1964-03-02 - Burn At Close of Day
Summary: Not every fight goes straight into another. Wanda and Doctor Strange recuperate by being normal. Mostly.
Related: Rage Against the Dying
Theme Song: N/A
strange wanda 


Coffee house culture marks the high water point of the Viennese intellectual scene, an institution for whole generations of famous writers, thinkers, and literati. Famed for their relative democratic ideals, the elegant cafés individually bring an air of grace and luxury, all for the inexpensive admission of a cup of coffee. People spend the whole day perusing a book or a newspaper, none disrupting their right to loiter.

Everyone has their favourite, every scene its headquarters. Thus, Strange’s stated preference for dark and bookish — how shocking — strikes a mental bookmark in the brunette’s skull. They travel by way of the comfortable train line into the city, the humming vibration of the silvery car over the rails shooting them straight into the City Center. Over it all lingers the grave, grand steeple of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, marked on its immense, steep Gothic roof by the imperial double-headed eagle of the Habsburg dynasty that ruled Austria for a millennium.

Not unlike the iron eagle on Karl Lueger. Or the Nazis.

They weave through the cobblestoned streets past tourists and locals alike, the spies drawn here as subtle as the graceful dames and former lords themselves. In a German-speaking environment, and herself part of the old empire, Wanda can negotiate with considerable ease, though she makes the point not to hold Strange’s hand. Different rules about public displays of affection aside, it’s essential to maintain that quiet, Germanic gravity rather than give themselves away as Americans. Or rather, him.

Their direction is down a narrow side street there for roughly four centuries. It’s a dark place, as promised, the exterior forgettable. A bank of dark windows peer out onto the shady lane; night has not forsaken its grip here, and those who seek Cafe Hawelka represent the artists, the philosophers, and the dreamers who obey no clock. Thick, dark brown walls and worn floorboards are a world away from Cafe Central — the granddaddy of the café scene — but they’re comfortable like a pair of leather driving gloves. Heavy, small tables and booths fill the place, under framed images of manuscripts, some real, magazine covers, and old black and white photographs for different performances. Murmurs barely stretch a yard from their source.

And books, books and newspapers abound, the dog-eared paperbacks in German and English. Newspapers lie on tables and in racks, the dailies from around the world; evening prints, morning editions, anything they can put their hands on. In an era before the Internet, such a collection is profound and limited not simply to German, or even Europe.
The scent of yeast in the air alludes to the famous pastries and breads made here, by day or night. Some of the night haunts will be here til dawn, and no one really bothers to look up from their reading when he enters, along with a golden-skinned woman. They’re probably far more familiar with her kind than the US.

“Sit where you want. No one listens loudly here,” she says.

*
With a headache still gnawing at his temples and the chains of deific abuse still weighing down his limbs, Strange is more than happy to plunk himself down into some booth, especially if it’s far away from any bright lights. This particular booth hosts a framed picture of a landscape he can’t quite put a tired finger upon.

He slides into it with a grateful-sounding sigh and all the way to the wall where he doesn’t hesitate to lean against it, eyes nearly shut for fatigue. They find Wanda and rest upon her.

“So… how does this work then?” His voice is no better, the result of being borrowed another three times over by pitches his muscles worked overly-hard to modulate. Laryngitis, huzzah. No need for him to watch the volume, though the inherent inability to keep to one register might cause others to glance over in the case of a higher pitch suddenly emerging. “Order here? Order at the counter? Because I am sitting and it is a blessing.”

*

“They come to the table.” Wanda speaks rather authoritatively upon that, and procures a simple menu laminated front and back, revealing a long list of coffees in English and German. One of the advantages to being a UN city, they anticipate the foreigners this close to the Iron Curtain. All manner of drink is present, though coffee rules the roost. There’s even one with a dollop of vanilla ice cream served with it, and the heady melange, which no doubt has Wanda’s name all over it.

Slipping her battered claret coat around her, she sits in the booth, vinyl creaking to accommodate her. Fishing up a decorative pillow flattened into a square by many visitors wedging it this way and that, she hands it over to Strange to ease his discomforts such as she can.

The servers in the cafe resemble those in all the classic coffeehouses, wearing a formal tuxedo shirt and black pants, taking the art very seriously indeed. Reasonable considering that Vienna invented coffee culture, long before the rest of Europe awoke to smell the roasting beans. One of those servers eyes them up discreetly and waits for his point of entry, notably when they’re done with the menu.

