The first time Carol ever sees the Man, she is nine. They have just moved to the new house, so she and her brothers could all have their own rooms, and Carol is climbing the biggest tree in the new backyard. She is trying to judge the best place to put a tree fort when she sees, from the corner of her eye, someone standing in the yard. She thinks, at first, that it is her father, making sure she doesn’t fall; but when she looks, it isn’t. The Man smiles at her.
“Found you,” he says and then, when she blinks, is gone.
She stares hard at where he was, confused. She shakes her head. It was a daydream.
Then, she climbs down from the tree and stands where the Man was. Carol looks around, frowns, and then smiles. She runs inside, where she spends the rest of the afternoon convincing her brothers that their new home is haunted.
She sees him again two years later and she has forgotten him almost entirely. But when she sees him across the sea of people at the craft fair her mother has dragged her to one Saturday, the hair on her arms stands up and she is cold and hot at the same time.
The Man smiles at her, the same smile as before.
Carol feels like she cannot breathe.
The Man slides in and out of Carol’s life. He is there one full moon when she is fourteen and staring at the sky in wonder; he is there four times when she is sixteen, random, in the background; he is there when she hitchhikes to Florida to see a shuttle launch—smiling on the side of the road, in crowds where she feels like she might turn around and the Man will be there, his hand hovering above her shoulder.
Sometimes he talks to her. He says things she doesn’t quite understand, things that seem like he’s talking about Carol to someone who isn’t there. Sometimes he just smiles at her, kind and distant, and it makes Carol want to cry. She doesn’t understand why.
She asks him one night, “Are you real?”
But he is gone before she finishes the question.
In the distance, she hears something like laughter.
Each time, when she sees him, it is like she has forgotten something and the Man is everything that she needs to remember. But whenever he leaves—she forgets again that there is even something to remember.
The most consistent times when the Man is there are the times when she and her father fight, and he is there the night they have their biggest fight.
Her father screams, “You step one foot into that recruiting office again, one foot out of this house, you are never coming back.”
Carol steps towards the door. Her father grabs her and slaps her, hard.
Her brothers stare. Her mother stifles a sob.
She grabs the bag she had already packed and walks out.
The Man is waiting for her.
“It was her mother,” he says.
“Fuck off,” she says.
The Man smiles. He says, “You’ll be fine.”
Carol goes to punch him but, as always, he is gone.
She stands in the night, clenching her fist. Then, she straightens her shoulders, holds her head high, and walks out of the yard, onto the sidewalk, onto the street, and she walks down the road, the streetlights guiding her path.
She is going to see the stars and no one is going to stop her.
Carol moves into her tiny, pie shaped dorm at MIT in August. She has spent the summer on people’s couches, or floors, and rode a bike to her job at Barnes & Noble every day. She has a small amount of money saved for herself, to help pay for her dorm, as it’s the one thing the Air Force hasn’t offered her. She doesn’t mind that—it’s an honor to have as much as she does.
Over her desk, she has framed her recruiting letter and a picture of the launch she had found her way to Florida for. Above her bed, she has her first rifle target: the bullets are high and to the right, but she’ll fix that.
She has a handful of books and a suitcase worth of clothes.
Everything else got left behind.
She spends the afternoon putting her clothes away, carefully folding her uniforms in their plastic bags into her wardrobe, and staring out the window. When she begins to feel hungry and restless around five, she gets up and starts to leave her room to explore.
She opens her door to find a lieutenant in BDUs poised to knock.
“Sir,” she says and salutes.
“At ease, cadet,” he says. “I just stopped by to introduce myself and invite you to dinner with some other cadets. I’m Lieutenant James Rhodes, the Recruiting Flight Instructor.”
“Cadet Carol Danvers,” she says. She holds out her hand and he takes it, smiling. “I intend to fly, sir.”
“Yeah?” he says.
“I want to see the stars, sir,” Carol says. “I’ve already declared myself as an aeronautical engineering major, sir.”
