maximoff. Not yours.

She straightened her posture, wanting to uphold the proverbial distance between them. “There’s a building on the other side of the river. He’ll be there. Straight through the woods, near the boulders connecting the riverbanks.”

She waited until she saw him dip his head in a curt nod of acknowledgement. Then, given she had no other plan, she turned and left without another word. 


For the next twenty-four hours, Wanda was nothing but a host for insecurities and worry.

Her biggest concern was Steve, and how every time she saw him, she was positively vibrating with a desire to tell him who she’d found. Not only that she’d found him, but that he’d promised to come and see the Captain. But every time she came across Rogers, someone else was there, and she wasn’t ready for the rest of the Avengers to know what she had done. Especially Natasha.

She knew that while the spy was extremely skilled at reading people, she couldn’t actually read their minds. In her own words, her knowing everything was just an act. Yet, something about Natasha made Wanda worry that all her thoughts would spontaneously spill out of her if the redhead so much as looked at her strangely.

I know you said to forget about Barnes. I deliberately disobeyed you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But I actually found him! I told him to come find the Facility. That’s bad, I know. I should’ve told you before I did that. Oh, God, I told Hydra’s most efficient asset where the Avengers are! I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!

Needless to say, the day dragged by at a torturous pace. Every time another soul even briefly passed by her, her heart would skip a beat from concern that they bore news of the Winter Soldier being spotted. Or they had figured out what she’d done, and wanted to confront her about it. She knew the latter concern was completely outrageous, but it left her so tense and skittish with paranoia, she wound up sequestering herself to her room, staring at the same four walls to wait until someone came by with news, or she just went mad.

Yet alas, the day slipped by without a trace of Barnes. She stayed up well into the heart of the night to be sure it wasn’t some ploy to draw less attention to his arrival. Though soon enough, she found herself crashing out from exhaustion. When she woke late the next morning, that day gave way to new worries.

He ran. I scared him off. Steve will never find him now. What was I thinking? What have I done? God, what if he goes back to Hydra? Now he knows where the Avengers are! I’m sorry, Captain, I’m sorry.

She didn’t even realize how long her fretting had trapped her in her room until Sam came by. He didn’t even bother to knock on the door she’d already left partially open. “Hey, kid? You doing OK in here?”

She froze in her place atop her bed, the usual skip in her heartbeat becoming an altogether halt. “I’m fine,” she managed. “Why? Is something happening?”

Sam only shrugged, leaning against the doorframe with a forced air of indifference. “Nothing’s going on. It’s just been a while since anyone’s seen you.”

“Oh, right,” she ducked her eyes to her lap, hoping to hide them until the visible sense of alarm disappeared. “Sorry, I’ve been so…I’ve had a lot on my mind. Been trying to gather my thoughts.”

Sam didn’t outwardly respond to that. When Wanda looked up, she was surprised to find his eyes were hard, and his arms crossed in a defensive manner. “You been eating anything, kid?”

Her answer was untrue, but instinctive. “Yeah. Yeah, I just had a bite.”

“You sure?”

No. She had gone out to the common room the day before to wait for Steve, and that had led to awkwardly nibbling on an entire pack of saltine crackers when Romanoff showed up right after him. By now, that was officially an entire day ago. “I’m fine,” she insisted for the time being.

“Look, I know things got a little wild around here, after what happened during your first training session. But you know our offers still stand, right? If you wanna join us in training, or just get some midnight cravings, you’re more than welcome to help yourself. You know that?”

She nodded, this time genuine in her answer. “I know. And thank you for that.”

He seemed to relax at that, finally taking into account her indications that she didn’t want company at the moment. “OK…just checking ‘cause no one had seen you, and…well, we can’t afford to have you starve to death. I know I’d probably have a mental breakdown without you around to serve as a good example for those circus people out there.”

She felt one corner of her mouth quirk up in amusement. Even though he tried to hide his feelings behind humor, she didn’t doubt Sam was honestly concerned. Maybe the other Avengers were as well, if Steve’s questions for her the other morning were anything to go by. “I understand, Sam. And I’m fine, really. Just have a lot on my mind.”

He nodded, but gave no implication he was going to move until she did. “I think I’ll go walk, actually,” she told him, already unfolding her legs to stand. “Find some clarity.”

Sam perked up at the sight of her moving. “Yeah, that sounds good. Just take care of yourself. OK?”

“I will,” she promised. “Thanks, Sam.”

And with that, she was on her way back towards the woods. 


Wanda did manage to clear her head some when she was at the river. She spent a good deal of time merely sitting on the shore closest to the Facility, surrounding herself with the peaceful sounds of water running over rocks, and leaves rustling in the wake of a calm breeze every now and again. There, in the sole company of the Earth and the sunset, her fears concerning other people felt like they were a safe distance away from her.  

The team wasn’t at all suspicious. If anything, they were only concerned for her wellbeing, which was only in question because of her paranoid behavior. Paranoia that, admittedly, she was irrationally fueling all on her own. So what if Barnes didn’t show? If he was truly ready to see Steve again, he would come around on his own accord. Who was she to rush him into it? She was just a stranger to him—only an alleged new friend of Steve’s. It would’ve probably been more surprising if he did show after her request, given how everything about the interaction had been nothing but tense and uncomfortable.

This realization led her to where she was now, hiking back through that small town beyond the woods. If she hadn’t scared off the Soldier with their failed encounter, she was definitely going to amend it with a better one this time.

Flo’s Bluebell Inn was just where and how she remembered it. Weathered, cozy, and housing only a small crowd of people (this time, the dinner crowd). Even Clarissa was still there, rambling about the inn’s policies to someone over the phone. Though physically navigating the establishment was significantly easier now that she knew roughly who to expect, and precisely where to go.

Her knock at his door was a timid thing. But she was grateful that was only a product of doubt over whether or not he was there, rather than fear of him or her powers. She remembered being met with no response at first, and tried to keep that in mind upon being met with similar results this time.

When she felt her mind on the brink of more worrisome thoughts, she knocked again. Still nothing.

Again. Still nothing.

He ran. I scared him off.

Wanda heaved a heavy, burdened breath. She stood there uselessly for a few empty moments more, allowing a loss that shouldn’t have been hers to sink in. Then again, there wouldn’t even be a loss at all if not for her.

The witch sagged wearily before turning to leave the inn for good. She all but dragged her feet as she traveled back down the first floor’s hall, ready to round the corner leading to the staircase.

Instead of stairs, she collided straight into someone else. An embarrassing squeak escaped her as she did, since she was nearly, completely barreled over by the stranger.

“Sorry,” they whispered, wrapping a hand around each of her elbows to steady her.

She shook her head, about to assure them that she was fine. The words were promptly stalled by recognition of just who exactly she had stumbled into.

Barnes.

He had the exact same, heavy-weighted jacket as before. The same thick leather gloves. The same eyes.

He was still there.

And he didn’t look entirely pleased to see her again. “You came back?”

She almost didn’t hear him, too consumed by her dizzying relief that he wasn’t gone. “Yes, I did. I, erm…” She cleared her throat, wanting to be rid of the slight shake there was to it. “I thought it would be good to come back, given how we left things. I don’t like how we did—and if you’re comfortable with it—I wanted to make it up to you.”

The skepticism on his face didn’t waver in the slightest.

“I—I mean, we don’t have to talk about Steve. It’s just me, still, so whatever you want, it’ll only concern the two of us.”

“Why?” he finally said in turn. The question wasn’t nearly as demanding or suspicious as it had been two days ago. Rather, it was plainly curious.

She only shrugged. “I don’t know,” she sighed truthfully. “I just wanted to find you. To help.”

“Why?” he repeated, now with a disbelieving furrow etched in his brow.

Another shrug, this one half-hearted. Deep down, she felt as though she did know why. And it had little to do with Steve.

Somehow honesty made her voice quieter. “Because I know what it’s like. To be the only survivor.”

To her astonishment, he didn’t ask her to explain that. She stood there, patiently waiting for his questions, but all she received was a silent stare. Eyes searching her face. Confirming whether or not her intentions were true.

At long last, he sighed in submission to whatever decision he’d reached. His right hand came back up to cup her arm. Gently, he urged her aside. “Give me a minute,” he rasped. “I’ll get some change.”

Chapter Text

She followed him to a diner across the street, next door to the grocery store. They didn’t have long until the place closed for the evening, but the staff didn’t say anything. In fact, they seemed to be expecting him. As soon as they settled into the one booth that wasn’t set against a window, a waitress delivered a plastic basket full of those yellow, deep-fried potato slices and a massive glass of water. When the witch didn’t ask for anything for herself, Barnes slid the water to her side of the table.  

They hadn’t said a word to each other.

She could tell he had plenty of questions for her. Every now and then, she would look up to see him start something, only to close his mouth and stare into the distance again.

He didn’t know where to start. In all honesty, the feeling was mutual.

She knew she owed it to him to take that first step. After all, she had been the one to invite herself along what appeared to be his regular routine. But there was a risk to opening up with certain recollections of her past. Given what she’d first seen of his memories spiraling out of control, she wondered if he felt the same.

You could at least give him the basics, she finally told herself.

“My name’s Wanda,” she said at last, keeping her voice low. It was obvious no one was really listening to them; the only other people left in the diner was the staff, and they had all gathered around the breakfast bar to loudly gossip with each other. But still, she could never be too safe. “Is there anything in particular you want me to call you?”

He took a long while to answer that. Wanda was patient, though admittedly concerned for him if something as simple as his name was so difficult to determine.

“My name is Bucky,” he said eventually, his voice just as quiet as hers, and his eyes still murky beneath the glaze of deep thought. “I know that. But I don’t think…that’s not really me anymore. I don’t want to be the Soldier, but I’m just…I can’t be Bucky either. Not the one everybody remembers.”

She didn’t have anything to offer him in return. She couldn’t even remember how she’d been officially referring to him thus far. He’d been the Soldier when she was anxious. He was Steve’s Barnes in the few instances she had hope he would comply with the notion to return into Steve’s life. He was James Buchanan Barnes when she read about him late at night.  

“What about James?” she suggested hesitantly, afraid to overwhelm him with one identity too many. “Could you be that?”

A tiny balloon of pride swelled in her chest to see she had managed to clear some of the glaze in his eyes, bringing him to the here and now with her. “I don’t think I was ever just that. Can’t see why I couldn’t try now.”

She bore a small smile to hear that.

“How do you know Steve?”

Her small dash of pride faltered at the dreaded question. She kept up a small smile for the sake of politeness, alone. “It’s difficult to explain,” she confessed before a silence could fall between them. She knew how suspicious it would look if she was the one to take too long to answer. But did he really not know her, or how she was connected to the Avengers? How far removed did someone have to be in order to miss such globally recognized news?

Wanda played with the straw, forcing it through the tight cluster of ice cubes. “I met him during a fight. A war, almost. One that I…”

There was a barely audible, yet no less dangerous crack of spark between her fingers. “Well, it was where I come from. Since so much of my homeland was ruined, I stay with the Captain and his team now.”

She could feel more than see how he watched her borderline desperate fussing with the straw in order to keep her hands busy. He seemed to recognize the anxious hint, and didn’t pry further about her. For now. “S’he doing OK? Steve?”

Like there was anyone else he would be asking about.

“He seems fine,” she answered, staying honest to how little she knew for sure. “I still don’t know him that well, but it’s clear he worries about you. He worries about a lot, I think. But he has friends that take care of him.”

James gave a curt nod, a trace of satisfaction peeking through the quirk at the corner of his mouth. “That’s good. He does worry a lot, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah, he does.”

Wanda briefly wondered if she was in a good place to prompt him further on the subject of his old friend. When he began to flounder for words again, she decided to go for it anyways. “Do you remember any more about him?”

Something briefly flashed over his face. Something like the fear he’d had when she first encouraged him to admit he remembered Steve. Though this time, he looked like he was fighting it more. Trying to shake off whatever had been ingrained into him whenever he’d thought of his friend in the past.

“I’m not going to tell him anything,” Wanda reminded. “Unless you want me to.”

“No,” he shook his head at the thought. “I don’t—I mean I’ve…I….” He gave a small huff of frustration with himself. “I do know him. Sometimes I think I remember more about him than I do about myself. But I can’t—I don’t want him to find me. Not yet.”

“That’s alright,” Wanda put in softly once she noticed a sense of defensiveness had touched his tone.

Fortunately, her docility managed to soothe some of his tension. She let some silence fall between them long enough for him to regather his thoughts. As he did, he seemed to deflate entirely. He stared forlornly at the tissue paper cradling his pitiful meal, as if it was too much effort to even lift his irises.  “The last time I saw him, I saw a mission. If I saw him again now…I don’t know what I’d do.”

Wanda digested that. She found it hard to believe he would do anything intentionally harmful when his old friendship had such a clear impact on him. But it was also palpably unclear as to where exactly the current James stood between the Bucky and Winter Soldier of the past. Even if he was trying to distance himself from the latter, perhaps some of that old mindset lingered enough to be a concern.

“I’m sorry I pushed you,” she said in brutal sincerity. She very nearly attributed her brashness to her unfamiliar lack of her best personal confidant, but that didn’t seem fair to Pietro. He had nothing to do with it, and even if he was around, he most likely would’ve followed her into the confrontation anyways. She was supposed to be the rational side of their shared soul, and he was the impulsive guard. Her blindness in this instance had been her own negligent stupidity, plain and simple. “I didn’t think about whether or not you were ready for that. I just saw how much the Captain was.”

How I was.

James didn’t offer her apology any reassurance or validation at all. He only allowed his eyes to skirt back to her hands, which had come to her sleeves now and were tugging them as far down her palms as they could reach. Compared to her ruined shoes and weathered charcoal frock, the grey and white jacket was clearly too clean and plush to belong to someone like her. It almost made her self-conscious, how much she stood out in comparison—

“What’d they do to you?”

The blood drained from her face. She could feel the warmth that had once been there pooling into the back of her neck, and a separate, but still familiar heat swelled beneath the skin of her hands. It wasn’t worth too much concern in a public space, but it was enough to prompt her to pull on the ends of the jacket sleeves even harder. An ever-present reminder of the risk there was in visiting these particular memories. But she bore through it. She knew it was only fair for him to know as much about her as she did him.

“The usual,” she answered simply, presuming he would know the specifics after such a long experience. Though she did begin a very basic elaboration to soothe her growing anxiety, using a numbed monotone in her voice to keep it at a distance from her. “Drug injections. Endurance testing. Some combat training.” She unconsciously crossed her legs beneath the table. “Body mutilation.”

Now she was the one who couldn’t seem to meet his eye. She could almost physically feel his gaze searching her for visible traces of her abuse. Maybe even looking for something as disruptive and meticulously hidden as a metal limb.

She went on knowing full well he wouldn’t find anything unless she willed him to. “My division specialized in experimentations, specifically. Alien technology, and how it could enhance everyday humans. Make them into living weapons.”

He stayed silent after that. She didn’t know how he was taking her words—she didn’t want to see it. The notion that someone else had been carved into a tool for the bidding of terrorists was so large and unbelievable… did he believe her?

“You said you were the only survivor.”

She gave him a small nod. Timid, almost. Pietro crossed her mind again, and she was tempted to mention him. To boast, really, of how she’d had a brother that was strong like her. Strong enough to survive. But he hadn’t really survived the aftermath of what she’d gained during that experimentation, had he?

That thought must’ve been upsetting enough to break through the numbed mask she had built up, for James’s next comment was, “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head, trying to ignore the hard lump of distaste that knotted up in her throat. She didn’t want to hear that. Not from anyone, but especially not from him. “Don’t be. I had it coming to myself. I…I volunteered to be there.”

God, it was hard to admit that to him. After reading how everything done to create the Winter Soldier was forced onto James Barnes, it only made her feel worse to receive even a sample of his sympathy. Or pity. She couldn’t tell the difference anymore. Either way, she knew she didn’t deserve it. Not when she had offered herself up to it. They’d most likely treated her more mercifully than him because of that, and what she did endure was only for less than half the time as he.

Wanda chanced a quick glimpse of his reaction. Just as she expected, he was confused. “Did you know they were going to do all that?”

“No, but I…I should’ve…”

She left the thought incomplete, unsure of where she’d intended it to go. She hadn’t known exactly what Hydra was, or even that it was associated with what she was volunteering for. She had only known scientists, and their promises to make her stronger. Help her become someone that would actually make a difference to her home, rather than continue on as a rat no one noticed despite her endless screaming in the streets. She knew now that had been a large part in Strucker’s reasoning to approach her and Pietro. They were unnoticed nobodies. No one would have known if they hadn’t survived the experiments.

“You didn’t know what you were signing up for.”

This time it didn’t sound as much like an inquiry. Somehow, she found herself disliking that even more than placating nonsense. She didn’t want him to reason with her, and her displeasure for it was putting a strain on not only her powers, but her carefully constructed patience with him. “We knew it was human experimentation. It was so clearly dangerous and stupid, yet we did it anyways.”

The blood in her palms boiled in retaliation to her growing emotions. As much as she wanted to maintain a low-profile with the random civilians at the breakfast bar, she also didn’t want to hide that power from him anymore. Maybe if he saw that she’d gained the ability to escape and still stayed at the base in Sokovia, he would understand the kind of reckless lowlife she was.

She stretched out one hand, keeping it low and hidden behind the plastic basket of food. With one last glance to ensure only James was looking, she unleashed only a small spark of red between her middle and ring finger. She then began twisting her wrist ever-so-slightly to the side and back flat again, so that the miniature ball wouldn’t have a chance to grow as it slid around her middle finger.

Even if it didn’t make much of a difference, she made her voice even lower. “They gave me this. Changed me until I didn’t know how much of myself is still me. And still, I stayed. I stayed there until it was too late.”

Finally, she looked away from the scarlet knot in order to gauge his reaction to seeing it. From what she could hear at the surface of his thoughts, his mind was thunderous with something. But from what she could see, it wasn’t fear.

He wasn’t afraid.

Confused beyond belief, sure, but otherwise he wasn’t giving any indication he was going to run or move away at all from the unexplained orb at her fingertips. He was stone-still, most likely having left what she’d said unheard. He stared at the meager demonstration of her powers—her personal burden, as though it was merely an unsolved jigsaw puzzle. “How’re you doing that?”

She could only manage a shrug, her mind too preoccupied with the utter surprise of his response. She couldn’t even remember that this had been meant to prove a point. “It’s just a part of me. I’ve learned to manipulate it for my benefit, but really, it’s just…something that lives in me.”

“Does it hurt?” The question was purely curious. What was an even greater shock to her was when he brought his arm closer, sliding it across both his chest and the table surface. The metal arm. Cautious, but still curious. He brought his hand close to hers, stretched wide with the fingers hovering around the ball of scarlet, though never touching it.

“It doesn’t hurt me.” Not anymore . “But it can harm others. Especially if I’m…afraid, or upset, or hurt.”

All three, she remembered, had made themselves prominent in the Battle of Sokovia. She could vividly recall how her powers had torn through an almost entire army—an army of the toughest metals imaginable, at that. She hadn’t realized how easy it was until she was standing in the wake of Pietro’s death, with those soldiers all but disintegrated at her feet. All the while, she never noticed what that meant about the full potential of her new strengths until afterwards. However, given the nature of James’ arm, she didn’t think it entirely appropriate to let him know about all that just yet.

Speaking of which, that metal hand had begun to shake. Still with pure, albeit uncertain, curiosity. Then with a speed that suggested he was trying to push himself before he could think twice of it, he tapped his fingertips against the little knot of energy.

His recoil was immediate, as was hers after him. The ball of scarlet was snuffed out between her hands as she clasped them together, keeping them hidden in her lap. “I’m sorry,” she breathed. “Did that hurt?”

“No, no…it’s fine.” Despite the reassuring tone, he didn’t look to see if she was comforted in any way. His was busy studying his own left hand, twitching the fingers a few tentative times before curling them into a fist. She could hear the smaller plates shifting beneath the thick mask of leather. “Just felt a little weird.”

The witch had no idea what to make of that. Weird? Weird how?

“I’m fine,” James assured her again, finally looking up. The sense of unassuming curiosity he’d had before hadn’t wavered one bit. “Just didn’t expect that. I never saw something like it before. Could you…can you do it again?”

It had been so long since she’d heard that, her brain almost couldn’t process it. Or maybe that was due to never hearing it in that context. Nothing about testing her limits with those abilities, or how she could manipulate them to harm another. He only wanted to see it, simply for the sake of seeing something unexpected.

It was nice.

The sort of self-pride she thought had died with Ultron reared its timid head, only tempered by the fact that they were in a public place. “I, um…I can , but I’d rather wait for when we’re alone.”

He nodded in understanding, glancing over his shoulder at the few employees that still lingered around the bar.

“There’s more to it,” Wanda added, some of her nerves re-emerging at how he may handle knowing about the other side of her abilities. “This… thing that lives inside me…it also connects me to others. It’s not always seen, but sometimes it wanders away from me, and I…I’ll hear someone else’s thoughts. Or see memories. Lately, I think I’ve been picking up emotions too.”

So much passed over his eyes in the short heartbeat that followed. Alarm. Incredulity. Some more confusion. He didn’t waste any time dancing around the question she was expecting. “Can you see inside my head?”

It would’ve been so easy to lie to him. He would never know if she did. But she didn’t want to lie. She just wanted to earn his trust. “I can. But I try not to. Too much reading…I get overwhelmed, and I know that it’s invasive anyways, so I don’t…I don’t try to.”

She heard a short huff, and instantly recognized his irritation.

If only Hydra had that sense of respect.

“I have seen some of your memories,” she whispered ruefully. Truthfully. “Only twice. That’s how I noticed you in the woods. I pick up the surface of thought activity first, and I …it was so unexpected to find from there, that I looked deeper. Then I tried to find you again—for Steve. But I only caught a quick glimpse—long enough to be certain it was you, at the inn.”

James looked away from her, his expression alone a clear indication that his mind was reeling. The frantic droning in Wanda’s ears was like a bright highlighter over the obvious. For him to learn someone else had been in his head without his consent or full knowledge of it...it was a lot to wrap his brain around. She expected to face him feeling betrayed, hurt—maybe even disbelieving that she could actually do that. But aside from a tightness about his mouth, he didn’t show anything of the sort. “What…” he grimaced. “What did you see?”

Her immediate response was, “I don’t know,” and she mentally kicked herself for saying it aloud. She did remember. She remembered everything her powers absorbed. What she didn’t know was how to make sense of the memories she’d seen. And from how he was acting, she presumed there were some things there he would prefer to leave unexamined. “A lot of your mind was blurry. Most of it just...images bleeding into each other. Difficult to tell what was what.”

James nodded to signal that he’d heard her, though his eyes were far away. Absentmindedly, the fingers of his right hand toyed with the corner of the paper in the plastic basket that still remained untouched between them. Eventually, his agitation tore off a piece completely.

He left them in silence for a few stiff moments. Gradually, her unease turned it into a cue to go on. “I saw some of Steve. When he was smaller, I mean. I think you were remembering one of your sisters…?”

“Becca,” he finished. To her surprise, a touch of brotherly affection showed on his face, creeping along a bitter smile. “Yeah, I’ve been…I was thinking of her that day you came by. Something ‘bout Jake and Bailey reminded me of having a sister chasing me.”

Those names were new to her. “Is that where you went today? To see them?”

“Sort of. They, um…” There was a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. More of that platonic affection, and Wanda’s stomach warmed at the sight of it. Seeing a world-renowned assassin and longtime victim of Hydra, manage to find something he could find delight in was refreshing, and a little heartening. “They’re the dogs on the property I look after. And they’re siblings, so the only person they like giving hell to more than me is each other.”

Wanda felt a small smile on her face. I know the feeling . “Where is their home? If I may ask.”

He hesitated. She recognized the air around it, from when she’d been unsure of how much to disclose about the Avengers’ base. Though from the quickest of glances down at her fingers, folded between the edge of the table and her chest, she could easily imagine him reasoning with himself that not much else was hidden between them at the moment. “On the other side of the woods, a couple miles past where the gravel road ends. It’s just a few acres of ranch land, but not many people ‘round here have the time to manage it continuously. The woman who owns it was recently widowed, so she’s been in extra need of someone to look after everything while she’s away seeing family.”

“That’s very kind of you to do,” Wanda told him, genuinely meaning every word.

He shrugged, ducking his head. “Well, she pays me for it. S’an easy source of money, and something productive to do for a whole day, so….”

Wanda’s mouth twitched upward to see him practically sheepish in his response. Although, the beginnings of her smile was quickly smothered by a sobering thought. “Is that why you didn’t run after I came by? You needed money?”

“No…not entirely.”

Wanda couldn’t help the skip in her heartbeat. She had almost forgotten how close she’d come to losing him. She couldn’t imagine what she would be doing right now if she had.

As it was, though, she was grateful for his honesty.

“I came really close to heading for the next state. But that would mean having to start over, in hiding…and I’ve gotten too much done here to do that. Miss Gracie still really needs someone to watch her house and dogs. Then when she comes back, I should have enough to get the distance I really want.”

Her mind wasn’t fully aware of it, but Wanda’s hand came forward to take the piece of paper that James had torn off, and began tearing it into more pieces. She didn’t know why she was still so anxious at the thought of losing him again. They had clearly established that he wasn’t ready to re-visit Steve anytime soon, so her personal debt to the Captain had nothing to do with it. “Where do you want to be?”

He shrugged again, his eyes low. Perhaps trying to distract himself by watching her fingers as they tore the paper apart further. “I don’t even know. Just somewhere that’s far from here. Where that’s not so much of…the old me’s influence.”

She was left uncertain if he was referring to Steve’s friend Bucky, in New York, or the Winter Soldier that had reportedly “shaped” some of the overall country’s history (among others). It was possible he meant both. “How much longer ‘til you think you’re going to leave?”

“Miss Gracie’s going to send more money in a couple of days. Should be enough for a ride out of the country. But I wanted to wait a while, ‘til I had enough leftover to make a proper start wherever I end up. Maybe even wait until Miss Gracie’s done with her traveling, so she won’t have to worry about replacing me.”

“That’s very considerate,” she commented. Somehow, she managed to keep her voice neutral despite the apprehension in her chest, knotting up more and more the longer they discussed how close he was to leaving. Most likely for good.

Then a completely random thought struck her. “How much do you put into your life here? You have enough for food and that room at the inn?”

“Miss Gracie takes care of that. Or technically, her sister does. She’s the inn’s current owner, and a friend of both of them owns this place. They let me stay and eat a little every night as a thank-you for helping her.”

“Just this?” the witch pressed, pointing to the basket of food in between them. A ration that was less than half of what Steve usually ate around the Facility. And while she knew Hydra had failed to create the exact same serum Steve had, she knew he had been enhanced in some way that had surely left him with a metabolism similar to Captain America’s.

James tried to shrug off her palpable concern. “S’enough for just me.”

Wanda frowned, but didn’t say anything more about it. She knew doing so would bring her into hypocritical territory.

However, as if he was actually concerned with appeasing her, James tugged the plastic basket closer to himself. Though he didn’t actually eaten anything as he asked her, “Do you want something? ”

“No, thank you.”

“It really is more than enough for me,” he insisted. “And I got change for—”

“I’m sure,” she countered. “I’m just not hungry.”

They fell into another silence, this time with Wanda’s thoughts far enough to completely block out whatever James was doing in front of her. Was he not eating because she was there? Was that something Hydra still had over him? She knew from her own experience that test subjects were supposed to eat whatever rations their handlers gave, and nothing more. Their meals were always monitored for the event a subject would steal from another, or did anything else to sneak extra portions. The specific penalty there was for getting caught, Wanda didn’t know, for she only had one first hand memory where Pietro had tried to snatch extra to give to her. He had been the one to be punished for it, and it had technically been easier on him for being one of the Baron’s “favorites”. She didn’t know Barnes’ handlers, let alone how much harder they were on him.

“I can leave, if it makes you comfortable,” she offered. With a glance out the window behind him, she added, “It’s gotten dark. The team might be wondering why I’ve been out so long.”

James didn’t respond to that. He merely averted his gaze to the table, giving away neither disappointment nor relief that she was moving to leave him alone. He didn’t look up again until she’d finished awkwardly sliding out of the booth seat, sliding his water back to his side of the table before taking that first step away.

He stopped her before she could pass by him. “Are you, um…?” He looked up at her, taking a while to meet her eyes directly. “Are you going to come back?”

She froze at the question, completely at a loss as to whether he meant it in the desire that she did come back, or that he was dreading she would. “I can…” she told him, not bothering to hide her fingers stiffly wrapping around the carnelian at her chest. “If you want me to.”

The hand closest to her twitched, and he eyed it as if he was embarrassed it was there. The metal hand.

Did he want to touch her?

“Do you want me to come back?” she asked gently, hoping her words would distract from the fact that she was inching a small ways closer. With his hardened gaze focused on hers, she tentatively let her own hand drift close to where his lay on the surface of the table. She forced the powers holed up there to keep her hand from shaking as she brought it to lightly lay on top of his heavily covered one. I’m not afraid of it. I just want to know if this is alright by him.

She couldn’t place whatever crossed over his eyes at the hesitant touch. Then they sharpened, as if just then remembering she had asked something. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?”

She offered a bittersweet half-smile. “You weren’t afraid of me.”

“No. I actually…if it’s not too much, I wouldn’t mind seeing you make those red lights again.”

Something in her chest swelled up. And it wasn’t all that unpleasant. “I did promise to show you that again, didn’t I?” she murmured.

“If it’s not too much…”

“No, no. I can come back,” she repeated, fumbling clumsily over the words in her rush to reassure him. A sudden wave of self-consciousness pulled her hand back to herself, her throat clearing with uncertainty of whether she should still leave him, now that she knew her presence was at least tolerable for him. Go, Maximoff. He still needs to eat.

“I’ll, um…I’ll leave you to it, then.” She fumbled over the words, entirely clueless as to how to properly dismiss herself from the company of a former American Sergeant and master assassin. That was good enough, she decided, and thus turned to finally leave him be for the night. Though just before she left his earshot, she could’ve sworn she heard a soft but well-meaning, “ Do svidaniya ,” follow her.  

Yes. Until next time.


It was amazing, the new light her little exchange with James shed over her life at the Facility. She was much less anxious, now that she had a better idea of exactly where he would be during the day, and not to expect him. Though the burden of that knowledge still weighed down on her whenever her thoughts went to Steve or Natasha. Steve, especially. Every other second, she was tempted to at least reassure him that his lost friend was alright, and incredibly close by. But she knew the Captain, at least in relation to Barnes, and she could tell he would want to push James into coming back before he was ready. She didn’t want to put either of them through that.

Fortunately for her, no one paid her any attention when she first came back. Or more accurately, there was no one around her usual wing of the building to notice she was returning so late at night. It probably helped that she made a beeline for her bedroom, and let the physical toll of the walk to and from town submerge her into a heavy, dreamless sleep. Then in the morning, she wandered back towards the common room to find Sam and Natasha alone around the kitchenette. Sam was working on something she couldn’t see from the doorway, and Natasha was sitting at the island, scrolling on her phone.

Wanda was fully prepared to leave them be and retreat back to the solitude of her room. Maybe even think over her interaction with James some more, and when (if she didn’t change her mind) she would go to see him again. Although just as she was nearly out of the room altogether, Sam called her back. “Hey, kid! Come here, help me settle this.”

She crossed over on instinct alone, her mind processing that tone as a command from one of her old handlers. By the time she recognized the absurdity of that, she was already at Natasha’s side. The spy pulled a chair out for her, and it felt too rude to ignore the offered seat.

“I want you to read her mind,” Sam declared, gesturing dramatically to Natasha. “We’ve got reason to believe she’s been cheating on the track lately. Go ahead, read her mind.”

“She’s not reading anything,” Natasha insisted, only looking up from her phone for the brief second it took to wave the device at Wanda. “You can’t cheat at running laps. It’s not a competition.”

“That’s easy for you to say as part of the Bionic Couple,” an embittered Sam Wilson retorted. “You’re not looking to buy a new set of lungs after every session. I assume….”

Agent Romanoff was undeterred by his concern. “Can’t worry about you when I’m hungry, Wilson. You almost finished with lunch?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. And what makes you assume any of it’s for you?”

Natasha finally set her phone down, crossing her arms over it and leaning against the edge of the island elegantly. “Samuel,” she started, letting the deceivingly sweet yet deadly voice of the infamous Black Widow shine through. “Will you get me something for lunch?”

“What’s the magic word?”

A dangerous eyebrow quirked. “ Now .”

Sam only scowled. “No. Guess again,” he barked flatly.

Wanda watched them continue their banter, at a complete loss of what to do with herself. She wasn’t sure if she could up and leave, considering Sam and Natasha had practically invited her there. But what did she have to offer?

By now, Sam had turned around to tend to whatever he had on the stovetop (something with chicken, by the smell of it). Behind him, at the center of the island, was a basket full of various snacks abandoned by the other members of the team. Mostly fruits, on a bed of peppermints. Mints which Natasha had gathered a handful of for herself, and was presently chucking at Wilson’s exposed backside. To add to his annoyance, she repeatedly badgered him with, “Sam. Sam. Sam, I’m hungry! Sam!”

“Woman!” he eventually snapped. “I don’t care if you are Lord of the Spies—”

“What’re you going to do?” Natasha challenged, tossing her final mint at his head for emphasis. “Make my ringtone the Kim Possible theme again? Oh, I’m shaking!”

“Don’t you dare,” Wilson warned as she went in for another handful of peppermints.

You used to be intimidated by these people, Maximoff . Now Wanda was simply unimpressed as she witnessed a fresh assault of flying peppermints, despite Sam’s continuous protests. Finally, for the sake of letting him save whatever was on the verge of burning, the Maximoff sister intervened.

“Oh, you traitor,” Natasha grumbled at the mysterious appearance of a red wall between her and Sam. The block of red energy had caught at least three of her previous strikes (the rest bounced off and fell onto the countertop) and obediently whisked them back to Wanda’s side of the island, where they ended up in the witch’s palm.

Sam turned in time to catch a glimpse of the last few wisps of scarlet dissolve into the air around Wanda’s free hand. “Aha! You see that, Romanoff? That’s how you treat a teammate! That’s why she’s my favorite—”

Natasha scoffed, “Oh, whatever—”

“I’m keeping that one.”

“Oh, my God.” Green eyes went rolling. “You do realize we didn’t just find her in a cardboard box full of kittens, right?”

Sam ignored her, directing his attention at Wanda now. “You hungry? ‘Cause I’ll make you something now.”

The indignant “What?” in Wanda’s ear nearly deafened her. Though despite the clearly genuine banter that followed, she couldn’t help but wonder if this had been some ploy to force her to eat with them, considering how Wilson had so recently come to her with his concerns. Which was ridiculous; she was feeding herself. It just so happened to not be when, or as often as, the rest of the team did. All she’d known before them was Sokovia and Hydra, where there was only the bare minimum of meals available to keep from starving. And even though she knew there was more available to her now, the empty chasm in her chest didn’t allow her enough hunger to adapt.

It didn’t seem to matter to her current companions, though, seeing as Sam was already fetching a hidden basket of leftovers from the cupboard. “Here, at least finish these before the Cap goes into a sugar coma,” he ordered, dropping the collection of woven copper and paper towels in front of the witch before she could argue. Not that she could with his own lunch, and an ornery Natasha, so quick to steal his attention back.

Well if he’s so insistent, what’s the harm? Wanda reasoned with her own stomach, which was completely unresponsive to the promise of an early snack. She left Natasha and Sam to their own, private world of wry humor and petty antics as she reached for what turned out to be four individually wrapped muffins. Little blots of blueberry stains and brown sugar came away with the paper towel as she unveiled one, but that ultimately didn’t steal away from the taste she got from picking pieces off the fluffy top. By the time she had finished off that uppermost layer, her fingertips strongly resembled the stained paper towel in her lap.   

It was an interesting meal. Or snack, or whatever . She never would’ve imagined herself as someone that snacks, let alone snacks on something so American, or so freshly made (it was a few hours old, but still). It shouldn’t have been so significant, but it was. After so long of knowing only the polar opposite of fresh and good, it almost felt wrong to indulge in it now. And with the addition of company to witness her doing so….

Was this how James felt last night?

It was another strange feeling, how often her mind would go to James. Especially after their previous interaction. She tried not to dwell too much on how they had shared a lot of personal details about themselves, or how she’d felt an unexplained knot in her stomach when he mentioned leaving for good. That left her with their final moments, and the reveal of how scant he was with his own self-care. As a former street rat, a meal like his typical one may have sufficed for her, but it certainly couldn’t be enough for him. He was enhanced like Steve, and Rogers rarely functioned on so little. Apparently, he indulged in too much for his own good if his friends felt a need to keep certain rations from him.

“They get old already?”

“I can overlook that!”

Wanda didn’t realize the topic of Sam and Natasha’s conversation had shifted back to her until the spy reached for the metal basket in front of her. Sam stretched across the island’s surface to wave her hand away in one swift, rushed motion.

“No, no, it’s good,” Wanda said, looking down to realize she had gotten lost in her thoughts again, leaving her half-eaten muffin sitting uselessly in her hands for several moments. “I was just, um...just thought of something I found yesterday.”

That was true in a sense.

“Yeah, Steve said you’ve gotten a knack for wandering about in the backwoods,” Natasha recalled offhandedly, going for her phone again. Though as she reached for the device, Wanda could swear she received a rather pointed look from the master spy.

She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know. How could she know?

Wanda knew she could keep her voice level if she stuck to giving out the partial truth. “I like it out there. It’s quiet, without so many minds around. And it’s pretty. Never had those kinds of views anywhere in Sokovia.”

“Yeah, it’s especially nice this time of year,” Natasha agreed, now distracted by whatever was on the small screen in her hand. Wanda was consumed by relief to know the suspicion she thought she’d seen wasn’t really there (at least, not anymore). “Temp’s supposed to drop by next month, though.”

“Which means it’s probably for the best, you getting your wanderlust out of the way now,” Sam added.

Wanda tried not to appear too eager at the potential opportunity. “I might go again today. Maybe take some of these with me?”

She spoke the last part as a suggestion, unsure of whether or not taking food into the woods was unusual enough to warrant unwanted attention. Fortunately, neither Avenger thought twice of it.

“Yeah, we should have picnic stuff somewhere around here,” Sam mused aloud, partially keeping his attention to the stovetop behind him. “Widow, you know where it would be?”

Natasha didn’t even look up from her phone, knocking against the surface of the island directly beside her. “Look in here.”

Sam ducked down, and Wanda could hear the creak of a cabinet door opening on his side of the island. “Here, this should work,” he eventually announced, reappearing with a plain yellow tote bag in hand. Wanda offered a soft thanks as she accepted the item by its black threaded straps, then looked inside to gauge its size on the inside. It was longer than it was wide—roughly the same size and shape of the old English novels her mother used to own. With the muffins safely wrapped in paper towels, she could probably stack them and transport them that way.

This time, she didn’t hide her hurry as she stuffed the three remaining muffins into the bag. She slowed a bit to finish her own, though the whole time her thoughts were thrumming with concern of missing James before he left to care for the widow’s property. She had no idea how long that usually took him, but given how it was nearly the afternoon already, her chances didn’t feel too good.

Neither of Wanda’s temporary companions paid attention as she left, even though she did make an attempt to thank them again for the food. She thought she heard Sam begin a response, but it was quickly cut off by the now familiar smacking sound of plastic colliding with his head, followed by an agitated “Woman!”

Their antics pulled the smallest of smiles from her just before she left, keeping the two friends in the simple world they’d created for each other. As she scurried off, she could feel her heart drum in excitement at the prospect of building one like it with her own, newly found companion.


Without the added anxiety of not knowing what to expect from the little town, Wanda was made fully aware of just how physically exhausting it was to not only cross the woods, but also to climb the hill that led to the town’s heart. Combined with the intense glare of the sun in a cloudless sky, Wanda was huffing for breath and practically melting in her usual borrowed jacket.

Homeland or not, Sokovia deserved a firm reprimand for leaving her so out of shape for this type of endeavor.

The Bluebell Inn, however, was a perfectly placed sanctuary. Once she felt the full relief of cool indoor air, she spent the rest of the journey to the room checking inside the bag to see how the trip had been on her precariously wrapped gifts. She was only partially assured they’d gotten enough cool air by the time she reached the door.

She waited a while after knocking, having caught on to his habit for taking some time to gather himself. After a few measured heartbeats, she tried again to be sure, and then again almost impulsively. When she was still left in silence, she allowed her mind’s eye to wander a ways, searching for surface activity only. He was either gone or asleep, because even that left her with nothing.

She tucked her bag closer to her side, as if that would protect from the rising wave of uncertainty over whether or not she should give up and leave. Upon pressing against the side of her stomach, she realized something was jabbing into her from there.

The room key.

Wanda quickly thanked whatever being of fate that compelled her to wear almost the same thing every day as she dug for the trinket still hidden in the right pocket of Natasha’s jacket. She felt a small rush of irrational pride at how easily it granted her access to the room on the other side. It was almost too easy, and she felt somehow lighter for it (though she still had enough sense to close and relock the door behind her).

Sure enough, the room was completely devoid of life. That grounded her again, realizing she was standing alone among the few personal possessions the Soldier had acquired since his escape from Hydra. Said possessions appeared to be only the files and backpack still sequestered to the small table standing across from the bed. They weren’t as carefully obstructed from view this time, but she had enough respect not to read what was there as she drew nearer. She merely kept her eyes trained on her own belongings, which she one-by-one drew from her bag to leave for him. She even went as far as to unwrap the remaining muffins for him, doing her best to make the slight gifts appear as unassuming as possible. She set their paper towels beneath them like a makeshift plate, bunching the pastries together at the one corner of the desk that was free.

Wanda watched the pastries for a few useless moments, almost compulsive as she straightened them a few times. She was absolutely unsure what to do otherwise. A surprisingly strong part of her wanted to wait for James to return, so she could ensure he knew they were meant for him. There was a possibility he would mistake them for a trap, left here by some intruder seeking to drug and re-capture him. But by staying there with him, there was a chance he wouldn’t eat, as she had learned the night before.

The Maximoff sister glanced around the room again, feeling more misplaced than ever. Everything was pressed tightly together, giving off a sense that the room was more crowded than it was. The bed took up the most space, sitting like a bloated marshmallow in the center of the room, cradled by a dark wooden frame and headboard. It was flanked by a nightstand and armchair of matching colors, which were both too small for her to imagine someone as bulky as the Winter Soldier using comfortably. The lack of anything contrasting to the simple color scheme only reinforced the idea that despite however long he’d been here, he still didn’t have enough of his own life to leave an impact. A brief spark of anxiety coursed through her at the thought that she would make that process harder by intruding the way she currently was.

The hardwood floor groaned slightly as she dragged her feet towards the door, still indecisive about whether it was the best idea. At the last minute, she rushed back to the table with a short gasp of alarm over what she’d nearly forgotten.

She spotted a notepad with the inn’s name printed along the top, and hoped beyond hope he didn’t need it for anything else as she ripped off a sheet. Nearby was a small leather-bound journal partially pried open with a pen. She saved the place it was holding with her finger as she borrowed the pen long enough to write a brief note explaining that she had brought the pastries for him. Then in one swift movement, she replaced the pen between the pages of the journal (being careful not to look at anything that was written there), adjusted the straps of her bag further onto her shoulder, and headed back outside.

As soon as the door was locked behind her, Wanda tried not to overthink any of her actions. If given the chance, she knew she would. And for what? She had only stopped by to drop off a little something to encourage his appetite, left an explanation that she had done so because she was thinking of him, and left before she could do anything to discomfort him.

This thought was an efficient comfort during her entire walk back down the hill and through the woods, which was refreshingly unhurried for once. The lack of any rush or lingering anxiety allowed for a pleasant reminder as to why she had liked the backwoods around the Facility in the first place: it was quiet, and lovely in a way Sokovia never was.

Wanda wound up on a genuine stroll through the woods, allowing her mind to grow lighter with every unplanned step. She was grounded only by the leaves she plucked off whatever branches she could reach, throwing them to the air to either dance on bursts of wind or float alongside ribbons of scarlet. With no one around, she figured it was safe let the scarlet wisps roam freely. It was an unbelievable relief, not having to restrain the power within her after stifling it so long for others’ safety or comfort. That is, with the one exception of James the night before.

What had he called them? The lights?

She liked that term. More specifically, she liked how he used it in reference to her powers. Like they were a phenomenon as natural and wondrous as the lights of the North. Not at all unearthly, or burdensome that she was left for her to manage at all times.

It was nice. It almost made her feel like she was capable of doing nice things again.

Well, technically she had.

But she could do better than leaving out a few leftover pastries, couldn’t she?

This new idea was what finally brought her back to the Facility, waiting in her room for all of the Avengers to retire to their own domains for the evening. It wasn’t until late at night that she was confident they had. Once there, she found her way to the lounge area and began rifling through the food left for her taking.

At one point, the thought of living with Earth’s mightiest individuals had intimidated her. Now, it only annoyed her. They ate everything . And she knew it wasn’t just because one of them had such an intense metabolism; she often heard the team out here simply for the socialization of eating together, or to cure boredom. Such factors left Wanda scrounging a pantry so sparse, the streets of Sokovia suddenly felt like a modest buffet by comparison.

Of course, there were bits of some things. But she didn’t dare take too much of anything, and risk having the team notice what would appear to be a random swell in her appetite. That risk was the entire purpose behind waiting until she was alone to do this.

Eventually, she found half a loaf of bread. Pulling it out revealed an unopened jar of peanut butter behind it, which she took out as well. She still couldn’t find much else, but supposed it was a good start given that she didn’t know James’ personal preferences. For that matter, she didn’t even know if he had accepted the muffins she left earlier. She just had to have faith something light and simple would be alright for the time being.

She set a small dollop of peanut butter on a single slice of bread simply to test its age first (why else would something in this pantry go untouched?). The single taste test mysteriously became several separate samples as she proceeded to make an actual sandwich, which became two so she could have one for herself. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had the food spread, if she ever had. The witch justified it to herself now by presuming that if she could appreciate it, the former assassin would as well.

Wrapping the measly meal in a paper towel and seeing it set against the same yellow bag from before made her realize just how small a meal it was.

Maybe just one more thing….

Wanda hummed in thought before deciding to search the fridge this time. Hopefully there she would find something remotely healthy to add. The fruit on the island wasn’t likely to be good for much longer, but there may be some alternatives in the fridge.

The more she looked, the more she noticed little violet orbs stored in open plastic bags towards the back. Upon feeling that they were still ripe, she decided she could take some of those without too many persons missing them. After cutting up four of the plums into slices, she found a new plastic bag to store them in, and hid them on the top shelf of the fridge, along with the peanut butter sandwich.

Wanda went back for her meager creation the next morning. She had woken up late again, but quickly figured it was for the best considering her previous delivery felt so smooth only because there was no tense encounter involved. Today, she didn’t even see any of the Avengers on her way out. The team hadn’t seemed to notice her pre-made meal, so it was an easy transfer into the yellow bag, and then towards town.

The path to the inn was practically ingrained into her muscle memory by now. Not that she was complaining. With her search for the Winter Soldier completed, these continuous visits were a sufficient supplement for that sense of purpose the investigation had given her. She suspected now that was why she was so bothered by the thought of not having him around; without him, she was susceptible to returning to her state of being beforehand. Hollow, and burdened by her anxiety. By her powers. Having someone else to worry over didn’t fully silence that negativity, but it did distract from it.

She knocked at his door only once before gauging the presence of any mental surface activity. Finding none, the witch let herself into the empty room again. She intended to make a beeline for the table, leave the food, and go as quickly as she had the last time. Yet she stopped short upon noticing a large clump of white at the top of the trash bin on the other side of the table. A cluster, really, of paper towels stained with bright blots of a familiar blue. Aside from that, any evidence she had been there was gone. That is, except for the note she had left. She noticed its top half peeking out from between the pages of the journal she had taken a pen from the day before.

He was eating more.

She felt a wave of relief that was cooler than any burst of air conditioning the inn could provide. Not just for the validation of this new visit, but also for the wellbeing of another. She felt like she had helped him. This rare soul that didn’t fear her, but rather understood where she was coming from a majority of the time. It was unbelievably rejuvenating, this sense that she could and was doing something good for him, even if in a trivial way.

Hydra hadn’t ruined that part of her.


Something of a pattern developed from then on. Her retreating back to the Facility to prepare a late night meal, retrieving it in the morning, and then taking it to the inn became a regular occurrence for the remainder of the week. And each day, the meals were able to grow more well-rounded. She assumed the team had noticed missing rations of food, and was restocking fruits, crackers, water bottles, and the like accordingly. She was grateful none of them asked where her sudden “appetite” had come from, and could tell they were just pleased it was improving.

And to be honest, it really was.

Something about handling food herself, being around the smells and memories of certain foods (fantasies more like it; half of what the Avengers ate was seldom found in Sokovia), reminded her of when she would feel hunger more regularly. And so, she would eat bits of every meal just out of habit. Mostly pieces of fruit and peanut butter on single, folded-up slices of bread. Almost a mindless occurrence while she prepared an actual lunch for the Soldier.

This pattern, so pleasantly domestic and comfortingly routine, only lasted a few days. Long enough to get five more meals to the Soldier, complete with notes of simply her name scribbled on them (even then, she noticed he was keeping them). On the final day, the journey to the inn was practically taken through a fog of only half-awareness. At the door, she retained a more recently acquired habit of knocking once to ensure the room was empty, and letting herself in after merely a few heartbeats of no response. Perhaps neglecting to check for any surface thoughts as well was her mistake.

It wasn’t until Wanda had shut the door behind her, and made her way into the second half of the room, that she noticed him. Her heart temporarily stalled from the sheer shock of seeing James, brooding at the edge of the bed obscured by the wall of the entryway corridor. Her startled gasp did nothing to pull him from whatever he was thinking so deeply over.

Most notable of all was that he seemed to be so consumed by whatever he was struggling with mentally, he hadn’t bothered to hide the arm from her. The left one was more exposed than ever beneath the short sleeves of just a red henley shirt. A reflection of sunlight from the window behind him left the silver positively staring at her, in all its unnatural glory. It took most of Wanda’s delayed discretion not to stare back, and face being nearly blinded.

“I—I’m sorry,” Wanda sputtered, not even sure as to why she was apologizing. Even if he didn’t know this was her usual time to drop off food for him, he was bound to expect her at sometime , true to the nature of the past week. “I just...I had this for you.”

When he still didn’t acknowledge her presence, she tried to proceed with her usual drop off. Albeit, there was now the added tension of knowing he was there, and probably watching her every move.

But why? What happened to the routine? Did something happen to the widow’s home?

She was severely tempted to ask aloud what was different about today, but couldn’t find the voice to do so. It felt too close to invading what little privacy he still had around her, and she didn’t want to provoke him by jeopardizing that. Instead, she did her best to escape as unobtrusively as she would if he wasn’t there. Though this time her muscles were significantly tighter, and her eyes downcast as she went for the door, her thoughts flooded with self-awareness the entire time.

“Do you make the lights with your mind?”

She’d only made it a couple of steps when he spoke. The surprise of it instantly stopped her in her tracks, and even temporarily prevented her mind from properly processing what he had asked.

“Sort of,” she answered at last, turning to face him. Hopefully she was giving off the same inviting front that had helped him open up at the diner.

So far, his stony resolve hadn’t faltered. His eyes remained trapped to the floor between them. The only visible life from him came in the furrow of his brow as something crossed his mind. “Can they make things move?”

“Yes, they can if I will them to,” she said quietly, uncertain as to where he was going with these questions. Where was any of this coming from? What happened to their routine?

He left her in a curious silence for a long while, which did nothing but unnerve her. Then, in a tone that suggested he himself wasn’t sure why he was asking, he continued. “When they gave you those…what base was it?”

She replied honestly. “I, um…I don’t know. It was somewhere in Sokovia, administered by Baron von Strucker.”

“Strucker….” He lingered on the name like it was a beacon in the storm of his thoughts. And that thought was more unsettling than anything. From the few glimpses she had of his mind, she was well aware it would take something largely significant in his past to surface now.

It was enough Strucker and his team had ruined her. What had they done to her Soldier as well, that he was just now remembering?

“James? Why do you ask?” she pressed when she couldn’t bear the silence anymore.

His response wasn’t an answer, but it sounded more definite than anything he’d said to her thus far. “Sokovia. Base Six. Subject number sixteen.”

“Yes, that sounds like—”

She stopped once she realized that he wasn’t saying something that just sounded right. That was a label, and one that was definitely right. At least, she knew she had been subject sixteen at a Sokovian base. But she had never told him that much about herself the other night.

She hadn’t told him that.

“I remember it…I remember you.” His gaze finally shifted, lifting to her with an icy resolve so strong and certain, it chilled every drop of her blood. “I was supposed to kill you.”

Chapter Text

Shit.

That one thought was the eye of a storm inside the witch's brain. Externally, she had completely shut down. The sheer weight of James's reveal, and the downward spiral of her thoughts as a result, was like a physical blow that rendered her too stunned to move. Vaguely, her mind was aware there may not be a need to worry so much. James had no allegiance to Hydra anymore; why would he suddenly decide to fulfill a mission for them from however long ago?

Then again, there was the matter of the Winter Soldier's mindset still being present enough that he was too afraid to go anywhere near the subject of his last mission.

She couldn't stop berating herself for being this foolish. For being so naive around such an unstable assassin that she had literally invited herself into this situation. You stupid child! Whatever happens now, it's on you!

The Soldier finally appeared to notice her internally struggling just as much as him. He was at his feet in an instant, barely hesitating to approach her. Despite herself, she shied away with each step, and a small part of her hated herself for being so cowardly.

But did he have to be so huge?

"I didn't mean that the way it sounded," he insisted, palpably fidgeting beneath the added tension stemming from her panic. "I don't want to do those things anymore. I was just...I'm sorry."

Wanda didn't see why he would feel a need to apologize so insistently until she heard a familiar pop of loose energy. At her stomach, her fingers had wrapped tightly around the straps of her bag and were pressing it almost painfully against herself. Her scarlet, of course, wasn't taking too kindly to that. Thin wisps began to coil ominously around the fabric of the straps, nearly tearing them off completely. Wanda couldn't get rid of the bag fast enough, tossing the emptied fabric towards the table, where it collapsed atop the Soldier's backpack.

"I didn't mean it the way it came out," James reiterated, timidly approaching her again, only to back off as she gripped the back of the chair.

Her muscles were rigid, pulled tight from their efforts to suppress the power beneath them. She couldn't even face him, she was so focused on calming that protective energy. Which required calming her thoughts. He's not with them anymore. He won't try anything. Calm down! Don't make this bigger than it is. You'l expose us both if you do!

Amidst her racing thoughts, she could still hear him speaking. "I was only a precaution back then. In case they couldn't control you anymore. I don't even think I was there for long but I...they wiped me during the mission after, so to remember something from then...."

Wanda didn't outwardly acknowledge him, still pulling herself out of the haze of irrational fear. She didn't want him to think she was afraid of him. She wasn't afraid of him. At least, not who he was now. Though for whatever reason, her brain wasn't letting her recognize him. Her brain was keeping her restrained to the grim walls of the Hydra base, where threats on her or her brother's life were common. Although she never knew just how valid they were until now. Sure, at the time, she knew not to take their threats lightly. But there was also an underlying sense of comfort in that Strucker legitimately needed them. Wanda and her brother were the only surviving subjects of his experiments, and their abilities were the magnum opus of the entire base's work. It never felt as though their lives were really at risk with their handlers.

However, they still weren't Hydra's most trusted assets. Their powers were so unexpected and so unpredictable, of course those selfish bastards would call in their most efficient weapon to protect them. She held onto the pure logistics of him being there as just a precaution. He hadn't tried anything then, and even if he had, it was in the past. He wouldn't try anything now.

But had he ever come close? What had she done to make them call him in to begin with? God, had I put Pietro in danger without even realizing it?

It was strange having James be the one trying to fill in the tense silence left by her for a change. He spoke slowly, like every word was calculated, but she could recognize in his tone that he wasn't actually thinking through it all that sensibly. "I wouldn't have done it. If they'd told me to. You weren't how they described you. You weren't...an animal, or...or their--"

"Koldun'ya."

His eyes sparked with full attention on her now. Whether he was surprised that she'd finally responded, or that she had sounded so bitter in doing so, she didn't concern herself with. She was too preoccupied with bringing herself to face him again, forcing her senseless fear down. After releasing a shaky exhale, she managed to add, "And yes, I am. Just not the kind they wanted. No more than you are the same soldat."

He grimaced, but didn't linger any more than that. "I've been trying to place you ever since I saw those red lights. I remember when they first wanted you to use them. But you wouldn't, at first...."

"I couldn't," the witch supplied for him, her voice quiet and detached as her mind's eye wandered back to that cell. She mostly remembered it for being the longest she'd gone without her brother's company. The more their powers grew, the longer they had been kept apart in case they accidentally hurt each other (which had only increased the intensity of their powers, thanks to separation anxiety). Her right hand subconsciously flexed its fingers, recalling in its muscle memory how forcefully the scarlet would leave her back then, scorching the skin of her palm as it adapted to its host.

"Your ear was bruised too."

Wanda absentmindedly tucked her hair behind her ear, as if trying to give air to said abrasion that was no longer there. It had been such a minute injury that she wouldn't have remembered it herself if not for her recent nightmare. Though what she found to be most shocking was how definite that memory of her seemed to be. Especially with such a trite detail. He really remembers me. He barely remembers himself, but he remembers me.

"That was something of a standard for us," she told him, her voice coming across too soft to reflect any real importance.

Something about that earned her the glossy, faraway stare of the Soldier searching deep into blurred memories. "I think...before I left, there was another. Another survivor, I mean."

She very nearly shut down all over again.

"It was the one that was always paired with you in the lab."

Don't. Please.

"What'd they do to him?"

"Nothing," she insisted, her tone sharper than she had ever used with James. She swallowed hard, hating the lump that had formed in her throat. Her fingers twitched, struggling to contain her scarlet as her grief began to resurface so viciously.

"He...we escaped together," she said on short breaths. "And he died soon after that."

Too soon.

She couldn't think about that here. Not in front of the Soldier.

But...it was my fault.

" I'm not going to leave you here."

"I can handle this."

She told him to go. She let him play the Hero, and they'd both paid for it.

" Come back for me when everyone else is off. Not before. You understand?"

There was no one else to blame. No one to take vengeance on, save for the robotic monster she'd allowed to be created.

" Does she know he's gone? That he's the one that saved you?"

" Trust me, Cap. She knows."

She never even saw him get off that boat with Agent Barton. She hadn't wanted to accept it, no matter how strongly she could feel it. For all she knew, he wasn't even buried in a grave at the moment. It's not like any country wanted either of them.

The guilt was too close, blurring everything that was here and now with the memory of everything that happened on that godforsaken floating rock. The cramped, simple furniture and obscenely plump mattress. Pieces of metal with evil, glowing eyes getting ripped apart in midair. A thin, floral carpet barely seen between the bed and the long planks of dark, hard wood. Rubble collapsing everywhere, filling the air with brick dust that pushed its way into her breath. Her lungs were already struggling with the physical exertion of fighting.

She couldn't breathe.

He couldn't breathe. She had foolishly believed that he would be alright, so long as they were still together through the mind. But ultimately, that only meant she was there for every bullet--every burst of pain where flesh and muscle was shot. And she screamed in agony because he couldn't with his lungs full of blood. She screamed because his heart wasn't beating, and hers stopped with it because that's my brother! You can't take him from me--not him! He's all I have!

"Wanda?"

She could still hear him. He wasn't gone. She knew he wouldn't leave her like that.

"I'm sorry--I didn't mean to upset you."

She could feel him at her side still, his body warmed by a heart beating just as it should always be. She could feel every beat almost as though it were her own, he was so close.

"Koldun'ya, please don't be upset."

His hand was on her shoulder in one of several forms of physical reassurance they had for each other. Something they had done for so many years, it was practically instinctual for her to reach out and tap his side in return. And for the first time since she could remember, he flinched at her touch.

No...this isn't right.

Across her palm was the very distinct feel of raised skin beneath the fabric of his shirt. While her brother had his fair share of scars, none she knew of were quite this large. Nor did they leave the skin on one side so sleek and hard.

Metal arm. Winter Soldier. James Buchanan Barnes.

Doesn't want to be touched.

Wanda pulled her hand back to herself, ducking her gaze to the floor in shame of having touched him without permission. She mumbled a curt apology in a tone that was most likely too low for anyone without enhanced hearing to detect.

"It's...fine," he stated awkwardly, filling the air around them with a heavy layer of uncertainty as to what exactly was "fine". Even without the aid of her powers, she could feel him struggling to muster something that would satisfy a social obligation to comfort her.

Despite hating the thought of completely falling apart on him, Wanda also didn't want any contrived sympathy or condolences from him. He shouldn't have to owe her anything. He was already so broken by what others had put on him, he didn't need the burden of knowing her demons too.

"Sorry. I don't...." She paused for the sake of clearing the tremble from her voice. She decided then to try distancing herself from feeling anything altogether, in the off-chance that would keep her from breaking in front of the Soldier. It was what kept her from breaking in front of the Avengers, after all.

It's better to be numbed than bruised.

Upon taking a few breaths through her mouth and rubbing out any trace of moisture from her eyes, the witch finally managed something remotely solid. "Can we not talk about it?"

James nodded almost too eagerly. "Yeah. I'll drop it. I'm sorry for bringing it up."

Wanda frowned at how clearly he was blaming himself for her upset. For some reason, that bothered her even more. It wasn't fair to have him feel guilty when he had only been looking to see how much of his own past he could remember.

But what could she tell him? That she was upset because that had been her brother she lost or because she'd been the one to kill him so shortly after their escape?

"I think I should...." She was too weak to finish the thought aloud, instead merely glancing at her tote bag that was still waiting on the table. Smothering his possessions, just like she was currently smothering him with her senseless anxiety.

You should've let Steve handle this from the start, Maximoff. You're too screwed up.

Embarrassed and frustrated with herself, Wanda snatched the ugly yellow bag to take with her in her hurried escape. That short walk to the door had never felt as long or as lonely as it did in that moment. The coolness of the silver door handle especially enforced the impact of her own cowardice, chilling her skin and widening the hole in her chest. The latter feeling, she knew, would only grow the further she drew herself into self-isolation.

She didn't go.

The witch lingered in her place, hoping to convince herself it was only an attempt to pull herself together enough mentally to make her journey back. But then the Soldier quietly apologized again for upsetting her, and something in her storm of thoughts ground to a sudden stop.

I don't want to be numb.

With a short huff, Wanda swiftly hung her bag on the doorknob and whirled around to face James again. "May I ask something of you?"

He had hunched in on himself as if to physically submit to her leaving (for good, as far as he knew). At her sudden request he winced, eyeing her the same way a startled animal would. That air of uncertainty rose around him once more as he fumbled for a response amidst clear apprehension over whatever she could possibly want from him now. "S--sure."

"OK." Wanda crossed back to his side of the room before she could think twice of it. She stopped short right before him, holding her own hand to keep her fingers calm as they practically itched to act. "Is it alright if I touch you?"

The suggestion appeared to only feed his concerns. She easily understood the worry, given his history with abuse in almost every sense. She was fully prepared to abandon her thought, but didn't outright suggest as much because she selfishly wanted it so badly.

Finally, he offered a hesitant nod.

"OK," she said softly, just to allow him time to brace himself for the physical contact. He went rigid regardless as she reached for him, wrapping her arms tight around his shoulders and pulling him close to her level. She hid from the fact that he was probably uncomfortable by burrowing her face into that strange junction between flesh and metal.

He's warm. She didn't know why she would expect otherwise. The seam pressing lightly against her cheek was unusual, but nevertheless a part of a tangible person. He was no less human because of it. Just like her, in regards to the scarlet in her veins. Like Pietro with the silver at his feet.

And he was warm like Pietro. Just as sturdy, if not more so, and unwaveringly there. His heart was steady and loud as it beat against hers, fast as a hummingbird's, just as it always was. If she held on long enough--tightly enough--it would eventually slow to fall in tune with her own.

She didn't have that time, though. He wasn't actually Pietro.

Wanda whispered a thanks to the Soldier, prepared to pull away and actually leave him be this time. Yet she was rather abruptly stopped by a cautious touch on either side of her waist. At one side was the feel of calloused skin, and the other small plates of metal. She froze for a moment, waiting silently to see what he wanted. After only a few heartbeats, he gathered the courage to fully return her embrace, allowing his arms to fully encircle her midriff. His grasp was ginger with caution of his natural strength, but gradually grew firmer. Holding her in place as the weight of whatever had been bearing down on him for however long finally bled out.

It hadn't occurred to her that maybe he needed this too. In all his time between being forced to do someone else's bidding and being frozen at those same hands, was he ever allowed a moment just to stop and feel his hurt?

Wanda clung to him anew, reveling in the extra time to indulge in the comfort form she'd grown so accustomed to, and been so deprived of without her brother. She finally let the extent of Pietro's loss completely spill out; so much emptiness and hurt that she usually stifled around the Avengers bled alongside whatever was lifting from the Soldier. She sobbed soft, shuddering breaths into his collar, haplessly letting everything--her grief, her anger, her frustration and loneliness--come to the surface. James was quiet as she cried, offering none of that placating nonsense she would've loathed otherwise. Had she any energy to spare, she might've appreciated that more. Yet as it was, her mind was too spent on the mere fact that she was weeping against the Winter Soldier until her throat ached and her head throbbed. She hardly even noticed when her fingers snaked through his hair and tightly held onto a fistful as though it were her one remaining tether to the Earth.

She lingered like that far longer than she should have. By the time her breaths evened out, the wine-red fabric she had burrowed into was damp from tear stains. Though aside from a small twinge of guilt for ruining one of probably very few shirts he had, she felt marvelously lighter. Not totally healed, but definitely refreshed. Like some chain she had been tugging around with her, weighing her down, had been loosened. "Thank you," she murmured in earnest.

James seemed more torn than ever, physically hesitant to pull away but looking relieved to have the unwavering little witch he first met back. He was still silent, though she was learning to take comfort in that. Now it actually alleviated some of the social pressure there to ensure they were each alright, despite knowing she, herself was nowhere near it at the moment. Instead, the Soldier gave her an extra moment to regather herself, not even intervening when she was so rough in wiping her cheeks dry.

In any other situation, she would be beyond ashamed of herself for breaking down in front of someone else. But no semblance of that shame was here. This was something both of them had needed, and he was understanding of her need for some distance after such a vulnerable moment. She liked that about him. She liked it too much to feel it was fair to only offer him nearly inaudible words of thanks in return.

Which is why she didn't even think to warn him before she pulled him close again, keeping the lightest of touches at his metal shoulder. She didn't really know what she was hoping to accomplish, but what she ended up with was a lingering kiss to James Buchanan Barnes's forehead.

Wanda knew he was stunned before she pulled away. His muscles were pulled taut like she'd threatened him, but his eyes were wide like when she'd first shown him the scarlet wisps at her fingers. It was a strange crossroads between disbelief and wonder that he seemed lost at, all because she had shown him a soft, close sort of intimacy on an impulsive whim.

"OK?" she asked worriedly when he went a little too long without moving.

Thankfully, her voice was enough to snatch him out from whatever reverie he'd slipped into. He swallowed before giving another wordless nod. It seemed almost too eager again, yet this time the energy around him wasn't as anxious or guilt-ridden as before. Rather, it was the remnants of his dismay and what she could only liken to a childlike buzz of excitement. The latter was the last expression she expected to see on him ever, though that wasn't to say it was unwelcome. Quite the opposite, in fact.

He needed this. Wanda could almost believe that meant, by extension, he needed her. And maybe it was the poor rebound from her breakdown, but she really liked that feeling of having done something immediately worthwhile. On a desperate impulse to preserve that feeling, she pulled him close again, this time to press a chaste kiss to his cheek.

His hands were tentatively touching either side of her waist again, and she wanted to hold onto that closeness. She wanted more of that warmth, and she wanted to selfishly indulge in those wants because she was so tired of being so goddamn lonely every other moment.

The witch wasn't sure if it was her own fault, or if James moved in confusion, but what was meant to be a brief, friendly kiss to his other cheek became a timid brush of her lips over his. The contact was barely there, it was so light. Though that didn't stop the tiny jolt that coursed through her, sending every nerve on end. It was almost enough to make her jerk away, or run from him, or something of that nature, but she didn't. Mostly because for the brief second she did try to pull away (for his sake), he followed her. He was tentative and just as unsure as she, but apparently searching for something just like she had been.

He needs this too, she reminded herself. Just follow his lead.

It was slow, and timid, and a little wet, but not at all deserving of the small nervous tickle in her chest. Or maybe a small part of that was the youthful excitement of knowing she'd never been kissed before, and it was the first new experience in so long to make her feel normal. She was unsure of herself, yes, but not to the extreme of fearing for anyone's life. There was nothing harsh or demanding here; just two starved hearts that craved the closeness of another.

Neither the witch nor the soldier knew who spurred their next kiss, but when they came together a third time, the tender hesitance of before gave way to something bolder. James was still wary of himself, repeatedly lifting his hands only to settle them around her waist again. Wanda was more curious, her hands clumsily wandering along his chest, his shoulders, and finally into his hair for purchase when she grew too overwhelmed to remember how to hold herself up. A flurry of so many new and previously unfelt sensations formed in her belly, becoming a full-fledged storm when she felt his silent request at her bottom lip. She obediently opened her mouth to him, and the extra reign appeared to give the Soldier more confidence. Wanda had barely gotten over the sheer surprise of feeling someone else in her mouth when he backed her against the nearest wall. She couldn't help her slight jolt or startled yelp at the impact against her back.

Another stunned sound was ripped from her at how abruptly he stopped. He practically ripped himself away from her, nearly causing her to crumple without him to hold onto. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he whispered as he retreated away from her.

Her brain was too fogged to understand what he meant for a moment. It hadn’t hurt when she had been pressed against the wall (though it had surprised her). Was he sorry he encouraged intimacy to begin with?

"No," was her brilliant response to that thought. Her mind was still pretty hazy, but she knew she definitely didn't want him to regret anything he'd done with her. She moved back into his personal space within the next heartbeat, reaffirming her soft "no" and recreating their previous closeness to the best of her ability. She was all but devouring his mouth as she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, stretching onto her toes to keep herself pressed against his chest. She was determined to regain all those novel sensations she had only heard about from other women in the streets of Sokovia; too determined to find that storied "fire" they constantly spoke of to care if the Soldier protested.

He didn't.

It was a mystery to both the soldier and the witch how they ended up on the bed behind them, with the little witch straddling his waist and her skirt writhing up around her waist. It was a mystery to be revisited later, when they weren't caught up in the throes of desperate longing and giddy inexperience.

The witch surrendered her lead to him, feeling something in his muscle memory gradually return to light in the way his hands--even the metal one--traveled along her form, squeezing and pressing in places that made her fingers curl into the comforter on either side of his head. He stole her very breath away, and by the time she thought to pull away for air, his lips were trailing down to explore new territory. Hot, wet breaths of kisses made their way down her throat, along her collarbone, or wherever else they could reach when she was so heavily clothed. Impulsively, the little witch scrambled to be rid of her jacket, tossing it carelessly aside to ensure he had more access. Without it, the chill of his metal limb was so much stronger. The witch surprised herself by arching into the icy touch, relishing in the sharp contrast it had against her skin that had grown heated by what felt like adrenaline mixed with her powers reacting to her elation. She could hear them beginning to manifest physically, hissing as they snuck past her fingers and ripped the fabric beneath them. What little of her mind that wasn't consumed by her sense of thrill reminded her to stifle the effects of her scarlet by drawing her hands into fists, bunching the blanket fabric beneath them.

With her hands preoccupied, the little witch could do little else than kiss or arch under the Soldier's touch as he became braver, doing seemingly whatever he thought would get a rise out of her. So much of him was everywhere—ingrained in her almost, until she finally forgot what it was like to be just her. It was magnificently less lonely to have someone else; their hands, their mouth, their teeth sealed against her to the point she felt like someone entirely different. It was exciting, and frightening, and so new. Her knees pressed harder against his hips in an unconscious effort to hold on to the moment longer. She couldn't stop. She didn't want to stop.

Let me forget. Help me forget everything.

Suddenly the soldier was reaching even further for her, tentatively sliding his flesh hand up along her thigh where it could lurk under the material of her dress. The witch didn't think much of it as she caught another heated kiss, but then his hand continued to experimentally wander upward, along the bare skin that rested beneath the fabric of her cheap Sokovian dress. She could feel his forefinger tracing a circular scar she had at the small of her back--

Sobriety struck her like the lash of a whip. With a soft gasp, the witch pushed herself to sit up, slightly hovering so that her weight wasn't completely on the soldier. Her sharp, unexpected movement caused him to retract his hands from her, only to have both fall on the backs of her thighs to steady her. His eyes were trained on her, widened by a miserable mixture of confusion and worry. "What? What? Are you alright?"

Wanda wasn't sure what he was seeing on her face that made him so concerned, but she could very well feel her chest heaving. And not just because of so many kisses.

She was lost as to why she felt such unexpected fear--not just nervous, inexperienced jitters, but legitimately consuming dread. She floundered for a hot moment, unsure if she should merely dismiss it as a random fluke of her damaged mind and resume their previous activity. Though as her hands drifted hesitantly over his chest, she again found that junction where flesh forcibly became metal through the fabric of his shirt. Her fingers lingered on a collection of particularly deep scars there, and as she traced the web of raised skin, she found the hard block of dread sink even deeper, even heavier into her tummy. Her heart picked up a thunderous pace and the room felt as though it was spinning out around her, but now for all the wrong reasons.

Metal arm. Winter Soldier. James Buchanan Barnes.

Steve's best friend.

How could she do this? What was she doing with her Captain's friend?

Fuck...I am a whore.

Wanda's mouth had fallen open long before she found her tongue. "I...I can't. I can't!"

"What do you--?"

She couldn't stand to even face him anymore, let alone allow him to finish that thought. She was already rolling off of him in that next instant, nearly tripping over her own jacket that had been discarded on the floor. That was her sole reminder to take it with her, though it wasn't enough to draw her attention to the keys that fell out of the pocket as she fumbled to put the garment back on and straighten her dress.

"Wanda--"

"I'm sorry!" she blurted before she could really think on it. Fuck, she was on the verge of falling apart all over again. But she refused to put him through that--not when he sounded so helpless and lost, and she was the one hurting him. "It's not...I just can't. I'm so sorry!"

She couldn't justify herself for him. She couldn't even face him. So she ran from him.

Her hands were shaking as she snatched her bag from the door handle and closed the slab of wood behind her. Only then did she realize she didn't have her key, though she couldn't find it in herself to care. It was difficult to imagine herself returning now, when this visit had left her feeling so ashamed, and embarrassed, and inexplicably overwrought.

You should've told Steve. You should've let Steve handle this from the start. You're so fucked up--you're too fucked up!

Wanda bit her lip, squeezing her empty yellow bag almost painfully as she refused to cry. She needed to go back to the Facility. She would feel better in her own space.

It would all be better if she just told Steve. It would all be so much better.

Right?


"Koldun'ya. Koldun'ya!"

The witch in question tried to ignore all the voices pestering her, seeking solace by attempting to burrow into the dank, rough floor beneath her. The cement nipped harshly at her face as she did so, though she couldn't find the physical strength to care. She was too desperate to escape the eyes of the men around her. They each spoke in foreign tongues as they watched her from the one side of the cell that was more window than wall. A window meant to showcase her like some sort of side-show attraction. She was to be observed, but not necessarily seen.

Now she had the added displeasure of a pounding in her head, which didn't lessen any as her mind's eye found focus on the beige wall behind her curtain of mussed hair. Beyond that wall was a separate pounding noise, and with it, furious ranting in the one language she'd known since infancy.

"Pietro?" Her throat was too raw for anyone to hear her amidst all the noise, but she forced herself to hone in on her brother's voice, despite its intense string of Sokovian obscenities. She recognized that anger as a form of desperation, made evident by his every other word being a demand to see her. "Pietro."

Don't hurt yourself, she wanted to say every time he went quiet. Each time, his silence was broken by more pounding against his side of their shared wall. When that became all she could hear from him, she moved her mental effort on to trying to understand the scientists outside. They were speaking in German, which meant whatever was being said was meant for only their ears. Though their faces look distressed, which meant something hadn't gone according to their plans.

Some of their more commonly used phrases, Wanda could grasp. She could recognize her name among them as Number 16. She deciphered the argument had something to do with "death" and "not yet". Some questions were thrown at Baron von Strucker, most along the lines of "what next". Yet, the Baron was quiet the whole while. She couldn't see very much of his face through a knot in her hair, but she could see his scowl, and that was clue enough to the burning glare she was surely receiving.

Eventually, he did acknowledge the scientist closest to him. It was a command in Russian, which Wanda could better understand for its likeness to her mother tongue.

Check.

The world went silent at his one word. What little concern Wanda could still muster went to her brother, effectively tuning out what little stimuli that followed. Namely the smaller window at her back, which usually only slid open to dump things in her cell. She felt the familiar burst of cold air--her one touch from the outside world she could presently remember--but still couldn't find the strength to respond to it. Her very being felt too heavy to stir, as if each muscle was lined with lead that was slowly crushing her.

She vaguely recalled that there was something within her now, only it wasn't metal. It was red, and powerful, and never seen by science before. And it was alive, in a sense. It was aware enough to learn not to harm its host. She knew that now.

That's how she ended up here.

Suddenly the world exploded around her, narrowing all of her senses to the fiery claws that shoved their way through the small of her back. The blow was so brutal and so unexpected, she was too stunned to make a single sound. Her silence earned her another shock, now slightly higher on her back. This time, a scream was ripped from her already worn throat, just barely strong enough to be heard. Just barely loud enough to haunt the air the same way every test subject in the past had when they were punished the same way. She'd never felt the shock rods firsthand before, and according to Pietro, she didn't need to. Her cry had sent him into another riled frenzy, his voice switching rapidly between Sokovian and English (the one, weak bridge of communication they had with their handlers). "Don't hurt her! She didn't do it on purpose!"

Didn't I? For the life of her, she couldn't remember. She wasn't even all that certain of what "it" was that she had done. All she could think of was the red. Vivid ruby-red glowing in her veins, marring her skin as it struggled to find balance between staying within her and escaping into the air. So much red that a sickly, vile crimson spilled from her mouth as well, staining the floor beneath her rather than dissolving in midair like the rest. And all of it hurt, it hurt, it hurt.

More electric fingers tore at her backside. Now it could have easily been to spite Pietro instead of punish her for anything she'd tried. She couldn't even register when it finally stopped; she only knew because each beady-eyed snake surrounding her went back to his usual work. Quiet fell over the area, even in Pietro's cell. She briefly fretted over the possibility they did something to him too, but she couldn't do anything for him even if they had. She was too tired and weak in every sense of the word. And she knew Strucker wouldn't stand for that for long when it came to his precious prodigies.

The Baron was the only one that had barely moved during the ordeal. Wanda startled when he eventually did, his knuckles rapping against the window even louder than when she had first come to. "Koldun'ya. Koldun'ya!"