“I am going to eat an apple cake. Made here like no place in western Europe or America.” She nearly sighs, allowing the decadence to settle upon her almost dreamily. Sugar and honey really do fuel her. Drawing her knees higher, she winces at the bruises. “I should have asked at the place to stay first. Maybe I can send someone. It is only around the corner.”

Leaving him to his devices, she slips out from the booth to intercept a newspaper and a server. He might be alarmed for her breaking convention, but hearing fluent German might ease his cares, especially with a simple story woven for them: luggage lost in transit, rough travel, the need for a good bed. A pension in the Old City might be just the thing, and yes, it’s terribly late. Could they inquire?

And it’s back to Strange, her findings reported. “They will call about and see if anyone may take us. There are hotels. They are not cheap. The Sacher, for example.” As in Sachertorte; they invented the very cake there. It’s also not nearly worth it.

*
Having taken the pillow and stuffed it between shoulder and wall, he leans back once more with a heavy sigh.

“Thank you,” the Sorcerer rasps. Changing his mind on a whim, he rotates in place to extend one long leg out along the booth seat while the other remains bent, shoe touching the floor. So sue him if his foot sticks out a bit beyond the edge of the seat. He’s extra comfortable now, having shifted the flattened pillow to be further squished at the small of his back.

He gives Wanda a tired smile at her musing over apple cake. None for him. His stomach is moderately concerned over the excessive lactic acid in his body. Even coffee wouldn’t be the best idea right now… but — before he can summon up some energy to ask her, she’s off again, checking on hotels nearby. His gaze follows her intercepting the server and the tired smile deepens a bit in affection. It begins to melt away only for the inability to protect against worrying. That the eerie spotlight wanted to track her on the grounds of the cemetery boded nothing well at the time and he intends to ask her more about it — preferably if it said anything to her.

Poor Wanda. The subject to Vishanti-induced amnesiac’s questioning twice over.

While she inquires, he looks over the menu. At least, he tries to. Once he realizes that he’s attempting to read the same section of drinks over for the fourth time, he places the menu back on the table and scrubs at his face. Mmmfff. Tired. Her return bears good news and he nods, reaching an arm across the table towards her with the intent to stealing one of her hands if only to interlace fingers. Not holding hands in public was noted — and missed.

“Any hotel is fine. Money is of no issue.” Truly, he has bottomless pockets. A simple charm woven into the right pocket of his Belstaff means reaching in to access any funds is literal; it comes directly from the safe somewhere in the Sanctum, all in American bills, perhaps the only drawback seeing as they’re in a foreign country. With the free hand, he pushes the menu towards her across the surface. “«Beloved», I trust you to order coffee for me. I get the impression that it would be sacrilege if I asked for tea instead.” He gives her a muzzy smirk.

*

A pension is a fair bit different from a hotel, housed in one of the glamorous 18th century buildings of three or five stories, gathered over the narrow cobblestone streets beloved of pedestrians wandering in their own baroque dreams. Rather unlike the impersonal service or the luxurious but soulless confines of the kowtowing hoteliers, the pension provides an experience closer to living in the city, breathing its native culture, and being part of it all. Reason above all to seek their accommodation, but simply put, it’s cheaper.

And when probably stealing schillings to make good on payment, only fair to be very mindful indeed of cost to limit the doom done, unless somehow Strange can draw on his bank from across the sea and timezones.

“Tea would be something they want elsewhere,” she concurs, a smile upon her lips. Renewing her acquaintance with the booth, Wanda drops into its embrace gingerly, easing her way along. Daydreams of a bath, even in one as high and cramped as the typical European style, flit along her conscious mind until she recalls herself to her immediate surroundings. Dangerous, doubly so with the eldritch stain of death between them.

After giving the menu a cursory review, she waits until the suited waiter is beckoned by their silence and promptly tells him, “«Franziskaner», «melange»,” and here lies the pause, but she skims past her beloved apple cake. “«Esterhazytorte».” Might as well go for the buttercream and liqueur infused between delicate hazelnut and almond meringue, crispy like a macaron, alternating in stripes of deliciousness with a bit of raspberry for punch. Chewy and light, flaky and creamy, the dream practically makes her heart sing in silent, sleepy raptures.

