It hurts because it matters.
Wanda was sitting in one of the padded chairs in the main conference room, watching as agents bustled around, tapping on tablets or speaking quickly and quietly into microphones. The atmosphere was tense, as though one single shout or misstep would make the place explode, and Wanda shifted anxiously, reminded of times long past. Unconsciously, she rubbed her hands together and felt the brief, comforting surge of power that flowed into her fingertips.
She let the redness hover above her palms for a moment, letting it weave in and out of itself in hypnotising patterns, as she allowed her skin to soak up its raw warmth. It was almost…
Wanda shut her hand tightly closed with a snap. No. It would never be beautiful. Nor would it ever be a comfort and she cursed herself for even considering that something so destructive could ever be viewed otherwise. For God's sake, this power of hers had torn people apart. It had ruined buildings and had helped to destroy the only place that she had ever viewed as home. It was ugly. It was ugly and brutal.
Wanda sighed at the gentle call of her name and she briefly shut her eyes, drowning out the sounds that were echoing around her. Vision. When would he ever stop hovering? "What is it?" she asked finally, her voice low. She didn't miss Neville's curious stare that was aimed at her and the android from across the room and she brushed it off with a small shrug.
"You seem anxious. I only wanted-"
Wanda let her eyes fall open. "I'm fine," she said, feigning a yawn and a small smile. "I'm just tired. This call was very unexpected." She shifted again in the chair and deliberately glanced around the area. She had only ever been in here once and, she withheld a hysterical chuckle, it had been on a simple tour.
The room itself was cold and windowless, the walls covered with a variety of computer screens. Some were dedicated to showing maps and vital signs and others were showing the profiles of people whom Wanda had never seen before. Her eyes landed on the picture of an elderly woman – Penelope Matereda, the caption underneath read – and Wanda found herself wondering why the woman's picture had been tagged. She looked normal enough, with dark grey hair that was tied into a severe knot at the back of her head and kindly, stern eyes, but maybe she wasn't who she seemed. Maybe she was a suspect or a victim or worse.
Wanda's gaze landed on another picture, this time a photo of a young boy who had been found dead in a dumpster two nights ago. His picture had been splattering the front pages of newspapers, because, if Wanda remembered correctly, there was no obvious cause of death and he was the fifth such person to be found that way.
"Have they called in all of us?" she asked suddenly, her eyes snapping away from the images that littered the screens. "I was just thinking that it must be serious."
Vision nodded and drew up a chair besides Wanda. "I do believe so," he answered. "Although I must confess that I'm not quite certain as to what we've been called in for."
"Same," Wanda murmured with a frown. "But then again, I don't think that they tell us all that much these days."
"They have their reasons."
Wanda could only nod stiffly at his response. "They always do." And she was right, she thought, because they always did. There was always a reason to not tell them a piece of information or intelligence, and, on the rare occasion that they did, then there was a high chance that it was a lie. Wanda was becoming sick of it. She yawned and rubbed her eyes tiredly. God, she was becoming sick of the lies and the secrecy and for perhaps the thousandth time, she thought back to the comforting array of Wizarding newspapers and books that she had hidden away in the nooks and crannies of her room.
An escape. Just in case.
Briefly, she entertained the thought of living like and with them. It was entirely possible that wizards and witches wouldn't accept her any more than anyone else, but maybe… Maybe they would see her as something more than the weapon that she was now so often thought of. Maybe they would even give her a choice, give her a second chance.
But then again, she had chosen this, hadn't she? She had chosen this the moment that she had stepped out of those doors in Sokovia and she had chosen this the moment that she had decided to tear that robot, that stinking piece of metal, apart. But choices could be changed and the future, unlike the past, could be reformed.
Maybe after this mission was over, she thought, she would go and talk to Ginny about possibly making the switch.
Wanda jumped and she looked at Vision sheepishly. He must have been saying something, something that she hadn't bothered listening to.
"Sorry," she said. "Could… could you repeat that?"
Vision narrowed his gaze. "I was saying that you understand why. You understand why things must be kept from us."
"Yes, of course." Wanda was tempted to roll her eyes. "For the greater good. For not only our own safety, but for the safety of others."
"Then I don't understand why you are distressed."
Wanda didn't see any point in telling him where her thoughts had originally been. He would only ask questions, questions that didn't really want to answer. "I'm tired," she repeated and she turned her head slowly away from Vision, watching instead as Malfoy and Luna entered the room and drew up chairs next to Neville. Malfoy had a silly little grin on his face and Wanda tilted her head in vague amusement, wondering who it was who had managed to do that.