She ignored his demanding tone, knowing fully well what he wanted. After all, he had been the one to toss wooden blocks into her cell and demand she use them to learn control of her powers. Yet that was the absolute last thing she was currently willing to do. Please. No more of the red. It hurts.

The Baron would undoubtedly disregard her personal comfort to further progress on his experiment. She didn't expect any differently from him, given that he treated his work as though it were his whole life. As far as she knew, this was all he had. It was certainly all there was left of her.

"Koldun'ya." His face was disturbingly close to the glass now. As if he could entertain the foolish notion that anyone could have a private conversation around here. The only thing more absurd than that was the soothing nature of his words, which she was never fooled to believe was sincere. "The pain is going to make everything alright. You know it always means something grand is coming next. Go on, get up. Show us what we've created."

What you've created. The little witch wanted to spit at him for being so vain. For seeing a miracle where her tortured body only felt pain.

Pain's going to make everything alright. That was the only part of his "encouragements" she dared to believe. So far, pain had been the gateway to power. Inexplicable power that was at her disposal instead of anyone else's. She just had to remember why she had wanted that power to begin with.

Mama. Papa. I'm still here for you. Pietro and I will finish this for you.

With muscles drawn agonizingly stiff, the witch twisted onto her side, searching for the subject of Strucker's unspoken demand. She had previously gathered the wooden blocks into stacks where her feet were at the moment, having scattered them at some point during her punishment. The closest one to her hands was at level with her waist. Her hand shook with the pressure of being called to action so quickly after enduring so much, but she willed herself to focus instead on the belief that the pain would make everything alright again. The scarlet that spilled from her palms was somewhat misty, given that her dominant hand had already been wrapped in gauze, and the wisps now had to find their way through that as well. It was an odd feeling to have that spilling from her hands, but Wanda was just grateful the scarlet didn't burn her the way it had before.

Come to think of it, her scarlet was the most obedient she'd ever seen it, travelling dutifully towards the wooden block at her command. The small cube jumped at first contact with her power, rolling to sit precariously on one edge before falling back onto one of its flat faces.

However...it didn't quite sound right. Rather than an expected thump of wood against the concrete, the fallen block made a jingle-like sound as it fell over. Wanda eyed it in bewilderment for a long heartbeat before another, louder clinking noise randomly cut through the air. It was enough to startle Wanda into shooting up, all her previous aches and burns gone as she suddenly found herself on the plush surface of a proper bed, alone in the darkness of a private bedroom.

Tonight, the witch was quick to assimilate back into reality. She had been slipping in and out of these nasty memories all day, and during parts of the day before. Ever since she left James at the inn two days ago. Especially of that moment where she'd been burned so harshly she earned scars on her back, which James had discovered and inadvertently sent her running for. It wasn't because she was ashamed to have such angry marks marring her body; she figured James, of all people, would understand why she had them.

No, what she was afraid of was confronting the circumstances that earned her those particular scars. Back when she had to be forcefully prompted back to life by someone else. When she thought she would be stuck in the figurative dark, suffering forever. She had wanted to take back control of her own body, casting the mysterious new power she harbored inward. She didn't necessarily want to draw any more pain to herself, but she also hadn't been too caring of the possibility she could die from her efforts.

In the end, she learned her powers couldn't hurt her. Although she had no way of knowing that at the time, which was a frightening testament to her frame of mind. Here and now, she wanted nothing more than to forget ever feeling so low. Though James had threatened that possibility by nearly discovering the remnants of her lowest point, which were usually kept hidden beneath layers of clothing.

Lord, what if he'd asked about them? She didn't know how she would explain the story behind her burn scars. Thinking about it now made her feel immensely guilty, given how she'd given up on herself after suffering for only a fraction of the amount time as he. Did he ever feel the same way?

Wanda didn't think she would ever get to confront James about that matter. She didn't see herself ever going back after the way she'd pretty much led him on, only to abandon him so abruptly without any real explanation.

What must he think of me now?

Wanda huffed a heavy breath, combing her hands over her face and through her hair as she tried to stand her ground against a torrent of emotions. She didn't think she'd hated herself quite so much before. She had been so willing to give up on her life, and now fate had only taken others from her in a twisted sort of revenge. No one was with her here, in this dark and empty room. No parents. No brother, no James. The Avengers--

No...it wasn't empty.

The more Wanda inadvertently lost control over her emotions, the more her powers slithered from her fingertips like a crimson fog. With it, the clinking noise that had interrupted her nightmare returned. A quick glance across the floor brought her attention to the area by her door, just below the shelves that were mounted against the wall. Her scarlet was half-heartedly tugging at something that had undoubtedly fallen from there.

Wanda crawled out of bed to better inspect what had been left in her room against her knowledge. Her scarlet promptly fled from sight as she drew closer to whatever it was.

At her feet, the witch found a small, powder blue cross slung along a tan leather cord. The clasp for which was very visibly busted, leaving the necklace haphazardly stranded on the floor of her bedroom.

Any of Wanda's previous distress completely disappeared in place of curiosity over where the random trinket came from. She'd never carried a cross anywhere before--it wasn't part of her parents' beliefs. Even if it was, she hadn't had much faith of her own since they were buried. Someone else must have left it there.

Wanda collected the small trinket in her palm and left her room before she could consciously think of it. The past two days she had done everything she could to avoid the Avengers. It was highly possible her falling out with James would be the final push that made her finally tell them that she'd found him, and had been intentionally keeping him from them. With the amount of time passed since she'd first started keeping secrets, she was almost afraid what their reactions would look like now. And she couldn't even fathom how James would feel if the team showed up after she had explicitly promised she wouldn't say anything to them until he was ready.

However, at the given moment, she was too tired of thinking about all of her pressing worries or potentially failed promises. She moved on automatic pilot, trying to find some peace of mind in the quiet of the hallway. Her feet traced their usual route to the common room, stopping at the middle of the room rather than the kitchenette now. The Avengers were clustered in the lounge area just beside there, where the long, red sofa was comfier than the yellow leather Wanda used to sleep on. Atop the glass coffee table was one of Mr. Stark's devices, projecting a bright television show Wanda couldn't name. It kept Stark's attention even as she approached. Natasha and Sam didn't notice her either, with the latter dead asleep and the former drawing on his hand with a Sharpie. Steve was the only one that prevented her from leaving unnoticed, having been behind the sofa collecting a pair of blankets from one of the shelves there.

"Hey," the Captain greeted softly, coming up close to her so as not to disturb the others. "You OK?"

Wanda nearly snapped right there. Everything she had tried to push down the moment she left her room came rushing back up in an uncomfortable surge--her most dreaded memory haunting her, her urge to help James by recruiting someone else, her innate need to protect him by keeping his location secret. It was by some rare miracle she could keep up a passive façade that didn't immediately alarm the Captain, and instead she merely held up the small cross she'd found. "I broke this."

If he noticed how hoarse her voice had gotten from spending nearly two whole days with as little human interaction as manageable, or how she looked at his chest rather than his face, he didn't comment on it. He only eyed the trinket in her palm, letting the hints of a fond smile fall onto it. "Eh, don't worry about it. It's pretty old, so it was bound to happen. Surprised it didn't bust sooner, actually."

"So, it is yours?"

"Yeah." He nodded only to shake his head a minute later. "Well, sort of. It was technically my ma's. I was just holding onto it. She always thought it brought good luck wherever it went, and earlier today I thought...you know, since you have trouble sleeping, and you're by yourself a lot, I thought maybe you could use some of that."

The witch didn't think she could answer that. She was floored not only by how kind the gesture was, but by how little she deserved it. Tell him, you coward. Tell him what you've been hiding. You owe them that much, and James needs someone's help. Tell him!

She finally looked up to meet his eye, finding nothing but ignorant trust. "I'm sorry..." she started, suddenly choking up over a truth that was long overdue.

Steve mistook her ongoing guilt and anxiety for something entirely different. "It's really an easy fix, Wanda. I bet Tony can even patch it up real quick."

It took her a second to realize he was offering to take the cross necklace from her. Her brain was still too jumbled, caught up in its own war over telling Steve about his found friend to think of a reason not to let it slide from her palm to his. It felt too foreign--too wrong for her to continue holding onto anyways.

When she found her voice again, Wanda said the first thing that came to mind. "May I sit with you?"

The Captain was quick to respond, appearing borderline desperate to seem welcoming for her. "Sure--sure! We're just watching whatever's on," he added, gesturing to the others behind him.

Wanda wasn't entirely certain she'd meant with all of you. Though she couldn't deny a part of her was relieved she didn't have to be with the Captain alone. It bought her more time to decide if she really did want to tell him about James.

She listlessly followed after Steve, settling on the floor between his and Nat's feet in favor of making anyone move aside for her sake. No one said anything to her about it, with Natasha barely even looking up from her work to thank Steve for dropping a blanket in her lap. The other, presumably meant for himself, he unfolded and draped over Wanda's shoulders. The witch was too far in her own mind to do much more than tug it a more securely around herself. She distantly heard the soft clink of the broken clasp hitting something again, and judging by Stark's surprised grunt that followed, it must have been his chest.

"You think you can fix the clasp on that?" Steve asked casually as he reclaimed his seat at the very center of the plush red couch, between the inventor and Natasha.

Mr. Stark held up the leather cord where he could see it better by the light of the projection. "Yeah, looks simple enough. Hell, I'd do it right now real quick if Dummy wasn't in the lab, still picking up the mess he made."

Natasha spoke without looking up from whatever she was scribbling on the edge of Sam's nail. "You know you'd miss him if something happened to him."

"Sure I would," Stark huffed skeptically, adjusting so that he could lay out along his half of the couch, ensuring the cross necklace was still pressed to his chest for safekeeping. "The same way I miss that cold sore I had in '83."

Natasha's tongue lolled out in an expression of disgust. Steve gave a soft breath of laughter at her before indicating the projection over the coffee table in front of them. "So what did we miss?"

Natasha only gave a brief glance away from her work. "Oh, Blanche decided to date her old friend with benefits after all, so naturally Dorothy and Sophia have to make fun of her."

The rest of the explanation was given by the three older women interacting on the screen.

"Do you realize how rare it is to find out the person you've been sleeping with is the person you love?"

"No, but you can't go by me. I have morals."

Wanda wanted to scream. Not even the bright colors and simplicity of these fictional strangers' lives could distract her thoughts from taking vicious circles around all of her choices, all her regrets--all the possible why's she did any of it.

She couldn't tell Steve. James trusted so few people, and she couldn't ruin what little he'd had for her by breaking her promise.

But he needs help. Help I can't give. I'm too fucked up. I only tried to take advantage of him. Stupid, selfish girl! I hurt him just like I hurt Pietro.

God, she couldn't even bear to go down that path. To remember how it had been her that convinced him they should listen to Strucker and offer themselves--their bodies, their freedom, their very lives--to strangers for the slight chance they would get vengeance for their family. How that one reckless choice had led to all of this.

One particularly venomous thought nearly brought her unfeeling façade shattering down.

Maybe it would've been better if I had destroyed myself in that cell.

She could barely push down the tears over that thought when Mr. Stark's nearby voice snatched her back to the present. "Hey, what if Capsicle got with Kathie, from Stark Industries? Was she there when you were?"

Natasha was quick to answer. "Yes, and quite frankly, I think that would be putting too much anxiety in one room."

Stark hummed in begrudging agreement. "OK, OK. Then what about old what's-his-name, with the desk right by the copying machine. Rick? Ryan?"

"No way, he gave me the creeps."

Mr. Stark sighed, though didn't outright disagree with her.

Wanda absent-mindedly began to rock herself, hugging her knees close to her chest and trying to follow Stark and Romanoff's example of distracting themselves with someone else's life.

"Oh!" Stark exclaimed excitedly. "What about Tammy? She's cute."

Natasha finally capped her Sharpie and shifted away from Sam. "Well, when I was there, I distinctly remember her preferring to be called 'Tamara'...." The spy interrupted herself with a new, silent line of thought. "...and I could kind of see that. Hey, Cap, how do you feel about arm tattoos?"

"And the new crazy hair color craze going around?" Stark threw in, both of them looking to their captain expectantly.

Steve didn't bother to humor them. He was already rising back to his feet to leave. "I feel like I'm going to get some water. Anybody want anything?"

Both Stark and Natasha declined while Wanda remained quiet. Then, the witch felt an unexpected hand fall on her shoulder. "You want to come with me?" the Captain offered, stretching a hand to her.

Wanda's first instinct was to refuse him. If he was just going to get some water, why would he need her? Then she realized that perhaps he was leaving to do more than just that. Perhaps he wanted to give her a chance at a one-on-one visit like she had technically alluded to earlier.

Taking Steve's offered hand, Wanda was pulled to her feet and following him once again, leaving her blanket between Stark and Natasha as they continued discussing "Tamara with the Purple Hair". They reached the kitchenette area in only a few steps, where Wanda lingered behind one of the stools at the breakfast bar while Steve fetched a bottle of water from the fridge. "You sure you don't want anything? We got plenty of pretty much everything."

Not trusting her voice, Wanda merely shook her head.

Steve hummed in acknowledgement, taking only a small sip of water before placing the plastic bottle on the counter surface between them. They sat in silence just long enough for Wanda to reach for her carnelian, only to remember she'd left it in her room. When she looked up, she found the Captain leaning against the side of the countertop, looking down at her with his bright baby-blues practically glowing in the dark, and a knowing that there was more to her sleeplessness than a trivial broken clasp. "What's going on?"

I can't say. I promised I wouldn't.

Captain Rogers was impossibly patient with her, waiting without a word as she mentally floundered for something to say. Yet despite the absence of any tension from him, Wanda felt her shoulders practically getting crushed under the pressure to fill in the silence with something.

At last, her tongue found something. "Where did you find it? Your mother's charm?"

He gave a loud breath, fiddling with the cap of his water bottle. For a long second, Wanda was worried he would chide her for very obviously ignoring what was really wrong. But of course, he was too kind for that. As she watched him relax into a suitable demeanor for storytelling, Wanda's concern fell away to eager anticipation for a distraction from thinking about James.

"I, uh...found it while Sam and I were looking for Bucky."

Of course not.

If any of Wanda's frustration showed, the Captain didn't see it. "We were following a few clues from places and people--well, their relatives anyways--that I remembered, and started coming across all kinds of things from back then. Stuff that belonged to me, to Bucky, to our families. The cross was one of a few things I took with me. Figured the good luck hadn't worn out yet, you know?"

Wanda nodded distractedly. Though to her chagrin, her mind was now pulled away from Captain Rogers and stuck yet again on his old friend. "What were some of the other things?" she asked curiously.

He didn't answer right away, letting the surface of his mind buzz with some kind of internal debate. Wanda was already regretting asking him anything about his past, knowing it was a sore topic.

But then he said, "Do you want to see?"

A fresh curtain of silence fell over them, this time prompted by Wanda's sheer surprise at his proposal. The amount of trust it entailed for him to invite her to see something so private, something from a time of his life that was so sensitive to even think of...it wasn't fair that he had so much faith in her.

And yet, her shock and curiosity blurred out any seeable reason to decline the offer. She didn't even know what she did say, if she spoke at all, that took them both from the kitchen and in route to his office. Wanda barely even recognized the room she had walked past so many times before when she was actually standing inside, her fingers anxiously scratching at the edge of his desk.

Steve didn't address her nervous activity, for his nose was buried in one of the bottom drawers of the desk. He rifled around noisily before resurfacing with a small box in hand. It was clearly another relic that had seen better days, judging by the chipped black paint and missing clasp.

"This is where I kept everything else. Thought it would be good to finally put it to rest," Steve explained as he came to stand directly beside her. He had Wanda's interest piqued before he even tilted the lid back, revealing the contents inside. Mostly, she noticed, there were letters written by hand in pretty, feminine scrawl against yellowing paper. The Captain bunched those up in his thick hand, setting them to the side with a quiet, "From Peggy."

Without the modest bundle of letters, there was significantly more room for what few artifacts remained inside the box. Wanda only caught a quick glimpse of something silver before Steve was holding up a weathered photograph and describing the men shown. His old team. The Howling Commandos, he called them.

Wanda didn't even realize when she smiled in affection as he relayed some of his better memories, laughing and fighting and enjoying life alongside these men. It reminded her some of sitting at her father's feet, listening with intrigue at his stories from when he and his wife were her age. Then she thought of her parents' (often conflicting) stories of how they met as Steve showed her a surprisingly well-kept compass with a photo of a pretty young woman with dark hair and eyes. That was Peggy. She was one of sadly few that was still living, and to Wanda's surprise, he believed Peggy would probably like her.

Then, the silver she'd briefly seen before returned. She recognized the shape and printed information for army tags, but it wasn't for Steve.

James Buchanan Barnes.

"These were Bucky's," Steve told her, as if she hadn't already pieced that together. "Got them from the Smithsonian's storage. They couldn't find a good place for them in their Captain America exhibit, so they let me hold on to them."

For whatever reason, he let her handle this particular keepsake. It was undeniably seen as one of his last links to the friend he knew--his brother, his Bucky. But as Wanda held the two silver tags in her palm, all she could selfishly think of was feeling connected to her James. And with each sweep of her thumb over the raised text, she felt her chest tighten more and more with her own memories of him. Not just of the last time she'd seen him, but of those first few visits. She recalled the inexplicable pull to him, to help him. A pull that she only now realized was also a distant sense of hope she had found a friend in someone just as scarred as her.

"I know you miss him."

The Captain's gentle statement felt like a direct punch to the chest. It took her an agonizingly long second to realize there was no way for him to know she had developed any connection to Barnes. Rogers was strategic, wizened by his experience, but he wasn't the most observant. He couldn't be referring to James.

"A lot of us here," he went on, "like to dwell on our pasts. Sometimes what we've lost helps fuel the drive to spare others from suffering in similar ways. Sometimes we're not always successful. So I truly am sorry about your brother."

Oh.

Wanda tucked the dog tags closer to her chest. A gesture that could easily be seen as a reaction to the mention of her late twin, but was more so done to hide her relief Steve hadn't figured out she was hiding anything.

"I might not know exactly how you feel, but I do understand what it's like to feel like you've lost everything. So if you ever want to talk things out, it really is OK. If we're going to be a team, we're going to have to know each other anyways. If we don't, we might not be able to save anyone next time."

Wanda's grip on the dog tags grew tighter, letting their inscription press almost painfully into the skin of her palm. This time, the sign of distress wasn't a ruse. She appreciated the Captain's gesture and all--as well as his similar sentiments in the past--but she still wasn't quite ready to open up to him or any of the others yet. She had already been on the verge of sharing something with James, and she didn't want to transfer that potential relationship to anyone else. She wanted him. She wanted James, who wasn't polite to her because he was sorry for what she'd gone through, or wanted her for some sort of team. But first, she needed to know how he was after she'd left him. And to do that, she had to get away from here.

"Thank you for understanding," she told Steve softly, keeping her mind focused on the repetitive feeling of the text on the dog tags. "I know these past few days, I've been so..." Lost. Distracted. Recluse. Screwed up. "...unlike myself. It's been a tough transition for me, and I haven't shown much appreciation for what you've all done for me. I'm sorry. Really sorry."

Steve immediately shook his head, holding a hand up dismissively. "Don't be--it's OK." He waited for a beat before gently nudging her with a friendly smile. "Besides, it's nice to have someone else that doesn't get all the pop culture references."

An unbidden smile came to Wanda's face at that. She took advantage of the lighter shift of the atmosphere by ducking her head and pressing into the Captain's side. He went rigid, caught off-guard at first, before relaxing and tenderly wrapping his thick arms around her waist in turn. Captain Rogers wasn't nearly as stiff as James had been, both because he didn't have a metal arm, and because he was more sure of himself. It hurt to feel how similar he was to James in strength and warmth, but so different regarding mental stability.

"Thank you," the witch repeated, giving him one last squeeze out of guilt for what she was doing. Then she meekly retreated with a small, cordial smile of her own as a farewell before escaping back into the darkness of the hallway, scurrying towards the security of her own room.

She could only hope the scarlet tint in Steve's eyes kept him from noticing she never returned the dog tags.


She wasted a lot of time lying uselessly across her bed, toying with James's dog tags. She watched the metal flip over her fingers with lifeless eyes, too detached from the present to fathom getting up with the sunrise like she had originally planned. Even when light began to stream in through her windows, the world around her felt unbearably still. Silent. Lonely.

Wanda's nail ran over the printed information on one of the tags for the umpteenth time. It ground uncomfortably against the text, but she hardly felt that. She already felt awful as it was, practically sick with shame that she had wasted so much time. That she kept hiding like a pathetic child every time she doubted herself, thus needlessly confusing an already troubled soldier. She knew this last instance in particular must've hurt him, given how close she'd let him get to her. And hugging his old dog tags to her chest was in no way a suitable replacement to the comfort she took from him, or the willing distraction he was, in that moment of vulnerability.

Though above all that, she realized now that she cared about him. Cared a lot, judging by how unwilling she was to tell Steve the truth solely because of a promise she made. Because she knew he needed someone he could trust, and that sat well with her need to find someone that wasn't kind to her simply because they were afraid of her.

Go. Move. You said you would help him. So help him.

Eventually, she heard the Facility awaken around her, the Avengers noisily beginning their day in the common area. Eventually, she did tire of feeling so torn and guilty. With some effort, the witch forced herself off her bed, getting to her feet to put on shoes and little else. She even left her usual jacket, opting to be dressed and out the door before she could second-guess herself any more. She left the Facility grounds in a hurry, completely uncaring as to who saw or what they thought. The same mindset applied when she reached town, having eyes only for the Bluebell Inn. Once she wound up at the one door there that was more familiar than any other, she effortlessly used her powers to get in, knowing that even if she still had her keys, they would be in her jacket pocket that was left behind.

He wasn't there. He was clearly still staying there, for his usual collection of meager supplies was still there (though it did look untouched). Wanda chose to wait for him for as long as she needed to, taking a seat at the wooden chair on the side of the table facing the door.

She scarcely moved for however long she waited. It could have been hours or minutes, but to her, it felt like eons. She passed the time by continuing to fiddle with the dog tags that she had brought, constantly wrapping the chain around her wrists. The sound of cars and people going about their mundane lives filtered up from the street through the window behind her. It was a soft kind of white noise that was oddly comforting compared to the stiff, miserable silence of her bedroom at the Facility.

Finally, there appeared to be life on the other side of the door. Wanda burst to her feet the moment she heard the slight creak of floorboards being disturbed in the hallway. She held the dog tags tightly against her chest, silently willing her heart to calm in the event it wasn't him. Though as the door handle began to rattle, her focus shifted to what she would say when she saw him. Hell, what was he going to say to her?

The door opened, and he was there. He didn't notice her at first, his confused gaze trained on the door she had left unlocked. His advancements further into the room were slow, his every motion hindered by activity she could hear at the surface of his mind calculating every possibility that would cause the lock to be left open. It wasn't until he had relocked the door and wandered halfway through the entry hall that he dared to look up, to face whoever had invaded his temporary home. He found her instantly, his eyes brightly blue like the sky outside and surprisingly calm despite his initial suspicion. They went starkly blank the moment he recognized her, and she could hear his thoughts go abruptly quiet.

It hurt to see him so low. To be seen like she was familiar, but treated like she was a stranger.

All the time she had spent wondering what she would say to him was now wasted. The moment was here, and she couldn't find the words. All she could do was stare. All she could think was how the texture of metal felt on her fingers as she unwound the dog tags from her wrist once again. Then the memory of what she'd brought with her clicked in her mind, setting her into action at last.

"These are yours," she murmured, holding out the dog tags for him to see.

The Soldier eyed the tags as though he didn't understand their purpose. Then tentatively, he came forward to take them, collecting them in his flesh hand to study more closely. Wanda waited nervously as she watched him read what she had subconsciously memorized overnight.

If he was in any way fazed by the new link to his old self, he didn't show it. After a few long heartbeats, he pocketed the tags into his jeans. Though when his gloved hand resurfaced, he still had something in the curl of his palm. He presented it to her the same way she had offered his dog tags mere seconds ago. This time, she was the one at a loss. All she saw were his keys to the room, a set nearly identical to the ones she usually used to get in. Yet upon taking a step closer for a better look, she realized he actually had two sets. One of them she somehow knew was the spare set she used. The one that must've fallen out last time she was there, when she'd thrown her jacket aside. Now, she was hesitant to reclaim it, unsure if James was really offering to return it or simply showing her that he had it. After how she treated him, why should she expect anything from him?

The more seconds ticked by with barely any movement from him, the more she presumed it was safe to reach for her key. Her hand was halfway to his when James's thumb pinned one key ring between his thumb and palm, letting the other slide into her hand. Before she had really processed what he'd done, he was hiding his hands in his pockets again, shuffling several steps away from her. Wanda didn't recognize the deliberate avoidance of contact until she noticed he was also angling his left side from her sight. Hiding his metal arm.

She didn't know why he suddenly feared her reaction to it, given how much of it she had seen the last time they were together.

She hated thinking of how poorly she'd left him, and rushed to finally amend it. To somehow justify why she had so suddenly panicked. Why she left the way she had.

"I have scars," she blurted out. "Scars that I...I'm not proud of. That I wasn't ready to show."

"I get it," he muttered.

Wanda didn't doubt that. "I've never been...held that way before," she admitted, her cheeks warming in childish embarrassment. "And I think I was acting on account of...I don't know--I've just missed being close to someone else so much that I...I thought that was what I needed."

His response was immediate, like a reflex. But she could hear the brutal sincerity behind it. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," she insisted. It never ceased to disturb her how much he blamed himself for other things upsetting her. "I was...I thought I was taking advantage of you. And I wouldn't be able to live with that, if I had."

That got a rise out of him, at last. His brow pinched in puzzlement, and his eyes left her shoes to actually meet her face. "So...so I didn't hurt you?"

Wanda shook her head, feeling absolutely clueless as to why he would believe that. "No--no! You made me...." She struggled for the right words, hoping to avoid explaining how he had made her finally feel something other than an empty chasm of grief in her chest. "It felt good. Too good for me to take from you."

The corner of his mouth quirked in a bitter half-smile. With a slight shake of his head, James eyed the floor between them again. The witch saw his shoulders hunched, as if trying to shield himself from his rueful confession, "All I've done for years now was hurt people. And take from them. I thought it..." He grimaced, entertaining a full--albeit still sad--smile. "It feels nice to think I could give somethin' for a change."

Out of nowhere, something in Wanda's mind clicked. Her memory went back to that last visit, though this time, she became aware of how it must have looked from his point of view. When the weight of what she was doing struck her as she recognized the metal arm. How the sight of the Winter Soldier's trademark feature was what seemingly pushed her away.

Oh, for fuck's sake, Maximoff!

"I trust you, James," the witch assured. Her voice sounded a bit too firm to her own ears, but she knew it was what he needed to hear, and she wasn't going to leave any room for question.

"Do you?" he demanded, allowing some of the wildly unhinged Winter Soldier to show for the first time since she'd met him. "Because I don't want--"

He cut himself short when he seemed to hear how heated his tone was becoming. He never finished the sentiment, though he didn't need to. Wanda recognized what he meant in herself. In how she constantly feared others--including the Avengers--saw her.

"I don't pity you, James," she told him matter-of-factly. She stressed her next point by closing the distance between them, suddenly uncaring about personal space. "I could never pity someone that's...that's like me ."

He shifted uncomfortably. Any other time, she would take his palpable distress into consideration, but now she was too fixated on getting him to see she wasn't there to be sorry for him. She was there because she knew what it was like to run from Hydra, only to find a world where everyone else hated you. She had found the first person who was more afraid of himself than her, and she saw it as her right to take advantage of that. To help him, even if she didn't always know how.

He didn't ask to hear any of that. Instead, he continued to try shrinking in on himself to hide how broken he was. "I just don't want to hurt anyone else," he said miserably. "I don't want to be what they made me."

"You're not," she told him. Not because it was what he needed to hear, but because she believed it wholeheartedly.

James continued to squirm in disbelief, seemingly unable to still until she physically reached out to him, holding his face between her hands.

"I've lost so much of myself," he whispered, like a warning not to have so much faith in him.

"I know." Oh, how she knew. "I'm not afraid of you for that. I'm not afraid."

One hand slid to the back of his head, squeezing a fistful of his hair. He obeyed the silent demand to properly look at her, giving her the chance to anchor him with her empathy and comfort in his mind's world of suffering and loneliness. She offered herself despite her fears deep down of how far she had already buried herself in him, knowing it was wrong. Despite knowing it would hurt her Captain, and her team, if they ever found out.

She asked the one question no Hydra asset had ever been asked. "James? What do you want?"

He sighed wearily, leaning further against the hand still cupping his face. He was quiet for a long while, as if still hesitant to actually indulge in something like wants for the first time in so long. "Call me that again."

Another squeeze of his hair. Another silent reassurance that they were both unreachable here. "James." 

Another sigh, this one pushed out of him by relief. He sagged into her, letting his forehead be met by a hard kiss from the little witch. She held on to him as if on the other side of her kiss there would be a new life for them both. New versions of themselves that could drive the sorrows and grief of this life out. It was all just a matter of give and take. She took comfort in the fact that if it went too far, if she wanted it to stop, her scarlet would stop them. Her scarlet was stronger than anything. If she wanted it to stop, it would stop.

It didn't stop.

Chapter Text

Wherever he was, Pietro Maximoff was definitely rolling in his grave. Wanda could easily remember certain instances where her brother was prepared to fight off anyone that so much as brushed by her on accident.

Well, James had done a lot more than just touch her.

A part of Wanda still couldn't believe she'd fallen in bed with someone, much less the lost and damaged friend of her new Captain. If she really tried, she could even convince herself that it had been a particularly strange dream, or vivid glimpse at some alternate version of herself that existed in another lifetime.

Though even those possibilities became hard to believe when she went back and let it happen again.

Mentally, she was both anxious and excited about going against her family's traditional values by having a non-marital affair. And not even out of love. More than anything, it had been an act of willful forgetting. An easy escape from everyday life. A safe rush.

Physically though, she couldn't stop her heart from thundering in her chest, or her muscles from quivering whenever she tried to distribute weight on them. That first time had hurt for much longer than cheap novels and street women had led her to believe. But after an embarrassing stumble home, and a hot soak in her tub, she had managed to get the ache between her legs under control. That left her most pressing concern to be whether she did everything right.

Wanda was at a complete loss over how to approach that question. In fact, she wasn't sure how to address the soldier at all afterward. The first time, she had offered an antsy dismissal and fled to avoid any more awkwardness. Now, she knew better than to escape when her legs didn't feel entirely solid yet.

But what were they supposed to do in the meantime? Embrace? Shake hands? Try "pillow talk" (Lord, where would she even begin)?

Suddenly, his husky voice cut through the tense silence. "What are you thinking?"

Wanda bit her lip, unsure if she wanted to bombard him with her whirlwind of insecurities. This was the first time he seemed even remotely relaxed since she'd met him. Although there was still something in his eyes that seemed guarded when he looked up at her from where his head was pillowed against her breast (which she didn't have the heart to tell him was slowly suffocating her. He'd already spent the better part of the hour repeatedly asking her if she was alright). She could sense he had the same fear she did: that the other of them regretted this, or suddenly decided they didn't want to risk being used this way. They'd both been too abused already for that.

She noticed a faint imprint along the apple of James's cheek, mirroring the collar of her blouse. She still hadn't been brave enough to let him see all of her scars, so he'd respectfully let her keep it on; however, it didn't feel all that fair, given how his deepest scars were laid bare for her. Those scars, where metal was forcibly bound with flesh and veins, were what she was currently tracing with her fingers. It made her embarrassed to think of how cowardly she was in comparison, so she moved her hand to comb through his hair instead.

Wanda eventually settled on the first alternative answer her mind could grasp. "Have you remembered anything else? Since you remembered me?"

His response was quick, like a rehearsed line. "No. Not since you."

She mulled over that for a few heartbeats, until she realized she didn't want the conversation to die just yet. The silence would only allow her anxiety to fester. "It's surprising, really. Sokovia isn't a place many remember. Even I forget parts of it sometimes."

Granted, anything forgotten from Sokovia was done so deliberately. Back when she thought memories were best left forgotten. "I've noticed I tend to hold on to the smaller things best. Moments from when I was very young. When I was...eight? Maybe seven."

She could feel his intrigue then. He shifted to have a better look at her, but not so far that he still couldn't feel her fingers in his hair. Her own gaze was trained on the ceiling, as if it would spell out the memories she was trying to recollect. "I remember living in a tiny apartment. It wasn't much bigger than this suite, but it was always home for me. And we were practically living on top of one neighbor - Miss Agatha."

It struck Wanda then that she never learned the woman's full name. Thus far, everything about that part of her life had been buried with her parents. It felt strange to finally recall something from that long ago. Strange, but not unpleasant. In fact, it was probably the only part of her past she wasn't afraid to visit.

"Miss Agatha was a thin, wiry lady. She always wore long dresses and shawls. She had big white hair, this permanent scowl on her face, and was probably the only person I believed had more power than my mother. She was a governess for kids that were richer than us. They all called her mean, but I think she was stern more than anything. Although, whenever she came over to watch us, she did insist on calling us by the other kids' names - I assume to keep from getting herself confused."

Wanda felt a hot brush of air against her shoulder; the beginnings of a fond chuckle. "What was her name for you?"

"Ana." She paused for a beat before playfully adding, "And the preferable one, mind you!"

That earned another chuckle from James, and it sent a new sort of heat rushing to her toes to know she had amused the Winter Soldier. How many people could say they had accomplished that?

Wanda went on, finding plentiful memories of her eccentric neighbor during a time when both her parents had to find work to support their family. "Miss Agatha always found time to take care of us, even though Mama and Papa couldn't pay her as much. And I swear, the other children in our building would always know when she was coming. They came running to warn us every time. They even had us convinced that they could sense her arrival because the clouds would come in and turn the sky dark, or the wind would pick up - like she was some sort of witch."

Oh, the irony that I was so afraid back then.

"I would always rush to warn my parents as well, because they hated the 'neighborly gifts' she always brought with her. Miss Agatha always thought we were too thin, so whatever she brought was usually something food-related. The cheapest of which was usually fruit, and by the time Miss Agatha got it to us, that food was rotten."

Wanda laughed now that she could understand the sheer absurdity of that. "Papa would always say, as soon as she left," she scrunched up her face to resemble her father's aghast expression, "Mar - Marya! I don't want the children eating that! It smells like hard liquor!"

She wasn't sure if it was out of polite reciprocity for her own laughter, or genuine amusement at her story, but the Soldier laughed with her. Her smile lingered at the sight of his. It was nice and refreshing, and surprisingly the most intimate part of anything they'd done all afternoon. It almost physically pained her to go back to the uncertain silence of before. But she wasn't brave enough to break it now that his face was tight with deep thought. She could feel at the surface of his mind the hyper-activity, like he was scouring the depths of his memory for a story to relate to hers.

"I could help you, you know," she offered after a beat. With the hand that wasn't tangled in his hair, she showed him another miniscule sample of her powers twisting between her fingertips. "I can see memories, no matter how faded. I can remind you."

Another immediate answer, "No. Please. I don't...you shouldn't see more...."

He didn't specify what, or why he didn't want her to see, but she could easily gather a few ideas. Instead of pressing, she kept her space and resumed combing his hair with her other hand.

Eventually, he did find what he was looking for. "I think I knew a neighbor like that. When we were growing up in Brooklyn."

When he paused, Wanda quietly encouraged him with a soft kiss to his hair.

"She was...she was nice. Tiny, but headstrong. I think she needed to be, to keep us in line." As he said that, a sense of fondness was clear in his voice. As though he could see more stories there to visit later. "God, we gave her hell. Always ran around in this one mud patch near our apartment building to get dirty enough to get out some of the chores she asked of us. She only really snapped at us for it once, before she was supposed to take us to church. Told us to put on whatever we had that was clean - which of course, that day, was just the pajamas we were gonna sleep in and some running shoes. Then she made us walk two blocks, and sit with all our friends, dressed in those very pajamas and shoes."

Wanda couldn't stop her amused giggle at that mental image. Younger, scrawnier versions of James Barnes and Steve Rogers sitting with their friends, bashfully trying to hide the fact they were wearing nothing but pajamas. "She sounds like a true hero," the witch teased.

"She was," James mused, sounding serious now. Wanda could sense when the hyperactivity in his mind returned, buzzing wildly the deeper it sought clarity. "...her name was Sarah. She was Steve's mom."

Wanda's hand paused mid-stroke to indicate her interest, but she still didn't outwardly pry.

"She would cut up newspapers for him to put in his shoes," James recalled with warm breath of laughter against her chest. "He would rarely wait for her to finish before we were running off with the other neighborhood kids."

Wanda only hummed. She hesitated before saying what was already obvious to both of them. "He would be happy to know you remember him."

The plates in his metal hand whirred, the thumb sweeping over its place on her abdomen. "He did make up a huge part of that life. It's...I think it is the smaller moments that stick best. I remember...I remember he used to be smaller. And then suddenly he wasn't. Had something to do with when he joined the army. I didn't want to bother him with questions about it at the time, but...but I think I would tease him about doing it just to impress this one pretty dame."

He shifted his head to look up at her, his piercing blue eyes striking her just as strongly as they had the first time they'd met. "She was kind of like you."

Wanda didn't know how to take that. Part of her wondered if he was referring to the same pretty young woman Steve had mentioned before, and another part felt like she already knew he was.

"She was real pretty. Really smart, and diligent too. Resourceful. Always nice to us. Too good for us, I think."

"Well, now you're just flattering me," the witch put in, playfully nudging his metal shoulder.

"S'true." His right hand tenderly squeezed the hip it was pinned beneath. "Though I thought she was real good for Stevie. Kept him in line, but also taught him a few things. And he carried a torch for her real bad. I think once he was so jealous, he mistook one friend's offer to get fondue with her as a euphemism for...well...."

She didn't understand why he trailed off. Instead of offering any explanation, he averted his gaze to where the lump of his flesh hand moved below the bedsheets, slowly trailing towards her - 

Wanda practically erupted with laughter, her back arching to meet her hands as they folded over her mouth. "Oh, no - stop!"

James had to adjust himself after her sudden movement, bracing himself against his arms on either side of her head as she calmed. But hell, even she knew what fondue was, and she grew up in Sokovia!

"It's true - he just assumed..." was all she could hear amidst her own laughter.

"No!" the witch breathed.

"Yeah, God help that little punk," James joked in a tone of faux sorrow. He was all but looming over her now, with his dark locks falling into his face. "I'd like to hope he's gotten better than that around women by now. Hasn't he?"

Wanda pretended to think for only a brief moment. "No." She couldn't help but laugh again at that, but then thought to give her Captain some credit (or at least Tony and Natasha). "But he's getting some help from his new friends."

"Well, that's something at least," James decided in mock defeat. Wanda giggled again at his expense, though her merriment this time was curbed by the memory of not only Steve, but the rest of the Avengers waiting for her back at the Facility. They all still believed she was spending all her time listlessly exploring the backwoods around her new home when really, she'd been coming here. Since the day she gave James his dog tags, this room in this inn had become a place for eating the small meals she prepared, talking quietly with another lonely soul, and finding a merciful escape from herself in adultery. It probably wasn't the best way of life, but for her, it definitely wasn't the worst either.

In fact, she realized then how much harder it was to leave their special haven than to leave the Facility. She preferred this smaller, cozy atmosphere and soft exchange of stories with the Soldier. It felt like discovering something no one else knew about yet. Little secrets that belonged exclusively to the two of them. Like how when his eyes grow distant and his eyebrows knit together, it meant he was trying to remember something. How everything was there, in his mind, and just needed patience to find its way to the surface. How palpably he relaxed whenever she assured she was comfortable. How he had scars everywhere from bullets, knives, and who knew what else. The area around his temples were especially sensitive to touch. And his eyes positively shined whenever he felt safe and unguarded. Wanda wanted more of that.

But eventually, she would have to go back to the team. All that could be done until then was hold onto him a little longer, until he felt warm and peaceful enough to let her go. He usually watched her leave warily, as if bracing himself for the possibility it would be the last time they would see each other.

But it wouldn't be. Not if she could help it.


On the third day after their affair began, Wanda delayed her usual visit to the inn. She had woken up to the sky practically ripping open to spill a horde of rain over the earth, and didn't think it entirely safe to travel on foot. Although her mind was still with James, knowing he travelled across the woods every day as well to take care of the widow's ranch.

Wanda tried to keep herself distracted by venturing out to the common area, where Stark was doing something in the kitchen. She was surprised at how much she enjoyed his company. He spoke to her, but not with any expectation she respond. He merely let her sit quietly and watch him work, explaining to her that his - what was she again? His wife? His boss? A close friend? - Pepper wanted him to get more practice with cooking. Wanda leafed through the cookbook he was using for reference, trying to get a feel for what meals to expect in the future. There was a little bit of everything in the collection, and she couldn't help but smile fondly as she came across one recipe in particular: cheese fondue.

Wanda was still on the page when the others arrived, coming in from what appeared to be an intense training session. Sam and Steve made a beeline for the fridge, fetching a bottle of water each, plus one that Sam threw to Natasha. The spy seemed as collected as ever, taking the seat directly beside Wanda to read over her shoulder. With all of them there at once, Wanda had to fight her usual urge to tuck herself away and hide. I belong here, she reminded herself. Besides, I have to keep an eye on Steve for James.

Putting her attention on Steve brought up an entirely new temptation. One which she didn't bother to fight.

As the Captain took another long swig of water, Wanda ever so innocently asked, "Say, Captain? Do you like fondue?"

As soon as the last word left her mouth, Captain Rogers faltered, sending a spray of water across the surface of the island. The other Avengers each jumped in surprise, except for Stark who was facing the stove when it happened. Though he clearly heard it, having fallen into a fit of snickers before he'd even turned around.

"Oh, you could say he's familiar with it," the inventor said once he'd caught his breath.

The others, even Wanda, stared in puzzlement as to how he could already know what spurred the comically theatrical reaction. He only met Steve's gaze as he elaborated, "I said my dad never shut up about you, Capsicle. That doesn't necessarily guarantee it was about all good things."

Steve rolled his eyes, attempting to distract himself from all the eyes now on him by tearing off a paper towel to clean up his mess. Natasha was the one to speak for the group, looking almost concerned that there was something she didn't know about her partner. "What? Why?"

Steve sighed in dread of having to tell the story, and Wanda fought off a huge grin for the conclusion she wasn't supposed to know yet.

"It's nothing, really. Just something from the old days, you know...when some things were different -"

"Not that different," Stark interrupted in a knowing tone that made Wanda's smile became even harder to swallow.

"It is not that bad!" Steve protested before Sam and Nat could begin throwing out their ideas for where this was going. "I just got a little mixed up, even back then, and kind of became known around the old team for mistaking fondue for...you know, something else."

The Captain's cheeks were turning pink, so Stark saved him in the way only he could. "He thought it was the new slang for banging."

Natasha winced, saying, "Oh, honey," in a manner that really sounded like 'you poor, poor sucker.'

Sam wasn't quite as sympathetic. "Oh, man, Cap!" he guffawed, slapping Rogers on the shoulder. "This is why I keep telling you, you need to get out more!"

Sam's laughter was infectious it seemed, for everyone else found themselves attempting to fight back their own chuckles at their leader's expense. Everyone, of course, except for the Captain. He positively glared at Sam and Tony as they mocked his past ignorance.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," Steve grumbled bitterly at Sam. "I'm going to remember all of this next time we hit the training area."

"Hey, she brought it up!" Sam reminded, pointing to Wanda for emphasis. "And I know she's going to have my back when she gets in there with us. Right, kid?"

Rather than shy away like she usually did when they tried to include her, Wanda made herself sit up straighter. "Right!"

"Yeah, that's right. Give it here!" Sam strode confidently over to his new ally, offering up his palm. Having gotten swept up in all the amusement, Wanda didn't hesitate to lean forward and complete the high-five.

"Careful there, little witch," Natasha warned from her seat between them. "He will hold you to that."

"That's OK," Wanda replied, surprising herself by how much she truly meant her next words. "I'd be glad to start my own training. Think it's about time I got off my ass."

She could practically feel Sam brighten behind her. "Hey, that's the spirit, Glinda! And you're going to help me out on the track, too right? We got to figure out how this one," he clapped a hand on Natasha's shoulder, "keeps cheating."

Natasha rolled her eyes and wriggled out from under Sam's hand. "Would you stop with that already? It's not like I do something like sneak through air ducts or whatever."

"But you admit you're cheating? Doing something to pull ahead?"

"Leave her alone," Steve put in, his tone sounding like a distracted parent. "Sometimes you've just got to admit you're slow."

Sam's hand went to his chest in mock (or maybe not) offense. "OK, OK! That may be easy for you to think, as the other half of the Bionic Couple. But now that I've got someone in my corner, I'll bet we'll start seeing things lean my way over there," he declared confidently.

"That's a lot of big talk, Wilson." Suddenly Steve's eyes narrowed in a challenge. "Makes me think you want to head back right now for another round of embarrassment."

"Oh, that's how it is now?" Sam shot back. Slowly, he reached for his water bottle that he'd set on the island between Wanda and Nat. "Well, I personally would like to see what you have to say after you've been left in the dirt, Cap. Especially after I do...this!"

The half-empty bottle in Sam's hands went flying through the air, crashing against Steve's chest. Wanda had barely processed what had happened when she felt someone gently tugging on her arm. "Run, Glinda, run!" Sam cried.

With a startled squeal, Wanda pushed herself from her chair and obediently fled after Sam. She moved so fast in desperation to keep up with him, she smacked herself against the wall as they rounded the corner into the hallway.

"Play nice, kids!" Natasha called after them.

With a small laugh - both at the spy's comment and the giddiness of actually feeling like part of the team - Wanda sped up, running in the direction of the training room. It almost felt like so many times racing Pietro as a child were finally paying off, pushing enough power in her legs to pull ahead of Sam. He muttered something in frustration, though she knew it wasn't because of her since not three seconds later, something warm and bulky wrapped around her stomach. The witch was literally swept off her feet, yelping in surprise as her captor swung her around.

Steve effortlessly presented the witch squirming in his arms for her 'partner' to see. He sounded proud as he said to both of them, "On your left."

For some reason, that absolutely infuriated Sam.


By the time the downpour of rain eased up, Sam and Steve finished an extra round of light sparring and even showed Wanda some of their basic defense stances. Then, the moment she caught a moment alone, she snuck away from the Facility altogether for her usual visit to the inn. The slight drizzle that left her muddy and wet on the way there did little to dampen her excitement to see James and tell him how well she was finally fitting in with Steve and his new friends. She was so eager to reach his room - and slip out of her soggy shoes - that she almost missed Clarissa at the front desk calling for a "Mrs. Kaplan".

That's supposed to be you, trus!

"Yes!" Wanda whirled around to answer to her fake name. Worried about maintaining her alias, she hurriedly added, "Sorry, I wasn't...I got distracted -"

"It's not a problem," the desk clerk assured. She always acted overly friendly to Wanda following the alleged mix-up with her room keys. She gave Wanda a chance to come closer before reaching for something on the shelf behind her. "Your husband said he anticipated running late due to the rain. He wanted you to have this so you weren't waiting as long."

The older woman shoved a short cardboard box into Wanda's hands. Whatever was inside had a strong scent Wanda couldn't place, but it did make her stomach turn in hunger.

Did James buy me lunch?

She supposed it made sense, given that she was still bringing him food from the Avengers Facility. That is, except for today, when her escape from the compound was so impromptu due to the rain.

But still...the hunger in her stomach morphed into an odd, warm fuzziness to see he'd thought of her even when she wasn't there.

"Ma'am?"

"Right, sorry!" Wanda shook her head to bringer herself back to the present, where she was beginning to stare uselessly into space. "Um...thank you."

"Of course. Enjoy your evening," Clarissa replied politely before turning her attention back to her computer.

Wanda dipped her head awkwardly before mentally deeming that a suitable dismissal. She continued on her way with her new gift in hand, propping its lid open once she reached the top of the stairs. Inside, she recognized the flat, layered sheets of pasta for a dish she couldn't remember the name to, but thought looked delicious.

Sure enough, when Wanda reached his usual room, James wasn't there. But there was a note. It was the first thing she saw after locking the door behind her. A piece of bright white atop the little table, standing stark against the grey backdrop of the drizzly sky seen through the window. Wanda promptly set her meal down on the one corner of the table that was unused to read what James had left her. It wasn't much; just a brief explanation that he believed rain was coming and wanted her to eat without him if he was late.

You got that covered for me, Barnes, she thought fondly. She then turned back to the white cardboard box that had the inn's emblem etched into the lid. With the plastic ware provided alongside the food, Wanda began eating. The pasta had gotten cold, but a former scavenger could easily overlook that. The cheese was still somewhat gooey and the tomato sauce rich, though not spicy like the sauces Steve and Natasha sometimes made.

She ate in silence for a long while. The quiet didn't bother her, but the loneliness did. She tried to stay focused on her meal and suppress her curiosity to James's possessions on the table all around her. Specifically a worn journal on the side opposite her. From where she was sitting, she could see red and blue tabs peeking out from some of its pages. Most likely notes or thoughts that James wanted to keep track of. But of what?

She made it through almost all of her lunch when the lock to the door clicked in signal of someone's arrival. Wanda stood up as James found his way inside, her unfinished food all but forgotten for the moment.

"Hi," James greeted in a low, almost sheepish voice. He seemed alright aside from being soaked to the bone. When he removed his cap, he reminded her of a wet dog shaking out its fur as he proceeded to shake some of the moisture out of his hair. He then hung the cap on the bathroom door handle, but his grey jacket (it looked black, it was so wet) appeared to give him a harder time coming off.

"Are you alright?" Wanda instantly fretted, eyeing how stiff his left arm was.

"Yeah, yeah, it's fine." James tried to sound dismissive, though his struggle to get his jacket sleeve off one arm told a different story. Wanda was at his side in an instant, helping him worm out of it. Underneath, the short sleeves of his shirt revealed the metal arm jammed with mud and dead leaves between most of its plates, rendering the limb unusable.

"The, um...the dogs thought it would be funny to get under the muddiest parts of the brush," he explained. "Bailey even got stuck for a while. That's why I'm so late - I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Wanda was quick to assure. Although her eyes were still trained on his dirtied arm, turning over the metal hand between her own as she wondered how much damage this would do to it. "I had a late start myself, waiting out the worst of the rain."

Finally meeting his eye, Wanda added, "And thank you. For lunch."

James's expression turned proud at that, the corners of his mouth quirking up in the smallest of smiles. "Was just a drop in the bucket compared to how much you've gotten for me."

"Well, it's not like I meant for it to be a competition," Wanda teased, giving his shoulder a playful nudge for good measure. The corresponding limb whirred in response, although the sound was muddled due to so much being crammed between the plates. Her tone shifted back to concern as she addressed the metal limb. "Is this going to be alright?"

"Yeah, it just needs a good washing up."

"Do you want any help?"

A brief look of surprise flashed over his face before he timidly shook his head. Wanda didn't understand at first, but then remembered the history surrounding his artificial limb. When had she gotten so desensitized to it?

"That's alright," James said in response to her offer. "I can handle it."

"OK," Wanda replied evenly, even though her fingers were awkwardly fiddling with her usual collection of rings. "Well, I'll be right here if you change your mind."

She gestured to the table behind her, and James nodded in acknowledgement. Wanda gave a slight hum, then shyly retreated back to the other side of the room as James gathered a fresh set of clothes and sequestered himself to the bathroom.

They stayed separated for several minutes, with James washing up in the bathroom and Wanda finishing up the dish he'd gotten her. Then, the witch could've sworn she saw the door to the bathroom partially open, unveiling nothing more than a sliver of dull yellow lighting.

Wanda stayed frozen until she heard a tentative, "Koldun'ya?" from that direction.

The witch in question was back on her feet in one swift motion, heading for that part of the room to find James parting the door further ajar. He was leaning against the bathroom counter, now clad in only a white undershirt and jeans, with his left arm held under the running faucet. "I was just thinking...maybe this would go faster if you did help. If it's alright by you, of course."

"Of course," Wanda answered without a second thought. It took her only a moment to move past him and arrange herself to sit comfortably on the other side of the sink. It took another few moments to find a fresh hand towel and soak it in the running water. James showed her how they could access the space between individual plates if he flexed the arm just so, and they promptly fell into a suitable rhythm of him holding the plates apart while she scrubbed at them with a towel that wasn't white for much longer. They made easy progress with that system, working in a silence that wasn't tense, but wasn't entirely comfortable either.

Wanda was finished with most of his forearm when she realized she missed their conversation. "That food was very good, whatever it's called."

James's small grin returned, and Wanda felt the same heated rush of giddiness that usually appeared when she knew she was seeing a part of the Winter Soldier no one else did. "Lasagna. I thought it would be a safe bet. I actually...I remembered it from Steve's ma making it. She made it a lot when we were kids. I still think it's the best recipe I've ever had."

Wanda's own smile grew with gratitude that he was getting more pleasant memories back. "My mother was the best cook I knew growing up," she said, resuming her work at scrubbing. "My favorite of hers was always cholent."

Noticing the look on his face, she added, "It's a type of stew?"

"I think I've heard of it...."

Wanda went quiet for a few heartbeats, trying to ward off the more bittersweet aspect of the memories of her parents. "You know? I think the only thing that was better than eating cholent was making it. It has to sit overnight to cook, so when Mama had all the right ingredients, we would treat it like this great holiday in our house." She thought for a moment, her movements over his arm gradually slowing down as she wandered farther into her memories. "I think I've only had it once since I lost them. I think it was the last foster mother I had that tried to make it, but it wasn't anything great. I think she spiced it too much."

He went quiet again after that, and she could feel the shift in the air around him before she heard the slightly louder buzzing of thoughts. His next words were hesitant, as though he suspected he may be pushing boundaries he wasn't meant to. "How long were you in the foster system?"

"A couple years. I think 'til I was thirteen." Wanda shook her head simply and gave what she hoped was a disarming visage. "But I was never really staying at any of those homes, or 'institutes', or what have you to begin with. Would go there if I needed a place to sleep, or an easy meal, but no one cared enough to ensure we were staying there permanently."

She belatedly realized how depressing that must've sounded. "I don't blame them," she added softly. "Sokovia had dozens of homeless children to worry about back then. Probably still does."

Thanks to you. Her guilt over that weighed down on her still, heavy and foreboding. James seemed to sense it. He surprised her by asking, "Do you ever think of going back? Maybe to help?"

Even more surprising to her was the brutal honesty in her answer. "I do. Often. But then I always think that if I did...it probably wouldn't be wanted."

Another silence stretched between them, and Wanda wondered after a few heartbeats if James would just leave it there. But he didn't.

"I can't imagine anyone not liking you, Wanda," he said, his tone light like it had been a short while ago.

That completely took her aback, and she could feel her face flush a little. She felt silly, getting spun up by a few nice words after all they'd already done together. Although it was a small comfort to see James duck his head bashfully in response to her reaction. As if he was embarrassed to have said something that made her feel anything at all. "Then again, I am the one that's been getting nothing but pampering from you for these past couple of weeks."

"Pampering?" she questioned, audibly showing her incredulity that he considered leaving food out as coddling. She always felt bad about it, having likened it to treating him like a stray cat.

Well...there was the matter of her offering her body too.

He seemed to have a similar train of thought. "Yeah, and the little bouts of nookie really helped too."

Wanda huffed at his crudeness, rolling up the towel she'd been using to smack his chest. She wondered if that was going a bit too far with the traumatized soldier for only a brief second, since he quickly retaliated by dipping his metal hand directly under the stream of water and splashing some of it at her. She squealed as he did, and then squealed even louder when he pulled her closer with both the flesh arm and the wet, unbelievably cold metal one. The little witch made a show of trying to escape, wriggling in his grasp and giving half-hearted pushes to his chest.

However, she was laughing the whole time. He was too, and it echoed in her ears the entire journey home.


The days since then disappeared, bleeding into each other in a dreamlike state. For the first time in her life, she didn't care about the passing of time. Weeks, and days, and even minutes didn't seem to stretch on for as long as they used to, making her count the moments until she could stop suffering. Because she wasn't suffering. She was at peace.

Her time with the Avengers was a mess, though. They couldn't seem to agree on what to do with her. Steve trained her like a fighter, Natasha trained her like a spy, and Sam and Stark only ever wanted to see what else she could do with her powers. At any rate, she was being trained to be a proper Avenger, and it felt surprisingly good. Not just because she was doing something worthwhile with her time, but because so much time spent with the team there made it easier to be around them in general. Suddenly, she was sitting with them at night to watch movies or old TV shows, cooking dinners with them (and having them inadvertently help her put together meals for James), and teasing, and laughing, and playing with them. She even stayed up late one night with them, when Natasha somehow got a jukebox into the common area to catch Steve and Wanda up on Western music from the past few decades.

As enjoyable as the Avengers Facility was to her now, though, Wanda still took as much time as she could to visit the Bluebell Inn. Sometimes she would be in such a hurry to get back to something at the facility, she would just leave a note and some food, and then go. Other times she waited for him to meet her in their usual room, and they would eat together (either whatever she brought, or something from the inn's café), visit with each other, or fool around until her scarlet cracked the headboard and short-circuited his arm. She was even getting braver at baring more of her body, oftentimes forgetting the scars that marred it until long after James began wordlessly tracing them. She didn't mind it, given she'd probably memorized every one of his by now.

Evidently, she was spending so much time away, it was beginning to become noticeable. At least, to Mr. Stark. One night, after the others had gone to bed, he dropped a few folded dollar bills in her lap, muttered, "In case your woodland friends get hungry for some real food," and then left her alone. It was unexpected, but in the end, Wanda was grateful both for the kind gesture and for him not asking any questions as to where she was really going so frequently. Though in the end, she used that money to buy books. It was a strange series about vampires that Natasha had recommended. Not because they were good - in fact, she was quickly discovering they were godawful - but because they were ridiculous in a fun, distracting kind of way.

However, the sight of books in Wanda's room sparked something in Natasha. Before Wanda knew it, the spy and Steve were helping her add to her room in the Facility, even taking a day to drive out to a city far from where James and the compound were. They got her a new bedspread, pillows, lamps, clothes, and more. They even let her take a guitar as an impulsive buy; something else she could distract herself with when she found the free time, and excitedly tell James about afterwards. Another kind gesture from the team that she genuinely appreciated and utilized. She even re-hung Steve's mother's necklace where she'd first found it.

Finally. Finally, she felt like she had a home again. It would've made Pietro so happy to see.

Of course, such a perfect dream life couldn't last forever. It was months before she realized how spoiled she was getting to have thought otherwise.

The first hole in her illusion appeared in the last few days of summer. She was in a bright mood after a morning spent discovering she could propel herself through the air on her scarlet. With her yellow lunch bag in hand, she'd eagerly made her way to the Bluebell Inn to tell James all about it. At first, she knocked on the door for the sake of politeness, then let herself in as usual. Despite the fact that he wasn't typically there before her, something compelled her to enter with a breezy, "James? Are you here?"

To her surprise, he was. Though that surprise quickly became alarm, and then dread, to see the state of the room.

The entryway where she was had been untouched, but the space that opened up into a bedroom all but screamed distress. The bedsheets were spilling onto the floor, seemingly reaching for a ripped pillow there. Also on the floor was everything she normally saw on the little table; journals, and notes, and old photographs all scattered on both the bed and the ground. The lamp that had always stood on the bedside table was toppled over, with the distinct gleam of broken glass surrounding it. There was a small comfort to know James was far from that, sitting where she usually did at the little table, with his back to the window. His head had been in his hands when she first walked in, but he startled when she had spoken.

"Easy, easy," she said softly. She took a selfish moment to let her stomach churn at how panicked he looked at the sight of her. It wasn't because of her. It was for whatever was going on inside his head. Even from the other side of the room, she could see he wasn't totally with it. That much was clear in his wide eyes, his mussed hair, and his death grip on the table edge closest to him. And he was breathing heavily. Raggedly.

Wanda moved slowly, pushing the door behind her closed and hanging her bag on the handle without ever turning around. With both hands up for him to see, she took the first few tentative steps toward the soldier. He sluggishly recoiled as she did, his body tensing up like a coiled spring, ready to leap out and escape if she pushed too much.

"It's alright. I won't hurt you."

That seemed to calm him enough to not do anything as she came closer. Stepping over his backpack, the witch made it to the narrow space between him and the bed, half-sitting on the exposed mattress. She kept in mind what she would want him to do if their roles were reversed, so she refrained from touching him for the moment. "Do you know your name?"

He stared at the floor, his body shaking as he forced it to relax. She waited patiently as he took a while - an excruciatingly long while - to calm down. Once his breathing was easier, he managed to answer. "My name is Bucky."

Wanda nodded, even though he wasn't looking up to see it. "Do you know where you are?"

That answer was more automatic. Like he'd been practicing it to himself. "A hotel. In New York. Upstate. You..." Now he winced, as if afraid to give the wrong answer. "You visit me. We...you've been coming here to -"

Any relief she may have had to know he remembered her was promptly dashed by concern as he rapidly grew distressed again. "We don't have to do anything. I'm here for whatever you want. Whatever makes you comfortable."

His breathing was getting ragged again, and his eyes scrambled to find anything but her to focus on. "Fuck! I'm sorry - I'm just...so fucked up. A fucking hot mess."

"You're not a hot mess," Wanda said evenly. "Now, are you hurt anywhere? I saw the lamp...."

She didn't finish. She didn't need to, for he didn't appear to be processing much of anything she said. Though that did not stop her. "James, it's alright. I'm here for you. You're not alone anymore."

Another agonizingly long pause to let him calm. Then, with his breathing still heavy, and eyes trained on the floor, he hesitantly stretched his left arm toward her. The witch moved cautiously, but obediently closer, letting him wind the limb around her waist and pull her as close as he wanted. He hesitated before tugging her fully onto his lap, with the one arm still hugging her tightly and the side of his face pressing against her chest. After a moment, she realized he was listening to her heartbeat. Now she was the one forcing herself to calm so that it could maintain a slow, soothing pace for him.

Presuming it was now alright to touch him, Wanda wrapped her own arm comfortingly around his back, stretching her wrist up so that she could run her fingers through his hair. He had seemed to like that in the past. After waiting a few minutes like that, Wanda held up her free hand for them both to see.

"Do you want me to help?" she offered quietly, letting her fingers glow a bright reddish hue. "I could try something."

What exactly, she didn't know. She hadn't tried using her powers to soothe someone's mind yet. Only the opposite.

James wasn't about to give her the chance to try now, though. "No! Please," he begged. The arm around her waist squeezed, unusually firm for being the metal one he so usually took special care with. "You...you shouldn't have to see it."

Wanda frowned, but didn't argue. "Alright, I won't," she assured, respectfully lowering her free hand into her lap. The other continued its methodical movements through his hair, working out some of the tangles she found in the process. She left him to his thoughts for another long while, silently letting her own mind wander back to the possibility he'd hurt himself during whatever breakdown had caused the room to become so disheveled. From where she was, she didn't see any cuts or even bruises, but she'd had experience finding hidden injuries thanks to her brother.

"I hurt my friend."

His voice was rough, choking on grief and shame.

Wanda didn't understand. He'd already told her about -

"I beat him to death on the side of a road. Strangled his wife." His flesh hand began to violently shake. "He remembered me...and I just killed him. Killed them both in cold blood."

Oh, God.... "James. That wasn't really you."

"I know...but I still did it."

She didn't know what to say. She didn't know if there was anything she could say. Even if there, was she probably couldn't say it aloud. Not with her heart, her lungs, and her mind all stalling in their tracks. She felt so strongly for him, both out of empathy and from what her powers absorbed off of him. Of all things for him to have to remember - to relive...why this?

Her soldier swallowed hard, looking ill as he held her as close as he could (and looking torn as he did so. Like he wasn't sure if he deserved to take such comfort). "Sometimes I think I've remembered all of them. All of them. But then something like this happens, and I find out...I don't - I can't -!"

Wanda gently shushed him, combing his hair a little more forcefully with her fingers and pressing a pair of firm kisses to the side of his head. Anchoring him. Pulling him away from the edge of hyperventilating. Away from the horrifying memories he couldn't bear to relive again.

She let him snuggle closer, watching him slowly relax a little more with her every breath, every beat of her heart. It was strange to think of herself as the one to put his mind at ease when she'd come to him for just that when all this began. She thought again to what she would want from him if it had been her that relapsed. A distraction. Maybe something from our usual routine?

Then it occurred to her.

"James?" she prodded gently. "Have you gone to see Jake and Bailey today?"

The canine siblings that were his only companions, aside from her, every day. They both always found amusement in his reviews of whatever those two got themselves into.

"No," he admitted.

Even better. "Well, then let's go do that!" she suggested, sounding a little too eager to her own ears. "I can go with you. I've been wanting to meet them."

That wasn't entirely true, but she managed a pretty convincing act. She was willing to try anything if it got him out of that cluttered, stuffy room. The fresh air and change of scenery would surely do him some good.

He thought it over for a few beats before deciding. "...OK."

Despite the palpable uncertainty in his tone, Wanda's heart soared with relief. "Yes? Alright then. Let me get your jacket."

It was probably absurd to say given the heat outside, but she knew he would want his metal arm covered when they went out. As she searched the room for the dark grey one he used the most often, she found herself becoming genuinely excited to at last quell her curiosity over where he usually was all day.

James followed her like a drowsy pup, mindless and unnervingly compliant as she urged him to lift his arms enough to slip them into the sleeves of the jacket. She moved slowly as well, hoping to reinforce her earlier statement that she would only do what he wanted her to.

She settled for the fact that she could only find one glove, and tugged it onto his metal hand. Through the leather, she kept her hand on his, sliding it down to wrap around his palm. She heard the tiniest of whirs as the metal fingers gave her a light squeeze in return. The witch held onto him the entire journey outside the inn and through town, leading the way for as long as she could.

Once in the woods, she uselessly dawdled around the end of the gravel road, taking note of how much quieter and peaceful it was there compared to the town. In the time it took her to remember what had first drawn her to this place, James seemed to slip back into his usual routine. In fact, had Wanda not held such a stubborn grip on his hand, he probably would have wandered ahead without her. She didn't mind. She was just relieved he seemed to be moving with some sense of purpose again.

With James as her guide, Wanda found herself in a part of the woods she never knew was there. A part where the assembly of trees abruptly stopped, like the ones surrounding the Avengers compound. Although none of the buildings here were nearly that large or complex. Most were small farmhouses and stables, each separated from the other by a low wire fence. Some animals eyed them as they passed by on the other side of their fences. Goats, cows, horses, and dogs all watching with indifferent eyes before going about their simple business. Wanda heard rather than saw their owners; all of their thoughts seemed to come from inside the little houses, where they were tucked away either debating what to have for lunch or simply resting before resuming whatever work they had to do.

James abruptly turned right, leading the way down a dirt road that stretched far from the other homes. The path wound around a thick cluster of brush, and just beyond that was another house, securely hidden behind so much greenery. It was also larger than any of the other homes they had passed, standing at least two stories tall. Part of its roof suggested it was already in the process of getting worn down by weather and age, but aside from that it seemed well-kept. And she knew who was to thank for that.

Seeing the ranch now, Wanda couldn't help but think it sad as to how big the overall area was. So much for James to tend to all on his own. She supposed she should have expected it, seeing how he was gone for so long each day. Though didn't it get lonely?

He's been alone most of his life. When she was with Hydra, she at least had her brother with her a majority of the time. And now she had the Avengers. Who was there for him, aside from her and the two -

The witch froze when she finally spotted them. The dogs pacing in their shared kennel. They too were larger than she'd anticipated. Some type of retriever breed, where one sibling could be blonde and the other a deep chocolate color. Until now, she thought she was ready to meet them. Once upon a time, she probably would've been happy to. But then living on the streets made the animals she once loved into aggressive competitors for food and shelter. And it was presently hard to shake that fear of hostility.

James, however, didn't notice anything amiss. He headed straight for the latch on the massive metal cage, pausing only for introductions. "Here's the dynamic duo," he quipped, letting the brown one sniff his hand while the other continued jumping about in excitement. "This one's Jake, and the blonde is Bailey. Guys, meet Wanda. Don't jump on her."

Without any other warning, he let them free. The darker one, Jake, ran right past Wanda without any care to her presence. Instead, he promptly found a particularly sandy part of the dirt and began rolling in it like mad. Bailey, on the other hand, made a beeline for the newcomer. She even rocked on her back legs for a brief heartbeat, as if remembering the command not to jump at the last moment.

"Hello," the witch greeted timidly, holding her hands out as though she were presenting some invisible offering.

Bailey wasted all of a split second sniffing the witch's hands - the calloused hands that secretly hid unimaginable power - before she was shoving her thick, blockish head against them. Jake dashed back up to James's side, doing the same against his metal hand. The simple gestures were all it took to replace Wanda's initial apprehension with wonderment. Not just because she'd found two more souls that didn't fear her, but because they legitimately didn't know the difference between her hands, James's metal one, and any other person they'd met. There was nothing different about them period. As long as they could be scratch behind floppy ears, the pair was happy.

Wanda wasn't sure if it was that realization, her powers absorbing the dogs' positive energy, or a mixture of both, but she felt infinitely more comfortable now. While getting more acquainted with Bailey, she noticed James seemed to be ready to start his work, having begun to remove his thick jacket and glove.

"Is there anything I can help with?"

James looked surprised at her offer, then surprised her in turn with his quick answer. "Sure. Keep these two distracted," he nodded at the dogs. "Maybe I can finish faster if they aren't bugging me so much."

Wanda smiled, genuinely happy to have something helpful to do. James didn't say anything more, and instead walked off rather coldly. The witch tried not to read too much into it, all too aware how shaken a person could be after a relapse like his. She, herself, preferred to ignore flashbacks as soon as they were over, and she figured going about his work day as normally as possible was how James did just that.

The witch headed in the opposite direction as him, urging the dogs to follow her around the house. On the other side, there was a pool and accompanying pool house. The latter provided a decent amount of shade over its patio, which had several toys randomly strewn about. Not just dog toys, but children's toys too. She knew the widow had family - that was why she was gone, after all - but it had never occurred to her that the presence of said family would be so strong. It reminded her of the families she'd seen while first searching for James in town, so close and familiar. Leading lives so mundane that she couldn't stop herself from envying them.

But now wasn't the time for that. She was here for James.

And she had a job to do.

Jake was simultaneously the easier and harder one of the two. He wasn't as quick as his sister was to trust the stranger, and refused to let her get too close before he would retreat in another direction. Fortunately, he wasn't bouncing all over the place, potentially getting in the way of things. He mostly stretched out in the parts of the grass James had already cut and napped there.

Bailey, however, was full of too much energy for that. Running around, rolling in the dirt, jumping into the pool, and finding random things to chew on. Wanda's biggest concern was whenever the blonde dog noticed James doing something in the distance, pricking her ears and tensing up like she wanted to run after him. Thus far, Wanda had managed to distract the little troublemaker every time, either by finding a new ball or pull-rope for them to play with together. Whenever Bailey grew bored of that, Wanda moved from the patio to the poolside, where she could manipulate the water with her scarlet. That kept both dogs' attention for a good while, with Jake watching the stream of water rise and fall in fascination and Bailey trying everything she could to eat it.

Even though they were both busy, Wanda kept a watchful eye on James. He stayed in the distance, tending to the abundant plant life that surrounded the property. A part of her remained worried as to how he was doing mentally; if his flashback (or whatever had triggered it) was still bothering him. But that concern was pushed beneath her initial precaution that he preferred to deal with it alone. If he wanted her, he knew she was there.

Eventually, both dogs tired of water tricks and left Wanda's side to wrestle with each other. The witch reclaimed her place on the patio bench to watch them, and also see the colors of the sky languidly shift into the soft, paint-like palette of sunset. The sight took her mind back to the Avengers. She seldom stayed away from the Facility this late, and wondered if they would comment on it when she did return. She had become socially involved enough that it was now a challenge to sneak in and out unnoticed.

Although, she actually wasn't as bothered about the issue as she probably should have been. Her thoughts lied more with James, still. Just as they always seemed to whenever something happened with either of them. She'd recognized the attachment to him was strong before, but now she thought it was dangerously so. He had never given any indication that he'd changed his mind about leaving the country whenever he could. It was possible he would up and leave at any time now that he'd done enough work here, at the ranch. He would relocate to somewhere far from here. Far from her.

It was probably selfish of her to focus on that, but she couldn't help it. Without him around, where would she be? Spending day in, and day out, as the one Avenger-in-training? Granted, the team had truly grown on her, but she couldn't deny that they always made her feel like she was under scrutiny. Pressured to be someone important, that would someday stand between life and death for millions of people. Her time with James kept her sane, in that it was a refreshing escape from all that. Her few moments of freedom to be no one at all. A nobody re-teaching the fragments of a person how to be somebody. She didn't know how else to describe their relationship. They couldn't be lovers, because she never felt the butterflies or racing heart you were supposed to feel when you were in love. They knew enough about each other to be more than acquaintances, but she didn't want to consider them friends. Those relationships never lasted very long for her. It was probably safest if they just stayed whatever they were now.

It was at least an hour or so when James finished. She knew when he had because he came up to her, looking like he wanted to sit with her but couldn't find the voice to ask if it was OK. It was; she was just happy to see his eyes were more than detached vacuums now, even if they did possess more of those unnecessary apologies he tended to make. Though he did surprise her by flopping down and setting his head on her shoulder, which required him to lean against her with his left side. Normally the metal arm was something he avoided touching her with whenever he could. Yet, she'd noticed that since that flashback, it had been bizarrely switched. And she had a dark theory as to why that was.

Whoever he killed...he hadn't used the metal arm.

"Thank you."

Wanda looked down at him, unable to fight her smile to hear his voice. Aside from how raspy as it was from such little use all evening, it made him sound like his normal self.

The witch tried to sound teasing. "You're welcome. For what, exactly?" She boldly tangled her fingers with his exposed metal ones. She liked that about this place; they could expose their abnormalities, but without the vulnerability of someone potentially seeing. She briefly wondered if that privacy was what drove him out here in the first place.

"You know what."

He sounded serious, so she dropped the attempt at playful banter. In its place, she offered silence, resting her head atop his and watching the sun disappear behind the trees in front of them. Even the dogs seemed to pick up on the heavy atmosphere, both of them padding over merely to lounge at their visitors' feet. Wanda found herself trying to appear upbeat for them, reaching out with her free hand to stroke Bailey's head.

"Won't Steve's team miss you?" James asked, keeping his gaze on the horizon.

Wanda scratched under Bailey's chin, somehow managing to appear nonchalant despite that same thought crossing her mind shortly before. "Not if I have a splitting headache, that only the quiet by the river can soothe."

He stayed silent at that.

She could read him easily, without actually doing so. That aura of guilt, most likely for keeping her from the team. From Steve.

"James," she said, turning her full attention back to him. "Don't worry about that. It's for me to figure out when the time comes. Just rest. I'll stay for as long as you need."

He took that in. She could feel the guilt dwindling, his thoughts ringing in battle between his instinct to push her away and temptation to actually let himself have this one thing.

His arm wrapped tighter around hers, ensuring she stayed close enough to burrow his face further into her shoulder. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her skin, billowing her hair in a direction opposite the wind. But more than that, she felt warmth in her stomach. A heat from feeling calm for the first time in a long while. From being appreciated. Being absolutely comfortable with where you are.

She followed James's example, and allowed herself this moment to give herself one thing. And that was a break from her thoughts, and all her subsequent worries about getting too attached, or telling the team a hopefully believable lie. It was peaceful here, and she was with someone that appreciated her help. She should take advantage of that.

In that moment, the Avengers were far from her mind. Her home was miles away, and yet this was where she felt most like she was supposed to be.

"Thank you," James murmured.

She kissed his head, pleased to hear him finally sound at peace as well. Over the rustle of leaves blowing in the wind, and dogs snoring at their feet, the witch hummed a melody into his hair that she hadn't heard since she was little. The lullaby her mother had sung in late nights, atop the thunder of war and despair. The tune came naturally to her now, feeling even more sanguine as she remembered it here.

I am one bird, together we are two. We'll sing together, as birds are meant to do.

I am a bird, and you are one too. We'll sing forever, because I love you.

Chapter Text

Things were different between them. Wanda thought that was her fault, and she knew James believed it was his.

For her, the change was clear immediately after they parted ways in the woods, with her finding her way back to the Facility, and he following the gravel path into town. She spent a good portion of the remaining night in her room, restlessly pacing around her bed instead of sleeping. She often had James in her thoughts simply because she knew how alone he was, and what a danger that could be to a wanted man with a damaged mind. No one to help him if something bad happened. If a stranger had found him while he was lost on that blurry edge between reality and his past. Or worse -

No. Something heated and angry burst in the witch's chest to think of that possibility, even now. They aren't taking him again. I won't let them find him.

All these thoughts she once carried only on occasion had doubled that night of his relapse. She had known to be worried because of what she'd learned before actually meeting the soldier. Things she had read, but hadn't seen for herself. It wasn't until she saw the room - their perfect little bubble of safety and coziness - so disheveled that the validity of what she'd read set in. When she saw him practically tearing himself apart as he struggled to cope with his trauma - his fear of himself, and fear for her...the Winter Soldier finally became more than stories. It became their dark, brutal reality. One they both couldn't continue sweeping under the rug to pretend it wasn't there.

But she knew she could help. Maybe not as directly as she wanted (and perhaps it was for the best he didn't let her try using her scarlet. It would be her first attempt at putting it to this sort of use, and there would be no guarantees she'd do more good than harm), but she could still be there for him at least. Ready to get him through any more of tough spots he might have. And so for the next couple of weeks, she spent nearly all her time at the inn. Before, her visits were short affairs that she made whenever she could find the time between training and bonding with the Avengers. Now, she was admittedly neglecting that important time with her team to be with James as much as possible. It was growing harder by the day to make up reasonable excuses for so much time away, but Wanda didn't care. She could sense that it was even harder on James, mostly because he was putting so much on himself internally. She could feel it every time she spent more than an hour or two past dark, her scarlet absorbing everything he felt too intensely. Namely guilt, for keeping her away from the team. Sometimes he even verbally protested against her leaving late, claiming he didn't like the thought of her travelling alone at night. Although she quickly dismissed that each time with the fact that she knew the route by heart. Anything else, her scarlet could take care of. She would be fine. She was fine, and was only concerned about him.

And fuck, she couldn't keep thinking with his tongue inside her.

She knew that was why he was doing it; to distract her from whatever was making her so quiet. She wanted to blame his influence for constant tendency to overthink, but if she were being truly honest, she knew she'd always been that way. Especially when she was stressed.

"OK?" he checked, looking up at her from between her thighs. No matter how many times they did this, he always seemed to be concerned with hurting or overwhelming her. By now, her mind had gone too muggy to manage a proper answer, so she simply nodded and drew fists into the pillows on either side of her. The hot flash of irritation she'd felt for his pause was quickly gone as he went back to what he'd started, effectively protecting her from thinking anymore. The world was promptly reduced to the growing ball of electricity at her core, made stronger and stronger by his tongue darting inside of her, and his metal palm pressing into the soft flesh of her thigh as he pushed her legs wider apart.

