A/N: This chapter might be better understood with a brief glossary of unusual/foreign language terms. :)
-Djuvece: an Eastern European vegetable casserole or stew (Serbian)
-La cathédrale engloutie: "The Sunken Cathedral" (French); a piano prelude by Claude Debussy musically interpreting the Legend of Ys, the tale of a submerged cathedral rising out of the sea near the Island of Ys
-Kvass: a sweet fermented beverage common in Eastern Europe; contains alcohol, but such a small amount that it can be served to children (Old Church Slavonic)
-Thurible: censer (as for incense)
-Livani: frankincense (Greek); made by drying the sap of the frankincense/olibanum tree
-Galilean: of or pertaining to Galilee, Jesus' native region in Palestine
"Ubi desinit Philosophus, ibi incipit Medicus."
(Where the philosopher leaves off, there the physician begins.)
Hydra Research Facility. Sokovia. Last spring.
I live in a glass house now, a square glass house with cold cinderblock walls and a single yellow lightbulb mounted to the ceiling like the sun of another solar system. I woke up here an hour ago. I live in a glass house now - and I fill it up with fire.
Red streams of energy keep seeping out of my pores, burning the skin on the inside and wrapping themselves around my wrists. I sit with my back to the wall, my elbows on my knees, my knees to my chest. Pietro isn't here. The energy presses under my skin, pounds against my skull like a demon breaking its way out. They didn't tell us it would be like this. ("Subject, are you prepared to experience some discomfort?" "I'm not afraid of pain." )
My head throbs. A scarlet ray shoots out of my arm, igniting the nerves like crushing my funny bone with a mallet. It lashes across the cell and strikes the glass of water I found beside me when I opened my eyes. For an instant it looks like a glass of blood, and then it shatters, tossing a transparent mosaic down into a tiny puddle. The energy singes its way back inside me. It hurts like hell, and I yelp even as I'm gasping for breath. I close my eyes for a moment.
"How do you feel, Wanda?" I open my eyes to find the Baron looming over me. Shakily, I stand to answer him. I'm panting and wracking my brain for words. "How do you feel, Wanda?" he repeats.
"Like-" I inhale. "-like an octopus."
"An octopus?" He gives me half a strange and nervous smile. He's afraid his experiment failed. He's afraid the only thing he's made of me is a lunatic.
"I have... all these little... tentacles coming out of me from the energy, and I can't... " I gasp. "I don't know how to control them. So they just... keep wiggling around."
"You'll learn how," he responds. I know he's more annoyed than worried now. "Have you forgotten the point of all this?" He grabs my chin and forces it upward. The glass over his right eye glitters like Mars in the dim light. "Have you?"
"No, sir." I feel the energy welling up in my chin, ready to erupt. "Sir. Sir, you might want to move your han- " Before I can finish, it lashes out, forcing his hand down. I hear one of the phalanges snap. He grimaces briefly, and the fingers of his other hand ball up instinctively.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" The other hand flies up and strikes my jaw, hard enough to bruise, but not to knock me down nor break the bone. I swallow.
"I'm sorry." He frowns.
"As am I." I don't think it's true. He clears his throat for a few seconds, then picks a plastic shopping bag up off the ground next to his feet. "You're to practice with these." The contents clank against one another as he holds the bag out to me. I take it from him and peer inside. There are six wooden cubes on the bottom.
"Building blocks?" I question. "Toys?"
"Because you're such a good little girl." He smirks, and I don't answer (as "shut up" will likely earn me a bruise on the other jawbone). I break eye contact with him and glance out the front wall of the glass cell. Pietro isn't here. I cover my hand with my mouth.
There are - there are... No. No, no, no, no. The world swirls into watercolor behind the first tears I've battled in years. There are gurneys passing by. There are gurneys passing by, and white sheets cover bodies on top of them. All the feet stick up like little twin mountain peaks covered in snow.
"Where's my brother?" I say, voice trembling. I don't avert my eyes from the gurneys, and the Baron is silent. "Where's my brother?"
"You just need to practice with your blocks."
"No. No! Where the hell is he? We were together when we went under, and he should be - he should be with me in this- this - " I don't know what to call the glass house, and my voice is collapsing. "He should be here with me. Why isn't he? Why isn't he?"
"Don't worry about it now. You just practice."
My lips quiver and twitch, mouthing the beginnings of words I can't say without screaming. The energy surges under my skin. I'm a blister. I'm a balloon. I'm Mount Vesuvius. It flies out in a hundred gossamer red threads - and the Baron staggers back against the cinderblock.
