Red, White, and Boom
Wanda dreaded the first 4th of July with the Avengers, her new teammates. She had hoped it would past by uneventfully, and tried many times to avoid going out to celebrate. Before, in February, she was able to decline a mission at the nearby Chinatown. Lunar New Year celebration meant lighting firecrackers. Lots of them. She managed to dodge the bullet with that one. But Steve and Clint were particularly determined to drag her out of the Avengers compound on the 4th of July.
"Come on, Wanda, we're a team," Clint said. "And because we're a team, we do everything together. Fun things included. We're not gonna leave you out of the fun."
"I'm going to cook steak and grill hot dogs," Steve said. "This cookout will be a team effort. We'll need everyone to pitch in and eat it all. That includes you, Wanda."
Remaining perched on her bed, she fiddled with the cuffs of her sleeves, wringing them between her fingers. "You're going to watch fireworks?"
Clint chuckled. "Well, yeah. It wouldn't be 4th of July without 'em!"
"I…I…" Wanda thought of the shell that dropped into her home in Sokovia. She struggled for words, and ended lamely, "I just really hate fireworks."
Clint made a dismissive gesture with a little wave of his hand. "Cover your ears. It'll be fine."
Easy for him to say. He was of hard of hearing. For her, it wasn't that simple. She would still feel the boom shaking the ground under her boots. She would still see the colors burst and flash across the sky. But at this rate, the captain and SHIELD agent would not seem to leave her alone until she gave in. So she bit down on her tongue and went.
The Avengers headed for a park close to the city, under pretenses of monitoring for potential terrorist activity on a holiday charged with patriotism, but really they yearned for a well-deserved break, to just relax, chow down on good ol'-fashioned American grub, and enjoy the fireworks like everyone else. Steve worked with enthusiasm over the grill, with Sam, Clint, and Rhodey helping out while the rest claimed a spot on the grass by spreading out foldable chairs, plastic silverware, and picnic blankets.
Vision, who lacked the means and need to eat anything, spent the waning sunset people-watching. Children and dogs fascinated him in particular, and his thoughtful gaze wandered across the park as he followed their aimless stumbling and running. He was also looking forward to the fireworks. Sitting next to him, Wanda couldn't share his excitement.
"Are you all right?" he asked her. "You look quite pale."
She sighed, lowering the hot dog she'd been nibbling on. "Don't feel well, I guess," she muttered. It was true, but not for reasons the android might assume.
"I'm glad you came with us tonight. You'll look healthier when you come out for fresh air more often. You've been training quite hard with Rogers and Romanoff, and have otherwise stayed in your room."
Wanda really wanted nothing more than the confines and safety of her room right now, no offense to Steve's great cooking and everyone's company. Small talk and laughs filled the little picnic space the Avengers sectioned off for themselves. Most of her teammates were American, so she could understand how they would enjoy the 4th of July, but even Natasha, with her long history of Mercurian, questionable allegiances, seemed relaxed and happy as she bantered with Clint. Wanda hadn't been in the team for very long, but even she could tell that this evening was the first time in a long while that any of the Avengers cut themselves some slack. She wished she could join in the fun, but this was not her idea of fun. Despite the unease roiling in her gut like a bad meal, the tension snaking into every muscle and stretching them taut, Wanda kept quiet. She didn't want to be the one raining on this star-spangled parade. Her long brown hair hid the earbuds she had stuck into her ears before leaving the Avengers compound. She doubted they would help much, but a bit was still better than nothing.
She wasn't a scared ten year-old girl anymore. Maybe tonight wouldn't be so bad. That was what Wanda kept telling herself, yet dread crept into her as the sun sank lower and lower into the horizon. Suddenly a burst of bright red spread high above them, followed by a deafening boom. Wanda flinched, her heart shooting up into her throat.
"Oh, they started already?" Clint exclaimed.
Steve regarded the rest of the team with a wide grin. "I got us the front row, the best seats in the house."