Her eyes squeezed shut, further immersing herself in solely the feel of him on her, inside of her. Caressing, rubbing, and kissing her core, with no real rhyme or pattern to any of it. And it felt so good . Too good, even, for her to remember to keep a cap on her scarlet. The power beneath her skin always reacted wildly to her heart-rate growing so fast, and coupled with the climbing wave of pleasure, it made her blood practically boil. Before her control over it slipped away completely, the witch clambered madly for the headboard behind her, gripping the top of it for dear life. She managed to do so just in time. As she felt her end approaching fast, the sound of splitting wood could be heard from the space beneath her violently glowing hands. Though despite being right by her ears, she didn't hear any it. She could only vaguely hear herself whine a few Sokovian curses amidst the blood whooshing in her ears. "James - !"

And just like that, he crooked his fingers into that spot, and she was lost.

He dragged it out for as long as he could with his mouth before crawling further up the bed to admire the trembling, breathless mess he created. While her senses leisurely made their way back to her, she saw him turn tentative, reaching for her with the metal hand. He had learned long ago how much she loved the feel of it against her flushed skin, and took amusement in how she arched into it in search of coolness. "Kotenok," he called her, knowing she was too out of it to be annoyed.

Wanda only curled herself into his side, resting her head on his shoulder once he settled onto his back. They were content to spend a few minutes simply lying there, with Wanda catching her breath and James tracing random shapes into her chest.

"You know, it's getting pretty hard to explain all the cracks in the headboard," James said after a while, his metal fingers tracing the edge between skin and the V-shaped collar of her shirt.

"Sorry."

"Don't be." He smirked the way he always did when he saw how much of an effect he had over such a powerful girl. The thought usually led to teasing banter between them, but James didn't offer any of that this time. Rather, he brought the metal hand up higher, to tuck some of her hair behind her ear. "What's been troubling you so much, kotenok?"

Wanda didn't answer right away, opting to play with the ends of her sleeves instead. She knew after so much time together James had grown just as attuned to her moods as she did his. The only problem was that there was actually a plethora of things worrying her, and among them was being a bother to him by going through every one. So, for the moment, she settled on the single thought that she hadn't visited too much since she went with him to the ranch. "Do you still think about leaving? Going to live somewhere far from here?"

With the soft look he gave her, she was worried he would only tell her what he thought she wanted to hear. But her soldier never wasted time with placating nothings. "Yeah, I do sometimes."

"Where do you think you would go?"

He thought for only a fleeting second. "Do you like Bucharest?"

She laughed, more so at herself than his absurdly casual tone when suggesting she see him in another country. It was just ridiculous she could feel so relieved to know the Soldier didn't want to stop seeing her. "I think it would be quite the commute every day."

"Well..." James's gaze ducked down shyly, the way it always did when he made the shift to vulnerable sincerity. "You know you could, um...you could always just stay there. Permanently."

Wanda looked up, staring at him in surprise. James only watched his fingers fiddling with the hem of her shirt. "It'd be real easy to get an extra set of everything. Papers. Fake IDs. Might have to be frugal with money, but that's not too different from every other person travelling to get a fresh start. Maybe even get our own house at some point, for just the two of us. Far from the paper-thin walls here."

Despite his effort to make a joke, the soldier was positively overflowing with nervous energy. Wanda couldn't stand it any longer, and she slipped a hand between them to tangle his warm, fleshy fingers with her own. She also gave them a light squeeze, hoping to convey that his suggestion intimidated her. Though not because she was scared to stay with him for good. She was actually terrified of how badly she wanted to. To live in nothing but these warm, comfortable moments together, far from the pressure to be a life-saving Avenger. Far from any responsibilities really, outside of keeping each other sane. That life...it seemed like paradise.

Wanda swallowed hard, hiding her face in the crook of his neck. "That sounds wonderful."

"...but?"

Wanda grimaced, completely unsure as to how she could explain it to him. Not when he asked for so little from her - from his life as a whole - and not when it was something she genuinely wanted too.

But she did have other responsibilities. And she couldn't ignore them (or at least why she had them) with a clear conscience. "I can't leave them," she said. Sad, but resolute. "The Avengers...they've done so much for me. Been so kind and generous when I didn't deserve it. I...I can't just abandon them."

"Right."

Wanda burrowed further into her hiding spot, hating how easily he resigned to the fact that their dream life couldn't be a reality. Though what she really hated was that it was because of her. Not six months ago, she had hated the Avengers. Now she was putting them above everything else. When had this happened?

James squeezed her hand that was still in his, bringing her back to him before she could start drowning in her thoughts again. His free hand continued its motions over her chest, tracing invisible circles so gently and languidly that she could almost fall asleep right there. Though with her nightmares still a problem, as well as her inability to control her scarlet during them, sleep was the one risk she refused to take around him.

The witch finally summoned the courage to face him again, even going as far as shifting until she was half-laying on top of him. "Someday it'll be easier," she whispered. It seemed impossible at the moment, and an irate little voice in her mind argued against entertaining any more dreams. But unlike James, she was willing to ignore it. "We'll find that place for just the two of us. And you know what I think?"

He grunted.

"I think we should find some place warm. Maybe near the sea. I don't think I've ever been to a real beach before. I'd like to see one."

She crawled closer to press a few teasing kisses along his jaw. "Maybe I could find one of those tiny bikini things to wear," she spoke into his scruff, waggling her eyebrows exaggeratedly just to hear him chuckle.

"That's...surprisingly inappropriate of you to suggest, koldun'ya. You know you're speaking to a hundred-year-old man, right?"

The witch scrunched up her nose, pretending to be disgusted. She knew in actuality he was much younger biologically. "Well, I suppose I don't have to."

"It wouldn't really matter to me." His hand went into her hair again, combing more of it aside so he could see her face better. "You'd look beautiful in anything, koldun'ya."

God, it was absolutely ridiculous that things like that still made her blush. Not only that, but he always seemed flustered when they did. She knew thanks to Steve that James Barnes had been quite the sweet-talker back in their day, always looking to score not only a date for himself, but for his friend as well. But she also knew that her James was only a few pieces of that old self, so....

"Moya soldat," she breathed wistfully. "You are too sweet." Then she moved again, this time lifting herself up to straddle him and kiss him soundly. It was wrong, she knew, but she wanted to entertain the thought that the world was comprised of only them in this cozy sanctuary for just a few more minutes. Then his kisses became a little more feverish, and they both tried not to think of anything at all.


Her walk home had never felt so long. Maybe because she didn't feel like she was going home, but rather leaving a simpler, better one behind. It took everything she had not to turn and run back the way she came. Grab James and what little he had and just go.

But in the end, her mind always went back to the Avengers. How much she owed them. How they had become just as prominent in her life as the soldier, despite her recent neglect of them in favor of him.

I never will be free of cages, will I?

Wanda pulled her tote bag higher on her shoulder, sighing heavily as she made her way down the hill towards the suburb part of town. She was already tired of walking. Not necessarily due to the physical exertion, but from the loneliness of it. The free reign it gave her thoughts to fully bear down on her. She didn't know what she was doing anymore. But James had sounded like he did.

I should've told him not to wait for me. It would have been hard, especially after she'd implied that she would wait for a time when the Avengers didn't need her. But if James was ready to leave, she couldn't deny that the best thing for him would be to do so. He was a wanted man, and the longer he stayed in one place, the higher he ran risk of being noticed. If anyone found him, or something worse happened because he had been waiting for her to go with him....

A stranger spared her from finishing that thought, accidentally bumping into her as he passed by in the opposite direction.

"Whoa! So sorry about that, miss," the stranger said. His arm had somehow knocked her bag off her arm, and he instantly kneeled down to get it for her. "I didn't break anything did I?"

"No...no, there wasn't anything in there," Wanda assured, still slightly distracted from how deep in thought she had been. "Just empty food containers."

"Well, whatever was in there, it smells like it was something good," the stranger - a tall, lean fellow that was clearly dressed nicely under his long coat - commented. Wanda thought it strange. She had brought James some dinner leftovers from the facility that she didn't think had left any strong scent behind. But she supposed it was his awkward attempt at being polite. He handed the bag back to her and let them both continue on their respective paths.

Wanda raked her hand roughly through her hair as she made the usual turn onto the gravel road leading to the woods. Suddenly it didn't matter where she went, just as long as she could be away from people. Their thoughts, their energy, their eyes. She just wanted to lie down and rest. Maybe sleep until some of her anxieties felt less daunting.

Of course, the team didn't make sneaking back into the compound easy. In fact, when she let herself in, they were all in the training area there. They weren't waiting for her per se, but rather gathered there to try out the device Stark had finally perfected after months at work.

"Hey, kid!" Sam called upon seeing her. "Check it out, Red Wing's up and going!"

Natasha's tone was deadpan. "You are not calling it that."

"He is my buddy now, so I think I'm the one that gets to name him."

Wanda only hummed as the pair went at it, hoping to quietly slip past while they were distracted. Stark had eyes only for the red device he had attached to one of Sam's arm braces, looking up only to see if the bird-like robot in the air responded to it. Steve, however, (ever the doting mother hen) didn't let her pass by him without question. "You don't want to see how it works? We thought it might make for an interesting training session, seeing it dodge your powers."

That was an excuse to get her to stay. A weak one, but an excuse clear as day. She knew the team - or at least Steve - was worried by how much time she was suddenly spending 'alone' again. She felt guilty about that, really. But at the given moment, she was more irritated by it. Which was unreasonable, she knew, since it wasn't his fault. She was just constantly worried about James, and now frustrated as well because of how she trapped she felt here. To be honest, she had no idea if they would let her leave if she asked. They were so hard pressed on her being part of the team, and redeeming herself for the Battle of Sokovia. And more than anything, they probably thought they were keeping her safe by keeping her away from the public that feared and hated her so much. They didn't know how often she went into society, never once being noticed by anyone. Yet, Maximoff. You haven't been noticed yet.

"Maybe some other time," Wanda answered the Captain. "My head's been aching, and I think it would be best if I just got some rest."

"You've been getting those quite a lot, recently," Steve pointed out. "You want to go to medical?"

"No, no, it's fine. I'm used to it. Just need to wait it out."

"OK, if that's what you want," the Captain assented, even though he didn't sound all that approving. "You know where to find us if you need us, right?"

With a curt nod, Wanda excused herself and retreated to her bedroom. She didn't even stop to drop off her bag in the common area, like she usually did. She merely dropped it on the floor by her bed, too tired to care about the empty Tupperware in it. She was too tired to care about anything at the moment, really.

She flopped down across her bed, rolling over to grab the nearest pillow and hug it close. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was back at the inn. Maybe back where she just was, curled around James as he rubbed soothing touches into her skin. She wanted to picture more of that distant dream life they'd talked about, just the two of them in their own cozy place far from anyone that knew either of them. She wanted to fall asleep there, tucked around her soldier or curled up in his embrace. She wondered how he would wake her afterward. What they would do for the day, what their home would look like, or their neighborhood.

The witch slowly drifted off for the remainder of the evening, fantasizing about a single day in another, sweeter life.


The following day, Wanda woke up to karma biting her in the ass. After days of excusing herself from the team through imaginary headaches, a real one had appeared. Nothing too debilitating, but when she made her usual trek to the inn, all she wanted to do upon reaching the room was lie down in the dark. When James found her there, he didn't speak on it. He merely shed his jacket and cap as usual and crawled up to lay beside her like they had the day before. Though the way he held her this time was...different. Clingier it seemed, with both arms around her instead of just one grazing over her skin. She tried not to think too much into it, preferring to rest her eyes and thoughts for once.

When James eventually spoke, his voice was thunderous in the quiet. "Koldun'ya ?"

"Hmm?" she hummed into his shoulder, still resting her eyes.

"What would you say if I told you I love you?"

That got to her. At first, she didn't know how to react and only lifted her head to see his face. From what she could see, he wasn't terribly serious about what he was getting at, but was still legitimately curious. Then she realized her own mind was scrambling to convince itself that he didn't mean it the way she was thinking. He couldn't . Yes, they had grown close in the past months, to the point that they were now contemplating running off together. But she had attributed that to a fear of him being alone again. Didn't he know what she was? What she had done to her own homeland? To her brother?

She slipped into the cool mask of indifference, something she was learning from Natasha. "It depends. Would you mean it?"

"I don't know," he said honestly, eyes staring at memories far from both of them. "I can't remember if Steve's old Bucky ever felt that way about a girl...don't think he had much of a chance to before the war started."

That was disheartening to hear, and even though it wasn't her fault, the witch felt the need to press apologetic kisses to his shoulder.

"Did you love him? The other experiment they always paired you with?"

She couldn't stop the small, bitter laugh that escaped her at that. Mostly because she thought she heard a tinge of jealousy in his voice. Either because she possibly knew what being in love was like, or because it had been with another man. One that he must not remember was her brother. God, why did they wipe him so many times?

"Yes, I did - I do." She found it surprisingly difficult to talk about her brother to James now. Pietro was never brought up after her meltdown. She had hated and been embarrassed to have come apart like that, however brief the moment was, and didn't want to encourage it to happen again. Additionally, she had foolishly thought that one breakdown was enough to process and mend all of her grief over him. But as she struggled to even call him by his name aloud, she realized she was nowhere near close to being over it. "I still do, but...."

"I know. I'm sorry, koldun'ya."

He cradled her face with his flesh hand just as she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to fend off the cruel reality that she had outlived her twin. And yet, that one light touch from James was enough to send her back to that day months ago, when she finally confronted the need to let herself mourn.

"It's my fault," she confessed pitifully. She didn't even know she was crying until James's thumb swept a fat droplet away from her cheek. "It's my fault he died - that they all did."

"Wanda - "

"I told them to do it. To join. That the pain wouldn't last forever." She squeezed James's shirt, almost physically pained by the mental images of not only Pietro, but of the last place where she'd felt this burdened by grief. The hellhole where she had nearly been eaten whole by death and suffering. Horrors she had put others through, long before the creation of Ultron. The hurt she had brought Number 21 and other doomed experiments she had been stupid enough to befriend. "I said they would get better - that they would grow powerful, like me. But they didn't - I lied! I lied to them, and now they're gone because of it. They're all..."

She couldn't even say it. She was too afraid.

She could feel the soldier's hand on her still, sliding down her chin to insist she look up at him. But she couldn't. She knew she would only break down again. "Wanda, that's not on you. You didn't know how those experiments would end. It's alright if you were just trying to help."

"It's not!" she sobbed. "I failed. I gave them hope, and then I failed them."

James seemed to realize he couldn't talk her down from this. He said nothing more, and opted to hold her to his chest instead. Somewhere amidst her second unravelling, she could appreciate how unafraid he was to touch her this time, keeping both arms strong and sure around her. The fingers of his left one even trailed up and down along her spine at a soothing pace.

The witch shuddered, roughly wiping away some of her escaped tears. She nuzzled further into James's chest, as if she could hide if she burrowed close enough in his warmth. Through the fabric of his shirt, she could feel the raised skin of a scar. One of the longer ones that branched out from the seam on his left arm. While the metal arm had never bothered her before, now it felt like a harsh reminder of his time with Hydra. Where he had been forced to be the subject of horrible experimentation, while she'd foolishly encouraged others to endure the same fate.

This is why you shouldn't love me, James Barnes. Everything you suffered from, I once stood for. You deserve better than that.

Even though she believed she didn't deserve to encourage his affection any more, Wanda urgently tugged at the collar of his shirt, forcing it aside to expose the raised, silvery flesh of his scars. She'd seen every one of them before, had memorized where they ran on his body, and learned where each one had come from. But now she traced those she could immediately reach with a feather-light touch, as though discovering them for the first time. First with her fingers, then with lips like she was trying to kiss each one away. Like she could soothe each mark, and erase them through the sheer power of her grief and remorse for what she had seen Hydra do to innocents like him. She traced the three particularly long ones that stretched into his chest from where the foreign limb was forced to connect to his body. The one running diagonally between his abs from where a rival assassin had gotten him with their knife, so long ago it was now barely noticeable. The series of small, short slashes near his collarbone where he'd forced his arm through a glass window to reach a target.

His touch haunted her still, the cool metal fingers travelling higher to brush some of her hair out of her face. "Wanda, you don't have - "

"I'm sorry." The words tumbled out of her mouth without any sense of control. "I'm sorry for everything they did to you. I make sure not to see it, but I can still feel it whenever you remember. I can feel how sad you are when you remember something you wish you hadn't."

She looked up at him then, meeting his steely eyes through the fresh wave of tears gathering in her own. She was afraid he would think she was absorbing his emotions on purpose, and be upset she put so much on herself.

He did seem distressed, though not about that. He made sure she held his gaze by cradling her face between his hands, simultaneously chilling and warming the tear marks left on her cheeks. "I'm sorry. I know you've already been hurt by them, too."

She closed her eyes, wishing more than anything she could hide.

"Your grief matters too, Wanda. You can tell me about it. Let it out."

She did. Her sorrow bled out, full force with her careless to stop it. She mourned her brother, her soldier, herself, and the other experiments, crying until there was seemingly nothing left inside of her. She didn't feel the same sense of shame she had the first time she'd done so, when she had been suffering alone in her Hydra cell from the first burns of her scarlet. Now she only felt tired, and her headache from the morning felt worse. But her body did feel lighter, as if her grief had been a physical weight on her shoulders that was finally released. The survivor's guilt over Strucker's other experiments was something she'd been carrying longer than Pietro's death, and so much time ignoring it had made it an even bigger burden bear. She had to admit that she did feel freer now that she had allowed herself to acknowledge it.

When the worst of it was over, she squeezed the fistful of James's collar that was still in hand. "Thank you," she rasped. "Thank you for finding me."

A small burst of bittersweet laughter blew over her head, parting her hair back into her face. "I'm pretty sure it was the other way around, koldun'ya."

No. She shook her head as best she could with her face still pressed to his chest. "You saw me. Really saw me, and let that person in. Helped me learn to be more than the Witch. I...thank you."

James didn't say anything to that. He only brushed the hair from her face again, then dotted the freshly revealed skin there with tender kisses, seeking to anchor her the only way he knew how. And she was more than willing to let him, rolling onto her back as he sought her mouth. She let him practically devour her, ensuring he stayed hovering over her by locking her fingers into his hair. When that became too much for her lungs to bear, she pulled away and simply indulged in the feeling of his lips trailing down her throat and chest. Though before he got too far, she spoke once more, a broken whisper that felt unbefitting of their quiet sanctuary. "I don't want you to go."

He paused, slowly bringing himself up to lean on his elbows on either side of her. She knew what he wanted to tell her, even before he said a word, even without looking into his mind. "But I can't be the reason you stay, either," she declared, somehow managing to sound more solid than she really felt. "I know why you want to leave - why you need to. And I can't be what holds you back."

She knotted her fingers into his hair, looking through him rather than at him because that made this easier. "Please, promise me you'll go when you're ready to. Even if it's without me, you'll go as soon as you can. Promise me, soldat?" 

James dipped his head, bringing it down to rest against her forehead. With a heavy sigh, his warm breath down her face. Yet the silent burden behind it made her skin rise up in a chill. "Oh, koldun'ya. I...I can't promise that."

Surprised, Wanda gently tugged at his hair, urging him to look at her properly. He did because he was stronger than she would have been. He met her gaze evenly, unashamed of his choice. "I...I've had the means to go since Miss Gracie came home a few days ago. Once I finish getting the right papers together, I won't have anything else keeping me here anymore."

That...was upsetting. Any selfish thoughts she might have had about keeping him with her were quickly and completely gone. Overshadowed by the fact that he was wasting time here when he didn't have to, and that wasn't safe. Wanda wanted to protest, to demand he follow through with her promise even though he hadn't made it, but he didn't let her. "But I can't just leave. Not if you need me, and I...I need you. If I didn't have you during that episode...."

"Then let me see," Wanda insisted, carefully brushing her thumbs around the sensitive areas of his temples. It was a huge bluff, but she was too determined to convince him. "I can find those bad memories - cover them up, maybe. So you won't need me anymore."

"That's not what I - " James huffed, dropping his head again, this time in frustration with himself and his usual struggle to convey his emotions. "I just...I don't want to leave you. Isn't that enough, sweetheart?"

He had never called her that before. Any other time, hearing him refer to her with such endearment probably would have moved her. Made her blush, and silently curse him for being so attached. Now, she was in the midst of realizing such attachment had officially become too strong. It was keeping him from going somewhere safe, and that was her fault. She'd always been the one to encourage their meetings - it was always her that came to see him.

He didn't seem to realize that the pet name had struck such a chord with her. "What we have here...I want that. I want you. I - "

She didn't want to hear. She didn't think she could take it. So, she grabbed him before he could finish the thought, swallowing his words in a hard kiss. He wasn't responsive at first. She could practically taste his disappointment at what she was doing, how hard she was trying to push him away. But then he suddenly became compliant, even going so far as silently requesting entrance into her mouth. She happily obliged, letting herself melt into him. It would only strengthen their attachment, she knew, and that wasn't wise. But for the moment, she didn't care. Just one last time, she promised herself. Just because this was something she could handle. This was something familiar, something she wanted that she could actually reach.

So, of course, the goddamn Avengers had to get in the way.

Earlier that week, Stark had gifted her a spare phone in case she needed the team while travelling alone with 'terrible headaches'. Since then it had barely left her jacket, which was presently splayed out across the nightstand. She couldn't think of any other reason the pocket would suddenly be buzzing and eliciting an annoying chime.

Nevertheless, she did attempt to wriggle away from James to see to it. She apologized softly upon hearing his little grunts of protest. "Sorry, I have to get that. It's probably the team."

The soldier positively growled, but still rolled onto his side to let her up. Wanda fumbled for a flustered minute to fish out the device, unable to care that she didn't recognize the number when she answered. Mostly because at the same time, she could feel James carelessly pushing the collar of her shirt aside to continue what he'd been doing, making sure to keep the sounds low.

"Yes?" Wanda answered curtly, finding it impossible to focus when the soldier behind her absolutely insisted on branding her. Though part of her really was irked to get a call now, when she was supposed to be in her bubble of freedom. Possibly for the last time.

"Hey, kid." Sam. "You doing alright? We missed you this morning."

She fought a whimper at a particularly hard scrape of teeth against the back of her neck. "Ye - yes! I'm fine."

"Yeah? 'Cause we went looking for you in your room, and saw you didn't take a lunch today. Kind of looked like you left in a hurry. Everything OK with your woodland buddies?"

Damn, she had left the yellow bag in her room. She had been too caught off-guard by getting a real headache to put any food together and simply left before she lost the energy to travel. "Um...yeah. I just got head - a headache."

Your mother is spinning in her grave, Maximoff.

"Another one?" Sam sounded far away now, but she could still pick up his concern. "Well, you know, we can go get you. Maybe pick up something for lunch together, or get more of that tea you like."

"Oh, no, I don't think that's...you don't have to. It'll pass soon, I'm sure."

Sam went on about something else, but Wanda was miles away from it. Especially as the back of her shirt was carefully pushed up, allowing the scars there to be treated with the same intimate attention she had given the marks on James. She only knew Sam was still speaking because of the warm device pressed to her ear, and her mind's ceaseless urging to snap, Hang up already! Though she very well couldn't say that, so she just mindlessly hummed in agreement to whatever he said, and hoped like hell he didn't hear her forgetting to breathe.

"You sure you're feelin' alright? You sound kind of out of it."

"M'sure, Sam. Thanks."

"OK...so, we'll be seeing you later tonight?"

Shit, how soon is 'later'? She had no idea when she had agreed to that, but she would just have to trust that she had. "Mh-hmm."

"OK. See you."

"Bye," she spluttered, coming eerily close to forgetting to hang up her end before tossing the phone at the nightstand. She promptly rolled back onto her back to finally see to her unbelievably incorrigible soldier.

"I have to go soon. We have a couple hours, top," she told him, hoping that was a reasonable time in relation to whatever she had promised Sam. "Make it count."

He read what she didn't say. Her scarlet picked up on the apprehension around him, but he was quick to brush it off, wanting nothing more than to just have a distraction again. To put her mind at ease, even though his was torn between what he wanted, and what she had asked of him. "OK."

It's what's best, my James. She didn't dare say that aloud. Rather, she only helped him work her skirt down her thighs before insisting, "And no more love bites - ah! "

"Last one."


Back at the Avengers compound, just as the Maximoff sister hung up on Sam Wilson, he began making his way over to the common area, where the rest of the team were waiting solemnly for him around the kitchen island.

"You get a hold of her?" Tony asked.

"Yeah," Sam said, pocketing his phone as he slid into the chair beside Natasha's.

"How'd she sound?" the spy questioned.

Sam only sighed at first, folding his hands together. "I don't know...I thought she sounded pretty distracted, but if I asked if anything was bothering her, she would say everything was fine."

"Sounds on par with every other time we approached her," Steve mused, doing a poor job to hide his frustration.

"Hey, at least she's admitting it when she doesn't feel well," Sam pointed out. "Before, she wouldn't tell us anything. Then she had a really good thing going, and now - "

Natasha cut him off. "But now, she's slowly reverting back, so you think she was pink-clouding."

"Pink-clouding?" Steve looked between them in puzzlement. "Is that something with her powers?"

"No, it's a term for people going through trauma. Or sometimes even sobriety for the first time," Sam explained, sounding uncharacteristically clinical. "It refers to when they try to cope by putting up a fake, positive front - dissociate, almost, when reality gets to be too much. But eventually, reality's got to set back in...."

Tony hummed thoughtfully. "Well, we saw how that church she was in looked that first time. Who knows what she could do to this place."

"Or to herself."

Natasha's quiet statement put all eyes on her, though her own gaze was fixed blankly on the countertop beneath her folded hands.

"You think she would do something like that?" Sam questioned.

Natasha sighed, now allowed some of her agitation show on her face. "I think...that we don't know her nearly as well as we thought we did. And if we keep turning a blind eye, just pretending that everything wrong with her will sort itself out on its own, then it will be on us if she does do something stupid."

There was a moment of silence as that sank in. Then Tony's impatience got the best of him, as he scrubbed his face furiously with his hand. "So, what are we supposed to do then? Lean on her until she breaks down and tells us everything? Find a shrink that specializes in the illegally enhanced?"

Sam raised his hands, attempting to abate some of the tension in the air. "OK, well we should be reasonable. I definitely think we shouldn't push her - that's just asking for more trouble than it's worth. But I also feel like we should at least keep trying to come to her. See if she gets comfortable enough to talk about how she's doing honestly."

"What if we called in Barton?" Steve suggested, sounding hopeful at the idea. "After the fight in Sokovia, she seemed to stick to him."

"His third kid was just born," Natasha solemnly reminded. "Unless we have explicit proof that it's an emergency, it'll be a while before he lets anyone bring him out here."

The other three Avengers visibly deflated. With a weary sigh, Tony trained his gaze onto the bowl of fruit that resided permanently on the countertop. "Well, you know..." he started in a quiet voice. "I wasn't entirely kidding about that shrink. I, uh...I actually asked Pepper to look into some people for the whole lot of us. And of course, put together an NDA - keep everything private, and all that. It'd take less than a phone call to have her add Maximoff to the roster."

Sam nodded to that, though his face looked conflicted. "I've been asking some of the people I know, too. Though to be honest, even though they're all good with what they do, I don't think any of them would know how to approach someone like Maximoff."

"Why wouldn't they?" Steve asked, crossing his arms over his chest. He looked like he had a good idea of the answer, and already disapproved.

Nat was the one to answer him, as blunt and emotionally reticent as ever. "They're all afraid of her."

"They're afraid of what she can do," Sam corrected. "No one wants to risk provoking something they know can do a lot of damage, especially when they don't really get all the why's and how's to it. We'd be lucky if we found anyone who's first instinct wasn't to drug her up just to ensure she stayed sedate."

"She's a kid," Steve insisted. "Surely there's someone that will help...."

"She's a kid we're keeping here illegally," Tony cut in, angry and frustrated, "because even our government is so afraid of her that they won't grant her a visa!"

Natasha put her face into her hands, putting all her weight on her elbows. "OK, OK. That's...that's something for another day. Right now we need to worry about getting to her on our own, and seeing what exactly set this off. Then we can see how she feels about confiding in a stranger after."

"Let me try," Steve offered, shifting his weight and adjusting his demeanor so that he appeared like the stalwart, commanding leader he was in battle. "A few months back, I opened up to her, and that was when she started with the...'positivity cloud'. Maybe if I talk with her again, I can get something out of her this time."

The others looked to Sam, the only one of them who had any real experience dealing with other people's trauma. He met their expectant eyes with a resigned shrug. "If you think she trusts you, then I say go for it. This isn't likely to get better for real until she faces what she went through in Sokovia in a meaningful way."

Steve nodded. "I'll look into it."

"What - right now?" Natasha questioned as he made his way around the island.

"Yeah. Why not?" the Captain replied, his fresh sense of purpose never wavering. "Figured we've done enough waiting, haven't we?"

Natasha didn't say anything to that right away. Then, just as Steve was about to disappear into the hallway, she called after him to wait up. He did, looking slightly surprised as she jogged across the room to fall in step beside him. "You want to come with?"

"Yeah, why not?" Natasha said, throwing his own faux nonchalance right back at him. "We're partners, remember? The two of us were going to put this new team together, so shouldn't the two of us make sure it stays together?"

Steve didn't explicitly answer to that, but did give an earnest nod as they proceeded. In silence, they crossed the usual distance they usually saw Wanda cover when she left through the training room exit. It wasn't until they reached the backwoods did Natasha let the Captain wander a few paces ahead of her, recognizing his loss of direction. None of them had ever followed Wanda this far, in an unspoken agreement that it was her safe haven from them and their constant stream of thoughts. Even now, Natasha was reluctant to invade the girl's space, and the actual reason she came with Steve was to remind him Wanda may not appreciate the unexpected intrusion. Also, there was a possibility she wasn't even in the area. "What if she went into town? Last I checked, she was almost finished with her current book collection."

Steve finally stopped, standing at the edge of a riverbank. "Yeah, maybe." Looking over his shoulder, he asked her, "You know how to get there from here?"

Natasha shrugged, taking the last few steps to be directly beside him again. "I think it might be better if we just wait here. Make it seem less like we're ganging up on her, you know?"

Steve sighed, and for a moment, Natasha was ready to be faced with his typical stubborn side. Though instead, he gave a resigned nod and continued to simply stare ahead, as if Wanda would mysteriously appear if his will was strong enough. He looked so desperate and concerned, and defeated, that Natasha could barely stand it.

The spy channeled her guise of light-hearted teasing when she patted his shoulder. "At ease, soldier. Patience is a virtue."

Even by the light of a slowly darkening sky, she could see his jaw clench in the split second before he faced her again. "Do you really think she would do it? Try something...bad?"

Natasha tenderly squeezed the firm flesh still beneath her hand. "I know nothing for sure," she answered honestly. "I've only seen this a few times before and...it rarely ends well. But this girl's very private. It could be entirely different from what we think."

That eased him a little. She could feel as much. With one last squeeze of his shoulder, Nat let him go and made herself comfortable on the floor of the riverbank. Steve eyed their surroundings for a few more heartbeats before he joined her, sitting close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder if she wanted to, just like she used to during their movie nights in his apartment in DC. She finds it amusing how she used to dread those, since they were part of an assignment from Fury to help him assimilate to modern culture. The idea annoyed her because she had felt it should have gone to a lesser agent, but now she really missed it. At the time, they were little more than co-workers getting to know each other, and she'd enjoyed that novelty of a budding relationship she had only ever experienced once before with Clint. Now they were both leading a new team of Avengers, and sitting in the woods on a chilly autumn evening to gauge how the youngest and most powerful of that new team was faring.

As much as Natasha genuinely was worried for the girl, she was also worried for Steve. He had grown quickly attached to each of them, either because his personal life was so lonely otherwise or just because it was in his nature. Of course he would put in on himself if a friend wasn't doing alright despite his careful eye. It wasn't fair to himself, and Natasha felt herself becoming irrationally guilty to see him putting even more on his shoulders.

"You said you've seen this before?"

Her partner's quiet inquiry pulled Natasha out of her reverie. "Yeah. With a couple of agents that were new to the field. Both have left SHIELD by now, so I couldn't really tell you how they're doing."

Steve digested that. He appeared to have a lot on his mind as well, so Natasha patiently waited for him to go on. In the meantime, she tried to ease her thoughts by directing her attention to what could possibly attract Wanda to this place so often. The spy leaned back on her palms, letting the dirt and pebbles nip at the flesh of her palms while her focus was more inclined to toying the edge of the river with the tip of her shoe.

"Have you ever thought about leaving?"

Natasha looked back at him, meeting his somberly curious stare evenly. "Have you?"

"I asked you first."

She wanted to smirk at the juvenile response, but knew it wouldn't be terribly appreciated at the moment. "I've wondered what it would be like, if that counts. But never enough to be tempted to actually leave. I..." she shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable with her own honesty. "I just think I've been in this life too long to find anything else."

It would probably be too dangerous for her civilian neighbors to be around an ex-Avenger after all the enemies they had acquired anyways, but she didn't want to think about that right now.

"I know how that is," Steve mused almost inaudibly. "Captain America can't live without a war to fight."

Natasha's brow furrowed. Her mind briefly supplied her with a memory of Ultron saying something similar to him some time ago. She had been more focused at the time at trying to decipher whatever the robotic monstrosity was planning to do to regard it as any more than a schoolyard taunt meant to wear down an adversary before a fight. Now, she could see it had resonated with him on some level. "That may be the case for Captain America, but isn't Steve Rogers different than him?"

He didn't answer right away, so she pressed on, "Maybe if you found the right home, like Barton did - "

"It's not that simple - "

"Why not?" Natasha demanded, not meaning for her tone to sound so heated. She wouldn't wish the loneliness of her lifestyle on any of her colleagues, but for some reason she was always more protective of Steve Rogers, in particular. Maybe it was an innate need to preserve his natural sense of hope and optimism that was so hard to come by anywhere else, or maybe she had simply underestimated how close they had gotten since Fury reassigned her to him as a partner.

Steve still didn't give her a proper answer. Rather, he shook his head with a bitter half-smile that looked unnatural on him. "It's weird, isn't it? How she was the one who made us realize we could never have a normal life, and now here we are, ready to protect her from herself?"

Natasha scowled. "Don't change the subject."

"Well, what do you want me to say?" he huffed shortly. "That I'm trying not to put up the fake front you and Sam are worried about in Wanda? That I know I have a problem never feeling at home here? That nothing makes enough sense for me to feel right outside of this compound? Nothing looks like it's right to me, or sounds right, or tastes right. I just want to be concerned for someone else without also having to remind myself how this team is all I have anymore."

An uncomfortable silence came between them. Steve's shoulders seemed to sag without the pressure of what he'd been keeping inside. Natasha hated everything about it, but not him himself. Never him. If anything, she was disgusted with herself more. It didn't feel right that she know his innermost feelings and past when he knew so little of hers. It felt like she was failing him as a friend. None of her years and experienced training prepared her for dealing with that.

Not knowing what else to do, Natasha shifted closer to him, slipping her hand into his. She thought having the anchor might help. They sat like that for a few more unbearable moments before he gave in, dropping his head on her shoulder like she had imagined herself doing earlier.

"I meant what I said. Just have patience." It felt weird to have to tell Captain America that, but no matter. "You'll find someone with that 'shared life experience', and you'll start finding your way from there."

She felt another half smile stretch against her shoulder when she brought back the words they'd shared in Washington DC. "You remember that?"

This time she did smirk, somewhat put off that he had such little faith in her 'inferior, non-enhanced' memory. "You still think I'm in the wrong business, Rogers?"

He lifted his head, his smile looking a little more genuine now. It felt like he was going to say something more, but then the quiet moment was completely and abruptly gone with the arrival by a new party.

"Captain?"

The curious voice cut through the serene air of the woods, soft and familiar despite having lost some of its accent from so long in the States. Both the Widow and Captain easily spotted their youngest teammate on the other side of the stream, with the last few lights of dusk outlining her in an ethereal, orangish glow. She came closer by walking across the line of stones in the part of the river on the other side of Natasha. Sounding more certain of what she'd found, she respectfully addressed her teammates, "Captain. Agent Romanoff. What are you doing out here?"

Both Avengers rose to their feet, sharing a look of uncertainty. "We still weren't sure if you were doing OK," Natasha explained truthfully, "so we thought we'd come out and find you. Check on you in person."

"Well, I appreciate the thought, but it really wasn't necessary," Wanda insisted, looking uncomfortable as she pushed some of her hair behind her ear. "I'm fine, really."

Natasha didn't believe her. The witch's overall expression was cloudy, too distanced for even the well-experienced spy to read in the poor lighting. But what was clear was that the little witch was worn out by something. Her eyes looked tired, weary, and her face seemed...pale. Like there was something physically wrong. Like she was sick.

That couldn't be possible. A small part of Natasha actually wished it was so, because something like that could be easily solved. But Maximoff's file said she had developed immunity from common illnesses, if not from her scarlet, then from so long living in the streets of a poor country like Sokovia. Though, that could be a viable reason why she felt the need to hide it. Maybe Maximoff herself was in denial because she had never been sick before, and didn't want the team to catch on if it meant there would be a fuss. She certainly looked like she was hiding something, repetitively cinching her coat securely around her neck despite it only being the beginning of fall.

Steve spoke up, "Well, we're just trying to play it safe. We don't want anything happening to you, Wanda. We need you."

Something about that made her wince. Natasha didn't understand it, but Wanda was already brushing it off before she could read more on it. "I'm OK. Just ready to be home, I think. We were going to grab something to eat together tonight, yes?"

Steve readily agreed, following her as she began heading back the way the two Avengers had come. Natasha was a step behind them, still wary of the witch's behavior. Wanda was moving oddly, as though she were resisting the urge to fidget under the spy's calculative stare. Natasha didn't doubt the witch could see everything she was thinking, but if she was reading, she didn't speak on it.

But then Wanda stumbled. It was a minute thing, so subtle that even Steve's super-senses didn't pick up on it. Natasha only noticed because she had been travelling behind them, as well as keeping a close eye on the girl. On instinct, the spy reached out to grab on of her arms, forcing her to stop and allow herself a moment to steady herself. That's when Steve noticed, halting in his own path to ask, "What is it? What's wrong?"

Wanda gave a shaky sigh, rubbing her forehead. "Nothing, nothing. I just...I felt a bit woozy there."

"Really?" Steve pressed. "Because if that's so, maybe you should see someone in medical."

"No, it's fine." Wanda steadied herself with another measured breath, lowering her hand from her face. There was a type of confusion in her eyes that Natasha thought would be hard to fake, and her mind quickly went back to her theory of Wanda falling sick for the first time in however long. "It's like the headaches; just something that comes and goes."

Steve looked at Natasha, as if asking for her guidance.

Just be patient, the spy willed her partner to understand. If we push her, it'll only make her want to hide more.

"Maybe your stomach needs something sooner than we thought," Natasha suggested. "We can grab something now, and I can see how you're doing afterward. If it's still this bad, I'll walk you to medical."

That seemed like a fair compromise, which luckily, Wanda didn't shy away from. Though her soft "alright" didn't sound entirely pleased either. But it was a start, at least.

With another adjustment to her keep her coat tightly around her, Wanda continued on the way back to the compound. From there on, she seemed more or less normal again. A little quieter than she had been of late, but to be fair, everyone at dinner was (which Natasha found depressing, seeing as it was among the few where all of them were there at once). As soon as she was finished with her plate, the little witch disappeared again under the excuse of wanting to rest her eyes. Natasha and the others let her go, granting her some privacy for twenty minutes before Sam and Tony began asking questions.

"We didn't learn anything because we didn't ask," Steve told them. "Natasha didn't want it to seem like we're bombarding her."

"I'm going to check in with her now," Natasha assured, disposing of her plate in the sink. "If anything seems off, I'll make sure she sees someone."

No one questioned her further, so the matter stayed at that. The spy left them to their own devices, travelling at a cool pace to the Maximoff sister's room. She was immediately caught off-guard by the door there being left widely ajar, which seemed suspiciously counterintuitive to the peace and quiet the girl was looking for. Natasha tapped her knuckles against the doorjamb for the politeness of it before fully crossing the threshold inside. Wanda was there, still in her heavy autumn clothes as she lay atop the bedspread, facing away from the door. She was curled in on herself, as if trying to hide from the light of the one lamp she had lit on the other side of the room. Natasha stepped carefully closer, realizing with every step that the girl was fast asleep.

The spy was at a loss. Her young teammate seemed alright for the moment, if a little uncomfortable having fallen asleep in her coat. Though when Natasha brought a knee to rest on the other side of the bed and lean over to try peeling off the thick garment, Wanda stirred at the unexpected touch.

"Sorry," the Widow murmured. "Wasn't trying to wake you, koldun'ya."

Natasha had never called her that before - hell, she hadn't spoken much Russian in general since coming to live at the Facility, but somehow the word made Wanda smile. The witch was still more asleep than awake, rolling onto her other side and practically curling around the warmth of the other person on her bed. Natasha felt trapped by that, though she didn't try anything to get away. Oddly enough, she actually stayed put, running her fingers through the girl's hair to ensure she really was falling back to sleep. Lord knew she probably needed the rest.

"You still feel fine?" the spy questioned softly. She was mostly asking now because she had promised the others she would make absolutely sure. She was expecting an answer at all.

She got one. "Mh-hmm."

Natasha's mouth twitched in the beginning of a bittersweet smirk. She was unconvinced both because Wanda was still clearly half-asleep, and because the skin where her fingers ran still felt warm. Not the kind of warm from spending too long in too many layers of clothing, but an unnerving, clammy sort of warm that was embedded into the skin.

But that can't be. She said she couldn't get sick.

Natasha wound up stuck there, atop the Sokovian's bed with said girl wrapped around her in a half-dead sleep, for almost the entire night. At some point she nodded off as well, having accidentally lulled herself to sleep with a constant stream of the same thought: She can't get sick. She physically can't. It was almost a desperate loop, one the Widow wasn't willing to recognize was born from the very fear she shared with Steve Rogers.

Nothing can happen to this team. It's all I have left.


Whatever had been bothering Wanda in short bursts all throughout the day before returned the next morning with a vengeance. She woke up again because of a pain in her head, this time more prominent than before. It felt like her brain was beating on the inside of her skull, seeking an escape. Something as simple as getting up from bed made her suddenly dizzy, and she had to sit back down for fear her legs wouldn't support her. She hadn't felt anything like it since her experimentation in Hydra, when her body was withering under the torturous alien substances invading her. Then and for a brief moment last night, during her walk back to the compound. As quick as it had been, it completely took her aback to have her vision suddenly swim. Now, the dizziness was fading, but there was still pain.

What the hell? She had never been terribly sick before, and after gaining the enhancements she had, she didn't think it possible for her to get sick ever. Yet here she was, so nauseous and disorientated that she was struggling simply to leave her room. She couldn't travel like this. As much as she wanted to see James, she didn't think she could get anywhere if this... attack continued.

Miserably, Wanda dragged feet towards the common room. She wasn't entirely sure what her goal was. Her thoughts were like mud as she made her way there, reaching listlessly for possibilities as to what was making her feel this way. Stress, maybe? She had been anxious about James (particularly the issue of him leaving), but not any more so than she usually was for him.

"Koldun'ya?"

James?

"Witch!"

Wanda shook her head, knocking some of her disorientation aside. Natasha's lovely features flooded her sight, her bright crimson hair outlined by the light of the common room behind her. "Hey, you alright? You looked ready to drop for a moment there."

"I'm fine," Wanda replied from sheer habit. "Just woke up feeling a little faint."

"Again? Because that's not good," Natasha said bluntly. Her hand went to Wanda's cheek, forcing her young teammate to look at her. Wanda made an attempt to look into her mind, to see what the skilled agent was looking for, but all her own mind fed her was nausea. "Think it's about time we took you to medical."

For once, Wanda didn't protest the idea. As much as Hydra made her distrust doctors, anything was better than feeling like this. "I think I need some water first."

She was thankful Natasha didn't argue with that, stepping aside to let Wanda cross the threshold into the common area. Though Wanda could feel the agent's studious eyes on her the entire time. If the Black Widow was on such intense alert, Wanda knew she must appear as poorly as she felt.

In the kitchenette, however, Sam and Steve seemed unaware anything was amiss as they prepped for their morning workout. Though a slight sense of suspicion did cross Steve's face when he noticed Wanda moving sluggishly away from Nat. "Hey. Is something wrong?" he asked, stepping away from the kitchenette.

Wanda tried to answer him, but found herself unable to form a word. Whatever was ailing her suddenly struck with full force. All at once, she lost focus and something malicious seized her lungs. She wanted to cough, get rid of this feeling until she could breathe again, but it wasn't possible. She felt like she was burning just below the surface of her skin, her scarlet glowing at her fingertips. She choked on her own breath, terrified of how tightly bound she was. It was as though she was back where she had been before the Avengers, and before Ultron. Bound for experimentation with Hydra. Slowly dying beside her brother.

"Hold on to me, sestra. I'm right here. Just breathe."

I can't, Pietro.

The witch fell. She knew despite her already dizzied vision because of a frantic shout from Natasha that someone catch her. Her legs crumpled beneath her, assailing her body with impact from the harsh, cold floor. The only remote relief she could find was for her head being spared the same fate, colliding instead with the muscular flesh of Captain America's arm.

"What the hell? What happened?" Sam yelled, appearing beside Steve and dropping to one knee.

"I don't know - " Steve began, though Wanda didn't catch the rest as Natasha appeared above her, demanding something from the two men on the other side of her.

No...you're not back there. Wanda forced herself to remember where she was: the Avengers compound. Said Avengers were the only ones here, crowding her because they were worried about her. She wasn't bound by anything but her own body. Her body felt like it was burning because her scarlet was trying to assess what was wrong with its host.

Wanda was assaulted with the feeling of vertigo next, as she was lifted up in Steve's arms and hurriedly carried somewhere new. The rapid shift in lighting did nothing to help her dizziness, nor did the tension her powers picked up from her companions as they argued over something. The witch couldn't make out exactly what over the pounding in her head and roar of her overworked heart. It was all quickly becoming too much to bear at one time.

When the darkness at the edges of her vision began to grow, Wanda willfully surrendered herself to the quiet oblivion.

Chapter Text

Having to watch as their youngest teammate collapsed at random was nothing short of terrifying. Especially now that they were here, some six hours later and still had no answers as to why she was stuck in medical, writhing in a tiny bed beneath the hands of unseen torture and shallow breaths. Six hours, and everyone still had the same question: What happened?

The Captain and his partner hadn’t left their place outside Wanda’s temporary room, both studying everything they could see through the glass window looking in. Both radiated distress despite their stony expressions, their thoughts consumed by the notion that something was wrong with someone on the team that was their responsibility and they didn’t know what.

Sam kept vigil with them for a good while, then made a remark about how long they’d been there. It fell on deaf ears, but that didn’t stop him from going to get something for them to eat for during their seemingly endless wait. While he was gone, Tony finally returned after disappearing to get whatever answers he could from shadowing the medical staff.

Turning to address the inventor was the first Steve had moved in hours. “Any updates?”

Tony’s first response was a sigh as he opened the folder in his hands. “Well, they’ve got her down with a fever. It’s high - higher than when you first brought her in. And...that’s all we’ve got for certain.”

That’s it? The Captain fought the urge to snap. Being not entirely up to date with all of the medical advances since his time didn’t put him in any position to judge how quick everything was supposed to be going. So, he stifled his impatience. For now. “Nothing on what could’ve caused it? Her file says she can’t get sick from just anything.”

“They’re trying to work on that part right now. In case you hadn’t noticed, she’s not exactly the most compliant patient.”

Steve scowled. He had seen that much standing here, watching Dr. Cho and her team through the window. Whenever they tried anything that involved grabbing Wanda or even letting a piece of equipment touch her, Wanda would panic. Not that he could blame her. A history of human experimentation didn’t exactly scream ‘good medical experience.’ To add to that was a her sense of confusion with the current ordeal, indicating that she wasn’t in her right mind regardless of what others were trying to do to her.

“So far, her symptoms do go along with your common virus. A high fever, confusion, headaches, trouble breathing. Only problem is, according to her records, her enhancements are supposed to be fighting it.”

“And they're not?”

Tony sighed again, flipping the files of the folder in hand to look at notes that were accompanied by circular photographs. Each one was just of a series of blots, colored black and grey and red, which made no sense to a man from a different time. “It’s...difficult to explain. That stuff’s in her blood - maybe even her DNA, and it’s clearly trying to push back against the infected cells. Except whenever they interact, the enhanced cells don’t actually do anything. Like the infected cells are invisible to them.”

That was simple enough to understand - and any other time, Steve would be grateful Tony had learned to use layman’s terms by now. Though content-wise, what Tony was saying still seemed far-fetched. “So...it’s completely capped her powers?”

“Apparently,” Tony said, though he didn’t sound entirely convinced. “The enhancements definitely know something’s wrong. As you can see, they aren’t liking it very much. I’m starting to think that’s the main cause for her body to start failing like this. It’s her immune system trying to attack whatever’s wrong, and completely missing the real culprit.”

Steve rubbed a hand over his face, quite frankly tired of having to watch the process Tony spoke of. Helplessness never sat well with him. “And you can’t tell what it is that infected her in the first place? Or how to stop it?”

Tony tucked the file under his arm, finally braving an actual glance at their suffering teammate. “Like I said, she isn’t terribly helpful with sharing all the details. What questionable places she could’ve gone to, what she was exposed to there - hell, even how long it’s been affecting her since then, seeing as she barely tells us a fucking thing - ”

“She said she was getting migraines - ”

“Yeah, and that they were common for her,” Tony reminded, having no qualms about letting his frustrations show. “At what point does it go from a symptom of Hydra bullshit to something entirely new?”

“She had the fever before too.”

Both Avengers looked to Natasha at her soft proclamation. Her own gaze stayed directly ahead. Not necessarily at the scene inside the hospital room, but of something far off in her own thoughts. “When I fell asleep in her room, I thought she felt warm,” she spy added. “But I didn’t think anything of it because I...I just assumed her powers would take care of it.”

There was an easily detectable layer of guilt in her voice. It didn’t seem fair to let Natasha blame herself for not doing anything after they’d all made the same assumptions when Wanda first reported feeling sick. Yet neither Steve nor Tony said anything more on it now. Instead, Tony’s mouth only twitched. “Well. That means whatever this is had at least an eighteen-hour head start before it got to this point.”

Tony went on to ramble more about the ‘mystery compound’, clearly burying himself in the science behind it. Distracting himself, so he wouldn’t have to face the problem directly. Steve was gradually tuning his voice out, having no interest in the heavy jargon that entailed. The way he understood it, their teammate was sick with something unknown, and how she attained it and how to stop it were unknowns as well. With remorse over not knowing just how badly she had been suffering for however long weighing down on him, Steve didn’t have the patience for unknowns. He wanted answers. He wanted a solution.

The Captain began to wonder if Wanda would be able to provide any clues. If she remembered encountering anything that could have caused this. Though he ruefully recalled how Tony had been right. It was tough to get Wanda to share anything with them when she was healthy. Now, when she was disoriented by the fever...it would take someone she really trusted to get something out of her.

That’s when Steve got an idea. He looked behind him to Natasha as the thought stuck him, knowing she would be able to read the connection to her earlier words. “So, do you think this counts as an emergency?”


The witch felt like she was burning. It was brutal and suffocating. Worst of all, it felt like it had been that way forever. How long it really was, she couldn’t tell. Time seemed to stop ever since she’d first woken in this hellish world of delirium. A world of disjointed memories and nightmares clawing at her for attention. Occasionally, she could recognize snippets of reality and would fight to hold onto them. To remember the people around her, touching and poking and prodding, were only trying to help. You’re not back there. You’re with the Avengers. You’re with friends.

As hard as she tried to hold onto her sense of logic, she couldn’t help it when her brain took her elsewhere. Voices and touches that were meant to be assuring and well-meaning terrified her as they broke through her haze with the faces of people she longed to forget. Baron von Strucker, Dr. List, General Karpov - all men who wanted to hurt her. To change her, and keep her away from her brother.

“Miss Maximoff, you’re alright. I’m Dr. Cho, I’m a physician. We’re going to figure out what’s going on, but first I’m going to need you to hold still, OK?”

Don’t touch me! Wanda writhed on the hard mattress beneath her, trying to escape. Fighting to find reality, or at least something safe. Here and there she did find herself in harmless visions, though they were short and fleeting. The living room of her parents’ apartment. The tree on the outskirts of the city that she would climb and sit in to watch her brother race the neighbor kids. The marketplace where Pietro would give away things he’d stolen. Agent Barton’s farm. The common area where she and the other Avengers would watch movies. The room where she visited her James. So many memories of pleasure and comfort that this felt like torture by comparison.

James, where are you? He was always there when her blood got too hot, soothing her flushed skin with his metal hand. For a brief moment, she thought she could feel that cool relief she missed so, and her heart lifted instantly. Then she recognized the low click of the door shutting closed, and her spirit sank anew to realize the coolness she’d felt had merely been a breeze from another room.

Remember where you are, she told herself. He wouldn’t come here.

Evidently, someone had come to visit her though. And it was almost as surreal to see him as it would’ve been to see James. Upon seeing her confusion, he said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to just barge in. I tried knocking actually, but I don’t think you heard.”

“What...what are you doing here?”

The archer pulled a chair close to her side, making himself as comfortable as he could against the hard plastic. “Disappointing my wife,” he replied jokingly. “I think she’s convinced I use this job as an excuse to make her to fend for herself against the kids. Gotta admit, I am looking forward to a full night’s sleep tonight. I mean, I love my kids, but I think baby Nate’s allergic to sleep or something.”

The functioning half of her feverish mind processed that, recalling what she knew of Agent Barton’s family. She had stayed with them for a brief period after the Ultron incident, when the Avengers’ Facility was still undergoing the final stages of construction. She remembered his wife being friendly and welcoming, despite the hell Wanda had inadvertently put her husband through. She remembered their farm that expressed an aura of the same fondness and good will of the family that inhabited it. It was a pleasant place that even her past self, which had been wallowing in the fresh rawness of Pietro’s loss and the unknown of what would happen to her next, appreciated it at the time.

And she remembered Lila and Cooper - both easily excitable yet endearing just the same - but not Nate. “The baby?” she questioned simply.

“Yeah. We finally had him a few months ago. Shortly after you moved here, actually.” He hesitated for a heartbeat, and it was the closest to nervous Wanda had ever seen him. “You know, we named him after Nat ‘cause I owe her one. But his middle name...I never got a chance to formally ask you about it when you were with us - I didn’t even think of it until after you were gone, but...if it’s alright with you, we thought we’d name him after your brother. You know, given what I owe him too.”

Wanda wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t appreciate that sentiment. And it made her heart swell in gratitude. Pietro’s name wouldn’t be forgotten after she was gone. However, the gesture also made her remorseful for pulling the archer away from his family. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you with them?”

“Cap said he needed some help. Figures, doesn’t it? I leave for what, five minutes, and now he’s losing track of everyone and everything? Thought ninety years of life experience might’ve taught him something.”

Wanda tried to smile at how sure of himself the archer acted, but the effort was hindered by guilt. She’d had a suspicion he was here because of her when he first walked in, but now she knew for certain. Clint didn’t make it any better when he leaned forward slightly, letting his face fall with something more somber. “He says you’ve been like this for the past couple days. No one knows what brought it on, or how to fix it, but we’re thinking knowing one could lead us to the other. So, if you remember anything strange or just different that you came across before this started, it’d be good for us to know.”

Wanda’s lucid thoughts suddenly turned to mud. Not just because she couldn’t think of anything legitimately unusual she’d contacted, but also because she couldn’t figure how to explain the few potentially questionable moments to Clint without giving away the fact that she had been having a secret affair with a fugitive former assassin. If it was something she didn’t notice from the ranch or the inn, what could she say she was doing there in the first place?

That can’t be, she argued with herself. James is at both those places all the time, and he never got sick. If whatever was affecting her was strong enough to get past her scarlet, it could have affected James despite his enhancing serum. As far as she knew, it hadn’t. Unless he’d hidden it from her....

No, he wouldn’t. James could be self-defeating at times, but he cared about her too much to risk passing anything off without at least warning her. James cared about her. He must be worried right now. When was the last time she’d seen him? What was the last thing they had said to each other? James...where are you?

She felt hot. So hot. It felt like she was burning.

“Come on, Wanda, you gotta work with me here. Do you remember anything that could have made you sick?”

She heard Clint’s voice nearby, but it sounded wrong. Everything seemed wrong. Her heart pounded as if the power of a hurricane was behind it. Her vision was bathed in scarlet and she writhed accordingly to an instinctive desire to control it. Her body shivered on its own accord against a chill she didn’t actually feel.

“Hey, look at me. Are you still with me?”

She couldn’t think. Everything was burning. What had she been doing before? She was waiting for someone, wasn’t she?

Moya soldat. She thought she could feel his weight pressing against her, curled into her side. His metal arm was wrapped over her midriff, its touch refreshingly cool, and his overall relaxed presence a comfort. “You going to be alright?” he asked softly, the low timbre of his voice reverberating into her skin. Wanda didn’t bother to ask him what he was referring to. She only grabbed him around the shoulders and hugged tightly, holding him close. Desperately hoping it kept him from going anywhere, leaving her alone to burn again.

Her actions earned her a small laugh. “I have to go, koldun’ya. There’s nothing keeping me here anymore.”

That made sense. He had to keep moving whenever he could afford it. She knew as much. She even told him to leave.

But...she hadn’t meant it. Not completely. Not without her, and especially not now, when her world was burning.

“Wanda, I’m going to check in with Cap. I’m going to go, OK?”

Take me with you! Please, I don’t want to be alone.

“Wanda, you hearing me?”

Her soldier was going to leave. And she was trapped, helpless to stop it or at least tell him that she wanted to go with him. She did want the sweet, simpler life he’d promised. The one she could have had now if she only said yes to his first offer. “ Do you like Bucharest? Might have to be frugal with money, but that’s not too different from every other person travelling to get a fresh start. Maybe even get our own house at some point, for just the two of us.

How could she have said no? How could she let him go, leaving them both on their own again?

And how could she not expect to be punished for that mistake?


Steve knew he was hovering. He was fully aware it probably annoyed the medics hard at work to remedy their situation. It didn’t even help put his own mind at ease given that he understood next to nothing about what they were working on. Tony at least knew some of the basics thanks to his work with Bruce, and thus was less of a nuisance for Dr. Cho as he tailed her.

However, Steve knew he would probably go stir crazy if he were anywhere else. Natasha had already attempted going around like everything was normal, and it had lasted for all of an hour before she gave up that charade. Now she and Sam were both tearing through the Facility in search of toxins or anything else capable of getting an enhanced individual so sick.

Of course, all of this was after each of them had been checked out by Cho’s team. That had annoyed Steve to no end. Not just because he knew it was pointless - his serum kept his immune system even stronger than Wanda’s - but it also reminded him of getting dozens of check ups as a scrawny kid in Depression-era Brooklyn. He had always been so sickly back then, and he didn’t need the reminder of that particular part of his past. He also felt as though those experiences should have made him more prepared for handling this now. Though for the time being, he’d resorted to simply watching Dr. Cho and her team work, as if their advanced technology would magically tell him what was going on in a way he would understand at any moment.

He also hoped that Barton’s arrival would prompt Wanda to finally share what she had been going through, and what could’ve led to her getting sick. Though when the former SHIELD agent returned to the medical lab, Steve could see in his troubled frown that he didn’t get any of the answers they were looking for. Nevertheless, the Captain felt the need to ask, “So? How’d it go?”

“I, um...didn’t get much,” Clint reported, keeping his head low in thought. “Though to be fair, she didn’t seem all there for the past few minutes.”

Steve bit back a frustrated sigh. It wasn’t Clint’s fault, or even Wanda’s. Her fever was still alarmingly high, and that was sure to reap an inopportune effect on her mind.

“I think she’d rather talk to you.”

That caught the Captain off-guard. Barton was meeting his gaze evenly now, with something almost sour in his eyes, which was easier to understand. They had called in the archer from his home and family across the country on the off-chance he could get through to an intensely private young woman. And apparently, it had been a vain effort.

“What makes you think that?” Steve asked in confusion.

“When I got up to leave, she started asking for ‘the soldier’,” Clint said. “Figured that meant either you or Sam.”

Steve blinked, trying not to show how much that surprised him. He, and the rest of the team, had been so certain that if anyone could get through to Wanda, it would be Clint. After all, he was the one she had clung to in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Sokovia. What had Steve done to make her feel that same level of trust? And how do I do it again?

Steve shook his head, realizing he’d gone a long while leaving Clint waiting for a reply. “Well, Sam’s going around the compound looking for what could’ve caused this. Guess we’ll have to settle for me, either way.”

Clint nodded, his expression looking as though he was already certain it was Steve who Wanda had been referring to. After glancing around the room, clearly taking note of how absorbed the medics, Cho, and Tony were with their work, he added, “I’ll probably join him and Nat. You’ll let us know what she says, right?”

“Of course.”

Another nod, and Clint was on his way. He moved slowly, as if hesitant to leave Wanda alone with the Captain. Steve hadn’t realized just how protective the archer had gotten over her. He didn’t doubt it was without reason. Come to think of it, the Captain knew he’d be hard-pressed to find anyone around the Facility that disliked Wanda after meeting her, let alone would wish this nightmare on her to continue.

A nightmare, indeed.

Wanda was in the very next room, giving Steve little time to brace himself for how much her state had declined in just two short days. Whereas before, she had merely fidgeted in her bed as she faded in and out of sleep, her distress now was twice as palpable. Half of the bed sheet over her had been kicked off, with the other half held in place by a tight, sweaty fist. On either side of her was a damp towel, both of which must’ve fallen after an attempt on the medics’ part to bring the fever down. Her eyes were blown wide and glassy, looking desperately for something unseeable beside her. And she was laboring for breath in a manner that stirred uncomfortable memories of a sick boy in Brooklyn trying to battle asthma in a way his mother and his best friend wouldn’t worry over.

Nevertheless, Steve ventured closer. He was nearly to the chair that had been left at Wanda’s bedside when he heard the strangled plea. “Soldat?

“Wanda?” Steve lingered awkwardly on his feet, completely forgetting the chair next to him. He was suddenly floored by the worrisome thought that she wasn’t asking for him, and instead someone from her past. Someone probably long gone, or at least back in her home country. Someone that even the Avengers wouldn’t be able to convince come and help her.

That hazy stare fixed on him, and Wanda’s brows knitted together in pure bewilderment. Steve winced upon realizing it was because she didn’t recognize him. “Soldat? ” she said again, this time more as a question than a request.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“You came back?”

The Captain swallowed hard, finally sitting down to attempt hiding how much the question disturbed him. It was too reminiscent of the last time he visited Peggy, who had also been terribly ill and confused. Wanda’s hands even trembled the same way Peggy’s aged ones did. Though Wanda’s were probably because of the energy that gave the veins in her wrists an eerie, reddish glow. “Yeah. I’ve been right next door.”

Wanda sagged against the stiff bed, releasing a shaky breath of relief. “You are going to stay?” she asked hopefully, her natural Sokovian accent dripping heavily from every word.

“I will,” he promised, and he felt wrong doing so. He couldn’t shake the sense that she wasn’t really seeing him. She was looking for someone else, someone that wasn’t him. If that was the case, he knew he had no business making promises to her on their behalf.

Still, that wasn’t important what was most at the moment. “But first, I need to ask you something. Do you remember what happened?”

The gentle query only seemed to frighten her, and his guilt increased tenfold. “What do you mean?”

“Something made you sick. We don’t know what, exactly, but it’s made you really sick. That’s why you’re in medical, remember?”

Evidently, she didn’t. Her disoriented gaze flitted around the room as though she were seeing it for the first time. When recognition finally seemed to settle in, her body sagged again, this time out of exhaustion. Steve thought he even heard a quiet noise of frustration with herself. After uttering a soft, rather vulgar curse in Russian, she huffed, "I’m so tired, Cap.”

“I know,” Steve said in sympathy. Though he couldn’t help his small, sad smile to hear her sounding somewhat sane. “We’re gonna fix this, Wanda, I promise. But first, we need you to help give us a clue or somethin’. What do you remember before you started feeling sick? Did you come across anything weird? Anything at all?”

She didn’t answer, but he knew she heard him. Or more importantly, understood him. Her eyes fluttered closed, balling the bedsheet in her hand even tighter against her chest. The scarlet that colored her hands glowed even more vibrantly, which worried Steve a little. He didn’t think Wanda was too out of it to keep her powers from hurting him, but he did wonder if they hurt her . “I don’t know,” she mumbled. “I can’t...can’t even think straight.”

Steve’s eyes remained on her scarlet painted hands. He suddenly had an idea, and though it was probably a risk given Wanda’s state, the potential consequences of not trying something were too severe. “Then…” he hesitated purely from unpleasant memories with the subject. “Then could you show me? Using the powers you did in South Africa?”

Wanda’s fever-bright eyes shot back to him, surprisingly grounded by a glint of alarm. Obviously, she had the same thought he did about how unsafe it could be to use her powers when she could barely even keep a thought straight. “I trust you, Wanda,” he insisted before she could protest. “You’ve gotten a lot more practice with using them. I think you can control the red, even like this. It’ll be alright.”

There was still a sense of dread in the girl’s face. He thought he even noticed a sense of guilt, even though she hadn’t done anything yet. Her mouth parted slightly for a moment, as if to explain how it could end horribly. But the stress of her fever seemed to help her decide against it. After a long moment of silence, Wanda quelled all of Steve’s concern that she would argue by shakily lifting one hand.

The scarlet glowing in her skin looked like it was trembling as well as it transformed into thin, snake-like wisps in the air around her fingertips. Steve tried to help by meeting the mysterious power halfway, bowing his head near her raised hand. From the corner of his eye, he could see the red strands reaching for him. He braced his mind for the feeling of something foreign forcing its way into his thoughts, like it had in Africa in what felt like a hundred years ago. The wisps swarmed his vision, and he began to feel the pressure on his temple as Wanda’s power began to push its way through. Whatever she wanted him to see was beginning to form in his mind, resembling a memory that was not his own. He could see shapes forming, and the colors....

Then the door to the room burst open. The scarlet tendrils abruptly recoiled from Steve’s head as their host drew her hand back in alarm.

“Cap! Hey, Cap!”

Steve recognized Clint’s voice only after processing that he was alone in his thoughts again. Beside him, confusion crossed Wanda’s face yet again as she took in the sight of Clint in the doorway. “Barton?” she asked, clearly forgetting she had just seen him earlier.

Clint didn’t respond to her, his frantic eyes on Rogers. Steve noticed the archer was slightly out of breath, as if he had run there.  “Cap, we need you.”

Now Steve’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “I thought I was needed here, to ask Wanda about - ”

Clint cut him off with an urgent shake of his head. “Later. We think Natasha’s down.”

That pulled Steve to his feet. Dread dropped like a rock in his stomach to think of something else coming up right now. “What?”

“She disappeared for almost an hour. Sam went to check on her, but didn’t get any response, and now we can’t get the door open either.”

The last part, where Clint asked Steve if he could force the door down for them, was caught in a rush as Steve pushed past the archer to travel down the way he’d last seen Natasha go. He didn’t even think of how abruptly they were both leaving Wanda. He barely even remembered to let Clint lead the way for him, only slowing for the agent when he cut into another room with a crisp, “It’s this way.”

Steve followed him down a new hallway, past the residential quarters where the team spent so much of its time, and towards a section of the building dedicated to storage. Between a room full of filing cabinets and another meant to be someone’s currently unused office, Sam was leaning against the door to a bathroom. Given his expression and repeated attempts to turn the door handle, it was clear that the room was firmly shut.

As Steve approached, Sam stepped aside in a wordless offer he take over trying to get in. “Nat?” the Captain tried first, grabbing the door handle with one hand but not yet turning it as he listened for a response. With his free hand, he pressed his palm flat against the unrelenting surface, as if he could feel Natasha through the wood. Faintly, he could hear the sound of water running from the sink, but nothing else.

“I’ve already tried banging on the damn thing,” Clint said, gesturing to the door. “If she can hear it, she hasn’t let us know.”

“When Wanda’s fever broke, she completely collapsed,” Sam told the the archer.

Steve didn’t need the reminder. He’d already had the same suspicion on the short trek there. Come on, Natasha. Don’t do this. Not you too.

Steve braced his arms, ready to try Clint’s method of banging on the protective wood. With his enhanced strength, he thought he could bring the thing completely down in no time at all. Clint stopped him before he could try it though, urgently grabbing his shoulder. “Hey! Be careful,” he warned, nodding his head toward the floor. It was then that Steve noticed the thin red strands peeking out from under the door, right by his shoes.

He couldn’t just ram down the door. Her head was right there. He wasn’t about to risk hurting her.

Thinking quickly, Steve grabbed the door handle with one hand and braced the door with his other. He pulled on the handle, and after applying all the strength the super-soldier serum granted him, managed to pull it free within a few tense seconds. He didn’t give himself any time to worry about where the handle on the other side fell as he curled his fingers into the freshly made hole. This particular door was designed to open inward, but hopefully with his enhanced strength, Steve could force it to open towards him instead. The strong wood was unyielding at first, (Tony certainly spared no expense) but to the soldier’s satisfaction, it eventually began to bend to his will. A loud, inhuman groaning sound was his only warning before it gave way completely, snapping into separate pieces.

As Steve tossed the now detached part of the door aside, Sam moved in quickly to inspect Natasha’s state. He pulled her unmoving body off the floor, kneeling so that the spy could lie in his lap instead. None of the Avengers paid any mind to the still running sink, presently overflowing with water, as they watched Sam assess Natasha’s condition, feeling her forehead, her cheeks, her throat. Steve suddenly felt as though his serum was a curse, giving him a heightened vision that took in every inch of his partner’s unnaturally pale skin. For the tense moment it took for Sam to declare she felt as feverish as Wanda had, Steve stared on for a lost second, unable to process what it entailed. Natasha was sick too. Natasha must have been sick for her to reach this point, and none of them had noticed. For all they knew, this was contagious, and someone else was slowly growing sick too.

The Captain didn’t think any more. He impulsively reached for Natasha, gathering her limp, heated form in his arms so he could carry her to medical himself. He didn’t even think of his teammates as he took advantage of his enhanced speed to get her there. It felt so wrong, how unresponsive she was. Around the Facility, where she felt at home, the infamous Black Widow was actually among the most lively of the team, laughing and flirting and poking fun at her friends. This felt like an entirely different person, a grey shadow of Steve’s friend that he carried in his arms.

In his hurry, Steve very nearly plowed right into Tony, who suddenly popped out of Wanda’s room. “Cap! You need to look at this,” he said when his mere appearance didn’t seem to be enough to stop the soldier.

“Can’t it wait?” Steve demanded shortly, tucking his friend closer to his chest. Part of him hoped it would draw Tony’s attention to her, urging him to let the Captain continue his quest.

“No, I really think you’ll want to see this,” Tony insisted. Without offering anything more, he reached for something from within Wanda’s room. When he stepped back into view, he revealed be donning the metal gauntlets of his Iron Man armour. In one hand he held up a yellow bag, which Steve briefly remembered seeing Wanda carry around sometimes. Tony touched something at the base of one of its straps, holding it up for Steve to see. At first glance it looked insignificant, like a decorative clip that was barely bigger than the inventor’s thumb.

“What am I looking at?”

“I think it’s the cause of our problem,” Tony announced, glancing at Sam and Clint as they caught up. “It’s some kind of pod designed to contain and eventually emit a gaseous substance. Maybe even a toxin, which is a likely suspect for what’s affecting the little witch.”

With his mind still reeling from the reality of Natasha being sick as well, Steve couldn’t process how easily that answer had suddenly appeared. “So that’s it then? You know what it is - how to stop it?”

Tony responded with a bitter smile. “Oh, you almost missed the kicker, Cap.”

He didn’t explain any further, prompting Steve to eye the miniature pod in his hands once again. Tony shifted so that he was holding it around the edges, offering a better view of one of its faces, which Steve only now noticed had something printed onto it. A dark shape that nearly blended with the rest of the black material, but a shape he would recognize anywhere regardless. It was the same sinister cephalopod that symbolized everything he once gave his very life to try to stop.

Hydra.


At some point, the hellish heat that had entrapped her gave way to an equally hellish cold. The biting cold of a seemingly eternal winter. The witch had long ago given up trying to make sense of any of it, now laying uselessly on her back instead as she wallowed in a colorless world. Lost beneath a grey sky.

Distantly, she was aware of cold white flakes falling from above, clinging to her hair, her face, and her body. They also gathered on the ground all around her, further immersing her in an icy wasteland. Then, after one tired blink, everything suddenly grew darker. Fading into a world of a stormy winter night that somehow felt more visceral than the other world. Like she had been here before, in a dream or a distant memory.

She gathered just enough strength to roll herself onto her stomach. To her horror, the ground around her was littered with the bodies of at least a dozen other girls. Each one laid unmoving as their form was slowly smothered by snow. Only two were still standing, and just barely so. They were both shaking violently, whether from the cold or exhaustion was anyone’s guess. Though they were clearly trying to hide such weakness from the other as they fought ruthlessly with each other. A short ways away from them was a ratty satchel of what Wanda somehow knew was full of supplies that could help them survive. Not all of them, but maybe enough for one of them.

Take it. The thought cut through her brain like a bullet. There was no room to contemplate how she would be completely leaving the rest of the girls there, to freeze or starve to death. She only knew that it was what she had to do to preserve herself. It was expected of her.

With great effort, she pushed against the frozen earth beneath her and launched herself at the worn leather strap of the satchel, managing to grab it with little trouble since the other two girls were preoccupied with getting the other out of the way. They never even noticed her slip away from sight, running as fast as she could on numbed legs.

No...this isn’t right.

Wanda remembered walking through a snowy wilderness, but not like this. No, her memory involved only her and her brother, clinging to each other as they desperately sought out the castle where they were promised a home. A new home, and a new purpose.

Despite their exhaustion and hunger, they had helped each other. Pietro even paused in his tracks at one point to ensure she fell in step at his side. When she couldn’t, he took her arm and slung it over his shoulders to help her stay upright while also letting her walk on her own so she wouldn’t feel like a total invalid. As much as she appreciated that, it didn’t help the seemingly endless walk through the frigid tundra feel any less tortuous. Wanda glanced down at her feet, anticipating countless bruises and blisters on her feet the further she pushed herself, especially given the poor quality of her cheap boots.

Without even realizing it, Wanda wound up on the floor. There was suddenly a large wall for her to lean against as she sat back, never questioning the sudden change of environment from desolate forest to an ominous ballroom. The room was seemingly comprised of only mirrors, and windows, and judgemental eyes staring at everyone who moved. Wanda didn’t notice how unfamiliar it was until she realized the shoe she was prying off her foot was actually a ragged ballet slipper. Both of her feet were dressed in slippers she never owned in her life. Yet somehow she knew they were more than just worn from a strenuous ballet rehearsal; they were nearly pushed past their breaking point, covered in dirt, grime, and blood. Just like her feet. Just like her very soul.

“Keep going. You are unbreakable. You will not fail.”

Wanda shook her head, holding her head in her hands as she squeezed her eyes shut. She shouldn’t be seeing this. This wasn’t her memory. This wasn’t her.

I am Wanda Maximoff. I am an Avenger.

When she looked again, the eerie room of before had been swallowed by shadows. The only source of light was rays of sun pouring in from a window she frantically crawled towards, consumed by a sudden urgency to hide herself. To reel in horror over what awaited her outside. Then someone crawled up behind her, and she forced herself not to flinch as he neared her. We’re on the same side now, she thought.

“Doesn’t matter what you did, or what you were. If you go out there, you fight, and you fight to kill. Stay in here, you’re good. I’ll send your brother to come find you. But if you step out that door, you are an Avenger.”

I am an Avenger. I am an Avenger.

Agent Barton scampered out of view, off to fight robots and protect an entire city of people. Wanda wasted all of a minute turning his words in her head before deciding she would follow. Not for the glory of being an Avenger, but because Sokovia was her home and her responsibility to defend.

However, when she shoved open the heavy doors in her path, the abnormally bright light of the sun blinded her for a brief moment. When her eyes readjusted, she was in a new memory once again. She instantly curled up in the far corner of the room, distrusting the fluorescent lighting and cold, unforgiving tile of the laboratory around her. When Agent Barton returned within her line of sight, she defensively pressed her body even tighter against the corner she was huddled in. A sense of hostile suspicion crawled through her as she eyed him, wary of his every move no matter how relaxed he was by comparison. He didn’t acknowledge her at first, instead pulling a metal chair between them and sitting in it backwards.

“Take it easy,” he told her once he’d gotten comfortable. “I know how we met was...less than ideal. But I’m not here to kill you anymore. I actually wanna make you an offer. So you can choose who you really want to be. If you want to fight for the good guys.”

She’d never been given an offer like that before. She’d never had a conscious choice in anything before. And now that she was being given one, she didn’t know what to do with it. She didn’t trust it.

She surveyed her surroundings again, now paying attention to every little detail she could. It was a lab, so it was littered with equipment. Beside the Agent was a counter full of tools, one of which she recognized as a scalpel. If she could only reach it, while his hands and his face were still exposed....

No! The witch was still feeling someone else’s memories. Hearing someone else’s thoughts. She dug at her head, trying to pull herself from whoever’s mind was overlapping with hers.

I am Wanda Maximoff. I am an Avenger. I am the sister of Pietro Maximoff, and I am the daughter of....

She didn’t finish that thought, knowing exactly where it would take her mind next. Sure enough, when she dared to look around again, she was instantly engulfed with the same terror and helplessness she’d had at age ten, in this very room her memory was recreating. The dark, ruined version of her family’s apartment where she could do nothing but sob in misery as she stared at her mother’s ghostly-pale hand reaching out to her from beneath a thick layer of rubble. A brush of hot air blew against her cheek, frantically shushing her before uttering a soft warning in Sokovian. There was another bomb close by. It was sitting quietly for the moment, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t poised to strike. It only needed the slightest prompt.

Amidst a consuming fear of accidentally setting off the second bomb, Wanda shifted so that she could burrow her face into her brother’s shoulder, whimpering about how scared she was. Pietro tried to embrace her, but it was difficult to move while he was stuffed between the bottom of the bed and his sister. Not that he ever complained about the obvious discomfort such a position caused him. He had pushed them there on his own accord, determined to shield her from the destruction as best as he could.

Wanda clung to him with all the terrified strength she had. It didn’t matter that his weight was almost crushing the air out of her. She was just so grateful to have someone there with her. A warm body, a beating heart to comfort her when the minutes they spent there, amidst death and destruction, turned to hours and then into days.

Except...he wasn’t breathing.

Wanda clawed at the body still draped over her, a fresh wave of shock and horror washing over her as she realized the face and figure had changed. Now she was pinned beneath a stocky, older man with white hair and a dark grey uniform adorned with medals and pins that pressed painfully into her chest. She was in the middle of a street now, relying on the lights from nearby buildings to see his face. Or most notably, the gory red hole in his forehead. A complete trail of blood spilled down his face and over her own face, dripping down to form sinister smears against the stark white snow around them.

Had Wanda any control of her body at the moment, she would have cried out in fright. As it were, she only tried pushing the corpse off of her, only to be met with no luck. Then suddenly, the dead man all but leapt off of her, having been grabbed by his collar and lifted up by another man of remarkable strength. The newcomer merely held the body there in midair for a moment as he glared down at her. Wanda was overcome by an inexplicable rush of guilt and fear to have disappointed him on their very first mission together.