"You will tell me where my brother is," I whisper. The Baron's Adam's apple bobs as he swallows hard. He sees what he's created. (i think he fears it)
"The other surviving volunteer is still being stabilized," he all but rasps. "It remains to be seen if his cells will respond correctly to the procedure." The Baron rises and walks toward the dark blue door; it's slatted by blinds, and he extracts a key from his pocket to lock it from the outside.
"Play with your blocks," he orders. The glass house begins to swirl around me. A coldness creeps in under my toenails and works its way up to my brain. I'm so tired. I barely feel myself falling.
I don't have a clock in here, so I don't know how long I slept. When I woke up, I found a red cup full of water and a bowl of djuvece in the doorway, and the stew was cold. Since then I've been sitting against the wall again, this time staring out into the lab on the other side of the glass. I haven't seen any more gurneys, just soldiers in black and carts with large guns, throwing faint charcoal-grey shadows under the industrial lighting.
No sign of Pietro. What did they mean, his cells were still adjusting. My whole body aches like a case of influenza. What did they mean, he isn't stable yet. A stream of red shoots toward the plastic bag as I clench my fist. Pietro, you're stronger than this. You made it through. I know you did. Of course you did.
I pick at the bandage on my hand, and the faces pass outside; some glance up at the glass house. I feel like the komodo dragon at the Vienna Zoo. We were seven, and we pointed. I saw the photo of one devouring a boar on the sign outside the tank, but I could tell from the green scales it wasn't the mottled specimen behind the glass. Its shed, dead skin lay in a translucent beige heap beside it. "It looks sad." "Yeah."
Something flashes in the periphery of my right eye. Maybe one of the white lightbulbs is dying. I turn my head, and the flicker comes back; it's too close to the ground to be the lighting. List stands with a cluster of armed men, all gathered around-Pietro.
I praise Thee, O God of our Fathers, I hymn Thee, I bless Thee, I give thanks unto thee for Thy great and tender mercy. Apparently I remember that much of the prayer. My chest decompresses, and I want to cry with the release.
I watch him. Every inch of him is quivering as if he were about to catch frostbite. He'd better look my way. He's gone; the silver streak returns, leaves a trail of light like a comet, fizzles out like a shooting star. Here's Pietro again, trembling. They did say they'd make him fast.
He turns his head to his right, and I lift the corners of my lips to smile at him. He's breathing hard, but he manages the same. You're okay. Thank God. You're my universe.
They've pulled us out today and stood us side by side under the white bars of fluorescent lightbulbs. The ceiling is low like a tunnel, and the bulb buzzes less than a meter from my ears.
"Don't-" I stammer once they leave us, wrapping my finger and thumb around his wrist. "-don't they give you anything to eat?" It isn't what I wanted to say. (That was, "We made it. Here's to Tony Stark.") It isn't what I wanted to do. (That would have been to smirk and pour us each a vodka, if there were any on hand.) But no one told me he was a skeleton.
"Yeah," he sighs. "Yeah, they do. All the time." He wriggles his hand out of my grip. I feel the hard contour of every joint under the freezing, bloodless skin. "They're still regulating my new metabolism, so... This happened." He wads up the extra fabric of the shirt that's slipping down off his shoulder like a melting icicle.
"'This happened,'" I repeat almost sardonically. "'This happened' is how you say you're starving to death?"
"I can't exactly help it." I inhale, and he continues, "They don't know how much I need in the first place, and then I don't have much of an appetite, so..."
"You just sit there and wither away on me?" I snap the reply like a rubber band against my own wrist. I'm only angry because I'm afraid.
"I can't do much else, can I?" The response is almost sharp, and I look at the way the skin is stretched like webbing between his fingers, like thin, white latex across his cheekbones and his jawline.
"I'm sorry," I murmur, faultlines running through my voice. I tug the shirt's collar up toward his clavicle, then gather him into my arms. "I'm so sorry."
"I know," he says softly.
"I just don't want you to-" A cough cuts me off.
"My apologies for the interruption," intones the Baron. "Please do pencil in the family reunion for a later date, but at the moment, you are test subjects. Let's not forget that." We pull away and face him in silence. A few guards (looking more like infantrymen than body shields) file into the room behind the Baron, dressed in black. They hold rifles in front of them with stiff arms.
"Eventually you will spend some time in joint experiments, but this early on you will be observed separately." He shrugs. "Disappointing, I'm aware, but at least somewhat temporary." He barely pauses before glancing down at a clipboard, then addressing me: "Subject One, come with me, please." He motions me forward. "Subject Two, Dr. List will be in for you in a moment."
"I wonder when they're gonna realize they have us in the wrong order," Pietro murmurs from the corner of his mouth. I'm so glad his eyes are smiling. I have to purse my lips to keep the laugh in.
