A/N Hi guys! Thanks for your continued support!
Steve could feel his heart pounding in his chest and his mouth had gone dry.
"Cap?" Tony asked uncertainly.
"The Sorceress has been lying to you for years," Wanda told them. "She only works with you so you won't find out about all the other magic."
"That's not true," Steve said hoarsely. "She's always tried to help in whatever way she can."
Pietro shrugged. "Maybe," he agreed simply. "But the other part is true; she's been pulling wool over your eyes since moment you met her and he's known all along." He nodded at Steve.
"Tell me that isn't true," Tony ground out, sounding like his jaw was clenched very tightly, pointedly not looking at him. "Tell me that this is just a stupid mind game. Tell me, and I'll believe you."
Steve knew what he had to say but that didn't make it any easier. "I – I can't," he admitted with a deep sigh, sending a silent apology to Hermione, knowing that he'd let her down.
Tony turned to him furiously. "You son of a bitch!"
Steve raised his shield to deflect the blow that Tony was about to inflict on him but Thor grabbed Tony's arm with a roar of, "Enough! There are more important matters to attend to."
"Now, who would've thought that Thor would be the one to spoil all the fun?" Ultron proposed lightly. "Oh well, let's get onto the main event."
Ultron used an energy wave from his body to knock them over as a couple of legionnaires dropped down to attack them.
"This isn't over by a long shot, Cap," Tony muttered as he engaged in a fight with Ultron.
Steve roared in frustration as he battled a legionnaire. He managed to knock it to the floor and he ran a couple of steps towards Wanda, determined to stop her before she had the chance to meddle any further but she used a red force to push him back. Klaue's mercenaries entered the fray and Steve had to duck bullets as he resumed his fight with the legionnaire. The droid managed to get away from him and he launched his shield after it. Abruptly, something hit him forcefully in his face and it took him a moment to realise that it must have been Pietro. The legionnaire advanced on Steve with his own shield but he leapt over the droid and grabbed the shield's rim and pulled it upwards in an attempt to force off its head. This was achieved when Thor smashed his hammer into it. Steve threw the shield, knocking out three of Kalue's men in quick succession. He noticed that Pietro was sprawled amongst containers, trying to regain his feet. Steve jumped down and knocked the shield against his head, making Pietro stumble back again.
"Stay down, kid," he advised and then went to take out more mercenaries, legionnaires or Wanda; whatever he came across first.
"Thor, status," Steve ordered.
"The girl tried to warp my mind," he replied. "Take special care. I doubt a human could keep her at bay. Fortunately, I am mighty."
Steve was mindful of his advice but it was difficult when there were still plenty of mercenaries and droids to defeat. He had just thrown one of Kalue's men the length of the ship when something slammed forcefully into him, sending him rocketing backwards to crash into some pipes. He groaned slightly and he shut his eyes tightly as something raced across his vision.
Music blared in his ears and he saw he was in one of the dance halls back from when he was growing up in Brooklyn. In fact, judging by the music, fashion and the army uniform he was wearing, he was back in the forties. There were people laughing, dancing and celebrating. Champagne was flowing at every table as he wended his way to the dance floor but he could hear the distant sounds of battle amongst the upbeat swing music. At one table he saw his Howling Commandos and, at another, the Avengers. They all looked like they were having the time of their lives. A couple of the dancers moved and he saw Hermione standing there, waiting for him, a beatific smile on her face.
She ran towards him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. "Can you believe our fight is finally over?" she gushed, twining her arms around his neck. "It's all we've ever wanted! We can go home now, Steve."
He was sat at a dinner table. Hermione sat across from him and a small boy and girl sat on either side. The only sound was the almost mechanical scraping of the cutlery on the plates as his family politely cut up their food, raised a bite of it to their mouths, before cutting some more. Steve looked down at his plate and realised that his food was grey. He blinked and saw that, actually, everything was grey; their furniture, clothes, skin, all of it.
"Why can't you just be happy?" Hermione screeched at him as they stood in their bedroom. She picked up an ornamental plate and threw it at him but it smashed into the wall behind him. "Why can't you accept that this is a life – our life?" Another plate crashed above his head. "I thought this is what you wanted! I thought you loved me!" Smash. "Who are you?!"
Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? The question chased itself around inside his brain as two different projectors showed clips from his life.
