Summary: Resolving the flashback in the flashback. Adam deals with an unwelcome guest. Raven makes an acceptable wingman. Wanda has been dreamwalking, and Vision encourages her to join the team for the Labor Day Party at the lake lodge. Natasha and Bruce get up early to have some time together before she leaves to finish her mission. Bruce is in a better emotional spot. Nat has a conversation with Hulk who needs help dealing with a certain teammate.
Notes: This might be the Scarlet Witch chapter you've been waiting for. If not, maybe the next one will be. This is the first part of my attempt to deal with the "Wanda problem." Many thanks to Autumn_Froste and Emilygracie for the beta help. The song to listen to before you read is ELO's "Can't Get It out of My Head." My apologies if you're getting confused about the timeline. I've put in dates and references to help clarify when things take place.
Chapter 65: Dreamwalks and Emissaries
Adam had stayed and watched over Bruce till he could tell his brother was safely into deep sleep and tucked him in with a blanket on the couch. Though he looked peaceful now, Adam was a little disturbed that Bruce had nearly slipped into one hellacious nightmare before Adam could act. Nightmares weren't unusual, but tonight it was the speed that was out of the ordinary, at least since Adam had been back on good terms with Bruce over the past few months. It was early in the morning on September 1, 2015, which meant it was almost four months since the Avengers initial attack on Strucker's base in Sokovia. So much had changed, most of it for the better as far as Adam was concerned, but not for everyone. It was also less than three weeks until the Reconciliation Meetings were scheduled in Johannesburg, something he was longing for, yet dreading a bit, too. Facing people he'd harmed wasn't going to be easy, but he'd longed to say he was sorry and make things as right as he could and so had Bruce.
The twin stroked his brother's hair. Normally, when he slept, Bruce came looking for Adam or drifted for a time and went into REM sleep on his own. Even if it was the latter case, Adam normally monitored him on some level because Bruce had always been prone to sinking into disturbing dreams late in his sleep cycles since childhood. If he was quick, Adam could usually walk his brother back like he'd just done. Part of the reason Bruce routinely worked himself to utter exhaustion during that awful decade of separation was to avoid REM sleep. Not smart on a lot of levels in Adam's opinion, but Bruce was avoiding older inner demons than General Ross. Being too worn out to dream kept those threats in check, so that's what Bruce did, white-knuckling it while he was conscious until he passed out. Adam didn't miss those days one bit because all he could do was watch helplessly from very far away in his subconscious where Bruce had mistakenly imprisoned him.
Tonight, Adam knew something was different though, and he could feel it like a weather front moving in. He left his brother safe on the couch and went straight to the northern edge of Bruce's imagination where the tall grass met what looked like the stony lakeshore. He hadn't bothered to change his form from a preteen in pajamas and robe as he surveyed the water along the twilit shore. Somewhere out there over the water, what he knew ended and the unknown of the void and the Astral Plane began. The wind was still and there was a damp mist, nothing that unusual, but he could tell something was near.
"There you are!" squawked Raven, sounding quite perturbed. He flapped down from above and landed in the grass beside Adam. Trespassing was a little presumptuous on the emissary's part, but Adam let it pass without comment. Raven had been helpful and was there often enough that he'd earned a kind of squatter's rights. Adam knew the bird was there to watch him, but he was actually glad to have the company whether he could fully trust the bird or not. Once he'd allowed the Asgardian onto the edge of this realm and fed him, Raven seemed to have taken a liking to either Adam or the periwinkles. "'Bout time you showed up, Big Green."
"I had to get Bruce settled. What is it? I can feel something. It's not tripped the wards yet, but it's like a presence is bumping against the edges along the Astral Plane, making things vibrate or echo."
"More like striking a bad chord. It's a racket in my head," Raven complained. "Now, it's moaning and wailing. Wailing and moaning. I need headphones!"
"Okay, let's find out what it is." Adam extended his arms in front of his body and clapped the palms of his hands together like Hulk's seismic thunder clap, and the fog rushed together and up before dissipating into nothing. The two stared out over the dark waters, not sure what they were looking for. A small silvery figure coalesced and hovered over the surface about twenty yards out from the shore.
Raven fluttered up to the boy's right shoulder to get a better view. "That's definitely a spirit of some sort. Probably belongs to someone alive. My money is on an astral projection," Raven offered.
"Really? That's weird." They watched it for a few minutes as it paced above the waves. "It's just sort of wandering and crying," Adam concluded. "Why is it here?"
"She's dreaming. It's probably safe if you want to see who it is. She's either been here before or there's some other connection to you or your brother. We'll be over no-man's land, well, water, so you'll be okay as long as you don't touch the waves."
"Will you be my wingman?" Adam asked and Raven cackled. They shared the same absurdist sense of humor.
"Right with you, kid." The dark bird took flight and Adam's bare feet left the sandy ground. He didn't fly a great deal because he could just imagine himself from one spot to another. Still, it was easy to do either one in Bruce's head. Adam didn't rush, but as they flew closer, the figure became more solid looking and familiar. Her long brown hair was pulled back from her round, pale face, and she appeared to be wearing a t-shirt and pajama pants. The young woman was hugging herself, muttering, and pacing.
"Noooo," Adam groaned. "Doesn't she have something better to do? Someone else's head to terrorize?"
"You know her?"
"Yah, we're on the same team." Adam pulled up and hovered near her. She didn't seem to hear or see the boy or the bird as it landed on his shoulder. Adam crossed his arms over his chest and frowned, unsure what to do with the uninvited projection.
"Ah, I do know her. Not your favorite teammate, huh?" Raven asked.
"Wanda isn't. She and her brother Pietro attacked Bruce and me back last May in South Africa when we were after Ultron. She set me off pissed and angry on a populated area. People died. Eventually, the two of them switched to our side, but more people died, including Pietro, in Sokovia."
"Wow! After she did that, she's really on your team now?"
"It's complicated. If there was a vote, I missed it. Nobody has asked my opinion since." Adam was still mad, but it was a slow, simmering kind of anger, not the uncontrolled rage she'd forced on him in South Africa.
Bruce had seen the twins coming after him too late as he waited for a "code green" on Avengers Quinjet-1. Communication with his teammates had been so garbled that he had no idea what was happening on Ulysses Klaue's ship. Without thinking it through, he'd opened the plane's rear hatch to try and get a visual. Wanda and her brother had seen and attacked Bruce before he could secure the plane or get away.
As Pietro easily caught Bruce and held the scientist down on the ground, Wanda knelt over him and quickly realized it wasn't a simple process to reach in his mind and use a spell to flick a switch to set off the monster. To her surprise, they weren't the same being, and she was going to have to deal with one to get at the other. This pissed her off, but she was up for the challenge. She'd have to either make the doctor loose the beast or subdue Banner first and then get to "The Big One" buried inside.
Thanks to his life experiences surviving trauma and years of maintaining emotional and physical control, Bruce had a certain amount of resistance to the Mind Witch's chaos magic. He knew what they were after, and he tried to get them to understand the dire consequences of their plan. "Please, if you set the Hulk off, you will not be able to control him. We're very near Johannesburg. He could destroy almost everything in his path before he's done," Bruce had pleaded.
Wanda had laughed at him. "Have you been reading my mind, Dr. Banner? Are we making you upset? Bring out your big green demon, so we can play. I think we can handle a beast like him."
"No, you can't. I'm begging you. You don't understand the consequences. People are going to die. He won't discriminate between combatants and innocent . . ."
"Shut up!" Wanda brought the flat of her hand across his face as hard as she could, snapping the scientist's head to the side. "Pietro, teach him a lesson. You will obey us, you groveling fool!"
The scientist had proven surprisingly tough. Even after several vicious punches from Pietro meant to bring out the Hulk, the older man resisted the twins' abuse and bullying. The brother had taken no pleasure in it, and eventually Bruce had gone unconscious without relinquishing the monster for them.
"What now, Wanda? Haven't we done enough here?" Pietro asked. "He can't turn while he's out, and we don't have much more time to waste." He was beginning to think Banner had a point.