Wanda sighed again, this time in irritation, at the sound of her name. "What?"
"What is distressing you?"
"Nothing." And everything, she added to herself silently, as she watched the wizards across from her grin at something that Luna had said. The Avengers used to be like that, she mused. All witty banter and camaraderie, but now she didn't know where Natasha or Steve and Sam were half the time and since Clint had retired… Nothing had felt the same. She forced a smile onto her lips, as she turned around to face Vision. "Please, Vision. Nothing's going on. I'm just…"
"Tired?" he finished somewhat bitterly for her and Wanda nodded.
Stark was the next one to arrive, looking oddly serious, as he immediately stalked up to one of the agents in the room and demanded to know where Fury was. Pietro and Ginny weren't far behind, and judging from Pietro's idiotic grin – something that strangely matched Malfoy's – and hovering stance, something had once again happened involving Ginny.
Wanda couldn't help but frown as she saw the wince that spread across her friend's face as she plopped into one of the chairs. Secrets and lies, she thought again – Ginny was going out on missions that none of her own friends were even allowed to know about. Wanda knew that Ginny and the others were separate to the Avengers, that they had their own agenda and style, but still. There was never any truth or straightforwardness anymore. No sense of trust.
Or, at least, that's what she felt.
"So," Fury's own arrival was as unexpected as usual, "we're here because of some intel that has just become available to us," he said, handing out a series of datapads, "and because this is our chance to deal with TEPHRA once and for all." He glanced around the table. "Where's Romano-"
"Here, sir," Natasha called, sliding into the room with her usual grace. "Sorry, I was just wrapping up some… unfinished business."
Fury arched an eyebrow wryly. "That unfinished business wouldn't happen to be knowing where the hell Granger, Wilson, and Rogers are, would it?"
Natasha assumed a quizzical expression. "No."
Fury snorted and muttered something under his breath that Wanda didn't quite catch. "We'll just start without them, then," and he pointed to the tablets. "On your screen you will see the profile of Joanna Ranemann, a twenty-one year old female who became entangled with TEPHRA an estimated two weeks ago. She was recently taken to what we presume is TEPHRA's current base."
Wanda held her breath, as she looked down at the picture. A young, dark eyed girl stared back. This girl, Joanna, was so young, too young, to be getting wrapped up in all of this. She should be out living her life, not worrying that her next breath may be her last. Kind of like her and Pietro and, she looked up, Ginny and Hermione and the others.
"She human?" Natasha asked.
"Inhuman, although we're not sure what her abilities are or how long she's had them."
"How'd we get a read on her?"
Fury nodded at Ginny. "Through Prewett."
"And you reckon that some of TEPHRA's bosses are at this compound?" Tony interrupted.
"Yes, we do."
"Well, how do we know for sure?" Tony demanded. "We don't want to go in guns blazing and then discover its all some kind of hoax. How do we know that the girl's trustworthy?"
"Because I promised her something that TEPHRA would never be able to give her," Ginny interjected quietly. "Immunity."
Tony swore and Ginny glared at him.
"Well, what would you rather, Stark?" she shot back. "Would you rather take these bastards down or leave them alone to do their dirty work in peace?"
Tony scowled at her and Ginny leant back in her seat, satisfied.
"Well," Natasha said slowly, "if the intel is sound, then I say we go for it." She turned to Fury. "How soon can we be there?"
"With Stark's technology," Fury said with a sidelong glance at Stark, "half an hour."
"Then I say that we get moving." Natasha glanced carefully around the table, her assessing stare landing on Wanda. Wanda looked away. "Is everyone happy to move in on this?"
Slowly, everyone, including a reluctant Stark, nodded and Natasha grinned. "In that case, everyone suit up. I want to be out of here in the next ten minutes and if you're not on that plane, then you're getting left behind. Wanda," Natasha tilted her head, "would you wait behind a sec? I have to check with you about something."
"I…" Wanda felt the eyes of her brother and the others on her and she nodded tightly. "Sure."
Wanda, for some reason unknown to her, had always looked up to Natasha, which was funny considering that the assassin standing in front of her really wasn't a good example of a role model. But there was something about the way that Natasha handled herself that Wanda couldn't help but admire. Everything that she did was controlled, every word thought out and every movement planned, and that was what Wanda strived for. She wanted that control.