'Captain America saves the day again!' the World War Two news reel announced as the other film showed Hermione with a white flower in her hair as she said, '…do take you, Steven Grant Rogers…'
'The soldier,' Loki scoffed…
Hermione's faced stared at the camera, her face shining with exertion. 'It's a girl?! Oh, Steve, how wonderful…'
'Cap, what are your orders?' Tony demanded.
'Can I have story, Daddy?' the little girl looked no more than two.
"You have to pick one." Doctor Erskine, the man whose super soldier serum had transformed his life, stood between the two projections. "You can have one, or the other, but not both."
Both films continued to play.
'Did you see my home run, Dad?' a teenage boy asked, grinning delightedly.
"No," Steve said firmly to Erskine.
The doctor transformed into the Red Skull. "Choose!"
He was back at the grey dining table with Hermione's earlier shrieks echoing in his mind along with the smashed plates. He glanced out of the window, hoping for a bit of colour but, where he should have seen a vague reflection of himself, there was nothing. He looked down and saw that he'd faded away to nothing…
The images on the projectors flickered past almost too fast for him to make out what they showed.
Choose who you are! Choose who you are! Choose who you are! Choose who you are! Choose who you are! Choose who you are! Choose who you are! Choose who you are! Choose who you are!
DO IT NOW!
Steve yelled, screwing his eyes shut and clawing at his head.
ACCEPT WHO YOU ARE!
The screaming stopped and he tentatively opened his eyes, afraid of seeing the choice he had made.
Hermione groggily came to. She could tell that she'd been drugged and, for a moment, she feared that she was back on Sanctuary with Thanos. But the sunset that pierced into her eyes would never be possible on that desolate rock.
She tried to piece together what had happened. The last thing she remembered was waiting anxiously in the quinjet with Bruce. As soon as the team had entered the ship, something had started interfering with their communications and she could no longer make out what they were saying.
"Hey, come on," Bruce had said, placing a comforting hand on her back as she chewed her lip worriedly, "You're the one that's supposed to be keeping me calm."
When the gunshots started ringing out, it took all of her willpower not to apparate straight over. "Steve said to go if the situation went south," she said to Bruce. "That sounds pretty south, right?"
Bruce stood up and fiddled with some of the switches on the jet. "Hey, guys, is it a code silver… Or maybe a code green?" he asked, referring to each of their colours. There was only a distorted crackle in response. Hermione lowered the door to get a better view of what was going on. The gunshots were much clearer as well as other distinct clangs and bangs.
"I don't like it," she muttered, pushing her mask down over her eyes in preparation. "I'm going in."
"Wait," Bruce said, grabbing her arm. "It's stopped."
They had paused in anticipation for a while but that was the last thing she remembered. The only explanation she had for the sudden change was that someone had acted too quickly for her to be able to react: Pietro Maximoff.
As her eyes adjusted to the light, she saw the three of them standing over her: Pietro, Wanda and Ultron. They appeared to be somewhere in the African wilderness and her heart beat frenetically as she contemplated about what had happened to her friends.
"About time," Pietro muttered. "Now you can get your answers and then we can dump her."
"Now, now, Pietro," Ultron chastised, "That's no way to treat a guest."
"You didn't have to carry her all this way," Pietro grumbled.
Their words were difficult to make out because there was a dull, continuous thundering noise in the background. Whatever drug they'd used to sedate her was making it almost impossible for her to move her body but that didn't mean she was entirely defenceless. Mentally, she struck out at them as powerfully as she could with her magic and they were all knocked to the ground, giving her a small sense of satisfaction.
"Not one to give up easily, are you?" Ultron muttered, rising imperiously to his feet, "An annoying trait the Avengers share."
Wanda was looking at her curiously and Hermione concentrated on shielding her somewhat foggy mind from her manipulations. "She is attempting to block me from her thoughts," Wanda murmured. "But the sedative is interfering. I can still get flashes and hints."
Hermione tried to push her away both mentally and with another burst of magic but the attempts were weak and Wanda merely stumbled a little.
"Stop that," Pietro ordered, standing in front of his sister defensively. "Or we throw you in Zambezi now and be done with it."
Zambezi. The thundering noise she could hear made sense now. The Zambezi was the river in Africa that flowed down Victoria Falls – one of the largest waterfalls in the world. If they did throw her in the water when her body was so unresponsive, she would either drown or meet a grisly end as she plummeted over a hundred metres down the waterfall.
"She understands the danger she is in," Wanda said knowingly.