"Patience, brother." She knelt over the prone and bloodied figure on the ground and tilted his bruised face upward as she gripped it roughly with her hand. "I'm just getting started with this one."
Banner's collapse wasn't a problem for Wanda because her backup plan was ready. The Magic User thought Hulk was the embodiment of the madness and chaos she'd wanted to cause. She planned to get the monster to wreck as much destruction as possible, and she didn't care about Banner's "consequences". Humiliating him for defying her and obliterating his and the other Avengers' reputations was the cherry on top. Soon, the rest of the world would despise them all as much as she did.
With the monster's gatekeeper out of the picture, Wanda broke through the internal barriers and yanked Adam out of his cell. She had no understanding of whom or what he was; frankly, Wanda did not give one fuck about the details. She quickly hit him with a spell. "Give me your worst memory, deamon." She made him remember his mother's death several times until she'd forced him to imagine himself murdering his mother Rebecca in the driveway again and again.
That was when Adam finally broke down, humiliated and questioning his humanity, thinking he must really be the monster everyone, Bruce included, thought he was. Then she had taunted him like a schoolyard bully, seeking out his weaknesses and fears. Next, she'd hit him with her chaos magic again. "You pathetic subhuman, tell me what causes you pain!" Being overloaded and unable to think brought him the most misery, so she heaped it on him. The combination of an incessant buzzing like insects with painfully blinding lights finally did it. Adam lost the last shred of resistance he'd been clinging to. When he took control of Bruce's body, he came out in pain, angry, and unhinged. Wanda delightedly pointed him in the direction of Johannesburg with its dense population of unsuspecting civilians. They were people Adam couldn't see because he was lost in the delusion he was being chased by monsters and nightmares that tormented him. All he saw and felt was red. It wasn't until Tony brought an entire building down on top of them that the Mind Witch's spell began to lose its hold. To his horror, Adam saw the misery and chaos he must have caused. He couldn't remember doing it, but there was no other explanation for what he saw around him. Adam didn't blame Tony for using a sucker punch to take him out when the sight of the military brandishing weapons had started to rekindle his ire. Someday, he'd have to thank Tony for that himself.
What Wanda had done to him—stripping away any illusions of control or connections to humanity—made Adam decide to leave everyone behind when he had the chance in the quinjet, and Bruce hadn't been in a position to argue. Where can I go? Where in the world am I not a threat?
A wave of shame and humiliation swept over Adam. Maybe the witch thought he should thank her for that clarity of purpose? He'd been bitter about it off and on for months now. The team didn't seem to have missed him. Finding they had welcomed his tormentor in without a formal word of apology or any apparent consequences had been like a slap in the face, a punch in the gut from people he thought were his friends. While he and Bruce were confined in the tower, she didn't seem to have any restrictions, travel or otherwise. Maybe she'd been right. Maybe he didn't deserve . . .
No, he wasn't going to do this to himself anymore. It just made him feel depressed. It wasn't healthy. He was human, and he wouldn't let her take that from him again. He wasn't as good or kind as Bruce, but he was still a person and deserved respect and dignity. If Bruce could do this with grace, he could listen to his better angels, too. As Bruce had explained, it was preferable to befriend and train Wanda under a watchful eye than lose her to dark influences and have to face off against her once more.
All of this swirled through Adam's head as he watched the ghostly figure. He hadn't realized he was clenching and unclenching his fists and his jaw muscles. He made himself breathe deeply and take it down a notch. He should not take this personally, but he'd shouldered almost all of the blame without complaint for about as long as he could stand it.
Adam cocked his head to the side to better see his feathered guest. "Look, Raven, Wanda worked things out with Bruce and the other people she wronged, but she doesn't want to face me. I'm fine with that. I don't have to work directly with her. I'm sorry that she lost her brother, but I don't want her here. I'd appreciate any helpful advice you might have to head her back where she belongs."
Raven thought for a moment. "You can leave her here, but she's going to keep treating this like the wailing wall, especially if she gets used to coming here to mourn."
"Why is she coming here so close to Bruce and me of all places?" the boy asked. "This seems like the one headspace she'd want to avoid while she wandering on the Astral Plane."
"Good question. I doubt she understands where she is on a conscious level. There's something between you two, some unfinished business I imagine that's pulling her to you."
"She owes me an apology, a big one. Aside from that, I don't know of any connection. Bruce wants her to go through this Reconciliation process with us. I think she ought to do it, too, and set the record straight about who is to blame, but it's her choice. I'm willing to take responsibility for my own actions. She can do what she wants. At this point, I don't care either way." He huffed, not feeling much above being petty. "She called me a 'daemon' and a monster, too, so why did she come bothering me if that's how she feels?"
The bird fluffed its feathers out. "Technically, I'm a daemon, so that's not much of an insult."
"What do you mean?" Adam asked.
"Daemons, not demons, are intermediaries between humans and angels or gods—small "g"—or an intermediate step between them and halfway to the divine." Raven straightened up a bit taller on Adam's shoulder as it pronounced the last part.
Adam held up his hands. "If you say so." Sometimes, the bird liked to put on airs when it came to its connections.
"Yes, I say so." That irritated the emissary a bit, but that didn't slow it down. "Anyway, try talking to her. Dreamers are usually a little vague and loopy, but sometimes you can reason with them if you're willing to humor 'em." Raven could guess at other reasons these two would gravitate together, but he didn't want to tip his hand or upset his host.
Adam didn't want to have any contact with Wanda, but he understood they didn't really have a choice in this situation. "She's a magic user, a Mind Witch. Do you think she can attack me here?"
"Potentially, but that's her astral form, and you're real. Not likely she could affect you much." Adam gave the bird on his shoulder a side-eyed glare and held back a low growl. They'd argued a good bit about what exactly was "real" or not. Philosophy and feathers tended to fly when it came up. "Hey, no offense, kid. This is your home turf, so let's just say you're reasonably safe here," Raven conceded. "Don't touch her and you should be fine."
Adam let it go for the moment and drifted down to the young woman's level just above the wave tops. She still didn't seem to see him. "Wanda, hey! Wanda Maximov, listen to me." When he said her full name, she stopped pacing and looked in his direction. "Hi, uh. You're dreaming. It's time to go home to your body, your own dream space."
"Pietro? Is that you?" She was trying to focus on him, but Adam obviously wasn't as clear to her as she was to him.
"No, I'm not your brother. Just . . . you don't know me." She started speaking to him in a foreign language, her native tongue, which he didn't understand. "I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're saying. It's time for you to go home, Wanda."
She started crying, and Adam was at a loss. He took no joy in this though the wounded part of him had longed to see her as wretched as he and Bruce had felt. "He's gone. I wanted you to be him, but Pietro is truly gone," Wanda lamented.
Adam stared off to the side at the dark waves beneath them. He couldn't look at her in her grief. It was far too intimate. "I . . . I'm really sorry. Clint said Pietro saved him and a kid who was hurt. Your brother died honorably."
"I know, but I'd rather have him back."
"I understand." Adam finally looked at her with her light green eyes full of tears. It was really hard not to see the face of his tormentor with her eyes glowing red and a cruel sneer on her lips, but now she was miserable and obviously suffering. He could make himself be a hard person and leave her here or force her to vacate the edge of his home. He knew in his gut he could drive her away, but Adam chose not to do that. "For a while, I lost my brother, too. It really sucked. We used to do everything together. He was the one person I could count on after our mom died." She was listening to him, taking his words in. "It helped to think about the good times when we were happy. We liked doing word games and puzzles together. I helped him with his homework. He read to me a lot. I really missed that."
Wanda smiled and looked past him as she spoke, "Pietro and I, we liked to play games together. He was always very competitive. I used to beat him at soccer and kickball. It just drove him crazy. When I heard your voice, I thought it sounded like his at first. We used to sing, and he had a sweet voice, especially when he was a boy. I miss hearing his voice. I'm really afraid I've forgotten what it sounded like. I can't remember the exact shade of blue his eyes were."