That was when she realized how familiar he was. Especially given how he was holding the dead man up. He was using a metal arm....

James!

The shift in his expression was eerily abrupt, morphing into careful ease as he dropped to his knees. The unforgiving street and morbid corpse were nowhere to be seen as he crawled across the tender plushiness of a bed, obediently coming up to lay beside her as she reached for him. The moment he was close enough, she ran her fingers through his hair, tracing a simple path over his skull to help him unwind after his long walk there. He wound a grateful arm around her midriff, settling into the crook of her neck.

It was the first in an eternity she felt at peace.

And it only took a single shiver for her to know when it was gone. It came out of nowhere, the sudden frigidness of the metal arm. The tranquil dimness of their shared room became shrouded in the same sinister darkness of the memory just before this one, with the lights of strange buildings shining through thin, blood-red curtains as the only source of light. The room was roughly the same, except the furniture was of a different style, and arranged a different way. Most notably, the bed was pressed to the opposite wall. Meaning the witch’s body was now pressed against a wall, held up by the sheer strength of the Soldier. The black fabric of a dress the witch didn’t remember owning was bunched up around her waist, one of her thighs directly exposed to the touch of cold metal due to a long slit running up its side. The Soldier’s face was still hidden in the expanse between her throat and her shoulder, sucking and nipping at the skin he found there. While this wasn’t exactly something new from him, Wanda was taken aback by how rough he was being. Wild, as if he was fighting himself with every second he spent indulging in her. He knew it was wrong. He knew they shouldn’t go any further than this. That it went against the orders they’d been given -

No. No orders. He’s not a mindless servant.

Wanda’s fingers snaked through his hair again, gently tugging on the tangled strands in a request that produced no sound when she opened her mouth. Look at me. James, look at me!

She hadn’t heard a single word, but the soldier looked up as if he had. Nothing about the memory changed aside from him. In a blink, his hair appeared to be somewhat longer, and the scruff along his jaw thicker. His touch became the same uncertain gentleness she usually knew from him, and his eyes filled with the same loss and self-fear they possessed when he first met her.

Wanda’s hands traveled down his face, holding him there. Sweeping her thumbs slowly across his cheeks in hopes he would relax at her touch. This was the James she knew. And she didn’t want to lose him ever again.

But she did. There was no warning, or conceivable transition at all this time. She merely fell to the ground with a pathetic thump as James suddenly disappeared in a burst of smoke. Her back was now pressed to the hard surface of a crumpled car, and she was sitting in a thin layer of sand at the bottom of a cliff. At her side was another dead man, of no foreseeable connection to the one from the other memory. Though the blood around him did draw her attention to the ugly pool of blood on herself, spilling out rapidly a mere inches above her left hip bone.

She looked up when a shadow passed over her, ignoring her completely as they reached for her dead companion, carelessly seizing the back of his collar and dragging his body alongside him as he continued on his way.  

The title, “Soldat!” fell from her lips without any thought or awareness whatsoever. With one hand still firmly pressed to her open wound, she pulled herself across the thin layer of beach to follow him. “Stop! Don’t you remember me? You know me! Don’t you remember?

She screamed and screamed until the words scratched painfully at her throat. And all to no avail. The Winter Soldier disappeared into the distance, leaving her behind with another failed mission. Disappearing into nothingness like they were strangers. Like he was a ghost.

Don’t lose him! Wanda insisted, not caring whose mind she was in anymore. She only knew she couldn’t bear to watch her James leave her like this. He needs you! Help him!

Miraculously, she found her footing. She scurried to her feet with an uncharacteristically amount of clumsiness, barely noticing that the wound in her side had aged considerably, and the only hindrance she could feel now was a slight ache in her collarbone. She ran across the terrain, only distantly aware that it was no longer the lonely foot of a cliff. Rather, she’d somehow made it to a grassy river bank with waves that thrashed about angrily beside her as the water’s surface was pelted with massive chunks of metal debris. She had a new mission, one that mattered more than anything she’d ever done before: find him. Find him! Find him! Find him!

After a horribly long search and aimless running, she did find him.

“Steve!” she breathed in the brief moment she felt relief. It was short-lived as she hurried to his side, sliding onto her knees as she took his face between her hands. He was horribly battered from his fight, his face streaked with water, soot, and blood. One eye was even morbidly swollen. His entire body was in ghastly shape for that matter. God, was that a gunshot wound she was looking at? Was he even breathing? “Steve! Answer me!”

He didn’t answer her. He was so still. So broken. Lifeless.

No. She wouldn’t allow herself to see that.

She didn’t waste any more time, fumbling with his uniform to get the fabric off his chest before balling her hands together and starting CPR. She tried to focus on counting, despite her frenzied anger at her own hands for trembling the entire time. Quaking with fear and desperation because Fury and Hill are right behind me. Don’t you dare do this, Rogers! Stay with me! Please, please stay with me!

Yet above anything, she felt resentment. Not for him, of course. Never at him. He was Captain America. He wouldn’t be him if he didn’t believe in saving as many people as he could. In thinking good could be found in everyone, including the man who was once his brother.

No, she was livid with the man who had done this. Who had taken advantage of someone who wasn’t willing to fight him and did this. He’d already caused a lifetime of suffering to countless others. This was the last time he would get away with it. This was hurting her, the wrong person to ever abuse, one too many times.

Never again. If I see him again, I won’t give him another chance to do something like this. If I have to, I’ll kill him. I swear it. For this, I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him!

Wanda started awake almost violently. Her scarlet reacted for the first time in days, launching her to her feet to brace for the supposed conflict. She stumbled the rest of the way, stopping only when she collided with a transparent wall. Even then, she pushed herself against it, determined to get out. To escape the unfiltered, violent hatred that had infected her seconds ago.

“Whoa, hey! Hey! You’re OK.”

The witch flinched slightly when Steve’s face appeared in front of her again. This time he wasn’t bruised or battered in the slightest. Aside from an expression pinched with worry, he was perfectly healthy. “What happened? Bad dream?”

Wanda panted loudly, processing the differences between what she was seeing now and what she had just seen. They were dreams. Memories. Nightmares . Half of them hadn’t been her own. She tried to convey her confusion over that, but the illness that had impeded her for the past few days decided then to strike her with full force, pounding at the edges of her skull and making her hands shake from the simple act of pressing against the glass wall. “I...I thought...I saw....”

Steve waited expectantly for her to finish. She never did. It was so hard to think, especially with the lingering feeling of someone else’s mind bleeding into hers.

“Whatever it was, you’re safe now. It wasn’t real,” Steve insisted. He sounded as tired as she felt, and looked it too. Like he hadn’t slept in days. “You’re at the compound. In quarantine.”

Wanda blinked, then again and again. She was trying to focus, trying to get her thoughts - and her thoughts alone - in order. Quarantine meant she was being kept away from other people. And this room seemed like it was nothing less than efficient at that very job. In fact, it almost felt like a cleaner, spacious version of her cell back at Strucker’s Hydra base. Only one door to allow passage in or out, which was probably guarded on its other side. If not by actual people, then by Stark’s advanced technology. The wall she was currently pressed against appeared to be made of glass, yet it felt far thicker and more impenetrable than that. The only way her powers could reach out and find anyone from this place was if.... “Some…someone’s here? With me?”

Steve offered a listless nod. “Yeah. Nat got sick too.”

Wanda’s brain was slow to process that. Nat...Natasha. Natasha’s sick.

And I saw her memories.

As best as she could with shaky limbs, Wanda turned to see the part of the room behind her. Sure enough, just a few feet from the bed she had just escaped from was another, with the infamous Black Widow spy curled up in a ball of pale skin and flimsy hospital pajamas. She looked like she was sleeping, though her brows were pulled together as if in confusion. Had she seen Wanda’s memories as well when their minds overlapped? Having never been this sick before, Wanda wasn’t entirely sure if her powers could enable that while their host was too disorientated to control them.

A new wave of tremors went down the witch’s form at the thought of someone else seeing her memories. Especially Natasha. Now that she knew just how much the spy loathed the Winter Soldier...there wasn’t a chance in hell Wanda would be willing to explain her more recent memories. How she found him. How she had been meeting with him all this time.

Please be far from here, James. Please.

Movement in her peripheral reminded Wanda that someone was watching her from the outside world. Steve’s large hands rose up to rest against the window over hers. His eyes had hardened in the brief seconds Wanda had been fretting over Natasha. Gone was Steve Rogers, a worried friend, and in his place stood Captain America. The serious leader of the Avengers, confronting a problem. It was almost frightening to be on the receiving end of his stare.

“Wanda. We found what’s making you sick,” he reported. “Now we need to know how it got here. I need you to tell me where you’ve been. What you’ve been in contact with or who.”

His last demand, coupled with the palpable accusation in his tone, scared her even more. It was like he knew she was keeping something from him. Maybe even suspected the nature of it. But Wanda stood her ground against admitting to anything with Natasha right there with them. Even though she was sick as well, Wanda didn’t trust the spy with the knowledge of where James was. When Natasha hated him so much, there was no telling what she would do....

Wanda swallowed, her throat feeling painfully dry as she did so. “What...what’s made us sick?”

“A toxin we found planted on your bag.” The Captain’s jaw clenched, his next words evidently leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. “From Hydra.”

The answer felt like a rush of freezing water over her head. Her stomach fell straight to the floor, her head ringing with each miserably slow beat of her heart. No, it’s not possible. The Avengers Facility was the most well guarded building she had ever seen. No one could get past so many agents or advanced technology.

But she had. She had gone out of her way to come and go repeatedly, searching for the very man who had served Hydra for decades. No. No, no, it isn’t his fault. He...he wouldn’t. That’s not him anymore!

Her shock must have been palpable, for Steve’s suspicious expression softened instantly. “You don’t know where you could’ve gotten something like that? Wanda? Wanda!”

The witch didn’t have the will to hold herself up anymore. She gave in to her body’s fatigue, sinking to the floor without consciously realizing it or noticing Steve’s alarmed calls for her. Her mind was flooded with the effects of fever. Any sense she had left was reeling with the notion that Hydra had gotten to her again.

Hydra poisoned her. But how?

James Barnes is the Winter Soldier. He was their most efficient asset - their lapdog for so long. He’d already been given the order to kill her once....

No. It can’t be true! He’s my friend! He cares about me. At least, he thought he did the last time they’d met. How could Hydra have reclaimed his mind in such a short time? Or had it all been part of a mission to earn her trust?

God, she didn’t think her heart could bear finding out he faked anything about their time together. It can’t be true. It can’t be!

Wanda was nearly hyperventilating now, tearing herself apart internally with a ghastly mixture of physical illness, regret over pushing James away, and bitter relief that he was gone now that she knew how strongly her other friend resented him.

“Wanda?” Steve was kneeling on his side of the glass to remain at eye level as he spoke to her. “Do you know - ?”

“No!” Her voice cracked against equally cracked lips. She was unraveling at the seams, shaking with illness. Sobbing at the idea alone that she could have been betrayed this way.

“I don’t know.” It was the most truthful thing she had told the Captain in months. “I just don’t...I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”

Chapter Text

Four days had officially come and gone since Wanda’s fever broke, and she collapsed in the middle of the common area. Which meant it had been a full two days since Natasha had joined her in a cell originally meant to confine the Hulk that had been repurposed into a quarantine ward. Which meant it had been thirty-six hours since all life in the Facility seemed to have followed them there.

The residential wing was all but abandoned, with Steve and the other Avengers camping out in the medical ward. It seemed ridiculous, considering Tony was the only one of them with any sort of experience that made him useful to Helen. Nevertheless, Clint, Sam, and Steve remained close, awaiting news on their teammates’ condition from the quickest possible source. And to also be near quarantine for someone else if they fell ill (Clint had already coughed once, and now everyone was eyeing him like he was the Angel of Death).

Cho had issued a complete lockdown of the Facility’s premises, to keep the unknown toxin from spreading to the outside world. That led to the general atmosphere of the compound to rapidly become riddled with tension, due to the dozens of SHIELD agents that were now trapped on the property. It didn’t help that they were all regarding each other as either a carrier of the powerful illness or a suspect of its original distributor.

After his experience in Washington DC, Steve thought he himself would grow physically sick if he found himself facing more traitors among their ranks. Thus, he actually preferred to spend his time in the quarantine area, where he could sit with his partner, whom he trusted more than anyone else on the property.

“Your face is going to freeze if you keep frowning like that,” Natasha teased through the thick glass. Both she and Steve were presently leaning against their respective sides of the window that ran along the wall of her cell that her bed had been pressed against. Once it struck her how her words could be taken by the man who had actually been frozen, she quickly amended with a sincere, “Sorry.”

Steve shook his head, forcing himself to put up an equally lighthearted visage. It surprisingly wasn’t too hard, given that he was finally getting a glimpse of the usual, spirited coyness of the woman he’d become good friends with in the past few years. “Don’t be. You have a good point.”

“Oh, you admit I could be right for once? Maybe you’re the one that’s feeling out of it, Rogers,” Natasha replied, quirking what was still a perfectly arched eyebrow. It hadn’t occurred to Steve until now just how well-composed she appeared despite being sick. Granted, her skin was waxy and slick with sweat, and her eyes had an unnerving brightness to them from fever. But from the way she spoke, as sure and confident as ever, he could almost imagine things were normal. She had always been an enigma to him in that sense, even though he had been her partner for over three years now. The way she kept any doubts or insecurities perpetually hidden under a carefully constructed mask of the steadfast Black Widow. In the rare moments she did reveal the woman who was underneath the spy, he always knew it was privilege few other people were granted.

He could see the mask slipping away now, as Natasha shifted in bed to press herself as close to the glass as possible. She spoke to him lowly, as if wanting to give them more privacy even though no one else was around (aside from Wanda, fitfully sleeping on the other end of the cell). “You’ve really got to stop putting everything on yourself. It isn’t your fault this happened. No one expects you to know Hydra’s every move.”

Steve sighed. Reasonably speaking, he did know that. Yet he couldn’t deny it made him feel better to actually hear someone tell him aloud.

However, he couldn’t help but still blame himself for what was happening to her. What was happening to their entire team as she and Wanda suffered like this, possibly dying. He rested his forehead against the window to hide from her gaze, feeling undeserving of the amount of trust he found there. In her faith in him to make this all somehow better. Not because he was Captain America, but because she knew him as her partner. As her friend.

But he didn’t deserve that trust now because there wasn’t a damn thing he could do for her. He wasn’t a scientist like Helen or Tony. He couldn’t fight this for her because sickness wasn’t a tangible enemy. He couldn’t even fight whoever caused this because they had no clue who it could’ve been. Since Wanda had collapsed the night before, they continued to be met with more questions than answers as to how Hydra could have gotten to them, planting their strange poison on her.

In his peripheral, he saw Natasha’s hand press against the barrier between them. If the glass weren’t there, he could imagine her grabbing his face and forcing him meet her eye. “Steve. It isn’t your fault—”

He stopped her with a shake of his head. “I should’ve at least known something. Known they were close. Apparently they were close enough to pull this.”

“There’s no way you could’ve known. Not unless you were being constantly hyper-vigilant, which is no way to live. Trust me.”

He looked up then, finding the sad smile of someone who knew firsthand what that sort of life was like. Natasha didn’t go into further detail about it, though. Instead, she swept her thumb against the sturdy glass, as if she were soothingly rubbing his own hand. “Thinking about what could have been done will give us all nothing but headaches. So don’t bother.”

Steve couldn’t help but smile at her mockingly (or maybe not) commanding tone. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied dutifully.

He brought his hand up to cover hers on his side of the window, half-expecting some sort of flirty remark from her about the sentimental gesture. She didn’t offer anything like that. Rather, she gave a small, reassuring smile. Something so painfully genuine that he felt a physical itch to reach through the window and properly entwine their fingers. Maybe give her hand a squeeze because he couldn’t think of anything else that could express how he felt. Mostly his gratitude for her overcoming the obvious discomforts of illness to remain the supportive friend he needed.

“We’re going to figure this out,” she said, sounding so confident he couldn’t not believe her. “Together, just like you always say. Wanda and I are going to get out of here, we’re going to find whoever’s really to blame, and as a team, we’re going to suit up and make them pay. And I’m calling first dibs on that part right now.”

Steve chuckled. “Of course.”

Natasha nodded her affirmation. Or at least tried to. It was a curt thing, cut off by her body tensing and her eyes shutting closed. She rode out the wave of pain or nausea for a moment, relaxing only after she released a shaky breath.

Her hand never once left its place over his. With her free hand, she tugged the thin bedsheets she’d pulled around her shoulders even tighter around herself. Despite the layer of sweat on her face, she hadn’t stopped shivering since he arrived. As Natasha shifted to rest her knees under herself, he could see the unflappable Black Widow mask return. Most likely her attempt to hide her shame over being so vulnerable at the moment. Weak, as she would call it.

“So,” she said, her naturally husky voice now corrupted with an unnatural rasp, “what do we know about the cause, so far?”

“Next to nothing,” Steve answered honestly, but bitterly. “We haven’t gotten any new clues where it came from. And no one’s sent any kind of message—no ransom, or negotiation for the cure. Not even a motive for dropping it.”

Natasha didn’t miss a beat. “It must have something to do with Wanda. If the toxin is strong enough to compromise her powers, it was probably designed specifically to do so. And if it is from Hydra, it could have something to do with her history there. Reclaim an old asset.”

“Or take us down,” Steve suggested. It felt good to talk shop with her like this. It was almost enough to finally convince him everything was normal between them. “They know what she’s capable of, so it’s possible they consider her our strongest defense. And if something is able to bring her down, it could take care of the rest of us easily.”

“Especially if it’s a weapon we can’t physically see, let alone fight,” Natasha agreed. “I hate to admit it, but that’s pretty smart.”

It’s dangerous, Steve thought. They’re gaining the upper hand.

“And Wanda says she doesn’t know who could’ve administered it?”

Steve shook his head, unsure if Wanda’s reaction to his questioning really counted as a concrete answer. “All she said is she doesn’t know anything, then she collapsed again.”

Natasha was silent for a moment. She seemed hesitant when she finally muttered, “It could’ve been an inside job.”

As much as Steve didn’t want to consider that, he had to agree. “Yeah. Clint and Sam are interrogating as many people as they can. If they don’t get any leads with that, we plan to do a fresh sweep of the area. See if there’s any Hydra bases we missed when we approved construction here. Maybe even go into town, and see if there’s any suspicious activity there.”

Natasha’s body tensed, as if she was fighting another assault from the illness. “Check...west of here,” she began, interrupting herself with an uncomfortable cough to clear her throat. “There...should be a...a building. We thought...it wasn’t in use, but....”

She never finished. Whatever awful wave was coursing through her struck full force, sapping away at her strength until she couldn’t even hold her hand up any longer. She curled in on herself, shivering violently now. Another cough was ripped from her worn throat, this one more vicious than the previous one. One just like it followed, and then another.

Now Steve was the one pressing himself as close to the window as he could. He was so absorbed with worry for his friend as she struggled to breathe that he didn’t even notice how forcefully his hands were pressing against the glass. Like his body was making an unconscious effort to push the barrier down, so he could actually touch her. So he could at least try to do something that directly helped her. That had been the worst part of all of this. Having to sit back and uselessly watch as everything about his friends’ condition degraded.

Between her groaning and rasping for breath, he thought he heard Natasha trying to say something. “Nat? Nat, what do you need?”

What can I do?

Natasha gritted her teeth, clearly making an effort to force the words out. “Mne tak khuyovo!

Steve didn’t know if he wanted to laugh at her vulgar curse or scream because of the context around it. How clear it was that she was struggling to appear as strong as she usually did because she felt so horrible. And he couldn’t do anything . “Natasha—”

A light began rapidly flashing to his right. A silent warning that the subjects inside the cell had vitals that were either dropping or rising at a concerning rate. Steve didn’t think he could bear to know which. Fortunately, Cho’s team was as efficient as ever, with a pair of nurses responding to it almost immediately. They hurried inside, doing their best to ease Natasha’s strife.

Steve couldn’t watch any more. He couldn’t handle his own damn uselessness. He got to his feet as soon as the emergency light ceased its urgent warning, stalking away once it was clear the situation was being handled.

He made his way up the metal stairs that led to the surveillance area, a tight pocket of a room that overlooked the cell before it. Tony was there, watching everything unfold with the same stony expression he bore whenever faced with a challenge such as this.

Steve didn’t bother with a proper greeting. “Give me some good news. Please.”

The amount of time it took Tony to think of something positive did absolutely nothing to ease Steve’s shortened temper. “Helen knows what she’s doing. She’s giving them some antibodies that have slowed the virus. Should keep it from totally frying their brains by this evening.”

“Jesus, Tony.” Steve rubbed a hand over his face, turning to face the same direction Tony was. It was yet another wide window, granting a view of the overall cell. A console sat just below it that featured two screens, each one showing a closer look of what was happening on either side of the room. By now, both showed the patients below had settled flat against their beds, carried away from the conscious world by their fevers.

“Is Nat OK?” Steve pressed worriedly, even though he knew Tony wouldn’t be so calm if she wasn’t.

“She will be,” Tony assured, using a thankfully less biting tone. “This whole thing’s harder on her because her Red Room serum is significantly weaker than Wanda’s enhancements. It doesn’t defend her immune system as well. Though, that also means it’ll accept whatever treatment we give her faster than Wanda’s system will.”

“And how is the cure coming along?”

“Treatment, Cap,” Tony corrected. “Can’t cure it when we still don’t fully know what it is.”

“You said you knew—”

“I said I knew enough,” Tony said sharply, turning to face the Captain. “At least, enough to start thinking of potential counter-serums.”

Steve met the inventor’s gaze evenly, forcing himself to relax despite the abundance of frustration that had been building up inside of him.

Tony seemed to do the same, apparently having a similar train of thought. “Look,” he sighed. “I...I might have something. I haven’t mentioned it to Helen yet, because I’ve had poor experience with it.”

Steve was so desperate for a solution, he immediately latched onto the hope Tony had something, no matter how risky. “What is it?”

Tony’s gaze fell to something far away, his dark irises growing cloudy with the memory of something long past. Something he was still sensitive about. “It’s called Extremis. It’s really...fickle stuff, but it’s pretty damn efficient at keeping its host in good health. At least, under ideal circumstances.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s unstable. If handled improperly, the side effects of it could only make this worse. I’ve been able to suppress it in just one person, and we would need her here in order to get a sample of that restrained version. From there, we could hypothetically synthesize more of that a new version and administer that. If that works, it should be the closest thing to a solution for Natasha.”

Tony spoke with more uncertainty than Steve should’ve been comfortable with. But he was so desperate.

Then he realized. A solution for Natasha. “What about Wanda?”

Tony’s jaw clenched, as though regretting his answer. “It’s more of a risk. Helen says she’s reluctant to give Maximoff anything stronger than a minor antibiotic. Her enhancements are so strong, and so much about them is unknown, Helen’s worried adding anything more will overwhelm her system. Make her sicker, or send her system into shock and kill her.”

Steve closed his eyes, breathing deeply. Just when he thought the situation couldn’t get worse.... “Are there any other options? What about my blood? Can you make a sturdier serum with a sample of that?”

Tony shook his head. “I don’t have as much experience with your serum as I do Extremis. By the time I really get familiar with it, we may be out of time for both of them.”

Steve’s jaw tightened, his frustration building up again. There were so many unknowns on top of unknowns. He didn’t know what to trust, where to place his faith.

“Alright, fine, just...do what you think is best,” he told Tony, doing absolutely nothing to disguise his feelings of defeat. “Whatever prolongs...the worst case scenario.”

What he didn’t say was deafening in the tense silence. Tony saved them from having to think of it too long, though. “I’m still gonna get a second opinion from Dr. Cho. Hell, I’d get a third opinion from Banner if he picked up his damn phone anymore.”

Steve only nodded at that, knowing Bruce was another sore subject for Tony. He was for all of them really, having disappeared as suddenly as he had. “What can I do?”

Tony surprised him by having an actual task ready. “Have Wilson ready a jet. If Helen does agree to try this treatment, you two are going to have to be ready for a quick trip to Europe.”

Despite his relief to finally have something productive to do, Steve was confused by that. “What’s in Europe?”

Tony’s mouth twitched, a telling sign to his conflicted feelings. “The only host to a dormant version of Extremis. Pepper.”

Steve’s eyebrows rose, now realizing why Tony was so conflicted. “Are you sure you’re OK with bringing her into this?”

“No,” Tony said with brutal honesty. “But I am sure of one thing: she doesn’t want this to get any worse, either.”


He hadn’t spoken this much on a mission before. His own voice sounded alien to him, so calm and quiet. “I knew him.”

The memories had been coming in flashes. Like bolts of lightning striking the very corners of his mind in rapid bursts, playing out behind his eyes. Images of the man he had fought on the bridge, of the scientist who first modified him, of the first time he woke up to find he had a metal arm. He even caught visions of his recurring nightmare, where he was falling through a vast, snowy-white landscape with no seeable end.

“Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped the century. And I need you to do it one more time.”

The Soldier remembered the dread that blossomed in his chest at the prospect of another mission so soon. He was so tired. He was always tired, it seemed, but his handlers never cared. Though this time in particular, with the sudden bombardment of memories on his mind, he didn’t think he could carry out another mission. Not that his handlers would care.

“You don’t do your part, I can’t do mine,” the executive director was telling him. Admonishing, really, like he was an ignorant child. “And Hydra can’t give the world the freedom it deserves.”

He heard himself say something. “But I knew him.” Not that it mattered. It never mattered what he thought.

Pierce sat back in his chair, looking thoughtful. Then he stood up. With a single command, he crushed any hope the Soldier might have had for a break. “Prep him.”

The Soldier sagged in hopeless misery. Even the medical team around him looked uncertain of their orders. “He’s been out of cryo-freeze too long.”

“Then wipe him and start over.”

It was a struggle for the Soldier to be as compliant as he was. He knew there was no other choice, with his metal arm only half repaired from his last endeavor, and a slew of agents surrounding him with weapons at the ready if he did lash out. He knew they would have no qualms about putting an end to him. Not now, when Baron von Strucker’s assets were nearly field-ready.

He tried to deny anyone there the satisfaction of stirring a reaction out of him. Though he did flinch when a pair of agents roughly forced him back, securing his restraints in preparation for the procedure he hated more than anything else. His breathing grew heavy as the cruel machines loomed closer and closer, ready to tear through his mind with ruthless, electric teeth.

But the horror never came. When his head fell back, there was no hard leather. There wasn’t even harsh, burning metal surrounding his vision. He only felt small, tender fingers card through his hair, gently cradling his skull. He pressed closer to the sudden source of mercy, finding comfort in the low, steady beat beneath his ear. Not once did he question how he was suddenly free of his restraints, able to cling to the newcomer in return.

“Easy, easy,” their soft voice soothed.

The Soldier blinked slowly, trying to make sense of what was happening. That his mind was being saved from more destruction. The surrounding room that had been full of unforgiving faces mere seconds ago suddenly blurred out of focus, until all he could see were waves of his own hair and the newcomer’s arms holding him.  

“It’s alright, I won’t hurt you.”

The Soldier finally managed to relax. He believed her. He knew her.

Wanda. Her name’s Wanda.

As if sensing he’d remembered her name, she asked him if he knew his own. He was afraid to answer, having been so close to receiving punishment for hearing it from the man on the bridge. Steve. His name is Steve. And my name is Bucky.

He felt a slight weight against the top of his head as Wanda rested her cheek there. Bucky finally allowed himself to push back, leaning away in attempts to see her face. He hadn’t seen her in days, and it had been driving him nearly mad. This was his chance, one he may not get again.

Yet, before he could see any part of her face, he jerked awake.

Bucky found himself in the same tranquil room he’d called home for the past few months. Groaning, he sat up in bed, knowing he wouldn’t be able to go back sleep now. He considered himself lucky to have even slept through most of the night. He sat there for a while, rubbing some of the fatigue from his eyes and watching lines of gold light stretch across the floor, indicating the hour of dawn.

As the early morning sunlight crept further and further into the room, slowly overpowering the darkness, he took the moment to get his thoughts in order. To distinguish the differences between what had been nightmare, memory, and what was his current reality. Ever since he’d started a somewhat functional life on his own, that had been his nights. Flashes of moments and images he distantly knew were events already passed, though they were always tossed together in random patterns.

The fragmentation of his mind had only grown more disjointed with the new memories he made with the little witch. However, he surprised himself by not minding the added confusion at all. Just like in this last dream, she always appeared as a beacon of alleviation amidst the horrors his mind fed him. This was even the first time she had interrupted the memory before he had to relive the worst of it.

He was grateful for her help, both directly and indirectly. He really was. Yet, in all honesty, he was also terrified. Terrified of how he was growing increasingly addicted to her company, and how thoughts of her were helping him get through each night.

Maybe it was something that had been ingrained into him because of Hydra. This mindset that such a dependence on someone else was to be avoided. The lengths he was willing to go in order to preserve the relationship could become a weakness, and potentially compromise him during a mission. Even now, when he wasn’t Hydra’s servant anymore, he still had to live his life being constantly vigilant. He had to constantly ensure his identity remained secret, to make sure he went unnoticed by society altogether, and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice should he fail to do so. Even Wanda had told him not to let her hold him back from doing whatever he needed to keep himself safe.

Well, it had been five days, and he quite literally hadn’t gone anywhere. Now that Miss Gracie didn’t require his services anymore, he had no reasons to leave the inn. He barely even left his room, only surfacing to visit the in-building cafe when he needed a quick meal. After so long of limiting himself to nothing else, the sweet pastel walls of the place were becoming almost sickening. Suffocating.

But he wasn’t willing to leave. Not yet. Not when Wanda had so suddenly stopped coming.

He sighed as he remembered that, half-wishing he hadn’t. Though he quickly dismissed the bitter thought, knowing that a mind as damaged as his was fortunate it could still keep new memories in the first place. In fact, that was what finally pushed him out of bed and standing.

He moved toward the little table on the other side of the room, grabbing his weathered journal and finding the next empty page, all while on autopilot. When his senses fully came to him, he sat down to quickly jot down what he’d seen in his dream. Always in short, fragmented sentences to save space for more entries. He recorded his thoughts as Pierce spoke to him, Wanda’s sudden appearance, and his relief that she was there. He distinctly remembered her words of comfort because they were the same ones she had used while he struggled with almost slipping back into the Soldier’s mindset.

It was strange to think of the Soldier he used to be in regards to her. So far, one of his clearest memories was when he first saw her, during his time back then. Director Pierce had been visiting Strucker’s base to hear his proposal for a classified new project, far on the outskirts of some nondescript country. Even back then, Bucky thought he felt a small pull of discomfort in his chest at seeing her in distress. Particularly when she escaped her cell in search of another test subject, and Strucker and one of his colleagues literally dragged her across the floor to get her back into her cell.

He remembered how uselessly he had stood off to the side as she was forced into submission with a physical beating. How easily he’d accepted orders to shoot her if she used her powers to fight back (to defend herself, really). Then he’d just as easily abandoned her when new orders arose that Pierce needed him back in Washington DC. Even though he was painfully aware that nothing about her treatment there would get better, he just left her.

Knowing her the way he did now, he considered doing nothing then among the worst things he’d done as the Soldier.

But evidently, she had survived everything she had been subjected through. The frail, half-starved wretch he’d seen back then was a far cry from the striking young woman who had shown up at his door some months ago. Who had rescued him, in a sense. She was all he’d had during his particularly bad episode, and she managed to put his mind at ease then. She had unknowingly done so several times, now that he was thinking about it. Not with her powers, but with her boundless patience and sympathy. The way she constantly cared for him not because she pitied him, but because she understood what it was like to be carved into a version of one’s self that they don’t recognize. The way she constantly grounded him with a soft, unfearing touch. The only time she had ever seemed afraid in his presence was before they’d slept together for the first time, when she told him Hydra had sterilized her. It had been...bittersweet. With him, she didn’t have anything to worry about (at least, in that regard), but it had spoken volumes how she was concerned about what he would think of her body. That she not only recognized he had thoughts of his own, but she valued them.

She reminded him how to be a person—a real person—simply by treating him like one. And, when the world outside of Hydra was so vastly different now than it had been in the time he remembered best, he knew he could benefit from having someone like her to guide him through it.

Thus, it was taking him days to decide if he should leave town without her. He had been wrestling with the decision ever since their last encounter together. As reasonable as it was for him to go, even with the knowledge she wanted him to, he just couldn’t. He didn’t want to. Yes, it was incredibly ( stupidly ) reckless to base his final decision around what he wanted as opposed to what was smart, but he couldn’t help it. He was rapidly learning that the longer they went without seeing each other, the more consumed he was with thoughts of her, and her alone.

At first, he’d selfishly fretted that something had happened to his little witch, and that was why she wouldn’t visit him. Then it occurred to him that perhaps she was making a conscious effort not to see him anymore. Like it was her method of pushing him away, because she thought it best for him to move on without her. In a way, that was sensible. He shouldn’t have gotten so attached to begin with. That kind of dependence in a life like his was dangerous. He should leave, and start a new life as far as possible from where the Winter Soldier was last seen. He had the means to; just enough money and forged documents to get him out of the country. He knew enough foreign languages to get by almost anywhere. All he needed was to physically walk away.

And yet, he couldn’t seem to do it.  At some point, he had managed to convince himself that he needed her.

At times, he even entertained the thought that maybe she needed him too. As much as she spoke affectionately of the people she lived with, it was clear she wasn’t terribly close to any of them. Twice he’d seen her become completely overwhelmed by her emotions, as if they had been building up inside her with no other outlet. And while it did bother him to see her suffer that way, he also liked to think that meant their dependence was mutual. That he was doing something good for her by being there, just like she did with him.

It apparently wasn’t enough though. She had so suddenly stopped coming to see him...maybe it was a sign he could do the same. He knew he should. Maybe he would find someone else wherever he wound up, if he needed the company so badly.

Ironically, that just got him thinking about the little idiosyncrasies unique to Wanda. There was so much about her he would miss if he did live somewhere else without her. Like how she claimed to prefer the quiet, then would proceed to fill any silence between them by absentmindedly humming. Or when she would laugh so hard she felt the need to cover it with her hands (and his resulting temptation to pull them away every time, so he could see her smile). When traces of her rich, native accent would creep its way into her words depending on how excited or nervous she was. Her slight head tilt when she was listening intently. The subtle change in her breathing when his hand contacted her touch-starved skin, especially to scars that were barely visible anymore (yet she still tried to hide as often as she could). The way she would always press a small kiss to his forehead immediately after they made love. The ethereal glow about her whenever her eyes went from a clear green to a vibrant scarlet. And of course, the red energy that lurked within her in general. He hadn’t felt it firsthand despite her repeated offers to use it on his mind (he just wasn’t ready for someone else to be in there again), but it fascinated him nonetheless. He’d never seen anything like her powers, and he knew he would never find them anywhere else.

After being forcibly brought back from death, it took a lot to surprise him. But she managed.

He couldn’t leave her behind. If she wanted him to, he could respect that. But he had to be sure. If he could just see her one more time, and ensure she was alright, he would go without a second thought. He just needed to find her first.

He had apparently found her before, when her abilities had picked up on him, and led her to eventually finding him there at the inn. And he knew the general area to revisit thanks to the one time she had gone with him to and from Miss Gracie’s house.

He could find her again.

Renewed by a fresh sense of purpose, Bucky scrambled to get up and moving before he lost his nerve. He cleaned up a little in the bathroom before getting dressed, admittedly doing the bare minimum to resemble a civilian. He was operating on autopilot again, lacing up the boots he left by the door, crossing the threshold outside, and locking the room behind him without ever letting himself think anything of it.

He made it all the way to the main floor of the building, down the front steps, and to the very edge of the property line when second thoughts struck him like a physical blow upside the head. Among them the very likely possibility Wanda didn’t want to see him anymore. By seeking her out like this, he could be disturbing whatever peaceful, fresh start she was finding with Steve.

And then there was the fact that he would be there. Bucky Barnes’s old friend, and the Winter Soldier’s last target. He didn’t know which one of them would prove to be more prominent in him if he saw Steve again. Hell, he wasn’t entirely sure what Steve would do if they encountered each other. Or any of the team for that matter. Sure, Wanda had told him Steve still viewed him as his old friend, but that didn’t erase the fact that he was a criminal as well. And Steve’s team was responsible for protecting the mass public before they did a former assassin.

He’d never envied Wanda’s powers the way he did now. Reaching a final decision would be much simpler if he could so easily know what a particular person was thinking when they caught him lurking about. Of course, he could channel the Soldier’s mindset for the time being, just this once. The Soldier would know how to get the information he needed without being detected. But would he be able to keep the Soldier from taking over his mind completely?

At the mere thought of losing himself again, he reached for the tags he’d kept around his neck ever since Wanda gave them to him months ago. He squeezed the metal in his flesh fist, hard enough to make the information he was so afraid to lose embed itself into his palm, but not hard enough that the tags themselves bent.

Barnes, James Buchanan. 32557038. He recited it in his mind. Held onto it while he could.

Maybe he shouldn’t do this. He didn’t know enough about where she was to approach it wisely. It was all so risky. Dangerous.

Perhaps he should just listen to Wanda and leave town altogether. It would only take one right turn here to have him on his way to the nearest airport, which he knew covered international travel. He could be anywhere in the world in just a short time....

But then he noticed someone in the grocery store parking lot, directly across from him. She was a young woman, completely absorbed in her cell phone as she leaned against the passenger door of what was probably a friend’s car.

Due to the enhancements from Hydra’s serum, he was able to pick up some of the details of her face even from a distance. She resembled Wanda, clearly being around the witch’s age, albeit less haunted or self-conscious of her every move. Her hair was lighter too, organized in a messy braid that fell over her shoulder. As she continued to read whatever was on her phone, her eyes suddenly brightened at something on the miniature screen, and her features unfolded into pure delight as she laughed.

It was likely his imagination distorting things, but her laugh sounded like Wanda’s. It made him realize just how much he missed seeing her that cheerful. He especially missed letting himself feel proud whenever he was the cause of whatever made her laugh like that. How good it felt to feel good, as they both helped the other forget the hellish realities of the outside world, even for just a moment.

From there, more and more of his more selfish thoughts began to push their way through. Most notably the possibility that he was misreading everything, and she hadn’t come simply because something was physically keeping her. And if it was something serious, he couldn’t allow himself to up and leave her in good conscience. He’d already abandoned her in a time of need once, and he knew he would only hate himself if he did so again.

Swallowing a deep breath, the Soldier forced himself onto the sidewalk and turned left.


The merciless burning was back. Wanda bore through it miserably, having been stripped of the energy to do much else. She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, and could barely think. She could only close her eyes and allow herself to fade in and out of dreams—or maybe reality, she wasn’t trying to tell the difference anymore—as the sickness ran its course.

“Wanda?”

She snuggled further into her pillow, in a poor mood to entertain anyone at the moment. Her burdened mind betrayed her though, processing the texture of her stiff hospital bed as the coziness of a bed from her childhood instead. Not her own, but the one in her parents’ room, which she and Pietro had deemed the most comfortable in the world. They often snuck into it when their parents were busy, so they could share stories and secrets while also indulging in how divine it felt compared to their own beds.

“Wanda? Are you awake?”     

“No,” Wanda replied, not opening her eyes despite recognizing her brother’s voice.

He laughed, the ass. “You have really done a number on yourself, haven’t you?”

Now she did look. What she found wasn’t the cold, sterile room she had been quarantined in. Instead, she saw her parents’ bedroom, covered in benign shadows and what little light was still visible through the window as the day slowly died outside. Pietro was lying beside her, seemingly in the same healthy condition he had been in before they took off to fight Ultron’s army with the Avengers.

She had missed his face.

“It’s not like I planned this,” she whispered, not meaning to sound so harsh.

“We never do,” Pietro said, a teasing smirk playing at the corners of his mouth.

Wanda’s smile was more bittersweet. She tucked herself closer to her twin, just enough to press her forehead against his chest. There was no warmth to his body, or any of the scent that was unique to him. She didn’t know why she expected either. It wasn’t like he was real.

“Do you want me to sing you a song?” he offered.

Despite how awful she felt, Wanda was unable to stop a small, genuine smile from peeking through. In reality, Pietro would make that same offer the few times she hadn’t felt well. It was always a nostalgic gesture, something he’d taken from their mother. But for the life of him, he could never carry a tune. “Lord, no.”

He laughed again. Then they both sat in silence, allowing the levity in the air pass before murmuring his next, more serious query. “So, who do I need to kill for doing this to you?”

Wanda shook her head weakly. “No one. Don’t worry about it.”

“Of course I’ll worry,” he told her, sounding slightly offended she would suggest otherwise. “We’re Maximoffs. We only have each other.”

When Wanda didn’t answer that, he added, “And that’s all we’ll ever need.”

Wanda felt hurt by that. “Then why did you leave me? I needed you—I still do, and you died. You died without me.”

Pietro frowned. “Don’t say that.”

“It’s true!” The broken whimper came unbidden, slipping off her tongue without her knowledge. All she was consciously aware of anymore was her grief and the burning heat of fever. She hated how pathetic her own voice sounded. She hated what he was saying because she had once believed him. She had believed they were all the other had, and then suddenly she didn’t even have him.

She had nothing. Not even an idea what the future held for her. It terrified her—it still did, and yet he wasn’t there for her. Even though he’d promised. And now, just when she’d thought she was beginning to move on without him, he returned to haunt her. Only because her mind was being bent and corrupted by the effects of a drug. A toxin that had been planted on her by the very person she’d thought was helping her move on.

She didn’t know if she really believed that. All she really knew was that she felt sick, and confused, and hurt, and angry about all of it. So, she lashed out at Pietro, mostly because he was the only one there. “You left me. You let this happen to me because you weren’t there!”

Pietro’s jaw tightened. Wanda didn’t stop, physically reaching out to shove him, or hit him, or something. Hoping to unleash her anguish until someone else felt as low as she did for being forced to remember her brother left her. Or that she had gone through great lengths, including lying to the only people who still accepted her after the Battle of Sokovia, for a friend that had betrayed her. That another friend may know she had done so, and was willing to kill the other if it was deemed necessary. And that terrified her because she still cared about the first so damn much.

But her shove was met with empty space. It only upset her more, making her uncertain if the unnatural fog that swept across the room was real or an illusion brought forth from the frustrated tears budding in her eyes. She shut them tightly, nurturing a small hope that she could will herself to wake up back in the Avengers’ Facility. She didn’t care if all she could do in the waking world was stare at blank walls and suffer in silence. She just didn’t want to confront her feelings. She wanted to rest. To heal from the physical stress the illness was putting on her mind and body. Or die trying.

However, Pietro didn’t let her. He reappeared somewhere behind her, embracing her from behind. One arm kept her close to his chest by crossing over her own, digging his fingers into her shoulder. She struggled against his hold, but it was as firm and strong as he had always been. “Sestra, you know I would never leave you. Not unless you asked me.”

“But you did!” she insisted, not even thinking of how she technically did send him away the last time she’d seen him. She just wanted to blame someone . “You aren’t here anymore—you were supposed to be here! You were supposed to help me leave Sokovia. You were supposed to help me be a better Avenger. You were supposed to stop me!

She curled into herself as best she could with her brother still holding her, her anger receding back into an ugly shell of sorrow. “You would have stopped me. Told me not to get involved...not to see him. None of this would’ve happened. I wouldn’t have risked everything I have with the Avengers by lying to them. And he wouldn’t have been able to do this to me! He...he wouldn’t have poisoned me.”

Wanda clung to the arm still wrapped around her as her brother began to slightly rock her. Usually, she would’ve hated the attempt to placate her, or hated being seen in such a weak and vulnerable state altogether. Pietro was her only exception. And for a while, she thought James could be too.

But was the James she knew even real? Or had he been a persona put up by the Winter Soldier? Someone operating under the orders of Hydra, waiting for a good moment to take her down?

“Do you really think it was him?” Pietro asked curiously. “That he would do this to you?”

I don’t know what to think. She didn’t say that aloud. In all honesty, she was tired of thinking. Especially about this. Ever since Steve told her they’d found the Hydra toxin in her room, whenever her feverish brain allowed her a moment of sense, she would mull over the possibilities. Maybe it was James’s fault, and maybe it wasn’t. But who else could it have been?

Sestra, who in their right mind would rather serve them when they know you?”

Wanda sighed, breaking inside. “I...I can’t know if he is in his right mind. It’s been torn apart so many times.”

“You know,” Pietro said stubbornly. “You know minds better than anyone.”

That was easy for him to say. She’d known her brother’s mind better than her own. “Not his. He never let me in.”

Pietro squeezed her tighter. “Sestra. You know. You were always the smarter one of us. You only need to trust yourself again. Trust that you know what’s real, and what are stupid fears.”

She didn’t want to contemplate what was what anymore. She just wanted to rest.

Wanda made another attempt to wrench herself free of her brother’s embrace, though this time the effort was obviously half-hearted. The fog that had infiltrated the room grew thicker, coming closer to her face until all she could feel was its chilled, invisible touch. It stirred a wave of gooseflesh along her body. It pierced through her skin, seeking a wintry grip on her lungs. Was this how James felt, when they froze him?

The thought took her aback. Less for the nature of it, but more so because it showed how the Soldier was still on her mind in spite of what she thought he had done to her.

Wanda sagged against her brother’s chest as her fevered mind processed his words. As she slowly accepted that he could be right to tell her to trust her instincts. The same deep-set feelings that had been telling her not to believe James would intentionally hurt her. She had been nearly desperate to convince herself otherwise, out of fear of being crushed for giving him the benefit of the doubt and then proven wrong to have done so. To be punished for having faith in someone she cared about.

And yet, she couldn’t deny that she did have that faith. Even if she hadn’t seen inside of James’s thoughts, she did know him. She knew how much he struggled for control of his own mind. She knew how cautious he was with her, even before he knew who she was. She knew he was captivated by her scarlet whenever it slipped past her restraints. How grateful he looked at the widow’s ranch, after she helped him down from the edge of a potentially dangerous episode.

And she knew Hydra. Even if they did want her back, there was no practical need to have him falsify all that. And they were nothing if not practical.

“I don’t fear him,” she murmured, for no one but herself to hear. Just hearing herself say it aloud helped such deeply buried feelings seem more valid. “I never did.”

James Barnes wasn’t the Winter Soldier anymore. He was her friend. And she would stand by him, even if Natasha or any of the other Avengers distrusted him.

“He’s my friend,” she told the person still wrapped around her. “He’s...I think that I—”

The fog completely encompassed them both, feeling colder and colder the thicker it became. The very act of breathing was suddenly difficult to do without consciously thinking of how she was supposed to do it.

Sestra? ” Pietro helped her roll onto her back, his eyes blown wide with worry. “Breathe. Here, like we used to during the experiments.”

He cupped her face, mimicking the deep breaths they both would take when they were first exposed to the alien substances at Strucker’s castle. Breathing through the pain and torment of the poisons invading their bodies was all they could do at the time. And it was all Wanda could do to endure the drug-induced fever she had now.

To her relief, the cold weight around her lungs did wane with every deep inhale, replaced with warm air. Not a comfortable warmth, but not an unbearable burning either. Pietro seemed pleased, at least, leaning back with a more relaxed expression. “That’s it. You have it, sister. You just need to remember how to trust yourself.”

As he leaned further out of her immediate line of sight, Wanda fumbled to grab hold of her brother, suddenly regretting trying so hard to push him away just a few moments ago. “Pietro—!”

He paused to give her a reassuring smile. “It’s alright. I’ll find my way back to you, if you so wish me to.”

Wanda clung to the end of his sleeve for a heartbeat longer, confused as to how he could believe she would ever want him to leave in the first place. But then she remembered. They were here because she was sick. And she needed to get over that before she could be the sister he knew again. With or without him there in reality.

Ruefully, Wanda let go. As soon as she did, Pietro was gone, having faded into the fog. Leaving her alone to burn.

Wanda woke up with a slight gasp, her body recreating the deep breaths her subconscious had been so insistent on. It took several blinks for her eyes to adjust to the real world, or at least what little of it existed in the quarantine room within the Avengers compound. Sluggishly, her brain processed that the excessively barren room was actually teeming with life at the moment. Bodies dressed in equally blank lab coats were moving all about in an urgent, efficient manner.

The witch was startled to notice there was also an Iron Man suit looming near the end of her bed. Its body was yawning open for the world to see every detail of its inner workings. Upon taking in that sight, she realized she was also listening to an unfamiliar voice coming from the other side of the room. With a slight grimace as her aching head protested against the motion, she turned to see who else had wandered into the bleak domain of sickness and medicine.

Across the ways, sitting beside Natasha’s bed was a woman with strawberry blonde hair, and dressed in a casual pink blouse and black pants that made her stand out as the only distinct source of color in the room. Wanda couldn’t see much of her face with her attention so attuned to Natasha, who had sat up to greet her with an expression of equal parts warmth and dismay. Wanda caught part of the spy’s question as to what the other woman was doing there without the suit on.

“Oh, you know how Tony is,” the other woman said, sounding rather affectionate even as she complained about the eccentric billionaire. “One person coughs, and he wants everyone in protective gear.”

They both smiled at that, the exchange positively radiating a comfortable air of familiarity. To Wanda, it was strange. She didn’t think she’d ever seen Natasha so at ease with someone outside of the Avengers’ team. She somewhat envied it, the sort of friendship that was clearly between them. It made her miss Pietro. It made her miss James.

Before she could observe any more, Dr. Cho tentatively stepped into view, blocking off her view of Natasha and the stranger. “Miss Maximoff? Are you with us?”

The witch forced herself to focus on Cho’s sleek, pretty face. She tried to answer the gentle query, only to realize how painfully dry her throat was. Fortunately, Cho seemed to recognize she was at least trying to reply, and she spared her from pushing herself too much. “We’re starting to get somewhere in remedying your condition. Miss Potts, here,” she nodded in the direction of the newcomer, who looked over her shoulder as she heard her name, “is going to provide us the basis for a potential solution. But first, we would like your consent to take a sample of your blood as it is now for further tests.”

Her brain was still operating slowly, making her wait a long while before she settled on a weak nod. She had been poked and prodded enough so far. Why have them stop now?

This time it will help. She had to remember that. She had to remember what Pietro told her. To count on herself, especially her instincts on who could or couldn’t be trusted. And she trusted Cho’s team.

And she still trusted James Barnes.


It took less than an hour to get all the blood samples needed to start formulating a treatment serum. What ate up the rest of the afternoon was synthesizing said serum, and then administering it. After Pepper left (and formally introduced herself to Wanda), Natasha fell asleep, believing it would make the whole process go by quicker.

When she awoke, she wasn’t sure how much time had passed. But she did notice her body didn’t ache nearly as much as before, and she was no longer sweating up a storm. Even her dreams hadn’t been the distorted mess of bad memories and strange imagery that had plagued her ever since she’d first been brought into medical. Though she didn’t feel rested enough to keep from turning over and immediately trying to sink back into the peaceful nothingness.

Just as she was drifting off though, a sharp gasp from behind startled her back to full awareness. The spy was facing the wall directly beside her, but she could see what was happening behind her in the reflection of the window. Across the way, Wanda had shot up in her bed. She was too far away to catch her facial expression, but it was safe to assume she was shocked due to the lack of movement in her abdomen, indicating that she was holding her breath. Then she tilted her head slightly, as if listening for something.

Natasha snuggled further into her bed, ready to dismiss the girl’s alarm as something from a bad fever dream. But then she heard the mad squealing of bare feet scurrying against the polished floor. Through the reflection, Natasha saw it was still Wanda, now rushing to the one door in the room and scrambling wildly to get it open.

At that, Natasha raised her head to look over her shoulder, half-convinced the watery image she was seeing in the reflection was actually part of another deranged hallucination. But no, Wanda really was wrestling with the heavy quarantine door, which was always securely sealed thanks to Stark’s advanced tech. She resembled a caged animal, all but clawing at the strong material with an unsettling amount of frantic energy.

Natasha sat up, ready to talk her down from something that was likely not even there. But before she could even utter the girl’s name, a ball of red energy randomly burst from Wanda’s fingertips. The scarlet light dissolved into the edges of the door, causing the surrounding tech to emit a short series of popping sounds. Once the system had fully short-circuited, Wanda pressed her palms against the door again. This time the door compliantly slid sideways, allowing her to open it just enough to squeeze through and take off out of sight.

The abandoned spy stayed where she was for a long, useless minute. She was completely at a loss as to what could have set Wanda off that way. Then she waited for the inevitable reaction from Helen, Steve, or anyone else who had been monitoring them since the epidemic began.

Yet, several minutes stretched on without any response. Not a single sound. It was almost as though the entire wing had been deserted.

What the hell?

With a slight effort, Natasha flipped her thin bed sheet off and forced herself to stand. Her poorly hydrated brain spun for a moment, but she eventually managed to push herself in the same direction as Wanda. As she trudged through the one hallway of the medical ward, she noticed with growing alarm that the building still appeared empty. Had no one noticed the two ill Avengers wandering outside of their room?

Finally, Natasha encountered Sam in what could only be described as a waiting area. She drifted toward him, in the one corner of the room that had a miniature table which he could eat his pitiful excuse for a sandwich off of.

“Hey,” Natasha greeted simply. Her voice was still a bit hoarse from the effects of being sick, but thankfully not as painfully dry as it used to be. “Did you see...?”

She stopped in both her tracks and with her words once she was close enough to see his face. Really see it.

He wasn’t looking at her. He was staring right through her as he continued chewing on his meal, acting as though she wasn’t even there. Even grabbing his chin and physically forcing him to look up at her didn’t snap him out of his trance. It undoubtedly had something to do with the scarlet hue coating his normally dark irises.

What the hell? Natasha thought again. Granted, she was glad to have a sign she was still heading in the right direction. But what was the little witch doing?

Uncertain how to break Sam from the state he was put in, Natasha left him as he was and moved on through the hall. As she reached a part of the building that was more complex, she briefly worried how she would know which way to continue. Luckily, a small breeze against her feet gave her the answer she needed. She looked in the direction it seemed to be coming from, finding an emergency exit door that also had technologically guarded locks that had conveniently short-circuited. Hell, the door itself wasn’t fully closed.

Natasha hesitated, debating how safe it was to blindly follow an unstable, enhanced individual outside on her own, when she still felt fairly sick herself. But then again, Wanda was a teammate. Natasha didn’t want to waste the amount of time it would take to find someone to help, leaving the girl alone to deal with whatever had upset her for however long.

The spy decided to proceed with caution. As fast as her burdened legs would take her, she retreated back to the room where Sam was. Beneath the table was one of several guns she kept hidden around the compound in case of emergency. She quickly unstrapped it and carried it with her back to the exit door, now feeling a little more prepared in the event of whatever threat Wanda sensed turned out to be real.

At first, her compromised senses were overwhelmed by the outdoor air. Her hospital pajamas were hardly a suitable protection from the crisp autumn chill, and the looming rain clouds overhead did little to alleviate her trepidation. But she forced herself to swallow her discomfort until she found where Wanda had gone. On a whim, she headed for the backwoods surrounding the building. She made it only a few steps before she heard her teammate’s voice, and followed that until she spotted Wanda several yards to the left of where she had originally left the building.

When she realized what exactly she was looking at, the spy stopped dead in her tracks.

Maybe she hadn’t woken up after all. Surely that was the only explanation for Wanda to be out here, standing with the Winter Soldier, of all people. She wasn’t even questioning who he was, or what he was doing there, but rather weakly pushing at his shoulders and insisting he leave before someone saw him. She let him put his hands on her, cradling her face as he scanned it with an expression of... worry drawn over his own.

“You said you couldn’t get sick—”

“James, please. You have to go, now. Right now!”

James. Not the Winter Soldier.

Wanda knew him. Wanda knew him.

What the hell?

Natasha’s mind ventured back to her first dream after she fell ill. At the time, it had seemed like random bits of her memory interlocked with totally random scenarios. One of which had included the Soldier wrapping himself around her, and feeling oddly comfortable with it. Relieved, even. Had that been another memory? Wanda’s memory?

Fuck. She’d been so stupid. So blind and stupid. After Wanda accidentally latched onto his mind, then began disappearing for hours on end nearly every day, only to recently come home with a Hydra toxin clipped onto her bag...it was because of him.

Of course it had to be him. The same Soldier who had turned her world upside down when he reappeared into her life in Washington DC. Who had shot her on two occasions, and pummeled her best friend to a pulp even though he’d refused to fight back. The Soldier she hated more than anyone else for always hurting whoever dared to care about him. Which apparently included Wanda, seeing as the little witch was so desperate to help him escape before they were spotted.

No...no. He doesn’t get to drag her down too.

The spy stormed forward. Stumbled really, what with her brain still a jumbled mix of slowly receding illness and shock over what she was seeing. Nevertheless, she didn’t go unnoticed for much longer.

Wanda shot an anxious glance over her shoulder, then another when it properly struck her that Natasha was there. Her face, which had already been pale with her fever, somehow blanched even more. She turned back to the Soldier, her fingers aglow with scarlet light as she pushed at his chest again. While the psionic energy didn’t outright leave her hands, it definitely gave her enough strength to physically force him a few steps backward. “James! Go!

He hardly reacted, only making an aborted attempt with his flesh arm to reach back for her. He had eyes solely for Wanda, eyes that were wide with concern for her, and confusion, and...and humanity.

Natasha couldn’t remember ever seeing him look like that before.

That doesn’t mean he’s not a wanted criminal still.

It wasn’t until the heavy weight nearly slipped from her fingers did Natasha remember she’d brought a gun with her. In that same moment, the Soldier noticed her weapon as well, and finally obeyed Wanda, retreating toward the abundance of shadows in the backwoods. The spy knew once he made it there, she would lose him for good. She aimed the semiautomatic in her hand directly at him, intending to do just enough damage to slow him down. Maybe even wound him enough to drag him into the Facility, where he would fall into SHIELD’s custody.

And risk letting Steve get hurt because of him again?

The thought gave her pause. It lasted only a split-second, her contemplation on how seeing Barnes again could affect Steve emotionally (and maybe even physically, if the bastard escaped again). He had already been suffering enough recently, tearing himself apart with guilt as he watched from a distance as the effects of Hydra’s drug took a toll on two of his teammates.

A single pause was just enough to give Wanda a chance to intervene. The girl shoved Natasha’s arm aside just as she fired, sending the shot into the heart of a nearby tree. She then grabbed both of Natasha’s arms, gripping them to an almost painful degree. Her hands were still glowing a deep, eerie crimson, but no power was outwardly escaping them. “Natasha! Natasha—please, listen!”

“He trusted you!” the spy snapped, shouting as loudly as her sore throat would allow. “Steve trusted you—we all did! And you lead him here?”

“I know how it looks, but it’s not—” Wanda tried.

“He trusted you! And you—you knew what it would mean to him to know where he was! How—what—what were you thinking?”

He could’ve killed you, she wanted to say, but didn’t. He almost did when he managed to poison us both.

Wanda only shook her head weakly, her eyes glistening with a marriage of guilt and panic. “I made a promise. I would wait until he was ready. Until he felt—”

Natasha didn’t listen to any more. She didn’t think she could, when she knew he was still getting away. She abruptly wrenched herself back to be free of Wanda’s grasp, then forced the girl aside with a shove to her chest. The scarlet energy at her teammate’s fingertips emitted a sharp, threatening crackle sound. But still, nothing actually materialized.

Natasha saw her chance and took it. She couldn’t see the Soldier anymore, but she knew the rough direction where he’d gone. With the amount of hesitance he’d had before relenting to Wanda’s orders, she knew he couldn’t have gotten very far by this point. She fired in a rapid succession, not caring where she hit anymore. Just as long as she stopped him.

Then the piercing pop of her gunfire was suddenly replaced with a muffled whoosh. She caught a glimpse of red before she made the mistake of blinking. The single second of darkness was enough to let her vision shift to a completely different setting. All of a sudden, the sky overhead was clear and dark with the dead of night. The horizon was luminous with an array of Moscow’s colorful buildings, and a gentle carpet of snow beneath each one. Natasha sunk to her knees into the white powder, her firearm disappearing completely into it after sliding from her limp fingers. She was struck with a sudden sense of fear, churning almost painfully in her chest.

She’d blown her mission. Let her true identity be discovered before getting all the needed intel from the target. Now she could only sit here, and hope he followed her outside. Hope he wandered into a good position for the Soldier to terminate him before he escaped for good. Hope she wouldn’t be punished—

No. She’d seen this before. It wasn’t real anymore.

“Give me my sight back!” Natasha hissed.

“Please, don’t tell Steve,” Wanda begged. Natasha couldn’t see her, but she heard her voice perfectly clear.

“What does he have on you?” Natasha demanded, solely to keep Wanda talking. Come on, show me where you are.

“Nothing! He’s just trying to do what he thinks is right—what’s safest for both of them. And if you care at all about—”

Natasha inhaled deeply, bracing her still recovering body for what she intended to do next. Summoning as much strength as she could, she leapt back to her feet, twisting around and swinging blindly. She had dropped her gun in reality, but she still managed to catch something with the back of her hand.

Wanda didn’t utter a sound, though she clearly felt the blow, for the vision she was projecting faltered just enough for Natasha to get a glimpse of her reaching to touch her face. Natasha raced for that direction, only to have Wanda disappear at the last minute. The spy didn’t stop, swinging blindly again, this time with her fist.

Now everything around her disappeared. Dissolving into a fog, and then what she knew to be reality. But not because she landed another blow. Wanda had caught her wrist before she could strike her face again. Despite still being hindered by the remnants of illness, Wanda had moved quickly enough to stop her.

Wanda had stopped her, the Black Widow.

Was that something the Winter Soldier had taught her?

No. We taught her to fight like one of us.

Now that her scarlet was obeying her, Wanda made a small ball of it surge from her free hand, striking Natasha directly in the chest and effectively tossing her backward. Natasha landed on her back for an idle moment, too winded to even hear the voices calling for her and Wanda in the distance. When she went to sit up, she spotted her discarded gun a mere few inches away, resting between her and Wanda.

Wanda didn’t seem to notice what the spy’s eyes landed on. Her own gaze was trained on her hands, ensuring that her scarlet was continuing to appear when she willed it to. A couple of thin, shaky wisps crawled around her fingers that were still stretched out from when she had launched Natasha, held there as a warning.

Natasha rolled forward to grab hold of her firearm. The moment she felt its sleek metal texture, she was on her feet and pointing it at Wanda. “Don’t ever do that to me again!” she growled.

“Do not tell Steve,” Wanda shot back, making her voice firmer than it had been before.  

Whatever the little witch was about to say next was cut off by Clint’s angry yell, “Natasha! What the fuck!”

Both he and Steve were suddenly upon them, Steve’s burly arms restraining her and Clint grabbing Wanda’s shoulders, guiding her a few paces back. At Steve’s touch, Natasha dropped her weapon, never once taking her eyes off Wanda. The younger woman conversely softened at the sight of the other two Avengers, following Clint’s direction to turn her face so he could get a better look at the rapidly forming red mark under her eye.

The voice by Natasha’s ear sounded more like her commander, Captain America than her friend, Steve Rogers. “Is either one of you going to tell us what the hell is going on?”

Natasha’s anger over her teammate’s betrayal almost got the best of her in that moment. Almost.

For now, the Widow only clenched her jaw, still glaring at Wanda. Daring her to make a convincing lie.

To her credit, Wanda thought fast. Because we taught her how to lie. “It’s my fault, Captain,” she insisted softly. “I...I think I lost control of my powers. Made us see something that wasn’t really there.”

That was believable enough. Or maybe Natasha thought so because she so desperately wished it was true. That none of what she’d discovered was real, and was instead something made up by the witch’s unrestrained magic.

Clint, however, didn’t seem convinced. Natasha could see him eyeing her, his expression one of somber bewilderment. Natasha didn’t doubt he suspected there was more to what had happened than Wanda was leading on. He had more experience as a spy than Steve, and could read more into the intense hostility radiating from his former partner. There was something else to why she was so livid. Something that could only be personal if it made her lose her usual composure this way. What exactly that was, he still looked expectant to hear from her.

Natasha still didn’t understand everything herself. How did Wanda and the Soldier know each other? Why did he even come here, when she so clearly didn’t want him to? What did he want from her? Why would she keep it all secret?

Clint spared her from digging too far into the possibilities for the moment, stepping forward to grab her forearm. As he eased her out of Steve’s grasp, he continued to study her face, practically imploring her to tell her side of the story with his stare. Steve didn’t seem to notice, instead taking his turn to see how bad the red splotch beneath Wanda’s eye was.

When Natasha didn’t respond to his silent urging, Clint ruefully declared, “Well, with Nat’s training, we can’t let her roam unrestrained if her mental state’s compromised.”

Now Steve looked up. “What do you mean unrestrained?”

“If she’s going to act like a threat to others, protocol says to treat it like a compromised agent,” Clint said. As he did, he gently shook Natasha’s shoulder in a less than subtle signal she speak up and defend herself. She didn’t, now sending her indignant glare into the trees around them. She half hoped he was still close enough to hear them. To hear how he was turning their lives upside down with his mere presence again .

Steve and Clint began to argue over their duty to imprison her for attacking a teammate. She didn’t listen though, now directing her thoughts toward the Winter Soldier even more. How horrible it was that he was the one to have shown up now, when she already felt low from being sick. She had already hated him for nearly killing Steve in DC, and for continuously treating her as if his role in her Red Room training never happened. Now she loathed him even more for whatever he’d coerced Wanda into hiding from them.

The pod clipped to Wanda’s bag wasn’t Hydra’s only poison. The Winter Soldier was another one. Natasha wished now more than ever she had killed him when she had the chance. She could have gone after him immediately after the helicarriers fell in DC, and prevented him from luring another person she cared about into his trap. For threatening her team’s trust in each other here and now. After what he did to Steve, I could have killed him. I should have killed him.

Maybe she had another chance to do just that. If she went along with apprehension by Clint, she could make him understand what was happening in private, and he’d let her finish the Winter Soldier for good. Even if he didn’t let her go, all she would need was a single moment alone to slip away unnoticed. She would find Barnes and end him. After all, he was surely staying close by if he had been near enough all this time to get into Wanda’s head.

“Clint’s right,” the spy announced. As hoarse as her still recovering voice was, once both men quieted, it sounded booming. “I attacked a teammate. I’ve been compromised.”

Steve shook his head, looking hurt that she would agree to what was practically imprisonment. Though he didn’t seem to have any reasonable alternatives to offer. Natasha had pointed a gun at Wanda, a teammate that was still considerably sick since her body was slow to respond to Stark’s treatment. Both Steve and Clint probably heard her fire the weapon as well, without seeing where exactly she was aiming.

Clint acted next, clearly begrudging as he tugged on Natasha’s arm to lead her back into the Facility. There, he would pass her off to security agents that would be considered more trustworthy to apprehend her than her former partner, who could potentially ‘be swayed to her side.’ She went through the necessary motions in a daze, accepting her shackles to a lonely metal table in the detention ward with barely a flinch. The only thoughts on her mind were plans for an escape. Tireless calculations of when would be a choice moment to act, so she could fulfill her self-appointed mission.

And maybe—just maybe—she would get a full explanation from the witch after.

Chapter Text

Wanda had been in a state of near-panic for the better part of the afternoon. First finding James wandering around outside the compound, practically waiting to be seen by someone, and then having that someone be a wrathful Black Widow had done nothing but stress her unwell body even more. As did her rash decision to flat out fight Natasha in order to help James get away. Covering it all up with more lies was likely to backfire on her pretty soon, so she still had that to deal with as well. Not that she could do anything about it right now.

After Natasha had been apprehended for allegedly starting the fight between them, Wanda had also been sequestered by herself. Though instead of being treated like a suspect in a crime, Wanda was merely taken back to the quarantine room. Dr. Cho was now giving her another sample of the same serum as before, because ‘even with the added deterrent of her scarlet, it shouldn’t be working this slowly.’

Of course, Cho was also miffed that Wanda had left medical. That kind of stress on her patient’s body was a critical delay to the effects of her previous work. Though she was thankfully professional as she explained this, only indicating that she was upset with the Maximoff sister through the slight frown in her expression.

Wanda surprised herself with how well she held herself together during the fresh bout of treatment. It was requiring her to muster months-worth of spy training from Natasha to remain so collected, since internally she was still on the verge of frenzied terror. Was Natasha informing the rest of the team what she had seen? Would they buy Wanda’s story that it had been a hallucination, or believe Natasha, who they had known and trusted for years?

If they do believe her, will James be safe?

Wanda repetitively looked toward the quarantine door (now hanging open after she’d made it short-circuit), as if expecting to see the team storm past at any minute, in full uniform, ready to hunt down the Winter Soldier. Which, logically, she knew was ridiculous. Even if they did realize James Barnes was close enough for them to apprehend, why would they come here on their way to find him? To ask her permission?

As long as they don’t hurt him. Please, please, after what he’s been through, don’t let anyone else hurt him.

“Miss Maximoff, please sit still.”

Dr. Cho’s airy voice brought Wanda’s attention to the fact that she had started fidgeting while the physician was securing her IV. She forced herself to become motionless, so as to not vex the other woman any further. Though that didn’t erase her worry over what the Avengers were doing right now. What they were thinking.

Fortunately, Hawkeye himself appeared just then. Still in his farmhouse-wear, still looking intensely bewildered, and now bearing a sack of frozen peas in hand. Surely not looking to hunt down a recently spotted fugitive.

“Here,” he said simply as he approached Wanda’s bedside, holding the peas out for her to take with her free hand. She did, promptly pressing them to the spot where Natasha’s knuckles had struck her. Truth be told, the cool contrast did help the aching there.

“Thank you,” she said softly, before adding more a more solid, “Where are the others?”

“Still coming down from the spell you accidentally put them under when you went after Natasha.” He crossed his arms over his chest, sighing tiredly. “Steve’s making sure no one got hurt while they couldn’t see straight. The worst so far is Sam, for biting his finger when he didn’t realize he was out of sandwich.”

Despite that being a minor grievance, Wanda still felt guilty. She had been rather impulsive, putting everyone she encountered into a sleep-like daze in order to buy herself more time to send James away.

Well, clearly not everyone. She had left Natasha after assuming the spy was asleep. Or maybe because she wasn’t confident her scarlet would respond at that time. Her main thought in that moment had simply been get out. Find him. Perhaps if she had at least tried using her powers on Nat, the situation would have turned out better.

“Is Natasha alright? I swear, this,” Wanda held up the frozen peas before pressing them back against her face, “was not her fault. It was mine. What she saw—”

“She’s fine, she’s fine,” Clint assured, though there was still an audible bitterness lurking in his tone. “Got placed in interrogation for the time being, but I managed to pull some strings so I’m the one in charge of her psych eval. Gonna ask her what she thinks happens, why she lashed out the way she did—all that fun stuff.”

Wanda nodded, feeling some relief that no one had spoken to Natasha yet. Maybe the witch still had time to cover this all up.

With Cho finished filling her IV with a fresh set of the treatment (an unnatural looking, orange substance), she was left alone with Barton. Wanda set the packet of frozen peas into her lap, fiddling with them as she tried to figure a way to get both her and Natasha out of this. Maybe even find an excuse to get off the grounds altogether, and make a quick trip to see James. Tell him she was alright. See if he was alright. God, Natasha shot at him. What if one of those bullets landed a hit?

Wanda swallowed her fretful thoughts. Letting that kind of fear take control was the entire reason she’d been so careless before, and thus led Natasha to catch her with James. She couldn’t let that fear get the best of her again, potentially worsening things.

“Do you think I should speak with her first? It was my fault, after all. I should tell her I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” Clint replied with an inarguable shake of his head. “Helen told us how slowly the serum works on you. You’re staying right here, and letting it run its course.”

Wanda bit back a disappointed sigh, opting to pinch a frozen pea through the material of the packet between her fingers instead. Talking Natasha into seeing James’s side of things seemed like a far-fetched idea anyway. Hopefully, what she could still try was slipping away for a little while. She figured she owed it to James to at least warn him that the Avengers may come looking for him. Convince him to get a head start escaping somewhere else before they found him in the neighboring town.

Wanda channeled even more of her spy training to feign a casual tone as she said, “Did she say if I would need more of it?”

“No, she didn’t. As I recall, there’s no telling how it’s going to behave in your system. But I think she’s going to make some more to be safe. I overheard her asking Pepper if she could take another blood sample.”

That was good. If Dr. Cho was busy creating more of the treatment serum, and Natasha remained in interrogation, that meant Wanda would be alone for the next several hours. By then it would be night, and Cho would likely want to get some rest. Considering this second transfusion was predicated to make Wanda’s health more stable, she might even wait until morning to see if her patient needed another serum transfusion.

“Well, I suppose that’s smart. But I’m starting to feel better, really. Maybe if I call it a night now, I can be on my feet properly again by tomorrow.”

Clint’s stiff demeanor softened a little at that thought. “Yeah. Like I said, kid, you just gotta let the treatment run its course.”

Wanda nodded. She was already leaning back, as if she were settling in for an early night of sleep. Clint let her keep the frozen peas with her, moving them to sit on the far edge of the bed so the chill wouldn’t bother her too much. Upon making sure she was comfortable, he gently dismissed her. “Alright. Take it easy. Steve and I will sort out everything with Nat.”

His attempt to assure her only made her chest churn with anxiety. Not that there was anything she could do about what Natasha would tell either Avenger from here. She could only wait for a chance to sneak out and warn James of what may be coming for him.

And she did wait. She waited without any clock or window in sight to indicate exactly how long she did. She only knew she was waiting until the surrounding area fell completely still. Until it had been emptied for one quarantined patient to peacefully rest, and the other to be interrogated elsewhere. Even when the layer of quiet settled around her, Wanda waited a while longer, genuinely wanting to let her system absorb more of Cho and Stark’s treatment. Hopefully it would be enough to help her travel to the Bluebell Inn with little trouble.

The moment she thought it would be alright, Wanda carefully removed her IV. She patched up the resulting hole in her arm with the few supplies Dr. Cho had left behind while in her embittered mood. The witch thought she would drive herself mad moving as slowly as she was. But she knew she had to do what she could to keep her heart rate calm, so as to not alert the sensors in the cell. Thankfully, she was free to pick up the pace once she made it past the cell’s entryway, which was still defective from her earlier escape. In fact, most of the tech on that side of the medical wing had malfunctioned under her influence, making it all the more easier to sneak back into the residential wing unnoticed. Her heart pounded the entire time she was there, knowing that if any of the Avengers found her disobeying orders to stay in medical again, they would likely never trust her anywhere unsupervised again.

Through some miracle though, she encountered no trace of the others as she made a beeline for her own bedroom. She quickly traded her hospital pajamas for something less conspicuous for an outing in town. That turned out to be a simple, black striped cami, ripped jeans that were slightly big on her, and the same grey hoodie she in which she kept the keys to the room (and her carnelian from Pietro, which she had left behind the morning she first fainted). Once properly dressed, she took the risk of leaving through the gym, knowing it was a shorter trip than the emergency exit she had busted in the medical ward. If anyone saw her, either in person or on security feed that was still functioning, she didn’t know. As far as she could tell, no one was around to stop her when she did reach the gym area, dawdling a little in case someone was watching—or worse, following—her.

The compound, it seemed, was empty. Deserted.

No, not empty. It was still alive, just with everyone huddled in another area, demanding answers for everything that had happened in the past few days. And they would surely demand more answers from her, the root cause of most of it, the moment someone realized she had escaped again.

Wanda finally hurried through the door of the gym, seeking to be long gone by that time. She was willing to deal with any consequences SHIELD, or the Avengers, or even her own illness, would have for her after she had finished her task. For now, what mattered most was ensuring she kept her promise to the Soldier to keep him safe from the team. After the lengths she had gone through in order to earn his trust, she wasn’t willing to betray it now.


Natasha hated waiting. She hated waiting here, in an interrogation room she had initially helped design. That was how she knew it was meant for the most common, unimportant criminals. She couldn’t tell if it was more insulting to be treated like a criminal by her own team, or to be treated like such a nonthreatening one. She had hours to think it over, though. She could feel the time marching on without her while she was cuffed a table in the center of four grey, boring walls. Left to sit in maddening silence until someone came to pry answers out of her.

Not that she was letting the suffocating quiet of the room get to her; she hadn’t stopped turning the past events over and over again in her mind. Not just seeing Wanda with the Winter Soldier, but all the moments over the past few months where a connection between them made sense. The witch’s sudden loss of interest in the mind she’d accidentally found, then her frequent disappearances for hours on end. How could they have so easily dismissed all of that?

Natasha pulled on the chain of her handcuffs, frustrated with herself for wallowing in mistakes that couldn’t be changed now. What she could do now was go after the Soldier. She would find out what he had been doing with Wanda, and whatever else he still had planned to do. If she played her cards right, she could even prevent him from ever making someone suffer again.

It did bother her that she was letting her thoughts run so dark for the first time since she’d joined SHIELD. Yet, she couldn’t see any alternatives. The Winter Soldier was such an unstoppable force. A ruthless machine that had haunted the world for years. She had witnessed his depravity firsthand while she was being trained in the Red Room. She had felt it when he shot her in Odessa, and again in Washington DC. When he’d nearly destroyed Steve.

The fact that he was still acting on their behalf, having poisoned Wanda, only served to show just how deeply Hydra had its claws in him. How far he was from saving. Freeing him from Hydra’s hold would be best for everyone, including himself.

Fortunately, the one to interrogate her was Clint. And even luckier than that, he believed her when she explained her side of the story (probably because she remained conscious of his newly acquired soft spot for the Maximoffs, and kept her suspicions about Wanda’s involvement to a minimum). He even gifted her the literal keys to her freedom, slipping the key to her handcuffs into her palm before leaving her to her self-appointed mission.

Once Clint was gone, she stayed where she was for a torturously long while longer. Long enough for when she estimated night to fall. Hopefully by that hour, everyone’s attention would have deviated away from her. Hopefully.

When she did unlock her cuffs and venture out of the room, she found the surrounding area completely empty. It was eerie, in the same way as when Wanda had hypnotized everyone in her path on the way to the Winter Soldier. Natasha didn’t waste time figuring out where or how Clint had re-directed everyone for her. She instead made a beeline for the nearest garage, stopping only once to swap her hospital-wear for a spare SHIELD uniform she found in one of the storage closets. Not the most inconspicuous suit for investigating what would likely be an area populated by civilians, but the all-black material was certainly more practical against the outdoor elements than thin cotton pajamas. Then she finally arrived at the garage she had been looking for, where she knew she would find just as much armament as getaway vehicles. She didn’t bother with the latter, knowing Stark’s AI would send a notification to him if anything too large left the building. While she wasn’t ashamed of what she was doing, Natasha didn’t want word getting to Steve when he could still stop her from completing her mission. She figured he would, since he still stubbornly believed that his friend, Barnes, could be retrieved from within the Winter Soldier. That he could be saved.