"You do know you're ridiculous," I shoot back, daring to curve my lips a little, hoping my eyes talk like his.
"Yes, sir." I follow the Baron out and down a dim hallway, this lit with yellow lightbulbs mounted sporadically to the ceiling in impossible constellations.
"Your file," he begins as we reach a staircase, "informs me that you play the piano." Hydra knows a lot, but how could they know that? I used to enjoy playing, but I haven't touched the instrument since we left the children's home. (Shit-ton of good that'll do you for three years on the street.)
"Sir?" I conjure up some confusion.
"It's written very clearly on your application." The clipboard papers rustle as he flips through them.
"Well, I didn't write it there." This is bizarre. In what universe would I have written "Oh, and I play the piano" on my volunteer papers? Shit-ton of good that'll do you for cellular manipulation. (Or destroying the Merchant of Death.)
"'Other Skills,'" he reads, taking the steps two at a time. "First there's a line, but it's scribbled out. Under the scribble it says, 'piano,' and then a parenthetical note: 'extremely talented.'"
"'Extremely talented?'" I echo. "No, intermediate level at best." Oh. There are only two people who've told me that: the music teacher at the children's home and - Pietro, I might kill you.
"So you do play." The Baron sounds vaguely smug.
"May I see the application, sir?" A little non sequitir, but I don't really care.
"You may," answers the scientist, placing the clipboard under my chin and pointing to the lines below 'Other Skills.' There it is. The fine, tight lines of my twin's scribble. His compact English cursive. I roll my eyes and gently push the clipboard back toward Strucker.
"Okay. Thank you." He looks at me twice, oddly, silently, and we exit the stairwell after another flight.
Muted grey light trickles out of the first room on our left,, and we veer off into it. A grand piano rests in the middle of the floor, gaping open like the jaws of an obsidian shark. Spring daylight streams in from the massive window behind it, tossing its shadow toward us across the concrete floor. The sky outside is overcast, ash-white clouds binding the sunlight in, but the snow resting on the mountains is bright enough to blind me anyway. I'm so sick of the fluorescent bars and dingy yellow bulbs. I blink for a few moments before the Baron speaks.
"I would like you to play me something," he pronounces. I don't answer. This has nothing to do with his experiments. This has nothing to do with my new abilities. If he likes to hear classical music, he should buy himself an iPod. "Is there any particular piece you enjoy, or that you have memorized?" he prompts.
"Why?" I demand. I'm not your entertainment,. I'm not your little girl to give you a piano recital. "How is this relevant to developing the skills you've given me?"
"You'll see." His voice has a razor-edge. "Tell me, do you have a favorite piece, one you know by heart?" I don't want to do this. Not for him. I don't have much choice, though, and it's been a long time. The instrument is beautiful. And maybe I shouldn't play a harder piece to start, but -
"La cathédrale engloutie." I want to clap my hand over my mouth, then flick the French back in like a snake's tongue.
"A good choice," approves the Baron. "Now go, sit down at the bench-" I do so, boots clicking on the floor. I have to scoot the seat forward so I can reach the keys. "- and play The Sunken Cathedral without using your hands."
"You do realize that your enhancements are useful for something besides juggling toys?" I look down at my hands splayed across the keys, ready to launch into G major and drag the French church up all hung with seaweed. I lift my fingers and all but wiggle them mid-air.
"Where should I put my-" A scarlet thread escapes my left index finger, falls flatly down onto a black key.
"Just... leave them raised like that," answers the Baron. "Go on." I inhale as I focus the energy into the correct fingers, channeling it all there like drinking kvass backward through a straw. Okay.
The energy rushes down and out and hits the keys; the first pianissimo chord leaks out of the piano and hits the concrete walls. The next strokes come faster, and the piece crescendos slowly. My fingers flail above the keys, shooting out halting red rays to press them notes ricochet off the walls, reverberate through the room. I'm actually doing this.
I'm breathless by the time I reach the climax: the bright, magnificent notes of the water cascading off the flying buttresses of the church the music paints.
Pedal point. G sharp. Do I use my feet? I lower my left hand for a moment, curl the wrist in, and make an underhand toss of energy at the pedal. It sinks while I need it to, and I play with one hand, a steady stream of red draining out of me. My vision tunnels briefly, but I lift my hand in time for relief. Just keep the fingers moving.
I enter C major as the music dwindles to a stop, pentatonic chords issuing softly into the vibrating air. Pianissimo again. Last measures. And stop.
"Shaky in places, and a bit off-tempo." I turn to face the Baron, notice my hands are trembling in my lap. "Accuracy is critical before you move on to other uses for your enhancements." I actually did this. I actually did this. "But well done for the first attempt."