"I know you won't believe this, but those will come back to you. Not when you expect it either. Sometimes that really hurts, but other times, it'll be a nice surprise. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful than that to you." He honestly would have done more if he could, but she was too dangerous to let in any further. Adam couldn't pretend she wasn't his abuser.
"No. It's okay. What you said helps me feel better. Thank you." She looked at his face, considering him for a few moments. "Do I know you? Your eyes are very distinctive."
"No. You don't know me. We've met, but you really don't know me from Adam." Raven's claws dug into his shoulder with disapproval. "Will you be able to find your way home now?" the boy asked.
"Yes. I think so." She looked like she wanted to say more.
Adam couldn't bear to listen; he had to keep up his defenses. "Goodbye, Wanda."
"Thank you for telling me about your brother."
Adam nodded and smiled in his lopsided way as he watched her fade. Raven leapt off his shoulder and flew beside him as they retreated back to the shore. The child sat wearily down on the closest dry rock and held his head in his hands. He wasn't certain if she'd recognized him or not. He really hoped not. The boy looked over at Raven who was staring hungrily at something edible in the shallows. Adam scrubbed his hands over his face. "Go ahead and chow down. You've earned it. Thanks for backing me up."
"Any time, chief." The bird sounded a bit pleased with itself. After all, ingratiation was an emissary's bread and butter, especially when he was paid back with his fill of juicy escargot. He started humming an ELO song he thought was appropriate. "Walking on the waves she came, staring as she called my name, and I can't get it outta my head. No, I can't get her outta my head . . ."
"You are such a shit. You're not even getting the lyrics right," Adam moaned as he caught on. "When you're done, I need you to tell me how to enhance the mental barriers. Don't deny it. I know you're more knowledgeable than you let on." Raven started to object, and Adam stared him down coolly. "What Logan suggested about channeling everything to the beach, so it's the only obvious entry point helped, but I want to be sure she can't get in anywhere else."
If he could, Raven would have rolled his eyes. "Do you really think that's necessary? I doubt she's coming back." He started smacking a snail on a rock till its shell broke. "As long as you don't ask someone in, this place is like a vault. You've rounded off the corners, so thoughts and visuals just slide right by under the radar. It defies detection from the outside. You have made it as safe as it gets."
"I don't care. Wanda found it. She may look vulnerable, but she's no lightweight. She took both Bruce and me down in minutes. I'm not going to let that happen again!" Adam flinched at the note of panic in his own voice. Bruce had said she'd sworn off reading minds and manipulating them after her conversation with Dr. Strange, but Adam was still very skeptical. Just because she hadn't tried attacking him this time, didn't mean she wouldn't do it in the future. He was sure Wanda had enjoyed what she did to Bruce and to him. No one seemed to understand what she'd done to them or how violated he felt. They just looked at how big Hulk was and thought he was too tough or too dumb for him to be her victim. Adam was getting frustrated enough to scream. He didn't want sympathy. He wanted to keep the one who'd made him feel hopeless and subhuman away from him and Bruce. He didn't want revenge. All he wanted was to be left alone and given a chance to do his job. He wanted what was fair. He'd tried to talk to Cecily and Maggie about it as Bruce had asked, but he was afraid they would take him off the team and isolate him further if they knew the whole truth about what she'd done to him. He'd worked too hard for that to happen.
The bird was shaking its head. "But she did that was back when you were locked up, nothing but a sitting duck on a small pond. You're in a lot better position now. You've survived and matured. I know you. You could have drop-kicked her astral butt if you had to do it today without turning big or green." Raven resisted the temptation to explain why he knew this, but he planned to be on the front row when it did happen.
"I don't want to fight her. I just want her blocked out. This place has to be as absolutely safe as possible!" Adam wrapped his arms around himself. He felt cold and that almost never happened. Logically, he knew Raven was right. He could force her out of his and Bruce's head, but that didn't mean he felt safe or that he'd been understood or vindicated.
Raven hopped up to sit beside him on the rock, grooming its feathers now that its gut was pleasingly full. "Look, Adam, I get it. What she did to you was horrible. She made you suffer, and she manipulated you. People died as a result. You took all the blame. People still think you're the monster. If I could make that witch answer for what she did, I would, but I'm not the one who gets to make that judgment. I can't interfere. Neither of us can control her actions. You can only control your own from here out."
Adam stood up and paced with agitation. "It's so not fair. We didn't do anything to her! I know she hurt us to get to Tony . . . to make people hate and fear us. I wouldn't have made Bruce leave everyone if it wasn't for what she did to us." Now, he was the one who felt like crying.
The bird flapped back to its perch on the boy's shoulder. "Sometimes, that's just the way it is, kid. The good part is you've learned a lot from it. You're stronger inside than out. You're stronger than you know, and you're a better person for surviving this because you would never do this to another person." Sometimes Raven wished it was an independent operator without a job to do, so it could act on its own. The emissary's current orders were to be neutral and keep an eye on the prodigy, but with this kid it was hard. Raven knew it had already crossed the line by befriending him. The little deamon was sure to be hearing about that from higher up. "Now, to get back to what you asked of me, we've had this ongoing conversation about what's 'real' and what's not. To make this place anymore 'safe', you'd need to accept that it is real."
"Okay, for the sake of argument, it's REAL. Now what do I do?"
"You're not going to like this, Adam. You simply keep it hidden."
"You start armoring or arming yourself here, and there are people who will notice, powerful ones. They'll think you're doing it for a specific reason. You don't want to be on everyone's radar. You want to stay off it."
"But that means she could just come waltzing right back here."
"Not if you get whatever is between you settled. Then you can make a clean break, and you're going to feel better."
"I'd love to, but like you said, that's up to her."
Raven coughed. "Yeah, you're really friendly and approachable all the time. Can't imagine why she avoids you when you both clearly need this conversation."
"Hey, I'm the injured party here," Adam groused.
"You're also the bigger person. You were actually kind to her. You know something about what she's been through. Of course, it wasn't right for her to victimize you or your teammates, not even Stark. However, you have to keep moving forward. Wallowing in self-pity is poisonous."
"That doesn't mean I want her back here for tea and cookies. That's never going to happen."
"Then suck it up and do what you need to do, hero. Put the olive branch out there once more because you know she's too messed up to do it first. You've got to do this if you want to be free of her. You need to do it for you."
Wanda woke up in a sweat, breathing hard and feeling disoriented for several seconds. The boy with the green eyes wasn't there. She'd gone from talking to him and slipped back in her memories to when she was his age and her family was still alive and whole. They were eating dinner when the rockets started hitting the building. Once again Pietro and she were trapped underneath smashed furniture, broken concrete, and twisted metal in their destroyed apartment in Sokovia. In her mind, she stared at a piece of unexploded ordinance with Tony Stark's name on it.
After a few more breaths, Wanda knew she was awake and remembered her family were all dead and the despair enveloped her again. The young woman sobbed as she clutched the soft expensive bedding that might as well have said, "Paid for by Tony Stark" on it. What a fitting irony! The deep ache in her chest hadn't lessened though it was almost four months now since Pietro had been killed by the very same apocalyptic horror they'd allied themselves with—the one Stark had created after she pushed him with his own fears. If only she'd thought things through! She calmed her breathing and wiped her eyes on her shirt. It was just after 2am, and she doubted she'd get back to sleep for a while. The boy had said it would get better, but she didn't seem to have improved at all over the past four months.
Now that she thought about it, she'd gone almost a week without a nightmare, so she'd been due. She usually cycled through the creepy, disturbing ones from Strucker's base in the castle dungeon where she gained her powers and the terrifying ones she'd accidentally absorbed from others' minds. Those were the worst because she seemed to be stuck witnessing another person's trauma after trauma over and over with little understanding of their context. The worst ones involved childhood memories of being beaten and other violent acts. It didn't help that she knew these were her teammate's nightmares she was experiencing because she couldn't bring the memories up without acknowledging how much she'd stolen from them. Being cursed with reliving the horrors seemed an appropriate enough punishment for what she'd done.