So, she would have to settle for escaping on foot. Though she made sure to arm herself before she did, collecting a gun to fit in the holster on her right thigh and a couple of knives that could be stored in each boot. She would’ve felt better with her Widow Bites, but that would have required going to the Avengers’ personal armory, adjacent to the gym that was all the way in the residential wing. Not only would there be a greater risk of being seen and stopped by someone (especially Steve) if she went there, but the AI within the Facility was programmed to report to Stark if anything was taken from there. Thus, she had to slip out of the building from this garage like some sort of rogue SHIELD agent instead of the hyper-competent Black Widow. It left her with an odd feeling. It wasn’t odd enough to slow her down from merging into the long shadows shed by the late twilight hour, but it was an odd feeling nonetheless.

No...it wasn’t the sense of being unprepared that was bothering her. It was the sense she was being followed.

She tried not to entertain the thought, brushing it off as leftover paranoia from before she’d been treated for her sickness. Though just as she was about to reach the tree line, roughly the same place she saw the Soldier practically disappear into midair, she realized she could hear someone shouting at her.

“Nat, wait! Nat! Natasha, stop.”

She did stop. More accurately, she froze in her tracks because she immediately recognized the voice behind her. She merely stood there for a few stiff heartbeats, seething silently in anger at herself for thinking it would be that easy to avoid him.

When he spoke again, his voice sounded closer (though she didn’t dare turn around to be sure). “Nat, what do you think you’re doing?”

She couldn’t face him after being caught trying to do what she intended to. There was no way he would understand why she needed to do it. He was Captain America. He didn’t see as many morally grey areas as the average SHIELD agent did. That was why she had been assigned to be his partner in the first place, to show him that not everything could be so black and white. To be his living example of it. But she didn’t think any amount of training together could have helped her prepare him for a situation in which she felt she had to eliminate his former best friend.

At her silence, he finally ventured close enough to gently grab her shoulders. “Nat, come on. You’re not doing anyone any favors by doing this to yourself. Come back inside. Whatever you need to do, it can wait until you’re well enough to go with us and do it as a team.”

She wanted to hate him for sounding so reasonable, but she couldn’t. That was just who Steve Rogers was, and Steve Rogers was her friend.

That was why she had wanted to do this in secret. To protect him.

Pulling herself from Steve’s hold, Natasha turned to finally face him. “Did Clint tell you I was leaving?”

He drew back slightly at her hard tone, giving her some space, but not necessarily backing down. “No. He just said Wanda’s story about what happened with you two checked out. That we should just leave you alone until you stopped having delusions. Then he offered to make some homemade dinner Laura taught him in the agents’ cafeteria.” In the late evening light, Natasha heard more than saw his boyish half-smirk. “Figured that was a little too nice of him to offer. So I thought I’d see for myself how you were doing. S’how I wound up noticing one of the closets between here and interrogation had been left open, with a familiar set of pajamas on the floor.”

Natasha scowled. She could’ve sworn she had closed that door. Although with Captain America’s enhanced senses, he probably would have seen if it had even slightly bounced back ajar. Damn super serum. There was nothing she could do to undo him catching her mistake in sneaking out, so she would have settle for convincing him to let her continue, even if he couldn’t know all the parameters of her mission. “Well, Clint lied. When I left quarantine, he knows I saw something—something that was real, and that I have to go after.”

“No, you don’t,” Steve protested gently. “You need to go back to your room until you feel like yourself again. Whatever’s going on, it can wait until then.”

Her target may get away by then. “No, it can’t. Please, Rogers. It’s personal. I really need you to just trust me.”

Steve shook his head. “Nat, you know I do trust you. But I can’t let you do something like this when your health is in question—when I don’t even know what ‘this’ is! With everything that’s happened recently, you have to see why I can’t trust keeping secrets from each other. Besides, I thought our team was supposed to be above that. It was supposed to be what made us different from SHIELD.”

“Really? So, you’ve been totally honest with the team since coming here? Even Tony, with what we found out about his parents at Camp Lehigh?”

That was a low blow, and she knew it. She could see the conflicted hurt cross his face as soon as she said it. “You know why I can’t—”

“No, I don’t,” she shot back coldly. “I don’t understand how keeping that from him ‘protects him.’ But I trust that you do understand it, so I helped you keep it between us. That’s exactly what Clint and I are doing now. We’re keeping something between us. And I need you to trust it’s to protect you.”

He sighed sharply, his eyes shining with something beyond hurt. Betrayal, maybe. Heartache. So many things she had been trying to spare him of by setting out to eliminate this threat in the first place. Hydra’s lap dog. Natasha couldn’t bear the sight of his confused sorrow, so she turned to leave right then and there.

But again, Steve stopped her. “Do you remember what else I said about this team? When we were waiting for Wanda by the river?”

“What?”

“When we were at the river. Do you remember?”

She remembered the conversation. She remembered how anxious and low he had been, and how she could barely stand it at that time either. Especially because it had been partially her fault then as well, for pushing him as much as she did to talk about the possibility of finding a life outside of the Avengers. He’d said he didn’t think he could, that... “You said the team is all you had left.”

“Yeah. And then you told me that I could still find my way outside of it if I only found someone with shared life experience.”

She made herself face him again, frustrated that she couldn’t tell what he was getting at. “So?”

He cleared his throat a little, rubbing his neck as he eyed the ground for a tense moment. It was strange, seeing him act so...flustered. Like he was trying to speak to one of the overly-flirtatious girls she tried setting him up with. “I, um...I’ve been thinking about that ever since you brought it up then, and going through these past few days practically without you has got me...I’ve just been thinking about a lot recently, but most of all...what if it’s you?”

The question hung between them, a faint breeze almost blowing the words right into her face. Other than the slight whistle of wind, it was so quiet, that there was no denying what he’d asked. What was hiding behind it.

Nonetheless, she tried. “Steve...no. You don’t mean—”

“How do you know? How do you know that’s not why we work so well as partners? Why Fury thought to have both of us lead the new Avengers team together, rather than just one of us?”

She didn’t know what to say to that, too overwhelmed to even know where to begin. He pounced on her silence, braving a few steps back towards her. Everything he had just been struggling to get out was spilling out of him now, eventually losing any filters. “Natasha...I don’t feel at my best when I’m working. I feel best when I’m working with you. You’re the only one who’s made me feel normal in this time period. You’ve never cared about being partners—or even friends, with Captain America. I’ve always been Steve Rogers to you. And I appreciate that so much. It—it’s what helps me feel at home.”

Natasha braced her hands against his chest, as if stopping him from venturing any closer to her would stop him from talking any more. She couldn’t let him say these things, letting him imply that he wanted her to be his home. She wasn’t meant for this—for him. So much about her was shrouded in darkness, in red. Hell, she was out here now to kill someone he still cared about!

She didn’t say any of that, though. No, she only stood there as he went on, “And I appreciate you trying to do what you think is best for me. But I can’t just sit back and knowingly let you do something if it risks your health. With this sudden Hydra activity, and all the secrecy with Wanda, I’m already so close to losing the team I thought I had. I don’t want to lose my partner too.”

Any doubt that he meant all of this, or that it was a lie simply meant to shock her into turning back, was completely gone at this point. Of course he’s being honest—he’s always honest. She hadn’t felt so lost in such a long time. She didn’t know whether to push him away, to be angry at him for interrupting her mission. To tell him that he shouldn’t think about her this way because he deserved better. The things she’d done...Captain America didn’t deserve that.

But he’s not just Captain America. He was Steve Rogers first, and Steve was her partner. Her friend. And he needed someone to help him feel at home in this newer, stranger era. He was so adamant that was her.

No one had ever thought of her like their home.

“I’m...” she began, her voice sounding hoarse to her own ears. It had nothing to do with the illness she was still getting over. “I’m not going anywhere.”

A small smile of relief tentatively touched his face. Her hands were still on his chest, so she could feel his heart pounding. It felt wrong to raise his hopes like this because she was Black Widow, and it was wrong for someone like her to be with him. But she didn’t stop, rather let her hands slide upwards until they were around his shoulders and bringing him closer. Holding him against her, and having him return the embrace as he wound his arms around her waist.

This did feel right. Being able to touch him after days of being caged in a cell. Feeling sick and miserable because of fever, and having to watch him watch her suffer from behind a glass wall. Being here for him, rather than running away in attempts to solve his problems for him.

“I’m here,” she whispered, suddenly breathless. “I’m here, OK?”

“OK.”

“I’m staying right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

And she stayed, her mission suddenly far from mind.


Wanda made it to the inn in record time. That was an impressive feat with or without her body still on the mend, if she could allow herself such a selfish thought. There was also the matter of how paranoid she was as she travelled, repeatedly checking her surroundings without really taking them in. Even when she was inside the modest inn, she was on high alert, as if expecting the Avengers to suddenly appear three steps behind her. It was ironic in a way, given that Natasha had once mentioned to her that as a spy, looking over her shoulder would have to become a second nature to her.

Wanda thought it was a hellish way to live.

At least she didn’t encounter any actual trouble on her journey. She was keeping an eye out for anyone who could be a Hydra sleeper agent as well as an Avenger, and she wound up finding no one who so much as looked at her twice. Which should have been comforting, but instead, she thought to be disconcerting. Who in this sleepy, nondescript town could have poisoned her?

She thought she knew it couldn’t have been James. But if she really knew, why did her hands shake as she let herself into his room?

She felt ridiculous for allowing herself to get so worked up. For one thing, he wasn’t even there when she walked in. The combined darkness and silence instantly told her the room was empty. By the faint light of the indigo sky beyond the window, she could see it was seemingly frozen in time from her last visit days ago. After the hellish week she’d had, it could almost be considered peaceful. That is, if it didn’t feel so depressingly barren at the same time.

The witch didn’t bother with the lights. She wanted to try getting some rest in while she waited for James to get back, and she knew the bright lights would only aggravate her. In the weak lighting, she felt her way through the room as far as the bed, where she settled on the edge to sit and wait. She eventually laid back, looking to rest her feet when a dull ache began to creep inside them. Then she scooted up, so that she could be more comfortable, resting amidst the pillows. If she closed her eyes, she could fool herself into believing she was several days in the past. In a simpler time of her life, when she would come here to let go of simpler worries. To wait for her soldier to arrive, and hold her close, and let herself get lost in him.

She was alone in the restful quiet for so long, she couldn’t help but nod off. What she thought would be a brief submission to fatigue ended with her waking up to complete darkness, even outside the window. She was less concerned with how long she’d slept, and the fact that James still hadn’t arrived after so much time. Although, she slowly realized that what had woken her was the sound of the door being wrestled open by someone who clearly didn’t expect it to be unlocked.

Wanda sat up, anticipating James’s arrival at last. After the door emitted its telltale creak of being opened and closed, she could hear the gentle thud of boots against the uncarpeted wood. Each step sounded slow, as if James was wary of what he would find when he reached her part of the room. Once she reached his line of sight, he relaxed. But only slightly. Even in the dark, she could see how disheveled he was, bearing the same clothes he’d been wearing when he came to the Facility, albeit now rumpled and dirtier.

Hoping to ease some of the tension in his stance, Wanda offered a small smile. “Hi.”

“What are you doing here?”

Her tender visage briefly faltered. His tone wasn’t harsh by any means, but it still had an edge she wasn’t comfortable with. “I, um...” She shifted so that she was leaning on one arm, attempting to appear nonchalant, as opposed to the wayward mess he had encountered outside the Avengers Facility. He had instantly recognized she was sick, and that was likely why he was so unnerved now.

“I wanted to see if you were alright. After you got away, Natasha started shooting at you.” Her stomach flipped in distress at the memory. “I wanted to make sure she didn’t get a good hit.”

“No. I’m fine,” he assured, his voice still just hard enough to make her uneasy. He seemed to be struggling to relax, suddenly unable to hold her eye for very long.

“I’m glad,” she replied softly. As weak as her powers were at the moment, they could still pick up on a chaotic buzzing at the surface of his mind. The kind of chaos she often detected when someone was worrying over something.

He didn’t leave her any time to contemplate what exactly was bothering him. “Did you walk here?”

“Yes.”

“You shouldn’t have. If you’re not feeling well....”

When he didn’t seem able to finish, Wanda shook her head. “I’m fine.”

He didn’t seem assured in any way, so she went on, “I may hate to admit it, but Stark has the best medical team I’ve ever seen. They gave me something that’s been helping. Really.”

“But it wasn’t a cure.”

Wanda was taken aback by that. How could he sound so certain? “No, I suppose not....”

The room fell back into tense quiet. Usually silence was a comfortable presence between them, but now it felt like anything but. The witch was desperate for James to say something. Preferably something along the lines of where he’d been for most of the night.

But she never pushed him for answers, and she didn’t want to start now. Instead, she leaned forward to begin crawling to the very end of the bed, where she could sit directly across from him. The surface of his mind buzzed louder the closer she drew. It was almost too much for her to keep from being pulled in, and hearing what exactly was on his mind. She fought her temptation with words, hoping that his mind would calm if she distracted him. “Do you want to sit? You must be tired. You were gone for a long while.”

“How long were you waiting?”

His concern made her instantly regret the offer. “Don’t worry about it.” She scooted sideways, lightly patting the space where she had been sitting. “Come here.”

James didn’t move for a long moment. Anxiety was radiating off of him as he reached for his own hand, as if he could hold the metal plates there in place as they shifted in response to his distress. When he finally relented to her gentle request, he was stiff, sitting close enough to touch her, but not actually doing so.

Wanda closed the short, unbearable space between them with her hand, resting it on his shoulder. Her thumb tenderly rubbed the seam along his metal arm, feeling the raised flesh through both a shirt and hoodie. “James? Are you sure you’re alright?”

He tried to force a smile. “I think I’d just rather you be home, getting better.”

“James. I feel fine, I promise.” She really did. Every motion she made wasn’t utter agony any more, and she felt more connected to her scarlet again. The only real remaining issue was the disturbing memories the occasional burning sensation brought of when she was first adapting to having her powers in Hydra.

“Do you know how you got sick?”

James’s question came out of nowhere, leaving her too surprised to respond for a minute. It wasn’t what he was asking—it made sense for him to wonder how she got sick when she’d mentioned to him she should be unable to—but it was the way he asked. As if he already knew the answer, and wanted to know if he needed to tell her.

When she found her voice again, Wanda replied with a simple, “Steve said they found a toxin on my bag. It compromised my powers, so my body rejected it.”

“And it was from Hydra?”

She thought she felt her heart stop. “Yes...how did you know that?”

He finally met her eye, his eyes glistening with anguish. “Because it was my fault.”

Now she knew her heart had stopped. It was like she was under the throes of fever again, unable to feel or think of anything. Though somehow, she managed to move to her feet. She didn’t face James as she slowly backed away from him. She couldn’t bear to see the look on his face at what appeared to be her reacting to fear of him. To be honest, that wasn’t the case at all. Or maybe it was.... Either way, she was more afraid of herself. Afraid of the burning in her hands as her powers struggled to manifest amidst the lingering bits of poison in her system. Her body wanted to defend her from her panicked thoughts that her instincts to trust him were wrong . That she had been betrayed.

He rambled on behind her, at least having the nerve to honestly express how guilty he felt. “I...when I settled here...half the reason was because I knew the nearest base had been vacated years ago—decades ago. But then I saw what had happened to you, and I...I went back, and I could see it was in use again. They must have made a new serum there and sent someone to drop it...and it was because of me. They found you because you were coming here, for me.”

Wanda turned to face him again, tender relief flooding her every vein. They sent someone else to drop it. It wasn’t him.

Of course, he would blame himself regardless. She didn’t know if she wanted to throttle him for scaring her or kiss him for proving she had been right all along. She would have kissed him had she not been worried of spreading her illness.

The witch stepped between the soldier’s legs, holding his face between her hands. Forcing him to meet her gaze, so he could see her happiness. “No, no, James. It isn’t your fault. You know how relentless they are. They would have found a way to reach me anyways.”

She thought back to a conversation she’d overheard when her powers were drifting unrestrained in and out of Natasha’s thoughts. They probably want to reclaim an old asset.

James didn’t seem comforted, pulling out of her grasp.

“James, it’s alright,” she told him. Pleading him to forgive himself through her voice rather than words. “If you found the base they’re operating from, we can go there and put a stop to it. I’ll tell Steve, and he’ll send the team.”

She spoke faster as he appeared to grow even more agitated. “I’ll make something up! Tell him I found it while walking to clear my mind. That I thought it was in disuse. I can lie, and help them bring down the base—it’s exactly what he and Natasha have been training me for!”

“No, please.” James suddenly grabbed her wrists, squeezing urgently. His grip loosened a split second later, as if he’d reminded himself to watch his strength. “Please, don’t. I don’t want to think of you anywhere near there.”

“James, I can take care of myself. It’s just like I said, the team’s been training me for this.”

“I know, I know. It’s just....”

“What?”

He didn’t answer, and that made her agitated. He did nothing to alleviate her anxiety when he stood up, taking a few steps toward the door. He didn’t make it far, stopping himself a mere two feet away to run his hands through his hair. He tugged at the dark strands, hard enough to worry her.

“James,” she said firmly, then softened when he started at her tone. His mind was wild with churning thoughts, and the temptation to read them just to know what was hurting him was so strong. “James, please. I want to know what you’re thinking.”

He turned sharply at that. “Don’t look in my head, koldun’ya.”

The demand gave her pause. A bitter sort of hesitation, born from offense that he thought she would read him without his permission. That wasn’t who she was, and she’d been so certain he would know that by now. “Then don’t give me reason to,” she said hotly.

He uttered a short exhale, regret crossing his expression. Wanda made herself soften again as she stepped closer. “Please, James,” she whispered, reaching for his face once more. Guiding his eyes to her, and hoping he could read what she didn’t say. I’m not mad. I’m just worried. “Please. You’re scaring me.”

She hadn’t wanted to admit that. The very foundation of their relationship had been built on the fact that neither of them feared the other. She didn’t want to use that against him now if it only made him feel worse. But if it urged him to finally be honest with her, she was willing to make the sacrifice.

It had the desired effect. His shoulders sagged in defeat, and his hands hesitantly went to her waist. He pulled her close, resting his forehead against hers. The witch dropped her own hands to his shoulders, gently squeezing them in an unspoken apology for practically forcing this out of him.

“It’s just....” He winced, squeezing back with only his flesh hand. “After today...now that I know which asset they’re bringing in to finish the job....”

Wanda still didn’t understand. She knew she could hold her own against anything Hydra had at that base. In fact, she wanted to handle them herself. After what they’d put her through, she knew she deserved to get revenge on them more than anyone else did. Surely James knew that.

“James, we can take on whatever they have.” She paused, uncertain how he would take her next offer. “If you’re so worried, then you can come with us—”

“I trust you, Wanda,” he interrupted. “I trust you know how to defend yourself. But this...it’s different.”

Damn him for being so enigmatic. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t think they want him to fight you. I—I think he’s there to bait you.”

Wanda could only stare. He wasn’t making any sense. She figured another asset from Hydra meant another Winter Soldier; James had once told her in this very room that there were more soldiers like him. At least five of them, and each one worse than him. More unpredictable, more dangerous. Had Hydra learned about her connection to him, their oldest one? Did they think she would fall for any other just as easily? “I would hope you didn’t think I was so gullible.”

“I don’t,” he insisted. “But I think—I mean, I know, but I think they also know that you’re still attached because of your history together.”

History?

Wanda dropped her hands, taking a single step back. She didn’t trust where all of this was going. “James? What asset do they have?”

He looked ready to sink into the floor. To do anything he could to escape answering her. He shifted his weight, struggling to formulate the words he needed, and thus leaving her in an anxious silence for an agonizingly long moment. When he did spit out the answer, his voice was hard. Thunderous in the otherwise tranquil quiet of what had been their safe space for so long. “Strucker’s subject, number six-fifteen.”

Strucker. Base 6, subject 15.

Pietro.

She couldn’t process it. For a long, awful moment she simply stood there. She couldn’t understand it. Couldn’t feel anything beyond paralyzing shock. All she knew was denial.

Distantly, she knew her hands were rising to grab James again, but they never actually came in contact with his face. Her hands were shaking. Vibrating really, with an intense energy that longed to lash out at whatever was upsetting her. “James...I don’t know what you think you saw, or heard, while you were over there. But listen to me now. It wasn’t him. It—it couldn’t have been. He’s dead—I felt him die in Sokovia.”

“He didn’t,” James muttered, his very being still slumped in resignation. “They thought he did—that’s how the supervisor at Base Four-Twenty-Seven was able to buy his body off the Sokovians. But he was healing. They said all he needed was...some sort of tech from a lab in Korea. They’re shipping him in it, so he’ll be ready as soon as he arrives here.”

Wanda’s vision swam with white. The nothingness of her inability to think, to process what she was hearing. But she could feel. She felt a storm swirling in her chest, mixing grief and denial. And above all, anger.

They bought his body off Sokovia. Our country hates us so much they didn’t even care where he wound up. The Avengers didn’t care enough to know who had him.

Wanda’s memory supplied her with an image of Helen Cho. Not tending to her in the colorless, sterile quarantine at the Avengers compound, but working in a strange lab far from here. Overseeing a large, coffin-like device as Ultron demanded it make a proper body for him. The cradle was abandoned by all of them after the Avengers stole it, none of them wanting to think of what could have happened if Ultron succeeded. None of them gave it a second thought after abandoning it. None of them thought it could have healed Pietro....

Evidently, it had, because now Hydra had him.

Pietro’s alive.

Wanda cupped her hands over her mouth, as if she could force her breath to stay within her. She was far from James now, pacing to the other side of the room. Maybe if she could get the window open she would be able to breathe. Maybe some fresh air would make the world make sense again.

He’s alive. He’s God-knows-where, and his captors are doing God-knows-what with him. The witch didn’t know what she would do if she found they were hurting him again. Possibly hurting him the same way they had harmed James for so long. Torturing, and twisting, and corrupting him until he wasn’t himself anymore.

James. James knows where he is.

Wanda whirled around wildly, finding James still frozen in place as he rambled on. “I think they suspect you won’t fight him. And you shouldn’t have to. If you...if you still care for him—”

“Of course I care about him—he’s my brother!”

James went quiet, eyeing her with clear surprise. Letting her loud cry echo in the brief silence that followed. “I...didn’t know that.”

“He’s really there?” Wanda demanded breathlessly. “You saw him? You saw he’s not dead?”

“I only saw their plans. I didn’t—”

“You left him there?” she hissed suddenly. Had she been in her right mind, she would be aghast by how accusatory she sounded towards the damaged soldier. But she wasn’t in her right mind. She couldn’t think. All she knew was her grief, and her pain, and raw shock over knowing both had been for nothing all along.

“I didn’t know he was your brother.”

“But you knew he meant something to me? You knew what they want to do with him—what they’re willing to do to any of their assets, and you did nothing?”

James flinched, as if her words were a physical blow. A small part of her—the part that constantly refused to succumb to pain, or fever, or grief—shot regret through her heart for badgering him like this. For using his traumatic experience against him. But she couldn’t stop. Her desperation to see her brother again was too great, outweighing everything.

“Where is it?” she demanded sharply, stalking back into James’s space. “I have to help him—I have to get him out of there. Where is the base?”

“No, Wanda.” James reached for her hands. He squeezed them, barely restraining his enhanced strength any more. Vainly attempting to ground her with his touch, to make her see reason. “That’s what they want—why they chose to use him. It’s a trap.”

“I don’t care!” Wanda tugged her hands free of his grip, afraid of the burning that was rising in her. “He’s my brother—my twin! If he’s there—if he needs me—”

Koldun’ya, don’t you see? That’s why they made the poison first. So they could know you wouldn’t be able to help him if you went there for him. To push you into doing resorting to something else for his sake—surrendering yourself—”

“Then come with me!” the suggestion came without thought, wild and unbidden. “If we both against them, it won’t matter what I can’t do.”

James was adamant, shaking his head. He looked afraid. Not of her, but for her. Scared of his own inability to stop her from finding the base herself right now and doing something reckless. “I...I’m sorry, sweetheart. But I can’t—not when I know it’s a trap. I can’t...I can’t risk them taking you back.”

Now he was scaring her. He sounded so broken at the mere idea of her losing this fight. Terrified that she wouldn’t be there for him anymore. She didn’t know what to do with the implication he was so dependent on her. She didn’t want him to be. She’d only had such a deep connection before with Pietro, and look where it got him.

It didn’t get him where you thought, Maximoff.

The urgency to help her brother heightened. All of James’s fear for her if Hydra re-claimed her...didn’t he see those were the same reasons to be afraid for Pietro? “Well, I can’t risk letting them hurt him any more than they already have. I’m going to help him.”

She moved to push past James, ignoring his reaction as she did. He looked so hurt, like a pup that had been kicked. She didn’t stop to console him—she couldn’t. She had to reach the door. She had to escape, to find somewhere safe and private where she could think straight. Someplace where she could figure out how she would find Pietro, and take him back. Somewhere safe until her scarlet stopped burning just below the skin.

James wasn’t one to let her go so easily. He matched her pace easily, cornering her against the door. “Koldun’ya, please.” With her refusing to look at him, she couldn’t see his metal hand reaching for hers again. “Please, Wanda, don’t! Don’t go alone—not like this—”

Don’t touch me! ” she shouted the moment she felt metal, wrenching her arm away from him.

He recoiled so sharply she was worried her scarlet had burned him. He retreated several paces backward, looking lower than ever. Looking so alone against the shadows presently surrounding them. There was so much darkness in the room, swallowing what was once a safe haven for both of them. Draining it of its sense of safety. Of home.

Wanda wanted so badly to reassure him that it was alright. That everything would be alright. That he could protect her, even if she didn’t actually think so. But she didn’t tell him any of that. “Please,” she begged, her voice sounding as broken as he looked. “I just...I need a moment.”

She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t, between the darkness and her own cowardice. But she listened. She could hear the surface of his mind gradually come to a standstill, quieting until all she could hear was her own heart pounding. She was hearing him slip back into the cold, unfeeling Soldier that was far from any James she knew. She was losing him.

“Don’t go alone,” he said eventually. Quiet, like there was little left inside of him that could muster the energy to speak. “Please. If anything happens to you....”

She fell silent herself, feeling her own emotions grow numb. The chasm in her chest was widening, making it difficult to breathe. There was so much pain. So much grief for both Pietro and James, eating at her like a ravenous animal.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I...I need to be alone.”

She fumbled to get the door open with her hands trembling the way they were. She was guided only by the ruby-red light stemming from every finger. And then she was gone.

She pressed her back against the door, leaving the Soldier alone on the other side. Alone in what was now their ruined sanctuary. She stayed there for an endless heartbeat, trying to gather herself, or at least remember how it felt to stand up straight.

At her back, she heard a soft whir of metal. It sounded close, as if pushing right against the barrier between them. Reaching for her, but uncertain of how hard to push her. Longing for her, even though she’d hurt him when she’d pushed aside his concerns for her own. When she’d raised her voice at him in fear when the metal hand reached for her.

It’s what finally broke her. She brought a hand over her mouth, muffling the sobs that threatened to pour out of her. She frantically rushed down the hall, desperate to be out of the building before James could hear her burst. She made it surprisingly far, only allowing herself to collapse at a picnic table far from the Bluebell Inn’s line of sight.

She let the misery spill out there, albeit while still making an effort to stifle the sound so as to avoid being noticed by onlookers. Not that it mattered. Hydra had already found her.

And they have Pietro. They’ve had him all along and I wasted time crying over him.

She wished more than anything she could stop crying. Especially now, when she was alone in the dead of night in public. Outside of a fast-food restaurant, of all places. It was everything she hated. Her loneliness and her vulnerability out for all the world to see. The uselessness of quietly crying here when her brother needed her help. When she had hurt James and not apologized for it. Or at least assured him she had actually been afraid of herself hurting him with her scarlet. She wanted to turn back and do just that.

She wanted to find her brother. Her pull to Pietro was stronger than anything—it had always been. He was her twin.

Although now that she was out here, alone with her more logical thoughts, she couldn’t help but realize that James was right. She didn’t feel physically well enough to go storming into a Hydra-run building on her own. Sure, she could access her powers again, but it was a struggle to do so. They were reacting slowly to her commands, and when they did, it felt like dozens of needles were pricking her skin at the same time. She couldn’t go alone. She couldn’t help her own brother. She’d failed him.

She felt so awful. Like she was going to be sick. She sunk her fingers through the diamond-shaped holes in the table’s surface, hoping more than anything that would ground her. This amount of heartbreak seemed like it was more than she could bear. She didn’t know whether to scream in misery or completely shut down. She didn’t really want to do either. She wanted to do something to help the people she cared about. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t move, because she was too overwhelmed to know where to go or who to help first. She was too sick, too lost. It rendered her so fucking useless, and the longer she spent there doing nothing of value, the more it hurt, it hurt, it hurt.

Wanda tensed when a mini-van drove past her, travelling oddly slow. It was only a slight reassurance to see the dark vehicle only meant to turn into the parking lot directly behind her. A small group of people filed out, clearly drunk out of their minds. They posed no seeable threat to the lonely witch, not even noticing her as they staggered past her on their way to the fast-food place. Nevertheless, Wanda furiously rubbed the wet tracks running down her cheeks, trying to appear more collected than she felt.

Yet, her burdensome thoughts wouldn’t leave her be. She could feel a fresh set of tears threatening to escape as her feelings continued to pile up. So many levels of guilt and fear building upon each other. Her guilt for how she’d treated James. Her fear for Pietro, still stuck in the hands of Hydra. Fear of Pietro. If she did find him, who was to say he would forgive her for leaving him there so long? After whatever he’d been subjected to all this time, would he even recognize her?

The only thing she feared more than her brother’s rejection was the possibility the Avengers would refuse to help her find him. After what had happened between her and Natasha, she knew she wasn’t entirely in their good graces at the moment. She still considered herself lucky that Natasha hadn’t said anything yet (or at least hadn’t let them come charging after her for more information). But she would have to deal with all of it if she were ever going to begin asking them for help with Pietro.

She knew she could always lie, like she had intended to before she found out exactly what was waiting for her at the nearby base. But lying had caused her falling out with Natasha, and it would lead to her inevitable falling out with the other members of the team. Quite frankly, she was tired of lying. She wasn’t a spy. She couldn’t even be a soldier, able to live with the tough decisions she had made. She was nothing the Avengers had trained her to be. All she was now was the lonely orphan they had taken home after the Battle of Sokovia.

Well, maybe not so alone.

“Excuse me?”

Wanda jumped at the sudden touch on her shoulder. The woman who had approached her jerked back just as sharply, clearly apologetic for startling her. “I’m sorry. It’s just, we noticed you were alone and upset....”

She gestured over her shoulder, where the group that had just arrived were sitting at the window a mere few yards to her left. Wanda could tell this woman was the only one of them that was sober, let alone cared about a stranger sitting by herself outside.

Wanda wiped furiously at the fresh tear tracks on her face. “I’m fine. I was just, um....”

She never finished. She didn’t have the energy to tell any more lies, even to a stranger.

Said stranger wasn’t convinced at all. “Do you need a ride somewhere?” she asked, speaking with the same mixture of compassion and responsibility Wanda usually noticed in Steve’s voice. “We’re not from around here, but if you tell us where to go—”

“No, no, I have a ride,” Wanda said quickly. “Thank you for the offer, though.”

“OK...” the other woman mused. She backed off, as if ready to leave the witch be. But then she bounced right back. “Do you need help getting a hold of them? I have my phone here.”

She reached into her back pocket and pulled out the device, taking a moment to turn on the screen. “It—well, it needs to be charged, but there should be enough battery to call whoever is supposed to be here for you.”

Wanda eyed the device being presented to her. She was less surprised that a random person was offering her help, and more surprised that she was actually considering accepting it. She was too drained to even think of the remaining walk home, and she hadn’t brought a phone of her own. As much as she dreaded facing the Avengers—or anyone, for that matter—at the moment, she was looking forward to being home already. Home, where she could numb out her pain alone, in peace. Preferably in her own bed, potential contagion be damned.

With hands still shaking, Wanda grabbed the bottom corners of the phone and brought it closer to herself. The other woman had already directed the screen to the app she needed, meaning all Wanda had to do was dial a number. Her mind immediately went to one of the Avengers, mostly because Steve and Sam’s personal lines were the only ones she knew. But she didn’t want the questions they would bring, or even a possible mini-speech about being a team and addressing feelings and whatnot. She just wanted someone who could be trusted to simply take her home and leave her be.

Hell has truly frozen over.

Wanda typed the number for the Facility in general. Then, at a computer’s prompting, entered more numbers to prove she was one of the Avengers, and then more numbers for the specific teammate she wanted to speak to. The whole while, the owner of the phone took a few respectful steps backward, making an effort to appear interested in anything but Wanda’s conversation.

Despite requiring information only an Avenger would know to access this line, Wanda was greeted with palpable hostility. “Who is this, and how did you get this number?”

“It’s...me,” she mumbled, remembering at the last minute not to use either of their names in front of a stranger. “I’m fine, I swear,” she assured, even though it was another lie (she could only hope her frustration with the entire situation wasn’t detectable over phone). “I just...I needed to get away from everything for a while. But now I don’t think I can make it back on my own. Could you...will you pick me up?”

He was surprised. To be honest, she was too. “I, um…” he stammered, pausing just long enough to worry her that he would actually say no. Or send someone else in his place. “I’ll—sure. Yeah. Uh—well, where are you?”

“I’m in town.” Wanda looked around, having not paid that much attention to her surroundings until now. “I’m...in front of a place called Wonder Burger. It’s across from a laundromat.”

Another tap of fingers on her shoulder. When Wanda looked behind her, the stranger was gesturing to the road before them, whispering a certain word. Wanda quickly realized what she was getting at. “The street is called Stacy,” she said into the phone.

“OK. I’ll, uh, swing over.” Over phone, Wanda could hear shoes squeaking against a polished floor as he abandoned whatever he’d been doing. “Do you...you know, want me to bring anyone else with me?”

“No, please,” was her immediate answer. “I just want to get home.”

“OK. I’m on my way. Just stay where you are.”

“Thank you,” was all she said before hanging up. Considering everything that had happened, she made sure to delete the number from the device before handing it back to its owner. “Thank you, Miss....”

“Carol. Just Carol’s fine. And it’s no problem,” the other woman spoke graciously, as if Wanda had done her a favor by letting her help. Her eagerness to incite goodwill also reminded Wanda of Steve. “Hey, um...do you mind if we keep an eye on you until you get picked up?”

When Wanda shook her head in response, Carol went on, already stepping toward the door as she did. “OK. We’ll be inside if you need anything.”

And just like that, Wanda was alone again. Although now she knew it wouldn’t be for long. She did her best to compose herself as she waited, putting James and Pietro and whatever awaited her at the Facility far from her mind for the moment. She forced herself to focus instead on incidental matter, like how chilling the night breeze felt against her exposed face or how calloused her fingertips felt against her eyelids when she attempted to rub them clear of any lingering wetness.

There was no way to know how long she waited there, resting her head against her palm as the hard, coated metal of the table pressed rather painfully into her arms. She wanted so much to not feel the small diamond pattern being engraved into her skin. She wanted to go completely numb, not having to feel her feelings and anxiety.

It’s better to be numbed than bruised.

Even though she was expecting someone, she still tensed when a sleek, pitch-black truck pulled up right beside her. Then the passenger side window rolled down, revealing the driver to be Tony Stark in what was likely the most inconspicuous vehicle he could find.

“Still need a ride?” was his greeting.

Wanda took a deep breath, something that was a cross of both relief and apprehension. She still wanted nothing more than to be in the comfort of her home, but she couldn’t help how shaken she was to rely on the one person she had loathed so intensely less than a year ago to get there.

Pietro really wouldn’t recognize her now.

She shook that thought clear of her head, rising to get in the car before she could descend back into the black-hole of disturbing thoughts. Just as she opened the door, it occurred to her to look back and ensure Carol saw she would be OK (at least, from an outsider’s perspective). Through the window, it was clear she had seen, for she raised her hand to wave farewell. Wanda merely held her own palm up in return before she climbed into the truck. Then she proceeded to roll up the window, on the off-chance anyone inside would be able to recognize Tony Stark from this distance.

Stark nodded at the exchange. “New friend?”

“She lent me the phone,” Wanda answered, her voice sounding distant from her body. She didn’t even bother with a seat belt, curling up into a defensive ball in her seat and training her gaze on the starless sky ahead of them.

“Ah. So, then….”

The witch felt his eyes on her. She could hear the conflict at the surface on his mind. The uncertainty on how far to pry. How much he was allowed to know given the...complicated connection between them. Just as Wanda had hoped, the awkwardness of the situation overpowered his curiosity, and he settled for something simple. “Homeward?”

“Please.”

He didn’t say anything more. It was the quietest she’d ever heard him as he put the truck in drive and started on the road home. The entire way, Wanda leaned against her door, ready to flee the moment they got there. The window was cold to the touch, but she didn’t care. She was sure it was nothing compared to how James felt after she’d left him. How Pietro felt, wherever he was now. Wanda was still making a conscious effort not to follow the downward spiral she had gone through before Carol showed up, but there was one thought that she couldn’t seem to escape: I should have stayed with him. Even in death, I should have always stayed with my brother.

Chapter Text

The sound of hushed voices woke her the next morning. Or really, they woke her four hours after she made it to her bedroom, where she’d succumbed to exhaustion atop her bed. Her dreams were blissfully empty, although when she woke up she felt just as tired as before, if not more. Perhaps something deep in her subconscious wasn’t able to rest easy knowing Tony Stark was hovering just beyond her door.

With her door only partially open, Wanda heard more than saw him. To his credit, he was quiet while she slept. It was only when others neared, the slight scraping of shoes against the hall floor announcing their arrival every time, did he begin not-so-discreetly whispering. At first, it was only him and Pepper, with the latter gently insisting he come to bed and get some rest himself. Then Pepper must have either left or fallen quiet, because Wanda could only hear Tony and Clint. She didn’t pay much attention to their conversation about her, for she was too engrossed with dragging limbs that felt like lead to a sitting up position. Once she had done that, she leaned back against the pillows at the head of her bed, rolling sideways so that her back was to the door. By then, she registered that Steve had joined Clint and Tony outside. And they weren’t talking about her anymore.

“...is fine. She spent the night with me.”

“Really?” Tony sounded surprised. “And you decided to take the time to wash the sheets before getting over here or what?”

“No—I don’t mean—not like that. I let her sleep with me—next to me, in bed, but that was it. She just slept there.”

The corner of Wanda’s mouth twitched in a near-smile as she imagined the Captain blushing right to his ears. He was always a lot like James in that sense, getting easily flustered. It was no wonder they got along so well before. Then the fond sentiment turned bitter as everything from the night before came stampeding back into her mind. What she’d learned from James. How rashly she’d reacted. How cruelly she treated him as she left.

She tugged one of her pillows into her lap and hugged it close, as if the slight weight could ever replace the feel of James. Or Pietro. She still wasn’t certain which one she missed more. More accurately, which one she thought she could face given how she’d left things with both of them.

When she tuned back into the conversation outside, she realized Steve was directly in the threshold. His hand was pressed against his side of the door, hesitant to come any further. Completely unaware how close he was to a literal key to finding his long lost best friend. Wanda had hung her usual travelling jacket on the doorknob, knowing the room key inside its pocket would be jabbing into her side if she fell asleep with it on.

It would be so easy to tell Steve. The temptation had always been there, poking and prodding at her with fingers of guilt and insecurity over doing what was best for James. Now, however, there was the added presence of her anger. She was angry at the situation she’d put herself into by keeping secrets this long. Angry that Hydra wouldn’t leave her alone, and that they had Pietro. They’d kept him from her, letting her tear herself apart with remorse over leaving his side during the Battle of Sokovia. They were still keeping him away, allegedly readying him to be used against her.

Maybe it was wrong to punish James for that. She would be betraying his confidence solely out of anger. Though after giving it further thought, she had to admit she didn’t feel worthy of his trust anyways. She couldn’t delude herself any longer. She wasn’t good for him. Because of her, he’d gone to an active Hydra base and loitered around there long enough to learn what they were planning. Not once did he seem concerned that he’d risked recapture, but rather he was worried she would risk herself by going there. It was hypocritical, and reckless, and reflected how dangerously dependent he was on her. She needed to stop enabling it.

Tell Steve.

“Hey.” The soldier in question was now fully in her room, taking a seat at the foot of her bed. Even in her peripheral, he looked tired. She could imagine he was tired from worrying about the team so much. She and Natasha certainly did nothing to make that any better by keeping so many things from him.

He was even too tired to politely dance around what he wanted to know. “Heard you went out last night. Everything go OK?”

She stayed silent, her heart pounding. Tell him.

“Helen wants to know how you’re feeling, so she can know whether to give you more serum.”

“No.” Her voice didn’t sound like her own. It sounded drained, just as his did. “I don’t need it.”

“So, you’re feeling better?”

“No,” she said honestly. She was so sick of lying. “But the serum isn’t going to help.”

Some of his usual vitality returned at that. “What do you mean?”

Tell him. “Her treatment won’t cure this.”

“How do you know?”

Tell him.

She raised her head to look him straight in the eye. And she told him. “Because your friend, Bucky, told me when I met with him last night.”

And that was it. The truth was out there. She had broken her promise to James, and she couldn’t undo it.

Steve didn’t react right away. For a moment, he just stared at her like she was a stranger. Like he couldn’t process what she’d said. Like he couldn’t process that it was even a possibility, and thought she would only say it to hurt him, to push him away. “Are...are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Wanda...” He shook his head. Even without her powers, she could sense his anguish. The exact same denial she had deferred to when she found out Pietro was alive. “Bucky’s been gone for over a year. He’s gone, he’s...you must be mistaken.”

She tilted her head, as if challenging him to continue doubting her. “He remembers you. He remembers moments growing up with you. He remembers your mother, Sarah. When she couldn’t afford to buy you new shoes, you stuffed newspapers inside the ones you already had.”

She probably could have read that from his mind, so she added something only Bucky Barnes would know. “It was his idea to take you to Coney Island. He wanted to convince both of you that you could handle it. You threw up on the Cyclone ride, and he felt bad about it ever since.”

More silence as he took that in. It was crushing, and it hurt a little, remembering how it felt to be in his shoes less than six hours ago. Having to learn that your brother had been so close all along, and it had been kept hidden from you. That someone you trusted had helped keep it secret. This instance was probably worse because James had only known about Pietro for only a day longer than she did. Her secret had been kept from Steve for months.

His expression eventually hardened, a defensive coldness that didn’t seem befitting the all-American symbol of optimism and good faith. “He was here, wasn’t he?”

He didn’t need to specify when. “Yes. Natasha wanted to arrest him, but I wouldn’t let her.”

He rubbed his hand down his face, sighing shortly.

“You shouldn’t be upset with her,” Wanda advised, betraying no emotion. “She only wanted to do what she thought to be best. She thinks she knows him better than both of us because he spent time with her in the Red Room.”

“What else have you two been keeping from all of us?”

It wasn’t her place to tell. But she couldn’t stop, having completely succumbed to her bitterness. It was a vile thing, forcing her tongue. “She slept with him. She doesn’t want to think about it, or him in general, but she did.”

He stood up, making a half-aborted retreat like she had last night, in the brief moment she’d thought James was the one to poison her. Except this was definitely worse, because the betrayal was real.

And she hadn’t even gotten to the worst part. “Don’t be upset with her. It was years before she met you, or even Clint for that matter. And it was only one time. I’ve been with him triple that in this past month alone.”

Steve whirled around at that. “You?”

She nodded. “I found him a few days after I stumbled across his mind by accident. I’ve been seeing him ever since.”

Even though she was telling the truth, she felt like all she was doing was stabbing the proverbial knife deeper into his back. Not just piercing, but twisting, and shredding any light that could have possibly remained.

What made her feel the most like a monster was that she didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty for it. True, she wished she had broken the news to him in an easier way, but she didn’t regret what she had done. She had enjoyed every minute of her affair with the Winter Soldier. The safe, nostalgic stories. The feverish kisses, and gentle scrape of teeth. Strong hands, one calloused and one smooth, seemingly made to hold her body. The rush of release, of pleasure. The reminder that she was still human. God, she’d enjoyed it.

It was worth the look of betrayal she was getting from Steve now. “You should have said something. A long time ago.”

She shook her head resolutely. “I couldn’t. He didn’t want to be found.” She fell silent for a moment, realizing Steve may believe that was his fault. In a way, it was. “He’s not like how you or Natasha remember. He’s been struggling to find out who he is now—who he wants to be, and he...he’s afraid what he finds will disappoint you.”

If that meant anything to him, Steve didn’t show it. “Still. You didn’t know that going in, and if he had been unstable when you found him, you could have...he could have....”

He didn’t seem able to finish. Wanda saw numerous feelings cross his face in the span of a few heartbeats, each one stretched by her surprise that he cared enough about her to worry what someone he still considered his closest friend (a brother, really) could have done to her. She felt touched and undeserving all at once.

“Why would you go alone? Why do this, and keep it all to yourself?”

Wanda didn’t answer. She didn’t know how. She could remember when she first decided to find the Winter Soldier. She had kept Steve in mind at the time, looking to repay her debt to his team. But then as she got to know the man beneath the Soldier more, it became more about James. Not what was in his best interests—at least, not at first—but what he provided for her. How long she could indulge herself in him before reality came for them both. “I...wanted to feel something.”

And she had. She had enjoyed it.

And now it was all in shambles.

“What would you say if I told you I love you?”

James had asked her that. She knew now what she should have answered then.

That you shouldn’t. That we’ll only hurt each other.

She shuddered as her mind wandered back to last night. Steve’s eyes finally looked away, most likely reading the troubled shiver as a result of how crushing his gaze had become. In reality, that was only the half of it.

I found out my brother’s alive. I know I hurt you, but please help him.

She didn’t say anything about Pietro, though. She knew she couldn’t. Not yet. She had damned her words enough.

And still, she couldn’t stop, purging the last of her deranged grief for James first. “If you must find him, look there.” She nodded at the jacket hanging from her door, just behind the Captain. “I have the keys to his room. He was staying in the town nearest here. I doubt after last night he will still be there, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find clues where he went next.”

He looked at the grey material with what could only be described as incredulity. As if he didn’t believe her, even though she had no reason to lie anymore. She had completely shattered his trust. And maybe there was a part of him that couldn’t believe after all his failed efforts to find his friend, he’d found such an easy way to locate him. It couldn’t be that easy. Nothing good was ever that easy.

Wanda didn’t care what he believed. What she wanted to know was how Steve would react to the knowledge that Pietro was alive. That they could help him. But she didn’t tell him as much. He turned his back to her, and she could tell even without her powers that he wasn’t ready to listen to anything more from her at the moment. And perhaps she did owe him this, a moment to himself to process what she had told him.

So, Wanda didn’t aggravate the wound any further. She resigned herself back to staring at the wall, hugging the pillow in her lap. She wanted to retreat back into the nothingness of sleep, to hide from the world as it collapsed around her. To ignore her heart telling her, fix this. Find James. Find Pietro. Apologize to your friends.

She could ignore it. She had been trained by Natasha Romanoff, after all.

Just before she began nodding off, she heard the rough clank of something being snatched off the doorknob.


Somehow, Steve managed to make it back to his room before even thinking of the key that now haunted him. He couldn’t recall thinking much of anything as he’d wandered back to his room, too dazed to even acknowledge Tony and Clint’s attempts to question him before they resigned to the realization they wouldn’t get anything out of him right now. In his room, Natasha had disappeared from where he last saw her. He knew she hadn’t gone far, since he could see the light on beneath the door of his adjacent bathroom.

Despite there no longer being anyone in his bed, Steve didn’t go near it. He sank into the chair sitting in a corner beside his bookshelf instead, finally gathering the courage to fish out the keys from the pocket of Wanda’s jacket.

His thoughts finally returned to him once he had the small weight in his hand. He turned the flat, brass key between his fingers over and over again for what felt like an eternity before he alternated to the wooden keychain linked to it. He studied the intricate paintings on each side—one was a blue flower, the other the number 214—until both images were carved into his memory.

He seldom left the Facility, since his face had become easily recognizable, but he had gone into the nearby town a few times with Sam and Natasha to pick up groceries or a quick meal. The flower painting looked familiar, though he couldn’t place exactly where, and it was driving him wild with frustration. How close had he been to finally finding Bucky all along? How could two members of his team keep it from him? Did anyone else know?

He didn’t want to think of any of this. He couldn’t take it. He was already in a strange place from the night before, having barely been able to keep Natasha from running off. That wasn’t to say what he’d told her had been lies (she never believed him when he lied, anyways). His thoughts that his and Natasha’s partnership could become something more had plagued him for a while now. Since the Battle of Sokovia, really, when she stood at his side even when they both thought all hope was lost. But he didn’t think he ever would have spoken on his feelings if it weren’t for his urgency in that moment. To his relief, his honesty hadn’t scared her off like he’d always feared it would. Natasha was such a guarded person, having made it known on several occasions that she’d been taught to not believe in love, let alone consider herself worthy of it. Having a relationship with her was bound to have its complications, but he had been willing to give it a try.

Now he didn’t what to think. The things Wanda had told him were repeating in his mind on a torturous loop, turning over and over just like the keychain in his hand. Natasha and Wanda both knew about Bucky. They’d both slept with him. They’d kept so much from him that he couldn’t tell if he really knew either of them at all. Wanda he’d always suspected had her secrets, and he had allowed her that because of how the Avengers had unintentionally ruined her life in the past. But Natasha was his partner. He trusted her with everything he was, and he’d always assumed she did the same because she respected him—or at least claimed to—as both a working colleague and a friend. Why keep what she knew about Bucky secret when she knew what Bucky meant to him?

“I need you to trust that it’s to protect you.”

He felt like a damn fool.

At some point, Natasha emerged from his bathroom, having traded the tight SHIELD uniform she had the previous night for one of his button-down shirts and jean shorts. Both seemed to swallow her whole, and she was in the process of rolling the shorts down tighter around her waist when she noticed him. She offered him a smile that seemed so warm, and genuine, and wrong given what he had just learned. “Hey, soldier. Is an angsty smoulder your next method of seduction?”

His questions had built up too much to do anything other than immediately spill out of him. “Did you know about Bucky?”

Her expression very slowly slipped into confusion. Or maybe time itself had slowed as he braced himself for her answer. “What?”

“Did you know Bucky was hiding near here this entire time?”

She still didn’t give him an answer. He could see the struggle in her eyes to find one, or at least formulate an excuse to abate him for the time being. Steve remembered what Wanda had said about Natasha not wanting to think of her past with Bucky, or about Bucky in general. He knew it would be difficult to get her to talk about Bucky now, but he still couldn’t stand the few seconds of silence as she stringed something together.

Finally, she spoke in her apathetic Black Widow voice. The one reserved for hostiles and terrorists under interrogation. “I had my suspicions. Same as you did, after Wanda had that vision her first day of training.”

“Is that why you struck her?”

Natasha’s jaw clenched, and that was answer enough. If he could make her react despite the unfeeling, icy visage she was trying to push forward, it meant he’d found a truth she didn’t want to face.

“He was here, wasn’t he? And she was helping him get away?”

“He’s a wanted criminal,” Nat reminded. “By helping him escape arrest, she was obstructing justice. I did what I had to do in order to get past her.”

Steve’s hand tightened around the keychain, embittered by her words. How she made it sound so clinical, like all she cared about was doing the most logical thing. “So why lie about it?”

“Because I know what Barnes means to you. I didn’t want you to lose sight of who he is now—what he could do to you if you encountered him again, regardless of the lack of threat you posed for him. He only knows his mission, and you were his mission once.”

So, Wanda was right. “You think you know him better than I do.”

“I think I know how to think of him more objectively than you do.”

“Because you slept with him?”

That came out completely involuntarily, and more accusatory than he really meant to. He knew if it happened years ago, before she knew him and his relation to the man Bucky had been back then, there was no logical reason to hold her accountable for it now. If she thought she knew who Bucky was today, it would be because of what she’d seen of him as part of their shared experience in the Red Room. He had no reason to spit that back in her face.

But he had, and he instantly regretted it.

Whereas Natasha’s icy mask had carried an underlying sense of protective concern for him before, now it morphed into a biting anger. “Where did you hear that?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“The hell it doesn’t!” she snapped. “How do you know about that?”

And that was it. A small part of him had been in denial, insisting that it couldn’t be true. That Wanda had said it just to push him away. But now he couldn’t hide behind denial any longer. “So, it’s true?”

Natasha seemed to catch her mistake as soon as he opened his mouth, jabbing her teeth into her bottom lip and looking away with a huff of annoyance with herself. “OK, fine. Yes, it’s true. OK? But it was only one time.”

When her eyes found him again, they weren’t nearly as hard as they had been before. In fact, they looked watery. Her unflappable persona was deteriorating, exposing just how overwhelmed she was by being made to confront her past. How ashamed she was for him to know this much about her. “He was supposed to help with my training in the Red Room. We went on one mission and I—I screwed it up. He was supposed to punish me. I didn’t think I would walk away if he did, so I used a ploy—I tried to appeal to his humanity the only way I knew how. I was trying to distract him. It didn’t mean anything.

He felt cruel for putting her through this. He was repulsed by her pain, especially for being partially responsible for it. It wasn’t right, when just a few hours prior, he had let her curl into his side in his bed, safe and comfortable. Finally healing after days spent tortured by an illness she had contracted while simply trying to care for a teammate.

But morbid curiosity outweighed the need to comfort his best friend. “Did you recognize him in DC?”

She shook her head. “I only knew the title from the Red Room. I didn’t think it was the same person—I didn’t know they were keeping him young all these years. And I didn’t know he was your friend until you said so back there.”

Steve’s eyes glossed over, his mind taking him back to that awful time. That horrifying revelation that the friend who had made him into the person he was now was still alive—had been alive for years, being tortured and wrecked just beneath the place he was working for at the time. That’s when he’d learned to look at the world differently—to use trust sparingly. “I was so blindsided when I found out it was him...what they had done to him.”

“I know.” Natasha was closer now. He could feel her hands, so soft and cool and capable of so much power, on his shoulders. As if she was trying to take some of the weight of the world from him. To help him. “Believe me, I know it must have been hard for you.”

“And you told me not to pull on that thread.”

“Because I was worried about you.” She was clearly trying to sound matter-of-fact as she said that, but the slight tremble in her voice betrayed her. “I was worried what he would do to you if you found him again. All I’ve wanted to do since he showed up in DC was protect you from him.”

The key in his limp hand slipped to the floor, falling between his feet with a dull thud. With both hands free, he brought them up to hold her wrists. He was fully prepared to assure her that he didn’t doubt that about her; that she had always been looking to help him, to protect him.

But then another unwanted memory struck him, and he wound up pushing her tender touch away. “You didn’t have to. Wanda found him, and he didn’t do anything to hurt her.”

Natasha’s expression hardened again, this time less as a mask and more of genuine frustration. “That’s different. The last time he saw her, if he ever did, it wasn’t as a mission.”

“How do you know? How can you be so sure you know him, even after all this time? Did you even think to ask her?

“I didn’t know she was seeing him until yesterday! If I had known before, I would have told you that. I would have considered him a danger to her too.”

“He’s not. She says he’s nothing like either one of us remembers. And maybe I would have found that out if you’d only let me find him! I could’ve gotten to him first—I could’ve spent all this time helping him!”

He felt anger rise up in him as his own words occurred to him. He hadn’t found Bucky first. Wanda did, and she shouldn’t have had to. She was so young, and hadn’t known Bucky at all when she’d accidentally found his mind. What had so forced herself to go through in order to keep this secret, to help someone who’d been a stranger to her?

“How can you trust what she says?” Natasha demanded bitterly. “She kept his presence a secret too. She let him poison her!”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can trust anyone anymore!”

That’s what hurt most about all of this. This team had been his last hope to acclimate to a time he never felt he belonged to. His last hope to start over, and find a new home for himself. Only to find out now that nearly all of the progress he thought he’d made had been just a farce.

It was too much to bear, and he felt himself rising to his feet in a heated rush. He was pushing past Natasha, looking to escape only to realize he had nowhere else to go. He raked his fingers roughly through his hair, so irate and overwhelmed and tired.

“I thought we were supposed to be different,” he said, turning sharply back toward Natasha. “The Avengers weren’t going to feed off of lies and secrets, like SHIELD did.”

Natasha seemed to be floundering in a strange place between anger and sadness. “We can still be that way. If it weren’t for him, we would be!”

“Don’t. Don’t blame him. You know he didn’t want any of this—he didn’t have any choice!”

“Neither did I,” she flashed back, her voice fiery and biting despite tears of frustration budding in her eyes.  “That doesn’t make the things I did excusable.”

She didn’t say anything on whether she meant her past with the KGB, or here as his friend thinking keeping him in the dark was helping him by. In a way, it didn’t really matter to him.

“I suppose not,” he replied, his own voice icy. A stark contrast to hers. Maybe everything about them was too different to ever let them be together like he’d hoped.

Enough, he chastised himself. He’d allowed enough horrible thoughts to spill out already. If he was ever going to let himself face her again, he would have to escape now. So, he did. He ran away, leaving them both to tend to their devastating wounds alone.


Natasha had already cried over Steve Rogers once. It had been in Washington DC, when he was struggling to recover from the injuries given to him by the Winter Soldier, and near-drowning in the Potomac river. It had been a moment of unadulterated terror for her, and it had been selfish. She had grieved a man who hadn’t died yet, and only because he was the only person she had been certain still gave a damn about her at that point.

Now she had been reduced to humilating tears again because he left her. He tore through her carefully composed masks and into her hideous past until she felt so utterly low and ashamed, and then he just left her with it. The salty tracks of wetness spilled out because of her vexation with him, not out of grief.

Worst of all, she had been left in his room. Her anger wanted nothing more than to unleash itself, but her stupid heart refused to do it here, where she could disturb his space because she had done enough already to ruin his faith in her.

She found a decent middleground when she recognized the jacket on the floor. It was the same one that had belonged to her until she left it with Wanda. She snatched it from the floor and blindly threw it once before realizing that anger wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to be rid of all of this trite heartache.

She allowed herself to sink to the floor, hoping the sorrow would bleed out quickly. She was Black Widow. She was supposed to be above this, always in control of her emotions. But she wasn’t. She had been brought down by her friends, by her heart, by a ruthless poison. Not just the one Hydra cooked up in a lab, but the one they had kept imprisoned in their ranks for years. The one who would repeatedly come into her life just to ruin whatever purpose she was trying to find for herself.

Natasha searched for the jacket again, feeling her anger building momentum again. But she didn’t find just the jacket. Beneath the chair it had landed on, there was an object she didn’t recognize. She may have not known Steve well enough to know every possession he had, but upon pulling the small artifact into her hand, she realized it was something that didn’t make sense for him to own. It was a simple brass key and wooden keychain, the former of which appearing to not be befitting of the automatic doors throughout the Facility.

Then she studied the paintings on the wooden block. One of which she vaguely thought she could recognize from somewhere else. Somewhere in town, during one of her food runs with Sam and Steve.

On a whim, Natasha’s eyes went back to the jacket that now belonged to Wanda.

Wanda. Wanda knew where the Winter Soldier was this whole time.

Natasha’s hand clenched into a fist around the key set. She knew what it was for. She knew exactly what it was for.

She could do it. She could find him. She could finally end him. And she would, because he deserved nothing more.

She moved quickly. Mostly because she wasn’t thinking, being driven by fury alone. There was no room for precautions or concern about being stopped. There was only her mission, and she wasn’t going to let anyone distract her from it this time. She was Black Widow. And she was nothing if she wasn’t efficient.

Her room was nearby, so she did utilize her foresight to trade Steve’s clothes for her own. Something casual that actually fit her form. Something unassuming for the sleepy little town she was going to have to go through to reach her target. And a long jacket, to hide the gun and Widow gauntlets she would take from her personal armory. Once she had those, her next swipe was a car from the garage.

If Stark’s AI notified him that any of her finds were missing—or she, herself—he didn’t listen. Or perhaps he hadn’t fully repaired the system after Ultron’s corruption, and he wasn’t notified at all. Whatever the reason, no one stopped her. She wasn’t aware enough to appreciate that until she’d already reached town, where she made herself slow down (both mentally and driving-wise) to search for the building with a flower emblem that matched the one painted on the miniature block in her lap.

She found it easily. The homely, modest building with a sign in its yard proudly bearing the name Flo’s Bluebell Inn, with blue flowers painted along its border. It was bright, like a beacon to her saying he’s here. Finish your mission.

Natasha parked and was inside the building in what felt like a single breath. Still, no one stopped her. No one even looked at her twice. She ran her thumb over the keychain repeatedly, obsessively almost, now searching for something that matched the painting on the other side. 214.

The room was dead center on the second floor. She didn’t grant herself any time for second thoughts, let alone remorse over what she was about to do. She was going to end a highly trained assassin’s life. The asset Hydra was proudest of. Steve’s former friend. Steve’s best friend.

Steve would never forgive her.

Don’t think. Finish your mission. She let herself in, emptying her mind of the consequences. She was ready to finish this, to finish him once and for all.

And he wasn’t even there.

At first, the empty room led her to believe that she was in the wrong place. But given how much evidence suggested otherwise, she knew that was illogical. So, she shut the door behind her, and waited silently. Her prey was sure to come to her eventually.

After surveying the room further, any doubt she may have had that this wasn’t the right room dissipated. The area surrounding the bed was riddled with signs of an occupant who didn’t rest easy. Quite possibly haunted by trauma that had been built up for years. The comforter and sheets were mussed. Only half of a lamp stood on the nightstand. There was a series of half-circular dents in the headboard, each one slightly bigger than Natasha’s palm. The few spots on the headboard that weren’t dented were riddled with faint cracks in the wood. At the foot of the bed, there was a flurry of papers and journals scattered around a meager table.

What made her the most unsettled was the thought of Wanda here. How much of this damage had been done in front of her? Was there any more that was unseeable? For all the lies and secrets Wanda had subjected them to, Natasha didn’t want to think of her team’s troubled pupil being put through more traumatic experiences because she was continuously seeking out an unstable Hydra agent. And for what?

Why would she keep coming here?

Natasha didn’t know if it would be better or worse to find out Wanda coming here actually helped Barnes. That the witch really had seen him become someone other than the unhinged machine Natasha remembered.

She heard Steve’s voice. “She says he’s nothing like either of us remembers.”

The spy sucked in a harsh breath, hating her own uncertainty. Hating this entire situation. No matter what she did here, things would never be able to go back to the way they were before. Steve’s trust in her was destroyed. Her trust in Wanda was obliterated. The Avengers couldn’t function if so many of their members were divided like this.

We were supposed to be different.

Natasha sought a distraction from her burdensome thoughts in the papers littering the floor. A majority of them were blank, having clearly been ripped out of the leather notebook sitting atop a ratty backpack in a chair at the table.

As soon as she spotted it, Natasha went to pick up the small leather book, careful not to let any of the photos inside fall out. She thumbed it open to one of said photos, revealing an image of Captain America. It seemed worn with age, but otherwise well cared for. It was like one of the postcards Agent Coulson had gotten when the Smithsonian opened an exhibit on Captain America.

She was disturbed to see the image here. It was nothing less than a sign that Barnes did remember Steve. Or was at least trying to.

She thumbed to a different page, one filled with writing. Wanda’s name immediately caught her eye.

Remembered Wanda. Was one of Strucker’s subjects.

Escaped in 2015.

She flipped through the next few pages, skimming through the array of notes for more mentions of Wanda or Steve. Most of the written points were merely snippets of his thoughts, seemingly recorded the moment he thought of them. Things he’d done with Wanda that he wanted to remember in the future. Things he remembered about Steve, and their childhood home in Brooklyn. Once, she even saw the name Stark.

Remembered killing Stark. 1991.

Wanda helped.

Natasha lingered there for a while. Helped with what?

She continued reading, now paying close attention to every entry. There were some more memories and dates. Then thoughts that seemed to have occurred to him at random.

Not housesitting anymore. Should leave.

Take Wanda?

She wants to see the beach.

The next page had only one entry.

Wanda didn’t show.

The page behind it resumed the seemingly complete stream of his thoughts. Only once did it mention Wanda again.

Remembered the last wiping process. Pierce’s orders. I had remembered Steve.

Imagined Wanda was there. She helped.

The next page had a single, unintelligible mark, as if he had been ripped away as he was writing. From there, the brash remnants of pages he had ripped out began. Natasha lightly brushed her fingertips over the frayed lines of paper that were still bound to the book, as if she could still feel the intense thoughts that had driven him to tear through each one instead of writing. It looked like it had been something done in anger, or frustration at least. Panic, maybe. She knew because the same twisted emotions had brought her here.

Natasha hated Barnes even more now. It would have been much easier to kill a mindless machine.

She snapped the leather book shut at the sound of the door handle fidgeting. As soon as she looked up, it stilled, making her wonder if she had imagined it. But then it turned slowly, and then he was stepping cautiously inside.

He looked different and the same all at once. Just as rugged and slightly disheveled as she always remembered. Dressed frumpy, and with an excessive amount of layers. However, his face carried more humanity than she would have thought. She could see honest emotions cross his expression as he took in the sight of her there. Mostly confusion, but because she was Black Widow, she could also read hope and a subsequent disappointment.

Natasha immediately knew who he had been expecting.

She set the notebook back where she’d found it, never once tearing her gaze from his. She watched as the humanity that had surprised her to see slowly disappeared behind a wall of indifference. The same mask she’d been trained to use. The one both of them had taken from their respective divisions of the KGB.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, her whispered tone deafening in the otherwise silent room.

He surprised her with how quick the answer came. “Chernaya vdova.

His gaze dropped to the floor, eyes squinting slightly as he thought. As he struggled to find the right memories. “Natalia. You were Petrovitch’s favorite. He sent you to work with me.”

Natasha suppressed an urge to shudder. She truly had underestimated how much of his past he remembered. She was almost afraid to push further into his memories of her, worried that it would give him the wrong impression of how she felt for him, even back then. But she was also determined to know just how much of his humanity he’d managed to recover. “Do you remember the mission?”

A deep breath as he racked through his jumbled brain. “We...spent that night together.”

“Because I screwed up,” she supplied impatiently. “The Black Widow was meant to never fail. I knew you were told to kill me if I did, so I did what I did to keep you distracted.”

She wished more than anything to remember it as poorly as he did. She despised having to think of that night. The sheer terror as she anticipated his punishment. The desperate things she’d done to entice him. How she had enjoyed it because she couldn’t remember feeling pleasure of any kind at the time.

That, she realized now, was the part she loathed most. That she had once enjoyed her time with the Winter Soldier, even if it lasted one night, and thus allowed herself to be hurt when she found he had been remade into someone different. That he didn’t even remember her, and shot her in Odessa. She had been played just as easily as Steve had. As Wanda would be.

“I remember it. I remember it felt good.” He grimaced, doing nothing to hide his own shame for thinking that. “They wiped me after.”

This time Natasha did shudder. She hadn’t known that. Back then, she had figured he would be punished in some way, but not exactly how. She hadn’t really cared. In fact, she had been the one to report to their handlers what they had done the morning after. She knew their handlers would separate them as a result (they were always so desperate to keep their assets from forming emotional attachments). She had wanted them to be separated, to prevent him from being able to make his own report. To expose her failure, and reveal she couldn’t be the Black Widow the Red Room wanted.

In the end, she had been both punished for sleeping with the Soldier and rewarded for her work on the mission. It had ended with her ‘graduation’ ceremony, and from there, that Winter Soldier had disappeared from her life.

Now she did know the price he’d paid for that night. Another instance where Hydra tore at his brain with electricity until he couldn’t remember what he’d done wrong. Until he couldn’t remember any of his past. Couldn’t remember his own name.

And it was because of her. What she’d told their handlers, what she’d done to save herself, what she’d done to hide the mistakes she’d made. She was a reason he’d had his memories taken from him. A reason he couldn’t remember Steve .

She had hurt the Winter Soldier just as he had hurt her.

That irrational rage she had felt before surged back up inside, directed at herself just as much as it was at him. She was determined to be different than him. To be better.

And she would be, because she intended to end the suffering she’d prompted.  

She rushed toward him, ignoring how he flinched the moment she moved too suddenly. She was upon him in an instant, driving her knee up into his midriff with all the force of the momentum she had gathered in the short run there. She didn’t waste a second as he slumped forward, pulling out a string of wire from one of her gauntlets and wrapping it around his neck once he was low enough to reach. He was almost as quick as her, having enough foresight to know to raise his metal arm, allowing his wrist to keep the wire from completely strangling him. She didn’t care. What she wanted was to get him further into the room, away from the door where passersby could hear and interrupt them. And she did, pulling on the wire as she backed up the way she had come.

Sheer surprise left him no choice but to follow her, his body still bent over with the metal cord digging into his neck and pinning his hand to his jaw. Strangled whirring sounds echoed throughout the room as the metal plates tried to shift with the wire in their way.

Once the Widow had dragged her prey past the narrow entryway of the room, he swung his free arm over the wire entrapping him, digging his fingers into her upper arm and blindly pushing. With his strength, he managed to force her sideways, hitting the wall hard enough for her back to leave a dent in the plaster. In the process, the wire had snapped off of her gauntlet, and he tossed it aside. In the split second he did, she recovered from the pain in her head and was using the edge of the table nearby to hoist herself up and around his shoulders.

He bucked wildly beneath her for a few heartbeats, her thighs crushing his windpipe the whole while, before he was turning them again, slamming her body flat against the table. The cheap wood creaked with the threat of breaking from the hearty blow to its surface. Natasha herself had the breath knocked out of her just briefly enough to loosen her hold on his throat, having to pin him between her knees now. He seemed to respond with something instinctual, his metal hand snapping up to wrap around her throat and choke her in turn.

For a fleeting moment all she saw was his eyes. Wide with bewilderment, and struggling to understand where this had come from. Dark with the drive to defend himself. It was the closest she had seen him come to the soldier she had known in the Red Room. The ghost story, shrouded in endless darkness and mystery. A mess of a mind simply trying to survive their world, just like her. Though she was considerably different now. She’d found Clint, and Fury, and Steve, who had each taught her that life didn’t have to be strictly about basic survival.

And judging from what she’d read, Barnes had found Wanda for that.

So, why poison her?

Natasha couldn’t contemplate possible answers to her question with her air flow blocked as viciously as it was. She wrapped a hand around the wrist at her throat and pretended to flounder helplessly with her other. She slammed a particular part of her wrist against the metal arm, holding it there as the blow activated her Widow’s Bites. His face scrunched with pain as the electricity coursed over him, the tension focused in his grip suddenly reeling up into his chest as he tried to brace himself against it.

The second his grip on her loosened, Natasha rolled back slightly, taking her legs away from his throat to press them together and ram into his chest when she rolled back. He stumbled backward, coming close to falling over completely.

Natasha lashed out while he was disorientated, quick as a viper. But he surprised her, deflecting what should have been a devastating punch to the apple of his cheek. She tried again, and again, and again, but he blocked each one. It was a deadly dance of speed and skill, with Natasha’s heart pounding the entire time. Never had she willingly fought an opponent who knew her tactics as well as he did, or was able to anticipate and counter each of her blows like he did. Because he had been there when she learned this. Been one of a select few that showed her to fight like this in the first place. Rougher, dirtier, than SHIELD protocol would have ever called for. It almost sickened her to think of how naturally it came to her now. Why it was so easy for her. I was just a child when you forced me to learn this.

Though again, it was different now as opposed to back then. Not once did he even try to gain the upper hand. His efforts were strictly in self-defense, never once going to strike her unless she made the first move. At one point, he did push back in the form of catching her ankle when she attempted to kick him, and tossing her aside like she weighed nothing. She hit the bed, bouncing off the partially exposed mattress and rolling uselessly onto the other side.

She turned over to lay supine on the floor for a breathless moment, too winded to get up, even though her handgun was pressing painfully into her back as she laid on top of it. Had this actually been the Red Room, the short moment of rest would have been costly. Deadly, even. But here, it spurred no reaction from the Soldier. He seemed to need the moment to catch his own breath. She couldn’t see him over the fat bed, but she could hear him panting tiredly.

Natasha rolled onto her side. As she did, she realized that she could see part of the Soldier from this vantage point. Under the bed, she could see his thick combat boots. Knowing he likely couldn’t see her from where he stood, she took the opportunity to use the last trick hidden in her gauntlets. She pried the disk out of its slot on her wrist and tossed it across the ways, through the short space between the bed and the floor. It went off the moment it latched onto his left boot, setting off a fresh wave of electricity through his body. This device was admittedly weaker, but it was enough to bring him down to one knee, which was all she needed.

The moment he reached to remove the first disk, Natasha tossed the one hidden on her other wrist. It latched onto his arm, and for a hot second, she was worried he wouldn’t feel it through his shirt and jacket. To her satisfaction, the metal plates hidden beneath audibly spasmed and short-circuited in response. The heat of both disks tearing through him was even enough to rouse a wordless cry from him, and he dropped the prosthetic arm flat against the floor as it was rendered a temporarily useless deadweight.

Natasha sprang back up to her feet, cutting across the room by running atop the bed and leaping off the mattress’ edge. She landed on Barnes, forcing him flush against the floorboards as her knees dug into his back. She then swiftly rolled off of him, moving to stand directly in front of him and pulling the gun from the back of her pants. By the time the soldier had pushed himself up to his hands and knees, the muzzle of her gun was pointed inches away from his forehead.

This was her prime moment. The Soldier, the Widow, the entire world it seemed, fell still as she paused there for a few seconds to catch her breath. To brace herself for the end of her mission, and the consequences that would await her once she did, both good and bad. She was going to end Hydra’s greatest creation. She could end Bucky Barnes’s suffering. End her own suffering, caused by his hands.

And yet, she couldn’t do it.

Her finger remained on the trigger, never once moving from its place there. Her mind on the other hand wandered away, back to the Facility. Back to Steve, still grieving over the loss of this man even though he hadn’t actually been killed yet. For as much harm as Barnes had brought into their lives, she knew she was the one who would never be forgiven if she took Steve’s former friend from him forever. She even thought of Wanda, the team’s prized pupil, so desperate to protect this man. She was sure to be crushed if she learned it had ultimately been in vain. Would it be enough to shatter her control on her powers?

For the first time since she was a child, Natasha’s hands trembled as she handled a gun. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are to have Steve care about you as much as he does?” she hissed, seething with anger at the situation. A little angry at Steve too, for being so goddamn good.

The Soldier didn’t deserve him. Natasha didn’t deserve him, either.

Barnes never reacted to the weapon poised at his head. He didn’t even look directly at it. He stared at the floor, keeping his hands up to show submission. Natasha didn’t know if seeing any kind of proper, emotional reaction from him would have given her some kind of gratification or not, but she did know that seeing none bothered her. How could he be so human and so inhuman in such a short span of time? How much of him is James Barnes and how much is Hydra’s machine?

“I don’t know how he can put so much faith in you,” the Widow hissed. “Why do you deserve it? Can you even think of one way you can justify it after all that you’ve done?”

Barnes still offered nothing. At least, nothing to appease her anger and frustration with him. When he did speak, it was a soft, raspy question that had nothing to do with preserving his own life. “Did she make it home?”

“Don’t talk about her,” Natasha warned, the tremble in her hand disappearing. “You don’t get to talk about her. Do you even know what you put her through?”

She watched him swallow uncomfortably. He stayed quiet for a few heartbeats, each second seemingly lasting for hours because of her impatience.

“It’s my fault,” he said eventually. His deadened stare finally fractured, exposing human emotion. One Natasha still hadn’t believed he was really capable of feeling until now, where she could see it so painfully raw and sincere. Regret. “It’s my fault they found her again. They poisoned her.”

The spy’s grip on her weapon relaxed. Slightly.

“She could have died,” Natasha informed him, still unable to wrap her head around the sight of his remorse. If he truly cared about Wanda.... “Why plant it on her?”

“I didn’t!” Something heated passed through his eyes at the suggestion otherwise, and for a fleeting moment, Natasha was worried she’d finally pushed him too far. “One of theirs did. And I’m not one of them anymore.”

Natasha stood her ground despite feeling as though she was inches away from crumbling inside. She couldn’t delude herself anymore. Not when he sounded so certain. He’s not their Soldier. He does care about her.

That only brought a new onslaught of problems. “Then who did drop it?”

“I don’t know.” His entire form sagged, as if his sudden ire was now being cast inward. “I tried to find out, but if I stayed there any longer, I would’ve been seen.”

“Stayed where?”

“The Hydra base, four-twenty-seven. It’s a few miles—”

“West of our Facility,” she finished for him, to which he nodded.

Damn. Natasha had suspected that base had played a part ever since Steve told her about the insignia on the toxin pod. Some lower SHIELD agents had reported its location nearby when they were scouting for sites for the Facility, but any Hydra activity there was allegedly dormant at the time. She had believed as much herself after doing minor research on her own, finding the exact base in SHIELD’s database, reported to have been shut down by a team led by Peggy Carter in the mid 1960’s.

“They didn’t want to kill her,” Barnes went on, breaking her from her thoughts. “They wanted something to help subdue her when they went to abduct her.”

“Reclaim their defected asset?”

“Yes.”

It was a small consolation to know she had been right about one thing at least. Natasha’s mind kicked into high-gear, searching for what was most likely to be Hydra’s thought process.

They wanted to subdue her, but still keep her alive within their ranks. That probably meant they wanted to use her as the weapon they’d put so much time and money into. Which would mean allowing her to access her powers again. “Is there a way to purge it from her system?”

Another nod. “There’s an antiserum. It cancels out the first compound. At least, it did in the tests they ran. The results were recorded in the database I hacked into.”

“Where is the antiserum?”

“It’s there. They made both compounds from scratch there, solely for this purpose.” Despite himself, his mouth twitched in the beginnings of a fond smile. “Never been anyone like her before, after all.”

Natasha bit back distaste. Both for his little display of affection, and for what she was going to do next. She lowered her gun from his head, keeping her movements slow enough for him to see. Giving him a chance to react once the immediate threat to himself was gone. But he never did lash out. Aside from looking up at her in surprise, he barely had any reaction at all.

Natasha scowled. More so at herself than him. She crouched to his eye-level, still moving at a cautious pace as she reached for his hand. Once she had his flesh wrist in her grip, she tugged his arm closer to herself. His eyes looked startled at her touch, and then flipped back to soft astonishment when he saw her drop her firearm into his hand.

Even though she would need to trust him for this, she couldn’t make herself feel it. Not completely. She rose back up to her full height, pulling the sleeves of her jacket down to show the Widow’s Bites she was still armed with. “I’m not going for your sake. I’m going to help her, and only for her.”

And for Steve. If they were successful—and they would be, because she would be helping him—she knew she would have to bring him back with her for a number of reasons. The most prominent among them being that reuniting Steve with his former friend at last would be her best chance at even nearing the same level of trust he’d had for her before this mess began.

For now though, she merely urged Barnes to his feet by tugging on the sleeve of his hoodie. “Now. Show me where they have the antiserum.”

Chapter Text

The compound had never been so quiet. Normally Steve wasn’t bothered by silence; he was actually fairly used to it from being the only one up in the early hours of the morning, having no need for as much sleep as bothers because of his serum. Although, this silence was vastly different. For one thing, it was the middle of the day, when the residential wing, at least, should have been clamoring with at least one person’s activity for the day. But alas, no one seemed willing to give any indication that the place was inhabited. It made for an uncomfortable atmosphere, like the quiet air that befalls a horror movie just before the monster pops out of nowhere.

