Chapter Three: A Stalker in the Night
America sat quietly reading through news articles about the AI Ultron in the New York sanctum. It was late. Or early, depending on who you asked and Stephen had been fast asleep when she arrived, so she had no distractions. The library of Kamar-Taj had just about every magical text any sorcerer could ever need, but it lacked a computer. Not to mention she was avoiding Wong.
America read article after article about Ultron, and most of them only covered the destruction caused by the AI's attempt to wipe out life on Earth. '177 people were killed during the battle.' America clicked on the memorials without thinking. The list felt endless as she scrolled through the photos of all the people who'd lost their lives so needlessly. America froze when one of the names stuck out. 'Pietro Maximoff.' The name, like all the others, was accompanied by a picture. This one was Pietro and Wanda. They were young, probably about as old as she was now. They were smiling and bundled up in winter clothes, Pietro's arm wrapped around Wanda's thin shoulders.
America hesitated before she read the obituary. 'Petro Maximoff, a beloved brother, was killed while helping rescue civilians during the Ultron attack. Pietro is preceded in death by his Father, Oleg Maximoff, and his Mother, Iryna.' America swallowed, her mind venturing to her own Moms. 'He is survived by his twin sister Wanda-'
"Kid, what the hell are you doing here?" America jumped at the voice, her knees slamming into the bottom of the desk. "Shouldn't you be training?" Stephen asked with a yawn. America rubbed her knees, eyes again falling on the picture of Wanda and her brother. Strange looked over her shoulder and saw the picture too. "Oh..." Stephen hadn't known Wanda then, but he couldn't help but think of his sister and how he'd felt and continued to feel since losing her.
America spun the chair around so she could look at Stephen. "So Ultron killed Wanda's brother," Stephen only nodded, still looking past her at the picture. "But it said Tony created it to be a peace-keeping program, a way to protect the planet?" America had seen the Ultron defense bots in the other universe, and everyone here had always spoken so highly of Tony. "So what happened?" She couldn't help but ask.
"I don't know, kid. I wasn't there," He finally looked away from the picture of Wanda and back to the girl in front of him.
"And Thanos?" Stephen grimaced a little. No one here ever seemed to want to talk about the Titan. Thanos was someone she'd heard of in almost every reality she'd come across. Always associated with death and destruction, and apparently, here was the same. But that didn't explain why it seemed taboo even to name him.
A few ticks of the clock went by before Stephen responded. "What about him...?"
"Who did he take from Wanda?"
"You can ask her yourself if you decide to talk to her," He sidestepped the question.
"I did," America spun back around, away from Stephen.
America thought about it; it hadn't been much of a talk, more America venting her anger, which Wanda had allowed her to do. "She told me she's sorry, but..." The girl in the picture felt completely different than the woman she pictured when she closed her eyes and thought of the Scarlet Witch. America couldn't help but continue to think of Wanda as The Witch. "I don't know if I'm ready to forgive her or if I CAN forgive her," She kept looking at the girl in the picture, bright and smiling. "But I want to try," Stephen watched the kid click to the following article, titled 'The Blip,' and he sighed. The wizard summoned a box of tissues with a flick of his wrist and an arc of golden magic.
America glanced back and forth between the box and Stephen, confused. "You'll need them, trust me," He assured her.
Peter woke still in his suit from the previous night, having fallen asleep battling loneliness. He took a cold shower because, of course, there wasn't any hot water. The young hero made a cup of black coffee and packed what he needed into his backpack, leaving his suit lying on his bed before yanking his front door open. "Fucking thing..." He cursed as he did; he'd been complaining about it since moving in; not that his landlord seemed to care.
"Peter," The heavily accented voice of his landlord came from down the hall.
"Speak of the devil..." Peter thought, forcing the door to close while trying not to break it. "Yeah?" He called back, not looking up at the man.
"You going be on time with the rent for once?" Peter resisted rolling his eyes.