The brunette sat up and turned her desk light on before she reached over to retrieve her phone from her heap of clothing on the desk chair. The device was flashing with multiple messages. She'd received an invitation from Stark to join the team at his lakeside lodge that coming weekend. She checked it as "read", but she didn't RSVP. She'd think about it.
The next message was from Vision: "I was wondering whether or not you planned to accept Mr. Stark's invitation to join the Labor Day festivities? I plan on going and would encourage you to attend, too."
Although he was just down the hall and never slept, Wanda texted the android back: "I'm considering it. Why do you think I should go?" She counted three seconds before a pajama-clad figure passed effortlessly through her wall. "Vis! We talked about this."
"Oh! My apologies, Wanda. I assumed since you were up and the lights were on that it would be more efficient to talk face-to-face. Should I leave and text you?"
"No," she said a little wearily and patted the bed beside her. "Come in and sit down."
Vis looked noticeably relieved. He'd made many faux pas, but Wanda admired how he cheerfully kept gliding along and tried to learn from his mistakes. He had on a pair of blue flannel pajamas like the father and sons wore on The Brady Bunch. Wanda couldn't help but smile. (The boy in her dream had worn a green pair of these under a blue bathrobe. Maybe that's where she'd remembered them from?) She and Vis had watched a number of episodes together with other team members, but stopped soon after Sam wanted to make it into a drinking game in which every time a character said, "Groovy," everybody watching had to drink a shot of scotch whisky or vodka, and if the daughter Jan said, "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha," everyone had to drink three shots. Because Sam knew the programs well, he'd managed to get four of five Avengers who were present pretty tipsy, except for Steve who had only been fast-talked into playing to build comradery. Wanda preferred wine or beer, but she'd been raised drinking Sokovian distilled spirits, so she'd outlasted Sam and Scott before they lost count somewhere during season four. Steve eventually said enough was enough and declared Wanda the victor. She thought Steve had enjoyed putting them all through calisthenics just a little more than usual the next morning. (Natasha wasn't there, but later she did note her stash of Belvedere was somewhat depleted and removed it from the common area.) No one had wanted to play drinking games or even watch The Brady Bunch since then. That was back in July.
Wanda rested comfortably with her covers gathered up around her while Vis sat rather primly on the edge of her bed, trying to figure out a more casual position before crossing and uncrossing his legs and sitting at more of an angle to her. "So, why should I go to the lake?" she asked. "Is it just an excuse for a drunken party?"
Vision tilted his head and glanced down at his knee. He had already composed a bulleted checklist in his head, but he doubted a data dump was going to persuade her. "Not that there won't be plenty of spirits there, but as I understand it, food and fun are more integral to the festivities. Thor is not currently on Earth, so the 'beer budget' is about half of last year's amount."
"It sounds like you've done your research," the Magic User acknowledged with a chuckle. "What do people usually do here on Labor Day? Is it like Independence Day or the Soviet's May Day with workers or soldiers in parades and flags being waved?"
"In larger cities, there are parades, but it's more of a last hurrah as the summer season ends and students return to school than a show of military strength. People go swimming and have picnics, play baseball or participate in other sporting or outdoor activities. It's meant to be enjoyable." He smiled at her pleasantly letting his words sink in. Wanda shrugged noncommittally. "I would find it more enjoyable if you were there," he added.
Wanda snorted. She knew this was the soft sell. The hard sell would come from Steve or Natasha. That was the pattern she'd observed so far. "Okay," she nodded. "You've said Thor is off the planet. Who is going to be there?"
"Not everyone has responded, but the immediate team members have been invited and there will be other guests there before the weekend to work with Dr. Banner. Families have been included for the Monday picnic. I've not seen that part of the guest list."
Wanda nodded. "Bruce has finally been let out of the tower, hmm? I imagine he's been a model prisoner. That has to have been . . . difficult." She'd only seen the physicist a few times since he'd been back, but they'd had a number of perfunctory email exchanges. It was clear from their first meeting at the tower earlier in the summer that he didn't fully remember what had happened when she and Pietro had assaulted him in South Africa. Of course, he knew she set Hulk off on a homicidal rampage in a populated urban area—his threats back in May had made that clear, but he was not the same being as the one caged up inside. There was a difference between the scientist who'd threatened her and tried to hold her back from destroying Ultron's creation—ironically, the being sitting here with her now whom she'd grown to care about deeply—and the creature she'd wronged who'd once again become a weapon and a scapegoat. She knew that better than anyone because she'd gotten a good look at the landscape inside the good doctor's head. She knew his fears, understood, and even shared them now. They actually had more in common on that subject than not.
Unless Banner was in very deep denial, the scientist didn't know specifically what she'd done to his inner monster. She'd wanted the "Big One," and she'd found it alright, locked up tight and buried deep in Banner's subconscious. To her surprise, the monster hadn't simply burst forth like a genie or daemon to do her wrathful bidding, he'd resisted her till the bitter end. There was an intelligence, an understanding of consequences there she'd not anticipated finding. She also sensed a real reluctance to use its power just like the doctor's resolve not to turn the creature loose. Surprisingly, this wasn't a repressed manifestation of Banner's id. It was an entirely different being. Eventually, she'd found the right memories to break it down and used its fears to control the entity. Well, she'd pointed it where Hulk would do the most damage if you could call that "control."
Destruction, violence, and pain was what Ultron wanted, and she had delivered. He'd said to tear the Avengers apart from the inside, so that's what she did. No one was going to hurt or terrorize her again. A cruel twist here, a delusion there, and they imploded. The mighty Avengers all fell at her feet. It was exhilarating stuff. They'd looked so strong and arrogant, but they were all weak and fragmented. It had all seemed sweet and fitting at the time. She especially delighted in Stark's suffering and destruction—that conceited bastard was finally paying for his sins! Ultron was going to put all these egotistical pigs in their places. Then came the cruel epiphany as they stood in Cho's lab in Seoul that bringing justice and addressing grievances and making the world safe wasn't at all what Ultron was about. Whereas Strucker had been motivated by an ideology of power and domination, Ultron truly wanted the death of all living beings. He was full of twisted fear, and he'd manipulated her brother and her like ignorant, foolish children. He'd lied by omission and used them to kill just like the people they'd blamed for their misery. They were no better than those they accused of causing their suffering. Irony of ironies, she was now the one struggling to understand her role in the disaster that resulted, so she might come to terms with her guilt and culpability. She might as well be the poster child for self-destruction. Everything had blown up in her face.
Because she and Pietro had tried to correct their actions, and everyone recognized she was suffering from trauma, Wanda had been left waiting for the fallout she knew she deserved. It might have been easier if they'd put her in a cell and punished her as soon as the dust settled; instead, the people whom she'd wronged so personally had all treated her with compassion. They'd welcomed her in and given her a roof over her head and a real sense of stability, even family, again. They'd done all they could to shield her from the consequences of her actions. True, some teammates were warmer than others and many in the complex were still unsettled by her and even fearful, but the situation was improving as she worked hard to fit in and earn her place. The world in general was ignorant of her role in Ultron's plot, but they did know she was powerful because of her public actions in Sokovia. She couldn't really help it if they feared her.
Most of the time, Wanda still felt like "one big, hot mess," as Sam put it when they were kidding around. Before Wanda had even settled into her room in the Avengers compound, she'd spoken to Stephen Strange, the Earth's Sorcerer Supreme, who'd revealed to her some of the unintended results of her untutored use of chaos magic. She'd had no idea what it was she did exactly up till then. He'd shown her how to balance her use of energies, and to everyone's relief, she'd made the decision to abandon her use of mind manipulation. She could not completely cut off her empathic abilities, but she knew the only way to earn her teammates' trust was to limit herself to developing her energy and telekinetic skills. Thus far, working on those had kept her quite occupied.
