A/N. Hello, just a few things to know on this side of this story: (1) The chapter quotes are from Christopher Marlowe's play of the same title as the fic. (2) This story draws and will draw from the beliefs, traditions, and practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church, particularly that of the icon corner - a place in one's home set aside for prayer - and forty days of prayer for the deceased. (3) Some chronological liberties may be taken due to the, erm, ambiguous timeline of AoU. I think that's all. :)
"O soul, be chang'd into little water-drops,
And fall into the ocean - ne'er be found.
My God! my God! look not so fierce on me!"
The candles are dead when I wake up; broken black stubs jut out of the frozen paraffin like a petrified forest drowning in lava or American church steeples piercing the clouds. I left them. Again. I ought to stop praying myself to sleep. I've awakened still kneeling, slumped against the wall. The cold plaster feels as if it's digging into my scalp. The picture is still in my hand, and my stomach still revolts at the bloodstains in the creases where Pietro folded it twelve thousand times and tucked it back into his pocket or his shirt. He used to cross himself first- at first- before. (Before the church, too, took a shelling.) I didn't. Didn't used to. But this morning my hand flies across my chest like a dizzy meteor.
"With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy departed servant Pietro where there is neither sickness nor sorrow nor sighing, but life everlasting. Amen."
Christ simpers apologetically back at me with His dark, sad eyes with their soft, heavy corners. I should light the candles. I will later. I left them. Again. A single sharp rap hits the door, and Natasha doesn't give me time to invite her in.
"Steve doesn't tolerate tardy Avengers," she says softly, lips tugging into a mischievous curve. I stand up, straightening my clothes, and try to roll my eyes.
"So now you've got to be punctual to save the world?"
"That's what it's all about." She shrugs, ruffling the red curls now brushing past her shoulders. "Are you coming down?"
"Yes." The icons pull at the corners of my eyes. "I'm sorry. Just a few minutes." She frowns briefly, raises an eyebrow.
"It's been almost forty days," she observes, voice close to tender. "It's been a few years since I've been to church, but doesn't that mean something?"
"Not to me." I shake my head, and she does, too.
"You know I'll be back up here," she warns.
"Yeah, I know." She leaves and silently closes the door. I cross myself once more (forehead to navel to right shoulder to left) and with Saint Peter and the Lord and the Virgin Theotokos, stare at the red jacket crumpled in front of the icon corner. The longer I look at it the more my eyes prickle, and the harder I bite into my lip. All I can see is his holding it out to me like a piece of armor before the battle. (But it isn't bulletproof. Even though we always thought we were.) He'd tell me not to think about it, just put the damn thing on. I wore it yesterday, but today I just... It's a worse day. Just put the damn thing on.
"I'm sorry, Pietro."
The facility's halls are quiet at seven a.m.; little pink rays of New York dawn slip in through the windows, and I hear the low murmur of overnight analysts' conversation as I pass their offices. Some of them will get to go home soon. Others will just nap, then return to the same hologram projector in an hour. My feet slip on the linoleum. I forgot to put my boots back on.
My team eats in a small dining room with a kitchenette. I like making my own food, not having it slopped out to me on an aluminum tray (and served to me in a glass cell like a fish tank). By the time I reach what Steve always calls the mess hall, the rest of the trainees have all but finished eating. Natasha smiles from where she's perched on top of a three-legged table, swinging her legs.
"I told you boys she'd put in an appearance."
"Here I am," I say lamely, softly. I turn toward the refrigerator and open it to find my yogurt.
"Hey, now don't get too excited to see us." I can hear Sam's grin before I turn around with the spoon and the plain Chobani.
"Good morning." I wave a steady hand once at the group, then pull out a chair between Sam and James. Who says to call him Rhodey like everyone else does. I'm trying.