"Then I suggest you be a bit more cooperative," Ultron said to Hermione. "The more time you spend answering my questions, the more your body will recover and the greater your chance will be of surviving your unavoidable dip in the river."
Nobody needed to delve into her mind to see the contempt she held for those words and Pietro shook his head muttering, "You think she'd be grateful we give her chance of life."
"We know about your magical community," Ultron said. The abruptness with which he hurled this revelation caught her by surprise and her breath snagged in her throat.
"I saw your vision," Wanda told her, watching her intently. "Magic and Avenger fighting each other; too busy destroying each other to stop the alien threat. And I saw you, the cause of all the world's tears."
Wanda's words triggered flashes of recollection in her head that she'd desperately been trying to supress the last few days.
"For someone born with all knowledge, finding out something new is a bit of a thrill," Ultron murmured, his gleaming red eyes becoming brighter in the fading light. "The problem is we only know what Wanda has seen. Magic's been kept well under wraps but I need to know more. Are you what humanity is evolving into? Are you the next step? Are you better?"
Hermione closed her eyes, determined not to give him any more information than she'd already unwittingly done so. As far as revelations went, the knowledge that Ultron and the Maximoffs knew she wasn't the only magical person was very bad, but it wasn't catastrophic to her way of life. Magical life couldn't be exposed if they didn't have any proof and Hermione certainly wasn't going to give them any. Once she had control of her body, she could modify Pietro and Wanda's minds and she had faith that the Avengers could find a way to eradicate Ultron. That's if her friends were still alive… She still had no idea of what had happened at the salvage yard.
Icy water enveloped her body. She tried to struggle, to get herself out of the river but her body just wasn't responding. Water poured down her throat and up her nostrils and her brain screamed for air.
She was back on dry land in an instant; retching, coughing and spluttering as she gasped in oxygen.
"We thought you'd fallen asleep," Ultron claimed lightly but Hermione knew he'd been aware of exactly what he'd asked Pietro to do. "So, in case you are only capable of processing one question at a time right now, let's start with how long magical kind has existed?"
The dip in the water had actually sharpened her mind and Hermione concentrated on not giving any sort of mental response.
"What numbers do they exist in?" Ultron pressed. After a moment he glanced at Wanda whose face was wrinkled with effort.
"I can't get through," she murmured.
"This is waste of time!" Pietro cried angrily.
Ultron grabbed her bodily and raised her up to his eye level. "Are you better than the rest of humankind?" he demanded, shaking her aggressively, and breaking her focus for a moment.
"No," Wanda said softly. "They're not."
Hermione hung uselessly in Ultron's hold as he turned to Wanda. "What did you see?"
"Suffering, darkness and war," Wanda answered. "She has seen it."
Ultron let out a growl of disappointment and carelessly let Hermione drop to the ground.
"That is disappointing," Ultron muttered, sounding genuinely saddened. "Even an evolved humanity still suffers the same flaws."
Hermione looked at the twins and trusted that there was a part of them that could be reached. With a concentrated effort, she whispered, "It's not…too late…We can help you."
Wanda eyed her warily but Pietro's expression was much more hostile. "Captain America say the same thing. You two are definitely suited to each other," he chuckled and then tilted his head to the side as though considering something. "Although, what my sister say of his dream…" He shrugged. "Maybe that's not true after all." A rush of adrenaline ran through her body at the revelation that Steve was likely still alive and Pietro saw the hope in her eyes. "Don't be excited, they're not going to be pleased to see you," he warned, "Assuming you live that long…"
Hermione was immersed in the water again but she knew that Pietro wasn't going to pull her out this time. She tried not panic as the pull of the river flung and twisted her body around like a ragdoll as she raced towards the waterfall. Her lungs started to burn but she determinedly kept her mouth closed. She only had one chance to get out of the river and there was no guarantee she was going to be successful. She waited until the river's flow forced her body to spin and she concentrated harder on a disapparation than she'd ever done in her life…
Hermione collapsed against something hard and dry, once again gratefully filling her lungs with much-needed air. From where she lay face down on the wooden floor, she couldn't see if she'd managed to avoid splinching herself but she took heart from the fact that she wasn't in great pain.
She'd had an old S.H.I.E.L.D safe house in Johannesburg in mind when she'd disapparated and she could only assume that was where she presently was. Apart from a surprisingly large number of sirens from nearby emergency services, everything seemed to be calm…
Hermione jerked awake.
Although she could move much more freely now, she was annoyed with herself for falling under the sedative's influence again.