After those bitter words in the lab in Avengers Tower, neither Dr. Banner nor she desired to mix it up again, and it hadn't taken long for him to reach out to her after his return. Banner alone had confronted her back in May and received two of her strongest energy blasts to the chest for his efforts. He should have gone down in a catatonic heap, but he'd kept control of himself. She shouldn't have been surprised at that. After all, he'd taken a serious physical beating from Pietro and her the day before outside the quinjet without a mark left to show for it a day later. Did he not remember it? Maybe not? She couldn't tell for certain without breaking her vow and intruding deeper. Despite everything that had happened, when he came back, he'd forgiven her and moved forward in good faith. They weren't going to be close, but Vis almost worshiped him like a father figure. Wanda sincerely wanted to get along with the man who, besides Stark, had contributed to the android's creation, so she hadn't resisted meeting the doctor. However, the other being that resided inside the scientist was a very different story.
In mid-July, Natasha had approached Wanda with Steve and Clint. They had not ordered or really pressured her, but it was clear they expected her cooperation as part of the team. The subject was something she'd been dreading.
Before they started, Steve had been pacing near the back of the meeting area, clearly a bit agitated as if he didn't want to be talking about this either. Wanda couldn't help but feel the waves of guilt coming off him. He finally sat down with the other three team members at the table and addressed her. He'd gotten right to the point: "Wanda, before much longer, we're going to need you and Hulk on the same mission. If you keep avoiding him, you're not going to work together effectively, and that could jeopardize more than just the mission," he noted. She'd sat there at the table staring at her hands. They just didn't understand what she'd done, and she was too ashamed to admit it now. She wanted her cruel mistakes to be buried deeper than her brother or the remains of her home at the bottom of Lake Novi Grad.
"Anyone Bruce gets along with usually does fine with the Big Guy," Natasha assured her. "He's doing well with his therapy sessions in a controlled environment. His social and communication skills have improved. Eventually, Hulk will be back on the team without restrictions on an as-needed basis."
Clint had been sitting beside Wanda, and he reached over and patted the young woman's shoulder. "Look, if you aren't ready, you're not ready, but putting this off longer is just making it a bigger deal for both of you. I know Hulk is physically intimidating and not big on conversation. Under all that though, he's really not a monster. The guy is a reliable teammate. You just need to spend some time with him and try to know him better." That had just made her feel worse. The thing is, she did know him better than most of the people in the room. The problem was, Hulk knew parts of her better than anyone in the facility. People kept telling her he wasn't a monster when she knew who the monster really was behind his rampage in South Africa.
"I know what you say is true, but I don't know where to begin with the Hulk. He has good reasons not to trust me, but if he attacks, I have to be able to defend myself. We got along in Sokovia. Isn't that good enough?"
"Sokovia was all hands on deck, not a day-to-day situation. I honestly don't think he'd attack you without provocation," Natasha said, sounding honest, but also a bit irritated. "He's worked hard to be part of the team again. He wouldn't blow all that effort on a cheap shot unless he was seriously pushed. If anything, he'd go out of his way not to do that."
What Wanda wanted to say was, "You don't know what happened or what I had to do to him. It was very wrong, but I thought he was not human. I was Ultron's tool, and Hulk was mine to get what we wanted. I was awful to him and Dr. Banner." However, all that came out was, "Even if Bruce doesn't remember, Hulk could not have forgotten what I did to them."
"All the more reason to talk to him and get this aired," Steve responded. "I agree with Clint, the longer you wait, the bigger the issue between you two."
"All you really need to do is say you're sorry," Natasha advised her and Clint nodded in agreement. "It may take a while, but he will warm up to you, Wanda. You're both assets to the team, and it's about time you put the past in its place and moved forward."
The Magic User kept studying her hands and turning the rings on her fingers. "I'm sorry. I'm just not ready." They'd not pushed her further, but their disappointment was clear. She almost wished they'd demanded to know what she'd done, so she could confess and get it off her chest.
She'd hurt Natasha and Tony, but they had approached her offering condolences at Pietro's funeral, and they had talked it out. She'd asked their forgiveness, and they'd agreed to go forward. She worked with Natasha and trained with her. The former spy was professional and friendly enough. Wanda looked up to the older woman and hoped they'd eventually be real friends once she proved herself. Tony kept his distance, but he checked in to ask how she was doing when he was at the facility. He was always kind, but she didn't need to read his mind to see the turmoil he felt in her presence. She had hated the idea of him for so long that the reality of what he was actually like had taken her aback. He struggled like all of them; he was just a little better at holding it at bay. Wanda kept that to herself and did her best to be friendly and thank him for the small but thoughtful things he'd done like incorporating her ideas when he designed her uniform and equipment. He'd also sent her reports on the ongoing rebuilding efforts in Sokovia and Johannesburg, which were a mixed blessing to read. He'd even paid to rebuild their old primary school in Sokovia and convinced the officials to name it after her brother.
Wanda pulled herself back into the present. Vision looked at her and smiled. "The Agreements have built-in incentives, and an extended field trip in the out of doors is one that both Dr. Banner and his alter ego can enjoy."
She nodded and returned his pleasant expression. "I'm sure they've been working hard and deserve the reward." She suddenly felt very tired. "I promise I will consider the invitation, Vis. We can talk more about it in the morning."
The android nodded. "I will hold you to your word, Wanda. I sincerely want you to come." With that he'd gotten up in his preternaturally smooth way, but this time he used the door to leave her room.
Wanda turned off the lamp and lay back down. She was having a difficult time getting the image of the green-eyed child out of her head. He'd looked very familiar. At first his voice reminded her of Pietro, but that wasn't what was nagging at her. Dark curls that framed an almost angelic symmetrical face, a few freckles, the beginnings of what would be strong features, and a smile that was not so even, almost a one-sided grin. He'd said he had a brother that he'd lost for a while. His words had been reluctant, yet kind and empathetic in the end. There was someone else, too, a harsh voice in the background. Had she seen a bird? She was somewhere she shouldn't have been because . . . she'd dreamwalked! She hadn't just imagined it. Wanda held her hand over her mouth. Oh, that wasn't good! She'd vowed to stay out of people's heads, and now she had been in someone else's dreams or unconscious. No wonder the child had wanted her to leave—she'd encroached on him, entered his dreams. He'd said they'd met, but she didn't know him. The pieces finally slipped into place. She'd seen those green eyes staring at her with fear and pain then absolute hatred just before she'd finally forced them to turn red.
Bruce woke up when Natasha turned on the shower. He was really relieved that she'd not slipped away, or he would have thought he'd dreamed her up. His anxiety level was low and he felt good. No weight on his chest or ache in his head. He rolled out of bed and pulled back the curtain. The sun had turned the eastern sky rose and red. It was going to be a beautiful, clear September day. He stretched his arms above his head and enjoyed the feel and sound of his spine and limbs settling into place. Bruce grabbed his robe off its peg in the closet. There wasn't enough time to make breakfast before Nat was out of the shower, so he brewed coffee and brought her a mug. He timed it so he could hand her a towel and watch her dry off before handing her the cup of joe. Natasha looked a little tired, but she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. "What do you have planned before you have to leave?" he asked.
"Not much. I can do paperwork on the plane. Do you want to work out?"
"Sort of. Hulk and I have an appointment with Cecily this morning at 8am if you'd like to come?"
"Oh, that's right. Sure, if you think it would be helpful, I can tag along." Natasha had had to stand him up a few times. She sipped her coffee and noted he was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. "How are you feeling this morning?"
Bruce smiled brightly, "Good! I'm looking forward to the week. Lots of things to do that will keep me busy till you get back Thursday." He finished his coffee and set the mug at the back of the vanity before he gave her a peck on the cheek and hopped in the shower.
Natasha decided he was genuinely in a better spot than he was last night and not just putting on a brave face for her. "Where are you meeting her? Your usual spot in the smaller gym?" she called over the noise of the shower.
"We thought we'd try the yoga studio next door since it's more intimate, but still big enough not to be claustrophobic for Hulk."
"Sounds like a good compromise. You're stretching out first, right?"