Off he goes to fulfill the orders, delivering them in little ceramic mugs half the size of an American cup, serviced with a short glass of water. The Franziskaner is essentially espresso topped in whipped cream instead of foam, a fluffy tonsure above the demitasse. Bitter and sweet, it takes its name from the colour and similarity to the Franciscan monks for which it’s named. The melange, on the other hand, is a swirl of milk foam floated atop espresso and milk itself, a caffeinated confection meant to soothe rather than ignite the mind. It’s as Viennese as one gets, short of wienerschnitzel (Vienna schnitzel, honest), called the Viennese coffee essentially everywhere but in the city itself.

*
For all their somnolence, his eyes flick between her, the menu, and the suited waiter as he listens to the orders given. He could absolutely draw up a spell to translate German to his ear, a charm twisting the complicated glottal stops and harshness to lifelong English, but he’s tired. And he trusts Wanda to order something that will tickle his fancy.

Hand withdrawn and serving as resting place for strong jawline, elbow atop the table in a complete lack of manners, he indulges in observing the coffee house around them. Well, the patrons, really. It courts all types and he weighs possible lives against what he can see in their clothing, coifs, postures…general humanity. Eventually, his wandering mind comes back, along with the waiter, and the drinks are eyed with a smile of mildly-dubious amusement.

“And here I had a small hope for tea.” Either way, a hot drink will help clear the murkiness of his voice. In the true fashion of his inherent personality, he takes an experimental sip of each, licking lips clean and swallowing hard. At least no one’s concerned about cooties. One eyebrow rises slightly and he hums out a sigh. “Unless you take issue, I’ll have…this one,” he murmurs and hooks fingers around the Franziskaner to draw it before him. “The other one is too sweet for me.” The float of whipped cream on top is excused simply because it’s melting into the espresso below it and will soon be gone, stirred in like honey in tea. “You need the sugar.”

Sipping at the hot drink, he finds it to his liking, especially the fascinating duo of bitter and sweet ending in a taste akin to caramel at the back of his palette.

*
A good many close to the midnight hour constitute literati, the professors and the auteurs, prone to leading insomniac lives where coffee and pursuit over the world’s modern problems in the hushed company of like-minded intellectuals. Wanda does not quite belong among them, so much as she moves around them and gathers their concerns to her own breast. Not hard to imagine her brother and herself tucked into corners such as these, listening to revolutionaries talk, caught up by a charismatic firebrand.

Who better to set fire to the tinder-dry conditions of rebel spirits than a speedster flowing at terrifying velocity? A girl with the power to ricochet possibilities into reality at the bend of her thoughts.

“We have tea. It would be at Julius Meinl or another cafe. Even here there is tea, but the coffee is the heart of the city.” Her fingers pluck up the miniature spoon and dip it into the melange. When he explains himself, the witch taps the spoon within the froth of milk, spinning a pattern through the snowy blend. To warn or not to warn, that is the question. In the end… she bides her time.

The heavy whipped cream on his drink is more than two inches thick, easily, and not the aerosol sort obtained in America. On the contrary, it’s the real thing, leavened by sugar and swirled around and around. Let him drink and be merry.

“The cake will be enough.” She’ll eventually turn her attention upon the business of the Esterhazytorte, which she may consume in the spaces between blinks, dangerously quick.

*
“I’m sure it will be,” he rasps, licking the layer of errant whipped cream from his upper lip. Strange wasn’t looking to see if he could sneak the espresso past the fluffed layer, but now it seems that the stuff isn’t stirring as easily into the dark bitter liquid beneath it, hence the cost for bypassing the sugary mound is most definitely residue that will probably make it up into his goatee. “That looks like it would be enough to keep a squirrel through the winter,” he adds, gesturing towards the Esterhazytorte with a recently-cleaned spoon. “I feel like my teeth might tingle if I took a bite.” His smile is muted for lack of energy — but the espresso is sure to replace that within a short period of time.

It seems an insult to remove the whipped cream, so he simply attempts to sip beneath it and succeeds…somewhat. Left to lick off the remnants, he focuses on that even as he watches Wanda across the table. She seems quiet, but maybe it’s the aftermath of the cemetery. What utter nonsense… If the librarians at the other Sanctums were half as leery as he is about lost tomes, maybe this might not have happened. Then again…with crisis averted, there’s no need to grind glass between his teeth over it.