"There's no hot water..." Peter sidestepped the question. He wasn't sure he wouldn't be, and his voice betrayed that, but he wasn't in the mood for a lecture.
"Hi, Peter!" Another, far sweeter voice greeted him, bringing his eyes up from the floor. Ursula, his landlord's daughter, stood in their doorway, smiling warmly at him. She was tall and slim with long blonde hair and awkward but in a cute way.
Peter paused as he passed her, the idea of asking her out suddenly entering his head. "Hey-" He forced his mouth shut and his eyes back to the floor before hurrying to the elevator. "No. You know you can't. You know what happens when you let people get close," Their eyes met one last time before the doors closed, and Peter could see the look of disappointment in Ursula's blue eyes.
"The problem is you, trying to live two different lives," For everything that spell had cost him, he could at least say he'd learned his lesson about trying to have a normal life. Again he felt overcome by that sense of loneliness that he couldn't quite shake.
"You got anything that's not crap, Parker?" Jameson questioned as he clicked through the dozens of pictures Peter had provided.
Peter closed his eyes for a moment and let out a breath. "That's what I got, Mr. Jameson..." It felt strange to sell pictures of himself. And stranger still to be selling them to the man whose smear campaign had led him to the spell. But Jameson paid the most by a wide margin, so there he was.
"I'll give you fifty for 'em," Jameson set the tablet down and looked back to his computer.
"Can you do a hundred...?" Peter pushed for more.
Jameson gave him a pointed look. "Seventy-five. Take it or leave it, Parker," Peter sighed and nodded, knowing full well no one would give him more. The door behind Peter opened, and a short, blonde-haired woman entered the office. "Good, now scram," The woman didn't acknowledge him as she plopped herself down in the chair across from Jameson without so much as a hello. Peter's eyes lingered on her as he turned to leave. She was beautiful, but it wasn't her beauty that caught his attention; it was the chill that shot up his spine. Something about her screamed danger.
The door closed, leaving Jameson alone with the blonde. "Hello, John Jameson,"
Stephen had been right; she had needed the tissues. There was a sense of almost numbing despair that America felt overcome with after four straight hours of reading about 'The Blip.' and that came after it. It didn't matter that eventually, those lost in Thanos' snap were brought back. It didn't bring back the many thousands that had committed suicide in the weeks and months after. Or the many thousands more that died in the famine and resource wars that followed. Her head hung off the back of the chair as she used her foot unconsciously to rock herself back and forth. She couldn't even imagine it, or maybe she didn't want to.
"Because of Stephen..." America sat forward and laid her head on her arms atop the desk, running back through all she'd read. "Wanda killed her husband to stop Thanos from getting the mind stone. But he got it anyway," She rubbed her eyes into her forearm, trying to wipe away the burning sensation of so many tears. "Because Stephen GAVE it to him..." She stood from the chair and exited the study, looking for Strange. "There was no other way," That could not have been the ONLY way.
The Sorcerer was casting his maintenance spells on some of the sanctuary's gateways when America found him. "You gave it to him..." America's voice came from behind him. Stephen sighed as he finished the spell and turned toward the teen; he'd known this conversation was coming. "You GAVE him the time stone!" It was more an accusation than a question. Stephen could see tears brimming in her brown eyes.
"I did," Stephen said.
America gasped as if she expected him to say something else. To deny it, maybe. "Why...!?" Her voice cracked.
America cut him off before he could even begin to explain. "Don't tell me there was NO OTHER WAY!" She pointed her finger at him, her hand trembling ever so slightly. "There's ALWAYS another way!" Her voice rose.
"Whatever way there was for us to win..." Strange paused. The memories of the battle were still fresh; in many ways, they were fresher than his memories of their fight against Wanda. They'd been so close when Quill, that blithering idiot, had ruined his own plan. "I didn't see it, kid," Stephen had made the only choice he could, and he wanted America to understand that. He needed her to understand, but he could tell by her face that she didn't. "America, please," He said.