She got to her feet stiffly and had to use the wall to maintain her balance. Night had well and truly fallen so she turned the room's lights on with a wave of her hand. At best, the room could be described as derelict. Someone had certainly been in it since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D because all that remained was a battered old television. Hermione staggered over to it. Ultron and the Maximoffs had seen fit to remove any technology she'd possessed so she had no immediate way of contacting the others (apart from her patronus which could be unreliable). She knew she could portkey herself in stages to get back to the Tower but she was also aware that a few minutes' rest was required before she undertook such a concentrated effort. She switched on the TV, hoping that nothing about Ultron or his exploits had made it onto the news.
Ultron wasn't on the news but what was, if possible, was even worse; Hulk had gone on the rampage right there in Johannesburg. There was footage of him battling the Hulkbuster version of Iron Man but it didn't seem to have been a quick fix. The text across the screen showed the numbers of casualties and estimated the cost of the damage caused. The sirens she'd heard earlier certainly made sense now.
Her heart ached for the turmoil Bruce was no doubt feeling and she felt awful for letting Bruce down by not being there to protect him from himself. Was that what Pietro had meant when he said the Avengers wouldn't be pleased to see her?
The fear and uncertainty of not knowing what had happened to her friends gave her all the focus she needed to complete her extensive journey back to New York. When the final portkey successfully placed her in the Tower, she only just managed to shake off a wave of exhausted relief.
"Hello?" she called hoarsely. She cleared her throat and called out again. Seeing the lab was empty, she hurried over to Maria's office but paused in alarm when she opened the door and saw Maria pointing a gun in her face.
Maria lowered the weapon in relief. "Damnit, Hermione, you scared me! Well, at least your reappearance is one bit of good news. God knows we need some. Are you alright? You… you don't look it."
Hermione explained how Ultron had wanted to question her (but didn't divulge it was about magic) and informed Maria how she had escaped after her unwanted dip into the Zambezi. "I saw on the news about Johannesburg. Is everyone else OK?"
Maria grimaced. "It sounds like Wanda Maximoff did a number on them but… they'll recover. I advised them to stay away from the public eye until we can get a lead on Ultron. The jet's in stealth mode at the moment but I'll see if I can raise them."
She typed into the computer and Hermione walked around the desk so she could see the screen. After a brief pause, Clint's face showed up on the screen. He was clearly piloting the jet so it took a couple of seconds before he actually looked at them but his surprise at seeing Hermione was evident.
"Hey, Mei-mei," he said softly. "I'm glad to see you're OK."
His voice was so quiet that she could hardly hear him. "Thanks. Maria says we took a bit of a hit."
Clint nodded grimly. "You could say that. Look, it's not a great time to talk. I'm going to send you co-ordinates of a safe house we're headed to. We're still a while away yet but I know it won't be a problem if you head over on your own and get some rest."
"OK…" Something wasn't quite right – and it wasn't just because of the impact of Wanda Maximoff's mind games. "Clint –"
"We'll talk later," he promised, "Just get some rest."
The screen went blank and the coordinates came through. Hermione glanced at Maria but the other woman looked nonplussed.
Hermione took the time to pack a few basics and then travelled to the safe house. It was dark but she could see the outline of a farmhouse – a very different type of S.H.I.E.L.D recommended building than she was used to.
She walked tentatively up the porch steps. The house might come Clint-recommended, but she wasn't foolish enough to approach without vigilance. The front door opened without resistance when she pushed it. "Um, hello? Is anyone there? Clint Barton sent me." A light glowed faintly from a room at the back of the house so she walked towards it.
"Who are you?" a somewhat fearful female voice called back and Hermione paused, holding up her hands to show she meant no harm.
She opened her mouth to respond but struggled over what response to give. "Clint calls me Mei-mei," she answered eventually. Hermione heard footsteps and then the woman stepped out of the shadow.
"You're Mei-mei?"the woman gasped, staring at her in amazement. The expression Hermione wore was more quizzical in nature as she took in the woman's large, pregnant stomach. "You're the Sorceress?"
Hermione nodded, seeing no reason to deny it.
The woman's face widened into an excited smile. "Oh, wow, it's so nice to finally meet you," she said warmly. "Clint's told me so much about you."
"I…wish I could say the same," Hermione replied awkwardly.
The woman laughed and held out a hand. "I'm Laura," she introduced, "Clint's wife."
"Clint's – what?!"
A/N Thanks for reading.
Next time, the Avengers have a little chat...