"Yah, put on your warm-up gear. The more relaxed I am, the better it seems to be for the Big Guy." Bruce was out before Natasha had brushed her teeth and pulled her hair back. "Do you want breakfast?"
"Cold cereal is fine. I want to get you limbered up and have a few minutes with Hulk before Cecily comes in, okay?"
Bruce finished brushing his teeth and cleaning up. "Sure, he'll like that. I'm feeling good, but something seems a little off with him. Maybe you can get him to say what's bothering him."
Natasha frowned and looked at his reflection in the mirror. "Is he upset?"
Bruce thought for a moment, trying to articulate what vibe Hulk was giving off and why. "More agitated than anxious. I didn't feel him till I woke up. It's the contrast between how we're feeling right now more than anything that stands out, but I think he wants to see you."
"Is he not looking forward to the trip up north?" She walked into the bedroom to finish dressing, and Bruce followed her.
"That's not it. There's something else." He could tell something was agitating the Big Guy, but all that was all Bruce could decipher.
Natasha stole a t-shirt from Bruce's drawer and threw him one. "Let's hope he's feeling talkative."
"I'll do what I can to facilitate that," Bruce assured her. He was getting a better feel for allowing Hulk to access emotional control and communication skills, but it was always an iffy proposition. Sometimes Hulk came out like a kindergartener, but at other times he could manage much more sophistication for short periods. Maggie said it ebbed and flowed, but he seemed to have progressed beyond the nonverbal stage he'd been stuck in. The therapy team described the Big Guy as cooperative, clever, and teachable. On his worst days Hulk struggled to find words to express himself, but he'd gotten better at grammar and syntax. Bruce thought, rather proudly, there was something very Banner-ish about Hulk's determination to achieve his goals despite setbacks. Natasha described them both as being tenaciously stubborn and prone to brooding until they conquered their respective obstacles.
Bruce and Natasha both finished dressing out and had breakfast, bumping elbows and stealing colored marshmallows from each other's bowls, before heading down to the studio. It was used as both a dance and yoga space, but the temperature had been adjusted down for comfort. The floor was a light-colored wood that was currently covered in large thick practice mats, and there were mirrors around the walls. Although it was roughly the size of a tennis court, the selling point for Hulk and Bruce was the 12-foot ceiling and the extra reinforcement in the floor.
Bruce began stretching out and then going through a few basic positions and forms. Natasha watched him and joined in after a bit. She corrected his foot placement once, but Bruce had certainly made some progress since she'd watched him last week. He seemed a lot more comfortable and confident. "How is your back doing? No double entendre intended, but you look a little stiff."
He snorted. "None taken. It's okay. Still feels tight though." Natasha held her tension in her upper back and feet; whereas, he'd managed to store it up in odd spots along his spine and shoulders.
"Come here," she told him. He might know his yoga, but she knew more about core strengthening. "You can do the cat and cow poses on your own, but let's try something a little different." Natasha stepped behind him and had him lay flat on his stomach with his arms extended above his head. "Now, I'm going to grab your hands and walk you back sort of like upward-facing dog."
Bruce looked over his shoulder at her, "Just make sure not to hurt yourself. That and I don't want to do a faceplant in the mat."
"Oh, Doc, don't you trust me?" she teased. "Hold on and relax. This will help with your lower back and groin."
"I trust you implicitly. But I've put a little weight on."
"Padding?" she teased as she walked him back and held his hands so his back would really arch.
"You tell me."
"I checked your body fat index. You've added a few pounds, but it's muscle mass, so I'm not concerned. I can still carry you just fine." Bruce's back finally made a small but satisfying crunching sound. "That it?"
Bruce sighed, "Oh, yes. You got it."
Natasha gently walked him back down to the mat before she let go of his hands. Bruce lay still for a moment, and she dropped down beside him. "Warmed up enough?"
He grinned and rolled over, "As warmed up as I need to get with my clothes on."
Natasha chuckled at that. She leaned forward and stroked his jaw with its few days' worth of salt-and-pepper stubble before slipping her hand to the back of his head and pulling him into a kiss. After an enjoyable minute, they ended the embrace, and Bruce rubbed his forehead against hers.
"I know, you adore me, but you need the other guy, right?" he gently teased.
"I wasn't going to say it that way, but I've heard I need to talk to him."
Bruce kissed the top of her head and sat up. He had on a plain pair of stretchy pants in dark gray without a logo. His t-shirt was just a regular one, so Bruce pulled it off over his head and folded it up, tossing it to the side. He crossed his legs and settled his hands in his lap with the palms up.
Natasha had moved back to give him room. She addressed the Interface: "Friday, consider this a Privacy Level 11. Text me when Cecily gets here." The doors were now locked and the recording devices were shutdown. They had at least an uninterrupted half an hour if Hulk needed that long.
Tilting his head back, Bruce took several deep breaths and looked inside. The Big Guy was definitely troubled but under control, so it was an easy handoff. "Take what you need . . . Adam," Bruce offered as he relaxed and surrendered everything he had to the process.
Adam's heart leapt when he heard Bruce use his real name. "Please help me communicate. I'm going to need words and patience to get her to understand," Adam told him before the agony of the physical transformation set in. Bruce took on as much of the pain as he was able to stand to free up his brother. More quickly than intended, he slipped into a state of unconsciousness. Before Adam could object, he was suddenly in physical control and gasped for breath, brown eyes opening wide. Too fast! The Gamma rushed out from the long bones and his spine. It flared into his bloodstream like green fire and his heart raced. Adam's rapidly expanding lungs took in as much air as possible. His nerves were ablaze, and his limbs groaned and creaked as the mass poured in and his muscles swelled. Everything hurt, but he'd felt worse. Adam stared at his hands, flexing them as they finally settled into the right size and shape, just as out of proportion as his feet. "Ouch," he said and the deepness of his voice almost surprised him. He inhaled another cavernous breath and smelled her. Adam looked up and the redhead was staring back at him, a slight smile flitting across her lips. "'Tasha! Y-you're here," he breathed with relief. He had words. They were slow and simple, but they would likely improve as he used them. The pain was there, but manageable. He didn't know how long he'd have, but things were going to be okay. Adam held up his right hand with the palm facing out to Natasha, and she leaned forward to touch her left hand to his. They grinned at each other, relieved to be over the transformation's threshold.
"Hulk, it's good to see you," she told him and sat back down in front of him, mirroring his cross-legged position. "You wanted to talk?"
He nodded, "Yes. This is hard. Need . . . I need to tell you things, off record." He glanced around the ceiling to indicate the surveillance equipment he knew had to be there.
"I had Friday take the recording tech off line. You know I will keep whatever you need to say private if that's what you want," she assured him. "I assume it's okay to keep Bruce informed, correct?"
Adam nodded. "You be judge. Trust you." Now, where should he begin? "Your apartment," he pointed from himself to her, "talked last month." She nodded. "Told you Wanda and . . . m-m-m . . . Hulk are not friends." She nodded again. "This why. To get . . . to get . . . m-me to do what she wanted, she made me see worst memories." He tapped his temple for emphasis.
Natasha nodded again. She'd read Bruce's files multiple times and committed what S.H.I.E.L.D. knew to memory. There were vague reports from his early childhood living in housing on the base in Dayton written by the Military Police that showed a pattern of reported domestic disturbances that had been investigated, yet never followed up on. It wasn't until the boy was in kindergarten that a teacher had reported bruising and more serious injuries to local authorities and a deputy and a social worker visited the house. Bruce had been removed from the home to stay with his grandparents, but the military had interceded and smoothed things over. Within a week, the boy was back in the home.
There were no further official reports until two years later when the aggravated murder of his mother occurred. Rebecca Banner had loaded two small suitcases in the family station wagon and attempted to leave the home with Bruce. The statements from the neighbors were brutally clear. Brian Banner had pulled his car into the driveway and blocked his wife's escape. He'd then proceeded to remove her forcibly from her vehicle and strike her multiple times with his closed fists about her head and torso before she fell to the ground where he began to kick her. Bruce had screamed for help and grabbed his father's arm. Brian struck him and threw the eight-year-old child against the car. Two neighbors had wrestled Brian to the ground, but the damage had already been done. Rebecca Banner died of head trauma before the ambulance arrived a few minutes later. Bruce had gone to live with his Aunt Susan, and Brian Banner was committed to a mental hospital until his death several years later.