"No," She said and backed away from him a step. "No, Stephen, I... I'm gonna... I'm gonna go..." America said. Stephen didn't protest, just nodding his head in understanding. The girl turned and began to try to summon a portal back to Kamar-Taj, failing with every try. She let out a frustrated grunt as her fingers sparked gold, but no portal appeared. "Oh, fuck this!" She cocked her right arm back.
"Here, I got it," Stephen began to open a portal, but before he could, America punched open a star-shaped doorway into another dimension. The force of the doorway opening knocked him backward, and as soon as it had appeared, it was gone. And so was America.
The dragon dragged itself across the sea ice beneath the dull gray sky, still unable to fly. "Find the child, Cadmus... Open the doorway..." The voice in his head repeated over and over. He tried to shake it from his foggy mind, which caused him to collapse again. How long had he been there? How long had he been trapped? "Find the girl..." Cadmus didn't feel entirely in control of his body as he was urged onward.
"What girl? What door-" A shot of pain went through his head, again sending him to the ice. The dragon was back on his clawed feet before he knew what was happening, moving slowly, painfully, south. The ancient creature exhaled a fiery breath, still battling for control. "Release your hold on my-" Another flash of pain, and with this one came a glimpse of a human child.
"Find the child," He reared back and spread his wings, freeing himself of some of the ice that kept him grounded. "She will open the doorway,"
Wanda sat cross-legged on the water's edge, supporting herself with one arm and mindlessly launching globs of scarlet out into the never-ending ocean. Her loneliness had been overtaken by boredom when she felt her. It almost didn't register who it was; after all, she didn't expect to see her again. The clouds darkened, but the weather didn't worsen as before.
Wanda craned her neck to look at the child as she appeared behind her. "America," Her voice carried a curious tone. "This is a... surprise," It was a pleasant surprise, but Wanda didn't want to overdo it, afraid that America would find it suspicious. It was then that she sensed it; sadness, anger, and confusion radiated off of her. Wanda rose to her feet and turned toward America. "America, what's wrong?" Wanda saw the tears welling up in America's eyes, and she wondered if it was something she'd done. 'Having flashbacks of what I did to you?' She thought but didn't ask.
"He gave it to him," Wanda furrowed her brow, confused. "He gave Thanos the time stone!" America's voice wavered with the words.
'So, Stephen finally told you about Thanos,' Wanda thought. It didn't explain to Wanda why the child returned to her, but it did explain the emotion. "Yeah... He did..." Wanda sighed and looked down at her feet, fighting the wave of emotion that washed over her.
"He told everyone that there was 'No other way.'" America made a point of using air quotes as she began to pace. "But that COULDN'T have been the only way! There's ALWAYS another way! He knew you'd have to kill the man you loved, only to have him brought back and killed again!" Wanda drew in a sharp involuntary breath at the mention of Vision's death. Wanda had to turn away as her eyes flashed scarlet, and wisps of her magic radiated from her hands, drawing America's attention instantly. "Oh... Wanda, I'm sorry, I didn't mean-" America felt a sudden rush of panic.
"No... It's not you; it's just-" Wanda wiped away the tear that dropped onto her cheek. "Still very painful," She tried and failed to keep her voice even. It rose and fell over the lump in her throat. They stood in silence for a long time while America waited for Wanda to speak. To condemn Stephen, maybe. "It wasn't Stephen's fault, America," Wanda said softly. "There was no other way," Her voice broke with a wave of memories and emotions.
It almost didn't register what Wanda had said. "W-what...?" America's mouth hung open. That phrase again the one that had driven her crazy since she'd first read it. There was no other way. "How can you say that? That can't have been-"
Wanda turned back around; she understood what America felt better than anyone. But she also knew it didn't lead anywhere. "One in fourteen million, little one," She emphasized how slim their chances had been. "Was Stephen to search forever for the next one in fourteen million?" She asked. If they'd had time, perhaps he could have. But he didn't.