"'Morning, Wanda," says Steve gently. He's a little apart, already on his feet, silver curve of his shield very visible behind his shoulders. Rhodey echoes him after a gulp of coffee, and the Vision, who's sitting across from me, folds his burgundy hands and says, "Good morning," as if it's the first line of a poem. We sit in brief silence as I pull the foil lid off the yogurt.
"So where's the jacket, Scarlet?" asks Sam warmly, still smiling. It's nice of him not to say the 'witch' part. "I thought that was your signature hero item or something." He laughs a little.
"It's dirty," I quickly lie.
"Sad day for signature hero items," quips Rhodey. "Ever have one of those, Cap?"
"Yeah, the day I hit Sam with the shield for distracting Wanda from her yogurt."
"Let me guess," Sam snickers, "that's another agency protocol you just so happened not to mention to the rookie."
"Number 701," chimes Natasha, quirking an eyebrow. Steve extends an arm toward her.
"Listen to the agent in charge." Steve shrugs, lips twitching.
"Hey, that's your title, Rogers."
"One I'm proud to have-" He looks up at the ceiling, tilts his head back and forth with a suppressed smile. "-most days."
"And what might that mean?" puts in the Vision, tone light. I spin my spoon through the yogurt and take a last bite.
"Means it's time we got to work." Steve smiles and shifts his weight. "Ready to go, Wanda?"
"Yes." I nod and scoot my chair backward, getting up to toss out the empty carton and put my spoon in the sink. My socks slide on the tile, and I steady myself on the counter. "I'm sorry, I... forgot my boots. I'll be right back down."
"You're not going back up there," says Natasha, slipping down from the tabletop. "Just take your socks off. Today's training can be done just fine barefoot." She thinks I wouldn't come back down. Maybe she's right.
"That's fine," I answer, and bend down to remove the socks. They're grey and black argyle, and I slip them in my skirt-pocket. We head out toward the high-ceilinged room where we do most of the training; everyone's chatting. My bare, bony feet slap softly on the floor, and if Pietro were here, he'd be laughing. I, an Avenger, and my bare feet flapping against the tile. His hand would be warm on my forearm. And we'd both be laughing.
I miss you so much is mauled by You should be here as the words stampede through my mind, though the latter is only half true. Here at the facility, no. Here next to me, yes - holding my hand so I can feel his blood running too fast through quivering veins.
"Wanda?" The Vision walks next to me, and when I look up at him, jaw clenched, I find the Mind-stone blurred into his skin by tears, flaring out at me like a signpost for hell. The stone that made him made Ultron, and Ultron - Sort of. Pietro, you idiotic martyr.
"Wanda?" Please, stop trying. I rub the back of my hand across my eyes.
"I'm sorry," I answer him.
"Perhaps you shouldn't say that so often," he all but murmurs, despite the fact that he has no idea. We've reached the room, and I don't get the chance to ask what he really wanted to tell me. Maybe he just noticed my brimming eyes.
The left wall of the room is all windows, and the sunrise rushes in to bounce fiercely off the metal walls, the red and white wings of the silent Quinjets, and Rhodey's suit as he steps into it. Sam's wings are strapped to his back, and the Vision hovers slightly above the ground for some reason, looking in the light as if being transfigured. Steve and Natasha face the four of us, and Steve starts talking.
"Avengers, the point of this training isn't self-discovery. You already know yourself, know your abilities. You aren't here to learn how to be a hero. You're here because you are one." It isn't true. A hero doesn't make a man destroy himself. A hero doesn't ally with the Devil. A hero protects what matters to her, doesn't let her ego put its hand before her brother and grin like trust-me-this-revenge-could-never-backfire. Trust me. He always does.
Pietro's fingers are cold in mine. He grips my hand as we stand before the two white beeswax tapers. We've just planted them in the sand for the departed, and two skinny tendrils of grey smoke climb up between the Gothic arches holding up the church to coat the faces of the saints in soot. I straighten the blue striped scarf covering my hair, and I cross myself.