"What did she make you see?" Natasha asked, knowing, but dreading what it had to be.
Adam wrung his hands in a very Bruce-like gesture. "Mother's death . . . over and over. Wanda wanted to break me."
Natasha swallowed, "Oh, Hulk." She ignored protocol and reached out to touch his large green arm, and Adam didn't pull away. He held his hands still and looked at them, picturing the blood again. It had looked, felt, and smelled real.
Natasha was simply trying to listen and be supportive in helping him get his story out, but it was difficult not to react when she knew the extreme nature of what he and Bruce had survived. What further damage had Wanda done? With her own encounter, Natasha had simply relived old memories that may or may not have all been hers. The violence. The conditioning and indoctrination. The required sacrifices. Mutilations of her body and soul. It was disturbing and debilitating for a while, but she'd coped, grounded by the normalcy of the Barton household. For Hulk, Wanda had done something much worse. Everyone else had been stunned and debilitated, but Hulk had to be broken to get him to submit to her will.
"Wanda made me im-imagine beating my mother. Blood on my hands. Over and over. Convinced me I hit our mother. I hit Bruce." He looked at Natasha and shook his head, pulling his limbs in closer to his body. "Wanted to die."
Screw protocol, she thought. Natasha stood up and hugged her friend around his massive neck, pressing her cheek against his. "Thank you for telling me, Big Guy. Does Bruce know?"
"Only when he dreams. Not awake. Dis . . . disassociation is how he copes. Bruce remembers noise, red lights that came next when she controlled me. Doesn't remember Pietro and Wanda beat him un-unconscious to bring me out. He was strong. Didn't break him." Adam leaned back to make eye contact with Natasha. "So proud. Bruce tried stop them. Hu . . . I couldn't stop Wanda. I was puny one." Adam took a deep breath. "Bruce told me to tell Cecily, but she might bench me, take me off team. Please, don't tell. I don't want off team."
Natasha thought for a moment. He was right about that. "You're not puny, but you have a point." In her mind, it wasn't Hulk who needed to be taken off the team, but the situation was way more complicated than that. They couldn't just cut Wanda loose for multiple reasons. "What do you want to happen?"
"Stay on the team." He tried not to sound frustrated, but he was quickly getting tired. His intellectual abilities were starting to cut out like a failing lightbulb.
"Okay, what do you think should happen to Wanda?"
"Told you before. Hulk . . . I apologized. Wanda should, too. Both take responsibility."
"That means you're going to have to talk to her," Natasha warned.
"I will talk to Wanda," he said without hesitation.
"Can you do that without getting angry?"
"I could do that and work with her. Like you. Be a pro-professional." Hulk used his right index finger to cross his heart. "Promise."
Okay, that was perceptive on his part. Whether they wanted to admit it or not, everyone on the team except Vision tiptoed around Wanda to a certain extent—almost as much as they did Hulk or even Bruce. Tony was the most obvious one; though he'd treated Wanda with respect and kindness, he wasn't comfortable around her. Natasha couldn't blame him. Clint, Rhodey, and she had made an effort to spend time with Wanda, and the other team members who lived in residence—Steve, Sam, and Vis—socialized with her regularly. Scott and Peter were there part time and still in awe of most of the others. Bruce wasn't able to be on site because of the Agreements, but he'd put forward a good-faith effort despite the complications.
To be fair, Wanda had been a model team member and student. She followed instructions, worked well with whomever she was assigned, and practiced her telekinetic powers diligently. Natasha ran and trained with her as did Maria Hill when she was there. The young woman seemed to be adjusting as well as one could expect, but Vis said she often had trouble sleeping. Natasha could certainly relate to that. The one thing Wanda was very reluctant to do was talk to a grief counselor or mental health professionals. She definitely had issues when it came to working things out with Hulk. Granted, the Agreements had kept him at a distance, but as the Reconciliation Meetings in Johannesburg grew nearer, Wanda had yet to commit to attending or talking to Hulk. Steve, Clint, and Natasha had asked her to try and talk to him and consider going, but she completely balked at the idea of meeting him. Now, Natasha suspected she knew why.
Before Bruce and Hulk had come back, Steve had pushed the idea of protecting Wanda from the press and others who might want to take advantage of her or her precarious legal situation. He'd argued she needed as pristine of a background as possible. It was bad enough that the government had files on her. What would they think if it got out in the open her powers came from Hydra via Loki's staff and she'd set the Hulk off on civilians? Tony and she had been trying to locate Bruce at the time, so they weren't consulted until after the decision had been made. After all, the team had brought her back from Sokovia without paperwork or a passport, so they were all culpable to some extent. Although Maria and an excellent immigration lawyer were working on the case, the going had been slow and securing a passport was only the first of many steps if Wanda wanted to get a student visa or decided she would like to stay in the United States.
When it had become clear Bruce and Hulk were going to be the ones taking the fall for almost everything that happened in Johannesburg, at least in the media, Tony had been absolutely furious. Natasha was angry, but she could see the practical side of it. It wasn't fair to Bruce or Hulk, but they were a well-known and volatile commodity. Wanda wasn't, so keeping her out of the spotlight had its advantages. Steve argued in Bruce's absence that the physicist would have agreed, done the right thing, and taken the heat for her. Tony had bitterly pointed out that Bruce was self-destructive enough without them helping him along, but he didn't have a better plan or an alternative way to keep a close eye on Wanda.
When it came down to it, no one wanted to see someone with Wanda's tragic history dragged through the courts and the press when Hulk could take the blame in absentia. Natasha had warned Steve that they had become Wanda's enablers and it would eventually come back to bite them all in the ass. She knew Steve was correct that Bruce would have gone along and made the sacrifice play, but eventually all this stupid chivalry was going to cost them. Wanda was an adult; they needed to let her act like one. What Steve hadn't counted on was that Wanda was far from blameless. In hindsight, Natasha now realized Wanda had hinted at what she'd done a few times, but no one wanted to pin her down and make her come clean when it was easier to blame the usual suspects. Wanda had directly wronged someone, two someones, who had done nothing to her, and Hulk needed to be treated fairly. He needed some vindication if not justice. If they were all going to move forward as a team, this conversation had to happen.
"I think you deserve something more than just being allowed to stay on the team, Big Guy. If I'd understood the extent of what she did to you, I think I would have fought harder to get all this out in the open immediately. What Wanda and Pietro did to Bruce was wrong and what she did to you was reprehensible. It's as bad as what Loki did to Clint and Erik Selvig."
Hulk was giving her a look like Bruce sometimes did that was equal parts relief and surprise that someone believed him. "Think gem in staff had bad in-influence."
"You may be right about that, but this is something Wanda needs to address." Damn, he was probably onto something, but she needed time to consider it. "As it stands, Wanda used her power to get you to do something you wouldn't have done. The consequences of her actions led to people dying, and now you and Bruce have been left to take the blame while we're covering up for her. If we don't do something, this could taint the whole Reconciliation process. No matter what she does, you need to tell your story and tell it all."
Hulk nodded. "Thank you for believing me."
"Thank you for talking to me. I've done a pretty spotty job looking out for you since I've been back in the field. I'm going to try and do better."
"It's okay. People think I can't be hurt. Too big. Too slow. Too dumb." He scrubbed his large hands down his face and looked her in the eyes. She noted with interest that his eyes had gone from Bruce's brown to a deep green, minus the luminous glow of the transformation. "I'm not this, this body. It's not really me. I'm different."
"You aren't always like this?" Natasha almost winced at how insensitive that sounded. "I mean, I . . ."
