The First Time
Pine trees whipped past Carol and Simon as they worked their section of Mount Wundagore. She could taste them, sharp and sweet against the roof of her mouth every time she drew in a lungful of the thin air. In conditions this clear, Carol only had to cheat a little bit to see the curve of the earth. She would rather try, fly high and see how many hazy grey patches she could name as cities, see how far into the stratosphere she had to go to chase the receding curve of the dawn. Rather anything than this.
But Cap was snapping orders like he was back in the war: Spread out, teams of two, follow this pattern, follow that pattern, we'll have S.H.I.E.L.D. above scanning everything, if you find her, call everyone in, do not engage.
Eight years out of uniform had worn at the crisp habits first entrenched in basic. Now it actually took work to fold her mind into the correct shape to follow orders without thinking. Carol found it easier after that; her thoughts settled and cleared, and this blood hunt became a mission, her best friend a target.
The air warmed a little around her, and Carol narrowed her eyes and shot a look back over her right shoulder. Simon had extended his ionic energy until the red glow sizzled against her hip, familiar. Her own power started to reach back, wanting to meet and absorb his strength. "Save your reserves for the fight," she snapped and wound her energy back in, leaving his.
"Right," Wonder Man muttered, sullen, but he dropped back a length and the air around her cooled again.
Cap extended the mission again and again, but after two days spent covering every inch of the mountain four times, called it off and returned to New York.
The Second Time
Before it all went to hell, Carol had given up her cramped apartment in DC for something with just enough room to swing a cat in in LA. Now she paced and turned and paced until it felt like a jail cell.
They'd done the whole debriefing thing in New York, not at the Avengers Mansion, of course, but some characterless building Stark owned. Cap had tried his best, he really had, but she had him twisted in as many knots as the rest of them.
Carol had flown across the country by herself, energy coiling tighter inside her with every mile. For every state line she crossed, she thought of another thing she should have said, something else she could have done. Now, as she circled from the kitchen through the living room to the bedroom and back, all her detailed scenarios blurred into one image: a pale, tear-streaked face, screaming.
Hands shaking too violently to do anything with the latch, she left the sliding glass door open and launched off the balcony. She headed north toward the Arctic and east to meet the sun. Dawn over Greenland came in a cascade of a hundred pinks and reds reflected in the sheets of ice and cloud. As the aurora borealis faded into the light, Carol caught herself thinking of how this, too, felt familiar.
She spent the rest of the flight to Wundagore resolutely planning for every possible thing she might say or do, working out every contingency, move by move. A lot of them ended up with Carol dead. It was difficult to plan for madness.
Scouring the mountainside by herself took longer, and turned up the exact same nothing as doing it with the team had done.
Carol took the long way home, spending three days in the Baja before slinking back to LA.
The Third Time
Wundagore wasn't really on the way to anywhere, but it also wasn't unreasonably far off a flight between a government job in Moscow and another in London. Simon hadn't said a goddamn word when she'd set up the two gigs back to back like that, when she wasn't even officially working for Homeland Security anymore. Later, he'd offered to go along, making some comment about the benefits of being a jet-setting consultant's boy toy. Carol kissed him on the cheek and left him behind.
Searching had become faster now, more efficient. She'd been over the same terrain so many times that she knew all the folds of land, the best vantage points and the hidden gullies. The familiarity left her mind free, and she spent those hours picturing exactly what she was going to say if she found her, things like:
"How could you?"
And, "This is for Clint and Scott!"
And, "I'm sorry we failed you."
Never, "But I love you." Some things hurt too much to even imagine saying.
The Sixth Time
From a certain point of view, Wundagore wasn't actually that far from anywhere. It was a small world, she was a fast flier, and trips to Europe could never be a bad thing, unless Kang was invading it again. Carol was also, to a varying definition and degree, part space alien, which was one way to put things in perspective.
Simon had mentioned that perspective might be something Carol needed to work on right now. It bothered her a little more that Cap had recently implied something similar.
She had the search time down to two and a half to three hours, depending on what search patten she used.
They'd learned a lot of these manoeuvres together. Cap had gone on a modern meta-human tactics kick about six years ago, and had taken the Avengers with him. Some had worked, some had gone spectacularly wrong, especially when confronted with the mutant embodiment of unpredictability.