The worst part was that he wasn’t even alone. Steve didn’t know if he hated that because silence despite company was a true testament to how tense things were, or because despite Sam and Tony being perfectly respectful company, he didn’t want them there at the moment. He didn’t want to face anyone. He was still reeling from everything he’d found out about Nat, and Wanda, and Bucky. He wanted to be alone to better process all of it.

In hindsight, lingering around the common area probably wasn’t the best indicator of that. Tony had already been in the kitchen when Steve arrived, practically camping out by the coffee machine as he worked on something that, as far as Steve was concerned, was a metal box projecting yellow dots and lines that the inventor had to arrange in some pattern that only made sense to him. Steve had listlessly wandered to the stool he was currently perched on, staring into space as he attempted to get his thoughts together. Sam had joined them some time later, seemingly recognizing the mood his Captain was in, and wisely choosing to read something off his tablet in favor of pressing Steve about it.

Clint was not nearly as discreet. Steve heard the sharp huff of exasperation from the archer when he entered the room. Sam, who had been leaning against the edge of the island, straightened at the sight of him. “How’s Wanda?”

“Sleeping again,” Clint reported, his tone suggesting displeasure. “Makes me wonder if Helen’s treatment really worked on her.”

Or guilt is wearing her down. Even though he was tempted, Steve didn’t say that. He didn’t speak at all. As much as Wanda’s words hurt him, he didn’t consider it his place to reveal her secrets to the others. At least, not without her present to explain her side of things.

Clint, he could tell, wasn’t satisfied with the silence. Steve could almost feel the former SHIELD agent looming over him. Possibly with the same hard, focused stare he used in the field, when aiming at a target. “So...you’re not going to tell us what happened with you and her? Or you and Natasha?”

Steve only twiddled his thumbs, pretending to be more interested in the ministrations of his fingers as he did. “What’s to tell?”

He could see Barton in the corner of his eye. Could see him crossing his arms over his chest, further reflecting his impatience with the entire matter. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe...where the hell Tasha went? We know she was with you before she disappeared, so surely you have some idea where she ran off to.”

Steve had to bite his tongue again. He suspected Clint knew at least some of what he had just learned himself. He must’ve known something to have willingly released Natasha from confinement the night before. Steve’s curiosity over exactly how much Barton knew felt incredibly pressing, but again, he didn’t feel like this was the appropriate place to bring it up. Natasha and or Wanda should be there, but Steve wasn’t ready to face either of them at the moment, and he just wanted to be left alone anyways.

“I wouldn’t know,” he told Clint, uncaring how cold he sounded. He couldn’t even find the energy to care himself where Natasha had gone, even though this was the first he’d heard she was missing from the premises altogether. “I’m not her keeper.”

Clint scoffed. “Oh, yeah. How stupid of me, assuming you were keeping track of things, Captain.”

That cut through to Steve. Not so much because of Clint’s biting tone, and the taunting way he used Steve’s title, but more so because it only reminded him of how he had assumed he knew enough about his team to be an efficient leader. Having to learn otherwise as abruptly as he had earlier that day still felt like a fresh wound.

Captain Rogers yanked himself off his seat, looking to flee the common area. Maybe find sanctuary in the gym, now that he knew no one else was there (and also take out some of his frustrations on a few boxing bags).

Clint wasn’t one to let him go so easily. He grabbed Steve’s arm when the soldier tried to brush past him as if he weren’t there. He wasn’t the least bit daunted when Steve batted his hand away, flashing a warning glare in his direction. “Hey, come on. We know something happened, and it’s about time someone starting giving answers around here.”

“Like you don’t know,” Steve flashed back.

Barton looked taken aback by that. Surprise crossed his face for a single second before he was taking a dangerous step closer to the Captain, his eyes dark with suspicion and a defensive nature. “The hell does that mean?”

“Hey, hey, hey!” There was another hand on Steve’s arm, tugging him back. When neither the soldier nor archer addressed Sam, he sought help elsewhere. “Stark, you want to get in here before these two start the next Civil War?”

“Nah, I’m good,” Tony replied simply, not looking away from the screen he was working with.

Sam was not amused. “Dude!”

“What? Let them duke it out like wild animals if they want to.” Tony nodded at the holographic mesh he had been focused on for the past few hours. “I’m good to stay right here, actually getting something productive done.”

“Productive?” Clint said harshly. “Give me a break—how’s a glowing yellow jellyfish supposed to help anything?”

Tony grinned, though there was nothing warm or joyous about it. “Oh, that’s cute, Old McDonald. But this isn’t a virtual model of a gelatinous animal. You may not recognize him on this smaller scale, but it’s our old buddy, Jarvis, scrubbed almost completely clean of his baby brother’s bad influence. Once I get him hooked up to all of this place’s systems, he’ll be able to keep track of everything for us, twenty-four seven.”

“Riveting,” was Barton’s flat answer. “Will he be able to tell us where Tasha went this morning?”

“Don’t ask me, ask him.” Tony pushed the portable display of his AI closer to the others. “Jarvis,” he called out to the web of dots. “Are you responsive?”

There was a moment of silence. Then, a familiar, perpetually cool voice spoke from the walls as well as the box before them. “I am, sir. I apologize, but my sensors seem regrettably slow to respond to certain stimuli.”

“You’re fine, pal,” Tony assured. “Just scan this section of the building, and see if you can follow any traces of Agent Romanoff from today.”

They waited even longer for a response to that. Clint was clearly impatient to hear the AI’s findings, clenching his jaw and beginning to pace in front of the island. The others weren’t nearly so restless, and wordlessly watched him as they waited. Steve entertained that for all of two minutes before deciding he still didn’t care to know where Natasha had gone. No matter what the rest of the team thought, what guarantee did they have that Natasha would truthfully confirm or deny it?

His thoughts hadn’t been so pessimistic in years. He hated it, being unable to recognize himself. He tried to avoid his thoughts altogether with another escape attempt towards the gym. No one stopped him this time, although he did notice Sam giving him a curious stare.

He was halfway to the common area’s exit when Jarvis spoke again. “I’ve detected signs Agent Romanoff was in her room, in the Avengers’ armory, and in Garage E. Her fingerprints were also detected on the car in slot C-5 before my sensors detected it missing.”

Steve didn’t catch anything else, having left the room. With his enhanced hearing, he could probably pick up more if he wanted. But he didn’t want to, so he tuned out the remainder of Jarvis’s report and continued on his way. In short order, he was inside the gymnasium, and finally completely alone to be with his thoughts.

Ironically, now that he was here, he didn’t want to think. He wanted to unwind, and empty his mind as he did. He strolled across the enormous space to reach the locker room where he usually kept his workout clothes. Once he had some of the ratty material in hand, and went to change into them, he made sure he was keeping his thoughts centered on simple matters. Inconsequential things, such as where the punching bags were, where he would hang one up, and how long he should probably be. If he would ask Wanda more about Bucky.

Just as he was going to remove his shirt, he heard a muffled sound that made him pause. It sounded like someone was speaking loudly, yet not quite loud enough to be heard intelligibly through the walls of the locker room. Steve thought he could pick up a tone of urgency, and with that, found he couldn’t ignore it regardless of what kind of mood he was in.

When he stepped back out into the gym, the voice was only slightly clearer. He could recognize it was Jarvis again, but couldn’t hear well enough to decipher what exactly he was saying. A single step back into the hallway solved that.

“Captain Rogers, can you hear me?” the AI was asking. “I don’t seem to have speakers in the—”

“I can hear you, Jarvis,” he interrupted shortly. “What is it?”

“Exterior security feeds have picked up a car arriving on the premises. Mr. Wilson believes you would be interested in seeing one of the passengers.”

Sam? Sam had seemed to recognize his desire for peace and solitude. If he was requesting Steve, the Captain knew it had to be something pressing. And he was still the leader of the team. He couldn’t leave the others to deal with a stranger on the grounds alone, especially with Hydra activity on the rise again.

Despite accepting his responsibility as team leader, Steve couldn’t help but tiredly think now what? as he trekked across the residential wing to meet the others in the nearest garage, as per instructions from Jarvis. As he reached the room, he found Sam waiting for him in the threshold of an emergency exit located next to the first and only empty parking space. Sam was watching whatever was waiting outside with an intense gaze until he noticed Steve approaching. “Cap,” he greeted curtly. “I was just about to get you myself.”

“What are we looking at?” Steve asked, even though he was already slipping past Sam to see for himself.

Sam didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. Steve froze the moment his mind processed the sight in front of him, which was hint enough to the others that he knew exactly what this was.

Only a short few yards from where Clint had a gun aimed at his head and Tony had an Iron Man gauntlet held up in warning, was the Winter Soldier. He was half-hidden behind an open car door, bearing thick clothing that was worse for wear, and hair hanging in clumpy waves against his cheeks. But that face was one Steve would recognize anywhere.

Bucky was here.

And he already looked ready to bolt. He was using the car door as a shield of sorts, his gaze darting wildly between the two Avengers that were clearly poised and ready to do harm the second he made a wrong move. A likely reason he was so unmoving now.

The first to make any movement was Natasha. She emerged from the passenger’s side door at a leisurely pace, as if none of the others around her were there. Not her currently estranged partner, not her teammates that had been left in the dark all this time, and certainly not as if a highly sought after assassin had been the one to drop her off. She reached for something she had left in the car before nudging her door closed with her elbow. Her hands were full with a thick, transparent jar carefully cradled in each one. The jars looked empty at first glance, though as she approached Clint, Steve could see both containers were actually filled to the brim with a dense, clear liquid.

Natasha didn’t acknowledge Steve in any way. Instead, she only had dispassionate instructions for Clint, who scrambled to holster his weapon as she dropped both vials into his hands. “Take these to Helen. After she dilutes her treatment serum from our systems, she’ll need to apply this one instead to completely balance out the drug in Wanda and me.”

Clint turned one of the vials over in his hand, the sun glinting off its metal lid. Atop each one was Hydra’s cephalopod emblem painted in black. He seemed to notice that at the same time Steve did. “The hell...” Barton began, but stopped when Natasha impatiently took each vial back.

“It’s the antiserum.” She tipped her head over her shoulder, toward Bucky, who was still motionless beside their car. “He found the base where they made it, as well as the original drug.”

Clint was no less flabbergasted. To be fair, none of the other Avengers looked like they understood any of what was presently going on. Steve, especially.

Bucky was here. He didn’t know what to think, or how to feel about that, or anything. It was like the world had stopped around him, leaving only Natasha and Bucky.

“So...” Clint’s voice brought Steve’s attention back to reality. “Is he—?”

“In our custody? Yes.” Natasha looked pointedly at Steve as she went on, making her way past both men with hard, unfeeling olive eyes. “He’s chosen to turn himself in.”


Seeing Bucky inside the Avengers’ compound was surreal. Particularly to Steve, who after an entire year of fruitless searching across the globe, had begun to surrender to the idea he would never see his old friend again. Even with Wanda and Natasha’s confirmations that said friend had been nearby all this time, it still hadn’t seemed real to him. But now, there was no denying it. Bucky was here. Bucky was right in front of his eyes, and he had no idea what to do about it.

And with him was a cure for Wanda. That was the part the others were most concerned about at the moment, having disappeared to make sure it reached Helen Cho’s capable hands. Steve did wait with them for a while before he found himself wandering back to the residential wing, where Bucky was being held in Tony’s lab. Despite what he had gifted them, the rest of the team didn’t fully trust the former assassin, and had taken measures to ensure he stayed in one place until they could figure out what else to do with him (Steve was still painfully aware that the Winter Soldier was a wanted criminal). For the time being, they restrained him by locking his metal arm in a heavy-duty vise. Steve thought it an upsetting sight, but couldn’t deny it was probably for the best. As pitiful as Bucky looked, trapped in place on his knees with his arm held up in metal jaws, Steve had to admit that he also seemed unhinged in a way. Skittish and anxious one moment, then disturbingly blank and still the next. Like he was still greatly unbalanced between Bucky Barnes and Hydra’s most dangerous weapon. And given the Winter Soldier’s skill set, that imbalance was to be considered dangerous.

Steve entered the lab slowly, purposefully letting his shoes squeak against the floor to warn Bucky he was there. Bucky’s gaze had been trained on the floor ever since he’d been locked in place. The only indication he gave that he noticed someone approaching him now was a brief glance upward. Then not four seconds later, his stormy eyes darted back down as if in shame.

The Captain didn’t know what to say. What could be said after efforts like his were finally brought to fruition? Was he supposed to demand to know where exactly Bucky had been when he’d been searching for him? Or ask what he had been doing as of late, and his intentions with Wanda? Did he know who drugged her, and their plans for the future?

How much of me do you remember? He was sure Bucky did remember who he was. Both because Wanda had mentioned as much before, saying Bucky had wanted to remain hidden out of fear of disappointing him, and also because the Winter Soldier had pulled him out of the Potomac river. Ever since he realized that after he’d awoken in the hospital in DC, he’d known his childhood friend was still there, and that he’d gotten to him at some point during their fight.

Of course, that was over a year ago. So much could have happened since then. That was another thing Wanda had told him; Bucky wasn’t like he remembered. In all honesty, Steve hadn’t thought much of it when Wanda first brought it up, having been too floored by everything else she’d revealed. Now he knew the true extent of that warning. There was no telling which Bucky was in front of him. One who was his friend, and was willing to save him when the helicarriers fell. Or the one who was a machine, twisted and broken and bent against his will for decades on end.     

Steve didn’t know where to begin asking questions. He couldn’t decide what was most pressing. He didn’t even think he wanted to know. If he truly wasn’t the same friend he remembered, why not live with safe delusions a little longer?

Bucky, however, appeared to be struggling with a completely different dilemma. He was rocking on the balls of his feet in a manner that suggested he wanted to escape, but wasn’t motivated enough to really try. Steve couldn’t stop a small smile at the sight. The Bucky he remembered would often do that same rocking motion when they were younger, when they had to confront their parents about something and were worried how they would react. Steve’s most vivid memory of such a moment was when he’d gone with Bucky to tell Mrs. Barnes her son had been drafted in the war.

The Captain’s heart sank a little at the memory, knowing deep in his heart of hearts that her dread back then would be only a fraction of the horror she would’ve known to see what had become of her boy now. It was an awful thought, especially given how Steve had taken it upon himself to look out for Bucky, just as Bucky promised he would do for him when his ma died. But Steve had failed his promise spectacularly.

Never again. He wasn’t going to fail Bucky ever again. When he said ‘til the end of the line in DC, he meant it.

“Is it working?”

The low rumble of Bucky’s voice finally pulled him out of his reverie. Steve couldn’t manage more than a startled blink at first, almost not recognizing that voice. He’d always remembered Bucky always sounding so sure of himself, bordering on cocky sometimes. Not the least bit soft-spoken or hesitant, the way he did now.

Now that Steve thought about it, everything about this man was a far cry from the carefree young punk he’d grown up with. Only half of the lab was currently lit, but even with the heavy shadows around him, Steve could see in even greater detail how unkempt Bucky was. His hair was unwashed and tangled. His face was unshaven, and his eyes gray and haunted. Dark, too, from lack of sufficient sleep. And the entire while he had been placed in the vise, he had sat by stiffly, guarded but impassive as he accepted his fate.

“The antiserum?” Bucky pressed quietly. “Did it work?”

Steve shifted his weight, unsure how much he was supposed to tell. Or more precisely, what Bucky could handle, given that it was still unclear how stable his mind was. “Well, Helen—our main physician, she, uh...she’s doing a few test runs with samples of Wanda’s blood to be safe. But she says it looks promising. Slowly, but surely, it seems to be fixing things.”

Bucky’s body sagged as much as it could with his arm forcibly held at eye level. His expression was partially hidden by the dark strands of hair that had fallen in his face, and the shadows that seemed to be circling the very bench he was pinned against. But Steve could hear the shaky breath that escaped him, and with that, knew he was relieved.

Steve was curious to know how he’d found the antiserum. How he knew it would help—or at least, knew to take Natasha, who had also figured out its purpose. How Buck was feeling, given that he’d stolen something from the very people who had imprisoned and tortured him for years. The kind of risks that entailed, and if he recognized them at the time.

Yet, for whatever reason, all that left his mouth was, “You went to a lot of trouble to get it here, didn’t you?”

Bucky didn’t answer right away. There was a slight movement along his trapped arm, and the strained sound of metal plates trying to shift despite something pinning them in place could be heard from across the room. “Had to do it,” he mumbled, sounding closer to a child afraid of being reprimanded than a fearsome assassin.

“I’m glad you did,” Steve assured. “We all are. We really needed that stuff.”

Bucky’s gaze remain glued to the floor between them, and that bothered Steve. He didn’t dare pry though, or even step closer. Instead, he kept his own voice soft and placid, imploring his friend to not be so afraid of him through an empathetic stare and nothing more. “You did a good thing, bud. It’s OK.”

“I had to do it,” Bucky repeated, this time sounding as though he was trying to brush off the slight hint of praise directed at him. “Had to make sure she would get better.”

Words evaded Steve once again. In his eyes, Bucky’s connection with Wanda was currently the greatest mystery about him. He’d figured seeing Bucky was where his younger teammate had really been wandering off to for the past few months, yet the possibilities of why felt boundless. As desperate as he was to know everything about their relationship (if he could call it that), including the where’s and when’s and how long’s, that question was the only one he could manage at the moment. “Why?”

He should’ve figured such a simple question would be met with a simple answer. Though from the way Bucky struggled to find the words, it didn’t seem entirely simple. “I just....”

He was fidgeting again, trying to escape. Not just to be free of his binding, but to avoid facing his own feelings. He was now reminiscent of Natasha, and the first time she’d attempted to run off on her own. When Steve told her how strongly he felt for her, and it had left her both shocked and anxious.

“I need her, Stevie.”

Something twisted in the pit of Steve’s stomach. At first, he thought it was from hearing Bucky use the old nickname for him. Something from as far back as before the war that ended both of their lives as they knew it. Another hint that his best friend since childhood was still with him.

But then he realized the feeling was actually something darker. It was anger that he usually didn’t feel, along with an added layer of ire with himself for the childish reasoning behind it. Jealousy, really. We need her, too.

As much as he wanted to trust Bucky again, and respect Wanda’s private life as well, he couldn’t ignore all the signs that pointed to their relationship nearly costing the team Wanda altogether. Namely the large possibility that whoever planted Hydra’s drug on her had been able to do so because she had been leaving the safety of the Facility to see him (for reasons still unknown, no less). Steve couldn’t speak for the whole team, but he knew he had grown attached to Wanda. He saw her as his responsibility just as much as he did Bucky. He didn’t want to lose her, even if Bucky was involved in the matter.

Then again, there had to be a reason Wanda went out of her way to see him so often. What if it was good reason? Could they risk ripping Wanda away from something that was helping her? Possibly making her happy?

Bucky looked up to meet Steve’s gaze at last. The hopeful glint in his eyes, combined with the tentative tone in his voice, promptly dashed any concern Steve had of him having poor intentions with Wanda. “Can I see her? Just to see she’s better?”

It was now Steve’s turn to feel uncertain. Regardless of his own thoughts of Bucky, he knew it would be up to the entire team whether Bucky was allowed to leave his captivity here. They lived here too, after all, so Steve couldn’t put them in a position that made them consider their home a distrustful place.

Still, he owed Bucky. If not for being his rock so many times in the past, then for his recent favor of finding the cure for Wanda for them. At least trying to arrange something in Bucky’s favor seemed like the very least he could do.

“I’ll have to talk to the team first,” the Captain said. “But I’ll see what I can do.”


 “Manchurian Candidate is not staying here.”

That was Tony’s main argument. The Avengers (sans Wanda, who was just now receiving a fresh transfusion of the new serum in her bedroom) and Pepper had gathered around the conference table in the Facility’s common area. They had gotten well into the throes of a dispute over what they believed should become of the Winter Soldier, and Steve was beginning to feel alone in advocating to keep his past friend under their supervision alone. “Tony—”

“No, hey I’m sorry, Cap,” Tony interrupted, his patience for respectfully listening to another’s thoughts wearing thin. He even stood to accentuate his point, standing behind Pepper’s seat at the head of the table. “I don’t care who he is. With a track record as long as his, he’s way past due answering for everything. We’ve all got stuff we wish we didn’t have to answer for, and we have, and now it’s his turn.”

“Tony, that was different, and you know it,” Steve insisted, rising to remain at Tony’s level. “We answered to our sins because there was no other choice—as part of exposing an evil parasite’s work in a government organization.”

“OK, am I hearing this right? Now you’re all for keeping secrets?” Tony shot back, even though only he and Steve would recognize the reference to a conversation they’d had months ago, at Barton’s farm. “OK, yeah, sure. Great timing there! So then, riddle me this: what kind of choice do you want to give him here?” The inventor altered his voice slightly to better resemble Steve’s. “Hey, old pal, you in the mood for a little court-mandated rehab? A padded room in the nearest psych ward sound cozy? Or do you just wanna hang out here until law enforcement comes storming in to find us housing you and Maximoff here illegally?” He scoffed, his voice returning to normal. “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be an easy decision for him.”

“Maybe it will be!” Steve said, swallowing his apprehension for the inevitable day someone would discover Bucky (and Wanda) if this did end the way he hoped. “We don’t know what kind of progress he’s been making when Wanda goes to see him.”

“We don’t know if he’s seen any kind of recovery because of her,” Natasha cut in, sounding somehow drained and undeterred at the same time. She was technically meant to be receiving the newly found antiserum alongside Wanda, but no one seemed willing to tell the Black Widow to sit out on a meeting as important as this for any reason. “Just because he willingly went to an active Hydra base and stole from them, doesn’t mean he’s free of their control over him. Even he knows that. While we were there, he was on edge, and clearly afraid of something they were working on there, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell me what it was.”

“And remind me again,” Sam said, slouching tiredly in his chair “why we can’t just ask the kid what he’s like? When he’s with her, and not raiding and robbing places?”

“Because it shouldn’t be her job,” Natasha stated firmly. “She’s not a trained professional, and his recovery is not her responsibility. If Hydra is going to target her again, the last thing she needs is to be involved with their most unstable asset.”

“He’s not our responsibility either,” Tony declared. “If Hydra and all its fellow snakes are going to keep coming out of the woodwork like this, we can’t be constantly weighing ourselves down by a secret project at home.”

“Tony, who’s to say those snakes aren’t in the exact same institutes you want to send him to?” Steve questioned. “We thought SHIELD was a trustworthy organization, and look what happened.”

“Well, what would you rather have?” Tony demanded shortly. “Keep him under house arrest here? Here, where we know now that it’s only so many miles away from the same people who fucked him up in the first place?”

“I just think the safest hands are our own,” Steve replied, forcing himself to keep cool even as Tony’s own patience dwindled.

“And I’m just saying no matter what we decide now, someone’s going to come for him later anyways,” Tony pointed out. “The longer we keep him from receiving justice for everything he’s done, the worse it’ll make our relationship with the public when they find out. We’re already in a bad place there after engaging in the Battle of Sokovia without any other oversight. Or have you completely forgotten about all the politicians that have started knocking at our door ever since?”

“The things he did weren’t by choice,” said Steve. “If anyone deserves to be imprisoned, it’s the people who brainwashed and tortured him for so long. What he needs is help for what they did to him.”

“OK, fine!” Tony threw up his hands, as if in surrender. “So tell me, who here fits that caliber? Hmm? Wilson, you think your VA groups can cover unstable master assassins who have literally decades worth of PTSD?”

Sam sighed, but said nothing.

“Look,” Tony went on, some of the tension in his shoulders easing when Pepper reached for him, rubbing his arm. “I’m not saying I want to see him in prison. Maybe if we pull some strings, we could get him to a psych center instead. But the point is, nothing can be done for him here. We’re not equipped to help him, and we’ve got enough on our plate as it is. We’re still getting Wanda used to being a part of the team, still mopping up the rest of Hydra, and still dealing with the fallout from Ultron.”

Steve’s first response was to shake his head, which set Tony on edge again. “Oh, come on, Rogers, don’t be so stubborn! We’re trying what we can to be fair to everyone.”

“I get that,” Steve said honestly. “I swear, Tony, this isn’t me just being stubborn. But he’s my friend. I owe it to him to be the one who sees him get better.”

“So, you’re going to take on everything on your own?” Sam cut in, sounding doubtful.

“‘Cause that worked so well for Wanda,” Natasha added lowly.

“And leading our team in dealing with the aftermath of both Hydra and Ultron isn’t enough for you?” Tony demanded.

“He trusts Wanda, too,” Steve told them, finding it harder and harder to sound as level-headed as he did. Anxiety and frustration over potentially losing Bucky again were rising up within him, and it was a conscious effort to swallow that. “She could help me with him.”

“Even better,” Tony huffed, his tone swimming in sarcasm. “She gets a full-time job as assassin wrangler because having her brother die and her entire country disown her wasn’t hard enough to deal with.”

“And Hydra’s targeting her,” Natasha reminded. “We keep them together, we put them both at higher risk of recapture.”

A protective instinct pulled Steve’s muscles stiff. “As long as they’re here, Hydra is not getting to either of them.”

“Or so we can hope,” Tony remarked bitterly. “We thought everyone here was safe, and then Wanda ended up in quarantine.”

“That bug could’ve been planted when she went out looking for him, and you know it,” Steve insisted.

“How do we know?” Tony shot back. “We never did confirm it wasn’t a double agent here. But now you’ve gone and sent everyone else home, because you didn’t want too many people knowing about Red October being here, so now we’ll probably never know for sure!”

Steve’s eyebrows rose. “So, are you saying you don’t think this place is safe? You don’t trust your own security—your own team?

Tony rolled his eyes at the Captain’s accusatory tone. “That is not at all what I was getting at. But even if I was, could you really blame me? Just look at all the secrets that have surfaced this past weekend alone! Who’s to say there isn’t anything else being hidden from us? Between us, even?”

At his last question, Tony looked around the room, eyes searching everyone but Steve. Captain Rogers opened his mouth, fully prepared to defend his teammates. But the words were stolen from him by Natasha’s soft, curious voice. “Steve? Does he still not know?”

Steve tensed at the question. His teammates’ eyes suddenly felt as though they were burning holes into him as they awaited an answer. He knew what Natasha was getting at; there was only one more secret he could think of that still needed to be revealed. Here and now, though, he couldn’t seem to formulate the words to explain it. This didn’t seem like the right time. Even though Tony was looking for complete honesty, it felt like this would only worsen their dilemma regarding Bucky.

Tony was evidently in no mood to wait for him to find his voice. “C’mon, Cap,” he prompted. “There something you want to share with the class?”

Steve only struggled more, looking between the billionaire and Natasha. He still wasn’t entirely sure who he was addressing when he did manage the words, “Now’s not the time.”

Natasha’s tone was cutting. “Right, and if these past few days have taught us anything, it’s that omission of the truth is the best way to protect someone, isn’t it?”

Steve grimaced, taking a step back even though Natasha remained in her seat at the other end of the table. Never before had his instincts been so insistent that he flee from an uncomfortable situation rather than fight. But the temptation to leave, or at least play dumb, was currently stronger than anything.

He didn’t run, though. He was rooted on the spot, grasping weakly for something to protect Bucky.

So, Natasha freed him of his final secret. Her voice was devoid of any emotion, but there was a slight pause before she started speaking, which suggested this wasn’t any easier for her. “When Steve and I went to Camp Lehigh last year, Arnim Zola revealed some of Hydra’s handiwork over the past few years.” Her gaze fell on Tony alone. “That included sending a Winter Soldier to stage the car accident that killed Howard and Maria Stark.”

Tony went quiet. At first he didn’t move. It didn’t even look like he was breathing. Steve held his own breath, anticipating some sort of loud and or brash reaction. Maybe even a threat towards Bucky. Distantly, he thought he could hear Pepper’s shaky exhale, and see her cover her mouth with her hand. Even Clint, who had been completely silent thus far, muttered a small, “Oh, shit,” as if he too expected some sort of violent outburst from Tony.

Tony offered nothing of the sort. He only stared at Natasha, looking as though he didn’t believe her. “They...and the Soldier they sent...it was him?

Natasha swallowed hard before nodding, the certainty in her eyes unwavering. “I read his notes. He remembers doing it.”

Tony digested that. No one spoke, choosing instead to give him time to feel the confusion, and denial, and grief that showed in his face. Eventually, he turned to Steve, his teeth barely separating to form his question. “You knew?”

Steve didn’t know what to say. “I...I didn’t know it was him.”

“Oh, cut the bullshit, Steve!” Tony snapped. “You knew! You knew for a whole year—”

“Tony,” Steve tried, stretching his hand out as though he was approaching a scared animal in a corner. “I swear, I wanted to tell you. I just didn’t know how—I wanted to protect you.”

“No, you wanted to protect him!” Tony shouted, pointing at the Captain in accusation. His other hand clenched into a fist, and he stalked closer as if to strike Steve with it.

Pepper shot to her feet, grabbing Tony’s arm. “Tony,” she warned.

Steve stood his ground, unafraid of his friend’s wrath. If anything, he was willing to take it on Bucky’s behalf, knowing Tony was likely to go easy on him. Even if he didn’t, the Captain couldn’t bring himself to blame Tony. He knew what it was like to lose one’s parents. He remembered the pain of that sort of loss.

That very degree of pain was clear in Tony’s eyes. Steve could see it in the split second before Tony tore himself away from Pepper’s grasp, backing away from both her and Steve. He raked his hands roughly through his hair, beginning to ramble the same way he usually did when he was trying to understand some equation that was stumping him in his lab. “God...I knew it. I knew it! ‘Drunk driving,’ my ass.” He whirled around to face the others, as if he felt the need to explain it to them. “Dad may have had his issues, but he never would’ve put Mom’s life at risk like that. I—I thought maybe it was something wrong with the car. Something with the brakes—you know?”

No one answered him. No one met his eye.

“God…damn it! Fucking damn it all!” Tony floundered some more, his words rapidly becoming less intelligible.

Pepper was the only one brave enough to approach him, gently laying her hands on his shoulders. Her touch seemed to ground him, prompting him to calm down a little. His heavy, forced breaths hung in the air like a suffocating fog.

When Pepper stepped aside, as if to give the inventor more air, Tony’s hard gaze returned to Steve. “That son of a bitch isn’t staying here.”

That was more akin to what Steve had been expecting. Although, as much as he understood Tony’s grief and anger, he still couldn’t disregard his loyalty to Bucky either. “Tony, please—”

Tony didn’t let him finish. “No—he killed my mom! You think I’m just going to overlook—?”

“It wasn’t really him. He didn’t want—”

“That doesn’t matter! He’s still the one who did it. He still doesn’t deserve to be trusted!” His heated gaze swept over the entire room, suddenly landing on Clint at the other end of the table. “Barton, you’re close to Maximoff. Does any of this make you OK with having her share a roof with a ruthless killing machine?”

Clint stiffened, which was his only indication of emotion. Namely his discomfort, and maybe a little surprise, at being so abruptly dragged into the conversation. He took his sweet time with an answer, drumming his fingers against the surface of the table before looking up. Though his eyes didn’t land on Tony. His gaze was on Natasha, sitting directly across from him. Feigning indifference just as strongly as he.

“Look....” The archer hesitated. “I owe a debt.”

Natasha broke her gaze away. She was blinking furiously, as if that could hide her upset with him, her oldest friend, not standing beside her on this.

“If it weren’t for her brother, I wouldn’t be here today.”

“Oh, I remember,” Natasha stated simply.

Clint leaned closer, and it was clear he wanted nothing more than for Natasha to look at him again. “If Wanda wants him here, I have to trust her judgement.”

Steve schooled himself to appear just as impassive as the two former assassins. Internally, his heart was pounding with relief that finally—finally—someone else was expressing interest in giving Bucky a chance.

To his credit, Clint made an effort to appease Tony as well. “That doesn’t mean I’m totally confident in his mental stability, let alone want him around Wanda too much. But when you do include her in on this discussion, I’m gonna stand behind whatever she decides.”

At Clint’s side, Sam gave a curt nod. “I second that. Whether we like it or not, Wanda’s spent the most time with his most recent self. She’s the most prepared for whatever we’re dealing with here.”

“Oh, sure,” Tony huffed bitterly. “By all means, let the twenty-something kid, who didn’t even know what a goddamn washing machine was until three months ago, determine what we do with a weapon of mass destruction.”

“Hey, Thor said he would trust her judgements too,” Clint pointed out coolly.

“Thor also claims it’s socially acceptable to converse with trees,” Natasha threw in. “He’s not exactly our most credible.”

“The only way he’s staying here,” Tony growled, “is if he stays in that vise in the lab alone. Maybe with me and a couple of suits dropping by once in a while.”

Steve had to fight to keep his voice level. “Seems counterintuitive to the whole rehabilitation thing, doesn’t it?”

Now Tony looked ready to erupt. “Rogers, I swear, if you defend him one more time—!”

“Tony!” Pepper had to put herself between him and Steve this time, quite possibly the only thing keeping them both from physically unleashing their frustrations on each other. In his peripheral, Steve thought he could even see Sam brace himself to stand, in the event Pepper wasn’t enough.

But she was. The Captain hadn’t even realized he’d balled his own hands into fists until he felt her light touch on forearm, gently urging him back. He obediently stepped away, giving Tony some space by standing near his original seat between Sam and Clint.

Tony also backed off, turning completely away from the team as he stood in a corner of the room, his form seemingly being absorbed by the shadows there. Pepper left him to recompose himself alone, gripping the back of her own chair with a weary sigh. An uncomfortable tension descended over the room, deterring everyone in the room from looking at anything other than their own hands.

“Maybe it’s too soon to make a long-term decision,” Pepper said, her gentle voice and almost regal professionalism like a balm to the uncomfortable atmosphere. “This week has left us all pretty tired, and stressed. It would probably be better if we revisit this conversation after things have cooled down a bit.”

No one outwardly argued nor agreed. Pepper worried her bottom lip between her teeth, and it was the most Steve had ever seen the competent businesswoman be so uncertain of herself. When she went on, her voice was even softer than before. “I realize that if it weren’t for SHIELD allowing second chances, some of us wouldn’t be here right now.”

Clint sat back in his chair, and Natasha dropped her gaze to her lap.

“I suppose we can afford to give him a few days to decide if he wants that kind of transformation.” Tony made a disgruntled sound, but kept quiet when she added, as if for his sake alone, “At least long enough for us to call in a fresh point of view. Someone better equipped to deal with something like this.”

That time, she earned a few hums of agreement.

Tony brought himself to properly face the others again, eyes downcast as he reached for Pepper’s hand. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “I guess I can call in someone. Rhodey, maybe.”

“And I can try Hill,” Natasha put in, making a clear attempt to sound as sure of herself as ever, even though her hooded gaze suggested she was speaking simply to get the conversation over with sooner. “Maybe even Fury, if he’s not too far underground.”

“After you get your share of the antiserum,” Clint decided for her.

Steve nodded, though Natasha didn’t seem to notice. Or care. He didn’t dwell on her feelings towards him in that moment, though. He only ventured back toward the head of the table, softly saying, “Thank you, Pepper.”

“Only for a few days, Captain,” Pepper reminded, her voice suddenly hard. It gave Steve pause. He’d never considered Pepper someone to take lightly, especially after she’d come out of her traumatic, forced experimentation the way she had two years ago. But now the thought was made even more striking, in the face of her protective stance beside Tony.

Steve’s regret over keeping the secret behind the death of Tony’s parents grew, knotting up in his chest to an almost unbearable degree.

“If he steps out of line even once in that time, I want him gone,” Pepper stated. “I don’t care if it’s to prison, or to a psych ward, or even in one piece.”

No one said anything to the last part, although at the other end of the table, Natasha’s brow quirked with intrigue. It made Steve wonder if perhaps Bucky would be safer in some sort of institute away from them.

“I’ll keep my eye on him,” the Captain promised. “I’ll make sure he’s—”

“Like hell we’re trusting you to be in charge of him,” Tony interrupted, his expression filled with potent bitterness again. “The moment he asks for anything, we all know you’ll bend over backwards to please him.”

Steve clenched his jaw, stifling his annoyance only because Pepper was still standing between them. “Tony, what else am I supposed to do? He’s my friend.”

“And what are we?” Tony demanded hotly. “Pets?”

“You owe him too!” Steve reminded. “Without him, we might not have found the cure Nat and Wanda needed in time.”

“Without him, they never would’ve been exposed!”

“Hey, hey!” Clint spoke up, then softened his voice to continue feigning nonchalance. “Come on, now, you guys. Look, I can watch him. I’m interested to see what all the fuss is about, anyways.”

Natasha eyed him dangerously from across the table. “You mean see what he wants with Wanda?”

The archer shrugged. “Suppose it couldn’t hurt to know that.”

“Trust me,” Natasha spoke knowingly. “You don’t want to know how he got to know her.”

“Yeah, ‘cause that doesn’t make me more intrigued,” Clint quipped.

Steve winced, mindful of exactly what Natasha was referring to.

Sam spared Clint from having to hear the extent of how Wanda and Bucky had...been together. “Why don’t we all watch him?” he suggested. “We can all do it in shifts. Let all of us get a feel for what he’s like here and now.”

No one said anything to that for a long while, choosing instead to swap glances at each other as if to feel for their thoughts before announcing their own. Eventually, Clint was the one to break the silence, crossing his arms over his chest decidedly. “Well, that works for me. I can cover the first shift for a few hours. Maybe the whole night, if I get some coffee in my system soon.”

Again, no one spoke. This time, however, it felt more like an unspoken agreement than uncertain questioning.

Steve uttered a loud, weary breath. He knew he and Bucky were both on thin ice at this point, and that was no place to push their luck even further. Nevertheless, for Bucky’s sake, he tentatively tried for one more thing. “He does have a request for us. Only one.”

“Oh, does he?” Tony scoffed. “That’s rich. What, did you tell him we’re running a bed and breakfast for him here? He want his fucking pillows fluffed? A complimentary mint and everything?”

“No! Nothing like that—”

“I know what he wants,” Natasha cut in, drawing all eyes to her. Her expression was as impassive as ever, though Steve could sense a certain hardness to it. One which betrayed her asperity with her own words. “On the drive here, I made a deal with him. If he complies with whatever decision we made here, no matter what it is, he gets to see her one last time.”


They gave him a few minutes. No one specified how many minutes “a few” was exactly, but Bucky didn’t think it was his place to ask too many questions. He knew he was treading a thin line of tolerance simply by being there, with Steve and his team of heroes. He could feel tension emanating from each of them, even as they freed him from the vise. Said freedom lasted all of five seconds before Steve was hooking a metal wrist band around his flesh arm, explaining that while he was allowed a moment alone with Wanda, the band would be monitoring his heart rate the entire time. The moment it escalated, someone from the team would intervene. Bucky suspected that would be the marksman, seeing as he was the one to walk him to Wanda’s room, and remained a mere three feet from the door once they arrived there. Bucky could feel a positively protective glare boring into him with his every move, the marksman’s stance stiff and his arms crossed over her chest as he watched him. The Soldier could almost hear the other man’s mind turning over to find the most efficient way to subdue him in an attack he didn’t intend to initiate at all.

Despite the obvious distrust radiating off of the archer, Bucky lingered by the threshold to Wanda’s room because of anxiety that was rooted with seeing the little witch. He brushed his metal fingers against the band monitoring his heart rate, as if his subconscious was reminding him to keep calm. He couldn’t risk being pulled away from her before he’d even been able to see her. Yet, he couldn’t seem to stop the sudden bombardment of second thoughts that were making him uneasy. Ever since he and Natalia stole the samples of antiserum, he had been itching for an opportunity to see for himself whether it worked. He could only ever completely trust his own eyes. But now, having actually been presented with that opportunity, he wasn’t sure if he could take it. It meant facing Wanda, and he wasn’t sure if she wanted to see him.

He had tried to keep her and her brother apart. She had every right to be upset with him. And he was selfish, not wanting to see that anguished look on her face and be the cause of it again.

Somehow, amidst his apprehension, Bucky managed to inch his way through the threshold into her room. He had to remind himself to keep his heart rate steady, both for the wristlet on his hand and for her, should her powers pick up on it.

Relief and dread swept through him simultaneously when she didn’t notice him right away. She stayed flat against the surface of her bed, brunette waves fanned out around her head. Light from the setting sun was streaming in from a window on the wall opposite him, glowing against milky flesh that was left exposed when she had only a tank top and jean shorts on. Sun rays also shone through the clear bag hanging at her bedside, slowly infusing the serum he had stolen for her into her wrist through a thin tube. Her face was turned away from him, eyes serenely shut. Although he was under no illusion that she was asleep. Not when her free hand was tracing the same listless shapes she had mapped across the seam of his metal arm countless times before.

She looked ethereal. Peaceful because she hadn’t noticed him yet. It was like she was something too pure for him to disturb, even though he knew she was actually far from wholesome. And that was partially his fault. He’d let Hydra find her again, allowing them to corrupt her with their homemade drug. He’d even directly hurt her by attempting to keep her brother away from her.

He began to wonder if should even be here. He’d seen the IV in her arm, clearly doing something. If he acted now, he could leave and let her rest without being bothered by him.

But she deserved to know what he still had planned.

When her brow pinched in puzzlement, he knew the decision was made for him. She stirred with a slight groan, eyelashes fluttering. It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the sunlight directly in her face, but once they had, her head rolled on the pillow to face him.

His heart thumped in panic for the brief moment he couldn’t read her reaction to the sight of him. All he saw were her eyes widening before she scrambled to sit up. “James?” she breathed.

“Yeah. I’m...I’m here,” Bucky answered awkwardly. His mind was only half-aware that he was wandering several steps closer in his worry she would aggravate the tube in her arm by coming to him.

As concerned as she was, she didn’t leave the bed. She was probably conscious of the IV as well. “What are you doing here? The others, they’ll see—”

“They know, Wanda,” he interrupted, finally closing most of the distance between them by sitting on the bed with her. He was still hesitant to get too close too soon. But with her expressing worry for him, surely that meant she wasn’t terribly upset, right?

Her gaze fell to his hands, which were pressed against his thighs as he tried to resist anxiously fidgeting. She reached over his lap, running a finger on either side of the band encircling his flesh wrist with a feather light touch. He could see her studying it, coming to the realization as to who it was from and what it was for. When her eyes rose back up to his face, they were still teeming with concern. “Are you alright?”

He couldn’t stop his slight smile of disbelief at her ever-present lack of self-regard. “Are you?

“I’m...” she trailed off, as if this was the first time she had really considered it. “I’m fine. Helen had another serum, and it seems to be working better.”

Bucky nodded, now appreciative as he appraised the sight of the tube taped to her arm. “Yeah. It should be the last one.”

From the way she eyed him, curious and suspicious all at once, he could tell what she was going to ask. He answered before the words could leave her mouth. “I went with Natalia to get the right antiserum from Base Four-Twenty-Seven.”

Wanda’s eyes went wide again, horrified. “You went back there?”

“Yes, I—I had to,” Bucky stammered, desperate to find something easier than the truth. Something that wouldn’t alarm her like this when she was supposed to be resting. He shouldn’t have come here. “I had to make sure you would get better. And after what you said—how I shouldn’t have left behind—”

“No, no, I didn’t mean that,” she insisted. The hand that had been on his arm now grabbed his shoulder, as if that would keep him from leaving, from doing what he’d already done. “I was just upset, and—and scared for him. I didn’t actually want you to go back there!”

He took the hand on his shoulder between both of his own, squeezing in a silent goad for her to not get too agitated. Both for her sake and his own. “I still had to. To make sure you got better.”

“But they could’ve hurt you,” Wanda reminded in distress, pulling her hand free. She swept both palms along his jaw, his shoulders, and his arms, as though it had suddenly occurred to her he had been injured and she just hadn’t noticed yet. “They could have hurt you, or...or worse.”

Bucky sighed uneasily, well aware of the risk he had posed to himself. He should have known it would distress her, just as the thought of her taking the same chances had driven him nearly insane with worry.

“How could—why would you risk that, James? Why?

She sounded so scared. He hated being the cause of that. The last thing he wanted was to instill fear in someone else ever again, much less the one woman who had only ever wanted to help him. He couldn’t handle seeing her fear here, and in his panic, he blurted, “I—because I love you, Wanda.”

Her distraught expression melted away. In its place came dismay, though it wasn’t clear whether that was in a positive or negative sense. Bucky’s anxiety didn’t subside any when he found he couldn’t entirely read her, but it did fade when he realized he didn’t entirely care. Whether she believed—or even wanted—the sentiment or not, it didn’t erase the fact that he meant it. Maybe he still wasn’t certain if a soul as tarnished as his deserved to allow itself that kind of vulnerability, or was actually capable of feeling it. All he knew for sure was that he enjoyed being with her. Not necessarily because he needed her—he would never bind her to him for something as selfish as that. If he had managed to get along without her before they’d met, he could likely learn to do it again.

But he didn’t want to just survive. He wanted to live, and enjoy his life, and she helped him with that. He appreciated her considerate nature, all her efforts to help him (her successful efforts, at that). He enjoyed all the tics and mannerisms of hers that had become a constant to him during their time together over the past few months. Hell, he valued her wellbeing enough to risk his own life and freedom to protect it. He’d thought that was due to a dependence on her, but now he thought maybe it was more.

He loved her.

“I do. I love you,” he repeated, since the first time had sounded so pathetic and unsure. He said it again, regardless of the way admitting something so personal aloud tugged at his chest and made his stomach flip. The more times he heard himself say it, the more it felt real, and felt more OK to feel that way. “I love you, Wanda. I—”

Her arms wrapped around his neck, silencing him with the surprise of it. She pulled herself to him, holding him too close to see if her shoulders were shaking because of laughter, or sobs, or both. It was probably a deliberate move on her part to hide her reaction, and possibly keep from hurting his feelings right away. And it was probably doing nothing good for the IV in her right arm, but for just a brief moment, he didn’t let himself stress over it. He had spent enough time going mad with worry he’d lost her for good after she found out about her brother, when he thought she would brave the Hydra base on her own and fall right into their trap. He took this moment now to assure himself that hadn’t happened. She was alright. She was here, the warmth of her slight body tangible. She was here, whole and healthy (or at least, on her way back to full health).

He hugged back when she gave his shoulders a light squeeze, barely remembering to pay mind to his strength. His thoughts were busied with nuzzling into the join of her neck and shoulder, and the scent of her hair as it swarmed his face when he did. He let himself get lost in it, in her for a moment. Just one minute of freedom, where all cares and worry were pushed aside.

The moment couldn’t last, though. He was pressed for time, and he didn’t know how much more he was allotted.

“And you were right,” he said, shame reducing his voice to a soft whisper. “I knew the other asset was important to you, and I wanted to leave him there on purpose.”

“No, no,” Wanda protested, her voice cracking slightly. She finally pulled back so he could see her face. Her eyes were watery, the way they were both times she had been overwhelmed by her emotions at the inn. Though this time, much to Bucky’s surprise, there was an underlying sense of relief to them. “You were right.” She offered a faint smile as she cradled the soldier’s face between her hands.  “You didn’t know him. And I...it was wrong of me to expect you to risk your life for somebody you don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry—”

I’m sorry. I tried to keep you apart...I did want to leave him there.” Had he had his way, she would have never found out about her brother. By the time Hydra shipped him there, Bucky would have convinced her to leave for some place far away. Where exactly hadn’t been the point, just as long as she was gone. As long as she was safe, and never found out the truth. If she never found out, she could never be manipulated into trading herself for him. Would never choose to be with her own brother instead of him. “I was...paranoid, a—and jealous of him, and it was stupid, and unfair to the both of you.”

She didn’t seem to have the words to counter that, so she swept her hands through his hair a couple of times to console him before returning her touch to his face. His flesh hand rose up to cover one of hers, avoiding her gaze by pressing light kisses into her palm. “I’m going to make it up to you. I promise. As soon as I can, I’ll go back, and I’ll find him for you.”

Just as he expected, she was aghast at the idea. He could hear it in her voice, could feel it as she ripped both hands away from him. “What?”

He forced himself to meet her gaze, words spilling out on their own accord upon seeing alarm in her face again. “Natalia’s team wants to keep me under surveillance, but the second I see a chance to escape, I swear—”

“No, no, no, you can’t go back!” she shook her head adamantly. Her eyes were still glistening with moisture, though now it was clearly a product of terror. “Not by yourself. You were lucky to get away this many times! Now that you’ve stolen something, they’ll be expecting you if you go back.”

He already hated her time in Hydra for the abuse she had been subjected to. Now, he hated it even more because it helped her learn the mechanics of the organization so well. Convincing her of his idea wasn’t going to be easy. “I can’t ask someone here to go. I still don’t know who first dropped the toxin. If it was an inside eye that’s still here, they could give the other rats there time in advance to prepare.”

He knew what she was going to offer next. He’d been dreading it ever since he first decided to tell her his plan. “Then take me,” she said lowly, as if the suspected double agent was somewhere within the walls of the room. “Only me. No one else has to know.”

“No, sweetheart. If I’m going to try taking an entire asset...” he hesitated, knowing this wasn’t something she wanted to hear. But he pushed himself to be honest, because it was better she know it was his choice from the beginning, rather than hear what happened from someone else later. And it was his choice, because she needed her brother back in her life, and he owed her this for leading Hydra back into her life (even if it had been unintentional). “They want to trade one asset’s freedom for another’s. I think I can convince them to take me for him.”

Her expression hardened. The level of indignation—of outrage—that was there wasn’t enough to scare him per se, but it was enough to dissuade him from arguing with her. “No,” she stated, as definite and unyielding as marble. “None of that. I’m not about to negotiate with...with terrorists,” she spat the word, because the real label for them was too awful for her, “for the people I care about. If you’re going to get Pietro, I am coming with you, and I am going to leave with both of you.”

Bucky rubbed his thumb over the wrist that was free of an IV, as if that could erase what he’d said to upset her. “I can’t ask you to do that, koldun’ya. Not when you’ve been sick for—”

“You’re not asking me,” the witch cut in. Had the situation been different (had everything been so different), he knew he would be proud of her newfound self-confidence. “I’m choosing to go with you.”

That sank in for a silent minutre, wherein Bucky rubbed his flesh fingers over her arm in weak consolation for upsetting her. At his touch, Wanda softened.

Having allowed herself to relax a bit, the witch brought the hand not held in his lap up to tenderly hold his face. “Besides,” she said gently. “I know my brother. He’s stubborn, and doesn’t trust easily. He’s won’t follow just anyone somewhere, even if they claim it’s for his own safety.”

It was hard for Bucky to admit she had a point. Even if this mission didn’t have to end with him sacrificing his freedom, there was no guarantee her brother would follow him. They didn’t know each other. As far as he knew, the only things they shared in common was experimentation under Hydra and a connection to Wanda. And as willing as he was to do whatever was necessary to see Wanda happy, Bucky couldn’t deny the idea of going near an active Hydra base did unnerve him. Stealing a few vials of serum had been easy, especially with the Black Widow accompanying him. A simple break-in through the right window, allow Natalia to slip in and take some vials from storage, and then they were gone. Taking an asset was definitely a much taller order, especially regarding one that had occupied so much of the base’s focus for the past few days. And especially if he was by himself this time.

If it could be helped, he didn’t want to wind up imprisoned there again. And if he trusted anyone in this facility to cover him when he went back now, it was Wanda.

Bucky eyed the tube in her arm once more, taking time to process the sight of it. To remind himself what it meant. He had gotten the serum to her, and it was helping her recover. She would be able to help him. With her, he could stand a chance.

Despite his better judgement, he relented. “Only if you feel well enough. After the drug’s been completely purged.”

Wanda nodded, suddenly alight with excited energy. “Of course. When I have better control of my scarlet again, I can use it to get you past Stark’s security.”

Bucky hummed in agreement, even though part of him was still uncertain. “I’ll be in his lab. Come for me after the next infusion, and only then.”

“I will. And that’s good—the Avengers’ armory is right next to that lab. If we need to take anything with us, it’ll be there.”

She sounded so prepared. Eager, even, to storm a dangerous terrorist base for her brother. Hopeful that they would succeed. He sort of envied her optimism.

And he loved her. So much so, that he still wasn’t sure he could fathom this plan. Essentially taking her to the same people who had ruined both of their lives in the past. Risking his freedom a fourth time. Risking her life so soon after finding a cure to something they had plagued her with.

Ever aware of his incessant unease, Wanda combed her fingers through his hair once more, guiding his distanced gaze back to her. “It’ll be alright, James,” she promised, the words said with so much certainty, and so lovingly, he didn’t think he could ever doubt them. “We can beat them. They don’t control us anymore. They never will again.”

Bucky let out a quivering breath, daring to believe her. He felt a gentle tug from the fingers in his hair and obliged to her unspoken request, leaning closer. She let him rest his forehead against hers, keeping him there with her arms around his neck. He could almost feel her faith in both of them rolling off her in physical waves. He didn’t know if her scarlet had the ability to cast some of it into him, or if she was even well enough yet to utilize such a power, but he liked to think so. Or maybe it was the tender closeness to her that was putting him more at ease. It felt like so long since they’d had a moment like this, even though technically speaking, it had been less than two days since she had been at the inn, holding him just like this. However, that time had been burdened with her desperation to comfort him, and the dreadful truth he was trying to keep from her.

That terrible matter had no place here, though. She knew about her brother, and she knew Bucky intended to help him, and Bucky knew he wouldn’t have to go alone. She was going with him, and it would be OK because she would be well again by that time and everything was going to be OK.

In his desperation to believe that, to share the sense of hope Wanda currently held for him and herself and her brother, he gently pulled her even closer to him. That brought her onto his lap, flush against his chest. And perhaps it was out of habit, or maybe because this somehow still didn’t feel close enough, but his next thought was to kiss her. Which he did, even though it made his heart skip a beat because he hadn’t asked if it was alright by her.

His doubt over that caused him to be hesitant at first, pressing a chaste, barely-there brush against her mouth. But then she grasped his face between her hands and kissed back, just as slow and tentative as him. Though once she found the familiarity of it, she kissed a little harder, sweeping her tongue against the seam of his lips.

He let her push her way into his mouth, holding her in place with his arms about her middle, and taking everything she had to offer. Not just more slow, sweet kisses, but her confidence in what they had planned. Her excitement for what they could gain from it, her joy. He all but melted into it, discarding any lingering fears he’d had for the time being.

He made himself pull away before either of them could get too eager, though, still conscious of the monitor around his wrist. He was fairly surprised it hadn’t set off anyone on the team yet. Although he knew just because no one had arrived thus far didn’t entirely mean he had a lot of time left.

“I’ll wait for you, OK?” he reminded as she caught her breath, panting in short warm bursts against his skin. “We have time. He’s not getting there until tonight. You find me when you’ve recovered, and not a moment before.”

“I will,” she promised.

Bucky eased her off his lap. The witch crawled back toward the head of the bed, arranging herself almost exactly as she had been when he first arrived, as if she too suspected someone was going to interrupt them any second now.

Despite being aware of that possibility himself, Bucky rushed forward to steal another kiss. A chaste, fleeting one that was meant to be a bid farewell above anything else. “Love you,” he whispered one more time, and then was gone before she could reply.


The next day, despite Natasha’s return, the compound was just as quiet as before. Probably more so. With an antidote to Hydra’s toxin finally found, the SHIELD agents and other employees there were finally cleared to go home. In fact, a vast majority were approved for a full week off to compensate for the health scare. Or, so Tony Stark claimed. In reality, with the fate of the Winter Soldier still in question, no one on the team wanted too many people around. That meant the team had most of the property to themselves, yet they still conjugated in the same common area as usual.

On the surface, everything seemed normal. Pepper was preparing coffee. Natasha was going through the cupboards. Sam was at the breakfast bar, having helped himself to a bowl of cereal. Tony was beside him, reading something on a tablet. Clint was on his phone in the den area, messaging his wife back home. Wanda was the only one missing, apparently preferring to stay holed up in her bedroom. Whether that was due to slow progress from the antiserum she was given, or because of something that had happened when Bucky visited her, was anyone’s guess. Not that anyone was looking to ask her. The tension from the previous afternoon’s argument had not lifted in the slightest, leaving no room to risk inviting more. No one in the common area even spoke to each other.

It was this tense silence that greeted Steve when he entered. Quite frankly, he thought it disturbing. He was already on edge from a restless night spent worrying over how Bucky was doing, restrained and unpredictable, and also felt incredibly lonely without Natasha there with him. Not that he blamed her for choosing to stay in her own room for the night. Given that they hadn’t really talked, just the two of them, since their argument, it made sense. It made sense.

That didn’t mean he had to like it, though. Even if it had only been one night, he’d gotten to like having someone else in bed with him. So much of his life in this era, before he came to live at the Avengers compound, had been lonesome. Natasha’s promise to stay with him had been like a beacon of hope to finally remedying some of that. But now she didn’t seem to want to be anywhere near him. She wouldn’t look at him, and he doubted that if he prompted, she would answer him. The overall team seemed barely willing to speak to each other, simply coexisting in a habitual silence.

Clint was speaking to him, though.

“Hey, man,” the archer said, pocketing his phone.

“Morning,” Steve answered stiffly. “How’d he do?”

Clint immediately knew who the Captain was referring to. “Fine. Quiet. Didn’t seem to get much sleep until he passed out a couple hours ago.”

Steve simply nodded in response, unsure what else he had expected from Bucky. Clint stepped closer, dropping his voice as he eyed the others in the kitchenette. “Tony went by a little while ago. Kept insisting he take the next shift. If I were you, I’d probably want to keep an eye on him as well.”

Steve nodded in agreement. He’d never worried too much about Tony before—he was reckless and brash sometimes, yes, but rarely violent—but after last afternoon, Steve knew better than to trust Tony alone with Bucky. The inventor had said so himself, the only way he would tolerate Bucky’s presence is if they were alone with his Iron Man suit on hand. Even Pepper, who was normally a perfectly poised, kind-hearted person, had said things that haunted him. If he steps out of line even once, I want him gone. I don’t care if it’s in one piece.

The Captain thanked Clint for his warning, giving him a brotherly pat on the shoulder as he left the archer’s side. He could hear Clint remain a few paces behind him as he strolled towards the others surrounding the kitchen island.

“Good morning,” Steve greeted no one in particular, making more of an effort to appear casual this time.

“Is it?” Tony remarked flatly, standing up and walking around the island without ever looking back at Steve. As he rifled through the mug cupboard, he added, “As I recall, we still got a ruthless killing machine to babysit.”

If anyone at all noticed Steve’s warning glare, they didn’t acknowledge it.

“Surprised you let him leave your sight, Rogers,” Natasha put in, betraying no emotion as she accepted a mug of coffee from Pepper.

“Yeah, well,” Steve offered a bitter half-smile even though she didn’t look up at him. “We agreed on a system, didn’t we?”

Once again, no one truly acknowledged him. Though Tony made a sound, as if disbelieving the Captain would so easily relent to sharing the responsibility of looking after Barnes. He still hadn’t turned to face Steve, so the soldier kept his gaze trained on Tony’s back as he stole the inventor’s seat. He stayed quiet for a moment, distracted as he noticed the tablet Tony had been reading was a blank page. The pure white screen promptly switched off, just as Clint’s hand fell on Steve’s shoulder, as though reminding him of what they’d just discussed.

“We agreed on a lot of things last night,” Steve went on. “Like giving him a few days to prove himself, right?”

“Sure,” Tony muttered, sounding like a bitter child reminded to eat their vegetables.

“If you’re taking the next shift, Tony, I want you to remember that. He’s earned a second chance. Without him, Wanda might not have gotten better.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Tony grumbled, shifting so that he was leaning his hip against the counter. “But I’m not covering this next shift. Rhodes offered to, and I told him go ahead. He’s better at the whole sleeping business after all, so he’ll probably have a better eye.”

Pepper looked up curiously at that. “Rhodey? He’s here?”

Tony didn’t meet her eye, focused on watching something in his coffee. “Yeah. He offered to keep an eye on Barnes until later.”

Pepper looked around the room, still uncertain. Steve shared her confusion, and from the looks of it, so did everyone else. Sam was the first one to speak on it. “I thought…wasn’t Rhodes not set to get in until later today?”

“No, he’s keeping an eye on Barnes,” Tony repeated. He still wasn’t fully facing the rest of the room, making it difficult to read him, but Steve could hear in his tone that he definitely believed his friend was there, even though no one else had seen him.

“Did he get in last night?” the Captain wondered aloud.

Tony was silent for a moment. It could’ve been nothing, but for whatever reason, it unnerved Steve. “You know, I don’t know,” the inventor admitted. Then he was distracted by something in the sink directly beside him. “Hey, is someone putting coffee grounds in the disposal?”

No one answered him. Everyone’s attention was torn to the loud clink of Natasha suddenly setting her mug down. She was the only one whose gaze stayed on Tony, not even wavering as the hot, dark liquid spilled over the rim of her cup and onto her fingertips. Steve immediately noticed her eyes flicking back and forth, the way they did when she was thinking at a mile a minute. Reading something. Calculating. Steve wished more than anything to know what she was thinking.

Natasha held up the hand that wasn’t wrapped around her mug, crooking two fingers at Tony. “Come here.”

The inventor didn’t move fast enough for her, clearly too surprised by the sudden command. She stalked across the few feet between them, giving no warning before she was grabbing him by the jaw and pulling his face closer to her eye level.

“Say that again,” she ordered, voice low and chillingly hard. It unnerved the others even more, including Tony. When the billionaire was only able to manage a grunt of bewilderment, she pushed further. “Where is Rhodes?”

“He...he’s watching Barnes.”

Natasha took a minute step back. To anyone else it would seem like she was relaxing, finally letting go of whatever she thought she’d seen. But Steve knew her too well to be fooled. She was reading again, maybe even trying to make sense of what she found and not wanting to believe it. Then she uttered a barely audible, “Shit,” and was racing out of the room.

The others watched her go, officially confused beyond compare. “What? What is it?” Sam tried to ask, but Natasha was already gone by the time the question left his mouth.

“What is it?” Tony echoed, bringing Steve’s attention back to him for the moment.

Pepper was the only one not staring after Natasha, having taken the spy’s place in front of Tony. She was much gentler as she took Tony’s face in her hands, directing him to look her in the eye. “Tony...” she murmured, the level of concern in her voice almost driving Steve to get up and see what was wrong with Tony for himself. “Your eyes are red.”

“What?” Tony stepped out of her grasp. “Pep, I swear to you, I haven’t been drinking.”

“No,” Pepper shook her head, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. “It’s not that kind of red. It’s like a…a real, bright red.”

The air was seemingly snatched straight from each of the remaining Avengers’ chests. Tony finally turned to fully face the others, his mouth agape in disbelief. And his eyes were bright—positively glowing with an unnatural shade of scarlet.

Wanda.

It struck Steve first what that meant. What Natasha had figured out before any of them.

This time he did scramble to his feet, and was rushing to follow his partner. He could hear Sam and Clint hurrying to keep up with him, and Tony a ways further behind. He had no idea how he knew where Natasha had gone after she’d left their line of sight, but he didn’t have to question his instincts for very long. Natasha practically burst out of Tony’s lab when he was but three feet away from the door. She was growling something in Russian, tossing something at the opposite wall in frustration. Steve slowed to a stop as he reached her side, watching Clint pick up whatever she’d thrown.

It was the wrist monitor they’d put on Bucky. A good few inches of it were missing, as if eaten away. An image that was strikingly similar to the remnants of several of Ultron’s bodies after the Battle of Sokovia.

“He’s gone,” Natasha spat. “He might not have left the premises. Clint, check Wanda’s room.”

Steve could only nod uselessly in agreement as he watched Clint turn to do just that. His thoughts couldn’t seem to slow down long enough to help him figure out what could’ve been Bucky and Wanda’s reasoning. Maybe they just wanted more time together. They could just be in her room.

Clint made it about four steps when Tony suddenly called out to the ceiling. “Jarvis, are you responsive?”

An eerily calm voice responded from overhead. “I am, sir.”

“Scan the place,” Tony said impatiently. “If it’s faster, just search this wing. I wanna know where Barnes and Maximoff are right fucking now.”

There was silence as the still recovering AI worked. The five Avengers each waited with baited breath for an answer, standing frozen in place as if they feared distracting the intelligence system with the slightest movement.

“I cannot detect Miss Maximoff or Sergeant Barnes. I also seem to be missing some artifacts from the team’s armory.”

God, damn it, Bucky! Steve had never wanted to throttle his friend so badly. Just when they were going to give you a second chance!

Clint pulled the Captain from his thoughts with another clap on the shoulder, this time hard and furious. “If he does anything to her…” the archer hissed lowly.

“I know,” Steve shrugged off his touch, still distracted by his own frustrations.

Jarvis’s voice broke through again, sounding as urgent as a machine could be. “Sir, I have detected traces of Miss Maximoff in Garage E. Exact location is pending.”

Steve didn’t wait any longer. That garage was at another end of this very wing. If he moved fast enough, maybe he would find them still there. Maybe he could stop them. Maybe. Maybe.

Steve was aware his serum was giving him an advantage over the others in speed, but thought nothing of the enhanced strength it gave him when he reached the double doors to the garage, nearly forcing them off their hinges as he shoved them open.

He didn’t know what he’d expected to find, but somehow, he knew this wasn’t it. The garage was devoid of life, showing no physical signs of Wanda or Bucky being there, or having ever been there. Yet, none of the vehicles kept there were missing. As far as he could see, every truck and car was accounted for. The automatic door before each of them was securely closed. It was as though not a single soul had been there since Natasha returned her car yesterday.

As he wandered further into the room, Steve felt a tight ball of apprehension sink deeper and deeper into his chest as he was met with more and more stillness. He knew Jarvis couldn’t have been mistaken. Surely some trace of Wanda or Bucky was here.

Did they get away on foot? It was possible Jarvis had merely detected Wanda’s fingerprints on a door or something. The thought of that being the case made Steve’s heart sing with hope. There was still a chance they could be found if they were on foot.

“Son of a bitch!” Natasha was at the Captain’s side by the time he reached the end of the room. At her irate whisper, he followed her gaze to find exactly what his gut had been warning him about when they first walked in the room.

In the far corner of the garage, there was an empty slot where Steve’s motorcycle had been.

Chapter Text

Wanda underestimated how long it had been since she’d travelled at speeds like this. Whenever Pietro used his speed to carry her somewhere, even though she always sensed he was holding back on his full ability, she knew they would be faster than this. Maybe it had been too fast for her body to really process it, or because she’d had so much trust in her brother, but she couldn’t recall ever feeling the sort of rush she felt now. The way the wind ripped through her hair and whipped her face nearly brought tears to her eyes. The metal beneath her was practically roaring with energy, throbbing and heated almost uncomfortably between her legs.

Any discomfort the bike gave her was overshadowed by the fact that James was in control. He led the machine through the woods, over a coarse dirt road (that wasn’t truly a road at all) with the precision and skill of someone who had frequented these woods their entire life. Wanda had the utmost faith in his direction, in his lead. So, for now, she merely held on to him.

What they were doing was dangerous, she knew. Where they were going, and what was at risk if they weren’t careful. Not to mention what would likely await them even if their mission was successful. A part of her had been aware their theft and escape from the compound was wrong, almost like running away from family. But here, far into the throes of their mission, it also felt wonderfully freeing. It made for an odd mix of excitement, and fear, and adrenaline within her. She didn’t hate it nearly as much as she’d always thought she would her first mission.

Of course, she never anticipated her first mission would involve retrieving her brother. That was making her heart pound more than anything else. Seeing Pietro again was the one thing she had wanted above anything else ever since she felt (what she’d thought were) his last breaths in the Battle of Sokovia. That want was still present, just as strong as it had ever been. But under these circumstances, it was lined with dread as well. What had Hydra been doing to him all this time? Knowing Hydra as she and James did, she was conscious of how high the possibility of Pietro enduring unthinkable abuse and manipulation at their hands was.

But he was her brother. Her twin. No matter what he was made to think of her—or God forbid, forgotten her like James had Steve—she couldn’t leave him there to suffer alone.

The moment of truth was nearly here. James was slowly bringing the bike to a stop, meaning that their destination was nearby. Just as they leaving the compound, he had warned that they would have to abandon the bike a fair ways away from Hydra’s base to keep from being heard. Especially considering his prediction there would be twice as many agents as usual, due to a new asset was being delivered. And possibly because someone was sure to have noticed his past three break-ins by now.

As they dismounted the bike, Wanda noticed just how well the area suited a secret terrorist base. It was remote, far from where the Avengers had built their facility, where civilians had built their neighborhood, or even where the river ran between them. Without the gentle warble of the river, their every movement here felt thunderous in the still quiet. The trees were more abundant here, standing thicker and more luscious than those immediately beyond the facility. The air felt cooler, too, as if the brunt of autumn had already come and gone. Though that could have easily been her own trepidation, sending an extra chill down her spine. She considered it a miracle that the uniform she had found for herself in the armory (shortly after overcoming surprise there even was a section of the Avengers’ armory designed specifically for her) included a long, dense leather jacket to shield her from cold. Although it was also tight around her chest, having been designed by someone who’d clearly had to guess her measurements, and gave her a sense of claustrophobia that didn’t lessen any as she jogged after James.

He betrayed no emotion as he led the way further into the heart of the woods. He had been unnervingly dispassionate since she’d woken him that morning. Silent, aside from short moments in which he warned her what to expect. She figured it was part of his training, to be so detached as he carried out his mission. Wanda’s only comfort were her powers, now functioning normally again, keeping track of the surface of his mind. The slight droning of his own apprehension was a constant assurance that she hadn’t completely lost him to the Winter Soldier’s mindset.

She slowed when James did. Stopped when he did, crouching low with him just as they reached a sudden decline in the earth. James pulled the assault rifle he had slung over his back across his shoulder to look through the scope (the large gun was courtesy of Natasha, and the stealth suit from James’s personal belongings, forgotten in the backseat of her car). As he studied whatever was on the other end of the rifle’s scope, Wanda chanced crawling a few paces closer, coming to kneel right at James’s side. Sure enough, cradled in the valley before them was a crumbling, rectangular building with a few smaller buildings attached to its rear side. It almost resembled the Avengers Facility, though at a quarter of the size.

Wanda’s eyes immediately went to a white van resting between a pair of black trucks beside the main building. She had no way to know for certain, but deep in her bones, Wanda just knew why the long, windowless vehicle was there. Pietro was in there.

The witch took a moment to distance herself, feeling for her brother’s mind. Nothing happened in the aggravating few seconds she searched, probably because this was too far to properly pick up the thoughts of anyone inside the building. She heard the faint crackles of surface thoughts, the patterns calmer than those in James’s mind—the sound of their confidence, the arrogant bastards—but too distant for her to know where to funnel her telepathy’s full strength.

“Security stepped up,” James muttered, shifting the rifle so that Wanda could see through the scope. She pressed herself close against his shoulder to do just that. The lens offered an enhanced image of what the witch’s powers had just been detecting.

The wall directly ahead of them possessed a set of double doors, and on either end of them was a Hydra agent. Judging from James’s displeasure, those agents hadn’t been there in the past. Each was armed to the teeth in padded, charcoal-colored uniforms and helmets with visors that hid their faces wholly. Both carried a gun in hand, a similar size to (if not bigger) the one James had brought.

No weapon or padding could shield them from her, though.

“I can get rid of them,” Wanda assured.

James nodded, shifting his rifle to point at a small bulb hanging from the corner of the roof. A security camera. “Watch the doors,” he cautioned. “They’re self-locking.”

When he didn’t fire at the camera, Wanda figured he was waiting for her to act first. She uncapped some of her scarlet, tethering the wispy knot that formed at her palm by will of thoughts alone. She wound it around her head for momentum before setting it free, tossing it forward. She formed another to fly on the tail of that one, both surging toward her targets and effortlessly seeping through their skulls before they could even wonder what the strange lights were. The samples of her magic immediately called back to her, showing what they’d found. Every thought and emotion of both men was suddenly at her bidding.

She easily planted the thought in each one’s head that the hour was much later than it truly was. That it was time to cease duty and begin heading home. There was some resistance at first. Mostly confusion, because the sun wasn’t down yet. But then they exchanged a look, Wanda seeing the blank face of one through the eyes of the other before they both turned to push open the doors behind them. The witch felt eager anticipation from each one to finally shed their heavy uniforms before she completely severed herself from the traces of scarlet she had left in their minds. Once both men were gone, Wanda sent another ball of scarlet to clench around the hinges of the right-hand door, effectively freezing it in place mere seconds before it could swing shut alongside its counterpart.

James wasted no time then, rising to his feet for a better shot at the security camera. He fired, then fired again at one Wanda hadn’t even noticed on the opposite edge of the building. Both bulbs burst in an instant, shards of black glinting in the sun as they sprayed onto the grass below. Wanda winced at the near deafening crack of each shot as it echoed right beside her, yet managed to keep a hand up to hold her scarlet in place at the door.

James gave no warning before hurrying down the hill to get to the doors. Wanda scurried behind him, willing her scarlet to dissolve into mid-air only when she saw his metal hand pressed against the door. He held it open for her as she slipped past him, then crept inside after her, slinging the gun onto his back once again.

The interior of the building felt ominous. Painted in various whites and pale browns, as well as the grey of thick shadows from the dim, half-functioning lights overhead. Some constantly flickered with threat of cutting off completely, an annoyance to the eyes that made Wanda’s head throb. What little she could see in this one hallway of seemingly abandoned rooms told her that no one had bothered to update its technology or other inner workings since its original time of operation decades ago. It was like walking with a ghost, the evidence of hard work strewn about the floors of each room, and the thoughts of dedicated men now slightly clearer to her, but she couldn’t presently see or hear any of them.

Her only comfort as she proceeded forward was the cool metal that laced between her fingers, squeezing her palm in a silent offer of strength. Wanda squeezed back, even though his fingerless glove and the top end of her arm bracer muted proper contact with each other. She resisted connecting to him mentally, or even asking if she could while they were inside the belly of the beast. A beast that had already swallowed them whole and spat out a new, deranged version of themselves once before.

That memory unsettled her more than she dared to show. She couldn’t let herself get so on edge when they were already this far along. She couldn’t afford any second thoughts now. Pietro needed her. Her brother needed her.

The closer they drew to the end of the hall, the more she could tell James was subtly urging her toward the wall. She compliantly pressed herself flat against the surface, only to regret it when James pressed himself close to her instead of doing the same. Shielding her, in case someone appeared suddenly. Making it so that he would be spotted first. Maybe even shot first, if worst came to it.

Annoyance sparked deep within her. She didn’t need his protection. If anything, she believed she should be leading the way. Her scarlet would be able to shield them both.

Her protests were on the tip of her tongue when James spoke instead. “Can you hear anyone?”

She could. The further they travelled toward the building’s center, the stronger she could sense others. Dozens of patterns of mental activity overlapped within the depths of her mind. She was almost afraid to delve any further than the surface, knowing how easily she could get overwhelmed by so much input at once, and how inconvenient it would be if she did. However, that was also a blatant hint at something that was convenient.

“They’re all in one place.” She inched further ahead as they approached a fork in their path, not even realizing that she was wandering to the left as she finally chanced honing in on one set of thoughts in particular. “A meeting, I think.”

The mind she’d focused on was a scientist, it seemed. She recognized the fixation with formulas and numbers. The unwavering drive to solve unanswered questions, or in this specific moment, improve on his current project. Strangely enough, she crossed his mind as he thought of it.

The Death-Spore virus will have completely killed her by then. If he wants to act, it better be now.

The virus. The virus that had debilitated her, no doubt. She had found its designer. If she searched further, would she find who dropped it as well?

Before she could even try, she was abruptly yanked backward by her arm. James forced her back against the wall of the hallway through which they’d entered, clapping a hand over her mouth just in time to quiet the surprised yelp that escaped her.

“I’m sorry,” James whispered, relaxing now that she was back in the safety of abandoned rooms and flickering lights with him. He promptly lowered his hands from her, watching each one as if in shame for being so rough with her. It was the most like himself she’d seen him all day. “Just don’t go out there without any cover, OK?”

Wanda didn’t answer. She was too stunned, having only now realized what she’d nearly done. She took a quick risk by looking around the bend of the wall to see into the hall she had been blindly wandering down seconds before. Sure enough, in the door to the meeting room she’d been listening to, there was a large square window where anyone could have seen her. When she turned back to James, her eyes were clenched tight as she mentally berated herself for getting so distracted. “Sorry,” she told James.

James rubbed the space on her arm where his metal fingers had likely left bruises. Aside from that, he wasted no time fretting over her. “Did you hear them? How many were in there?”

“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. She did remember picking up a sense of competitive superiority from the scientist, so she figured it was safe to say, “Everyone important, at least.”

James nodded, taking a glance around the corner for himself.

“I couldn’t find Pietro,” Wanda admitted with thinly veiled disappointment.

James only hummed, and she could hear his thoughts churning with something. “He’s an asset,” he recalled aloud. “They’ll keep him separate. Probably in the same chamber he was transported in until they’re ready to use him.”

He was clearly speaking from experience, and Wanda’s heart went out to him. If that grief was at all visible on her face, James didn’t notice. “The labs start in that left corridor. If I lead everyone down the opposite way, will you be alright slipping past to look for him there?”

Her first instinct was to grip his sleeve and prevent him from leaving her line of sight in this, an undoubtedly dangerous situation. The entire reason they were in this situation right now was because she’d made that mistake with Pietro in Sokovia, even though she’d kept a constant mental connection to him. She’d been adamant not to let Pietro’s fate happen to anyone else she cared about.

But she couldn’t deny she didn’t have confidence in her own ability to distract the Hydra’s agents long enough for the both of them to travel past in search of Pietro. At least, not when she didn’t know exactly how many minds it would require her to maneuver through. There was no telling if she would have enough time to figure that out before someone else came along and stopped her. She didn’t even have time to debate her options the way she was here and now.

James had obviously already settled on his decision, cautiously stepping past her into the hall beyond. She tightened her grip on his sleeve to stop him, still slightly defiant of his plan. Yet, when he looked back at her in puzzlement, all she could bring herself to do was cup his face with her free hand and plead, “Be careful.”

He dipped his head in a curt nod, stormy eyes never once tearing away from hers. “You too,” he murmured, accentuating the sentiment with a swift kiss to her brow.

And with that, he was off. Wanda still wasn’t entirely willing to let him go on his own. She felt like she hadn’t stressed it enough—she could never stress it enough when it came to this place. Please, please, please, be careful.

His rifle fired twice at something she couldn’t see, and the entire building fell into chaos. Lights that had barely been clinging to life overhead completely blew out. A high-pitched alarm wailed through the halls, echoing off the vinyl floors. Just beneath that sound were the various shouts of startled men, yelling in foreign tongues.

German, Wanda realized. These men must have been higher-ups in Hydra’s hierarchy.

She pushed herself even further against the wall behind her, blending into the shadows as much as she could to avoid being noticed. Keeping still was easy enough when she was so fearfully petrified by how reminiscent the men’s voices were to Baron von Strucker and his colleagues’ at the Sokovian base.

Several agents ran right past her. She watched them go, feeling very little of her fear ease as some began firing weapons. A fresh bolt of panic shot through her to hear the distinct clang of bullets striking solid metal. It could have been shields the Hydra agents had. But she knew better.

James, be careful!

Amidst the cacophony of utter pandemonium, she suddenly recognized the sound of a sharp command in Russian. “Koldun’ya! Idti!"