“How’s your vision?” he asks.
“Perfect, sir,” she says. “I also was an All-State long distance runner, the valedictorian of my class at South Boston Public, and I scored a perfect 800 in math on my SATS.”
“A lot of pilots score perfects,” he tells her.
Carol holds her head high. “I don’t take no for an answer. Sir.”
Lieutenant Rhodes smiles wider. “Well. I know at least one person I need to introduce you to.”
“Sir?” she says.
“Come on,” he says, turning away from her door and going down the hall. “Cadet dinner, Danvers. My shout.”
“Yes, sir,” Carol says, hastily locking up and going after him.
She doesn’t tell many people about her family, about her life. Rhodes knows, presumably because he read her file, and she knows Tony Stark knows, because Rhodes told him. He’s her TA in Intro to Physics and he’s an ass but she knows he’s like her, so she doesn’t really mind him and sometimes he smiles and he tells her he wants to build her a plane. Rhodes and Stark remind her of the best parts of her brothers, the parts she desperately is clinging to even as she loses them. They—mainly Steve—write her letters: Steve wants to be like her, go into the Air Force or the Army and fight for their country. Joey wants to be a doctor. They say that dad won’t talk about her and that mom cries. Sometimes, Carol throws out their letters before she even reads them.
Stark holds her up after class one day, at the beginning of November.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” he asks.
Carol was planning on watching the Macy’s parade from the comfort of her bed and eating day-old Chinese take-out, but she tells Stark, “Nothing.”
“Rhodey’s mom has invited me for Thanksgiving as she always does,” he says. “She makes the best turkey. And I could take you, as, like, my date,” he adds.
“I don’t want to be one of your French girls,” she tells him.
He grins at her. “You could never be one of my French girls. I don’t like to be afraid of my French girls.”
“You’re afraid of me?” Carol asks.
“Deeply,” he says. “Rhodey tells me you’re at the top of your class and that you have perfect aim.”
“I work hard,” she says.
“I know,” says Stark. “It’s why I like you. And I don’t wanna ruin that, so maybe you should just come to dinner before I talk Rhodey into kidnapping one of his cadets.”
“I don’t know if it’s against the rules,” she eventually says.
“Well,” Stark says. “As long as he doesn’t start favoring you and passing your flight tests when you fail, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I don’t fail,” Carol says.
“You’ve made my point,” he says. Stark waves at her with one hand as he turns his attention to his notes. “All right, now get the hell out, I’m very busy and important.”
The Man is in the hallway when she gets there. He points at Stark, “I like him.”
Carol stares at him, says desperately, “What do you want?”
He shrugs. “I want her happy this time.”
“Sorry, I’ve never known very many happy people—I wouldn’t know where to start,” she says. “Who the hell are you?”
The Man is gone.
Carol punches the air where he was but catches herself before she hits the wall with her fist.
Life goes on. Carol goes to Thanksgiving with Rhodes and Stark and Rhodes’s mother loves her. She tells her she is too good for Stark and they say at the same time, “I know.” She passes all of her classes with flying colors, goes out to celebrate with the other cadets, and Stark and Rhodes show up. Stark buys her a drink with a wink and she gulps it down while Rhodes’s back is turned.
In the spring, she goes up into the air on an Incentive Flight with Rhodes. Her heart feels too big and full and she is giddy the rest of the afternoon, only brought down when she finds a new letter from Steve, one telling her that he is joining the Army when he graduates high school in June. He says, “Dad is proud.” Carol throws the letter out before finishing it
She rushes the Women’s Independent Living Group and is accepted—she’ll move in Fall term and both Stark and Rhodes have offered to help her move in. Rhodes says it’s so Stark can hit on her new housemates; he doesn’t deny it.
She finds an apartment for the summer with a few other cadets and gets her old job at the Barnes & Noble back, as well as a volunteer position at the Civilian Air Patrol.