As a soldier, Carol probably should have hated that, but the hours of after action review often felt like the best part. Someone would spike the coffee with chocolate, and the whole team would stay up through the night to pin down the moment the exercise had slipped into chaos, how to compensate for everyone's abilities, and if any of it could work on a real mission.
Carol remembered reclining in the corner of a couch, legs stretched out in front of her, soaking in the soft warmth of the bare skin pressed against hers.
This time, she tried a new pattern the S.H.I.E.L.D strategy nerds had come up with, something unpredictable, designed to surprise an actively evasive target. Something no Avenger would expect.
It felt a bit like trying to beat the house at its own game.
The Thirteenth Time
Sometimes, Carol thought about trying to track down Pietro, but memories of the last time she'd seen him held her back. She didn't know what she would ask him anyway.
The twins hadn't talked about their birthplace much. Certainly, they didn't reminisce, not unless the Avengers needed the information. Over the years, Carol had collected fragments of the story and sewn them into a snarled and contradictory quilt. So much of it seemed like a fairy tale, children's fantasy to Carol's military sci fi.
Now that she knew every shack and tree on the mountainside, she tried to fit the story to this place. There was a woman, pregnant by a man who would one day become a great leader. Her people could not, or would not, help her, and she was afraid. Was it this cave she hid in? Where had her saviour come from? The woman with the head of a beast.
The story played in Carol's mind, the words taking their forms from another voice, one deeper and softer than her own. There was an accent there, untraceable in the way of someone who had grown up in many places, and never had a chance to grow into any of them. Not until New York, at least.
The voice had a faint echo in the heavy Romanian accent of the barkeep, who said, "You have finally landed, then?" when Carol pushed open the creaking pine door.
"Yes," Carol said. She pulled out a stool and sat across the counter from the older woman. Being in a bar again should have felt discordant, wrong somehow, but then, no faux-rustic bar in New York or LA could touch this place. Five euros got her a plate of cheese and sausage with heavy brown bread, butter and milk.
The women watched her eat in silence, waiting until she'd slipped her gloves back on and drained her glass before saying, "She's not here."
"The one you're looking for." The woman's grey eyes held Carol's steadily. "She's not here."
Carol didn't bother to ask questions; she already knew too many of the answers. Instead, she stood, shaking her sash free of the barstool, and said, "Yeah, I figured."
This time, she flew the first pattern Cap had taught them, the loops and twists like a smoke signal. It was the first time she acknowledged that she wasn't precisely looking for Wanda, not as much as she was making a way for Wanda to find her.
The Last Time
The sat on a cliff edge on the side of Mount Wundagore, looking down over the foothills. Not knowing where else to go, cast out by the team, Carol had come back. She had to admit that after all these years of looking for Wanda in this place, it felt damned odd to actually see her in it.
"Does it feel weird being back here?"
Wanda pulled her cape more tightly around her, trying to cut the north wind. "A little. Right now, it feels safe."
Wanda's smile was soft and fond, and Carol noticed for the first time how many lines circled her eyes now. Not just when she smiled, either. "It's not your fault," Wanda told her, and Carol snorted.
"Of course it's not my fault," she snapped. "The whole point is that it's all Doom's fault." Vision could take his electronic morals and stick them up his electronic backside, but she wasn't going to say that aloud. Not right now anyway.
"They just need a little more time." Carol hated how sad Wanda sounded.
"Yeah, well–" She scooched over until they sat hip to hip and amped up her infrared output a little. She was getting enough solar radiation through the high overcast that she had power enough to heat the whole mountain, for a few moments anyway. She could certainly keep the woman she could now admit she loved warm for as long as she wanted to sit here. Until doomsday, if need be.
"Thank you, Carol." Wanda's lips felt feather soft as they brushed her cheek. "For this, for standing up for me at the Mansion, for never giving up on me."
Everything she'd ever wanted to say caught in Carol's throat, words jumbling on top of each other, until she blinked back tears that had nothing to do with the wind. "I'd do anything in the world for you," she said at last. Including putting you down when you became a monster, she didn't add, though she thanked any god that might be out there that she hadn't had to.
"I know." This time the kiss fell on the corner of her mouth, and Carol turned into it, pressing their lips together briefly. "Let's go home," Wanda said when she pulled away.
"Where's that?" Carol asked.
Wanda smiled. "Your place will do for now."
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