"Thanks," I breathe. And I lift a hand to cover my smile.
The blocks spin easily between my hands, orbiting between my palms like a tiny wooden solar system. It's a stupid habit to keep playing with these things. I hear the lock click and the glass house's door grate open behind me, and I drop the blocks in a pyramid on the floor in front of me.
"I've brought you some homework," says the Baron as I stand to face him. He holds out to me a stack of books and manila folders. "Just some reading materials." I take it all from him, counting two paperbacks and three files.
"Reading on what?" I open the top folder to find black photo paper printed with the gray ellipses of cross sections of the brain. "Neurology?"
"If you're to control minds," drawls Strucker, "you must know how they work. How can you terrify a man without knowing where his terror makes its home?"
The last C major chord hangs in the air like the mid-morning fog around the mountaintops outside. It takes hours of summer sun for the mist to scatter, and I watch it clinging there from the concrete room, from the piano bench. It still blurs the view out the window as the music fades for the second time today. I practice here every day, and I generally practice alone. But now I hear the door click open as the final note dies.
"Subject?" I turn to see one of the footmen, all in black like a waiter (a waiter with an M-4 strapped to his back). "Strucker's ordered I bring you to the basement." I rise wordlessly, and the footmen walks behind me down the cracked stairs, through the dim hallways. Down again. To the basement, where soldiers in black and doctors in white circle microscopes, computers so old they're whirring, guns and grenades of various shapes. To a room like a tank with soundproof glass in a more isolated section of the lab, a room ringed by more of the guards in funeral black.
The circle parts for me, then re-forms instantly, my waiter taking a spot in it behind me. Two people sit at a green card-table in the center of the room. The Baron unlocks the door to let me in, and Pietro stands and smiles and puts his skinny arms around me.
"Hey," he says into my hair.
"Hey," I answer, and the hardness I'm pressed into is from ribs, not muscle. "Hey, they still aren't feeding you."
"Subject Two is a work in progress, just like you," interrupts the Baron. The few times we've been able to talk with him present (mostly before the procedures), he always indicates he can understand us, but he apparently feels more comfortable speaking English. (As we don't speak German.)
"And in light of that," he continues, "I wanted you both to be here as we begin the next stage of your development, Subject One." He resumes his seat and points to the folding chair next to Pietro. I can see the white strips of the fluorescent lights reflected in the metal.
"And why is that?" I answer him slowly.
"Because you will need an incentive to be extremely cautious." The light glints off his monocle. Pietro drums needle-like fingers quietly on the tabletop.
"And why is that?" I repeat.
"I can afford no risks when you are playing with my brain." I start. The Baron ignores me. "This is the most fascinating feature of your enhancements: the capacity for mental manipulation. Subject- " He pauses. "- I'm going to have you tell me what I'm most afraid of."
Avengers Facility. Upstate New York. Today.
"Coming out on the roof with us, Wanda?" The running footsteps have faded, replaced by Steve's voice over the intercom outside my door. Just go away. You're a saint and a martyr. But go.
"S- sorry," I stammer. "What is it?"
"Just what we mentioned at dinner-some time unwinding outside. There's an empty chair with your name on it."
Dinner conversation. I hope to God I didn't agree to go up there. The day is a haze, like it was sucked into the gaping black hole of the empty space next to me. I remember sitting at dinner; my vertebrae were digging into the chair. I don't know what I ate. And now I guess I wasn't the only one there.
"You coming up?"
"No." That was a little abrasive. "Sorry. I- I burn incense at night." Or I do now that I've said that, anyway. "Sorry."
"Okay, no problem." He relents, but that doesn't block the sadness from his tone. "We'll miss you."
"No thanks necessary. It's something you can bet on." I hear his smile without the sadness dissipating, then I hear his feet retreat further and further away.
Incense isn't a bad idea, and I already have some in the censer beside the candles. The thurible's chains rattle as I take it down from its stand, open it, and light the charcoal in the center of the livani. I make the sign of the cross over the icons with the censer as it begins to smoke, releasing the pure, heavy scent of the frankincense into the air. It's like flowers with deep voices. (Not like the withering pink carnations spread between the sacred items on the table.)
If God has a smell, this should be it: the two-toned perfume of the light, sweet beeswax candles and the pungent livani (the frozen tears of desert trees).
Or maybe He smelled like sweat and dirt roads and-sometimes-Galilean fish. I don't know. I've always had a whiff of Him at my side. In singed skin after the shell hit the apartment. In blood last month on the street.
Maybe God does smell like the gifts He gives us. In the lab He'd have smelled like cold sweat and peanut butter protein bars. Pietro, you're the gift.