Joey writes her a letter. “I hope you come home for my birthday,” he says.
She won’t but she’ll sent him a present. No one else would be glad to see her at home.
She only sees the Man once the rest of that year, around Christmas, from a very long distance. She isn’t entirely sure that he sees her. She thinks of running to him but she doesn’t. She doesn’t think she’d know how.
Like most of the women who live in WILG, she customizes her room a week after moving in. She hangs up her favorite things—her letter, her picture of the launch, her target—and adds to it the photo-booth strip she had taken with Rhodey and Tony over the summer at some bar. It makes her smile when she looks at it .
She decides to paint her walls too, having been given access to their extras. She is told the girl before her had painted it all white, because she’d been a photographer, and had used the bedroom almost like a gallery.
Carol has never chosen a color for her own room so she spends a lot of time on the floor, sitting and thinking. She occasionally gets up, paints bright strips of color, and sits back down to observe it.
“That’s pretty,” says Laura, a junior, as she walks past one day. She hovers in the doorway and points. “What is it?”
Carol looks at the circle of yellow, red, and blue she’d absently been painting.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“You should keep it,” says Laura as she leaves. “Dinner should be ready in twenty.”
Carol has a notebook that she keeps hidden at the back of her bookcase. She has filled it with drawing after drawing of the Man, keeps a list inside with every sighting of him she can remember having, with whens and wheres, and she has written down everything she can remember him saying to her. She writes that he is British, that he is short, that his hair is always the same, that his clothes are always the same. She writes notes to herself, telling herself that she has always had brothers and she has always loved her mother. She writes: I am Carol Susan Jane Danvers. I was born in Boston. I am going to be a pilot. I am going to see the stars. I have always been this and will always be this.
One afternoon, in the spring of her junior year, Rhodey is waiting for her when she gets home. He is in the third floor lounge, Laura tells her, and he has been there for an hour.
Then, Laura squeezes her arm and says, “Come find me in the kitchen, after, okay?”
Carol nods, a heavy feeling in her stomach, and heads up the stairs.
He looks up when she enters.
“I was in class,” she says. “The lecture ran over.”
“Carol,” he says.
“There’s been an accident at Edwards,” he says.
“I’m so sorry,” he says.
Carol attends her brother’s funeral, despite her mother calling her and saying it would be best if she didn’t show up. She wears dark jeans, a leather jacket, and sunglasses. Her hair is tied back and she likes to think that the woman who stands on the edge of the service is a far cry from the girl who stormed out of her parents home nearly three years ago.
She watches as Steve’s body is lowered into the ground, her jaw clenched. At one point, she swears her littlest brother sees her from next to their parents but Joey just looks back to the grave, like he didn’t.
Carol closes her eyes when the priest talks, her lips moving silently along with his words, and when she opens them again, her parents and Joey are throwing dirt over Steve.
She looks away.
The Man is standing in the distance.
Her breath catches and he holds out a hand to her.
She goes to him as fast as she can but the Man is not there when she arrives and Carol is left standing among gravestones she does not know.
Carol watches the rest of the service from there, watches as the people hug her parents, watches as the people act like there weren’t three Danvers children to begin with. Eventually, everyone is gone but Carol and then she leaves too.
She goes to Tony, after. He gets her drunk and lets her cry into his chest, ruining his shirt with her furious tears, and he holds her hair back when she is sick. He lets her kiss him and she lets him kiss her back. They fall into bed together and Tony laughs when she says, “Fuck, I’m one of your French girls now, aren’t I?” and he tells her, “No, I’m still too scared of you, Danvers.”
When they wake up in the morning, Tony kisses her gently on the corner of the mouth and makes her breakfast and orders her to tell him embarrassing stories about Steve.