"You seem off," Natasha said bluntly, once the others had cleared out of the room. "Besides, Vision was watching you like a hawk for the whole thing, so what's up?"
Wanda shrugged and wished that the redhead wasn't so observant. "I'm just tired."
"Sure you are. Now, give me a real reason, or I'm grounding you."
Wanda's eyes widened in surprise. "But-"
"No buts. The rule of being in the field is, is that if you can't look after yourself, there's no way that you can look after others and seeing as Steve isn't here, it's my job to look after you lot. So," she folded her arms, "what is it?"
"It's… It's a long story."
"Give me the short version."
Wanda shifted uncomfortably.
"Now, Maximoff or-"
"It's personal. It's got nothing to do with the mission." She took a deep breath. "I can do this."
Natasha stared at Wanda sceptically. "You sure about that? Because my gut's telling me otherwise."
Wanda nodded and this time, she said the words like she meant them. "I can do this."
Natasha was silent for a short moment, her expression carefully blank as she considered Wanda's words. "Fine," she said and Wanda breathed out in relief. "But don't make me regret this, because I will not hesitate to ground you should I need to."
Wanda nodded again. "I understand," she said thickly.
"Good. Now, suit up. You don't have much time and," she glanced at her watch, "neither does Rogers."
"How far away are we from the compound?" Sam demanded, as the car sped over dirt road.
"We're about two minutes out and, according to Nat, the team's flying out in five."
"Shit," Sam muttered. "Fury's gonna be so pissed."
"Fury's the least of our problems," Steve snapped and Sam sighed in irritation.
"Look, man, I'm sorry that tonight didn't go as you hoped that you would, but you gotta move on."
"Doesn't mean that I have to like it."
Sam shrugged. "You don't have to. But what's done is done and we can't do anything to change that, so let's just focus on what we have to next. Besides, Hermione said that she has enough information to go off, which reminds me," Sam said, turning around to face her, "how's that supposed to work, anyway? What, you just cast a spell and his location is revealed to you?"
Hermione rolled her eyes at his rudimentary description of the process, but nodded. "If you want to be crude about it, then I suppose that what you just said sums it up nicely."
"Is it, you know," Sam said, gesturing with his hands, "a big spell?"
Hermione shook her head in amusement. "It's quite straightforward really, but depending on how far away the person that you're trying to find is, it can be taxing."
"So, how soon can you do it?"
Hermione sighed and ran a hand through her hair. She had been expecting that question ever since they had left the abandoned car park and, frankly, she was surprised that it had taken them so long to ask it. But despite the time that she'd had to think over the answer, she still didn't quite know what to say. Knowing Steve, he would want the spell to be cast as quickly as possible, but with the added stress of the mission that they had just been called to… It would be better to wait and see.
Especially given that she wanted to do her own research on the man, before solidifying anything. "I'll do it when I'm ready. You can't push things like this," she said eventually.
"You'll do it after we complete this next mission though, right?" Sam wanted to know and Hermione nodded vaguely.
"Like I said – I'll do it when I'm ready."
The car fell silent again and they each found themselves breathing out in relief, as the bright lights of the compound finally began to cut through the dense trees. They were going to make it, Hermione thought, as the car pulled to a screeching halt outside of the facility's airfield, a plume of dust flying behind them, as they leapt out of the vehicle.
"Oh, hell," she heard Sam mutter, as Natasha's slim figure started jogging over to them, "she does not look happy." And Hermione couldn't help but agree as the assassin stormed over to them, her expression stormy.
"Where the hell were you?" she snapped.
"Meeting the friend that you told me about," Steve retorted, as he slammed the car door and started stalking towards the bay to suit up, tension lining his body.
"Well, I hope that it was worth it," Natasha said moodily and she glanced back over at the plane. "You literally have four minutes to get changed."
"So, hurry the hell up. And Granger? Prewett's been asking after you. Something about you doing a healing spell."
Hermione nodded absently in response, as she pulled her hair up into a tight ponytail. It was time to get down to business, she thought, as a grim smile tugged at her lips.
Hey everyone, I hope that you all enjoyed this chapter! Out of all the chapters so far, this one has literally been the hardest to write, because every single word has been like walking backwards up a mountain - hence the shorter word count for this one.
Huge thanks to all of my followers, favouriters, silent readers and reviewers - you're all awesome! Special shout out to this week's guest reviewers: Becca, Leni, and MacieRaquelAbby. Your words are always appreciated.
I hope that you all have a lovely week!