“Are you okay, «Beloved»?” Yes, he’s asked it once before, but now that the adrenaline has settled, maybe the answer has changed.

*
That torte possesses a considerable bite of delicious buttercream, a confection as light and airy as a dream, melting upon her tongue in lofty meringue-hued dreams. Through the subtleties of almond does the witch dream of ridiculously tidy sheets and plumped pillows. A wonder she might fall asleep on the bench while tapping her fork against the thin layers, cracking through them with enough pressure for the filling to melt out the sides. Not that a ready scoop of her fork isn’t sufficient to capture it, bringing it to her mouth.

Shifting between cake and coffee gives a bit of a cleansing effect to her palate, and she watches Strange from over the table. This is normal. An unusual degree for them, given the lack of tea and scones, but normal all the same. The late hour cannot hurt for inducing a sense of floating along with the pulse of society instead of standing apart, mysterious creatures flitting at the ragged edges where mortal and mundane concerns meet theirs.

And he’s got a white mustache, so there is that. Wanda rubs her fingers against her cheekbone. “Mm? I remember. Berlin is very different than this. Different pressures. So modern. The scars of the war are everywhere. We lived on the other side. Trapped on the other side. But Vienna, they speak softly of. We came through here sometimes, on our way to France and other places,” she murmurs, staring back into a distant past of sorts. “I am hungry more than anything. That was a sad trial in the cemetery, but not imperfect.”

*
He idly stirs the espresso beneath the thick topping of cream as he listens, attention never leaving her. She takes extra care to explain, he takes extra focus to decipher what she shares. The shadow cast by knitted brows darkens his eyes. The spoon clinks a few times against the cup beneath her soft words and he stops fidgeting there, at least. His other hand, out of sight and resting on his thigh, does not, in fact, rest. The sigils are drawn there, atop the bottom flap of the coat that he continues wearing. He’s warm, as comfortable as can be given the circumstances, and the Cloak seems content to remain hanging about his neck. No need to strip off the Belstaff.

It seems simultaneously sweet and useless, but he still murmurs back, “I am sorry.” It’s an apology in lieu of everyone else who owes her and millions of others who cannot speak anymore — and it will never be enough. Would he had the ability to radically change what happened — but this is one path, while within his powers, he cannot walk. “That was a…sad trial, yes.” He suspects this is a Wandaism of sorts, with ‘sad’ meaning so very much more, but he too is weary enough not to pursue it further. “I desperately wish people understood the repercussions of their actions in the entirety of this world, this reality. I know they wanted to accomplish a goal, but it would have brought suffering. There is no point to such a thing. None.” A solid clink of spoon against inner wall of mug to accent his stance. He exhales, his gaze dropping to the white mound atop his drink. “I suspect too that things happened between my summoning up powers and when the necromantic process was finally laid to rest.” Steel-blues flick to her. “I believe I’m dealing with deific amnesia. Again. Is there anything I should know? It’s not a pressing need,” he adds, pausing to sip at the hot drink. It’s soothing on his sore throat. “If they merely showed and that’s the reason for it, don’t mind telling me.”

*
The booth creaks a little when she leans more against the pile of pillows provided for such an onerous task, castoffs from someone’s comfortable apartment for a literary salon. She remains ever alert for the return of the server with confirmation for a pension to let for the night, or a hotel arranged while they dine at their leisure. Wanda is sparing in how often she sips from her water glass, though that too will be topped off with considerable regularity. Nursing a melange for hours and replenishing the coffee at an interval of four to five hours is an artform no one is going to complain about here.

Still, it’s best fresh. She draws the spoon through the foam and takes an occasional sip, allowing the espresso to mellow through the milky screen and hit her tongue in particular heat, deftly activating the taste buds longing for something other than the murk of ash and dirt that comes away from every entombed crypt. Each breath is the fresher, a reminder of tropical forests and mountain slopes rather than monuments coming to life, a grotesquerie they must endure to lay the dead back to their proper places.