No, this was the worst, Wanda thought. Everyone rose to their feet and craned their necks back to take in the view, while she never relaxed her tight, crouched position on the picnic blanket. The earbuds didn't help at all. If there were people gasping, oohing and aahing in wonder, she couldn't hear any of it. The fireworks were just so loud. She didn't care if anyone might be watching, or ignoring her to admire the flashy show. Wanda clamped both hands over her ears, unable to bite back a whimper as the fireworks continued their relentless assault. Boom after boom lanced through her ears, into her head, turning her arms and legs into cold jelly. She squeezed her eyes shut, but light from the fireworks still flashed through her eyelids. Her breath picked up speed, making her dizzy and lightheaded, and the rapid, shallow breathing swelled into sobs. It all hit her like a flash flood, and there was no dam to stop the fear that seized every inch of her body. Wanda was ten years-old again, back in Sokovia, watching and hearing the shell blast through her life, her home, half of her family. But this time, her brother wasn't here. She didn't feel his hand gripping hers, the way it did for days when the second shell threatened to go off.
Pietro. Pietro. Where are you?
She felt a hand on her shoulder, then an arm across her back, and the other hooked under her bent knees, and wind pulling at her hair and clothes. The booms faded, becoming less and less, until the terrible noise stopped altogether. Eyes gummed shut from tears, Wanda blinked hard to open them.
"Pietro?" she whispered.
She looked up and found herself face to face with Vision. He had carried and flown her into the visitor's center, where it was quiet and empty. Because who in their right mind would want to stay inside when fireworks were going on?
Forgoing doors, Vision phased through the walls and returned with a handful of paper towels from the bathroom. Wanda clutched at one and buried her face into it. Her hands had been at her ears, so tears ran unchecked down her cheeks and her nose became runny. She hadn't gone anywhere, never moved an inch, yet her chest heaved as if she just ran a marathon. Vision settled next to her on the bench and rubbed a hand up and down her back. He said nothing while she fought to control the trembling, the shakiness in her breath.
She wiped her face dry, using up several paper towels in the process. "I-I'm sorry…"
"Don't be," Vision said gently. "Please, don't be."
"I'm making you miss the fireworks." Sobs had made her throat sore with every breath she drew in, every word she said.
"In all honesty, I don't find them as riveting and amazing as the others might have. I would rather stay with you, Wanda."
Vision drew her in and she sank into his embrace, resting her forehead against his chest. He felt warm. Comforting. Even when she had witnessed his creation firsthand, how he was put together by lightning from a god, the minds of three brilliant scientists, and the schemes of a malevolent A.I., to her he felt so…human. As the trembling finally subsided, all that lingered was a dull, throbbing headache. She let Vision run his hand over her hair, and the repetitive motion soothed the pain pounding against her skull. In turn, he let her rest against him. She didn't want to pull back and show him her puffy, red eyes and nose.
She heard doors swinging open and footsteps approaching, followed by her name called out several times with concern. Reluctantly she detached herself from Vision and faced the rest of the Avengers, who filtered into the visitor's center to surround the pair sitting on the bench. Wanda couldn't hold any of their gazes for long, and lowered hers to the tile floor.
Steve got down on one knee to meet her eyes, his brow furrowed with concern. "Hey, are you okay?"
Being completely honest for the first time today, she shook her head.
"Okay? Does she look okay?" Tony exclaimed. "You don't have to ask. It's obvious that she feels awful."
Sam shot a sidelong glare at him. "I wonder whose fault that is."
Tony tensed under the remark.
Wanda tried to put the past behind her. She really tried. She had seen that the Tony she knew now wasn't the same man he had been years ago, when he made weapons for profit and didn't care where they landed. Or who they killed. He had moved on, striving to become a better person than he had been the day before. Not her. She was still stuck in the past, still bound by fear.
Many emotions flitted across Clint's face. Anger, concern, regret. "You said you hated fireworks…I had no idea they would trigger you like this. I should've known, but I forced you to come." He squeezed his eyes shut, pinching two fingers between his scrunched brow. "God, I am such an ass-"
"It's not your fault," Wanda cut in. "It's no one's fault. I couldn't tell you..."
"You did, but we didn't listen!"
"We came running as soon as Vision took off with you," Natasha said.
Sam's shoulders slumped over in shame. "We were so caught up in the excitement that we didn't notice your meltdown. We're so sorry, Wanda."