"So... You forgive him?" America ventured, unsure if Wanda meant what she was saying.
"I-" Her voice trailed off, and she took a steadying breath and mindlessly rubbed her hands together. She wasn't sure 'forgive' was the right word. "Viz would've wanted me too," She said, nodding. Tears stung the corners of her eyes, but she didn't fight them. "And he wouldn't have changed how it turned out," Their time was coming to an end again, but it wasn't only Wanda who sensed it this time. 'Gaining more control of your powers, I see. Good,' Wanda thought, turning away from the child once again.
America opened her mouth to speak. 'I'm sorry about Vision, and your boys, and your brother and-' The words wouldn't come, and her mouth closed. What could she say to someone who had lost so much? There was nothing she COULD say, but there was something she thought to do. She shifted on her feet for a moment before rushing forward in nearly a run.
The sound of America's feet coming toward her made Wanda turn around and- "Oof...!" America slammed into her at full speed, and the top of the girl's head hit the Witch's jaw, sending stars flying behind her eyes. It took her a moment to register what was happening. Arms were wrapped tightly around her midsection, hair against the underside of her chin, and... A hug... America was HUGGING her. Wanda's arms hung awkwardly in the air, and she was too stunned to lower them. "America, I-"
"I'm sorry..." America said, tightening her hold on Wanda. "I'm so sorry..." Wanda managed to lower her arms and wrap them lightly around the girl. "Wanda?" America spoke, still firmly holding onto the embrace, waiting to wake up at any moment. "Why did you come to me?" They both knew they didn't have long.
America felt Wanda inhale a breath before she spoke. "It's lonely here," Wanda admitted. Of course, she'd wanted to right the wrong of terrorizing America, trying to KILL America. But that wasn't the only reason; truth be told, she'd wished not to be alone, if only for a little while.
America finally released her and stepped back. She hadn't exactly forgiven the woman in front of her, but this was a step in that direction. "I'm..." She paused for a second. "I'm gonna come back, okay?" Before Wanda could respond, America was gone. Wanda let out a breath and didn't fight the smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.
Another long, hot day of scrubbing dishes ended for Peter. He stepped out of the uncomfortably humid and hot kitchen into the slightly less uncomfortably humid and hot evening air. "A perfect night for work," Peter thought as he took a long, calming breath of the warm damp air. "Just gotta beat the rain," Peter didn't quite beat the rain; a few drops fell on him as he entered the building, but he still went out.
It took him no more than 20 minutes before he felt the sensation of being watched. The hairs on the back of his stood on end, and he came to a stop on the side of a building. Peter scanned the nearly empty streets below; it was late, and besides a few cabs, he saw no one. "Just in your head," He told himself against his better judgment.
The rain's steady drizzle increased throughout the night, and Peter busied himself with stopping petty crimes, distracting him from the constant feeling in the back of his mind. Not completely, but enough to not sense himself being slowly stalked as he patrolled. Or the trap that was being set for him.
After several hours of swinging around the city, Peter began to work his way back to his apartment. A flash of light from a few blocks away caught his attention first, then came the loud Boom! of the explosion. "That's... Interesting..." Peter thought as he changed course. Peter moved quickly, wanting to beat the fast-approaching sirens to the scene. He had just come swinging around the corner, at the bottom of his swing, when the web went slack. He was dimly aware of the sharp Snap! of the bullet that severed his line.
"Oh, SHIT!" He got out just before slamming into the back of a box truck parked on the street. Peter saw stars, and there was no air left in his lungs.
They watched the Spider-Man lie motionless on the damp street through their scope. "Oh... I killed him," They said to themself just before he began to move. Writhe, more like.
Peter rolled to his side and forced himself to a knee, his arms crossed over his stomach. His body was very, very durable, but that hurt. He picked out the silhouette on a rooftop not far away. He let out an angry growl as he stood. "Mother fucker..." He cursed and took a staggering step back to the truck. With one hand, he ripped one of the doors off its hinge and hurled it with all his strength at the figure in the dark. But they were gone. "I need to-ow-" Peter grimaced as a wave of pain hit him. If his ribs weren't broken, they were undoubtedly bruised.