“We are past the need for sorry. Magic. You were called to act. I came. Do you need an apology because I ran when I was bad to run?” Might as well adopt some of the blame out of the situation. She raises the cup up to her lips, sipping another taste of the bitterness and the cream melting together into a mingled signature as familiar to her as pine needles and cold, cutting mountain air. “They offered you rest. Gave reminder I should be good, and not made in my bad maker’s image. I have no desire to be his puppet. His cup. His toy at his side.”

*
Sitting nearly sideways still as he is in the booth, with that one leg sprawled out its length and likely hanging over the edge, Strange has to leave the spoon in his drink in order to prop up the line of his jaw against the palm of his hand. Sleepy. Getting sleepy…and trying very hard to stay awake. The espresso hasn’t kicked in yet and he hasn’t drank more than a fourth of the total volume. Man’s going to need all of it eventually here.

His frown is muzzy now, the half-lidded eyes taking all edge away. “Do you ever feel like the gods need to butt out of our business? Because they need to do this. Immediately.” Lack of patience brought on by lack of energy brings a brutally-keen near-snarl to his words. Unfortunately, blow-out vocal chords take away most of the baritone depth needed for full effect. “Of course you’re not made in his image. What in the seven hells was the point of their — their idiocy?!”

You know what, he’s going to be quiet now and drink his espresso. Drink it. He’s getting prickly and his throat hurts and getting angry isn’t helping anyone. The goatee gets a full blessing of whipped cream for how he downs half of the mug in one sitting before coming up for air. A cough, pained swallow, and then the business of licking away the white. Whatever remains gets wiped away in the nearest tablecloth or napkin.

“I will speak with them.” It’s a grumpy promise.

*
A grumpy Strange facing down the threefold trinity warrants a stilling on the other side of the dark table worn smooth by countless newspapers and many flat metal oval trays covered in coffeeklatsch debris.

Wanda chooses to sit up very straight then, the drunken tilt of her body compared to this ramrod spined woman all the more dramatic. “You are their chosen. You keep a viper to your breast. Like Cleopatra you can be bitten, and it would stop you from doing their needed tasks. I know exactly what I am, Stephen.”

There’s his name, the rare whisper that the coffeeshop sings back softly within the enclosed space of their booth. Above them, Julie Andrews and a heap of other lesser celebrities, largely of the literary and theatrical bent, stare out from their covers with benign to amused faces. None seem to much care about the situation of two polarities represented in their oppositions: male, female, axiomatic and chaotic, claimed and defiant. She is fairly sanguine about the business, but maybe European soil has something to do with it. Maybe that anyone in their surroundings might look with opalescent eyes trending topaz in their direction.

“Because I know, I can choose. Every day I decide not to be like they wanted me to be. Every day I decide ‘I will be worthy to Stephen Strange’ and ‘I will help Pietro Maximoff be better.’ These keep me on a path.” Her spoon swishes about midair, dropping clouds of foam down to drop into the cup on the nadir of the silvery arc. “It is very easy to walk the wrong route. The easy path brings sadness. I hurt someone and I see the look in your eye. You did not like what I did in Argentina. The different way you can think: I do not want to be anything he worked into me.”

A pause and she says, “They remind me. Maybe they are thinking this helps. When bad magic is moving around me, they check like… like parents would? Or Yaga? Better than sending Yaga. It is rare. Best this way than opening the Eye and scorching me to ashes, no? It is our little peace, the way they let me live and love you, and I let them love you. Maybe they will like me one day that way.”

*
“They will.” Strange says it like he means it. There’s not a riffle of Mystical echo around him; too tired for it. It doesn’t make the intensity of the statement any less and it chisels him to stony earnesty.

He reaches across the table, seeking out her hand once again, recognizing on some level that this is a way to connect with her and soothe them both at the same time.

“Wanda Maximoff, you are my «Beloved». Nothing will change this. I trust you. You have your vices and I have mine; we’re human.” A hollow laugh that betokens a glittering of the slip into giddy logic. He sobers suddenly. “Argentina is in the past.” Nope, not touching on that again. Not explaining why he’s woken up gasping a few times since Gating back to the Sanctum, gathering her up in his arms with a hard closing of eyes. His eyes rise to meet hers again, having lingered on the surface of her own cup of coffee. “We will have our little peace. It’s not a matter of being worthy. It’s a matter of love.” If he’s grumbling, it’s because he’s making a point he feels like he’s made time and time again. “Love isn’t about being worthy, it’s about…love.” Brain is tired.

