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A Better You

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Wanda swept in with another half dozen candles and Carol glanced around, wondering where she was going to put them all. The living room of the Mansion was already aglow with the warm, flickering light of dozens of candles, nestled on every tabletop, shelf, and ledge around them.

Carol’s silent question was answered a moment later when Wanda whispered some words in Transian and waved her hand. The candles she’d been carrying floated into the air at her command, coming to hover in loose groups maybe two feet from the ceiling. Carol cocked her head at the display.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just magic a glowy ball of light in the middle of the room?” Carol asked. “Or the light bulbs back on?”

Wanda shrugged. “I’m not a deft hand at manipulating existing technology-–try to turn the lights on and I’d more likely cause them to burst.” Wanda expanded one hand in a gesture of explosion and laughed. “And the candles are so much nicer than some orb of light, aren’t they? Makes the place cozy.”

She settled onto the opposite edge of the couch from Carol tucking her legs under herself. Her red skirt fanned out around her, fuller than her Avenger costume, making her look much smaller and younger than Carol was used to seeing her. The oversized green sweater slipping off her shoulders and over her palms completed the transformation, making Carol suddenly aware of how very young Wanda must have been when she joined the Avengers.

Carol smiled at her and rubbed at her knees, suddenly feeling very old in her jeans that dated back to the nineties. “How old were you and Pietro when you joined the Avengers?”

Wanda laughed, a quiet little thing as she stared past Carol. “Oh, very young. So, so very young. Magneto snatched us up as teenagers, and we switched sides… oh, we were just barely over eighteen. Pietro and Crystal got married before he was even twenty.” She shook her head, earrings jangling lightly as they clicked against themselves.

Lighting snapped outside the Mansion, brightening the room past its cozy illumination. A second later, as Carol’s eyes were still readjusting to the dimmer canceling, a crack of thunder rent the air. Carol sighed and stared out at the tempest raging beyond the secure Mansion walls.

“You don’t want to be out in this,” Wanda pointed out.

Carol sighed again. “Not really, but with the power out I’m sure the city could use protecting. The streets patrolling.”

Wanda smiled at her, and Carol could admit to herself that she’d much rather be here, basking in the warm glow of Wanda’s gentle good humor, than out in a bone-numbing late season tropical storm. Still, she had her sense of duty.

“And that’s where all the other Avengers are,” Wanda pointed out. “And why we’re back here, on Mansion watch.”

“Something tells me Jarvis has got this place covered,” Carol confided, but made no move to leave the cozy living room and even cozier couch.

Smiling that mysterious little smile of hers, Wanda waved one finger in a circle three times. On the table before them appeared two steaming cups and a plate of cookies. Carol shot Wanda a look, but reached happily for the treats. It was hot cocoa. Carol hummed and relaxed back into the couch. Okay. Duty be damned. This was better than braving a hurricane. The other Avengers could handle it.

“How old were you when we met?” Wanda asked, returning the question. “I had always presumed at the time that we were close enough, but I suppose that can’t have been true.”

Carol groaned as she thought back all those years. Through all those careers. “Twenty-nine.”

“Twenty-nine or ‘twenty-nine?’” Wanda teased.

Carol reached out with her foot and poked good-naturedly at Wanda’s voluminous  skirt. “Twenty-nine,” she insisted. “Went into the Air Force at eighteen. CIA recruited me just after I hit Major, then went to work for NASA after that…” She sighed, dropping her head to stare at her hands in her lap. “Then novel-writing, which got me hired on Woman magazine…” She shook her head. “It all seems so pointless in retrospect, doesn’t it? A half dozen false starts and wrong turns.”

Wanda made a comforting noise, hand reaching across the space between them to latch onto Carol’s thigh. “Of course not. Together it sounds like you, Carol. It sounds like the story of what made you the woman you are today. No one’s life plays out like one of your novels: with only the relevant plot points occurring and nothing more.” Leaning back out of Carol’s space, Wanda ran a hand through her curly hair. “Our lives don’t have an editor going through them, excising the pointless years. We are left with that excess. And that’s good: that excess makes us who we are.”

Carol snorted. She meant it to sound dismissive but it only sounded sad and a little lost to her ears. “What did I hear once? We have Stockholm syndrome for our pasts. We’re stuck going the direction we’re going in time, so we convince ourselves that our past is the best past it could be, the only past to make us who we are.”

“But that’s true,” Wanda pointed out.

Carol’s lips drew together in a thin line. “But what if there was a better past? One that would have made a better you.”

Thunder clapped ominously outside, and Carol had to applaud its timing. Though her musings were more melancholy than histrionic, at least the weather had some sense of the dramatic.

It was a long moment before Wanda replied. As they sat in silence, Wanda’s fingers played through her hair, head resting on her hand, arm propped up on the back of the couch. Carol sipped at her cocoa and wondered if Wanda had magicked it entirely out of thin air, or if she had commandeered some of Jarvis’ supply and just fed the elements together faster than the pedestrian way. Carol watched the candlelight bring out the reds and golds in Wanda’s auburn hair and thought what that kind of power must be like. What she would do with it. Probably not half the good Wanda did with it, to be sure.

“I don’t think I would have liked a better you,” Wanda finally announced. Her eyes were sharp, jaw strong. “Maybe that’s selfish of me, and there’s certainly some sufferings I would have spared you, if I could have.”

Carol smiled tightly at her.

“But all the rest of it: Air Force, CIA, novelist, NASA security, novelist, Woman magazine editor in chief… It all seems like a hodgepodge, maybe. Like a mess: to you, at least. But to me, it just… It seems like you. The woman I’ve fought beside and friend I love dearly. My colleague and fellow Avenger. You’re a hero, Carol. If all that chaos led to a hero, then it’s worthwhile. It all is.”

Carol stared down into her cocoa, tamping down on bitter thoughts of her dismissal from the Avengers, her alcoholism, all the times she’d failed the Avengers and they’d failed her in turn. She threw all that out into the blustery night and focused on the love and warmth Wanda felt for her.

“Well…” Carol set her cocoa on the table and leaned back, stretching her feet out to Wanda’s lap. “Of course you approve of the chaos that is my career path.”

Wanda laughed and tickled at Carol’s feet before picking one up to rub at it. “Now it’s just a mystery why you put up with me, Ms. Rules and Regulations.”

Carol relaxed back on the couch arm with a smile as Wanda rubbed her foot. “Must be something about you that attracts us orderly types. Viszh, me…”

Thunder rumbled outside, but it didn’t quite drown out the laughter of the two women sheltered from the storm.