With no real plan and little time, Peter ducked into a nearby alley. Peter scaled the wall and pressed himself as flat as possible to the wall and waited. The shadow turned the corner; the gun pulled tight into their shoulder, and the glowing green eyes of their mask stood out against the darkness. Peter held his breath as they passed, still searching for him. He released his hold on the wall and dropped to the ground behind them, much less gracefully and much louder than he would have liked.
The attacker immediately spun around to face him, but Peter caught the barrel and quickly yanked the weapon from their grasp. Peter felt the danger before he saw the knife that was immediately produced. They slashed at him three times, switching their grip on the blade seamlessly and efficiently. Whoever this person was, they knew their way around a knife. On the fourth swing, Peter caught the thin wrist in his grasp. He sent his attacker back against the wall with a swift, open-handed shot to the midsection.
Peter could hear his attacker struggling to take in a breath. "Hurts, doesn't it?" Peter broke the blade on with his thumb and tossed away the hilt. "Now," He began, crouching in front of his attacker. "Who are you, and why are you trying to kill me?" They laughed a little, then coughed, then laughed again. It was a woman that Peter was sure of.
"Don't be ridiculous," It was a woman with a thick Russian accent. "I was not trying to KILL you," She said with another cough.
"Call me paranoid, but between you shooting at me and that knife, it sure feels like you were trying to kill me," She laughed again, and now Peter could feel himself getting agitated. "Alright!" Peter reached for her mask. "Who the hell-" He yanked it off, and immediately he was taken aback. The woman from Jameson's office, the one his senses had warned him about. To Peter's credit, he didn't give away his shock.
"My file said you have some sort of... Threat detection," The way she spoke so casually about it was unsettling. "I wanted to see it in action. I must say, I'm unimpressed," Peter opened his mouth to ask another question, but she beat him to it. "And yes, I have a file on you, Spider-Man," A firetruck passed by, followed by a pair of police cruisers. Peter shuffled back closer to the wall behind him. "Someone is paying me very handsomely to find your true identity," Peter sighed. He should have figured as much.
"Let me guess... Jameson?" He said with a chuckle.
She paused, looking at him as if he'd given something away. "That fanatic is a go-between; someone else is footing the bill," That grabbed Peter's attention. Someone with money and a file on him had hired her to find his identity.
"How pointless," Peter thought. After all, he didn't really exist anymore, so there wasn't much they could do with it. "Who are you?" Peter finally asked.
There was another pause as if she was deciding what to tell him. It made Peter doubt he'd be able to trust whatever answer she gave. "Yelena," She finally answered.
"Well, Yelena," Peter stood upright. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but you're wasting your time," She raised a brow.
"And why is that?"
"Because the person beneath the mask doesn't exist anymore," With that, he shot a web to the top of the building and was gone. Yelena watched him disappear, and now she felt her own curiosity piqued for something besides the paycheck. Whoever the Spider-Man was, Yelena found him to be a curious creature.
Author's Note: There we have chapter three!
I wanted to show something that was briefly touched on in Multiverse of Madness, which is people being upset with Stephen for giving up the time stone. Also, I wanted to show that it's possible to think two things at the same time. While Wanda knows there were other ways to beat Thanos, she realizes the only way THEY had was the one that Stephen saw. And her talk with America about it is inspired by a quote I love: Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.
And I picture America as a very empathetic person who could see how much suffering Wanda has been through. I've been really excited to write Yelena into this story, and she will be featured (Hopefully) very heavily at certain points in the story. With the dragon, I plan to do something a little closer to Tolkien's interpretation of an intelligent creature and not just an animal or mindless beast. I find that more interesting!
I hope you enjoyed it, and please read and review!