"Let's go home," Steve said. "We can't have fun as a team when one of us can't."
The rest of the Avengers murmured agreement. Wanda couldn't help but feel relieved as they returned to the compound. Suddenly, as they spread out through the kitchen and living room to unload the cookout supplies, humiliation stabbed Wanda in the back, wrenched its blade through her gut, and tears welled up in her eyes.
"I'm the one who should be sorry," she said. "I ruined the night for everyone."
"You didn't ruin anything, Wanda." Vision laid a hand on her shoulders as they started shaking again.
She sank into a couch and didn't feel like getting up anytime soon. Her teammates quickly stowed away leftovers and utensils, then joined her in the living room.
Natasha took the seat across from her, pouring drinks for everyone. "We're all afraid of something. You know that better than anyone."
"Yeah, I know," Wanda mumbled. Guilt sank its teeth into her as she remembered toying with their minds, exploiting their deepest, darkest fears, while allied with Ultron. Wanda didn't believe in karma, but sometimes it made a very convincing case for its existence. It came around back to her with no mercy.
"I didn't mean to make you feel bad," the agent went on. "What I mean is that you have nothing to be embarrassed about."
Those who hadn't fallen victim to Wanda's hexes before she joined the Avengers took turns speaking up. After several sips of his beer, Rhodey admitted to being afraid of deep water. Though he had to pass rigorous swimming tests in the Air Force, the underwater depths continue to terrify him. He couldn't sit through a deep sea documentary. Just looking at them, even those simulated CG battles between sperm whales and giant squid, made him feel like he was choking and couldn't get enough air. Sam was claustrophobic. Small, tight spaces made him break out into cold sweats and hyperventilate. For that reason he found soaring as the Falcon quite liberating and therapeutic. Clint's greatest fear was loss of control, manifesting in things as small as his arm going numb from sleeping on it, or as big as leaving his wife and children to complete missions that were certainly dangerous and often far away, or as nightmares replaying his forced alliance with Loki, who placed him under a spell.
Wanda took all of this in, moved by her teammates' candid, vulnerable moments. "Thank you," she finally said, "for trying to tell me that I'm not alone." Emboldened by what they had told her, she went on, "It's not just fireworks. Anything sudden and loud, anything that goes bang or boom…even watching someone blowing up a balloon, and it looks like it's going to pop…" She shuddered. "I can't stand it. I freeze up, because if I move…"
The smallest thing would set it off, Pietro had said to Ultron. He had shared her fear. Now she admitted it for them both, because he was gone.
Wanda rubbed at her temple, feeling another headache rise. "I'm an Avenger. It's a given that there will be guns pointing and shooting at me, bombs thrown in my direction. It comes with the job. But how am I supposed to deal with that?"
"That's why there's training," Steve said. "We'll make sure you'll be ready, and we'll take care of that in due time. For now, we're glad you're being honest. It's not easy to admit your faults and weaknesses." The captain let out a sigh that matched his true age. "I'm just sorry that tonight had to bring that out of you the hard way."
"We'll make sure that won't happen again," Clint insisted. "Next year, cookout at my place. You haven't been there yet, have you? It's a farm in the Midwest, in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere near fireworks. I'll tell the kids to forget the balloons and firecrackers. They really want to meet you." He reached out to place his hand over hers. "We'll look after you, Wanda, and make sure you'll have fun with the rest of us next time."
Everyone else nodded, including Vision, who took her other hand into his. She managed a smile, filled with gratitude for the team she came to regard as her new family. Pietro wasn't there to hold her hand anymore, but she would tell him that he had nothing to worry about. There were others to hold them in his place.
Wanda couldn't sleep that night. After several futile minutes of tossing and turning, she kicked back the blankets and stole out of her room. She wandered past the kitchen. She wasn't craving for a midnight snack, nor did she suffer from a nightmare. Why couldn't she get any sleep? The reason escaped her. She found Vision still in the living room, his presence amid the dark marked by the stone glowing on his forehead. He didn't need sleep, so he simply sat almost in meditation, staring at the patterns thrown around on the floor by the moonlight.
Vision looked up, met her eyes, and she took a step back. "Sorry, am I bothering you?" she murmured.