She scrambled out of her hiding place before she could think twice of it. Again, no one noticed her. In her rush, she could only catch a glimpse of black-clad soldiers focused solely on the figure at the other end of the hall. She raced in the opposite direction, toward the now empty meeting room. The few men that weren’t heavily armed, or even wore any kind of uniform were in the process of fleeing from there, heading down a third hall too quickly to notice her either.

Wanda went after them, unleashing a wave of scarlet ahead of her as she rounded the corner. The effect was ruthless and instantaneous. The bodies immediately before her fell synchronously, hitting the floor with barely a sound. Struck down by the sheer power of a witch’s hex. She slowed to check on the pair closest to her, ensuring they would stay down if she continued onward. To her relief, they were staring blankly ahead at nothingness, their eyes coated in red as they endured the nonsensical hallucinations she’d planted in their minds.

She jogged further down her new path. The rooms this way were clearly better cared for, each one’s door securely closed and probably locked. Most had windows, and she scanned every one carefully. She almost turned around at one point as she heard more of the struggle she’d left James with. She knew now she could be of help. She’d confirmed her scarlet was responsive on a large scale again. She could help him. She should help, or at least check that he was handling things well enough by himself.

But she couldn’t seem to be swayed from this course. She was so ready—so, so ready to find her brother.

The wall to her right suddenly yawned open into a lengthy, extended window. It showcased a massive laboratory on the other side, the likes of which were probably what James had been referring to earlier. She ran her hand along the bottom edge of the pane, even though it did little to help as she cast out the second side to her abilities. Her mind’s eye travelled ahead of her, seeking the familiar terrain of Pietro’s thoughts. To her frustration, all she found was the alarm and bewilderment of what few men remained in this hall when she hadn’t been able to reach them with her hex.

A flash of yellow in the corner of her eye caught her attention, urging her to pause. One of the rooms across from the lab had its own window engrained in the door. A square one like that which had been looking into the meeting room. Despite the lights being shot out by James, this room was emitting a strange, golden light. It was unnerving, but also exhilarating because like the van outside, Wanda knew it had something to do with her brother. She couldn’t fathom how, but she knew.

She went to the door, reaching for the knob on impulse. She should have figured it would be locked, but that didn’t stop her from wrestling with it for a few heartbeats. She wasn’t able to manage any straight thoughts at the moment, with her eagerness to reach Pietro so strong and the opportunity so close. She wanted to see him already, but the window was too tall for her. She hopped up a few times, able to catch fleeting glimpses of a sleek metal chamber, and some sort of glowing yellow jewel at its head, but no clear image of Pietro.

More shouting echoed from further down the hall. Wanda’s heart pounded, eyes going over her shoulders to check for any persons coming toward her. For now, the coast seemed clear, but that could change at any moment.

Despite an impending sense of urgency, she forced herself to calm. If she couldn’t get in, then she would help Pietro get out.

She freed a knot of scarlet energy into her palm, allowing it to grow for a few seconds before ramming it into the window above her head. The glass shattered as though struck by a rock, some of the jagged pieces scattering into her hair and the rest showering over the room on the other side. The leather bracer on her forearm was feeble protection against the few shards that remained of the window when she swung her arm through, resting against the ragged teeth as she stretched tendrils of scarlet out from her fingers. Her hand shook a little as she released her power, but she refused to believe that was from nerves over what she would find. She knew she would find Pietro. No matter what he thought of her now, she would not let terrorists keep their hands on him. She couldn’t.

The witch blinked when her vision doubled at first. She was pushing herself to stay connected to the sample of her magic that left her, pouring herself into it. Willing it to remain an extension of herself. She wriggled her fingers, urging the branch of energy to spread even further. Through it, she was able to grasp blindly around the room. She felt the hex twitch as it brushed various pens and journals and even a chair, feeling their weight as if they were physically in her hands, albeit, with a coarse barrier between them. It was like rifling blindly through a desk drawer with a thick woolen glove on. It wasn’t until she thought she felt the surface of thoughts did she allow herself to securely latch on to something, having immediately assumed it was Pietro.

Sister?

It wasn’t. A voice unlike any human she’d ever met echoed in her ears, and she knew she was the only one who was able to hear it. Something about it didn’t feel human at all. It was odd, and eerie, and come to think of it, didn’t sound like only one voice. It was like multiple figures were whispering to her, and what she had originally believed to be thoughts responded directly to her sudden presence among them.

And they rejected her. There was a sting, as if being pricked by a sharp needlepoint that shot through Wanda’s hex and back into her fingers. She winced at first, but then stubbornly pushed back. She recognized the strange energy now. It was the same that had at one point sought her out, infiltrating her very being, her very soul until it stirred awake the unnatural, reddish energy she was using now. She hadn’t known it was capable of this—of thoughts, of emotions, of everything a human mind had—but if it was powering whatever machine was keeping Pietro from her, all she cared about was shutting it down.

Wanda pushed even harder against the stone, using her scarlet to search for a weakness. An off-switch, in a sense. But she found nothing of the sort. As she dug deeper, it felt as though she were sinking further into a person’s mind, feeling its emotions. An emptiness, and longing that wasn’t at all strange to her.

Sisters...where are our sisters?

Her vision swam again, this time as she was pulled into memories that were not her own. The first one contained little more than swirling specks of silver, and pools of deep blues and purples, all against a blank backdrop of blackness. The vast abyss of space, it seemed. It certainly felt that way, as her breath was slowly pulled out of her. She didn’t even realize it until she gasped for air, only to catch nothing. It made her lungs feel heavier, making her struggle even more until her vision blurred into the next memory. She sank further and further back into the suffocating blackness of an empty void, falling further and further until she belatedly realized she was slipping away from the stone’s thoughts altogether.

Returning to reality felt like bursting through the surface of icy water. Wanda merely stood there at first, stunned as her mind readjusted to being on its own again, with her thoughts and her senses alone. Then panic stabbed her chest when she realized what had pulled her from the stone’s influence.

James had cried out. It had been a short, choked off sort of thing, as though he’d been hit with a particularly harsh blow and thought better than to distract her with evidence of it at the last minute. At least, she hoped his sudden silence was due to his own accord.

Whatever the circumstance, she had heard him, and it terrified her. If he’s hurt, I should be there for him. I have to help him!

But she hadn’t gotten Pietro yet. She couldn’t leave him. At least, not when she hadn’t confirmed to herself that it was him in there, and he had a way to get himself out.

Her heart twisted painfully as she resigned herself to simply having to hope James would be alright for the time being. She thrust her arm through the window in the door once more, sending a fresh wave of scarlet through. She rediscovered the stone in no time at all, and this time pushed through its thoughts with her guard up. No longer did she allow herself to become engrossed in its thoughts. This time, her hex managed to quite literally go through it, and she found the unfeeling machinery it was nestled in. With one twitch of her fingers, her scarlet solidified, making whatever parts of the machine it had touched suddenly burst into pieces. Even the stone it had travelled through cracked, and she could hear its thoughts explode with pain. A grinding, horrible agony that shot through her connection to her scarlet, making her recoil sharply from the door as what sounded like dozens of people screaming at once rang through her head.

Yet, amidst the pain from the stone and lingering fear over what was happening with James, Wanda’s heart soared with relief at hearing the distinct clatter of heavy machinery toppling over from the other side of the door. The room that had previously been painted with a deep, eerie yellow was now swallowed up by an angry red, shortly followed by the wailing of another alarm.

An entirely different kind of alarm resounded through Wanda as she heard shouting from the end of the hall she hadn’t reached yet.

Was jetzt?

Sieh was das war!

The scrape of boots was her only warning before two armed Hydra agents came rushing into view. They made a beeline towards her, and with her mind reeling with the combined dread for James and hope for Pietro, Wanda didn’t get a chance to properly think through her attack. She only pushed a wave of scarlet free, watching it hurtle towards both men without a care of what it did to their brains. It didn’t go through them, though. It slammed into their chests as a very physical force, throwing both back into the nearest wall. There was a loud thump of helmets hitting unyielding plaster, then both bodies slumped uselessly onto the floor.

Another thump, this one heavier than the two agents’ bodies combined, boomed from right in front of Wanda, effectively spooking her into stumbling a few steps away from the door. A reaction she promptly chided herself for in her mind. That was her brother. Pietro was in there, and he was working to free himself.

The thought crossed her mind that now was her moment to run and help James. But for whatever reason, her feet were frozen in place, her entire being tuned into the door before her. Waiting, and waiting, and waiting for her brother to burst through at any second.

Perhaps if she had gone, she wouldn’t have noticed that the door refused to budge against the next furious pound against it. She wouldn’t have realized it was too heavy, and Pietro would only hurt himself if he continued trying to ram it down this way.

But she did stay. Therefore, she risked more Hydra agents finding her, this time defenseless as she summoned more of her scarlet and channeled it elsewhere. She funneled her entire ability to focus on the massive wave of scarlet she sent toward the door, coating its entire frame with the rich red color of her powers. There was a slight crack and pop from the crimson energy as she pushed it as far as it could go through the solid material of the door, treating the smoke-like wisps as extensions of herself. As her stronger, ruthless fingers that seized the edges of the door with ease. Feeling her hex’s grip on the door secure, Wanda curled her fingers and pulled.

At first, she believed she would have better luck pulling a river from its course. Her scarlet’s grip wasn’t as solid as she had initially thought, and she could feel its hold over her target wavering. She added another coat from her second hand, her feet sliding forward when she began pulling anew before the new hex had fully latched on. In the heat of the moment, it was hard to decipher if the squeal of boots against the floor were her own or more approaching agents. She didn’t look away to check, somewhat afraid the slightest distraction would ruin her ability to wrench the door free. Distantly, she could hear more shouting (in multiple languages this time), but simply had to hope so much attention was being directed at James rather than her. She had to hope that she could complete her task here before they harmed him in any way.

She had to get the damn door down.

Pull, you useless waste of space! Do you want to lose them both?

The witch clenched her teeth, muscles pulled tight and shaking as she physically drew her arms back to help her scarlet tear the metal off its hinges, or eat away at its very composition, or something.

Eventually—and to her great satisfaction—there was a very audible groan as the relentless metal bent. Both of the upper corners of the door could be seen gradually twisting to point at her. Her elation at the sight fed into her powers, causing the energy to glow brighter. To grow stronger. That’s it! That’s it!

Her excitement was suddenly tempered by another blow against the opposite side of the door. With her scarlet completely wrapped around every side of the door, she felt the impact like a direct hit to her skull. She couldn’t help but cry out because of it, more so from surprise than pain. But she couldn’t dwell on it for long, as her scarlet visibly dimmed with threat of fizzling out altogether the moment she acknowledged she’d been hurt. In her panic to maintain its strength, she unleashed a fresh wave of energy and readjusted her grip on the door accordingly, giving no reminder to Pietro that while in this form, her scarlet was still connected to her.

Her hold wavered a bit in the brief moment she was overcome with fear that he didn’t remember. Perhaps didn’t remember her at all.

He does. Please, tell me he does.

Even if he didn’t, she wasn’t letting Hydra keep him. She cast her numerous fears aside, leaving room for only her determination and her focus on where to administer pressure. Too much could bring the entire wall caving in on itself. Too little would risk Pietro hurting himself trying to get it down alone. The witch desperately sought that paper-thin balance between restraint and raw power.

She twisted her hands, braced her legs, and gritted her teeth. And she fought for her twin. That’s my brother in there. Mine!

Metal bent. Her muscles shook with effort. Sparks of reddish energy popped. She held her breath. Her lips pulled back to expose the white of her teeth. She pulled, and pulled until thick metal began to feel lighter, like a thin bandage being peeled off skin.

Another powerful blow struck the other side of the door, sending pain down her connection to the scarlet working there. She cried out again, this time overcome with her own perseverance. With how powerful the entire ordeal made her feel.

There was a sharp snap, and the door went flying.

Wanda barely had time to duck out of the way as the monstrous slab of metal tumbled, clanking once against the floor and then going motionless upon slamming into the window to the laboratory behind her. Though as she curled out of the way, she didn’t miss the streak of silver tailing it. When she dared to get a proper look, her heart pounded in equal parts dread and excitement to see a familiar figure hunched over beside the crumpled remains of the door. She waited with baited breath as she watched him stand there, his body visibly trembling as he caught his breath.

He looked exactly how she remembered. Maybe thinner in some places, and his hair longer, but otherwise, there was no confusing him. It was a bit disturbing, seeing him in the same wear he had been killed in. The fabric was still riddled with bullet holes, the blood around each one having faded to a deep brown from age. Bathed in the overbearing red of the emergency lights from his room, he was like an image fresh from a horror film.

She immediately banished the thought from her mind. He was no monster. He was her brother. Her twin, her other half. She wasn’t afraid of him.

“Pietro?” she prompted, her voice irrationally soft amidst the wailing of alarms overhead.

He responded immediately, jerking a bit as his eyes searched for her. He found her over his shoulder, the same sky colored irises that had anchored her to this world countless times in the past now wide with incredulity. Whether that be from the realization that he was free, or that she was there, or that he was alive, she didn’t get a chance to find out. She didn’t even think of searching his thoughts, of reforming the intense mental bond they’d once shared. She couldn’t think of anything past, do you still trust me?

He turned to better face her, his movements agonizingly slow. He spoke just as softly as she had, eyes still rimmed with disbelief, but face crumpling with the utmost joy. “Sestra?

She could have died, she was so happy.

“Pietro,” she whispered. In a split of silver, he had her in his arms, and the sob that was building in her throat became muffled against his chest. She clung to him tightly, probably enough to hurt. She tangled her fingers into his hair, the pale waves just as soft and tangled as she remembered. His grasp on her was just as strong, the warmth and weight of his body against hers so perfectly, undoubtedly him that she uttered another heavy, grateful sob.

It was really him. She’d found him.

Her tears didn’t sit well with him. She had distanced herself from everything but him for a moment, but she was well aware of a hand cupping the side of her head. Desperate, reassuring kisses peppered the other side of her skull.

“Sokovia?” he said into her ear, his voice rough with disuse but thick with the unmistakable voice of their country. Of their family. “Did everyone—?”

Wanda only managed a nod, not wanting the memory of their country and how harshly it had rejected them both to ruin this moment. It seemed enough to appease him on the topic for the time being.

“Are you alright? Did anyone hurt you?” He pulled away to see for himself, keeping close enough for both hands to frame her face. The thick, unbidden tears streaming down her face were probably of little comfort to him, but she couldn’t help it. It was as if she had been freed of a great, heavy weight. The burden of grief and guilt for letting him go off on his own in Sokovia, of feeling his supposed death as it happened, were finally lifting from her shoulders. Filling the empty void that had built in her chest, leaving her whole once again.

However, some guilt did linger. The way he eyed her, she could tell he was appraising how different she seemed. In some ways she was, but only because she’d had to live without him. She had gone on with her life, growing as a person—as one of the Avengers—while he’d been stuck here, frozen in the moment of his alleged death. It had only been a few months, but given the closeness of their relationship before, it may as well have been an eternity.

“Wanda?” he pressed. “Did they—?”

“No. No, I’m alright.” She carded her fingers through his hair, holding him close as she surveyed him anew through watery eyes. “More than alright.”

His thumbs swept over her cheeks, rubbing them clean of fallen tears. There was something insistent to his actions, as if he was pondering whether to press her further or simply believe her.

“I just...I thought...” Her voice shook, even though she now knew there was no reason to get so emotional. She could see, and feel, and hear there was no loss to grieve anymore. “I thought you were dead.”

His eyes—as bright and blue as ever—filled with dismay. “I...no. I—I wouldn’t....”

She spared him of finding the words to finish the thought, pulling him into another tight embrace. She knew what he meant. 

I would never leave you. Not unless you asked me.

This time, when she threaded fingers through her twin’s hair, she shed a small part of herself for him to assimilate. Being in his mind again was likely the closest she would ever get to the feeling of returning to a childhood home. Familiar, but different with how they’d both changed in their absence from each other. Then that previous sense of completion became all-consuming as their timelines realigned, and the whirlwind of each twin’s thoughts slowed to find a perfect balance between their own and the other’s. With a thrum of contentment in the back of her mind that she did not bid herself, Wanda knew they were once again connected as they had once been. Then guilt echoed from its shadow, and she wasn’t entirely sure which of them it stemmed from.

“They told me you had disappeared,” Pietro told her. “That they would find you, so we could meet again.”

Her grip on him tightened, her stomach twisting at the sickening thought that Hydra had told him anything. No doubt attempting to manipulate him to be a weapon against her. “They lied. That’s all they do—they lie.”

Despite the situation, complete with alarms still wailing and the fight with James—James! Is he alright?—sounding as though it were drawing closer, Pietro laughed. He released her again, rubbing the patch on her shoulder where she knew an easily recognizable A was sewn in. “I realize that now.”

She sensed a twinge of confusion from his end of their bond. Likely his unspoken questions for exactly how much he’d missed, and if she honestly believed staying with the Avengers would be better than going off on their own. She rubbed his shoulder in silent assurance that she did, knowing with her slight nod that he would trust her judgement and follow her anywhere.

“We’re together now,” he said softly, as if to remind himself rather than her. “That’s all I need. Here, show me the way.”

Wanda’s elation to see him so willing to follow her the way he once had faltered when he reached for her, having seen in his mind intentions to carry her out of the base right then, while the base’s operators were audibly distracted. “No, no, no, wait, wait!”

She shied away from his attempt to lift her, taking his hands in hers to ensure he didn’t mistake it for an issue with him. “I...I had help finding you.” She was suddenly wary of their connection. There would be a time to tell Pietro the true extent of her relationship with James, and given how she predicted he would react, she knew this wasn’t that time. “He...he’s my friend. I can’t leave him.”

She sensed more than saw the conflict that coursed through him. The frustration, and worry for her, and uncertainty if whoever James was would be worth risking her life any more than they already had. His hands, still in her grasp, she squeezed intently, passing back to him the innate urge to defend James she had harbored before she even met him. The inexplicable pull to a kindred spirit.  

Pietro’s hands slipped from her hold, clenching into fists as he eyed the part of the hallway littered with men she’d already gone through. The clench of his jaw and one lingering jolt of distaste from his end of their bond were the only warnings she had before he tried lifting her again. This time, Wanda obediently tucked herself against him. Even if Pietro disliked the idea of sending her into a fight, his begrudging attitude rendered her confident that even if he sent her away, he would come back to do something to help whoever had helped her find this place.

She had been right before. The Captain’s motorcycle was nothing compared to her brother’s speed. It was almost overwhelming to travel with him, but her body had long ago learned to adapt to it, so in short order, it became invigorating more than anything. The haunting walls and rooms designed for projects of evil become mere blurs beside her, unable to touch her. Then, in seemingly no time at all, she was stumbling to find her footing just a few feet shy of a large crowd of agents of such evil.

For a moment, it almost felt like nothing had changed since the last time she and Pietro had been together. As soon as she found her stance, Pietro was racing off again, leaving just a split of silver in his wake. At least a dozen soldiers toppled over from the force of the speed he’d gathered in literally no time at all. Wanda didn’t even think of where Pietro was going. She moved without thinking altogether, unleashing a wave of scarlet on the half of the crowd that hadn’t been caught in the wind of Pietro’s speed. Picking up where he’d left off, just like she had done several times during the Battle of Sokovia. Though this time there was a stark difference in the form of human grunts and audibly breaking bones when her victims collided with the wall, as opposed to the inhuman screeching she would hear whenever she tore apart Ultron’s metal bodies.

Any trace of sympathy she may have mustered for the victims of her hex were promptly and wholly gone when her and her brother’s efforts revealed such a large gathering of agents had formed to trap James in a corner for an immensely unfair fight. Although, she and Pietro seemed to be just the distraction he needed, for the three agents that remained standing around him busied themselves with scrambling away from her. James recovered from the surprise of her arrival in mere seconds, pushing off the wall he had been pressed against and slamming his metal fist through the visor of the agent closest to him. He then gripped his stunned victim by their belt and collar, tossing them at their two companions. Helmets banged together, one’s visor cracked, and they all went motionless on the floor.

With all immediate threats momentarily subdued, Wanda thought it safe to steal a moment to check on James. He was pressing a hand to his side gingerly, was missing his gun, and bore a short trail of scrapes along his left brow. Otherwise, he seemed alright. Though she still had to be sure. “Are you OK?”

As she spoke, so did he. “Did you find him?”

At his question, Wanda nodded, unable to suppress a smile amidst her excitement. Her feet brought her closer to James’s side on their own accord, as if magnetically pulled to his contrasting stress and worry. She could feel it over him like a bothersome coat. She grabbed his shoulder, then snaked her hand into his hair. She ran her fingers through the long strands in a rushed attempt to replicate how she usually soothed him when they were alone at the inn. It was a tedious effort to deflect the negative emotions she absorbed from him while also pushing down her own feelings at the sight of him, all so Pietro wouldn’t get bleed-through from either.

And Lord, it had never been so hard to stifle how she felt. How grateful she was to James for finding her brother for her. How relieved she was to have them back within her reach. Both of them, these two men who loved her. Who deserved to know she loved them, if only she could catch a calm moment with either of them. Between her anticipation for this mission and pleasant shock James had forgiven her for snapping at him, she felt like she’d barely had a moment to catch her breath until now.

“James—” she began, her remaining words caught at a crossroads between asking again if he was alright and blurting out how much she adored him for bringing her here. How much she loved him.

Yet, her voice went nowhere. The silence only seemed to add to James’s growing agitation with the situation, which was the absolute opposite of what she’d been hoping to accomplish. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

When she felt his metal hand cup her elbow, but didn’t see it, she knew she wasn’t simply at a loss for words. Her bond to Pietro was pulsing with urgency, making her brain throb. A warning, maybe. She saw double vision again, and this time, she willingly slipped into another’s eyes. It was dizzying at first, having to adjust to the double vision while the world blurred past Pietro as he ran. Her twin skidded to halt, likely for her sake. He lingered in place just long enough for her to see what he wanted her to see. Hydra’s agents were too stunned by his appearance to react at first, giving him the precious few seconds he needed to turn and race back towards her.

“Wanda,” James pressed, pulling her focus back to him.

“More are coming,” she told him. She had to shake her head a little to clear her vision of Pietro’s, which she could feel repeatedly brushing at the edge of her consciousness. “They went to arm themselves.”

James suddenly burst into action, adding to the overstimulation that nearly disorientated her in the next few seconds. His right arm slid around her waist, shoving her behind him as a line of bullets shot towards them, clattering against James’s metal arm instead of her back. Wanda was bombarded with the frustration and even fear of at least a dozen agents as they continued to shoot at him, none of their bullets doing anything to hinder the Winter Soldier. She would have helped him shield himself had she not been caught in the midst of a panic upon finding another line of agents on her end of the corner. A flare of scarlet fled her palm through protective instinct alone. She consciously shed another coat from her free hand, holding it up to form a full psionic shield in front of herself. The sheet of bullets that struck her wispy, red wall felt like dozens of pinpricks through her connection to her powers, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle.

Her hex held strong, and she felt confident enough with it to let her mind wander off to call for Pietro. Where are you?

I’m coming. Which one is yours?

Metal arm. Right behind me.

Wanda caught a glimpse of Hydra agents stumbling as they were caught in the winds of pure speed. Then a split of silver ricocheted off the narrow space between her shield and the wall, and with that, Pietro was physically beside her. A submachine gun that mirrored the ones every Hydra agent around them was using hung carefully from one of his hands, his other palm clapping on James’s back. “Can you use this?”

James gave a wordless answer, but Wanda could clearly hear the dull clang of metal meeting metal as he took the weapon. It was followed by the telltale whoosh of Pietro taking off at top speed again. It took Wanda a split second to realize he’d gone down James’s hall this time, and even less time for her to react. James was surprisingly compliant as she abruptly grabbed the bend of his flesh arm and whirled him around to face her side of the corner. She took his place on the other end, this time sending out bolts of scarlet ahead of her. One by one, she plucked guns from the hands of agents that attempted to find good aim on either her or the flash of silver that flew through their group. Adrenaline from moving at Pietro’s speed surged through his end of their bond, probably giving her an advantage at moving so quickly herself.

No one was going to shoot at her brother again.

At her back, James was giving no one an opening to shoot at her either. His weapon was firing like mad, but she knew if she actually looked, she would undoubtedly see each shot was taken with the deadly precision the Winter Soldier was known for. Though she didn’t dare tear her focus from keeping her half of the agents off of Pietro. She did pull some of the weapons she stole off their bodies to James’s side for when his ran out of ammunition, and that seemed to work well enough for both of them at the moment.

Once the witch ran out of weapons, she began stripping the agents of various pieces of their armor. Her scarlet fingers wrapped around helmets, and shields, and padding, tugging each one from its owner to be sent flying further down the hall. She received some help from Pietro as he weaved in and out of the crowd, adding to their confusion. It was refreshing, being able to work with her twin again. There was no intensity like that of the Battle of Sokovia, but rather a not unfamiliar thrill of one of their more minor stunts, before meeting the Avengers or Ultron. Like another one of their petty thefts, although she was reluctant to call it that. They weren’t stealing something at random. She was reclaiming what belonged to her.

When seemingly all of their agents were left disoriented, Pietro sped past her to do the same in the second hall. Wanda was more amazed than she probably should have been at how fast James figured out what the dash of silver moving in front of him meant. He twisted around at the same time she did, their trade in positions so swift and fluid, it was hard to believe they hadn’t planned it. There was only a fleeting moment as both the witch and the soldier processed each other’s handiwork before they resumed action, Wanda stealing weapons and James firing from the guns she supplied him. It didn’t go unnoticed by her that James hadn’t killed any of the men that had gathered before him. They were down with bullet wounds and grazes, yes, but nothing looked fatal. An occurrence, she knew, had happened deliberately.

James was proving he wasn’t the unfeeling killer they once wanted. And she couldn’t be prouder. She was proud to work alongside both of them. The three of them found a nearly effortless rhythm, with Pietro causing distractions, her disorienting and stripping away the protective measures, and James wounding to fully incapacitate. The assets Hydra was proudest of, tearing it apart from the inside out. Quelling its ability to inflict further ill-will on the world.

In the witch’s mind, it was empowering. In the heat of the moment, she allowed herself to think she could do more of this. Maybe bring Steve and the others next time. Be an actual Avenger, out here in the field and actually be good at it.

Double vision promptly crushed her enthusiasm. Wanda briefly envisioned blank nothingness before sending a wave of scarlet through her fingers, effectively forcing the agents before her to see the same. The already wounded men completely collapsed in defeat, while those left stumbled blindly, tripping over them. Seeing they were disarmed, Wanda allowed her vision to slip into Pietro’s.

He’d found a fresh wave of agents—they were like ants, multiplying out of nowhere—scrambling to gather new weapons. Wanda suspected they would go for something bigger, something stronger, even before she saw what had sent dread through Pietro and into her. Her tutoring from Sam and Natasha allowed her to more accurately recognize the device as an RPG launcher.

Sestra!

I see it. Get behind me!

She pulled herself from Pietro’s mind, hoping against hope her power would be enough to stop it. She’d never attempted to contain a full explosion before, but for James and Pietro’s sakes, she would have to try now.

The next few seconds happened in a blur. Quite literally, at first, as Pietro ran past her again. There was a less than dignified sound from James as her twin abruptly seized a fistful of his collar, using the momentum from running to pull the heavy super-soldier closer to Wanda. Just then, the new set of agents fired a rocket straight for them. Wanda’s hands shot out on sheer defensive instinct, a wall of psionic energy forming from them without much thought. The shield appeared in the nick of time, for she could see the head of the miniature rocket jutting from the center of it in the short seconds before the missile burst. The force of the blast made her rock back, tempering her blood with the icy chill of fear that she would fall over.

A fresh coat of scarlet coursed through the witch’s wrists, straining to push the explosion back when the first layer was also sending heat and nearly unbearable pressure to the far ends of her skull. She gritted her teeth, body beginning to shake with how much she was forcing herself to weather in order to keep the blast restrained. It was no comfort to hear the frantic scrambling that was obviously the Hydra agents’ efforts to load another rocket.

Right when she was beginning to think it was too much for her to handle, that her resolve and shield would break, Pietro stretched his arm beside hers. He blanketed her hand with his palm, helping her push against her shield. Admittedly, it did seem to ward off some the strain on her body, albeit on only the one side. When that misbalance became a clear threat to her stance, she felt another hand gently press against the small of her back, silently urging her to keep steady. It remained there for only a brief moment before being replaced by a familiar metal touch as James adjusted to use his flesh hand blanket her other arm. His enhanced strength, coupled with her and Pietro’s own, was even greater aid in keeping the shield up. Hell, it allowed to confidently keep the potential explosion at arms’ length. With James and Pietro helping her keep the blast in place, Wanda twisted her wrists so that another layer of scarlet energy could completely encase the rocket’s discharge.

There was no time to indulge in the triumphant feel of managing to get a full-fledged explosion under her control. She knew she couldn’t hold it there forever. Especially if the agents before her were going to fire another missile.

Thinking quickly, she barked a command at the men supporting either side of her. “Poluchat’ nazad!

Giving no other warning, the witch wrenched herself from their grasp and twisted sharply, throwing her cocoon of sizzling energy over their heads. Safely in the air, she allowed the discharge to finally blow, sending debris gushing through the roof. Despite having some help holding it up, relief washed over her to be free of what had felt like a physical burden on her shoulders.

That lasted for all of a single heartbeat. Then she was arching her back to use her scarlet again, this time to catch a massive slab of the ceiling that caved in from the pressure of the explosion. When it broke off from the building roof altogether, she held it a good foot from her head to serve as a shield from the shower of more debris. James pressed to her side, his flesh hand keeping her securely close with a grasp on her shoulder. At first, she thought it was his way of assuring he was there, under her shield. But she soon heard the clang of bullets clanging off his metal arm again. She probably shouldn’t have been surprised that even when part of the ceiling was collapsing, someone would still try shooting at them.

Pietro! Her alarm to realize her twin had disappeared pierced through her so sharply, she was certain he could feel it. Where are you?

Getting rid of the launcher.

Her anxiety hid inside aggravation. If you get shot again, I swear, this time I will finish you off myself!

He had the nerve to be amused by that, the bastard. You don’t mean that.

A begrudging growl escaped her. No, she didn’t.

But again, she couldn’t deny how enjoyable it was to have him back. All her previous worries that he’d been changed by whatever Hydra did to him while he was left on his own with them felt like distant memories, which had already grown farcical with age.

Her concern for James, on the other hand, persisted. She could feel the incessant buzzing at the surface of his mind as his thoughts turned wildly. She figured it safe to presume they hadn’t stopped this entire time. Whether he was in constant battle with control over the Soldier’s mindset, or merely jittery from having to face his tormentors (or at least, their allies), she desperately wanted to know.

Yet, she never found a good chance to properly check on him. She was now faced with finding somewhere to put the enormous slab of plaster hovering a precarious few inches from their heads. Her first instinct had been to toss it aside, where it would hopefully be thick enough to block them from the remaining agents’ fire. But of course, there was the matter that Pietro had likely disappeared somewhere in that direction, and she couldn’t risk trapping him on the other side.

Brother… She had to pause her own thoughts to keep hold the slab up, pouring every ounce of will into unleashing enough scarlet to support the weight that was much worse than the explosion. She hadn’t done herself any favors by catching it while at such a strenuous angle, either. Get back here, now.

She could feel the back of her neck prickle with Pietro’s dread as he received her combined sense of urgency and stress. She remained there, struggling with the ceiling’s weight and fear of crushing both herself and James, for only a few more heartbeats (although to her, each one felt like an agonizing eternity). The instant she heard a familiar whoosh of air pass behind her, she thrust herself upright, tossing the cumbersome burden ahead of her. Boots squealed madly as the agents scrambled to get themselves and their fallen comrades out of the ceiling’s path. And then all sound became muted in the wake of the slab’s thunderous crash onto the floor. Just as Wanda had hoped for, there was enough rubble to completely block both sides’ view of the other.

For a moment, everything was finally still. There were muffled shouts from the men on the other side of the rubble, but otherwise, there were no more signs of danger from the agents of Hydra. Wanda’s relief grew stronger than ever as the quiet moment offered her a much needed opportunity to catch her breath. She sagged forward, bracing her hands against her thighs as she panted. She hadn’t pushed herself this much since she’d first gained her powers. Her muscles were shaking with promise to be sore later, when the adrenaline wore off.

Koldun’ya?” came James’s voice in her ear.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she assured, gently waving away the hand still on her shoulder before her brother could see. “Just...just need a breather.”

James nodded, stepping back to give her space for just that. Pietro promptly took his place, his touch more insistent as his fingertips pressed against her back, then went to her jaw until she looked up at him. He didn’t outwardly ask if she was alright, but she could feel the sharp tug of concern from his end of their bond. She wordlessly cast her mixed exhaustion and satisfaction back to him, which succeeded to put him at ease.

“They’re not going to stop,” James announced, his icy eyes trained on the pile of rubble cutting them off from the rest of the base. “If they know what they’re doing, they’ll gather supplies and find a way through this. Or around it.”

“Let them waste their time,” Wanda said confidently, taking her twin's hand in one of hers. “We have what we came for.”

James didn’t answer to that. In fact, he looked almost as though he wanted to argue. What else could he possibly need?

“How did you plan on getting away from here?” Pietro demanded, his mind suddenly swimming with suspicion as he appraised James. Wanda didn’t think his distrust was rooted in the soldier as a person, but rather in his ability to protect her in her twin’s stead.

If James at all picked up on Pietro’s wariness of him, he didn’t let it faze him. He finally turned back to face the twins, all emotion momentarily absent from his voice as he spoke. “We left a bike in the woods just beyond that hallway, there. If we—”

Wanda didn’t catch the rest. Her legs were swept out from under her, and the world was reduced to a mere blur rushing past her once again, all before she could really process it was happening.

When the world ground to a halt, she immediately spotted Steve’s motorcycle standing only a few feet away from her, looking just as she and James had left it. She stumbled a bit with how hastily Pietro set her down, catching herself on the handlebars of the bike. Once she’d properly orientated herself, she twisted around to face her brother. “What about—?”

He was already running back.

Wanda took an unconscious step after him, unable to keep from worrying something would happen to her boys if they left her sight for even a second. Which, of course, was just absurd. Pietro’s speed didn’t disappoint, and before she knew it, a split of silver in the air was signaling her brother’s return.

The witch caught a glimpse of Pietro holding the Winter Soldier by his collar, and then he was practically throwing James at her feet. Wanda’s first instinct was to duck down to James’s level, even though her peripheral spotted Pietro staggering oddly out of view. “James!” she squeaked.

The Soldier took her hands when she offered them to him, letting her help haul him to his feet. His previously unfeeling visage was now broken up by shock and traces of dizziness. “I didn’t expect that,” he mumbled, swaying on his feet a bit.

Wanda could only offer him a sympathetic smile. Despite being connected to Pietro’s mind ever since they’d gotten their powers, even she had thought his speed needed some getting used to the first time he used it to carry her somewhere. But the disorientation passed eventually.

At James’s insistence, she left him to get his bearings on his own, turning around to check on Pietro next. He was leaning heavily on a thick tree trunk, panting loudly for breath. “Pietro?” she pressed gently, setting a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m alright,” he weakly waved her touch away. “I’m...just a little out of shape.”

He was. Out here, in the open and in sunlight, she had a better view as to how much of his body had atrophied from being confined to that metal pod for however long. It had left him thinner and weaker than she’d seen him in a long time, which was an upsetting sight, to say the least. Both because she loved her brother, always wanting to see him healthy and happy, and also because it was usually her responsibility to ensure he didn’t push himself too hard. That had been the original purpose behind their constant mental connection, after all. If only she’d found him sooner.

James softly calling her back was the only thing that could’ve pulled her from her brother’s side, and even then, she was hesitant to go. She let James tug her as close as he wanted by the crook of her elbow, but her eyes stayed fixed on her brother. It wasn’t until she heard the urgent apprehension in James’s tone did she give him her undivided attention. “Wanda...you two should take the bike.”

The witch stiffened. When she had told James about Pietro’s speed, and of her faith in his ability to keep up with the motorcycle, they had agreed it would be best if she and James rode the bike back to the Avengers’ Facility while Pietro ran alongside them. It was safest that way, seeing as the bike could only fit so many people at a time. For James to suggest her and Pietro take the bike on their own now....

“And what about you?” she demanded, voice hard with suspicion as to what his answer would be.

James’s shoulders sagged as if in defeat. Apparently, he could tell she had already caught on to his train of thought, for he skipped over giving a direct response in order to justify himself. “If he’s not feeling well enough to run—and you remember the way back to the compound—”

“We’re not having this conversation again,” Wanda insisted. “I’m not here to negotiate. I’m taking you both home.”

The soldier avoided her gaze, choosing instead to study his flesh fingers as they laced against hers. The gesture was small, probably to have some discretion in front of her brother, but with the plates in his other hand audibly shifting in what she had come to associate with agitation in him, she wasn’t the least bit comforted. “Koldun’ya, you know how ruthless they are.”

She shivered when she recognized her own words thrown back at her.

“If I stay behind, I can keep them distracted for a few hours. Give you two a chance to reach Steve’s team without them right on your tail.”

“And if something happens to you before we make our way back?” the witch returned.

Now he met her eye, his own hard and steady. “Getting you two out was always more important.”

Like hell! She seethed with frustration, with the utmost pique. Had he intended to stay behind this whole time? Did he have so little trust in the combined abilities of all three of them?

She wasn’t willing to stand for his hopelessness. She had faith she could still get out of this, and she wasn’t going to let it cost her either of them.

The witch yanked her hand free of James’s touch. “Pietro,” she barked, never once breaking her gaze with the soldier. Silently imploring him to see her confidence in their combined abilities, and share some of it with her.

There was a rush of air, and her brother was at her side in a literal heartbeat. “Yeah?”

She broke her gaze with James to glance over her shoulder at Pietro, subtly encouraging him to be honest even though he was surely receiving every bit of her ire. “Can you keep up with the bike for another few miles?”

Her brother snorted, a strong sense of self-assurance welling up from his end of their bond. “Do you think it can keep up with me?”

“Don’t be funny,” Wanda said sharply.

Pietro obediently dropped his flippant mood, although Wanda didn’t miss the smugness that lingered at the corner of his mind. “I mean it. I only needed a breather. I can keep going.”

Wanda’s eyes fell back to James. She was half-tempted to challenge him to argue with her further, but knew better when they were so pressed for time. Truth be told, he was right about this much: Hydra was ruthless, and likely prepared to chase after them at any moment.

“Start it up,” she told James, nodding towards the bike. “You’re driving.”

As soon as she dropped the order, she heard an engine hum to life. But it wasn’t Steve’s bike. It was something further away, bigger and faultier than Captain America’s ornate bike. She couldn’t actually see what it was from their vantage point, but the implications of someone else starting up a larger vehicle near them were undeniable. They had less time to escape potential pursuers than she’d thought.

Pietro reacted first. “I can distract them. You take a head start.”

And with that, he disappeared into a streak of silver, heading back towards the base. Wanda should have expected it of him. But she couldn’t stop herself, couldn’t stop the pathetic attempt to reach for him. Couldn’t stop the belated “no!” that escaped her as her twin left her side. Couldn’t stop her emotions from welling up, most notably distrust in fate to keep Pietro safe without her there to be of aid at a moment’s notice.

James stopped her, though. His metal fingers curled around the bend of her arm just as her scarlet began to glow with promise to launch her after her brother. “Wanda,” the soldier urged, completely unafraid of the reddish wisps that wound around his arm. “He’s giving us a head start. We have to go.”

Wanda ignored him, sinking into the depths of her mind to find the bond she had formed with her twin. It wasn’t long before a phantom ache struck her side—something or someone had managed to hit him—that made her gasp, putting her and James both further on edge.

Pietro seemed to sense her presence in his mind, for he promptly cast a thought out towards her. I’m fine. Go! I’ll catch up!

Wanda didn’t move. The hum of engines rose again, indicating there would soon be more than one to worry about. Her head throbbed, struggling to discern what she was actually hearing and what she was receiving from Pietro. In that vulnerable state, her scarlet absorbed some of James’s emotions as well. His growing impatience. His panic as he heard the same trucks she did growing nearer. Yet none of that showed when he spoke to her. “Come on, doll.”

Get it together! the witch chastised herself. Nothing had happened yet. Dwelling on what could happen was of no help to any of them.

She snapped out of her own mind, turning back to James as he began pulling her closer to the bike. After mumbling one last curse at her brother for being so brash, she obediently mounted the stolen machine. James climbed on in front of her, starting up the bike and taking off the moment he felt her hold around his waist.

Having travelled with both in such a short span of a time, Wanda realized she had been right to think the bike’s speed paled in comparison to Pietro’s. Her stomach didn’t even lurch when the bike first jolted forward this time, or when it bobbed slightly as its tires reacted to the coarse forest floor, sending a spray of dry soil behind them. The only time she did feel her belly twist uncomfortably was when James unexpectedly veered to the side, which he did several times. It wasn’t until she noticed the tracks the bike tires left in the earth behind them did she realize why.

He was confusing their trail. Preventing their pursuers from having a straight path back to the compound.

Wanda clung tighter to the Soldier, unable to remember a time she had been happier with his mind, made to be so incessantly diligent. So naturally smart, as well as mindful of Steve (and the team’s) safety—

What are you gushing over?

Nothing! Wanda instantly pushed her brother’s thoughts from her mind, sending her own back to him. Just keep moving.

The part of his mind she still allowed into hers fed her increasing weariness into her bones as he did just that. She took as much of it as she could for herself, but there was only so much she could actually take from his physical form. Especially when he kept weaving in and out reach to add to the confusion of the drivers behind them.

However, just like James, he showed none of what he was truly feeling. At one point, Wanda could see her brother moving beside their bike, likely holding back his speed so he could travel directly beside her. So she could notice his expression, the willingness to keep going. Eagerness even, to prove himself to her. Prove he was still her brave, bold, powerful twin.

The anxiety she harbored when he’d left her side was completely gone by now. Her confidence in all three of them reappeared in its place. Pietro seemed to sense it, for he slowed his pace to turn and run back shortly after. The phantom ache in her bones as he pushed himself was quickly overpowered by the fervor of his mind, all of it bleeding into her. She projected her own excitement to have him back, to finally take him (and James) both home with her back to him. The amount of zeal flowing between the both of them amplified how much each one felt, leaving Wanda practically drunk from the exhilaration. From the triumph over her former tormentors, literally left in their dust.

And then it all ground to a sobering halt.

The witch couldn’t stop her startled gasp when James swerved the bike sharper than ever, pulling it to a stop so sudden it nearly tipped over. His flesh arm darting out to catch her was quite possibly the only thing that saved her from falling. All of her previously dismissed dread came flooding back when she looked up to find what had caused him to stop so abruptly.

Iron Man was just a few meters in front of them, still kneeling from his own suddenness in landing. When he stood up, the twin missile devices on each of his shoulders rose as well, pointed directly at the runaway pair. As if that wasn’t ominous enough, he outstretched a hand, the repulsor at its palm glowing with power.

Wanda’s fear became paralyzing. Deep down, she knew Stark wouldn’t actually hurt her. But something about being directly faced with Stark-issued weapons again...it was like sitting in one of her nightmares.

“Do I even want to know what that explosion was from?” Stark asked coldly, the Iron Man helmet giving his voice a metallic echo.

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

Pietro felt her terror, of course. His thoughts reverberated in her mind. Sestra! What’s wrong?

James’s arm hadn’t moved from its place around her when he’d saved her from falling off the bike. Whether he knew it or not, his touch was the only thing still grounding her back to reality. He could probably feel her panic from how fiercely she clung to his sleeve, and pressed her further behind him as a result. He even stood directly between her and the suit of metal when they both realized she couldn’t really go anywhere while frozen in place, straddling the bike. She tried pulling him back to her side when it occurred to her that Stark would be willing to shoot at him.

Just get here, she sent Pietro after accepting she wasn’t going to find her voice anytime soon, let alone the words to explain where she and James had been.

Her frenzied heartbeat only intensified when a topless vehicle appeared into view, speeding towards them from behind Iron Man. It skidded to a rough halt, granting full view of Steve, Natasha, and Clint as they clambered out. Three fully suited, well-armed, and furious Avengers.

Wanda pulled insistently on James’s sleeve, now fearing what they would do to him more than her memories of Stark’s weapons. But James didn’t budge, standing solid as a wall between her and the team. Shielding her from their wrath.

The scariest part was hearing Steve lash out first, albeit sounding disappointed above anything else. “You unthinking son of a bitch.”

There was no other warning before James’s protective stance in front of her wavered, literally struck down by Clint’s fist against his jaw. With her mind still reeling from everything, Wanda could only manage a half-choked sound of protest.

“What was your plan, Terminator?” Clint demanded. Iron Man stomped closer, as if to add emphasis to the archer’s subsequent tirade. The closer that menacing mask (the same one that had haunted her since first seeing it on the news years ago) loomed over her, the further Wanda’s heart crawled into her throat.

Pietro’s distress over not knowing what had shaken her so much only added to her agitated state. Wanda, what’s happening? Show me!

Just get here! She wasn’t about to take her attention away from James. Not when each of the Avengers—even Steve—looked ready to strangle him. She could feel the phantom ache in her bones as he pushed his body to move faster than ever before, even for him. For once she didn’t caution him to not push himself so hard. A decision she soon came to regret as he strained his body to its very limits, the effect so strong she could feel breath in her own lungs leaving her. Or maybe that was still her own mind’s doing, from the stress of figuring out how to make the Avengers see reason when all she could presently feel was their collective frustration and outrage, swirling around her in a storm only she could feel. 

The only member of the team that had been missing, Sam, flew into sight then. He bore the metal, bird-like wings she had only seen in brief glimpses during training sessions. He came to a neat landing a ways behind the others, unnoticed by anyone but her. That is, until he was promptly sent flying back with a startled grunt, his metal wings clashing harshly with the hood of the vehicle the others had driven there. His assailant skidded clumsily to a stop on the other end of the car, clawing at its side for something to grip onto and hopefully slow himself better.

“Pietro!” Wanda yelped. Steve’s motorcycle fell over with a noisy clatter as she abandoned it, hurrying past the team to check on her twin.

“What?” both Clint and Steve exclaimed, their faces a reflection of what Wanda could feel at the surface of the entire team’s minds. All previous anger was gone like it had never been there at all, swallowed up by complete and utter shock. Their attention left James, every eye on her and her brother.

Wanda had only taken three steps in her brother’s direction when Pietro held up a hand to stop her. “It’s fine, I’m fine,” he assured, his stride weary as he went to meet her in the center of the semi-circle the Avengers had formed. “Didn’t see him coming.”

He didn’t even acknowledge the others as he passed them. Had Wanda not been so intent on double-checking his exhausted condition, she probably would’ve considered the team’s gawking expressions comical. Natasha and Clint, in particular, being too stunned to move or speak was a sight to behold, considering the former assassins both prided themselves on maintaining a cold, mysterious front so often.

“No,” the archer eventually blurted. “We didn’t.”

While Wanda inspected her brother, James ventured back to her side, also ignoring the team around them. “Did you manage to get rid of any of them?”

Pietro’s answer was automatic. “I disabled two trucks before they could take off. Led a few others off course, but it’s possible they’ll be able to find their way back.”

“How many were there?” James asked.

“I counted five.”

“What were they armed with?”

“I’m sorry!” Stark cried out suddenly. The loudness of his voice and its metallic tint from being inside the Iron Man’s helmet made Wanda instinctively flinch, even though the suit had disabled all visible weapons for the moment. “But what the actual fuck is this?”

Wanda had felt a surge of annoyance rise in her brother when the inventor startled her. That ire was palpable when he turned to face the team, gesturing dismissively at the Captain. “What? He said to walk it off.”

Iron Man’s perpetual scowl turned its glare to Steve. The Captain immediately floundered to deflect any connection to the situation that had clearly caught him off-guard as well. “I—I didn’t think—it wasn’t exactly a—”

“Was he the asset they were bringing in?” Natasha demanded sharply, her unblinking gaze solely on James. “How did you know?”

Just like Steve, Barnes seemed at a loss to explain himself. “I...I just...she—he’s her brother,” he answered lamely.

“No shit!” Clint snapped.

“Hold up,” Sam—who Wanda only now remembered hadn’t met Pietro before—spoke up from behind Natasha. “Her brother? As in the one who died?”

Wanda felt her brother’s indignation build at his end of their bond. At this close proximity, she could feel everyone’s heightening emotions. They overlapped with each other’s, creating a swarm in her mind that encompassed her own thoughts until she couldn’t process anything for herself. No one seemed to notice, for they were too absorbed with trying to make sense of everything. Questions, and accusations, and expletives flew over her head with an intensity that left chills through her blood. It was so much.

It was...too much. Too many thoughts and emotions to simply be the group around her.

Wanda turned to face the path Pietro had just come from, her every nerve on end. Her suspicions were immediately validated, for her eyes landed on a pair of narrow white bulbs hastily navigating through the tangle of trees behind her, reminiscent of a clumsy metal animal encircling potential prey. Then in an instant, it was whirling around in a complete arc. The witch reacted not a second after catching an image of the van’s rear doors flapping open, a weapon already poised to be hurled at her distracted team.

The Maximoff sister launched herself into the space between the van and her teammates, stopping only when the grenade was sent flying straight for her. She caught it easily with a net of psionic energy, crossing her wrists over her face to hold it overhead as it detonated. This time, she wasted no time trying to keep the explosion contained, and flung it further into the air right away. She felt more than saw the resulting shower of debris and embers, for she was preoccupied with forming a scarlet shield to fend off the gunfire she knew would come shortly after.

As focused as she was on making the shield large enough to cover everyone behind her, she couldn’t stop herself from looking up in curiosity when a heavy footfall sounded directly beside her, a metallic whir accompanying each step. She found Iron Man striding confidently away from her shield’s protection, bullets bouncing harmlessly off the suit’s titanium skin.

“I suppose that’s the answer to my first question,” Stark stated nonchalantly. He raised his arm once more, now with his hand clenched in a fist. A pocket rose from his wrist, sending something small and fast hurtling towards the bottom of the van. Within a few short seconds, that detonated as well, propelling the windowless vehicle upward. The blast wasn’t strong enough to send it completely onto its back, but it was enough to severely jostle everyone inside. Their reign of bullets ceased, allowing Wanda to let down her shield with a grateful sigh.

Pietro was at her side in a heartbeat, asking if she needed another breather. She only shook her head, forcing herself to recoup quickly so she could keep an eye on the stunned group of men ahead of them. If Pietro was to be believed, even more of them were on their way.

She felt her brother thread his fingers through hers, his stance protective as James and the rest of the team came to stand on either side of her. For the moment, all confusion seemed to have disappeared, and only dutiful resolution showed. Steve was closest to the side of Wanda not taken up by her brother, pulling his signature shield from his back to sit on his arm.

“What do they want?” he questioned, eyes also trained on their adversaries.

“Someone they can’t have,” Pietro answered in his sister’s stead, squeezing her hand to a near painful degree.

The Captain looked to Natasha on the other side of him, eyebrows raised in silent inquiry for her thoughts. His partner only quirked her mouth in an aborted, tired smile. “Well,” she huffed, clicking something on her palm that made the gauntlets around her wrists glow. “At least I can enjoy this.”

As if on cue, a stunned Hydra agent tumbled out of the damaged van. Just when he’d gained his footing, a neon blue capsule shot from Natasha’s wrist, striking his chest and charring the bullet-proof vest he wore. Likely burning skin as well. Just as he collapsed, the projectile burst into several smaller capsules, each one launching further ahead, and landing inside the van to electrocute at least four more people.

With that serving as a sufficient distraction for another few seconds, Steve hurriedly asked, “How many more did you say there were?”

“Four that managed to take off,” Pietro answered.

Wanda could hear the surface of Steve’s mind clicking at a steady pace. While he was obviously calculating the best course of action, the driver to the damaged van ahead of them stumbled out, screaming vehemently at his passengers. Before the others had a chance to react, Wanda thrust a knot of crimson energy towards his head, willing him to become overcome with drowsiness. He promptly fell to his knees.

“OK,” the Captain began, his voice fast and crisp. “Our biggest goal is to keep them from finding the compound, and apprehending as many as we can. Tony, can you cover that side?”

“Doin’ it.” Iron Man had already raised his arm, the same projectile device he’d used before moving slightly in tune with whatever the suit was scanning for.

Steve left him to it. “Sam, you think you can see if any are coming from the other side?”

Sam only nodded, unfolding the metal wings embedded in his pack and pushing himself up right then and there.

“The rest of you, don’t let any of them get past this point,” Steve continued. “If they follow our fox’s tracks, they’ll find our facility. We can’t let that happen.”

“I’ll hang back,” Clint put in, turning to head back towards the team’s car. “Take care of any stragglers.”

“Fine.” Steve gave a curt dip of his head to indicate approval. Then his eyes fell onto the three runaways beside him that had started this. Wanda’s heart pounded faster under his gaze, half-expecting him to order her, Pietro, and James to go home. As proud as she had been with their progress before the team showed up, there was no denying that as far as the team was concerned, they weren’t entirely field-ready. They weren’t even official members. How could she assume Steve trusted them to fight with the rest of the team?

But he did trust them, and that was all that mattered. “You three, can you cover me and Nat?”

Pietro’s answer was immediate, directed towards his sister more than anyone else. “Idem gde idete.”

“So, listen to him,” Wanda urged, keeping her voice low even though the enhanced soldiers on either side of them could likely hear them anyways. For the utmost privacy—for his sake—she kept her next request between them mentally. If you need another break, keep behind the truck with Barton.

As Pietro huffed in annoyance with having to take orders, Wanda noticed James behind him, looking reluctant for completely different reasons. Her powers picked up conflict humming in his mind, as well as a protective energy as his gaze flitted between her Steve. That conflict, she figured, was uncertainty as to who needed his watchful eye more if they ended up too far from each other. Which, in her opinion, neither of them needed. If anything, she remained worried about James getting out of this without old wounds being opened up.

Steve didn’t have time to wait for their affirmations. Another van was speeding their way, almost in the very tracks of the first one. An arrow soared over their heads, having been shot from the hood of the team’s car. It latched neatly onto the opposing van’s hood, the arrowhead glowing with electricity. The engine audibly sputtered, skidding a ways as the driver obviously struggled to keep the vehicle moving. Steve tossed his shield at the tires, the durable metal further encouraging the van to reach a full stop.

Wanda would have helped had she not been caught off-guard by a close-sounding explosion only a few yards left of the sight. Another van was there, lurching up onto its front tires much like the first one had. There was a soft click as Stark ejected the now empty device from his gauntlet.

The agents that had been inside the most recently impaired van were apparently the most prepared. They filed out of the rear of the vehicle, taking only a few seconds each to steady themselves from being jostled before aiming the handguns at their hips at Iron Man, their every motion resembling that of a single-minded machine.

Stark was undaunted, stalking towards the herd of soldiers even as they opened fire at him. Wanda helped him nonetheless, stripping Hydra’s agents of their gear and weapons just as she had at the base. When her scarlet, wisp-like fingers managed to curl around a gun that wasn’t in use, she pulled it back towards herself. Though instead of bringing it into her hands, she let it hover in front of James for him to take. He didn’t waste a breath, taking the weapon and pulling the slide back to ensure a round was in the chamber before he used it.

“I’ll cover him,” James stated gruffly, crossing in front of Wanda to follow Stark towards the third truck. “Keep an eye on Steve.”

Wanda hadn’t even noticed Steve and Natasha both had already charged ahead. By now, Steve was in the midst of reclaiming his shield from the forest floor and hurling it at a group of agents that had seemed ready to bombard Natasha while she climbed atop the driver of the second van, her Widow’s Bites sending bolts of electricity through either side of his collarbone. The only one who hadn’t joined the fray yet was Pietro, still at her side to await orders from her, and her alone.

“Go,” the witch told her brother. “Keep the bastards confused. I’ll be here.”

Pietro hesitated for a moment, his twin reading reluctance from him in every form. Then in a literal flash he was gone, leaving her with only the thrum of his thoughts in her head. Be careful.

Wanda didn’t respond to him, her attention rapidly honing in on a fourth van rushing into the far left corner of her vision. Moving at top speed towards where James and Tony were busied with a shoot-out with their half of the agents. Wanda uncapped her scarlet without thinking, thrusting a lengthy knot of it right between the newcomers’ headlights. The van instantly ground to a hard stop upon impact, its hood caving in as if it were colliding with a tangible wall. When the vehicle was knocked off-kilter, it didn’t simply rock back onto all four tires like the two Stark had struck, but rather tumbled completely onto its side with a noisy groan of metal and splitting glass.

The witch wasn’t willing to wait for the agents inside to gain their bearings. Not when they had been so obviously hell-bent on running over her friends and the man she loved. She worked relentlessly, reaching out with branch after branch of reddish energy to pull the machine apart piece by piece. The smallest screws and bolts and the largest sheets of metal were ripped off their hinges at her will, tossed haphazardly behind her as she sought out the snakes that lurked inside.

The only thing that could have possibly pulled her from her determined state was the arrival of the fifth—and hopefully final—truck. She noticed it in her peripheral again, where it was hurtling towards the mob that had formed around Steve and Natasha. Stark reacted quicker than she could, firing one of his palm repulsors at its tires. One of the front ones completely blew out, causing the vehicle to roll onto its side much like the one currently tangled in tendrils of Wanda’s scarlet.

Said net of crimson energy harshly jabbed at its host with needle-like sensations. The agents within its hold were struggling, shooting even, at the strands of red. With another wave of scarlet, she probably could have handled it. But with James, Tony, and Clint visibly ready to take on the newly arrived band of agents, she figured it was safe to release her hold. It wasn’t like she could afford to test her strength further. She had already pushed herself (and subsequently her ability to use her powers) further than she ever had before at the Hydra base. If she was going to continue being of help, she needed to pace herself.

The witch’s eyes meticulously searched her surroundings, only stopping on the few occasions she caught a Hydra agent or two attempting to take advantage of one of her teammates while they were busy subduing someone else. She propelled a ball of scarlet at them every time, keeping the hexes solid enough to stun them, but not break anything. It was a system that worked pretty well for a long while, given how she was slightly distracted as the bond with her twin began to pulsate with their combined adrenaline rushes again. It was arguably worse in this instance, given that she was also absorbing the emotions of everyone fighting around her as well. Various shades of frustration, determination, and alarm that weren’t entirely her own welled up inside of her, piling up against the overstimulation of hearing gunshots, smelling burnt skin, and trying to keep track of where everyone was.

A particularly strong sense of dread surged up, accompanied by a familiar pattern of anxious thoughts. James!

He was in a throng of at least a dozen bodies near the truck Wanda had almost completely dismantled. The firearm she’d gotten him was apparently spent, for he only seemed able to defend himself with its empty shell and his metal arm. With the agents moving so quickly around him, she couldn’t locate any of their weapons long enough to grab and steal one for him. The only thing she could follow was the glint of his arm in the sunlight. So, she wrapped her scarlet around that.

Technically speaking, she encased only his fist in each hex. She restrained them from becoming entirely solid, and possibly inhibiting his ability to move, but channeled enough strength into them to make his already powerful blows become helmet-shattering. She borrowed a page from Black Widow’s book, extending the scarlet’s reach every time James landed a hit to stun more agents around them.

James fought as if her scarlet wasn’t there. His movements were swift, quick, and tireless. He was too adept for his own good, for she could barely keep up. It was a grueling task to mirror every intricate motion from him in order to effectively coordinate her scarlet with it. But with her focus entirely on her task, and the knowledge Pietro would let her know if she was needed anywhere else, she could manage it. She would manage it for as long as James needed the help.

Something punched through the meat of her right thigh, and her steadfast resolve shattered. She cried out in panic more than anything, even though the pain that jolted up and down her leg was excruciating. Her panic wasn’t even from being shot, but more from the brief moment it sent her mind back to feeling several bullets rip through her brother’s body. The only thing that anchored her to reality were his thoughts ringing in her head.

Wanda! What happened? What was that?

The witch offered nothing to reassure him. She was too concerned with keeping herself upright despite the open wound currently making her leg throb. Said wound was encircled by various tints of red; the dark, sickly crimson of spilling blood and the vibrant, glowing ruby-red of the power in her veins honing in on that area to preserve its host.

“Wanda!” came a concerned shout from behind her.

One look over her shoulder revealed Clint struggling against the hood of the team’s truck with a Hydra soldier, the glint of a blade near his eye blinding her for a second. The only thing more distressing than that was the agent beside them, now rushing straight towards her, gun in hand.

Wanda summoned her scarlet to her palm, straining more than usual to get the unnatural entity to obey her. She managed to conjure a small knot of energy just solid enough to knock the firearm from his hand, but otherwise, there was nothing else she could do to deter him. He was almost upon her when she saw him pull something from a pocket hanging on his belt. It gave off a familiar glint in the sunlight, and her first thought was knife.

Her next thought was you trained with the Avengers, damn it! Act like it!

By some miracle, she found her way beneath the transparent visor, ramming her elbow in the middle of his face. She reveled in morbid satisfaction at the dull crunch sound for the brief heartbeat in which he jerked back. Then her arm went around the pale flesh of his throat, fingertips hooking under the back of his helmet for better leverage as she heaved him over her shoulder, admittedly relying on her scarlet to help her handle his bodyweight. Which was thankfully easy despite her magic’s fixation on her open wound (probably because she was used to pulling this with someone as heavy as Steve).

With her attacker now dazed and on his back, the witch ensured he stayed pinned in place there by curling a sheet of scarlet around him. She slowly twisted her wrists to make it as strong as she possibly could while her abilities were acting weaker than usual. In her effort to glance down at her wound again, she noticed whatever the agent at her feet had taken out of his pocket wasn’t a knife after all. It was an old-fashioned glass syringe filled halfway with a bizarre, rust-colored serum.

Their serum. The one made specifically to hinder her.

Assholes.

The witch nudged the syringe closer with the tip of her boot, letting it roll close enough to crush its contents under the full weight of her foot. The pleasure of feeling it break beneath her was almost immediately drowned out by the alarm at hearing a loud cry from James.

Together, he and Wanda had managed to reduce the crowd around him to only two agents still standing. Somehow, one of them had gotten their arm around his neck while the other towered over them, holding her soldier’s metal arm behind him.

Getting shot and keeping a Hydra agent of her own subdued were suddenly distant memories as she watched James struggle against the two abnormally burly men. The supernatural energy that lived within her flared hotly beneath the skin at her single thought. Don’t touch him!

She could feel her scarlet threading itself between her fingertips without any conscious bidding on her part. She let it fester for a moment, ready to fling the pair off James the instant it felt strong enough. As she waited, she caught wind of what the taller one was yelling. He was barking at James, pausing only when he seemed to forget what was supposed to come next. He was speaking...Russian?

Rusted? Seventeen, daybreak? What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Whatever it was, the confused series of words was causing distress and even panic to radiate off of James with enough intensity, she could feel it from where she stood a few yards away from him. In her desperation to figure out why, the Maximoff sister was narrowly saved from being shot again. Her brother found the sniper hiding beneath one of the damaged vans, pulling them from their place—and their weapon—by the boot, bringing them with him as he zipped up to his sister’s side and dumped them rather unceremoniously at her feet.

Having witnessed Pietro’s find through their shared bond, she didn’t waste a second in slamming her foot into the sniper’s unprotected face, hoping in the darkest parts of her heart that some glass shards had been embedded into the bottom of her boot. Even if there wasn’t, she considered it worth the fresh wave of pain that tore through her thigh.

Pietro had eyes only for the source of said pain. “Wanda, you were—”

“It’s fine!” Wanda snapped impatiently. With her hand that wasn’t pinning a man to the ground, she pressed against the gash in a weak attempt to appease him. She then nodded in James’s direction, indicating the agent that was still restraining his arm. “Shut him up!”

Pietro didn’t move, continuing to study her bullet wound as if he could will it to heal faster. His hesitance only aggravated his sister. “Go!” she demanded.

With one last huff of exasperation, he finally obeyed her. She watched as a streak of silver rammed into the agent that had been snarling at James, knocking him far from the metal-armed soldier and effectively disorienting the second agent in the process. The instant the grip around his throat loosened, James shoved the remaining agent off of him. In one swift motion, he was pulling the other man’s unused handgun from a holster on their hip and pounding it against their head.

Wanda took a moment to keep her own adversary subdued for good, using her free hand to drag random visions to the forefront of his mind. Once she saw his eyes gloss over with a ruby color, she left him to wallow in nonsensical hallucinations, stepping over his body to limp closer toward James. She paused only once, when the pain in her leg grew too severe to leave ignored. She let one hand hover above the bloodied wound, using a clump of scarlet energy to apply pressure.

“James!” she called, wanting to check on him in spite of the several feet of space that remained between them. “James?” she repeated, gentler upon noticing he still seemed troubled. He wouldn’t even look straight at her, rather kept his glassy eyes fixed on something far away. The thousand yard stare. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen it in him, but it was the first time his mind was so alight with activity at the same time. The noise of frenzied thoughts repeatedly faded in and out of her telepathy’s ear, worrying her with whatever struggle he was trying so hard to push down.

She knew whatever it was, he wasn’t going to get through it on his own, much less in the middle of a firefight. “James, please. Let me—”

“Wanda,” Steve panted, seemingly appearing out of thin air behind her. It didn’t take long for him to follow her gaze towards James. “Stark says he’s been picking up a rise in Bucky’s stress levels. What happened to him?”

“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “But I can help him through it. I just need this fighting to stop now. Right now.”

Steve sighed wearily, scanning their surroundings as if to affirm the other members of the team were still tangled up in some sort of brawl with at least one Hydra agent each. His gloved hand came up to press at something hidden in his ear. “Guys, start wrapping it up.”

Wanda could hear Clint’s annoyance over the miniscule device. “Well, Mr. Do-This-All-Day, the day’s not over yet, now is it?”

The witch looked over her shoulder, puzzled she couldn’t hear the archer in reality as well. Only to find he was completely missing from where she’d last seen him. For that matter, the entire area around the team’s truck was abandoned.

Something in her brain suddenly clicked.

“Captain,” she laid a hand lightly on Steve’s arm, not once tearing her gaze from the massive machine behind them. “Tell everyone to get down.”

She heard a small tick of confusion at the surface of his mind, but he didn’t speak on it. “Guys, hit the deck. Wanda’s got something.”

As he implored the team to trust him, Wanda sent a separate request to Pietro through their linked minds, knowing fully well he’d seen her plan in her mind’s eye. Make sure they all get clear. Don’t provoke James.

Her twin’s response was indignant. You honestly expect me to haul Stark’s heavy ass anywhere?

She didn’t have time to argue with him. She needed to do something to divert everyone’s attention from fighting. She shot waves of scarlet from both hands, bathing as much of the vehicle in psionic energy as she could. She curled her fingers to establish a better grip on the machine’s bottom half, pushing out and up to encourage it to rise.

So much for not pushing herself any further past her limits. Her muscles were trembling—burning even, with her effort to get the car into the air. It felt like more weight than the metal door and explosions of before put together. Yet she forced herself to bear through it. To shove down the wear of the weight over her, the pain in her leg, and replace them both with greater endurance. To ignore her body’s protests, as well as Pietro’s protests that were shaking their shared bond. Wanda, stop! If it hurts, it’s not worth it!

The witch only grit her teeth and kept going. I can do this. I can do this!

In the end, her perseverance was not in vain. With only a slight groan of metal as the car’s center of balance shifted from its framework to her sheer will, the machine began a leisure ascent into the air. She could feel her scarlet growing as it gathered its own strength, easing some of the burden of weight from her. The car shakily rose a good foot into the air, then another, and another.

Under the circumstances, Wanda wasn’t too concerned with lifting the truck too high, but rather was only worried about keeping it above everyone’s heads. It was difficult to gauge exactly how high that was without anyone around it for reference, so she would just have to trust her eye. Once she thought she’d reached an opportune height, she twisted her body around, keeping her arms outstretched so as to drag her catch with her. The effect was rampageous. Steve barely had time to shout a final command to the others to get low before he was ducking himself to avoid the team’s jankel truck swinging in a powerful arc around him and Wanda, decimating every tree it touched with a devastating crunch sound each. Any and all fighting instantly came to a stop in favor of scrambling for cover from the destruction. When Wanda finally released it, the vehicle dropped to the Earth with thunderous finality.

In the stunned silence that followed, Pietro moved fast, even for him. He was practically invisible to the eye, zipping back and forth between her side and the newly created wreckage. With him, he brought Natasha, then Clint, and then Sam. Each of them could only manage a small sound of surprise as they were so suddenly tossed to the forest floor behind Steve. Stark was the only one spared, having been in the air when the car went flying. At least he seemed to have the foresight to recognize this was another part of Wanda’s plan, and went to hover near the group.

Knowing her team was clear, the witch unleashed another sheet of power, a red mist-like wall forming in front of her and the Avengers. She was too spent from lifting the truck to go through all the minds of the Hydra agents before them like she’d originally planned, so she thought rapidly as to what she should try instead. After shedding more layers of scarlet, her wispy creation solidified into a more tangible wall which she could push forward. Seeing as she was still pretty numb from pushing too hard to get the car in the air, there was little inside her to restrain the scarlet energy as it grew in size and strength. Within seconds, the psionic wall became as big as a bulldozer, and it resembled the blade of one when it moved. Fallen trees, pieces of trucks, and semi-conscious bodies alike were unceremoniously shoved away.

To the witch’s gratification, it was enough to deter the remaining agents from engaging with her or her teammates any further. They backed away from the sliding red wall, unknowingly letting their fear and bafflement bounce back against it. Some made an effort to pick up fallen comrades, but otherwise, their fright spurred a mad scramble directly towards their base further in the woods.

Wanda let her scarlet shield dissipate, watching the group go. She was too tired to stop them, and the disquiet of James’s mind had yet to stop buzzing at the edge of her mind. If Hydra was getting reinforcements (if they had any left), she would settle for getting him and herself out of there before they came back.

Apparently Stark wasn’t as willing to let the enemy go so easily. He landed at her side with a heavy thump of metal. “I can make sure they don’t get far. The rest of you clean up this mess. Get the fox operating again, and bring everyone one you can find back to the Facility.” The glowing, unblinking eyes of Iron Man turned to someone in particular behind Wanda. “Wilson, think you can give me a hand?”

Sam stepped into Wanda’s line of sight, and she instantly noticed the pack that housed his artificial wings had a large slash down its middle, exposing jagged wires and torn metal where the wings folded against each other. “Sorry, man. I’m grounded.”

“It’s fine,” Tony said, even though Wanda could feel frustration steaming the surface of his thoughts. “I’ll meet you all back at the compound.”

And with that, he bolted up into the sky.

Wanda was somewhat surprised Steve had let Iron Man go without any official approval from him or the rest of the team. Though upon taking fresh stock of the team’s state, she better understood why the inventor might’ve seen waiting for response as a waste of precious time. They were much more preoccupied with getting a breather and inspecting their respective injuries. Clint had to help Natasha get to her feet, and Sam made busywork out of unstrapping his pack. The way he sighed when it clattered to the ground hinted that he’d been wanting to get the weight off his back for a while. Pietro was yards away, leaning against the damaged car’s hood to catch his breath.

Only Steve acted as though he was completely unfazed. He wandered past the team, eyes on James. Wanda would have followed had she not needed a moment to catch her breath as well. Her limbs were positively trembling. She slumped forward as much as she could without falling over, fighting a temptation to sink to the ground and not get up again for the rest of the day.

“Bucky?” She heard Steve address his friend. “You alright?”

All she heard was a slight whir of metal, and a sharp smack of an arm striking skin, before he went shooting back the way he’d come.

“Steve!”

Natasha’s cry of alarm spooked Wanda, allowing a thick tendril of scarlet to slip past her fingers. She waved it towards her Captain at the last minute, catching him in a net of the ruby wisps which hopefully softened the blow of the hard earth hitting his back.

When her eyes travelled back to James’s direction, the witch found icy eyes boring into her. Those eyes, his face—the very surface of his mind were disturbingly empty. All that remained of her James was the semi-automatic he’d managed to take from the agent currently sprawled out by his feet. And he held it up to point at her.

Predmet shestnadtsat,” he shouted. There was nothing in his voice. Nothing. “Ustupat’!”

No, James, no. Wanda’s heart pumped because of horror alone. She’d lost him to the Winter Soldier. The same Soldier that had been led to believe she belonged to Hydra. That believed she was meant to be killed if she acted out against them. Like throwing a goddamn truck at them. Please, no!

The gun in his metal hand fired. Before she had even processed the sound, a blur of silver slammed into the Soldier’s side. It was almost enough to topple him, but he managed to regain his footing remarkably. His bullet, though, was grossly misdirected. It burst against a patch of dirt far to the witch’s left, startling a rabbit out of its burrow.

An instinct within her sent her heart out to James, especially in the wake of feeling her twin’s fury towards him. “Pietro, don’t!”

Her brother appeared at her side in a flash, looking more bewildered than she’d ever seen him. “Sestra, he had his gun on—”

“I know, I know!” Damn it, she didn’t have time to explain this! “I know how it looks, but it’s not—”

She stopped when she saw James behind him, rolling his metal arm to ensure it was still functioning alright. At the same time, her powers picked up more variations of anger, stemming from her teammates where they’d conjugated around their dazed Captain.

Her words came faster. “I can calm him down, but not if the others are distracting him. Please, don’t let them hurt him.”

Pietro scoffed incredulously, looking over his shoulder at the Soldier. Wanda clutched his shoulder urgently, seeking to convey her desperation to protect James from himself both physically and through their mental bond. “Pietro, please. I promise, he doesn’t actually want to hurt me.”

At least, James didn’t.

Pietro huffed again, bombarding their bond with his hatred for not understanding any of this. She sensed some hatred for himself too, at being away from her for so long, he felt he didn’t understand her at all.

But they were still twins, and he would always trust her guidance because of that. He was gone in a blur, the split of silver left behind pointing towards Sam and Clint. Upon impact, the latter fell back with a stunned grunt.

“Come on, man,” Clint grumbled.

Pietro reappeared with Steve’s shield in hand, its signature star that had become marred by nicks and tire marks visible for only a second before he rammed it against Sam. While he kept those two busy, Wanda frantically searched for Natasha.

It wasn’t long before she saw the spy had sunken into the shadows of the trees, stalking around the group. With James preoccupied with trying to aim his firearm at a constantly moving Pietro, she ran at him from behind. Her wrist gauntlets were empty, but in their place was an electric baton she unveiled from each hand. She moved silently. She was deadly. But Wanda saw her. Wanda had sensed her just as she leapt for James’s back, and managed to shoot a ball of scarlet at the Widow’s raised fist in the split second before she landed. Natasha floundered as she was suddenly suspended in midair by her wrist, batting at the knot of scarlet with the baton in her free hand, knowing very well that Wanda would be able to feel every jolt of electricity as the baton struck the supernatural extension of herself.

Wanda didn’t keep the spy there for long. With a slight jerk of her arm, Natasha was gently thrown away from James. Though Wanda couldn’t help but wince when she heard the sound of her teammate’s body unintentionally hitting the trunk of a tree.

Just as she stretched out her telepathy to ensure Natasha hadn’t gotten as hurt as the soft thump implied, another gunshot fired. Wanda didn’t think, hunching in on herself at both the sharp pop of the shot, and the booming thud of metal that immediately followed it. When she dared to look up, she found Iron Man in all of his indestructible glory in front of her. She saw the bullet meant for her head embedded into a dent in his shoulder plate. The same shoulder plate that shifted as he raised his palms to aim the repulsors at James.

“Try that again, asshole,” Stark growled. “Go ahead. Give me an excuse to shoot you in the goddamn face.”

No, no, no, no! Wanda didn’t need her telepathy to figure that was among the very last things an already confused and armed Winter Soldier needed to hear. She could see him now, her soldier, backing away cautiously with handgun still raised defensively. Physically bracing himself as if anything he could do could protect him from the absolute power of Stark weapons.

The witch cast all thoughts aside at the high-pitched whine of Stark’s repulsors charging up. She operated on instincts alone. Instincts that always involved letting her scarlet free. It peeked out from between her fingers in small strands, slipping past the hard metal of Stark’s suit and pulling it apart from the inside out. She’d seen the suit in various stages of assembly around the compound enough times to know where and what to pull on.

“What the—?” was all Stark managed as he watched the pieces of his armor practically jump off of him, first at the surface of his fingertips, then in more larger pieces of his entire hand. It wasn’t until the very framework of the gauntlet was exposed did he think to escape into the air again, climbing away from Wanda’s line of sight. Purposefully, she knew, hovering in front of the sun so she wouldn’t be able to see him as well.

It wasn’t enough to daunt her. Squinting against the brightness of midday light, Wanda sent a bolt of scarlet hurtling in the rough area she’d last seen his boots. With accuracy she’d learned from Black Widow, her powers managed to wrap around one. Her fingers curled in towards her palm, and she heard her hex mirror the action by curling around the metal until it was palpably crushed. There was a shower of sparks, an uncomfortable sounding pop as the thrusters burst, and then Stark was scrambling to remain afloat.

Wanda heard a barely recognizable voice come from the suit. “Sir, left thrusters are damaged.”

“I noticed that, J!” Stark barked.

The sound of not one, but two gunshots firing was the only thing in that moment capable of stealing Wanda’s attention. James was still nearby, now locked in tight combat with Steve. Thankfully, Steve had his shield to render the shots at him useless. He knocked the perfectly round disk against James’s face, stunning the Soldier just long enough to get around him. Wanda froze when Steve looped his free arm around James’s neck, squeezing tight enough to prompt James to struggle against him.

“Bucky, stop,” Steve implored, sounding surprisingly calm considering he was choking his oldest friend. “You know her. Her name is Wanda.”

The whine of repulsors brought her attention back to Stark. The gauntlet she hadn’t disassembled was glowing with the promise of firing. He was likely aiming at James alone, but in the moment, all Wanda could see was potential to strike both super-soldiers. The beam of light shot free in the exact same moment Wanda conjured up a bolt of scarlet to catch it, causing the two rays of energy to meet in the middle of the air between her and Iron Man.

Wanda screamed. The repulsor’s blast was more intense than anything her powers had tried to contain so far. Her hand was positively burning, as if her scarlet wasn’t even there to shield her. She couldn’t even push it back towards Stark, for that demanded too much of her abilities too soon after she’d pushed past their known limits.

Pietro’s concern for her tugged insistently at his end of their bond. Sestra, please! There has to be more I can do for you.

Just keep the others busy!

As tears of frustration and pain threatened to gather in her eyes, Wanda realized she would get nowhere pushing against Iron Man’s repulsor beam in her body’s exhausted state. So, she tried something else. Blinking away the displeasure in her eyes, she focused on curling her wrists back. Her scarlet shield tipped backwards in response, and with it, the beam of light bent at an angle. Suddenly there were two beams; the one continuously firing at her shield, and the one bouncing off of it, blasting the tree tops nearby.

Now Stark was getting nowhere. He cut off the repulsor beam, dropping his hand to his side where he could better control himself as he lingered in the air. Wanda moved with him, the two slowly circling each other as they readied for the other’s next attack. A bulb of scarlet shone at each of the witch’s palms. The vaguely familiar voice in the inventor’s suit was calmly speaking to him, listing off various things about her. Analyzing her, and how best to overpower her. Maybe if she got her scarlet through his helmet, she could silence it. Maybe even get inside Stark’s head, and convince him to come down and do nothing for the remainder of the fight.