Later, they won’t ever talk about it, won’t ever mention it even to Rhodey, but when Howard dies, Carol shows up at Tony’s door with a bottle of bourbon and gets him drunk and lets him cry into her chest, ruining her shirt, and she lets him kiss her and he lets her kiss him back, and—and—and—
When Carol graduates MIT, her dress blues neatly pressed beneath her gown, Tony and Rhodey are the people there to cheer her on, as well as her fellow cadets. They take pictures with each other, smiling wide and proud, and discuss where they are all being stationed. There are only ten of them, including Carol, that have graduated ROTC (fifteen started out), and most of them are going off to Warren or Travis to finish their training; Carol’s the only one going off to Luke in Arizona, to finish out her flight training. Rhodey had recommended her to become part of the 63d FS, which he assures her, given her track record, she’s going to be leading in a few years.
As she grabs her diploma and smiles at Rhodey and Tony and everyone else, she swears the Man is behind them, his arm raised in salute to her.
Carol moves into housing on base. It’s bland, bare, and tiny, and her small collection of photos and framed memorabilia do little to make it a home. She hangs her target in the bathroom, her letter of acceptance, diploma, and other credentials in her small office, and a replication of her wall painting over her standard issue couch. She puts the picture of the launch in the kitchen, near the window, and briefly thinks about getting a picture of JFK and a crucifix to hang there as well, like her mother used to have. The photo strip of her, Rhodey, and Tony goes on the fridge, alongside her graduation photos.
She buys a safe and puts it in the bottom of her closet. Inside, she keeps her second sidearm, ammo, her passport and birth certificate, and the notebook that grows larger and larger with every passing year.
Like Rhodey predicts, she finishes out her flight instruction at the top of her class and is passed on to 310th to be a fighter pilot. She begins to train new pilots shortly after and earns a reputation as one of the toughest, fairest trainers.
Tony, a year after she graduates, shows up on base with the schematics to a new plane. He is ostensibly courting her commanding officers but he seeks her out after the meetings are finished. They drink in her living room, laughing and sharing stories, and they are quite drunk when he shows her the plans, his hand slipping under her shirt.
“It’s your graduation gift,” he tells her. “Sorry it’s gonna be a little late.”
“Whatever,” she says. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“You wound me, Lieutenant,” he says, though the hurt in his voice is not quite believable to her, what with her bra now held triumphantly in his hand.
In the morning, he asks her if she’s seeing anybody. She says, “No, you?”
“I think I’m starting to like being scared,” Tony says. “Though this is never gonna work out.”
“Oh?” Carol says.
“Yep,” he says, flipping an omelet in the air. “One, you know too much about me, and two, I don’t go falling in love with women who can die on me at any moment.”
“We are at war,” she agrees. “Though it’s a bullshit war.”
Tony laughs. “Excuse me, soldier?”
“Shh,” she says. “Don’t tell.”
“Well, you know me,” he says. “I like a good war, no matter what.”
One night, Carol returns to her tiny house so exhausted she can barely function. It has been an extremely rough day and she has had to chew out three different trainees for stupid mistakes that would have gotten them killed if they weren’t in simulations. She falls onto her bed completely dressed and closes her eyes, burrowing into her pillow.
There is a man in the corner of her room. Carol has her gun up, the safety off, sighted, and her finger on the trigger before she is even aware of being awake.
“She always wanted to shoot me, you know,” the Man says. “But she never did. I was always too valuable.”
She blinks, and the Man is gone.
Carol waits for a few seconds and then slowly gets up from her bed. She walks quietly through every room, her gun at her side. She opens every closet, checks behind the shower curtain, and, feeling a bit silly, looks inside the fridge. She turns back to her bedroom.
She doesn’t sleep the rest of the night. Instead, she sits dead center on her bed, legs crossed and her gun resting beneath her hand. She sits like that, in the dark, in the stillness of her own home, until the run begins to rise.
She falls asleep in the light, still wanting answers.
A cadet dies in a training accident her third year on base. The whole base mourns and many, including Carol, attend the service for the boy. She had been one of his instructors and she talks to his mother about him, shares a few stories, and smiles politely when the woman excuses herself with a tight smile and choked sounding words.