"I'll pray for Mama, you'll pray for Dad?" Pietro interrupts my "O God of spirits," not quite whispering. He garners a scolding look from the withered and black-clad woman to his left. She lowers her hand. (Her thin yellow skin has shriveled over veins and the knots of arthritis.) She oughta pray at home if she finds children at prayer distracting, but I still answer in a quieter voice.
"Yeah, then we'll switch." My throat momentarily constricts with tears. "Just like we said." He nods, eyes shimmering, and doesn't let go of my hand to cross himself. He makes it halfway to his shoulder before I glance over and drop his hand.
"You can't do that!" I hiss in his ear.
"You can't cross with your left hand." Tears slide down my face; the skin's hot from being so close to the candle flames. "You'll go to hell." He considers this.
"You'll pray me out."
"Yeah." He curls his icy fingers around mine again, and I trace the knuckle-bones with my thumb.
Above our heads the smoke of candles and incense filters out the hole in the dome, dissolving into the low blizzard clouds. Dad always says it's headed toward God's nostrils. Mama says it's so we saints here below don't suffocate. I cover my mouth with my hand to stifle a sob. Pietro squeezes my fingers, though I can feel his own shaking. I squeeze back harder.
I don't let go.
"Signing up for this team is signing up to give," Steve is saying. "Being an Avenger means giving until it breaks you - and your independence is the first thing to go. It goes now, here on Day Three."
"But you learn that freedom and independence... aren't the same thing." Natasha purses her lips. "When you throw down your walls and let your teammates in, something weird happens. You figure out you're free to fly."
She says that, but I see a ginger sixteen-year-old, hand steady on the trigger of a semi-automatic. She says that, but I see her self-written ledger, pages swimming in red. The soggy book has a padlock, and I think she's lost the key.
There's scarlet leaking out from under my fingernails like phoenix down. Stop that. I force my ability to settle back in. I can't go bruising her a second time. The energy streams back into me, surging backward through my bloodstream as if bending a hangnail in each capillary, each artery. My vision darkens for a moment, black blocks dancing in my corneas. On instinct, I reach for Pietro's shoulder.
Empty air. Empty air. Oh, God. My stomach hurts. My eyesight clears in fuzzy white blotches, and I find Steve's focus on me. I break eye contact immediately.
"Wanda-" he says. Please don't ask if I'm okay. I think you know the answer. "- you and Sam are gonna work together. Vision, Rhodey, you'll be Team Two." Sam strides over to me and smiles softly.
"Any ideas, partner?"
"Sorry, I... I..." I stutter, and I find the English sticking to my tongue. "I didn't catch what we're doing in pairs."
"Hey, no problem," he returns. "It sounds like we're supposed to be figuring out how the two of us could tagteam in sticky spots. Like what about Scarlet Witch and the Falcon together would send the bad guys running, you know?"
My chest tightens. I can't do this, I can't do this. I lose the only partner I've ever had, and now I'm supposed to brainstorm with a war hero as if I too wear my abilities on my back. Steve doesn't understand that I'm zero parts of a whole.
"Alright," is what I say, briefly meeting his eyes. (They're brown as a cross.) "What do you think." I only manage it without inflection. He waits a moment to respond, and when he does his voice is low and intentional.
"You know what, I think I'm not the best partner-and not just because Exo-7 wings are pretty lame compared with telekinesis." He pauses, likely thinking up something condoling to say. The air-conditioning blows at full-force out of the vents high above our heads, calling goosebumps to attention on my forearms. Sam inhales.
"Just know I'm here, okay? You ever need to talk, you ever need anything, don't be shy." He places a calloused hand on my upper arm, and I turn up the corners of my mouth in response.
"Hey, I mean it. That's the best kind of team building there is, right? And Steve and Natasha know it, too." He glances up toward them, but I dig back into my mind, find a woman in a blue dress and a row of pirouetting ballerinas.