"Not at all. I wasn't doing anything in particular. What's bothering you, Wanda?"
"I don't know, but I can't sleep." She settled into the couch next to him. "I used to just talk to my brother about whatever until both of us got tired and drifted off. He's not here anymore, so maybe that'll work with you tonight."
"I'm sure it will," he said with a hint of amusement in his voice. "You'll find me terribly dull, and whatever I'll say will knock you out in an instant."
"I don't think you're dull," Wanda insisted. "I think you're interesting." She meant it. Out of all her teammates, she spent most of her time with Vision, connecting to him on a deeper level than most would assume. They were still trying to figure themselves out, striving to grasp the mystery and magnitude of their powers. And, frankly, she found it quite funny and cute as he attempted to understand humans, their habits and inventions.
Wanda could never forget the time Vision was learning to use a phone, and the android frowned and stared at the screen so intensely that she asked him what was wrong.
"You can fix this for me," he had said, handing the phone over to her.
He had run into the captcha prompt, the one that made you check "I Am Not A Robot."
For the first time since her brother's death, she had laughed so hard and long that she cried, apparently embarrassing poor Vision, and only after she collected herself she told him how to deal with it. Sometimes she felt bad for laughing at him. She wasn't much better with adjusting to a new environment herself. Pop culture references and memes mostly went over her head, no matter how much Steve and Tony tried to explain. Wanda focused most of her efforts on what mattered more, anyway, such as Natasha teaching her to be an effective spy and mask her Sokovian accent. Likewise, Vision played around with his synthetic skin, masking his distinct patterns to appear more human.
"What are you smiling about?"
Vision's inquiry snapped Wanda out of her thoughts, and she shook her head. "Just thinking about how we're alike in many ways. That's why I think you're interesting." A sudden thought occurred to her then, making her sit up and uncross her legs. "Vis, you're the only one in the team who didn't talk about your fear." She found it, the reason she couldn't get any sleep tonight. She wanted answers. Then she deflated, looked away, and said mildly, "Maybe you're not afraid of anything at all."
"On the contrary," he replied.
She returned her gaze to the android, curious and surprised. "What could you possibly be afraid of?"
He hesitated, and in that pause all she heard were the bushes and treetops rustling outside under the wind. Finally, Vision said, "I'm afraid of seeing you getting hurt."
She stiffened in shock. "Me?"
"You are not weak. Far from it. You are among the strongest in the team. Yet, strangely enough and at the same time, you are vulnerable. Compared to the others, who are older, you are to them a child they want to protect."
She could understand that sentiment from people like Steve, Clint, and Tony, who were clearly her superiors in rank and age. But Vision? She'd been thinking that they were equals. Maybe something more between them. Indignant anger flared up in her chest despite herself. "And what am I to you? A child?"
Wanda couldn't look at him and glared at the moonlit carpet. After tonight, after that humiliating breakdown at the park, she supposed it was natural that he only saw her that way, as well.
The palm of his hand brushed against her cheek, cupped it, then flitted down so the ends of his fingers tipped her chin up for her to meet his eyes. Wanda felt her face grow hot under the intensity of his gaze.
"What are you to me? You are a woman…a strong, beautiful woman that makes my heart break when she's hurting." Then Vision lowered his hand and averted his gaze, the certainty in his voice dialed down a notch. "Well, for lack of better words...I don't really have a heart to speak of...but it's not literal even for you...even your hearts don't actually break-"
Wanda leaned forward to cut off his stammering with a kiss on the lips. The affection she always had for him surged into love right then and there. The force of it swept her off her feet, pulled her under its rush like a warm, surging river, but Vision froze under her touch. She sensed his surprise and uncertainty at the intimate gesture. Wanda pulled back and broke the kiss, but the instant she did, Vision returned it, equaling the sudden passion that had compelled her. They held that one longer this time, and finally she pulled away smiling and blushing. He couldn't blush, though he mirrored her happiness as his hand cradled the nape of her neck. She had felt the thrilling energy crackling between them, jolting through every nerve past her lips and coursing all the way down to her legs.
These were the fireworks she'd be admiring tonight.
Happy 4th of July!