When a priest starts talking, Carol puts down her glass of punch and goes to find the ladies room.
And, all of the sudden, she is crying, deep heaving sobs that she cannot breath around.
She says, “Zak,” and just as suddenly, she is not crying.
Carol touches her wet face, stares at the tears on her fingers.
She returns to the service but ultimately leaves early. She spends twenty minutes in her car, staring at her foreign, tear-stained face in the rearview mirror. She tries to place the name Zak. She cannot.
Carol is pulled aside by one of her commanding officers a few months after the accident. He takes her into one of the briefing rooms, where a colonel she has never seen before is waiting. He is dark skinned, bald, and wears an eye-patch. She goes to attention and fires off a crisp salute.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” he says. “I’ve come to offer you a job, Danvers.”
“Sir?” she says.
He smiles. “I’ve heard a lot about you, you know, and none of it’s that you’re dumb. Both Major Rhodes and your commanding officers speak incredibly highly of you, as well as a certain warmonger we like to deal with. You’re clever, Danvers, and one hell of a soldier. How’d you like to be one hell of a spy?”
She stares at him for a second and asks, “Do I still get to fly?”
“Ah, the Danvers will. Heard about that too,” he says, his smile becoming a grin. “Yeah, you still get to fly. Fact is, that was one of your selling points."
“Do I stay on base?” she asks.
“You’d be going to Hulburt,” he says. “Back to Dolittle. Would that be a problem?”
“No, sir,” she says. “I’ve always liked Florida. What’s the job, sir?”
“Air Force Intelligence,” the Colonel says, “with the option to grow.”
Being a spy, Carol eventually decides, suits her.
She’s been keeping secrets for years, after all.
Two years later, Tony shows up at her base. He has with him a plane and a new assistant.
“Happy graduation,” he says.
“Maybe we should call it happy promotion,” she says.
“It doesn’t have the same ring,” he says. “Though I like the other thing too, Captain.”
“Thanks,” Carol says. She holds out her hand to the assistant. “I’m Carol Danvers.”
“Pepper Potts,” says the redhead.
“Tony hire you for your name?” she asks.
“I think so,” Pepper says.
“She hired herself,” Tony interjects. “The name was a bonus.”
“I’m assuming you’re the reason Tony finally finished this plane,” Carol says, “seeing as he’s been trying to give it to me for five years.”
“Wanna take it for a test run?” says Tony. “I’m told it goes under all kinds of radars.”
Carol looks over at her commanding officer. He is not the colonel who recruited her—he’d disappeared after Carol had accepted, before she even got his name—but she likes this new man well enough. He treats her like an equal and is suitably impressed with her flying skills.
He nods at her.
“What’s the mileage like?” she asks.
“Germany and back in one tank,” Tony tells her.
She glances at her CO again. He nods once more.
“I needed to go take some pictures out east anyway,” Carol says and goes to find her gear.
Tony’s plane handles like a dream and Carol says over comms, “Tell Stark he gives the best presents.”
“I already knew that,” he says, voice tinny and distant.
Carol huffs a laugh and takes the plane into a spin.
She reaches air space she isn’t supposed to be near in no time and decides to try out Tony’s under all kinds of radars claim. She does a few circles just inside of the No Fly Zone and, when nothing happens, ventures further. Her CO had given her the orders to be in and out quick, not quite trusting Tony, and she accordingly grabs the pictures she came for before hightailing it out.
Carol is almost there when something clips her wing. The plane wobbles in the air.
“Danvers,” says her CO in her ear.
“Sir,” she says. “I don’t—”
The plane wobbles and drops. The screens go blank and all sound cuts out, except for the rush of wind around her. Carol’s fingers reach for the eject pull as she says, “Oh, frack me,” and her body tumbles into the wide blue sky.
Carol wakes up to the feeling of being dragged.