*

They will. They must. Whatever it portends, Wanda won’t argue for it. She reaches to take his hand in hers, scarred in the callused fingers spread along the back of scar-scorched knuckles and ridges pinned all the way past his wrists. Spreading digits encircle his skin within the forgiving eclipse of the dawn-bright hue of her complexion, her nails lightly teasing over the bones of a wounded past.

“Worth is important too. I do not want you to look at me with shame in your face.” That much she need say, no more. A few of the curious creatures in the vaults of memory poke about, seeking for any signs of crumbling favour or irritated divinities imposing their presence through an easy channel in the world, a breaking where their essence floats through without any resistance.

The server clears his throat, making an impression. Wanda flicks her gaze towards him, and she does not smile. Germans, and their high Austrian kin, as a rule do not aimlessly grin at people without cause. Nods will do. He says something in halting German, only for her to reply in fluent kind, changing the timbre. He’s probably heard the English, and made assumptions, even if the words are not entirely clear.

“Our room is ready if you are comfortable to walk. It was not my first choice but he says the keeper of the building will let us in. I have the numbers for the lock, we will have a key inside.” This is all assayed rather simply, on the whole of it, and Wanda shifts on the running translation for the good doctor with ease, nodding. “A guest house, he says. The quality will be good and he thinks you might even fit the bed. Problems for the Dutch and the Americans, you are too tall. Are you ready to go lie down or would you stay here for a time?”

*
Lucky for the server, the good Doctor is too grumpy for a smile. He gets the same neutral expression given to him by Wanda, albeit with an extra side serving of a glower. The man in impeccable attire who delivered coffee and now delivers news is technically interrupting an active conversation.

The flavor of news saves the day, huzzah! No need to curse the man into forgetting how to pick up a spoon after all. Wouldn’t that be the damndest thing though? Any other utensil would be fine but for a spoon. Ultimate annoyance. How to eat soup? Figure that one out.

“I will sleep with my feet hanging from the bed if that’s what it takes. You must be tired too, «Beloved».” Strange tries for a smile towards her and somewhat succeeds, as worn as he looks. “Let’s finish the coffee though. It’s not half-bad.” He clearly means bolt the rest of it — because he does and then wipes away the whipped cream.

As he waits for her, the Sorcerer adds quietly, “I never hear you complain about my height.” Oh, how cute, an attempt at humor too.

*
“I have no reason to complain.” A nonchalant shrug and the addition of the water glass raised to her lips leaves Wanda cool and refined, any hint of weariness banished by a reminder the Vishanti have entered the discussion in the recent past. Her gaze is wide open to the Sight, bar none, seeking the merest traces of the arcane from everything in range.

Mind you, even a minor spell detonating in front of her would definitely reach her notice, though she loses a little something on the overlay across the mundane shelves and books.

Her fingers find the coffee cup and raise it to her lips, practiced movements articulating a certain grace. “All is well, Trishul. Believe that a good sleep will be the best medicine.”

*
“Very good. Not much I could do about it anyways,” Strange replies. He indulges in a muted stretch, confined by the booth as he is.

“I sincerely cannot wait. Sleep does tend to cure most ills,” he rasps as he leans back against the wall. The pillow is smashed behind his lower back, but this place is incredibly relaxing with its quiet dim atmosphere, so much so that it’s clear he’s struggling to stay awake. Lashes flutter a few times before he sniffs sharply, chin jerking up from a tucking away against his chest.

“Yes…a nap and a shower.” A murring grumble escapes him as he wipes a hand down his face. “A shower and then a nap…?” Ah, the musings of the overly-worked.

*

A shower and a nap, then, will be in store. The cramped nature of the showers will leave something to be desired, given they’re mostly a partial enclosure around a high tub, but so be it. Warm sheets and soft pillows leave much to entice even a jaded sorcerer of wealth and means to find comfort, especially when he realizes how European beds are essentially two mattresses pushed together.

That’s right, the notion of adults sleeping next to each other is essentially shocking. Never tell the landlady they are not married or Strange might be chased off by a respectable matron and her broom, while the fallen woman is yelled at furiously in the prospect.

“Let’s be away,” says Wanda. “Your dreams wait for you.”

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