“We lost Spider-Woman,” Iron Man said, over the comms, and for one excruciating moment, Carol’s heart stopped. “I mean, literally, we lost her. We don’t know where she is.”
Carol breathed a sigh of relief. Then Tony’s words set in.
“Wait,” she said. “What do you mean, you lost her?”
This was the story, as far as Carol could get from three different eyewitness testimonies and one needlessly confusing graph, courtesy of Spider-Man: Jessica had gone into an abandoned AIM building. She hadn’t come back out. There was no one in the building, no one in the surrounding area and all tries to reach Jessica went unanswered.
“What you’re telling me is, she’s disappeared,” Carol said, fighting the pit in her stomach.
Jessica had disappeared before. Nobody had noticed, that was the problem. Not even Carol.
“Poof,” Peter said helpfully, miming an explosion of smoke.
“Carol,” Steve said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “We’re working on this. We’ll find her.”
“Right,” Carol said. She pulled herself up to her full height and said, “So where do I start?”
The building Jessica had disappeared from was dismal and grey. There were holes in the ceiling and the snow fell through in wet, miserable clumps. Carol zipped up her jacket and kept walking. There was no sign of Jessica.
“You’re sure there was no one else in the building?” she asked.
“Not a soul,” Logan said. “Sniffed the place out myself. Spider-Woman was alone.”
“Why doesn’t that make me feel any better?” Carol wondered out loud.
“Hate to break it to you, but times like this?” Logan said. “Nothing really does, darlin’.”
Carol socked him in the shoulder.
“We’ll find her,” Logan said gruffly, and Carol realized that he was trying to be comforting, which was cause for concern all on its own.
Suddenly there was a crash. The floor shook beneath her feet; Carol took off on instinct, hovering a foot off the ground. Her head whipped around.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Hulk,” Logan said simply, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
The Hulk was ripping a wall to shreds.
“Hey, Jolly Green,” Carol said. He ignored her, pulling his arm back to slam the wall again. She grabbed him by the elbow, holding him back. The building was the last place Jessica had been seen, and Carol was going to keep it standing until someone could give her some answers.
If she had to fight the Hulk to do that, well. Carol would happily do stupider things, where Jessica was concerned.
Instead of trying to pummel her, like she’d half-expected, the Hulk froze. His chest heaved and his breath rose in clouds of steam. Carol tightened her grip on his massive forearm, very carefully.
“Can you hear me?” she asked. The Hulk snorted; Carol was going to go ahead and take that as a ‘yes, Captain.’ “The building stays in one piece,” she said. “Until we find Spider-Woman, it stays standing. After that? You can wreck it.”
Slowly, the Hulk turned to look at her. His eyes were angry slits. Carol planted her feet and tipped her chin up, waiting him out.
All of a sudden he tipped his head down, massive shoulders rounding, and said, “Spider-Woman is gone.”
“Yeah, I know,” Carol said. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve thought the Hulk looked ... guilty.
He turned those glowing green eyes on her again and said, “Hulk want to find her.”
Carol blinked, then squeezed his arm tight.
“Me too, big guy,” she said. “So let’s go do that.”
Hours passed and there was no sign of Jessica. The pit in Carol’s stomach grew by the minute. She flew up high and circled the building, she explored the basement, she crawled through the vents. Nothing, not one long black hair or scrap of red fabric.
“Fists aren’t going to find her,” Stark said at last. Carol nearly socked him in the jaw just to show him what fists could do, but that wouldn’t have done anyone any good, not Jessica and not her own frazzled nerves. “Let science take over for a while.”
There were signs of dimensional rifts in the building, Tony said. They were faint, and they were getting fainter by the hour.
Alternate dimensions. Carol hated alternate dimensions. So did Jessica.
So she was left sitting on a windowsill while Tony set up, arms crossed, breath misting in front of her. It was freezing.
The Hulk lumbered over and leaned against the wall next to her; it groaned, but held. He stared down at his huge hands.
“Hulk supposed to be be backup,” he growled. “Go with Spider-Woman. Got distracted.”
“Oh,” Carol said. The Hulk wasn’t looking at her but staring down at his feet. Carol bumped his shoulder with her own.
“You were closer than I was,” she said. “I should’ve been here. Besides, if Tony's right, then both of you would have just gotten lost.”
The Hulk grunted.
There was a whirring noise, followed by a shout from Tony; Carol was on her feet instantly.
“Got something,” Tony was saying, fiddling with a bunch of dials. “Not sure if it’s her…” He scowled, taking a step back, and then twisted a dial viciously to the left. A glowing portal rent itself through the air. Carol shielded her eyes against it and squinted, but she couldn’t make anything out.
“Voila!” Tony crowed.
The Hulk lifted his head, sniffing.
“Spider-Woman,” he rumbled.
“You can smell her?” Carol said, casting him a dubious look. The Hulk inhaled again.
“Peanut butter,” he growled. “Lilac. Spider.”
“Weird,” Carol muttered. Turning to Tony, she said, “Can you keep that thing open?”
“Yeeees?” he drew out, sounding less confident than Carol had hoped. “Oh, no, you’re not -- we don’t know what’s down there yet!”