When she opens her eyes, she is surprised to find herself simply lying on the ground, in the sand. It is hot and scratchy on her face and the sun is brutal as it shines down, but she is not moving at all.
She looks down her own body, sees her chute lying still at her feet, a metal shard of something she assumes once was the multimillion dollar stealth flier she’d been in, and the large, dark mass of blood on her thigh.
“Fuck,” she says.
She struggles into a sitting position, her leg burning, and looks around herself and her surroundings. There is the metal shard and an endless landscape of sand, something like mountains in the hazy distance. There is no shade for miles and all she has are the things she keeps in her flight suit: her sidearm, a pocketknife, a compass, and a Power Bar.
“Fuck,” she says again.
Her leg, upon inspection, has a gash that is three or so inches long and reasonably deep, and there is an unbearable pain even beneath that. She assumes it must broken, that it is possible the bone is making its way towards the surface. She has no way to clean it and she’s hesitant to shove her own fingers in her leg, wary of going into shock at the pain, but she needs to at least stop the bleeding and get it covered.
She drags her chute up to her. She rips at it with her hands first, then with her knife, before making it into the compression bandage she needs. She ties it as tight as she can and feels faint.
Carol lays back down in the sand and closes her eyes.
She wonders if anyone will come for her. She wonders if anyone saw her plane come crashing to the ground, her little body with it. She wonders how long she’d been unconscious before this.
A shadow passes over her and she opens her eyes, fingers tightly gripping her sidearm.
A woman stands over Carol, her blonde hair swaying in the nonexistent breeze. She reaches her hand down to Carol, touching her cheek gently and then holding her hand so that it may shield Carol’s face from the sun. She smiles at her.
“God has a plan for you, Carol,” she says. “So get up and start walking.”
Carol blinks. She is gone.
Eventually, Carol gets up and she starts walking. She walks for hours.
And, unfortunately, she walks right into the arms of the enemy.
Carol feels like she should have seen that one coming.
“Carol Susan Jane Danvers, Captain, USAF, 462753,” she says. “Carol Susan Jane Danvers, Captain, USAF, 462753. Carol Susan Jane Danvers, Captain, USAF, 462753."
They hold her down.
This is what the men take from Carol: her blood, her screams, her fingernails, her body.
This is what the men do not take from Carol: her drive, her will, her dignity, her mind.
The Woman sits across from Carol in the cell.
“You said God had a plan,” she says.
“He does,” says the Woman.
“It’s a shitty plan,” Carol tells her.
“No,” she says. “You just need to get up.”
Carol spends one more day—she thinks it’s a day—in captivity before she gets the drop on one of the men. Her bloody fingers snap the man’s neck from behind, when she sneaks out from the door as he enters, and she takes his gun, his jacket, and his trousers. She kills two more men with her hands, and one with her gun, before she finds herself outside.
The night is black and dotted with stars, and Carol is thrown for a second because she thought it would have been a blinding landscape of sun before her. She gets her bearings quick enough and begins to limp away from the building, staying close to the walls, the gun clenched as tightly in her hand as she can. She finds some beat up old Humvee and thinks, Well, they stole it first, as she hotwires it.
“She would be very proud,” says the Man from the passenger seat.
“She would be,” says the Woman from the back.
“Fucking blood-loss,” says Carol and keeps her eyes on the road and drives and drives and drives.
She literally crashes into an Army outpost as the sun is rising. She has been fighting falling asleep at the wheel for quite sometime now and thanks whatever god that’s listening that she is in the middle of goddamn nowhere in the desert so the only thing she might hit are rogue goats and, apparently, Army bases.
When the MPs swarm the car and Carol says, holding her dog-tags up, “Carol Susan Jane Danvers, Captain, USAF, 462753,” and the MPs look at her funny, she laughs so hard she begins to cry.
The Man and the Woman stand behind the MPs, smiling.