"No. I'm nothing like this." He gestured to his body and then looked at his hands. "Not when I'm inside. Never inside like this." He nearly said something snarky about being the Prince and not the Beast, but how would she know? Even Bruce hadn't recognized him until recently.
Natasha took in what Hulk said and his demeanor. Now, she was really curious. "What are you like on the inside then? You've never told me, and I'm not sure what Bruce knows."
"When I'm not in pain, I'm not angry. I'm not big. I'm not green." He gripped his thighs with his hands. "I talk better . . . No, I speak . . ." He closed his eyes to help concentrate his mental and physical efforts to get his thoughts and words out. "Compared to right now, I speak very well in my own environment. I'm not a genius like Bruce, but I'm not stupid either." With that out, Adam winced and felt his control start slipping away again. He wanted to tell her he was human, but if she didn't get that already, it would just sound pathetic. Adam rubbed his forehead because it was starting to hurt.
Natasha had always known the Big Guy was more intelligent than anyone thought. She did her best not to show her surprise as she listened and observed his growing frustration. Speech was always such a crapshoot. If she kept him going, he usually was more articulate and less monosyllabic, but this was an unusually articulate moment as he struggled to keep communicating with her. She felt like an idiot. Why hadn't she considered that he was something other than big and green like he was now? Maybe because they'd not talked enough for the subject to come up? Maybe because she'd thought he was just a part of Bruce for a long time. "I know you're you and Bruce is Bruce. But you aren't just limited to rage and anger."
"No. Not at all. I was Guardian before Hulk. I protected and comforted Bruce when we were small. Now, I'm not able to do much for him while he's conscious. I don't know why it's not the same as it was." Adam didn't want to talk about this. He needed his friend to do something for him, and his time was running out. "Look, Tasha, I need to tell you this. I keep Bruce safe when he sleeps. When Wanda sleeps, she dreamwalks. I can keep her out of Bruce's dreams, but she needs to stay away from us. She may mean no harm, but she has no right in other people's dreams. I want our business with her done, so she will stay away." Now, his head was really starting to throb. "Please, tell her not to come near us." He held his head in his hands. Damn! He knew he was at his limit. If he were really a masochist, he might try punching himself, but Adam knew he wouldn't be in any mood to talk to anyone if he did that. "I'm sorry. Tell Cecily I'm sorry I couldn't stay longer."
"It's okay, now you won't have to talk to her about you-know-what," Natasha noted wryly.
Adam laughed, but it made his head hurt worse. He finally waved Natasha off and keeled over on his side. He'd said what needed to be said, and he considered that acceptable. This was going to be a rough one. He tried to take as much of the pain as Bruce had before, but it slipped past him like water through his fingers. Control just wasn't happening. He shook violently, trying not to flail. Adam pulled all the hurt he could with him and gave his thanks to Bruce in passing. Now, Adam was going to sleep it off someplace deep inside that was quiet and soft.
Bruce hardly felt like he'd left except for the initial crackling expansion feeling different from the weight of everything squeezing down as the mass left and he shrank back to himself. He moaned and writhed on his side as the air was forced out of his lungs. After a moment, he rolled over on his back on the mat. When quit trembling, he opened his eyes, Natasha was leaning over him and smiling. Her hair looked like a glowing halo backlit in the overhead lights. "Long time no see, Babe," he said.
Nat had just checked her texts as Friday forwarded one. "Cecily had to cancel, so you and the Big Guy are off the hook."
"Figures," he said and gingerly sat up. "What was on his mind?"
"A lot. I wish I could have recorded him, but the conversation was off the record." Bruce started to object. "No, don't worry. He didn't say you couldn't be informed. In fact, you really ought to hear most of this."
"Sorry, I don't like triangulating you between us." In fact, he worried about it a good deal.
Natasha shook her head. "He wasn't trying to do that. Let me ask, what does Hulk appear like to you?"
Bruce paused to consider her question. There was some vagueness and blurring as with all things Hulk-related for him. "I think it varies. I know I've held him, so he's been small, but I've imagined him as other things, too."
"Like what?" she asked.
"I think he was a dragon or a very large panther when I tried to connect with him at Bear Lake. I know he was that big green horse from the Chagall painting I told you about. He's human most of the time, but the details are all fuzzy. I've sat beside him on a couch and just read together or watched television. He used to be just a voice inside my head before the accident. Before that, I thought he was this stuffed ragdoll. He used to cheer me up. You know how some kids have imaginary friends?"
Natasha shrugged, "I didn't have one, but I remember a doll my parents gave me."
"He was like that, but better. We talked about everything from existential questions to stupid, trivial things. When I was older, he quizzed me before tests and comforted me when I didn't have anyone else after mom died." Bruce stopped. He knew this was his brother, but it was hard to say it out loud without thinking about how he'd mistreated him.
"Has he looked or acted like Hulk though?" she asked.
"Only when I made him." Bruce was thinking of their fight after the accident and shoving Hulk down into a cell, like a genie into a lamp, as deep in his subconscious as he could. Why had he done that? Was it just fear or something else? "What did the Big Guy need to tell you?"
"He's concerned about Wanda. He told me what happened when she and Pietro caught you. Do you remember anything?"
Bruce nodded, "I was waiting in the Quinjet. I couldn't get anything but garbled noise on the comms, so I wasn't sure if there was a Code Green or not. I opened the rear hatch to try and get a visual, but before I could decide what to do, the twins were on me. I remember Pietro dragged me out of the jet. I warned them not to set Hulk loose, but they didn't listen. It gets hazy after that. I assume Wanda brought out the Hulk. Is that what he remembers?"
"The Big Guy has a clearer memory than you." She sat down next to him on the mat. "Hulk said you refused to give him up. They beat you until you passed out. Wanda went after the Big Guy, and tortured him till she had control, let him out, and set him off on Johannesburg." Natasha watched him. She'd kept her voice as calm and even as she could.
Bruce had made eye contact with her as she spoke, but now he looked away. "Okay, aside from some images, it's almost a blank for me, so I have no reason to disbelieve his account."
"He said he was proud of you. I don't think you could have done anything more under the circumstances."
"I left him vulnerable to her. There he was like a dog on a chain waiting to be eaten by bears."
"He didn't put it quite that way, but she had to go to some trouble to make him obey her."
"Shit! She made him relive our mother's death. I do know this part. He's told me." Bruce was suddenly cold and his chest ached. "No wonder he won't have a thing to do with Wanda."
"There's more," Nat continued. "He said that Wanda dreamwalks. He can protect you, but he wanted me to tell her to stop. He's willing to work with her for Reconciliation. He really doesn't want to be taken off the team."
"But he needs to talk to Cecily about this. He's been keeping it bottled up for four months without complaining."
"Bruce, he tried. When he was in the apartment, I think that's what he was trying to tell me. I just didn't pick up on everything."
"He may not have been ready, but with Reconciliation getting closer and no firm commitment from Wanda . . ." Bruce chewed at his lips. The dreamwalking was probably the last straw for the Big Guy. What was the witch thinking? Backing him into a corner wasn't going to turn out well. "If Hulk is willing to work with her after all this, that's probably his final offer on the table. Do you think she'll commit and take it?"
Natasha smiled and shook her head. "I'll see her later today. Never say never, Doc."
End Notes: Ugh, this was hard to write! I can't pretend I'm an objective party. I feel Wanda needed a redemption arc in the films after what she did to Tony, Natasha, and especially Bruce in Age of Ultron. It may have been mental rather than physical, but what she did to Bruce and Hulk amounted to mind rape. I know that's harsh, but what she did had extreme consequences for those three characters. Objectively, Zemo is the only villain who has done a better job tearing apart the team. I want to like and cheer for her because she's a badass character, but I have serious issues with how she's written in the films: a spoiled brat who is unrepentant for what she did without there being any serious consequences. Well, I'm doing my best to try and fix the character in two chapters when neither Whedon nor the Russos managed to do it in two films. Help me work out my issues in the comments. Next chapter, Bruce and Natasha arrive at the lake lodge before the big weekend. I appreciate your patience. Stay tuned!