“You sure she’s there?” she said. The Hulk nodded. Carol tugged her jacket into order, narrowing her eyes. “Okay, then I’m going.”
“Agh,” Tony said.
It was like leaping into an industrial freezer. Carol’s breath nearly froze in her lungs. She pushed past it, expecting the crunch of snow under her boots, but the ground was like a mirror. She could see her reflection.
There was a roar from behind her and Carol turned just in time to see the Hulk leap from the portal, fists raised. He hit the ground with a roar and a crash like thunder.
There was a tinny noise from somewhere above that Carol thought might’ve been Tony screaming at them.
“What are you doing?” Carol demanded. The Hulk narrowed his eyes at her.
“Finding Spider-Woman,” he growled. Carol threw her hands up
“I’m doing that already!” she said. The Hulk scowled, then set one huge hand on top of Carol’s head and, very gently, rumpled her hair.
“Team up,” he said. Shocked and frozen halfway through pushing his hand off her head, Carol couldn’t really think of an argument.
As far as backup went, the Hulk wasn’t exactly a bad choice.
“Okay,” Carol said. “So which way do we go, Super Sniffer?”
The Hulk grumbled. He headed to the left.
For a while it felt like they were going in circles. Everything in the place was pale and twisty, filled with jagged shapes. The portal remained visible, high in the sky. Occasionally, Carol felt like she was being watched.
“Up there,” the Hulk grumbled at last, pointing with one giant finger at a rocky ledge up ahead. Carol could just make out a crack in the rock just wide enough for your average spider-hero to squeeze into. She flew ahead and nearly got her head zapped off.
“Jessica!” she shouted, throwing herself sharply to the side.
There was a pause, and then Jessica’s dark head emerged from the cave. Her teeth were chattering. She was holding a very sharp stick.
She was absolutely the best thing Carol had ever seen.
“Carol?” she said, slinking out of her hiding place. Carol swooped down, pulling off her jacket and settling it over Jessica’s shoulders. Jessica threw her arms around her, squeezing tight. Behind her she could hear the Hulk approaching, and she let herself take a moment to press her cheek against Jessica’s dark hair. “One minute I was walking around and then -- ice kingdom. How did you find me?”
“You fell through a dimensional rift,” Carol said. “We followed you.”
“Ugh,” Jessica said, planting her sharp chin on Carol’s shoulder. "Dimensional rift. That's just my luck."
There was a flurry of motion behind Carol’s back; she twisted around to find Jessica and the Hulk mid-fistbump.
“Do you guys have a secret handshake?” she asked.
“Keyword: secret,” Jessica said far too cheerfully for someone who couldn’t seem to stop shivering. “Avert yon eyes, Captain Marvel. Did you run into any trouble rescuing me?”
“What kind of trouble?” Carol asked, casting a suspicious look at Jessica’s stick.
“Uh,” Jessica said, casting her eyes upwards. She pointed towards the strange, twisty trees. “That kind?”
Carol looked up. The spindly trees were filled with something that looked like a cross between a monkey and a chunk of ice. They had very long fangs and glowing red eyes.
They chittered. The Hulk grinned.
“Smash,” he said, pounding one hand into his open fist.
“Right,” she said, grabbing Jessica behind the knees and slinging her up into an easy bridal carry. She yelped, dropping the stick. “We’re leaving now. Hulk, c’mon!”
“Little warning next time!” Jessica said, grabbing fistfuls of Carol’s uniform. Carol shot straight up, eyes fixed on the portal. The cold wind tossed Jessica’s long hair every which way; Carol had to keep spitting it out.
“Wow,” Jessica said, peering over his shoulder. “He’s really laying into those ice monkeys. You go, big guy.”
They fell through the portal with a crash, on a collision course with some of Tony’s equipment. Carol pulled out the stops at the last minute, planting her heels.
“My hero,” Jessica said, twining her arms around Carol’s neck and pressing a kiss to her cheek.
Tony cleared his throat. “I’m the one who opened the rift, you know,” he groused. Jessica rolled her eyes.
“Nobody likes a showoff,” Carol told him, setting Jessica down on her feet.
“Right,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “Where’s the Hulk?”
One green hand reached through the portal, followed by the rest of the Hulk. He was grinning ear to ear, panting, and he dropped Jessica’s stick at Tony’s feet. Tony stared at it.
“Souvenir,” the Hulk rumbled.
“Aw,” Jessica said, beaming.
Avengers Tower was toasty warm. Jessica was sitting in the kitchen, wearing three blankets and blowing on her tea. Carol might’ve been hovering, just a little.
Not as badly as the Hulk, in any case. She had that, at least.
“You know what I could use?” Jessica said sweetly.
Grumbling, the Hulk slid another sandwich her way. The crusts were cut off.
Jessica cackled, grabbing half. Carol snorted.
“Hey,” Jessica said in a conspiratorial whisper. She lifted one eyebrow, eyes twinkling, and Carol couldn’t help but tilt her head closer. Jessica grinned and slid the plate Carol’s way. “Want to go halfsies?”
Turned out, the Hulk could make one hell of a sandwich.