They tell her she has been missing for two months. (It feels like years.) They tell her that she is brave, and strong. (She feels degraded and empty.) They say she told her captors nothing. (She already knew that.) They say she has a broken femur, four cracked ribs, one broken, her nose is broken as well as her left cheekbone, and that her fingernails will grow back in a few weeks. (She knew that too.)
When she’s deemed able to travel, the Army medics ship her off to Germany to get further poked and prodded. On the plane, blitzed out of her mind on pain killers, the Man and the Woman sit by her cot.
“Are you angels?” she asks them.
“Maybe,” the Woman says.
“Why me?” she asks.
“Because her,” the Man says.
“Am I one of you?” she asks.
They are gone.
Slowly, slowly, Carol recovers. She comes home from Germany after a week and Rhodey, Tony, and Pepper are waiting for her. Pepper has stocked her kitchen with healthy, easily made food, Rhodey has taken a brief posting on base at Hulbert to talk to new cadets and flight trainees, and Tony cannot look her in the eye. He watches her when he thinks she is sleeping and, once, he curls up next to her, running his hands through her hair.
She wants to say, It’s not your fault.
She wants to say, Tony, please.
She wants to say, I love you like I loved my brothers, once, please don’t ever leave me, I can’t loose another, please, please, please.
Tony and Pepper eventually leave, needing to go back to the business, and Rhodey stays behind for a few more days. Carol wishes that he would leave too, because she can’t sleep when he’s near, when any of them are near; she doesn’t want him to hear her wake, screaming and gasping and crying, like she had in the hospital.
Eventually, he leaves too.
Carol wanders her house, going room to room, crutches foreign beneath her arms.
“Where are you?” she asks.
Later, the one-eyed colonel will come to her home. He will nod at her and say, “How about that growth?”
And Carol, who will be absently sketching a blonde woman backlit by the desert, will say, “Who’s going to try to kill me this time?”
She leaves the Air Force and joins Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. They send her to a NASA outpost in the Mojave Desert to babysit scientists. She has access to a helicopter, which she takes out when she feels like it, and no one mentions the scar on her leg, mainly because no one can see it.
She hasn’t seen the Man and the Woman since she left Germany.
When Tony disappears in the desert, Carol takes a leave of absence from the outpost. She goes out into the middle of nowhere with Rhodey and they fly and they fly and they fly. She’s flying when they see the shape in the distance and she sits in the cockpit and bites down her smile when Rhodey collapses to his knees and embraces the sunburnt, broken man. She pulls out her satellite phone and dials Pepper.
When he first went missing, Carol had ran from the lab after the phone call and had grabbed the go-bag she kept in her locker. Walter Lawson, her main scientist, had run after her.
“What’s wrong, Captain?” he asked.
“A friend of mine has been kidnapped,” she said. Her hands were shaking. “I have to help find him.”
“Go get him,” he told her, wide and earnest.
“Never left a man behind before,” she said, and left.
She’d driven nonstop to Malibu, to Pepper, who was wandering Tony’s house like a ghost. She’d sat Pepper down in the kitchen and made her food and very carefully did not mention her own kidnapping. Pepper avoided it too.
Instead, she had pointed to the single piece of paper adorning Tony’s refrigerator. It was the other half of Carol’s photo-booth strip, taken a lifetime ago in some bar she can’t even remember now.
“Did you,” started Pepper and was unable to finish.
“It made us both kind of happy,” she said, “and kept me off drugs, I guess. But not anymore.”
“Oh?” she said.
“He told me once he could never bring himself to fall in love with a woman that might go die on him at any moment. I think my crash just solidified that. Besides, the way he looks at you,” Carol told her, “has never been the way we look at each other.”
Pepper had blinked and Carol had said, “We’re gonna find him, Pepper.”
But the truth is: once, they did look at each other like that, for all her protests and his denials, and once, Carol maybe thought that they were all each other were ever going to get and she had been okay with it. But Carol fell out of the sky and too much guilt has seeped into Tony’s kisses.
People who know as much about each other as they do... It’s too dangerous.