"Yes, they know about teams." My voice thuds hollow and dull in my own ears, like it does when Pietro says I'm "traveling" - when he can tell my mind has evacuated the present or wandered a quadrillion miles around the world. I've been traveling for thirty-one days now, the thirty-one days since- since... I bite my lip. Hard.
"Then I guess we better do what they said to." Sam gives me a bright but reserved grin. "So how are we gonna kick ass together?" I simper again.
"I don't know. I - I really... I can't..." Why don't you take one of your pistols out of its holster and blow my brains back to Sokovia? (Back to the crater.) I just want to put my head in my hands.
After training ends, the sun goes down behind my back, and my shadow darkens the icons' serene faces. I've lit three new candles, but their flames look feeble in the red beams of the sunset, like a diluted Pentecost. At least they smell like honey. I breathe it in, sweet and clean; I breathe it in, like at church.
My breath fogs the window pane when the first shell hits the dome, sending up tongues of fire and a pillar of smoke, scattering broken bricks into the air. Pietro rubs the glass clear with his sleeve.
"Oh," I murmur, then cross myself.
"Lord, have mercy," prays Pietro, the request for when you have no words to pray. He puts his arm around my shoulders. The second shell hits with a crack, and two stained glass windows shatter, sending indigo shards raining onto the street. I haven't seen the priests come out.
"Lord, have mercy," I echo. I clap my hands over my ears as another missile crashes to earth. This one must be closer to the children's home.
"Everybody, down to the shelters!" The social worker's command rends the cold air. I hear her round the piano that dominates the room, and when I turn, I notice her grey uniform is rumpled. "Wanda, Pietro! That means you!" She places a hand on each of us and steers us into the hallway.
"Mama and Dad," I breathe into his ear. The church is on fire, and all the candles must be burning, all melting into little white puddles, stuck to the red, red rugs.
"We'll... we'll..." he quavers, trailing off. The social worker rushes us to the basement, where the whispers of five dozen sheltering children bounce off the concrete walls. She squeezes us between two rows of our housemates, and when we reach the ground he throws his arms around me.
"We'll find somewhere else to pray," he finally finishes. His tears wet my hair.
"It won't be the same."
"God'll still hear us, I think." Pietro breathes in slowly. "If He ever has." He pulls away slightly, but I catch both of his hands in mine.
"I think He's supposed to hear us, but..." I swallow, lowering my voice to a whisper. "...but I know for a fact He doesn't answer." Ask me how I know, ask me how I know. Just ask. He sits here quietly for a few moments, squeezing my hands, rubbing the knuckles with his thumbs.
"You- " he ventures, "you don't just pray for repose either, do you?" You already know. But I've gotta say it.
"Do you- do you pray about the name on the -" I stop myself, shake my head. "No, I mean, do you... pray for-
"Payback." We simultaneously squeak out the word, lips trembling. I fumble in my jumper-pocket for the photograph, slip it out from the pleats of the skirt. The four of us grin up at me; the city Christmas tree glitters behind us, shaped like a galaxy in a vase. The lights made our eyes all come out red on the film. We both cross ourselves, and I press my lips to Mama and Dad's heads.
"If," he stammers, and takes the photo from me, "if we were both thinking it, then maybe it's... maybe God... Father Gregory always says there are no coincidences with the Lord..."
"Maybe it's God's will," I finish for him. Pietro kisses the picture, the pale little red-eyed faces. I repeat it, voice shaking less: "Maybe it's God's will."
"Forgive us, Father," I pray with the sunset on my back, with the running feet of S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits hammering the roof above my ceiling. "Forgive us." I've learned too late that vengeance is God's craft. Pietro learned it before the end, but I'm the one left. I'm the one still standing in the train station with her little black bag in her hand. I missed the train. Or I was too afraid to jump in front of it.
I don't know how to suffer alone. At the old base I thought we were suffering. I hadn't a clue. All I had was a dream, a raw throat, and needles in my arms. And a brother.
I wrap my fingers around his wrist, counting the wall's dark blue bricks. The procedures begin with burning, and I set my jaw.