The person whose head she needed to get inside of was James. As much as she hated the idea of intruding on his thoughts without his consent, she knew there was no other way she could calm him with the Avengers hounding him at the same time.

Wanda chanced a look over her shoulder to check on James. She found him still engaged in a rapid-fire exchange of blows with Steve, although both had knocked the other’s weapon out of their hands by this point. James’s handgun was still within his reach—that was dangerous—but Steve’s shield was nowhere to be seen. Where had the shield gone?

The answer came to her in a blur of silver. Her twin circled around her, dropping the missing disk at her side before speeding off to bother Sam and Clint some more. Wanda didn’t waste a moment to even lean down and pick up Pietro’s find. She wrapped a hex completely around it and hoisted it into the air just as Stark fired his repulsor again, obviously having wanted to take advantage of the fleeting second in which she’d seemed distracted. Even after the blast struck the shield, he levitated higher into the air in attempts to angle the deflected beam closer to the ground.

Both she and her brother were filled with pleasant surprise at how much easier it was for her to hold up Steve’s shield against the blast as opposed to one of her own. That is, until the deflected beam fired at an area frightfully close to Pietro. The phantom ache of a burn that wasn’t actually in her skin coursed through Wanda’s hip, leading to a painful reminder of the wound that was embedded in her thigh just a few inches beneath there.

She bid all thoughts of that away for Pietro’s sake. Are you alright?

It’s fine. I can still run.

Stark cut off the repulsor blast just in time for Wanda to hear Natasha’s livid voice through the communication device in his suit. “Why has no one restrained him yet?”

“Romanoff, I don’t know if you noticed,” Stark quipped, “but it’s kind of hard to get to past Dash and Violet when they’re not exactly playing fairly over here.”

“I don’t care!” Natasha snapped. “We trained her, we should know what to anticipate from her.”

Wanda’s heart pounded in terror at the truth behind Natasha’s words. Given how tired she was, it wouldn’t take long for her to fall into fighting patterns the team would recognize. If they took advantage of that and managed to repress her, there was no telling what they would do to James after. Steve would be her only hope in not letting anyone else harm him. And given how she could presently hear another smack of the metal arm slamming into Steve hard enough to drive him back, she could easily imagine that going poorly.

Stark’s remaining thrusters picked up speed, propelling him over Wanda’s head. The witch reacted instantly, swinging her arms around her head. The shield still in her scarlet’s hold followed the motion as if magnetically tethered to her, whirling around to meet Stark head-on. Literally. The inventor tumbled backwards, rolling head over heels in mid-air as the hard vibranium smacked his face plate.

Now she’d pissed him off. She felt the wave of outrage rolling off of him, flying towards her as just quickly as the suit did. This time, she heard a much duller whine of one of his repulsors charging up as he neared her. Wanda figured it could only be the repulsor at his chest.

Panicking, the witch twirled Captain America’s shield around her head again and threw it at the Iron Man suit. Somehow, she must have utilized the knack for accuracy she’d learned from the others again, for the shield lodged itself dead center in the suit’s chest plate. The force behind the blow was not only enough to fling Stark back, but knock him out of the air altogether as well.

Wanda didn’t take the time to see how he landed. She was already spinning on her heel to face James and Steve again. Only Steve wasn’t fighting the Winter Soldier anymore. He was a ways away from where she’d last seen him, shakily getting to his feet with one hand against a fallen tree trunk for support. Gone were his efforts to remind his friend of everything he’d said and done in the past few months. He didn’t even seem to care that the Soldier was stalking towards the dropped firearm between them.

Then Natasha came out of nowhere, pushing herself off the same trunk Steve was leaning against and leaping clear over the Captain to pounce on James. With his eyes on the handgun on the floor, it looked as if she had a clear shot at wrapping herself around his neck in her most signature move.

But he caught her. The Winter Soldier caught her. His metal arm lunged forward in a blink, effortlessly seizing her throat with the ragged plates of his titanium fingers.

The irony behind how he knew she was there was not lost on Wanda. It was a dark thing to point out, bordering on cruel, but she couldn’t help herself. Not when it involved humbling the infamous Black Widow so soon after the assassin had brought up something Wanda hadn’t wanted to remember herself. “Who trained you, Natalia?”

The Widow gasped. Whether it was a product of hearing her real name or from how ruthlessly those blank eyes squeezed her windpipe was uncertain. Regardless, James didn’t waste much time tormenting her. Just when she’d begun to thrash about, James threw her aside as if she was nothing more than ragdoll. She rolled against hard earth until she’d become tangled in a throng of fallen branches, firmly enough to stir a pained groan from her. Wanda found the sound simultaneously a relief to hear, for it indicated harsh landing wasn’t enough to kill her, and a distressing reminder that while James hadn’t gotten hurt yet, her teammates had.

James needed to be stopped.

Wanda warily inched closer to him, hoping to come off as unthreatening despite the obvious ruby wisps that snaked between her fingers as she did. Wisps that she intended to pervade his mind with, despite not having his permission. The thought of violating his trust that way, of breaking her promise to never be as invasive as the brutes who had handled him during his imprisonment made her feel sick. Yet she couldn’t see any other solution.

Still, she tried to appeal to the man beneath the Soldier. The one who would understand she didn’t want to infringe on his mind. “Please,” she begged, causing her powers to flare up in size as a response to her upset. “Don’t make me do this.”

The Soldier only saw her scarlet. Those eyes that were so familiar to her, and were now so devoid of any recognition of her, darted to her glowing hands mere heartbeats before he was reaching for the handgun again. He held it at level with her chest, once more demanding, “Ustupat’!

Oh, my James....

She didn’t want to break her promise to him. But he wasn’t giving her any other choice. She had to do it. She had to!

But she didn’t. The faltering suit of Iron Man had limped into her peripheral, forcing her hand to put up another scarlet shield to block the beam from his last functioning repulsor. It burned just as much as before, though she made herself muscle through it. She couldn’t even think of the pain when Stark activated his only functioning boot to thrust himself forward, compelling her to push back against the wispy red wall. It didn’t have enough strength to stop him, but it certainly slowed him down. At the same time, she noticed the nest of branches where Natasha had fallen nearby shift as the spy gathered her footing. Wanda flexed the fingers of her free hand, allowing a scarlet knot to form in case she needed to push the vengeful Black Widow back also.

All of a sudden, she heard Steve rediscover his voice, albeit laced with loud panic. “Bucky, don’t!

In the next moment, a gun went off. As soon as she heard it, Wanda knew the shot was going to reach its target. She knew before she even turned to see it. She knew before she actually saw it, cutting through the air at tauntingly slow pace. In spite of Steve charging forward to intercept it, she knew it was going to land its intended hit.

And yet, she wasn’t ready when it did. She wasn’t ready when it ripped open a hole in her chest. Wasn’t ready for the sound of metal piercing her body to be the most violent, deafening thing she’d ever heard. To only be able to hear her own choked whines in the silence that followed. To see the moist, red spot blossoming over the lapel of her jacket. Glistening against the leather material, languidly trailing down her front.

He shot her. The Winter Soldier shot her.

Her lower lip quivered, unable to accept it. Unable to breathe.

“James,” she whispered. A weak hand reached upward, shivering madly as she made one last-ditch effort to send a few tendrils of scarlet into his mind. They fizzled out before they could reach him.

He only stared at her, eyes blown wide with fear as if he’d been the one that had been shot. As if her James was there again, able to see what he’d done. That look of horror was the last she saw of him before figures swarmed him, dark and powerful and angry. She was helpless to stop them, to protect him from them. All she could manage was one step before her body completely gave up. She pitched forward, and in a flash, she was falling into her brother.

Chapter Text

“No! Sestra, no,” the runner moaned as his sister collapsed against his chest. They fell to the floor in a graceless heap, her body limp as he cradled her in his arms. He brought a hand to the side of her face, urging her to look at him. Repeating his denial for what he was seeing even though vivid, crimson blood was clearly spilling between the fingers of his other hand from the exit wound in her back.

She only pawed listlessly at him in turn, heaving for breath. Her face was growing white, all color pouring into the red glow of the veins at her sternum, where the bullet struck. The Soldier studied the sight with clouded eyes, something about the unnatural color bringing previously repressed pieces of his mind to light. A memory of red lights beneath skin. Red dancing between her fingers. Red coloring her irises. So much red.

The ethereal red of a scarlet witch.

The Soldier’s weapon was yanked from his unfeeling fingers. He was belted across the face with its emptied shell. Hands coated in metal and wire wrenched his wrists behind his back, driving him down to his knees. Shouting coated the air. Rage, and panic, and turmoil. All of which sailed completely over his head as his gaze remained fixed on the witch.

She called me James.

He knew her. She was Strucker’s subject. Base Six. Subject Sixteen.

“I told you, we don’t need him. You wanted a weapon, and that’s precisely what she is.”

“She has no control! And neither do you. What do you plan to do if she turns on us?”

Another blow across his face.

“You sick fucking bastard!”

“Hey, come on, Barton. Take it easy, man.”

“Like hell, I’m gonna take it easy! If he just killed her—”

“—you would be wasting the greatest creation to come out of this organization since the Red Skull himself!”

“Enough, Wolfgang. Do not mistake your vanity for success. Soldat, if Subject Six-Sixteen proves to be a danger to anyone here, you are to shoot her. Shoot to kill. Understood?”

There was no other option. Nothing else was able to restrain her.

The Black Widow was there, wandering past the cluster of men as if they didn’t exist. Her suit was scratched, dirtied with small twigs and leaves. Her left temple was painted with a developing bruise. The softest of groans escaped her as she crouched on the other side of the fallen witch.

“Let me see.” Her voice was devoid of any feeling. She wrapped her fingers around the runner’s hand, the one cupping the witch’s face, and guided it to rest in the very center of the girl’s chest. “Here. Put pressure right here.”

“I’ll kill him.” Despite his dark promise and even darker glare, the runner made no movement towards the Winter Soldier. Rather, he only clenched the witch’s body tighter in his embrace. “I’m going to kill him!”

“That won’t help her. Hey!” The Widow let impatience slip past her otherwise stony resolve, smacking the side of the runner’s face so he would look at her. “Listen to me. You’re the only one who can move her fast enough.” She pointed in a seemingly random direction of the woods. “Follow our fox’s tracks. They’ll lead you to the main garage of our facility. Tell the first person you see that we sent you, and you need Helen Cho. They should show know what to do from there.”

The runner didn’t move, eyes transfixed on the wound pulsating beneath his fingers. He breathed in heavy, rapid bursts alongside his sister, as if he too had a gaping hole in his chest.

Natalia smacked his cheek again. Not hard enough to hurt, but enough to sober his distanced stare. “Do you want to help her or not?”

The runner’s frame shook, as if angered by the question. He didn’t dignify it with a response. He only pulled himself to his feet, heeding Natalia’s instructions to handle the witch in a way that would jostle her body as little as possible. In spite of such efforts, the witch gasped something unintelligible from pain.

The Soldier knew that voice.

She called me James.

Not Sergeant Barnes. Not Bucky.

“What about James? Could you be that?”

James was OK. Hydra never touched James.

The runner shifted his arms once more, ensuring his sister was securely in his hold. Then he disappeared, traveling quick as a silver bolt of lightning. Once he was gone, Natalia sighed. Her hands combed through her copper hair, lingering there as she struggled to retain the unfeeling cover of a Red Room’s subject.

The marksman that had taken his gun approached her, eyes gleaming with resentment every time he glanced at the Soldier. “What do you think we should do with him?”

“I don’t care,” Natalia huffed. With only a shake of her head at the sight of the Soldier, she stalked out of his view, leaving only her exasperated remarks behind. “Do whatever you want. I don’t fucking care.”

She called me James.

“James? What do you want?”

He couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked him that. He couldn’t remember what he’d answered then.

He remembered wanting her to stay.

One of the men from his DC assignment whispered to the other. The one who held the archer back. “How the hell did this happen?”

The one who called him Bucky answered. “I...I don’t know! Back at the compound, he...I was so sure he wouldn’t hurt Wanda.”

Wanda. The name made more and more pieces of his mind slip under the door of his conditioning. He winced when it became too much, making his head throb.

“You know her. Her name is Wanda. You wanted to help her—you said you needed her.”

Why? Why would he ever say that?

His ears were ringing. He shook his head, trying to squirm free of the voices around him. In the air, in his memories. He tried to push himself to his feet, tried to run. But the metal hands about his wrists held true, keeping him on his knees. Squeezing painfully, to remind him of his place. He struggled anyways, feeling the door of his mental conditioning suddenly swing wide open and usher in a storm of missing pieces. They all seemed newer and brighter than the ones that appeared the last time he’d broken through the Soldier’s programming, pouring light into darkened slots before settling back into place. Just like the entrancing red of the scarlet witch.

Wanda.

He remembered feeling that red as he gently tapped it with his fingertips. It sent an odd, though not necessarily unpleasant tingling through his metal arm.

He remembered his hand curling around that name. Seeing it between lines of his handwriting, appearing over and over again until one instance in which his fingers snapped the pen in half as he was suddenly overwrought with remorse and fear. Fear for her.  

He remembered clinging to her, feeling her tears dampen his shirt as she cried into his shoulder. How he let her let go simply so he could indulge in the feeling of a harmless touch for the first time in years. How he remembered more about Steve, and her laughter at his stories of their antics as their younger selves. Her laughter as she tried to wash his arm clean, and he pulled her to him, well-aware the wet metal was freezing to the touch. Her excitement as she relayed to him her day out with Steve and Nat, clambering herself into his lap to give him sloppy, fumbling kisses as she did. Her hands carding through his hair as he rested his head against her chest, feeling her pulse vibrate as she hummed the song to some film Steve’s team had shown her the night before. Feeling her pulse thrum faster than ever before as he unveiled more of her skin than he had dared to before. Feeling an extra pulse of supernatural energy beneath her skin as he brushed his lips over her. Her body laying back against the pillows of his bed as she ushered him closer. The taste of her, and with it her relief as her loneliness and heartache were finally alleviated. The amount of trust in him that such intimacy indicated.

He remembered her calling him James. He remembered a burst of pleasure as she did. Not frantic, unhinged pleasure like that of his last lover. There was no impending sense of danger, that they would be punished for being together. There was just them, as they were without handlers or missions or teammates.

“James, it’s alright. I’m here for you. You’re not alone anymore.”

He remembered wanting her to stay. Wanting to follow her when she didn’t.

He did follow her one day. She’d encouraged him outside, letting him take the lead towards somewhere they could be safe and completely secluded. There was a sunset, and the tranquil surface of a pool, and comfortable silence. The turmoil that had been rippling across his mind finally calmed as he leaned into her side. She kissed his head, as if she could sense it.

He remembered thanking her. He remembered wanting to stay with her ever since.

She’d called him James.

James knew her.

James...James loves her.

The Scarlet Witch. Wanda.

“Oh...” his face contorted in recognition, which was promptly replaced by pain. “Wanda.”

“Bucky?” Steve paused his dispute with his friends to look down at him, eyes alight with hope that the man beneath the tortured soldier was pulling through.

He shifted his leg in a manner that suggested he was going to stand. Iron Man’s hands held him back. Steve held him back, dropping a hand against his flesh shoulder. “Not yet, Buck,” he said, the words sounding like a warning. “Not yet.”

Bucky’s stomach lurched. They couldn’t just wait here! Wanda needed him. Someone shot her! One moment she’d had her scarlet wrapped around his fists, lending him more strength and endurance than the serum had ever provided, and then the next, it was gone with nothing but a sharp yelp from her. He’d seen the blood dribbling down her thigh as she forced herself to stay standing. He saw the Hydra operative racing towards her, then two more had appeared out of nowhere and jumped him. They managed to overpower him in his mad scramble to keep Wanda within his line of sight, one of them commanding the other in Russian—

No…he had been commanding the Winter Soldier.

Oh, no. God, no, no, no!

He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid. So reckless as to just assume that because the base was run by German agents, none of them had ever worked in the Russian sector. How did he not think someone there would know how to trigger the Soldier? Now that it was too late, he figured they must have succeeded. Why else would he have blacked out like that?

You should have warned Wanda about them. You should have let her inside your head to shut out those goddamn words!

“What did I do?” he croaked hoarsely. He was afraid to know. He was always afraid to know. But he also needed to know, because whatever it was, it was all his fault.

“You did enough,” Stark hissed from behind him, voice still tinny from the Iron Man helmet. “You better be fucking praying she survives that shot, Barnes.”

A shot? Did the Soldier shoot her? Did he shoot her?

God, no...please, no!

He remembered it. He remembered in excruciating detail.

He hadn’t been thinking of anything but his old orders. His orders to shoot her if she turned on Hydra. To kill her.

And he’d tried. He remembered aiming for her heart. Her wonderful, generous, compassionate heart. It was by sheer luck she had turned at the last minute to face Natasha, driving the bullet just inches to the left of its intended mark.

Her mouth had wrapped around a familiar word. “James...” She had been reaching for him for as long as her battered body would let her. Her voice sounded strangled. Broken. Betrayed.

He shot her. He shot and wounded her. Wounded her badly, if the amount of blood was anything to go by. So much blood….

I should’ve never let her come out here. I should’ve never let her leave her home with Steve’s team. They would’ve kept her safe!

They would have kept her safe from him.

He wanted to throw up. He wanted to crawl back to her side, and see the extent of what he’d done. He wanted to hold her, and never take her presence for granted ever again.

No. He couldn’t go back. This had happened because he’d kept seeing her. Because he’d let them both get too attached. Their relationship became the only thing pure thing he’d had left, and he’d gone and ruined it.

I did this. I did this. I did this. Christ, what the fuck is the matter with me?

He couldn’t believe himself. He’d promised her his heart, and then tried to put a bullet in hers. What kind of twisted person pulled that?

A murderer.

The only thing he could hear amidst his self-loathing was Natalia’s voice. “Tony, let him go.”

There was a beat of hesitation. Then the grip around his wrists disappeared. He barely felt it. He only felt the impact of earth against his palms when he slumped forward, riding out the wave of wholly consuming guilt. His captors left him to his grief, turning their attention to getting their vehicle running again.

Only one stayed with him. He could feel their presence as they kneeled beside him. Authoritative, but familiar. Brotherly.

“Bucky?” Steve pressed gently, still uncertain of his friend’s mental state.

Bucky’s entire frame shook. He looked to the ground in front of him with what could only be deemed an empty sadness. “I…I hurt her Stevie….”

Steve only nodded gravely. “I know, Buck.”

“I didn’t mean to....”

That was a lie. He’d known what he was doing. He’d known exactly what he was doing. And he did it willingly, simply because he was convinced someone else expected it of him.

Hydra was still in his head. They still owned him. He had never stopped being their machine.

“I’m sure not, Buck.”

Fucking hell, he couldn’t even convince Steve anymore. He was well and truly nothing now. Not Hydra’s completely unfeeling machine. Not Steve’s friend. Not Wanda’s partner. There was nothing left for him to be. And it was his own fault.

He suddenly whipped his head to stare worriedly at Steve. “Will she be OK?”

Steve fell silent. Of course he would know better than to give too much false hope to the Winter Soldier. “She’ll have her best chance with us,” he said eventually.

Bucky slouched even more. Another shiver combed his frame, as if chilled by his selfish longing to have Wanda back. To feel her fingers run through his hair. To have her hold his face, envelop him in her warmth and reverence, and press a feather-light kiss to his forehead.

"I’ve got you. You can let go.”

He did. He gasped a sob, unleashing so much utter devastation, he nearly blacked out again.


The world was moving too fast. Whirling around in a kaleidoscope of distorted shapes and colors. A rush of sounds, of scents, of air against skin. None of it made sense.

Was this what it was like for Pietro, when he didn’t have her to help him pace himself?

“Excuse me, you can’t be here without—oh, Jesus!”

“She—she needs the doctor. The one with who made the Cradle.”

The world began flashing in a disorienting pattern of white and grey. The bleak, Siberian sky she’d seen in Natasha’s nightmare.

“She’s in shock. Go ready a cart, we need eyes on her vitals.”

She tried to call to her scarlet, wanting to pull herself free of the dizzying hell. But for once, her powers absolutely refused to leave her hold. She could feel the burn in her muscles as they protested her calls.

“Any fluid in the lungs?”

“We need another medic! Hurry!”

“BP’s falling fast.”

Even her telepathy was quiet. There was no constant droning of surface thoughts from the people around her. And that terrified her. It had been so long since she’d been alone in her mind that she couldn’t figure what to do with herself. All she knew was that it meant something was extremely wrong with her.

“I’m sorry, but only medical personnel—”

“I’m not leaving her!”

She didn’t even realize she’d been clinging to something until it was suddenly ripped from her limp fingers. No! Don’t leave me alone. Her thoughts pounded in her head like thunder without anyone else’s there to buffer them. For all of the loathing she normally had towards her powers, being without them felt unsettling. Isolating.

“Easy! Easy!”

“Leg wound’s still bleeding.”

“For God’s sake, we don’t have time for this! Maddie, just let him through!”

Whatever she’d lost came back. Warm, crimson-stained fingers wrapped around her leaden hand, providing a single anchor as the world became completely drenched in frosty white.

Where am I?

“The new Cradle isn’t operational yet.”

“Then are any of the portables charged?”

She desperately sought a way out, a way to keep her head above the flood of blinding white. It was too much. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t even scream for help.

I want to go home.

“She’s crashing. Get the cart!”

She thought she could almost recognize this feeling. The specific memory was distant and muted, but she would never forget the sensation. First in her mind, then as an ache throughout her body that didn’t rightfully belong to her. Her half of the pain in Pietro’s body when he was shot. When he was dying.

“You’re going to be fine, Sestra. Don’t quit on me.”

She shivered, warring with her own body to hold on. To remember Pietro was there. She would never put him through what she had then.

Hands grappled with the buckle of her jacket, wrenching it open. Exposing her further to the frost. Grinding uncomfortably with the drying blood around the hole in her chest. More hands groped along her legs. Fuck, there was a hole there too.

“This one still has shrapnel. It looks like her enhancements are disturbing it.”

“We’ll have to remove it. Keep the Pod ready for when that blood vessel is unplugged.”

She was too tired to wait any longer. She wanted this over with. She wanted to sleep.

It took every ounce of her willpower simply to focus on getting her hand up, and twice that to keep it hovering above her thigh. The sleek, white-painted figures around her paused as frail wisps of scarlet finally appeared, weaving between her fingers. Just below her splayed, shaking fingers, the wound in her leg grew more irate. Blood spilled out in a frantic glut, though she barely noticed it, seeing stars the whole while instead.

After emitting a short series of disturbing squelches, a scrunched up ball of metal suddenly burst from the open wound. When Wanda turned her hand over, the extracted bullet followed, suspended a mere inch above her palm.

“There.” Her mouth felt like it was full of cotton wool. “St...stitch it up.”

Someone cursed softly. Then the bullet was snatched from her, carried away to be disposed of.

“Start applying the simulacrum tissue here. Sir, we’re going to need you to hold her still.”

She couldn’t fathom moving now even if she wanted to. Her body was well past spent, the exhaustion pressing down on her like a deadweight against every bone and muscle. The most strength she still had was in her fingers, cold and colorless, but unrelenting from where they wrapped around Pietro’s.

Her brother didn’t dare release their hold on each other. He only pressed it firmer against the cushion she was laying upon. He leaned over her so that his unoccupied arm could rest across her shoulders, effectively pinning her in place. She shifted her focus to studying his face, holding him in her mind’s eye instead of whatever was to come.

And then she felt it. The heat of Helen Cho’s device combed over her pulsating leg wound, pulling at torn skin and forcing it to fuse with something entirely foreign. Her body arched up on its accord, burning energy flaring just beneath the surface with distrust for the alien substance. All she could consciously manage was a shuddery gasp to indicate how badly she wanted to scream. Be it from the pain arcing through her entire right side, the intensity of her scarlet’s protective nature, or from horror at how the entire ordeal made Pietro wince as though he was in pain too, she didn’t know.

“Keep her still!”

Her brother clenched his jaw, adjusting his grip to press firmer against her shoulder. Refusing to meet her eye as he restrained her. Hiding, she belatedly realized.

What she wanted to tell him sat on the edge of her idle tongue. I’m sorry, brother. Please remember this isn’t your fault.

Just as quickly as it had started, the searing pain of her forcibly patched skin ended. She could have wept had she the energy. But then one of Cho’s assistants applied pressure to the bottom of her sternum, and she was vexed by the reminder that there was more to be done. She could see Cho step further into her line of sight, stringing along what looked like a giant computer mouse with her. At one end of the device was a crater glowing with a deep blue light. She squirmed at the sight, shying away even though she hadn’t felt anything yet. She knew what was coming.

More hands grabbed her body. They pinned her down, pressing against either side of her waist, at both of her wrists, and Pietro’s pressed against her shoulders. She heaved for breath, her body trying to flounder under the weight.

“It’ll be over soon,” her brother swore. “Hold on, Wanda.”

Right. Hold on. Hold on to him.

Her body trembled violently, this time with her own efforts to keep still. To restrain her scarlet during its futile protests against the intruding technology. Some of her powers did escape as the regenerative pod began working again, the tendrils floating aimlessly into the air like a blood-ridden mist. She couldn’t feel it slip past her skin or even set her blood aglow as it did. It just appeared, sinister and defensive.

The agony at her chest was blinding. It was like the pulling, stretching, and manipulation of raw tissue there could be felt in greater clarity, making the experience even worse than that at her leg. She could feel her scarlet straining against her as she fought its rejection, her muscles clenching and contracting as they struggled to keep it from interfering with the process.

At some point, black starting creeping along the edges of her vision as her consciousness gave out from under so much pressure. Her only means of resistance was to protest in her eerily silent mind.

No, no, no! Don’t go under! Don’t lose Pietro! She had to hold onto her brother. What if he wasn’t there when she woke up?

There was nothing she could do to stop herself. By now, all she could hope for was that she managed to remind him that she loved him before she lost him again. She loved him, and she loved—

James! Where is he?

She’d never told him. She still needed to! Why wasn’t he there?

He did this. James did this to you.

“No!” punched past her lips.

The hands over her body pressed harder, preventing her body from bucking up as it wanted to.

James did this.

Find him! He’s hurting! Someone got into his head. Make them stop hurting him!

“Make it stop,” she rasped.

“You’re alright,” Pietro promised, framing her face with his hands in order to help her focus on his words. “I’m here for you. I’m here.”

Pietro’s here. Don’t lose him.

Her mind and body were both at war with themselves. Her body fought with self-restraint and an innate need to defend itself from pain. Her mind fought with the memories of what led to this, and with her determination to stay grounded to reality.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, sister.” Pietro’s voice broke over his apology. What he had to be sorry for, she couldn’t comprehend. She couldn’t grasp at anything, for that matter. She was teetering on the razor’s edge between consciousness and not. It almost made her miss the kiss on her forehead. “It’s nearly over.”

James did this.

Pietro was wrong. This was nowhere near over.

“The pain is going to make everything alright. You know it always means something grand is coming next.”

She pushed her body until it burned. She forced her mind to hold on until tears blurred her vision. Then the burning was reduced to detached nothingness, and she was free. And with that, she fell asleep.


When the Avengers finally managed to drag themselves home in their haggard, dirtied truck, there was an earful waiting for them.

To her credit, Helen Cho tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism with the people who were technically her superiors. Meaning her demeanor was at a bizarre crossroads between collected civility and biting displeasure. Apparently, no one had told her that Wanda ran off on her own, leaving the geneticist to assume the team had intentionally taken the witch with them on their most recent mission before she’d had full medical clearance. Cho didn’t bother to sugarcoat anything about the arduous task she’d faced of patching up the girl after she’d been brought back to the compound, from the pressure of having to operate after half her staff had been sent home, to the complications Wanda created when her enhancements fought the healing technology during a majority of the process. Despite everything, Steve suspected the scientist’s largest issue was wounded pride from something impairing her usually flawless inventions.

Tony was the only one of the team to try to appease her. He put on a remarkable show with his usual charm and energy, even though he was just as exhausted as everyone else. He kept cool as he consoled her with promises to train with Maximoff more, to modify her suit with Kevlar and other protective measures, and to better look out for each other in general while on missions. What seemed to mollify Helen completely was his mention of finally getting around to starting some sort of project they had apparently been discussing before, about nanotech that could heal open wounds at a moment’s notice.

Helen had dismissed them with a curt, “I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Stark.” Then she left, presumably to examine Pietro’s condition next (or in Tony’s words, “see if the roadrunner is going to try eating our brains at some point”).

Steve stayed behind as Sam took Bucky back to Tony’s lab. Clint went to check on the twins, and Tony went to check in with Pepper. That left him with only Natasha in the common area. Natasha stretched out her bruised limbs on one of the tough, leather chaises while Steve paced around her, trying to process everything in the maddening silence of his head.

Bucky shot Wanda. He shot Wanda. Steve’s one connection to the life he once knew and still longed for sometimes had nearly cost him a part of his new one. He knew deep down Bucky wasn’t entirely to blame for it. Several visits to the VA with Sam (and some of his own experiences) had taught him a few things about the challenges that post-traumatic stress entailed. And from the way Bucky broke down upon realizing what he’d done in his triggered state, there was no question whether his guilt over it was genuine.

But that didn’t make it OK, either. Nothing resolved the twisted horror brought from having to watch Wanda bleed out in her brother’s arms, from the worry that she was bleeding too much. From seeing the anguish on her newly recovered twin’s face as he and everyone else helplessly watched. That moment of horror and helplessness to save a teammate had been too severe to simply overlook like it had been when Steve had been on the receiving end of the Winter Soldier’s wrath. If this was what Sam and Natasha had gone through over him back then, it made understanding Natasha’s loathing a little easier.

Steve couldn’t bear to be alone with his thoughts any longer. He stopped where he was, a couple of feet behind Natasha to prompt her. “You’re awfully quiet.”

With her back to him, she was even harder than usual to read. “What’s there to say?”

Steve gave a frustrated scoff. Wasn’t it obvious? “That you were right. Wanda and I aren’t enough for him. We’ll have to figure out something else to help him.”

Natasha still didn’t look at him. Though he could see her head tilt to study something in her lap rather than give him her full attention. “I feel like I made it pretty clear I don’t care what you do with him.”

“You didn’t mean that.”

That seemed to hit a chord. She sharply twisted in her seat to face him, appraising him with a glare that possessed all of the calculative hardness of a viper poised to strike. “And what makes you so sure?”

He didn’t back down in the face of her icy demeanor. “Because a teammate got hurt. I know you’re not just going to let that slide.”

Her eyelashes fluttered rapidly as her gaze went to the ceiling, feigning careful thought. “Ah, yes. But when it was my partner in her place, everything was just shits and giggles?”

He couldn’t keep from rolling his eyes at that, then attempted to hide it by rubbing his hands down his face. “Jeez, Nat. That’s not…”

“Not what?” she challenged. “Not the same? Not—”

“It’s not relevant to this,” he interrupted harshly.

Natasha didn’t respond directly to that. Rather, she quirked her eyebrow and looked away from him with only a barely audible hum.

Distrusting the speculative hint to her stare, Steve demanded, “What? What are you thinking?”

She gave a mirthless chuckle. “Just wondering how the infamous ‘man out of time’ could know so little about learning from the past.”

He gritted his teeth. “I’ve learned plenty.”

Her glare turned back to him, sharp and icy. “And yet, you still believe your friend, Bucky Barnes, can be salvaged from the Winter Soldier?”

“Why shouldn’t I? Stranger things have happened around here.”

That frigid resolve cracked, exposing something hard and dangerous beneath. “You mean worse people have found rehabilitation here?”

What? No! Why would...” That wasn’t what he’d meant at all. The fact that she would assume otherwise sat wrongly with him. “If that’s what you want to hear, then fine.”

It was entirely possible she had been referring to Wanda or Clint, but from the level of malice in her tone when she spoke, he knew there was no confusing who she thought he had in mind. “You weren’t much different when Barton brought you in. So, why shouldn’t the Winter Soldier be given the same chances you were?”

“I did give him a chance, Steve!” she snapped. It took him by surprise for a moment, having never seen her completely lose her composure before. He’d seen it slip away in pieces, fracturing under the weight of grief or distress. But never like this, so wholly and in anger. “I was willing to give him a chance, and he blew it when he blew a hole through Wanda’s chest!”

“He didn’t meant to,” he insisted weakly. “You saw it—you saw him. He knew it was a mistake. It might not have even happened if we had only started working with him sooner!”

Natasha burst to her feet, turning away from him as she seemed to at least try regathering her frayed nerves. “True,” she said, her voice wavering. Then she turned to face him again, her visage suddenly hard again. “Or he could’ve done a lot worse. And we wouldn’t have even had her brother around to get help in time.”

“God, Nat.” He shook his head hopelessly. “Don’t do this. Why can’t you understand what this must be like for him? I understood why he did what he did to me in DC. Wanda’s probably been in his head, so she must understand why he hurt her, too. Why can’t you?”

“Because I’ve been in her place!” Natasha snarled. “I thought I could appeal to his humanity the same way she did, and Hydra still managed to keep their claws in him. He didn’t recognize me the next day, and he still didn’t recognize me after two other encounters. How many times does he need to forget? How many times does he need to realize too late that he’s fighting you, or Wanda, before you realize he’s not going to change?”

“He can change if we find the right treatment for him. How is it any different than when you found SHIELD, and Clint, and Fury?”

“Because I could tell when to stop fighting them. He can’t!” She looked shaken now. He knew it was a low blow, bringing in her own experiences when she had so much trouble opening up about them in the first place. Likely for this reason, in a situation where they could be used against her. Make her emotionally compromised. “I’m not saying that’s his fault. I’m only saying the damage goes deeper than you seem to realize.”

Steve tried to keep his temper in check, not wanting to push all of this too far. “Well,” he said with forced coolness, “leaving him to rot alone in a jail cell isn’t going to make anything better.”

Something flashed in her eyes, and he knew his attempt to temper some of the tension of the situation was completely in vain. “Why does it have to be you that gets him help? You don’t owe him—”

He had to cut in then. Nothing she said next would make the rest of that statement correct. “Yes, I do. I owe him everything about who I am now.”

“Bullshit,” she snapped. She was truly lost in her emotions now, drowning without her cool control and unfeeling masks there to protect her. She wasn’t even attempting to reach for them anymore. It made him flinch, having never even fathomed she would ever let anyone see her like this. Vulnerable, and bordering on madness with the intensity of her rage. “Bullshit! You only want him around because he’s a link to your past! You think he can make you feel like things are the way they once were again!”

He didn’t think that was true. Even if it was, he didn’t want to think it was true. As much as he did miss his past life, he’d grown attached to the people in the one he had now, and didn’t want to imagine himself putting anything—or anyone—above their happiness. Still, he demanded hotly, “So, what if I do?”

That only succeeded in pushing Nat over the edge. “It won’t be the same, Steve!” she shouted. “He’s not the same buddy you had back then. And if you keep blinding yourself to that—keep glorifying him, then he’s only going to wind up getting worse and hurting more people in the process.”

“Do you think Wanda glorified him? Like that’s the only reason anyone would want to have him around?”

“She’s a kid! What does she know? The only reason she thought he was important in the first place is because you brought up how much he means to you.”

“You can’t make me feel sorry for caring about him.” Steve loomed closer to her, as if a part of him didn’t think she would be able to see she couldn’t dissuade him from how he felt unless he was a mere foot away. “And if she hadn’t found him, we would’ve never known about her brother. We wouldn’t have been able to find her brother—someone she needs in her life, and saved your partner!”

Jesus, that was even lower than bringing up her past. She trusted so few people in her life, let alone allowed herself to form close relationships with them. Clint was one of few exceptions, and bringing up how she could have lost him without Maximoff there that day only escalated the situation needlessly.

He could tell she was trying to hide behind one of her composed masks, but the hurt was too much to stifle. “You are my partner,” she said harshly, making the words sound more like an insult than a fact.

“Am I?” he flashed back before he could stop himself. “Can you still call me your partner when you think I’m some hopelessly naïve sap?”

She rolled her eyes. “I never said that.”

“I can’t be your partner if you don’t trust me.”

“Who said I didn’t?”

“Why was he with you when you found the antiserum?”

She fell silent at that. The silence was all the answer he needed.

And yet, he pressed on. “If he really turned himself in to you, Jarvis would have said something about him being on the grounds.”

“No...” her soft voice stopped him. She averted her gaze to the wall, though it wasn’t enough for him to miss the fiery abandon in her eyes glaze over. Not with the calm control she was known for, but with something colder. Sadder. A self-inflicted numbness. “I went looking for him. I was going to kill him.”

Despite having suspected as much, it was still hard to hear. Even worse was her barely audible, “I wish I had.”

He tried not to take that personally. Tried to remember that Bucky had hurt her too by that time, and even nearly cost them Wanda by letting her be exposed to Hydra’s virus. He really tried. “What would you have done after?” he asked.

What would you have told me?

Natasha offered a noncommittal shrug. “Tell the truth. Someone from his past caught up with him.”

“And you think Wanda would’ve believed that?”

Some of that fire returned, burning a hole right through his attempts to sound callous or detached. “What does it matter? It didn’t happen, and I sure as hell can’t try it now.”

“You could have told me you were going to find him.”

“Oh, stop!” she huffed. “You had Wanda here, you had the same key set I did. You had every chance to go after him first, but instead, you stayed here sulking about what you thought you would find!”

“I wasn’t upset about him! I was upset because—” His voice failed him. “Because I felt like I didn’t know you anymore.”

She made herself look at him then. He could see her eyes travelling over his face. Really looking at him. He didn’t have the energy to try discerning what she was looking for. “I’m a spy, Steve,” she whispered.

He knew what she meant. He wasn’t supposed to know her. She was supposed to work alone.

“And I’m not.” I’m a soldier, not a spy.

She closed her eyes, looking so miserable and shattered that he wanted to embrace her despite himself. He hated himself for putting her through this. He even hated Bucky for driving this rift through the whole team. But he still loved his old friend, too. For that, it wasn’t so easy to just relent to whatever would make Nat feel better.

“How were we ever supposed to work?” She didn’t specify as what. Work partners. Leaders of a team. Friends. Lovers.

“I don’t know,” he answered. He sounded defeated to his own ears.

There was nowhere to go from there. Neither of them were convinced, or relieved, or remotely comforted by what had been exchanged so far, yet for those same reasons, neither had the emotional fortitude to go on. Everything their relationship had potentially been building towards was well and truly wrecked. And for what? For his friend who he wouldn’t even be able to see for however long it took for Bucky to recover?

Steve let the silence linger a second longer, and no more. “Can you at least promise you and Tony will find a place that will actually help him? Not just let him waste away?”

“I can see.”

That wasn’t entirely convincing. In hindsight, he didn’t think anything would sound convincing enough when he still carried the distrust he did with the outside world.

Natasha moved, slipping between him and the sofa like a shadow. Something unobtainable. The Slavic Shadow. Something he could never reach no matter how hard he tried. The Black Widow.

He didn’t follow her as she left. He didn’t even think to leave himself to check on Bucky or Wanda. He didn’t have the energy, or the heart to. His strength simply failed him, causing him to slump onto the couch beside him. The hard leather was like a punch to his form. He sagged against the tough cushions. And he simmered in hopelessness for both his past and future lives.


Natasha wanted to run. She didn’t care where or how long to be gone for. She just couldn’t stand to be at the compound anymore. Running was all she knew, was her default plan of defense against something like this, an unsettling situation. A somber, desolate aura hung over every corner of the building like a dense fog, smothering her with its intangible weight. Yet, she unconsciously pressed forward because alas, there was still more to be done. She still had to find Tony, and with his help, find a place to send Barnes away for good.

She wandered through the residential ward without really seeing any of the rooms she passed, feeling distant from her own body. Why? It wasn’t like this was the first time she’d quarreled with her partner.

But this was the first time it had felt so final.

“How were we ever supposed to work?” She still wasn’t entirely sure what she’d meant by that. In her mind, it was a trivial thing, referring to how they would sort out their differences on what to do with Barnes. But as soon as the words left her mouth, she realized there was more to it than that. Would Steve still be her partner after Barnes was gone? Would he even be her friend? She had no idea how the Avengers would be able to function if not. Maybe she would have to step down altogether? Operate from the sidelines, in hiding, like Hill and Fury.

And go where in between missions?

She tried to push down her apprehension at the thought of having to be on her own. She was the Black Widow, after all. She was supposed to be alone, free of emotional ties to anyone or anything that could compromise her.

But living here had softened her. Made her too used to socialization, and banter, and pointless fun. And so, it made her feel sick to her stomach to think of leaving her team. Her friends, and their loud, strange home they’d made here together.  

Stop that, she mentally admonished herself as her emotions began to swell up. You are the Black Widow. Black Widow does not feel. And she certainly doesn’t love anyone.

She noticed she was approaching Tony’s suite just in time to piece some of her composure back together. God, this whole mess had barely left her any emotional energy to be embarrassed at how much she had unraveled in front of Steve. Now, with some distance from him and those feelings, she was wary of how her close encounter with a full-on breakdown might have left her appearance. She rubbed her eyes a few times just to be safe, and forced herself to take some deep breaths to gauge the strength of the knot that had been budding in her throat since leaving the common area. Then she pressed her hand to the already partially opened door, quietly urging it further ajar. She only pushed it a few inches, though, knowing Tony had retreated here earlier with Pepper, and not wanting to risk barging in if they were having a personal moment.

She peeked through the gap between the door and the doorframe when it was wide enough for half her face to see. Having designed a good majority of the Facility himself, Tony had taken it upon himself to make his room slightly bigger than the others,’ putting an extra few feet of distance between where Natasha stood and the bed. He was set there, on the end of the plush mattress with Pepper standing between his legs, blocking most of the spy’s view of him. She soon realized that Pepper was telling him something in a low, hushed tone.

“...I know, Tony. I just don’t want to see you getting completely carried away by some need for vengeance. We saw that happen to Hammer, and Vanko, and...and Killian. I couldn’t stand to see that happen to you.”

Natasha stepped back. It was rare her conscience got the best of her, especially when she had been sent with an incentive as important as getting rid of the Winter Soldier. But this felt like too much, something too personal for her make her business by listening any further. She had met Tony and Pepper during their episode with Hammer and Vanko, but the Aldrich Killian debacle, no one else on the team knew too much about. That was how deeply whatever had happened then affected the two of them.

She retreated a few paces, only to lean against a nearby wall when it occurred to her she had nowhere else to go for the time being. She thought of looking for Clint, the only person besides Steve she could stand to be around whenever she felt this poorly. But when she last saw him, he’d seemed to need his space too, clearly wrestling with the knowledge the Maximoff brother was still alive. Seeking him out now would probably lead to impeding him confronting the enhanced young man much like Pepper was with Tony now.

From her vantage, she could still slightly hear them. Not well enough to discern what was being said, but definitely how it was being said. With gentle consolations and patient remarks. A sharp contrast, she noticed, to her explosive exchange with Steve. Despite herself (and she would never admit it), she envied Stark and Pepper for it. For being such comforting presences for each other in the wake of the day’s madness and turmoil when she presently had none.

She clenched her eyes shut, battling an urge to run. To escape, to hide from the rest of the world. Maybe flee from her own emotions for a while, if she was lucky. Why couldn’t she just stop feeling?

With a slight creak of wood, her plans for escape were promptly dashed. She snapped to attention as Tony emerged from the threshold to his room. His eyes were downcast at first, so it took him a heartbeat to notice her. “Hey,” he greeted quietly. She could detect a falseness hiding in his casual tone. “D’you need something?”

It was a simple question. There was a simple answer. However, her breath hitched in her throat as if he’d laid bare everything she’d done and regretted in the last few minutes. Everything she’d said, letting her pride and anger and fear for Steve’s wellbeing fuel the words. The rawness of the memory surged over her like a tidal wave, locking her in place as her inner self was overwhelmed.

It wasn’t like her to freeze up, and Tony knew that. “You OK?”

What about any of this could ever seem OK?

“I just...” She faltered, her brain still swimming in a plethora of emotions she didn’t know how to deal with. That she’d been trained to just ignore for so long. “I was supposed to...I needed to ask....”

He was a better man than she gave him credit for, patiently waiting for her string the right words together. When she only struggled more, he awkwardly shifted his weight, as if nervous to cut in when she hadn’t technically finished. “Well, I think Pep and I are gonna call it an early night. Or evening, I guess.” He glanced over his shoulder, at the rays of sunlight streaming over him from the windows across the ways in his room. “Afternoon.”

She only nodded mutely. Lord, what was wrong with her?

“You want to join?”

That took her aback, enough to distract her for a brief second.

Tony didn’t elaborate much, stuffing his hands in his pockets as his eyes wandered over everything but her. Whether for her sake or his, she couldn’t tell. “I was just gonna look for something to bite and bring it back here. Maybe, whatever you were gonna say, you could ask Pep?”

She couldn’t discern how she felt about that. Granted, she liked Pepper, and would even consider her a friend. But were they close enough for her to just impede on the other woman and Stark’s reprieve from everything?

Tony didn’t appear to need an answer from her. With a terse half-smile, he merely went ahead without a word more from either of them. Natasha remained in a stunned silence for a few beats, fiddling with her fingers as she considered his offer.

She was returning to the door before she’d really made a solid decision. Why not? She didn’t have to stay the whole evening. She just needed to ask one of them what they thought about where to send Barnes. A simple in and out.

You are fine. Black Widow does not feel. Black Widow isn’t afraid to lose anyone.

Pepper was sitting where Tony had been on the edge of the bed, staring off to the side and chewing on her thumbnail. Once she seemed to notice Natasha approaching, she immediately stood up, smoothing down her casual white top and even the jean shorts she wore. “Tasha, hi. I just heard about everything. How are you doing?”

Again, it was such a simple question. The answer wasn’t as simple this time, but she floundered regardless. She tried to look at the wall, hoping she could pretend Pepper wasn’t there, and therefore couldn’t embarrass herself in front of anyone. “I was...I had to ask—”

“Natasha?”

A hand delicately touched her shoulder, teeming with the same gentleness she had previously been eavesdropping on. That she had secretly wanted herself. And with that, whatever had been inhibiting her usual sense of cool composure snapped. She still made an attempt to speak, though her voice cracked along the jagged edges of her previously stifled emotions. Her upset from fighting with Steve, her fear they wouldn’t be partners anymore (in every sense of the word), fear of what would become of her if they weren’t, and frustration that one man had caused her family to unravel this much. All of them spilled over in a torrent that terrified her.

It was purely by miracle that she managed to stay remotely upright. Even when Pepper gathered her in a tight embrace and took some of her weight from her. She held onto the spy as she heaved soundless sobs against her, air only reaching her lungs in the occasional loud, stuttering gasp. Natasha hid her face in the other woman’s shoulder, winding her arms around the slighter form in an unspoken appreciation for how Pepper had begun to lightly rub the base of her neck.

She should have been embarrassed. She should have been mortified with herself for showing weakness like this. She should have been better. But she wasn’t. And so, she only clung tighter to the only source of warmth and comfort she could presently fathom.


The Winter Soldier viewed darkness as something of a shelter. The majority of his past missions were supposed to remain secretive, with no trace of him and no witnesses. Deep down, a part of him always preferred to operate in shadows to reduce the likelihood of having any of the latter. To reduce the amount of blood he would have to put on his hands.

Now, the darkness around him only made him feel like a coward hiding from his actions. Granted, the technical reason he was slumped on his knees in the middle of an unlit lab was because of the metal vise entrapping his arm there. But he had no intention of looking for a way to free himself. He didn’t even react when Steve stopped by, offering him a plate of food and a cup of water (plastic, so he couldn’t break it and hurt himself). He sat idly by as Steve informed him that he was going to be sent to a psych ward as soon as Stark cleared everything with one’s administrators.

Steve seemed oddly irritable as he relayed the news, but Bucky didn’t speak on it. He didn’t speak at all. Not even when Steve left without any update on the witch’s state. In all honesty, he didn’t think he could stomach hearing about it. If Wanda was alright, that would mean she would know what he’d done. She would be somewhere hating him for it. Or worse, forgiving him even though he didn’t deserve it. And if she wasn’t alright....

You killed her.

He sat in silence for hours. Hour after hellish hour, he stayed motionless. He could feel the muscles in his back and legs tighten, cramping up as a form of protest for remaining in one place for so long. Doing nothing but wallowing in self-pity. Being so perpetually useless, while the witch suffered.

All she’d ever wanted was to help. To help Steve, to help him, to help her brother. For that, the Winter Soldier punished her. He’d tried to ruin her just as horribly as he did Steve while in DC. If that was all he was good for—wrecking the only two people who somehow cared about him despite everything—then he wanted nothing more to do with either of them.

No, that wasn’t true. The man beneath the Soldier was a selfish one, and he still missed the little witch. He dropped his head against the edge of the workbench, knowing he had no right to want to be anywhere near her anymore. But he couldn’t help himself from imagining her with him. Back at the inn, back when their relationship was simpler. Before she’d gotten sick, before she found out about her brother. Before he went looking for her when he had every mean to leave. When he should have left.

Knowing what he knew now, he wondered what he would do if he’d had one more day back then. He liked to think they would curl up in bed as they normally did, his head pillowed against her heart and her fingers carding through his hair. The muted sunlight would glow against her skin through the curtains, but she would have her own radiance about her. It would be in her scarlet fingertips, in her umber tresses. The exposed skin of her chest would be warm and likely humming beneath his ear with whatever song was in her head at the time. Maybe he would scatter kisses across the smooth flesh, making his way up her throat and to her lips. Her hands would caress his cheeks, holding him above her as she looked up at him, wistfully calling him her soldier. He would wonder if it was alright to call her his in turn.

He wondered if he would have ever told her how he felt back then. He questioned if he should have at all, given where it had led them.

She trusted you. And you only dragged her down. You ruined her.

The Soldier closed his eyes, pressing his body impossibly close against the firm surface of the workbench and vise. The bench’s edge jabbed at his forehead. The vise squeezed against his metal arm. He could hear the plates dully whir in half-hearted attempts to shift free of the intense pressure. He heard his heart pounding in his ears, even though he had nothing to be anxious about. He’d already destroyed what little still mattered to him.

He heard a slight rush of air. A loud crackle of energy.

Red encased the leftmost side of his vision. A frail wisp coiled around his arm, pushing out against his captor. Metal groans echoed throughout the lab when the deceptively thin tendril succeeded in shoving the vise further apart.

His heart quickened in a rush of simultaneous horror and joy. She was here. She was well enough to be here and standing.

He felt rather than saw her draw nearer, having squeezed his eyes shut in refusal to face her. The only reason he let his arm slip free from its newly loosened confines was to better brace himself against the floor, trying to push his achingly stiff body backwards when he felt the slightest brush of hands against his face.

“It’s alright. You’re alright.” He nearly crumbled at the sound of her voice. At her tone, so soft and reassuring and the absolute last thing he’d earned. “It’s just me.”

That’s the problem.

“James.” Her accent wrapped around his name so thickly that he could almost convince himself that all was just as it had always been. That she wasn’t hurt, and they were nestled comfortably together in bed. “It’s alright. I don’t blame y—”

He shook his head, still unable to look at her. Especially when she was trying to reason with him, to comfort him. “No. Don’t.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” she insisted, just as strong-willed as he was. “You weren’t in your right mind. Someone made you lose yourself.”

Was that meant to be a sufficient excuse? How could she be so absurd as to forgive him? He had done so many things to so many people, but this…he nearly killed her. And after promising her he loved her?

No, there was nothing left of himself to lose. All he’d done was show that the Winter Soldier was too prominent in him to ever make him a man capable of feeling or receiving love.

“But I did it,” he muttered emptily. As he came to better terms about how wrong what he’d done was—how wrong he was for her—the more he thought he was finally gaining courage to properly face her. Though when he opened his eyes, all he managed to see was the floor between them. There were traces of her: her shadow over him, her legs bent at the knees, hands resting over them without any of their usual decoration of rings.

She was quiet for a moment, and he could feel her eyes studying him. He tried to keep his mind blank, in case she was reading him (he’d already ruined her trust, so why should he expect her to respect his anymore?). But it was so difficult to keep his thoughts from running away from him.

“So, that’s it then?” There was a certain edge to her voice, like she was straining to keep it level. “You just go out there, take punishment, and never come back?”

He felt her touch his face, instantly recognizing the sensation of what feels like dozens of static electric shocks against the skin. How small the sensation feels varies on her emotions, and right now she apparently felt very passionate. Though it was hardly anything to him after his history with shock therapy. She was urging him to look at her, and this time he didn’t fight her.

He finally saw her, and what he noticed right away was that she clearly did not appreciate his effort to hide from this confrontation. She skimmed her hand behind his head, gently holding on to him by the nape, but she already had him grounded there with those hard, green eyes. “You know they’re not going to send you somewhere to help you. Once you’re out there, they won’t care what happens to you, or even that Steve and I do.”

He sagged against her touch, feeling increasingly drained. He knew he should’ve been relieved to know the only two people he cared about were still concerned about him as well, but all he could feel was misery. He’d hurt them both so horribly, within an inch of their lives. Why couldn’t they remember that? Why couldn’t they realize he was no good for either of them?

You know why.

He clenched his jaw, forcing himself to hold her gaze as he told her what he should have said long ago. Or at least traced the lines of it, given how far he’d let the attachment grow since then. “Telling you I love you was a mistake.”

Had the world around them not been dead silent, he would’ve thought she didn’t hear him. It spurred no reaction from her, aside from a slight shift in her breathing that he never would have noticed had he not been trained to read people so adeptly. “Why?”

“Because I didn’t mean it,” he growled harsher than he meant to. It was enough to make her hands retreat from his face, her entire body huddling in on itself as she digested what he said. And he didn’t stop, not entirely caring what he was saying. Just as long as it stung enough to push her away, to fully show her the kind of monster he could be. “It meant nothing. Everything I said and did was only because I was confused, and scared, and because I didn’t want to be alone anymore. And because you were there, and you were nice to me.”

It took a moment for that to sink in. He could tell she was trying vehemently not to shake, though a brief shiver betrayed her. He could feel her next few breaths leave her harshly and rapidly, struggling to suppress the extent of her feelings. She did so remarkably well. It was only because of their close proximity that Bucky could see how angry and humiliated she truly was, the intensity of both emotions creating a storm in her eyes. He half-expected to see the irises bathe with a vibrant red, but that never came. “You don’t really believe that.”

She sounded so sure, he couldn’t help but let his suspicion show. “Don’t look inside my head, witch!”

“I don’t need to!” she flashed back, her venom routing his.

“Then how do you know?”

“Because I know you,” she replied before either of them could notice the way his voice had cracked. “And I know the part of you that's always there, deep down— the part of you that you want to be, would have never told me that if he didn't mean it. He would have never risked his freedom for anything less.”

That was too true to argue with. But the truth didn’t stop his emotions from getting a rise out of him, churning and cutting at him from the inside. He was plummeting further into his darkness, and all he wanted was to keep from dragging her down with him. “You can’t save me. You can't change the other part of me. No one can! It...”

He faltered, pain pouring fast and harsh as what he was about to say really occurred to him, pulling him lower than he’d ever felt before. “It will always be there.”

She didn’t react as a heavy shudder wracked his body. He’d never felt as exposed and vulnerable in his life as he did then, trembling on his hands and knees. Violently repressing an urge to sob, or crawl into the warmth of the witch’s arms.

“Maybe so,” she agreed gently. “But going out there, to be with people who would rather see you punished than recovering, won't help you live with it any easier. It won't help. Can’t I at least try to be here for you the way they won’t?”

He didn’t answer. All he could manage was another hapless shudder. God, he’d never wanted this. To be so damaged. To be this burden. Unable to be around his friend—his brother, or the woman he loved without being afraid he would lose everything at a moment’s notice and endanger them.

Wanda scooted closer, bringing their faces only a scarce few inches apart. He didn’t have the fortitude to shy away like he should have. “James?” she uttered, the sweet heat of her breath billowing against his ear. “Do you still love me?”

That was all she needed to break him. He couldn’t lie to her. He never could, despite his attempts to seconds before. “I do! I do,” he whimpered, slumping forward completely. And even though he still believed he didn’t deserve it, she caught him anyways, arms curling against him and holding him in place as he sobbed into her shoulder. “Please...please, don’t hate me.”

She didn’t respond, giving him a moment to come apart, deeply and unreservedly. He did his best to curb as much of it as he could, mindful that her powers would likely absorb some of it for herself if it was strong enough. But it seemed the harder he fought, the further he fell into the pit of anguish and guilt that poured from his heart. The same damaged heart that only pumped more misery throughout his body as he so uselessly knelt there. She weaved her fingers into his hair as he did, rubbing his shoulders with her second hand. She offered no judgement or pity. No threat of punishment for revealing how weak the Winter Soldier really was. All she had for him was a question.

“You love me?”

He could only nod, clinging to her and hating himself for being so unwilling to let go.

“Then show me.”

At that, he did let go. Only to lean back, to see how he could at least begin to prove himself to her again. Yet all she offered were her hands, resting a safe distance between them, but still inviting him to take. “Come with me?” she implored simply.

He hesitated, heart beating thunderously in his ears. Screaming at him that this was wrong. He deserved nothing from her, he wasn’t safe around her. Not when he couldn’t trust his own mind.

But with that distrust, he was also afraid to be alone.

With only his flesh hand, he took her on her offer. She didn’t react much, but he knew she was relieved.

They were both silent, and their hold on each other light, as she led him back to her room. He sank onto the edge of the bed, feeling all of his exhaustion from the day finally set in as he did. She stayed close, following his subtle nudges to have her stand between his knees. They both reveled in the silence for a moment, welcoming the stillness in the air after the chaos of their rescue mission, and the fight with the other Avengers, and her impromptu surgery. He leaned into the touch of her hands combing methodically through his hair, knowing he had the scarlet energy that lurked within her to thank for keeping her skin warm. In the pit of his mind, he wondered if it was also to thank for her speedy recovery from being shot.

He noticed then that she was wearing a shirt twice her size. It was probably better suited for Steve or Barton. It hung loose on her frame, and it nearly completely covered the gym shorts she also worse. So much skin exposure was likely meant to give space to the tender places where she’d been hurt. He could see a mark on her thigh from where one of Hydra’s men got her.

Taking utmost care with his movements, the Soldier unbuttoned the upper half of the blue-plaid material, then pushed it away from the creamy flesh of her shoulders. Exposing his handiwork for his guilty conscience to see. Or at least, as much of it that was still visible after the Avengers’ medical staff saw to it. It was now a miniscule, seemingly insignificant thing between her breasts, only visible because of a rim of irritated red outlining where her scarlet had tried to reject the new skin.

For the longest time, he could only stare. The sight was in some ways amazing, with how lifelike the false skin was. And in some ways, it was unbearable to look at. His remorse for causing such damage made that much certain, as well as seeing her physical struggle if she made any motion that required bending her midsection.

“It’s alright,” Wanda whispered. “I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Anymore. It had at one point, and he hadn’t been there to help her through it.

Actually seeing the damage he’d done, and knowing it had caused her pain, became all he could think of. “I hurt you.”

“You didn’t mean to,” she said. Again, sounding so certain of his erratic mind that there was no possible way he could argue with her. “You never wanted to. I know that now.”

He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve her. But he was selfish and so utterly low inside, he only shook his head in disbelief at how effortlessly she gave forgiveness. His arms snaked loosely about her waist, bringing her as close as she could be. He ensured every touch was slow and feather-light, so afraid that he would hurt her further.

“I’m sorry I...I’m so sorry!” he insisted in brutal earnest, nuzzling the space above the scar. Committing to memory what he knew would haunt him forever.

“It’s alright. It will heal.” There was something off in her voice now. Like she was distracted by something. She didn’t give him a chance to dwell on it, though, having pulled away to gently urge him to lay back. “Just rest for now. It will go away soon.”

Whether she was referring to his guilt or her scar, he wasn’t sure. He only mindlessly followed her tender prompts to properly get into bed with her. He resisted his usual habit of curling against her to lay his head on her chest. He only laid beside her, letting her stroke his head some more as she spoke in her mother tongue with soothing words and pet names. A sincere, lulling sound. In that moment, despite hearing none of the telltale pops or hisses of her scarlet, he felt like only magic could have made his troubled mind finally settle down into a mercifully empty sleep.


James fell asleep rather quickly, but Wanda didn’t. She stayed awake, continuing to run her fingers through his hair in a vain attempt to let the monotonous motion soothe her mind as it tossed and turned the way her body presently couldn’t. James was beside her, close enough to feel the warmth of the serum that kept his body at an ideal temperature at all times, and close enough to see a perturbed expression etched on his face even in sleep. But he wasn’t close enough to actually be touching her.

She knew if she really wanted the contact, she could always scoot herself closer and tuck herself more snugly against him. After all, her body felt well enough to do so. The new skin over her sternum, at her back, and around her thigh felt odd. Tight, like the muscles there were being pulled taut no matter how relaxed the rest of her body was. But it didn’t necessarily hurt.

It was fascinating, really, how fast her body was on the mend due to the combined efforts of her enhancements and the technology only the Avengers had access to. She wondered how quickly she would have died had she been shot while still living in Sokovia.

She wondered if she would have even been shot had she still been living in Sokovia. If she would’ve ever met the Winter Soldier back then.

My James.

That seemed to be the hardest part for her to wrap her brain around. All of the time she’d spent getting to know the other side of the Winter Soldier, to help James Barnes rediscover his own mind, body, and soul...all of it had been rendered pointless so easily. In mere seconds, it had all been lost on him.

In hindsight, she knew that wasn’t something she should take personally. Just because she and James had made progress on making him his own person again, that didn’t mean what Hydra had created was guaranteed to remain hidden from then on.

So, why was she still taking it to heart to know she’d lost him, even if for just a moment?

Her fingers stilled while in his hair. She dropped her cheek against the top of his head, listening to his slow, heavy breaths. She listened to her own heartbeat, thumping restlessly in her chest. Sending a rush of temptation throughout her blood to allow just a few tendrils of scarlet slip past her fingers and into his skull. Just to see if she could find all of those traumatic memories that lurked within him, that threatened to make him lose himself again. To see if she could smother them or tear them out or something, so that all that remained was the person he wanted to be so badly.

She wasn’t going to, though. She couldn’t violate his trust that way. Evidently, she couldn’t even try if her life depended on it.

She couldn’t bear to remember that moment. That pure, paralyzing shock when James had shot her. That pressing urge to fight for her life not because she could have died otherwise, but because she knew he would never forgive himself if she did. Nor would the Avengers, or Pietro. Even now, she wasn’t sure if any of them had absolved him for what happened in any way. Come tomorrow, what was the team going to do with him? Would she be able to defend him?

Should she?

Wanda nuzzled her nose against his hair, taking in his scent and the feel of him beside her as she pondered if it would be her last chance to do so. There was no point denying she still wanted to protect him from the outside world that feared and hated him. But this entire ordeal had made her question if she could go on trying to help him all on her own. At least, if she could like this, with the both of them constantly limiting her. And now that her brother was back, she knew there would be even less time for just the two of them to spend any kind of time together. Especially after an ordeal like this. It had been hard enough getting him to leave her side once he’d seen her wake up after her surgery, where he’d apparently had to fulfill a promise he’d made to Clint to get himself some food and rest once she did.

Admittedly, it was strange to have Pietro around the Facility. Just when she was beginning to adapt to living in this strange place without his presence constantly at the edges of her mind, it was all back as if it had never been gone. It was surreal, having to yet again get used to the constant thrum of the bond between them. The ghostlike brush of his thoughts and emotions stirring within her, as she was sure he could feel the same of hers. How strongly they could sense the other varied on the distance between them and how much they pushed (or didn’t) against the other mentally.

At the moment, the intensity of Pietro’s end of their bond seemed to be moving in and out of her reach. Quite regularly, she realized now that she was really paying attention.

He was running. Possibly even taking laps around the Facility.

Given the late hour and poor shape Hydra had left him in, she didn’t think he was doing so just for the hell of it. When she purposefully pressed herself deeper into their bond, she recognized the same tumult of emotions that usually arose when he wanted to run away from something, but knew better than to actually do as much. It was his form of pacing, to get his thoughts in better order.

The longer she felt for him, the easier it was to pick up on the patterns of his trail. Being able to hear the rush of air whirl though the hallway just beyond her door was an added help. When she was certain he’d begun another lap, she carefully removed her arm from around James’s head and shuffled out of bed.

It took a moment for her to re-button Steve’s shirt over her wound, meaning she had to hurry to meet him as he raced back through the hallway outside. She barely made it. She could tell his slight skid to a stop in front of her was an abrupt one, nearly causing him to trip over his own feet.

Sestra,” he breathed in surprise, eyes wide as they recognized her in the darkness. “What are you doing, wandering around? You’re hurt—”

Wanda cut him off with a slightly irate shake of her head. “You, of all people, know healing is not an issue for us anymore.”

Pietro only huffed in response, ducking his head in a semblance of shame. She knew she wasn’t being fair; it hadn’t been his choice to leave her alone after he had been shot.

“What are you doing out here, Pietro?” she continued, only slightly softening her tone. With or without their bond, she already had her suspicions as to what was on his mind. And she didn’t particularly care for it.

Pietro appeared to have already sensed her displeasure, for he was making it a point not to directly look her in the eye as he replied with rueful honesty. “I’ve been looking for the shooter.”

“For what?” she pressed.

He met her impatience with his own incredulity, eyes ablaze when they finally met hers. “To ask him his breakfast preferences,” he answered sarcastically before sounding serious again. “Sestra...he shot you.”

“I know, but it wasn’t…it wasn’t really him,” she insisted lamely, uncertain of how she could make her brother understand.

“I saw for myself it was him pulling the trigger!” Pietro hissed lowly, mindful of their location in the middle of the hall, where anyone could hear them and interrupt at random. “Why do you keep defending him? He nearly killed you!”

She swallowed painfully, suddenly regretting coming out to confront him about this now. This day felt endless, and all she wanted was to sleep the stress of it away.

But it was too late. She was out here, and Pietro wasn’t about to let her go anywhere until they’d settled this. He shuffled closer to her, eyes still boring into her as if she was insane for behaving so dismissively about her injury. “Do you have any idea what that was like? Thinking I was going to lose you the exact same day I got you back?”

She looked away, blinking furiously. Shoving down tears, as well as the memory of when it had been her that believed he was gone. How she never would have wished that earth-shattering agony onto him. “Yes,” she spoke bitterly around a knot in her throat. “I think the idea came to me while I was pulling a bullet out of myself.”

He let out a short sigh of disgust.

“But you shouldn’t take it out on James,” she insisted, finally braving the look on her brother’s face again. “Without him, I would have never found you. I wouldn’t have even known you were there, needing to be found. We owe him for—”

Pietro snarled. “I refuse to feel obligated to him for anything, after what he did to you!”

“It wasn’t him! I know who he is, really, and that wasn’t him. Not in his right mind, and—”

“I don’t care what was on his mind!” her twin snapped. “All I know is that he did it, and that I see no guarantees he won’t do it again.”

“He won’t—”

“How do you know?”

Wanda could feel her scarlet flaring hotly in her blood, rising alongside her impatience at being unable to finish a thought. She clenched her jaw in a self-reminder to keep the destructive energy contained. It wasn’t Pietro’s fault the world moved too slowly for him.

“Because I know why it happened this time,” she stated with forced composure. “It wasn’t something he wanted to do. He did it because someone else was taking advantage of him.”

“And how do you know they’re still not manipulating him?” Pietro challenged. “That he won’t turn on you just as quickly as he did back there?”

Wanda felt her powers flare even hotter, this time with the addition of her frustration with herself. She didn’t know how she would keep Hydra out of James’s mind if a situation like this were to happen again.

For once, she hated the intense connection between her and her twin. Well and truly loathed it, for she knew it allowed him to see how little she was certain of. She grasped blindly at something else to distract from it. “I suppose the Avengers could ask the same of us, couldn’t they?”

That effectively silenced him. Wanda seized her opportunity, her words rushing together before the moment was gone. “We let our need for vengeance blind us, and our homeland was nearly destroyed because of it. How could we expect forgiveness for that? After only one battle with the Avengers? After you sacrificed your—”

No. She wasn’t going to go there, with or without his return.

The burn of what she had wanted to say was still present, though. Pietro’s every muscle pulled taut, jaw and fists clenching as he breathed harshly through the hurt. “That was different.”

“Why? Because I’m your sister? And how many sisters and parents do you think were destroyed because of us? After our affiliation with that monster that doesn’t even deserve a name?” she demanded, growing cross at the very thought of Ultron.

“It’s different!” Pietro snapped. “We realized our lapse in judgement, and tried to make it right. Even then, we didn’t go to those families and directly ask them forgiveness. Which he hasn’t even done either!”

“If you would only—”

“Why do you defend him so? Why? Why do you always take the blame for these things?” 

“Because it was my fault, Pietro! I recognized that something was wrong, and I still pushed him by coming at him with my powers, and I…”

She faltered as she only then grasped what exactly had bothered her the most about being shot by James. “I scared him.”

Pietro didn’t say anything. He even backed down, in a sense, stepping back to allow her room to come to terms with her own words. He knew their enhancements were sometimes a sensitive matter for her, given how the extreme nature of hers changed how people perceived her. How, by extension, they changed how she viewed herself.

But that was one of the first things she’d learned to adore about James Barnes. When he’d first found out what she was capable of, it hadn’t occurred to him to be afraid of it or ponder how it could be weaponized. No one had been as purely fascinated as he had been. Even Pietro, during those first few days they had both adapted to having new abilities, had been afraid. He’d been afraid for her as the scarlet energy scorched her hands, but still. The foundation of her relationship with James had built from that, from the fact that neither of them feared or wanted to take advantage of the other. That they each feared themselves more, and how the other slowly helped them overcome that.

Then James had fired a gun at her. True, it had been while his training as the Winter Soldier took over, but whether she liked it or not, the Soldier was a part of him. Which meant a part of him did detest her scarlet. A deep part of him deemed her a threat for it, and had tried to kill her over that. She didn’t think her memory would ever erase the sight of him mere seconds before it happened, his eyes so ominously empty as they watched her hexes grow. The way the light of her scarlet glowed against his metal arm when he aimed his weapon at her immediately after, demanding she yield.

He hadn’t even called her by her name when he’d done it. He’d used a label, the same one given to her by the people who had originally ruined them both.

The man who loved her saw her as a threat. Nothing could make her feel worse than that.

Meanwhile, Pietro could only take so much self-pity from her end of their bond. “If he truly fears you,” he said, the words sounding like a growl, “then he has no business being anywhere around you.”

He made it sound so simple when it was anything but. To add to her frustration, she couldn’t even think of all the reasons why, because Pietro would be able to see them through their bond, and she knew it would only make him understand less. “It isn’t like that,” she insisted.

Again, he didn’t wait to let her finish. “Then what is it like? What did he do to you to make you so willing to give forgiveness over something like this?”

She struggled to find an answer while also having to push so much of the truth away from her thoughts. What could she tell him? When would she ever be able to tell him that the man who shot her was the same one she’d been seeing for months now? That she’d been in bed with? Or was the first man outside their family to say he loved her? “He...he wasn’t always afraid. He...”

To his credit, Pietro at least waited a little while for her to find a way to finish the thought. “What?” he eventually urged. “What did he—?”

“He was there for me!” Wanda finally snapped, probably too loud for a public space. She didn’t care, though. By this point, she was too spent in every sense of the word to care if the entire damn building heard her. “I found him while I was lonely and scared for my future, and he was there for me. He was there when I needed someone to help me grieve over you and everything else that happened in Sokovia.”

Her twin flinched, and with that, she knew she’d hit a nerve when she mentioned how she’d mourned him. How she’d suffered without him, thinking he would never return to her. “If you had only—”

Now she interrupted him, her previously repressed exhaustion and pain from everything suddenly knowing no bounds. “Only what? Hmm? What do you want to hear? That I just sat in an empty room, patiently waiting for you to come back? That in spite of what Clint Barton and countless SHIELD agents saw—despite what I felt before you were taken away, I knew you weren’t really gone? In spite of Clint, and Steve, and Natasha, and the Director of fucking SHIELD telling me over and over, ‘sorry for your loss’ and ‘you’ll move on in time,’ I was still able to hope you were still out there?”

Her words were too unhinged now, hurting her just as much as they did her brother. Why didn’t she hold on to hope? Why hadn’t she been able to feel he wasn’t really completely gone? Why didn’t she just know?

“Is that what you want to hear?” she went on, now physically shaking. “Because for a while, it was true! For a while, I went home with Barton and I just sat there, not believing it, and that nearly killed me.”

She needed to stop. This was hurting them both. She could feel her scarlet burning just beneath the skin, warning her. It burned hot enough for her to envision the unnatural color pooling in her eyes.

“And guess what? No one cared,” she hissed. “The sun kept burning, and days still rolled on. The Avengers moved on—but Sokovia didn’t, so I had to come here to live with them. I had to move on, because no one knew you were able to survive those wounds in Sokovia.”

Pietro cut in then with an impatient huff. “Why are you telling me this? To make me feel worse? To guilt me for being away from you, when I had no control over it?”

“I’m telling you so you can know why I wanted to go looking for the Winter Soldier! Why I needed something to do, something to comfort me—to make me forget about the emptiness you left behind.”

“So, it’s my fault he was there today? My fault he was there to shoot you?”

“No! That’s not—”

“Do you think you would’ve been better off if I didn’t come back? If I had just let you go on—”

“Don’t,” she said sharply. Her tone conveyed anger at him for trying to distort her words so grossly, but she knew through their bond he could feel she was actually terrified at the thought of losing him again. Of watching him leave her behind willingly this time. “Don’t you dare make it seem like I never loved you just because I learned to live without you. It wasn’t easy, or—or a relief to go on with my life thinking you would never have yours again! I was only trying to do what was best for myself!”

“Well, I didn’t ask for this! I didn’t want to be taken from you, but I had no other choice.  I wasn’t going to just watch Barton and Costel die!”

“And I’m glad,” Wanda said, her ire temporarily cooled by gentle honesty. “I don’t want you to feel guilty for saving them. I just want you to know why I needed to comfort of a stranger after everyone around me—including myself, assumed the worst afterward.”

“You shouldn’t have,” he insisted. “You knew we’re enhanced…”

“I didn’t know our abilities were that strong. How was I to know?”

“I don’t know!” She could see in his mind’s eye he hadn’t known at the time either. She felt the ghost of his fear as he’d thought he’d been irrevocably killed in that split moment before he knew nothing. As he realized he would be leaving her without anyone to protect her in his place. “I haven’t known anything since the experiments! Or since I woke up today! I feel like I don’t even know you.”

That burned. “I’m your sister,” she hissed.

“You’re pretending to be somebody else!” Pietro snapped. “Just trying to fit in with America’s self-righteous heroes. The sister I knew would have never put a man’s comfort over herself!”

“Because the only man you allowed near me was yourself! All I knew was you, and your want to do something for Mama and Papa. Or have you forgotten everything I had to go through in that rotting cell just to see your plan for vengeance to its end?”

Pietro shook his head. “We both wanted revenge on Stark, and you know it! And I never wanted it to go that far—”

“If that were true, you would’ve said something long before we told Strucker—”

I didn’t ask to be unmade!” he cried. The last few remains of his temper were completely gone, and it took everything in her to not get lost in that feeling through their bond. “If I had known, I never would have asked to be remade into a…into some freak.”

He was so lost in his grief for any chance at normalcy, it heightened her own. The same grief that she had only addressed in herself days ago, during her last remotely pleasant visit to the Bluebell Inn. It resurfaced wholly with an intensity that intimidated her.

She lifted her chin, refusing to fall apart like she had that day at the inn. “But it’s because of me we took those risks anyways, right?” she asked stiffly.

He pinched his eyes shut. Tore his fingers through his hair. “That’s not what I was going to say.”

It’s what you meant. She was more certain of that than she was of anything. Whenever they made any decision, it had always been because she was the one who thought it was best for both of them. That was the way they functioned. She was the guide, and he followed her as her protector. Logically, if there was anyone to blame for them agreeing to be experimented on, it was her. If it was anyone’s fault they’d gained their abilities, and done everything they had because they had said abilities, it was her. She knew that. And she couldn’t stand to let him stand there and remind her of it. So, she did the unthinkable.

She severed the bond. She sought out her end in her mind, envisioning it as a tangible bridge between them. She pictured her scarlet coiling around it, tightening like a boa around its prey. Choking, and choking, until the bridge snapped. Until it shattered into disjointed pieces, leaving only a solemn silence in the wake of such destruction.

She could see when Pietro felt her presence missing from his mind. It was a subtle flinch, as if she’d merely pulled a strand of hair from his head. Though from the look of abject horror in his eyes when he realized what that jolt he’d felt meant, one would think she had done much worse.

She knew exactly what he was feeling. She nearly broke down at the memory of it. That abrupt blow from emptiness, from incompletion. The eerie silence of being completely alone in one’s mind for the first time in so long. She wondered if he was internally screaming or madly reaching for any trace of the bond before accepting that it was absolutely gone, like she had when he was shot. When she was shot earlier today, and all of her abilities retracted into herself to more efficiently preserve her body.

She didn’t break down, though. She refused to. Without the bond, he didn’t have to know she was even close to it. She swallowed her tears, lifted her chin, and refused to let him win. “I am not going to let you remind me of everything I hate about myself. If you hate me for it—or for the experiments, then fine. If you still don’t trust the Avengers, then go. But if you go back to Novi Grad, be sure to warn the people there before you do, ‘sorry, one of the Maximoff fascists is coming home.’”

She didn’t know if anyone had told him about that yet. How associating with the Avengers during the battle against Ultron had made the people of Sokovia resent the twins just as strongly as they did the team. How that resentment ran so deeply, it was the entire reason Hydra was able to gain custody of his body simply by being the first to show interest. Without the Avengers, they were both homeless in every sense of the word.

In all honesty, the thought of Pietro facing that hatred and rejection firsthand terrified her. Especially if he went home on his own. A guide travelling alone was one thing, but a guard without their guide was another....

To her thinly veiled relief, her brother didn’t seem at all interested in going anywhere. In fact, he already seemed lost without her presence in his mind anymore. He made her think of a cornered animal, beaten into submission (though not without claws to lash out with if she pushed any further). “Do you want me to go?”

The fact that he even had to ask brought her tears back. This time, a few traitorous drops rolled down her cheeks. As angry as she was with him, she still loved him. And because she loved him, she couldn’t lie to him. “All I want is to have you with me. After you...” You died. “The only thing I’ve wanted was to just see you again. I didn’t think....”

There was no avoiding the flow of tears down her face now, or slight crack in her voice. “I never wanted it to be like this.”

She noticed then that he was absentmindedly rubbing the middle of his chest. As if he was feeling for the phantom sensation of where she had been shot. She knew how that felt too; searching for anything reminiscent of the other in the absence of their bond, regardless of how painful. She knew how much that absence, itself, was painful. Seeing him struggle with it was almost enough to make her lose her courage and relent to anything he wanted. To grab him and hold him tight and beg his forgiveness as she repaired the mental bond as quickly as possible.

She didn’t, though. Her anger was still there, h