Walter—he doesn’t know anything. Carol likes it that way.
She never meant to actually fall in love with him too.
So of course—
Carol sees the explosion in the lab in little bursts, tiny pictures of overly saturated color and sound that seem like they're coming from too far away. She knows that she is experiencing it now, that everything is happening in real time, but it feels like a memory from forever ago.
“Walter,” she screams.
“I’m right behind you,” he screams back.
The two scientists working with Walter are already dead, and she and he are running down a hallway, attempting to outrun the heat of the flames and the water behind that.
They are the only two people left alive in the whole facility. No one else had been here as late as them.
She dodges into a second corridor and Walter skids in behind her.
There is a door—
Walter kisses her, hard and fast, breathes into her mouth, “See you on the other side,” and pushes.
Carol stumbles away from him, stumbles into the door behind her. She grabs the handle and yanks the door open. She means to look behind her for Walter, to make sure that he’s following her, but instead she looks up and sees—
The Man and the Woman are standing there. The Woman smiles. The Man holds out his hand to her. Carol reaches for him.
There is hot.
There is wet.
And, for a very long time, there is dark.
Carol wakes, skin burning and gasping.
“Walter,” she screams.
Men with strong arms hold her down and she writhes against them.
She feels like she’s on fire and oh gods oh lords—
Someone is screaming her name.
Carol wakes. The world around her is hushed and she feels numb. Pepper is curled up in a chair next to her hospital bed and Tony is sitting on the bed with her, cross-legged next to her head and a tablet in his lap. There is a schematic of that thing he likes to fly open on it and she tries to make out the time in the corner, but she can’t.
“Hey, sleepy head,” he says.
“Where am I?” she says.
“SHIELD hospital,” he says. “This is about the fourth time you’ve woken up, by the way, but the first time you’ve actually spoken so this is going great.”
“Where’s Walter?” she asks.
Tony looks down at her, so infinitely kind, and she looks away.
Pepper has woken up and is looking at her the same way.
Carol closes her eyes.
“How long have I been asleep?” she asks.
The bed shifts. Tony says, “Two years.”
She opens her eyes again. “Oh,” she says.
The rooms is very quiet for a very long time.
Pepper takes her hand. “There’s something you need to know, Carol. When you woke up, you were—you weren’t you. And you’re not—something happened in the explosion.”
“Something changed your DNA,” says Tony.
“Oh,” she says. “How?”
“We don’t know yet,” he says. “I’ve got my best guy on it though.”
“You?” Carol says.
“Yeah,” says Tony, “but I made some new friends while you were sleeping, and one of them has got some game.”
She fakes a yawn.
“We should let you get some more rest,” says Pepper, patting her hand as she releases it. “I know you’ve been sleeping for a while, but—”
“I feel exhausted,” Carol lies.
“We’ll be back,” Tony says, kissing her temple. Pepper does the same, on the other side.
Carol watches them go, watches them as they leave and as they smile gently at her through the observation glass. She counts to a hundred in her mind and gasps. She begins to sob, heavy and hard. She says, "Walter," and then again, "Walter. Walter, Walter, Walter, Walter..."
The doctors come and go, as do other agents. They tell her all the things Tony told her and more things: that she is lucky to be alive; that the surveillance, before it cut out, shows Walter shoving her out of the hallway and shutting the door behind her; that when she woke up she blew up a hospital room and nearly killed four agents; that they don’t know how she nearly blew it up; that she was floating off the bed at the time; that she is on a heavy dosage of diazepam to calm her until they get to the bottom of it.
The doctors tell her that they think she might be displaying latent mutant abilities, brought on by the explosion and the intense physical stress she would have been under at the time. She politely does not remind them she was a POW in the desert for two months.
The doctors tell her, in more words than this: that the Carol now is not the Carol from before.
But she already knows that.
In the corner of her hospital room, there is a Man and a Woman.
“Found you,” says Gaius.